Thursday 8 October 2015

Iceland Traverse 2015

The tempting thing to do with a blog like this is diarise it. I won't. So here's the quick facts, then a bit of editorial...

September 25th - October 1st 2015 - Black Ice Expedition. North-South Traverse of Iceland.

Day 1: Akureyri North Coast to Laugafell Refuge. 45 miles 7hrs01. 7020ft.
Day 2: Laugafell to Nyalidir Refuge. 30 miles. 5hrs00. 4274ft.
Day 3: Nyalidir to Veraslir Refuge. 35 miles. 5hrs24. 2642ft.
Day 4: Versalir Refuge to bottom F26. 23 miles. 4hr1. 2888ft.
Day 5: F26 to Landmanalauger. 20 miles. 3hr21. 3306ft.
Day 6: Landmanalauger to Posmork. Aborted. 7 miles. 1hr33. 2905ft.
Day 7: F208 to South Coast. 62 miles. 9hrs14. 5245ft.

Distance - 222 Miles.
Run Time - 35:34:01 (Moving Time).
Cumulative Time - 6 Days 8hrs.
Elevation Gain: 28280ft.


This trip was the brain child of Robbie Britton. I took my hands off of the wheel for perhaps the first time ever and let Rob arrange sponsorship, the logistics and the film crew. The idea was to traverse Iceland from North to South on foot in a 5 - 10 day time frame. Ground and weather conditions would be the primary dictators of that pace. We had no designs on an FKT if one should even exist. We wanted to enjoy the landscape and the expeditionary nature of such a run, whilst adding a degree of difficulty to it. The camera team of Dan and Iain would travel the ground with us in a 4x4, primarily in order to shoot footage for a short film of our adventure, but also to support us where required.

The film will tell far more than I am able to here, so I look forward to being able to share that.

We were graciously sponsored and funded by Lyon Equipment. Lyon are the UK distributor for many of the best outdoor manufacturers in the business and our kit lists included but were not limited to:

Julbo Eyewear
Petzl Headlamps
Exped Duffels, Tents, Poles, Sleeping Mats, Pillows and Sleeping Bags
Katadyn Water Filter
Optimus Stove and Pan Set
Light My Fire Cooking & Eating Utensils
Trek'n Eat Outdoor Meals
La Sportiva Footwear and Clothing (James)
Gregory Packs (James)

Robbie and I have also worked with Profeet for many years and Robbie posted daily dispatches which can be found here.

We also enjoyed nutritional support from Gu Energy (James), Chia Charge and Tribe (The Team).

The Run

There was a good amount of press coverage over the trip, and Iceland Magazine's article sheds a light hearted but realistic view on our adventure here.

Much of Iceland's coastal scenery mirrors the Lake District

In the end, we came away with much more than I'd hoped. It truly was an adventure. There were many times that individual factors threw themselves in the way of our ultimate success. In no particular order, the major elements & obstacles on the trip are listed below. The running was in many ways, the most straight forward part.

- The high petrol consumption of our 4x4 (incidentally if you ever go off roading on serious terrain, a Suzuki Vitara should only be considered the second very worst option - a Duster is the worst). 40km in, the gauge was showing we wouldn't even make it to half way across the highlands, with the nearest petrol station over 200km away. In the end we went with it to the end of Day One and made a decision to proceed based on the heavy duty nature of the first section, and the fact that the gauge had been going up over the last 20 km. GO FIGURE. When we made it to the petrol station 4 days later, it was with a palpable sense of relief.

- We were told we'd reach impassable river crossings on route, that the 4x4 would get stuck in the volcanic ash and we'd have to dig it out. Neither happened. Though how much of that was chance that full winter seems to have come slightly later than normal, who knows. I do know that we saw only one other human in the first 3.5 days, suggesting we were fairly 'out there' in terms of seasonality and timing.

