Beacons 50 mile race – a win and third overall

Six months ago, I was injured, unhappily cross training, and doubting whether I’d run again without pain. This weekend I won a 50 mile race and was top three overall. Strange how things can turn around.

The Beacons 50 mile race is part of a race series in the Brecon Beacons, consisting of a 100 miler (considered one of the toughest 100 mile courses in the UK) and the 50 miler, which was on a new course for this year. I was attracted to it for two reasons: firstly, it came with 4 UTMB points and I needed them to go into the ballot for 2019; secondly, half of the race covered ground that I knew well from my own training in the Beacons and I knew it would suit my running style and abilities. It was advertised as a fully marked course, and I took some comfort in knowing that the first and final 10 miles would be very familiar to me, and that I could look forward to seeing some new mountains in the middle portion of the race.

Since my last race, I’ve been ticking over, doing a sort of marathon -style training plan, with track work once a week and an tempo run, and long runs, but none further than 20 ish miles. I didn’t over-push the training as I knew I was fit enough; a few longer runs and some hill sessions of a few hours along with my usual weekly mileage seemed to keep me feeling strong enough. A week in Cornwall allowed me to do a three and a half hour run on the coastal path, which got me plenty of ascent and a few Strava crowns to boost my ego and give me a bit of confidence in my climbing strength. I destroyed my Altra King MTs; the uppers tore off them, but they had done Transvulcania, Scafell, and a very gnarly coastal path run, as well as winter training. I decided to replace them with the new Inov8 Ultra Graphene shoe, which is zero drop and wide like the Altras, but the graphene sole is marketed as the grippiest around, and the kevlar overlays on the upper are supposed to make them nearly indestructible. I took a deep breath and ordered myself a pair (wincing at the cost), and am glad I did, as they were fantastic on the wet slippery Brecon rock. The hype around the graphene is true, the grip is outstanding.

The race went so well for me that it is hard to describe. It was one of those runs where time folded in on itself. There are hours where I simply was running, they slipped by like seconds, hardly noticed. The race had issues with the course markings being removed or tampered with and I did have to rely on the GPS trace on my watch for a lot of time. Even using that I got quite lost twice and was reduced to bushwhacking through trackless ferns and undergrowth. Despite that, I never quite stopped enjoying myself. The final climb was cold, wet, and with 45 miles in my legs I had a bit of a “type 2 fun” moment, but held my nerve. I ran it in, even managing a 5:30 kilometer at km 88 (god knows how). My watch said 91km, and 3,500m of elevation. It took me just under 13 hours, and I was only 38 minutes behind first place overall. First woman, third runner, no aches, pains, or blisters, stomach held together, head was solid, and I finished without needing my headtorch. Nailed it.


Scafell Skyrace


The Scafell Skyrace comprises of 42km (ish) with 3000m (ish) of ascent and descent, following a point to point course that traverses some of the very best landscapes of the English Lake District, including England’s highest mountain Scafell Pike.  It is a beautiful and truly tough test of endurance, and it came close to breaking me.

I drove up to the Lakes, leaving home early on the Saturday morning and arrived at the University of Cumbria in Ambleside at lunchtime. The race headquarters were situated on the small campus, and I had booked accommodation in the student halls of residence there. I got there early enough to get out for a short hike/run, and went up the fells to see the early finishers of the Lakes Sky Ultra come in.  Their exhausted faces told a tale that I should probably have listened to more closely.

Kit checked and race briefed (warnings of limited water on the course, and an agreement to waive the waterproof trousers and headtorch from the required kit), I had an early night in the tiny bedroom, which was sweltering in the heat as the window would only crack open.

The morning saw us loaded onto buses in Ambleside to be taken to the race start in Borrowdale. I was lucky to sit next to a very friendly woman who chatted easily the whole trip and took my mind off the race ahead. The start of the race was quick, out onto the road and then along a track, before starting the climb that would lead to Windy Gap and eventually the start of the ascent to Scafell Pike. Very soon after starting, I didn’t feel great. My legs ached and my feet felt numb, and in my head I didn’t want to be there. I had started towards the front of the women but quite soon I had to slow down a lot and try to get myself in a place where I could find a rhythm and relax into the race. I felt worse watching so many people pass me, but it was either that or drop out completely and I wasn’t ready for the self-hatred that would bring! I knew there wasn’t actually anything wrong with me, I just, for some reason, was in a bad mind-set at that moment in time.

