Harzquerung 2023 - Getting it right on the day

Race Day Tips, November 15, 2023

You could hope that everything comes together on race day, or you can put systems in place to make it happen.

 Regardless of whether your goal is to finish or to win you want to manage everything to get the most out of the day.

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On Saturday 29.5.23 I toed the line of the Harzquerung.  It was going to be my second start and my key event for the year.  The Harzquerung is a trail race around 50km long that runs from Wernigerode to Nordhausen.  The course is basically a straight line running south through the Harz region in Germany, which has the most hills in northern Germany.  The run is a mix of gravel forestry roads, fields,  wider soft trails, some single trail, a tiny bit of road running, and a bit of technical running through land without living trees, where dead trees or branches still lay.

Like last year the weather has been quite dry, which means the terrain would be at least firm underfoot.  It was wet overnight and drizzled before the start, but nothing that was going to make it really muddy.

Last year I placed 3rd, and thought I was fast.  I don't know if I could've beaten 1st or second if I ran differently,  but I spent from kilometer 6 or 7 in 3rd and that is how it stayed because I drifted off and maybe did not implement my plan, as well.

This year I would have liked to win, but that is never something that is; 1 a sure thing, and 2 something I can control.  Therefore,  I just wanted to do two things:

  1. Have fun running.

  2. Run better than last year.

The two points are partially the same in that if I didn't run better than last year I may not be having fun.  However,  my main point was that I didn't want to be obsessed with running at a certain pace, or being overly focused or stressed.

I knew that the more relaxed I am in training on the trails I get in a really good flow, and hold a good pace with a lower heart rate.  

I didn't know everyone or their abilities on the startline,  but  I hoped to have a few people to run with, and if not you pass a lot of walkers and I find it good to have a bit of interaction with them.  Also the variety in the terrain means that the kilometers went by quickly, as it is easy to look left and right and take on the countryside and not get stuck in tunnel vision. In other words 54km goes quite quickly. 

Improving on last year didn't necessarily mean going faster. I wanted to improve lots of little things on race day that should ensure that overall things went a lot better.  

My first aim was perfect pacing. Last year I started too fast, and that takes a lot of strength out when the first 3km uphill is.  To combat this I started in the third row and rolled into it.  Talking through the first kilometer with Henning I let the first group go, but slowly worked my way through them.   Once over the Dam the aim was to keep the effort smooth. I know that running here is easy, as the course flows and has a few slight downhills, but it shouldn't be too fast.  

This meant I was caught and passed around kilometer 13, but I was running exactly the effort and pace I wanted to for this point and was not worried. Around kilometer 23 I found Henning running me down.  I wasn't worried, as I knew I was still running at around a 4 hour pace, and felt really good.   I concentrated on getting my nutrition in and not having any spikes in the effort I put in.

I knew if I could run all the hills I would automatically be better off than last year. However,  I didn’t want to push the early hills, as I knew that was going to make the last third very hard.  This resulted in Henning running away from me every so often, but I just rolled through the technical or downhill sections to come back to him.

Whenever it went down or was technical I tried to increase my stride rate and maintain a good flow, as that would help save energy and at times win me some time.  The longest technical downhill comes after the third aid station and around kilometer 34.  It was here, where I wanted to let my legs go, and go down there as quickly as possible.   This resulted in me passing Dominic who was in first place, and opening up a gap on both of them. So much so that when my bottle jumped out of my belt after a kilometer or so I could still turn around, get it, and maintain the lead.  

I had intended on using this bottle for the last 16km, but didn't trust that it was going to stay in, so I decided to fill my handheld bottle with the content on my soft flask.  It wasn't that easy when running, but I got it done. (At least so I thought. It turned out I didn't put the lid on straight and there was a reason why my hands were getting wet)

Last year I had run that section terribly, so that was another positive experience.

