Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Classic Quarter 2015

The Endurance Life Classic Quarter was my first Ultra, was in fact the first race that made me aware there even was such a thing, having known a friend who'd completed it. I ran it solo for the first time in 2013.

This year, with Lakeland 50 in my sights as my main goal I sat down and wrote out a training plan to get me there and decided I would race a 50k about 6 weeks out to try and get some semblance of start line self discipline, since usually all my sense goes out the window and I shoot off too fast, mooch around the check points and get all caught up in what everyone else is doing. This time, with a few few races under my belt, I wanted to get things right. So a tune up race would be called for. Pretty soon I realised that 6 weeks out was the Classic Quarter, of course this is no 50k - in fact its 44 miles, almost as far as Lakeland though with a lot less ascent. Close enough I reasoned, I'm in. After all, if I don't feel 100% I could always stop after 50k right? Right? Yeah right

My mate and long time climbing partner Gareth and I had a few weekends earmarked for a trip to Skye with a view to climbing the Cuillin ridge, but with a couple of dates rained off and only one chance left Gareth announced he wanted to sack it off and join me on the Classic Quarter. This was a first for Gareth who had previously not raced further than half marathon distance; great, should be fun. Hang on, shit, what if he beats me? Suddenly my relaxed approach to the whole thing was out the window. Can't let Gareth win, can't let Gareth win. Not that I'm competitive or anything but a bit of friendly rivalry can't do any harm.

Also running this year would be Simon, my friend and running buddy from down here. Simon always makes out that me winning is a foregone conclusion but he's a dark horse and recently having moved to a village off the beaten track his run commutes were adding up to a daunting number of weekly miles; I had my suspicions he would do a good job this year.

Over the first half of this year I'd gradually got over Achilles Tendonitis, or rather I'd found a way to manage it and still keep on running which is essentially the same thing really isn't it? The miles were adding up and things seemed to be going well until a month out I came down with the flu. Not the "man" variety, the laid up in bed, shaking like a shitting dog, can't do anything for a whole week variety. Damn, I hadn't been illl like this for years. After two weeks I was pulling through but the family holiday to France offered limited running opportunities and by the time I got home it was time for tapering! I'd had enough enforced tapering but a long run the week before wasn't likely to help and would quite possibly hinder me so I sat tight and hoped I'd done enough.

The start line of the Endurance Life Classic Quarter 2015 (c) Gareth Hayfield
Race day arrived, as did the three amigos and we made our way to the Lizard for the off. There seemed to be a lot more people at the start line this year - a fact confirmed by the results - about 270 lined up this year. Soon we were away, or rather we weren't, bottled up at the first narrow point it took a while for things to thin out and normal service to resume. Add to this my plan to run as steady even a pace as possible and I found myself being overtaken on the uphills and then stuck behind people who were not quite so happy to leg it on the steep descents as I am. Still the first few miles flew by, I didn't see Gareth after the start, Simon however was close by until somewhere near Mullion where he pulled away from me. Aha, I'll reel him in later, he's gone out too quick thinks I. How wrong I was.

I've been pretty happy with my nutrition on long runs for some time now and generally eat regularly from the outset - every half an hour, alternating between Torq gels and Baker boy flapjacks. The latter were a real find since they are tasty, individually wrapped and just the right number of calories. Better still, they're CHEAP. Given your average gel being about £1.50 and an eneergy bar a similar price running 20 miles or more can become a very expensive business. A five pack of baker boys flapjacks is £1.50 though, so this signfiicantly reduces the overhead. So far they haven't failed me...but this time around I'd shopped late in the week only to find that Tesco's were out of stock! Horrified I scanned the aisles for something similar, eventually deciding on Tesco's own range of very similar looking fayre. It wasn't until I bit into one a few miles into the race that I realised that looks can be deceiving; this was not the moist, buttery offering I am used to, more a super sweet dried out husk of a thing that clagged up my mouth and refused to be swallowed. Oh well, I'd have to put up with them they were all I had. This, combined with the increasing heat of the day meant I was taking in more water than I was used to, but I didn't see that as a problem early on.

