Project Road Runner

Injuring myself at Country to Capital at the start of the year forced me to the sidelines for quite a while and led to a relatively quiet year on the ultra scene for me! This also meant I had some time to think about what I wanted to do once I recovered. Obviously I started by simply wanting to finish an ultra and then to continue on to have a decent race at Lakeland 50 – at the time of writing I can happily say I accomplished both of those goals.

I remained steadfastly disciplined during my recovery in terms of not entering any ultras after Lakeland. My plan was to see how I felt afterwards. What I hadn’t bargained for was my passion for racing and my desire to always have a goal to aim for! This lead me to enter the Brighton Marathon which is due to take place in April 2018. This will be my first road marathon since Frankfurt in 2014 and as soon as I entered my mind went straight to goal setting and this then led into what I have now called Project Road Runner!

I don’t think it will come as a surprise to any regular reader of this blog, or to any seasoned runner, that the A-goal I have set for Brighton is 2:55 – this gives me enough room for error on the day and in the lead up as my current road marathon PR stands at 3:19:10 which I set back in Frankfurt! As Ironman World Champion Chris McCormack has said:

 

“Goals, when set, can be lofty and at times far away. For this reason it’s important to identify what the goal is—but even more important to know the process you have put in place to reach that goal. The process is the most important, and understanding how it relates to the bigger picture helps you remain in control of the journey.”

 

So what is the process to reach the goal of a road marathon PR at Brighton? The process is Project Road Runner.

Over 7 months I intend to shift my focus from predominantly ultra trail based racing and training and switch over to more of a road and speed focus – I’ll be racing a number of road races to build speed endurance and also the cross country season (November to February) to build strength. My aim for each of the road races I’ve entered is simple – transform the training into a new PR! I have not focused on speed or road running since returning from Germany back in 2014. For the sake of Project Road Runner I have included PRs set outside of races where I have not beaten a training PR for any reason, but  for the sake of the Project I have set the parameter that any new PR must be set in a race. My current PRs:

 

5km – 18:41 (Training, May 19th 2016)

5 Miles – 30:31 (Pednor 5 Road Race, May 1st 2017)

10km – 37:50 (Bushey 10k, July 6th 2014)

10 Miles – 1:07:12 (Training, June 8th 2016)

Half Marathon – 1:28:43 (St. Albans Half Marathon, June 11th 2017)

Marathon – 3:19:10 (Frankfurt Marathon, October 26th 2014)

 

I have set target races for each distance but by no means is that race schedule set in stone. If I happen to be feeling on top of my game and in good form then I will do my utmost to find a race that I have yet to set a PR for and get to it! The target races are:

 

5km – parkrun/TBC

5 Miles – TBC

10km – TBC

10 Miles – Fred Hughes 10 Miler, January

Half Marathon – Watford Half Marathon, February

Marathon – Brighton Marathon, April

 

I’ll be using TrainingPeaks for the first time to help me plan out my training, stay focused and keep an eye on my progress. I’ll still be using Strava but mainly as an interactive platform as I feel that is the way it is heading – before long it’ll be more of an endurance social media platform than it currently is! It certainly still has a place, but after giving TrainingPeaks a go I can’t praise it highly enough for the opportunity it provides to dig deep into the specifics of each workout and to monitor the long term trends of your training! I know that’s not everyone’s cup of tea but it is definitely mine.

So that is Project Road Runner!

But what about afterwards?

A couple of weeks after Brighton Marathon Sarah and I will be heading to India for 3 weeks which is going to be an amazing way to reward a long training block and to kick back and get away from structured training. Our flights are booked and we have a loose plan to head from Amritsar on the Pakistan border across northern India – we aim to travel mostly by train and we hope to visit New Delhi, Rishikesh, Lucknow, Agra, Varanasi, Bodhgaya and finish in Kolkata on the Bangladesh border.

After we return there will be new goals to reach, new processes to follow and new challenges to face!

I am extremely excited about the next 9 months!

Lakeland 50, July 29th 2017

If I could only do one race a year it would definitely be Lakeland 50. Without a shadow of a doubt. High praise, indeed, and well deserved!

