Category Archives: Psychology

One day to go – UTMB Countdown

It has been very different this time, but considering it was 5 years ago since we were last here, in exactly the same place,it is all strangely familiar.

Last time we came as a group, Greg, Tim, John and myself and this time I am on my own with my family. Last time Savannah was not even three years old and now she is as old as Joshua was then. Last time it was my first 100 mile race I was preparing for, and now I have 6 under my belt, despite having a bit of a hiccup with number four (the fateful Leadville 2010!) and which delayed my participation in subsequent races.

Foreboding mountain
Foreboding mountain

Chamonix is exactly as we all remember it, even the children, were hugely excited to be going back to the Chalet with the outside hot tub, and the streets and location of the race start and bib distribution has also not changed.

A few things have changed though. At registration today, we had to present a great deal more compulsory equipment than previously, including waterproof leggings and gloves, as well as two working torches (which I had taken to doing anyway) and other compulsory layers which are clearly designed for the potential bad weather in the mountains.

A relaxed startline photo
A relaxed startline photo

Registration was a fairly straightforward, albeit lengthy, affair and I emerged from the exit of the Sports Centre with a bright yellow tee-shirt and all my kit ready to go.

The weather in the area over the last few days has been changeable to say the least. It really bucketed down on Tuesday from all reports, and I felt sorry for the guys running the  long distance self-sufficiency PTL. The rain has held off since we arrived though, and the forecast temperatures have been creeping up and the probability of precipitation shrinking down. Hopefully we haven’t swapped thunderstorms and arctic conditions for sweltering desert heat, although given a choice I think I’d prefer the latter, but either extreme can have a significant impact on ability over the 100 mile distance.

The week in Chamonix comprises a number of different North Face organised races nowadays, 5 in total, covering different distances and different courses and catering for different levels of technical preference, and they have been spaced out from the start of the PTL (300km, 28,000m ascent – Chamonix start) on Monday 25th, through the TDS (119km, 7,250m ascent – Cormayeur start) and then the new OCC race (53km, 3,300m ascent – Orsières start). These three races with their varying distances were clearly designed to be finishing today when the town was full of racers signing up for the remaining two races, and we responded accordingly with support for the runners arriving as we scoured the town for waterproof gloves!

The final two races the CCC (101km, 6,100m ascent – Courmayeur start) and the UTMB (168km, 9,600m ascent – Chamonix start) commence tomorrow at 9:00am and 5:30pm respectively.

At this stage I am subject to the usual preface nerves and so was hugely envious of the guys coming in who had already completed their races and who could sit back, relax and enjoy a beer.

That, hopefully, will be me on Sunday afternoon / evening.

If you’d like to follow along and check up on my progress the race starts at 17:30hrs (16:30 BST) and the live tracking site is here –

Back Into The Swing Of Things

Okay. My bad.

I’ve been so distracted over the last 7 months with the modules of the course I’ve been studying in Astronomy and Cosmology, that I’ve barely had time to do anything else. My days have been a succession of waking up, studying in the confined space of a commuter train to London, working, running at lunchtime, more working, studying and reading on the way home, helping with the children until bedtime, then dinner and more studying.

Having handed my last Astronomy module paper in on Monday, I’m now free for a few months though – until October as I’ve signed up for another couple of courses…. 😉

I must thank Liz for all her support over the last 7 months, as I could not have managed it without her provision of food, water, beer and sustenance in general at appropriate times. Thanks ML 😀

Continue reading Back Into The Swing Of Things

Ready To Go

So, I’ve not been in a writing mood for some time. I think that it took me longer to recover from the South Downs run than I anticipated, and I’ve had a huge amount on at work as well, in addition to persuing another few lines of interest in my life, which I’ll talk about in the future.

Still, excuses aside, I’ve had another race to prepare for and, as Frank Sinatra would say, now the time is near.

My final adventure for 2013 is the Leadville 100 trail run, the fabled Race Across the Sky, so named because of the altitude at which the race is run in the mountains of Colorado, USA, i.e. around the 10,000ft mark. This is the race which was covered extensively in the bestselling book Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall, a book which acquired almost cult status amongst runners some years ago. The race has a personal connection for me though, because as my regular readers will know it was at Leadville 3 years ago that I had to pull up at 75 miles, experience my first ultra DNF failure, and walk away with a ‘sore’ hip which was later diagnosed as a broken neck of femur (actually, I recall crawling away with the assistance of Liz and our good friend Mike who was helping us at the time).

The route is fairly unchanged from 3 years ago, with only a few modifications having been carried out in the entire 31 years of the race, so I am looking forward to covering it again – my memories of that day and the course have come flooding back, even if I considered that they had been consigned to some back room of my mind in the intervening period, this was such a significant event in my, and Liz’s life, that my recollection upon our return is as fresh as it could possibly be.

