Run training with Strava premium, is it worth it?

I choose to be a Strava premium user. I like statistics, my running buddies often ask me whether paying for Strava is worth the money. I think it depends on what you want, but if results is your thing I would say, yes, it’s a handy tool to have in your toolkit.

So here was my test. In May, having come back from Marathon des Sables, and *ahem* eaten my way through my recover. I needed a clear goal to get me back and training hard. So I looked out the window. And this is what I saw, obviously without the writing!

My motivation
My motivation

Next job was to create a segment, so 4th May I went for a run, starting and finishing where I wanted my goal to be. Here’s the link to that segment, so now I have the statistics it’s 6.6km with an 825m ascent. I also now know that it takes me about an hour and eleven minutes to get to the top. It is also a climb category “HC” which is tough!

Now, this is where premium kicks in, you can then set a goal for the segment, which is time limited, and this appears on your dashboard every time you view Strava. It counts you down to the deadline. I picked 4 months as that felt sensible.

Then, I almost forgot about this goal for 8 weeks, I focussed on training for Trail Marathon Wales, well when I say focussed, I focussed on the race, but not the preparation and got the result I deserved…slow.

But then, I started using Strava to analyse where I needed to gain. It was in my speed. My stamina was good, but I needed pace work. So, I set a one km segment and tried to get that speed down. I entered a short trail race and set myself the challenge of a Cooper Test (all out effort for 12 minutes). One thing, each month where speed was being measured. Then I looked at my daily training against my heart rate. I then made sure I was spending one session in my tempo category, and one in my threshold, as well as keeping up the long steady runs.

I used the “goal segment” for a couple of my long runs, just to check the route and see where my pace was naturally going. By mid August I had taken just over five minutes off my time. The segment analysis now lets you see where gains can be made, and that is mentally noted to go hard at.

Strava training log
Strava training log

The training log gives a visual record of how you’re getting on against your weekly goal (another premium add)

This all means that staying injury free is easier.

All the while I’m learning more about how and when I run at my best.

I had a slight hiccup, my aim was to have a go at the goal three weeks before the deadline, however darling daughter giving me a cold put paid to that!!

So, finally I had a shot at the goal today. In 4 months, I knocked nearly 14 minutes off my time (that’s nearly 20% lost). Yes it hurt, but looking at where I made pace, I was moving consistently faster across the terrain. I’m very, very pleased!

Could I have done it without Strava, probably. But as someone who trains on my own, a lot, it’s great getting kudos and feedback from the followers. It really keeps me motivated not to duck a training session.

Strava premium, is it worth it? I think if you want to make gains in your running. Strava should be there in your training toolbox!



“If you don’t know where you’re going….

…you can’t get lost”, goes the saying.

I’ve an impending sense that everything is about to go off the hook busy. Now I’m a busy person, but I feel like a lot of buses are going to come along at once. That’s ok. I just need to keep working on the balance.

So today’s run I needed to go somewhere where I didn’t think, just relaxed into it. It was supposed to be a “lunch run” but that got put back a bit, and I spend a little longer running than I wanted, but that’s ok too. 

I’ve been trying to process what Rachael (Meirionnydd’s latest member and relatively newcomer to the Ultra scene) has being saying in her recent blog. I know where she’s coming from, in that competition has to be appropriate, and as a self confessed “soul runner”, what she says, in many places, resonates with me. Except, I’m starting to get more and more competitive. Perhaps my frame of reference has changed, or maybe I just need to run my hardest at the moment. Hard to say. I’m sure I’ll process on one run, soon.

Today, I took the camera with me, I didn’t run against time or distance, I started the run as a journey and that stayed with me. And, perhaps more importantly, I didn’t really know where I was going. I knew where I was starting, and I sort of knew the topography of the area, but the rest was just a meandering run to pick up the views and bimble around some amazing places.  As usual, I was rewarded by this approach! In this part of Coed y Brenin the views are far reaching, picking up the Rhinog, the Migneint, Rhobell Fawr, the Aran and Cader Idris.

The panorama from Moel Hafodowen - so many trails to explore
The panorama from Moel Hafodowen – so many trails to explore

The point at which I contoured round Moel Hafodowen, always shows me the opportunity for outdoor sport in the area. Each river valley, hill, trail and area full of so much potential and relatively unused.

I enjoyed the run, because it was a bit wild and wooly, and also nothing occupied my mind but running through such a beautiful space. No glancing at my watch, no worry about map reading. Bliss! I’m planning on a “Cooper Test” tomorrow, so back to pain and suffering in my training. I think the test has to be one of the most horrible 12 minutes of running ever! But, with the Wye 50 miler race is looming this month I’ll be glad of the discipline.

