UTMB TDS preparation

We are in Chamonix at the moment as I prepare to take on the TDS race, part of the UTMB race event. I’m here with Nichola and William for a long overdue two week holiday and we are loving it. The race is just under a week away now and I’ve been getting a few practice runs in this week before it’s time to put my feet up and relax for a few days before the start.

All smiles in Chamonix

All smiles in Chamonix

As anyone who has spent any time in Chamonix will tell you, it is a trail running paradise here. The options for running seem endless, but I’ve tried to focus my runs this week on segments of the course and some climbing to get my legs into work mode. The route is 116km long with almost 8000m of vertical to deal with up and down.

TDS Race Profile

TDS Race Profile

Over the last week, I’ve been able to get out and run almost everything in the race from Col Est de la Gitte onwards. To say my training leading up to this hasn’t gone well would be an understatement. Since the WHW race, a combination of prioritising family and work have meant I’ve barely run more than 30km per week since June. Thankfully, my legs seem to have done well despite that and I dare say my WHW race was great preparation and that I’ve just been ticking over ever since.

With 5 days left before the start, I’m starting to feel more confident. I’ve seen and felt what a lot of those hard climbs are like now and I’ve got into a mental state that I need to in order to get through the race. I’m disappointed that I haven’t trained more, but things are how they are and I’m here and ready to race, so I just have to give it my best shot.

I’m hoping for a sub-24hr finish, but with all those sharp, pointy hills to get over, who knows. I like uphill running and I seem to cope with long, persistent climbs in this kind of environment well, so I should do ok. I’ve got a dogged feel about me now that means I might just do ok in this race.

Until then though, we are enjoying the warmth of the alpine sunshine. We are taking in the sights of these spectacular mountains and we are enjoying time together. Who cares how the race goes when you have all that?

Bionnassay

Book Review – Between the Sunset and the Sea by Simon Ingram

We live quite close to St Andrews on the east coast of Scotland and one of the finds of the century from my perspective was a book shop there called Topping & Co. It’s a traditional, independent bookshop that seems to be successfully sticking two fingers up to the rest of the publishing world and defying the trend for digital reading punishing book sellers. Whenever we pay a visit to St Andrews a visit to Topping & Co. is mandatory and always a treat and usually ends up with me walking out with at least one book. They have tables laid out brimming with books sitting between walls which are filled from floor to ceiling with the marvellous objects and ladders attached to the shelving which always suggests a proper bookshop to me. I’ve been guilty of trending towards a kindle for years. Let’s face it, they are handy devices enabling you to carry around an entire library without noticing. However, a book is something to cherish, to have in your hands and admire; some more than others.

On a recent visit, a book caught my eye sitting on one of the tables. I’m a sucker for anything to do with Mountains, Scotland, running or adventure and this book had 3 out of the four and arguably would enable the fourth, running, by association. The book is called “Between the Sunset and the Sea”, quite an evocative title I’d argue if you’ve ever spent any time on a mountain. It is written by Simon Ingram who is editor at Trail magazine in the UK and who knows a thing or two about mountains despite his bashful suggestions otherwise in the book. The short summary of the book is that it’s a personal account by Simon of his time exploring 16 of the UK’s mountains. Now if like me you’ve been puzzled for years about what constitutes a mountain, then this might be reason number one to read the book. As Simon describes, there isn’t an official classification and anyone who has spent time in mountainous areas outside the UK knows that our mountains are significantly lacking in the height category compared to some others. However, as Simon points out, height is just one qualification, there are lots of others and each of the ones he describes have some quality or other than I challenge you to declare them not to be worth of the title. In his words, if it looks a mountain and feels like a mountain, then it is one.

As I mention, the book describes 16 different mountains across the UK. There is a natural inequality in favour of Scottish hills given the geography of the UK, but there is a fair number from other vertically gifted areas which give a fabulous insight for those of us who haven’t had the opportunity to explore them. Simon describes each one in several different ways, with each chapter presenting a new mountain and an underlying theme. Schiehallion is a good example, a largely triangular shaped hill in Perthshire which is somewhat famous for being used in a scientific study in the 1700’s in an attempt to determine the weight of the planet. Our man explores the history of such subjects, gets under the skin of the main people involved and develops an often witty commentary of events and their outcomes. In parallel, Simon explores the hill in question with a specific, related, purpose in mind.

I love the style of Simon’s writing. It has an honesty that I think anyone who enjoys time in wild places will appreciate and I found it really easy to associate with the scenes he describes. I won’t describe all the 16 chapters, as that would stop you from buying the book and enjoying it for yourself, but I will call out a couple of favourite sections. The first is his description of a meeting with a mountain guide from Snowdonia who is describing to him, over a pint, the scramble up Crib Goch, a ridge towards the summit of Snowdon which sounds like some dragons back of gnarly pinnacles and terrifying drops to a near certain death. The guide sounds like the kind of weather beaten, stony eyed man we’ve probably all comes across at some stage in life. In the kind of calm, experienced way mountain people have, the guide talks about how mountain rescue call outs would likely fall by 80% if the ridge didn’t exist, setting the tone for an adventure with spine chilling excitement. Another section describes Simon’s first experience of a midge attack in the Scottish Highlands and introduces me to a pithy comment that will live with me forever “A midge attack has two phases: The first phase where you are afraid you might die and the second phase where you worry that you might not”. You will only really appreciate that statement if you’ve ever experienced a full scale assault by midges in one of their strongholds in the highlands.

As well as honest humour, the book also provides some interesting insights into geology, meteorology, history and social culture surrounding the mountains. If you are in any way interested in mountains, the great outdoors or anything remotely related to them. I strongly encourage you to buy and read this book. It’s the kind of book I want to give to people in the future as a gift who deserve it from having a similar affection for outdoor life as I do. I loved this book and didn’t want it to end and I sincerely hope Simon continues to write and produce more like this. If you enjoy running in these types of environments like I do, whilst the book as no reference to running, I challenge you to read the book and then not have an immediate and growing urge to get out and find a remote mountain to run up and enjoy. I’ve got my eye on An Teallach as my next adventure, it’s the star of chapter 10, the Wilderness chapter. Here’s a link to the book on Amazon in the UK, let me know if you read it and enjoyed it.

