Thursday, 31 December 2009

2009 and all that

We're at the time when seasoned bloggers do their review of the year, and although I'm still a beginner having only started in July I didn't feel that I could escape the deal. I wondered if it wasn't really my thing because the year is already fading from my near consciousness and I'm thinking more about what is to come than what has been, but I found deliberately looking back triggered a lot of memories and overall it's been a more enjoyable task than I was expecting.

First, the blog. I've no idea how many people read these ramblings but I've enjoyed writing it and I'm sure it's been good for me to try to crystallise my random thoughts from time to time, and it gives me something to look back on if nothing else. I'll carry on for another year at least, to get in a full calendar season and try to get some overall perspective. Same pattern as this year, not many blow-by-blow accounts of training sessions, just events or days out that I've found good experiences and occasional other stuff that interests me.

Next, the people. I have already met a lot of amazing characters since taking up this rather questionable sport three years ago, but this year has been especially rich in new acquaintances and getting to know people I only half knew, or those I had only met in the ether. But of course we lost Dario; I neither knew him as well nor could I write of him as eloquently as his close friends have, but he always talked warmly and at length with me and my family whenever we saw him, and he was instrumental in getting me into this game in the first place for which I will always be grateful. I'll think of him whenever I set foot on the West Highland Way.

Now I suppose the running. I set my sights on 9 races this year ranging from half marathon distance to a hundred miles plus, starting in March with the Wuthering Hike and finishing in December at the Rotherham Round, but the latter was moved to a date in October I couldn't make so I ended up running just 8. I chose them not for any rational athletic reasons but because I thought, or in some cases already knew, that they would be good days out. The year started well in Haworth where I knocked just over 4 minutes off my best time for the Wuthering Hike - not a lot in a hilly 32 miles but good enough to let the senior citzen know that he hasn't become completely decrepit since last year. The next two races were in pure performance terms the best of the year for me. I started the Rotterdam Marathon with the intention of just enjoying the day; in perfect running conditions I looked at my watch just twice, once at half way and once at 10k to go, finishing in a "where did that come from?" time of 3 hours 17 minutes, faster than my previous best by over 7 minutes. I have to be honest at my age I don't expect to beat or even come near this ever again. In the Highland Fling in April I set myself a challenging (for me) target of 10 hours 36 minutes (ie 5 miles an hour average) and came home in 10-23. My warm glow at the finish was only slightly tempered by not winning the over 60's class in spite of beating the previous record by over three quarters of an hour  -  reality is always there to put you back in your place when you get too full of yourself! Again, I don't expect to beat this time in the future.

The West Highland Way came next, and although 24-44 beat my previous best by nearly two hours I was still a bit disappointed not to get in just under the 24. I think I can still improve here though, I'm convinced that in the longer races a bit of experience (or is it just low cunning) can pay off. The Devil o'the Highlands was great for me for three reasons; it's a wonderful fast course (the WHW without the messy bits), it was good to join the "triple crown" band (runners who have completed the Fling, Devil, and WHW in the same year), and my time of 7-39 felt very comfortable as I was running conservatively in view of the upcoming UTMB. I think I could knock a chunk off this, but the need to find a support crew and to commit to the race so early the previous year because of its popularity probably means I won't run it again for a while. As in previous years my next race the UTMB was a real disappointment, the big one got away again when I dropped out about two thirds of the way round. It remains the only ultra where I have recorded a "Did Not Finish" (three times!) but I'll be back again in 2010 if I can get a place in the ballot.

My final two races were family affairs. We always go to the Great North Run in Newcastle, and after a summer of running slowly up and down hills my time of nearly 1-37 was certainly not sparkling (barely a minute faster than my second half split in the Rotterdam Marathon earlier in the year) but it was fun. So was running the Amsterdam Marathon a month later where I finished in 3-51. The move of the Rotherham Round was really a shame for me, this 50 mile feast of mud, rain and darkness in December had been a highlight of the two previous years, so after Amsterdam in mid October the events were done, and I spent the rest of the year just ticking over and scoping some potential events for next year.

I've just read John K's blog on his own review of the year and while I'm nowhere near as organised I found some of the statistics fascinating, so I've trawled through my diary to find a few of my own. In the year I ran a total of 2207 miles, probably more than I need to and I'll aim for no more than 2000 next year, but it's how they are built up that's interesting. John ran 2326 miles, but only ran over 20 miles on 15 occasions including races, whereas I ran over 20 miles 28 times, including 11 times over 30 miles. Now JK's a far and away better runner than me, but his figures seem to show that you can produce some pretty good ultra performances without doing too many long runs. On the flip side, I like long days out in the hills, they seem more like fun than training, and I have the time to indulge myself, so come the longer daylight I expect I'll be out there doing just the same next year!

But these are just figures. The events are rewarding experiences and they give us focus, but there was much, much more to 2009 than that. I have a hundred memories that I will treasure; of surprising the same pair of walkers three times on Snowdon on the same day, of the fiery furnace that was the Nantlle Ridge in early summer (yes, Wales!), of clattering down Steel Fell at a speed I thought was now beyond me with a companion who I had met a few short hours earlier, of the hundreds of people who gathered to wish Dario farewell, of the Anglesey coast path on a calm clear early morning, of meeting the dawn on the Col de la Seigne, of discovering parts of the Lake District I never knew existed, of my son's elation as we crossed the finishing line together in Amsterdam, and of running on the near-deserted roads two evenings before Christmas, snowflakes falling gently through the glow of the streetlights, my feet silently making the only marks on the shallow fresh carpet beneath, content.

Yes, a good enough year. But of course, next year will be better.....

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Running's OK

I went for a run yesterday morning; 5 miles, flat, no great scenery, a gloomy day with gentle drizzle, nine and a half minutes a mile. It was great.

They say that Ron Hill has run every day for 50 years or so; I don't know how he does it. I had been getting out regularly but the niggles that come with years and miles were getting at me. Nothing show-stopping, just an ache here, a pain there, a bit of stiffness, the first trip downstairs in the morning getting harder. Come on, you're just being a wimp, get on with it. Then three Sundays ago I was out for 20 miles on one of my local trails on a day of continuous rain following several days of continuous rain, you remember how it was then for most of the country. I finished with mud up to the knees, every square centimeter of clothing soaked, hurting all over. I had to sit and shiver in the car for ten minutes to warm up before driving the the five miles home. I oozed out and into a hot bath for a soak and a think. I can't do this, I need a rest.

I decided to have two weeks off, something I haven't done for over two years. The relief at not having to go out again in the rain was wonderful. But it's amazing how the memory fades, after a week I was itching to get running. No, I told myself, two weeks was the deal, stick to it. It wasn't too difficult in the second week, I had to have a tooth out, a couple of days later the first Christmas Lunch of the season with a bunch of old work colleagues, plenty of wine and banter, none of this condusive to running. Then yesterday I had to have the car serviced, 120,000 miles in just four years, where does it all go? So I drove down to the garage and ran back, a mile and a half on suburban roads, three and a half on canal towpath, not a route I would normally choose.

It was fine. Enthusiasm has returned. But rather gently back to more miles I think, I'll go with Keith the Aussie's words - "I'd rather turn up under-trained than over-injured." 

Monday, 7 December 2009

Getting to go

No action in this post I'm afraid, just a bit of reflection -  so you've been warned if you stick with it!

This week I got confirmation that I have a place in two of the events I was hoping to participate in next year, the West Highland Way race and the LDWA "Heart of Scotland" hundred. Although I had sort of assumed that my entry for both of these would be OK (the statistics are definitely in the entrant's favour, so the hotels for the WHW were booked in September!), it still comes as something of  a relief that the plans are going to work. It set me thinking about just how the maximum number of entrants in any event is arrived at and then how any potential oversubscription is managed. I'm certainly not about to complain that this or that event organiser does it wrong, I am more than grateful that they spend so much of their time setting up challenging and enjoyable adventures for us, but it is a subject that has caused some heated debate over the last year or two and I think it's interesting to reflect on how and why we have got to where we are now. I still have some uncertainty for next year because I decided in August that I wanted another go at the UTMB (of course!) but I won't find out whether I have a place until late January - should I feel dissatisfied with this situation or is it inevitable?

When I started running ultras three years ago there was no problem. I entered the West Highland Way about six weeks after entries opened and was I think about number twenty on the accepted entries list; it didn't fill up until after Christmas. Even for the UTMB it took a month or so before the number of available places was filled. However there seems to have been an explosion of interest in ultra running over the last couple of years or so; nowadays for popular events you have to add a third journey to the two that the wise old heads told me were involved in long races (getting to the start line in good enough shape, then doing the event)  -  getting yourself on the start list.

So what governs how many runners an event will comfortably stand?

I think the first consideration is the physical constriction of the actual trail you run; predominantly the width but also pinchpoints such as stiles, gates and so on. There is no doubt that the superb organisation of the UTMB could support a lot more participants  -  after all they manage to run three other major events in the same place at the same time  -  but with the present numbers the trail is simply full. This year I started somewhere near the back because I didn't want to stand out in the sun for an hour or so, and it was over ten minutes after the start before I could progress at anything above a slow walking pace, more like the start of a big city marathon than a trail race. Overtaking is hard work for the first few hours because you have to move off the trail to get around people.

