CTS Gower Ultra

 

EnduranceLife Coastal Trail Series is a very well organised series of races of varying distances, all covering stretches of beautiful coastline in varying locations across the UK.  It is a format that works well, offering distances from 10k to Ultra (in this case, 57k), over challenging terrain. A trip to one of the most beautiful corners of Wales paid off for me, and I had a great race, placing second woman and 14th overall.

The Gower peninsula is a very special place; cliff edges, rolling moorland, forests, beaches, wild views over the roaring Atlantic ocean. The race started early from Rhossili, with the wind howling around us and the clouds hanging low. The route would take us around the perimeter of the peninsula, over three long beaches (including one that was listed among the top 10  beaches in the world). I knew that at just over the marathon distance we would have to go through the start/finish area and out on a 12k (ish) loop that would cover some of the hardest terrain of the race, so I knew that I needed to hold a bit back for what could be a mental challenge at that point.

I started easy, watched a quick looking woman go off at the front and swiftly decided it would be stupid to try to go with her. I fell into a happy pace, probably around 20th from the front. After the first steep climb and descent, I got to the beach section (running on sand is very tough); I was in one of those natural gaps that form between groups in a race and was totally on my own. After about an hour of running it started to warm up and the wind dropped considerably. I got to the first aid station, took my jacket and gloves off, and was told that I was running as second lady, around 5 minutes back from the leading group. I kept to my own pace, conscious of not pushing too hard so early and aware of the tough finish ahead.

By the time we got to the section of rolling moorland, I was feeling good. This is the type of terrain that I have trained on a lot and I love it. I passed a fair few men who were starting to flag and drop their pace, and fell into a decent running rhythm over the damp grassy terrain, admiring the wild ponies on the moor, and the beautiful views out over the sea. The sun had started to creep through and it was turning into an unexpectedly lovely day. After the second aid station we dropped sharply downhill through a thick forest, and onto the second long beach. At this point, I was passed by the eventual winner of the marathon distance, who was wearing nothing but a club vest and shorts, and running like I was standing still. Up onto the coastal path, and over the cliffs, down across another long, rocky beach, to the next aid station at around 22 miles, where I was told that the leading woman was now 15 minutes ahead of me. I knew I couldn’t catch her, which took the pressure off me.  Back onto the cliffs, where the sun was now shining over the ocean, surfers were out on the waves, and there was a glitter where the sea was rolling in towards the rocks below.

I had continued to pass a few more men, up to the point where the shorter distance races joined our route, and at this point it became difficult to know who was doing what. It also got muddy, due to the number of feet now passing over the ground. I have huge respect for the people who were doing the 10k distance as their first trail race; it was not easy terrain for runners who were not accustomed to rocky, technical paths, but it was fun to see them pushing on and enjoying the experience.

Going through the start/finish area wasn’t as hard as I thought as I still was feeling good. We went back up the steep hill and descent that we had started with, and then turned inland over some very tough boggy terrain. At around 50k, I was starting to feel it as I really don’t enjoy running over thick bog at the best of times. I was still running (and even passed two more men), but the bog took the spring out of my legs and I was starting to feel hungry, but didn’t want to eat much more as my stomach had been very well behaved, and I knew it could turn. I also knew I only had just under five miles to go. Through the very final aid station, I had a bite of Cliff bar and a last swallow of water. Then back over the cliffs to retrace the path I had taken just over an hour before. I found myself alone again, and determined to enjoy the last few kilometers. Climbing up the hill towards the finish, my fiance saw me and ran the last 600m with me.

It was such a lovely race; I was terrifically lucky to feel strong almost all the way. My only issues were that my race vest and merino wool top rubbed my back badly, it is still covered in welts and is very sore. I got a blister on my big toe, I think from the seam of my sock, and a few blood blisters under my toenails. Nutrition seemed ok; I had two 33shake gels, two GU gels, one bottle of Tailwind, water, and a few bits of cliff bars from aid stations. The sesame bars that I usually enjoy were too dry and didn’t appeal. I probably could have had more, even just a few extra gels, but ideally something a bit more nutritious.

I recovered well; taking three days off running, then doing a few easy days, but a week after I am fully recovered and ready to train again. The exciting news is that I have a place in the Transvulcania Ultramarathon in May 2018, which will be the biggest race of my career so far. All I have to do now is stay healthy, and work on my downhill running. That’s all! It will be a challenge, but when I think of how far I’ve come in six months, I think that I am ready for it.