West Highland Way Race 2016

I’ve been thinking about how I’m going to write this blog post for months.

With a race like this which covers 95 miles and 14000+ft of elevation, it is really difficult to find the right words, but here goes. But first, here’s the obligatory picture of my prize: The West Highland Way Race goblet.

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Pre-Race I was at times a nervous wreck and at other times just happily looking forward to getting out on the trail and enjoying the day. Despite this being my longest race\run I’ve done, I was probably the most calm for any of the races I’ve done. I’d had a busy week leading up to race day. Monday I flew to Munich and arrived after midnight, then a crap sleep in a hotel, long day in the office, flew home on Tuesday night arriving in Edinburgh close to midnight. It wasn’t exactly ideal a few days before a big race like this, but then most of my prep for the race hadn’t been either, so I figured I had nothing to lose.

For support I had a couple of guys from the Lomies helping me out, Laurie and Kevin. Laurie, who is a veteran of the race, brought his grandson Tyler along for the experience too. We were using Laurie’s motor home which was a god send throughout the weekend. We arrived in Milngavie for registration at 9pm, then afterwards I climbed up into a bunk and slept for a couple of hours. Laurie woke me just after 12 and before I knew it I was toeing the start line alongside a number of other running friends after a quick selfie with my running buddy Scott.

Nervous smiles before the start

Nervous smiles before the start pic: Lisa Robb

 

After a nice and steady start there was a big group shuffling along the path heading out of Milngavie when a cry went up from behind….”WRONG WAY!!!”. Someone up the front had been running with their head down and passed one of the WHW marker posts. Thankfully someone behind us knew where we were going. I found out this afternoon (Monday) when I went for a coffee with my mate Scott who was also running, that it was him who led us all astray…ha ha!

After that mild drama, I settled into a nice slow and steady pace and enjoyed the running. Drymen came and went quickly enough, then the short distance to Conic Hill allowed the sun to start it’s rise and by the top of the hill we were back into daylight again.

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Balmaha was the first official check point and Laurie was there waiting with fresh bottles of tailwind for me. A quick bite of flapjack and I was back off running again. I almost took a wrong turn and headed directly to the loch side, but thankfully someone set me straight and I was off towards Rowardennan.

By the time I reached Rowardennan, two things had happened. The first was that I’d remembered how much I disliked the loch side section. The second was that the midgies had woken up. Seemingly someone had told them that 199 sweaty runners and all their friends were coming to pay a visit and that it was free food day for midgies. I’ve been in the Highlands lots of times but have never seen swarms of midgies like it. It felt like we were running through a giant swarm of them for 3 hours. It wasn’t until long after Beinglas farm that the little bastards decided it was getting too hot for them and they were grounded for the rest of the day.

Meanwhile, in terms of running, the route used a low section of the WHW path along the loch which turned out to be gnarly, rocky and miserable just when your legs are already starting to feel tired. Knowing there was probably another 60 or so miles to go, it was also pretty mentally demoralising and I didn’t do well on this section at all.  By the time we emerged out past Dario’s post and towards the farm, I was ready for some of the more open trails that I knew lay ahead.

The section from Beinglas to Auchtertyre in the Fling just over a year ago seemed to last forever, thankfully on Saturday it seemed to come and go in a flash. Before I knew it I was passing under the A82, cow poo alley came and went and then the roller coaster near Crianlarich. By the time I hit the road crossing at the A82 again, I was feeling more human again and the misery of the loch side section was behind me. I reached Auchtertyre in 10h 52mins. This was way behind my target times for a 20hour finish, but I knew it wasn’t terrible and was happy to just go with the flow from here. I managed to meet John Kynaston at this CP who has been doing the WHW podcast series that I’ve been taking part in. It was great to meet John finally and I’m looking forward to being interviewed again later this week for the final podcast of this year.

From Auchtertyre, it was a short loop around Tyndrum before heading out toward Bridge of Orchy. This section climbs a little out of Tyndrum, but then has long stretches of easily runnable downhill path. I felt great here. I’d had some soup from the support crew back at Auchtertyre which gave me a big lift. I’d had a swill down to rinse off the sweat and midgie paste that had covered me. Life was good.

By Bridge of Orchy the sun was beating down and any breeze that had been around was now gone. It was getting hot. After another few minutes with the crew at the checkpoint, Kev offered to run Rannoch moor with me which I was happy to accept. He tried his best to keep my spirits up, but the heat was starting to get to me and I quickly drained all my water bottles. By the time we reached Ba Bridge, I was in a pretty poor state. Kev clambered down to fill up my bottles from the burn, and it helped a lot, but I wasn’t in the mood for even attempting a run. We slowly moved towards Glencoe, but everyone looked to be in the same situation.

Kev doing his best to keep me moving

Kev doing his best to keep me moving Pic: Ian Minty

A couple of runners were being pushed on by their support runners. As inspiring as it was, I also suspected it was still too early in the race to push that hard and later saw most of them towards the finish, struggling to keep any sort of momentum going.

I had a good rest at Glencoe and took it all in. I knew I would finish from here, it was always a mantra I had in my head. I was there in just over 16 hours which was over 2hrs behind my plan. It still meant that I could make the finish in under 24hrs if I put some effort in. With two big climbs still left to go, it wasn’t going to be easy, but off I went.

My team met me at the bottom of the Devils Staircase to cheer me on. Despite feeling tired I still had good climbing speed with a power hike once I got moving. The weather was still wonderful and it was about 6pm at night now. With the sun shining off the hills, I couldn’t have wished for better scenery to spur me on.

