Monday, 24 July 2017

Race Report: Chapel Fell Top

Despite not being able to make sufficient fixtures to actually qualify for either the NECAA champs or the NFR champs due to a combination of injuries and other races, I still fancied having a crack at this, which was a Tuesday-evening AS organised by Durham Fell Runners.

Driving south through the Pennines, the view was genuinely breath-taking. I live on the edge of the AONB, and it's quite easy to take it for granted, but it really lived up to its designation. Reminds me that I must make an effort to go running south of where I live, and not just north to the National Park.

Managed to get parked quite easily, and mooched over to register. Irritatingly, I'd forgotten to pick up the form I'd printed and filled in at home, but that wasn't a problem as there were plenty on the desk to be had. Then, anxiety struck.

I've dealt with depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember, though for much of that time (certainly with regards to the anxiety) I didn't understand what was happening. Through speaking with professionals and my own research, I'm educating myself slowly and, on this occasion, it was pretty obvious as my hands began to shake; initially, just a little, but getting progressively worse. I have horrendous handwriting at the best of times, so I pity anyone who had to read that form! By the time I made it back to the car it was bad enough that I struggled to even pin my number on my vest. Not ideal, and some stern words were had with myself; need to work on the whole "be kind to yourself" thing as I tend to be a bit of a drill sergeant in those situations, when I would never dream of speaking to someone else like that. No reason for it to happen; there was nothing about the race that was outside of my comfort zone. As my wife put it when I relayed the story the next day, it was just the "Generalised" in Generalised Anxiety Disorder.

Soon enough it was time to congregate at the start for the briefing, and I got picked for a random kit check. No problems there, I had the necessary. Then, the countdown, and we were off.

The race was the classic "See that thar hill? Ye run up, and ye run doon, and divn't get yerself dead" comprising of 1.5km of rocky track until the fell gate, at which point it was open route choice to the summit before turning round and charging back down again. Obviously, nav wasn't an issue on the track(!) but once we got to the fell gate there were a number of choices made. Having not done any kind of recce, I opted for taking a direct line to the summit, and it was with some curiosity that I watched other racers (including Big Phil Green, chief NFR agitator!) peeling off to the right. I was fairly quickly reduced to the old hands-on-knees-blowin'-oot-ma-arse pose; tussocks and peat hags, along with legs that were still fairly battered from Ingram two days earlier, meant that I was destined to hike the majority of the ascent. As Phil and I converged again he clued me in to the land rover track that they'd all followed. Balls. Still, at least I knew about it for the descent.

Even before the summit came into view I saw Will Robson from North Shields Poly haring it back down again, with another runner in close pursuit. Bloomin' impressive. I shouted a "Well done, lads!" then returned to the task in hand, making it to the top just behind Phil and John Tollit (also NFR). Duly checked off by the marshals, it was about-turn and back down again, passing Karen Robertson (another NFR, and the holder of the women's CR).

Trashed quads and inexperience on fells (I'm a trail runner with ideas above his station!) made for a fairly gingerly picked descent to start with, and Phil and John got away from me; John and I were to leapfrog on the descent until midway down the track, at which point I opened up a gap, but I wasn't to catch Phil, whose experience on the off-piste stuff showed on the day. A sprint to the line netted me 24th place out of 66; not terrible given the weekend's efforts, but nothing to shout about. Still, there are worse ways to spend a beautiful summer evening than running up and down a hill like a lunatic. Interestingly, once we were lined up at the start and I had my game-face on, the anxiety didn't bother me. With all the focus on not falling on my face, it was a classic example of mindfulness in action.

Karen took the win in the ladies' race, and NFR took the ladies' team win as well, so a top evening out for the club. Will took the win for the men, and DFR took the team prize. Anxiety aside, I thoroughly enjoyed it and will aim to be back next year. Top job by Andy, Fran, and their band of DFR helpers.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Race Report: The High Fell Events Ingram Trail Run

Barry, of High Fell Events, is a bit of a sadist and, consequently, I flippin' love his events.

I did the Ingram Half Marathon last year and thoroughly enjoyed it, in a "type 2 fun" kind of way, though I had very little by way of hill legs at the time due to focusing on road miles for an autumn marathon. Despite that, and some inexplicable nausea for most of the route, I managed to not embarrass myself too much with an 8th place finish. I'd hoped to return for the full Mary this year or, perhaps, the ultra; sadly, the longer distances were axed, but that gave me the opportunity to toe the line again on the 21km route and try and better my performance from last year.

We'd hoped to take advantage of the free camping on the night before as Xan is turning into a proper little outdoorsman. Unfortunately, whilst Outwell make a canny family tent, they don't make one that can stand up to the apparent hurricane that struck the Ingram Valley that evening. After wrestling with the fly-sheet for a while, I called time on the whole affair as even when we'd managed to get the poles up they didn't bear any resemblance to a tent shape, and I was concerned about them snapping under the strain. Added to which, Xan was already freaking out at the noise the flysheet was making in the wind, and was running around shouting "Just noise! Just noise!" to reassure himself; I didn't think he'd cope too well overnight if the wind picked up any more or, worse, the tent collapsed. Luckily, with us only living about 90 mins away, it wasn't too big a deal to pack up again and drive home for the night.

An early start saw us back at the Hall on Sunday morning to register, and congratulate those hardy souls who had managed to pitch their (mostly much smaller!) tents and weather the storm, as it were. A hug and a catch-up with Tricia, who was marshaling, as well as Dominic from DVTR, passed the time nicely until it was time to congregate at the start line. A few NFR vests were dotted around, notably a certain Mr Chris Winter; I, however, was Back In Black as a Harrier, with it being a trail race rather than a fell race (a bit Judean Peoples' Front/Peoples' Front of Judea, to be honest, but England Athletics had a stern word in my ear on the phone about such matters when I was trying to sort out the whole First Claim nonsense!).

"Whoah, hold on! I don't want to be at the front, like!", said Chris. "Yeah you do... GLORY DASH!", was my reply and then, just like that, we were off. For someone who didn't want to be at the front, Chris was doing a pretty bad job, as he was front-runner from the word go; memories of last year's race where I saw another NFR vest, this one belonging to Gaz Jones, disappearing over the horizon before I settled into my own race.

