Kicking Back

The past few weeks have been fairly laid back after the Jedburgh race and we managed to arrange a weeks holiday up in the Highlands last week to really get a chance to unwind. It was a perfect short break in an exceptional place I found on the internet. It’s one of those place that, when you find it, you don’t really want to share it in case everyone starts to go. However, it’s so bloody good that I won’t be able to not talk about it, so here it is: Eagle Brae. More about that in a moment. Staying there gave me the chance to get in a few longish runs in some epic locations and most of all, broke my training regime from a rigorous focused approach (I’m laughing to myself writing that), to simply getting out and enjoying my running again; and it worked.

Now a bit about Eagle Brae. It is a place which as soon as you start to learn about it, it makes you wish that it was you who’d come up with the idea. It achieves that nirvana of situations, combining a lifestyle with a business. The owners, Mike and Pawana (pronounced Pubna), are a really nice couple who deserve the success their business is achieving through the hard work they have put into it. It has apparently taken them 8 years to convert a plot of land on a bracken covered steep highland glenside into a luxurious, eco-friendly range of log-cabins, the likes of which this country has never seen. This is no Center Parcs folks, think 5 star hotel made out of giant Canadian logs with cashmere tartan blankets.

I love the place for so many reasons, the location, how they’ve designed the site so nobody overlooks anyone else, the furnishings inside the cabins and that they recognise the type of folk who are likely to go there want fast internet access and help at the end of a telephone when they need an extra bottle of wine of an evening. From a business perspective, I imagine they are probably one of the few enterprises in the area that are drawing some spectacular incomes. It must be hard making a living in remote places like that, but I suspect the effort and investments they have made are paying off handsomely. To say I’m envious would be an understatement, but they are also inspiring for me in terms of what can be achieved with dedication, hard work and, most importantly I think, a great vision.

The area itself is a part of Scotland I’ve never visited, only passed through on the way to other parts. I now wish I’d paid more attention and found my way there sooner. Being on the north side of the Great Glen, it is remote and wild terrain in abundance. The particular area where we stayed was Strathglass, which is a long meandering river valley, off of which turn handsome glens. I explored two during a couple of runs: Glen Strathfarrar which has some increasingly spectacular hills the deeper you go and Glen Affric which I now feel is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been to.

Glen Strathfarrar

After studying Walk Highlands for a number of hours on our first day, I eventually worked out that Glen Strathfarrar was about a mile away from where we were. The MWIS forecast for the area was grim so I opted for a 16km horseshoe route which took in a couple of Corbetts rather than the more remote and exposed Munros in the area. These Corbetts still looked to provide a challenge, but without the high exposure which would attract the fierce winds and snow that was predicted above 800m for the day. Or so I thought.

Having only been running for just over a year, I had a winter season last year, but didn’t really get to adventure into areas with too much exposure. during the summer I’ve had a chance to get out and about up high, but winter gives the mountains a different experience altogether and this run was just what I needed to remind me.

The route started off up a secluded track before breaking out across open moorland and grouse butts. We had seen some significant rainfall during the previous week and consequently the open ground was saturated and any stalkers path was like a river. Within minutes my feet were sodden and I gave up trying to keep them dry. As I climbed above 600m the wind blew and it started to snow. The summit of the first hill, Beinn Bha’ach Ard, was exposed and as I reached it the wind was pushing me sideways. I dressed in everything I had and kept going past the trig point to get in the lee side and away from the wind and on to the next hill, Sgurr a’ Phollain. From here it was a game of find a path, any path, in a long loop back to where I parked the car. It was beautiful country to run in.

Loch Affric Circuit

Later in the week the weather up high was again threatening to blow your skin off, so another venture to Walk Highlands turned up an 18km loop around a loch I’d never heard of before. Whilst I might not have heard about it before, I will certainly never forget it again. Loch Affric and the glen from which it is named, is simply the most beautiful place I’ve ever been to.

The route started and finished in a forestry carpark which, on this wintery, wet and blustery day was deserted when I arrived. Great! I have the place to myself. The route seemed simple enough, set off along the northern shore of the loch along a well laid path, cross a burn about half way along, loop around the far end of the loch and enjoy the run back to the car.

There were two problems with that route. The first, and a nice problem to have, was that the place was so scenic, I kept feeling the need to stop every few minutes to take another picture. The second, and not so nice problem, was that burn I mentioned. In the guide it suggested there would be stepping stones to make it easier to cross. Indeed there were, I could see how they were creating turbulence in the torrent that was raging over them! The burn crossing turned into more of a river fording. Despite having to wade waist deep through freezing cold fast flowing water, I was still smiling at the end of the loop.

At the far end of the loch the path meets another, the Affric-Kintail way, which heads off into the remote glen you can see further along. This apparently leads to the most remote youth hostel in the country and it looked a foreboding place. I looked up the Affric-Kintail way when I got back. It looks like it would make a great route for an ultra marathon! Anyone fancy joining me in creating a race there? There is also a bothy at the end of the loch which I found being refurbished by a couple of guys. I took some time to have a chat with them and I still don’t know if they have the best or worst job in the world given the landscape they worked in. Given how cold it was though, I suspect the view wears off after a while. Maybe.

We are back from the short break now and we have snow finally covering the Lomond hills by where we live. Tonight’s run reminded me why I love running here in winter. I’ll leave you with some wonderful pictures from my run tonight.

Mud, mud and more mud

My training over the past two months since the Ben Nevis race has been poor at best. I haven’t really run more than 10 miles for months, so taking on 38 miles of trails in an ultra in the Scottish Borders was a daunting prospect.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, my work life has been pretty busy recently so running has had to take a back seat for a while. Despite this, I was still keen to get to the start line of the Jedburgh 3 Peaks Ultra and enjoy the race. I’d never done this kind of distance before and had only seen 10 miles of the route in a previous race, so I didn’t really have any indication of what time to aim for. Looking at the previous runs of this race, under 7 hours seemed to be a very respectable time and anywhere around 6 hours and below was probably going to see you in the top 10% of the race.

Despite the crap training, I was feeling good about this race, putting aside the obvious nerves during the 24hours leading up to it. So far, without fail, at lunchtime the day before a race, everything that is inside my body decides it wants to exit and to do so as rapidly as possible! I do wonder if that feeling will ever get easier. That sensation aside, I went down to the race with my training buddy, Scott. We drove down the morning of the race which meant a very early start from Fife. We both mused about how bloody stupid we were on the way down as we followed a long snake of cars. At 6am on a Saturday morning we suspected that they could only be heading to the same place we were meaning we weren’t the only lunatics involved in this. Pre-race jitters were put aside for a moment as the lady in the car parked next to us went into a 20 second frenzy thinking she had left her waterproof at home, which was comical to watch as a bystander as she almost immediately spotted it right in front of her, but at the same time summed up how tense everyone is before a race

Pre-race briefing in the rugby club - my only photo of the day!

Pre-race briefing in the rugby club – my only photo of the day!

The race starts in Jedburgh and the local rugby club building was a hub of activity as we arrived to register. The BBC’s Adventure Show was recording the race and the camera crew and presenters were cornering unsuspecting folk to ask them questions pre-race. I really didn’t feel like being on screen given how nervous I was feeling so managed to dodge their advances. Their cameras were also dotted around the route later in the day, sneakily positioned to catch you as you came panting around a corner dripping in sweat looking like some beastie dying of a horrible disease. The show will apparently go out next year, so it will be interesting to see if I make an inglorious TV debut at some point, probably muttering and swearing to myself as I run past a camera.

The race is a fairly straight forward out and back route from Jedburgh to the outskirts of Melrose along river side trails. At the mid-point of the race are the 3 Eildon hills which give the race its name (and a dose of spice after 17 miles or so!). If I were to describe the race it is a bit like two half trail marathons back to back, with a Class AS hill race thrown into the middle to keep you on your toes.

I’d run the route around the hills in a trail race last March so knew this loop section. It is beautiful countryside around there and the views throughout the day really didn’t disappoint. The main challenge of the day was the conditions under foot. I think that given most of the trails are around the rivers of the area, the ground must get regularly saturated with water heading into them and that creates a pretty soggy path. Add to this natural problem 240 runners trampling twice through what are probably otherwise infrequently used paths, as they go out and back, and you can imagine the results.

I remember thinking about 20 miles into the race that I never wanted to see another muddy path again. My shoes after the race looked like a pair of mud slippers and my strongest memories of the race are of slipping about trying to get purchase on a few of the worst sections. The weather forecast for the day was horrible and in particular heavy rain was due to start at the same time of the race and finish, roughly as most of the field were crossing the finish line, so the outlook was bleak. As it turned out, we lucked out as other than a heavy squall that blew through about an hour into the race, we had clear skies and some sunshine.

