- Jez Bragg
- Welcome to my blog which I hope to develop with some interesting material on ultra running both on the trails and road including reports on races and interesting training runs, views on kit and equipment as well as anything else I find of interest. I love running for adventure, opportunity and well being. Enjoy!
Saturday, 20 December 2008
I ran my first five miler a couple of weeks ago, just for a bit of fun, and found it to be great high intensity training. It was one of a local winter series of five races and I’m hoping to be able to do a couple more and try and chip away at my time. I think one of the most appealing things about running shorter races is that it doesn’t take up a whole day, you can do the travel there, race and travel back in a couple of hours, a bit more manageable compared the usual ultra epics.
Last weekend I hit the Peak District with a couple of friends, Matt Giles & Steve Pope, for one of our regular days out together on the hills. Tradition has established we go for a couple of pints the night before - this time it was four in the space of an hour - so sharpness was lacking somewhat during the early stages of our run from the outskirts of Sheffield to Edale and back. After a long spell of clear chilly weather, we managed to choose a soggy, cold and windy day which made it challenging with the paths turned to streams in most place. We were all soaked through to the bone and freezing cold by the time we reached the Edale café lunch stop after a 20 mile morning, and despite good food and a couple of pots of tea we all struggled to warm up get going again afterwards. My cold decided to make a return towards the end of the day so I wasn’t on the greatest form, bit all-in-all it was a cracking day and very satisfying to reflect on after a long hot bath.
This week I hit the Warwickshire trails for a bit of a mud-ridden running across the fields. Now the ground has thawed out the fields are pretty heavy underfoot so it was slow going, but nice to be out about in the depths of winter.
At the moment I’m busy race planning for next year. The www.runfurther.com races have been announced so hopefully I’ll be able to get a full set of races complete in 2009, along with Western States (take 2) and the Commonwealth 100km Champs in September. It’s going to be a busy year, but exciting with the opportunity explore new places and run different races.
Monday, 15 December 2008
Sunday, 9 November 2008
I sat by the side of the road with my head in my hands. It what was a feeling of shock more than anything. I have never experienced real failure during my still relatively brief running career, yet that is what I suddenly faced. I couldn't believe it. It was a horrible and premature end to a race which I had high hopes for. It was also only the second time I have ever pulled out of a race.
The first 37km of the race followed a linear route from Tuscania to Tarquinia (100km NW Rome), along country lanes through pretty rolling countryside. It was very pleasant, if a little more undulating than the organiser's route description had suggested. But the early kilometres passed without too much trouble, albeit it was too warm to be feeling completely comfortable.
At about 30km the first signs of trouble started to show, I lost rhythm and with it the comfort I should have maintained much further into the 100km route before the usual 'dig deep' stage. By 35km I was starting to panic, something was not right and it wasn't like a typical lull that I know well from running ultras. As I hit the 14.5km loop on the outskirts of Tarquinia (to be run 4 times) I suddenly started to slow and my pace dropped by 30odd seconds per mile. I knew then that whatever was up with me was catastrophic. Soon after I had come to the decision to pull out which I did at the 45km aid station.
I know deep down some of the factors that may have contributed to my poor performance but I've now got plenty of time to mull it all over and remedy things before racing again next year. No more ultra races this year; definitely time for some r&r plus time with much neglected girlfriend, friends and family!
Looking at the big picture this is the first time I've really taken a step backwards for the 3 or 4 years I've been running competitively. I've had a good spell and inevitably a blip was going to come at some stage, it was just gut-wrenching that it came when I was wearing my GB vest. Being philosophical maybe it's someone's way of saying I need a rest, or maybe just an event to help re-kindle my motivation? Whatever happens I'm looking forward to a fresh start in 2009 and plenty of race-planning in the interim!
Thanks to all for showing interest and the messages of support.
Wednesday, 5 November 2008
Tuesday, 4 November 2008
Well, I'm now the proud owner of a second red, white and blue vest; the colours of our great nation! My GB kit arrived a couple of weeks ago and is now laid on the bedroom floor like some sort of military display. On Saturday I will wear it with pride, running against some of the best ultra runners in the world representing 33 different nations. I will be a proud man.
