It has been a while since I have written something here, mainly because I didn’t really have too much to say. This year has been a bit of a write off on the running front, which is OK I guess as we can’t keep going further, higher, faster forever and sometimes life gets in the way.
Not running much means that Helen and I have spent a lot of time this year helping out at races either marshaling, sweeping or just generally doing what needs done to make a race happen.
I am lucky enough to have some interesting races lined up for next year: London Marathon, Miwok 100, and West Highland Way take care of the first half of the year. Hopefully another trip to Chamonix for UTMB week in August as well. This has helped restore my motivation, and touching wood, I have had a consistent few weeks slowly building a base for next year’s big efforts.
A couple of hours on the trail yesterday gave me the headspace to reflect on what I have learned this year from all the watching I have done. So what lessons have I learned about what makes successful ultra runners?
Unless you are at the very sharp end success is not defined by where you finish, that is often down to age and genetics, it is how you finish that defines success.
You can’t bluff it. If you haven’t done the training, it will come back and bite you on the bum.
Happy runners are successful runners. Those who smile and chat and enjoy the experience do much better than those who huff and puff and toil.
Successful runners plan carefully, but are flexible and roll with whatever the day throws at them. They don’t over think kit and nutrition.
Stress kills performance. Doesn’t matter whether it is work stress, personal stress or race stress, but too much of it and you can’t train or race successfully. See point 3.
Successful runners are lean. No getting away from it, excess weight kills performance. That doesn’t mean you have to be skinny to run, and plenty runners carry too much weight (me included), but being at your optimum weight undoubtedly helps.
Successful runners race judiciously. Too many people suffer from FOMO and do too many races or races which are a step beyond their current capabilities. See point 5. and point 2.
Successful runners are consistent. They train consistently and build up carefully and steadily to their races. Too many people end up in a cycle of boom and bust, playing catch up from injuries, doing too much, then getting hurt or burning out. See points 2, 3, 4 and 5.
My prescription for myself for 2016 therefore is:
Train patiently, manage work/life balance better, lose weight and the hardest of all – smile more and enjoy it!
On a sunny day I took myself for a run on the section of the West Highland Way heading south from Tyndrum.
This is the reverse of the way the route is normally travelled.
On the way I tried out my new camera with some mixed results. The following clips are unedited, apart from the Auchtertyre demon sheep.
The first mile was sunny with spectacular views. This is the last mile of the Highland Fling race. The only things disturbing the peace are my heavy footsteps
The next section is a pleasant run past the farm at Auchtertyre, on by the ruins of the church at St Fillans and down to the A82 road crossing. This video contains some high speed sheep
Across the road and into the forest is the undulating section to Bogle Glen known as the Rollercoaster. 18 minutes of heavy breathing as I tried to run all the way over some pretty steep hills. Confession – didn’t make it had to walk a few steps on the very last up! The scenery is nice and hopefully the soundtrack is reminiscent of the extended version of Donna Summer’s Love to Love You Baby 😉
I have been feeling poorly these last few days. Might have been man flu. Might have been jet lag, but running was either rubbish or didnt happen at all.
I had a reasonably good November/December where I ran every day for 32 days and started to build mileage sensibly, and even though a Christmas day flight with Champagne and Caviar scuppered this year’s Marcothon effort, I still managed to run a pretty solid time for the Boxing Day 10 miler in Hamilton, Ontario.
After that I swapped running for holidaying and only managed one run in the following week.
2015 arrived with a big fat zero in the training log and a big fat jump on the scales. I tried a run one day and managed all of 2 horrible miles on aching legs, and with that abject failure my running career was over. At least according to Private Fraser bouncing around in my head yelling “We’re Doomed! Doomed I tell ye!”
Fast forward a couple of days and feeling a wee bit brighter I jumped on the treadmill after work for the scheduled Yasso 800 session fully expecting another fail. The first few minutes of the very slow warm up were yucky and I nearly chucked it. Legs weren’t working properly at all, but slowly minute after minute they warmed up until there was no more room for excuses, time to hit the first interval. It was so hard! By the time I reached the end of the interval I thought my legs were going to fall off. The second interval was nearly as bad. Somehow, as if by magic, the third interval wasn’t too bad at all and the fourth was actually relatively easy. And so it continued.
Maybe I will still be able to run this year after all.
