Sunday, 23 December 2012

Tour de Helvellyn en Hiver

For the first couple of years that I was involved in ultras, I ran the 50 mile Rotherham Round. It was in December; it was usually cold and wet, you started and finished in the dark and for half the course you were in mud above your ankles. But the organisers and marshals at every checkpoint were wonderful and the competitors loved it. I still remember the classic comment of the starter in the dark at 7am in the 2008 race  - "Don't believe the weather forecast, it's going to be a lovely day"  - of course it rained steadily from start to finish. But that's the thing about events in the winter, the conditions are an essential element in the plot; almost as if everyone's saying "OK England, we know you can do a bit of weather, so just bring it on!"  Then Rotherham was moved from December to October. I asked what the reason was and apparently the organisers were spending too much time trying to find lost runners all over South Yorkshire once darkness had fallen (navigation on the course can be tricky in places).  I've run it once since, in its new place in the calendar, and it's still a good outing, but a bit less problematic and so a bit less "special", if you know what I mean.

But when one door closes another usually opens and the excuse to avoid Christmas shopping and such distractions is now provided brilliantly by the "Tour de Helvellyn", which does exactly what it says on the tin on the shortest Saturday of the year. 2012 was the 3rd running of the event. I had entered in 2010 but was unable to make the start on account the whole west side of the country, including the M6, being under a foot of snow. Last year, the roads were OK but the Lake District was still completely snow covered, up to a couple of feet on the higher parts of the course, and we were treated to temperatures which varied from zero to minus quite a lot. This year would be different; flood warnings seemed to be out for half the country and the Met Office forecast for the Lakes included continuous heavy rain, winds up to gale force, wind chill and poor visibility. Yes, the TdH generally has weather.

The course is 38 miles long and by my reckoning has about 6200ft of ascent. It starts from Askham and first crosses Askham Moor to Howtown. On the moor there are tracks easy to follow which don't go where you want to go, and tracks difficult to follow which do - this becomes significant later in the day. In a normal year all this ground is boggy. From Howtown, briefly up to the first unmanned checkpoint at Martindale Church, then up Boredale for the first warm-up climb to Boredale Hause and down the other side to a manned checkpoint in Patterdale at the 10 mile point, where the actual circumnavigation of Helvellyn begins. A bit of narrow road up Glenridding then a steady climb over rough ground to Sticks Pass, the highest point on the course at about 2400ft, then a long descent, at first gentle but with a final quad-sapping few hundred feet down to Stannah Footbridge just above Thirlmere. A bouldery track for a couple of miles to a manned checkpoint at Swirls Car Park, then forest trails with numerous small ascents and descents lead southward above the lake to Dunmail Raise. The route turns for home here, ascending alongside Raise Beck to the col above Grisedale Tarn at around 1900ft, then down the long bouldery Grisedale track back to the Patterdale checkpoint. All you have then is the final 10 miles home, retracing your tracks of earlier in the day to the finish back in Askham.

After a five o'clock alarm and a quiet drive up to the Lakes through continuous heavy rain, I arrived at Asham village hall, checked in, and chatted to one or two people that I knew. We were all unreasonably cheerful, knowing how wet we were going to get over the next few hours, but that's the nature of the game I suppose. An unusual feature of the TdH is that there is no massed start - you start any time you choose between 7am and 9am and everyone's elapsed time is calculated at the end. Figuring that it will be light before I have to make any directional decisions, I wander out into the rainy darkness at about 7.45am. After half a mile a runner in the gloom ahead holds a gate for me and it turns out to be John Vernon - "no mistaking that hat" is his comment  -  so we walk and jog across the moor together. I'm not out to push myself today, just a satisfying completion in good shape is the target; half a stone too heavy and with not much real running in the past few weeks, I'm unlikely to break any records anyway. When it feels tough I slow down, when it feels good I speed up, that will do for today. The ground across the moor is very wet, and difficult to get the best track even in daylight. Just beyond the Cockpit there's a shout from behind we're passed by Dave Troman; he's having a storming year which will continue today as he goes on to a 5th place finish. A mile or so before Howtown I decide I want to go a bit quicker so I wish John well and leave him to the rest of his day. He finishes OK, he always does.

The staggered start works well. I guess if you're a real competitor it might be frustrating not to know exactly where you are in the field, but for most runners it means you pass and are passed by a lot of people so there is plenty of contact. We hit a bit of mist and wind over Boredale Hause but soon warm up on the nice descent down to Patterdale, tricky enough to keep you thinking but not tortuous. A quick top up of water bottle at the checkpoint then it's into the real meat of the race. The ascent of Sticks Pass goes well for me, this year there is no snow and you can see where the path is, and the uphill effort keeps you warm. I guess the temperature is about 6 or 7 degrees in the valleys, dropping as you climb but with freezing level just above the tops. The rain and wind make it feel colder though, and in conditions like these you are always wet, however good you think your gear is - it just varies from warm and wet to cold and wet. The first part of the descent is probably the most unpleasant part of the course today; the track is a continuous stream, and while everyone's feet have been wet since the first mile or so out of Askham, up here it's cold and wet so your feet slowly start to go numb and there's the feeling that they're not completely connected to the rest of you. It's good to get down to the checkpoint above Thirlmere where things are much warmer. The marshals are doing an amazing job today; continuous rain in temperatures not much above freezing must be about the worst to stand around in, and apart from the porch at Patterdale all the checkpoints are outside.

The section through the forest above the lake is a pleasant interlude, we seem to be a bit protected from the rain and wind, and I'm taking things easy and enjoying the day. Just at the point where the route swings up Raise Beck there is a photographer, another stalwart contribution to the day. I turn up the hill but he warns me that other runners doing this have had difficulty getting across the beck, so I detour a few yards down hill to the bridge to be on the safe side. The track up the beck is bouldery and quite steep, most people will use a hand on the rocks here and there, but deep in the gulley it is sheltered and calm and again I enjoy the ascent. Then we're out onto the very boggy traverse around the north side of Grisedale Tarn so it's cold feet again. The long track down Grisedale is bouldery with occasional rocky steps so difficult to get a good rhythm going, but halfway down it improves and then it's a nice downhill run all the way to Patterdale.  There is a 4.30pm cutoff here but I arrive at 2.30 so plenty in hand. 

For the climb back up to Boredale Hause the rain starts to slacken off for the first time, and maybe even stops for a while, but by the time we're back to Howtown it's back and will stay with us until the finish. From around Thirlmere until now I've been passing and repassing another runner, exchanging the odd word or two. We haven't run together because he is running faster than me but walking more often so our overall progress is about the same. He has stopped to check his map just ahead of me and I tell him to just keep going straight on. I show him the easiest way through Howtown from the church because there is an option here and we chat a bit. It turns out he is Phil Humphries from Edinburgh, who will be doing his first West Highland Way next year. Once we get on to the track on the moor I tell Phil to go on, because I will still take it easily on the uphills even though they're not steep on this section.

Just before the Cockpit I have to get my torch out, then I plot what I hope is my best way across the moor. The deeper bits of bog which were avoidable in the daylight are now undistinguishable from any other ground so I get pretty muddy in this final couple of miles. It's fascinating to see lights converging on the top of the final track down to Askham from slightly different directions all over the moor. Then it's a quick jog down the track and into the finish, the warmth, the tea, the soup and the cake.

My time was 9hrs 32mins. An hour and a half quicker than last year but conditions underfoot were definitely easier, although the weather was probably a bit less pleasant overall. 87th place out of 147 starters and 128 finishers, well down the field but it doesn't matter for this one. The satisfaction comes from getting out there in whatever conditions you face on the day and getting round safely and in good order. A super event, I'll be back to see what weather  Lake District serves up next year.

One final comment. Having heard one or two people recommend Drymax socks, I bought a couple of pairs recently. They claim to look after your feet and prevent sore spots or blisters and I had tried them out but not yet in a race. The step of faith you have to make is to resist the temptation to put any grease or tape or anything else on your feet, just rely on the socks. On the TdH my feet were completely saturated for over 9 hours. The course covered surfaces including shallow mud, deep bog, continuous water, stoney trails, bouldery tracks and some road. At the end, my feet were as good as they were at the start. The socks seem to work.



Saturday, 1 December 2012

Blogging, Latin and the Question of How Far to Run.

Normal health warnings apply  -  persistence maybe required.

