UTMB 2018 – Time to train!

After the disappointment of missing out on a place through the lottery last year for a place in UTMB, I was over the moon last week when I learned that I’ve been successful this year. Chamonix here we come!

I’ve struggled to get moving over the past six months since the West Highland Way race. Family, work and everyday life have all take priority and my running has been slow and infrequent. I won’t lie, it’s impossibly difficult coming to terms with not running frequently. It has such a positive effect on my physical and mental health and it’s only when it goes away that you realise how strong an influence it is.

With a place in the UTMB I now have the motivation I need to get out exploring again. Family life will still have to come first so I think the volume of running this year will be low, but I’m hoping for high quality to make completion of UTMB the simple goal. No time pressure, no push to get within a certain percentage of the field, just an experience to remember and enjoy. Aye, right.

The other good news is that a bunch of my running buddies have got places in other UTMB races (CCC and TDS mainly). That means a bunch of us will be in Chamonix again in August flying the flag. Sadly my mate Scott didn’t get in which I’m gutted about. We’ve run so much together, it would have been amazing to run it together (in preparation for PTL next year?). What? Did I really just write that?

So here we are; mid-January and already pushing 70km a week with 2000-3000m of elevation. I’m hoping to ramp that up through to a consistent 100km a week by end of February with a mix of hills and speed work to build a decent foundation. If that goes to plan, then Spring will be about increasing the amount of elevation to get some mountain legs built.

I’m also trying to get in yoga a couple of times a week again. I always feel better for the flexibility it delivers and by adding in a couple of strength sessions a week as well as squats and lunges after every run, I’m hoping I’ve got the basics covered. Watch this space for updates and adventures as we go through the year.

Mountains and marathons

There has been a strange period since the WHW race where my running has generally taken a back seat for a few weeks to give myself some recovery time. There have been a couple of highlights though. Firstly, I had a work trip to Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago. As locations go, I probably couldn’t choose a worse place for me. All the glitter and glitz of Vegas is a huge turn-off. It turns out though that there are mountains nearby. What more could a boy ask for?

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Mount Charleston is an easy 40 minute drive from the strip. Measuring 3632m, it’s not to be overlooked and it has several trails across it which give you great running options. Given it was July, temperatures on the strip were peaking around 45c, and whilst it was hot at the base of the mountain, it was a more pleasant 25c at altitude with a healthy breeze. A perfect escape.

Also close to Vegas is Red Rock canyon. A real Roadrunner v Wile E. Coyote location with desert scrub and ridiculously beautiful rock formations. Because it was closer to the desert floor the temperatures there were similar to the strip, which demanded the only option was for an early morning sunrise run. Even at 5am it was over 30c. Not easy for a boy from Fife! The views were just spectacular though:

I also got a couple of runs in along the strip, which was just about as horrible an experience as a trail runner could hope for. But it’s the kind of thing you have to do once, just because you are there.

Viva Las Vegas!

After that, I came home hoping to complete my West Highland Way triple crown of races with the Devil o’the Highlands last Saturday, but sadly it wasn’t to be as I came down with some bug the day before the race. If truth be told, I wasn’t in great shape to be running last weekend anyway, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have been happy with how it went, so perhaps a blessing in disguise for me?

Looking ahead, I’ve got the Salomon Glencoe skyline VK race in September now as my last run of the year. Before that though, UTMB happens and whilst I’m not running this year, so many of my friends are and I’m really excited for them all. IT is such an amazing event and I’d love to be there to cheer them all on.

Next year, I’m thinking I have to settle my marathon phobia and get another one under my belt. I make no claims to enjoying that race, I’d rather run 100 miles than 26.2, but I feel like I want to have one more go. Serendipity took over and a friend notified me that they had applied to Tokyo Marathon. I’d love to find a reason to force me to go to Japan, so, without further ado, I’ve put my name in the ballot for a place. Let’s see how that turns out.

こんにちは東京

West Highland Way Race 2017

It’s been too long since I last posted an update on here. Home, family, work have all had to take priority for most of this year and that statement sums up the foundation I took into my main race for the year. Then, as if poor training and lack of race experience weren’t enough, Scotland decided to throw some weather at us on the day too. And so goes the story of the 2017 West Highland Way race.

If you are not familiar with the WHW race, take a look at my blog from last year or at the race website. In summary, it is a 95 mile race along Scotland’s most famous long distance trail. It has a unique status in the running community due to the awesomeness of the achievement, but also due to the family nature which the race enthuses in everyone who takes part. You can’t appreciate the sense of community until you take part, but once you do, it’s easy to see why so many people keep coming back for more.

