My offering here is a juggling act comprising real life experiences, anecdotal stories and perhaps even some useful information about Taper Time. The latter can make a run, but it has also been known to be destructive; in the late nineties, a poorly planned TaperTime ruined one man’s hopes of running across the English Channel in less than seven hours. It is a salutory lesson for those who may sometimes forget just what a danger immersing ourselves in to Taperosis (ie. existing within the TaperZone) can be.
So TaperTime is the resting period after a programme of specific training, in preparation for a target event. Some runners begin their TaperTime several weeks before the event, others just a few days. Taper for some would mean complete rest, for others it may be just a little less training. There is no right or wrong answer. It’s just a minefield, where you can be sure that disaster will strike with one wrong step.
Many runners prepare mind and body for their next Ultimate Challenge. But lurking deep within the state of Taperosis lie difficulties and drawbacks that can present a significant threat to the impending adventure.
If you are in TaperTime whilst reading this, you might agree with much of what you read. You may be sprawled on the settee, feeling quite smug with your high protein drink and your high carb energy bar. James Last murdering a dead composer’s masterpiece in the background, your Strava pages with five figure Kudos boxes, dimmed lighting showing off your tan and the Jack Russell contentedly nibbling away on this morning’s kill on the front room rug.
Conversely, my words may enrage you, or worry you. You may be in Catch up on Your Training in TaperTime Mode, and have your iPad balancing on the bars of your spin bike, trying desperately to match your cadence to the big lass on the bike next to you, who hasn’t even broken into a sweat with her 190 rpm and incessant chat with Charlene to her left. Poor old Charlene (17) is not so fit, she is gasping for air, her face contorting like the old blub lamps. Her mascara is running down her puffing cheeks, and her three minute application bright green hair dye is beginning to run down her neck. Her ears, beneath the myriad of fake silver earrings and other clutter, are bright red and pulsating.
Whichever method of tapering is your poison, do not be thrust into immediate change by reading other ideas. It is probably too late. You cannot hide from race day, the Day of Judgement. Read, digest and then rest. Contemplate how you will taper next time, perhaps avoiding the pitfalls that down so many of us.
Taperosis is loved by coaches everywhere, and loathed by runners everywhere else. Over-aged, over-read and under-trained coaches and proponents of Taperosis lovingly describe the state as the focal period of all the training and preparation that has gone before, a key ingredient in the recipe for success on The Day. A kind of reservoir, full of Sadistic training sessions, drills, pain, more pain and knowledge that the well Taperised runner will take confidently to the starting line. As the whistle blows, the reservoir releases its contents, cascading into the heart, mind and muscle of the Taperite. Like an exploding bladder, it’s one hell of a mess, a flood of goodness and glory that carries the Taperite to personal success in The Race.
Well that’s the pitch, but what really happens to a runner enduring Taperosis?
Most people run on their confidence; if you’re sure you can, you have a better chance of being able to. But don’t go jumping off buildings because you think you can fly after watching The Snowman, or after overdosing on caffeine tablets. Self-doubt is bad news, it rots the apple from within. Self doubt prompts panic; “What on Earth am I doing, entering a race like this? I should stick with the Park Runs.” We have panic attacks, panic purchasing, panic searching on Google for the last piece of the running success jigsaw – the Holy Grail of competitors everywhere. And of course…panic training.
A typical Taperite’s thoughts, the night before THE race may go something like this;
“But I’m not good enough for this race, I’ll never keep up. I’ll never manage the hills, the distance, the muddy tracks, the bogs…. If I can just get hold of a pair of those MegaTrailAllGrippingNonSlipWonderShoes, I will manage. Without them, I’m doomed. I wonder if Amazombie do a twenty-five minute delivery?…. I will find the secret of running faster/further/more economically, I just have to keep Googling…. I have to train to do well. I have not trained at all in the last 12 hours, so I cannot do well. I have reduced my training too much, too soon. My muscles are decaying as I look at them – my legs wouldn’t support a sparrow now, my back is stiff, my lungs are full of fluff, and my arms feel as strong as a pair of damp tea towels…. Right, I know it’s three in the morning already, but I’m sure a brisk twelve miles up and down the hills before Tomorrow’s Race will benefit me, it will get rid of my nerves, and loosen me up….”
Taperosis Extremis, a thankfully rare condition in this country, can elicit even more outrageous outbursts such as;
“I have forgotten how to run. I have forgotten all the lessons I learned in training. I have become an ex-runner. My mind has wandered to alternative means of entertainment that are less painful and demanding than ultra running, like naked cactus wrestling, and raw sausage eating competitions, where the producer of the longest tape worm wins. I’m going to defer, or auction my entry on Preloved. Maureen! hurry up with those pliers. And bring the tape measure with you, quickly!”
In addition to the Taperist rants, there are other warning signs of the condition. Full blown Taperitis often leads to extreme consumption of dubiously concocted sports drinks and health potions, in addition to sugar in any form by the barrow load. It has been documented that victims sometimes discover a new, ground-breaking piece of research shortly after their Taperatic Emergency, and desperately leap on to this new bandwagon without delay, or any consideration of the potential consequences. All change…immediately! The bottles of liquid sugar are poured down the loo, or into the dog’s bowl as a cruelly mischievous experiment. The carbs are given to Grandma in the vain hope that she may become a new running partner, and the literature supporting yesterday’s New Idea is burned in the fireplace, to help keep the Taperite’s poor neglected children a little warmer by the meagre fire.
So now the Taperite has a new saviour, his quarry; fat – the stuff demonised by dieticians for decades, the bad scraggy bits cut away from father’s best bacon every Sunday morning. The stuff we thought gave Grandad his heart attack. The stuff that big Sandra at number seventeen eats too much of. The scourge of stick insect slimmers everywhere, diligently and quite impressively self- shackled to their lifetime of losing weight. The stick insects don’t make much of a shadow, but are they happy? Are they content? Do their kids use them as a giant bean bag to rest on while they’re watching the tele? When was the last time you were used as a human trampoline? We make our own choices in life, we have to bear what’s given us, make the best of ourselves and we have to be happy if we can.
It’s fat that will give the more reliable and sustainable supply of energy, and the Taperite veers away from the sugar and carb roller coaster. Yesterday’s freshly baked loaf, potatoes from the farm and the rice from the corner shop are ruthlessly jettisoned, and replaced by fat, oil and lard from the butchers next door. Friends and relatives meet to discuss the psychological health of the Taperite, but to no avail; he has found Today’s Secret Diet for Instant Success. But will it kick in for tomorrow’s race?
So race day looms, and just a few hours later it’s here. In addition to the new diet, our poor Taperite has ordered a multitude of novel go-faster gimmicks that have been scientifically proven to work, and used by idle, puffy cheeked celebrities everywhere. These creatures would sell their soul for ten seconds “exposure”, so they sign away, endorsing they know not what. But knowing these gadgets are all sat languishing in a broken down Luton Transit van on the M6 Traffic Jam somewhere near Birmingham is another blow to his fading hopes. In his mind, he is already subtracting three minutes from his race time, whatever it may be, because he won’t be using his new Turbo Spring Running Poles. So he will have to step and trip over the tree roots, and wade through the stinking bog, instead of leaping over those, and any other obstacles, courtesy of his poles,which are still sat in the back of the Transit. He ordered some breakthrough new energy powder, guaranteed to improve performance by ten percent. He ordered ten sachets in hope, but alas, it was not to be.
Taperman arrived at the race exhausted from his extensive searching for the Secret, and he neglected the ordinary, the mundane, the tried and trusted. Three miles in to the race his left shoe fell apart and the sole was left in the middle of the road. A few miles later, he suffered amazingly bad and quite spectacular tummy problems, in front of a bus full of Girl Guides, a result of excessive ExplodeAde drink and several boxes of chocolate the night before.
If I were better at counting, I’m sure I could come up with some kind of equation or law, to explain Taperosis. It may look something like this;
P = (Hu – HWBT) E
Where P = Preparedness, Tu = Number of hours spent usefully, HWBT= Number of Hours spent Wasting Bloody Time, and E = the effectiveness of the time spent.
So preparedness is expressed as hours spent usefully preparing, minus hours that were bloody wasted, multiplied by the effectiveness of the hours spent preparing.
A score of over 600 means you do not need to be reading this. Please continue to feel smug. But just keep an eye on the Jack Russell. He’s just eaten your steroids, the packet you hid under the bed. He thought they were doggie worming pills, and his constant itching told him he was due a dose. Intelligent, independent dog. Rapidly turning into something like a killer bunny. Your twelve year old boy found the other pack, underneath his last year’s school report. Be nice to him…by the time you get back from your race he will be bigger and stronger than you. A score between 200 and 600 means you are quite normal, despite the fact you have been reading this for the last ten minutes. A score below 200 also means you should not be reading this…you need urgent, intensive therapy. Get Help! Get Organised! Get Running!
So if your garden is a mess, and you are an even bigger mess, there is a good chance that you are tapering the light way, the take it easy way. The wife may not be speaking to you at the moment because Grandma exploded all over the newly decorated dining room after gobbling down the carbs, and the dog’s run away at terrifically high speed, fueled by steroids and a gallon of highly concentrated Energy Drink. The kids won’t look at you because the fire’s gone out. They’re desperately rubbing your emergency whistles together, trying to generate a spark. Big Sandra at number seventeen’s mum – Even Bigger Gladys- wants to talk to you about the piece of paper that blew into her dear daughter’s back garden. It was the plans you drew to build a commercial size passenger carrying hot air balloon, using Big Sandra’s knickers. But who cares?
You’re putting weight on – the lightweight lycra running kit is getting tight, and you’re shaking with anxiety, but you can borrow handcuffs from Thin Lizzy across the road to secure yourself to the railing. They are pink and fluffy, the fluff is quite matted in places, but they will stop you shaking quite so violently. Lycra has an amazing ability to stretch beyond belief, I know from my own experience of dramatic weight gain.
Nothing is ready for the Big Race, and you’re clutching a wad of training plans, all needing six months minimum to have any effect. Your collapsible drink bottle is growing a new form of life on the inside just near the top, and you’ve not used your running watch for two years, so you don’t realise until you’re standing on the start line that it’s knackered. And you’ve not noticed the hole in your sock, or the gargantuan split in your left shoe. But hey! Good taper – you relaxed well. Have a great race.
A little post script from Malcolm.
I wrote this post whilst struggling my own way through TaperTime. I sit here on day two – four days until race day, one foot immersed in a casserole dish full of methylated spirit, eyes stinging and becoming light headed with the vapour. I can’t find room on the table for my battered old laptop. The table holds evidence of Days 1 & 2 of my TaperDiet…three empty 1kg. containers of Greek Yogurt, a couple of large plastic milk bottles, two empty tins of red salmon, four empty packets of peanuts, a couple of large ready washed mixed salad bags, and two plates bearing signs of steak and mayonnaise. A carton of 24 eggs with more vacancies than occupied hangs on to the edge of the table. Needless to say, I am alone at the moment, living how a man is meant to live; no fuss, no frills. Just mess. And remnants of food.
I’ve not been running since Sunday, three days ago. I’m eating well. My head is a disaster zone. I’m having to use what’s left of my mental strength to steer my way through each day. But things still come at me, faster than I can cope with, and bigger than I can handle. Even though I’m a long way from home, it feels like I’m in the middle of everything. I’m standing naked in the middle of Piccadilly Circus on a busy Saturday afternoon. Eat yer heart out Eros. I panic at the slightest thing, and struggle to cope with normal. These words feel familiar, I may have written them somewhere already, or perhaps they’re just part of the steam powered merry-go-round that has taken up residence where my brain used to be.
Roll on 06:00 Saturday 18th August 2018. Portpatrick, Scotland. GB Ultras Race Across Scotland.
Start; Portpatrick Saturday 18th August 06:00 Finish ;Cockburnspath by Wednesday 10;00
Go to http://live.opentracking.co.uk/ultragb18/ to watch little red dots from all over the world race 214 miles across Scotland, in less than 100 hours. Through the bogs, up the hills, through the bogs, down the hills and into the bogs. I’m little red dot number 91, and I will be at or near the back. We will adhere to the rule that we are only allowed to move once every ten minutes. Or is that just the frequency at which the tracker updates itself ?
So what is a runner supposed to do when he’s physically unable to run?
I usually think of myself as an ultra runner, but from Christmas to April, I wasn’t even a runner. I had an annoying and painful foot injury. Already entered for the 100 hour running race from Portpatrick to Cockburnspath along the SUW, I had been doing long walks and long cycle rides at home to develop stamina, and gym workouts to develop strength needed for the event. Now it was time to walk the route that I wanted to run in August.
The reasons for this walk were to prepare for the GB Ultras race by enjoying a long training adventure, and to get a feel for the route. I wanted to build a little familiarity with the hills and the bogs; “Know thine enemy,” as they say.
There follows a day by day loose record of the walk, intended to help anyone who is thinking about travelling the Southern Upland Way, by whatever means. After this, I have written notes that may be of use to you, depending on your level of experience and expertise. This was my first foray into back-packing, so inevitably errors abound! If you spot a big mistake, please let me know so I can correct it…thank you. Remember that things change, and do not stake everything on anything; the shop you are relying on may have closed, changed its hours, become a donkey sanctuary, anything could happen.
Friday, late May, 2018
Limping around Glasgow Railway Station carrying a load so heavy that, had I been a donkey, would have prompted an armed RSPCA swoop, I pondered the next couple of weeks. I was on my way to Portpatrick to start my walk across Scotland, but the adventure had not begun well.
It was Friday, late May, and I had decided only a few days earlier that my recce would go ahead. The race would take place in August…so it was time to start preparing for the run across Scotland. But in my haste to make travel arrangements for this recce , I failed to realise that North Berwick was not a second station in Berwick upon Tweed. It is a different town. I booked my tickets and arrived at Berwick upon Tweed Station in good time to catch the train. But with the wrong ticket. The computer said, “No.” to any way in which the money I had already paid could be used towards the cost of a new ticket, so an extra £70 was handed over to the sympathetic young lady on the other side of the counter.
Travel to Portpatrick should not have been be difficult. I had left my car in Cockburnspath, ready for an easy return to civilisation at the end of my walk. Willie and Angela, my delightful hosts in Co’path would look after it well, in the same way they had been so kind to me.
This was the real beginning of my preparation for the race, after an injured foot prevented me from running with any effect from Christmas until April.
Later that day, I stood on the cliffs above Portpatrick, recovering from the steps that mark the beginning of the 214 mile Southern Upland Way. The next stretch along the cliffs is a place that I loved before I had ever heard of the SUW. And so the walk began, a short evening jaunt to get mind and body into back-packer mode.
I had only the flimsiest of plans for the journey; start every morning, follow the signposts, stop when tired in the evening. In between, eat and drink as available, enjoy the walking, admire the views. Oh, and learn the route so as not to get lost in the August race.
The few miles I covered that evening comprised coastal cliffs, small well-surfaced lanes, and a good helping of boggy moorland. There are few suitable places to pitch a tent on the entire route, and it was 10pm. and almost dark, before I found a tiny patch of reasonably flat ground where I could spend the night.