Glory dash.
Not warming up was a mistake as, as soon as we passed through the first gate and onto the grassy incline that starts the race, my heart rate was rocketing; running on grass is always going to be harder and quite honestly I'm not used to it, but this felt much harder than I'd hoped. Still, I knew there was much worse to come so had no choice but to try and manage things as best I could.

I settled into 5th place and spent much of the first half of the race essentially running on my own. I could see the lead group most of the time, so was still in reasonable contact, but there was no-one especially snapping at my heels. I was content, therefore, to sit where I was for a bit in the hope of making a move later on, once we'd got past the Salters Road and over Little Dodd.

Salters Road is a twat, basically. No other way I can put it. As last year, I opted for a tactical hike; I don't have the leg strength to power up something like that at the moment (need to do more [read: any!] squats!) and the difference in speed between my running gait and hiking gait was negligible; to be honest, the power hike may have even been a little quicker. Regardless, the change of gait transferred the load to other muscles, meaning I was able to switch gears again on the runnable sections.

"Call this a trail run?! I could run it with my eyes closed!"
As I reached the check point at the top of Little Dodd, I was able to clearly see 4th and 3rd places, and my brain got to thinking... The next section was downhill, albeit over fairly broken ground, and I was able to open up a little bit and start clawing some of the gap back. I actually came right up on 4th place shortly after this point but elected to sit behind rather than make a move there and then, as I wasn't confident I could maintain the position and didn't want the psychological blow of being passed; this possibly cost me a podium spot, but we'll never know.

The nature of the course meant that I lost sight of the guys in front and then, suddenly, they came into view again, with 4th and 3rd having swapped places! Interesting... I started to smell blood here and, at roughly the 15km point, made my move, nipping past the lad who was now 4th and opening up a gap. Sure enough, no response came; he'd been running really strongly up until this point and so I can only assume his legs had gone. Big cheesy grin and thumbs up to Barry who was pulling marshal duties and confirmed I was in 4th, and then back to the task in hand.

At around the 18km point there's a sneaky little drop down to a water crossing; this is hidden by undergrowth and, naturally, Barry gives no kind of warning... Consequently, if you don't know it's there then there's a good chance of a Thelma & Louise moment as you charge over the edge. Fortunately, I was expecting it this year and, whilst I pussyfooted down the bank, had no calamities. On the climb up the other side, however, the cramp in my calves started. I haven't experienced cramping calves for quite some time, even on UT110k, so this was a bit of a shock; I'm putting it down to cumulative fatigue from averaging roughly 3-4 hours sleep a night since I don't know when. "Bollocks," I thought, "He's bound to catch me now..." as I hiked the incline, through a forest of bracken and a swarm of flies so thick I could genuinely barely see at times(!) Fortunately for me, the attack never came. I could still just about see 3rd place but the gap was such that I knew I had no chance of catching him if the cramp was setting in, so I focused on consolidating the position I was in.

Tricia was on the final marshal point to warn runners about the rutted barley field that made up the penultimate section of the race. Rutted is one way of putting it... Twatting ankle-snapper is another. This slowed me right down, both due to being overly cautious and the fact that the uneven terrain was causing spasms of cramp. Looking behind, I saw a white vest rapidly gaining on me; the lad who I had overtaken had clearly been overtaken by someone else, and this guy appeared to have no leg issues! A few swear words were uttered under the breath, and I set my sights on the final field, which was far more runnable; I had to hope that, if he did catch me, I had enough of a kick to pull away again.

Leaving the Barley Field of Broken Bones behind, I risked a glance over my shoulder and saw that there was still a healthy gap between us. Regardless though, the afterburners got lit and away I went; not taking any chances! Had a bit of a faff with the final gate, as with all the gates on the route; never sure whether to climb them or try and open them. This time I opted to try to climb first and it swung disconcertingly(!); I then realised it was actually one of the few that was easily opened and opted for that instead, so as to avoid more cramp. Closing it again was more of a problem but, as there was another runner closing in and plenty of marshals around, I didn't waste too much time; the risk of escaping livestock was pretty low! The shortest of short road sections and then it was over the line, 4th place in 1:55:09 according to my watch; 4 minutes quicker than last year, albeit on a slightly different course, and 4 places higher. Still no podium spot though; always the prize-maid, never the prized! Chris took the win convincingly, continuing the fine NFR tradition.

Crossing the line
Hung around for a bit chatting to folk and eating lunch, then disappeared off to the nearby cafe to claim my complimentary coffee, and to get some ice creams for Rachel and me, and some flapjack for Xan. A perfect end to a cracking race; couldn't realistically have asked for better weather in the Cheviots, and Barry's choice of route didn't disappoint.

Lovin' this year's t-shirt design!

I have to say though, I was really impressed with those new-fangled invisible bumbags people were using to carry the mandatory kit... </snark>

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Race Report: The Ultimate Trails 110k

It was with some concern that I made my way back to bed late Thursday night. You see, I'd spent the last few minutes being violently ill. No fun at the best of times, this was especially worrying as, in a little over 24 hours, I would be toeing the line at the Ultimate Trails 110k: my biggest race to date, and one for which the preparations had gone far from smoothly. To be faced with a stomach bug on top of everything was far from ideal.

Since 1 January this year, I've had setback after setback. Broken toes, quad strains, angry Achilles tendons... Whilst I've managed to put in some very respectable training blocks, including my first hundred mile week, they've been interspersed with several periods of six weeks or more where I've not run a step, and have had to resort to biking or pool-running. It had been bad enough to feel a cold coming on the week before, but it seemed to be becoming something a little more significant.

Waking up on Friday morning, I knew I was in for it. Sitting at the kitchen table, I even said to Rachel "There's no way I should be racing... I'm going to, but there's no way I should." Trying to replace lost calories from the night before was the name of the game, as well as re-hydrating, so I forced myself to eat some porridge and a slice of toast, and began working my way through pints of water as we loaded up the car with our camping gear. I then hit on the idea of making up some Tailwind in order to kill two birds with one stone. Despite waves of nausea continuing to wash over me, I did manage a smile when Xander spotted me getting the tent out of the shed and excitedly shouted "Open! Tent! CAMPING!!!". I'm so pleased we decided to take him camping from an early age, as he loves it now, and it makes racing further afield a lot more affordable than if we were having to arrange B&Bs all the time.

