Running, Life & Adventure in 2020 (Part One)

“If I cease searching, then, woe is me, I am lost. That is how I look at it – keep going, keep going come what may.”Vincent Van Gogh

It is a strange world at the best of times, but it is safe to say that 2020 could not in any way be described as the best of times! Of course, I am referring to the Covid-19 pandemic, the global scourge that only really came to the fore of public life in the UK sometime in the middle of March. The pandemic turned everyone’s life upside down but as this is predominantly a blog about endurance, adventure and running I am going to focus on how running in 2020 has changed.

2020 was supposed to be the year I focused on preparing for a Bob Graham Round attempt in Spring of 2021. It became apparent as Covid rampaged across the world that this was not going to happen. We watched on television in England as Italy and Spain were ravaged – mass deaths, mass graves and lockdowns with ever increasing restrictions – hoping and wishing that Covid-19 wouldn’t make the jump to our shores. It turns out that it had already arrived, and likely sometime in late December or January. It is pretty clear that the UK Government knew this and had decided to unwisely pursue a ‘herd immunity’ strategy, debunked as nonsense across the globe, but followed nonetheless by our government (and then denied when it was clearly failing). As March ground on it was obvious that we would soon be in some form of lockdown or another and then, just like that, there it was – no shopping, no gatherings, outside exercise once a day only and everyone was furloughed, laid off or had to begin working from home. My wife and I were lucky. We were both able to work from home (and we still are) and we have a reasonable garden in which we could exercise and also take breaks in during the working day.

2020 has turned into the year during which I, along with many others, have found ways to adjust and face uncertainty. I am not going to lie, when a global pandemic was declared I was scared – scared of becoming physically unwell but also scared of spiralling into depression and crippling anxiety. I know I wasn’t alone and I think that helped to stave off any spiral at all – it was tough early on with the ever increasing death toll, the terror of the news cycle and the pressure of being in a leadership position at work and having to adjust all of our mental health support operations from face to face, community based support and intervention to 100% remote provision. But I faced all of that with positivity, creativity, hard work and by doing what I could for my local community and for my running community.

I’ve decided the best way I can break down the year so far is to publish this post in 2 parts. This post will be the first part and will cover January to May. The next part that will published sometime in the next few weeks will cover June to September. The second post will include tentative plans for 2021, as we all know the only plans any of us can make at this point are tentative ones!

January

After a successful end to 2019 at the Cheviot Goat I began January in high spirits, feeling fit and healthy ready to take on 2020’s goals with dedication and focus.

January 2020 - looking ahead

January is usually the time when I put together my A goal training plan outlines for the year ahead and look around at races to supplement my training. My summer A-goal was going to be Lakeland 50 – my third time and with a goal of running as close to 10 hours as possible. Then for winter I had almost settled on a goal of either the Hardwolds 80 or Sunrise 83 with a view to running my first 100 in 2021 as part of my ten year ‘runniversary’ celebration.

Supplementary goals were to improve my navigation by doing a course, reading more books and maps themselves and looking at trying to fit in some orienteering style races and LDWA events which would in turn give me a lot more confidence for the Bob Graham Round but also for other similar adventures and races.

January seems like a very, very long time ago and almost another world entirely!

February

I was entered into the Arc 50 which was originally part of my 2019-20 ‘Winter Triple’ – White Rose 30 in November, Cheviot Goat in December, culminating with the Arc in February. Looking back I think the excitement for this one had fizzled out after great performances at White Rose and Goat. My training in December and January lacked the drive and focus of the previous months and I think I was mentally drained and more than likely needed a break. I think it is safe to say that most people who run marathons and ultras regularly find themselves in this position from time to time…and most just push on through thinking it’ll be alright on the day just like I did!

Arc50 - at the start

Alas, the Arc 50 was a DNF. Sitting here writing this I am as annoyed about it as I am still about my 2016 TDS DNF. Both of these races will haunt me until I return to cross the finish line and I do intend to do that at some point.

Back in February I wrote:

The Arc of Attrition 50 did not go at all to plan. I was excited for it until the day itself arrived and then I just was not feeling it at all. I arrived at registration and immediately felt uneasy – I can’t pinpoint what or why but I put my headphones in (with no music playing) just to dull the noise around me. They stayed in until about the 10km point and went back in around 35km so I could listen to Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’ on my way to dropping out at St. Ives.

I got stuck at the start so headed out a lot more slowly than I wanted to. This didn’t do much for my mindset as I was feeling crowded and trying to fight off anxiety. I managed to break away at about 8km with a couple of guys and we started reeling people in – this was probably my favourite part of the day but another curve ball soon came our way around 12km when we took a wrong path and ended up in a field of cows. It took a while for us to find our way back onto the coastal path and we were back to where we started – we lost the places we gained, and more.

Arc50 - wrong turn.

Eventually we moved up to about 16th/17th place…and then took a disastrous wrong turn which put us on a gorse covered sea cliff. The path was razor thin and we’d taken a few people with us – my companion at that point opted for the thin path and I made the stupid decision to direct line and climb up. I cut up my legs and hands pretty badly; slowed to a crawl and nearly slipped off large rocks a few times. My mind was completely shot by the time I got back on track. I started to run solo at this point to where I dropped at 46km.

I could run well, a lot of the course was runnable; I was fuelling correctly and not feeling tired or sick. I just didn’t want it enough. I even stopped enjoying the wonderful and beautiful seascapes! I think I felt trapped having miles of single-track in front and behind, and hemmed in by the sea – I much prefer the expanse of mountain, moor and inland rural trails.

Every cloud has a silver lining – I got to spend the rest of the day with the wife, and I can run on Dartmoor tomorrow!

Every cloud...

The two weeks after the race were not pleasant, I was carrying the DNF blues and feeling a bit forlorn mentally and then I developed a really bad cold. Looking back at my training log and what I wrote at the time (and how I remember feeling) it’s quite possible I was experiencing Covid-like symptoms – I won’t say that I had Covid-19 because there was no testing to be available to make a definitive statement, and there have been no lasting effects, but it is definitely the worst cold I can remember having – fever, all over body aches, lethargy and fatigue, debilitating headaches, a deep and persistent cough – it is one of the only times I’ve taken time off work due to feeling so unwell.

March

March 2020 will be forever remembered by the English, Welsh, Scots and Irish as the month everything started to stop. If anybody listened to the radio or watched the television with any regularity they would have been able to see that Covid-19 was rapidly making its way through Spanish, French and particularly Italian society and was more than likely beginning its full frontal assault on our own.

But with that said, the first two weekends of the month were probably the last ‘normal’ weeks that I remember. These were the weeks immediately prior to daily press briefings, daily death counts, tightening lockdown measures, awful scenes of selfish panic buying and the introduction of mask wearing.

The first weekend of the month I was delighted to take part in my first LDWA (Long Distance Walkers Association) event with my wife, Sarah. In December Sarah said that she would be keen to do something like this together after she enjoyed a 28km walk on our honeymoon in Turkey in September 2019, so we opted for this pretty easy and mostly flat short course route about an hour from home. The event was really enjoyable – low key, great brews, brilliant narrative route description and spot on GPX (for reassurance). My goal was to avoid using anything but the route description and I’m pleased to say I only checked the watch three times where the route really wasn’t obvious.

It was an interesting experience watching the Runner division set off with us – there was an early urge to pick up the pace but then I settled into a good hiking rhythm and forgot about running as they disappeared into the distance. We made really good progress to the half way CP and stopped for our early lunch for 10 minutes before getting underway again. Over the next few kilometres we broke away from two couples who were around us from the start and then we were pretty much on our own until we caught another couple towards the end. The last 4km were tough for both Sarah and I – the Long and Medium courses join here and thoughts of running returned as we both just wanted it to be done by then – we definitely had a hankering for a brew and a sit down!

The weekend after the Hannington Hike I headed up to Church Stretton for a Nav4 Adventure navigation course. It was fantastic fun and I learned a lot. The course was led by Sean Bolland who won the OMM Elite Class in 2007 alongside his brother – Sean was a font of knowledge and full of energy! The course was great as it was just Sea, me and another runner called Rich. My focus was learning how to route select for mountain marathons and with half a mind on the BGR whilst Rich, my training companion for the day, was focused on navigation for the Welsh 1000 sea to summit event. The day started with 3 hours of conversation and tutoring, poring over various maps and talking through various route choices on a Harvey Karrimor Mountain Marathon Elite Course map as well as learning how to use the compass efficiently and correctly.

After light lunch we headed out in the hills. We ran up to the start point of an orienteering race and used the Blue Course map to get around, taking it in turns between Rich and I to navigate between controls. When we reached the final control we switched to a 1:25,000 map and Sean selected random points on the map for us to navigate to, using the best route for speed. I have learned that I need to keep my head in the map once I start moving having taken a bearing or selected a route – many times I drifted off course just because I was so focused on moving forwards. I’d highly recommend a Nav4 Adventure course if you’re looking to improve your confidence with map, compass and route finding. I know I’ll feel much more comfortable when the clag comes down now, or if I find myself a bit lost.

I had hoped that I might be able to secure the learning of this course through experience by entering some Blue and Black course orienteering races and by focusing more on navigation than racing during the Great Lakeland 3 Day but as I mentioned above – March saw all plans for 2020 become null and void and adaptability and resilience became the key words.

The situation started to really turn dire around March 9th and I turned my attention away from running and endurance and towards plans to keep me and Sarah safe and well during the lockdown. My work began to become a lot more stressful than it usually is and that also took my focus and attention away from anything other than getting through each day as it came. I spent the rest of March emergency planning at work and putting together mutual aid resources and networks in my local community after work. On March 23rd it was announced that everybody in the country could only work from home and those that could not would be part of a furlough scheme. Other restrictions were implemented that meant you could only exercise outdoors once a day and I decided then that in the interests of my health and the safety of my wife I would only run for around an hour on local trails each day.

