An unexpected marathon.

I did something on Saturday that I’ve never done before. I went on my usual long run but that run turned out to be marathon distance! I think, prior to that the longest I’ve done for a training run is 35km – they usually range between 23km and 32km.

I’m not entirely sure what spurred me on to run so far but I am absolutely sure that there is no turning back! I loved the feeling I got after passing 35km, I loved being out for almost 4 hours and I loved the feeling I got at the end of the run having achieved a negative split marathon; I went through 21km in 2:03:55 and through 42km in 3:50:27. I think all of this is even more amazing because I had absolutely zero motivation to run at all before I set foot out the door and into the rain!

I went out with a waistpack containing 2 mini Chia Seed flapjacks, a pack of Shot Bloks, my phone and my waterproof jacket – I finished the run soaked through and smiling with the jacket still packed, 1 Chia seed flapjack eaten and 4 Shot Bloks lighter! I also took my 600ml handheld with plain old water – this was empty by 40km so I did find myself feeling pretty thirsty and dehydrated by the time I finished. It was so good to be out on the trail with the minimum of stuff. The phone came along as my intention was to go searching for new trails which I knew were not too far away – the phone would provide me with the opportunity to slow myself down, take some photos and could also help me if I got lost and/or needed to, for whatever unlikely reason, call a cab to take me back to my car!

The simple things are sometimes the best things!

The simple things are sometimes the best things!

When I finally got onto the trail I decided to continue my explorations of the Hertfordshire Way Long Distance Path system. I am still confused about sections of the HWLDP – it seems to disappear and then reappear randomly a few miles down the trail, or it drops you out onto a road or lane with no sign as to where to turn next. Sometimes you’ll pop through a gap in a hedge, or over a stile and two or three trails lead off in different directions – sometimes you end up following the HWLDP, other times, well, you don’t. Considering it’s supposed to circumnavigate my county, which is one of the smallest in the UK, it shouldn’t be too difficult to follow so my initial explorations over the past couple of months have proved to be quite frustrating. It is one of my goals to run the whole trail – be that in one push or over a couple of days!

5km into my run I crossed a road and plunged onto a trail that I’ve never been on before, and 5km after that I was thoroughly enjoying myself (even though I was bushwhacking through a very underused trail) and the first thoughts of potentially running a ‘longer than ever before’ training run were formulating in my head. I figured I was going slow enough that I could probably crank out a 2 hour 20km and potentially push on for a sub 4:00 marathon and, with that, the idea went from a notion to a reality! I ambled along taking photographs until I turned around at about 17km and then started to gradually pick up my pace, forget about my camera and focus on footfall, fuel and smiling whilst pushing on through the rain.

I’m excited to have found another trail system leading off from another that I only recently discovered in the past few months, and I can’t wait to keep on exploring.  However, I know that with this new found love for 42km+/4:00+ training runs, I am going to need to take it easy and not overdo it. It’s a new realm for me in terms of my own ultra-distance training but not something I’ll be doing every weekend – maybe 42km+/4:00+ two or three times in a ten to twelve week training block. There is no point getting injured and then not being able to race or run any distance for a time! I’ve always said I’m not a big volume kind of runner but maybe, just maybe, that will change over time. At the end of the day running has always encouraged me to expand my horizons, to try new things and to evolve my training and racing! That is part of the joy of running for me; the evolution of self, the personal growth and the seemingly endless possibilities when it comes to training structure and race distances.

Peace & Blessings

TDS, August 24th 2016

I am going to start this post with the fact that I did not finish TDS. What follows is a report of my view of the race up to the 50.7km checkpoint at Bourg Saint Maurice – to cut the story short my first 15.2km were atrocious for reasons I will make clear below, from there to 35.9km I was starting to feel quite good and moving pretty well. Then, from about 42km until I dropped my morale took a nose dive and my head and heart just were not in the race – again, I’ll try to make my reasons for this clear.

La Grattague (22nd & 23rd August)

I had arrived in the Alps on Monday afternoon, 22nd August, feeling pretty tired but very happy. I was staying about 40 minutes outside Chamonix at a place called La Grattague at 1400m. On my first evening I went out for a hike and run just before sunset and all was well – the scenery was beautiful, I was out for about 50 minutes, covering 8km (+370m) and just relaxing, taking photographs. I spent the evening preparing my race vest and drop bags for Wednesday’s race.

Before leaving La Grattague for Chamonix on Tuesday 23rd August I went out for a pre-lunch hike and run. I was out for 65 minutes, again just relaxing and taking photographs and enjoying being out in the peaceful mountains on my own! I covered 11km (+540m) and felt well-adjusted to the heat (30º+c) and the elevation (ranging from 1400m to 1700m).

Chamonix (23rd August, the night before)

Preparing to leave for Chamonix caused me quite a bit of anxiety which I really wasn’t expecting as I knew I would have to be travel down to Chamonix! The anxiety came from not being sure what to expect; I kind of knew it would be busy and I was really worried about finding an appropriate parking space and a place for dinner. In addition to this, having only passed my driving test in December, this was only my second day of driving abroad.

I had arranged to stay with a friend who was also racing TDS, at a chalet with his parents who would drive us to Courmayer at about 0430hrs the next day. Again, this caused me some anxiety as I struggle at the best of times being around unfamiliar faces in unfamiliar places but it sounded better than being cooped up in a hotel, on my own in Courmayer – this would have involved a lot more pre-race stress in terms of logistics!

I arrived in Chamonix around 1530hrs and had no trouble parking which was great! I also had zero trouble registering for the race and getting through kit check – there were no queues or crowds at the expo when I arrived there around 1615hrs. I started to feel more relaxed, less anxious and certainly ready for a beer and a snack with some friends. So that’s what I did. I headed over to Micro Brasserie de Chamonix (MBC), which was a stone’s throw from the chalet, and met up with a couple of people to talk race strategy, eat fries and drink beer (and water) for an hour.

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Day 2, August 23rd – registration and kit check.

Anxiety began to rise again when I actually arrived at the chalet and figured I’d need to go over my drop bag once again. My friend also had to sort out his drop bags and crew bags because he had the good fortune to have support out on the course! It really seemed like a monumental task and all I wanted to do was nap, eat and then sleep or at least sit in quiet contemplation before drifting off. Unfortunately that was not to be and we had to walk across town to the Big Horn restaurant. It was getting late and once more my anxiety began to rise as I realised I wouldn’t be eating (or sleeping) for quite some time, that allied with the fact I was about to enter a restaurant to meet yet more new people was not doing me wonders. To cut this long story short, dinner arrived at 2045hrs and we were on the move back to the chalet at 2130hrs.

We set our alarms for 0330hrs and while my friend prepared his crew/drop bags I spoke to my girlfriend for a while on the phone and looked at the surrounding mountains and the stars. We turned out the lights at 2245hrs…and neither of us slept at all properly. I think we both managed a grand total of around an hour, maybe 90 minutes, of broken sleep before the alarms went off. I showered, ate some fruit and drank some coffee and waited for the inevitable pre-race movement…

At 0415hrs, 15 minutes before we were due to leave for Courmayer, I was still waiting for my usual movement. It wasn’t happening and I wasn’t feeling too great about it. I figured by the time the drive was over and we arrived in Courmayer it would be time. We arrived. I went to the nearest coffee place and went straight to their toilets. And I waited. And waited some more. And still it didn’t happen. By the time I gave up it was 0520hrs and we decided we should head for the starting area. I did not feel happy, physically I felt bloated and a little sick. Mentally I felt tired and worried. Not the best start to the biggest race of my life.

Courmayer to Lac Combal (0-15.2km, +1329m)

We got into the starting pen, towards the front as per the plan – my friend was aiming for sub-22 hours and I was aiming for 24 or 25 hours. The atmosphere was tense and there was a minor verbal altercation between my friend and another runner as it was, to say the least, pretty cramped conditions.

The plan.

The plan.

I did my best to block out everything and everyone around me. I gave my friend a thumbs up, a smile and a nod and that was the last we saw of each other until Saturday evening!

