A Time For Reflection

Just over a year ago, I sat down and scribbled a few running markers that I hoped might provide some zest and application towards individual achievement. Needless to say, life periodically got in the way. This resulted in missing some targets or others becoming marginalised. A handful bag of new achievements were nonetheless reached.

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Running Away From Home

A YEAR IN REVIEW

Do boring routes make you run faster?
My girlfriend had to travel abroad with work and I snapped up her race number* for Snake Lane 10. The race starts and finishes in the red-brick market town of Pocklington, near York. A dull sky hung overhead and a cool breeze filled the air. Everything seemed grey, beige or mint green. To make matters worse, I was full of cold and my throat was as tight as a kangaroo’s jockstrap. The route is, arguably, unattractive and largely unforgettable – maybe this opinion was a combination of illness and weather.

AIM: 10 mile (flat) – SUB 70 minutes TIME: 71:46 (PB)
*Officially transferred with race organisers

Later, in June, I then tried the same distance but over the hilly route of the Otley 10. Importantly, the evening was hot and humid.

AIM: 10 mile (hilly) – SUB 75 minutes/ TIME: 76:15 (PR)

Who the hell is Netty?
I’d long since planned to tackle a suitable road race as a launch pad towards the Three Peaks. Many runner friends had lamented about the Spen 20: cheap, rarely fills and miles upon miles of fairly boring, but hilly Kirklees streetscape; the two-lap route even crosses the M62…twice!

Unbeknown to me, all the drama was unfolding towards the back of the race: A runner, called Netty, was advised around mile 1 that is she continued at her current pace that she’d be instructed to only complete 10 miles. Marshals – the race organiser explained – could not be expected to stay out for longer than would be appropriate. Social media erupted, largely after Netty explained her side of the story and the host club remained silent. Basically, it was a case of poor communication – on all sides, both prior to and after the race incident. National media got involved, everyone had an opinion and little focus was given to the welfare of the marshals or the severity of the course.

And it is a beast. Relentless hills and inclines chop and disrupt any rhythm that any endurance runner seeks over a longer distance. The grey, smoke stained house stone soon blends into one. Corner shops flicker into a haze, and by the second lap delirium – West Yorkshire style – begins to set in. Legs display signs of buckling a few miles from the end, and the final lap of the track (clockwise, and counter to normal running direction) left me feeling a little more than light-headed.

AIM: 2.40/ TIME: 2.37 (PB)

Getting hyper
My principal focus between February and April was the Three Peaks Race. I’d trained better, improved my knowledge of diet and fueling, and prepared with suitable races, such as: High Cup Nick, Stan Bradshaw Round and Heptonstall. I knew that I wasn’t necessarily faster on the hills but that I possessed better technique and awareness – knowing when to ‘conserve walk’ is just as important as a strong climb immediately followed by collapsing on a descent.

Stone steps

The weather, as forecasted, wasn’t conducive to quick times. Rain and wind would halt progress between the peaks, and knocking off a sizeable chunk from my first attempt time in 2014 (5.37) now seemed unlikely. Still, I’d climbed PYG strongly and managed a kit repair to my back pack before starting the slog up Whernside from Ribblehead. Unlike the previous year, I was strong and could feel fuel firing through my body. Here, many were severely affected by the crippling cold. Almost 100 didn’t start or failed to make the necessary checkpoint times – a 3 time increase on the previous year. Some reported symptoms of mild hyperthermia. I really felt the freezing weather on approach to Ingleborough. I slipped on some gloves and sucked on a liquorice sweet. Well, it was sleeting!

By then, though, the hard tests were complete. From there it was all about safety and a steady descent. On reflection, I was perhaps a little too cautious on the return to Horton. That said, I was overwhelmed at reducing my time by nearly an hour. I joked after that the bigger achievement that day was managing at the end to change into dry from wet, cold clothing!

AIM: sub 5.00 hours/ TIME: 4.46 (PR)

Mars: the new god of speed
Only a few weeks after the Three Peaks I impulsively – and, in advance, at considerable cost on the Wallace scale – entered the one of the John Carr 5k races. I’d done very little running and certainly nothing that would be described as speed training. My legs felt good, I felt reasonably fit (despite eating nearly any and every cheesy carbohydrate after the 3Ps) and the warm air all suggested something good.

My Parkrun times were never relative to my effort, I thought. There was always something by way of an obstacle – weather, congested start or buggies to navigate round.

The previous week races (there are three in the series, on consecutive Wednesday nights) were dominated by the misplacement of a traffic cone and cold weather conditions. The cone resulted in a short and a longer course. The weather limited good performance. As you may read from the corresponding blog entry, my tactics were fairly rudimentary. Sections were all broken down culminating in a final kilometer where I’d throw in everything.

I knew the target was on up until the 4km marker. The amazement at the finish line was palpable. I gladly grabbed the chocolate bar memento.

AIM: sub 20 minutes/ TIME: 19.46 (PB)

What’s that Who song?
I dislike having to advance enter races – I may have mentioned this?

I’d entered the Ben Nevis Race in January. In over 20 years, only two club members had tackled the Ben. No one else dared. After entry in January I then trained (and raced through the above), but then obtained an ankle niggle mid-July. Still, a planned month away in France would prepare me with miles – err excuse moi kilometers upon kilometers – of hilly trails and mountain paths on which to train. But I didn’t really factor in the summer heat. Or the cheese and wine.

I decided early on race day to ‘enjoy’ the event. Firstly, I might never return to the steep slopes to attempt the race. Second, I had one-eye on a return visit to the Highlands, only a few weeks later, to attempt the Loch Ness Marathon. And lastly, the weather was untypically glorious sunshine. It was so warm that I was sweating after a slow warm up, around the shinty field, elevation at approximately 300feet.

