Three weeks ago I decided that enough was enough. I had faffed around for nearly three years with calf and hamstring injuries, none serious enough to stop me doing anything for longer than a week or two at a time, but enough to prevent any consistent running training during all this period. This year started reasonably well but the problems re-appeared in early May, and I hadn't run for more than four or five miles at a stretch since the Pembroke Coast ultra in late April. Over the past couple of years I convinced myself that being able to walk up hills well and shamble down the other side effectively was an alternative strategy. I could get away with almost no running, at least on the longer events. Walking and a minimum of running got me through two West Highland Ways, two Lakeland 100's, a Northern Traverse, a Ring of Fire and plenty of 50 mile and shorter events, all in generally unimpressive times. But it wasn't good enough for last year's Dragon's Back nor this year's UTMB, where being able to cash in on a bit of speed over the easier ground builds a much needed buffer against being timed out. I had paid the deposit on next year's Dragon's Back and as things stood it wouldn't be worth confirming my place in January of next year - it would be the same story as last time.They say one definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. Something had to change.
After a fair of amount of discussion with the physio we concluded that;
1. The injuries that I was getting were small partial muscle tears of maybe only a few dozen fibres from the thousands in the relevant muscles, enough to cause discomfort and concern (and some rehabilitation time) but not serious overall.
2. I was getting these almost certainly by working the particular muscle too quickly, too soon and with insufficient warming up. Inattention to sensible rehabilitation.
3. I need to strengthen these muscles and get them used to working faster, but with a programme that will not cause further damage and more time-outs.
Doing things gradually and progressively will be the key. "Active recuperation" was the term the physio used. This means that you improve better and faster by using muscles rather than resting them. There may still be some discomfort, but unless it is intrusive or affects my normal running gait that's OK. So the three key changes that I'm making to how I train are:
1. Warm up thoroughly before each session of running. I have found that for me, an effective technique is to walk briskly for five minutes, then jog slowly for another five minutes, then do some gentle stretches of hamstrings and calves. It's frustrating if all you want to do is get out for a run, but needs to be observed every time. All my injuries have come in the first fifteen or twenty minutes of a run.
2. A regular and gradually increasing programme of strengthening exercises for these muscles.
3. Build up the mileage actually run (rather than walk/runs), but start with low mileage and slow pace, and build up both gradually. My starting "maximum allowed pace" is 11 minute miles, and I won't exceed this for the whole of September. I'm intending to go to 10 minute miles in October, but we'll see; this will certainly be the maximum, even for short outings.
So during the first two weeks of September I covered 60 miles in total. I threw in the odd hill such as Latrigg on a pleasant late summer evening, but mostly it was easy ground taken at between 11 and 12 minute mile pace. It felt very slow, but at least it was all running rather than walking, culminating in a continuous lap of Derwentwater, which at 9 miles was the longest continuous run I had done for months.
It was a start. Now some discipline is required to continue the job.
I had had the High Peak 40 in the diary for quite a while. Although it's been going for thirty years now and is an event almost on my doorstep, I had never done it and it looked good. A 40 mile loop starting in Buxton and taking in many of the popular trails and dales in the southern section of the district - mostly in the white peak but straying on to the grit of Rushup Edge in its northernmost reaches. I was dubious now whether such a potentially "runnable" course would be wise at this early stage of my new regime, but the event caters for walkers as well as runners and the maximum time allowed is 14 hours, a less than three miles an hour average, so I reasoned I could run what I thought would be sensible and walk the rest. I was quite surprised to discover that in the Peak, which really has no actual hills, the course has a total ascent of 5500 feet, but I suppose if you go from dale to plateau often enough then it all tots up. I thought by walking the ups, running the downs and jogging the flats for as long as I could, I ought to be able to average four miles an hour and get round in ten hours. If things went wrong I still had plenty of time to walk a lot more. Considering just over three years ago, before my injury problems started, I managed the 53 mile, 7000ft of ascent Highland Fling in under 10 hours, it's a bit humbling to see how low my ambitions (and abilities) have fallen.
The web site said the course would be marked but you had to have means of finding your way around in case the markers got tampered with on the day. The maps I had only covered the course using two rather hefty Outdoor Leisure sheets, so I lashed out on the new Harvey's "Ultramaps" Peak District Central and South. While being a full 1:40,000 scale like other Harvey maps, these are brilliantly compact, I hope they bring them out for more areas soon to cut down the need for so much origami on running events.
It's about an hour and a quarter from my house over to Buxton so getting there for registration at 7am in Buxton Community School was no problem. After being issued with our number and tally card (for clipping at checkpoints, no fancy modern electronics in this very traditional event), most runners milled around in the school hall or the car park outside until we were called to the start just before 8am for the briefest of briefings ("we've had quite a bit of rain, it'll be wet and muddy at Water-cum-Jolly"). On the dot of 8am we were away.
