Last night I was talking at the Run and Become Training and Inspiration Night in Edinburgh. A full version of my talk is attached below for anyone who couldn't make it, or for anyone who is interested in reading it again.
THE 2008 WHW RACE: LESSONS LEARNT FROM A YEAR OF FAILURE
The title of my talk tonight is ‘Lessons Learnt From A Year of Failure’. I’m sure the more perceptive of you will already have worked it out from the title, but I didn’t finish the 2008 WHW race. In fact I didn’t even come close to finishing it – I dropped out at Rowardennan, a mere 27 miles into the route. The day had hardly started when I dropped out – it was just after 6 am, before most people had woken up. I didn’t even get the chance to find out what it was like to be weighed during the race, as I didn’t get far enough.
I’m sure some of you are sitting there thinking – that guy spoke at last year’s Run and Become Evening and told us what to do – didn’t work for him, did it? That is very true, and indeed I may have a bit of a cheek standing up here again this year and offering advice to you all. However I am a great believer in the old saying that you learn every bit as much from ‘bad’ experiences as you do from ‘good’ ones – in fact I think that you possibly learn even more from the bad ones. So hopefully I will be able to pass on a few useful pointers to you all as you set about your preparation for this year.
If I can maybe give you a bit of background about my involvement in the WHW race. I first heard about it at the Inverness Half Marathon in 1997, when I saw an old looking guy sitting in a corner, flask in hand, wearing a WHW t-shirt. The WHW t-shirt caught my attention and I went over to ask him about it. He turned out to be race legend Alan Kay. After chatting to him for 10 minutes or so, and hearing all about it, I thought it sounded like the type of challenge I would quite fancy. I had no idea how I would manage it, or whether it was possible, but the seed was planted. A few days later I entered the 1998 race.
Now, things were quite different in 1998 compared to now. There was nothing like the same number of people taking part – only around 50, compared with the 175 or so now along with the many others who would like to enter but can’t get in. There was no internet then: some of the more recent entrants must find it difficult to imagine preparing for the race without access to the hundreds of blogs that are around today! Back then all the advice came from phoning Dario, although he was not the race organiser (sorry – race director) then, but a regular runner in the race. It started at 3 o’clock in the morning, rather than 1am. At the end you were allowed to crash out on Lochaber Leisure Centre floor and many people did – by the Sunday morning it looked like a battlefield with all the injured bodies lying around. There were no organised training runs or Run and Become nights – or, if there were, nobody invited me to them. In short, you were left to work it out for yourself, and to learn from your own mistakes.
Andy, boy, did I make plenty of mistakes in that first year. I’ll not go through them all but having a back-up team who knew what they were doing would have been good. Running up and down a few hills beforehand would also have been a good idea, and might have helped me get down Conic Hill on race day without trashing my quads. I’m not sure I needed to carry a spare pair of shoes in my rucksack all the way from Rowardennan to Beinn Glas Farm. In hindsight it was a miracle I made it as far as Tyndrum before dropping out, but I had learned a lot, and learned even more backing up a friend the following year. By 2000, the year of the Millenium, I was ready to do it properly.
I managed to finish the race successfully in 2000, and then completed it again in 2001, 2003, 2004, 2005 (when some of you might have seen me on DVD), 2006 and 2007. I missed 2002 because I had dislocated my shoulder. So when I arrived at Milngavie Station for last year’s race, with 7 finishes under my belt, it never crossed my mind for a minute that I wouldn’t finish. But I didn’t finish.
So what went wrong?
I guess it is hard to ever know for sure. By the time I reached Rowardennan I felt completely shattered and knew there was no way I would be able to go on. Those close to me will know that it took a while for the pain of failure to go away – probably about 3 months, if I’m being honest – but once I had started to get over it I was able to look back a bit more rationally, and analyse some of the mistakes I had made.
The first worrying signs were there during the organised training run at the end of February. A large group of us were running the 30 miles or so from Beinn Glas Farm to Kingshouse. Just before we got to Bridge of Orchy station I tripped over a stone and, for want of a better term, went arse over tit. It left me with a painful knee, a sore hand, a ripped pair of tracksters and a severe dose of wounded pride. I think that one of the reasons the fall happened was because I was running at a faster pace than I felt comfortable: I was trying to keep up with the other guys, rather than doing my own thing. I think there is a lesson there for everyone – the organised runs are great fun, you meet some fantastic people (many of them here tonight) and you learn a lot from other people’s experiences; but there is just no point in running at a pace that isn’t suitable for you. Far better to hang back a bit at a pace where you are more comfortable, and make sure you enjoy it. I’ll certainly be taking that approach on the training runs this year.