Last year was my first at the race and it was an amazing, brilliant experience in which I surpassed all of my pre-race expectations! This year was also an amazing and brilliant experience but I definitely did not surpass my pre-race expectations – in fact, I was just very glad to have got it done by the time I crossed the finish line. It was an epic day out in the mountains with all manner of literal and metaphorical ups and downs.

I went into the race under trained and carrying my first case of plantar fasciitis. The under training was a mixture of the PF and the fact that over the last few weeks of my training block I struggled a lot with a high level of life stress, depression and anxiety which arose from many different areas from work, to family, to injury – it was a tough few weeks but I was determined to get through them and to line up at Lakeland come what may! I may follow up on this paragraph with a breakdown of my training for Lakeland from Week 7 to 12 but I’m undecided on that just now. If you want to see how Week 1 to 6 panned out, click here.

Lakeland 50 – treadmill hills training.

By the time I finished work on Wednesday 26th July, I felt so much happier and excited to be going to the Lake District with Sarah. I didn’t care that the weather forecast was looking a bit grim! I was just looking forward to being surrounded by the Lakeland Family and the fells. We set off on Thursday afternoon and spent the night visting my Ma and on Friday we made our way to Coniston. It was to be Sarah’s first time in the Lake District and we were both looking forward to a shakeout hike by the time we set up the tent and I had registered.

Overnight the heavens opened and there was a sense around the campsite of foreboding – would it continue to rain so heavily through the 50 mile race?! I think everybody on  the camp site was thinking of how hard the 100 milers must be suffering out there on the dark, drenched mountains of the Lake District. I have to say at this point I have SO much respect for those that take on the 100 miler – I have no idea how to process that race, I wouldn’t even know where to begin training for it let alone racing it. From what I hear the first half is very rugged and technical (and in the dark) and the second half is the same course as the 50…which is also rugged but could be described [I guess] as more ‘runnable’.

Morning came and I slept well, much like I did last year. The only thing was, that unlike last year, when I moved out of my sleeping bag I found that somehow during the night I had pulled a muscle around my left glute and it was very tight. I had promised myself and Sarah on the drive up to Coniston that no  matter what hurdles I faced I would choose to go around, through, over or under it with a smile – so that’s what I did. I boiled some water, made some coffee and porridge in the pouring rain and smiled at the craziness of what was happening and at the race that was about to unfold. I had a feeling it was going to be a different experience from 2016.

The briefing came around and I’d been awake for two hours already. As the RD, Mark Laithwaite, explained to the newcomers what lay ahead and cracked jokes about what had gone before in the 9 previous editions the excitement and tension began to build in the tent. About 650 runners and hikers were about to head out into the fells and Mark kindly informed us that ‘fortunately, the weather seems to be on your side today, looks like the rain will blow over by lunchtime’…and then a heavy downpour began pounding the canvas under which we were gathered! We were dismissed to go and make our final preparations before some boarded the coaches to the start at Dalemain and some were driven by their brilliant and wonderful supporters (thanks Sarah!).

In the start pen, counting down the seconds to go time!

The rain continued on the drive to Dalemain and then it began to ease off a little in the 30 minutes before the start. Then, as we were released from the start pen it began to rain again. Heavily. Thankfully, that was it from the rain though! Mark was right, the weather was to be on our side for the most part. The rain stopped about  90 minutes into the race and I dried out quite quickly in the intermittent sunshine that appeared through the dull gray clouds once in a while.

What happened over the course of the next 60km surprised me somewhat! I had stashed my splits from the 2016 race in my pack and whenever I checked them I found myself to be a few minutes ahead or a few seconds down on them right up to the unmanned dibber checkpoint at 70km!

My glute bothered me a lot up to CP2 at Mardale Head but my PF was nowhere to been felt. I kept on eating and moving well and did my utmost to hold back from racing anybody around me.

On the way to CP2 I got talking to another runner, Gareth Rowlands, who had dislocated his elbow at mile 8 but who had decided it didn’t matter and he was going to continue regardless! We ran together throughout the rest of the race – not solidly as he was finding the downhill sections pretty tough with one arm (!) but he managed to catch up over the flatter sections where I tend to hold back and take it easy. Gareth finished three minutes in front of me after an exceptional debut Lakeland 50 under extraordinary circumstances!

