Hill Running

Jogging and Swimming at the Keswick Mountain Festival

Posted on May 24, 2016. Filed under: 10k, 1500m OW Swim, 2016, Hill Running, Keswick Mountain Festival, open water swimming, race report, race review, running, swimming, Uncategorized |

In March, while visiting the US, I discovered a new phenomenon – Granny’s Apple Fries – deep fried Granny Smith apples. As an international junk food explorer it was my duty to try them:

“Granny’s Apple Fries, please”, I request politely.

“Regular or Large?”

Duh, thinks I. “Large”


“……”, I pause to process the question.

“Alamo?”, louder still.

My mind processes the request, the frustrated look and the lengthening queue. Alamo. Davy Crockett? Served in a raccoon fur hat? Are we hunkering down to see off the Mexicans in the queue as a Trumpian private army?

I go all British. “I’m terribly sorry, I don’t understand the question”

“ALAMO”, louder still, using the British technique for bridging international communication issues.

A supervisor approaches. They mumble in American to each other.

“A la mode!?”

I speak pidgin French, I can do this. Wait. That means “in fashion”.

Speechlessly I do my confused face.

“Do y’all want your fries with ice cream?” A question I thought I’d never be asked as a grown up.

“Oh yes please”. I gasp, exhausted and broken.



This exchange brought me to two conclusions about America. Firstly, they invented deep frying apples – I don’t know what this means but when they write the history of the world I feel it will be significant. And secondly, as Oscar Wilde said, we are indeed two nations separated by a common language (and they can mangle French quite effectively as well).

Which, in a very indirect way takes me to my point.

The KMF Trail 10k brought my total of trail races to three and I can now safely conclude that trail runners and other runners are a common breed separated by a common language. Where a trail runner says hill, I see mountain. Where a trail runner says gently sloping, I see near vertical mountain face.

And so it was that I found myself contemplating the Keswick Trail 10k, described tantalisingly as “perfect for entry level runners who want to start trail running. It’s a mixture of wide open trails, some single track, a few easy hills with some road and fields to finish”.

I shall return to this but back to the beginning.


After her Glencoe half Pam signed up to do the Keswick 25k and while browsing the website I found a 1.5k swim and entered. After a little more browsing I discovered I could also squeeze in a 10k, although I knew it would be a big ask 2 weeks after the Glen Lyon ultra, but what the hell. Lets make a weekend of it, joined by Pam’s running partner and cousin Sandi and her family.

IMG_20160520_203558The Festival opens on Friday and has an amazing laid back atmosphere with kids and dogs and down jackets and trail shoes and marquees and bands clinging on to the sloped shoreline of Derwentwater. There are live bands and a million distractions but the real star of the show is the stunning view down the lake that changes with every change in the weather, of which there were many.

Pam and Sandi were duly dropped off on Saturday morning for the gentle hills of the 25k as the skies opened. All 450 runners and sherpas squeezed into the registration marquee for the race briefing as the rain upped it’s game from epic to biblical and then, without fuss, the race kinda started from inside the marquee. An hour in the beer tent later and the weather went saharan. Great for the sherpas but a steamy run for the runners on their undulating loop round Derwentwater.

All the trail events finished on the lake shore with a long (uphill) run through a knowledgeable and supportive crowd. Every runner was cheered in no matter how long they took. The finish area was probably the best supported that I have seen outside of Ironman or VLM which is incredible for an event in the depths of the lakes.

Anyway, Pam and Sandi finished without incident, loving the course and the volunteers, which means we can end the preamble and get on to the main events.

Sunday morning saw the ultra runners away at 6am and, when I arrived just before 9, I am pretty sure that I saw the last of the casualties from Toploader and Scouting for Girls crawling out of the fragrant portaloos.

KMF 10K Trail Run


There are many things that are unique about the KMF but the boat trip across Derwentwater for the start of the 10k must be one of the most special. The sky was blue, the water was like a mirror and the sun shone down on Catbells.


