Facing the Dragon

Trail Marathon Wales 2015 - 27th overall
Trail Marathon Wales 2015 – 27th overall

The Dragon, facing the Dragon. It has always been pretty symbolic for me. Representing something that was  easy to run from, hard to face. I can still hear my Dad telling me, aged 10 to “Face your Dragons!”.

2015 has been a tough year in a number of ways. The final heartbreaking throes of a dysfunctional marriage. After 2 years of trying to find answers, finally accepting there are none. The needs of my two daughters, one with me half the time, one all the time, but for 2 days a fortnight. This and developing my business has been quite draining.

Through these times, running has been an optional extra, but also a really important way to work through my thoughts. A place of disconnected Solace. In terms of me time, and healthy time in stressful periods it is essential (honestly). It has also provided me with friends that are the most respected, anchored and trusted people in my life.

My running had two main aims in 2015, a sub 4 hour Trail Marathon Wales, and the 3 day Ring o Fire. I achieved TMW and in the process picked up an overuse injury that ruled me out of Ring o Fire. My tent buddies from MdS and I had a great time at Hope24 and some much needed social running, with a healthy dollop of machismo.

Cwm Ratgoed from Waun Oer
Cwm Ratgoed from Waun Oer

Whilst I rehabilitated my poorly ankle after TMW, I spent a while trying to work out my motivation for running. I don’t really fit the normal profile for a runner. I’ve done one road race, a half marathon, but don’t really derive pleasure from running in crowds, or towns. I don’t run to collect medals, t-shirts, or to beat people. I finally settled on running for the journey as my meaning.

I love the feeling of moving freely, to places that are remote. The challenge of managing myself and my environment. The feeling of resilience to move through those spaces without a massive sense of insurmountable challenge.

That is the reason I run. That it is my validation. Not peer recognition, nor a talking point. I run, for my own satisfaction. To expose my own vulnerabilities, and then conquer them. To face a smaller Dragon in each run, or to just kick up my heels and fly through an environment that I love.

And that then asked the question why I run in events. Why is it that I am drawn to things that I can run any old time. When it suits me, either alone or with a small group of friends. And that I can’t quite answer. There is the feeling of a safety net, being able to push myself harder than I would alone. Running alone I always try and protect my descending and my ascending, without putting anyone else at risk (friends, or Mountain Rescue). So, an event gives me a place to run “on the limiter”, in a more controlled manner. That encourages me to run drills, to further my technique, my fitness, my enjoyment through nasty sessions that don’t fit my criteria in many ways, but to go to a limit, and stretch it a bit more.

The other is the challenge of someone else’s cunning. Mountain Marathons, are so much more than just running. Club runners typically don’t understand why you would run competitively, not for distance or for time. But, it is more about the craft of moving quickly and accurately, and that really needs an event to be truly testing. Navigating, moving, connecting to that environment and focussing on that movement.

I had tentatively decided that 2016 was going to be a soul running kind of year. No events. But, Marmot24 snuck in, after spotting it in 2013. This is a very unique event format and one that really inspires me, endurance navigation. Then a place at the Brecon Ultra was offered, and that fits for so many reasons – a very special race. I suppose then that returning to Trail Marathon Wales is a must do as simply the best local trail marathon I have, and voted one of the seven best trail races in Europe.

Pen y Gader, Mynydd Moel, Gau Craig from the East
Pen y Gader, Mynydd Moel, Gau Craig from the East

So there we are, in the period of a fortnight, the race calendar for 2016 filled up. And that will keep me moving through the winter months of darkness and cold training. And that will put me in places that I love, that I feel alive and connected to. That is my running plan for 2016.

Did I answer why I run, or why I run events? I don’t think so, but actually, I also am growing more calm with not needing to know.

And where did the Dragon go, when I faced him? Not sure to be honest. Might have to run down his back the following year and have a different view!

Around Cadair Idris

Craig Las from Ffordd Ddu
Craig Las from Ffordd Ddu

Meirionnydd offers up some really terrific running routes. An eye on the map, or local knowledge will find them for you.

This run was about putting some time into my legs, and checking out how I was doing with hydration and nutrition on longer runs. I try and learn from every run I do. This run hurt, but I recovered quickly, so things aren’t as bleak as I thought for the Wye one way in a fortnight.

