Friday, 25 November 2016

Suunto Spartan Ultra








Every step, every mile, every heartbeat, every foot of ascent, all with the relentless goal of improvement. However in order to improve we need results and feedback to assess our efforts. And this is where modern technology steps in to assist us. It can serve to free our minds and bodies to concentrate on the unfettered action of running, all the while meticulously recording our every step. We are fortunate to have access to devices such as GPS watches. Our predecessors had to settle for measured distances, stopwatches and paper records to capture the necessary data to seek progress. Used correctly the feedback we receive can be deciphered to benefit us in a number of ways;

Visible improvements, be it in time or effort (through heartrate measurement) confirms our training is heading in the right direction

Recovery is still an underrated aspect of training and with assistance can be optimised to enhance the effects of training.

To some, the online community aspect of logging and sharing our achievements is reason enough to record their efforts.

But as with all technology, especially in the modern age, it’s a fluid entity, never static and always evolving. This is where Suunto, as one of the major players in the GPS watch market step in. Their much-lauded Ambit range of watches are revered by a large section of the running community. How they were going to progress such a great product was always going to be the conundrum. The answer is the Suunto Spartan Ultra featuring some key improvements over the Ambit range to make it a relevant and worthwhile purchase.



My first impressions out of the box were positive. It actually looks an attractive watch, one that I’m proud to wear every day as a 'dress watch'. Ironically now, it was the look of the very first Ambit that drew me to the Suunto brand, with the only exception being the placing of the large GPS antenna on the watch strap. For me with my narrow wrists it just looked a little too bulky. I appreciate the result was a very accurate and reliable GPS track, which to this day keeps drawing customers to the Suunto range. The Spartan however, does away with the large strap mounted GPS antenna though and somehow they have snuggled it comfortably into the watch itself. The profile of the watch seems slimmer too making it appear much more sleek on your arm.




Of course the biggest change in this new range of Suunto is the inclusion of touch screen technology. I’ll be the first to hold my hand up and say I was a little dubious, particularly on a device that would be used in the elements. I’m pleased to say having used the Spartan for the last month in a variety of conditions its performed admirably. However when the rain gets very heavy it can become a little problematic - and as expected unusable underwater. Menu screens are negotiated with an intuitive swipe and other selections confirmed with a satisfying vibration which creates the satisfying illusion of pressing a mechanical button. All the functions can be operated by using the three physical buttons on the right side of the watch, but I always find myself reverting to the touch screen. Maybe it’s just the novelty, which could wear thin – only time will tell I guess. In the meantime, I very much enjoy the technology.



One of my favourite functions is the customisable watch face. You select a variety of both analogue and digital time displays which can be as simple or detailed as you like. They can include other information such as altitude and number of steps (more on this later). Finally once you’ve chosen the display you can then choose from a number of colours to further personalise to suit your taste.

(photo courtesy of Suunto)


Battery life is another positive with the Spartan. With GPS set to ‘best’ it’ll reportedly manage 18 hours, with 26 hrs in ‘good’ GPS accuracy, which handily puts it as the 100 mile watch choice. Equally it’ll comfortably run for 15 days on standby. Of course this can be customised to suit your needs, suffice to say this is another great step forward for Suunto’s range. Clearly some thought has gone into improving the charging cable. Rather than the old clasp design, which while sufficient was sometimes a little fiddly, the new cable has a strong magnet connector which is a marked improvement.


A nice new feature is the ‘Step’ recording that I initially thought was a gimmick to replicate the devices that exclusively track a person’s daily movement. However my snobbery was soon overcome when I became obsessed with checking my daily totals to see if I could beat the previous days numbers. The only complaint I had here is that they only recorded or tracked beyond the day you’re on. However the latest firmware update (which are almost weekly at the moment) includes a handy seven day summary to check ongoing movement trends beyond just your usual sports tracking. If anything it's an interesting insight into how active we can be from day to day, which I now factor into my recovery and training plans.




Navigation is back, and those familiar with Suunto Ambit navigation will pretty much know what to expect. However the inclusion of the high resolution OLED screen means more detail and an easier format. You can actually see your track overlaid where you should be in relation to the route. This is much easier to follow than the all too familiar Ambit arrow and line format. This is a personal favourite of mine so I'm pleased to see this feature is definitely improved with the Spartan.



The Multisport selection is currently awaiting an update to allow customisation. Don't let this put you off though, this will be rectified in the near future. That aside there's a vast array of sports to choose from with preset displays. And again, another advantage of the new high res screen is having 5 easy-to-see metrics displayed at the same time. This plus also rolls over into the bluetooth notifications, where now more of your texts can be viewed. This really sells the advantages of the improved display for me, which in all fairness is the biggest step forward here at this stage.

As regards the actual application of using the watch for sports it has some key improvements. The actual search for a GPS signal appears to be instantaneous which is very promising for the hardware. The Spartan also differs from the Ambits in that it now uses GLONASS as well. This essentially means it'll have more satellite options resulting in better accuracy. Prior to starting the sport on the watch you can access an options menu where you can alter GPS accuracy (affecting battery life), toggle auto pause on or off and even select a route to navigate. Some of these options were only previously accessed by connecting the watch to a computer.  Post run you're presented with a summary screen with instant access to mile/kilometre splits. This all points to some well thought out improvements which make the day to day use of the Spartan Ultra a pleasure.




