Monday, July 25, 2011

AIN'T NO MOUNTAIN HIGH ENOUGH - RACE REPORT

 BANG!! the starters gun went off at 8:00 AM and 200 nutters set off up the mountains.I was one of the few oldies in a sea of 30 year olds....and very fit ones too. We began climbing immediately and didn't stop climbing for nearly 3 hours! It is instantly difficult as there are no flat or even tracks. After 15 minutes passed some people  had turned round and were heading back.....obviously they'd had enough... and they looked fit!! It was a long slow trudge but fortunately the weather was cool and sunny which was perfect. I had in my mind several targets and I hit my first hour mark on the trail in 56 minutes which bouyed my spirits a bit. Nobody speaks, they are all locked in their own world and the task in hand. It was stunningly beautiful but I couldn't really appreciate it because I had to make the infamous half way cut off in 3 hours 30 mins or you were out of the race.

         I hit the top of the Col ( mountain pass) in 1hour 55mins ( Target 2 hours). I was mindful of Jamie's words 'you dictate the race' not the other way around. It had been a long 12 kilometres and I had climbed 3000 feet (900 meters) from the start in D'allos. It was an awe inspiring view but with no time to stop  the climb continued. It was really tough and on one bit I was physically on my hands and knees it was so steep! Finally I reached the top of Mount Vescal  8200 feet (2500 metres above sea level)........but instead  of being relieved I was terrfied. It was a  very severe drop and they had attached steel ropes to the rocks to hold on to as you climbed down. It was the bit I had been fearing since they warned us about it in the briefing the day before. 'You have to stop ...and take great care' he said, well, yeh ,obvious......what did he think we were going to do run down it!! It took me about 10 minutes...a very long10 minutes as half way down my knee twisted and I was stuck there..........  I tried to relax, rubbed my leg and kept edging down until suddenly the rope ran out! This was ridiculous as I was now on my bum edging gingerly down the precipice....I was so relieved when I finally got down that I shot off and never once looked back..... extremely glad that it was all over.
        There was one small climb left and I hit my 3 hour mark miraculously at 2 hours and 55mins. I now had to run 6.5 K all the way down to the cut off and I had 35 minutes to do it. The descent was rocky and tricky with lots of switchbacks to the village 2,130 feet (650 metres) below. I have no idea how I didn't fall over and break my neck. Every time I saw the village way down in the valley it seemed to be getting further away!  Finally on reaching the outskirts I could see Sue in the distance shouting 'Come on, come on, go faster, go faster!!' My watch said 11:32AM.       
                           I was 2 mins late.

...........As I arrived at the check point I must have appeared crestfallen...the guy, Pierre, who had done the briefing the day before was there, Sue appeared 'Whats happening? Have you missed it? she asked anxiously.....He looked up from the computer and with total calm said 'Its okay.....you did 3hrs 26 mins.' I thought I had missed it but I'd forgotten that the race didn't start at 8am, they were late, the actual race started at 8:07am. Sue was delirious and couldn't believe I'd made it. I was exhausted after the effort both mentally and physically. A french woman came in behind me
with 3 others and all she could say was 'Le Stress, the stress!'
        BUT, we were only at the half way stage and there was a possible 3 to 4 hours still to go. I looked at Sue, 'I don't know if I can run all that again, I ve got no energy left' Sue then said what I had asked her days before to say if I made the cut off and was feeling tired 'If you want to be  an endurance athlete and run The Western States 100 in the US then this is nothing......you can do it'.
          I felt shattered, kissed her and trundled off  and back up the far side of the valley and another mountain........this was ridiculously hard. I felt pretty low after the adrenalin of the 'cut off ' charge had died away. I had read about these feelings that you get in trail running and you have to fight them, thats why they say it 'tests your soul'.......you dig deep and keep going....or as Alexander said 'Don't stop'. It was a long slow climb but I passed a guy going even slower and it made me feel better.......it must have made him feel terrible.
      Eventually as I neared the top I calmed down and jogged along before hitting a difficult area strewn with boulders but I liked it because it was unusual and surreal. All I could hear were the birds in the pine trees and I felt a kind of zen moment and found a new lease of energy. After the next two climbs a long slow descent opened up through the forests and I started to enjoy myself and feeling extremely grateful that I was able to do this in such an awesome place. I looked up at the mountains and then bang!.....I fell flat on my back. This was the best fall I have ever had... ..no rocks just lush grass, it was fab. I laughed, got up and carried on.
        I did not once check my watch as I didn't care about the time, I just wanted to finish. The hours passed and I was running quite well now;.... amazing. My preparation had been excellent, Sue had supported me brilliantly  and I was determined to make it.
       To be fair the last mile seemed to take forever but finally I crossed a rickety bridge and could see Sue and the finish up ahead. Lots of people were still there clapping everyone in. As I crossed the finish line I held my arms aloft. I had done, what I later found out to be, was one of the hardest of the Alpine mountain races......and it had taken me 6 hours and 32 minutes. I fell into Sue's arms and just burst into tears........told you I was a wet.

