While training for my first ultra, I started listening to a lot of podcasts. They’ve been a total revelation on my long runs and I’ve learned so much. One of the most useful was (and is) Scott Jones’ Becoming Ultra Project. The stories are totally relatable and Scott gives good advice that’s down to earth and doable. Listening to stuff like this doesn’t mean you won’t make mistakes, obviously. But for me, things like Becoming Ultra helps to put the lessons from running misadventures and successes into a context and helps to deepen the learning process.
So it was a real honour to feature on the show to talk about running my first ultra after recovering from pneumonia and early sepsis. I’ve written about the story on the blog before, but different things always come out when you’re talking through the thing. I had fun doing it, I hope you enjoy listening!
Another thing, if you haven’t already subscribed to the Becoming Ultra podcast, you should. I love all the podcasts about elite runners, but there’s something special about hearing about stuff you can really relate to — running and getting sick, trying to fit in training around a full time job and kids… You know, mid-pack runners like you and me.
Also I should say, Scott’s other podcast Athlete on Fire is worth a listen. Great info and interviews with some big names, but like BU, it’s always earthed in reality. Go treat your ears!
I’ve loved Brendan’s writing since stumbling across his blog SEMI-RAD.com while pulling all-nighters as my son recovered from cleft palate surgery a number of years back. His writing captures that je ne sais quoi about what is so great about the outdoors — even if you’re not sponsored by the North Face to climb big walls in Baffin Island. There was also this sense that while I was spending so much of my time in hospitals, I might as well get some of my outdoor stoke vicariously. SEMI-RAD was one of the places I went for that fix. So when I found out that Brendan had written a book, I was keen to get my hands on it. Even more so when The Dirtbag Diaries recorded Brendan’s presentation from 5Point.
“Sixty Meters to Anywhere” is memoir, and a bravely personal one at that, about alcoholism and recovery, through climbing. You can read the many reviews online, so there’s no need to repeat all that here. The beauty of climbing, or trail running for that matter, is that when view through a utilitarian lens, it’s pointless. As Yvon Chouinard said in 180° South, “Conquerors of the useless – that’s what we were. You learn that what’s important is how you got there, not what you’ve accomplished.” But because it’s pointless, useless, it’s exactly why something like climbing is so important, necessary even.
“At twenty-eight, I had graduated from pointless shit like sitting on a barstool for hours at a time to pointless shit like crawling sideways across a meaningless rock face and wishing I could just get a few feet farther. It was exactly what I needed.” (p.114)
Brendan describes climbing as a kind of enforced mindfulness. When you’re on a rock face, all the other stuff melts away and you’re in the moment. Your survival depends on focusing on the task at hand. And what you learn in those moments will transude into the other aspects of life. In his own words:
“For me, climbing was about learning a different way to deal with the world, and the challenges of life. It’s no more heroic to spend your weekend hours climbing up some pointless rock face… than it is to sit in a bar and get drunk all weekend. But it certainly takes a little more ambition… I do consider myself an exceptional recovering addict. I can deal with the challenges of addiction because of what I’ve learned in the mountains–perseverance, balance, patience, accountability.” (p.142)
It’s all intensely personal stuff and Brendan’s story is unique. Yet, he is not alone in finding that climbing is a catalyst to a fuller life (exhibit A, exhibit B).
So this is a blog about running. How does a climbing book relate to that? Well, it’s just a great book and that alone makes it worth recommending. That said, I think there’s a lot of overlap between climbing and running. In running the stakes are usually lower (unless you’re Kilian Jornet). Both climbing and running are pointless activities — let’s be honest, there is no rational reason to enter an ultramarathon — but they improve our lives and link us into a supportive community. As outdoor activities, there’s also the restorative and invigorating power that being wild spaces can give us. Climbing, trail running, or backpacking and surfing for that matter… we can find so many stories about how these pursuits can help us become better people. Though my story is nothing like Brendan’s, running and a bit of bouldering continues to help me recover from GAD and depression.
