Wednesday, 19 October 2011

West Highland Way recce

I’ve had an affinity with the West Highland Way (WHW) since reading John Kynaston’s blog in preparation for this year’s Highland Fling. There are many others who contribute to the WHW story but John gets the most hits on google; that’s how I found out about it (and the famous WHW family).

I suppose in one way my proposed winter attempt may be regarded as a calling. My reasons for planning to do this have been documented earlier.

For the run itself I plan to set off from Milngavie at 8am on 9th Dec 2011, following the traditional south to north direction taken during the annual footrace. I will be running with a good friend, Rob Kennedy, who just happened to offer his companionship for the whole thing!

The plan is to get to Beinglas Farm whilst just getting dark and from thereon in travel with headtorches on.  

As I haven’t done the whole of the WHW I wanted to make sure there were no nasty surprises ahead of me which could result in me getting horribly lost on the attempt, hence this recce.

My original plan was to get the train to Ardlui which is on the opposite side of Loch Lomond from Beinglas Farm and a couple of miles further south. I’d then do the route to Fort William over two days camping somewhere in the middle. Then return to Ardlui via train and do the whole thing again in the dark.

Family commitments and some words of advice from a certain gentleman (mentioned above) forced a rethink.

So plan B;
Drive to Ardlui, leave the car there, run to Kingshouse Hotel, stay there, run to Fort William the following morning and return to car via train.

All in, less than 36hrs away from the wife and kids. I liked plan B a whole lot better.

Plus by running at 6am on Tuesday morning I got to find out how the head torch would get on. For an interesting read about the debate on head torches click on this link. Within there is another posted by Peter Duggan which is really useful.

Pre recce
Last week I was ill, for the first time since April. Both my kids were full of some viral infection so I probably picked something up from them. Nevertheless I had a go at doing some sort of training albeit carefully.

By Saturday I had amassed a paltry18miles. I had planned to do the recce on Saturday and Sunday but I was still feeling like crap so I binned it until I felt reasonably better. Thankfully I got to watch Wales in the Rugby World Cup Semi-Final and then Utd play Liverpool on the telly. This was a real treat as I rarely get to chill out these days.

On Sunday I felt great. So I decided I’d go the following morning. And to build some fatigue into the legs for the recce, I took myself out for a leisurely 20 miles, done at less than 70% of maximum heart rate and in 2hrs 40mins i.e. 8min/miles. I had thought that with some freshness in the legs (from not being able to train) I might have had a better time but there are some cheeky hills on that route, so overall I was happy. And I got up to around half of my weekly average.

That run also gave me the opportunity to try out a new nutrition strategy which I will write about at some point in the future. Essentially I had no complaints from the tummy but again I don’t know if this is because I wasn’t running with fatigue (as I usually do at the weekend) or if it was because my strategy was working.

Day 1. Monday 17th October 2011
I had the car packed the night before but as is always the case I did forget something.........a watch!

I set off at 6am and drove up to Ardlui which took me 3 hrs. The weather forecast was grim so it was full waterproofs on for the day.

Now, normally I steer clear of waterproof trousers but a little flirtation with hypothermia on the infamous OMM that was eventually cancelled (for the first time in its 40yr history) paid me a lesson I’ll never forget. Still we (Rob and I) managed to complete day 1 (placed in the top 20) and were gutted for it to be called off.

Back to the here and now.........and into my very first step of running I felt a hot sharp ‘ping’ on the right side of my right knee but almost instantly said to myself ‘it’ll be fine’, as you do. So off I went along the A82 passing the Drovers Inn. If only I knew at the time that John K and his wife, Katrina were there and planning on running the same section as me that very morning! Looking back I can’t help thinking about that coincidence and my new calling.

Down into Beinglas and away. Unfortunately this morning I never implemented the new eating strategy because of the uncertainty of where I was going and how long it would take me to get there. The strategy is all about timing you see.

The run was a pleasure until I got to the forest at Crianlarich. From there to the hill out of Tyndrum I pretty much walked the whole way. This was a surprising body blow. Don’t get me wrong I wasn’t in race mode but I did want to manage a fairly decent cadence for the day. I think I know where I went wrong. It may have been the apple Go-ahead bar that I had just before the forest but by the same token my knee had been niggling away for quite a while now. Anyway, I just had no inclination for running at all – even on the downs.