                  

Thursday, July 21, 2011

HEART OR MIND

   I apologize for my constant references to this coming weekend's 'entertainment' .... my Marathon in the Mountains but as you can imagine it is playing on my mind quite a bit.....its the climbing that concerns me!!  To put it in some kind of perspective; I and the other lucky souls will be running a similar distance to the New York Marathon and whilst doing this we will be running up the equivalent of the Empire State Building, 6 TIMES!!! Yeh, I know, I know.
       However, not to be discouraged I have just recieved some great advice from fellow runner, Jamie, who completed  the Comrades (2 marathons back to back)...and I quote.....'Remember your attitude will dictate the run......don't let the run dictate your attitude. Marathons are run between the left and right ear, trust me I know and I have run 60 of them!' ....so there you go. This must be true because probably the No1 Ultra Marathon runner of all time, Scott Jurek, once said that, ' To run 100 miles in one go is  80% mental...........and the other 20% is mental'.........and I thought it was all to do strength and fitness!!!
           I guess you have to be fit enough both mentally and physical. As regards the fit bit my resting heart rate is now 46....which is excellent and my VO2 Max is 176 (the maximum beats that I can raise my heart to in maximum effort).  I have a good aerobic base due to my training, however I have only recently discovered that my endurance speed is too slow for my level of fitness; in other words I am able to go much faster on the easier bits than I have been doing. Yep, I have been lazy and didn't even know it. I became aware of this after I bought a new heart rate monitor; it seems I had been running based on my old measurements and expectations. I could have been increasing my fitness rather than slightly plateauing, which  I may have done. Anyway its too late to train at the  higher level now as the race is on Sunday but after that I need to 'Step Up'..... a lot!!
           What a great metaphor for life; - you think you have given all you can.....only to discover that you have  been coasting in 3rd gear for years.
       In summary my fitness level is very high but not as high as it could have been but, I will not let this get in the way on Sunday as I believe my mental fitness to be pretty good...............anyway we shall see. I believe you can achieve virtually anything if you believe it and are prepared to do all you can and more to succeed.

                        'Life will test your spirit the trails will test your soul' - Unknown.

          In normal marathons the commentators often talk about it being a FUN day. I have never quite got my head around this. Years ago I ran the London marathon and I don't recall it being much fun unless you want to count being passed at the 15 mile mark by two characters dressed as Mickey Mouse and Yogi Bear.....in fact it was most dispiriting. The good news, as Sue pointed out, is that in trail running nobody dresses up as anything, its all a bit too serious. So when I am  on the edge of the forest and a Bear runs past I have no need to worry, as it won't be a Yogi Bear character, it will be a real one..........What am I saying!
             Anyway, at the end of the day its all about heart and mind; and with that I shall include a  link of one of my all time favourite songs by Joni Mitchell. Its a love song that has nothing to do with what I have just been talking about, save the title, but who cares, I shall sing this to myself as I scale the peaks. Enjoy and wish me luck...or as they say in France 'Bon courage'.

