Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Kokoda Challenge 2012 - a 96km Muddy Fun Run!

Last weekend I took part in the Kokoda Challenge 96km team trail race which had a number of firsts for me.  Not only is it the first time I’ve participated, but it’s the first time I’ve run in a team event.  It is a similar format to the Trailwalker events where you compete as a team of four, running together in the spirit forged on the Kokoda track in 1942 of mateship, endurance, courage and sacrifice.

I was invited to join the “Rocksolid Challengers” team through a running friend of mine, Colin, but I didn’t meet two of the other team members, Rocks (who was sponsoring the team) and Burge, until the morning of the race. I was a little apprehensive about this as spending 15-16 hours with someone the first time you meet them, knowing I was going to have all my normal social filters stripped away through the ardours of running an ultra.  I needn’t have worries as the guys were great fun and very welcoming.  They seem to think that I’d breeze around, and that I was going to be the one to pull them round in under 15 hours (the team target given last year’s 15:23 time).
The Challengers fresh and enthusiastic before the start

The planning was meticulous from the team with a breakdown of our split times calculated using a complex algorithm based upon the encroachment of tiredness, hills, last year’s times and how long we stopped at Burge’s Dad’s house for soup and a sit down (as it was conveniently on the course)!

What we didn’t know at the start that the course had been significantly altered from previous years with an addition 500m climb thrown in, to increase the “fun” level!

At the start line by chance we were standing next to a group of runners who I had bumped into in Ikea about a year ago, who had sparked up conversation because of the t-shirt I was wearing for my 33 Marathons run. I’d kept in touch with Marlene and Glen, and since I’d last met them, they had run MDS and Comrades.  It’s a great feature of running in ultras that you do meet up with friendly people, each time with new inspiring stories to tell.

It was raining from the start and had been for much of the week leading up to the event, so I wasn’t expecting the course to be in good shape.  With our sub-15 hour goal we were towards the front of the field and I was grateful for this as I didn’t fancy running over mud following 2000 other competitors.

The early part of the race is fairly gentle with a few road stretches, and this was a good thing to spread the field before we hit the single tracks. It was also good for me to get to know the guys in the team, and get a feel for the right pace to run at.  It was a concern before the race to be sure to run at a pace that works well for the entire team.  What I found was that we were all fairly similar on the easy tracks and then we’d all adjust on the more technical or steep sections, where we’d spread out a little, and then merge back together as the trails levelled off.

I always find it interesting in those early stages where you’re running close quarters with lots of runners. There are as many different gaits as there are people. There seemed to be two main categories of style displayed  on the steep hills, especially when it’s very muddy, which I put down to those who had come from a road running background and those who trained more on the trails (this may be a big over assumption, but it seemed right to me at the time).

Yet another muddy track to deal with
What I noticed is that the “road runners” tend to push as they toe-off (as you would on the roads) and their foot then slips back in the mud. This is wasting a lot of energy for no forward gain. The trail runners tend to lift their foot off the ground, without sliding, and hence run more efficiently (also they seem to have a short stride).

The Kokoda Challenge has plenty of checkpoints, typically about every 10kms, but most are just to check in and only have water and a few lollies available.  This helps break the race down into mentally more manageable sections. As ever the volunteers at these checkpoints were great with words of encouragement, and updates as to where you were in the field.  I was surprised to hear that we were in the top ten and we seemed to be travelling well.

The hills were severe and relentless, and they really test the team as a whole. I’ve always been pretty comfortable with hills, especially when they’re so steep that running is impossible. I put my head down, disengage my brain and power walk with brisk short strides until it flattens out. It wasn’t discussed, but I had it in my head that from a team perspective we’d run together where we could and on the more challenging sections we’d run or walk at our own pace and then regroup. This seemed to be the way it was going with most groups, at least early on before the tiredness kicked in and reserves got low.

The challenge with having a variety of paces in a group comes at the regrouping stage. When the slower members of a group catch up it’s all too easy to start running again not giving them the chance to rest. The problem is made worse because the faster runners who got to the top sooner are refreshed and feel able to run on faster. We were very conscious of this, and would always allow the slowest paced runner to dictate when a rest should be taken. The danger is that the slower team members getting pulled along quicker than they are comfortable, even though they think they are Ok. It’s a long day at the office in any Ultra and although you may be thinking checkpoint to checkpoint, you need to be cognizant of the bigger picture.

