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...

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Double British Champion


The summer has ended on a high with wins in both the British Sprint and Middle distance championships.  The September scheduling meant there was a reduced start field but I was pleased all the same to retain the sprint title from last year and to finally win the middle distance (the only individual British title I hadn’t won). I felt rusty technically and physically but this was a preferable outcome to blowing things on one control as I’ve done so often in the past.

Win for Murray too! 

Sunday also marked the end of my semi-professional orienteering/running career. I’m starting a PhD at the University of Edinburgh and I’m really excited about that. I still plan to train and race hard but just with a little less travel. This may even be a positive change as I’m not sure it has always been the best thing saying yes to every race possible, no matter what country it's in.

I’ve tried to make the most of the last 6 weeks by getting up in the Scottish mountains as much as possible. This started well but tiredness kicked in and it has been good to take a season break over the last few weeks, something I didn’t really do properly last summer and paid for it.

The real highlight of the summer* was spending a few days in Torridon with adventure photographer Colin Henderson and mountain guide/amazing climber Paul Tattersall from Go Further Scotland. I’d always wanted to explore these mountains and I felt so grateful to be up there with people who knew them well and in such perfect weather conditions.  I’ve put a few photos below but go to Colin’s blog for more. And then go to Torridon and see it all for yourself.





The next big race is the final SkyRunning race in Limone (Italy) in October although the priority has to be on getting properly fit and healthy so that I can get some big winter miles in by the end of the year. Motivation is high at the minute - the countdown to WOC2015 has started and the September sun is wonderful. 


*obviously the most exciting thing all summer was getting engaged to Murray. Yey!

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Double Vertical KM - Matterhorn Ultraks


Well that wasn't my best race ever and I can't really explain why. My stomach wasn't great for a large part of the race, my foot hurt, I felt a bit dizzy. But I think these are more excuses than reasons as there are always things that go wrong in a race. I find the best thing to do is ignore them and a good performance is usually there if I want it. That didn't really happen on the 2VK.

I think I ran past this lake. Or at least one equally amazing.
Photo taken from Matterhorn Ultraks facebook page

The course itself was fairly brutal. For starters we had a decent climb out of Zermatt (1600 ish) onto nice forest tracks followed by a gentle flat section before more climbing up to Sunnegga (2250ish, 6.5km). Then a small descent before the main course of a relentless climb up to Gornegrat at 3150m (total race distance of 14km). Ouch.

Despite it being a bit of a tough day out, it was still better than not being out at all. There was a magic moment I will never forget: seeing the Matterhorn appear over the skyline of the hill I was climbing, centimetre by centimetre as I got higher. A perfect blue sky and not a cloud touching it.

There's something special about a view that you've run to. You earn it. I think it's the same biking and I imagine climbing. You can get some amazing views from your car window but it's never the same as if you've run there. So I earned the privilege of watching clouds form on the side of the Matterhorn, identifying the peaks of Monte Rosa, looking at the incredible patterns in the glaciers. It was well worth it.

Peaks include Monte Rosa, Castor, Pollux, Breithorn, Kleine Matterhorn and then the Matterhorn itself in the clouds far right.



As a footnote - I have to be a bit honest. Although bad races are just part of being an athlete, I can't claim to breeze over it as easily as this blog might make out. I'm annoyed at myself and it gives me a good lot of motivation to put things right in my last Skyrunning chance of this season at Limone in October.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Sierre-Zinal - A lesson in planning and patience


Sierre-Zinal. What an iconic race: the course, the views, the history.

Ian's photos and race summary here ( iancorless.com)

Sierre-Zinal has its place in my own running history as my first ever long race (in 2012). The first time I raced more than a half marathon and the first time I considered a race having climb of a four figure nature. And it showed. I took the short-distance racing attitude of 'how hard can it be?' where the punishment for misjudging it is a painful last few km. The result was painful last 20km.

A slightly older, wiser and more experienced racer stood on the 2014 start line. I had a race plan backed up with split times I thought were achievable. And this is how it broke down:

It's all in the planning.
I guessed at realistic times based on my 2012 splits, others' better paced races and a better knowledge of my own times on hills. It was deliberately generous on the first climb.
For info - rough actual splits: Chandolin 1.34, Tignousa 1.55, Weisshorn, 2.24, Finish 3.23

The crucial part of the strategy was the steady start. I refuse to let myself 'race' for the first hour, running with the head not the heart. I had to let girls pass me without any fight. I didn't rush to overtake people but kept a steady pace. I ran the climb but on occasions when I slipped I took care to relax for the next minute and get rid of any lactic. It was a real test of patience.
We all got our fair share of pain at the
refreshment points as Riina pointed out.

