The Great Pace Experiment
First published Austrailia Runner and Kiwi Trail Runner magazines April / May 2017
That has become my mantra when running an ultramarathon. For me, the joy is in the journey, not chasing a time. I want to cross the finish line having had a truly sensational day.
In the lead-up to the 2016 Great North Walk 100s (GNW100s) I had taken a five-month break from running and then focused my efforts on improving my road marathon. Hence, I faced the prospect of taking on this giant with little dedicated training under my belt.
The GNW100s is an annual trail ultramarathon held on the track of the same name, which runs between Newcastle and Sydney. The 100 mile race includes 6200 metres of climb with the ascent on the 100km stacking up at 3800m.
The race is notorious for its high attrition rate. Around 40 per cent of runners will fail to finish in the mild years, with that number rising to around 70 per cent in the hot years. The 100km and 100 mile options have been the undoing of the biggest names in Australian trail ultra-marathon racing. With eight starts to my name, and two DNF’s, this race has earned my respect. In 2016, arriving awesome seemed a little ambitious for me. In fact, just arriving would be an achievement in itself.
The power of pace
I distinctly remember how nervous I was before running my first GNW100, stressing about the volume and mix of my training and if my nutrition was up to the task. Little did I understand that the factor that would have the most influence on the outcome would be my running pace.
Deciding the right race pace still seems a black art to me, so when the chance arises I experiment with different strategies. The GNW100s 2016 was the perfect scenario for this and I decided to test what sort of result I could achieve with minimal training, simply through smart pacing. I decided to run to heart rate. I would stay within my aerobic zone for the first 70km and then run freely for the remainder, and see what it delivered. I set myself the arbitrary target of averaging 125-130 bpm - the bottom end of my aerobic zone.
Staying on easy street
At the beginning of an ultramarathon, I’m a champion at fooling myself that I’m taking it easy when I’m pushing relatively hard. I seem particularly susceptible to this when my brain is adjusted to running faster road marathons. True to form, I found I was already breaking my heart-rate target within the first few kilometres on race day. I debated my commitment to the target; maybe it was a bit too soft? How quickly strategies can be thrown out the window with the excitement of a race start! Snapping out of that stupor, I put on the brakes and watched the pack gradually disappear as I fell off the back. Only a handful of runners remained around me, moving consistently as the morning mist burned off.
Within a few hours I settled in with a new running buddy, Paul Fletcher. Conversation eventually moved to his goals for the day and he let it slip that his ‘wildest dream’ was to make it to the finish line by midnight (18 hours) which would be a two-hour personal best. I wondered if through some smarter pacing that wildest dream could come true. There was only one way to find out and Paul joined my great pace experiment.
I found my commitment to an easy pace tested again as we headed for checkpoint two. CP2 sits roughly half way through the race and at the end of a long stretch of the Congewai Valley, often referred to by runners as the ‘Fires of Hell’. It is a sun trap that, on even the mildest of days, feels long and hot. It is also one of the flattest sections of the course, tempting a runner to pick up the pace and that’s exactly what my marathon-trained legs wanted to do. I deliberately avoided eye contact with my watch, which was holding me to account, as I increased the pace. Paul seemed to have a naturally inbuilt GPS and easily sensed the increased effort, and called for our pace to drop back.
His diligence paid dividends - one of the big differences we both noticed was how fresh we were arriving at the checkpoint and this also meant we spent a lot less time there. Without rushing, we easily refuelled, reloaded and hit the road again full of energy and smiles.
Across the whole race, I spent 12 minutes less in checkpoints and Paul saved 43 minutes compared to the previous year. The hills melted away, day became night and we gradually moved up through the pack catching people running in the 100-mile race and struggling 100km runners. At the 70km mark my watch was switched off, we were both on a high and moving well.
Coming into the final checkpoint, I did some calculations for the time required to complete the remaining 19km leg. Paul's wildest dream was within reach. It now came down to the ultimate test of our pace experiment - did Paul’s legs and mind have enough left in them to bring him home strong?
The final 11km of the GNW 100km race is an undulating road and it feels wonderful to hit the road after struggling through hills and rocky trail all day. It is a powerful release and the runner’s high builds quickly. Another quick time check and Paul was still on track for a midnight finish, so it was down to him to make it happen. Leaving Paul to determine his own destiny, I gave my legs what they wanted most and powered ahead, arriving at the finish line exhilarated and with plenty left in the tank. I rate GNW 2016 as the most fun I have had on the course, and interestingly enough I finished within a stone’s throw of my PB over that course. After a quick change of clothes and some food, my attention bounced between the finish line and the clock. The minutes were ticking by, and midnight was approaching.
Ten minutes to go...
Five minutes to go...
Then it happened: Paul’s headlight and smiling face came through the darkness and crossed the finish line.
Wildest dream achieved.