When I think about it, running an international race over 100kms is probably one of the greatest challenges there is. I can't think of many other international championship events which compete? OK, there is of course the 24 hour event, but that really is nuts. But then again running long is the norm for me, it's what I do best and it's how I can show my true strength. I will go out there on Saturday and run with pride, but at a sensible pace early on to try to achieve my main goal which is a sub 7hour time. It has been a long time since a UK athlete has run sub-7hours for the 100km, and it is about time someone did. I will have a good go.
With a bit of luck I can post the results and some initial thoughts on the race soon after it finishes on Saturday, watch this space......
Here's me doing battle with one of the German runners in Winschoten, September 2007
Saturday, 11 October 2008
I do however enjoy running in the autumn and winter months save for those days of extreme weather. On Monday morning of this week I opened the curtains to find the first decent frost of the year and a murky fog lurking out in the darkness. So the running tights were dusted off, so too the beanie and a long sleeve top. Suddenly my usual 6am 5 miler had a completely different feel to it, and I loved every minute of it. I was well wrapped up - nice and warm - which brought about a nice feeling of comfort and self-satisfaction, particularly knowing most folk were still tucked up in bed.
It got me thinking about the timing of races, and when the best time to peak for a race is. For example many people say they don't like running the London marathon in spring due the winter training required. Personally I prefer to train when it's cooler so for me a race in spring or late autumn is fine and probably preferred. Training is never easy whenever/ wherever it's done, I know all about that at the moment.
I'm now in my peak training weeks for the 100km World Cup in November with two sessions most days, the majority on the roads. The biggest challenge has been improving leg speed after Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, a race which seems to do the opposite. Having said that, there is no better motivator than the chance to run in a GB vest, so every session i'm putting everything in to get in the best possible shape. I appreciate just how fortunate I am to be able to do what I do, so I have to relish the opportunity.
A lot of people ask how my training is going. The answer if probably the one that most runners give pre-race, a bit up and down really. But thinking back, there are very few races I have run where the build-up has been perfect. It doesn't seem to work like that with ultra running. Training to become fitter and to run faster seems to be like walking a tight-rope, it's very easy to topple over by over doing it. So day-by-day it's a case of keeping well, avoid colds, bugs etc, and putting in quality training with clear purpose. It's easier said than done, particularly with family, friends, work and other 'normal' commitments. But if it was easy, then I probably wouldn't be doing it...........
Happy night running!
Friday, 3 October 2008
Tuesday, 30 September 2008
After the cancellation of this year's race due to forest fires the organisers offered places for the 2009 race to all those on the 2008 start list. It wasn't a particularly difficult decision to make, but it still involves a massive commitment both in terms of training and travel, and the decision required some serious thought. It is also the most prestigious ultra in the US and very hard to get a place, so the opportunity had to be taken.
Anyway, I have bitten the bullet and confirmed my entry so I will definitely be there at the start line in Squaw Valley next June. Looking forward to it already......
The Western States trail dropping down from Emigrant's Pass (June 2008)
Despite my admitted scepticism, it turned out to be quite a pleasant affair. The course was the one used for the annual Boddington 50km, just north of Gloucester, on a 3.5km flat road loop along pleasant country lanes which were very peaceful aside from plenty of farm traffic! Conditions were good - foggy and chilly with no breeze - perfect for fast running.
It was really a case of job well done. It is still only four weeks since the Ultra Trail, and to be running that sort of distance, at a brisk-ish pace, is still a bit risky. But we can both now look forward to the event itself in less than six weeks time. Back to the speedwork on the roads.......
In my view a classic route is the most important criteria for a successful trail race and that's where Hardmoors scores maximum points. There is no doubting the Cleveland Way, which runs 110 miles from Helmsley to Filey, is an absolute classic, and extremely tough at the same time. It combines classic rolling hills, remote moorland, coastal cliff paths and plenty of cumulative ascent/ descent. The runners reported it was more UTMB than WHW, in other words a serious challenge.
I was due to be marshalling a checkpoint for the race but unfortunately had to pull out due to commitments elsewhere, so instead I attended the prizegiving in Filey on Sunday lunchtime where there was a fantastic post race atmosphere, and plenty of talk about a hugely successful race.