To cut a long story short, my physical recovery is over and I am back here in Colorado now with Liz, and it is as if we only left yesterday, the place seems so familiar, we have slotted straight back into relaxation and preparation mode, travelling the streets of Leadville ready for Saturday at 4am when the race starts. I am anticipating that finishing this race should complete my psychological recovery, filling the void left by my DNF and those 25 missing miles which I was unable to carry out on my return journey from the halfway point at Winfield back to Leadville. Ironically, I had already negotiated the difficult part of the course, the 3,400ft climb up Hope Pass to 12,600ft which has to be ascended at both 45 miles and then 55 miles on the return leg, but it had clearly taken it’s toll on my body, and I had to leave ‘buckleless’.

The View from Twin Lakes
Hope Pass from Twin Lakes

So, here I sit, in Twin Lakes, a few hundred feet from where the 40 mile aid station will be located on Saturday, and from the vantage point of our hotel in the village, I can see Hope Pass, perhaps tormenting me, playing a game with my mind, twisting it every way it can to throw off my preparation. My will to complete this race, in under 25 hours to get the ‘coveted’ gold and silver buckle, is far bigger than any mountain can throw at me though! Strong words maybe, but in the end it was not my will that was broken last time, only my leg 🙂

Follow me live

Less than a day to go now before the start of the race – my first 100 miler in nearly 3 years, the Petzl South Downs Way 100

Rapeseed from other side of valley
Rapeseed from other side of valley

I been resting most of this week, mainly through having a lot of work on (deputising for most of the IT senior management team at the Bank who have all picked various times in the last two weeks to be off, will have that effect!) – Still, every cloud has a silver lining, etc., etc….

I am going through the usual pre-race nerves at the moment! Doubt over my training, elation over what promises to be a great race, concern over my physical state, confidence that I have been here before and succeeded, trepidation that I have been here before and failed, excitement that I will within 48 hours have finished another major adventure – the usual bag of emotions.

There are many checkpoints on the race and there should be ample opportunity to track my progress if you are interested with the LIVE link here – as with all event the updates will rely on the volunteers uploading from mobile phone unfriendly locations, so the updates may be patchy – nevertheless, I am hoping to be at Washington (54 miles) by 2:00-3:00pm.

The forecast is not particularly good – relatively overcast, with intermittent rain, but will probably not be too bad for running, provided the chalk trails do not become too slippery – not brilliant for sightseeing though 😉

See you on the flip-side.


SDW100 Recce 2

The spring bank holiday in the UK is traditionally the point at which weather turns from bad to worse in preparation for an awful summer – even so, it is always good to take advantage of a long weekend.

Let Sleeping Horses Lie
Let Sleeping Horses Lie

I had been watching the forecast for some days though, and it had actually been improving and as a result, Liz had very generously asked me if I needed to do another training run down along the South Downs in my preparation for the Petzl SDW100 race in mid-June. The timing was perfect; I had 30 miles from last week to ‘continue’, it would be my final long run before tapering and it was a long weekend so I was in no hurry to get back to work on Monday. The weather improving was a bonus, but undoubtedly made things easier for both me, and the family, as they would be able to look for a beach just 5-10 miles south of my route.

As usual, we didn’t leave quite as early as we planned, and after picking up Liz’s mum, who was coming along for the ride, the whole family were on the road, back to Washington (Sussex) just before 8:00am. The journey was relatively easy and I only missed the directions from Google maps a couple of times, but even so we were at our destination before 9:00.

We said our goodbyes as the children continued to watch Star Wars (I) in the back of the car, and suddenly I was on my own again, opposite some cyclists who also seemed to be preparing for their day on the downs.

Seaview from the Downs
Seaview from the Downs

I walked my way back up to the Frankland Arms, where I had finished last week and then back further up the lane to the village hall, where the checkpoint would be in a few weeks time. The ‘hill’ I had remembered from last week, was not half as intimidating as I had imagined, but after 54 miles I think that could be a different matter! We shall see 🙂

South Downs Wildlife
South Downs Wildlife

As I started my watch and my Garmin map, I looked around for the blue South Downs Way trail signs, while turning down to the main road again, smiling as I ended up a mere 100 yards from where I had just been dropped off! The first hill was yet to come and it was a corker, although I had anticipated this from the elevation profile of the course, after the dip down into Washington. I passed sleeping horses and since I was still not into the rhythm of my running took a photo of them enjoying their Sunday lie-in. I was soon at the top of the hill and then down and up the next before I knew it. I’m certain after 54 miles on race day I’ll not be quite so sprightly 😉

The day was a lot nicer than the previous week and as this was only a training run, I was giving myself the opportunity to stop and take photos. For the first time along the whole of this course (including last week) I caught sight of the sea from the top of the ridge. From Washington I had taken a route southward and I assume the city on the coast I could see was Worthing, to where Liz and the Family had headed off – they had a lot planned, in the form of breakfast, church, beaches and so on and I hoped they were having a good time. I was progressing well, after turning in an easterly direction again and descending the next hill I went through the Botolphs village, where the next checkpoint would be, followed by crossing the River Adur which flows south to the sea at Shoreham; even several miles north I was quite surprised at how wide the river was at this point and the bridge over it was correspondingly substantial. For me, the time was passing extremely quickly and I had done my first 10km in a good time and although my average pace had been lowered by the first couple of big hills, after a few ‘calmer’ sections, this was coming down nicely.