Before the climb up the Devils Staircase

Before the climb up the Devils Staircase pic: Kev Smith

 

If I thought the climb up was bad, the descent down into Kinlochleven was horrible. It was one of the sections I thought I knew, but I know now that I really didn’t. I was long, rocky and made me wish I was at the finish. I remember from the Caley Challenge last year that the rocky section would end moving in this northerly direction, at the top of the fire road which leads up from the town. I remember the junction well and it was a relief to see it come into view. Then the long sweeping descent into Kinlochleven began. Once I crossed the river and headed out on to the road, the town had an eerie silence to it. There was nobody there. Where were the support crews, the cars and vans? Where was the race weigh in station I was expecting? All kinds of strange things filled my head about what was going on, then some kind lady screamed at me to go down the road and turn left.

There waiting for me was more warm soup, a change of top and of course the rest of the race support. It’s amazing how your mind plays tricks on you after hours of running.

With the weigh in done and my weight all normal, I headed out towards the big climb out of the town up on to Lairigmor. Laurie came along with me for most of this and was great. My legs were starting to seize up and it wasn’t until I was well into the climb did they feel useful again. Once up on the moor, I knew I had about 15 miles still left to do. I shuffled along, determined to keep momentum going. By now it was over 19hours in to the race. If I wanted to get in under 24hrs I had to keep moving. If I wanted to get in under 23hrs, then I had to open my legs a bit and run as much as I could.

It was just about this point when I’d worked it out that some runners came flying past me. At first I thought they were relay runners but I later discovered that they weren’t. It was guys being pushed on hard by their support crews. Similar to when I’d seen it on Rannoch Moor, these guys would later suffer from going too fast and I think I ultimately finished ahead of all of them.

The stretch across Lairigmor is painful. Aside from the obvious fatigue, the path seems to have eroded away quite heavily from the last time I was there and the rocks make it a challenge to keep any kind of pace. How the guys up the front managed to maintain speed over it just adds to my admiration for their abilities. This whole rocky trail simply compounds the magic trick that the WHW has in store for you at this point. That is of course that around every corner, there is always another long, lonely stretch of path awaiting for you that extends long into the distance. Just when you think you are done and that Lundavra can only be a mere matter of meters away, another 2 miles of trail weaves its way across the landscape ahead of you.

Eventually, you reach the wilderness response team and they do their best to lift your spirits with a drink and some hearty encouragement. Then Lundavra appears and you know it isn’t far to go now. The guys there fired up The Proclaimers as I approached and it was great to hear the cheers after such a long stretch out in the wild.

After Lundavra, I had an hour to get to the finish if I wanted to do this in under 23hrs.

I knew that between me and a time I’d be overjoyed with, I had some ups and downs to go before a long climb up to the top of Glen Nevis. then a long descent to the Braveheart car park and finally about a mile on the road. I knew that if I could keep moving to the top of Glen Nevis, my legs were in a decent state and I could give it some welly* going down hill.

(* this is said within the context of being 90 miles in to a 95 mile race. Giving it some welly is something close to watching a geriatric getting off a bus) in this instance)

The big fire road eventually came into sight. The head torch was on by now and that felt like another milestone opportunity missed; to finish without requiring a head torch for a second time. The downhill opened up and in my mind I was motoring now. A look at my watch and it was 22hrs15. A thought crossed my mind that I could make it with a slow shuffle, but I quickly did away with that. My legs were moving, my hips and quads felt strong, why shouldn’t I go for it? Opening my legs felt great and I came down as fast as I could in the dark. The road seemed to go on for so much longer than I remember it. On and on and on. Then eventually the car park and then the road. My memory of where the car park is compared to the small round about was also suspect I later discovered. Keep running, stretch the legs. Before I knew it, the WHW Race yellow painted arrows on the road led me into the leisure center and I dibbed in at 22hrs 49mins 36sec.

Jubilation, exhilaration, epic, overjoyed, overwhelmed. All words that need to be involved with describing how I felt. I remember someone thrusting a bit of paper with my times on it then the next thing I remember was being in the showers and wondering how the hell could I, a guy who could barely lift his arse off the sofa a few years ago, could run the WHW, in a race, and do it under 23 hours. I’m blown away and even sitting here now writing this it isn’t sinking in.

My crew helped me get over a wobbly spell after a shower, then I had a massage from the team involved with the race who were amazing. Before long I was in the camper van, tucked up in a sleeping bag, dreaming about rocky trails.

I need to learn how to smile for photos

I’m almost as big as the WHW! Pic: Ross Lawrie

Race presentation came and went and marked the end of the weekend in style. My goblet is the most treasured thing I’ve ever earned and I suspect I won’t appreciate that fully for some time yet. I realised over the weekend how lucky I am to be able to do this type of thing. So many people can’t, not because they don’t want to, but because something gets in their way. I’m lucky, I have my health and I have amazing people who help and support me and it makes it possible to complete epic adventures like this and I will be forever grateful.

I am also grateful to everyone involved in the race for making it such an incredible event. The support throughout the day was amazing, everyone was so passionate about making you feel good and cheering you on. You couldn’t wish for a better day.

I said at the time I wouldn’t do it again. It’s easy to think that when your body is at a stage of collapse. Let’s wait and see. 🙂

Huge congratulations to James Stewart who won in 15h 15m and to Lizzie Wrath who was first lady in 17h 42m. Incredible performances from those and everyone who finished, well done to you all and congratulations.

I was delighted with my race overall. Lots of things I’d do differently, but I think you have to experience it once to know those things and I will perhaps write them up in another blog post soon. I didn’t get the 20 hours I was hoping for, but I always knew 24 hours was probably more realistic and it felt like the right challenge for me on the day. I tried to keep smiling all the way through but it was tough in places, but getting that goblet at the presentation certainly made me smile and forget about some of those low points.

I also finished the podcast series that I’ve been doing with John Kynaston the week after the race. All the episodes can be found on the WHW race website.

WHW Race Planning

It’s just about a month to go now until I take part in the West Highland Way race and I thought it is worth sharing the planning that I’m doing for this epic race. I’m really, really looking forward to it and feeling really positive. I missed out on Transvulcania a couple of weeks ago as I had some work commitments come up which I had to prioritise. My friend Scott Robb still went and ran that race and had a hellish time, but I dare say the experience will now help him focus on the WHW.

