Tuesday, 20 September 2016

A New Start and the High Peak 40

Three weeks ago I decided that enough was enough. I had faffed around for nearly three years with calf and hamstring injuries, none serious enough to stop me doing anything for longer than a week or two at a time, but enough to prevent any consistent running training during all this period. This year started reasonably well but the problems re-appeared in early May, and I hadn't run for more than four or five miles at a stretch since the Pembroke Coast ultra in late April. Over the past couple of years I convinced myself that being able to walk up hills well and shamble down the other side effectively was an alternative strategy. I could get away with almost no running, at least on the longer events.  Walking and a minimum of running got me through two West Highland Ways, two Lakeland 100's, a Northern Traverse, a Ring of Fire and plenty of 50 mile and shorter events, all in generally unimpressive times. But it wasn't good enough for last year's Dragon's Back nor this year's UTMB, where being able to cash in on a bit of speed over the easier ground builds a much needed buffer against being timed out. I had paid the deposit on next year's Dragon's Back and as things stood it wouldn't be worth confirming my place in January of next year - it would be the same story as last time.They say one definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. Something had to change.

After a fair of amount of discussion with the physio we concluded that;

1. The injuries that I was getting were small partial muscle tears of maybe only a few dozen fibres from the thousands in the relevant muscles, enough to cause discomfort and concern (and some rehabilitation time) but not serious overall.

2. I was getting these almost certainly by working the particular muscle too quickly, too soon and with insufficient warming up. Inattention to sensible rehabilitation.

3. I need to strengthen these muscles and get them used to working faster, but with a programme that will not cause further damage and more time-outs.

Doing things gradually and progressively will be the key. "Active recuperation" was the term the physio used. This means that you improve better and faster by using muscles rather than resting them. There may still be some discomfort, but unless it is intrusive or affects my normal running gait that's OK. So the three key changes that I'm making to how I train are:

1. Warm up thoroughly before each session of running. I have found that for me, an effective technique is to walk briskly for five minutes, then jog slowly for another five minutes, then do some gentle stretches of hamstrings and calves. It's frustrating if all you want to do is get out for a run, but needs to be observed every time. All my injuries have come in the first fifteen or twenty minutes of a run.

2. A regular and gradually increasing programme of strengthening exercises for these muscles.

3. Build up the mileage actually run (rather than walk/runs), but start with low mileage and slow pace, and build up both gradually. My starting "maximum allowed pace" is 11 minute miles, and I won't exceed this for the whole of September. I'm intending to go to 10 minute miles in October, but we'll see; this will certainly be the maximum, even for short outings.

So during the first two weeks of September I covered 60 miles in total. I threw in the odd hill such as Latrigg on a pleasant late summer evening, but mostly it was easy ground taken at between 11 and 12 minute mile pace. It felt very slow, but at least it was all running rather than walking, culminating in a continuous lap of Derwentwater, which at 9 miles was the longest continuous run I had done for months.

It was a start. Now some discipline is required to continue the job.

I had had the High Peak 40 in the diary for quite a while. Although it's been going for thirty years now and is an event almost on my doorstep, I had never done it and it looked good. A 40 mile loop starting in Buxton and taking in many of the popular trails and dales in the southern section of the district  -  mostly in the white peak but straying on to the grit of Rushup Edge in its northernmost reaches. I was dubious now whether such a potentially "runnable" course would be wise at this early stage of my new regime, but the event caters for walkers as well as runners and the maximum time allowed is 14 hours, a less than three miles an hour average, so I reasoned I could run what I thought would be sensible and walk the rest. I was quite surprised to discover that in the Peak, which really has no actual hills, the course has a total ascent of 5500 feet, but I suppose if you go from dale to plateau often enough then it all tots up. I thought by walking the ups, running the downs and jogging the flats for as long as I could, I ought to be able to average four miles an hour and get round in ten hours. If things went wrong I still had plenty of time to walk a lot more. Considering just over three years ago, before my injury problems started, I managed the 53 mile, 7000ft of ascent Highland Fling in under 10 hours, it's a bit humbling to see how low my ambitions (and abilities) have fallen.

Harveys Ultramap
The web site said the course would be marked but you had to have means of finding your way around in case the markers got tampered with on the day. The maps I had only covered the course using two rather hefty Outdoor Leisure sheets, so I lashed out on the new Harvey's "Ultramaps" Peak District Central and South. While being a full 1:40,000 scale like other Harvey maps, these are brilliantly compact, I hope they bring them out for more areas soon to cut down the need for so much origami on running events.

It's about an hour and a quarter from my house over to Buxton so getting there for registration at 7am in Buxton Community School was no problem. After being issued with our number and tally card (for clipping at checkpoints, no fancy modern electronics in this very traditional event), most runners milled around in the school hall or the car park outside until we were called to the start just before 8am for the briefest of briefings ("we've had quite a bit of rain, it'll be wet and muddy at Water-cum-Jolly"). On the dot of 8am we were away.

On these shorter events everyone except the walkers seems to start off fast and after the first mile or so through the streets of Buxton my 11 minute mile pace saw me pretty much at the back of the running part of the field. I was encouraged though as I picked up a few places on the first little climb which was maybe four or five hundred feet up to Burbage Edge. It was a beautiful cloudless morning, but over the other side we dropped into the shade of the hill and it was still quite chilly. A bit of old railway line led to the first checkpoint. A feature of the race was the huge number of checkpoints, twelve in all, one every three miles or so all the way round. They were all well stocked with water, orange squash and chocolate biscuits so there was really no need to carry anything in the way of food or drink. I had taken a single 500ml bottle, and once I had emptied it after the first 45 minutes I never bothered to refill it but relied on a couple of cups of liquid and a handful of biscuits at each checkpoint. A bit alongside a reservoir and a quick 600ft up and down over Eccles Pike and checkpoint 2 turned up, but even by here it was becoming clear that the ascent involved wasn't going to be ficticious. 

I had now caught a few more runners so seemed to be part of the race again. My strategy of running everything that I could at between 11 and 12 minute mile pace and walking only the steeper uphills seemed to be working so far. The route consisted of stony jeeptracks, bits of very quiet country road, some grassy single tracks across the moors and some wooded dales, a nice variety. The marking was excellent without being over the top. Black arrows on a fluorescent pink background were visible at least fifty yards away, but they were only sited where a change of direction was necessary. Staying on the same track without turnings, you might not see an arrow for a mile or two. I really didn't need my maps to follow the route, but on an unfamiliar course I like to know where I am and what's coming up next so I kept the map out for most of the way round anyway. It was a long steady pull from the outskirts of Chapel en le Frith up to Rushup Edge, the high point of the course, but great running along the top with grand views once you got there. A short dip down then up over a tourist-encrusted Mam Tor to a steep 1200ft descent down to Castleton.

We had had the benefit of a bit of cloud cover through the mid part of the morning but it had now dispersed and down here it was hot. Browsing a few write-ups of the race beforehand, two features seemed to keep coming up as memorable in runners' minds and the first one of these was the long ascent up Cave Dale out of Castleton, which was reported usually as "seemingly endless". It's definitely all runnable but in the conditions on the day I was happy to take it at a steady walk. The entrance to Cave Dale comes at twenty miles, the half way point of the course. I reached it just on four and a half hours; I felt this was good news, no problems so far and as most people slow down as a race progresses it would allow me to take an hour longer for the second half and still get inside my ten hour target. 

The reward for the effort up Cave Dale was a long gradual descent which went on apart from one very short ascent for nearly ten miles and through three checkpoints! First across the moor and down through Tideswell and down Tideswell Dale to the banks of the Wye, then along this through Litton and Water cum Jolly (slightly muddy but not wet as it turned out) to Cressbrook, then over the river and quickly up to the old railway line, down again along this to the well-known Monsal Head viaduct. We celebrated last New Year for a few days with friends at Monsal Head on the hill just above here, so it was good to see the area in September sunshine rather than January rain. Still downward, following the Wye once more along Monsal Dale to the A6 crossing. But all good things come to an end and we were now faced with another long uphill, following Deepdale for a couple of miles to checkpoint 10.  