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Salomon Ring of Steall Skyrace

ringofsteall2

The Salomon Ring of Steall Skyrace is a 29km mountain race in the Scottish Highlands, that takes in around 2,800m of elevation, over two of the highest peaks in the Ben Nevis range. That’s what it is on paper. In reality, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced.

I started feeling good. The first climb, up the Devil’s Ridge to the first peak, felt controlled. It was cold and raining, but I got up there in good time and close enough to the front of the pack to feel happy. The climb up to 1000m had been almost easy, but I had no idea what I was about to face.

I always knew that the descents would be problematic for me. But I didn’t realise how bad they really would be. A few meters into the first incredibly steep and rocky descent, and I found out. I felt my right achilles, the bad one, “pop”, and the pain started. Not long after, the left one followed suit.  I had to take baby steps, and couldn’t risk running, as I knew I had to nurse them through this race. It felt like half the field of runners came past me as I gingerly picked my way down the mountain side.

Finally I got to the bottom, thoroughly humbled and now closer to the rear of the pack than the front. But I could run, I had managed somehow to stop the damage from getting too bad. I filled my water bottles at the (only) aid station, stuffed a Tribe bar down my neck, and started attempting to make up some time. The next section was partly on the road, and then though the very beautiful scenery of Glen Nevis. A deep river crossing followed, which gave my aching achilles some relief in the cold water. The second climb beckoned.

At this point the weather had cleared and the it was no longer raining. I knew we had a long, hard climb to come and I ate a 33 shake gel and one of my home made energy balls. Up, up, up we went, I just kept pushing on. People were stopping around me but I managed to keep it going up to the top of An Gearanach, where the sun had come out. The view was unforgettable. Uncompromising and beautiful, a full circuit of mountains surrounded us, streaked by waterfalls, glistening in the autumn light.

The push up the next two peaks was unrelentingly brutal. We dropped down, only to have to climb back up, scrambling this time, hands and feet on slippery rock. Silence as everyone suffered together. Finally reaching the top of An Bodach, the last peak. There was no time to celebrate for me, as I knew the next hour or so would be extremely difficult on my painful tendons. 7km of muddy, slippery, treacherous descent, until finally hitting the West Highland Way, and back into Kinlochleven.

Screaming in frustration as my legs screamed with pain, I picked my way down, apologising to people for holding them up as I truly couldn’t go any faster. I don’t quite know how I made it down, it seemed never to end, just got muddier, slippier, steeper, crueler. Finally, somehow, my feet found the hard ground of the path, and I could run again. Past bemused hikers, and into town, through the flags and over the finish line. 7 hours and 15 minutes of incredible running, climbing, suffering, cursing, exultation.

I could be disappointed as I didn’t have the race I wanted. I was far slower than I should have been, and on paper, I underperformed. But, I pushed through a lot of pain, frustration and suffering, and had an experience I will never ever forget. It was brutal, the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, but worth every step.

The following day I climbed up to watch the leaders come through the 30k point of the Glencoe Skyline, and had the honour of watching Killian Jornet in action. It was an amazing weekend, I met some great people and am inspired to do more, climb higher, run faster, and somehow, somehow, manage to run downhill without crippling myself! I’m giving myself time to recover as this race has taking a lot out of me, even four days later I’m still tired, hungry and sore. But excited for the future and looking forward to running again as soon as I feel ready to do so.

 

 

Nearly there…

I can’t believe that I’ve actually made it through a training block and am tapering for a goal race, uninjured and feeling relatively fit. It has been a long time since I’ve made it to the start line of an important race. This coming weekend I’ll line up at the start of one of the Skyrunning World Series races: the Ring of Steall Skyrace in Scotland. I’ve been looking forward to this one for a long time. It’s relatively short in distance, around 30k, but really tough, and if I get under 5hrs 30 I’ll be very happy indeed. Actually, if I finish I’ll be happy. 

I am still nursing pain and scar tissue in both Achilles’ tendons and they can be very sore when I start running but once warmed up they feel ok. I’ve taken the pressure off myself with the training and been much more organic than before, not chasing a certain distance goal each week. I peaked at around 80 miles two weeks out, and then started a fairly aggressive taper. But I’ve adveraged around 80 kilometres per week, far less than usual, although my climbing has been fairly consistent week on week. I’ve also slowed right down and waited for the speed to feel easy instead of forcing it. Suddenly it was there and I ran a 10 mile tempo last week at under 7 mins per mile, a decent pace for me. 

