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.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Trail des cretes du Chablais

After our winter in the Trois Vallees ski area, Lorna and I are now spending the summer in Chatel, in the Portes du Soleil area. It’s a great ski area, but more importantly at the moment a fantastic summer area. We’ve settled in to our little apartment (read bedsit), which for seasonnaire accommodation is actually pretty huge. As soon as we arrived I started to dream of running around the stunning mountains and ridges surrounding Chatel, and after about two weeks of living here I even found a race to enter! The first of many I hope, and even better it was supported by Scott, so it must be good! Here’s a quick blog about it…

“Trail des cretes du Chablais” translates as “Trail of the ridges of the Chablais region”. There were three races on offer, an 18km (1200m ascent), 42km (2900m ascent), and the monster “Le Contrabandier” race, with 5600m ascent over 76km. I don’t think I’ve ever actually entered a race with more ascent. The route would take us from Chatel south towards and then over the Pointe de Masse, then to the Tavanuese region, before turning north to the village of Abondance for the main checkpoint and roughly halfway point. From Abondance at about 900m we would ascend the Cornettes du Bise at 2432m, then a few more ups and downs before the final climb to Morclan and the gradual descent back to Chatel.

Well, that was the plan. Unfortunately the weather did not want to play. The two weeks before the race were really really wet. At the end of our winter season the running in April had felt like summer, but now I felt like we’d receded back into winter. Each morning the clouds would fill the valley, perhaps occasionally rising during the afternoon but only to turn into a spectacular storm for the evening. Fantastic to watch, not great for ensuring snow-clear summits… To cut a long story short, the organisers did a fantastic job to give us a course to race round. The 76km became 69 (though as work prevented my attendance at the briefing I didn’t know this till Abondance!), and the 5600m became 5000. This still sounded plenty as I stood around in the centre of Chatel waiting for the 3am start. Everyone around me looked lean and fast, and like they were born with batons in their hands. Mine felt heavy and awkward, I’d only run with them once so this would be a baptism of fire!

Nervous selfie at 2:45
It was great to get started. The race had quite a presence in the village with its big marquee and inflatable finish line, and quite a few people came out to cheer us off, all the way up through the village. Some of them even looked sober.

The NASA countdown now appears to be standard in European races!
After the small tarmac start section we headed out on a little trail contouring around the French / Swiss border ridge and then dropped down to the main road, very close to where Lorna and I live. Then up the other side and the first climb began… I was in a group of about 10 at the front, but as we climbed I felt I was working hard and dropped back slightly, wondering if it was too soon after the Peak district trigs. I went to strap the batons on, immediately hit a man behind me in the balls and had to apologise. It seemed rude not to let him past me, so that was another place lost and I was about 15th. This felt a sensible place to be though I was not feeling particularly sprightly, so I plodded on and tried to get some of the race under my belt.

The first section to Abondance, which turned out to be about 32kms, had some utterly spectacular sections. Due to the re-routed course we did a fair bit of high level traversing rather than ascending the planned summits, which for safety reasons had been roped by the organisers. This meant in one case an incredible traverse of 200m or so across a very steep snow slope, kicking steps whilst holding on to a fixed line, following a line of headtorches beneath the towering summits above. It was at this point that I realised that there is a very specific set of skills required for racing at this level in the Alps – and all that core strength and balance Stu Hale keeps telling me to work on would suddenly be very useful. I tried to go fast across these technical sections but I just couldn’t, I was wearing a pair of brand new Scott Kinabalu Enduro but kept slipping and nearly launching myself rapidly towards the valley floor. The guys around me made it look so easy! I’m not sure if I lost places on these sections but I certainly felt I’d worked harder than, and lost time to, those around me. After about 3 and a half hours, a village appeared in the valley below me, which surprised me. It turned out to be Abondance, where I’d not expected to be for another hour and a half. At the checkpoint in the village I discovered the new distance of the race, and learned that the second “half” was further with more climb. I had arrived not feeling too great, but after a good helping of Alpine checkpoint food (mostly cheese, dried sausage and coke) I set off with renewed vigour! I’d also realised on the final descent (yes, it took me THAT long), that perhaps some of the speedy runners who I’d now lost sight of in front of me were running the relay, meaning that they were only going to Abondance where they’d hand over to their partner for the second half. This obviously meant I wouldn’t be racing them, which was great, but meant that I now had no idea how many people were ahead of me.