As often happens during long races, as time passed the sensations changed. I love climbing, and the ascent to Scafell suited me and allowed me to relax a bit and start to feel better. The clag had come in and it was misty and cool, obscuring the views but keeping us from struggling too much with our limited water supplies. The boulder fields on the traverse to Bowfell were tricky and, for me at least, totally unrunnable. Over Bowfell, the so-called Climbers traverse was an extremely daunting prospect, including a dizzying descent down the Great Slab, around 200m of sheer granite. I got down, and finally found my feet on the less technical descent the rest of the way into Langdale.

I was shocked to see that nearly five hours had passed, and the intermediate checkpoint cut off was tight – I had to be there in 5:45. I have never in any race before had to worry about not making cut off times. I had completely run out of water before getting there, but I got in with over ten minutes to spare. It was a huge relief to refill my bottles and stuff some malt loaf and almond butter down my throat; until then I’d had one gel and one home-made date and coconut ball, plus a bottle of quite strong Tailwind. Energy-wise I actually felt OK but I knew I was heading towards being dehydrated and my two bottles were unlikely to be enough.

The next section was a steep climb back up to the summit of Harrison Stickle, and despite having felt so unequivocally awful at the start of the race, suddenly after nearly six hours, I felt great. I got up quickly, pushing hard. The sun had come through and the summit was beautiful, with views across the lakes. I knew I had to hustle to make the final cut off, which was nine hours or 6pm. The last truly technical section of descent negotiated, and I was able to run. I had around ten miles left, and two hours on the clock. The beautiful, rolling, grassy tracks suited me, as the trail skirted past shining tarns, and climbed up again to the top of Silver Howe. The volunteers there told me I looked good and that if I ran well I could make the cut off. Dropping down again over scree and then eventually through a ferny labyrinth, I was still hopeful. Hitting a road crossing where there was water was a huge relief as I had run dry, and had a pounding headache from dehydration. The volunteer there told me that the cut off had been extended by 30 mins (a wise decision, as otherwise only around 10 women would have finished), giving me exactly an hour to cover 8 kilometers. The race was on!

Running as hard as I could for someone who had been out there for eight and a half hours, I hustled myself up the very final hill of the day. I tried to fold my poles away but found my hands had no strength to press the button that released them. I had to carry them. Never mind. Through the final checkpoint at Lily Tarn and I was close, so close! I hit the tarmac with around 6 minutes to spare and about a mile of downhill running to do. I went as hard as I could, and finally got to the entrance of the campus, where cruelly the finish was situated, up a few hundred metres of steps. Up I went, and made it in exactly 9 hours and 30 minutes.

It was a truly brutal race, and I struggled far more than I thought I would. But I am probably more proud of this finish, for all its mediocrity in time and placings, than I am of any win, because I truly had to fight for it, and I didn’t give up, even when the cut off looked impossible to make. We do these races to test our bodies in extremity, and this race did that and more. A day in the mountains changes you, and this day tested me and for once I was not found wanting. I wish I could figure out why I felt so bad at the start, but perhaps it doesn’t matter. What matters is the fact of the finish and the process of moving through the landscape to get there. Everything else is just details.

Transvulcania Ultramarathon

Transvulcania ultramarathon

I travelled to La Palma for a week, on my own, staying in an Airbnb and renting a small car.

The flight out was delayed due to a faulty plane, and by the time I picked up my rental can in the airport it was nearly midnight. A terrifying drive over the mountain in thick fog was my introduction to the island. I made it, and found my way to my home for the week: a simple but comfortable flat set in a pretty garden, overlooking the sea on the west of the island.

The Friday was taken up with getting my race number, shopping for groceries, and preparing my gear for the 3am start on Saturday morning. Los Llanos is a big town, nestled at the foot of the caldera with the mountain soaring above. Looking up at the high ridge spiky with trees, I found it impossible to imagine actually being up there. We picked up our numbers and race bags from the museum, and I was very pleased to be handed a proper backpack containing a smart tee shirt, and a jacket with the race branding, as well as some slightly random foodstuffs. Number collected, I headed to the Lidl in the centre of town for my food for the week, then home. An early dinner of turkey, pasta and tomato sauce and I was in bed by 7, with an alarm set for 2:15.

