Sunday, 6 November 2011

Glen Ogle 33...ish

It's difficult to find something not to like about this race - a nice route through great scenery, it always has perfect weather, and it's two and a half miles shorter than billed. Plus, it is my local ultra, only half an hour drive from my front door.

The start was suitably low key. I'd noticed the big puddles on either side of the track 100m from the start so got myself right in the middle of the group and kept my feet dry. The section through the forest between Strathyre and Kingshouse was nice - a couple of wee hills to warm us all up then a long easy descent. I spent most of this section chatting to Graeme Reid about his superb UTMB run this year - he was very modest about what he had achieved. The first four miles flew by.

My race plan was to try and do about 9 minute miles. I work in kilometres (a hangover from my days as an orienteer) so actually I was aiming to do just under 5:40/km for the whole race. I was pretty much spot on that for the first section and it felt nice and comfortable. On the undulating section through the birch woods between Kingshouse and Lochearnhead (probably my favourite bit of the whole route, especially in the morning mist with the dew covered cobwebs in the trees) I slowed a little then got back into a good rhythm once we were on the railway going up Glen Ogle. The wee climb up to the railway was a nice excuse for a walking break and to stop and take in the view down Loch Earn. Glorious.

Photo courtesy of:

I've always thought that Glen Ogle is one of the prettiest wee glens in Scotland - I used to go hillwalking with my Dad most weekends when I was a teenager and the road from Stirling to the mountains more often than not went through Glen Ogle. I remember looking at the viaduct years ago (before the cycle path was made) and thinking that would be nice to walk along. Running up the old railway on a misty autumn morning was a joy. From the top of the glen we dropped down through the woods towards Killin - a nice bit of downhill which I tried to run relaxed on and picked up the pace a little. I got chatting to various other runners on the climb back up through the woods and before long was on the flat to slightly downhill stretch back to the top of Glen Ogle. Coming up through the woods I saw the much talked about upside-down sign - I thought it was just the organisers' humour (like the "are you enjoying it?" sign, the "to pub" sign, and the "slow" written at the steep uphill on the bike path - the latter maybe wasn't the organisers) rather than meaning the sign had been tampered with. Maybe I need to be more sceptical in future.

Somewhere in the woods we had covered 15 miles which I reckoned was about half way and I was feeling good so I started trying a bit harder. My average pace to this point was about 5:45/km so it was looking fine for doing 5:40/km overall with the long downhill coming up. Pretty much from here to the finish I was catching and passing other runners which was good for my enjoyment of the race but maybe means I started too slow. The run back down the glen didn't feel as downhill as I hoped it would, but the undulating bit through the birch woods was equally nice on the way back and with half a litre of fizzy coke inside me my legs were feeling good. We hit the road at 25 miles then had about 10km to the finish - I set myself a challenge to do the last 10km in 50 minutes and settled into a rhythm that felt nice and cruisey at about 4:50/km. It felt good to be running the last few miles strongly and I crossed the line in 4 hours 24 minutes, after 30 and a half miles on a great route through a lovely part of Scotland. My average pace was about 5:22/km - a little bit faster than I had been aiming for which was pleasing. The last 10km had taken me 48 minutes.

I always start off slow on these long runs then try and finish strongly. I'd set off on this one at a pace that was quicker than I usually start at and it was encouraging to then go faster over the second half. The route was quicker underfoot than I usually run on so I probably set off to slow, but I'm not much of a road runner and get tired very quickly if I try and go faster than feels comfortable. I'm sure I enjoyed it more setting off slow and finishing strong than I would have done setting off quicker and trying to hang on, and it was the sort of day for me that was about enjoying being out on the trails rather than setting the best possible time.

I'm incredibly impressed by how quick some folk ran on Saturday - quite amazing. One of the things I like most about ultramarathons is that no-one has an elitist "them and us" attitude - it's all just one big friendly family and everyone's achievement in finishing is as valuable as everyonelses (not sure everyonelses is a word, but you know what I mean). I was chatting to Paul Raistrick after the race - apparently his parents walked the Pennine Way with my parents 40 years ago, or something like that - and he was as enthusiastic about my run as I was about his. Another very modest guy and a worthy winner.

A big thanks to Mike and Bill and their team of helpers - it was a great event. Unfortunately I couldn't hang around for long to enjoy the soup or beer as I had to take the kids swimming - I spent most of the afternoon climbing the stairs to the top of the local waterslides - not sure how that rates as a post-race recovery.

The route was excellent - perfect for this time of the year when you can't be sure what the weather will throw at you. I was keen to show my wife some of the great scenery we had seen so today me and the rest of the family parked at the top of Glen Ogle and cycled back along the route to Strathyre in more wonderful autumn sunshine - the views of Loch Earn and Loch Voil from the route are just stunning. The bike ride to Strathyre was a nice recovery since it is mostly downhill.

The cycle back up to the top of Glen Ogle to collect the car was slightly less pleasant with tired legs from the previous day, especially on the steep climb at Lochearnhead with two stone of two-year old scotch beef on the back of my bike.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Know when to fold 'em

So it's day 2 of the OMM and I should be packing up my stuff ready for another day of navigating across the mountains near Comrie.

But I'm not. We had to pull out of the competition. We set off yesterday taking it nice and easy and were going fine for the first two and a half hours. Then I suddenly ran out of energy to the point where every step uphill was a struggle and my quadriceps would spasm and my legs would pretty much give way beneath me. We carried on for another couple of hours hoping it was just a bad patch but there was no improvement so about two thirds of the way round the day 1 course we decided to bail. Simon was a great team mate since he pretty much made the decision for me - that means a lot when I felt like I was letting him down. We pulled out at pretty much the furthest away point on the course so then had about eight miles down through Glen Lednock to cover before we could get a lift back to the event centre.

I had some sort of virus last week that meant I hadn't really been able to eat for the first half of the week, and still wasn't eating properly on Thursday and Friday. I think when I was ill earlier in the week I had used up all of my glycogen stores and hadn't been able to replace them on Thursday and Friday. I weighed 4lb less at the end of the week than at the start of the week, so something was missing and I know it isn't possible to lose that much fat so it must have been the other energy stores. On Saturday, as soon as I had burnt up the calories I had eaten that morning there was nothing in the tank and I ground to a halt. The muscle spasms in my legs were something I've never felt before - it was different to cramp - like my brain was telling them to do something but they weren't responding. They didn't feel particularly tired, just empty. It's frustrating because we were going at a level of effort that I know I can sustain for 10 hours on a good day. With the wind, rain, cold and tough terrain we were in yesterday there was lots of scope for negative thoughts, but I don't remember feeling particularly negative at any point - it was just that my legs didn't work properly.

It's the Glen Ogle 33 next weekend - not sure if I'll run now, I think maybe I need to take it easy for a couple of weeks to totally recover from the virus I had.

I hope the people who are out there running again today get some better weather (it seems alright so far) after yesterday. I wouldn't have fancied camping out last night. They are an impressive bunch.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Ready for the OMM

I need to get up just after 5am tomorrow to go and meet my brother-in-law Simon then head off to Comrie for the OMM. We met up last night to share out the gear and pack our bags. Simes assures me that we'll just take it easy and have a good weekend, but I'm not sure that's how it will be since my sister is running the same class as us so there is a serious sibling / husband-wife competition to be settled. Simes is a much better runner than I'll ever be - I'm probably more nervous about this than doing the WHW race as I am worried that I'll slow him down too much. We'll see.

I spent an hour on Wednesday evening re-proofing my rain jacket in the hope that Sod's Law would mean it would then not rain all weekend. It doesn't seem to have worked - the forecast is for heavy rain and wind all day and night Saturday, and just some light rain on Sunday.

The three mountain marathons I've done before were in the summer, and I have always said I wouldn't do the OMM because it always has crappy weather - at least I'm being proved right this weekend. We're doing a harder course than I've done before so I'm making some weight concessions from my usual mountain marathon kit, like taking cask strength whisky rather than the normal 40%.

