…and I’ll take the Low Road

On a rainy Saturday morning we took a wee trip to Rowardennan. The West Highland passes through Rowardennan before heading off into the relative wilderness of the East side of Loch Lomond.

After many years the “Low Road” has been cleared, the path upgraded and it is now open to walkers and runners once more. I was last on the low road nearly 20 years ago when I walked the West Highland Way carrying heavy rucksacks with my son Hamish who at the time was only 8 years old or so.

This time the point of the trip was to run to Inversnaid and back, carrying out a recce of the Low Road as I expect to be “racing” on it in June. I put the word racing in quotes because I always find that I am pretty wrecked by the time I get to Rowardennan about 26 miles in to the route regardless of which race I am doing. Fortunately I usually recover later on, but the prospect of actually racing at this point is unlikely!

The total distance from Rowardennan to Inversnaid is around 7.5 miles. It is described on the official WHW web site here

The first section is along a good road which works its way past the Youth Hostel until it bears right and starts to climb uphill through a gate just after Ptarmigan Lodge.

The first section can be seen in the following short video clip

About 300m after the gate the new low road drops sharply to the left at a big bend in the road. It is likely that this route will be used by the West Highland Way Race this June (2016). The Highland Fling race will continue to use the “High Road” so Fling runners will not turn on to the low road but will continue up hill for another 2.5 miles. The Fling route is easier running but not nearly as interesting as the Low Road.

The Low Road can be seen here, slightly speeded up. Apologies also for the slightly jaunty angle of the video at times. Either my camera was squint or my head was, not sure which.

 

The Low Road joins the High Road once more and descends to the lochside for a nice 2.5 mile run through some nice forested trail with the odd waterfall to skip through for good measure before finally arriving at Inversnaid Hotel and the spectacular waterfalls there.

Inversnaid is a pretty god forsaken place on race day. Most people arrive there feeling horrible, there are very few supporters because it is too far to get there by road. It is only 7ish miles by foot and more than 30 miles by road. When you arrive in Inversnaid on race day you usually find the midges have already eaten the contents of your drop bag, and you have only the slowest most technical part of the course still to come in the next 6 miles to Beinglas farm.

Despite the rain, I thoroughly enjoyed my wee jaunt on the new improved Low Road and I didn’t even mind the run back to Rowardennan up the hills of the high road. And anyway, all roads lead to Milngavie in June.

I have posted other videos of the route from Derrydarroch to Tyndrum on this page

and more videos of the Rollercoaster here

It is a phase he is going through

Some people like to run for the joy of running. That isn’t my bag. I need a purpose to get me out the door.

Some people like to run randomly and tackle races in whatever fitness they have at that time.

With my lack of any natural ability, I need a very structured training programme to arrive at my goal race in any sort of shape.

My goal races this year are London Marathon, MIWOK 100K, West Highland Race and TDS.

To complete my year successfully there are certain things I need to do

I need to increase my basic speed. With speed comes efficiency and improved speed will provide a foundation for a half decent attempt at a marathon as well as providing more of a cushion between my flat out speed and my ultra speed. The bigger the gap, hopefully the easier the ultra speed will feel.

I need to develop some speed endurance, otherwise my marathon will be slow, painful and disappointing.

I need to develop the ability to run easily for many hours at a time and practice that feeling which comes in an ultra where you feel really bad, but if you stick it out for another couple of hours you start to feel better again.

I need to be able to climb hills. MIWOK and West Highland Way are both hilly and TDS is extremely hilly.

There are different views on how you build your training. One school  of thought says build endurance and then add speed, another says build speed and once you have that, add endurance.  Which ever one you follow, it is pretty much agreed you should only focus on one of these at a time.

In an ideal world I would do a full marathon cycle, recover then a full ultra cycle for MIWOK, WHW and TDS. The timing and nature of these races mean some compromises need to be

My thinking is that while I want to have a decent attempt at London, but it can really only be treated as speedwork for the following ultras and so i will need to miss some marathon specific training and will probably only have a mini taper as opposed to a full taper.  London becomes the last long run before MIWOK.