I had been passing runners fairly regularly all day and the average pace on the watch was still just under 13 minutes per mile, and somewhere around here I began to entertain the idea that ten hours was going to be easy and nine might be attainable. I was actually ready for the walking break up Deepdale but I had been surprised that I had been able to keep a steady 11-12 minute mile pace going all the way from the top of Cave Dale to the A6. My right leg was aching a bit but no obvious pain points so nothing to stop continued progress at this speed.

However, the second feature that I was pre-warned of arrived now, an infamous three mile road section. I new it was going to be almost dead straight and that you could see it stretching out ahead for miles, not what you really want after thirty miles or so; the thing that I didn't know until I got there was that it was also gently uphill all the way. But I felt I was on the home straight now so I was determined to run it all, which I did, sort of, managing to keep a steady 12 minute mile jog going until the course hit the fields again. I felt I'd won at this point but there were still one or two little obstacles to come. 

The first was a series of grassy fields, gently down hill, no problem except that separating them were stone wall stiles requiring a climb up one side and down the other. After nearly eight hours of motion my legs just didn't want to perform these manoeuvres.  Then immediately after this we had another Deepdal to deal with, not along this one but across it. No more than about 200 ft down one side and the same back up the other, but both down and up were very steep, narrow, and with plenty of brambles to nag at you. After these I was pleased to reach checkpoint 11, a mere 2,8 miles (so the checkpoint team told me) from the finish. 

With nearly 45 minutes of my nine hours left as I set out on the last leg, I was sure it was a cruise now. A mile later I wasn't so sure. Uphill fields of long grass made progress unexpectedly tough for a while, with more walking than I really wanted. This carried on until a brief downhill through a farm, out of the countryside and into the town, where we were immediately rewarded with a steep uphill road. As my watch showed us into the last mile it became flat at last, a bit of road, a bit of grassy park, then the lane leading to the school and the finish.

The official results haven't been published yet but I stopped my watch at the finish at 8:51:20. Under the circumstances I was pretty pleased with that.

Now I just have to build on it. Starting with the sensible approach to recovery that I've never observed before  - no running until Wednesday then make it short and slow!

Saturday, 3 September 2016

No time for Tourists on the UTMB

When I got my UTMB acceptance earlier this year after two years of missing out in the ballot, I was determined to be as fit as I possibly could be when the event came around. Sometimes things things just don't work out the way you want. Everything went fine until late March, after which a series of hamstring and calf problems meant I never got to improve on that situation and went backwards. As an illustration of this there is a little hill in my local forest, three hundred feet or so of height gain and a one and a quarter mile round trip to the top and back. In January I was lapping this at close to nine minute miles; by mid August I was doing well to achieve twelves.

But this hasn't been an isolated problem for me over the past two or three years and I've developed a strategy for if not dealing with it then at least making the best of the situation. I look at a race and say what is the best  I could hope for as an outcome in my current state? In many of the bigger races this will simply be to finish, I can't hope to do more. So I put together a race plan for doing exactly that with the least possible effort. I've called this my tourist strategy for reasons that are't particularly relevant to the plot here, but if you're interested you can see how it started in my post "A Tourist's Guide to the Lakeland 100" back in July 2014.

Well having worked in 2014, this scheme had got me through the Northern Traverse and the Lakeland 100 again this year. I got my fingers burnt a bit on this year's West Highland Way Race by believing it was an event short and easy enough to be treated differently; it isn't and I was lucky to come away with a finish; had I planned more conservatively I would have had a much nicer time.

With all these issues I had done nothing to plan the Chamonix trip other than pay the entry fee and get the medical certificate organised. I was very undecided all through the summer on whether to go or not. To call it off would be the sensible thing but the events there are just so hard to get into that when you eventually do get a place you're very loathe to give it up. I decided that if I got away with the Lakeland then I would go for the UTMB. I'll examine this decision a bit further on; it wasn't a very logical one but I love the Chamonix scene and it was almost certainly a case of heart only needing a sniff of possibility to overrule head. So I got my insurance, confirmed payment on the apartment and booked a ferry. I'd just sold my Caterham Seven and bought a Mazda MX5 (not as much go but a lot more practical) so at least I would enjoy the drive down.

Before I continue the story let's take a short time out to think about my decision. I guess if you follow my blog regularly you're probably a near-back-of-pack runner like me  -  if not then I don't think you'll be finding much to interest you in these pages. So if you haven't (yet?) been to the UTMB then I'll tell you a bit about it. I know these trails. I've been going to Chamonix all my adult life, I've walked the route once with my wife Jan (10 days, very enjoyable) and once on my own (3 and a half days, also great). I've completed a CCC and a bad-weather-shortened UTMB, and I've started the race proper more times than I care to remember. All in all I've covered the ground of the course at least half a dozen times. I've heard the story put about that the UTMB is "about the same" difficulty as the Lakeland 100. It's not. This may be a genuine opinion but probably formed by runners for whom both races are so far below their limit that they can't tell the difference. Similar to when I went to a climbing wall regularly, I and my companions had to advise on the route grades at our end of the spectrum; to the route setter they were all so easy that he couldn't make any meaningful comparisons of one to another.

Let's take a look at the two events. The Lakeland is 105 miles long with 22,500 feet of ascent and a time allowance of 40 hours. The figures for the UTMB are 106 miles, 32,400 feet and 46,5 hours. Say it quickly and they don't seem a million miles apart. Just 10,000 feet more climbing and an extra six and a half hours to do it in. But look a bit deeper. Interestingly (or perhaps obviously, depending on your point of view) they both have a point about 60 miles in, which if you look at the statistics, represents the half way point in time for the majority of finishers. So for a tourist at the Lakeland, get to Dalemain in good shape in under 20 hours and you're cooking. But to Dalemain, even though it feels a lot, you've only ascended 12,800 feet. In reaching Arnouva, 60 miles into the UTMB, you've already done 18,800. That's like throwing in another three Black Sail passes, or three Fusedales, between Braithwaite and Dalemain. And your extra time for that? About three hours. Makes you think a bit. There are no navigation problems on the UTMB (but there aren't really on the Lakeland either); you don't get bogs like Grassguards but you get plenty of rocky and bouldery trails, miles of singletrack where you can't pass without co-operation, a lot of dust if it's dry and a lot of slippery mud if it's wet. Add to that the facts that the UTMB touches 2500m altitude (where many people will feel the effects of altitude, depends how lucky you are with your personal physiology) five times, four of them before Arnouva, and it can regularly approach freezing at night and 30 degrees in the day.

My personal opinion (no scientific basis) is that if you can knock out a 22 hour West Highland Way or a 30 hour Lakeland, you can go to the UTMB with with good confidence of success and a bit in reserve for things not always going your way. Get much below that and it's far from impossible but you just need most things to go right for you. I have two or three friends who I would normally expect to out-perform in most races, but who have got round the UTMB while it has eluded me. They have something I don't (I'd love to know what it is!).

Of course I knew all this before I made my decision to go but I guess I just wanted to be part of it all again. If everything went spot on I might just get round, if not I was determined to make it an enjoyable trip and not an endurance trial. The trails around Chamonix are made to be enjoyed not suffered on.

It feels bigger but Chamonix is really a small town and we tend to go to the same places. On my first morning I chanced upon Dave Troman in the supermarket, the following day I saw Bob Allison in the street. I recognised a Hardmoors teeshirt on the Brevent which turned out to be Sandy intown like Dave for the TDS. When I went to pick up my apartment key Neil MacRitchie was there just checking in. The Scots were there in fairly co-ordinated force as usual, the English less so but there were plenty around.

Time for only a minimum of acclimatisation but we all think every little helps. For me, day one, walk up to the Brevent (5000ft vertical above Chamonix) spend a few hours on top, jog down. Day two, first stage lift back to the Brevent, walk up stage 2, time on top, jog back to lift. Day three, lifts to the top, all day there, lifts down. Days four and five, rest before the race.