At least the clocks go back on Saturday night so I can spend an extra hour asleep. Or, more likely, an extra hour shivering in a cold, dark, damp one-man tent with another six foot bloke.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

The right place for a holiday

We were on holiday last week - a week in the Swiss alps, very nice. The day after we arrived, I got a text message from my brother-in-law Simon asking whether I fancied doing the OMM Elite with him in a few weeks time. The guy he usually partners up with for mountain marathons is a little bit injured at the moment, and he'd worked his way to the bottom of the list of alternatives so I got the text. I've done the LAMM a few times but have never planned on doing the OMM because the weather is usually rubbish, but this seemed like a good opportunity to go and do something different with Simon. Luckily I was in just the right place last week to do some last minute hill training.

We were staying in Veysonnaz, a small ski resort in the Valais canton whose name means "sunny place" and last week it was indeed. The resort is at an altitude of about 1300m, and most of my runs last week were in the 1300m to 1700m height range. The air was noticeably thinner at the beginning of the week but I adapted to it within a couple of days and can notice the difference now I am running back at sea level. We did a few family walks with me carrying a wriggly two year old in a back pack so carrying half a tent, a sleeping bag and some food in a couple of weekends time shouldn't be too bad.

The region we were staying in is becoming well known for the "bisses" - irrigation channels that have been cut across the steep mountain slopes to provide water to the orchards and villages. Some of the bisse are hundreds of years old, and since they are pretty much level and have nice trails running next to them, they are brilliant to run along. I ran along a few of the bisse in the area, but the nicest was probably the Grande Bisse de Vex.

Thursday, 1 September 2011


So it's nearly ten weeks since the WHW race and I haven't been doing a lot of running. I had a few easy weeks after the race, then got out for a good run about Carron Valley with Norry and Robert. After that we were on holiday for two weeks - we were in the Central Highlands for the only good week of weather this summer, which was pretty jammy, and then a week in Northern Ireland. Pretty much the only running I did on holiday was when me and Anna had to be subjects so that my wife Jenny could perfect some sports photography techniques:

The idea was to use a slow shutter speed with a moving subject and track the subject with the camera so that the subject is in focus but the background is blurred to create the sense of movement. It works better when the subject (this time it's Alex) is on a bike since they themselves don't move about as much:

We got the best results using a shutter speed of 1/30 second. It was a hot day so after that wee bit of exercise we had to go and jump in the nearest river.

Over the last couple of weeks I've started running a bit more regularly and so now I'm thinking about keeping myself motivated between now and next year to keep training and hopefully be in better shape for the Highland Fling and whatever other races I end up having a go at.

So I'm setting myself some things to try and achieve before the end of 2011 that will give me something to aim for. In no particular order, they are:

1. Run 30 miles in under 4 and a half hours - I probably could get close to this now if I chose a flat route on tarmac so it'll need to have some tracks and trails and uphill on it. I've entered the Glen Ogle 33 in November so that might give me chance to do this, otherwise there's a good 15 mile loop in Carron Valley I know of which last time I ran it took two and a quarter hours to go round once only (and felt pretty knackered at the end), so twice round in 4 and a half would be a good run for me.

2. Run my 4km 220m ascent uphill time trial in under 20 minutes - I work in Perth and run up Kinnoul Hill at lunchtime quite often. Now and again I time myself from the traffic lights at the bottom of the hill up the road and to the summit. The other week I did my fasted time yet - 21:04 - so getting under 20 should be doable if I keep training.

3. Average under 6 minutes per mile for my 5 x 1 mile intervals - I do 5 times 1 mile with 800m recovery jogs, except I try and keep the recovery bits not to slow (about 8 minute mile pace). This week I averaged 6:37 per mile, which is about 10 seconds per mile faster than a month ago. I'm not a naturally quick runner so I think this one will be tough.

4. Get under 11 and a half stone - when I ran the WHW race I was 12 stone 4 lbs, and I'm a few pounds heavier than that now. There was a couple of times earlier in the year that I got under 12 stone and I was definitely running better. My problem is that Jenny makes very good scones and me and the kids love them.

5. Climb a 6b (French) route at the climbing wall - I've recently started going to the local climbing wall (the Peak in Stirling) with my son Alex and we're both getting into it. At the moment I can get up a 6a after a couple of attempts, but it ain't pretty. If you don't know climbing grades then going from 6a to 6b maybe doesn't sound much, but for me it would be a big step as it is a level I was never able to climb at when I was younger, and it seems that 6a is my natural limit - beyond that it gets too strenuous and technical.

So there you are, that what I'm going to try to do in the next four months to keep myself motivated - I'm not sure how successful I'll be but then I guess that's not really the point. Without something to aim for I would struggle to get out of bed at 5am and get out running with a headtorch, and if I don't do that then I don't get time to run.

Monday, 20 June 2011

West Highland Way Race 2011

So I'm sat here on Monday evening with a bag of frozen peas tied on to my left ankle and a pint of Harviestoun Schiehallion within reach so have no reason to move for the next hour. I've just read John's epic race report and thought I would write mine now before I forget about the bad bits.

Firstly, though, I want to pass on my thanks to the committee, all of the marshals, the mountain rescue teams, the support crews, other supporters, my fellow runners and everyone else who helped to make this race happen and for it to be, on balance, a great experience. My support crew were my mum, dad and sister, and they did a brilliant job - thanks so much. And there were many times on the day that I remembered the things I'd read of others experiences and they helped me to dig in and keep moving - I really appreciated the help John Kynaston gave me with splits and pacing, and the thoughtful and philosophical words of Andy Cole, though at some point on the Way I think I remembered something inspirational from each of the blogs I follow. The thing I enjoy most about ultra-running is the community and carmaraderie of the sport, and last weekend had it in spades.

The West Highland Way Race comes right at the end of the busiest part of the year I have at work, so I was lucky to get away at 3pm on Friday and grab an hour's kip at my mum and dad's house before heading home in time for tea and to spend some time with Jenny and the kids. After one final bowl of porridge and cup of coffee, I headed over to Milngavie with my mum and dad for the start. Here we go...

Milngavie to Rowardennan
I bumped into Norry on the start line and we ran most of the first twelve miles to Drymen together. It was good to get going at last after all of the months of training, and more recently, the days of apprehension. As we chatted away the miles ticked by quickly and easily. I don't know if it was the hue of my headtorch or my colour blindness, but I failed to notice the the difference in colour between a big dollop of mud and a big fresh cowpat at Carbeth and had one very mucky, but quite pleasantly warm, shoe after only 5 miles. The puddles on the old railway were a bit of a relief. There was a quite a gang of us on the road through Gartness, and the support at Drymen - not least from Sandra's santa-cap wearing entourage - was great. We went through Drymen in about 2:10 - bang on the 21:30 schedule I had in my pocket (the Cole Formula predicted a time of 21:34 for me based on my Fling result - I'd optimistically rounded it down).

After the gloom of the forest it was good to get out on Conic and turn the torches off. Gavin McKinlay passed me looking like he was moving effortlessly along the track - I like his quality low mileage ethos and I have found his posts on the things he had learned from previous races really interesting and useful, but he was away into the mist before I had a chance to speak to him. I went through Balmaha on schedule in 3:30, picked up some more chocolate soya milkshakes and water from my mum and dad, then headed on up the loch. As I crossed the road leaving the car park I remembered that I had meant to say hello to Davie Hall at Balmaha but had forgotten - I decided not to do the extra couple of hundred of metres to go back and find him so if you read this Davie hopefully that makes sense - I'll see you next time.

Between Balmaha and Rowardennan I ran a few miles with Donnie Campbell. His run from Glasgow to Portree was just incredible - when we spoke on Saturday morning he thought he'd raised about £1,500. The total on his webpage ( this evening is £7,200!!! - a fantastic achievement. I reached Rowardennan in about 5 hours, doing an extra lap of the car park before finding the drop bags.

Rowardennan to Auchtertyre
I ran out of Rowardennan then had a good fast walk up the hill on the forest road and ran well down the other side. I was on my own along the narrow path into Inversnaid and stopped for a minute or two just to enjoy the scenery and the smells and sounds of the forest, with a vigorous emu oil leg rub thrown in to heighten the experience. Immediately my legs felt looser and I was going well through Inversnaid and on to the rough bit of trail. Ross Moreland and Bob Steel left Inversnaid just behind me, and seemed happy to let me set the pace for the next few miles though I felt like I was holding them up - in retrospect, I think I probably went a little quicker on this section than I would have liked to but having a bit of company made the miles tick by quicker.