The race organisers, Jon and Martin, deserved all the praise they got for putting on an excellent event, and all the signs are that it will grow to be as successful as races like the WHW race which this year filled it's 175 places in a matter of weeks.
L to R: Mike Mason, Jon Steele (Race Director), Julian Pansiot, Mark Barnes, Murdo McEwan, Jez Bragg
Saturday, 6 September 2008
My UTMB run was a massive personal disappointment; I finished way off target in 38th place, in a time of 27hours 28 minutes. I had high hopes this year, and for some reason, it just didn’t quite come together. To start with the heat was a big factor. My core body temperature was above what it should have been before the start, and then the humid early evening conditions had me suffering far too early on in the race. The sweat was pouring off on the first climb up Col de Voza, and I simply couldn’t get enough fluids and salts back into my body to keep everything working as it should do. Coupled with the heat my stomach was bad and simply wasn’t playing ball. It is a long standing problem which causes me trouble even when I’m not running, and it was just unfortunate that my recent bad patch coincided with the race. In the end it took nine hours – until Lac Combal – for me to settle down into the race properly, feel as though I was in control and to start running with some purpose.
In and out of Cormayeur I felt great, and at that point I actually felt it wasn’t too late to pull back enough time for a respectable finish. My climb up to Refuge Bertone was strong, and all the way up Val Ferret I was a new man, but perhaps not surprisingly, my troubles returned on the way up to Grand Col de Ferret to the extent that I was just getting plain frustrated. From there I was starting to lose time again when I desperately needed to be pushing on, and so followed a painfully slow down hill to Praz du Fort followed by a crawl up to Champex. There I met my fabulous support crew who tracked me right through to the end including Caroline and members of her family. They provided massive psychological support and dragged me through the final ups and downs of the race to ensure I did see it through. Without them the outcome would have been much worse, that’s for sure.
Without wanting to dwell too much on my personal disappointment, the UTMB race itself is undoubtedly going from strength to strength. It was great to be involved in what has to be the world’s biggest and best 100 miler - what other race comes close? Once again Chamonix had a special buzz from the race being in town and the support, organisation and strength of the field all matched the race's world class status. No doubt the bar will be raised even higher next year and even more people will want to be part of it.
Sunday, 24 August 2008
I've been out in the alps for a couple of days now, staying in a campsite in La Fouly, Switzerland, right next to the TMB route. It's a cracking spot, reasonably high at 1,600m, but wonderfully peaceful and a great place to spend a quiet couple of days gathering thoughts before I head to Chamonix on Tuesday. I've done a couple of easy runs, today up to Grand Col du Ferret which was spectacular with cloudless skies.
The temperature seems cooler than last year when even at night the runners complained of it being too hot for running. Last night there was a ground frost and I suspect it will be the same tonight.
I'm certainly looking forward to running this year, aiming to have a much better run than previous attempts when I haven't trained specifically for the event. Hopefully my leg strength will be better and I can maintain a better pace.
It is such an epic race in so many ways, the important thing is to give the course the respect it deserves by setting out at a sensible pace. With the new 700m climb up to Flegere right at the end, it will be the runner who judges the pace just right who comes out top. Good luck to all the British runners, let's hope we get a few in the top 10 this year!
Monday, 11 August 2008
The first 19 miles or so to the checkpoint at Blackrock Cottage (Glen Coe) were pretty uneventful, although the split time of around 2hrs 11mins was quick and set the tone for some serious record breaking. Five of us ran a pack to that point; Andy Davies, Andy Rankin, Ben Kemp, Marcus Scotney and myself. Thereafter things started to get going.
I was first out of the Glen Coe checkpoint after a quick refill of drinks bottles and I decided to put on a short burst to see if I could split things up a bit. Marcus had other ideas, my mini-break was soon countered and we were back running as pair within a few hundred yards, with Andy Rankin close behind. The faster pace did however continue to the foot of the Devil’s Staircase at which point there was just a few yards separating the three of us.
From the top of the Devil’s Staircase Marcus ran an incredibly fast descent, moving away from me at a remarkable rate. I responded by upping the pace, but I couldn’t match his downhill speed and soon lost sight. Into Kinlochleven his advantage was a solid couple of minutes which helped focus my mind on a fast re-fuel. I probably stood still at the checkpoint for a maximum of 15 seconds, enough time to get some calories poured down my neck and grab a couple of fresh handheld bottles. As I told my checkpoint crew, there was a battle on.
