Thursday, 23 December 2010

2010 that was

Well, all the stuff that has to be done before Christmas seems to be done, so an hour or so earned to think back over the year and maybe what I've got out of it.

I won't dwell on the individual races, I wrote about each one after the event and the results are over on the right anyway. I was pleased with some and felt I probably could have done better in others but that's par for the course I guess. I wondered at times whether I had signed up for too many but on balance it worked out OK. I won't deliberately target so many for next year but I won't artificially restrict myself either if there are events that look as though they're going to be fun.

What I have done though is to try and analyse one or two statistics, a thing that I'm not usually interested in but I'm glad I did it because I've found the results a bit surprising  - chastening, one might say. The basics for the 50 weeks of the year that I've recorded are

Total miles run 2050
- so average miles per week was 41; in reality a bit higher when active, as I've had several weeks off ski-ing, climbing, etc.

Number of runs 181
- so average number of runs per week was 3,6 -  a bit more if you allow for the "missed weeks" above, but it's clear that I still take plenty of days off!
- and the average length of run was 11,3 miles. I know this is skewed by the long races but I was still surprised.

As I was surprised by this mean length of run, I broke down the number of outings into bands:-
Length of Run        No of Runs
less than 5m           42
5m - 10m               80
10m - 20m             39
20m - 50m             14
more than 50m         6

There is no consistent correlation between the length of the run and the speed, because for example a 10 mile run might be a fast (?!) - paced outing around my local lanes, or a trip up Snowdon. So I looked also at the total miles run at different average paces:-
Pace (mins/mile)     Total Distance at this pace (miles)
below  7,30               37           (tempo pace for me)
7,30 -  9,00             626          (comfortable road and easy trail running)
9,00 - 12,00            558          (mixed trail and hill, just about still running)
above 12,00            829          (hills and rough country)

Now even though over 340 miles in the last band came from just 4 events (Heart of Scotland, WHW, Lakeland 100 and UTMB), I think these two tables show that:

(a) I'm a jogger who runs occasionally, rather than a runner!
(b) I like getting out in the hills and enjoying the day out rather than doing specific training
(c) The amount of time I put into higher aerobic stuff is pretty pathetic
(d) I don't get out as often as I should
(e) I'm not going to improve unless I change my training habits.

I need to think about this over a glass or three of red wine during the Christmas holiday - do I want to carry on what I'm doing, and carry on enjoying it as I do now, or should I respond to the "could do better" prompt?

Another takeout from the year in a different area is that after 4 years of running ultras I think I'm now finally convinced that age (not a subject I like to dwell on too long!)  is not all that relevant.  I used to feel that I had to make the very best of each year because I might not get another chance, but now I'm much more of a mind that if you keep going you can keep going.

Whatever, I've enjoyed every step of the year (well, maybe waiting for the bus in the downpour for the TDS that never started wasn't so great, but you get the picture..) and I'm looking forward to next with some excitement. I'll post my plans next time.

To all readers of my infrequent and sometimes random ramblings, have a great Christmas and New Year. See you at the races!

Monday, 20 December 2010

Ending with a Whimper

I was really looking forward to my last event of the year, the "Tour de Helvellyn". Reccied the bits of the course I didn't already know, waymarks in the GPS just in case, bag packed and up at 5am, leaving a generous two and a half hours to cover the 140 miles to Askam, register, and start at what I guessed would be first light at around eight. The forecast was for a cold but clear day and the race organiser said on Friday night that it was looking good for the event. There was an inch or so of snow on the car as I left the house but once out of the village the roads seemed fine apart from a seemingly unnecessary 50mph limit on the M56.

At 7am I was in the vicinity of Wigan, barely 40 miles of the journey done, sitting on the northbound M6 which had become a carpark. There were stationary trucks everywhere.  I found a radio station which told the story, the road had been blocked since midnight because of a fair bit more snow than expected and a jacknifed truck. Eventually we got going again but it was 20mph stuff with the road congested and constricted. I had no chance of making the final start time of 9am, let alone my chosen one of 8. I reluctantly bailed out at the next junction and drove slowly home, to spend the rest of the day hanging doors in the kitchen.

The race was a great success, 50 starters, 37 finishers, a fine day out by all accounts.

The following day I made my weekly trip over the Pennines to visit my mum in Sheffield; there was barely a scrape of snow on the road the whole way. That's life.

But the year wasn't all bad, review in a few days.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Chewing the Fat and the Need for Speed

Clearly titles for two posts here; I've been thinking about both recently but eventually realised that they really are related so you get the double helping. The result is likely to be one of my lengthy ramblings but I'm hoping to draw some conclusions relevant to the middle-to-back-of-pack performer like me, so if you're interested pour yourself a G&T (or whatever other aid to thought you favour) and hang in for a while.

Since I started in 2007 I've covered a bit of ground and learned a lot. I've started 21 ultras and finished 18 of them. I know that I can run a fairly creditable 10 hour race and an acceptable 24, but I'm useless at the longer 30+ hour events. I don't suffer from sore feet or aching muscles, I just run out of steam. I was convinced this was a nutrition problem, don't eat enough during the event, run out of fuel. I've spent the last couple of years trying to find ways to cure this, what do you eat after you've just stuffed in your twenty-third gel of the day and nothing at all seems even vaguely palatable. I think I've tried everything, nothing works well.  I've finished several races on nothing but chicken noodle soup and coke for a marathon or two, worrying all the time that this isn't enough to get by on.

I had an inkling that there might be another way after this year's Lakeland 100.  Reading the winner Stuart Mills' report he seemed to cruise round on a few cups of coke and a handful of Jaffa Cakes. I asked about his nutrition strategy and he replied with a really interesting blog entitled "Race Nutrition - is More Always Better?" Now Stuart's a scientist and argues a detailed case but the main points I took out were (a) in ultras you run at a low enough intensity for fat rather than carbohydrate to be your prime fuel source, and (b) don't waste valuable liquid in digesting carbs - use it to keep hydrated for running! He also said that he did the majority of his training without eating. It raised some discussion in the comments of course, and I guess because it was so opposite to everything I thought I knew that I was pretty sceptical myself, after all Stuart's a class runner, probably anything works for him. I had also heard Joss Naylor talk about "going 50 or 60 miles without anything to eat or drink" but again this is a special character, his rules are not for the rest of us.

