Author Archives: Al Flowers

About Al Flowers

Love running. Love the outdoors.

2020 Goals & Resolutions

I’m going to keep this short, sweet and simple! Below are the things I would like to achieve by the end of 2019 in life and in sport:

Endurance Sports

  1. Finish every race I start
  2. Recce at least 3 legs of the Bob Graham Round
  3. Attend a navigation for runners course
  4. Run at least 1 LDWA event
  5. Improve my Lakeland 50 course best of 10:31:58 (2016)

Life

  1. Start learning to play guitar
  2. Convert spare room into a home office
  3. Focus on the positives, see opportunities in the challenges

2019 in Review

Overview

2018 was a fantastic year for running all through, 2019 started badly but ended really strong! So much has happened this year both in my running life and my personal life.

I have set no personal bests this year and ran the slowest road marathon I ever have, even after a reasonable training block. I have DNS’ed three ultras and deferred entry to another. But, I am thankful to say after my difficult start I decided to focus on the Cheviot Goat 55 mile winter ultra – I had originally intended this to be my A-race for the year with a high mileage build-up, including lots of racing but as mentioned above my personal life had to come first hence withdrawing from my first few ultras of the year and deferring another.

I am thankful I made the decision to attempt a road marathon focus – in the end it allowed me more time with my then fiance, now wife! It took the pressure off an already pressured year what with planning and executing a wedding, and some major changes at work. It also built up a lot of speed thanks to the structured workouts I was undertaking each week. As well as this, it made me miss the trails and ultras, helped me to figure out that I don’t do well with training blocks that last longer then 10 weeks. All of this translated to a strong end to the year following a loosely structured 10 week training plan for the Cheviot Goat. The plan worked as during Week 5, I surprised myself with a 5th placed finish at the White Rose Ultra 30 – my first ultra for 14 months! Then, the A-race, Cheviot Goat, seemed to arrive very quickly. Again, I surprised myself with a 20th place finish in 12 hours, 36 minutes which far surpassed my goal of just finishing the thing.

As I write this I am 2 days from beginning a 6 week training block for the Arc of Attrition 50 which will be my first race of 2020. I am very much looking forward to it and it feels good to be running with purpose and joy again!

Best Race

Cheviot Goat Winter Ultra.

My longest race to date, covering 55 miles and 3000m of ascent over extremely rough ground. The race required a lot of planning and on the day a lot of navigation in darkness and thick fog.

So, as I mentioned above I was extremely surprised to do so well! My race report is here. Enjoy.

12:35:36, 20th.

Worst Race

Hull Marathon

Another road marathon slog! But this time I smiled for at least 90% of it. I didn’t reach my goal but I did stick to my intention of enjoying myself no matter what, embracing the suffering and smiling. A surprisingly hot and humid day in Yorkshire caught everyone off guard, including a fair few event pacers!

I decided to stick with 3 hour pacers from the start but it became apparent after about 10km they were going a little bit too quick. I shrugged my shoulders and opted to stick with it and managed to do that until about 28km when I started to cramp up and feel a bit sick – my pace began to drop and I never recovered.

I walked every step of the last 2km, including the finishing straight which I’ve never done before – it didn’t help that I felt like I was going to throw up for last 5km and couldn’t take on any water or even Shot Bloks. All that taken into consideration I’m glad I managed to smile almost all of the way, cracked jokes with Marshalls and spectators, had a little dance through an aid station at one point and high fived loads of kids. The running highlight of the day had to be the start and running across the Humber Bridge (out and back) – an amazing structure and a beautiful clear morning gave decent views.

Poorly planned, poorly paced and my 16 weeks of training pretty much ground to a halt at Week 9 – I gave up, felt really tired and drained and all the structure of the previous 9 weeks was the opposite of the next 7 weeks. Over the last 7 weeks I managed 1 planned long run and 1 planned speed workout and the rest of the mileage was very much ad hoc – some on road, some slow, some fast and none very long.

Best Moment(s)

Getting married on June 15th.

Returning to Ibiza for a Minimoon in July – we stayed in the same place we went on our first holiday together back in 2016.

A long distance hike with my wife on our Honeymoon in Turkey, August/September. 26km – the most Sarah has ever covered in one go.

