Friday 12 March 2021

#058 Covid, conditioning and a little bit of history.

As I write this blog edition, the Government have announced the pathway to exiting the third Covid lockdown. In just a few weeks the stay at home rule will be lifted and once again we can enjoy the freedom of our outdoor spaces. At least that's the plan! It still feels like we're a long way from being completely comfortable and there is talk of a fourth wave. 

Ray Mears, during one if his excellent Extreme Survival TV series, one of his Belarusian guests speaks of a Russian proverb, which still holds true for many different contexts: 

If you keep one eye on the past you are blind in one eye. But if you forget the past, you are blind in both eyes. 

Image credit:
Image credit:

Despite lockdowns, tiers and other efforts, Covid has played out similarly to the 1919 pandemic with successive waves. A recently screened documentary revealed that people were still being infected into the following winter of 1920.

But after personally shielding my wife (who's health conditions make her particularly vulnerable) for the past 12 months, the thought of the freedoms that the vaccine offers are very welcome. It's refreshing just to have something positive to look forwards to.

That said, I've tried to use the past months productively. I've enjoyed reducing the height of the 'must get around to reading' book pile. I'm a big fan of Neil Oliver, one little gem that's been entertaining is his Amazing Tales For Making Men Out Of Boys. In a ripping-yarns style which he pays tribute to many epics of courage in the face of often insurmountable odds.

I love a bit of history as well as inspirational stories of endurance. I also like throwing a few of these into my training courses. For instance, when talking about the weather folks often use evocative adjectives like brutal and treacherous. As if the conditions have a personality or a will of its own. In truth, the weather has no consciousness and is not out to get you. It simply exists.

It's a sentiment embodied by Freddy Spencer Chapman in the title of his book The Jungle Is Neutral

Often isolated, working behind enemy lines in the Malayan jungle during the 1940's, Spencer Chapman and a handful of men waged a guerilla warfare campaign of disruption. Their success was far beyond what the enemy considered possible for a band of their size, who thought there was a whole battalion of saboteurs hidden in the jungle. Spencer Chapman attributed a proportion of their repute to his team's ability to work with nature and accepting what it provided, good and bad.

Neil Oliver offers a similar insight into the success of the Royal Navy, under Nelson, at the battle of Trafalgar. Prior to the battle, the British fleet had been blockading the port of Cadiz. For several months, they had visibly patrolled the waters outside the port, sailing north-to-south, south-to-north without making landfall. By comparison, the combined Napoleonic fleet of French and Spanish sailors had a easier time with access to shore leave. The rationale of the Emperor was that when his navy eventually made their break-out, his sailors would be fresh and the British would already be exhausted. The reality was entirely different. When the two fleets met in battle, despite their unimaginable courage, the Napoleonic crews found themselves outgunned with a rate of fire of three to one. 

The Emperor and his Admirals had made a critical miscalculation. They had not factored for the effect of conditioning. During all those weeks and months, patrolling the sea just off Cadiz. The British captains had maintained discipline and countered boredom with drills and practice. When they finally engaged their foe, they were hardened to the rigours of their mission.

As I read this, there's an easy analogy with preparation for challenging ultra-running events. In particular, iconic expedition style races such as the Pennine Bridleway Ultra Challenge or The Spine Race. Of course there's the reassurance for participants that they're unlikely to face a volley of cannon shot. 

But the lesson from history can still be drawn: That prior conditioning, time on the trail, in the same conditions as will be encountered during the race (darkness, fatigue, weather, terrain) will bring the participant to the start line in the best possible shape for the adventure ahead. 

Here's a progressive build up plan which offers structure to race and expedition preparation, yet allows the necessary flexibility to develop individual strategies...

  • Research - Take time to find out the things you didn't know you needed to know. Unexpected surprises in the days before the event, or even on the day, can be extremely unsettling. You need all your energy focused upon good outcomes. 
  • Evaluate - Having found out what skills and aptitudes are required for the event, give yourself an honest appraisal of each one. I like to formalise this into a skills wheel. Each skill is a spoke on the wheel and you can score each out of five. So you end up with a star chart. 
  • Develop - Trail races like the PB-UC or The Spine do not demand that you are an expert at all the skills in the wheel. But at the very least, you must be competent. Your star chart score will help you keep a track of your progress. It will also give you focus. For instance, being absolutely great at 9 out of 10 skills is not a bad thing, until you find that that one other skill you've been quietly ignoring is about to derail your whole race plan. In my ten years on the Spine Safety Team, I've seen really good athletes not finish because of one aspect of their skill set which has let them down. Because skills do not function in insolation, there's a cascading effect which eats into the ability to function in other areas and then 'the wheels fall off!' In extreme, or poor, weather its very difficult to recover and come back from such a scenario. The need to develop these race specific aptitudes is applicable to the whole field, from elite front runner to the back markers. But do bear in mind that the strategy or solution adopted by someone racing for a podium finish will be different from the participant who's focus is upon completing.
  • Test - As with Nelson's sailors, there's no substitute for getting out there and getting stuck into the conditions you're likely to encounter. This doesn't have to start with an all-in morale breaking epic. Nor does it necessarily have to be in the actual geographic location of the event. Think progressively and maybe at first just focus on one or two aspects of your skills wheel. 
  • The Recce - Not everyone can make it to recce the Pennine Bridleway or Pennine Way. Indeed, for overseas races, the first time a participant may actually see the terrain is on race day. I recall in year four of The Spine, several participants invested enormous amounts of time in recce-ing the route. This of course, had some conditioning benefits in terms of time on feet. But a recce in the summer months has little context for the winter race conditions (14 hours of darkness, snow or mud underfoot for most of the way, biting wind chill etc). Unless it's torrential rain and freezing cold - there's a certain irony here! If you can't recce the course and your local terrain doesn't provide a realistic simulation, then it becomes increasingly useful to listen and learn from the experiences of others, with directly relevant race / expedition specific experience. There may be some useful ideas for your personal strategy.
  • Review - Practicing each skill and then adding them together contributes towards incremental gains and allows you to see where weaknesses lie. Being honest with yourself gives valuable experiential learning experience to build and improve on. These days, failure is seen as a virtue but I don't completely hold with this sentiment. As a former aerospace engineer, it's better to see the ducks lining up in a row before the unsatisfactory outcome occurs.
  • Adapt - The above process feeds improvement back into your skills set. It also gives awareness and knowledge to build a personal race-finishing strategy. With the aim to become comfortable in your chosen environment for longer durations. Enabling you to adapt and overcome any challenges that occur both during training as well as the race itself. Including absorbing those curve balls outside of the race training bubble that tend to happen in everyday life.
  • Putting It All Together - If you're scoring higher, as you should do, around your skills wheel then you can expect to journey with greater efficiency and further than you would have done at the start of the process. Naturally there is an element of good luck and a following wind which is always welcome too. But if the weather chips are throwing down a greater challenge, then your conditioning will help you stay in good shape for longer. 
Standing on the start line, knowing you've put the effort into preparing as best you can, gives a type of confidence which brings its own luck. And if this kind of thing floats your boat, your own adventure can be inspired by the sprit of Shackleton, Amundsen, Cherry-Garrard and other legends of exploration, endurance and fortitude. Who all made it home to share their stories.

Stu Westfield
March 2021

Ranger Ultras - Pennine Bridleway 270km in 100 hours Ultra Challenge