MIWOK is a hilly 100k. With only two weeks between London and MIWOK, London recovery becomes MIWOK taper. At 100k, MIWOK is also an ok distance to prepare for West Highland Way. If I can be fit for MIWOK, then I really just need to recover, maintain fitness and do a bit of fine tuning before WHW 6 weeks later. After WHW it is recover for a few weeks and hit the mountains until TDS in August.

My training programme started at the beginning of December and runs through to the end of August. I have no Autumn races scheduled this year. I reckon that if I make it through my goal races then my body will have done more than enough for one year and a period of down time will give me a chance to recover.

My training year runs through a number of distinct phases:

  1. base fitness
  2. speed
  3. endurance
  4. race specificity

Within each phase are a series of workouts which get progressively harder, on a two hard one easy cycle.

In Calendar terms it looks like this

December – Base. Building consistency and regular running. getting enough fitness to allow proper training.

January – Focus on speed

February – Speed then Endurance

March – Endurance and Speed endurance

April – Speed endurance. Mini taper for London marathon

May – Race MIWOK. Recovery and Endurance

June – Endurance, Taper, West Highland Way

July – Recover and Hills

August – Hills, Taper and TDS

We are now in February. I have been doing lots of tempo and interval work to build up speed, and hopefully shift some weight.  I am getting faster, and am hitting most of my targets, though still  have some way to go. It is hard finding the energy and time for midweek workouts. My ultra endurance is frustrating, and I look on with mileage envy at those folks who can go out for a long run of 30+ miles and make it look effortless. However, long ultra miles are still to come so hopefully like the good weather they will come eventually.

This is my programme, it will hopefully work for me. I need to go through my own phases and not be distracted by what others are doing, even if that means missing out on some potentially fun runs and races. Whether it is successful or not we shall find out in August!

 

 

Are you sure you want to enter that Race?

Ultras are usually quite complicated logistically. They are usually also longer and harder than you expect. Here a few questions to ask before you enter your next Ultra. I go through this list every time I want to enter a new race

  1. Where does it start?
  2. Do you actually know where that is?
  3. Are you sure?
  4. What time does it start?
  5. How will you get to the start?
  6. Where does it finish?
  7. Do you know where that is?
  8. How will you get home?
  9. How far is the race?
  10. Do you have a reasonable hope of training to run that far?
  11. Does the race have cut offs?
  12. Are you likely to meet the cut off time?
  13. Do you know what the terrain is like?
  14. How hilly is the route?
  15. Do you still have a chance of making the cut offs?
  16. How long does it take the winner/mid pack/last finisher to complete the course?
  17. Still think you can finish within the cut offs?
  18. What time of day are you likely to finish?
  19. When you finish, where will your clothes/car keys/car be?
  20. Will it still be daylight when you finish?
  21. Do you need a support crew?
  22. Will you need drop bags?
  23. Do you know what the drop bag rules are?
  24. When does race entry open?
  25. How do you enter?
  26. How quickly did it fill up last year?
  27. Does the race have a web site or Facebook page?
  28. Have you read either of them?
  29. Does the race fit round the other races in your schedule and give you time to train/recover?
  30. Do you know why you are entering this race?

My Shopping List

I am lucky enough to have built up a good selection of ultra gear to mix and match which is versatile enough to do me for most types of races, so I no longer need to go on a shopping spree every time I enter a big race. My most used kit currently is

  • Jacket: OMM Kamleika smock or OMM Cypher Event jacket
  • Trousers: OMM Kamleika Race Pants or Raidlight Surpantalon Ultralight
  • Base Layer: Helly Hansen or OMM Vector Zip
  • Shorts: Ronhill Cargo Trail or 2Xu Compression
  • Hat: X-bionic Soma Cap
  • Calf Guards: Compressport or CEP
  • Socks: Compressport ProRacing High Cut or Drymax Trail Running Socks – 1/4 Crew High
  • Pack: Ultimate Direction PB Vest or Raidlight Olmo 20l
  • Gloves: Sealskinz Nordic ski Gloves or Asics winter glove

Some of this stuff is quite expensive, but by patiently watching for sales, taking last year’s model or by  Santa being generous I have rarely paid full price for it.