The next morning I left the constant hum of Stranraer’s industry, and walked the quiet lanes towards Castle Kennedy, and the beautiful garden for which it is known.
Along lanes and tracks, through quiet woodland, over little streams and their bigger brothers, the first few miles of the walk from Portpatrick offer no great challenge; a drag up from the sea at Killandringan lighthouse and a few other modest climbs, a delve into the first bogs of the route, and a few twists, rises and turns to keep focus on direction.
Near New Luce there is a large wind farm, and the track becomes a road, and assumes a very different character. The rough, grassy, lumpy paths give way to industrial sized stone cobbles – angular and sharp – as rural leisure comes face to face with big business. The huge wind turbines whoosh their way along their never-ending journey, saving the planet whilst simultaneously ruining it. The preposterous scale of these things dwarfs everything around them, each turn of the blades demanding we consider the cost: benefit of such megaliths. It was also around here that I recall my first walk in the conifer forests, overpowering, darkening the ground and all, within the impenetrable blanket of their foliage. Impressive in their uniformity, but to my mind at least, not a patch on a native deciduous forest. The wildlife seem to agree.
It was early evening, and through the trees I spied a small construction ahead. Unmistakable, the Beehive Bothy. The sole occupant that night, I was lulled to a welcome sleep by the sound of the turbine blades.
It was here that I read Adam’s comments in the visitor book. He was walking Britain with his friend Martin. Martin was carrying the bulk of their load. You see, Martin is a donkey, and the pair were engaged in this mammoth adventure together. What a fantastic way to bond with your donkey.
No church for me this morning, but I did look Heavenward when I muttered something about the continuing sharp stone road. Admittedly my footwear, Primark’s best lightweight leisure shoes at £12 were not built for such heavy duty, but the road was made for lumber trucks, not humans. Or donkeys. My choice of footwear was simple, they were the only shoes that I was able to walk in… wide toe box, zero/small drop, very flexible and light weight. They were also fast draining and drying, very useful around these parts.
A reasonable climb comes just after the bothy, it drags on then steepens towards the top. Not an enormous effort, but enough to warm me after the cold of the night. The next few miles were a much easier walk, but then came a tricky little path; uneven, boggy and many rabbit holes. But looking back, the first few miles of today were not difficult, especially after the early climb.
Through the day I was faced with several boggy areas, which meant a second day of wet feet. Not what the doctor ordered!
On to a proper road, and through the hamlet of Knowe, then an easily missed left turn at the end of the houses, away from the tarmac and back to nature.
Approaching Glentrool, I headed for the village, off the SUW route, in the hope of finding food. And I was lucky…the very kind lady at Glentrool Campsite provided me with food to cook, and the use of their “bothy”, an immaculate cabin complete with oven. But I paid a price for this diversion; finding the SUW again was quite a lengthy job. I followed the signs which told me it was just 3/4 of a mile away. What felt like two miles later I was lost, but did not want to go back up the slopes I had just come down. I persevered, and was rewarded with a sign pointing the way back on to the Way. To my chagrin, it was a track parallel to the road I was on, and so I did have to retrace my steps. A bit frustrated; I had been on sharp look out for signs, perhaps I missed one.
So by the side of the loch I walked, enjoying the rolling, easy track, and admiring the views and savouring the mid evening air. I camped in a lovely spot near a bench, at the head the loch.
A good track through the forest brought a nice start to the day, but soon this was replaced by more stoney forest road…ouch!
I noticed today the random nature of the SUW signposting. In places it was overkill, sign after sign where most were not needed. But then a few miles later there may be just one sign pointing a general direction over a moor, with no other sign in sight to confirm.
Some pretty countryside today, especially approaching St. John’s Town of Dalry. leaving the tarmac road, there was quite a wet, boggy area, which led on to the climb of Waterside Hill. This was no mountain, but a nice test for an overloaded human carrying a donkey load of bags and supplies.
It was here that I tried out my trekking poles (sounds better than walking sticks, though that’s what they are). They were an immediate hit, providing a little extra power up the slope, but more importantly, much improved stability for tired, quivvering legs trying to support a tired, overloaded body.
My stop for the night had been just off a small road, at the beginning of a steady climb. Back on to moorland again. The moors seemed either to be heather, with stoney paths, or grass, often with no path. The latter is where you need the extra signpost to point you in the right direction. I made several small navigation notes today, many on a similar theme.
The walk was a mix of heather moor and grass moor, interspersed with forest road crossings and streams. Nothing of any great significance, except the beauty of the countryside.
I enjoyed the descent into Sanquhar, remembering how pleased we were to see the town at the end of Day 1 of the November GBU recce. I bought more food and drink, knowing there was only Wanlockhead where something may be available before Beattock.
Along the main street, passing the “Fit Feet” shop, and then on to the undertakers, where left, then bear left, and up the hill. The next few miles were a mix of easy grass walking, and some more difficult parts, semi-dry bog, eventually back in to the forests.
I had rearranged my load today, and it had worked well. Instead of cramming my tent into the rucksack, I strapped it on the top. This gave me much more room in the pack, and also meant that I could pitch the tent without opening the sack. The reverse would be true in the mornings, load the sack before dismantling the tent, keeping all my little treasures dry. Not that any of this had been a problem, I came equipped for wet, cold and windy Scotland, but found warm, dry and sunny Scotland , day after day. I had packed one tee shirt and several waterproofs. I needed the opposite.
I had spent last night a few miles short of Wanlockhead, and enjoyed the climbs to this former lead mining village. By the time I descended into the village I was ready for lunch. The route takes you to the right hand side of the village , giving you a good view of the long strip of houses by the road, where sheep were happily grazing amongst people going about their business. The tidy grass helped present Wanlockhead as a much more “alive” place than had been the case in November. I enjoyed a small lunch in the excellent cafe attached to the museum at the top of the village, and had a short rest. I knew what was coming next!
Lowther Hill springs straight out of the village, and is a climb right from the start. It was hard work. Nothing more than drag, push and will yourself to make the next step, knowing there are many more steps to make before the summit, and the giant golf ball. My walking sticks were working overtime, pushing this great load slowly up the hill. I did stop a few times “just to admire the view”, but really it’s a case of dig in and work hard.
You cross the the road part way up the hill, and I continued climbing, crossing the road once or twice more. I should have stayed on the road at the last crossing, where you turn right, on to the SUW track. This is on a left hand bend near a fenced off aerial installation. Again, I saw no sign of the turn, but remembered it from November. There is a little brick construction where you can rest just after this turn, but it was already taken by three ladies doing part of the walk together. We exchanged pleasantries and carried on, me with my walk, and them with their cheese sandwiches.
At the top of Lowther Hill, by the giant golf ball, you can see what is waiting for you… more long hills, with some quite steep parts. The going is mostly good, but with some rough parts, and of course some bog.
It was at the top of one of these climbs that I met Richard, a friendly young man who has already built an impressive C.V. of walks and achievements. He was sitting on the ground, surrounded by tech equipment. I thought he was part of an outside broadcast team for the BBC, but he explained his two banks of solar panels power his camera, watch and everything else he carries. We had some nice chats as we leapfrogged each other over the next few days. He would stop to take photographs, but walk further into darkness than me. I walked all day, but pitched my tent earlier than him. I last saw him on the shore of St. Mary’s Loch, charging his batteries.
Eventually the A 702 road is reached, a left turn and an easy walk to the next post, signalling a right turn towards the river. The water looked good, and I rinsed my hands and face, and filled up my water bottles here. (I’m not sure what “bad” water looks like.) This nice, easy stretch across the meadow then becomes a pleasant walk which climbs gradually to a small tarmac road, which in turn takes you on to the reservoir. Through the gate, admire the neat grass on the left, and the expanse of water on the right. Keep an eye on the massing seagulls (above), as they swoop menacingly towards your bag of food just peeping out of your backpack.
At the end of the reservoir, there is a little left then right, go a few yards further more to the right, and through the gate, then left and up the climb. And it is a climb. Quite steep, this grassy slope seems to go on forever, but the cruelest part comes at the “top” …you have about four false summits before you really do arrive at the top. Dry the tears from your eyes, and admire the view. Then continue over the grassy moors towards and through the forests heading for Beattock. This was the hardest day of my walk, though it is by no means the end of the climbing. I camped a few miles short of Beattock, tired by the hills, but pleased that I had managed the day with my large load.
I reached Beattock by mid morning, and consumed food and drink at the caravan and camping site at the opposite end of the village. Two litres of milk and an iced lolly later, I walked back through the village and towards the large roundabout, where I turned right on the cycle path. An easy, pleasant path by the river, followed by a hill which was an unsigned “up and over” walk, then through the gate at the bottom and left. Another hidden key was nearly missed a few minutes later, just after a small bridge, where a left turn is kept secret from the inattentive walker.
They say things come in threes, and some considerable way up the white forest road – a long, steady climb – there is a right hand hairpin. Again, no sign of a sign to say the SUW is a left turn on this bend. This is not a criticism, merely a warning that you need to be vigilant if like me, you are using the signposts to find your way.
Back on to forest roads, and like the long white track out of Beattock, a reasonable surface. About seven miles past Beattock I found the Brattleburn Bothy. I met David, an experienced walker from Liverpool, just short of the bothy. On arrival we set about preparing our evening meals, after David discovered that the man in the hammock had eaten his sausage, accidentally. David and I traded pasta and bread for whisky, and generally put the world to rights. The bothy is good; it was tidy, well equipped and was a nice place to spend a night.
A pleasant, easy first few miles from the bothy, then a short but steep hill after turning left off the road. No problems on the way to St. Mary’s Loch. By the Loch of the Lowes, next door to St. Mary’s, the cafe has been refurbished, it’s smart and clean. I had a good snack and the lady behind the counter kindly filled my bottle with ice-cold water. In the same hot weather I’d enjoyed every day of the walk, this was very welcome.
Then pass the sorry sight of the now closed Tibbie Shiels Inn, and on to the bank of the much larger St. Mary’s Loch. This was a good track, well marked and easy walking. At the end of the loch, there was a diversion across a field, and then a small stream, before crossing the main road and another steep, but fairly short climb.
Nearing Traquair, I enjoyed a lovely grassy path, winding its way between slopes on both sides.
Out of Traquair, there is quite a climb up to Minch Moor. I found this hard work, and pitched the tent three or four miles across the moor. The windy night was a test for my tent, I’m delighted to say everything stayed in place. The weather changed this evening for a few hours, with drizzle and cold replacing the constant sunshine.
Across the moors, up and down the hills, and through the heather, towards the Three Brethren. These stone structures were erected around five hundred years ago, and will probably outlast every modern tower block currently in existence. They don’t build ’em like they used to.
More heather, more moor, and then the descent to Fairnilee, cross the main road, and then climb again, and the last three miles or so to Galashiels. No difficulties, and soon descending into the town. On the way down, there is a sign pointing right, up through some woods. Ignore it. More on this problem later.
In Galashiels I visited the largest Tesco I’ve ever seen, I only wanted some water and bread, but it took me half an hour to find my way around, and ride on the travelescalator from ground level up to the “gallery”. Ghastly place, full of recorded announcements and wasted space. Give me a corner shop and the 50% price surcharge every time.
Leaving Galashiels is simple, but tedious. The route takes you for a nice walk along the River Tweed, after squeezing between the train line and the sewage works (I’m sure this was not a salmon jumping installation).
Ascend a long flight of wooden steps – no travelescalators here, no signpost either, and on to the cycle track alongside a busy road. Once you get to the river bank it is a pleasant walk, with a decent surface. On reaching the bridge, you cross the Tweed…and go back along the opposite bank. There were a lot of exposed tree routes on this side, so don’t focus too heavily on spotting the fish , ( I didn’t see any.)
Having retraced more or less to where you started the Tweed-side walk, you bear right, cross a road, and then negotiate a poorly surfaced, boggy little climb. You are now heading for Lauder, about nine miles away. My notes said you climb on to a low ridge, then descend to Lauder. That’s what I did, it was not unpleasant, but quite unremarkable, though I did enjoy the grassy descent in to Lauder.
Leaving Lauder, where I restocked food and drink once more, you go through large gates on the left, and across a grass field. The large building on your left is Thirlestane Castle, another example of ancient construction skills; it’s apparently twelfth century.
You come to a large field, with a neat road heading through, down to a farm house. There are brown cows in the field. I don’t know what breed of cows they were, I didn’t ask them. I don’t talk to cows, I just eat them. They may have caught a whiff of the cold beef stashed away in my little plastic bag, but for whatever reason they were not friendly towards me. The field is quite large, there was a bovine gauntlet to be walked. My coarse words and suggestions failed to deter them, as they came menacingly close. Others in the field saw what was happening, and they came cantering over to join in the thuggery. I deployed my anti-dog, anti-yob and now anti-cow self-defence system…my walking sticks.
Shouting what I would do to them if they came any nearer, and imitating Bruce Lee wiggling his numchucks around his head, I made as much noise and threatening movement as I could manage. They were egging each other on, taking turns to be more aggressive than their mates. They were beginning to surround me. Thoughts went back to my childhood, my first bike ride, my first goal, my first kiss. But also to my conversation with David at the bothy. He was telling me how a hand gun was good defence against grizzly bears. If only I’d packed my AK47. By the skin of my teeth, I was holding the status quo, and I was slowly getting closer to the cattle grid. I didn’t actually run the last 10 metres, only in my mind. A fall here might result in roast Malcolm for tomorrow’s Sunday dinner. Dancing across the cattle grid, quite nimbly I thought under the circumstances, I reached safety. That was the only time I was worried on the entire walk.
So don’t forget your walking sticks. And your gun.
Shaken, I passed the farm house. Should I have a word with the farmer? Half a dozen caged dogs all showing me their teeth and looking up more Malcolm recipes suggested to me that a discussion with the person responsible for all this mayhem may not be a peace lover. So I snook by, hoping my sound of my shaking legs knocking together would not be heard. Twenty minutes later, I released the grip on my walking sticks.
A little way further, I camped on the moor. A windy place, but not a cow in sight.
As Cockburnspath drew nearer, I had become more daring with my power supply for the technology I was carrying. None of it was as valuable to me as the sheets torn from the old AA Roadbook, but I was now close enough to “home” to try things out. I had made a phone call to wife Wendy, and discovered it would be daughter Loveday’s birthday on Monday. So the last couple of days had been higher mileage, in an effort to fulfill Daddy duties. Today was something of a reward for those efforts, as I calculated that although I could reach Co’path by tonight, it would be a big push for a late arrival. But I could finish comfortably by mid-morning on Monday instead.
I made better progress following the Garmin on my wrist, although I used it mainly to confirm what I thought the signposts were telling me. But the little green line all alone on the blank screen needs some detail…a background map would be useful, if that is possible.
This morning I continued across the moor, on a typical stoney track bordered by heather. Later another climb, this time on tarmac, away from the reservoir and nearing Longformacus. Inevitably, a climb out of the village, and more open countryside. No great difficulty for the walker finding the route, and the navigator was stood down.
The next little place was probably my favourite of the whole walk. Abbey St. Bathans is a delightful spot, especially in the late May sunshine.