Rachel had kindly offered to drive from Hexham to Ambleside so that I could get some sleep. Because of Xander's car-seat being behind the passenger seat, and because of the length of my legs, it's not really possible to get at a comfortable angle so, whilst I'm pretty sure I did doze a bit, it was fitful, and I was still able to hear the radio. A brief stop in Keswick for lunch on the shore of Derwent Water, and then on to Ambleside for registration and kit check.

Kit check was super smooth, and I showed my ID, signed my disclaimer(!), got my mugshot taken, and my GPS tracker attached to my race pack. I then sorted out the contents of my drop bag (a new experience for me) and took that to the waiting van, to be transported to CP5 at Glenridding. It was then a case of heading to our campsite, pitching the tent, and trying to get some more shut-eye before cooking up some pasta and heading to the start (early, so that Rachel could get back to camp and get Xan to bed).

The night was really warm, so I lay down on a park bench near the start line and munched on a PBJ, looking like a very odd vagrant. My stomach felt like it had settled by this point, and I was feeling ready to go. Calm, and focused. Normally I'm a bundle of nerves before a race but, presumably, this was so far out of my sphere of reference that I just didn't know how nervous to be and so wasn't! When the time came, I mooched over to the tent for the safety briefing, final trip to use the facilities, and then it was headtorch on and over to the start line.

The anticipation builds
A countdown was given and then we were off, leaving Rothay Park at roughly 12:05am. I had my watch set-up to show my heart rate and pace, as usual, but had turned off autolap as I didn't want to be reminded too often how far I still had to go! Instead, I had an app running that told me how many beers I had earned.

You know that feeling in your leg muscles when you're ill? Like, they go really weak and wobbly and feel like your blood has been replaced by bile? Yeah, so that kicked in almost immediately. I mean, we hadn't even made it out of Ambleside and I was thinking shiiiiiiiiiiit. As we hit the first climb I, along with most of the other mid-packers, settled into the first of many 'tactical hikes' and I crossed my fingers that I just needed to warm them up.

Then the nausea hit. Oh, this wasn't good at all. Acid reflux and continual 'sicky burps' (sorry!). I was really starting to worry at this point; we hadn't even got halfway to CP1(!) and my stomach was revolting. In more ways than one. Still, I continued.

My plan had been to drink 500ml of Tailwind between check points, which would give me 200kcals as well as ensuring I was hydrated (something I really struggle with) and then, once I'd been clocked in, snack on whatever solids took my fancy. Coming up on CP1 I realised I hadn't come close to drinking all my Tailwind, so downed it like a fresher who's just been pennied. This would not end well, though I wasn't to know at the time. Use the facilities, mix up another bottle of Tailwind, and then away we go. A group of us managed to miss a flag in the dark and went a bit off course but fortunately the combination of a guy with local knowledge knowing we shouldn't be descending that far, and my GPS shouting at me for going off route, meant that we didn't lose too much time. We did see one poor bugger's headlight disappearing off into the darkness and, despite shouting him, he didn't turn around...

That Tailwind that I had inadvisedly chugged was really starting to make its presence known now and, seeing I had a bit of a gap between the runners in front of me and those behind, I ducked off to the side of the trail and discreetly... got rid of it. Feeling a wee bit better, but still not able to face taking anything on (even water), I set off again telling myself I could always drop at CP2.

Between CP1 and CP2 we had to negotiate the Nan Bield pass. In the dark. With rocks slick from torrential rain the week previously. Excellent. "Just make it down in one piece and then my job is done!", instructed the incredibly cheery marshal. My regular reader (hi there!) will know how much I adore slippery technical descents so, combined with returning nausea, I started to get quite low. We were still, at this point, barely out of the blocks in ultra terms. Feeling like Bambi on ice, I gingerly picked my way down, managing to catch a nav error early on, and was overjoyed to stumble into CP2, which was a tent at Mardale Head.

At least, I was overjoyed until the bastard midgies attacked. There was a thick black cloud of them and I swear they all turned and looked at me then, in one co-ordinated move, moved in for the kill. The marshals at that check point deserve a medal. Still, it got me moving again, as no way was I going to drop there and get eaten alive waiting for the broom wagon!!! A few steps further along the trail, and with the nausea getting even worse, I made a decision.

I hit ctrl+alt+delete.

Which is to say, I crouched down in front of a dry-stone wall, stuck my fingers down my throat, and puked until there was nothing left and I was dry heaving.

"Are you...ok...?!", other competitors concernedly asked as they passed.

HNEEEEEUUUUURGH!! "I'm fine, thank you for asking!" HNEEEEEUUUUURGH!!, I managed to reply.

This taken care of, I had a word with myself, and pushed on, ready to re-assess things at Bampton, which was CP3.

As we trotted along the western shore of Haweswater Reservoir, dawn began to break, and I was quickly able to put my headtorch away. This, along with no longer feeling like I was going to lose the contents of my stomach any minute (because I already had), did a good job of lifting my spirits.

Dawn over Haweswater
I've done a lot of training in the dark this year, and I actually really enjoy it. However, probably because of feeling so rough, that first 3-4 hours was a real low point for me and I was glad of the daylight, though unfortunately no sun rise to speak of because of the cloud. This leg contained some of the few sections I found myself able to run, being neither slippery technical death-traps nor bogs, and so I set to work reeling a few people in and making up some ground. Before long, I started to recognise where we were and realised we were approaching Bampton.

At CP3, it was time to give the feet some attention, as they had been soaking wet pretty much from the get-go and that, combined with trail debris, was a recipe for blisters. I wouldn't be able to change socks until Glenridding, as I had none with me, but managed to get some paper towel to dry them off and get rid of most of the grit. Fodder included crisps, which I managed a handful of, Nutella sandwiches(!) which I again managed a couple of, and some caramel shortcake, which I had a square of. This was probably too much in one go, but it didn't come back, so I got away with it and the calories were necessary. Out the door to CP4.

The leg to CP4 was fairly well groomed initially, and I got back to work making up time and places, rolling at 3:30 marathon pace at times. Once we made it up onto Askham Fell, it became a bit tougher going, but still not too bad; just heavy legs. On the descent into Howtown, and CP4, I started to get Tweets coming through from my mates who had clearly just woken up and fired up the tracker, and this was another real boost; I'm a lone wolf most of the time when running, but I was feeling it on Saturday, so that little bit of contact went a long way.

