Hello, I'm Stuart and I like to run a long way.
Welcome to my blog, here I'll try to keep you up to date with my challenges, adventures and training.

I competing in Ultra distance running, adventure racing, and a variety of other events. I hold a few records in the UK, and in 2012 ran 1100 miles over the Alps, from Vienna to Nice.

I am raising funds for Water for Kids, a small charity with the simple purpose of ensuring that the world's poorest communities have clean water.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Almost back in the real world!

As you can read about on my other blog, last week I handed in my PhD thesis... This is pretty significant, it means (subject to the agreement of my examiners in my viva in early December) that my PhD will be at and end, and I will be a Doctor of engineering!

Celebrating hand-in with all day breakfast...
Due to changing rules and exploding computers, the last few weeks of writing prior to the submittal have been pretty intense. I've enjoyed it, and the last week coincided nicely with the Adventure Racing World Championships in Ecuador which meant I didn't feel too alone during the long nights, but this has curbed training quite a lot. I have still been very lucky and managed to get out pretty much every day, but only for half- or an hour at most.

Pleeeeeease take us out to play!
So, this blog post is just a quick one to say that I'm back! I started this weekend to ramp training back up to pre last-month-of-thesis levels (I got excited today - two runs and a mountain bike ride!), and whether I lost much strength or not I intend to be back stronger and faster ready for 2015, and ready to achieve some good results with Team Accelerate Scott... Watch this space!

Monday, 27 October 2014

OMM nom nom... So much food!

This weekend I took part in the first proper Mountain Marathon I have done for a while... The last few times I've done a race called a Mountain Marathon it's been the "Dark Mountains", which involves carrying all the gear but running through the night without actually stopping. I've done this with Jim Mann for the last few years and we've not quite got it right yet!

Anyway, this time it was a proper overnight Mountain Marathon. I was running with my friend Will, who does a bit of running and has finished the OMM once before. Living in London his training had been a bit challenging, but we had a good four hour run out around Stanage and Win Hill last weekend. Very quickly Friday came around and it was time to set off up to Northumberland...

We were on the Medium score course, and after a very comfortable night in the van we packed our bags one last time and walked up to the start for 9:15. After saying for years that we'd do the OMM we were finally there!
The startline
The medium score meant 6 hours on day 1 and 5 hours on day 2. As we started we were given the maps, and struggled for a minute to find where the overnight camp was... It turned out to actually be about 600m from where we were standing! Rather than (as we'd imagined) running north for a day, camping overnight, then turning around and running south for a day back to the finish, we'd be running up, turning around and running south again each day.

Day 1
We set off and ran straight into the woods to our first control. We found it pretty easily and all was good. On to the second one, which unfortunately saw our biggest mistake of the whole race. We ran around a large forest track, then planned to cut off down onto a bridleway which would take us to the next control. Unfortunately we never quite found the bridleway, so we bashed through the woods a bit to find a river, which we crossed, then bashed a bit more through some more woods on the other side. When we got to the top we finally worked out where we were and got sorted out. It cost us maybe 20 minutes, but compared to disasters I've had on my own it was pretty minor. After that we had a good run for the rest of day 1 and finished 7 minutes inside the six hours. The weather for a while in the middle of the day was a bit bleak, but nothing lasted too long and the sun shone eventually!

At about half past 3 we arrived at the campsite. The weather wasn't too bad and we got the tent up while it was relatively dry. After that we relaxed and sat down outside for a while, which let us get a bit cold. We got into the tent and gradually warmed up a bit, just as the weather turned again. It was going to be a long night, but we did have a LOT of food!

The overnight camp
We did make it out of the tent once and had a wander around the barn to look at the results... We were 24th out of 190 starters, and pretty pleased with that! We actually felt warmer once out of the tent, as our sleeping bags and clothes had got a bit damp from the condensation and rain. The wind was gusting very strongly and blowing the rain through the little vents in the tent, which wasn't helping things!

After the last wander around we went back to the tent and enjoyed our freeze-dried meals. Will's curry looked better than my "Beef Hotpot" (which seemed to basically be mashed potato), but the half Malt Loaf pudding was amazing! I think I actually slept reasonably well. I did wake up quite a few times shivering, but I don't remember much between 10pm and hearing the lady with the megaphone telling us it was 6am. Shortly after that we gradually tidied up the tent and put all our clothes on. The wind was still blowing hard and we had all our gear on as we headed for the toilets... Time was tight, but we just about made it to our 8:47 start!

Day 2
Day 2 took us on the same hills as day 1. We'd run about 34km with 1600m of ascent on the first day, and it turned out that though we would run less distance, we'd actually climb more on the second day. Will found day 2 a bit touch, particularly the penultimate climb, which was his least favourite... Not many boggy tussocky climbs in London to practice on. We'd decided on quite an ambitious route on day 2 and by the time we'd reached to top of Will's least favourite hill we'd hit the 5 hour limit and were into penalty points. However, the route we'd chosen meant it was worth losing a few points - as long as we finished in under 6 hours we wouldn't lose enough points to make a shorter route better. One more descent, some more tussocks, a final big climb in sight of the finish and we were onto the run for home!

We joined the track we'd walked up to on our way to the start, knowing it was only about a kilometer to the finish. Soon we were running through the event centre and having to jump out of the way to avoid people already leaving, but we were nearly there! We finished the second day in well under 6 hours, meaning it had been worth it. We ended up with 742 points in total, giving us a final position of 32nd. We were pretty chuffed with this, and I think it's particularly good given Wills distinctly urban training!

The OMM was a great event, and after 8 years since I last did it I think I might have another go sometime soon... In the meantime, I think I'm still hungry!

