Sunday, 20 June 2021

Replicating race conditions

A break of 3 days after my race last weekend let my body recover and I prepared for a weekend in the mountains.  If Ultra Race Romania is on, and I think that will be a late decision, then I have to prepare for 36,000 ft of climbing in 6 days while completing 250km.  Sadly there is no way to replicate the URR conditions in the UK but we need to make a good go of it.
On Saturday I was with my running buddie Michael who is great at mapping out days in the mountains and we headed to Glenshee to complete 3 Munro's which would take Michael's total to 100 - 10 that week!  As so often is the case with me on the mountains, the conditions were sub-optimal which meant the summits were all in cloud base.  1 hour in 1 didn't feel great and my heart rate reached 186 bpm, normally when pushing it, my HR would reach 168 bpm so this was either a blip or I should have been lying on my back.  We had some food, rehydrated and dropped the pace which solved the problem.  The conditions meant we didn't hang around and we completed the 33km  with 1,546m of elevation in 5hrs 41 mins.  It was a good day out.
Today I was back in the mountains but on my own.  As you know I can get lost in a car park so I was slightly nervous.  The plan was about the elevation, not the distance so the mountain selected, Ben More, has possible the steepest climb out of all the Munro's.  My coach wanted me to climb up once then go half way up and back down.  I made sure I had plenty of food and headed off trying to get my map on my phone so I didn't get lost - but I did.  Fortunately I picked it up early on and reversed my steps.  The cloud base was about a third of the way up the hill so I had little visual queues to go on.  Once you find the path it's very straight forward, except it's vertical and the stones you are stepping on all present a risk.  It got a bit "spooky" at the top as you are surrounded by clouds with some sheer drops but not being able to see the drops was a good thing.
When you reach the top you can go down the other side which is a much easier descent but my instructions were to go back the way I'd come up.  It was a very difficult descent and the pace was really slow as it was on the way up and I had to concentrate very hard.  I decided on the way down not to repeat the first half again as it really was risky and I was on my own.  Better get to the race slightly under prepared than injured!
Getting back to the car I was delighted that my HR had stayed low and that my legs felt great.  I've four long runs planned for the next 5 days.
Some big weekends lie ahead as I spend as much time as possible in the mountains building up my strength.  Hopefully one of these days I'll reach a summit and have a view!

Sunday, 13 June 2021

Build back better!

