Monday, 9 October 2017

Train Low Race High - The Lakes In A Day Ultra

In all of the events that I have run since starting on the Low-Carb High-Fat diet I have set out to show what can be achieved when competing on very low carbs.  I have run my fastest off-road marathon on almost nothing but fat and I have successfully trained at very high intensity on a low-carb diet. But I am also aware that many proponents of the diet actually rely on carbohydrates to fuel the prolonged high intensity work that often comes when competing.

I hoped that with good pacing I could stay within my fat-burning zone (perhaps 80% of my VO2 max) for the time taken to run a fast marathon. And I think I have proved that I can. But some events place unavoidably high demands on your strength and endurance; mountain running is a good example.

When I entered a 50 mile Ultra across the Lake District National Park I was under no illusion that I could do it carb-free. The ascents would be long and grueling and would doubtless have me burning glycogen whether I liked it or not. So it was time to experiment with Train Low Race High.

You could be forgiven for thinking that this post's title was a reference to the fact that I live in Sussex where the hills rise to a mighty 250 meters above sea level, somewhat lower than the Lake District peaks I would be running over, but that's almost as far as I'll go with that metaphor, much as I like it!

So here is an account of the longest race of my life and my approach to nutrition.

Last Saturday morning at 8 a.m. I stood on the start line of the hardest event that I have ever entered. It had been a long road to get there and I had no idea if I was going to finish it, but I was determined to try my hardest.

Last Christmas Jane gave me a book entitled "50 Races to Run Before You Die", and brimming with confidence I entered The Lakes In A Day Ultra a 50 mile event that traverses the Lake District from north to south by way of nearly 4,000 meters of mountains.

I've always wanted to run a long one in The Lakes and being fighting fit at the time I laid down my plans in the depths of winter; perhaps I could finish inside 13 hours. That would be something special. Then in February I injured my knee and could not run properly for the next 7 months. If you are a regular reader of this blog you may have wondered why there have been so few posts this year, and the truth is that there has been almost nothing to write about!

I've spent a lot of time this year cycling and walking, and slowly building some jogging into my walks. I completed a 100 mile bike ride in 5.5 hours. I knew that I was fit but would I be able to run? 

Sometimes a little gentle jogging worked and sometimes the pain returned. The consultant looked at an MRI  scan and said rest, and so from May I rested from running completely for 3 months. The training plan changed and there was no room for any more injuries, but it still looked sort-of achievable, perhaps. 

All of my endurance walking was completed on a low-carb strategy. This included several 20-30-mile walks on just eggs & bacon for breakfast and a few bottles of water. 

The essence of Train Low Race High is to train your body to burn fat as effectively as possible and then add carbohydrates at the last minute to give you more power just when you need it. Adding carbs earlier or relying on them entirely would leave me susceptible to bonking into The Wall. I was sure that I could go all day on fat, I just needed a top-up for the hard bits.   Only in my last training walk/run did I experiment with an energy drink just to learn if my stomach could tolerate it. It's been a few years since I used an energy drink and I look back on Powerade and the like with some distaste. The Tailwind drink was not so bad as I'd feared so into the bag it went.

In France on holiday I learned more about how far I could push my injury on longer walks. After an hour or so my right knee would hurt a little, but after easing up the pain would subside and I'd be good for several more hours with no problems afterwards. I also figured that for a 50-mile mountain event "walk/run" was a pretty good strategy. There is no way that most entrants would be running more than half or even a third of the event and approaching it as a walk with a bit of running rather than a run with a lot of walking made good sense to me. I certainly put the miles in, the only thing missing was the altitude. As I mentioned before Sussex is not blessed with mountains and so my long walks had a lot of ups and Downs.

A typical training walk/run on the South Downs
I hit my reduced training targets in the nick of time without having run for more than 4 miles at a time since April. I was concerned by this of course but I drove up to Cumbria with Jane just hoping to finish the event at all. Above all else I was determined to enjoy it.

Jennings Ale - The fuel of champions!
In the two days before the event I started adding more carbs to my usual low-carb diet. Mostly in the form of bread and potatoes. The night before the race I enjoyed a couple of pints of Jennings in the pub at Caldbeck - it is a fell-run after all! Breakfast was an energy drink, a big bacon bap and a bowl of Alpen.  I carried 3 sachets of Tailwind energy powder and planned to scoff pizza, flapjacks and soup in the 3 feed stations along the way.  

Ready to roll
The first half was brutal. 27 miles, 2,500 meters of mountains, driving rain, a horrendous wind on the high tops and deep bogs on anything remotely flat. It had me cold and wet in the first two hours. I couldn't fault my Haglöfs jacket, OMM shorts or Salomons. But in order to keep warm I had to keep moving quickly.

I had planned not to take the direct route down from Blencathra as I feared for my knees, but the longer easier route was directly into the wind for the first mile; there was only one way down. There were queues of nervous runners inching their way down Hall's Fell ridge. 