On the road, I’m wearing Altra Escalante shoes, hands down the best road shoes I’ve ever had. Altra have totally nailed it with these shoes.  They are light, super responsive, flexible and soft around the foot, while being just cushioned enough for long runs (24 miles on concrete paths in France!). They are like the holy grail of running shoes. So impressed. Trail shoes are a bit of a problem. My Altra Lone Peaks are not grippy enough for a very technical skyrace, so I’ve gone for Salomon Speedcross 4s, but they are so narrow. They do make my feet ache, but I think it’s because I’ve been exclusively wearing the Altras. So for the next few days I’m doing everything in the Speedcross to try to get my feet used to them before the weekend. I did wear them training in the mountains for around four hours and they were ok, and the grip they give on the descents makes it worth it. 

Taper madness is a thing, I’ve got a cold and feel rotten. Wish I could fast forward the next few days and just start the race! 
Planned gear: Salomon advanced skin pack; Montane minimums jacket; North Face waterproof trousers; Salomon s-lab skirt; Lornah sports top; merino wool base layer. Salomon Speedcross 4 shoes, Sunnto ambit peak 3 watch, pezl head torch. 

Training in Ireland #2: ascent of Carrauntoohil 

My dodgy experience the day before on Knockboy taught me a few lessons, and when I headed off to Kerry the next day, I was far better prepared. This time, the weather and conditions were perfect. I was very lucky: the mountains put on a fabulous show and were at their most beautiful.

I planned to do a horseshoe traverse taking in Caher, Carrauntoohil (Irelands two highest peaks), and some notoriously technical ridge scrambling, starting and finished from the “Hydro road”. From the carpark to the top of the first peak was exactly 1,000m of ascent over around 5 kilometres – not a bad bit of training over steep terrain, boggy in places, rocky and technical in others.


I felt great on the ascent and enjoyed the brilliant, dazzling views. From Caher, it is a short traverse over the ridge line to the top of Ireland, where a number of hikers had assembled, having come up the less technical side from the east. I pushed on, heading onto the rocky scramble known as “the Bones”.


The first rule of mountains is to know when to bail. I was completely alone on the ridge, it was very damp on the rocks, and I was struggling to keep three points of contact. I knew I could have got over, but I also knew that it was dangerous, and my heart wasn’t in it. I’d get a better training response from running the steep descent the way I came up. So I bailed, climbed back up over Carrauntoohil, back over Caher, and tried to run down the 1000m as efficiently as I could. I’m glad I made that decision-it was sensible, and I’ll do the full horseshoe another time, when I’m not completely alone on the ridge.


It was a beautiful, almost perfect day in one of the most incredible mountain ranges in the world. They might be small, but they are perfectly formed and on a day when the sun shines, the views are breathtaking. It it easy to get a bit blasé about mountains like this as they aren’t huge, but they can be dangerous and they can have a sting in the tail.

Training in Ireland – a scary half hour on Knockboy. 

I spent a week home in Cork, and got two decent days in the mountains done. The first was an ascent of Knockboy, the highest point in Cork, in a very wild and beautiful part of the country just on the border with Kerry. Like most Irish mountains apart from the most well known, there is no marked path and the going is extremely boggy. It seemed to be a bright day, and I had great views down to Glengarrif by the sea on one side, and over the Kerry mountains on the other. I didn’t have a compass with me, but didn’t think much of it as I headed up the road and turned off over a stile to start up the mountain. 

I was moving quite well over the bog, and could see the trig point at the top where I was headed, I knew it was at about 800m, and I chose to run along a fence line as it skirted the worst of the bog. It started to get cold, but I had a jacket in my pack. Suddenly, within a few minutes, the clouds closed in. I was extremely lucky I had decided to stay on the fenceline as I could no longer see anything more than 5m around me. The world had shrunk into whiteness and it was now very cold. I stuck to the fence and using the navigation app on my phone (ViewRanger), I got to the trig point at the summit. 


