It’s around this time that I’m pestering my coached athletes to submit their race reports so we can pore over the data and glean some useful data to guide future training. So I figured I should lead by example and stick mine up for public consumption.
The act of writing down, either physically or digitally, how a race played out is a really useful exercise. It allows an athlete to decompress after a race, to lay out how they felt during the event and to critically assess what went right and what lessons can be learned for other races. A report should be completed as near to the race as possible so the details captured are raw and accurate as time as a way of painting rosy hues over our memories.
So here it goes.
Saturday 5th August saw the start of Round the Rock (RTR) 2023, a 45ish mile mixed-terrain ultramarathon around Jersey. Although this would be my 5th time racing and although I’ve a fair number of races under my belt by now, it remains one of my favourites.
I’ve been hitting the roads a lot over last 9 months, finding a lot of pleasure in trying to improve my sub-ultra times and training with a really solid group of runners. As a result, I’d barely hit the trails and was unsure how RTR would pan out. Last year I had made an attempt at running under 7 hours but a massive side stitch at mile 10 had left been hobbling the final 35 miles and falling way short of my target. Although I knew I was generally fitter this year and had completely overhauled my nutrition strategy, I knew running under 7 hours would still be a challenge with a lot having to go right on the day. Luckily, Amsterdam marathon was my goal race for the latter part of the year which removed some of the performance pressure from RNR. Though you always want to leave everything out there on the race course and it give it a good crack.
In the lead up to the race I had created splits for the three main sections of the course which would elicit a 6 hours 50min finish time with a 10min buffer for aid stations, toilet stops and falling, etc.
Steam Clock – St Caths: 1hr 10 (6:44/4:11) (St Caths @ 8:10)
St Caths – Grosnez: 3hr 00 (10:28/6:30) (Grosnez @ 11:10)
Grosnez – La Fregate: 2hr 40 (8:36/5:21) (Finish @ 13:50)
Having run these sections many times, I knew these splits separately were comfortable but running them consecutively was going to be a challenge. The forecast was also pretty hideous with rain and SW/W gale force winds all day. But as Tom Evans would say, just focus on controlling the controllables. The positives were that I wouldn’t need to hydrate as much, it was warm enough to dress minimally and I should benefit from a tailwind in the final miles which is when I would be needing it most.
The day before big races I avoid fibre and stuck to mostly carbs with little fat and protein. When you have quite specific targets, minimising bathroom breaks is essential. I had all my gear packed the night before and made sure all my nutrition and electrolytes were within easy reach in my pack. I was aiming for 70 grams of carbs per hour in the form of 40g OTW super gels and 30g Torq gels. I had been using 80-90g per hour recently so I figured 70g over 7 hours should be digested and absorbed fairly easily. Hydration was fairly simple, just popping in a Precision Hydration 1000 tab every time I filled my bottle.
I slept relatively well the night before and with the race starting an hour later it meant a little extra time in bed – cheers for that Paul! Sleep before a race can be difficult to find, with many hours spent lying awake worrying about every tiny detail of an upcoming challenge. I like to spend this time visualising the course, how I will run it and try to conjure up glorious images of me striding across the finish line in 1st place. Although these often remain exclusively as figments of my imagination, they do serve a purpose of relaxing me and mentally preparing myself for any and all challenges I’ll face on the day.
Race morning, I have all my kit ready to go, I’ll deck some sugary children’s cereal, (Morrison’s knock off Crunchy Nut Cornflakes in this instance) neck some nasty instant coffee, slather myself in Bodyglide and leave the house praying for an imminent bowel movement.
I don’t like to arrive too early for races as I just end up fretting so I arrived about 20mins before the start and just chatted with James whom I would spend the day chasing. James is an incredible athlete who I’ve come 2nd to him more times than I care to remember. I had decided pre-race that I wasn’t going to race cautiously today. Although my main goal was sub-7 I also wanted to give James a run for his money and knew that he would be gunning for it.
We set off at 7am and James and I lead the field and hung together until Gorey where that bowel movement finally arrived and I ate into 60s of my 10min buffer. James usually goes off like banshee on these races so it was odd to be running along with him but it felt comfortable and it was nice to chat a little during this seemingly endless stretch of road. Especially in the wind and the rain which inexplicably seemed to be coming from every direction.
After Gorey I didn’t see any other solo runners. I grabbed some water at the St Caths checkpoint and took it fairly easy on my way to White Rock. There’s a number of hills in this section and I haven’t been training hills so I just took it super easy, walking some of the steeper sections. I was sticking religiously to my 40g of carb per 30mins and seemed to be absorbing it just fine. I knew I didn’t have my trail legs as I’d been on the roads so much so I stuck to running the flats and downs fairly hard and backing off on the climbs and stairs.