And then we hit the 'flat'. In rough terms it was about 10km with around 600m climb but there were some small undulations. It's fast if you've got the legs for it and after such a controlled start I hoped I would. Although you can play things safe, it's hard to know exactly what state your legs will come out in after 1400m of climb. I started to test them out by giving myself a few targets ahead to help pick up the pace and find a faster rhythm.

I found myself with a girl setting a very good pace and it helped to sit in and just follow the footsteps in front. We ran quite a few km like this, alternating occasionally, but I never seemed to be in front for long. Again I restrained from any racing moves to drop her - we hadn't reached the 2 hour mark and the white building of Hotel Weisshorn had only just appeared on the skyline.
These things are so much better shared with friends.
Thanks for the company Riina!

I remembered this climb being the final nail in the coffin last time, the altitude (reaching 2400m) seemed to grind me to a halt. This was the part I suspected I would feel bad so I zipped up the man suit in advance, ready to hit the wall. No sooner had I done this than the girl by my side disappeared as if in reverse. I looked back at the next bend and there was at least 100m between us. This climb can do funny things to people.

I kept on running, waiting for it to be my turn to really suffer. I'm not going to pretend I wasn't hurting, but I was still progressing and fast at least relative to the rest of the runners around me. I got the high point of the course and I was buzzing with excitement. It was all downhill and I was one minute ahead of my earliest expected time at Weisshorn. Sub 3hr 30 is on, sub 3hr 25 could be possible! To make things even better, I ran past a pipe band (yes at 2400m). I shouted a white lie at them 'I'm from Scotland and that's amazing!' (I wasn't really going to stop and explain my nomadic British origins) but the result was they struck up into 'Scotland the Brave' and my grin got even bigger.

I was just behind a girl I'd caught on the last climb but she proved to be a great descender and I couldn't find a way past her. In fact she got a few metres on me and I found no way of getting them back. At least my competition was versus my watch and I was nailing that battle. But a few km later I found myself right back with her as we hit one of these brutal undulations. Thankfully my continental descending skills seem to be far superior to my Scottish ones and I pulled away in the final 3km steeper section. I hit the road at 3 hr 21 with 500m downhill to go. Doable.
My recent fondness for natural ice baths may have come to an end.

It felt amazing. Amazing to have so many people cheer you in. Amazing to have beaten those 2012 Sierre-Zinal demons. Amazing to have enjoyed the course how it was meant to be enjoyed. Amazing to sit and watch the hundreds of runners come in over the following few hours and I wondered what their stories would be. You couldn't run the race and come out without one.

Monday, 4 August 2014

World Orienteering Championships


It’s taken me a while to write this blog post but I’ve still not got anything really insightful to say. I knew I wasn’t running as fast as I wanted to be, I know the reasons, I know what I’m going to change for next year. But the World Championships was about getting the best out of the legs I had and actually I wasn’t too far off that.

I probably did max out in the individual sprint. I picked almost every route correctly, I kept hesitations to a minimum and 12th place was the result I got. I’m not going to lie - the position wasn’t what has got me out the door this winter but it had threatened to be a lot worse as I’d been making bizarre mistakes in every race and training session in the lead up.

Photo: worldofo.com and athlete profile here

But there were a lot of things about that sprint final day that put things into perspective. Running in the World Championships final around the streets of Venice was such a privilege and it was nice to be able to realise that at the time. It really felt special and looking back at the photos of that run in does give me that goosebump feeling again.


The other awesome thing was that my family came out to watch the race. Some of them haven’t been to an orienteering event before and it made me proud of our sport as they got really into it. It was also cool to see my Dad at the finish line who has been working in Ukraine since March. His near-daily emails have certainly put my ups and downs during this time into perspective. I’ll leave the politics to people like him but it was especially nice to see Nadiya Volynska make it onto the podium.

Amazing GB support every day despite the rain.
Photo: Dave Rollins
The sprint relay was the new one and we didn’t really know how it was going to go. The only thing we knew was four clean runs was essential. Gaffling had the potential to hide mistakes or exaggerate them so we just knew that as a team we needed to get round our legs cleanly and it would even out in the end. It was really satisfying to do that and we were dead chuffed to end up on the non-existent podium. However, I think if we are honest we’d probably all hoped that that performance might land us a little higher than 6th. Maybe we overestimated ourselves or underestimated others, or maybe we lacked something physically in the recovery from the sprint final or negotiating the treacherously slippy streets. 

