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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!

Saturday, 11 September 2010

The Spirit of the UTMB

"Energy, passion & emotion - lay it all down when you’re racing on the trails - then you can have no regrets."

The 8th edition of The North Face Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc will certainly be well remembered. It was a weekend of twists and turns, lumps and bumps, a complete emotional rollercoaster for all that were involved. The thing that shone through the most for me was the unique spirit of the event which has been present ever since it first started and was immediately apparent to me from the first year I took part back in 2005. It is hard to explain but the factors of extreme human endurance, the jaw-droppingly beautiful alpine environment and the real ‘purpose’ of the classic route itself all contribute.

I’m not really too sure where to start with this one but i’ve decided to keep it fairly brief and factual, hopefully offering an insight into how it was for me. So here we go.......

The race got underway to it’s trademark ‘all singing and dancing’ start on Friday (27 August 2010) evening at 6.30pm. Following blisteringly hot days on the preceding Wednesday and Thursday, the weather had however taken a serious turn for the worse on race day. It was grey and overcast with intermittent heavy showers. The overnight outlook was for more of the same. For me, in preparing my head, it was going to be a wet race, no question about that. The weather did however clear sufficiently for the start to be made without too much drama or the literal dampening of spirits. However soon into the race, beyond the traditional raucous send off from the crowded Chamonix streets, the heavens opened and we got drenched.
I ran down to Les Houches (7.9km) alongside Lizzy (Hawker) and we joked how conditions would well suit the Brits. We agreed that is was actually quite enjoyable – not cold, and quite refreshing. The first climb up Col du Voza is relatively short but is always a slight shock to the system; I tend to find it takes one or two of the nine or ten climbs to really settle in.

But on reaching Saint Gervais about 21km in I felt great and I was in the right place position-wise, not battling it out at the front (not my style, well early on anyway), but not exactly hanging around either. I grabbed a quick top up of one bottle but moved through at speed, enjoying every step of the atmosphere in town which is street carnival come Tour du France.

Out of Saint Gervais, back on to the quiet, now nearly dark, meandering singletrack trails on a gentle valley bottom climb to Les Contamines (31km). I picked off a couple of guys, probably settling in at around 15th place. By this point the rain had eased somewhat but the atmosphere was damp and foggy, particularly along the riverside sections where the icy cold glacial run-off met the warm damp woodland air. Nature was certainly in action; it was an evening of big activity in the mountains, and not just from the event. And then the further hustle and bustle of our last party town atmosphere for the night, Les Contamines. I check-in and am suddenly hit by a bizarre scene. The runners out front are all standing around chatting?! It soon becomes clear the race has been stopped for safety reasons, but the precise reason why is unclear. The reports back from the high mountainous sections ahead are that the rains have been heavy, winds are high and there has been damage to the course/ course markers. Utter shock and devastation is the only way to describe the scenes and my personal feeling. To be just standing there chatting to my support crew in a relaxed manner felt very strange; the race had gone in an instant and I had not expected to be talking to people like that for the best part of 24 hours. People have trained and prepared for this race for several months. Many will have dreamt about it and spent every day getting themselves mentally and physically prepared. The scale, profile and difficulty of the race make this essential for success, but then make it so much harder to come to terms with a scenario like this. After an hour or so of waiting around, for me just satisfying myself that they weren’t going to suddenly re-start the race, I returned to Chamonix with my support crew. We chatted and joked, but in reality everyone was gutted, not just me.

Back in Chamonix, I showered and hit the sack, with plans coming together in my head for a 3-4 hour training run the next day to let off some steam. I struggle to sleep, so much flying around my head, but eventually get off and then stir just before 7am. I check my phone; two messages from the organisers – firstly to announce a revised race would be held on Saturday starting in Courmayeur at 10am, secondly to announce logistics.

I was surprised to see that there was a race on even though the rumours had been around the night before. I hadn’t really paid much attention and certainly wasn’t in race mode. I threw some clothes on and headed straight to the hotel breakfast room to find runners to talk to. There weren’t many people around. My initial decision was that I would race - a short race would be better than nothing. But then on reflection, I started to doubt whether it was the right thing for me. Should I save myself for something else later in the year? Would it really be a race? Would the event still be at risk from the weather? How would I be mentally? These thoughts initially reversed my decision before a last minute change back, at around 9am, really just based on a niggling concern in my head that by not taking part I would have serious regrets (how right can a ‘gut’ feeling be).

I had missed the official buses but Bryon Powell from irunfar kindly offered to take me through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Courmayeur. We exchanged a bit of banter in the car, I don’t think either of us could believe it was ‘race on’ and I arrived at the race start in Italy to beautiful wall-to-wall sunshine which had evidently transformed everyone’s sprits. I hopped the barriers and lined up at the front. Behind me at the start, there were 1,300 other runners, a mixture of ‘fresh’ TDS runners and ‘slightly jaded’ UTMB runners who had been through the turmoil of the previous night. But the atmosphere felt great; there was a clear spirit of determination.

As the UTMB race theme music bleared out once again, it was a complete feeling of déjà vu. My head didn’t know where it was. As we got underway there was a frantic pace leaving town, along the cobbled high street, up the hill past the church and on to road climb to the foot of Bertone. If there were any doubt in people’s minds as to whether this would be a race, they were banished in an instant. The race was most certainly on. The race distance would be 88km with over 5,000m of vertical climb and descent, no mean feat by any stretch of the imagination.

I ran at the front to the foot of the Bertone climb but then settled in to my fast hike once we hit the steep switchbacks. The other front runners were only interested in running so I left them to it. Perhaps it was the mindset of a ‘shorter’ race, or maybe just their competitive instinct. In my mind it was still 88km to cover so plenty of trail to race. At the top of Bertone (4.7km) I was probably in about 25th place. The contouring high level trail along the side of Val Ferret is usually a panoramic treat, but a fast pace and plenty of cloud and mist made it feel less so. I was breathing pretty hard from the pace and altitude, as well as trying to concentrate on what was happening amongst the pack ahead. I started to reign in a string of runners and overtook them soon after the next checkpoint at Bonatti (11.9km). Getting up to the head of Val Ferret, before the mini descent to Arnuva, the rain started to fall. I started to expect pretty grim conditions at the top of the Grand Col Ferret.