Throw in and an assortment of buffs and t-shirts and I am pretty much good to go most places.

There are however, still a few bits of kit on my Birthday, Christmas and lottery win list.

Headtorch

What I need it for

You don’t need  much of a head torch for summer running in Scotland so for races like West Highland Way or Great Glen Ultra pretty much any head torch will do. Running in the Alps in late summer is a different matter and with TDS coming up this year I need something which will give me a good bright light for up to 8 hours at a time.

What I have:

I have various head torches which work pretty well to a greater or lesser extent. My main torch is a LED Lenser H7R

ardvark_h6_h6r

It works well and gives a nice big beam especially in darkness. It represents very good value for money and a good balance between price and brightness, especially as I got it in a sale for about £35. Having had it for a few years, I am beginning to wonder if it has seen better days as batteries seem not to last very long any more.

I have run out of patience with batteries –  I have tried just about every kind under the sun and still have to change them every few hours. They are worth a separate post of their own…..

I also have the Alpkit Gamma which is the best value head torch on the market, mainly because it is so ridiculously cheap at around £15 but with a good wide beam and decent battery life.

1408890332-54693200

Another very useful piece of kit is the LED Lenser Neo. This is a very small lightweight torch which is perfect as a spare or backup torch and with enough light to get you out of trouble. The battery life is very good indeed so you will get a good 12 hours out of the torch without having to change batteries. Again a very reassuring feature in an emergency backup.

 

What I want:

I might pick up one of the new model Alpkit Gammas or I might explore some of the high powered LED Lenser torches but I would always end up coming back to the Petzl Nao

Petzl Nao

nao_page_nao_photo1_enThis light isn’t cheap at over £100 and I have resisted the urge to buy one so far, but the brightness and battery life are very good and having borrowed my lovely wife’s one I have to concede that it is better than anything I have at the moment. Any torch that you can actually programme from your computer has to be good! If I was buying one I would probably also buy a spare battery for flexibility and to cover those very long races where you might be out for two nights. Again at £25 a go the spare battery isn’t cheap but better to be safe than sorry and with a spare it could be charged up on the go in your pack with a portable charger.

Poles

What I need it for

Poles are not allowed in Scottish races so it is really just for overseas ultras that I need poles. There is always a debate about poles but once you have used them in the big mountains you really feel the benefit of them. With more adventures in the Alps planned, I am looking for a pole which is very light weight which obviously means less weight to carry, but also means better balance when running with them in your hand.

They need to be strong enough to survive me being hashy with them, and they need to fold up small enough to fit inside a backpack or strap tightly to a running pack without flapping around. Ideally they will be easy to assemble and take down, especially with cold fingers and in a perfect world the length would be adjustable to allow for different types of terrain.

What I have

I have an old pair of Leki lightweight titanium walking poles. These were top of the range when I got them many years ago. There really isn’t much wrong with them. They are quite robust, are adjustable in height so can be altered depending on whether you are going uphill or downhill. They are pretty light. You notice you have them in your hand but not enough to imbalance you. I used these on the CCC race and never put them in my pack once, but strapping them to your pack can be a bit of a guddle especially when your fingers and brain are a bit fuzzy.

What I want

trailblaze20carbon-560x560

I am still undecided. I am tending towards the Mountain King Trail Blaze Skyrunner Carbon. This has the attraction that it is very light at only 106g per pole and by folding into 4 sections it will stash away easily and securely in my pack.