This year Haute-Savoie was hot. In the valleys it was hitting 30 degrees by about 11am and staying there until evening. The UTMB organisation was putting out lots of info about taking care of yourself in the heat. The kit checker at registration asked me if I had a Foreign Legion type type flap on the back of my cap; no, I normally turn the peak to face the sun, ah, that's OK then.

My plan was to stay about 30 minutes ahead of the cutoffs as far as Arnouva, after which they get much friendlier. I knew that cutting it this fine was a risk but I reasoned that every few extra minutes I could get on the course would allow me to move slower and use less energy; as I was taught early on in this game "It's not the distance that gets you, only the pace". On the plus side I knew most of the course like the back of my hand; I'm a competent descender and the key checkpoints are all in valleys, so I knew where I could pull time back if necessary. If things went wrong there was no Plan B.

The UTMB is a bit of a scrum at the start. Over two thousand runners have to funnel down from a random assembly in the church square, intermingled with supporters and sightseers, into the bit of the pedestrianised Chamonix main street not occupied by spectators, maybe 4 or 5 runners wide, which goes on for several hundred yards. Your choice at the start is to go early to secure a spot near the front and sit on the floor for an hour and a half or so in the sun, or turn up later and accept that you're going to be delayed. Although a time penalty was the last thing I really wanted, I decided that sitting in the shade under the trees was the better way to clear the mind for the adventure ahead, so I opted for the back. With fifteen minutes or so to go we had the briefing which I'm sure no-one ever listens to, then the music, the countdown and the off. The cheering as you go through the town is pretty manic and really has to be experienced to understand what it's like.

It took me 15 minutes to do the first kilometer. After that I was able to pick up to a fast walk as the crowd thinned. People came running past. After two or three minutes I was aware that the cheering behind me had died down. I turned around to see that I was at the back of the field. Not near the back, or in the last few, I was actually the final participant in the race at that point. Well someone has to be.

I wasn't looking forward to the first five miles down to Les Houches because apart from one or two small rises it is flat or very gently downhill. The first cutoff at St Gervais is set on the assumption that you are going to run this bit. I hadn't run for over two weeks and was very tentative but at least I managed a bit of intermittent jogging. I have done the section from the start to the first checkpoint in Les Houches in under 50 minutes in the past, this time it took me an hour and a quarter. Once through Les Houches though you get the first climb, about 2500 feet up a good jeep track to Le Delevret, and it was good to get to the point where everyone ahead of me was walking, and I started to overtake people fairly regularly. Not far up the climb it was great to see Dave and Tracey Troman cheering us on. I reached the top of the hill in 2491st place out of 2555 starters  -  still pretty near the back but at least there were 60 or so people behind me now!

Headlights went on at the top of the climb, then it was a long and easy (in the dry!) descent down to St Gervais, about 3300 feet in 4 miles. I easily pulled back the 15 minutes I had lost at the start here, and arrived in St Gervais on my target of 30 minutes ahead of the cutoff. A quick bite to eat here and refill the water bottles, about three and a half hours from the start. I was starting out from each refreshment point with a half litre of water and a half litre of Mountain Fuel and it seemed to be just about right. At each stop I would drink maybe a couple of cups of coke or some tea or soup to supplement this. The organisation had recommended carrying 2 litres of fluid, but with the pit-stops so close together I think this was way over the top and I only ever set out with the mandatory 1 litre. I normally ate some cheese, ham, bread, biscuits, that sort of thing to get some different flavours at the checkpoints.

The two hour allowance for the six miles from St Gervais to Les Contamines seems generous enough as it looks quite flat on the topo, but that is only relative to the rest of the course; you actually gain another 1700 feet on this leg so you have to keep pushing along, particularly as a lot of it is single track in woods, so it's quite difficult to pass if you come up behind slower runners. But I managed to hold my buffer OK. Once beyond Les Contamines it's a wide jeep track as far as La Balme, another 5 miles further on and 1800 feet higher, and I was really enjoying the race now, going along at my own pace in territory where I didn't have to travel too fast to stay safe. In fact from St Gervais up to the Croix de Bonhomme is the biggest overall climb on the course at just over 6000 feet of height gain, but because it has long flat sections at intervals it doesn't feel arduous.

I stopped at La Balme for something to eat and a five minute breather because I was building up a better buffer now. An item of our mandatory kit was a mug to avoid the use of paper cups, and I remember setting mine down beside me on a bench while I mixed some more Mountain Fuel. Well-fuelled and striding happily up the now narrow, steep and rocky track some distance above the checkpoint, I suddenly realised that my mug was still sitting on the bench. Annoyed with my incompetence I returned to collect it. No great problem but an extra 200 feet of height gain and 10 minutes or so lost is not really what you want on an event like this. I put the episode out of my mind, nothing further to be done about it now.

I made my way steadily up to the highpoint of the climb at the Croix de Bonhomme, and started another 3000 foot descent down to Chapieux. This is quite a steep descent but relatively easy, earth and gravel paths through grass without many rocky outcrops, easy to run almost all of it. When I have been on the course before, everyone around me had been running here so it had been easy to go with the flow, but this far back in the field tonight many people were descending slowly so it was quite a task to keep getting around them on the narrow paths, something that I hadn't really foreseen. Nevertheless I arrived at the major checkpoint of Chapieux with my buffer still intact, having gained about 250 places since Le Delevret.

At Chapieux it became light again, first night done and dusted. It's always easier to make progress in daylight because your peripheral vision returns, your world is no longer limited to the beam of your torch, and you can make directional and foot placement choices concurrently rather than having to concentrate on one or the other. Coming out of Chapieux is a good place also to take stock. The first bunch of climbs are out of the way but there are still some big ones before Courmayeur so just settle down calmly and let them come. I'd had the best part of a meal at Chapieux, soup, bread, cheese and sausage, bananas, so was feeling good.

The first thing to deal with is the 3000ft climb up to the Col de la Seigne, but this one's first up a short section of road then a long steady track, very easy underfoot, so just head down and work your way up. Into the sunshine on the top, brilliant, it seemed a long time since we last saw the sun on the climb out of Les Houches. In my previous years it was just a half hour simple descent down to Lac Combal from here, but since then a new climb has been added, down from the Seigne then up to the Col des Pyramides Calcaires. Only a 900ft climb and I think it really adds something to this section of the route. It's a bouldery track up with a bit of snow to cross, more interesting than the rather bland ground over the Seigne. It also now provides the new high point of the course at 2563m, marginally above the old high point on the Col de Ferret (2525m). Down the other side, a very rocky descent, then a steep track down past the Elisabetta hut and on to the Lac Combal checkpoint. The new bit adds maybe 45 minutes or an hour to the route. The buffer was still looking good.

The last climb before Courmayeur is the 1500ft Arete de Mont Favre. This one was now in full mid-morning sunshine and the heat slowed everyone down a bit but I was able to adopt my usual technique of taking it at a steady pace and not stopping between the start of the climb and the top. From there is a lovely cruise all the way down to Courmayeur, first a contouring, gradually descending track to the Checrouit ski station, then a series of dusty single track zigzags all the way down to Courmayeur and the "drop bag" checkpoint, where I arrived about 35 minutes before the cutoff. It felt pleasant enough running down through the trees and meadows, then through the old village of Dolonne, but as soon as I picked up my bag and went inside the sports hall I was wet from sweat from head to foot. It was hot in this valley.

I changed socks (although there was possibly no need, feet were fine apart from looking a bit grubby from the dust) and shirt, topped up water bottles, changed torch batteries and had something to eat. I was feeling OK, the plan seemed to be working but there was still a very long way to go. I was out of the checkpoint and into the town. It was only two or three minutes until the checkpoint closed when I left, but I wasn't really not bothered by that. I still had five hours to cover the eleven miles to Arnouva.