This year, I was one of those who came back for more. After finishing in 22 hours and 49mins in 2016 and learning so much about how to run the race, I wanted to go back and see if I could apply the lessons I’ve learned and improve on that time. My two main areas of improvement were going to be about the time I spent in checkpoints and pacing the earlier sections of the race better. In 2016 I spent a couple of hours in total stopped, so I hoped that limiting any stop to 10 mins would help shave some time off. I was supported this year by two friends from Falkland Trail Runners, Carole and Susan, who were just amazing.  We spent some time before the race going through the details of how I wanted to approach it and, feeling prepared, we arrived in Milngavie at 9:30pm on Friday night.

My fabulous support crew before the race

After registration, I curled up on the back seat of Carole’s car and had a couple of hours sleep before the race. The 1am start time is the first challenge the race throws at you. Like most runners, life has to keep going and I’d been up since 6am with William, then a few hours work until lunchtime followed by some last minute preparations. By the time Friday evening arrived, I’d already had a full day under my belt so a 95 mile race was going to be tough. And it was.

I caught up with a bunch of running friends at the start line before the gun went off, then it was away into the darkness ahead of us. The early sections are straightforward enough and allow you to settle into the race. I was happy with my pace as we neared the Glengoyne distillery, but then a twinge in my right calf was a familiar feeling and, as I feared, before long the twinge turned into the sharp pain of a calf tear. I stopped at the side of the trail easing it out with some stretches and hoped it wasn’t as bad as I feared. It didn’t ease up so I started to walk it off, knowing I had to move forwards anyway. As I moved, I found that I could manage a hobbled walk, then a light jog, but my calf wasn’t happy. Meeting my crew at Drymen, I explained what had happened and they showed me exactly why I’d chosen them. They patted me on the back and said ok, see you at Balmaha, let’s see how you are feeling there.

Last year the weather was a crystal clear day right from the start, meaning the night-time section was run against a backdrop of clear night skies full of stars and the mid-summer sun rising early, meaning head torches were off long before Conic hill. This year was much different with grey skies overhead, that early sunshine was obscured meaning the torch stayed on until Balmaha. I tried turning it off on the way down Conic hill but immediately stumbled on a rock and rolled an ankle on the same leg as my calf. Now I felt completely justified in feeling sorry for my self. I kept moving forwards knowing food and a few minutes rest was waiting for me at the bottom of the hill. My crew were amazing again. Porridge was waiting for me, fresh water bottles and gels, then a push in the back and told to get going.

Loch Lomond from Conic Hill

By the time I reached Rowardennan I was in a poor state. My leg was still hurting and to exacerbate things, I’d become slack in my food intake thinking the CP was closer than it was. As I reached the girls, I was doing my best junkie impression looking as white as a ghost and shivery. More food, some paracetamol and some strapping, then the now familiar push in the back and a hug and I was off again.

The loch side section from Rowardennan to beyond Inversnaid has been my nemesis in every one of the three races I’ve run on the WHW so far. It is a gnarly, root and rock laden trail which feels impossible to me to maintain speed over. For whatever reason, I found it enjoyable this year. I felt like I managed to keep some momentum and the food I’d had at Rowardennan and the tablets had put paid to my aches. A quick pit stop at Inversnaid for some water and before I knew it I was running into Beinglas and my anxious crew. My smiles as I arrived put us all at rest and it was time to get moving up to Auchtertyre.

Anaethetists

My Anaesthetists for the race – Carole and Susan

 

As I passed Crianlarich, the weather started to turn. It had been grey and cool with a little wind so far, which made it a) perfect running weather and b) the perfect antidote to midges who had pestered us here last year. As I came into the checkpoint at Auchtertyre, the rain and wind started and the mood of the race was changed. I reached Auchtertyre in 11h 21m, which was almost 30 minutes slower than last year. The injuries earlier in the race had put a big dent in my hopes of a faster time, but things were going ok now, so I settled into my run. The section from here to Bridge of Orchy is generally quite fast so I knew that it would be a confidence boost if I can make it through that without any more problems.

Arriving into Bridge of Orchy

By the time I reached my team at Bridge of Orchy I felt like I was on cloud nine. I’d had a great run, taking 2h 23m, which given the driving rain and headwind we were all running into, I was happy despite being a further 10 mins slower than last year. My running was settled, I felt good about drink and calorie intake. These long races mean that you have to ride the lows to get to the highs.