But most events don't attract antwhere near the 2000+ starters of the UTMB, so how are they limited? There is a distinct difference here between events where you don't need a support crew (ie the checkpoint marshalls provide water and maybe food, and there could be a "drop bag" facility, but apart from that you are basically on your own from start to finish) and those where you do. Many of the "unsupported" events in the UK, particularly those that run through (relatively!) benign territory seem to get by without restricting numbers, for example the Wuthering Hike in Yorkshire and the Rotherham Round draw two or three hundred competitors which the trails will absorb easily enough, so they seem happy to accept entries up to the day of the race. Longer unsupported events such as the Lakeland 100 would probably hit a limit if and when the numbers started to cause problems to either the overall organisation or the local residents, but they don't seem to be anywhere near that yet.

Supported events are a different deal. Each runner has to have a support crew, and the support crew has to have a car. This takes a bit of work off the shoulders of the organisers, as they don't have to provide food and drink at regular intervals, but the consequence is a lot of cars fighting for space on often narrow roads and restricted parking spaces. Inevitably the numbers that can be allowed in the race will be a lot fewer. Don't get me wrong, I'm not against this style of race, it's just that it's different. Good for the competitor, who can have exactly the food and drink that suits them and don/shed clothing at each checkpoint rather than carrying everything you might need from start to finish. Races like this are great to run in because you carry a minimum of stuff, you get personal encouragement all the way, and they produce oustanding times. In a race like the West Highland Way which sees a high proportion of runners coming back year after year you get the added advantage that the support crews get to know each other too, which contributes to making it the special event that it is. But not so many people will get to run.

I could argue that specifying (or allowing) support crews in shorter events (say around 50 miles or less) may restrict numbers unnecessarily in races which can be run quite easily using drop bags or basic food/water at checkpoints, as they are normally completed within one phase of daylight. The counter argument is that these are the very races in which runners may be "trying out" ultra running and so feel happier with some support in their early attempts.

Whatever, if these are the limiting factors on numbers, how do you choose who gets a place? It used to be "first come first served" but when interested numbers greatly exceed places this may not be fair. The first time I entered the UTMB I had never run an ultra of any sort, but was accepted because I got my entry in relatively early and there was no entry qualification; I probably had an almost zero chance of finishing (I didn't of course) and may well have denied a place to someone much better qualified.  A couple of years ago this event reached the stage where whether you got in or not was probably dependant on how fast your broadband connection was. But we've moved on, and most oversubscribed races nowadays seem to have settled for a modified form of the entry system used in the popular American ultras; a fixed "window" for sending in your entry, from a couple of weeks to a few months, followed by a ballot if demand exceeds supply.  A qualification may be required, mostly as a demonstration that you are potentially capable of a finish, and the ballot may be weighted or bypassed to give preference to (eg) newcomers, foreign competitors, or long time supporters of the event.

So overall I think the principle is difficult for anyone to complain about, and if you don't like the details of how it is applied to a particular event, you always have the option of going somewhere else - there are plenty of races to choose from now!

This last thought is also interesting. Am I imagining it, or does it seem to be getting slightly easier to get your place lately? A lot of new events seem to have sprung up to spread the demand caused by the increase in ultra runner numbers. This is clearly the policy of the Chamonix guys, providing four events now where there was originally one so more people can join the party overall. Are we about to get into a period where entry levels in the traditionally popular races start to drop, as runners turn to events where they can get guaranteed places?

It will be interesting to see how things develop over the next year or two.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Low Down in the Lakes

A few weeks ago, fired with enthusiasm by reading Jez Bragg's account of this year's Lakeland 100, I put my name on the entry list for 2010. The event is modelled on the UTMB, and indeed the concept is similar; you start in a valley, climb over a col and get to another valley, climb over another col and get to another valley, repeat until you're tired, carry on repeating until you're very tired, carry on repeating..................well, you get the picture. It all adds up to a circular tour of the Lake District starting and finishing at Coniston, just over 100 miles in length and just under 23,000 feet of ascent. The 2010 date is five weeks after the WHW and five weeks before the UTMB, so even assuming I get into either of those two it should still be OK (ish).

But when I first set out from Milngavie on the Highland Fling, my first ultra all those years ago (or was it just in April 2007?), I felt that I already knew the West Highland Way route despite never having trodden a yard of it. I had shared the tracks, the rocky lochside, the climbs, the loneliness of Rannoch Moor, the darkness of the forest, the highs and lows of the journey, the despairs and triumphs of a dozen or more runners via their racetales from previous years. The Lakeland 100 is too new to have such a wealth of literature, and while he's a great guy and writes a good story, Jez's tale will never reflect the experience likely to be had by a shuffler like me near the other end of the field. I thought I should get out on the trail and find out what I've let myself in for. Of the 15 sections that make up the course I've covered 11 over the past few weeks, and I already knew most of the rest. I called it a day the week before last, when the shortening days made a trip to the Lakes a rather rushed affair  -  a decision reinforced by the dramatic weather conditions in the area over the past few days.

So what have I learned? Well firstly, the route takes you to some beautiful corners of the Lakes that you're unlikely to see as a climber, peak bagger, or even Bob Graham aspirant. I would never have visited the lonely Burnmoor Tarn, traversed the quiet valleys from Buttermere to Braithwaite, or reached as far east as Mardale and Longsleddale without the prompting of this event. OK, it was October/November but I rarely saw another person on my days out, and they were all rewarding even if the weather hardly ever matched the scenery.

Secondly, although perhaps not actually tougher than the UTMB as the route planners claim, this is definitely a big and burly 100 miler. It's a full 100 (I think nearer 105), and the climbs while never individually daunting keep coming right to the finish, but above all it's the ground underfoot that makes this a tough deal. Stony tracks, boulder hopping, slippery steep grass, knee-deep bog, it's got a fair share of everything, and there are long sections where you need to pay attention to each footfall which makes it mentally as well as physically taxing. A big plus though is that the checkpoints are never more than about 6 miles apart, and most of them offer some sort of food and drink, so it should be possible to "just think of the next few miles" when the going gets tough.

The route seems to divide naturally into three main parts with different characters. The first part from Coniston to Braithwaite (sections 1-5, about 34 miles) has the toughest ground, most of the tricky navigation, and most runners will do over half of it in the dark. 30% of the total distance but 40% of the climbing. Rough paths and boulder-strewn hillsides, with an expanse of open moor from Eskdale to Wasdale and a series of easily missable path junctions on the final stretch to Braithwaite. No easy going but if you work too hard you won't be able to cash in on the more easily runnable sections later on. And in the dark, if you don't have your compass or GPS out regularly here you either know the way like the back of your hand or you're with someone who does! I think if you can make it to Braithwaite in good shape you're in with a chance of getting round.

The next part from Braithwaite to Howtown (sections 6-9, about 33 miles) is a cruise if you've saved some energy. Daylight, easy to follow tracks, gentle climbs. A few messy bits here and there, maybe not great psychologically because you're starting to tire and feel you're still going in the "wrong direction", but physically easy going.

After Howtown there is a steady climb up to the high point of the course as you cross the High Street range and some great grassy running down to Haweswater if you still have the legs and your navigation's OK. A few miles along the lake to Mardale Head and this is where the final attritional 30 miles kicks in. From here to the start of the final section at Tilberthwaite there are no real navigational problems, just miles of stony jeep tracks, climbs in a seemingly unending progression, and of course it's now dark again. The sting in the tail is up from Tilberthwaite quarry to a rough fell path difficult to follow in daylight until the well-defined valley leading to the final col is reached, and the (inevitably) stony descent down to the finish.

I've put a lot of waypoints into my GPS!

Rain (July is statistically not great for the Lake District and both runnings of the event to date have been wet) makes the route much harder, turning tracks into streams and bouldery paths into slippery nightmares. Shoe choice will be hard in the dry and harder in the wet. I'm normally a road shoes fan but if you wear them over the first third in the wet you'll fall over a lot (I tried and did), and the continual pounding of the stony tracks all round will test the cushioning of even road shoes before the end. You're allowed a drop bag at 50 miles so I might even consider lightweight boots for the second half.

So that's about it for now. I'll renew my relationship with the Lakes when the days start to lengthen again. Am I looking forward to the Lakeland 100 (the "Ultra Tour of the Lake District"), and 36 hours or so of hills, mist, dark, bogs and stones, aching limbs, sore feet, sleep deprivation, exhaustion, and probably a comprehensive soaking as well?  Can't wait.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Taking it Easy?

November. Dark evenings and gloomy afternoons. For the past couple of years this season has seen me preparing for the Rotherham Round in early December, 50 miles of mud, fallen leaves, rain, fast approaching darkness and the wonderful people of South Yorkshire who make it such a great event. This year it's been and gone though, held in October, and left a bit of a hole where it used to be. No events planned for me until next spring, just done my two thousand miles for the year, seven weeks earlier than last year so I must have been diligent at some time, but it's been getting difficult to raise the enthusiasm to get out and work at it. Tempo runs, recovery runs, just-doing-some-miles runs, I can't really be bothered. I'm not doing what our family calls the Lance Armstrong days (read his book). The feeling first hit me about three weeks ago; perhaps I just needed a break.

But one of the advantages of being past your period of gainful employment is that there is always the time to mould things to your mood. I decided that anything that I wasn't enjoying I wouldn't do, and that anything I was enjoying, I might as well do a little bit more.

Ever since early March I have had one day a week out in the hills to get used to ascents; I don't go fast, I mostly walk the ups and jog the downs and the flats. To start with it was pure training; the Clwyds, my local hills, have an accessible thousand foot vertical at best, some days I went up and down four or five times; Llanberis is just under an hour's drive, I think I went up Snowdon a dozen times this year. But then I started to venture further afield, and took the time to navigate around places I'd never been before, both in Wales and now more often the Lakes, a bit further to drive but with such a wealth of stunning countryside. I was going to give up for the winter but recently decided to carry on; I bought myself a GPS and decided that wild weather was to be enjoyed not avoided. I'm "learning" the routes of the Bob Graham Round and the Lakeland 100 and now eagerly anticipating and planning each week with the next bit of new ground to cover.

