Thursday, 27 December 2012

Gear Review: Gaiters - Inov-8 vs Dirty Girl

I enjoy running in the mud.  Frequently, I even enjoy running through standing water - especially if my feet are a bit tired or sore.  As a result, I have days where I end a run with almost as much muck in my shoes as on them.  I started wearing gaiters a few years ago, with Inov-8's DebriSoc - a sock with built-in gaiter.  When the sock part finally met its holey demise, I cut off the sock and kept using the gaiter.  Last year, before the River Ayr Way Challenge, I finally replaced the decrepit old things with a new pair of Inov-8 Debris Gaiter (tm) 32.  They were partially successful, but they are dreadfully dull to look at, and, ever the magpie, I have been eyeing up the wantonly excessive decoration of the Dirty Girl gaiters that are now easily available in the UK via The ULTRAmarathon Running Store.  Thanks to my fabulous parents-in-law, on Boxing Day I had the chance to test out the Dirty Girls, so here's my view of how Inov-8 and Dirty Girl stack up on a wet and filthy trail run.

The Inov-8 Debris Gaiter is pretty simple: put on gaiter, put on shoe, slide elastic bands under the shoe and hook the tab onto your laces - what could be easier?  They cover the lace knots nicely on most shoes, which is helpful in mud as well as long wet grass.  They're also fairly absorbant, which can be a hassle if there's a lot of water as well as grit on the route.  The ankle cuff is a bit bulky, which can result in quite warm ankles if you're out on a summer run.  With a price ranging from £11 to £15, and coming in any colour you like, so long as it's black, these gaiters keep the mud out at a good price.

Inov-8's Debris Gaiter 32 (Picture by Inov-8)

The Dirty Girl Gaiters stand out visually, with over 20 patterns from which to choose.  The attachment to the shoe is very straight-forward.  There's a one-time (or now-and-then) process requiring you to stick a bit of self-adhesive velcro onto the back of your shoeand then wait a day.  To wear, put on the gaiter, put on the shoe, then velcro the back of the gaiter to the shoe and hook the front to the bottom shoelace.  They are made from a basic polyester/lycra blend, so are a little stretchy but not too clingy.  The gaiter is also very light, even on a very wet day.  They don't absorb much water, and are reasonably cool.  I comfortably wore mine (without trail shoes) around the house for an afternoon to check the fit while I waited for the velcro to set on my shoes, and hardly noticed them.  On the down side, the cost of all the pretty colours is an extra few £ on the pricetag.

Nic's new Dirty Girls, in "Pink Panther" - mine are the swirly "Compulsive" pattern.

Things to be aware of about both brands:  if you wear shoes without laces (e.g. most Five-Fingers), you are going to have to find something to hook the gaiters to at the front.  An elastic band around a toe or two will do in a pinch.  If you wear La Sportiva shoes, you will also struggle to find a lace to hook onto.  I successfully used the elastic band from my old DebriSoc around the forefoot.  Nic made a fixing point by running a safety pin along the top of her lace-gaiter with good effect.  With a bit of time and fishing line, I expect the best method will be to stitch in a loop at the bottom of the lace gaiter.


If you are more concerned about grass, pebbles, and dry debris than mud and wet grit, then the Inov-8 gaiter is certainly sufficient for your needs and gives good value.  For all-round use, the Dirty Girl wins hands down on ability to withstand a wet run without adding to the weight on your feet.  They have a tighter weave, so also kept out more fine grit than the Inov-8 gaiters.  If you're going to be spending any length of time in the wet, and the current weather pattern suggests we all will be, then I would suggest spending the extra on the Dirty Girl.  And if you don't fancy colourful feet, you can always go for the olive green or nearly black options.

2012 - Been There, Ran That, You're Doing What?

Ah, December!  That time of year when we look back and pretend that the previous 12 months formed some kind of continuous experience that will magically end, be packaged up, and replaced by another year-long block.  Life, if we're lucky, lasts quite a long time, so like any good long run, we break it into manageable pieces, taking and planning one step at a time.  Every now and then, when things are going well, it's possible to take a step outside of this artificial time line and see that everything is connected, all our future somehow dependent on the miles that have come before.  We transcend the map, the GPS, and the strange taste caused by too many gels, and everything somehow fits into the great vision.  That's usually about the time I trip over a tree root.

How did 2012 fit into the progression that is my grand plan of life and running?  Let's put on the hindsight goggles and have a look. I ended 2011 with two predictions for 2012.  Prediction 1: the dry weather we'd been enjoying could not possibly continue - rather unfortunately, I was right, and am now musing about downsizing to a houseboat before the house becomes a boat.  Prediction 2: a good early season could lead to a tilt at running the whole Cotswold Way during the summer - this never really made it onto the priority list.  2012 started as a busy racing year.  The first half of the year included 15 races of distances ranging from 1 to 34 miles.  I ran 100 race miles fewer than in 2011, due to the reduction in the number of marathons.  I also raced at a minute and a half per mile faster, again due in part to fewer marathons.  By adding ultras to the calendar, I had an incentive to boost my training miles, logging 50% more in 2012 ( ~1800 for the year).

Somehow, the second half of the year seemed to include all of the "A" races for 2012.  That hadn't been the plan, it's just how the desire, energy, and ambition played out.  By mid-July, every race that had a comparator was a "best" of some kind.  For standard distance races, I had picked up a new PB at 1mi, 5km, and half marathon.  For races I had done before, I picked up course bests, including the two ultras where I beat my equivalent 2011 marathon times as part of the ultras.  2012 was shaping up rather nicely.  I was successfully building on 2011, which had indeed been a "breakthrough" year.  Looking forward to the first "A" race, at Nairn, I started to get a little ambitious and before I knew it, I was targeting a sub 1:30 half (nearly made it!), my first 40+mi race, and a new marathon PB on one of the toughest road courses in the country (it's not actually that bad - just one tough hill towards the end).

All through the fun of racing, there was an undercurrent of trying to figure out how to make running more than just a hobby.  During the summer, we launched Cotswold Running as a venture to organise races and eventually other running-related experiences.  The enterprise started well, with an enjoyable event at Broadway Tower (according to those who slogged through the mud), and will continue into 2013 with other fun challenges on the cards.

Having stared back with the hindsight goggles on, 2012 looks like a year full of enormous change.  I was happily racing faster at all distances and  running further than ever before.  Working life headed in a completely different direction.  What was going on?  But, if we ignore the artificial barrier that is January 1st, the year is simply a bridge from what came before to what lies ahead.  The running achievements flowed nicely as a result of the base laid in 2011, and have set me up for a potentially exciting 2013.  April's Highland Fling is inked in as the spring "A" race, and a few other interesting races are finding their way onto the plan.  Career-wise, what appears from the outside to be a complete divergence from the past is really just another stepping stone along the way, building on years of varied experiences and leading to - well, we'll just have to see where it leads.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Shoe Review: La Sportiva Crosslite XC

As the upper in my previous right trail shoe decreased its attachment to the lower portion of the shoe, I started to look out for a new model and brand.  Nic has been quite happy in her choice of La Sportiva Crosslites for several hundred miles, but when I tried a pair, the fit wasn't really what I was looking for.  I've been wearing Inov-8s since 2008, which makes it tough for anything new to get past the "first impression" test. I liked the upper and the rock plate, but something wasn't quite "right".  So, when I had the opportunity to try on a pair of Crosslite XC at the Snowdonia Marathon mini-expo, I took the chance and was pleasantly surprised.  The next thing I knew, I had a pair of shoes tucked under the wardrobe waiting for the untimely demise of my Roclites.

