Saturday, 19 March 2016

Votwo Jurassic Coast Challenge

I have just completed day two. For the time being, here are a few wearily snapped photos from the nice bit (scenery-wise). Apologies for the resolution - they are taken on my ancient waterproof Samsung.

The runner in red is Simon who I ended up running with for most of the day. It was good to have the additional motivation of someone nearby - I suspect I would have slacked off a bit more if it hadn't been for the company.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Trying to run fast - part 2

[Continued from Trying to Run Fast]

Apologies in advance to anyone reading this.  The main aim of my blog is to keep a record of some of my thoughts and memories of racing - I appreciate that it isn't exactly a thrilling read!

The next weekend I hadn't been going to race so knocked out a 16M training run, but my club was putting on a 10k race in the park near my house so I figured I may as well race. I ran 38:07 on a lumpy course which felt like hard work but was probably good training.

The next weekend I ran Dulwich parkrun in 17:47 which is still my PB.  Looking back at my training log I had a fairly solid week after being lazy and having the Sunday off:
 - Monday: 16.5M @ 7:20 pace
 - Tuesday: hill reps
 - Wednesday: 7M home (feeling tired)
 - Thursday: hill reps (faster)
 - Friday: 5M easy lunchtime run with a friend
This seems to have set me up reasonably well for the Self Transcendence 10M race in the pancake flat Battersea park on Saturday at which I was very happy to crack the hour barrier (59:44).  I think topped it off with a hilly 17M+ hilly run with Adam.

The next week was lighter, with a rest day on Monday, intervals on Tues, 13M run home on Weds and an easy 5.5M on Thursday followed by a rather lazy two days of rest (and seeing relatives) in preparation for the Brampton to Carlisle 10M on Sunday 17 November.  The B2C has been going for some time - 2013 was the 62nd running of the event - and various superb athletes have taken part over the years, including Ron Hill and Steve Cram.  The course record is a bonkers 45:50.  Yes, forty five minutes and fifty seconds for ten miles.  That's chuffing fast.

The day of the race was fairly nippy day but I decided to stay true to my northern roots and run in a vest (and shorts, trainers, etc).  It was a cold start but with a race as intense as a ten miler I tend to warm up a lot... or at least I am so busy feeling knackered that I forget about how cold my hands are.  That start of the race was at my old school, and it felt a bit weird being back there after so many years.  In true Cumbrian fashion, the road just in front of the start line was partly blocked by a lorry transporting sheep - maybe this was just a nice touch put on by the race organisers.

As many races do, the race started pretty quickly, exacerbated by the fact that the first two miles are mostly downhill.  I ran about 5:41 and 5:44 for the first two miles, finally dipping back towards 5:58 in the third mile which had one of the few small rises in the race.  I had the lovely surprise of being greeted by my wife (Shayda) along with my nephews at about the three mile point - a great little boost as things were starting to feel hard.  My excitement got the better of me again and mile 4 was a 5:48.  I started to feel the effort a bit and my pace began to decline - 5:55, 6:00, 6:06, 6:08 for miles five to eight.  In the midst of mile eight I received an unexpected boost when a horse reared up at my causing me to 'sprint' - stagger slightly faster - in terror, and it gave me an adrenalin boost.  A slight aside but I highly recommend having your life threatened by a large crazed beast as a means for boosting your race performance.  I managed a 6:03 for the ninth mile despite another little hill, and then managed to grit my teeth for a 5:53 final mile... helped by a juicy downhill onto the bridge across he Eden.  I finished feeling exhausted but elated, 42nd overall in 59:12.  (Okay, those times don't quite add up - I took them from my GPS which was no doubt a little out).

The B2C was the Northern Athletics 10M Championships which I qualified for due to being born in Newcastle, and I finished 20th in that - sounds better than 42nd (which includes several rather rapid women who chicked me)!  Running a decent chunk under the hour and shows that the previous week's race in Battersea hadn't been a complete fluke - albeit the course was net downhill.  I was really starting to feel the addiction of this road racing shenanigans, enjoying the challenge of running hard and also the geeky joy of aiming for the next arbitrary numerical milestone.  I decided that I'd aim to push down my half marathon time next...