Closer to home I have some beautiful runnable trails through forest, farmland, and over the low sandstone hills of Cheshire. It's hard work if you go fast, but if I take myself out for two or three hours at 10-11 minute mile pace once a week I enjoy every minute. The changing seasons and conditions make trips like this different every time, no matter how often you go.

In between these two outings I'll maybe do a gentle five miles to keep the limbs flexible, but if I don't feel like it I don't go. So that's it; "training" twice or at most three days a week at present. I'm sure the experts would shake their heads but it feels like fun again and at least it ticks the "time on your feet" box.  Rather surprisingly it still clocks up 35 to 40 rather slow miles a week, so I'll assume that it's doing me at least some good and I won't start thinking about working harder again until the New Year.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Results and Rewards

Last Sunday I ran the Amsterdam Marathon with my son John. He's a fit young man and can burn me off easily in a half marathon or anything shorter, but this was his first brush with the full distance and his aim, in his own words, was to "just get round in one piece". So we conservatively arranged ourselves in the 4 to 4,5 hours pen at the start in the Olympic Stadium under a cloudless sky. The morning was chill enough for us to keep on our raggedy old throwaway tops until the last minute, then we were off, half a lap of the track and out into the streets, a 10k loop to warm up past the Rijksmuseum and through the Vondelspark, then out into the second major loop to complete the 42k.

It's a fine course, hardly any of the soulless residential areas and industrial estates that make up the miles in many big-city marathons; the low October sun was in our eyes as we turned southwards along the River Amstel but the day was warming up into perfect running conditions. We allowed the crowds to keep our speed down, just overtaking when it was easy, chatting to each other and to others occasionally, half a mile or so with a girl from Rochdale "long way to come to run with your neighbours!" (John lives in Manchester), and cruised easily through halfway in 1-55.  Same strategy through to the end, walking a bit to eat and drink something every 10k, you need to enjoy your first marathon although it will always be tough, 26 miles on the road is still a long way. Back to the stadium, round the track to the finishing arch, John clenching fists and raising arms as we crossed the line in 3 hours 51 minutes, done it! In no time we were back with our ladies for hugs, hot coffee, the warm glow of elation that comes at these times and a lazy lunch.

Two years ago on similar clear, crisp day in November I ran the New York marathon with my daughter Julia, on that occasion her first experience too of the distance. She found it hard at times but was helped round by a big enough supply of jelly babies and the matchless support and enthusiasm of the folk of the five boroughs (if you only ever run one marathon in your life, this has to be it). Just after the finish one of the medical checkers (who look into your eyes to see if there is still a soul connected to them) saw her and announced to everyone in earshot "Look at that smile, that's how the rest of you guys should be looking!"

I'm quite proud of my marathon PB, achieved earlier this year at an age when I should probably be doing something more sensible in my spare time. But the run in which I got it has already faded almost completely from my mind, while the details of those two golden autumn mornings in Amsterdam and New York will stay with me for many years to come.  Because although the results and medals are nice enough momentos, the real rewards that we get from what we do are the experiences that we share with our friends, our families, and the people that we meet along the way, that carry us into the future.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Ultras and Ultras

I recently read John K's account of his experience in the Hardmoors 110 mile ultra (link at the side of the page if you haven't seen it - it's a good read). Now compared with me John's a class act, you don't get a couple of sub-20-hour West Highland Ways unless you can cut it and he trains and plans his events very thoroughly.In the Hardmoors however he had a real struggle, missing his expectations by quite a way (although with considerable resolve he made it to the finish!).  His conclusion, that he shouldn't have attempted two "hundred mile" races in a year, set me thinking - for the past two years I have run the WHW in reasonable style then failed a couple of months later in the UTMB.  Yet some runners complete several such races in a year, not just "getting round" but turning in good performances each time, so what are they doing right? If you're interested in some theories stick with me, at least you can argue at the end!
I think there are two key factors at work here, how hard is the race and how do you approach it.

For sure not all races are equal, but what makes one "harder" than another? Some interesting stuff on the WHW forum on this but not crystallised into whole arguments yet. For me there are three elements that determine how much challenge you face in a given event:
1. The length. No need to say much here, this has to be the single most important element - we all know that 50 miles is further than a marathon, but with a bit of application you'll get by. 100 miles is much, much further. The CCC is pretty tough for 50-odd miles, but does it compare with setting out from Milngavie with 95 ahead of you?  It certainly didn't for me.
2. The height gain. The cumulative gain is important, but so is the way that it hits you. Long slow hills that you can run or walk quickly have much less impact than the in-your-face one-or-two-miles-an-hour jobs that just wear you down. On paper the UTMB has only(!) twice the height gain of the WHW but ask anyone who has done both if that's what it feels like.
3. The ground underfoot. The advantage of running or walking (even uphill) on a good surface is that you can get a rythm going which is both faster and less tiring than if you have to select each individual footfall separately. Here neither WHW nor UTMB can compare remotely with the sort of technical ground faced on (eg) the Bob Graham or Paddy Buckley rounds.
There is other stuff of course like altitude, start time, how much is in the dark, how much navigation you have to do, how much kit you choose or are obliged to carry and so on, but I think the three I've pulled out are the most important. So (for some examples) the WHW is a long race with moderate climbing and good ground, the Lakeland 100 is a long race with tough climbing and technical ground, and the UTMB is a long race with massive climbing and good ground. I don't know the Hardmoors, but my impression from the reports is that the climbing is tough and the extra miles are telling.

But where does all this get us? The bottom line of course is that the "harder" any or all of these three factors gets, the longer the race will take any individual runner - ie "hardness" ultimately equates to time on your feet.  If you compare performances in the WHW and the UTMB, most runners who have completed both take between 50% and 90% longer to complete the UTMB, so a competitor with a 24 hour WHW is likely to take somewhere between 36 and 46 hours on the UTMB. What is interesting is that the slower runners in the WHW tend to suffer a less dramatic slowdown - runners taking up to 30 hours or more on the WHW often get inside the 46 hour UTMB cut-off (around WHW time plus 50%) whereas the faster guys rarely get better than their WHW time plus 75%. There are exceptions of course but this is the trend.  Although there is less available data, you can see similar trends when comparing the WHW with both the Hardmoors and the Lakeland 100 (all of this data is available on the event websites if you want more detail to play with). Part of the reason is that the WHW is a very "runnable" course favouring faster runners whereas the others have a more levelling effect on the field, but I suspect that how competitors approach their events has some effect also.

After we have done a few, I suspect most of us approach a 50 mile race without too much concern. You start after breakfast and you know you're going to be done by sometime in the afternoon. If it hurts a bit you keep going and you're soon counting down, manageable numbers that you can always deal with - you can always do that last 15, 20 miles. It's not exactly "go out hard and hang on" but subconsciously once you're halfway you know that a bit of willpower will get you there. And to a certain extent I think you can carry that attitude into a race like the WHW, depending on what time you think you will finish in. If you're shooting for 24 hours or less, the first night is over in a couple of hours after the start and you know you're going to be in bed for most of the next one. 12 hours will see you well over half way and you just need to keep it togther to the finish. Don't get me wrong, I think the WHW is a brilliant event and I'll keep turning up at Milngavie every year for as long as they let me in, but in terms of hundred mile ultras it's just not one of the toughest.

When you take on something bigger and are going to be out for 30 hours or more, things are different. Going into the second night knowing that you'll probably still be going the next morning with all that entails in terms of sleep deprivation and gradually depleting resources; realising that halfway is now just another  landmark, you're not going to "hang on" for 15 hours or more; understanding that overall speed is now likely to reflect your logistics and organisation rather than how fast you put one foot in front of the other on the trail. I think it is the TIME that is the key for me - if you think your proposed event is going to take 24-26 hours or less you can probably wing it and keep going, but if there's a doubt that it could be 28-30 or more, ie really into the "second night", and you need a strategy that allows for it right from the start.

The strong will survive, just as John did in the Hardmoors, but it will be a tougher experience than they expected.  For the rest of us, I think we just have to plan for the long haul. I don't think this necesarily means going as slowly as possible and just beating the cutoffs, but still being far more conservative in the first part of the race, and not get drawn away from the plan by other people or the surroundings. But I think above all it needs practice, so that it isn't a once a year experiment. I think I need to get into that "second night out" zone more often, so I know what works and what doesn't.  So I'll take a different approach from John, and enter MORE hundred mile races next year!

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

The shoes we choose....

One of the team who made the first ascent of the Eiger north face in 1938 was asked many years later about the design of the iceaxe he used on his epic climb. His reply intimated that the precise details of the tool itself were less important than the skill of the man using it. Nevertheless, we still seem to worry quite a lot about what we wear on our feet when we're out for a day or two. Although still a relative newcomer to the running game I'm conscious that the frequency with which I have to shell out around 60 to 80 pounds - every 500 miles so the sages say, or when all the useful bits have worn off the sole which usually amounts to the same thing in my case - means it's worth trying to make sure I get the best return for my cash in terms of comfort and performance. I'm gradually getting there but it seems to be a confusing and ultimately personal affair - what works for someone else doesn't necessarily work for you.