After that it was a short flat section where I ran past my family before the real work began.  The next 5km was virtually all uphill and despite it being hard, and feeling sooo slow I ran the whole time.  Sometimes running uphill costs more strength than the time gain you get over walking quickly. However, as I saw the other 2 walking when I ran around a switchback I decided to keep running.  I figured that every second I was running was getting me faster to the finish.   It wasn't easy,  but I knew there was a downhill after.  Surprisingly, despite it feeling very slow, my slowest kilometer was 6:52, and the rest were 5:33, 6:07, 6:00, and 5:19, which goes to show that you can lose perspective in the heat of the moment.  My breathing rate was higher, but it didn’t feel near the limit, so I was sure that I was not producing too much stress or lactate.

Once I got over that hill there were still three climbs to go, but I knew that I could keep going over them, as they are shorter.  This meant I was going to run all of it, which ticked off part of one goal.

The last part I ran well and kept my rhythm.  I dropped a little bit of pace at the end, but that was mainly a mixture of having a good gap,  knowing I could hold everything together until the end, not looking at my pace (I never looked at my pace, or heart rate during the race.  I ran on feel, and had my pacepro splits) and being in a bit of discomfort towards the end.  It was hard, but not impossible to hold it together, but it was the first time in a while that I had seriously climbed into the Hurt Box.  Which brought a little bit of uncertainty however, as I had almost forgotten what it is like to be sitting in the box for a while.

The second thing that was going to help me achieve my goal was to have a better choice of footwear.  Last year the surface was a lot harder than I thought it would be and I didn't have enough cushioning under my front foot, so I ended up having discomfort in my forefoot after 30km, and this resulted in me not being able to run well on the downhills and not having much fun.

This year I went to my favourite trail shoe at the moment,  the Couldultra from On.  It is a shoe that I know I can run well with on every terrain, gives me stability, and when it's slippery I still have enough grip.  For a shoe that is heavier than other trail shoes that I own it is still one that is easy to run quickly in.

These were perfect. I never had any traction issues, could run the technical, uphill, and downhill sections without a problem.  My feet never felt beaten up and I had enough stability in the latter stages.  Afterwards I had no blisters, pressure points, bruises, or issues.

There were a lot of factors leading into the race that I made sure I had covered before entering the last week.  These included, but we're not limited to learning, from last year,  using different techniques when running different hills, downhill running and downhill technique, the amount of water I needed to carry, training my gut to take on a lot of energy while running, building more strength, and maintaining flexibility.

The last part was especially important to me, as the older I get the more I notice that tightness is more than likely to prevent me from running well rather than me doing too much running.  Therefore, I made sure that I regularly did some yoga, fascia training, and relaxation techniques.  I listened to my body and maintained a constant training period, which resulted in me feeling stronger every month.  It wasn’t about hitting any specific session out of the park.  It was just about being consistent, and not pushing too hard, or getting sick.

A training plan is not just about getting the volume in, it is about being prepared for every aspect of the race.  You need to do this properly in your build-up, and not just hope it works out on the day.

Having practiced all these things and getting them right allowed me to still feel good and feel like I could have pushed on in the last hour if I needed to, which resulted in me having a great day out.  

There were a few patches where I wasn't moving so well, as others on the course around me, but I just focused on executing my plan and believing that it was going to ensure that I had the best performance from start to finish.  It was really important to remember that it is possible to have little dips, or lows, but still have a great performance.  

I often try to teach my athletes that sometimes we overthink running, and it is better not to think and just focus on left foot, right foot, left foot…  

It all came together and I was able to win the race and be proud of getting the most out of my body.

I knew in the last kilometer that I did everything right, which was a great feeling after having a lot of races in the last 5 years, where I thought I did something wrong, or where it went well until it didn’t, and often not enjoying the race as result.  Races should never be seen as everything and the end result not a reason to have anxiety or extra stress.  It should be a chance to show off what you have done in your build-up, enjoy finally putting the foot on the gas pedal, and taking in the atmosphere, emotions, and sights that only an event can produce.  

It is hard to top the feeling you get when you cross that finish line, and you have managed to do that and have a great day out.  That is why I walked the last few meters over the finish line to soak it all in.