Yes, the sun on Catbells. Oh. What is that glinting in the sun? Oh. Runners. 10k runners. UP A FRIGGING MOUNTAIN. A few easy hills, MY ARSE.

I look at the lady next to me on the boat. I point and soundlessly mouth words. She nods. My heart sinks.

As we dock we head to a field. At which point a hundred or so people disappear into the woods, emerging a little later tightening drawstrings at their waists. We are given the one minute warning to move to the start line. As instructed I move to the start line. I look around, no-one else has moved to the start line. HOLY SHITE I AM AT THE FRONT.


On a track maybe three runners wide, gnarly with tree roots and rutted. A few racing snakes overtake. I am behind a girl dicking around with her iPod playlist as the path narrows to single file. Oh bugger, I AM the traffic jam.

After a kilometre or so we start climbing through wet mud and tree roots still pretty much single file. I am still running, thank god. And then we pop out on a downhill road. And then we climb.

Apparently the route is the Catbells Terrace. I don’t really know what I am talking about but I would describe it as technical as we slid and clambered on loose scree. After a kilometre the scenery opens up looking down the lake to Keswick and Derwent Isle that I will be swimming around in a couple of hours. The route changes to a steep downhill and I happily trot down actually taking advantage of ballast and gravity and overtaking some of the frailer racing snakes. Until we climb again, this time I insert some half hearted jogs – I exchange positions time and time again with the more steady runners that keep up a metronomic pace. I run like an attention deficient four year old, sprinting, walking, gasping.

At about 6k we cross a road into some woods. I inhale deeply and a mouthful of midges hit my sick trigger at warp speed. The next couple of kilometres are characterised by me hoiking up and snot rocketing mangled midge carcass. I skip the water station for fear of swallowing dilute insect protein.

The last three kilometres are pretty flat. I get overtaken by ultra runners 49km into their race but I don’t care. I enter Crow Park and Rory meets me half way up the hill, runs with me to the finish and claims my medal.

It was a truly amazing course in wonderful weather. As a bonus we got an extra 0.7k too! Coool.

With the ultra still in my legs and knowing the ascent (to give Edinburger’s some context the middle 5k was like 3 times the ascent of Arthur’s Seat) I was hoping to come in under 1:15. With the extra 0.7k I managed 1:13 and my legs actually behaved themselves. And that is a result I am quite pleased with.

Without any further ado I went straight to the sports nutrition tents (just kidding) to ready myself for the swim. A chicken tikka kebab and a can of coke, as always, were the recovery choice of this champion.

KMF 1500m Derwent Isle Open Water Swim

A couple of hours later I found myself in a rubber suit for the second time in the same week. Indeed the second time this year. With a total of 38k swimming this year, it was really just a kickstart to the longer swims later in the year but it looked fun so what the hell.

The water temperature was announced as 11c but I would guess it was nearer 14c as I was one of the first swimmers in for a very protracted entry and I thought it was lovely. With 144 swimmers lined up for a deep water start we got a countdown, that I didn’t hear, and then an air horn, which I did, and we were off.

Then it got weird. No stramash. No banging of limbs. No ducking. I breathed right. No-one. I breathed left. No-one. False start?

I looked back. Nope. We were away. AND I WAS LEADING.

After 100m I was conscious of three swimmers on my left. I breathe right and no-one was there. I started catching arms with the swimmer immediately on my left. We keep clashing until we are off the shore of the Island when we have a bash that stops us dead. I look up and see one swimmer ahead and three in a row with me.

The whole swim is shallow and we were warned to stay out from the Island to avoid tree roots. I come very close to a boulder under the surface which stops the swimmer next to me dead. Around the back of the island it gets choppier and I lose sight of my line. I pick a canoeist to follow and assume that he knows where he is going.

At this point I have a dawning awareness that there isn’t going to be a surge that will leave me mid-field. I am at the pointy end with hardly any training.