I hadn't a clue when I started, so I went to a specialist running shop in Rotterdam where I was living at the time, told them I was training for my first marathon (my first proper run actually but I didn't like to admit that), had my feet looked at and my gait analysed, and came out with a pair of Asics Cumulus road shoes. They did the job, problem solved, I just kept buying a new pair every time they wore out. Then I stumbled into trail running and ultras, and felt I should have something rather more specific to the task. I bought a pair of Salomons (XA3's, if I remember correctly) on the questionable grounds that everyone in Chamonix seemed to have a pair and Salomon usually design good kit. They were a real disappointment, they didn't seem to grip any better than road shoes and were a lot less comfortable, but they were excellent for posing in the pub and have latterly performed well at gardening and more general DIY. After this brush with the technical, I went back to my Asics for my first proper ultra (the Highland Fling in 2007), and apart from going up half a size to accommodate swelling feet on longer distances I have used them successfully in every event I have entered since; I don't get blisters and I know each pair I buy is going to be the same as the last.

But we're never content to let the sleeping dog lie are we? We convince ourselves that we must be missing out on something, why would these guys be making all this snazzy all-terrain footwear if doesn't give the user some unbelievable advantages? So I started trying the recommended classics. Montrail Hardrocks hurt my feet. Yes, I agree you can't feel a single stone through them and I do have persistent PF in one foot, but 50 miles around the rocky northern half of the Anglesey coast path convinced me that they're not for me, it's like running in clogs. The ubiquitous Innov8 Roclite 315's started well, but I have the opposite problem with these; they're great for 10 miles or so then I start to feel every stone. I've found them really great as crag approach shoes in places like the Dolomites, and their lightness really pays off when they're in your rucsac, so I've thoroughly worn them out now and will probably buy another pair - just not for running!

As an aside, I'm not sure if I really understand the advantage of studs versus a more general sole; the studs like you get on the Roclites are great for wet grassy hillsides and muddy fields, but when you get to bits of scrambling over rocks or running over the "ecological" stone paths appearing in most of our upland areas now, racing drivers and rock climbers understand that to get grip on a hard surface you need to get a bit more rubber down than the studs afford. Maybe you just have to compromise here to get the grip on the soft ground when you need it. And I can't even contemplate the ultra-thin footshaped "no shoes" (VFF's ?) that seem to be coming onto our radar now.

So I think I'll stick with the trusty road shoes for a while yet. And yet I'm always a sucker for seduction by a well turned out pair of heels. There's an outdoor shop where I often loiter awhile after visiting my mum, and a couple of weeks ago I couldn't resist a new pair of Salomons (with studs!). I'm waiting for something to wrong, because so far they feel as light as carpet slippers but with enough cushioning to give even my ageing frame some chance of survival. The only problem is that they're such a garish red that Jan says she won't be seen with me until I've got a few layers of mud on them, so yesterday I ran them from Buttermere over to Wasdale and back to start the process. Just call me Imelda.

Apart from the Amsterdam marathon in three weeks my running year is drawing to a close, a real pity about Rotherham being changed from December to October, so I'll take it easy for a few weeks and contemplate what could be on the calendar for next year. I've already entered the Fling and will be up for the WHW if I get a place, and there are a whole host of tempting runs in the UK besides - let's hope 2010 is another great year. Meanwhile I'm off for a week's climbing and some late season sun on the Costa Blanca. Running can wait just a while.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Newcastle Family Fun Day

Half marathons aren't really my thing; seven minute miles hurt my hamstrings and I'm always puffing before half way, but family and friends turn up for the Great North Run every year and we're never disappointed, it's a brilliant day out.

9.30 Sunday morning and we converge from all over the town, you never need to know the way to the start of the GNR, just follow the line of runners you'll come across at any Metro station, road junction, or bus stop. The Cole team meets on the footbridge about halfway along the dual carriageway that forms the start, from where we can see runners assembling for what seems like miles in either direction, bringing home pretty dramatically what a start of around 50,000 looks like. Good luck hugs and we're off to find our start positions - son John and I will get through the start line about 2 minutes after the gun goes off, but for daughter Julia and John's partner Jade it will be around half an hour later before their run starts! My brother Nick and two of his children Laura and James are in the field somewhere somewhere but we haven't seen them at the start so not sure where.

Off we go, beautiful start, slightly downhill through the tunnels to the "oggi, oggi, oggi" shouts from everyone, then out onto the Tyne Bridge, crowds thick everywhere. My sixth time here, it's a hilly course and today it's hot, you're never going to do a great time but that's not what it's about, it's the people of Tyneside who make this event what it is, cheers and a hundred additional unofficial food and drink stations all along the way, and live music at all the places you really need it. Up the first short hill past Gateshead Stadium, down a bit, then the long climb to the highpoint of the course around five miles, finally it levels out for a bit. I pretend that I can keep pace with John but after around seven miles I have to admit defeat and he swooshes off towards the finish. I can relax a bit now and enjoy the day in the sunshine, run through all the showers, exchange high fives with the kids along the way. It's still hard up the last long hill from mile ten; where's Elvis, I know he'll be there just before the top but he's a long time putting in an appearance today, at last there he is, give him a wave, crest the hill, a final little dip and up, and there's the sea. Down the steep little hill and left for the final mile along the seafront, into the cooling breeze, know you're home now. Always impressive, the crowd noise along the final half mile today is deafening, this must be what it's like for real athletes, then through the finishing arch and make for the bottle of water.

(John, Jade, Laura, Julia, Andy)

As each of us finishes, our little group gradually reassembles outside the beer and food tent (where else?) with our stories of the past hour or two. The burgers, perfectly ordinary, are the best we'll taste for a long while, then we lie on the grass in the warm sunshine, watch the Red Arrows do their amazing stuff overhead, listen to the band work its way back from the sixties, and let the afternoon melt away. When most of the crowds have gone we saunter off down the prom to the Metro and home.

This is not running over the emptiness of an open moor or romantic lochside, but in its own way participative sport surely doesn't get any better than this. Times? Well, none of us either impressed or disgraced ourselves, beyond that who cares? We all had a lovely day.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Final word on UTMB 2009 - what went wrong?

Well I'm back from a couple of weeks R&R - first walking in the Chamonix valley then climbing on the sunny granite slabs of Ailefroide, and starting to think about running again. Thanks for all the kind comments on my last post. I normally don't dwell on the serious aspects of running, I'm more interested in the day out in the hills approach, but before I put the UTMB to bed for this year I'm trying to work out what I have to do differently to be successful in this event - either in 2010 if I'm lucky in the ballot, or 2011 if I'm not. So what are the factors that might have conspired to stop me getting round this year.......

1. Too old? Definitely not! 24 over sixties and one over seventy got home in under 46 hours, so at 62 next year I'm not special.

2. Not fit enough/ not enough training? Again, I think not. I had the miles in the legs, I could have started again the morning after I dropped out.

3. Not enough moral fibre/ didn't dig deep enough? Tricky one this; Richie pushed on in the TDS with similar symptoms to mine to record a great finish. I carried on with similar symptoms in the West Highland Way with about twenty miles to go, and finished. But I just couldn't convince myself that I could get through the last 35 miles and three big climbs with no food or drink. Have to think about this one, but can't really see how you train to beat it!

4. Effect of altitude? Brian suggested this, and there may be something in it. I was never great at altitude as a climber, I needed a lot of acclimatisation to perform well. But that was at above 3000m, and the TMB trail barely touches 2500. However in the UTMB you never actually rest for very long, you're always on the move so altitudes between 2000 and 2500 could have an affect on me here. I'll prepare better next time. I'm sure it's not the whole story though as I have had similar problems in much lower races such as the WHW.

5. Effect of starting at night? I don't like it, I'm much happier with events that start early in the morning. Starting at night seems to upset my clock. Having stood back and realised this, I can prepare better with more night starts - the only ones I did this year were the WHW and the UTMB, none in training. Again I'm not sure this the major factor but it contributes.

6. Nervousness? My only other "long race" experience is the WHW, and the UTMB is a huge jump up from that in terms of effort required. I don't have the confidence yet that I can finish, and that causes it's own problems. I'm wondering I should do some tougher preparation, such as the Lakeland 100 or the Bob Graham as a confidence booster.

7. Nutrition and hydration? I've left these until last because deep down I'm certain that although some of the things I've mentioned above have contributed to my problems in the UTMB, if I can crack the fluid and fuel issue I'll be OK. I haven't taken this seriously enough so far and I need to be much more scientific about what my requirements really are to keep going for 30 or 40 hours. I've tended to think that what works well for 50 miles will work well for the long haul, but I've gradually realised that almost any strategy will get you through 50 miles, so you actually learn nothing. I found the CCC a walk in the park compared with my attempts at the UTMB, because I knew I could get round with very little food after half way and had the confidence to press on strongly to the end. I've talked to a lot of people about how they cope, and all I've learned is that everyone is different. Certainly no answers for me yet, but I'm going to do a lot of research and experimenting in this area between now and the end of the year, so I can thoroughly test what I come up with during the main training period in the first half of next year.

So that's analysis, and the start of a plan. I promise not to be so serious as this again!! (anyway, don't the military guys say that no plan survives first contact with the enemy........)

Whatever happens, my aim is still to enjoy the training and running as much as I have so far - after all, that's what we do it for.

Friday, 4 September 2009

UTMB 2009....better but not there yet!

A sun-drenched Chamonix with a couple of days to go and it's good to see so many of the gang for a pre-race beer; Brian, Drew, George, we know Jon's on his way and others are around, Ritchie's here for the new TDS race. Everyone looks confident but in spite of the training I've been feeling nervous for the past week, this is the big one.