One of my aims for the race was to try to keep a relatively steady pace. In the Ultraks race in August I’d done better than previously, but still wanted to improve. The distance suggested that I might be able to run almost all the race except the 3 hills, and I wanted to try to achieve that, and I did. I also wanted to get under 7 hours if possible.

From the start I managed to avoid the temptation of racing off at 5min\km and hung back with a more steady bunch of runners. I saw about 30 runners ahead of me race off (my buddy Scott included) and over the first 10 miles to the first CP a few more went ahead. Compared to other races, I didn’t let these runners passing me make a mental impact. In the past I’ve ended up pushing a bit harder as they come by, and inevitably that takes its toll later in the race. I remember thinking that I might see a few of them later if I played this right and I certainly did.

I kept my stops at the CP’s below a couple of minutes, just long enough to refill my water bottle and top it up with Tailwind which once again got me through the race perfectly. I used my Salomon running vest this time with soft flasks as my hand held bottle I used in the Great Glen ultra has been giving me pain in my shoulder from carrying it in the same hand for too long. I might try to go back to using a hand held some time in the future, but I’m getting better at limiting how much I carry when I use the vest, so I will probably stick to using that for the near term for races.

At different parts of the race I was convinced I was either way ahead of where I actually was in the field or way behind where I actually was. I’d lost track of how many people were ahead of me and I wasn’t paying attention at the checkpoints as to how many people managed to leapfrog me despite my quick pit stops. As it turns out, looking at the stats from the race, I was pretty much in the same position all the way through. I also seemed to manage to keep a relatively consistent pace with about a 20% drop off in the 2nd half.

After the first leg I felt good and so my focus then shifted to the second CP which I knew was at the base of the 3 hills. I knew the hills were going to be tough and, from my memory of last years race, that the second hill was worse than the first. The slog up the first felt horrible though on Saturday with 17 miles of running already in my legs, but as I got to the top I saw that people who were behind me had dropped away a bit so I felt like I’d done well. Coming down off the hills felt like a glorious release letting my legs go, only to run into what felt like a brick wall of a climb on the second hill. The third and smallest hill came and went without any problems and I knew then from studying the race profile that I had a few miles of down hill slope to enjoy.

Around parts of the course were boardwalks and wooden stairs to get around natural landscapes. On one of the stairs I caught a toe due to tired legs and tripped. The fall only dented my ego thankfully, but as I tried to get up my right hamstring cramped up. It was the first time I’d ever had cramp in a race and it felt like a bastard. I stopped for a minute to have a stretch as a couple of guys around me checked if I was ok. One of them encouraged me to keep moving and run it off and I glad I did. Thank you, whoever you were, for the encouragement.

We found ourselves back on the outward route not long after the hills and I knew that CP3 was the same place as CP1 was, just in reverse. I remember my mind playing tricks on me telling me that the CP was just around a corner or just up ahead half a dozen times. It wasn’t. This dented my progress a bit as I have worked out that when I know where I am and how far I have to go I can deal with things. When I feel out of touch of where I am that’s when fatigue sets in and this certainly happened on Saturday. I was running with a group of about 3 or 4 guys and we were all keeping pace. But as the miles rolled on and no CP was in sight I started to flag.

At the CP I refulled and headed straight out. As I left, so did most of the folk who were running around me so I felt spurred on to keep going. I knew there was 10 miles to the finish from that point and also that I’d done it in 1h 30m on the way out. My legs were obviously heavier by now so I reckoned it might end p taking me 2hrs to get back to the finish. I’d hit the CP at 4h 58m so if I wanted to be sure to be under 7hrs, I had to keep moving to make it.

A big chunk of the ten miles that make the first\last part of the course follow the route of a Roman Road through some fields. On a map it looks like a straight path along a single contour line but in reality it is a weaving trail which goes up and down over rolling terrain. Added to this were what seemed like a hundred styles to clamber over. Eventually, the path hits some trees and aims to cross the river before heading back into Jedburgh. About 4 miles out I felt fatigued and after yet another style crossing, I let the guys around me pull away quite a bit. Within seconds I was furious for feeling so bloody sorry for myself that I slowed down in the first place, so I took a gel I had in a pocket and kicked myself up the bahooky and set off again.

I started to get a second wind from the gel and managed to up the pace. About 3 miles from the finish I pushed a bit harder and before long I had the guys who’d passed me back in sight. This spurred me on and in the last mile on the road into the finish at Jedburgh I pushed a bit harder still and managed to pass all of the guys who’d been around me as well as a couple of guys who were struggling to push to the finish. I think I was more spurred on at this point by the thought of a beer at the finish than any idea of finishing strongly!

In the end I crossed the line in 6h and 51m. I was very pleased with this and in general with my overall run in the race. I need to work on not letting things like CP’s being further than I hoped getting me down mid race, but I think that is related to my stamina and endurance which was probably pretty low given the low grade of training I’ve had recently. Link to the Strava activity here.

As races go, this one was great. A good honest ultra run by runners with everything you need. A nice medal and T-shirt to take home and food and drink at the finish. The marshals were all fantastic and cheery, I even got a water bottle filled by Johnny Fling himself, which if I hadn’t been a jabbering wreck by that point I might have swooned at. Looking back I really enjoyed the whole day and would do it again some time. The distance felt great and enough of a challenge without leaving you limping for weeks afterwards and the route was beautiful. I also met some new running friends, which seems to be the norm for every race, so all in all it was a grand day out.

That’s it for races now for me this year. I was entered into Glen Ogle 33 in two weeks time but work commitments mean I have to miss it. Now it’s going to be a long winter of training for next year and working on some areas I need to focus on to start competing in these races.

Work v Running

I suppose it had to come to an end some time. Since very early in the year when I started my whole ultra running adventure, I’ve been really fortunate in that I’ve been able to maintain some semblance of balance between home life, work and my new found love of running. Somehow or other I’ve managed to keep all three parties in the equation happy. Over the past 4 weeks though, the scales have been well and truly tipped in the favour of work, much to the disappointment of my home life and my running addiction.

In some ways, I’m happy to have had a break. The Ben Nevis race broke me and really felt like a race too far for me this year, so I’ve been happy to kick back a bit and take things easy. On the other hand though, slowing down in running stakes whilst travelling for work has resulted in a few pounds gained and I am immediately noticing the difference!

My work frequently gets me travelling around and the past few weeks have been a rare, intense period for travel that typically happens at this time every year. In the past three weeks I’ve been to Singapore, Lisbon and Austin. Not bad do I hear you say? Well, it is exciting to visit those types of places for sure, but when the main purpose is very focused on work, it is pretty tiresome. I am very good at trying to make the most of work trips like this though. I aim to get out as frequently as I can for runs to explore these places and also try to find places off the beaten track to visit to eat and drink to get a sense of what the places are really like, away from the tourist guide locations. In all three, I think I did pretty well this time around.

Singapore was my first destination and as well as being a new place for me, it was also as far east on the planet that I’ve ever been to. My first impressions were that it reminded me a lot of Dubai. IT had a very cosmopolitan mix of people from all over the world, a perpetually warm climate and colonial connections with Britain which made many things strangely familiar for a foreign country (plugs, Driving on the left etc.).

Singapore

Singapore

I liked Singapore. I got to experience a load of new Asian foods, which are generally my favourite, so that probably swayed me to enjoy the place. The Formula 1 GP was on the weekend after I left so it was interesting to see the city preparing as the streets were turned into a race track. I got to run a few times too, which was an experience given the 100% humidity. The overriding memory of Singapore though, was the haze and pollution. Sadly, neighbouring countries in the Islands around Singapore take to burning plantations at this time every year to make way for new crops to produce Palm Oil. I’d heard about this stuff and the damage it is doing to nature in its production, but until I’d seen how much of an impact it can have on the environment, I didn’t pay any attention. In short, it is devastating. 1000’s of acres of land are burnt each year with no consideration given to the wild life on that land. Natural environments are destroyed and the air for hundreds of miles is polluted for weeks with harming particle pollutants. I’m looking very carefully at what I eat now to ensure I don’t support the Palm Oil trade.

Singapore streets becoming an F1 track

Singapore streets becoming an F1 track

On a more positive note, the food in Singapore was great. I loved the street hawker locations where you can get a huge variety of foods all in one place. They were clean and cheap, and with the ambient temperature hovering around 30 degrees, it made for some wonderful evenings eating outside. I also took the opportunity to do the tourist thing and visit Raffles for a Singapore Sling. Two things stood out for me there, wow is it a sweet drink! Also, wow is it expensive! That will teach me for trying to be a tourist!