I gathered my thoughts on the climb out of Kinlochleven – 14 miles to go, focusing on a fast crossing of Lairig Mor to close the gap on Marcus well before the descent into Fort William where I new he would have the advantage. The twists, turns and undulations of the vehicle track across Lairig Mor provided a great hunting ground for me. I’m not sure whether Marcus was looking back, but the chances are he wouldn’t see me if he did, yet I had near constant sight of him about 400metres ahead where I could monitor his progress and roughly time the gap. The trouble was, as the miles clocked by, the gap wasn’t closing. I was pushing maxed-out to try and reel him in but he wasn’t having any of it and matched my pace consistently. Finally, on the approach to Lundavra, I started to close him down. His relentless pace finally slowed and I took the lead.
The final section through the woods and down into Fort William brought back some very special memories of my WHW run in 2006. I was in the same situation again, motivated to run all out to ensure I set the fastest possible time I could. 5hours 22minutes was my final time – a new course record - which I was absolutely delighted with as it completes my set of three along with the WHW race (2006) and The Highland Fling Race (2008).
Marcus finished close behind in 5hrs 32mins and local Fort William runner, George Cairns, third in 5hrs 47mins. Remarkably, seven runners finished under the previous course record of 6hrs 08mins, which in my view is down to Saturday’s perfect combination of great running conditions and a highly competitive field.
Having had a few days to reflect on my run, I have come to the conclusion that it was my best performance in a race – ever. I know that is big statement, but I am pretty sure it’s true. Never before have I been pushed so far and so hard in a race. The extent to which the record was broken says it all – 46 minutes, over a mile a minute faster than the previous record. That’s no disrespect to John Kennedy - the previous holder - it just shows what can happen when the right competition, conditions and support are there, and I was very lucky to have all three.
Support is where I would like to end these ramblings on Saturday’s race – a massive thank you to George and Alasdair for their slick support operation on Saturday, what a team! They came in at the last minute, nothing was ever too much trouble and supported me like they had known me for years. I owe them big time……
Check out the full race results at http://www.devilothehighlandsfootrace.co.uk/
Next up – The North Face Ultra Trail Tour du Mont Blanc on 29 August.
Wednesday, 6 August 2008
.....and yes, I did get some strange looks when we did the photos.
Friday, 1 August 2008
I travelled over to the alps with Lucy Colquhoun, a fellow WHW record holder, and Allen Smalls, a great training buddy of late. Arriving to beautiful alpine sunshine we camped a night at the picturesque Mer de Glace site just outside Chamonix and made an early start at around 6am on Friday morning. Kit choice was an entertaining debate that lasted well over an hour the night before. We would carry everything we needed for three days out on the trail, although overnight stops would be a hotel the first night and a pension the second, and provisions were topped up regularly en route. The trick was to keep everything to a minimum. That inevitably resulted in below standard hygiene but frankly, we didn’t care. The forecast was good and we would travel as a group of three so we erred on the side of fast and light as opposed to safety first; a joint decision.
The run down valley to Les Houches was very pleasant but we were soon into the not-so-genteel climb up to Col de Voza and La Charme thereafter. We were all quickly awakened to the ‘sharpness’ of the alpine climbs, something that catches a lot of people out in the race, particularly given there are so many major climbs over the course of the race. From La Charme followed a fast descent into the town of Saint-Gervais, the town which knows how to party on race night. It was much quieter last Friday morning around 9am, and a pleasant setting for a quick re-supply of drinks.
The next section along the valley bottom to Les Contamines was surprisingly eventful thanks to some embarrassing navigation errors by me, but we all managed to see the funny side and arrived safely in town where temperatures were really hotting up. We took a generous stop to ensure we were all well re-fuelled for the big climb out of town up to Col du Bonhomme which, given the now scorching conditions, was hugely energy sapping, along with the effects of the altitude. The regular mountains streams that crossed the trail proved to be a saviour as we cooled ourselves down as often as possible. Topping out after the 1,300m (net) climb was a relief to us all, probably the main reason for our blast down the other side which was done in a traditional route one – straight down the mountain – British fell running fashion. It must have been quite a sight because the numerous walkers on that side of the mountain seemed to stop in their tracks, perhaps for safety reasons?
