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.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Accelerate invades Wales!

Though there are quite a few of us in Team Accelerate-Scott, it's not often that we're all at the same race. However, this weekend the Accelerate crew descended on Llanberis in substantial numbers: From Accelerate-Scott were Julian, Chris S, Dot and I, from the performance centre Stu H, Col and Chris, and coached runner Lee Walker, all ably supported by Debs, Ben, Chris's wife, Dot's husband and Lorna (and Acer the dog).

Those of us running had the choice of two events, the inaugural full or half Snowdonia Trail Marathon. Chris, Lee and I were signed up for the full distance, and everyone else the half. Neither looked easy as both involved climbing to 993m, just below the summit of Snowdon. The marathon did this pretty much at the end, whereas the half-ers would still have another little climb afterwards!

After a sunny Saturday we all met up and pitched tents at a campsite rammed with school holiday families. The midges attacked so we all agreed an early night would do us good and retired to our tents...

Despite our self-deflating airbed I slept well and woke to a grey drizzly morning. I was a bit nervous as after a few disappointing performances recently, some niggles and some days when I just have not enjoyed training, I really had no idea if I would run well or not. I decided to try not to get carried away too early on, and start gently.

- - - - - - - - - - -

It was time to find out. We packed up, drove to the start, did a final kit faff and it was soon 10am. The organiser shouted "Go!" and I realised I really had taken quite a relaxed approach, I was quite far back as we trotted out of Llanberis and began the climb up and around Foel Goch. I gradually passed people as we climbed (though not as quickly as Chris S who after starting slightly late flew past us all to the front!). The half and full marathon routes ran together for the first 5km or so, and with no way of knowing who was in which race I decided to stick with the group of three others I found myself in. We wound our way up to the top of the climb where the races split. All four of us turned right onto the full marathon course, and with no-one visible ahead we thought we were probably at the front of the marathon.

Half and full marathon routes

We descended the zig-zag ranger path to the Snowdon Ranger youth hostel quickly, then hit the road and turned left. I was feeling good and running well within myself, but I would now have to wait till Snowdon before there was any more real ascent! Not being the biggest fan of tarmac or flat running this was not necesserily great news. Two of us (Sam Orton and I) had now moved ahead of the others and pulled out a little gap, but as we reached Rhyd Dhu and left the road we were told that there was another runner, apparently 5 minutes ahead of us. We spoke briefly and agreed that 5 minutes was a good gap to have after only about 50 minutes of running.

It was good to be running off-road again as we made our way through the twisty trails around Beddgelert forest. It had rained quite heavily during the first climb but now faired up a little bit and I took my waterproof top off. Dot has commented since the race about this - it certainly took a few minutes of intense concentration to do so whilst trying to keep up with Sam! Due to the weather the race organisers (Always Aim Higher Events) required us to carry full waterproof kit as well as a hat, gloves and mobile phone, so I was using my little Scott pack. However, a few minutes later I realised all that concentration had been unecessary as we were forced to stop as the path crossed the Ffestiniog railway line! The train seemed to pass incredibly slowly but eventually we could see the back and jumped around the end as it passed, glad not to have been caught by the guys behind us!

After around 1:25 we were through the southern-most point of the course at Beddgelert village and heading northeast to Llyn Dinas. Somewhere along this section there was a little hill and I started to slightly get away from Sam. Between here and Llyn Gwynant was a great fun section - the singletrack rose and fell through the woods, it was twisty, rooty and slippery and required constant concentration to stay upright. I slipped a few times but not seriously, and when I could look back I saw that I had maybe a minute's gap. After about 2 hours 10 mins and 28kms I passed through our campsite from the night before, where I was told the lone leader now had 7 or 8 minutes on me. It sounded like a lot and I was starting to tire now, but I hoped that I would be strong on the climb up Snowdon and told myself it wasn't far till we could go uphill.

The climb actually started even sooner than I thought, and once the route left the road a few kilometres after the campsite so began the long drag up to Pen-y-pass. This seemed to go on forever, and being long and straight I could see Sam in the distance behind me. I tried to see the guy in front but could not. After about 200m climb I saw the marshals and Lorna at the top of the hill just before Pen-y-pass. I gave them a big wave from a good distance away, before they could see my face, which I suspected would make me look less happy! I don't know if this was a particularly painful race, but every photo I have seen seems to show me pulling a horrible expression.

