The Hangman Ultra – I love it when a plan comes together

Why?

After a reasonable but not great performance at the Giants Head Marathon (GHM) in June I decided that I wanted to run a 50k race in August to test my fitness and prepare mentally for the Wendover Woods 50 in November.

I considered the Downland Challenge on offer from the excellent team at Sussex Trail Events, a 30 mile (ish) out and back run along the South Downs Way, but when some late entries became available for the low key Hangman Ultra, a 54km out and back run from the small village of Longparish near Andover to Coombe Gibbet and back organised by Andy Nuttall, it didn’t take me long to decide to enter.

My training had gone well since the Giants Head Marathon and although I was treating the Hangman Ultra as a casual race I did want to use it as an opportunity to test and build my mental strength after some disappointing spells of walking when I could have run at the GHM. As I have recently decided to do the Centurion Running 100 mile Grand Slam in 2019 I am acutely aware that I need to work on my mental fitness and capabilities as my physical fitness and endurance to give me the best chance of achieving this goal.

Race morning

Having made quick time of the drive to Longparish I was only the second runner to arrive at race registration and it was lovely to finally meet Andy Nuttall in person. If you haven’t yet read Ultra magazine, Andy’s creation and a work of art showcasing the realities, challenges, joys and wonderful community of ultra running in the UK, then I recommend you check it out.

It was also good to have the opportunity to catch up with Phil Bradburn (volunteering) and Susie Bradburn and Richard Tickner (both running) at registration before the race briefing and a short walk to the start. With such a small number of runners (45) it was strange standing towards the front and near to the start line – I’m usually to be found at the back in Centurion Running races anyway!

How come I’m near the front?! New territory for me!

[Photo credits: Toby Betteridge]

Aims

In the days preceding the race I had been thinking about how I would approach it on the day. I think this is what people mean when they mention race tactics!

My conclusion was to run steady from the start but try to gauge it better than I did at the GHM when my pace dropped significantly in the later stages (even allow for the huge elevation gain in that race). I wanted to maintain a steady pace, push on when I have slowed to a walk at times in other races, and generally believe in my ability to perform better than I ever have. As far as overall race time was concerned, I would be delighted with 6:30:00 for the full 54km (33.5 miles).

Leg 1: Longparish to Coombe Gibbet

Andy had warned is that there was more elevation gain on the way out than the way back, although he cautioned against thinking that it was all plain sailing and downhill from the half way turnaround point to the finish. He was dead right there (more later).

I somehow managed to run at a steady, controlled pace from the start and soon fell into a comfortable ryhthm as the pack gradually began to spread out. I am so used to walking the hills in ultras that when everyone around me continued to run up the first incline I was a bit taken aback. However, I stayed with them, decided to see if I could run all of the hills on the way out, and promptly did just that. Well, until the very steep uphill near the turnaround point and the long drag uphill just before it.

This was a real improvement on how I performed at the GHM, where I stopped to hike up many inclines that I kept running up here. I still had the same thoughts going around my head while I was running these uphills – “I can’t keep running up this”, “I’ll never be able to keep this up”, “I’d better stop running these or I’ll fall apart later” and so on – but I switched my focus from the aches and pains in my muscles to keeping my legs turning over and maintaining momentum.

The only photo I took during the race – game head on! This hill was less fun on the way back…

There was one aid station around 8 miles in and I stopped briefly to top up my water bottles, eating a couple of slices of watermelon and… nothing else.

My usual practice at aid stations is to simply to be in and out quickly but to actually faff about, eat lots and lose time. There was none of that today. I had resolved before the race to use 33 Shake gels and a Chia Charge flapjack bar as nutrition, topped up with fruit at the aid stations if needed.

I wanted to see how I performed staying off the “sugar train” for as long as possible and with as much natural nutrition as I could. I avoided the temptation to start drinking Coke so early and trotted off on my way to Coombe Gibbet.