My first trip to the Peak District as a surprise birthday weekend away in October – I ran a solo Kinder Scout loop and hiked a Mom Tor loop with Sarah.

Worst Moment

I was supposed to race West Pennine Ultra on March 9th and it turned out to be my first DNS of the year. The night before the race I woke up at 0300hrs and I found myself absolutely terrified by something I couldn’t identify – sweating profusely, hyperventilating, repetitive negative thoughts and an urge to run away.

I haven’t had a panic attack for nearly 4 years and this one took me out! I’ve struggled with anxiety for 20 years and I’ve had depressive episodes over the years too. Panic attacks, thankfully, have been infrequent. For me they are so scary as I feel I lose control of my decision making capacity and my inner monologue splits into two – arguments between my rational side and my irrational side can go on for hours and bring on feelings of anxiety and fear.

After I had calmed down a bit at around 0600hrs, I headed away from the race HQ but not towards home in the south. Instead I found myself heading north into horrific weather and towards the fells around the Trough of Bowland. I was convinced I needed the space. I drove for an hour and when I arrived I set out towards Clougha Pike and Grit Fell. It quickly became apparent that my negative thoughts were strongest today and after a mile I was really struggling to keep up a pace that would enable me to stay warm. All I had to do was reach behind into my pack and put on my jacket but all I could hear in my head was ‘What’s the point’. I kept slowly moving forward urging myself to up the pace but failing to beat the inner monologue of ‘What’s the point.’ I got colder, I got wetter and I started shivering. Thankfully I regained control of my brain long enough to realise I needed to turn around and head back to the car lest I end up in trouble on the fells with nobody knowing my location.

I made it back to the car, slowly jogging at points but still losing the battle to ‘What’s the point’. I spent an hour in the car, drying off, warming up and getting changed. I made my way home and called some friends and family on the way as I know it’s always good to talk things through after experiences like this. It took a long time for me to regain my sense of self and I think this set the tone for my next two DNS – I withdrew from South Downs Way and North Downs Way 50 milers a couple of weeks after returning from the north.

Favourite Run(s)

I had a fantastic run in the mountains of Turkey on the last day of my honeymoon.

I woke up well before sunrise so I could beat the sweltering heat of the day and headed off out into the mountains on the Lycian Way to catch the sunrise for just over an hour. I made it back in time to wake Sarah up so we could go and enjoy a wonderful breakfast at the mountain retreat we were staying at.

The trails were beautiful and I think this is the run that woke my soul back up to the joy of the trails. There was hard hiking in parts on steep rocky and rooty singletrack, smooth (and sometimes fast) running on pine needle carpet in other parts. The ground underfoot was rough and I even got to bushwhack in parts as the trail was non-existent – my Garmin Fenix 5x came into good use here as I used the mapping to take direct lines uphill to identifiable trail.

Favourite Kit

Two pieces of kit that I purchased specifically for racing in winter definitely take top prize this year!

La Sportiva Tempesta GTX

The first time I have purchased a GTX pair of shoes and the first time in 7 pairs of trail shoes I have gone for soemthing other than the La Sportiva Helios SR. They weren’t cheap and they’re not exactly light like the Helios SR but boy do they do a fantastic job in freezing temperatures, driving rain and boggy, muddy ground.

I have run 500km in these since October 24th – this includes a 55 mile race, and a 30 mile race as well as training in the Peak District and the finest Hertfordshire mud, fields, trails and lanes. They have held up really well and keep the feet mostly dry and warm in the coldest of conditions. When they do experience water ingress I was surprised to find they drain very quickly and warm up the feet again which helps to dry the internal sock construction. I expect these shoes will last me until around February as the front grip is starting to wear thanks to the road link ups I need to use during training. At this point I will definitely purchase another pair in preparation for next winter and my Bob Graham recces.

Montane Windjammer Alpine Beanie

Normally I don’t like covering my head during races or training but I was worried about the potential of rain and cold to drain my energy and body heat during the Cheviot Goat. I knew that a Buff wouldn’t do the job as they tend to get wet and stay wet so I went looking for something more robust.