I managed to apply sun lotion and Vaseline whilst being jostled around, pushed and shoved and still I felt pretty unwell. The close proximity of a couple thousand runners was also doing my anxiety absolutely no good, I felt slightly worried and wondered if this was going to be my day. I figured I would just go out, as per my plan, pretty hard out of Courmayer on the road and then settle into a fast hike and jog on the first climb up to the aid station at 6.5km.

At 0559 the countdown began and the tension in the air seemed to rise with every second that passed. I can’t remember if a hooter sounded, a gun went off or some other signal occurred but all of a sudden we were moving forwards. First at a shuffle, then at a jog, then back to a shuffle, then up to a jog, then a short standstill and then, finally a rhythm seemed to settle and we jogged through Courmayer town centre heading for the trails above. The only problem, for me anyway, was that jogging was making me feel uncomfortable and I started to feel quite sick. I knew that I would need to go to the toilet at the first aid station or I would only get worse.

I did my best to ignore the feeling of sickness and the bloated feeling in my stomach and to keep pace with those around me. I thought that I would settle into a strong climbing pace once we hit the trails but this was not to be as it was pretty tightly packed with runners all the way to the aid station at Maison Vieille-Col Checrouit. I stopped once during the first climb to see if having a pee might release some pressure but this actually just made me feel worse and, to add insult, it also meant I dropped back down the conga line by around 200 places or so – just from a two minute stop!

I arrived at Maison Vieille-Col Checrouit (+801m) with a cold sweat on my brow and, if I could have seen myself in a mirror, probably with a pallid tinge. I headed straight into the hut, straight to the toilet and found to my surprise that first of all they were of the south-east Asian squat style and, secondly, that I still couldn’t go. At this point I really did consider dropping. I couldn’t believe it – 6.5km into 119km and was I really thinking about throwing in the towel and heading back the way I’d come? Well, yes. Pardon my Italian here but: fanculo quella! I took a sip of some Tailwind and felt immediately nauseous so I decided to switch to water instead, again, nausea. Again, fanculo quella.

I emerged from the hut to find a huge conga line of runners in front of me heading out of the aid station and up the climb to Arête du Mont-Favre, 4.7km away. I was dumbstruck by the sight and realised that I had lost yet more hundreds of places whilst I tried to deal with my stomach issues! We literally stood stock still for minutes at a time, shuffling forward occasionally and being bumped and jostled by less patient people scrambling up either side of the line. To be honest, if I hadn’t have felt so rough I would have been one of those impatient runners. In my mind I figured that this may well turn out to be how the day would pan out but pushed that thought aside and kept on moving up as best I could.

I found myself getting quite annoyed with the delay – some of it was caused by congestion on the narrow trail, yes, but quite a bit was caused by people seemingly standing around chatting and taking photographs. I was around position 1277 at the point and by the time we arrived at Arête du Mont-Favre I was around position 1555. To say the least my race was going pretty badly. Even if I could have been able to run at this point I would have found it difficult as the trail was so narrow and those around me seemed to be quite happy strolling along and so, maybe unreasonably, I felt my mood begin to sour toward those people. My mood soured further when a helicopter came along and destroyed the peace and quiet for almost 30 minutes. My mind was really not in it at this point and, as I tried to run the descent into Lac Combal aid station from Arête du Mont-Favre I began to feel even more sick and tired too – I hadn’t eaten since 0400hrs and I hadn’t managed to drink more than a few sips of water since 0600hrs.

I stepped aside on the descent into Lac Combal and began to make my way slowly down, hoping that the brick in my stomach would dislodge itself sooner rather than later. As I was walking towards the aid station I took my phone from my pack and called my girlfriend – I don’t think she was expecting a tearful and ill boyfriend on the other end of the phone so early into the race. She told me that what would be would be and I should just go find a toilet and wait there for as long as necessary! I did just that. I arrived at the aid station around 0925hrs, went straight to the toilet and ten minutes later emerged feeling relieved and very hungry. I spent 4 minutes grabbing what food I could and then headed out feeling quite determined to get my race back on track.

By the time I left Lac Combal, six minutes before the cut-off, I had dropped into position 1783 over the course of 4, mostly downhill, kilometres.

Lac Combal to Col Du Petit St-Bernard (15.2km-35.9km, +2602m)

I marched out of Lac Combal aid station like a man possessed, cramming food into my mouth and taking huge draws of water from my bottles as it had been so long since I had been able. Immediately I started to climb up and catch people. I looked back after a while and could see the aid station behind closing down with a few dejected runners who had been timed out – I couldn’t believe I was so close to the cut-off and so close to the back of the race. I began to run.

TDS1

TDS, August 24th – on the move to Col du Petit St. Bernard

My run didn’t last too long as I caught up with what appeared to be everybody else on the next significant climb. Out of Lac Combal to the timing point at Col Chavannes (the highest point on the course, 2603m) I had managed to pass a measly 25 people on a section that I had been looking forward to for weeks prior – I knew it to be pretty steep in places and fancied my chances of gapping people had my race plan been going to plan at this point. As it wasn’t going to plan I once again found myself in a slow moving conga line and taking risky opportunities once in a while to step out of line and hammer upwards for a few metres at a time. Still, I could feel myself getting stronger and I was really happy when I reached the Col feeling absolutely fine and really energised – there was something about emerging from a shadowy, gravelly mountain path onto an open, windswept Col that caught my attention!

From here on to Col du Petit St-Bernard the route was largely downhill with a few climbs thrown in for good measure. I chose to pace myself conservatively, as I would have done had I been higher up the field, and ran for about 6 minutes at a time before fast hiking for 3 to 4 minutes. I cannot deny the fact that I was absolutely loving it on this section. From Lac Combal to Col due Petit St-Bernard it is 20.7km with a climb of 1273m and a descent of 1055m – perfect mountain running territory and something I relished. During my fast hike sections I took sips of Tailwind, ate a banana and ate about 4 Chia Charge flapjacks, during the running sections I kept a steely eyed focus ahead and ran as quickly and confidently as I could past other runners. I was moving up the field and I knew it, I was enjoying myself, and I knew it.

Just before reaching Lago De Verney the terrain started to head upwards and once more the queues began to appear but more sparse than before but no less slow moving. This took the shine of the previous few kilometres as I had to slow down and get my head out of racing mode for a short while – I took the opportunity here to dip into some streams, cool myself down and eat/drink more. I didn’t know it at this point but we were about to reach the border with France and I was about to accomplish something I had wanted to do for a long time; namely crossing from one country to another entirely on foot!

We reached Lago De Verney and the terrain here became runnable for quite some time, so I ran and enjoyed the view. Occasionally I slowed it down to eat and drink but mostly, I ran. I could see that at the other end of the lake awaited a steep, rooty climb and that shortly after the top of that climb the Col du Petit St-Bernard would be ready and waiting for me with open arms! This climb, it turns out, was really the last significant one of my race. It was quicker than any of the others and there was a lot of support on the slopes and at the summit which made it quite exciting and energetic!

TDS3

TDS, August 24th – climbing away from Lago du Verney and into France

However, as we got over the climb and onto the section into the aid station I began to feel a little nauseous again and as though I need the toilet – was the opposite of my earlier problem about to happen. In short, yes. I arrived at the aid station and immediately visited the toilet for about 10 minutes which is about 5 minutes longer than I had intended to stop at all. Damn. Damn you to hell stomach. And damn you to hell you slow, slow race!

I emerged feeling better and I was glad that whatever had happened had passed quickly and with little negative effect. Granted, I probably lost a fair few places but I couldn’t breeze out of the aid station and back onto the trails without first filling my bottles and eating as much as I could manage in 5 short minutes. I left Col du Petit St-Bernard having gained 190 places and sitting in position 1568. I left feeling in fairly good spirits and I left knowing the next section would be largely downhill. I figured I could maybe gain another 190 or more spots.

Col Du Petit St-Bernard to Bourg Saint-Maurice (35.9km-50.7km, +2649m)

From the Col down to Bourg is 14.8km with a total descent of 1419m. There is so little climb that it’s not even worth mentioning.