Kevin Fedarko (author of the rather brilliant The Emerald Mile) says in a blurb that Sixty Meters to Anywhere points to “the transcendent power of wild spaces, and the redemptive radiance of the AmericanWest.” This, in my estimation, is true and Brendan’s story bears witness to this. Much of the book is about climbing, but it transcends that and will undoubtedly speak to anyone who feels the gravitational pull of infinitely important and pointless activities in wild places.
Many of us know Vassos’ voice from the Chris Evans Breakfast Show on BBC Radio 2. His enviable enthusiasm, even at ridiculous o’clock in the morning, also comes trough on the page. Vassos’ love for running is obvious. To illustrate just why he thinks running is so great, he treats us to a number of little stories to illustrate the sport’s brilliance. Vassos is also a unashamed amateur when it comes to all this running malarkey. He recounts his his successes and setbacks with great humour. Can’t all new runners identify ITB trouble induced by overenthusiasm?
The genius of this book is the format, which makes for perfect summer reading (even more so if you have little kids on holiday with you, trust me on this). Each chapter is broken into three easily digestible portions. First we get a snippet of what was going through Vassos’ mind as he ran through each mile of the marathon leg of the Outlaw Ironman Triathlon. Second, we get another story about Vassos’ journey in running — everything from his pre-marathon eating to taking to the fells for the first time. Each chapter then closes with a contribution by a famous runner and what running means to them; many are well known in the running pantheon (e.g. Steve Cram, Paula Radcliffe, the Brownlee brothers), others are a bit of a surprise, like Jenson Button.
I wish that I had read this book when I just started running, I might’ve have avoided a few mistakes. Or maybe not? The best lessons in running are learned the hard way, but Vassos is a fantastic guide the many ups and downs we all experience.
I particularly enjoyed the chapter on parkrun, of which I’m a huge fan. It’s an oasis of inclusivity and positivity when so much now is defined by sneering and snark. Vassos puts it well:
But parkrun doesn’t stop at getting people active. It’s also about the atmosphere, the all-encompassing positivity… Because a run isn’t, and certainly shouldn’t be, all about winning. It’s about being the best you can be. And at parkrun, people seem to get that. (p.135)
Again, a bit like climbing, running is a very personal pursuit but it also links us into a supportive community. parkrun is a brilliant example of this. When I push my limits and manage a PB, I get high-fives from all my fellow runners. Even if a 22min 5k is, to them, the same speed as a recovery run.
Autobiographies by elite athletes are inspiring , but Vassos’ book about the everyman runner, really made be want to lace up my shoes and get out for a run after each chapter. Even in the pouring rain (he extols the virtues of this as well)!
Both books are great and well worth your time, if you’re looking for some late-summer reads.
No matter where you go, you can always run. One of the many great things about running is that once you start, there’s always something to do wherever you might find yourself. It’s a great way to explore a new place, or just appreciate a place in a different way. Or if it’s a boring place (here’s looking at you, suburban Chicagoland), running can make the stay a bit more interesting.
Our annual family holiday to Northern Ireland is now full of running. I love it.
I used to live in Belfast and had a brief flirtation with running during that time. My wife started running and I would accompany her on some runs, not particularly enjoying it. But not unlike kale, I knew it was good for me and hoped that I would acquire a taste for it. We walk-ran until we could run a whole 5k loop without stopping. At the time, it felt like a massive distance. And, looking back, it was an achievement. But I didn’t keep with it. Studies, work, and moving to Greece to work with an NGO got in the way (I did try running in Athens, but that was horrible misadventure… more on that another time). Running, not unlike my current car, started okay then sputtered out.
Now when we return to Northern Ireland, I love running there. Especially on the stunning north coast. I somehow feel closer to everything while running. The wind, constantly changing weather, amazing views… it’s an exhilarating way to experience and already beautiful place. The Causeway Coast Way and the endless golden sand and dunes of Portstewart Strand are highlights. Oh, and the “edge of the world” feeling you get on Ramore Head.
I also enjoyed a bit of parkrun tourism. I’ve done a couple in NI: the undulations of Wallace Park in Lisburn and the pancake loops at Victoria Park. This time I was able to make it to Portrush, which is a unique in being the only parkrun on a beach.
