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.