At mile 17 disaster struck. The dreaded side stitch which has derailed last year’s Round the Rock struck with a vengeance and I thought my race was done for. I pulled out all the tricks (slowing down, stomping my opposite foot whilst running, deep nasal breathing, etc.) and some combination of these managed to bring it back under control but I was cautious around pushing the pace for the rest of the race and I could feel it niggling away under my ribs. I really need to try and get to the bottom of this.
The halfway point at La Fontaine came and went with just a water refill. Feedback was that James was about 11mins ahead. Which doesn’t sound like much but when you’re already pushing it can seem like a huge chasm. I felt like my best bet would be to keep running smooth and steady and hope that he would start to tire – which was unlikely!
Although it certainly wasn’t beach weather, the rain and wind weren’t much of an issue at this point with only minor pockets of gusting wind. This changed somewhat at Grosnez. This was the textbook description of blowing a hoolie and attempting to run in any form was laughable. Luckily the headwind around this section only lasted until Goldie’s when it started blowing across. The tide was up so a beach crossing was out but I had already committed to running the footpath along the 5. St Ouens beach is full of soft sand, pools and rivulets and uneven sandy moguls so the mile you save just doesn’t seem worth it. I was ticking along nicely on the flats and Jeff, a mate of mine, had joined as he was racing the two-man relay. We ran together until the finish with Jeff providing a constant stream of encouraging chat. None of which I could answer at this point. I was now in the pain cave. I was starting to experience DOMS and although I could maintain a decent enough pace, it required all my talking energy. So far I had hit all my splits pretty much bang on and had barely touched my buffer and allotted aid station minutes. James was still 11 mins up which still seemed a long way although I found a text on my phone from Mark Grenyer later that evening saying that James was the Splash when I was at Goldies. This was actually closer than I had imagined and had I known this I might have tried to crank down the pace on the 5 mile – but we’ll never know. I might have also blown up and dynamited by sub-7 dreams.
So we pushed on and what felt like a sustainable effort. Jeff chatting away, me guzzling gels, clicking off the miles. We were 33 miles in at this point. 10+ miles is still a long way so you need to break it down into small chunks. Let’s just run to Le Braye, then Petit Port, Corbiere, the next turning on the trail. Breakdown the course into as small a chunks as you need in order to make it mentally and physically manageable and allow yourself to keep ticking off markers. You need all the wins you can muster at this point.
I hurried through the final checkpoint with zero chat bar saying thanks to all the volunteers (note – ALWAYS thank marshals and volunteers at races as there would be no events without them). Although I had still been hitting my splits, I couldn’t work out for sure whether I was on for a sub-7 finish. Maths is difficult for me at the best of times, let alone 6 hours into an ultra. The run through Brelades and Ouaisne was lovely (even though the sea was STILL too high meaning no beach shortcuts) and I adhered to the diversion up the back of the Smugglers. This is a horribly steep trail and I could feel my calves threaten to cramp. It seems that I might have been the only person to actually follow this diversion but in reality, I don’t feel it cost me any significant time. Noirmont was uneventful and after Portelet we had a beautiful tailwind all the way till the finish.
The final decision I had to make was to take the beach or run along the front at St Aubins. I’ve had some heated debates with runners before about which is quicker. The beach is shorter (if the tide is fully out – which it wasn’t) but the sand is very soft, pretty wet and often fairly putrid and covered in green weed. At least on solid ground I can get into a rhythm, especially with a sweet sweet tailwind. So that’s what we did. Even with my miserable math skills I knew sub-7 was tied up at this point. I took my last gel as we neared the Bel Royal (every 30mins until the end!) and ploughed on until I crossed the finish line and promptly collapsed behind Paul’s van.
The final time was 6:46 – a PB by 53mins. James had a phenomenal race, finishing 18mins ahead (he smoked the last few miles) but thankfully looked as shattered as I was.
I was absolutely stoked with my time and felt like I executed everything as I had intended. Pacing, splits, fuelling, hydration and kit choice had all been spot on. I could definitely have benefitted from more hill training and a couple of longer trails runs but Dam was still the goal and if I recovered well, would at least not hinder my performance on the roads.
I think my two biggest takeaways from this race were the importance of fuelling (70-80g per hour felt great, I had plenty of energy throughout and my recovery was decent) and training at higher intensities. My Lactate Threshold and subsequently my cruising pace were significantly faster than last year as a result of the marathon blocks and this served me really well for Round the Rock, which I still see as a very runnable ultra.
Finally, I just want to say I am super proud of all my athletes who raced RNR, not only completing their respective distances but surpassing their expectations and executing fantastic races. Thank you also to Paul Burrows and his team at Trail Monkey for continuing to organise such an amazing event and to all the supporters and volunteers from the running community who make this event so special. Love all you guys.
Well done if you made it this far. That’s an endurance effort in itself. Feel free to reach out if you have any questions or just drop by the shop. I’m usually there.