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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!

Friday, 1 July 2016

Lavaredo Ultra Trail, 24th June 2016 (119km, 5,850m +/-)

I'm not quite sure why it’s taken me 10 years to get round to running the Lavaredo Ultra Trail (LUT) and I sure do regret that now. It’s a belter of a race and for everyone who likes a challenging mountain ultra, it should be high up on the list.

So over a period of just a few weeks I’ve totally fallen in love with the Italian Dolomites, enjoying every moment of both my training for the LUT and the race itself. It’s a fabulous playground for trail runners, with vistas dominated by the jagged limestone summits and cliffs, criss-crossed with well-maintained scenic trails, providing enough variety and technicality to keep even the most hardcore runners entertained.

LUT almost feels like a hidden secret because of it’s relative modesty when compared to races like UTMB, and for many years it hasn’t hit the radar for most elites, however since it’s inclusion in the core group of Ultra Trail World Tour races a couple of years ago, that’s quickly changed. This year’s field was arguably far deeper than Western States, enough said.

I flew out to recce the route a couple of weeks before the race, providing a nice opportunity for some crash training as well as getting to know the route, something I find helpful with mental preparation, particularly when lots of ascent is involved. Running the course over two days, it blew my mind, and it was great to have the opportunity to properly take it all in, seeing the whole course in the daylight which is something the 11pm race start time doesn’t permit. With a roughly figure-of-eight course I ran one loop on each day, conveniently splitting into 40/ 35 mile days respectively with a roughly even split of the 5,850m total elevation gain. Despite some rainy and thundery spells, it worked well, and logistics just about manageable within a big weekend’s effort.

LUT Training

LUT Training: descending from Col dei Bois

LUT Training: Forcella Ambrizzola, Cortina below

LUT Training: top of first climb

LUT Training: Val Travenanzes

LUT Training: Val Della Rienza
I seemed to be back in Cortina for the race in the blink of an eye, standing on the start line alongside 1,300 fellow adventurers, doing battle with my chimp about the sense oinwhat I was doing. 11pm on a Friday night feels illogical in so many ways, particularly with a well timed electrical storm passing overhead just an hour before the start, but perhaps that’s what double espresso’s are for? Having abstained from caffeine for many months, it was particularly effective to get the adrenaline going and keep fatigue at bay. 

The day before the race, hanging out near Rifugio Auronzo with Gem.

Pre race with the lovely Lizzy Hawker
Pre-race I hadn’t felt quite as level headed as I usually do, with a particularly busy spell of work and other commitments creating stress and tiredness. I spent a week with a mouth full of ulcers, and frankly just waiting for a cold to break out, but I rode my luck, and thankfully it never prevailed. Just before we left for Cortina on the Wednesday I was ready to call it off, feeling far from ideal, and worried that a poor performance would dent my confidence when the really important outcome of the race was to get a strong performance in the bag. It felt like a fairly pivotal race on my ‘bounce’ from a troublesome 2015, so I didn’t want to get it wrong. But sometimes going in to a race feeling a little blasé and a less than perfect build up can actually ease the pressure. Whatever. Have a go and take it as it comes.

After the usual hussle and bussle of the start and first mile or two of road leading out of town, it was nice to soon gain some space, and join the snaking line of head torches up the first climb on the course, soon thinning out as is always the case. Before long the stress and anxiety I carried into the race had dispersed, and I was free to do my thing. The storm had passed through, but the humidity was high and a cloudy haziness hung in the air. This coupled with regular flashes of lightening far away in the distance created a sense of drama which I really liked. 

There was a sizeable group leading out which I tucked in the back of, content to settle in and find my legs for later. Running at night creates a lovely sense of freedom and solitude, despite being one of hundreds doing the same thing. I just really appreciated being there, running in my little bubble of head torch light and having the opportunity to take part and to savour the experience.

I ran some early spells with team mate Rory Bosio, including the descent to Federavecchia at 33km, where we arrived some way down the field (57th) to a raucous reception from The North Face team. What a great bunch supporting the team athletes all through the night. I was enjoying it, and met with Gem for the first time for a quick replen of liquid. I wolfed down a couple of pots of custard, and cracked on.

It was from there that I started to get going, building some momentum, which I intended maintaining all through the race. Momentum was about picking off places, steadily working my way up the field. After the excitement of the start and early spells, I knew the last few hours before dawn would mentally be the hardest - still significantly before half way, still dark and with mental tiredness at it’s worst. But despite this my head was in a great place, just savouring the experience, remaining positive.