The climb from Abondance started on the road, up through the famous Abbey and eventually out onto trails leading towards the Refuge d’Ubine, and then the col of the same name, and finally via a ridiculously long snowy traverse in now zero visibility to our revised high point on the Cornettes du Bise (about 2100m of the 2400m summit). The traverse was very memorable, but at the time VERY frustrating. I was running through fog, able to just see one of the little pink marker flags stuck in the snow from the previous one, constantly traversing and climbing up to my right, with an unknown drop off to the left. Every so often I’d cross an area which had avalanched during the winter and have to pick the route through snow and rock debris. The frustration came from my slow progress, again due to technical inability! Finally I was descending, and it soon became apparent that sliding on my bum was the quickest way down. A relay runner on Team HOKA came past, able to ski on his shoes rather than having to bumslide like me. It wasn’t that much faster, but probably a lot more comfortable.

Eventually the route turned south again and after dropping from the high mountains through some fantastic areas, and some refuges I certainly plan to visit again, our route was joined by those of the other two races. This meant that after being alone for at least 3 hours I was joined by loads of other runners. I now knew the finish was not too far, maybe 15kms, and was keen to press on and get there. I felt pretty good and ate the last of my four gels on one of what felt like it should be the last little climb. However each time I thought this there would be one more. None of them were big, but after a race of huge ups and downs, these 100m or so ascents felt harder and harder!

All three races were now together and the trails had finally given in to the weather. There was a LOT of mud! Grip became a distant memory and everyone just tried to remain upright whilst heading broadly downwards. On the final descent to the Super Chatel area I gave in and let gravity take its course, bum sliding on gravel-y mud hurts even more than on snow! I now felt great though and was passing runners from the 42 and 18km courses. After a totally brilliant race the final descent was unfortunately a contrast to the beauty and solitude of early sections, the narrow trails were a couple of inches deep in mud and everyone was either in the way or stuck behind someone… I was really trying and one over ambitious overtaking manoeuvre ended up with me flat on my face in the mud, now completely covered and with one of the bloody batons half way down the hill to my left. I gathered it up and resigned myself to a time just over 10 hours. It didn’t matter though, given how crap I’d felt earlier in the race I was pleased to be finishing. I’d learnt a lot and hoped I might manage a top 20 position.

Up there!
Finally the finish line was in sight, then, as it always does, it ended. My time was 10:10:33, which turned out to be enough for 9th place. The winner took about an hour and a half off that though, which shows where I need to be aiming for. Congratulations to everyone who completed any of the races this weekend, and a huge thank you to the organisers for working so hard to put on a race for us. It was just possible to run in a t-shirt, but the marshals on the high mountains looked freezing so Merci Beaucoup to them, and thanks for keeping an eye on us over the roped sections. I can’t wait to work on my alpine running skills and hopefully run this race again next year.

Brilliant marshals and checkpoints
Thanks very much to my employers (Alpine Quests – the best chalet company in Chatel by miles!) for allowing me the morning off, to Scott for sorting out the entry and for making such great shoes that I could wear them out of the box for this race and not end up with any damage to my feet at all, and to Accelerate for continuing to support and coach me despite my international wandering.

Walter returns

Thursday, 2 June 2016

The Peak 27?

After returning from the Alps in April, Lorna and I have spent the month of May in the UK. We had a fantastic weekend up in Scotland with my family to begin with, and since then we've been generously hosted by my Sister-in-law, her partner and our new baby neice, in Herefordshire. It's been a great month of chilling out, drinking beer with excellent people, barbeques, gardening and fence building, learning about babies, and a decent amount of running and bike riding.