Ben summit 2015

I won’t bore with every step and stumble, or slurp from fresh mountain burns (stream). Or perhaps obvious words of endless climbing, scree moving like a gentle sea, and the leaders whizzing passed in a blink or single swipe of sweat. The weather was exceptional. The views were outstanding. And, without hesitation, the summit experience will stay with me for years to come, and easily surpasses all previous ‘pea-soup’ vistas from the observatory cairn. Mind, I did enjoy the white-out during the snow blizzard when I last summited in March 2005.

AIM: to complete/ TIME: slow at over 3 hours, but so ‘enjoyable’

Running northwards is all uphill, right?
And lastly, I completed the Loch Ness Marathon: Brilliant event, amazing linear route (from south-north) and gorgeous autumn weather. For a long time I was suitably on for a sub-3.30 time but then hills and heightened jelly legs took over. I simply shuffled over the closing miles to finish.

AIM: SUB-3.30/ TIME: 3.41 (PB…by 20mins)

After briefly pondering on the year passed, it is time to establish some challenging but achievable targets for 2016.

Let me start by stating how much I dislike having to enter race events in advance. Yes, I acknowledge it is exciting to be entered, formulate and execute a training plan, then – seemingly too far into the future – to visualise completing the race. I’d prefer to perform the first task on the day. Ok, I recognise the popularity of running and demands upon race organizers now prevents this, as hundreds upon hundreds could descend on a small village, all hoping to compete at an event suitable for fewer runners.

I’ve already entered a few races and I’ve likely already missed entries for popular summer races. Hopefully, there’ll be substitute village gala races that’ll take their place. TO BE CONTINUED…

With the top, to the top

At the British Fell & Hill Championship Relay nothing is easy.  I’ve long since avoided judging a fell race by the overall distance.  You learn this quickly.  Foolish to even gauge the difficulty based on the total ascent.  Sometimes the two – combined with terrain and weather – are more difficult than expected.  So, as a late replacement in the six man team, I was a little apprehensive.

Pendle Hill was the controversial venue choice.  Restricted numbers resulted in no entries for mixed teams and some age categories.  For many clubs, like mine, this meant exclusion for some really good quality women runners.  A big loss to the event.  And not the egalitarian characteristics of the discipline.

The event is a relatively simple format: 4 legs comprising a solo, pair, navigational pair and then the final solo.  Each leg is different. Distances vary, but broadly between 6-10miles.  The climbs are severe, sometimes brutal. I was invited to bring home the glory, waiting for others before completing leg 4.  A good opportunity to watch the fast and nimble go out and return. Indeed, Calder Valley, Dark Peak and the Lakeland clubs all came and went with much fanfare and even more speed.  I simply stood by to hold tops for club mates, as they waited for handovers.  It was cold and grey but visibility way up to Pendle Hill was great.

As my departure neared the race field, understandably, became more stretched.  Large intervals appeared between teams.  I realised that some navigation may be needed.  I needn’t have worried.  Route finding was unnecessary as – between checkpoints – the leg was well taped and marked.

I was more concerned that there’d be nobody to follow and, more importantly, no target to chase.  Soon, I was shuffling up and over grassy tufts with two runners in sight.  I soon passed a woman in a white vest.  The distinctive claret and gold of neighbours Pudsey & Bramley was next.  Steady inclines were soon replaced by steeper hills.  I made little of the distance deficit.  I did however soon pass another male, vets runner.  Then continuing on the long slog up to the trig point of the Big End.

On nearing the summit I sensed runners approaching from behind.  A small group of runners bolted passed, led strongly by Bingley Harriers’ super-fast Victoria Wilkinson.  They were likely the elites starting out from the mass start.  I think only one other runner passed me.  I soon passed P&B’s Sarah Rowell, while we both focused on the free-fall from the Big End.  She then crept passed me on the next climb.  I again overtook on the long, final descent.

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Fast, furious and all over in blink.  I’d actually been out for just under an hour.  I finished strongly and managed another two overtakes in the final mile.  My legs were full of marathon training, though.  The event had reminded me, if nothing else, that I needed to get lots of hill reps before the Tour of Pendle.  Clayton-le-Moors, as host club, took much criticism over the change in eligibility.  Aside from this, the event was well organised, the race routes were designed to test and try, and I really enjoyed the overall atmosphere. The event also provided me with an unexpected opportunity to briefly race to the top with top.

Solidarity & showing resilience

On Sunday I stood in the sun and supported runners at the Plusnet Yorkshire Marathon and inaugural 10-mile races. I applauded and cheered at various points on the race route. Yes, I too ran between spots, did some supporting, and then ran on to the next – some friends even got a bit confused at my magic reappearance trick!

The Yorkshire marathon was a long-term goal for my girlfriend Rose. She’d been injured since March. During the initial-medium-term recovery phase the ‘hurty-hurty’ tendon was as much an obvious, physical battle as the inevitable lack of endorphins, and the blurred or hidden effects from resultant low moods. We likely all know of other runners who’ve either had an injury or are still out, possibly sulking beyond the sidelines. A fellow Pacer described this best, as a visceral, pack mentality that leaves behind the broken, young, weak or sick. I’ve been fortunate: never out for any length of time, and *touch wood * not seriously injured.

So, while waiting for Rose (and running friends) I cheered and cajoled those that looked jiggered and weary. Some glared back with glazed eyes, and a look that suggested I didn’t know how it felt – legs saying stop and a brain with an over-ride button, repeatedly pressed. And pain regularly ignored. Only weeks before I’d gone through the same endurance and similar feelings of anguish and then ecstasy. I knew exactly how it felt.

