Friday, 28 August 2015

Whisky River - The Speyside Way Ultra

A couple of years ago, Nic needed a long run while we were up north, and decided to run a section of the Speyside Way.  Her opinion was that, aside from a couple of long drags, it was a pretty flat and enjoyable route.  Fast forward to a few months ago, and we decided to return and join in the annual race from Ballindalloch to Buckie (36.5ish miles).  I duly visited the Speyside Way Ultra website, put a load of details onto the entry system, and started to plan my race.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Gear Review: Event Clips

Every so often, someone contacts me out of the blue to review a product.  I like the randomness of it, and enjoy trying new stuff.  Rarely, though, has something come through the post with such perfect timing for a properly hard trial.  When Mike from EventClips sent me a set through, it was just before my return to the North Devon/Somerset coast for the Seaview 17.  Ordinarily, I'd have attached my number to my race belt, but with some fancy new clips to try, I clipped the number to my shorts and set out to see how well they would hold up to some tough race conditions.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Night Running in Circles

Mostly, I enjoy trail running at night.  When it's dark, you don't get all those scenic views that distract from the pain.  Sometimes, you see green eyes glowing out at you, and have a little frisson of excitement wondering if the cattle are bored or scared enough to chase you.  But mostly, you find yourself in a little tunnel of light, and have to put all your effort into staying upright and moving forward.  When you can get into that focused world where every part of your mind and body is geared towards your run, it's one of running's great joys.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

The Moray Coastal Trail - Attempt 1 of ???: How not to prepare for a long run.

I've enjoyed a reasonable amount of time on parts of the Moray Coastal Trail over the past few years.  The sections around Lossiemouth are some of Nic's favourite beach runs in the country.  On our last visit to the area, I discovered that it's a temptingly short/long 45ish miles, and hatched a plan to find a way to get out and run the whole thing.

Plans, as one often hears, have a way of going awry.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Gear Review: Ron Hill Trail Split Cap

I love hats.  Perhaps it's the lack of hair on large sections of my scalp that lead me into wearing a hat while running.  In the winter, I need the insulation.  In the summer (if I'm lucky), I need protection from the sun.  In between, I'm constantly removing/replacing my hat or buff.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Shoe Review: Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra 4 SG

One of the simplest joys in running is having the opportunity to wear a new (clean!) pair of shoes.  It's even better when you have no idea what they'll be like, and you find out they fit like a glove - which is what happened when I put on the pair of S-Lab Sense Ultra 4 SG shoes that Salomon sent me to test out (yes, they sent them free, and no, they haven't any input into this review).  I hadn't been planning to hit the trails when I put them on, but quickly changed my mind and added a little hill repeat session to my evening itinerary.

First impression - aren't they pretty!  And wow, the snug fit is impressive.
Unfortunately, it had been a pretty dry week, so I wasn't sure how much soft ground I would be able to find on my chosen route.  Still, I headed out to Broadway to find a little section of the Cotswold Way (and the Evesham Ultra route) that would give me a selection of terrain and gradient to play on.

A nice little boggy section helped test the Sense Ultra's water retention.
On the way to the hill, I managed to find some boggy mud to traipse through.  One of those little irritants that can ruin a good race is a shoe that holds onto water too well.  Even after submerging in sloppy mud a few times, the Sense Ultra let the water go quite easily - no quibbles there, then!

That weekend, I took them out for a more daunting hilly run of around 3 hours - not long in ultra terms, but long enough to get a feel for the shoe over mud, grass, rocky path, a bit of road, and various dirt and gravel tracks.  Over the next couple of weeks, I also managed to get them onto old quarry waste piles, wet and dry sandy beaches and some coastal trails, to give me a good idea of how they behaved on the wide variety of terrain that makes up most trail ultras in the UK.

The short review:  a very good shoe, with a slightly narrow toe box, snug fit, and reasonable grip.

The long review?  Carry on reading!  As usual, if the picture is pretty, it's probably Nic's.  If it's functional, it's mostly likely mine.

The Shoe

The Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra 4 SG is a low-rise (4mm drop), light, sturdy shoe designed for long distances over soft/wet ground.  My Size 9.5 (UK; US10, EU44) weighs in at ~270g (+/- a bit of mud), which is definitely on the lighter end of what I'd want to wear for 8+ hours.  

Plenty of lugs, a really light mesh upper, and enough molding to give some lateral support and rock protection.
I know a lot of people have stopped talking about heel drop, and a load more don't really care about the distance from their foot to the ground - if you're one of those people, you should probably just skip the rest of this paragraph.  I trip a lot, and roll my ankles a lot, but I've found that I do less of both if my shoe isn't offering me much of a barrier to the ground.  Unfortunately, I've also got a long history of foot and calf issues, which is best managed over long distances by a reasonably elevated heel relative to the toe.  So, when I saw the 13mm heel (compared to 20mm on the Speedcross), I was really looking forward to taking them for a spin.  The toe still has plenty of cushioning (9mm compared to 6mm in the Fellraiser, and 9mm on the Speedcross), which comes in handy when you plan to be out in them all day.

The Fit

In a word:  glovelike.  The Endofit (TM) upper, which basically acts like a sock, is fabulous.  I'd be tempted to go sockless if I didn't want the extra protection from grit and grime that a sock gives.