Friday, 30 January 2015

Heading t'Peak

So... I am back running regularly, getting in 5 or so runs per week consistently for a few months. I have started doing one interval session per week and my long term hip whinjury seems okay - it is still there, lurking in the background, but hasn't flared up significantly.

This weekend will be an entertaining test... Having barely run off road since the Transalpine race in 2013, I am heading up for a recce of some of the High Peak Marathon route with Adam, Duncan and, if he can get there through the snow, Andy. The MWIS forecast says there will be winds 40-65mph on the tops with a temperature of -17c with windchill.

Here we go...

Sunday, 29 September 2013

The Gore-Tex Transalpine run 31 August to 6 September 2013

[This is a post written for Herne Hill Harriers quarterly magazine 'Red and Black'. Update: Photos now added]

The Gore-Tex Transalpine race: an eight day stage race for teams of two through four countries covering 261km with 15,879 m of ascent.  When thinking about how best to describe my experiences of the Transalpine race, two principles that I was first introduced to in my rock climbing days sprang to mind.  Firstly, 'Get your excuses in early', and secondly, 'Type 1, 2 and 3 fun':
  • Type 1: simple, instant gratification - what normal people call fun.
  • Type 2: not pleasurable at the time but something that you enjoy looking back at - retrospective fun.  
  • Type 3: really just not fun at all - the only pleasurable thing is surviving.
The first principle feels relevant because the several months leading up to the Transalpine had been mixed: I had been suffering with a mild but prolonged hip injury which had restricted the volume and intensity of my training, in particular the amount of hilly or off road training.  I had, however, got in a few good training events such as the High Peak Marathon, a 42 mile night orienteering event, and the Old County Tops, a 38 mile fell race in the Lake District.  A good result in the Lakeland 50 at the end of July without any significant problems from my injury gave me a boost, and gave me the confidence that I would be able to increase training volume prior until the Transalpine race.

Fast forward a month and I reached the event feeling positive, albeit rather tired from a busy week in the US and then two days of travelling to get to the start of the event in Oberstdorf, South Germany.  On Saturday 31 August, Adam and I lined up with over 730 other runners in the start pen to run the first stage from Oberstdorf in Germany to Lech in Austria - 34.6km with 2.1km of height gain.  The nervous excitement of the event was heightened by the organisers' eagerness for motivational music, with an intriguing combination of Europop and dated rock tunes.  After hearing it several times on each of eight consecutive days, I think I heard Highway to Hell enough to last a lifetime.  Although this level of hype was a little alien to my British sensibilities, I couldn't help but get carried away with the atmosphere.

At the luxuriously late start time of 10:00 we were off, a line of hundreds of runners snaking our way through the narrow roads of Oberstdorf, cheered on by hundreds of spectators.  The start of the stage involved 2.5km of flat running along roads - ideal for a soft London based runner - but then we got onto trails and started the big climb of the day, gaining 1.4km of elevation in about 12.5km.  As I had expected, I didn't feel all that strong on the climbs, but the gorgeous scenery helped to distract me from the hard work, and Adam and I managed to keep up a respectable pace, reeling in a few teams towards the end of the day and finishing in 18th in the Mens category.  A good dose of Type 1 fun liberally sprinkled with Type 2.

In the evening after each stage there was a 'pasta party' which gave everyone a chance to recount stories of the day whilst refuelling prior to a briefing about the next day's stage. To someone who has experience of fell running in the UK it was amusing how strong the warnings were about 'dangerous conditions' on some of the stages. Admittedly there were a few sections with significant drops, but generally with fairly benign underfoot conditions, and the toughest sections were no worse than a Grade 1 scramble. The final part of the evening was a photo and video montage of the day; these really captured the atmosphere of the event and provided a chance to admire the wonderful views some of which were missed earlier on that day due to exhaustion or having to concentrate on the rocks whilst pelting rapidly downhill.

The second stage took us from Lech to St Anton, relatively short at 24.7km but still with 1.9km of climb and including a quad-mashing 1.5km descent at the end.  Adam is a better runner than I am but I was struggling more than expected to keep up with him on the second day, and we finished 23rd in our category on the day, just retaining a top twenty spot on cumulative time. Still a healthy blend of Type 1 and Type 2 fun. Both Adam and I had started to have issues with the skin on our heels from the long fast descents. By the later stages of the race significant parts of my feet were essentially held together by white tape.