                                  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OZ-GM8Q7q60

 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

TAPER RELIEF

         Now I know what your thinking (Taper Relief).......didn't that used to be an excellent way to decrease tax on property investments a few years ago? Yes, is the answer and No, as regards the contents of this blog. Firstly please bring back taper relief and secondly please may I get some relief as a result of Tapering. I'll bet you are now totally confused........well......apart from the runners of course.
            Tapering is what it says on the tin. Before a long race, you taper your excercise as the day of the race approaches, usually over a 3 week period. The reason being is that you give your muscles etc time to heal and repair before the big day. Its quite difficult to do because you feel your slacking and instinctively don't want to do it.....believing that its going to effect your overall fitness and make you slow or fat or lethargic. Also you have to increase your carbohydrate intake ( Complex carbs of course.) I am now 10 days away.........away from what you may ask?
       I know I am going to get a bit of flak on this but I have decided to run the 38 k Trail de Val D'Alloss; yes, the one where in training I took 4/5 hours to go 20 kilometres. The way I figure it is this. As you may remember the 22K cut off for this is 3.5 hours, if you don't make that they don't allow you to go any further. According to my maths I went walkabout in the first hour and so I think if I get my prep right and I hit 12 k's at near the top of the mountain in 2+ hours that gives me 1 and a bit hours to do the next 10k's.... as 4k is climbing to the summit of 2519 metres (8264 feet) and 6k is downhill. Now the accountants will think this still doesn't add up and you'd be right but I am trying to factor in that this is a race and I should go faster.....and I bought a pole!! ( yeh that should do it, me thinks). I am still pretty terrified of some parts of the course but if theres other runners around I may not feel, and act like, such a wet. Problem is there may not be other runners around because I may be at the back!!
       Just a quick mention about speed; I could normally run 22 k's in under 2 hours in a road race but in trail running its just that much harder (the mountains) and so takes a lot longer. Finally  there is of course the small matter that if I make the cut off there is still another 16k's to go .....and another mountain!.......but I guess I will have to cross that proverbial bridge when I come to it. Why I didn't choose a flatter course I don't know.
       And so back to tapering; I did do some easy runs in England over the weekend, one in the woods of Hampshire the morning after a mega party (courtesy of Sam and Jools - thanks again) and another up Box Hill in Surrey (Jane Austin country). This was  a little strange as all I could think about was Mr D'arcy comming up the hill in a horse and carriage.....or was it Emma. ( no doubt I will be corrected by my literary friends).
         Back in France  and  on the eve of Bastille Day I did a big 15 k climb which will be my last before the race though I will be doing some easier runs, sprints, tabata's, etc. (See video, it was amazing). As I came down it grew dark very quickly and some firework displays had already started, it was quite surreal ( like that scene in  Apocolypse Now with the concert in the jungle). There were thousands of people lining the sea shore watching the fireworks.......and me coming down off the mountain and trundling through the undergrowth all alone. Weird.............Still, 'I love the smell of napalm in the morning'........yep, I've completely lost the plot.

video

Thursday, July 7, 2011

POWER MAD

     










