My recent inability to maintain my active lifestyle has led to a lot of soul-searching, not the least of which is to ask the question, “If this is the consequence of running, do I really want to do it?”
This simple question poses a number of further considerations, surrounding alternative approaches, consequences of running, including injury specifically and also reviewing what one might consider to be the far more positive and motivational aspects of the sport.
Indeed, if one looks at the statistics of running injuries on an annual basis, you would hardly think it is a sport that people would be motivated to take up at all. My case is certainly not atypical. Christopher McDougall wrote his famous book ‘Born to Run’ because he simply did not believe, after years of trialling different shoes, orthotics and physiotherapy sessions, that he should be sidelined as much as he was. What he found was that over-cushioned running shoes and bad running form was mainly to blame – not specifically running itself. Hence the current popularity of ‘barefoot’ running and different ‘natural’ running techniques, such as “Pose” and “Chi-running“. How many other sports would we expect to take up with absolutely no training? The simplicity of running is both it’s greatest strength and it’s biggest weakness. To coin a phrase, you can “just do it”, but whether you should without training, is the question.
Despite all this, people do take up running and it is becoming more popular all the time, especially ultra distance running, with the community showing no signs of being abated by the increasing number of events flooding the market.
Perhaps though, I have started running too late in life. Many of my colleagues, Tim, Rob and Greg, for instance, have spent a far longer time with running in their lives, having competed at schools, universities or similar. I, on the other hand, only really started running about 15 years ago, and didn’t start taking part in shorter races for 3-4 years after that. Perhaps age is against me. Every injury takes a little longer to bounce back from, and fitness is a constant struggle to maintain. Perhaps I am too old for this game.
So, with base training for the new season in mind, what are my plans?
Well, believe it or not, the UTMB has featured heavily in my thoughts for a million different reasons.
Although I conceed there may be a certain ‘filtering’ that has occurred over the past couple of months through the romanticising, rose-tinted spectacles of time, I have to balance the event and all it’s trauma against the whole experience, and at the end of the day I still feel myself priviledged to have been able to take part in such an event.
Let me explain. My thoughts fell fairly and squarely into a two types. typically from
“I’m never doing this again” and “This is no fun”
at the low points of the run to the equally extreme, but opposite
“This is an incredible experience”, “The landscapes here are fantastic” and “This isn’t going to beat me”
and despite the fact that I distinctly remember saying to myself that I was not enjoying it at times during the event, I have to consider the fact that I believe I could do better if my feet had not let me down again (or if I had been smarter about looking after my feet, but that is another story….)
At the end of the day I can only think of half a dozen reasons why I wouldn’t do Mont Blanc again, but I can think of a million reasons why I would want to, including training for the MdS (only 18 months away), trying and proving approaches to saving my feet, attempting to improve my time and experiencing the beauty of the region.
So that is part of my plan for next year. The rest, as with any good book, will be revealed over time!
As the sun was coming up on the Sunday morning, I left Vallorcine back in French territory once more, I had a mere 18km left to travel, but this included a final, almost sadistic, 870m climb and with 148km behind me, I was starting to hallucinate due to all the stresses this challenge had placed on me in the previous 34 hours.
2286 runners had started the 166km race along the trails around the base of Mont-Blanc on the previous Friday evening. This was a race of extremes, designed to push the human body, mind and spirit up to and potentially past their respective limits. Physically we had 166km (103 miles) ahead of us, which in itself would be a challenge, but distance was only one dimension included in the tortuous course selected by the organisers as it went from a minimum altitude of 870m (2,854ft) in Saint Gervais, to a maximum of 2,537m (8,323ft) at Grand Col Ferret after some 100km, with several ‘undulations’ before and after totalling 9,400m (30,840ft) well over the equivalent of climbing and descending Mt. Everest. All this had to be completed within a maximum of 46 hours, and as if this was not enough, the start time of 6:30pm, meant that the majority of runners would be competing through two nights, with no sleep. This would add to the mental challenge.
Like a madman in an obsessive panic with the impending hills of Mont Blanc looming large in my mind’s eye, I had decided to attempt the Welsh 3000s again this weekend
I had been watching the weather all week and although the long range forecast had been promising, it steadily deteriorated to the point where it was marginal, but I decided to press on anyway.
So yet again, on Friday evening with a distinct sense of deja vu, I set off with my pack, thermos and 200 packs of chocolate coated coffee beans ready to attempt the 30 miles or so – but this time on my own.
The adventure did not get off to a good start, courtesy of the M25. I had left at 7pm, some 2 hours earlier than we had set out previously, in an attempt to get to the car park at Pen-y-Pass to snatch some sleep before my marathon, but hit some serious mid-summer Friday evening traffic and it consequently took me two hours to get to the M40, a distance we had ironically covered in about 20 minutes a couple of weekend’s previously.
My automotive tribulations were not over as I hit further traffic at the M42 south of Birmingham, which was ‘closed’ and although the diversion was well sign-posted, the funnelling of traffic, even at 11pm effectively wiped out any time I had in hand to sleep at my destination. Was something trying to tell me this was not a good idea? I thought this many times before the same time the next day.