On the way to CP3 at Kentmere I stuck to my guns and continued to race within myself and not against anybody. However, about 3km out of Kentmere I found myself trying to keep in touch with the small group in front of me and, in hindsight, probably pushing a little too hard for the amount of food I was putting in.

I found myself running solo at some point outside Troutbeck on the way to Ambleside.

At some point in the kilometres beforehand I realised I was indeed racing to try and keep the group in front in sight. I was worrying about making a wrong turn or getting lost without anybody to follow -but then it clicked that I actually knew the way so I should just chill out and get back to running my own race!

At Troutbeck I was happy to see my friend Rob Spavin who I ran with last year from that point all the way to the finish. Rob has been battling injury a fair bit this year and wasn’t racing but he had told me he’d be out on the course supporting. Lo and behold, at the sign for Troutbeck there he was! I couldn’t believe my eyes and it was so good to see a familiar face and have the chance to catch up on the hike from Troutbeck onto the trails to CP4 and Ambleside. It gave me a boost and it was great fun – thanks Rob!

I arrived at CP4 and just over half way feeling great as I ran into Ambleside and still ahead of my 2016 splits – Sarah was there and it was great to see her. I had a cup of tea, ate some crisps and then jogged out of the CP towards the fells with Sarah. She gave me some motivational talk and a kiss and then it was back out on my own again!

After I left Sarah I began to conduct a mindful body scan. From this I learned that eating was becoming more and more difficult and that my feet were hurting a lot more than they were at this point in 2016. I acknowledged both of those facts, smiled and started chatting to the guy running next to me about the route, the views and the Lakeland experience! I was quietly hoping that the difficulty with my eating would pass and suppressing anything other than positive mantras.

The section from Ambleside to CP5 at Chapel Stile/Langdale could be described as benign and runnable. Unfortunately for me, this year it was neither. The closer I got to CP5 the more difficult I found it to keep on running and I found that I was being passed by other runners – normally I wouldn’t care about that but I flipped between letting them go and then trying hard to keep up and pass them again. A stupid thing to do when the nutrition side of things is becoming a struggle! By the time I arrived at CP5 I was still somehow slightly ahead of my 2016 splits and I focused on that as a positive. I stopped for a while, had a small bowl of vegan broth along with some coke and then set off towards Langdale and one of my favourite sections of the course.

Just outside the Chapel Stile CP Gareth caught up with me again and from here we ran and hiked together all the way to the base of the last climb at CP6 at Tilberthwaite. Having somebody to run with made all the difference and we exchanged positive comments and chatter all the way to the unmanned dibber at Wrynose – 10km to go and homeward bound on a nice, long road donwhill. Or so it was last year. This year I found the road descent great but as soon as we got back onto the trail and heading uphill I began to feel dizzy, nauseous and struggled to hold a decent conversation with Gareth.

CP5 Chapel Stile and Langdale is looming!

I manged a handful of jelly beans and one Shot Blok from Chapel Stile to the final CP at Tilberthwaite. Oh dear.

On arrival at the CP I was feeling monumentally rough but Gareth was motoring towards the finish! With only 5.5km to go from there to the end I couldn’t blame him for continuing on through the CP like a Formula 1 driver while I hung back and tried to gather myself! Thankfully I was alone at the CP as Sarah had decided to come and surprise me. I will admit here that I wasn’t the nicest of people to be around as I could see my 2016 splits slipping away and I could feel my energy and motivation to fight off my competitors draining away with them. Thanks so much to Sarah and the CP volunteers for putting up with me for 6 or 7 minutes of faffing around my pack trying to find my headtorch and declining all offers of food and drink!

By the time I got out of Tilberthwaite I was feeling extremely tired and I knew I had a tough, steep climb to come followed by some pretty rough ground culminating in a steep, technical descent in the dark. I was in 80th place when I got into CP6 but by the time I got to the stream crossing a the top of the climb I’d dropped to 86th. I was counting the people passing me. It was tough! I tried in vain to get back into the race but after about 300m (that felt like 2km) I stopped. I tried to pee and that wasn’t happening so I turned and threw up a little instead. I started to shiver. Shit. Not cool. I was glad of a little wake up call a few moments later as a runner passed me and just said “Throw up at the finish, it’s over there. Put your bloody coat on”. I took a deep breathe, swilled some water and put my coat on over my pack and put my gloves on. I was in 87th place now and I trudged on! I was hungry, I felt rough, I was tired and I couldn’t stand the taste of water but I was so close! I started to jog towards the treacherous descent and began not to care about anything other than getting into Coniston and getting my shoes off.

