Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Holme Fell: Louis' first Wainwright

A few days on from the BGR experience we're enjoying our holiday in the lakes. It had been my plan to get our boy Louis up his first Wainwright before we head home. He's 6 months old and starting to weigh some. We stay over Coniston way in general when we come up and have one of the lowest and most straight forward Wainwright climbs behind the cottage.

Holme Fell has a long grassy ascent with some very easy rock steps on one side and a big crag off of the front, overlooking the main road from Ambleside to Coniston. It's a beautiful fell and one full of character despite being the second lowest of all 214 peaks.

After a simple 40 minute hike we made the top, the first for Louis and his Mum. Breathtaking views and a nice way to start easing the waste back out of my tired legs.


Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Bob Graham Round 2

This post shouldn't really about my second and failed attempt at the BGR. It should really be about sacrifices. Not my own, but those made by my crew/ pacers again this weekend in the name of allowing me to try to complete a circuit of 42 Lakeland summits in under 24 hours. To them I am extremely thankful for the time, effort and energy expended.

The critical factor for me in this Bob Graham equation, is the 24hrs. My crew overheard a conversation between two past Centurion race competitors at the Lakeland start about how it shouldn't be that difficult to run 100km in that time. Having not seen the route I would have to agree. Having seen the route and been in to the deep end of it twice now, I can safely say it's one of the hardest things I've ever tried to do. This is the kind of route where a decent mile split is the wrong side of 50 minutes on occasions. That's pretty hard to comprehend unless you've tried to hike up Yewbarrow. In many ways, I've come to view the challenge in a similar way to the Spartathlon. I've also come to realise that my training and preparation for it needs to match that which I applied in order to reach that finish line in Sparta. Not simply try to show up and just wing it which is much closer to what I've actually tried to do.

The crux of the matter is this 24hr thing. Twice now I've faced the potential of being physically able to complete the distance, but just not within the time frame. How? Why?

I am not a fast runner, but I'm not slow either. But this has almost nothing to do with running. It's about a much broad range of skills. I alluded to that in my blog of the first attempt a few weeks ago, but this time it was really brought home to me.

Pre Attempt

The attempt this time almost fell foul of some weather considerations once again. The forecast at first looking perfect, turned decidedly sour for Saturday night on the western fells. The Met Office Mountain Forecast was for very low visibility in hill fog and heavy rain down to below 500 metres. Co-inciding with the timings we were due to be out on leg four, a very high level and involved part of the round, we decided to bring the start time forward to Friday night. This was far from ideal, it meant we were all rushing a little to prep in time.

At 10pm we drove out to Penrith to pick up pacer Adam Stirk, a successful BGR finisher. He would be pacing me for leg 1 and 2. We'd never met before but from all our correspondence I knew he was the perfect man for the job. Whilst Drew and I collected Adam, Nici and Claire were off trying to buy the supplies for the effort. Funnily enough there wasn't much open at 10:30pm on Saturday night. And therein lay our first major, and ridiculously amateur issue.

Leg One

11:06pm and Adam and I were off up Skiddaw. There was none of the thick cloud cover from last time, Adam's knowledge of the route was superior to my own and in two places he saved me minutes off of last time. It was a stunning night, the stars were out in force, I felt great and it was exceptionally warm and humid such that we ran the whole leg in t shirts but still sweated buckets. Skiddaw 74 mins, Great Calva 37, Blencathra 69 and a nice runnable descent of Doddick Gill to Threlkeld rather than Halls Fell in 29 mins and we were at the car at just past 2:30am (3hrs30). Text book stuff. I was feeling superb.

Leg Two

Leaving Threlkeld I made a massive error. I took only gels with me out on leg two. Adam and I had both had a few stomach rumblings on leg one thanks perhaps to some fairly metallic tasting water down at the River crossing. At the start of this leg Adam was forced to make a pit stop and I got the first rumblings of some issues. The Lakeland 100 race had started at 1800 the night before and by a weird twist of fate, our paths joined the course just as Paul Tierney emerged on to the route. We had a chat as we hiked up through the fields below the Coach Road, he was feeling rough and I was feeling great but as I pointed out at least he didn't have to hike his way up Clough Head next! We went our separate ways and we took a slow line up Clough Head gaining the top in 54 minutes. From there the run of the Dodds came easy enough, then I began to suffer some slightly more severe stomach problems. Two pit stops in quick succession and a refusal to digest gels led to a rapid slow down in pace. Nevertheless we still made pretty good time over Helvelyn, Nethermost, Dollywagon and the grind up to Fairfield, dropping over Seat Sandal and down to the road in 4:25 or a total of 8hrs. Bang on schedule. Damage was done though, I hadn't eaten for two hours and was in the locker.

Leg Three

The extent of my nutritional woes was brought home as I arrived at Nici's car at Dunmail to find all we had with us was an old pot of baked beans, a pack of biscuits and some gels. This was a disaster. On a stomach that wasn't co-operating we basically had a pack of biscuits for the next 6 - 7.5hrs. I drank the beans, ate a few biscuits and felt marginally better so Paul and I got off up Steel Fell. 24 mins later we were on to Calf Crag, a small mistake and a wasted couple of minutes, then the climb to Sergeant Man. We were stopping for water wherever there was signs of some. It was exceptionally warm and the springs were as dry as I've ever seen them. The next section went ok as we tagged High Raise, Harrison, Pike O'stickle and began the circa 50 minute traverse over to Rossett Pike. The climb to Rossett is punchy and we took a cr*p line up there and then on to Bowfell again shedding some valuable minutes. As we gained the highest plateau of the round I was weaving and bobbing with almost no fuel going in. My strength on the climbs was poor and my control on the descents even worse. Despite that, there were moments when I felt we still had a good chance and that it would all come together and we ground onwards. The climb up Lord's Rake to Scafell and down to Wasdale was shockingly slow, however. With a huge sense of deja vu I came in to the car park at Wastwater feeling almost identical to how I had done 4 weeks previous and in a very similar overall time.

Leg Four

4 weeks ago I'd decided to call it a day at Wasdale. I didn't have enough time to get round and once you are out on leg 3 and your crew have departed, you are in for a very long hike out to Honister if things go wrong. Well this time I decided that come what may I'd commit to leg four and suffer the consequences. It wasn't within the bounds of possibility I could make it in, it was just very unlikely. I ate like a horse at Wasdale. I was starving from the stomach and lack of available food imposed mega bonk. Really all I'd had in 9 hours was a few biscuits, a mule bar and some beans.

The climb up Yewbarrow is the steepest on the BGR. It's roughly 1 in 2. And despite everything, 50 mins in and we were up it. Pretty slow for a 0.9 mile climb but actually bang on schedule. That, however, was the end for me. It completely wiped me out. I became a kind of liability in a way because my sugar starved brain was having trouble with basic functions. I lay on the ground for 5 minutes before we got on and continued the climb to Red Pike. I was moving interminably slowly now and I began to feel it slipping very rapidly away from me. The giants of leg four are imposing at the best of times and I felt their might creeping upon me. My mind was willing my body to keep grinding it out to this point, but my body finally won out and it was with a fairly massive collapse. It took us 84 minutes to gain Red Pike, on a 50 minute schedule. Drew and I sat on the summit and discussed our options. We decided to make the call to quit the attempt. He was encouraging for me to continue and finish outside the 24hrs, I was dead against it. I knew I'd only view that as a failure and worse, was potentially putting him and myself in a fairly risky position on the rocky climbs/ descents of Kirk Fell and Gable.

So that was it, but by far from the end of the day. We'd been out a little over 18 hours, but I realised we'd probably take another three to get down to the crew at Honister. We skirted Steeple and Pillar, the next two summits, people at home therefore would realise we'd abandoned as we missed the tops. We dropped down to Blacksail pass and took the Lakeland course across to Buttermere. It was the safest and quickest way out for us given the weather that blew straight in and completely engulfed the Leg four tops behind us. It simply served to reinforce that we made the right call at the right time. Clearly a failure is not something to pat oneself on the back over, but I am proud of the judgement we exercised. In the mountains, and make no mistake these are mountains in every way shape and form, ones success must primarily be judged in my opinion on the ability to get to safety without the need for external help. I'm sure someone before has said it much better, but that's how I view it anyhow.