But then I entered the Lakeland 100 again for next year, and race director Marc Laithwaite started sending out a series of training articles. The first ones were pretty obvious, along the lines of "if you're going to take part in a race with hills, over uneven ground, carrying a rucsack, then you have to train on hills, over uneven ground, with a rucsack", etc, but then the third one a couple of weeks ago was on nutrition. Marc seemed to be saying pretty much what Stuart had advocated, but it was put together in such simple language that it had a big impact. I was impressed, and recommended it to John Kynaston who also found it interesting and put it on his blog. John's blog is widely followed so it immediately caused some debate, which I'll come back to in a moment. What Marc's article basically said was
- when you run an ultra, a percentage of your fuel is going to come from stored fat
- the longer you run for, the higher this percentage gets
- you can't substitute carbohydrate for fat beyond a certain point, because you can't absorb it fast enough
- to get more efficient at burning fat you have to practice
- when you practice this, you go slower and you don't feel great, but it's training so just get on with it, it will pay off.
For a simple player like me this makes great sense, a bit of an eye-opener. I'm certainly going to give it a go.

The arguments against are mainly of degree, ie it's not that simple, everyone's different,  and of course you need a certain amount of carbs for optimum performance, etc. That's fair, but it shouldn't stop you trying to get better access to a huge store of energy you already possess.  The other disadvantage put forward is that the training might be unpleasant - one comment on John's blog talked of  ".......the thought of turning enjoyable long runs into dispiriting hungry plods...".  Well actually I haven't found that so far. In the past two weeks I've tried two 16 mile runs and a 20 miler all on the "no breakfast, no carbs en route" regime.  What happens, for me at least, is that for the first couple of hours everything seems normal, then I do tire and have to slow down, but by then I know the end is not so far away. I'm sure it's purely psychological at this stage but it seems to get easier each time and I'll start pushing the time/duration out progressively in the new year.

The other mental leap I think I've made in taking on board the fat-burning principle is that as I build confidence in it, I don't have to worry about not eating much in the later stages of a race. I'm sure in a couple of my DNF's I've actually thought myself out of contention by convincing myself that I couldn't possibly finish on the fuel I was taking in (the rational engineer overcoming the passionate ultra-runner!) Stuart again presses that it's not just 50% of ultra-running that's in your head but "a lot more than that" - if you start off with the absolute conviction that you will succeed, then you will. So maybe the confidence that come what may, the fat reserves will get you home, is a big barrier removed.

Andy Dubois, another runner whose opinions I value not particularly because he is another trainer/sports scientist but because of his sub 23 hour completion of the Hardmoors 110 miler in truly appalling conditions this September, strongly advocates sticking with carbs in both racing and training on the grounds that when you run on fat alone you simply don't go fast enough - remember the Seb Coe quote "long slow runs make long slow runners"? - and if you train slow, you'll race slow. But a key (for me) observation he makes is that "......unless I run at 10 minute miles or slower, I need carbs after around 90 minutes.....". Think about this. I never run faster than 10 minute miles in a 100 mile ultra unless it's downhill. We weekend warriors at the gentlemen's end of the field should be wary of getting too caught up in the area of debate that applies mainly to elite athletes.  But I believe Andy does have something of a point relative to the masses when he talks of training at speed, and this leads me nicely into part 2, if you're still with me.

I hate speed training, if you follow my ramblings you'll know that already. All that sweaty effort, continually out of breath, not my style, we go running for fun don't we? I stopped running 10k's and don't really enjoy half marathons, no time to chat or admire the views. But when I started running a few years ago I had an ambition to do a 3.30 marathon so a certain amount of speedwork was called for. I did my tempo runs, my Yassos and so on. Apart from being unpleasant it tended to give me niggling injuries, hamstring pulls, calf pains, you know the sort of thing. Eventually the spring of 2008 saw me break the 3.30, I did it again in 2009 to prove it wasn't a fluke and I thought great, that's it, no more speed training for me. I still enjoy marathons so March this year saw me trundle round a very flat Barcelona course in 3.37, a satisfied medal collector. I enjoyed my summer of ultras and long slow training runs in the hills.

By the end of August I was feeling tired, and I hadn't felt any sharpness at all in my last two ultras. I took a month off running in September to recharge the batteries and take stock. I began to think a bit about speed.

On the UTMB site there is a series of videos called "Get Ready For" which gives training advice. In the one entitled "Improve Your Speed" I was amazed at the recommended tempo training for a race which for me had always meant walking up a lot of big hills and shambling slowly down the other side. There was a discussion on the WHW forum, I forget the actual thread but contributors were comparing effort and enjoyment and someone referred to "an enjoyable plod over the hills"; it hit me quite sharply, that's what I do, enjoyable plods over the hills. I started looking at other ultra-runners training paces where I could find them on their blogs, they were nearly all doing some significantly faster runs than I was. So when I started running again in October I gradually introduced some speed once a week; not long distances, maybe 3 or 4 miles in the middle of a six mile outing; it didn't seem too bad, but even that small amount seemed to have a dramatic effect on what I considered a comfortable speed for a cruisy 6 or 8 miles, it went from 8.30 miles to 8 minute miles in a couple of weeks. In the Snowdonia marathon at the end of the month I got round in 3 hours 40, the equivalent of way under 3.30 on a flat course. A lesson learned ,a bit of speedwork does hurt, but the reward to effort ratio is very high. Three years with a good physiotherapist and a bit of discipline in stretching and core exercise seems to have cured my propensity to niggling injuries, so speed has to stay for me. I copied one of John K's workouts recently doing alternate 6.45 and 8.15 miles, something I wouldn't have contemplated even 3 months ago; I think I might even have enjoyed it!

So where does this leave this very average ultra runner. Well, our lessons are hard won in this game, but all the more valuable for that. My plans for the future will now include

1. Learn to burn fat. It may not be the whole answer but it certainly works in my head. I won't be forcing down carbohydrates in races any more.
2. Get the heart rate up with some speedwork once a week. Then when you need that burst of energy, it's there.

My final outing of the year next weekend is the inaugural "Tour de Helvellyn en Hiver", 36 miles over what looks like being a pretty white landscape with a fair bit of up and down. Looking forward to it.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Snowdonia Marathon

Ninety-seven, ninety-eight, ninety-nine, a hundred - come on wimp, time to start running again. The rain seems to be relenting a bit even if the hill isn't. Creak back into action, overtaking people now, everyone else around still walking, a marshal shouts encouragement, how far to the top I ask, about four hundred yards, that's OK, I'll make it now, no more walking then downhill all the way to the finish, way to go.

The Snowdonia was apparently voted Runner's World favourite marathon a couple of years back, rather strange because it's a bit of a toughie. Not as hard as Beachy Head, judging by Stuart Mills report a week or so a go, but still plenty of up and down. You're unlikely to get great weather in the hills at the end of October either, so it must be the scenery that attracts people, and although it's pretty well on my doorstep I still find it a great place to go running. I last did the race in 2006 when I was getting close to 3.30 on the flat and came in at 3.57  -  that's what the hills do to you.