As always, I come back from bimbling refreshed and reinvigorated. Now, time to find a place or two to park these buses.

Ponderosa fell race

After I mucked my preparation up for Trail Marathon Wales, I really wanted to get some speed back into my legs. And so, shorter faster races are something I wanted to get my teeth into.

I’ve still got an Ultra in September, so I’m trying to keep the miles up and do speed work.

Ponderosa Fell race fitted with the plan of short and fast, without it being a road race, which I don’t really enjoy those at all. It’s organised by Wrexham Road Runners and draws runners from quite a wide area.

At 6.4km and 289m of ascent, it is a category BS fell race, and really is more of a hilly trail race. It’s a great place to start on fell running, or as I wanted something to go and really push myself on to get some focus on pace.

It starts at 7pm, and this year on a Wednesday, from the top of the Horseshoe Pass near Llangollen. The Ponderosa cafe car park is the starting point, so it’s easy to find and plenty of parking. Sadly the cafe wasn’t open, so there were no facilities to support the 100 or so people that this event attracts.

Aerial at the top of the climb - photo credit Charles Ashley
Aerial at the top of the climb – photo credit Charles Ashley

Registration done, the start is only a few hundred metres away on the vehicle access track to the aerials on top of the hill. 

As with most fell races, the startline was informal and friendly, and the briefing quick and concise. With a quick “off you go” we were away, pretty much dead on 7pm.

The wide open track gave everyone a chance to settle into their stride, and find a place in the pack. This year, due to a bee hive or two, there was a short diversion off into the heather about two thirds of the way up the climb. This was all runnable, but very slow. Back out on to the track, for the final and steepest part of the climb to the aerial.

At this point I was breathing pretty hard, but felt ok. The marshalls ushered us right, round onto the single track path that descends slowly off to the right of the aerial. This section is very difficult to overtake on, with heather and small bushes keeping most runners fairly central. I was pushing my descent here, and normally where I’d try and recover downhill, I was keeping my breathing working hard.

After about 1.5km the track turns back alongside a barbed wire fence, on to initially, an even harder piece of trail to overtake on. This section is fast running, it slowly widens and heather gives way to bracken, the narrow rut gives way to a grass path and the running is technically easier. There are a few soft pieces of trail, no more than 10 metres in length, where some commitment can give a chance to overtake. I’d imagine if this was run after heavy rain, this section would be incredibly boggy! There is one very narrow section where I sheep has eroded a sleeping place, definitely need to stay right here! This soft section ends at a small stream crossing. 

A very short climb puts you onto some slightly broader trail, without the cross slope. This winds and undulates over to where the race joins the Clwydian way. This is a very firm track, and really enjoyable running. That has a couple of lovely descents that are lots of fun, and justify the climb at the beginning.

This ends where the path passes a house, with a small bridge, and the route briefly joins tarmac before the final climb to the finish. This section is the wettest, and most deceptive part of the race. It is 500m long with about 90m of climb. I was blowing hard and trying to stay running, but failed at two points. One chap stopped for a messy vomit, and I managed to keep working hard to run in to the finish.

The results take a while to come out, so I will update when they’re released, but I was definitely over 30 minutes.

The finish line was friendly, with water and category wins getting bottles of wine. There had been a few bee stings, and some quite epic stories around that, especially Lucie, for which this was the first club run. The newest member of Meirionnydd, Rachael) managed to land first senior lady.

Meirionny #Runfie - photo credit Elly Dee!
Meirionny #Runfie – photo credit Elly Dee!

Back to the car park for a Meirionnydd Running Club #runfie and iced bun (Thanks Sandra!) before the drive home.

A massive thanks to the organiser and all the marshalls who put the race on, it’s terrific.

If you’re thinking about a first time mid week fell race in North Wales for next year, Ponderosa should be on your list.

Aarn Marathon Magic and Marathon des Sables race number

I was contacted by Ong Yu-Phing about the Aarn Marathon Magic 33 and how to fit the race number for Marathon des Sables 2015 in the right place. The numbers are about 180mm x 160mm so I would cut one out of a piece of cardboard and play around getting the right way of getting it attached.

I’m really envious of Yu-Phing heading out next year – pulling my pack back on just made me want to go run in the desert again!!

Yu-Phing also asked whether I would go for the smaller size, the 22. I probably could if I was happy strapping things on the outside to begin with. And whilst the 33 is about 350g heavier and so harder to head towards the magic 6.5kg (before adding water and flare) I think I could justify the extra stability of having everything inside the pack on the start line of stage 1.

Very best of luck for 2015 Yu-Phing – its an amazing experience!

