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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!

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Western States 2010 Enrolment

Thought I would post a prompt to those who may have been contemplating having a bash at Western States at some stage. Registration for the lottery is currently open, but only for a period of 2 weeks, ending on 15th October. So far over 1,300 people have signed up. They haven't announced how many slots are available through the lottery, but the total number will be c.400, which includes all the guaranteed entrants such as those who have missed out on the lottery two years running, top 10 male and female runner from 2009, plus a handful of others. The message is, there is only small chance of getting in, so why not just try your luck and go for it if you succeed?

All I can say is that it is an incredible race and surely the best ultra race experience going?

Good luck!

Monday, 21 September 2009

Commonwealth 100km Championships, Keswick, England

On the face of it, it probably looked like the perfectly executed race plan; even pacing, negative splits (1st 50km 3h33mins, 2nd 50km 3h31mins) and a nicely timed push to take the lead at the end. I have to be honest - it wasn’t supposed to be quite like that - leaving it to the death, putting doubts in everyone’s minds, having doubts in mine. Let me explain.....

A good night’s sleep was the perfect start to the day with alarms in the England men’s team dormitory room ringing out at around 5.30am. It took a matter of seconds for my mind to switch to race mode and with it came a great surge of adrenaline and a pounding of the heart. Dark outside the hostel, but a frenzy of activity inside, final preparations of kit and equipment were going on for the biggest day of our running careers.

Assembling at the race start was when my nerves really started to kick in. I had been fairly calm up until then, but the presence of all the other international teams – England, Wales, Scotland, Canada, New Zealand & Australia – got me realising what a competition this was going to be. It was the first running of the combined Mountain and Ultra Distance Running Commonwealth Championships being hosted in the picture-perfect surroundings of Keswick, The Lake District.

And at 8am we were on our way, heading out from Keswick on another ultra distance running journey that guaranteed to provide us with the emotional and physical rollercoaster that all these races do.

Photo credit: Stuart Holmes

The initial 15km link section took us out to Thirlmere, firstly on the flat, but soon steeply climbing. Initially the pace was slow but then a couple of guys from Canada and New Zealand picked things up. I was more than happy to settle in a bit further back. As we reached Thirlmere Lake there was a notable increase in the tempo as we all seemed to enjoy the comfort of being on the flat 10km out-and-back ‘loop’ which was to make up the bulk of the distance – to be run seven times in all.

Photo credit: Stuart Holmes

Out at the front was one of the Canadian runners who was clearly pushing hard - because the rest of us weren’t exactly hanging around. The general consensus from chat amongst our group was that he was overcooking it and ultimately that proved to be the case. The comfort of reaching the lake didn’t last long for me because I was soon hearing some serious danger signs – heavy and unresponsive legs. When you’re running long you never really know how your legs are going to be until well into the race. It’s only when you’ve stripped off the outside freshness that you get to know what’s in the core, and 30km or so into Saturday’s race I found there wasn’t much – my legs were near enough hollow. Panic. Memories of the World Championships in 2008 were flooding back, not a race I particularly wanted to replay. The fine line between being well prepared and over-trained is a precariously narrow one in ultra running and I was starting to wonder if I had over-stepped the mark.

My reactive strategy was to focus. Focus very hard. I shut out everything from my head and just concentrated on steady and even running, maintaining as much fluidity in my running as I could. But my pace dropped slightly, unfortunately coinciding with a time when the other guys were just finding their stride, and so I drifted back through the field. My 50km split wasn’t as dreadful as I first thought, around 3hrs 34mins, so I drew some comfort from that, but I was back in 8th place at half way with a lot to do, not least running another 50km.

Lap-by-lap I managed to hang in there, running on a combination of stubbornness, determination and sugar (thank you Coca Cola) to keep putting in the same 6m50s/mile pace which would hopefully keep me in the race until crucial stages. First to come back was team mate Allen Smalls, then Grant Jeans of Scotland and finally the two Aussie runners. With Marcus Scotney sadly pulling out at 65km I was suddenly up to 3rd and definitely on the bounce. I certainly wasn’t fully rejuvenated by this point, but I started to think I might saved things sufficiently. The last lap on the ‘loop’ was also a good moral boost - “i’ve never got run down this flaming road again” - was the thought if i’m honest. But it gave me a last look to see how the two Matt’s were fairing up front.

I had closed considerably on Matt Lynas who I soon managed to pull past, but Matt Giles was well into the lead, the best part of 3minutes up on me, a significant margin to claw back so late in the race.

Running off the loop on to the final 15km leg back into Keswick was also a great boost, but even on the longest straights Matt was nowhere to be seen – well ahead by all accounts. So I did the only thing I could do – run as hard as I could to close the gap and track him down. At last I caught sight of him just over two minutes ahead of me on the dam at the end of the lake. At the A591 road crossing the gap was two minutes dead, 12kms to run. Finally I started to make significant headway. On the long straights I managed to time the gap using sign posts and marker points, and the time started to drop and drop until eventually I had it down to less than a minute. Now it seemed on.

It was the final drinks station at 95km when I took the lead. It all seemed very cruel and quite surreal. Matt had run a near perfect race, looked good all the way and well deserved to be where he was, but his legs hadn’t quite responded to the last few hills. I had hung on for most of the race, fought a long and hard battle with myself to keep going and somehow managed to stick it out. I had not even entertained thoughts of winning until the last 10km, so to suddenly be in the lead position right at the end was a real shock. But I wasn’t going to let it slip – it was not like I hadn’t worked for it - so I put my head down to run the final 5km hard as I could in an attempt to secure the race. I refrained from looking back to check the gap to start with, but eventually I gave in and did. It then became a repeated routine every 30 seconds or so until such time as I had a reasonable cushion.

Photo credit: Stuart Holmes

Running back into Fitz Park at the end of the race was simply awesome. Peaceful and quiet alongside the river to start with, then suddenly the crowds, a snaking huddle of cheering and celebrating people! It was a fabulous welcome home, one I will fondly remember, not least because I was running for England, in England, winning my first major championship medal – and it was gold!

England 1, 2 & 3 - (Left - Matt Lynas, Centre - Jez Bragg, Right - Matt Giles)
Photo credit: Stuart Holmes

Full results here

Friday, 11 September 2009

Next up.....

Well it's been a while since I posted. That can usually be read as me being hard to work at training and that's just about right really. My second 'A' race of the year is the Commonwealth 100km Championships in Keswick next Saturday (19th Sept @ 8am). So, back on the road, back on a multi-lap course and back running quite a bit quicker. Eeek.

Training since the Lakeland 100 has gone well. I had the odd blister here and there plus a few bumps and bruises after my outing in the lakes but it was all relatively superficial and cleared up in a couple of days. Then it was pretty much straight back to it, getting the legs 'freshened up', ramping up for a couple of high mileage weeks, then ramping back down again. Not long to do it, but long enough, I think. I feel in good shape, but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, as they say: i.e. the race. I'm dead excitied about toeing the start line, enjoying what is a beautifully scenic course and racing for the chance of a Commonwealth medal. Now that would conclude the year nicely. Come on England!

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Western States Caption Competition

I stumbled accross this photo of Mark Hartell and me at the Foresthill aid station during Western States this year which I found quite amusing. I was in the process of changing tops, but that usually straight forward exercise proved tricky at the time, partly because I was feeling dazed (and fried), but also because I had a recently replenished cap full of ice which I didn't wasn't to lose. So Mark kindly helped me out.

I thought I would invite captions to go with the photo for a bit of fun. Please feel free to post your captions - there will be a prize for the funniest one!

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Lakeland 100 (103 miles, 6,300m ascent & descent)

Five weeks after the Western States 100, four weeks after Osmotherly Phoenix (33miles), I found myself back on the start line of another epic adventure, the Lakeland 100 or Ultra Trail of the Lake District (UTLD). In just it's second year, this is the UK's only official 100mile race, but boy does it pack a punch.

As it's name suggests the event based on the hugely popular, tried and tested format of the Ultra Trail Tour du Mont Blanc (UTMB), but with a unique British twist. This year around 100 runners toe-ed the start line of the 100 mile option, a 3 times increase from the inaugural event in 2008, and from what I saw there is every chance the numbers could multiply by the same factor next year.