One of many river crossings on day 1

- The headwind was horrendous. It's easy to say oh yeah there was some wind out there it really affected us, but there were times when running downhill was harder than running up. It also brought ambient temperatures of 0-5 degrees to way below freezing. Had we gone from South to North I would be confident of us having covered the 222 miles at an average of around 50mph. I hadn't expected it to be that much of an issue.

- The temperatures, combined with rain, sleet, snow and the wind made for at times, incredibly challenging conditions. Day 3 was the highlight, when I personally went through all 3 sets of waterproofs and finished in full ski gear including a down jacket and my Russian down mountaineering gloves. That's sure to look professional on film. The risk of cold related illness was exceptionally high and we both relied on all of our experience as well as the support of the crew to be able to keep moving forward. What made it more painful than anything else is that because of the complete lack of vegetation or relief, we could see weather coming for us from up to 30 mins out.

Weather ahead in a rare view of blue sky

- We had no plan for sleeping except camping. Which to be quite frank in some of the wind and weather we faced, would have been nearly impossible on open ground. To get around this, our first 3 days we camped in: A toilet block, a closed refuge with no heating (actually real luxury), a cow shed full of cow shit. These experiences really added to the adventure.

- We 'blew' two whole days, by running to Landmanalauger at the start of the world famous Laugavegur hiking trail, to be told by the refuge owner that literally nobody else was going out on to that trail at this time of year. Weather, snow depth, height of river crossings were the reasons. We went anyway having considered all the risks. In the end, in the worst weather of the week, we turned around less than an hour in to the next day. I know from experience that I can't stand up in 60mph winds, and for a while, both Robbie and I had to lay on the ground on a ridge in order not to be blown off. Linking arms we made it another 1.5km higher before descending cloud together with snow and the wind speed, brought our decision to retreat. When we arrived back at the refuge, the driver of the jeep who was supposed to be ferrying in Dan and Iain called and said that he couldn't get across the river in his car. We would have stood no chance at that crossing or many of the previous, and we would have been forced to make anything up to a 50km retreat with limited rations and emergency gear only. We covered ourselves by taking full down gear and sleeping bags on what was 'only' a 55km day, but it would have been sketchy and time consuming.

- The following day we planned to run out via the F208 Dirt Road east, which during the night got washed away by the glacial outburst off of the Vatnojokull. The video and images we saw afterwards were actually quite scary. Again, we avoided potentially being trapped or worse by the deluge.

- So with our first two routes to the coast literally wiped out, we were left with a 100km road run to the sea, headed west out of the highlands. I was slightly apprehensive of such a long day but in fact we ran a consistent pace for just over 9hrs to make a 99.23km trek to end the journey.

So that's it for now, the trailer and video that Dan and Iain will produce, will give a much better insight in to this trip than my words ever could. Here's a bunch of initial photos I took on my iphone over the course of the week.

What an adventure it was and I'm delighted to say that we worked better than I ever could have hoped, as a team. It's a week I won't forget in a hurry.

Rob is actually in this picture. It was too cold to stop so I hiked on ahead whilst he attended business. It's easy to wander off route in poor weather when there are no features to refer to.

Yours truly in terrain blending desert with the Lakes

Rob making his way on the smooth crushed lava road to Landmanalauger

Iain and Dan also had to battle the weather all week to get the footage they needed.

The beginning stretch of the final day, with temperatures well below zero

With 10km to go, a huge bank of weather missed us by a few kms and instead presented us with a double rainbow. 


Wednesday 2 September 2015

Elbrus 2015

Mt. Elbrus is one of those places you probably most often hear about in a pub quiz. What's the highest point in Europe? Mt Blanc! Nope.

As a teenager, I consumed every book on mountaineering and climbing that I could. Over recent years, my running has taken to higher reaches. The Lake District, The Alps, The Rockies, and the cross over between run, hike and climb becomes blurry in those environs. It's an area of the sport that Killian has brought to the relative masses (in fact you can see Killian attempting Elbrus in the film Dejame Vivir). Moving fast in the mountains requires skills gained through experience in terms of navigation, gear, clothing, footwear and technique.