At 11pm on Friday the weather forecast was good, chance of precipitation light, but this is North Wales of course so by the time I turned up in Llanberis on Saturday morning to check in, it was uniformly grey and sheeting down. Competitors huddled in the Community Centre, cars, bus shelters and other sources of protection, until about 15 minutes before the start we all braved the couple of hundred yards up the road to the line. The weather was improving, the organiser assured us, so about half of us stuffed our rainjackets in our belts and off went the hooter.

A gentle mile or so along Llyn Peris is a good warmer-up, then the first bit of work has to be done. From Nant Peris to the Pen y Pass about three and a half miles further on, the road rises 800ft.  I walked bits of this last time but I must be a bit further up the field because no-one around me is walking and I definitely don't want to be the first to start. I'm breathing heavily at the top of the pass but not worried because I know there is a long downhill coming. I don't look at my watch until half way in marathons these days, just go with the flow seems to work best for me, and from Pen y Pass down to Beddgelert over nine miles further on there's a lot of flow to go with - a thousand feet of descent with no appreciable uphills and great views - just enjoy it while you can! One section goes off road for a couple of miles down a steep, stony but wonderfully runnable jeep track; the road runners hesitate, the trail guys accelerate, I overtake a lot of people. Then gentle roads to Beddgelert, chat to a few people, easy running, the rain comes and goes. Beddgelert affects us two ways, it's half way, the good news, but signals the start of the next hill, the bad news. I look at my watch at half way, 1.45, faster than I was expecting but I won't keep up this pace, the hills are harder and longer in the second half.

The rise out of Beddgelert is about 500ft in three miles; not too steep, but not steep enough to excuse a real slowdown; you've lost the freshness of the start but still need to keep something for what is still to come, gruelling stuff, probably the worst part of the course mentally for me. But then it's done and we're onto the undulating country through Rhyd Ddu and along the peaceful Llyn Cwellyn, the newly-built Welsh Highland Railway tracking us to the right, no trains in evidence today. Time to take in some gels, and drinks from the friendly youngsters at the feed stations, the shouts of "isotonic!" always trigger thoughts of G&T for me, no, put that out of your mind, there's a way to go yet. And so we approach Waun Fawr.

Waun Fawr! If you've done the race before, this name has been at the back of your mind since the start. Well, one way or another I suppose, I passed a girl a few miles back who said "Can't wait for Waun Fawr, then I can have a nice long walk!" At Waun Fawr, 22 miles in,  the course turns right and rises 700ft in two miles. As I turn the corner the rain turns to hail, typical. But deep down, this is what we come for, no options now just head down, grit your teeth and keep going. No need to save anything, it's downhill all the way from the top of this one. I run as far as I can, then move to 100 steps walking/ 100 steps running. This tactic is seeing me past a fair number of people. I'm sure the real athletes at the front run all of this but around me most of the field is walking, all my hilly ultras must be starting to pay off! It finally flattens out around the 24 mile mark, then a bit of level ground, then the downhill.
This must be one of the best marathon finishes anywhere. It's the steepest slope on the course, a jeep track giving way to a narrow lane, stony and a bit muddy today, but nowhere that you can't just let go in a full-on blast to the bottom. At the very bottom of the hill it's a right turn into Llanberis High Street for a crowd-lined final two or three hundred yards to the finish, brilliant!  I finished in 3:40:19 which allowing for the hilly nature of the course I was pretty happy with. A great day out and a first-class well-organised event, I'm sure I'll come again.

I've just noticed that the next race I had planned, the Doyen of the Downs near Brighton has been cancelled, so I'm looking forward to what will be the last one of the year for me now, the new 36-mile "Tour de Helvellyn" on 18th December. I'll have a couple of easy weeks then get myself off up to the Lakes to find out what the course is like.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Less is More?

You can tell it's darker evenings and the season's drawing slowly to an end  -  we all stop writing race reports and get philosophical, so here's a bit to shoot at if you like. It's not time yet for me to reflect on my year, still two or three outings left, plenty of time for the post mortem over the remains of Christmas, but I was interested in a comment on John K's blog a week or two back. He thought he had compromised his performance in the races he values by doing too many events overall; this year he ran five ultras where previously he concentrated on three. I guess those of us who also did several could all wonder the same thing.

It's difficult to find any accepted wisdom on this. I looked in the oracle, Doctor Tim Noakes' "Lore of Running" and found the following passages:  "My advice is therefore not to race marathons competitively more than once every four to six months. In fact, for the elite runners, it is best to race only one marathon every year," and "To reiterate the point I made earlier............I suggest that you race an absolute maximum of two marathons per year, or one marathon and one ultramarathon.........ideally there should be at least four, but preferably six, months between these races." And finally "Although you may be able to race two marathons per year, runners who wish to race ultramarathons regularly for more than a few years should limit these to one per year, with the possibility of running one other long race three to four months before, or four to five months after, the ultramarathon."

So a few points to JK's corner; but I think we should put the Noakes advice into some sort of context, in particular
1. I think he's generally focussing on athletes at the higher end of the performance range. I guess a two and a half hour marathon takes a bit out of you whoever you are,
2. It was written at least ten years ago, and thoughts on what is possible for the average runner must have progressed since then, and
3. By "ultramarathon" he is normally referring to his local Comrades event which is around 56 miles and although it has some hills it is on non-technical ground. So overall he's talking about races which are not too long and are run, in our terms, at a pretty fast pace.

I think the last is an interesting aspect because it prompts the question of whether a long or a short race (assuming both are endurance events) takes more out of you, so let's divert to this for a minute or two. I checked the best times I have done over the standard road distances in the past two or three years and they look like this:

Marathon 3-17-51
Half Marathon 1-33-57
10 Kilometer 42-35

If I plug my marathon time into a standard comparison calculator, my predicted half marathon and 10k times come out at at 1-34-55 and 43-03 so I think my actual times represent a statistically consistent effort. But how did the races feel? Well I'm a survey of one, but for me the shorter distances feel like much harder work at the time and normally take longer to recover from. In a marathon I can chat to other runners, enjoy the sights and after a good night's sleep I'm ready to run again the next day, but in a half I'm out of breath after 5 or 6 miles, by half way all I want to do is get to the end, and it's several days before I can run again. I've stopped doing 10k's, they just hurt too much. I think what happens is that so long as you have trained for the distance the longer races are kinder on your overall system  -  lower heart rate, shorter stride length, lower impact forces, etc.  This could translate into ultras. OK, so at the end of 100 miles you feel pretty whacked, but how much of this is due to sleep deprivation, less than brilliant nutrition, and so on? Physically, are you any worse than after (a much quicker paced) 50 miler?