It is an absolutely fantastic piece of kit. For the most part it keeps rain out and heat in, and it definitely kills the ferocity of the wind. At the time of writing I have owned this beanie for exactly a month so it must be a decent piece of kit to make it into my annual review! During the Cheviot Goat I took it off once for about 20 minutes – as I approached the half way checkpoint on a sheltered road section. With my jacket, tights and baselayer I felt as thought I was overheating as the wind disappeared for 4km, my only real option was to take off the beanie as I didn’t want to mess around with the layers on my upper half. I can report that after leaving the checkpoint the beanie had mostly dried out from sweat on the inside and out, and it went straight back on as I climbed out of shelter and onto the hills again – it remained in place until I crossed the finish line 7 hours later.

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.

Marathon Mojo

It has been a slow start in 2019 on my racing calendar. By now I would have usually run at least a marathon, and probably an ultra, along with a handful of shorter races. As it stands I have run a trail marathon, a trail 16 miler and a ‘mixed-terrain’ 10k. No ultras. In fact, I have had 4 ultras in the calendar and registered DNS in all of them.

That DNS rate has bugged me since my first in March at the West Pennine Ultra. This weekend I registered my 4th DNS by choosing to withdraw from the North Downs Way 50. Last night I spent some time reflecting on the contributory factors to my lack of motivation to train for and race ultra distances this year. First and foremost I have had a lot of stress at work and this is what contributed to my DNS in March – I was so stressed out that I ended up having my first panic attack in many years the night before the race. I woke the next morning feeling wiped out and with a creeping depression setting in. That took a good while to recover from.

The second DNS was at the South Downs Way 50 back in April. I think it would be fair to say that work related stress was still in play here and my training began to nosedive a couple of weeks before the race. Self doubt kicked down the door in my mind and a sense of anxiety pretty much crippled my motivation to finish the training block. I withdrew the day before and then when I woke up on race morning I had the beginnings of 2 week upper-respiratory infection which took me out of work for a week. This did nothing for my work related stress, or my mental health!

A month later at the beginning of May, I was due to head up to the Lake District for the Great Lakes 3-Day. By this point I had realised I needed to work on my work/life balance and my stress levels were reducing in that area of life, but the workload at home increased for both Sarah and I as we continued organising our upcoming wedding. I chose to withdraw from Great Lakeland a week beforehand and on doing so I felt relief. I didn’t question that feeling too much at the time. But on reflection, following my 4th DNS this weekend, relief is not something I expect to feel when I withdraw from a race in a beautiful place or, generally, when I withdraw from any ultra prior to the start. I felt relief again this weekend when I made the decision not to race. The fun of training for and racing ultras has faded away and I am not going to find it by entering more, or not properly preparing for the ones I was entered for prior to making the decision to withdraw from this year’s White Rose Ultra 60 and Montane Cheviot Goat. Again, once I made those decisions this morning, I felt relief.

So, what now?

Well I had already planned to spend the summer months tackling my 10k and Half Marathon road PRs as the short and fast stuff has been fun, satisfying and engaging since the end of last year. I have decided to build on that and I have now entered the Hull Marathon on September 22nd. I will be aiming to run a PR and I will put it out there now that my training will be focused on achieving a sub-3 hour time. For the first time since starting running in 2011 I have the motivation, time and desire to focus fully on road running and racing. I am really excited to see what I can get out of myself across the sub-ultra distances by following a structured marathon training plan!

I have run three road marathons since 2011:

I hope the pictures above show at least an improvement in form, as well as an improvement in time! I was a complete novice at Pisa – I ran in trail shoes and in a vest that was more suitable for the beach or gym than for road racing. In Frankfurt I had shaped up a little more with an actual running vest and road shoes and then fast forward to Brighton the all black top/bottom combo stayed with me and I had slimmed down and toned up quite a bit (as well as losing the 2013-14 beard and big hair look – what was that about?!). Short Shorts will always be my go to for road marathons. Always. The less said about compression knee socks, the better.