Each little head torch light on the trail ahead was a target, and gave me a mini lift, particularly on the stiff climb up to Rifugio Auronzo (48.5km), now up to 50th place. After a murky and humid night, the first signs of dawn were on their way towards the top of the climb, and being up high next to Tre Cime di Lavaredo felt very fitting. Over the pass near Rifugio Lavaredo, not only was it a new day with the head torch switched off, but it was a clear day, like a different world with visibility and clear skies. Dawn always seems to bring freshness and strength, but this was better still, and I then enjoyed the big 1,000m+ descent down Val Della Rienza back towards civilisation.

Approaching Cimabanche
Cimabanche (66.1km) was my next opportunity to meet Gem. I had claimed a further 6 places and was now in 44th. It was possibly the part of the race when I felt at my weakest, having the run the previous long leg with little by way of sustenance. My stomach had been somewhat unsettled, but I was determined not to let that get me down, and hoped it would pass. After nailing a load of fruit I felt a lot better, and psychologically felt rejuvenated by the feeling that it was a new day and I was making strong progress all round.

The most enjoyable section of trail was now ahead, in particular the spectacular Val Trevanzes. The path is benched into the lower left bank of this dramatic valley, working it’s way up to the pass across scree slopes, under dramatic overhanging cliffs and regularly crossing the clear mountain streams. It felt like a bit of a slog physically, but the beautiful surrounding fuelled my legs. I knew I was still moving well in relation to others, merely by the fact I was regularly overtaking. At Forcella Col due Bos (2,331m) I gave in to the nagging discomfort from stones in my shoe, momentarily perching on a rock to empty them out.

Then a fast descent to Col Gallina (95km), starting to feel like I’d broken the back of it now, but also a tad weary. I hadn’t got a clue what position I was in (actually now 36th), despite being rather keen to know, but the information wasn’t available, so just keep your head down and don’t fret about it!

Leaving Col Gallina
I felt buoyed from seeing Gem and the team again, loads of positivity around, and ready to get this thing finished. The climbing was really starting to get tough, now well over 4,000m in the legs, and the temperature was also climbing quickly. The next climb was steep albeit the final big one, a real-hands-on-knees grind to the top, eventually reaching Rifugio Averau (2,413m) where an adhoc water station was setup. “Grazie mille” – so grateful to one and all of the volunteers dotted around the course, always smiling and positive in their words – particularly as this one was completely unexpected, and well needed in the heat.

The final part of the course stays high until a big long descent into the Cortina. The views remained first class, with rocky drama all round and some lovely sections of singletrack. Lots of great spots for a picnic I thought, but perhaps now’s not the time.

By the final support point at Passo Giau (103km) I had caught a bunch more guys, so arrived once again feeling buoyed and positive, now in 27th place. There wasn’t much point lingering because aside from a couple of shorter climbs, it was about beasting it down the final descent to the finish. There comes a point when looking after yourself (as is the priority in ultra running) just goes out the window, knowing that the scent of the finish line will carry you through, come what may. Get it done.

Reaching the final pass at Forcella Ambrizzola (2,277m) was a satisfying moment and I let out a vocal sigh of relief. How hard can 11km of descent really be? Well rather ugly to be honest, particularly my form, but no marks for that fortunately.

There was a great welcome from the afternoon crowds back in Cortina after over 14 hours of effort, and I felt genuinely pleased with my finishing place of 22nd. It wasn’t as fast as I’m capable of, but there were other priorities for this one. Most importantly I loved every minute of the experience and had re-found some of the strength reserves which have served me so well over the years. Knowing it’s still there is all I needed to know, and hopefully with a bit more training and consistency, I can tap in for a bit more.

Thanks must go to my amazingly supportive wife Gem who did a perfect job with the support, as well as all The North Face folk who were so enthusiastic throughout.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Back on the wagon

So it’s been nearly 3 weeks since the Fling and definitely about time for an update. Gem and I had a great week in the north-eastern Cairngorms immediately after the race, initially just learning to walk again, but then actually getting some pretty darn good walking days in.

Located near Tomintoul, a relatively quiet and tucked away side of the Cairngorms, we walked some local hills, explored Strath Avon up into the Cairngorms, plus a big finale of the ‘Lochaber horseshoe’ once the wind had suitably abated. I hadn't been up four of the five munros on the route, so it was a productive day, and a lot of fun traversing the extensive snow patches which still remained after the late season flurry. Over the course of the week the weather was cool, breezy but generally dry, so ideal for getting out and about to blow of the cobwebs after the Fling. The area has an abundance and variety of wildlife that I haven't seen matched elsewhere in Scotland – I think we pretty much managed the full array of what can be found up there – golden eagle, arctic hare, ptarmigan, owls, red squirrel etc etc. Okay, so you’ve got me on the wild cats and pine martins. Next time...

