Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Food is not (just) fuel

I once read a (probably apocryphal) anecdote about a runner who was signing up with a new coach. After they had discussed ambitions, potential, training programmes and so on, the runner then asked the coach whether he should follow any particular diet. "If you're going to put in 50 miles a week," came the reply, "you can eat what you sodding well like!"

I've watched with interest and maybe a slight tinge of alarm all that's been written in the past couple of years or so about runners' diets. My wife still subscribes to Runners World which you might be forgiven for thinking is a recipe magazine with the odd article on running thrown in. Then there is all this stuff about what you should eat when you race, before you race, after you race, when you're not racing, when you're not thinking about racing, and so on. Eat carbs, don't eat carbs, eat fat, don't eat fat, eat protein, don't eat too much protein, avoid tea, coffee, diet Coke, real Coke, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc. You may by now already have an inkling of my scepticism creeping in here.

Don't get me wrong, I'm sure all this stuff has good basis in fact and scientific research, and I'm equally sure that if you believe whatever particular regime you follow will work for you, then it will. For athletes trying to wring the last two or three percent extra out of their performance, it's important, a thousand small improvements and all that. I just have to admit that it's not for me, so I've stopped worrying about it.

I like porridge in the mornings and a beer or two in the evening, crusty white sandwiches and fish and chips. I love all Italian food and the red wine that goes with it. I like salty crisps, chocolate and extra strong mints. I spend too much of my disposable income on restaurant bills, because I think food is one of the real pleasures of being lucky enough to be born in the rich side of the world. And I am a runner, yes, but it's a hobby, something I do for fun, not something that I want to subjugate the rest of my life to. I suspect I'm like most casual participants  - a bit heavier than I would like to be but still light enough, who puts on half a stone in the winter and takes it off again every spring, not super fit but good enough to get pleasure rather than pain out of running. And I think I'm going to stay that way.

So what do I do when it comes to the stuff I need to eat during a race? Well, you will hear lots of good advice, in particular "find out what works for you and stick with it". In my experience it doesn't work quite like that, because often what you find is that what worked really well in the last race doesn't seem so great in this one. I think it depends a lot on the circumstances, how long the event goes on, whether you're running most of it or walking for long sections, whether it's day or night and so on. I once ran the Highland Fling on nothing except Mars Bars, and most of the CCC on chicken noodle soup and coke.  One theory nowadays is that your food should get progressively more liquid as the event goes on but I say don't knock the boost you get from a sausage roll (or whatever turns you on) late on in the game.

It's interesting to see and I think learn from what's provided in races where you don't have to supply your own food. Some of it may surprise you, but if it's a race that's been going for some years the organisers will have learned what their clientele appreciate and what they don't. So in a quick thrash like the Rotherham Round you'll get jam sandwiches and Jaffa cakes, whereas in more drawn-out affairs like the Alpine events you get much more savoury stuff, cheese, salami, pasta and so on which all seems to hit the spot at the time. In races where you supply yourself, either in drop bags or via a support crew, I've found there is a great temptation to put in a whole range of things so you can make choices on the day; again in my experience this just results in a lot of stuff getting wasted, and the chances are you still don't have that precise goody that's sprung into your mind as absolutely essential when you're 70 or 80 miles in.

So over the years I've come around to approaching race food in the same way I do my everyday diet. That is, not to worry about it. If the food's provided, I try to eat what's there and don't bother to take my own. If it's not, then I just go with what I thought might work a few days before the event. Just relax. If you find you're eating well during a race, that's great; if not, well, we all have enough fat to see us through to the finish, we just go a bit slower that's all. Remember why you came here in the first place, and don't let it spoil your day.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Exmoor Coast Ultra

To balance my trips up the M6 to Glasgow and beyond, last Saturday saw me travelling in the opposite direction down to Hunters Inn on the edge of Exmoor. It happened in a roundabout sort of way; I was looking for a short ultra to do in January and the Endurancelife Coastal Series Anglesey event seemed to fit the bill perfectly - 32 miles, nice scenery and a start location barely an hour's drive from home. Only problem was that it was cancelled because of drifting snow on the course. I can almost hear John Steele and Joe Faulkner snorting in disbelief, but the Endurancelife Coastal Series is a different style of event. Multiple trail courses run on the day (10k, half marathon, marathon and short ultra), no navigational or self-sufficiency skills needed so no requirement to substantiate your survival potential on entry. But nevertheless, as last weekend showed me, very enjoyable and well-organised days out. After the Anglesey cancellation, we were offered the chance to transfer our entry fee to any of the other events in the series; I chose Exmoor because it came at the right time and sounded good.