We got down to Buttermere and hitched a lift with a rally driver who tried his best to finish us off on the drive back to Honister where we met with Nici and Claire, and the day ended.

Aftermath

Massive disappointment at a second failure to complete the round. But more learnings. I knew this was a hard thing to achieve, but I had until now been naive to the level of difficulty. It is exceptionally hard. I would equate it to running a difficult 100 mile race within 24hrs, with only 4 check points. I was probably 1 - 2 hours out this time overall.

Ultimately the stomach issues I had and lack of food on leg three were my major undoing this time. But ultimately there's something more here. I was probably fit enough to get round, but not fit enough to do so with much margin for error. I knew the route pretty well, but there were still times on leg three when we made silly mistakes or wasted time. And someone with a greater knowledge of the route or sense of mountain craft would easily have wiped a half hour - an hour off that one leg alone I would think, thanks to better lines.

If your knowledge of the route/ navigation skills are not exceptional, the way to get around the BGR is with heavy support. One navigational pacer and one 'mule' pacer for each leg. Possibly more. I see lots of pictures of people doing the round with a number people accompanying each leg. We had a total of one driver and 4 pacers. Basically the equivalent of one or two leg's worth of support. You also need to recce the routes over and over. It's not just a case of knowing the way, it's a case of understanding the ground, knowing where the water sources are such that you carry nothing more than you need on a 4 - 7 hour leg. It's about fell speed. An ability to negotiate incredibly rocky or loose scree descents at pace, for the whole way.

Fitness wise,  the climbs are so steep that as long as you are moving forward/ upward, you are working at rate which I would describe as fairly similar to marathon effort in order to proceed at a pace quick enough to get you round. You simply cannot recover unless you stand still. And that isn't conducive to getting around....

Simply put, I wasn't ready in a few different and important ways. Next time rest assured I will be.

This has bitten me in a way I haven't been bitten since Sparta and for that I am exceptionally grateful. Certainly, returning to the Lakes time and again is beginning to feel like coming home.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Return to posting

I took this blog out of commission some time ago as we shifted everything over to the Centurion website. Increasingly, i've found that to be the wrong forum for much of what I wanted to write about. So in a bid to return to the days of writing more regularly I've re-instated this old blog. More than anything else I'd like this to go back to being a running diary to look back on in years to come. Many of the better blogs out there address a range of issues, offer advice and inspire debate. Any posts falling under those remits will go on to the Centurion site.

Thus, new posts may appear anything from daily to annually.

It's the Wednesday before my second attempt at the Bob Graham Round. I am the most energised I've been for months. A combination of getting through the meat of the Centurion racing season, and Louis sleeping through the night. It feels like a gigantic weight has been lifted from my shoulders, with a successful BGR this weekend I shall be floating along.

I've been kindly leant a tracker by open tracking off of the Fell Runner Forums which is extremely kind of them. http://maps.opentracking.co.uk/bg2014.cfm?n=35

All I need now is for my ankle to hold out and the weather forecast to stay as planned. I went over on my right ankle coming off of Green Gable on my final BGR recce two Fridays back and it degenerated in to a strain which has prevented running for a week since. It's coming around.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Rocky IV

Time for a little reflection on Rocky Raccoon 100 before the 2013 event, a race which holds a special place in my heart.

My first major goal of 2013 is a Trail 100 Mile PB (currently 20:19) at Rocky Raccoon 100, which this year, is being held on February 2nd. As always, the course is formed of 5 x 20 mile loops around Huntsville State Park, an incredible spot around an hours drive north of Houston, Texas.

This will be my fourth go around at Rocky. They changed the course in 2009, to what is (unbelievably) a marginally slower course in the estimations of those who've run both versions. My first year at Rocky was 2009, my first ever 100 miler in fact. That year, Andy Jones Wilkins fended off a stiff challenge from Scott Jaime (multiple hardrock 100 winner) for the win in 15:54. The great thing about Rocky Raccoon is that whilst it's a looped course, it also contains a number of sections that are run in different directions making it possible for runners wherever they are, to follow the race at the front, middle and back.

The following year, 2010, I took a miss as I had qualified for Badwater and wanted to focus all my energy on 6 months of consistent training leading up to it. That year was Ian Sharmans' first (which some people probably didn't realise was also his first 100) and he ran 2nd for much of the race to Greg Crowther, a very accomplished 50 mile runner who was somewhat unproven at the 100 mile distance. Ian ended up suffering a knee problem and wisely dropped at mile 80, with Greg going on to win in 14:58, by almost 2 hours over second.

The course record up until this point had been on the old course, held by Eric Clifton in 13:16. A few years afterwards, Jorge Pacheco turned up and missed out on the record, staggeringly, by under a minute. Nobody knew if the new course could yield as quick a time, but according to AJW the 2009 winner, the new course was definitely slower.

Well, in 2011 I went back and so did Ian. There was an ice storm the morning prior to the race and temps were much lower than usual, but it was largely dry. This led to superb conditions. Zach Gingerich whom I'd met at Badwater the previous year where he won, went off of the startline at an insane pace. The course travels about 500 metres out before turning right along the road for a short way. He was out of sight well before that turn. Ian bide his time, let Zach blow himself up and held steady with the late entries of Anton Krupicka, Hal Koerner, Scott Jurek, Karl Meltzer and Mike Wolfe all running in a pack together just slightly behind of him. Lap 2, 3 and 4 came and went, everyone expecting Ian to fumble and hand the lead to the 'elites' behind, in fact most of the people actually running the race didn't realise that Ian was in fact leading. Every time I saw him flying around the course he looked comfortable and totally in control, it was kind of electrifying to see him go and gave me a massive boost. Ian went on to absolutely obliterate the record and set the American trail 100 mile record in the process with a 12:44, a story most people are aware of and rightly so. He had the perfect day. Scott Jurek dropped at 60, Anton pulled away from Hal slightly and ran a 13:18 to his 13:26 and Mike Wolfe eventually faded quite badly to a 16:53, Karl Meltzer instead picking up 4th in 14:27. Obviously this new course was fast....

Last year, 2012, I went back for round 3 and watched Ian brawl it out with Oswaldo Lopez up front for the first 3 laps. Unfortunately he picked up a niggle again and pulled out, Oswaldo faded and Hal Koerner ran super strong once again in what I felt were much harder conditions to win in 13:24. In my opinion, and Hal apparently felt that this wasn't the case so there you go, but I think on a dry day that would have been worth a significant chunk off his time.

All of these times make it seem like Rocky Raccoon is a walk in the park. In terms of a trail 100, it is pretty damn fast. It isn't, however, quite as simple as it sounds. There are some climbs, the type of which you don't notice on lap 1 but by lap 5 have turned in to slugfests. Sure they are short although there are a few grinders on the sandy ATV trail between miles 14 and 16, but it still amounts to 5500ft of gain in the race, which believe me, is not flat when you compare that to a track or towpath. There are also an absolute truckload of roots littering the ground and you really have to watch your step during some sections. There is almost no doubt at some point you will crash, as Ian did during his 12:44. Ian's run is therefore all the more remarkable. Trail running is trail running, not road running and to run a 7:32 mile pace with 5500ft of gain on a twisty root littered course should leave anyone in disbelief.

For me personally, I am yet to have a good race there. In fact I feel as if I am yet to have a really good day at a 100 miler in 10 goes.

At RR100 In 2009, my first 100, I simply wanted a sub 24 hour time. I went out with that explicit goal in mind and ran the following splits per 20 mile loop:

20 miles: 3:26
40 miles: 7:23
60 miles: 11:36
80 miles: 16:48
100 miles: 22:54

In 2011, I wanted a huge PB. I had proved myself at much harder, longer races and I was in good shape, or so I thought:

20 miles: 3:02
40 miles: 6:35
60 miles: 10:27
80 miles: DNF

In 2012 (blog post here), I again had a PB in mind but was putting less pressure on myself after spending the remainder of 2011 on the sidelines with pretty serious injuries (double stress fracture of the left tibia and a smashed up knee in a bike crash late in the year). I wasn't in great shape, but i was in better shape than i'd predicted so I thought a sub 20 would be comfortable. It poured down the entire night before and during the race turning areas of the course in to total quagmires which got pretty hard to negotiate in the dark. I felt dreadful the final lap too, so having got in to a great position I found myself death marching it out with a really tight chest that had me somewhat worried. Disappointing but then a PB is a PB.