As soon as I started up the steps to the main street I realised just how hot it was. Dave said that the temperature reached 39 degrees in Bourg St Maurice on the TDS. I'm not sure what it was here but must have been well into the thirties. But it will get cooler higher up. On the little uphill road leading to the start of the climb proper, I soaked my cap at every available fountain, it still felt hot. Once we got into the continuous steep zigzags on the 2700ft climb up to the Bertone hut, it seemed impossible to make progress at any sort of speed. Every step was an effort.  Everyone around seemed to be affected, there were people resting all over the track. I normally never stop on a climb but I needed three breathers of a few minutes each before I reached the hut. Even though I gained over 50 places between Courmayeur and the Bertone, I was going impossibly slowly. I eventually reached the hut over two hours after leaving Courmayeur and immediately sat down, drank a couple of mugs of coke, and rested for a further quarter of an hour or so before I felt that I was in good enough shape to go on.

But I now had only something over two and a half hours to cover the remaining 8 miles to Arnuva. Even so that was only just over 3 miles an hour and the major height gain was done, should be OK. The next bit was an undulating traverse along to the Bonatti hut, about five miles I thought, with a net height gain of about 900ft. I could remember running it nearly all at a good pace when I did the CCC years ago, but today unless I put in an effort that I knew was unsustainable I couldn't raise any real speed, I still didn't seem to have recovered from the last climb. I pressed on but it took me nearly two hours. I've just done the sums here but I didn't get them right on the day because when I arrived at the Bonatti I was under the impression that Arnouva was just around the corner then straight down the hillside to the valley bottom, and that I would be OK.

"You're not going to make Arnouva in the time" was the opinion of the marshal at the Bonatti. "Stop and have a rest and a drink then walk slowly down". I wasn't so sure. How far to Arnouva? Just over 5 kilometers she said. Much further than I had thought. 40 minutes left on the clock now. I could make it if I went flat out from here, only about a hundred meters of height gain, the rest flat or down hill. But I knew what would happen, same thing that got me in the Dragon's Back last year; after going at a pace that I could sustain as far as here I would now go right out of the comfort zone for 40 minutes then there would be no way back. I wouldn't be able to make the next climb over the Col de Ferret. I was done.

I sat down, had my last coke of the race, and walked down to the valley.

No regrets, I don't think I could really have done anything that would have made a difference on the day. I wasn't fit enough to cope with the race under the conditions that pertained. I had covered 60 miles and the best part of 19,000 feet of ascent, and enjoyed it all until the final 10 miles. By the time I stopped I had caught up 600 places since the first checkpoint so the strategy was sound. It just wasn't good enough to keep me in the race. There could never have been a Plan B.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Lakeland 100 - back to the party again!

Looking back now after 5 starts and 3 finishes I wondered if I still had anything to say about the Lakeland 100. But it's an event that keeps on giving and returning to Coniston for the 7th year in a row (including one year marshalling and one running the 50) naturally resulted in a host of new experiences and memories to savour. I have to write this stuff down so that I can look back in my dotage at how I used to spend my time, but if you want to come along with the story you're more than welcome.

Preparation hadn't gone exactly swimmingly. A hamstring pulled 4 weeks before the go, probably as a result of taking up running again too soon and too enthusiastically after the West Highland Way Race, resulted in a couple of physio visits and some missed training. Given the go-ahead after 2 weeks, a first gentle outing went fine but the second resulted in the muscle playing up again. I decided further medical consultation was futile as I'd already made my decision. I stopped running but a slowish traverse of Blencathra and a casual outing up Place Fell with Jan convinced me I could still walk OK.  I'd played this game before, I knew how to get round the course with virtually no recourse to running, and as Marc Laithwaite was later to say at the briefing that everyone in the field was probably injured anyway I had no excuse even if I'd wanted one.

Parking on the school field on Friday afternoon, a lot of familiar faces around. Hello to the Consanis, the Steeles, David, Phil and others then in for registration. My kit check done by Steve who I'd run the last day of the Ring of Fire with last year. Dave in the hall but not running this year, mind focussed on the TDS in a month's time. Pick up the dibber "you've done this before haven't you?" Back to the car for a rest and the crossword in the sunshine. Warm but not as hot as last time, 2014, cracking the flags then, all day and night, but a nice cooling breeze today.

"Your main aim is to finish. Anything else is a bonus"  - Marc at the briefing. I know that, except for me the only aim is to finish. I know I can do this race but it's too big for me to have any other goal than to be arriving back at Coniston sometime late on Sunday morning. We shake hands with whoever is next to us, wish them well. No deciding who will finish this year, a higher completion rate has been achieved last year and is expected again; 70% or the boss will be disappointed, we promise to oblige.

Then outside, Nessun Dorma, the Final Countdown and off through the streets of Coniston. Walking at the back for me but it won't cost much time as I know there will be a queue for the gate at the Miners' Bridge. There are still a few people behind me as I settle into the first little climb, then break into an extremely slow jog down to the start of the Walna Scar road. Everything seems OK.

The climb over Walna is one of the biggest on the course but it's at an easy angle on a good track so not too much of a chore and you are rewarded with the first stunning view of the trip at the summit. All the central fells come into view in the evening sunshine. Then it's an easy descent all the way down to Seathwaite. Dib in, refill water bottle, eat a couple of custard creams and a slice of cake then off down the road. I pass Mike at the gate. He followed my "tourist" splits for a 39 hour finish last year but is hoping for a bit better this time.

Walna Scar ascent
I've got the nutrition on this event honed to a plan that suits me so I don't have to think too hard about it now. I carry one 600ml water bottle which I plan to empty during each leg; one leg Mountain Fuel then the next water, alternately until Dalemain. After that, when I won't be eating so much food, Mountain Fuel each time. At each checkpoint I drink another cupful or two of fluid and eat one or two hundred calories worth of food, what ever appeals at the moment. I don't carry any food with me up to Dalemain, after that just a packet of ginger biscuits which I can turn to when nothing else seems palatable. I've eaten and drunk both too little and too much in races in the past and I know this approach works for me in a steady 100 miler. I think now the biggest thing about food is not to fret about it. If you're not hungry then don't eat, you'll still get round.

I pass and repass a number of runners on the section up to Grassguards. I seem to be steadier up the hills but they cruise past on the level bits where I'm walking pretty much everything.  After Grassguards we hit the wet; the section of the course that in any year, no matter how dry, you're going to get soggy feet. Except this year I stay dry because as an experiment, knowing we've had a lot of rain in the Lakes recently, I've gone with "Sealskin" waterproof socks (actually the rather cheaper ex-army version for me) and they seem to be working. Finally out of the swamp and over the fence, the tricky little decent down to Penny Hill then along the river to Boot and Checkpoint 2.

"Andy Cole!" I hear as I arrive, it's Drew and Debbie handing out drinks - pretty high-class marshals at some of these stops. I ask how many people still to come, at least twenty, I must be going too fast then, the last handful is where I should be at this stage. More custard creams and chocolate chip cookies, the sort of thing I never eat at home but on an event like this they really seem to hit the spot. Darkness seems to come early tonight and the torch is on as soon as I leave the checkpoint. I stride up the first mile or so of enclosed path followed by some more lights. I ask if they want to come past but they say they're happy with the pace and will just tag along. So I enjoy a sociable leg over to Wasdale Head in the company of Eamon and Steve. We manage to find a bit more wet ground around Burnmoor Tarn outflow but it then dries out over the next hill. I'm happy with 6 hours to Wasdale but this slightly shorter leg has gone quickly and we're there with a quarter of an hour in hand.

I always feel that Coniston to Wasdale is the "warm-up"; the real business starts here, so a bit of sustenance before setting out. The Sunderland Strollers have a good spread so soup, a cheese sandwich and a quick hit of coke and I'm good to go. Eamon and Steve have been much more efficient, I see them leaving several minutes before me; I don't see them again but they finish OK in around 38 and a half hours  -  my sort of runners. I work my way steadily up Black Sail on my own. I can see lights ahead and behind but they're some distance away. I don't like to stop on climbs so I plod away and eventually catch and pass a couple just at the summit. The ground down the other side suits me and I jog down at a casual pace. I overtake several more runners here but I think maybe because I have a better line; their lights are over to the left but I always go by local expert Dave's rule - "stick by the stream, it's the fastest way down".