I managed to get down the descent, stumbling and hopping my way to the runnable switchbacks and occasionally glancing back to see two head torches bearing down on me. I didn’t care, I was approaching the last mile and I was going to run all the way even if it meant a trip to hospital! I overtook one person as we got off the descent and onto a gravel track but a few moments later, before we hit the last road section into the finish I was overtaken by three people. I was in 89th and that was enough motivation to get me moving a bit quicker – I wanted to finish in the 80s and I was going to. And I did. I got it done!

Hey Al, look here, SMILE, you’ve finished!

I ran over the finish line and I did not feel wonderful! The finish was a blur as they take you into the Finishers tent and announce your arrival to the large gathering of friends, family, supporters and other finishers – all I heard was noise and all I could see was a blur of lights. Sarah was there and snapped a picture – I have no idea how (or why) but I was smiling!

Gareth (10:47:33) and I (10:50:43) at the finish line.

It took about two hours to recover my composure and my constitution but I got out of my clothes, had a power nap and then slowly (very slowly) consumed a bottle of Sprite and a bowl of rice and chilli before showering. After that I felt magical and Sarah and I went to the Finishers tent to cheer in other 50 and 100 runners for a couple of hours.

Lakeland is fantastic. Thanks to all my fellow competitors, their supporters and to the race organisers, volunteers and to the communities through which our merry band make our way each year!

Sarah and I cheering in other 50 and 100 finishers.

I won’t be racing next year but I will be back, either as a volunteer/marshall or as a spectator.

Lakeland 50 Training: weeks 1 to 6 (of 12)

I have approached my training for Lakeland this year with a view to covering the distance in a shorter time and with a view to making gains on the uphill sections of the race, where I was strongest last year. I believe the key to covering the distance quicker will be to race shorter distances often and the key to uphill strength will be regular, testing treadmill hikes.

The key sessions each week during my first 4 weeks of training were  treadmill hikes, 3 races over three weekends at various distances and then a long weekend of back to back to back long runs on the South Downs Way.

Weeks 5 and 6 saw racing as the key workouts – first of all a successful attempt at lowering my road half marathon personal best and then the following week another crack at my 5 mile personal best, which although not successful proved to be a very good race for me as I finished 4th!

After a 2 week break from treadmill sessions, this week (Week 7) saw their return and another preparation race too – this time the North Devon Trail Marathon. The plan for this particular race is to condition the quads and to run hard on the downhills, particularly on the second half of the course. Depending on how that goes I may write a race report which has become something of a rarity on this blog!

But now, onto a breakdown of Weeks 1 through 6.

Week 1

The day before Lakeland 50, session 1 happened to be the Hertfordshire County 5 Mile Road Championship and I was very pleased to line up with my club. My aim was to get the legs turning and to keep the speed up with a view to running under 31:00 on a tough course – I ran hard off the gun and felt good all the way, my legs felt heavy going up the first climb but they soon got into the swing of things and I was really pleased to remain calm and focused to secure 24th place in a time of 30:58!

I took a rest day after the race and then started my Lakeland 50 training with the treadmill session outlined above.  I was trying to emulate the ascent profile of the 4km section out of the aid station and up to the top of Fusedale but I fell short by 90m or so when all was said and done!

I carried on past 4km really focused on hiking strongly and breathing deeply, the run sections at 10kmph weren’t too tough but once I dropped to a 5% incline and increased to 12kmph I started to struggle so I decreased the pace and incline further for the final kilometre ‘cool down’.

I felt it was a solid start to the training block and it left me feeling strong, focused and confident.

By the end of the week I hit 73.7km having set a 70km goal.

Mile 4.2 – Herts County AAA 5 Mile Road Championship

Week 2

I took a very low mileage and low impact training approach during Week 2 as I knew I had the North Downs Way 50 miler to contend with. It was a big race for me because I was going into having not finished an ultra since Lakeland 50 in 2016.