On the crossroads, a small grassed area offers a bench and a village notice board. Sitting on the bench were three people, all engrossed in their books, and their writing. A very peaceful scene. Looking across the road, there were neat stone houses, and a lovely church on the right. I thought I had entered a time warp, back to the 1930s. No, I don’t remember the 1930s. There was an innocence and peace that disappeared, I think, forever, following the events of ’39 – ’45. Not a car in sight, the only sounds were of birdsong, a distant tractor, and the occasional hushed mutterings of the seated threesome. Walking by the houses, you cross the small bridge, and then a beautiful stretch alongside the river, full of blooms of all varieties. This is a place to which I would like to return.
There follows a mix of farm tracks and tarmac roads, and no more big hills, though there are one or two that will sting after around 200 miles, walking or running.
I made camp that evening on a thin sliver of ground, sandwiched between a main road and a train line. It sounds awful, but I was out of sight, and had a good night of rest. The walk was more or less over so …
The last handful of miles, and they were quite enjoyable. Through a forest and up a surprising climb, another drag passing a grotty looking caravan site, and soon out on to the cliffs. I would say ” overlooking the North Sea,” but there was a huge haar, or sea fret as I know it, which was blanking any view beyond a half dozen yards, and which was threatening me with cold and damp. So I walked, almost skipped along the cliffs, listening to the pounding waves somewhere below but seeing very little. I discovered the next day that the haar had been there a few days, and stretched from Edinburgh to Berwick on Tweed, (and North Berwick?) A few Bank Holiday trips to the coast ruined there.
There was, almost mischieveously, one last sting in the tail from the Southern Uplands Way. Within about one mile of the finish, the route goes by a few houses on a left hand corner. Immediately after this there is a right turn, the sign for which is almost completely hidden. If you are eager to reach Co’path as soon as possible, don’t miss this turn!
A few hundred yards later, under the main road and you are in the village. Bear left on the road, then fork right to go up to the finish at the memorial.
And rest … walk/ recce/race/adventure over.
If it’s open, buy a celebratory ice cream from the shop, sit on the step,and think about what you have achieved.
However you travel, and whatever your motive, I hope your journey along the Way will be as enjoyable and worthwhile as mine. It may not have quite been life changing for me, but it was most certainly life enhancing.
Safety If you end up stuck in a bog, with vultures circling high above, and the locals getting out their Track Kill recipe books, you might wish you had thought a little more about safety, especially if you are alone. So if you cannot find anyone with a similar mind to yours, do be extra careful. Ensure someone knows where you are and where you are going each day. Have a charged mobile phone, a map and compass, a whistle and a light. Take appropriate clothing (work on the safe side), emergency bag, spare water and food. I think walking sticks help keep you safe, and take a basic first aid kit. I carried a small multi tool, and a few spare straps and and fastenings. Primarily, safety is about attitude, not a bag load of gear. So know what you are capable of, and don’t push your limits too far. Always think about what may happen, and what the consequences might be. Make no assumptions about weather, and do go home if the conditions are too bad. It’s the right thing to do.
Terrain Do not expect to have dry feet at the end of the day. I had very warm, sunny weather, but with so much bog in the early stages my feet were soaked all day. The second half of the route seemed to have less bog than the first. There are hills along the entire route, but I found the most concentrated collection of difficult hills to be between St. John’s Dalry and Beattock. All of the longer climbs were quite difficult for me, especially in a headwind. Many of the forest paths had a lovely soft surface, but beware of hidden tree roots. Other paths would suddenly reveal rabbit holes, or random rocks and stones. Many of the forest roads are made with large, sharp stones, making the going tricky and uncomfortable in thin-soled shoes. This is especially true near to the wind farms, and occasionally where heavy forestry work is in progress. In boggy patches, stones have been placed to help dry passage.
Signing This must be a never ending job. There are hundreds of signs in all kinds of situations, and all have been made and placed to help us. Many other walks leave you to find your own way, we must be grateful for the help we are given on the SUW. Covering such a distance, and different political and administrative regions, it is almost inevitable that there are inconsistencies along the way. The signing varies in several ways; some sections have more signs than are needed, others are missing important turns. The white thistle is seen as the symbol to follow, but many of the signs you need to follow do not carry the thistle. More so in the second half of the route, local/regional councils etc. invite you to follow their signs and symbols for the route (fewer/no thistles here). Problems occur when the “other” signs take you off the SUW route, eg. the yellow arrow usually has to be followed, but it may/may not be SUW. The yellow caps for signposts are an excellent idea, but further along the route you find signs such as electricity warnings are in the same bright yellow. So don’t tramp across a large field, chasing a yellow sign, without some confidence that it is the right kind of sign. SUW signs are found in different colours; blue, green, white. Some signs are fallen, others are hidden by tree branches, some were in easy to miss positions. Sometimes a confirmation sign is found after a turn, but after other turns, there is nothing. Some of the SUW information boards announce alternative routes, but these are not always clear to understand or accurate. This is why we all have to help; if you see a fallen sign, spend a few minutes trying to right it (ensure it points the correct way!). The chances are that one of the signs that has helped you was righted by a walker or runner before you.
Other Notes In the forests, fallen trees sometimes block the route. This must mean an enormous amount of work to clear the way. There are many small bridges over very wet patches, which are of great help. Stiles, gates etc. are mostly safe and working well. Some need replacing due to age, they are weak/broken and potentially dangerous. Others are too narrow for walkers carrying large packs. There are dozens, if not scores of new gates along the route, a fantastic achievement by those who keep the Way passable for us. A new stile or gate is often a good clue that you are on the correct route.
Food and drink I took with me enough powered food for one “meal” a day. Things I took included cup a soup, instant pasta, instant noodles, pepperami sticks. All light and small. For walking, I had glucose tablets, flapjack covered with chocolate, fruit bars, cereal bars, dried apricots. (I carried as much “energy food” as I could.) En route, I bought milk, water, bread, cheese, ham, cooked chicken, scones, oranges. I found shops open at Portpatrick, Castle Kennedy (petrol station), St. John’s Dalry, Sanquhar, Beattock (caravan site), Galashiels (massive Tesco), Lauder, Cockburnspath. I “ate out” on three occasions; Wanlockhead Museum (tea, tomato soup, bread, ice cream…excellent food, good value.) Cafe near St. Mary’s Loch (tea, tuna & cucumber sandwiches, crisps… excellent again, good value.) Glentrool Camping Site ( I bought a frozen meal, and was invited to use their facilities to cook and eat. How nice was that!)
I used chlorine tablets so I was able to drink water from streams. I only took water when I was higher up in the hills. This was a welcome addition to the water I was able to buy. Bearing in mind the very warm weather I enjoyed, I was drinking around five litres a day, sometimes six or seven. I also took electrolyte tablets.
Time Taken I usually walked around nine or ten hours each day, after stops. The longest day was over twelve hours of walking, the last Saturday of the recce. This was not necessarily the longest distance. I tried to have breakfast as soon as I awoke, then an efficient striking of camp and away. I was always walking by nine o’clock, six fifteen was my earliest start. Only on the last Friday and Saturday did I deliberately move briskly, but even on the other days, I always ensured I was walking with some purpose. I am trying to get fit, and did not want the walk to become a stroll. I worked hard on the hills, I had little choice with the weight I was carrying. Any stops during the day were reasonably brief, apart from the Tesco visit. I deliberately left the route just once, at Glentrool. I regretted doing that, because of the difficulty I had rejoining. I left Portpatrick at 18:15 on Friday 18th May, and arrived in Cockburnspath at 10:00 on Monday 28th May.
Equipment & Clothing (In addition to map, compass, lights, cup, plate, mug, tin opener, multi tool, first aid kit, survival bag (not sheet), wetwipes, towel, tooth brush & paste and other things.)
Waist bag … Lowe Alpine Space Case Excellent, considering I used it a “front” pack.
Tent … Vango Zenith 200 . Great tent, fast pitch and versatile. Biggest problem is strength needed to insert poles in receptors.
Sleeping bag … Gelert Xtreme Light 800 Good bag, but only two season. Scotland in May needs something warmer.
Sleep mat … Klymit Static V My first air bed. Quite comfortable, a little narrow. Much better than a foam mat.
Watch … Garmin Fenix 3 HR Amazing. But I can only use about 10% of its capability, I will probably only ever be able to use 20%. The rest is needless “bloat” which makes it more difficult for people like me to master the basics.
Battery pack … Anker 20100 Excellent. If only I could accept that it will charge everything time and time again!
Stove … Jet Boil Flash Excellent. Water boiling before I put the coffee in the cup. (Really.)
Hiking poles … Craghoppers A first for me, but having used them, I ‘m sure they help to climb hills, balance in tricky situations (eg. bogs, sharp descents) and security ( fending off animals and strange people that come too close.)
Shoes .. . Primark & Addidas The Primark shoes would have been fine for the whole walk, but the stoney forest roads were just too sharp and uneven for the thin soles. They dry quickly, have a generous toe box, little drop and are flexible. Perfect for walking with a Morton’s Neuroma. The Addidas trail shoes protected my feet from the forest roads, and gave pretty good grip when needed.
Socks … Armaskin Anti blister socks. Amazing. I began the walk with a foot injury and blisters. A few days before I set off for Scotland, I had to abandon a walk just three miles from the start because the blisters were so painful.I began using these socks when I put the Addidas shoes on. The blisters did not worsen, and over the next part of the walk they actually healed. My feet were in much better condition at the end of the walk than at the beginning.
I took a minimal amount of clothing due to space and weight. The days were unexpectedly warm, some hot. The nights were all cold. I wore every piece of clothing I had at night, and I was still cold.
Other Clothing Pure merino wool long sleeved top, cotton trousers that convert to shorts, merino socks, two pairs of running socks, two pairs boxers, woolly hat, sun hat, fleecy long sleeved rugby jumper, thick cotton tee shirt, scarf, and a thick insulated, waterproof winter cycling jacket. Plus ordinary waterproof & breathable jacket & trousers. I used everything, nothing was surplus. I should have taken an extra top, like a woolly jumper, or another merino base layer, mainly for the night. The only items “laundered” (ie. rinsed in a stream, no soap) during the walk were one pair of boxers and two pairs of socks. This was also the time that I was able to rinse myself with water (no soap). Huggies wet wipes were very good for a “dry wash” each evening.
Would I do it Again? Certainly, but I would reduce the weight I carried, somehow. I would trust the technology more, and I would try not to be so squeamish about paddling through bogs. Even with wet feet I was looking for a dry route through! I would also consider taking my donkey. I think he would enjoy the walk.
The twisted, wretched creature stood motionless, as if frozen by fatigue. Its hollow eyes stared blankly at the track ahead. Barely recognisable as human, it was alone in the darkness, towards the end of a late summer’s night
The pre- dawn dew had transformed the otherwise unremarkable grass of the canal side into a treasure trove of cool, sparkling diamonds, each blade of grass like a leafed emerald, adorned with a precious collection of pearl sized wonders. Jet black slugs, bloated by their nocturnal feasting , slid across the tow path, and into this tiny bejewelled wonderland, back to their day time sanctuary. An occasional plop came from the cold, motionless surface of the canal, as little fish leapt desperately to avoid being breakfasted by larger friends. No other sounds were heard, save the crumpling collapse of the form, a quiet thud, and the resigned, muffled whisper ” Oh dear, not again.”
Just a few miles left, and the wheels, one by one, had fallen off the wagon. TheCherokees were upon me, and I was not singing a happy song. How long would I take to slither my way back to my sanctuary?
The Robin Hood 100 had begun well for me, Race Director Ronnie Staton had, as always, ensured everything and everyone was in place for his runners. His philosophy nicely encapsulated in a phrase from his up beat race briefing; ‘I have done everything in my power to help you all finish this event.” This included several layers of direction marking, with measures to ensure signs would remain in place throughout the race. Some say Ronnie had positioned snipers at known hot spots. Almost all signs did stay in place, though no bodies were ever found, despite the searches. All around the course runners were fed, watered and encouraged on, by Ronnie’s wonderful Hobo Pace Team of volunteers.
After the first few miles of field margins and farm tracks, with the occasional muddy spot for those who like that sort of thing, we joined the pretty Chesterfield Canal. The tow path offered a range of running surfaces, from track smooth tarmac, to Gardeners’ Question Time problem turf. But as Ronnie had promised, it was all very runnable.
My loose race strategy was to keep things steady for the first half of the race and then judge whether I would be running for a time or a finish. I walked every incline, and limited my pace to the gentle side. Without a running watch, I had dispensed with the problem of trying to maintain a set speed, and the subsequent hammer blow of failure when the pace drops below the target.
Running comfortably, I was soon in Clumber Park, looking forward to the 30 mile Sherwood, Welbeck, Cresswell Crags loop. The forest tracks are delightful, and I was more than happy to be running these for the next sixty miles or so.
My friend Maggie would be at the Cresswell Crags CP for the night shift, but I arrived a little early, so we would meet on the second loop, thirty miles later.
I met up with Mark at the Crags. It was good to welcome him to my neck of the woods, in the same way that he and many other friendly GB Ultras runners had welcomed me to the Dales earlier this year.
In my short running career, almost all of my races have been organised by Ronnie (Hobo Pace) or Wayne (GB Ultras). They are both legends, organising excellent, fairly priced events for fellow runners.
Mark sped away over the the next few miles to the Drop Bag CP . There, I heard the Heavenly words ” Malcolm, would you like a bacon butty?” It was Emma, who just a few weeks earlier had run GB Ultras’ 200 mile race across England. We knew of each other but had not actually met. The beneficial effect of the butty almost rivalled the boost I got from Emma’s kind words and encouragement.
This point was a little way over half the distance covered, and I still felt fine. But a few miles later, I made a mistake that would change the rest of my race.
Not a great fan, but aware of its potency,, I’d drunk no coffee for a couple of weeks prior to the race, hoping the medium strength drink in my flask would give me a caffeine kick when I needed it. Well it did, and I was rattling along like a thing possessed into the next CP, where I foolishly downed another dose of the demon liquid with the all urgency of an Apple shopper on new product release day. I knew I was playing with forces as dark as the Devilish brew itself.
This one was much stronger, as requested. It was like drinking partially diluted pitch. Shaking, I placed the empty vessel carefully back on the altar, next to the jellified babies, and grimaced at the priestess. I uttered the secret words, “Thanks love,” took three paces backwards, bowed, and retreated from this place into the safety of the darkening forest.
Only ten minutes later I began to reap the rewards of my visit to the dark side.. Summoned by the demon drink, my old friend G.I. Distress made an unwelcome appearance. I knew I was in trouble. I had to make frequent stops, many of them. Discomfort and despair were my new running partners, to the end of the race.
I was still trying to deal with the situation when I hit Cresswell Crags for the second time. Or rather, the Crags hit me.
Towards the bottom of the steep, narrow path that leads into the Crags, there is a home-made stone stile that I have successfully negotiated dozens of times. Tonight, after eighty odd miles, and with my hand on my stomach and my mind on a cure, I went crashing over said stile, landing heavily on the rocky track, twisting my body and knocking my head. In my dazed state, I could see a light. My head light, which had managed to entangle itself in a bush. I picked myself up, checked for damage and retrieved my light. I thought I had been lucky.
