DIARY: Race Preparations

Preparing to Take Flight – New Wings for An Old Plane?
Like a pilot readying for a flight, you cannot afford many mistakes going into a race if you want an optimal performance on the day. So it makes sense to have a list that you can read through bullet point by bullet point and go “check” as you cross them off.

Going into Saturday’s Annacurra race, I’m obviously more anxious than normal. The last time the hills were my oyster and was physically able to race in the mountains was the Brockagh race on June 25th 2008.

233 long days ago in which I not only had time to doubt that I’d run competitively again, but also started to rekindle a liking for other hobbies, parties, and drink that had all been forgotten once I throw myself at running. Thankfully, injuries have slowly healed, although a few niggles remain, and I reawakened to the realisation that while the joys of “normal living” are great, they cannot compare with the pursuit for running perfection.

Looking back I can still hardly believe it has really been so long since I took my place in a starting line-up of a hill race, and it’s with this in mind that Saturday’s race fills me with more tense anticipation than a Winter League race should.

So since this plane of mine hasn’t taken flight for so long, let’s see what type of checklist I should go through in order to settle my mind at peace before Mick Hanney yells “go” on Saturday morning in Aughrim.

Checklist

The first thing to look at is, of course, injuries:

News is good on this front, my plantar has not felt better than this since September 2007, and whatever small sensation remains seems to be fading by the day. My ankles seem to have recovered their old strength after the onslaught of sprains in 2008 and equally my muscles seem to have recovered from going well beyond health and reason to complete the Three-Peaks in Spring 2008.

This was the major lesson not undertake a challenge for which you have not fully prepared, even if you’re physically capable of completing it.

Finally, my knee is still not out of the woods, but now seems strong enough to take in a hard race downhill, as long as I keep treating it with care. Any sign of trouble in Saturday’s race, and I will pull out, though, I have made a firm agreement with myself for that. Last time pushing the knee over the edge cost me another 7 weeks on the sidelines. I cannot afford this again and no glory can be found completing for the sake of it.

Next thing on my personal checklist is fitness and training:

This is a big unknown and I’ll have to put a question mark in this box rather than a “check”. My fitness has certainly improved dramatically since December, but even in the best case, I will be far off the form I had in 2008. Not only am I still 4 kilos above my optimal race weight (despite having dropped 3 kilos in 1 month!), but I have had to ease myself back on a relatively low mileage. For my first 6 weeks of training I’ve averaged only 47km per week moving up towards 65 kilometres this week. At my peak I trained closer to 80km per week, a level which I will only return to in about 4-8 weeks.

Base fitness is certainly on the up and so is raw speed, both the two areas I have focused on exclusively in the first part of my training. I haven’t yet done any race specific training and no anaerobic elements (all this lies ahead in preparation for the Leinster League). More than anything I use this to relax myself before Saturday’s performance. I will undoubtedly feel disappointment with any slide down the field compared to last year, although scientifically speaking, this is inevitable. Therefore repeating I find repeating the facts to myself one of the most useful ways of not having a knee-jerk reaction to any result that may occur.

Another positive is that I have now been training for 40 days, the last 33 days unbroken, not a single day during that period have I run less than a mile (and generally more). There’s some way to go Ron Hill’s 26.2 years but you can’t blame a guy for trying (after all I’ll only be about 56 by then).

Apart from training comes the general preparation and run-up:

This race obviously isn’t long enough to warrant tapering, and all I have done is shift my hardest sessions to the start of the week, as well as changing my weekly hill sprints to a flat sprint session. This changes the focus from strength development to increasing leg turnover and running form, both useful adaptations in the early stages of training. The benefit of this change is that the flat sprints will not leave my uphill specific muscles unnecessarily tired before the race where fresh muscles are an absolute plus. Also, doing both hard uphill racing and uphill reps in the same week is unnecessary repetition of the same stimulus within too short a period of time.
Other than that, this race is too short for carb-loading, hydration and other factors to became really relevant, so I just keep a fairly healthy diet and will ensure I don’t have an overly heavy meal on Friday evening and get a good sleep in to be relaxed.