West Highland Way

West Highland Way

Given the WHW is the longest race I’ve done to date, it’s difficult to know exactly what to plan for in this race, but here is an overview of some of the things outside of everyday training that I’m thinking about:

Race Goals

I have a number of goals for the race which dictate a lot about how other aspects will work. Here’s a summary:

  1. Finish in under 20 hours – This is an incredible time for a race like this, and might be a naïve goal on my part. Nonetheless, I’m planning for it or else I will never pull it off.
  2. Finish in under 24 hours – This is my 2nd target if #1 goes wrong. I feel more comfortable about this, but I want to focus on #1 but accept #2 if it happens
  3. Finish in under 30 hours – I discovered that this is the time limit which earns you the right to put in for an entry for the lottery for WS100. Now that might be an ridiculous thought, but I’m going for it anyway. Therefore, under 30 hours is a must and I’ll be really disappointed with myself if I am at this end of the time spectrum.
  4. Pace myself – For any of the above to happen, I have to nail my race pace. More on this later.
  5. Smile – I want to go through the whole race with a smile on my face. My training hasn’t been perfect and I know I’m not going to win the race. Therefore, I want to be happy and enjoy the experience for what it is.

Pacing

To achieve anything I have to be really diligent about my pace. Over the past year as my fitness has improved my average pace has got much faster and my endurance longer, so there will be a temptation to put that new horse power to the test from the start. I know though that, if I want to have a finish that doesn’t make me look like someone returning from the front line, I need to start off slow and steady.

To understand how slow, I took a look at last years splits for the race. Given my sub 20hr target, I focused on the guys that achieved that time last year and how they got to it. A couple of things jumped out. Firstly, most of the top twenty runners maintained roughly their position throughout the race. They started strong and powered through at the end. A small number though started really slow and then slowly moved up the pack as others started to fade. I want to try to emulate that approach as I think it will work best for me.

I took one guy who finished in 8th place, Johnny Fling, the master of the Hoka Highland Fling. He ran a great race. At CP1 he was in 41st place, then worked his way through the field, CP by CP:

35th, 27th, 22nd, 16th, 14th, 10th, 8th.

His average pace for the race was just over 10min\km, but his pace for each segment was roughly 30sec’s slower than everyone else in the top 10 final positions, yet he finished 8th! All because of consistency of pace. So, after looking at average paces per segment from the 15 guys who dipped in under 20hrs in 2015, here is my pace table with associated times I want to try to hit:

CP Distance KM Pace min\km Segment Time Race Time Stops
Balmaha 30 00:06:30 03:15:00 03:15:00 00:05:00
Rowardenan 13 00:07:00 01:31:00 04:46:00
Beinglas 24 00:07:30 03:00:00 07:46:00 00:05:00
Auchtertyre 15 00:07:30 01:52:30 09:38:30 00:05:00
BoO 14 00:08:00 01:52:00 11:30:30 00:05:00
Glencoe 18 00:07:30 02:15:00 13:45:30 00:05:00
Kinlochleven 16 00:08:30 02:16:00 16:01:30 00:10:00
Fort William 22 00:08:30 03:07:00 19:08:30
19:08:30 0:35:00
Finish Time 19:43:30

Food

Tailwind. Mostly. This is one of the things I suspect my newbie status at this distance will catch me out on. I have used tailwind quite a bit now and it always seems to work for me. I also use chia bars for the sensation of eating something solid. As I’ll talk about later, I want my CP strategy to be fast and simple, so I don’t plan on hanging around at any point. So I’m planning on making up several bottles of tailwind and making sure I carry two chia bars as backup between each CP. I might have a bowl of cereal or porridge on stand by at one or two of the CP’s in case I am needing something more substantial.

CP’s

In and out fast. No loitering, no sitting about in chairs. Over the ultras I’ve done so far I’ve got progressively better at passing through checkpoints rather than stopping at them. I know that as this race plays out I’m going to get hellishly tired and the temptation of sitting down at Kinlochleven (KLL) and having fish and chips will be strong. However, I’m determined to try to run a really good race and so will try to push myself out and walk on from CP’s whilst eating something rather than stand or sit around. I put in my plan for a 10 mins stop at KLL, I want to think of that as a buffer though, rather than something mandatory. I am planning to change my shirt either there or at Glencoe as it will be evening time by then and I will likely want something warmer on. Adding this time into the plan gives me options.

Kit

I’m going to go with my Salomon Sense Ultra 5’s for the whole race I think. I’m enjoying running in them and unless it gets really wet and horrible between now and the race, I don’t think the extra grip of my other trail shoes will help. I bought a Salomon waist pack recently which I’m enjoying using. It carries two 500ml bottles plus enough expanding storage to fit in a light jacket and a bar or two, plus my phone. I have my trusty salomon adv skin 12 pack too which I will use if the weather is crap so I can carry extra clothes, but the plan is to be as light as possible.

Crew

This has been the hardest bit so far. I have one guy from the Lomies who has offered to help me and as a bonus he also has a camper van, which will feel like a real luxury on race day I’m sure. My road crew is just him though for the moment so I need to find one or two others to help out so he doesn’t have to take all the strain. I have two support runners signed up if I want them, although if my plan comes off, I will be within 4 hours of the race leader and so won’t be able to use a support runner. Overall though, more work needed on support crew.

Final Training

With 30 days to go from today, I need to be careful now not to get into panic mode. I haven’t had as many long runs as I would have liked to have had. However, those that I have had I’ve felt good on, so I’m not too worried. I am looking to do two more long runs on the WHW before the race. One from Glencoe towards Fort William as an out and back for about 50km. Another along the loch side section from Balmaha to Inversnaid, mainly to remind myself and familiarise myself with this trail so I can be more confident on the day. I remember in the fling last year I hated this loch section so I want to banish those thoughts before the race with a good run on that stretch.

Overall, I’m feeling good. I know I’m not going to win this as there are some seriously good runners. However, I do feel confident that if I approach this right, I have the fitness to hit my 20 hour goal and run a good race.

Race the train!