Amazingly I did sleep, and woke just before the alarm feeling rested. I ate my normal breakfast of porridge oats, yoghurt and coffee, got dressed in my race gear and headed out. I was lucky to find a place to park easily (this was a worry), and I got on one of the first buses leaving Los Llanos for the start at around 3:15am. The bus journey was uneventful, and we were ejected at the top of the hill and had to walk down to the lighthouse. I followed some people who looked knowledgeable down a path which led to the cultural centre cafe, which was open, and sheltered from the wind, and had nice, non-portaloo toilets. The time passed quickly enough and I ate a packet of almond butter with a mini malt loaf and drank my water.

Finally it was time to hand in my drop bag to be sent to the finish, go through gear check and get down to the start. And what a start! The atmosphere was incredible. Fireworks lit up the darkness, music played. The space man, who was the mascot of the race, walked down the hill lit up by a spotlight. The horn blew out and 2,000 headtorches streamed up the hill, around the lighthouse and out into the mountains.

The slow start that was enforced by so many people trying to get through a bottleneck suited me, and by the time I could run, I felt good. I had no pain in my leg from the injury that destroyed my build up. Before we got to Los Canarios, the first aid station at 7k, the sun had started to creep up, lighting the sky incrementally and giving hints of the vistas to come. I caught a glimpse of the crescent moon setting towards the sea between the mountain. When I got to the town it was fully light, time to put away the headtorch and bring out the poles.

I started enjoying myself as we climbed through the pine forests and volcanic rock. The rhythm suited me and I was having fun. Even a crashing fall on the first downhill section didn’t bother me too much, despite the blood on my hand and an elbow swiftly turning purple. I was aware of the need to push as the intermediate cut offs were tight. I got to El Pilar in around 4 hours and felt happy. I ate some watermelon, used the toilet (in the men’s, but needs must!). The section after El Pilar was boring muddy fire roads, runnable but not much fun as it was raining and getting cold, but I picked up time by simply running along. Onto the next climb and it started to hail, big hard hailstones and it was truly cold. I started to feel a bit sorry for myself as I pulled on my jacket. Luckily, we eventually broke out above the cloud inversion into bright blue sky, and as quickly as it had turned cold, it got hot. I’m a lot happier in heat than cold, and I started enjoying myself again.

From this point on it is a relentless climb flirting with the tree line but staying above the clouds, first to Pico de Nieves (more watermelon and coke), and then leaving the trees behind, climbing up and up, pushing on my poles. I was so thankful for all the strength training I had done, all the hours spent lifting weights. For all the running I missed, the strength I built helped my so much. I got to Roque de la Muchachas, the highest point at 2,200m, and I still felt good.

The aid station there was like a refugee camp, with tired, dirty runners slumped in chairs or pushing their way to the food. Again, watermelon and coke for me. I didn’t spend much time there, and cracked on knowing for me the bad bit was yet to come.

I am not a good downhill runner. I had a moment early in the race where I felt good going down, but my fall had shaken my confidence. 18k of downhill having climbed for a solid 50k was always going to test me. I started well, jogging easily but feeling all right. I got about half way down, to the aid station of El Time. My watch said 12 hours and I had just 12k to go. I stopped for more watermelon and coke. But when I tried to start running again my legs just couldn’t. I had run 65 kilometres or so, on about one months worth of training. But my body couldn’t sustain what I was asking it to do. So I walked. Painfully. Leaning on my poles. Watching scores of people run past me. Thinking it would never, ever end.

I always knew I would finish. It was painful and it was humbling. But I even managed to run a bit on the smoother downhills coming towards Tazacorte. Going through the marathon finish, out onto the beach, and onto the dry river bed was hard, knowing the finish was close, but still a climb away. Up, through the banana plantations, on cobbled switchbacks. Finally emerging on the road into Los Llanos as the sun was setting. 9pm. 15 hours of running. I crossed the finish line of Transvulcania.

I’m not sure how I drove the hire car back to the flat that night without crashing it. I do remember struggling to get my compression socks off, and watching the water run black from the shower as I got the layers of volcanic dust off my skin and hair. The next day I spend mainly sleeping in n the sun and with my legs in the ocean.

I recovered well. By the Tuesday I was able to hike back up the Caldera and by Thursday I was able to run. On that short run I managed to get bitten by a dog, and had to go to the hospital in Los Llanos for a rabies shot.