At around £90 per pair it feels like a lot of money for a piece of kit which I worry might be a bit flimsy, but the convenience is tempting.

 

634207454b51dee34548The other pole which catches my eye is the Leki Micro Vario Carbon. This has all the features I am after but while lightweight it is heavier than the Mountain King and it is significantly more expensive at £130-£150.

It is probably more robust than the Mountain King, has a sturdier handle and has the big advantage of being adjustable.

A couple of other alternatives come in to the mix as well. The Black Diamond Ultra Distance Pole which is similar to the Mountain King, but possibly a bit more sturdy if heavier.

The final one which caught my eye was the Raidlight Carbon Trail pole. A bit heavier than the others but still quite attractive and I am a fan of Raidlight gear.

Hard to choose but on balance I would probably go for the Mountain King over the Leki, just because it is the lightest, cheaper and less complicated.

 

Gaiters

What I need it for

This is a slightly mundane item after the previous two things on my shopping list but a decent pair of gaiters really does help keep dirt and stones out of your shoes. I also need a gaiter which is robust enough to keep excess water and snow from getting in to your shoe and which will give a bit of protection to your ankles from rocks and the odd time you kick yourself.

What I have

I have tried a range of different gaiters. The Dirty Girl ones are quite pretty and keep the dry stuff out, but I find they are a pain to attach to your laces and you need to velcro them on which is also more effort than I can be bothered with. They are thin so they do get wet.

I have tried the Inov-8 sock with the built in gaiter. These are ok, but the socks aren’t my preferred sock so that isn’t a solution on a long race where you might want to change your socks. I have also tried the Inov-8 race ultra gaiter but they have attachments for Inov-8 race ultra shoes and don’t fit other shoes well.

My favourite gaiter so far is the Inov-8 Debris Gaiter 32. This is a thick gaiter with a sock cuff, which covers your laces and which keeps water out as well. My pair has seen better days and the elastic straps which hold them on have worn out, so it is time for a new pair.

What I want

61regmy5awl-_sl1000_The easy solution to this is just get another pair of the Inov-8 Debris gaiters. There is little to fault them and at around £15 are not going to break the bank.

 

 

1394450414-52282600I am also quite fancy the Outdoor Research gaiter. These are a bit more expensive but might do the trick in very gritty conditions. At nearly £30 these are pricey for a pair of running gaiters.

 

 

stop-run-gaiters

The final pair on my list is the Raidlight STOP RUN gaiter. This is probably the main contender to replace my Inov-8s. It is pretty robust, and claims to be waterproof and has the added benefit of a wee bit of padding round the ankle bones. At about £20 it is not too expensive

Discretion is the better part of valour

or knowing when to quit….

I went for a run on Saturday. I parked up at Loch Turret Dam and ran up the side of the Loch with the intention of running up Ben Chonzie.

246

Ben Chonzie has a reputation as the most boring Munro in Scotland, however from this approach it is quite runable, and with some snow on the tops it would make for a good run which was also relatively safe in the conditions.

There is an undulating 4 mile run on a rough track to the start of the climb.  There were a number of small rivers and waterfalls which crossed the path, which in dry weather could either be avoided or crossed on stepping stones. With all the recent rain and the quick melting snow there was a good volume of water swelling the burns which meant there was no option but to get your feet wet.

I don’t mind wet feet and when you are moving they drain pretty quickly and stay warm.

The path peters out and then the main climb begins across open moorland. I had last climbed this hill more than 20 years ago and I had vague recollections of this section being boggy. With all the melting snow this turned into a half mile uphill trudge through deep bog and running water until I finally made it to the snow line.

Despite being a relatively mild day, there was a cutting wind blowing, and I became aware that my soaked feet were becoming increasingly cold and sore. A few more minutes climbing and the snow was knee deep and my feet were turning to blocks of ice.

Another ten minutes climbing and I would have made it on to the wide ridge which leads up to the summit and a nice run back over some tops to the starting point at the head of the loch.