I saw plenty of friends at the event, and some had great runs. Nic Barber and Andy Llwellyn smashed it (as the kids say), winning the A class by more than two hours(!), and Oli Johnson and Neil Northrop ran a great race to finish second in the Elite class. Unfortunately Adam Perry and partner Steve Birkinshaw lost their checkpoint dibber somewhere on day 1 so were disqualified, and Jim Mann and Duncan Archer suffered an injury and didn't start day 2.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Arrogance is a dangerous thing

Yesterday I raced the inaugural Open Adventure "Lakes in a Day" ultra, my first race as part of the new Scott-Accelerate team, which I'm very proud to be part of. However some things, it seems, don't change...

First of all, lets rewind to Thursday. I met coach Stu and Debs from Accelerate, Colin from APC, Pete from Scott and fellow runners Dot and Chris. It was great to finally meet Pete and thank Scott for their support at the Matterhorn race. We ate some food, talked about plans for the year ahead and officially became Team Accelerate-Scott. After so much support over the years from Accelerate it's great to continue this, and it's also very exciting to have the support of Scott. So, as a sort of sponsored runner, by Saturday it was time to do some running...

Me, Dot, Pete, Colin, Debs, Chris (Stu taking photo)
After a very busy Friday trying to write and submit a journal paper, I finally left Sheffield at about midnight, heading to Cartmel in the south lakes ready for the Lakes In A Day race starting the next morning. A couple of hours after arriving I was awake again, registered and ready to go before getting on a coach to be taken from Cartmel (the finish) to the start at Caldbeck. The hour and a half journey was the first time I'd had a proper look at the route map, which wasn't ideal, but it didn't look too difficult...

The route looked amazing - from Caldbeck we would run south up High Pike, then Blencathra and down to the first checkpoint at Threlkeld. From there up again to Clough Head and along the Dodds ridge to Helvellyn, then down Fairfield and to Ambleside, where we would have climbed around 3000m. With another 1000m or so left to climb in the rest of route would take us from Ambleside, along the edge of Windermere to the final checkpoint at Finsthwaite, through Newby Bridge and back into Cartmel.

In an attempt to avoid the stomach problems I have so eloquently described in previous blogs, I decided to try a small breakfast before this race. On the coach I ate a banana, looked over the maps as much as I could and tried to sleep a bit. Soon we arrived at the start and before I knew it we were off! After a few minutes the field was spread out, I chatted to Alex Pilkington for a while but spotted someone in a yellow jacket heading off into the distance. I really didn't want to set off too fast but whoever he was seemed to be running away into the distance so I decided to up the pace a bit. A little while up the road I caught two guys running together in 2nd/3rd, they looked to be going well and we chatted for a little while, then I continued on again to catch up with Mr. Yellow... Who turned out to be Harold Wyber, a friend of a friend and a good runner (2:34 marathon!), who I last met on a stag do in Keswick.

We weren't yet at the top of the first hill so it felt risky to be at the front, but by the top of High Pike that's where I found myself, despite losing some ground to the guys behind when Harold and I took the wrong line up the hill...

Unintentional detour 1 (solid line=me, transparent line=recommended route)
At the top of High Pike we entered the open route choice section of the course, and feeling ambitious (I will never learn) I tried to cut the corner by running down across the open fellside instead of sticking on the Cumbria way. The route looked simple, just go south until you hit the big obvious path, how hard could it be?!

So after faffing about in deep heather for a while and adding about another kilometre to the 75km course I rejoined everyone else and found I had lost about 25 places. As I crossed the very impressive makeshift bridge constructed by Open Adventure I could see a long line of runners stretching out into the clag up Blencathra... At least I wouldn't have to navigate for a while! I told myself that there was lots of time left and set about gradually catching up to the front. It was nice to chat to a few people as we climbed, and good to see Joe Faulkner marshalling on the summit. The weather up there was pretty grey and a bit claggy, which meant that the descent off Halls Fell was a bit slippery. Joe told me there were now four or five people in front so I tried to push on, but I ended up on my bum a few times so decided to keep it sensible rather than have a more serious fall - though I can still feel the bruises as I write this! 

Towards the bottom of the section into Threlkeld I caught Harold again, and we were both caught by another runner. The three of us arrived into the checkpoint together and I quickly grabbed a bit of food and headed out while the others stayed a bit longer. By the time I caught Alex Pilkington about 100 metres down the road I realised I had not got enough food, it was 25kms or so to Ambleside and I'd now eaten all I'd picked up, leaving me only with two gels and some sweets - this race was turning into a disaster!

Impressive race-branded sweets, but not enough for 3 or 4 hours!
Next came the long climb up to the Helvellyn ridge. After another few minutes chatting with Alex I set off after the (now three) guys in front... I was feeling good now, I felt hungry but the stomach was behaving itself after the smaller breakfast and my legs felt tired but OK. The first two appeared on the lower slopes of the climb, I caught them after a while and we made our way up Clough Head. Being experienced adventure racers (Tim Higginbottom and Jon Duncan) they were navigating perfectly and I was grateful to not get my map out for a little while. I hadn't realised that the paper wasn't waterproof so it was now looking a bit soggy! We soon made our way to Clough Head, Calfhow Pike and on to Great Dodd. At some point along the ridge I got away a little from Tim and Jon and set off after Robin Houghton.

And that should've been it! Robin was going well but after a while I caught him and we ran together for the rest of the day. At Ambleside it was great to see Lucy Spain and Bruce Duncan from Haglofs cheering us on, and I left the checkpoint alone as Robin stopped to change his shoes. After all the mishaps maybe I finally had the win in my sights? Nooooo, of course not! I took a slightly dodgy route in the woods after High Wray and before I knew it Robin appeared from a track on the left and my thoughts of victory were blown apart. As we would later agree, "Arrogance is a dangerous thing".