I drove down on a beautiful Friday evening and stayed at the Fox and Goose pub in Parracombe, about 4 miles from the start, a friendly place which saw me set up with a good curry, fine local ale and a comfy bed for the night. I set out on a much greyer Saturday morning with the promise of rain and gale force winds to come - this winter still isn't giving up without a fight  - but on the plus side it was noticeably much warmer than of late.

For those unfamiliar to the area, it's worth spending a word or two on the lie of the land hereabouts. Most of Exmoor hangs around the 1000-1500ft contours, then at the North coast it simply plunges into the sea, either directly down cliffs or via steep and often wooded valleys ("combes").  Any habitation in the combes is approached by narrow, winding, and very steep little roads, and Hunters Inn is just such a place. The pre-race instructions informed us that there would be parking "about a mile from the start - a nice little warm-up"; they neglected to add that the parking field was several hundred feet higher than the start, which meant that you had to leave that little bit extra in the tank later in the day for the work to be done after the finish. But overall this landscape is simply stunning, mile for mile definitely the best scenery I've encountered on any run in the UK.

Anyway, down at the start at Hunters Inn, we had a longish pre-race briefing then at 8.30am we were off. "We" were all the ultra competitors plus a number of slower Marathon competitors who had elected to start early, on the basis that they would probably take more than 6 hours for the marathon, about 100 of us altogether I guess. Timing was by the Sportident "dibber" system and we were required to "dib" individually through the start gate  - this seemed a slow way of going about things but it was clearly right as we were immediately on to three or four miles of singletrack trail and the dibbing spaced us out nicely.  The trail climbed steeply from near sea level to around 750ft up the side of the combe, then out onto the front of the cliffs on a two foot wide shelf climbing steadily for a mile or so to the cliff top.  A mile or two along fields by the cliff edge then a final pull up inland over open moor to the high point of the course on Holdstone Down at around 1200ft. It was pretty blowy here and a strengthening wind was forecast but at least the rain was holding off so far. From here, fast running down a steady descent over three miles at first over moor then on singletrack down a wooded combe, led us back to Hunters Inn. This first loop was the complete course of the "10k" (it was actually 7 miles) due to start later in the morning. The ultra and marathon then set out on a 20 mile loop in the opposite direction along the coast, after which we ultra participants would repeat the first loop for a total distance of 34 miles.

Inevitably, the second loop started with another long climb back to the clifftop, but throughout nearly all the course the ground underfoot was even and easy to run or walk on. You could spend time looking at the scenery without worrying that a trip would send you over the cliff. On this second loop the outward leg was back from the cliff edge, undulating through woods and open hillsides, then cutting down through a local beauty spot known as the Valley of the Rocks and into the top end of Lynton, the only town on the course. From Lynton, another climb and an exciting descent led to a checkpoint at 17 miles, the halfway point and time to refill the water bottles. I was experimenting with Salomon "soft" water bottles on this run and found them excellent; all the advantages of a bottle (easy accessibility and knowing how much you have left), but with no sloshing sound! From the checkpoint the course wound down another wooded combe (Watersmeet) then up the second biggest climb on the route to the top of Countisbury Hill, quite a long section of walking for everyone I saw around here. But the reward was another great descent, now back on the cliff path, all the way down to the seaside village of Lynmouth.  Another climb then brilliant cliff scenery along an undulating route all the way back to Hunters Inn.  We had been lucky with the weather, although we had seen rain clouds all around since not long after the start, the actual rain held off until I was almost on the last descent back to Hunters Inn.

All that was left was to repeat the initial 7 mile loop and its big climb, a bit bleaker in the rain but even then we were lucky as the promised gale force winds hadn't materialised.  The only disadvantage was that all of the races had now used this loop, upwards of 500 runners, and churned up the downhill back to the finish somewhat so you just had to go with the flow and hope for the best in many places.