Arnuva (16.9km) had a great atmosphere, quite a few spectators and plenty of merriment and positivity around. People were enjoying having a race to support, I was enjoying being part of it. I grabbed a bottle refill and headed straight out again, ready for the climb up to the highpoint of the course the Grand Col du Ferret at 2,537m. Speed through the aid station was the order of the day for me. And in doing so I had picked a couple more runners off.

The climb up the Grand Col is renowned as a nasty one, but I actually quite like it. It’s not all that bad in vertical climb, and seems to be over before you know it. Usually the cracking views help, but the only view I had was of the feet of the runners ahead, although they kept changing because again I was gaining places. It wasn’t a conscious push, just maintaining how I had set off.
As I approached the top, the winds got higher and the temperatures colder. We were running very close to the rain/ snow limit. My hands were numb, it was important to keep moving, and that I did with just a brief pause at the top to get my race chip scanned. 9 places gained, now up to 16th.

The descent was fast and enjoyable, a chance to let go and really charge for the first time. Now I did consciously push, the novelty of entering another country, Switzerland, perhaps also helping my spring. Having not really set off with any race strategy, I decided as things started to pan out en route that the section down to Praz du Fort would be a key one, the fast and runnable trail suiting my style. The aid station at La Fouly (30.8km) had plenty of life to it, and there I met my crew for the first time. Refill bottle, stash a load of gels, a bit of chocolate and then on my way - 30 second tops.

I continued to make good progress and reached the bottom of the climb to Champex probably up to around 8th place by now (according to feedback from supporters). Mid-climb I hooked up with team mate, Mike Wolfe from the US. He was going well. We chatted for a bit as we made the climb and discussed how things were panning out up front. He reported a group of 6 or so runners, all fairly close together, who were 8 mins or so ahead. That was music to my ears. Without any agreed plans to do so we ran together, working as a team to push a bit harder than we perhaps would do if running solo. That little bit of extra speed was reducing our gap on the leaders, again great for morale. Reaching Champex in 7th place (44.9km) was a nice little milestone with plenty of folk clapping us through the checkpoint and along the beautiful lake around which the town is wrapped.

Whilst I was gaining regular boosts from overtaking runners, the real positive feeling and sign of things to come was the strength of my climbing. The next climb, Bovine, was a good example. There, midway up, I started to pull away from Mike and overtook a couple more guys. I didn’t feel I was running much quicker, but perhaps just holding the pace well when the others were feeling the strain of the fast first half.

It was at the wooden gate on the crest of the Bovine (54.5km) climb that things really started to pan out. There I came across Dawa Sherpa who was in the lead. He was clearly surprised to have company, and perhaps I was a tad surprised to be in his company. We exchanged a few words and I cracked on, thinking that whilst I had overtaken him on the climb, he would destroy me on the descent. Nope – I moved away. One of the guys who I had just overtaken, Julien Chorier, did however re-overtake me so I was now in second. But what I had learnt from that previous section was that I was in better shape than him on the flats and climbs, whilst he was the faster descender.

At Col du Forclaz there were more crowds, and cameras lining the trail on the approach. Friendly faces from The North Face team were also popping up everywhere, providing a great boost for morale. It sounds simple, but simple comments like ‘you’re looking good’ help a massive amount, particularly when you feel like a heap of crap inside. They were convincing liars anyway.

After the crazy steep switchbacks through the woods down to Triente I started to feel excited. I could hear the supporter’s applause from Julian moving through the village and checkpoint ahead. I was less than a minute back, in perfect striking distance. A helicopter appeared and started tracking us from overhead - probably filming. In Triente (60.9km) my crew met me and there was an even greater sense of urgency. Penny helped me re-stock superfast, I was in and out in a flash. Even the prospect of another tough climb up to Catogne didn’t seem all that bad.

I was just a few hundred metres behind Julian on leaving the village and hitting the mountain trails again. I know the climb up Catogne well, it’s not technical and is well graded, but certainly a pretty stiff one. I ran the early part, but as it steepened out I broke into a hike. It was then that I moved past Julien who appeared to suffering somewhat. We briefly acknowledged each other as I moved through. I immediately felt a sense of vulnerability on hitting the front for the first time properly. It was going to be a key turning point in the race. I decided to just keep running my own race, at a pace that felt right. I could feel that my blood sugars and energy levels were low from the fact that every gel I took had an immediate effect, but then started to wear off much quicker than earlier in the race. So I kept knocking them back like a sugar junky......

I tried not to but ended up looking over my shoulder far too frequently. I was pulling away, but slowly. I reckoned I had two minutes by the top of the climb. There were film guys at the top and a remote, basic, checkpoint (65.7km). I didn’t stop. There was a big descent ahead to Vallorcine where I would be back into France for the final push to the finish. Just as I feared, it was a pretty mucky one too. The narrow, grassy, singletrack trail was well trodden from the CCC race the night before, and further rain had helped to make it into even more of a mud bath. Some sections were a bit perilous requiring you to run on the ‘edges’ of your shoes to try to cut in and get some grip. My TNF Singletracks were loving it, and coped admirably. It was like a good autumn UK fell race so I felt at home but I suspect others may not have.

The second half of the descent into Vallorcine followed a route I had not taken before, staying higher to traverse the mountainside before dropping down steeply. I quite liked the novelty of not knowing what was ahead for this part, I was well familiar with the rest of the course. And finally I caught a glimpse of the checkpoint from the top of a long grassy bank which was lined with spectators. I can see why they had all congregated there because it was steep and slippery, ideal for watching runners with shot quads coming a cropper! I survived intact. Phew. Then through the final big checkpoint of Vallorcine (70.6km) with another super-quick, F1 style, pit stop.

I hadn’t felt it was quickest descent so I had concerns over the lead I had built (or not). It was about 3 minutes as it turns out, but that was nothing given what lay ahead; the infamous final climb up to Flegere. I ran well up to Col du Montets (74.3km) at the foot of Flegere. There were hoards of people at the road crossing and lining the first part of the climb, obviously eager to watch the final parts of the race pan out. I felt extremely anxious because my crew had relayed to me the cushion was just 3 minutes. From the crowd applause at the bottom section of the climb I actually felt it was less than 3 minutes. I looked back but couldn’t see anyone behind but was almost certain I was in their line of sight. It was another key part of the race. The climb is steep, technical and relentless. It is also very exposed meaning someone chasing from behind would be motivated by seeing me a short distance ahead. I gave it everything, marching up with my usual loping, long, stride. I felt slow, my legs were badly fatigued and weren’t very responsive. It was a simple result of all the fast descending and relentless climbing of the previous nine hours. "Hang in there Jez" I kept telling myself, amongst other out loud self chants.