With the mud and slippy rocks this section seemed much more difficult than I remembered it from the Fling - it was almost impossible to find a smooth rhythm. Ross and Bob moved ahead of me on the climb past Dario's memorial post (I couldn't resist pausing for a few seconds to take in the view) and were out of sight as I approached Beinglas. I was suprised to see John Kynaston at Beinglas as I expected he would be a few miles ahead of me by now. I was feeling okay so picked up my bag and headed off up the glen after some encouraging words from Ian and Adrian - I was still pretty much on my 21:30 schedule at a little over 8 hours.

I felt good going past Derrydarroch and up to the gate at Glen Bogle, then started to struggle a bit. I find the bit through the woods hard as you can't see yourself making progress against the surrounding landmarks because of the encroaching trees. Also, I started to get really bad pains and cramps in my hamstrings (which I'd never experience before), which after a while I realised was being caused by my Skins underpants (though they are advertised as shorts) that I was wearing - the pain was just below the hems. I was moving a bit stiffly into Auchtertyre and decided to use the ten minute cushion on schedule I'd built up to have a short break (and change of underwear). I left Auchtertyre after 10:20 of running and ten minutes of sitting down.

Auchtertyre to Glencoe
Heading across the moor just south of Tyndrum I saw that I was catching Mike Raffan - I thought I'd have been miles behind him by now since Mike had recorded some brilliant results this year. He'd been having a few stomach problems over the morning. We ran together out of Tyndrum and it was good to chat about how us pair of newbies where finding it so far. Mike was obviously not firing on all cylinders when I left him but I was pretty sure he'd catch me back up again soon enough. The pains in my hamstrings started to ease, though every so often my right hamstring would cramp and lose all power and my leg would buckle underneath me. It started to rain as I approached Bridge of Orchy (I couldn't believe it'd held off this long given the forecasts over the previous few days), which was nice and refreshing for the first five minutes, but less so for the following three hours.

I went through Bridge of Orchy in twelve and a half hours, still right on schedule, and felt good going up and over the short hill. I'd put a knee support on my right leg which helped a bit with the loss of power and buckling though it kept on happening for the rest of the way to Fort William. It was good to see Murdo, his saltire, and his Belgian groupies dishing out jelly babies on the summit, then have a nice run down to Victoria Bridge. I walked most of the way to Ba Bridge, but since I was walking at just over 4mph I was quite happy with that. I worked out that if I walked the rest of the way from Ba Bridge to Fort William at 4mph I'd get there in 21:30 - my target time. My sister ran out from Glencoe to meet me - it was good to have someone to chat to on the run down the hill to Glencoe, though I forgot to take on some fuel while we ran together. I reached Glencoe in about 15 hours - my feet were starting to really hurt now so I changed into a pair of Inov-8 running boots with sorbothane insoles and heelpads.

Glencoe to Kinlochleven
Just as I left Glencoe I saw Mike running in looking really strong, then he and Pete Duggan passed me as I stopped at Kingshouse to sort out a shoe problem. On the road after Kingshouse my feet at first still really hurt then by the time I was at the bottom of the Devil's staircase they'd eased off. I started to feel very tired and out of energy but managed to drink some cola and get into a good rhythm going up the hill (a quote from the Disney movie "Cars" kept coming back to and got me focused - "Find a groove that works for you kid, and stick with it" - one of the few advantages of having young kids).

I really enjoyed the descent to Kinlochleven. I tried to stay loose on the hill and was glad of the extra confidence having my ankles supported gave me. I kept telling myself that the descent wasn't as bad as the final descent on day two of a LAMM carrying a 14lb backpack, and I'd managed a few of them. I ran the final mile into KLL with my dad and sister feeling pretty good and just wanting to keep going as I felt like once I got up the next climb it was in the bag.

Kinlochleven to Fort William
I left KLL ten minutes up on schedule and I was still feeling good on the climb and was soon up it and on the easier track - I was glad of some of the training runs I'd done when I'd made sure I had a big climb near the end when I was tired. I felt better and better as I started along the big track to Lundavra, and figured I should make hay while the sun was shining so went as quick as felt comfortable for as long as I could. I saw Ross, Pete and Drew Sheffield on this section - I think Pete was having a bit of a bad patch, otherwise we were all moving well and were feeling more upbeat as we got closer and closer to Fort William.

I struggled a little on the hill coming out of Lundavra for the first time on the run - I wasn't going to complain about that since there were only 7 miles to go - and my ankles had started to ache now and every step of the run down the forest road to the Braveheart car park was painful. I tried to run like I had seen Gavin run on Conic, with a loping, effortless stride which worked for a mile or two, then I started taking the longest strides I could manage since every step was sore so the fewer steps the better. My sister and dad ran with me from Lundavra - it was great to have the company and since my dad had finished the Race six years previously, he knew exactly how I was feeling. Just before the car park Drew came past looking really strong.

As we hit the "pays des vaches" I tried to remember something about each of the mini sections of the way that I had been using to pace myself (the John Kynaston mini-split method) - mostly who I'd been running with but also how I'd felt and what I'd seen, heard or smelled (the wild garlic just after Inversnaid, for example, and of course that cowpat at Carbeth). Before my reminiscince had got as far as Glencoe, I could see the roundabout and my sister said to me "I don't want to worry you Al, but there's some guy catching us up", so I had to get my head down and leg it as I didn't want to lose a place at this stage.

I arrived at the leisure centre in 20 hours and 43 minutes - I'd made up a lot of time on schedule between KLL and Lundavra - which I was delighted with. I think three of us (Drew, then me, then Pete) finished within a minute or so, with Ross finishing really strongly just a few minutes behind us.

Post race
After finishing I had a quick chat with Ross, Pete, Drew, Adrian and Ian, then went for a shower and change of clothes. While I was putting my socks on in the changing room, Murdo the Magnificent inspected my bare feet and declared them in great shape so that was encouraging (though it was possibly a hallucination). We were staying in Newtonmore for the night and the hour in the car on the drive there was a bit sore but not too bad. I walked into the house and immediately fell asleep, fully clothed, on the first bed I came to - it was just before midnight.

I got up at 7am and had porridge, orange juice and coffee for breakfast. It was a beautiful morning and my legs felt okay considering so I went for a three mile walk with my dad. Then we drove back through to Fort William for the prizegiving. It was excellent - I remembered thinking when I ran my first ultra how great it is that there is no elitism in this sport - the top runners seem to recognise that everyone who takes part in these races has to try just as hard, and has achieved just as much, as everyone else. The prizegiving captured this sentiment perfectly. It was also good to find out how everyone else had got on, put a few faces to names, and hear about some of the other runners' adventures over the past 36 hours. Some of the performances were awesome - some for how quickly they covered the ground, and others for the strength and will power they had to keep going when things were really not going well.

I've reflected a bit on what wen't well on the race, what didn't go so well, whether I'd do the Race again and if so what I'd do differently, but that can wait since my glass is empty now (Harviestoun Schiehallion is seriously good beer) and the peas have melted.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011


It's now just over 48 hours until the start of the WHW race. I've just been writing a list of what food I might try and eat and where, and which clothes I'll wear and which I'll have as spares. It took about 10 minutes to write my list so that's ample preparation. I'm now sat eating a bowl of porridge at 10.30pm and trying not to think about the pain that has developed in my foot over the last day. All that is left for me to do between now and 1am Saturday morning is:

1. Charge up my head torch
2. Have fish and chips for lunch on Thursday
3. Learn all the words to "Roll with it" by Oasis
4. Write "It ain't the distance that gets you - it's the pace" on my right forearm
5. Have fish and chips for lunch on Friday

The weather forecast for Saturday is pretty rubbish - frequent heavy showers. I'd prefer it nice and hot any day. Still, most other runners seem to be happy with the forecast so I suppose that's good.

My dad told me this evening not to worry about times or finishing, but just think about how lucky I am to get to spend the entire day running on a brilliant route.