The downhills were a lot of fun and in my case a lot of fun for those around me. The track was so thick with mud that it was difficult to remain upright, something that I failed at twice within the course of a few hundred metres. The second spill, right onto my backside in thick mud was right in front of a handful of spectators who had clearly identified this section as one where they would be entertained. I’m sure there will be some video on YouTube to document this as they all had cameras in hand.

The team were quick to point out that it looked like I had had an unfortunate incident caused by a dodgy curry the night before. Luck was on my side though as at the bottom of the hill there was a ford, which I chose to sit in and wash my backside!  I was very grateful for this as the prospect of running for a few more hours with grit and sand in my shorts was not appealing.

Early creek crossings were taken with great care trying to keep feet dry. This was effective for the first 6 but then there was no other option than to wade in as the normal stepping stones were well underwater. I didn’t count, but there must have been at least another 10 crossings after that.  All of our feet were pretty well pickled but I managed mine by putting on fresh socks every 20-25kms. This was a great tactic as it felt as though I had new dry shoes on, and the Drymax socks actually help dry your feet out. At the end of the day I had no blisters which I put down to my Hokas and my Drymax socks, under what must have been the toughest of conditions.

Another benefit of the Hokas was that the lovely big sole helped keep my feet dry and above the water on occasion when those around were getting wet feet!  My kit for the day performed incredibly well. The Linebreak compression shorts and calf guards kept me running and cool, and the Ay-Up head torch turned night into day and allowed me to run with confidence on technical trails.

At the 35km checkpoint Rocks, our team captain, was really suffering and told us he was withdrawing.  We as a group and independently tried to talk him round with different motivations, but he had made his mind up and didn’t want to hold the rest of us back. It’s a tough decision to make, and when you’re depleted it’s difficult to rationalise when your brain is telling you to stop. It was disappointing to lose a team member, mostly because we felt sure he would come back and feel Ok and then regret the decision.  So we then had to use this as our motivation to do him proud.  He stayed with the support crew and was a tremendous help for the rest of the day, never did he indulge in self pity, he just focused on all of us reaching that 15 hour goal.

We had two teams running, and while we were a group of non elite class athletes, the other team, "Rocksolid Raiders" were made up of world class Triathletes and Ironmen.  I don’t know if it was a tactic of the support crew but with each checkpoint they were giving us updates on how far apart we were. Every time we were told we were gaining on them, and that they were tiring!  This gave us something to think and fantasise about, and being a competitive lot it helped push us on into the night. It’s amazing what reserves you can find when the motivation is there.

Another interesting benefit of team running was around nutrition. Personally I rely on remembering when to eat and drink, which on occasion has let me down.  With the team we were all reminding each other all the time, sharing foods, salt tabs, fluids, whatever anyone needed, and throughout the day I only felt a little nauseous once (which I quickly rectified).   This doesn’t just work within the team, but between teams too.  

Does exactly what it says on the packet!
At the halfway point we met with the leading team at a checkpoint (we weren’t up with them, it was an out and back section and they were 13kms ahead!). Andy Lee, a former TNF 100 winner was suffering with some chaffing, not something you want with 40kms to go.  As a team we had been provided with the 2Toms Sports Shield (which I’ve recently reviewed) and we gave Andy some which must have worked well for him as they went on to win by a big margin. Our team used it, and there were no reports of any hot spots or chaffing even under the wet conditions we faced on the day.

Later in the race we were running with another mixed group, and the lady on the team was suffering with a knee injury. Burge came to the rescue with some pain killers, which was more help than the rest of her team offered!  It’s this sort of spirit that you see at every ultra race, and one of the reasons why I love the sport so much.

The team planning was derailed by the course changes this year, as we were about 25 minutes ahead of schedule for our sub 15 hour goal when we started on the extra hill climb, and then about 15mins behind by the next checkpoint.  It was quite comical listening to the others saying “I don’t remember this” and “this is the last hill”, but no matter what was said the hill was still there and still had to be climbed.  You can moan and complain, but that will only make the task harder.  By choosing to stay in the moment, and focus on the job in hand it passes more quickly and with much less discomfort.
The "extra" hill
Although the slick trails were challenging to run on, especially on the steep and dark sections, I found it actually helped take my mind off the “hill” and made me concentrate on where I was going to put my foot to get the most traction, the bail out route if I did slip, and what I could grab hold of to help me along.  Looking back on the race the hills didn’t seem that bad which I put down to my mind being absorbed in the task.