As I headed towards the end of leg 1 the front runners were passing me on their way back to the finish. I’m well accustomed to this experience in out and back races but I was surprised and a more than a little bit chuffed to only see around a dozen runners pass me going to other way as I headed to the turnaround point. That meant that I was in the front half of the field, something that is unusual for me and they gave me a real boost. Maybe I was becoming a better runner and more of an “athlete” after the last 9 months of focused training?

Turning another corner as I continued running uphill, I was happy to see the Ultra magazine flag and the half way aid station just before the turnaround point.

Cheesy grin: model’s own

[Photo credit: Andy Nuttall’s son]

Look! I’m running uphill!!

[Photo credit: Andy Nuttall]

After passing Andy and his son I reached the volunteers and they informed me to run past them, around the gallows (gibbet) and then back to the aid station. It certainly added a slightly macabre but strangely satisfying edge to the race!

A runner approaches the gibbet

[Photo credit: Andy Nuttall]

Arriving at the aid station I was greeted by Phil, who refilled my water bottles and shared some kind words with me, and then took my first drink of rocket fuel (Coke) of the day on the way out of the aid station, avoiding dipping into the amazing buffet of cakes, pork pies, chocolate, sweets, and more for the second time. Somehow!

Just a few of the amazing volunteers

[Photo credit: Andy Nuttall]

Phil posting about my Bad Boy Running behaviour in between sorting runners’ drinks

[Photo credit: Andy Nuttall]

Leg 2: Coombe Gibbet to Longparish

Running back down from Coombe Gibbet was definitely more pleasant this running up to it, at least until I reached the steep uphill I’d walked up on the first leg and had to run down it without tripping over my own feet (quite an achievement for me) and trashing my quads with more than 15 miles still to run.

It was good to have the opportunity to exchange greetings with and cheer on the runners still making their way to the turnaround point as I ran. As I continued it dawned upon me that I was passing more runners on the way out than had passed me, meaning that I was doing well. This spurred me on to keep running, even though my legs were starting to hurt more and more and the ever present temptation to “just stop and walk for a bit” continued to circle through my mind.

And so it continued until I reached the final aid station (the 8 mile/25 mile aid station) again, once more topping up my water, downing a cup of Coke, and eating some watermelon. This was enough, along with the gels and bar, to get me through the race.

Then I started to listen to those thoughts. I tried hard not to, continuing to run on the downhills and flat sections and uphills, but eventually I gave in to the desire to stop and walk for a bit.

At first, I managed to keep the walking breaks to a minute at most before getting back into a run. Then I stopped running all of the uphills (Andy was right, there were still quite a few on the way back and some of them were quite long).

Just before the uphill through the woods, which is the kind of technical, twisty, rooty uphill that only the elites would try to run, I almost missed the turn as I was zoned out and thinking about my legs rather than concentrating on the route. Whoops! That close call refocused my attention and I continued on my way toward the finish. I proceeded to actually take a wrong turn about 5 miles from the finish but didn’t panic, checked my Suunto for the direction to follow (thankfully I had downloaded the GPX file of the course and uploaded it to my watch the week before) and found my way back to some red and white tape after a minor detour. Phew!

I was tiring more and more now and where a 6:30:00 finish looked a given at the turnaround point it now started to look increasingly doubtful. The realisation of this crystallised my thoughts and I began running more, at least until my calves stated to cramp up in the final few miles. Nervous of pulling them or worse, having experienced similar calf cramping and pulling up in the final half mile of the GHM, I alternated running and walking, running until I felt my calves start to seize up and then walking for a bit, repeating this cycle. I managed to run the final stretch across the field to the finish and crossed the line in 6:31:25 in 16th place out of 45 finishers.