My training in 2013 was mostly undertaken in the pool as I had a fractured cuboid in the months leading into the race. I had so little mileage in my legs I was very surprised I even managed to get half way, even more surprised (and very pleased) with my finishing time. In fact, Pisa was the only race of any distance I ran that year. In 2014 I ran my first ultra 2 months before the Frankfurt marathon and it turned my head completely away from the road. I went over to Frankfurt with no structured speed training in my legs and with half an eye on training for an ultra in the January of 2015. Anyway, Frankfurt was great as it also fell on my 31st birthday – I really enjoyed the experience of racing on my birthday and I wasn’t at all disappointed with the time considering my mind was already on the trails. Finally, last year at Brighton, I threw away a good opportunity to dial it in having taken my focus from ultra to triathlon and road racing from September of 2017. It was my first time with a coach, with somebody else programming my training and the results were pretty good. But for some reason my brain just couldn’t adjust to the multi-sport aspect of training and I kind of gave up on the plan in TrainingPeaks and just did what I wanted. I could and should have run a much faster, much more disciplined race at Brighton and it left me wanting. I finished that race with the marathon monkey on my back and have watched quite a few friends achieve sub-3 throughout 2018 and into 2019. All of those friends have told me they believe in my speed and strength, and all of them have encouraged me to dedicate myself to having a go at sub-3.

The time is right, the time is now, it’s my turn to have a proper go!

SDW50: ringing the bell

The conclusion of my SDW50 2019 training has been brought forward. A lot has occurred since my last post. It has been a bit of a roller-coaster 5 weeks for me in terms of life/work stress and struggling with motivation and tiredness because of it.

I haven’t hit my weekly distance targets within my +/- 10km range for the last 5 weeks and that has made me doubt my ability to achieve what I originally intended at the South Downs Way 50 which is rapidly approaching – at the time of writing it is less than 48 hours away.

Week 9:Planned 104km / Completed: 51.1km (+961m)

Week 10:Planned 83.6km / Completed: 51.8km (+713m)

Week 11: Planned 90.1km / Completed: 46.3km (+476m)

Week 12: Planned 0km / Completed: 50.9km (+521m)

Week 13: Planned 0km / Completed at time of writing: 24.6km (+273m)

I have wavered with my decision making about whether or not to run a lot over the past two weeks, switching between two mindsets.

The first mindset is ‘It is what it is’ with a view to lining up on the day with no expectations and no goal other than to finish – if I beat my 2015 time or run a 50 mile PR, great. If I don’t, well, that doesn’t matter because I will have still covered 50 miles on foot, under my own steam and for me that is still an achievement in itself and particularly so considering how I have been feeling these past few weeks.

The second mindset, and the one which has won over, is ‘You know yourself, and you know if you line up, you’ll blow up and if you blow up and DNF you’ll beat yourself up’. The ‘It is what it is’ mindset works for some people but it’s just not me. I only really enjoy racing when I’m at or near my physical and mental best and right now I’m feeling physically mediocre and mentally shot! I think my training probably peaked somewhere around Week 8 or 9 and if the race had fallen then I would have been up for it. But it didn’t fall then, it’s falling now and right now I know that if I lined up I wouldn’t be able to control myself for long enough early on and the inevitable physical decline would be rapid and upsetting, likely falling between the 25 and 35km mark – not even half way through. I know that with the my current frame of mind I would drop out and DNF the minute I knew I had fallen out of the 8.5 to 9 hour finishing bracket – but not before a long, painful bout of mental self-flagellation. In essence if I lined up I would be setting myself up for a pretty long and shit day, and probably a month or more of the same afterwards. I hate DNFing because my head wasn’t in the game.

The best thing I can do for myself right now is to take a deep breath, relax, have confidence in my underlying base of fitness and faith and belief in my ability to get through hard times. It’s all good. In terms of my life stress I am already feeling better having made this decision and having spent the last two weeks working together with the wife-to-be to ensure our wedding day is memorably, exciting and fun for everyone. In terms of work stress, I have taken a step back from some extra duties that I had taken on outside of where my professional passion lies and refocused on what is important to me at work, and what I enjoy – providing excellent, innovative, trauma informed complex and multiple needs mental health support in a community setting.

It hasn’t all been bad these past five weeks! I have had some decent runs and enjoyed a few decent swimming and strength sessions too. I ran a great race at the Ashridge Boundary Run 16 miler, finishing with an 8 minute course PR and in 17th place – it was hard early on as I suffered with my mental game, but once my mind quietened down I felt great.

So what’s next? Well, over the next two weeks I’m going to take it easy and plan no training in at all. I’m going to run when I feel like it, swim when I feel like, pick up and put down heavy stuff when I feel like and do nothing when I feel like it. I am going to recharge my body and regain my positive mindset. After my reset I plan to run the Three Forts Challenge Marathon which runs on part of the South Downs Way on May 5th, and then after that I will run the North Downs Way 50 on May 18th. From there I’m getting married on June 15th and then heading into a summer of running a few 10k races and a half marathon.

