ARTICLE: Power of the Familiar

While reading "Running with the Buffaloes" I noticed how coach Wetmore made great use a set of training courses that where repeated throughout the training cycle of his cross-country team. They all had wonderful evocative names like "The Tank".

The distances of your runs change (they tend to go up) as you progress your training, it can be hard to stick strictly to the "same old routes", but there's great advantage in keeping a few staples so you can monitor your progress week on week and month on month even without the need for a hard anaerobic time trial.

If I ever record any success as a runner, a great deal of my debt will go to the woodlands of Clara Vale. The numerous interconnected trails and paths of the indigenous forest allows for plenty of variation, yet, as so often for runners, one route has emerged as a firm favourite for me and as it proves this particular route is perfect for looking back to see how aerobic fitness develops.

Clara Vale Loop
Driving down from my house from Trooperstown (north of the valley) I drive past the entrance to the fashionable Croneybyrne demesne and park my car at the "official" entrance to the Clara Vale (the only one to have a formal Coillte sign at the barrier). This car park unfortunately is tiny but I rarely find competition for parking. Indeed, today I met two runners on my way round, which is a first, as I have normally met only horse riders (although it is illegal to take horses into the vale), plentiful hikers, and some mountain bikers.

The loop I favour, takes me straight down to the bottom of the vale from where I veer West to do a short loop that makes up most of the "Red Trail" (the vale has three sign-posted trails: green, blue, and red) which holds the only technical descent in the valley (unless you go cross-country, but that's not really fair on the huge deer-population that makes their homes there).

Once this 2.5km mini-loop is completed I rejoin the main loop of my journey southwards for the long flat stretch at the bottom of the valley. This is a welcome place to run a good steady pace for once I steer back northwards a very bumpy ride is on offer before the final 2km climb back up to the car park.

In total, the route adds up to about 13.44km. The Garmin has trouble with the numerous trees of the valley and so climb measurements give you everything from 300m to 369m climb and ascent grades from 6.2% to 7.5%. The main terrain are rocky fire road and grassy paths. The degree of erosion is just about enough to keep you from phasing out as the numerous rocks, holes, and gaps can tip an ankle if you're running on autopilot dreaming of some far-away place that serves teas and sandwiches.

Comparing Times
I unfortunately cannot access my 2009 training logs at the moment, but when I do this run as a standard base run (e.g. the runs you just do to fill out the days between harder sessions) I tend to run it between 73 and 74 minutes in recent times.

Thus it was yesterday, when I ran out the stiffness of the climb from Ballinastoe to below the peak of Djouce with a 01:13:05 run.

So how to approach this? Well, this route can really be run as filler at any time of the year, and unless I know there's something seriously wrong with me, it should always give a good indication of current form and current tiredness.

Today I wanted to do 2 hours and 30 minutes as my long run, not yet being ready for my favoured time commitment of 3 hours. I reckoned that if I did two laps of 75 minutes, I'd be doing well and it would add up perfectly while giving me a 26.8km run with 600-700m ascent, which was again pretty much what I was looking for (if you can't make your goals match so well with your favoured routes, consider just adding a "cooldown" after. My plan was to throw in whatever extra I needed at the end, but as my ankle was throbbing a bit on the final few kilometres, I decided to leave it be).

To also learn a bit about my current pace judgement and see whether my aerobic fitness is strong enough to maintain an even effort, I concocted this plan:
  1. Upon the completion of the first loop, grab a big drink of Accelerade in the car. Reset the Garmin and start running again
  2. Compare the exact time for loop 1 with loop 2
Optimally, if good steady pacing is applied, and aerobic development is sound, the second loop should not be much harder than the first and should be run at practically the same speed.

From this perspective today's run proved a successful test (although the last 5km were measurably harder in terms of discomfort if not aerobic effort, which is likely the result of the compounding muscle damage and/or depletion of glycogen to fuel the brain. Even when aerobic you burn good quantities of glycogen):

  • Lap 1 - 1:08:02 (13.42km, 5:04min/km). 369m ascent
  • Lap 2 - 1:07:51 (13.44km, 5:03min/km). 309m ascent
  • Total - 2:15:53 (26.86km, 5:04min/km), 678m ascent
As you'll note, given the loop's are exactly identical, the Garmin seems to be in trouble getting proper height measurements due to heavy woodland.

You can then start analyzing the times run, in my case, the times are obviously a very positive surprise, as they are much faster than what I have been running for the 1-loop version this year, they represent a negative split, and they are the conclusion of a very heavy training week (despite this, though, my legs were noticeable fresher today than at any stage earlier in the week).

A lot can be learned about pacing as well, on lap 1 I ran the 7th and 8th kilometre in 4:58 each. On the second lap I ran both in 4:50. These are the flatter middle kilometres. Freakishly, although I sped up on the second lap, the terrain was so similar on these kilometres that I kept the same pace judgement kilometre over kilometre down to the second.

Other Tests
Likewise the test allows you to see when you're tired and weary and may need to tone it down a bit. I went out to run one loop after the Knockbeg 1 Mile road race on Saturday 4th April. My time: 1:10:09, slower than both laps the Sunday before when I ran double the distance. (again freakishly I ran the 6th kilometre in 4:52, exactly the same time as during lap 2 the Sunday before!).

By looking comparing kilometres to profiles you can learn much about where you are really suffering as well (towards the end, at the beginning, on the uphills?). For me the run just confirmed that I was sluggish on the ups, there was little difference between the flats and the downs from last week but I was losing a lot of time on the steeper kilometres. (in this way the trip to flat Singapore comes at an opportune time giving me 2 weeks to restitute uphill muscles before my four weeks of hill-work).