Approaching the finish line

[Photo credits: Toby Betteridge]

Greeted by a big smile a handshake and a medal around my neck from Andy, I felt really happy. Along the way I had reached the 50km mark in the fastest time I’ve ever run it (just under 6 hours) and beating my previous best set at the Royal Parks Ultra Marathon in October 2014. 4 years older, on a hillier course, I had set a new 50km PB! I had also set a PB for 54km, not hard as it’s the first time I’ve run that race distance and I don’t think that there are many other events of that distance. I think that PB might stand for a while…

At the finish, I had a good chat with Phil about his Canal Grand Slam this year and his tips from completing the Centurion Running 100 mile Grand Slam in 2017 while doing some fairly ouchy cool down stretches before heading back to the village hall to refuel with some amazing home made minestrone soup, flapjacks and more Coke.

Andy Nuttall and his team put on a fantastic event, with a good range of food at aid stations, friendly volunteers and a superb finish line spread. I highly recommend this race.

Learning points:

Just say No

Ignore the voices of doom in your head and keep running. Do it more often. I’ve been practicing this in training runs and I think it is paying off. In happy that I’m making progress with my mental strength training.

Pacing

There’s more to do for sure but in this race I feel like I pushed myself more than I ever have while running at a sustainable pace. While my pace dropped in the second half of the race as fatigue set in and I failed to adjust my effort to maintain my pace it didn’t fall off a cliff like it has in the past.

Cramping

I need to look into why I keep cramping at the end of races. My salt intake may be an issue, although since I’ve stopped racing with S-Caps I’ve been fine. Maybe I need to start taking electrotype tablets in my drinks again as I used to until after Endure 24 in 2014?

Final thoughts

As I continue to prepare myself for Wendover Woods 50 in November and the big challenge that is the Grand Slam in 2019, I was delighted to finish this race feeling strong (but tired), almost hitting my ideal time goal, and setting a new 50km PB along the way. I haven’t differed from the lower back pain that troubled me in most races of marathon distance or above in either of my last 2 races, suggesting that the strength and conditioning work I’ve been doing with my PT this year is positively impacting upon my running form and ability to maintain good running posture as the miles build.

Overall, I’m thrilled with my progress this year and excited about the journey ahead. Using TrainAsOne (TAO) has worked wonders for me, building my confidence as my fitness builds and steady (economy) running pace has increased. After the Hangman Ultra, TAO scheduled a further 5 economy runs in 5 days for me. I’d never have done this previously but my Facebook post below says it all.

Onwards with a big smile πŸ˜€

Notes

Gear:

Salomon S-Lab Advanced Skin 12 set (my 2014 pack)

Ronhill Stride 5 Twin Shorts
Bad Boy Running t-shirt
Hilly Mono Skin trail running socks
Brooks Pure Grit 4 trail running shoes (got blisters under big toenails 😲)
GHM buff
Battered but trusty old RunBreeze running cap

Nutrition:

Before the race

1 x 33 Shake pre/post race shake – 60-75 minutes before the start πŸ˜€

During the race

3 x 33 Shake gels πŸ˜€
1 x Chia Charge original sea salt flapjack bar πŸ˜€
Several pieces of watermelon πŸ˜€
2 x cups of Coke (1 at the half way point, 1 at the last aid station before the finish) 😁😁

Mental strength training with word puzzles

I used to enjoy playing puzzle games on my Nintendo DS and spent many an hour trying to solve the clues in the Professor Layton series as well as the compilation games.

Okay, I would more often be found playing a Super Mario, Yoshi or Zelda game, but not always!

I haven’t tested myself with this kind of “brain training” for a long time though. Unless, that is, you count the daily Bananagrams contest with my wife!

I often struggle with puzzles that require patience and logical and/or lateral thinking and get frustrated, giving on and going back to reading, surfing the net or re-entering the time sucker that is social media in all its guises. If I can’t work it out, I have a tendency to give up rather than embrace the struggle until I have a breakthrough/eureka moment or four.

No longer.

Yes we can. Yes I can. I just need to try hard. If at first you don’t succeed and all that.