The race continued through the first checkpoint - I came through Gunwalloe at 9 miles in 1:49, pretty much exactly on target pace for this section. The next miles out to Porthleven flew by and I chatted for a while with another runner who turned out to be local and a climber. I stopped to get more water in Porthleven - back in 2013 I ran out of water between checkpoints after running past a water stop and I was ken not to repeat that experience again. We ran around the harbour and out onto what I knew would be a tough section. Still I was on pace - ahead really - and feeling good, but as the hills arrived I forced myself to hold back a bit. I let the group I was with pull away and settled back into running my own race. Sure enough as the hills around Rinsey passed by I dropped down about 30 seconds per mile on average but this was all part of the plan. Provided I kept a steady pace up to half way I knew I would be faster on the flat section around Mounts bay and needed to keep something in reserve for that.

After a long stretch down from Rinsey and along the back of Praa Sands we arrived at the compulsory bag check. This was the first time I had encountered a mid race bag check and was expecting it to be a logistical nightmare. As I arrived I recognised Steve Wyatt and shouted out congratulations for his recent Enduroman victory. Steve kindly offered to refill my bottles while my kit was checked by a marshall managing to simultaneously check four of us at once. Consequently we were in and out in a couple of minutes.

The next section up to the halfway point is always harder than it should be - there are no really big hills but it undulates and so feels more runnable than it is. I felt quite tired as I approached Perranuthnoe and worse, I was developing a nasty bloated feeling stomach. It actually got so bad I skipped eating for an hour and decided at that point to try and just eat gels as I'd brought a few extra with me. Not wanting to stop I just filled up and ran through the check point and got up to Marazion in no time it seemed. This was where I needed to make some capital of the flat runnable section but it turned out my legs had other ideas. I just didn't seem to have any go and whenever I pushed the pace I could feel the beginnings of cramp building in my calfs. Instead of opening up and running strong I was reduced to a shuffle. Rather than stop and recover a bit I forged on at this reduced pace as I had it in mind that I needed to run this whole sectoin. In hindsight a walking break or two might well have got me back on track.

Mounts bay is interminably long and almost all on tarmac or concrete, following Penzance is Newlyn and I welcomed the hill out of town as finally I could allow myself a walk. Another mile or so lead me to Mousehole and the formidable regennis hill. Once done though I was back on the trail though to be honest I was in a bit of a low. I knew I wasn't going as well as I could do and I still had the hardest setion to come. Still it was a relief to finally arrive in Lamorna. Again a quick refill and off, scrambling up the rocks out of the harbour the reality struck - this was going to be a slog.

Last year at the Plague my quads gave out pretty badly about 40 miles in and I found running downhill a real problem but even in the final miles I was still able to climb reasonably well. So it was puzzling to find I could barely get any strength to get up the steep hills in this last stage. At several points I was having to stop and let the lactic acid ache subside before I could continue. I clocked some very slow miles at this point but then, out of the blue, I picked up. Around St Loy I started to feel a little better and found I could move more easily, even up hill. This is one of the funny things about long distance event likes this, suffering is rarely a linear descent; I was pulling out of the trough and cresting a wave of new found energy.

I arrived at Porthcurno in exactly 9 hours. With 5 tough miles to go I knew I would never reach my goal of getting in under 10 hours but I also knew I would finish, no matter what and at this point even if I walked I'd get to the finish faster than in 2013. Still I decided to give it my best shot and set out from Porthcurno with a mouthful of jelly babies and a mission head on. It had also occurred to me that I still hadn't seen Simon, he was clearly having a better race than me.

I was determined to enjoy this day, even through the lows so it was particularly satisfying to feel good in those last 5 miles. I crossed the line tired but happy in 10 hours 17 minutes, seeing my family straight away who took great pleasure in telling me Simon "finished ages ago". He stormed in in 9 hours 47 minutes. Having come DFL (dead fucking last) in 2013 he had set a nearly 4 hour PB! Gareth had also weathered his first ultra extremely well finishing in 10:39.

Smiles all round we headed off. Gareth and I were happy to hobble into Dominoes with Hannah and the kids before collapsing at home with a beer or  two. Simon on the other hand was off out having forgotten his girlfriends birthday was on the same day as the race!

Monday, 4 May 2015

Salomon Fellraisers

In an arse about backwards sort of way I thought I'd review my Salomon Fellraisers as I hang them up for now and switch to another make and model.  I've really enjoyed running in these shoes, they have served me well on so many levels and I will be continuing to run in them often I'm sure.

Ever since I started running off road and looked at getting a pair of trail shoes the Salomon range appealed. On several occasions I had slipped my feet enthuastically into the brightly coloured saw toothed monsters that are the Salomon speedcross, hoping each time that last time I was wrong and that they really did fit, but alas, it wasn't to be. Too narrow at the front and with far too much heel at the back I just couldn't get on with them.