Friday evening just after 6, the sun still beating down. I've deliberately turned up late, not wanting to sit around in the heat so I make my way to the back of the massed field up on the church steps. The atmosphere is amazing, the music, the inspirational pre-race speeches, the ritual reading of the meteo, the final good wishes and then the count-down by the crowd, 10, 9, 8, to the fiArriving at Courmayeurnal crescendo of cheering and increased music volume as we get to "go!" It takes me 5 minutes to cross the start line, and another 5 to be able to start running, but surely no big deal in a race that's going to take at least 40 hours. Down the rue Paccard I see Ritchie with Scottish Saltire up on the balcony, then the road widens, the runners start to space out, and it begins.

Everyone runs the first 5 miles to Les Houches, why not, it's flat, then the work starts. The first climb takes us up 2600ft in 4 miles to La Charme but it's a wide easy track, not too steep, just a loosener-up for what is to follow, out with the poles and get into the rhythm. Head torch on at the top for the start of the 9-hour night shift then straight down to St Gervais 3300ft below and the first party. Every town, village and mountain refuge along the route takes this event to its heart, with music, festivities, bonfires and great support for each and every runner. "Allez, allez" and "bravo, courage" are cries that each one will hear time and again on his journey around the mountains. I down a couple of cokes otherwise pass on through the town without stopping.

From St Gervais to Les Contamines the route follows a newly linked path called the "Sentier de Val Montjoie". I walk it with Jan a few days later, and it's wonderful as it wiggles its way alongside the bubbling river through woods and meadows, past chalets and trout farms. Tonight though all I see is the stream of headlamps ahead floating through the tunnel of darkness, and the dust from feet on the dry ground rising into our beams. The cumulative height gain from St Gervais to Les Contamines is nearly 1700ft, but it's easily won in lots of little ups and downs so goes almost without notice. I arrive at Les Contamines almost spot on my target of midnight, 45 minutes ahead of the cut-off time. My plan this year is to work up slowly to around 2 hours ahead of the cut-offs and stay there with minimum effort to Champex three quarters of the way round, and see how I feel then. The aim is to finish! I stop to eat a bit in Les Contamines, soup, bread, bananas. I am using a gel every hour en route and drinking Nuun for electrolyte replacement. I've tried this system on some long training runs and the Devil o'the Highlands, and it seems to be going well.

From Les Contamines it is 8.5 miles and around 4400ft of ascent to the next high point at the Croix du Bonhomme (just like a trip up Ben Nevis in the dark!), and we start to lose the pastoral landscape we've traversed since the start and get into the mountains, rocky singletracks and uneven ground. I take the ascent steadily, without a pause except for a quick cup of soup at the Balme checkpoint halfway. We are in mist now and I discover a problem I've not had in previous years. The descent to Les Chapieux 3000ft below is one of the worst on the circuit, a choice of steep pathlets diverging and rejoining every few yards over muddy hillside and rocky outcrops. There is a luminous marker every 50 yards or so but I can't see from one to the next in the mist; last year I was much further up the field in a continuous stream of runners, but this year my cautious approach has left bigger gaps. Nevertheless, the schedule says an hour from Bonhomme to Chapieux so that's what it takes, I make up time on the much better track over the last mile or so. My previous encounters with Les Chapieux, the first major pit stop 30 miles into the race, have been uniformly bad so it's good to arrive feeling in good spirits. Life's not completely rosy though as for the past hour or so I've started to lose the taste for Nuun, and it's getting harder to drink and consequently harder to eat. It's a bit worrying as I'm only about 10 hours into the race. My 15 pulls per hour on the Camelback have gone down to 5 or 6, but I'm still managing a gel an hour. At Les Chapieux I get down some soup and a banana, and set off for the next uphill.

The Col de la Seigne is a few miles of road and then an easy track, not steep but continuously rising for 3300ft in about 6 miles (a walk up Snowdon!). Previously I've had to stop and rest several times here (last year I fell asleep for about 20 minutes by the roadside, which is where I think Mike the Gilet passed me), but this year I'm working on Mike's advice, never stop on a climb, just go slower and keep going, so I get to the top without a break. It's daylight by the top so headtorch off and we can see where we're going - down into Italy at the dawn of a perfect day! It's an easy jog down to the Lac Combal checkpoint, and a couple of cups of coffee hit the spot, but on the next climb up to the Arete de Mont Favre which is only 1500ft of vertical I'm definitely starting to feel queasy. I cheer myself up with the long descent to come, over 4000ft in six miles down to Courmayeur. Before the start I said to Jan my aim was to get here between 11 and 12 o'clock and she's there waving as I jog in at 11.30. This is the major base 48 miles in where you can send a drop bag, so I have the luxury of a change of clothes; I also eat another bowl of soup and down plenty of coke, and after the first stop of more than a couple of minutes or so since the start I feel decidedly more human. Jan plasters me with sunscreen and says I'm looking good as I set out for the next stretch.

The climb from Courmayeur to the Bertone Hut is generally felt to be pretty cruel; only 2700ft but steep, relentless and south facing. Last year it was hot hot hot, this year it's merely hot so again I make it without a stop. I'm still getting some Nuun down but can't face gels any longer, even though I've a pile of them in my bag. Two cups of wonderful coffee at the Bertone revive me, as does an encouraging phone message from Mike, and with a re-wetted hat (you soak your hat in every available stream and water source along this Italian stretch) I'm off again. The section from the Bertone, via the Bonatti Hut then down to Arnuva is a really brilliant contouring track, little ups and downs, no technical ground and superb views across the southern aspect of the Mont Blanc range. I can remember running it all at a fair clip in the CCC (Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix) race a couple of years ago. Today it's frustrating; I can jog the downhill bits but as soon as I put any effort into the ups I start to feel sick. I feel that I have miles and miles of running left in my legs but I can't access it somehow. Nagging at the back of my mind also is the generally accepted view that the next checkpoint (Arnuva at 60 miles) represents about half way in terms of time and effort; I'm feeling pretty bad and I still have a long way to go. I carry on as well as I can but a final little up just before the descent to Arnuva proves too much; I have to sit down and throw up. After this and a few minutes rest I feel much better, and immediately swallow a good drink of Nuun and half a bag of fruit pastilles. I reason that if I can get some more real food in at Arnuva I'll be OK, so I jog down to the checkpoint 800ft below.

I'm not feeling great but I manage to down soup, bread, banana and cheese, and a mug of coke. I refill my Camelback but discover that I've drunk less than half a litre since Courmayeur nearly 5 hours ago. I set off for the Grand Col de Ferret, 3 miles further on and 2500ft up. It's an easy track and not steep but as soon as I start the up I feel nauseous again. I determine that I'll just take it very slowly. The amazing thing is that everyone else seems to be going at the same pace! Aside from my gastric problems I seem to have now found my correct place in the field, having gone up around 600 places since the St Gervais checkpoint. It's still a sunny day, now blending into evening, but a chill wind springs up and the caravan stops to don jackets at the Elena Hut, then we plod on up the hill. I am convinced that this is my last effort; I can't eat or drink and I feel really bad, but at least I don't stop, and at last the top arrives. A quick look back to the Col de la Seigne which brought me into Italy nearly 12 hours ago, and I stumble into Switzerland.

As soon as I start going down it's a new world. I feel better, I can make progress, I even start running again. I start to make plans. It's about 12 miles downhill to Issert then a short climb to Champex. I'll have a long rest there, an hour or two if necesary to regroup. Everything feels good until La Peule. This used to be a checkpoint but now there's just a guy pointing to the track down, saying it's about 5 kilometers to La Fouly. The route here has changed; it used to go straight down to the valley base at Feret then an easy track aongside the river to La Fouly, now it's a track contouring high above the valley, generally going down but with sharp bits of up thrown in as well. Physically and psychologically this is a disaster for me, getting down to Issert is suddenly a challenge, with the climb to Champex to follow, and I'm feeling really bad on all the ups. But still La Fouly is a big checkpoint base, maybe I can get going again there. At some point a mile or so before La Fouly it's getting dark and we're descending into woods, so I have to stop and pull out my headtorch; as I bend over to search my bag I start to retch and have to sit down. The process goes on for several minutes. As I'm sitting with my head in my hands, my WHW buff is recognised by the next runner going past - "Hey, who is it, are you OK?" It's Jon, looking strong enough to finish this time (he does). I tell him I'll be OK and off he goes. I sit for a few more minutes but this time I don't feel better, just the same. I get up and start the final descent to La Fouly. Walking downhill feels bad, running can't be done. Any more uphill is unthinkable. It takes me half an hour to cover the final mile or so down to the checkpoint in the village. I'm still an hour and a half ahead of the cut-off but I accept that it's over. I call Jan, she's disappointed for me, she saw me looking good at Courmayeur and the text mesages have shown me progressing up through the field at every checkpoint since.

I hand in my chip and get the bus back to Chamonix, feeling bad all the way. Back at our appartment I still can't face eating or drinking, I have half a cup of tea then crash out at about 2.30 am. I wake up at 7 feeling great. No blisters, no sore muscles, ready for coffee and croissants, ready to run from La Fouly to Chamonix, no problem. But that opportunity is gone, nothing for it but to head off into town for the finish, and face the music. Everyone's done well congratulations all round, I'm the only one not to have made it.

Six days later I'm disappointed of course, but taking part in this event is always a great experience and I still feel privelieged to have been a part of it. I'll try and work out what went wrong for a later post. Back next year? The people that know me won't have to ask.

Monday, 31 August 2009

Three in a row

Well, afraid I just recorded my third DNF in the UTMB. I called it a day after about 70 miles, further than I've got before but still no cigar. We're spending the next week walking and enjoying the Chamonix valley, then I'm going for a week's climbing at Ailefroide near Briancon. I'll post the story of my race when I get back.