Chatting to lots of different people before the race, the question on everyone was asking was 'why are you here?'. Charming I thought, but the implication was that it was too soon to be competing after Western States at the end of June. It was quite right that it was too soon to compete, that was proven by the fact I was off the pace from mile 1, but my participation was more about my desire to experience the event, take on the challenge and enjoy some serious adventure rather then necessarily compete for the podium. All those boxes ended up well and truly ticked. The fact that I started the race mentally and physically tired for various reasons was beside the point.

The route was a clockwise loop around the heart of the Lake District, starting and finishing at Coniston. The terrain was, well, vicious. The ascent and descent statistics don't match those of the UTMB, but what it lacks in these areas is made up generously by the underfoot conditions. A prolonged period of wet weather prior to the race probably didn't help for starters, but the incessant rain which started soon after we set off at 7.30pm on Friday evening, and ultimately lasted 14hours, turned the rocky trails into rivers. As one guy described to me afterwards 'it was like someone had covered all the rocks in oil'. It was a perfect analogy. I lost count of the number of times I fell over, in the end it just became part of the process of forward motion in these horrendous conditions. None of the high-tech fell or trail shoes could have achieved grip in these conditions. My saviour was a TNF pack-lite Goretex jacket which I wore with the hood up and face enclosed – in my own little world - for what felt like hours and hours on end. Without it I wouldn't have finished; it kept me dry, warm and in a suitable state to keeping running. I also wore 3/4 length tights which were the right choice, working as I had hoped, much like a wet suit.

I hadn't recce-ed the first 30 miles so, which was unfortunate given it was the night section, but my navigation generally held-up, albeit my lines were poor in places. Trying to find your way across exposed hillside, in the dark, when it's raining and with the wind blowing is far from easy, particularly given the maze of footpaths and sheep trods the Lake District hills seem to be covered with. What I did notice - and I'm sure I wasn't the only one - was the how energy sapping it all was, probably just a combination of all the factors I just mentioned, plus the extremely rough terrain. There aren't many races i’ve experienced which ask quite so many questions of the trail runner.

Beyond Wasdale Head I knew my way, or so I thought. My line off Scarth Gap Pass down into Buttermere was awful and I found myself off track and perilously sliding down steep hillside instead of contouring down the gently descending track. It unnecessarily sapped energy and generally spoilt spirits when I was on the up and thinking that I still had potential. But my spirits were soon revived as I found myself partnering up with Digby Harris, a guy who I had heard plenty about, but had never met. We forged a great team, running together for the rest of the race. I was stronger that Digby on the climbs, but he was faster on the ascents. The net result was a better sustained effort from both of us, as well as the opportunity to share the experience together. From reading write-ups by other runners, it seems many folk ended up forming mini-teams to share the tasks of navigation, pacing and to generally motivate one another. Over the course of c.15hours I certainly got to know Digby very well and it was great to share the experience with someone else.

Even before halfway I was tired, seriously tired. Granted, I had been up for 24hours and been running non-stop for around 10, but I'd done similar type races before and not felt as bad. I suspect it was general fatigue which I carried into in the race. In any event it was going to be a long second half. Mid-morning on Saturday the rain started to clear through leaving a thoroughly soaked Lake District, but some relieved Lakeland 100 competitors. The sun even broke on occasions although I wouldn’t say I ever got that warm. My tiredness was probably my biggest problem during Saturday day. I found my body trying to fall asleep whilst running on several occasions. My body didn’t seem to realise they are two things that don’t go together very well. But to avoid having to snooze on the side of the trail I decided to take a five-minute power nap at Kentmere, where I tasked one of the marshals to wake me after my allotted time. It worked well and I felt ‘fresh’ (er) afterwards.

Given how I was feeling, and the fact it was the longest distance Digby had ever run, we were both pleased to be in 3rd place. At each checkpoint we were told the gap between us and the lead two guys. It grew steadily over the course of the race but it didn’t matter to the two of us. It felt more like a personal challenge rather than a race and the fact it was so quiet along the course added to that feeling.

The Lakes Runner shop checkpoint at Ambleside was good fun although we missed the band who were just setting up as we went through. The final twenty miles or so from there to the finish felt like a wind-down. I was certainly ‘done’ by that point, still not ‘feeling it’, but well and truly driven to complete this epic race. And the final climb up and over the quarries between Tiberwaite and Coniston concluded the race in a very appropriate fashion. Darkness fell for the second night as we made our final upwards effort, the trail was wet and rocky, then the heavens opened like a shower turned on to make the final descent both treacherous and slow.

Back at race HQ it was a low key finish, the time taken just a touch under 27 hours and joint 3rd place. It felt like we had just returned from war, a subdued but proud feeling emanating from the extreme challenge it undoubtedly was. But at long last it was time for the shoes to come off, a painful shower and a pint of Guinness. Great memories of the adventure will last a long time.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Western States Endurance Run (100.2miles/ 18,000feet up, 23,000feet down)

Squaw Valley in California, just before 5am on a chilly feeling Saturday morning in late June. 400 competitors, including many of the world's best ultra distance trail runners, are preparing to tackle what is still widely acknowledged to be the world's biggest and best 100miler. I've been up since 2.30am although there was no need for an alarm this morning, the adrenaline has kept me awake most of the night. I've been thinking about, and looking forward to, Western States 2009 ever since the race was cancelled due to forest fires in 2008. It's been an unusually long wait for a race, but for the first time in a long while I can honestly say i'm as close as possible to being 100% fit and free from niggles and bugs.

My feelings are mixed. The usual pre-race tensions are stronger than usual; I know there is going to be an intense charge up the 2,500ft mountain immediately in front of us, I know many of the guys I want to compete with will go out hard, I know it's going to be considerably hotter than anything I've experienced before, I know there's a load of intense downhilling in the course to batter my quads and above all else I know there is 100 miles of rocky and technical trail in negotiate. If that's not enough to get the pulse going, I don't know what will. Intense, nerve-wracking and exciting - but I wouldn't swap my place for anything.

Mark (Hartell) kindly drives me up to Squaw from my hideout in Truckee a few miles up the road. I'm not particularly talkative, the enormity of the task ahead almost has me stunned. Squaw Valley resort is a hive of activity reminding me why it has been a good idea to stay clear over the last few days. Most of the registration formalities were complete yesterday, I just need to pick up my race number - 113 – lucky for me. The starting line is the who's who of ultra running, loads of guys upfront near me shake hands and wish each other well. I'm not recognised, in fact all the pre-race talk has not included me because the race traditionally favours the local US runners. Online polls and discussions suggest i'm considered outside of the top 10 equation - but i'm happy with that - it motivates me and provides a clean platform to show what I can do.

The countdown from 20 seconds increases my pulse with every count until such time the hooter goes and we’re straight into the climbing trail heading up to Emigrant Pass. The front 40 or so guys - including me - head up the wrong track within the first few hundred yards although the mistake is quickly corrected with an en-mass backtrack and charge through the rest of the field to the front again. Ego’s are probably a bit dented but soon repaired.
I enjoy the climb up the mountain. I run the majority, just breaking into a walk for the odd steep section. There are a few guys I recognise who I say hello to, but the majority probably think i'm an over-enthusiastic back of the pack runner. I reach the top of Emigrant Pass in about 50minutes, a reasonably quick time, but I feel strong and comfortable after my first proper taper of the year. I glance back at the top to enjoy a beautiful glowing sunrise across Lake Tahoe which is a special sight and very fitting for the start of the special race we’re running. Over the top of the Pass and we enter the Granite Chief Wilderness area. We’re into the wild, remote and beautiful high country terrain that will take us through to the canyons. To start with it's a nice gently descending section of trail to Lyon Ridge (9.5miles), the first full aid station. There are plenty of guys motoring along this first section but I just concentrate on keeping steady, not working too hard, conserving precious energy and keeping cool.