I met up with Maggie,at the CP and we greeted and chatted like old friends. But all too quickly I had to move on, hopeful that I would be able to recover some of the time I had lost.
Ten minutes out, it was clear that I would be working for a finish, rather than a time. My side and my back were hurting from the fall, and I was weakening due to the sickness and g.i. problems. At first, I was able to keep more or less upright by bracing my hands against my thighs, as if I was climbing a steep hill. But inevitably, my arms weakened, and my back bent forwards.
I struggled on through the forest and back to the canal.
With just nine miles to go I had the first of many, many falls, as I tried unsuccessfully, to maintain forward progress. I was tired and weak, and simply unable to stand upright. Because I was leaning at ninety degrees, I was unbalanced, so I was constantly staggering forwards and falling to the ground. My head was taking further knocks on some of my poorer landings. I was increasingly disorientated, the Ultra Crazies were rocking into full swing,
I had to get through the final CP without being pulled as unfit to continue. I could do nothing about my physical state, and. to make matters worse, my neck was now refusing to lift my head enough to allow me to see where I was going , as opposed to where I had been. I was spending too much time looking between my legs to be decent.
I had no wheels on my wagon, but I was determined to keep rolling along. Somehow.
I had memorised my name and race number for the CP, but when asked, I freely confesssed that I had been down a “few times.” I noticed some busy texting at the table, so I knew it was time to go. I hurried off at a rapid stagger over the bridge and around the corner and out of sight. Made it! Just three miles to go.
The progress continued much as before; step, step, stagger, fall. Enjoy the grass, come to my senses, raise bum in the air by drawing knees towards chin…I felt like I was rehearsing for a part in The Human Centipede… elbows underneath shoulders, push up, climb alternate hands up to knees, and proceed for a few more steps.
I prefer not to think about how long the last three miles took to complete.
With a few hundred yards to the finish, Matt caught me and offered assistance. His run had not gone to plan, and he was happy to help me stagger on. We had not met before, but within minutes he was chatting away and I was mumbling nonsense back quite happily. Matt ‘s support was magnificent. What a sportsman!
Even closer to the finish, and Wendy appeared through the early morning mist with James, who kindly relieved Matt of his burden.
We all walked together, down the short hill into South Wheatley and the finish.
Team Work …
Throughout the event, an army of wonderful people helped and encouraged every runner. Members of the public generously clapped and made way for us, to be rewarded with a friendly word or grimace. No matter what role you played in this great event, thank you.
… and family.
James, normally a lunch time riser, left his bed before dawn to come out to support me.
Loveday set out alone in the middle of the night to give me a shout and a milk shake. A teenaged new driver, she lost her way on the country lanes, and ended up in central Sheffield (about thirty miles away). She then had a perilous journey home on the motorway, dodging drunks, and following Wendy’s directions over the phone.
Loveday Looking Luvverly !
Wendy spent the whole year feeding, supporting and encouraging me. She told me to rest when I needed to, and sent me out training to do the miles I had to cover.
Wendy, and both Loveday and James have put up with my absences from home, my post run tiredness and miseries, and my endless running related chatter. Oh, and my wash bins full of sweaty running clothes.
Me? I just go out running.
The morsel of pride I treasure from this wonderful event is this; even when I was flat out on the grass, when everything inside and out was hurting, when the shadowy figure that was by my side for the last few hours disappeared each time I turned to look at him; I had not a single, nano second of doubt about continuing. I was prepared to crawl to South Wheatley if necessary.
Although failure may deny us our target in the race, it cannot deprive us of the pleasure of our striving, and the achievement that is our journey. No matter how long, how difficult and how painful the journey may be, we succeed by facing head on, the challenges we encounter along the way.
To set my story of this event in context, I first need to spend a moment or two back in the days of my youth long, long ago, when Mars Bars were a satisfying snack, milk shakes contained milk and you never gave a policeman any chelp.
I first saw the Swiss Alps from twenty -odd thousand feet in the early seventies, on a plane bound for Italy. I looked down at the meringuey peaks, scattered with thin whispy cloud, and promised myself that one day, I would explore this landscape at ground level .
I experienced similar feelings forty years later, standing in a car park in the Yorkshire Dales, admiring the hills all around me, but not knowing how to explore and experience them safely, away from the road. There were too many stories of ill-prepared and inexperienced people coming to grief in the wilderness for me to wander off , so I returned to the safety of the car and drove on, acutely aware that I was missing something good.
I saw the Alps as a teenager, and was at once drawn to them. I satisfied this need over the next few years by cycling many of the epic passes, sometimes riding between huge banks of snow as I neared the pass summits. The magnitude of the Alps meant that I was able to enjoy my wander-lust on two wheels. I knew I would never be a mountaineer and quite simply, would have been afraid to stray far away from the relative safety of the road. But there were road climbs that could last half a day, and each one was a whole world of experience the best of which, possibly, is available only to those enjoying such places under their own steam.
Thirty years or so later, my instincts took me to the trails when I started running, and although I use the lanes around home to do basic mileage, almost all of my longer runs are off road. In Lincolnshire, road runs often mean a flat straight road, on a flat, straight landscape.
When I saw Wayne Drinkwater’s post about a “recce run” for the GB Ultras Pennine Barrier 50, I replied immediately, with questions that would have made any hill runner smile. I did not have a clue; shoes, clothing, food and drink? Wayne answered my questions with kindness, and encouraged me to have a go. I took part in the recce, met a wonderful group of runners (whom I’m now proud to call friends), and having been guided through the basics, here I am a little while later, writing about the fifty mile race in the Yorkshire Dales.
This being my second race in my second season, I felt the need to develop my skills and knowledge. So I went all scientific. I researched calories, hydration, salt, carbohydrate, and about a hundred other things that would surely help me to get the best out of myself on race day. I read, noted, calculated, and eventually devised a dietary and nutritional master plan for the race.
So race morning saw me devouring a breakfast that would have fazed Desperate Dan; four eggs, two large salami and cheese sandwiches, a litre of chocolate milk shake, a bucketful of cereals, a huge blackberry and apple pie, plus bars of chocolate and any other “essentials” I happened to find, including one of many tins of rice pudding. On arriving in Malham and waiting to start, another tin of rice pud was downed, together with a tin of peaches in syrrup, just for good measure. So I was ready… to burst.
Despite the mountain of food I had forced down during the early morning, I still felt the need to follow “The Plan”, so I squeezed pots of rice pudding and peaches, delicious fruit cake, fruit & sponge bars, a banana for good measure, and some caffeine tablets into my race vest. My drink bottles held a special concoction, which those of a sensitive nature may want to skip over; water (well that’s not very radical Malcolm), energy/electrolyte tablet (still normal), multi vitamin tablet (really?), lemon juice (erm…), caffeine tablet (no, stop), a good spoonful of health salts (omg. pass me the bowl!) This was my secret weapon. I would not merely fire this weapon into the Pacific Ocean, or as a futile gesture, over the heads of another country. No, this stuff was headed straight for the heart of the Yorkshire Dales; The Three Peaks of Pen y ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough. All three would succumb to this vile potion. I would fly up them all.
Well that was the plan. On race day, the forecast was sunny and hot, but Malham was cold and miserable at dawn. Even the midges that were pestering us were shivering. I dispensed with the sun hat and other hot weather gear, and started the run dressed and equipped for misty murk. Up Malham Cove and the next few miles over Ings Fell, this seemed to be the right decision. Shrouded in mist, the hills were chilly and haunting, with runners briefly appearing as distant ghosts, and then fading back into the gloom. One or two voices could be heard occasionally, but where were they from?
Predictably, my digestive system did not appreciate the early morning overloading, followed by running and walking up the hills, and I soon began to suffer “symptoms”. Not nice. I could face no more food, and ate nothing for the next thirty miles or so. The sun appeared as advertised, and baked us all. At CP2 Debra, a wonderful lady, plastered me with sun lotion as I tried, and failed, to come to terms with my energy filled goody bag that was begging to be devoured.
Pen y ghent had been negotiated through the early morning coolness, but Whernside was going to be hot, hot, hot. And it was. Even the long plod to the summit did not clear my digestion problems, and the barrow load of breakfast just sat there in my stomach, threatening to re-emerge at any time, weighing me down, but somehow providing me with little energy for the run.
Descending Whernside, carefully hopping from one boulder to another with all the finesse of an arthritic elephant, I found Ian, who was running the 100 mile version of the event…that’s two laps of the Three Peaks and two returns from Malham, the second lap in the dark! We shared a refreshing drink at the barn just before the beginnings of Ingleborough. Ian could see I was struggling, he could also see that I was carrying enough food for an elephant’s lunch box. Following his advice, I reluctantly binned my carefully measured pots of peaches and rice pud. I dried my tears, and set off again, in the stifling heat.
Massively lightened, I ascended Ingleborough in my usual manner; breathing like a fog horn, on all fours in places, and light headed with the altitude ( a hump-backed bridge is a climb where I’m from.) I managed the little detour along The Ridge, part way up, and was then able to summit Ingleborough in one piece. The descent was good, no falls and I was allowing gravity to help me a little. At the CP before Horton in Ribblesdale I found Lainey’s son Kian, managing the station like a veteran. (I originally wrote “vet” here, but feared somebody might misunderstand; ” OK everyone, Bob Martins and Winalot over here. Anyone need worming?”) Adam had gone to collect more water, and so we had to go without his special afternoon tea! This was a blow, we were looking forward to sugar lumps, embroidered napkins and a nice drop of Earl Grey, together with Adam’s wonderful humour and wit. But there was enough food and drink for all the runners, and I braved a couple of nibbles. But nowhere near enough for the remaining climbs and miles.
I continued the descent into Horton quite well, but we still faced climbing half way up Pen y ghent from Horton, then to turn right and head for Malham and home. This should not have been a problem but suddenly, everything seemed to hit me at once; not eating, my stomach, nausea, the heat, and the miles and climbs already in my legs. I just came to a standstill, and lost the ability to make any meaningful progress. The last CP was only about a mile away, but the climbing had to be done first. I absolutely had to retire once/if I reached the CP.
Then along came Lainey. She would have none of it, “Of course you’re going to finish!” She fed me glucose tablets, and together with the lovely ladies at the final CP, filled me with food and drink that would fuel me to the finish. There was a price to pay for this though. Descending Whernside, Ian had urged me to jettison my rice pud and peaches, which I did. Secretly, I had carefully concealed my M&S fruit cake, even though I could not face eating it. But I couldn’t get this past Lainey, who conducted a full forensic search of my race vest pockets, donating anything that was still good to the food table, and disposing of the rest. Off went the cake to runners who would appreciate it, and I was further lightened for the final push for home.
Lainey and I set off for Ings Fell and the last few, relatively easy, miles to the finish. She encouraged me and checked I was still moving. Later, when the food began to work into my system, she also checked my speed, telling me to run at a steady pace, rather than fast bursts followed by slowing and more exhaustion. It worked.
Just before Janet’s Foss, the very pretty finale to the course, before the paved run in to Malham, Lainey’s friend Ian caught us up, and shepherded us to the finish. He was superb; encouraging, and gently coaxing us onwards.
At the finish, I insisted Lainey, having sacrificed her run for me, should go in front of me. She refused, so we crossed the line like a pair of school kids, trying to push each other over. When we sat down, Ian appeared with very welcome drinks for the three of us. A fun finish to an amazing event.
Wayne had organised two “all welcome” recce runs, that covered the whole course. He even led a steady run around the start and finish sections the night before the race. The course was magnificent, as were the support and organisation. On each of the recce runs, I had met a number of great people who were running in the event, and a big part of the enjoyment for me was the exchanging of good wishes before, during and after the race. It’s impossible to mention everyone, but some other memories that stand out include; Lisa and Louise doing planks at the top of each peak. Denise and Tara, looking so happy enroute to Malham Tarn. Robert and Mark working together like clockwork. Emma, disappearing up and over the climbs like she was rocket powered. Carolyn, with a lovely smile and wave on Ingleborough, and Wayne, encouraging and photographing runners fast and slow on the course.
Al of this made me feel more “at home” and amongst friends, and less alone than I would otherwise have done.
So, great memories, aching legs, a deeper sun tan and a fantastic medal were all taken back home to Lincolnshire that evening. But alas, no rice pud, cake, or peaches. The GB Ultras Pennine Barrier 50 was an event and a half, worth the many training runs I had put in on the course, and well worth the effort on the day.
But most of all, the day was made by the people involved; the amazing helpers, the caring organisers and the brave runners. Without fail, all involved in the event were dedicated, friendly and encouraging to everyone. Even an Ancient Briton from the Flatlands.
Most hot blooded men (and women) are quite happy to devour a good fry up, especially first thing in the morning. It sets you up for the day; after a good dose of egg, bacon and a selection of other fried delights, you are ready for anything. So they say.
It is now 06:30, I’ve had my fry up, and my cereals, and my toast and jam, and I’ve packed myself up with all the nutrients, goodies and drinks I should need to run a steady thirty mile loop around the forest. Very loosely, the middle section of the Dukeries 40 route, so lots of forest tracks and quiet country roads. The weather is due to be bright and warm (25 degrees), with light winds and no rain. I dress accordingly, fill up water bottles and reservoir (total 2.5 litres), and head off to Clumber Park.
This is one of my regular routes, and I was running before 07:30. A beautiful morning, the forest was quiet, just the distant hum of the A614; lorries and commuters battling it out for space and superiority, and the prize of being first in the queue to get into Nottingham. I felt thankful to be retired, and out of that race. I no longer care about the size of my car, my tax band or my position. I live a relatively modest existence, waste very little, and try to achieve my own ambitions, which at the moment centre around running.
Running, running, running. Very little else really, and that is how I have always been. I had 25 years of cycling, cycling cycling. Then 12 years of horses, horses, horses. And now, running.
OCD is not necessarily a huge problem, it is my drive to do the things I want to do. There are downsides of course. Did I lock the door? I did not say the words “It is locked” as I locked it, so I may not have locked it. Even though I know I locked it, I did not authenticate the action with the magic words. I don’t have the password to freedom; those few words that must be spoken before I may go about my day. I have to go back to check. Of course, it is locked, but I now have the feeling of safety, the confirmation and reassurance that all is well. So I have learned even more deeply to doubt myself, because it is only through checking that I can get the high of self assurance. I now know, without any doubt. I am safe. I can move on. Because I went back and checked. Sometimes, I have to check twice, which makes me doubly sure….
But the upside of OCD is the relentless, almost ruthless quest for the grail, the all consuming deployment of time and energy in pursuit of the desired outcome. It is not a physical entity that I seek, rather a state of being, where I arrive at the destination knowing I have finally met and overcome the challenges of the journey. As a young man, I needed to become a “good bike rider”. Twenty five years later, I was satisfied, and retired from bike racing on the spot (nothing to do with my 40th birthday!)