I resolved to try and at least take something from the two days I was sacrificing from being away from my family on our week off work. So after Tyndrum I got back into shuffling mode which seemed to work because I managed to keep going almost the entire way to the Bridge of Orchy.

This was a nice little treat. The couple of isolated Highland cows standing in the path and refusing to budge made me smile. I wonder what this encounter would be like in the dark. 

At the Bridge of Orchy, I stopped for a coffee and slice of cake and then set off. The weather was playing its part in keeping me on my toes but I have to say it wasn’t as bad as expected. Sure it was cold, wet and windy but if you’ve ever been to the Falklands you’ll know that nothing compares. 

I was getting happy again going up the hill out of the Bridge’. I was using my hill muscles and giving my inferior running muscles a little break. However, that disinclination for running re-materialised at the top, just when I’d have been grateful for the run down to the Inveronan hotel. This time the coconut slice was getting the blame! At least I was learning stuff here.

And that was me until close to the Glencoe Ski resort – walking! Thankfully this section was breathtakingly picturesque (though obviously won’t be in the dark). With the weather being as ‘awful’ as it was it really was a time to savour, a time to thank the Creator (if there be one) that I am Scottish.

The walk/run from the hotel is fairly flat until you get to the Forest Lodge (about 1km) from there the path just seems to go up and up for what seemed like forever. It isn’t a significant drag, I could probably run it if I was feeling up to it but today it felt like I was never going to top out.

From looking at the map at the Bridge of Orchy I reminded myself to look for the Ba Bridge as I told myself that there was a climb of about 75m ascent out from there and then a runnable section down to Kingshouse hotel. Traipsing along I could hear lots of sheep but curiously could not see them. That’s when I met this bridge.........and allowed myself a wry smile.

Again just like cresting out from Tyndrum I found something within that wanted to run again so off I went – all the way to the hotel. By the time I got there I was really knackered.

It took about 3hrs for my heart rate to return to what felt like normal after that. But the shower, meal and bed all helped out enormously. Ardlui – Kingshouse Hotel: 33miles (by map), 6hrs 45mins.

I instructed myself that tomorrow was going to be great.

Day 2. Tuesday 18th October 2011
I rose at 0330hrs and got my breakfast into me;
·         2 mini sausage rolls,
·         1 High 5 sports bar,
·         1 apple go bar, and
·         3 glasses of luke warm water

Obviously the hotel staff weren’t going to get up especially to prepare me something for breakfast so I improvised with some of the food I had left over from yesterday. I then packed my kit and got my head down until 0545hrs. I then rose, got changed and was off by 0600hrs (after another glass of water).

From the off I was into the wind and rain. It was pitch black but I could still make out the hulk of Buachaille Etive Mor to my left and Beinn a Chrulaiste to my right. I was soon at the foot of the Devils Staircase and up and over it. I took the torch off on the other side as I could see the ground without it.

One thing about moving in the dark though, I probably took more walking breaks than I would do if it were light. I’m guessing this is to do with being sure footed. Perhaps if the WHW was tarmac this might not be an issue. That isn’t a request by the way. However, there are definitely some sections that are more runnable than others, even on the flat.

The run down from the Devils Staircase and then into Kinlochleven was out of this world, a real pleasure, even though I caught the posterior impingement a couple of times; a timely reminder that unless it gets operated on there is no way I can return to fell running where the terrain and ferocity of traversing it is multiplied ten-fold.

The climb out of Kinlochleven didn’t come as a surprise as I’d studied the map. What did nearly put the skids on the day was the ground under foot, after cresting out. From recollection I remember telling myself that I’d make up good time here. But then I hadn’t accounted for the howling headwind and rain ‘nor the state the path was in. I virtually walked this section until I turned the corner of Meall a Chaorainn to my right. 

I was freezing by this point and was feeling sorry for myself by the time I got to a large tourist information board which stated that I still had 7.5miles to go OR (I could wimp out and take the) 4.5miles back to Fort William via the adjacent public road.