Along Lyon Ridge the trail starts to get a bit more rugged and the undulations start popping up. Whilst the climbs at this stage are relatively small and better graded than we’re used to in the UK, the air is thin from the altitude and it doesn’t take a great deal to make me breathless despite my reasonable period of acclimatisation. The ridge provides me with some impressive far reaching views on both sides, being exposed and less wooded than the rest of the course. I feel great though; calm and comfortable - it's energy conservation time, there shouldn't be too much effort.

At Red Star aid station (16miles) I grab my first drop bag, stash the contents in my waist pack to take out, stuff a load of ice under my cap, fill my bottles with ice and water and i’m quickly on the move again. This is the important routine I will repeat 20 odd times over the course of the day, on my own because I have no dedicated crew to help. I’m happy with my first pit-stop – quick and efficient. Soon after Red Star starts a period of iffy insides which lasts around 60 miles. My stomach is not overjoyed with the amount of liquid i’m asking it to absorb, but hey it’s not surprising given it is about 1.5litres per hour, plus calories.
Soon out of Duncan Canyon aid station I have my first navigational jitters. Yes, I know, the course is well marked and i've run most of it over the last couple of weeks, but the markers are absent for a while and I feel like i'm doubling back on myself. I am, but it is the right way, and having spotted a couple of fellow runners in the distance I march merrily on, relieved about being on course and excited about the opportunities to overtake. On the climb out of the relatively mellow Duncan Canyon, my strength from plenty of UK hill climbing coupled with my long stride length immediately gives me an advantage and I overtake a number of folk, including the leading two ladies who have been battling it out hammer and tong from the start. Big respect and very ballsy. As it transpires one of them, Anita Ortiz, maintains the pace all the way through and wins by a clear margin. Awesome.
I soon land in Robinson Flat (29.7miles) where the atmosphere is electric. It’s obvious when i’m on the approach because photographers line the trail. All the crews are at Robinson awaiting the arrival of their runners and their encouragement puts a renewed spring in my step. I'm now in 12th place, and with a quick pit stop I overtake another on leaving the aid station - now 11th and still on the move.

The next few legs are the link sections between the high country and the canyons (the proper ones). They are long, well groomed, gently descending and fast sections of trail that really let me get me into my stride. I am below 6,000ft now so the breathing is getting easier. I run a good pace, but again the focus is on not putting in too much unneccessary effort. The aid stations at Miller's Defeat, Dusty Corners and Last Chance are probably the best of the lot; first class service. The volunteers are fabulous and really help to keep things quick. I recon I spend a minute-and-a-half in each. It sounds like a reasonable amount of time but i'm as efficient as I can be and i'm confident what i'm doing is well worth the time investment. The food of choice is now salty boiled spuds. They go down a treat. I'm also knocking back the ensure-plus meal replacement shakes like tequila slammers on a night out - at 350 calories a go they provide perfect nutrition. Deadwood Canyon soon arrives and immediately after the 'Warning - Precipitous Trail' sign I hit the heat and i'm grateful for the extra handheld bottle I picked up at Last Chance, using the lovely iced water to keep my vest wet and to cool down my quads. It works a treat in addition to my 'iced head'. I don't see anyone else all the way to Devil's Thumb which makes me wonder how hard the guys in front are pushing. I haven't exactly been slouching around myself.......

I eventually overtake someone on the final few switchbacks leading up to the aid station. I introduce myself, it turns out to be Eric Grossman, a name i've certainly seen banded around. Then I get a bit of banter from some spectators at the top of the climb which brings a smile to my face. 'How do you like the California weather Jez? It's nice and warm huh?'. 'Where the hell is the wind and rain?' I reply. It turns out to be Western States legend (and President), Tim Twietmeyer and John Travers.

At Devil's Thumb aid station I come across the race's first big name casualty. It's Jurek, who is surrounded by folk obviously questioning him about his withdrawal. I feel for him. He's the one everyone expects to deliver but in ultra running there is simply no hiding place with injuries and the like. It wasn't going to be his day and it must have really hurt. I crack on, pretty shocked by the sight of him out of the race.
Eldorado Canyon - with the longer descent and ascent of the two canyons - proves to be hotter than Deadwood, but again I enjoy the cruise down along the switchbacks, across the bridge and into the riverside aid station (52.9miles). Boy these guys have drawn the short straw I think to myself. As ever, the enthusiasm of the helpers is unrelenting, the spirit of this great race seems to rub off on everyone. I power hike out the other side, starting to now think about meeting my pacer, Scott St John, at Bath Road. Again, my uphill speed seems to give me the upper hand on other competitors as I manage to pick off another couple of guys. I have now lost track of my position but I figure it's around 7th.

At Michigan Bluff (55.7miles) I unexpectedly see fellow Brit, Mark Hartell, who has been a great mentor to me in the build up to the race. Mark has done everything he can to get me as well prepared for the race as possible which is already having a significant positive influence on my performance. Mark has my drop bag to hand, so helping another quick transition. 'You look great Jez, you're moving through the field, keep up the good work'. God I wish a feel great I think to myself, but I see another guy who must have arrived into the aid station before me so i'm keen to get moving again. No time for feeling sorry for oneself, get refuelled and get going.

Beyond Michigan the trail turns to fire road. With it's white-ish surfacing and lack of shade, the Western States slow cooker cranks up another notch. There's no getting away from it though so deal with it or drop I tell myself - and I ain’t dropping!

Finally, I hit Bath Road (60.6miles), roughly 15minutes behind my target arrival time of 3pm (10hrs). Pretty good pacing, or just luck? Well I like to keep things simple and that means no detailed pacing chart. The only targets I have set myself are Robinson Flat in 5 hours (achieved perfectly) and Bath Road in another 5 hours (close). My pacer Scott is there with his wife Desi and three girls. And so begins what becomes a fantastic team effort to get me to the finish line with all needs catered for and with next to zero planning (I hadn’t envisaged Desi would be on hand to help out). I eat on the climb up Bath Road with Scott alongside, simply walking the moderate road climb to ensure the food goes down. There’s a guy ahead – Kevin Sullivan I think – who has just overtaken me in the aid station, but there is no point chasing right now. On reaching the main Forest Hill road we’re ready to get running again and we set a quick pace down to the Forest Hill aid station (62 miles). The idea of eating on Bath Road is to move through the busy Forest Hill quickly, just stopping for the mandatory weigh in. The strategy works well and I re-take Kevin who is with his crew.
The next section of the course is known as the Cal Street loop, the link section between Forest Hill and the famous Rucky Chucky river crossing (78 miles). It’s the only section of the course I haven’t managed to run during my time in the US, something I am not massively comfortable with as I always like to know the trail so I can plan how to run it. For front runners, which I now am (up to 5th I think), this section of trail is notoriously hot - we’re not disappointed. There are a number of unshaded sections of the trail and they are just like walls of heat. But there is plenty of flat and downhill running to do which is only thing i’m thinking about. We blast down Cal Street, through the three aid stations and down to the sandy riverside trail which runs into the crossing itself. My main focus along this section is getting down to the river quickly and efficiently. Kevin Sullivan appears right on our tail by the final few miles of Cal Street and eventually pulls past and motors on into the distance. Being overtaken so convincingly – as he did – was a big knock to my confidence, particularly at a time when i’m starting to suffer in the heat and i’ve been pushing a good pace - or so I think.
The river crossing is one of the famous aspects of the race and something i’ve been particularly looking forward to. It turns out to be great fun. It’s a low water year so we’re wading across using a stretched guide rope instead of the back-up rafts. Again, the number of helpers is almost overwhelming – there are dozens actually standing in the river holding the rope, and directing the runners across. This is yet another example of the point that the volunteers truly will do everything in their power to give the runners the best possible support.

Despite being cooled down by the full river drenching i’m feeling dreadful at the Rucky Chucky far side aid station. I feel cooked and the south facing canyon side we’re about to contour along is only going to get hotter. I’m certainly going to feel overcooked very shortly. At this point I also leave Scott to sort out his blisters which are bad from big days out on the Western States trail in the build up to the race whilst he performed his important trail marking duties. I have a brief sit down, knock back an ensure meal replacement shake, drink several cups of coke and part company with the chair (‘beware of the chair’ – very appropriate) to begin the long, lonely hike up the hill. My spirits then take a further turn for the worse when Japanese runner, Kaburaki, comes trotting past on the climb. Losing speed and losing places is not where I want to be at the 80mile stage. Yes, on the positive side i’m 80% done, but the remaining 20% still involves 20miles; no mean feat.