I can’t wait to watch this episode of Country File to see how Ben Mounsey gets on racing the train to the summit of Snowdon. Ben is an incredible runner and like so many fell runners, is a really nice, down to earth guy. Go and have a read of his blog, it’s pretty damn good in my view.

The secret fell running diary of Ben Mounsey aged 38 and 3/4

‘I FIND THAT THE HARDER I WORK, THE MORE LUCK I SEEM TO HAVE’ Thomas Jefferson

Running has provided me with a tremendous amount of opportunities over the last few years. I’ve been fortunate enough to represent my club, county and country at what I do best, I’ve competed in some brilliant races at home and abroad and I’m supported by three fantastic sponsors who have all helped me to achieve some amazing things. I consider myself to be a very lucky and privileged person. That said, I also know that I’ve worked extremely hard for all of my success thus far. I set myself challenging targets and do everything I can to achieve my goals. To quote the great Thomas Jefferson – ‘I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have’.
 A few weeks ago I received a phone call from one of the producers…

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Highland Fling 2016

My race plan for this year meant that I would be racing Transvulcania the week after this years Hoka Highland Fling. I hadn’t worked this out when I booked my place on Transvulcania, so I was disappointed that I wouldn’t get to go back and run this wonderful race again this year. I remember sitting at home on the evening that the entries were opened, watching social media explode as hundreds of people booked their place.

I didn’t want to miss out on the day because it is such a memorable event, so I contacted Johnny Fling to volunteer. A race of this magnitude takes a few hundred people to make it happen, most of them volunteers. I’ve helped out at my local club races on a few occasions, but this was the first big event I’ve helped on. I think everyone who takes part in these races should volunteer to help out once in a while. We all reap the benefits of the hours of time people give up for free, so it only feels fair to pay back or forward to the ultra running community.

I contacted Johnny months ago and had actually forgotten about it until a couple of weeks before. I spotted my name on the volunteer list against the Inversnaid checkpoint and because I’d noted that I had a car I was willing to use, I was to be at the start line to collect the drop bags for that checkpoint. Consequently, at 4am on Saturday morning I was in the car park at Milngavie train station a lot more relaxed than I was this time a year ago!

It was fun to see the runners preparing for the race and the mix of emotions written all over their faces. It reminded me of how much of a nervous wreck I was a year ago before the start but also how much calmer I feel now thinking about these races. Over the next couple of hours the boot of my car slowly filled up with almost 500 drop bags. If you ever wondered what a million calories look like in the boot of a BMW, this is it:

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After a race brief by Johnny from the roof of his Ding Ding transit van, the runners made their way over to the tunnel that marks the start of the West Highland Way. I admit that I was sad not to be lining up with everyone, but equally I was nervous for when I stand at the end of that underpass waiting for the start of the WHW race in 6 weeks time. 6 weeks! how the hell has that race come around so fast? More on the preparations for that in the next post.

I managed to make it to the other end of the underpass before the first wave of runners were set off. This years race attracted an impressive bunch of runners who were all in with a chance of winning this race, so it was good to see these fast guys racing off up the steps at the start.

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Once these guys were on their way, the rest of the field were released and I headed to my car for the trip up to Inversnaid. The route there from Milngavie follows the A81 for a while and I recognised a section where the WHW crosses the road, so I pulled over to catch the race leaders as they came through. It was probably about 6 to 8 miles into the race, and when they came past, they all looked fresh and fast.

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After I’d seen a number of the front runners pass through this section, I was back in the car on off up the road to Inversnaid. The road to get to this place feels remote and weaves its way between some spectacular scenery. The weather was also amazing on Saturday, which was great for us spectators, but I did wonder how the sunshine would impact the runners if it were to hang around.

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I arrived at Inversnaid and wondered if I’d discovered the wrong place. I was the only person there except for a coach load of Lochs and Glens tourists. then I realised that it was still only 7:30am and people were due at 9am. Slowly other marshals for the day started to arrive as well as the other car with the rest of the drop bags and we all set to work sorting out 800 or more assorted zip lock, carrier, lunchbox, envelopes and other various forms of drop bag. It happened surprisingly quickly, neatly laid out in rows of 50.

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We then had a while to wait for the first runners to come through. While we were waiting a long haired, bearded guy appeared out of nowhere asking if he could expect to run into people racing if he was to run south on the WHW. We explained what was happening and in return he explained what he was up to. He had run Ben Nevis on Friday and his plan was the run the three peaks challenge, by running the whole route. He planned on reaching Scafell on Wednesday and completing the whole thing within two weeks. He then dropped into the conversation that he’d just run from Canada to Argentina before waving and setting off on his way. Ultra runners come in all sorts of shapes and sizes! Best of luck Jamie.

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Inversnaid Fling Team Pic:Davy Broni

 

Just after 10am the first runners appeared on the trail. That was 4hrs and a few minutes during which they have covered 34 miles and probably at least 1000m of elevation. That would be a great marathon time over that terrain, let alone for 34 miles. All of the leaders came into the checkpoint looking like they had only just started running and those who actually stopped to refuel, were in and out within a minute. The following twenty or so runners took a similar approach, in and out within seconds. Either simply picking up gels from a bag or a quick fill of a water bottle before dashing off again. It was a real insight into how the top guys deal with CP’s in these races.

The subsequent wave of runners that came through were in a varying array of states. There were some who had paced themselves well and looked as if they were starting to climb the field, some who had set off too fast and were now starting to suffer and those who were just working hard to stay steady.

The weather kept its promise to stay fine, the runners were all incredibly friendly, thankful, graceful and smiling. It was an incredible day and I’m so glad I volunteered to help. I have a renewed respect for everyone who runs in these races. From the fast guys at the front with their clinical focus on performance, through the next tier of amateurs who work incredibly hard to fill the 10-30% of the results table. Then the rest of the field who run these things to enjoy it, to meet new people, to experience things many people never experience and do so with a smile on their face.

I hope next year I get a place in the race. I am keen to go back and see how much I’ve improved since my 11h 45m results last year. I suspect a lot, but it will be nice to see exactly how much a lot is. In the meantime, I will leap at the opportunity to help out again in this and other races. It is a wonderful experience and is just as good as taking part in the race as a competitor.