Paragliders over Devils Dyke
Paragliders over Devils Dyke

I crossed over the main Shoreham road and then was up back on the ridge in a flash, on the tarmac covered surface to the farm houses, which only finished about halfway up. I had seen a couple of radio masts from some distance away and now spotted them ‘approaching’ on my Garmin mapping, before finally seeing them for real as I emerged from the hedgerows and plateaued the rise.

As with last week, there were many other runners, cyclists, horses and walkers out enjoying the route and they were all very friendly, some even seemed to be walking the route as an organised event for charity, and I wished them good luck and well done as they passed in the opposite direction.

Something I had not seen last week was a whole float of paragliders, and it was about now that I spotted them for the first time, although they seemed to be some way off, probably three ‘undulations’ distant. I took a variety of photos of the human insects hanging motionless in the air as I approached them over the next 30 minutes and eventually peeled off from Devil’s Dyke where the South Downs took a different route from the steep ridge creating the thermals they were using for their sport.

Rapeseed, North of A27
Rapeseed, North of A27

There was then a lovely slow downhill section through trails flanked by gauze bushes where I simply enjoyed the countryside; I would not consider myself an ornithologist but I enjoyed the songs of the birds going down through this stretch to the next road crossing which was followed by a cafe and stopping off area for users of the route at Saddlescombe Farm, which would mark the 66 miles point of the race and checkpoint 9.

From Saddlescombe it was back up again to another peak on the ridge and the initial part of trail was this time quite rough and steep, for once making life quite tough albeit briefly. The slight uphill trail afterwards lasted for no more than a couple of km and was proceeded by a similarly gradual downhill to the busy A23 heading south to Brighton. A short section of Tarmac parallel to the road headed north to a bridge and although the signage was such that I had to stop briefly to check I was heading the right way, when I made it to the other side of the crossing I spotted the now familiar blue acorn pointing me off the road to a small lane through Pyecombe village (which interestingly seemed to have been split in half by the A23, with two almost distinct developments being noticeable).

From here, I had to follow yet another road north to cross to Pyecombe golf course and finally rejoin the ‘trail’. Not that at this point it was much to talk about. Not in comparison to the neatly tended green to both the left and right of the ascending rough chalk track; clearly, upkeep of the trail is not part of the landowner’s great money spinners. It mattered little though, but the distinction was clear.

Pheasant with his Nemesis Cyclist
Pheasant with his Nemesis Cyclist

When travelling from Winchester to Eastbourne, the South Downs Way predominantly follows an ESE direction, but for the last few miles, after the initial southerly turn from Washington at 54 miles, I had been travelling east with a slight northerly component for 8-9miles until I was almost at the latitude of Washington, where I had started out.

The top of this rise marked a detour to a couple of windmills, called ‘Jack and Jill’ where the next checkpoint was to be located. I say detour as I didn’t notice the turning off and so carried straight on with the regular marked trail; hopefully, in a couple of weeks time there will be additional signs to help weary runners find their way. Another long and relatively flat section ended up at Ditchling beacon, apparently one of the highest points along the trail where I enjoyed the views to the north of the North Downs, 30 miles away, and the coast, 5-6 miles to the south. On the way down the other side, there was a car park with many visitors and an ice cream van – I was sorely tempted to ‘Stop there and buy one!’ and on reflection I’m not sure why I didn’t!

The route continued its undulating passage east for another few kilometres before suddenly taking a southerly course again. It was about here, that I slowed down to a walk to take on some ‘food’, i.e. a Torq bar (trying the Rasberry and Apple flavour, which was very agreeable) and as it was after 11:00am I sucked the life out of a Gu ExpressoLove flavour gel, perfect caffeine boost. Nevertheless, I think I had got the timing a little wrong as I felt more like walking and enjoying the stroll and the glorious carpets of rapeseed I was walking through for 15-20 minutes while waiting for the carbohydrates to reach the extremities of my muscles.

Rapeseed from other side of valley
Rapeseed from other side of valley

The southerly course the route was now taking was to take me over the busy A27, and despite knowing that I was now travelling south, and the road runs from east to west, it was still quite disorienting to cross over it in this way.

I had seen a few cyclists following the route south, and a few families playing in some of the more accessible reaches of forest along the route, but up to this point not much in the way of visible wildlife. As I made my way further south from the A27 I passed through another gate but saw a Cock pheasant no more than 6 metres away. I got my camera out and quickly took a picture before he had a chance to disappear into the hedgerow. To my surprise he just strolled to my right.