With the horses, I never did become a “good rider”, though Wendy and I had some happy and some exciting times, and were able to fund the hobby by producing trained youngsters for the leisure market over twelve years or so. I was considered to be a “brave” rider, which in reality means that I would take on horses, jumps and rides beyond my ability, with the inevitable consequences. I did not see falling off horses as failure, it was merely a (sometimes) painful part of riding. The exceptions to this were falls I had when blood hounding. This wonderful sport is similar to fox hunting, but we chase a runner instead, who is licked to death when the hounds catch him. At these points in the day, as well as at the beginning of the meet, we would have quantities of port or sherry, or anything similar. Alcohol, a wonderful anaesthetic. I rarely felt pain on a Sunday afternoon, after being deposited on a muddy field by a naughty horse.
I don’t have twenty five years to become a “good runner”, so my obsession has to be more acute, more focussed. Each day, I am fighting the effects of advancing age. That’s no problem when you are thirty, but it is when you are sixty odd. Or maybe, sixty and odd? I feel the need to be a “super vet” as we used to call the seventy and eighty year old cyclists, who were achieving near miracles week in week out in races up and down the country.
My early start caught the ducks enjoying bath time. Preparing themselves for the day ahead, they scarcely gave me a second look as I approached, phone in hand.
It felt quite strange, trotting steadily along the tracks that only a couple of weeks earlier had been the Dukeries race route. It was nice to relax, to ignore the watch, to stop for photos whenever I saw a view that I wanted to capture. The miles skipped by, and although warm, it was still the early part of the day. Much of the run is shaded by the trees, leading me to misjudge just how warm it was becoming. I had plenty of water and electrolyte drinks, but I wasn’t drinking much.
There is more evidence of forest management today, and I had seen some of this work being done over the winter. An area that had been colonised by rhododendrons was being cleared, with much of the beautiful flowering creeper destroyed. I was puzzled at the time. Today, I saw the reason. The rhododendrons had been reduced to a few small samples, but the rest of the area was now opened up, and scattered with a wide variety of seedlings and shrubs. Rhododendrons once dominated Clumber Park and some of the forest. They are still abundant, but work like this is making the place better for other plants, the animals and us.
At fifteen miles I was beginning to flag. I had done some long runs this week, including two days in the Yorkshire Dales. It was hot, and getting hotter. I steadied my pace, and ate fruitcake. The large solar farm at Hazel Gap did not help things, I was trying to think shade and cool, all I could see was sun and solar.
The lakes in Welbeck twinkled in the sunshine but alas, they did nothing to cool me. Norton, a lovely little village offered me no chance of an ice cream and so I jogged on, walk some jog some, admire the scenery.
Strangely, I was not touching the near two litres of drink I was still carrying. I was fixed on the idea that I needed to save this for “later”. But my need was imminent, and I could not see this.
Through Norton, along a now overgrown footpath – what a couple of days’ rain does to the countryside, this path was clear just two or three weeks earlier – and into Welbeck. More welcome shade from the sun, and around eighteen miles covered, slowly.
Just before leaving Welbeck, you see the Lady Margaret Hall and tennis courts on the right hand side of the road. My Dad took his dance band here regularly in the fifties and sixties, when songs had words that grown ups could understand, and musicians played music on musical instruments, not computers. His band, The Carlton Players, looked immaculate in dicky bows and black suits. There are just three members of the band left now Dad, Johnny the drummer and Barry, the pianist. All still friends from the 1950s.
Across the Worksop road, and into Holbeck. The road rises only slightly, but after twenty miles in the heat it became a walk. And then a stop. To admire and photograph the very impressive, well kept church and grounds.
Along a footpath, across a couple of fields, up a rise, then drop into ancient Cresswell Crags. This is where our ancestors would camp in the caves twice a year to hunt reindeer as the herds squeezed through the gorge on their migration north and south. Easy targets, but rather them than me, armed just with sticks and stones.
The visitor centre is excellent, and even more excellent is the cafe. A pot of tea, glasses of water, an ice lolly and a good helping of air conditioning , together with twenty minutes in a seat worked wonders. I left the place a much happier cave man.
And back across the Worksop road, into Welbeck once again, climbing through the woods back towards Clumber. As I walked and jogged I tried to work out why I had struggled so much today, on what is quite a regular run for me. The heat was stifling, and I had spent many hours running over the last week, but I could get no further than that. These thoughts were circling in my head, but I could not draw a conclusion, I could find no answer. I was otherwise content, admiring the views, snapping what I thought would be worthwhile photos, and generally enjoying the day.
On one of the slopes, I finished off the fruit cake and had a small drink. I then reached for more food, and was amazed at what had happened to the lovely bright yellow banana I had loaded into my pocket this morning. It seems bananas, running and heat do not mix well;
A couple of miles later and I was in Clumber Park again, enjoying the shade on Limetree Avenue, and what an avenue it is. It goes on forever when you are tired, but even then you cannot help but to be impressed by this spectacle. Over the years that I lived nearby, I sometimes seemed to take the park and the forest for granted. But then we moved, and it was only when I returned to the area some years later that I began to fully appreciate the beauty of the place.
The end of Limetree Avenue marked the end of my run. Just a short walk up the slope and to Apley Head gate house and then rest.
So why did I fade? I could not find the (obvious) answer until some time after the run. And then I laughed at myself. When I arrived at Cresswell Crags, I had done twenty two miles on a hot day, after a hard week. I had drunk no more than 600ml of water. Blindingly obvious now, but at the time I did not realise that I had become dehydrated. After the stop, I drank freely, knowing there were only eight miles left to cover. But before the stop, I had been worried about running out of drink, and had limited myself to small sips. Basic, novice mistake, but another lesson learned; if you don’t want to fry in the forest on a hot day, drink lots. I took plenty of water to get me around the whole route, but I failed to use it. I saved it instead, and suffered the consequences.
I remembered the Dukeries race from last year, it had been my first race, my first ultra, and my first disappointment. I had done everything wrong; over trained for several months, under prepared, started with an injury and finished with a worse injury, which stopped me from running for weeks afterwards. Despite this, I did enjoy the 2016 event; beautiful course, friendly runners, excellent organisation by RD Ronnie Staton, and superb helpers and marshalls. I was to blame for the mess I made of my actual run.
But this year was very different. I was fit and rested rather than exhausted, well prepared and injury free. The Dukeries course is beautiful, based largely on a thirty mile loop that includes Sherwood Forest, Welbeck Estate and Clumber Park. From last autumn, I trained on the loop most weeks ( it forms a good part of the Robin Hood 100 course), and so I was very familiar with it. This was a real help, knowing where the harder stretches are, the exact location of Aid Stations and the likely effects of any wind or wild weather.
At the start area, there was a great atmosphere, as canicross runners and their dogs chatted and barked at each other, whilst other runners took advantage of the last few minutes to make adjustments and changes. Up the narrow lane we went, most runners in conversation, friends and helpers cheering and clapping. A friendly, relaxed start to a very enjoyable day.
The ground was nicely dry, so no mud or puddles or swamps to negotiate. My new road shoes (Karrimor, £20) had seen a few miles of road and trail, and looked as though they may survive this run and perhaps one or two more. In contrast, my Salomon XA Pro 3D Trail shoes (a lot more than £20), had recently expired after just a few short weeks of training in the forest. Uppers on both shoes torn and falling apart. Milletts customer services people were excellent, more than I can say about the shoes. I am still searching for affordable shoes that actually work and last more than three or four weeks. I’m not impressed by the pseudo techno babble descriptions of the shoes’ design and theoretical performance potential, will they actually do the job and last more than a handful of runs?
We were soon safely across the main road and into the forest. I did not know the course last year, and I remembered this first mile or two in the trees seeming to be slightly up hill and going on and on forever. This year I felt fine, keeping up with other runners without much effort, rather than sliding backwards in a breathless heap. This was my happy story for the first few miles. Aid Station 1 was reached at six miles, and we received a welcome fit for heroes. I have read many blogs where the writer regretted spending too much time at aid stations, so I was cheerful, grateful and polite, but took a drink and a nibble and got back to the job quickly. Merely knowing which way to exit the station made a difference, it affects how much control you seem to have over your race, how much confidence you dare have.
I was delighted to see the Major Oak (mile 10), having missed it last year, blinded as I was in a fog of pain. I remember the sorry looking, battered old tree from my childhood in the sixties. We would climb on and into the tree as we roamed the unspoilt forest, free of signs telling people what they cannot do, and where they cannot go. There were no constructed paths, hardly any fences, just worn grass and soil tracks that you needed to know in order to find your way.
Many visitors stayed quite close to the ice cream van and the AA box at Ollerton Corner, the place where my Dad was based in the early sixties, during his time as an AA patrol man. There was a miniature railway there, which would run on the occasional Sunday summer afternoon, to the delight of its passengers young and old.
Sixty years or more before those times, the late 1800s /early 1900s, my paternal Grandma was skipping through the forest with her brothers and sisters each day on their two mile journey to school in Edwinstowe. Her father was a woodsman, and they lived deep in the forest. When I run the trails in the late evenings, I sometimes catch a glimpse through the mist of them playing and running amongst the trees, on their way home from school. I hear their chatter amidst the sounds of the forest, and feel the warmth of their contentment with their long gone world.
After the ten mile loop through Sherwood, we return to the first Aid Station for quick drinks and a second dip into the biccies at mile sixteen, and a bonus “Well done” sticker (this was wonderful), then head towards Welbeck and Cresswell Crags. There are two or three miles of minor roads before the Crags and Aid Station 3, where I always run on the rough grass of the roadside. It is strewn with car debris, litter and rabbit holes. I find it hard work, but my idea is along the lines of “train hard,race easy”. After dozens of runs along the bumpy roadside, the smooth road felt very easy, and what was always a difficult section of the course was suddenly a delight. Spirits uplifted, I tackled the rise after High Holbeck (“rise” demoted from”hill” after my experiences in the Dales), without too much difficulty, and dropped down into the Crags and Aid Station 3 (23 miles). Another wonderful welcome, and then on towards Clumber.
The three mile stretch before Clumber is, I think, the fastest on the entire course. Largely on beautifully cushioned ground, the trail is straight and flat, and sheltered by the trees. My fastest and second fastest miles were recorded along this section on Saturday. But this is where I made a mistake. I felt good, was going well, and so I continued my push to the finish from here. But there were still thirteen miles to go, and inevitably, I eventually began to fade.
The final Aid Station was at 34 miles, another wonderful reception, and just six miles left, but I was struggling. I was trying to concentrate on good form, steady, continuous, consistent pace. I kept going, but it was difficult. I met up with Greg with two or three miles to go. We were both tired, and helped each other by chatting and encouraging, and we crossed the line together, both happy.
Happy to see the finish line.
My pre-race plan was to run steadily for thirty to thirty five miles, and then to use what energy I had left to cover the last few miles as quickly as possible. I did not want to go steady all the way, it would have been pointless entering the race. But equally, with a hundred mile race on the horizon, I did need to finish this forty mile run with some confidence. I went home quite happy, but slightly frustrated that I had increased speed too early, after being well controlled for so many miles before this point. Lesson learned, hopefully.
The day after the race, I received the results by email. Last year, (2016) my time was 8:44:01 (78th place, 92 starters). This year, I managed 6:49:08 (30th place, 111 starters).
A new year brings new hope, optimism and energy. I did not make any resolutions for 2017, I was happy with how my running was progressing, and not really looking for any big changes. I had trained consistently through the first part of the winter, especially enjoying some of the lovely winter views in Clumber Park and Sherwood Forest.
Clumber Park Bridge
I love the wildlife that abounds in these places, squirrels by the score, foxes, birds hopping about in the trees and the bushes, everyone busy with feeding. One morning I came almost nose to nose with a beautiful little deer. I was running along a forest track, when I had reason to stop for a moment. I looked to my left, and realised I had almost bumped in to the pretty little creature. Just off the track, the deer stood still, rigid, staring at me. It did not appear to be frightened. I think like me, it was shocked, frozen by this intimate encounter. I could almost touch it. We stared at each other for a few moments, and then I continued with my run, not wanting to confuse the lovely creature any more than I already had done.
I was running regularly in the forest, and beginning to learn some basic trail running skills; when to jump over obstacles and when to steer around them, which surfaces are likely to be slippery and when to slow down and when to continue the current pace.
On a cold morning, I learned one lesson the hard way. Running down from Hardwick Village towards the lovely ford across the River Poulter, there were half a dozen molehills amongst the frozen grass. The frozen grass; there is the clue, which I ignored. I knew the air temperature was below zero, there was a thick frost covering the ground, and my car thermometer had been registering minus two degrees just a few minutes earlier. I admired the winter scene as I ran, and although I was aware of them, I ignored the molehills as I took in the beauty of the morning sun beaming through the scattered clouds. And then I was flying through the chilled air.
As I picked myself up from the frozen grass, I checked the damage to my arms and legs, and was satisfied that I was able to continue. The molehills were, of course frozen, solid. I may as well have run into a collection of heavy rocks, which moved not an inch when my size tens came crashing into them. I noted my mistake, but this was a theme that was to haunt me for months to come.
I did not enter any early season races, learning my lesson from last year. I trained regularly, using the pattern; two road runs of seven miles each, a longer forest run of 20 or 30 miles, one day rest, and then repeat. This plan was getting me fitter, and I was staying sound, free of injury. I varied this with a four day visit to my Dad’s every three or four weeks, where I ran nine miles alongside the Lancaster Canal, and eight miles along Morecambe prom to Heysham and back, on alternate days. With occasional short runs with Wendy, I was enjoying a sensible diet of running and some relaxation.
Before the lighter nights came, I was able to take part in a few night runs with the Lincolnshire Wolds Head Torchers. I organised an informal night run in Clumber Park, which was attended by a lovely group of people from Kimberworth, Sleaford, Scunthorpe and other Lincolnshire towns and villages. When planning the route for this run, I fell several times, sometimes getting caught up with twigs and fallen branches, but more often tripping on exposed roots and protruding stones and boulders. I escaped serious injury, but I knew I had to learn not to fall. Vertical is much more comfortable than horizontal when running, especially on hard ground.
My plan for the 2107 season was modest in terms of the number of races I planned to compete, I would run the Dukeries 40 in May, and the Robin Hood 100 in September, both races based in the forest, and organised by Ronnie Staton. That was the plan.
Somewhere, some time in the spring, I came across a race that caught my attention, The Pennine Barrier 50, planned for June. I was drawn to this partly by the offer of a reconnaissance run (“recce”), where organiser Wayne Drinkwater would lead runners around the main part of the course, the three peaks of Pen- y- ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough. In terms of finding my way, this would be better than any map. Pen- y -ghent, with Horton in Ribblesdale in the foreground.
The recce could not be missed, I had driven through the Dales countless times, and cycled toured the area on a number of occasions. But I knew that on foot across the hills, I would see sights not seen from the road.
The recce day was sublime; a lovely group of people, amazing scenery and incredible weather. It was that good, really. We ran steadily most of the day, with a couple of stops for food and rest. Wayne is an amazing runner yet a modest gent, and ensured everyone kept up, gently encouraging without patronising.
What a lovely group of people!
The three climbs were outrageous, especially Ingleborough, where I was frightened to look down, in case I ended up down, if you see what I mean. I did end up horizontal a couple of times, but without real injury. I must learn to pick up my feet when running off road.