Good diagnosis on the tendon injury and a recovery plan (almost truthfully complied with) enabled Rose to start the marathon. How she fared was still a bit of the unknown. It was an opportunity for me to show solidarity. I know that I’ve got the right stuff to complete a gnarly fell race, but not sure I’d have the necessary mettle and resilience required during injury recovery. During Rose’s recovery I’m not sure how supportive I really was?

Her physical and mental strength mustn’t be overlooked. Courage is as much about successful outcomes as it is about the battles to get there. I was super proud to see her smiling at mile 25 and head off, down the Hull Road, towards the finish. Yes, maybe not finishing in a time with which she is content, but – much like other marathon runners on the day – the hard graft was all in the training; the race, and the finish line celebration, is just the tip of the iceberg.

Running has so much good to offer. In absence I’ve witnessed running can also be negative. Resilience might be more easily seen during a hill session or when running in foul weather.  But it is just as evident inside the minds of the injured: at home, on the sofa, alone.  Maybe, as runners, we all need to pause and remember to wait for the ones who’ve temporarily strayed away from the pack.

RG Yorkie Marathon 2015

Photo: Anne Akers

Running Like A Pro

Loch Ness Marathon

Marathon-photos startPhoto: Tim Winterburn

Only three weeks prior I’d been here. Well, not here, but in the same general area – when I say general area, I mean the Highlands. I know, a bit like an American saying that all other parts of the UK are just extensions of London. I’d visited earlier in the month for the Ben Nevis Race – this time was longer and flatter. Or so I thought.

I’d been invited to cover the Loch Ness Marathon for an online blog. Actually, the offer was a bit like being a child again, as Rose was given first refusal, and did just that. And so, with little protest, I accepted the running version of a hand-me-down jumper, and packed my bags for Inverness.  After an early start to Manchester airport I boarded the twin-propeller plane where nearly everyone was reading a running magazine. The flight took less time than the drive to the airport from Leeds.

I’ve never before arrived at an airport where my name is held up on a board by a taxi driver. Unfortunately my bag was last off the carousel, so the smug impact in the arrival lounge was minimal.  I stopped my swagger and took off my designer sunglasses.  From the foyer I followed Dougal, my driver, to the car.  He seemed a little surprised that I was in town for the marathon.  And clearly thought I was delusional when I responded to his question of a predicted time. “ I think you’ll find it harder than expected…there’s a few tricky hills…and the weather’s supposed to be unseasonably warm tomorrow”.

I was a little early for my hotel check-in – on the banks of the River Ness, and approximately mile 25 on the marathon race route – so I walked the short distance into town. I had some urgent business with a mobile phone store. *insert paragraphs of frustration, cursing and eventual explosion* Several hours later, I collected my race pack at the Sports Expo and returned to my hotel, to mentally prepare for the race: I ate a 12” pizza on the bed while watching Wales vs England in the Rugby World Cup.  Mo Farah dos the same, right?

Race day alarm: 5:15am. Ouch.  A continental breakfast was served by the hotel for marathon runners. First mistake of the day: I ate everything, except what I would normally. There were no Weetabix so I had porridge. With dried fruit. Then toast. Yoghurt, croissants and then a bit of flapjack. Plus coffee. And orange juice. Just in case, I parceled up some more flapjack for the bus journey to the start.

The Loch Ness Marathon (LNM) is linear, or point-to-point. The race organisers therefore have the logistical feat of ferrying 2500 runners from Inverness down to a remote wild spot at the far end of the loch. Close your eyes and imagine every coach in the northern highlands, packed full of trainers, nerves and smelling of deep heat. At dawn I was whisked down to the start of the bus queue – VIP treatment, no less. Before I could say ‘Do You Know Who I am?’, the coach fired up and began heading south. The journey took less than an hour. For novices – the miles, expanse of water, more mountains, more miles, still more water – it must have been a tad terrifying. The views were simply stunning. And more was to follow.

The LNM start. It really is in the middle of nowhere.  On a single lane tarmac road.   Surrounded by moorland, conifers and rows upon rows of portaloos.  Ok, so the latter isn’t always a feature. Nor is the public announcement and music system.  Or the baggage drop lorries.  Apart from these, it’s basically like the start of a fell race. Looking north, the sun was just cresting the mountains to my right.  Somewhere, up there, approximately twenty-odd miles away, was Inverness. Butterflies suddenly appeared.  Or maybe it was the porridge.

A pipe band walked and played in formation towards the start line. The runners flanked and clapped. Maybe it’s being Scottish but I get very emotional when running and hearing bagpipes. Perhaps it’s a genetic thing and my DNA is actually sending out alarm signals that I’m required for battle? I didn’t share this thought with any runner nearby – firstly, it seems a bit stupid, and second most were English and may have taken my comment as a sign of territorial hostility.
Marathon-photos greenPhoto: Tim Winterburn

Dougal, the taxi driver, was indeed correct. I had overestimated my abilities and expectations. For 13 miles I was fine and bang on schedule. And, another 6 miles up to the wee village of Dores all was splendid. The sun was warm, I was drinking adequate, taking in the lochside views and thanking marshals/ supporters. Then whack! The long incline out from Dores is a real energy sapper – almost a mile of gradual depletion. At the far end comes the hill. I’d guess it’s no more than 500 metres in length but, at this stage of a marathon, the gradient is a real leg-buckler. The final 4 miles from there were a physical vs mental fight; ignoring obvious signals of pain to shuffle on. At 20 miles I was still averaging just over 8 min/ miles; I eventually finished the last 6 miles in just over 55 minutes.