The first 6km out of Col du Petit St-Bernard I felt absolutely wonderful. I was running along a gentle downhill on some good trail surface under the hot sun and catching, matching and passing a lot of other runners. In my mind I figured my race was at a turning point and that I was about to start moving at the pace I had wanted to since starting out in Courmayer. However, as the terrain became steeper I decided to slow it down a little lest I blow my quads before the halfway point. Unfortunately for me those who were behind me had no such thoughts in their head and I was overtaken over the course of the next 6km or so by a lot of people. It wasn’t a great feeling at all but I was determined to stick to my plan of conserving my quads. But, by the time I was about 3km out from the Bourg Saint-Maurice aid station my mind had turned against my plan, against my fellow runners and against the folly of the race itself – all I could think about was the fact I was heading into the biggest climb of the race out of Bourg and I would be once more stuck behind a lot of slower people on steep, exposed terrain. The climb for those nearer the top 900 to 1000 or so should take between 5 or 6 hours, I calculated that for my position in the race that was more likely to be 6 or maybe even 7 hours.

With 3km to go before Bourg Saint-Maurice I had made my mind up. I would drop. Pardon my French, but, fuck it. On the descent I knew I would yet again be pushing the cut-off at Bourg Saint-Maurice as the aid station would close and time out at 1700hrs. I knew if I had said to hell with my quads a little more I would have made it into Bourg well before that, but, because of my mental state and a niggling fear that my stomach might go bad on the climb I decided against hammering into Bourg. I walked it in from 3km out and arrived at 1636hrs. I did my best on the way in to talk myself around and when I arrived it was with a grim mindset – I went to the food tables, ate some bread and soup, drank some Coke and then, well, then I’m not sure. I looked at the profile for the next section of the race, I looked around at the other runners in the aid station who were suffering pretty badly and then I looked inside myself and decided to sit down and mull it over. Yes, I sat down. With 20 minutes before the cut-off I sat down and began to think about whether or not I had mostly enjoyed myself or whether or not I had mostly hated being out on the course surrounded by people who had basically not said a word to me for 10 hours and 30 minutes.

As I continued to mull over my options and to take on water and more soup I quickly scanned my vitals: my heart rate was low and felt good, my stomach hurt a little but not enough to withdraw from the race or the next climb, my legs felt fantastic, my breathing wasn’t at all laboured and to all intents and purposes I looked on the outside like I was only just getting started. But, mentally, I had nothing. I felt lonely and isolated; I had tried striking up conversations with Americans, Canadians and some British people through the day and got little more than a few words from them. I tried striking up conversations in broken French, Italian and Spanish during the conga queues but got little more than silence. I wasn’t enjoying myself and it didn’t look like many of the people around me were either.

DSC_0073

TDS, August 24th – corner snipped from race number having just dropped.

I walked over to the ‘Abandon’ tent, took off my number and asked what time the bus back to Courmayer/Chamonix would be and where I might get it from. The woman who took my number looked at me puzzled and said that I had another six minutes before the cut-off and before I would be timed out – “Are you sure? You look great.” – “Yeah, I’m sure. I’m not having any fun at all. It’s too crowded. When’s the bus please?” – “Okay, if you’re sure. The bus leaves at 1730 from the station. You’ll be back in Chamonix by 2015. You’re sure?” – “Yeah. It’s all good. I’m done, thanks.”

With that, I was done. I made my way out of the aid station and to a local store. I bought a can of coke, a can of beer and some salted crisps and then ambled over to the bus station. I felt light. I felt like I’d made the right decision and I was glad to be away from the madding crowd.

La Grattague (25th August, the day after)

I didn’t arrive back to my apartment in La Grattague until 2315 on August 24th. I was still covered in dirt from the race but I was feeling serene and not at all down about abandoning the TDS before the halfway point. I cracked open a beer, ate some pasta, had a shower and then enjoyed another beer on my balcony in the peaceful mountain darkness. Before going to bed I had already made up my mind that I would head out every day for the rest of my trip and in so doing log my biggest ever training week in terms of mileage and vertical gain and descent! I felt tired and slept very well.

I woke up energised and excited on August 25th. I quickly checked LiveTrail to see how my friends were getting on in the race – the friend I started with finished in 20:58:15 and my other friend finished in 28:02:46. I felt happy for them both and dropped them both congratulatory messages before I headed out for my run and hike.

I set off at 1305hrs and stayed out for 3:20:29, covering 21.5km and +1091m. My initial goal was to summit Mont Joly, but instead I made do with Mont Joux – the main summit was a little too ambitious as it was very hot out and with 51km and +2600/-3000m from TDS in my legs and in my head, probably not advisable!

I hiked hard on most of the inclines pausing at streams to soak my forearms/arm sleeves and hat and in shaded sections I ate and drank plenty. My main goal for the day was to run all of the downhills and to run them mostly hard – mission accomplished! Secondary to that I wanted at least 1000m vertical gain to add to the 2600m from yesterday – mission accomplished. Finally, I wanted to have fun, lots of it – mission definitely accomplished.

I enjoyed being out, exploring new trails and putting to bed my mental demons from TDS. It was great to just take the time for photographs too; I even sat down a few times just to enjoy the views – especially from the summit of Mont Joux.

Over the following days I ran/hiked:

Friday 26th: 16.6km (+934m) [Solo, La Grattague]

Saturday 27th: 10.7km (+166m) [with my friend who finished TDS in 28 hours, Chamonix]

Sunday 28th: 12.3km (+684m) [Solo, La Grattague]

I left La Grattague on Sunday 28th August and my week of running turned out to look like this:

UTMB Week 2016

UTMB Week 2016: 134.5km, 6460m, 17h45m

Now, it’s on to the rest of my year and looking ahead to next summer’s racing schedule. I will return to the Alps but I’m not sure I’ll be returning to run one of the UTMB races – from what I experienced at TDS and from what I’ve heard from friends who ran UTMB, OCC and CCC, they are too crowded for my liking!

Two down, TDS to go…

It has been a tumultuous ten days and my ‘Three Bucket List Races in Three Months’ project has been hanging by a fine thread…

Three Bucket List Races, Three Months. Summer 2016.

Three Bucket List Races, Three Months. Summer 2016.

Last Thursday I went to work with a bit of a sore throat but it seemed to disappear until it reappeared with a vengeance after a very long meeting on Friday afternoon. I went from feeling stronger and fitter than I ever had to feeling under the weather and then just like a bag of crap.

I didn’t run, hike or move a muscle from Friday evening which meant cancelling my only full kit night run which I’d planned for Saturday. This being the case, by Sunday afternoon I felt the need, regardless of illness, to push on through and get in my final long run before TDS. At this point I still thought I was in with a good chance of feeling in the right shape to take on the race – I didn’t feel too bad. Almost four hours later I knew I’d made a mistake and added at least a couple of days to my recovery time as well as undoing the recovery from the previous 24 hours or so. I’d lost my voice on the run, I felt lethargic towards the end and my temperature was on the rise shortly afterwards! Oh dear, there goes my final week of taper training.

The final countdown...

The final countdown…

I went to work Monday feeling absolutely awful and left at lunch time. I honestly felt at this point like I was 99.9% going to DNS at TDS and this did nothing to help me fight what turned out to be a viral chest and throat infection! 99.9% DNS certainty lasted until Thursday morning when I started to rally and feel like I had, by the end of the day, a 70% chance of at least starting the race. By Friday afternoon I felt like there was an 80% chance of racing and I decided to head out for a walk in the woods, via the pub for a Guinness [‘It’s Good for You’] with my girlfriend.

The walking/Guinness strategy worked because on Saturday I woke up feeling 80% healthy instead of 25/30% healthy like I had for the previous week. Therefore Saturday was spent doing last minute list making and shopping for gear to go in my drop bag and race vest! It was tiring, but not draining and I spent the evening relaxing, foam rolling and poring over race maps before having a hot bath and an early night. By the time I hit the hay I felt 87% healthy.

Cormet de Roselend, 66km - Drop Bag

Today, I’m ready. I still don’t feel 100% health wise but I’m 99.9% lining up to start TDS on Wednesday! I have spent the morning packing for a week in and around Chamonix and finalising my drop bag list and race plan.

24 Hours - Plan A 24hr 45min - Plan B Sub 30hr - Plan C Just Finish! - Plan D

24 Hours – Plan A
24hr 45min – Plan B
Sub 30hr – Plan C
Just Finish! – Plan D

This afternoon I’m taking it easy, eating a lot and drinking as much water as I can handle. Early in the evening I’m planning to go out for a short 5 or 6km run – my first in a week – before settling down to a relaxing evening.