Coming off Blencathra - Me (l) and Harold - Photo James Kirby
Back together but running well and now having completed most of the ascent, we settled in for the run along Windermere to the Finsthwaite checkpoint. It was tough and we both worked hard, this was probably my low point of the race but I knew we just had to keep moving at a good pace and not get lost. We didn't know at the time, but from having just 4 minutes gap over Tim (who had pulled away from Jon) at Ambleside, we had 20 minutes by the time we got to Finsthwaite.

12 km to go! Just as in Ambleside, Bruce was there to dispense encouragement, the checkpoint staff were great, and I left before Robin. This time though the competitiveness had waned and I ran at 95% until Robin caught me up. He later said that he'd worked hard to do so, and as we will soon discover, it could perhaps have been a very different result if I had had the balls to push on. We were not concentrating on the navigation and began to make silly (even for me!) mistakes, first losing the path through Backbarrow then missing the junction in Brow Edge and had to make an extra climb.

 I was worried now that Tim would be close behind, but we were close to the finish and couldn't see him. We ran past Bigland Tarn and discussed going out for a beer after the race, which sounded like an excellent plan. I think I said something like "provided nothing goes wrong in the next few kilometres, we can buy each other a pint"... Well, we didn't go to the pub.

Instead, after Bigland tarn we missed the footpath junction and headed down a small road (thinking it was the footpath) to the B5278. Only when we had run along it to Ellerside Farm did we work out what we'd done, and try to rectify it by climbing up on a footpath through the woods, then rejoining the road east into Cartmel. The path in the woods was non-existent in places, and we clambered up through the trees for what felt like a long time before we eventually reached Howbarrow and rejoined the road. I was now convinced that not only Tim, but lots of others would have passed us. I thought we might scrape a top-10 finish if we were lucky.

We finally saw the church steeple, passed the race course, saw the finish banner and ran up the field towards it. We could see Tim on the finishline, but no-one else. It turned out only he had finished, which surprised me! He had been in for about 4 minutes, though the results show Robin and I arriving 2 minutes apart when we certainly didn't, so maybe Tim had been there 6 minutes. Anyway, after a day of daft mistakes one had finally cost me the race!

The finishline (taken later in the evening)
However, it was a fantastic day. The course is brilliant, there's loads of climb, some spectacular scenery (the sunset from the top of the final hill was beautiful*) and great running. As always with Open Adventure, the organisation and checkpoint staff were top notch. As my first race with Team Accelerate-Scott I had a new pair of Scott Trail Rockets to wear, which I used straight out of the box... Not normally sensible but not a blister in sight and great shoes for the whole course! As I mentioned I struggled down Halls Fell Ridge, but everyone I spoke to after the race, regardless of their shoes, struggled down there!

After a shower and some food,  Robin and I were generally mocked, and prizes were awarded by James Thurlow of OA and Bruce Duncan of Haglofs.
I'd like to say massive thanks to Robin who as well as being a great guy to run with was also a true gentleman and insisted that I took the second place trophy.Well done Tim on a great run, and thanks to everyone at OA for putting on a great event. Apologies to Accelerate-Scott on not being  able to kick us off with a win, but I WILL be back next year.

Well done Tim! (Bruce l, Tim r)
* - though I don't want to see it next year

Monday, 15 September 2014

A wee walk across Tuscany

I've been lucky enough to end up working at the University of Florence during this and next week. Lorna and I decided to make the most of this and came out a week early for a holiday, landing in Pisa last Fiday. In order to get to Florence from there we decided that rather than getting the train, we would walk! This became the holiday, so I thought I'd quickly write up where we went and some of the places we visited...

Day 1: Pisa to Lucca
We last visited this area on one of our first ever holidays together, and stayed on a little campsite close to the centre of Pisa. We decided to stay on the same campsites in Pisa and in Florence, so set off on our first day's walking from "Camping Torre Prendente"...

The first day was fairly long as we needed to get out of Pisa before heading over the hill and down into the small city of Lucca. My watch went a bit mad and reckons we walked 45 kms, but it was still a fair trek of about 26 kms. The first day's walk was great and Lucca is a beautiful city, we left Pisa walking beside the city's aquaduct on the way up into the hills, and ended up walking back down beside the Lucca aquaduct at the end which gave it a nice symettry (and a good bit of civil engineering!).

Day 2: Lucca to Montecatini Terme
Breakfast at our B&B was universally agreed at the end of the trip to have been the best. It was the figs that really did it for me, but it was all good! The day's walk was also good, but this was always a bit of a tricky day to plan and to be honest, with an extra day we would've gone further north and made this route a bit nicer. It was fine, but we spent a while on little roads which weren't too kind on our feet, and it also ended up being a bit of an epic - 36 kms and another 8 hour day! By the time we made it up the funicular to Montecatini Alto (the little "up the hill" hamlet we stayed in) we were shattered and ready for a nice dinner in the square...

Day 3: Montecatini Terme to San Baronto
I'd known from the start that days 3 and 4 would be the best, they were both around 16 kms and over good proper hills (if not quite mountains). We avoided the road and set off from the next town, much like I've avoided saying specifically that we got a taxi, and after a quick look around a hill fort and its deserted medievel festival we set off over the top.

We generally climbed up all morning, then gradually descended all afternoon towards the smallest place we'd be staying - San Baronto (Nardini on some maps). We had camped in Pisa, and stayed in B&Bs in Lucca and in Montecatini, but tonight we'd be in an "Agritourism", a large home on a farm which lets rooms to weary travellers such as ourselves. The place was lovely and probably one of the best we stayed in. It was also 35 euros for a double room and breakfast!