All the other guys here from the WHW family finished the event brilliantly, congratulations to all!

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Relax and Enjoy It

I ran my first marathon in April 2004 and finished in a time of 3 hours and 37 minutes. This is OK I thought, I should be able to get under 3:30 easily enough with a bit of effort. Could I heck, as my Yorkshire wife Jan might say. I ran another 3:37, and a 3:34, and a 3:31, and one or two even slower but I couldn't break the barrier. Eventually at my eighth attempt I finally cracked it. More training, more commitment on the day, and a willingness to endure some pain over the last 6 miles got me home in 3:24, but I really hadn't enjoyed the run and my quads still hurt like hell two weeks after the race. This wasn't what I came for. I filed it away as my "sub 3:30 experience" and decided that I would enjoy my marathons at a more gentlemanly pace in future. Two marathons a year is my ration, one spring and one autumn, and this April saw me on the start line at Rotterdam, the same venue as my very first race 5 years ago. This is a training run in a nice situation I told Jan, with the Highland Fling coming up in 3 weeks I'm going to take it easy and enjoy the day. I did enjoy the run from start to finish. I looked at my watch twice, once at half way and once at 32k, and on both occasions told myself to slow down, I was going too fast and something might go wrong if I kept it up. I finished in 3:17, it was a walk in the park.

I've had similar experiences in runs from half marathons to ultras. Maybe it doesn't work this way for everyone, but for me it seems counterproductive to put pressure on to achieve a particular goal, I do much better if I forget about the watch and just enjoy the day. Just 10 days to the UTMB now, an event which more than any other at the moment I want to do justice to. I did my last real training run yesterday up Snowdon (where else, I think it was my 14th visit to the summit this year), just a couple of gentle jogs on the plan between now and the start in Chamonix a week on Friday. So I've told myself I've done the work, I have no time target other than to finish, I'm setting no schedule other than to keep me ahead of the cut-off times. I'm going out to enjoy a couple of days in the mountains.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

The Devil You Know......

Well not strictly true, I had never run the "Devil o'the Highlands 43 mile Footrace" from Tyndrum to Fort William before, but I had covered the ground a few times as the second half of the West Highland Way race. Early August for the past few years has seen me playing other games in the hills but not this year so time to give it a go. I was looking forward to the race for a number of reasons, not the least one being able to start over this wonderful stretch of countryside without 50-odd miles already on the clock. I was also determined not to damage my chances in the UTMB in three weeks time, so I planned to take it easy and enjoy the ride.

So the support crew is collected from Glasgow airport on Friday night (daughter Julia of course - the deal is she'll drive the car and top up the Camelbak in return for a couple of days rockclimbing on Sunday and Monday) and we arrive at the Tyndrum Lodge just in time for the bar to close. Never mind says George R ensconced in a corner, they're open next door and we're just going round, so the pre-race Guinness is saved. Saturday morning is luxury, fall out of bed then straight round to the Green Welly, literally next door, for the check-in and pre-race briefing. Lots of the usual suspects to say hello to then we can stay in the warm until it's time to go, although the weather looks pretty good already. "Two minutes" shouts Race Director Garry, and still chatting we wander up to the start. I love these low key takeoffs, in a strange way they emphasise rather than detract from the enormity of what is about to happen, then we're off. I start walking (it's a steepish hill after all!) but all around are running, the whole field is streaming past, so I reluctantly break into a very gentle jog.

I have sketched out a schedule so that Julia has some checkpoint times to plan around; it's based on 12 minute miles for 42 miles (I know it's not 43, the arithmetic doesn't work) which should get me home in just under eight and a half hours. I'll take the first half really easily but it will still go quicker because of the territory; I don't need to see her at the Bridge of Orchy so we target the Glencoe checkpoint in 3 hours 15.

At the top of the hill out of Tyndrum, down the slope and under the railway and I'm happy to run now. It's brilliant, striding out down the perfect slightly downhill track, feeling great. I can see runners in the distance but even at this early stage the field is starting to thin out. I eventually catch a couple of runners a mile or two before the station and we carry on together. One's a guy of my generation, and we chat happily about our injuries for a while like old men do, then down across the main road and a steady walk up the hill. One or two people overtake us but I don't want heavy breathing this early on so we let them go. At the top it's different, this is what I came for and I'm away down at speed and soon on my own again. The midgies are getting uppity around the Victoria Bridge, though walkers that I pass say it was worse earlier this morning. Across Rannoch Moor the sun comes out, the uphills are gentle, and I'm starting to run most of them now. I pass and chat to a number of runners, eventually coming level with a guy who I first noticed before the Bridge of Orchy. It turns out to be Flip, who I know from the WHW forum but have never met before, and we run the second half of the Moor together. On the last uphill we see Murdo, cheering everyone on; running or not, he never seems to miss an event on the WHW, it's people like this who keep you coming back for more. At the crest of the last hill I call Julia to say I'm nearly at the checkpoint, should be there in 15 minutes but I make it in under 10. I'm 17 minutes up on my schedule but as I find out later from John K's usual thorough analysis I'm halfway down the field in 45th place - it seems everyone's going well. But I can't see Julia after checking in; I do a quick trot around the assembled support teams, still no sign, so I call her again. "You're too fast, I'm still running down the road from the Ski carpark!" so I jog up to meet her and we do a quick restock of fuel by the roadside. I've changed to Nuun rather than Succeed Caps for electrolytes in the last few weeks, they seem to work better for me (you don't have to remember to take them!), and I'm doing the whole race on gels, one every half hour.

On past the Kingshouse, up the hill, and I need a comfort stop but can't find any big enough rocks to hide behind so I wander off the track up the hillside for a hundred yards or so to get out of sight. I get a good view of several runners going past below me, so some targets to follow and I'm soon back down again to join them. The Devil's Staircase goes to brisk walking in spite of having to pass a caravan of thirty or so Spanish walkers near the start, I'm feeling a different person from how I was here in June, and then comes the downhill. I've looked forward to being here in good shape for a couple of years at least, and it's great to let go. I'm not really bothered about a time and I don't want to tire myself out but the joy of running down this perfect slope just takes over and I bounce from rock to track and back again loving it. I do look at my watch though and I'm puzzled. I was way early at Glencoe in spite of seeming to go slowly, but I'm only just going to beat my schedule on this section in spite of getting a good lick on. The slight detours to meet Julia and off the track before the Altnafeadh cost me a bit of time, but then I twig the main reason; I've based my schedule on times to the Kingshouse, but the checkpoint is at Blackrock Cottage and they're a mile or so apart - my world makes sense again.

George said last night that when you reach the sharp right-hander over the stone bridge you've just covered a marathon distance from the start; this is my conversation-opener as I catch the runner ahead who I've been tracking for a while. It's WHW Runner Ian and although we've said hello a few times we've never really talked, even though it was his blog that first made me aware of the UK ultra scene (so I guess if it were not for him I wouldn't be writing this...). The track from here to Kinlochleven is easy downhill and mindless so we carry on together. We chat a bit about times for the day, I say I'm looking at eight and a half hours but I think I'll be 15 minutes up at KLL so eight and a quarter looks right. He says get your act together (or words to that effect), you must be able to do the last stretch in under three hours so you should be under eight. Well you don't ignore advice from someone with eight WHW finishes, so eight hours becomes the target, and we look for our respective supporters after checking in.

I think Julia and I are efficient in KLL, a minute or two at most for a new litre of drink in the Camelbak and a handful of gels, but by the time I'm jogging out down the road there's Ian ahead of me again - I suppose that's what years of practice does for you. I walk steadily up the first long hill passing three or four runners, then walk with Tony for a while as we reach the jeep track for the last bit before it levels out. I have a great run from here and am really pleased with my time from Kinlochleven to the end (John K covers the same ground a couple of minutes faster and feels he is going slowly - just depends on where you set your sights I suppose!). The Lairig Mor track stretches away miles to the first crest, I can see many walkers with their waterproofs and huge shrouded rucsacs - by now it's started to drizzle gently, perfect for running - but no runners except one in the far distance, and it takes nearly 30 minutes to catch him. Now there are no runners as far as the eye can see so Angus and I travel on together. I find if you can meet someone going at near the pace you want to do, the time and distance seem to fly by, and in no time we can see the trees at the start of the forest. Angus walks a bit to regroup, and I accelerate into the downhill knowing it's only seven miles or so to the end. I walk a short sharp rise just before Lundavra, and just as I start to run again a voice says "You don't have to run just because I can see you." I look up and it's George, who supports Ian on the WHW, coming in the opposite direction!

On through Lundavra and I walk all the little uphills before and through the forest; after having such a great morning I don't want to spoil it by getting trashed just for the sake of a few extra minutes. The forest is great in daylight, the track wiggling its way through the trees past a hundred sights that you miss in the dark, but I do recognise the uphill zig-zag that marks the start of the last real uphill. The path has been re-routed yet again near the top, and I am aware of another runner ahead for the first time since I left Angus a mile before Lundavra. We burst out into the clearing and the big track to the end, should I take the shortcut to the right, yes, no, oh well past it now anyway, past the other runner who's going OK but a bit slower, now just stretch out, let the speed of the hill take you down. After the big bends I find a runner walking, downhill all the way now I shout so he joins me - I later find out this is Lawrie - and in what seems like no time we are at Braveheart car park. A quick call to Julia and just the road to do.

The finish of this race is great; not stumbling across the car park in the dark to crash through the door, not splashing across the stream to be faced with a final uphill to the line, no this is a true finishing straight, level and fast with the crowd (and there still is one) cheering you to the end. 7 hours 39 and a bit minutes, 23rd place.