Sample gurning
Despite what my face might've shown, I was actually really enjoying the race. I kept thinking back to the 3 Peaks, which in hindsight I really did not enjoy very much at all, and remember thinking that although this race hurt there was nowhere I'd rather be. The scenery was spectacular and I was loving being back in a proper race. After the 3 Peaks I decided that to enjoy racing I needed to be motivated by the chance of doing well rather than the fear of failure, a thought which I had with me as I passed through the 20 mile mark in the Pen-y-pass car park and headed up onto the Pyg track. It had been great to see Lorna, and the other supporters at the car park had given me a boost too. I knew the leader now had 10 minutes on me, which I doubted I could catch, but it was worth a try...

Lorna had told me I looked stronger than him, which I suspected (and she later admitted) was a lie, but I was happy to believe it for a while and tried to run as much of the track as possible. The climb from Pen-y-pass to the checkpoint at the top took 47 minutes. I had no idea whether I was climbing well or not, but having watched the awesome Tour de France stage to Alpe d'Huez on Saturday I tried to channel my inner Quintana. Being in Wales I also tried to conjure up some of the courage of Geraint Thomas, though luckily avoided headbutting any telegraph poles.

As I got nearer the top a few walkers told me that the gap was smaller than I thought: First "3 or 4 minutes", then "a couple of minutes", then just before the marshals at the top someone told me "he's only 60 seconds in front".

The Pyg track
My legs felt rubbish as I reached the mashal point and turned around, but at least it was downhill from here! As I set off down my quads refused to work and I hobbled for a while, but eventually got going. After not much descent, and still in the fog, I saw a person in a green vest and shorts with some walkers, he seemed to be rummaging frantically in a rucksack on the floor. And he had a race number on! This was Callum Rowlinson, who had led all day but apparently had struggled on the climb and ran out of energy at the top. I think he was getting some food from a friend out to support him, but at the time I didn't know what was going on (or even if he was running the full or half marathon) so just tried to keep going as fast as possible. The marshals at the Clogwyn station confirmed that a guy in a green vest had been leading the race, but that they hadn't seen him yet, so it seemed I was now in the lead. I hadn't expected this!

I knew Llanberis was at about 150m altitude and kept glancing at my watch to see how far I'd descended, it seemed to be taking forever to get down. I remembered talking to Stu Hale before the race and him saying that after the summit there was only "that far" to go to the finish. "That far" seemed a looooooooong way! Even after the descent there was still a fiddly little section through the Coed Victoria which seemed to take me away from the sound of the finishline tannoy. Eventually though I popped out of the woods and saw Chris S and Ben Hale who took another classic gurning photo...

More gurning. Nearly there... Photo by Ben Hale
Then across the road, through a bit of car park, and I could see the finish. The final marker sign said 400m to go, I glanced behind me and saw no-one and realised I was going to win. Lorna and all the half marathon guys were there at the finish and the two half marathon runners I crossed the line with even gave me a cheer!

- - - - - - - - - - -

My (chip) time in the end was 4:04:04, which is slower than I expected the winner's time to be, but I think is testament to the difficulty of the course. Even the flat bits were often tricky due to the conditions. Half marathon times were also slower than expected, despite intense competition at the front between Dan Doherty, and Accelerate-Scott's Julian and Chris S. In the end, Dan won by 10 seconds from Julian, with Chris in his first race back after injury getting third. Dot was 1st V60 by miles and Stu H 3rd V50. In the marathon Lee beat Chris H by 6 minutes - you can read Chris's blog here (maybe wait till you're not eating).

In the end I had about 5 minutes on Callum in second, who in turn had another 5 minutes on Sam in 3rd. Jez Brown was 4th and an impressive 5th and 1st lady was Katie Beecher. The race was fantastic, as I mentioned earlier I genuinely did enjoy it (despite what my face said) and am obviously pleased with the result. A huge thanks as ever to Accelerate-Scott, all my kit was great and the Kinbalu Supertrac shoes managed to keep me upright despite the slippyness. Thank you to Lorna for coming to support me, and thanks (and well run!) to Stu H, who seemed as pleased as I was at the finish and gave me a massive hug. Finally, as ever, huge thanks to the organisers and to the marshals who spent all day out in pretty minging conditions - you were all great!

