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/
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.


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.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Life as a professional athlete (part 2)

Last time I was a 'professional' athlete it was by default: unemployed in a new city. In that sense this time round is a much better situation: given up part time job in outdoor shop, I plan to train like a beast until I start a PhD at the University of Edinburgh in September. I am trying to appreciate what could (hopefully?!) be my last long break away from the world of work without the stress of applying for jobs that makes planning ahead impossible.

Pro athlete = lots of training camps. Enjoying Italy.

However, it hasn’t started ideally. This blog could have been called Spring Frustrations – the sequel to the moan I had this winter. In the grand scheme of athlete injuries, I’ve had nothing major this year but I seem to have had a relentless stream of problems disrupting training for more than a few weeks. I suspect it might be because I am trying too hard – ever since November I have been trying to ‘catch up’ for training I have missed. I’ve been chasing the 2013 self in every race, every session feeling like I could see the fitter me up ahead. It’s not been a great place to be, rarely satisfied and as a result I’ve probably pushed the training load too far and this has resulted in niggle after niggle. But after 5 years of near continuous improvements in fitness it was about time for me to be tested...

I spent more time in Italy running in supportive shoes on the trails
rather than in the forest. Still, this was far more than I had expected to be
able to do and it was beautiful so I can't complain! 

...Which leads nicely on to writing a bit about a few schools visits I’ve done. I’ve been involved in two initiatives: WinningScotland Foundation’s Champions in Schools and Education Scotland’s Game On Scotland. There are differences between the two but essentially both programmes are trying to get elite athletes into local schools in Scotland to talk about our lives. One of the slogans has been ‘Be your personal best’ which sums it up quite nicely – trying to encourage kids to dream big, put in the hard work, not get deterred by setbacks, and applying this to whatever area of life they choose.  Each school visit ends up being different too but the main aim is to tell the story like it really is: the hard work and the disappointments are the certainties, the glamorous travel and podium smiles a bonus. So many of them will watch the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow this summer and hopefully that will inspire a few dreamers.

Talking to a small class of P3s

Talking to a whole school assembly
With WOC2015 around the corner, I’ve been able to talk about my ‘home games’. I was allocated two primary schools in the Moray area and I had a brilliant few days talking to kids who will have WOC on their doorstep. I’ve never been to schools were orienteering was so widely known – the effort put in by Moravian Orienteering Club and Scottish Orienteering is noticeable. There was such a buzz about the event already and I left thoroughly inspired by the kids’ enthusiasm. 

Getting a class to join in my core training session.

The King of the Forest trophy left an impression!

So now I’ve talked the elite athlete talk, it’s time to walk the walk. My foot has made a semi-miraculous recovery in the last week and hopefully it will now be green lights through until WOC. It’s at least made me appreciate every run and I’m ready to nail the hard sessions – I suspect the memories of the Moray schools will get me through a few.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

European Championships

My first ever European Championships are over and it was a bit of a rollercoaster. It was a good week in terms of performances and results for me even if there was nothing stellar. It's no secret that the organisation was not up to the standards we are used to for major championships and whilst laughable at times, it could be pretty frustrating.

My week started with the long qualifier but the chaos had already begun. The middle qualification day had been fairly surreal and there was no sign of that debate clearing up quickly. We had the promise that the maps were accurate and the controls would be in the right place but it's weird going out without a feeling of total trust in those things. As soon as something doesn't make sense, the immediate reaction should be "what have I done wrong?" I had to remind myself to think like that. Thankfully I avoided too much drama in the qualification race and was safely through in 7th place.

Cat and Claire's arms after the long qualifier - nice.

Not shin splints but thorn defences.

The following day was the sprint qualification, uneventful from my side of things which is how it should be. I enjoyed the course which gave me a lot to think about in the tricky housing blocks at the start and then an enjoyable run through the old town where you had to factor in climb to the route choices as well. I finished 7th in my heat again, knowing that I'd been hesitant at the beginning and eased off towards the end. Even so, the fast times posted were a necessary reminder that I really needed to up my game in the final.