At CP4 I snatched another couple of caramel shortcakes (these were basically my fuel of choice from this point onwards!) and headed straight back out again, fortunately realising that I hadn't clocked in before I got too far from the door, and rectifying the situation, thus deftly avoiding a DQ.

The next leg was fairly uneventful, except for slightly more reliance on the GPS than expected due to the theft of some of the course markings. An annoyance for me, but I had both GPS and paper map and compass; since neither were mandatory kit, some people could have been in a bit of a pickle. Still, one should never go out without a map and compass, mandatory kit or not, and there's got to be a degree of self-sufficiency on an ultra. Anyway. Dropping down from Boredale Hause, I started to think I recognised the terrain, and then remembered that I'd covered a small section of the route, basically heading into Patterdale and then to Glenridding, as part of the Dirty Double last year. A flat section which swapped between road and trail led into CP5, and we were greeted with whoops and cheers by the people of Glenridding, which was another boost.

CP5 meant drop bag, which meant clean and, more importantly, dry socks. As with all the aid stations, the crew here were brilliant, and found my drop bag whilst I decided to respectfully deviate from the ultra-runner mantra of 'beware the chair' and have a well earned sit down. Feet were dried off and inspected, found to be in astonishingly good shape despite essentially having trenchfoot, and new socks were donned. This was bliss. Truly. Putting on dry socks at this point was one of the best feelings in the world. I grabbed my third and final pair of socks, shoved them in my pack as spares, and then left the rest of the contents there; since I hadn't managed any more Tailwind there was no point me taking the additional sticks I had in the bag, and nor did I want to change shorts or put on my cap. I spent about 15 minutes at CP5, the longest so far, and I think that it would have been worth spending a bit longer there tending to my feet. However, I didn't really have the supplies so there wasn't much more I could do. Onwards.

I don't remember much about this leg until we got roughly halfway through it, to Grisedale Tarn, and the wind hit. My, how the wind hit. Pretty unexpected, and had me reaching for my smock, as hypothermia doesn't sound like much fun, and a sweaty Helly Hansen baselayer doesn't provide much protection when you're sleep deprived and running on fumes anyway. As soon as we got around to the western edge, however, the wind dropped and the temperature rose again. This, namely the Lake District micro-climate, was to be in full effect all day, and was something that fascinated me throughout the event; in a car, which is how one would normally cover those distances(!), you're so cut off from nature that you don't notice such things, so it was something that particularly caught my attention.

Grisedale Tarn
The second half of the leg involved scrambling down Raise Beck. This was just silly, to be honest. I was not a happy bunny on this section, smacking my ankles and feet on rocks left right and centre, as well as losing my footing a couple of times and bruising my hand. Added to which, the eccentric contractions were murder on the quads. People with the bottle to actually run down that section, or at least move more quickly than I did, probably saved their quads. Alas, I didn't have it in me. Down to Dunmail Raise, then north to CP6 at Wythburn.

Another tented CP, and super friendly crew. At this point it was really starting to warm up, so I applied some sunscreen (too late, as it turns out) and got the X-Men sunglasses out for the next leg.

The next leg. Oh, the next leg. I absolutely hated this leg. I mean, really hated it. The climb up to Watendlath Fell was brutal, with the trail seemingly a stream/waterfall(!). Y'know those lovely dry socks? Soaked. Very slippery footing, and hot humid work. At one point we passed a couple of lads coming back down.

"How far to the top?" the guy in front of me asked.

"Err... I'd love to tell you it's not far but... well... a long way. And it's boggy too. REALLY boggy."

"You could have lied...!" I snarled (I did then smile at them and say thank you)

Once we got onto Watendlath Fell, it just got worse. This was pure bog. Leg strength sapping bog. Once more, I found myself unable to run. Time was slipping away even more.

"Ultra-running is really fucking stupid", I growled to myself.

I thought I was low during the night section but, honestly, I think this was the low point of the race for me. This was the point at which I really had to dig deep to keep going, and where I hated the very idea of ultra-running. This was the point at which I needed...

A montage.

Sadly, I had no montage, so just had to keep going anyway.

Rolling into Rosthwaite, and CP7, I smelled the most amazing smell. Pizza. Cheese and tomato pizza. Now, this pizza was some of the best pizza I have ever tasted. I don't know what the geniuses at CP7 had done to it - possibly laced it with EPO?! - but it went down a treat. I managed 4 slices of it before forcing myself to stop so as not to shock my system. At this point I debated changing my socks again, but decided there wasn't really much point given how quickly the last pair had got wet.

Leaving the CP, I ran for a while with a guy called Steve who was also doing this distance for the first time, and we talked about everything from previous races to kids having their own unique vocabularies. I'm not normally one for running with people, but it was nice to have some company and it helped pass the time. As the wind started to pick up again, I stopped to put my smock on, so Steve carried on. I knew we were approaching the final monster climb - Stake Pass - and started to do what I could to get in the zone to tackle it. I knew there was no chance of me running at this point, but I was determined to powerhike to the best of my ability.

"You do it to yourself, you do, and that's what really hurts..."
Stake Pass is a twat. Especially with 80k and a few thousand metres of climbing already in your legs. Eating the elephant one bite at a time (vegetarianism: yer doin' it wrong), I resorted to hiking a couple of zig zags, stopping to look behind at the view, hiking some zig zags, etc. Upon reaching the top, and CP8 (which was simply a safety check) I was met with the question "How're you doing? Alright?"

"Well, y'know, ok for 85k or whatever...!"

The guy on the checkpoint laughed heartily and assured me I didn't look bad, all things considered, and I thanked him as I began the descent.

A walker who, as I was passing, asked what my goal time was seemed rather taken aback when I responded "completion!" but, at that point, I had absolutely no idea when I would get back; only, that I would get back. I was going to finish this, no matter what. I'm not sure when I stopped considering dropping, but certainly by this point there was no question. The descent along the Cumbria Way was tough on the quads again, and I couldn't manage anything more than a few metres of trot at a time on the flats. I was also starting to get some fairly gnarly blisters. As a weather front moved in (more Lake District micro climate!) the smock went on, the hood went up, and it was off to CP9.