20 miles: 3:09
40 miles: 6:39
60 miles: 10:28
80 miles: 14:54
100 miles: 20:19

I know, I took 5 hours and 25 minutes to cover the final 20 miles. I practically could have crawled in for sub 20 and instead lost the plot and went even slower than I had believed possible.

What happens this year will depend on my training and of course, conditions on the day. I don't keep training logs at any other time of the year, but I always have for Rocky which gives me some grounds for comparison which I plan to make over the coming few days.

Here is a great shot shared by Richard Webster of he and I approaching Corinth Mile 50 at Sparta last year. A finish here remains my number 1 aim for 2013 after dropping at mile 100 in 2012. Photo Courtesy of James Adams & Gemma Greenwood. 









Sunday, 2 December 2012

Ayot 100km

Running Spartathlon next year was reliant on me finishing yesterdays race in under 10 hours and 30 minutes. I set up the Ayot 100km in order to give those looking to qualify for Sparta, a chance to do so before the registrations open for the 2013 event early in the new year. Sparta rules dictate that you must have finished either: A 100km race within 10 hours and 30 minutes or any non-stop race over 220km in length. Badwater was my ticket in before, but the race must be within 3 years of the Spartathlon you are hoping to run. 2010 made that time too old to use.

In the end, 5 of us made the 10 hour 30 cut, but it was as expected, a hard task.

10 minute miles over 63 miles sounds relatively do-able, especially on a fairly flat and fast trail course (2100 feet of climb). Inevitably after 40/50 miles it starts to get a little harder to keep your form, you get tight and lazy and things can go down hill quickly. I held on ok though. My aims were to run every step and to fuel well throughout. It would be the perfect performance indicator for Rocky Raccoon 100 too, albeit Rocky's thick and abundant tree roots are an added consideration. My splits were 3:47 for the marathon, 7:21 for 50 and 9:40 for the 100km. I slowed down but not too drastically. All in all it's hard to look past the fact that I simply 'got the job done' with respect to Sparta, however there is still a lot of work to be done if I am to hit Goal 1 for 2013, a 100 mile PB on Feb 2nd.

My legs did feel ok today, calves tight but otherwise ok, nevertheless I did nothing more than some extended walking before I'll get back at it tomorrow with some cycling and a shorter run.

Friday, 30 November 2012

2013 Race Plans

It's that special time of year again. A time when ultrarunners the world over are scouring the internet for  insane races, listing out ridiculously over-ambitious race plans and trying to explain them to their other halves.

After falling foul of the above situation one too many times, I have myself been planning 2013 rather more carefully than usual. I told myself this year, 2012, would be different. I'd enter less, race less and race better as a result. Unknowingly, I've got my season exactly right only once in the past - in 2010 when I spent 7 months training for and working towards a single goal - Badwater. It's taken me 2 years since, to work out what I had already surmised back then.

I had a very average year this year. I started well running a decent Country to Capital, 43ish miles in 6hrs flat. What's more it felt ok. I went in to Rocky Raccoon 100 three weeks later, too tired. I carried about 10% to 15% fatigue in to that event after running the last 20 miles of C2C about a minute per mile too fast. Rocky was also a massive wash out, but a PB is a PB and 20:19 was ok.

I went on to take a big break whilst I put on the TP100, had my stag do, got married and went on honeymoon. When I came back I messed up by doing too much. In a 6 week period I raced the 53 mile Highland Fling, running a 9:45 which wasn't bad, paced a friend at the Three Forts Marathon, ran the entire length of the SDW, 105ish miles in 21hrs with Neil Bryant and ran a respectable first Comrades in 7:56. All of those results were ok. I felt like I should have done about 10% - 15% better in all of them, but something wasn't quite right. And then 2 weeks after Comrades, having been ill and missing a full nights sleep, I dropped out of the WHW race after 27 miles. I knew within 200 yards of the start line that I shouldn't have been there. I'd fallen foul of my own over-zealousness once again.

So that was the early summer. A bunch of crammed in racing without any great results but with only one really bad one. The rest of the summer was dedicated to UTMB and righting the wrong of 2010 when we got hauled off the course due to landslides. I climbed everything I could, we visited places on holiday just so that I could put myself through the paces in the mountains. When I came home, I ran a 42 mile training run with all the gear followed by a 24 mile session the next day. I was ready. And then they cancelled it, again. It was still a hard race, 105km with 6000+ m of ascent all in the rain and snow was always going to be, but I felt like a fraud running through the streets of Chamonix to an ovation as a 'UTMB finisher'. Instead I switched my focus to a race I was utterly underprepared for and which in my opinion is the ultimate and the hardest ultra race around - Sparta. DNFing Sparta at mile 100 is, weirdly, the highlight of my year. As soon as I crossed that finish line, I knew that the next 12 months were only going to be about one thing. Getting to that statue.

So how do I plan the year leading up to the final weekend in September and a 153 mile road race in the heat........ A race for which you need to be at your absolute best even to stand a chance of making it half way.

I need to take what I know about my own training, racing and recovery to get me on my A game and prepared, in time. Two things stick out at me when I look back over the past 6 or 7 years.

Principally, I just don't recover that quickly from ultras. Secondly, even if I am racing as a 'training run' I am incapable of switching off from the rest of the race and simply enjoying the outing. I will run too hard if I see any other runners and am in the same race as them.

So how do I combine the above three things to achieve the greatest results. It's simple really:

1. Enter lots of marathons. I am a big advocate of using marathons as very long tempo runs for ultras. A marathon can be put in to a training schedule with minimal disruption to the consistency you need for ultimate success. You can still race them, maybe up to around 85% to 90% effort without losing more than a day or two in to the following week for recovery. My desire to race is satisfied and I get a very good hard work out because I can't restrain myself from racing at least hard while being careful to avoid going flat out which usually hurts too much anyway unless you really really want it.

2. Pick and choose a small number of key ultra events to go for. Anything over 50 miles in distance is going to do you more harm than good, if that race is not your A race. A 50 miler as training for a 100, if done once and about 6 - 10 weeks out (depending on recovery time) is the most I should be doing. People that say they race 100s as training runs for other 100s, are delusional. You break your body down enormously over the course of a 100 miler. Being able to train consistently as opposed to having a 2 week taper, running a 100, then having 2 weeks to recover is obviously going to be more beneficial.   With one caveat. If you do a longer race early enough, that can give you a huge dose of mental strength and endurance, instilling if you will the confidence that you can achieve your goal, then it might just be worthwhile. For me, for Sparta, having only run one 100+ mile race before (135 miles at BW), I need to know I can run the distance and I need to know I can do it well. I need to learn how to pace myself, how my body will cope with the last 45 miles when I am not walking along chaffed to pieces as I was in Death Valley. And in the process I get to run one of the other events on my bucket list.

So here's the plan:

January: Country to Capital - not too hard, not too gently, just right. About 7hrs would be good.
February: Rocky Raccoon 100 - Run it hard. Run a PB. Enjoy what will be my 4th go round at this event and most probably my last for quite a few years.
March: Ironman New Zealand - because I am in that part of the world and every now and then you need to go do something different. Six Foot Track Marathon the following weekend.
April: London Marathon - For me, my greatest achievement in running is breaking 3 hours in the marathon, because I raced it. Crawling out finishes at harder races is just so much less impressive. I would like to break 2:50 and have a chance with being in the front pen.
May: Grand Union Canal Run - The big one. The Spartathlon tester. Am I going to have what it takes 4 months down the line, to punch Leonidas in the face with my foot?
July: Hardrock - This is a lottery. I've been in it the last few years with no joy. If i get a place I would have to take it, apart from Sparta it's the only thing that's left to run off of my original bucket list.
September: All roads lead here. SPARTA.