Three Bucket List Races, Three Months – that was the plan. Two down, TDS to go…

Chamonix, I’ll see you tomorrow morning!

Lakeland 50, July 30th 2016

The Lakeland 50, although one of my 3 Bucket List Races in 3 Months (Mont Blanc Marathon, Lakeland 50, TDS), was always meant to be a preparation event for the TDS at the end of August.

Just over half way into the race, feeling strong and marching up Gatesgarth Pass it shifted in my mind from preparation event to a race that I might actually do quite well at if I kept my head and kept moving as per my pre-race plan – hike conservatively at the beginning of climbs and harder toward the top, run the downhills and then take the ‘flat’ sections as run/walk intervals to conserve energy and reduce muscle fatigue!

Initially, when I entered the race my goal had been to finish in daylight or at least just before sunset – ambitious but ultimately not something I think I could have achieved this year. After Mont Blanc Marathon I reset my goals for the race and they were to enjoy it, not get lost and to get around without injuring myself. The closest thing I had to a time/A-goal was to finish somewhere between 11 and 13 hours. I honestly didn’t think I would be racing into the top 100, finishing with my headtorch still stashed in my pack and only 45 minutes after sunset!

16. Placings and splits

Placing & Splits

I cannot stop thinking about the race and how well it went – I would definitely say it’s the best race I’ve ever run when it comes to strategy and tactics. This being the case it has now become my focus and my A-Race for 2017, my first 100 miler is on the back burner and it might stay there for some time until I feel as though I’ve reached my potential at 50 miles!

Onwards then, to the race report which is broken down in CP to CP sections.

 

Dalemain to Howtown (Total Distance 17.8km)

I slept unusually well the night before the race. Unusual because I don’t normally get more than five hours before a race and also because I happened to have ended up camping next to the porta-toilets for the entire Lakeland camp! I got 8 hours of unbroken sleep and woke up feeling mentally focused on the task ahead. I had the luxury of time so I took a shower, grabbed an egg roll and walked into Coniston to get a decent cup of coffee with my fellow campsite resident and Lakeland first timer (and first time ultrarunner!), Franck.

After standing at the back of a very cramped school hall trying to listen to Marc and Terry (RDs) explain what lay ahead all 675 competitors filed out and got onto coaches to take us to the start line an hour away. All I picked up from the race briefing was that once we got to the top of Fusedale Pass and onto High Kop we needed to go to the right of a wooden post and pass a cairn which would be to our left before descending and running alongside Haweswater Reservoir. Also, we were told that if we were planning on getting lost we should take someone with us!

7. About to enter Start pen

At the start with my phantom pains and mental demons!

The first 7km or so of the race is over uneven, hilly and grassy ground which is really not great to run on. For some reason the slow start, although fitting my plan, really started to mess with my mind. Until we got off the Dalemain Estate and through the village of Pooley Bridge my head was telling me that I wouldn’t be able to get through the race. It was telling me I was going too slow, it was probably going to rain and I’d hate that. It was telling me my left hamstring was too tight to progress much further than the first CP…

And then, all of a sudden, we were on the High Street trail and climbing with Heughscar Hill to our left and I began to feel all misty eyed and felt a sense of wonder and joy building up as I looked up and saw people hiking up in front and people dropping back behind us. I was hiking along with Franck chatting away and we were both very happy with our pace and with the plan we had talked about during the morning – the plan I mentioned in the introduction: hike up, run down, run/hike the flat.

Howton to Mardale Head (TD 33km – from last CP 15.2km) (129th place)

In what felt like no time we dropped down into the checkpoint at Howton and greeted the competitors hiking out and back onto the course with smiles which were returned – it seemed everybody was starting to really enjoy the day!

With my mental demons now vanquished and feeling warmed up and confident about my strategy I breezed into the aid station employing my “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast” mantra that worked so well at Mont Blanc Marathon. I got my bottles filled, grabbed some salted crisps and two cookies and then hiked out of the CP eating on the move and heading toward the biggest climb of the day up Fusedale Pass.

8. circa 20km

Around about the 20km point.

On the climb I caught up with my friend and fellow blogger Giles Thurston who was well into the 100 miler – I gave him a pat on the shoulder, some words of encouragement and a smile and then picked up my pace as we neared the top of the climb. We topped out on the bog of High Fell and picked up into a jog, nay a canter. Or, really, was it more of a hop, skip and jump as we all tried not to lose our shoes! I knew this section would go on for a kilometre or so before dropping into a pretty serious descent – the first steep one of the day.

10. Climing out of Mardale Head

Towards the top of Fusedale. (Taken by Michael Harley, 86th place)

At the beginning of the descent the clouds parted and the sun came out and this was enough for me to decide I was going to hammer it! So I did. In so doing, I passed a fair few people before reaching the bottom and starting on the relatively flat (but rocky and narrow) trail alongside Haweswater to Mardale Head CP. I hadn’t realised it but at this point I had put a gap between Franck and myself so I was running solo for about 20 minutes before deciding that as the weather was heating up I should stop to fill my spare bottle from a stream and dip my visor – Franck skipped past and said the CP was only 3km or so ahead. I stuck to my plan, let him go and said I’d catch up to him before then.

I was feeling great. I’d cleared my right bottle of water, was halfway through the left side bottle filled with Tailwind and I was feeling extremely happy that I’d had the foresight to pack a spare bottle for extra water in case the weather heated up. The views were spectacular and I initiated my run/walk strategy opting to fast hike for longer than I have previously in races – along Haweswater it was about 600 to 800m of fast hiking followed by 800 to 1200m of running. I caught up with Franck just as we rolled into Mardale Head.

Mardale Head to Kentmere (TD 43.4km – FLCP 10.4km) (119th place)

‘Slow is smooth, smooth is fast’ – I had my bottles filled and calmly spoke to one of the volunteers about how the 100 was going whilst I downed a couple of cups of orange and berry squash, picked up a couple of cheese and pickle sandwiches, filled them with salted crisps and then headed on out to climb Gatesgarth Pass with Franck.

On the early stage of the climb we chatted between ourselves and with a few other people around us. At this point I began to feel very strong and I think it must have been an unconscious ‘Central Governor’ moment because I leaned into the climb and began to storm up the hill, passing quite a few people. My mantra on the way up was “Catch, Match, Pass”. My confidence was boosted by a couple of runners I passed who remarked on my technique and speed. In my blind focus I didn’t realise that I had dropped Franck at this point, it was only when I neared the top of the climb I took the time to turn around and look back at Haweswater and take a quick picture that I saw he had slowed quite a bit – it transpired that he was suffering with the heat and nutrition. Franck gutted it out and finished in 11:08:25 in 113th place.

I topped out and hiked along conservatively for about 60 seconds before realising I would be continuing on alone into Kentmere.

9. circa 45km

Haweswater Reservoir from Gatesgarth.

 After the climb up Gatesgarth there is a long, rocky and unstable descent down to Sadgill. Descending on this type of terrain isn’t really a strong point of mine at all and so I took it real easy to conserve energy, avoid potential injury and to take on some more solid nutrition. I did hammer where I could but I was passed by two people on the way down. I didn’t let it phase me and made a mental note of their numbers…I thought to myself that if I caught them later down the trail I would pass confidently and strongly!

As the descent flattened out a little and we entered a stretch of gravel I started to catch other runners and began to break away from those behind me. I was feeling absolutely brilliant and I ended up catching, matching and confidently passing the two who passed me on the descent! I went into Alpine race mode from this point and didn’t talk to others around me because I was so focused on my strategy and running my own race. All the way to Kentmere from Sadgill I kept swapping position with three or four runners but resisted temptation to pick up the pace and it turned out to be a good thing because about a klick out of the CP I took a wrong turn, adding about 600m in total to the journey –and thankfully found that I wasn’t alone and had the company of another Lakeland novice! We stopped and briefly consulted our road books before retracing our steps back onto course, adding around 600m to the journey.