As ever, my rock of a wife-to-be has been at my side throughout which has made the last few weeks much easier than they might have been had I been facing them alone. All in all, I am a fortunate and lucky man and I do well to remind myself of that every day.

SDW50: Weeks 5 to 8

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog will notice that this post is much shorter in length and more sparse in detail than usual.

I am surprised at this myself as the words normally come to me easily. All I can guess is that I have had a pretty intense month of life, work and training and the mental energy required to write an informative post is somewhat lacking!

Hopefully by the time my next post is due I will have regained that energy and will be able to write a more interesting piece.

Things that probably won’t come across below: I enjoyed teaching one of my nieces how to use a map on a simple orienteering course (Week 5), Sarah and I bought our wedding bands and enjoyed a day out in London Week 6), my treadmill training sessions have been both epic and fruitful Weeks 5-8), I have taken a real interest in CrossFit and strength training (Weeks 7-8).

My treadmill totals for Weeks 5 to 8:

  • 6th – 5.1km, +441m (Week 5)
  • 10th – 8.1km, +520m (Week 5)
  • 13th – 2.1km, +260m (Week 6)
  • 20th – 6.1km, +451m (Week 7)
  • 21st – 3.2km, +255m (Week 7)
  • 24th – 4.1km, +322m (Week 7)
  • 27th – 2.1km, +161m (Week 8)
  • Total: 30.8km, +2410m

Week 5

Planned 86.7km / Completed: 74.7km (+1097m)

I am going to be honest here, I have very little recollection of Week 5! This is even after reading back on my workout notes for the week. I had a tough week at work which hit my consistency and motivation and it seems like my mind has put the learning from this week into storage to draw on at a later time!

Week 6

Planned: 84km / Completed: 80.5km (+2037m)

This week is also a bit of a blur and that’s down to carrying a cold through the majority of it. My workplace settled down a little so the stress there wasn’t a drain and I managed to incorporate my first Tough 21 strength workout which is now an integral part of my week.

It was during this week that, DOMS aside, I found that strength training really does help stave of fatigue and pain during runs. Week 6 is when I made the commitment to looking into strength workouts that would challenge and test me, as well as making me a stronger runner.

At the end of the week I also got a monkey off my back that has been plaguing me throughout this block – I kept putting off running past 28km for some reason! So, on Sunday, I headed out to Wendover Woods and ran/hiked two laps of the WW50 course in unseasonably warm weather. It was hard work and very testing but I got it done and felt much more confident having done so. The mental block lifted somewhere around the 25km mark as I realised I still had the ability to at least go longer in training. I began to plan out some potential long routes in my head over the last 8km as I tried to engage my brain to distracts from the aches and pains of a 33km run

Week 7

Planned: 65.5km / Completed: 69.1km (+1593m)

Just like everybody else who is not a professional athlete, the stressors of work and life played their part again during this week. My car failed its MOT and was expensive to fix which was a great start to Monday! Then on Tuesday I found out that one of my former clients passed away which hung like black cloud across the rest of the week. Not an entirely unexpected death but shocking, premature and an emotional experience.

I put in some good running across the week and a great strength session, according to my training diary but as in Week 5 I have little recollection of the week!

This is turning into a really useful training post

Week 8

Planned 80km / Completed: 81.6km (+1150m)

Surprise, surprise! Another pretty intense week at work but a fantastic week of training culminating in a confidence boosting 40km training run on Saturday morning, followed by a confidence affirming 10km training run on Sunday evening in testing conditions – gale force wind and around seven different types of mud.

My 40km Saturday run was brilliant as I hovvered around the pace I’d like to achieve at my first race of 2019 – the West Pennine Ultra which will be at the end of Week 9. I also tested my nutrition for the race and found I had no troubles running within myself on 4 Shot Bloks, 1 Gu and 750ml of water

That’s it from me for this 4 week block. Onwards for Week 9 to 12!

SDW50: Weeks 1 to 4

Overall I am really happy with how my South Downs Way 50 training has started. I am also glad I started 4 weeks earlier than I had originally planned as these extra 4 weeks are going to prove invaluable in terms of building a base and consistency. Also valuable has been the continued commitment to weekly weight training, running at least once a week before work and the return of regular uphill treadmill hiking.

