running

Over, Over, Over, Over, Over, Under

Posted on September 5, 2017. Filed under: Firth of Forth Crossing Swim, forth bridge, open water swimming, Queensferry Crossing, running, swimming |

Scotland is beautiful. It’s official. An internet survey said so. And not just a wee bit beautiful but THE MOST BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY IN THE WORLD.

Aye, ya bass.

Everyone knows Scotland is beautiful. Or bonny, as we call it. Whether you learnt it from the picture on a shortbread tin or Brigadoon or watching the skag boys alight the train at Corrour as Rent Boy declared “It’s shite being Scottish”.

It’s not a one dimensional beauty though. Whether you long for the road through Rannoch Moor to the Buachaille moodily guarding Glencoe or wish your days away for the long trip up to climb the grande dammes of Suilven or Liathach of the most remote North West.

Or if water is your thing there are the vast lochs Ness, Lomond and Awe or the small but perfectly formed Venachar or Lubnaig.

Then there are the cities: the sparkling granite of Aberdeen always caught in the gloomy half light of the 57th parallel or the Athens of the North, my long since adopted home town, Edinburgh.

Then there are Glasgow and Dundee. We don’t talk about them.

But the beauty extends to our architecture. We love our Kelpies, for sure, but if you want to see a Scotsman get truly misty eyed you show him a bridge. Particularly a ginger bridge.

Not 5km from my house is the Forth Bridge, now a World Heritage site. And from the front of my house we can see the gleaming towers of the Queensferry Crossing.

This weekend was a big weekend for Scotland’s bridges. Before the Queen came to open it and before the Red Arrows flew over it, they gave the hoi polloi “the opportunity of a lifetime” to walk over the new Queensferry Crossing. Two hundred and fifty thousand people entered a ballot for one of 50,000 tickets to walk across the bridge before it becomes a motorway. AND WE GOT TICKETS.

And so the idea of a weekend of adventuring was born. How many times could I cross the Forth in a weekend by different means?

OVER (1)

Getting out of the car at North Queensferry station the sun came out to add a little sizzle to the first crossing. A gentle jog up past Gordy Broon’s house before a descent down past the scrappys and into the perpetual roadworks of the bridge construction.

If you have never run across the Forth Road Bridge the thing that you need to know is that it is quite a steep ascent and it shoogles. Quickly you are high above the Forth but as every lorry rumbles over the expansion joints (also known as the gi-doofs) your fillings get a rattle in your head.

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The good news is that what goes up must do down so I always look ahead to the cables to see the inflection point where the descent begins. And, after passing two charity groups doing a crossing in the opposite direction, the run over the bridge is done and I am jinking through the streets to the station in South Queensferry. Or more correctly Queensferry. Or even more correctly Dalmeny. Or, as it is labelled in gaelic, Dail Mheinidh. A station so good they named it four times. How anyone actually manages to get on a train there is beyond me.

OVER (2)

I just miss a train so stand enjoying the sun with a great view of the Forth Bridge. This is the Forth Bridge by the way, the original, not the Forth Rail Bridge as some try to label it.

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£2.50 for a 3 minute journey to retrace my 45 minute run. I wait for the train twenty minutes later but it is delayed by eight minutes. It occurs to me that I can swim across in about that time.

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The conductor turns out to be a bit of a wag. He has a double take at my ticket.

“Saves walking across, I suppose”

“I’ve just run across”

“At least you didn’t have to swim it”

“Doing that on Sunday, actually”

He didn’t look like he believed me. Not even a “really?”.  As he sauntered off down the carriage I am convinced he thought I was the village idiot.

And then I had the chance to look down on the start line and, a few moments later, the finish line of Sunday’s swim glistening in the glorious sunshine.

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OVER (3)

The opportunity of a lifetime.

First of all I should say that I had a sense of trepidation about the Queensferry Crossing Experience. The organisers were GSI events who “organise” the Edinburgh Marathon and I’ve just never had a very good experience with them. But let me be the first to say that they absolutely nailed the security, logistics and experience. They should do more bridge openings and other things that don’t require baggage or results or water or finisher’s t-shirts or any other run related stuff.

They started digging into the seabed of the Forth in September 2011 just after wee Roar was born and one of our regular trips has been going to see “how the bridge is getting on”. It has grown up with him for the last 6 years so it was great to take him for a walk over it.