If you are running on Saturday, best of luck and I hope the race goes well for you. If you're supporting a runner, I hope you have an enjoyable day and manage to avoid the rain and the midges.

See you in Fort William.

Monday, 13 June 2011

A relaxing weeked and some wallabies

I had a bit of a cold last week so I pretty much won't have run for the two weeks before the WHW race. It seems fairly well accepted that you can't do too little training in the final fortnight so I'm not too worried. That said, I went out for an easy jog this evening, and whereas the week before the Highland Fling I felt like a Land Rover with a full tank of diesel, this evening I felt like a beige Ford Cortina with a third of a tank of two star. The doubts are starting to creep in, but I know I'll be fine since I'm good at eating lots and running very slowly (and sometime doing both at the same time), which as far as I can tell are the key things to finishing the WHW race.

Last week was our 10th wedding anniversary so we had persuaded my folks to take the kids for the weekend and we took ourselves of for a relaxing time in Argyll. We walked up the Cobbler on Saturday - very pleasant on the way up, heavy icey rain as we had lunch on the summit, and then pleasant enough on the way back down again. So we got rained on and bitten by midges, just like on our wedding day. We stayed over on Loch Fyne at a brilliant guest house ( then spent Sunday canoeing and eating. We had a wee trip in the canoe out on Loch Fyne before breakfast, then headed over to Loch Lomond later in the morning.

As you round Conic Hill on the West Highland Way just before it descends to Balmaha, you have a great view of islands in Loch Lomond that stretch most of the way across the loch between Balmaha and Luss. This was the first time we'd canoed round these islands, and we headed to Inchconnachan, one of the islands near Luss. We had heard the rumours about this island's antipodean residents, and had seen some photos of them, but I wasn't going to believe it until I saw them with my own eyes. We landed on the island and went for a wander through the knee deep blaeberry on the forest floor, hoping for a fleeting glimpse of one of the inhabitants. Then we met two very chilled out individuals who just sat and watched us for a while before hopping off into the woods.

Brilliant! Apparently the red-necked wallabies were released in the early 20th century by some posh person who had a holiday home on the island. Now there is a breeding population (there was a joey with the pair we saw - it is just out of shot in the thicker woodland), but there has been talk of a cull as there are also capercaillies on the island and supposedly the wallabies being there is endangering the capercaillie population. It would be a real shame if they were culled but I kind of get the point about protecting native animals.

After Loch Lomond we went for another short canoe on Loch Achray in the Trossachs then lunch at the Byre Inn at Brig O'Turk (really good - I had battered haggis balls). It was nice not to feel like I should be doing some running, but my arms were pretty tired at the end of the weekend - more from lifting the boat on and off the roof of the car than the canoeing itself.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Enough training?

So it's pretty much time up for training for the WHW race. It's only 12 days away now. I'm really looking forward to getting started and am not feeling too nervous about it yet - I figure if I start off slow and try and get to Tyndrum feeling good then the rest of it will happen one way or another.

I haven't done a huge amount of training since the Fling - one 30+ mile run and a handful of 13 to 15 mile runs. I've been doing a bit more speedwork (not really a change in training strategy, more to do with only being able to fit a short quick run in at lunchtime now work has got busy), and I'm doing the intervals quicker then I ever have done before so that's encouraging.

I've had a couple of family weekends with no scope for running - the best one was a trip to Northumberland to go to the Farne Islands (indescribably brilliant at this time of year - a real feast for the senses) - which have been good fun and have been a good check on getting carried away and trying to do much training this close to the race.

My plan was to take it easy for the two or three weeks leading up to the race, but the weather was so good on Friday I had to get up early and go for a run up Carleatheran before work. It was superb to be on the hills so early when it was warm and still. I had some more brilliant views of Stirling as I headed back home. It was one of those runs that make you glad you are a runner.

Then on Sunday I went over to Carron Valley in the morning to do a fairly easy 15 mile loop on good tracks - the plan was to go at a similar speed as I would start the WHW, but I got over excited running through the windfarm (I think it was the speed and sound of the blades over my head) and ended up pushing it a bit over the last 5 miles. It was good though to be able to cruise along much quicker than I intend to run any of the WHW but for it to still feel pretty easy.

I think I'll probably do one or two more 10-ish mile runs this week, but nice and slow and probably after eating my dinner. Then next week I'm looking forward to not doing much more than a couple of jogs whilst eating fish and chips for lunch most days and having a few beers most evenings as my preferred form of carbo-loading.

Monday, 16 May 2011

A short tour of the Trossachs

There's seven weeks between the Fling and the WHW race, and I'm keen to get two 30+ mile training runs in those seven weeks. I'm not as keen as others on doing the two runs on consecutive days, so instead am spreading them out by a couple of weeks. On Saturday I got up good and early and drove to Aberfoyle to do a route I'd been thinking about for a while...

I left the car park at Aberfoyle just before 5am (I needed to be back home by lunchtime to do some family stuff) and followed the Rob Roy Way (a waymarked trail from Drymen to Kenmore) for 10 miles over the Menteith Hills and around the east end of Loch Venachar to the Ben Ledi car park. The route over the Menteith Hills was a nice easy warm up for the bigger hills to come. I'd last been over these hills nearly twenty years ago and the small trees I remembered where much bigger now - I'd been looking forward to some of the views I'd remembered but now all I could see was conifers. At the small lochan at the high point on the path I saw an osprey quite close to me which was a good start to the day. On the descent to Loch Venachar I had some good views of Ben Ledi, looking ominously big across the loch.

Looking across Loch Venachar to Ben Ledi - the locals call it Chomolungma

I reached the Ben Ledi car park in just under two hours. I changed from my trainers into my inov-8 running boots (I was a bit worried about twisting an ankle on the hill paths) and set off up the hill. I felt really good on the climb and in about 50 minutes I was at the top of the hill. Ben Ledi is just under 3000 feet but is probably one of the most prominent mountains in the Southern Highlands as it sits right on the southern edge of the hills. Looking north and west from the summit there are mountains as far as you can see, while looking south and east you can see for miles over to the Ochils, the Pentlands and the Campsies. I set off west from the summit, down through some pretty rough and rocky terrain to eventually pick up a track leading down into Brig O'Turk (there were lots of hidden holes and rocks on the descent so I was glad of the extra ankle support from the running boots). I followed forest roads round the south side of Loch Achray, stopping to take a photo of the church I got married in nearly ten years ago as it was momentarily picked out in the sunshine.

The Trossachs Church and Ben A'an - another great wee hill

I headed past the Achray Hotel and started climbing up through the forest towards Ben Venue. Once out of the forest I took the direct route to the summit rather than following the dog leg route the path takes - it was steeper but the going was good through short heather and blaeberry. I reached the summit of Ben Venue and took a few minutes to enjoy the views. Ben Venue may not be very high (about 2,400 feet), but you get a lot of mountain for your money and the views over Lochs Katrine, Achray and Venachar are fantastic. The bigger mountains to the north (Stob Binnein and Cruach Ardrain) looked impressively high from the top of this wee hill.

Looking toward Ben Ledi and Loch Venachar from Ben Venue

I took the path down from Ben Venue to Kinlochard - I had been hoping for a nice easy cruise down the hill, but the first couple of miles were pretty rough and rocky - quite similar to the WHW path between Inversnaid and Beinglas. The run through the oak woods just before Kinlochard was uplifting. I stopped in Kinlochard to change my shoes again (back to the trainers now) then followed forest roads round the south side of the loch and past Lochan Spling back to Aberfoyle.

Loch Ard - one of my favourite places in Scotland

In total the run was 33 miles with 6,000ft of ascent. It was a really good route - I had thought about trying to run on some of the second half of the WHW before the race in June, but didn't really have the time to drive up there. I think I probably enjoyed this run more than I would have enjoyed running over Rannoch Moor say - I prefer to get to the top of hills on training runs, as you can tell from the elevation profile...

Friday, 13 May 2011

Fuel for ultra running

So I'm feeling pretty much fully recovered after the Fling two weeks ago. I've done a few runs, some longer or harder than others, and don't feel any more tired than usual. I had a good Fling so I've been thinking a bit about what went right rather than what went wrong. I think there were two main things - pace and food. Pace-wise, my main way of monitoring that I wasn't going too fast was to pat the top of my head occasionally and check I wasn't sweating - it seemed to work. Food-wise, I kept it simple with Coke, salt & vinegar Ryvita minis, and chocolate soya milk. Now I think I may have discovered a near-perfect ultra running fuel in chocolate soya milk - let me explain by way of a comparison with a SIS Go gel...