April

Only running the same local loops each day had its drawbacks and this was further compounded when pretty much in one go all of my 2020 races and events were either cancelled or moved to 2021. I know a lot of people found this and have found this aspect of 2020 really difficult to deal with. I had made peace with the idea that this was likely to happen and that I was going to respect the decision of any race organiser who decided to take either option with no argument, no ire and no stress. There are more important things to life than running races. I think this was a major factor in keeping my mental health and wellbeing solid throughout 2020 so far – acceptance of change, and then creativity in the face of that change.

With no races I knew that personally I was going to need to put some physical (and mental) challenges in my endurance calendar and that I would need to create these myself with the resources and space I had available. So I created ‘The Lockdown Loop’ – an 87m circuit of my yard. This came about when I decided one lunch time at work (working from home) that I just needed a walk and some fresh air – a bit of a quandary at the time as I didn’t want to use my daily allowance of outside exercise. I had been using the yard space each morning to do strength exercises and shuttle sprints before work and as I stepped outside I couldn’t see how I could make more of the space. But I took a bit of time walking around the perimeter of the yard and my house, and it became apparent that with some creative gardening and moving of garden furniture (and cars) I could make a workable and runnable loop so I set to doing just that.

By the first weekend in April the loop was trod in from lunch time walking circuits and some heavy duty gardening and so I decided I would set myself the challenge of running a 50km on Good Friday, April 10th. To add a little extra motivation I publicised my idea on Facebook and set-up a fundraising page for Médecins Sans Frontières. Initially I wanted to raise £250 but by the time I’d completed the run I had raised over £500. I felt humbled that so many people donated and actually watched the live feed of me running around in circles in my backyard. The monotony, pain and discomfort quickly faded and before I really knew what was happening I found myself on the Lockdown Loop the following weekend as part of a 12 hour virtual race and continuing to raise funds for Médecins Sans Frontières After both of these events I had raised almost £1000 and on April 19th I thought I had covered 50km and 80km on the loop in 6 and 12 hours respectively.

I say I thought I had covered this because I became aware, through Mark Cockbain’s ‘The Hard Stuff’ Facebook group that other people were also running long in their backyards. I took a look at how they were doing and saw people were actually manually measuring their laps and then manually counting each completed lap to get an accurate distance. Genius! Originally I had been relying only on GPS data and I quickly realised that I had robbed myself of distance – because my loop is so small, and also partially covered by trees the GPS reading would not be accurate. I took multiple measurements with the GPS and it seemed to read about 73m for the loop but when I took a string and tape measure out onto the loop the actual distance turned out to be 87m. With this being the case I locked myself away for a few hours one day and came up with a calculation to account for this variation so I could more accurately estimate the actual distance covered during my 6 and 12 hour lockdown loop outings. So, my 50km actually became 62.22km and my 80km became 90.33km! On reflection it made absolute sense because both of the runs at that point had felt much more difficult than any previous 50 or 80km I’d ever done. The 90.33km I logged in 12 hours was in fact the furthest I had run at that point and that spurred me on to think I could do more…

May

I spent a lot of time in my garden at the end of April perfecting ‘The Lockdown Loop’ and planning a 24 hour run. Initially I set the date for this at May 23rd but during the first week of May I decided I was feeling really fit and really motivated to get it done. So, on May 6th I committed to getting it done that weekend and at 0900hrs on May 8th I found myself taking my first step on what was to be (and still is) my longest ‘time on feet’ adventure.

24 Hours on 'The Lockdown Loop' = 1725 Laps.

When I set off I had in mind a goal of 100 miles in 24 hours, given my previous runs on the loop and my fitness I thought this would be achievable and I was very much on track for this until about 85 miles in when the wheels well and truly fell off! I made regular posts and videos throughout the 24 hours on Facebook as people seemed to take a real interest in what I was up to. I thought I would share those posts here as they are a pretty good telling of the tale.

  • Aid Station Shed set-up [Video]
  • Lap 534 [Video]
  • 666 laps done – “Time to put on some Iron Maiden! Walked the last 46 laps so I could properly digest some food…”
  • 10hr2mins [Video] – “50 miles done and I’m very happy about it!”
  • 1000 laps done – “…The temperature has dropped and it’s allowed me to eat without feeling crap and to move a bit faster…”
  • 100km done – “12 hours, 52 minutes. Having a break for a brew and a bit of cake.”
  • 70 miles [Video] – “…14hrs56min. Enjoying the night!”
  • Lap 1324 – “Second proper rough patch of the day…Onwards into Hour 16…”
  • Lap 1412 [Video] – “Kettle is on. Sufferfest is well underway. Battling the sleep monster since about 0100hrs. Legs just don’t seem to want to move in more than a walking shuffle. Zombie!”
  • 80 miles – “…I’ve found my second, maybe third, wind…”
  • 85 miles – “…time for the strangest breakfast I’ve had in many years. I think the last time I had a Pot Noodle at 0540hrs on a Saturday morning I’d just got back from a rave!”
  • 22 hours [Video] – “Home stretch. Final 2 hours. Feeling absolutely shattered and keep falling asleep while moving! Having to take regular breaks…”
  • 90 miles – “…Can’t wait to take my shoes off!”
  • 24 hours – “All done at 24 Hours. 93.25mi / 150.07km…”
  • Thank you to all who donated, and how the money will be used by Médecins Sans Frontières.

I thoroughly enjoyed pushing myself on each of ‘The Lockdown Loop’ outings. I literally found the edge of my abilities the 24 hours and managed to find a way to push that edge a little further. I am now really excited at the prospect of racing a 100 miler in the near future and running on the loop opened my eyes to the fun and challenge of self-supported longer challenges.

Towards the end of May lockdown restrictions were starting to roll back and the country was gradually opening up again. I viewed this with cautious optimism and Sarah and I began looking to arrange some staycations. I also began looking at the possibility of potentially running a blind Bob Graham Round with a friend who had completed the circuit before and who has a lot of experience supporting others on the route…but that will be covered in Part Two of this post which will be coming to a screen near you in the next few weeks.

The Cheviot Goat 2019

I signed up for the Goat in January of this year with the intention of building up to it over the next 11 months. I got off to a poor start when the Dartmoor Trail Marathon was cancelled due to heavy snow in February, then in March I headed to the moors outside of Burnley for the West Pennine Ultra only to have a panic attack before even reaching race HQ. That set the scene to me questioning my ability to race at all in 2019, let alone the Cheviot Goat. I was signed up for the South Downs Way and North Downs Way 50 milers but withdrew from both before the date arrived in April and May respectively and then decided I would switch my focus from trail and ultra, to road and marathons. My reasoning was simple, maybe I needed a change, maybe absence from trail and ultra would make the heart grow fonder. At this point I thought I probably wouldn’t run the Goat.

To cut a long story short, I struggled through 16 weeks of not very enjoyable road marathon training yearning for the trails again and then struggled through the Hull Marathon to finish in 3:33 – my slowest of the four road marathons I’ve done!

Immediately after finishing I began to think of the Goat. I calculated I had enough time, enthusiasm and energy to prepare for the race and the only goal I aimed for was to finish – I doubted I had enough trail time and time on feet over the year for any more than that! I put together a 10 week training plan, entered the White Rose Ultra 30 as a preparation race and threw myself into training with a smile. I kept a weekly log of my training on Instagram and you can see pictures and write ups for each week here: 12345678910.

As race day approached I felt ready and I would say feeling as fit as I ever had for any previous ultra. I drove up to Alnwick on the Friday, registered and then settled in at the Youth Hostel for a pretty restless night – a few hours sleep at best, likely due to nerves and an alarm set for 0340hrs to enable me to eat a decent breakfast and drive to race HQ for the 0600hrs start.

On arrival at Race HQ I felt really calm which is unusual as I am usually a ball of nervous energy before a race. I accepted the calm and took to admiring the clear sky and the stars whilst lining up for the toilet! The course was to be run in reverse, meaning the highest fells would be covered first in the pre-dawn. I think the organisers made a great choice here as the other option they had considered was to shorten the course due to anticipated gale force winds, driving rain and low temperatures forecast for around 1800hrs on race day. I’m glad to say that I got over the line before the worst of the weather, but there was still plenty of that to contend with during my own race.

Waiting for the start.

I will cut here to the fact that I far exceeded my goals and expectation of (a) just finishing, (b) covering the distance in 14 or 15 hours and (c) finishing in the top 100. I covered the 55 miles and 3000+m of ascent in 12 hours 36 minutes and was 18th man, 20th overall. The 10 weeks of focused training really paid off!

I am going to do my best to break this race report down into the map tiles from the course map provided at registration – I stopped looking at/using my watch after about 50km as it didn’t seem to be tracking the correct distance and kept veering away from the GPX track I was using. Because of that issue I found myself having to rely on my not too fantastic map reading skills for quite a bit of the route! Considering the terrain, weather and darkness I’m pleased to say I only got lost once and went off track by about 200m downhill which thankfully I noticed before continuing through a gate. I would also like to thank Max Wilkinson and Elaine Bisson for their help with navigating – both have completed the Bob Graham round, Max the Paddy Buckley too and Elaine is currently training for the Spine Challenger so good company to keep for most of the race.

As the course was run in reverse you will see that I will be going through the map tiles from 6 to 1.

TILE 1 (6)

I lined up at the start with a few guys from Bedfordshire. We had been following each other’s Goat training on Strava over the weeks and this was the first time we met. I’m pleased to say that Chris Caimino, Greg Baker and James Adams all finished the race.

We set off into the darkness and I didn’t realise I was quite near the front from the off. I got into a rhythm quickly as the first couple of kilometres were on pretty reasonable and runnable ground. The route started to climb shortly after and the ground became rougher and boggier as the kilometres ticked by. Climbing up to Cunyan Crags was great and I took a moment to look back at the lightening sky as the sun rose behind a trail of headtorches. We carried on from there along the top of Dunmoor Hill and was startled by a fairly large deer that darted in front of a group of us – the first fright of the day as it came from nowhere and disappeared into the darkness as quickly as it appeared.