Up next for me is the WHW race. I was scheduled to run Transvulcania, but now my work has produced something which means I can’t make it there for the race. IT’s a real shame as it looks like yet another amazing ultra race, but I’m looking forward to the WHW race now and that has my sole attention.

Sunday on the WHW

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Officially, it was the first day of British Summer time. That meant that we’d had one hour less sleep due to the clocks changing, but it also makes you hope that you might get some clear, sunny weather. But this is Scotland, in March, on the West Highland Way. We had wind, rain, sleet, hail, snow and some sunshine. But nevertheless, it was still epic.

My mate, Scott, and I are both signed up to run in the West Highland Way race in June. This is some test of endurance as it is 95 miles over some of the most remote trails in the British Isles. We have both spent some time on the trail, either from the Hoka Higland Fling race or from various reasons to walk in this part of the world. But running it. The whole length. Well, that’s something entirely different.

In preparation, we’ve both been increasing our mileage but we know we need to spend some time on the trail itself to train effectively. Knowing where you are and what comes next in a long race like that can make all the difference. So with that in mind, we planned a long run on Easter Sunday, starting at Bridge of Orchy and running north to the top of the Devils Staircase before turning around and running back again. The whole route was expected to be just over 30 miles with about 1000m of elevation.

We met up at 5am after losing that hour of sleep I mentioned and drove over to park at the Bridge of Orchy Hotel. After a quick hot drink in the hotel and a bowl of porridge, we set off. The first section is what’s affectionately known as Jelly Baby hill. It’s not much of a hill at all in comparison with some of the Munros around the area, but in the race itself it comes about 60 miles in and will be the last thing tired legs will want to climb. With that out of the way, the path meanders up on to Rannoch moor which is a bleak, open landscape.

Rannoch Moor

Rannoch Moor

The WHW rises up over the moor for about 10 miles. It is one of the many old military roads built through the highlands centuries ago and they were built to stand the test of time. The surface is like a cobbled stone and whilst it looks smooth enough, after running on it for an hour or so you are happy to reach the tarmac at the road to the Glencoe ski centre.

WHW over Rannoch Moor

WHW over Rannoch Moor

We stopped by the A82 to take in the views down Glencoe. It is probably one of the most photographed places in Scotland and with good reason. For the next couple of hours, we were spoiled with the huge scenery, which thankfully distracted from the achy legs. We reached Kingshouse in about 2h 30mins and after a quick pit stop to refill our water bottles, we headed back out for the Devils Staircase.

A bit like Jelly Baby hill, the staircase isn’t actually all that much of a hill when you compare it to some of the nearby monsters which look down on it. However, after running for miles, it commands a level of respect and swiftly reminds you if you don’t show it sufficient levels. By this point the weather was starting to allow some sunshine to poke through the clouds and we were treated with some of the best views the planet has to offer for all our hard work.

Scott making the climb to the top of the staircase look easy

Scott making the climb to the top of the staircase look easy

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Hard not to fall in love with this place – Glencoe

With the hard work done, we celebrated at the top of the staircase with a cereal bar before turning around. With 15 miles in the bag already, we were both feeling surprisingly ok, especially Scott who had already run the best part of 100 miles that week.

Heading back down we had the enjoyment of passing all the people we’d ran past earlier, all of whom described us collectively as mad, insane and other similar badges of honour for any runner. We stopped at Kingshouse Hotel for a quick coffee and cake before crossing back over the road towards the ski center and the path back down Rannoch moor. Thankfully mostly downhill from here, we enjoyed the views some more until a freak hail storm blew in.

Anyone who has experienced a hailstorm will know they can hurt. When you are wearing next to nothing and running in temperatures which are hovering just above zero, and the hail in question is desgined to be the pointiest, sharpest bits of hail you can imagine, they hurt even more. Combine that with about 25 miles of running by two grumpy old men, then the result is a lot of muttering and swearing. I put every piece of clothing I had with me on and I could still feel the hail biting through the thick mountain hat and waterproof jacket. Thankfully it stopped just before we reached Inveroran and we could enjoy the final climb back up Jelly Baby hill and back down into Bridge of Orchy.

By the end, we’d done 32 miles in just over 6 hours. We both felt worried about what the WHW race has in store for us, but equally, we are more content now we’ve run some decent mileage on the route. We are planning another run or two on other sections before the race in June, so look out for more updates. All told though, this was a fantastic run with great company, thanks Scott! It gave me more confidence for the races ahead as my longest run otherwise had been about 20 miles. I’ve managed to get up to running about 100km a week now with a couple of longer runs mixed in so my training is going well.

I hadn’t mentioned this before but I’m being interviewed in the run up to the West Highland Way race in the podcasts series expertly run by John Kynaston. Head over to the race website to hear the first two instalments.

Shoe addiction

Over the past year, I’ve managed to collect a random array of running shoes. There is some merit in having a variety I have found. Each shoe has its own benefits and shortfalls and perform differently in different terrains or weather conditions. I must have acquired most of my collection around about the same time as I am finding that most of my shoes are wearing thin in places and are suggesting I should be thinking about replacing them.

Oh the smell…..

To give an idea of what I have currently and the use I have for them, here’s a table describing the bottom of my running wardrobe. (I don’t actually have a running wardrobe, but if I did, and I could withstand the smell it would have the potential for, then this is what you’d find at the bottom of it today):

Shoe Brand Description
Speedcross 3 Salomon Used for general trail running. Provides some cushioning so also useful for mixed road\trail runs. Tread wears down quite quickly though with too much exposure to roads. Not great in muddy scenarios or for hill type running in open moorland.
Sense Ultra 3 SG Salomon Used for general trail running as they have lugs on the sole for grip. Almost no cushioning, but a very light shoe. I used these in the great glen ultra and was hooked as a consequence. They are rubbish on road sections, but I love them for trails.
Sense Ultra 4 Salomon This variant of the Sense Ultra has minimal grip, but is ideal for dry, hard trails. It is a really light shoe and has minimal cushioning, but is incredibly comfortable. I wore these in the Matterhorn Ultraks race and they were perfect for those stony alpine trails.
MT1210 Leadville New Balance This is the most cushioned shoe I own. It has a light grip underneath all that cushioning and I use these today as my road shoes. If I am away for work and squeezing runs in, they are typically around city streets, but every now and then I will find a city trail and these shoes cross over really well.
Mudclaw 235 Inov-8 These are a purpose made hill or fell running shoe. They have rubber studs, rather than grip, on the sole which is designed to give you confidence in wet, muddy hill sides. And they do. In bucket loads. With these on my feet I feel like I can run down vertical slopes. I can’t, but I feel like I could. This is a lighter version, I used to have the 300 (the number refers to weight in grams) and those would start to feel heavy in longer races. These lighter versions are proving fantastic.