1. Nutrition

First and foremost a good food for ultrarunning needs to have some carbohydrates in it. My Go gel has 87kcal in a 60ml serving, all of which come from carbohydrates - maltodextrin to be exact, which I understand to be a form of glucose - but save from a few flavourings, colouring and thickener, that's pretty much it, no salt, no protein, no fat. It is reckoned that you can digest about 200kcal to 250kcal per hour while running, so that would mean having at least two gels per hour. SIS Go gels claim to be isotonic so I expect there are more punchy gels out there.

A 250ml carton of Alpro chocolate soya milk has 175kcal in it - about 40kcals comes from unsaturated fat, 35kcal comes from protein, and 100kcal comes from carbohydrates (sucrose and dextrose a.k.a. glucose). Some studies suggest that if doing endurance sports for many hours then taking in around 10% to 15% of calories as protein can help to minimise muscle damage. The same studies suggest soya protein is the best option as it is easy to digest. Each carton also contains 0.4g of salt and some B vitamins. Personally, I think a mixture of calorie sources rather than just "clean" carbohydrates is better for a long slow burn, and should help to smooth out the energy peaks and troughs I used to experience on long runs (certainly I didn't experience them on the Fling). Plus I like having a steady intake of a little bit of salt.

So I think gels are optimised to deliver energy in short sharp bursts, whereas by some happy accident Alpro soya chocolate milk is good for the longer slower stuff. I reckon when it comes to ultras, gels get 7 points and Alpro gets 8.

2. Taste and ease

Gels are easy to take - tear the top off, squeeze it in your mouth, then neck some water to wash it down. I'm yet to taste one that couldn't be described as nasty though. I think gels are pretty easy to digest - I've never managed more than two on a run but that's more to do with taste rather than not being able to stomach them. The Alpro cartons come with a straw attached and they are easy to drink on the hoof. It is true they don't taste as nice as an ice cold chocolate milkshake made with ice-cream, but they aren't bad - more like a choc-malt shake than chocolate. They are much nicer than gels - it's not even close. I find the Alpro milk very easy to digest - on the Fling I drank nearly 2 litres of it. There is even a strawberry flavoured option for the metrosexuals. The Alpro cartons are UHT so there is no need to calculate defrosting rates and such like to ensure you can drink them as and when required. Gels 4 points, Alpro 7.

3. Efficacy

There are a few times when I have felt totally empty with no energy in my legs whatsoever, and then ten minutes after taking a gel I feel like I can bound up mountains. So gels work, and the work quick, but that feeling generally wears off after twenty minutes or so. On the Fling, there were a couple of times where I started to feel a bit low on energy (but there were no sudden crashes) so I would have a carton of Alpro and soon enough I could feel my energy levels starting to pick up. The effect was slower but I think lasted much longer. I think it's pretty much evens on this one - I'm going to rely on Alpro for the bulk of my energy needs, but will always carry a gel or two in reserve for emergencies. 8 points for gels, 7 points for Alpro.

4. Value for money

This is perhaps the most important consideration for Scots and Yorkshireman. Gels are pretty much a pound a piece. At two an hour for the WHW race that starts to get pricey. I can get three 250ml cartons of Alpro at Tesco for 85p, and since they're bigger I reckon I only need one per hour. So the soya chocolate milk works out at less than a sixth of the cost of gels. Gels 3 points, Alpro 9.

So there you have my not particularly objective assessment of what is better - chocolate soya milk scores 31 points, gels get 22. I'm sure chocolate soya milk isn't perfect for everyone, and it does have some side effects (an almost uncontrollable desire to stop and hug a tree, or to wear flowers in your hair while running), but it works for me and I think if you're struggling to find the right ultra fuel for you, then it is worth giving chocolate soya milk a try.

Monday, 2 May 2011

HIghland Fling 2011

On Saturday, for the first time, I finished an ultra-marathon with the same number of toenails as I had started with. This is just one of the reasons why I am pleased with how the Highland Fling went for me.

I spent the preceding week eating like a horse and not doing any running, so by Saturday morning the tanks were full (and then some) and I felt raring to go. I was out of bed just before six for a quick breakfast of porridge and coffee then left the house a bit earlier than I needed to as I wanted to stop and see my dad running somewhere near Dumgoyne as I drove over to Milngavie. Dad was starting at 6am so the timing was perfect and I saw him at the bottom of Dumgoyach just where the WHW joins the old railway. Just about everyone looked very comfortable at this stage - unfortunately Rosie Bell had fallen and cut her leg very badly so I was glad to be able to give her a lift back to Milngavie.

I started at 8am and took it very very easy through the woods. I'd started between the 10 hour and 11 hour signs in the underpass, and was probably about a third of a way down the field as we crossed the line. As soon as we started, loads of folk went running past me and by the time we were heading down the hill from Carbeth I think I was almost in last pace. I was sticking to my planned pace though and reckoned I would see most of the folk that had gone past me later in the day. I ran a short section near the start with Colin Knox - I follow his blog so it was good to meet him.

I went through Drymen at 1:57, about a minute up on my 10:15 schedule and feeling very comfortable. As we climbed onto Conic Hill I started to pass people who had started quicker than me. I felt great going up the hill - I guess that is the benefit of only really doing hilly runs when I'm training. Loch Lomond looked stunning from Conic Hill - what a day.

I got to Balmaha at 3:13, now about four minutes ahead of my 10:15 schedule and still feeling good. I saw my sister and her kids a few hundred metres before the Balmaha car park, and my three nephews ran down the track to the car park with me which was good fun. I got a text to tell me that my dad had gone through Balmaha in 3:14, so for the timebeing I was winning the family race, though only just. I reached Rowardennan in 4:37, still a few minutes up on schedule, then Inversnaid in 6:04.

Over the course of the race I was drinking a carton of Alpro UHT chocolate soya milk every hour, eating a pack of salt and vinegar ryvita minis every couple of hours, and drinking plenty water. It seemed to work well, and I had some coke or energy drink at a couple of points to give myself a boost. The soya milk cartons were really good - everytime I started to feel a bit low on energy I would have one and ten minutes later I felt much better. I reckon they are as good as any energy gel I have had.

I had been passing other runners steadily since Drymen - my main aim for the race was to get to Beinglas feeling good and not to suffer over the final 12 miles as I had done two years previously. Between Inversnaid and Beinglas I started to feel the heat a bit so slowed down, drank some more water and appreciated the view.

I reached Beinglas in 7:34, about 5 minute up on schedule. I had been feeling good up to this point and had kept telling myself not to push and to stick to the plan. I left Beinglas feeling strong and thinking that if I could go 10 minutes quicker than my schedule over the last 12 miles than I would get to the finish in under 10 hours.

Game on.

By Derrydarroch I was 5 minutes up on the JK mini-splits for the Beinglas to Tyndrum section, and I was able to run most of the section to the big gate and reached it 10 minutes up on the mini-splits. I think I'd probably over done it along the track to the big gate as I started to feel a bit rubbish going through the woods and slowed down a bit. At Auchtertyre I was 11 minutes up, and kept running (cheered on by Muriel Gray no less) as well as I could. A few hundred metres from the finish I passed Dave Troman, who unfortunately hadn't been able to run due to injury, who gave me a big cheer and that kept me going to finish in 9:53. I was delighted to get under 10 hours, and it was good to know I should have finished under 10 hours on the slightly longer old course.

I saw my dad at the finish - he'd suffered a bit in the heat later on and had finished in 10:55, which was still good enough for second over-60. He's looking good for the over-70s race in 2013 though. We left Tyndrum quite soon after I finished so that I could get home in time to give my wife a hand getting the kids into bed - it would have been nice to hang around and meet some of the people whose blogs I've been following, but I didn't want to miss the next installment of Astrosaurs.