Redemption is sweet and I finished the race in a pretty respectable 40th place with a time of 9:03:20 – not a PR and clearly not a sub-9 but that really didn’t matter to me for once! After two ultra DNF and one ultra DNS since July 2016 the time came to put it right. I was, and still am, 100% happy with how redemption feels – my pacing was solid and my heart rate was consistent throughout. No big surges of pace or HR, just a solid [very] long run effort!

For the first time ever in a race my A-goal was just to finish and I repeated often: ‘You’re running with and for you, not against yourself, anyone else or the clock’.

The weather was perfect and the scenery was beautiful and it was amazing have Sarah out on course crewing me at 2 Aid Stations and a Crew Access Point.

I finished the week feeling really pleased and with a growing confidence that my 2017 Lakeland goals were achievable.

By the end of the week I hit 111.6km having set an 80km goal.

Week 3

After a decent shakeout run on Sunday after NDW50 and a pretty great rest day on Monday I felt it wasn’t beyond me to get in a fairly hefty treadmill workout early in the week. My legs felt really good post-race but my quads were still a tiny bit sore but as the week went on that faded and I got back to my pre-race condition.

Everything clicked during the first treadmill session of the week and I felt really relaxed and focused.  But then, well, then life happened and I found myself battling through a pretty tough week at work!

By the time Friday rolled around my brain was so frazzled that I couldn’t even begin to think about a route to run outdoors so I decided instead for the sometimes easier option of a treadmill session. I had no real aim at all for the session and I was too tired to figure out zones, goals or anything so I just ran and listened to techno! It’s not often that I will make a treadmill workout easier as it progresses but as I felt the workout getting more difficult I reduced the incline at first, and then the pace as I just wanted to switch off my mind and relax. After 30 minutes it worked, so I stopped and shifted my focus to my third race in three weeks which would follow two days later!

‘All trails, roads and treadmills lead to Lakeland 50’ – that is the mantra I repeated from about the 3km point of the Wheathampstead Trail 10km when I started to feel really tired. I hung in and at about 4km I put in a surge to break out of a little group, 2 other guys came with me and then we battled it out to the end. I felt pretty much spent at the 7km mark after putting in an effort on a downhill stretch and then the race came to a gravel section and it seemed to suck the life out of me. This was followed, cruelly, by probably my least favourite surface to race on and a further loss of energy – we hit grass. Ugh.

I pulled myself together mentally and physically at 8km and focused on maintaining my pace and my position. This was a success and I finished in 16th place in 40:47 which I felt was not a bad effort at all considering the previous week’s 50 miler along with some tough treadmill sessions leading into the race – definitely good tired legs speed training!

Wheathampstead 10k, final 400m

By the end of the week I hit 47.6km having set a 40km goal.

Week 4

I started the week on Tuesday with my customary Lakeland treadmill session. I began this one with a 5km ‘warm-up’ – for the first 2km this was the case but it got very hot as the sun beat through the windows of the gym right onto the treadmill. It got pretty tough then! I was glad of the ‘respite’ when I got to 5km and then slowed to a fast hike as I increased the incline. The 3km hike section was also pretty tough but only really for the first mile or so – after that I settled into a rhythm, concentrated on my music and when I felt like I was struggling I fixed my eyes outside and admired the sky and the trees. It’s workouts like this one that I will draw upon during the race itself this year – it is always possible to distract the mind if there is something to focus on aside from running metrics or the physical body…and, if the mind still wants to stay locked into a negative aspect, you can always force it to think back to the tough times on the treadmill when there wasn’t really anything to look at and there was no fresh air to breathe!

I covered 25.5km on Friday straight after work and set in motion the plan for a back to back to back long run weekend. The Friday run was great, with the vast majority in zone 2 under a beating sun but with very light legs and an empty mind – it set up the rest of the weekend perfectly.