My legs are still pretty shattered but I'm going to enjoy this recovery week while it lasts, it's only a couple of weeks to the Ultraks now...

Friday, 3 July 2015

Three Peaks Yacht Race. But first...

I've just got back from competing as part of team Wight Rose in the 3 Peaks Yacht Race. It was another great race, but before we get into that there are a few things I need to catch up on - I've been a bit slack with the blogging recently!

So here we go, massive achievements in bullet point form:
  • Chris Webb ran up and down Alphin Pike near Saddleworth 25 times in 24 hours to raise money for Stroke association
  • Paul Elliot became the first person to ride the Trans Pennine Trail in under 24 hours to raise money for Sheffield Children's Hospital
  • After waiting a long time for the right weather, Jez Bragg broke the long-standing Ramsey Round record by 11 minutes with a blistering 18:12
  • Adam Perry had a second attempt at a 78 peak 24 hour Lake Distrcit round, aiming to complete possibly the ultimate fell running challenge in the UK. Once again he was very close!
  • Jim Mann and Jasmin Paris finished 1st and 2nd (and 1st male and female) at the Dragons Back race, after 5 long hard days across Wales. Congratulations to everyone who finished the race, including Joe Faulkner who became the first ever triple completer.
All these achievements really deserve their own write-ups but have been written about elsewhere by people more qualified, so I'll simply say congratulations to Chris, Paul, Jez, Adam, Jim, Jasmin and thanks for the inspiration!

Superstars! (l-r) Chris, Paul, Jez, Adam, Jim, Jasmin

Right then, the Three Peaks...

The week of the 3PYR started as it did last year with a win for me at the Wet Fox Trot run-kayak-run race. This is a little race on Underbank Reservoir near Penistone, it involves a 4km run, a 2km kayak and another 4km run. I set off in the last wave and completed the first run in 16:09, and the combined kayak and second run in 25:28. I think anyone who's ever done an adventure race with me would be quite amused that I could ever win a race with kayaking in, but it felt really good to be running OK again, and after a few disappointing months of racing it raised me up a bit ready for the 3PYR.

Crowds at the Wet Fox Trot - great race by Fox Valley Events!
Bouyed (haha) by my midweek success I was excited as I packed and prepared for the 3 Peaks. After initially deciding to give it a miss, we had decided very late that we would enter the race this year, so there was a degree of mild panic to the preparations. However, by Saturday lunchtime I was in Barmouth with Alex Pilkington, where we met our sailors: Geoff West, Gary Clayton, and Paul Jackson. Paul was our third sailor this year in place of John Donolley, and as well as being a very experienced and great sailor also happens to by my father-in-law..

Looking pro in our matching tops! (l-r) Paul, me, Alex, Gary, Geoff
By the time we arrived and entered the race (possibly the latest anyone has done so) we had missed all the briefings, so there was nothing left to do but buy supplies and go for lunch. This done we made our way to the harbour and jumped on a water taxi to take us out to the boat. As I passed my bag up onto the boat the my bike's rear brake, which I had removed with the intention of fixing a dragging caliper, slipped out and was lost to the depths of Barmouth harbour. Ah well, who needs rear brakes anyway! I made a mental note to keep my weight back as I braked for those 90' bends on the Whitehaven cycle path.

Leg 1: Barmouth to Caernarfon
At 6pm we were off, and for a change from last year we weren't rowing! Once we left the harbour conditions were a bit bouncy and Alex soon reaquainted himself with his good friend Mr. Bucket. We seemed to be pulling away nicely from the British Army boat which we'd had a good race with last year, but there was one boat off to our Starboard (right) side which was going as quickly as us. It was a team of Dutch sailors from Scotland and runners from Orkney and Malvern, team "Rio".

Leaving Barmouth in Tropical conditions!
A few hours later we arrived in Caernarfon. Rio and ourselves had sailed well and pulled out a good lead on the rest of the fleet. After running aground slightly on Caernarfon bar we lost a little time and Alex and I stepped off the boat 32 minutes down on Rio's runners. As our kit was checked we were asked for an ETA, and were told ours was only 15 minutes quicker than the runners ahead. It looked like we might leave Caernarfon still behind, but we decided to do our best to catch them and off we went...