Any way, here is the video explaining what I did and what I’d do differently…

Aarn Mountain Magic 33 and Marathon des Sables race number from Ashley Charlwood on Vimeo.

Trail Marathon Wales 2014

When I ran my first Marathon race in 2012, it was the first edition of Trail Marathon Wales. If I had to pick one race to run every year it would be this one.

Apart from it being my local race, it is just so pretty, challenging and inspiring.

This year I really wanted to compete, but I knew that 11 weeks after Marathon des Sables I was always going to struggle getting my legs back under me. Mainly because I didn’t feel like I’d found any pace back into my running.

Phil, Andrew and I, from Tent 96 in Marathon des Sables, all together for TMW 2014
Phil, Andrew and I, from Tent 96 in Marathon des Sables, all together for TMW 2014

The social side to the race is really special, lots of friendly trail runners from all over Europe, plus a local organising team who are passionate about the area makes it a really engaging weekend. For that reason I had encouraged tent mate Phil from Marathon des Sables  to join Andrew, another tent mate in a quick run round the woods.

We all met up at registration on the Friday night. This is a super simple process, and the goody bags must be hard work to make up, but have some great stuff in them. This year, for the first time there was a welcome party. Phil and I went to this whilst Andrew treated his family to a meal locally. With the TORQ pop-up shop in place Phil got some advice and bought enough gels for the marathon.

The welcome party took the form of a meal, a Q&A type chat and a video. As the welcome party was starting at the same time as the finish of the 5 mile 9 Bar 9 race, it was a great focal point to the evening.

The meal was a yummy pasta and drink, all enjoyed on the deck of the visitors centre, with a great view down to Cader Idris. 

The Q&A was hosted by the race organiser Matt Ward, with Salomon athletes Mary Grace Spalton and Rob Samuel and 9 Bar 9 runner Charlie Sharpe. It was a great format, and one that I hope gets more support in the coming years.

Race morning was bright, and as expected a few midges around in the woods. I had suncreamed up, and put some Avon skin-so-soft on over the top. It didn’t stop me being a midge magnet though. Lining up for the brienfing was a trial to not inhale the little blighters. The new format meaning that the visitors centre was the start/finish for half and full marathon distance really made the area feel like a hub.

The start beneath the visitor centre made for a feeling of a natural amphitheatre and meant it was much easier for spectators to be involved. Iori, the gamekeeper appeared with his .270 rifle for the start and we were running up and under the visitors centre before joining the waymarked half marathon course. I knew I was going to need to pace myself,  but felt like I was running easily and so made good progress through the first few miles. The half marathon course broke away from the normal route and onto the Goldrush trail route to pick up the old Karrimor mountain bike descent (one of my favourites back in the day) and I was happily picking people of in descent.

Post race inspection showed up some good bruising.
Post race inspection showed up some good bruising.

I had my first gel at 45 minutes and literally a couple of minutes before the first feed station. At the feed station, one of the marshals, Graeme commented on the amount of midges on me, there were a good few drowned critters on my arms, head and chest. From this feed station there is a nice climb up above the Afon Wen, which then means a great single track descent. In places off camber, but generally a quick flowing descent. I was moving a bit quicker here than some others and so was trying to overtake carefully. I spotted a place where I thought that if I went high and then cut back down on to the track I’d gain a couple of places. The theory was sound, the execution no so much. I gained the places, but totally misjudged the turn back on to the track, I managed to wipe a lot of midges off, but did collect a lot of the forest floor and stomach surfed a little further than I could imagine possible. I got up quickly and got back on with the running. One runner said “that sounded like a heavy fall”, I ignored it.

The next section to the 12 mile feed station was uneventful, I knew I was running at a pace that was quicker than I’d expected but all felt good so I pushed on. With the Mawddach down to the left, Rob Samuel came flying passed on his half marathon race. He was really working, but moving super fast. An absolute pleasure to watch!

2nd place half marathon Felipe Jones passed me just before we crossed the bridge over the Mawddach, looking very smooth. The normal “sting in the tail” climb, which was still at the tail of the half course is now mid course for the full and I eased my way up to the top of this. I was managing to keep a good rhythm going and this meant I was passing people more than I was being passed. 

The turn up Pins and Needles
The turn up Pins and Needles

Then Gary Wyn Davies came passed in third place. Gary has been really supportive of my MdS campaign and so I gave him a bit of encouragement into the last half mile of his race. We drop down to the start finish area, half runners peeling off to the right and the full runners heading left and down over the Afon Eden. I took the chance to grab some electrolyte and then felt like a I ran really well round to the old trail centre at Maesgwm. As we climbed up the Tarw Du things tarted to get much harder. My legs were on the lactate threshold too much of the time and I just couldn’t clear them, Turning right on to “Pins and Needles” in reverse I was really working hard.