At that point, the cyclist that was coming down the hill shouted out, “he’s vicious, he is!”, clearly indicating the pheasant was the object of his description, and continued, “he’s already attacked me once.” I found this hard to believe from such a normally skittish creature, and he certainly didn’t bother me as I passed, but sure enough as the cyclist came into the bird’s proximity as he approached the gate, the feathered assassin started to walk purposefully towards his antagonist. I shouted back something about his red top, meaning his cycling top, but this was lost in the distance that was increasing between us, and I left him musing over whether his adversary was a pheasant of the little known ‘killer red top’ variety.

There had been, and continued to be, many fields of brilliantly coloured rapeseed on most of my journey today, perhaps accentuated by the blue skies and the strange and unfamiliar yellow globe hanging in the sky which Britain has not seen much of since last September. The track took a rather tortuous route around a ‘bowl’ valley now I was south of the A27 but as I slowly circumnavigated my way up to the next peak and back onto the ridge, I saw more paragliders. These were much fewer in number and their chosen slope was not providing them with anything like the success of those back at Devil’s Dyke, probably some 10 miles behind me; I came to the conclusion they were learners, and this was the nursery slope. As I continued to ascend I had the opportunity to look back across to where I had just been and took more photos for posterity!

Yellow, Brick Road?
Yellow, Brick Road?

I enjoyed the next couple of miles which undulated along the top of the ridge again and I started to get back into a rhythm, although I had by this stage pretty much decided to stop at the next village, Southease, since I had heard from Liz that their morning had not gone quite to plan due to a number of factors, including having forgotten money and not being able to find a suitable beach on which to let Adastra, who was also with them, roam freely. Having completed nearly 30 miles I felt finishing here was a good compromise and having had a bad patch recently was more than happy to look upon the opportunity as a mutually beneficial ‘win-win’ scenario.

On the final main hill down to a farm track, I encountered some more wildlife in the form of some cows that had decided to ‘occupy’ the trail and I had to slow and ‘Yar!’ them out the way by doing my best Rawhide impression.

As I reached the bottom of the hill there were a few people with metal detectors searching the fields for treasure trove – a popular pastime, especially along the South Downs where there are so many iron age burial sites, settlements and associations. I said hello to them and then carried on and then noticed a group of families up a few hundred metres ahead with horses and carts, making their way slowly along the roadway and then turning off before reaching the main road back up to the trail.


I caught up with them just as they were crossing the road before going down into the village of Southease and took advantage of the stopped traffic  and sprinted across before running down through the village past the church and village green on my right. Since I had decided to stop here, I was on the look out for a suitable hostelery or at least a shop, but no luck this time; this was clearly a one horse town and my only option was to continue running as I tried to contact Liz to find out whether she would even be able to locate the place, let along want to stop there. Unfortunately, when I checked my phone, I had already received a frantic text about getting stuck, crossing railway tracks at the station and having to phone the signalman. Confused, I tried to call and after a few frustratingly fail attempts due to patchy coverage, got through. We were unsure where we were in relation to each other, but after spotting a train passing on the track which we could both see, I continued on down the road and across the river to the Station at Southease, where the barriers were indeed down and required a phone call for vehicles to cross. As a pedestrian I looked both ways and crossed safely to my waiting family.

We quickly got on our way and followed the A27 running parallel to the Downs, further east to Alfriston to at least see the village I was aiming for in the first place, where we had a wonderful roast meal as a family at ‘The Smuggler’s Inn’.

The day had again been a great recce of the latter part of the course which I will encounter in a few weeks time. I had been lucky with the weather and I am sure that the experience of the last couple of weeks will help me no end during the actual race.

SDW100 Recce 1

I am not normally one for doing reconnaissance of routes before races. Merely attending a race with a family of 4 takes up enough time as it is, so to visit an area prior to an event with all the associated children logistics, really doesn’t seem fair.

The South Downs is so close to where we live though, that it was too good an opportunity to miss for my race in a few weeks time.

South Harting from Harting Downs
South Harting from Harting Downs

My schedule has me this week diligently ramping up to just over 30 miles for an end of week long run in preparation for the SDW100 which covers the whole of the South Downs, in an easterly direction starting about 30 miles north of the coast at Winchester in Hampshire and taking a slight southerly path on its way to Eastbourne, right on the coast, some 100 miles later.

Liz had generously agreed to take me down to one of the 14 checkpoints, while her mother babysat for us early on a Sunday morning, and since both Guildford and checkpoint 2, Queen Elizabeth Country Park (QECP) are on the A3, this seemed the obvious choice as a starting point.

With 30 miles to do, my ending point was also a fairly transparent choice, as CP7 on the race course is located at Washington, about 54 miles into the run and 31 miles from QECP. Being the nominal ‘halfway point’ it would also give me the psychological advantage of knowing the majority of the first part of the race. How much of an advantage this actually provides me remains to be seen, as many people would consider that 100 mile races only really ‘start’ at 50 miles.