The Snowdon run is the longest, and basically divides into four: in, up, down, out. In and out are flat road runs of about 1hr each, and were the hardest part of the race for me last year. Flat road running is not my favourite, but I felt better this year and decided to just get on with it. Alex was strong on the run in and we arrived at the foot of the hill feeling good. The climb also went pretty well, though the weather was deteriorating and by the time we got to the top could fairly be described as minging. We couldn't hear each other over the wind and rain, and as we turned at the top and started down the hill I struggled to get food out of my bag with cold hands and was only just warm enough.

Soon enough though we were dropping off the bottom section of the hill into Llanberis, past the little shop where I bought a painting of the Eiger and onto the run back in to Caernarfon. It was about 5am as we headed along the main road back towards the town. Three totally smashed party-goers tried to talk to us but we were both pushing fairly hard so didn't stop for a chat. On the last hill before Caernarfon we spotted a luminous vest in front, then another - it was them! We caught them over the next few minutes and passed them maybe 10 mins from the end of the run. Back to the boat with a time of 3:54, taking 36 minutes out of Rio.

Leg 2: Caernarfon to Whitehaven
The sailors seemed pretty pleased with our run, but warned us that we were now into one of the hardest parts of sailing, the Menai Straits. I had a milkshake and dodgy looking "meat-based protien snack" but didn't go to sleep as I wanted to be awake through the straits. There were some great photos of this area taken last year:

Menai Straits: 2014. Though it hadn't changed much.
Rio were just behind as we crept through the straits, slightly faster than last year (and luckily no terrifying-backwards-towards-bridge-peir this year!) but it was still tense. I was given a job: Crouch on the floor and hold the iPad thingy with the charts on so that Geoff can see it. It seemed appropriate to be doing the job of a shelf!

Just after the tightest bit of the straits Rio slipped past us, then we traded places up the next narrow section on our the way towards Whitehaven. As we got closer to Whitehaven we began to discuss the tide, this is a critical section of the race as the lock gate at Whitehaven harbour can make or break a big gap. The window within which we could get in and out of the harbour was from about 6:20pm to about 2am. We were now ahead of Rio and if Alex and I could complete the Scafell Pike section in time to get us out by 2am and the other runners didn't, we would immediately get a 6 hour lead. The sailors did a cracking job as Alex and I ate and slept to get ready for the big ride-run-ride section.

Bikes on the boat - not massively convenient!
We were first into Whitehaven harbour at about 7pm, if we could get through the lock, complete the section and get back through the lock in 7 hours the race would be looking very good... It would be close, but it was on!

Off at Whitehaven... Go Go Go!
We jumped off the boat and went straight to the compulsary 5 minute kit check. During this time the sailors parked the boat and came to see us off. We were asked not to race too fast through the first harbour area but we had the bit between our teeth and I wouldn't say we went particularly slowly! The ride in to Ennerdale would be the same as last year, but this year we would also be riding on up to Black Sail Youth Hostel. Alex has been riding a lot recently and led the way along the tight cyclepath out of Whitehaven on his lovely carbon 29er. We climbed up to about 250m, then dropped down to 100 or so before the final climb up to Ennerdale then Black Sail at 300m or so. We left the bikes there after 1hour 32 mins, quickly lent them up against the hut and set off up Black Sail Pass...

The foot route took us up Black Sail Pass, down to Wasdale, and up Scafell Pike, before returning the same way. If we could do this in a bit under 4 hours we might make the lock gate. The climb up Black Sail felt good and we were quickly over the top and descending to Wasdale. Here we had an unexpected 5 minute compulsary stop, but with very friendly marshalls, amazing flapjack, and annoying midges! The climb up to Scafell was hard work with a few hills now in our legs, but we took almost exactly 2 hours up and down, as we'd told the marshals.

Sunset in the Lakes (taken during Nicky's BG record)
Near the bottom of the descent we saw the runners from Rio on their way up, they looked far enough behind that if we got through the Whitehaven lock gate we could get a race-winning gap on them. Back to Black Sail Hut we had 1:20 remaining on our target time, we would have to ride fast but it was do-able. Unfortunately my bike light was a bit wobbly on the descent and I had to decide whether to hold it and ride with one hand or to ride with both hands but be prepared for sudden plunges into darkness! Alex pulled away a bit and I worked hard to stick with him down the rocky descents. Once we left the track and were back onto the smooth road the lamp problem went away and I focussed fully on sticking to Alex's rear wheel. The ride back in was fantastic - being nighttime the cycle path was empty (apart from a couple of teams we encountered going the other way) and we flew down into Whitehaven on the narrow tarmac track through trees and eventually into the town, through twisty sections in housing estates and finally out onto the harbour area. We'd phoned Geoff to tell the team to be ready for us as it was going to be tight, and as we arrived he and Paul were waiting for us. We ran down to the boat with them, jumped on, and set off straight towards the lock gate. Fingers were crossed as we increased the engine revs and headed out of the lock gate...