So that's it really. Hardrock doesn't fit but apart from that it's lots of pretty flat running, fast running and nothing over 50 miles, apart from GUCR which fits for totally different reasons.

That leads to the following goals really, in this order, but numbered in priority:
2. Run a 100 mile PB at Rocky Raccoon in Feb.
5. Finish the Ironman without too bad of a melt down on the bike or drowning in the swim.
4. Run a PB at London.
3. Finish GUCR comfortably under 36 hours. Ideally under 30.
1. Finish Spartathlon.

As I've done in the past, I plan to blog each day between tomorrow and 2nd February for Rocky Raccoon. It's all for my own benefit so if you're one of the 8 people that found this blog and read this far, you might just be tempted to check back in and see how I'm doing.... and thank you for listening.

And here's the soundtrack to my winter already.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Spartathlon 2012 Race Report


Finishing the Spartathlon is simple. All you have to do is run 153 miles in  under 36 hours. 

Nothing I had done could have prepared me for just how hard and how epic this race is. I am not usually one for making sweeping statements about races, but for me this was and this is the ultimate. For the first time coming away from a race, I feel like I have found that something I’ve been looking for. Mark Cockbain described it as a pure hard running race. I know now what he meant. Its purity & its difficulty are in its simplicity. It’s you vs 153 miles of road in a severely imposing time limit through the heat of the Greek sun. All other bets are off.

Trying to sum up how hard this race is tricky but I’ll try because I just didn’t get it until the darkest hours just before dawn this past Saturday.

What does running the Spartathlon feel like?

You start at the Acropolis in the centre of Athens at first light, along roads choked with commuter traffic blaring horns and pumping exhaust fumes in to morning air thick with humidity. You make your way out of the city and on to a coast road, past oil refineries and eventually alongside beaches lapped by an azure blue sea. You are 50 yards away but that may as well be 1000 miles, because all you are concentrating on is running sufficiently fast enough to beat the cut offs. The temperatures climb fast until by mid morning you are being cooked by a sun at first from the side and then from above. The roadside garages tell you it’s 35 degrees but with the heat radiating off of the tarmac it feels so much hotter. You pass the marathon mark completely unawares because 26.2 miles is so massively insignificant vs what lies before you – 127 more miles of this. The heat intensifies as the rolling road stretches out before you. Every 2 – 3 miles you come to a checkpoint, pick up a sponge from a bucket of water, douse your shirt, head and hat so that you’re soaked through, re-filling your bottle with warm water and heading off to the next point. Half way between the two you are totally bone dry and the battle to keep your core temperature down whilst you cover that extra 15 – 20 minutes begins again. When you can’t, your stomach unloads in an instant and you’re throwing up food and water you’ve fought hard to keep down. You pass scores of people doing the same. As the sun reaches it’s zenith you climb a steep section of motorway up to the mighty Corinth canal and make your way to the 50 mile checkpoint, the first major stop. If you haven’t made it here in less than 9 hours 30, you’re out of the race. 50 miles in 35 degree+ heat on rolling roads is no mean feat. You have over 100 miles still to run.

As you leave Corinth behind, you turn immediately in to more rural Greece, through farms, olive groves and vineyards, greeted by the ever-regular but lightly stocked checkpoint tables. By this time the scraps of crisps, banana and diluted coke are starting to look less appealing and you are counting the hours down until darkness will finally fall and offer you respite from the oppressive heat. After Corinth, the undulations increase, but you can’t slow down. Running everything but the steepest grades you make up mere minutes on the cut off times that force you to go faster than you would normally dream of running for a race less than half this far. When night sets, the full moon lights your way and you click off the miles and kilometres one by one until finally, at long last, you reach Nemea. A haven in the city square where you emerge out of the dark in to the lights and throngs of people – massage tables, hot food, toilets, mattresses on the ground – all luxuries you simply can’t afford to stay and enjoy. You’ve run 76.5 miles by this point. Everything hurts, of course everything should hurt after just under three back to back marathons – but you are exactly half way. Many of those remaining won’t make it out of here.

From Nemea the road climbs before there is some relief in a long downhill section with regular checkpoints and long winding quiet rural roads. The only things that break your concentration are crew cars trundling past kicking the dust off of the road up so you have to cover your face with your t shirt. It starts to get cooler, the smart ones have left a long sleeve and a light in a drop bag which they’ve already put on. The rookies didn’t think they’d get cold so their first warm clothing is way up the road, many hours away.

The heat of the day past begins to take it’s toll, the pace slows down, more walking is thrown in but you can’t walk for long because the cut offs are always there. At mile 95 you are presented with a trail of bobbing lights disappearing high in to the sky ahead, on winding switchbacks and later on a mountain trail – the spot Pheidippides met the God Pan on his journey 2500 years ago. This is Sangras Pass. You have to climb a mountain 100 miles in to the race before you may continue back on the road to Sparta. You climb up and up before you finally reach the base of the mountain. You’ve lost more time to the climb and the pressure is higher than ever. You’ve run 99.5 miles and you have over two marathons left to run.

The trail climbs high up the mountain, passing over the top and down the other side on steep switchbacks bringing you back out on to the road. The sun starts to come up and the heat comes back. Those weary few who’ve made it this far are almost all in a death march against the clock, to eek out those final 50 miles to the city of Sparta. Yet more will fall by the way side as the road climbs and climbs on what the veterans will tell you is the hardest part of the course. Only the most worthy make it in to the city limits and through the final 2 checkpoints, 73 and 74 indicating that 150 miles have been run, with less than 5km to go. Left in shreds by what they have gone through, less than 1 in 4 of the starting field, just 25% of the runners eventually make the turn on the main road and can just about make out the statue of King Leonidas in the distance. The final drag up hill lasts a few hundred metres, before all that is left to do is climb the final few steps in front of throngs of incredulous spectators, friends and family, to kiss the foot of the statue, signifying the completion of the journey.
As many people have pointed out before, Sparta doesn’t claim to be the longest, hardest, hottest or most brutal foot race on the planet. Indeed it may not be any of those things on it’s own, but it’s the most epic race I’ve ever experienced.

I started the day running alongside James Adams, vet of 2 previous Spartas, both of which he completed. We chatted away running at a reasonable pace and smiling at the angry drivers who were stopped to make way for 305 runners attempting the impossible. The early miles were pretty rough because of the fumes but we made our way out of Athens pretty quickly. James stopped for a call of nature and I carried on ahead running with Peter Johnson, veteran of more ultras than you could count. Allan Rumbles came past at a good pace and Peter and I let him go on, still whiling away the time. Checkpoints came and went and in the rush to waste not a single second of precious time, we got split up and I was on my own making my way through the oil refineries and eventually out on to the coast road. I genuinely cannot remember much of the first 45 miles. I was concentrating 100% on how I was feeling. I was aware the heat was high, higher than normal I guessed (it was), and maintaining everything  as best I could whilst meeting the cut offs was my only aim. I wasn’t sure exactly where the marathon mark was by it slipped by in around 4 hours according to my Ambit. I didn’t have a plan but from what I’d read this sounded ok. At mile 40 my mental strength took a massive nose dive when the ‘Death Bus’ holding all of those who had dropped from the race already on it, rolled up and pulled to the side of the road. As I ran past I looked in and saw Drew, Allan Rumbles and David Miles all sat at the back of the bus. I couldn’t believe their days had ended so quickly. These are three of the most experienced, toughest ultrarunners in the UK, all out of the race before we’d made it a quarter of the way. I pushed on and tried not to think too much about their disappointment and what it signalled. Was this going to be an exceptionally hard year? I didn’t think this thing needed to be any harder.