Sunrise

Descending Dunmoor was interesting as it was the first real taste of very cold, watery bog. This continued pretty much to a greater or lesser degree of depth and cold throughout the route! Climbing up to Hedgehope Hill came next and this was the first real bite of the cold. The higher we went the more the fog closed in and the wind picked up. It was an eerie experience with the fog glowing in the sunset, softening the shapes of runners behind and in front. It was a welcome distraction from freezing cold, soaking wet feet so early in the race – I questioned my choice of GTX shoes at this point but on balance I’m glad I went with them as they drained quickly, and retained warmth.

TILE 2 (5)

This section of the course had plenty to offer. Descending from Hedgehope Hill with a bit of running rhythm was great but didn’t last long as we entered some of the deepest and stickiest bogs of the day towards the bottom and then up Comb Fell, across to Cairn Hill. It was towards the bottom of Hedgehope that I unexpectedly found myself catching up with Nicky Spinks! I knew I must be keeping a decent pace if Nicky was there and I had a brief thought that I might have gone off a bit too quick – it was the first and only time I thought that during the day and from this point onwards, until just before Barrowburn and the halfway point I was never too far from her. I think it really helped motivation wise to keep to the decent pace she was setting and feeling comfortable with it too.

It’s worth mentioning here the uniqueness of Comb Fell itself. I don’t think my description will do it justice but the place had its own feeling, a presence if you will. The vegetation seemed different to everything before it, and everything after it and the footing on the way up was also very different to anything else of the course – loose rock, not quite scree and if my memory serves well it was of a reddish colour (I could be wrong though). From the top of Cairn Hill and the marshall point there we hit the granite flagstones of the Pennine Way and were sent on an out and back jaunt over to the Trig Point that marks The Cheviot – the highest point in the surrounding hills. It was very windy, wet and cold up there and again I noticed that the runners coming back from the Trig looked pretty fast. My mind said ‘This bodes well, keep on keeping on!’. So I did. I didn’t hang around at the Trig, I did a lap of it and then headed back the way I came to a welcome downhill section onto the England/Scotland border ridge and some fine miles of running mostly on granite flag stones towards Windy Gyle and my first water refill of the day. The views along the Border Ridge, when the fog parted or lifted for a time were stunning – Scotland was calling but the route wouldn’t allow a visit. Approaching Windy Gyle I took note of the time and took stock of my food intake. I was pleased to see that it was around 0900/0930 and I had eaten a few Shot Bloks. By my reckoning it was time for my second breakfast climbing up to the water station, so I ate my first rice cake and marmite sandwich. I took a bit of time at the water butt to refill one bottle and then cracked on.

Worth a note here, I mentioned Max Wilkinson earlier in the post and I exchanged our first words of the day running along the flagstones and from this point onwards he was never too far away. This was also the section where Elaine Bisson came into view. Max was pretty much running on the shoulder of Nicky Spinks at this point with me about a hundred metres back and Elaine between 50 and 100 metres back from there. We didn’t really start running together as a proper group of three until after Barrowburn.

TILE 3 (4)

This section of the course was pretty tough for me. I started to lag behind the group in front but and this was the first time during the day where I felt like I was in danger of falling into no-man’s land with the group in front pulling away and nobody visible behind.  Although the footing was pretty good thanks to the granite flagstones along the border ridge. I soaked my feet through again at some point which seemed to throw my mental game off slightly. I spent about an hour moaning at myself about wet, cold feet and how they wouldn’t get any better the later and colder it got. Thankfully this thought pattern didn’t resurface again and my feet did eventually warm up. Once we turned away from the border and off the flagstones my energy seemed to pick up and my mind quietened enough for me to focus on catching up with, and keeping up with the group in front that included Nicky Spinks, Max and Elaine.

I put in a surprisingly sustained surge over the rough ground of Black Halls and Deal’s Hill along Border County Ride past Blindburn and then onto the road section leading into Barrowburn. I ran most of the road section before slowing with about a kilometre to go to the aid station. It was definitely time for lunch so I got my piccalilli, lettuce and tomato roll from the front pouch of my pack and ate it slowly washing down each bite with a swig of water – this was a conscious decision as I wanted to eat and drink on the move, I was afraid of being lulled into the comfortable and warm surroundings of Barrowburn! I got into Barrowburn after 5 hours and 45 minutes or so which was well ahead of my very loose plan. I knew I was on for a decent second half as long as I didn’t faff about. I was handed my grab bag and went inside to get a quick cup of vegetable soup and a small cup of tea – before consuming those I restocked my pack with another rice cake and marmite sandwich, my second piccalilli roll and my second pack of Shot Bloks. Whilst I consumed my soup a very helpful volunteer refilled one of my water bottles and then it was time to go.

TILE 4 (3)

The climb out of Barrowburn was something of a shock. I wasn’t expecting such a steep and sustained effort after being lulled into mental quietude for about 15 minutes at Barrowburn. After about 5 minutes of hiking I began to enjoy myself again. I do love a good hill climb, after all which was a good thing because in relatively quick succession came Shillhope Law, Inner Hill, Shillmoor and then Copper Snout. It was during this section of climbing that Elaine, Max and I began to chat to each other a bit more and to share the navigation a bit. Coming off Copper Snout down to Wholehope Knowe I could see that a dirt road was leading in to the water station.

Max & Elaine

I have to say that I don’t really remember too much about this part of the route apart from I enjoyed the views into Kidland Forest. The ground was much firmer in this section and the climbs seemed to be gentler after the water station. What I know now, and didn’t notice at the time, was that the weather was starting to close in and some seriously dense fog was about to settle over this part of the route and the next. I know my mind started to wander into the ‘how far is there to go territory’ on the way up The Dodd – my watch was saying 20km remaining which was frustrating me as I knew that wasn’t true at all, Max confirmed it was more like 28 to 30km. Little did I know at this point but the run across Puncherton Hill to Wether Cairn would really start to test me as we headed into the penultimate section.

TILE 5 (2)

This section of the route, without doubt, was the hardest and most difficult for me. From Wether Cairn all the way to Bloodybush Edge I was running along with only a glimpse of Max and Elaine through the fog in front.  At Cushat Law I switched my watch to the clock face and locked it, from here I did my best not to look at it unless absolutely necessary for navigation assistance – the distance was well off and that was irritating me and increasing my agitation at not being able to cover the ground as quickly as I wanted to!

The fog was extremely dense and the temperature dropped significantly. The ground underfoot was reminiscent of the early stages at Hedgehope and I could sense that rain wasn’t fair off. I began to feel real fear for the first time ever in a race. I was struggling to navigate properly in the fog, particularly off the back of Wether Cairn and up to Cushat Law – I lost sight of Max and Elaine and quickly realised I they had been my navigational reassurance. I could see nobody behind me. So, whenever the smallest opportunity to run presented itself I picked up the pace and brought the guys back into view. I didn’t get to within speaking distance of them until just before the marshal point at Bloodybush Edge and to do so I rolled each of my ankles once and went thigh deep into bog at one point before scrambling free and continuing apace. I am so glad I put in that effort instead of slowing down to hike it through the fog as I am not sure I’d have been able to find the motivation to keep slogging on past Bloodybush on my own!

After the marshal point we ran, hiked and waded downhill through more bog and into yet more bog. I think all of us were suffering at this point with the terrible footing, no rhythm and then the unwelcome arrival of cold rain. We slogged through and I sank again to my thigh and I have to say by this point I didn’t really care about cold, wet feet because everything was cold and wet. I started to tire as we approached the welcome respite of Salter’s Road so I dropped back a little and began to eat my second and final piccalilli roll – I didn’t care that the bread was damp and my gloves were covered in bog and I enjoyed every bite. Just as I finished it I looked up to see Max alight onto Salter’s road, throw his arms in the air and exclaim ‘A ROAD!’, I tried to start into a run and then fell almost flat on my face. I laughed at my misfortune, got straight up and waded/stomped to something akin to a road – a rock and gravel track was most welcome after the hell of the bogs!

Alas, it didn’t last long and we plunged off the ‘road’ and back into the bogs. No surprise there, I’m sure. I put my head down, hood up and mitts on and trudged up Nagshead Knowe. I remember this section quite vividly as it is one of the bleakest vistas I have ever seen; desolate is the best description for it. Deep bog, heavy fog, the patter of cold rain on cold skin and material and the knowledge there is still so far to go, still some hills to climb. I both loved it, and hated it but I knew I was about to turn onto the final tile of the map sheet. Towards the end of this section, just before the water station, my headtorch came back out and darkness quickly enveloped the surrounding fells.

It felt good to run on this section as we got off Nagshead Knowe and saw the lights of the water station ahead. We were all pretty knackered at this point and I think this is what led to a false hope taking over! As we approached the marshal point Max said ‘I reckon there’s only about 6 miles to go mate’ – this elicited a statement of love and joy from me. Alas, there was more like 16km to go but the three us picked up our pace!

TILE 6 (1)

The final section of the reverse course is definitely the most runnable – a mixture of farmland, gravel/rocky jeep track and the occasional bit of slightly boggy ground. I remember running and fast hiking uphill to Little Dod and feeling ecstatic that we were quite possibly not far from Ingram.

We stopped on the approach to the farm at Ewarty Shank so Elaine could change the power pack on her headtorch and then Max dropped the bombshell that he’d actually miscalculated back at the previous marshal point. It was now, at this point, we actually had 10km to go. Honestly, I surprised myself at how well I took this news! I just shrugged it off, laughed and said ‘Well at least we just had a decent section pushing on’. Then we pushed on some more!

This final section is a bit of a blur really. My most vivid memories of this section are climbing over gates – not the easiest thing to do after 50 miles of running. It was at some point over the last 5km that a person appeared from behind us, putting in a real effort. All I saw of the guy was his headtorch bobbing further and further away into the distance until he was gone. With around 4km to go I had to ask Elaine to repay the favour and stop to help me change my headtorch battery – this was much more difficult than I had expected as I realised I couldn’t feel my fingers, I got it done reasonably quickly and we carried on. Max dropped back here as his ITB was causing some difficulty and he encouraged Elaine and I to push on. We did so reluctantly but also, wholeheartedly – the finish was near! Somewhere around Lumsden Hill Elaine and I took a wrong turn and headed downhill to a gate for about 200m – thankfully we both had a realisation that we weren’t on course and quickly turned and headed back uphill. Then, bobbing towards us in the darkness came a headtorch – it rounded the corner in front of us and Elaine called out to see if it was Max. It was! It looked as though we might finish as a group. With 3km to go I began to feel pretty sleepy, Max was struggling with his ITB and so Elaine pushed on to finish ahead of us by about 6 minutes and as second lady, 18th overall.