That’s what I have today. With the exception of the mudclaws, they have all done around 600km+ of running. Some of them, like the Leadville’s, are doing well. The Sense SG’s have almost fallen apart and I plan on throwing them out any day soon once I’ve overcome my emotional attachment to them. So it’s time to replenish the shoe department.

Now as any runner likely knows, shopping for new shoes is a wonderful experience but one which can be overwhelming. I know from buying trainers in the past that not all of them work for you straight away. The Speedcross 3’s felt like I was putting my feet into inner-tubes. When I first got them they were so narrow compared to other shoes I’d had. Now they feel like wide boats compared to my sense ultra’s.

The Fling in my Leadville’s

Salomon shoes have served me well though. I like New Balance too, the Leadville’s have been good to me and I ran my first ultra, The Highland Fling, in them.

They are a really comfortable shoe for long runs and protect me from hard pavements now. However, they are really wide and my fetish for Salomon has conditioned me to narrow shoes. I’ve also done more road miles recently and they are feeling like they are losing their support, so I think it is time for a change.

My Speedcross 3’s are like a geriatric now who can still do the job they were meant to do, but are getting so old and tired I want them to take up retirement rather than keeping me upright on the trails for any longer.

My Sense ultra SG’s are done as I mentioned, but I think they and the Speedcross were always sharing the load so I can replace them both with one pair. So that means I need a new pair of trail shoes and something I can use on roads too.

When I was in Seattle recently I paid my habitual visit to the wonderful REI to simply browse around outdoor equipment. I spotted a pair of Salomon shoes I’d never seen before, the Sense Sonic Pro. Since coming back they have started to appear in the UK shops too and I’m considering these for my road running. They follow the same lightweight style of my sense ultra’s but look to have a little more cushioning to get between me and the pavements. I do wonder though if I shouldn’t just buy a regular road shoe and see past my Salomon addiction. I think Salomon will win though.

For trail shoes; I’m torn. I love my Speedcross, but I love my Sense ultra SG’s at least as much. I think I will go with the SG’s because I am preferring a lighter, flatter shoe at the moment. I also love the version 4 of the ultra and I see now that there is also a v5 out too. These multiple versions from Salomon I tend to find offer incremental improvements. They seem to do a good job of taking feedback about their gear and striving to improve is. I like that. Comparing the SG’s to the 3’s though and trying to decide between them,  I can’t help think that I am going to miss the cushioning of the 3’s. On a day when I’m tired and I just want a gentle leg stretch, the 3’s provide me with a soft bed to run on.

I’ll let you now what I go for in the end. What stands out for me though is that I put more effort into buying running shoes than I do into any other form of clothing. I own more running shoes than I do regular shoes. This running game develops addictions.

Ashmei Ambassador

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been fortunate enough to be shortlisted to become an ambassador for Ashmei. In case you haven’t discovered Ashmei yet, they make clothing for runners and cyclists using really high quality materials and with a style you simply don’t find anywhere else in this type of clothing.

I’ve had a couple of their long sleeve merino tops for a while and they are outstanding quality, and I’m not just saying that because I’m possibly going to be an ambassador for them. Their motto is to outperform the best and I feel they certainly do that well. Their clothes fit really well, they look fantastic and they wash great and as anyone who runs a lot knows, your kit gets washed a lot!

They are having an ambassador day at their HQ this coming weekend for the people on the shortlist, but sadly due to family commitments I won’t be able to make it. Words can’t describe how disappointed I am not to be there, but family has to come first. Fortunately, the team at Ashmei recognise that not everyone might make it so we have the opportunity to create a 2 minute video to introduce ourselves and show them what we’ve got to offer. As someone who is working hard to overcome years of bodily neglect and become comfortable with how I look, making a video all about me isn’t something that comes easy, let me tell you!

Despite my inhibitions, I set off out on Saturday in a rare day of sunshine to have a short run up my local hill to do some filming. Armed with my trusty phone and a mini tripod I took about an hour of footage in short clips that I planned to edit together using some simple video software. Having never done this before, I was excited to play around with all of this, but also unaware of what it takes to make a good quality video.

Now, after a few days of tinkering around trying to make it as good as I can, I feel like I’ve got the final edit ready to send through to Ashmei.

I also have to submit two Polaroids; one of myself in any pose and one of my choosing related to my sport.

Do you have any idea how hard choosing these can be? 🙂

The one of myself was easily narrowed down to a few pictures. I don’t find myself particularly photogenic in running shots, mainly because I always seem to get snapped at my lowest point! However, I do have some good images so here is the shortlist I got to:

For each, you need a story:

The Ben Nevis shot is me coming down after a torturous ‘run’ to the summit in my first Ben Nevis race last year. I was utterly exhausted and the down hill was at least as horrible as the uphill. Despite that, the sense of achievement was mind-blowing to run in that iconic race. So much so I signed up again this year!

The Cascades is from my training run around the Alpine Lake area in the Cascades Mountains in Washington state, America. This was at the end of a work trip last Summer and was by far the best day adventure I’ve had. The weather was incredible, scenery even more incredible and running across big mountains fuelled even more running obsession for me.

The Carnethy race is from this years first hill race and, I think, is the best running picture I’ve seen of me. The race was run in a blizzard, which I loved, and despite the weather I knocked 4 minutes off my time from the first time I ran it last year. It was a great measure for how far I’ve come in the year I’ve been running hill races.