As I got to mile 45 I caught Richard Webster. We latched on to one another’s pace, recognising that the heat was absolutely killing us and threw in some walking breaks for the first time. We rolled up a pretty horrible climb to Corinth, over the canal and in to the 50 mile aid station in 8:37. We had run almost the entire thing to this point in a decent pace and had just 53 minutes before the cut off. As we were leaving, James Adams rolled in behind us and we pushed on up the road shouting to him that we’d see him in a few miles. James caught us about 55 miles in and promptly informed us that with the exception of the three of us and Claire Shelley, all of the Brits were out. In fact it turned out that there were 3 other brits in the race who went on to finish but we weren’t aware of them at that stage. Lindley Chambers, Allan Rumbles, Peter Johnson, Drew Sheffield, Dave Miles, Paul Mott, Rob Pinnington, Phil Smith – all friends of ours, all with shattered dreams and so early on. Frankly it was pretty scary.
At mile 55 James started cramping so badly he had to lie on the road with his feet in the air. I gave him 2 S! caps and pushed on with Rich. We honestly weren’t sure if he was going to turn it around from there, shouting with the pain he was in, yet 5 miles later he had already caught us back up. Something should have twigged at that point….. James isn’t a normal human.

The night came and the heat finally dissipated. We ran along with James as much as we could before finally, about 10ks from half way we had to let him go. We were cooking along way too fast for Rich and I, although we were making up almost no time on the cut offs, scraping along at around an hour up all the way. We came upon an American runner at this point that turned out to be Glen Redpath. Glen has won countless 100s in the US, the Montrail Ultra Cup and finished in the top 10 at Western States, 5 times. If anything gives a clue as to just what sort of shape you need to be in to finish this race, it’s that Glen, a sub 17 hour Western States runner and Salomon athlete, finished with just 3 hours to spare.
We ran in to the half way mark together and found James sat eating a plate of rice. I didn’t want to sit so stood with him eating some plain pasta while Rich got a massage. After a few minutes I felt I didn’t want to stand still any longer and so began walking up the road with James. I told Rich I’d walk until he caught me. That was a mistake as I ended up walking almost 4 miles before finally deciding to get on with running. James was miles up the road by that stage and I was starting to get cold. Eventually I learned Rich dropped at mile 85 throwing up and devoid of energy.

I still felt ok, by pushing on through Nemea I’d bought another 30 mins vs the cut offs despite walking so I was doing ok. But I had packed my long sleeve in the drop bag for mile 99 and pretty quickly I was shivering uncontrollably. I had to force myself to run at least 500m in every km despite the grade, to stay warm enough. I knew my race was unravelling right in front of me for such tiny things as a long sleeve and having gone a bit too fast (maybe less than 30 secs per mile) in both the heat of the previous day and between miles 60 and 70 with James. That really was it, the difference between finishing and not. Sure I could have been more rested, not run UTMB, focused more on the roads but I was in good shape and had looked after myself pretty well. The margins for error here are minute. As Richard Felton of @ukrunrambles said, I might be able to walk out a bad day, but not with those cut offs.
When I got to the base of the climb at mile 95 I couldn’t hold anything down any longer and began puking pretty hard on the road. I quickly emptied my stomach, ate a Jet Blackberry Gu and threw that straight back up. I tried to rally and run some but now there was no fuel I was struggling. The pitch increased and my pace dropped further and further. At the next 3 CPs over a distance of 7 kms I lost 55 minutes against the cuts as I staggered up the road at 25 minute mile pace. Eventually I had to stop and sit on the road just to try and get my stomach to settle but I was too cold. I got to the base of the mountain, mile 99 in 21 hours and 35 minutes. The cut off there was 22 hours 10 so I had plenty of time still in the bank but the climb ahead was long and I couldn’t go any further without holding something down. I took a baguette off of the table at the checkpoint and couldn’t swallow any of it. In the end I repeatedly puked bile in to the bucket there and got all my clothes on to try and make what I could of the trail climb up and over the mountain. It took my 25 minutes to feel like I could even stand up out of there, by now I knew I had just 10 minutes left and the guy at the CP had already warned my I needed to get going. I simply had to keep food down at that checkpoint otherwise I just wasn’t going to be able to move at a pace sufficient enough to stay warm and in front of the cuts.

I left the checkpoint and went up the trail. On the first switchback I puked and sat on a rock. I thought about what I’d done and what lay ahead. Whether the pace I could go was going to be enough to get me to the cut at the mountain top, down at the bottom and whether I could sustain 4mph to the finish 53 miles further down the road and through the heat of another day. This was a bad call because at that moment there was no chance. There is of course, always a chance you can turn things around – and that’s the crux of this whole race. The cuts don’t allow you that glimmer of hope. Trying to rally to climb the hill the CP below me closed and the final runners were visible to me. That was the proverbial nail in the coffin. Puking shivering and climbing chronically slowly the cut offs erased hope and chance. Instead of dropping up the top by missing the cut, I turned around and made the few hundred metres back to the CP.

The Death bus was already in situ and there in the front seat was Rich. He looked awful, and immediately got off once I had got on to empty his stomach on to the road. We waited for a good number of people to come in to the CP who had missed the cut climbing the hill and headed on a 2 hour drive to Sparta. We stopped regularly letting people off to be sick and for the driver to splash water on his face as he was falling asleep at the wheel. It was 6am.

So that was it. I wasn’t actually that disappointed, because I gave everything I had to the road and the race – and I wasn’t good enough.

Around 10 hours later James kissed Leonidas’ foot for the third time. An astounding performance perhaps for anyone other than James.

Here are the lessons I learned. I needed to commit 100% to this race. Yes we had a hot year which led to the lowest finishing rate ever 20% or 70 out of 305, but you can’t focus your efforts on other ultras/ 100s in the lead up to this event and running UTMB was a factor for sure. You need to be at the top of your game, fresh, rested and totally totally focused on finishing. Rich like me had raced too much and we paid. We were good enough to finish this thing with better prep, that hurts a little but guess what, there is always next year.

Finishing is everything. The best athletes in the world come here to finish, not to race. Mike Arnstein – Vermont 100 winner, 4th place Leadville, sub 14 hour 100 miler & Oz Pearlman, 5:30 50 miler and multiple ultra winner DNF’d last year and came back this year to finish and ran a 33 hour. It’s that hard. The winning time this year was 25:30. Lizzy Hawker, the world record holder for 24 hrs, broke the 30 year course record with a 27 hour run. Way to do it for the UK. The Brits might have disappointed on the whole but nobody can hold a candle to Lizzy.

9:30 for 50 miles or 22:10 for 100 miles in the heat are tight cuts. It’s there in plain English and it looks do-able, but any one of those efforts would be respectable on their own merit. This isn’t a flat race. There were 6000feet of climb in the 100 miles I ran of it. But there is still a mountain pass and another huge road climb after that point.

So how to sum this up. If you are looking for the ultimate foot race this is it. Sure it doesn’t travel around a beautiful alpine mountain pass, you can’t float along a bed of pine needles down a North Californian wilderness trail, you won’t see any deeply interesting cultural, religious sites or get mobbed by roads lined with 1000s of spectators. But you will find out just what a hard running race really is.
I am so happy I found this now not some point later down the line. If you have the chance to start this race then do it. It’ll change your outlook on this wonderful sport forever.

I will be back next year and if I am good enough to finish, it’ll be the my greatest running achievement by a country mile.

Finally, for all those interested, who ask the question and who can’t believe the answer. Is this harder than Badwater? Badwater doesn’t even come close.  

Monday, 17 September 2012

Sparta

This year hasn't really ever got going for me. I felt like I had the potential to step back up to a higher level of running after a year of injury last year, perhaps even return to some of the form I had in 2010, but it just hasn't quite happened. We've moved house, changed jobs, got married, set up Centurion Running to its current level and held 4 first events all in the past 14 months and although I've had way more time to train and recover than ever before, I just haven't been able to tick over in to that higher gear. I know I've got it in there somewhere, because I've been there before, but re-discovering it has so far eluded in me in 2012. The stress and mental fatigue of all of that plus 4 x 100s, 5 x 50s and a few other marathons and ultras since last June hasn't allowed it.

I'm pausing for reflection over the year at this point as I just made the decision to race Spartathlon, having had it on the radar since January really. I think there is something truly special about the 100 mile distance. It strips every runner right down to their core at some stage during the race that a 50 mile or even a 100km race just doesn't do. I've gotten through 50 miles a good few times on stubbornness and a handful of Gu's and been able to race hard throughout where in a 100 miler, doing that would have ended in massive failure with the business end of the race still to go. 100 miles is a very raw experience and I have loved stepping up to the start line of each one that I've had the privilege of running.