Finally I hit Tete Aux Vents (78km), the top of the first section - still no sign of anyone behind. Now a chance to get back to some proper running along the technical section of trail which involves plenty of boulder hopping. The views of the Mont Blanc range came and went as the cloud patterns moved around quickly in the wind. A couple of groups of hikers and supporters were located in remote sections, but generally it was just me, the trail and the beautiful views of the Mont Blanc massif and Chamonix valley at dusk. I started to reflect on what an incredible day it had been. I also psyched myself up for the final sections of the race which I needed to nail to wrap it all up. It was these moments when I did actually properly envisage winning for the first time.

On reaching Flegere (81km) it was time to start really enjoying it, all downhill from here, and I decided to just give it everything I possibly had for the long, fast, final descent into Chamonix. I am probably still feeling the effects of that descent now, I really did blast it. The light was fading quickly and the sections through the woods were probably a touch too dark to be running without a headtorch, but I did, still overly paranoid about getting caught. I just got away with it, although the flashes from the camera guys on the final sections didn’t do any favours for my night vision so I shut my eyes whenever I saw them!

And then finally back into Chamonix town, the destination I had focused all my energies towards over the course of the day. It felt strange being back in civilisation after so many hours of solo running on the wild mountain trails. But it was a welcome sight, and an incredible greeting from the spectators which in my experience is completely unique to this race. The spirit of the UTMB was definitely shining through, crowds several deep cheering and welcoming me back. It was something you can’t really prepare yourself for, and in being the first in the race to experience it, a true honour. I crossed the line with in a final time of 10hours 30mins, seven minutes ahead of team mate, Mike Wolfe of the USA. To round off a perfect day for me and the The North Face team, Lizzy Hawker also romped home first in the ladies race. An awesome result all round, and the Sunday headlines of ‘Triomphe Britannique’ said it all...........

So then, plenty to reflect on and ponder over after this one. I’m not going to enter the debate over the cancellation of the race itself and issues which surround it. For me, I was pleased to have had the opportunity to run a revised, albeit shorter, race and it was an honour to have won that. The race was a great success, not just because I won, but because it was a whole-hearted effort from spectators, runners and helpers alike. A race of the same atmosphere and spirit of the UTMB race was created and all involved deserve a great deal of credit for pulling that off.

And finally, I think it’s fair to say that the finishing times show the level of commitment made by the competitors, and from a personal point of view, that I would have been pushing hard over the full distance. I guess that’s something to come back and prove next year.

A big thank you to the whole of The North Face team, but especially to Keith, Helen, Penny, Oli, David C and Gemma for all their support before, during and after the race.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Marathon Talk

Martin Yelling & Tom Williams run a great weekly podcast via their Marathon Talk website. Check out this week's episode for an interview with me......

Monday, 23 August 2010

Following UTMB

This year's race is set to have widespread online coverage through a number of different sources. In fact, sitting in front of a computer is likely to provide a more accurate and absorbing experience than being on the course in person!

Here are a couple of links:

The main race website (live mini site will go live shortly before the race, my race number is 2044): http://www.ultratrailmb.com/page/88/Supporters.html
The North Face website: http://eu.thenorthface.com/blog/
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/thenorthface#!/thenorthface?v=app_17037175766

The race starts on Friday night @ 1730GMT

Monday, 16 August 2010

UTMB - 10 days to go

After one of my most consistent spells of training ever, I’m now well and truly into my taper for the UTMB race which is less than two weeks away. With hundreds (probably thousands, best not to count) of tough mountain miles completed over the course of the last couple of months, all the hard work is done and there’s little that can really be done to influence performance on the day other than mental preparation, trying to freshen up the legs as far as possible and sorting out kit. The latter is quite a job in itself but a good avenue in which to channel surplus energy!

Out of all the races I’ve done the UTMB is undoubtedly the most daunting. It looms on the horizon like a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. But at the same time it’s definitely the most exciting. In my opinion it simply can’t be beaten for organisation, support, atmosphere, the route and overall race experience. It sits firmly at the top of the world stage of trail based ultra distance races.

I’ve run UTMB three times before but never really put in a performance to be proud of - albeit I have always finished - so there is plenty of unfinished business to address this year. There are various reasons for my below par performances in the previous races which I won’t bore you with, but preparation has played a big part, and if I'm honest I've probably suffered from over racing. This time I’m confident it will be different. I’m dead excited about the race. I've specifically focused on it for several months now. I can hand on heart say I’ve trained as hard as I could have done for it, and now it’s time for the exciting bit – putting it all into action and enjoying the whole experience.

The great thing about this race is that the best form of preparation involves time in the mountains. As if I needed an excuse. I’ve written about some of the trips already, but my final few weeks of training included more memorable outings, not least another full loop of the UTMB course at the end of July, this time as part of The North Face Team’s training weekend. With a support vehicle in tow to carry surplus kit, and decent group of guys out on the trail, there was the opportunity to run some fast splits which provided a great confident boost for the race. Sebastian Chaigneau, last year’s second place finisher, was part of the group. His sense of humour was great, as was his enthusiasm for capturing our training experiences on film for his Get Ready For series which seems to be getting plenty of well deserved coverage.

The second Tour du Mont Blanc training loop was probably my peak week, but my final pre-race session was in Snowdonia knocking out Snowdon reps in the wind and rain. Lovely. Even the sheep were huddling behind the stone walls. Summer in Wales – great huh.

Kit-wise there is plenty to prepare. I fully support this year’s more stringent rules to help ensure there is no opportunity for interpretation when it comes to the compulsory stuff, a factor which can clearly significantly influence at the front end. The 2kg minimum pack weight will play an important role there.

Poles? In short, no. I have carried them before and they just get in the way. Drinking, eating, adjusting kit etc all take a back seat role with poles in hand(s) and for me they simply don’t carry enough advantage to justify using them. I appreciate I’m in the big minority here but I’ve done the tests and taken the decision.

So the final countdown begins. Keep an eye out for all the top runners from The North Face Team at this year’s race who will all be pushing hard for the podium spots. It's going to be a great one to watch, well worth signing up for the various online tracking faclities being run by The North Face and the UTMB organisers. I'll try and post some links in next couple of days.