Coming down the track towards the finish line with Max we had a chat and were running it in fairly sedately. Then Max asked if there was anybody behind us as we had both said we wouldn’t want to be overtaken with a mile to go. I took a quick look back and lo and behold two head torches appeared in the darkness – that was enough for us both to pick up the pace. We climbed the last gate with about 600m to go and I pushed on into the finish with Max not far behind.

It was great to get into Ingram Café to applause, warmth and friendly faces. I waited for Max and then we both went and sat with Elaine to catch up over soup, tea, coke and more tea! Also sitting with us was none other than John Kelly so I felt a bit out of my league to say the least. We all talked about racing and adventures and by the time I got up to go I had already set my mind on a Bob Graham Round in the near future!

It is certainly fair to say that the Cheviot Goat was the most difficult and challenging race I’ve taken in part in to date. It is also fair to say that it was extremely well run and the organisation was spot on – the marshal’s were great and they must be made of strong stuff to be camped out in tents on the highest parts of the course. Would I do this one again? No. Well, maybe. In fact, probably, at some point as I would like to see how I’d fair with traditional route.

As I mentioned earlier in this post, I exceeded my goals and I am proud of the effort. My description of the race on TrainingPeaks when I signed up read:

“A 55 mile hike, run and slog through the dark and blustery Cheviot hills in winter. Certainly my toughest ultra to date with only 1 checkpoint at half way and no course markings. I’ll be happy just to finish this one within the cut-off. Anything under 17 hours will be a massive achievement.”

55 Miles, 3000+m, 12h36m35s, 20th overall.

Why?

People always ask ‘Why?’ when they find out I like to run ultras and train six days a week. Every runner is asked the same question by none runners and every runner has a different answer. For many years I have considered writing this post to add to the ‘About Me’ section on ’26.2 & Beyond’ but I have always held back doing so as I wondered about the value of sharing what I am about to write.

For me, the value is in the writing itself and for others I hope the value will be inspiration because really this post is aimed at everybody who has struggled, or who is struggling, with life for any number of reasons. This post will go to show that although life will never perfect, it is always possible to change – change the way you think, change the way you behave, change what you do, change where you are.

I started to run in April 2011:

“It made me feel alive again and gave me the time and space to think some things through…Running changed my life and saved me from myself! It has changed my outlook on life…it has changed the way I approach adversity…”

A few people who have read that have asked what I was thinking through and have asked why I felt I needed to save myself from myself. The people I meet and who ask me ‘Why?’ have the answer to this and now I am going to write it down so that anybody else who is interested will know why I run, why I love to train, why I love to race and why this blog exists.

April 2011 was when I reached the end of a long, slow journey of self-destruction. This came as a surprise to some people when I let it be known but in April 2011 I really felt my life was unravelling and that I was losing control of the direction I was going. At the time I was nearing the end of a Masters in Social Work and I was almost finished with my final Social Work placement in Child Protection – I hated it. I hated the fact I was on the verge of becoming a statutory social worker, I hated the fact I had to see the suffering of children and families almost every day and I hated the fact that I really didn’t feel that the job I was doing was making any real, lasting and positive change to the lives of the children and families on my caseload. I also hated the fact I felt like a massive hypocrite.

A hypocrite because for the years prior to 2011 I had taken a lot of drugs, drank a steady stream of alcohol and smoked unrelenting amounts of cigarettes. Whilst telling mothers, fathers and families to cease and desist with their damaging behaviours I was thinking in the back of my mind about getting out of there so I could have a cigarette. Either that or I  was cringing inside with the knowledge that as soon as I clocked off I would be heading to the off-license to buy 4 to 6 cans of lager or Guinness – one or two of which I would drink on the long train journey home. I would be cringing with the knowledge that as soon as I got through the front door the first thing I would do would be to roll a joint and, if the feeling took me, make a few calls and arrange a night in the pub with the possibility of a line or two (or three, or four…) of cocaine.

I spent most of my life from 2004 to 2011 living for the weekend and by 2009 the weekend had started to encroach into my week. From 2001, right up to August 2012 I smoked cannabis every, single day. Maybe missing a few here and there for one reason or another, but never with a prolonged break. I eventually stopped smoking cannabis altogether on December 26th 2013.

I remember the first time I took cocaine, at a house party in 2004. The first time I took cocaine I remember thinking that this could be dangerous! It felt good, I felt more engaged with everybody around me – I remember the feeling I had when it wore off and it was early in the morning, I remember knowing that it was dangerous at that point because I thought about getting some more. I held off that time. Subsequent times, well, I didn’t. By the time April 2011 arrived it wasn’t unusual to have a ‘cheeky line or two’ at home, with friends (and sadly, sometimes alone), in the middle of the week. I stopped taking cocaine in January 2012.

I remember the first time I took ecstasy, after a night out at university in 2004. I was scared. By this point I’d already tried cocaine but for some reason, ecstasy was the scarier drug for me. I think it was probably because of the exposure to the news in the late 90s when a young girl died from taking too much. The fear wasn’t strong enough to overpower whatever urge took me that evening though and after 20 minutes I ‘came up’ for the first time. I don’t really remember much but I do remember sitting really close up to my friend’s stereo because to me, the music was the best thing I’d ever heard. I also wanted to hug everybody. I felt connected to everybody. I didn’t feel anxious, or worried, or fearful. Ecstasy and I stayed friends for quite a while after that. The last time I ‘took a pill’ was some time in 2010 because by then it had gone from being a warming, connecting drug to something that I felt was ripping my soul to shreds for days after the initial ‘come down’.

From 2004 until 2010 I tried ketamine, MDMA (the powdered, active ingredient of ecstasy), I had ‘a thing’ with speed for about a year in 2005, I accidentally took acid once which was a horrific experience, I dabbled with MKat for a while (a synthetic high meant to replicate the effects of cocaine – it didn’t), I tried Spice and I’ve tried other synthetics. I am just so thankful that I managed to avoid heroin and crack. I am also thankful that I managed to ‘come back’ from my horrendous acid trip in 2007.

I grew up around people taking cocaine and ecstasy; I grew up around excessive drinking. I didn’t bat an eyelid at it all, to me it was normal. With this being the case I didn’t think I had a problem. Until the problem became a problem.

Not for the first time, in 2011 I found that I was losing sight of my studies. I was losing control of my finances and I didn’t care about much else aside from getting a drink and smoking a joint. I didn’t want to think and I didn’t really want (I didn’t feel as if I could sometimes) to converse with people unless I was high, stoned or drunk. Or a combination of the three.

The first time this happened was towards the end of 2005 when I was suspended from my undergraduate degree for failing to keep up with the work and for being an absolute reprobate on campus. I left campus with my head hanging in shame and retreated to a less than happy and stable environment living with my Mum and her abusive partner – at the time both were deep in the throes of alcohol addiction and it was a very difficult environment in which to gather myself together, do the work I needed to do to get back to university and to fight off depression and anxiety. I managed it though. But I didn’t learn a lesson. I carried on smoking cannabis, I carried on drinking pretty much every day and I carried on taking cocaine and ecstasy even after I was allowed to return to finish my undergraduate degree.

On April 1st 2011, I went to my place of work where I was due to meet with my Masters of Social Worker supervisor to discuss my progress and to outline what I needed to do to complete my placement successfully. I wasn’t exactly a shining example of a Student Social Worker and during this meeting it hit me that the amount of work I had to do, and the 30 days in which I had to do it, would be nigh on impossible for me to complete in the state I was in. Instead of opening up about how I felt and what was going on outside of work and education I just quit. Right there, in the meeting, I threw up my hands and said “Fuck it. I can’t go on. It’s bullshit and I’m not doing it anymore.” I picked up my bag, walked out and went to my desk. I emptied the desk into my bag. I know I had tears running down my face at this point and I remember a strong sense of panic in my chest as I did this but I rebuffed any approach from colleagues by muttering swear words and banging my desk drawer shut – I walked out, shouted “See ya” and then went and sat on the wall outside smoking cigarette and wondering where my life was about to go. A few sympathetic colleagues who knew what I was going through came out and shared a cigarette – I said goodbye to them and walked to the off-license.

I’m not sure what happened after that. April 1st that year was a Friday so I know that I went out. I’m just not sure when I came back. At some point either that weekend or early the following week I know I told my friend who I was living with that I’d quit my degree and that the money I relied on to pay the rent would be no more because of that fact. I know that because what my friend did with this news was amazing.

Through my haze in the following weeks I resumed communication with my university who by this point had realised things were not all they had seemed. I confided in them what was going on with my Mum, my finances, my depression and a lot of other things that had built up and plagued me since my school days. They gave me a reprieve and told me I would be able to return to a Masters programme once I had put my house in order. I thank them for that because in October of 2011 I returned to complete not an MSc in Social Work, but an MSc in Social Studies writing my thesis on the positive influence of outdoor activity and education on children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties.

But, I digress. Why do I run? Well, I run because of what my friend did with the news I was flat broke, that I’d walked out of my degree and that I didn’t really care about that at the time. My friend decided that action was required on my part and that I needed some sort of catalyst to wake me from my malaise and to show me there was more to life than drink, drugs and worry. He subsequently bough us two plane tickets to Switzerland. He walked into my room at some point during that April and said words to the effect of:

“Get your shit together because you owe me a return plane ticket to Switzerland, half the cost of a mountain guide and half the cost of our accommodation. We’re off to climb a mountain or two.”

My response:

“What?! How am I supposed to do that. I can’t climb a mountain. I can’t even pay the rent. How can I pay for a trip to Switzerland?”

His reply:

“Get up, get out of the house and get to work. You’ll figure it out.”

