Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Sierre-Zinal - A lesson in planning and patience


Sierre-Zinal. What an iconic race: the course, the views, the history.

Ian's photos and race summary here ( iancorless.com)

Sierre-Zinal has its place in my own running history as my first ever long race (in 2012). The first time I raced more than a half marathon and the first time I considered a race having climb of a four figure nature. And it showed. I took the short-distance racing attitude of 'how hard can it be?' where the punishment for misjudging it is a painful last few km. The result was painful last 20km.

A slightly older, wiser and more experienced racer stood on the 2014 start line. I had a race plan backed up with split times I thought were achievable. And this is how it broke down:

It's all in the planning.
I guessed at realistic times based on my 2012 splits, others' better paced races and a better knowledge of my own times on hills. It was deliberately generous on the first climb.
For info - rough actual splits: Chandolin 1.34, Tignousa 1.55, Weisshorn, 2.24, Finish 3.23

The crucial part of the strategy was the steady start. I refuse to let myself 'race' for the first hour, running with the head not the heart. I had to let girls pass me without any fight. I didn't rush to overtake people but kept a steady pace. I ran the climb but on occasions when I slipped I took care to relax for the next minute and get rid of any lactic. It was a real test of patience.
We all got our fair share of pain at the
refreshment points as Riina pointed out.

And then we hit the 'flat'. In rough terms it was about 10km with around 600m climb but there were some small undulations. It's fast if you've got the legs for it and after such a controlled start I hoped I would. Although you can play things safe, it's hard to know exactly what state your legs will come out in after 1400m of climb. I started to test them out by giving myself a few targets ahead to help pick up the pace and find a faster rhythm.

I found myself with a girl setting a very good pace and it helped to sit in and just follow the footsteps in front. We ran quite a few km like this, alternating occasionally, but I never seemed to be in front for long. Again I restrained from any racing moves to drop her - we hadn't reached the 2 hour mark and the white building of Hotel Weisshorn had only just appeared on the skyline.
These things are so much better shared with friends.
Thanks for the company Riina!

I remembered this climb being the final nail in the coffin last time, the altitude (reaching 2400m) seemed to grind me to a halt. This was the part I suspected I would feel bad so I zipped up the man suit in advance, ready to hit the wall. No sooner had I done this than the girl by my side disappeared as if in reverse. I looked back at the next bend and there was at least 100m between us. This climb can do funny things to people.

I kept on running, waiting for it to be my turn to really suffer. I'm not going to pretend I wasn't hurting, but I was still progressing and fast at least relative to the rest of the runners around me. I got the high point of the course and I was buzzing with excitement. It was all downhill and I was one minute ahead of my earliest expected time at Weisshorn. Sub 3hr 30 is on, sub 3hr 25 could be possible! To make things even better, I ran past a pipe band (yes at 2400m). I shouted a white lie at them 'I'm from Scotland and that's amazing!' (I wasn't really going to stop and explain my nomadic British origins) but the result was they struck up into 'Scotland the Brave' and my grin got even bigger.

I was just behind a girl I'd caught on the last climb but she proved to be a great descender and I couldn't find a way past her. In fact she got a few metres on me and I found no way of getting them back. At least my competition was versus my watch and I was nailing that battle. But a few km later I found myself right back with her as we hit one of these brutal undulations. Thankfully my continental descending skills seem to be far superior to my Scottish ones and I pulled away in the final 3km steeper section. I hit the road at 3 hr 21 with 500m downhill to go. Doable.
My recent fondness for natural ice baths may have come to an end.

It felt amazing. Amazing to have so many people cheer you in. Amazing to have beaten those 2012 Sierre-Zinal demons. Amazing to have enjoyed the course how it was meant to be enjoyed. Amazing to sit and watch the hundreds of runners come in over the following few hours and I wondered what their stories would be. You couldn't run the race and come out without one.