Whilst I'd been getting Tweets from friends, there was no data signal and next to no mobile signal at our campsite; consequently, I'd had no contact from Rachel all day. We'd sort of arranged for her to be at CP9 with Xan, and I'd been texting her with my location and time so she could try and gauge it, but had no way of knowing whether they were being received. At some point along the Cumbria Way I finally got a text saying they'd gone to CP9 and asked when I was expected, been told about 4:15pm (the text came through at 5pm!), and so they'd gone to Ambleside to find a playpark for Xan. This was a blow; I'd been looking forward to seeing them but, obviously, toddlers have needs and hanging around an aid station probably doesn't meet them! Still, I wasn't far from the end now, so I was sure I could handle the disappointment.

"Look, there's Daddy!"

Well, that took me by surprise as I staggered into CP9! Turns out that they'd gone to Ambleside to kill time, but then come back to wait for me! Whether the text was unclear or I just didn't understand in my sleep and glucose deprived state doesn't matter; they were there. Hugs and kisses (Xan was far more interested in trying to steal the food from the aid station, though I did get a fist bump from him eventually) and a quick run-down of what had happened so far followed, whilst eating caramel shortbread and getting my bottles filled by the lovely crew, before estimating my arrival time in Ambleside. Buoyed up for the final push, I kissed them both goodbye and set off. Only 10k to go.

Turns out, 10k is still a really long way when you've already covered 100k by that point. Whodathunkit, eh? However, aside from some unwelcome hills, which on a normal day I'd probably mockingly have referred to as speed bumps but felt like Himalayas, the leg passed without any issues and before I knew it I was starting to get Tweets and WhatsApps from friends and family; a sure sign that I was approaching civilisation. Then I heard it.

The sound of a PA.

At the end of a long race, the sound of a PA is a thing of beauty. It means you're nearing the finish line. Which means you can stop. And eat. And have a sit down. Sure enough, I started to pass people - spectators and other competitors - and the applause started in earnest. And then the finish line was in sight.

Before the race, I'd said to Rachel that (provided I wasn't in a sprint finish for 1st!), I'd like to cross the line with her and Xan. Cheesy, maybe, but training for this event had required a lot of good will from both of them, and I wanted them to be a part of it. So, as I rounded the final corner, I heard "BEN!" and turned to my right to see my son being thrust at me whilst looking slightly confused! Taking his hand, and eventually persuading a reluctant Rachel to take my other hand (thanks to the MC for egging her on!), we jogged towards the finish line.

"Hey, Xan! Running!"


He won't remember it, but I'll remember the look on his face as he crossed the line with everyone cheering.

89th out of 202 finishers, time of 18:38:47.

More hugs, more kisses, and then off to get my timing chip and tracker removed, and some hot food from the excellent Green Canteen (seriously, a Bhaji Butty?! Amazing! Shame I couldn't manage it all).

My one gripe about the event, and it's only a minor one really, is that once again they'd run out of small t-shirts by the time I finished. This happens on a fairly regular basis with Lakeland Trails events, and I'm sure that it could be avoided, either by having people pre-order their size or just ordering more smalls! Ah well. I usually only wear the t-shirt for about a week afterwards anyway.

Given the time I finished, it was straight from the event HQ to the Stickle Barn pub for some food. Fortunately, the race had gone straight past their door, so they didn't bat an eyelid when I showed up looking like I'd had a fight with a bog monster. A chickpea burger and chips was ordered, along with a pint of their own ale or, as I call it, malted barley recovery drink. The beer went down pretty well, but I couldn't face the burger at all, and promptly started to fall asleep on the bench. After concernedly (and very kindly!) offering me a pint of water with some sugar stirred in, the guy serving food wrapped the burger up in tin foil for us to take away; I subsequently had it as (first) breakfast the next day, and can confirm that it was a very good burger.

Upon getting back in the car, I started to shiver violently, which was a cause for concern both for me and for Rachel. I can only assume that fatigue, dehydration, and a rapid drop in exertion all resulted in a plummeting core temperature; this is why big city marathons often hand out foil blankets. Upon getting back to our campsite I was ordered into a hot shower by Rachel, before crawling into my 3-season sleeping bag wearing my merino base layer and a hoody; after being awake for essentially 40 hours straight, I was out like a light. An effective, if unorthodox, cure for insomnia.

So that was that. 110k of the Lake District, with over 3k of vertical gain, covered on foot. A few people have asked, did I enjoy it? Honestly, at the time, no I didn't. Don't get me wrong, the views were incredible, the event was extremely well organised, and the marshals and crew were brilliant. The problem was entirely mine. Having done the Lakeland Trails Marathon twice, I had assumed that the terrain would be similar. Challenging, technical in places for sure, but still largely something I could run. I was wrong. So very very wrong. Someone on Facebook the next day made the comment that, on the continent, those kinds of things are described as foot races rather than runs, and that's a fair point. I lined up expecting one thing and got another. Consequently, the event didn't meet my expectations and I enjoyed it less than I would have if I'd taken it on face value or, better, known precisely what I was letting myself in for. There's also the fact that I was pretty ill, and a quick tally up suggests I completed the event on 12-1400 kcals, and sheer bloody-mindedness (luckily I'm quite fat adapted, and never really felt like I couldn't keep moving; I just couldn't move fast).

What would I do differently? For one thing, due diligence on the course! Some recces would have been a very good idea but, with injuries and family commitments, that just wasn't going to be possible. Even then, no amount of training in Northumberland could really have prepared me for those climbs and descents; if you want to race well in the Lake District, you have to give it the respect it deserves, and train in the Lake District. I'd have taken some savoury snacks with me, and maybe something with ginger in to settle any stomach issues. I'd also have changed my socks at CP7; whilst they would have got wet again very quickly, they wouldn't have had all the grit in them and so I might have got away without the gnarly blister on the outside on my right heel.

Now the dust has settled, though, I feel more positive. It was an adventure, albeit not the one I had expected to have, and regardless of how well I did or didn't do timing-wise, I did just run 110k across the Lake District which, y'know, doesn't suck. Definitely type-2 fun, but an experience I'm very glad I had. One thing's for sure: I'll be an awful lot better prepared for the next one...

My watch cut out at 85k, but I still caught the bulk of the course profile
Massive thanks to everyone involved in the event; you were all superstars and I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who wants a beautifully brutal day out in the Lake District (so long as they realise there ain't gonna be a lot of running involved!).

