On Friday night I spent a while wading through some old training logs. Tatty sheets of lined A4 from sometime in 2014 to sometime in 2017. No doubt there are enough cautionary tales in there to fill several leather bound volumes, but I was mostly looking at the run up to Cioch Mhor in 2016. And the aftermath.
Having learned in 2015 that mindlessly running for 15 hours a week won’t make you an especially good runner, my training philosophy had matured a bit over the winter. In short, I went on the LetsRun forum, read a few threads, and started doing all the stuff they recommeded. At the same time. Tempo runs, fartlek, long runs, lifting weights, hill reps of every stripe, ski touring, napping. Three weeks hard, one week easy.
Looking through these dog eared pages I’m amazed at how hard I was working. There’s stuff in there I definitely wouldn’t do now, and not just because Martin would give me a bollocking for it.
Four sets of four eyeballs out 40 second hill reps, followed by a trip to the gym to deadlift more than I ever had in my life, then an evening shift washing dishes and a second run after dinner. That interval session was the third in a 15 hour, 6,000m week. I’ll come back to this.
Miraculously, I didn’t hurt myself. I just got into really good shape. I showed up at Cioch Mhor with no taper (2 runs, 1,000m+ and a little gym work the day before) and had my best race ever, finishing a distant but delighted third to the duelling pair of Sam Hesling and Tim Gomersall. I won a haggis. I was over the moon.
And then came the slump. I’d spent 12 weeks digging a hole and at Cioch Mhor I tossed myself in head first. But, as many runners before me have learned, the hole is deep, and it can take a while to reach the bottom. The first two weeks after the race look fairly routine. The structured high intensity stuff is notable by its absence, but there’s nine or ten hours of running and biking per week. Easy weeks. Grinding away, blissfully unaware that I was only making it worse.
In the third week I hit the bottom, hard. It’s a story told in words and numbers. Phrases like tired and hungry, intervals. . .no and one day just marked Therapy. I raced again at Clachnaben and doubled the deficit I’d had to Sam Hesling three weeks earlier. The next week I ran for 3 hours. In a rut. Must escape. Well, quite.
Context: I was meant to be training for Jura at the end of May. That and Glen Coe Skyline were to be my 2 big races of the year. And there I was, last week of April, glassy-eyed, sniffing and hungry, making major progress on my arse crevice on the living room sofa. May brought a couple of token weeks of volume and a wedding at Chester Zoo but neither was enough to prevent my fourth Jura Fell Race finishing with a fourth crampy death-lurch along the road to Craighouse.
In hindsight, this sounds like a slam-dunk opportunity to learn some stuff. But as is so often the case, it took a while to realise what I should be learning, and even longer to translate that learning into behaviour change.
In late July I ran the Lakes Sky Ultra as a practice/training race for Glen Coe. I shuffled onto the start line with a heap of running in my legs and some moderate gym DOMS, and ran another candidate for my best race ever. (Third again, no haggis, some cider.) Then I went to Andorra, jogged a race up the highest mountain in the country and spent a week doing long, hilly hiking days in the nice, easy going Pyrenees.
When I got home. . .you guessed it, another 3 hour week. Glassy-eyed, sniffing and hungry, making major progress on my arse crevice on the living room sofa. 4 weeks out from my target race. Again.
It turns out you can’t work really hard all the time. The mega week I mentioned earlier was fantastic training, but it came at the end of February. Twelve weeks away from the race I was meant to be training for. I should have just been starting to tick over, but I was absolutely flogging myself. The fetishisation of mindless hard work reaches far beyond sport, and everywhere you find it it is equally wrong. If you’re not working sustainably you’re just storing up trouble.
Modulation, periodisation, specificity. Competent application of those three things is all you need to be the best runner you can be. While it’s easy to say that, it turns out that actually doing it is hard. I’d read about all these concepts, and I thought I knew what they meant, but unfortunately there’s no substitute for first hand experience when it comes to their application. Doubly unfortunate, the most valuable first hand experience is the negative kind.
Driving back from Clachnaben with Sam Hesling, we got onto the subject of his new coach. (I forget the guy’s name, some pillock in Austria.) When I asked what difference he thought it had made his answer was unequivocal; “Night and day.” I was weak, vulnerable, and a seed was sown.
Fast forward 3 years. I ran Cioch Mhor again yesterday. Before the race, scribbling notes for this ramble, I wondered what kind of result would make the best payoff for this piece. Sam Hesling is the race director now (that means he isn’t racing, for which we are all immensly grateful) and for the last 2 and a bit years I’ve been slaving away under the authoritarian yoke of Martin Cox, the coach he told me about in the car. Perhaps a win would have tied some of those threads together, one way or another.
Alas, no. After running in a cosy quartet with John Yells, Richard Macleod and Robbie Patterson for the first half hour, my legs decided that they weren’t up for it and I drifted off the back. The race face slipped as one by one they moved away from me and I turned to the far more important business of handing out chocolate eggs to the marshals. A two minute personal worst and a one place regression from my position 3 years ago. I should probably be upset.
But with 2016 in mind, the bigger picture is more important than this result. Next weekend is the Lakes Mountain 42, the focus of the last few months’ training and itself a stepping stone to Ehunmilak in July. As Martin said yesterday, “It’s tricky to run great in these short races when you’re focused on ultras.”
With Martin’s help I’ve got a lot better at doing the right training at the right time. There have been no 15 hour weeks so far this year. They’re being saved for June. Modulation, periodisation, specificity.
I was slower than I was 3 years ago but I’m much better placed for the Big Stuff to come. For now, it’s arse crevice time. A week to taper, race, a week to recover.
P.S. Rereading that LSU race report is like a case study in cognitive dissonance. You can almost hear the wheels turning.