There are plenty of runners out there completing a high number of ultras every year. Susan Donnelly and Rob Apple seem to knock off a hundred miler every other week in the summer, and nearer to home Jim Drummond has a similar record. This year John Vernon completed the LDWA Heart of Scotland (104 miles), the West Highland Way (95), the Lakeland 100 (104), the Grand Raid Pyrenees (100+) and the Hardmoors 110 (110), the last three in particular being very tough events. Look in the results tables of even just the UK ultras and you'll see plenty more examples. Ah, you may say, but these guys are going for a finish, not necessarily their best performance every time. Try harder and you won't do so many. It's tempting to agree with this view from personal experience. I set out this year with a similar programme to JV's; I was faster than him by 3,5 hours in the Heart of Scotland and by 5 hours in the West Highland Way, yet when it came to the Lakeland 100 I was forced to retire at 88 miles while John cruised on to a finish. Too much effort in the previous events? An easy conclusion but...............yes there has to be a "but". It could be that I just hadn't trained appropriately for the Lakeland event, or made some tactical mistakes on the day, or wasn't mentally up for it although I was physically OK, etc, etc.

Anyway, I'm now rather sceptical that you can decide to turn in a less-than-best performance in an ultra on any given day. I suggested to John K that he might consider concentrating on his "main" three races for best performance but do others for training, or for fun, or for whatever else but not flat out. His reply was interesting, along the lines of "I've tried to do that but once a race starts it's a race and I end up going much faster than I would in a training run". On reflection I think this is a fairly astute recognition of reality. My own plan this year was to run the Thames Trot 50, the Hardmoors 55 and the Heart of Scotland 100 for training, the Lakeland 100 just to finish, and other races for the best time I could get. I didn't feel any less exercised after the "training" events than after my "target" races, in fact the Lakeland 100 was for me the hardest as I didn't finish. So it does seem for me at least (and clearly for JK) that once I commit to an event I aproach it with all the tools I have in the bag at the time. It's easier to plan an easy day at say a road marathon where the effort is very even and predictable, but much less easy to plan and execute an "easy" ultra. I would be interested in other views on this.

But there are also runners at the sharp end completing multiple events successfully. I'm sure Richie Cunningham has done more ultras than me this year, and last year Jez Bragg got around the Lakeland 100 in 24 hours just two weeks after his third place in the Western States; these guys are clearly not "easing off" much!

One last point before I try to make some sense of all this. I'm pretty convinced after running 20-odd ultras in the past 4 years that you can have a tough race on the day without doing any medium term damage to your fitness. Since I understood what the game was about I have had three DNF's (two UTMB's and the Lakeland 100). In all cases I was fine after a sleep, sometimes in as little as a couple of hours. I think poor tactics (pacing, managing stops, nutritional, etc) played a part but I'm also wondering about the oft-quoted adage "50% of running ultras is in your head". I went into these events without the absolute certainty in my mind that I was going to finish, so I didn't.

So what is my conclusion?

Well , I think the starting point for running multiple ultras per year is that you have to train for the effort involved in the event  - ie you have to be able to cope with the distance, height gain, ground underfoot, etc. Many people complete an ultra without getting to this stage  -  you may disagree with me here but I think if you're still hurting physically a week or so later then you didn't put the appropriate work in beforehand. You compensated with a lot of mental strength and I really respect that, but you're not going to repeat the effort three weeks later.

If you've ticked that box then I think that the only thing that stops you setting out again is if you genuinely feel fatigued and "not up for it". I don't believe that one or two disappointing results proves that you're doing too much; so many things can happen on the day to produce these that I think you have to move on from the last event and not let it bother you.  If I get to the end of my plan this year I will have run an average of one event per month (a half marathon, two marathons, and nine ultras). I've been pleased with some and disappointed with others. I'll review the year at its end but at the moment my feeling is that I may cut one or two out next year because I want to spend a bit more time climbing, but in general it works for me OK. Would I do better if I cut the number of races dramatically? I believe not, but I'll never know because I enjoy the events and that's not what I'm going to do!

Thursday, 30 September 2010


Hang them up?

Maybe it's just me but running sometimes seems like a funny old game. One day it occupies most of your waking thoughts and the next you just don't want to know.  I was happy enough on finishing the reorganised UTMB race at the end of August, but afterwards I just couldn't seem to get going again, so I've taken the whole of September off. No runs  -  well just one but I'll come to that later. I cancelled my entry for the Brussels marathon in early October and set about doing other things.

After the TMB Jan and I stayed on in Chamonix for a week, walking trails we have known for many years in the now perfect weather, with views that I'm sure can't be bettered anywhere in this continent.

Typically for Chamonix they even have a "garcons de cafe" race (each waiter has to carry a tray of drinks and not spill a drop or they are disqualified!) before the end of the season............

Then Jan went home and I picked up John from the airport and we spent a superb week on the slabs and walls of central Switzerland

I started to think a bit about running again, and we had times when I could have gone out but I still somehow never got around to it. 

So I came home and spent an annual 3 days in the Lakes with some old school friends, people with whom I first walked the hills fifty years ago; we had some beautiful days over Crinkle Crags, Bow Fell and Fairfield, great evenings in the pub afterwards and are already looking forward to the same time next year.

And then near the end of the month I took myself over to Yorkshire to meet the man of Steele and help out a bit with the Hardmoors 110 race.  Marshalling at Bloworth Crossing was my little task, so I followed in the year-old footprints, or maybe that should be tent-prints, of the peerless Murdo tM to set up my stall on the moors late Friday evening and wait for the runners to appear.

It blew all night and rained pretty often, turning what is already a very tough event into one of some attrition. Thirty competitors started out from Helmsley and twenty three made to my checkpoint thirty-seven miles in. I was surprised there were so many. They all seemed cheerful enough but several more dropped out at Kildale, six miles further down the track directly into the teeth of the northerly gale. With the sweeper through at 5am I could settle down to some sleep before packing up and walking back to my car in time for a late breakfast. I had agreed to marshal again at the finish so on the way I called in at the wonderfully situated Whitby checkpoint in the Abbey grounds, previously the fiefdom of Transylvanian Mike, where I was welcomed with tea and chat by Mrs MacPirate. We had assumed that those who made it across the moors in the rain, wind and dark would find some respite down the coast in brightening weather with the wind now behind them. By the time I got to the finish at Filey a very different picture was emerging. The wind veered and the rain returned presenting runners with a vicious crosswind and driving spray at any point that they weren't well above the sea. One of the most serious obstacles on the whole route was Scarborough sea front at around the hundred mile mark, impassable due to the height of the waves, forcing runners to find a drier alternative up in the town. Andy Dubois' winning time of  22hours38 was a class performance in the conditions. 11 competitors won through to the end, the final one being the indefatigable John Vernon completing his fifth hundred mile race in as many months. I enjoyed the experience and thought I might have a go in the future, the weather surely can't be as bad again............can it?