Next up was Lisbon. I’ve been to Lisbon once before and enjoyed the place. It has a very laid back atmosphere and the weather at this time of year is perfect. I was there for work, so excitement levels were low, however, the hotel we stayed and used for most of our meetings was damn impressive.

I managed to get out for a few early morning runs around the waterfront by the hotel, but my jetlagged body after Singapore was finding it difficult to get up early before work. When I did though, I was treated to some spectacular sunrises against the outline of the nearby Vasco da Gama bridge.

Vasco da Gama Bridge

Vasco da Gama Bridge

My team had arranged a night at the Oceanarium in Lisbon for us, which was pretty special and a nice way to end a day at work. After a couple of long days of meetings, jetlagged sleep and early morning runs, it was easy to sit and watch the sealife gently gliding around the enormous tanks in the low level lighting. I think I could have stayed there for a day or so and had a very deep sleep.

Lisbon Oceanarium

Lisbon Oceanarium

After Lisbon, a weekend at home to catch up on some sleep and say hello before jetting off again, this time to Austin, Texas. I’ve been to America many times now in various different locations, but I’d never been to Texas before so this was a new experience. I wasn’t sure what to expect, I knew it would be hot and I’d been told that everything in Texas is just bigger than everywhere else. Whoever said that was correct, look at the size of the hire car I was assigned when I arrived!

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Hire car, Texan style!

I politely asked them if they had something smaller, and was given a Jeep for the week. Oh well, when in Rome….

I’d heard that Austin in particular was famous for music, food trucks and barbecues. From the first day I got to experience all three and, as it turned out, I experienced all three every night I was there. I can confirm that there is only so much meat a person can eat in one week and I found that limit.

I’d taken a look on Strava before arriving to try to find some longish runs for whilst I was there. I discovered that there are several green belt areas around the city which have single track trails which sounded fun. I knew I’d have jetlag and would be awake really early, so my plan for the first morning was to head out with my head torch to one of the areas called Barton Creek. This is a creek which flows in to the Colorado River which cuts through the city. At this time of year it was a very dry creek with barely any water to be seen. Along each side though ran compact trails which provided a great place to run. I managed to get in a 18km run on the first morning, I was hoping for longer, but it took me so long to find the actual trail, by the time I did the sun was up and it was almost time for work.

I also managed a couple of other runs in the same area around what is called Town Lake; effectively a stretch of the river. It was nice running in such warm conditions. I adopted the locals approach of running in just a pair of shorts, no t-shirt, and it felt strangely liberating for this pale skinned individual from Scotland!

The whole BBQ food thing was interesting to experience, but ultimately lost on me as someone who isn’t a huge meat lover. Having it three nights in a row probably took the shine of things too, but I am glad I got the opportunity to try. One of the nights the team arranged a tour, which included a visit to a barbecue place for dinner, but also took in a live music pub and some food trucks. The pub was the Saxon Pub, which is seemingly famous for having hosted many famous singers and groups for live performances. It was great music I have to say. The tour then took us to a food truck somewhere else in the town, where we got desert in the form of a frozen banana dipped in Oreo Cookies. It was a lot nicer than it sounds.

All told, it has been a tiring three weeks of work travel. Too many late nights, too much rich food and too little running. I’m glad I got out when I could, but wish I’d ran more. Now it’s time for some weeks at home and to get back into a healthy routine. I’d like to run 5 times a week at least, try to get around 80km’s a week in for a couple of weeks in time for the Jedburgh 3 Peaks Ultra later in October. I went out for a run in the Ochils yesterday which really didn’t feel great at all, but it was good to get some hills back under my legs and be out there. More work required though if I’m going to be ready for the 3 Peaks ultra.

My final bit of news is that I have switched allegiances from Garmin to Suunto. I was just totally fed up with my 910xt constantly struggling to sync over ANT+ via my laptop to the rest of the waiting world on the internet.  I’ve switched to a Suunto Ambit3 sport and I’m already delighted with it. Tough luck Garmin and hello Suunto!

Ben Nevis Race

Well, the one positive thing about this race is that it is now in the past.

Since I discovered the strange and brutal branch of running that is hill running, the Ben Nevis race is the one everyone has talked about. There are others that get some attention as classics, sure, but none of them get the attention and respect this one does. I was drawn in from the first time I’d heard about it. There are all kinds of stories associated with the race, from how it started, the records, the first lady to run it, the race that never was due to supposed poor weather and those are just the general stories. Each hill running club also seem to have their own personal accounts of the race over the years typically from numerous falls and tumbles, or the after race antics in the town. I think it is fair to say that the Ben Nevis race has a very strong history, and this weekend I learned the hard way why that is.

In case you haven’t heard about this race, it is about 14km long and starts at sea level in the town of Fort William and climbs linearly to the summit of the UK’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis at a height of 1344m. It starts in a local playing field then follows a road for about a mile to the start of what is called the Mountain Track, or tourist track as many call it. This is a rocky path which lazily winds its way up towards the summit of Ben Nevis. About half way the track takes a wide loop before crossing the Red Burn, which is a natural water course which falls down this side of the mountain. Rather than taking this wide loop, the race breaks from the track at this point and makes a straight line directly to the top. A short while above the red burn the terrain turns into a mix of scree and boulder field. The hill levels out eventually at a summit plateau. Here you hand over a wrist band you were given at the start so the race officials know you have summited, then you reverse the course all the way back down, over the burn, along the tourist track, to the road and finally once last lap of the playing field just for good measure.

Sounds easy, right?

The Ascent

Two things stood out for me. 1. It is brutally consistent in how steep and tough it is and 2. It is relentless. There are simply no parts of the route where you can slacken off the effort required to keep moving and take a breather like there are in so many other races. Most other hill races in the UK, or abroad for that matter, even those which take in this much elevation in one race, they do so in sections. That means you get a chance to use different muscles to keep moving, you get a chance to slow your breathing and heart rate down. but not the ben. From the moment you leave the flat playing field, the next 7km are guaranteed to be uphill all the way.

The start of the track pic: run365parkinsonsuk

The start of the track pic: run365parkinsonsuk

The road section is a good warm up. I knew the race was going to be tough so whilst I was moving reasonably fast here, I was conscious not to blow myself out before the climbing started for real. The weather on Saturday was also spectacular. It was close to 20 degrees in Fort William, blue skies and barely any wind. A lovely summers day by any other measure, however on the day of a race like this, it added to the ‘fun’ and i felt it straight away on the road.

After about a mile the road turns to track and narrows. By now everyone was well strung out and in general, you were now with the people you would spend the rest of the race with. The running turned into the usual power hike almost immediately. There are several little beaten tracks which go off at angles as you head up, some of which cut corners, and some of which are simply alternatives to the main track. Without the benefit of local knowledge, I think most people like me just followed the backside of the person in front of them, assuming they knew where they were going.

After what felt like an hour (and turned out to be 20 minutes) I made my first mistake of the run; I looked up. What I saw was a sight I wouldn’t want to wish on anyone and taught me the biggest lesson I learned from the day. By this point the track had turned the corner to head up towards the summit and you could see the long line of runners heading up the hill. It was a very long line and it was a very big hill. The mental impact of this on me, when I was starting to feel tired was immediate and people started to pass me. I knew what was happening and I could feel my will to keep driving my legs falling away, but I couldn’t stop it.

Somewhere near half way pic: run365parkinsonsuk

Somewhere near half way pic: run365parkinsonsuk

The heat was taking a toll, my legs were tired and that hill seemed to stretch away into the sky. Before long I was feeling about as bad as I’ve ever done in any race and I knew I wasn’t event half way yet. We eventually crossed the red burn and I took the opportunity to douse myself in water and grab a few handfuls of water to drink. This perked me up a little bit and I knew from studying the map before the race and my walk up here earlier in the year, that the summit wasn’t much further away. Again, the race route broke away from the tourist track now and made a straight line to the top. Crossing first scree lined slopes, then progressively more boulder and rocky, the only word to describe it was a trudge. Nobody was moving fast here, just putting one foot in front of the other knowing you were near the top. The air was cooler and it was welcome. One of the benefits I suppose of running up such large mountains.