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Look at that wee abseil guy!

After much ID and security checking we were dropped off on the northern approach and let loose for an hour. In theory we had an hour to walk to the southern approach but once we were on the bridge it was really relaxed. And so the opportunity of a lifetime began.

Roar, as any 6 year old would do, found a white line and followed it. For 1.7 miles. Only looking up when instructed to.

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Statistically the Queensferry Crossing is the longest of it’s kind in the world and the tallest in the UK. It also continues the trend of building a bridge over the Forth every century. I could excel at being a bridge bore but I’ll let her pictures speak for themselves.

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OVER (4)

My fourth Forth crossing and still have never retraced my steps. An uneventful northbound council bus trip back to the car as a huge container ship crossed below the Forth Road Bridge and cruises out towards the Forth bridge.

OVER (5)

Another bus. This time southbound on the Forth Road Bridge. This time I wear a rubber suit and eat a banana.

I don’t mess around with making these trips unique.

UNDER

The weekend closer. A swim in the shadow of the Forth Bridge.

After a wait for slack water 122 swimmers enter the water in a spluttering, salty stramash and then disappear into the vast dark water of the crossing. Progress marked only by kayakers and ribs man-marking the swimmers spread across the Firth.

I can’t begin to explain the entirely unique perspective that you get of all the bridges when your eyes are two inches above the waves. The old ginger bridge rises majestically on our right and the 20th century and 21st century bridges slightly more distant to our left.

The sun is warm. The water is cold. The waves are light but untamed. I increase my cadence to keep steady power through the steady flow of the river ever present even in slack water.

I sight the arch on the slipway. I swim through the floating wrack seaweed. My feet touch down.

Of course there is a full race report. As a spoiler I do quite well. But you’ll have to read it to find out the whole story.

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Quietly pleased with my race result. Very pleased with 6 crossings of the Forth without doing the same crossing twice – one on the Forth Bridge, three on the Road Bridge (one north, one south on road, one south on foot), one on the Queensferry Crossing and one by shoulder power in the shadow of the Forth Bridge.

 

 

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Ich bin ein Berliner

Posted on October 5, 2016. Filed under: berlin marathon, marathon, race report, race review, running |

There is a saying that just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean that everyone isn’t out to get you.

Likewise just because you are maranoid doesn’t mean that everything doesn’t hurt. As a veteran of many long distance events I have “enjoyed” the psychological battle against the phantom aches and pains that come with an event taper.

But there is something that especially sucks about approaching an event nursing real injuries and knowing that you just haven’t done enough training to justify your space on the start line. And 4 runs in 8 weeks, with the longest being 10 miles, is most certainly not enough for a marathon.

I didn’t expect to get into the Berlin marathon when I entered it. And so I planned a year of long distance swims after the early season Glen Lyon Ultra. And so I found myself with shoulder injuries, shin splints and general fatigue when I was 4 weeks out from race day.

But I was paid up and going anyway. More importantly, however, was that Berlin was a really important step on the road to Berlin.

Let me explain.

Sometime, just before noon on January 1st 2009 in Berlin, I was just out of bed and eating deep fried wurst, and drinking sekt.  Piling a hangover on top of another hangover, not quite able to take a full breath, shattered from a few hours of drunken slumber, not sure if my body could take much more abuse.

On January 5th 2009, Iron Nessie convinced me to enter a 10k. And I’ve not really stopped moving forwards since Berlin.

So, with that background, there was some irony that on my triumphant return to Berlin I would suffer the ignominy of hobbling around the capital like the most zealous of pre-paid bling monkeys. Still wheezing like a chubby-assed, binge drinker but just clad in more active wear.

And so to the race.

The week before was all about rearranging the deckchairs on the titanic. A physio appointment just to check that the pain in my shins wasn’t a stress fracture and calf raises  because. Well because it was all I could do really. Like all my marathon efforts, with the exception of Rome 2010, I arrived at the start line in somewhat imperfect nick.