On Saturday morning of Week 4  Sarah and I set off for the south coast for the weekend – this was certainly the highlight not only because we got away from ‘real’ life but also because the Saturday and Sunday long runs on the South Downs Way were amazing – a great way to get in some ‘off-treadmill’ ascent in beautiful surroundings! I haven’t run on the Downs since South Downs Way 50 miler in 2015 and it brought back many memories as it was my first 50 miler.  I ran 20.2km on the Saturday and rounded out the weekend with 24.4km on Sunday – both runs were on the SDW50 course which got me to thinking about entering it again at some point in the future…

With the B2B2B long weekend done I felt really good both mentally and physically. I knew that the following week was going to be a low mileage affair and I had come to peace with that during the course of Week 4 – as I’m sure many of you reading this will know, it is so difficult to dial back the mileage at any point during a training block but I focused on the fact I really wanted to put in a PR performance at my local half marathon!

South Downs Way

By the end of the week I hit 93.1km having set an 85km goal.

Week 5 

This is probably the first week that I haven’t hit my mileage target for any other reason than injury in a long time! I dialed back the mid-week miles and spent a lot of time undertaking mindfulness practice, visualising what for me constituted a perfect road half marathon in preparation for the weekend’s attempt!

When race day arrived on Sunday it was very, very hot out. Which works well for me because I absolutely love running in the heat and I think I I took advantage of it – I locked into a pace just in front of the 1:30 pacers and stayed there. If I could choose a few words to summarise: surprising, comfortable, ecstatic. This is the first time I’ve run with pacers and it took about 8km to get used to it – at first I felt pressured but in the end it was cool and I felt really comfortable from 10km onwards, chatting with the pace guys. I left them with about 2 miles to go and starting catching people up and racing in over the final 800m.

St. Albans Half Marathon, final 200m

I loved the run, loved the weather and I was really happy to finish the race with a 10 mile and Half Marathon PR on a tough, hilly course! The finish line was great and pretty special too as Sarah and her nieces were waiting at the finish chute – they surprised me and spent the wait time making banners for me which was so cute! It was a great end to a race that I ran 5 years to the day before in 1:38:05 – my first half marathon and only my second race. I finished the 2017 edition in 61st place with a PR of 1:28:49!

Isla & Elsie – creating cheer banners!

By the end of the week I hit 53.2km having set a 60km goal.

Week 6

The last ‘no treadmill’ week before Lakeland and the reason again was to save my legs the incline training before attempting a 5 mile PR at another local race!

I had some pretty good runs during the week, although Tuesday’s start was a little sore as I didn’t take my post-race recovery very seriously after St. Albans Half Marathon so I found myself suffering with DOMS over the course of 18.2km on trail and road! The rest of the week I spent a fair amount of time in the local spa pool, foam rolling and shaking out my legs on gentle trail runs.

Saturday rolled around and with it, race day too. The only goal I had was to give 100% and considering it was 31°c I think I did okay and gave a good account of myself! It wasn’t my fastest 5 miler but it was certainly a good hard, 100% effort and I was delighted to finish 4th place in 31.22. I went into 4th place around the 1.5km mark and decided to put in a surge over the next 800m or so to stay in touch with the front three and hopefully drop the small group I was at the front of. It worked but around 5km I found myself running solo as the front 3 broke away. That was probably the hardest thing – feeling like I was being chased down – I couldn’t tell if I was because there were no turns on the course that allowed me to see who was behind, or how close they might be! I always try my hardest to follow Paula Radcliffe’s advice during road and cross country races: ‘Never look behind, focus on running as hard as you can!’ Anyway, it was super hot and as the gradient increased at the 6km mark my pace began to suffer but I gritted my teeth, pushed on through Zone 5 and was very glad to see the Finish arch when I got to it.

The Harpenden Oval Race, finishing sprint.

By the end of the week I hit 85km having set an 85km goal.

That’s it then for the first half of my Lakeland 50 training block. For the most part, so far, I feel very strong both physically and mentally. There have been a couple of wobbles but I would say far fewer than in previous training blocks in years gone by. I am confident that whatever happens come race day on July 29th I will be ready to put one foot in front of the other, give 100% the whole way and as long as I cross the finish line knowing I’ve suffered well I will be happy. The likelihood is I will post a summary of the second half of my training the week before Lakeland (Week 13) as I’m not counting that in the block – that week will be purely tapering, probably not cold turkey, but a massively reduced training load for sure!