I've been keen for some time to make a transition in to the higher mountains. We are incredibly fortunate here in the UK. With the Lake District, Snowdonia, The Brecons, The Peaks, The Scottish Ranges, we have opportunities to experience 'real' mountain conditions almost year round. Being up on the tops in bad weather in the British mountains often brings a severity of circumstance, explained with a wry smile to someone with 4000m+ peaks on their doorstep who thinks you must be joking. For me, the Lakes have been somewhere to work on mountain conditioning, navigation, fitness and gear choices, always with the opportunity to retreat or amend a route to safety in a relatively short amount of time. Without a question of a doubt my best running experiences of the last two years have all been in the Lakes. Whether it be a winter day dealing with verglas on the rocks of Wetherlam, a spring round of the Buttermere fells in exceptional weather or the Bob Graham Round in late summer, I've learned a lot. 

When my good friend Hully rang me this Spring and asked me if I wanted to accompany him to Russia to climb Mt. Elbrus, I jumped at the chance. I shared a tent with Hully in 2007 at the Gobi March and we have since gone on to other adventures together including the 4Deserts Series, Comrades, Ironman and Leadville 100. It was a week after the 2011 Leadville 100 that Hully found himself caught in a bush fire during Racing The Planet's Kimberleys 100km Race. He suffered burns to over 30% of his body and together with Turia Pitt, Kate Sanderson and Martin Van Der Merwe, has had a long road back to recovery. His story is an incredible one.

Elbrus. West Peak and high point to the left. 5642m. East Peak - 20m lower - to the right.

The Mountain

Elbrus sits at the head of the Baksan Valley (2100m) in the Caucasus range which separates Russia from Georgia. Recent fighting in the South Ossetia Region and terrorist attacks related to the Russian mafia and the displaced Islamic & Russian populations make the region an interesting one to visit. The foreign office advises against all but essential travel. The reality however is that since severe issues in 2011 when the entire region was closed off, the Russian military presence has been dramatically increased. Passes between Russia and Georgia are closed and the area is tightly controlled. Elbrus is a valuable entity for the Russian government.

We arrived in Terskol, the village below Elbrus via a 4hr minibus transfer following flights from London to Moscow and on to Mineralyne Vody. The trip was an 11 day itinerary building in acclimitisation, before gradually ascending camps up the mountain, leaving three potential summit days to end. 

Our guide Sasha, part of the company Adventure Alternatives, turned out to be an incredible source of information and experience, as a published author, rafting champion and successful mountaineer. On summit day we were joined by his second in command Sasha 2. Between them they had over 230 Elbrus summits to their name. What we couldn't work out was why his two rucksacks were so heavy. However once we reached the high camps we found out he'd packed his books to sell to other climbers. And that he'd carried up six small bottles of vodka. He let us share one. We got no commission on book sales.

The first two days we hiked around the border military zone and up to a prominent observatory, both at 3000m altitude. The relief in the area is dramatic with 4500-5500m peaks dropping down 3000m+ to the valley floor. Views of iconic peaks like Ushba and Donguzorun sent the heart racing and imagination running wild. Elbrus is a very different mountain however. A volcano with two creaters acting as twin sentinels dwarfing everything around, with rough lava fields spilling down underneath the giant ice cap which covers the summit reaches from 4500m+ year round.

Donguzorun and the 7 Glacier

On Day Three we began our first forays up the mountain. Each day we would hike to a new high point, before returning to sleep at lower altitudes and then taking the lift up the following day to our previous high point. As easy as that sounds it also involved man handling 30 cardboard boxes of food and drink, plus 15 kit bags full of climbing gear. First we went up to 3000m, then the famous barrels camp at 3700m through the Lava Fields.