I joined a group of runners from Clapham, one runner was definitely struggling and went down really hard on the rocks, he was up slowly, but then went down even harder about 200 metres further on. Tired legs was meaning mistakes had consequences.

From here and on up the long fire road ascent, I resorted to walk running. I know I can run this ascent well, so it was frustrating, but I was enjoying my run and that was all that mattered. I did end up here with the Urdd Eisteddfod song going round in my head “Cwch banana, myndd y Bala”…on repeat, and not going anywhere.

Over the top and then starting the long descent with only a few short climbs, I thought I might be able to put some pace back into the run. My left hip abductor had different ideas, just the most exquisite cramp. It had me hopping and wobbling from side to side, so apologies for the people trying to pass me.

We came down to the looped part of Tarw Du, a good bit of banter with Simon and Fiona Hide. I grabbed water and tried to find a pace, but I could shuffle a bit before the cramp came back. On down to the snap, crackle and pop section (still in reverse) and a bit of deja vue as Es Richards appeared again (I’d seen here earlier in the day on a different section). I’d been thinking about how much I could use losing a few kilograms and so I made some smart remark about needing to go to weightwatchers next week. Back up to the Hides feed station and up ahead I spot Phil, he’s not looking like he’s moving so easily. It takes me about 2 minutes to close the gap. I offer to run in with him and he tells me to get on with it. My cramp is coming and going but not as bad as it was, and I can keep a slow run up. I can’t get my heart rate up because my muscles give out.

Race number and finishing coaster
Race number and finishing coaster

Even so, the final run in, with the exception of the fire road slog up to the start of R74 is beautiful and I can here the finish line over the main road. It’s not pretty, but I slog back under the A470 and round the nature trail to join the start finish climb. My world is very small now and I’m working hard to run to the finish line. I’m aware of noise and people and a few familiar faces but this is brutal. I grab my water, finishers coaster and then my two daughters are there. I stagger to the shade under the visitors centre and sit down to try and get some control back. Then Michaela appears with flapjack and kindly gets me a sugary drink and quite quickly everything is back under control. I head back to the finish line to watch Phil and Andrew in as well as watch the prize giving.

I’d finished in 109th overall and in 4hrs 31. This is going to change for next year.

I was the first Meirionydd runner home, and first from tent 96, I suspect that’ll change too.

Personally, I think Trail Marathon Wales is an incredibly tough race. Intensity wise I think it is tougher than any stage on MdS, but that is probably a function of being able to run without having to hold back for tomorrow as in a stage race. But whatever, it is a great event and one that I hope goes from strength to strength and inspires more and more people.

I do have one rant though…rubbish. The amount of litter left on the course was dreadful this year. If you can take the time to carefully place a bottle on a tree stump a couple of metres away from the race route, then carry the thing to a feed station. Gel wrappers, if you carry it in, carry it out. There should be no need for marshals to collect more than the race marker tape as they leave the course. However, I suspect there will be black bags of stuff to be collected. I personally would like to see all gel wrappers, bottles and lids marked with a race number, as they do in Marathon des Sables. If anything with your race number is found on route it is disqualification. Trail running is about enjoying amazing environments, if we want to stay welcome then it is essential we respect and protect those environments, not just for ourselves, but for others and future generations. Please do not be selfish and leave rubbish on the trail. Ever.

I’ll be back next year, it’ll be the focus of my race calendar next year and 4 hours is my target. Oh, and with luck it looks like there might be a few more members of MdS2014 tent 96 running the race too!

This race takes a huge amount of time and passion from the organising team; a massive thank you to all of the team, marshals, timing team, visitors centre, running club, locally rotary and other runners that make this event as special as it is. Diolch yn fawr!!

Trail Running Review – why you should try it!

A review, so Google says – 

a formal assessment of something with the intention of instituting change if necessary.

I’m not sure how formal, or how intent I am of changing anything I am, but I’m still going to call it a review. I guess it’s also a description or a beginners “how-to” for trail running.

Trail running is becoming more fashionable, fitness magazines are covering it more and there are definitely more videos being made about it as a pastime.

What is trail running?

It is running (and quick walking) off an athletics track or road/pavement. It is different to cross country running in that it tends to be longer distances so slower paced.

Trail running, at the moment isn’t recognised by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF)

Why go trail running?

There are lots of good reasons to go running on trails.