After my trip to the Wrekin last month, the time had finally come to try something new.  Carrying my new shoes in my backpack, I ran for my favourite proving ground - Bredon Hill.  My preferred approach up the hill begins with a steady track around a ploughed field, carries on through a firm pasture, slogs through a load of boggy muck, up a wetland that was like a shallow stream after all the rain, up a limestone track, and along a path that alternates between grass, slippery roots, mud, and rock.  Then it's a nice circuit of the hill and back down.  In a little over 7 miles, this route offers a fantastic mix of terrains and textures to test out a new pair of shoes.

The Crosslite XC is a light shoe (less than 280g in size 9) with a breathable upper, aggressive outsole, and lace gaiter.  Thankfully, the bright yellow mellows quickly once you hit the mud.

La Sportiva Crosslite XC - "Before"
The first thing you notice when you put on the Crosslite XC is that you can't get to the bottom of your laces.  Adjusting the tension requires an old-fashioned tug on the ends and some hope that you'll get it right.  It took a few tries, especially with cold fingers (I'd had a nice, if very cold, road run to reach my testing ground).  After a couple of stops, I got the laces right and was able to tuck them into the gaiter.  The gaiter comes up high enough to provide a good anti-muck layer above the most vulnerable grit access point, but not quite far enough to allow you to completely hide the knots.  Being able to tuck away the loops in the laces should help to keep the shoes from being untied by running through long grass, but the knots still get caked with mud as you find with any other shoe that needs to be tied.

The rubberized toe box and reinforced upper proved suitably robust against the various rocks, sticks, and roots I encountered on my way.  My feet kept reasonably dry when running through small amounts of mud, and the shoes seemed to drain quickly when I went through anything particularly deep.  I never felt like the shoe was holding an unnecessary amount of the water I was running through.

Widely-spaced lugs, angled to support ascending and descending.
The Crosslite XC is billed as an aggressive fell and trail shoe, designed for wet and slippery conditions.  The outsole bears out the description.  The lugs are angled in all directions to support forward motion - the outer lugs on the forefoot are angled to resist sliding away from the centre line, the main forefoot lugs are angled to grip and pull through as you go up hill and to push mud away as you go down hill, and at the back you can see the lugs turned around, so they offer extra grip as your heel digs into the shifting earth/scree on a messy descent.  The "FriXion" rubber compound is a soft rubber, ideal for wet rock.  The grip on wet limestone descents was unexpectedly good, comparing quite favourably to the popular Inov-8 Mudclaw. The harder sole on the standard Crosslite is not quite as sticky across wet rock, but wears well on the road sections of a route - I'm not sure how long the XC will cope with the inevitable road running between trails, but the extra stability on wet limestone is worth it on my local trails.  I felt incredibly well connected to the ground on my descent through wet leaves, rock, roots, and grass, with good grip throughout.

The rock plate and rigid sole provided excellent protection from the occasional sharp rock, but the difference  from the incredible flexibility I normally have in my shoes may take some getting used to.  I can think of several races over the past year when I would have loved the extra protection, so I'll be breaking myself in as quickly as possible.
They wash up well in running water, and don't keep it with you  once you carry on.
Towards the end of my run, I tested the built-in gaiters with a knee-deep mis-step.  Very little filth got into the shoe, which made a nice change from my previous pair.  I did manage to sweep some grit into the shoes as I washed off the mud in a stream, but nothing more than could be expected with the vigour of my swishing about.  Happily, the shoes also released the water as I ran, so there was no squelching after just a field or two.

As I sat to change back into road shoes for the 10K run home from the test, I encountered an unexpected bonus.  Although I hadn't really noticed the fit once I got the lace tension right, the Crosslite XC heel box fits me perfectly, with no slipping.  My feet typically tear out the heel box cushioning in all of my shoes, but these gripped in just the right places - to the extent that I struggled to get the slimy things off my very wet feet!

In summary, the Crosslite XC is an excellent fell shoe, great for wet and slippery conditions, with a great fit.  It handles rough terrain as well as its better-known rivals, and feels like it will last a bit longer.  It seems like La Sportiva are phasing it out (I can't find it on their website any more), so it's worth stocking up before they disappear entirely.  That said, based on my experience so far, I'd happily consider any new light-weight replacement the manufacturers come out with.

Mid-life update: 
It's nearing the end of February, and I've put nearly 200 miles on these shoes, so I thought it useful to update the review. Mostly, I have been running in mud - up muddy hills, down muddy hills, through wet and muddy fields.  The longest I've spent in the shoes is around 6.5 hours.  They really do drain well. I've managed 1 dry run in that time, and the shoes held up well.  My feet didn't get too hot, but I must say that after 20 miles, I was feeling a bit battered by the combination of already-tired feet, minimal cushioning and the fairly rigid sole.  I'm quite happy to run on a minimally cushioned shoe, but I would have liked a bit more freedom for my feet for a run of that distance given the amazing lack of soft ground on that day.  

As with nearly every shoe I've worn this winter, I am seeing some heavy wear around the toe box.  But, unlike my Inov-8s, I haven't had any holes developing in the Crosslite XC.  The fabric is pretty robust.  The test will be whether it separates from the sole after another hundred miles.  So far, the signs are that the shoe will last well.

I still think this is a top-notch shoe, but I can't see wearing it for any of the 8-12 hour events I've got coming up in the spring.  But, since that's not what the shoe is designed for, I won't complain about that!

Sunday, 18 November 2012

The Wrekin Wrecker - a bit of spontaneous fun in the sun

This week, I've mostly not felt like running.  It doesn't happen often, but when it does, I listen to my body and get in a bit of extra rest.  The benefit of occasionally taking a break is having the energy to get out and throw in an extra race as a reward!  So, with friends Mitch, Roy, and Chris, I headed out to run all 'round The Wrekin.  I had missed out on the race last year, due to injury at Abingdon, so was happy to have a chance to try it out this year.

This race is a category A fell race, which means it's steep (average 50m/km of climb).  It also means there will be plenty of top class competitors there to make sure I don't get lost as I follow their footprints.  The route was very well marked, well marshalled, but could have done with a few more slow runners to pad my ego when I look at the results.

We started in the middle of a wood with temperatures hovering around 4C and quickly headed along a narrow, undulating track before the first ascent of The Wrekin.  It wasn't particularly difficult, just a case of getting up by alternating between a run and a fastish hike.  By the time I hit the top, I was warm, but wasn't about to take off my gloves or headwear - I wanted a little extra protection in case I took a tumble on the rather steep scree slope that was just around the corner.  On top of the hill, the sun was shining bright and I briefly considered the decision to keep my shades on my head to have been correct.  Then, we were back into the woods and they started to bounce along as the route headed down the hill.

It's been a few months since I've raced hard in the hills, and it showed.  My feet weren't moving as quickly as I would have liked when I got to the scree slope, but I managed the first half quite happily.  The sliding, jumping over roots, and general high-concentration, high-turnover descent was a lot of fun.  I did cop out at about half way and steady myself against a tree, trying to clear my eyes that were watering from a mixture of cold air and adrenaline.  Unfortunately, shortly after I resumed my run/shuffle/ski/jump down the hill, I found myself facing up the hill, sliding feet-first towards the bottom, somehow having pitched forward, landed on my side, rolled onto my back, and then onto my front as I tried to stop the slide and get back to my feet.  I expect it looked spectacular, but it also left my shades a few yards up the hill and I had to trudge back up to get them.  Mitch looked up when he got to the bottom in time to see me stand up, arms aloft, as though I had just completed a fantastic dismount from the pommel horse.  It wasn't the most serious fall, but apparently it had style!

The next couple of miles, gently climbing, were pretty unpleasant.  I'd winded myself a bit in the fall, and found it a struggle to run much faster than a gentle jog.  When we reached the 1:3 clamber back up the hill, I was feeling pretty beaten up by the course.  Still, by 4.5 miles, we had 2 of the 3 ascents complete and it was due to be plain sailing, surely.