Tree lined trails - Monkton Copse
Tree lined trails – Monkton Copse

After being dropped off, I took advantage of the park conveniences, then started running in what I thought was the right direction, although there were so many trails and tracks signposted, it was difficult to tell. Sure enough though, the trace of my Garmin eventually subtended towards the track I had preloaded into the memory, showing the entire race course with the checkpoints as waypoints.

The way out of the park was a gradual climb of a couple of hundred feet over a few kilometres, but certainly nothing stressful, certainly not in my fresh, hasn’t-completed-the-first-twenty-miles-from-Winchester state, and this gentle undulation of the sometimes gravel paths, sometimes chalk trails, sometimes roads, repeated over the first hour. If the whole run was going to be like this, I thought, it wouldn’t be much of a problem 😉 I had passed where I recognised the next checkpoint would be at Harting Downs, at about 9km and predictably, the hills started to get bigger after this. Today though, the car park at the top of the hill was full only with ramblers, cyclists off-loading and dog walkers fitting leads.

The route over Beacon Hill looked a little scary, but thankfully the organisers had followed a route around the climb, so I followed it through the fields and pastures where the were a lot if sheep grazing. It is my experience that these animals often look up and stare quizzically when I run past. I wonder what they are thinking? Mad fool? Is the farmer after him too? Why’s he wearing all that gear? How can he still be running in last season’s Inov-8s? There were quite a few walkers on the route and all were very friendly and we acknowledged each other as we passed. One even asked if I was going the whole way and I slightly sheepishly replied, “No, only as far as Washington today!”

Harepath Wood - Nr. Cocking
Harepath Wood – Nr. Cocking

For the next 10km there were no roads to cross, only trails to follow, tree lined copses to pass through and forest paths to negotiate. There were very few gates to worry about either, which I was pleased about. I find it quite annoying when you are in the rhythm of running to have to keep stopping to open gates and jump over fences and styles. I acknowledged the runners and cyclists coming up the hill as I was going down into ‘Cocking’ where there was a road to cross just before where the next checkpoint would be in a month’s time, although given the effort they were putting in coming up the hill, I was not surprised to only receive a smile on many occasions. This was a strange section where the local farmers had concreted the entire roadway up the hill, presumably as a result of the erosion of the steep sloping trail. After the soft bouncy grass trails I had been experiencing for the last few miles, this seemed suddenly quite incongruous and at odds with the rest of the South Downs ethos, but they presumably have their reasons.

I let Liz know how I was getting on at about 22km as by this time she was back home and in church with the children and her mother. Although the route was pleasant and I was enjoying the solitude of it and the time soon passed. There were very few roads to worry about and even less in the way of habitation or villages, had I wanted to grab a snack or a drink. Luckily, I had planned ahead on this occasion and was trying out a few different varieties of route snack, although no trail mix this time! The Powerbar vanilla gels always seem to go down well (sadly, my favourites, the double latte variety are only available in the USA!), but the rhubarb and custard Torq gel I tried later was a very strange taste. I can’t deny it tasted like custard, but it really wasn’t what I wanted at that point in time; another one to chalk up to experience.

Sutton, Nr Bignor
Sutton, Nr Bignor

I was starting to get a little weary without the respite of checkpoints to look forward to, but pressed on anyway and it was at about 30km when I came down one of the few road sections, past a farmhouse to cross the main A285 road. I noticed a couple of other runners up ahead and depressingly they were slowly pulling away from me as we headed up the other side of the valley and I lost them as they turned a corner up the hill. I was then surprised when I turned the same corner to find them walking up what I considered to be a fairly minor hill, so I acknowledged them as I passed and then hoped desperately that their local knowledge of the hills wasn’t going to leave me with egg on my face as I rounded the next corner, to see the remaining slope 🙂 Luckily, I managed to head on up and their voices in the background soon faded.

By the time I had got to 35km I was heading down a serious hill, bordering on being technical due to the slope and the stony and uneven nature of the chalky trail. It was almost the doppelgänger of a particular trail down from Newland’s Corner a mere 5km from home that I again considered myself lucky to live right on the North Downs and to have been able to train for the last few months on what was turning out to be such similar terrain.

As I got to the bottom of the hill I realised this was a relatively flat valley through a village called Amberley, with the River Arun crossing its floor. I also realised, having whipped out my Garmin to check the course, that its batteries had demised. I stopped quickly and changed them and was on my way before I had been caught by a group of ramblers travelling in my direction who I had only recently passed.

River Arun, at Amberley
River Arun, at Amberley

The flat route along the river, soon turned up the next hill and at this point there were some strange noises coming from the valley to the right, of steam trains and through the trees I saw an old tram moving off as well. I subsequently found on the map that this was a museum, one of many sites worth visiting along the route including many Iron Age burial mounds, a Roman villa at Bignor, stone circles and the long man of Wilmington, a chalk figure cut into the hillside 9 miles north west of Eastbourne.