So at Green Gate (79.8miles), the aid station at the top of the hill, I appreciate the urgent need to get myself together as i’m simply not prepared to let all the hard work put in thus far go to waste. Desi offers me a sock and footwear change which I gratefully accept. I’ve been putting it off since Robinson but my feet have throbbed for miles and my shoes are full of debris so it may be just the thing to get me going again. I’m a bit stunned about the speed in which my race has started to go bad although I endeavour to put on a brave face and have a joke with some of the aid station volunteers. I set off from Green Gate with the final, but crucial, 20 mile section of the course ahead of me. It’s make or break time, there’s no doubt about that.

Running is still painful and the heat from the slowly setting sun is worse than ever now it is firing directly at the trail, albeit at a more obtuse angle. My arms are all covered in rash from the heat, my head throbs and feels fried and every step is a painful effort. My mind is however still working because i’m thinking carefully about things I can do to get myself going again. Top of the list is to keep eating and drinking, something I focus on over the next couple of miles. I decide to get a sugar rush going so take a gel every mile or so. By the time I reach Auburn Lake Trails aid station (85.2miles) it seems to be slowly paying dividends because i’m feeling marginally better and i’m also only a few minutes behind the 5th placed runner, whose identity I don’t know. The sun is also nearly down behind the far ridge of the canyon - so is nearly done for the day, phew - providing another great boost to morale. I feel stronger with each step I take towards Brown’s Bar, soon catching and overtaking the guy ahead. In doing so I try to look as strong as possible so hopefully he doesn’t think he can come with me. It means getting through the Brown’s Bar aid station (89.9miles) quickly but that’s no bad thing given the slight chaos of the place. The music is pumping, there are fairy lights flashing, the guys are having a fews beers and are dressed up in drag – quite surreal – am I hallucinating?!

Perhaps the fun vibes have rubbed off on me because i’m now back to life, body temperature somewhere close to normal. Let’s go, time to charge! I run down to the river with real purpose – putting in some quick miles – and then run 80% of the stiff climb up to the Highway 49 aid station (93.5miles) where Scott and Desi are waiting. I’m a little bit surprised I don’t manage to catch other guys during my flurry of speed on that leg, but Scott reassures me they are only a matter of minutes ahead and confirms i’m in 5th place. It’s last light now so I ditch my cap, grab my head torch and load up on gels. There is a short climb up to the meadows from Highway 49 but this my favourite section of the course so I intend to have some fun. The meadows at the top, which remind me of a savannah setting from Africa with golden grass and just a few trees, are bathed in a rich yellowy glow from the setting sun. It’s a beautiful scene which seems to recharge me further. Then a very fast descent of around 3 miles on smooth and firm trails to get me down to No Hands Bridge. At every change of direction i’m on the look out for the head torches of runners ahead. There are way-finding glow sticks hanging from branches along the trail which I regularly mistake as runners. I’ve been running this leg seriously quickly – it feels like sub 6 minute miles – so i’m starting to panic that i’m running out of trail to do what I need to with only 4 miles to go.

As I hit No Hands Bridge aid station (96.8miles) there is still no sign of the two remaining runners who I need to track down to hit the podium. The positive news from Scott is that they are only a couple of minutes ahead and he is ready to re-join me for the final charge. I only hang around long enough for one bottle to be refilled. We fly across the bridge and hit the contouring path alongside the river with our eye’s scouting for head torches in the distance. It’s not long before we come across Kevin Sullivan which gives me 4th place. It’s a great boost but my focus is on a podium spot which is a target Scott and myself set on departing Forest Hill over 35 miles ago. On hitting the short but stiff climb from the river to Robie Point (the edge of Auburn) there is still no sign of Jasper Helekas in 3rd. Scott reminds me of the twists and turns of the trail coming up which helps me to focus on running every inch that is possible (most of it). As we come out on the vehicle track on the final approach to Robie Point aid station (98.9miles) we see finally Jasper ahead. From a turning flash of the headtorch we assume he’s seen us, we’re about 100 yards behind. At Robie Point neither of us stop. I’m closing him down, but we’re now within spitting distance of the stadium, i’m running out of steam and Jasper could easily have a finishing burst in him too. Scott and myself are running shoulder-to-shoulder, almost racing each other up the tarmac road and we come past Jasper. We need to run the whole hill though to gain a clean break before the big downhill to the finish, and it’s a stiff climb to be running after 99miles of running. Jasper asks who I am. I’m so breathless i’m struggling to speak but I tell him. He comes with us for a short period but he’s out of steam and tells me ‘good job’ as we move past him in a great show of sportsmanship.

We reach the top of the hill having made a clean break and now Scott and I start enjoying the moment. It’s been one hell of an effort to get to this position so i’m starting to get emotional. We fly the downhill to the stadium and I hit the final 300metre stretch in the most buoyant mood i’ve ever finished a race. I’m not usually one to show emotion but this is the culmination of a huge amount of time and effort – not just during this race – but over the last 6 months or so having come back from a poor year in 2008. Scott pulls away on the final approach to the line so the moment is all mine. I cross the line to celebrate my Western States 100 finish in a time of 16hours 54mins, 3rd place.

A week on from the race and i’m still beaming ear-to-ear about the whole Western States experience and the big performance I managed to put in. I will write a separate post about my thoughts on ‘what makes Western States great’, but needless to say it convincingly lives up to it’s reputation.

With the biggest thanks to the following people:

Scott St John and family – for pacing and supporting me so enthusiastically throughout the weekend

Mark Hartell & Lynn Schankliess – for sharing race knowledge and experience, helping with course recces, support during the race and helping to put GB on the podium!

Paul Charteris – for great company in the build up to the race and sharing your wealth of race knowledge (sorry your race didn’t quite go to plan Paul, I hope you’ll be back).

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Western States - Results

Well, it was the epic of all epics. I moved through the field and felt very confident of a podium finish when I met my pacer, Scott, at Forest Hill (62 miles). Then we dropped down to the river, and the temperature soared. Scott tells me it was well in the 100s. I managed to hold it together until the river crossing (78miles), but the wheels were starting to wobble big time, I lost a couple of places and fell back to 7th. 80 to 88miles was pretty hellish; the setting sun was pounding the side of the final canyon we were traversing. But as soon as it went down, I got my head down and ran some quick miles. At Highway 49 I was in 5th, not many miles left to reel in the remaining guys who I knew were fairly close in front. I smoked it to No Hands Bridge, still no sign of them. There Scott re-joined me after sorting his blisters and we put our heads down and ran more quick miles. I got into 4th at about mile 98, then hit the podium slot of 3rd in the last mile. It was emtional stuff. I finished in 16h 54 (I think), 3rd place. The finish into the stadium was simply awesome.

There were many high profile drop-outs, probably due to the intensity of the racing and the heat. I amd pleased beyond words with my 3rd place - and with a Japanese runner taking 2nd - for the first time ever there are two foreigners in the top 3. Great stuff.

Thanks to everyone for the support from back home, I was thinking about everyone tracking me online and it was a great motivation aid!

Full report soon!

Jez :0)

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Western States (3)

Race Webcast
A few people have asked about following the race online. There will be a webcast via the Western States website here.

My race number is 113.

The race gets underway at 5am on Saturday 27 June (US Pacific Coast Time, or 1pm GMT).

Many thanks to everyone for the good luck messages.


Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Western States (2)

I’m heavily into my pre-race taper now, the final wind-down/ rest phase before the race gets underway on Saturday. As strange as it might sound to non-runners, this period of little running and little activity is actually a horrible time. We’re runners, we like to run, so not running – or running very little – is a weird feeling. But it’s arguably the most important part of race training, the final charge-up of the muscles and full recovery of the body after all the high mileage training.

I’ve spent the last five nights sleeping high – between 6,500 and 9,500ft – to try and get used to the altitude as best as possible. I’ll continue to do the same until race day on Saturday. The first 30 miles of the race has an average altitude of 7,000ft, so sleeping at a similar height will help my body get used to the reduced levels of oxygen so I can hopefully run more efficiently during the race.
Hanging out in Yosemite - enjoying a bit altitude!