Leaving the final checkpoint we were told that our other team were only a few minutes ahead, so we pushed as hard as we could as a team, being careful not to go too hard.  This motivation was again a great distraction from the physical stress of the event, and in the first 20 minutes of this section we passed the two other teams that we had been leap frogging all day.  Every time we caught up with anyone we were asking if they had seen a team of super fit looking guys in black, and they were not too far ahead.  

The final few kms were downhill, and pretty steep. Very nice if you’re out for a short jog, but after 15 hours of trashing you quads on the trails, it was a far tougher proposition.  The conversation got lighter as we saw signs of civilisation and we knew we were getting close to home.  We enjoyed some spectacular views across to the Gold Coast, and thought what an alien world the bright lights of Surfer’s Paradise were to where we had been all day.

The finish line beckoned with the sound of the announcer. We crossed the line together, and enjoyed our rockstar moment of camera flashes and the presentation of our certificates and military style dog tags on the stage.  Not knowing what to expect from the day, I did thoroughly enjoy it.  The good times far outweigh the bad, and the company was first class.

The guys in the team did a tremendous job. Rocks having to withdraw after all the training and planning he had put in was a sad moment for us, but I hope we did him proud in our efforts. Burge was a machine in more ways than one, telling jokes for most of the day, and putting in a huge effort to push on when we knew he was hurting. Colin, for never really looking tired (and he had also done the 6 hours track session 2 days before when her ran over 70kms) and doing it all on couscous and lettuce leaves – a Scott Jurek’esque performance. And I can’t forget the support crew, Brad and Aaron were slick and organised, I didn’t have to think about anything at the checks, they just did everything that needed to be done with minimal fuss and a sense of humour.

So all in all a great day, which truly lived up to the ideals on which is was based. 

Run Happy!

"It never get's easier, you just get better"

Thursday, July 12, 2012

You can’t beat the clock (or look cool while getting your head read!)

Yesterday I was invited along to participate in an ultra running study at University of the Sunshine Coast. It was a world first study related to brain activity during endurance exercise. As is typical of much sports science research the focus is on the shorter (more popular) distances, and is the reason why there is so little scientific information for those of us who choose to run beyond a marathon.  

The idea behind this particular study is to measure the changes in the brain throughout a 6 hour run, and to relate it to mood state and cognitive ability changes. The results of which will certainly be of interest to anyone who appreciates the psychological aspects of running an Ultramarathon.  The question I have is how much of the emotional changes you go through are based on physiological changes and which are purely “in your head”. 

2013 Running Fashion!
I managed to con my training partner, Tylana, to come along to, as I thought she’d be keen for a 6 hour run around a track on a rainy day!  The process involved a number of initial mood state questionnaires, then a simple mathematical test on an iphone, and having our heads read by an EEG machine.  This was the highlight of the day as the device resembled a swimming cap with flashing lights and wires, the sort of thing you’d expect to see on some 1950’s sci fi movie.

So with a baseline measure done the running was the next task. We trotted off at about 5 min/k pace for an hour (far faster than we should have gone at, but it had the feeling of a race with the associated adrenalin rush). On completion of the hour we were back into the lab for 10 minutes to repeat the tests and measurement.  

We then repeated this process 6 times so that we had been running for about 6 hours with measurements taken every hour.  Needless to say the pace dropped back to about 6min/ks by the 6th hour. 

The weather did not really cooperate on the day with showers on and off throughout the day. It was enough to make my feet look like monkey brains.  We did however provide plenty of entertainment to the hundreds of school kids attending the athletics carnival. Comments such as “Watch out it’s Predator” and “It’s Robocop” were common, as was sniggering and puzzled looks.

The first few hours were much like any regular training run, but after about 4 hours I was reminded of a 12 hour and 6 hour treadmill run I did last year. The trouble with running against the clock is that there is nothing you can do to get you to the finish line sooner.  You can run harder and faster, but if you walk or sprint, you still have to keep going until the time is up.  Mentally this is really tough, and is one of those situations when you have to break the task down into manageable bites. 

For me this type of session is far harder than the variety and definitive goals of a trail race. I have thought of taking part in a timed 24 hr or similar event with the idea that it’s straightforward, flat and purely a mental challenge to keep going.  I was reminded yesterday that participating in such an event is far more than this. The repetitive nature of a consistent running surface stresses your joints and soft tissue in different way, and that the nutritional regulation is equally as tough. The biggest challenge is fighting the urge to run faster, thinking that it will bring a rest closer (not saying you shouldn’t push yourself of course).