Once again, we headed down the hill and into the woods.  The track was a little less steep than the previous ascent, but full of roots, rocks, leaves, and other obstacles to keep the mind sharp.  The final climb was steep and steady, but by then I was starting to feel OK again and just worked along with the group of runners that had been catching me since my fall.  The final descent was incredibly challenging and full of trip hazards, and I would have loved to watch some of the more experienced fell runners as they passed me.  I caught glimpses of very fast-moving legs, but mostly tried to focus on where my slightly plodding feet were going to land.

Finally, with a mile or so to go, we were back onto normal, undulating trail, and I was able to pick up the pace and try to pull a bit of time back and finish 71st, around 1/3 down the field.  I enjoyed the mini buffet at the end while cleaning my wounds and waiting for the results.  All told, a bit of fun, a bit of sun, and a race I may just go back and try to finish without hitting the deck.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Shoe Review: Inov-8 F-Lite(tm) 230s - the new marathon road shoe?

On January 1st, 2012, I entered the Snowdonia Marathon.  A few weeks later, I bought a pair of Inov-8 Road-X(tm) 233s, with the intention of easing down another 3mm of heel drop in my road shoes.  With a spring full of trail racing, the 233s lasted longer than expected, with only around 400 miles on them as summer came to an end.  And then I looked at the course and the location again, and realised that I would never be able to blast down a wet, grassy, slippery, rainy trail in a shoe with virtually no traction on wet grass.  They would be great for 24.5 miles of the race, but the 1.5 miles where I intended to recover nearly all of the time I would lose on the final climb, so I needed to be certain of my footing.  What to do?

After searching for a low profile shoe with a bit of grip in a brand I could slip straight into, I opted to run my annual road marathon in trail shoes.  After all, I'd run almost all of my long runs during the year in trail shoes, so why not? That brings me to the F-Lite(tm) 230s.  The 230s are listed on Inov-8's website as a fitness shoe that's also designed for hard-pack trails and tarmac.  Oddly, though, they aren't listed among the Inov-8 road shoe range.  So, I checked with SouthLakesGuy on Twitter (he knows a bit about Inov-8s), and he confirmed they are great all-rounders.  I only had two concerns before they arrived - the outsole and the upper.

Comfy, close fit across the toes - no problems with the fit!
The F-Lite 230s are, strangely, heavier than the Road-X 233s which are half a size larger (249g size 9 vs 240g size 9.5).  Admittedly, the Road-X has had a bit more wear and is losing bits of fluff out of the heel padding, and the F-Lite is now holding a little bit of dirt in its tread, but the difference is a bit of a surprise, given Inov-8s numbering system.

The F-Lite sole is incredibly flexible, to the point where it felt like they would bend any direction my foot wanted to go.  When I wore them on a 21 mile practice run, it was like going out in my slippers - I could feel every bit of road.  To me, that's a good thing. It has a little bit of tread, in Inov-8's sticky rubber compound, but nothing overly agressive. So, the outsole passed the initial test.

Recently, the uppers on my Roclite(tm) 285 trail shoes have shown a bit of weakness against the strain across the forefoot, tearing away from the toe reinforcement on my right foot.  The 230 upper, with a less rigid reinforcement, molds better to my foot and fits much more like the Road-X, so has not had the same problem.  My worry that the upper wouldn't survive the training proved unfounded, thankfully.
 Update Jan 24, 2013: Amazingly, with less than 400mi on the clock, the upper has separated from the lower.  It's so disappointing, because these have been great on the slushy pavements and snow.  Yes, they're getting on a bit, but I'd rather hoped the upper would last as long as the sole, since I have been almost exclusively on the road with these.  This seems to be an undesired and recurring issue.
F-Lite upper & lower separation.

So, the shoes seemed fine and dandy, but how did they do on the day?  First, having very little weight on my feet over the course of 3.5 hours was great.  The less my legs had to pick up, the better.  Relative to the 233s, it's not much difference, but the alternatives I'd been looking at were in the region of 30% heavier, which starts to count after a while.

I have tested the 230s on wet grass and mud, and they are more effective than the Road-X, but I wouldn't advise taking them on a long muddy run, as they really have only as much grip as any standard road shoe would in the conditions.

The F-Lite(tm) heel held onto wet blossom really well, but see how the forefoot stayed clean.
Comfort-wise, I caught a sharp rock at about 5 miles and briefly wished for a shoe with a rock plate as I continued racing down the rocky path.  The pain dissipated once the route took us back onto the road, but the rocky track wasn't very nice.  I like to feel the ground when I run, but if you're going to spend more than a mile or two on rocky trails, I would advise something a bit more rugged.  For pure road, the extra little bit of cushion under the balls of the feet you get in the Road-X is a nice change.

In terms of fit, of my 3 pairs of Inov-8s, the F-Lite fits best.  There are no pinch points like I experienced with the 285, and the heel cup fits much better than the 233.  There have been no hotspots or blisters with any of them, so that's not really an issue.

Overall, I would say I've got a new go-to road shoe for the winter. I hardly ever manage to stay entirely off the grass on a run, and the combination of fit, comfort, and traction put the F-Lite ahead of the Road-X in my book.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Broadway Tower Trail Races - a view from the other side of the line

Normally, I only write about my own efforts or occasionally Nicola's.  Last weekend, for the first time in a while, I crossed the fence to the dark, hidden side of running: race directing.  The majority of that activity will remain dark and hidden - races are much like sausages: you enjoy them more if you don't see them being made.  But, here are a few reflections on the day.

Broadway Tower Marathon Start - photo courtesy of CM Running Photography

The routes for the Broadway Tower Marathon & Half Marathon have been under design for quite some time.  The original route was planned in the spring and in place early in the summer, with the diversion (the one I designed, not the unplanned ones) decided a bit more recently.  They include some of the most beautiful views the area has to offer, even on a rainy day.  On a nice day, the route can be absolutely stunning.  Over the past few years, these trails have been fantastic to run on, with occasional slippery bits and plenty of good hard-packed, often rock hard ground.  With the ridiculous amount of rain we've had locally this summer, some of the fields turned to sticky, muddy, horrible mires - especially in the 3rd quarter of the marathon course.  Having run nearly all of the route on the Wednesday and Thursday before the race, I am full of admiration for all of the competitors.  Conditions underfoot were tough out there on Saturday (but not a patch on how bad it was amid Sundays downpours!), and if the sun hadn't come out I dare say we would have had a regular transfer service running from the 20mi check point to the race base.

In every event, there are plenty of unexpected surprises on the day, for runners and organisers.  I can't imagine how difficult it would have been for everyone without the telephone safety net.  A few people needed some extra directions and reassurance they were on the right route and phoned to check.  A few probably should have made calls but didn't.  For anyone planning to run on the trails, whether racing or training, it's always a good idea to take a phone.  A quick text or call to say "I'm lost," "I'm OK, just really slow," "I'm really cold and need some help" can be the difference between a good day and a disastrous one.  Personally, I've used my phone for all of the above.  It's also worth knowing/remembering that a text message will send in low signal better than a phone call will connect.

I didn't get the chance to speak to everyone as they crossed the finish line, but I tried to catch up with as many as I could, and seeing the sense of achievement on so many faces was fantastic, and something I won't soon forget.  

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Snowdonia Marathon - Marathoneryri - a once-in-a-lifetime race?

This weekend, Nic and I joined our friends Roy and Chris for a relaxing run around Llanberis and surrounding villages, at the Snowdonia Marathon.  The story of why we were there goes back just over a year, to my failed attempt at a PB in the 2011 Abingdon Marathon.  And once we got there, we enjoyed what can only be described in a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Cast your mind back to October 2011, when I was disappointed that my body, while clearly in the best condition it ever had been in, failed me for a second year as I attempted to break 3:20.  I knew I needed to put a lot more focus on my core strength and add more long, fast running to my schedule.  Then, I had to write a few "for fun" races off my schedule while I recovered the minor niggles.  It's safe to say that I wasn't in the best frame of mind for scheduling a fast road marathon for the third straight year.