Hard going pic: run365parkinsonsuk

Hard going pic: run365parkinsonsuk

Not long after making a start on the scree, Finlay Wild came flying past on his descent. Finlay had won the race for the past 5 years and was always tantalisingly close to breaking the record of 1h 25m set in 1984. He had a huge lead again on Saturday and subsequently went on to set his own record for winning the race 6 times in a row, but was 5 minutes away from beating the record time this year. Seeing the speed at which he was going down woke me up and not long after all the other top flight runners were whizzing past as well. I foolishly thought that meant I was near the top, but sadly, it was probably another 20 minutes before I reached the summit and got to turn around. By the time I got there, mentally I was in a better place, but my legs felt like they were done. The cool air and the views from the summit plateau woke me up and a couple of jelly babies from the fantastic support on the summit also helped.

Towards the top of the scree pic: run365parkinsonsuk

Towards the top of the scree pic: run365parkinsonsuk

The Descent

On the way up I’d been paying attention to what we’d been running over and knew it was going to be tough going down too. The flat at the summit gave me a chance to shake out the fatigue from my legs a bit, so as soon as we hit the scree I was feeling a bit more lively. I’d not run much on this stuff, so it was a little new to me, and it turns out I really enjoy it. I quickly felt like I could stretch things out a bit and immediately started to pass people. I’ve noticed this in a few races, as soon as the downhill sections start, I seem to pick up speed quickly and pass a few people. that then gives me confidence and I start to open up more and consequently do generally quite well on down hills. I was enjoying this now, all I wanted to do was get down and I knew I had a long way to go, but this was definitely easier for me than the uphill work.

Hitting the top of the green wall

Hitting the top of the green wall

Every time you put your foot down when running down scree, you know it might be the one which trips you up. I saw several people around me go head first after catching a toe and I later saw a lot of people with blood injuries from taking a tumble up there. Despite that, my desire to get down overtook my desire to stay safe. And then I came across the section know as the green wall.

The green wall is a steep, grassy bank which goes from the bottom of the scree to the Red Burn. It feels almost vertical when you are running down it, and I imagine on a wet, rainy day it is like a water slide. Despite the hot weather, it was damp underfoot and slippery, but not as bad as I imagine it could have been. I had Inov-8 mudclaws on which grip like crazy in this type of terrain, so felt ok. The lower down the slope you got though, the steeper and more eroded it became. Inevitably I slipped onto my backside and did a bum slide several times. By now, my legs were utterly shambolic. I started to feel cramp on my inner thighs and my quads were useless too. I hit the red burn and all the people I’d passed coming down seemed to pass me again. I took on some water and splashed myself, but the cold did nothing to revive me this time.

I set off towards the main track again but my legs had given up. My head wasn’t far behind either and I felt myself stumbling along the track. I must have looked a sorry sight. I knew i had to keep moving though as I was determined to finish. I also know I still had a couple of miles to go, including a mile on the road and that final lap of the field back at the finish.

I had a couple of energy gels in my pocket and had these one at a time. Each time they picked me up just enough to let me break into a jog downhill. Stumbling over rocks, past tourists heading down after a day on the hill, and past spectators all cheering everyone on, I made it back to the road. Everyone had commented on how their legs stop on the road, so I’d saved one gel for just before I reached it. I managed to break into a consistent run and knew it was just a few minutes now before this version of hell was over. The field came and I managed to push myself a little as I did the lap to take a few people who were in front of me and claw a few places back. then it was over.

Broken at the finish

Broken at the finish

Without doubt, this was the hardest I’ve ever had to work. The uphill is a horrible trudge and highlights all the possible areas of weakness in your fitness and physical and mental strength. The downhill is brutal, it consists of just about every possible terrain you will ever come across in a hill race and tests you at the point when your legs are already at their weakest state. After crossing the line I felt ill, exhausted and most of all like I never wanted to run again in my life. I also know that last bit wasn’t going to be true by the time the morning came around.

The race is a huge event in the hill running community and rightly so. It is the ultimate test of athleticism and deserves every bit of respect and reputation it has gained over the years. In the evening there is a prize giving ceremony which almost everyone attends, again as a mark of respect I think for how tough the race is and what it must take to win a prize in such a race. then afterwards, the crowds head into town and take over the local pubs into the early hours of the night. One of the awards is for those who have completed the race 21 times.

Prize giving ceremony

Prize giving ceremony

I immediately recognised how much of an achievement it is to do this and they got the loudest cheer of the night too. One of our Lomond Hill Runners completed his 21st race on Saturday and received his award. He had kept all his race numbers and made a jacket out of them all to wear as he went up on stage. He had his family there with him and for me it epitomised what this is all about. Recognising an incredible achievement, demonstrating the strength and resilience it takes to achieve it, celebrating it in a light hearted way, with your hill running friends and family. It rounded out a brilliant and unique day for me.

Laurie making his entrance

Laurie making his entrance

Now, a few days later, my legs are still hurting, but the mental pain has gone. I felt like the race was my lowest point so far in my running. I felt like crap, didn’t feel prepared and felt like I’d not taken it seriously enough before the race. Hard lessons to learn on a race like this. I finished in 2h 35m and now want to go back and beat that time. It took me 1h 40m to go up and 55m to come down. If I want to do it again, I know I need to train harder and more specifically for this kind of race. It highlighted to me how little running I’ve really done and how little experience I have. It showed I can complete these races, but I want to be able to do it in a much stronger fashion and perform better. So, I’m certain that come December when entries open again, I’ll be posting my application off but I’ve got some work to do if I want to finish it better next year..

Strava activity.

Matterhorn Ultraks 2015

Wow! What a race.

If you were to ask someone to create a race that had a fantastic route, over alpine trails, with lots of elevation and with breath-taking scenery, this is likely to be the race that they would create.

I signed up to this race about November last year I think. It was one of those spur of the moment things when it popped up in my timeline on Facebook. I had no experience of this kind of running at the time, and I remember posting something on Facebook after I’d signed up along the lines of “I just signed up to this…ambitious?”. Thankfully, it wasn’t ambitious at all.

We decided to make a bit of a holiday out of the trip, since flying all the way to Switzerland for a race is a little excessive to begin with. We flew into Geneva last Monday, had 24 hours in the city, then caught the incredibly clean and precise train all the way to Zermatt. Right from the start Switzerland was doing its usual thing of being smart, clean, adult and beautiful. I’ve spent a lot of time in the country with work over the years and I really do like the place. It makes itself easy to like though.

We rented an apartment in the town, which as it turned out was perfectly located. Zermatt isn’t all that big any way, but it was close enough to the centre and had a great view of the Matterhorn, so it ticked all the boxes we needed.

Our arrival in Zermatt was quite late in the day on Tuesday so it was a case of finding some food and settling in for the night. Wednesday morning I was out around town, working out my bearings and, importantly, buying a map. Over lunch I worked out a plan to run Wednesday and Thursday and take it easy on Friday before the race on Saturday. I knew this was cutting it fine and that my legs would be tired on the day, but I figured as long as I limited my climbing over the two days, I could get away with it.

The race was a loop around the head of a valley which started and finished in Zermatt town centre. The course took in three big climbs and three descents. I wanted to try to recce as much of the race route as possible beforehand so I decided to run the first ascent on Wednesday, then follow the line of the some of the first descent before heading straight back down into Zermatt instead of breaking off towards the next climb. Then on Thursday I took one of the cable cars up to Schwarzsee, which is at the head of the final climb and then run the 10km long descent back down into Zermatt. This all worked perfectly and gave me the opportunity I needed to get the worst parts of the race clear in my head. This included the climb from Furi back up to Schwarzsee which was steep, long and, as it turned out on the day, difficult in intense sunshine!

On the Friday, we took the train up to Gornergrat to take a look around from the top. The glacier was simply magnificent and really did make you realise how special the place is.

Monte Rosa and the glacier from Gornergrat

Looking towards Monte Rosa and the glacier from Gornergrat

Then came race day. The Ultraks is more of a running festival with 6 races in total on the day. I took part in the 30km trail race, but there was also a 46km, a 16km, a vertical race (VZR), a 30km corporate relay and a kids race. The 46km race was the main event with some famous professional runners toeing the start line. they took off before my race so I got the opportunity to see the start of the 46km race.

Start of the 46km race

Start of the 46km race

There was a real buzz around Zermatt, it is such a perfect town for this type of event. Before I knew it the 30km race was 10 minutes away from starting and I was shuffling my way into the start pen. In my recce for the start I knew that the route headed out of the town and eventually broke off up a narrow single track trail through the woods about 1km in. With close to 700 runners in the race this was always going to be a bottleneck unless you were in the first 10 people to reach it, so I knew that being towards the last 20% of runners in the pen was a bad start. After some enthusiastic encouragement from the race announcer to warm us all up, we were off. The pace from where I was started at a slow jog but the runners quickly broke up which provided some space as we ran through the streets. the crowds were out supporting and it felt great to be part of such a big event like this.