We hit Les Contamines mid-afternoon and were all feeling the affects of the heat but there was still plenty of trail ahead, and our day against the clock had to continue if we were to stand any chance of an evening pizza in Cormayeur. Onwards and upwards, to La Ville de Glaciers following the nagging road climb. Lucy’s ’20 questions’ game seemed to help morale and provide entertainment before the steepness of the final clamber up Col de la Seigne at 2,516m reduced us all to silence. A moment of reflection on the French/ Italian border at the top of the pass was one of the high points of the weekend for me. The mountains were at their finest in the late afternoon sunshine, and fluffy white clouds gave the scenery even more depth. Another fast descent to Lac Combal, this time lead by Lucy, set us up for the final climb of the day up to Arete Mont Favre, and boy was it a grind. We were all feeling it now, and the final factor in the challenge was low blood sugars. We rallied as a team, twice, and coaxed each other well to the top of the final descent into Cormayeur, and eventually made to our hotel after around 14 hours on the hoof. Unfortunately the pizza craving had faded, and the heat had actually made us all not feel like eating, but for function more than anything else it had to be done.
With 78 of the total 166kms under our belts the three of us felt a little more relaxed about day two, so after a leisurely start to the day we set off from Cormayeur at around 9.30am. In true UTMB fashion there was no opportunity to warm up our heavy feeling legs as we were straight into a steep and compact climb from the start, up the switchbacks and through the woods to Refuge Bertone, the legendary refuge that towers above Cormayeur town. Thankfully the woods provided plenty of shade; we were in for a hot one again. Onto the contouring path running along Val Ferret at high level, the views across to the Mont Blanc massif were incredible, and with just gentle undulations here and there, the opportunity to enjoy the scenery was gratefully taken. We soon closed in on the head of the valley and dropped down to Arnuva for a quick re-fuel before hitting the big climb of the day, Grand Col du Ferret. It’s not the biggest climb on the UTMB route, but it certainly felt like it for the three of us, as we grinded out the relentless switchbacks to take us to the Swiss border at the top. Being a Saturday there were plenty of walkers, runners and MTBers (madness) out on the trail, but we just kept heads down and maintained progress despite the curious looks from onlookers.
We didn’t hang around at the top either, instead descended out of the brisk wind to find a pleasant spot to eat before making our way down to La Peule and eventually the bottom of Val Ferret (Swiss side). Once beyond La Peule we bumped into the back-markers of The North Face team who were out on the UTMB trail following the same three day format as us. It was Keith Byrne and partner Sara who were good spirits despite Sara’s knee troubles. It was at this point we realised we had missed a new section of this year’s route which follows a single track grassy trail from La Peule, in a more direct line to La Fouly, avoiding the prolonged switchbacks along the gravel vehicle track which has never been particularly exciting. We were hundreds of metres below the turn-off point by that point so we opted for the old route, over the river and down the road to La Fouly. More food and drink, then a blast down the gently descending riverside path toward Praz du Fort, surprising a French runner who overtook us hours before as we cruised past. It was Lucy who helped pushed us on. That girl knows how to run, particularly on the flats and descents, leading from the front!
Lucy leads the charge down valley to Praz du Fort
As the day went on, the three of us seemed to get more and more laid back, enjoying the running, adventure and variety of trails. Praz du Fort proved to be our favourite town of the trip, a peaceful group of rustic alpine buildings, many overhanging the narrow road that meanders through. Window boxes, livestock and vegetable patches all made it feel homely and quaint. A dip in the village fountain helped to keep our cool before the prolonged and disorientating final climb of the day up to Champex-Lac, sitting as it does perched on the end of a hanging valley.
Al and myself soak our weary legs in the Champex lake
It was great to reach our overnight stop in good time at around 5.30pm and as we ambled through town were welcomed by Kim and Topher Gaylord (President of The North Face Europe) who dived out of a café to catch us as we passed by. I first met Topher at the West Highland Way race in 2006, and subsequently got in touch when I joined the TNF team. We were delighted to join them for a drink and catch-up, just as Spaniard Sastres was putting the finishing touches to a great Tour du France performance in the final time trial, being shown on TV in the cafe. Topher and Kim were leading a group of ten or so runners around the UTMB course, including the legendary American runner Scott Jurek, who was back in the Alps to prepare for this year’s race.