Hiking the Lava Fields at 3500

Next on to the National Park hut (shipping containers) at 3850m. Upon stepping off the chair lift at the highest point lifts travel up the mountain, we saw the rescue team bagging up a body which wasn't the ideal welcome on to the glacier. Sasha pointed out however, that it was as likely to be that of a WW2 soldier (the Germans fought the Russians all the way up here) as it was a climber or skier. The following day we finally arrived at camp s-hole at 4100m via a Snow Cat. 

The Train

The View from 4700m. Ushba is the highest/ twin peak just right of centre

Out on the glacier in the La Sportiva Batura 2.0

Each day I felt strong as we took our time hiking up, the others in the group Frederica, Tony and Hully also responded well to the altitude and we were forming a very strong group. Sasha seemed happy. 

Day 5 and 6 we hiked up to 4750m and spent some times on basic techniques including use of harnesses/ slings, ice axe arrests and getting a feel for the double skin plastic boots and crampons we would need for a very cold and wet summit day. One thing was clear, this mountain had been abused by generations. The toilets were long drops straight down on to the glacier. Human waste just sitting frozen on top. With such heavy melt due to the late season, we came across everything you can imagine as we hiked up the mountain not limited to plane fuselages, bones, frozen shit and WW2 Shrapnel. If you could admire the view and not look down it was a help.

The Toilet. Great view out. Just don't look down.

The weather all week had been exceptional but true to form, come our summit window, things looked very poor indeed. Because Elbrus sits so high above everything else, it creates it's own weather system. The summit was often shrouded in cloud blowing fast across it's upper reaches. 

In the end we decided to go for it at 0200 on the Monday morning, our earliest possible date. The previous night, Sasha had come to our container and told us that four climbers, three Polish and a Russian, hadn't returned from their summit bid that afternoon and were missing. Because the weather was windy with very low visibility and heavy snow there was no option to attempt a rescue. We could be the first to come across them (I think that was his point anyhow).

At 0200 we jumped in the snow cat up to our high point, designed to facilitate summit attempts when the weather window was small. Stepping out of the Snow Cat in to another world at 5100m was quite the experience. We were immediately buffeted by the strong winds and encassed in snow/ ice from the air. I had on all of my listed summit gear and more.

(La Sportiva Base Layer, Centurion Tee, La Sportiva Icon Pullover, La Sportiva Pegasus Lightweight Down, La Sportiva Cham Down Jacket and Storm Fighter Waterproof. Lightweight Tights, Ski Pants and Waterproof Overtrouser. Two layer balaclava and Julbo goggles. Lightweight fleece glove and enormous Down Over Glove. Footwear - La Sportiva Batura and Petzl Vasak Crampons, Drymax Cold Weather socks + Thick Fleece socks. Petzl Summit Evo Ice Axe. Exped Poles. Exped Dry Bags & WP Phone Cover. Petzl Aquila Harness, Two slings and Karabiners. Pack Wise I carried 25 litres with bottles inside my jacket. Petzl Nao 2 with spare batteries which functioned brilliantly in minus 16, 35km winds and heavy snow which was good to find out!)

We moved off in a train, and quickly it became apparent that the two Sasha's were having trouble picking the line due to the weather and darkness. GPS devices were referred to and we zig zagged up and down the flank of the east peak until we found the bottom of the rocks which gave us a line around to the saddle. Between the East and West Summit cones is a small but prominent saddle which offers the perfect resting post between the two stages of the climb. The saddle is quite the arena, with views down both the North and South sides of the mountain, destroyed tents and a disused refuge housed in amongst the rocks.

From the start of the day I had felt dreadful. Weak and sick with no drive. Partially the altitude but partially the level of clothing I had on. Instead of stopping to remove a layer I plugged away and built up a heavy sweat under my top half. Before we'd reached the saddle I had already started to drop back from the group by 10 - 15 yards (almost out of sight) and had torn my trousers with lazy crampon placement. What concerned me most is that I had quickly begun to lose concentration and developed apathy towards the climb. The weather made this incredibly risky where a stronger climber on the day would have felt realtively secure. 

