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. 

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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. 

Some bog surfing in the Peaks

I’m doing a 48 kilometer Skyrunning race in a few weeks time, and decided that it would probably be wise to recce the course in advance. I’m so glad I did! What I discovered is that a large proportion of the course is heavy bog, caused by the wet weather that has been the story for most of this year. Trails that are supposed to be dry and fairly runnable are thick, sucking mud, and at one point I ended up above my knees in a sinkhole of black mud. I’m quite worried about the race now, as it is nearly impossible to run over such terrain. It is going to be a long day’s slog unless things dry out significantly. I didn’t realise how bad it was going to be, and headed out with plenty of water, but no food, as I was only planning to do around 12 miles on various bits of the course.

Nearly 4 hours later….I made it back to the car, completely ravenous, having not eaten anything apart from two chia seed gels (33 Shake, amazing stuff), which luckily I had stuffed in my vest without actually planning to eat them.  My then two hour drive home took me well over 3 as the traffic was awful, and my phone died. My shoes had to be scrubbed in the sink as they were submerged in thick black goo, and I can’t get my feet clean at all, after two showers and plenty of soap.

It is going to be great fun!!!

The good places

hawaii

A few winters ago I had the opportunity to go visit family who live in Hawaii, on Oahu. One day, hearing the radio reporting monster waves on the north shore, I borrowed their car and drove from Waikiki to Haleiwa, a small town on the far north shore. It was early morning, overcast, misty, and no one was around. I parked up at the beach park, and started to walk north along the beach. As I came out of the shelter of the bay and onto the long strand that runs from Haleiwa to Waimea, the size and fury of the waves became apparent. Far off shore, sets of thirty, forty, fifty foot waves were streaming in. Closer in, the shore break was well over 10 foot, crashing directly onto the reef, surfed by sea turtles. I walked the five miles or so of beach, as the sun came out, seeing almost no one, with the rainforest on one side giving way to surfers’ dream homes. Finally when I got to Waimea, I climbed the hill on the road, where high up I could watch  the surfers riding the huge breakers. I sat for hours as the sun grew hot, until finally walking back to Haleiwa in the early evening, dizzy from spray and sun, and amazed that such a place exists.

 

mokuleia

During the same trip, on another day I drove out to the far north eastern tip of the Island, to a place called Mokuleia, where the road ended, and there was nothing but mountains on one side and the sea on the other. I ran as far as I could up the track, until it truly came to the end of the land: nothing but the Pacific ocean. I swam in the sea, then ran back to the car as free as I have ever been.