“I am not racing because I am not fit, and I am not fit because I am not racing”
May 2016. My running mojo is broken, and I am struggling to find the motivation to prioritise my personal running, over organising running events for others. How do I balance my ambition to run a successful business, deliver excellence in my events, and have the self-discipline to walk away from a never-ending task list each day? How do I break this cycle?
Weeks quickly turn into months, and months will turn into years. Time suddenly feels as though it is rushing by, and despite it being a cliché, I am not getting any younger. Work keeps me busy, and to be clear, I am not complaining (I am simply stating a fact) because it is my choice to run my own business in the manner I do. I am already making some significant work-life balance sacrifices, such as climbing rarely, so that I can fit in some running around my work commitments. However, I am just not happy to slide into middle age.
In the weeks before the Cape Wrath Ultra™ I did actually start running regularly again. Nothing long, nothing hard, just 5-10km most days. It felt great, but as has so often been the case in recent years, the demands of a big event, with its inevitable compression of work into the preceding weeks catches up with me. Two weeks pass, and I don’t run a step. The event is a huge success, but I am shattered from weeks of intense work.
However, this time it is different. This time, I feel different after the event. I can literally feel the sense of motivation welling up inside me. I believe I was inspired by the obvious joy many of the Cape Wrath Ultra™ participants had experienced at the event, and I know that I must run. I must run hard again. I decided that I had to get out racing again. I was going to race myself back to fitness. I was going to put pride to one side, and regardless of my performance, I was going to try my hardest, and break the cycle.
I started with something steady, to get used to racing again…. The Ennerdale Horseshoe!
The problem with long races like the Ennerdale Horseshoe (37km / 2,300m) is that even the good runners start relatively slowly, and I find myself running with the leading pack despite knowing that I am far from race ready, but I am still fit enough to keep up with the leading group initially. Approaching midway and climbing the flanks of Green Gable, I still have the leading group of runners in sight, but my early enthusiasm catches up with me and I begin to suffer big time. My legs are suddenly weak. My head feels dizzy and I am bonking. "Gel. Gel. Gel… please".
A little too keen at the start of the Ennerdale Horseshoe 2016
Onward to Kirk Fell. I have been alone since losing sight of the leaders at Green Gable, but now I glance back nervously and see dots turn to stick figures, who in turn transform into fell runners as I am closed down.
I have painful cramp in my adductors. For the first time in my running career, I get overtaken whilst lying down trying to relieve the cramp. Dark Peak's Mike Robinson offers some sage advice and a smile as he passes me. I get up, not because of his helpful advice or reducing cramp, but because the grass pollen is making me itch terribly! The last 5km from Iron Crag should be fast, but instead they are tortuous, and take me almost an hour with breath-taking cramp in both legs. Whenever I try to run at more than a humble-along pace (and especially when I climb the occasional stile) searing cramp burns my legs. I’ve completely overcooked it. Perhaps this ‘race myself fit’ strategy wasn’t such a good idea? I finish 12th but know the result is extremely flattering. It is a small field this year with a championship race drawing many of the best runners elsewhere.
The following weekend (Saturday 18th June) I am back on Jasmin duty, having helped with her awesome Bob Graham Round in April. This time I am heading to some of my favourite mountains to support her Charlie Ramsay Round attempt. Jim Mann, Konrad Rawlik and I were supporting the second leg.
The leg one runners arrived at the Allt Eilde (800m south of Meanach Bothy) looking busted. Jasmin breezed through, and we were off without a second's pause. There was great banter and we were steadily knocking minutes off Jon Ashcroft’s current record splits – as she had also done on the first leg.
Jasmin Paris (centre) with Charlie Ramsay (front left) and her successful Ramsay Round team.
Descending to Loch Trig dam, Jim and I could see that the support team for the final leg weren’t there. We discussed… unsure if we were delighted at the possibility of continuing, or dreading the thought of another 6 hours of Jasmin speed. We had packed additional food in case of this eventuality and, out of earshot of Jasmin and Konrad who were 50m behind us, we prepared ourselves to start leg 3. Less than a minute before we arrived, the support team of Jon Gay, Finlay Wild, Jon Ashcroft and Alex McVey appeared, walking up the path to the dam. I think they were as surprised to see us so early, as we were relieved to see them!