As we the beach comes into view I have to dig deep to keep up the pace. I am swimming beyond the ability of my diesel engine. And then the morning 10k starts to make itself felt. First in my calves and then spreading to my hamstrings. That knife edge where crippling cramp is one ill-judged wiggle away. With 200m to go I am swimming with my feet perpendicular to my body position. I am shoulder to shoulder, stroke for stroke with a guy – we will definitely fight it out for a place.

We hit the pontoon together. We climb out for the run, both my hamstrings cramp. Bugger. I spend a moment on my knees trying to re-straighten my legs then I run up the beach to trigger the timing mat. As we get our Bio Security hose down by a National Trust volunteer I notice that I managed to stay up with the speedsters. I pick up my medal with a warm feeling inside (not pee in the wetsuit) that I can still pull off a swim performance if I concentrate.

I grab a zebra burger for recovery and sit on the one spot in Crow Park where there is a data  signal and my result comes through in a text. I am glad I am sitting down. [Warning: HUMBLEBRAG KLAXON] I was 9th overall, 4th male and 1st Veteran (that apparently means I am old and not a cow mender) [HUMBLEBRAG ENDS].

Later, at dinner, the sherpas get animated – “I can’t believe you didn’t swim harder to get on the podium. The kids would love to have seen that”. I humbly remind the sherpas that most of them were on a boat trip during my swim and the podium presentation.

And then we marched the kids up a hill for some amazing evening views.


So, would I recommend the Keswick Mountain Festival? Absolutely, and I am sure that I will be back there next year. Amazing family atmosphere, great events that use the wonderful outdoors on their doorstep and great marshalls and volunteers.

Top work Keswick!

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Fort William Runduro

Posted on February 29, 2016. Filed under: Hill Running, No Fuss, Runduro, running |

With age comes the experience of oddities that I only ever marvelled at from afar. The first silver nose hair. The exertion groan that accompanies every rise and fall on to the sofa. The preference for a bottle of Amarone over a bottle of Jaegermeister and a shot glass.

But there is also an inexplicable shift in perspective.

There were people that I used to call The Crazies – the ultra runners, the hill runners and the marathon swimmers. And then I found myself finding the idea of an ultramarathon or a mountain run or a marathon swim as Not That Crazy.  And then I signed up for an ultramarathon. And a hill run. And a brace of marathon swims. And then I contemplated whether my perspective on what is Crazy had changed or whether I was now a Crazy.

It is like I am living out Catch 22 inside my head.

But, all that said, I still prefer The Clash over Coldplay. So even if I am an ageing Crazy, I’m not a totally middle-aged mental.

Anyway, I felt I needed that by way of introduction, an excuse even, to explain why I found myself standing at the bottom of some rather large hills with trainers on.

Some time ago I signed up for the Fort William Runduro based largely on some glowing recommendations from last year’s inaugural race. Then I obviously crashed a car at some pace and derailed the training effort. But, with an ultra looming, it was an essential training step to ascend some hills. No matter how slowly.

The Runduro concept is simple, yet complicated. We run stages which are timed with transition stages in between. The whole course was about 20k, included what felt like a bawhair off a vertical kilometer of ascent with stages attracting names such as Heart Attack Climb, To Hell and Back and Up, Up and Away.

IMG_20160219_154119It may seem frivolous heading into the Nevis range while there were Coastguard helicopters buzzing the area looking for missing climbers but such is the organisation of No Fuss Events that everything felt safe and well controlled. With extreme snow warnings issued by the Met Office full waterproof cover had to be carried by all runners.

Anyway, with a foul weather forecast fresh in my mind, full waterproofs stuffed in my snack pack along with two gels and a very large banana, it was time to actually go for a run.

Registration was at the Cotswold shop on the High Street. I jogged out the door, into the square and started on the first hill.

My heart rate monitor suggested that my heart was about to explode and cover the western Highlands in slimy gore and cardiac muscle. Just before the darkness closed in and I lost vision I realised that the first stage had not started. Up ahead I saw a vision that screamed HILL RUNNER.  A skeletal frame and gnarly calves. In shorts. And a flimsy top. AND WALKING UP THE FECKING HILL.