Day 4: San Baronto to Carmignano
We'd booked dinner the previous night at another Agritourism, a bit more expensive to stay in (hence we didn't), but run as a small restaurant in the evening. The full tuscan five course feast was amazing, particularly given the setting overlooking the valley below. I was taken in by the whole experience and consequently drank quite a lot of Chianti, so the next morning was not the earliest start...

It was OK though, as we didn't have far to go again. The views and scenery on day 4 were probably even better than those on day 3, and we saw lots of wildlife, including a snake (an Adder I think), though sadly no Boar. By the time late lunch came around we were nearly in Carmignano so stopped at a little village just before.

We ordered microwaved frozen pasta and cups of Iced tea and tried to read Italian newspapers, it was quite an amusing meal! The town was holding a fig festival, but unfortunately we couldn't stay till 9pm to indulge in the tripe dinner they were putting on* so we continued the last few kilometres into Carmignano and did some shopping for a BBQ at our second Agritourism, which was just outside the town and was again a fantastic place to stay.

Day 5: Carmignano to Florence
That night there was a massive storm.... We hadn't seen it coming at all and it had been clear as we went to bed, but a few hours later the thunder and lightning were as spectacular as I've ever seen them. Being in a huge room in a big stone house on top of a hill made it all the more atmospheric!

The next morning it was still raining as we left, and the first half of our last day was VERY wet.

After a very wet morning we stopped in a little town about 15 kms from Florence to get a sandwich, at which point the map was just about starting to disintegrate... But soon after there was a glimmer of blue sky on the horizon and the torrential downpour became just normal heavy rain, then light drizzle until finally the sun came out! We walked the last 8kms along the Arno river in the sunshine and finally arrived at the second "remembered" campsite, marking the end of our walk.

Sadly, and unlike the first one, Camping Michelangelo was not quite as good as we had remembered, but the restaurant across the road was even better than we thought! The walk was great, the longest I've done I think at just over 100kms, and a great way to spend a week. It was also the largest pack I've carried for a while, and a good reminder of the benefits of travelling light!

* - I have subseqnently eaten Florentine tripe and it was great!

Monday, 25 August 2014

Matterhorn Ultraks: Running with royalty!

Running-wise, 2014 has so far been an amazing year! The highlights of my races this year were always going to be the two races abroad, the Mt Fuji race in July and the Matterhorn Ultraks in August. These two races were by far the biggest races I've ever taken part in, and each time I'd be racing against some of the best runners from around the world. Both also had the advantage of taking place on or around iconic mountains which I'd always wanted to visit, so whatever happened they were going to be awesome experiences.

I wrote about the Fuji race here, it was a fantastic race and I was very pleased with my 22nd place. I trained well for the few weeks between the races, so on Friday it was time to head out to Switzerland for the Matterhorn Ultraks...

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The Ultraks is a proper skyrunning race, with 3600m of ascent on the 46km course I would be taking on. I was there with the help of Scott, and would be racing as part of "Team Scott" in my lovely new Trail Rocket shoes. Big thanks to Scott, as well as Accelerate, for your continued support! Being very close to the end of my PhD I didn't have time to spend any longer Zermatt than necessary, so I arrived the night before the race. I set up my tent, registered for the race and collected my race number, and headed off to find a potato rosti. Mission accomplished I wandered back to my tent with that same night-before-race worrying heaviness in my legs as the day before Fuji. It was great to be back in my little tent in the mountains and I almost felt like I was back on the Big Alps Run, but I had forgotten how cold it is as soon as the sun sets... there was a cold night ahead of me!

Back in the coffin...
I had debated running without a pack as I suspected the top guys would do, but I decided it would be sensible to carry a bit of gear since we were going to 3,200m and I wasn't certain of the forecast. So I packed a jacket and a couple of gels into the little TNF pack I won at the Fellsman (now complete with GB badge!), set my alarm and went to sleep.

At 6 o'clock the next morning it was bloody freezing! My plan not to bother with a drop bag at the finish was quickly replaced with one to wear the down jacket till the last possible moment. I was conscious that overeating at breakfast on race morning has been my downfall in the past, so just had a couple of chocolate biscuits then headed to the start line. Suddenly I was in a slightly alien environment, the streets were packed with people who looked like proper athletes, of all nationalities, some with support crews and team management type people looking after them. There was a PA system and a big screen showing footage of last years race. I felt like a lost little boy, but it was very exciting and I was raring to go (OK, mainly because it was freezing).

Nervous at the start

At 7:30 we were off! Out through the streets of Zermatt, cheered by people lining both sides of the route all the way till the tarmac gave way to a trail which started to wind uphill... And it was a big uphill: There would be a little descent half way up but we were basically going to climb directly from the village at 1600m to the highest point of the race, the top of the Gornergrat at 3130m. I had written the major climbs on my hand: "0-1600, 23-700, 30-500", meaning that after this one we still had a 700m ascent at 23km and a 500m one at 30km, so I took it relatively easy to start with.

By the time I reached the top of the Gornergrat I now know I was in 32nd place, having taken 2:02. I felt pretty good and the support at the top was incredible! There is a cable car up to the summit so a lot of people had made the trip up to cheer the race on. Having your name on the race number is great at times like this! The views all the way round the race were awesome, I nearly tripped over a few times by getting distracted staring at the Matterhorn and the glacier. I grabbed a drink and a few pieces of energy bar and set off on the long descent to the Riffenalp, then the halfway point at Furi at 1880m.