My response to this was not immediate. I sat there dumbstruck for about two days before I did anything. The plane ticket said I had until September 11th to get fit, get a job and get my house in order. The first thing I did, after rolling a joint and opening a can of beer, was to go online and sign up to a recruitment agency. The next thing I did was type into Google ‘How do you climb a mountain’ – this led me into a world of information and adventure but basically what I learned is that I needed, first and foremost, to get fit! I looked at how to do that. Squats, push-ups, sit-ups – fine I can do all of that. Running?! Okay. This is going to be tough. I pulled out an old pair of shorts and a t-shirt and put on some normal trainers, put all of them on and felt ridiculous. What was I to do now? Well, pretty similar to what my friend said really: “Get up, get out of the house, get to work and figure it out.” That first run was more of a sprint, stop, feel like crap, jog, stop, feel like crap, jog, walk home – it was about 2km and it took 40 minutes. When I got back home I was not happy! I went for a shower and by the time I got out of the shower I felt energised, I felt happy and I wondered if there might not be something more to this running thing. I went again the next day and pretty much every day thereafter until flying to Switzerland. It was never easy during those first months, it was rarely enjoyable but it was something else and that something else was better than anything else I had.

To cut a long story short by May 1st I’d gotten two part time jobs. By the end of May I’d gotten a pair of running shoes. By the end of June I’d paid for half of my plane fare. By the end of July I’d taken up swimming and meditation and paid my air fare. By the end of August I’d been lifting weights, doing sit-ups, squats and press-ups every day for two months and by the end of September and been to Switzerland and back. By the end of October I was back at university attending lectures and by January 2012 I had cut down my drinking and cannabis use significantly and I’d given up cocaine. In May 2012 I ran my first ever race and then June 2012 I ran my first ever half marathon. On July 1st I ran a local road race, finished 12th and by this point I knew I was a runner. By the end of July I’d handed in my MSc thesis and by the end of August I’d graduated. From there I never looked back. I kept on keeping on! By the end of 2013 I had cut back my cigarette smoking significantly, I was (and remain) drug free and I found my way into a career path I wanted to be on. By March 2014 I had given up smoking completely.

From May 2011 to March 2014 I radically changed my outlook on life, I radically changed the way I approached adversity and I learned a lot about myself and about my relationship with addiction. The learning and adaptation continues. In January 2014 I became vegetarian, in January 2017 I became vegan and then in July I stopped drinking and became tee-total. I’m not saying life is perfect – that’s impossible. I will always have an ongoing fight with depression and anxiety but the tools I have at my disposal to take on that fight are far more effective than ever they used to be. I love life now and that is not something I could have ever said with confidence or conviction until recently.

Changing your life for the better starts with one small step and requires perseverance, patience and commitment but it is possible. My journey is one of so many others I can point to in the world of ultra running, triathlon and endurance sport. If you are reading this and you feel you are in a similar position to that of me in April 2011, reach out and contact me. You will have to walk your own path, and find your own way, but I am happy to help you start to consider how you might start the walk.

So there you have it. That is why I run. It is also why I swim, cycle, hike, orienteer, lift weights, follow a yoga practice, do Pilates, meditate and generally infuse my life with health and movement!

[I’d just like to add that my Mum is in full abstinent recovery and has been clean for almost 3 years at the time of writing. Go Mum!]

Time is precious, use it wisely.

It’s been a while, a long while. A long while indeed since I wrote a blog post, finished an ultra, practiced yoga regularly, or just felt like myself.

The reasons are many and varied: a DNF at TDS started the downhill trend in my general feeling of wellbeing, a new job in November with some pretty big responsibilities, a further ultra DNF at Country to Capital and then moving in with my [wonderful] girlfriend a week later all conspired to make me feel quite anxious. New routines, new responsibilities, a new found running vulnerability and a new home town!

For about the last month I’ve started to come around again and to feel like myself. I have started practicing yoga regularly again, albeit at home as I have been unable to shake the anxiety that came from nowhere relating to going to yoga classes – it’s a start. A good start too as I’m feeling a lot more grounded, my body and mind feel stronger and I believe it’s helped me to get back to running form.

I have still yet to finish an ultra, haven’t done since July last year but I did enter two after TDS: Country to Capital in January which I DNF’ed due to shot quads and then a DNS at TransGranCanaria Advanced in February due to aforementioned trashed quads messing up my training. However, for about a month now I have been training regularly and gradually increasing my weekly mileage from around 3 post-Country to Capital to currently around 40 – I’m aiming to hit a peak week of 80-90km before my next ultra which is in May. The return to regular running – in addition to what is now a weekly hike and daily yoga – put me in the frame of mind where I felt I could possibly finish a race over 10 miles so I entered a local 16 mile trail race this Saturday. Lo and behold, I finished. In fact, I did quite well considering everything that’s happened since my DNF at TDS back in August! I was aiming for a 2:15 finish, if the day was good, a 2:30 or ‘just a finish’ if things conspired against me. I finished in 26th place from 241 runners in 2:12 and I felt really good afterwards – I definitely held myself back which bodes well for the rest of this year if I can keep my consistency.

Over the past month I’ve also started to look at how I spend my time. I wanted to find out what I could do differently to stay motivated and more positive for longer periods. I wanted to find a way to try to stave off the anxiety that creeps up occasionally and to fight the depression that seems to set in for a couple of months each year. With this in mind I have taken the decision to stop offering my services as a running coach – Flowers Endurance is no more. On close inspection the venture added undue stress and pressure to my life without really adding anything positive be that in terms of income for myself or outcomes for my [very small] client base. I used to cram my weekly training plan creation into a Sunday night and Monday’s after work would be spent adjusting these, e-mailing clients and generally feeling a bit pushed for time. Instead Sunday’s are now spent hiking with Sarah and I am looking to volunteer my time on Monday evenings to a local Cub Scout group as I feel it’s a great opportunity to instil a love of the outdoors, and the skills required to enjoy it to the maximum, into a younger generation.

As I mentioned above, the Sunday hikes with Sarah have added to my motivation and positivity. I know that should I become injured again and unable to run, I should at least be able to hike and explore on foot, albeit in a slower and more genteel fashion! The hikes that we go on usually follow circular routes as Sarah purchased the Ordnance Survey Pathfinder guide for Bedfordshire & Hertfordshire as we moved to the border of these counties – I’m so glad she did because that book really started to pull me back from the brink of a deep depression and got me back outside! So, at present we follow the basic maps and the route descriptions but in the future we are looking to buy area maps and to start planning and navigating our own routes. For me, this means I can start working towards the goal of running the 10Peaks double next year! The 10Peaks Lake District is in June and requires competitors to visit the 10 highest summits in the Lake District, covering about 75km with 5600m of ascent. The 10Peaks Brecon Beacons follows in September and requires competitors to visit the summit of the 10 highest peaks in the Brecons covering around 89km with 4800m of ascent. For Sarah this means feeling more comfortable when we visit Dartmoor in April and the Southern Highlands of Scotland in August!

So I’ve started to feel like me again. Yoga’s back, running is back and I’m settled into my new living arrangements but the writing has not been with me since late last year. I can’t put my finger on why but it’s probably the build-up of anxiety and the fact that I really haven’t made time for it due to getting used to all the new things happening. I’m writing these words today though, because I wanted to at least make a start at getting back to doing something else that I love. But the reason I’m writing right now is mostly because the inspiration was sparked earlier this week when the world lost a great writer, and a great friend, who unfortunately is no longer with us. Dan Lucas.

Dan was a proper writer. A journalist. A sports writer for The Guardian covering rugby union and cricket (I always told him I’d read more of his stuff if he’d pay at least a bit of attention to rugby league). A music writer for Drowned in Sound, Louder than War and other great independent music blogs. What I write, and what  a lot of us bloggers write is pretty much stream of consciousness but what Dan wrote was heartfelt, witty, knowledgeable, entertaining and regularly sparked debate amongst peers, friends and fans of his writing! I think I’ll leave that there because whatever else I could write wouldn’t do Dan justice. I guess that’s goodbye sir – I’ll miss the random meetings for a pint here and there and I’ll miss your outlook on life.

“Maybe, just once, someone will call me ‘Sir’ without adding, ‘You’re making a scene.’” – Homer J. Simpson

Here’s to more writing, more yoga, more running and more exploring. Time is precious, use it wisely.

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

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!

 

CTS Dorset Ultra, December 5th 2015

My final race of 2015 turned out to be both amazing, awful, beautiful and brutal! EnduranceLife sure know how to put on a tough race. They organise their courses according to ‘severity’: (2) Moderate, (3) Strenuous, (4) Severe and (5) Extreme – this one was billed as ‘Extreme’ and it lived up to it for sure.

I arrived the afternoon before the race into the very picturesque village of West Lulworth. The wind was gusting at about 35/40mph when I arrived but it wasn’t so noticeable as the cottage I was staying in was in a cove and sheltered by the hills I was due to run the next day. As the day wore on and evening approached the wind began to pick up quite significantly and was rattling the doors and windows of the cottage. All of us knew that we would be in for a tough day on an exposed course the next day. By the time I was heading to sleep I was already glad that I decided to enter the 54km race instead of the 74km!

L-R: Alan (74k), Adrien (74k), Laura (54k), Me, Romain (Mara), Matthieu (74k), Christina (HM), David (74k)

L-R: Alan (74k), Adrien (74k), Laura (54k), Me, Romain (Mara), Matthieu (74k), Christina (HM), David (74k)

The morning saw all 8 of us up before sunrise. It’s the first time I’ve really left my pre-race comfort zone staying with so many other people beforehand but I have to say it was great fun and I think it made me a little more relaxed to know some of the people I was lining up to start with. I still managed to stick to most of pre-race rituals but they just didn’t feel so important! By the time the race briefing finished at 0805hrs I was buzzing and ready to get a move on up the first big climb of the day so I could get down on the other side to get my first ever up close view of Durdle Door!