I spent a little longer at Kentmere CP as I was feeling a little nauseous. Again, I didn’t let it phase me and I pushed aside any negative thoughts and focused on the fact that at my current pace I would be finishing under 11 hours! I didn’t want solid food so whilst I waited for my bottles to be refilled I had two vegan smoothies (Blueberry and then Raspberry) as well as drinking a few more cups of orange and berry squash. Whilst mulling over how to get over what was a very minor upset I decided I would go for a first for me in a race and I headed to the porta-toilet for a quick bio break – this really did the trick and I was on the move again feeling much more comfortable!

Kentmere to Ambleside (TD 55.2km – FLCP 11.8km) (112th)

Feeling much refreshed and refocused I continued out of Kentmere CP, passing the turning I took in February on a run around the Kentmere Reservoir. I was still running solo at this point, nobody left the CP with me and I couldn’t see anybody in front so I began to worry slightly that I might get lost again! I referred again to the road book and then, to make doubly sure I was heading on the track, I took a quick look at the map before getting my bearings and reassuring myself that I was indeed going the right way! This in itself made me feel confident and there was a definite quickening of my pace as I turned off a paved section and headed up onto a stony bridlepath.

I hit this climb hard as I could see a number of people in front who were taking it easy and I passed around six people here before topping out and entering into a long, rocky descent. I was passed by somebody who would soon become a good friend here! His technique was spot on and I latched on to him and vowed to catch him at the bottom and then pass on the next climb!

It didn’t work out that way as we both took it fairly easy out of the descent and on through a paved climb through Troutbeck village. So it was that I made friends with Rob and from this point on we chatted, laughed and raced as a team all the way to the finish. Rob had run the 50 the previous year and had also run the 100 twice so he was pretty confident anytime we needed to take a turn or choose a track to follow.

We rolled along comfortably through the rest of this section, picking up the pace towards the tops of climbs, passing people with confidence and then attempting to gap those we’d passed on the descents. The strategy worked well and we led a group of about 5 runners (including ourselves) into Ambleside! It felt strange entering civilisation again with lots of noise and cheering from the pubs in town and, as I did in the Alps last month, I gave a running bow and doffed my visor to a large group which got a great reaction.

Ambleside to Chapel Stile (TD 64.2km – FLCP 9km) (99th)

On the way into Ambleside CP Rob told me he was 50 minutes up on his A-Goal whilst I was 60 minutes down on my very ambitious and original A-Goal of finishing before sunset and had put mine to bed. I told Rob that I’d gone to B-Goal of getting in without using a headtorch and hopefully making last orders at a pub in Coniston!

This being the case we took the time to check our phones for messages and I found that when I arrived at Kentmere CP I had been in 112th place – I set a new goal of getting as far into the top 100 as I possibly could! I figured that as we had both run a really solid section prior to Ambleside and passed quite a few people we might already be somewhere around 95th to 100th.

I ate another cheese, pickle and salted crisp sandwich and washed it down with my first black tea of the race and grabbed another sandwich before fast hiking out of the CP with Rob – it was another smooth and fast transition through an aid station and we joked and laughed all the way to the bottom of the steep climb leading out of Ambleside and back onto the fells. Again, I stuck to my pre-race plan and opted to fast hike the entire flat, paved section out to conserve some energy, allow food to digest and with the knowledge that this section had some very runnable terrain. It also meant we didn’t have to batter our feet on pavement. Rob was wearing Inov8 Mudclaw and I was wearing La Sportiva Helios 2.0 neither of which are great for road running!

12. circa 66km

Up and out of Ambleside, circa 66km.

I think, as we climbed out of Ambleside, both of us knew we were on for a fantastic day and a fantastic result. We were constantly smiling and remarking about the beauty of the countryside around us. Rob led the descents and I stuck as close to him as possible and I led the ascents with Rob following close behind too. With this said, I think I can safely say this was the most difficult section for me as there was quite a lot of pavement to contend with which was beginning to make the bottom of my feet feel quite battered. Although it was hard on the feet it, was easy on the mind because Rob and I kept each other’s spirits high and every time we saw a white bib in front we instinctively made a move to catch, match and pass them!

Chapel Stile to Tilberthwaite (TD 74.8km – FLCP 10.6km) (94th)

After the pavement pounding of the previous section we were both feeling a bit sore when we arrived at Chapel Stile and on the way in Rob and I decided to take the time to eat some solid food relatively slowly and to stretch a bit. I ate a very nice bowl of vegetable broth, drank a black tea with about 3 sugars and waited for my bottles to be refilled and then we were on the move again – all in all I think we spent around 6 minutes here.

We climbed out of Chapel Stile with the Langdales cutting an imposing figure in front of us. We passed the second woman in the 100 miler at this point who was struggling but still looking strong! After a few words of encouragement we picked up our pace, topped out and entered onto a boggy section with some high ladder stiles to get up and over. I don’t know why but I loved this section! After Ambleside I was a bit worried about getting on over the flatter sections and I’d been really enjoying hard climbs all day but for some reason I felt great here and Rob and I increased our pace and began catching, matching and passing other 50 mile runners again.

After the bog section came a pretty rocky and tough section to run – I could see three guys in front who were running as a group and who I had noticed kept checking back on our progress. I signalled to Rob that we should maintain our distance to see if they would try to increase their pace and, consequently, possibly tire themselves a little more! We were both feeling really strong and I had definitely started to get into a bit of a ruthless racing mentality…

We caught up with the guys quite quickly and they let us pass, immediately Rob and I picked up our pace and headed towards an unmanned control checkpoint before hitting a road descent to the final checkpoint at Tilberthwaite. I knew that we were on for a finish with no headtorches! All we had to do was keep on pushing whenever the opportunity presented itself. Looking back at the splits and the placings Rob and I moved up from 95th and 94th place respectively to joint 86th on arrival at Tilberthwaite.

 Tilberthwaite to Coniston (TD 80.5km – FLCP 5.7km)

Arriving into Tilberthwaite I was feeling energised, pretty fresh and very excited. I dibbed, had one bottle refilled and Rob and I began to climb out of the aid station within a minute!

The steps up and out of the aid station caused no problem and they seemed to be done with very quickly and then we were on to a narrow, rocky track ascending up to a flatter, boggy section. Rob kept spurring me on and we were grinning like Chesire cats as we closed in on somebody just ahead. We passed with a quiet word of encouragement and then climbed/scrambled over a small lump of rock to be met with the view of four runners a few hundred metres in front – I looked back, grinned at Rob and said “Let’s get a move on!”

13. circa 77km

77km done!

We caught up first with two guys who turned out to be running the 100 mile event and who were moving very confidently. They let us know that the two in front were indeed 50 runners and we could certainly catch them. So, we pushed on again and made the most of our positive mindsets and the fact we felt physically invincible at this point! I remember passing Michael Harley who ended up finishing in 86th place which moved me into 84th position (which I didn’t know at the time) but I don’t remember passing the final runner who put me into 83rd?! The last thing I remember, as we approached the long, steep and rocky descent down into Coniston was asking a 100 mile runner: “Seen any 50s lurking about mate?” to which he replied, “Aye, there’s two just ahead, if you get a move on you can catch them!” Rob made me laugh with his reply “You shouldn’t have said that…off we go!” – and off we went still grinning, still having fun and determined to run in a strong finish.

As we hit the paved section into Coniston we both decided that we would race it to the finish and we certainly did. I ran my fastest kilometre split of the day with Rob snapping at my heels all the way from The Black Bull pub right over the finish line – we certainly gave the spectators some entertainment and we even ran past the finish line dibbers and had to dive back to see who could dib first! It was the perfect end to what now stands as my perfect race. I can’t wait to go back next year and do it all again!

14. 10h31m58s

Rob & I at the finish.

A big thanks to Franck Lahaye for running with me from Dalemain to Mardale Head and a huge thanks to Rob Spavin for the encouragement and the company all the way from Troutbeck to Coniston. See you next year!

 

Mont Blanc Marathon, June 26th 2016

Chamonix, sweet Chamonix

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I am starting this post with a quick introduction and then it will be straight into the race report itself.

Mont Blanc Marathon kicked off my long distance and ultra 2016. It also marked the start of my epic 3 in 3 Summer! Three bucket list races in three months – next up Lakeland 50 at the end of July and then back to Chamonix at the end of August for TDS.