The Endofit (TM) upper encases the foot by attaching at the insole. Soooo comfy!
On my right foot, I did find that top of the lacing system crossed just at a particularly uncomfortable spot on the top of my foot, which would cause real problems on a long run.  It's not an uncommon problem for me, due to the difference in length between my right and left foot, and it took a few runs to sort out.  Basically, if I pull the Quicklace (TM) tight in an off-centre position, then I can nail the fit.

See how the right foot has the tab pulled off-centre.  Little adjustments like that can make or break a run.
On steep descents, I will admit that I was happy to have recently lost my big toenails.  The snug fit was great, but it was even better to feel the front of my toe hitting the shoe without my toenail getting jammed.  For many of you, toenails aren't a worry anymore. For the rest, let this be a good reminder to try before you buy to make sure you are happy with the sizing.  If you want a bit more room to play with, I'd suggest the Fellraiser.

The Grip

The shoe is designed for grip, and it does an OK job.  I had some nice long, muddy hills on one test run, and was with a friend who wore Speedcross.  I faired alright, slipping a bit on some muddy ascents, but the soles did hold onto the mud a bit, so by the top I couldn't compete with him on grip.
Trapezoidal lugs offer a fair amount of grip on soft ground, but on muddy ascents, the Speedcross held better.

After a few checks of the soles and some different types of mud (we have plenty of variety around here), I'd say that the shoe releases mud well across the ball of the foot, where the shoe flexes most, but not quite as well as I needed it to under the toes, where you need the most grip running up a muddy hill.

The cutouts and lug shape don't seem to allow sticky mud to release optimally from my hill session.
 For more "normal" soft ground running, the shoe gripped very well.  Downhill, flat, wet beach, dry beach, all presented me with no difficulties.  Like with most (all?!) shoes, wet limestone is pretty slippery, but where the rock offers some rough texture, the shoe grips well enough.  On the loose quarry waste hills that make up a bit of the Cleevewold 14 trail race, I had absolutely no problems with control going down or with digging my toes in and climbing (slowly) up.

Soft ground, all right - and it all stayed on the beach.  The outsole released wet sand very nicely.
On muddy coastal trail, the grip was excellent and the mud-release faultless.


I've not taken the Sense Ultras out for more than 3 hours at a time yet, but my feet have come back from all of the test runs happy.  I would say that, if you don't normally wear shoes with a lot of flexibility and not a lot of structure, that you should be very careful to gradually up your distance in these.  After 3 hours of varied surfaces and lots of hills, my feet were a little tired.  Equally, if you're coming from a higher-heeled shoe, take your time getting used to the lower sole.

On hard ground, unsurprisingly, the shoe feels a bit under-cushioned (remember, this is the SG variety we're talking about!).  So, where there's a lot of road, sun-baked track, or hard rocky trails, you probably don't want to go with this soft-ground specialist.  On the springy moors, grassy fields, beach, and muddy trails, I found the shoe quite a pleasant ride.  Sharp rocks will let you know they're underfoot, but didn't leave any bumps or bruises on my feet.

 Things I Like

 Top of my list - the Endofit (TM) upper.  It's fabulous.  I love it.  I also really like the low ride and the quick release of water when you go splashing around.  The molded upper toebox is really light, and yes, it does protect nicely when you trip over branches or kick rocks on the trails (I tested it a lot...).

Things I'd Like to See Improved

It's minor, but it really bugs me that the lace pocket is pretty useless - it's under the top laces when they're tightened.  It offers nothing in its current form, so either lose it or put the opening at the top so it can actually do the job it's meant to do.  I'd also like to see a chevron lug instead of the trapezoid blocks, at least at the front.  It offers better grip, especially on contours, and seems to release the mud better.  I would like to see the cost come down, since it's currently listed at 40% more than the very popular Speedcross:   it's hard to decide to change shoe models with that big a price differential, but I'm hopeful that time and sales volume will help that to change.  And finally, as with all Salomons I've worn, I seem to get a squeak in the lacing of the left shoe - it would be nice for that to disappear.


It's a good shoe, a very good shoe.  After a few runs, I was dubious about wearing it for an ultra, because the snug fit doesn't give you much space to expand.  But, now that I've had a chance to put some miles in, I can't see any reason to worry.  I'd certainly be happy to go up to 40 miles in them in most conditions, and probably quite a while longer if it's properly wet/soft.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Brutally Tantalizing Trail Racing: The Cleevewold 14

Once upon a time, when I only owned one pair of running shoes, I started to leave the roads behind.  I bought some trail shoes, mostly because I found the wide outsoles of the road shoes had my feet rocking on the hoof-scared paths in the area.  I even raced a couple of trail events, which were really just runs through the woods on really nice tracks with the occasional bit of mud.  Then, in March 2009, I ran the Cleevewold 14.  Snaking its way up, down, and around Cleeve Cloud and the Sudeley Estate, and many points in between, the race has been a local favourite for more than 20 years.  It has 2000+ feet of ascent on rough trails through quarries, paths through grassy fields, an optional stream crossing, and a few seemingly smooth tracks of crushed limestone (which is great, until you find out it's really just a lot of rocks that aren't so crushed or so smooth).  After that 2009 race, I was hooked on trail running.  Unfortunately, the race also seems to coincide with a load of other events and activities that have kept me away from it ever since.  Until this weekend, when I made sure to set aside the time to revisit the race and find out if it really is as breathtakingly exciting as I remember it.

