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.

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.

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.

General dietary advice and athletic performance, why the two don’t mix.

We live in a society that is getting incrementally fatter.  Statistically, more people are obese than ever before. The general population is sedentary or does a minimal amount of movement every day.

To counter this, there is a dizzying amount of diet advice around. In popular outlets this is mostly targeting the general reader – a person who can be assumed to be relatively sedentary. The current craze for counting steps taken in a day illustrates this. Somehow it has entered popular consciousness that if you take 10,000 steps per day (as measured by an often inaccurate pedometer or fitness tracker), you are “active”. But this is a meaningless measure. 10,000 steps per day is a baseline minimum, especially if these steps are simple walking. Anyway, I digress.

Dietary advice in the general media is aimed at people for whom 10,000 steps per day is an achievement. It is aimed at people whose energy output is minimal. All diets or “lifestyle” changes work by cutting the number of calories consumed. For people who are generally inactive, or whose activity is limited, calorie restriction is the only thing that does work for weight control.

For athletes, the story is rather different. It is vital that an energy balance is established that a) fuels the performance goals of the athlete, and b) maintains a body composition that enhances the athlete’s ability to fulfill those goals. As such, most general dietary advice is hopeless. But it is so difficult to avoid, as there is a constant hum of noise around food, diets, weight loss and misinformation around, especially on social media. The trend for people to share photos of their food is a good example. A small plate of fish and vegetables might be perfect for a sedentary 5’6 woman. An athlete of the same height and gender, who might have expended an additional 1,500 calories over their TDEE, could easily see that and jump to the conclusion that such a portion is correct for them also. Or they might then berate themselves for not being able to survive on a similar portion of food.

In general, most sedentary people probably could do with eating less over the course of a week. In comparison, most athletic people probably could eat smarter than they do, and this could mean eating a total of more calories than they currently do, especially if their performances are suffering or if they often report feeling under fueled or lethargic. Being caught in the swirl of diet talk does not help athletes, as their needs are completely different from those of the modern general population. The sedentary lives and obesity that cause so much suffering among the general population have become a default position when discussing food and diets, and it is hard for an athlete to learn what is normal for them, when their way of life is increasingly abnormal in society. It is a problem.

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.

 

 

 

Why oh why? The anatomy of a bad week

I had a bad race. It came at the end of a bad week. The upshot is I think I’m over trained, and I think I need a few days proper rest. Wokingham Half marathon was never going to be great for me: cold, flat, winter half marathon on boring roads (two motorway bridges being the highlight of the course), but I don’t think I realised quite how bad I would feel. I had not been well earlier in the week, and bailed out on a hill session as my kegs said a resounding “no”. I have a deep fatigue and my stomach has been awful. I ended up running the half at my target marathon pace, and my only flicker of encouragement is that my last 5k was quicker than last year- I sped up instead of dying. But I had strange numb feet and leg pains, and was sick for a good few hours after the race despite it not being a full on effort. Confidence is currently at rock bottom and I really don’t want to run at all. A few days off might lift me up a bit, if I can take them without feeling bad about myself. 

Comparison really is the devil: I felt slow and rotten, my friend ran a huge pb. I’m useless. That’s what my brain tells me. But I know I’m not really- it was just a bad day. It was so cold, I was so fatigued. I’ll be back (I think).