Two well-known climbers were a few years ago engaged in a cutting-edge first ascent in the Himalayas. On a particularly trying section, the second man called up to the leader "How's it going, Michael?" to which he received the reply "It will be retrospectively enjoyable, Patrick". I have spent a good few miles in races over the past three or four years experiencing retrospectively enjoyable situations. When you get a run that is just pleasure from start to finish I think you have to treasure it. On Saturday evening back in Tyndrum, Julia felt in need of a bit of exercise before our fish supper at the Real Food Cafe; in the warm gentle rain we jogged down to Auchtertyre and back, just another few miles on this WHW trail which I am learning to know.

Thanks to Garry and his organising team, and to all the people I met along the way, for a great day out.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

The UTMB and me

I first went to Chamonix in 1965, hitch-hiking through France for a month or so in the school holidays when that sort of thing was felt to be an adventure (see view of Midi Cableway Station as it was then!). I didn't renew the acquaintanceship until the mid 70's by which time I had become a climber. With a few gaps I've been back at least once a year since, mountaineering, rock climbing, ski-ing, biking, it's a town that has few equals for that sort of fun. We even considered buying a place there a few years ago but never got around to it and nowadays you need serious money to get in even at the very bottom end. So I sort of feel that I know the place.

The Tour du Mont Blanc is a long distance footpath that circles the Mont Blanc range as closely as possible without having to set foot on any permanent snow or ice, traditionally starting and finishing at Les Houches near Chamonix. It's a classic walk, established and waymarked many years ago and you'll find a couple of guidebooks to it in most outdoor shops. But it somehow didn't really interest me compared with the attractions higher up the mountains until my daughter Julia walked it during her school holidays a few years ago (much to our relief at the time the kids tend not to hitch-hike these days, they go by EasyJet..) She came back and raved about it to the ageing parents "You guys ought to go, you'll really enjoy it", so a year or two later Jan and I packed our rucsacs and went, it took us 11 days for the trip, great weather all the way with a good meal, bottle of wine and a comfy bed every night. But one of the things that made the biggest impression on me during the holiday was that as we were in Chamonix getting ready for the off, we witnessed the finish of the "Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc" race. This was in 2005, not quite the party that it is these days, but to see the runners getting back to town on Sunday morning after covering a route following most of the Tour du Mont Blanc route non-stop was pretty inspiring. Although I had only run my first marathon a year earlier, and had not even heard of the ultra running scene at the time, I had to have a go and when we got home I entered for the 2006 race - in those days entry was a fairly leisurely affair and it took several weeks for the maximum number to be reached.

Now the UTMB is a pretty long and hilly affair, which you can see if you compare its profile to that of the West Highland Way on the same scale (I hadn't heard of the West Highland Way either then so this comparison would have been completely lost on me at the time, but has had a daunting affect since).......

.........but I rationalised that the speed required to complete in the allowed time wasn't too great (just over 2 miles an hour) and I was used to having a couple of days or so in the mountains with almost no sleep. My climbing club did a yearly circuit of the Welsh 3000's as a bit of "Alpine training", and I did a number of similar longish days in the hills before turning up at the start line in Chamonix. Somewhere between arrogant and naive I guess. About 17 hours later I arrived in not quite halfway Courmayeur realising that (a) I wasn't going to go any further that day, and (b) I had an awful lot to learn about this game if I was ever going to complete the event.

So I got into "ultras". I've enjoyed the ride so far, and completed a few now. But the UTMB was always there nagging at me; I entered again in 2008 to feed the rat. This time I knew a few of the competitors and some of us met for a quiet drink in the square a few hours before the start, Mike M, Tomo, Jez, Jim D, Borkur, all looking fit and confident. For me this was going to be different from 2006, I was an ultra-runner now, I'd completed two West Highland Ways, I was going to tick the box, it was just a question of what time I would get around in. The payback for this hubris came at about 2pm the following day in 30 degree heat just short of the Bertoni hut, still not half way in terms of effort required. I ground to a halt, overheated, dehydrated, under-fuelled, finished. I called Jan to tell her I was pulling out, "and" I said, "if I ever say I'm going to try this again, stop me." But we've all been down that road, memory of discomfort fades quickly, a DNF can only be partly filed away, unfinished business demanding later resolution. So I'm back this year.

What have I learned, what's different? Well although its rather obvious it's easy to forget that to crack the UTMB you have to climb a lot of big hills, so training only on runnable trails isn't going to pay off unless you're exceptionally talented. So I've put in the miles this year but also walked a lot of ascent, about 200,000 feet since January, I hope it's enough, but it's taken time. I talked to Hugh after the Wuthering Hike, he completed the UTMB last year but wouldn't go again for a while "too much time commitment for training", I know what he means. Secondly, I will approach the event with determination but a lot more humility - 45 hours plus will do fine (the cut-off is 46); in particular I think in this event more than most the average performer needs to start slowly or the climbs just kill you off early on, I'll try to stay just ahead of the cut-offs until at least half way. Finally, although I've read of people doing this with minimal food, I'm sure to give yourself a chance you have to stay focussed enough to keep the food and drink going in, and not get distracted by times, other people, or other stuff going on. So that's my this space.

I'm off to Scotland tomorrow night for Saturday's "Devil of the Highlands" run (Tyndrum to Fort William, 42 miles), which will be my last long outing before the UTMB three weeks later. After that I'm telling myself to take it fairly easy for three weeks, should be enough miles in the bank by now, just try to stay uninjured and avoid the swine flu!

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Bob Graham and New Tricks

I've been walking up a lot of hills recently as training for my latest attempt on the UTMB at the end of August, because the UTMB is mostly walking up hills and I don't expect to run much of it. To make a change from my local Welsh peaks I've been taking the extra hour and going up to the Lakes more often, using the Bob Graham Round route as the basis for some good days out. In 1932 Bob Graham covered his circuit of 42 summits (he was 42 years old at the time) starting and finishing at Keswick in just under 24 hours. Since then around 1500 runners have repeated his trip "officially" (recording and validating their times at each top, and joining the Bob Graham Club) and an unknown number unofficially, just doing it for their own satisfaction. The actual distance and ascent is the subject of some debate, and ultimately depends on the exact route you take to join up the summits, but it's somewhere between 60 and 70 miles and around 27,000 feet of up; it can be done clockwise or anti-clockwise, each direction having its fans. I once thought I might have a go, but after trying one or two sections I became convinced I couldn't do it.

For the non-superhuman of us, and assuming the normal objective stuff like maximum daylight and good enough weather, getting around the BG requires three qualities:
1. To be able to do the climbs - this is just about getting fit and getting the miles in.
2. To know the route. Some is on conventional paths, but a lot of the ground is generally covered only by runners engaged in this particular project, so learning the best "lines" is crucial - again this is just practice.
3. To be able to descend rapidly, even when tired, over a lot of steep and virtually trackless ground, rocky ridges, boulders, scree, steep grass, deep heather, you get the picture. This was where my problem came.

When I was a young (and maybe not so young) mountaineer I used to pride myself on my confidence and lightness of step, getting down things fast was not a problem. Then a bad ski-ing crash 15 years ago left me with a pathological fear of breakable crust and a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament in my right knee. The surgeon who cleaned up the resulting cartilage damage explained that ligaments are tricky things to fix, and if I was a fifty grand a week footballer he would probably have a go but as I wasn't he wouldn't. I should be able to work on the muscles to compensate for most of the loss of stability, and I should try and prevent any unexpected over-rotation. So I wear a hinged brace for ski-ing, but it's too cumbersome for general mountaineering and running. In the early days I had one or two "unexpected over-rotations" which resulted in quite a lot of ouch and several weeks of not doing very much afterwards. Since then I've been more careful, much more tentative going downhill.

I couldn't make the Bob Graham descent times; Blencathra to Threlkeld should take 30 minutes, I was nearly 45, Seat Sandal to Dunmail should be 15, I couldn't break 25, and so on. So I accepted the inevitable and contented myself with using the BG as a nice route to walk and train on.

Then a couple of weeks ago I parked in Langdale at around 10am with the intention of exploring some of the Wasdale to Dunmail section. The day intially looked good, but by the time I reached Sty Head on the way over to Wasdale, the mist had come down to around 2000 feet or less. I didn't want to slow down navigating over Sca Fell, so I went up the good track to Great Gable and back, hoping it might clear. It didn't, so still without any fixed plans I followed the Corridor up to Scafell Pike and then the main path back towards Langdale. Shortly before Esk Hause a young lady came running towards me out of the mist at a fair pace. Had she come from Great End, I asked. Yes. Was she on a bearing, or did she know the ground? She knew the ground, why, was I on a Bob Graham recce? Sort of, I said. Well, I'm doing a solo Round today, she said. Did she know a good way from Bowfell to Rossett Gill, and if so could I tag along for a bit? No problem; she seemed glad of the company, she'd been on her own since leaving Keswick at 3.30am.