Yesterday was the Moray Coastal Trail 80km ultra and I was so excited to be racing for the first time since September 2019 with competitors around me ie not a virtual race.  I had decided I was going to race the race rather than just complete the race.  With my coach we designed an ambitious race plan where we agreed the pace for every section and whether or not I stopped at an aid station and if so, for how long - the stops ranged from 90 secs to 2 minutes!
My wife was my crew although officially a supporter as it was an "unsupported race" so she couldn't hand me food or drinks.  Her main job was to tell me when I arrived at a check point if I was on target, how long I had to stop for and how far to the next check point.  I had all this information written down and had studied it but your mind plays tricks on you in these races so it's good to have someone to remind you and it's always amazing how you feel better and pick up your pace when you can see your supporter cheering you on.  As the race went on I lost track of this information so it was a great help.
The race started in Forres and the first 11.2km are on tarmac and a bit boring.  Then you get to the coast and wow what a beautiful run it becomes.  It's more or less flat and as I have found out before in my first Ironman, flat is very tough.  You're running across stunning beaches, miles wide, and I was one of the few wearing short gaiters so had no issues with sand in my shoes like some did.  The organiser said you could wear road or trail shoes so I found a shoe that did both and am glad I did because there were plenty of stones to kick along the way and the "trail sole" did it's best to protect me from the unforgiving large pebble we spent many KMs running over.
There were cliff top trails and stunning forests to run through and I was grateful for the steady tail wind which did it's best to keep the temperature down, but it was warm.
Fiona was reporting to me that I was ahead of schedule despite me trying to keep to the agreed pace.  But once I hit the beaches and the trails the pace slowed significantly.  Running in sand saps your strength but running on sandy trails with big pebbles is really tough and twisting an ankle was a real concern.  However when I did fall, I always fall, it was on a dirt trail and fortunately it was soft earth however try telling that to my shoulder (38km into the race).
To this day I haven't found a food strategy that works as you get sick of gels and bars quite quickly but know you need to keep eating.  In hindsight I carried too much with me and when I got to my drop bag at half way I only ate my custard and drank half a bottle of coke, took a handful of gels and left - in under 3 mins.
My pace was getting slower and slower and my right ankle was sore as was my lower back.  It didn't help that I, along with others, got lost 3 times due to poor signage (it was the first time this race has been run and I'm sure they will attend to this next year) - I heard the leader got lost and was a mile and a half off track (he found his way back and was still in the lead!)
In all my endurance events I've had highs and lows and in the lows the possibility of pulling out the race comes into my head.  But after 45 kms I was starting to walk and walk run and the pain in my ankle and back was getting worse.  There was a 7km section to Kingston that really finished me off and that was along the sandy track with big pebbles next to the beach - it was brutal, the hardest section of the race so I was told.  Eventually it ended and I came to the decision I'd pull out at the next check point as I was concerned that I would really hurt myself and not be able to train as normal and as my "A race" is 8 weeks away, I couldn't afford time out.  I text my wife who was at the check point at Kingston 56km (my garmin said 53km) and she walked out to meet me.  On the way in we talked about the fact there was only 24km to go and I was only 3 minutes behind target despite all my walking in this section (total time 5hrs 29mins).  I could have walked to the finish line in 3.5 hours and got my medal but it was never about just finishing the race, it was about racing the race.  I informed the officials I was pulling out and got in the car and was driven home.
I've only experienced a DNF once before and it made me change my training so I didn't suffer with a hamstring problem again.  As you'd expect I've been given my decision a lot of thought.  Should I just have applied rule 5 (Man The F@@k Up)?  I'm 100% certain I made the right decision as I feel after a couple of days rest and a sports massage, I'll be back running.  But I'll also be back in the gym working on my core because this in my opinion was the main problem.  I hadn't been able to work on my core since I injured my ribs 6 weeks ago followed by my back and my core wasn't strong enough to finish the 80kms properly.
Nobody likes failing but as a friend pointed out, DNF means did nothing fatal!  There's lost of lessons learned but I mustn't forget the positives such as a 4 hr 12 min marathon on a trail which is slower than on tarmac - it also includes all the time I was lost which could take another 10 mins off.  My pace of 53.2km was 6:23 per km but I'm not sure if that's entirely accurate as the organisers have it down as 56km to that point so it was possibly faster - who knows?
We should learn from every race and when you have a set back then "build back better" - where have I heard that phrase before?  The building back starts on Tuesday and the Moray Coastal Ultra did exactly what I needed it to do.  It pushed me hard and I think staying on an ambitious pace target for 56km is a good training run.  
I'll leave you with one last thought.  What makes you have a sleepless night before an event and your stomach churn on a start line is knowing that the result is not guaranteed otherwise it wouldn't be worthwhile.  Growth only occurs outside your comfort zone and it's fair to say that certainly was the case yesterday.  I live to fight another day.  No damage done and 8 weeks till my "A race" - assuming Romania is on the green list but there's nothing I can do about that, other than continue with my training.  Thank you all for your words of support yesterday, they mean a lot.  Thanks to my wife for her "crew" responsibilities which she did so well and to my coach for designing a great training plan around my injuries and always helping me push the limits.