Durdle Door

Durdle Door

I wanted to stick to a heart rate based plan which I knew would be difficult because of the hills. I planned to max out at 170bpm tops on cresting any major climbs and then to cruise the early downhills to recover the heart rate into an aerobic zone whilst keeping up to the aerobic level on any gentle descents or flat sections. Later on in the race, over the final 10km or so, I had planned to run or hike everything as hard as possible in a bid to gap anybody behind me and close in on anybody in front. The plan fell apart fairly early on! For the first 10km I ran with my friend Adrien who was racing the 74km event – we had the same kind of race plan for the early stages but after I stopped to refill my Tailwind bottle at the 10km check point he moved ahead and I didn’t catch him again. He finished 9th in the 74k so great work there – he said he felt good heading out of CP1 and decided to push on and push on he did!

Feeling strong somewhere around 25/26km.

Feeling strong somewhere around 25/26km.

I broke with my plan heading out of CP1 because I was also feeling pretty good and pretty solid. I ran a very strong section from 10km to around 21/22km and then decided to ease off a little because I knew that from this section up to around the 44km  point the course would have its steepest climbs and descents and would be most exposed. Heading into the second part of the course I was confident enough. My strategy came back into play and I was doing well keeping my heart rate fairly level. I hadn’t lost any places for quite some time and hadn’t seen any 54k runners ahead for a while either. In hindsight I should have noticed around the 25km mark that I had started to take a dislike to the taste of my ‘unflavoured’ Tailwind mix and instead was solely relying on my plain water bottle. It became very apparent that I was under fuelled when I came to a rare sheltered and flat, runnable section at the 28 to 30km mark. I just could not summon the energy to put in a strong effort and I had to fight a mental battle to keep moving at even a solid hike. It was at this point other 54k runners started to pass me – not many at first but by the time I got out of my long, dark, deep decline at 38km I must have been passed by at least 10 or 12 people.

The long, dark tunnel of despair kicked in at 31km as I was ascending a steep uneven stepped section. I over reached my left leg and pulled a muscle. I thought my race was over as I tried to carry on but found the spasm to be so strong I had to stop, stretch out and then attempt to continue the climb far slower than I wanted to. At this point I cursed the wind which had started to gust up into the 60 to 70mph range and was beginning to take a real toll on my energy level (and that of everybody else out on the course)! My heart rate began to jump around wildly from 31km to the aid station at 37km and I was feeling extremely depleted, at time I was barely managing a slow walk but then at other times I forced myself to run until I felt nauseous – by the time I reached 37km all I wanted was ready salted crisps, jelly babies and more water. I took the decision to dump the Tailwind from my handheld and one of my soft flasks and refilled with plain water. I shoved a huge amount of jelly babies into the pocket of my shorts, ate 2 packets of salted crisps and then steeled myself for the climb ahead.

I think I stopped for about 5 or 6 minutes and that was enough to lower my body temperature enough to warrant putting on my water and windproof coat for the rest of the race. As I power hiked out of the station a smile began to appear on my face as I felt my energy levels picking up thanks to the steady stream of jelly babies I was feeding myself at the time. At 38km my race was back on and I was running again…until I hit a very open and exposed cliff path where the winds gusted up to 80mph at times. Everybody I saw along that section down to the 40km mark was just doing their best to keep moving forward. Some opted for a run/walk strategy – running when there was a gap in the wind and practically walking on the spot when it was blowing. Some opted to just keep running, head down as hard a possible the entire way and others, like myself opted for a head down, arm swinging power hike along the whole section. For me this worked wonders and I began to feel stronger and stronger knowing that from 40km to the checkpoint at 44km it was going to be mostly downhill with a bit of running on a pebble beach. The thought of more ready salted crisps and a cup of hot, black tea kept me going!

A stone's throw from CP4

A stone’s throw from CP4

I stopped again at the final checkpoint with 10km to go. I knew that up ahead there were two very steep climbs waiting for me and one fairly long, steep and exposed climb before I could turn off the coast line and begin the final 4 miles to the finish line along pretty flat terrain, finishing on a very steep (and fun) downhill! I stayed at the final checkpoint for about 5 or 6 minutes again and drank two cups of coke and a black tea along with a packet of salted crisps. I power hiked the first uphill as hard as I could as per my original plan and then hammered the downhill on the other side. My A-Goal of a 6:15/6:25 finish was done with a few minutes after leaving the checkpoint and I knew that given the conditions it would be unlikely I would reach my B-Goal of 6:30/6:45 either but I didn’t want to let go of a racing mentality and so I pushed hard.

The Jurassic Coast Line.

The Jurassic Coast Line.

On the second climb I was passed by one person and I passed about three which made me feel pretty good but I was being pushed by someone about 200 metres back! The racing instinct was really kicking in at this point (as it always does for me over the last 5km of any race) and I just wanted to put as big a gap as I could manage between myself and the two runners behind. As I crested the second climb I knew there was a short downhill section that would help me to build the gap I wanted if I just took the breaks off, forgot about my quads and threw myself downhill! Unfortunately the wind had other ideas and I was literally blown off my feet by a very strong gust toward the bottom of the hill. It knocked my confidence and I had to struggle into the wind to get moving again at this point knowing I was heading into the final, long climb of the race. One of the runners behind me managed to catch up as we began to the final climb and we exchanged a few brief words – he told me his quads were killing him and he was having difficulty figuring out whether to run more or hike more. Shame on me – I wished the guy well and then threw in a little mind spanner by telling him my legs felt great before heading off uphill at a very strong pace!

From the top of the last climb with 5km to go I was only passed by one other person and it wasn’t the guy I left struggling uphill. I ran the majority of the last 5km in 32:31 – not very fast but it was enough for me to catch three people approaching the final descent and one on the descent itself. I had to check back a few times as I knew there were two pretty strong runners around 500m back from me at the 5km mark but I loved the feeling of being pushed into a strong downhill finish and it felt great to descend into the cove with the wind dying off with each step. I finished the race with a huge smile and running hard off the descent – I was 30 seconds back from the guy in 43rd and only 24 seconds in front of the guys in 45th which put me in 44th place with a time of 7:12:31!

BEER ME!

BEER ME!

Although I didn’t manage to reach my A or B goals I am proud of the achievement. I struggled again with nutrition, and again it was around the same point on the course where I struggled at the Ox Ultra in May and Thames Meander in November but this time I didn’t let it completely kill my race – I ran or fast hiked wherever I could and I only had one or two extended walking sections where I could have or should have been moving a little faster. I will continue to use Tailwind for the time being but from now on during races I will carry my own supply of salted crisps and jelly babies. I honestly think that with lighter winds I would have definitely been able to reach my B Goal but after careful consideration I may have been overreaching with my initial A Goal…but then again, I always do!

I’m already looking forward to racing next year but, for now, I’m going to enjoy a week off from running and structured training before heading into a short 10 week block for Grizedale Trail Marathon on February 7th.

Thanks for reading!

Peace & Blessings

NOMAN: the end of an adventure

I have been struggling with how to approach writing about my experience of the NOMAN race and ocean rowing. It was so much more than a race and in some ways a much bigger and profound experience of life than I was expecting.

The race began at 1030hrs on Saturday 18th July and I started off in high spirits and felt very strong. I was looking forward to rowing into the sunset and through the night which I did. It was great to see the Milky Way and at one point we could still feel the bass lines from the clubs in Ibiza even though we couldn’t see land. It was amazing to be out in the middle of nowhere without e-mails or phone calls or much to worry about apart from eating, drinking and rowing. That said, I did have some auditory hallucinations around 0400hrs on Sunday 19th July – I could hear various ringtones all around for a couple of hours!

As the day dawned on the 19th we realised it was going to be extremely hot and temperatures rose quickly from 30 degrees at sunrise to 41 degrees by lunch time! I was feeling very strong but very hot – in fact we were all feeling strong so we rowed hard into the morning. One of my team mates came off shift feeling quite ill so after a half hour break myself I got back on the oars to give them an extended rest. So it was that I rowed from 0900hrs until 1030hrs, took a 30 minute break and then rowed from 1100hrs to 1300hrs during the hottest part of the day.

Unfortunately things took a turn for the worst shortly after I came off my epic shift and this led me to abandon the race after 35 hours. The 3 hour shift in 41 degree heat made me pay the price about an hour later with some pretty bad dehydration which led to disorientation, illness and an inability to function on my own. I found out the other crew were rowing half hour shifts at this point whereas we had no discernible shift pattern from the get go.

It was a learning curve for sure and I was picked up by our support boat Rozamar at 2100hrs after making a call on a satellite phone to my girlfriend – apparently I was slurring and not making a lot of sense. On board Rozamar I made a recovery after drinking a lot of water and getting some sleep. From about 1600hrs on Monday I pitched in where I could as support crew – it felt the right thing to do, I was still on an adventure and my crew was still out there rowing. I learned a lot whilst rowing and also as part of the support crew and I can say with conviction that this won’t be the last time I head out to sea!

I got back on land Tuesday 21st July at around 1930hrs and the world still seemed to be pitching and rolling as if I was on board a ship (or an ocean rowing boat). It wasn’t an unpleasant feeling at all and reminded me, for a few days, of how much I loved it out there in the middle of nowhere. The sea was like no place I’ve ever been and I already find myself thinking about other ocean going adventures I could have.

I’m going to wrap up the prose there and turn to answering some of the more common questions I’ve heard since getting back into the world of phone reception, e-mails and other humans!

Peter Bird quote

  1. What was the highlight or best memory of the adventure?

The highlight was definitely losing sight of land during the first night. I was rowing and watching the light from Portinatx lighthouse on the northern tip of Ibiza when all of a sudden it disappeared. At that moment I really felt like I was at sea, just like at dawn on Sunday 19th when the sun just seemed to appear in the sky from nowhere – all around was water and I realised just how small and insignificant we are as a species and how vast the world is. When you look at the Mediterranean Sea on a map it’s so small compared to the Pacific or Atlantic but when you’re on a tiny boat in the middle of it you really feel as if you’re on another planet. A great memory is also being on shift with Stephanie during the first night and hearing over the VHF that we were passing very close to a speeding cargo ship with another following quite closely behind – we both scrambled to clear the deck, batten down the hatches and strap into our life vests before clipping onto the jack stay to prevent us from being washed overboard should we be swamped by the wash from said ships! It was truly exhilarating.