Jasmin Paris finishes her awesome record-breaking Charlie Ramsay Round, setting a new overall record.
The following week, I had two long days in the office to meet some deadlines, one long day of travelling for an important meeting in the south, and then back to Scotland for another set of meetings with various stakeholders in the Skyline Scotland weekend. It’s a punishing schedule and often leaves no time (or energy) for training, but I did manage to squeeze in a test run of the VK Course whilst in Scotland. I was tired, but the Darren Holloway Memorial Race (the Buttermere Horseshoe – 35km/ 2,500m) was my plan for the weekend, and with my wife Heather away climbing, I had little reason to go home on Friday night, so instead slept in the van in the northern lakes after driving back from Scotland.
As we started up Whiteless, Mike Robinson reminded me to go a little steadier this time. I knew it was good advice, but with two weeks’ training in the bag since the Ennerdale Horseshoe, I had therefore done more than double the training I had before Ennerdale. I decided to basically follow the same strategy as last time; namely go at an unstainable rate relative to my current fitness, and hope that I’d be able to struggle through the final stages. Old dogs and new tricks….
I actually had a fairly good run until Seat (just south east of High Crag), when I took a duff line and binned a few minutes. As I glanced back, I could see a small group of runners closing me down steadily. I accepted the inevitable. The group caught me on the climb to High Stile, and the group included Jasmin… Hang on!? Didn’t she run a record-breaking Ramsay Round last weekend? Surely she was tired? The moment I was caught coincided with the cloud dropping around us. We fell into that inevitable haggle of fell runners grouped together, with no one initially checking if anyone actually knew where they were going, or was indeed navigating at all. I was. I knew where I was going and the weather was helping to slow the group for the time being, which suited me just fine.
Then we dropped out of the cloud, and Jasmin changed gear and rapidly pulled away from us all. There were the usual comments about being ‘chick-ed’ which I tend to find annoying even when said with a smile (just face it lads, she is a better runner than you!).
Over recent years I have really embraced a philosophy of asking myself, “am I doing the best I can, right now, on this particular day?”. Importantly, this is not the same as asking, “am I doing the best I can, ever?”. Inevitably, the ‘best ever’ approach is a ridiculous ask of oneself.
And so, as Jasmin began to pull away, I simply asked myself whether I was doing the best I could, right now, today? The answer was a definite no. If this was the closing stages of a mountain marathon – my favourite event – I would be demanding far more from myself. So, as the rest of the group resigned to being ‘chick-ed’, I decided that I would go with Jasmin. The decision process wasn’t drawn out, just a few seconds of reflection, leading to a renewed sense of purpose, a surge of adrenalin and motivation.
Broken again. nearing the end of the Darren Holloway Memorial Race. Jasmin has just dropped me near the summit of Mellbreak.
We descended to Scale Force together, leaving the group trailing far behind very quickly. I’d planned the Great Lakeland 3Day in this area earlier in the year, so I had some recent familiarity, and managed to pick up the initial trod contouring the hillside, but then lost it in the tall bracken. As we climbed Mellbreak, I could feel the cramp returning to my legs as it had in the closing stages of Ennerdale. Jasmin kindly said to me, “You are only feeling tired, because you were carrying my rucksack last weekend”. We both knew better. So I was finally dropped too, and watched Jasmin pull away over the summit. I chased as hard as I could, but my motivation was broken and the occasional glance behind reassured me that my position was secure. I finished 6th.
The following Tuesday, I was in Cornwall visiting my family with Heather. It was a half holiday, half working week. We settled into the routine of 6am starts, working through to midday, and then spending the afternoons catching up with friends and family. That evening, we head to the Multi-Terrain Series race at Boconnoc (8km / 200m) to catch up with some Cornish running friends. I knew I’d be tired from racing on Saturday and, with a 1.5km downhill start on the road, before hitting a long uphill section on the trails, I knew that most people would set off too fast. So I just let the stream of runners pass me. As we headed onto the trails and the first hill, I estimated I was 40th perhaps. Certainly a long, long way from the front.