My treadmill totals for Weeks 1 to 4:

  • 12th – 5km, +355m (Week 1)
  • 17th – 3.2km, +371m (Week 2)
  • 20th – 1.1km, +167m (Week 2)
  • 21st – 6.2km, +660m (Week 3)
  • 30th – 2.1km, +248m (Week 4)
  • Total: 17.6km, +1801m

Week 1

Planned 65.9km / Completed: 65.1km (+962m)

The training block got off to a good start once I set my mind to it. However I soon realised that I was not going to be able to train in the pool as much or as easily as I thought if I was going to maintain any sort of balance with my home life and work life. This realisation, and some life changing events for a friend of mine led me to change my focus which I wrote about in Week 3.

Day 1, Week 1, Session 1: pre-dawn farm roads.

Week 1 saw a three double days and the commitment to running before work at least once a week started from day 1, Session 1. I ran doubles on Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday.

Week 2

Planned: 68.6km / Completed: 41.8km (+865m)

I started the week off feeling positive and raring to go. I began the week again with a pre-dawn morning run. As the week went on temperatures began to drop and I looked forward to some real winter running. Alas, things at work took off and then my week became a case of just getting runs done for some thinking and breathing space as opposed to focusing on distances and targets for the week.

I managed doubles on Thursday and Sunday – both back to backs. I ran trail to the gym and then onto the treadmill for uphill hiking workouts.

Sunday’s uphill dreadmill session.

I drove to the gym on Thursday, ran around the local park trails and then got changed for my weights session. I finished the weight session feeling good and still with time before Sarah finished her class so I decided to put in a decent treadmill session.

Sunday’s double was particularly memorable – although only short I was in full SDW50 kit having run to the gym to meet Sarah after her gym class. I arrived early so made the most of it!

Week 3

Planned: 94.4km / Completed: 90.3km (+1490m)

I got back on track in during week 3. Temperatures kept on falling and along with that came snow, ice and wind. This week was meant to be my first of two ‘peak’ weeks in terms of distance with Week 4 following as a taper into the Dartmoor Trail Marathon – as you will see as you read on to Week 4 this was cancelled so my plan had to change.

Cold, dark, wet, windy and happy!

Anyway, back to Week 3.

Not the perfect week by any means. I struggled with the increase in distance given that Week 2 was not the best build up to it! I got in some decent runs but towards the end of the week I was finding it difficult to maintain pace and motivation. So much so, in fact, that I abandoned my long run on Saturday and cut it down to a 10km hike/run (mostly hiking with x3 1km run sections). I turned Saturday into a double though, and headed out after dark for 6km. I figured I owed it to myself and to my fiancé to get back out and cheer myself up! I kept the pace relaxed and stayed in the mud. I could have chosen an easier road based loop but I felt it wouldn’t satisfy me as much as getting out in the rain, wind and darkness. I made the right choice.

That is something of note during this 4 week block – I have absolutely loved being out in the dark, the wind and the rain/snow/sleet. My daylight runs haven’t seemed to have had much pep or positive feeling to them – pre-dawn or post-sundown I seem to be happiest at the moment!

This bodes well for my plans later in the year and into 2020!

(Come to think of it, it bodes well for now as it doesn’t seem to be getting any warmer anytime soon, although the daylight hours are growing longer)

Week 4

Planned 82.6km / Completed: 91.3km (+1336m)

Two double days for Week 4 and the commitment to run at least once a week before work is still intact! Twice this week, farms roads on Tuesday morning and icy/snowy trails on Wednesday morning. Week 4 also saw the commitment to weight training still going strong.

Tuesday’s second run was great as it was the perfect antidote to the long, drab and frustrating day I had at work. I absolutely loved running into icy rain that turned to snow, over wet and muddy field edges in new shoes and gloves with removable wind mitt (it feels like your fingers have their own duvet). Perfect! I felt great over rough ground and fast too – I always try to put in a strong effort in new shoes and I was glad to bag a Strava CR for the maiden voyage of my 6th pair of La Sportiva Helios SR. Yes, 6! I cannot get enough of these shoes and wax lyrical about them to anybody who asks about what I believe to be the best trail shoes (all down to personal choice in the end, but these are special). I should probably write a post about them one day…

La Sportiva Helios SR (6th pair, first run)

Anyway, I digress. Back to Week 4.