Heart rate functionality is present and correct with a bluetooth enabled chest strap. As well as allowing training in relevant heart rate zones, it'll also serve to complement the recovery features due in December. I'm still an advocate of chest mounted heart rate monitors, with their reported improved accuracy.

It would be untrue to say there haven’t been teething issues with the Suunto Spartan. Missing functionality that was standard on the Ambits has been a common complaint. But you only have to look at the release schedule set out by Suunto to see they are rapidly moving forward with this product. Not only this but they are also listening to feedback from their customer base and acting on it accordingly. The product itself is a fantastic leap forward in the wearable GPS tech market, and the software is rapidly catching up – keep the faith.

In summary it might have been nice if the release of this product was held off to iron out those software kinks in advance. But this aside, Suunto has once again produced a great product that is both functional and stunningly attractive. I’d say it's a must for your Christmas list.



Monday, 3 October 2016

Hardmoors 60 - Redemption





The void left in both my race calendar and self-esteem following a DNF at the Lakeland 100 required filling. I desperately needed some redemption after coming up short at Lakeland. The ‘mere’ act of finishing an ultra, any ultra, had become a prerequisite for my ongoing sanity. It was rapidly becoming a primary outcome goal after my Achilles tendonitis seemed to degrade even further over the last month. So with all this in mind I dropped on an entry to the Hardmoors 60 (100k and a reported near 10,000ft ascent) which seemed to fit the bill somewhere nicely between the 100 mile distance, but also not too short that my diminished leg speed would be a concern.

So following what felt a rapid enough recovery from Lakeland 100, I took a 9 day holiday in Chamonix to take in the madness that is UTMB race week. With the tendonitis niggling I didn’t hammer the miles over there but managed some quality ascent and a little altitude adaption. Love that place and genuinely can’t wait to hopefully race there next year!

On my return I booked in with my physio, who promptly attacked my Achilles with the needles combined with some excruciating massage. Suffice to say it freed things up a little and following a revelation in rolling my calves, things started looking much rosier! Despite no real long runs after Lakeland (about 6 weeks) I felt my fitness should carry through and I could actually run well at Hardmoors. Of course this presented the danger of diverting my outcome goals well off target. There again, having a good crack at the race shouldn’t really affect whether I finished or not. Circumstances this year seem to be conspiring against me, so when about 10 days out I acquired an evil chest infection, I was neither surprised nor overly concerned. I’m not sure if this was down to my resignation of the lack of quality running I’d performed this year, or just an acceptance of the situation and how I couldn’t really control it anyway.

The Race

Race morning arrived, and probably a first for me but I managed a pretty good night’s sleep. This put me in a good mood and although cool, the weather looked reasonably favourable as we drove to Guisborough, near Middlesborough. The aid station was rammed with familiar faces and it was great to see Jason Millward, essentially my wingman for a long stint on the Hardmoors 110, he was crewing at High Cliff Nab. I also got chance to catch up with fellow Mountain Fuellers’, Ste Lord, Matty Brennan and the ever gentlemanly Dave Troman.

Me and Dave both discussed our shared primary outcome goals to enjoy, finish and bury some demons. He’d also suffered an unfortunate DNF, his in Chamonix at the TDF. So with the start looming large I awaited the countdown, stripped down to just my S-Lab vest and shorts and readied myself. I felt much calmer than I normally do which was probably a by-product of the ‘enjoyment first’ outcome goal.



At the go we ran quietly (to respect the residents of Guisborough) onto the road and started heading up hill. I was initially about 10-15 back of the front and more than content to warm up nice and slow and settle into the long day ahead. As we hit the trails and the incline steepened somewhat some of the front runners really eased off the pace. I still felt very relaxed at this point so I cruised past into somewhere around the top 5 runners. Ste Lord had charged off at the front and I had no intentions of following just yet. 

I ended up dropping into a little group with Matty Brennan, Lee Firman and Jerry McCulla. We chatted the amiably as we hit the top of High Cliff Nab (the high point of the race). Jason Millward was up there marshalling and kindly took some photos as we passed. It’s fair to say at that point I felt pretty good, the climb had felt a breeze and the pace wasn’t overly taxing. If anything I was maybe sweating a little too much, but my perceived effort still felt in control so I put it down to the remnants of the virus. As we progressed through Guisborough woods, Jerry pushed ahead a bit and Matty kept stopping to take pictures, such was his chill factor in this race! I concentrated on sipping my Mountain Fuel and threw some occasional solid food down my neck. Suffice to say my stomach felt rock solid and it would be nice to mix things up with real food and Mountain Fuel through the day.



As we descended out of the woods towards the Park at Saltburn, Gerry and Lee pushed slightly ahead and I wanted to keep my pace in check so kept the effort breezy. It was on the descent into the park that my calf started to feel like it was torn - an injury I’d sustained after the HM110. It was on the same leg where my Achilles tendonitis was so I guessed it was just the remnants of that injury. I relaxed my running style to accommodate and lo-and-behold it eased off and would never return throughout the race. Bizarre how these niggles creep into races and quickly vanish???

As I ran through the park I could tell even the easy pace was a little harder than it should have been. I was content this was down to my virus and chastised myself for caring about race position, particularly so early on. We hit the aid station and it was great to see Emma and the kids. I noticed as Matty caught up he grabbed some melon, while I hit up some crisps and jaffa cakes. Not the healthiest option but I find I let myself eat whatever I fancy in ultra-races trusting the body to want what it needs. 


I ran out of the park towards Saltburn in company with Matty, Gary Thwaites and another guy called Chris (I think). Moving as a group we hit the first of many steep stepped ascents on the seafront. The pace felt good and overlooking the sea I was enjoying the view. Unfortunately, my energy levels were still lagging and even at a steady tempo it was just more of an effort than it should have been. And so it was further down the sea front as we ran along the cliff tops I just eased off the throttle to try and get myself together. The group of 3 steadily pulled away while I resigned myself to a tough day at the office.


Several miles later as I came into Runswick Bay Dave Troman caught me, some 15 miles in. It was great to see a familiar face as every mile was becoming a trial. He was with another 2 guys and all together we rolled into the Runswick Bay aid station. Although I was lucky to have my ever-reliable crew of Em and the kids, this was the first drop bag so everyone got busy sorting themselves out. I told Emma I was struggling with energy and pretty much moved straight onto the beach eating a banana. Dave came flying by like the Terminator, relentlessly eating up the terrain. At the end of the beach I climbed up the steep gulley to get back onto the cliff tops, and back to the monotonous grassy miles.



I was still perplexed by what was happening to me. Was this just a virus or something more sinister? Once again this year I just couldn’t perform how I wanted to and knew I was capable of.  I just had it in my head that I wouldn’t quit, my salvation lied in finishing this race at all costs. I figured that the four 100 milers I’d run in the last 12 months were taking their toll. My body was telling me I had to have some much needed rest. And so it was while out on this run I resolved to ensure I took some time out over winter to really get back on track.

With my resolution in place, the only thing left was to put this race to bed and get finished! With this single focus in mind, I was full circle to my outcome goal of finishing. This had the joyous release of getting my head back into a space where I could enjoy the process.

Back in the race – I found the slog along the front at Sandends a bit of a drag, but turning the next bend to see Whitby really lightened my mood. The run through the town was problematic in that the crowds hadn’t taken into account a sugar deprived ultra-runner weaving through their day trip. I kept my patience and said ‘excuse me’ numerous times with varying effectiveness. Hitting the 199 steps up to the Abbey I finally got some room to get moving properly again. It was nice to get a bit of a rhythm going and feel like I was ticking some miles off again.


The run from here took me eventually to the ever beautiful Robin Hoods Bay, a stunning little village tucked into a small cutting in the coastline. I knew when I reached the aid there I had to try something in respect of food, although on retrospect, I don't think food was the problem. Suffice to say, and in vain, I tried to eat everything! Emma had kindly bought me some salty chips to try and perk me up. In isolation this may have been fine, but washing them down with some melon, other assorted sugary goods and a cup of coke was probably not so wise. This resulted in the inevitable and slightly embarrassing ejection of my stomachs contents all over the grass at the side of the aid station. I'm sure this was most unpleasant for the aid volunteers and the droves of passing tourists - Sorry!



Not wanting to dwell on my plight I ran on, gravity assisted by the steep decent into Robin Hoods Bay centre. The climb out although short and steep, was crowned with the gift of a beautiful tunnel of trees, before pushing onto the grassy tops over looking the ocean. Although a far cry from the mountains, my preferred habitat, the views throughout the day were in stark contrast, and almost refreshing because of it. Whenever I wanted to start feeling sorry for myself, I took the time to take in the vistas and listen to the sounds of the waves crashing against the cliffside.





Next up, and probably the only other climb that might be considered substantial, was a longish drag up towards Ravenscar. I tried to run every step but my body wouldn't allow it as the gradient steepened. And so I was reduced to fast hike; a skill I seem to be improving in year on year. When I finally left the trail and got onto the road leading to the aid station I got back into a jog to tick of the milestone I had in my head of 40 something miles. I figured most of my long training runs were in the 20 mile sort of distance, and so with this left to the finish, mentally it was a mental stepping stone of sorts. I knew, arrogantly or otherwise, I would most certainly finish now, no matter the pain or cost.

I think I spent around 15-20 minutes in the aid station at Ravenscar, just zapped of energy. To try and freshen up I changed into a fresh Salomon vest and had some more food. I didn't feel the need to change my footwear as the Salomon S-Lab Sense had been super comfy all day long. Once up and out the door it was business as usual - vomiting up the side of the road as I stumbled up the road to the trail. Comical how we call this pastime a hobby, but the enjoyment come from overcoming adversity in the long run...

With just over 20 miles to go the run into the finish would prove to be a slow, steady slog. That's not to say I wasn't enjoying the adventure. As many people had passed me at the aid station delays, I steadily overtook before the next. I had no idea of my position, but in all honesty it was truly only the finish that interested me now. I would get this race done and reassess how to get a return to form.




At the risk of this report becoming a write up of misery (probably too late now), the next 14 or so miles passed with little incident. The highlight being a run along the otherwise grim Scarborough seafront. Today this experience would be much more interesting with huge waves crashing against the sea walls, raining cool sea water onto me as I passed the droves of tourists. A short run with my son along the seafront; Cameron keeping pace and cheering his Dad on was likely the highlight of my day (picture at the header).


The next aid at Scarborough Spa and the runners were diverted off course due to the danger presented by the rough seas smashing onto the seafront. This meant some extra ascent, but it was dealt with quickly enough. Ironically I even started feeling a little better with the finish line getting ever closer. With just 6 miles to go I was getting news from some spectators that I was catching some runners up front. Sure enough, two runners who'd come through while I toiled at Scarborough Spa came into view with their head torches now illuminated. After a pretty rough day all round, it was only fair I tried to push it in to the finish now. After catching and overtaking the two runners on a steep grassy descent, I accelerated towards the end. With the rough grassy trail I really needed to concentrate to avoid rolling an ankle as the darkness descended fully. When some more runners lights came into view up ahead I took the decision to ease back while I donned my own head torch. Once the world was lit sufficiently again I pushed past the next two runners. The lighthouse at Filey came into view signifying the end. However in a final kick to the face, the lighthouse merely taunted me and must have still been a couple of miles down the trail, as it wouldn't get any closer!

When the lighthouse came and went on the Filey Brigg, I ran onto a section of the course leading to the town centre I'd never seen before so I fired up the nav feature on my Suunto watch. With this back stop I easily found the right route in towards the finish and a last short climb up the road from the seafront. With the family waiting with cowbells ringing, I ensured to enjoy the last moments of a tough day.




In the end it took me about 2 hours or more longer to finish than I'd anticipated. Another substandard performance, but I'm more than happy to get a finish under my belt. It was great to see Ste Lord had bagged a win for the HM Grand slam and Matty Brennan had cruised to a well place podium position. Despite my personal performance woes, I still relish every opportunity to engage with the ultra community made up of such nice folk.

Reflection

I think it's now glaringly obvious whats happened to me after a tough year of racing. I've consulted with some well informed and experienced people and they've confirmed I'm clearly suffering over training syndrome. I guess in my case it's less 'over training' and more 'over raced'. Having run the 4 hundred milers in the last 12 months, it's been far too much, especially as I'm new to that distance. It's a rookie mistake, but in my defence the hunt for UTMB points has certainly contributed to my over racing. A day without learning is a day wasted...

Moving forward with some valuable lessons learnt, my first priority is to get some rest to get my body back to normal. I'm currently in the throes of a full month off running, and while it's driving me mad, I'm feeling the relief in my body already. Next I'll be looking to get some speed back into my legs. The 100 milers have meant plenty of slow, steady state running meaning I've lost some of my top speed. With some rest and quality speed training I'm looking forward to running some faster 50 milers. I'm also in the lottery for the next years UTMB so fingers crossed that could be the highlight of 2017. 

Huge thanks to Salomon, Suunto and Mountain Fuel for their ongoing support and faith in my abilities.

Onwards and upwards






















Sunday, 11 September 2016

Mountain Fuel - Chocolate Brownies





Over the past 4 years running long distances has become my passion. In doing so I’ve found a pastime that feeds my need for self-improvement, achievement and fulfilment. An activity that more often than not rewards judicious practice and determination. Borne of the ‘Rocky Balboa’ generation, I love the very idea of a sport that the layman can pour their heart into and achieve feats previously unfathomable to oneself. That sheer motivation and will of spirit will sometimes supersede the purely talented. And it’s this fact that constantly pushes me, despite an honest belief there are much more gifted athletes lining up at races. Overcoming the hurdles of injury and fatigue, it’s the ongoing pursuit of improvement that ensures I’ll never be complacent and always striving for more.
In this dogged effort for incremental gains I look to all facets of my running to find means of improvement. And when I discovered Mountain Fuel (https://www.mountainfuel.co.uk), I knew they had provided the answers where race nutrition was concerned. Shrugging the now archaic idea that gels were the only standalone solution to running fuel – it was a more holistic approach that attracted me. Going beyond simply providing an (albeit very impressive) sports drink, the company had the foresight to empower its customers with products and recipes to make their own solid and healthy alternatives for both race and day to day sustenance.
Having sampled the always delicious Mountain Fuel Banana Flapjack and Mountain Fuel Power Pancakes – I felt the need to experiment myself. Whilst always looking to ensure I consume a healthy diet to assist in my recovery, I'm also guilty of a desire for sweet treats from time to time…
After several tweaks, I’ve managed to perfect a brownie recipe that gives me all the nutritional benefits of the Mountain Fuel system, yet also uses healthy ingredients to provide a delicious treat. It would even make a great race day fuel cut into bite size pieces -

Ingredients
Packet of Mountain Fuel - Morning Fuel (https://www.mountainfuel.co.uk)
150g Cashew Nuts (soaked for 6 hours in water then well drained)
100g Macadamias (soaked for 6 hours in water then well drained)
60g Raisins (or other equivalent dried fruits such as dates or figs)
50g Cocao Powder
30g Chia seed
5 Tbsp Maple Syrup
3 Tbsp Coconut Oil
1 Tsp Vanilla essence
0.5 Tsp Sea Salt



Method
Simply blend all the ingredients together to form a smooth paste. Then put the mixture into a greased baking tray and refrigerate for 3 hours before cutting into bite size chunks. Wrap in foil for easy transport on long runs.







Enjoy and feel free to tweak the recipe to your personal tastes.



Monday, 15 August 2016

Bittersweet - The power and pain of a DNF




Focus


-



After months of preparation, countless hours of training and fine tuning – all seemingly for nothing. I had an element of personal pride in the fact that I'd doggedly finished every race I'd entered up to press. I now question whether that was truly an accolade, or just pure stubbornness to the detriment of the bigger picture.  I suppose it is na├»ve to expect to this unbroken run to continue in the face of a slew of 100 milers (3 booked in this year), especially still as a relative rookie.

I draw some satisfaction, however menial and personal, that my race at the Lakeland 100 was drawn to an early conclusion through illness. I hate to think I've quit anything in life, yet through honest reflection, a couple of weeks later now I have started to come to terms with this outcome. Most importantly I need to extract any lessons learnt and experience gained.

The defining factor is the determination I've galvanised from this adventure. I felt utterly destroyed both physically and mentally by my apparent failure. With this as a painful memory, I'll continue to attack my races with the same indomitable will and determination to try and avoid this emotion in the future.

The Race


My plan on race day was to approach the whole experience in a much more relaxed manner this time around. Waking up to miserable, dark, rain filled skies in Sheffield, yet the promise of sunnier climes kept my mood favourable. We set off in what felt like good time to reach the Lakes before deciding on a stop off for lunch. My daughter had the honours of choosing our nutritional intake – inevitably it would always be her favourite, KFC. Whatever possessed me to partake in this poor pre-race meal option I'll never know. Equally I'll never know if it was a contributing factor in my ultimate demise.


On we went after a mountain of fried chicken, and subsequently got caught in the mother of all traffic jams. This became a secondary factor in respect my rising stress levels. However after some route diversions we descended on Coniston with enough time to register and get myself prepped. And so after kit check and race briefing I had a short while to chat with the ever friendly Rupert Bonnington of Mountain Fuel and Vincent from Salomon. All the while the sun was getting ever hotter...


The first climb towards Old Man of Coniston

We collected in the starters pen, having being dibbed in, and I took the opportunity to wish Stuart Percival well in his race before the usual ritual of Nessun Dorma being sung. As the countdown to the start ticked away I reflected on how I felt, it's hard to put it into words, I just felt a little out of sorts.  Like my body didn't belong to me, a slightly queasy feeling in my stomach and weak legs. I shrugged it off as nerves and the race started with a wave of overenthusiastic, tapered ultra-runners charging through Coniston and up the first mountain.
The ascent up Walna Scar proved to be my first notification all was not well. My legs felt like lead and I was just sweating profusely. It was in stark contrast to the recce run I'd done a few weeks prior from Coniston to Braithwaite. On that occasion I'd effortlessly covered the 35 miles and 10,000ft of ascent, nailing my nutrition plan in the process. I'd easily sustained my effort on Mountain Fuel Xtreme energy and Mountain Fuel - homemade banana flapjacks. Yet here I was toiling up the first hill less than a mile into the race. I thought back to the previous year, where once again I'd felt pretty awful over that first ascent, yet that day had proved successful as I brought things around to finish my first 100 miler in 26hrs. I consciously backed off the pace and tried to allow things to unfold naturally. As I summited over the pass, I used the rocky descent into Seathwaite to recover and try to turn things around.

This quite naturally brings me to what I now consider another mistake in this years race. I was being far too goal orientated, planning for a 24hour time at the slowest, with aspirations for an even faster time than that. The issue being that even at this early stage I was too concerned with my splits. I hit Seathwaite aid station pretty much bang on to the previous years time. Which at this point was fine, but as the evening progressed and I started losing time, it would prove to be part of my undoing.

Salomon S-Lab Sense eating up the rocky terrain

The run out of Seathwaite is always a pleasant run through the woods, which is reminiscent of the trails I run on daily; rooty and technical. So here, in my element I started to feel at least fairly good. As we hit a short but steep ascent after a farm yard, a group of about 5 runners had all come together. I took the opportunity to get some solid food in me in the form of some flapjack, all the while sipping on Mountain Fuel. The flapjack took a good 5 minutes to eat as my mouth was completely dry. Along with the profuse sweating and general weakness I drew the conclusion that I was probably quite poorly. I could try forever to pin this down to something, maybe the KFC for lunch, the heat or even a lingering cold/illness I'd been harbouring on the run up to the race? But it now seems pretty redundant, sometimes you've just got to take the hand you're dealt with and try to do your best. I'm often guilty of debriefing and dissecting my races down to the last detail. Sometimes this may look like a reason to find excuses, but I'm ambitious and want to discover my weaknesses in order to improve and perform better in the long run.

So it was with this resignation that I soldiered on hoping something might change over the next 24, or so hours of racing. I actually started to enjoy myself again on the climb over to Boot, although it wasn't lost on me just how wet it was underfoot meaning another bout of 'trenchfoot' by Dalemain. I managed to tag onto the back of a couple of runners, which helped me run up the boggy climb. Despite my plight I could still sense the fitness I'd attained on the build up to the race and really enjoyed the moment racing with the two guys, dancing around the mud and rocks. A slight error of nav as we began the descent to Boot before we once again we picked up the pace a little. On the steep, wet, grassy decline I expected some slips and falls but the Salomon S-Lab Sense gripped admirably. I'd considered going for the Salomon Soft Ground, but was pleased the Sense were performing great.  As we ran through a farm yard and onto a single track road I saw a familiar looking runner walking up ahead. As I neared him I realised it was Richard Ashton who'd been nursing a grim looking ankle injury on the week leading up to the race. After a quick chat to check on his welfare it transpired that he'd rolled it again a couple of times and was looking to drop at Boot. I told him I'd let them know at the aid and if needs must get someone to come pick him up.


Keeping positive into Wasdale

Onward over the next section of stunning riverside trail, and once again I felt like I was moving reasonably well, even gapping the two runners I'd been sharing the journey with for a short while. Running into Boot, the pubs were full and a rapturous cheer lifted my spirits as I prepped some Mountain Fuel for the aid station. The sight of the ever friendly and always smiling Debbie Martin-Consani lifted my mood further as she tended to my nutritional needs, allowing me a second to gather myself and look at the food on offer. Grabbing a single HobNob, really just for the sake of it I think, I started a purposeful hike up and out of the aid station. It was starting to feel futile where on a steady incline up to Burnmoor Tarn I just couldn't get moving more than a slow shuffle. Comically this painfully slow meander was enough to keep those behind me at bay, but at the same time I wasn't reeling anyone in front either.

As the view down towards Wasdale and Kirk Fell opened up, I couldn't help but smile and revel in the moment. Even though I was suffering and clearly having a bad race, it's always good to remember why we put our bodies through this. I tackled the steep descent into Wasdale with a guy called Ben and another friendly Dude. Conversation was minimal though, so it seemed we were all suffering a bit.

The Sunderland Strollers lifting the spirits of a broken man

As the light really began to fade with the setting Sun, I entered the aid station. This aid is run by the Sunderland Strollers and is always a frenetic hive of energy. This year was no exception, with Tony Allen enthusiastically welcoming me into the aid. There seemed to be quite a few runners lingering at the aid, and I was both happy and saddened to see Ian Radford sat looking tired and dejected. I'd run most of the Lakeland 100 last year with Ian and was looking forward to sharing some of the journey again with him. However Ian had gone out quite quick, maybe as a result of all those lightning fast marathons he's been running, and he was paying the price dearly. The aid crew got to work sorting my bottles out and adding Mountain Fuel while I looked at the food. I think I grabbed some crisps before a quick group photo with the Strollers and left with a purpose ready to take on the always enjoyable Black Sail Pass. As I started the climb I still felt weak, and it hit me again how strong I'd felt a couple of weeks prior when running the same section. But it seemed as the ascent steepened rapidly, not only was I resigned to a hike, but it felt painfully slow. As I crossed the fast stream halfway up I took a minute to drink loads of water and try to refresh myself. This was where I switched my Petzl headlamp on as a moonless sky finally turned ink black. It wasn't lost on me that this stream crossing was where I fell the previous year and injured my knee. An injury I would go on to suffer for the remaining 85 or so miles to the finish. The thought of trying to do the same again felt inconceivable, yet last year it was a finish no matter what mentality and no real time pressures. Yet here I was with my legs and joints feeling fresher than I've known for some time – I just couldn't muster any energy to drive them upwards and onwards.

I got my head down as a pair of runners came past me and trudged up the near vertical switchbacks. I rounded a corner to see a guy sat down, clearly exhausted. Johnathon (as it read under his race number) told me he was finished. He planned to walk over to Buttermere and look at dropping from the race. His thoughts dangerously echoed that of my own, in that he couldn't perform anywhere near his ability due to zero energy levels. I'd been shoving negative thoughts to the back of my mind as much as possible, but as John joined me on the slow climb up the pass his own fears became infectious. What was the point in destroying myself for a sub-standard race performance? I immediately chastised myself for such negativity and pushed on. We topped out over the pass and descended into Ennerdale Valley. The night wasn't helping on this technical section, requiring hands on rock to climb down certain parts. But here again, when gravity assisted my running I starting thinking things might be getting better. False hope in reality as the next climb would brutally kick the confidence and energy back out of me. I managed some fairly decent running along the valley bottom picking up a nice cadence, now leading a short train of about 5 runners that had concertinaed together.

Black Sail Pass in the daylight

The next climb up Scarth Gap came all too quick and it was back to hands on knees. So much was the effort, I stepped to one side to let the other runners lead up the mountainside. I tagged on the back and just tried to hang onto them - demoralising doesn't seem a strong enough word. I grabbed some flapjack from my bag and tried eating it. I managed half before I felt queasy, my stomach audibly unhappy with the strain I was putting my broken body through. I've been sick in plenty of races, usually it ends up being a fingers down the throat, self induced affair. Sometimes this can offer a bit of a reset, and you can look to rebuild the contents with some quality nutrition. Not this time – I literally projectile vomited instantaneously onto the trail in front of me. The final confirmation of my state of ill-being. I collapsed onto the side of the trail and continued to dry heave what little was left in my stomach. I gave myself a minute before I crawled onto my feet and continued up the trail. It didn't seem too long before I was over the top and dropping down towards Buttermere, once again alone on the pitch black trails. 

Despite my sugar deprived state I managed to wobble along the trail, fast enough to overtake John again. Now to compound my ongoing woes my stomach started cramping painfully. I wondered if I'd strained my abdominals through the vomiting but couldn't be sure. Then just before I reached the village of Buttermere I was startled to see, in the beam of my torch light, 3 West Highland Terriers wearing Christmas Jumpers!?! My first thoughts were that this must be something the aid volunteers had arranged to amuse the runners coming into the village. However it transpired it was just a vivid hallucination, and as I neared, the Westies slowly morphed into the 3 bewildered sheep they actually were. Bizarre.

As I came into the aid station I was welcomed with the promise of some soup and bread. I declined the bread due to my new-found wheat intolerance, although on retrospect I think this was a mistake as the extra calories would have undoubtedly helped. Still the soup was a godsend, and it went down nicely. James Elson was casually putting some warm clothes on as he had dropped from the race. I was a little shocked as I'd anticipated both him and Rick Ashton to be racing for the podium. James reasons once again echoed my own sufferance stating low energy levels. 

Still I had a task to accomplish so I didn't hang about too long before I set off up the next climb – the ever brutal Sail Pass. I shared some of early section with another kind runner, although his name eludes me now – sorry. As we contoured along the path, dipping into the stream cloughs, conversation was again light and I really wasn't feeling any better. We reached the third clough and the other runner cut straight across the stream bed. I considered for a moment whether to follow suit, but I had a word with myself and if I was to finish this race, I would make sure I'd legitimately covered every inch. So once again, I was by myself as I cut deep into the clough and crossed the stream higher up where I was meant to. I steadily sipped my Mountain Fuel Xtreme Energy, and in all fairness it was the only thing that was keeping me ticking over as solids were still out of the question.

The mellow part of Sail Pass


When the trail kicked really steep, after the scree slope I was feeling the effort so I kept the pace light. Not that I had much choice, with my stomach continuing to cramp every so often. I once again sat down on the trail to recover and soak up the atmosphere. I'm the sort of person that likes to 'race' these events, and that's not to decry people who enter to travel the course at a relatively 'easy' pace. Far from it, I'm almost looking forward to a time when I'm older and hopefully still able to run these events, where I can move at a more sociable pace and really enjoy the routes. But for the time being (competitiveness and ambition I guess) I hate slowing too much and especially stopping. I rarely spend more than a couple of minutes in aid stations and unless, like today where I'm having issues, I'd never normally stop on the trail. Of course the fact that my body was slowly shutting down wasn't really giving me an option. So I sat in the darkness and turned off my torch. I looked back down the valley towards Buttermere and could see a few torch lights weaving up towards me. Glancing in the direction I was headed, it seemed a blessing that I couldn't see how far I had left to climb. After a minute or so I got back to my feet and pushed on. I think this was either premature, or I'd unsettled myself by resting but a few steps later I sort of keeled over and blacked out. I can't describe the sensation, but the sheer effort of moving with my symptoms, it was like my body just gave out for a second. This should have been the last straw really and the decision to drop at Braithwaite was the only sensible thing left to do.  Unfortunately I don't often do sensible, it just feels too mainstream, lol. I'm not particularly special in any way, so by trying to push beyond my limits at least allows me to attain a sense of achievement and personal achievement.

I was joined by another runner for the descent into Braithwaite and we actually had a nice chat which pepped me up a bit. The company actually served to distract me from the intense pain in my stomach. Which ultimately led us to a route error, dropping us much further down the valley than we needed to. A quick detour up through the steep bracken strewn hillside and we were back on track. Ironically I guess, I'd made the very same nav error on my recce, but that was in daylight. It was only by using the GPS track on my Suunto that I'd noticed in the darkness.

As we picked our way through the village of Braithwaite I told my new friend of my pains and the consideration that it might just not be my day. He encouraged me to keep going and dig deep which helped steel my resolve. I took some time at the aid station to have sit down and try to put some more calories in. I had a bowl of cold rice pudding with jam in, something I hadn't sampled since I was a child so it brought back some pleasant memories. This seemed to actually help a little, so as more runners started to stream into the aid I got up and left. 

The next 2 miles or so went pretty well, the level ground meant I could run smoothly and not jostle my stomach too much. It also meant I really thought I could still bring this thing home. Of course the climb up the side of Latrigg was the reality check I needed that all was still not well in the 'Kirky' camp. It was frustrating to think I'd had the pleasure of running up this ascent in the company of Kilian Jornet at the Salomon event a few weeks prior, but was now  resigned to a desultory walk in the dark. It was soon over though and I ran into the long valley which leads to the Blencathra aid. I was surprised to see a number of torchlights stringing along the length of the valley in front of me. I must have actually made up some time since Braithwaite. This joyous thought was short lived though as the stomach cramps increased in frequency and intensity. And as I reached the end of the valley and began to return leg on the opposite side I was confronted by a fair few torchlights in pursuit. I think this is what finally caused something to snap in my mind. I knew I needed some significant time at Blencathra to really sort myself out. I hadn't taken enough time at the previous aids to resolve much and my performance was suffering even more as the night passed. This sight of all the runners giving chase made me realise I was now fully out of any real race for a time or position I would truly be proud of. The momentous effort to get round in the state I was, was only going to result in a much flawed outcome goal. Which neatly takes me back to my problem, I was so outcome oriented I was rapidly losing sight of the necessary process goals to get this thing done. 50 milers, although in some ways harder in different ways due to pace, can almost be blagged with poor nutrition or physical issues. But with the gargantuan effort required to complete a 100 miler, one has to have 100% resolve that you won't stop, no matter what. My soul was now crushed, I felt like crying if I'm being even slightly honest here. My motivations in complete tatters, and the crippling pain in my belly taunted me further.

I practically fell into the Blencathra Aid, so much so the staff there could tell immediately I was in dire straits. They were amazing in tending to my needs, trying to force food down me. They made me a big mug of sweet tea too to try and turn it all around. I verbalised my thoughts on a dreaded DNF, but was strangely surprised when they adamantly told me not to. I always expected aid staff to be more likely to pull someone from a race as opposed to pushing them on. I think this was one of the last positive thoughts I might have had on a completion before my newly filled stomach griped in agony. It hurt so much I ended up curled under a table on the floor and promptly fell asleep for about 30 minutes or so. I can't imagine how weird it must have looked to other runners coming through, for me to be sprawled comatose on the floor – not that I would have even cared at that point.

When I finally sat up rubbing my eyes, I climbed onto a chair and while I spoke with Little Dave about my options, I was greeted with a most pleasant sight. My good friend from up North, Stuart Percival wandered into the aid station. His face amused me most as he saw me sat forlorn in the chair. I explained I'd been there for nearly an hour now, but wanted to get to Dalemain (60 mile point) with him. He was equally happy for the company so we set of with renewed vigour. Just the small matter of another 20 miles of feeling like crap…


Stuart and me enjoying the moment


The morning was just beginning to break as we tackled the new section towards the Old Coach Road. We effectively interspersed running and walking as best we could. Stu was suffering a bit with pains in his knee through ITB so we generally worked to whatever pace was comfortable for him. It was great to run along together and have a great chat. We even managed a comedy 'walking speed' overtake past three guys on the climb onto the Old Coach Road - don't think it was lost on them either. I actually enjoy this section as its nicely rolling and supremely runnable. We must have been moving reasonable well as we made the overtake stick and even caught and passed another runner further up the trail. The sun was fully rising into an amazing skyline which really made me appreciate the moment. I was truly grateful I'd managed to at least see the sunrise, and even if it all ended soon I'd secured some great memories. 

As the sun rises over Old Coach Road


I knew in my mind I'd made my mind up to seriously consider dropping at Dalemain, so it was a bittersweet experience. But most of all I was grateful of the opportunity to share some of Stuart's race with him. I'd even like to think I helped him along over those last 20 miles.

We reached Dockray and my pains were still getting worse after the slight respite of my sleeping/fuelling stop at Blencathra. I made sure I topped up my Mountain Fuel, which I was still drip feeding to keep me going. It was the only thing that didn't exacerbate my stomach problems and kept a steady flow of energy. Not that my body was being in anyway effective at utilising it.


Just pacing a climb up Gowbarrow Fell

At the risk of letting this narrative continue forever; the next 11 miles or so went by with a mix of doubling over with cramps, many great laughs with Stuart, the amazing views from Gowbarrow Fell down to Ullswater, before the final mind numbing trudge through Dacre and onto the Dalemain estate.
The stunning views over Ullswater

Over the long featureless drag through the Dalemain estate my mind began playing tricks on me. Despite my pains I was still considering the immense energy and pain tolerance that would be required to continue, and even if I could in fact do it. It was when I saw my kids in the distance that with overwhelming emotion I knew I was finished. Every scrap of my being had been pushing for the last several hours to return me to my family. The sheer pain and hardship all seemed to release the emotion at once. A hug with my kids and Emma was the final straw, and my salvation.

We ran into the aid, an outdoor tent, which was full of broken runners so we were relegated to a chair outside. I slumped into the chair and explained to Emma what had transpired overnight. I think she knew I was done, but didn't want to tell me to stop. She rightly let it be my own decision. And even then as Stuart sat busily in the next chair sorting his feet out I had a fleeting moment of indecision.


It turned out a paramedic would be the one to help make that fateful choice. Obviously concerned about my wellbeing (I must have looked rough!) she checked my levels. It transpired my oxygen, blood pressure and sugars were all dangerously low. She didn't pull my race, but she recommended it. In my pathetic little existence, this was a monumental junction...

Trying to make light with the paramedics in my darkest hour

Which road to take, one of apparent failure or drive on to oblivion? I'm not going to write an honest and frank race report to then end it with a lie. I could have continued, I might have faltered further down the line, God forbid it could have even resulted in death. But equally I could've made it to the end, but at what cost? Last year it took me several months to recover fully. I think I made the right choice to withdraw. It'll take a lot longer to convince myself that it's so conclusive, but I'll continue to try.

The aid member came over and cut my dibber, effectively ending my race. I didn't initially feel the heartbreak I expected, that came later. Rather my body had a massive feeling of relief and salvation. It was as we walked to the car I felt the first tinges of regret. Then a couple of hours later, rested and feeling fully recovered I was gutted. My soul was destroyed, I'd failed. I do wonder if sometimes I'm just trying too hard.



When the body finally gives way


It's only through long term reflection I'm able to process these circumstances. It will give me strength to improve. I can now see clearly where I've not pushed enough, and equally where I've tried too hard. It's with joy and relief I can move forward in the hardest of life lessons to my next chapter:

"Without the sour, there ain't no sweet..."




As always huge thanks to Salomon, Suunto and Mountain Fuel for their ongoing support in my adventures.