Almost no moon tonight so I'm pleased to find the footbridge then Black Sail hut springs up suddenly out of the darkness. Steadily up to Scarth Gap; I'm really enjoying the climbs and the rest seems to be going painlessly enough. I know that's going to change soon though for the few hundred yards from the col down to the "gap in the wall" are possibly the roughest on the whole course. I know that following the big cairns will get me there because I came up here again in daylight barely three weeks ago, but with lights all over the place I get distracted and still manage to find the higher gap rather than the correct lower one. Another runner has done the same but it's only a few yards downthe hill to the path and from there it's easy to Buttermere. Gareth and I stay together all the way to Buttermere; we seem to have a similar strategy  -  run only when it's actually easier than walking.

The two big stages on the night shift are a formidable part of the first half of the race, and that's one of them done. I'm 45 minutes ahead of the cutoffs at Buttermere so I don't need to think about them again, it gets easier from here.

Again I set out alone and it stays that way for the long climb up to Sail Pass. The bracken's higher than normal on the first section and I'm glad I haven't brought poles this year, not many places where they would actually have been any help so far, but they're in the bag at Dalemain, ready for the pulls up Fusedale and Gatescarth after some tiredness has set in. Easy going up to Terry's second cairn and the left turn, then steeply up for half a mile or so to the col. A bit of a haul this bit but it's over quite quickly. I've been gaining on the light ahead since we made the last turn; I catch it just before the pass and it turns out to be Gareth again. We find our way down to Braithwaite together; at Barrow Door it gets light and we enjoy a gentle jog all the way down to the village.

I've been guilty of eating too much here in the past so I just have a couple of bowls of rice pudding and a welcome first cup of tea. We have to carry our own cup for hot drinks this year but at the majority of checkpoints they are still using paper cups anyway. It always seems cold when you leave here, so another layer on and down the road. It's good to get Braithwaite behind you, it means the majority of the hard ground and three of the four big climbs are now done, and coming up is a relatively gentle twenty-five miles or so across the Northern section of the course to Dalemain. In my first three starts (only one of which was successful) I used to look on this section as an opportunity to put on a bit of speed and get some time in hand, but I was advised by a wise friend that the best way to treat it is as a time for recovery after the first tough thirty-odd miles, and since then I've heeded his advice and the second half of the race has been much more enjoyable. So I carry on jogging the downhills and walking everything else.

Along the road then the path along the old railway, then coming out by the Pheasant Inn (best steak pie in the world) I see a figure sitting on one of the seats outside the biker cafe; a bit strange at six in the morning. It turns out to be John K who is spending today watching the race then tomorrow learning part of the "Lakes-in-a-Day" route. We chat a minute or two then I ramble on my way and start the climb up Latrigg. Once out of the trees, every time I look back on opening a gate I see a figure in red a hundred yards or so behind. I eventually work out that it's Mike; I expect him to catch me but he doesn't so we each carry on thinking our own thoughts.  I've been having difficulty staying awake since Braithwaite so I just have to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other; the early morning after travelling through a night is never a great time for me, but I can usually shake off the tiredness eventually. At the non-manned check at the sheepfold I shout to two or three runners ahead who have overshot the right turn, which to be fair is today a bit obscured by the much higher than usual bracken. They lose barely a minute or two. On the run-in down the other side to Checkpoint 6 at the Blencathra Centre I manage to catch another two or three runners, so at least I seem to be progressing through the field OK.

Tea, biscuits and several pieces of Dave's Mum's famous chocolate cake and I seem to be coming round again as I set out for Dockray. The first mile or two has changed this year because of the floods, straight down the road to Thelkeld, not as interesting as the old way but easier. A little cluster of us reach the unmanned check under the underpass together, and for the next mile or so I find myself chatting with Peter and Simon. They are from Jersey and are friends of Steve, who I covered quite a few miles of the Dragon's Back with last year; even with the explosion of participation over the last few years, ultra-running is still quite a small world. I pull away up the gradual climb up to and along the first bit of the Old Coach Road, then it's just a steady walk for most of the way to Dockray.

The field's thinning out now (or to be more accurate, most of it is way ahead of me) so every checkpoint is offering almost personal service to every arrival. Have a chair, can I refill your water, what can I get you to eat and drink? We really are being spoiled by these brilliant volunteers. Soup and bread and a cup of tea will do me fine thanks.  The next section to Dalemain is a long one but it starts off with an easy downhill road section, then a beautiful descent through the woods past Aira Force to the start of the lovely traversing path around Gowbarrow.  Somewhere around here I meet John; he's running more often but I'm walking faster so we seem to maintain the same sort of speed. He can tell I know the way so just cruises for a while but then pulls his road book out  - "I have to keep track of where I am in this, otherwise if one of us slows down I'm lost!" Sound reasoning, so he checks off all the decision points as we pass them. On the climb up Gowbarrow we're caught by Billy, who has been my "sweeper" companion on some of the "official" recces this year. Last year he started very slowly but then speeded up to finish in around 33 hours and it seems that his plan is the same today. We wave him through but he says he's happy just to stay with us for the time being.

I haven't been round this way recently so I'm surprised to see many trees in the wooded section after Gowbarrow have been felled, opening up the path and views and drying out the normally sloppy ground underneath. At this point Billy decides it's time to press on so he trots off ahead at around double our speed and is soon out of sight. I warn John of the wet field coming up after the next road crossing; on the recce back in March Billy and I had to help pull a runner who had got stuck up to the knees out of here, but when we get there all the cows have gone, there is a good track through the now knee-high grass and it's more or less completely dry. Always fascinating how this course changes every time you follow it. When we reach the uphill on the road out of Bennethead I'm walking comfortably a bit faster than John so I press on ahead. I don't see him again but he obviously had plenty left because he reaches Coniston about an hour ahead of me.

Dalemain in 19 hours 11 minutes. That's fine, 20 hours would be OK, anything else is a bonus. Now up into 232nd place, which considering there were 345 starters is a bit surprising; there are now over 100 runners either behind me or out. Dalemain is pretty quiet, the L50 runners left hours ago. Here I must remember to change the batteries in the torch, after that it's all relaxation and being waited on again. Tea, pasta, a clean shirt, poles to see me through the second half, a thicker fleece because tonight is forecast colder. I spend far more time than I should here, over half an hour, but it was great at the time.

I see runners in the distance and pass the odd one or two during the long walk through Pooley Bridge and up over Askham Moor, then a bit of jogging and Howtown (Cowtown?  - cowboys everywhere) comes up. This is a place you must not linger; every minute you stay here the next climb up Fusedale, the last big one on the course, grows by at least another hundred feet in your mind. A bit of an instant energy fix for me, haribos and coke, then off up the road. It's not so bad really of course, it's neither as long nor as steep as Sail Pass, but then that was forty-odd miles back when you were relatively fresh. I just get into a rhythm, get the poles working, don't stop and I'm cresting the col by High Kop just on the hour after leaving Howtown. Just after the first wooden post I catch the first (or rather the last) L50 competitor, a lady making her way steadily across the moor. Then it starts to slope downwards and I can jog down to the lake, past Terry's new post and the lonely cairn. I pass a couple of runners at the footbridge who are not sure of the way so I say it's through the gate and take the right-hand option. This is another track which has appeared as a direct result of the Lakeland 50/100 events; the old one was a scrambly affair right by the side of the beck, the new one goes easily down through the bracken, cutting a bit off the corner in the process.

I used to dislike the section along the lake but now I know it better and can recognise the landmarks I find it easier to get my head round. The last time I was here wasn't so long ago, coming in the opposite direction in the "Northern Traverse" event back at the end of May. Just before the junction with the Kidsty Pike path I pass a couple of runners and ask them how it's going. The lady says she's struggling. I carry on to the Mardale Head checkpoint.  This is special for two reasons. First, I feel it's the place where the hard work of the L100 is really cracked; you're three quarters of the way round with all the big climbs done, there are still some ups but they get progressively smaller from here,  it's mostly easy to follow tracks all the way home. Second, it's run by Delamere Spartans; these guys are actually my closest running club at home, I've been wandering around Delamere Forest for over forty years, and I keep promising myself that I'll join and never getting around to it. This year I will  -  if I ever get around to running at a respectable speed again that is!

