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Namche to Phunki Tenga and Back
by Denis Oakley in

Today was a rest day and so I decided to reconitre the race course. The course from basecamp is apparently relatively straight forward with few climbs until you descend to the river at Phunki Tenga. Then there is a climb of 600m plus over kilometres 36-40 followed by a vicious descent of 400m in a little over a kilometre.
For those readers who've doe a marathon the joy of the timing of this climb will be apparent. For those who have not - imagine having to climb a very steep hill when you are as tired as you can possibly imagine and have that hill go on and on and on.
So the first aim of the day was to complete the last 6 or 7 kilometres of the race course to understand it and get a psycholigical boost from knowing te land. The second aim was to experiment wth various approaches to pacing, heartrate and cadence. What was possible, what worked and what did not.
I work my tri shorts, compression socks and a light t-shirt. I had a heavy windstopper jacket in my camelback together with about 2 1/2 litres of go juice. I still can;t figure out the benefits of compression stuff but they did make me look cool. The heavy windstopper I decided will be replaced on race day with an ultralight wind/waterproof jacket and trousers.
The first 15 minutes were a stiff climb up from Namche. A bit miserable as I was till waming up and the legs were weak and the lungs were not ready for exertion. This was done as a walk. The target for the day was to keep my running pace in the low 140's for flat and downhill and the low 150's for uphill.
Once we'd done the climb the path levelled out a bit and was a plesant undulating run. I was with 4 of the other guys and I think we all had very different approaches and aims for the run. Going on from my aims I waned to try and run at a pace that I could sustain for 10 hours - even though I was only going to be out for 4 according to the trek leader.
As a consequence one was speeding ahead and running back to me. Another 2 were far ahead and I kept a slow pace that I could sustain for hours. It was very comfortable and I enjoyed the path as it controured round the hill and then started to descend.
We lost a couple of the faster guys at this point and we started heading downhill to the river. Here it became clear that a long stride length was a heartrate killer. On the flaat I had focused on a high cadence short stride energy conservation approach. On the hills the same short stride approach was used but the cadence was really reduced to keep the heartrate low.
The downhills gave a gravity assisst and I focused on finding ways to go down quickly whilst maintaining a low heartrate. This is much like ballet with a lot of beautiful foot placement and a strong awareness of the trail ahead so that you can position yourselves for difficult patches.
We reached Phunki Tenga in 1:07 having covered almost 7km. Not a speed I would be proud of at home but one that was sustainable at the altitide and which was conservative. Come race day I should be able to squueze more out du to the better acclimatisation and my body's ability to grab oxygen out of the thin air.
We had a rest there and a mars bar and a coke and then started heading back up the hill. A low steady pace that kept the heartrate low was the key. That and being relentless in my movement. Do not stop on hills. Ever.
The first section was covered in 36 minutes which was 13 minutes slower than a hungarian mountain guide who has been training up here for a couple of months for the race and about 15 slower than the top rated Nepali times. Again it was conforable and conservative and something that I felt I could maintain at the end of the marathon; albeit with pain and effort. On race day I'd also have an extra advantage as I arranged for a drop of 2 redbull in Phunki Tenga which would give me a super-caffeinated boost up the hill.
The climb up to Khumjung was a climb. Effort was consistent and I managed to keep my heartrate low except for one time when I shouted to the others who were ahead whilst my heartrate was already high. Obviously it spiked.
By now it was obvious that the other two were suffering from the longer power strides. They were losing a lot of energy and not being huegely energy efficent and I slowly overtook them and left them behind with my consistent pace. 
The final section from Khumjung was hard mainly because of the stairs bit. We went off route in Khumjung and took the direct route to the last climb rather than trying to find an uncertain race route through a maze of walls and yak pens.
The climb fell like the others; one of the little psychological tricks I prepared for race days was in associating landmarks with particularly great times that I've had with Senay. This may work on race day - and I think it will give a succession of small positive pychological boosts which will be absolutely critical at this point. I will be tired and mentally struggling. Senay will take me through up this last climb. She's a great girl.
Then it was a nice downill on dirt tracks to the airfield and then a steep stair based descent to the park hedquarters. The whole of the return took an hour an a half for a distance of about 7 1/2km. I was pleased with it.
What did I learn? Firstly an ultra pace is totally the right way to go on this marathon unless I am far better acclimatised than i am. Spending as little energy as possible on moving forward means that I can keep my heartrate low and thus sustain the pace for longer.
The 140/150 flat/uphill rule will need to be revised according to circumstances. As I go higher the heartrates and consequently speeds will need to go down. During th race they will probably need to be increased on the fly to take into account the lower altitude. Lots to think about there.
One potential race tactic is to stop for between 10 and 30s at the start and end of each uphill. One of the problems that I found was that unlike sea level hill running is that at the end of a hill my heartrate comes down a lot slower so in effect I end up running on the lat after hill at a much higher rate than I want. So a 10-30s rest to bring the heartrate down will probably pay huge dividends over the course.
Race easy - this is just like an Ironman. The idea is to take it pretty easy and slow all the way through to Phunki Tenga and then steady up there. That strategy should reel in all those who started off too fast and who have bonked. There are some very good marathoners in the group but they don't seem able to modify their stride to the terrain and unless they are VERY strong they won't be able to maintain the hearyrate that comes with it throughout the race.
I want to finish with a smile and a laugh and then go back up the hill to cheer the others on. Timing: I'm still thinking about the 6 - 10 hour range for times. 6 is really outside the range of reasonable expectation but it is possible if everything goes right. 10 is a pace that I can sustain up the hills. More refinement as we head up and I get a better feeling about what is and is not possible
The Salomon shoes I have are very unforgiving on hard surfaces and I have bought a pair of knee supports which I'll wear. I have strong knees but today with 13 km under the belt they were aching and there will be a lot of descent of race day. Probably worth taking tiger balm in the race bag as well. As much as possible the aim is prevention .
What can I do to race fast er and better. My realisation is that today I know very little about trail running at altitue and nor do most of my companions. Everything that I do needs to be questioned and analysed. Weighed and measured.
Here is a provisional race kit list:
Salomon shoes
Smartwool socks - for their shock absorbtion qualities and comfort.
Compression socks
Knee supports
Lipsalve in tri shorts easily to hand
Cough sweets in tri shorts easy to hand
Cycling Gloves
Baseball cap
Ipod & headphones
3 litres of go juice
Energy bars - how many?
Suncream - maybe (creamup at basecamp?)
spare go juice for 3 litre pack.
First Aid Kit
Blister kit
2-3 spare socks


Gabe H. said...

Salomon have excellent racing shoe for bikes. Plus they will last forever and you can use them for hiking as well.

Denis Oakley said...

Thanks Gabe - I didn't know that they did cycling shoes. The trail running shoes are great - even if I do prefer Vibram Five Fingers if I'm not racing :)

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