Here was my dilemma; I had to get the 1140 train. I left Kingshouse hotel at 6am thinking I’d be in Fort William for tea and scones by 11am. Think again numbskull. From asking someone what time it was at Kinlochleven I knew I was behind target when they said “ten past 8”. That body blow was hurting as much as the slow progress I’d made since then.

I took my phone out of its waterproof bag and turned it on to get an update on the time. I decided that if it told me it was past 10am I was going to have to sack it and take the easy option. I still had 7.5miles to go and by my reckoning that equated to around 1hr and 50mins, maybe more going by how slow I had been going. I simply couldn’t miss that train.

The phone said it was 10am on the money! Right, game on stop being a woos and get on with it. The waterproof trousers came off, I downed a gel and off I power hiked up the hill in front of me.

I was back in the zone. There is probably one uphill section after this that got me to slow but as anyone who’s ever done this will point out, it’s actually downhill for the majority. My quads were taking a right bashing but I had a train to catch.

At the car park where the Way meets the road I asked someone what time it was.
How far to the train station?
About 2 or 3 miles.
SH*T, I’ve got to go. Thaaaaannnkks.......

It couldn’t have been that far as I got there at 1130hrs, sweating buckets and breathing out of my backside. I even had time to grab a bacon and egg roll and cup of coffee from the cafe next door to the ticket office before boarding the train.

Kingshouse hotel – Fort William train station: 23.5miles (I think), 5hrs 30mins.

So was the recce useful?
Of course it was.

I’ve learnt more stuff about running whilst fatigued and come to realise that I would have to switch off for a long time to miss a sign post and get lost.

I’m really surprised with how slow I was. For example, I did an easy 20 miles on Sunday in 2hrs 40mins; look how long I was on the go on day 2 of the recce. I don’t really know what to think of this right now though. It could be for a whole host of reasons but ultimately perhaps I’m not as fit as I perceive myself to be.

Nevertheless I’m really looking forward to making this challenge a reality and know that the support crew will be needed more than ever.

I could go on about nutrition but in a bid to keep this post a little briefer I’ll save it for another time.

As for the Way itself, I have to say for me this will be a bigger challenge than the Bob Graham Round.

The BGR is not something you can run, well certainly not that vast majority of us. It is a challenge you do by going up and down. As I’ve explained before, my legs are more suited to that sort of thing. They are not suited to running hence the title of my blog.

This is why the WHW is such a challenge for me and why to date my training for it has been far more in depth and focussed than what I did for the BGR. Although I must admit that snippet probably has more to do with illness hampering the training than a lack of focus.

Fingers crossed I can keep up the good momentum I have so far amassed.

Intensity training; the experiment continues.......

This is the next chapter in my progression within running.

I have been fairly active since my late teens and also done a bit of fell running over the last couple of years. Therefore it may seem ironic that I class this as my first year of running.

This is because I have never just focussed on running before. Whereas since before I took part in the Highland Fling this year I have literally been immersed in it. I have John Kynaston to thank for this. His was the first blog I’d ever read and was done so in preparation for that run.

Despite various injuries I have been reading around the subject at every opportunity I’ve had. In fact, to be honest, my distance learning honours degree really suffered as a result. Hopefully the good work I put in up to April will see me through this year though.

About 15 weeks ago I got into running again, albeit tentatively. This time with programme at the ready I also armed myself with a training log. Both were self made.

The goal? A winter attempt at the West Highland Way.

It wasn’t meant to pan out this way but the programme isn’t set in stone. I have changed it regularly and will probably continue to do so. Flexibility i.e. the ability to change things around is key, so too is my adopted ethos of prioritising certain sessions e.g. the LSD and SM runs.

To recap on where I was within this progression and the things I found out, please refer to my previous blog on this topic.

In short; at the end base training phase my pace averaged;
·         LSD = 8:20min/miles
·         UT = 7:10min/miles
·         SM = 7:10min/miles (with a 17lb pack on). I hadn’t done any SM training runs without a pack on.

Since then I have upped the weekly mileage and the intensity. I have done this by simply adding 2No. 75% (of maximum heart rate) effort runs of around 7 miles each and added another couple of easy/recovery 4 milers done at around a 67/8% effort.

I have also increased the length of my LSD and now binned wearing a pack on my SM run.