I’m still working on the final picture of the set. I want one that captures the fun I have of running with other people. I belong to two running clubs as you know, Falkland Trail Runners and Lomond Hill Runners. Both clubs have different focuses, but both embrace a strong sense of community and social running. I never knew this existed and I believe it is why I’ve enjoyed my exploration of running so much in the past few years. Here’s the picture I’m thinking of choosing:

Summit Community

Summit Community

This was taken on a frosty winter run to the summit of West Lomond with the trail runners. As is the norm, we stopped on the summit and took in the views. While everyone else was staring at the big peaks of the Cairngorms and Trossachs on the horizon, I chose to capture my friends as they enjoyed the moment.

If you have any feedback before I submit my Polaroids, I’d love to hear from you.

Carnethy 5

It’s been a week or so now since I ran in the Carnethy 5 hill race just south of Edinburgh. I would have liked to have writen this up sooner, however life is hectic at the moment and baby William comes before everything else. He’s doing well by the way, and is making me realise how much fun life can be with just simple things like a smile, but a few more hours in the day would be really helpful.

For those of you who don’t know it, Carnethy 5 is a race which has been going for a few decades now in the Pentland hills to the south of Edinburgh and attracts hill and fell runners from all over the UK to kick off the season. As its name suggests, it takes in the summit of 5 hills, all of which are around the 500m mark. It does this in a shade over 9km, so it isn’t a long race, but it’s certainly a tough one.

It was my first ever hill race a year ago, so I was incredibly keen to go back again this year and see how I have improved. It turns out quite a bit, just over 3 minutes in fact, which for a race of this distance and elevation I was ecstatic with. My first PB, although it happens to also be the only race I’ve ever run twice, so it is also my only PB, but let’s not spoil things by getting into the details.

As well as a PB though, it was a PB on a day when most people were adding minutes to their time due to the conditions. Now, Scottish hills are notorious for poor weather and even these relatively low lying instances in the Pentlands can see some reasonable amounts of snow. As it turns out, whoever had ordered the weather for race day managed to get a good deal on snow making it a totally different race to the damp and grey conditions I’d experienced the year before.

Thankfully, I like running in snow. I have great shoes (inov-8 Mudclaws 235’s) and some warm tops (Ashmei carbon shirt…more about Ashmei later!) and I suspect that, due to continuing my training throughout the winter, I’ve become accustomed to running in most conditions and take things as I find them.

WP_20160213_12_52_24_Pro_LI.jpgThe race registration happens in a school hall in Penicuick which is about 3 miles away from the field where the start\finish line is. Consequently everyone gets a coach out to the field from the school. As we approached we could see horizontal snow coming down and even though the start was only 100m back from the road, it was pretty difficult to spot it through the snow, so you knew what it was going to be like. After huddling in a tent for a few minutes, everyone shuffled outside and before long we were off.

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Start\Finish Line

The start line is one one side of a boggy field with the first climb and last descent on the other side. Once over the bog you reach the first hill, Scald Law, by which time the field is well spread forming a long line of the 600 or so runners stretching up the hill. I remember this sight from last year and it was impressive, but this year, in the snow, it looked amazing and Matthew Curry captured this perfectly with the image below.

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PC: Matthew Curry

 

My climbing is probably the thing which has improved the most in the year and I felt great on the climb up Scald Law. I felt like I had a steady pace and that I wasn’t going to exhaust myself on this first climb like I remember doing last year. The subsequent four, and in particular the last, Carnethy, are all significant hills too. After the big climb up Scald Law, it is a ridge run of sorts across the next three hills, East Kip, West Kip and Black hill. After the last one, there is a long descent down the other side of the ridge to The Howe (no relation), before the final, leg sapping, mind numbing, suicide inducing climb up Carnethy. Once over this, the descent back down towards the boggy field crosses heather covered hills with a few patches of scree. If you like your downhills, you are certain to love this. I did.

Heading up Scald Law I found myself behind one of the other runners from the Lomies. He’s usually minutes ahead of me so I assumed he would pull away by the top of the hill. When I passed him on the first descent I was surprised, but he came past me again on the next climb and we did this throughout the race. I found myself pushing harder telling myself to try and keep up with him. Even if he was having a bad day, I would still get a great time as his bad days are typically better than my good days.

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Final Descent through the heather; that’s me at the back. pc: Mathew Curry

 

We summited the last hill pretty much together so i went for it on the downhill. In the snow, it felt easy to go for it, big long stretches of virgin snow making it easy to pick a line and open the legs out. My shoes were gripping well and I felt strong. Sadly, I felt too strong and I was going so fast I found myself feeling like I was losing control and my brain kicked in. Anyone who has ever raced downhill knows that when this happens, the brakes go on and it takes time to persuade yourself to take them off again. Sure enough the guy came tootling past me about three quarters of the way down and we finished about a second apart.

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Racing to the finish. pc: Tim Allan

 

I was delighted regardless. I had a great run and loved the conditions. It was one of those races where, even when you are busting yourself to get up a hill, you are grinning like a lunatic because you know this is going to be so memorable once it’s over. My time was 1h 14min 25sec and 182 place. Compared to last years 1h 17min 38sec 274 place, I’ll take that!

Before I close something has to be said about the race organisers and volunteers. This is an excellent event and very well organised. Given the conditions, the army of volunteers that make it possible went above and beyond what anybody could hope for and were cheering us all on the whole race, despite being blown sideways in a blizzard. Thank you.

Now back to Ashmei. I learned this weekend that I’ve been shortlisted to be an Ashmei Ambassador. Ashmei, in case you haven’t heard of them, make exceptionally stylish Merino wool running and cycling gear. I love their stuff and applied to be an ambassador for them about a month ago via an ad I saw. I’m on the shortlist and now have to work with them to see if I am to become a fully fledged ambassador. Here’s hoping! #ashmeiambassador. With races like Carnethy 5 on the calendar, runners need great kit so I’m hoping I can work with the guys at Ashmei to help promote their clothing in our community.

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