So 24 hours later, after drinking my first ever cup of coffee in my life I was bouncing round quarantine like tigger chasing bees. I went out hard, decisive, none of my usual dithering on routes. Find one, take it, nail it. I finished being pretty happy with my run - my hesitation count low and no mistakes that I could think of. It was no surprise to see later that I had missed a few routes but that was always the risk. I ended up 9th, a solid result in one of the toughest sprint fields I've run against (5 Swiss girls ahead of me!)

Cheering on teammate Kris Jones to a brilliant 6th place.
Photo: Dave Rollins

Thankfully I got a rest on Monday cheering on teammates at the middle final. It all seemed to be going smoothly until late that evening it emerged that the long maps had been uploaded onto the internet. A mad few hours followed and we went to sleep not knowing whether there would be a long distance final. Amazingly I woke up the next morning to find out I would be racing with new courses planned and printed. I don't know how they managed that. My race itself was technically pretty good but somehow not as satisfying as it should be. I had three words in my head: compass, concentration and purposeful. I didn't manage the latter. I started off with total focus on the map deliberately not thinking about the speed. It was only when I saw the yellow and blue shirt of a Swede catching me that I managed to engage my legs. I decided to not let her overtake for as long as possible and in the end she never did. I loved racing by the end - I felt fast and in control and it was so much fun. I ended up 21st which is a respectable result I would have been very happy with at the start. But as always, there are always glimpses of what it could be. I'll try to take it as motivation for the future rather than being too annoyed at myself for now.

We may not get a medal often but when we do, we will certainly shout about it!
Photo: Dave Rollins

However, these were all thoughts I had much later on. After finding my lost SI card, it was all about my teammate Cat Taylor's bronze medal. Its been almost four years that we have spent training and competing together through so many ups and downs for us both. She has pushed me to my best results and I'm so glad I was there to celebrate her getting the medal she really deserved.

Two broken down cars later, it was time to focus on the relay - my first in a GB shirt since I was a junior. I had a job to do on first leg, probably the same as every other girl I lined up next to: come back in the mix. I just about did that, finishing about 45 seconds down, 7th in a stream of runners. I had a good start, wobble in the middle but a good finish. It didn't work out for the team in the end but one day it really will. I loved playing a bigger part in relay day than just spectating, again good motivation for the next few months training.

In sync with the man of the day, Gustav Bergman, on the spectator run through.

It was a small miracle that we got through the week with worthy winners of the finals. I'm sure there are a lot of people who slept even less than me during the week to ensure this happened. Thanks to all those who stepped in. Eva Jurenikova has written a really constructive blog about what could be done in the future.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Finding form

April's barely started but the orienteering season feels like it is in full swing. The last month has been busy with a week sprinting in Italy, a club (IL Tyrving) trip to the Danish Spring, the GB World Championship selection races and most recently two World Cup races in Spain. The World Cup races have been the highlight so far as I came 5th in an epic long distance and 7th in the middle distance. I've really worked on my technique over the winter and I knew there were some good races in me. I really clicked with the terrain and felt confident and comfortable racing. I'm not going to pretend that I would have got such good results had more national teams turned up but the performances were good and probably still World Cup PBs for forest races.

Photos from David Rosen

My long distance route.
GPS tracking seemed to be a bit unreliable so this is what I think I did!
(It's a bit clipped on the right. My computer skills not up to much.)

The weekend before was also pleasing in terms of performance but less so on the results side. We had our World Championship selection races in relevant limestone terrain to this year's competition - the stuff I had tried (and failed) to get my head around when preparing for the 2011 World Championships. I did a much better job this time round with two solid forest runs, not perfect, but I felt like they were a fair reflection of my ability. Sadly it wasn't enough to get an individual forest run which I had been half hoping to prepare for, but I am part of the relay squad. I finished the weekend off with a good sprint run, coming 2nd to a flying Cat. That earned me a sprint and sprint relay run, two races that were always in the plans. The full team is here and it's really exciting to be part of. We had a great world championships week last year and we're capable of surpassing that.

So with two good weekends in the last fortnight it's easier to put aside some bad runs at MOC where I couldn't explain why I was so far behind the winners. It's time for me to move on and forget about what I have and haven't done in training and get on and race. I'm clearly in decent enough shape to pull out some good results so time to get rid of the excuses and get ready to race hard at the Europeans.