Views out and about trail running
Views out and about trail running
  • You get to see things you can’t on a bike or in a car, it really does get you closer to nature
  • Because fast walking is a part of trail running it is a great way to build fitness
  • No hard surfaces jarring joints means less chance of repetitive strain injuries
  • Uneven surfaces and hills use more core muscles and so build strength and stamina
  • If being watched running around the village/town you live in isn’t your thing trails get you away from curtain twitchers
  • It’s social if you want it to be
  • Above all it’s fun

Where to go trail running?

Trail running can happen anywhere there isn’t a hard surface, and the opportunities are massive. Footpaths, bridleways, canal towpaths, forest centres, mountain tracks in fact anywhere. A sense of adventure and exploration will get you uncovering places near to home.

I’m lucky to live right next to Coed y Brenin near Dolgellau. Here there are easy to follow way-marked trails of all sorts of different lengths. There are also a wide range of routes on National Trust estates too.

How to go trail running for the first time

I’d suggest picking a walk you know, nothing too long, something that you can walk comfortably and know pretty well. Personally I’d choose something that isn’t flat because I’d want places I can walk. A walk that takes about an hour (3 miles or 5km) would be a good place for someone not running regularly.

Then, go round that walk, perhaps running the gentle downhills and some of the flat. Listen to your breathing, don’t exert yourself too hard and don’t be afraid to walk.

How to improve your trail running

Local running clubs are a great source of knowledge, they’ll introduce you to like minded people and probably have sessions where you can join runs. This works for a lot of people and is the most common way to improve.

That didn’t work for me though. I started exploring my local footpaths and forests. Over a period of 18 months I went from 5-10 miles a week to being able to run 90-100. Be careful not to increase your mileage to fast, or start running more hills than you are used to. Muscles can tighten and it really is a good idea to do some simple stretches and strength exercise (I often work my calves whilst on the phone).

What do I need to go trail running?

In short, nothing is needed to go trail running. But there are a few things that will make your run a bit more enjoyable.

Trail running shoes 

From L-R Inov8 Mudclaw 300, Salomon Crossmax neutral, Inov8 Roclite 315, Ascis 2100GT
From L-R Inov8 Mudclaw 300, Salomon Crossmax neutral, Inov8 Roclite 315, Ascis 2100GT

The first upgrade is your feet, where you touch the ground. It can seem an impossible choice and be quite overwhelming. Don’t be put off. Find a local running specialist and ask for advice. Most trail runners are only to happy to give an opinion.

Any well fitting running shoes will work for trail running. However, trail running shoes have grippier soles and generally slightly stronger materials. Bear in mind they will get wet and have to deal with stones, mud , tree roots as well as grass and harder surfaces. There are some major brands out there Salomon, Inov-8, Asics, Saucony and Brooks are some of the more popular brands.

They all do slightly different things; hard stony trails, soft muddy trails or mixtures. Get something comfortable and go wear them out!

As a note, waterproof trainers are only waterproof until the water goes over the top of the shoes, then the water can’t get out. For this reason I like well draining, quick drying shoes and just get on with splashing in muddy puddles.

Clothing for trail running

This is really personal preference. Baggy or tight makes no difference. On longer days out baggy things can chafe a little, but in my experience makes no difference at all for runs of up to about 20km (half marathon). I would prioritise buying running clothing in this order:

  1. Socks
  2. Shorts/legs
  3. T-shirt/top
  4. Waterproof/windproof

Of course, like all hobbies you can go eyewear, headwear, gloves and on and on. Like shoes all clothing, except a waterproof should be light and quick drying. Building layers of clothing is by far the best way to be comfortable and have the right kit for any occasion.

The shell layer (outer waterproof) -very often if it is drizzly and not too cold I prefer to run with a windproof layer (Pertex or similar). The reason is that when I’m running I make heat and sweat. Whilst I have a good waterproof, if I push hard then I can make myself wetter inside a waterproof than on the outside, so I prefer to let my body heat push the sweat out of the jacket or gilet.

Food and water for trail running

This is a subject in itself and I’m not even going to touch the surface here. In general, up to an hour your body can cope easily on its own. Beyond that it is worth thinking about fluids and food. If I am heading somewhere really remote I like to take some emergency snacks, really just for reassurance

Carrying things for trail running

Bumbag and emergency kit for trail running
Bumbag and emergency kit for trail running

Bumbag, rucksack, waistbelt, ultra vests, hydration packs, bottles – all these are just a short list of what some people choose to use. I don’t use a hydration pack for trail running as it encourages me to carry too much weight. I prefer a sports bottle, this lets me see how much I have drunk to, and also on much longer runs, in two bottles plain water and one with a flavour and/or electrolytes.

My 15 year old bumbag is still in service and in this I can carry waterproofs, basic emergency kit, food and water. If I need more (going further, or worse conditions) then I’ll take a small rucksack. On the occasions I go multiday running I’ve never needed anything bigger than 35 litres.