Monday, 7 June 2021

Race to train

Now you might think I've got the title the wrong way round but I'll explain my rationale.  Before doing so this was the first week of tapering and the wonderful thing about ultra running as opposed to triathlon, is all you're doing is running.  In triathlon while tapering you still have the three disciplines to cope with so I'm glad those days are over.....for the meantime!
Letting your body recover is important and I have enjoyed it.  My biggest run last week was 15km although it was pacier than normal and I repeated it the following day.  But the big runs are off the agenda, until Saturday - race day.
I went over the race plan with my coach.  It's always hard to pace a route you've never ran before and when you're getting up to 80kms, you can't tell what shape your body will be in and what pace you be running or crawling at.  But it's good to have a plan as a reference point.  If the "wheels come off the trolley" then I'll go for plan B and then plan C 'cause that's what you've got to do - whatever it takes.
I've also being buying new gear.  The route is part tarmac and part trail so the dilemma is what to wear on my feet.  I ordered a paid of Inov8 Parkclaw 360's and put them through their paces on Saturday on similar terrain - result, they were great.  I ordered a new running vest to carry my water and mandatory kit and it fits like a glove. So all the planning is now done and I just need to rest, eat, hydrate, get a sports massage (tomorrow) and enjoy the reduced training schedule.  We're already planning big miles after the race.
On Sunday two club members took part in races - the first this year.  Mark completed a sprint tri and Michael a 60km ultra including 2 Munro's.  They both smashed them and loved the excitement to be racing again.  I was thinking about them when running and it occurred to me how important having a race to look forward to was.  If you don't have one in your calendar then it makes the training harder.  That's why I've switched the phrase round, we race to train.  Having the goal of that finish line is what makes us put in the hard miles especially when you don't feel like it.  As the race approaches I know how important every session is.
On Sunday I was in Aberdeen and got back home at 3pm and had a 12km run to do, at pace.  I was tired from the drive and it was really hot.  But having a race in 6 days time meant I had no choice.  I completed the training a sweaty mess but felt good knowing this was my last "long" (short really) run.
I know on Saturday there will be the excitement of lining up in a race.  I also know the highs and lows during the 80kms but must keep my focus and remember all the training sessions I've gone through to get there.  Hopefully my second jab I got today won't affect me and I'll have a stress free week. 
The summer's definitely here so get that race booked and focus your training with a picture of you crossing the finishing line in your mind.  It's just the best feeling!

Monday, 31 May 2021

Party like it's 1999

If the last week was to be summed up in one word it would be "speed".  Now don't get ahead of yourselves mixing that with the blog title, it's a different type of speed.
The first type is the speed of fast runs while tapering for my 80 km trail race on 12 June.  The big long slow miles are done, or at least as many done in the circumstances as possible.  Now it's shorter faster runs with a few speedy runs.  It's so good to get my speed per km down below 5km per min but this will bare no relevance on race day.  But it is keeping me fit and giving my legs, lungs, heart and mind some variety.  It's been a good weeks training and my HR is exactly where I want it.
However I've been partying since Friday and today, Monday, will involve some more celebrations.  My daughter finished university on Friday and it was her birthday on Thursday so she came home and it's been party time ever since.  I look at the way those youngsters "go for it" and the next day they are back on it again - true ultra athletes, of a different sort.  And during all of this I still had to train in the heat.
I'm glad to say I was able to pace myself after years of experience but never attained the levels the young ones today seem to reach!
Other than my training the time between now and the race will be preparation.  Checking out the course online, choosing the right shoes as it's a mixture of trail, tarmac and sand, and arranging my food and a drop bag.  Getting a massage to make sure the muscles are ready - went to the chiropractor on Tuesday following my couple of falls.  She sorted me out as always but said that "there was a lot going on" - code for wrecked!
I'm going to watch the videos of the course so I have some idea of what to expect.  Starting to get excited and look forward to "cashing in all those credits built up in the winter months of training in the snow and ice".  After the race I might get my party gear on again but the 1999 dance moves don't go down so well with the young ones!  Back then we certainly didn't call it "dad dancing"!  Enjoy the warmer weather and remember your sun cream....christ I sound like a dad!

Sunday, 23 May 2021

Drama, drama, drama!