The weather had been kind to me for most of the run and having been forecast as rain, I had expected the worst, but unusually it had not materialised. There was a touch of spitting for my last few Kilometres but nothing to worry about.

I was now counting down the kilometres to Washington, especially since I had seen a trail sign back at the crossing of the River Arun stating that Washington was only 10km in the direction I was heading. My Garmin was a bit confusing when I set it to use the checkpoint as a ‘goto’ waypoint as the line-of-sight distance was significantly shorter than the actual distance of the trail, but soon I was heading downhill and onto the last kilometre.

Frankland Arms, Sussex
Frankland Arms, Sussex

I suspected that Liz would be there already, but there was no sign of her or the car when I reached the village hall, so I stopped my watch, having completed my run and walked further down the lane looking for a shop or a pub in which I could get refreshments! I found both with in a very short space of time, as I found a pub called the Frankland Arms, which had the smallest shop in Sussex as an appendage next to it. I went into the shop first, and bought a couple of apples, a coke and a pint of milk from the dear old lady manning the groceries, who I’m sure was 80 if she was a day. I went back round to the pub and noticing that I had no service on my phone and my texts were not being sent, decided to buy a pint of refreshing cold cider while I mulled over the situation. I was no more than a couple of minutes inside and left with my  fermented apple juice in my hand and sat outside in the empty beer garden (unusual for 1:30pm on a late spring day in England) pondering my next move. As I looked at my phone, contemplating walking back up the hill to get coverage, I could hardly believe it when Liz drove round the corner with the family in tow, and I waved frantically to ensure they spotted me. Perfect timing.

We all stopped for a quick drink and snack and then life returned to normal as we drove back to Guildford to drop Savannah and Luke off at parties!

All in all a fantastic run and one which I have absolutely no doubt will help me during the race itself in 4 weeks time.

Desert ‘Heat’ Training – UK Style

Tapering is going quite well. My desire to reduce my weekly mileage has, through necessity though, been easier to manage than I had anticipated.

Bloemfontein – Nice and warm!

Liz is away at the moment in South Africa ‘fetching’ her mother, as she is moving back to the UK after well over 50 years. She has lived in the same flat in Bloemfontein for 30 years now, so as you can imagine there is substantial amount of accumulated ‘memorabilia’ to sort through and at 85 this is a significant move. It will be for the best though, as she will be a lot closer for her immediate family to look after her and provide the care she needs.

While Liz is away it has not been as easy to get out and run because of other family duties, even though I’ve had the assistance of a friend of ours, Colleen, for a few days and although she has been a star, I’ve still been working from home but for some reason have not had the ability to wake up and get out the door early in the mornings. Perhaps it’s just the weather or maybe last week took it out of me a bit more than I realised.

Interestingly, one thing I did notice was that after a slow, but ‘hard’ long run last week, which included many hills and a full backpack, I have had a few great pace runs during this week, i.e. runs where I’ve found it relatively ‘easy’ to maintain a faster pace than previously, including one around the City and two with hills around Guildford and I actually recorded my first sub-4:00 km for about 2½ years, so obviously I’m pleased about that.

Guildford - 2 hours into a long run
Guildford – 2 hours into a long run

Nevertheless, cause and effect aside, the tapering or at least the reduction in my weekly volume of running has decreased nicely to about 2/3 of my previous peak week.

On this basis I was planning on doing about 18 miles this morning on my weekly long run, having run every day during the week to keep my legs ticking over, and ensure my body is as familiar as possible with the onslaught it is about to get in a couple of weeks time in the desert. It was not the distance that concerned me this morning though, it was the forecast. Rain is one thing, but snow in March, nearly April at that, is another thing. The forecast was for rain pretty much continuously overnight, but at 7:00am this was purported to be turning to snow – about an hour into my planned run.

Weather forecasters have not been renowned for the accuracy of their predictions, especially in the UK where our climate can be dynamic, to say the least, but this morning they were spot on.

I had decided to keep to the roads because the trails had been getting progressively worse recently while I had been running and I didn’t fancy today’s long run turning into a mudfest with the associated puddle dodging and surface slipping with which I would otherwise have to contend. Although this was a good decision, even the flats were full of standing water and there were plenty of areas of flowing water on the slopes, from the ongoing deluge as well.

Undeterred, I ploughed on, accepting the dampness in my shoes and the cold in my feet, reminiscing it had been a lot worse at the Thames Trot a few weeks ago.

Guildford Snow - March!
Guildford Snow – March!

Surely enough though, about an hour into my journey around the outskirts of Guildford, the rain was beginning to lighten, not in intensity but literally in weight, becoming far more affected by the prevailing winds (which I always seemed to be running into!) and as incredulous as it seemed it was beginning to snow and the meteorologists predictions had been right.