The joy of a 14 mile race is that it's simply a case of hitting that effort level right below where you feel like your lungs and legs want to explode and then holding on to it.  The difficulty lays in not over-reaching and blowing up.  Add in a gut-wrenching series of short, sharp hills early on, and you have the makings of a great challenge.  Since I have zero goal races planned for the rest of the year, and I haven't done much speed work since September, I decided to race from the gun and see what would happen.
EVRC chilling out before the fun begins.
The race starts with a deceptively gentle descent, to help get the legs moving.  But after that opening half mile, it turns into a 200ft climb over the next quarter mile (~1:8 gradient).  The next four miles continue in a similar vein.  Up, down, run past golfers, repeat.

Just a little hill...

Early on, I tracked my EVRC clubmate Richard Slater and Nick Spice, of Almost Athletes, who were heading out a bit faster than me.  I know from experience that if we're all running well, the three of us will be fairly close together through most of a hilly race.  This time, though, I was having to work a bit harder than I'd have liked to keep them in sight.  After 5 miles, Nick had started to reel in Richard, and I decided that if I wanted to have any chance of keeping in touch, I also had to close the gap.

I chased for the best part of 2 miles before finally catching back up to Nick.  We encouraged each other to keep running strong and steadily left Richard feeling the effects of a tough running week at around 8 miles as we raced our way down to the lowest point on the route at Waterhatch.  By this stage, we were among the top female runners - always a sign that the race is going well.

From 9 miles, the course climbs 600ft over 2 miles, in a relentlessly runnable (nearly) climb up to Belas Knapp.  By the time I reached the top, I had lost a good 30 seconds on Nick and Amazing Feet's Sarah Armstrong (3rd Lady).  The losses continued across the top of the hill (the only flat part of the route), and down through the wooded gully on the other side.  I had plenty of strength left, but my leg speed was clearly elsewhere.  The final two short hills finished me off and left me having to sprint the final 50m to avoid losing my position.  So, although I didn't overtake anyone in the final 5 miles, and the gap to those in front just seemed to grow, I did manage to hold off those behind me,

I finished 7 minutes better than that 2009 time (2:07:43), absolutely exhausted, and overjoyed to find that the race really was as much fun as I'd remembered.  It hurts almost the entire way around and tests your speed, strength, and resilience to the limit.  With great views and a good friendly field, I can't really ask for anything more in a short race.

The finish line - Postlip Hall

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Gear Review: Ultimate Performance Malham Waist Pack

One of the great joys of reviewing new kit is that you get to try out stuff you wouldn't ordinarily buy (in my case, because I have a multitude of waist and back packs already).  When Lou from Run Stuff asked if I'd take the Malham Waist Pack out for a spin, I'll admit I wasn't really looking forward to it.  I've been running with incredibly light-weight gear lately, and the Malham looks a bit bulky hanging on the peg in the shop.  But, the idea isn't to review stuff I think is pretty, it's to review new lines, so I packed the bag up into my suitcase and headed to Texas to try it out.  (OK, I was going to Texas anyway, but it seemed like a good idea to take it out in the warm weather).

The pack is a bit bigger than I usually wear, but it somehow matches our club colours very nicely!
When I started to pack up the bag with stuff just to test it out, I started to notice its features a bit more.

Two zipped main pockets, one with a 1L bladder (included), and two side mesh pockets give plenty of storage space.

First, the 1L bladder that comes with the pack is square, so it fits reasonably comfortably against the back.  The main pocket, which holds the bladder, has quite a lot of storage space for food, rain gear, lights, etc.  An inner, waterproof zipped pocket has more than enough room for a smartphone, and the outer zipped pocket will comfortably accomodate a few bars, a wallet, and keys (and it has a key clip).  So, for most runs, everything you need will fit easily in the pack.

Loads of space in the main pocket.
I threw in an extra 600ml of water, just to make the pack extra heavy for my test run.  At this stage, I looked at the pack in dismay - how would something this deep be even remotely comfortable for the 2 hours I was planning to be out?  Then, I noticed the compression straps, and tightened them to prevent those extra water bottles bouncing around.  Without those straps, I'd have to say the bag would be unusable.  What a difference they make!

The little blue compression straps make all the difference on this pack!
I popped a few bars in the side mesh pockets and headed out for a nice long run to see how the Malham fared.

The Fit

The Malham has a centre-buckle with a fit adjustment on either side.  The left side of the belt is your "static" fit - get it right the first time and leave it alone.  It took me a little work to get the sizing adjusted the way I wanted, but once I did, it didn't move.  The right side of the belt is for on-the-move adjustments (like when you've eaten/drunk most of the contents of the pack and it needs tightening).  It was easy to tweak while I was running or walking.  To my surprise, the pack was quite comfortable and didn't feel particularly bulky, in spite of the 1.6L of water I had in it, although the extra water did cause a bit of bounce on the run.  Once I'd removed the extra water, the pack sat well and bounced very little.  I was out for over 2 hours on a warm, sunny day, and never had any comfort issues with the belt, bladder, or pack.  I also took the pack out for the day while crewing Nic's Rocky Raccoon 50.  I wore it for the best part of 8 hours, including a few short bike rides and a lot of walking and standing.