Sasha shouted in to my ear on the saddle and asked if I was ok. I simply responded that I had no power, no drive. He told me to go down immediately. The weather was just starting to clear and after pushing a Mars Bar down I told him I knew when I was going to far and I hadn't reached that point as yet. The issue with the top of Elbrus is that there is no rescue. You and your team are solely responsible for making it back down safely. The next forty minutes we began the steepest part of the climb but I found myself asking Sasha to stop as I knelt down for a break. That was the final straw and I spun on my heel and began descending immediately. In real terms I was at 5425m. 200m vertical and 900m horizontal from the true summit. Roughly 90 mins of climbing as it was that day. It was a simple decision borne out of not putting either myself or the rest of the group at risk. As they say getting up is optional, getting down is mandatory and without being dramatic the risk was too great. 

I arrived back in camp a few hours later. The other three summited 2 hours later and made it back down for a circa 11 hour round trip. Elated to have been granted the window to complete the climb. There was still no sign of the 4 missing climbers, however Sasha had found poles and a backpack on the summit plateau which was an ominous sign.

Upon arriving back down the valley we learned from the rescue man that the three Polish climbers had perished, suffering from a navigational error leaving the summit plateau they descended in the bad weather and became stranded, eventually succumbing to hypothermia likely whilst we were commencing our climb. The Russian climber had fallen in to a crevasse. A very sad note to leave the mountain on.

Elbrus is a very simple climb. As long as you respect the mountain. I certainly learned as much by turning around as continuing on. Much as when a race doesn't go to plan. 

For me the disappointment of not reaching the summit wasn't particularly great initially. Whilst the others had harboured different ambitions, bagging another one of the 7 Summits in Hully's case, the purpose of the trip had been testing my body at higher altitudes, work on fundamental mountaineering techniques, gear choices and operating within an expedition framework. The summit would have been a nice bonus. Of course with the benefit of time, one naturally begins to feel the need to go back and reach the high point. For me it will be a very different trip the second time....

Here is a great little video that one of our party, Tony, made of the entire trip, 13 mins of footage encompassing all 10 days.


1:30 - Observatory Climb
2:13 - Ferrying Gear on to Elbrus 
3:00 - 3000m. Lava Fields 
3:54 - Snow Cat above 3800m 
4:23 - National Park Hut 
4:37 - 4000m. Glacier. 
5:13 - 4500m. 
5:29 - 4750m. 
6:15 - Ice Axe Arrest Work. 
6:31 - Camp Shit Hole 
7:32 - 5300m. The Saddle. 
7:55 - Western Peak 
8:17 - 5450m. Fixed Lines. 
10:30 - 5642m. The Guys on the Summit.

Tuesday 16 December 2014

Habit: 2015 Rocky Raccoon 100 Training

Every week for 6 weeks I've started writing a blog on my dull ass training. But every week I run out of time to finish it.

So here is the world's longest blog post about my own training. It's just an amalgamation of stuff I've written weekly since October, and a brain dump from today. It's obvious which is which. It's really for my own future referral although I know one other person who is marginally interested in some of this....

This is the start of my training towards Rocky Raccoon 100 (Jan 31) and Athens 24hr (Mar 28). The idea is to run a sustained period of higher mileage than I've traditionally done without compromising consistency and/or the quality I'm after.

Why am I doing this? To keep me focused on the job and because when I used to post stuff like this I did get one email from a nice person saying that they'd found it useful.

I called this post habit, because the primary issue I've encountered with my own training regime in the past, is consistency. It's the number one thing that I preach to my coaching clients, it's something I believe makes more of a difference long term to the success and health of an ultra runner, yet I myself wax and wane between periods of very consistent training and some exceedingly erratic episodes. As examples, between January and May 2013, training for the GUCR, I averaged 32 miles per week. That included a 100 miler, a 50km, an Ironman and the London Marathon. The 100 and the Marathon were PBs. So what does that tell me? That sometimes less can be more, but more that I might actually get to an ok standard if I applied myself. I count some of my past performances as second tier. I don't want to hot dog or massage my ego or show off. I have run well a few times in the past, but I haven't yet had a really good 100. That's what I am setting out to change this time around. To then roll off of that and get a burst of follow on training for the 24hr. Then wind my season down for a couple of months as the Centurion one takes off.