Gadgets for trail running

I’m using the term gadget here, some are occasionally essential, some are luxury, I’m mentioning them here just to think about. But, don’t ever carry anything you don’t know how to use, otherwise you’re carrying weight for the sake of it.

Map and compass. If you have any doubt about where you’re going, these are an essential.

Headtorch. If you are either going out in the dark, or might be at risk of getting stuck out in the dark, this is an essential. (Chris Baynham-Hughes did an extensive independent buyers guide to head torches)

Watch. Time, pace, place, heart rate, altitude, tide. Watches can measure all sorts of things. Sometimes this can be a motivator, sometimes it can be a de-motivator.

Emergency kit. First-aid and survival blanket can be useful, both for yourself and others you may need to help. I always carry these on the trails out of personal preference.

I’m going to repeat myself, especially about the Map, Compass and Emergency kit – KNOW HOW TO USE THEM!!

Competitive trail running

Shattered, but massive sense of achievement at the end of Marathon des Sables 2014
Shattered, but massive sense of achievement at the end of Marathon des Sables 2014

Trail running is more loosely organised than other running disciplines. Events are a great way to go to places you wouldn’t go to normally, meet new people and test yourself (if that’s your thing).

Trail races can range from 5km upwards. Beware though a 5km trail race will be much tougher than a 5km road running race.

My experience is that trail races are really friendly and run by people who are passionate about running off road. Ask questions will get you lots of answers!

Training for trail running racing will follow the same type of sessions as road running. Build a stamina base, then building pace and power with shorter speed sessions or on hills or (yuk!!) both. Flexibility (stretching or yoga) will help you enormously with recovery and speed.

Finding more information

There are some good Facebook pages with heaps of information about trail running. The two most popular UK best pages are Trail Running Magazine and The Trail Running Association.

As a resource for competitive world wide running, Mud, Sweat & Tears is hard to beat as a website.

Runners World is still the most readily available running magazine in the UK, but is more focussed on running generally rather than trail running.

Finally…have fun trail running

I trail run because it’s fun. Normally not to be the fastest, not to beat people, nor to be fitter. I love the journey and trail running lets me make more of my free time, exploring the places I want to go. Every now and then I like to race, just to test myself, and by every now and then I mean less than 5 times a year normally. 

Trail running shouldn’t ever be a punishment (it was for me at school). 

If you remember running around outdoors as a child, running with your legs out of control down a hill or through high grass and those memories make you smile then have a go.

Let trail running take you new places, let it make your body feel alive and your mind clear. Sometimes you’ll exert yourself and it’ll be hard work. Sometimes it’ll be cold, windy or dark. Sometimes you’ll see a deer, a sunrise, sunset or a view all of your own.

Learn to enjoy the ups and downs, make it fun and enjoyable.

So, my formal review, not very formal, and the need to change anything, not really for me. I always need to remember that I really really enjoy trail running.

Here’s a video I made a couple of years ago to explain trail running in Coed y Brenin, a forest near home that is better known for mountain biking at the moment. Hope you enjoy it.

Where next?

So what do I do after Marathon des Sables? It all feels a little black and white at the moment.

Stone gateway about Sligo, Eire
Stone gateway about Sligo, Eire

As I try and claw my way through the post event blues, which is a common occurrence, I know I need to focus on something big in the future. It’s like trying to step over a massive gateway! I’ve run a good bit since getting back, but I have to admit to running being a massive struggle to stay consistent with at the moment.

As much as I am really enjoying not having the early morning running sessions, and getting on top of a few jobs here and there, as well as starting a new business I am feeling hungry to compete. Though I’m not ready to go all out again at the moment.

I’m fortunate that I have Trail Marathon Wales on 21st of June, I’m looking forward to this, but I do feel a complete sense of fatigue at the moment. It’ll be a trial to get round, but I want to get out there and race. It’ll be brilliant to see my tent mates Andrew and Phil again who will also be at TMW. We’ve all had post MdS niggles, so I’m sure the social catch up will be not so subdued!

Depending on how TMW goes I’ll look to run Race the Train in Tywyn in August as it is part of the Welsh Trail Running Championships, but it really does depend on how TMW goes! After that it is the Wye One Way Ultra Race in Septemnber and then the OMM in October. That’ll be my big event year done.

It's all about balance. Strandhill Beach, Co Sligo. Eire
It’s all about balance. Strandhill Beach, Co Sligo. Eire

I’ll probably do the Meirionnydd Winter Fell Series for the first year ever too. Just to keep the legs turning over.

Other than that this year will be about exploring and enjoying the hills around home; and preparing for a personal challenge I’ve set for 2015. As far as I know, this challenge has never been attempted before, so I’m going to keep a little quiet about it!