I was really pleased with the way I'd paced myself. My placings were 187th at Drymen, 107th at Rowardennan, 65th at Beinglas then 50th at Tyndrum. I was 16th fastest over the final twelve miles, which I'm astounded by. My game plan had been to start easy and finish strong, which is pretty much what I did. The fact that in 7 weeks time I would be trying to run almost twice as far always at the back of my mind, and it was good to finish feeling like I could have gone on. I usually cope quite well running in the heat so I think that helped on Saturday.

It's been good to read other people's reports of the day, and it seems like most people enjoyed the day though they found it tough in the heat. It was a fantastic event to take part in, and I'd like to add my thanks to Murdo and Ellen and all of the helpers on the day who made it such a great event.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011


Tablet is a Scottish confectionery pretty much made out of sugar and not much else. It has a similar calorific density to enriched uranium, and rumour has it is the stuff NASA used to put in the solid rocket boosters that were strapped on to the side of the space shuttle. I had always planned on taking a few bars with me on the Fling as there are few things as easy to eat as tablet that are better for a quick boost of several hundred calories. Best of all, you can get three bars for a little over 50p in Tesco - as I said, this is a Scottish confectionery.

So it was very encouraging tonight to read John Kynaston's detailed plans for the Fling and to see that within his nutritional arsenal are a few bars of tablet. I'm relying on a diet of tablet, chocolate soya milk, salt and vinegar crisps and coke to get me through the race on Saturday. Not disimlar to a teenager's lunch judging by what I see the local school kids buying in Asda at lunchtime. I like my coke full strength and fizzy - none of this watered down flat stuff that seems to be popular. The only other thing I'm planning on having is water, though I'm going to take a sachet or two of Diarolyte with me in case I need a bit more of a salt boost. I'm aiming to have a chocolate soya milk every hour for as long as I can stomach it, then I'll move on to my teenager lunch box.

Pace-wise, I'm gooing for the old "start slow and get slower". I finished the Fling in 2009 in a hair under 10 and a half hours, so it would be nice to beat that time - maybe 10.15 is possible if things go my way. It would be great to get under 10 hours some day, but there's a bigger prize to be had in June so I don't want to push myself too hard on the Fling this year. My dad is running this year, and he'll be starting 2 hours ahead of me at 6am. He'll definitely take less than twelve hours and I'll definitely take more than ten hours so unfortunately (and hopefully) I won't see him until we are both in Tyndrum.

I recorded my highest ever seven day mileage in the week ending last Sunday - 83 miles. I hadn't planned on doing so much but was up in Newtonmore at the weekend and went for a run up a local munro (Carn Dearg) with my sister on Sunday morning. She is a fell runner and is a bit obsessed with running in rough terrain so rather than follow paths we seemed to spend a lot of time running through knee deep heather, tussocks and peat bogs. Maybe not the best taper, but a nice run in the hills. The path along the ridge of Carn Dearg in the morning sun was a joy to run. We saw an eagle too.

I'm taking it easy this week so will hopefully feel full of beans on Saturday. The forecast looks good and I'm really looking forward to spending the day running and walking on an excellent route.

Best of luck to everyone else who is running - it'll be great.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Low mileage and place names

I haven't done much running over the last 4 weeks. After the trip to the Yorkshire Dales I had a bit of a cold and since then I seem to have lost the will and desire to get out running the long distances I should perhaps be doing. The longest run I did in March was 24 miles and I would have liked to have done something longer, but it just wasn't possible due to family and work commitments.

Last weekend I had a nice couple of runs on Greenham Common and along a bit of the Kennet-Avon canal, and I was cruising along at what felt like at an easy pace but was a bit quicker than usual. So hopefully a few weeks of low mileage hasn't done me any harm. I reckon a good five or six weeks of training from now and I should be okay for the big one in June.

We were on holiday in Dorset the week before last. It was great - very relaxing and lots of time to spend with the kids. The place we were staying had a roller disco rink - perfect since we got our daughter roller boots for her birthday recently, and treated ourselves to a pair too. I sneaked out for a couple of runs - one of them along a section of the South Coast Path on a perfect sunny morning.

Looking East towards Durdle Door and Lulworth Cove

Looking West towards the Portland and Weymouth

There were some top quality place names in the area - the pick (no pun intended) of which had to be "Scratchy Bottom" which we walked down on the way to Durdle Door one glorious evening. My wife was a bit dissapointed that "Studland Beach" didn't quite live up to its billing. The coastal scenery was spectacular and I'd like to do the whole section of the South Coast Path between Poole and Weymouth some day.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Pies, ales and Yorkshire Dales

Last weekend I was down in the Yorkshire Dales for the weekend with a group of friends. We'd rented a house in Horton-in-Ribblesdale for the weekend and some of us planned on running the classic Yorkshire Three Peaks walking route, and some of us had a 40 mile mountain biking route planned. I was doing the run - a route which I have wanted to do for a number of years.

We all met up on Friday evening and went to the Crown (a few minutes walk from the house) for a final bit of carbo loading. We were all very sensible so by half nine on Saturday morning were ready to set off on our grand day out. From Horton, the 5 runners set off up Pen-y-ghent and reached the top in 40 minutes. It was a nice climb up, enough to get the blood flowing but nothing too strenuous, and a good steep rock section near the top. We were in the cloud on top so no excuse to stop and look at views - soon enough we were off down the Pennine Way and on our way across bogs and farmland towards Whernside, the second of the three peaks.

Whernside looked a long, long way away from Pen-y-ghent (it's the big flat hill in the distance in the photo above), but the running was nice so we ambled along at an easy pace chatting away and admiring the sheep. After about 8 miles we joined a road which led us along to the Ribblehead viaduct, a very impressive bit of engineering. All along the route so far we had been passing walkers doing the same route as us - I was glad to have lightweight running shoes and clothes on rather than the heavy kit most of them were carrying. I suppose it would have been nice to have a flask of tea though.

We climbed up from Ribblehead onto Whernside, where the path got really busy. The walkers we met were really friendly and courteous - they would move off the path to let us past and more often than not had a word or two of encouragement for us. It was almost like having supporters at a race. Atop Whernside it was really windy and we didn't hang around to get cold, and the run down the front of Whernside into the valley was good fun. We'd stuck together as a group of five to this point but decided to split up into two groups to suit our natural paces over the last peak. The climb up onto Ingelborough just got steeper and steeper, but the path was good and the scenery wonderful which kept our minds off our tired legs. Another of our friends was waiting for us at the summit - he didn't fancy the whole run so met us at the summit of Ingelborough for the five mile run back to Horton.

The run down from Ingelborough to Horton was five miles of fairly good paths, a bit rocky over the last couple of miles as we crossed over some limestone pavement. We got back to the house at Horton five hours after we had left in the morning - the run had been 24 miles with about 1,500m of ascent and descent. Then we spent the afternoon eating and resting, before making our way along to the Crown to have a few pints of Old Peculiar, Black Sheep and Monumental (all excellent), some Steak and Mushroom, and Game, pies (also excellent), and very generous helpings of sticky toffee pudding (very excellent).

It was a great weekend and great to spend the day with good friends running a brilliant route. On Sunday morning a few of us had a quick run up Pen-y-ghent (probably my favourite of the three peaks), and a wee mountain bike ride (I fell off into the mud). Then my legs hurt and I haven't run for the last four days because of man flu.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Tour de la Val de Carron

It had been four weeks since my last long run, so last Sunday I was out of my bed at 5am to set off on a 30 mile route from home over a few of the hills that surround the Carron Valley. The Carron Valley Reservoir lies in the heart of the Campsie Fells, between Stirling and Lennoxtown. I had run and cycled in the forest next to the reservoir, but had never been in the hills to the south of the reservoir, so that is where I was heading.

Rather than follow the road all the way to Carron Bridge, I went via Lewis Hill and Sauchie Craigs - a great place to run at any time of the day, even in the pitch black with a headtorch on. There was a bit of drizzle as I headed through the woods, and a strong wind on top of the hill, but the weather forecast was for some sun later in the morning so I wasn't too worried. I joined the road after about 5 miles, and there was no sign of life as I passed the hotel and holiday cottages at Carron Bridge a few miles further along the road. I followed the Tak-ma-doon road uphill out of Carron Bridge towards Kilsyth. About two hours and ten miles after leaving the house (I was aiming for a very nice and easy pace for the day), I turned off the road and followed a grassy path to the summit of Tomtain.