Next up was Rannoch Moor. This long, desolate stretch of path was miserable last year because of the dehydrating high temperatures and lack of places to hide from the sun. This year, I was begging for that sunshine to come back as a biting northerly wind took hold of the heavy rain and turned it into a weapon against everyone one of us crossing that barren landscape. Determined to get through it, I was faster over this section this year by 15 mins. Sheltering in the car in the car park at Glencoe was like a haven from the horrible conditions. After some more food and a change of clothing into full on cold weather gear, I was kicked out of the car and sent on my way.

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From the 2017 wild weather collection on the Devils Staircase

 

My crew met me at the bottom of the devil’s staircase. The run from the ski center to this point had been horrible. The wind and rain had increased and Glencoe is a bleak place when weather like that is blowing through. There was nobody ahead or behind me in sight so it felt continually more and more isolating. Carole and Susan came up the staircase with me encouraging me on which I was hugely grateful for. I left them about half way up so they could get around to Kinlochleven in time for me. As I went over the top of the hill, I rolled my right ankle again for the second time. This time it wasn’t something I could run off. I’d slipped on some wet rock and was struggling to keep upright in the high wind. I kept moving and eventually limped down to Kinlochleven in just over 3 hours, 20 minutes slower than last year.

Soup-er food for runners

With warm soup waiting for me and the knowledge that there was ‘only’ Lairig Mor left to do, I wasn’t going to give up here. Some strapping for my ankle helped, as did a change into dry clothes, some clean socks and a different pair of trainers with more grip. The by now familiar kick up the arse and sent on my way was administered and I promised to see the girls in Fort William.

The climb out of Kinlochleven is always longer and steeper than I remember it being. It was tough and then, just as you reach the top, you step into the driving rain that you’d been protected from as you climbed up through the trees. From this point onwards, there was only one story and it involved the weather. I was tired, cold, wet, hurting and long out into the distance was that lonely track. Half way across it was Jeff Smith and his Wilderness emergency team, looking out for people like me stupid enough to be crossing that lonely place in exactly these kinds of conditions. He took this photo which gives you a sense of what we were dealing with:

Lairig Mor. Pic courtesy of Jeff Smith

There was so much rain, the rocky track was inches deep in water and it was like running through a river. Lundavra eventually appeared on the horizon and I was so happy to know that the worst was over. The trail from Lundavra through to Glen Nevis used to be a pleasant experience but recent forestry work with some heavy machinery has put paid to that. In the darkness, one section of trail appeared to end as it went head first into knee deep tracks left behind by a digger of some sort. The familiar trees were gone which made for a disorientating experience for those of us who knew that area. Finally, the last small climb to the fire road which winds down through Glen Nevis was in front of me and I could see the head torches of other people ahead of me for the first time in hours.

It turned out that some of those torches were from my crew who had come out to meet me as they were so worried after seeing my ankle at KLL. I was over the moon to see a friendly face after the experience of Lairig Mor. I explained that it was downhill all the way and that I had something like 48 minutes to get in under 24 hours and, providing my ankle would let me, I was planning on going fast down the track all the way to the finish. I’m not sure they quite expected it, but running 5min\km downhill at the tail end of a 95 mile ultra wasn’t quite what they were expecting.

Sadly, it wasn’t enough and I crossed the line in 24hrs and 2 mins. It didn’t matter one bit though, I was so happy to have finished given how tough things had been throughout the day. I know that if it hadn’t been for my crew, I would have given up on the race early in the day and missed the opportunity to finish. They were amazing and I will be forever grateful to them. Races of this length require more than just physical fitness. You can plan for things going well, but you have to accept when things don’t go well and disrupt that plan. The experience of doing this kind of race is incredible and as someone reminded me at Bridge of Orchy, there is a world full of people who can’t imagine what it is like to complete something like this and we are all doing this on their behalf. I feel proud of finishing this tough race twice in respectable times. All the people involved in making it happen contribute to those of us lucky enough to run in it and I say a huge thank you to all of you.

Proud to receive my 2nd race goblet

The award ceremony on Sunday morning was another emotional experience. The winner, Rob Sinclair, set a new astounding course record of 13h 41m. An incredible performance which is really difficult to comprehend how it is achieved. The final finisher finished 20 minutes before the ceremony and was handed her goblet by the winner, as is the tradition of this race, and was given a standing ovation by everyone in the hall as a mark of respect.