Portrush is a stunning course that goes along the “blue flagged” East Strand out to Whiterocks and back. It’s an out-n-back, but a lovely one. I had a fairly quick time (for me) with a 22:23. We had lovely firm sand to run on because the tide was out, but I bet this is a dozy when it’s high tide and runners have go on the soft sand. Must be a quad killer!
I also had anther go at Wallace Park parkrun and scored a course PB. One of the tougher parkrun courses I’ve done. Think I did a bit better at pacing myself this time, with the exception of going out to fast and fooling myself that I could maintain the sub-22 pace!
I also did two junior parkruns with my daughter — Ormeau and Portrush. Both events were well organised with an infectious enthusiasm. My daughter loved getting applause when she stuck her hand up when the RD asked, “Any visitors today?” All the way from glam Glasgow! Even though we didn’t know anybody, everyone was friendly and made the tourists feel welcome at both events. Great craic.
It was all great fun. Running only enriches what was already great holiday. On my fortnight away, I clocked up 75km. If anything, it means that I feel a bit less guilty about eating all those Tayto crisps by the bucket-load and over indigence in the Hilden Brewery’s many delights… I’m sure that I read somewhere that beer is a good recovery drink, right?
This comes a bit late as the race was over two weeks ago, but the Cort-ma Law Hill Race is such an experience I still wanted to write about it.
The Antonine Trail 10k was my introduction to trail racing. The Cort-ma Law Hill Race was my first traditional Scottish hill race. Trail race, hill race. What’s the difference? This article on Fell Running Guide does a good job of describing the differences and overlaps. Of course, that article is about fell running, not hill running. But for the sake of ease, you can read the article on the assumption that fell running is fairly analogous to hill racing in Scotland. It’s hill running up here, fell running south of the border (as well as Northern Ireland, from what I can gather). The nomenclature does lead to some oddities though: the Cort-ma Law Hill Race isn’t a fell race because it’s in Scotland, even though it takes place in an area called the Campsie Fells.
So… it’s a hill race, which is like a fell race, that isn’t technically a fell race because it’s in Scotland and therefore a hill race, but the route traverses the Campsie Fells. Got that? Set me right if I’ve got something wrong.
The Cort-ma Law Hill Race is memorable, in that “it’s so miserable, it’s fun” way. The official description of the Cort-ma Law Hill Race captures this well: “The highlight of this race is the section of man-eating emerald green bog between Cort-ma Law and Lecket Hill…”
So, to the route. It’s an difficult race though “only” being 10k. It starts on a steep incline (a 17% grade hill for the first mile, if Strava is to be trusted) then levels out – i.e. runnable, but undulating — from a big pile of rocks called Chrichton’s Cairn across to the summit of Cort-ma Law. This part is pretty straightforward. There’s an easy hill track to follow and, though squidgy, is fairly firm underfoot. The route then takes runners across a bog to the summit of Lecket Hill. From the summit of Cort-ma Law, you can see the faint outline of track, but it’s a different thing when you’re in the bog itself. It’s very wet up there and the bogs are deep. The track looks less defined when you’re on it and it splits in many directions at the boggiest bits. It’s tricky running and picking a good line is tough — what can look like a foothold can easily give way to slimy green nothing. After the initial bog, runners reach the summit of Lecket Hill and make a steep decent. Not down the main and well-known track that leads to the Crow Road off Lecket, but off-piste down a tussocky fence line. There’s a burn at the bottom (in full spate this year!) that needs crossed and then another steep and rough climb. There is no clear track at this stage so it’s a slow process of picking your way up through tussocks. I don’t know if it’s possible to run this section and for me, it’s the toughest part of the race. After a slog to the top, there is yet another bog crossing (complete with decomposing sheep) and then runners rejoin the main route and have a quick descent back to the Crow Road carpark.
In recent races, I’ve been firmly in the middle of the midpack. Not so with this race, I placed 59 out of 69, even though I ran a course PB by 8min 43sec. I’m guessing this race attracts particularly fast runners or those who are just really adept at this kind of terrain, or maybe they’re just really skilled at both. Or possibly just more people run trail races than the more fringe and hardcore hill racing crew?