But I did put my trainers on again once in the month, on the 19th.  Newcastle's Great North Run has been a family tradition for us for seven or eight years now, Jan, Julia, and my brother Nick were all registered to run, the hotel was booked, so I went. I wasn't sure how to run. From previous results I had been allocated a start position very near the front (sounds impressive, but I think the first batch covers anyone who can get under about 1,40!), so in the end when the gun went off I just went with the flow. I didn't look at my watch until about ten miles, and by then I couldn't do the calculation to work out what it meant so I just sidled on to the end, running as hard as I could without feeling uncomfortable (well, the band, beer and burgers at the end always make it all worthwhile). I hadn't got below about a nine minute mile in the two or three months previously so I was pleased to get home in 1.37.34, within three and a half minutes of my PB.  The family all finished ok.

It was probably a bit of a daft stunt and my hamstrings were still tight a week later but I avoided injury and enjoyed the run. It made me think a bit. I do read so many tales of enthusiastic people wanting to run who can't because of injury or illness or time constraints and so on. I'm very lucky to be able to do what I do. There's the Snowdonia Marathon, mainly a road event but with I think about 2000ft of ascent to make it interesting and in stunning country, coming up in just over four weeks time.

Tomorrow is the first day of October. I'm going to start running again.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Cham Story 2010

I think it's worth telling a bit of the tale of the dramatic events in and around Chamonix last weekend, in which the real winners were British Ultra Running and probably The North Face company, as a background to my very small part in them. So if you're interested, pour yourself a dram or a G&T or whatever, and settle down as you may be involved a while.

The Background

The last weekend in August in Chamonix is now firmly established as the "Ultra Trail" weekend. It started with the first running of the "Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc" in 2003, and has grown in popularity over subsequent years to reach its current status as the annual pinnacle of the ultra calendar in Europe if not the world. There are now three races each year involving over 5000 runners:

- the "Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix" (CCC), 98k and 5600m of ascent, with 1800 runners, starting in Courmayeur at 10am on the Friday, with a maximum allowed time of 26 hours
- the "Traces des Ducs de Savoie" (TDS), 111k and 7000m of ascent, with 1200 runners, starting in Courmayeur at midnight Friday and following a somewhat wilder route back to Chamonix in a maximum time of 32 hours
- and of course the original big one, the "Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc" (UTMB), in which 2300 runners start from Chamonix at 6.30pm on Friday evening and have 46 hours to find their way back via an enourmous loop loosely following the classic "Tour du Mont Blanc" walking trail. The first half to Courmayeur is 78k and 4400m of ascent, and the tougher return leg, on a route mainly along the same route as the CCC, is 88k and 5100m of ascent making a massive 166k and 9500m in total.

To put these into some sort of UK context, the general feeling is that as undertakings, the CCC is a little bit easier than the West Highland Way, the TDS a little bit harder, and the UTMB in a different league.  Before this year, in spite of some pretty adverse weather at times, all the races which were planned went on to start and be completed.

Demand for places in the UTMB is high and a ballot is held in January. This year I missed out, but was able to progress to an automatic entry into the TDS and a guaranteed UTMB entry next year, so with that objective I drove out to Chamonix a week before the race, did a couple of acclimatisation runs then generally lazed about for a few days. The weather was great, sunshine and blue skies. There was a forecast for some rain on Friday then showers on Saturday but no dire warnings involved. A number of friends from the WHW family were in town for the various races and spirits were high.

Friday 27 August

We woke up to the sound of rain and a message from the UTMB organisation on our mobile phones (a mandatory piece of kit for participants!) - "weather conditions rain wind cold Provide the necessary equipment". We had breakfast, it rained. A number of us had arranged to meet up near the "pointy man statue" for a chat and coffee before retiring to our beds again for last chance sleeps. As we turned up from various directions it rained - it was just as well  there was a tent errected near the statue. We waited for an easing in the rain so we could make it to the cafe a hundred yards away; there wasn't one so we got wetter. Unbeknown to us the CCC was just starting in identical weather conditions. An hour later we left the cafe and walked home in the rain. Later it stopped. Then it started again.

At 6.30 the UTMB got under way in a slight easing of the weather. Not long after it was raining again. I was due to get a bus at 10.00pm to go to Courmayeur for the start of the TDS. I walked up to the Sports Centre in the rain, there were a lot of people still there although the buses were supposed to have been shuttling runners over from 8pm. I got a phone call from George Reid and John Malcolm, also up for the TDS and booked on the 9pm bus - "we're still here, and they're talking about calling off the race". I went and found them. It was one of those situations where information comes bit at a time, sometimes conflicting and you're never quite sure what to believe. The first thing we heard was that because of the heavy rain, strong winds on the Col du Bonhomme, and mud slides causing the route markers to be washed away on the Col de la Seine, the UTMB had been stopped; runners were being brought back from St Gervais and Les Contamines.

It was clear that the TDS buses were going nowhere so we all gathered in the Sports Centre out of the rain. We first heard that the TDS start would be delayed until at least 3am, then until at least 5am, the organisation would make a decision by 2am latest. Could we go home and get some sleep? No we must stay here because if a positive decision was made we would go to Courmayeur asap. We scattered around the floor and dozed. Though not properly asleep, I was roused by George at around 12.30 - "It's off, have a beer". Well at least there was plenty of that around. A drink and a shrug and we all went our separate ways, it was clearly all over until l'anee prochain. I wandered back through town philosophically. At least we hadn't had a soaking three or four hours on the trail like the UTMB guys.