So the lessons from this study are reminders of the different sort of challenge you face when racing the clock. It’s like playing tennis against a wall, you never beat it!

There are a few other guinea pigs who are doing the same 6 hours session today, with about 10 subjects to complete it before the data will be collated and interpreted. This will be a lengthy and complicated process, and I’ll share the results when I have them.

Run Happy

Monday, July 9, 2012

Trail Running Gear Review – AY-UP Lights - Run the Light Fantastic!

I reviewed a couple of head torch options from Petzel last year, both of which had their place in an ultra runner’s tool kit.  While the Petzel was good enough to light the way, I noticed in races since that those runners at the top of the field without exception were using something with a lot more grunt.  What I found was that, although a standard head torch will enable you to run in the dark, if you want to run fast (or at least run with confidence) you need more.

I've been running with an Ay-Up light for the past 6 months, and it suffices to say that I haven’t touched the Petzel since.  The Ay-Up is in an entirely different league.

Running at night has become an exciting experience as no longer do I have to follow a narrow tunnel of light, now I can bring back the day at the push of a button. It’s hard to believe that so much light can come out of such a small device.  

The torch itself comes with two lights, each of which you can adjust independently.  I choose to have them slightly offset, so that one beam is focused a couple of metres in front of my feet and the other further down the trail. This gives a longer illuminated corridor to run along, and I can adjust where I’m looking without the need to move my head.

The head strap has a band and an over the head strap, which is fully adjustable, eliminating all bounce even on the most technical of downhills, and is very comfortable.  The battery pack seems too large to be comfortable (a bit smaller than a deck of cards) but is incredibly well balanced with the lights, so much so that you don’t realise that you have it on.

There are two sizes of battery, and the larger (hence heavier one) comes with an extension lead so you can keep it in your pack, rather than have it attached to the head band.  Surprisingly I found the balance (and comfort) was unaffected by removing the smaller battery pack from the rear of the head band. I put this down to the fit of the headband and that fact that the light is only 50g.

Whilst I’m on the batteries they are rechargeable (I love this having spent a small fortune on batteries in the past) and whilst using the high intensity beam they last for 3 and 6 hours respectively.  This may not seem enough for an all night race, but when you use the lower intensity setting their life doubles. The key thing here though is that there is little discernible difference between the low and high intensity beams!

I only ever use mine in low intensity mode and I am still flashed at by oncoming traffic. On one section of straight road I tested them and they lit up a roadside marker over 400m away and a road sign at over 1000m away!  When running along the beach a running friend calls me the “lighthouse” and more often than not people comment on the power of this little torch.

If you're interested in all the technical stats check out the manufacturers website.

These torches were originally designed for mountain biking, and come with a variety of options dependent on your preferred use.  You can choose the type of beach from wide, intermediate and narrow.   They are waterproof, and I can certainly vouch for their capability in this department – you need to make sure you wear it above the peak of a cap or visor though, as you get dazzled by the reflection from the falling rain which is highly distracting (and a feature of all headlights).

Apart from the obvious illuminating power of the Ay-Up there are a couple of features which to me make them an essential part of any trail runners kit. Firstly, if you’re in a race and haven’t got one, but the person behind you has, they cast such a strong shadow that you can’t see where you’re placing your feet.  This effectively forces you to slow down and get overtaken.  By the same token if you have an Ay-Up then you won’t be affected by this, but you can inflict the same curse on any other runners in front of you!

The final clincher for me is that when you’re being chased by angry dogs at night (which happens to me more often than I care to admit to) it acts as a harmless dog calmer!  Simply look at the dog and it stops barking, stands still and squints, giving you enough time to get far enough away from it that it loses interest in you.

So to summarise, these torches are a terrific piece of kit that I feel I could not do without. They aren’t cheap, but you get what you pay for, they are a top quality head torch with will serve you well and for a long time.  It has changed the experience of running at night for me, and enabled me to run tougher more technical trails which I wouldn’t normally consider outside the normal daylight hours. As it’s the middle of winter here, most of my running is done in the dark, and the Ay-Up has taken away a big excuse to avoid the tougher training sessions.

Run Happy!

Check out my other Ultramarathon Running Gear Reviews