The weather on race day was fine – clear skies with stunning views over Glasgow and the highlands. This was pretty good luck because two weeks before the race it had been raining constantly. Last year, there was two weeks of sunshine before the race. The course, especially the Cort-ma Law to Lecket section, was totally sodden. Conditions were more challenging than last year (not that last year was a cakewalk), which made me feel even more pleased with my 8:43 course PB. Course marking seemed a bit clearer this year – wee metal stakes with red and white ribbon at crucial points – and the marshals did a sterling job showing the way, noting our numbers at summits, and offering encouragement. All of this is done while persevering through some truly awful midge clouds.
As with the ARTX in May, it was interesting to run this race again, one year after more disciplined running and training. Though I was one of the last finishers, I felt that I ran the best I could. I expected that I would run the race quicker this year, but not by 8 minutes. Off-road races are more unpredictable than their tarmaced counterparts, but they can still provide a marker for personal progress. Looking at the stats for the two races side by side can show the things that are going well, or not so well. So, after thinking about 2017’s Cort-ma Law Hill Race compared to 2016, here are a few nuggets:
Running with a regular training plan has worked for me. Mixing it up with long runs, speed sessions, and hills seems to be working. My placing was back. 10th from last, but cutting more than 8min off my previous time is something to be proud of. All of this said, I don’t think my progress will stay on the same upward arc.
Power hiking can be as fast as running. Or faster. I felt like took it easier up the first hill and didn’t kill myself trying to run it. As it turns out, my power hike was quicker than my run on that first steep incline. Still much room for improvement here, more hill sessions are on the cards.
Don’t do stupid things like trying to cycle to the race when I don’t have enough time. Prepare my bag with the mandatory kit well before the race. Show up with time for a warm-up. The last-minute cycle to the start last year killed my legs.
Storm the downhills. I’m a slow climber, but I can go at a decent speed downhill and actually pass a few people. I should play to my strengths and save something for a pace kick on the downs and not ’t fully deplete my tank on the ups.
Compression leggings look stupid on me. Fact. That said, they seemed to work on this rough terrain. I felt less fatigued afterwards (maybe psychological?) and my legs weren’t as torn up at the end. Function over fashion.
It will be interesting to see what happens if I do this race next year…
On Saturday I finally ran my first ultramarathon. I’m not sure about the technicalities of these things, am I an “ultramarathoner” now? Or is that ultrarunner? I didn’t run an actual race, but I still ran the whole 50 kilometers in one go and followed the exact Great Tartan Skidaddle race route (even up the “kind of pointless hill” according to my fellow runner at the 25k point). Seems legit in my book. So I’ll call myself and ultrarunner now, unless I’m told otherwise.
I ran the entirety of the Great Trossachs Path, from the pier in Inversnaid to the riverside carpark in Callander, 50.3k with 879m of ascent (according to the Garmin stats). Here’s a map of the route and the elevation profile:
It was a decent day to run, but it proper soaking at times. Like, “my waterproof is now sticking to my skin” wet. The worst of the weather came near the beginning of the course as we rounded Loch Katrine after passing Stronachlachar.
Sorry, I just wrote “we” there. I should back up and explain. My pal Norry from the Carron Valley Trail Runners (an experienced and fast ultrarunner) ran the first 40k with me and my long-suffering wife joined me for the last 10k. She met me and Norry at the lovely Glen Finglass Visitor Gateway run by the Woodland Trust (I know others call this Lendrick Hill carpark, but Google maps confusingly brings up the other Lendrick Hill in the Ochils). Norry started to feel a few niggles and didn’t want to exacerbate anything, so he borrowed our car from Glen Finglass and met us at the finish in Callander.
It took me a rather long 6 hours and 20 minutes to run the whole route. I found running so far to be an odd thing mentally. As I started to drop into Callander on the final descent, it felt like I had been in some trippy time-warp. My legs were definitely telling me that I had run into unknown territory (my longest run prior to this was a 4hr and 15min marathon distance run on roads into Glasgow and back). It was as if time had become compressed: I could remember the start by the waterfalls in Inversnaid clearly, everything else was a bit of a blur, and here I was above Callander running to the finish. Yet at other times during the run, it felt interminably long, usually when pouring rain coincided with running uphill. Long and short rolled into one. I don’t know if ultrarunners have some special vocabulary for this feeling?