Best get back to the packing......

Monday, 28 June 2010

Adventures in the Alps

Last weekend was the first of two key training sessions I’ve specifically planned for UTMB; a couple of days in the Alps - on the course - training for this great race. It was definitely up there in the rankings of action packed weekends (where competition is notably high), one where you just answer 'oh, just a bit of running' to the Monday morning office question, rather than try to explain what you really got up to.

Okay, so the plan was to fly out from Luton Thursday early evening, transfer to Chamonix, run the full UTMB route (166km, 9,500m±) over 3 days, fly back Sunday night, then try to be in some sort of shape to 'work' on Monday.

Unfortunately our dear old friends on the other side of the channel threw an unexpected spanner in the works. On Thursday French air traffic control staff were taking industrial action causing havoc with air travel. As a result I found out on arrival at Luton that my flight was cancelled and I had go through the surprisingly straight forward process of re-booking on to the next available flight which turned out to be 24 hours later. The friendly girl on the Easyjet bookings desk obviously didn't know the real implications of my delayed travel but I suspect the colour had gone from my face from the realisation I would be running 100 ish miles over 2 days, as opposed the 3 that was originally planned. Obviously there were intermediate options of shorter legs, but the logistical complications knocked them into touch.

Unfortunately this wasn't the only problem that I had to contend with. I also managed to book a hotel in Aosta not Cormayeur (lesson: read the small print, not just the price), the airport transfer company couldn't accommodate my revised arrival time necessitating an expensive last minute hire car and I had to re-arrange the other accommodation bookings to piece the trip back together. On the plus side I had 24 hours at home to sort these things out, sort my life out generally (i.e. clean the house for the first time in too long) as well as getting a couple of semi long runs in for good measure.

I knew from a 2 day UTMB effort back in 2007 that it's quite a challenge in itself requiring some very long days so with my sensible hat on (it doesn't come out the cupboard very often) I decided to chop the first 8km (Chamonix to les Houches) and the last 18km (Vallorcine to Chamonix) sections of the route which follow the Chamonix valley, thus resulting in two nicely balanced 70km days:

(Saturday) Les Houches to Cormayeur
(Sunday) Cormayeur to Vallorcine

The final part of my Alps mission would be getting the 6pm train on Sunday evening from Vallorcine to Les Houches to collect the hire car from where I had left it on Saturday morning, bomb it down the A40 to Geneva and hopefully make it on to the last flight home to Luton.

And, having read that, what thoughts spring to mind? Ambitious; cutting it fine; a plan clearly hatched from the comforts of an armchair?! So it will surprise you - as it did me - that it all worked beautifully, almost perfectly.
I could probably write quite a good book on the whole adventure of the run itself but I'll save that for a rainy day. Instead, here are the headlines:

SNOW - still quite a bit of snow on the course, not just on the Cols. I took a pair of Yaktrax and they were great on the climbs. Downhill it was great fun ‘skiing’ down.

THE WEATHER - was incredible. The days started perfectly clear then got better with some fluffy white stuff building in the afternoon to give even more perspective to the views.

MARMOTS - there has been an explosion in marmot numbers. No, really! They seemed to be everywhere; turn a corner and there will be one sat on the trail squawking away to it’s mates. Maybe they are still dozy in June from post-winter hibernation, or maybe they've been multipying like mad over the winter??!!

FOOD - I turned it into a bit of a gourmet tour. French pastries, Italian tiramisu, Swiss chocolate :o) Joking apart, I ate vast quantities, picking up grub at every opportunity. It seemed to work, my energy levels whilst running were always good; consequently I always felt strong.

THE HIKERS - there were zillions of TMB hiker yomping along. It always looks to me like they're carrying the kitchen sink, and probably the plug too. And why the hell do people mountain bike up the big Cols – on trails which aren’t designed for it – crazy!

THE GREAT POLE DEBATE - I will blog separately on this, it needs to be given due consideration. But to summarise they don’t do it for me, but I realised i’m massively in the minority.

RUNNERS - on the course? Very few. Surprising, I thought they would be out in force.

BOVINE - what is it about that flaming climb that makes it so mentally tough? It's only c. 700m vertical. It gets me every time.....

BEST VIEW - Grand Col du Ferret Italian side.

LEGS - they're strengthening up well. My rhythm and speed on the climbs is definitely improving. I think the biggest challenge on UTMB is 'changing gear'. The first few hundred metres of the long climbs seem tough, then your legs settle in again and the rhythm returns. Try this – say to yourself: ‘I love climbing’ (repeat many times until you reach the top).Okay, probably not a good idea, you will go mad, but the message is you’ve got to embrace the climbs otherwise it will be a horrible experience!

All in all it was an absolute belter of a weekend which has got me hugely revved and excited about the race. Without exaggeration it really is one of the most incredible trail race routes imaginable and it’s not hard to see why the race goes from strength to strength each year. Roll on August.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Early bird catches the worm (The Welsh 3000s)

Another UTMB training jaunt, this time a dash accross the the Welsh 3000s (minus Crib Goch, I wasn't feeling it) a couple of Fridays ago. I headed accross to Snowdonia straight from work on the Thursday, spending the evening at Pen y Pass YHA which was a great place apart from the dorm being super-hot through the night (heating on in June, what's that all about?). Maybe they thought I was still running Western States in which case it would have been great heat training.

Getting up early and to the top of Snowdon for 7am was a good call, it was a sheer joy up there. Not a soul around and the cloud level below the peaks at about 600m creating some incredible views.....

The run went well, I felt strong throughout, maybe all the recent hill (mountain?) work is starting to pay off. I even completed the 'loop' by dropping down to Bethesda and back over to Llanberis on foot making for a total of around 35miles and quite a bit of up and down.
And then back home to the Midlands on Friday night ready for the weekend and more training. Well that's the way we like it :o)

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

A Weekend in the Highlands

With a Friday off work to add to the three day Bank Holiday, last weekend presented a great opportunity to get a bit further afield so I decided to head up to the Highlands for a solid few days of UTMB training. Having missed this year’s Fling and being injury-restricted during a week long holiday on Skye in late April, I was chomping at the bit to get out there on the Highland trails, undoubtedly one my favourite places to run.