The running didn’t re-start until we were back, so it’s been the usual process of coaching the legs back to life. The change for me at this stage in the season is to crank up the endurance and elevation ready for the longer races coming up in the Alps – firstly Lavaredo Ultra Trail (119km, 5,800m +/-) towards the end of June and then UTMB. Heck, the summer is nearly here, not much time to dwell.

The first of the longer days was a look at the ‘Brecon Beacons Traverse’ last Saturday – a route in south Wales taking in 31 of the 2,000ft+ summits across the Carmarthen Fan, Fforest (yes 2x Ff’s) Fawr, Brecon Beacons and Black Mountains going west to east. The area is classic welsh rough stuff and there are lots of fairly direct lines required to link the groups of hills; the bits most folk don’t do, so are relatively un-trodden & pathless. But also some nice fast high level sections which on a sunny spring day were a joy to run.

I ran with BAC club mate Toby Chapman who was trying a long day out for the first time, and I couldn’t fault the enthusiasm for getting stuck in and joining me :o) His longest run prior to this was 4 hours - we were running for over 8! I felt a bit weary early on, but soon started to settle in, inevitably for Toby it was the opposite, but we nailed 40miles (first 60%) of the route which was the plan from the outset. We were both about done by the end, although still fool-hardy enough to want to round up to 40 when we arrived back at the car with 39.8 miles on the clock. That's a bit of the BAC OCD for you.

So I just need to check out The Black Mountains bit now, which will be a good day out in itself, then I might be in a position to have a go at the whole thing. I’ve got some crew recruiting to do :o)

Might prove a nice little summer project, or maybe another year, we shall see.

Here's a selection of photo's from the Brecon Beacons last Saturday:

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Hoka Highland Fling Race

Despite feeling disappointed with my time and finishing place in Saturday’s Highland Fling race, I couldn’t help but come away with a smile. It’s nothing less than remarkable how this race has developed since it was first conceived 10 years ago. I was one of the 18 runners who took part that inaugural year – it was not much more than a supported training run for the West Highland Way Race - and to see how it’s evolved into such a genuinely brilliant event is impressive to say the least. There are now nearly 1,000 participants taking part across both the ultra and relay events (and it could easily fill 2 or 3 times over), but it’s the spirit and organisation of the race which really impresses, certainly surpassing anything else I’ve experienced in the UK. Basically it’s just a whole lot of fun – everyone is out enjoying themselves from the checkpoint volunteers, to the musicians en route, the photographers, spectators and of course the runners. It’s great example of the spirit that our sport carries; nobody taking themselves too seriously, bucket loads of Scottish hospitality and warmth, and free beer at the end. Brilliant.

So to the racing - well I guess I was a bit rusty! Rustiness hadn’t been something I was particularly worried about pre-race, but on reflection, perhaps the lack of competitive / fast ultra racing in the last 18 months was a bit of an issue. The Fling was hosting the UK trail championships and qualifier for the GB Trail Team this year so I wanted to perform, but so too did lots of other top guys who were all there with exactly the same intentions. 6th place and a time of 7:38 was some way off my best on the Fling course and not exactly what I had in mind, so somewhat disappointing on the face of it.

But I guess there is some context which I need to factor in, which a little reflective time has allowed me to discover. The second half of 2015 was probably the lowest spell I’ve had to contend in the 12 years I’ve been running ultras - trying to find my way through a blurred picture of illness which started with a(nother) gastro bug which forced my withdrawal from the Dragon’s Back Race and then then seemed to kick start issues with my UC and possibly other things too. Anyway, I remembered after the race on Saturday evening that I could barely run at all in December simply due to physical weakness, and essentially I had a standing start trying to re-build fitness from the start of this year. Save for a chest infection, my spell of training this year has been pretty solid and I’ve worked hard at it, but always within the confines of having an awkward illness, the commitment of running my own business and not having much of a base to build from. I expect a lot from myself, I always have, so the aim for the race was the same as it always has been; running for a podium slot. But in the context of all of the above, perhaps I shouldn’t be too hard on myself…

My race plan was to run relatively conservatively for the first half at least and then try to build from there. I fully expected a vicious pace from a lead group right from the off and that’s exactly what happened, with Donnie Campbell, Joe Symonds, Robbie Britton and Kim Collison pushing hard right from the gun. Unfortunately I suffered with stomach issues from early on, taking the 1st of 10 or so visits to the bushes within the first few miles, so it was tricky to hang with any sort of a group, and far from ideal in terms of maintaining strength!

