Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Back in the game

Last weekend marked four months back training and was my first attempt at ‘racing’ orienteering again. It was full of mixed emotions. Amazing to be back at races I never thought I’d be able to do again, lovely to see old friends and have so many supportive conversations.

Even so, it was really tough trying to race as it just felt so out of sorts. I held things together in both the sprint and middle distance (British champs weekend) but it wasn't pretty. It felt like trying to speak a language for the first time in years. I got through it, but it was hesitant, messy, full of small mistakes, and generally quite frustrating. I’m obviously not happy with feeling like that and it just makes me itch for the next time I can get back out with a map and work on things to get better.

But there is a little bit of me that is quite proud of getting this far already. I haven’t gone into great detail online as to what my 14 months off were like, but the last 9 barely involved any movement. My only ventures off the sofa were to the bus-stop to work three days a week. I’ve worked so hard to build back up from that since February, not just with all the running/aerobic cross training but the strength, conditioning, and stretching too. It was quite a unique situation and there was no blueprint of what to do or what to expect. I think I've exceeded even my optimistic hopes. So in amongst all these mixed feelings, I’m trying to give myself a pat on the back before I return to the hard slog.

Snuck onto the podium in the sprint distance (at least when you excluded the non-Brits).

Nice to be back with old team mates who are running so well.

Friday, 20 May 2016

A grand day out: 5 munros near Bridge of Orchy

It’s hard to say what I missed the most in my year out: the routine of the daily miles, the adrenaline of a world championship start line, or the breathtaking views from mountain summits.  At least it was the mountains that I dreamt about the most.

I’d hated watching other people head out on fun adventures whilst I was confined to the sofa. So when Murray decided to run the five munros round Bridge of Orchy last weekend, I decided that I wasn’t going to miss out again.

The only problem was that the route was 35km and 2200+ metres of climb. My longest hill run so far was a generous 16km and included a third of the climb. With a walk/camp in the previous night and a pick-up at the end, I got this down to 27km – probably manageable but enough out of my comfort zone to be buzzing with excitement.

The view down the glen at 9pm when we were walking in to camp.

Happy camper walking in along the Allt Kinglass.

Our wee tent on the left still not quite getting the sun when we woke up.
I went ‘backwards’ round the route – starting with Ben Mhanach before hitting the main ridge. See later notes on why I strongly advise against it, but it at least got the main track run and climb done while there was some spring in the legs. I can’t say it was the most pleasant of ascents, contouring across gullies, but the views from the top were worth it.

First summit of the day - Beinn Mhanach

View back to Ben Lui (I think)

Where I was heading - summit 2 - Beinn a'Chreachain

I was still moving fairly well on the next big climb up to Beinn a’Chreachain, buoyed by the realisation that the weather was not going to give me the hail and snow flurries forecast but bluebird skies instead. Beinn a’Chreachain was a fine hill, with a final rocky climb and views all the way to Loch Ericht/Ben Alder munros to the north-east, Glencoe in the west, and the incredible Rannoch Moor in between. Quite literally breath-taking.

Summit 2 - Beinn a'Chreachain

Rannoch Moor and beyond. Ben Alder in the distance.

The view northwest

The ridge I was about to run. Summit 3 on the ridge, Summit 4 peeking out just behind, and Summit 5 far left.

The third summit (Beinn Achaladair) was the easiest physically as it was ‘just’ a run a long a ridge. There was a final kick up to the actual summit but I found a scramble-y path very close to the crag edges which focused the mind somewhat. The actual summit didn’t seem to have a cairn on it, but I met the first hill walker (and dog) of day to share some appreciation of the surroundings.

Summit 3 - Beinn Achaladair and a few Starav hills behind

Loch Tulla and beyond

Summit 2 now impressively looming ahead

Things were all going pretty smoothly until the bealach before Beinn an Dothaidh. Then they really took a turn for the worse. I meandered up the 200m of climb, picking up odd snow patches as I was in need of rehydration (not recommended). I’d been out close to 4 hours by this point and I hadn’t felt this sort of exhaustion for a long time. I remembered though that you always go through bad patches on long runs and so I convinced myself that it would just be a patch, not the beginning of a death march to the end.

Summit 4 - Beinn an Dothaidh

Picking up some proper water at the stream in the final bealach did perk me up a bit. Or I was motivated by pride to keep running in front of the many hill walkers that were now also making their way up Beinn Dorain. Either way, I finished the last 300m of climb almost as strongly as I’d started the day and I was rewarded with the final summit.

Summit 5 - Beinn Dorain

The Starav hills

Job done! If only. It turns out there was a very good reason why the guidebook suggests anyone attempting all five should go anti-clockwise. Beinn Dorain rises up 900m from the valley in about 1.5km. It also has a few substantial cliffs and the slope is generously covered in large scree. It took me 40 minutes (!) to get down this. Murray was on a slightly different route (to get our camping gear) but still did a 14 min/km. Definitely up there as one of my more sketchy mountain experiences, probably the worst non-weather related!

