DIARY: The World Long Distance Challenge

As some may know, I'll be going to Yorkshire in England next Friday to contest the 5th World Long Distance Challenge at Three-Peaks in England, taking on the 37.4km long course of Pen-y-Ghent, Ingleborough and Whernside, a monstrous route with a total ascent of 1608 altitude metres, two of which are a steep as walls.

Early omens are good for me as I've been allotted the number 7, my lucky number, which is also my IMRA number (and incidentally the number of my flat). So triple-7, how can it go wrong?

The route is slightly revised from the normal. It's slightly shorter, but with more climb. This has happened to bring it in line with the WMRA requirements that the race have at least 1600m of climb (the old route was just below). Another interesting requirement states that a World Long Distance Challenge cannot exceed 45km, pheew...

The Danes of WMRA
I'll be only the second Dane to contest this challenge after Martin Rørdam entered Manitou Springs in 2005 (finishing 56 out of 57 in 150% of the winner's time, this counting only the elite athletes, more than 500 participated total) and Sierra Zinal in 2007 (finishing 160 out of 220, in 142% of the winner's time). Given two Danes have also contested the Euros in the past, I'll be the fourth Danish runner in a WMRA championship race. Major difference: I've got no affiliation with Dansk Atletik Forening (DAF, the Danish AAI).

While I would have loved to be first, it's great to have these markers as my times and results to beat in my quest to gain qualification for Denmark to the World Long Distance, the Euros, and the World Trophy.

The sprained ankle will handicap me somewhat, but next Saturday's result, as well as my progress over this season will lay down a major marker as to how quickly I would be able to qualify (originally, I had set 2011-12 as the realistic season, but now I believe I could achieve this as early as 2009).

I hope for a positive result, early results would be beneficial, as it would allow me to run in the international races for some years running, and try to improve. Of course, these steps are a long way off, but my advice to any runner is never to forget the long-term goals. You need them to keep you focused.

Proper Training
A major corner seems to have been turned as well. I'm reading Catherina McKiernan's book and notices how she generally felt fresher and fresher after each training session for the good parts of her career.

I've got the same feeling now, my mileage is currently very low even compared to others running around the same level as I currently do, I've only done (by effective kilometres I mean kilometres taking into account ascent/descent):
  • January: A complete wash-out due to recovery from plantar and my panic attack. Did an average of 21k per week and only 108km for the month!
  • February: My stablest month, feeling fresh I clocked 225k (235k effective) averaging 56k (35 miles) and doing an average of 6 hours training per week.
  • March: Another good month, upped mileage to 252k while averaging slightly lower 50k (31 miles) per week. A nice and stable development at only 4h58min average training per week.
  • April: A troubled month so far with the sprained ankle taking me out of commission for some days and restricting my training on others. I've managed to almost keep my level at 48k per week (30 miles) doing 4h20min training per week
So as most of my IMRA compatriots can see, not very much training at all, so recovery is important. Of course, I need to get rid of the injuries and start upping the mileage.

My first target is a steady 65km (40 miles) per week (I've managed this for 3 of the 16 weeks this year), then over 2-3 years build up to above 100km (I may only need mileage beyond this once I shift from the shorter races to running solely long distance events).

Hill vs. Road
Emma and I have also take a different approach to the whole hill vs. road paradigm, disregarding common wisdom to do mainly roads, and instead following Joss Naylor and Billy Bland's dictum of a high proportion of hill work. We both know I'll never be any good as a road or track runner, I just don't have the speed, and those terrains will break me physically (much the same way the roads broke Kenny and the track may have laid the foundations of Catherina McKiernan's eventual retirement).

This year my mileage compares like this:
  1. Hill: 47.23%
  2. Trail: 21.15%
  3. Road: 16.7%
  4. Track: 9.69%
  5. Indoor: 0.88%
For the cross-country season, I'll probably shift the focus slightly more towards trail/road, since I'll have a whole season of hill running in the legs and they will need some rest. But looking at recent results I want to stay true to this paradigm.