Her pace up Esk Pike was slower than I expected. No problem, she said, this is a good pace for the Round. Down the other side was a different story, and I had to work to keep up. I was starting to get a bit concerned about the Bowfell descent but I couldn't back out gracefully now. We boulder hopped up Bowfell then back down to the col; she went a short distance further then plunged over the edge, I clung on about 10 feet behind her trainers (we were both wearing road shoes, agreeing later that the comfort was worth it) as we crashed down steep grass, rocky outcrops and odd bits of scree. By not having to think about the route, I could keep up. Brilliant I said as we hit the flat ground at the bottom. I know a good line on the next bit too she said, are you coming? The day was looking up now, sun starting to break through and I was enjoying the ride, so I carried on. Over the long wet moor to the Langdale Pikes we went, the high plateau from Thunacar Knott to High Raise and Sergeant Man, then gradually down with only bits of track here and there over Calf Crag to Steel Fell and Dunmail Raise. I paced the ups at the speeds she wanted, and she showed me the way over the trackless bits and led the downs, on which I was surprisingly getting more and more comfortable and having more fun - I had no choice on the pace here, I just had to go. We chatted about the solo Round. Well you don't go on the official list she said, but you know you've done it and that's the important bit, quite a few people do it this way nowadays, less hassle to fix up, less guilt if you decide it's not your day. She had arranged to meet a friend for the last section so she wouldn't have to do it alone, at the end of a long day and in the dark.

She had a bag stashed with food and dry shoes at Dunmail. Sure you're not tempted to carry on, it's a nice evening now? But I had promises to keep, so I left her still on schedule to tackle the bracken slope of Seat Sandal while I trotted off down the road to a pint at the Travellers Rest then the last few miles back to my car.

I took stock as I jogged the last bit. My Garmin showed 30 miles and the best part of 10,000 feet, but more importantly I had somehow rediscovered some confidence in going downhill like you should. I'd taken a quick look at my watch before we started the last steep descent off Steel Fell to Dunmail; just over 10 minutes to the road, the BG schedule says 12. Maybe I will have a go next year after all............maybe.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

WHW 2009 - a game of two halves

I still can't get the date right on my posts, the last one appeared out of order; never mind I'll learn, it's probably just a date of birth problem. Back to business and this year's race.

A good time in the WHW wasn't originally one of this year's targets for me, I mainly wanted a good Highland Fling and a completion in the UTMB, but you know how these things work, once you get involved it seems impossible to back off from giving it your best shot. My declared aim was to get to Lundavra in daylight, but as soon as the Cole family team assembled for dinner in the Premier Inn at Milngavie I confessed that I was going for the 24 hours; it meant knocking about 2 hours 40 off my previous best, but I felt fit enough and ready to go. I had trained a few more miles than last year and had no major injuries.

Rowardennan: Schedule 5:25 Actual 5:17
I run this at about the same pace as last year, it feels pretty comfortable. Lasting impressions are the midges all the way to Drymen like rain in the headlight, more than I have noticed any previous year; also, turning off the railway line at Gartness I look back, the line of headlamps stretching back into the distance is quite a sight. Also unusual in the biggest field ever starting the race, I seem to be on my own for most of the way. But in these early stages it's all about concentrating on not wasting energy, walking up hills where you know you could run, just keep it steady. I have also decided to be much more disciplined at the stops, so I am in and out of Rowardennan in less than 5 minutes, rice pudding downed quickly and coffee and marmalade sandwich "to go". Camelbak changed, 1,5 litres of flat coke consumed since the start, 1,8 litres of flat ginger beer on board to see me to Auchtertyre. I'm happy to see the team only twice for the first half of the race, it forces me to be steady and gives them a better sleep.

Auchertyre: Schedule 11:15 Actual 10:56
The easy section to Inversnaid goes quickly, then I go cautiously on the trickier ground to the top of the Loch, easy to waste energy here. I still pass quite a few runners on this section, but have found this is normal, a lot of people seem to use the tactic of running the easy ground to Rowardennan fast then slowing down. Warning bells should be ringing however as I pass WHW Runner Ian and Graeme McC, these guys are far and away better runners than me, but it still feels comfortable. After being a bit of a mental downer in some races, the hills up to Derrydaroch pass fairly easily. The scene at Carmyle Cottage is like the finishing straight of a marathon - wall-to-wall support cars and cheering support teams - impossible to slow to a walk here! Everything is on plan, but in the forest above Crianlarich, just around the halfway distance, I make the first of a series of mistakes that will cost me my 24 hour finish. My strategy has been to eat real food in three places, Rowardennan, Auchtertyre, and Kingshouse (sort of breakfast, lunch, dinner); in between these I am diligently popping a gel every 45 minutes, and possibly more importantly using this timing to take a salt tablet ("Succeed" cap) every 90 minutes. At ten and a half hours I am due a gel and a salt tab, but it's only just down the hill to Auchtertyre, I'm looking forward to lunch, I feel OK and I don't want to stop and fiddle. I can catch up with the regime later. At Auchtertyre the team says I'm looking far better than in any previous race, I have a sit-down stop for 15 minutes or so, and take on soup, beans, a banana, grapes, a couple of coffees, oh and I'd really like an orange juice so one is bought from the shop and I down half of that too. I forget the salt tab.

Bridge of Orchy: Schedule 13:30 Actual 13:26
I walk down to the new road crossing, then start to run, but I've eaten too much too quickly, I immediately feel sick and have to walk again. I eventually start to feel better and start running again just after Tyndrum. From the highpoint, the easy track to Bridge of Orchy seems OK. I drink at my regular 45 minute intervals, but I'm now convinced that I have more than enough calories for a while, so leave off the gels. My feeble brain doesn't realise that I have broken a crucial connection, and I still forget the salt tabs. The team are ready with a quick cup of tea at the Station, I grab a half litre of fizzy water (my planned fluid medium to the finish), saying I don't need any more I still have almost a half litre of Lucozade left. Down at the checkpoint I meet Phil R, who has had to pull out this year due to injury, but who has come up anyway to sweep the Devil's Staircase section (another example of the pulling power this event has on everyone!), and we chat for a minute or two, then I'm off up the hill.

Kingshouse: Schedule 16:30 Actual 16:20
I feel great great going up the hill and pass a number of runners, and I am unaware that due to my indiscipline things are now starting to go awry. I go strongly down the other side, this is one of my favourite descents, but as soon as I hit the asphalt I know something is wrong. My legs feel jelly-like and I rapidly start to feel nauseous; but you have to run this bit, it's one of the easiest miles in the whole race, so I ignore the feeling and run to the gate onto Rannoch Moor. I slow to a walk here, feeling worse and worse, and a couple of hundred yards up the track I sit gingerly down on a pile of logs and throw up. I know what's happened of course; I remember Jez Bragg telling me after the last UTMB that if you get nauseous it's usually down to lack of electrolyte, that's why I'm taking a salt tab every 90 minutes, except I haven't had one now for over 4 hours. Worse still, I can't face one now, and I drink most of my fizzy water just getting back to feel human again. I'm always amazed by coincidence, and at this very moment my phone pings, and it's a text from Mike M in Romania - "Hows it going - dig deep!" I'm sure I manage some sort of grin, and I get up and get going again. I cross the moor passing, repassing, and occasionally running with other runners; I manage to get a gel down, finish my water, but really can't stomach the Lucozade. Nevertheless, the last hill comes up soon enough and I'm down to Kingshouse, still up on schedule but not in great shape. I should eat here to see me through to the end, but I can't. I know if I rest quietly for a half hour or so
I'll be able to get some fuel in, but I don't want to give up that amount of time, so I down a couple of coffees and carry on. Still no salt tab, what am I thinking of?

Kinlochleven: Schedule 19:15 Actual 19:14
I've never run beyond Kingshouse before, so it is still with some satisfaction that I set off down the road with Julia at a steady jog. We walk up the "why does it go up here?" hill then jog down to the road at the start of the Devil's Staircase. I am drinking water OK and chewing on a few bits of crystallised ginger. We set out up the staircase at a fairly strong walk, and actually catch up the runner ahead, Graeme R who I've known since this year's Wuthering Hike. He asks how it's going and I reply truthfully that I'm feeling knackered; articulating the thought seems to have its own effect and I feel I have to sit down for a minute while Graeme forges on. For the second time I have a throwing-up interlude, then sit quietly for a few minutes to recompose myself. During this time we are passed by WHW Runner Ian and his support runner George, who I have been seeing on and off all day. They ask if I'm OK, we assure them the halt is temporary and they carry on. I am still sitting a few minutes later, and George calls down from above "Come on No 54, get going!", so I do. The rest of cimb is OK, and we manage a steady jog most of the way down to Kinlochleven, arriving surprisingly still just ahead of schedule. As we reach the smooth track by the pipes and don't have to worry too much about where to put our feet now, Julia starts to say "You know what we should do to improve things next year is...." What a team, decision made before I even started to think about it! But back to this year and I am trying to decide what I have to do to keep going at a reasonable speed. My problem is that I seem to have bags of energy left in my limbs, but as soon as I accelerate I feel nauseous again. I have scheduled no stop in Kinlochleven, but eventually decide that I have to regroup, so I stop until I can eat some soup, a banana, a couple of coffees, and (at last) a salt tablet; but this takes 45 minutes, which I don't have.

Fort William: Shedule 23:45 Actual 24:44
With John now leading the way, and slowing me down when he feels I am likely to blow it again, I take my scheduled time to cover the 14 miles to the end, but to add to the 45 minutes lost at KLL we take a tea break by the bonfire at Lundavra with Julia and Jan - at least I got to there without turning my torch on - and so end up at the finish 44 minutes adrift of my target. Pleased but disappointed, until Julia and John tell me to stop beating myself up about what I didn't do, and think about how many people have done what I've just finished. So we all go home happy, thanks to the superb efforts of the race organisers and marshalls, and for me the dedication of my family support team, who amazingly still think it's fun to spend yet another exhausting, sleep-deprived and midge-infested weekend in the Highlands.

Can I keep fighting off father time long enough to get a 24 hour finish next time? Well I think I can, and I suppose that's half the battle.