Bang. More revs. Bang. Reverse, more revs. Bang. Damn!

When I next stuck my head up we were back in the lock gate, and soon were back on the pontoon. We would have to wait till 6am to leave, by which time Rio would presumably be back with us. Nevermind, we'd all given it our best shot and there were only minutes in it. The race would now be restarted as a two-horse affair. Time for a shower and a sleep.

Leg 3: Whitehaven to Corpach
As expected, we left Whitehaven with Rio at 6am. We'd eaten, rested, and were ready for a race! Geoff and Gary know the route up around the West coast of Scotland very well after so many races over the years, but Rio's sailors had researched the route and knew it well too. As the tracker shows, there wasn't much difference in our routes from Whitehaven to Corpach.

Tracker from http://yb.tl/threepeaks2015#
During the last sailing section we expereinced all sorts of conditions, from Force 6 with broaching and reefs in the main sail, to calm conditions requiring Gary and Paul to row for an hour during the night! As we passed through the Sound of Jura the wind started to drop a little, meaning that Rio pulled away slightly due to the stronger winds they had experienced through this section. We had by no means given up but the gap was slowly growing and was up to 11 miles by 6am on Tuesday morning. This meant that when Rio reached Corpach at 9am we were still in the Corran Narrows. Alex and I would give it everything on the Ben, just as the sailors had on the run up from Whitehaven, but barring a disaster for them it looked like we'd be 2nd.

Alex and I were keen to win the King of the Mountains title too, and hoped we could do so by winning each of the three legs. We believed we'd got the first two, so agreed no holding back on the final leg.

Off the boat and onto the Ben
The weather was good for once as we pulled into Corpach and went to our last kit check. The 5 minutes seemed the longest of all this time as we were keen to get going. From Corpach it's a 5km run to the base of the hill at the Ben Nevis Inn (Achintee Farm) where the climb begins. The run through Caol and Fort William itself felt reasonably good on the way out but the weather was warm even this early in the day - it would be scorchio for the later runners!

At a height of 400m we see the Rio runners descending the hill, the race is over. We give them a high five and say well done, but keep pushing ourselves up the hill chasing the KOM title. Just after the start of the climb we saw Rob Howard of Sleepmosters.com - Thanks Rob for the photos you took of the race and for all the great reports on the website!

The Ben was busy with walkers, not so much of a problem on the way up but once we'dbeen to the top and turned around (at exactly 2hrs) we had to shout a lot on the way down to ask them to move. There seemed to be a lot of German people around and we wondered whether shouting "Achtung!" might be more successful, but most people gave us lots of space as we carried on down to Fort William. On the last 5km I'm a little stronger than Alex, it's only a tiny difference but it's a relief as I don't have to push quite so hard... Soon we were back into the town, through Caol again, and finally onto the towpath. With the finish in sight we manage a sort-of sprint and finish the leg in 3:29.

The final straight!

 We are met by our team and the guys from Rio, Gary cracked open a bottle of champagne and sprayed Alex, but by the time it came to me the fizz had gone and I ended up with it just being poured over my head

Cheers Gary.
So, the end of another 3 Peaks Yacht Race! I have mixed emotions from this year - it was fantastic fun again and I feel like I'm starting to get my racing mojo back a little bit, but it was a shame after last year not to be able to defend our title. However, I'm really chuffed to win the King of the Mountains trophy, there are the names of some true legends engraved on there and I'm looking forward to collecting it in October! We had a great race with Rio and they really did sail well (so I'm told!), so it seems on the day we were beaten by the better team.

Well done Team Rio!
Finally, a quick thanks to Alex, Geoff, Gary and Paul, race organiser Meic Ellis, and his marshals and team. Thanks also to Scott-Accelerate for the support and great kit, I wore Trail Rockets for the Snowdon and Ben Nevis legs and Kinbalu Supertracks for the Scafell leg.