I had no idea how this was going to do. I was genuinely a little concerned by the 6:30 cut-off. As ever, there were two stories going on. The shrill chimp, high on a litre of mad dog, giving it “ermahgerd, you’re gonna be so shit and probably puke and shit yourself and your shins will probably start bleeding and then they won’t even give you a medal because you’re so shit”. And then the more calming, reassuring voice that whispers in my ear “look big boy, you’ve done two ironman, marathon swims, an ultra, this is your 6th marathon and if nothing else you know how to grind out a finish despite the odds”. Needless to say I much prefer the second voice. It gets me more than my inner teenage girl, who can get a bit lary.

That psychological warfare would continue right up until I woke up on race morning.

On arrival, we jumped straight in a taxi from the airport to the expo on Friday evening to keep Saturday free. Registration was slick but the expo was overwhelming and adidas once again stocked enough merchandise to last approximately 45 minutes of the three day expo.   Incredibly, in what became a theme, people were wearing 2016 Finisher’s t-shirts as soon as they bought them (some wore them in the race and some, bizarrely, didn’t even have wrist bands on so goodness know what their finish was referring to).  I was not being especially perceptive in noting that, at that stage, they were not 2016 finishers. Mainly because the race hadn’t happened.

 

Being larger than the average marathon runner I was spoiled for choice of finisher’s kit but Pam couldn’t get anything. So despite best intentions we got back for opening on Saturday morning and were the first ones in.

Bling sorted we then just did a bit of hanging about in Berlin seeing things we’d never seen before. Shunning the standard approach to the day before a marathon it appears that I walked 25,000 steps.

Nessie and Al were also running so we arranged to meet for dinner near Alexanderplatz along with Nessie’s maw and paw. Despite the absence of alcohol, she managed to be both late and in the wrong place. Literally turning up late, 4 miles away. How is that even possible?

Hugs. Tram. Bed. Standard disturbed sleep. Porridge and coffee. Walk to the start.

The first challenge of the day was bag drop off. I may have walked 26.2 miles to get to our bag drop through the detritus of marathon preparations. The stretches. The nervous farts. The portajohn queues. The lady who dropped her shorts, bent over and was liberally lubing her arse crack. You can never unsee the athletes area from before and after long distance sporting events.

About 20 minutes before the start we made our way down to the start line and just sat on the pavement. Bizarrely, amongst 40,000 people we bumped into Al and the three of us then sat on the pavement and listened to Gazelle’s Try Everything (this may have passed you by unless you are German or own a 5 year old), apparently stuck on shuffle on the organiser’s iPod.

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And then, while we were still sitting on the floor, we saw the gun go on the big screen and everyone moved. Shiiiiiiiite. We’re being a bit casual about this.

We bound to our feet, say our goodbyes and assume the position ready for a mass start. But nothing happens. About 30 minutes later, and the day now getting warm, we can see the start line in the distance.

Another 10 minutes later I see portaloos just before the start line and decide to save some race time with a pre-start visit. We re-say our goodbyes and I bolt for the john.

Relieved, my Berlin Marathon then starts. Two remarkable things happen about 100m past the line – I see the first person have a walk break and I hear the start line announcer say “10 seconds until we close the start line”. That was definitely my most casual start. Ever.

Race strategy was simple. Drink loads. Run as slowly as possible to ensure I could run as far as possible. Walk run when I couldn’t run anymore. And drag my broken body through the gravel until I finally crossed the line. Relentless forward progress.

At 5k the whole shebang grinds to a shuddering halt as 40,000 people try to squeeze between two trestle tables separated by a minefield of discarded plastic cups.

I glug a cup of water, dunk my sponge and proceed.

I try to follow the blue line but there are so many blue line zealots. “I am walking but I shall walk on the blue line without deviation. You may run around me”. “Yes, the blue line does cross the road diagonally, but I shall follow it, for I must follow the blue line. Bend to my will. Follow the blue line”. The blue liners caused carnage. I hope they all registered exactly 42,195m at the finish as they desired, although I suspect many of them were punched in the head by tired and frustrated runners.

At 10k I establish a rhythm – run, cup of water, cup of energy drink, dunk sponge twice – once over head, once down back, run. Because of the leisurely start it was getting steamy out there. The medics were already busy with the dehydrated and delirious.

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The fire brigade were out hosing the runners and I went through their hose every time. I was soaked to the skin but each soaking gave me about 5 minutes reprieve from the heat. Amazingly it appeared to be only the Scots and the Paddys that were taking advantage of this service.