After an overnight stay in a great pension on the main road in Champex, we re-joined the TNF group first thing at the pre-arranged RV point outside Leon’s patisserie. Leon, as I understand it, is the person behind this year’s ‘Petit Trotte a Leon’ a crazy multi-day, non-stop team event being run prior to this year’s UTMB. Needless to say there was a great welcome from him with so many elite runners hanging out at his shop. After taking the golden opportunity to buy a gourmet lunch from the patisserie we made a start on day three, running in convoy up to the base of Bovine, and straight up to the top without too much time to think. With Topher, Scott, and French superstar Sebastien Chaigneau amongst the ranks the pace was quick, particularly up the climbs from Topher and Sebastien where their alpine fitness and excellent technique using poles clearly shone through. On the descent from Bovine we reformed as a convoy and blasted down to the bottom without too much ado.
L to R - Scott Jurek, Kim Gaylord, Sebastien Chaigneau. At the top of Bovine.
L to R - Topher Gaylord, Jez Bragg, Allen Smalls, Lucy Culqohoun. At the top of Bovine.
Again the group split up on the climb out of Trient, the two guys with ‘four legs’ storming up the quickest, leaving myself and Scott to joke about our naivety at not using poles, although we both found out minds quickly changing as the day went on. The fastest running of the three days came from Catogne down to Vallorcine where the four of us practically raced to the bottom with our competitive streaks shining through. Lunch in Vallorcine as a group also provided an opportunity for the presentation of Topher’s birthday cake, a remarkably intact piece of blackcurrant tart transported by Scott - a great effort. We also grazed and chatted as a group for a short while before the gentle climb up to Col du Montets, the start point for the race’s new ‘twist in the tale’ climb up to Flegere. As with all these alpine climbs, I found the first few hundred metres the worst as my legs struggled to change gear from running on the relative flat. Eventually they did, but once again Topher and Sebastien we were well into the distance, so I settled for my routine position of third (not that I was racing…..). The new climb is nothing less than sadistic, coming at the 152km point, and being roughly 800m in vertical ascent. The other added difficultly is the technical trail that links the top of the climb, Tete aux Vents, with the Flegere cable car station, namely the Grand Balcon Sud. It is certainly not a fast section and awkard drop offs, twist and turns all make for a painfully slow final high level section before the final descent to Chamonix.
All I could think as we descended back down to the Chamonix valley was how massively challenging it will be on race day. The organisers have made a significant change to the route, so even more so than previous years, it will be the smart runner who shines through. I suspect the journey of this year’s race will a hugely emotional one, it will break many hearts and make many dreams. I just hope it will be the latter for me.
Despite it being my fourth Tour du Mont Blanc - two race completions and two training loops - what really strikes me is how much of an epic adventure it always is. The three of us came away from the training weekend with very special memories, as well as the training and experience that will hopefully provide us with the race performance we are looking for.
Sunday, 20 July 2008
I am delighted to report I have been selected to represent Great Britain at this year's IAU 100km World Cup taking place in Italy on 08 November. I will be running as an individual as no other male runners have achieve the qualifying standard. This year's race will start in Tuscania, nr Rome, and finish in Tarquinia. I believe the course comprises a linear section of approximately 35km followed by a number of laps of a loop. In any event is sounds more interesting than the pancake flat 10x10km course of last year's event at Winschoten which was mentally extremely tough. I am also hoping there will be some significant undulations to suit my running strengths.
I will begin my build up immediately after the Ultra Trail Tour du Mont Blanc race at the end of August and will hopefully provide a good platform for the Commonwealth 100km Championships now confirmed for September 2009.
It certainly doesn't get any better than running for GB and I am delighted to have earned my second GB vest in consecutive years.
Wednesday, 16 July 2008
The PBR is probably the least known and attempted of the UK rounds, but nevertheless it’s one of the classics. It includes no less than 47 peaks ranging between 466m and 1085m in height, covering a distance of roughly 62miles and 28,000ft of ascent/ descent. The record for the PBR is an impressive 18hours 10mins, held jointly between Mark Hartell and Christopher Near, the runs remarkably being completed on separate occasions.