So the plan has the usual phasing: Recovery, Base, Build, Peak, Taper, Race.

The general plan through Recovery and Base was:

Get in to the habit of running by heading out every day.
Leave quality until the build phase.
Easy miles with most on trail, more forgiving and better strength building.
Let the running come back gradually.

Phase 1: Recovery. 2 weeks.

Just a little consistent running with no quality, some cycling and low mileage. After the BGR and a very bad 24hr track attempt in September I was so heavily fatigued, that I had a panel of blood tests and an ECG performed so that I could see if there were some deeper underlying issues going on. I felt dreadful with no energy and some dizzy spells. Everything came back clear which proved to me a. that I just needed to rest and b. that once I felt better I was good to start training again with the caveat that if I dipped again, it was likely to be chronic fatigue and would need a lengthy period off. Thankfully that has proved not to be the case.

After 4 weeks of almost zero mileage, I picked up with the following two weeks:

Recovery 1: 37.3 miles. 2100 ft. 6:07.
Recovery 2: 59.7 miles. 2700ft. 9:06.
A couple of the runs were right up in the 9:30 per mile range, on trails, including some hiking. I then ran one 13 mile effort at a comfy 8:15 pace in the second week, which felt sufficiently easy enough to give me the go ahead to pick it back up.

Phase 2: Base. 4 weeks.

Applying the consistency. Everything just seemed to work well from the off and motivation was really high.

Base 1: 86.7 miles. 5500ft. 12:14. 
A good start. Easy Ridgeway recce on the Monday. Solid runs around home Tues - Fri including some tempo at the end of Friday's session. Piece of String organising on the Saturday but a good solid 15 miles at 7:40 pace on trails on the Sunday.

Base 2: 94.3 miles. 18500ft. 19:08. 

This week always had the potential to go too far in terms of indulgence, with a trip to the Lakes from Thurs - Sun. In the end it was relatively restrained but featured a long day on the fells on Friday and then the L100 recce from Coniston to Buttermere on the Sunday. The Friday run was in horrendous conditions initially, around Buttermere, up Scarth Gap and then to the top of Haystacks. Wainwright's favourite fell I had all to myself, in fact I didn't see another person in 4hrs. The rain was horizontal and the wind was around 50mph judging by the fact that I know I can't stand up very well in 60. It abated enough for me to enjoy Innominate Tarn, but the descent back to Scarth Gap was steep, rocky and slippery. I then went up over High Stile, High Crag and along to Red Pike but in very low visibility started to descend off of the Ennerdale Side. In fact i had navigated on to White Pike and had to hunker down behind some rocks to get the map out and re-assess where I'd gone wrong. I followed a bearing up and over the top of Red Pike, the descent back to Buttermere was ridiculous in studded shoes on the 'path' that's been laid. It's always satisfying, however, to get oneself out of trouble resorting to traditional navigation techniques. I met Martin Bergerud back at the hotel and we went straight out on to a circuit up and over Mellbreak. The weather cleared now and left us with a calm and sunny afternooon for much of it. The climb up the far side of Mellbreak was steep though not quite in the same league as Yewbarrow.


Martin B climbs Mellbreak North End

The L100 recce, I ran with Debs, in what were average conditions to start with becoming good for much of the day. The section through the plantation between Seathwaite and Boot was atrocious underfoot. It's not good even on a summers day and thigh high bog sinking incidents were numerous. After Boot we made good progress over to Wasdale and then a really nice final section over Black Sail Pass and Scarth Gap to Buttermere. It was eye opening to see how much time could be saved on the descent off Black Sail. Without any meaningful effort it was possible to put some considerable minutes in to other runners as a result of better lines and downhill 'technique'. That part is definitely worth seeing again.