Four clean runs! Four soaked athletes.
Photo: Dave Rollins
The relay was my final race of the week but first time in the team. I have really mixed feelings about the race. I knew my capabilities in the terrain, I knew that coming back in the lead pack was ambitious. I said I would run sensible and come back in that chasing group and if you’re generous, that’s what I did. Parts of my performance were really not sensible, I struggled with the relocating bit but I was pleased not to lose it completely. I pulled through in the last part of the course, helped by big hills, Emily Kemp and others losing it completely. So while it may not have been a great individual race, we were still firmly in the fight as I changed over in the 7-9th pack. Thanks to my teammates Claire Ward and Cat Taylor we managed another non-podium 6th place – the best GB women’s WOC relay result in 10 years.

First experience of WOC first leg.
Photo: Attackpoint.org

So am I happy with the season? I have to be to some extent. Measured against my own aims, I did manage to improve my forest orienteering. Time lost in mistakes has definitely reduced and I have even managed some decent international results. It’s hardly rocket science to attribute this to more hours in the forest in the winter/spring and I have to thank Silva for their support providing me with a headtorch that has opened up the world of night orienteering to me again! Although my WOC sprint result was disappointing, it was one of the best technical races I’ve run internationally. Ultimately I was just a bit too greedy this year, wanting success in forest and sprint orienteering, long and short hill races and all the local road and cross country races I like to do. And I was also a bit stupid, I didn’t deal well with things going wrong. But that’s all part of it and as bad years go I’ve been pretty lucky.

So, another WOC, another orienteering season done and the motivation is high. Next stop Inverness 2015*.

*via a few high mountains.

The first high mountain visited at 7am before the flight home. Monte Cornetto.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Pushed to the limit - Mont Blanc Vertical KM


Vertical KM races push you to your limit. It's usually about 8 minutes before I look at my watch and start doing dubious mental arithmetic to work out how far through the race I was, am or will be at the next corner. Soon after that there's not enough oxygen to dedicate to those thoughts and it becomes a long battle trying to override every screaming muscle that is telling you to stop, keel over and never come near a start line again.

My experience at the Mont Blanc Vertical KM (the 2014 Skyrunning World Championships) was that and then some. It's fair to say I was carrying a bit of athlete baggage into the race. The negative feelings after a poor year of training were magnified as I was repeating the race I did well in last year and I was returning to the sport of Skyrunning that I had left at the end of last year on such a high. Inevitably this combination led to a fairly intense and painful race experience.

The course starts in Chamonix centre and after a brutally steep tarmac section you hit the path under the ski lift to Brevent. The gradient is pretty runnable by Vertical KM standards due to the zigzags and it continues all the way up until about 700m. The crowds were phenomenal - lining the course all the way up the slope and with my name on my bib it all felt quite personal (thanks Basingstoke and Moorfoots!)

Ideally I'd have got through the zigzags in a nice rhythm using up as little mental energy as possible ready for the rock climbing section and final push. However it was never going to be that way: rose-tinted memories of how easily I flew up the slope last year made this year's trudge seem far worse than it was. It wasn't just my legs wanting me to stop, it was my head. There's only so many times I could say 'Shut Up Legs'.
Photo from @LaCaveAJaife

Without wanting to be too melodramatic, there was quite a bit of soul searching going on out there. It's one thing not being fast enough but another to not be strong enough to overcome a bit of pain. I'm not a quitter, am I? Maybe I am? It all started to feel quite important out there, a test of character rather than speed, but maybe it has to in order to convince yourself to keep going.

The crowds reappeared at the top section to watch us scramble through some rocks. It was a little hairy with legs and arms full to their limit of lactic on a gradient so steep it was hard to know where to get the next hold. At least the concentration required for that was so great that the ongoing battle against my legs couldn't continue to dominate every thought.

But the toughest bit of all was coming out through the skilift centre and seeing the finish banner all of a few hundred metres away. The crowds were brilliant but I felt like a snail, barely making forward progress. Everything went into that end-of-race slightly warped feeling - time and distance all feeling longer than they should. I searched every memory of my epic sprint finishes to boost me along and quickly exhausting them, I was left on default - imagining I'm Mo Farah at London 2012. This seemed more delusional than ever as I stumbled across the line in a time about 3 minutes off what I did last year.