The greatest compliment I can attribute to the LNM is that is a big race which somehow manages to maintain a low-key atmosphere. I crossed the line, reclaimed baggage and collapsed on the grass in the sun. I waddled to the hospitality tent when I eventually thought I’d actually be able to take advantage of my VIP ticket. As the principal sponsor, Baxters certainly make every effort to be generous and nutritious hosts. Before I took my leave from the marquee, to meet up with Twitter contacts from other sponsors, I was offered a complimentary hessian bag. I peered inside – there were half a dozen preserves and sweet condiments from Baxters. I smiled, and said thank you very much to the lady who’d been very generous to me. Only later did I discover this was Audrey Baxter, Executive Chairman of Baxters. Again, the event displays that it is not above itself, and just like a local community fete.

The following day, in the taxi to the airport, I was asked by a new driver what I thought of the event. The weekend had been great. The obvious features of the scenery, excellent organisation and challenging route all contributed. But, overall, the LNM has something else that understandably attracts runners back – year after year. I just fear that success will inevitably lead to an ugly monster. I hope that the event manages to avoid the same intensity that deters me from participating at other large race events, such as VLM. I’d recommend heading north and running it while it’s still simmering.

I sheepishly confirmed to the driver – in case he later spoke to Dougal – that the route was hillier than I’d expected, and perhaps I’d been caught out by the surprisingly warm weather. Yes, I had enjoyed the race, the hotel and the VIP treatment.  I couldn’t swagger so staggered towards departures.  I could get used to running like a professional.

Falling Back To Earth

Ben Nevis Race

The leader had long since passed, apologising as he fell back to Earth. The summit cairn was soon in view, perhaps only 300 metres across the plateau. Pale grey rocks, the size of oblong dinner plates, wobbled and cracked with every footfall. On an OS map, this final section would seem like a doddle; in fellrunning terms almost easy. After climbing nearly 4500 feet nothing was easy. The best I could manage was a fluid shuffle; faster than walking but hardly running. I recalled a similar feeling and style during the final miles of my first marathon. I exchanged my summit band to the race officials in return for enthusiastic words of encouragement, most of which drifted by me. I turned and raised my head. The Western Highlands were revealed all around me. I’d taken 1 hour and 50 minutes to reach the top of Britain. Unknown to me, the race was won 20 minutes ago.

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A few questions had rattled around in my head during the final fitful sleep. What shoes to wear? Should I carry water or scoop from the Red Burn? Would I have issues with route navigation?  I thought some advance knowledge would help. Soon after entering I asked a seasoned fellrunner what nuggets of advice he could offer from his race experience: ”Ben Nevis! Me? You wouldn’t get me doing that bloody monster! Only the crazy would attempt that beast of a race…” Online forums similarly explained that no amount of training could prepare a runner for the endless scree, cannon ball rocks and jelly legs on the tarmac return. One anonymous entry simply suggested that Ben Nevis runners should “…find the nearest steep hill, run up, then roll back down. And then repeat.

Anxious faces looked out on the grass field at Claggan Park. Race numbers were shakily affixed to the front and rear of vests. Waist packs were checked and stretches undertaken. Scree gaiters were clicked over ankles and suncream massaged into necks and shoulders. Heads occasionally rose in the direction of Ben Nevis. Much like a good horror tale though, the monster couldn’t be seen – hidden by the unassuming nearby lump – and for now only the scary description from others would fill the void. Nervous laughter rippled between the portaloos and the Pete Bland van sale. The tension and trepidation were palpable. In short, most were kackin’ it!

Registration red T-cards were all deposited. I’d chosen to wear Mizuno Wave Harriers and didn’t see the need for scree gaiters. It felt good to be finally stretching out the legs. The bagpipes and drums soon drifted silent as the race field circled the grass field and exited on to the single lane tarmac road. The scene of colourful vests, bobbing up and down along the sun-soaked road, was spectacular as usual. Watches soon all beeped in tandem at the Ben Nevis Inn to signal the end of the first mile. I’d started very steady, as planned, and was comfortable. Inside my waist pack a half filled water bladder bounced in the small of my back. The concentrated applause soon ebbed away, along with chatter – game faces were quickly adopted.

The route cranked upwards. I glanced – too late – to see runners high among the bracken on my left, then another fork, followed with grunts further ahead. Unwisely I followed others to the right on a lower path that leveled out and, for a short time, offered increased pace. This quickly ended. The route turned into the steep gradient and an energy sapping scramble was required. A couple of short shuffles delivered me at the foot of the Red Burn, and the start of the stone steps. My Dad offered me support and cheered me upwards. I glanced at my watch and immediately wished I hadn’t. Another 100 metres up I shuffled across the Red Burn, in 55 minutes, just ahead of the advertised cut-off. I wouldn’t properly run again for another hour.
Ben Asc2 2015 NW

The endless, leg-numbing and brain draining section of scree is hard-going. In the clag this could be very disorientating; in clear summer weather, every crest just meets another ridge, which leads on to another crest.  Stones slide in all directions, and a long line of runners shuffle upwards in silence.  Then the silence is broken.  A waterfall sound of falling rock gets louder.  From beyond a crest, a bearded runner wearing a white vest, effortlessly skips down over sharp stone and danger.  His gaze is sharply focused on his descent.  Every few seconds, though, he generously warns those ascending of displaced, airborne stones.  And says sorry.  Soon, he has gone, falling further back down to Earth.  Again, almost silence.  Others soon repeat the leader’s freefall, albeit with more numbers and therefore greater noise.  I start to get into a comfortable groove and periodically glance back at the view.

