I’m currently asking my athletes to write up race reports from their most recent events, so I feel it’s only fair that I lead my example. Race reports are useful not only to help coaches fine tune training approaches but they also allow athletes to reflect on their performances and tease out what went well and where they might improve in the future. It’s too easy to finish an event and instantly move onto the next big race so take time to absorb your achievements.
“It never always gets worse” is a quote from ultra-running legend David Horton and a phrase which kept going round my head throughout Double Top this year. I’ve done enough of these now to know that this is usually true. However usually is very different from always and I struggled for pretty much the entire 40 miles. There was a very good for reason for this which I’ll go into at the end of the report. Let’s start out with how the race went.
Although absolutely stunning (I’ve run the North Coast 30+ times and still marvel at its beauty), the Double Top is not a race you can enter lightly. Whether you’re navigating it once or twice, the route is always a challenging.
Race morning saw a slew of wind and rain, which is arguably preferable to baking heat for most, but I actually prefer hotter conditions. I also turned up at the start line realising that my watch was on low battery which threw me for a beat. Never be complacent in any detail of your planning!
The first 5km from St Caths to White Rock, although mostly on road, sets the tone for the rest of the day with 3 decent climbs. Many runners come unstuck here, attempting to run these first hills on a mix of adrenaline and fresh legs. This spike in effort and heart rate will come back to haunt many in the latter race stages. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself whether you plan on running these same grades at the end of the race. If the answer is no, don’t run them at the start. Ultra’s are about pacing and energy management. Don’t burn all your matches in the first half of the race. For these reasons, I ran/walked these hills and still maintained 2nd place.
At White Rock you hit the North Coast trails. I usually love this first section as it’s quite flowy with runnable climbs as far as Bouley. As usual James had gone off like a bullet so I was heading up a group of Single and Double Toppers back in 2nd. I didn’t feel right though. My heart rate was in Z4 and my effort felt high for the speed I was going. I wanted to slow down to bring my HR back under control but felt some pressure from behind to maintain this pace. In hindsight, I should have slowed earlier to force the relay and single top runners to go ahead.
Bouley to the Horse Box car park is the toughest section of trail in Jersey, with loads of steps and a density of more technical climbing and descents. It’s a stunning segment but very hard to find a rhythm. I’m normally a good climber but today my quads felt like lead and I had no power at all. This heinous fact would only become more apparent on the return journey through this section. As we neared Catel Fort, I slowed. Partly to allows the other runners to pass but mostly because I was toast.
I hung with my training partner Ash from La Fontaine heading West. This part of the race is much more runnable and super fun. Usually it provides a chance to open up your stride and it should have been an opportunity to use some of the road speed I’d developed. But I just had nothing and was clinging on by an ever-stretching invisible thread to the back of Ash. I remember him being in a great mood, really chatty, loads of energy and super encouraging. Even if I had some chat to give, I could only utter one syllable responses. (Apologies dude and thanks for pulling me through – that kind of support is what running is all about). It was also at this point that I told him multiple times I was going to bail at Battery Moltke. I figured I could drop, walk the 1.5 miles’ home and be in bed within 20mins with a cup of tea. It would be my first DNF but who cares, this isn’t an A race. It didn’t mean anything. I kept up this flow of reasoning for some time which I’m sure was a proper downer for everyone involved.
But Ash continued to carry my sorry ass as far as Greve. It was here that a spark of life came back into me. Who knows what caused it but I was suddenly more talkative, my heart rate came back down and I felt a bit like a runner again. That’s not to say that I had risen from the dead but I certainly had one arm sticking out of the grave clawing at the earth. Greve to the turnaround at Battery Moltke is my home turf which played in my favour I think. I could also see us gaining ground on some of the runners ahead. It’s always more fun to be chasing than being chased.
Ash and I flew into the turnaround, refilled our bottles, and headed straight back out. Aid station efficiency is key in ultra-performance. For these distances I carry all my nutrition with me and only use aid stations for water. Seconds and minutes per station add up quickly. I think my total time spent not moving was less than 2mins.
Double Top is an out and back, meaning that to finish the race you have to run back over the same ground you traversed in the first half. That is mentally quite tough. The best way to tackle this is to not allow yourself time to think about it. Get to the turnaround, grab what you need, get back out there without skipping a beat and move your focus to what needs to be done next e.g. do I need to fuel, have I taken enough electrolytes, what should my effort be like for the next section based on the terrain, etc. Don’t think, shit I have to run another 20 miles over all that gnarly trail again. Break it down and focus on what needs to be done in the moment.