One thing though, MdS has made me appreciate the smaller things, a whole lot more. Like the can of coke on the long day it’s amazing what little things can arrive in technicolour when we appreciate them!


The horizon line that inspires me
The horizon line that inspires me

I remember very clearly when I was 24, my friend saying “you’re going to have to grow up”. This was when I’d just bought my new mountain bike. In his eyes, in the south of England, in the mid nineties adults didn’t mountain bike.

Of course, being stubborn, I carried on with mountain biking. And, as I’ve explained before it was the bike that brought me to live in North Wales and ultimately run the Marathon des Sables. Two wheels have always been fun, and the more I’ve reflected on MdS, the more I’ve realised that its even simpler.

I like moving.

BMX bikes rocked
BMX bikes rocked

As children we’d ride bikes round and round the same route. We’d learn and know little tracks, jumps, kerb edges, alley ways and back lanes really well. I lived on my BMX for at least 6 weeks each summer holiday for at least 5 years. From early in the morning til it got dark, and sometimes beyond we’d be repetitively skidding in the same place, wheelieing between shadows, lampposts, encouraging each other up and down steeper hills, bigger jumps, higher bunny hops, riding by a stream eyes shut, or disastrously, the night before a maths exam riding down the biggest hill cross handed. Looking back there was no reason. It was fun, no winners, no losers in a competitive sense, just the joy of living in the moment.

My very first road bike in around 1990
My very first road bike in around 1990

BMX bikes gave way to road bikes, I found my love of surfing along the edge of the lactate threshold, the moment where the noisiest thing is your breathing, your heart or the wind.

All that repetitive stuff creates something that is now known as physical literacy, and a healthy heart. I know I played ball sports and racquet sports (I’ll miss out accurate stone throwing) and that does develop a different kind of physical literacy.

Bikes, pedal or engine powered are lovely, I like the feeling that moving on one creates. That sensation in your inner ear, leaning in, trimming the bike, lifting the front wheel, whipping the back wheel or free-wheeling with the wind blowing is something I can always fall back on. It is moving quickly so close to nature, so part of nature that is enjoyable. But, as a mode of transport you’re not in a steel box, people talk to you empathise with you. Also, if you drift from the now, there are consequences that tend to keep you in the now.

I got into simple multi-day mountain walking, not instead of bikes, as well as bikes. The camp craft, the endurance, the touching nature really hit home with me in my mid teens. An escape from daily life and the extra responsibilities I had due to terminally ill parents. On reflection this taught me self reliance as well as new skills. Scrambling up Cneifion Arete with a big pack, having crossed the Carneddau was a big moment in my teens. I suddenly felt capable of surviving in a very primitive way. Add a few ropes and some more skills and new dimensions are available, bigger mountains. Never a rock climber, more a mountaineer, but that sounds too grand. Just journeying through mountains, immersed in some remote spots.

Then boats came in to play, sailing, paddling, navigating. This was a new challenge, moving on a dynamic environment. I was fascinated by being able to predict the water height on the sea at any given point, the variance the weather made. And on water, to move effectively there needs to be a different reaction. A sailing boat on a different point of sail, with a different sea way needs to be helmed differently. Kayaking, journeying on white water initially seems even more chaotic, but the more you learn, the more you become experienced, again through repetition, the more reaction can be instinctive. The now becomes more fluid [sic] but still a journey, a movement.

“Big black” in Morocco

And then trail or mountain running, far more basic, far more heart, lungs and legs and far simpler. But, all the skills come together in a different way. The exposure felt is more immediate. I can  compare travelling in the sub-Sahara on a motorbike to my recent experience running. A lot is the same, managing hydration, fuel (for you or the bike) and keeping moving, and I enjoy the journey in very different ways. Probably, even though much harder, on foot is more enjoyable.

I still ride bikes, I still visit the mountains, I still love boats. I like doing these things solo, I love the feeling of self dependence. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a complete misanthrope and I do love sharing the experiences too, but to get the most I like, if not need to be exposed, on my own. That original enjoyment of lungs, heart and wind being the only noise, the movement being beautiful things.

Many see my pursuits as dangerous, but that’s different to the view I hold. Managing danger and fear is about experience and judgement. And when you’re in that moment there is an element of purity that is really grabbing. I have and do walk away, the hills, rivers, forests and oceans will be there another day. So far I’ve never regretted keeping going. I’ve regretted stopping, but that is a momentary regret compared to the alternative. Yes, having children has taken the extremes out. Those moments where a wrong decision means instant injury. Big jumps and steep gradients are mighty thrilling, but the adrenaline can come in different, more controllable ways.