After a hasty overnight camp in an empty National Trust car park in the village of Nantmor we got off to an early start at just gone six on Saturday morning and were straight into the first climb of the day, Bryn Banog (519m) which forms the shoulder to the more impressive Moel Hebog (782m). Within a few miles we were running fabulous untracked terrain and it soon became clear that this was classic PBR terrain, typical of the less trodden parts of Snowdonia. What struck me was how typically British it all was; sheep tracks, heather, bog, rocky outcrops, damp underfoot, misty rain and non-existent paths. Being very patriotic, there lied a great deal of appeal!
What a contrast to the comparatively manicured trails of California I had been running just a few weeks before. In California the challenge was the heat and altitude but in Snowdonia the challenge of the damp and relative cold, and terrain that just isn’t particularly conducive to a quick progress on the ground.
We soon we had a handful of peaks under out belt and found ourselves on the impressive Nantle ridge which links the peaks of Trum y Ddysgl (709m) and Mynydd Drws y Coad (695m) and providing an exciting level of exposure with good views between the intermittent cloud.
After a short stop-off at Rhyd-Ddu village we pressed on to maintain momentum and soon found ourselves climbing the gentle but rutted slopes of Craig Wen (608m) before joining the ridge up to the more distinctive Yy Aran (747m) and the real start of the Snowdon range. It was obvious we were in vicinity of Snowdon by the streams of hikers we came across traipsing up the well-formed tracks. It was very entertaining to see their reactions to us flying past in shorts and other minimalist kit, despite the cold and wet weather, being quite the opposite to their their head-to-toe Gore Tex outfits. Despite it being mid-July the conditions at the top of Snowdon (1,085m) were grim and wintry but I enjoyed the long climb up taking a different route to my usual from the Llanberis side. Approaching the summit it was a strange feeling to come across so many people, the change from the peace and quiet of the early part of the day was stark and uncomfortable so after a quick touch of the trig point we were down the other side making a fast descent to Cwm Brwynog (674m) via Garnedd Ugain (1,065m). From here we were on to a stunning grassy section starting with Moel Cynghorion (674m) and ending on Moel Eilo (880m) with beautifully graded and even slopes to run between before a long and gentle descent to Llanberis and straight into Pete’s Eats to refuel.
Feeling a little stronger we began the climb up Elider Fach (795m) taking a long-winded and steep route to the summit via Nant Peris – mistake. Whilst this is probably the quickest route avoiding the ‘out of bounds’ quarries, and the one recommended in Allen’s book, we decided that cutting through the quarries and up the inclines was probably the done thing for the PBR – despite not strictly being legal – but an important cut-through to maintain progress and avoid the detour. To compund matters the climb was a brutal one, and we both started to feel it, but we got to the rather disappointing peak eventually and moved straight on to Eildir Fawr (923m) and the start of some superb ridge running across the majestic Glyders range. We worked our way along the ridge, enjoying the many runnable sections, and working our way round to the distinctive standalone peak of Tryfan (915m) with its impressive jagged faces forming a classic glacial pyramidal peak. The sun came out for this, our last climb of day, and somehow rejuvenated us for the final descent of our epic fourteen hour day. It was first time we had been warmed by the sun all day and as I took a moment to enjoy the view at the top of this incredible peak I felt a deep sleep on one of the slabs at the top could easily have been achieved! Allen dragged me on and we took the steep descent down the north face very steadily, eventually reaching our stopover point at Idwal Cottage YH just after 8pm.
Our start to the second day, Sunday, followed much the same pattern at the first. We were out the door just gone 6am, but this time welcome by much clearer skies and higher cloud making us both feel positive despite admitted weariness. The climb up Pen yer Ole Wen (978m) began pretty much opposite the YH, so not much time to warm up, but the steep technical ascent demanded plenty of concentration and not too much time to think about tired legs. We made an impressively fast ascent claiming the first peak of the day within an hour, and followed the ridge to the rocky summits of Carnedd Dafydd (1,044m) and Carnedd Llewelyn (1064m). Dropping off Carnedd Llewelyn to the south east we picked up a new, technical ridge, which lead us across to two further peaks to complete our work on the Carnedds and we then ran hard the descent to the A5 and Capel Curig for more re-fueling at the legendary Pinnacle Café. Nutritionists look away – I managed to put away a bacon and egg bap, several welsh cakes, a bottle of coke and a cup of tea in the space of about 15minutes. All I can say is that my body was craving it.