On these shorter events everyone except the walkers seems to start off fast and after the first mile or so through the streets of Buxton my 11 minute mile pace saw me pretty much at the back of the running part of the field. I was encouraged though as I picked up a few places on the first little climb which was maybe four or five hundred feet up to Burbage Edge. It was a beautiful cloudless morning, but over the other side we dropped into the shade of the hill and it was still quite chilly. A bit of old railway line led to the first checkpoint. A feature of the race was the huge number of checkpoints, twelve in all, one every three miles or so all the way round. They were all well stocked with water, orange squash and chocolate biscuits so there was really no need to carry anything in the way of food or drink. I had taken a single 500ml bottle, and once I had emptied it after the first 45 minutes I never bothered to refill it but relied on a couple of cups of liquid and a handful of biscuits at each checkpoint. A bit alongside a reservoir and a quick 600ft up and down over Eccles Pike and checkpoint 2 turned up, but even by here it was becoming clear that the ascent involved wasn't going to be ficticious.
I had now caught a few more runners so seemed to be part of the race again. My strategy of running everything that I could at between 11 and 12 minute mile pace and walking only the steeper uphills seemed to be working so far. The route consisted of stony jeeptracks, bits of very quiet country road, some grassy single tracks across the moors and some wooded dales, a nice variety. The marking was excellent without being over the top. Black arrows on a fluorescent pink background were visible at least fifty yards away, but they were only sited where a change of direction was necessary. Staying on the same track without turnings, you might not see an arrow for a mile or two. I really didn't need my maps to follow the route, but on an unfamiliar course I like to know where I am and what's coming up next so I kept the map out for most of the way round anyway. It was a long steady pull from the outskirts of Chapel en le Frith up to Rushup Edge, the high point of the course, but great running along the top with grand views once you got there. A short dip down then up over a tourist-encrusted Mam Tor to a steep 1200ft descent down to Castleton.
We had had the benefit of a bit of cloud cover through the mid part of the morning but it had now dispersed and down here it was hot. Browsing a few write-ups of the race beforehand, two features seemed to keep coming up as memorable in runners' minds and the first one of these was the long ascent up Cave Dale out of Castleton, which was reported usually as "seemingly endless". It's definitely all runnable but in the conditions on the day I was happy to take it at a steady walk. The entrance to Cave Dale comes at twenty miles, the half way point of the course. I reached it just on four and a half hours; I felt this was good news, no problems so far and as most people slow down as a race progresses it would allow me to take an hour longer for the second half and still get inside my ten hour target.
The reward for the effort up Cave Dale was a long gradual descent which went on apart from one very short ascent for nearly ten miles and through three checkpoints! First across the moor and down through Tideswell and down Tideswell Dale to the banks of the Wye, then along this through Litton and Water cum Jolly (slightly muddy but not wet as it turned out) to Cressbrook, then over the river and quickly up to the old railway line, down again along this to the well-known Monsal Head viaduct. We celebrated last New Year for a few days with friends at Monsal Head on the hill just above here, so it was good to see the area in September sunshine rather than January rain. Still downward, following the Wye once more along Monsal Dale to the A6 crossing. But all good things come to an end and we were now faced with another long uphill, following Deepdale for a couple of miles to checkpoint 10.
I had been passing runners fairly regularly all day and the average pace on the watch was still just under 13 minutes per mile, and somewhere around here I began to entertain the idea that ten hours was going to be easy and nine might be attainable. I was actually ready for the walking break up Deepdale but I had been surprised that I had been able to keep a steady 11-12 minute mile pace going all the way from the top of Cave Dale to the A6. My right leg was aching a bit but no obvious pain points so nothing to stop continued progress at this speed.
However, the second feature that I was pre-warned of arrived now, an infamous three mile road section. I new it was going to be almost dead straight and that you could see it stretching out ahead for miles, not what you really want after thirty miles or so; the thing that I didn't know until I got there was that it was also gently uphill all the way. But I felt I was on the home straight now so I was determined to run it all, which I did, sort of, managing to keep a steady 12 minute mile jog going until the course hit the fields again. I felt I'd won at this point but there were still one or two little obstacles to come.
The first was a series of grassy fields, gently down hill, no problem except that separating them were stone wall stiles requiring a climb up one side and down the other. After nearly eight hours of motion my legs just didn't want to perform these manoeuvres. Then immediately after this we had another Deepdal to deal with, not along this one but across it. No more than about 200 ft down one side and the same back up the other, but both down and up were very steep, narrow, and with plenty of brambles to nag at you. After these I was pleased to reach checkpoint 11, a mere 2,8 miles (so the checkpoint team told me) from the finish.
With nearly 45 minutes of my nine hours left as I set out on the last leg, I was sure it was a cruise now. A mile later I wasn't so sure. Uphill fields of long grass made progress unexpectedly tough for a while, with more walking than I really wanted. This carried on until a brief downhill through a farm, out of the countryside and into the town, where we were immediately rewarded with a steep uphill road. As my watch showed us into the last mile it became flat at last, a bit of road, a bit of grassy park, then the lane leading to the school and the finish.
The official results haven't been published yet but I stopped my watch at the finish at 8:51:20. Under the circumstances I was pretty pleased with that.
Now I just have to build on it. Starting with the sensible approach to recovery that I've never observed before - no running until Wednesday then make it short and slow!