If we fast-forward slightly to January 1st, 2012, when I came back from a slightly "merry" 5k jog to clear the fog, I had a text from Roy notifying me that entries had opened, and would be closing very quickly indeed.  So, with both Nic and me still somewhat judgement-impaired from bringing in the New Year, we decided it would be a great first road marathon for Nic.  I decided that I'd had enough tilting at the 3:20 windmill and would enjoy doing a road race somewhere "just for the fun of it".

Then, the magical racing year that has been 2012 happened.  As part of my ultra preparation, I had increased the core work, added a 4th run to my standard running schedule, and was enjoying the benefits of consistent training.  By the end of August, every race I had run was either a course best (trail) or personal best (1mi, 1.3mi, 5km, 1/2mara). So, I started to look at 2011 Marathoneryri times from runners I know and compare against that 3:32 from Amsterdam to see if there was any chance of keeping my streak alive with another road PB.  I concluded that it would be tight, but possible, and put a little more work into finding a sustainable uphill running effort for the final hill of the race.  The idea of cracking my PB, set on a pancake-flat course, among the hills of Snowdonia struck me as the sort of convoluted achievement that I particularly enjoy.  After all, a PB is always nice, but setting it with an extra 2500ft of ascent is so much better!

Along comes race day, and everything is set - after a few flakes of snow overnight, the sun came up to bring that rarest of beasts, a cold, bright, and dry day.  Everyone was amazed - it was the first clear day the race had seen in many years.  The previous 4 had all been held in truly wretched conditions.  After my warm up (yes, even for a marathon!), I made a quick trip to the car to dig out the sunglasses to deal with that funny thing showing between the clouds.

What's that bright thing behind the mountain?

Heading to the start line - sunnies at Snowdonia?!?

It's only a road marathon - how hard can it be?
Nic was in charge of the camera today.

The race, in all, was an exercise in guesswork - there were no sections of the course where I could judge whether my pace would get me the time I wanted, because it's such an undulating route.  I started the first half mile slowly (8:30mm) and just kept an easy effort going to the bottom of the first hill.  As the road went down, the pace got faster, and when we hit the hill just after two miles, I just kept the rpms high and spun up like I would on a bike.  I removed my Buff, pushed up my sleeves, and unzipped my top and just kept ticking along.  Just after 4.6 miles, it was time for the downhill.  Barring a few interruptions to climb up some very small hills, that downhill lasted a good 8.5 miles.

Most road races don't boast views like this!

Totally unable to tell if I was running fast enough or too fast based on pace, I went for the logic of "if I'm hot, it's too fast".  I tried to keep my effort level just high enough to feel warm, using my sleeves, zip, Buff, and gloves to manage the changing effects of the sun and wind.  At half way, I was on 3:20 pace, which I knew was an unrealistic expectation because the second half has more ascent than the first half.  So, I mentally allowed myself a net 5-minute loss for the final hill, did my best not to lose too much on the steady drag from 13-15 miles (I lost 2 minutes), and kept repeating the mantra "every minute not lost is a minute off your PB!" for the 10km in between.  This is the bit where Nic got bored of running on the road, so I'm glad to have had a goal to help me keep focus.

Snowdon off in the distance

The climb at Waunfawr hurt, as expected.  Hamstrings and calves started to rebel, and eventually I was pushed to a speed-walk to use some different muscles and try to stretch out the screaming ones. The run-walk strategy got me up the hill and I finally got to enjoy the final descent into Llanberis, although I got a gentle reminder that the legs have to be as ready as the head when I clipped a rock on the trail and spent a few seconds on the ground.

Just a short burst down to Llanberis and it's all over!

With a mad sprint down the mountain for 1.3 miles, I clawed back enough of the walking time to finish in 163rd with 3:31:16 - 70 seconds faster than I'd run on the flat roads of the Dutch capitol.  Twisted, for sure, but also evidence that two years of (mostly) consistent marathon and ultra racing are really paying off.  A personal best on a course with 2500ft of climbing, a sunny day at the Snowdonia Marathon - it's a combination that will almost certainly never happen again.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The River Ayr Way Challenge 2012 - some like it RAW

When I entered this race, I briefly anticipated writing a reflection filled with discomfort, fighting through extreme lows, and the glory of pushing my body harder than I ever dreamed possible.  Then, I shuddered, put all anticipation of anything other than a smiley start and a relieved finish out of my head and pretended that everything would be fine.  After all, I kept saying, the race starts at the head of a river and ends at the mouth - it's all down hill, right?

The day started cool and grey, as forecast, with moderate winds (a big improvement on the gales and driving rain of the previous day).  Nic's parents kindly agreed to be crew for the day - their first ever such assignment, which saw Jeff cruelly taken from the clutches of his bed far too early for his day off.  We arrived at the start at 8AM, to find RD Anneke preparing to receive runners.  Many would register on the bus from the finish.  Those of us lucky enough to have crew (and/or like me, likely to lose their breakfast on a bus) picked up our numbers in the tiny car park above Glenbuck.

As usual, our target was to arrive early, relax, and have a bite to eat while waiting for the start.  So, when we got out of the car and I looked at the delightful woodlands surrounding us, I noticed that there were no facilities other than the boxes waiting to receive our drop bags.  I realised this really was going to be a pretty relaxed atmosphere.

Jeff, Maggie, and Nic posing for a pre-race picture in front of the ample toilet facilities.
The registration area began to fill as the buses arrived, while Nic and I realised that we weren't particularly nervous.  Considering this would be my first time over 40 miles, and her first time over 28, the chilled vibe was obviously rubbing off on us.  With about 15 minutes to spare, I had a short jog to make sure my shoes were well tied, took some pics, and was ready to go.

Race crew hard at work (behind the race crew hard at chat).
You know it's Scotland when you see red tartan lycra shorts...
The race started with a great descent to get us all up to speed and quickly took us to into the open moorland that made up the first 10 miles of the route.  Good, steady descents, a few short hills to break up the rhythm a little, and before I knew it, I was sheltering behind a few runners at about 45 seconds per mile faster than my preferred early pace.  With the steady headwinds, the firm footing, and the lack of any notable hills, I decided to stick with it for a while, to see how things went.  After all, I've not really been used to running for any length of trail without some enforced walking breaks, so I wasn't really sure how I would react to 8:45 minute miles.  Had it been a flattish road race, I would have been quite happy with the conservative speed, but for the trails, sense said I was going to have to slow down at some point.

Narrow but firm footing just alongside the River Ayr
For those not familiar with the race or the route, The River Ayr Way Challenge is organised by the East Ayrshire County Council - in particular the Countryside Services team.  It's pretty low key, well supported with regular water/feed/chat stations, and runs along the length of the River Ayr Way.  The rangers had to put in some extra hard work this year, recovering/re-routing some sections of the RAW where it had disappeared after this winter's ice floes and heavy rains.  In many places, they had even been out strimming in the days before the race.  Compared to what I normally run on, the path felt practically manicured!  We were truly spoiled in that respect.

Nic looks back on the open moorland, our first hill top for nearly 7 miles

Nice day to do a bit of fishing
The early stages of the route set the tone for the whole of the RAW.  There are pretty views in all directions, but few "wow!" moments.  Early on, we enjoyed miles of open moors, misty light on the distant hills, and plenty of slippery little wooden bridges to test the coordination.  After 11 miles, my right calf (this month's muscular liability) started to tug, so I eased back a bit.  I didn't fancy running another 30 miles on a cramping leg, and hoped that putting less strain on the leg would do the trick.  By the time I hit the first check-in point with Jeff and Maggie, the leg was doing OK and I was running fairly freely.  I was also 15 minutes ahead of schedule after only 17 miles, and wondering how bad the payback would be.  The early moorland was giving way to wooded slopes as the river carved through the low hills.  Easy running was about to take a back seat.