The pack is comfortable for wear on the front for a while, too, like when you're crewing someone else's race and they ask for the can of fizzy water you've cleverly stashed away...

Things I Like

The pack has a lot of pockets, so it's easy to divide up your kit based on how much access you need to it.  The compression straps are easy to adjust, so as you re-arrange things due to weather, eating, drinking, etc., it's easy to keep the contents from bouncing about and causing problems.

I expected this to be a bulky, bouncy pack, but found it sat very well and was quite comfortable.  In its basics, this is a well thought-out and well designed piece of kit.

Things I'd Like to See Improved

There are 2 zippers on each of the main pockets, which makes them easy to open/close.  Unfortunately, it also means the 2 tabs clap together as you run.  That kind of thing irritates me to distraction, so I managed to find a way to tuck them away into the mesh pockets.  I also often see 2-zip pockets at races that aren't as closed as runners think they are, which is less of a problem than you get with a single zipper.  Using the zips was very easy and convenient, but I think a single tab would be a big improvement.

The bite valve is great if you're not wearing a jacket over it with a lot of junk in your pockets.  But, I found that when I had pockets of food/water sitting on top of the valve, it wasn't too hard to accidentally pull it open and cause a slow trickle of water down my leg - really disconcerting if you forget you're wearing it!  I've had another bladder of the same construction, and I prefer a bite valve that twists open rather than one that simply pulls.  It's a pretty minor complaint, and wouldn't put me off using the pack, but it's worth bearing in mind when you decide where to place the valve during your run.

It would be nice to have some mesh pockets over the sides of the belt, to give more easy access to food, but that's definitely a nice-to-have.  The current mesh pockets are pretty easy to get to, and getting into the main pockets is not a problem, especially if you quickly turn it around so you have everything in front for a couple of minutes.


Much to my surprise, it's a pretty nice pack.  I expected to hate it, but in the end I appreciated that it's a comfortable and efficient way of carrying a lot of kit.  I would certainly say it's more comfortable than some of the Inov-8 packs I've got hanging in the closet, which was a real shock.

Would I Recommend it?

If you're after a small belt for fast and light racing, this isn't for you.  But if you want to have everything you need for a comfortable few hours out on the run, this is a really nice pack.  

Friday, 13 February 2015

Rocky Raccoon 50 - Weeks of Anxiety Undone in Just a Few Hours

Nic ran the Rocky Raccoon 50 the weekend after my hundred.  To say that the hardest part was getting to the starting line doesn't doesn't really do justice to the pre-race nerves.  Read her take on the race and run-in to it below.

As is often the case, I entered Rocky Raccoon 50 after a few glasses of wine (or I should say, I allowed Kurt to enter me).  I had toyed with the idea, since we'd be in Texas anyway, and I thought it might give me some good motivation to train consistently through the winter months.  The wine made me brave - or stupid - and before I knew it I had an email from Tejas Trails confirming my entry.

2014 wasn't the best running year I've ever had.  I managed a total of one race race all year long, the Cheltenham Circular Marathon, a slow but lovely plod in the searing heat, after the most minimal of training.  I've been running regularly, but with no consistency.  Surely a 50 miler in early 2015 would focus my mind.  Kurt did me a training plan, and I attempted to follow it.  This went ok for a while, and I managed a couple of really enjoyable long runs.  Then a combination of a cold, a foot injury and a packed work schedule put various flies in the ointment.  Christmas came and went, and still I had only managed three long runs (none more than 20 miles).  Time was running out to get those miles in, so I had to focus on quality back-to-back runs, managing 40 miles in 5 days in early January.  Then - another blooming cold and cough and another two weeks off.

We arrived in Texas two weeks before my race.  I was seriously lacking in confidence, but Coach Kurt kept telling me that I could build into Rocky by doing lots of miles in the first week of our holiday, tapering in the second, and could still get round intact.  I did not believe him!  Especially when running felt so awful.  I was struggling badly with tightness and pain in my hamstring and quad in my right leg, and my chest felt tight each time I pushed myself.  My energy levels were poor and my running self-esteem was non-existent.  But I did manage to run around 38 miles that week.  It's rather lovely not to have to fit work into a week of running.  My final run of the week was a 12 mile recce in Huntsville State Park itself, while Kurt did the packet pickup and a bit of chatting prior to his race.  It was a beautiful afternoon in the park, with the lake glistening in the sunlight and the birds singing in the woods.  The route was a bit hillier than I remembered it being though, so those seeds of doubt didn't stop growing.

Lake Raven in the late afternoon sun.

Easy running in a beautiful location.