Of course we have to look at equipment:

I am not happy with any of my current hill racing shoes, as neither really feels 100% right for me, but I do have two shoes that I think will do a good job on Saturday’s race: The PUMA Trailfox and the Inov-8 Mudroc. Both are light enough to be racing shoes, the PUMA will offer better protection on the fire trails while the Mudroc will give me more grip in the snow. In the future, I’m thinking about purchasing the X-Trail, which is lighter than both other shoes and well-rounded enough for a number of terrain types if the reviews are anything to go by.
There are no special kit requirements for this race, and as I have race gear in obscene amounts, it’s really just a matter of choosing the most comfortable for the cool conditions. I tend to reserve my Denmark and Crusaders singlets for “special” races, as to not “wear them out” (also they seem to convey a greater seriousness to myself when I wear them, so I tend not to use them for low priority races as this somehow muddles the mental message).

Next there is race specific testing:

This is a major Achilles heel of my current status. As mentioned, I’m not doing any race specific training yet, and I have had very little chance to rebuild my skills in the hills. However, I do at least one slow hill run per week, which is slowly reprogramming my stride and rebuilding the muscular base needed for this specific type of running. I still cannot recover from fast descending at my old page, however, so will not have any chance to counter sprints on the final stretch of Annacurra.

I still feel much heavier going uphill, and undoubtedly the significant weight gain is partly responsible. To that effect I monitoring my weight to ensure that I eat less if it stops going down week on week.

To start getting an idea of where my fitness is at after the many months out, I perform regular time trials and I did a 3000m road race in a decent time of 11:13 a few weeks ago. This is as fast a speed as anything I have run (17.2kph), but it was clear that the intensity (178bpm heart rate) was getting to me very quickly. This type of heart rate is common in the hills, and on Saturday I must last beyond 40 minutes potentially. This again indicates what my training implies: My speed has improved, but there has been no time to work on stamina yet. In the coming training cycle doing workouts at max intensity will be key in preparing the body for the gruesome punishment of fast ascending. The key workouts for this are 30/30 and 40/20 and they have previously been effective within 2-4 weeks (yes, they are that good).

I also did a 1 Mile Time Trial two days ago with Crusaders, but I had to discard the result as several factors invalidate the result. I ran in 5:53 which is actually slower than my 3000m time two weeks earlier (I ran the 3000m on hilly roads in 17.2kph compared to 17.1kph on the track for the Mile). As all other indicators show that I am fitter, that time shows that I was hampered by a number of factors.

This is important knowledge in case I don’t perform at the race as well. On Tuesday, I was undoubtedly focused on preserving strength for my speed session after the time trial and my knee lift was probably reduced due to the very severe hill sprints I did on Sunday. Further support for this I found in the fact that I could perform both a marathon pace run and my sprint session straight after the trial with no break and exceeded my target pace for all parts of that session.

This brings me to mental attitude:

During the time trial there seemed to be a very finite pain threshold that my body just seemed unwilling to cross “just for a trial”. It is interesting that we cannot fool our brains into thinking something is more important than it is. So undoubtedly, I will be able to run harder on Saturday, but not as hard as later in the year during the Leinster League, or at the season’s main target at Snowdon.

I must keep this in mind when I curse myself after Saturday’s race, there will be subconscious elements putting a limit to how much I will be able to give and it’s important not to interpret these as issues but rather as safety mechanism.

Finally there is tactics:

These depend on all the concerns that have come before in this blog entry. My standard strategy of pacing myself in the beginning is particularly important now that my tolerance to max intensity exercise will be much lower than last year. Any stupid burst of speed will throw me physically over the edge. This happened when I came back from injury previously and can happen again.

However, this race start on a hard uphill, and since anyone who is faster than me on the downhill on Saturday will beat me anyway, tactically it does not make sense to hold back on the uphill to preserve something for the downhill. I will inevitably be much slower on the descent than the runners I competed with last year who managed to stay injury-free, so there is no point trying to employ that as a weapon. Whatever strength I have, I should pour into the ascent.
And as my Mark Ryan was telling me today: “Go for it, and enjoy it being back racing...”

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