With all of the hard work done, travelling around Cadair, and the  majority of the 1000m of ascent done, this view leading back to Dolgellau really inspires me.

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.

A week to go – a pain in the bum

Look, Sun!
Look, Sun!

7 days to go – right now I should be in peak physical condition. Instead I’ve got a streaming cold and a pain in my bum. 

The cold will take its course – I can believe that will go.

The pain in my bum, well it’s sciatic pain – wickedly good when I cough or sneeze. I’m sure it’s because I haven’t taken care of stretching my glutes, so some foam rollering and some glutes stretches are order of the day.

The major downside of the cold is that I’m missing out on sessions in the sauna – really important for getting my body ready for the higher temperatures in the desert. 

All in all not ideal, but I still know I can complete the distance, I might just have to take it a bit easier than I hoped.

Otherwise things are coming together.

Layout of most of the kit
Layout of most of the kit

I’m pretty organised with my kit, a few bits to finally sort out – needle and thread, some Pepperami wideboys that sort of thing. In general though I’m pretty happy. My total kit without water is going to come in around 7.5-8kg on the start line. Which is about where I wanted to be. Much closer on the weight limit of 6.5kg would mean I’d be calorie light – so this is a good compromise.

ECG heart trace
ECG heart trace

I got my medical certificate signed off. Due to the nature of the race an ECG is needed as well as a general check over from the GP. Despite it showing up some abnormalities my doctor was happy enough to sign me off as ok to go. The unusual trace shows Sinus brachycardia compatible with a bundle branch block, left ventricular hypertrophy with wide QRS and an insignificant Q wave in high lateral. Basically, compared to the normal person, I have a big, slow heart – quite common with people who exercise. Makes sense, running needs a big pump.

Dune training and kit testing
Dune training and kit testing

I also managed to get a short test in with my gaiters and shoes on some lovely, hard dunes. Really not looking forward to day 1 of the event…there seems to be a lot of dune work to come! 

What a week!!

Damaged beyond repair - my nicely bedded in shoes for MdS 2014
Damaged beyond repair – my nicely bedded in shoes for MdS 2014

Monday started with a “mayday” call to Martin Like of Likeys. Having decided that a local cobbler was the right way forward for attaching my sand gaiters to my trainers – the results were less effective than expected. There are a couple of slices right through my shoes now, big enough to get my finger through, so sand might be a little more successful getting in than I hoped .

Having bedded these shoes in, I was very confident that, as long as I could keep the sand out, these shoes would be my best bet for avoiding large blisters – which though pretty much inevitable I was hoping to minimise. Martin is a veteran of a huge number of Ultra, multi-day stage races, and his advice was well received. I’m going to do my own gaiters this time, and have managed to run my new shoes in this week too.

ECG done this week too; this means I have two bald patches on my hairy chest. My daughter thought I should shave the rest off – and a few other suggestions of waxing from various people. I had thought this would be another way to raise some money, but a few people have let me know that the ingrowing hairs I would suffer would be painful. On top of running in a hot desert, a pus filled chest is not another thing I need to add!

Crocus - looking lovely
Crocus – looking lovely

It comes from golf, but I like the quote, and so tried to put it into practise this week – “As you walk down the fairway of life you must smell the roses, for you only get to play one round.”
– Ben Hogan. Every shot in golf is separate, and smelling the roses is about separating each shot you play, so that every one is as good as you can make it. I’ll be trying to do the same in the desert – one good minute doesn’t mean that the next one will be the same – but enjoy it while you can. Not quite roses, but the crocuses were looking brilliant this week.

Despite being successful in getting through the application process to the selection process for being an ashmei ambassador, I couldn’t make it to Hertfordshire this weekend for the workshops and final selection. I wasn’t alone in this, ashmei offered us the chance to make a 60 second video to capture our achievements and goals – there was a suggestion it could be fitted into a 15 second Instagram clip; I have no clue as to how I could have done that!

I received some absolutely amazing donations this week – from all round the world, the US doing particularly well in the donation league tables. But Wales also doing fantastically with some very special donations from Pete’s family and Meirionnydd Running Club . Just Giving is creeping the way it needs to – up!