I'd like to say that crewing Kurt in his 100 miler provided me with inspiration for my race.  In some ways it did, as being around ultrarunners and crew is always uplifting and awe-inspiring.  But standing at the finish line at 4am, seeing runners in various states of disrepair make their way out for their 4th and 5th laps, exhausted and in pain - well, that just scared me.  What if I was in that kind of state after the halfway mark?  Seeing Kurt's feet and bruises after his race made me feel sick with fear.  His training for the 100 had been fabulous; he was way better prepared than me and yet he was a bit of a mess for a few days.  I didn't want to be finishing in really bad shape and I was fearful that I would, if I finished atall.  I had an emotional couple of days in the week following, and came very close indeed to pulling out of RR50.  I simply did not feel well-enough prepared and was anxious that I was going to spend the day punishing myself, while I should be enjoying myself - after all, I'm on holiday!!!  A long chat with Coach Kurt helped me figure some stuff out.  I didn't want to DNS - that would be worse than a DNF.  The worst that could happen was that I could have a go.  I felt confident that I could complete one lap (each lap is 16.7 miles) and get around a second, which would have me completing an ultra-distance, and if I was too knackered to start a third, that was ok.  Mentally letting myself off the hook put me in a new and much happier frame of mind.

Amazingly, as we arrived in Huntsville on Friday afternoon, stopping for lunch at the excellent Five Loaves Deli again, I actually began to feel excitement, where before there had only been anxiety.  I was feeling relaxed and smiley as I picked up my race packet and listened to the race briefing.  We headed back to the Days Inn in Conroe, about 20 mins south of the state park, where I got all my kit and food ready for the next day.  Crackerbarrel for dinner, then we were in bed by 10.  I slept ok, and by 5am we were back at the state park, raring to go!  I was no longer feeling negative, but instead looking forward to running.  I'd posted a Facebook status before going to bed, telling anyone who was interested that I needed a bit of luck to finish, but I was going to try to be positive and have a go - by the time I got up in the morning, there were so many wonderful uplifting messages on my page, I was quite inspired.

It was really rather chilly (about 3 degrees celsius) at the start, which made kit choice a little challenging, especially as temperatures were forecast to get into the low 20s later, with plenty of sunshine.  Luckily, my lovely father in law had loaned me some arm-warmers, which worked really well - I started the race in shorts, t-shirt, buff on my head and around my neck, and the nice warm arm-warmers.

The one piece of kit that let me down was my Garmin.  It's been playing up for a while, with the screen blanking from time to time, but generally had been working fine all of the week before.  Frustratingly, as I turned it on at the start line, the display had more or less disappeared.  I only wanted it to make sure I wasn't starting off too fast, as it's so very easy to do.  Oh well, I'd just have to use my judgement.  So I started near the back, and off we went.  The darkness, rootiness of the course and congestion of other runners made it easy to keep the pace really easy.  The other runners around me were happy, friendly and chatty, although I really didn't want to run with anyone in particular - it was important to me to run my own pace and not get caught up with anyone else.  So I let the conversation float over my head, just enjoying listening and joining in with the occasional comment.  In no time atall, the first checkpoint came, I ditched my arm-warmers and Kurt gave me breakfast - a bag of cheese and crackers.  The checkpoints in this race are every 3-4 miles, which is great.  I'd originally planned a run-walk strategy, based on running to the CPs then walking for a few minutes.  But on advice from Coach Kurt, and after my recce where I realised the course wasn't flat, my tactic became to jog on the flat, coast the downhills (mind the tree roots!!) and walk and eat on the uphills.  So I duly stuffed my face with pepperjack cheese as I walked the long drag uphill after the first CP.

Lap one was easy.  The forest was cool, shrouded in mist.  It was so beautiful in places, I was sad not to have my phone with me to snap a few photos.  I found it easy to tap out an easy rhythm which felt very sustainable.  I was enjoying eating lots of cheese, some crackers and the oreos at the checkpoints.  I ate far more than I ever have in the early stages of a race, which I think helped me a great deal later.  Kurt was there to greet me at the Park Road CP (~13miles) and to tell me that I was moving at a really good pace, but not too fast.  He looked happy, I felt great and the sun was beginning to shine.  I arrived at the start/finish 3 hours 45 mins after I started.  Jerry had arrived - I heard him clanging his cowbells before I saw him, which made me smile broadly.  Every time I heard them all day, it just made me smile and laugh.  I changed my t-shirt into a vest, drank some fizzy water and ate some oreos, and left for lap 2 still smiling, and fully expecting to slow down significantly.

All smiles after 20 miles.
Lap two continued in much the same vein as lap one.  I tapped out my rhythm and kept on moving comfortably.  I'd moved from cheese and crackers to Clif Builder Bars (mint chocolate) which I find quite yummy, but by ~23 miles, I was starting to feel a bit nauseous.  Kurt had stocked my waist pack with water bottles filled with GU electrolyte stuff, which I found surprisingly palatable.   It was getting a bit warm by now, as the early mist had well and truly burnt off.  I made sure to have some salt tabs at the DamNation CP.  There was a small section of the trail where there was no tree cover, alongside the lake - I'd been running for around 5-6 hours and it was late morning - it was HOT!  Thankfully it wasn't a long stretch before being blissfully among the trees again.  I got passed by the winner at this point - wow, he was moving so fast, with less than 10 miles to go and I still had a lap and a half to go!  I was feeling a little bit ropey and had no idea what to eat.  I knew I had to keep eating.  I was forcing down small bites of builders bar.  The CP at DamNation, which was 6miles and 8.7mi into the lap had a huge array of food on offer - even bacon and pancakes on the first lap! - and I looked at it for inspiration before pouncing on the pickles.  I've never eaten pickles while running before, but I think I'm now a convert.  I saw them, and had to eat them, then wanted them all the rest of the day.  They tasted amazing - salty, sour and palate cleansing - goodbye nausea!  I carried on to Park Road feeling good again, with Kurt there to meet me and inform me that I was still running a good pace.  Park Road is 4 miles from the start finish area, and the section of trail between the this CP and the start/finish is lovely - twisty, turny, undulating and rooty.  For some reason, 'Don't Stop Me Now' by Queen came into my head, and I started singing out loud (there was no one around). I had such a big smile on my face as I realised that I was going to be able to start a third lap, and 50 miles began to feel like a reality.  I finished lap 2 in 3 hours 55 mins.