I see from the witheringly comprehensive Google information system that this is my 100th blog post. Not exactly prolific for someone who started back in 2009, but I have neither the ability of the Paisley Super-blogger to make training sound interesting nor the sharp wit of the Pirate to make almost anything else a good read, so I generally hang around until I think I have something to say. Maybe I've said enough by now anyway, 100 might be a good point to sign off, but I would probably carry on jotting and rambling anyway  and then it's just a question of hitting the "publish" button, so I'll think on for a while; I'm something of a creature of habit. What is clear though is that blogging has changed a lot even in the short time that I've been in the game. While there are many more active bloggers these days giving a huge choice of tales, rants and other stuff to dip into, paradoxically the technology seems to have moved on to consign blogging to the "yesterday's technology" pile. As Andrew Neil might put it, those of us who have spent years coming to terms with the interweb in general now have to move on to the fleecebook.  An altogether more immediate and punchy medium, maybe not for the likes of we brought up to look before we leap, but I'll probably have to make the effort to sidle in and keep up a bit more.

I was in some company spanning the generations the other day and the conversation started with facebook then turned to communication in general, education, and the pace of change. The silver oldies of course believed that real education ceased somewhere around the early 70's while the movers and shakers dismissed the relevance of anything that happened before the dawn of the digital age. This is par for the course, but I was still able to raise a bit of mirth and incredulity by confessing that one of the entrance requirements I faced back in 1966 for my degree course in engineering was a GCE pass in Latin. The younger members of the group suggested that this was probably more relevant in my day when the Romans had not long left Britain, but had no sensible place in modern thinking. I'm still inclined to disagree; though I've long forgotten the exploits of Scipio, Pliny and all the rest I still remember enough to help me decipher the odd bit of modern language, both English and others. But many of us will appreciate a bit of cod Latin, the "alternative translations", close enough to sound about right while being completely wrong. My school motto Abeunt studia in mores could be properly translated as "study breeds character" but a more popular version among the students was "if you work too hard you die".  Later in my academic career I spent some time at Liverpool with an office facing the clock tower and its proclamation Fiat lux  - let there be light, or maybe even "wash your car". Sometimes you don't need an alternative, the original is expressive enough, such as Semper in excreta sumus,  profundum solum variat  -  I'll leave you to work that one out. And finally there are those that have no genuine translation but are a just a modern concoction for effect  -  one that has stuck with me over the years was a favourite of my dad's  - Nil carborundum illegitimi,  generally understood as "Don't let the bastards grind you down".

But on to running, which is what this blog says on the tin. Around this time, most runners' thoughts turn to formulating some sort of a programme for next year. How many and which races to run? When I first stumbled into ultra running  -  hard for me to believe that it was still only five years or so ago  -  the wisdom seemed to be that one big event a year was the safest plan, with maybe a couple of 40 or 50 milers taken gently to lead up to it. I know quite a few good performers who still think this is the way to go  -  make one race your focus and use everything else as preparation, otherwise you won't deliver your best performance. They're in good company, this is what the guru Tim Noakes has to say - "As a result of the damage caused by the ultramarathon, I would suggest that if you wish to specialise as an ultramarathon runner, you should race only once each year or perhaps, even better, only every second year at the ultramarathon distance. If you race more frequently, you will never achieve the fastest time of which your body is capable."

But we all know that there are lots of runners out there doing far more than this with apparently no ill effects. An event every two or three weeks is the norm for some, then upwards to extreme cases like Jon Steele who will complete 50 ultras during this year. Ah, you will say, but these guys are only achieving quantity by compromising on quality, none of their events will represent anywhere near their best possible performance. Maybe, but that begs the question what the individual wants out of the game anyway. If we simply enjoy the taking part, we may be quite happy not to worry about our potential  and just get the fun of participation many more times a year. A bonus of this approach is that we don't need to worry about "peaking" for one particular time  -  if we happen to catch a cold or turn an ankle that week, no problem, there are plenty of other events to enjoy.

We still don't have the whole story though. What about the guys who turn in a stream of top class performances every year?  Last year Jez Bragg broke existing records in the Highland Fling and the Fellsman, and came 4th in the Western States (probably the most competitive ultra in the world) in the space of two months. This year Terry Conway broke the West Highland Way and Lakeland 100 records within 5 weeks. No compromise on quality here. But is this just a question of elite runners with huge talent putting so much time into their training that they are now playing a different game from the rest of us, to which the Noakes' rule no longer applies? Well for sure ultra-running at the top is becoming more "professional" in terms of the time athletes are prepared to put into their preparation and the results are getting more like other more established sports. Mo Farah turns in a world class performance then comes back a few days later and does it again. The bike racers go out and ride for five or six hours at speeds averaging nearly 30 miles an hour, then do the same the next day, and the next for two or three weeks. No consideration here of one major effort a year being the limit. But does this changed mindset percolate down to those of us with much lower abilities and aspirations?

When I look back over my own short ultra running career, I can't really find a difference in performance between the years when I competed the most (seven ultras and two marathons) and the least (three ultras and two marathons). Generally I run in an event, feel pretty knackered at the finish then get back to normal quickly enough to start running again two or three days later and return to full activity in about a week. I can't see that it makes much of a difference then whether the next race is in three months time or three weeks. 

It seems to me that the only real thing that stops us running an ultra shortly after another one is some sort of physical damage  -  bad blisters, over-stiff or sore muscles, aching joints and so on. We may not like to accept it, but unless we had an unlucky episode in the last race - say a fall or a badly turned ankle  -  then this damage is likely to be the result of insufficient preparation for the event; not enough training  - or to put it a different way, our brain was capable of more than our body so we pushed into an area where more damage was done than on a training run. Maybe we were happy to do this anyway for a one-off result, but it was a choice not a necessity; more training would have got us to the same place without the pain.

I think the other barrier to competing more regularly is psychological. We feel we ought to be tired after covering fifty or a hundred miles, so our body obliges us by actually feeling tired and we take it easy until the feeling goes away. But in my experience, so long as there is no actual damage, if we believe we can go out and run again then we probably can. Before this year's Tor des Geants race I couldn't see how I could keep going for five or six days on less than three hours of sleep per night; but I knew a lot of other people had done just that in previous years, so I made sure that I prevented damage by looking after my joints and feet and assumed everything else would be OK. In the event, I found I was going more strongly on Day 5 than on Day 2. Again, back in 2010 the West Highland Way race came less than three weeks after a LDWA 100 mile event. I wanted to do both so I did, and my WHW time was a personal best (out of 4 finishes up to that point) by quite some margin. I don't attribute any bragging rights to these examples, they are just illustrations of what can happen when you say "no, I won't be tired, it will be OK."

There are limits of course. I'm sure I couldn't do a Jon Steele (an ultra every week) without seriously cutting down my speed aspirations, and I'm not prepared just yet to be satisfied as a collector of finishes. I'm sure I still have a PB or two waiting to be teased out. But I've come to the conclusion that next year an ultra or a marathon once a month is fine by me. I've already entered three 100 milers and three or four shorter ones, and I'm sure the year will fill up nicely before too long.

Nil carborundum illegitimi.














Tuesday, 6 November 2012

R&R in Glen Ogle



















I hadn't done anything that you could actually call running since the Lakeland 50 back in July; for the six weeks up to and including the Tor des Geants I just walked up and down a lot of hills. Then, as I said at the start of my last post, I got back from my little Italian adventure just after the middle of September, idled around for a couple of weeks, then had some hernias repaired. Three and a half weeks later sees me in the signing off consultation with the surgeon....

"How's it feeling then?"
"OK, still a bit sore at times but I'd like to get into a bit more activity. Anything against that?"
"It all looks fine to me. You're not going to do any damage now so go for it. Tried any running yet?"
"Two or three gentle attempts. Did six or seven miles at about 10 minute mile pace yesterday."
"Got any events planned?"
(pause) "Yes, one in eight days time actually."
"What sort of distance?"
" Er, about thirty miles, but I think it's a fairly gentle course, no hills or anything.....and I'll probably walk quite a lot."
(raised eyebrow) "Well, I suppose that's just a spin around the block for you guys (he knows about my extra-curricular activities). Marathon's far enough for me. Good luck then."

The following day I shuffle round a half marathon distance in just under two hours. The last couple of miles are very slow and hurt a bit but it gets done. Seven days to the race. Four runs in the last ten weeks. Bit daft to go really but you have to start again somewhere. I decide to believe Stuart Mills that it's mostly down to what's going on in your head and the miles in the bank over the years. Hell, Dave the Pirate would probably consider me overtrained. It will probably be OK.

