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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!

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