The weather was what it was, oscillating between showers and sunshine. Far from perfect conditions, but no matter. If you waited for ideal weather in Scotland, you’d never get out on the trails. It made for some dramatic scenery between downpours, wispy clouds clinging to the mountains, lochs appearing and disappearing from view. Amazingly, the last 10k was run in glorious sunshine. A stroke of good fortune, as we could see it pouring on the other side of Loch Venachar in the Achray Forest.
It’s a beautiful route and almost impossible to get lost with the Great Trossachs Path trail markers at all the critical points. It’s a manageable route that’s never too far from civilization. I imagine it would be a good introduction to long distance walking for younger trekkers.
Physically, I was totally spent at the end. Encouragement from Norry and my wife really helped when I was struggling to get my legs turning over. But the exhaustion and tiredness wasn’t anything unbearable. I was quite surprised by how well my body coped. No gut bombs or bonks, nor did I hit the “wall” of marathoning lore. Maybe that was a matter of the conditions and terrain keeping my pace down? Who knows. I’m lucky that my stomach copes fine with gels (I used Wiggle and SiS). I sucked one down every 45min or so to keep up my calorie intake. I had two litres of water in a HydraPak reservoir, carried in my Inov8 Rac Pac 4. No leaks, no uncomfortable rubbing. I had tested all this kit and nutrition before the run, but pleased that it all worked tickety-boo on the day. Oh, I also ate some Beond organic snack bars. I kept them as treats to reward myself with after getting to the top of a hill. Delicious, not to sweet, they taste like “real food” but a lot more convenient to store than a punnet of berries.
Now that I’m on the topic of gear, here’s a bit more geekery: When I rain the Antoine Trial Race half-marathon last year, I wore shorts with the built-in liners. The shower afterwards was agony — imagine scenes like that quintessential scene from Psycho (the screams, not the stabby part). So I got myself some Runderwear and put on some Bodyglide (sorry, not TMI I hope?). I had high expectations and was delighted that they were surpassed. Not a hint of chafage. I mean, none whatsoever. That’s after running 50k in rain, sun, and sweaty humidity. My Saucony Palladium jacket kept the worst of the rain off, it’s super light, and it packs away into nothing. Perfect for a run like this where the weather kept changing. My Tribe Sports top wicked as well as it always does and, again, no chafing — that’s with the added weight of the backpack (no offence to the good people at Tribe, but I got this top in a sale. It was before they went prohibitively expensive in their current “sexy scowling running models with gratuitous bum shots” phase, not sure I fit that image; still, they support parkrun and that’s cool). I wore Skins Active Compression socks. I don’t know if the compression actually does anything, but the fit was great and protected my calves from tussock-scratch. I wore my go-to trail shoes — Saucony Peregrine 5s (actually on my second pair of these shoes, I love them that much). They’re a jack-of-all-trades trail shoe with a fairly aggressive grip and low drop. They do well on the muddy fells and trails, which are my usual playground. I wasn’t sure how they’d do on such a long run, but they were brilliant. They offered just enough support, even on the paved sections. I’d say the Peregrines are jack of all trades and master of all. No blisters, no black toenails, my feet were left remarkably intact.
Despite the general fatigue, my body experienced no real carnage. Granted, 50k is at the lower end of the ultra spectrum and I wasn’t running terribly fast. Anyway, I had tested all my kit and trusted all of it. The adage of “nothing new on race day” holds up. I also spent a lot of time trying to take on the ultrarunning tips from podcasts like Trailrunner Nation and Becoming Ultra. I’ve learned a lot from these podcasts and think that they’ve enhanced my training and preparation. Whether a runner is an elite or not, so many of the things people learn on the trail have universal application. I’m glad trailrunners are so willing to share their stories. The community is very cool in that regard — the honesty and readiness to support each other on the journey.
Did I already mention that I ran a beautiful route? This being a month after my hospitalisation (ugh, yes, I’m going on about the blood infection again like a broken record) it felt wonderful to be well enough to run through such stunning scenery. What a privilege to have this adventure! I wholly enjoyed running my 50k and would love to do the actual Great Tartan Skidaddle next year (it feels like unfinished business… that said, the Kintyre Way Ultra has caught my eye).