The road out of town started to climb and people slowed down to their natural climbing pace. I found myself starting to pass people but I was encouraged by the fact that, despite lots of people around me sprinting to get a better place, I paced myself so I didn’t tire too easily. One of the big things I wanted to do in this race was to simply enjoy it. The scenery as I’ve said is simply amazing, and I may never come back to run it again, so I wanted to enjoy it for the experience and not ruing things by being exhausted within the first 5km.

As we hit the first climb I found myself at what I estimated was about 50% of the way through the field. This felt about right as everyone around me by now was running similar bits to me and walking the bits I would walk, so it felt like I was in the right place. The first climb goes about 60% of the way up the hill, then levels out to traverse around a long flat trail. This was really narrow and over-taking was almost impossible. I think in the end this saved me as I would have been tempted to go for it here normally, but instead I just sat behind a small group of guys and recovered from that first push. I knew as well from the recce that as this flat section ended, it opened out on the next uphill section, but that section was short until the first aid station. When we reached it, I put on a push knowing there really wasn’t far to go before the top and this allowed me to pass about another 10 people.

Nearing the top of the first climb

Nearing the top of the first climb

The first aid station was at Sunnegga. I knew that from here there was a long, wide downhill track followed by a small climb and some traversal of a hill before the subsequent station at Riffelalp. I decided for this race to wear my Salomon vest simply to enable me to carry more fluids as I knew it was going to be a hot day. This worked great as I had two 500ml soft flasks filled with Tailwind. I’d drained one flask on the first climb and I knew I wouldn’t need more than one more flask to the next station, so I decided to simply grab a glass of water and keep running. This fast pit stop and the subsequent attack on the downhill earned me a significant number of places. I was surprised throughout the race at how few people were letting go on the down hills, especially as many of them were on wide, smooth tracks.

On the way to Riffelalp we passed markers where the 46km race broke off the route to take in a loop up to Gornergrat. I was reticent of not signing up to this longer distance race leading up to the start. In hindsight I think I probably enjoyed the 30km better, but I would like to go back and take on the bigger distance. We got to Riffelalp far faster than I anticipated and I had barely drained my remaining soft flask, so I decided on another short pit stop, grabbing two glasses of water and a handful of dried fruit. The aid stations were perfect in my opinion, they had a bounty of stock considering both the 46 and 30km races had been passing through and it was broadly laid out so people weren’t climbing over each other to get to it. As we neared this stop the sound of alpine horns started to drift through the air, it really added a wonderful atmosphere to the race.

Riffelalp Aid Station

Riffelalp Aid Station

Next up was Furi, which was another short descent away from Riffelalp. The trail on the way become a little technical and slowed things down considerably. It was obvious people were starting to tire as there were plenty of trips and falls as folk clipped their toe on a rock or a tree root here and there.

Heading towards Furi with the Matterhorn cheering us on

Heading towards Furi with the Matterhorn cheering us on

Before we could get to the water stop at Furi, there was a small matter of a suspension bridge to cross. I’d recce’d this before hand so knew what it was going to be like. I’m glad, because I think if I’d stumbled into this mid-race I might have been a bit spooked!

Furi suspension bridge - yes, it does move!

Furi suspension bridge – and yes, it does move!

The course team had flagged it to stop people from running on the bridge. This kind of worked, but as I crossed it, there were about 10 runners all speed walking across it. The bridge was considerably flexible and this amount of traffic on it had an interesting effect!

At Furi my partner, the wonderful and beautiful Nichola, was there to meet me and give me encouragement. I was ready for the pit stop here and had my sachet of tailwind ready to drop into one of my soft flasks for the final climb up to Schwarzsee. I almost ran straight into Nichola as I was sorting this stuff out! It was great to see her and it really gave me a lift for the next section of the course which was certainly the hardest.

Arriving at Furi - Picture: Nichola

Arriving at Furi – Picture: Nichola

This was about the only bit of the course I wasn’t looking forward to. From Furi it is an almost vertical climb up switchbacks to the next station, Schwarzsee. It was hard going, but just a case of keeping your head up and pushing on. I’d seen the trail from the chair lift and knew it was steep, but it was made even tougher as the sun was out by this point and the temperature was creeping up towards 30 degrees. After about 30 minutes, the summit came in sight and one final drive of the legs got me through the timing gate at the top. I was 3h 05min into the race and I had run the remainder on my final recce, so knew what lay ahead. It was mostly downhill on single track trail with just a short uphill section as the trail turned back towards Zermatt. This is possibly the most scenic part of the course, with a backdrop of the Matterhorn all the way.

The Matterhorn

The Matterhorn showing off in the sunshine

Before the race, I was thinking I would be close to 5 hours to finish, as I hit Schwarzsee I wasn’t really paying attention and also, Nichola had said she was heading up to meet me too. I spent about 5 minutes at the aid station here looking for Nichola, who it turns out was there but I just didn’t spot her. I eventually gave up and started the descent thinking I was probably at about the halfway mark in the field and had not much to run for. As I headed down I recognised that I was just over the 3h mark, and figured that as long as I take it steady I should make sub 4h 30m, so I set off. My stomach started to ache as I headed down, I think I took on too much water at the aid station so everything was bouncing about a little. This slowed me down, but eventually wore off enabling me to open my legs a bit as I headed into Zermatt. I had one guy in front of me who I could see but at some point the 16km race joined the trail and I was confused about why so many people were in front of me! Eventually I spotted the guy ahead of me but he was too far for me to catch.

The race folds around town to enable a finish up the main street with everyone cheering from the cafes and bars. It again created a wonderful atmosphere and the race planning was perfect as all of the main adult races were finishing about the same time. I crossed the line in 4h 12m and was delighted with how my race had gone. The winners from the 46km race were still being interviewed as I crossed so I assume they had only just finished too, and it felt amazing to be amongst such great runners.

After the finish line you were presented with what I think is both the best race medal I’ve ever had and also the best race t-shirt I’ve ever had. WP_20150822_048
There was also a further aid station immediately in the finishers area and lots of area of shade to recover in. The sun was out, I had my finishers medal and new t-shirt out and it felt amazing.

As I sat in the shade I looked across and saw Tom Owens who runs for Salomon taking a breather next to me. He had come 6th in the 46km race which is an incredible performance. I’d seen Tom run in Carnethy 5 and Birnham Hill race earlier this year and recognised him and said hello. Those guys are incredible athletes and it turned out he was a really nice guy too.

I ended up finishing 78th overall and 18th in the V40 category, which in both cases I am delighted with. To finish in the top 20% or so of a race of this distance with so many runners is really encouraging and made me feel great. Looking back and analysing my race, the slow start helped me as did knowing the course from my recces. I knew where I could push hard and knew where to recover and this paid dividends. I remember from Riffelalp passing people who had started stronger but were slowing down, and recognised that had been me in other races. It felt great to feel like I’d paced it better and had a steady performance. I also felt strong on the climbs, felt like my hydration and nutrition worked well again (Thank you Tailwind!) and all my kit worked well. I wore a Salomon vest, Salomon s-lab exo t-shirt, inov-8 shorts, Salomon s-lab sense ultra shoes, it just all worked perfectly.

The race rewards

The race rewards

The race was exceptionally well organised. During my recce’s I had spotted the guys a few times out and about around the course during the week before putting out markings. There was hundreds of small orange marker flags all over the mountains making it exceptionally clear about where to go. There were also large signs at any major junction to make it clear about which direction to go. This was how all races should be marked over big areas like this. The aid stations were perfectly managed, the pre and post race facilities were exceptional, a great hot meal was available for everyone. It was just all excellent. A huge congratulations and thank you to the race organisers, volunteers and people of Zermatt for putting on such an excellent event.

I felt great the next day and wanted to head out for a recover run. I was intrigued by the section from the 46km race that I hadn’t seen. This was a tough climb up to Gornergrat which I’d seen when I was up there sightseeing earlier in the week. I studied the map on Sunday morning and decided to get the train up to Sunnegga and follow my instincts. I cut off a little of the descent towards Riffelalp and contoured the hill before joining the race route from the 46km race a little further up the hill. The climb was really tough and technical in places. There were plenty of craggy sections and very little in the way of sections where you could recover. I was taking it easy to respect what my legs had done the day before, but it was still a really enjoyable run. I got up to Gornergrat in just over an hour and was rewarded all the way with spectacular views. The Strava activity for this run is here. Now I know what almost all the 46km race route is, I would love to head back next year and take it on.

