Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Racing Strategy

I have experienced The Most Beautiful Thing (TMBT), a 100km ultra trail marathon, twice before. I joined the first one, which was also my very first ultra trail of that distance, in 2011 as reported in two parts, i.e. Part 1 and Part 2; and the second time in 2012 as reported here. I have since gone on to do the Vibram Hong Kong 100km ultra trail twice, and the Sundown Road Ultra 100km last year.

Of all the ultra races that I've joined so far, I would say I enjoyed the first TMBT the most, not only because I was racing together with Mia, but also because I knew practically nothing about ultra trail then—the thrill of discovery was both exciting and a little scary. But because failure is not an option to me when I do this sort of thing, I had to come up with a proper game plan with whatever little knowledge I had about ultra trail running. I had to provide for everything and both Mia and I ended up with the heaviest backpack each, much to the other participants’ amusement. It was like we were going camping for a few weeks!

The latest TMBT had just finished a few days ago, and while the majority of the reviews from participants have been positive and encouraging, I'm sad to note that a fair number of my runner friends failed to finish the race. These are those who had to drop out of the race at numerous stages. There were many reasons, but the most popular being unable to meet the cut off times at water stations or checkpoints. Of course there were also cases of fatigue and illness etc.

Those who joined the TMBT, although some of them were first-timers for 100km, are not exactly new to long-distance running or endurance sports in general. I suspect most, if not all, of them would have conquered several road marathons. But here's the thing about road marathons in general—they basically boil down to 2 main things: 1) Endurance/fitness, and 2) Cut off time. The other factors such as course terrains, weather conditions etc are also important, of course, as those can slow down the runners a bit. But they are rarely significant enough to result in failures. In the event of minor injuries such as cramps or blisters etc, medics are just minutes away.

In an ultra trail marathon, however, terrains, weather conditions and injuries (minor or otherwise) can very easily mean the end of the race for the participants. Those who don't take into account these factors when formulating a racing strategy may well find themselves in trouble on the race course up there in the mountain. In the event of injuries and illnesses or whatever other emergencies, it may take significantly longer time for help to arrive. All these may potentially mean life and death. An adventure which is intended to be a fun outing can quickly turn into a tragedy.

Therefore, the kind of preparation (both physical and mental) and training for an ultra trail marathon is much more complicated and demanding than the ordinary road marathon. But I suspect not very many people actually realise this. Or if they did, they did not seriously take these factors into account.

Unfortunately, I am neither a fast nor strong ultra trail runner. I'm horribly weak and slow when climbing hills. But long before the event, I would make sure that I train to improve on my weaknesses. I would go over my game plan over and over again. When the race day arrives, if I think I can't meet the minimum time requirement, I'd rather opt out. There is bound to be another race, another day. It is just not my style to beg the marshals at the checkpoints to bend the rules and let me continue with the race when I have clearly failed to meet cut off. Call it pride or ego if you like; it's just not me.

The most important factor is of course timeHow much of it is available from flag off to the finish line? That is a fixed figure, and whatever game plan one has in mind, it must fit within that timeframe. It can be less, but not more. After allowing for a buffer of say 2 hours (for 100km), there is an even shorter time available for the race. Then the allocation for each section between checkpoints; as well as how much stop time at checkpoints, perhaps to top up water bottles. Allocations must also be made for nutrition stops. Step by step. Be honest about your strength and endurance, and don't try to plan for a speed that is obviously beyond your ability! You will only burn out too soon and then have to throw in the towel long before reaching the finish line.

I do realise that some people have no intention to win. They just want to finish the race for the sake of the experience and adventure. That is fine; there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But still, this is a race, and there are strict cut off times between sections and overall from start to finish. So even if there is no intention to win, the participant must train to at least be able to meet the cut off times. 

So, yes, by all means, take as many selfies as you like, savour the beauty of the countryside, but at the end of it all, don't forget that it is a race, and time is the biggest enemy! A seemingly brief stop to replenish the water bottles at the checkpoint can easily consume up to 15 minutes, if not more. If one is not a fast trekker or trail runner, then train to be a little faster; not to win, but at least to make the cut offs. The rules are there to be adhered to. The rest of the participants who made it to the finish line were also subject to the same rules. In that sense, it is truly a level playing field.

Racing strategy, a step-by-step game plan from start to finish, is imperative for a long race such as the 100km ultra trail. An apparently weak person can conquer the distance with a sound game plan; whereas a strong athlete can crumble long before even reaching the halfway point because he thinks he can run the trail like running in a straight line on a flat surface.

So the next time you attempt anything akin to TMBT 100km, come up with a proper racing strategy, and make sure you stick to it all the way to the end. Nobody says it's gonna be a stroll in the park, but it is doable. You just have to trust me on this.

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