           Now, for the physics boffins, the picture on the right may have peaked your interest........as for the rest of us (or perhaps just the male fraternity ) its safe to say the picture on the left is the one to hit all the hot buttons. As for the fitness freaks, of either sex, these pictures alert us to something entirely different......I shall attempt to explain; stay with me, its worth it.
      Simply put, they are both visual descriptions of exactly the same thing. ie, the girl on the left could not be doing what she's doing unless she had an adequate supply of the thing on the right. Andenosine triphosphate or ATP, we all have this and its rather wonderful stuff.
      Within this are three main energy systems which although  they all work together, some will dominate more than others depending  on what type of excersise you are doing.
          No 1. ATP-PC is only for short bursts of activity, normally for about 10 seconds like sprinting and is then exhausted.
         No 2 is the Anearobic ( glycotic) system which produces about 2 mins of power and leaves lactic acid  and so is not useful for anything longer than a 400 metres sprint or a set of excersises in the gym, eg weightlifting.
        So how do endurance athletes go on for 10,20 or 30 hours non stop? Obviously they do use the first two during a long run at different times, perhaps on hills, but replenishing these stores takes time and this is done by converting the food that we eat, however, to run continuously you need another energy pathway.
         No 3; the Aerobic system. ATP here is produced by breaking down Carbohydrates and Fat by using oxygen, ( a reason why everyone recomends Aerobic exercise for weight loss). It takes longer to do this and most stores of Glycogen are exhausted in about 2 hours and hence the need for sports drinks, energy gels etc. However during this process the body will also switch to its Fat stores, (though not in 20 mins as some people believe) and even lean fit athletes have unlimited stores of fat ......and so they can keep going on and on. Teaching the body to burn fat as fuel is why we train and the fitter you are the more efficient this system is.
       Now I know technically this is a gross over simplification of whats happening but hopefully you get the point about where our POWER comes from.
         As regards burning fat to lose weight, running - although good - does not burn that many fat calories, in fact as I explained in an earlier blog, high intensity excersise burns fat stores far longer after you've finished a workout than does Aerobic. I am afraid it all comes back to the same old story, you must regulate what you put in much more rigorously than what you expend........thats if you want to lose weight. Here's an interesting fact.....
      The average sized woman will burn more calories during 8 hours of sleep than she will doing a one hour jog around the park!
        Excersise helps and gives a myriad of incredible benefits but it aint going to make you thin overnight  - and neither will sleeping!
       I like to think of No1, ATP-PC as my special superman energy source that I can call on when neccessary, be it running up a hill or sprinting at certain times during a race. When you see, even average runners sprinting at the end of a marathon, this is what they are using. Its great because it does not inhibit your other pathways.....its seperate like you're carrying it in a bag (one of those left overs from our caveman ancestors, handy when suddenly confronted by a Sabre-toothed Tiger!)
      A  few years ago my nephew Richard, a fitness expert from Canada, was staying with us and we ran experiments on ATP-PC on how quickly we could replenish it after depletion. It was driving Sue nuts as its all we talked about all week. One day she returned with a load of shopping, obviously needing help whilst Ricky and I were doing repeats or sets of 50 metres freestyle swimming. She heard this and had had enough. 'I'am sick of all this ATP' she shouted, whilst throwing the shopping to the floor and storming inside.......Ricky and I stood there heads bowed like chastised little schoolboys........silence reigned until he slowly looked up, smiled and whispered,
         'Shall we do another set?'........I chuckled under my breath aware that if Sue had heard him she probably would have killed him....C'est la vie.
    
          
        

           

Sunday, July 3, 2011

FEARLESS OR STUPID???

     What an eventful weekend. As some of you know I went up to Foux D'allos ,the ski resort , to check out some of the race I was looking at doing in late July. It was a long drive and so I began my run, along what I thought was the course, at 5:30 in the afternoon. I was following a rather vague map and all was going smoothly until  I asked directions of some local folk. I was polite, said 'Bon jour' and naturally believed what they told me. This was a huge mistake as they then proceeded to send me on a half hour detour of the French Alps in completely the wrong direction and as is so often the case in these situations the problem was further compounded when I got lost in the  woods ...........4500 feet above sea level. Not good.
     Somehow and after much frustration, swearing and sweat, I found my way back onto the origonal route. This had all taken nearly 45 minutes! A terribly demotivating start. Slowly I began the climb of 1100 metres (3300 feet ) straight up, along precarious tracks , scree fields and gorges. I was worried about the fading light, the elevation, the bears, wild boars, the steep cliff edges, local nutters; you name it, I thought about it. From the start of the run to the Col D'Allos I saw no one, not a soul and it was extremely isolated.
      I  realised it was getting late and there was no way I was going to make the 22k's before nightfall.  I just kept going until finally I came out of the woods and up on to the mountain ridges. As I neared the top of the first mountain peak everything changed and all became breathtaking and beautiful. (See video, sorry about the quality,it was a bit windy! )