MBM (for sake of ease) also represents my first attempt at running and racing at altitude and on ‘proper’ mountains. I also have the race to thank for bringing me back to the Alps for the first time since 2011 and for my introduction to Chamonix, oh sweet sweet Chamonix!

I won’t go on and on about Chamonix and in fact I will leave it at this: I love the place. From the moment I set foot in the town I felt at home and I felt like I’d found somewhere about as close to perfect as I will ever find! I really cannot wait to get back to the town itself and the region.

Now, onto the race report!

 

The Start

I set my alarm for 0445hrs as the race was due to begin at 0700hrs. I thought I might not like the early start so much but I was up and full of energy by 0500hrs – I was showered and dressed in full race kit by 0515hrs and breakfast and pre-race ablutions taken care of by 0545hrs. I really felt that I was off to a great start and was feeling very calm but excited to get out and experience my first mountain marathon.

Bag drop was quick and simple. The weather, which had promised to rain, was surprisingly clear and warm for 0615hrs! From bag drop it was straight over to the start line to stand around and consider warming up – I decided against it in the end and just soaked in the atmosphere and the conversations going on around me in French, English, Spanish and Japanese.

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0km – 10km (AS1 – Argentière)

At 0700 on the dot the race began. I had lined up near the front so that I could try to get out ahead of the crowd and avoid queueing on subsequent single track climbs!

The race begins by winding through Chamonix Centre and out onto the Nordic ski trails. The crowds were out, the cowbells were clanging and it felt good to be on the move at a pretty decent clip. After a couple of klicks I fell into step with an Englishman who had been staying at my hotel – we didn’t talk too much and in the end I felt I may be going off a little too fast so I dropped back and told him I’d see him for a beer afterwards. He finished in 6:08 so not too far in front of me as it turned out.

Once on the trails the climbs and switchbacks begin. Obviously, what goes up must come back down so I had my first real introduction to the southern and central European method of descending pretty early on. To put it mildly, the method is to basically throw yourself forward and smash your quads as hard as you dare! I lost a fair few spots early on as I tried to figure out a way to keep up without damaging myself too early on in the race (and because I had to stop for a pee on a pretty steep descent).

Argentière aid station seemed to appear pretty quickly and I didn’t even stop to check out what was on offer. I was running strong, happy and hydrated so I just continued on and laid out my intention to those I passed that I was there to race! I was feeling really buoyant and the supporters on the trail into the AS and out of the AS were fantastic.

 

10km – 20km (AS2 – Vallorcine)

As I approached the 16km mark I was feeling totally in control of my race and, although I knew it was early days, I was pleased that my race plan seemed to be working out exactly as I had hoped! I had been carrying my folded poles/sticks in my hands for the first 10km but as soon as we hit the first real, long (hands on thighs kinda deal) ascent I extended them and they stayed that way until I crossed the finish line.

I found my technique really quickly with the sticks in hand and I really began to enjoy the climbs as I was catching quite a lot of people and only losing a few spots on the corresponding descents. By the end of the race I was so glad I had taken the sticks along because they really do make a difference!

During this section towards Vallorcine I began to repeat my mantra of the day: “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast” and that’s how I intended to make my way through the rest of the aid stations. So, as I rolled into Vallorcine, I had made sure that both of my bottles were empty and that I had eaten my trail bar as planned.

[nb: My nutrition strategy consisted of eating 1 whole trail bar before reaching Vallorcine and then eating another over the rest of the race. This was combined with a sachet of Tailwind at every aid station – I managed to empty my Tailwind bottle before all but one of the Aid Stations and it really worked for me.]

The descent into Vallorcine was fast and smooth which was a pleasant surprise as I was expecting something far more technical – I was less than surprised to find later that this was pretty much the final non-technical descent of the race! I arrived to the, by now, familiar and welcoming sounds of French cheering and the ringing of cowbells. I stopped at the large water butts placed at the edge of the tented area and calmly but quickly refilled one bottle with water and the other with Tailwind/water. Once this was completed I walked quickly to the food table. At the table I squeezed a segment of banana into my mouth, put another in the pocket of my shorts along with an orange segment and then as I began to lengthen my stride put another segment of orange in my mouth.

Smooth and fast, in and out of Vallorcine in around 3 minutes and onwards to the biggest and most formidable climb of the day!

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20km – 30km (AS3 – Col de Posettes)

From Vallorcine you gently ascend out of the village until, suddenly you find yourself not so gently switchbacking steeply out of the valley and up towards the Aiguille des Posettes! From the aid station at around 21km and 1280m you head up to the high point of the race at around 2200m at somewhere near the 27km mark – 900ish metres of climb in the space of 6km is unheard of in the UK but I wasn’t feeling at all phased by the idea!

As I said, at this point I was relishing the climbs and I gave myself the task of fast hiking and overtaking as many people as I could comfortably manage on this climb to AS3! I really, really enjoyed this section and, along with the final 3km this was my favourite part of the race. Every time I slowed on the ascent to take on water, Tailwind or some trail bar I managed to remember to lift my head and to look around me – the views did not disappoint and the scenery was amazing. It was a real boost to be passing people who I suspect use the area as a training ground and to exchange some friendly words with them in French and English! I made my way through the field over the section.

By the time Col de Posettes aid station appeared we had climbed into the clouds and the fog. I was surprised to find that I’d managed to clear my bottle of Tailwind and most of my water bottle! I was also very surprised and extremely happy to arrive at AS3 feeling great. I repeated my tactic from AS2 and was on my way with a jaunty “Merci Beaucoup” to the aid station volunteers in around 3 minutes. Off I went, on my way to the summit with a spring in my step…and a rising apprehension in the pit of my stomach as the terrain became rockier and more technical!

Towards the summit and over the top there was still snow to pass by. Thankfully it seemed that the few hundred runners ahead of me had trudged a fairly clear path but it was still a novelty and a slight worry to be traversing the slippy, mushy snow at altitude and heading towards my first ever running descent from a mountain summit. At this point I began to understand completely why everybody holds Killian Journet in such high esteem – whilst I half jogged, half stumbled and half jumped down the rocky, rooty and muddy descent he would have been there flying along like it was a flat road on a summer evening!

The descent took a long time but as we descend to slightly smoother trails below the fog and cloud line, I began to feel more comfortable as the views of the valley below opened up. I quickened my pace and did my best to stay with a group of pretty quick descenders that consisted of two Belgians, three Frenchmen, an American and an Italian – I only know the nationalities of this particular group because I stuck with them, swapping places (and consequently seeing their bibs with national flags) from around the 26km point right into AS4 at Tre le Champ.

[nb: As you may have noticed above, there wasn’t much talking along the way. Obviously, during road marathons this is normal but at most UK trail races from marathon and above I’ve found that people are generally quite talkative. I don’t mind this but I must say I preferred the European way! Maybe it’s just MBM (sure I’ll find out in August) but everybody seemed really focused on the task and determined to race!]

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30km – 32km (AS4 – Tre le Champ)

I remember coming off the mountain descent and the route seemed to descend more gently into the valley and through some small villages. At the 30km point I was expecting to see and/or hear the AS at Tre le Champ and as we ran through a small village I thought we were there. This turned out to be a ‘false summit’ of sorts as Tre le Champ turned out to be a further 2 or 3km on. In the back of my mind I began to think that if AS4 was slightly out of position then might it be the case that AS5 may be further along than expected. Surely, I said to myself, if that is the case we may well end up running a fair few klicks past 42km…this thought came to haunt me a little later on but at the 30km point it was just a fleeting moment of contemplation.

I soon got back to task as I realised I might be able to make my transition through AS3 a bit quicker if I stopped at a communal village water trough as a couple of French runners seemed to be doing just ahead. I sidled up to the trough, unscrewed the caps of my bottles and gulped down as much as I could before refilling one with water and one with Tailwind/water. I took the decision at this point to use my reusable cup to drink some of the cold, refreshing water along with taking a couple of bites from my trail bar. The water was so refreshing that I decided I’d also wash my face and hands before setting off again!