Really not recommended. Much better to do the route in the other direction.

So eventually it was job done. A wonderful job. Fantastic to be back in the hills, testing myself on the climbs, overcoming those wobbly moments, and pushing those comfort zones back a little more.

Monday, 11 April 2016


"How are you?"
"Good thanks"

It's so nice to be able to answer that question positively. Or just to have an answer. For over a year, I didn't know how I was. I didn't know why I felt like I was going to have a heart attack constantly. No one could find anything wrong.

It wasn't a great place to be physically or mentally. I withdrew a lot from my usual world, partly because I was so limited physically but as much because I didn't have any answers. Turns out conversations are a bit difficult when you don't know why you're in the situation you're in, what is causing the pain, or when it might stop.

So the answer is 'rib'. It seems to have been a rib (or maybe a few) causing the problems. Never has anyone been so happy to have costochondritis.

What did I do to get a rib problem? I'm not sure I'll ever get that answer. My mobility through my shoulders/back area is chronic and it could well be that I compensated by overloading through the ribs, eventually causing pain. I am certainly losing the pain by increasing my flexibility and strength through that area. But maybe there were other things going on. I was pushing myself to the absolute limit with WOC 2015 in mind and my immune system was struggling.

Very fitting to share one of my first runs back with Sarah
The real saviour in all this is (Dr) Sarah Rollins. Without her I could still be sitting on the sofa. She's been an absolute lifeline through this whole episode. Amazing woman: my role model, team mate, and great friend. (And just a little plug for support for her bonkers running for charity here - 40km a day for 40 days for her 40th birthday).

Will I ever get back? I sure hope so! It's early days (I've just finished week 8 of training) but of course my mind is rushing ahead much faster than my legs. I think the competitive season will end up being a few months too early to be able to get involved this year. But that's probably a good thing as I'll get a really solid base done ready to race hard in 2017.

See you in a forest soon!

Tuesday, 21 July 2015


It's been a really rough ride of a year so far and it's not really getting much easier. Yes, depending which day you catch me on, there are signs that this whole episode might all end soon but it is not close enough yet for it to override the difficulty of having to watch a home World Championships from the sidelines.

I apologise for the silence on this blog (although that may be more directed to sponsors than readers!) but health issues can be quite personal and it hasn't felt appropriate to share things here. I hope that I'll be able to post some mini positive stories soon as I relearn to run and work out where the new limits are.

In the meantime, the focus should be on those selected for the World Championships, particularly Team GB. It's great that there are so many athletes able to live out their dreams up in Inverness next month. Sadly, that experience will always remain a dream for me but at least it is restocking the motivation stores for once my body starts to cooperate again.

An indulgent photo of my best WOC memory.
One that I was hoping to better on the streets of Forres or Nairn, or in Darnaway forest.
Go on Team GB. Make it count.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

A weird feeling

It’s a weird feeling. I’m heading to London to see family while everyone else heads to the Lake District for the JK. It’s a feeling I better get used to as it seems I’m going to have to watch this season from the sidelines.

Although things have improved a bit, I’m not yet back running. Even the best case scenario would be pushing it to be ready for the World Champs in August and, after what I’ve been through, pushing it doesn’t seem like the sensible road to recovery.

I’m hoping it’s not too long until I’m back starting that process though. I’ll probably return to a doing a few more twitter and blog updates at that stage but for the moment I’ve not got a huge amount positive or constructive to say. I’m really grateful to my sponsors Arc’teryx and SILVA who have been really understanding during this time.

Best of luck to all those competing. Enjoy it.

Photo taken from some tweet sometime.
If anyone has copyright issues with it let me know.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Earning my stripes

'The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley'

As it's not long since Burns’ night it seems appropriate to quote the incomprehensible Scotsman.

Things haven’t gone to plan, even though they were quite sensible of plans. Somehow I landed up with suspected pericarditis (an inflammation of the bit around the heart). I probably started training too soon after a virus but I wasn’t really aware of it at the time.

So training in 2015 is yet to start and still feels a bit of way off. Who knows where this leaves me in terms of this season. Obviously it’s too early to make big decisions but I am just about facing the reality that this won’t be the dream season I’d planned to make it.

That’s not been easy to take but it’s better than some of the possible outcomes that chest pains can cause. Being ill or injured is not fun for an athlete particularly one as obsessive as me. I’ve realised what a big part of my life it is – even other non-active hobbies are so much better after a good run or when planning the next one. But as I've probably said before, being ill and injured is just part of being an athlete too. I get the impression that everyone at the top has been through one of these ‘career-in-doubt’ moments and so I'm trying to see this as my turn to earn my stripes.

Some of the last runs I did in 2014 in Torridon. At least they were good ones! 