Pickles and a quick chat about food and then Coach Kurt kicked me straight out onto lap 3.
I still felt strong, had no injury problems and continued to be able to move along freely and comfortably.  Foodwise, I was struggling a little, but I'd eaten so much in the first lap, I was reaping the benefits, and as long as I topped up with some gels and shot bloks, my energy levels were good.  As I came through the out-and-back part of the course after the DamNation CP, having run 42 miles, I counted at least 20 people behind me - what a shocker!  I was getting a bit tired now, and I was having to tell myself to keep running.  I think my brain was more tired than my legs, as when I was running, my pace was still perfectly steady and comfortable.  Still, I couldn't stop smiling - apart from when I had to shout at myself - DO NOT FALL DOWN!!  Kurt, Jerry and Marilane were all waiting for me at the last CP, which was so lovely - those cowbells again!  The last four miles were hard, mostly because it was the only part of the race where I had no company.  So much of this route is two-way, so you constantly get to see and encourage (and get encouragement from) the faster runners.  But of course, they had all finished, so I was on my own.  I talked to myself a lot in those last four miles!  I did get a little tearful knowing that I had almost done it, when I really didn't think I could, but those tearful feelings turned to pure joy and elation when I crossed the last road crossing into the finishing straight.  The cowbells again!!  I put my foot down and finished strongly, there was plenty left in the tank!  I had such a big grin on my face - if only that feeling could be bottled!  I finished my third lap in almost the same time as my second, with a finishing time of 11hours 33mins, and more than 90 people behind me or dropped out.  At the start, I would have been utterly delighted to have believed I could have finished in less than 13 hours - I just wanted to make sure I could finish in time to enjoy dinner and margaritas with friends and family.  I am still shocked at the time - Coach Kurt has joked that maybe I've found my distance.

The only person I know who didn't think I'd get here when we left the UK...
Overall, this was a day where simply everything went right.  I got my pacing, nutrition, clothing, fluids all just right.  My excellent crew helped greatly, of course.  I'm incredibly proud of myself for beating my demons and managing to run positively and happily.  And I'm so grateful to all my friends and family who were rooting for me - knowing they were there supporting me and encouraging me really helped to keep me going.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

2015 Rocky Raccoon 100 - Running Happy

The great thing about running long is that no matter what you plan for, or how well you think you know your body, the course, the weather, or your gear, something unexpected always turns up to make you think.  At this year's Rocky Raccoon 100, I got to enjoy a lot of my plans going right, and a few going ever so awry.  The key word there is "enjoy," and in spite of my newly super-sized big toes, I really did enjoy pretty much every minute of my race.

To say that this year's event has been a key goal ever since last year's disappointing DNF would be an understatement.  Most of my gear reviewing has been based around fixing weaknesses identified last year.  The races I have run have had little to do with this year's attempt, but the many races I chose not to run were almost all about making sure I had the legs to go the distance.  What can I say?  That DNF hurt a lot, and I wasn't in the mood to let it happen again.

So, what went right?  The pre-race build up was the first thing I got right.  The goal was to arrive in Huntsville in a positive frame of mind.  The next improvement on last year was to have my own food for the entire race, so the aid stations were top-up and back-up, rather than the mainstay of my nutrition.  I geared my choices early on to things that I would want to eat even when not feeling hungry, because I've found that I feel hungry about 5 minutes before I bonk.  The final plan that worked out better than 2014 was to use a very light bottle belt instead of a race vest - I'd tested the Ultimate Direction Scott Jurek Endure Belt repeatedly and knew it would do the job and give me the chance to dissipate heat more efficiently than a vest would.  With those pieces in place, together with a better training block in the Fall, I started and ran the whole race with no concern about whether I'd finish, and with a lot of confidence that a PB was completely achievable.

However, something always goes wrong in an ultra - you're out there too long for it not to.  I had some particularly exciting lighting problems, and did a bit of a number on my big toes with a few of the roots along the way.  But, because I felt positive throughout, I never really got down about the problems - I just set about finding solutions or carried on regardless.  I think a lot of that positivity was helped by calorie-loading early on and maintaining a manageable pace - so I didn't have a major energy dip until quite close to the end.

Overall, I ran happy - and running happy makes everything else that much easier to put into perspective.  For the details & pics, keep reading!


The plan was to relax and catch up with family while we took an extra couple of days to acclimate to the local weather.  Since Nic is doing the 50 (one week after the 100), and had the joy of a winter cold in mid-January, the plan also included a few good runs on local trails in Austin & Round Rock to make sure we were building up to the race well.