A couple of interesting klicks later and we approached the Tre le Champ aid station. The approaching klicks were interesting because they were on a fairly fast, technical descent which just outside the aid station put a few of us runners face to face with a very large cow blocking the main trail! I heard the cowbell before I saw the cow and thought we’d reached the station…I made a quick diversion and followed a couple of runners off onto a small animal track that led around the cow and back to the main trail! A quick check back and I saw two runners trying to navigate their way past Daisy by talking to her – not sure how that went because as we emerged from tree cover the aid station was just ahead so I picked up my pace.

Passing through the village the support was out in force and lying on grassy verges in the sun applauding runners – I noticed a couple of runners in front of me didn’t seem to acknowledge the support so I slowed a little, smiled at the crowd and gave them a bow. This was the best thing I could have done because everybody started to clap, cheer and call out my name (which was printed on my bib) and so I ran into the aid station beaming! This stop was quicker than before as I had just filled my bottles a couple of klicks before but I decided to stop and refill my half empty water bottle anyway – the temperature was rising at this point in the day and I was guzzling water like the elixir it is. After the water refill I repeated the same smooth, slow (but fast) transition through the aid station: bananas, oranges, “Merci beaucoup” et Au Revoir back onto the trail and back up onto the mountain tracks…

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32km – 37km (AS5 – La Flégère)

Without a doubt this was the toughest section of the day for me! As predicted my thought from earlier in the day that quite possibly aid stations were not quite where they should be came to haunt me throughout this particular stretch.

The weather was getting warmer and we began to ascend out of the valley and up towards La Flégère on pretty open and steep trails. On some sections there was tree cover and a cool breeze but as soon as the sun was in full or partial view the heat was telling. Two klicks out of AS4 I found that my water bottle was almost empty and I knew I would need to manage the rest of the section on warm Tailwind. Although I use the ‘unflavoured’ sachets they most certainly do have a taste and texture quite apart from water – once they liquid gets warm it is not the most pleasant thing to drink. So, unfortunately, from around the 34km mark I pretty much stopped taking on calories and fluids!

As you know, calories and fluids are what sustain a hard endurance effort. However, I couldn’t bear to take more than a tiny sip of Tailwind at a time as it was making me feel slightly sick and I couldn’t eat any trail bar because it was too dense without water to wash it down so naturally I began to feel quite tired and lethargic during the early part of the climb to AS5. I knew it was going to be a long climb so I reasoned with myself that as long as I kept on moving as fast as I could on any ‘flat’ sections I would be able to rally past this period of lethargy and stomach pain. I just kept repeating my aid station mantra of ‘Slow is smooth, smooth is fast’ on the climbs and then increased the pace whenever I felt like I could – basically at this point the plan was to just keep moving! In races past I have had troubles like this but usually the lethargy and/or pain is compounded by negative thoughts and stories. This time around these thoughts were at a minimum and I think that was pretty much down to the scenery and to my very focused mentality. Granted, every so often I did begin to wonder when AS5 might appear and began to dwell on the fact that it was certainly not going to be at the 35km mark but as quickly as the thought appeared I pushed it to one side and kept on!

Funnily enough it was a short, sharp descent that provided the spark I needed to pull myself out of the struggle. I had spent most of the day looking forward to the climbs but for some reason on this particular descent I thought I would give my legs a turnover and found myself gaining places and passing people who had passed me earlier in the climb and during my internal battle! At the bottom of the descent we began what I knew would be a long, steep climb along on forested switchbacks – the opportunity to get into some decent shade was very welcome and I began to gulp down my Tailwind and chew furiously on my trail bar as I set off up the mountain trying to put some space between me and the people I had just passed! It was during this section that we crossed a beautiful waterfall and mountain stream. The power of the falling water was incredible and I took the time to stop, douse my visor in the fresh water and to wash my hands, face and hair – it was so tempting to fill my bottles with the water but as nobody else around me was doing so I figured it wasn’t safe! After a minute or so of rest and contemplation I set off again at a quicker pace and with a smile on my face.

To say this was a long climb certainly is an underestimation and gives it no justice. It took an age to get from around 35km up to La Flégère aid station at 37km but as soon as we broke tree cover and hit a rocky, exposed slope and the La Flégère came into sight I knew it was time to dig deep and power up towards cold water, fresh fruit and the final stretch to the finish! By the time I rolled into the aid station I was very thirsty but absolutely buzzing and feeling energised – I had passed a lot of people on the way up the slope and the cramping in my quads that had been plaguing me for around 15 minutes suddenly abated. I took a little extra time here to compose myself and I doused my visor in freezing water from the water butts, refilled my bottle and those of some people around me whilst I gazed out over the mountain below and behind me – only on the way out of the aid station did I begin to contemplate the mountain still remaining in front of me!

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38km – 45km (Finish)

Leaving La Flégère I knew that I was heading towards the finish line and that this would likely appear at around 45km instead of 42! This was not a source of discontent for me and I actually began to feel this might play to my advantage as I am more used to running ultra-distance than marathon distance.

As you leave AS5 you drop down onto open, exposed singletrack that countours around the face of a rocky slope. This section, along with the first 5 or 6km of the race, could be described as fast and flat and I took full advantage of the fact. I locked into a rhythm and tucked in behind a runner – nobody was behind me for a long time and after about a kilometre the track widened enough for me to pass the runner in front. At this point I felt the presence of other runners and a quick check back confirmed that there were some pretty quick guys bearing down on me! I attempted to go with the quicker pace but soon felt that I might regret that decision so I dropped off a little, let them pass and vowed to catch them on the final climbing section to the finish.

The singletrack opened out eventually into broken scree and we turned a corner to find a very steep, fairly dangerous descent that required us to hold onto chains and rails bolted onto the mountain side! Thankfully this section was very short and there was a marshall at the top and the bottom to ensure a bit of extra safety. I was grinning the whole way down here and I could see that after the flat section we had just left behind the final ascent was about to begin! The final ascent began gradually and so I held onto my poles and did my best to keep up a fairly decent pace with a mixture of careful, short steps and some rock hopping before this became an untenable strategy and out came the poles once more. I was determined to catch those who had ran from view on the previous section and equally determined to lose as few places as possible from here, at around 42km, until the finish. I did a quick watch check at 42km and saw that I had hit exactly 6:15 which was initially my B-goal for the race! I had abandoned the A-goal when I arrived in Cham and saw what faced me – I wasn’t quite ready to put it all on the line and go for 5:45 when I had zero Alpine or altitude running experience…

Anyway, I digress. Back to the final 3km! After seeing 6:15 on my watch face my brain suddenly decided that I could manage a final push over 3km and get over the line in 6:30. What my fairly tired brain hadn’t taken into account was the fact I was on a very steep gradient, I was very hot and I was running/hiking at altitude. At the time none of that mattered to me though and I began to push on as hard as I could. Again we broke tree line and found a line of supporters about 2km from the finish line at the top of rocky, runnable descent. I was encouraged along by a Frenchman who was counselling me over about 100m of climb on pole technique and then as I crested the climb an English family cheered me on and gave me a real boost on that final descent – I caught and passed around 5 people on this section and as the descent levelled out and began to climb again the feeling that the end was near began to build!

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The crowds became more numerous and the support and noise they created meant that even if I had been feeling totally broken I would have been able to keep on moving up the slope no matter what! Although at this point I was feeling pretty tired I was by no means broken and the racing spirit took over as I fixed my eyes on whoever was in front of me at any given moment and put in the effort to level with and then pass them – it was hard work trying to pass people with a confident look and then to keep on moving at a decent clip but I managed it…until at the top of the last steep incline my right quad suddenly went into a spasm of cramp and I had to stop for a brief moment…someone in the crowd shouted my name and encouraged me to turn around and to keep moving upwards but backwards! Whoever that person was, if you’re reading this, THANK YOU! It was invaluable advice because as I turned around I found the view behind me was spectacular and that the nearest competitor to me was not moving as fast as I think they might have liked – the spasm subsided almost as quickly as it appeared and I turned, dug my poles into the ground, fixed my gaze on the finishing arch and propelled myself forwards at a jog which became a run.

And then, all of a sudden, I had crossed the finish line and was greeted by friendly competitors, cold beer, cold water and a feeling of immense satisfaction!