Monday, 4 August 2014

World Orienteering Championships


It’s taken me a while to write this blog post but I’ve still not got anything really insightful to say. I knew I wasn’t running as fast as I wanted to be, I know the reasons, I know what I’m going to change for next year. But the World Championships was about getting the best out of the legs I had and actually I wasn’t too far off that.

I probably did max out in the individual sprint. I picked almost every route correctly, I kept hesitations to a minimum and 12th place was the result I got. I’m not going to lie - the position wasn’t what has got me out the door this winter but it had threatened to be a lot worse as I’d been making bizarre mistakes in every race and training session in the lead up.

Photo: worldofo.com and athlete profile here

But there were a lot of things about that sprint final day that put things into perspective. Running in the World Championships final around the streets of Venice was such a privilege and it was nice to be able to realise that at the time. It really felt special and looking back at the photos of that run in does give me that goosebump feeling again.


The other awesome thing was that my family came out to watch the race. Some of them haven’t been to an orienteering event before and it made me proud of our sport as they got really into it. It was also cool to see my Dad at the finish line who has been working in Ukraine since March. His near-daily emails have certainly put my ups and downs during this time into perspective. I’ll leave the politics to people like him but it was especially nice to see Nadiya Volynska make it onto the podium.

Amazing GB support every day despite the rain.
Photo: Dave Rollins
The sprint relay was the new one and we didn’t really know how it was going to go. The only thing we knew was four clean runs was essential. Gaffling had the potential to hide mistakes or exaggerate them so we just knew that as a team we needed to get round our legs cleanly and it would even out in the end. It was really satisfying to do that and we were dead chuffed to end up on the non-existent podium. However, I think if we are honest we’d probably all hoped that that performance might land us a little higher than 6th. Maybe we overestimated ourselves or underestimated others, or maybe we lacked something physically in the recovery from the sprint final or negotiating the treacherously slippy streets. 

Four clean runs! Four soaked athletes.
Photo: Dave Rollins
The relay was my final race of the week but first time in the team. I have really mixed feelings about the race. I knew my capabilities in the terrain, I knew that coming back in the lead pack was ambitious. I said I would run sensible and come back in that chasing group and if you’re generous, that’s what I did. Parts of my performance were really not sensible, I struggled with the relocating bit but I was pleased not to lose it completely. I pulled through in the last part of the course, helped by big hills, Emily Kemp and others losing it completely. So while it may not have been a great individual race, we were still firmly in the fight as I changed over in the 7-9th pack. Thanks to my teammates Claire Ward and Cat Taylor we managed another non-podium 6th place – the best GB women’s WOC relay result in 10 years.

First experience of WOC first leg.
Photo: Attackpoint.org

So am I happy with the season? I have to be to some extent. Measured against my own aims, I did manage to improve my forest orienteering. Time lost in mistakes has definitely reduced and I have even managed some decent international results. It’s hardly rocket science to attribute this to more hours in the forest in the winter/spring and I have to thank Silva for their support providing me with a headtorch that has opened up the world of night orienteering to me again! Although my WOC sprint result was disappointing, it was one of the best technical races I’ve run internationally. Ultimately I was just a bit too greedy this year, wanting success in forest and sprint orienteering, long and short hill races and all the local road and cross country races I like to do. And I was also a bit stupid, I didn’t deal well with things going wrong. But that’s all part of it and as bad years go I’ve been pretty lucky.

So, another WOC, another orienteering season done and the motivation is high. Next stop Inverness 2015*.

*via a few high mountains.

The first high mountain visited at 7am before the flight home. Monte Cornetto.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Pushed to the limit - Mont Blanc Vertical KM


Vertical KM races push you to your limit. It's usually about 8 minutes before I look at my watch and start doing dubious mental arithmetic to work out how far through the race I was, am or will be at the next corner. Soon after that there's not enough oxygen to dedicate to those thoughts and it becomes a long battle trying to override every screaming muscle that is telling you to stop, keel over and never come near a start line again.