Half way came and went, absolutely bang on target to my 4:45 pace band. And then the pain slipped into my consciousness. And once I noticed it I couldn’t un-notice it. About 23k I started the walk run element of the strategy. At 25k I horsed down a large dose of ibuprofen.

25k through to 32k were just miserable. I was hot and I was hurting. And then I think the ibuprofen kicked in. And the reassuring voice in my head was back “you’ve got this – just two parkruns to go, you’ve swum further this year”.

I knew the route from Potsdamer Platz, it was close to the apartment and we’d walked it the day before. I took Red Bull at the Red Bull aid station – I can tell you for a fact that you can make Red Bull taste worse by watering it down.

Potsdamer Platz. 38k. Two kilometres of straight road, then a squiggle through the streets and then I’ll see the Brandenburg Gate.

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Solid running for 2k down Leipzigerstrasse. A sign with my new favourite German word. Endspurt. I was winding up towards my endspurt.

A brief walk. More water. More sponge.

I turn the corner already running.

Time is irrelevant. I am going to finish.

BRANDENBURG GATE.

The running doesn’t hurt any more. I speed up. I am loving this. I can feel the smile wrapping around my face and transforming my day.

I look up just before I go under the Brandenburg Gate. A huge wave of emotion comes over me. A kind of manly pseudo-sob. I don’t care how often you do a marathon, every single one challenges you more than you would ever believe and digs deep into your soul.

Crowds. Photographers. Europop. Finish line. Medal.

WATER. I NEED WATER.

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I have never seen human debris like it. Bodies everywhere. Cramp. Medics. Limps. Collapses. A girl contorted by cramp screams from a gurney.

I get to baggage and someone hands me a beer. Correction. A low alcohol beer. I enthusiastically glug half of it because it is cold and wet. A then a record scratch, look to camera moment as I recall why I don’t drink alcohol free beer. Portaloo water sieved through my trainer and sock would probably be more palatable.

I get off my vest and put on my finisher’s t-shirt and sit down in the sun. I retrieve my phone and amongst a flood of messages see that Pam is just about to finish and Al has just finished. So I just lie back and chill, reading and responding to those with the patience to spend Sunday morning refreshing an app.

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Pam finishes and despite raging thirst also shuns my half-drunk but still cool alcohol free beer. And we start the trek back to the apartment.

Nessie claims to have donuts but we never find her in the debris in front of the Reichstag. I can only assume she was embarrassed by horsing them all down before we were finished.

On the trudge back we see the broom wagon at about 40k and cheer the runners still on the course. Especially those overtaken by the broom wagon but determined to finish.

And then starts the long process of beer hydration. With steak and great company.

So, what did I think of Berlin? Loved it. Pam and others thought it was poorly supported compared to London, which is true. But also it doesn’t have the claustrophobia of London. You can hear yourself think and when you are suffering you can have some time to have a word with yourself without a boozed up crowd hollering at you.

And call me un-British but I thought running under the Brandenburg Gate beat running past Buckingham Palace.

And that’s that for 2016. 2017 already looks exciting. There will be more to follow for sure.

 

 

 

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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”

“Alamo?”

“……”, 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.

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***

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

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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.

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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.

GO!

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.

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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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Glen Lyon Ultra

Posted on May 9, 2016. Filed under: Glen Lyon Ultra, race report, race review, running, ultra running |

Unkempt beard : check

Race vest that smells like a mangy rodent crawled into it and died : check

Trainers that look like a peat bog troll has been dancing a strip the willow in them : check

Packing for an ultra is easy. After too many years of packing aero wotsits and carbon gizmos and caffeinated, gluten free, super, cyber gels for triathlon there was a levity to final ultra preparations.

Likewise the race briefing. No turgid powerpoint presentations of drafting zones and transition layout: “We have one rule – look after each other out there. Oh, and can everybody swim? The risk assessment says there is a risk of drowning”.

And, of course, no race briefing is complete without some new information: “Yeah and the course may be slightly longer than 30 miles, maybe nearer 31”. Oh.

To recap, back in November I had a brain fart and decided to do an ultra. Something that I had no interest in before and goes to prove that reading blogs is not good for you (you have now been warned).