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What a race. Well worthy of any runner’s Bucket List and now ticked off from mine. I know this much, I will return at some point in the future. But, right now, I am immensely proud of my first Alpine and altitude running/hiking performance and this will sustain me when the going gets tough at many races to come.

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My official finishing time and placing.

Peace & Blessings

The body speaks, listen to it.

“Listen to your body, do not be a blind and deaf tenant.”

– Dr. George Sheehan

Everybody who has even taken even a slight interest in, let alone totally embraced, the sport of long distance running is aware of the mantra: “Listen to you body…” but I’ll wager there are a very good number of runners who don’t really know what that means and a number still who know but prefer not to listen!

I was in the latter category until Friday afternoon. It used to be the case that I would pretty much run through any niggle or pain without thinking about the likely consequence – sometimes it would work out great and the problem would disappear within a run or two (or three) but more often than not the problem would persist and sometimes worsen and occasionally lead to injury at the high end of the scale or demotivation and frustration at the lower end of the scale.

Last week marked Week 8 of 10 in my Mont Blanc Marathon training program and was following on from my highest mileage Week 7.

Week 7

I covered 91.2km over 5 days and I did two yoga classes (instead of my usual 3). I decided after my Thursday yoga class that I needed to listen more closely to my body as I found I was suffering with pain in my abdominal muscles due to pursuing an intense interest in practicing yogic breathing for the past couple of weeks. I listened closely and heard my body ask me for a rest and so I decided to withdraw from my usual classes the following week and to focus my home practice on meditation without such intense breathing.

By Tuesday of Week 8 my abdominals felt much better, much more relaxed and actually quite a bit stronger and firmer – I’m due to return to taught yoga classes on Thursday of Week 9 and I’m really looking forward to it! This proved to me that making some time for rest and reflection really does have its benefits.

Week 8

I had planned to run 5 days during Week 8 aiming to cover between 15 and 17km per day. After a successful high mileage Week 7 I didn’t think this would pose a problem at all!

I took my usual Monday rest day and took an extra day on Tuesday feeling that I was doing the right thing and paying attention to what my body was saying. Wednesday’s run felt great, it was fast and comfortable and I felt like I was on to a good thing for the week! I decided on Thursday to run a different route to the ones I’ve been using predominantly in this training block and as this route was far more uneven and on less solid ground I found myself using muscles I hadn’t used in my legs for some time – by the end of the run the top of my right calf muscle was very tight and I could feel the effect in my lower back and my left glute.

After feeling those niggles I thought it might be a better idea to split my Friday run into a double – 8km in the morning before work and then 8km in the evening, both at fairly gentle pace to allow the niggles to work themselves out but it became apparent at the end of my morning run that the niggles were on the cusp of potentially becoming injuries!

I took the time to reflect during my working day and then made the decision call a halt to my Week 8 plan of hitting 80km by Sunday. My body asked, I obeyed and now I’m sitting here on Monday of Week 9 feeling rested and recuperated!

I spent Friday evening foam rolling and having my legs and lower back massaged and then had a long sleep. Saturday, as I decided not to run again, was spent socialising and for once prioritising the life side of the Life/Training balance! Okay, so it’s probably not an orthodox kind of recovery plan as I went to a wedding party and drank a fair amount of beer but I woke up on Sunday morning feeling happy and rejuvenated. My right calf, after an evening spent in formal shoes (a very unusual occurrence for me), didn’t feel too wonderful so again I decided to prioritise the Life side of the balancing act and went to visit with my Ma, Nan and cousins for the day instead!

Week 9

I woke up this morning and decided that I would keep to my usual Training regime of having Monday as a rest day and my leg(s), back and glutes are feeling great. As well as feeling physically refreshed I feel mentally motivated and I’m really looking forward to getting out for a run tomorrow and then to running a 5 mile evening trail race after work on Wednesday!

This week I also have a visit planned with my physio for a pre-Mont Blanc Marathon systems check and acupuncture session and I also have a date with my foam rollers every night of the week – it feels like I have finally really learned what it means to actually listen to my body as opposed to just hearing it and then ignoring it until it screams!

Week 7: 91.2km (90km planned)    Week 8: 41.8km (80km planned)   

Week 9: 65km (Target inc. 8km race)     Week 10: 30km (Target + 42.2km Race)

May 2016

This is the first post I have written for the blog since April 15th when I withdrew from the Brecon Beacons Half Marathon.

Back in April, as I mentioned, I was suffering from writer’s block, depression and a general malaise – I was not particularly happy at all and I decided to take a break from getting my racing year underway and a break from writing as both were just additional stresses and deadlines imposed on a life that already had enough of both!

I pulled myself together towards the end of April and began looking forward to the challenges I have ahead of me in the summer – Mont Blanc Marathon, Lakeland 50 and the TDS. I adjusted my training plan from a huge 30 week block covering all three races in one document and pared it down to 3 documents, one for each race. I also changed my focus from having Lakeland 50 as my A-Race and instead chose to focus on TDS – I figured with MBM and LL50 in my legs and with the mountain racing experience in my brain I could stand to do better than I may have originally anticipated at TDS. Only time will tell and I will still be happy if I can cross the finish line before the cut-off having the feeling that I have pushed hard for however long and left it all on the course. After all, that’s what racing is about. That is why I race.

Week 1 of Mont Blanc Marathon training began in earnest week beginning 18th April and from there I have steadily built up a lot of strength and speed! I decided to mix up my training having spent a lot of the winter months either on the treadmill or running/hiking very muddy trails. Weeks 1 to 3 of MBM training were all road based and Weeks 4 to 6 have focused on road running during the week with longer trail runs on Saturdays and Sundays. I have also ditched my heart rate monitor for this training block which is why my speed has increased quite significantly – I undertake all of my runs entirely on feel and have found that I can comfortably average between 4:30 and 4:40 per km up to (and likely beyond) 30km, over shorter distances (5k, 8k up to 14k) I can comfortably run 4:00-4:10 per km and if I push it during 5 to 12k workouts I can hold 3:45-3:55 pace. So, during Week 5 (beginning 16th May) and Week 6 (beginning 23rd May) I found myself taking down many of my shorter distance PRs that I had held since 2014!

5k – 18:40 (down from 18:47 in 2014)

8k – 28:26 (down from 30:01 in 2014)

10k – 36:54 (down from 37:55 in 2014)

10 Miles – 1:07:50 (down from 1:09:xx in 2014)

HM – 1:33:37 (down from 1:34:09 in 2015)

On the evening I set my new 10k PR I decided to enter a 10k race and found one taking place near my work on the evening of Thursday 26th May. It felt great to get back to racing and although I started with what felt like pretty fresh legs I had to work hard to finish in 6th place in 38:45 – it was a tactical and hard run race over 3 laps of Regent’s Park and even though on the start line I thought I would try for yet another PR I knew within the first 500m that this was a fantasy and I needed to concentrate on the task at hand, give everything I had in the tank and be pleased with the outcome no matter what!

Running the Regent’s Park 10k was exactly the kick start I needed and it reignited my passion for racing – I forgot how much I enjoy pushing myself on tarmac over short distances and as such I entered my local 5k race which takes place the weekend after I return from Mont Blanc Marathon on July 3rd. I ran the 10k in 2012 and finished 12th and then again in 2014 I ran my former PR of 37:54 and finished 7th. I figured I’d have a go at the shorter distance this time around as I have never raced 5k on any surface before.

I have updated my Races page with an updated schedule for this year and also with a provisional plan for 2017. I will expand on my plans for 2017 in another post!

I will wrap up my first attempt at a monthly post with the news that I am now enrolled on a British School of Yoga Hatha teacher training course. It is largely home study and practice with a couple of practical weekends but hopefully within the next 12 months I will be a certified and qualified yoga teacher! Yoga has become as a much of a passion to me as running and I believe regular, daily practice since February (and more ad hoc practice from December 2015) has made me a stronger runner,  a more confident person in general and provides a very low impact stress relief that you don’t find in cross training with weights, on the bike or in the pool.

With that dear reader I shall bid you good day and Happy May. I hope that June treats everybody well and that you all enjoy your running! Until June, adieu!

Peace & Blessings