What a view! Kasie Enman arrives at Gornergrat, think I was just behind
(from iRunfar.com)
The descent was amazing, it felt how I'd imagined proper skyrunning would. I'd moved ahead of a little group so was on my own as I passed through Riffenalp. My legs were feeling a bit battered by now but I declined the man at the mountain restaurant's offer of a schnapps and took a gel instead. Next came the climb up to Schwarzsee at 2800m, at the top there would only be 900m climb left in the remaining 20km or so of the race, so I pushed on a bit and worked hard up the climb. I really enjoyed this bit of the race, I remember thinking that my legs hurt but that I was out doing what I love in the most amazing setting, and I should make the most of it! I caught a few more people to take me up to 24th at the summit, where I grabbed a gel (and regretted paying 3 francs for mine the day before!) and set off down another rocky descent. I wanted to make sure I kept the gap I'd got to the guys behind me, but nearly pushed a bit too hard... The cameraman near the top has some excellent footage of me very nearly coming a cropper!

The final section of the race took us up and over the last climb and down to the checkpoint at Trift, then a final short sharp climb before the last descent into Zermatt. As I climbed the switchbacks at about 31km a runner came down towards me, he said I was 32 minutes back from the leader, and that I had about 15 minutes of climb left, then 10 down to Trift, 10 up, then "is all downhill to finish... Go go go!". I was amazed to be only half an hour or so back from the front and dug in as I climbed to the top, passing another two runners just as we crested the summit. The next section was one of the most spectacular places I've run... The narrow singletrack wound round the edge of the mountain, slightly downhill and continuing as far as I could see. It was stunning, I felt good and could see another three runners in the distance...

Eventual winner Ait Malek Zaid on the amazing singletrack section just before Trift
(Ian Corless)
The singletrack required concentration, it was narrow and a looooooong way down if you fell off the trail - in a few places there were overhanging rocks too which made things even more interesting! I survived and made it to Trift in 5 hours and 4 minutes, now in 21st place. Before the race I'd hoped for a time of under 6 hours, but now wondered if 5:30 might be possible. Some mental maths told me that I'd need to run the last 9km in about 25 minutes, which was probably not going to happen, but if it was all downhill and I really pushed I thought I might do it...

Unfortunately it wasn't all downhill, the 100m climb from Trift scuppered my chances of 5:30 but I did push hard passed another runner as we crested the last climb. I could now see Zermatt and I knew there were no more climbs. As I ran down this section I saw someone running up towards me... A person I thought I recognised, carrying a camera and running fast like it was no effort at all... Can you guess who it was?

The photographer (photo: Emelie Forsberg)

Despite the effort of the race I still managed to be starstruck and garbled something like "It's you... you're the man!", to which Kilian kindly told me I was the man, and to "Allez allez!". After encouragement like that I tried to allez as much as I could and got myself moving well, on long sections I could see someone in front of me so tried to catch him. By the time I got close to him we were only a couple of kilometres from the finish, he looked back, saw me and accelerated... it was going to be close! We were now on the switchbacks down into Zermatt and both running like it was a 10km fell race, cutting the corners and jumping over rocks around the corners - so much fun, but I couldn't get any closer to him!

In front of him I could also see someone else... and it was a girl! This spurred me on even more and we both seemed to both be catching her, until it all unfortunately went wrong for him - he suddenly stopped on one corner and was clearly struggling with cramp. I asked if he was OK to which he groaned a bit, but I decided there was nothing I could do so set off after the lady in front. On a long slightly wider section I got close enough to see that it was actually Emelie Forsberg - it was turning out to be quite a celebrity spotting day! She pointed to one side and I ran past, then made sure I pushed hard for a few hundred metres to get a decent gap.

As ever, the final tarmac section felt many times longer than it was in reality, but there were now spectators cheering on both sides of the road and soon I was directed by marshals through a funnel and onto the finishing straight. A quick glance behind and I seemed to be on my own, a little kid put his hand out for a high 5 and I even put in a little sprint to pass a couple of 30km runners in the final few metres.

Done! I crossed the line and sat down in a little heap for a few minutes, then dragged myself back to my feet for a cheesy finishline photo...

Ultraks was an incredible race and a brilliant experience in a spectacular setting. I ended up with a time of 5 hours 40 mins, 18th place in the overall male race, though I was beaten by 4 ladies. This race (and possibly Fuji) was my first taste of racing against the best in the world, and despite being happy with my position it does show that I'm a fair bit behind the really top guys - the winner Ait Malek Zaid ran around 4:45 this year, so I'm really an hour behind where I eventually want to be.

Finally, I'd like to say a massive thank you to Scott for your support in the race, the Trail Rockets are awesome shoes, the grip was perfect and I wore them pretty much out of the box with no blisters or other problems. Thanks also as always to Stu Hale and Accelerate for your continued support!

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PS. It has been said that I don't mention the dog enough on this blog, so to finish I should mention that I was collected from the train station by my lovely wife and our BEAUTIFUL dog. Merci a tout.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Ultraks is coming!

It doesn't feel like long since I got back from Mt Fuji, in fact it was so recent that the race T-shirt is still in the post, but it's now only a week until my next big race, the Matterhorn Ultraks. This is another huge event, which I think will eclipse Fuji as the biggest race I've ever taken part in. I'll be sharing the startline with some real top European runners and it will be interesting to find out how I stack up against these guys (and girls!).

Awesome. We don't actually go to the top (leave that to Kilian!)

The race starts in Zermatt, from where we climb about 1500m straight up to the highest point of the race, the Gornergrat at 3130m. From there we still have 31km or so to go via another couple of 600m climbs, and a couple of 200m ones... Giving a total ascent of about 3600m. So it's further than Fuji, and with more ascent, and this time we're descending too. It's a proper Skyrace.