Now, it’s time to recover. I put my body through some serious conditions on Saturday and I suspect it is going to take a lot of time to recover. That’s ok though. I’m happy to relax, take the time to recover and be satisfied with what I’ve achieved.

My fabulous crew who deserve the goblet as much as I do

 

California Dreaming

Sunshine, healthy food, mountains…It’s hard not to like California.

I have just come back from a work trip to Los Angeles and I’m once again smitten by this beautiful part of the world. To be honest, downtown LA does very little for me, but the coastline and mountains surrounding the city fill me with smiles.

Due to the way my travel plans worked out, I was lucky to get a day at either end of my trip where I had the opportunity to head out onto the trails. After arriving late on a Saturday night and staying at a hotel in LA, I’d already planned my Sunday morning. In the Santa Monica mountains, there is the Trail Runners Club who meet Saturday and Sunday mornings, this particular Sunday they had a scheduled club run along the same Mandeville Canyon ridgeline I ran a couple of years ago when I visited LA. As well as a phenomenal trail run, the weekend I was there they had Mira Rai from the Salomon team visiting too, so I got to meet the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year!

Mira Rai Selife

Mira Rai Selife

The run was just wonderful, it was the perfect antidote to my 8 hour jet lag. They have had a whole load of rain this winter in LA, but for the days I was up there in those mountains, the sun shone and it felt amazing to be running in warm conditions again.

Sunshine over LA

Sunshine over LA

The trail runners club were an incredibly friendly bunch and if you are ever in the Santa Monica\LA area, I can highly recommend taking the time to meet up with them for a run. They are a fun bunch and have some incredible trails on their doorstep. The run was pretty tough, a 19km ridge with loads of single track heaven and over 700m of up and down. Perfect start to the trip.

The next morning, due to a combination of jet lag being on my side and meetings not starting until later in the day, I plotted a run in the San Gabriel mountains, picking up a 10km stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). This icnonic long distance route trails all the way up the west coast of America and covers some incredible territory. The stretch I had started at about 1000m elevation and climbed gradually over 10km to 1700m. The area it cuts through was a burn zone and the whole place was a barren, charred landscape. There was some evidence of new growth starting to emerge, but on the whole it was a lonely feeling place.

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Swarthout Canyon on the PCT

After this, I had five days of work where the best I could hope for was some hard pavements looping around the convention center where I was based. Before I took my flight hom though, I had an afternoon spare and didn’t hesitate to jump in the car and head back to the Santa Monica mountains with a guy I’d met in the previous Sunday run with the club. Bizarrely, the worst rain storm for decades blew through the area at exactly the point when we were heading out onto the trails from Will Rogers park up the backbone ridge trail. It was so torrential I didn’t both to even try to take my phone with me, so no pictures sadly. I can say though that it was another incredible trail to run and I felt very envious of those people who have it on their doorstep.

Flash flooding in Santa Monica

Flash flooding in Santa Monica

It was a great week, not just because of the great running opportunity I had. It did feel good though getting in a couple of long runs in some big countryside. I felt like my running was coming back and much more relaxed as a consequence.

2017 Training Vibes

Here we go again, folks. Happy New Year to both of my readers. 2016 was an excellent vintage for running in the end, but now it’s time to get 2017 up and running in preparation for what lies ahead.

I’ve been reading a book since the start of December called “Beyond Training“. It’s been an interesting book which has given me some inspiration for how to approach my training for this year’s races. I liked it, mainly because it takes a fairly holistic view on how to improve performance.

There are a couple of the main areas the book highlights which I plan to adopt in my approach to training this year, and I’ll talk about those in a minute. I’ve wanted to shake things up for a while, as my training recently has been more a case of simply stepping out of the door to run as frequently as I can afford to. Inevitably, this leads to a situation where I can continue to complete races, but my ability to improve in them feels like it is becoming more and more limited. I think that, most, if not all runners reach this point from time to time. So I believe it’s important to not allow yourself to settle for what is, but to think about how to evolve and give yourself an opportunity to improve. What I liked about this book is that it isn’t a strict regime to follow, it’s more of a collection of things which can contribute to improved performance. Here’s me take away list of things I’m going to use this year

80/20 Training

The book talks about how most amateur athletes, and I do feel weird using that term about myself, think that they have a structured approach to training and split sessions into high and low intensity. The sprint session, the long Sunday run, the mid week tempo etc. In reality, the author claims that the probability is the high intensity sessions are not high enough and the low intensity are not low enough. The consequences of this are that muscles don’t recover strong enough between sessions, training effect plateus after a while and there is a long term risk in endurance sports of health issues if this type of training carries on for a long time.