I toyed with a few races but I kept coming back to BaM Racing, mainly because they make me smile. Their website is called runyabam.com which makes me chuckle every time I type it. Their rules include things like “nae dugs” and “don’t park like a fanny”. They talk like I do, it’s probably a Scottish thing. And more importantly they run races in amazing places. My choice was simple. But which race.

Glen Lyon is in a part of Scotland that is about as remote as it gets. If you follow the signs to The Back of Beyond and then keep driving long after the roads have stopped being roads then you are getting pretty close. Having hiked there before I know how tough the terrain is and how stunning the scenery would be.

We stayed in a wigwam in Morenish and the 17 miles from there to the race briefing took about an hour. Red squirrels, sheep and hydro workers are the only living things seen in these parts. For very good reason – it is hard country – bleak and beautiful and enticing and scary.

The race had been run in 2013 as the Tigh Nam Bodach ultra but it had never caught on and this was being run as a test event for BaM and limited to a small field. Entries opened on 14th February and I was there poised like a coiled serpent to hit the entry button. Which, ironically, was the last thing that I did fast in this race.

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As a dreadnought class runner the course was not ideal for me but what’s the point on taking on a challenge if it’s not a stupid challenge?

It is basically a tale of two glens – a loop of Loch Lyon and then over a muckle great hill, a loop of the neighbouring glen and back over the hill. If you say it fast it doesn’t sound so bad but hitting a big hill at 26 miles was always going to be character building. And so it proved.

 

Just before 9:30am 80 of us stood in the shadow of the colossal Lubreoch Dam getting our final briefing and then we were called to the start line.

At Ironman Austria they played the Austrian national anthem, blasted a cannon and started a fireworks display to mark the start. At the Glen Lyon Ultra Bill blew his whistle.

We were off.

Down a wee hill, up a wee hill, down another wee hill, turn a corner, walk. WALK.

A-MAY-ZING.

Everything they say about ultra is true. 600 metres in we were walking. I LOVE ULTRAS!

I settled into a march, it continued for about a kilometre gaining about 100m and taking us above the dam. I realised I was walking beside Rhona whose West Highland Way race report was one of the contributory factors that had got me into this mess. We chatted briefly as we walked up the hill and then ran together over the next couple of hills as I tried to extract as many tips from her as I could before I realised I needed to slow to a more modest pace.

And also to take some pictures:

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Although the terrain map hints towards a flat first loop it was anything but. The gentle undulations are masked by the gargantuan climbs later in the race. While the ups and downs kinda cancelled each other out the lumps were still of a significant size to the gravitationally challenged.

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The path and terrain were genuinely enjoyable around Loch Lyon and, like an Ironman, we were presented with some water obstacles (hence the risk of drowning). From about 5 miles onwards we were in wet shoes as we crossed 5 rivers – some just above the ankle and, for the stumpy legged like me, the deepest just skirting the gusset.

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Climbing up from the first water obstacle I paused to take a picture back down the Glen and a runner, Laura, offered to take one with me in it. No selfie stick or other dickery involved and no runners obstructed because there were only 80 of us on 15 miles of trail. Here is a rare picture of me obscuring the view of Scotland at it’s very best.

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I ran with Laura for the next 5 or 6 miles as we were moving at a pace that I was pretty comfortable with and knowing that there were still two mahoooosive hills to come.

Just after 9 miles, and after a very deep river crossing we hit the first water station and I filled my empty bottle. Walking up from the water station I had half a packet of BBQ Hula Hoops and we pressed on.  By now there was a noticeable headwind which was slowing progress and in a Glen of this size there are no hiding places.

When the Dam came back into view I was pleased with progress. My initial plan had been to be back at the Dam within 3 hours so that the second loop with the hills could be taken at a more, ahem, leisurely pace. Ideally, I wanted to be finished in 7 hours. This plan still seemed to be on.

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Rhona’s husband was marshalling the end of the Dam and cheered everyone onto the Dam. I’m quite a simple man but running across the top of the dam was probably my favourite part of the day even if the path was a bit clatchy underfoot.

I ran down the banking into the aid station and declined the change of trainers that I had in my drop bag. I chugged half a can of coke, stashed another packet of hula hoops and walked out munching an excellent piece of fruit cake.

And then the climb started. I made no pretence of running. Up and up it went. According to my watch it was 2.8k and about 200m of ascent. By the time I had reached the top I had drunk 500ml of water.