Tomtain looked pretty unimpressive as I climbed up it from the road, so I was pleasingly suprised by the great view that appeared as I reached the summit, along the ridge to Meikle Bin and over Carron Valley Reservoir to Stronend and Carleatheran - the next 15 miles of my route were laid out in front of me. There was a small, indistinct path leading along the broad ridge towards Meikle Bin - every 50m or so I was ankle deep in cold water as the path crossed mossy bog after mossy bog. After about four miles through the tussocks and bogs, I turned right through a break in the trees, heading for Meikle Bin. The path reached a new level of muddiness, but once out of the trees the climb up to the summit was grassy and dry. I'd looked at Meikle Bin lots of times from the hills nearer Stirling, but this was the first time I had actually been here. I felt the usual excitement I get as I approach a peak I have never climbed before - I know it's a not-quite-2000-foot high hill fairly close to Glasgow, and not an unclimbed Himalayan giant, but I was happy enough to be there for the first time. The views from the summit were again much better than I'd expected, and the path that led down to the reservoir looked very inviting.

Heading down through the woods towards the reservoir, the sun was shining and the birds were singing in the trees - it felt like spring was here a couple of days early - and then I came round a bend to find a pack of huskies chained up at the side of the track. I passed the west end of the reservoir and headed up a wide new track towards the Earlsburn windfarm. I'm a bit of a fan of windfarms (I'd much rather look at some wind turbines than a coal fired power station or a concrete dam), so I'd been looking forward to this part of run - getting up close to these truly impressive machines. I followed the track for about five miles through the windfarm before heading over the grouse moor towards Carleatheran.

When I reached the summit of Carleatheran, I sat down on the lee side of the cairn - out of the wind and in the sun it felt quite warm, so I sat there for about ten minutes drinking a milkshake and enjoying the situation (on this run, I'd been trying out drinking Alpro chocolate soya milkshakes - each 250ml carton has 175 kcal so I was having roughly one an hour - they were great, really easy to drink and digest, and I felt that I had plenty of energy all the way round the run). It was 10am by now so I phoned home to check everyone was up and let them know I would be home in about an hour. The path down from Carleatheran is an absolute joy to run on, and the views over the Touch reservoirs towards Stirling were wonderful in the morning sun.

I hit the road with two miles left to go. I'd felt good for the whole run, though I had been intentionally taking it very easy and not pushing the pace. When I got back home I'd covered just under 30 miles in just under 6 hours - about 7 miles has been on road, 7 miles on boggy moorland, with the rest on decent tracks and trails. The route had about 1200m of ascent. I was really pleased that I did not feel too tired and still had enough energy to chase my kids round the park in the afternoon. All in all a great way to spend a Sunday morning.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Hanging out with some Olympians

Last week was a good week of training considering I was still suffering a bit from a sore ankle. I did most of my running in a pair of Inov-8 288 "walking" boots - they gave plenty of support. I did a couple of good hilly trail runs (a 6 miler and a 12 miler), a 13 mile run on tarmac (not much fun), a few easy intervals and some cross training (40 minutes on the rowing machine). Overall I ran about 50 miles in the week, but didn't feel my right leg was strong enough for a really long run.

The highlight of the week sports wise was being part of the team that won the Perth Business Challenge Curling Competition. The competition was set-up for people who had never curled before to try the sport for the first time, though each team was allowed a maximum of two experienced curlers. I was one of the three non-curlers on our team, and our ringer and team captain (skip) was Pete, who was part of the British mens' curling team at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002 - his sister, Katie, who represented Britain at Nagano in 1998, is one of my workmates. It was good fun trying a new sport, and I could definitely see the attraction as I got quite a buzz when I played a half decent shot, so I'll add it to the list of things to take up when I'm an old man - until then getting out and about in the hills is more my bag.

Speaking of which, I was out for a 30 mile run today - a good route around and about Carron Valley. I felt pretty good at the end of it - much better than a did on my long run a month ago. I might do a post later in the week about the route and showing a few photos - so that is something for you to look forward to or avoid. Until then, here is a photo of Carleatheran and a snow covered Ben Lomond.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

An easy recovery week... well, easy-ish...

After twisting my ankle a week last Sunday, I figured I should take it easy last week and this week to let it recover. But, it felt a lot better after a few days so last Wednesday I tried it out for a few miles and it seemed okay, so did a few miles along a beach on Friday, then since the weekend normal running business has pretty much resumed. I still have a slight swelling on the front of my ankle, and a nice go-faster purple stripe along the outside of my foot - both perhaps suggesting that it's not quite better yet - so I'm keeping it well supported when I'm running and am not doing anything too long. Luckily, I got a pair of these for Christmas:

I got them as walking boots primarily, but liked the fact that I could run in them. They were £60 from Northern Runner. They are pretty much MudRocs with ankle support, and I've been wearing these to run in since doing my ankle. I get more funny looks than usual if I wear them with shorts, but that's okay. They are fine for running - they weigh less than a typical pair of trainers, have got excellent grips and are very flexible and responsive. I'm thinking that I might wear them for the WHW section between Kingshouse and Kinlochleven since I've heard it is quite rocky and hard work on tired legs and feet (if I get that far).

So I did about 30 miles last week (16 were on the run I hurt myself on, the rest were a few easy runs on soft ground). I've started doing some ankle strengthening exercises - brushing my teeth with my eyes closed standing on one leg (right leg in the morning, left leg in the evening), and feel likeI'm running quite well this week. I guess I'll need to be careful when I stop wearing the boots since I expect it will take a month or so for my ankle to get back to full strength.

Monday, 14 February 2011


Seems I've joined the Central Scotland injured ultra-runners club - I went out for a long slow run up Dumyat last night (since it was dry for a change) and sprained my ankle as I came back down off the hill into Bridge of Allan. Unless the R in RICE stands for "run 6 miles home along roads", I didn't really follow the sensible advice for how to treat such an injury. Today my ankle is bruised and swollen, though not as sore as it has been when I have done it in the past. I was quite pleased that I could keep going at 10 minute mile pace with a rapidly swelling ankle over the last few miles of a sixteen mile run. I'd been taking it really easy on the run, trying to move as efficiently as possible, and it was all going very well until I felt the nauseating wrench in my foot in the Minewoods. Oh well, looks like I have a couple of very easy weeks ahead of me.

It was perhaps a bit of karma catching up with me since my 18 month old son Jack dropped a saucepan lid on his toe earlier in the day on my watch, and now has as black a toe nail as I have ever seen. Hopefully social services aren't reading this.

Yesterday we took the kids to Amazonia at Strathclyde Country Park. I was enormously proud of my 5-year old daughter as she was first in of the queue with her hands held out when the guide asked if anyone wanted to hold a tarantula. At the same time, a few Glaswegian hard cases cowared at the back of the room, not wanting to get too close to the hairy arachnid. Bunch of woosses.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Compression socks versus ski socks

My training has been going well over the past two weeks. After my 33 mile trig point loop, I took it pretty easy for the rest of the week. I did a couple of 6 mile lunchtime runs on Kinnoul Hill in Perth and some 30 secs quick, 30 secs slow type intervals (as much fun as intervals get - I think it used to be called "zapping"), to give a weekly total of about 50 miles. This week I've done some intervals (hilly fartlek), a couple of long runs on consecutive days, and a nice figure of eight route on Sauchie Craigs with lots of sharp little climbs. For my two long runs I ended up doing the same route twice, leaving the house at 5am (part of the fun of trying to fit in long runs without upsetting the other 4 members of the family) for a 12 mile route round North Third Reservoir and Sauchie Craigs. On Thursday morning I did the route and it was the first time I had run in the North Third woods with a headtorch on - a bit of an enlightening experience as I was much more focused on my immediate surroundings rather than jogging along gazing at the view. I'm a bit of a nature geek, and was more chuffed than I perhaps should have been to be following badger tracks in the snow for part of the route. I saw two owls (a barn owl and a tawny owl) really close up, and put up a flock of 50 geese as I rounded a bend on the lochside path. Everyone gets their kicks from running in different ways - I get mine by watching for wildlife and looking at trees.