My weekly mileage is now up to 75. I’d like to be able to do more but I feel this is about as much as I can do in 2011 without stepping into the realms of overtraining. The good thing about this is that the quality and quantity of this year’s mileage will simply allow me to do slightly more next year, the year after and so on.

So where am I now?
·         LSD = 8 min/miles
·         Recovery = 7:45 min/miles
·         Tempo (75%) = 7:30 min/miles
·         UT (85%) = 6:50 min/miles
·         SM = 6:30min/miles

I am reasonably happy with how things are going but keep wondering what my pace would be like if I wasn’t fatigued i.e. how would I get on with some peaking, recovery and tapering. The progression is also notably slowing!

At first glance the pace of my recovery runs look odd because these are done at the same intensity as my LSD. However, the lack of hills on my recovery runs would account for the quicker pace.

Also, if I’m brutally honest I’m unhappy with my SM pace even though it is done on a route with two long uphills. Not that they’re of any significant ascent. I suppose this is where owning a Garmin would come in handy! However, it’s not as if I’m doing any structured speedwork. There’s time for that. The thing is I know I am capable of running close to 5:30min/miles for this sort of distance as I’ve done it in the past – albeit when I wasn’t training for an ultra.

Oh, the beetroot juice; on one hand I think it works and on the other I just don’t know. This is probably one of those things that is going to take a lot longer than a few weeks to get to the bottom of. I’ve had problems with my intestine of late which has thrown a spanner in this mini experiment.

The good news is that for the only SM run which I took it for I recorded the time above – on this run I was able to maintain an intolerable intensity the whole way. However, I have no way of knowing if it was my brain that helped me achieve this or the beetroot juice. I’m not so sure about the assistance its producers seem to claim regarding the LSD effort run. Again, time will tell.

So where too for this experiment now? Well I’ve just finished my recce of the West Highland Way (report to follow) so I now have a rough idea of what to expect. My attempt will be on 9th December so I have roughly 7 and a half weeks to go.

I plan to crank out some more weeks of high mileage – after a couple of days of recovery. I’ll then recover/cross train for a week and then set into three weeks of speed/specific training (with a reduction in mileage). Then it’ll be a week of recovery and a week of taper before the attempt.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Running and IBS

As I awoke this morning with my ever-present sore tummy I thought it was about time to pen my piece on Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), how it affects running and how to combat it.

At the outset though it should be pointed out that there are no less than 7 types of recognised IBS and as such, the sufferer is encouraged to experiment and find what works for them; very much like a training programme I’m afraid.

When it was suggested to me that I had IBS I immediately set about trying to gather as much information as I could in a bid to find an answer which would help me overcome it. One of the questions I asked myself was, “how do the Chinese deal with this?” After all, they’ve been developing natural remedies to ailments for thousands of years. The best website I found was

Without going into the symptoms I’m used to, IBS is a problem for me because;
1.    It affects my emotions and therefore my motivation.
2.    The intestinal (not stomach) pain I sometimes experience during hard maximal runs is overbearing and usually results in me having to abort the pace I’m trying to maintain.

Although, I have to admit that I believe the two items listed are also linked. For example, some time ago I recall when I was really hyped up i.e. motivated, for my weekly hard session and despite the acute pain in my intestine I did not allow myself to drop off the pace.

Whereas more recently when I wasn’t as motivated for the run I recall my brain telling me no less than 5 times to reduce the pace before the pain became so overbearing that I gave in and simply jogged home!

Having gave this example it is worth stating that the intestinal pain does not happen very often. It is all the other symptoms which continually play on me that I wish to resolve.

However, the above brings me nicely to explain why I believe you have to deal with your emotions first as a priority with regards overcoming IBS. Yes I know, easier said than done!

As people we all have beliefs, wants and desires, some of us with more ‘drive’ than others. Unfortunately throughout our lives we must become accustomed to stress. Some would say it’s part of the ‘growing-up’ process and can be a good thing if it better prepares us for future situations. Why else would we train to do something and/or take exams? However, when stress gets out of hand and your control of it is reduced, motivation for all other things usually takes a nosedive.