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After the summit the race really begins. Tired legs disconnect from an overworked brain, and falling is inevitable. As best I could I decided, given the glorious weather, to enjoy the experience and save myself for other pending challenges. Route finding, footwork and braking were still extremely challenging and despite my seemingly pedestrian pace, not without risk. Large swathes of scree washed downwards, under heavy footfalls. Some other runners around me fell, and fell hard. Bloodied knees were a certainty, while some braver efforts were unfairly rewarded with scraped elbows and hands. I don’t remember looking up at any point, and was elated to finally reach the top of the grass bank taped section. That elation soon drained away.

The choice of footwear would now be exposed. The taped section – approximately 500metres of sharp descent – was only 5 metres wide and installed to minimise erosion from the race. Like many others around me, I spend much time on my backside, or lunging down earth steps at 3 and 4 feet high. Shrieks and yelps could be heard far below and also up above. Running never entered my head. A final steep mud bank dropped into the Red Burn. I stopped, washed my face and took a drink from the cool, clear water. My Dad again cheered my effort as I slowly trudged up to the stone steps of the Tourist Path.

Sweat dripped from my forehead as I bolted my eyes on the large stone steps. I thanked many walkers who kindly stepped aside. My legs wobbled on the wooden footbridge – the first flat ground for hours – and I collapsed down a narrow trod, through green bracken, unable to see where my fee where landing. I stumbled a few times but remained upright. I shadowed a Lochaber runner as we approached the Ben Nevis Inn. Supporters cheered in the sunshine with frothy pints in hand. I somehow managed to kick on here, passing several other runners over the next mile – some were starting to weave, while others simply reduced to walking, as cramp obviously set in. Claggan Park was alive with celebrations, pipe music and the tannoy announcements of each runner. I’d survived the fall back to Earth, a little over a milestone time, in 3 hours and 6 minutes.

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Later: Fort William, 10pm. My Dad and I were full of beer, and it was time to return to the campsite. I gingerly eased myself off the bar stool, and turned to navigate towards the exit. A bearded face caught my eye. The winner, Finlay Wild, was smiling with a pint in hand, and celebrating with Lochaber clubmates. I briefly congratulated and thanked him for warning of the flying stones. Like most other fell winners, he seemed modest and genuinely humble. He certainly didn’t appear tired, broken or aching. I creaked towards the door and wondered if he’d have the decency to at least wake up in the morning with a sore head. I maybe hadn’t fallen back to Earth, but after camping I certainly knew I’d wake up with a few bumps.

Running Away From Home – Marathon des Oussailles

The only words I understood were “fin, trois and kilometre”. It was the start of an out and back, before the closing stretch towards the stadium finish. The enthusiastic route marshal clearly said much more and, I assume, when translated the comments were likely positive and supportive. Still, I reminded myself only three kilometers to the end; less than two miles – maybe all over in less than quarter of hour? But at that point I didn’t know about the killer incline. Perhaps the marshal was also trying to warn of this final obstacle? Next time maybe I need to learn more than the worst case scenario, ”Je suis pas bien, s’il vous plait.

A few hours earlier… I’ve never cheered on anyone while eating two croissants that were delicately plucked from an oven only 5 minutes prior. Further, I’ve not eaten such delicacies with massive mountain vistas and fresh air filling my lungs, between crusty munching of course.  The event all seemed a bit surreal. Still, 7 days had passed since Rose had entered us in the relay, or equipe, format of the Marathon des Oussailles. On something of a whim, we were both quietly confident that we could share the 4 stages and complete the marathon distance of 42km.  The race started in Aulus-les-Bains and the route weaved its way south-north to finish in St. Girons.

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A few obstacles soon however presented themselves. First, a few days prior to the event, while Rose traveled to a conference, her luggage was inconveniently misplaced* between France and Denmark. This meant she lost both her ideal running shoes and essential orthotics. Second, I started to take more of interest in the route and soon observed that the division of stages 1-2 and 3-4 would be unequal: approximately stages 1-2 would total 18km (11.75miles) and stages 3-4 almost 24km (14.5miles). Lastly, the temperature at the 9am start was forecast around 180C, rising to a maximum of possibly 33oC in the afternoon. In short, I had inadvertently agreed to run the longer stretch in significantly warmer conditions.  Still, a great opportunity to competitively race in the Brooks Glycerin13 shoes, kindly gifted to me by Run4It (as part of my Loch Ness Marathon adventures…).

I’d parked the car, clicked on my waist pack with water bladder and waited for my Yorkshire Tourist team mate. The stage change over was idyllic. On a narrow, stone bridge in the scenic town of Seix. The sun was already belting down. I lurked in the shadows of a giant plane tree. Down the road, a purple vest soon came into view: “Yorkshire, Yorkshire, Yorkshire…”. My loud patriotic cries down the boulevard rewarded me with some strange looks from other competitors, not to mention the locals. A few other runners set off as Rose and I shared a quick embrace and I checked she was ok. After handing over the car keys and location map (drawn after I’d parked), I set off to tumultuous applause.

The tactics were simple. Three sets of 5 miles, enjoy the downhill gradient and run at a pace that was comfortable. The first section was, by all accounts, easy and enjoyable. Marshals stopped traffic at key junctions, there were water (and dried fruit) stops at least every 5km, sometimes more frequent. Supporters cheered. Locals spoke glowing in French. And motorists were considerate when overtaking. I even found some decent pockets of shade. But no obvious downhill sections.

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The middle section started to get tougher. The route became more undulating and less shaded. The temperature was suddenly flicked up to Gas Mark 5, and Rose drove passed, smiling, happy and cool inside the air-conditioned car** I still managed to pass a handful of full marathon runners here, plus also at least one relay runner. My pace however had slowed slightly, and I was really starting to sweat quite profusely. Frustratingly, the route also followed alongside a fast-flowing mountain river that splashed and lapped, seemingly refreshing, clear water over polished, cool cobbles.