Leaving Zermatt after such an amazing week was really difficult. Whilst we have spectacular hills and scenery in Scotland, the alps are at another level entirely and really pull on your heart stings if you love being outdoors in this type of environment. The trails and mountains were perfect for running and I can’t wait to go back.

The Strava activity for the race.

Next up for me is the Ben Nevis Race. This is a huge race in the UK hill running calendar and looks to be such a tough race. I’m nervously looking forward to it as it’s my first time, but with under two weeks to go, there is little I can do in the way of training which will help me. I’m planning on a few easy runs in the hills over the next week before taking a few days off before I reach Fort William and the start. Watch out for an update near the time.

Enchanted by the Lakes

I’ve been in Seattle across in America for the past week on a business trip. Due to a number of reasons I didn’t get to fly home until Sunday afternoon but had all Saturday free so I decided I would plan a little running adventure into the nearby Cascade mountain range to help train for the Matterhorn Ultraks coming up later in August..

The Cascades are a range of mountains which run from British Columbia in Canada down the western coastline of the USA down to California. They are an impressive range of mountains with numerous volcanic peaks which top out above 4000m. Compared to what I’m used to in Scotland, the Cascades are a lot more rugged and rocky mountains. They have an abundance of peaks over 1000m and, thanks to a combination of a famous Scotsman and an over-active US Forestry Service, there is an comprehensive range of marked and unmarked trails all over the map of the National Parks in America.

Map of Alpine Lakes area

Map of Alpine Lakes area

After some research online, I found a circular route which took in what looked to be an area of outstanding beauty. The Enchantment Lakes sit in an area South West of a town called Leavenworth in the North Cascades. More about Leavenworth later as it is itself, a very interesting little town. I chose the route for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it was a reasonable distance. I wanted something over 40km long to make sure I got some distance in my legs. Secondly, I wanted something with plenty of elevation and in trails which would be similar to what I’m likely to find in Zermatt later this month. That meant steep climbs on rocky trails with some 2000m+ of elevation and the enchantments seemed to offer all of the above.

It was difficult to get an exact distance for this route as most people do a section of the loop. In America the trails in this type of place are marked with a trail head, which often has a carp park and some simple facilities. The route I was doing had two trail heads whose trails met in the middle, but there was also a road which linked the two trail heads in the opposing direction which enabled you to form a loop. Most guidance suggested that you leave a car at one trail head and then drive up to the other and start your hike from there. That is all well and good when you are part of a group, but as someone who was out for a day on his own, I opted to run from one trail head to the other to start the day.

With my route planning done, I invested in a map of the route from the wonderful REI (we need a comprehensive outdoor shop like this in the UK!) and stocked up on bottled water and Tailwind to get me through the day.  The weather was forecast to be 39 degrees, blue skies and barely any wind, so I packed some factor 50 sunblock too. I set off early from my hotel in Bellevue and drove for 2 hours to make it to the start of the run at 7am. After some last minute checks to make sure I had everything, I set off North up the road from Snow Lake trail head towards Stuart Lake trail head. Already, the views from the car park were outstanding and I knew I was in for a great day.

View from my start point in Snow Lake Trail Head car park

View from my start point in Snow Lake Trail Head car park

In my preparation I’d found someone on Strava who had done this same run in reverse. That meant I knew the elevation profile I was heading for and so set off at a leisurely pace. At this time of the morning the road was getting a bit of traffic from other people heading up to the higher trail head and I could see some people staring at me as they went past wondering who the crazy guy as running up the road. I later passed people on the trail who were hugely supportive and were amazed someone was actually running this thing. It did worry me a bit about what was to come as they were so overly amazed.

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Forest Trail 1599.1

After about an hour of running to cover the 10km from the car park I reached the higher level trail head. I’d already broken into a fast hill walk on a couple of occasions as the climb was gradual, but in places quite steep. It was a relief to finally exit the road and get onto narrow forest trails to make the last bit of climb before the first lake of the day which was Colchuck Lake.

The first trail section from Stuart Lake Trail Head to Colchuck Lake seemed to go quite quickly. It was fairly steady going all the way but a little technical in places and a few slopes that meant it was difficult to do much more than a fast walk. There was also a junction about two thirds of the way along this trail, from which one direction went to a dead end at Stuart Lake and the other broke off towards Colchuck Lake. Fortunately I managed to spot this, but I really was fortunate. The marker boards on these trails are made out of wood that has weathered well to camouflage itself against the surrounding trees at just above head height. If you have your head down and sweat in your eyes, it is difficult to spot them, so you have to keep your eyes open and also use your map to anticipate where these points might come about.

I eventually reached Colchuck Lake and from here the trail traverses the shoreline for about a kilometre or so. This was a relief as it felt like I was now in the run proper and the fun bits were still ahead of me. At the far end of the lake the trail loses its structure and crosses a boulder field. There were cairns marking a general direction, but it was fun boulder hopping and this section passed pretty quickly. At the end of the boulder field was a small beach which was being used as a campsite and I took the opportunity for my first dip of the day from this beach. The water was welcoming and cool as the air temperature was already above 30 degrees and it was only about 10am. I’d also started to warm up here as the trail was now out in open rocks rather than woodland. From this point on it was going to be a very hot day. But the views were already making up for it!

Colchuck Lake from the Start of the boulder field

Colchuck Lake from the Start of the boulder field

The next section was Aasgard Pass. This is a steep climb between a couple of gnarly, jagged peaks which gives access to the upper enchantment lake area. Having seen the photo’s online of what was waiting for me at the top, I was keen to get the climb over and done with as quickly as possible. The pass rises about 600m over just over a kilometre in distance. I’d stopped to chat to a guy before the boulder field who was heading back the way I’d come after coming down off the top. He explained that the way up was to stick to the left, away from a waterfall that comes right down the middle of the pass. I was glad of the guidance as I could see others heading to the right and that route got much steeper the higher you climbed.

Aasgard Pass

Aasgard Pass – You can see the waterfall coming down the center

This was one tough climb for sure. I was going pretty well for the first third of it, with frequent stops at the little streams which fed off the waterfall for a quick dunk of my hat to cool off. The combination of heat, climbing and tough rocky terrain was too much to result in anything but a slow slog to the top. I took every opportunity for some shade amongst the random tree along the way and large boulder I passed. There was some scrambling to be done about 100m from the top of the pass and from here it started to level out and I knew the worst was over.

Creeping over the final section, looking back the views were fantastic, but I was already starting to see what lay ahead and my energy levels rose as a result.

At the top of the pass my first priority was to cool down, so Tranquil Lake, the first one you hit as you come over the pass, got the honour of me diving into it. The water was beautifully cold and I immediately realised how over-heated I’d become on the climb up. I took some time here to get my temperature back down and take on some fluids and calories before making a start on the winding trail that now lay ahead of me through the rest of the lakes.

When I was reading up on this area I learnt that there was a large population of mountain goats up here and that most people are likely to see one or two during their hike. I’d already spotted one on the way up the pass, but once up in the main lake area, these things were everywhere. They seemed calm enough, but were keeping a distance from the many humans that were around up there. I later took a pee against some rocks and within seconds a goat appeared from nowhere, attracted by the prospect of licking the salt that would be left behind on the stone. It politely stood its distance until I’d finished then promptly stepped in and started to go at it. A strange encounter for sure.

One of the many Mountain Goats in the area

One of the many Mountain Goats in the area

I knew that from here it was all down hill. The trail was still indistinct and someone had generously created cairns of all sizes to give a rough indication of the way to go. The conditions from here ranged from slab rock, boulders, open grassed area and what I’d call a sheep path, barely a foot wide but enough to run on. From my study of the map in planning, I recognised that the pass was the hard bit and after that I should be able to enjoy myself with the long loping down hill section. I hadn’t really paid attention though to the distance. I recognised as I started weaving my way through the lakes, that actually I still had about 25km to go!

This weighed down on me a bit as I think I’d somehow convinced myself that once over the pass it would be easy. Whilst it was downhill, it was far from easy. The term technical is often used to describe trails, but it wasn’t until I’d run this that I felt authorised to use the term. As the way meandered through the different lakes, to descend the elevation there is effectively a step between each lake. It makes sense of course now I say it, but it came as a shock on the day. Some of the steps were considerably significant and dropping a 100m or more at a time, often over boulders, slab rock and rarely via switch-back paths.

I quickly got used to running over the slabs and the boulders and would even describe it as fun. I was passing people now who were gingerly tip-toeing down and I must have looked like a lunatic as I went whizzing past shouting my hello’s. On a couple of occasions I clipped a toe or missed a footing and had to check myself. By now I was about 20km+ into the wilderness and attempting to make my way back from here with a sprain or worse would be a nightmare. I reminded myself that I was here to enjoy myself and the scenery and so slowed down again. Every lake I passed which offered the opportunity to swim in from a beach or shallow shoreline, I swam. Every waterfall that came of the bits of remaining glacier, I drank from. I went through half a bottle of sunscreen and took pictures with wild abandon. I was in my element.