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Race Report: The Lakeland Trails Marathon

Having recently made my right achilles tendon very angry indeed, it was touch and go whether I would actually make it to the start line for this race. Generally speaking, when body parts swell to several times their normal size (quiet at the back!) and make alarming creaking noises, it's not a good sign. However, after finally, and grumpily, accepting that I needed to rest and let it heal, I was able to get myself seen by a physioterrorist who has been liberally applying ultrasound (SCIENCE!!!) to the area which apparently might do something. That, combined with lots of icing, some cross-friction massage, and hammering the eccentric heel-drops seems to have got me back on track. Oh, and moving back to a pair of firmer, more responsive shoes; I can't be certain, but it's an awfully big coincidence that this happened so soon after swapping to maximalist Hokas... Pool running slowed the loss of fitness down a bit.

Anyway, with the Lakeland Marathon being the last big run I had scheduled before July's insanity, and with having thoroughly enjoyed eating flapjack in beautiful places last time I ran it in 2015, I was keen to toe the line, and fortunately the achilles was apparently going to cooperate. Sunday morning saw me #backinblack as I donned my Tynedale vest and made the short walk from our campsite to the start line, having registered the day before. A quick catch up with Johnny and Dominic, as well as introducing myself to a fellow NFR type, and then it was nearly time to go. I knew the course had some narrow bits and didn't want to get choked, so lined up near the front. Only, near the front became at the front. Right at the front. Perhaps ill-advised after 6 weeks off?

The gun went off and so did we. Shit, I'm in second. Shit, I'm running sub 3 hour pace. Shit, my heart rate is somewhere in the region of L5. All of these thoughts, and more, went through my head. Normally I go off fairly sedately and work my way up the field - 42km is, after all, quite a long way - so goodness knows why I did what I did. A sensation of being let out of the cage, I guess! Anyway, I held that position for all of about 2km before I started to slip back, and by roughly half way I think I was in seventh place, which I was very happy with.

Still rollin'...

Shortly after the above photo was taken, the wheels fell off. Or, more specifically, my arse gave out. No, dear reader, not the dreaded Runners' Trots, but the awful realisation that most of the elevation gain was in the first half of the race, and my glutes hadn't been asked to do anything other than provide cushioning for over a month. That and the lactic acid flooding my system meant that I was stuffed, basically. Uphills became slower and slower before eventually becoming "tactical hikes" and, whilst I could still drop the hammer on the flats and the downs, I began to lose more and more places. At one point a marshall called that I was in thirteenth, but shortly after that I got passed by a handful of runners (including the First Lady, who was looking fresh as a daisy!). Resigned to Just Getting Round at this point, and cursing myself for trying to Zach Miller the race, it was head down and grind it out for the final 10km. I'd been making use of aid stations for water and flap jacks/bananas, leaving my ClifBar untouched, and this had been working fine; I don't think I was on the verge of a bonk, just had no strength in my legs. At the penultimate aid station, however, I broke the cardinal rule: thou shalt not do anything differently on race day. I drank some coke. Now, flat coke is often recommended, or at least used, by ultra runners. I rarely drink the stuff at the best of times, and certainly not the 'full fat' version. Consequently, I spent the next km or so absolutely convinced that I was going to be making a vomitty sacrifice to the Trail Gods as penance for my foolishness, as my stomach gurgled indignantly. Fortunately it settled down and there were no technicolour yawns to be had.

The last few km along the shore of the lake are remarkably technical singletrack, and not in the least bit welcome when you're knackered! I nearly went flying a handful of times the first year I did it. This year, I knew what to expect, and only got tripped once, which I recovered before hitting the deck. Then, it was the cruiser-grade trail into the finish area, with a final loop of the field before crossing the line in 3:51, 20th out of 201. Quicker than 2015 by about 45 minutes I think, albeit about 20 minutes slower than I'd ideally like to have been. Still, not too shabby considering! The winner did it in 3:01, absolutely schooling the rest of the field with a nearly twenty minute gap.

The traditional pub tea followed, at which I had four different types of carbohydrate. Five, if you count the beer. Winning.

Xander proudly strutting around outside the Adventure Tent, having been given the Very Important Job of looking after Daddy's medal

The long-suffering Mrs Trails-and-Tribulations

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Do as I say, not as I do

I've been hitting the high mileage of late. Upwards of 80mpw most weeks. This has, for the most part, been sloooooow. I'm a fan of the 80/20 approach to training: most of the mileage in L1 to build base, and 2 quality sessions a week to hit speed and hills. This has been working really well for me. Until, apparently, it didn't.

Saturday I did a LSR at Slaley Forest. Nothing extreme. Marathon distance on easy trails, well within L1. Felt fine for the most part, though my right achilles was a bit stiff. Classic runner, I got up the next day and did 12 reps of Causey Hill, which was 1km of vertical gain over 12 miles (sorry to mix units of measurement!). Achilles felt a bit stiffer. Still I ignored it. Monday morning I did my usual 16km. Niggle got worse. Tuesday morning, 10km. Guess what. Tuesday evening, a fell run along Hadrian's Wall with the Harriers. You can see where this is going. Every day I went out, every day it got worse, every day I buried my head in the sand. 

Now, if someone had come to me with the symptoms I had on Saturday and asked if they should do a 12 mile hill session with that amount of vert I'd have said no, do something easy and be prepared to stop. If someone had come to me and said they were having pain on their run on Monday I'd have said to take some time off, rest up, better to be 10% undertrained than 1% overtrained or injured. I definitely wouldn't have suggested continuing to run on it.

Of course, I didn't do that myself, and now my ankle has swollen up like a balloon. Splendid. Not at all inconvenient. A trip to the hospital and I've had a ruptured Achilles ruled out via the Simmons test, and a diagnosis of sprained ligaments likely caused by altering my gait to compensate for the strained Achilles (Tuesday's fell run seems the most likely suspect for that but it was probably a combination of runs). 7-10 days off, which could have been a lot worse. No Pendulum for me next weekend, which makes it harder (though not impossible) for me to fit in all the Championship counters I need. Importantly though, it does look like UT110K is still on.