I threw water over my head and sunk a flat coke at the change over between stages 3-4. Actually, I almost got this the wrong way round! Heat and exhaustion were setting in. The temperature was rising further and there was little shade as I entered the town of St. Girons. Perhaps more challenging, I now had no runners to chase and, after glancing over my shoulder, there were no runners close to catching me. Marshals again provided much need support and route direction, as I crossed a footbridge and trudged along a riverside trail path. The sun was now directly above and behind my every stride. Thankfully, my strides were superbly aided by my new shoes.

I weaved through the Centre Ville where café and restaurant patrons shouted and cheered “allez, bravo” and, quite possibly, something like: “courir grand homme, courir!” I glanced at my Garmin and calculated that there was less than a Parkrun to go; simple targets and small goals. This was quickly extinguished from thought when I reached a busier road junction. Route marshals were directing me straight ahead, while other runners returning from this destination were guided to my left – this was the announced out and back. A short distance down the road, waves of nausea washed through me, and currents of heat radiated from industrial buildings. “Le fin, trois kilometre…bravo, allez…”

Runners passing in the opposite direction were no longer keeping to the flow of traffic. Shade was the key driver now, and everyone adopted direct lines to find and absorb it for as long as possible. The road gently curved to the right and soon rose sharply for approximately 300metres. My pace reduced to what seemed like a plod, but still I passed a handful of marathon runners. Below a dominant chateau in St Lizier, the road again rose steeply, before the route reversed and, at last, the hot tarmac fell beneath my feet. Annoyingly, the tannoy from the finish area could be heard nearby, hidden behind trees perhaps only 500metres to my right.

I somehow stumbled into an uncomfortable groove, smiled and thanked the final few junction marshals. Soon I recognised the avenue towards the sports stadium, from where we’d collected our race numbers earlier that morning. A taped section led runners into the stadium, and the final circuit of the track. My legs were battered and my mind focused simply on running to the finish, for shade. Rose greeted me and asked if I was ok. My reply was short and when she insisted that she’d run with me to the finish I felt a little embarrassed – she explained it was customary for ‘equipees’ to finish as a team. We joined hands, crossed the line, and the announcer thrust a microphone and questions towards the Yorkshire Tourists’ spokesperson. I bolted for the first obvious bit of shade. We’d completed the marathon in a joint time of 3:52 (Rose completing in a storming 1:45, while I lumbered round in 2:07).

Tourists

* lost by buffoons, maybe French, could be Belgian, but likely Danes (wearing Fair Isle jumpers and plotting death, political infighting and drinking coffee…)
** Rose had found time, post-run, to relax, dip in a cool river, eat sumptuous cheese and sip a thermos of coffee

Week 1 – Aude, France

Things had not really gone to plan.  The plan is actually twofold.  Ben Nevis, including hills, and Loch Ness Marathon, comprising distance.  Before leaving England I’d crunched something on the sole of my left foot, leaving severe bruising around the ankle and much pain even to walk.

Bienvenue:  And so, for me and my girlfriend – returning after a catalogue of mishaps and injuries – the first run out in France was a gentle, recovery effort.  We managed a 10k around the west shore of Lac Montbel, in humid air and overcast skies.  I instantly recognised my proposed schedule may have been a little ambitious.  Still, 50mins of running and no adverse effects.  Beer and wine as rehydration.

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The Timber Road to China:  controversial chat in the village surrounded the construction of a tarmac road, by a Chinese comapny, up into nearby conifer woodland.  This partly followed a permissivefootpath so on Day 2 hill reps were slotted in, and I laced up my Brooks Glycerin 13s, kindly provided by Run4It to support my #LNM2015 challenge.

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Beyond the old chapel of Saint Cecile the road immediately rose to the heavens.  The early morning dew and damp burned into the air.  The smell of fresh pine filled my lungs as I heaved for oxygen.  From Rivel the new road climbed a staggering 1000 feet in just over a mile.  I ran to the road end, where presumably the main timber logging will occur, then returned back halfway.  One more ‘mini’ rep with some shade and jaw-dropping mountain views, before descending home to enjoy coffee and croissants.

Little Luxury at Luxaut:  A third run in as many days wasn’t really planned, but I agreed to keep Rose company on a wee trail run before visitors arrived.  The weather was belting hot, the trail was without air and very humid.  I enjoyed stretching out the legs after the previous day hills, but running mid-afternoon should be left to mad dogs and them English-folk.  Still, the trails, small hamlets and elevated views were enjoyable.  Not sure I could’ve managed any quicker and was pleased to only total 3.5 miles, including almost 400 feet of ascent.

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All Tracks Lead To Mouche: the trail shoes on, waist pack filled with water and I set out to conquer a tough, local trail – over 1200 feet of rocky climb in just over a mile.  I started out very steady, trying to settle at a comfortable 11 min/ mile pace.  I largely ran the whole climb, stopping only to gulp some water and prevent several face falls, over jagged limestone.

With sweat leaking down my face I crested over the summit,descended beyond a small hamlet then returned back up to the top.  I detoured from the rocky ascent, choosing instead to find a tarmac track and downhill road back to Rivel.

7miles/ 1800 feet ascent (saw not a peep)

Thunderstruck Duathlon: Rose and I decided to scale the east side of Lac Montbel then enjoy a refreshing soak in the freshwater lake.  We each ran at our differing paces, and separately tackled the undulating, out-and-back trail route.