I normally run the Round Rotherham 50 miler at this time of year but the date clashed with a family event so I'd entered the Glen Ogle 33 back in the summer, and it seems to have worked out fine. I'd never have got round 50 miles of muddy fields and stiles in my current state but 33 miles of cycle track sounds a bit more possible and I've heard that it's a pretty course so I'm looking forward to the day. Definitely no heroics though, a bit of R&R in some fine countryside.

The Lake District is on the way so I stop off on Friday to walk 12 miles over the fells, collecting another four Wainwrights, one of this year's projects. The cold has arrived and the weather varies from hail to rain to bright sunshine, with a good covering of snow on the higher tops. Fun but probably unwise in view of tomorrow's activity, still that's how it is. Then all the way up the motorway in the dark it's a clear cold evening, lots of stars. I get to the pub in Callander in time for a meal, beer, a small whisky and some sleep.

I creep out of the front door at 6.30am Saturday to be met by heavy rain. It doesn't improve on the short drive up to Strathyre, it just turns to sleet. The car thermometer says it's 1,5 degrees outside. I arrive at the campsite for race registration and park in a waterlogged field alongside a flooded road. Still time left so I leave the engine running and wait for it to get light. As it does, the rain magically stops and we don't see any more all day. I check in, meet a few people I know who are either running or marshalling then in no time it's 8 o'clock and we're away. About 150 starters, which must leave a few disappointed people on the reserve list because the event closed out at 200 entrants  -  50 must have had second thoughts in the day or two before the race!

The course is nicely laid out. A 4 mile section along forestry roads, with a hill at the start, leads to Checkpoint 1 back down in the valley base. From here you follow the cycle way along Glen Ogle for 8 miles, gently undulating at first, then up a short sharp hill to a section along an old railway track with nice views, gradually climbing (someone said it's a steady 1 in 80) to a road crossing at the highpoint and Checkpoint 2. Then an 8 mile forest loop with a long steady downhill and an equally long steady uphill back to Checkpoint 2 (which now becomes Checkpoint 3), back down the cycle way to Checkpoint 4 (same place as Checkpoint 1), then a final 5 miles of country road with a little climb at the end, back to the finish.

I walk all of the first hill. In fact my plan is to walk all of the hills, at least until Checkpoint 3. I start to jog slowly as the ground levels out and feel a tap on the shoulder. It's Bob Allison who I haven't seen since the start of the West Highland Way in June. He's also determined to have an easy day, having not done much since completing the Grand Raid Pyrenees back in the summer, so we share the next 20 miles or so, chatting about this and that, walking the ups and whenever we feel like a break and jogging the rest. The weather gets progressively better as the day goes on, though it stays cold.  Two layers plus hat and gloves for me, can't imagine how the teeshirt and shorts guys manage to stay warm  - put a bit more effort in I suppose. After the top forest loop, as we arrive back at Checkpoint 3, the sun comes out making the views on the way back quite splendid as the higher ground is covered in fresh snow.

So far, by taking it really easily, I'm feeling fine and enjoying the day and by now I'm happy that I'll get round without too much damage.  After the sharp drop on the cycle way we drift into a walk a bit run a bit sort of cycle, but Bob's pace is a little quick for me on the run and I don't need to walk so I say bye for now and push on while he's walking. I expect him to catch up but he doesn't. Still, our different strategies work fine for each of us as he finishes within 5 minutes of me at the end.

The last bit of cycle way and the start of the road go fine. A mile or so along the road I pass Fiona who has slowed to take photos of a horse in the roadside field, then over a little bridge which marks the turn for home. A cyclist tells me that he's just come from the finish and I have 3,4 miles left to go, a bit disappointing as I thought it was under 3 and things are starting to hurt a bit now. My jog slows down to not much more than a walk, and although I'd been running the uphills on the road as far as here there isn't going to be any more of that. The area of muscle around where the patches were put in seems to stiffen up completely, I've probably gone far enough. I have some painkillers in the bag but decide I'll tough it out as it's now less than 2 miles to the end. A final hill, up and down, then over a rickety bridge to the finish. I shuffle in just over 5hrs 45mins from the start, in 94th place. Not my greatest performance ever but a satisfying enough return to the trails.

I'm tempted to go to the pub for soup and beer, but I'm feeling pretty stiff and sore and I have a feeling that any delay is likely to lead to a long sleep in a motorway service station on the way home.  I say cheerio and get going while I still can. A strong coffee just beyond Glasgow sees me through to Chester in time for dinner at just after seven o'clock. Many thanks to the organisers, marshals and other runners I met along the way for ensuring a lovely autumn day out.

Tour de Helvellyn in less than 7 weeks now............

Friday, 5 October 2012

Views on Shoes












Not a lot of activity for me recently; I had a bit of a laze around after the Tor des Geants for a week or two then on Monday finally had three hernias which have been a problem for some years repaired. Keyhole job but still a bit stiff and sore - I guess it will be a week or two before I'm back running so I've spent more time than usual catching up on everyone's blogs, facebook and so on. It seems the shoe debate is still going strong so I'll take the opportunity to add my two penn'orth. 

Now I don't seem to get riled much these days, maybe it's a date of birth effect, you get a bit more accommodating to views other than your own, but I do raise an eyebrow at the passion that I see generated on this subject. Barefoot runners, minimalists, Hoka blokes, every opinion seems to get a wave of counterclaims from folk who just know that their way is best. Well, you're not going to get any evangelism from me I'm afraid; I'll just start by saying that I think this is actually quite a complex subject and then try to outline what I think I've learned over the past few years. This may take a while; if you're familiar with my posts this could be at least a two G&T affair. Remember though this is just what I have observed and think I have learned. I don't have any medical or sports science expertise, I'm just an engineer interested in learning how things work and how they can be fixed.

Beginnings

I have to confess something here - I was once a runner.  Back in my late teens I could make a good enough shy at a 50 second quarter mile or a two minute half (note the distances, this was way before UK athletics went metric).  I mention this only because these sort of distances encourage a long stride length which, although I then went away to college and gave up running in favour of more sociable sports such as rowing and rugby, persisted most of my life and has a bearing on the later story. Later on I always did a bit of running, to stay fit for other activities, to get away from the office or the factory or whatever, but I never raced or competed in any way. My main sport was always mountaineering and climbing; whenever I went running I just used whatever shoes I happened to own at the time, the same ones that I would wear for wandering up to a crag or going to the pub. I wore Reebok Royales for many years, I really liked the colour. Then a job posting to the Netherlands in my mid fifties meant that climbing became a bit difficult for a while; a colleague suggested running the Rotterdam marathon so I signed up and started training. I learned that the game had moved on a bit since my youth and I went to a specialist running shop in Rotterdam who had a treadmill for gait analysis so I could get kitted up. They told me that Reebok were the wrong shape of shoe for me, I had an "Asics" foot. They sold me a pair of Asics Nimbus; 

Asics Nimbus
I've never felt the need to change for road running and I must have had a dozen or more pairs since then; they seemed to work for me and for many years I didn't really ask why. I was conscious in road races that I was taking longer strides than runners of similar height, but I was secretly quite pleased with this - must be more efficient, right? I landed on my heel and used all of the shoe before takeoff, I felt I had a nice smooth running style.





Early Ultra Experiences

After half a dozen marathons, I got into the ultra running scene. My first race was the Highland Fling in 2007, which I ran in the same Asics road shoes. OK, but after the finish my heels were really sore, I could barely walk for a week or two afterwards. Reading other peoples' race tales, I began to understand that different footwear was required for trail ultras, that was probably the problem, I'd used the wrong shoes. Several runners had recommended Montrail Hardrocks, so I bought some. After a five mile "familiarisation" run in them, I then went out and used them on the northern half of the Anglesey coast path, a hilly and rocky 50 miler. When I finished my heels were wrecked. I had the first bout of a condition that was to plague me for the next three or four years, plantar fasciitis. If you've ever had this, you'll understand, if you've never experienced it then you don't want to.  Your heels are so sore that even walking is painful.

Mouldable Insoles
Over the next few years I experimented with all sorts of shoes and insoles, looking for a "magic answer". I should of course have consulted a good podiatrist, but up to that point I had never trusted medics as far as sports injuries were concerned, so I didn't. In the end, I settled on going back to my Asics Nimbus for all running, road, trail, fell, whatever. I used  fairly firm insoles of the type you heat in the oven then mould to your feet by standing on them. These seemed to help with the PF, and I was convinced I needed the cushioning of the Nimbus shoe to see me through any long race, though I always had sore heels way before the end.