But it actually seemed to work to kill of the lethargy I had felt all morning, and our ascent of what turned out to be my favourite peak, Moel Siadbod (872m), was impressively efficient. Impressive too were the views from the top, particularly towards the Snowdon range. The majority of the peaks we had climbed so far were visible, and it was fascinating to see them from afar, and to string together the various ridges and lines the PBR follows.
Descending on smooth grass we had bright blue skies to light up a perfect backdrop, and so the sequence of relatively low grassy peaks that connect Moel Siadbod and the Moelywns was for me the most enjoyable section of running of the weekend. We were relatively care free at this stage being close to the end, so we were pushing hard and taking a few risks. We progressed quickly, eventually arriving at Allt Fawr (698m) around 3pm, with time still in hand to finish the remaining six peaks. But this is where it all went horribly wrong. In a moment of navigation madness during a discussion on the best route option to the next peak, Foel Ddu, we fixed it in our heads that it was directly in front of us. It wasn’t, that was in fact Cnicht, our final peak. It was just was on the final push to the summit that I began to feel that something wasn’t quite right, and when the penny finally dropped we were gutted! But it was too late to make amends at that point, we both agreed to call it day and make the journey home before it got too late. So we ended up completing 90% of the route, ending up with a bizarre twist right at the end.
The two days on PBR certainly provided some excellent training for TMB, both routes having similar total ascent/ descent, albeit TMB being longer in distance. For me it was all about building some decent leg strength, and from the evidence of today when I did another day out in Snowdonia, it’s on the way. Leg strength on the climbs and descents is the key thing for the TMB race so I intend to continue my hill focus as the race fast approaches.
Wednesday, 2 July 2008
The decision to cancel the race was made by the board of directors on Wednesday (25 June). In my mind there was no doubting it was the right one. Squaw Valley, the starting point for the race and the host venue for the 1960 winter Olympics, was engulfed in smoke and further down the course within a mile of the trail, the fires raged and potentially posed a major safety issue to runners and firefighters alike. The concept of running 100 miles across mountain wilderness, at altitude, in high temperatures and within the 30 hour cut-off is hard enough on it’s own, the runners didn’t need pollution levels recorded to be ten times above safe levels to add to the challenge.
It is only now, having left Squaw Valley to return to the UK, that the impact of the race cancellation has really hit me. For the last six months, since my name was confirmed on the start list – a significant challenge in itself – the race has been at the forefront of my daily thoughts and dreams. Before I had even experienced the atmosphere the race generates in California, I knew from research that this is the one to run, the one to peak for, the one to try and win. And that was my mission for the year, one that was aborted right at the last minute.
So from Wednesday 25 June, after the decision had been made, it was plan B. From the organisers that meant a series of activities to keep those already in Squaw Valley occupied. For me that meant making the best of the remaining time left by running and exploring spectacular trails in and around Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada mountains. I have run plenty of trails in various parts of the world but to me, these are simply the best. The diversity of terrain is incredible; lush woodland, desert-like stretches of sand, rocky outcrops, patches of snow, scree slopes, creeks, 10,000ft peaks, spectacular vistas, solitude, silence, altitude, everything a trail runner could want and more. There were also some the world’s best trail runners hanging out in the area, all booked into accommodation for the race, so it was also a golden opportunity to meet other runners, run together and share some adventure, stories, advice and beers! I met some great folk, Paul Charteris the massively committed and enthusiastic Kiwi, Simon Mtuy the Mount Kilimanjaro running guide from Tanzania who also happens to hold the ascent/ descent world record for the mountain, plus a host of others all of whom it was a pleasure to meet and share stories with.
There are certainly many memories to take away from the trip, but it is still hugely disappointing that the 2008 Western States will be remembered for all the wrong reasons; the race that never was. I am taking away with me a better knowledge of the terrain, course and likely race conditions and hope to return in 2009 with a better chance of a top performance. Until then, it will be another 12 months of Western States dreams……