Then along came the Fellraiser, not the best looking shoe if I'm honest about it, something about their shape initally made me think "Clarks" but put them on and oh wow what a difference. Much more room up front but snug fitting everywhere else - glove like in fact - and with a significantly lower profile (the Fellraisers heel-toe drop is 6mm), these immediately felt like a shoe I could get on with.

That sensible exterior is made up of a sort of plasticy faux leather which looked pretty hard wearing with mesh in between for good drainage.  Underneath the sole is almost identical to the Speedcross; that aggressive chevron pattern covering the whole shoe.

The speed laces work well - although I know not everyone is a fan - holding my foot securely and with no slipage around the heel. Despite being pretty low profile they actually feel pretty well cushioned, helped to this in part by the Orthofit insole.

Out on the trail the Fellraiser performs well in almost all coditions, wet grass, mud and loose ground are no match for the Salomon sole...the only weak point being in crossing wet rocks where the grip is not that reassuring. This in part can be put down to the agressively lugged sole but I think the rubber compound also contributes, being quite hard and so not too grippy. On the coast path though for the most part I feel confident in the placements I am making. The close fit also makes a meal of even the most technical ground.

What has really impressed me is their durability. That hard rubber compound has lasted well, the lugs still effective after a year of solid use and the upper looks good as new. So new in fact that, having bought a second pair I was having difficulty telling the old and the new ones apart! I retired my first pair after over 600 miles and really they were still going strong, but feeling a little like the cushioning was starting to go under my forefoot.  I've run on all surfaces and completed various ditances up to 100k with rarely even a blister to show for it. I'm a fan, you might have noticed.

Ultimately for summer use I have decided to use a slightly less agressively lugged, more cushioned shoe (more on this soon), but the Fellraisers will still be my go to shoe for winter and wet weather trail running. Salomon have not done anything noticable to "improve" them this year - although the new colours are, in my opinion, pretty dire - so hopefully they still size up pretty much the same and will continue to do so in future.

Friday, 27 February 2015

On the Arc of Attrition

On 6th February the inaugural Arc of Attrition was held on the coast path in Cornwall. 100 miles, from Coverack to Porthtowan, along the coast path. Billed as the South West's toughest foot race - and few would argue - this was going to be an amazing event.

I'd briefly thought about entering but my ongoing Achilles issues meant there was no way I would be fit enough so I was spared the decision.

Instead I decided to film the race.

I can't tell you what it felt like to stand on the start line with all that distance laid out in front of me.
I can't explain how it felt to head off into the evening on that Friday, or what I was thinking as the light soon faded.
I have no idea how it must have felt at 3am, navigating the coast path and knowing that I'd still be running at 3am tomorrow.
I didn't emerge on tired legs into the daylight and feel the first rays of the sun begin to breath energy back into my body, nor do I know how long that next day must have felt.
I can only start to imagine the feelings that would have flooded through me as the sun dipped down below the horizon at my back, while ahead there were still miles to go.
What that second freezing night had in store for those still out there only they can tell.

What I do know though, is that this was another triumph from Mud Crew. Organising a race such as
this must be a logistical nightmare. The check points were professionally run and stocked with all manner of goodies, from pasties and soup to cake and hot drinks. That they were all in pubs was an additional comfort.

The online tracking allowed a military precision to the event and meant everyone was kept safe throughout.

The following week saw many on social media echoing what I've just said, that this was a brilliant, if brutal event.

 For my part I did find out how cold it gets trying to sleep in a car when it's -5 outside. In fact it was impossible and I gave up after half an hour. I'd love to thank whoever the lovely lady was at Mousehole that gave me a bowl of soup and a thick slice of bread when I got there, it really perked me up. I also found out just how spread out the runners would become in the space of twelve hours. By the time the first runner was through lands end I had set up a little camp on the hill above Sennen, in three and a half hours I saw about twelve runners. Lastly I learnt that freezing cold temps and constant video rather than photography destorys batteries; consequently I had to rush hom and recharge things half way through the morning which really cut down on how much filming I could do. chalk that one up to experience. On the whole though I had it easy compared to the runners, their crews and the marshalls.

Last time I followed an ultra throughout its length (photographing the Plague in 2012) I ended up entering the next year. Not sure about this one. I think this year they were lucky, the weather can't be that good again and who knows what it would have been like in torrential rain? Still never say never...