"I guess the terrain suited me," Kenny Stuart would say, on why the marathons eventually killed off his career while the hills had never troubled him. Mainly roads seem to be the best way to go for most athletes, but not so for me. If you feel the same way, I see no reason why you shouldn't, too, run contrary to common wisdom and do mostly hills and trail.

Coaches will keep their athletes from more than one hill session per week as its hard on the muscles and takes some of the raw pace out of them. I can see that at every track session I do, I'm nowhere near as good on the track as in the hills. But why would I want to be? Sure I'd like to set a few nice PBs, running a good mile on the track and things like that, but it's not a priority, and can't be treated as such. I'm a firm believer that any success in the hills needs to be founded on an almost complete absence from road and track racing.

Losing speed on the flat is also less of a concern for me, I need to be top-tuned for hill races, if my speed suffers a bit on the flat as a result, it's really no concern, except for me having to be smart about IMRA races with a flat finish (such as Brockagh). I can't bring runners who are stronger on the roads home, the job needs to be finished on the up and down (tough when you meet someone good at all of it).

Cross-country is another story, and I'll have a good rest after the hill running season to pour all my focus into becoming a better cross runner during Winter.

Like for like
I'm sceptical about those who think a good runner on the roads will automatically be a good runner in the hills. I understand the base argument, a good runner is a good runner, no matter where you put him. Strong heart and legs will help on the uphill.

But someone who exerts the muscles mostly to uphill movement will be better adapted than someone who exerts them mainly on the flat. Sure, you can't overdo the hills, as you need to rest the up and downhill muscles too, but there's no reason to believe a 50/50 approach won't work.

Sometimes I get the feeling that some seem to think that if someone is better than you on the roads or track, they'll automatically also be better in the hills. I have severe doubts that's the case. If the gap in quality is big, then certainly, your adaptation to the terrain may not be enough, but otherwise I'd say a specialised hill runner can take out a road runner who's a good bit faster than himself on the flat.

Likewise with long and short distance, while most know a sprinter will never be a threat in a longer race, I sometimes hear the impression aired that if someone is quicker than you over 3k, he'll be quicker over 10k or 20k and so on. This is, of course, ludicrous, and you just have to look at Paula Radcliffe for an example. You can very well be significantly stronger than an otherwise quicker runner over longer distances, it depends on your zones.

A 3000m runner may have a tremendous AnT zone (zone 3) allowing him to maintain a very high speed for long enough to finish 3k. While AT1 and AT2 zones (those needed for long distance) often follow the AnT closely, a specialised long-distance runner could still have the edge in those too, even if his own AnT zones is underdeveloped compared to the short-distance runner.

Another factor is genetic, Catherina McKiernan would never get a "kick" on the track as she barely had any fast-twitch fibres. I am composed in the same way, my only way to generate speed is to develop my slow-twitch to a level were they can produce speeds edging on the speed generated by other people's medium and fast-twitch fibres. This is done by running slow (counter-intuitively). The caveat is that slow twitch fibres can burn fat, fast-twitch can't. Let's say I can generate 14kph with my slow-twitch, while a middle-distance runner will use his fast-twitch to do the same. It's easy to see who will be in better shape after more than an hour of running.

For a challenge like Three-Peaks, where 3:30 would be the minimum running time, fast-twitch fibres are almost completely redundant.

I went for a nice easy 20k hill run today, doing 9k out the 5th leg of the Wicklow Way Relay with fellow "3-peaker" Mick and Aoife. Kept my heart rate at a steady 156bpm average, despite the 905m climb, and ran it in 01:57, so early indications are good despite a lightly elevated temperature this evening.

The descents are so runnable in parts that by simply leaning forward and engaging the ChiRunning style, I could clock out a 3:51 split/km on the 15th kilometre while keeping my heart rate at 155 average (this means basically doing sub-20min 5k speed at no perceivable effort).

Tomorrow I am checking out Bray (which I'm marking Wednesday). with Aoife, and then a very easy week starts to heal muscles and injuries ahead of next weekend.