However, while in the UK I also had some serious business to attend to. In 1991 a man called Pete Simpson set out to run a route joining the Dark Peak 15 trigs (the 15 trig points included on the original KIMM map from 1985(I think)) with the 11 trigs from the subsequent White Peak map, into a continuous route similar, in theory, to the Bob Graham round. Though the 15 trigs is reasonably well known and is completed by a fair few people each year, Pete's 23:49 completion of the 26 remains the only known attempt at the route! He actually summited 27 hills due to a mistake on White Edge. I heard about the route from Alan Yates last year, who felt it was about time it was repeated. 2016 is the 40th anniversary of Dark Peak Fell Runners, so it seemed opportune to head up to Sheffield during our month off and give it a go...

So, at half past 7 last Tuesday I left the Sportsman and headed on the familiar route up to Rod Moor trig. In theory I knew the route around the 15 trigs from my previous recces and completion in 2013, and I was surprised how much of it I did actually remember. Rod Moor was reached easily in good weather after half an hour or so, at which point I realised I didn't actually have a schedule to compare my times to, so I wouldn't actually know how I was doing until I did, or didn't, get back to the Sportsman in time! I'd looked at Pete's schedule, but since he started in Glossop and went the other way round, it wasn't much help.

After Rod Moor I lost a bit of time by trying to avoid an excited herd of cows by cutting through a farm, but met the farmer who sent me back and told me the cows would be fine. They were indeed but the double back cost me 5 minutes. I pressed on up to Emlin then out onto open moorland to cross to Back Tor via Cartledge Rocks. I could see Back Tor from far away so drifted towards it rather than taking the dogleg route which I think was a bad decision, but I ticked off the third trig after just over 2 hours. The third and fourth were done in 3:13 and I was off on the long leg to Alport. At about four hours and with five trigs done, I did not feel as good as I had hoped. The long drag down the edge of Howden reservoir and along the river Alport seemed hard work and I was not optimistic about how well I'd feel in 20 hours' time. Despite the darkness, the Alport valley is beautiful though, and I had some proper food on my way up which seemed to improve things a bit. I was struggling with two things: My new headtorch (an eBay special!) was a bit rubbish, and there was very little water around to drink.

Kit for 24 hours: Lots of food and some snazzy socks
After Shelf Stones I was pleased to find Cock Hill without too much difficulty and dropped down into Glossop at about 2am. I became slightly disorientated and did a little loop of the town before I recognised a road from the Dark Mountains race I did here with Jim Mann and escaped up towards Harry Hut. It's a decent climb up but runnable and I remember feeling good again here and pressing on, as I also remember doing on the 15. I'd now be heading around Kinder for a few hours to tick off the Kinder (Sandy Heys), Kinder Low, Brown Knoll and Blackden trigs before heading along to Win Hill. Theoretically the Kinder ones represented the last bit of tricky navigation, so I was glad to get them out of the way as daylight appeared in the East. The run along to Blackden was great, despite the now grey and slightly drizzly weather. The alps is a fantastic place to live and run, but they can't compete with the stunning wind-shaped rocks you find in this part of the peak. However, I was now out of water - the downfall was a trickle and there was nothing drinkable in any of the other streams. I decided I'd have to hang on till Castleton or Hope to fill up so pressed on up Win Hill and down to the villages, getting there at about 7:30 in the morning. Next, Mam Tor, then a drop down to the car park where I'd stashed some more food and a pair of road shoes for the rest of the run...

Secret kit bag just after Mam Tor 
I was relieved to see the bag I'd left the previous evening was still there, I changed out of my Scott Kinbalu Supertrac shoes into the Palani road shoes, ate a pot of custard and drank a bottle of cranberry juice then set off on the unknown White Peak section of the route, starting with Cop Mine. The new shoes helped my sore feet, but my legs were pretty shattered by this point and I was worried what another 12 hours on foot would do to them. The White Peak section is fantastic in places, but it is fair to say it lacks the obvious route of the DP section, and it does require a lot more road running. Most of the legs fall into a similar pattern: Small roads for the bulk of it, then a hop over a farm gate or fence to climb a hill to the trig at the top of a field. This pattern applied for the legs between Cop Mine, Daisymere Farm, Bole Hill, Edgerake Mine, Sir William Hill and Wardlow Hay Cop, though the leg from Cop Mine to Daisymere involved running through the village of Peak Dale on a narrowish road busy with traffic from the quarry. At this point I was forced to concede that perhaps this was not the Peak District's answer to the Bob Graham round! After the final quarry junction though things did improve and I enjoyed trotting along the little roads. I lost a bit of time finding some of the lesser-visited trigs such as Daisymere Farm and Edgerake Mine, but eventually came out at Curbar village at around 3:30 in the afternoon. Three official trigs to go, and four hours to do them. It might be a bit tight!