Approaching Balmaha, 40 wish miles in. Photo credit: Thomas Loehndorf.

Once I pulled away from Jayson Cavill who was having a tough time of it just after Conic Hill, essentially it became a solo run for the remaining 30miles. I spent plenty of time pondering how it may be unfolding upfront, and to be honest I fully expected guys to fall by the wayside which impressively, never really prevailed. There was certainly some mixing up of places as Donnie pulled away from the lead group for a strong final 13 miles to break the course record, and Damien Hall ran a blinding second half from Rowardennan (where he was only minutes ahead of me) to also finish sub-7 hours and nab second place. That was the race I wanted to run, and felt in a place to do so up until about 30 miles when the gas ran out. I didn’t have a great time of it with my UC/ stomach on the day, which certainly didn’t help energy levels, but I suspect race sharpness was the biggest factor of all.

Red carpet, finish line :o)

That said, the running was really quite special. A clear and frosty start soon warmed from the sunshine, and we enjoyed sunny intervals and just the odd shower on our journey north from Milngavie (Glasgow). The views up Loch Lomond from Conic hill were superb, and the variety of the Loch-side trails and scenery equally so. You forgot what a classic bit of trail this is, and why it’s so popular with the multi-day trekkers. For the runners, lots of fast undulating trail to attack along with some interesting technical sections before and after Inversnaid Hotel. And some good little climbs and descents in the final 13 mile section from Balmaha to the finish also helping to mix things up when the legs are smashed.

At the finish the atmosphere really gets going with free beer, food and a unique festival atmosphere as finishers enjoy their moment on the famous red carpet to cross the line. There were loads of inspiring stories from the folk I spoke to, many telling me how they had run a previous edition of the Fling as their first ultra, and so providing an important gateway to the sport. It’s all set up perfectly for that, and long may it last as such a brilliantly organised event. It’s nothing less than heroic what Race Director ‘Johnny Fling’ has achieved, and all on a not-for-profit basis. Awesome.

So all in all a mixed bag for me from the Fling, but plenty to build on for the year ahead, and definitely no danger of peaking too early :o)

Next up will be the Lavaredo Ultra Trail in late June.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

The week in running (to 10 April '16)

Fourth and final peak week done – survived – and still intact. Just about. The tiredness is definitely building a bit, but with cut back and taper time in sight, it’s mentally much easier to have a final push. 

It was the last of the BAC marathon sessions on Wednesday night – a mere 80 minutes of efforts to go at! The weather (well, wind) is always a pretty key factor for our out and back efforts on the Bournemouth prom, so it was pretty unfortunate that we had a 25mph westerly to run straight into for 50% of the time. Character building for sure, but also very rewarding when it comes to getting it done, and perhaps even more beneficial. Resistance running?! My legs were still a little weary from Taunton, but all things considered I was pleased to be running, on average, at what would be my marathon pace. Well if I ever actually got round to doing one properly.

My other key runs were then at the weekend, loading up as usual, with a 31miler around the north Dorset hills on Saturday morning and then 13miles at a brisk ish pace on Sunday morning.

The north Dorset countryside was as lovely as usual, if a little muddy in places. After rain overnight there was a beautiful sun rise, and nice warm sunshine for the first half. Then I got nailed in a hail storm, but with the westerly wind then behind me, and a warm car on the horizon, it wasn't so bad.

Sunday was a mega fatigue moment, but all about trying to force the legs back into life with some brisker road running after a fairly big run on the trails.

As always, my focus has just been on staying healthy, getting something close to the right amount of sleep, and not working too much. Life, hey. Next weekend’s London Marathon should provide a welcome distraction during my taper, watching all my BAC club mates smash it out on the streets of the big smoke. It's been fun training alongside them for much of the year, but then we peel off in different directions at this point. 