I have run over 100 a couple of times, once that didn't count, by perhaps 4 or 5 miles with Neil on the SDW back in May and once at Badwater in 2010 (135 miles). I have wanted to take the plunge in to a much deeper longer effort for a long time and Sparta ticks that box in a huge way. It seems a lot of people these days are drifting toward the idea that trail or mountain ultras are the pinnacle of the sport, but as with Badwater and the 100km road champs, a 150 mile road race like Sparta brings something completely different to the table and a whole new experience made open to you. This is an iconic race, to those that have run it probably THE iconic race and there was no way I could let it slip by year after year and not try to experience a little piece of that.

In many ways this race should suit me better than most of the stuff I've entered this year. I've always been a reasonably strong road runner and have a lot of experience with running in the heat. I've gotten almost none of either in the past year however, so I'm going in to it with a very similar mindset to that I went in to the SDW with Neil in May, totally open.

The differences between this and UTMB a fortnight ago are huge. For me shedding the pack, the mandatory gear, the soaking freezing waterproofs and the trail shoes clogged up with mud has been welcomed. I loved training for UTMB, heading in to the mountains and getting used to the self-sufficiency you simply have to have, to do well and enjoy a race like that, but now we're back to basics. Sparta is about a pair of trainers and a long road - 75 checkpoints to tick down one by one until we get to that statue and kiss the feet of Leonidas. I may need some food and water on the way as well as a lot of S! Caps but really it's an incredibly simple thing we're doing. Running.

So with 10 days or so to go I am really excited to get going but it all still feels a little surreal. UTMB was this huge event that I focused intensely on for 2 months. Behind it there was always this race, but it just hasn't been a mental drain or cause of pressure on training, because I wasn't sure until they called off UTMB that I would toe the line. Now we're almost there and that pressure still isn't on. In the past when that's been the case I've had my very best races. Fingers crossed....

So what is there left to do? Despite the reduced distance of UTMB, it was still a hard race and I've definitely felt a little flat since returning 2 weeks ago today. The runs I've put in have been just over 2 hours at their longest, sporadic and lacking in energy. My mind is clear which is the main thing, but I need another good week of eating well and sleeping well to make that start line in shape to run 153 miles in under 36 hours without it being a total slog from the get go. I don't really want to have to gut it out from early on if I can avoid it, but this is Sparta and it's going to be an epic, however it plays out....







Saturday, 1 September 2012

UTMB 2012 Race Report

Well this comes fresh off of the back of crossing the finish line at this years 'shortened' Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc. To say that there was disappointment (especially from me) when the organisers announced on Friday morning 9am (10hrs prior to race start) that the course would be dramatically altered, would be an understatement, but the mountain rules the roost and we have to respect that sometimes we're allowed to pass whereas other times the door is firmly closed.

The weather around Mont Blanc in the week had been fine with clear skies and warm temps. That changed Wednesday night and when we got in to town Thursday lunchtime it was very wet. In 2010, I started the race with 2300 other runners only to be pulled out at the first major checkpoint, St. Gervais at mile 13, because a mud slide had wiped out the trail higher up the Grand Col Ferret, the first high altitude pass. Despite the rain, I didn't think for one minute that there would be enough of a reason for the organisers to think of changing things again, but that rain was accompanied by freezing temperatures and high winds. The Cols and trails up and over them (of which there are numerous above 2000m) are incredibly exposed. It simply wasn't safe to let us go up there over the course of Friday/ Saturday so the news came down that much like 2010, there would be a UTMB but it would be a revised course.

The organisation decided that any route would have to stay below 2000m and thus built one that made use of the first 25 miles of the traditional UTMB course, before switching back around after La Balme and linking up to the TDS course (race was run on Thursday so no TDS runners would be out there) and then what quite frankly was a contrived 4 mile road climb out of Les Houches to get us back on some mid level trails on the Brevent side of the valley, running all the way along to the Col De Montets which is the head of the Chamonix Valley and then back down through Argentiere to the finish in Chamonix, making use of the last 6 miles of the CCC route. If you haven't been here before that'll all read like the last chapter of a Brief History of Time, however it'll make sense to some of you I'm sure. It was amazing that they were able to alter the course so drastically and still lay on a flawless event for us.

It did briefly cross my mind not to start, but only briefly. I have an entry for the Spartathlon in 4 weeks time, and it was always going to be a push to do both, certainly to do both well. Given that this new course was 104km with circa 18,000 ft of climb though, I could look at it as a late long training run. That and I've been training my ass off on every bit of hill I could find for the last 2 months to prepare adequately for what is undoubtedly one of the hardest races in the world. This is still Chamonix and whichever trails they gave us to race on would provide a stern test so we all made the decision to get on with it.

There was/ is a huge group of UK runners out here this year and everyone was visibly deflated on Friday at the news. It was almost surreal, going through it all again after working so hard to train and plan right. I just couldn't get excited about the new course and felt in a bit of a funk about it all. 104ks and 18,000 ft of climb (36,000 elevation change all told) is no stroll in the park so we still had to get our heads on straight to tackle what we had been given to run.

We lined up in the main square behind the start line an hour out from race start: Robbie Britton (1st at the 2011 NDW100, 2nd at the 2012 TP100), Mark Collinson (1st SDW 2010, 3rd NDW100 2011), Luke Carmichael (SDW100 finisher and multi day superstar), Paul Bennett (3rd NDW50 2011 amongst many other things) and me. A very good group of UK runners (and me) raring to go.

Start line. Photo: Luke Carmichael

More and more people hopped the barriers making it impossible to stand comfortably and just as we were about to burst, just 3 minutes before the 7pm start time, the winner of the CCC (100km sister event to the UTMB) came across the line to see 2300 people cheering him on from the other side, which must quite frankly have been an incredible moment for him.

When the gun went, we had the usual deal of stop start as we exited the town through the huge crowds but it is an incredible atmosphere every time. With the reduced distance I was quite prepared to just go for it. I said to Robbie before we started that I expected to see us throw down some 6 minute miles on the 5 mile flat trail section to Les Houches and I wasn't disappointed. Once we cleared the crowd we tore down the trail. What with starting behind 500 people we didn't get to the first CP anywhere near the front but we had clear air on the first climb up to Le Delevret and promptly broke in to part running/ part power hiking the 900m ascent before dropping down in to the 13 mile CP at St Gervais. I had stopped to put my waterproof trousers on already in the rain and saw Sam Robson (2nd at this years SDW100) go past me half way up the climb. We made St Gervais in 2:24, I was running alongside Meghan Arbogast one of the elite women runners and was directly behind Jez Bragg of the UK (winner of the 2010 shortened course) who promptly pulled over to course control and dropped form the race. I don't yet know why but he was probably 30 minutes behind where he wanted to be already by that stage.

After St Gervais the UTMB and this years course climbs steadily up to the town of Les Contamines at mile 19, then on to Notre Dame de la Gorge and then up the steep pitches to La Balme. All in all the climb is around 12 miles and though some of it is very runnable the bottom section of La Balme, is not. I was in trouble by Les Contamines, because I'd had three layers on from the start, raced hard and sweated under the jacket and was now wet through both inside and out. I was dehydrated but I sorted the water/ food issue out and carried on the climb to La Balme feeling a little better. I passed Sam again at this point struggling with his own stomach problems as we went higher in to the falling snow. It either rained or snowed for all but the last 3hrs of my race.

From la Balme mile 25 we cut off of the UTMB course for good and instead climbed to the Col de Joly which was a little technical in places and covered in snow.

Snow on the col. Photo: Luke Carmichael



I was freezing but moving well so I staved off any issues as we dropped off of the climb on a very fast dirt trail all the way back down to Les Contamines retour, mile 32. I made it there in 7:22, so I was quite sure I could finish the course in under 15 hours if I stayed on top of things.