Now it was time to go back. I followed the fenceline back down the way I came, then got to a lake, which I could identify on the map. At this point I decided to try to navigate back to the road, but as soon as the lake was out of sight, all landmarks simply vanished. I had no idea which direction I was moving, my phone wasn’t much use, and the compass on my watch told me where north was, but not how to get through the maze of bog I now found myself in. The whiteness was disorienting and eerie, and I was moving so slowly it was hard to stay warm. I decided to climb up a hillock to try to get onto firmer ground. Suddenly, as quickly as it came in, the clouds cleared. I could see the road! I could also see that I had been headed in exactly the wrong direction. 


Lesson learned. Mountains, even small ones, are very dangerous. If I hadn’t had my jacket with me, and the mist hadn’t cleared when it did, this could have been a very scary experience. It had been warm and bright at sea level, a good 21 degrees and clear sunshine. It was probably 15 degrees colder on the hill, windy, and all landmarks completely invisible. Always bring a proper compass and map. Don’t rely on technology. Bring warm clothing, gloves and extra food. You just never know. 

Training in the Brecon Beacons national park

A last minute decision to go to the Brecon Beacons for two days training found me, alone, in my tent, in a farmers field at the base of Cribyn. My facilities for the stay included….some ferns for my "toilet area", a camping stove balanced on a log, six bottles of water, and an aeropress coffee maker (crucial).

Actually, it was lovely. I did a shorter run straight up the steep side of Cribyn and back down the Roman road on the Saturday evening before retiring to my tent.

On the Sunday I did a longer loop taking in three summits: Pen y Fan, Cribyn and Fan y Big, pushing the pace as much as I could. I met up with some other runners coming off the second peak, and they made me realise two important things: my descending is terrible. Since being injured I've got a mental block for running downhill. I need to work on this. Also, I'm pretty good at climbing up. I was flying past the others on the climbs only to look like bambi going downhill. This needs work!

It felt wonderful to be back in the mountains, especially after my long injury and wondering if I'd even be able to run again. It is frustrating that I'm so far away from where I was pre-injury but at least I'm able to move in the mountains and I'm aware that I am lucky to be in the position to be able to do this.

Camping alone takes a certain type of personality too. I love it, but am aware of my vulnerability alone on a hillside at night. I make a conscious decision not to allow this to stop me doing what I love.
I am very fortunate to be able to do this, knowing that I have my home and comfortable life waiting for my return.

The problem always comes when I get home. I am sore from the runs, my quads are very stiff. The demons are now clamouring at me, telling me that I'm useless, too slow on the downhills, that it is pathetic to be stiff and tired. I always struggle with life after a training trip like this one. I know that in a few days I'll be training again and will feel better. Perhaps it is easier to just let the negative thoughts wash over me and pass away like waves.

How I got back to training again

After developing Achilles tendonitis in both legs, I’m finally back training again. I think that I managed my rehab quite well, and have managed to get back to running around 60k per week at the moment, feeling easy. I’ve also started open water swimming once a week, and have increased the time I spend on the bike to make up for the decreased time spent running.

I have had some help with my gait and have made some tweaks to my form, and it seems to be working. Why did end up with both Achilles strained? It seems to have some connection to the way I flick my toe up behind me when I run, and I’ve been concentrating on trying to keep my ankle in dorsiflexion in the flight phase to help keep the contraction of the tendon to a minimum. The tendons on both legs are thickened and scarred, and they do get stiff in the mornings, but with careful warmups and stretching I am able to run without pain.

This is me on the treadmill during my gait analysis test. The good news is that I don’t overstride, and I do keep my landing leg well under my centre of gravity. I have a good incline forwards and my hips are neutral and not rotated. However, the rear view shows that I have a lot of upwards oscillation, which leads to a lack of efficiency. Most significantly, when my foot comes behind me (as can be seen in the side view), my foot goes into plantarflexion and I point my toe. This means that as I then come back to land on that foot, I have to over exert the calf muscle and, by extension, the achilles tendon.  This movement pattern may have been caused by the injuries I have been dealing with, specifically my shin issue and foot problems, and the theory is that if I can change this one thing, the rest of my running form is good, and hopefully I will be able to increase my mileage again without risking injury. So long as I am careful.