We'll come onto the drama in a minute but this has been a big week for my training with my 80km ultra race looking likely to go ahead in 20 days time.  The build up hasn't been ideal with effectively two weeks off due recently to injuries.  Last weekend I was "bust" on a 42km mountain adventure and that knocked onto this weeks training with me having 2 days off to recover.  I was reminded by my coach Genevieve that sticking to my plan and not exceeding the targets was important - take that as a the nearest I've had to a reprimand over the 10 years we've worked together, but she does know what she's doing.  Nobody knows my limits better than she does so I was back with the plan by Monday.
In the 5 days I ran this week I covered 104kms.  A few smaller runs to get the fatigue out of my system early on followed by 20km Friday, 38km Saturday and 24 km today.  These back to back runs, running on tired legs are crucial.  What was important was the pace and I worked hard at running slowly which will be required to complete 80km in a day.
The drama came on Saturday.  My pal Gav is  running a 70 mile race the week after me so I knew he'd be doing big slow miles so we met up to run a relatively flat 38 km trail along the Clyde Valley.  Gav hadn't been so far along the valley and I was excited to show him the route through the trees.  "Watch out for the dodgy board walks which are covered in mesh" I said.  10 minutes later we crossed a boardwalk where a piece of mesh was raised and caught the aggressive lugs on my shoe - BANG head first down!  I was seeing stars as Gav helped me up and I could feel the blood coming from the wound above my eye and my knee was cut, bruised and bleeding.  It's ridiculous as the previous weekend I was in the Scottish mountains on two technically difficult Munros and came off unscathed but put me on a level trail and I end up cut and bruised. At this point were 16km into a 38km run but this wasn't going to stop me completing the task.  Even if I'd turned back it would still have been 32km but not the target of 38km.  So we pressed on.  Gav got the pace right so while we hardly spoke for the last 10km, we got it done.  It's funny when out on long runs that there comes a point that the chat stops and you retreat inside your own head telling yourself it will be over soon.
I got home and came to the conclusion stiches weren't required but food certainly was.  Fed and cleaned up I started the recovery as I knew I had another important run today - but first some wine to go with a lovely dinner.  Early night and slept like a log.
Today my chaperone was Stuart.  We could get lost in a car park and managed to do it in a route I knew at least 95% of.  Again Stu set a steady pace and in two of the big hills we walked them because we're experience to know how tough the closing kms would be on a 20km run after a heavy weeks training.  I'm glad we did.  We took a diversion from the normal route to add some kms on so we wouldn't be running round the park at the end.  When heading back we took a couple of wrong turns and had to find a new way back to the main trail. The "new route" was amazing and because we had climbed too high, we got the reward of a long downhill through a bluebell forest - it was stunning.
Again the last few Kms required us to dig in deep and I was pleased when it was over.  I was so hungry on the way home I had to stop for a Burger King just to keep me going.
My coach has reported that's epic distances over as we taper for the Moray Coastal Ultra Trail.  I'm waiting to hear from the organisers as last week they were in level 3 and if that remained we wouldn't have been able to travel to Moray.  That's been changed to level 2 so I'm awaiting an email telling me it's now on so fingers crossed.  While it would be disappointing if the race was cancelled, having that focus has got me into great shape for URR which is my "A race" in August.  A lot of hard work to be done between now and then with many epic runs and adventures ahead.  Hopefully they can be carried out without the drama but my pals will be looking out for me!