And finally, with the weather picking up, it was an absolute pleasure to get some miles into my new trainers and to do my final, long run before heading out to the desert. A beautiful run on some new tracks to new places, joining the dots in different ways. Life is good when plodding away through the hills around home.

I’m hoping the coming week is a little less fraught, though with a four year old in the first day of chicken pox, I suspect I’ll need to smell some more flowers!

Getting out

Whilst I’ve got a few niggles I’m looking at different ways to do some training – this is a nice bit of variety – Rhobell Fawr, late afternoon, crystal clear skies…big heavy vest.

Sorry for the wind noise!

Towards the light

It was a conscious effort to make this a “half full” title and not the “out of the darkness”.

Training recently has been a tricky place. Little niggling injuries, stresses in life and an almighty man flu. Well ok it was a vicious little snotty nose and head cold.

Net result has been that I eased back a lot and have found it difficult to get going again. But now with 8 weeks to go to the start of Marathon des Sables I feel like my mojo is back with a vengeance.

Coming back to training in January, everything was hard work, even a 40 minute run was hard. But a month on everything is good again. I’m back to half marathons before breakfast, recovering well and also doing 6 days a week of cross training. There is a secret weapon in here, which I’ll blog about soon.

The turning point was a run in Coed y Brenin. I ditched “training” and went out for a run. Just cruising around the East side of the forest and not looking at time. Following my nose and enjoying the journey. I ran through a rattling great thunderstorm that proved less enjoyable for some hillwalkers on the nearby Arans. Although really tiring I had a great 30km and recovered quickly.

The last few mornings that I’ve been able to get out for a longer run I’ve been using the Mawddach Trail-an old railway bed. This has a massive advantage of not having a huge amount of climbing and not being on a road. Steady training is easier and a straight out and back logs about 20km. It really is a great place to run, superb views and a trip home with the wind invariably behind you – what could be better?

Better, was getting home from one run on a Saturday morning, eating breakfast and my eldest daughter, who had earlier in the week got some trail running shoes for her upcoming first season doing fun fell runs saying – “Hey Dad, it’s not raining let’s go run the Torrent Walk”. Watching her skip and jump down a footpath, trying out landing on rocks, sliding on mud before climbing back up the other side couldn’t make me more proud. Running for fun, a great reminder for me!

Penmaenpool Trail Running Festival

I try to convince myself that I don’t like racing, but in reality I’m competitive enough that testing myself once in a while is a bit of fun. 

With the current aim of running 250km in 6 days in the Sahara my training is focussed on long steady load carrying running. But some sessions have to be speed work, so why not make that a race.?

Traditionally the “Pen 10” stayed on the flat of the old railway bed, and I never ran it. But this years race was re thought and re branded and now there is a Trail Running Festival that has a 1.8 mile Junior Race, a short course trail race of 3.6 miles and the long course of 8.9 miles. It’s still organised by Meirionydd Running Club and draws runners from quite a wide area.

In the last 7 days I’d run 64 (ish) kilometres and so I wasn’t really looking at this as a competitive race, more a training session that was quick. Naive! 

I jogged down to Penmaenpool from home, my Achilles warming up gently. Dolgellau was warm and sunny, but by the time I got to race HQ it was windy, drizzly and definitely a little cooler! 

Signing in was in the building alongside the old railway signal box and at £8 a fairly reasonable entry fee for a trail race. I watched my youngest daughter head off on the junior race.   They’d driven down and grabbed some parking really close. Helpfully there are also toilets in the car park so no sneaking off into the bushes needed.

I dropped my rucsack into race HQ and tootled off down the Mawddach trail to warm up. A few stretches and little springy runs and all felt okay. A quick race briefing was carried out ny Kev Jones and I’m guessing the 40 or so long course starters were ready to get going

With a quick toot of an air horn we were off with the first mile or so down the wide trail beside the Mawddach. This gave ample chance for everyone to get into an order without too much jostling on single track trail. First turn is through a gate in the stone wall and onto the trails that wind around Coed Gwynant. An undulating trail winds through the woods and after a water stop spits you back on the Mawddach Trail for a flat blast down to Coed y Garth. By now I was running with a Warrington Runner, we were passing one or two people, I seemed to be quicker on anything down, and we were pretty evenly matched on the flat and ups. Into Coed y Garth and a 3.7 mile loop of un marshalled track, the signage was good and the running reasonable. As we dragged up one longer slope Warrington chap said “as long as we don’t blow up no one will pass us.” Some of the trail had been flailed recently so there were some softer bits but otherwise everything was good going.