Next time I should really just take a day or two off.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

It's not me, it's you (Breaking up)

Apologies for the rather emo title of this post. Certain types of running seem to lend themselves, in my head at least, to certain styles of music. Fell-running, for instance, is undoubtedly METAL; the hairier the better (oh, hi there, Mastodon!). Track and XC puts me in mind of American High Schools for some reason, and with that bands like Taking Back Sunday and The Get-Up Kids. In fact, I'm listening to the rather appropriately titled album Four Minute Mile by the aforementioned Get-Up Kids as I type this. Anyway.

As my regular reader will know, I have up until recently been an unashamed Inov-8 fanboy. If you're perceptive, you'll notice the use of 'up until recently'. Things change.

I love the X-Talon 200. Despite some durability issues with my red/neon pair, I got them replaced under warranty and the blue/orange versions have an updated upper which seems much tougher; an impression backed up by Twitter folk. I'm also a big fan of the Trail Talon 250, which appears to be the same last as the X-Talon but with a less aggressive sole for use on trails rather than fells. It was my shoe of choice for Dark Skies and I wore it virtually box-fresh, with just a 10k the morning of the race to check there were no obvious issues. What I was not a fan of at all was the Road Talon, which I foolishly assumed would be the same last as the X- and Trail Talon. Y'know, having the Talon name and all that. Oh no. No no no. It was VERY different, and within 30s of putting it on I hated it. Back it went.

I like a drop in the region of 3-4mm on my shoes. Maybe it's psychological, and I wouldn't actually notice a larger drop (though I definitely felt my heel scuffing when I tried a pair of Asics a few weeks ago), but c'est la vie. Inov-8 didn't have anything else suitable in their limited road range, so I decided now was as good a time as any to explore other options. A quirk of mine is that I get locked into brand loyalty and blinded to other, potentially better, options, so a bit of experimentation would be healthy.

I knew my mate and fellow NFR-er JB ran in X-Talon 200 for fells, and that he had also been a fan of the much-missed Road-X range, so figured he was a good starting point for suggestions. A Twitter DM exchange led to me learning he ran in Adidas Boost for quality sessions and *shock horror* Hoka One One Cliftons for ploddy base mileage. DISMAY! The big marshmallows were the polar opposite to my ultra-minimalist tendencies of the last 7 years or so. Still, he assured me that he had been dubious himself initially, but they were really good. I decided to at least try them, and so off I pootled.

First, a trip to Start Fitness looking for a work-out shoe. JB's Adidas had too much drop for me, so I ran the wall trying everything in my preferred range, eventually settling on the Mizuno Ekiden 11 (after not being able to get them in my size in store, and a disastrous attempt to get an older model online, I did end up buying from Start Fitness. Lesson learned: support your local running store). Then, off to Northern Runner to try the Cliftons. I also tried some Tracers (too narrow) and some Altra (just flat out weird, which disappointed me; they've interested me for some time but whatever it was I tried on I hated and couldn't get off my feet quickly enough). The Cliftons however... I had to admit, running up and down the test corridor, they felt pretty awesome. Swallowing my Tony Krupicka-influenced hipster minimalist pride (and even Tony now runs in not-so minimalist shoes) I paid my money and took my Cliftons home, ready to face the mocking from my wife.

At this point, this becomes a bit of a gear review.

Hoka One One Clifton 3 (288.6km at time of writing)
The Antichrist. Or so I thought. Actually, I really like them, and this surprises me a lot. I had to go up a half size from my Inov-8s, but I'm a whole size up in Nike Frees, so that's not anything to be especially surprised about. They also didn't feel as ludicrously marshmallow-like as I expected. Yes, there's a lot of cushioning - that is after all Hoka's MO - but I didn't feel unstable in the way I expected to, possibly because the sole unit is quite wide, which provides a decent platform. They obviously lack the response of a more minimalist shoe, and I'm not sure I'd want to race in them, though the likes of Sage Canaday have no problem running fast marathons in them. That wasn't my reason for buying them though, and I have to admit that my legs felt remarkably fresh after running my first ever 100 mile week, mostly in the Cliftons.

Things I dislike: mainly, looking like a fucking Spice Girl. Ok, they're not the Bondi (which are ridiculous) but, having gone from low-profile shoes to these, I do feel like I'm in platforms shoes. Actually, the stack isn't quite as high as it appears to be - the looks of the sole are deceiving - but... Yeah. Just call me Hairy Spice. Also, the grip was poor for the first hundred miles or so; I definitely felt some slipping on toe-off just on slightly damp roads. This seems to have lessened as they've got more miles on, so maybe there was just some coating that had to be worn off (I've heard some shoe manufacturers put an anti-microbial coating on the sole for stock purposes). I also got a few blisters initially but these have healed and were probably just teething problems. How long the shoe will last remains to be seen; I ran my Road-X until I could pretty much see daylight through the sole, on the basis that they had no cushioning so there was nothing to compress! If I only get 500 miles out of these then my shoe habit could suddenly become very expensive with my current training.

Mizuno Ekiden 11 (29km at time of writing)
I really like these. Dare I say, they're more minimal than my Road-X... They have a much better grip though. Sizing was tricky; I might have got away with a 9.5, if the upper stretched, but went for a 10 (my usual size) which feels like it may be a wee bit sloppy, especially on my smaller right foot. Probably a 9.75 would have done the trick but, of course, such a thing does not exist. Anyway. First outing for these was a 16km run, middle 12km at marathon pace, and it was like they were begging to go faster the whole time. Took a while to get the lacing and fit sorted but once I got into the meat of the run I pretty much forgot about them, which is what you want from racing flats. I also wore them last night for a workout with the Harriers: 10x2 mins, 1 min off. Again, they were mostly brilliant (see below for the bits that weren't), and even handled a bit of trail getting to and from the stretch of road we were doing the efforts on. I wouldn't take them off-road any more than absolutely necessary but that's because of durability concerns, bearing in mind they're racing flats and not cheap at that.

Things I dislike: I'm not convinced I got the right fit but, seeing as I intend to wear these up to, and including, marathon distance, I erred on the side of room for swelling. Without living with a shoe for a while it's hard to know about fit, and I don't have the cash to buy a pair in each size! The laces are rubbish. After Sunday's run I replaced them with some from an old pair of Inov-8, which seemed to work much better (though they're still too long). I also noticed that the insole seemed to slip a bit during the Harriers efforts. Didn't cause a major issue but I felt the gap with my toes. Again, I've replaced the insoles as of this morning with some from the same old pair of Inov-8; these are more substantial, so hopefully will slip less, and will also slightly reduce the volume in the shoe, which will help with fit. On the whole though, I'm a fan of the Ekiden so far.