By the end of the next hour, the crystalline precipitation had started to settle, and although damp the roads were becoming noticeably more slippery as I made my way from Clandon back towards Guildford town centre. In fact, the last 5km was downright dangerous to my ankles and I wondered if I might have made a bad decision to wear my Inov-8 255 Road shoes which have absolutely NO tread to them as I slid around on the fine layering of damp snow through which I was leaving my first contact footprints.

I made it home safely though and the children excitedly informed me it was snowing, as I walked through the door 🙂

So, with just 2 weeks to go until the first stage of the MdS, where the other 1000 competitors and myself are likely to experience 35-40°C midday temperatures, I am currently training in an effective -4°C temperature.

Not ideal for acclimatisation, but hey…. Mad dogs and Englishmen 😎

Now Rest

As I mentioned in my last post, this was a big week.

In fact, it was my last big week before leaving for the desert and I had planned it to be my biggest training week, ever.

imageThe point with ultras, as with all other athletic training is that there have to be different training approaches for the different types, that is the long, single stage races (like Leadville or the UTMB) in comparison to the more ‘normal’ distance, but multi-stage races (like the MdS). The training, if you like, has to be specific to the event planned.

For the long races, it is purely about distance and time on your feet for which you have to train your body to become accustomed. This is generally, and traditionally, achieved by running back to back long distance training over comparable terrain over a couple of days so you become more familiar with running on tired legs – in a 100 mile race, the first 50 miles should be relatively easy!

Fimageor the stage races, where the distance is covered over a week, or similar period, is possibly longer in total, but the individual stage distances themselves are likely to be shorter, so the training approach is more related to faster ‘sprint’ distances, but over a longer period of consecutive days, again traditionally throughout a week, but this is merely for convenience. Add into this the very real and important need to allow the body to rest or risk injury it is a very fine balance between getting it right and not ending up at the start line.

This time, although I still have three weeks to go, I am now over the peak of my training which I seem to have achieved, God willing, without mishap and injury.

During the week, I ran three early mornings, two city lunchtime runs, one evening run and had one rest day, which consisted of three 8 milers, two around 10 miles and one just short of a 26 mile marathon distance. I also added to the variety by making two of these pace runs and four of them hilly, including the long run with a backpack, all of which totalled just over 70 miles.

My legs, body and mind are definitely stronger now, but the big question is are they strong enough for the toughest foot race in the world?

We’ll find out in 3 weeks 🙂

5 Weeks to Go

As you can probably deduce from the title, 5 weeks today, I will be in the desert.

I will actually, God willing, have completed the first stage of the Marathon des Sables, and after 5 years of planning, training, successes, injury, setback, deferral and general graft, I will be back in the Moroccan Sahara, certainly older, hopefully wiser, with a bit more ultrarunning experience under my belt.

[singlepic id=77 w=320 h=240 float=right]The Marathon des Sables, or MdS as it is frequently referred to, is a 6 stage race across the wilderness of the Sahara desert in southern Morocco. Competitors have to carry everything with them for the week in the ‘self-sufficient’ race, with the exclusion of water and a rudimentary shelter which is provided by the organisers on a daily basis as the local ‘berbers‘ migrate the camp from the end of one stage to the beginning of the next in an operation of which most armed forces would be justifiably proud.

The minimum weight of competitors backpacks before the start of the first stage is 6.5kg – most have significantly more than this as it is amazing how quickly the weight of food, snacks, gels, hydration, torches, batteries, sleeping bag, etc all mounts up. My estimate with everything I am taking is currently at about 7kg WITH all the organiser provided equipment (salt tablets, emergency flare) – nevertheless I have been doing my last few runs with around 8kg, with liquids on board.

The race route, distances and terrain are not revealed until we reach the camp on 5th April, but generally speaking the 1000 or so competitors from all over the world can count on the following:-

  • Stages 1-3 – sub-marathon distance – i.e 35-40km
  • Stage 4 – long / double marathon / non-stop stage – 75-85km
  • Stage 5 – marathon stage – 42.2km
  • Stage 6 – ‘easy’ stage – to the finish – referred to this year as the ‘charity’ stage since sponsors, friends and family will get the opportunity to run 7km for a charity donation
  • Sand dunes up to 20km long
  • Dry-river beds
  • Mountainous climbs and descents
  • Daytime temperatures of up to 45-50°C
  • Nighttime temperatures around 0-5°C
  • Blisters, stomach cramps, hunger, dehydration and a variety of other medical conditions!

[singlepic id=105 w=320 h=240 float=left]So this is what I have to look forward to enjoying, along with the friendship and camaraderie of living for a week in a tent with a group of total strangers, who I’ve no doubt I’ll know pretty well by the end of the week, and of course the wonderful environment – it is difficult to describe the meditative effect that the beauty and solitude of the Moroccan desert  has on one’s soul but it is one of the main reasons I am going again.