North Third Reservoir and Sauchie Craigs

So I've run about 55 miles this week, and it's all felt quite comfortable and has been very enjoyable. And I now have a new favourite piece of running kit, which gets me on to the subject of this post. Just over two years I was working three days a week in London, and spent most evenings running about exploring the city. All the miles on tarmac played havoc with my lower legs, and I ended up with very sore calves. That Christmas I got some Skins compression stockings, which undoubtedly helped alleviate the tightness. Since then I've made more of an effort to run off road as much as possible, and in the last year I haven't worn the Skins very often. Over the last few weeks I've done more mileage than usual, and my calves started to hurt again. I bought a pair of ski socks in Decathlon recently for 1p (who wouldn't) and decided to try running in them and now I am a convert. So here is my not very objective comparison of compression socks and ski socks:

Performance benefits - studies seem to indicate that compression socks delay the onset of muscle soreness and reduce the amount of muscle damage done by running, although there are mixed findings on whether or not wearing compression socks at the time actually improves performance. I wouldn't be suprised if many of the claims made by brands such as Skins are not entirely supported by independent, robust, scientific studies, but there is undoubtedly some benefit to wearing compression socks when running long distances. The scientific community is largely silent on the benefits of wearing ski socks while running. Anecdotal evidence (i.e. me) suggests that wearing ski socks keeps your feet and calves nice and warm thereby improvin blood flow in the area and keeping things from getting to sore. Compression socks 6, ski socks 3.

Value for money - my Skins compression stockings cost just over 20 quid, and they don't even cover my toes. I've never spent more than £3 on a pair of ski socks and they do cover my toes. Compression socks 4, ski socks 9.

Ease of use - Skins compression socks have to be hand washed and they fall down a lot and give me blisters. Ski socks can be bunged in your mixed load and tend not to fall down. Compression socks 5, ski socks 7.

Other benefits - Skins compression socks look pretty much as cool as knee length socks can and make you look a bit serious, whereas ski socks pulled right up will always look nerdy. But, ski socks keep your feet nice and warm even when you are running through ankle deep, cold, wet mud. Compression socks 6, ski socks 4.

So in total compression socks score 21, and ski socks score 23. I think compression socks probably do have a physiological effect, but I'm not convinced that you can't get the same effect from wearing a pair of much cheaper ski socks - certainly when it comes to post-run recovery. If you get sore calves or achilles when running, I think it would be worth trying a pair of ski socks, if not for running in then for wearing after your run (you can get away with it provided you're not wearing shorts).

Next week, its Ibuprofen versus Emu Oil.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

A 5 trig points challenge

I have always been a big fan of OS maps - sometimes I like to read a Landranger the same way someone else would read a book. I can happily spend an hour or two pouring over a map, planning routes and imagining future adventures. The well known quote "a good map is both a useful tool and a magic carpet to far away places" pretty much sums up the feeling I get from unfolding a new OS map for the first time.

A few months ago I discovered a website that will list all UK trig points in order of how far away they are from any postcode, so yesterday in a homage to the good people of the Ordnance Survey I ran a big loop starting and finishing from my house and visiting the five trig points closest to it. Stirling sits in a wide valley surrounded by hills, with lots of good vantage points in the area, which means that the trig points around here are perhaps more spread out than in other areas. The loop looked good on paper - I'd guessed it was a bit over 30 miles, and three of the trig points I would visit I knew well as they were on some of my favourite running routes. I would be visiting two that I had never been to before, and would be passing through places I had never previously visited.

I left the house about an hour before the sun would come up. It was a cold, frosty morning, which I hoped would mean that most of the boggy ground I would be crossing later would still be frozen. The first trig point was Lewis Hill, about 4 miles away at the top of the crags above North Third Reservoir. I knew this part of the route well so I tried to relax and settle into a nice easy rhythm through the old quarry, watching for rocks in the beam of my headtorch. A forest road then winding path through some old beech woodland led me onto the crags and to the top of Lewis Hill (266m, trig point no. 1 of 5) in a little over 45 minutes. As I approached the top the trig point looked great silhouetted against the pre-dawn sky with the crescent moon hanging above it.

As I dropped down from the crags to the North Third dam it became light enough that I could pack away the headtorch. North Third reservoir looked stunning in the early morning light so I stopped for a couple of minutes to enjoy the moment and eat some chocolate custard.

The next few miles were then across largely trackless moorland. I picked up some sheep tracks and buggy tracks for much of the way, but the short sections of tussocks and heather in between were hard going - it was difficult even to walk through without feeling like I was trying a bit too hard at this early stage in the run. Soon enough I joined up with the track I usually take to run up Carleatheran (485m, trig point no. 2), and I was now on familiar territory until I reached the top having covered 10.5 miles in about 2 hours 15 minutes. Carleatheran has staggering 360 degree views, but just after I reached the summit a snow shower swept in from the North and blocked them out - not such a bad thing as I knew how far away the final trig point of the day looked from here.

I retraced my route back down the grassy buggy tracks heading East from Carleatheran then set off through more heather and tussocks towards Scout Head (215m, trig point no. 3). Again I managed to follow sheep tracks for much of the way - the sheep round here don't have vertigo judging by some of the routes they take along narrow ledges on crags. I was descending all the time and really enjoyed this section as it felt I was running effortlessly through what looked like pretty rough terrain. I entered the forest, where the fallen branches and a small search for the trig point slowed me down. By the time I found it, I'd covered about 14 miles in just under 3 hours.

I sped up as I followed the forest track down to the road, then the road towards Cambusbarron. I kept telling myself to take it easy on this section as it was tempting to push it a bit along the road after the last couple of hours on the rough moorland. I turned off the road about half a mile from my house, resisting the urge to call it a day after 17 miles and head home for a late breakfast, and followed paths and farm tracks to a footbridge over the Forth and along a fishermens' path. This was another of the bits of the route I had never been on before - the thing I was enjoying most about the route was discovering these new paths and link routes, and planning how I would fit them into some new running routes. I started to feel a bit tired and stiff on the short climb up Knock Hill (104m, trig point no. 4) - 21.5 miles covered in 4 hours 15 minutes.

I took the most direct route to Dumyat (418m, the final trig point of the day), following roads for about a mile through Bridge of Allan, then an undulating track along the back of Stirling University. By this point my distance awareness was in ultra mode, and the miles were ticking by at what seemed like a much faster rate than early in the run, even though I was going about the same pace. I tried to conserve energy as best I could, knowing that the climb onto Dumyat was brutally steep at first and that it could easily make me grind to a halt. I walked most of the way up Dumyat, managing a slow jog on a few flatter sections - it's a popular hill and there were plenty of walkers out, slightly bemused as they watched someone dressed like a runner staggering slowly to the top. When I reached it I'd covered 26 miles in 5 hours 20 minutes.

I retraced my steps back down Dumyat, running a bit stiffly down the hill and trying to imagine how much more uncomfortable the descent into Kinlochleven would feel in June. As I passed Logie Kirk I started to feel really tired and the final 5 miles on roads through the centre of Stirling on a Saturday afternoon were so different to most of the rest of my route that I wished I had more energy and could have taken a more interesting, but longer, route home. About three miles from home I passed a runner skipping along in the opposite direction, and I'm sure he must have thought "do you call that running?" as I shuffled past at not quite ten minute mile pace - next time I'm going to get an "I've done 30 miles already" t-shirt to wear in such situations.

I got home after being out for 6 hours 40 minutes, having covered just under 33 miles and having climbed (and descended) a bit over 4000ft. I'd really enjoyed the route, in particular the way that basing it on the 5 trig points meant that I'd had to cover new, and sometimes more difficult, terrain, rather than just run the tracks and trails I know well.

So, if you're looking for inspiration for a new long run route, dig out your local Landranger, get on to, and plan a route round the five trig points closest to your house. My gut feel is that it will be about 30 miles long, will take you to places you haven't been before, and will perhaps remind you how lucky we are to live in such a beautifully mapped country where the inspiration for your next adventure is folded up on your bookshelf.

If you do try it, I'd be interested to hear about your route.