That night things took a turn for the worse, as what I thought had been a minor cold that had been niggling away for a few days turned out to be a fever. Waking up repeatedly feeling terrible and covered in sweat was not an ideal way to spend the night, especially prior to a 38.4km stage with 3km of climb. I had very strong doubts that I would get round the stage but was determined to give it a go, not wanting to let myself or Adam down. Although the day was a rather uncomfortable struggle, I did get round in one (slightly dishevelled) piece. In fact there was a small part of my brain which was disappointed that I had managed to finish the stage: if I had been physically incapable of finishing then I could curl up in a ball and rest, but as it was I didn't really have an excuse to stop so I'd have to carry on enduring what was definitely Type 3 fun. Ah, well, only five more days to go...

Stage 4 was hard work and stage 5 was worse: the uphill sprint, climbing 947m over 6.3km, albeit with the luxury of 11m of descending on the way. My body really wasn't in the mood for such an intensive effort, and I had to lie down afterwards. More Type 3 fun. I did appreciate that the stage was so short, however, as it meant I had more hours of recovery time. Possibly because of this, I felt significantly more human the next day. This allowed me to enjoy the stage, taking in the scenery which included climbing up a spectacular gorge with a path hewn into the rock to then emerge onto a gloriously sunny alpine plateau. The balance had swung back towards Type 1 and 2 fun!

I started to feel almost human by stage 7, which was fractionally beyond marathon distance with 2.3k of ascent, and we finished 22nd on the day, our second best position to date. On the final stage I was feeling feeling better again, and we finished the stage 17th on the day, scraping our way up to 20th overall. It was great to be able to perform at close to the level I had been hoping, and I really enjoyed competing with teams on the run in to the finish, overtaking several in the last few miles. At last, the return of a healthy dose of Type 1 fun. The feeling of elated exhaustion as Adam and I ran in through crowd-lined the streets to the finish was something that I will remember for a long time.  

Although it was disappointing to have been ill during the event which meant both that I was not able to run as well as I would have liked and that quite a lot of the week was rather unpleasant, there is a certain satisfaction having completed the event despite this challenge, and I definitely have memories I will keep forever. The race is certainly one I would recommend to someone wanting a European trail running challenge: the scenery was spectacular, the atmosphere was friendly and exciting, and the event it was very well organised. Feel free to quiz me if you are tempted.
Cheesy smiles before the start of Stage 1
Chilling out after the first stage

Grimace for the camera
A view of the Stage 3 descent from a cable car
Staying in hotels (as opposed to in places like the nuclear bunker [yes, really!]) was a nice luxury and had it's benefits

Cruising along in the sunshine on Stage 8
Some lovely singletrack during the mammoth 3km+ descent on Stage 8

Monday, 2 September 2013

Gore-tex Transalpine - three down, five to go

A very quick post about the first few days of the Gore-Tex Transalpine race.
Stage 1: 34.6k, 2k ascent, 1.4k descent. Pleasant weather and a tough but mostly enjoyable start to the race. We toddled round to 18th (?) place in the men's category... but we were beaten by a mixed team and a women's team, along with some masters. It was a pretty pleasing result in especially given the jet lag and general fatigue. Annoyingly the skin on both of my heels had started to shear a bit, which was concerning for the coming days, and I decided to try a different shoe choice for the next stage. I took a couple of videos that I will upload another time.
Stage 2: a mere 24.7k, with 1.9k ascent and 2k descent. Possibly due to a cold which had been lurking for a few days, I was finding it tough and was slowing Adam down a bit... but that could have just been general lack of fitness, and Adam is generally a stronger runner. We finished a bit further back in the field but still stayed top 20 in the men's category overall.
The Heels of Doom held out, although unfortunately Adam started to have the same problem. I am clearly a trend setter.
Stage 3: 38.4k with 3k ascent and 2.4k descent, split into two BIG climbs. That is a metric chuffload of climbing. I struggled more today. My cold was fairly full blown and I was having difficulty breathing properly - I had to stop to retch at the side of the trail on the first climb. We probably went a bit too fast on the first climb for my level of fitness/wellness, and were overtaken by quite a few teams in the middle portion of the race. We picked up a bit towards the end, especially on the final downhill, and took a few of those places back, finishing outside the top 20 but only dropping to 20th in the men's category overall.
Tonight's pasta party, prize giving plus photo and video montages were held on the hillside above Samnau (Switzerland) with great views. A few photos to give a feel: the first is for the balcony of the restaurant, and the second shows some of the descent route as viewed from the cable car. Oh, sscratch that, the Blogger mobile app refuses to let me to post the photos and I'm too tired to try to persuade it. Time to try to sleep... 