So this is critical area to focus on. I have, so far, not found a way to handle this as well as I’d like to, although there is one thing worth looking into; meditation. I have got hold of a de-stressing CD and also a Paul McKenna CD which emphasises the power of positive thinking. I have listened to both of these on separate occasions at night time just before I go to sleep and have found that my sleep thereafter is usually of good quality. I also wake the following day feeling a bit more energised than usual. I’d like to look into meditation more and will do when I’ve got the about a paradox!

This is only part of the solution though. Clearly our diet needs to be considered. I have tried various things and reduced my consumption of others. Ultimately I feel I have only made small steps within this massive topic.

One thing that surprised me when I looked into this was the differences between soluble and insoluble fibre. I don’t want to spend too long on this as I have previously pointed out it is very much about finding what works for you. A few common sense things though, AVOID;
·         Overeating
·         Eating late at night
·         Binge drinking (alcohol)
·         Lots of sweet food
·         Caffeine
·         Dairy products
·         Yeast

Personally, I don’t drink a lot of alcohol. I probably drink, on average, one night a month and that is by moderation. On the rare occasion I do drink a lot, I usually suffer for days afterwards – with my tummy.

Obviously the ‘sweet food’ is a bit of catch 22 situation for ultra runners. It certainly affects me so my way round it is to alternate sweet food with savouries e.g. perhaps a gel followed later with a bite of a sausage roll or some crisps etc. I wonder what others do.

There are some products which may help;
·         Aloe Vera juice
·         Peppermint capsules
·         Ginger
·         Lactose free milk
·         Psyllium husk
·         Ortisan fruit and fibre cubes
·         Linwoods milled seeds – a variety of products
·         Probiotics – though you may have to put up with more uncomfortable symptoms for a while.
·         Neovite – a very interesting product!
·         The website mentioned earlier also offers suggested herbal remedies.

So to conclude, I think overcoming IBS can be a long drawn out process and should be attempted by a combination of dealing with stress and eating (and drinking) the right things.

It would be helpful if other blogging runners who suffer from IBS were to write posts on how they deal with their symptoms.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

My account of my Bob Graham Round

I am to attend the 24 hour club biannual dinner this coming Saturday to be presented with my certificate which will take pride of place in my home. No doubt the hotel will be crammed to bursting as the popularity of the challenge has really boomed in the last two years. Two of my friends will also be in attendance.

I thought it might be time to record my attempt within my blog - this is actually the account I sent to the club secretary to ratify it and is therefore quite a brief read. 

The story of my successful attempt is steeped in its preparation and the fact that it was actually my second attempt within a four week period.

My friend, Rob Kennedy asked me last year if I’d be interested in having a go with him. I prepared a training programme which began on the 2nd January of this year which Rob and I stuck to almost religiously. It involved training in the Cumbrian fells 9 weekends out of 12 leading up to the attempt.

The initial attempt was scheduled for the 26th June. In the lead up I had had a bout of food poisoning and a number of chest infections. Unfortunately this has left me with a stomach complaint that is made worse with the onset of fatigue.

By the time of the attempt I was still simply hoping that everything would fall into place with regards my stomach complaint as I felt comfortable with my fitness levels. We gave ourselves a schedule of 21 hours and unfortunately I started feeling nauseas around the four hour mark and gradually worsened until I was almost incoherent and in no fit state to carry on – at the 11 hour mark. Rob carried on and completed his round in just under 21 and a half hours, despite also having some problems to deal with of his own.

Clearly I was devastated but took heart from the wise words of some of our pacers for that attempt; Seb Pflanz, Doug Brown (two members) and Craig Malcolmson. They encouraged me not to give up and to redress the eating strategy. So it was with that as well as seeing Rob finish that I set the ball in motion to give it another go. The following weekend I trained again in the Cumbrian fells but this time eating different foods; staying clear of simple carbs/sugars and taking on board more stable things like sausage rolls, crisps and the odd banana. It worked – no nausea. It was back on!

I set myself the new target of 21 hours and 30mins but also this time did not wear a watch, leaving the pacing entirely up to my pacers. Thankfully I was blessed with the best pacers a man could have as well as the ground support – Rob’s dad.