  1. What was the lowest point?

The lowest point definitely came during a moment of solitude in the cabin after my ill-fated long shift. I sat there and began to hear a bit of ringing in my ears, my hands felt quite numb and I was having difficulty drinking all but the smallest amounts of water. I realised at this point that I was extremely dehydrated and, as much as I wanted to eat and relax before my next shift I just couldn’t seem to accomplish either task. I sat there trying not to cry and I looked out of the cabin door at my team mates and sensed that they knew what was coming. It was tough. I don’t remember too much detail from that point until a good few hours later when I came round a bit and after I had spoken on the satellite phone.

  1. If you were to do it again and change one thing what would it be?

There is a very simple answer to this and I think my crew mates would agree. In fact, anybody who has rowed an ocean would agree – set a shift pattern and stick to it well in advance of the row. This was pretty difficult as we only found who we would be rowing with the day before the race. There wasn’t much time for a real in-depth discussion of strategy and tactics.

  1. What did you like most about the experience, what do you miss the most?

It was great to be away from social media, telephones, text messages, e-mails and all the pressures of modern life. It really is quite a simple life at sea be that on an ocean rowing boat or on the support boat. You wake up, you cook, you clean, you drink, you eat, you do your shift either on watch or on the oars and then you sleep. It was pretty cool to spend so much time with like-minded people talking about things we’ve already accomplished, life in general and the plans being hatched by each of us for the future.

  1. What did you dislike most about the experience?

One thing that I found quite difficult at times was the close proximity to others. There really is not much space at all on a boat and it was nigh on impossible to have some time to yourself or to be out of the line of sight of another crew member. At times I really just wanted to go for a long swim or a run – obviously there’s nowhere to run in the middle of the ocean and there’s barely room to walk properly on a boat. As for swimming, well, it’s not the most advisable past time as most of the time the ocean rowing boat or support boat is moving and when it’s not there’s work to be done! In hindsight though, harking back to question three, if I could do anything else differently it would be to take or make the time to swim in the deep blue…maybe next time!

  1. What did you learn from the experience?

I learned that just because you can doesn’t necessarily mean you should. By that I mean I knew I could row the long shift I did but I really shouldn’t have – if I’d have slowed my thought process down enough and not got myself into a racing frame of mind I might have been able to look ahead to what might happen if I continued on the oars. I also learned that communication on an ocean rowing boat is very important and that even the smallest detail that isn’t passed around to every member of the crew can make a big difference – we had a couple of navigational issues early on because of this fact.

  1. Any advice for anybody wanting to give ocean rowing a try?

In honesty I would say if you want to race more than enjoy the experience of being at sea for a long time then sign up for NOMAN. If you want to genuinely experience what nature has to offer and to enjoy the company of your crew then I’d look for something longer and without so much of a tight deadline to row too. The build up to the race and the early stages of the race itself were actually quite stressful for a number of reasons so, even if you’re going to go for the NOMAN, I would suggest signing up as a team of 3 or 4 friends who want to row as a crew – plan your shifts, plan your nutrition and hydration strategy and train together as much as possible. I also think it’s really important to spend a fair amount of time lifting weights in the gym and strengthening the upper body. One thing that struck me was that ocean rowing is most definitely more about the upper body than the legs as is the case with flat water rowing.

  1. What’s next?

I’m going back to running ultras, make no mistake! In fact, this Friday I am running the Grim Reaper 70 Miler which I had planned to do all along regardless of how the NOMAN race went. In the longer term, well, I’ve been talking to a few people I’ve met along this ocean rowing journey about possibly forming a four man crew and planning another, longer, colder climate ocean row but that is very much in the concept stage – this could be something that happens in five or ten years but certainly not in the very near future. When it comes to next year and the years to come I’ve got my eyes set on an Ironman, a few one hundred mile endurance runs, the Tor des Geants, UTMB, TransAlpine and hopefully some adventure racing and sea kayaking! Who knows really, I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to test my mental and physical limits and there are so many amazing experiences out there that you never know what might be around the corner…keep reading ‘26.2 & Beyond’ and we will see what happens!

Peace & Blessings x

Have Fun, Enjoy Life and Run Ultras!

Training for ultras can and should be as varied and wide as the sport itself. There really is no ‘right’ way to train for running ultras; there is definitely no ‘one size fits all’ training plan for 50km, 50 mile, 100 mile and multi-day events!

How could there be? You could be running a 50km like Speedgoat that is at altitude and records 11,000ft of elevation loss/gain, or you could be running the Royal Parks Foundation 50k that is run through the relatively flat and benign parks of London.

You might be training to run a 50 miler in the middle of summer in the heat and humidity of South East Asia, you could be training to run a 100 miler in Alaska…in winter, oh, and you might have to navigate too! As for multi-day events they can throw anything and everything at you over the course of 3, 6 or maybe more days – you may have to carry all of your own food, you may have to set up your own camp at night, you might be at altitude for some or all of the event, you might be traversing a desert or crossing the Italian Alps!

Anyway, you get the point – ultras cover all type of terrain, in all kinds of weather and under all kinds of conditions. This post isn’t meant to be a ‘how to’ because I think I’ve made it clear that there is no one way to go about this! I mean, obviously, research your race and train specifically to deal with the conditions you might find as best you can, with what you have but in general what you need to run an ultra of any kind, anywhere is strength, determination, an endurance base and the mental toughness to say ‘This will not beat me today’ (sometimes over and over and over again for 50 or more miles!).

I think the basics of training for ultras, without race specificity, are pretty simple and will be familiar to anybody who has run a marathon, competed in triathlons or been involved in adventure racing:

  1. Hills, hills and more hills. Up and down, up and down. And…repeat!

Hill repeats are great for strength, power and endurance and they are also great for mental training – it’s hard to keep motivated when you’re running up and down the same hill section over and over! Good, because it’s hard to stay motivated to keep moving at mile 40 of a 50 mile race when the aid station looks so comfortable, well stocked and inviting! Ultras often have hills and often they can be fairly long ascents – it’s good to know you can keep your legs turning if you’re feeling good but it’s also good to have practiced the power hike, if the going gets tough or it’s too steep to run then lean forwards put your hands on your quads and get moving! Also, what goes up must come down and often in races this is going to happen over and over and over again – UTMB or CCC are good examples that I hear often – if you’re not used to running downhill then you really should start practising because when your quads blow it makes the remaining miles that much harder!

Taking a breather at the top of the biggest climb of the day out of CP5.

Taking a breather at the top of the biggest climb of the day out of CP5, South Downs Way 50 2015.

  1. Round and round you go!

Intervals are great for building speed and an endurance base. You don’t have to use a track, I don’t. A looped stretch of road or trail will do just fine or even an out and back. The more you do them the more confident you’ll feel to push it later on in a race – you might be racing for a certain time or you might be racing to see where you can place but when you’re tired it’s good to know you have a bit of extra speed saved up.

40 miles done and I still mustered a sprint finish somehow!

40 miles done and I still mustered a sprint finish somehow!

  1. Run far. Find a route, take your gear and off you go.

A staple of anybody’s training plan be that for 10k or 100 miles. Long runs are particularly important for ultra training in my opinion. They are a great way to test out what works for you when it comes to kit, hydration and nutrition and they are also good indicators of fitness and endurance levels. Long runs don’t have to be super long either, if you’re training for a hundred miler then maybe 35 to 40 miles in one shot could suffice but then again maybe that’s not for you – in that case back to back long runs could be the way to go. For instance you might run 20 miles at above race pace on Saturday and then on Sunday you’ll go out for another 20 miles but this time your legs are going to feel tired and heavy and you might find it difficult to go the distance mentally – good! This is how it may feel at mile 80 of your 100 mile race or on day 3 of 5 at your multi-day stage race!

Heading out for the downhill section of my long run...running back up later is the challenge!

Heading out for the downhill section of my long run…running back up later is the challenge!

  1. Do you even lift bro? No? Well, you should. Not much but enough to strengthen the core and the legs.

Good runners don’t just run. They look after their bodies and strengthen those parts of it that are likely going to take a sustained battering of the course of a racing season! You don’t have to do too much; you’re not looking to bulk up! In fact you’re pretty much looking to tone what you have. A strong core and strong legs will help you to keep good running form as the miles (or days) go by. I only recently started regularly working on this and the difference I’ve noticed is quite spectacular – mentally my last 50 miler was tough but my body felt so much stronger and less battered than the 45 miler I ran a few months before! I would recommend taking up a gym membership, even if it’s short term, just to get advice from somebody who knows about strength and conditioning and then either keep on gyming it or apply your learning at home (as I do).

Dost Thou Even Hoist?

  1. That’s right, not only should you be strong but bendy too! Take up yoga and/or pilates.

Flexibility is important when it comes to avoiding injury. Again, this is something I only took up recently but over the past few months I have not suffered so much with tight hamstrings, hip flexors or any of the associated aches and pains that come with racing often and training regularly. I put this down to yoga and pilates practice! I cannot recommend it enough, the best thing is you can do it from home and it is great to practice on rest days or during down time – not only does yoga and pilates increase flexibility it can also help to relax the mind and give it a rest from worrying about training and, indeed, life in general! Oh, both yoga and pilates are great for core strength too.

Namaste

  1. Enter races of varying distances; it’s good to be diverse!

I’m not saying race an ultra or endurance based event every weekend here! That would be unsustainable for most mortals! What I would suggest is picking an A-race or maybe two in the year and then adding in a few races prior to that. For instance, my A-race this year is a 70 miler at the end of July and to train for it I have entered a 56km race at the end of May that is over similar terrain and then a five mile race about a month before which is over similar terrain – the idea is that it will keep my mind and body in racing shape. Not only that, let’s face it, going to races is fun! It’s a chance to go somewhere new and to meet and hang out with people who have similar interests!