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Transalpine prep... or not

Since Wednesday the 21st it may have appeared, to the casual uneducated observer, that I have been on a holiday based around two family weddings, but actually I have been executing a scientifically calculated taper phase for the Gore-Tex Transalpine run.

This has involved:
- being press-ganged into my first attempts at Iranian dancing [gentle, if embarrassing, cardiovascular exercise]
- flying across the Atlantic twice [altitude training];
- sightseeing in and around Washington DC [heat and humidity training];
- not a great deal of sleep [fatigue training];
- eating my own bodyweight in tasty Persian food [carbo loading].

In the midst of the sightseeing, the weddings and the many 'mehmooni'* I squeezed in a few runs. It was hopefully enough to keep things ticking over and to loosen my legs off, and at least I shouldn't be over-trained when the race starts! It was great to meet more of my extended family and to experience a bit more of the Persian culture. I really should re-start learning Farsi...

So, I am writing this on the flight back to Blighty for an overnight stopover at the airport before flying out to Germany. Things have been so busy recently that I haven't had much time to think about the upcoming race but now the excitement and anticipation is building.

*Iranian parties at which I met approximately three thousand** of my mother-in-law's family.

**This may be a slight Iranian-style exaggeration.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Lakeland 50 2013

I can't remember why I entered the Lakeland 50 back in September 2012.  It seemed like a good idea at the time.  As my running friends know and anyone foolish enough to read a few of my blogs posts will find out, my running rarely involves anything resembling a plan.  Having entered, my plans stretched as far as deciding to run a few shorter ultras during the winter and spring to get some miles in the ol' legs.  

My year started to take an interesting shape once Adam suggested that I enter the Gore-Tex Transalpine run, an 8 day stage race across the Alps, at the end of the summer.  I started to think that I could aim to get in good ultra shape for the Lakeland 50, then recover and do some more intensive training for the shorter but hillier Alpine days.  Unfortunately I failed to pay attention to some warning signs during training and racing over the winter and spring, and I gave myself a hip/groin whinjury.  This dragged on into the summer and interfered with my intention to increase my training volume and intensity, but I had managed to get in some decent long runs in, including some rare forays into the fells for the High Peak Marathon and Old County Tops fell race. I felt like I had a decent base of endurance but wasn't sure about leg strength and hill fitness. 

I gather lots of proper ultra distance runners seem to do things like set A, B ad C goals for a race, so I figured I should have a think about these myself.
  • C goal: Get round. 
  • B goal: Get round without anything falling off or breaking. 
  • A goal: Mysteriously get round without re-awakening my whinjury from remission and have a respectable run.
Which one, if any, did I achieve? Read on... 

Due to my attendance being required at the social event of the decade on Sunday - a first birthday party in Nottingham - I had to drive up to the Lakes. I therefore chose to take the Friday afternoon off work so I wouldn't arrive ludicrously late and tired. Unfortunately the traffic was rubbish but I got to Coniston in time for a pub meal with my Mum and Michael with still enough time to register that evening. 

After registering and pitching my tent I caught up with Mike and Hayley for a change at and a beer before turning in for some much needed sleep.   In the morning I had plenty of time for breakfast, kit faffing, etc, although last minute nerves lead a quick dash to the petrol station to get some ludicrously expensive new batteries for my head torch.  I thought I had several minutes left so had a bit of a shock when I saw that three of the coaches leaving as I jogged back down the road to the school.  