Up close and personal on Ingleborough
Being a beautiful day, the best of the year so far, the track was busy with families, groups, couples and individuals, all enjoying the outdoors in their own way.
Post Pen-y-ghent Picnic
So out of the blue, I needed to practise ascents, instead of using them as convenient feeding/resting sessions. My loops around Sherwood and Clumber would never be the same again; I had suddenly discovered the two “big hills”, just before and a mile or two after Cresswell Crags were not actually hills at all. They did not require scrambling techniques, careful pacing and a complete absence of anything like vertigo to climb them. The weather was not colder and windier at the top, and you could not see the sea. They were small undulations, nothing more. At least that’s what I told myself on my next visit to the forest. But until I lose another stone in weight, I won’t be totally convinced.
The one event that transformed my running this year, was Ronnie’s “Train Like a Champion” course, focussing on injury prevention (did I need this!), but also spending some time on running technique, or as runners call it, form. How to run.
It turned out all my “common sense” ideas about running efficiency were just about as wrong as they could be. Ronnie was often telling us to do the exact opposite to what I had been doing. Ronnie coaches individuals, and tours the country with his one day course, it is modestly priced, but highly valuable to someone like me; overly enthusiastic and under experienced. My running changed, literally overnight. Months later, I am still practising the techniques Ronnie taught us, they are not yet a natural part of my running, and I have to concentrate to incorporate as many as possible as I run. But I quickly saw the benefits; faster pace, better endurance and no more running injuries. As of now, (May 2017) I am enjoying my longest ever period of injury – free running. Thanks Ronnie.
What Happened to my running and the blog? The last post of the Lincsrunner blog (Post 12), was published in May 2016. It is now May 2017, what happened to the rest of 2016, and the first half of 2017?
Well sad to say, 2016 was largely disillusion, some measure of depression, and the dreadful feeling of banging your head against a brick wall; you’re glad when it stops. So I did. I didn’t stop running, I just stopped writing about my experiences. Doing so would have made things worse for me. I did not want to re-live the horrid frustration I was feeling at that time. Now, in May 2017, I can look back with the safety and detachment that only time can afford us. When I think of the mistakes I made, I cringe. My motives were fine, but my methods were at best mistaken, at worst suicidal in terms of becoming a runner. For much of 2016, I was trapped in a cycle of repeated injury and illness, most of it self-inflicted. Over- training on a sometimes ludicrous scale, and suffering the inevitable consequences of injury, chronic fatigue and poor form.
I had trained quite hard through the winter of 2015, hoping for a rewarding first season of running in 2016. I knew what I wanted to do; ultra runs, anything of a distance or nature that would in itself be a challenge for me. Like most runners, I wanted to push myself, to see what I could do. I entered many races, probably too many, but I was enthusiastic, and very naive. In the early spring of 2016, the first couple of races came and went with me sitting at home – DNS. I was either nursing a running injury or a cold, or a bad chest. Then in May, along came a good local race, the Dukeries 40, which I was determined to start. Two weeks out, and all was well. I was sound, my chest was clear, and I was looking forward to my first proper race. Five days before the big day, my right calf muscle tied itself in knots, due to over training, and I could barely walk. But I was determined to start the Dukeries race, and I did. My first ultra.
I almost managed to run at the start of the race, I may even have fooled the casual observer, but it would have been fairly clear to any runner that there was a problem. Six miles in, Aid Station 1, and my calf was worse than ever. Stupidly, I chose to hobble around the remaining 34 miles, thinking I was being brave and gutsy. I finished the race, but it was not my finest hour. No surprise that the calf muscle then took weeks to heal. No training, just eating rubbish and putting weight back on, losing whatever form I had, and feeling sorry for myself and angry at myself, in equal measures.
Then came the summer, and I was running again. My relentlessly optimistic mind worked out that if I could run 40 miles when injured, I should be able to run double that distance when sound. So I found myself entered for the Grim Reaper 70 mile, held at the end of July. I completed the run, in reasonable condition. But against the odds. Once again a calf injury had emerged just a few days before the race. I was away from home, and phoned Wendy to ask her to order some compression socks on next day delivery. A runner in the Dukeries 40 had recommended them to me, and I remembered her advice. The socks were amazing, and I finished the 70 without injury. I could hardly move any part of my weary body, but I wasn’t injured. I did curse the socks when I was trying to remove them from my legs, before sliding into my tent for a short sleep after the race. I could not bend, and I could not climb on to my sleeping bag with my muddy, wet clothes. I wrestled with the socks for a good twenty minutes, almost crying with frustration. Finally, they came off, and I had an hour of rest before having to pack the tent and gear for the drive home.
The Grim Reaper is a good event for a novice ultra runner, with distances of 40, 70 or 100 miles. It’s held on a ten mile circuit in the beautiful grounds of Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire, so very little/no traffic and relative safety through the middle of the night for lone runners.
So of course, putting my runner’s brain into gear … if I can run 70miles, I should be able to run 100 miles. Simples. With this in mind, I spent a September night at the 86 mile Aid Station of Ronnie Staton’s Robin Hood 100, to learn from the runners and of course to help them. Maggie and Andrew manned the station, and were wonderfully friendly towards me and all the runners. I learned a lot from Maggie, an experienced hand at helping in single day and multiple day ultras. I told her of my plan to run the 100, and her advice to me was to repeatedly run the whole route in sections, to get to know the course thoroughly, and to become familiar with it, both by day and by night. The last point was very relevant; many runners were troubled by light “bounce back” from the night-time and early dawn mist rising off the canal, making it difficult to see the surface of the tow path. I looked into this later, and read that one solution is to use a hand torch to get below the mist, and illuminate the path.
Barely a week after the Robin Hood 100, following Maggie’s advice and encouragement, I began cycling around the course, map in hand, to learn the whole route. I worry about going off course in a race, my map reading is poor, and my memory is not much better. As a youngster, I had enjoyed my time as a boy scout, and of course I learned the art of map reading. But maps in those days showed the world to be flat, and I’m still worried about dropping off the edge, or inadvertently wandering into the area labelled “Here be dragons.” I still remember the one or two bike races where I went off course, and the acute pain of failure that stays with you, even forty years later. What might have been? I don’t know, because I failed to follow the correct route. The investment of time and energy in tatters, scattered across the countryside, as I tried in vain to rescue something from the day. After learning the 100 route, I began running different sections, and continue today, running at least one 20 or 30 mile section most weeks.
A little later, in the autumn of 2016, I had my second run in the Spires and Steeples Challenge, this time running the full course from Lincoln to Sleaford, via some lovely Lincolnshire lanes. This is around 26 miles, but where last year’s 13 miles from Metheringham to Sleaford was an enjoyable jaunt in the sunshine, this year was cold, windy and wet, and was marred by field after field of the most sticky mud I have ever experienced. Many enjoyed it, but I didn’t.
Not loving it!
A run should be mostly runnable. This was barely walkable for much of the way. The organisation was impeccable, the support from volunteers and villagers was wonderful. The mud was bad. This year, 2017, I will watch the weather leading up to the event before entering.
I began 2016 with hope and optimism, and I ended the year with similar feelings. I had a plan, and I had set about ensuring that in 2017, it would come to fruition.
When I told my teenage daughter I was writing about progressive overload, her reply was not suitable for a family audience. She had been subjected to this as a promising young swimmer with an elite squad. Under this guise, swimmers were constantly pushed to their limit, there was no let up. Ninety nine percent of the swimmers fell by the wayside, even those who swam at national level. But every now and again, one swimmer would win a national title. This justified the system for the squad.
I first used my own version of progressive overload in the early seventies, when I was cycling. I did not know what it was called, it just seemed to make sense to me. I would over-train for several weeks, steadily building my mileage with each week. I would then cut the mileage down, a week or so before an event in which I wanted to do well. After years of adjusting, I eventually found the right balance for me of overload and recovery time. When I got it right, it was sweet, very sweet. But it was very easy to get it wrong.
I have begun playing with progressive overload in running, on a small scale. I train for several days, then ease off, and see how I feel on the next run. A typical overload would be three or four days of ten miles, then a couple of fifteen mile days. A day or two of rest, then a run to see how I feel. This worked reasonably well, so I moved to overload periods of three weeks followed by an easier week. Again, this seems to work for me. I will continue to experiment as my running develops.
It is important that you choose the distance and period for yourself, err on the side of caution at first, then build up.
You will find similar ideas to this across the web, it is not revolutionary. But I think it is vital that you adapt any plan to suit yourself. All you need to start is a target daily distance, which you run for say, five days. The distance needs to be challenging, but not overly so. A day or two of rest, then you should feel some benefit. Go and enjoy an easier run, or your race. Gradually scale this up, either by daily distance, or by the number of days you run before your break. I found that by overloading quite heavily, for several weeks, I could get good results. I was having days when I felt I could do anything.
You need to push yourself, and not rest until you really need it. If you do not push hard enough, you will gain little. But beware; push too hard for too long, and you will lose a lot.
The obvious danger is over-training, which will lead to fatigue and demotivation. You will still feel tired after your rest period, your legs will feel heavy and you will be lacking interest in running. So err on the side of caution, go “over” by small measures at first, and learn what your limits are. I ruined several seasons of cycle racing by working too hard for too long. By the time I was recovering, the season had ended.
So progressive overload is not without its dangers, but handled carefully, it may work for you. You need to get as close as possible to the edge, without falling over. The more often you achieve this, the more you will improve. Look out for warning signs of over-working, such as tiredness even after rest.
Your body will only change if you make it change. It will resist, your mind will try to talk you out of it. Make sure you are the master, and work yourself to the brink, then rest. This is where your important race would fit in. Then another cycle. Repeat the cycles over and again, choosing where to insert your races, or “good days”.
Rather than lose fitness during the months where you may have no races, you can still practise progressive overload, but at a modest level. It just means you do not level out at a continuous steady plod pace.
Design your overload periods to be challenging but achievable. Begin with overload periods of just a few days, then build up gradually. Increase the intensity of your days, and the number of days in your overload period, but only one change at a time. Monitor your performance and how you feel, and adjust your regime accordingly. Keeping loading the camel, but don’t break its back.
Diet is a big enough issue for the non-exercising public, with millions of pounds being spent on encouraging us to become fat, and similar sums spent on “helping” us to lose it. But for anyone who is into sport, it’s even more difficult. We have to eat to maintain our bodies, and then we have to eat to fuel our sport. Our bodies learn to convert food into energy very effectively, but how much do we help?
I eat too much, I also eat a lot of things that I know I should not. I love food, and I love eating. I am definitely one who lives to eat. So trying to become a slim, lightweight distance runner is an uphill struggle for me. When I was bike racing, I could get away with eating more or less anything, long days in the saddle took care of that. But with less cycling and more running, I am having to be more disciplined with my diet.
I lost four stone in the first nine months of running, but this included a two thousand mile cycle tour of France, and the training that went into that. My weight is holding around the twelve stone mark, and it is proving difficult to move nearer to my eleven stone target. Weight becomes more difficult to lose with age. But that is just an excuse. If it can go on, it can also come off.
I eat a varied diet; lots of fruit, veg, cheese, milk, pasta, eggs, fish etc. I like most things, and I usually have a clean plate at the end of a meal. But it’s cakes and chocolate that make life difficult. The sense of failure that comes with the first chocolate of the day sends me into a downward spiral, which sees me eating even more in self recrimination. I promise to do better tomorrow, always.
So how do I fuel a long run, say thirty miles plus? Two or three hours before the run I will have a large bowl of porridge, or scrambled eggs. I will also have a slice of bread, or a teacake. One hour before usually sees me enjoying a coffee and a biscuit. On the run, I will have a small cereal bar every hour and I will have a banana at some stage, usually around half way. As far as drinking is concerned, I carry one and a half litres of water with a splash of lemon juice, and one litre of squash with added salt and sugar. It is winter time at the moment, so I am returning with around one and a half litres remaining. I expect this will change when the warmer weather comes.
Everyone seems to eat and drink at different stages when running, it really is something for you to discover what suits you best. I drink a little every fifteen-twenty minutes, alternating between squash and water. This is where I am at currently. A similar system served me well in bike racing, though I have yet to run in any kind of heat.
Don’t fall into the trap of over feeding for your training. When I started doing twenty mile runs, I would carry enough food to feed an army. Now, I carry one or two cereal bars for that distance.
You have to respect your body. You are battering it through your sport, especially if it is an endurance sport, so reward it by eating good food. I never miss the chance of a steak, or a beef dinner. If you use poor fuel, your engine cannot perform at its best. I don’t drink alcohol in any quantity, and I don’t smoke. My biggest vice is sweet food, but I am working on it.
I keep repeating the words of advice; eat a little of everything, but not too much of anything. We always have fruit in the house, which is a first stop for me when I am in binge mode. Winter is difficult for me, I eat when I am bored during the long, dark evenings. I kid myself that I need to eat more to keep warm, and to fuel my activities outside in the cold. The summer months present less of a challenge to me, because I can go out for long rides. This summer, I hope also to be doing long runs.
This idea springs from words of wisdom passed on to me when I was a newcomer to cycling, in the early seventies. I think it applies today and to any sport. This is how it goes: The winner of a race is different from the rest, he/she is the only one. You have to be different to win, so think, train, prepare and race differently.
Applied to the sport of running, the idea would translate something like this: Don’t let anything fill you with awe, or fear. A marathon is not far, you can train and complete the run. That’s all it is, a run. Don’t be beaten before you start, don’t see it as a mountain to climb. Think success, not failure. Prepare for it, then complete it. The same goes for an ultra. It’s only a longer run. Just do it.
Train in the way that suits you. Read books, biographies and the like, but take from them that which will be useful to you. You are different, you can train your way. When you come to a slope where everyone walks, run it. Train when “normal” runners would not (say, before or after a race, in bad weather, or Christmas day.) Train harder, further, longer than anyone else.
Prepare for races in ways that suit you. Do not follow others’ expectations of what you should do. I once rode 120 miles through the night to ride a race. I did OK. And then I rode back, another 120 miles. A month later I hit good form. I don’t think it was a coincidence. Be prepared to sacrifice some races in order to excel in others. Not every race is of equal importance.
Don’t follow expectations when it comes to the race. You have trained and prepared in your way, so race in your way. Conventional wisdom may say you should start steady, but if you have the fitness, you might do better by putting in an early burst. Don’t get tired when everyone else does, don’t slow when they slow, don’t settle for what they are settling for. Reach out, stretch for your goal.
The danger of sticking to received wisdom is that you will become a very average runner. Break the “rules”, you will make some mistakes, but learn from them, and you may become a runner who is well above “average”.
You may never win a race, but you can excel, you can perform at a level way beyond the expected, way beyond what your own expectations were. You can have your own victory. Break the rules. My first run (Post1) was 10 miles. I had to do some walking over the last three miles. I’ve not read any training plan that suggests starting with 10 miles off road as a first run. I’m 60 years of age next, but I don’t intend running like your average 60 year old. This is my first full year of running and competing, but I don’t intend performing like a novice.
Listening to your body makes a lot of sense. Pregnant mums- to -be have cravings, often associated with deficiencies in their diet. When our bodies need water, we experience the feeling of thirst. Listening to your body can help keep you out of trouble, especially in long distance events. Ignore the thirst voice, and you could end up a shrivelled prune. Ignore the painful knee, you may become lame. Almost instinctively, we listen to our body and its demands.