Another possibly questionable aspect of my training last year was my decision to do back to back marathons, in Stornaway and Edinburgh, 4 weeks before the race. At the time I thought it was a good idea and it was something I had wanted to do for quite a few years. I wonder, however, if this took a bit too much out of me and didn’t leave enough recovery time. Ellen Thomson also did 2 marathons that weekend and felt that it affected her WHW performance – she found the 2008 race the hardest of the 4 she has done. So maybe back to back marathons close to the race are not a good idea. But who knows?
I don’t think I took enough account of the different work situation I found myself in last year. I had started a new demanding job and found myself a lot busier than I had been in previous years. I was also Acting Chairman of SportScotland for the 4 months prior to the race, which took up a lot of my time. I should have taken these 2 things into account, accepted it was a more difficult year workwise, and not been too bothered about my WHW time. Instead I was really focused on beating my best time from the previous years, and beating others in the training group, particularly John. That was not realistic, especially given how well John was running. It was a poor approach for me to take.
However, even after making all of the mistakes I have just mentioned, the situation should have been redeemable if I had done sensible things on my race day itself. Unfortunately I didn’t do sensible things, and paid the price. Phil Mestecky, who runs with my club, Strathearn Harriers, caught up with me around Carbeth Huts. Instead of letting him go I speeded up a bit and and tried to stay with him. What was I thinking? I should just have done my own thing and let him go. Phil ended up finishing in just over 19 hours, which was a fantastic performance, but it just emphasised how ridiculous it was for me to stay with him in the early stages.
I also made a mistake not stopping at Drymen. In each of my successful WHW races I have always stopped at Drymen, had a quick coffee and got on my way. Importantly it gives the back-up team a chance to see that I am alright, or whether I need anything. This year, my wife and backup team supreme Allybea told me on the Friday evening that she always found Drymen a difficult place to stop, because of all the race traffic around that area. And guess what I did? Rather than point out that the Drymen stop was important, I told her that I didn’t plan to stop there anyway - it would just waste time, I said – and told her just to go straight to Balmaha instead. When I arrived at Drymen I could have done with a coffee, but of course my backup team was not around, as they had gone to Balmaha. Lesson from this? Don’t change a successful formula.
I have to say though that the Drymen mistake paled into insignificant compared with the complete cock-up I made at Balmaha. In previous years I had stopped for up to 10 minutes at the big car park, taking on some food and not worrying about the time – after all, it is a long race, and a few minutes here or there is not really going to make much of a difference. This year – the complete opposite. My schedule said I would stop for 5 minutes, so I was determined not to hang about. I came in to the car park, rushed into the toilet (and that used up 3 of my 5 minutes), had a quick mouthful of soup (but not nearly enough) then rushed out again without remembering to full up my water bottle. Instead of having had a proper stop and refuel, I left in a bit of a state, without taking on the carbs I almost certainly needed. Because I had given such strict instructions to my back-up team to get me through the checkpoints quickly, they let me go – no doubt against their better judgement.
Well, the inevitable happened. By the time I reached Sallochy car park I was struggling big style, and a mile or so further on I could hardly run the flat sections, let alone any of the hills. I walked into Rowardennan car park and knew it was not my day. After some discussion with my backup team, I walked back to the checkpoint and told the marshall there that I was pulling out. I was absolutely devastated. I hung around and watched the rest of the race, but it was a bit odd – on the one hand I was desperate for so many close friends to do well, but on the other hand, I was completely gutted that I wasn’t running with them.
So that was it. A year of failure. I’ll never really know the reason - It may just have been “one of these days”, a day where I wasn’t right, a day where it wasn’t meant to be. But it is clear that I made a lot of mistakes. Hopefully I’ll learn from these mistakes this year, and put things right. I would like to think some of you here tonight will learn from my mistakes as well. But if there is one piece of advice I would want you to take away from my talk it is this. Remember that this is your race. It is you against the course and, most of all, you against the distance. Just because something worked for someone else doesn’t meant it will work for you – the ‘someone else’ will have a different running background, and will have followed a different training programme. They will have different family circumstances and will have different work pressures. They will prefer different foods on race day, and will have different backup arrangements. They will have good spells during the race when you are feeling terrible. They might even have bad spells when you are feeling good! But it doesn’t matter, because it is your race. Your race and no-one else’s.
Last year brought home to me in no uncertain terms that the most important target in this race is to finish. If I can leave you with one final thought from my experience, it is this:
The pain of failing to finish is 10 times worse than any disappointment from missing your target time. If you finish you are a winner, regardless of your time. If you don’t finish, you aren’t a winner.
I look forward to meeting up with you all again, at the prize giving in Fort William on Sunday, 21 June. And hopefully we’ll all be there as winners.