Catching up with the in-laws at 17 miles

The tough patch came, a bit later than expected, at around 25 miles.  We had finally had some hills - all short, all sharp, with plenty of steps to make running difficult.  Climbing up and down through the riverside woods had killed the pace and my legs.  My right quad and ITB started to object, colouring my language nicely with each new staircase.

Alas, no train to distract from the sore legs

The difficult patch carried on into the new addition for this year's running, a diversion near Stair where the old path unfortunately has now joined with the river itself.  We slogged up a short hill through a nice, soupy pasture where the "mud" had a nice oily sheen to it.  Best not to think about it all, really, but I did laugh that I had finally reached some trail that was like what I've been enjoying throughout this rather moist summer.  The cattle at the top of the hill looked on bemused, and I was happy to reach them with both shoes still on my feet.

A couple of miles later, though, we ran through ankle deep water for long enough to wash the shoes.  I splashed along, enjoying the cold water on my feet and keeping my hands above my head so I would still be happy to eat with them later.  Unfortunately, I also managed to wash some large bits of grit into the shoes, in spite of my gaiters.  By this time, I was 30 miles in, a little cranky, and more than just a little confused by anything that required much thought.  At the 32-mile check point, luckily, the in-laws were waiting with some extra brain cells for me to use.

I stopped for a drink and a little chat, forgetting about my gritty feet.  After a minute or two, I suddenly remembered that my shoes were full of ick.  So, I sat down to empty my shoes and found that the grit had helped me to mangle my socks.  With toes poking through the end, I knew another 10 miles would be manageable, but possibly a bit irritating, and stared blankly at my feet.  Maggie asked if I had any socks in my end-of-race bag (in the car boot).  It took far too long for my brain to kick into gear, but I did have a spare pair for after the run, so was able to change socks.  I ditched the gaiters while I was shoeless, and suddenly felt a lot lighter without the extra layer of wet fabric.

Getting up wasn't easy.  The rest while I tended my feet did me some good, but it also cooled me off.  So, as I walked up the next hill, I changed into my spare t-shirt.  The clouds were firmly in place, so I didn't need to worry about getting too warm as the afternoon continued.  At 34 miles, I grabbed a drink and a bag of jelly worms from my drop bag, and carried on.  With only 7 miles left, I knew I would be able to get it together and finish, even though I had lost any hope of a 7-hour time.

I always carry a phone for emergencies on a long run, and feared the worst when mine rang as I left the check point - surely Nic had fallen, broken her arms and legs, and was being rushed to hospital.  Clearly, rational thought was taking a nap.  Thankfully, the only problem was that, as tired as I was, I was still running better than the car.  Jeff was calling to let me know that my bag might make it to the line before my crew.

Gradually, I gathered myself and started to push on, trying to catch one person at a time in a battle of "who can slow down the least".  The underfoot conditions eased again as we neared the finish.  With firm paths, tracks, and road, I was able to get back into a consistent running rhythm, getting back to 10-minute miles for the final few.  It's easy to get down about working so hard to run so much slower than my normal pace, but I had already figured that I would be straining hard to even run.  I just kept concentrating on getting each mile as close to that 10:00 as I could, until I finally started to see the 9 on my watch.  As long as I didn't have to go up or turn a corner, I was moving well.

As I approached the finish, I heard someone say "there's only about 100 yards left" and put on a "sprint" for the line.  At nearly 7:15, I finished 20 minutes slower than my "good day" or "plan A" time, but inside of my "plan B" - pretty good for my first foray over 40 miles.  If I had only managed a few minutes faster, I would even have beaten the car back to the finish - the issues had been dealt with and our ace crew had made it just in time.

After getting cleaned up and refuelling a bit, I headed back up the course to cheer Nic into the finishing straight.  Luckily for her, I had about half a mile of the route in view, and could pick her out in time to position myself for a good bellow of encouragement followed by a picture.  Her plan B was "don't finish last", and her plan A was "sub 10:00".  A 9:05 time showed that running conservatively for the first ultra was probably a good idea, and that there's definitely more ability there than she gave herself credit for.

Still smiling at 40 miles.

It looks so much further when you look at it afterwards...

One of the bucolic views along the river (courtesy of Jeff)

Much like the route itself, there were no outstanding high or low points to my race.  I had expected to hit the wall, struggle to carry on, battle with my usually temperamental digestion, feel elated when I finished, etc. etc.      The reality was that everything just kind of ticked along.  The weather was moderate.  The marshals, supporters, and passers-by were all very friendly. As the race went on, I felt mostly in control (as much as one ever is), never particularly strong, nor overly weak.  I got tired, cranky, cheery, chatty, and quiet, much as I do over the course of any full day.  Overall, it was just a normal, nice day out on some scenic trails among like-minded runners, with the added bonus of great support - what better way to spend a Saturday?

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Hot Running in the Scottish Highlands: The Nairn 1/2 Marathon

When we signed up for the Nairn Half Marathon, the goal was to have a bash at setting some fast times after a Summer of focus on speed rather than just endurance.  I looked high and low for a flattish half in August or early September, and found one just a short drive from Nic's sister and her family - the bonus of a family get-together made the race too good to pass up.  Of course, it's a 10-12 hour drive to get there, so a little planning was needed to make sure we arrived in condition to run!  Luckily, Nic's folks live about 2/3 the way there, so we got to stop off and enjoy even more family time on both the out and back, as well as breaking up the drive.

The Nairn Half has the unique (to my knowledge, anyway) feature of being part of the local Highland Games.  So, unlike many local races, the spectators at the finish actually outnumber the runners by quite a large margin.  It also means that there's plenty going on when you finish, so the post-race is quite enjoyable.

We arrived around 11am to register and avoid getting stuck in traffic heading for the Games, and took in as much of the grass track and arena as we could.  Nic particularly enjoyed hearing the sound of a lone piper playing a short distance from the park as we wandered along the seaside paths.  You can take the lassie out of Scotland...  With around 30 minutes to go, we started our gentle warm-up, as usual checking out the 1st and last mile of the course, loosening limbs, etc.  The clouds that had threatened to keep things cool for this afternoon race began to blow past, leaving us in no doubt that the weather would be abnormally warm for a visit to the northern beaches!

The clouds start to drift off as we get into our warm-up.

At the start, the local runners were looking up, worried that the foreign yellow disc might stay put throughout the race.  I had already added five seconds per mile to both of our planned first half splits, to allow for the added warmth in this cold and dreary Summer, so was confident that we would survive without too much damage from the sun.  Nic's sister had kindly leant us some sunscreen, since it's not normally in our Scottish travel kit.  It was a good thing, too, since our shoulders hadn't spent much time in the open lately.

Nic sporting the new prototype Cotswold Running vest.

At 12:30, I found myself in the second row, waiting for the fast runners to come and line up in front of me.  Only a few did, because everyone wanted the inside line for the initial lap of the track.  When the gun (and it was actually a starter's pistol!) fired and the short stretch of jostling was finished, I found myself in around 6th place on the inside of the track.  By the time we left the track, I was in the more sensible and lucky 13th position, keeping a close eye on my watch to make sure I wan't going dangerously quickly.  Within a quarter mile, nearly 20 runners passed me as I maintained my pace.  I was confident some would come back eventually, based on previous years' results.  This year's field was nearly twice the normal size, so I was curious to find out how many would come back if I finished in my goal time of sub-1:30.