Up and down and up and down and up and down and up and then down with a bit of up!

I've been invited to run the race by Scott, and I'm really grateful to them for the invitation. I think I'll also be running in a pair of their new Trail Rocket shoes, which look perfect for the Matterhorn terrain. I'll report back on how they go. Training since Fuji has gone well with a good few 1000m+ ascent days and I think I'm feeling pretty strong on the climbs, but the race will no doubt be really really hard. It's also going to be another amazing experience, I can't wait to get going... See you there!

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The 67th Fuji Mountain Race

Last Friday I ran the Fuji mountain race in Japan. There are a few races around Mt. Fuji, so for clarity, this one is not the Ultra tour of Fuji or any of the other races "on" Fuji... it's the one that starts at the bottom and finishes at the top, with 21km of distance and 3000m of ascent between the two.

The runner's fair at registration on Thursday, with Fuji-san in the background
It's renowned as a bit of a brutal race, and the cutoff times are notoriously tight, with a lot of dissapointed racers each year! The race accepts about 3000 entries, but only 50 of these are open to foreigners, so when I realised that I would actually be in Japan for the week following the race for an academic conference, my initial excitement at being able to enter the race faded a bit as I realised I would need some luck to even get an entry. I entered and crossed my fingers...

Fast forward to last Friday and the dream had come true, I was standing on the startline in the city of Fujiyoshida, about to start the 67th Fuji Mountain race. And when I say standing on the startline, I mean it! Last years' top 20 are ranked 1-20 and given a fancy colour race number, but the numbers from 21 - 70 are allocated to foreign runners! We were told to line up in race number order and spread across the startline, so I was literally at the front, standing next to a member of the Phillipines Skyrunning team, and just behind a tall Japanese Salomon runner who was the race favourite. It was loud, hot and I was surrounded by people and excitement - I couldn't help grinning! The favourite took a bottle of water and proceded to prepare for the race by throwing it all over himself on the startline.The rest of us settled for some nervous stretching.

The startline, from the front row!
Soon enough the big clock showed only 1 minute to go, then 20 seconds, a 10 second countdown started: we all shook hands with everyone nearby, then we were off!

The pace was fast, I hadn't appreciated how much of the race is actually relatively flat. My movescount record for the race shows that in the first 10km we only climbed 600m. That's a reasonable climb for a 10k, but meant that we were left with 2400m to climb in the remaining 11km...

I felt I had run the first 5km a bit too fast (21:30ish), it was hot and I felt really dehydrated. At each water station I'd grab a cup of water and try to drink it as I ran, spilling most of it all over myself, but by this point I frankly felt rubbish and decided I wasn't doing myself any favours. I slowed down (10km in 50mins) and made sure I stopped at each water station for a proper drink.

Umagaeshi Shrine, off the tarmac and starting to climb properly...
By the time we reached the end of the tarmac and start of the climb proper at Umagaeshi Shrine I was feeling a bit better, but still hot and as if I had potentially given too much. At least we started climbing properly at this point and the pace dropped slightly. I'd lost quite a few places during that second 5km, but now my confidence gradually returned and I began to slowly pick off those in front of me over the next hour or so. After a worrying first half of the race, this is where things turned around for me...

"Right, we're going uphill now. I can do uphill..."

 From Umagaeshi I didn't set off to hard, but tried to keep myself moving in the knowledge that now we were climbing and I was drinking properly, things would sort themselves out. I had with me one packet of Shot Blox and one gel, but I also made the most of the food offered by the supporters (Lemons and Cucumber dipped in salt sound horrible, but tasted like exactly what I wanted!)

The next place our time would be recorded was the 5th station, at about 2200m. Fairly obviously this is the end of the 5th station race, and this is where we'd jog back down to after the race to get our lift home. It took me just over 44 minutes to climb the 800m from Umagaeshi, and I was amazed at the number of people I was now catching up with. I was trotting along at what felt like a hard but sustainable pace, and for the first time was actually enjoying myself! I remember taking a minute to think about how long I'd planned for this race for, it felt quite unreal to actually be there, running up one of the most famous mountains in the world.

Getting serious now: Climbing up from the 5th Station
Up to the 5th station the underfoot conditions are good, the tarmac obviously, followed by what is basically an easy gravel trail. As you climb the mountain though, the trail gets worse. Firstly, the gravel seems to get looser and looser, and any drainage ditches or low walls at the edge of the trail are the best thing to run up, otherwise you slip back every few steps. Then, just when you get used to that, maybe at about the 7th or 8th station, the trail turns into hard volcanic rock, which you have to climb up, often needing hands and knees. From there the trail climbs a lot in not much distance, but it's hardly quick going!

At the 8th station we had our final timecheck, it had taken me 1:08 from the 5th (2:46 overall), and somehow I was still going well and continuing to pass people. I don't want it to sound like the race was easy, it was probably the hardest thing I've ever done: the air tasted thin, my vision would go a bit wobbly at the edges if  I pushed really hard, and I could feel sickness rising in my stomach, but I was moving faster than the runners in front of me, and now to my surprise I was starting to catch and pass a few people with elite "full-colour" top 20 race numbers from last year.

"Run when you can. Walk if you have to. Crawl when you must. But never give up"

This delicate balance between running OK and passing people vs. really working at high altitude was hard work. I occasionally looked back downhill to Fujiyoshida a long way below, but mostly I focussed on running when I could and just keeping going when I couldn't... I was glad it wasn't far to the top because I could feel my body was close to the edge (metaphorically as well as literally). I had realised at the 8th station that my altimeter was reading low, so I knew that when it said I was at 3500 I was getting close to the top (actually at 3770). Not far now!