He advocates for a more polarised view of training, one where 80% is done at very low intensity, or zone 2 as most of us know it in heart rate training categories. The other 20% should be done at high intensity, zone 4 & 5 in short periods to provide a truly differentiated training effect. He still recognises the need for long runs for endurance, but these should be done in the 80% category and at low intensity. All this makes sense to me as an ultra runner.

This translates for me, into an approach where I have dug out my HR monitor strap for my Suunto and put it to good use. My runs over the past three weeks (The week where I was almost killed by Man-fly aside!) have been mostly slow, steady paced affairs in Z2. It is damned hard to stay at such a low HR. Zone 2 for me is around 120-149bpm, so aiming for an average of something around 130bpm is pretty tough to maintain, considering my comfortable running pace has me at around 160bpm. It’s a marginal difference in HR, but I can see how it has an impact already. I’ve enjoyed the lower intensity much more and it gives me time to settle into a run without pressure to go faster, which is what I would normally be doing, at least mentally, if not physically.

Cross Training

This has been a huge hole in my training over the past couple of years. I’ve fallen into the trap of thinking that simply going out and running a high volume of miles is enough. It isn’t. Therefore I need to do something different. The book talks a lot about high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, and the need to develop strength and endurance in many forms, and not just activity specific training.

My plan is to do two things, firstly, twice a week I am going to do an HIIT session. One for running and one for general strength work. The running will take the form of hill repeats or sprint intervals, and the strength work will be focused on core, abs, and leg strength. I found the annoyingly good looking and fit “The Body Coach” recently. His 20-25min sessions are a perfect workout and are currently doing the trick for me. I mix them up to get a range of exercise, but they immediately highlight my weakness in strength terms and I’m intrigued to see the results of sticking to this for a month or two over the start of this year.

The second adaptation I’m making is to introduce yoga back into my routine. I used to practice yoga a lot before I ran, but strangely I haven’t returned to it since my running has taken off. The flexibility it provides and also the stress eliminating aspect of it is probably exactly what I need at the moment. My life is pretty hectic with family and works responsibilities, and I feel it in the way of tightness in my neck, shoulders and upper spine. My hips are also rock solid and need to see daylight again, so I’m hoping 3-4 sessions of yoga a week will make a big difference too. Nothing crazy, just a 30-minute program early morning to wake up and stretch out those bits of me which don’t normally get a stretch.

Diet and Lifestyle

My diet has been, in general, pretty good over the past few years. At home, we naturally eat an organic, mainly veggie and even vegan diet, without trying too hard. Alcohol is a rare treat these days and post-Christmas, I’m ready to stay dry for several months in the interest of improving my fitness. My two main weaknesses are sugar and caffeine. I can consume both in considerable quantities and I know they are really bad for me. It is going to take discipline to eliminate them from my diet and I think wholesale reduction might be more achievable for now.

The book also talks about nutrition in some detail and the supplements that can help with specific training impact. Last summer I used to make myself a fresh smoothie every day and add into it vitamin C, zinc, a micro-nutrient mix and some milled flax seed. My ever patient partner, Nichola, who is an avid nutritionist has been pressing me to take a whole range of nutrient supplements for a long time, so it’s time for me to start to listen to her, which I’m certain she will relish for the “I told you so” opportunity.

Sleep is a major factor in recovery too, which most people know. The book talks about many things which influence sleep, including blue light which we get from all the many devices and computers we use. I’m now the proud owner of a pair of glasses which filters out that blue light, in an effort to help improve sleep when it comes. Minimising phone use and a bunch of other things will also play a part, but I already know that is harder to achieve.

I also own a Compex machine, which I bought last year to help with minor muscle injuries. They promote blood flow amongst many other things and are a useful addition to the training plan. I’ve started to use mine a couple of times a week to help with strength building in certain muscle groups. They are low impact sessions from a cardio perspective, so they fit with my overall 80/20 plan, and again, I will see how it impacts me over time.

The only other thing I’m hoping to do in modification of my training this year is to spend more time out in the hills on my long runs. I suffered greatly in TDS last year due to the lack of appropriate training for mountainous races. I’m determined to make an impact on this over the coming months, so hopefully I will have some adventures to share with you soon.