The first two miles of the course are fairly innocuous.  The goal was to keep in the region of 6:50 before hitting the little hill in the 3rd mile.  By the end of the 2nd mile, the field in front of me was at its largest, and the combination of the warm day and early enthusiasm was already starting to take its toll.  When the hill approached, the first few runners came back quite quickly.  I kept a beady eye on the watch to make sure I wasn't riding the "thrill of the hunt" to blow my own race as I steadily worked my way back towards the top 20.  At the first water stop, I encountered my first "grab-and-stop" of the day.  What is it that causes otherwise sensible people to grab the first available cup of water and suddenly break into a walk, making it impossible for the next runner to access either the way forward or the next cup of water?  I'd like to say I pushed the offending runner into a ditch rather than simply running through him and spilling his water, but he apologized and I carried to get my own drink and douse without losing too much pace.

From the "top" of the hill to the half way mark is a very gentle slope, or "false flat", which means that every now and then, you can look down the road and wonder why it feels a bit harder than it should to maintain pace.  As I approached the 5 mile marker, I encountered my first "walker" - he was definitely suffering from the searing sunshine and lack of a breeze.  I noted a windmill turning well in the distance and immediately realized that the lack of air movement was essentially a tail-wind - a bit of a worry on what is basically an out-and-back course.  At the next water stop, I tried to let the runner in front and the 1st volunteer know I was aiming for the 2nd volunteer's water.  Too late, the runner stopped right in front of me and the volunteer kindly tried to hand me water as I was passing through.  I got an extra douse, apologized my way to the 2nd volunteer, grabbed some more water for a sip and shower and again continued on my way.  At around 6.5 miles, a kind man had placed a sprinkler over the road to help cool us off - a welcome burst of cool since my vest had dried quickly after the water stop.

Then, we turned into the wind and I stopped feeling hot.  At first, the breeze was refreshing - it was only just starting to really get up.  This section of the course was broadly down hill, with occasional short tree-lined stretches to offer a bit of shade.  I had expected a reasonable amount of wind, but it was becoming quite an obstacle.  I managed to maintain my pace through to 9 miles with an effort, losing a second here and there and finding it more difficult to recover the time.  The 10th and 11th miles had some small hills, but nothing particularly taxing.  Unfortunately, they also had some significant sections into the stiff headwind, and I dropped 50 seconds as I struggled against it.

With the final push to the line, I got back onto pace with a good downhill and some changes of direction, but the damage was done.  Sub-1:30 would take a superhuman effort, and even getting a PB was at risk.  I needed to leave everything on the road to have any chance of a good result, and pushed as hard as I could.  The race finishes with a lap of the grass track, surrounded by cheering spectators, but I honestly couldn't hear anything.  I focused on following the yellow line and the runner a few seconds ahead and speeding up for all I was worth.  In the end, I was about 200 yards too slow, finishing in 1:30:38 - 55 seconds faster than my previous best set in March.

The flags got a good workout, and the beer tent had to be dismantled and turned into an open-air bar, as the wind got up.

Nic suffered even more in the wind, having turned into it after it had already stopped just being a breeze.  She still took a minute off her previous best, and is looking forward to a slightly more favourable day to pick up a couple more minutes.  The day had been scheduled for some fast times, but the conditions were not the best on the day.  We found out later that the wind had even been strong enough to cause problems at the beer tent at the Games - a temporary tragedy that was dealt with by removing the tent and running the bar under the blazing sun.

A little music to entertain us as we lounged in the grass.

We enjoyed a different recovery from the usual (the beer tent was being dismantled as we finished), sitting with Nic's sister and our nieces enjoying the track races, Highland dancing, tug-o'-war, caber tossing, and marching pipe bands.  I think we both suffered a little sunburn and no little windburn, but it was an amazing way to wind down from a hard race.  I guess next year we'll just have to train a little harder!

Monday, 6 August 2012

Making Cotswold Running Real - my greatest running adventure

Running is addictive.  It gets under our skin.  Muscles, tendons, nerves all suffer when we run.  On the best days, running transforms us.  On the worst days, it is our final action.  Every day in between is a day when we are running, could be running, should be running, dream about running, or prepare to run again.  Many runners struggle to find time for running, and yet the time is somehow found.  Many runners struggle to keep running from taking over their lives, and kid themselves that they have succeeded.  This Spring, I finally stopped kidding myself.  Running has taken over my life.  This Spring, Cotswold Running stopped just being the name of a blog, it became a dream.  In June, Cotswold Running became a company.  In July, we opened entries into our first races, the Broadway Tower Marathon and Half Marathon.  On August 1st, Cotswold Running became my full-time occupation.

The part of my day that used to be dedicated to the automotive industry is dedicated to putting together the races that I've dreamt of running - races ranging from 10 kilometres to 100+ miles on trails and hills that always call out to me, "Come run here, you'll leave with a grin!".  Success is measured not just in the number of runners at the starting line, but the smiles at the finish, the number of runners coming back for more, the number of towns, villages, and landowners welcoming us back to share their landscape for a few hours.  Running is addictive.  It's gotten under my skin.  Let the adventure begin!

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Bredon Bash 2012

Every year I look forward to the EVRC's local invitational fell race, the Bredon Bash.  We start in picturesque Elmley Castle, run up to the top of Bredon Hill to the tower, and then come back down.  It's around 5.8 miles and on a sunny day can include some stunning views.  Alternatively, the mist can drop in and you can hardly see your hand in front of your face.  This year's edition, as with much of the past few weeks, was conducted under heavy cloud, steady rain, and a strong wind - horrible for the volunteers, but perfect for a fell race!

With the abysmal weather and entries only taken on the day, it wasn't much of a surprise that only 49 hardy (foolish?) souls from area clubs and villages entered.  Having enjoyed a stellar year so far, my main goal was to take some time off of my time from 2011.  The ankle deep water and mud in places would make that a bit more challenging, but the descent is usually more forgiving when the going is soft to swampy, so I just made sure my shoes were well secured and headed out at the front of the "chasing pack".

The local speedsters shot off the line and were out of reach within the first half mile.  There were a couple at the back of the lead group I hoped to pick up before the end, but my main goal was to hit the hill at the front of the mid-field finishers.

Once we had left the road and made our way through a field of tall wet grass (thank goodness for triple-knots!), the slippery ascent began.  I've run this route in most weather, but haven't seen the mud so deep for a couple of years.  Those in road shoes would have to pick their way gently to the top.  Those with more aggressive outsoles could run, although it was best to avoid the narrow "path" that had become more of a quagmire.  There are a couple of sections on the hill that I normally have to walk due to burning calves, but these were fewer and shorter than I'd previously managed.  I hit the top of the hill in 11th place, but with plenty to do to make sure I got my new course-best time.

The run along the top of the hill is gently undulating, and normally not too soft underfoot.  This day was no different.  The mud wasn't overly deep.  It was, however, frequently covered by several inches of water.  I usually try to avoid stepping into something whose depth I can't identify, but knowing the track helped me to go through many pools without too much worry, and I never had to worry about hot feet!

I reached the turnaround point still in 11th place (caught one, lost one) and gutted it out back to the top of the descent.  By now, visibility was incredibly poor as we ran in the low cloud.  However, with the wet path, I could hear the splashing runner behind me getting closer.  I hit the muddy descent at full speed, hoping to lose my pursuer as I ducked under branches and high-stepped through tree roots.  I don't like getting passed on descents, especially ones that I know well enough to race through even in these conditions.  But, with half of the hill left ahead, I was chasing.  Together, my erstwhile shadow (if only there'd been a light source!) and I chased down my clubmate Mark (he's generally quite a lot faster than me, but his shoes weren't cooperating with the terrain).

