WHW Race Planning

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

West Highland Way

West Highland Way

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

Race Goals

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

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

Pacing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food

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

CP’s

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

Kit

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

Crew

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

Final Training

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

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

Highland Fling 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inversnaid

Inversnaid Fling Team Pic:Davy Broni

 

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday on the WHW

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

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

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

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

Rannoch Moor

Rannoch Moor

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

WHW over Rannoch Moor

WHW over Rannoch Moor

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

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

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

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

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Hard not to fall in love with this place – Glencoe

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

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

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

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

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

Ashmei Ambassador

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For each, you need a story:

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

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

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

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

Summit Community

Summit Community

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

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

Carnethy 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Start\Finish Line

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

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PC: Matthew Curry

 

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

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

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

 

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

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Racing to the finish. pc: Tim Allan

 

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

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

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

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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!

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.

Tomorrows Ultraks Race

Just a quick update before I hit the sack for the night. Tomorrow is the Matterhorn Ultraks race and I’m itching to get started. I’ve spent the week in Zermatt taking in different aspects of the course and generally enjoying some time up in the alps. I’ll write a details blog post after the race, but wanted to get an update out as I’ve been pretty quiet the last week or so on here.

Zermatt is an amazing place and I’ve fallen in love with it already. The buzz has been growing around town and reached a height tonight as more and more runners started to arrive to collect their race numbers.

View from the descent from Schwartzsee

View from the descent from Schwartzsee

With scenery like this, it is going to be an amazing race and the weather is looking like it will be ideal. Off to bed now to get what rest I can before the start line tomorrow.