Friday, 17 October 2014

Limone Xtreme skyrace

"You seem like you've been in a gladiator fight" said the commentary lady jabbing a microphone in my face 30 seconds after finishing.

"Maybe that's a bit melodramatic but I certainly feel like I've been in battle out there" I reply.

I wasn't the only one.
The boys carnage after finishing, including Arc'teryx teammate Florian Reichart.
Photo from Skyrunning Italia facebook page.

Ideally I'd be writing this blog about how I fought through the elements on my way to a top performance but sport doesn't always present the perfect story. Instead I find myself describing the fight that ended with average position on the results board, however that shouldn't take away from a race that really lived up to its name as the 'Xtreme SkyRace'.

The front of the race leading the way through the streets of Limone-sul-Garda.
The limoncello stand on the right an optional first drinks point.
From the Limone Xtreme facebook page

The start is on the edge of Lake Garda and like all the best Italian races, the first km involves weaving through narrowed cobbled town streets cheered on by fans, spectators and confused tourists. There's a supposedly flat 2km section before the hill starts but that was only in a relative sense as it was still bumpy.

Then the hill starts for real. And never seems to stop. The race may only be 24km long but you're still climbing at 16km. I don't want to give the impression it's a gradual slope either - about 1200m climb in 7km is fairly wall-like.

Jono Wyatt produced a really cool video showing the course profile.
Either click the image or here is the link to his facebook page

Up we all go! From the Limone Facebook page 

I think the trick with these sorts of initial climbs is to make them as uneventful as possible. Later on in a race even the smallest bumps seem like mountains and so it's important to have something in the mind and legs to survive them. This was certainly my aim but I picked up a stitch after having a larger than expected piece of dry fruit at an aid station (it's always the little things!) there was no real option other than to run it off so I just kept going knowing that it couldn't last three hours so I was going to have to feel better at some point.

After a bit of a lethal downhill we were back on the climb to the highest point of the course at 1600m negotiating the tricky trail in cloud with about 10m visibility. I caught a struggling but ever-smiling Emelie Forsberg who helped distract me from the pain (it was more talking-intensity for her than me though).

The cloud came in - a photo from the amazing Jordi Saragossa.
His facebook here - his website here

But what comes up must come down... Oh dear, it was quite muddy. After three falls in the first hundred metres I realised this was going to be an interesting one. It may not have been the most sensible tactic but I figured I just needed to throw myself down faster. Backwards logic but if you haven't got any brakes then don't rely on them. It was about this point that thunder rolled across the valley and the heavens opened. Admittedly I did need a shower. There wasn't really much for it other than to plough on and make a joke of it in who knows what language with the other runners.

Just throw yourself off the hill - it will be fine!
Found image here

Finally it was time for the bonus climbs (the published course profile was more artistic than accurate). The ups were now as muddy as the downs as the rain had hit when all the top men were going through this section and it had become like a good old Scottish XC course, except on a 45 degree slope. We were hanging onto branches to pull ourselves up and grabbing them on the way down in the hope of gaining some control.

After quite a few false shouts of "100m to the last summit" we seemed to finally turn for home. The slightly scary thought of being 1300m above the finish and only having 7km left to run crossed my mind but it wasn't like I fancied a longer route home either. The descent was fantastic and ridiculous at the same time. On the rare moments that I could take my eyes off the path, the views of Lake Garda were stunning.

Kilian showing everyone how to descend.

.....And collapse. After negotiating cameras, commentators and other runners with similar levels of energy and coordination to me, I made it to Arc'teryx team-mate Florian and some others who had already made use of Lake Garda's recovery powers.

From Jordi's twitter 
Just scraped into the prizes in 10th place winning a hamper of
limoncello, red wine, smoked trout and pasta. Dinner!

That may well have been one of the last battles I'll have with the hills for a while and it was as always perversely enjoyable. I'm not sure what next season holds for me in that respect but I know that I will be returning at some point for some more 'type 2 fun'.

As this season draws to a close it is an appropriate time to say a massive thanks to Arc'teryx who have given me the opportunity to test myself against the biggest hills in Europe and against the best runners in the world over the last three seasons. I've had some of my best experiences on and off the race course whilst on these adventures, which I've tried to share through this blog. I have run up and down things I never thought possible, raced for longer than I ever thought I could and redefined the word steep. Having these races to aim for has also influenced how I've trained back at home - discovering new routes on local hills, giving me a reason to travel further afield to bigger mountains, or finding that motivation to run up 1000m hills twice in one day. Thank you Arc'teryx for your support both when it's gone well and when it hasn't.

I also need to thank Amer Sports who provided me with Salomon footwear for this season's skyraces. These shoes are designed for the skyrace conditions and it is no surprise that my long term foot problems have improved since I've started wearing them.

And finally thanks to everyone who sends me nice messages of support, luck and congratulations either through this blog, twitter or facebook.

Now for some winter miles...