But over the years, I developed the ability to make my body listen to me. I do not mean the words grunted out of our mouths in desperate situations but rather, the silent, mind contained self-talk we are barely aware of. Perhaps this sounds strange at first. But what is determination, what is will power? You talking to your body.
Like any kind of speech, there are degrees of effectiveness in talking to your body, there are ways of making yourself heard and understood. Take the unruly class at school; one teacher achieves order with a few spoken words, another fails, even when shouting. I believe the successful teacher has told himself that children will listen to him so many times that it has become an innate part of his self talk. He does not need to remind himself of this, because his mind has been programmed by his repeated self-talk. His continued success affirms his self talk, which supports continued success.
Winners have an early advantage over other competitors; they have told themselves they will win over and again, so much that their body believes them. Every win just adds weight to the words. Eventually, the strength of the words goes subliminal, the winner “knows” he will win, without consciously saying or thinking a word. At a more day to day level, the success of the training run depends on our sub-conscious; what are the messages you have been feeding yourself lately? Are you struggling, and have you been stressing about this? If you have, welcome to continued failure. Or are you doing well, and have you been praising yourself, are you confident? If so, you have a head start. You expect success, your mind has been programmed to expect success, that’s what you will likely get.
Of course, you sometimes have to tell yourself little white lies. Most of my bad training runs are interpreted as good, because of a range of convenient excuses eg; I trained hard yesterday, today was good considering this. I did well to put so much effort in to this run. This self-deceit is justified, because it maintains your self-confidence and therefore your motivation. Even a bad run can help your confidence, if you see it as a lesson in suffering. I have trained badly all week becomes I have trained hard all week.
When the winner does not win, the effort made in this race will help him towards victory in the next race.
When the going gets hard, it’s communication at this sub-conscious level that is all important. The will to continue is supported by a silent narrative that you have generated over many hard miles. You still have to concentrate, you still have to be well motivated and determined. But the support of the silent narrative gives added strength to your conscious effort. It is the foundation, the bedrock, of your determination and your motivation.
So think “win”, think “achieve”, think “can”. Think anything other than “can’t”.
The harder and longer the run, the more fallout you will have to suffer. Your legs will ache, your shoulders will moan, your mood will be low. All of this is remembered the next time you plan a run. Yes, your body will remind you of “last time”, and your mind’s survival instinct will say something like “all things in moderation”, or “err on the side of caution”, in its attempt to avoid a repetition of the big pain. Left to its own devices, your conscience will take you for a steady walk around the block, and you will justify it a thousand times with thoughts such as “you have to leave something in the bank”, and “it’s so easy to over-train”.
Listen to this, and you will never achieve your potential. Mediocrity is our default setting; a reasonable training regime producing average results for a typical runner.
Unless you are tremendously gifted, mediocrity beckons for us all. Very few will become superstars, but we can all become our own heroes, champions of our own bodies. We can all excel in our efforts, no matter how fast or slow we may be. Make no mistake, many race runners who fill the lower placings are trying just as hard as the leaders, and are just as dedicated. We can modify our bodies through training and diet, but we can’t suddenly grow a race –winning heart, or a pair of extra long speedy legs.
So no matter what, any big effort on the part of us mere mortals is going to produce some undesirable consequences, physical and mental. Accept that, and we are part of the way towards becoming the best we can be, whether we finish first or last.
Of course, recovery begins before the run finishes. I always ease off during the last few minutes of a run; warming down is as important as warming up. I start and finish my runs with a ten minute brisk walk. People say you should stretch before and after. I don’t, because I worry about damaging cold or tired muscles.
As soon as possible after a run, I eat and drink, but not to excess. Again, people will advocate “wonder foods” and “recovery drinks”, but I just go for fruit, carbohydrate and milk. Not very scientific, but it works for me.
After a long run, I sometimes suffer pain in my thighs which means I struggle to walk upstairs or down. I have found the best thing to do is to ignore the pain, and ensure I hobble up and down stairs regularly for the rest of the day. In the meantime, I try to elevate my legs as much as possible, though with a youngish family, it’s sometimes impossible.
Perhaps the most difficult fallout to deal with is the mental. Even if the run has been a disaster, I always search for the positive, something I can take and build into a useful outcome. It may be as basic as thinking that the run was not as bad as it could have been, or that I held up well considering the circumstances. In this way, every run can have a positive outcome. Of course, we have to learn from mistakes, but we also have to approach the next run with a positive frame of mind. Wallowing in self pity, or beating ourselves up will get us nowhere.
Following a hard run, I usually have an easy run the day after. Occasionally I will make it a rest day or go out on my bike for a couple of hours. The beauty of going for a steady run is that you can experience running again without the pain of yesterday. Your mind, full of fear and wary of another hammering, can be put at ease by these few gentle miles. The day after a steady recovery run, I often feel really good. I don’t think this is coincidental. Experiment with this, and find the best strategy for you in terms of work and rest.
So do what works for you, warm down, eat and drink, rest and recuperate. But most of all, be positive, and take that through to the next run. Look forward to the next run, it is another opportunity to develop your fitness further, and to show yourself how fit you are becoming.
I learned about pain in sport a long time ago. My cycling days began in the Chilterns, as a 15 year old with the CTC (Beds DA), often out eight or ten hours on a Sunday. I remember the long hot baths afterwards, and legs feeling as though they had deserted me. A few years later, and it was to be the Peak District climbs around Hathersage and Chesterfield that would cause me all kinds of pain. In the latter years of my racing career, it would be the relatively short, but sharp inclines of the Lincolnshire Wolds that would torment me.
When in trouble on a bike, you have several options; change to a lower gear, reduce cadence or even freewheel. I have had countless rides into the hills, where on the return journey every yard possible has been covered at a freewheel. Pockets of food emptied, drinking bottles drunk dry, tick the miles off one by one. Pray for a tailwind.
I found that distance running is different. Certainly, to slow down or take smaller strides are options, but the relief offered is minimal. Walking has never really been an option that I’ve considered on shorter runs. Does this mean I’ve never tried hard enough? I don’t know. When the pain of exhaustion hits you, the checklist includes food and liquid intake, but that is pretty much it. You are on your own, you and your pain. You have to continue.
I had been running and cycling alternate days, and it was working well – no injuries or excessive fatigue. Then I began to feel fitter and became more ambitious. I started running two or three days together, though no more than about 15 miles each day. This was working well, so of course my confidence increased. My weekly long run had been building by one hour each month, it was now six hours.
Just before Christmas, I ran a brisk twelve miles or so one afternoon then rested a couple of hours. That evening I went head torching, with the Lincolnshire Wolds Head Torchers (see Post3).
I coped with both runs quite well, so I decided to do my long run the next day. The way I rationalised it was that it would help me learn how to run with tired legs. But I learned how to run with tired everything.
My long run varies between an out and home course, and laps of a twelve mile figure of eight circuit containing a short, hard climb. I chose the circuit this time.
I was tired when I started, the night run had been finished barely twelve hours when the long run started. Never mind I thought to myself, six hours of this will make a man of me. It nearly killed me. I am usually positive when running, and the idea of walking or stopping is well suppressed. But after three hours I was realising I had bitten off too much. I had never run twice in one day, and I had never done a long run the day after almost twenty miles of running the previous day. It was a double whammy, and it was hurting. My run slowed and slowed. After four hours, I approached the hill, and I walked. The first time I had to walk on the road since the springtime, and my first forays into the world of running.
Although the walk, about five minutes, offered some relief, it was temporary. As soon as I started running again, everything was screaming at me. My strides had become more pixie steps, and my cadence was like slow motion. My head was a disaster zone. Stupid, stupid, stupid, how stupid was I to think I could do this? Failure. Having to walk hurt my pride, it was a first. My legs were exploding, my feet were elsewhere, and my mind was wishing that it was anywhere other than attached to this disaster zone of a body.
I was eating and drinking at my usual rate; small drink at five minute intervals, eat at every hour. This had been working well for me over the past few weeks. It was not the bonk – I wasn’t lightheaded or detached enough for that. I think it was simply exhaustion.
The final two hours of the run were a good test for me. I made contracts with myself like like run to the next village then walk through it, then run to the next. This worked to a certain extent, but my mind was in failure mode. I felt so awful, I even questioned why I was running at all. I was battling negativity and losing, but I kept going, very slowly. Dead man running.
It would have been easy to phone home for rescue, but that would have been defeat with a capital D. Instead I carried on to the five hour point, when I made the pre-arranged call home, for Wendy to run out to meet me and act as pacer over the last few miles. I don’t think she has ever seen me run more slowly.
So lesson learned. You may feel good, but don’t get carried away. Your body and mind need rest, as well as work. I have not repeated this foolhardiness since, and I now ensure the day before my long run is an easy one. When exhaustion really strikes, running can become next to impossible. And the bigger the hole you dig for yourself, the harder it is to get out. The suffering of a hard run can last for days, the impact much longer. Like nuclear fall out, there is the initial blast, then the nuclear winter.
Shortly after the Spires and Steeples run, we had a family holiday in south western Scotland. It was a chance to spend some time with my beloved Dad, and also to see some of the beautiful scenery in that part of the world. I took my running shoes more in hope than anything, but I was certainly pleased that I did.
After we had arrived at our destination, Portpatrick, I learned that this beautiful little fishing village marks the start of the Southern Upland Way, with the long flight of steps climbing out from the harbour. The route description sounded fascinating, with Killantringan Lighthouse a couple of miles along the coast being the place to head inland. I found a four or five mile route using the footpath, and returning to the village via the B738, a small, quiet road, with little traffic.
Our hotel was on the cliff overlooking Portpatrick, and so my run started with a steep flight of steps down to the harbour, where I picked up the Southern Upland Way with the other flight of steps out of the harbour. Once at the top, the first thing that hits you is the wind off the sea; blustery, eye-watering and occasionally deafening. The path clings to the top of the cliff, next to the golf course, this must be one of the most exposed courses around. It was quite soggy underfoot, and there were puddles to be dodged, and wet slippery rocks to catch you out. A steep descent takes you to a small cove, and then the obligatory steep ascent of the carved out steps, out and back on to the peaty moor. The waves were crashing against the rocks, and the wind (luckily) was coming in off the sea, keeping me safely on the path.
After another cove, there is a wonderful downhill stretch where you can see the path meandering across the moor towards the lighthouse, crossing small streams and offering one or two stiles to negotiate. The sheep seemed interested to see a lycra – clad shape moving along the path, the walkers I had seen were all sensibly dressed in waterproofs and thick jumpers. From the lighthouse you take a single track road heading inland. This is a long, tiring climb, punctuated with several cattle grids. The wind was behind me, but it was still hard work, all the way to the small road that heads back into Portpatrick. This last stretch was largely downhill, and a chance to feel like a runner again.
The circuit took some effort to complete, but this was more than repaid by the amazing scenery. I was very fortunate to be able to run it on each of the three days we were in Portpatrick. My running experience is very limited, but this has to be my favourite course to date. There was a real sense of wilderness, especially along the cliffs, something I had not previously experienced as a runner.
Running here had certainly confirmed and refreshed my sense of enjoyment, my motivation to run.
But, of course, the life of a long distance runner is not always bathed in sunshine….
And so, very shortly after my return from the cycle tour, the day came to test my running. How would my running legs be after two thousand miles of cycling? The few runs that I had managed since my return home had gone quite well, so I was hopeful.
The Spires and Steeples Challenge event takes place in October each year. You can choose either 13 miles or 26 miles, either walk or run. The route is well signed, and takes you along tracks and across fields, through lovely Lincolnshire villages and along quiet twisty lanes. Everybody gets a hero’s welcome at the finish in Sleaford. It is a friendly, very well organised event, with a bus to transport you from the finish to your starting point. The 26 milers get the thrill of descending Steep Hill in Lincoln, before joining the Waterway Trail out of the city.
I opted for the 13 mile run, starting in Metheringham. I was relying on fitness gained from my cycling holiday to get me around the course, and so I started at a steady jog, keeping pace with those in the slower half of the field. I didn’t exactly zip around the course, but I managed to develop and then maintain my pace to the finish. The obstacles included flights of steps and numerous stiles, and added interest to the run. A field full of free range hens meant we had to watch our step, they were reluctant to give way to paltry runners (groan).
Everyone involved with the event was cheerful and supportive – even the competitors! The marshalls and aid station staff were truly wonderful. It was a good first event for me, and we even had a tailwind for the whole run. The route through different villages, and along new tracks was a delight.
One danger of training for distance races is boredom; boredom with the long hours, and boredom with the same old lanes near home. But this event is like a celebration of the joys of trail running, and how it can refresh and renew the motivation that drives us. My legs held out, and I wasn’t looking too enviously at the cyclists who passed us on the lanes. My target had been to run an even pace, and not slow too much in the latter stages. I managed this, and I went home happy.
Way back, on a hot August afternoon in 1985, I found myself in France, at the foot of Mont Ventoux – the “Beast of Provence”. I was on a solo cycle camping holiday, taking in France, the Pyrennees and northern Spain. I knew the reputation of this climb, the demise of Tom Simpson, and the countless stories of Tour de France heroism and tragedy over subsequent years. It was quite late in the afternoon, and I needed to plan the rest of the day, and my night stop. I decided to leave the Beast, and do battle another time.
My next long solo tour, a couple of years later, was of northern and central Spain. It started out as a ride from Santander to Gibraltar and back, but the 40+ degree afternoons of the Meseta got the better of me. So I bravely retreated northwards, to the comparative sanity of La Rioja and Navarra for the remainder of my tour.
Two short tandem tours of Normandy with my daughter were enjoyed in 2010/2012, but in essence, my cycle touring days seemed to be over. I should explain what “touring” means to me; I enjoy the challenge of cycling long distances over difficult terrain. Ten hours a day in the saddle was routine, 150 mile days were not uncommon, rest stops were rare. Rest days almost non-existent. I used touring as training for racing, and vice versa.
When I started cycling again in 2014, I knew that I was not as sharp as I was in my younger days, so I never seriously contemplated racing. But I still needed a challenge to help motivate me. Retiring from work in 2015 meant that I was no longer limited to a two week break, and so for the summer I planned a 30 day, 2000 mile ride around France, this time taking in the Ventoux. The Beast had eluded me for 30 years, it was time for me to return to Provence.
I would not take my running shoes on this tour; I did not expect to be reaching campsites with much energy left to run. And this turned out to be the case.
I took a relatively easy route from Zeebrugge down the eastern side of France, being careful to avoid any large towns – I always get lost, or end up on a hideously busy route nationale. The highlight on the way down was the Ardeche.
Wild, beautiful and deserted, with long, difficult climbs and scarcely any traffic. Villages that clung to impossible slopes, overlooking rivers winding their way through spectacular gorges. I cycled for hours without seeing much in the way of civilisation. That was the northern part. As I rode into the southern part, tourism had taken over. This part of the Ardeche is ruined.