Saturday 28th August

Back at the hotel I lay down, tired but brain still wandering over events, unable to sleep. I was just starting to doze off when we had another text from UTMB "TDS/UTMB to depart Sat 28th course Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix buses leave Sports Centre Chamonix from 0630" This meant that all the TDS and UTMB runners were offered a race along the second half of the UTMB course. It wasn't what I'd come for but I would kick myself if the weather turned a bit better and it would still be a good ultra. The buses would take a couple of hours at least, I'd set an alarm an get a later one. Still unable to sleep, I was roused again by a second text "Due to cancellation of CCC and repatriation of runners, bus departs for Courmayeur now limited to 1000 runners". Because of flash flooding on the section between the Col de Montets and Flegere, the CCC had been stopped. 400 runners had passed this point, the rest were now being bussed back from all down the course, creating a shortage of buses.(Incidentally, those who finished the CCC and those who were still going when it was stopped had all put up a pretty heroic performance in truly appalling conditions)

Effectively, this meant that out of the TDS and UTMB fields, the first 1000 to turn up at the bus stop would get to race. It was now 5am. If I was going, I had to get my stuff organised and go. I looked outside again, the rain was like stair-rods. But these are the times when you remember that this sport isn't exactly about comfort, so out I went. One of the first people I met in the bus queue was Shirley, one of the few WHW folk I hadn't met so far this week. She's been stopped at St Gervais on the UTMB, had a few beers then made it back. "I think I'm still slightly drunk". We had to queue in an orderly line and this was out in the rain of course. I don't know how the cutoff was managed but we got on the bus.

Amazingly, as we drove out of the Mont Blanc tunnel into Italy we were greeted by blue sky. We got out at the Courmayeur Sports Centre and grabbed what was available for breakfast. Although we hadn't communicated during the night, all the usual suspects were there - George, John, Ritchie, Drew and the others, it clearly takes more than a drop of rain to halt the Tartan Army. Before we left to walk through the town to the start we put on sun screen.......

The Race

The start was scheduled for 10, but we eventually got under way at 10.15, a little circuit of the town then up the hill to the Bertone Hut. I knew what was going to happen here but I didn't have the energy starting out to prevent it affecting me. At least a thousand closely packed runners (it turned out that in the end there were 1250 starters) were going to run uphill for a couple of miles and then converge onto a single track which effectively goes on for the next 6 or 7 miles. If you were near the back (of course I was, even if I'm not tired it's my normal tactic) your pace was going to be set by the guy in front for the next couple of hours or so. The modern CCC follows a different route initially to thin the field out, but we were on the UTMB route; the same thing had happened to me on this, the "old" CCC route when I ran that race in 2007.

Still I was happy to go with the flow, up the long 900m climb to the Bertone, then along the wonderful slightly undulating balcony to the next checkpoint at the Bonatti Hut. The weather was fine, the ground underfoot seemed to be drying out well, the views were as good as ever and it was great to be doing something after all the frustrations of the night. It wasn't to last though, as we descended to the next checkpoint at Arnuva it was clouding over again and a chill wind was springing up. The mist turned to drizzle and it was rain jackets on for the climb up to the Col de Grand Ferret, at just over 2500m the highest point on the course. I was glad to get my jacket on. In spite of all my pre-race concentration on lightening my load, when it came to setting out in the prevailing conditions I had opted for a fairly heavy jacket and overtrousers - my packed seemed to weigh a ton as normal.  The lack of sun affected the ground underfoot on the climb, slippery mud most of the way, without poles I would have struggled to make progress as I was as usual wearing road shoes. It's an honest climb though, nothing sneaky, and the top seemed to come fairly quickly.

The descent was the real disappointment. From the col down to La Fouly is usually 10 kilometeres of wonderfully runnable wide track at a perfect descending gradient, 8 minute mile territory even for me. Today it was run, slip, check, adjust, almost stop, start again, all the way down. I kept thinking how it would be in Rocklites......

Just before La Fouly I met up with two other Brits, Ken and Dave, and I travelled on with them for quite a way. The long gentle descent down the Swiss Val Ferret went easily, and the nicely graded 300m climb up to Champex at the end wasn't too bad. Plenty of people were eating and suiting up for the night here, but we agreed on a brief pause to top up water and press on to make best use of the remaining daylight.

Champex was half distance maybe a bit more on this course, but everyone who has been along this way will tell you that this is where the work starts. The cruel finish to the end of the UTMB, three big climbs each with their own particular brand of challenge. The first one is Bovine, the most technical ascent on the UTMB, a jumble of tree roots and boulders where no real rhythm is possible. Half way up here we had to put on our torches. The long descent from the top down to Trient is usually pretty harmless but tonight we got the first inkling of what was to come; mud at times worthy of Rotherham had us lurching and sliding in the darkness most of the way down. At the Trient checkpoint I decided to rest and have something to eat, and to change into a dry shirt - I'd brought all this stuff, I might as well use it! Ken and Dave were going strongly so I told them to press on.

Eventually I pulled out of Trient for the second of the three climbs. This one is OK going up; long and steep but a good rocky path underfoot, I just latched onto a small caravan of runners going at about the pace I wanted and shut my brain down until we got to the top, graced by a small tent, one marshal and a bonfire - a long night out for him. The weather was looking much better now though, the sky had cleared and the temperature really started to drop. On these long uphills at night you occasionally look up to see the dots of headtorches ahead of you - at one point as the ground had started to level off I saw lights way higher than I expected, a real moment of deflation until I realised there was something familiar about the pattern of the lights I was looking at - it was the tail of the Plough constellation, breathe again!  But the sting in this section was on the descent - it's muddy at the best of times, tonight it was just horrendous, I'm sure I went slower on the descent than on the up. I was glad to get to Vallorcine, a bowl of soup and a cup of tea.

At Vallorcine you used to be able to think quite justifiably that the UTMB, or the CCC, whichever was your course, was in the bag. A gentle ascent up to the Col de Montets up the ancient Chemin des Diligences (coach road), then an undulating but benign 5 or 6 miles down the valley to Chamonix. Then some massochist in the organisation decided that a little more spice was required. From the Col de Montets you climb 60 steep and rocky zigzags then rock slabs and boulders to gain another 800m to the Tete aux Vents, after which you follow an undulating rocky track on which there is barely a hundred yards where you don't have to place each foot (and sometimes hand) with care, for several kilometers to the Flegere checkpoint. I had to dig quite deep on this stretch, I was slow, and by the time I reached La Flegere the daylight of Sunday had arrived. I was just about to leave the checkpoint when Neil MacRitchie came in looking fitter than I felt. We started down together but as he broke into a run I carried on walking. There was still a final 50m to climb, but strange things happen in ultras and when I was half way up it I suddenly started to feel some energy flooding back. From the top of the rise I jogged all the way down into the valley and through Chamonix to the finish, beating my "predicted arrival time" (which had been automatically texted to Jan by the organisation, based on my location and recent speed) by 15 minutes, so by the time she arrived I had collected my goodies, had a rest and was chatting to Neil, having picked up 20 or so places on the final stretch.