Wednesday, as I mentioned, I went out before work on the trails and then in the evening I warmed up for my weights session on the treadmill. As the week progressed I started to feel really strong physically and my mental game felt switched on for racing on Dartmoor over the weekend. I backed off on Thursday with no running and began to wind down and taper (aside from moving 900kg of firewood into the shed that evening). Little did I know that I would wake up on Friday, the day I had planned to drive down to Devon, to find disappointment and the need to rapidly reassess my weekend plans.

Long story short: it snowed a lot over Thursday night and the UK once again failed to properly prepare. Friday’s road situation was terrible and the RD of Dartmoor Marathon decided to move the race from Saturday to Sunday. This helped with my decision to withdraw from the race. I am glad I decided not to risk the travel for a Sunday race too as come Saturday afternoon the RD cancelled the race – the right decision I think judging by the fact that the rural roads of Devon were basically blocked by snow and ice and competitors from far and wide couldn’t even get to race HQ.

I was bitterly disappointed on Friday. I had the day off work and thought I would try and go out locally for a 42-45km effort in the snow. I’d like to say that I went out and made the most of a bad situation, and enjoyed myself. But I’d be lying if I said that! With the race postponement and impending cancellation I started with a really negative mindset.

Friday: Air Temp -1°C / Wind Chill -10 °C

Although I set off with full winter trail running kit, by the time I reached 8km I had already decided to cut it to 21km – I just wasn’t feeling mentally switched on to push it without anyone to compete against. I had gels and water bottles, and I had a 21km loop planned so I could use my car as an aid station after lap 1, but the desire wasn’t there. At the end of the run I went to the sauna and spa as my car was parked outside! I sat and adjusted my goals for the weekend and drank the water, sugary tea and fruit I had stashed in the aid/station car.

Friday: Leaden skies, searing winds

The plan turned from hard winter marathon racing to back to back trail half marathons and then a 25km on Sunday to see me surpass my original weekly target. It would also mean I set myself up nicely for an easy Week 5 before picking back up again! Friday night I found the GPX for the Dunstable Downs Challenge Half Marathon and vowed to give a good account on the course on Saturday afternoon.

I was in a much happier and positive state of mind than Friday. I went out and put in a decent effort that I really enjoyed and was really pleased with! I finished 4th on the Dunstable Downs Challenge Marathon route back in September and the day’s half marathon effort would have seen me finish 6th had I race that distance instead – not bad considering there was no snow or mud in September!

Saturday: sun and snowy trails

Saturday wasn’t as cold as Friday, with the sun shining and a gentle breeze as opposed to leaden skies and harsh wind. I took my gloves off at about 5km, and I didn’t need my jacket or hat. Although my legs felt quite heavy I found what rhythm I could given the conditions underfoot and tried to keep my pace up. I slowed for a bit after about an hour so I could change podcasts but that was it. Sunshine, snow, techno and quiet trails were exactly what I needed to forget about the Dartmoor Trail Marathon.

Saturday: views from Bedfordshire over to Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire

Saturday evening I plotted out a GPX course around a local Nature Reserve that I haven’t run before – 5km longer than Friday and Saturday’s efforts with more climbing too.

I slept really badly over Saturday night so I am surprised I pulled myself together to get out for Saturday’s long run before lunch time! I slept so badly, in fact, that I got out of bed at 2330 and wrote the majority of this blog post returning to sleep at 0200. I woke at 0815…

Once I’d had some porridge and coffee I started to feel more relaxed, less achy and motivated to bag another 90km week as a counter to the lack of racing.

I took it easy from the off with my main aim to just get around and to enjoy the movement, the scenery and running somewhere new. I felt tired almost from the start – a mixture of an awful night of sleep and two half marathons back to back in the days preceding. On the hiking climbs I felt it in my calf muscles, on the running sections I felt it in my hamstrings, but nothing could take the enjoyment away from being outside in the sunshine and fresh air.

The run had it all deep snow, ice crust, ploughed fields, mud and plenty of undulations along with a couple of big climbs. It was the perfect end to the week really and I can safely say I’ve earned a sub-90km week next week.