Asics Trabuccos
I came across the book "Born to Run" and was intrigued by the theory of landing on the forefoot, saving both heel and knee impact. I tried to get into it but it wouldn't work for me, it felt so artificial and strenuous, all that leaning forward and taking short strides, I couldn't relax into it. I was resigned to the fact that I would have to stick with my road shoes and manage the PF. The only trail shoes that I could tolerate were Asics Trabuccos, which I found were great for short days (say up to 5 or 6 hours) much better grip on rocky ground, much more "nimble" feeling, but again on a longer run the heel pain would come on again.



Custom Insoles
By now I had started going to a good physio who helped me sort out some hamstring problems (and who has since then seen me through a lot of other potential difficulties - once you find a good sports physio they are really worth hanging on to). I chatted to her about the PF and she recommended a local podiatrist. He spent a good hour working out how I walked and ran, one of the best £50's worth I have ever had in running. He said the insoles I was wearing were holding my foot far too rigidly; he put together what he called a "Blue Peter style" insole by sticking bits of tape onto a thin standard sole and gave it to me to try for three weeks. They made a huge difference. He said I could have some soles made on a machine to copy what he had done, but they would cost around £100 a pair. I said I was happy with the trial ones, and ever since he has let me have a supply of "Improved Blue Peter" soles which he makes by putting a thin layer of leather on top of the sole and tape blocks at a cost very little more than the mouldable ones I was buying earlier.

Undershoe shape
I learned a lot from this guy. He explained that any gait correction should be done by "jacking up" (my terms) the foot to land, roll, or take off to keep the knee and ankle joints in the best position for running, which explains the small platforms that you see in my insoles in the picture. This is an individual operation, every runner is different, so if shoe companies try to produce a shoe to correct under or over pronation in general they can't do this, what they have to do is to change the plan geometry of the shoe instead. Turn your shoes over and lay a straight-edge over the mid points of the heel and the instep, and see where it comes to on the forefoot. The picture shows my Trabuccos, which are a pretty neutral shoe, yet you can see that they are still a little "banana-shaped" which tends to force the forefoot to roll outward on takeoff, pushing the knee outwards. Some shoes designed to cure pronation problems are more extreme in this effect, which may cure one problem but cause another. You pays your money and takes your choice as they say.

Later Ultras, and maybe a breakthrough

Salomon Speedcross


So things were getting better. On shorter races I could choose shoes that were better for the task in hand, in terms of grip, manoeuverability and so on, but on longer trail races I would go back to my road shoes with the custom made insoles and accept that I would have to be a bit more careful on the rocky sections. I started getting interested in even more technical ground, Bob Graham Round sections and so on, where the road shoes would work in the dry but were hopeless, possibly even a bit dangerous in the wet conditions usual in our British hills. I looked at Walshes and flirted with the Innovate range but eventually came to find that the shoes that suit me on this terrain are the very lightweight Salomon Speedcross.

Speedcross Soles

These have great grip on mud and grass and a lot of precision on rocky ground, but equally importantly they fit my foot perfectly; they always feel like carpet slippers when I put them on. But an important point here is that on this type of ground you experience a completely different type of running. On larger rocks, you are always landing on the forefoot (you slide off if you don't) with a slight spring in the landing; steep down hills where you dig in the heel are relatively short and infrequent. Uphills are always taken on the front of the foot. You don't get the continual heel pounding that a heelstrike runner gets on roads and easy trails. I found I could wear these for quite long periods in the hills because the terrain itself was forcing me to run in a gentler style.


Hoka Mafates
Then about 18 months ago after finishing the 2011 Hardmoors 55 race I saw Hokas for the first time. They looked really weird but I was still after the magic answer. They had to be worth a go so I bought a pair of Mafates straight away and started playing. For the first three or four weeks I was really disappointed. They didn't seem very comfortable, didn't have a great grip in a lot of conditions, no precision over boulders and I always came back with really tired legs, especially in the hamstring and Achilles area. I nearly threw them away but two things encouraged me to persist. Firstly, I understood that the designers were a couple of ex Salomon guys; this company has been behind a huge number of game-changing designs in ski-ing, climbing and running so their designers must in general be good; maybe they had something that I just wasn't seeing. And secondly, there were the downhills. The Hoka strapline is "Time to Fly" and if you want to experience this, you just have to get yourself to the top of a stony but not too technical track and try to forget all your preconceptions about how to run down it. Imagine it's an easy angled, dry grass field, don't worry about individual footfalls and just go. The effect is truly amazing. I can only describe it as the difference between descents on a mountain bike with and without front suspension, or cruising through off-piste crud on modern wide skis compared with the toothpicks we had a generation ago. A trial becomes pure pleasure. I thought about all the batterings my feet had got over the Lairig Mor, down the Garburn Road, and down the hill from Bloworth Crossing. I needn't ever go through that again. 

Hoka Evos
So I persisted with the Mafates, and over the next few months I learned to deal with them and love them. What I hadn't understood was although they are heavily cushioned, they also have very little heel raise (the height that your heel sits in the shoe relative to the forefoot), around a centimetre less than my road shoes, which means that to get a comfortable gait you actually have to take shorter strides and land on your forefoot. Years ago I couldn't do this just by thinking about it, but by  running so that these shoes felt comfortable, it was happening.  I hadn't made the transition in time for the Highland Fling that year, or even the West Highland Way, but I bit the bullet for the Lakeland 100 and in the following month followed most of the UTMB trail twice in them. The Mafates saw me through the winter and over the 2012 Hardmoors 55, but by the time the Highland Fling came around they were pretty shot. I bought a pair of Hoka Evos, similar to the Mafates but with a slimmer fitting and slightly more aggressive sole, took them out of the box in Milngavie and ran the 53 miles to Tyndrum. No problem, no pain.

So what have I learned?

Interpreting all this has taken a while. The Hokas weren't the "magic answer" of course. There simply is no magic answer. They just helped, maybe forced, me to adopt a running style that is more suited to long distance races than the one I had before; kinder to joints, to feet, more efficient. I can feel that I run in this style now whatever shoes I am wearing, and that gives me more options to tackle different events. I talked to Mark Barnes about whether Hoka could find a way to overcome their deficiencies in terms of grip and precision; of course they could, but only by taking away some of the features that make them unique. We can't have it all. Design is about finding the best solution to the problem, but you have to define the problem, not "all problems"!  And so to address maybe what you might have thought I was going to do right at the start of this little meander. What is the best shoe for running ultras? You will get plenty of votes for Innovates, for Salomons, for Brooks, for Hokas, for sandals made from car tyres, for the shoes that I get for thirty quid at Asda.

My own conclusion is that for one person, for one race, there may be an ideal. As soon as you break out from that specivity, you're into the land of compromise and choice.  Don't ever let anyone try to convince you that their choice will be the best for you, because chances are, it won't be. Sorry, but we all have to find our own best road. My own strategy if you're interested is this:

1. For long trail races (probably 50 miles and up) I will wear Hokas. They are simply too comfortable, and too good on stony downhills. I accept that on the technical ground I will have to be careful, so I will go slower. Would a more competent (ie faster overall) runner make this compromise? Maybe not. I won't use them for shorter races or train very much in them (there are cheaper alternatives that are more "fun" if you don't need the comfort  -  a bit like a sports car in the hills and a saloon on the motorway...).

2. For shorter trail outings I'm happy with my Asics Trabuccos. Tough, grippy, manouverable, hard wearing and relatively cheap, they're also the shoes that accept Yaktrax easily and are perfectly fine for going to the pub afterwards (after the mud's been knocked off I suppose).

3. If it's technical stuff on the fells, I go for the Salomon Speedcross. Also for trails if there's snow rather than ice about.

4. On the road, I'll stick to my road shoes. I never go further than 26.2 miles and that's what road shoes are for.

Actually, one size never fits all.




Monday, 24 September 2012

Tor de Geants Practicalities

I said I would follow up my Tor des Geants tale with some of the practical stuff that went into it, and I'd better do that now before the whole thing starts fading from my now rather questionable memory, so here goes. Now just to be clear, these are not recommendations on how to approach an event like this. We're all different, I'm just recording what I did, what I think worked and what didn't.