I used a 12 miles:1 inch map for route planning, and a 3 miles: 1 inch to plan my day’s ride in detail. This worked really well. Often riding along single track lanes, I went through unspoilt villages, where wood smoke gently wafted through the trees, and the silence broken only by the cock crowing and the earthy growl of a distant tractor. It was the France that is fast disappearing. The Camping Municipals are thin on the ground now, and edge of town Aldi and Lidl stores are closing the village boulangeries and charcuteries. The heart of the French village, and the French way of life, is being torn out.
You can’t really miss the Ventoux; it sticks out of the Provence landscape like a giant pimple. On the day of my ascent, I left my tent and spare clothes at the campsite, but took the rest of my equipment with me. So a slightly lighter bike, but still a load that I could barely lift off the ground. Proper cycle tourists take what they will need. I carried everything I might need.
The climb was quite long (21km) and a respectable gradient throughout, especially after the first few kilometres. The road meanders through woodland until just before the summit, where the famous “lunar landscape “takes over. I stopped at Tom Simpson’s memorial and placed a stone with all the rest. Barely a kilometre from the top.
The most striking thing about the Ventoux was the number of people on the mountain. In ’85, the roads were empty. But my ride was not ruined by the people and the cars, because I blanked them out. I blanked out the hundreds of Dutch walkers in their red and blue uniforms (I love the Dutch, but half their population was on my mountain on my day!) I blanked out the hundreds of cyclists (of course I didn’t count as a cyclist….) I blanked out the commercial photographers clicking at anyone in lycra. In my own little world, I was achieving my own little ambition. And in my own little world I made the most basic mistake. I had focussed on the climb, without a second thought for the descent. I had no jacket for the long, fast and very cold descent. I froze in the middle of summer, in Provence.
It was now early September. The first couple of weeks or so of the tour had been idyllic. The French can be so kind, so generous. “Bon courage” was a regular call I would hear from people in the street, both men and women, young and old. If I asked anyone for directions in a town, they would often walk with me to the first turning, ensuring I was on the right track. I spent one evening on a small campsite being taught how to play pentanque (boules) by Pomme and Jean Antoinne. A lovely young couple, we met when I fell off my bike near their tent. They invited me to share a delicious pasta meal with them and we got along just fine.
The second half of the tour was dominated by the nights; the bitterly cold nights. I slept in every piece of clothing I had, in my three season sleeping bag. And I was still cold. The days were nice enough, pleasant sunshine dominated and an occasional warm breeze. But four days from Zeebrugge and the ferry home, it began to rain. It didn’t clear up for the rest of my tour. So I spent two nights cold and wet. My waterproofs were not. At least they were not after ten hours of continual rain. I couldn’t face the last night in wet clothes inside a wet tent, so I stopped at The Lighthouse B&B in Nieuwpoort, on the Belgian coast. This was a short ride from Zeebrugge. The hosts, Frank and Anne-Marie were lovely, and I was soon dried out and warm again, ready for the journey home.
When I arrived home I weighed myself; twelve stone. I had lost four stone in about nine months, and I was feeling good. My idea about the transferability of running and cycling fitness was about to be tested. A couple of weeks after my return, I had a half marathon trail run. My first event. I only had time to remind my legs of how to run, it was too late to develop fitness to run. I was relying on my cycling fitness to complete the run successfully.
I learned a lot on this tour; never take anything for granted, expect things to have changed dramatically if you haven’t seen them for a while. The warmth of human kindness can brighten up the most miserable of predicaments. Enjoy the nice things while you can, they may be gone tomorrow. Enjoy everything you can today, you may be gone tomorrow.
So I had found a new sport- running, and I was trying to blend this with cycling- a sport in which I had spent twenty –five years learning and improving. Winning races was my motivation in cycling, every mile I cycled was going to help me achieve my next victory. With running, it is likely that I will never taste victory in terms of being first across the line (at least that’s how it feels at the moment), but victory is sought in rising to the challenge of finishing the long race, battling through pain and adversity, and learning enough about myself to be able to push the boundaries a little further out next time. The thought of victory over myself would be my motivation. That is the win that we can all achieve.
Without motivation, we would do nothing. In order to put ourselves through endless hours of training, we need to be well motivated. We need an ambition, a target to aim for. We might have a general goal such as improved fitness, or weight loss. Or we may have a specific goal, such as a particular race or event. Either way, we need motivation in order to begin and to sustain our effort.
The way I see it, motivation can be employed with a positive slant, eg. “I want to finish in front of that runner.” or negative, eg. “I don’t want that runner to beat me.” You can see it’s the same situation, just a different way of looking at it. But I think it makes a difference; if we are trying to achieve something positive (beat the runner), we are trying to make something “good” happen. If we are working on the negative (I don’t want him to beat me), we are trying to prevent something “bad” from happening. It’s like running towards the finish, or away from the start.
We are competing in an effort to win, not to avoid coming last.
I thrive on good news; if I’m told in a race that I am doing well, I find the strength to try even harder. I’m looking for the icing on the cake. If I’m told that I’m not doing so well, I find my motivation changes. It doesn’t diminish, it becomes a more raw, untamed motivation. Rules and common sense are thrown out of the window. This can be quite unsettling, as in this condition the motivation feeds off the body, greedily consuming whatever it needs to achieve the goal. It is cannibalistic. This is how athletes die from exhaustion. It is a worrying state to be in. In one hundred mile bike race I rode, I was trying with all my strength to get back on to even terms with my adversary, around the seventy mile mark. I was on a mild climb, giving it one hundred percent. The borders of my vision began to darken. Over the next few seconds, the darkness grew, and I was soon riding through a rapidly narrowing tunnel. I was quite prepared to continue, but I knew I was on a busy road. Falling into unconsciousness here would prove fatal. I eased a little, and the tunnel widened. This is the dark side of motivation, self-sacrifice in pursuit of success. Death before failure.
If we focus on achievement, whether it is a win, a personal best, or a finish, we are able to put our all into it. But we have to survive.
We celebrate and enjoy our motivation every time we train. Or at least we should. We are active as a direct response to our motivation; we choose the road or trail over the couch because we are motivated. Nuggets of success nurture our motivation. I ran ten miles today, and I maintained my pace even over the last three hard miles into the headwind. Success. I am now a little more motivated to emulate that achievement on my next run.
Towards the end of any hard run, it is our motivation – our willingness to dredge the depths of our fortitude- that is put to the test. Our legs may hurt, our feet may be burning, but it is the strength of our spirit, our motivation, that will determine the outcome; success or failure.
In order to “top up” my motivation, I reward myself in a variety of ways. We are all different, and so the rewards have to be geared towards you as an individual. I love food, so towards the end of a long run, it will often be the promise of a culinary treat that will keep me going. If I can keep up the pace to the next tree, I can have a chocolate milkshake when I get home. Or if I look back over the last few weeks satisfied with my efforts, I may promise myself a little something from the running shop if I can manage another good week.
Variety helps. I have different runs that serve different purposes, some are off-road, some hilly, some are one way, point to point. They all have something to offer but in winter, the run I look forward to each week above all else is with the Lincolnshire Wolds Head Torchers. The main run is usually seven or eight miles at a reasonable pace, and there is often a shorter option. Friendly and sociable, they wait for everyone, regrouping every mile or two. Mostly off road, the atmosphere with a long thin line of thirty or so runners winding through the dark woods is magical. (I can see the long line of thirty runners because I am usually somewhere near the back!) These runs are the only time I run off road in the dark, the only time I am in company, and the only time I am “really” off-road. It can be muddy! The runs are held in different parts of the Wolds, always from a pub. The post- run food, drink and chat is just as pleasant as the runs. If you live anywhere near this area do give it a try, you do not have to be a member of a club, and you are guaranteed a friendly welcome, no matter what age or ability you may be. For more details go to the Lincolnshire Wolds Head Torchers website.
In the end, it is our sense of purpose as runners that will determine just how much energy we can expend, how much pain we can endure. How much we need our victory. The promise of all the puddings in Creation will not help us if we do not have the determination to succeed. This, in my view, is what we do when we train; we are developing our strength of character, our ability to continue when the chips are down. The beauty is that this mental strength is transferable. You learn to see things through, to the bitter end. My professional life was littered with difficult, sometimes impossible situations, where running away or sinking would have been quite understandable. But the toughness developed in bike racing helped me overcome even the most difficult obstacles. An awkward adversary became nothing more than a long climb, to be mastered and then dismissed. I survived professionally in the same way that I survived long climbs in the Alps and the Pyrenees. In the same way I hope to survive my planned ultra races; ” Nil carborundum illegitemi.” Not ever.
Of course, it takes time to develop physical and mental strength. But I believe that, once developed, both can be used in different disciplines. As a cyclist, I was able to build physical and mental fitness that would benefit me as a runner, and vice-versa. It was with this in mind that I planned a long cycle tour for the summer of 2015. Being realistic, I did not expect to be able to run during this holiday, I was relying on long, hard miles of cycling to retain the fitness I was developing through running.
I needed to organise my thoughts and feelings about cycling, which I had loved for so long, and running; the new kid on the block, packed with a whole range of exciting challenges. And there were questions I needed to answer; would running adversely affect my cycling, would I ever be able to run for more than a few weeks without injury, and how could I develop and maintain my cycling whilst learning to run?
In England, we are blessed with year –round rain. I hate cycling in the rain. You get spray from anything that moves on the road, you can’t see what a puddle may be hiding, for example a wheel- bending pot hole, and when you arrive home at the end of the ride, you have to wash and dry your bike before you start removing cold, wet clothes from your cold, wet body. To my relief, I found that running in the rain was tolerable. It was just a matter of wearing enough of the right kind of clothing.
But cycling was all I had known for 25 years. My body (apart from the bulk and bulges acquired over the last 18 years or so) had previously been modified by cycling countless miles up hill and down dale, in all weathers, twelve months of the year. So it made sense to supplement my running with some cycling, to mix the unknown with a little of the well known (if slightly forgotten).
And so through trial and error, I stumbled into a training programme of sorts, that would mix the two. Quite simply, I would run and cycle on alternate days. This meant my running would continue to improve, as would the cycling. I hoped that they would be helpful to me and to each other.
Running was creating pain in places I didn’t know I had; front of the knee, back of the knee, inside the knee…you get the idea. I found the impact-free, circular action of cycling was helping to ease the running pains. Each week, I studied weather forecasts carefully, and arranged activities to give me the best chance of cycling on dry days. So some doubling up was necessary, involving occasional back to back runs. At first, I ensured one of the runs- usually the second- would be a little shorter, a little easier. Back to back cycle rides presented no problem; the muscles and the mindset of bike racing gradually came back to life, if at a more modest level than was the case in the nineties.
As my body, principally my legs, learned to cope with running, I began to enjoy it more. I think most endurance athletes enjoy the challenge of pain. Not the pain of say, an injured achilles tendon, but the pain from our whole system that screams “Ease off!” or even “Stop!” when we are forcing our bodies to go further, faster, harder. I had only been running a matter of weeks, but I was fascinated by this new way of creating and then coping with pain. A new way of facing and fighting the challenge.
Although benefitting from a running career that was barely more than embryonic, I had decided that I would become a distance runner; long trail ultras were the ones for me. The more I read the more convinced I became, and I had soon set out a programme of training and racing for my first season. The mainstay of my training would be the weekly long run. I would start this in September (2015), at three hours, and build one hour on to this each month. So October would be four hourly runs, November, five and so on. I would carry this as far as I could. I used to do well in twelve hour bike races, I was hoping to be doing unsupported twelve hour training runs by the next June (2016). This may have been overly ambitious, but I believe that if you aim high, your actual performance will benefit more than it would with only modest ambition.
I was enjoying getting in to this new sport, I read everything I could about distance running, and took the advice that seemed to make most sense for me. The rest, I just made up or improvised. Over time, I lost the fat man running look, and began to feel a little more like a runner. Losing weight helped my knees, with the reduced pounding, and my endurance, which was beginning to develop.
I read Killian Jornet’s “Run or Die”, and found his story inspirational. His descriptions of running in the mountains, and how he kept going when battling exhaustion are fascinating. I found this read much more useful than any of the training schedules that litter the web, because it was written by a man who has achieved so much. This enables the reader to believe what is written. It is real life, rather than a table of instructions that could just as easily have been written by a robot.
Because we are human, we all have our different ways, and I think we need to learn for ourselves how and when to train. We need to become physically fit, but we also need to develop our mental strength,our motivation and our determination. The one fuels the other. Numbers on a table are just that; fine if you are a robot, but our own training plan needs to ensure our own mental as well as physical development.
One of the most important aspects of mental fitness is motivation; what makes us tick as a runner. Why do we do what we do, why do we continue when our body is telling us to stop?
Christmas, 2014. It wasn’t only the goose that was getting fat; I was topping the scales at 16 stone. I used to race bicycles at less than 10 stone, so I was becoming a bit of a mess. I’d not turned a pedal in anger since 1996, when I retired from bike racing after a 25 year career in which I enjoyed some local success, mainly in long distance races – 100 miles and more. My best 100 was 3 hours 58 minutes, my 12 hour distance stood at 265 miles. Now aged 58, I did not relish the thought of sliding quietly into decrepitude, I had to do something.
I had dabbled with running a few times over the years since I retired from bike racing, but each effort was stopped short through injury. My knees, calves and tendons all had a say, and no attempt lasted more than a few weeks. I think the excess weight I was carrying was part of the problem, my knees were taking one heck of a pounding with every step. So I started walking. Wendy, my ever-slim wife, works in Lincoln, about ten miles away from our home. I began walking to meet her from work, finding a route along quiet lanes, tracks and across fields that was really quite pleasant, even in the middle of winter. I timed my walks, and I gradually became quicker. By February 2015, my leisurely walk had become an energetic march.
Wendy is a regular runner, and she encouraged me to have yet another go. So one day in the early Spring time, I donned trainers instead of walking boots, and ran the ten miles to Lincoln. Well almost. By mile seven I had resorted to run/walk; running five minutes, walking five. But it was a start, and my legs were not complaining too loudly. I persevered, and after a few weeks I was able to run the whole distance. I soon began timing my efforts. My walk/run evolved into a timed run. I wasn’t breaking any records, but I began to build my mileage with other shortish runs during the week.
But it was not all easy going. I was getting complaints from places I had forgotten about. Thighs were a constant trouble. I would start the next run still in pain from the last. When running, I could barely breathe, even at a pace only slightly above walking. I certainly could not talk. I questioned my sanity with every step. I felt embarrassed, pretending to be a runner. Even wearing baggy tops and bottoms did not completely hide my Michelin Man shape. I was pleased that most of my routes were off-road or on very quiet lanes; fewer people could witness this ridiculous spectacle, plodding through the Lincolnshire landscape, gasping for breath with everything wobbling. But at least the sheep and the cows seemed to accept me. The ducks, just down the lane from our house, were still scattering in mad panic as I approached. I didn’t blame them. Often, I would run in the darkness, to avoid being seen by “normal” people.
It was during this period that I also began to train more on my bike. This was much more home ground, though rather neglected. Inevitably, the two interests would clash occasionally. When there was only time for one activity, I was having to choose which one. I knew that I needed a schedule, so I could cycle and run without the guilt trip. I had to bring order to chaos.