Amazing forest in Italy

It's going to be tough preparing for WOC sprint in Venice

I'm really grateful to Silva UK for their support over the winter. I've been using the new race compass that has been designed with the Swedish Orienteering Team. It's really clear helping you to see more of the map underneath. Also, they provided me with a Silva sprint headtorch which I've been using for weekly night orienteering sessions. I think this training has been great for making me be so much more precise when orientering. It's also been great fun, thanks Forth Valley Orienteers!  

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Winter Frustrations

Yet again I'm unpacking clean kit as another training weekend didn't go to plan. It's been the story of my winter as a whole load of little problems have chipped away at my over ambitious plans. First it was a knee problem that took a while to diagnose and has since taken three months to just about clear up. Then there's been a cold that has lasted far too long (I do take full responsibility for that though as I got tempted by a hard track session when I really hadn't recovered).

I'm hoping nothing has been disastrous as I've managed to keep running through most of it. I'm relatively confident that I'll be in decent shape once I get a few consistent weeks behind me. It's a just a bit scary as there are some big races early on this season (GB World Champs selection races and European Champs) and they seem to last a month meaning that the regular training routine will be disrupted then too.

2014 is going to be an 'in-between' year for me. Last year I had a clear focus of WOC sprint and I did everything I possibly could to be ready for that one race. 2015 might be along similar lines and so I'm taking 2014 as an opportunity to set a few different goals.

One big area I'm hoping to improve is my forest orienteering. I've not felt confident and comfortable in the forest for a few years now and I'd like to get those feelings back. A lot of that is in my head but one weakness I've always had is paying attention to my compass. Now that I'm a proud ambassador for Silva UK, it seemed appropriate to sort that out. I've found night training to be particularly good for making me focus on direction and Silva have been really generous and provided me with their Sprint headtorch. It has revolutionised night training for me as I never managed to get up any flow (or find anything) before with about 1m of visibility.

Obviously I've still got a big sprint focus and with the addition of a mixed sprint relay in the World Championships, there's a few new elements to add into training which will keep things interesting.

2014 also works out quite neatly from a skyrunning point of view. With the World Championships in early July, the summer is open to roam the mountains. I'm extremely lucky to be running for Arc'teryx for another year but I'll be trying a few new things there too. I'll be competing in the SkyRace series (races between 20-46km) with that longest one being at Ultraks in Zermatt. Last year I ran the 30km course but now it is time to step up to the full 46km (+3000m climb!) I've never run a marathon before, let alone a monster race like Ultraks but I'm looking forward to some epic long training runs over the summer months in preparation.

So I think the summary is that for all my moaning, I'm ridiculously lucky yet again to be able to plan a year like this. Support from Arc'teryx, Silva, British Orienteering and many others make this happen and I am really grateful for that. Fingers crossed I'm back on track with training soon to be able to make the most of it all.

It wouldn't be a proper blog post with out a few jealousy-inducing pictures so here we go:

Training in the Cairngorms in the first November snow.
I think it will be a while before we'll be able to get up running 
high again given the amount of snowfall in Scotland.

The sight I will enjoy for my first marathon+

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Skyrunning success on Lake Garda

The start through the cobbled streets of Limone
From the Limone Extreme facebook page

This weekend was my last Arc'teryx adventure for the year: the finale of the skyrunning vertical km and skyrace series on the side of Lake Garda.

These races had provided a bit of a focus over the last few months - or maybe more of an excuse to spend days out on the Scottish hillsides. I cared most about the vertical km as I spent most of the year in 2nd place in the overall series. A tactical error not to go to Greece (a less well attended race provided bumper points for those that made the trip) made me realise that I would need a very good run to get 3rd - my target was set.

The Trail Runner II
Photo from ISF -
Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my descriptions of vertical kilometres: mad, crazy, bonkers are words I tend to use. Well this one really was all of those and then some. For starters, it was a generous km (1100m climb). And the race was at night. Mass start. Single track. Minor rock climbing involved and certainly sections that would be classified as containing mild peril. Thankfully we couldn't see what would happen if we put a foot wrong. I guess what really topped it was the 4 saxophonists blasting it out about 50m from the top. In the pitch black on the side of a very steep slope.