The route was well signposted and included some technical tree roots and muddy bridleways.  Still, I really struggled under the overcast skies and in the humid air, limping back to the car at a sluggisg 9 min/ mile pace.

No sooner had we got into the water and the darkening skies released a heavy downpour that made a beautiful effect on the still lake surface.  No the best place to be as a thunderstorm approaches.  Briefly refreshed, we departed for home.

Week 2 to follow….

Baking, bunting and bagpipes

Traprain Law race

Saturday 13th June 2015

Traprain Law looks a lot less dominant than its 724 feet. The Lammermuir Hills perhaps offer a larger, more dominant backdrop, and the surrounding folds and rolls of the countryside reduces the hill’s scale. Indeed, Traprain Law does not stand out with the same singularity as its nearby neighbour at North Berwick.

I’d later read that if you walk, or squeeze, through the gap between the two summit stones – Maiden Stone and the Mother Rock – your fertility will improve and you will receive good fortune. Had I known I would have attempted during the annual East Linton gala race, maybe in an attempt to secure marginal, spiritual gains. Obviously, there was no equivalent for the weather spirits, as most other gala day revelers were dressed for winter – the race registration volunteers had been all sat, wearing wooly hats and gloves. Not even the pipe band music could drive a warm beat under the cool, grey Scottish sky.

The joy of running is as much the challenge as the unfamiliarity of one’s surroundings. Yes, as I ran along Main Street, with the lithe elites already advancing ahead, I recognised the red sandstone buildings; the stone is very much synonymous with this area of East Lothian. Once on to the river bank path, however, I was immediately into new territory. I was unaware of the wooden steps that would lead up from and then back down to the River Tyne. The route quickly entered a natural oasis, despite the towering concrete bridge of the A1 overhead.

River Tyne crossing....dancing

The river crossing was exciting and refreshing; briefly sapping the legs during the short river bank cling between gorse with long green grass underfoot. A road climb followed, then farmland track and long-grass alongside an arable field; every step hidden under greenery. I gladly accepted the support from Rose and my Dad before scaling over a wooden stile then shuffling up through a small woodland. The true scale of Traprain Law immediately rises to the right. The flagged route veered up sharply between orange flowering gorse and a scramble over small rock slabs and broken stones.

The River Tyne was again soon crossed via a footbridge. The descent from the top passed too quickly and was followed by a quick section of tarmac and farmland track. Once over the river the now familiar path guided me east passed swans, majestic river views and vibrant green trees. The return of the wooden steps was only a minor hindrance; I started to see runners just ahead, tiring more than me. Back on Main Street I finally caught the woman in pink and focused ahead on two blokes. I’d obviously been enjoying the wilderness too much and would not catch either of them before the gala field, awash with bunting and finish line applause.

For years I’d likely driven passed innumerable times and always glanced at the lump of rock; after all, Traprain Law forms a formidable natural feature in the East Lothian landscape. I’ll now look upon the hill and remember how it did indeed give me some good running fortune.

Against The Wind

Wharfedale Trail Half Marathon – Saturday 6th June

If it rains, a runner zips on a waterproof. When it’s cold a thermal layer, hat and gloves are always worn. Even if the sun does appear, a cap can cool the head until the next water station, while suncream may protect exposed skin. There is little that can be used to battle against the wind. And so it seemed, as I battled across the grass with sycamore trees creaking and buckling in the 30-40mph blasts – that was only to collect my number at registration; the weather forecast during the race and at higher levels was for even stronger gusts.

I’d no idea what the starter of the Wharfedale Trail Half Marathon had just announced. The wind and natural elements conspired to drown out any warning of pending biblical weather. From the calm, unresponsive body language that accompanied his scripted reading of rules and advisory notes, I assumed all would be fine. Mind, I’ve always thought that even if advance warning of the world’s end is given I’m sure most fellrunners would set-off regardless: one last hoorah out o’er the hills, best way to go, and all that. And so it was, with approximately 400 others, I set off from Threshfield rugby club, as I’d similarly done the two-years previous – this is one of my favourite running experiences.

The early support and Grassington village were soon behind, as lush, green trails and limestone outcrops stretched out before me. Ah, the Yorkshire Dales: ‘right grand’, as James Herriot would likely exclaim. Helpfully, the strong wind was partly behind and seemed to be ushering me towards each of the spring gate stiles, and over the dark-grey stone walls. Indeed, the final sharper climb leading to the first checkpoint required little effort at all; almost feeling like I was on a travelator in an airport terminal. Soon, the terrain transferred to gravel track and the gradient reversed to descent. More striking though, I quickly realised there was no real recovery and more effort than usual was needed to descend towards Kilnsey Bridge. This was the first encounter of the headwind strength and I consciously decided to conserve some energy for the inevitable struggle up and over Mastiles Lane.

I had hoped to run the entire 2.5 mile climb from the Kettlewell road up and along to the second checkpoint. Following the slow shuffle across the initial grass meadow – passed Woodentop Eileen Woodhead sat taking photos (of pain and sweaty anguish) then on to the gravel track – I soon revisted this target. The wind blasted dust and debris into legs and faces; I was thankful for sungalsses that doubled as protective eyewear, and likely saved my contact lenses. Other runners were not so fortunate, or indeed able to combat the conditions; many had slowed to a stumbling walk. I somehow managed to plod upward, prompted by sight of the lens of Dave Woodhead and thereafter trying to keep pace with other runners around. Only on the steeper section near the summit did I lose a few places as others bravely managed to shuffle faster than my walk.