Mt Fuji crater
The watch said about 3450m when things started to go a bit wrong. I was stumbling more and more over the rocky climbs, when walkers stepped to the side and let me through I would sometimes fall onto them or their children, which understandably seemed to confuse them a bit. I was now totally focussed on just continuing uphill and getting this over with as soon as possible. I'd re-passed an American guy I had spoken to as he glided past me in the first kilometre and decided that if I held this position I was happy. Actually I passed one more - Mr. Orange vest had been almost in sight for the whole race but I'd never quite caught him till now, but with 50m to go I passed him. As soon as I did so my whole body felt wobbly and I nearly flopped to the floor. I was determined not to collapse as we were now within sight of the top. I stood to the side and let him past, took a couple of deep breaths and set off to get the bloody thing over with.

Soon I made it to the top, 15 seconds behind Mr. O. The relief was amazing, for a while I couldn't believe I'd done it! No going home and telling people I'd missed cut-off times or any of the other disaster scenarios: I'd finished the Fuji Mountain race.

The finishline. I have no memory of high-fiving spectators!!
I had a drink, employed some considerable mental effort in not being sick, then had an amusing wander around the tourist tat shop at the top of the mountain. The congratulated the tall Japanese Salomon runner, who seemed very nice. He had won in 2:48, I'd finished in 3:09. I didn't know it at the time, but I was 22nd of 1020 who made the cutoffs.

So, that's that then! In Fujiyoshida, and actually almost anywhere in Japan, the image of Mt. Fuji is everywhere... Tourist shops, leaflets, beer bottles, hotel signs, lamp-posts, manhole covers, buses... everywhere! It was a relief that finally seeing the image didn't need to worry me. I'm now in Tokyo and it's STILL everywhere, but now it reminds me of an amazing day and the hardest race I've ever run.

After a few minutes at the top I went to look at the crater, and met a German called Steffan. He'd had a great run and finished in around 3:02, it turned out later that he was 1st and I 2nd of the non-Japanese runners. It also turned out, over noodles at the park after a loooong and painful jog down to the 5th station and a bus ride to the park, that he too had a broken / dislocated toe! We'd both run the race with our right foot little toe strapped up after seeing it stuck in a very unatural angle a week or so before the race. I think there's a strong chance both of us will be back for another go at this race, with a full complement of operational metatarsals.

Done! Back down at the 5th station.
So.... onwards to the Matterhorn!

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Fuji here I come!

As I write this I am sitting in the departures area of Manchester Airport. In an hour or so I'll be flying to Dubai, then a few hours later on to Tokyo. All being well, sometime tomorrow I will arrive in the town of Fujiyoshida at the foot of Mt. Fuji (Fuji-san as I think it's called by the locals!).

I'm really excited and looking forward to the race, but first I just can't wait to get to Japan and experience the culture and the country. I'm staying in a traditional Ryokan in Fujiyoshida, so hopefully I'll have a proper taste of Japanese life.

Training for the race has gone well, I think the last month or so has probably been the most intensive period of hill training I've ever done, but quite rightly, as Fuji-san is a massive hill. The race stats are 21km with something like 3500m ascent... A bit more than Win and Lose Hill where I've done lots of my training. I did my final two Win Hill reps yesterday, and this morning I caught the train from Sheffield so had a great view of the training hills I've been using as I finally left Yorkshire. It was nice to be able to wave goodbye to them!

My flight has just been called so it's time to go. The next update may be from Japan.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Back in a kayak...

I admit it, I haven't been in a kayak since ARWC Costa Rica... I did more kayaking in that race than in my entire life up to that point, and it was certainly the part of the race I found the hardest. Those long nights paddling up endless lakes and in and out of mangrove lagoons will stay with me for a long time, and have not left me in any great rush to get back into kayaking...

However, a month of so ago a message appeared on the Dark Peak Fell Runners facebook page advertising the first running of a race called the "Wet Fox Trot". A slightly unusual name, but the race sounded interesting: 4km run, 2km paddle, 4km run. Two kilometres of paddling sounded manageable, so I decided I'd go and do the race if I could. The event took place at the Peak Pursuits centre at Underbank Lodge near Stocksbridge. I arrived just in time and there was luckily a space in the first of three waves. I paid up, signed my life away and off we went!

I set off pretty fast and soon found myself in clear space at the front, the run was a nice route around the reservoir - but I soon realised I'd gone off quite quickly and worried I couldn't hold on! The route took us over the dam, along the far side of the reservoir, back around the end, across the river and along the near shore into the centre. I finished the first run in about 16 minutes and was the first to be given a bouyancy aid and kayak. The boats were plastic river boats, which were a little unstable but not too tippy really - I think only one person capsized! I had a reasonable paddle, though there was one unplanned 360' spin. The 2kms took about 10 minutes and I was soon back on dry land and off onto the second run...

The second run felt a lot harder than the first, I had gone quickly the first time and was about a minute longer the second time, but I was now confident of winning my wave at least. I obviously didn't know what anyone in the two later legs would do so just tried to dig in and run as hard as I could! I eventually came into the finish in a total time of about 43 minutes, and so began the nervous wait...

I watched a few people out in the boats and coming in on the run over the next hour or so, then it was finally time for the results announcement. It turned out I hadn't done it, two guys had raced each other all the way round in the third leg and had obviously both set quicker times than I had managed. I was a bit disappointed but had run as hard as possible and paddled as well as I could, so I'd done my best.