Thanks for reading guys! For newcomers to my blog, I hope you found this useful and/or interesting and for those regular readers – thank you so much for your continued support.

Peace & Blessings

Steve Birkinshaw’s 12 Tips for a Wainwrights Attempt

In 1986, the legendary fell runner Joss Naylor completed a continuous circuit of all 214 Wainwright fells in the Lake District, covering a staggering distance of over 300 miles – plus many thousands of metres of ascent – in only seven days and one hour.

Those in the know thought that this record would never be beaten. It is the ultimate British ultramarathon. The person taking on this superhuman challenge would have to be willing to push harder and suffer more than ever before. There is no Map in Hell tells the story of a man willing to do just that.

In 2014, Steve Birkinshaw made an attempt at setting a new record. With a background of nearly forty years of running elite orienteering races and extreme-distance fell running over the toughest terrain, if he couldn’t do it, surely no one could. But the Wainwrights challenge is in a different league: aspirants need to complete two marathons and over 5,000 metres of ascent every day for a week.

With a foreword by Joss Naylor, There is no Map in Hell recounts Birkinshaw’s preparation, training and mile-by-mile experience of the extraordinary and sometimes hellish demands he made of his mind and body, and the physiological aftermath of such a feat. His deep love of the fells, phenomenal strength and tenacity are awe inspiring, and testimony to athletes and onlookers alike that ‘in order to attain the impossible, one must attempt the absurd’.

  1. Have a background of running over the fells for many years – decades preferably. You are less likely to get injured and will be able to move faster, especially when tired, over the rough Lake District terrain.
  2. Recce good routes between as many of the Wainwright fells as possible. Alternatively, find supporters to help on sections they know really well.
  3. Find a lead support person who is happy to drive round the Lake District for a week with very little sleep (!), who will sort out your every need, and also the needs of up to fifty people who will be running with you. They need to put up with continual stress and hassle for the whole week, and yet stay calm and be able to make good decisions. A pretty big ask.
  4. Find up to fifty people who are happy to be out with you at any time of the day on sections of up to ten hours. If there are at least two on every section it makes it much easier.
  5. Eat as much as you can while running the Wainwrights. On a run of this length with twenty-hour days, you will never be able to eat as many calories as you consume. The pace is slow, so the type of food is not really important. All that matters is finding something you can eat – that you fancy. At the support campervan I enjoyed pizza, onion bhaji and tepid soup. Whilst running, Torq gels went down well. But everyone is different in what they feel they can stomach at times like this.
  6. Make sure you stay hydrated. With a support team carrying water for you this should not be an issue.
  7. Avoid getting blisters or any over-use injury. I changed my socks and shoes regularly to keep my feet dry and I still got really bad blisters – even though I have never had bad blisters before. I also got tendonitis in the front of one of my legs above the ankle, despite decades of running long distances over similar terrain.
  8. Accept that things will go wrong, and don’t stress about it when they do. I was badly sick at one point, which I could have got quite stressed over, but I took it easy for the rest of the section and after a rest in the campervan my stomach was OK again.
  9. Make sure all the shoes and clothing items have been tested beforehand and do not rub.
  10. Have a campervan (or even two like me) at every support point. This allows for hot food to be made easily, provides a nice place to change away from midges and also gives the possibility of sleeping if necessary.
  11. Remember that everyone out helping you has volunteered and given up their time to be there for you. So be nice to them and thank them.
  12. Pick a week with a really warm, dry weather forecast. It will make your support team much happier and everything easier to organise. If only it was that easy! By the time fifty people are sorted and ready to help it is very hard to change the date, you just need good luck.

Good luck to anyone that does try and run round the Wainwrights. The key things are to have run long distances for many years on the fells and to find a great support team so that all you need to do is think about putting one foot in front of the other.

So there we have it, some tips from Steve and Day 4 of his 9 day running blog tour. Next up, a post on Andy Mouncey’s blog tomorrow.

Onward, to Lakeland 50!

Last night I wrapped up a successful Spring training season during which I bounced back from the dismay of not finishing Country to Capital and the sorrow of not being able to start TransGranCanaria.

Coming back from these set backs was a gradual process and I began building up whilst I was in Gran Canaria – I started undertaking daily yoga practice again and my mileage slowly began to increase in the weeks following. I entered 3 races in a bid to get back into the racing mindset and to face my anxiety that I might be losing my edge!