I was also met by Mike (M Gilet Rouge) and his wife Gill, to be first congratulated and then sternly admonished that the "UTMB Finisher" vest which everyone in this rearranged race had collected was definitely fraudulent and would not be recognised on any occasion in which I wore it in his sight. After a solid breakfast and a couple of hours sleep I was ready for the day where we caught up with what had been going on. Jez had at last shown the world that he really is the star that we all knew he was by winning the race outright, and Lizzy Hawker took the ladies' prize to complete a UK whitewash which probably won't go down too well with the locals but sent our gang home happy. Ritchie's training miles paid off again as he came home third Brit (or first Scot, which he probably considers far more important). John Malcolm had a storming run, and there were the usual impressive finishes from George, Drew, and the rest of the contingent. Shirley must have sobered up along the way because she finished well, along with Helen.


I was happy with my race although the performance wasn't one of my best. I ran this course (the then CCC) in 2007 finishing in about 17 and a half hours. The new finish over to Flegere probably adds a couple of hours, conditions were much worse, especially the muddy night-time descents, the events of the preceding 12-15 hours weren't condusive to a relaxed starting condition,  and I'm three years older, but even so  my time of 21:40 was pretty unspectacular.  Against this, I was in good shape at the finish and never felt at any time that I was in danger of not completing the course. Although I felt I slowed up a lot in the second half this was no more than those around me as I continued to pick up places steadily through to the end, rising from position 1061 at the Bonatti to 781 at the end. Maybe in future I should heed the wise words of Murdo tM, who I know always felt I had taken on a bit too much this year in doing 4 long ultras as well as a handful of "10-12 hour" races.

But the impressive statistics were (a) that the race took place at all - the amount of rethinking and on-the-feet reorganisation done by the race directors and their crews during the harrowing Friday night was truly amazing, and (b) how well the runners responded to this. Normally in the Chamonix races, in good conditions, drop-out rates of 30-40% and higher are commonplace each year. At 10am on Saturday morning,  runners assembled for the reorganised race in Courmayeur. None of them had had more than an hour or two's sleep, all of them had already got extremely wet in the preceeding 12 hours, many of them had run 15 or 20 miles in very poor conditions the night before. They faced a course ankle-deep in mud for many miles, and no-one knew what the state of the last section (closed 6 hours earlier to the CCC) would be when they eventually got there. 1250 started from Courmayeur; 1127 finished.


On Monday it was still a bit rainy. Jan and I drove round to the Giannada Foundation in Martigny where there is normally a good art exhibition on. Afterwards, out of interest, we drove up the Swiss Val Ferret until we could see up to the Col de Grand Ferret. It was completely white with snow.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Pack your bag and go?

One of the great things about running a supported race such as the West Highland Way is that you don't have to carry much. A water bottle and a couple of Mars Bars seems to be the norm for most of the people you see, probably less than you take on a typical day out training, and this means that the running is pretty enjoyable. A glance at some of the leaders in the American events suggests that even items such as shirts and hats are superfluous if you can rely on your team turning up with anything you might need at the next aid station. 

Now go along to an unsupported event and it's a different game. You first carry everything the organisers insist you take, which is usually quite a lot of stuff. If you're like me you then throw in everything that you think you might need, or that might make your journey a bit more pleasant (a small flask of your distillation of choice for example to see you through the hard times...) and you end up STUFF. Yes it feels like capital letters. Stuff that makes breaking into a jog on anything other than a significant downhill a decidedly unattractive proposition.

So I was quite surprised to see on Jez Bragg's blog that he thought the introduction of a minimum weight of rucsac rule for the UTMB races was a good thing as it would stop people "travelling light". Now the minimum weight is, wait (or should I say weight) for it,  ONE KG! (or 2kg including a litre of water as you leave each aid station). I have jackets that must weigh more than a kilogramme, so I've clearly been getting something wrong here. So I decided to be a bit more scientific and see what I could get the weight of my pack down to.

First, here are the "obligatory" items

Rucsac  487g (one of the smallest Raidlight ones with all the stuff I don't use cut off)
Waterproof Jacket 224g
2 torches with batteries 130g
1 set of spare batteries 35g
Whistle 5g
Bandage 15g
Space blanket 35g
Cup 25g
Phone 91g
Bladder and tube 93g
Emergency food (say 2 gels) 66g
Passport 28g

This lot comes to nearly 1300g. Personally, I wouldn't go without a light fleece, warm hat and gloves,a few blister plasters and some vaseline, and a bit more food than this, adding on another 500g or so, so just how do these guys do it?

But at least the exercise has got me down to a pack of around 2kg (3kg with water), so I'll leave out the manhole cover and 2 extra sandbags and see if it makes a difference this time.

Thursday, 19 August 2010


I wanted a last solid day in the hills before leaving for Chamonix and the TDS; I'd done enough miles on forest tracks for the week already but I needed a bit of serious height gain, so I decided I would have some Snowdons.

Now Snowdon is a maligned, overcrowded, rather desecrated old heap of stones but I still love it. Like Mont Blanc in its own way, it has everything  -  one of the best climbing crags in Wales at Clogwyn Du'r Arddu ("Cloggy"), the high Trinity face which holds good snow most winters, and about ten largely independent footpaths to the summit - broad tracks for easy running, rocky scrambles, knife-edged ridges, grassy cwms, something for everyone. And just an hour's drive away, I can't complain.

The forecast was good for a change, the alarm went off at six, but I loitered in bed and lingered over breakfast, so it was past eight o'clock when I finally tumbled out of the car in Llanberis.  No early starters today, a bit of activity at the railway station but no-one on the track yet.  I eased into a steady pace for the first few miles to the summit. As went I thought about the food experiment I was going to make. I read Stuart Mills' blog about his winning run in the Lakeland 100 a few weeks ago, and it seemed that he ate very little so I asked him about it. His theory is that if you're running at a demanding pace (say in a marathon) then your body needs carbohydrates, but if you're going much more easily as you do in an ultra it will switch to consuming fat, of which we all have plenty. If our "intelligent" scales at home are to be believed I have about 20% body fat, about 14kg, well that should be good for 500 miles at least so using up a bit of it going up Snowdon should be easy. So I had taken just one or two gels for emergencies, otherwise just water.

It was a treat to be on this track, usually so crowded, on my own on a sunny morning, the miles drifted by

   Cloggy from the Llanberis track in the morning sunshine 

    Looking back down the track towards Halfway House and Llanberis 

and I was soon on the summit. Off down the Miners' Track, usually considered the easiest way up from the Pen y Pass side, although its initial descent is every bit as technical as the far superior Pyg Track, but it has the advantage that once down this first bit it's an easy run all the way down to Pen y Pass. Into the cafe to top up water and my no food strategy was immediately blown. The place had been poshed up a bit since my last visit, and the array of cakes on the counter was just too tempting. I'll have one of those I said, pointing at a thinnish scone-looking affair; they come in twos said the lady serving, with butter and jam. So that was that but I did feel a little slowed down starting out again.