At the bottom of the hill, I checked back to find another runner closing fast.  When we broke free of the mud and back into the grassy field, I opened my stride to put as much space behind me as I could.  I'd managed to keep that 11th place for most of the race, and was far more interested in 10th than I was in 12th!  By the time I hit the final road section, I had closed back in on the runner ahead, and could see that he had left most of his energy on the hill.  With just under half a mile to go, I went for broke and put in an effort designed to overtake and also ensure I stayed ahead.  The speed sessions over the past few months have been paying off, because I still felt OK, even though it turns out I was running at my 5K pace (it's a bit downhill).

With some good runners to race against, I managed to keep my 10th place, but more importantly knocked a little over 40 seconds off my previous course best.  I finished wiped out but with a big smile.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Cleeve Cloud Cuckoo 2012

Once again, we made our way on Wednesday evening to Cleeve Common for the hilly "sprint" that is the Cleeve Cloud Cuckoo 5.5. Given the near constant rain over the past week, the clouds kindly broke up and headed north to give us a pleasantly sunny window in which to run.  The race makes a figure of eight around the top of Cleeve Hill, near Cheltenham, taking in a few short hills and a couple of longer ones along the way.  With a gentle uphill first quarter to sap the legs a bit, it gives a reminder that it always pays to be fully warmed up before the start.  None of the hills in the early section is particularly special, but if the lungs and calves aren't quite ready, you'll hear all about it.

Following the gentle loosener comes a delightful 950ft descent that is shallow enough to take at speed and steep enough to challenge one's ability to stay upright.  The payback is a climb out of the quarry bottom back onto the hill over the space of a mile and a bit.  The first half mile of the climb is quite steep, with a gentler finish to the high point of the race.  From here, we get a mile steady descent to recover on before a short, steep scramble before the wonderful 3/4mi downhill finish.

This year's event was well attended, with over 120 competitors.  The course was a little different to last year with an extra quarter mile in the post-quarry part of the "eight".  Nic joined in, racing this year rather than simply sightseeing, and taking more than a minute per mile off compared to 2011.  I knocked 14 seconds off on average, to finish considerably further up the field (close enough to see the 1st lady finish, which is usually a good target for me).  All-in-all, a great way to spend a Summer's evening.

Monday, 4 June 2012

The key to a good run can often be luck

Yesterday, I set out for a nice, easy 20 mile run.  I'd selected my route from the list of go-to routes (i.e. no map reading, close by, minimal planning required) and gone for a fairly flat affair.  With only 2-3 big hills, and lots of rolling stuff, I was looking forward to a nice, steady pace for 3-4 hours.  The fact that the weather was filthy only added to the fun - a little soft mud underfoot is always nice.  Some days, however, a nice route doesn't necessarily make for a nice run.

As I ran through Snowshill, one of the most beautiful villages around, it was sad to see people setting up tables and flags for the afternoon's Jubilee street party.  Rainwater was streaming off the tables like they were forming some kind of water slide.  Then, as I got to the top of my first hill, I found out just how much of an impact last week's sunshine had made.  The grass was knee-to-thigh high along the path, and very wet indeed.  I was taking in so much water every time I lifted a foot that my shoes began a lovely squelchy tune.  For about a mile, I was shipping more water than I could squeeze out with each step - lovely.

Once I was back out of the long grass, I began to wonder if I was losing my mind - I kept hearing voices from the trees.  Nothing clear, just the occasional human voice, with no other sign of life.  It was windy, and the sheep were making a racket, but I was pretty sure that my brain wasn't creating a voice from these ambient noises.  Eventually, I ran along a ridge with a clear view to the other side of a valley to see some sort of large event going on - obviously something with a PA system.  It was hard to see what was going on, because they were as shrouded in the low cloud as I was.  So, no evidence there that I'm losing the plot!

I happily carried on in the knowledge that I'm not losing my marbles into a field of bullocks.  Those who know me will be aware that I'm not that keen on cattle.  They're large, a little too curious, and somewhat unpredictable.  So, with reassuring words to the youngsters that I was only passing through, I carefully walked through their pasture.  Normally, I get a few stares and am left alone.  The boys were a bit bored, I guess, and decided to gather round.  It was a little disconcerting at first, as they formed a semi-circle and closed in to within a few feet.  I stopped and stood completely still, in the hopes that they would lose interest and wander off.  But, no, they decided to come a bit closer - not the response I was after!  With a little gentle hand waving, they backed away enough for me to try the slow walk again.  A couple kept very close quarters, but eventually they let me go.  Given the potential for young males of any species to be curious, energetic, and a bit thick in the head, I wasn't sure where the situation would go.  Any tips on how best to keep bullocks at a distance are most welcome.  Luckily, the next herd a few miles later was more interested in eating than they were in me.  I think I'll give that route a miss for a few weeks!

By the time I was done with the low-speed cattle driving, I was starting to get cold (yes, in June).  From there, the rest of the run was about keeping warm (hat, gloves, etc.) and keeping going.  Village after village had soggy street party decorations that looked a bit like I was beginning to feel - worse for wear.  After 15 miles, I decided to call it a day and give in to the dreary weather. So, I cut a couple of miles off and headed back to Snowshill by road.  On the up side, my new route took me through the lavender farm.  The smell of the new buds in the rain lifted my mood and I jogged happily back to the car.  Funny how the vagaries of the route can so easily alter the state of a tired and unfocussed mind!

Thursday, 31 May 2012

2012 Hilly 100 Relay

Given almost two weeks to reflect on the race, one would hope that I'd have developed some deep insight into this year's instalment of one of my favourite events.  Alas, perhaps not....

The day, once again, started oh-so-very-early.  After 2011's fun, we decided that the race is easiest to manage if someone is following the baton, with a small band of dedicated family members and club runners acting as transport for the runners.  As a result, we needed to be at the start before 5:00.  Having made my final substitution of an injured runner the day before, I was a little twitchy when the alarm went off at 3:50.  By 4:30, I'd confirmed that the first 2 runners were in position and headed to the start line with super-crew-chief Nic relieved that I wouldn't have to stand in for the first leg.  My leg wasn't until the afternoon, to give me time to re-jig runners if needed, but I was happy to avoid the need for any last-minute shuffling.

The early birds ready for the start

When I sent in the entry form, I still didn't have a clear picture of the team.  April is marathon season, and people have a tendency to drop out with injuries and insufficient recovery.  With the list of ~15 runners, I knew at least a few wouldn't make it to the start - but I didn't know which ones.  Therefore, I entered the team in the earliest start time to make sure we finished well in advance of the 18:00 target deadline.  By the time the participant list had nearly solidified (3 days before the race), it was clear that we had a chance of a podium finish.

Any event that lasts for 13 hours will have its little incidents.  This year's Hilly was no different.  My leg 3 runner nearly missed the baton change by parking up about half a mile down the wrong road - we recovered her just in time.  The leg 4-5 transition point was perfectly placed to attract the attention (and wrath) of a local farmer who really didn't appreciate a load of runners parking in the drive to his farm.  A change in transition points confused the team captain (me) and resulted in a poor estimation, which had the leg 6 runner handing over to said team captain a bit behind schedule.  Add to that a great run by the leg 6 runner from Kenilworth, and I had my first 1-on-1 race in quite a long time (honours even - after a big effort to close the gap, he struggled to hold on in the final 5km and I regained our buffer).  Finally, 13 hours after the start, we confirmed that EVRC had successfully defended our 2011 B-race 3rd place (as well as defending our title as 1st mixed team).

Amazingly, we had knocked 39 minutes off last year's time.  I think we might just start at 6am next year - I look forward to the extra sleep!

While we were stopped to cheer on our runners, Nic took the opportunity to capture some of the sights that make this race such a joy.

Warming up - it took a long time to get the legs moving after all that "passenger-time".

Local asparagus - you can't beat it in season!