Overall Approach

When I entered the event back in February I knew it was likely to be popular because Mark Barnes told me it filled up in 4 days last year, but I was still pretty staggered when I found out that this year entries closed 27 minutes after the site opened. This confirmed what I had already half decided, that this was likely to be my one and only attempt at the race; they probably have to resort to some sort of ballot in future years, I want to do the UTMB next year, so it would be several years before I could guarantee another chance. Consequently, I decided that my goals would be (a) to finish, and (b) to have an enjoyable time  - it's hard to contemplate carrying on for 5 or 6 days with something that is just hurting. I decided that I could make the times OK if I walked everything that was uphill, and ran the downs only if it was easier than walking (on some gradients it definitely is).

Training

I stopped nearly all running after the West Highland Way race at the end of June. From then until the week before the race I went out only three times a week, comprising the following sessions:
1. A long day in the Lake District, covering around 25 miles and with between 7000 and 10000 ft of ascent depending on the route. I was also collecting Wainwrights so I rarely covered the same ground twice. To replicate the race plan, I walked the ups and jogged the downs.
2. A morning doing "laps" on my local hill in the Clwyds which is a 900ft rise from car park to summit. The number of laps varied from 2 to 6 depending on how much ascent was in the Lakes trip in that week.
3. A 5-10 mile run in my local forest at around 8 min mile pace, just to keep a little bit of sharpness.

I averaged around 45 miles and 11,000 ft of ascent a week.  It seemed to be enough, I was climbing as strongly after 5 days in the TdG as I was in the beginning (but that depended on other factors too of course).


Race Strategies.

The two things that I thought about beforehand were (a) how fast to go, and (b) when to sleep.

Looking at the figures before the start, I felt that with 150 hours to cover 200 miles, I ought to be able to average 2 miles an hour, including food/drink stops, leaving 40 hours for major rest stops and 10 hours safety margin. To do this I decided to go at all times at a pace that I felt I could keep up all day; if I felt I was tiring, I would slow down until I felt strong again. The pacing worked well, there was only one point on day two, when I had been awake for 36 hours and was tackling the highest climb on the course, that I felt I was struggling; the rest of the way, the pace felt really comfortable. My speed estimation however was wildly optimistic; I managed to achieve a 2 mph average only when I was moving  - all stops had to come on top of this.

I had never done a race remotely like this before so I was unsure how to approach sleeping. My only experience was going through two nights on the Lakeland 100 and UTMB, when I was definitely in a significantly worse state on night two than night one, and I knew this wouldn't work in a five/six day event. I had read on blogs of people getting through the whole event on 8-10 hours, but that seemed very little to me. In the end, with the race starting at 10.00am, I decided to go straight through the first night then sleep every night or evening after that. A big learning for me was that when I was tired and ready to fall asleep, then two hours was enough to refresh me completely and I was ready to go again. This meant I was able to take most of my sleep in mountain refuges, which were much quieter and more comfortable places than the valley bases.

Kit

I wore Hoka Stinson Evos for the majority of the race. The only exception was for Stage 4, on which I was warned that the track was much more technical, so used an old pair of Asics Trabuccos which were fine (actually, the track wasn't at all technical by say Lake District standards so the Hokas would have been fine). At each valley base I recoated my feet in a good layer of Sudocrem then put on new socks - I always wore a thin "thermal" pair underneath a cushioned cotton pair - all socks from M&S at about £12 for five pairs. I never got a blister or any other foot problem. I think going slowly had some effect on this too, lowering the footfall impact. Of all the people that were in some kind of trouble, the great majority were suffering foot problems  -  in a race this long you really have to look after your feet from the word go.

We didn't have any blazing hot weather so I wore a long-sleeved thermal top and a teeshirt most of the time, and knee-length running tights. I carried a lightweight fleece for the nights, which were cold. I started off changing clothes at the valley bases but got tired of that eventually and wore the same set of clothes for about the last three days. I have some respect for how cold it can get in the mountains this late in the year, so I forsook the lightweight waterproofs and took a full weight goretex mountain jacket and overtrousers. I was glad of both at night and the former many times during the days when higher up. I was also glad I took a baseball cap for the days and a good woolly hat for the nights. I get cold extremities so I also took a pair of lightweight ski gloves which worked fine. Down in the bottom of the sack I also had a lightweight puffy smock (mine is a Rab Neutrino) - a space blanket might just about save your life if things go wrong but it won't be pleasant, better have something warmer is what I say.

On stage 1 I tried getting all this lot into my Raidlight running sack, but it was so tightly packed it was almost impossible to manage, so on Stage 2 I changed to using a lightweight TNF climbing daysack which I had brought along "just in case" and which proved excellent for the rest of the trip. If you're only going to run downhills, a pound or two extra doesn't make a great deal of difference and you may as well have the comfort/convenience/added safety of a few extra things.

On the hardware side, I used poles for all the ascents and almost none of the descents. I have the "tent-pole" type which you can collapse very quickly and put in your sack for the descents. Wouldn't go without them on this type of course. My headlamps are pretty indifferent, I saw many brighter beams, but again at my speed they were fine. An altimeter is on the required kit list, most people use a watch type; I found it really useful for judging where you were on a long ascent. That was the only watch I took, Garmins and suchlike are not really relevant for this type of event.

Food and Drink

I got lucky here because I'm a real fan of Italian food and there was lots of it. You seemed to get to a "ristoro" (refreshment point) every 3 or 4 hours, and they all had dried ham, salami, bread or crackers, local Aosta cheese (brilliant), dried and fresh fruit, chocolate, water, Coke, tea, coffee, etc. At night the huts normally had noodle soup as well. I made sure that I ate and drank well at every ristoro, and that I was going slowly enough on approaching them to be really looking forward to the stop and the food. In between I drank only water (about a litre every 4 hours on average) and ate chewy sweets - Haribos, wine gums, fruit pastilles, that sort of stuff, which you have to provide yourself.

At each valley base, I made sure I had a good meal before setting out again. This was normally a plate of charcuterie and bread, pasta with tomato sauce and a salad, yoghourt and some fresh fruit, and a beer. You don't move so fast after that, but if it's uphill anyway who cares?

In general, I felt that I got into "balance" where I was putting back nearly as many calories as I was using, in contrast to the progressive deficiency you usually get in an ultra race. The big learning for me is that it's all about speed. Go slow enough and you can eat what you like, go that slight bit too fast and eating becomes a problem to deal with rather than a pleasure to enjoy.

That's about it. I think I learned a lot. If I can adapt just a bit of it, I might even get around the UTMB next year...........


Tuesday, 18 September 2012

In the Land of the Giants

As I was driving home from Italy I thought a bit about how I could record my experience in the Tor des Geants race last week. It took over five days to complete and there was a danger of both writer and reader losing the will to continue long before the end, so I decided to deal with different  aspects of the affair in separate posts; this one is all about the journey and its emotions; if you're interested in the technical stuff of how I think I made it work for me then you'll have to wait for part two!

It's an event that not many Brits have entered; maybe four or five over the first two runnings, and there were now seven of us in this, the third year of the race. George, Anthony and Julie were the class acts while Richard, Alison, Jacky (a French guy resident in Nant Peris) and I had maybe lesser ambitions (although the others all had plenty of UTMB's, PTL's, and GRP's between them, so I was in pretty competent company). We met up at the briefing on Saturday evening and then again all found each other at the start line in Courmayeur's church square at 10am on a beautiful sunny Sunday morning.

At the start
Alison, George, Anthony, Julie




The atmosphere felt very relaxed in comparison with the UTMB races, no stirring music or long speeches, just a short final briefing which I didn't hear, then as we chatted away to each other we heard the ten second count-down begin and the six hundred plus field was off.

It's quite difficult to understand just how long and steep the course is, but the statistics say 330km and 24,000m of positive height change. The bare numbers don't mean much of course, but think of say three consecutive Bob Graham rounds, or of travelling from Manchester to London taking in three Everests on the way. You have 150 hours to complete the course.  It starts and finishes in Courmayeur and is divided into seven sections, each one ending at a "life base" where you are re-united with your drop bag and can get some sleep if you wish, have a shower, get a meal and so on before tackling the next stage. They tend to be quite noisy places so unless you're pretty well out on your feet, sleeping is not easy. Alternative places to sleep are out on the trail (if it's warm enough!) or in the many mountain refuges you pass through, though sleep time in these is limited to two hours so you don't "block" a space required by a later runner.