One of the things I like best about running in Scotland is the true sense of isolation and wilderness. Whilst I didn’t get up into the really wild places of northern Scotland, there were still plenty of views which had zero signs of human intervention; these being the bits I like best. It’s fair to say you simply don’t get the same on any significant scale in England and Wales, perhaps only in parts of Northumberland and mid-Wales.

An early start on Friday got me to Milngavie (north of Glasgow) by mid-morning and after a quick stop-off for supplies, at the foot of Ben Lomond for midday. Now I know it’s a honey pot and it completely contradicts what I’ve just said, but the aim was to get an afternoon run in on accessible and well formed trails, without too much hassle. It was also a Munro I had yet to climb. I got up and down in around 1hour 40mins following the Ptarmigan trail up and the main track down – all in all a nice little loop. The views down Loch Lomond were superb.
Loch Lomond looking south from Ben Lomond

Next I headed up the other side of Lomond to the Arrochar Alps, setting off from the Inveruglas car park to firstly pick off Ben Vorlich, and then Ben Vane. I did have ambitious plans to also take in Beinn Ime and Beinn Narnain but time got the better of me, and it was only intended to be a wee afternoon jaunt after a long drive.

So I continued my journey north on the A82, feeling nicely mellow after a reasonable bit of exercise, heading for my base for the weekend, the brilliant By The Way hostel in Tyndrum which I’d stayed at a couple of times previously. It’s a great little setup they’ve got going, always full of friendly folk to chat to and with great facilities for meals/ chilling out.
Saturday’s planned schedule was for seven Munros – Ben Lui and Beinn a’ Chleibh in the Tyndrum hills, and all five of the Bridge of Orchy Hills. The first pair were straight forward navigationally however visibility was poor above about 700m reducing the enjoyment factor somewhat. The weather did however improve as the day went on, and the cloud level just remained above tops of the Bridge of Orchy Hills making for a better afternoon – what a difference having the views makes. I parked at Bridge of Orchy station and hiked up to the ridge via Coire an Dothaidh. Ben Dorain was a great hill to be at the top of, I had seen it some many times on the drive up to the Highlands on the A82 and always admired it’s beautifully symmetrical shape. Four of the five hills linked together well but of course I had to complicate things and also pick off the outlier which was Beinn Mhanach. This certainly pushed it to a full-on afternoon, and I didn’t make it back to the car via Achallader Farm until 7.45pm ish. I had to push the pace even to meet that schedule, perhaps not a bad thing given the training aim.

Sunday’s weather was better still; cloudy with sunny intervals and a brisk breeze on the tops which created an exciting, fast-moving sky, adding another dimension to the views from the hills. I had planned another seven Munros, this time the full set of the Crianlarich hills, starting with Ben More from Benmore Farm. Whilst they are talked about as a set, the Munros actually group themselves into three sets - two pairs and a three. Of course the challenge is to link them which involves big descents and re-ascents across untracked terrain, again turning it into a significant day out. The telltale sign that it had pushed me quite hard was that I took the more direct route to get back to the car having come down off the hills - along the A82 from Derrydarroch to Benmore (via Crianlarich) - when I could have followed the longer but legendary WHW trail!

View towards Crianlarich from Ben More

Stob Binnein from Ben More

And for the finale on Monday? Well it wasn’t really. I wanted to check my legs could actually still run after all that climbing so I hit the WHW for an out-and-back from Tyndrum to Victoria Bridge - 20 miles exactly. It was a fabulous day, not a cloud in the sky. Running my favourite trail in such perfect conditions had me grinning from ear-to-ear. And reading the Metro paper this morning, it was warmer in the Highlands than Bournemouth on Bank Holiday Monday – perfect!OK, so the drive back down the M6 was a hard slog, but it was certainly one of those great weekends which you really struggle to describe (or don’t know where to begin) when you get the ‘how was your weekend’ question in the office the next day. Happy days.

Beinn Dorain, view north from the WHW

Monday, 24 May 2010

August and Everything After

Okay, so a confession to start with. I'm a bit of a Counting Crows fan at heart - sad but true (how can you not like a bit of 'Mr Jones'?). I thought this album title of theirs summed up where I'm at pretty well. It's also about time I started blogging again, although you'll soon start to realise why I've been a bit quiet.

The first half of 2010 has been a bumpy ride to say the least. I came off the back of my Winter West Highland Way of late December 2009 feeling pretty strong; I recovered quickly and after a decent break got stuck into some solid winter base training, particularly enjoying the true winter conditions of the UK’s unusually long ‘cold snap’.

Then injury struck, the first significant one of my running life. A fairly innocuous numb-like feeling in my foot which followed a relatively tame midweek 10 miler turned out to be a rather nasty stress fracture of my calcaneus (heel bone). My consultant described it as ‘pretty impressive’ which was enough to convince me that this was going to need some serious attention and discipline to repair. Despite seemingly taking ages to get properly diagnosed, there were definite plus points that I latched on to, really just to stay positive more than anything. Not least I was grateful it wasn’t plantir fasciitis as I feared for a couple of weeks pre-diagnosis - a classic long distance running injury and one which is notoriously difficult to put right. Instead it was a 'structural' injury which would, given the right amount of time, mend strongly, and probably stronger than it was before. On balance I was fairly philosophical about it, and just threw my energy and frustration into other types of non impact endurance training, mostly swimming and road cycling.

Now, before all this happened I hadn't swam properly (as in sessions of lengths) since school, and early parts of my school days at that. So this presented an exciting new challenge to find some technique again (if I ever had any, I can't remember), develop some arm/ shoulder/ core strength (ultra running is not really conducive to this) and work out how to tackle swimming for one hour plus sessions (that’s the ultra running mentality shining through; don’t bother unless it’s long). If nothing else it made sure my feet were planted firmly on the ground because I was painfully poor to start with and I was moving from a sport which I had just about mastered, to one in which I was a complete novice.

There was lots of inefficient splashy swimming to start with, but having swallowed my pride and persevered, eventually it started to come together. It also made me develop a huge respect for the Olympic swimmers who do numerous swim sessions a week and somehow maintain the motivation to train hard despite the tedium of swimming back and forth for hour and hours on end. What a difference to trail running in beautiful parts of the UK? So the first positive outcome of my injury lay-off is a major improvement in my swimming, an achievement I never expected at the start of the year.