If you are one of the few people I haven't yet nagged into watching the film then its here for your viewing pleasure:

The Arc of Attrition from Andrew Benham on Vimeo.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Kinetic Revolution 30 day challenge

During November & December last year I took part in the Thirty Day Challenge, a free online set of training drills aimed at improving your running. Ultimately I failed the challenge which is why I have hesitated to write anything about it. Over the last few weeks though I've come to realise that I still gained a lot from it and will soon be repeating it to see how I get on second time around.

I've followed the James Dunne and his Kinetic Revolution webiste on twitter for a while now and read many of his articles, watched videos and so on; the thirty day challenge has routinely popped up in my in box inviting me to take it on and "Run stonger - Run faster". So with the long drawn out process of trying to rehab my achilles preventing me from putting in any serious mileage and a realisation that I needed to build myself back up to fitness slowly and methodically, taking advantage of this moment in time to actually do some cross training and strength work seemed a no brainer. I'm no athlete, I generally follow a fairly well structured plan when training for a race, but all the other stuff like eating properly, staying off the beer and hitting the gym are less evident in my preparations. Perhaps that is why I'm injured? I'm also under no illusions, running needs to be fun, I'm not in contention for any kind of podium place, even in my age group, so there's no reason to get too excited about it all.  That said I do want to be as good as I can be and I definately want to get stronger and prevent further injury.

The course is divided into 6 sections of 6 days. Each section concentrates on a particular aspect, aiming to increase flexibility and strength and concentrating largely on the hips.

The first section felt easy enough and really lured me into a false sense of security with some easy but unflattering balance and stretching routines - when someone walks in on you doing the abductor stretch you'll know what I mean!

Section two was more about strength - some of these involved an element of balance - the single leg dead lift for instance - and revealed to me some serious weaknesses, especially on my left leg.

In the thrid section there was more stretching - I found areas within my hips I never knew about - and some basic plyometrics - hopping on one leg for instance. The latter part worried me as my achilles seemed to feel it more than I'd like but there seemed not to be any lasting effects.

Section four was resistance band work - oh good a nice easing in difficulty. Err.. no. Actually found this really hard and although I was familiar with some of these exercises they really worked me hard. James has created a series of alternatives for anyone unable to get their hands on a resistance band so there are no excuses!

Finally came section five - here the routines were all running drills concentrating on form, and it is here where things fell apart I'm afraid. My achilles to flared up a bit (delayed onset from the plyometrics or just bad luck?) and this combined with the advent (sorry) of Christmas, meant I missed the last few days.

I've read a lot of comments from people who have done the course saying they set a PB during or straight after; this wasn't the case for me, though no surprises there as I am still rehabbing my achilles. Over the last few weeks though I've noticed that I keep accidentally running too fast! My easy pace over 6 miles has increased and on some harder efforts I've found myself going much quicker than I had intended. Now there is too much at play to point purely to this course but I'm certainly very aware of the way I drive my hips back now.

I found out a lot over the month I was doing the challenge: my balance, especially when moving my centre of gravity, is appalling and needs work; my hips flexors are weak and my left leg is especially lazy (I knew this already but this course really underlined it).

James obviously wants us to be inspired by his free coaching to sign up for some paid stuff - asking us to unlock our "free speed". For now I'm going to repeat these exercises until they don't feel like they are killing me and hopefully next time around I'll get to the end of the course.

Here's the link for anyone who is interested:

Friday, 28 November 2014

Like the Wind

I've just finished reading the 3rd issue of Like the Wind magazine and I thought I'd share the news: this is a magazine with a difference!

I met Simon & Julie Freeman, the brains behind this publication, at the Trail Team selection weekend in the Lake district earlier this year. I must admit when they showed us the magazine I was put off by the price. At £8 it seems like a lot of money.  It took a couple of issues and the accolades of many people online for me to get over myself and buy a copy.

The thing is though this is not your average magazine. Produced on thick, reclycled paper, beautifully illustrated and with not a single advert in a hundred pages, this is a collection of stories, varied in content and style but with a common theme; a love of running.

The variety is impressive, from charity runners competing in fancy dress, to historical pieces on the characters of our sport, poems, opinions on the nature of addiction and one or two star entries: a short piece including a recipe for cinammon buns from none other than Emelie Forsberg and an interview with Killian Jornet by Ian Corless.

Each article is illustrated or accompanied by wonderfully evocative photographs and just long enough to sit over with a cup of coffee.