I’d stopped paying attention to where I was but after a while I could feel myself tiring. I took out my map and eventually worked out that I was by the outlet of Perfection Lake into Sprite Lake. that meant that I had about 15km still left to go. I’m not sure where about around this area it happened, but I got to a point where I realised I was looking down a valley that I still had to run through to get back and, given how challenging and slow the running was going due to the conditions of the trail, I knew I was in for a long day.

Still a long way to go!

Still a long way to go!

From here, it was head down and keep moving. My experiences from the ultra marathons kicked in and I knew I just had to keep forward momentum, keep eating and keep drinking and it would be fine. I slowed my pace down to conserve energy as I was running low on fuel. I also took out my map and worked out where I was going to have the remaining stocks of things to eat and drink along the way. this helped, it made me feel like I had a plan and that I knew how to do it.

Long way down

Long way down

A couple of hours later I was heading out of the end of the valley and hitting the last section of switch back tracks which led back down to the car park where I’d set off from 10h 30m earlier. The valley had been in the shade most of the afternoon. With the water cascading down it, the air was lovely and refreshing. As I neared the end, the trail turned the corner and went back into the sunshine. Wow what a difference! It was like running into a furnace. when I got back to the car, the temperature gauge was reading 42° centigrade as it sat in the sunshine.

I took the opportunity to cool down in a river which ran past the carpark, stripping down to my shorts and taking the equivalent of an ice bath in there. Despite the warm weather, the water temperature was still ice cold, which was perfect for giving my tired legs some well earned relief. Back at the car I met two girls who were preparing for doing the run between the two trail heads the next day. They were asking me about how the route was and any tips. They were also kind enough to share a beer with me in return. thanks guys and I hope you enjoyed your run the next day!

Before driving back to Seattle for the night I stopped off in the town of Leavenworth. Most people probably haven’t heard of this place, but everyone who gets the opportunity should visit it. Leavenworth was a mining town until a few decades ago when the mining business became unprofitable. The clever folks who lived there came up with the idea of turning it into a theme town to attract tourist dollars, and for whatever reason chose Bavaria as the theme. given its Alpine like location, it actually works pretty well. Almost all the building are chocolate box houses, with German and Bavarian flags hanging off every balcony. There are people in the streets with lederhosen and felt hats. If it wasn’t for the thick American accents you could easily be forgiven for thinking you were in a town just outside Munich. The best part about it though? They have their own brewery which, for a tired runner like me, provided just what I needed to end a perfect day.

If you are ever fortunate enough to get to this part of the world, you could do a hell of a lot worse than visit the Enchantment Lakes. they are possibly the most beautiful place I’ve ever been to and even now, days later, I am still on a massive high. My run wasn’t fast or particularly special in any way, but I am so happy I took the time to make this trip and see this place. I think it was also great preparation for my Matterhorn Ultraks race in a few weeks time. I’ve now seen what running in these high mountains can be like and can mentally prepare. Next stop Zermatt!

Link to Strava activity and below are some more photographs from this amazing day out.

Stumbling towards the Glen

Since the Caledonian challenge my mind has swung around towards the Great Glen ultra (GGU) which is coming up on July 4th. Since the fling my training has been a lot more unstructured, with my running distances reducing rather than increasing. Over the past week this has started to play on my mind with a race of 72 miles just over a week away I am questioning if I am ready or not.

If I think about it, over the past month I have ran Edinburgh Marathon and walked two very long distance walks, so I know I have some training under my belt. I also went out yesterday to fit in a good quality long run with plenty of elevation in to make it as tough as possible. I ended up doing 37.5km with almost 1300m of elevation, strava link here. I did something very similar the week before the fling, sticking two fingers up to the traditional taper approach and going for the panic reverse taper. Mentally I think this helps, I woke up this morning feeling happier about the GGU, but still concerned if I have it in my legs to take it up to such a long distance.

I also seem to have a niggle in my right leg after the caley challenge. I did a little jogging down one of the hills approaching Kinlochleven and I think that short stretch of running in my walking boots caused some ligament damage on the front of my ankle\shin. I have a physio appointment tomorrow to get it checked out and hopefully get some treatment to help it heal as fast as possible. Given I ran the fling with a sprained ankle from 10 days before the start, this appears to be an emerging trend for me in picking up injuries just before an ultra.

I’m starting to fix on my strategy for the GGU. It looks to be a course with 3 main sections from looking at the map. The first section is almost entirely flat from Fort William up to Laggan Locks. The trail follows alongside the canal to here which probably gains less than about 50m along the whole section. This is the danger section, with such a flat, solid trail the temptation will be to go out at 5min\km. I need to bring it back and really pace myself so I don’t come undone later on. The trail then meanders up and down along the side of Loch Oich through to Fort Augustus. There are no real climbs here, but I suspect the perpetual up and down will be tempting to run faster than I should be doing. My target pace for this section is 6min\km to take into account the slight up’s and downs.

From Fort Augustus the track goes along the loch side again with a little more undulation. By this time tiredness will be starting to creep in to my legs given how little distance work I’ve done recently so I need to be sensible and just get through this with my mind fixed on the CP at Invermorriston. Once I’ve refuelled here, it is then a stern climb up a tarmac road with a couple of switch backs that I found on my recent recce. Then a drop back down to Loch side for more undulating trails through to a road which leads down to Drumnadrochit and the final CP. That whole section I suspect will involve lots of slow pace shuffling. The fact I have run it in a recce is making it already feel more achievable in my mind.

From Drumnadrochit, the trail heads up another hill towards Inverness. This section is the one I am the most afraid of at the moment. It looks like a hell of a long way to be running with very tired legs and I suspect mentally it will be a real struggle. At this point I will be in “determined to finish” mode as the next point of civilisation will be the finish line. I don’t expect this to be easy or enjoyable at the time.

I think amongst the many things I’ve learned as I’ve trained to run ultras is the ability to just keep going. I think so much of this is about mental toughness and I’m still confident that, as long as my body can keep things ticking along, it will be the brain that gets me through the Glen.

In other news, I signed up to Transvulcania 2016 this week. It looks such an amazing race and an incredible challenge, getting over that huge volcanic area and in such hot conditions. Here’s a video from their official page to give you a sense for what’s to come.

Great Glen Way recce

It is only a few weeks now until the Great Glen Ultra (GGU). I found in the fling that knowing sections of the course helped a lot mentally and, conversely, the sections I hadn’t run before were my mentally toughest parts of the race. With this in mind I teamed up with a friend of mine from the village to head north for a day taking in what we could of the tougher sections of the course.

My original plan was to run the last 15 to 20 miles of the course. The GGU is 72 miles long, so I figured that finding somewhere I knew 20 miles from the end would be a good mental crutch to see me through in the hardest part of the race. After some discussion though we decided to do a section from Invermoriston to Drumnadochit. I’m very glad we did.

Here is the profile of the full race:

GGU Race Profile

GGU Race Profile

Those two bumpy bits from 40 miles onwards is where we were aiming for. As it turns out, with some work having been done on the Great Glen Way itself, the actual route now takes a more….interesting profile:

Yesterdays out and back profile

Yesterdays out and back profile

Notice the more spikey bits on the first hump? We certainly did! As it turns out, the route is amazing. The trail is exceptionally well made and perfectly signed with lovely bright blue markers at any point of intersection. The weather was perfect and as we reached the highest point on that elevation profile, the views back down Loch Ness were worth the days effort in themselves.

Looking down Loch Ness from the Great Glen Way

Looking down Loch Ness from the Great Glen Way

This section comes after what look like comparatively flat sections in the race but quite a distance in after the start in Fort William. The trail up from Invermoriston takes an immediately steep climb on an access road before heading into the forest on prepared trails. The ups and downs reminded me of the roller coaster section of the WHW near to Crianlarich and, given the distance in the race, are likely to have a similar mental and physical effect. At least now I know it is coming and prepare for it during the race.

By the end of the day yesterday, I was buckled I have to admit. My legs were still slightly tired after last weeks Edinburgh marathon and it was a pretty warm day so water intake was high. I’m really looking forward to the race now though. I think a slow plod out from the start to Fort Augustus, saving as much as I can for those hills we found yesterday before a final 12 miles into Inverness after Drumnadrochit. Should be fun!

Link to Strava activity.