Sunday, 16 May 2021

With a little help from my friends

Sorry I missed my blog last week but I was on holiday.  A well earned staycation touring the highlands of Scotland.  It was well timed because the week before I injured my ribs and couldn't run.  It didn't help that I also fell down the stairs on holiday and injured my lower back as well so it's fair to say any form of training was out of the question as I hobbled around.
On Tuesday I came back with a fast 8km walk.  Wednesday an 8km fast walk with a 2 km run at the end.  Thursday was a gentle 9km run and a pacier 10km run on Friday.   This was all preparation for the Mountains on Saturday and what a day that was.
A 4.30am start, my wingman Michael and I headed off to complete "two Munro's that nobody seems to link together" he said - that should have been the warning!  I was expecting a 30km distance in total but the map apps don't take account the zig zagging when going up vertical climbs so that proved a bit of an under estimation.  
The first munro was Ben Vorlich at Loch Lomond.  OMG that was really tough.  After a 3km run on a track we climbed a smaller hill traversed across the top and then followed a forest track for quite some distance before descending to the bottom of Ben Vorlich.  Thereafter it was straight up - there was 1 km that took 28 minutes!  It advertises a "track" but it's like no track I've ever gone up.  Very difficult under foot, it's like a step machine in a gym except you are walking on loose and sharp stones.  It just keeps on going on and on and just over half way up we found ourselves at cloud base so now view to reward us for a very tough climb.  As I was getting my breath back at the top I realised that we were going back the same way we came up.  Well if the ascent was tough, the descent was horrendous as we slipped and slid down the loose rocks.  I don't know how anyone could ascend and descent this mountain without poles.  They saved me on numerous occasions.  On reaching the bottom we climbed another smaller hill, traversed across the top and down to a forest track.  At one stage Michael said, "there should be a bridge here" - well there used to be a bridge and the best we could do was walk across a metal support which had a reasonable drop should we miss our step - more adventure than I wanted!
The final munro was Ben Bhunidhe.  I was now struggling as I hadn't brought enough food as I was expecting a 5 hour trip not 8.5 hours.  I ran out of water due to a failure of one of my bottles but we were able to get some from a fast flowing mountain stream - it was nectar!  The climb was relentless and again difficult under foot.  Michael powered ahead in "beast mode" and I managed to put one foot in front of the other.  Michael would wait for me at either scrambling spots or when the route had a choice of direction and put his time to good use taking amazing photographs.  A five minute rest at the top and I really could have done with some food other than the gel and protein bar I ate.  The descent for the first third was really technical and difficult.  Then you are on a land rover track with rocks and there were some steep sections that were difficult to run.  To complete the agony less than a kilometer from my car we ran past a brewery which was open and people were sitting outside having a pint!  We didn't have time to stop as the planned 30km adventure turned into 42.4km.  I was bust but this is exactly the type of training I need to complete the goals I have set.  Did I enjoy it, no but any day with a pal on the hills has got to be good and without him I'd have called it a day after the first munro.
I got home and ate my body weight in food.  My quads knew they had had a workout and I had a 14 km recover run planned for Sunday.  I'd know idea how I'd feel in the morning.
Sunday morning I got up, ate a huge breakfast and was picked up by Stuart.  We headed off for a flat trail run at a slow pace.  Again I wouldn't have completed it without him dragging me along.  My Garmin gives a "training effort" score and yesterdays was 4.2/5 but today was 4.8!  Obviously the fatigue from yesterday impacted but back to back efforts like this is the best way to get ready for long ultras or a multi-day staged event like those I have lined up.  This will prove to have been a key weekend in my preparation for my races.
The good news is my quads feel fine which is the benefit of running down hill on a regular basis.  The first couple of efforts really hurt then your legs get used to it.  I can build from here.
Tomorrow is a well earned day off training and once my ribs and back are 100% I can go back to my core training.  My gym has been built in the back garden so I have no excuse not to train.
I entitled this blog "with a little help from my friends" and this weekend Michael and Stuart both got me through a tough time, challenged my limits and didn't let me give up.  You can't always have a training partner and some times need to train on your own but this weekend I really appreciated the support as I return from a couple of weeks of due to injury.  Thanks guys.

Sunday, 2 May 2021

Saturday legs session

 What a week.  I'll keep it short as it's more like a medical report.  Having been going so well up to last week, things changed:
- Monday went swimming for the first time in 18 months.  Bashed ribs on the edge of the pool - no more running for a while
- No control over legs after the shredding the previous week and fell down the stairs while tenderely walking down them. Cut and bruised wrist!
-Sports massage on Tuesday - agony but it certainly helped flush out my quads.
- Sports therapist visit on Wednesday and she gave my shoulder and calf a good seeing to! Ouchy.
- Power walked Thursday & Friday, felt like it was cheating.
But then came Saturday.  I weighed up the risk of heading to the mountains as I couldn't run and any jarring was going to hurt my ribs.  But I've missed them so much that I headed off with Michael at 5am.  We summited 3 mountains, although I'm claiming 4 as to get off the hill we had to go UP!!! We covered 30km with 1,933m of climbing.  One arse clenching moment of scrambling where I found myself sliding down a wet rock towards a sharp drop but Michael was able to grab me in time - it certainlty didn't help my ribs, shoulder or pants!  We experienced glorious sun and snow showers, again amazing pictures.  What a day out.  Parts of the climb were almost vertical and it felt like a never ending step machine in the gym.  A great leg workout and as of Sunday morning, my legs aren't protesting which is exactly what I was hoping for.  My ribs are another matter - they need a rest.
So active rest is what I am going to do this week.  More power walking and hopefully my ribs will recover to allow me to get back to running.  But I need to take this time out or else the injury will be prolonged.  Take care out there and appreciate when you are fit with no injuries!