As I started heading back towards St Caths I definitely felt a little more like myself. I was high fiving runners and shouting words of encouragement. I was genuinely stoked to see so many of my athletes absolutely crushing it and beaming from ear to ear. This fuelled my motivation until at least Bonne Nuit. At this point, nothing I was doing could even remotely be described as running, let alone racing. Last year I had been racing James along this section and felt strong. 2023 was just about survival. Every climb was a fresh ordeal and for the first time I can recall, I had to stop on some of the stair climbs to catch my breath and take some time to honestly question my life choices. I was just beat man. I ran out of water at Egypt and seriously considered drinking straight out of the stream (note – please don’t do you this as you will almost certainly become quite ill). The aid station volunteers at Bouley were a godsend, allowing me to neck half a litre of coke before heading off.
The final 10k weren’t very notable. Basically a death march to the finish and some choice cursing for every step and incline along the way. I reminded myself to be grateful that I was able to participate in these events, that I was able to run (sort of) and was able to experience all this beautiful coastline. There were many people less fortunate than myself – which is easy to forget sometimes when we do these silly events. A good dose of perspective can often make things a lot easier.
I finally glimpsed St Caths at Fliquet and thankfully this year the finish line was near the start of the breakwater. Cheers Paul! Second place but over 30mins slower than last year. But it didn’t matter. It’s a great event and I love hanging out at a finish line, watching the other runners come through and swapping war stories after. Everyone struggles at some point in a race like this and sharing these tribulations is cathartic – as it sharing in others victories and successes. It’s such an awesome running community we have in Jersey and I am very proud to be a small part of it.
The Positives: I finished; I fuelled better than previous races (300g over 7 hours so roughly 43g carbs per hour – definitely room for improvement); I managed to successfully alleviate a side stitch which has plagued me over several races; I didn’t sustain any MSK injuries; All my gear worked well. I didn’t poop myself and I got to hang out with my mates.
The Less than Positives: I didn’t perform as well as I should have and was actually slower than previous years; I produced quite a large positive split; I had entered an event against my better judgement and had probably increased my overall recovery time.
Gear: Inov8 Race Elite Peak 2.0, RNRR club tee, Salomon Sense Pro 10 vest, Salomon Sense Aero 5” shorts, Inov8 Trailfly mid socks, Adidas Terrex Speed Ultra shoes
Nutrition: 6 x 30g Precision Fuel gels, 2 x 20g OTE gels, 1 x 40g OTE super gel, 400-500ml coke
Hydration: 1.5 litres of water (I have a low sweat volume) with 3 x PH 1000mg electrolyte tabs
So why was I so knackered going into the race?
I’ve spent the previous 18 months hopping from training block to training block with no rest in between. I spent 16 weeks training for an Ironman in October then transitioned straight into a 20-week marathon block which saw me running both my highest mileage and most intense sessions ever. Don’t get me wrong, I had an absolute blast but 4 weeks out from Manchester I was totally fried and was probably experiencing some non-functional overreaching. The training load combined with trying to run a small business and other life stresses were taking a toll on my nervous system and I just needed to heed the warning signs and give myself a break. Post-Manchester, which was an ‘A’ goal, would have been the ideal time for this. But being highly susceptible to FOMO and relatively dumb, I signed up for Double Top and jumped back into training the next day. Even though the intensity and volume were much lower, I should have just chilled the hell out and attempted to eat my weight in cake instead. So inevitably I arrived at the start line ground into a fine powder rather than fresh, eager and something resembling human form. I was also acutely aware that I had spent 6 months training on the roads and my trail legs were shadows of their former selves. Road and technical trail running are in many ways, very different beasts.
Takeaways: A lot more rest and recovery is needed. Both acutely (as I write this I am on day 6 of no running with only some very light cycling) and chronically I need to build more rest into my micro, meso and macrocycles.
I am diligent in prescribing rest for my athletes and I really need to be leading by example and heeding my own advice. Often we feel that we are the exception to the rule but the reality is we are all human and can only take so much before something gives.
Finally, I heard a great quote the other day. ‘Don’t let the wins go to your head or the losses to your heart.’ Although this race was neither of those, it did serve to remind me not to dwell on things when they don’t go to plan. And be kind to yourself.