The spring is a great time of year for running for so many different reasons, but the London-vibe always ups the interest amongst the public even more, so it’s going to be a great few weeks.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

The week in running (to 03 April '16)

As usual the week started with a lingering sense of fatigue after a big weekend, but ended on a real high with a strong run at the Taunton Marathon on Sunday – more on that later. Even after 12 years training for and running ultras, I’m still amazed by the body’s ability to recover - to feel exhausted one day, and surprisingly sprightly the next. Even if it doesn’t always happen, clutching on to that thought is often enough to get yourself out the door, which isn't a bad thing. Due to work commitments I do have to ‘cram’ a little at the weekends, and the earlier part of the week tends to be more about recovery than anything else, with the week mentally kicking off properly on Wednesday.

At the start of the week I was struggling to get my head round the idea of another big marathon session on Wednesday night, let along a marathon race effort on Sunday. Eeeekk. The first effort on Wednesday wasn’t anything special, but I got stronger as the session went on, and felt the best I have done for quite some time towards the end. Nice. Maybe all this training malarkey is starting to pay off. We did a total of 71 minutes of efforts in decreasing durations from 24 minutes, and rather enjoyed it, particularly with the better light after the clocks change, and not too much wind – certainly a novelty for the Wednesday night gang….

I decided to slot in a parkrun ‘sandwich’ session on Saturday morning, running down to Blandford parkrun from home, a hard 5km park run effort, and then a run home again (15miles total). 17:33 wasn’t too bad given it’s not the quickest of courses and my legs felt heavy.

The big finale for the week was then the Taunton Marathon on Sunday which I was targeting as a long tempo effort as part of my build up to the Fling. My aim was to run 6.30m/m pace to hit about 2hrs 50mins, but ended up averaging 6.19m/m pace to finish in 2hrs 46mins, 30 seconds behind BAC team mate Toby Chapman. We ran side by side for 25miles before he showed his youth and pushed on at the end to take a deserved win in his home town – a really strong performance which bodes well for a quicker PB attempt at the London Marathon in a couple of weeks time.

Most importantly, it felt like a controlled effort, and I wasn’t completely destroyed at the end, so it did feel like a positive milestone in my training. So one last marathon training session on Wednesday and a long run at the weekend to complete, probably as part of a 100ish mile week like the last few, then I’ll start to think about gradually winding down towards race day. On we march.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

The week in running (to 27 Mar '16)

The highlight of last week had to be a long day out with Mr Giles on the Brecon Beacons on Good Friday. It's been a while since we've done a hill blitz - we used to make regular trips to the Shropshire Hills and Snowdonia as former fellow midland-ers. We picked the date fairly randomly a good couple of months ago, and for once the weather gods were more than kind, providing a beautifully clear and sunny spring day – the best of the year so far. 

We ran one of the ‘Might Contain Nuts’ race routes (just to give us a bit of structure on a well planned route) heading out from Talybont-on-Usk over Tor r Foel, Graig Fan Ddu, Bwlch Duwynt, Fan Frynych, Corn Du, Pen y Fan, Cribyn, Fan y Big, Craig Cwareli and Craig y Fan before returning to Talybont. On paper there were some rather tortuous loops involving a full descent off the hill, before heading back up again – but on the ground it made more sense and was all rather pleasant. The visibility was excellent throughout providing lovely views and the opportunity to get to know an area that I’ve spent relatively little time exploring, despite being the closest set of decent hills to where I live. I came away vowing to make regular trips over the summer when I’m specifically preparing for some mountain races.

A token snow patch.

Getting propped up on the last summit.

Gilsey descending towards Talybont Reservoir

We weren’t out to break any records, just get some good hills into the legs which the 3,000m of ascent/ descent over 40 miles ably did. It’s a tricky balance mixing marathon speedwork with hill strength, both seeming to pull in opposite directions, but hopefully it will have the desired effect when it comes to overall race fitness for the end of April.

Earlier in the week I had a solid marathon session on Wednesday night, finding a bit of speed despite lingering tiredness from the New Forest 50km race effort on Saturday. The session was 25min, 5 x 4min, 25min – as vicious as it sounds! It was all good apart from the last 10mins when my legs were, errr, battered.

And the week was nicely capped off with a 23mile run with Gem on Sunday morning as part of her marathon training. I was on pacing duty, aiming for 7.45m/m pace on average, but we ended up with 7.29m/m which she was more than pleased with. It wasn’t the flattest of routes, and we were nailed by a monster driving hail storm towards the end, so not bad all things considered. I probably wouldn’t have run quite so far on my own, and she wouldn’t have run quite so briskly on her own, so mutually beneficial. Nice.

So another 100mile week in the bag, and another decent step forwards with fitness working towards the Fling. More of the same please.