1. You don’t lose fitness overnight so don’t panic about missing a few days
2. Don’t stop just because it doesn’t feel good. Ease into it slowly and if you keep going fitness will prevail.
3. Intervals 3 and 4 are always easier than 1 and 2. Remember this fact.
4. If you know all of the above don’t be a drama queen just because things aren’t quite going to plan
I found this post in my Drafts box. I never quite got round to finishing it and then it wasnt quite the right time to post it, so here it is unfinished
Friday was a solemn day.
Runners made their way to Boylston Street.
With a few days until race day it was the runners from 2013 who came first, proudly displaying 2013 on the blue and yellow jackets. There was little noise as they sought out first the finish line and then both of the small memorials which marked the sites of the bombs. Fading strands of blue and yellow tied to a tree. A 2013 finishers medal tied to a piece of wire. Little bunches of flowers. The following day they were joined by a pair of running shoes. These were not formal grand gestures but very personal tokens placed by individuals.
The finish line of the Boston Marathon on Boylston Street is flanked by temporary grandstands. To make your way to the race Expo you need to walk through a passage behind them which is almost like walking through a church. The silence under the stands amplified the raw emotion on the street. Waves of emotion were causing me to swallow hard and was relieved to see I was not alone as I glanced to see tears streaming down Helen’s face.
Quietly we walked to the Forum restaurant where Helen had stood for 6 hours until just before the bomb exploded there last year.
We were back.
We had made a promise to come back to Boston to play a part in standing up for the small sweaty corner of humanity that is the running community, and now we were standing on Boylston Street.
We had lunch in the Forum and chatted to a couple seated next to us who were not runners. They had been in the Forum last year when the bomb exploded and blew the windows in. They had come back from Kansas City to be in the same place and intended to watch the race from the Forum.
Throughout Friday the runners returned and as they returned there were many tears on Boylston Street but there was a real sense or determination to return and put things right. It was important not just to the runners but to the city. People welcomed the runners back with a sense of relief almost as if they were worried they might not come. Not just the city as an institution but the ordinary people: the airport security guard who looked you up and down, saw the 2013 and nodded and winked. The taxi driver who was eager to tell us that we can’t let them win.
And then there were the daffodils. Wrapped in Boston blue ribbons, bright yellow daffodils lined the street.
Outside the church by the finish line, volunteers were handing out Boston scarves. Hand-knitted in their thousands throughout the USA I received one made by Susan from the tiny town of Mt Desert in Maine.
Race day arrived, the yellow school buses headed for Hopkinton. As we arrived through the back streets of this most American town with its wooden houses and white picket fences, two old ladies, sat on a white painted porch, held up a banner saying “Welcome Back”. A little girl wrapped in her dressing gown, stood at the end of her driveway and waved a Stars and Stripes at the returning runners. It was only 7am.
Finally, high on emotion, a race was run. Crowds cheered as never before in a heady mix of support and defiance. Cheers, tears, kisses and fist pumps punctuated 26.2 miles of the very best in the human spirit. Boston was Strong, the runners came back. Those with unfinished business turned Right on Hereford, Left on Boylston and finished the race.
A few days later, and 4000 miles to the west, I was boarding the ferry to Alcatraz, proudly sporting my Boston Finsher’s shirt, when I was approached by an older lady who shook my hand and in a broad Boston drawl said “Thank You”
I could feel it coming and had to find somewhere quickly.
Unfortunately in a hot sweaty tent crammed with runners refuelling after already covering 55 mind blowingly brutal kilometers, the organisers had obviously forgotten to set aside a throwing up corner. I made a dash for the exit with my mouth clenched firmly shut but only made it as far as the table where volunteers were serving up coke and fizzy water, before the noodle soup which had decided it was leaving my stomach found my mouth shut and took the high speed diversion out my nose and all down the front of my warm mid-layer shirt. I made a second dash for the exit and found a convenient pile of wood chippings next to the timing mats at the entrance just as my stomach emptied for a second time. Looking up, slightly dazed, and being careful not to cross the Out mat which would signal me leaving Champex, I noticed the people at the Retiral table eyeing me up. Self-consciously, I wiped the worst of the puke off my shirt, got some more sparkling water poured into the folding cup attached to my backpack by a length of elastic, switched on my head torch and headed into the darkness before I became too tempted by the Retiral desk or one of the officials took the decision for me.
Champex Lac sits halfway up one of the big climbs in the CCC and it had been a struggle to get there. As I left the aid station I passed the bus half full of runners for whom enough was enough. It looked warm and dry compared to the heavy rain lit up by my torch. For a moment I contemplated heading back to the tent and stopping, but gave myself a shake and thoughts of pulling out vanished. There were people waiting for me to finish and I didnt want to be on that bus.