Stage 1  Courmayeur to Valgrisenche  49km  3996m D+

I didn't see any real running at the start, just a bit of desultory jogging down the hill and over the river, but then I was by design right at the back of the field. We then settled straight away into the first climb from Courmayeur at 1244m to the Col d'Arp at 2571m. Speed was governed by crowding on the narrow track at first but it soon thinned out so that everyone could find his chosen pace after maybe half an hour. The narrowness of the track is another feature of the course, which follows the footpaths Alta Via ("high road") 2 from Courmayeur to Donnas, then Alta Via 1 back to Courmayeur, the whole thing describing a big circle around the Aosta valley. These are used but not well used tracks so unless you are on a rare bit of jeep track or road, the track is around two feet wide pretty well all the way. The first climb followed the track through the woods then up across the alp. It was a warm day and I took it very easily, reaching the top feeling comfortable then jogging most of the way down the other side over grassy hillside then jeep track and narrow road down to La Thuille at 1458m. The first hill done, I guess we all felt we were now starting to get into the event  -  we had just been up and down Ben Nevis.

The next climb went up a rocky track through the woods then over the mountainside to the Deffeyes hut. As we went up we were passed by scores of people coming down, up to the hut for a day's walk I guess, who were enthusiastically supporting all the runners with cries of "Bravo", "Bravissimo" and "Complimenti". Almost everyone we met around the course did the same. I was slightly embarassed by all the attention at this point less than half way through the first day, but I think by the time we had done a few days we felt we were starting to earn it. Leaving the hut I caught up with a girl who seemed to be going at just the right pace, so I followed her to the next col, the Passo Alto (2857m). When she reached the top she let out a yell that could only be North American, so we introduced ourselves, took photos, and chatted as we carried on down the other side. Claire was from Calgary in Canada and had been a top class swimmer until a bad horse riding accident and was now into all sorts of adventure racing. Her aim, like mine, was just to get round the course in reasonably good shape and enjoy it.

At the Passo Alto
It was only (!) about 800m down to the tiny Promoud Hut, before the final climb of the stage up to the Col Crosatie (2829m), which was up a steep hillside but on a very easy zig-zagging track and I found that on this sort of ground Claire was much quicker than me so she pulled away. It would be a feature of the early part of the race for me, I would often catch her on descents or more technical ground, only for her to pull away again on the straightforward climbs. By the time I got to the col it was pretty well dark and the temperature was dropping rapidly. Luckily there was a small bivouac box just over the other side providing a sheltered place to "suit up" for the night. I found that during the race it got dark between 8 and 8.30pm and was not light again until between 6.30 and 7am, so a lot of ground was covered in the dark. It was a long but fairly straightforward descent down to the valley at Planaval (1517m), but the sting in the tail was that this was not the end of the stage, there were still about 5km of tracks along the valley, gradually rising to the base at Valgrisenche (1662m) which I reached at 11.45pm, just about what I had hoped for the first day.


Stage 2  Valgrisenche to Cogne  56km  4141m  D+

I had decided not to sleep for the first 24hours - we're used to that in other races and I thought I would still be too caught up in the excitement of the start to sleep anyway  -  so I had a meal and set off again into the night.

Now enthusiasm gets you through day 1 no problem, but on day 2 the Tor des Geants starts to let you know what you're really in for; almost as if the course is saying to you "So you think you're a contender then? Well, let's see how you suck this up!" It starts with the Col Fenetre (2854m), a long climb in the dark via the Epee Hut and then rocky zig-zags to the top. As I looked over the top I saw the sight mentioned on every TDG blog I've found so far - the lights of runners ahead of you  appear to be going down almost vertically below you for miles. The first few hundred feet down are VERY steep, good zig-zags but still unnerving on the turns. I'm a mountaineer and I usually put my poles in the sack at the top of a col and jog down; not this time, I was very glad to have them for security until the angle eased. Once down this bit the track was easy enough down to the Notre Dame checkpoint at 1738m. Alison was in the hall there, I hadn't seen her since the start. She said she was struggling a bit but pushed on while I had something to eat; I was keen to maintain a state where I felt that I was out for a walk in the hills, not feeling stressed and I wanted to go slowly enough so that the food stops were a pleasure to be anticipated and enjoyed.

Checkpoint on the Col Entrelor; Col Loson in centre of far skyline
The next climb up to the Col Entrelor at 3002m was easy but very steep all the way; this was the first climb where I needed to stop a few times so that I didn't get too tired, perhaps I was subconsciously concerned about what was still to come. I was passed by Claire again here so she must have stopped longer in Valgrisenche. It was also the first big climb with no hut on the way up but we were promised a water supply at the top. When I got there, there was a checkpoint just over the  col, a small bivouac box that had been flown in for the event, but they had run out of water. It had been hot and sunny since daybreak on the descent to Notre Dame so this was a disappointment. Nothing for it, I carried on down without, the descent was quite easy and fast, with a lovely runnable track in the shade of the woods at the end where I passed Claire again, then down to Eaux Rousses at 1654m, where I also caught up with Alison again. I felt I needed a rest here, maybe the lack of sleep was starting to tell, so after eating and drinking I just lay down in the sunshine for half an hour to soak up some energy; during this time both Alison and Claire set out for the next col. I also took the opportunity to call Jan back at home to let her know I was going OK. She was following the race on the site's live tracker and had a much better idea of where I was in the field than I did. She said I had been in the five hundreds the first day but had now got up into the four hundreds.

The next col was a 1650m climb up to the Col Loson, at 3299m the highest point on the course. On the other hand the the path turned out to be very well engineered and at a very easy angle for nearly all the way up. There were no huts en route but a standpipe or two and some good streams so topping up water wasn't a problem. I just took it very steadily and made good progress until the last 300m or so. Here the path became rocky and steep and I started to slow down with overall tiredness and altitude; I struggled to the top counting steps for the last bit  -  100 steps, pause for rest, 100 steps, and so on.

After a day and a half of perfect weather, we were now going to get a change. Just as I reached to col it started to rain, which turned rapidly into hail. The first bit of descent was steep zig-zags which in the conditions had become very slippery so had to be taken very carefully but things improved after a while and I got down to the Sella hut for a breather and a cup of tea. As I left the hut, the light started to fade which was OK at first but then I came to what was probably the worst section of track on the whole trip. Think Scafell Pike, Broad Crag, Ill crag area and you get the idea. I couldn't see what was rock, holes, tree roots or whatever. It was a really frustrating couple of miles and I was feeling very tired, I just wanted to get down. The Col Loson had proved a really low point in my Tor. Eventually the track gave out onto the valley floor but there then was the almost inevitable few kilometers of tracks along the valley to finally get to Cogne (1531m).  I checked in to the base, found a bed and fell asleep instantly.


Stage 3  Cogne to Donnas  44km  3348m  D+

After two hours sleep I was woken by my alarm and felt a different person, refreshed and ready to go. I went through to the dining section of the base and collected some bread and a big plate of pasta. At that point I saw Alison again who had also just slept, so a little while later we set out together, somewhere around 4am (I didn't record the exact times when things happened and it will take a while for all the intermediate splits to be published, so for now I'll just have to go with my memory).  The section started with a long climb up through woods where the track wandered around up and down as well as contouring round bits of hillside, it was difficult to see just what was happening in the dark. After nearly three hours we came out onto the open alp and it got light though it was a very cold morning. We then soon reached the Sogno hut (2534m). The alp area was a bit disappointing in the cold light, with several industrial looking farm buildings and a line of huge electricity pylons, a contrast to the stunning views we had had for the previous two days. We found Jacky inside the hut.
Jacky and Alison at the Fenetre du Champorchet

I hadn't seen him since the start, but then the three of us carried on to the top of the Fenetre du Champorcher (2877m) together up a steep but straightforward path. Of the others, I just assumed that George, Anthony and Julie were well ahead of me by now; I hadn't seen Richard but Alison said she had seen him towards the end of day two suffering from a really heavy cold so he had probably dropped out (which was in fact the case) From the col it was a long descent to the next base at Donnas at 330m  (yes, that's over 8,300ft of continuous descent!). I stayed with Alison and we descended first across the hillsides then followed a path on the side of a long wooded valley with a beautiful river tumbling along the bottom through a series of waterfalls and rock pools. The track wound in and out of villages and eventually became flatter in a wide valley just before Donnas. Here we came across Jacky again; he had stopped to buy an ice cream in one of the villages, walked off eating it and twenty minutes later realised that he had left his poles in the ice cream shop and had to go back for them! The final mile or two were along a road; the three of us seemed to be in good condition with no aches or pains in spite of approaching the 150km mark; the same couldn't be said of a runner that we caught up approaching the base  -  he was leaning heavily to one side and staggering quite badly. Alison said she had seen this condition before, it was probably just extreme tiredness. We tried to get him to walk with us but it was too difficult so we covered the last few hundred yards to the Donnas base and let the marshals there know so they could send someone back for him.