Flying home, I realise that La Palma has beguiled me. And Transvulcania and I have unfinished business. If I can be fit, fully trained, and conditioned on the downhills I know I can do 12 hours, and I will go back to prove it. It was truly the most incredible day of my life, for both joy and pain. I saw the sun come up over the sea and the clouds break below me on the mountain. I endured and came to the finish.

My gear: I wore Altra King MT shoes, but with gel insoles for a bit of extra cushioning. These were fabulous and I didn’t have any foot issues, blisters or hot spots. I do have black big toenails but I always do. No blisters for me is amazing as I’m prone to them and it shows how good the shoes are. I also used Altra gaiters. Gaiters are a must for this race as it is very dusty and without them I’m sure I would have had foot issues from debris.

I used Scott carbon poles. I couldn’t have finished without them. Anyone who doesn’t use poles in a race like this is insane.

I wore a Raidlight Responsiv Gilet with Raidlight bottles. One of the bottles misthreaded when refilling with was a pain. The pack was comfortable and held my gear well. I also had a Salomon waistbelt which contained my phone and car keys. I wore a Salomon running skirt and an Inov8 tee shirt, with a super light ASICS jacket which I started with and put back on during the hailstorm. I had 2xu compression socks on and I used a Pezl Reactiv headtorch which was great.

My race nutrition consisted of Gu energy gels, squeezy packs of nut butter, mini malt loafs, and my own homemade energy balls, which are made with dates, coconut oil, tahini, and chia seeds. I had a bottle of Tailwind green tea and a bottle of plain water in my vest. I probably didn’t eat enough, but I did start to feel a bit queasy and I think I walked the fine line between putting energy in and making myself sick with too much food. The nut butters worked well as they cut through the sweetness of the rest of the food. At the aid stations I only ate watermelon and drank cups of coke, as I couldn’t face anything else. I was dehydrated on finishing but not terribly so. Not getting sick was a victory in itself.

I was probably the most undertrained finisher of this race. I have had compartment syndrome in my left tibialis anterior since February. I started running in April, run walking 5k on the flat. I just about managed to run 2 20 Mile ish runs. I have, however, strength trained and cross trained seriously. I would do interval session on the cross trainer: 3 mins hard, 1 min easy for an hour. I would carry 6kg dumbbells on the step machine and do climbing intervals. I did strength circuits. I squatted and deadlifted heavy (for me) and did very heavy unilateral leg presses. I made a point of getting strong and it worked. All that strength helped as I pushed on my poles and hauled my body up the final hill into Los Llanos.

What I lacked was downhill conditioning. I couldn’t replicate it sufficiently in the gym. I basically came into the race with no downhill training in my legs at all. That I got as far as I did gives me great confidence for what I will be able to do when I can put some proper training together without injury. But it has taught me an important lesson: I don’t have to run 80 miles a week for 12 weeks. I have a deep reservoir of fitness and endurance that I can trust and rely on. I can always endure.

Salomon Ring of Steall Skyrace


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.

Learning from the very best: Runing with Nicky Spinks

Nicky Spinks is a familiar name to anyone interested in long distance running in the UK. A former holder of the female fastest known time on the Bob Graham Round, she recently became the fastest person ever to complete a double Bob Graham, an almost unimaginably difficult feat. She has held records on each of the UK long distance rounds, and has been highly placed in mountain ultras in Europe and further afield, including at UTMB. Now in her 50s, she has been running competitively for over a decade, she is an Inov-8 sponsored athlete at the top of her sport, but she is also a full time farmer, and a survivor of breast cancer. In summary, she is a very inspirational and knowledgeable person, and a fantastic runner and athlete.


I was very lucky to get to go to her day-long course on preparing for a Round, or an Ultra race. I also was even more fortunate to go for a run with her over the high moorland of the Dark Peaks, more of which later. The course was a day of conversation and learning, including watching the film that was made of her double Bob Graham. It was held in a renovated barn in the Peak District. There were around fifteen people present: mainly experienced runners and mountaineers of various ability and speed; a few people planning their first attempt at a Bob Graham or other round; and me – the road runner with ambition to take on the hills.