Instead I took the decision to turn back.  There wasn’t any drama and I was in no immediate danger, but I just wasn’t comfortable with where I was and how I was feeling at that particular moment in time. My feet had turned into blocks of ice. The repeated soakings followed by plunging into snow had made them in my mind dangerously cold, and more importantly they were distracting me and impacting on my judgement and awareness. On another day I might just have ploughed on. I was after all, well equipped. I had my Kahtoolas and poles which was plenty for the conditions. I had a rucksack full of good gear (plus a foil blanket and a plastic emergency bag). If I was feeling energetic and robust I would probably have pushed on. However I was feeling far from energetic. It had been a hard week at work and a hard training week and my energy levels were low. With company, I might have pushed on, but I was solo.

I could claim that I weighed up all of those risks and with no reason to have to push to the top made the sensible decision. Maybe subconsciously I did. All I knew was I wasn’t comfortable, and if you are not comfortable in the mountains in winter then the best thing to do is get out of there.

Did I chicken out? did I fail in what I set out to do? Probably. It wasn’t the toughest of climbs or the toughest of conditions and by the time I was safely back on the track and running again my feet came back to life.

I made it back in one piece, no damage done and most importantly no-one had to come and find me. Pride slightly dented but equally happy that on that day I made the right decision for me.

There is a fine line between brave and stupid and on that day I didn’t have the energy to be brave so chose not to be stupid.

Oh No FOMO!!!!!

Phew! That was a close one.

Despite having no plans whatsoever to run the New York Marathon this year, I still nearly entered the ballot.

A post from a friend on Facebook alerted me to the ballot being open, and despite a trip to New York not being either physically or financially viable this year, before I knew it I had logged in to the NYRR web site, updated my details, and was already to press the button under the guise of what the hell…..

Fortunately, I was distracted by the Guaranteed Entry button. A quick look through the qualifying standards for my age group and the half marathon time is one I have run many times before. Scratched my head to remember when my last half marathon was, turns out it was Berlin last year, checked my results, and a big pointy stick of reality burst my balloon. 3 minutes outside the guaranteed entry standard.

Last year was a pretty rubbish year for me with injuries at key times and very little racing. My one and only half marathon was a steady state effort on a couple of weeks training. That means for the second time in a few weeks I was not able to chase the races I wanted to because I wasn’t qualified.

I had wanted  to enter UTMB, but again lack of racing meant lack of qualifying points, which ultimately means this year I am not qualified to enter, just as I am not qualified for guaranteed entry to New York even though any other year I would have qualified with time to spare.

All of which opens up an interesting debate as to whether not qualified is the same as not good enough! Hard though it is to swallow, I guess strictly speaking, by the hard cold numbers, for these races, not qualified is the same as not good enough. Which rather chimes with one of my own insecurities that niggles away at me, namely You Are Only As Good As Your Last Race. As my last few races have been non-existent or at best mediocre affairs where do I stand as a runner.  Which incidentally is the theme of a super blog post today by Rhona Red Wine Runner.

The downside of running long distance races is that the lead time between training cycles and races is long, meaning redemption and restoration of self-esteem is not something which comes quickly. Until those points and times are back in the bag, you remain Not Qualified.

The upside of being Not Qualified is that missing out becomes a reality which forces you to seek new and different adventures and in this case was enough to kick my FOMO into the long grass and make me log back out of the NYRR website.

Plus if I was doing an autumn marathon I would probably rather enter the Chicago ballot  anyway……

Your Choice

At some point in every ultra race it gets hard. Really hard.

At this point you need to decide if you are going to quit or if you are going to keep moving.

How do you get through this point?

Dead easy, just ask yourself, do you really want to stop? Can you justify stopping to those waiting for you at the finish?

Are you taking the easy way out?

No excuses.

Are you dead yet?

No? then how much worse can it get?

Are you willing to suffer just a little bit more?

Your choice.