As I drove through the night into the morning of American independence day I was pleasantly surprised at the clarity of the sky as evident from the moon and stars visible even from inside the car. Perhaps this was to be a good weekend after all.
My hopes were still high as I arrived at the car park, no rain and some stars still visible.
Inevitably, for Wales, my hopes were short lived though, as I got my pack ready in the back of the car and checked my torches and food supplies for the next few hours, the cloud cover slowly blotted out the remnants of the bright firmament I had been hoping would accompany me on my journey.
At about 2:45am I started off up the pyg track to the top of Snowdon again and almost on cue, the rain started.
The top of the highest peak in England and Wales arrived without event as I followed the track which I largely remembered from the previous visit. Yet again the sun (LOL!) was coming up as I left the peak and although the drizzle had not really subsided, I chose to give the infamous Crib Goch a go, with Garnedd Ugain in bewteen.
Relying heavily on my Garmin and the waypoint fixes I had prepared, the straight route off the path from the top of Snowdon was relatively easy to follow, although as the picture shows, there was little choice on the ‘trail’ to be followed through this section. Stopping for a cup of tea at the top of Crib Goch, I yet again contemplated the sanity of my actions.
Getting down from the knife edged arête was not so easy in the mist, and it took me some time to traverse the steep and slippery shale on the north face of the descent, with frequent moments of panic as the dislodged stones plummeted down unseen into the endless mists below.
Finally I passed through the bottom of the cloud-base to the relative tranquility of the valley, where the only obstacles I had to contend with were the inevitable shoe eating bog and the occasional frightened sheep, before I eventually made it to the road and the delight of the flat sturdy tarmac (call me a city boy at heart!).
Turning left towards Nant Peris before the long slog up the second section up to Eldir Fawr, to rejoin the path we had followed previously, I jogged along the road to regain as much time on the flat sections as I could.
The climb up to the 4th peak was as unpleasant as I remembered, the 600m climb in 2km putting my Guildford ‘Mount’ training to shame. Eventually I made it to the top, thighs burning and calves stretched to oblivion, but was rewarded with an unexpected and fantastic view all the way to the north coast, so I stopped and had another cup of tea!
Had I known this was to be the last time I would have a clear unobstructed view for the next few hours, I might have stayed longer, nevertheless I was keen to get on as trail to the next hill was a gently undulating track for a few kilometers which I comfortably jogged along towards peak 5, Y Garn.
The rain which had been steadily falling all day, was now becoming harder, partly no doubt due to the passage of the expected weather front across the north Wales terrain but mostly due to my continued ascent back up into the 600m+ levels of the Welsh 3000s. No matter as I had been drenched for the last 5 hours and had long since given up any hope of getting dry until I got back to the car later that day. However, to add to my misery, it was about this time that both my watch and Garmin handheld ran out of batteries and having used my spares already (make a mental note to self to take MORE spares to Chamonix) I was now in the mist using a good old fashioned compass and (waterproof) map to navigate the featureless terrain.
Y Garn was the last peak we had completed previously prior to ‘abandoning’ due to the inclement weather. So as I headed off towards Glyder Fawr, the 6th peak, I was at least comforted by the fact that I was again covering what was, for me at least, virgin territory.
The ‘ Glyders’ are famous for the unusual rocky outcrops at the top of the peaks which are not only bizarre but also difficult to traverse with any appreciable speed, especially in the wet weather. The picture shows an example, but this is not how I saw it on the day, my view being rather more misty.
My mood as I was traversing through the alien landscape of the Glyders was becoming increasingly frustrated. The purpose of the exercise was to gain hill running experience, but instead my efforts were hampered at every stage by the terrain which necessitated more in the way of rock-clambering than running, the weather, the lack of visibility and eventually the cold.Having been wet for several hours, with the unrelenting rain soaking every inch of my body, even the effort I was putting into covering the ground as fast as possible was by now insufficient to keep me warm.
It was about this stage that I met up with Steve and his dog, Rexie, who were also out to try to do some of the peaks – he had friends behind who had started out earlier but who were attempting the full 14 peaks.Steve was ironically from the Surrey area, and knew Guildford well, having done a number of duathlons in the area, including most recently the infamous ‘Ball-buster’.It was nice to have someone to chat to after so many hours alone, and we ambled our way past Glyder Fach on our way to Tryfan, the final peak on this range.Continuing to follow a northerly bearing towards Tryfan, we eventually started to climb up to the summit, with large rocks and boulders most of the way.
Steve decided it was to be impractical for Rexie to climb up and so we parted at this point, arranging to meet later in the car park, while he traversed round the waist of the peak and I clambered over the top.
Since I did not know the area, and was only heading in a general direction in order to reach what I presumed was the highest point, and the visibility was variable, I took an incredibly difficult route up the side of the (what I later realised was) the first ascent, (think north face of the Igor), only to reach the tope and see another higher peak further to the north, which I duly climbed, only to see a coach-load of people climbing up the next peak even further to the north, as the mist cleared, which was obviously the summit everyone was heading for. Although still fairly balanced and nimble on my feet, I nevertheless had to wait behind the queue of people to take the preferred route up to the summit. This was to be my last peak of the day.