The CCC or Courmayeur-Chamex-Chamonix to give it its full name, is a 101K race through the Alps. It is part of the famous UTMB series of races and here I was, only half way through, travelling at a snails pace and about to head into the mountains in the dark. This was hard: 2 hours and 40 minutes to run 10K hard and it was about to get harder.
The day had started brightly enough. The trip to Courmayeur in Italy through the Mont Blanc tunnel had been pretty smooth and I was grateful for the company of fellow Scot Carol Martin on this trip as I pondered the splendid symmetry of a drive under the mountain before running back over the top. At Courmayeur we met up with Random Scottish Punters Terry, Silke and Malcolm who were all to run fantastic races. As the race started we were cheered on by epic cheer leaders George and Karen – George had somehow contrived to borrow the biggest cow bell you have ever seen and was swinging it lustily as only George can.
The climb out of Courmayeur is breathtaking in every sense of the word. The CCC route varies a little from UTMB at this point, CCC climbing higher over Tete de la Tranche. The first 500m or so of climbing was not too bad and once above the tree line the views over the Italian side of the Alps were stunning. I kept an eye on the altimeter on my Garmin and it kept climbing. After about 6500m I could really feel the air begin to thin. The climb was at least as steep as anything you could encounter on our Munros back home in Scotland and every time you lifted your head you could see runners high above you. The scary part was if you lifted your head once more there were still runners even higher. Eventually a little respite was gained from the climb as we reached a rather exposed col with big drops and big scenery on either side, but sure enough it steepened further before another lung busting climb to the top at just over 2500m. The first 10K had taken 2.5 hours and had climbed 1500m. It was going to be a long day.
Our bibs were scanned by some hardy volunteers right on top of the mountain and without much fanfare it was over the top and downhill to Refuge Bertone some 3 Kilometres away and 500 metres below. In my race plan I had intended climbing conservatively and then using the downhill to pick up some time. I had climbed well enough but by the time I readed the top I was really feeling the altitude and was struggling to run the downhill. My brain wasn’t sharp enough to process the rocky underfoot conditions and my legs were numb from the climb. As I lumbered gingerly down the 500m descent, I was quite intimidated by large number of runners who overtook me at breakneck pace throwing themselves down hill with what seemed to me like reckless abandon. By the time I made it down to Refuge Bertone the sun was splitting the sky and I realised I was sweating like I had never sweated before. I took my pack off and discovered it was soaked through. I refilled my bottles, grabbed some coke and coffee and removed the t shirt I was wearing over my Helly Hansen base layer. At this point someone nudged me and my cup of coffee went all over my white shirt leaving a large mucky brown stain all over the front. When I took off this shirt I realised it weighed a ton with sweat so rather than carry it in my pack for another 50 miles I ditched it, knowing that I had another long sleeve top in my bag as per the mandatory kit list.
The mandatory kit list is one of the unusual and scary features of UTMB. There is an exhaustive list of kit which includes things like spare warm mid layer (minimum 185g) and a personal cup. The kit is checked at registration in the sports hall in Chamonix pre race. When you register by showing your passport they look you up on the computer and then print out a personalised kit list. On the kit list are marked 4 random items which will be checked. I got Phone, Head Torches, Waterproof Jacket and warm hat. You then need to take your kit along with the list to a table where a volunteer checks your kit thoroughly. Both head torches had to be switched on to show they work and spare batteries for both had to be shown as well. The phone had to be shown working and the taped seams were were checked for integrity. If everything is intact you can then progress to pick up your bib. If not, you need to go away, get the right gear and come back again. Even more scary was the random kit check carried out pre race in Courmayeur. Race marshalls were selecting runners and going through a full kit check, having runners empty their packs and show all 20 or or so of the mandatory items of kit. Even though my kit was correct I was extremely relieved to avoid the stress of a check.
The section from Bertone to Refuge Bonatti should be relatively straightforward but I continued to find it hard going. By Refure Bonatti at 14 miles in I was suffering from horrible cramp in my gracilis which is the muscle which runs down the inside of your thigh. At Bonatti I swallowed a couple of packets of salt which seemed to ease the cramping. Another climb came next. Those little squiggles on the elevation map turned out to be pretty big ups and downs and still sweating profusely I made it into Arnuva which is the first of the cut off points. I was relieved to see that I was in with a couple of hours to spare because I couldn’t have speeded up any if I needed to. Next up was a big hard climb to the highest point of the course at Grand Col Ferret. Despite the steep and unrelenting climb, I found this much easier than the first.