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Red Kite Challenge and Ras y Diafol - a foray into proper fell racing

This weekend is a three-day one, due to the national holiday celebrating the first floods of the year (or possibly May Day, if you don't live near a river).  To celebrate the extra recovery time available, it is customary to put on stupidly difficult races.  In 2010, I ran my first trail marathon (Three Forts Challenge).  In 2011, I completed my final Endurancelife Coastal Trail Series marathon of the year at the inaugural Endurancelife Festival.  I can confidently say that the latter was the more difficult course.  I had planned to head back to Sussex to have another go at the Three Forts, but then I saw some of the other races available on the weekend.  Plan A was Malvern Ultra due to the lack of travel required.  However, once Nic was successfully putting away the training miles, we changed plans and set our sights on the Welsh Hills.  For this change of plans, I blame my good friend Roy.

Roy and I have been training together for a few years now.  If ever I want to find a new route, I ask Roy along.  We're a similar pace, like similar trails, and are equally good at finding "scenic" options to the path we're meant to be following.  He has been singing the praises of the Red Kite & Ras y Diafol (Devil's Race) for a year or two, and when Nic suggested that she get to choose a race for once, we decided to give it a shot.  On paper, the weekend shouldn't be too hard: 11 miles on Saturday, 17 miles on Sunday, ~5000ft of ascent combined.  It should be no more difficult than this year's CTS courses, so why not have a nice weekend running in the hills?  Day one takes place from the Red Kite visitor centre (great viewing of these amazing birds), and day two is just a few miles away.  Add to the fun that friends Roy, Chris, Ned, and Sheila were all running both days, and what could be more relaxing?

And then, of course, one pins on the race number and all thoughts of a relaxed and scenic run go out the window.  They are replaced by thoughts like "It's only 11 miles" and "race today and then worry about tomorrow when it comes".  Having tried to race last month's Exmoor ultra and come slightly unstuck, I decided to listen to the speed demon on my shoulder rather than the armchair angel.

Nic's picture from the Red Kite Challenge.

The Red Kite Challenge also happens to be the Welsh trail running championships, so the field is pretty handy.  A couple of local international-class runners turn up to have a wee sprint while the rest of us grind it out in their wake.

The race starts with a gentle run around the lake and then throws in a few modest climbs of between 100ft and 400ft, before giving us an amazing two-mile, 900ft descent.  I'm pretty sure this was the first time I had ever put two sub-6 miles into a race (I haven't even done that in a 5K!), and that was taking the hill with a fair amount of control to save something for the inevitable uphill.  It was an amazing feeling to be moving that quickly for an extended period.

Eventually, the down ended and we went straight back up out of the valley - another 800ft in a little under two miles of fast hiking with occasional runnable bits.  Upon reaching the top, my climbing muscles were in rebellion, but the race was over half-way finished.  The final five miles were gently undulating (little rolling 100-200ft ups and downs), which certainly kept the heart rate high as I tried to keep from losing too many places to the more practised fell runners.  A final sprint got me to the line in a reasonable time, but with not much energy left.  I was even too tired to eat any of the delicious-looking fruitcake on offer at the finish.

Nic finishing strong on Day 1
 (courtesy of Alastair Tye /
Once everyone had finished, we made for the tea shop and I joined the queue.  They must have run out of tea, because eventually we gave up on the lack of progress and headed back out onto the balcony to watch the kites and wait for the award ceremony.  Chris and Roy showed their experience by bringing a huge Thermos of hot water and sharing out some very warming coffee - saviours!

With prizes for the open race, Welsh race, and age groups, the prize-giving lasted for quite some time.  But, I'm glad we stayed because Nic picked up an age-group silver medal for her sterling effort!  Ned, Sheila, and Chris picked up age-group bronzes, and Roy and I won the opportunity to buy drinks in the pub later in the evening.

Day two was a bit more of a relaxed affair.  Only a fraction of the field come out to do the combined event, and a few people turn out just to do the longer run.  The plan on Saturday morning was to just take this as a recovery run, but once again the number got pinned to the chest and sense got left in the kit bag.  However, I had a pack on this time, so at least had the chance to take a few pictures on the run.

I'm sure that's the only hill we didn't run up!
The course starts fairly gently, with a short downhill and a steady uphill.  We were joined by some enthusiastic horses for a short time (somewhere just out of the picture).  Just before mile three, we began what seemed like a fairly innocuous climb and then turned into mountain-goat territory.  At this point, I started a game of hill leapfrog with Sheila that lasted nearly nine miles.  She would leave me for dust on the ups and I would catch her and try to gain some margin on the downs.

The challenge of the day was the two-mile, 1000ft climb up to nearly half-way.  As I dragged myself up the switchbacks, Roy caught up for a brief chat and Sheila pulled well clear.  I managed not to lose too many places with my relatively slow pace, but it was a huge effort to keep any pace at all.

At last, the long uphill was finished.
The hill finally ended with a short section through a wind farm.  It was amazing to pass so close to the majestic, near-silent drone of the blades as they slowly rotated.  From there, we had nearly three miles of descent broken by the occasional sharp hill during which to "recover".  I eventually caught up to Sheila again, just in time to ruin it all with yet another uphill section.  From 12.5 miles, it's essentially down hill to the finish.  Unfortunately, I slightly missed a step and jarred my right leg on some stairs.  By the time I reached 14 miles and the end of a long steep road, my right calf was objecting to the point of full cramp.  I'd been taking salt tablets to avoid cramp since I was dripping with sweat for much of the race, but obviously the calf didn't enjoy having to take up the slack for the muscles that suffered from the earlier misstep.  So, with a few stops to massage and stretch, I started to lose time properly.

The silly leg did ease up enough to get back up to a reasonable jog, but not before Roy caught me.  I could see the joy on his face from catching me at last, and wished him well (something encouraging like "carry on, because I'm going to try to catch you!").  It was the kick up the backside I needed to get back into a proper run.  It didn't feel great, but it also didn't feel like getting worse.

Although I struggled any time the ground was particularly rough, I could focus on chasing Roy.  I started to see more runners that I'd long-since passed lining up in the distance behind me, and that gave me even more encouragement to "man-up" and move faster.  That, for me, is one of the key differences between racing a run and just running it for the experience.  When I'm racing, finishing position matters.  When I'm running just against myself and the course, then the watch and the view are the arbiters of success.  I knew as we came into the last mile that I couldn't catch Roy (I'm sure he'd have died before letting go of the few hundred metres margin he built up).  But I also knew that I could keep the line of runners where they were - behind me.

As the line approached, I was 2nd in a loose group of three.  The runner behind me sprinted for the line with an energy that I certainly did not possess.  When the man in front didn't respond to his charge, I decided to give it a go and slowly ramped up into an ugly sprint.  This time, he responded - obviously he saw the state of me and decided he just couldn't lose to such a wreck.  We shouted each other to the finish in an epic battle against our rebellious legs.

It's all fun and games at the end of a great run. (courtesy of Alastair Tye)

It's laughable to watch two grown men struggle for the line in the middle of a race that was over so long ago that the winner had already showered, but at the time it seems like a good idea.  We finished in the same time, and I got the position on alphabetic ordering, but the photo shows he may have been a bit ahead.

Roy also had a sprint finish, just a few seconds earlier (courtesy of Alastair Tye)

The double-race weekend was tough, but was also a lot of fun.  It's great to share the race experience with friends, and two-day events double the pleasure.  Chris and Sheila picked up awards for the Ras y Diafol, and all three ladies won their age categories for the combined events.  I won a very fine bar of chocolate for completing both events, which was rather welcome on Monday afternoon when the munchies hit.  There are, as I said, a lot of great events on the May Day holiday weekend.  I think the others may take a back seat for a few years, because I have already pencilled a return to Wales for next year!

Chris and Ras y Diofl running partner Idris receive  Chris's age-group win award.
(courtesy of Alastair Tye)

Sheila and Ned with multiple awards, including Ras y Diafol 2nd lady
(courtesy of Alastair Tye)