  1. Cross train…or cross race!

Running is great for the mind and the soul and to some extent it’s great for fitness. But sustained training and racing can and likely will impact on your body over time. A lot of ultrarunners have come from an adventure racing or Ironman/triathlon background and I think it would be safe to say that their varied focus in training for these particular events promotes longevity in the sport of running! Once in a while it’s good to mix it up – variety is the spice of life after all. I would highly recommend building in some kind of aerobic/cardio cross training either as part of your weekly workouts or maybe on a less frequent basis. Take up swimming, hit the trails on a mountain bike, visit your local climbing wall or commute to work on a road bike – it’s all good training for strength and endurance and it keeps things interesting!

  1. Listen to your body – it’s always talking to you and it has a lot to say!

This really is a given. It’s a standard piece of advice given to everybody who starts training seriously for any kind of endurance event. It took me many years to take up the advice and as a consequence I suffered from burnout, constant tightness in my muscles, a trapped L3 spinal nerve and a stress fracture! Since I decided to actually listen to my body I have suffered from none of these things – if my body is giving me signs that it needs a rest, some massage or some time away from running then I listen to it and focus on the area that needs attention!

Acupuncture: who would have thought strategically placed needles could relieve so much discomfort?!

Acupuncture: who would have thought strategically placed needles could relieve so much discomfort?!

  1. Experiment with what works – talk to other runners, make friends but go your own way!

As I said at the start of this post, this is not a ‘how to’. It’s a guide. I’m sharing what works for me and you’re welcome to see if it works for you – if it doesn’t then don’t be afraid to change it up and explore a bit. Read articles, read blogs, talk to other runners but don’t take anyone’s word as gospel! Just because it works for me doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to work for you. There are training plans out there for ultra-distance races but, for me, they’re too rigid and formulaic for a sport that is so fluid and diverse! I train on feel and through trial and error and that works for me, I enjoy it but you might like the rigidity of a set plan – give it a go, see what you think. The same can be said for shoe choice, pack choice – any kind of choice from gels to socks, water bottles to bladders, sunglasses to hats. Try different stuff, experiment in training, experiment in your races (but don’t try anything new on race day!) and enjoy the learning experience!

  1. HAVE FUN! ENJOY LIFE!

If you want a sport that will constantly challenge you, give you experiences and opportunities then ultrarunning is the way forward, it’s a sport for life. You’ve got time to find what works for you; you’ve got time to learn from others and from your own mistakes and you should embrace this side of it. Don’t rush! Ultrarunning is certainly not about instant gratification – it’s about the joy of movement, of being outside, of seeing new things, meeting new people and pushing yourself to your physical and mental limits. It’s about redrawing your boundaries year on year.

Running Towards Recovery

I’m going to make an assumption that we all know that running is great, not just for our physical but also our mental health. A lot of runners took to the sport as a way to escape the stresses of everyday life and it seems there are a fair amount of ultrarunners out there who have, at one time or another, struggled with depression and even addiction.

I know this because I am one of those runners. I took up running in April 2011 after realising my life had become a little chaotic – on the surface it looked like I was doing okay but inside I was hurting and to deal with that I was increasingly turning to drinking too much, smoking too much pot and taking other recreational drugs just to cover up my real feelings. At the beginning of that month I walked away from a Social Work masters degree unsure that I would ever return to complete a masters program, let alone one in Social Work. It turns out that I did return to my career path and to a modified social work masters programme, eventually graduating in July 2012 with an MSc in Social Studies and now, as this blog attests, I am happy runner so this post is certainly not all doom and gloom!

I had been smoking cannabis, heavily and pretty much everyday, since I was sixteen years old and then around my 21st birthday I discovered I had a penchant for taking recreational drugs like ecstasy, speed and later on cocaine. With the drugs came drinking and with a family history of alcohol addiction I was on a slippery slope by the time I walked away from my original masters program in 2011 but looking back I was on a pretty slippery slope from the moment I took my first ecstasy pill and began chasing the weekend – I’m not saying I was your ‘typical’ addict (there is no typical addict) but I was definitely addicted. I found the competing pressures of study, family strife, girlfriend, work, bills and rent far too much to handle unless I had a joint in one hand and a beer in the other with a decent plan for the weekend’s stimulant based activities in place. I really struggled with automatic negative responses and thoughts to life’s smallest problems and that was with or without a drink, a joint or some other drug!

I don’t have much recollection of how I got through my undergraduate years and came out of the other side with a 2:1 but I did, even after a year’s academic suspension at the end of my first year. In short the drugs and drink masked my underlying depression, my sense of being worthless and having no direction even though, as I mentioned above, on paper and on the surface everything looked like I was doing okay; friends, social life, good degree, career path. I kept my inner turmoil to myself and the bits that I did let slip I did by making light of. That pent up turmoil came to a head whilst I was undertaking my final social work placement in children’s services. I had 30 days to go until the end and it looked like I was going to fail. For the first time in my academic life I was going to fail and I could not handle that idea. I had a conversation with myself and asked why I was going to fail. The answers were many but two stuck out: I said to myself I was going to fail because I didn’t want to pass, I didn’t want to become a social worker and when I asked why that was the answer I got from myself was unexpected and profound. I said to myself you don’t want this because it’s stressing you out to the point where you are drinking four to six cans of beer every night, to the point where all you can think about most days is when you can go home and have a joint (or two or three), to the point where you’re consuming more cocaine on the weekend than you ever have. What are you going to do about this then Al? The answer at that point was to walk away. Fuck it I said. The process was pretty quick and I found my university to be very supportive – I thank them now for not letting me throw it all away completely. They could obviously see I was troubled and needed some time and space to either address my issues or reconcile myself to a different life.

Well, I did a bit of both. I took time from April 2011 to January 2012 to address a whole heap of underlying issues and then whilst in the process I reconciled myself to the idea that my life was going to be different but in a positive way. This didn’t happen overnight. One of the driving factors behind this was a friend of mine reaching out to pull me out of the malaise – there was no sympathy, no indulging of my wallowing in self pity – he just came into my room one afternoon and said something along the lines of “You had better sort yourself out because we’re going to climb a mountain in Switzerland in September.” He then handed me a return plane ticket and left! This was the kick I needed – I now owed my friend for a plane ticket and had a challenge laid at my feet that I didn’t really know how to get my head around. April went from being a black hole into which my life was disappearing to an opportunity to turn my life around. I got a job as a Caretaker towards the end of the month and began looking at how people trained to go to the mountains. This is how I found running. I hated it at first, I had never in my life done any strenuous physical activity and it took me a good while before I could run 5km without stopping, throwing up or getting cramp!

Anyway, I’ll move it on. Once I settled into running I began to love the quiet time it gave me to reflect on life and to plan for the future. I relished the sense of accomplishment I got during and after each and every run. I gave up smoking cigarettes and realised that running became instantly more pleasurable – I could run further and faster and it was great. I went to Switzerland in September of that year feeling fitter than I ever had, I’d kicked cigarettes and I had bought my drinking right down to an acceptable level. I still drank but I wasn’t drinking to forget, to ‘cope’ or to get drunk – I was drinking socially, at home over meals and moderately and at weekends (but less moderately). On returning from Switzerland I decided that I really wanted to focus on making my life work and for me that meant I embraced running wholeheartedly. Those of you who are regular runners and those of you who race will know that when you embrace the sport it becomes a lifestyle and one that returns that embrace whether you run solo, with friends or with a club! It was from here that I changed my diet, I stopped eating processed crap, I cut out dairy and I began to eat as much whole food as possible – I didn’t assign a label to myself like ‘vegan’ or ‘paleo’, I just ate whatever was good for me and I continue to do that to this day. After running my first 10k race in May 2012 I got the racing bug, I ran my first half marathon in June and then finished 12th at my local 10k in July! It was at this point that I really, really embraced the sport. I began to think about which races I wanted to run, I briefly joined a running club (club running isn’t for me I’ve found) and I spent a lot more time training. Although I had turned my life around and it felt like I was on the right track I still had a love/hate relationship with drugs.

Towards the end of 2012 I managed to stop using ecstasy and MDMA and this started a chain reaction. I tried and failed a number of times from this point to stop taking cocaine and to stop smoking cannabis but the point was the longer I abstained the better my running became and the better I felt mentally. I can’t remember my last ecstasy pill, MDMA ‘bomb’ or line of cocaine – the ecstasy thing was sometime around December 2012 and I finally kicked the coke to the sidelines in August 2013. I do remember my last joint though because it was my one and only relapse. I stopped smoking cannabis for what I thought was for good in April 2013 but on Christmas Day that year I ‘had a smoke’ and pretty much instantly regretted it so I haven’t touched it since! So, when I finally did stop taking drugs altogether my world changed and that was difficult to deal with – I found it tough being around people on drugs and so I stopped visiting friends who recreationally and habitually took them at weekends or smoked cannabis during the week. My circle began to shrink but the running community was right there on the roads, the trails, at the track, at races and through blogs and the internet! What I’m left with is a core of friends who respect my decision to be drug free, friends who share my passion for running and with the people I learned to make friends with at work as I found I had something more to talk about other than ‘the weekend’ or what was on TV any given night of the week. Not all of my friends are runners, in fact few of them are but I know for a fact that we’re friends because we understand and respect each other for the people we actually are and not the people we present to ourselves through the haze of drugs, drink and depression.

My career has been back on track (pun intended) since August 2012 and my current role has put me in a position where I work with people in long term recovery from addiction – mostly alcohol but also crack, heroin and other drugs. Sometimes drugs and alcohol. Sometimes with other lesser known addictions thrown into the mix too. On Thursday morning I will be chairing ‘Thought for the Day’ which is a forum for staff members to share thoughts on recovery strategies and sometimes anything which might come to mind with clients – it’s a place where people in recovery learn to manage disagreements and to harness their communication skills. I was going to broadly speak about running as a strategy for good mental health and addiction recovery using the examples of Timmy Olson and Nikki Kimball amongst others when it dawned on me that as well as these guys I could really use my own story as an example of transition and change through running. I’m looking forward to the discussion and I’m hoping that at least one of those present might consider lacing up and going for a run over the weekend!

Peace & Blessings