My first ultrarunning experience was a good one and I can finally see the attraction. Though I don’t think I’d want to do more than one a year! I’m not that hardcore yet. I’ve put up a few photos from the day below.
I’ve been listening to my body and feel like I need a break now, so I’ve decided no to run the Strathearn Marathon. So now, the focus is on the Ring of Steall Skyrace in September. Time to get my power hike on!
So much about running is gradual. For me, just starting to actually enjoy it took a while. But on that journey runners take, there are usually some memorable moments that we look back on to mark our progress. It might be a parkrun PB, meeting up with a club for the first time, or something like that.
For me, The Antonine Trial Race 10k (ATRX) was my first trail race and the event inspired me to get into running on the trails and hills. So it was fun to return to the race, everything familiar and different at the same time. In 2016 I didn’t know anybody, standing around like Nigel-no-mates, but still enjoying the craic. On Wednesday, I knew so many people, a bunch from the Carron Valley Trail Runners crew as well as a handful Springburn parkrunners. Oddly, the weather was almost the same as it was last year — that’s to say, perfect. I don’t know how James and the race crew have managed this two years in a row — spooky.
Last year, the hills near killed me. This year, they were tough but felt more runnable. Last year, I was timid on the decent. This year, I confidently stormed down the hills with my arms flailing like a total eejit. I passed people on the downs, they passed me on the ups. All in all, my strategy of recognising that I’m a slow climber but quick controlled-faller worked. I leapfrogged competitors for the first 8k, but only got passed once on the final 2k. Last year, I ran the course in 59:18, this year 53:06. A course PB by over 6 minutes!
The race itself has a great vibe, the marshals were all so encouraging (especially the team on the final hill!) and it’s a beautiful place to run with fascinating Roman ruins all over the place. I’d say it’s an underappreciated bit of central Scotland and I’m pleased this race gives it the attention it deserves. There are so many great views — there’s a class panorama over the Campsies from the top of Croy Hill, but I really love the old gnarled trees and almost terraced grassy descent at the 7.5km point.
The race links up with local charities (this year, PALS) and everybody arrives with tins for the local foodbank. In the goody bag there’s a garish pink buff. The medal is a rock with the ATRX logo. Seriously, what’s not to love about this race? It’s no surprise it sells out so quickly.
Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed myself and the (honestly) unexpected PB was a bonus. Looking forward to the full Antonine Trail Race half marathon+ come autumn.
I’ve been encouraged by my running the past couple weeks. Though my legs felt leaden and my lung capacity well short of 100%, I still got out for a couple social runs with the Carron Valley Trail Runners and (just about) kept up. Each run felt better than the previous one. It was a satisfyingly progressive recovery arc and I feel pretty lucky that this all coincided with these rare and amazing long spring days with bluebird skies.
At parkrun last Saturday, the weather resumed its normal service and the familiar puddles were returning to the Springburn course (though it wasn’t at full steeplechase level yet). That said, I don’t mind a run in the rain. And if you have to run in the rain, it’s more fun if there’s loads of people sharing in the almost perverse joy of it.
As per usual, I forgot to turn off my watch when I crossed the finish line, so I didn’t know what my time was. After I got the text from parkrun, I was pleased to learn I ran the 5k route in 22:46. Considering that I spend most of 2016 just trying to break 23:00, I’m happy that I’m getting back to my normal speed (or lack thereof, ‘speed’ is a purely personal thing, right?). That 5k felt tougher than it usually does, but… feel like I’m getting there.
I’m off to run the ATRX tonight — that is, the Antonine Trail 10k Race. I’ll put up a race report once that’s done and dusted. Then it’s off to Inversnaid to run the 50k Great Tartan Skidaddle route as a solo effort this coming Saturday. I trained for that thing for so long, I feel like it’s something I need to do. Maybe I’m just stubborn?
It’s great to have my health back, even if I feel a bit more sluggish than usual, but I don’t want to complain. Having been in hospital and then being sedentary for weeks really makes one appreciate how brilliant it is to be, literally, up and running.