In several of my race reports in this blog I’ve reflected upon my performances and experiences during races and noted my tendency to give up too easily when things get tough. Whether that means walking for a bit too long (e.g. when the hill climb is levelling out), easing back on the pace when I could maintain it with a bit more effort, or extending walking breaks beyond the planned duration, I’ve sometimes taken the easy option and “sandbagged” at races.

It’s time to try a new approach. A puzzle a day may be too ambitious but I’m planning to get started on the puzzles on this book this weekend, making a conscious effort to keep going when I’m struggling with the answers. Time out to reset is okay, but the aim is to get comfortable with being uncomfortable as the various types of puzzle make different demands on my cognitive and emotional ability (huffing and puffing will get me nowhere).

Mental training like this should help build my resilience and problem solving ability, both important when running long, long distances. I’ve been listening to ex Navy Seal David Goggins on a number of different podcast interviews and YouTube videos recently and he is one tough guy. Uncompromising, in deed and language (his comments are generally peppered with multiple swear words), he speaks a lot of sense. Although he is an extreme individual – check out some of his athletic achievements here – his comments and observations resonate with many.

Onward.

Lessons from Escape the Room

This afternoon, I took on the challenge of escaping from Dr Rydlle’s Memories room at the Real Escape in Portsmouth with my wife Beth and son Andrew.

We managed to complete the puzzles and escape from the room, although we may have been given a little bonus time and a few clues along the way!

Back at home, I’m reflecting upon this experience and can see some parallels with long distance running and some learning points that can help me as I build towards the Centurion Running 100 mile Grand Slam next year:

  • Put first things first

I’ve recently re-read Stephen Covey’s excellent book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” and this is the third of his 7 principles. In order to complete each puzzle we had to gather relevant information from the clues provided and think things through.

Grand Slam takeaway: Know the course. Get race ready and stay fit and uninjured to get to the start line of each race.

  • Stay calm

There were times during the session this afternoon when I could feel myself getting frustrated and losing my composure, unable to see how to get past that obstacle and move on to the next puzzle. Once one of us took stock and looked at the issue with a clear and open mind the solution came to one or more of us more easily and more quickly, allowing us to move on to the next challenge and closer to our end goal of getting out of the room.

Grand Slam takeaway: Troubleshoot with a cool head. There is a solution to every problem that I might face on these races, albeit not one that is immediately obvious. Getting frustrated and emotional will mean I’ll take longer to find the best way forward (pun intended) and could even mean I self-sabotage enough to end my race if this leads to a downward spiral of frustration, negative thinking and ultimately despair. That’s not going to get me to the finish in all 4 races.

  • Think beyond the obvious

These games are designed to test your ability to think laterally and join the dots from seemingly unconnected clues. They also challenge you to really look at your situation, exploring every aspect of the room on search of clues for each puzzle.

Grand Slam takeaway: Enjoy the moment. Listen to your body and notice the subtle cues that can help you to manage nutrition, hydration and performance more effectively. Take in the scenery as you traverse some of England’s green and pleasant land (and the never ending stretch past the “Welcome to Reading” sign on the A100). Problem solving will work better with an open mind.

  • Persevere

In these escape room challenges each puzzle has to be solved before you can move on to the next one. You have to focus on one puzzle at a time and forget the big picture in order to reach the end and escape the room.

Grand Slam takeaway: 100 miles is a long way to run. I’ve managed it twice before and did so by breaking the race down into manageable chunks, focusing on getting from aid station to aid station to avoid the overwhelm and panic that can easily follow from paying attention to the big picture. Telling yourself that there are only 6 miles to go until the next aid station is so much better than that there are 76 miles to the finish! One foot in front of the other. Repeat. Focusing on each race in this way and then moving into the next race and doing the same with each race should help me to avoid feeling overwhelmed, scared or intimidated by the Grand Slam.

Mental strength training can be found in many places and situations.

Onwards.