I am being careful. I am running six days a week, but four out of these six runs are done at a capped heartrate of 148bpm. Which for me is a pace just above 8 min miles on a flat surface. This feels very easy and I can work on my form without getting fatigued. The other runs are either a speed session or a hill session, and a long run done at a steady pace but at a higher heartrate and over hills and technical terrain. I’m training specifically for the Ring of Steal Skyrace in Glencoe in September, which is short (under 30k), but with a lot of altitude gain and quite technical. I have a friendly hill, which is exactly 1km in length and climbs 50m, so not a huge climb but a good stead rise. I can do repeats on this hill, going up as hard as I can, and down as hard as I can. This seems to be a core session for me at the moment and right now I’m up to 4 repeats: I’ll increase the reps gradually as the time goes on.

I am not entered for anything else apart from the Skyrace at the moment, although I will do a sprint triathlon in a few weeks, mainly because I’m enjoying swimming at the moment and think, why not! I’m enjoying feeling fit again, and trying to keep it sensible. While I’m running less, I’m actually training more as I am cycling and swimming, but I feel less broken down. The easy running is interesting for me as I will admit to finding it boring, but it is also vital to my training and health and I will learn to embrace it.

It is really difficult 

A photo popped up on my Facebook “on this day” feed a few days ago. It was taken a few days after I had run the Edinburgh marathon. I looked like this: 

Today, after three months of curtailed running due to injury, I look different. My stomach has rounded and my hip bones don’t stick out, my arms are more muscular. I’ve tried to keep up my physique through cycling and strength training but it isn’t the same as running consistent high mileage weeks. I am no heavier on the scales but don’t look as tight and it is hard to accept. But I have to learn that I can’t keep my body at that point (11% body fat) indefinitely. I need to give myself the chance to heal and get stronger. Maybe I’ll achieve that level of fitness again, but I hope that if I do it will be with a better understanding of the costs that come with it. 

Eat your carbs, women athletes!

Since the podcast episode I did with Chris Sandel of Seven Health  came out, I’ve had so many lovely messages of support, and questions from people who recognise their own issues in my experiences. It is touching to hear so many positive comments, and amazing to realise that what I went through is not uncommon, if not much discussed. I’ve written before about the sanitised Instagram life that becomes the veil for people’s true struggles, and bringing it into the open in such a public way seems to have encouraged others to interrogate their relationship with exercise, body image and food.

Out of the various messages I received, there has been one common  thread: “should I eat more carbs?”. It is astonishing how many athletic women have become subsumed in the rhetoric of low carbohydrate/ketogenic eating that was never designed for female athletes. Women who, like me, are training multiple hours a day, and are restricting their carbohydrate intake, and are not recovering, not adapting, and on top of all that, are feeling guilty for not being able to sustain their restrictive diet. It is crazy.

Low carbohydrate diets are not designed for people who are currently in training for endurance sport. They work very well for sedentary, overweight people who need to shed excess body fat. They work brilliantly to help with metabolic disorders and certain other illnesses. They work well for someone who runs a 5k a few times a week and does a few sessions in the gym. Athletes have different nutritional requirements. There are some athletes who can perform on this sort of regime: they tend to be male, they have a very very good relationship to food, meaning they are able to respond appropriately to their hunger cues and eat sufficiently to sustain their bodies, and they are able to be flexible. They have stable hormonal balance, and are able and willing to eat what is required. Basically, for this way of eating to work for an athlete in any way, it is necessary to be a) male, and b) not othorexic in any way at all.

Sadly, a lot of the athletes who gravitate towards this way of eating do so because they are already inclined towards disordered eating and are looking for a “fix” to their eating issues. If they are also female, this can lead to disaster.

Eat food. Real food, that is nourishing, filling, fueling, and in sufficient quantities to sustain your energy throughout the day. It isn’t black and white. Quality, good tasting food, balanced into carbohydrates, protein, vegetables and fats. Don’t eat stuff that isn’t recognisable as food. If it is real food, eat it.

My interview with Chris Sandel of Seven Health

http://www.seven-health.com/2017/06/094-interview-with-charlotte-goodall/

 

I did this interview with the fantastic Chris Sandel of Seven Health a few weeks ago. I’m very open and honest about my struggles and the sort of things I’ve been going through over the last year. I hope that it helps someone out there to hear about it. It isn’t easy to talk about such things but I do appreciate the opportunity I was given. If you haven’t come across Chris before, I highly recommend his podcast Real Health Radio. It is fantastic.