Great weather for the build-up runs - Lady Bird Lake looking beautiful in the warm sun.
Taking my EVRC club vest out for a spin in 20C temps - High Summer in January!!

It's always important to include recovery and enjoyment into any training schedule, and the fine weather in the week before race day certainly encouraged some relaxing time outdoors.

Sunshine and warmth begets the occasional afternoon libation.

If you've never been here, you've missed out on some of the most amazing donuts in the land.  Eat more than one, though, and you may have to take up ultras to keep the weight off.
All told, the week leading up to the race was perfect.  We arrived on Friday in Huntsville with me excited and ready to run, and Nic delighted to take a few hours recce-ing the 50 route alone (ie without me yapping incessantly).

Raven Lake looking good in the sun on Nic's run

Nic capturing the evening light on the boardwalk.

While Nic enjoyed some well-earned peace, I meandered over to packet pickup, enjoyed the race briefing, and caught up with some fellow runners.  I managed to catch up with Stephen Rodgers, who was kilted up for the event, and we reminisced over the 2014 humidity trial (he passed the test, finishing in the freezing rain after the sweltering Saturday).  I also had the joy of meeting Tony Nguyen, who takes running happy to a whole new level of big smiles and super enthusiasm.  I dropped my DamNation drop-bag, started panicking over where I'd packed my rain jackets (eventually found in time for the final sort-out), and then picked up Nic for an early dinner.

Like so many of the runners, we were up at stupid-o'clock (3:45am) to allow plenty of time to get through the queues into Huntsville State Park.  While I got set up at Dogwood, Nic headed off to the Nature Center station, which would be her base with Dad for the day.  Pre-race, I caught up with Brits Chris Mills and James Elson.  James would be shooting for a high placing, while Chris and I were both aiming for sub-24.  Time flew quickly, and before I had time to get properly nervous, we were off and running.

Wrapped up in the chilly wee hours.

I set myself towards the back half of the 367-strong field, knowing that a gentle walk-jog for the first 5km would be a good way to ease through the early (dark) miles without blowing a lot of energy and hopefully without catching too many roots. I was looking for a 3:50-4:00 first lap, with plenty of food and drink along the way.  Nic was supplying me with rather tasty BLT wraps for the first few hours, and I looked forward to each of my snack-break uphills.  With yummy snacks, easy running, and friendly faces around, I thoroughly enjoyed my 20mi warm-up.  That first lap went pretty much perfectly (3:52).  By starting in the back, I was constantly passing people rather than running with them.  While not the most sociable way to spend the morning, it meant that I could exchange pleasantries but avoided accidentally tapping into someone else's pace - a mistake I made repeatedly in 2014.  It also gave me the opportunity to play a little chatty leapfrog with Brandon Holloway (25:50) and Roy Pirrung (26:44) as our run/walk strategies overlapped.

Feeling fresh after the first lap

Much like the first lap, the second was full of gentle running, eating (now with a couple of hummus wraps thrown into the mix), walking up hills, and a bit of chit-chat with runners as we passed and re-passed with our various run/walk strategies.  Nic and Dad continued to look after me like pros at the 3 accessible aid stations.  Nic and I had already agreed that her job was to be bossy, and my job was to do what I was told - never easy, but it worked beautifully on the day.  The roots started to get a bit bigger and easier to trip over, and the hills seemed slightly longer and steeper than on lap one, but I was still in a happy place, bimbling along through the peaceful woods.  By now, the out-and-back segments were a bit trickier, since runners were running in both directions on the narrow trail.  It was a chance to exchange encouraging words (leading to me thinking of them as the "Good job!" sections) and also see how others were getting on.  By the time I'd reached 30 miles, I started to feel a hot spot on my right heel, so stopped and patched it before it became a problem.  Messing about with the sock, I noticed a stinging feeling on my big toe, so had a look, and sure enough found some blisters starting up.  I hadn't felt anything at all, so counted myself lucky, applied a couple of blister plasters, and got moving again.  The few minutes lost tipped me a little outside schedule for the lap (4:01), but it was time very well spent.  The heat started to get a bit much, so I reverted to my youth and bared my pasty torso on the run for the first time in decades, and felt much better for all the extra air.

Picture? I was topless, and the glare was just too much for the camera.

The goal for lap 3 was to avoid over-heating and over-working, so that I'd still have something in the tank for the final 40.  Really, it's best not to think too hard in the middle section about things like "next time I'm here, it's only 40 miles left to go!".  So, I kept concentrating on the time it would take to the next aid station, whether I was eating enough, drinking enough, or getting my feet high enough.  Food and drink were fine.  My feet, however, were not always getting over the roots, and I started to kick the whatsit out of my big toes.  Plenty of times I just glanced off the little hazards, but every so often I would catch one flush on the big toe and feel a sharp pain shoot through my whole foot.  I guess the upside was that I was still moving fast enough to hit the roots hard.  Somehow (probably due to reasonable training and plenty of early calories), I maintained a cheery mood and shrugged off the blows as "well, who needs toenails anyway?".  In about a week, I expect I'll be looking at my nail-less toes and wishing I had done a better job of getting my feet up.  I finished the lap in good time for Nic and Dad to get me set up for the night before they headed off for some well-earned rest (4:39).  The heat was slowing me down, but not taking a long-term toll like it had the year before.