On the biking front I've also come on leaps and bounds. Road biking has always been a regular part of my training, particularly during recovery periods from races, but to have the chance to ride every day, including 45 mile round trips to work a couple of times a week has been another great opportunity and one which i’ve really enjoyed. My average speed has gone up 3 or 4 mph, and with those sorts of improvements the motivation is easy. The only downside is the mechanical failures which have plagued my long rides (how can anyone snap a chain four times in as many months?).

Clearly the aim of both these 'cross training' sports has been to maintain fitness through my injury but the mental distraction and positive spin-offs from them have certainly kept me on track when it’s all too easy to get frustrated. As I've started back running in the last couple of weeks the signs are that it’s worked and my fitness has carried through well, but I should reserve full judgement until i’m back to full training.

On the racing front it has of course forced me to re-think my year's plans which has probably been the hardest thing to get my head round. My first ‘A’ race of the year was due to be Western States next month, a race I enjoyed so much last year, particularly the three weeks of Californian sunshine that came with it. Whilst I am back running again and now up to reasonable mileage I certainly won’t be ready for the end of June so I’ve formally withdrawn and surrendered my hard earned M3 race number. It's a great shame because, once again, the field is stacked with the big names who I want to be competing against. There will however be other years, and other opportunities will no doubt present themselves as a result.

One opportunity in particular is for a clean build up to UTMB at the end of August, a race I have never quite performed at but one I plan to run this year as part of The North Face Team. It’s a big one for a comeback race but it makes sense for a lot of reasons I won't go into. Thereafter I will see, but i’m hoping to get a good few other races in before the year’s out - all that’s in still in the planning stages. But in summary the year is now about August and Everything After, cheesy but about right. Until then, it’s time for some more hard training.


The Pro’s and Con’s of an Injured Ultra Runner:

The Pro’s
- I can swim again
- I can knock out 100 miles on the bike without too much trouble
- I have a full set of toe nails
- My food bill has dropped significantly
- I am more alert at work (good?)
- I save about eight quid in train fares every day I ride into work (although I probably spend the proceeds on ‘extra fuel’)

The Con’s
- If I had a pound for every time I was asked ‘How’s your foot?’
- It is a big psychological shock going from 100 miles per week to zero
- My bike repair bill has been colossal; nothing beats the simplicity of running
- Cycling in the rain and wind is grim to say the least - I now keep a close eye on the forecast
- I still haven’t made much of a dent in my DIY to do list (opportunity missed)

Monday, 4 January 2010

A Winter West Highland Way (95 miles - 4,500m +/-)

“There are as many reasons for running as there are days in the year, years in my life. But mostly I run because I am an animal and a child, an artist and a saint. So, too, are you. Find your own play, your own self-renewing compulsion, and you will become the person you are meant to be.”
~ George Sheehan

It was an idea conceived several months earlier in the year, when temperatures were warmer, trails easier to run and hours of daylight considerably greater. The concept was pretty simple – to run the West Highland Way in full, in mid-winter, in less than 24hours – something that, to our know knowledge, had not been achieved before. It was potentially another one of those ‘great idea at the time’ challenges, when the chance of failure is greater than success and a good dose of luck is required. But aren’t those the best?......

Mid-winter in long distance challenge terms can mean a few different things, but our take on it, in line with the guidance provided by the well respected Bob Graham Round club, was the weekend closest to the shortest day, this year (2009) Monday 21st December (a mid-winter round is defined as any time from the weekend before the shortest day through to the first period of decent weather after the shortest day but to be completed no later than 10 January). Our attempt was lined up for the weekend immediately preceding the shortest date given the following Saturday was Boxing Day, when families may not have been quite so understanding. Another nice feature of the date was that it fell exactly 6 months after the annual West Highland Way Race during which I set the 'summer', or longest day, record in 2006.

My partner-in-crime was Murdo McEwan, an Edinburgh based friend who is a true WHW enthusiast and a man of great WHW experience, not least from running a time of 19hrs 08mins as a vet in 2008. No further introductions needed. The original intention was for the two of us to run it together, with a target time of around 22 hours, however 10 days before the big day Murdo suffered a reoccurrence of a leg injury which forced his withdrawal. It was of huge disappointment to both of us, particularly given that detailed arrangements were already in place, but with Murdo's selfless enthusiasm for the mission to progress despite his inability to take part, I quickly made the decision to go ahead regardless.

One of the main reasons behind my decision was the quality of the support already in place. Murdo had arranged a first class line-up of support crews, all from Carnethy running club. They were split into three pairs to support the lower, middle and top sections of the route. The quality of these guys provided a reassuringly solid foundation for the challenge and the sort of opportunity that comes around rarely.

As a great bonus Lucy C, a fellow WHW 'summer' record holder, had also decided to have a bash at the challenge. Lucy was originally down to support however had been tempted by the opportunity to fill the vacant running spot left by Murdo’s withdrawal. Lucy and Murdo therefore made a straight swap. Lucy had, however, quite clearly stated that she was only going to 'have a go' as it was a very last minute decision to run, and she had not had opportunity to prepare at all.

By far and away the biggest threat to the project was the weather. The Scottish Highlands aren’t known for being particularly welcoming in late December with possible weather scenarios ranging from storms, snow, below freezing temperatures and not a lot between. This, you will appreciate, is the luck factor I referred to in my first paragraph, which would strongly dictate the outcome of the challenge (or the amount I suffered!). And so my attention in the final few days before the planned start time of 12.01am on Saturday 19th December was firmly focused on the weather forecast, and in particular what would that well-established low pressure weather pattern hugging the British Isles would bring.

The final forecasts turned out to be spot on; temperatures well below freezing for the whole run (-5ºC to 0ºC) and a 2-3hr band of snow passing through early Saturday afternoon. Beforehand I was undecided as to whether this was a good result or not. Positives: not much wind, frozen and dry trail, novelty of winter wonderland feeling, no rain. Negatives: very cold air to breathe for up to 24 hours, difficulty in regulating body temperature, risk of crew not making it to support points due to froze/ snow covered roads, ice all over the place, driving snow. On balance, I was happy with the forecast.