Debs with Yebarrow behind on route to Wasdale Head

Yewbarrow side on from the Black Sail ascent

Debs descending Black Sail with Ennerdale behind

Base 3: 91.1 miles. 5000ft. 12:47. 
I expected some fatigue from the circa 18000ft of climbing the previous week but a very easy 30 mins on Monday set me up well for the week. Tempo Friday night, I had Louis all weekend down at Lisa's parents so I got out very late on Sunday night for 20 miles. The SDW was as wet underfoot as I've ever seen it but the route: Burgess Hill - Streat - Black Cap - Housedean - Black Cap - Ditchling - Burgess Hill was a good one. Apart from the stretch between Ditchling and Burgess Hill which is already flooded and infuriatingly shit trail.

Base 4/ Easy 1: 71.2 miles. 3500ft. 9:37. 
On the Monday we went on holiday. Our first proper holiday with Louis, and our first in a number of years. Antigua was about 30 degrees in the day time and contained zero trails with plenty of rollers. The heat and humidity (it rained at least once every day) co-oincided an easier week with the bulk of the 9 day trip but was still able to get out for 90 minutes each day. The treadmill saw a couple of pieces of action, notably I ran one tempo set on there and finished off 10 miles in 61:30 which was pleasing.

View from Shirley Heights over English Harbour, Antigua

Aggressive sweat on the one road in and out of the Hotel

Phase 3: Build. 4 weeks.

Build 1: 102.9 miles. 7200ft. 14:55
Began with a couple of longer road runs before leaving Antigua including one just before our flight, then an overnight with no sleep on the plane (Louis slept on my lap) and a short run on return before passing out for a good long snooze. Keeping the daily schedule was hard over that few days. On Friday, Drew and I went out for a few hours on the Ridgeway and surrounds, I saved a lot for Sunday and the first long session of 30 miles. The first 10 I ran with Ian Munro before pushing on by myself and finding more and more gas in the tank as the run went on, such that it ended up being some kind of giant progression run. Again, satisfying.

Drew in foreground, Wendover Woods ahead

Build 2: 100.3 miles. 4000ft. 
This week ended up being a lot of very similar length runs with not enough differentiation in effort. Tuesday was a noticeable effort, I tried to hit the track but didn't make it and ran a few intervals instead with a circa 7 min average for 14 miles overall which wasn't taxing. Thursday was a 19 miler which went ok also. Otherwise too much junk in the week.

Build 3: 101.5 miles. 3000ft.

This was a really good week. I grabbed a last minute place in the Enigma Blues Marathon on the Wednesday. Monday I ran 14 miles, Tuesday when I found out there was a spot I pulled back and ran 8 easy. The marathon started easy, at around 6:50 pace. It was windy and the course is fast albeit a little fiddly with lots of turns. The pace felt harder than 6:50s and I decided after lap 2 of 7 it would be better to back off and maintain consistency through the week. I ran with Jonathan Godfrey initially but around mile 12 we suddenly dropped off to 7:15s and I decided just to press on. There was a lot left in the tank, I made sure not to stretch out and in the end ran in a 2:54. The strava app probably couldn't cope with the twists and turns of the course, and hence was giving me bogus readings by about 15 secs per mile so those early miles felt harder, because they were harder. Thursday easy day, Friday the same with Drew recce-ing the far eastern end of the NDW for the future. Saturday I had the pleasure of pacing Louise Ayling to a Park Run PB, a few easy miles on the river and then 2 stints of pacing Paul Navesey on his 50km treadmill WR attempt. Both times I was able to hold his pace, 6:00 mile initially, then a little higher, without too much difficulty which only a few days after the marathon was encouraging. Sunday easy 15 in 2hrs, felt easier than it perhaps ought to have done.

To Come

This week of Build. Then 2.5 weeks of Peak. Then the taper. I'll do an assessment of pace splits and lap times, but form suggests I can go a good bit quicker than 17:32 from last time, if conditions are good.

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.


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.

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.