The lessons learned from training hard in the past can be too easily forgotten. Like dealing with the discomfort of running hard on tired legs. Today my legs were tired and painful after Buttermere, but the memory of pushing through this just flowed naturally, and gradually I passed one runner, focused on the next, passed them too, and moved up through the field one by one to finish 4th overall. I was delighted with the result.
Two weeks pass and now I am in Europe for the OutDoor Show. I have planned it such that I have two days in Interlaken before the show, and a weekend in Canazei after the show for the Dolomites Skyrace, which this year is in the Skyrunning World Series.
The Hardergrat ridge
I meet with my friends Derek and Kim in Interlarken, who Heather and I met at the Tromso Skyrace last year. The following day we climb up to Hardermatte at the south western end of the Hardergrat ridge, immediately above Interlaken. At 08:30 the temperature is already rising fast, despite the shade of the trees. Breaking out from the trees, the full glory of the ridge is laid before us, snaking to the horizon north east and 25km away. It would be fair to say that we had underestimated this adventure. I’d seen the spectacular photos but assumed the technical, narrow sections of the ridge would be short-lived. In reality, around 20km of the ridge is technical and highly consequential: you would definitely fall to your death along many sections if you tripped off the narrow ridge path. The path itself is between 0.5m and 1.0m wide on the crest of an incredible grass ridge, that rises like a wall of green from the valley 2,000m below. It is truly spectacular and highly recommended for those with the right experience. However, today it became a sufferfest for us as the temperature rose into the 30s. We ran out of water and had to resort to eating old snow patches to keep us going. We arrived at Brienzer Rothorn sufficiently hot and bothered that the CHF5 can of coke felt like good value!
After a few days at the Outdoor Show, I travelled to Italy for a meeting of the Skyrunning World Series Race Directors that coincided with the Dolomites Skyrace. I had been generously given a last minute entry and felt excited to be racing in another classic alpine race, but the timing was poor and I was ill with a mild cold. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have raced, but with the incredible festival atmosphere in Canazei (where the race starts and finishes) I just could not resist and promised myself to take it easy…
Racing in Europe at its best: Dolomites Skyrace 2016
Taking it easy isn’t really an option with a race that climbs 2,000m in the first 10km, before plummeting straight back down the other side of the mountain. It’s an incredible course, and I just focused on a steady away approach during the long climb, before opening up a little on the long technical descent. I finished 85th out of 786 finishers (YES Skyrunning is a big deal in Europe!) and I was happy with the result given the circumstances.
The UK summer is now in full swing with a steady stream of midweek and weekend fell races to choose from. I am fitting in as much as I can, alongside some occasional appearances at Helm Hill training. I would like to do more, but work pressures do not allow. For the first time in ages though, I am walking out of the office to train in the evenings, leaving early for Wednesday night fell races, and I am feeling motivated again.
Bentham Sports Fell Race (actually more like a hilly trail race) is a lung-busting experience, but I settle with 3rd place and I am happy to be steadily improving.
Heather and I travel to the North Lakes in diabolical weather, expecting Fellside Fell Race to be cancelled, but in true fell running tradition it’s on. We arrive late, just minutes before the start because of difficult driving conditions, change and rush to start without a warm up. Consequentially the first climb is punishing, and my thighs burn with lactic acid on the inside and lashing rain on the outside. I love it, and I am satisfied to finish 5th.
Nothing beats trying hard. Trying really hard! Steel Fell Fell Race 2016
August, and I am enjoying training and race regularly. It’s been a long time coming, and I am motivated for everything suddenly. Steel Fell Fell Race is an obvious classic and I am keen to get some more uphill racing in my legs before heading back to Europe later in the month for one of my target races: Trofeo Kima. I run a good race, steady on the climb pushing as hard as I dare, and descending fast (but not recklessly) on the steep grassy descent. I even have enough left for a sprint finish, and the years spent training on the track with Cornwall AC prove their worth again, with a final surge propelling me to 5th.
My running mojo has returned. I am off to Trofeo Kima at the end of August for a long and technical alpine race that should suit me perfectly. September will be busy with Skyline Scotland followed immediately by the Rab Mountain Marathon (I won't be able to train for two or three weeks during this period), and then my A race of the year, the OMM at the end of October.