The road is probably marked as tarmac on the OS map but, in reality, I imagine there are roads in the midst of civil war in Syria that are in better nick. It was fine going up but I knew it was going to be challenging on the way down. Not least because I descend like an uncontrolled brick. Only slower.

As I was nearing the top I saw James, the winner, coming down at a sprint. I expected to see a chase pack but it was nearly half an hour before I saw the next runners. A crushing victory.

At the bottom of the descent I took on some water and headed along the high path. The climb had taken the last spring out of my legs and as I went through 20 miles I felt like a leaden hooved clodhopper. I started counting steps to keep up momentum. Walk 100 steps, run 200 steps. I continued this strategy until the next climb.

This loop seemed never ending with kissing gates every few hundred metres. Some full to the ankle with sheep shit. Looking at the low path 200m below was a constant reminder that there were big descents and ascents to come.

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The drop to the low road, when it finally came, was my least favourite part of the day. The path was steep, with switchbacks and treacherous under foot. I had expected to run down but opted to walk most of it to save Mountain Rescue and Air Ambulance a trip to pick pieces of me up to shovel me into a full body stookie.

The return up the glen was uneventful save for the headwind and then I saw the climb. More correctly, I saw a lorry bearing down a path at a 45 degree angle. In this direction the climb was awful. Even more awful. 4.5 kilometres and 280 metres of climbing.

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I filled both bottles at the last water station even though it was (theoretically) only 5k to go. Great words of encouragement from the marshalls. And upwards I continued. Actually, continued is far too vigorous a verb. Upwards I trudged on deadened legs.

My watch beeped 48k in just under 7 hours, but the end was not in sight. Literally not in sight despite being halfway up a mountain.

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Cat passed in the car – I told her I’d done 48k, she smiled and without a word handed me a piece of tablet and drove off.

And then, finally, I could see the dam. It was all downhill from here. I just pretended I couldn’t feel the pain in my feet, but it seemed fair that they were sore having taken 64,000 steps.

I could see the bottom, I crossed the bridged. I walked the wee hill.

I saw Rory running out to meet me and we ran the last 100 metres together.

Beep. 50.7km.  Well, that will save me signing up to do a 50k ultra.

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I can honestly say I loved every second of it, even the bonus 2.7k. Two big lessons for me were to run on much rougher terrain and not just forestry tracks – I wasn’t prepared for the rocky paths. And to practise marching up steep hills ready to run on the other side. My calves and hamstrings really suffered on the hills.

Bam Racing and their volunteer marshalls laid on an incredible race. It was safe and stunning and incredibly well supported. And also, there is a lesson for triathlon here – a £32 race fee and a shitload of great stuff.

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Will I do another ultra?

There is something quite magical about doing a race in a stunning place that is easier to get to on foot than by car.

So, hell yeah I will.

 

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parkrunning

Posted on May 1, 2016. Filed under: edinburgh, parkrun, running, ultra running, Uncategorized |

Yesterday I parkrunned. Or parkran. OK, I may not be fluent in the verb construction but I ran in a park, organised by parkrun. Always one word, lower case. Remember that.

With an ultra a week away, tapering and still wanting to go for a jog I thought I’d pop down to parkrun for the first time in ages.

parkrun is a very British phenomenon. A bunch of people meet in a park on a Saturday morning for a timed 5km run. Dog walkers look on bemused as the lycra clad do their stretches, drink coffee and catch up with virtual strangers as they await the start. Those strangers could as well be an Ironman World Champion as it could be the old lady that sells  you sausage rolls in Greggs. It is inclusive and classless and free.

Quite frankly it is cult like. Numbered t-shirts mark out the elders, everyone is a selfless volunteer and it is free to join. I have prayed at the altar of the cult for several years. Of course, when I say “prayed at the altar of the cult”I mean that I have projectile vomited on my shoes at the finish line. And with that vivid memory in mind I wore my Special Trainers. The ones that, if Asics did paint samples, would be called Corrosive Lime Zing. The ones that could cope with a projectile spinach smoothie and not look sullied.

There is probably a bawhair in distance between my two closest parkruns but as Dunfermline is, quite frankly, Himalayan and I ain’t no sherpa I opted for Edinburgh.