Edinburgh Marathon 2015

I ran Edinburgh Marathon on Sunday and survived! I say survived because the weather warnings leading to it seemed biblical at times and in the end, whilst it turned out to be a pretty nice day, the wind did play a significant part.

I signed up to this almost a year ago when I started running and it was originally my ultimate goal. Since then I’ve discovered ultra, hill and trail running and my overall running mind-set is significantly different to long distance road running. I considered in the lead up to Sunday about being a DNS, however, the allure of my first actual marathon event and some curiosity about how I would do took hold of me. I also have the Great Glen Ultra in just over a month so a hard, long run seemed like a good idea.

Looking towards the start from the yellow pen

Looking towards the start from the yellow pen

So it was then that at 09:50am on Sunday I was lined up in the yellow pen ready to go. I think when I signed up I put In for a sub-4hr time, which earned me a place in this group. Given I hadn’t put any thought into this run or specific training, I wasn’t sure how I was going to do. It could have been a struggle to the death to get close to 4 hours, or I could have been easily jogging over the line in just over 3 hours. As it turns out I was somewhere in between.

I’d never taken part in a running event as big as this. Looking at my results, I see that there were over 7000 people taking part in the marathon and it certainly felt like that. There was an atmosphere around the start which everyone should experience at least once in their running lifetime. With so many people though what I discovered was that the start isn’t actually the start. The loud speakers all along London road proclaimed the countdown to the gun, two minutes later I was still stood in exactly the same spot. Eventually, as wave after wave of runners were released, the yellow pen got their turn and I was off. Or at least, I was almost off. I managed to spot Tony and Brian from Falkland Trail Runners at the start line and stopped for a blessing from these two squirrel gods. Thankfully it turned out they were before the timing mat, so it didn’t impact my overall time.

I set off with all the guidance I’d read about online in my mind, start slow, pace yourself, don’t get pulled into a faster pace than you want to run at the start. Going into this, because I hadn’t really thought about it too much, I was torn between running a 5min\km pace and a 5:30min/km. With a km down in the race, I was running at 4:45min/km. Sigh.

I was ok with the faster than planned pace as it felt like an easy pace for me to maintain. I suspect all the hill running has increased my average pace levels, but also since the fling, I’ve found that I have felt a much stronger runner overall. The route weaved its way through Holyrood park and out towards the coast via Meadowbank. The crowds were pretty special along these stretches and several others along the way. One thing that caught my eye was a tiny little girl on the path near Leith links with a sign saying “High 5 me for superhuman powers”. Who could resist such wonderful support?

Before I knew it I was on Port prom and my pace had averaged out at just below 5min\km. This was feeling good and my mind started to work out the possibilities. I knew from my quick pre-race calcs that a 5min\km pace would get me in around 3h 30min, which was my upper end of ambition. In my head I was expecting a 3h 45min time, so this was all feeling good at this point. My legs were pretty strong and I had settled into a nice steady pace and stride and felt like I could go all day.

We hit Musselburgh before I knew it and the race course flashed by. I knew from the course map that the finish was around there somewhere, so everything I was running now was to be run again after the turn. I started to pay attention to landmarks so I knew where the home straight was going to start. The slog out along the coast line was exactly that, a slog. I think mentally I had it being much shorter than it actually is, but the bulk of the marathon is along the stretch of road from the race course out towards North Berwick. I was keeping an eye out for the elite runners who I expected would be passing on the other side some time soon. My watch with the delayed start was saying 1h 30m at this point, which mean they were probably 15mins ahead of that, so should be coming close towards the finish by now. The course takes a loop around a country estate on the way back after the turn, so I missed most of the elites, however I managed to spot a few. I’d never seen elite runners before so this in itself was exciting for me and worth the effort of being there.

By now I was about 15 miles in to the race and still feeling ok. My pace had levelled out at just a few seconds over 5min/km which I felt good with. I had a hand held bottle with me for hydration and fuel, and I’d drained this already. I grabbed a couple of bottles at a water point and refilled as I ran. I was using Tailwind nutrition which I learned about from the fling. I’d used it on a few shorter runs recently since grabbing a bag of it when I was last in the US for work, and it seemed to work well for me. The challenges I had in the latter stages of the fling are something I want to overcome, and the marathon felt like a good place to give this stuff a decent road test. I have to say it worked well. Throughout the race I felt like I had a steady amount of energy and never once felt like I was starting to slump from lack of energy intake.

The course turns back at about 27km and you get to almost retrace your steps back to Musselburgh. It was at this point that I realised how strong the wind had now picked up and on turning around was faced with about 25-30mph winds. The offset of that of course is that meants for the past 27km presumably I had that same wind on my back, so things should balance out. I think the wind picked up towards the 2nd half of the race though, so that probably isn’t entirely true on this occasion. Whatever, the impact was immediately obvious. the few elite runners I’d seen heading in the opposite direction earlier all had strained looks on their faces and now I knew why. Running at their speed must be challenging enough, doing it into a 25-30mph head wind must be brutal.

My pace dipped enormously here. Mentally I was still feeling strong, my legs felt like they had some left in them, but the pace was saying something very different. Below is my pace graph taken from Strava and you can see the turning point at around 27km and the impact the wind had on the pace after that. I hit my fuel hard trying to perk myself up at this point, knowing I had a hard run ahead. I started to notice others around me pulling up with cramps and that made me focus on keeping a steady intake of my tailwind mixture to help prevent any problems from being low in sodium.

My pace profile (blue line)

My pace profile (blue line)

About 35km’s in I spotted 3 other guys from Falkland Trail Runners heading in the other direction. We had an impromptu hug in the middle of the road for a second before wishing each other well and plodding on. In my head I wanted to try to run a strong final 10km, but the wind was arguing with that idea. I decided that the final 5km must be in a more built up area which should disrupt the wind a bit, so aimed to push through to there as best I could then to try to make some time back with a faster finish pace as the adrenalin kicked in.

That didn’t work either. By now I had long ago worked out my 3:30 time was dead, but I wanted to be sure to get under 3:45. I was keeping track of distance on my watch and saw the 2km to go point come up so started to try to open my legs a bit. Others around me were doing the same but were crashing with cramps almost immediately which wasn’t nice to see. The crowds had grown now and the noise was having a great impact. I turned the corner to see what looked like a motorway leading to the finish gantry and it was all over. My time was 3h 39min 43sec. Very happy with that given the conditions.

After taking in the atmosphere around the finish area, a quick stretch and bottle of water, I headed out to collect my drop bag and warm back up again.

Finish area selfie

Finish area selfie

The sun was out now and I felt fantastic.

Looking back I’m even more happy with the run overall and my time than I was after I finished. I felt comfortable at the distance and was glad to have run at a reasonable pace for the full race. My race day strategy worked with regards to logistics timings before and after, water and nutrition worked well as did my shoe and clothing choices. I think if it had been a calm day my time would have been closer to 3:30 and possibly under. I’m really glad I took part in such a big event with so many people. The marshals were all fantastic with so many smiles and cheers to keep you motivated.

The one thing I settled on after the race was that I don’t like road running any more. All the time I’ve spent in the last year running on hills and trails has really given me a different perspective on running. I can really see why people enjoy running the marathon, it is a huge distance and a hell of an achievement and I am tempted to pick up the challenge to better my time. I found the going tough on my legs though and there seemed to be less of a community spirit amongst the runners than you get at trail and hill races.

I feel ready for the build up to the Great Glen ultra (GGU) now. I think this run has given me some more confidence, it feels like my endurance is building and I am starting to feel that I know how to pace better than before in longer runs, although I still have some work to do. I have a 30 mile recce planned along the GGU route for next Monday with a running friend and I’d like to try some pacing options out on that. I also have the Caledonian Challenge coming up in just under two weeks which will be a nice stretch for my legs.

Sleakit Beasties

Short post today to give an update on the coming weekend. In June I am joining another 5 guys who I work with at Microsoft to take on the Caledonian Challenge. This is a 54 mile walk along the West Highland Way raising money for Foundation Scotland. Our team is called the Sleakit Beasties and this coming weekend will be our final training walk together.

We are heading from Edinburgh up to Fort William tonight aiming to arrive in Fort Bill by about 1am. We will then follow the WHW for about 35 miles down to Bridge of Orchy. The weather forecast is looking great, the team are all stoked up and ready to go. Should be a hoot!

I’ll post some pictures once I’m back, but you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter. If you’d like to donate to support us on the challenge, our fundraising page is the place to be.

Finally, this is our Mascot, if you’ve got any thoughts on a name for him, please get in touch.

Our mascot - but what's his name?

Our mascot – but what’s his name?