So, there you have it. No longer quite the Inov-8 fan boy I used to be. In fairness, Inov-8 started life as a fell-running brand, and it's not surprising they don't put a lot into their road range, though I simply cannot see any reason at all to use a different last for the Talon range (and it's not even marketed as such!). I still think the X- and Trail Talons are brilliant and plan to continue to use them for as long as they remain as brilliant. On the roads though... I'm sorry, Inov-8; I think we should start seeing other people.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Race Report: Kielder Dark Skies Marathon

I've been wanting to do the Dark Skies Marathon since it first ran in 2015. That year it was too close to the Manchester 'Marathon', and 2016 it was too close to the Kielder 50k for me to risk it. This year, however, it was perfectly placed as my final long run before the Kielder 80k, with the advantage that it was in the same general area as that race and involved practice running on headtorch. The 80k was not to be, of course, but that wasn't going to stop me running Dark Skies at last.

A broken down car might, though. Cue phone call from Mrs Heathcote on Thursday: "There's something wrong with the car..." That something was a pool of diesel underneath it. Marvelous. The AA were called and, fearing the worst, I started desperately trying to figure out a means of getting to the race. A certain Mr Ian Brown came to my rescue, as he was also heading up for the marathon, and so Cinderella was able to go to the ball after all. As it happened, the AA were able to replace the fuel line at the side of the road so I would have been ok, but one less car made environmental and logistical sense.

The journey up covered a number of topics from track marathons to the difficulty getting a place on ultras these days, and flew by; in no time at all we were pulling in to Hawkhirst Activity Centre. Off to register and get kit checked, and then we pretty much parted company until nearer the start. Lots of catching up with mates, nattering, meeting new people, and queuing for the toilet filled the time until the race briefing.

As has been the case for the last few races I've entered, I found myself near the back of the crowd for the briefing, which meant I was near the back when the race started. Less time nattering, more time paying attention if I want to actually race! Sure enough, I ended up caught in a bottleneck. My plan was to just take things as they came for this event, so I wasn't too concerned, beyond being a bit frustrated to not be able to get into a rhythm for the first few km.

The course did a loop around the Activity Centre before heading out onto the Lakeside Way, and by the time we got onto the trail proper I was able to start moving up the field. I was aiming for something in the region of 3.5 hrs, having looked at the top 10 from last year, so had half an eye on my pace but was mostly running to heart rate in the hope of avoiding blowing up. The race starting at 5.30pm meant that it was broad daylight for the first bit, and I actually regretted not having sunglasses on for a while. By about an hour in though the sun was dipping below the horizon, and the water was calm and mirror-like.

I was steadily overtaking people, and feeling really good at the halfway point, coming through 21km in 1:38'36; nothing spectacular for a HM but decent enough on that course and well on pace for my goal time. I held off on getting my headtorch out until just before checkpoint 4 at the Dam, which was about 27km in: it was pretty dark under the trees, but when not in the forest the light remained good enough to see by for quite a long time, and the trail wasn't in the least bit technical, so I enjoyed being a bit 'primal'! Eventually though, I did slow down a bit to get my torch on, seemingly pulling a muscle in my forearm in the process, and also put on some gloves which, being dayglow green, slightly knacked my otherwise 'stealth' outfit of black Helly and shorts, black trainers, black race pack, and my Harriers vest, also black.

I got a bit confused as to where the trail went at the Dam checkpoint, mainly because of all the headtorches and lighting being used by the marshals; completely did for my night-vision (something to be repeated at subsequent aid stations). Made it onto the Dam itself though, and suffered no further issues. Yes, dear reader, you did read that correctly: I managed to avoid getting lost! Testament to how well Tim, Garry, and their band of volunteers had marked the course.

I hadn't really kept on top of my hydration etc up until this point, and hadn't taken on much in the way of calories either; I had one bottle of Tailwind and one of water, so I'd had a bit, but I was definitely starting to feel a bonk coming on so, reluctantly, slowed to a tactical hike and forced a ClifBar down. I really like ClifBars, but I struggle to eat them during a race unless it's one where the ultramarathon tactic of hike-the-hills-and-stuff-your-face comes into play; I just can't chew them, and my stomach starts to reject anything I try and put in it. As a result, whilst I had energy for the final 10k, I also had nausea and other issues. Every race is a learning experience, and I'll make sure to a) not run out of Tailwind before the race and b) experiment with something more easily consumed like ClifBloks for future races.

It was completely dark by this point, and very atmospheric to see the lights from other people's headtorches snaking around the water. I tried to count the number ahead of me, and could see two, but felt sure there were more. Sure enough, I shortly came across a guy a little further up the trail, and accepted I had no idea where I was in the field, so there was no point worrying... I wasn't racing, remember? *COUGH* I did try to take in the night sky but actually spent most of the final 10k focused on my footing on the trail, and by the final 5k I really just wanted to finish as my stomach issues were getting worse.

A few more walk breaks than I would have liked, and then I was running up the fairy-lit finishing straight. I crashed into the hut in 6th place, with a time on my watch of 3:30'57 (gutted!) so mission pretty much accomplished, despite the slowing of pace towards the end. I then turned a funny colour and gave a few of the marshals a scare as I lay down on the floor with my legs up! A combination of stopping too quickly and dehydration, I think; something similar happened after the Town Moor Marathon in October.

As I was lying on the floor, Ian finished in a brilliant 9th place, 1st V60. Neither of us could figure out where I passed him, as he'd been ahead of me at the one turnaround point on the course because of my bottleneck issues, and I'd been watching out for him as I passed people. Eventually we figured out it must have been the Dam checkpoint; he stopped to fill his water bottle and I was blinded, so neither had spotted the other (Edit: confirmed by the Strava Fly-by). Not a bad result for Tynedale Harriers, all told!

We didn't hang around at the end, and so before long I was sitting at my kitchen table eating pizza and supping on a malted barley recovery drink. A brilliant event that I highly recommend; slick organisation and the views were alreet, like... Chapeau to Tim and Garry of Trail Outlaws, and big thanks to the volunteers involved in set-up and marshaling.