     I now felt calm and more relaxed........should I press on? Absoutely.......I was now an intrepid explorer and full of confidence; the hard part was over however about half an hour after this video it dawned on me that my enthusiasam may have been mis-placed and perhaps I was feeling a little light headed due to the elevation; I don't know but what I did know was that darkness was falling and I was on top of a real, not to messed with mountain and therefore I decided, after much deliberation, to turn back and take a route down to the Ski station. Yes, I said 'down' to the ski station; I was that high. By the time I arrived it was dark. I had run 20 kilometres and it had taken 4 hours! This was of course very slow but due to the climbing I guess it was to be expected. I was tired and a little annoyed at my earlier unintended detour but undeterred  I decided to start out again in the morning to continue where I left off.
         So, at 8:30 am, Sue drove me back up  again to the Col D'allos and off I went feeling good.........until I finally hit the 2500 metre (7500 feet) mark.  It was windy, again, with a track about 9 inches wide and a 1500 feet drop off, on either side..........and I am not exagerating! There was what looked like a  small rock crevice for shelter. I sat down for 5 mins and considered my next move. I had only run for an hour but the next part ahead looked really tricky with a steep and rocky climb down of about 400 feet to the next track; it then traversed all the way back up again to 2500 metres......and that had a sheer drop all along the ridge and no track. This just didn't feel right, I had no poles or sticks and there was nothing to stop me if I fell. Is this Trail Running? ...I thought to myself........feels more like mountain climbing without any ropes!
         The good thing was that I was cosy in my little shelter on the edge of the mountain and I didn't really want to leave but I shuddered as I realised that if I had continued on from the night before I would have arrived at this point in the pitch dark. This would not have been a very smart idea and potentially dangerous as many people die from exposure every summer in the Alps, stranded after dark, ill equipped on the top of a mountain.  Even now on a bright sunny morning, as it was today, the weather can turn nasty and cold very quickly. Tragically I read the next day that two experienced British climbers had fallen to their deaths near Mont Blanc.
        Even though it was a difficult route I decided to turn back and find another way down to Foux D'Allos. At this point I also realised something else..............I would not be running  The Trail D'Allos at the end of July.
      I arrived back after 2 hours, having descended 750 metres ( 2200 feet)..... and thought it all over. The half way cut off for the race was 3 hrs. Even if I had not got lost and even if I could have continued across this difficult terrain it would still have taken me 5 hours!..... and I had a nights sleep in between. Furthemore I had not even thought about the other half of the race still to come.
       But, there are always positives. I had run in total, due to my various detours, over 6 hours back to back, and nearly 32 kilometres through extremely harsh terrain  and with a combined elevation gain of 1350 metres (over 4000 feet). Practicing and checking out a large part of the course had been an invaluable lesson and it made me realise that I still had an awful lot of work to do to achieve my endurance goal. From a stamina perspective and despite the rigours of the run I felt fine. Its a sobering thought that what I had done over the past two days does not even comes close to proper ultra endurance running. Those guys and girls must be seriously fit and seriously tough.         
        Back at the hotel I spoke to a local guide and told him about my little adventure. With a rather stern face he explained a few things...... This particular race had never been run before as its twice a long and twice as high as previous races. Poles, (sticks or batons) will be needed for the runners and on the higher parts where I had been, they will be erecting a chord or guide line for the runners to hold on to. There will be medical staff along the route, at all the water stops and at the higher elevations..............and furthermore........ What on earth had I been doing up there on my own ???
       Fearless or Stupid? ........If I had fallen and injured myself and I could have done many times, it would have been very serious but there's always that possibility anywhere; I think the difference was that I was on my own in remote areas. Sue knew my route and my mobile had a signal, I also had water, energy bars, a whistle and a small thermal blanket. Admittedly if the weather had changed  and turned nasty in the dark, high up on the mountain then that would have been a different story and maybe it was this fear that prompted my descision to retrace my steps and descend back down to safety.
I certainly was not being fearless, I'm too wet for that and so I think on balance I got it about right.............. ............................whilst just narrowly avoiding stupidity.
PS Just for the record, if you read my later blogs I am happy to say that I in fact did run the race ... and finished it, remarkably. Just shows you the benefits of training.