Looking down Halls Fell Ridge to Threlkeld on a good day
It's not the steepest ridge but it's up there with them and a fall would have been serious. The wind was in our faces one moment and on our backs the next, not good on steep wet rock. We were all on all-fours on the steepest sections. Luckily I've done this sort of thing a few times before. I took a few risks to overtake the crowds and my knees held firm. 

Seeing Jane at the aid station at Threlkeld was a welcome sight. I refilled my drink, ate a quick ham&cheese roll and a flapjack and I was off. Only another 40 miles to go!

I then broke a walking pole crossing a slatted wooden bridge and had to manage the 17-mile Helvellyn range with one pole. All of my training has been with my lightweight Black Diamond carbon z-poles and so the ascent of Clough Head was all the harder with only one. I was working as hard as I could for 45 minutes. Taking turns with the remaining pole my arms were hurting badly; even so I was ascending faster than everyone around me.

Surprisingly when I got onto the long Dodds ridge I was able to run a good deal up there; it was bleak and I just wanted to get down! The wind picked up more with the altitude and being on a west-facing ridge - it was gusting well over 70 miles per hour and the horizontal rain was stinging our faces.  I ran with a group of about 10 others and we all seemed desperate not to get left behind; visibility was very poor and at times it was scary up there! Looking at the GPS tracker playback of the event I can see that several runners made some big mistakes on the ridge. Luckily I knew the route reasonably well and with just my compass I made a few good choices when the others were fetching their maps out. That kept me in touch. My running was slower but my climbing was faster. Then my left knee started hurting badly on the descents and I feared that I would have to stop. I got left behind on Helvellyn and I was very slow heading down to Grisedale tarn. I was hobbling, hurting and on my own. I felt low on energy but perhaps more from the cold than from the running.

Just beyond Fairfield I bumped into a lady who had fallen and was dazed. This was a section that I've never done before; she had but at first she didn't recognise anything. We soon got moving slowly but we were heading up when I hoped that we should be going down! Luckily she remembered the up, and I trusted the compass and I stayed with her until we both knew that we were not lost. As it happens we were both on the right route the whole time. By now I was shivering badly. Just checking the compass meant having to stop and get colder still. On the decent she passed me as I was hobbling and cursing. This section of the route took an hour longer than expected. I'd finished my energy drink and was  feeling very low. What made it worse was that there was no one else around. But I remembered that there was no one in sight either ahead or behind me as I had been ascending Fairfield.

I was about ready to give up at Ambleside when Jane appeared out of nowhere high up on the ridge above Sweden Crag with a fresh pair of  Z-Poles and a big smile. And just at this time the clouds parted to the south and we shared one of the classic Lake District views over Windermere. That did it for me, I was determined to go on.

First smile in 15 miles
The loss of 800 meters of altitude and a few slices of hot pizza at the food station in Ambleside warmed me up nicely. I soon felt strong again and I set out on the second half with a spring in my step. My knee was getting much better now that I was away from the rocky descents and I was soon able to run again.

The sun went down and it felt like I was on the home straight (albeit a 24 mile one). I knew the way alongside the lake and through the forests after walking this section on a family holiday at Easter. The sky was clear and a full moon rose over Windermere; a beautiful sight.

The lake was full too and at times I had to wade through it as the path skimmed the shore. Oddly this was a pleasure as it soothed my feet and I soon warmed up again from the constant effort. Jane met me three more times with encouragement and the miles flew by. 

Despite not having trained at night I was happy to be on my own in the dark. No one passed me in the second half and my energy levels were still high. I can't shake off my competitive spirit and it felt good to be steadily passing people. Even the incessant mud was not a big problem, with two poles I was able to stride confidently through it.  I think it’s fair to say that I ran (or at least jogged) everything that was runable in the last 20 miles of the race.

Two cups of soup and a sausage roll at the last aid station and I was off again into the moonlit mudfest; the bog was up to my knees in places.  When I finally hit the lanes I ran the last 2 miles down into Cartmel at 11 O’clock with a big grin on my face and half a bottle of energy drink left in my sack. 

It had been a wild adventure. I was down an hour and a half on my target time for the first half but the second half was as quick as I had expected (and nearly 2 miles longer!) and I finished in 15 hours; inside the top 20%. There was cheering from folks outside the pubs and I ran through the village like I was finishing a 5-miler. Such a great way to finish my first Lakeland Ultra after 8 months of pain and doubt.

Still smiling!
The organisation for the event was impeccable. The marshals were great, popping up in the most unexpected places; the aid stations were packed with good food and good cheer and the whole atmosphere was perfect.

On the day I estimate that I consumed between 2,000 and 3,000 calories (I'm not one for counting), mostly in the form of carbohydrates and mostly in the first half of the event. This compares to the 9,600 calories that Strava estimates that I used over 15 hours. I was able to deal with the mountainous first half with the aid of some glycogen and I was able to keep going strongly in the second half due to my long-term adaptation to fat-burning. This is not a proof of anything but the Train Low Race High strategy appears to have worked very well for me.

Thanks Jane, for putting me up to this challenge and seeing me through it!

Here is the Strava Route Profile