Checking You Out

There’s only so much I can squeeze into my waist pack.  My waterproofs are not designed to micro-size by NASA. For extra protection, I also prefer to wrap them – separately – inside plastic bags.  Unlike some of the lithe, size-small fell racers, who appear to carry their mandatory kit in titchy carriers, I never seem able to reduce the extra bounce of my load.  This is not fellrunning parlance or a euphemism.

And I also need to pack the extra weight and volume of water. What then unfolds resembles a head-scratching dilemma from the Krypton factor.  Thankfully, I descend from a long lineage of hunter-gatherers and my spatial awareness ranks high on the scale for Neolithic know-how.  By luck more than design I always somehow manage to compress a few small fluid containers among other items of my mandatory kit.  When I finally zip shut the waist pack I immediately prey that I’m not kit-checked at race registration as I’ll need to repeat this highly technical undertaking.

Alas, at the Fairfield Horseshoe fell race last Saturday every entrant was checked. A very slick production line was assembled by the host club, Ambleside AC.  After completing a registration form, marshals inspected that runners were carrying all mandatory items on the check list. Their registration form was marked to confirm compliance and the entrants progressed to the next desk to pay and receive their race number.  A most excellent system – bravo for insisting and checking.

” The marshal then eyed me up and down before asking if this was my first fell race?”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, during my kit inspection items were questioned. Firstly, I’d recklessly advance completed and printed an official FRA registration form (to avoid the usual queue) which did not have a box to tick that my kit was compliant. Thankfully, not a big issue, my checker agreed.  More worrying for me was his challenge that I must carry a colour map.  He began to suggest I needed to return – over half a mile there and back – to the Pete Bland Sports van at the parking field to buy an official race map.

I protested on two grounds: firstly, I’m Scottish and therefore genetically very prudent; and second, my black and white OS copy sufficiently displayed both the race route while demarcating features, should I need to perform an emergency exit. With the sun wrinkling and cracking the canvas of the marquee tent he agreed, on this occasion, to let me enter.  As I progressed to pay my fee and claim my race number, the marshal then eyed me up and down before asking if this was my first fell race?  Oh, the final insult.

With a bit extra venom I pinned my race number to my vest and gritted my teeth as I folded my map back into its small plastic bag.  Yes, the marshal was only performing his role with a concern for my safety and that of route marshals – I support this entirely.  Though, I did wonder how many Lakeland runners would be grilled, or even refused entry, for not carrying desired types of the mandatory kit?

Porno pants

Favouritism obviously allowed certain clubs to wear resort clothing…last resort! Courtesy of Judith Jepson

Inevitably, as more runners clearly decided to take advantage of the glorious weather, the start was postponed by 15 minutes. Still, bravo to the race organisers – each arrival was fully processed through kit check to registration.  Meanwhile, I re-inserted all necessary items back into my waist pack. The mandatory kit first, then the usual battle to force in a 500ml flat satchel of water, two 100ml electrolyte solutions and a DAB radio for race updates!

Some runners nearby boasted that they wouldn’t be taking any water. I reckoned that I’d likely be out for over 2 hours.  Yes, it’s always a faff to carry, but I’d sooner squeeze in some fluids than later attempt to squeeze out a foul-coloured wee.  Each to their own – provided of course their own is compliant, adequate and there’s no need to draw on the use of my large, heavy waterproof trousers.


Many Miles To Go

It started one morning with a call from my Dad.  ‘There’s space on the FWW3 if you’re interested…{insert silence}… It’s Frank’s stag do’.  He’d got married a few years ago, I recalled.  But then the stag do was so successful that it’s been an annual event ever since.  This year – Frank’s Wild Weekend 3 – a few berths in the bunkhouse were surprisingly still vacant, so the net was extended out a bit further.  Did I fancy the trip?  Possibly yes.  A number of things to firstly consider:  where was the weekend to visit; could I face a potentially long car journey over the border and beyond; and would I recover sufficiently (from the outdoor activities/ intake of alcohol) in time for the Three Peaks Race?

