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.

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.

Results
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....

https://www.facebook.com/events/542851612507764/

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

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The Tour comes to Yorkshire!

It still sounds mad to say it, but last weekend the Tour de France started in Yorkshire.

The 2014 "Grand Depart" saw riders start in Leeds on Saturday for a stage taking them through the Yorkshire Dales to finish in Harrogate, then on Sunday the second stage started in York and looped around through West Yorkshire to finish in Sheffield. I was lucky enough to watch both stages, the first as a spectator on the Cote de Grinton climb, and the second as a Tour Maker volunteer. It was an incredible weekend - the weather was good, the crowds were massive and our county looked amazing! Here are a few photos...

On saturday we had a great view as Jens Voigt came up the climb in a solo breakaway:
"He's coming!!"
Amazing crowds on the Cote de Grinton

Some people (and animals) had really made an effort...

We listened to the end of the stage as we walked back across the hills to our campsite and were sad to hear about Cav's crash, but it had been an amazing day. I recorded a bit of video too, which you can watch here: Day 1 video

On Sunday I was able to watch from the Cote de Jenkin Rd - an incredibly steep hill just 5kms from the finish. I was originally allocated a Tour Maker role in the Meadowhall Overspill Car park, which didn't sound the most glamrous! However, the Jenkin Rd marshalls needed a bit more help so we duly obliged, and I found myself with a fantastic view of the race as the riders slogged up the hill (it's so steep that the bike is a hinderance - I ran up quicker on the Accelerate run last Thursday than most of the TdF riders rode up it!)

A gaggle of Tour Makers

More huge crowds, and gathering clouds of doom!
Contador leads the lead group

The top!
I've recorded a couple of animations of the lead group, and the yellow jersey group going up the hill:

Lead group
Yellow jersey group

And also a short video of the hill - Day 2 video

And finally, a few more photos are on my Flickr page here

The tour left England last night and I think we put on a great show, the rain held off in Yorkshire and only arrived on the last stage from Cambridge to London yesterday, which also had some amazing crowds! It looks to me like the Grand Depart 2014 has been a brilliant success, and I think they might be back sooner than they had planned... I'll certainly never forget seeing Jens Voigt powering up that climb with the backdrop of the Yorkshire Dales, or Alberto Contador dancing up a residential street in Wincobank. Thank you TdF!