It was only early afternoon and Alison and I had agreed not to try to sleep at Donnas but to push on through after an hour or so. I had a shower, changed my socks, ate a good meal and was ready to start going uphill once more. While we were here Claire showed up again, making the same overall progress as us along the course by slightly different tactics.


Stage 4 Donnas to Gressoney  53km  4107m  D+

We had been warned that this was the toughest stage. Not only did it have one of the biggest distances and height gains overall but the track was more consistently technical over this section that anywhere else. We also checked on the forecast at Donnas and although it was a hot, almost close, afternoon as we left we were told to expect some poorer weather over the next couple of days, rain, a drop in temperature and some wind. I made sure I had plenty of warm clothing in the bag and one of the things I left out to compensate was the camera - probably no great loss as I don't normally take many photos anyway.

Out of Donnas we climbed up through vineyards for a few hundred feet, then back down again to a little checkpoint at virtually the same height we started from. This could have been a bit frustrating but I had decided early on not to be worried by any seemingly pointless wandering, either vertical or horizontal, in an event this length. You can't do anything about it so why worry? "The route goes where the route goes" had become the mantra for this aspect of the race.

Then we started climbing more seriously, steeply up through woods. It started to rain but was still warm so you didn't know whether to put on a waterproof or not, We persisted without until our shirts were getting quite soaked, then gave in. The rain persisted until it got dark and we reached a checkpoint in a little village called Perloz. I really would have liked to see the next section in daylight because after a bit of descent we followed a track along gangways fixed to the rock wall of a gorge and over long bridges with the sound of rushing water far below, The track then led out of the trees and into alpine pasture country, passing through several villages and hamlets with very steep steps cut into the fields between them. After some time we reached a little auberge checkpoint at the Etoile du Berger where we were glad to take a bit of a break for some food and drink. From here it was about a last 700m of climb to the Coda hut (2224m) where we planned to sleep for a bit.

Alison had been climbing very strongly and led most of the way from Donnas to the Etoile du Berger, but as soon as we set out from there she seemed to slow down; she said she was struggling with tiredness but would be OK if we went slower. We now moved from rural to mountain landscape, the track becoming very tortuous weaving its way around and over boulders, climbing all the time, and we had no sense of where it or we were heading next. As we got higher a strong cold wind sprang up and we needed all our clothes on to keep warm because we were going slowly. The hut didn't seem to want to show up, then at last we saw its light still a way above us across the other side of what seemed like a blind valley and the path slowly wiggled its way round towards it. A few hundred yards from the hut we saw a stationary headlight by the side of the track. It turned out to be Jacky who said he was really tired and had needed to rest for a while. He joined us for the last pull up to the hut, it was good to get inside out of the wind. We had climbed fairly continuously upwards for around 6500ft since Donnas and it was now 2am. We immediately asked for somewhere to sleep and crashed out for two hours.

I felt great again after sleeping and we had a good breakfast and were on our way by 4.30am.  The track went down now, still twisty but less bouldery, though not good enough to establish any sort of rhythm. It was ground that Alison found hard, and it took us nearly three hours to descend to the checkpoint at the lake of Lago Vargno at around 1750m, barely 6km from the hut. By Donnas I had built up a nice cushion of 6 hours or so ahead of the cut-offs without ever trying to go quickly, but our pace now was eating into this. We would reach the next base at Gressoney but not have much time before we would be forced to go on. I discussed this with Alison who said I should go on, she would try to make the cut-offs at the pace she was going and hoped to improve later. I felt a bit bad about this as we had travelled together for over 24 hours but you have to pace your own race and there was now quite a lot of daylight left to get to the next base - if you stay with someone else you inevitably have your low points at different times which slows both of you down overall - so we said goodbye for now.

I pushed on at a better pace. I was enjoying the territory, it was rather like a path in the Lake District, up and down, round corners, quite bouldery underfoot, you never quite knew where it would lead you next. It went up over a number of small cols  - the Col Marmontana, the Crena du Ley and the Col della Vecchia - all at around 2300m with drops between them of around 300m, which  hardly showed as more than undulations on our roadbook topo. The day was overcast and we still had a chill wind so it was good to keep moving. Since my low point on day two over the Col Loson I seemed to be going consistently well. I jogged down a longer descent to Niel (1573m), then took on the final climb of the stage over the  Col Lasoney (2364m).  From here it was a lovely long run down on grass then on an easy track to Gressoney (1329m) which I reached just about 22 hours after setting out from Donnas. Never mind, the big stage was now done and I had moved up into the 300's, the top half of the field for the first time. I was comfortable to be here because on the previous two runnings of the race around 300 people had finished so I felt I was on the pace for completion again.

There were still a few hours of daylight so I had decided to carry on after a brief stop into the next stage. I now had evolved a system for transiting the life bases which I would stick with until the end  -  check in, quick cup of tea, clean and regrease feet, new socks, big meal and out. Was I was eating Jacky came up to me and we exchanged tales of what had happened since the hut last night, and decided to set out together as soon as I finished eating.


Stage 5  Gressoney to Valtournenche  39km  2602m  D+

This is the easiest stage on the Tor, just two big climbs on good tracks and nothing much else, but there was already a stiff wind blowing in the valley as Jacky and I left Gressoney.  We covered a few km along the flat valley floor before climbing to the Alpenzu hut at 1788m by which time it was dark. The path to the hut was straightforward but again very steep. As we stopped for a drink at the hut, a French lady runner, I guess in her 40's, was just putting on warm clothes before setting out, we wished her well. The hut guardian told us that it was 1000 metres up and 800 metres down to the next hut, but that the descent was long, an overall distance of just over 9km. We left the hut and the first few hundred feet were surprisingly easy, a good track on steepish grass. We gradually caught up the French lady, who then asked if she could tag along until we were over the col, which of course was no problem. The grass turned to rocky zig-zags, it became very cold and the wind was fierce. I had on a thermal vest, light fleece, mountain jacket, waterproof trousers over my running tights, a good woolly hat and light ski gloves, and I was glad of it all. The water in Jacky's external bottle froze. But if you turned your light off and looked up is was a clear wild night with stars everywhere, still a privilege to be there in spite of the less than perfect conditions. We eventually made it up to the top, the Col Pinter (2776m) and as we poked our heads over the top the wind grew to howling. The best thing we could do was to lose height as fast as possible so we descended as rapidly as our lights would allow, and a few hundred metres lower the wind died back to more manageable levels. We then covered a long gently descending section to the Crest hut, stopping for tea and biscuits at an unofficial pit stop in a small auberge just before the hut (there were a number of these along the course, seemingly provided by the enthusiasm of the owners, who refused to accept payment for anything). We arrived at the Crest at 2am and went straight to bed, asking to be woken in two hours.

I was conscious of drifting back into wakefulness and looked at my watch, which read 5.30am! I roused Jacky, come on we've cocked this up, then went up to the dining room. Relax said the guardienne, you're going nowhere for a while. Apparently the race had been stopped because of excessive wind, cold and snow a bit further down the course, and the organisation had decided to collect all the competitors in safe warm places until things improved. We went back to bed, a real bonus, and were allowed to set out again after breakfast when the race was restarted at 9am. The event had been "paused" for 5 hours, but all the subsequent cutoffs had been extended by 5 hours to compensate. We had rested for all of this pause period but some people had had to keep going until they reached a refuge and one effect of this was that Claire caught us up again. She had seen Alison back in Gressoney, and at that point Alison was still going just inside the cut-offs.

We set off down to the valley checkpoint at St Jacques (1700m) which looked like a war zone  - people slumped in corridors, rucksacks everywhere, you had to squeeze by everything to check in. The small place had obviously had to hold far more people during the pause than was comfortable. We were straight in and out, and off up the second hill of the stage to the Col di Nana (2770m).

I enjoyed the great majority of the whole event, but on this ascent I just hit one of those magical periods. It was a still chilly but stunningly clear and beautiful morning, I was moving and breathing easily, and it occurred to me that I was now really in tune with the environment. This was no longer a race, or endurance event, just a journey through a little known but wonderful area of the Alps which as far as I was concerned could now go on for as long as it liked, I couldn't think of anywhere I would rather be at that moment. When we reached the top of the pass we could see the "Geants" all around us  - Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, Monte Rosa, the Grand Paradiso and all the others. A special moment.