Temperatures; well the race-day forecast for Auburn, the town where the race finishes, is mid-90s so it’s looking like being slightly above average in terms of temperature. Not a super-hot year, but not the cool year I had perhaps hoped for. In the high country early on the temperatures should be cooler, particularly with the early morning start, but in the canyons which I will be tackling during the middle part of the day it will really heat up. Temperatures have hit well over 100 in previous years – smokin’!

The heat is probably my greatest concern going into the race. I know I can run the distance at a decent pace, I know I can deal with the altitude and the terrain is fine. But running in the heat is not something a runner from the UK usually gets much practice at, so I will need to be smart about my nutrition and drinking to keep things on track. I’ve had some decent training in the heat this year and i’ve got a nutrition/ drinks strategy mapped out in my head, I just need to make sure my head doesn’t get fried and I forget to stick to it!

So final preparations are in hand, i’m looking forward to Western States race experience more than anything. Not long to go now.......
A fine Yosemite view at the close of the day, with Half Dome in the background.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Western States 100 (1)

Auburn, California, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Less than two weeks to go until the 36th running of the famous Western States Endurance Run – 100 miles in one day.

Spending some time exploring the course, getting to know the trails so there is one less thing to worry about on race day; the big climb out of Squaw Valley ski resort, over the top into the Granite Chief Wilderness area, the high country ridges, the canyons, the famous Rucky Chucky river crossing, the fast downhill sections towards the end.

The view accross Granite Chief Wilderness area from Emigrant Pass, 4 miles into the race. Red Star ridge is on the far side.

The race will be an epic journey for each and every one of the 450 participants. We have all prepared long and hard for this race, most of us for nearly two years following the tragic cancellation of last year’s race due to forest fires. I for one have spent every day since Christmas thinking about the race, often my first thought of the day, always my last. It means so much to everyone who takes part, and when you set foot on the Western States trails you soon realise why. This is an incredible place to run. A place that inspires; the tree clad hillsides, the scent of the pine, the history of the trail, the wildlife, the crisp rays of sunshine breaking through the tree canopy.

It’s a tense time but after all the many hundreds of miles of training I feel ready for the race and excited about the prospect of running against some of the best in the world. The mens field is deeper than ever before, it will be a massive challenge trying to compete against all the US runners in their own back yard. But it is a challenge which motivates and excites me more than anything else, it is a once in a lifetime opportunity to be here, I must run strong and enjoy the experience, but above all show what I am capable of.
Myself and Simon Mtuy of Tanzania, on the trail between Red Star Ridge and Duncan Canyon.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

The Fellsman (60miles ish/ 11,000ft)

2009 was the third year i’ve entered the Fellsman but the first time i’ve made it to the start line. It is not an event to be taken lightly; 60-odd miles (depending on your route choice) of self-navigation across the Yorkshire Dales from Ingleton to Threshfield, in a mighty big horseshoe. The route goes straight up Ingleborough and thereafter visits many of the sizeable North Yorkshire peaks, several over 700m in height, as well as traversing some seriously inhospitable and trackless moors (bogs!). This is classic ultra distance fell running race and an exciting adventure......

I recce-ed the route in full over the two days the preceding weekend knowing that navigation is absolutely key with the Fellsman and it would be one less thing to worry about come race day. It is all about knowing the right lines off the tops, to avoid the really nasty terrain but get you where you need to go.

After negotiating all the slick but thorough pre-race arrangements I was pleased to make it out on to the starting field with kit checked and body ready to run (I think). The pre-race demons in my head had been working overtime this week fuelled by the Highland Fling race 2 weeks previously, a stiff bout of tonsillitis straight after, then a full recce of the Fellsman over two days finishing 6 days before the race, including additional sections before and after each day for good measure. Would my legs be too heavy for the climbs? Would I remember all the right lines? Would my running style suit the Fellsman generally?

I’m the first to admit that my build-up was suicidal on paper, but how else do you prepare for a race on a course you've never run before? Route knowledge is key for navigation, but more importantly in my opinion, to know in your head how to run the race.

The route took us straight up Ingleborough, then Whernside, Gregareth and Great Coum before dropping down to the first major pit-stop at Dent around 18miles in. The weather had two sides to it; clear, warm and welcoming in the valleys, windy, aggressive and cold on the tops. Unfortunately we were at high level most of the day. After a long and steady climb out of Dent the well trodden trails of the first third (20miles) soon gave way to the infamous track less moors of the middle third. The variety of the terrain struck me more than anything; peat bogs, moorland, streams, waterlogged moss, a truly British array.

I cut a good line up to Blea Moor which is the first time real section of trudging through the bogs. The ‘bog lottery’ is something I always find quite entertaining, by that I mean sometimes you place a foot and get a firm footing allowing your stride to continue, but on other occasions you sink, the worst case on Saturday being up to my waist. Lovely. On the approach to Blea Moor I could just make out the checkpoint tent next to the trig point which helped me to pick a good sightline.

The rain started just as I was arriving at the next valley checkpoint, Stonehouse, so after getting a cheese butty and a handful of biscuits to take out I got my jacket on and trudged upwards on the track beneath the beautiful viaduct towards Great Knoutberry Hill. The rain fell hard, then harder, and harder still. The wind also blew with a similar increasing velocity, driving the rain and making for grim conditions. The final climb to the Great Knoutberry Hill checkpoint turned into a horrible slog. I was heading straight into it and it was simply ferocious. Still with legs exposed and only my lightweight jacket on and still under halfway distance-wise, I was starting to wonder how long this spell of atrocious weather was going to last. If was to be all day then it had the potential to create some serious problems for everyone, not just me.

On reaching Redshaw I dived into the checkpoint tent to grab a few bits to eat but I was too cold to drink, and anyway that would only increase the temptation to stay under shelter when I really needed to crack on. The next few legs were all across the moors through bogs that were often knee deep or more, helping the cold to get a further grip on me and to start winning. I could feel the adrenaline racing round my body, not from the race situation itself, but my body’s reaction to the severe cold, forcing my itself to run fast to keep warm. It ultimately helped to maintain a good pace and as it turned out it was during the two hour spell of grim weather that I broke away at the front and never looked back from, slowly building more of a lead during the second half.

At the Fleet Moss checkpoint I was at my coldest, barely able to speak. I desperately wanted a cup of tea but was too cold and in too much of a hurry to stop and make one, so I decided on hot lucozade sport drink instead. I mixed some of the powder I was carrying up with boiling water in a water bottle providing a great hand warmer if nothing else. Thankfully the rain subsided on the crossing of Fleet Moss, blowing through to leave a fine afternoon. I soon dried out, but I think the weather had taken my sharpness away because I was not decision making well, and my responsiveness was poor. It showed on one of the many dry stone wall crossings, one of which I just fell off! I landed on my wrist which went straight into shock making me think I might have broken it, but it turned out fine, albeit very badly bruised. The better weather was a welcome change and made me think I could finish strongly and maintain my lead if all went to plan. Navigation was the main risk, but with the tops clear the navigation was much more straight forward.

I took the southerly route around Fleet Moss, the low risk option with some good runnable tracks beside the reassuring dry stone wall lines. I got round fine, and even managed to get the Middle Tongue line right, again benefitting from the clearer weather and being able to pick a sight line to the checkpoint tent. I also had a bit of luck on Stake Moss, picking up the quad bike track almost straight away which I hadn’t done on the recce. At Cray one of the race supporters suggested I had 30 or 40 minutes lead which was a great boost, but still too early in the race to sit back on the lead, and it’s also not really my way. It was nice to reach Cray because it signals the end of the really boggy trackless stuff, the final sections taking in the big peaks of Buckden Pike and Great Whernside, with good footpaths to the tops and off again. They were really enjoyable sections, the evening being completely clear and a lot calmer after the earlier excitement.