From Les Contamines the course deviated on to the TDS route down to Les Houches. We climbed 2 or 3 steep woodland trails before we got one of two very testing climbs, up to Bellevue. It was steep, muddy, wet and miserable on the way up and the way down was a mud chute. I went down hard caking everything in mud but once we hit the road I was able to really throw down the pace and keep things moving into Les Houches, mile 44 with 10:44 on the clock. At this point the course went dramatically south in the quality stakes as we dropped down a bypass and on to what I can only describe as a 4 mile road climb that sucked beyond all belief (great training for Sparta). It was about 6am by this point so the sun was yet to come up and a long line of about 10 or 12 of us just dragged our feet along round switch back after switch back getting soaked in the rain, with no real idea of how long it was going to last.

We eventually cut on to a trail and skirted across the top of Chamonix where they had put in a temporary aid station, about a half a mile from town. I was damp inside and out and quite frankly not very interested in anything at this point, so I changed out all the spare dry gear in my bag and put the wet stuff away. I felt a million times better and began various other contrived climbs and descents along the valley walls to the Col Montets. It was a pretty ugly climb up some steep sections high up above the valley floor.

Col De Montets. Photo: Sam Robson

As we came off the trail south of the summit it was then a 8 or 9 mile downhill run through Argentiere back to the finish and I walked most of it. I was tired of being cold and wet and wanted to enjoy the glimmer of sunshine. I did however get a huge boost at Argentiere by destroying the plate of brie they'd laid out. mmmmm.

So 64.8 miles, 18,000 feet of climb and 17 hours and 9 minutes after starting, I crossed the finish line back in Chamonix. Good enough for 330th overall. I'd haemorrhaged well over 100 places since Les Contamines, strolling in.

We are incredibly lucky to be able to travel to places like this and run in the mountains. But the mountains have their own set of rules and most importantly, weather systems. The organisers did what they had to do, making the only possible decision open to them. I'm sure I'll come back one day and pray that we'll be allowed to travel around the mountain uninterrupted but I've had my fill for now. I've been lucky enough to run the entire trail in different sections over the years, I only hope I can come back as well trained the next time to execute a decent race. One DNS with achilles tendonitis in '09 where I crewed instead, and course changes in 2010 and 2012 mean that was the third strike for me.

In the end our happy band of campers all finished. Robbie went on to a 16:25, Luke to a 17:44, Mark a few minutes quicker than that, Paul an 18:09 and Sam toughed out his 19:25 with a whole plethora of issues. Chamonix is a very special place and one day I'll return to make it right. Until then there's the small matter of 153 miles of Grecian roads to consider.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

UTMB Training 3 weeks to go


13/8: 1:06
Local trails - All I could squeeze in after an epic weekend at the NDW50/100. 

14/8: 1:48
Local trails - Fartlek effort. Working harder and felt surprisingly good given how stressful the weekend ended up being. 

15/8: 1:12
Local trails - Very easy effort shaking out the last vestiges of fatigue in light of tomorrow and Fridays efforts. 

16/8: 7:32
Local trails - This run came a week too late. Ideally I'd have been running the NDW50 rather than directing it! 3 x 14.3 mile loops with all the gear. Drew joined me for the second one which broke it up a little. Felt great until around 5 miles to go when my hamstring started to tighten up. Disappointed that it didn't come easier but given the past week of activity I'm not complaining and it was still a decent if fairly inconsequential effort given the level of the climbs and descents of UTMB. 

17/8: 2:42
Local trails - Night time run. Legs felt great considering yesterdays longer effort, no sign of soreness, so  sure now that the aching hamstrings were purely down to lack of salt. This type of run has become a favourite pre-100 work out of mine. Go out an hour after dinner, tired and in the dark after a longer training effort to simulate as best as possible, going through the night in race conditions. Changed headlamps a few times and am blown away by how good the Petzl Nao is.

18/8: 0:40
Local trails - Easy pace.

19/8: am 3:45, pm 0:32.
Local trails - morning was all hiking with all the gear working relatively easily. pm shake out run.

Total: 19hrs27

Disappointing final bigger week. The hours and mileage stacked up but the vertical certainly didn't. Clearing up from last weekends races means having to stay near to home so getting any meaningful climb or descent in is borderline impossible. Going in to a race relying on just a week of proper mtn training isn't ideal, but then again UTMB is such a suffer fest anyway it's all going to come down to the day. It's time to taper now with 12 days to go, enough time to get some deep rest and try to eat as well as possible.


Monday, 6 August 2012

UTMB Training: 5 weeks to go

30/7: 2:52. 3200'.
Japan Alps - Top of Goryu Chairlift to 8500' Goryudake Station. Super technical and steep grades lower down, a patch of pretty technical flatish running after around 30 minutes to base of the actual climb. Climb itself was exposed in places and involved some actual climbing using a pre existing fixed rope and hanging chains. 1:30 ascent and 1:22 return an extra 300 feet lower down to the second cable car. Had 3 hours total so timed it right. Rain blew in on the return leg.

Goryuka Summit Trail

31/7: 1:02. 
Kyoto, Japan. Flat bike trail along the river was the best I could get. Stifling heat too. Good training for Sparta, not so much for UTMB. 

1/8: 2:01.
Kyoto, Japan. Bike trail. 

2/8: 2:02. 1200'.
Nara, Japan. Found a decent and completely empty trail up and around the parkland, filled with local reindeer. Amazing experience. 

3/8: 1:29. 2000'.
Tokyo, Japan. Hotel treadmill after a long day of travelling. 10' w/u, 45' climb at max incline/ hiking speed, 10' run at speed, 25' climb at max incline/ hiking speed.

4/8: Nothing. 
20 hours of travelling back from Tokyo to London. 

5/8: 1:52. 1000'.
Back in the UK. Up at 5am suffering from jet lag. Usual loop.

Total: 11:18. 7400'.


Not nearly what I'd hoped for this week. Really difficult to get any significant climb in due to travelling all week through Japan, staying mostly in cities. Consistency was there and I hope therefore a decent platform to build off for two big weeks upcoming, around the NDW races next weekend. Looking for a 2.5 week taper for UTMB and as much vertical as I can get in between times. 


Goryuka Summit Station, Japan Alps.

Monday, 30 July 2012

UTMB Training: 6 weeks to go

23/7: 1:28. 1000'.
Tokyo. 30 degrees and 100% humidity.

24/7: 0:30.
Tokyo.

25/7: 1:02. 900'.
Tokyo.Loops of Akasaka Detached Palace. 5am run to try and get in front of the heat. Felt shocking by the end.

26/7: 6:28. 5000'. 
5th Station Mt Fuji to summit and return.

27/7: 4:19. 5000'.
Mt Fuji from 1st Station to 6th Station and return. 3000 - 8000 - 3000.

28/7: 0:26. 
Travelling all day. Late night road run around Hakuba Ski Resort, Japanese Alps.

29/7: 3:10. 3800'.
Top of Hakuba Happo One Ski Lift to summit and return. 4500 - 8000 - 4500.

Total: 17:23. 15,700'. 

Mileage wise I've been doing ok the last few weeks in view of UTMB, however this was the first real opportunity I've had to get in some half decent vertical. All training this past month has been with full race kit and it's starting to feel more comfortable. The UTMB mandatory gear list is pretty extensive (especially comparative to where it was 4 years ago) and it's been enjoyable in a way to return to my early days of racing multi-stage events in terms of dialling my gear down to the lowest weight/ volume possible. The Salomon S-Lab 5 litre is perfect for the job and for this race and I haven't felt as comfortable with a pack for a long time. The best thing for me is that it's possible for me to get my windproof/ waterproof in/out of the pack without breaking stride and get it over both my body and the pack too, instantly wet proofing everything I'm carrying. By using bottles and removing the bladder I've still got a good amount of room in there carrying everything I need for the race plus 25 - 30 Gu's.

More than getting used to carrying a pack again, I've been trying to get some more serious ascents and descents in. UTMB is one long hike with the odd snippet of running thrown in, so in a way most of what I've been doing until now has been base CV with little to no focus on the race. Getting away to Japan in between the SDW and NDW built up a fair amount of stress in terms of getting everything done, but since we've been away, Fuji and the amazing Japan Alps have afforded me a few days of good elevation change on technical terrain, with the promise of another few to follow. The scenery isn't too bad either....