The descent was easy and I outpaced Jacky to arrive at Valtournenche (1526m) for a sock change and a late lunch. I also checked the rankings to find that I was now in the low 300's, still moving gradually through the field.  Jacky soon arrived and as I always seemed to spend longer eating, we were ready together to set out on Stage 6.


Stage 6  Valtournenche to Ollomont  44km  2702m  D+

This was another stage where the statistics and the topo couldn't give a true impression of the work involved. Although on paper only marginally longer than the previous section, on the ground was an altogether different story and it took far longer. Jacky and I set out from Valtournenche at mid afternoon and for once the initial climb was "just a baby one" as Jacky put it, up to the Barmasse hut at 2175m. From here, the route wove in and out of a chain of peaks for the next few hours, sometimes finding its way over cols, sometimes on broad ridges, sometimes traversing steep hillsides, with the ascents and descents rarely more than 300m but with plenty of them. This section was also well supplied with a series of small refuges, all about 2 hours apart. From the Barmasse we went steeply down, then up and over the Fenetre d'Ersaz (2293m) to the Vareton refuge, where it was time for headlights to go back on again. It was turning out to be another cold and windy night. The next section took us over the Fenetre du Tsan (2738m) which took a while to turn up, then on to the Reboulaz hut at 2585m. This was a lovely welcoming little place and we spent 20 minutes or so by the stove with tea and noodle soup. We asked the guardienne about the next bit of the route, and she said it was not wise to carry on to the Cuney hut if we were tired because the path was very exposed and a fall would be serious. It was just coming up to midnight and I felt I had at least another two hours before I wanted to sleep so I said I would carry on. Jacky said he would probably do the same, but would set out a bit after me. I didn't see him again.

The trip to the Cuney hut went over the Col Terray (2775m) then seemed to cling to the side of a steep rocky hillside for many kilometres. It was impossible to see what the drop below the path was like but I was fairly sure I didn't want to go there. The concentration required made the time flash by though and I could soon see the lights of the Cuney hut in the distance. By now the field was really spread out and you were unlikely to see other runners unless you sought them out; it was a weird but somehow satisfying sensation, wandering along through the mountains in the pitch dark, completely alone. I would occasionally pause for a drink or a handful of sweets,  then turn my light off and just gaze at the stars for a few minutes. By the time the Cuney hut turned up I was ready for some sleep, so I asked to be woken in two hours. It was not a paticularly quiet place so I awoke in an hour and a half and decided to carry on. I got some food and drink and then checked out with the marshal. It was very reassuring how they managed your passage along the course, particularly at night. The whole network of huts and checkpoints was connected by radio, and as I was leaving somewhere I would often hear " Numero 496 parta da.........).

But just as I was leaving the Cuney at around 4am I got some more news. The race was not going on to the finish, the organisation had decided that deep snow and ice over the final col made it too potentially dangerous, so the race would finish at St Rhemy at 303km instead doing the full 330km to Courmayeur. I was initially really disappointed to hear this. I was going well, I had plenty of time, I was on schedule to finish in Courmayeur with 10-15 hours to spare, but if there's only one game in town that's the one you have to play, so I pushed on to the last of the series of small huts, the Clairmont at 2705m. The Guardian at the Clairmont said that the track went up a short way to the Col Vessona at 2788m, then descended to the valley at Close, but beware, it was a long way, more than 9km.

Up to the col was easy, then the first part of the descent was down slippery sandy zig-zags on a steep hillside so I took it carefully. Then the ground got easier and the dawn slowly started to appear, by the time I got down to the alpine meadows it was a grey half light, but easily enough to see and feel the crunchy frost underfoot. At this point I had my only navigational concern in the whole race. Most of the way had been on fairly easy to follow paths, augmented by little "TDG" flags with a reflective strip on at every key turn and every hundred yards or so otherwise. Here there were two or three possible ways and no flags. I suspect that as we were now getting into Friday a combination of wandering cows (of which there were many herds along the course) and the persistent wind had gradually done the damage. Still, all the tracks led more or less down the same valley so I picked the most obvious one and was relieved when I came across an "Alta Via 1" marker a few hundred yards further on. In another quarter of a mile or so the flags re-established themselves and I was happy that I was securely on track. After the alp the path went down for miles through the trees but I was able to jog most of it down to the valley low point.. As so often in this race though, from the low point it was necessary to climb back up a couple of hundred metres to the next checkpoint at Close (1463m).

I was ready for breakfast but the Close checkpoint was the only one that was disappointing along the whole course. The marshals were a bit offhand and there was hardly any food. I made do with a cappucino, a couple of mugs of Coke and a few TUC crackers and set off again. The only good point here was that I noticed as I checked in that I was now in 290th place. The final obstacle on the stage was the climb over the Col Brison (2508m) but it was pleasant up through the woods and over the alp, then steep down for a bit followed by the long descent over hillside and through woods to the base at Ollomont (1396m), arriving again at around lunchtime. What made this bit nice was that it looked like we were getting into a bit of fine weather again, it was warm and sunny and the wind had almost completely died away.


Stage 7  Ollomont to St Rhemy   21km  1400m  D+

After my normal hour for sock change and food, I set off up what was to be this year the final major climb. It was hot but not unpleasant as I wound my way gently up to the Letey hut at 2433m then the summit of the Col Champillon at 2707m.  What was pleasing was that the very first 1300m climb out of Courmayeur on Sunday had taken me 2hrs 45min, and here I was on the last 1300m climb, over 5 days later  - and it took just 2hrs 45min.  The descent was easy zig-zags then a good path down the meadows, followed by a wonderful path that traversed the hillside for miles, gently descending all the way, easy jogging, followed by a last little descent to the final checkpoint before the end at Ponteille. I wasn't going to stop but was persuaded by the runners already there, now in party mood just before the finish, and of course the ham and salami did look good. The track on the the topo appeared to go gently down all the way to the finish at St Rhemy from here and I asked the marshal if there were any uphills in it. No, downhill all the way, it's like a road, he assured me, just 10km to go. On that basis I had a glass (or rather a paper cup) full of red wine to celebrate the end of the hills. It probably wasn't a good move because the track actually turned out to be quite undulating with many uphill sections. I guess in the Val d'Aosta unless it's at least 1000m and in your face, it isn't considered an uphill! Still I managed to run the downs and power walk the ups all the way to the finish.

The finishing arch, commentary and general celebratory scene had been fairly well moved from Courmayeur to St Rhemy, and I heard my name as I checked my wrist chip for the last time and learned that I had crossed the line in 270th place. I would have bitten your hand off for that before the start, I had not only completed the biggest event of my ultra career so far, but in good shape and reasonable style. It was somehow hard to believe that it was all over, but within twenty minutes I was back on a bus to Courmayeur, a proper long shower, and sleep.


Reflections

The following morning I gradually found out what had happened to the others. George and Anthony were as good as expected, coming in 64th equal, though what gave me some encouragement is that they were still beaten by the first Vet 60  - maybe there's hope for we more elderly pedestrians yet! Julie was inside the first 100, which won her the Lady's Vet 50 prize.  Although I was not aware of it, Jacky had stalked me a few hours behind until the end, finishing in 309th place, and Claire had continued her steady way round to finish 328th. There were 392 finishers in total. Alison had unfortunately had to pull out at St Jaques after completing 222km of the course. The winner was the young Spaniard Oscar Perez, who got back to Courmayeur (before the final pass was closed) in 75 hours - just half the total time allowance.

I was still a little disappointed that the conditions prevented us from completing the whole course. But we had missed only 27km and 1400m of climb. My official finishing time was 125hrs 13 minutes 32 seconds.  As the time allowance for the whole course is 150 hours and I was still in really good shape when I finished, I somehow think I would have made it OK if it had been available. The whole thing was still a wonderful experience.

I really couldn't get my head around the enormity of it before the start, I just knew that if other ordinary people had got round then I probably could. In the end I was not only surprised by how doable it was, but how much I enjoyed the whole thing. I had 13 hours sleep in five and a half days and it was enough. I kept going steadily, looked after my feet, ate lots and never got distressed , although I got pretty tired on the Col Loson early on. I never set myself intermediate targets, I knew that just keeping comfortably ahead of the cut-offs would be OK.

Would I go again? Probably not in the near future. I had such a good trip that any comparison would probably be unfavourable. Maybe in a few years, if I'm still going well enough.

This is a brilliant, well-organised, demanding challenge in a stunning area that is not overrun with people. What makes it is the scenery of the Aosta Valley and the hospitality of its inhabitants. How such a big, serious event can at the same time be so relaxed and so much fun can only be in the end because it truly is "driven by Italians".