It gave me plenty of time to reflect on the race, the route and times. It was clear after the severe weather that I would be some way off record pace – not that I had set out to break it – but it made me realise what an impressive benchmark it is (Mark Hartell, 10hrs 13mins). This has been Mark’s race for many years, and his wins at the race year after year for over a decade are simply inspirational. To get down to a time like that the lines have to be perfect, in every instance, to shave a seconds or minutes off at every possible opportunity and squeeze everything out of the course. More detailed route knowledge would therefore be my target for future years.

Towards the end I realised my best bet would be to target a sub-11 hour time which was a nice motivator for the final few sections. I hit the road at Yarnbury and flew the last few miles down to Grassington and finally Threshfield making it back to the event centre at 7.50pm giving me an overall time of 10hrs 50mins for my first Fellsman.

The overall experience had been a memorable one. The event feels like a cross between The Long Mynd Hike in terms of tradition, format and organisation, and the High Peak Marathon in terms of terrain. It’s a great combination and a fabulous event which deserves the full house of 400 participants that it got this year for the first time in a while.

Many thanks to all the organisers for a brilliant day out.

The full results can be found

A write up and photos can be found on the Grough website

Monday, 4 May 2009

Keswick Mountain Festival 2009 - talk

Just in case anyone is in or around the Lake District over the next couple of weeks, I will be doing a talk at the Keswick Mountain Festival (Theatre by the Lake) on Wednesday 13th May at 7.30pm.

See the KMF website for more details: http://www.keswickmountainfestival.co.uk/look-whos-talking/jez_bragg/

The talk will cover in three races in particular - The West Highland Way Race, Ultra Trail Tour du Mont Blanc and 100km road races - as well as my general experiences of ultra running over the last couple of years, training and tips on how to tackle an ultra.

There are stacks of others talks, events and races taking place over the course of the festival which promises to be a great event for outdoors enthusiasts.

I hope to see you there.....

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

The Highland Fling Race (53miles/ trail)

This was just the 4th running of The Highland Fling, a classic ultra trail race which has grown dramatically year-on-year to become one of the biggest and best in the UK. In 2006 I was one of just 20 or so runners taking part in the first event which was designed to be a training event for the full West Highland Way Race, and just four years later here I am again, this time alongside over 300 runners. Incredible. And if you were lucky enough to be part of the race on Saturday – as a runner, helper or spectator - you will know exactly why the event has taken off like it has. The Highland Fling Race offers pretty much everything you could possibly hope for in a ultra - a classic route, technical trails, a challenging distance, friendly people wherever you turn, reliable support and organisation, a post race party, a medal and goody bag – and all for a tenner.

This year the race also hosted the inaugural UKA ultra distance trail running championships, a trial race for the Great Britain team being sent to the World Trail Running Championships in Serre Chevalier in July, as well as being a series race for the Vasque ultra running championships. Along with this major championship recognition came a strong field of runners from all over the UK.

For me, I should confess, it was a risky race to run. It was still relatively soon after the 100km road race in Galway at the end of March, but even more of a concern was the cold/ bad throat I have been suffering with intermittently since Easter. It came back with avengence on the Wednesday before the race, probably a result of some long days in the Lakes the weekend before, so added to risk the of heavy legs was my body fighting bugs - not a great state to be starting in.

Unusually for me, I slept very badly the night before the race. As I lay in bed thoughts of possible race outcomes span around my head. I was particularly worried that my weakened body may not be up to it and I might have to pull out during the race, although I committed to myself that I would give it everything and run from the heart which was probably my best chance of getting through. The desire was certainly there, could my body match it?

I was relieved when 5am eventually came around so I could get up and get in race mode properly.The senior mens race started at 7am, with the rest of the field, including vets and ladies, starting a hour earlier at 6am. The aim of the staggered starts, as I understand it, was two-fold; to ease congestion at the start and to get people finishing the 53mile course closer together. The congestion precautions certainly worked well.

The start of the race was rather bizarre as one of the runners, Stuart Mills, went tearing off into the distance as if it was a 10km pace. Afterwards he confessed that his tactics were to try and disrupt things amongst the front runners, although no one in the chasing group I was in seemed that bothered, and like me they thought the pace would not be sustainable. As it turned out, Stuart went astray very early in the race and was never able to recover sufficiently to compete like he is capable of. This was a great shame because a runner of his ability was a potentially a great asset to the race.

We all settled down into a brisk pace and chatted away to help pass the early miles. It was a humid morning so straight away I started to get plenty of fluids down knowing it was easier to do so earlier in the race than later. I followed a similar tactic with nutrition, tucking into gels and cake just 7 or 8 miles in, passing thoughts to my own self-amusement that the rest of population would be more sensibly tucking into a fry-up around the same time.

On the climb from Drymen to Conic Hill there was a noticeable drop in conversation as the competition started to build. Allen Smalls and Andy Rankin appeared to be pushing each other hard up the hill with Brian Cole close behind. I was a couple of hundred yards behind, taking it a bit more steadily and trying not to over do it early on. By the end of the descent into Balmaha car park they were out of sight so I just focused on replenishing supplies at the checkpoint and set about re-fuelling properly as I walked the short but stiff climb just beyond.

Now loch-side (Lomond), I continued to run at my own pace, with eventual 2nd place finisher, Scott Bradley, just a few yards behind. From experience, this long 20 mile section is best run at your own pace and following your own rhythm, so I deliberately didn’t worry about the whereabouts of others. I just set my mind to relax and settle in. Mid-way between Balmaha and Rowardennan I caught Brian who reported afterwards that he was feeling way out of sorts so sensibly decided to pull out. Thereafter I was back on my own. I moved quickly through the Rowardennan checkpoint which seemed quite congested, narrowly avoiding road rage with a white transit van who didn’t seem to appreciate my urgency.

I started to pick up and feel a bit stronger. It was useful timing, coinciding with some nice runnable forest tracks rising and dipping along the steep loch side between Rowardennan and Inversnaid. It was a beautiful landscape to be running through, with far reaching views across the loch between breaks in the trees to the left, and a calming sense of enclosure and quiet within the woodland itself.

I came across various folk from the 6am start, many of whom looked incredibly strong and comfortable despite the mileage already run. It provided a fairly unique experience, the opportunity to work through the field from person-to-person, and to exchange a few words of encouragement as I moved through.

Eventually I came across the two remaining guys ahead from the 7am start. It was Andy first (in second), then Allen a few hundred yards beyond who was in the lead. It was a great feeling to move into the lead, and with it came an added adrenaline-fuelled charge which helped me to build a lead which I estimated to be a couple of minutes by the time I had settled back down. The sudden change to being at the front also brought with it a sense of vulnerability and pressure which came as a shock to my previously relaxed mentality. I was conscious those chasing could potentially keep me in sight and reel me in later on. Such thoughts helped with my focus and drive, and I decided to push on again to build more of a buffer, but before long I was into the checkpoint at Inversnaid.

Inversnaid was much quieter in terms of the number of supporters and spectators, it’s relative remoteness probably the reason for that. The low key format of this checkpoint felt very appropriate for the stage in the race, there was still a full 19 miles to go and no time to get carried away. On departing the checkpoint it was straight into the very technical section of trail which involves many ledges, ups, downs, tree-roots, mud and streams. You name it, this narrow and windy section of singletrack throws it at you. I felt rotten leaving Inversnaid, but the concentration required to run this section of trail seemed to quickly wipe away any negative thoughts; no opportunity to feel sorry for oneself here. As always, the focus this section required seemed to make the miles fly by, and before long I was climbing away from the loch after 20 miles in its company. I also came across the lead vet runner, who was comfortably out front on his own, and then it was into Beinglass Farm, the final checkpoint.

Knowing this was the final checkpoint I made the most of the contents of my drop back, a tooth-rotting combination of gels, cake, coke and lucozade. All items were duly pack into my waist pack – or consumed – and I was off again. The coke I drank gave me an instant kick which was welcome to assist with the tough long climb up to the woods above Crianlarich. This is the transition from the lowland to the highlands, and boy is it a drawn out one. Now being clear of the woods and into the open valley, there was a welcome drop in the temperature which my body greatly appreciated. I knew from my hazy head and the pulsing feeling in my arms that I was massively dehydrated, so the cool breeze and fluids were a huge relief, and possibly prevented me pushing my tiring body a step too far.