Grand Col Ferret marked the arrival into Switzerland and the next section was a good run downhill through some pretty picture postcard villages with wooden flower decked houses before a brutal 500m climb up switchbacks to Champex and the aforementioned throwing up incident.
Champex to Trient was another huge climb up Bovine where the only sound you could hear was the odd cow bell clanging in the darkness. One of the things which characterised the climbs was the silence. Despite there being runners nearby almost all of the time, there was very little talking as people concentrated on slowly putting one foot in front of another. In the pouring rain the sight of steam rising from hooded bent over runners was somewhat Orwellian. I had my first kit malfunction when my head torch started to fade rather too rapidly for my liking. I stopped at an impromptu aid station where two little girls were dishing out hot tea outside a farmhouse in the dark and pouring rain and put new batteries in my torch. Again they didnt last long and so the descent to Trient was taken very carefully as I tried to stay close to other runners who seemed to be running with lights resembling car headlamps. Having struggled to refuel in Champex my body was running on empty by the time I made it to Trient and another welcome aid station.
At Trient I managed to eat several bowls of noodle soup, bread, sausage and cheese. I swapped head torches and was relieved to find my second torch was working properly offering a bright beam and set off for Vallorcine only 11K away in quite good spirits. By now my Garmin had packed in, but I didn’t mind as I had consciously decided not to bother with a charger, and as it was only 11K it shouldnt take too long. Wrong! A combination of a steep climb over Catogne at 2009m followed by a 800m slide downhill through wet mud meant the 11K took 2 hr 50 mins! At Vallorcine I took my time and fuelled up once more.
The track out of Vallorcine looked runable but I must confess that I only ran small sections of it. Maybe I was mindful of the big climb to come or maybe I was just more secure power marching in the darkness, but in the distance I could see a line of lights perched precipitously on the steep outline of the climb from Col de Montets to Tete aux Vents. I kept reminding myself that this was the last climb and only 700m but you couldnt help but look at those torches and be awed by how steep and how high they went into the night sky. The climb up from Col de Montets was horrible. Very steep and with some clambering, I tucked in behind a lady who set a great slow but steady pace rather than the usual go-as-fast-as-you-can-then-stop-cos-you-are-dying pace that men tend to adopt (testosterone is not always your friend). We worked up through the clouds and as we neared the top, the sky began to lighten. Some flatter switchbacks gave an opportunity to look below at the head torches still climbing and as dawn broke to reveal a cloud inversion covering the whole valley the view was spectacular.
The remainder of the climb to Tete aux Vents was a bit easier flattening out to normal sized undulations and offering spectaular views of the Mont Blanc range. The views and the relief that the job was nearly done made for an enjoyable hobble in the clear early morning air.
The Tetes aux Vents checkpoint finally arrived with its iconic orange North Face dome tent, but the promised downhill turned out to be a steep and technical descent that seemed to go on forever. I had asked the marshals how far to go and they said 3K to the last aid station at Flegere and 5K from Flegere to the finish. They lied.
Once the track to Flegere eased to a sensible gradient I picked up and passed quite a few people, making a point of running through all of the ice cold streams to cool my feet and legs. There is a final climb up to the chair lift at Flegere but after so much climbing this one was just inconvenient rather than difficult. At Flegere I changed back into my shorts, and finally was able to take off my sick stained warm top and swap it for a cold sweat soaked t shirt. I downed a miniature of Great Glen Ultra whisky, filled a bottle with water and headed out with 8K to go.
I had a good run on the single track which followed the contours of the hill down into Chamonix picking up a lot of places as I passed plenty of people who were quite content to walk it out. Lots of supporters were out walking up hill to see runners and they were all so genuine in their support of what you had just achieved. Through some houses, again with support and then it was across the road and into the town of Chamonix and the famous run along the river. The crowds thckened and I spotted a Saltire waving in the distance. I was pleasantly surprised when it turned out the flag was attached to friend Norry who had volunteered to come out and watch for me. Norry passed me the flag which I attached to my walking pole making an impromptu flag pole. The cheers from the crowds on the last loop through town were amazing and as I turned the final corner to see the finish arch the Scottish contingent were going crazy, shouting and waving flags. Some high fives and a massive hug from Helen who I thought ws going to burst with excitment and I was over the line. I had finished the CCC.