Soup and a handful of crisps and I decide to take a breather and sit down in their gazebo for five minutes. Nick is there, having to pull out because his knees have given up. It must have been a hard decision because he doesn't stop often - he's already completed 5 Lakeland 100's. The couple that I passed a bit earlier come in. The lady is convinced she's going to stop here. All around her including me try to convince her to wait awhile before making a decision, she has plenty of time left yet. As I leave she seems to be looking a little better. Her name didn't stick but looking over the results I think it must have been Amy  -  who went on to get all the way to Coniston.

People complain about the next climb up Gatescarth, but it's really just steady on a good track, just one foot in front of the other again, as slow as you like but don't stop and it will soon be done. Half way up I catch two L50 ladies, one of whom I recognise as Nici, but I can't remember where we've met. She reminds me that it was on the January night recce from Ambleside to Coniston; there were three or four of us at the back and at one point up on the moor on the last leg from Tilberthwaite we decided to take a breather. We stopped, all turned our lights off and spent just a few minutes enjoying the place with not a light to be seen anywhere in the darkness.

The bonus with Gatescarth is that when you've reached the top, you have a great descent that goes on for miles, barely a hundred yards of slight uphill all the way down to Sadgill, a no-energy cruise all the way. It's this sort of ground where I think cushioned shoes really come into their own; you don't have to concentrate on individual stones, you can just drop your foot down anywhere and let the cushioning do the rest. You have to be a bit more careful with them on bouldery ground to avoid turning an ankle, but there isn't much of that on the L100 so for me it's a small price to pay. I did my last L100 in Hoka Stinsons but over the last couple of years I've changed to Sketchers Gorun Ultras, which for the sort of running I do, and at my rather pedestrian pace, suit me perfectly.

On the hill just after Sadgill I meet Zelia, who has been a fellow marshal with me at numerous recces and last year's event. This year she's decided to have a go at the L50. She's with 73 year-old Donald, who I remember from last year when I did his kit check and then "dibbed in" at the finish. They seem to be going well and I'm sure they'll finish OK (they do). Then up the rest of the climb, I normally resent this one because you sort of feel you've gone far enough to warrant a checkpoint at Sadgill then you still have this non-trivial little up-and-over to get to Kentmere, but today it doesn't seem too bad. Kentmere and darkness arrive at pretty much the same time.

At Kentmere I reach the point that probably hits most people somewhere in a long race, none of the food at the checkpoint looks appealing, so now is the time to pull out the ginger biscuits, my "go-to" nutrition for these eventualities. I drink two cups of tea and eat four biscuits - at 50 calories a go that's good enough to get me up Garburn, otherwise don't waste time but get out into the night. There are two torches just ahead but they seem to be climbing faster so I just wend my way up at my steady plod. Surprisingly, I catch them up shortly over the top of the pass, along with another two or three runners and we set off down. I seem a bit more comfortable going down so I pull ahead, but we catch others and there is a lot of general passing and repassing down here, I guess because it's an easily runnable track and it just depends how tired you are at this stage. By the time we come out onto the road before Troutbeck I seem to have worked my way back to the front of the little band and it stays that way, apart from being passed by one runner going strongly, all the way to Ambleside.

The climb up through Troutbeck and along Robin Lane seems to go on a bit longer than it should, but eventually it levels, and once through High Skelghyll farm it's down hill all the way to Ambleside. All the way that is except the last bit. The one bit of this whole course that really bugs me, unreasonably so I'm sure but that doesn't help, is Old Lake Road. You come down out of the woods and end up on level ground, 50 yards from the main road by the garden centre. From here there is an obvious, safe, and more importantly level footpath along the main road into Ambleside. But instead of the is we have to take a backstreet with poor lighting and no footpath, up a hill then down again, being (hopefully) missed by car drivers who at the time I get there always seemed somewhat surprised to see runners about so late, which gets you to exactly the same place. Rant over.

The Ambleside checkpoint is full of clowns, including another star of earlier L100's Gaynor. Another quickish stop for me though, more tea and ginger biscuits and away. I cover the stretch from Ambleside to Elterwater completely alone, emphasised by the darkness of the virtually moonless night. It's beautiful over Latrigg and a little tedious alongside the river, a wide level path with the only distraction being the sheeps' and cows' eyes picked up in my torch beam. I pass a couple of runners just before Elterwater then catch up three more just coming into Chapel Stile and tag along with them to the checkpoint. I'm ready to eat again here and the beef stew goes down a treat. I set out with the same three guys along the undulating rocky path along the valley. It's good to have some ground you have to concentrate on again after all the straightforward tracks, especially as I'm starting to feel tired and quite sleepy again now. We make quite a good pace (though still walking, you understand!) through to the boggy bit around the campsite and up the little hill to the cattle grid, then the easy track down to Blea Tarn.

The others stop for something here so I set off down. It's light enough for the torch to go on again here. I've done two recces in darkness since I last saw this section in daylight, and I'm surprised at how straightforward it is when you have a broader field of vision. I remember to stay high after leaving the wall and it's only a few yards of paddling across the top of the moss to the Wrynose road and the final non-manned check. No need to keep anything in hand now so jog down the road and along the track to the old house, then a steady walk up the jeep track past all the false summits, to the final jog down the otherside and the final checkpoint at Tilberthwaite.

I vote myself a two or three minute sit-down here, just enough time for a cup of tea and a handful of jelly babies. I'm really not looking forward to the steep climb out of here, but it's the last one so I stick to the plan, one foot in front of the other and don't stop. I haven't really thought about times since I knew I was clear of the cutoffs, but once over the first steep bit I start working out how long I might be from the finish. It's interesting enough so I push on a bit across the less steep ground up to the final col. I look at the watch here. If I can get down in half an hour, and if I've remembered my other times correctly, I'll be close to my previous best.

I can do the steeper stuff down to the old miners' cottages so I make the most of it, clattering down at a respectable pace. I'm not so sure when I reach the gravel road, a bit more effort required, but I manage a slightly-better-than-jog, then when it gets steeper near the bottom and onto the tarmac the gradient speeds me up nicely. Outside the Black Bull I see Terry, I'm pleased I'm still running to put on a bit of a show "Well run that man!" is his comment as I pass. I manage to run uphill past the petrol station (my first uphill run of the whole trip), then it's down the road to the school and done.

37:29:01 The best of my three finishes. Only by eight minutes or so, but at this stage in my career I'll take it, thanks.  Apart from a couple of periods of sleepiness I felt pretty sound the whole trip. I'll probably be back. Maybe not next year (time to marshal again I think, it's a lot of fun) but sometime.

Thanks to Marc, Terry and all the gang for putting on an event that just keeps going from strength to strength, and to all the brilliant checkpoint crews for being so helpful, friendly.......and entertaining!

After a hundred miles with no ill effects I was sure my hamstring was cured. I sensibly waited until the following Wednesday before going out for a very gentle four mile run. After three miles it was tight again, enough for me to stop. UTMB in three weeks time now. Ah well, I guess that's another longish walk then.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Views on Shoes (part 2!)

I posted a piece under this title (apart from the "part 2" bit) back in October 2012. The stats show that it's been the sixth most read of the roughly 200 posts I've put on this blog since I started back in 2009, so it must have stirred some interest among a few hundred people at least. Well, in the nearly 4 years since then things have moved on as it were. I've got older and slower, covered a few more miles and run a few more races, learned a bit more from a lot more mistakes. Shoe makers have progressed, proliferated, given us more choice, sometimes more help and often more confusion. And the debate and rhetoric is rising once more, so maybe time for me to throw in my two penn'orth again.

But who is this guy who dares to have a view on shoe choice you may rightly ask? An ageing pedestrian whose best years are clearly behind him, and even back whenever whose best performance was probably a not too special 35th place in the Lakeland 50, no real pedigree at all, haven't we far more accomplished practitioners to heed? You're right of course, so I'll start with a few words of defence.