We looped back on to the Mawddach Trail again and ran back towards Abergwynant. A quick glug of water and we climbed back round towards the main trail. My legs were starting to run out of uphill power. Warrington runner pulled out a lead of about 35 metres on one climb and I just couldn’t get this back. The final descent back to the trail has a few cleaved oak steps, which turn out to be quite slippery, gave me the only windmilly arm moment of my race as I skimmed down three steps on the heel of my left foot. All got gathered up again and I found a rhythm to run into the finish.

All in all, for the first year of the new race was really fun, well organised and friendly. A nice way to get a trail race under your belt if you’re thinking about trail running.  If you’re looking for a weekend away, this would make a good race on the Saturday before heading off and exploring other trails in the area-Coed y Brenin has miles and miles of them.

I gathered up my bits from race HQ, chucked on my rucsack and ran back home. Back in Dolgellau, still no cloud cover, so the estuary was doing it’s autumnal thing of having a little micro climate. 

As a pace work session it was really great training, and nice to let a little of the weeks frustrations out with a bit of competitive running with Warrington Runner! 

Thanks to all the organisers and supporters who made the race what it is-brilliant! 

*EDIT* Warrington Runner was Nik Avraam and results are here and as it’s a new race I go the M35 club record.

Here’s the Strava of the long course:

 

When can you call yourself a runner?

I’ve had a bit of a rest time from the high volume training, I needed it! A great family holiday away from work, phones, emails and running has done my head a lot of good. I’ve still got a few aches, but in general I’m doing okay. This week was back to running and I put in a reasonable 83 km.

This week I’ve seen an inspirational style picture somewhere. The simple logo, “6 minute mile or 16 minute mile, you’ve still run a mile”. 

This resonated with me a lot.  I dislike the “I’m better than you because…” type statements at the best of time. It just stops people having a go. We all start running somewhere, it’s hard. The commitment and motivation you need is easy to knock at the best of times, but before you’re “in the groove” or find the enjoyment it’s something that can stop you dead.  This blog really is in response to a story I heard from someone I know, I hope it’s a reference point that undoes some damage that some others have unthinkingly caused.

When someone can run a long way, or run fast (or both) I think it’s amazing. But when you hear some stories I can’t help but think that the struggle is the same whether you’re a top athlete or a beginner. Sure the results are different, but the effort can be much, much more.

I hope I never look down my nose at other runners, I try and remember that their battle could be much harder than mine and at the end of the day they aren’t sat at home. Being a runner is a label, I know that, and I was taught labels aren’t important. I spent a long time not really thinking of myself as a runner, I often still don’t think of myself as a runner. But I am.

Running, especially distance running. is a psychological sport. Fitness is actually relatively simple to attain. It’s often the mind that stops you. There are lots of reasons to stop and being mis-labelled or judged can be a very powerful brake. 

Think to Mo Farah’s race at the Olympics, Farah’s’s training partner Galen Rupp is a handy runner. Their preparation for the Olympics was identical, the same coach, the same programme. Their genetics are similar and their ability is nearly identical. So why when Farah kicks does it stick? It has to be belief, one that he has grown. Once labelled the best in the world, or second best in the world the you’ve got a big psychological boost, or brake depending on where you are. When you are in a place that other people comments hurt or distract you then the label can be important. It helps you get back up.

Running can be competitive, running can be therapy, running can be for health, running can be fun. Running should be fun, go look in a playground at children running just for fun. When did you last feel like that? Running means lots of things for lots of people, and all of them are as valid reasons. 

Run to be social, run to be competitive, run because you’re being chased. It doesn’t matter. If it makes you happy then don’t let someone else put the brake on! 

Often it’s our peers, or people who inspire us, who can hurt us. An overheard word about someone being derogatory about someone else can be really damaging. Remember though, those who are criticizing others must be insecure themselves. Ignore them. Don’t let them get inside your head.

My answer to the question – the moment you use running as a form of movement, you’re a runner. That first moment you choose to run 20 steps, you’re a runner. You might not feel like a runner, you might aspire to more, you might have goals, some goals may seem un-achievable but you’re a runner.