However, today, I received an email from the organiser saying that there had been a problem with the run timing during the first wave and actually I had recorded the quickest time overall! I've also been offered an entry to next years race, which I'll definitely be taking up. Thanks to Fox Valley Events and Underbank Lodge for a brilliant race, and for restoring my faith in kayaking!

"Going long" for the first time...

Ahead of the Accelerate Going Long event on Tuesday, I've been asked to write a bit about the first time I ran over the marathon distance. I can't remember if my Hadrian's Wall run is technically the right answer, but it was a very memorable day so I thought I'd try to write a bit about it....


It was 2007, and I'm not sure I was really a runner. I was at University in Sheffield (for the first time), I ran probably a couple of times a week and was just starting to get into a few little fell races in the Peak District. I had a poster of the Bob Graham round on my wall and was in awe of people like Mark Hartell and Stephen Pyke - the long distance bug had bitten, I just wasn't quite fit enough for it!

17th June 2007

The Hadrian's Wall Path is an 84 mile path from one side of England to the other. It starts at Bowness-on-Solway and finishes at a place called Wallsend (top name). I think there's now a race which follows the route, but in 2007 it had only been run a couple of times, and had been completed in under 24 hours for the first time a month or so before, by three guys with support. In my youthful arrogance I decided that I could be the first to run the route in one day, solo.

I found a friend who lived nearby and managed to get a lift to Bowness on a Friday evening, so at about 10 o'clock that evening I set off East. It was a long time ago and I don't remember all the details, but it still stands out as probably the hardest challenge I've attempted! Within the first hour I had an experience which certainly do remember...

As I ran through a field in the dark and towards a kissing gate at the far end I heard a few noises and shone my torch around. The torch lit up the eyes of a field full of cows, all facing torwards me, and now running towards me! I ran faster and got through the gate as quickly as I could, the cows were right behind me now but I thought I was out of the way.... then in front of me I saw a second kissing gate, and another herd of cows coming from the other side. I was trapped in a little area between two fields, surrounded by very interested cows! Writing this now it sounds a bit daft, but at the time I wasn't the biggest fan of cows so this was a pretty scary experience, I was torn between wanting to press on with the record attempt and not wanting to move. I turned my torch off and crouched down in the hope that they would go away and I could sneak out of the field, but they just stood there snorting - eventually I ended up crawling through gorse bushes into the next field.

I ran on through the night, passing through Carlisle as the last of the drinkers went to bed. The route profile is fairly simple, with the first quarter and last quarter of the run being flat-ish, and the middle half being a bit wilder as it heads through Northumberland National Park. The beginning and end would test my navigation, and the middle my legs. If you think I struggle with maps now, you should've seen me in 2007! Inevitably then, by the time I reached Crosby-on-Eden after 5 hours I was already well behind schedule. My feet were starting to blister and I'd only run about 20 miles! However, the sun was now up and at least I could see the cows.

Central section of Hadrian's wall: nice.
Looking back at a video I made (link at the end), I think I was more willing to accept pain than I would be now... I reported "feeling quite good" despite "starting to feel it, knees are a bit screwed, getting a fair bit of chafage and toes are a bit bruised"... I don't think that would constitute feeling good today!

The run now becomes a bit of a blur... from what I remember, the middle bit over Windshield crags (the highest point on the route) and the surrounding area was really nice, with some lovely grassy running and the bonus of being half way, but I was a mess. I had initially set off on a spectacularly ambitions 17 hour schedule, but by the time I entered the second half of the run the challenge had changed - I was now just trying to finish in under 24 hours.

I lost time on every leg and was starting to really struggle. I reached Chollerford with 31 miles to go and 10 hours to do it, but everything hurt. I put a brave face on the video but between talking to the camera I distinctly remember sitting down and crying a couple of times. I was tired, confused and generally losing it a bit! I guess these feelings are now familiar and I sometimes even look forward to them on a really long run, but at the time when the most sleep deprivation I normally experenced was struggling through lectures after long drunken nights out it was a bit scary. I was way out of my comfort zone.

Luckily my Mum, Dad and my brother Ed had decided to come out to Newcastle to see me finish, so I saw them near Heddon-on-the-wall. This cleared my head a bit and I focused on finishing. I was miles behind all my revised schedules, but it might still be possible to get in just ahead of the previous record (23:56). I hobbled into Newcastle thinking that the last thing I needed was to lose any time, then proceeded to get hopelessley lost and spend half an hour backtracking. I remember sitting down on a grassy hill beside a little footpath, taking my shoes and socks off, getting my penknife out and trying to cut the blisters off my feet. I couldn't even manage to do that without falling asleep so after a very bizarre conversation with someone who sat down next to me I started asking around for the way to Wallsend... Incredibly slowly but gradually I made my way towards the finish, and caught up with the family again with about a mile to go.

The run through the outskirts of Newcastle was not the most beautiful but despite all my tiredness and confusion I was chuffed that I was going to do it... I ran the last few hundred metres with Mum and Ed and couldn't work out how they could keep up with me when they were only walking, but it didn't matter, I reached the Roman fort in 23:04.

The Hadrian's Wall run was my longest run at the time, and remains probably one of the worst states I've got myself into (perhaps excluding the Pennine Way, but I didn't finish that so it doesn't count). I slept for about two days and didn't run for a long time afterwards.

It's interesting to look back and realise how much I've learnt over the last 7 years. I really had no idea what I was letting myself in for when I started Hadrian's Wall, whereas now I'd like to think I can prepare myself a bit better and know what to expect. Sometimes though, you can still have a huge epic with some unexpected surprises, which brings us neatly back to the "Going Long" evening on Tuesday, when I'll be talking about my 28 hour birthday run...

Youtube videos, with apologies for being a bit overdramatic!
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3