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 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. 

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.

 

 

 

 

My story of injury and overtraining and what I have learned

A year ago, at the London Marathon 2016, I ran a personal best and achieved a Championship qualifying time.  I crossed the line after a perfect race, and saw that I had run 3:13. This came off the back of eighteen weeks of uninterrupted, quality training, and at the time I thought it was going to herald a successful year of racing.

I was wrong. Two weeks after London, I stood on the start line of the Wings for Life World Run. I had been invited to start with the elites at the front, and I was excited to see how far I could go. I had taken a few days off after London, but picked up my training quickly as I felt recovered. Three days before Wings for Life I was doing a tempo run along the canal. During that run I started to feel a sharp pain in my left foot. I knew that I was fitter than I had ever been in my life, and I wanted to make the most of all my training. I started Wings for Life knowing I was hurt. I was running with a group women at the front of the race when, at 8km, I felt like a spike had gone through my foot.

I had torn one of the ligaments off the third metatarsal of my left foot. It took a month to start to heal, during which I cycled a lot, completed my first ever 100k sportif, and did a lot of work in the gym. I started running again as soon as I could. I was entered for a 50k mountain race and needed to get ready.

A few months of training, including winning a trail race in the Peak district, and I thought I was back. Then the niggle in my right leg started. I ignored it. Finally I was limping. A possible tibial stress fracture was feared. It wasn’t that bad, but running on it further would have caused the fracture and I had no choice: I had to stop running. Again.

Back running. Feeling great. Another 50k entered and training going well. Another win on the trails. I developed a bit of pain in my left quad. The pain got worse. I kept running. I did a 40k training run on the Ridgeway. I paced the Oxford Half marathon, sporting kinesology tape and a large serving of denial. I dropped out of yet another 50k, when it became clear that I could not walk without pain.

This time it was serious and the weeks slipped past without improvement. I spent hours in the gym, grinding it out on the cross trainer and step machine, doing weights and yoga. Finally, I found someone who helped: two sessions with a talented sports therapist and my pain was gone.

Next, it was time to start training for London 2017. I had a Championship place and wanted to get closer to the three hour mark. I knew I could shave five minutes off my time from 2016 easily, as I ran the first 10k quite conservatively in 2016.  I ran over 90 miles in a week training in Lanzarote. The first six weeks of proper marathon training went well. I ran a consistent average of 60 miles per week, did my speed sessions and hit my splits. My long runs felt easy and I was confident.

I was doing my second run on a Wednesday when it started to go wrong. I usually did a double day on a Wednesday, two fairly long runs adding up to 20 miles, with one of the runs done as a tempo. I was doing the afternoon run and felt tired. The last few miles were a struggle. I dragged myself home, felt sick, and went to bed. I thought I had some sort of a bug, and assumed I would bounce back to normal after a few days. But I didn’t. In retrospect, I had not sufficiently fuelled for the accumulation of miles I was running, and my body was empty. I got slower. I couldn’t hit splits on the track. Everything felt wrong. I ran the Wokingham Half Marathon, and was five minutes slower than I should have been. My lower legs ached while I was running, and my heart rate was ten beats per minute higher than usual. I had all the symptoms of overtraining, but couldn’t admit it, even to myself. All I knew to do was to keep pushing on, keep to the schedule and grind out the runs. Finally, the same pain in my right shin as I had the previous summer returned. I had no choice, I had to stop. My partner found me limping down the road, crying. I was well and truly broken.

So it is April 2017, and I see everyone getting excited about running London. I have deferred my place until 2018. And I’m resting, cycling, doing yoga and strength work, and hoping that this time I will finally heal properly and learn from my year of injury.

When you are injured, or struggling with your training, this is my summarised advice:

 

  • When you feel pain, stop. Now.
  • If the pain persists, and if you can’t walk, see someone.
  • Overtraining is a thing. If you start feeling miserable, if your runs are getting slower and it is all becoming a chore – back off immediately.
  • When injured, cross training is fine, but don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Allow yourself to rest completely if you feel you need it. Cross training will only preserve a certain amount of fitness. You’ll still have to rebuild when you start running again.
  • Don’t fixate on other people’s runs. It is hard not to feel jealous and to question what might have been, but remember that it will be your turn eventually. Heal properly, and your turn will come more quickly than you think. Rush your healing, and you’ll be back on the injury bench again. Be patient, use your time to enjoy other things, and truly listen to your body and its cues.

 

 

Bad things come 

This will be quick. I’ve decided to defer my London marathon place until next year. This is because I still cannot run without pain. Also, today I smashed headfirst off my bike into a car. I’ve broken a lot of teeth and had a suspected fractured jaw, but luckily the rest of me is not badly damaged. Time to take a rest and recover, think about next year, and try not to break anything else. I have big plans for 2018, more of which anon……

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.