Still topless - apparently people were turned to stone by the sight.

Lap 4 took the race into proper problem-solving mode.  It was dark by the time I left Dogwood for the penultimate time, and I forgot to pick up my spare batteries.  I knew the dark laps would be slower than the light ones, if only because I'd be tired and having to take a bit more care on the roots.  Early in the loop, I had a brief chance to chat with Scott Dunlap (new PR of 17:06, age-group win) - a big boost for me since he was a big inspiration for me to set up on my own.  At DamNation, before heading out for 10km of dark single-track, a volunteer asked if I had my spare batteries.  I thought briefly and realized that they were still at Dogwood.  Hoping that my new LED Lenser SEO7R would still have plenty of charge on it from the morning, I set off into the darkness.  A mile later, the light switched to low power.  Compound errors:  I hadn't really learned to use the SEO functionality or the battery-saving function, and had been running fairly high-powered to make sure I didn't catch too many roots.  So, I walked up the hill in very dim light, hoping that a passing runner might have spare AAA batteries I could use.  After a few AA carriers, Ace Gallegos offered me his spare light - which was back at DamNation.  Ace was shooting for a 22hr finish and was motoring through a painful ITB, so I stuck to him like glue.  I kept my light on the lowest power and widest angle to give some ambient light, and Ace had his spot on quite bright, picking out the major trip hazards.  Every now and then, I missed one with the eyes and found it with the toes, and I hit the ground at least twice on that section (I was more focused on sticking to Ace than anything else, so I really don't know how many times I tripped, fell, or turned an ankle).  We got back to the aid station still in good time for a 22hr, and Ace very kindly sorted me out with a light before taking some time to work on his leg.  I finished the lap with an opportunity to grab a 22hr, and ample time to get the sub-24.  After sorting out my light with fresh batteries, returning Ace's with some fresh batteries, and grabbing my backup H7R for some secondary lighting, I grabbed my lap-5 gels and set out aiming for a 4am finish.

Lap 5 was a tale of two halves.  With the SEO7R on my head providing a mid-power wide angle, and my H7R on high-power spot focus any time I was running, I was able to keep moving at a pretty good pace.  Nature Center came and went, with my pace near enough to 14min/mi.  DamNation arrived in similar fashion.   I was starting to properly tire by the time I got to the half way point, but was still looking at a 4:00-4:15 finish time, if I could maintain my effort level.  I knew the second half of the loop was potentially faster, but I also had 90 miles in my legs and was definitely feeling it.  The final visit to DamNation came at around 1:50, and I'd been working hard on that loop to keep the potential for that 4am finish.  Once I got off the Dam Road and back onto the single track, though, the effort of staying on plan A+ bit back, and I knew it was time for a longish walk.  I also realised I needed to put in some new batteries to keep the bright light (maybe next time I'll get some new ones instead of picking up a few 2-year old ones.  Thus far, I'd managed to avoid walking on the flats for anything other than comfort break, aid station, or some of the really rooty sections where a 10s walk is better than a face-plant.  Now, I knew I was bonking a bit, so I put on a fastish walk, popped my last 2 gels, aiming for 30-40 minutes of walking.  I figured the difference between 2 20-minute miles and 2 15-minute miles was pretty irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.  The 22hr finish was gone, so the next goal was a PB (previous 23:17, on a much easier course).  After 20 minutes, I was on some good running track and got back to running - I couldn't bring myself to miss out on flat fire road.  It wasn't fast, and it wasn't pretty, but it was kind of like running.  My lights started dimming a bit (or possibly it was my brain), so I got a bit paranoid that I was going to end up in the dark again and started to push harder on the easy footing and eased off on the trippy bits.  I dropped nearly 40 minutes over that last 8 miles, but ended with a strong run on the nice, flat final straight to cheers from Nic and Dad, who'd crawled out of bed at way-too-early to see me finish.

Hurrah - finished with time for a nap before breakfast!

We enjoyed the euphoria of the finish (22:41), and headed to the car, and just about then the happy fell away as my battered toes started to say hello.  Sunday was a bit rough, but it was all made better by a little anesthetic in the evening.

Ice treatment made everything better!


Salomon Fellraisers  (Run Stuff)
Injinji Performance 2.0 Trail Socks (ULTRAmarathonRunningStore)
Dirty Girl Gaiters (UMRS)
Ancient Brooks shorts
Cotswold Running Singlet (Run Stuff)
2x Cotswold Running Short-sleeved T-Shirts (Run Stuff)
dhb Arm Warmers
Cotswold Running Buff
Ultimate Direction Scott Jurek Endure Belt (UMRS)
LED Lenser H7R and SEO7R head torches (UMRS)

Food (as best as I remember):

4.5 BLT wraps (2 rashers of bacon, a bit of mayo, lettuce, tomato in a small tortilla)
2 hummus wraps
9 Oreo cookies
3 TORQ pineapple & ginger energy bars
1 large Clif Chocolate Mint Builders Bars
~5 small Clif Chocolate Mint Builders Bars
~15 Hammer salt tablets
4 TORQ Energy gels
4 TORQ Energy caffeinated gels
4 Gu isotonic tablets