1. How the top guys experience training and racing is a world away from how I do it. There are good reasons for this which we'll come to later, but it does mean that advice from them to me (and there are a lot of people down my end of the field) may not be all that relevant.

2. You'll know if you've read any of my more "technical" posts before that I like to try and get into the basic engineering of why things work, in fairly simple terms. Equipment manufacturers, either because they think we're not intelligent enough or maybe for other reasons, often don't explain this. Now you may disagree with my conclusions but if what I have to say prompts you to think things through a bit more logically that's a good enough result.

3. I enjoy doing this stuff and if you don't like reading it then you don't have to. I won't be offended.

So let's get back to shoes.

What do we actually need?

Let's start with a bit of history. I'm old enough now that some of it can come from me. When I was a schoolboy athlete I ran on the track in spiked shoes with wafer-thin leather soles, long spikes for grass tracks, shorter ones for cinders (no tartan tracks then of course). Everything else, roads, cross-country and so on was done in gym shoes (canvas tops, flat rubber soles). You slid about a bit if it was muddy but it encouraged a sense of balance to avoid too many face down excursions. When I went to university in 1967, the cool thing everyone wore around town were desert boots (and if you can remember those you're nearly as old as me). It wasn't until a few years later that the style of shoe we now know generically as "trainers" landed.

I started climbing around then, and it was the conventional thing to walk up to the crag in bendy, vibram-soled walking boots (which were also used for rock climbing in all the lower grades), but then trainers came along and we found that walk-ups could be done just as comfortably in this new style of footwear. And if you were going to walk up to Sca Fell Crag or Cloggy in trainers, then the logical next step was to use them for all hill walking unless there was any deep snow around. The term "walking" of course just meant travelling around at the best speed you could, which generally meant walking up and running down. Our climbing club had an annual outing around the Welsh 3000's, traditionally taking in Bristly Ridge on Glyder Fach and the North Ridge and Traverse of Crib Goch. The faster guys would get around in times which would be respectable even by modern standards, and we were all wearing either boots or what would nowadays be called  "road shoes".

If you want a bit of more general history, consider these two bits of information. Billy Bland set the (as yet still unbroken) record for the Bob Graham Round in 1982. Pete Bland developed the sole considered to be the forerunner of all modern fell shoes in 1985.

The point of all this of course is to stress that while the nice shoe designs we have nowadays may be helpful, people were travelling around the fells at fair speeds long before any of them were invented. So no particular shoe design is "necessary"; the only real requirements are a reasonable sense of balance, an ability to put your feet in the right places and a head that can deal with being on steep ground. If you don't have these then no shoe is going to be able to compensate. I'm personally puzzled by events that specify what type of shoe you have to wear. I can only assume that it is governed by some insurance requirement to stop the organisers being sued (well, you fell over and broke your leg but you were wearing the right shoes so that's OK).  If so, I think it's just another example of a problem (my view of course) associated with too many outdoor sports these days, where too much attention is focussed on what equipment is carried or worn, and too little on the protagonist's ability to use it. But I'll get off that hobby horse now and back to the subject.

So we've established that basically you could do any event in any footwear. Now, how does the range that we have on offer nowadays make life better, and how do you make a choice?

What are shoes designed to do?

Well, different shoes are designed to meet the needs of different runners, participating in different styles of running, over different ground. Let's start with the ground. Depending on what style of training and events is your particular bag, you might over the course of a running year have to deal with:

Smooth gravel trails (wheelchair and road bike friendly)
Stonier roads and jeep tracks (think Old Coach Road or Lairig Mor)
Typical UK "mountain" paths (stones, odd boulders, bits of mud and grass, etc)
Boulder fields (think top of the Scafell Pikes, Glyder Fach, etc)
Simple rocky scrambling (Sca Fell, Tryfan, Crib Goch)
Sloping mud and steep grass
Tussocks, heather and other similar nasties
Wet ground (ankle deep)
Boggy ground (knee deep or worse)
Beach sand
Dune sand

Shall I go on? I'm sure you could think of more, but the point is that all these are different, and the "hard" surfaces are different again whether they are wet or dry. No one shoe is going to perform well on all of these, so what we see now is that the shoes we have available have become more specialised to deal with a small selection of these conditions. 

I could ramble on now about there being equally lengthy lists covering the variety in types of event and type of runner, all having a different impact on shoe design, but I think you probably get the picture. It's complicated. So what we need is a set of criteria against which we can judge what our needs are for a particular project, or for our running in general. There are again many to choose from but I'll ignore some (like do you need a shoe colour to match your overall style palette..) and go for the ones that make sense to me.

Criteria for shoe design

1. Grip

Staying upright, making progress over the ground, staying in control down hills are essential parts of the game so grip is important. But no one sole will give you good grip everywhere, Studs are great on ground where they can dig in, grass, mud, etc (particularly when it's wet) but when you're going to be landing on a hard surface (rocks and stones) grip comes from friction, and here the more rubber you can get down the better (think of the F1 guys). This is why "trail shoes" have evolved with a larger contact area than fell shoes - most trails, particularly in continental Europe and North America (markets that many shoe designers are aiming for) are hard packed and usually dry. Bog, heather and near vertical grass are rather more British specialities.

2. Stability

By stability I mean what does the shoe do when you put it down on a surface that isn't horizontal (either in the direction of travel, across it, or most likely at some sort of diagonal angle). Does it hold your foot solid relative to the footprint, or does your foot lurch off in the direction of the slope, banging your toes into the front of the shoe or threatening to turn your ankle. Two main things contribute to stability, the closeness of the fit and the distance between the underside of your foot and the ground. The former depends on whether you can find a shoe of your chosen design to fit your foot, but the second depends on the depth of the shoe base  - the combined thickness of insole, midsole and tread. The deeper the base, the bigger the rotational force your foot will experience; this is regardless of grip, it's just about geometry and mechanics. Thin soled shoes are much more stable than deep soled ones.

3. Cushioning

There has been mountains of debate in recent years about minimal shoes, deeply cushioned shoes and everything in between. Every style has its evangelists but I'm clear that there is no one right answer. What the engineering tells you however is that every time you put your foot down it has to dissipate an amount energy which will be determined  by your speed, weight, cadence, and so on. You can't get away from this, this amount of energy is fixed and has to be absorbed somewhere. What you can do though is to change the time over which it is absorbed  -  energy is a force applied over a time, so if you can increase the time then you decrease the force transmitted back up through your foot and leg, and it is these forces that wear us out over the long term. You increase the time by putting some suspension (springs) into the system so the force has to work against the springs and operates more slowly. Again, think of the car analogy.

Minimal shoe runners adjust their gait to achieve a light, progressive footfall, so the springs are provided entirely by the leg muscles. The rest of us do this to certain extent but less expertly, so we either get battered feet or help ourselves a bit by using a spring in the sole of our shoes  -  cushioning. As we land the cushioning in the sole compresses, absorbing energy, then as we take off it expands again, giving us a bit back (don't be fooled, you never get anywhere near all the energy back either from your muscles or your shoe  -  life's cruel that way).

4. Water absorption

This may seem a fringe issue (well, all shoes get wet, don't they?) but I've observed that a major factor in runners not being able to complete longer races, particularly in our UK conditions, is foot problems initiated and/or exascerbated by continually wet feet. Wet feet for twelve or fifteen hours don't normally hurt anyone, but take that on into two or three days or more and blisters, trenchfoot and so on become real problems. The key design feature here is how much water a shoe retains once it has got wet, Unless you're very unlucky, periods of rain or wet sections on the course are transient and then you get to a dryer section. If your shoes retain relatively little water you can just change into dry socks and away you go; but if your shoes hold water they immediately wet out any dry socks and you're back to square one.

Some modern shoe designs are extremely comfortable because of all the padding on the uppers, but these are the very designs that hold the most water. Try some experiments weighing various shoes dry and fully wet and you'll see what I mean.  