That and beating my time from 5 years ago, which given the state of my feet after one day last time, will hopefully not be too difficult, assuming I’ll be able to put my new found foot-care knowledge into practise, of course.

So, 5 weeks and counting. My colleagues on the Facebook MdS forum are either all trained out and wishing their lives away to get to the start line or, like me, just getting another couple of hard weeks in before tapering commences to ensure arrival on rested legs (although I seriously doubt it will make that much difference at this stage!)

Watch this space!

Triple Challenge

Today’s run was my first ‘long’ run since my race a couple of weeks ago.

I have been out running in the meantime, but with age (and injury) comes experience and so I am trying to listen to my body a lot more than I might have done in the last, and last weekend it was raining and my body was telling me to stay in a nice warm bed rather than get up at 5:00am and the cold, wind and rain (woos)

Still, today it was a different matter. John was not around, but I’d been in touch with Tim and arranged to run with him, so there was the peer pressure to start with. The morning was going to be frosty, so I’d already prepared my clothes, but with frost generally comes a clear sky so I was looking forward to a nice spring day as well. The frost has another attribute as well; being cold, which, when applied to the slippery mud has a useful solidifying effect so another positive.

Puttenham Golf Club
Puttenham Golf Club

So where, I hear you ask, is the problem? Peer pressure and perfect conditions; who could ask for more?

Well, no problem as such, but because Tim wanted an early run, and I needed to get back for Church at 10am, that meant leaving at 5am-ish running the lion’s share of my route, picking up Tim, who only had time for 10km, and then finishing off with the balance of what I planned to be a twenty mile journey.

So, just to summarise, the challenges were:

  1. Manage to get up early enough to leave sufficient time to run 20 miles (with a backpack)
  2. Manage to make it to Tim’s for 6:45am so we could run 10km
  3. Manage to complete another 10km loop when only 1km from home, breakfast, coffee and goodness shakes (more on that and the diet soon)


My Dad was up for the weekend, so was installed in out bedroom and so my training initiation was further complicated by the fact I also had to extricate myself from the house at an early hour without waking him, or more importantly, Adastra, who would probably have woken the whole house once up and whimpering to get out. With my alarm clock set for 4:45, I woke bleary eyed and only hit snooze once so was out of the door and on the road by 5:15am – as Bart Smpson once questioned, “there’s a 5:15 in the morning, as well?” – challenge 1: tick.

The run itself was slow starting as I made my way up the infamous ‘mount’ to join the North Downs, only about 100m vertical, but from a cold start it’s always a challenge. After that the route was undulating in the darkness with my trusty waist torch on the way over to Puttenham and back, taking the muddy side route directly down to Compton and then, after returning from Puttenham, making my way back up Down Lane to where it meets Farnham Road. By this time the light was beginning to show in the sky, although I had been deceived by a false dawn as I got closer to the amber street lights of Guildford reflecting off the low cloud.

I had kept an eye on my time and planned to turn round after about 45 minutes, assuming the way back would be faster due to more downhills and slightly shorter as well, but in the end I was nearly back at home before I knew it and took a few detours so as not to arrive more than a couple of minutes early at Tim’s having completed about 14km – challenge 2: tick.

River Wey - Burpham
River Wey – Burpham

Tim had had more problems with the snooze on his alarm than me, and although awake, he was not quite as ready to rock and roll as I’d anticipated 😯 but after a few moments we were off and round the local estates to get in a slightly curtailed 9km run.

The sun was well and truly up now and it was shaping up to be a nice day, so I was glad I’d got out early. The smug factor after an early long run is always pretty high – think Nike strapline in the past tense and you’ll get the idea 😀

We passed the time discussing the latest headlines, horsemeat, Oscar Pistorius and the state of the nation in general and the 50 minutes went quickly. Tim had to get back to get an 8:15 train to London, where he was taking his partner Jo for a belated Valentine’s day celebration, so we parted swiftly after our loop of the city.

The final challenge was perhaps the hardest, as this is the psychological one, so good training for ultras then. Luckily I didn’t stop for long so didn’t cool down enough to worry about, but even so, running on your own, when beginning to get tired, grumpy with a rubbing backpack, barely 2km from home, the thought of another loop was not the best. My strategy was from the outset to run at least 20 miles though and so I decided to avoid temptation by running straight away from home, through the University of Surrey grounds over to the River Wey and through all the way to Burpham at the eastern edge of the city. After resisting the urge to peel off at an early stage, I was pretty much safe once I had settled into the enjoyment of being back on the banks of the River Wey on a gorgeous frosty Sunday morning, and by the end of the river section, I had done nearly 5 miles with a couple left to complete the home stretch for a full 21 miles – challenge 3: tick

I arrived home well before 9am and had plenty of opportunity to relax with a yummy scrambled egg breakfast, chia smoothie and strawberry goodness shake – and yes, the smug feeling remained for quite some time 🙂

Church and a nice meal at lunchtime with Dad really rounded off a nice weekend.