I knew from experience this section was also the moment of truth in terms of race position. During all the concealed wooded trails up to this point, it was hard to keep track on how close behind the other guys were, but now out in the open it would be plain to see. I couldn’t resist looking over my shoulder every couple of minutes, but thankfully there was nothing to see, I had built a solid cushion. Strangely, this fuelled me further, and I continued to run every possible section of the climb and eventually made it back into the woods above Crianlarich without seeing anyone behind.

With this reassurance my mind then automatically switched to times and records for the first time in the race. Foolishly I had forgotten to make a note of my 2008 splits before the race, as I had intended to do, so in all honesty I didn’t have a clue where I stood in relation to record pace. So there was only one approach left - run hard. That I did. The woodland descent down to the A82 was a great blast and then the final flat section along the valley bottom, I ran like a man possessed. It was a great feeling running home to the finish. It had been a full year since I had last completed the journey on my favourite trail, I was very proud to have completed and won the race again. My final time was 7hrs 19mins, around 5minutes quicker than my previous best.

See here for full results http://www.highlandflingrace.org/

Many thanks to Murdo, Ellen and all the other organisers for putting on another brilliant race - see you next year.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Celtic 100k/ Anglo Celtic Plate Race 2009 (100km)

Wow, not too sure where to start with this one!

I’ve now had a day or two to reflect on Saturday’s events but the reality is that it hasn’t really sunk in yet. It will probably take quite a while. In fact, I’m struggling to string meaningful thoughts together being pretty exhausted, but I’ll have a go whilst it’s fresh in the mind.

Since the Edinburgh 100km in May 2007 it’s been my ultimate aim to run under seven hours for the 100km. The sub-7 club is one with few members, particularly from the UK over the last 10 years or so. On Saturday I had one of those dream runs, it all came together, I felt strong from start to finish, I had a great second half and ultimately I did it – i’m in the club!

The event itself was superb, not surprising given the experience and enthusiasm of Race Director, Richard Donavon. Richard is also RD for the North Pole and Ice Antarctic Marathons as well as being a multi-record holder for extreme running. The general consensus was that it was the best Anglo Celtic Plate race in the event’s history and from my experience I wouldn’t argue with that. Fittingly, the race also drew a top class field. There were plenty of top names from the various home nations as well as from Germany who sent a development team which included the German trail running champion amongst others.

Dawn on Saturday brought a change to the weather from the preceding week. We arrived in Galway on Friday lunchtime to cloud, wind and showers but race day was perfect from my perspective; cool but sunny with a moderate breeze and occasional showers. A good omen?

Fifty or so toe-ed the start line. There was a clear apprehension amongst the runners to get started but once the hooter had gone, there wasn’t much option. My plan was to run a conservative first 50km, then see what happens in the second half – simple as that. No pressure, no frills. ‘Feel good at fifty’ was my pre-race mantra; get to half way with plenty left in the tank. I ran with England team mate and last year’s winner, Dominic Croft, for most of the first 50km. We ran fairly evenly, I was targeting splits of 8min 24 second per 2km/ 42minute per 10km and Dom was hoping for a touch quicker however the pace seemed to work well for both of us and we ran well together, carrying each other through the early stages.

As we approached 50km Marcus Scotney and Allen Smalls started to speed up and close us down but it was myself and Dom at the front at the 50km stage in a time just a smidgen under 3hrs 30mins. Spot on. Thereafter all four of us had spells at the front and it was then that the drama started to unfold. After the race one member of the England support team likened the race me to a game of chess, and in many respects it was. My target was to maintain an even pace, but the other lads seemed to have plans to shake it up a bit. Marcus seemed the keenest to push on, and eventually did, at one point putting a minute or so on me. Allen made a similar push at one point, but soon the cumulative distance started to play a part causing rough spells for us all. Eventually, at around the 65km point, I started to find a strong rhythm which allowed me to pick the pace up when the others were slowing which was the start of a fast and furious spell that brought a possible sub-7 performance into the equation.

Having not thought about it pre-race various thoughts and emotions were spinning round my head. What if I hit the rocks? What if I push too much too early? Don’t throw away this golden opportunity! Well I realised those were things I could control so I made sure I did. Keep drinking, keep taking the gels, don’t push too hard too early and most importantly don’t blow it. I was constantly trying to stay focused but at the same time trying to run some calculations in my head. Well what a waste of time that was. I’m usually quite good at maths, but after 5 hours running at 6.45/mile pace my head wasn’t in gear. So I put I a request to the support team - let me know when there is 20km to go.

The notification duly came and at the 80km point I was about one minute inside sub-7 pace. I had 1 hr 25mins to complete the final 20km. We’re on! Retaining composure was the hardest part towards the end. The thought of achieving my sub-7 goal made me feel emotional. I had dreamed about it for so long, put so much physical and mental effort into the race and been thinking about the people who I was running strong for along the way. My running rhythm was also better than it’s ever been, and my focus was clear, I had to do it.

The final lap count down at the end was inevitable, something I had fought to avoid doing over the course of the race, my body was now thinking about the end. Third from last lap was when the pure pleasure started. Nothing was going to take it away from me then. And then last lap, I gave it everything, 7mins 56 second and my fastest split of the race by 15 seconds. It was pure elation crossing the line - 6hrs 58mins dead on the clock - the best run of my life - no question.

The memories will be there forever.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Wuthering Hike (32miles/ 4,400ft)

Saturday's Wuthering Hike race was an absolute cracker, probably all the more enjoyable because it was the first time I have taken part. I've been meaning to run it for a couple of years now, but for one reason or another it hasn't happened.

As with all these self-navigation events it is a good idea to recce the course before hand, not only to get to know the route, but also to work out how best to run the race, which I fortunately had the opportunity to do 8 days before the event. On the face of it the 'Hike' part of the race's title doesn't seem to do it justice, but like a number of similar events it tells the story of it's origin as more of a challenge event as opposed to a race. Over the years this has changed, it is now very much a competitive race (as well as a hike/ challenge), and previous times confirm that those at the sharp end don't tend to hang around. Also, being part of the Vasque UK Ultra Running series, competition is strong.

The first leg which heads roughly west from the event base in Haworth, Yorkshire, was all about fighting the wind demons. It was a westerly wind and on the exposed moors of Bronte country it made for tough conditions. Whilst I felt strong, there was extra effort being put in to counter the wind, it was unsettling and made it hard to find any good rhythm.

There was however some payback later on. As we turned south-east climbing up on to the Long Causeway at around 14miles we started to get blown gently along. It was like a hand gently pushing your back; very welcome, particularly on the climbs. Into the second half of the race the group of three I was running with - Mark Palmer, Jonathan Wright and myself - started to break clear from the chasing group who up to then had been within sight. We hadn't picked the pace up, but just ran evenly and consistently and continued to do so whilst the others may have started to slow. The three of us seem to develop a silent understanding, sharing the work of front running, chatting at times and generally helping the time and miles to pass by.

Down into 'Tod' and then the stiff climb up to 'Stoodley Pike' to re-join the Pennine Way, I started to get the feeling the race was about to get going. The next climb, out of Hebden Bridge up to Heptonstall, was where it all started to happen. Mark Palmer and myself pushed on the long road climb, running side-by-side, matching each other stride-for-stride. 'Evil hill' I commented. It was. On the trail descent from Heptonstall Mark was quicker than me, showing his strong fell running background, probably putting 20metres or so between us. But there was a long drawn out climb of three miles or so still to go to take us up to the top of 'the stairs' which was effectively the last pass across the moors before the final descent and run-in to Haworth. I reeled Mark in again and we ran the track climb together, then a brief downhill to the final checkpoint before a stiff road climb to 'the stairs'. It was tough, neither of us wanted to fall off the back, we both clearly matched each other for stubborness. The closer to the finish we got, the faster the pace got; up and up the pace went. Moor Side Lane was the final stretch of climb of the race, we still ran side by side up to the quarry, contouring round the far side. It was a mile to go. I decided it was now or never so I pushed the pace towards a sprint. It was a bit risky but thankfully it paid off, I managed to put 10 metres or so between us, or at least that's what it sounded like, but I couldn’t look back for fear of tumbling over! Finally on to the cobbled High Street of Haworth, I was all out sprinting down the hill before the steep turn-off back to the Community Centre, and with it the relief of a hard fought win.