We set of and were determined to take it easy for the whole day. The weather was absolutely perfect too; it was not too hot and there was just a slight breeze with clear skies all day. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t get rid of the thought of the nausea coming back and this hampered my enjoyment of my first two legs. By the time I got to Dunmail Raise I was 10 minutes ahead and was actually smiling and joking with my pacers. This is where I wanted to be and was now starting to relax into it.

I started to get a bit ill just after Esk Pike so decided to walk for as long as it took to settle down again. Never the less, I got back into my stride by Broad Crag and was delighted to get down to Wasdale almost on schedule with my favourite leg to come.

This is where the wheels came off! After Yewbarrow I felt ill again but this time no amount of walking was making me feel better. I almost collapsed at the bottom prior to the climb up Red Pike. Had it not been for my pacers being alert to my progressively worsening stumbling I could’ve ended up a little injured, I think. That was a low blood sugar attack, which I wasn’t too concerned about. However, the food I tried to take on board did not sit well and within 15 minutes I was violently sick.

From this point on the challenge was about keeping going at all costs. I was slow and I was ill but I knew from past experience that I could keep going, albeit at a much reduced intensity. Mainly due to the fact that I was unable to consume anything and keep it down. The good thing about this attempt was that I was being ill on the home straight and I also had more than 2 and a half hours in the bank to use.

I never for one moment thought just how close I would actually come to not completing the challenge. Leg 5 was painfully slow but I was exceedingly grateful for the vast majority of it (post Robinson) being downhill. My wife and kids were waiting for me at the Moot Hall and it was with that that I shed a tear upon my completion of my second attempt of the Round.

Sunday, 2 October 2011


I wouldn't normally blog about a single training session but yesterdays was different. I dare say seasoned vets will take nothing from this so it's more intended as a chapter in my book and maybe a bit of insight for other novices, such as myself.

I've said before that the LSD is one of my priority sessions. It's where I come to experience the pain, lethargy and confusion associated with trying to run for a prolonged period of time. Clearly the fitter and fresher you are, the longer you should be running before the dread starts to hit home. Dread is probably the wrong word, in fact lets turn it into something more positive - the party. Thats better. Because its this personal journey we're all looking for, right?

So what usually happens is I get to about the same distance as I completed the week before then start to 'party'. The point is that I increase the distance each week so that I gradually push the boundaries. I do this for three consecutive weeks then take a week off. Or should I say cross train on the fourth weekend and usually at quite a high tempo.

This is done on the back of quite a big week of training so I'm always fatigued, sometimes less so than others. But this week I've been particularly tired. I even binned my Friday afternoon tempo run as I was feeling rough. I rarely bin training but with this new ethos of prioritising things, I had Saturdays run to think of.

On saturday morning I was still tired and curiously still a bit sore from Wednesday nights Submax session. But I was looking forward to the LSD, I had a feeling I'd be partying for a longer spell than usual. And so it was - within the first hour I had three piss stops, taken 2 midges out of my eyes and could barely get into it. I often take this to be a good sign at the start of a run because it usually ends well.

On the hour, I started feeling my legs started getting quite heavy. That is my sign that the party is about to start. A clear indication that I am far from fresh or rested. Nevertheless, this is why I do these runs, I just never expected it to start just over a third into my run!

What followed is probably what we're all used too; my ipod was of no use. I tried taking it forward to the Rocky tunes but they were just a garble. I was getting through way more food than I would do normally on a run of this distance - thankfully I had an incline this was going to happen and took extra with me just in case. The pain was immense and the only way I got through it was by continually telling myself that this is where I belonged; in pain. What was even weirder was the fact that the longer I was on my feet the quicker I was getting and the more it felt right.

Here's what gets me. I can go for a fell run of 5 or 6 hours and its full on top end effort for pretty much the whole time but get me on a LSD for 3 or 4 hours and the party sweeps in much quicker than it does when I'm working harder in the hills. WTF? Really? Maybe I should bin the LSD and just go hard on all my long runs. Surely that will make me a quicker runner?

Paradoxically though I made some big gains in running recently. I think with the way I've trained lately I'll return a better fell runner in a couple of years time. Yeah, I can barely work out how I've come to that conclusion too!

Unchartered territory coming up for me. let the partying continue.............