As I came down to the A5 and the car park, I yet again experienced a slow, slippery shale descent which seemed to take forever. The rain had been unforgiving for the last few hours and I was just pleased to get back down to the relative comfort of the valley.
I had completed 8 out of the 14 peaks in treacherous conditions, largely on my own and without the experience of having done many of them previously. I was pleased with that. However, I had not completed the challenge and all the way home I had to mull over my disappointment.
Judging by the DOMS (Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness) that I experienced in my quadriceps and calves over the next few days, I gather the training had actually been quite useful, but how comparable it is to Mont Blanc still remains to be seen.
It is not the highest hill in Guildford, nor is it the longest in the area, but being so close to the start, or finish, of any run which I undertook, it is possessed of a certain level of control over me.Enticing me to attempt it willingly at the start of a run and taunting me, daring me, to succeed on it at the end of a run.
I had decided some time ago that it was a suitable distance for reps, being about 800m along and about 80m up (the steep bit) with an extended gentle slope over the next 500m of about another 20m, and so twice this week I pulled myself around a loop involving this and an equally short but steep descent before joining the Farnham Road to finish a 2.5km circuit.
On Friday I did a good 10km loop with four of the hill circuits and on Sunday I completed an eight circuit 21km run.
Initially I enjoyed the circuit, as the sun was out and it was a perfect morning for running across the top of the downs with the panorama of Guildford laid out before me, but after a few repetitions the circuit became increasingly mundane and the urge to break off early was another mental challenge I had to overcome, i.e. along with the thought of the hills, the heat, the distance, etc., and the simple physical exertion of the ascents.
All in all it was an interesting exercise, and one which I should be doing much more of in the coming weeks, in preparation for the ultimate hill run in August!
Well here it is – my, or I should say our, next challenge.
The MdS was and, despite the proliferation of imitators around the globe (i.e. highest ultramarathon, hottest, windiest, etc, etc) still is the toughest footrace in the world, at least in my humble opinion, and that is based on the whole package, of racing, self-sufficiency, environment, terrain and the shear length of a multi-day challenge, which has proved to be more than tempting for so many in this day and age. Long may it continue and obviously the Rosbifs, now in new extended form, are looking forward to doing this again in 2011.
But how to fill the void between the events?
2011 is a long way off and although one can book marathons and other training runs as makeweights, so to speak, the motivation and challenge of that type of running is much more short term and so very different.
I think it was either Greg or John that came up with the idea last year of doing the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc and although we were all apprehensive at first these things have a habit with us of quickly gaining momentum, as the small seed which has been sown, given a little nourishment, quickly flourishes within our fertile minds.
The Race is unlike the MdS in that it is a single stage – in fact it bears more resemblance to Day 4, the long day, of the MdS – but that is where the similarity ends.
So for the sake of brevity at this stage, here are the statistics: –
Start / Finish – Chamonix
Distance – 100 miles (166km)
Total Ascent / Descent – 9,400 m (Mt. Everest is 8,840m)
Min Height – Saint Gervais, 807 m
Max Height – Grand Col Ferret, 2537 m
Maximum time allowed – 46 hours
Competitors ~ 2300
Ascent of high passes
Col de Voza, col du Bonhomme, col de la Seigne, grand col Ferret, as well as the ridge of the Mont favre, the Bertone Refuge, Bovine, Tseppes and Tête au vent.
Downhill tracks towards
Saint Gervais, Courmayeur, La Fouly, Trient and Vallorcine.
The route is fantastic – 100 miles around the highest peak in Europe, through some of the most amazing and beautiful scenery in the world, through 3 countries over 2 days. A lot of the route will be covered by moonlight as the event starts at 6:30pm on the Friday of the August bank holiday weekend. Weather permitting, the views should be spectacular with our reward for physical and mental effort being some of the most incredible landscapes the globe has to offer.
Even though the race is such a challenge (only 40% of the starters finish) it is always twice oversubscribed. This year a new system of prequalification was introduced with previous ultramarathons finished in 2007/2008 counting towards a points system for entry – 4 points were required, but even double marathons (84km+) counted as only 1 point! Luckily for us, the MdS counted a 3 points and thus with the various Thames ‘training’ runs we had completed we were assured of a places in the ballot.
With eager anticipation then, after the online registration period from the 17 Dec – 7 Jan, we were expecting to hear our fate for 2009 by the 15 Jan, but in fact were instantly informed in French that due to the more stringent prequalifications, all pre-registered competitors had been awarded places. Fantastic news!!
John, Greg, Tim, Will and myself will therefore be treking down to the Chamonix, in the south-east of France, in the week before the August bank holiday to perform our next challenge.
Click here http://www.p4media.com/racemenu.html for a Google Earth route map which I’ve created, for the 2008 route. Just select Ultramarathon and UTMB2008 from the menu or alternatively download the KML file for the Google earth tour here