White Peak hills
White Edge trig was reached at 4:07, but the run along the edge seemed never-ending and it was now raining quite heavily. I decided at this point that I would miss Pete's mistake (Flask Edge, which he initially climbed in the belief it was White Edge) but would try to add one more trig point to the route, and finish quicker than Pete had done. So when I eventually reached the end of White Edge I dropped off towards Longshaw, where I messed up again and ended up running up the road to the Fox house Inn. I knew time was tight now and I tried to push on along Houndkirk Road, at the end of which I would reach my extra trig (Ox Stones). I did so at 5:24, then lost another five minutes by following the wrong path back to the road and having to double back. Two hours and two trigs, I ate my last chocolate bar and plodded on up the road to Burbage Bridge, then onto the Stanage track and off up to the Crowper Stone trig. I left the Crowper Stone at 6pm and put the map away now as I know the route to High Neb and back very well. The wind was blowing strongly now and the rain was falling - my hands were cold but I wasn't going to stop and look for gloves. Finally the little building just before High Neb appeared, then the trig itself, which I reached at 6:27. 56 minutes sounds like a very long time to descend from there to the Sportsman but I still wasn't sure I would do it. It would be embarrassing after all this to take longer than Pete had done!

After the run off the edge to the newly revamped Stanage Pole I continued down Long Causeway to the edge of the reservoirs, then (unlike when I ran the 15 trigs) joined the road for the last section. My golly it hurt my feet to try and run fast along the tarmac! After the reservoirs the climb up after Wyming Brook car park was hard work but the end was in sight now and it looked like I would make it... A few minutes later I ran into the Sportsman car park and stopped the watch at 23 hours 42 minutes. YESSSSS! I felt relief more than anything else, but was quite pleased with what I'd done.

Finished! (Gps error somewhere- it's more like 169km
As I jogged back over to the van and collapsed onto the stone wall behind I looked up and was shocked to see none other than Alan Yates himself! He was there for a Wednesday evening club night and was very happy to hear that I had finished his project. I was now cold so got in the van, where Alan came to sit and chat for a few minutes. I then got changed (with significant difficulty) and headed for the pub where I proceeded to sit in the corner as a shivering wreck for a few hours. With the help of Fish and Chips and despite a pint of Farmer's Blonde I felt much better by the time Lorna arrived, though my first attempt at standing didn't end well. The amount of road in this route does certainly extend the recovery time; after a week I'm running again but I can still feel a slight soreness in my quads.

A broken but happy ma!
I'm chuffed to have "beaten" Pete's record, though being only 7 minutes quicker after 25 years shows what a runner he was. I'm also not sure whether future contenders will choose to include Flask Edge as Pete did or Ox Stones as I did. I would suggest that Ox Stones are more logical since this gives a round of 27 trig points, not 26 and a hill, but it is for those in the future to decide... and I hope someone has a go before 2041!

For those who are interested, here are mine and Pete's split times...

Finally, if anyone wants to see the route, here it is on Strava (I've edited out the GPS error so this is the true route)

To finish, I've been inspired by other people in the last few weeks, all of which deserve a mention:

My brother Graham recently completed a 180 mile cycle ride from Leatherhead to Gilwern in Wales, on a Boris bike! He's raising money for the charity Get A-Head, in honour of his colleague Mel Jaggard who died in 2013. Nicky Spinks became the second ever person to complete a double Bob Graham round in less than 48 hours, breaking Roger Beaumeister's record in the process. By all accounts Nicky was incredible throughout and cements her reputation as one properly hard lady. Finally, Marcus Scotney won the inaugural Cape Wrath Ultra over 8 days of racing in the North of Scotland. The race looked awesome, well done Marcus and all three!