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.