I caught up with Terry and Carol and was pleased to learn they had finished safely with strong runs. We had all come here with thoughts of using CCC as a precursor to an attempt at UTMB. Our concensus on the finish line was absolutely no way! The respect for the UTMB finishers is absolute, but we were going to have to rethink our ambitions, CCC was so hard that doing more seemed impossible.
I think it took about 6 hours for us to change our minds.
Initially I was a wee bit disappointed with my finishing time of 24 hours and 10 minutes but that didnt last long. CCC is so diferent from anything I have done before and I was pleased to learn that I had picked my way through the field over the second half of the course finishing in 950th place just inside the top half of the field. You really need ot serve your apprenticeship running in the Alps and at times on the CCC I was definitely sent for the tartan paint and the Long Stand. The climbs arent just enormous but they are unrelentingly steep. The downhills are steep and technical in places. The altitude affects you. The path was muddy and treacherous in places. There is 9 hours darkness running with headtorches on technical trails in unfamiliar mountains. There is a massive drop out rate. To finish in itself is an achievement. There is nothing which can prepare you for how big it is.
The whole trip was an amazing experience, all the more so for sharing it with the large contingent of Random Scottish Punters who had made the trip out to run or support. Watching people finish the various races was fantastic. Every single person was given a hero’s welcome. The Elite performances were astonishing. Despite being the hardest race I have ever done by a long way, It is in the diary for next year already whether I am succesful in the ballot or not. CCC was one of those life changing experiences and I am sure Chamionix will become a regular fixture in our travel plans.
Having seen it, UTMB has to be the next target.
As Terry said to me “We had better do it soon cos we are not getting any younger”
There were tears on Boylston
on the day the runners came back.
Wrapped in scarves of Boston blue,
carrying the hopes of strangers.
The blue and yellow jackets of '13
the first ones to arrive
In a race for restitution
For their numbers to be counted
they stood in contemplation
At the finish line rebuilt.
Boston Strong, they walked in quiet tribute
Along the street that was hurt
And the hopeful yellow daffodils,
wrapped in Boston blue,
Lined the street like supporters
Cheering those who passed.
The daffodils made me cry.
The second half of last year saw me injured with an achilles injury which took nearly 6 months to get better. Since January my achilles has been behaving, though it still niggles, but I have also been struck down with plantar fasciatis, a sore ankle caused by bruised cartilege, a long running sinus infection, and a really busy work schedule.
Foremost in my mind has been my appointment in Hopkinton on Monday April 21st and the need to get there in one piece.
Now normally when I train, I am of the blood, sweat and snotters school of training. No finesse but lots of effort.
This year, with so many ailments I have had to adopt a painfully cautious approach to training. I have tried to follow the 10% rule, upping my mileage slowly. I have been disciplined in my long runs, turning back early in some of the long group runs on the West Highland Way when it would have been easier just to slog them out with my chums who were all running longer. Turning back when you are competitive is really hard. I even dropped out of the D33 race at 25 miles because my foot just wasn’t right. My first ever DNF and those who know me will appreciate how painful that is.
I have done next to no speed work. My usual set of Yasso 800’s has slipped off my plan. Even tempo runs have been done at about 80%. I started training without a base and whereas last year I was running 200-250 miles per month this year I have been in the region of 175-190. This time last year I raced a pretty speedy half marathon and got a new PB. This year I haven’t raced at all. Not even a parkrun.
I am undertrained. I have no speed. I feel like I am about 4-6 weeks away from full fitness, so having been cautious all year, I am going to have to keep the caution going and run the race with my head and not with my heart which is what usually gets me into trouble anyway.
My mantra throughout this whole training programme has been to quit while I’m ahead.
So where does that leave me?
First off it means that barring accidents I am uninjured and ready to go run Boston. Success!
My goal for race day? To run safely and sensibly for 20 miles and get over heartbreak hill with 6 miles to go and be feeling strong. If I can do that then I should be in with a chance of beating last year’s time. The trick will be to resist the temptation to push on and to remember where I am now, not where I used to be and tailor my ambitions accordingly.
Despite being tedious at times, I have plodded through the last 16 weeks doing what had to be done, to be safe rather than sorry. It has been frustrating and it hasn’t been enjoyable, but it has been successful and I will be on the start line with a semblance of fitnes
It is now taper time, and I will be getting wrapped in cotton wool because at the moment I am just about ahead, so definitely time to quit until race day.