Nicky started by giving a run down of her own background in the sport, beginning with an ill-prepared hike up Ben Nevis during the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001. From there she got into fell running, but struggled with bad nerves and lack of confidence. She did her first Bob Graham in 2005, followed by an attempt at the Paddy Buckley (the North Wales equivalent), which failed due to bad weather. After that failed round, she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006. After her mastectomy and treatment, she went into full remission and resumed running. She succeeded in completing the Paddy Buckley the following year, and went on to complete the Scottish Charlie Ramsay round in 2008. She also set a record for the Lack District 24 our round in 2011. Overtraining, fatigue, and bad nutrition saw her struggle at UTMB in 2014, but she returned two years later having learned her lesson and had a much better run. Finally, in 2016, to commemorate ten years of remission from cancer, she attempted and achieved a double Bob Graham round.


She spoke in detail about her training approach, which is periodised into meso-cycles of hard weeks and easy weeks, with back to back long runs and some speed work an integral part of her training. However, she does not run very high mileage, preferring to focus on quality, time on feet, and being specific for the terrain she is training for. She also sees three different sports therapists as required.


In terms of pacing during a round or race, she believes in walking strongly on the uphills, but getting used to running over the tops and down, to get the legs turning over quickly. One of her sayings is “think like a sheep”, to try to learn how to move efficiently over difficult boggy terrain.


Her nutrition strategy is relatively simple: eat as much as you can get down. Eat within the first hour to keep the stomach digesting and prevent sickness later. Get your stomach used to eating little and often by eating that way in the week leading up to the race, instead of your usual standard meals. Eat real food as far as possible on long efforts but don’t assume that just because you liked something once, you will like it again. Have a good range of food types to choose from, and trust your stomach.


We discussed practical issues around using poles (recommended for rocky, high mountain races, but not for UK terrain as it is usually too wet). After this we all got taken out for some navigation practice with a map and compass, practising taking a bearing and navigating to a point on a map. This was good for me as I know how to navigate but lack confidence; having someone that experienced assuring me I was doing it right was very helpful.


The final part of the day, after eating the lunch that Nicky had prepared, was spent watching Run Forever, the film of her double Bob Graham: Run Forever.

It is a moving film, made even more so watching it while sitting next to the subject of the film!


When the course was complete, Nicky had agreed to take me out for a run. We ended up running a 10 mile route over the moorland, finishing with head torches after the sun went down. For me, running on totally unfamiliar terrain, over some deep bog and tricky climbing, in the dark, was an incredible, never-to-be-forgotten experience. My anterior tibialis pain had flared up and I hadn’t been able to run much (and haven’t been able to run since – but it was worth it). It was a beautiful evening, not cold, and quite still even on the high hills. I did manage to fall twice, but slowly my legs got used to the terrain and I was able to keep up with Nicky, who truly does move like a sheep over the bog. We topped a trig point and she showed me the remains of a WW2 plane that had gone down on the hill and had been rusting away ever since. Slowly the light failed and we turned on our headlamps. On our way back, in the thick darkness, our lamps picked out the image of a sheep’s skull, picked clean and staring at us out of the night. We talked about running and life in general, about animals and friends and travel. I am so grateful to her for showing me such kindness and hospitality, sharing her running playground with me, and opening a door for me that I would never have got through on my own.




Fear and exhilaration 

I am visiting Wales at the moment and spending a few days on the edge of Snowdonia. I decided that I would attempt the most difficult ascent and descent of the mountain – via Crib Goch, which is a 1000m grade 1 climb, with a knife edge ridge at 900m, dropping sheer on both sides. I have been up it before but only on a cloudy day when the drop was obscured and never alone. 

I hit the bottom of the actual scramble and froze. I couldn’t. I tried again and still couldn’t get my legs on board. Finally, realising it was either give up or go up, I began the climb. Jelly legs soon got stronger and finally I found the rhythm of the footholds and hand placements. 

The ridge line was truly terrifying. A perfect hot day means you can see every detail of the drop on both sides. I put my head down and scrambled. Finally I made it to where the Crib Goch pass meets the Pyg track up to the top of Snowdon and I ran on happily. 

Not content with that I decided to take a little known route down, off the Walkin track and including a very technical rocky descent to the lake. Amazingly when three hours earlier I was frozen with terror, by now my body had got used to the height and I scrambled down with relative ease despite the tricky conditions. 

As I write this I am about to run the miners track back to Pen Y Pass but it is such a perfect day I truly don’t want it to end. I am so lucky that I was able to conquer my fear and get myself up the mountain. It makes the weeks of injury fade away. I am lucky. I am blessed. The mountains are sacred and today they were my friends.