We all met on Friday evening at Murdo and Jo's in Edinburgh for the 'last supper', a brilliant home cooked feast prepared by Jo. I was pretty nervous by that point and my main concern was the weather, the cold in particular, having not run for such a long periods in sub-zero temperatures before. I also wondered whether the support crew guys themselves were quietly questioning my sanity in deciding to go ahead. They later rubbished that thought! The decision did however rest with me. Whilst there were certainly strong doubts and question marks in my mind, not least the potential risk of the crews getting stuck on frozen roads, on balance I felt the goal remained achievable and my outlook was simple; to give it a good go – nothing to lose.

Milngavie just before midnight on the last Friday night before Christmas was not surprisingly quiet. It was strange arriving at the railway station to see the car park deserted having only ever seen it as a hive of activity on Fling or WHW race days before. Previous race memories came flooding back and continued to do so at various points of my journey that day.

We got out the car at the last minute, carried out a final kit check, posed for a couple of photos, then quietly headed off into the cold and darkness for the start of another episode of endurance running madness.

Conditions in Glasgow were certainly an improvement on Edinburgh; no frozen snow to contend with but the trail was frozen solid - tarmac hard - and surface water frozen solid too, making cautious footing the order of the day (well mostly night). The lowland section out of the Glasgow suburbs was gentle and uneventful as it always is; the calm before the storm in many respects. Olly and Jamie met us regularly at the road crossing points - Beechtree Inn and Drymen initially - fuelling us with warm tea, muller rice and crisps. I applied the same golden rule as usual – start eating and drinking early – wait until you feel like it and it’s probably too late. They provided reassuring and calming company at the brief stops we made. Lucy and I chatted a lot and generally put the world to rights, as well as stopping occasionally to appreciate the incredibly clear and star filled sky which was a genuine treat – the perfect night. It certainly felt to me like someone was looking down on us.

Conic Hill was a little tricky, the usual streams flowing down the trail had frozen, sometimes over the rock, making for slow going. For the first time in my dozen or so crossings of the hill it was also near-perfectly still at the top. The descent was unpleasant; icy, steep and dark but before long we had dropped into the Balmaha car park, arriving at around 3.40am, where the calming and assured presence of Olly and Jamie got us patched up and on our way again efficiently.

Loch-side (Lomond) trails provided welcome variety to the running (it’s amazing how much you can see on a clear winter’s night); the trail meandering northwards, mostly through woodland, gently rising and dipping but with a few beach sections and a wee bit of road. We trundled on at a sensible pace enjoying the wildlife sightings, including owls on two occasions, but very little else. Maybe even the wildlife was doing the sensible thing?

On the final leg of the lower section of the route, between Sallochy and Rowardennan, Lucy signalled her intention to call it a day. It was clearly something she had been thinking about for a while because she sounded assured with her decision - and one I respected her for. As Lucy points out in her very honest blog account, it is not really a challenge to take on half-heartedly, and unfortunately her heart just wasn't in it that day for various reasons. Lucy therefore took the brave, but completely sensible, decision to halt at Rowardennan and catch a lift back from there.

Rowardennan was the final meeting place with the lower crew, so there I waved good bye to Olly, Jamie and Lucy and thanked them for all their kindness and help. As I scuttled off into the darkness there was immediately a different feel to the run from running solo; a greater awareness of the distance ahead, the weather conditions and my night time surroundings. Ahead of me was a long unsupported section up to Beinglas Farm at the top of the Loch. It is a notoriously hazardous section of the trail, with many tricky rocky outcrops, lump and bumps to negotiate, so it was a time for caution with many faster, more runnable, sections ahead to save my energy for. The ice-on-rock was the greatest hazard, but despite the odd close shave I managed to get through to Inversnaid without too much drama.

Passing in front of the Inversnaid Hotel presented the greatest test of will power of the whole journey, wafts of freshly cooked bacon and eggs drifted across the trail, enticing me in for a feed-up. It was clearly not a time for such luxuries so I settled on my pocket full of sweets instead, and got my head down towards Beinglas where I knew Murdo and Russ would be waiting with a bucket full of porridge and a gallon of tea.

Dawn finally broke just after 8am, about as late as it ever gets. It had been a lengthy spell of night time running which had required plenty of concentration to prevent rock-trips and slips on the ice. I felt weary and jaded so looked forward to seeing Murdo and Russ, my middle crew, who would help to boost spirits and get me fixed up for the approaching climb up Glenn Falloch into the Highlands. Murdo had run out a mile or so from Beinglas and was a very welcome sight. We exchanged a few words to confirm all was well but I just wanted to get to Beinglas for breakfast without too much delay, and I was now far more conscious of time, so I cracked on.

Beinglas was a significant milestone in my ‘mind-map’ of the challenge. I was looking forward to the scenic but runnable sections of the route northwards of there, particularly the wild and open expanses across the drovers roads, and the novelty of running in the daylight (hmmm, all 8 hours of it).

Departing Beinglas I told the guys it was my intention to step it up a bit. I felt the timings up to Beinglas were a little slow at c 9 hours, but it had felt like I had been running briskly and sensibly given the conditions, so on reflection the pace was probably about right. There was, however, plenty of runnable trail ahead.

I had a good leg to the next meeting place, Carmyle Cottage, running the majority of the stiffly climbing vehicle track up Glenn Falloch. As I looked down at the Falls of Falloch down to my left it struck me just how cold it actually was, there were sheets of ice on slower parts of the river, not something you see every day. It was Russ’s turn to come out to meet me. He took my order, then flew back to the car to start preparing. The way he whizzed off into the distance made me realise I perhaps wasn’t motoring as much as I thought I was but he later told me he thought I was going well.

The farmyard section before the woods above Crianlarich – usually horribly mucky – was frozen solid so I could skip straight across it, a nice bonus. Indeed, having been running for c.10hours, my feet were still dry as a bone. There had been the odd incident of icy puddles giving way underfoot but the majority were frozen solid. Entering the woods at the top of Crianlarich and the descent to the A81 road crossing I started to think about reaching Tyndrum where I would take a proper pit stop for food. From that point I only had one thing on my mind – fish and chips for lunch from the Real Food Cafe. It’s not something I would usually go for but I suspect the cold was making my body work harder than ever to keep going so it was just my body craving high fat calories to help re-fuel. I wasn’t going to fight it so duly with made my request to the guys and spent the final four mile section to Tyndrum with my mouth watering and stomach rumbling.