Here, the wind was gusting very fiercely. I wiped my sweaty brow and it felt like sandpaper with all the grit and sediment blown up off the track. Spectators and walkers sat behind a stone wall and were shouting out words of encouragement – well, their mouths were moving and the wind immediately stole the words back down the lane. I soon began striding out down and across the moorland track towards the Mastiles Gate checkpoint. My legs felt strong and I quickly caught those who’d overtaken me on the recent tough climb. Wisely, I drafted into a group of blokes who sheltered some of the strong wind and helped me conserve energy for the second half of the race.

I gulped down some water then galloped across the adverse camber of grassy trail, away from the rocky Mastiles Lane. Shortly, the wooded clough passed on the right (and offered a brief moment of shelter) before the quick descent down to and through a farm with roaming chickens. A number of sharp climbs soon followed, but each was aided by the strong wind from behind. On the last one, I decided to walk and consume an energy gel for the final push.

The checkpoints at Higher Heights and Boss Moor were both something of a blur; possibly because I was feeling very warm in the deceptive sunshine above the bustling winds. I did manage to power passed at least 6 other runners although they again overtook as I paused to sip a last cup of water. Over the Threshfield Moor section, a snaking line of approximately 10 runners followed the lead runner around heather clumps and smelly dark bog. I adopted my own direction and quickly found the more direct line gained me more places. Likewise, rather than weaving round thick grass as the route descended towards the final road section, I risked a more direct route and gained a few more places. Again, only later I realised that the favourable tail wind was aiding the propulsion downwards.

Two runners immediately passed me as the route wound its way passed stone cottages that provided brief shade and some respite from the warm sun. As we spurted out on to the tarmac road – approximately one-mile from the end – I heard an enthusiastic cheer from Basher, a fellow Pacer. I may have given a thumbs up; unlikely a smile. It was all hard work from here. And, for the first time during the entire race, I glanced at my watch: I quickly computed that I needed to maintain a 7 minute/mile to finish head of the 2 hour milestone. Or in other words – the difference between a satisfying outcome and a frustrating racing experience.

The friction of pounding tarmac ached with every step. I targeted the next vest ahead of me. I’d soon overtaken three before the route crossed the Kettlewell Road for the second time. From behind mature trees, the tall H-shaped white posts at the rugby club then came into view. I focused again on the track beneath me. A Chapel Allerton runner in the familiar lime-green vest went passed. I had a final glance at my watch and suddenly thought the finish, beyond the 90 degree left turn, was longer than I remembered. Lots of spectators lined the finish straight and the collective cheers were smothered by the rustling trees and movement of wood and leaves. The dark shade of the trees slightly disorientated me as I tried to gauge distances. The bright-white finish marquee quickly appeared. One final swipe of the electronic dibber and watch stopped – the end. Stop. Breathe. Try to relax. Time: 1.59:15… in the severe conditions that were more suited to wind-surfing that trail running, I was especially chuffed! This was a 10-minute PB so has left me wondering what will be possible in 2016, when (hopefully) not battling against the wind.

Mars: the new god of speed

    John Carr Series – Race #2

At the start of the calendar year I set myself a few distance and event targets. Like most other mildly competitive (and completely obsessive compulsive) runners these aimed to better previous performances, while accepting fresh challenges and new goals. Three of my five aspirations, perhaps unsurprisingly, comprised fellrunning and hills. So, with some surprise and maybe in a moment of weakness, I impulsively entered the middle fixture of a local series of three 5km races.

A number of factors were in my favour: (1) the course profile is a net loss (slanting gradients at worst; the finish is approximately 100ft below the start, although there is a sneaky incline kilometer just beyond halfway); (2) many entrants clock PBs which drives others to faster times; (3) and – perhaps most importantly – unlike others I’d NOT completed the Leeds half marathon the weekend prior. Seemingly unnoticed, the weather was also much improved – the stiff westerly had disappeared and the air temperature was at least 7-8 degrees warmer.

On the start line there was much chatter and clunker as the Race Adjudicator ushered the front-line speedsters back behind the painted, orange line. Apparently the previous week’s course distance was a little shy of the full 5km and now it had, by accident, been extended too long. This and other jovial mind-games were played out between friends and inter-club rivals, while PB aspirations were also cautiously shared. Indeed, when asked, I openly disclosed that I wanted to run well, and hopefully close to 20 minutes; secretly, I really wanted to join the 19-something brigade.

The usual frenetic start did not disappoint; most recognise – regardless of ability – that unless you drive to the front then your finish time will be reduced by 10-15 seconds. My aim was for two, consecutive 3.45 minute kilometers, followed by a 4 minute, then a 4.15, and concluded with a final, undignified and unscientific ‘whatever is left in the tank’!

The penultimate kilometer was tough. The familiar last kilometer descent through Esholt village, and past the Woolpack pub, occurred in a blur of sweat and expectation. I didn’t dare look at my watch. I knew chasing the milestone target would be close. “Take one more place”, Pudsey Pacer supporters shouted. I focused on a red, Spenborough vest. Then another. Again, the last 500m seems much, much longer. Thankfully, the finish line soon appeared. A final roar of support. The orange line. Finish. Beep – watch stopped. Grunt, heave for air, brow wipe. Then holding up my watch. Gulp – 19:53. Ya wee dancer!

Tartan angels didn’t quite swoon down with a chorus of highland hallelujahs – after all, I’d spent way over the ‘Wallace-Buckley scale’ on the entry and will likely be surviving on bread and water for the remainder of the week. As a reward I might now stretch to adding on some butter, mind! The memento Mars bar accepted and not yet consumed, I am more chuffed to have snaffled the sub-20 and – perhaps arrogantly – achieving the milestone without actually doing any speed training. Maybe hills really are speed work in disguise? Two targets conquered; three to go…