I slowed to a walk. Although it may actually have been faster than my run. I can only assume the thin air was affecting my cognitive abilities.

Just as we broke through the clouds I caught up with the Hill Runner stretching out the gnarly calves, although I suspect that no amount of stretching would have contorted them into anything but a sack of writhing serpents.

“Is the hill climb as steep as that climb to the start?”, I gasped incoherently through heaves  of dry boak.

“Och, it is hilly but it evens out so you can catch your breath”

Momentarily reassuring, however, within 15 minutes I discovered that Hill Runners are fecking liars. These people will say anything to entice you up a hill.

Anyway, there was about 100 metres of path gently easing upwards and then we ascended. Soaring towards the skies like a rocket. Like a wheezing, slow, uncomfortable rocket.

That was when I discovered that Hill Running had very little to do with paths. Or trails of any kind. It mostly felt like I was running up a waterfall. That was, of course, until I had to jump over an actual waterfall which put the little path waterfalls in perspective.  As I ascended I was overtaken. By Hill Runners. And hillwalkers. And if I am not mistaken, by a tectonic plate.

At the top of Cow Hill there was about 100 metres of flat before the checkpoint at the transmitter mast. I broke into a jog and promptly jogged clean out of my trainers. As the wind howled through the transmitter and the snow started I stood in my soaking, muddy socks and  looked back at my gaudy green daps lounging forlornly in a peat bath.

20160220_095254I checked in and, somewhat casually, slipped into my waterproof jacket. Fiddling slowly with my zip gave me some additional time to defibrilate myself. And some time to photograph the eponymous hill cows of Cow Hill.

The next stage was called The Descent. My first ever proper downhill run. Basically losing all the hard earned ascent in one long terrifying plummet of 220m over 1.9k.


Which was what I damn near did to myself.

I came pretty much last on that stage. I have no idea how you go quicker without dying. Or burning your legs down to stumps. Or turning your face into mince on the forest floor.

So much fun. But there were times when I genuinely had to slam the brakes on and contemplate my mortality.

Stage 3 was a bog standard ascent followed by another ridiculously steep descent and a long transition.
20160220_111619And then came Heart Attack Climb. I jogged a bit. And then I hopped up giant rocks. And then I realised I need to lose most of my bodyweight and just run up as a skeleton. There was nothing pleasant about it. Not even the sense of achievement. Just a deep relief that it was over.

Another long transition and then Up, Up and Away. I was cooked by this point. I sucked on a gel. Pineapple SIS. Probably the foulest thing I have ever voluntarily put in my mouth trumping both Peruvian guinea pig and Icelandic rancid shark.

I took a long look at my Lemon SIS gel and swore never to let it pass my lips.

20160220_114347I walked most of Stage 5. An absolutely relentless 2.6km, 185m ascent slog. The snow came back on. The higher I got the more the wind battered me downhill, assisting gravity in my downfall.

Dibbing the checkpoint at the end of Stage 5 pretty much ended the uphill stages. I just had to get back down to sea level.

Even on tired legs the descents were manageable and then a transition trudge through town for the last stage – The Sprinter. Just 800m along the front to go.

The marshall at the checkpoint welcomed me in.

“Well done, only 800metres to go. But you are about to have everything chucked at you”

And so it was.

Hail. Snow. Wind. My own snot and spit. Two haddock and killer whale expelled from the sea by the tornado. I can’t begin to explain the conditions, I have never run in anything quite like it. About half way across the front I had to stop, turn my back to the weather and clear my face as I couldn’t see the pavement in front of me. I had lost sensation in my face, which really was a blessing as when I warmed up it hurt.

And then, head to toe in waterproofs, there was a man with a dibber. And it was over. Like they say – they are No Fuss Events. There was no fuss; I loved the cut of their jib.

Like a limping fraudster I had soup and a roll with The Real Hill Runners. It was clear in my head that they are actually The Crazies, but I had so much fun that I wanted to be a Crazy too.

Even when I recovered the ability to walk again two days later.

I want to be a Crazy Hill Runner.

2016-02-29 22.21.27





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