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

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.

2017 Race Planning

With a new year looming just around the corner, it’s time to make a start planning which races I want to take part in. Actually, given the lead time to enter some of the big races, the reality is I’m putting into action the plan I’ve been building over the last few months.

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The start of the 2016 Highland Fling Race

First on the list was the Highland Fling in April. I ran this as my first ultra in 2015 and then volunteered to help out with the race in 2016. It is a superbly well run event and importantly for my plans, is the perfect distance to test myself in preparation for bigger things to come later in the year. historically the race has been on a first come, first served basis for entry, but this year the guys behind it ran a lottery system and I was lucky enough to snag myself a place in the draw. This will be my first ultra for the year and at 53 miles, it isn’t to be sniffed at.

I was then hoping to get a place in the Western States Endurance Run (WSER). This is a legendary 100-mile trail race in California and is right up there in the big race calendar. The trouble with big races though is that they attract a lot of attention, and I think something like 3000 people applied for a place in the race. When there are only 143 places up for grabs, it was no surprise that I didn’t get my lonely single ticket pulled in the lottery. The good news is missing out this year gives me two tickets in the ballot next year assuming I qualify again. And on that note, let’s talk about the West Highland Way race.

 

WHW over Rannoch Moor

WHW over Rannoch Moor

I was chuffed to bits with my WHW race in June. It was the biggest race I’d ever done and was as much a mental challenge as well as a physical one. I think I prepared as best as I could, but my

 

physical endurance didn’t stand up to the test as much as I’d hoped and I came in just under 23hrs. I rolled it over in my mind so many times, where could I improve, how would I speed up and in which sections of the race, how would I adjust my fuel and check-point strategies? That niggling voice in my head constantly wanting to improve. That’s what I love about running. I know I will struggle to get much closer to the pointy end of the race, but I know I can do better. So I applied again.

I heard last week that I had a place and was instantly overjoyed. I hadn’t realised how much the race meant to me until I read that I was in, and now I feel incredibly motivated to start training. Sadly, my running buddy Scott didn’t get a place and I feel terrible for him. Such is the nature of these races, though. We are both hopeful of turning our attention this year to UTMB though.

After WHW next on my target list is another shot at UTMB. This year I did TDS which was a gruelling test. A miserable, tough, hot, dusty, exhausting joy ride through the alps. Despite the misery, I still want to go back and do it again. I now also have enough accumulated ITRA points to qualify to apply for a space in the big UTMB race itself. I am now in a quandary; UTMB is massively over-subscribed and so the risk of no entry is high. TDS, on the other hand, is typically less subscribed, due to its gruelling nature I assume, and so is almost guaranteed a place. I would be miserable if I didn’t get a chance to race in Chamonix again this year, so I need to decide quickly.

[Post edit note] I went for UTMB!

UTMB here I come....hopefully

UTMB here I come….hopefully

Finally, one thing I’ve learned this year is that having nothing to look forward to or motivate me after UTMB, the remaining 3-4 months are a real challenge. Consequently, I am going to take a shot at one of the Salomon Skyline races around Glencoe. They are adding a 100km ultra which runs from Loch Lomond to Kinlochleven and takes in Ben Nevis en route. Alternatively, the VK race is also a good, hard workout which I’d like to take a chance on. One way or another I will race there I think.

So that’s it, hopefully, my final line up for 2017 will be:

  • Highland Fling
  • West Highland Way
  • UTMB
  • Glencoe Skyline

I’ve already started to train as the motivation to do well in the Highland Fling and WHW races is real. I have 4 months to get my fitness back on track for the Fling, and hopefully aim to get a sub 10hr finish time. My time is limited right now for training, due to work and my desire to spend as much time at home with William and Nichola as possible. My training runs have had to take place at times that most other people are climbing into bed or snoring gently away as they wait for the alarm clock to go off. I think this out of hours training will help me overall as it is pushing me to excercise when tired and from experience, that serves me well and helps me improve. I have also just read a book called Beyond Training, which has given me some inspiration for a different approach to training this year. I’m giving it a try at the moment and will try to write about it in another post.

For now, though, I’ve just been enjoying my running in some pretty spectacular Scottish scenery, exotic work locations and night time trails. Here’s some photo’s to give you an idea of what I’ve been up to over the past few months: