Friday, 15 March 2013

Week in Review...

Morning on Calton
Sickness and Snow
It's been a strange week - sickness, snow, stress at work. Last weekend I wasn't capable of training at all after developing some kind of noro virus like lurgy. I had to cancel my first heat training session at Napier (it wouldn't have been pretty) then a group run in the Pentlands.

This week I'm relieved to be back on track, and managed 3 days of hilly morning and afternoon runs, albeit plodding pretty slowly. Its official, I'm obsessed with running up Calton Hill as the sun rises and sets.

The treads
After the first day of snowfall, running on the soft powder was so much fun, using the snow treads my friend Andy Cole gave me - they are amazing, once you get over breaking your fingernails trying to stretch them round your trainers. Basically snow tyres for feet. Once the snow began to melt into a slush they just ended up cutting through and clicking down hard on the pavement though, so it was time to take them off. The looks from passers by due to the sheer noise coming from my feet was too much!

Speyside Way
We are heading up to the beautiful Cairngorms later on to stay with friends and I'm planning a day long run tomorrow on the Speyside Way, with maybe a bit of hill walking thrown in on Sunday.

Later on this year in August, I am signed up to run the 36-mile Speyside Way Race, so it will be good to scope and re-familiarise with part of the trail for this. I had a brilliant experience there in 2011 and was registered last year but had to defer due to the post-West Highland Way achilles injury. Lets hope I make it there this year after the Western States!

UltrAspire Surge Review
I also recently wrote another gear review for UltrAspire, this time for the Surge hydration pack, my first foray into hydration packs and most definitely a positive one. See the review on the Ultrarunning World site.

Next week I try again - Thursday brings the first Napier session and speed intervals will resume!

Thursday, 7 March 2013

If Carlsberg did Ultras...

After all the obsessive planning and scheduling involved in Western States training, I reverted to impulsive form a couple of weeks back when Mark Cooper mentioned he was due to run the Endurance Life Northumbria Ultra soon, one of their Coastal Trail Series. I took a look at their website, which to a backdrop of stunning images of sandy beaches and sunshine read '98% full'. Too tempting. Having nothing on that weekend apart from a 30 mile training run - this race would end up being 34 miles - I signed up there and then. I'd never been to Northumbria - not counting East Coast Mainline - so wanted to explore there anyway.

It all serendipitously came together when my friend Julie decided to join me to explore Holy Island and the general surrounds. She even managed to get us a cottage for the whole weekend, courtesy of her kind friend from the area, so we headed down to the little fishing village called Craster on Friday night to settle in. We arrived to a night sky awash with stars and a house already cosy with the coal fire left on for us. Happy Friday indeed.

View from Bamburgh Castle Registration
And so the next morning we drove the 13 miles back up the coast to race registration in Bamburgh. And what a registration location - without a doubt the most stunning one I've seen to date - Bamburgh Castle, which was bathed in glowing morning light from the sun which had just risen. I had all of 10 minutes to register, grab my timing chip and do some general faffing and photo taking before hopping on the bus that would take us out to the start, inland in a town called Alnwick. It was great to catch up with Mark and his friend Tony Holland on the bus and hear about their plans for the year...Tony is taking on the West Highland Way Race and the Lakeland too - exciting stuff.

After a pretty comprehensive briefing from Endurance Life, including words on respect for the environment and a challenge to pick up at least one piece of litter, we set off across a series of fields and paths. After a wrong turn for 100 metres or so taken by the entire field of around 70, we got back on track that would take us 6 or 7 miles out to the coast. The rest of the course was brilliantly well marked with the consistent branding of Endurance Life and getting on to the coastal path at Alnmouth was just lovely, with the expanse of blue sky and sea all around us and soft sandy paths weaving through the dune system. I hit the first check point at 6.7 miles in 1.02 hrs and stopped only to tear my jacket off and stuff it into my hydration pack - the UltrAspire Surge, which I have completely fallen for. Its so lightweight I hardly notice it and has zero bounce and fantastic little fuel pockets.

Reaching the coastal path for the first time at Alnmouth
The route travelled up the coastal path for 20 miles, threading through little villages and towns - first Boulmer then Howick, Craster, Beadnell, Newton, Seahouses and Bamburgh. As per the typical Endurance Life event there were a number of races being held, a 10k, half marathon, marathon and the ultra. The marathon was setting off from where we did shortly after, and later on the fastest runners would begin to overtake us.

At around mile 12 the Norwegian girl who'd been behind me caught up and we chatted for a while before she sped off. I had to remind myself more than once to run my own race and of my promise to Julie that this would be a training run only.

I tried to keep my pace steady and didn't stop at any of the other checkpoints apart from the check the timing chip in and grab a handful of sweets:

CP2: Howick - 12.7 miles 1.51 hrs
CP3: Newton - 18.7 miles 2: 51 hrs
CP4: Seahouses - 24.6 miles 3.46 hrs

I was just enjoying the peace, soaking up the sun and scenery, and was on my own for much of the remainder, apart from around mile 20 when I passed Tony. He was struggling with gastro problems, mentioning a 65 mile treadmill run he'd done for charity last weekend might have been too much!  I also ran past a few other guys when we made it down onto the beach at Beadnell. One was one of the 'Vegan Runners' crew and mentioned I was moving into sixth place overall. The beach sections between paths were free and so much fun, apart from the seemingly endless final beach section into Bamburgh, where the marathon runners started passing us and heading up to the castle for the finish. Us ultra runners had to veer right round the castle instead for the final 8 mile loop, north around the paths and roads of Bamburgh to return to the same beach section and finish. Just as we started the final section I was passed again by another girl - who turned out to be the sister of the Norwegian girl in second place. Then all of a sudden Julie appears cheering in the dunes - a welcome support and encourgement not to slow and lose focus.

Me plodding up the final hill to the castle
I found some energy from a Trek bar and pushed on, overtaking the girl again once we were round the side of the castle and heading up a hilly road. I thought she would follow in suit but she stayed back. I headed into another field section, where for the only time during the race the signage seemed to disappear. I did a few 180's until I spotted signage on the main road over the wall and promptly hopped over to get back on track. The tarmac went on and on - and every time I expected the signage to turn us logically back toward the castle we were sent off in the opposite direction, with the sun now beating down on us unrelentingly. Finally, after another field section the beach appeared again, and all of a sudden I was running the same stretch down towards the castle - a bit groundhog day but not exactly uninspiring scenery to be stuck with!

After the final cheeky little hill up to the castle finish line I was done, in 5.31. And pretty dehydrated given I hadn't refilled my hydration pack for the entire race. I was only over the finish line for 2 seconds when the Endurance Life team handed me a print out of my splits - who needs a Garmin! We were all confused about placing - the team included - as the first Norwegian girl had done a disappearing act and the second wasn't in yet either, so it turned out I'd come second female, and third overall, despite my print out stating eighth overall. The ladies came in 10 minutes after and it transpired the first had not taken the final turn off up the hill to the castle finish and continued running along the beach. Quite a few of the guys running had also decided to call it a day for one reason or another at marathon distance, which the organisers had spelled out would be possible and a finishing time still given. Chris Jackson won in 5.05 with Lizzie Wraith close at his heels, first female and second overall in 5.07. There ended up being 4 ladies in the top 5.

Race Results

So what else can I say - spectacular route, professional and seamless race directing, brilliantly marked course, sunshine, seascapes and later in the weekend, sticky toffee pudding. Julie and I even managed a lovely recovery run the next day alond the Craster section of the route, to soak up more of the scenery and surroundings whilst we could.

The beach at Bamburgh
The only slight (but barely there) negative would be the focus Endurance Life placed on essential kit all runners had to carry - for the ultra this included foil blanket, first aid kit, whistle, jacket etc, all of which would be spot checked and were available to buy at their shop at registration if runners didn't have them. I can understand this for a true wilderness trail race but I'm not sure it was warranted for the coastal path, which led us through villages/towns every few miles.

And now the rain has returned but at least I have the first heat training session at Napier to look forward to tomorrow. Happy running days.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Western States Training Plan

From the moment I found out I'd been drawn in the Western States lottery, I knew I had to make the most of the opportunity by committing myself wholeheartedly to the most specific training plan possible - try to train to my peak without getting injured. I don't normally struggle with motivation in actually getting out the door to train, but my track record with using the training plans I've spent time writing is not brilliant. After all, aren't plans meant to be useless, but planning essential? I've spent hours writing detailed plans and sticking to them for a few weeks but then opting instead for running to feel and balancing mileage and type of session out in my head very roughly based on what I have done already. If I want to run the best race I can in June, I have to take a more disciplined approach and ensure I get the required specificity into every training session. I guess its transferable to work in a way - would you spend weeks/months working on activities or projects without keeping to or continually referencing a plan or strategy? Answer should probably be no.

To get me into the disciplined state of mind that my winter certainly lacked, I gave up alcohol in early January - something I seriously regretted this week after a decent dose of stress at work! Nevertheless, it is amazing how quickly you adapt and accept and it already feels more than worth it.

Its fair to say I overdosed on Western States race reports, blogs, participant info and podcasts to help build the bare principles of my training plan for the Big Dance on 29th June. I even read Dean Karnazes Ultramarathon Man again - a different experience the second time round! The recent film  Unbreakable on Western States was by far worth the pricey download for pure inspiration about taking on the race - it follows the battle for first place in 2010 that took place between Geoff Roes, Killian Jornet and Anton Krupicka. Incredible to see a film about running that is so gripping!

Roes and Krupicka running the Western States
I digress....stellar training and race prep advice also came from Adrian Stott, who knows a thing or two about endurance training, and generous others like Ellie Greenwood and Lizzie Hawker, who Adrian put me in touch with. Tim Lambert has been a great source of info and advice on the actual race and logistics - he crewed Jez Bragg at the Western States last year and may be heading out to California again himself this year. By far the best specific training advice blog I read was Ian Sharman's - who has run the Western States several times, consistently finishing top 10.

So here is the finished plan for June - I may tweak a few sessions here and there as I go along but in general I'm determined to stick to this balance of specific sessions, the main priority elements being: 
  • 1-2 weekends per month of long back-to-back runs on difficult, hilly trails like the West Highland Way, or in the Pentland Hills. 
  • 1-2 x interval speed training sessions per week of 1 hour each  
  • 2 x tempo runs per week of 1-2 hours each 
  • Strength/core workouts using suspension belt 
  • Training in a specialist heat & altitude chamber at Napier Uni’s Sports Science School for 1-2 hours (March - June)

As you can see I'll be training 60-70 miles per week. My main concern is staying healthy and recovering well after each session, especially the long back to backs and downhills. Super high mileage of 100+ is not for me - I know my body and dont want to take the risk of not recovering properly/fatiguing ahead of June, meaning my peak fitness will have passed and I won't be as fresh as possible by the time I'm on the start line.
The finish line I will be visualising (but not with this finish time!)
Obviously without the luxury of being nearby to the actual Western States trail it is tough to train with totally specificity. I am hoping that flying out 10 days prior will help more with my body acclimatising to the heat as well as give ample time to familiarise with the course - hikes in the midday heat will be the agenda! I'll be doing this from either end, staying in Auburn for a long weekend then Truckee (near the start at Squaw Valley, Lake Tahoe) for the week before.
I've also recently had my VO2 max and metabolic efficiency tested at Napier, the results of which have really helped inform my plan in terms of training in the right heart rate zones and increasing fat utilisation - an absolutely fascinating experience to go through and one that is worthy of a post all on its own, at the risk of boring folk with too many stats from the report.
And after all this talk of planning - last week I impulsively signed up to run the Northumbria Ultra this Saturday! Mark Cooper is running and I was persuaded by it only being 98% full, so I blame it all on him. The route heads from Alnwick to the coast and along what looks like a beautiful dune system up to Bamburgh, before a final loop around the town to the finish. It has to be a training run so I will be practising my displine with that! Happy weekends to all :-)

The North Face Endurance Challenge: a shortlived high and many lows

4am in a freezing park in Sausalito, Marin County, 12 hours after stepping off a plane in San Francisco, two days after running a work event...