Kinlochewe, Wester Ross was the destination.  Beyond Inverness, turn 90o west and travel through several functional towns with nondescript homes that are dwarfed by neck-turning scenery at every cattle grid.  The landscape, weather and to some extent the people are gritty and hard: think Game of Thrones, but minus the hobbit sex and incestuous relationships – actually, maybe just the hobbit sex.   This is remote Scotland where men are men, and sheep are scared…

While away, I joined a group run around the Heights of Kinlochewe to gasp at the stunning Fisherfield Mountains from Lochan Fada.  This was described as a 10 mile flattish adventure that might get a tad blustery at the lochan bealach.  The 15 mile loop was anything but flat, although I really enjoyed the long climb in the first half and then the technical descent was all good training.  Less said about the burn crossing or driving snow, mind.

Also, after an initial walk with my Dad, I then enjoyed a solitary climb up a steep-sided and snow blasted Corbett – Meall a Ghuibhais – followed up the day after with a sharp 5 mile/ 1200 feet blast on trails, heather moorland and woodland tracks.  Lots of ideal climbing for the Three Peaks and severe impact on the quads.

Either side of the long journey to the frozen tundra of the north, I’d enjoyed training runs out over the Three Peaks Race route.  Prior to the Scotland weekend the weather had been decidedly wintry and as I’d pointed out to my girlfriend this might be invaluable on race day.  I really didn’t beleive this, though.  Surely the weather would be better than the freezing temperatures and snow showers experienced in 2015?  Then, after the Highland adventure, I was sun-drenched on a wa’m, blue-sky day out up and down Whernside.  This was how I hoped the Three Peaks Race would be.

And now, with almost 72 hours until the big day snow if falling outside and all peaks are expected to be white, bogs will be treacherous and the going will almost certainly be ‘very soft to sinking’.  Running in this weather can be endured.  Marshaling will however be a right challenge.  All the training has been completed and the added value of Highland mountains was rewarding.  Now it’s nearly time to nobble off the final chunks covering 24 miles of the dales – oh, what shoes to wear over gravel, stone and limestone blocks…?



Knowing When To Stop

Competitive running drives me to analyse Strava downloads, prepare demanding training routes and try to better previous course or distance times. I suspect most runners are the same. But is it appropriate to briefly stop and fully absorb what we are doing while we are actually doing it?  At the end we all collapse over the finish line and wait for the endorphins to effervesce to the surface. And then there’s the bottle-neck at the ladder stile or maybe even the halfway water station. Some runners don’t even stop and run through injury to avoid a DNF.  Me?  Guilty?  Well maybe.  Still, away from this, do you ever just slow to a halt, take a breathe, to observe the amazing activity that we undertake, not to mention the special places it takes us to?

Last Saturday, I’d perspired for almost 5 miles on tarmac, across tussocks, through bog and beck, and over boulders; I’d been here before. Somehow, this was different. Firstly, the weather was more benign. No winds blowing me sideways or backwards. Visibility was much better too, and the natural light was pure and provided excellent contrast. Also, there wasn’t a cacophony of urban noise – in fact there was hardly any noise; except for the distant pant of a runner with hands on hips, or the muffled applause from a route marshal.


The grass slopes steepened and a rock face appeared overhead. The summit of the climb was near. But I suddenly felt compelled to stop. And take it all in – the view, achievement, landscape, geology. It wasn’t an epiphany or spiritual; I just felt that I needed to soak up the atmosphere. And I was also bloody knackered so needed a break.

Yes, I took a few photos. But importantly, I knew exactly what they’d show before I actually downloaded them. The brief 1-2 minute pause allowed me to recharge the senses. Then, at the finish, I was able to share this experience with others: “View? I was focusing too much on where my feet were landing…” I hope that runner gets another opportunity to return. Next time they’ll maybe see a need to stop for a moment. And not just at the finish line.

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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).


* 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.


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.


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.


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….