Chris Baynham-Hughes is a very experienced mountain ultra runner. In his blog here he goes through the iterative process of defining risk. In many cases we experience risk when it is managed by someone else, at an event where the judgement of Event Directors either cossets or denies you your own responsibility in decision making. I agree with Chris the more experienced you get, the more intuitive risk judgement becomes and therefore in many ways the better mentally we’re prepared to handle experiences.

The video here is from Daz who has kayaked solo down Everest and in the last minute sums up, for me, the feeling that pushing yourself in whatever format “is”. Surfer, climber, cyclist, runner or even businessman the question Daz asks is one we should ask ourselves, regularly.

“When was the last time you put yourself in  place to open yourself up to the passion and the grace and the silence and the noise of the now” 

I’m fortunate to have met some very inspirational people, especially in the years I have lived in North Wales. And now I recognise that not “growing up” is something that is challenging to those in the mainstream.

Being responsible doesn’t mean not having fun; it can do if that is your choice. But to live a satisfied life, to live in the now is so important. None of know when the now won’t exist for each of us. Experiences are so subjective, it’s not possible to judge whether one experience is more satisfying for one person, than it is for another. 

How we express ourselves is limitless, music, art, sport, gardening, religion, what ever.

For me feeling the “passion of the now” needs me to move, to take responsibility for my own movement, use my own judgement. The mechanism doesn’t matter. The journey and the experiences on the way are far more exciting to me than the destination.

When my parents died I had a choice-join the gravy train and conspicuous consumption. Or move and consume life. It went a bit blurry in there for a while, but the Marathon des Sables has really reminded me… 

“Rollin’ Rollin’ Rollin’, Keep movin’, movin’, movin’, Though they’re disapprovin’, Keep them doggies movin’ Rawhide!”

Marathon des Sables – a race review

I’ve sat looking at this blank page for ages, nearly two weeks now.

Normally I can sit and the words fall out of me; I know the shape of what I want to say and how I want to say it.

Perhaps this should be the review of the 29th Edition of Marathon des Sables. “Speechless”.

I was motivated to do the event because Cancer reared its head in my life, again. 2014 was a good year for lots of reasons that I’ve blogged about before. But the event has done more, been more, than I could ever have imagined.

If you’re sat contemplating a multi-day ultra event, and like I did, have doubts about whether you could physically complete the course you’ll gloss over what lots of people write in their blogs. I did that too. 

Yes, Marathon des Sables is physically hard, but not impossible. Yes, Marathon des Sables takes commitment and sacrifice. I can say with confidence though, you will learn more, feel more and be affected more by this event than you could ever anticipate.

Honestly, there is no point since the start day where I’ve thought “I’d never do this again”. Lot’s of MdSers have said “done”, “ticked off” and “no way”. I asked myself as I crossed the line would I do it again, no doubt at all, if the opportunity arose I’d say emphatically “yes” in a heart beat.

I’d anticipated that crossing the line, those final ten steps I had focussed on for two years would be emotional. It wasn’t. That’s not to say in the preceding 40 hours of running I hadn’t been happy, sad, angry, stubborn and every other emotion. Just what I had expected at the finish line was different to reality.

There are no words, pictures, videos or talks that I can use to explain fully what happened. I’ve written the day by day accounts, but the bit inside me, the emotional bit is still, a month on, just out of reach to me. It’ll have to wait for another day!

The race itself is so amazingly well organised. Yes, there is a bit of queuing, but lets put that in perspective. There are 1000 people in the Sahara, running. The visual impact on this environment after the bivouac has gone is really minimal. A few tyre tracks and a dark 10 foot diameter circle. Pretty impressive. Everything is packed in, set up, handed out, taken down and taken away. There is solid medical cover that wants you to finish. The stories of what Doc Trotters did to keep people running are amazing, and totally contrary to what you’d expect. Even what we’d consider worthy of a few days off work don’t raise an eyebrow. Patch you up, encourage you and get on with the event. Mind blowing, inspiring stuff. 

Marathon des Sables 2014 track log
Marathon des Sables 2014 track log

The route, changes, new formats are tested. Veterans of the race express their feelings about the good and the bad, the ease or difficulty of the various stages. But that’s irrelevant to me. My MdS, my race looks like a wiggly line near the border with Algeria. It’s not even half as long as one tank of fuel in my car and yet it represents more to me than any car journey.

And my daughter summed it up nicely, as only a nine year old can. I now know that I can run from home, in Dolgellau to Oxford. Why I would do that, or want to do that I don’t know. Why I would do that in the heat carrying my own stuff, I don’t know. It’s barking mad when written like that.

But I could. And that is my lesson!