I am really grateful to Silva who gave me a Trail Runner II headtorch to use which was perfect for the race. Super lightweight but 140 lumens meaning I had more light than most and I could spot some tight corners for cutting. You can see what I mean in a great video of the race here.

Looking down on Limone
From the Limone Extreme facebook page
My own race contained far less drama than the course itself, thankfully. I played a bit of a tactical game making sure I got to the trickier climbing sections ahead of people to minimise queuing. It helped to have checked the course out before and I felt like I paced it well - overtaking into 4th about 5 minutes before the finish.

In hindsight I wished I had stayed on the tiny finish summit plateau a little longer, enjoying the carnival of fireworks, music and excited runners. But I was freezing and wrapped in a foil blanket I set off towards a refuge where hot tea, a fire and my kit was promised. Magical end to a great race.

4th place is a result I'm proud of. In a completely spurious calculation, my time behind the winner is the best of my races this year when I take into account extra climb, race distance and other random factors. This was enough to secure 3rd in the series. In short, I'm happy.

The top 3 girls in the Vertical series 2013
From the ISF -
After spending a wonderful Saturday recovery running in the mountains and dipping my feet in Lake Garda, never too far from an ice cream shop, it was time to focus on racing again. The skyrace was 'only' 24km but involved 2000m climb, most of it done at gradients similar to that of the vertical km.

With that in mind I set off cautiously on the initial 2km flat section. Thankfully the pace wasn't as crazy as the vertical race and I didn't lose too much ground to the main pack of girls. I managed to overtake quite a few of them over the next 6km/1000m climb as I steadily plugged away at it. It was quite a sight looking down on the trail of runners zigzagging up the hillside with Limone getting ever smaller.

Enjoying a laugh with Ian Corless on the way up

I got a stitch after a short downhill and couldn't make the most of a decent flat section. But as soon as I started to climb and my pace dropped again everything was fine. I reached the high point (at 10km/1600m) in 7th position. Mentally that was my race over. I don't really like descending so I set off through through the forest a little cautiously and enjoying the autumnal colours.

However I hadn't remembered the course profile and it wasn't long before I was climbing again. I felt really good just keeping a steady consistent speed and I think I made up some ground here. I was rewarded at the top by overtaking into 5th position just as I launched myself off a fairly precipitous cliff at the beginning to the long descent back to Limone.

The ever present jazz band giving it some
From the Limone Extreme facebook page
Unusually for me I really loved the next few km. It wasn't too technical and it was pretty exhilarating. There were lots of marshals standing at corners telling us to take care - I hear that they were protecting us from some substantial drops. It was eerily quiet behind me, the usual train of runners queuing to overtake me never materialised. But it was all a bit too calm.

The last 4km turned out to be quite dramatic. I ran through the timing gate to signify the start of the stupidly difficult downhill and almost immediately a Spaniard crashed passed me. I was now 6th. But within a few minutes I had overtaken a different Spaniard, bringing me back to 5th.

Starting the long way home
From the Limone Extreme facebook page
None of us were going to give up easily and we all bunched up on a tiny single track with a small incline upwards. After a fairly bold overtaking manoeuvre I had got myself up to 4th with only 1km of tarmac to go. I raced down the side of the river not daring to look back. I started to prepare the mind for a sprint finish. I rounded the corner at the lakeside and stole a glance. No one. Really? I didn't trust myself so I tried to push hard to the 300m to go sign. I turned properly now and did indeed have a large gap which I loved using to high five the lines of spectators on the finish chute.

Race website here. Race video here. Talk Ultra reports: VK, Skyrace.

Photo: Ian Corless
This result was far better than I could ever have hoped for and gives me more confidence to run these longer races in the future. Hopefully the timing of the orienteering season next year will mean there are a few more opportunities for getting involved. However, I should look back and thank Arc'teryx for all the adventures that I have already had. I must be one of the luckiest girls of 2013 - they took me to some of the world's most beautiful places and continued to support me fully through all the ups and downs of a running season. Thank you guys.

Looking forward I'm going to return to the maps and have a real go at improving my forest orienteering. It's time to stop the indulgent long runs in the hills and swap them for hard intervals in the dark windy winter rain. It's these memories that will make getting out of the door a lot easier.