Panic. Jog slightly faster. Re-check watch - a few minutes left. Phew. But actually that doesn't help me if the coaches all p1ss off without me.  Jog a bit faster still.  Round the corner into the school and... several coaches were still waiting, along with my mate Frank waiting for me and looking amused.

The long and winding coach journey to the start passed uneventfully and it didn't feel long until we all disembarked at Dalemain to loiter around in the sunshine feeling nervous and waiting for the off. I found Phil, a fellow Herne Hill Harrier and veteran of various ultras including Comrades this year. It was good to have a natter, and then we stumbled upon the topic of how long I thought I would take to get round. I answered honestly that I didn't really have a clue, using the age old technique of getting my excuses in early and mentioning my whinjury, but said I hoped to be back before it was dark, maybe 10 - 11 hours. I hadn't actually looked at the results from previous years, but since the recce from Pooley Bridge to Troutbeck with Mike had taken over 5 hours, and I had felt fine at the end but hadn't felt like we were dawdling at any time, that seemed vaguely realistic. I had an inkling that I might be able to go faster provided my hip didn't play up, but I didn't feel like I should get my hopes up too much. 

Soon it was time to line up for the start. I ambled towards the front 10%ish of the start pen, figuring that the first few miles were fairly flat and that if there was any terrain on which my soft southernified [yes, that's a word] legs should be able to keep up a respectable pace on, this was it. Shortly we were off, trotting round the grassy fields of Dalemain estate.  During the first mile or so I spotted John and John from Twitter (@Johnnnny_M and @fellrunner1975).  It was great to meet them in real life, and chatting helped to take my mind off the pace feeling quite quick.

The Johns pulled away as we headed towards Pooley Bridge so I settled back into my own pace and thoughts, but was determined to keep up a respectable jog up the long ascent up towards The Cockpit on the fellside above Ullswater.

The trail along from The Cockpit to Howtown is lovely and I felt like I made reasonable time, running smoothly and enjoying the day out. At that point being in a race added some excitement but I wasn't yet knackered and regretting - I expected that to come a bit later. I arrived at Howtown checkpoint and fairly quickly refilled my bottles, quickly guzzled down some squash, grabbed some gels and a flapjack and set off. As I was jogging the road section up the start of Fusedale I got talking to another runner, Jonathan (or maybe I was already hallucinating and calling everyone John?) who said that a friend of his ran the event last year in 09:30 and had reached Howtown in about 90 mins, so we were roughly on track for that.

The slog up Fusedale and up on to Wether Hill was tough in the heat and humidity but it was less hot that my recce two weeks before and the presence of other runners nearby, mostly called Jo(h)n, helped keep me from being too lazy.

The running along the ridge then down to Haweswater is lovely and grassy, and it was a nice mental 'tick' to know we'd completed the largest climb of the day. The undulating path above the reservoir to Mardale Head felt like hard work but, again, less so than the recce, and although Jonathan and another runner pulled away, I gained a little on the Twitter Johns.

At the Mardale Head checkpoint I tried another quick turnaround, this time downing a couple of cups of Coke as well as my "bottles and gels" ritual. I grabbed a couple of biscuits and a jam sandwich and started the grind up to Gatescarth Pass.  The checkpoint staff were all really helpful, and it was great to be able to trot up to them and be waited on hand and foot - albeit sweaty-hand and smelly-foot.

Given my lack of serious hill training, it didn't surprise me that the climb up Gatescarth was fairly slow, but I just stuck my head down and kept going, trying to munch down the sandwich and biscuits.  I struggled a bit to get the food down - in fact that was pretty much the last solid food I got on board during the race - and I started to feel quite sick not long afterwards.  I figured this might have been partly due to guzzling Coke, something I haven't tried during a run before, and I vowed not to be so greedy in future.  

One other factor which I think may have contributed to the feelings of nausea was the heat. Fortunately there was some cloud cover so I wasn't always in direct sunshine, but it was hot and humid all day. I drank quite a bit but maybe the volume of fluid was hard for my body to process.

I had been steadily passing 100 runners all day, but I caught up with a 50 runner just after I crested the pass.  He was having issues with his shoes and I quickly pulled away from him on the descent.  All in all it is a very runnable descent but a few sections did make me think that I could have gone faster in slightly more cushioned shoes... or if I was less of a clumsy footed oaf.