Now, there are two kinds of Edinburgh parkrun. The kind where the dank, grey sky presses down on the grey waves of the Forth topped with white horses galloping to escape the icy, razor rain that strips the flesh from the skin. Or the big sky Edinburgh parkrun where the cobalt waters draw the eye across the islands jagging from the Forth to the snow topped Ochils behind the Forth Bridge.

Yesterday was a big sky day.

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Having done only two speed sessions this year as I concentrated on plodding long distances in hills it is fair to say that my parkrun expectations were modest. Pedestrian even. But the great thing about parkrun is that everyone is welcome and no matter how you finish you get great support.

I can’t recall running 5k in under 31 minutes so far this year so in my mind I had a plan that went 5:30 for first three kilometres and then try to finish strongly but be somewhere near 27:30.  It’s always good to have a plan.

As 500 odd people (odd meaning roughly as opposed to strange, although some were) mingled around the start area I found myself in the shade of a tree. There was a slight chill in the shade but I stayed there, warned off by the smell of cooking bacon in the air as the remainder of the field’s Scottish skin was grilled under our re-discovered sun.

It didn’t escape my attention that there were more than five times more people loitering around to run 5k than there would be at my ultra to run 30 miles next week. Next week will see no congestion.

With little fuss the run started. It was so busy that I just went with the crowd with little consideration for my pace.

I heard my watch beep 1km but it was still desperately busy and I didn’t want to clip a heel by looking down.

Sweat was rolling into my eyes. My breathing was progressing through telephone sex pest to asphyxiation.

Beep. Second kilometre done.

I glance down. Lap 2 : 5:12. Bugger, a bit quick.  Cumulative time : 10:24. Double bugger. It had been good to have a plan. A plan to completely disregard.

I could feel the bloody, metallic taste of Too Much Effort Too Soon rising in my mouth. I consciously eased a little.

Beep. Lap 3 : 5:21.

I was right in the hole on lap 4. I couldn’t get air in my mouth fast enough. Ironically my legs felt fine but I couldn’t get the fuel to them quick enough. 5:28. Still faster than The Plan though, but I was fading.

The last 500m of Edinburgh parkrun is a bit off road. A lady overtook me on the grass. I let her go but I though “what the hell” and cranked back up the engine. I ACTUALLY OVERTOOK SOME PEOPLE. Having said that I am not entirely sure if they were doing parkrun or just walking their dogs.

Finish line. Gasp. 5:22. Gasp. 26:47. Gasp. Better than plan. Gasp. No vom.

And that was my first parkrun in ages.

If you’ve never done parkrun – register and go. If you haven’t been for ages – find your barcode and go. If you are a parish council thinking of charging parkrunners to use your park – get a grip and don’t be dicks.

Next week I am running 30 miles in the wild Highlands. If I haven’t blogged by mid week, alert the authorities. (That is a joke, by the way)

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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.

Shit.

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.

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London Calling To The Faraway Towns

Posted on January 4, 2015. Filed under: running, virgin london marathon, virgin london marathon 2012 |

Yesterday I went for a short, painful, barely dignified run.  I called it a jog.

Tomorrow, I am going for what I expect to be a short, painful, barely dignified run.  I shall be calling it marathon training.

What a difference a day makes.  Today London is calling.  Despite pretending not to, I hear the call.

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And so I find myself with sixteen weeks to go until London Marathon with barely 3 weeks of consistent running under my well stretched belt.  What could go wrong?  Well, the virgin birth of the Little Baby Jesus could go wrong, that’s what.  As I approach the start line at Blackheath I find myself festively stuffed with 72% beer, and 19% cheese. The remainder is chocolate, indolence and barely digested turkey.

Today, in anticipation of starting marathon training tomorrow, I went full Rocky Balboa.  Jogging through thigh deep snow with giant logs on my back. Well, it was frosty and I did chop up a Christmas tree.  A big Christmas tree into very small pieces to fit into a wheelie bin.  Just like the Kenyans do 4 months before a marathon.

As this is not my first marathon I know what is coming.  In fact it’s not even my first London marathon but my first London campaign was marred by projectile vomiting and rampant shits.  I know what is coming and, in my braver moments, I don’t blindly panic.  But I am ready for the hurt.  As long as the legs don’t break.  Again.

And that’s it.  To paraphrase the great dance teacher Lydia Grant of Fame fame, right here is where I start paying – with sweat.

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