What you won't find, in addition to the adverts, are those pointless, how to be a better runner in a weekend style recipes for success the more standard magazines are full of. The emphasis here is on quality writing and its a joy to read. And as for the price? Well bear in mind the feature rich content, there is no fluff, just a hundred pages of words and pictures. And the fact that this is a quarterly edition, so a year long subscription is £40 including the postage. 

I think this represents the future of print media; niche markets, quality products, something tactile and lasting that you will want to keep on the coffee table or bookcase.

So am I converted? Well if you hadn't already got that from my comments above lets just say I'll be adding a yearly subscription to my Christmas list this year and leave it at that.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Injury reframed

Following on from my previous post I thought I should give an update on my ongoing achilles injury. Last week I visited a new physio - Paul Coker at the Treatment Centre in Truro. What makes Paul different from previous physios is that he is also an ultra runner which has to be a good thing.

We spent a good bit of time going over my history and when we got to the part where I mentioned my climbing accident and subsequent smashed up Calcaneous on the other (left) leg, Paul seemed convinced that this was where the problem was.

So here's the theory, broken and deformed Calcaneous, lack of movement & flexibility in certain planes of motion, significantly less strength in the left leg overall (Paul measured my calfs and I was surprised how different they were); all adding up to a leg that was not pulling its weight. The right leg therefore has to do a lot more work and probably impacts the ground harder, especially as I tire on longer runs, eventually causing the injury to my achilles.

There followed some massage to my injured leg performed with a kind of metal knuckle duster and without doubt the most painful massage I have ever received! What was really positive though was that in fact I should not be resting but continuing to run, albeit at reduced intensity for now. I have had a feeling, and Paul confirmed this, that the weeks off had made things worse, not better.  I am to continue with the eccentric heel drops but adding weight to make them harder.

For my left leg I need to work on the part of the muscle that prevents me standing right up on tip toe, currently I can only get up about half way as far on my left leg as my right. This I had assumed was a mechanical limitation I was stuck with but Paul thinks I can improve it: I have to hold myself in position for as long as I can, using as much assistance as necessary to stop my heel from dropping. Eventually once I can do this I will extend the exercise to full calf lifts but I'm a way off that right now.  Paul also thinks I can get some of the range of motion back - I currently can't turn my foot in fully. He thinks rather than a bone on bone limitation post-op this is all down to tightened tendons running down the front of my leg so I have some instructions - including a foam roller and pushing my foot into position - to get this mobility back.

And as for running, its ok for it to hurt! Paul asked me to judge my efforts on how sore I am after rather than during my runs, and this is the best news I could have! Its funny how a little confidence boost like this can make so much difference. I was running previously and wincing at every twinge I felt in my achilles. This weekend I ran free of the fear that I was damaging my foot, happy that in fact I was doing it some good - and the next day: no pain. So next weekend my long run will be just that little bit longer!

Its going to be a while before I am fully fit but mentally I am in a much better place and I'm sure I'm on the right track. Watch this space.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Identity crisis

It took a long time for me to call myself a runner. I ran but I wasn't really a runner. It wasn't until I completed my first marathon that I started to think of myself that way. Not because of the distance, that was unimportant; but it took something as big as that for me to change the way I ran. Up until then I just ran. Two or three times a week, usually a bit longer at the weekend.

In training for the marathon though I needed to follow a plan. Except I didn't do plans, I was all about spontaneity, right? Well, wrong as it happens. In fact I enjoyed following a plan, it took the uncertainty out of things. If the plan said intervals, I ran intervals, if it said hills I ran hills. Easy. And so the training became automatic and I began, slowly, to evolve; over time the act of doing transformed into a state of being; I became a runner.

So what does a runner do when they can no longer run? When the act which defines them can no longer be practised. These last few weeks, months even, I've been out of action with Achilles problems. As the weeks ran into months I started to doubt I could recover. I found this so frustrating, to have trained so hard and come to a new level of fitness only to be laid low, the strength draining from my legs with every day that passed. In my darkest moments I wondered whether I would look back in ten years time on these last two years as a blip, that brief moment in time when I was fit and could do amazing things.

Of course I will recover, I am already on the mend as it happens but it got me thinking, what happens when, as will be the case for us all, I can no longer run or climb, how will that feel; how will I cope with that? I need to work on my patience, that's for sure, or I'm going to have a sad few years stored up in the future. I have to learn to enjoy all the parts of my life equally, take a lay off due to injury as an opportunity to get things done - the little things that slip when everything revolves around training, to revel in a lie in or a lazy lunch break. Time, for now at least, will heal all ills and soon enough I'll be fighting fit and training hard.