This was another "take it easy" event for me but I made it back to the finish in 6:35:29 for the 34 miles and around 6500ft of ascent. I was well pleased to get 18th place out of just under 60 starters and the first Vet 60 home, especially as only 4 runners got inside 6 hours, although I suspect this probably reflected the quality of the field rather than anything special on my part. All that was left was to drink the tea at the finish, slop wetly back up the hill to the car, and drive the 260 miles home. Burger and coffee on the motorway helped, but what really kept me going was the thought of crisps and beer with the family back home at our local, which I finally staggered into at around 9pm after a really great day out.

The Edurancelife Coastal Series seems to have a lot going for it for a well-organised, non-stressful experience in nice surroundings. I may well do some more of them.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

End of the Tunnel?

I don't know if there is a geographical equivalent of anachronistic, but if there is then that's me. I was born in the wrong climate. I don't like the cold. Give me thirty degrees and sun any day over minus ten and snow. Now don't get me wrong here, I've been happy - maybe prepared would be a better descriptor - to put up with my fair share of low temperatures to access some of the more worthwhile experiences our little planet has to offer; I've camped on high glaciers and climbed big ice faces in the starlight; I've counted the minutes through long, cold bivouacs and spent weeks exploring the deep gulleys, scarey faces and shrieking plateaus of the Scottish highlands in winter. But not any more. 

I guess it's probably an effect not unconnected with my birth in the first half of the last century, something that I'll probably have to factor into my running plans at some stage but not for a year or two yet I hope, that of late I just feel the cold more. Cold hands, cold feet, cold face. I wrap myself up in layers to get through trips such as the recent Hardmoors 55 run, amazed at how little clothing many competitors seem comfortable in, but unless there's a special day out involved I can't do it any more for fun. The only way to enjoy snow is on skis in the sunshine, with a vin chaud waiting at regular intervals. The photographs I see of long runs over snow-covered hills that so many runners seem to enthuse about just leave me, well, cold

This mis-location of mine is not normally too much of a problem. The English winter only lasts a week or so, time that can profitably spent enjoying a cosy fire and a glass or two of whisky, then everything warms up and we can go outside again.  The Scots can enjoy their special climate for a while longer but I don't have to these days. But, you will have noticed, not this year. In my wanderings over the Wainwrights that started last year, I look back and see from my diary that I set out from Mosedale for Carrock Fell and its neighbours on 30th November 2012 in a valley temperature of minus five.  In the four months since, the Lake District hasn't warmed up. I've looked hopefully at the Met Office mountain weather forecast every few days to be met with continuous tales of freezing temperatures and gale force winds. Other than one or two miserable half days, I haven't been back since. Even my runs nearer home, once off the roads, have been more on snow than not. Last weekend there were still drifts several feet high in places on our local sandstone ridge - and it never snows in western Cheshire.

Then earlier this week it seemed that things might be looking up. We've friends with a place in the Lakes, and they said the snow was starting to go. The winds were looking lighter. So after a fairly leisurely breakfast I took myself up to try a little circuit of fells on my list in the area generally known as the Back o' Skidda. I found the one remaining parking spot at Longlands Bridge - it was still school holidays  -  and set out. It was still fairly hard going, over and through snow and into a sharp wind, and I wondered if I had still come out a week or two early. Up the wonderfully-named Great Cockup, over Meal Fell and the pull up to the somewhat pretentious Great Sca Fell (all of 2135ft high!). But from there I turned away from the wind and was rewarded with three miles or so of snow-free springy turf, gently descending over Brae Fell and Longlands Fell all the way back to the car, great running, the best this year so far.  I picked off the lone Raven Crag, a gentle 900ft of up and two miles from the road, on the way home to celebrate.

This morning for a change I ran a completely flat race. But the winter still isn't giving up quite. On the 7th April I drove up to Blackpool on a perfect February morning, blue skies, white fields and the temperature a couple of degrees below freezing. By the time the Ron Hill set us off at 9.30 it had just about struggled up to zero. But there was no wind, the sea was calm, and after a couple of 13 mile laps on the prom it started to feel like a real Spring day. As I drove home the temperature was up to eleven degrees.

We finished off our winter coal last night. I'm not going to buy any more; a confident move maybe, but I think I can see the end of the tunnel.