As the track turned into a road and flattened out, I gradually caught up with Adam, a fellow 50 runner who had apparently set off a bit too fast for his current fitness, trying to keep up with a friend.  We had a chat and he perked up enough to maintain my pace.  As we ran over towards Kentmere it seemed that our different strengths complemented each other: Adam was stronger (or less weak willed!) on the hills but I was a bit faster on the descents, as Adam was being cautious due to an ankle issue.  We didn't actively decide to run together but I was determined not to lose him on the ups and he seemed similarly intent on catching me after the downs.  Since there was still quite a long way to go, it was good to have someone to talk to, even if only the occasional grunt - it helped keep my mind off fatigue as it set in.

At Kentmere I was feeling really thirst and therefore thoroughly ignored my intention not to drink so much Coke so fast, and I downed another two cups.  Bottles filled and this time an SIS bar pocketed - no gels at this checkpoint - and I set off again.  Adam and I continued together until becoming slightly separated as I pulled away on the descent into Ambleside.  I would have pulled away quite a bit more, as I was still feeling strong on the descents, had I been more confident of the route down through the woods.  Adam was following a GPS trace so didn't need to think much about the route.  My spirits were buoyed by the cheers and applause from onlookers as I ran through the town, and I bounded up the steps to the checkpoint two at a time - probably overly energetic for over 30 miles into a 50 miler!

Adam caught up at the checkpoint and we left together once I had made a call of nature.  I was feeling mentally pretty good, as I knew that we had got over the worst of the race - there were only a few proper climbs to come, and a decent chunk of fairly flat running.  The section following the up-and-over to Skelwith Bridge is probably the first point in the race that I slightly regret not having pushed harder.  Adam was walking some fairly flat sections and, although now quite tired, I felt I could have gone faster, but for whatever reason I decided not to push on properly.  I nudged the pace a bit, which dragged him along, but once I get more used to running and racing these kinds of distances then I think I need to learn when I can push.  Having said that, who knows whether I'd have blown up later if I had pushed on.

The climb out of Langdale was pretty sharp but felt like it was over quickly, and as we ran towards the unmanned checkpoint at the road the sky was looking really threatening.  It had been uncomfortably warm all day, so I was actually looking forward to being rained on. The downpour skirted our route, so it just increased the already high humidity. I was getting to the stage that I was glad it would all be over soon. We passed yet more 100 runners on the way towards the Tilberthwaite checkpoint and they were eager to know how close behind the next runner was. They would have been on the go for over 24 hours at that point but at least they weren't far from the finish and could finish without entering a second night.

I felt slightly awkward when passing many of the 100 runners - mostly walking when I saw them. I would say what I hoped were encouraging words - "Well done!", "Stick in there!","You are doing well!", etc - and occasionally strike up a brief conversation, but I couldn't help but feel that they were mostly in quite a lot of discomfort and didn't enjoy seeing a relatively perky 50 runner cheerfully jogging past. Maybe that is just my projection of how I think I might feel so far into such an epic undertaking.

After Tilberthwaite we had one last climb before the descent down into Coniston and the finish. Adam seemed to be flagging a little but seeing a pair behind us when we were part way up the climb spurred us on. It felt like I could have run faster towards the end on my own but I had probably gained time overall by the motivation of having company, and we dibbed together at the finish. Well, we tried to, but malcoordination meant our times were a second apart. So, those people who have read this far will no doubt be eager to hear which goal I achieved. I finished joint 11th in 09:17:51, so I'd definitely class that as my A goal. Not that I really had one, of course. I was really pleased as I performed better than I had expected, and had mostly enjoyed the experience. Most importantly, I hadn't suffered any significant problems from my whinjury, although I wasn't sure how it would react afterwards.

I would recommend the Lakeland 50 to anyone who fancied a hilly 50 miler. The route is interesting, the surroundings are beautiful, it is well organised, and the atmosphere is great. Entries for next year open whilst I am abroad running the Gore-Tex Transalpine, but I just may need to find a Wi-Fi hotspot...