Sunday, 29 July 2012

The two faces of Mt. Fuji

Mt. Fuji is the highest point in Japan and one of three holy mountains to the Japanese. At 12,400 feet, in the grand scale of mountain peaks it's barely a bump, but what it lacks in overall height, it makes up for in majesty. The broad flanks of the mountain drop away gradually in support of the mighty volcanic cone.

 Fuji in Summer: Photo c/o Destination360.com

Fuji's Peak: Photo c/o Famouswonders.com
Fuji is climbed by around 400,000 people every year making it the most climbed mountain in the world. It is divided into 10 stations which can be approached from 4 sides. Each station represents a level higher up towards the 10th 'summit' station and allow climbers the chance to pick up food and water or even bed down on the tatami mats for a night's sleep. The majority (98%) of climbers start from the 5th stations which house giant car parks full of cars and buses unloading 1000s of climbers daily, but there is another way up - on foot from the very bottom of the volcano.... Of the 4 different trails up the mountain, the Yoshida is the most frequently climbed as it's the most easily accessible trail from the Tokyo side.

Having arrived in Japan we found ourselves in the area during the 2 month summer climbing season which extends through July and August, so Lisa and I decided we'd head to Lake Kawaguchiko at the foot of Fuji for a few days and try our hand at climbing the mountain. Our plan was to take the bus to the 5th station of the Yoshida trail in the morning and try to make it back down the hill before nightfall - giving us about 7 hours to get up and back down 5 miles and 5000 feet for a 10 mile round trip.

As soon as we got there it was immediately apparent that we were going to have to be patient on some sections of the path - waiting for long lines of Japanese climbers in guided groups to get through the tighter sections or step aside for us. Timing wise, there are signs at every major junction giving you a distance and estimated total time to the summit/ next station which were extremely useful. The 5th to the 6th station was a traverse more than a climb and took the total distance to travel down to 5km with 4800 feet of climb still to go. Looking up from the 6th station it's obvious where the trail is headed and it is a pretty steep grade for a route being hiked by many 1000s of ill prepared day trippers, but we had packed heavy prepared for all seasons.

The estimated time from 5th to 6th was 40 minutes. When we made it in 23, I began to harbour hopes of us making the summit in good time. I really wanted us to enjoy this experience together rather than Lisa feel like I had dragged her up in the shortest possible time so we took it really steady but tried to keep moving all the way up the mountain.

The 6th to the 7th station is pretty straight forward, mostly just steep hiking, but past the 7th, the sections of rock began and there are some fairly tricky stretches where climbing using your hands is most certainly required. In the dark & wet it would have been a different story.

Steeper grades

Over the edge into the abyss

When we hit the 8th station we got caught in a rain shower which quickly became falling ice and to be honest it was pretty unpleasant. Because I was carrying all of our gear and had already torn the zip off of my pack by stuffing it so full of clothing, i couldn't actually get my jacket done up over the top of it which is my usual plan to water proof everything so we took shelter behind a rock face while we got dressed in foul weather gear.

The temperature drop as you go higher up the mountain is significant. At the 5th station it was about 25 degrees and we were burning up as we started hiking. By the 9th station, just a few hundred metres from the summit, we had on between us every piece of clothing I'd bought - hat, waterproof gloves, jacket and trousers, two shirts, arm warmers and a good hiking pace. Part of that was because once we'd passed about 3500 metres, the altitude had definitely started to make a difference and we were moving a lot slower. It was one step at at time as I followed Lisa up through the final gate and in to the summit station.

The views from the top were spectacular when the clouds parted enough to make visibility good. Because Fuji stands alone, we could see right back down the mountain and out across the towns, lakes and woodlands for miles around.

Summit View

When you hit the summit station (where you can buy a bottle of water for £8) the path down begins almost immediately and we would have made the mistake of thinking we were actually at the top at that point had we not trekked down in to the crater a little to take a picture. Over the far side some distance away, is another peak housing the old Mt Fuji weather station that looks just slightly higher than where you are. In fact it is higher, and you have to circumnavigate most of the crater to get there and the summit itself was up a steep scree path to a radar house and a plinth signifying the very highest point in Japan. We'd seen probably 2000 people on the mountain and there were precisely zero other people around that side of the mountain. It made me wonder how many actually bother tagging the official summit, or at least think that they made the top when in fact they hadn't.... there was no way we were leaving that to chance.

View of the actual summit across the crater from the 10th station

Back down was a totally different story. There is a designated return path which they've bulldozed all the way down from the summit, so rather than down climbing difficult rock sections, you get a free fall descent on smooth crushed lava pathways. It took us just under 2 hours to lose all the height we'd gained, about 5000 feet, back to the 5th station.

So that was Fuji done and it was great to be able to enjoy achieving something together for once. Altogether a round trip to the summit and back from the 5th took us 6:20 and we were eating snacks back at the start before the sun started to set. Awesome.

The entire climb from the 5th station is above treeline on lava fields, but almost everything below that looked like thick greed forest so I was pretty sure that the first 4500 feet of the 9000 foot climb was going to be pretty awesome trail. I decided to go back the following day to find out.

The other side of the mountain

Not in fact the other side in the geographical respect, but in the environment of the lower flanks of the mountain.

The next morning I took a local bus out to the shrine at Sengen Jinja Mae, the very base of the mountain and the start of the Yoshida Trail that we'd climbed the day before. This route is apparently climbed by very few, because the anticipated round trip to the summit and back is around 16 - 20 hours, making it a far more serious proposition. That being said, the winners of the Mt Fuji ascent race get from the city hall near the start of the trail to the very top in around 2hrs45 so clearly it wasn't going to be quite the epic that the guide books would have you believe.

The lower stretches of the Yoshida trail were stunning. The temperature at the trailhead was 32 degrees and 100% humidity so it wasn't particularly easy going, but with the shade of the canopy for most of the route, it was bearable.

Passing through the first gate at the shrine, the actual Yoshida Trail follows the road for the first few kilometres before bolting right in to the trees at the 'first station'. After using my fluent Japanese of pointing and nodding, I managed to find a trail through the woods that roughly parralleled the road and went with it instead. After some second guessing I did make it to the first station and followed the official trail from there.

The first station wasn't just closed, it had collapsed in on itself and with just a trail up from there it felt like a completely different mountain to the one I'd seen yesterday. There was no aid, no people, no exposed lava, just lush green vegetation, a pounding heat and scores of abandoned huts, old shrines and derelict tea houses. I started out with a litre of water and hoped it' be enough to get me up, but I'd drained that in about 45 minutes and was dripping with sweat so I had to ration my effort somewhat on the climb up as soon as I realised there was going to be nothing until the 5th or 6th station 4500 feet and 9 miles up.

The trail is pretty technical in places because it's steep and clearly gets washed out during the winter months where the mountain is unclimbable. There are lots of significant log stair cases involved and some scree which is hard to ascend. With that aside there are runnable sections despite the grade and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. In particular just passed the 2nd station (there's nothing there) you pass through two gates in to a wonderful ancient stone shrine.





Emerging back at the 6th station you are suddenly greeted by the rest of civilisation attempting to climb the blackened lava fields above and you couldn't imagine a more stark contrast in such a short space of time and climb. From there it's the remaining 4500ft to the summit. Back down was a joy ride but returning to 30 degree heat was not.

Emerging up and out of the trees to meet the lines of 5th station climbers

6th station Day 2
Sweating buckets down the last stretch of trail

All in all the mountain represents one fluid pathway from the shrine at the bottom to the final gate at the top. It feels very much like an ascent up in to the heavens, accentuated by the total lack of other surrounding peaks. I can't recommend climbing it enough and it represents a simple but fulfilling challenge in and of itself, especially if you take it on from the very bottom.

The UTMF or Ultra Trail Mount Fuji passes directly through this area (though doesn't climb the mountain itself) and where we ate dinner we found a 'Salomon Race Team' signed plaque on the wall with a personal note from this years winner Julien Chorier. That one is definitely calling. We also happened to be in town for this years Mt Fuji Ascent race and I saw a number of returning runners as I headed up later in the morning. They allowed an incredible 2300 runners to enter and I can only imagine what a scramble that final mile to the summit must be up the rocks.