Next objective was the classic "Snowdon Horseshoe" round, up over Crib Goch and Crib y Ddysgl and down over Lliwedd. The 2000ft from Pen y Pass to Crib Goch looked big, come on, just get stuck in, there's a 2000ft climb round every corner on the TMB, so it was done. The morning was wearing on as I threaded my way though the traffic on the Crib Goch ridge and pinnacles. The crowds were friendly, everyone prepared to wait a second or two when it was clear I was going faster. I've been coming along here for at least 45 years so I can remember pretty well every hand and foothold by now, but it's always an entertaining stretch.

   Looking back over the Crib Goch pinnacles 

The only mist of the day caught me on the final ascent to Snowdon summit, which by now had succumbed to the normal Sunday lunchtime human battering, so I wasted no time in heading off down the first nasty 1000ft 
   Typical August Sunday on Snowdon summit

of the Watkin Path and out into the sunshine again. This second half of the Horseshoe always seems less crowded than the first, I guess because quite a lot of people don't quite know what they're taking on and bail out at Snowdon. Anyway the climb up to Lliwedd and descent that follows are a real pleasure in the now warm sunshine. 
   Lliwedd from the Pyg Track

As a one-off I would be trying to get as close as I could to three hours for the horseshoe circuit, but as part of this longer day I'm happy to be back at  Pen y Pass in three hours forty minutes after leaving. I know I'm a failed experimenter now, and the cafe gets hit for a cup of tea and a flapjack this time. I've planned my trip to avoid too many of the "haven't I seen you before today" comments you get when doing laps on the same mountain, but I do get one or two on the next stretch back up to Snowdon via the Pyg Track. I think this is one of my favourites, a long balcony with wonderful views over the lakes below, while at the same time a good enough surface to keep up a reasonable speed without having to think too hard.

   Crib Goch, with (top to bottom), the Horseshoe, Pyg, and Miners Tracks

Just as I emerged from the top of the zigzags to join the Llanberis track for the final five minutes to Snowdon summit I was passed by an uphill train, the hundred year old steam locomotive giving its all on the final steep incline. A stirring sight and sound, a million miles from the diesel drone that follows most trains on Snowdon. And the smell, that smell that you only get from steam, immediately bringing back childhood memories of trips to the seaside before cars figured much in the average person's life. If you really have to have a railway up a mountain, it ought to be memorable.

Back on Snowdon there was decision to be madeNo more easy options to Pen y Pass, next descent has to be 3000ft plus. Did I have time for one more ascent and two descents? Without really making a decision I headed off South-Westwards. At the junction I looked at the start of the South Ridge knife-edge, easier and less crowded than Crib Goch but somehow more elegant; no, that would lead me down to the Gwynant valley and a definite return in darkness, for which I had no torch. So I sloped off right down the long gently descending track to Rhyd Ddu.  Another fine route this one, dotted with families who know they can do it and want to get away from the hordes coming up from Llanberis. A gentle jog all the way to the village. The Cwellyn Arms was almost too tempting, but I still had ground to cover and settled for a swift half of coke and a packet of crisps.

   Final mile to Rhyd Ddu in lengthening shadows

Down the road a mile or two to the start of the Snowdon Ranger track. This starts with the best uphill of the day; long easy zigzags, compact smooth gravel underfoot, perfect angle, the sort of ground where you can really feel the four-wheel drive effect of the poles. TMB land in Wales. But about a third of the way up I had to take stock; if I carried on it would be dark or very nearly for the last few miles of descent, why turn a nice day out into a possible epic? So I turned off left, up over an easy grassy climb to a place that my generation will always refer to as the "Telegraph Col", though the posts from which this name came are long gone now. At 1550ft it saves me nearly 2000ft of up and 4 or 5 miles. The route down to Llanberis is a perfect balcony track down a lonely valley, even on an August Sunday; in the past it's been for us a mountain bike single track blast when the mood took us, or a walk from the hut in Llanberis over to the Cwellyn Arms for lunch on days when the weather permitted nothing else. This evening it was my get out of jail card, and I ran steadily all the way down to the town.

Back at the car, my Garmin said just over 31 miles and just under 13,000ft of ascent. Good enough. I ran out of time, not energy. And the two scones, one flapjack, and a packet of crisps kept me going, I was never hungry. I'm going to re-read Stuart's stuff, and although I still think a bit of regular carbohydrate input is good, I'm now more convinced that he's on to something. I never went particularly fast, I just kept going. Ready as I'll ever be for this year's Chamonix experience.


Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Birthdays and Heroes

Well last week another year clicked by. On Saturday I was at a nephew's wedding, the sort of occasion when you meet distant family that you haven't seen for years. Jan and I re-acquainted with many of our own generation; nice people, sensible souls who don't spend their spare time running hills, climbing rocks and ski-ing real snow. Sometimes of a morning when the first trip downstairs hasn't been great I wonder if I should join them. Plenty of people to ask if you're really sure you want to be doing this sort of thing nowadays. 

But we are who we are; the experiences we've had mould us, and so long as the good times outnumber the less good we'll keep coming back for more and be thankful that we can. We're not short of role models. Like Marco Olmo winning the UTMB outright at 59.  Joe Brown and Chris Bonington climbing in their seventies better than I ever did at any age. Joss Naylor seemingly running on forever.
These are the superstars of course, but less well known and often even more inspirational stories abound. In 1977 I was prompted to start a climbing diary (which I still keep up) by reading an article in the old "Climber and Rambler" magazine about a guy called Ivan Waller, who "had kept a meticulously accurate climbing diary since 1923" and at the time was still climbing. I kept the diary but didn't come across any other reference to Ivan until many years later when I browsed then bought a little book by Ronald Turnbull called "The Book of the Bivvy", which contains the following passage:

Once there was a man called Ivan Waller. In 1931 he climbed behind Colin Kirkus on a seriously overhanging route called Mickledore Grooves in the days when falling off generally meant death, or severe injury if you were really lucky.

What happens to mountaineers as they get older? They just turn into older mountaineers. At the age of 70 Ivan turned to the Munros and climbed 140 of them in two years to become Munroist number 207. Three years later he backpacked across Scotland in the Ultimate Challenge event. Still in his seventies he completed the 45 mile walk of the Lakeland 3000ft peaks in a day, and climbed Tower Ridge in winter conditions without causing the slightest anxiety to my cousin, who was his companion. He also traversed the Cuillin Ridge twice, the second time escorting an older companion. He considered the Corbetts: "This may be beyond my span because I still have more than 160 to do at 81 years of age  -  but a man can try".

Way to go. I'll now put this subject away until August 2011.