Those three races were pretty successful and distances I don’t normally run. The first was the Ashridge Boundary Trail – a local trail race with a friendly atmosphere and plenty of hills. I finished the 16.5 miles in 2:12 in 25th position which came as quite a  surprise because I felt unprepared to say the least! A month later I visited Cornwall with Sarah and found Cornwall’s only fell race (Category C) – The Five Tors on Bodmin Moor is an 8 mile race with a loosely marked course and some fast descening. The race was tougher than I expected but I finished in 1:07 in 33rd place, I’m not sure what I found so difficult but I had a bit of a mental wobble over the final few kilometres and I just couldn’t get my pace to pick up to anything approaching competitive. The main thing for me was to get it done though and I eventually finished happy and smiling!

Finally, the culmination of my training over Spring – the Hertfordshire Amateur Athletic Association’s 5 Mile Championship road race at Pednor. I ran hard off the gun and felt good all the way! My legs were heavy early on but that didn’t stop a sub-6 minute first mile and then into the first climb at 3 miles my legs warmed up and started turning over nicely. My aim was to run under 31:00 so I’m really pleased, considering it’s not a flat course, to have registered a 30:58 for 24th place at the meet and 8th in the County!

I was the 5th Watford Jogger to cross the line – our first 4 won the County Team Championship and our second four were 4th in the County and 6th at the meet. We also swept up so many awards across the board! A brilliant night for the club and I’m proud to have been part of it. The race probably marked the end of my really fast stuff until after Lakeland 50 but I suspect I’ll be back on the roads training for a road marathon before the end of the year.

Lakeland 50 training this year will be pretty similar to last year as I still believe it to be the best race I’ve ever run in terms of strategy and pacing! I think the lead up really helped.

The training kicks of fully with two race weekends back to back – first up the North Downs Way 50 followed the weekend after with a local 10km trail race. I’ll be focusing on just finishing the NDW50 as I haven’t actually finished an ultra race since Lakeland last year! At the Wheathampstead 10km the weekend after I will be aiming to push hard from the gun and see what happens – much in the same way as I raced at Pednor.

I’ll train for two weeks after this and then it’s the St. Albans Half Marathon. This is another local race and run on road. It is also the first half marathon I ever ran five years ago and I haven’t raced one since! I ran 1:38 the first time out and I’d only been running for about 8 months so I didn’t really know what I was doing. The course is undulating [tough] and I’m hoping to push on again and see what happens – I would absolutely love to run under 1:30. Two weeks after this it’s the North Devon trail marathon.

I’ll be racing the North Devon Trail Marathon and focusing more on trail running speed as opposed to fast hiking speed as I did at Mont Blanc Marathon last year and I’m hoping to run a competitive race.

Two weeks before the race last year I ran the Chiltern Hills 50km Ultra but this year I’ve decided not to race and instead I will be traversing the Rhinogydd range with my friend Matt on the Saturday – it’s about a 20 mile route with 1800m of acscent. On the Sunday it’ll be a further 10 miles before beginning my taper into Lakeland.

The main staple of my training, alongside the racing, will be a weekly progression incline run on the treadmill. I did this sporadically last year and I wish I’d done more of it! I have been building this up over the last three weeks of my Spring training season and I’m seeing the benefits.

I’ve put a lot of thought and time into planning this year’s Lakeland 50 training and I am confident that it will produce a decent showing on the day – hopefully it will translate to a 10 hour if the conditions are anything like last year!

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.

2017 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 2017 in life and in sport:

Endurance Sports

  1. Finish every race I enter
  2. Win a race (I say this every year…). Alternatively, reach the podium!
  3. Gain another coaching qualification
  4. Buy a decent road/Time Trial bike
  5. Swim at least once a week
  6. Race an Aquathlon, a Duathlon and a Triathlon
  7. Improve my 50k or road marathon PR

Life

  1. Expand the Flowers Endurance client base
  2. Finish my Hatha Yoga teacher training course
  3. Drink less alcohol
  4. Commit to a plant based diet
  5. Build on the foundations of a brilliant 2016 to make 2017 an even better year!