There was a great atmosphere in the centre after the race with a real community feel about it. Events like this are what it's all about; sensible entry fees, a great route, raising money for charity and a great bunch of people to enjoy the experience with.

Thanks to the organisers, marshalls and fellow competitors for a great day out.

See here for results: http://www.keighleyandcravenac.co.uk/kc_races/pdf/hobble/09_haworth_hobble.html

Monday, 2 March 2009

Wye Ultra (30 miles, trail)

This was the first running of the Wye Ultra, and also the first of twelve races in the 2009 Vasque Ultra Running Series. The advertised route followed the River Wye south from Ross-on-Wye before heading east into the forest of dean to the turnaround point where runners would re-trace their footsteps back to the start point to finish.

Unfortunately a key footbridge crossing the river at the southern most point of the course was closed by the authorities at the last minute resulting in a change to the route and race format. The organisers opted for a double out and back route instead comprising four legs of 7.5miles. It was a great shame about the forced change which was clearly out of the hands of the organisers, although the feeling amongst the runners was that something a bit more interesting that the one offered could have been achieved even with the late notice, particularly given the wealth of trails the area possesses.

The revised route left Ross Rowing club heading south for a short section along the river bank before breaking off for 3 miles or so along quiet country lanes. It then traversed a wooded bank before dropping back down to re-join the river following lovely trails through woods and fields to the turnaround point. And back to the start again. Repeat.

Once underway the race provided plenty of excitement too. Midway through the first leg there were problems with route marking - it was missing in places - resulting in the chasing group I was in going astray and adding half a mile or so to the route. Not ideal, particularly in a relatively short race. The resulting gap between the lead 2 or 3 runners and us was a tall order to make up, and was maintained until the last leg when things started to change significantly. All Smalls made a well timed push, moving through the field in the last few miles to win by a minute or two. I also started to find the right gears in the last leg but it was all too late so I had to settle for 5th, around four minutes behind Allen. There were also strong performances from Vasque series regulars Andy Davies and Andy Rankin.

It was always going to be a risky race for me to run. I was running on heavy legs straight after a week of snowboarding and hill training in the alps meaning the sharpness wasn't there. In fact I was completely knackered even before I started so all things considered it wasn't a bad performance!

It was a great shame about the teething problems with the race (I have mentioned a couple) but all in all it was a great day out and good to see all the ultra running regulars performing strongly early in the season. We are in for a great season.........


Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Charnwood Hills Fell Race (13.7 miles/ 1,200ft)

When you hear that the race took place in the outskirts of Leicester (Anstey), your first reaction will probably the same mine; 'a fell race in Leicestershire, but there aren't any hills?'.

Well that's wrong, there are. Well a few anyway.

The race is well established, run by the Bowline Climbing Club, and is also very well attended. This year around 400 lined for the start of the race which took place on Sunday, including me. This was another 'train-through' race; no taper, lots of miles during the preceeding week, turn up and grim 'n bear the dead legs, aim for a respectable result and benefit from a great work out. Sounds simple, but in practice it's rather painful!

The route was out-and-back, one of my pet hates, but actually it worked very well. There was a decent length loop at the turnaround point which helped to avoid any two way congestion. Conditions were cold, the snow was on it's way, and the wind chill was well below freezing although the sun came out for the odd spell.

I went off fairly quickly and soon regretted it, but eventually settled into a sensible pace which remained fairly even throughout. However it wasn't a day to be competitive, my legs were seriously tired, and perhaps not fully recovered from Portland marathon 8 days before, not to mention training mileage. I worked as hard as could, the amount of effort-in felt huge, but translating into speed; no. I finished in 1hr 35mins, 23rd place. It sounds awful but there were some incredibly quick specialist short distance runners out, so no great shame. And it a great opportunity to push myself in a competitive environment which was what it was all about.

Another well organised and enjoyable local race early in the season.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Portland Coastal Marathon

If there’s one thing Britain has got in abundance, it’s dramatic coastline, providing the perfect setting for a series of trail marathons. The venue for stage 3 of the Endurancelife Coastal Trail Series (CTS) was Portland, and fitting perfectly with my build-up for the year, I decided to give it a whirl.

A 4.15am alarm call on Saturday morning was a real shock to the system, but as soon as my mind had triggered there was a race to be run, my heart rate instantly doubled and I was fully awake and getting ready for a 5am departure.

Event HQ was the impressive sailing academy at the end of the causeway between Weymouth and Portland, a cracking facility which will no doubt have an important role to play when the Olympic sailing competition comes to town in 2012. There were three race distance options to choose from: 10km, half marathon and marathon. The marathon it was.

The marathon race start was at 9am, the route being a two laps of the ‘island’, pretty much following the perimeter coastal path with a short out and back section along the causeway at the end of each lap. I started fairly conservatively, admittedly feeling a little rusty after a recent manic period of travel and work, but I made sure I kept in touch with the two guys ahead who were evidently feeling a bit fresher than me. They were roughly a couple minutes ahead of me by half way and if anything, were starting to pull away. Perhaps having shaken away the cobwebs, or gaining a mental boost from starting the second lap, I started to pick up at about 15miles and found some extra strength to push on which I consciously did. As I did so, I started to catch the half marathon runners who set off on the same course 1.5 hours after us.

By this point I was certainly a man on a mission, now into second place, on the hunt for first, but having the problem of overtaking runners on the narrow single-track section of the course. One-by-one I politely asked the runners ahead to give way, but there were hundreds of them! They all kindly allowed me through, but it wasn’t an ideal situation when there was serious racing to do! By about 20 miles I started to reel in the leader, and at 21 miles overtook him, pushed hard to build a lead and held on to win in a time of 3hours 36minutes. It certainly wasn’t a quick time, even for a trail marathon, but the course was technical and the going along the beach sections extremely slow.

All in all it was a great event and well worth the trip down to the south coast. The organisation was excellent, the course well marked, race HQ facilities impressive and Portland provided a perfect setting for some superb trail running.

See results here: http://www.endurancelife.com/assets/results/2009_cts_portland.htm

Monday, 12 January 2009

Cannock Chase Trig Points Race (15 miles/ 1500')

I’m not sure the text book of ‘peak performance’ will tell you to run 80 miles in the 6 days before a race, but the opportunity to run the classic Cannock Chase Trig Points race on Sunday seemed too good to miss, so after noticing it in the FRA calendar on Saturday morning (after a 10 miler) I decided to give it a whirl.

The format of the race seems to fit perfectly with the time of year - rolling runnable hills on most well formed tracks and trails - making it not too severe and a great interval training race. Well that’s how I approached it anyway.

Conditions were surprisingly good, much milder than it's been of late, albeit fairly windy on the exposed tops. As expected a couple of guys went blasting off from the start, but I happily settled in with a group further back, reassured to have others with route knowledge around me. I honestly don’t have a clue when it comes to navigation and Cannock Chase area, it was the first time I’d step foot in the area, so I was really in the hands of the goods, or should I say the lad from Mercia Fell Runners who in our group and seem to know all the quick lines. The most part of the route followed the main tracks across the chase, but there were also plenty of the usual cut throughs and fast lines which give added excitement to the fell races (and get the adrenaline going when you go wrong).

I stuck with the group of five or so runners for most of the race. I don’t think I was the only one in the group benefiting from the Mercia FR guide. Despite plenty of mileage during the week I felt pretty strong throughout the race, and probably ran a bit within myself during the second half, but the risk of going astray if I had pushed on was high, and one not really worth taking. It inevitably came to crunch time on the descent from the final trig point – when we all knew where we were going - and the group split by means of an all out sprint down to the finish. I think got a bit caught off guard with it all, but managed to wind it up sufficiently to make 5th place in a time of 1h48mins. I was fairly pleased all things considered.
I have to say that in terms of enjoyment it was up there with the best. No pressure, a great bunch of competitors and well organised race. Looking forward to next year’s race already.


Friday, 2 January 2009

Mud, Sweat & Tears

Just stumbled across this great new website which has loads of interesting material about all things off road running.