On reaching Tyndrum at around 11.45am and hearing the news from Murdo that the cafe had not yet opened, I suspect my face was one of utter disappointment. The thought of fish and chips had dragged me through those last few tough miles when I was running out of steam and stuck in a low. There were however alternatives on offer. A nice big juicy a big juicy bacon sarnie, a hot pasty and a big mug of tea. Oh the simple things - all of a sudden the world wasn’t quite such a terrible place. The food was wolfed and charged me up to the max, but the weather had now turned, the band of wind and snow had arrived. So I added more layers - pertex bottoms and a fleecy neck warmer - in preparation for the exposed sections ahead.

I knew from the forecast that the band of snow was only due to last a couple of hours so I felt confident tackling it head on in the knowledge it wouldn’t last forever. I crossed the A81 by Brodies store and consciously tore into the climbing trail ahead leading out of Tyndrum, trying to run every inch I could. Running a quick pace was a natural urge my body seemed to support, it was fighting to keep warm after a prolonged halt. The hill climb certainly seemed to do the trick, my core soon warmed then my extremities quickly followed suit. I enjoyed running in the snow, and before long the fresh powder was accumulating nicely on the trail. In addition to the novelty factor the snow helped to cushion my strides and level out the unevenness underfoot, particularly appreciated after all the rutted and frozen terrain before.

It was real winter wonderland stuff. I felt so lucky to be out there and running in such beautiful surroundings with fabulous support behind me. On the final stretch before Bridge of Orchy it was Alun who came out to meet me. I was in good spirits, we chatted a bit, but the stop at the car in the station car park was minimal, I wanted to crack on and enjoy every moment of the conditions as well as make the best of the remaining daylight.

Over at Victoria Bridge, the start of the Rannoch Moor crossing, I picked up Russ who had kindly offered to run this long, exposed section with me. I was excited about the chance to have some company on the run and he also appeared raring to go. We left through the gate on to the old drover's road running side-by-side and remained so all the way across. In fact, aside from a brief unscheduled pit-stop, we ran the whole leg without stopping covering the 9mile stretch in just over 75mins. It was good going, our inspiration undoubtedly coming from the incredible conditions. The winter skies were gently glowing at the end of the day, several inches of beautiful powder lay on the ground and there were deer roaming all around us. In fact, their tracks in the snow were the only signs of life out there. On meeting the support guys again on the ski centre road before the Kingshouse Hotel we were both grinning ear-to-ear. It was without doubt one of the best bits of running i've ever experienced. I'm sure Russ's sentiments were the same.

Alun and Andy took over support crew duties at Kingshouse, to see me through the all important final stages when the wheels were most likely to fall off. Glen Coe was a beautiful sight in the fading light. The sky glowed various colours against the white and grey of the mountains. I began to appreciate my decision to step the pace up from Beinglas because it gave me the opportunity to run Glen Coe in the last-light and enjoy the fabulous views. I loved every step of this stage of the run, it felt like a real honour to be there, a real treat.

Alun joined me for the climb over the Devil’s Staircase when it was back into a much smaller word evolving around the 10 metre radius of a headtorch beam. We expected to get buffeted at the top by the northerly wind which had accompanied the earlier band of snow, but it must have dropped just as we made the pass, because it was almost perfectly still up there. The snow had obviously been drifting because it lay six inches or so deep in the channel of the trail creating great conditions for the meandering descent. The crunchy powder provided good grip allowing us to skip down at a good lick. However as we dropped down towards Kinlochleven at sea level the snow thinned out, switching instead to ice which was far less grippy and not trustworthy underfoot. The starkly contrasting conditions brought a change in my mood as I struggled to negotiate the ice and found the slower pace and patience required plain frustrating.

The icy conditions and my tiring legs resulted in a significant low point at Kinlochleven where I met the support guys once again. It was all starting to take it’s toll; 81miles into the challenge I felt done and felt fatally glued to the chair I had parked myself in. I scoffed a few bits of food down, but was sick of the sight of the contents of my food box. I started to get settled and nicely comfortable in my down jacket but there was urgency coming from the support guys, they were shimmying me along, conscious it was a crucial stage, and not time for me to start loafing around. It was also getting extremely cold. In the few minutes I stopped my body temperature plummeted, so much so the only sensible thing to do was run. And with that thought I did, heading out of town, up the rocky path to the hanging valley of Lairigmore.

Trail conditions in the valley were awful. Ice, ice, ice, it was everywhere. The mountain streams crossing the track every few hundred yards had obviously recently been in flood, had spilt over the track and were now frozen. Great. It made the going painfully slow and frustrating, my confidence not helped by several falls on the nasty ice. It felt like I was going at crawling pace and that it took an eternity to get across to Lundavra where the guys were waiting.

My sense of humour had now completely gone so I only stopped for a brief moment at Lundavra, sparing the support guys my grumbles, feeling instead that I should get to Fort William without further torment. Andy kindly joined me for this final leg. I wasn’t really in a chatting mood but massively appreciated the company which kept me pushing on which I might not have managed on my own. The conditions were much better through the woods and I managed to pick up a bit of momentum, albeit the effort required to do so was significant. I moaned and groaned quite a bit, mainly jokily, helping to release a bit of the frustration and emotion that had built over the previous leg. Andy must have been wondering about my unusual motivational techniques having never run with me before!

As ever, it was a real relief to emerge on to the main vehicle track which descends all the way into Fort William. There is only one way to run that stretch and it is hard. We had a good blast down there, probably pushing 6 minute miles, but feeling a lot quicker. There was no snow on the track, just the odd icy puddle which I missed in the blur and plunged my foot into. I was back on form, enjoying the run in.

Alun and Murdo were there waiting at the bottom of the hill, joining me for the final stretch along the road into Fort William. The town was quiet and in hibernation, much like Milngavie had been so many hours earlier. Having looked forward to arriving there for so long, and finishing what had been such a big challenge for me, it was a strangely subdued atmosphere, but what was I expecting?

I touched the official WHW finish sign outside the visitor’s centre as I passed, but the endpoint I had in mind was the same as for the race, the Leisure Centre. I ran across the car park and on to the steps of the Leisure Centre, reaching there 21 hours and 14minutes after I had set out from Milngavie, having successfully completed a memorable journey in true winter conditions. I am the first to admit I had a decent dose of luck, that was always going to be needed, but boy did I enjoy it.......

With special thanks to Murdo & Jo McEwan, Lucy, Jamie, Olly, Russ, Andy & Alun who made it all possible.