(Events in which you can guarantee to meet wet ground almost continuously for days  on end (such as the Pennine Way) need a bit of specialist thinking so I'm excluding them here. There are experts around and I'm certainly not one of them)

So these are my significant criteria. It's just a question of choosing a shoe using these and we're sorted? Well actually no, because you will have seen already that there are some pretty big incompatibilities here, and as with anything, design is always a question of finding the best compromises for the job. Let's look first at the trade-offs.


There are a lot, but I think it's really only worth  concentrating on the three bigs ones, which are

1. You can't have a perfect grip on all surfaces. As we covered earlier grip on grass needs studs and grip on rock needs rubber. 

2. You can't have good cushioning and good stability. Cushioning increases the sole depth, which directly decreases stability.

3. If it's wet, you can't have upper shoe comfort and dry feet.

The runner

So far we've only talked  about the shoe in isolation, but equally important is the runner's shape, ability and ambitions.

Foot Shape

I posted another piece back in November 2013 entitled "Bad News and Blisters" which is another one that has has a lot of views (in fact it's my third most read ever) in which I claimed that the most important thing about any shoe choice is that they fit your foot. I have a slight reservation on this nowadays which I'll explain later but it's still a good base to work from. If you are recommended, or pre-select, a design which on try-out you find is too wide, too narrow, too tight or loose on the instep, etc for you, then probably the best thing to do is try something else.

Ability and Ambition

If you look at the results of most major ultras, the difference in finish time between the leading finishers and the back of the pack is normally a factor of around two, sometimes even more. If the winner of the Lakeland 50 gets home in 8 hours and another competitor takes 15, then it's not just that the winner is a better runner, he(or she) is playing a completely different game. It's the difference between running a 9 and a half minute mile average (and by inference a lot faster than this on the downs and flats) and a long walk. I would be really surprised if the same shoes were equally suitable for both competitors to get the most out of their day. Stability and grip become paramount when you're flying down rocky ground, comfort is probably far more important after a longish but fairly pedestrian day on your feet.

So choose your weapon.

As I said in my earlier post back in 2012, I'm not going to translate this thinking into a recommended brand of shoes, because it should be clear even from getting this far that there is no "one size fits all" answer. It used to annoy me when I saw runners making specific recommendations, even for individual races; "shoe X is definitely the best. shoe Y is unbeatable, and so on". Now I see it so often that I just let it pass. But if runners do seek recommendations from others who have experience of a particular shoe "in the field" I think it would be far more helpful to them  to ask specific questions rather than just "how good is it?" "What's the grip like on wet/dry rock,? how stable on technical ground?" etc might be better questions.

So all I'm going to do here is to put up a few scenarios about how I now go about choosing shoes. Everyone will be different from me and will reach different conclusions, but there's no reason why the thought process shouldn't work for everyone.

As an aside, this will lead to an assumption that most runners will have a range of shoes available for different races (depending on the range of events that interest you). If you're not at that point already I think you should consider it; the long term cost is no different (think about that one for a moment if you initially don't agree).

To illustrate my thinking I'll try to refer to well known events that many runners will have some experience of; my natural preference is for hilly events these days but that's just because I can't run very fast, still there should be enough for you to get the idea. Unless the event has specific difficulties with for example a lot of wet ground, the two most important factors for me are how long is the event and how much technical ground it has. 

Something like the Scafell Pike marathon is a no-brainer; only twenty six miles but getting on for twenty of that is technical ground (It's difficult to define "technical", it tends to mean different things to different people, but let me have a shot and say that it means ground where you have to make an individual decision about each footfall, and most footfalls will impose some sort of lateral force on your foot). So for this race I would choose a shoe with good wet/dry rock grip and good stability. I wouldn't be too bothered about cushioning because (a) it's not all that useful on this type of ground, and (b) I'm only going to be out for 6 hours or so, so quite happy to put up with a bit of battering. Last time I did it I wore Speedcross which I'm still using now, but I'm considering a move back to one of the Innovates which seem to have come on a bit recently (I tried Rocklites about 6-7 years ago and found that I enjoyed them but couldn't last more than 20 miles without their hurting my feet, but both my running style and shoe designs have changed quite a bit since them). I'm also looking around for a stable shoe that gets a bit more rubber down for events that feature a lot more rock and scrambling sections. The pleasure that you get from moving over rocky ground in stable, grippy shoes makes using anything else to seem like driving a truck after a sports car. But for those of us a long way from the top of this particular game, the problem is that we can't keep it up for long  -  for me, the daylight hours of a long summer's day is about all I can do, any more and my feet are wrecked.

At the other end of the scale perhaps is the West Highland Way race, 95 miles of dry, hard-packed trail with maybe 7 or 8 miles of technical ground in total, the remainder very easy underfoot. I would never go with anything other than well-cushioned shoes on here, my favourite these days are Skechers Gorun Ultra. These shoes are actually too wide for me across the front but fit well everywhere else, so I'm happy to compromise and place my feet a bit more carefully where it's rocky. 

I think it's important to make some sort of objective assessment of the ground in any race before making a shoe choice. For example both the UTMB and the Tor des Geants have reputations for being nearly as hard as they come, but this is due to the length, climbing and altitudes involved. Underfoot they are both on well constructed, easy paths, so cushioned shoes are a no-brainer for me. 

The Lakeland 100 is a hard one to judge. It has a reputation for being a big, gnarly 100-miler, maybe the toughest in the UK. This is possibly justified, but if you look at the ground underfoot it has some short sections of  technical trail, maybe amounting to 10 miles in total, otherwise the predominating feature is long, stony but straightforward paths and jeep-tracks, the sort of terrain where for me cushioning really pays off, particularly in the second half. If a drop bag was available at Braithwaite, 30 miles in with most of the technical stuff done, I would be tempted to go for stable shoes at the start and change to cushioned there, but as it is I'm happy to go with cushioned from the start. 

The compromise you make is to be a bit more careful (ie slower) on ground where you might turn an ankle, but at my pace this doesn't cost a lot of time in the overall scheme of things. 

I've completed the race in road shoes (Asics Nimbus) and Hoka Stinsons in the past. This year I'll probably go with the Skechers. The real payback comes on all the easy stony paths and road sections (all of leg 1, nearly all of Braithwaite to Dalemain, Gatescarth, Garburn, most of Troutbeck to Chapel Stile, etc) where you can cruise along in comfort without having to concentrate too hard. But then I'm never completing this event at more than a 3mph average -  if I had ambitions in the 25-30 hour range I might choose different shoes.

Events with both lots of technical ground and lots of "grass and track" are harder to call, but some of them have retrievable dropbag options that allow you to change shoes, usually into cushioned ones later in the event. This works well on the Lakes 10 Peaks (change at Honister) and Lakes in a Day (change at Ambleside).

In 2012 I had converted to Hokas for a cushioned option but they were really still in their infancy. They've come on a lot since then with many different designs, generally trading cushion for a bit more stability. I still keep one pair on the go (last ones Rapa Nui, now moved on to Speedgoats), because although they always feel a bit heavier and less manoeverable than the Skechers (and nearly twice the price!) they've gradually grown to cope with wet ground a bit better, with more resistant uppers just above the sole area and less padding - Hoka are obviously learning from European feedback where Skechers are clearly designed for the dusty dry trails of North America. The only problem with Hokas (within this "cushioned" category) is that they have never overcome the poor grip problem, get them on steep wet grass and it's never a completely certain experience. I found the Rapa Nuis to be a good choice on Day 3 of the Dragon's Back, keeping dry and comfortable feet without too much performance compromise.

I seem to have banged on a lot about cushioned shoes, but I guess that's because I wear them a lot. I'm not trying to convert anyone, just explaining why I do what I do. I see quite a few runners wearing cushioned shoes at events these days, but also many (probably the majority) who do not. But I also read a lot on forums of runners who have finished events in various degrees of foot pain and believed that's just the way it has to be. I don't think it is; remember, we do this for fun.

So that's it then. No magic answers, just I hope a few ideas that may prompt a bit more logical thought on shoe choice. I'm happy to be shot at as always.