Thinking it back through with the benefit of perspective and a bit more oxygen, I can see how those 48 minutes became an intense self-indulgent mess of emotions. All worries and frustrations were over-exaggerated, and the ability to get up a very steep hill quickly seemed to rank far higher on the list of important things in life than it should ever do.

Photo from Ian Corless (Talk Ultra/ iancorless.com)
But that's racing. And it's probably why it is addictive. Whilst my overriding memory of the race is going to be one of pain and disappointment, I'm proud of the way I raced. I've no doubt I'll be recalling these memories in future races. The bar for quitting has been raised that little bit higher.

It shouldn't be a footnote but I do need to thank Arc'teryx for their understanding through all these ups and downs, sending me to these races and supporting me no matter what the result. Thank you also to sister company Salomon (all part of Amer Sports) who have given me race shoes for this year. I can genuinely say that this has made a world of difference after the foot problems I have had.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Finland: forests and fences


Another week, another country. I swapped the Italian mountains for Finnish lakes, extended the hours of sunlight and trebled the number of midges. No less beautiful though - I will remember my drive back from Jukola at 2am with a pink sky and mist steaming off the lakes for a long time.

Running at a more civilised time in the morning than Jukola requires

Anyway, first up was the World Cup round in Imatra on the Russian border. Sprint qualification, final and then sprint relay. My performances in all three sprints were pretty similar: running speed was much better than I expected but I made a mistake about half way through. In qualification this involved running from 6 to 8 and so making the last part of the course a bit of a nervy game. Thankfully I scraped through and ultimately that's all you need to do in qualification.

The final was bonkers despite my preparations. I had expected fences and a really challenging course, however I'm not sure I could ever have imagined using fences to completely change the area like that. I'm also not sure whether I liked it or not and I doubt it matters whether I did.

Link to all the other maps here

But a few thoughts have materialised since the race on the whole fence issue:

- Firstly, the barriers were placed in unnatural places. When you see a road big enough for cars on the map, it isn't logical to have a barrier blocking it. It is really hard to pick out routes because the eye is naturally drawn to these features and in some cases, doesn't see it at all.

- Secondly, and sort of leading on from above, it felt lucky to some extent when you found the/a route. Because you could not predict where blocks would be, it felt a bit random as to whether the route you tried to spot had a barrier at the end or not.

- Thirdly, comparing route choices and picking the best was rarely possible for me. I found I had taken so much time to find a route that finding a second to compare with wasn't worth it. And on the occasions when I could see two options (often the shorter legs) it felt hard to compare lengths because there were so many unnatural s-shaped bends round fences.

Apparently they used 800m of fences! But not all were there to trick us - a really clever use
of fences was to extend corners on buildings to prevent crashes.
Photos taken from the very informative event twitter feed.

I fully appreciate that better orienteers than me will have been able to cope and this may actually be a list of the ways in which my orienteering technique isn't good enough. None of the points above are complaints, more observations on how I tried to deal with the courses set. I should also mention how impressive it was that the organisers pulled it all off so well. I can't imagine the manpower that these races must have taken.

The sprint relay was a fun experience and wildly different to the practice one we did 2 weeks ago in Italy. Not only were there fences but lots more teams capable of hanging with the pace. First leg didn't split up much at all and I came back in the middle of the chasing pack. My mistake this time was losing my place and risking it instead of checking. I had to work hard through the easier park section of the course to pull back through. My teammates did a better job as usual (Murray, Scott and Cat) and we finished 4th nation.

So I've got a bit of work to do before WOC in three weeks time but if I can get rid of this mistake that is creeping back into my sprinting then things are looking more promising than I thought they would.

The trip didn't stop there, the next stop was Kuopio where I flew into last year before WOC and I never thought I'd see again. It was Jukola time and for me this became mainly about getting experience on first leg of a relay as our team succumbed to various things including a mispunch. I was quite nervous about the terrain beforehand as I couldn't get much to fit on the training map the day before and it was rough physically. I went out to focus completely on my own race and see where that landed up rather than aim to be up in the top pack and hang on.


video


Particularly considering my uncertainties I am dead chuffed with my run. I really can't find much I would change with it. There were 2 controls in particular where I had to go a different way to those around me and both times I hit the control accurately. I'm proud of that as it takes some confidence to do so! I finished a minute down on the lead after being nearly 3 down at one point, although that seems to be mainly gaffling differences.

Magical sunset/rise over the military tents

I hope that this mistake free run can get me back on the right track in my sprinting as well. I've got this buzzing feeling that I've not had for a while though that could equally be sleep deprivation.