My experience at the Mont Blanc Vertical KM (the 2014 Skyrunning World Championships) was that and then some. It's fair to say I was carrying a bit of athlete baggage into the race. The negative feelings after a poor year of training were magnified as I was repeating the race I did well in last year and I was returning to the sport of Skyrunning that I had left at the end of last year on such a high. Inevitably this combination led to a fairly intense and painful race experience.

The course starts in Chamonix centre and after a brutally steep tarmac section you hit the path under the ski lift to Brevent. The gradient is pretty runnable by Vertical KM standards due to the zigzags and it continues all the way up until about 700m. The crowds were phenomenal - lining the course all the way up the slope and with my name on my bib it all felt quite personal (thanks Basingstoke and Moorfoots!)

Ideally I'd have got through the zigzags in a nice rhythm using up as little mental energy as possible ready for the rock climbing section and final push. However it was never going to be that way: rose-tinted memories of how easily I flew up the slope last year made this year's trudge seem far worse than it was. It wasn't just my legs wanting me to stop, it was my head. There's only so many times I could say 'Shut Up Legs'.
Photo from @LaCaveAJaife

Without wanting to be too melodramatic, there was quite a bit of soul searching going on out there. It's one thing not being fast enough but another to not be strong enough to overcome a bit of pain. I'm not a quitter, am I? Maybe I am? It all started to feel quite important out there, a test of character rather than speed, but maybe it has to in order to convince yourself to keep going.

The crowds reappeared at the top section to watch us scramble through some rocks. It was a little hairy with legs and arms full to their limit of lactic on a gradient so steep it was hard to know where to get the next hold. At least the concentration required for that was so great that the ongoing battle against my legs couldn't continue to dominate every thought.

But the toughest bit of all was coming out through the skilift centre and seeing the finish banner all of a few hundred metres away. The crowds were brilliant but I felt like a snail, barely making forward progress. Everything went into that end-of-race slightly warped feeling - time and distance all feeling longer than they should. I searched every memory of my epic sprint finishes to boost me along and quickly exhausting them, I was left on default - imagining I'm Mo Farah at London 2012. This seemed more delusional than ever as I stumbled across the line in a time about 3 minutes off what I did last year.

Thinking it back through with the benefit of perspective and a bit more oxygen, I can see how those 48 minutes became an intense self-indulgent mess of emotions. All worries and frustrations were over-exaggerated, and the ability to get up a very steep hill quickly seemed to rank far higher on the list of important things in life than it should ever do.

Photo from Ian Corless (Talk Ultra/ iancorless.com)
But that's racing. And it's probably why it is addictive. Whilst my overriding memory of the race is going to be one of pain and disappointment, I'm proud of the way I raced. I've no doubt I'll be recalling these memories in future races. The bar for quitting has been raised that little bit higher.

It shouldn't be a footnote but I do need to thank Arc'teryx for their understanding through all these ups and downs, sending me to these races and supporting me no matter what the result. Thank you also to sister company Salomon (all part of Amer Sports) who have given me race shoes for this year. I can genuinely say that this has made a world of difference after the foot problems I have had.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Finland: forests and fences


Another week, another country. I swapped the Italian mountains for Finnish lakes, extended the hours of sunlight and trebled the number of midges. No less beautiful though - I will remember my drive back from Jukola at 2am with a pink sky and mist steaming off the lakes for a long time.

Running at a more civilised time in the morning than Jukola requires

Anyway, first up was the World Cup round in Imatra on the Russian border. Sprint qualification, final and then sprint relay. My performances in all three sprints were pretty similar: running speed was much better than I expected but I made a mistake about half way through. In qualification this involved running from 6 to 8 and so making the last part of the course a bit of a nervy game. Thankfully I scraped through and ultimately that's all you need to do in qualification.

The final was bonkers despite my preparations. I had expected fences and a really challenging course, however I'm not sure I could ever have imagined using fences to completely change the area like that. I'm also not sure whether I liked it or not and I doubt it matters whether I did.

Link to all the other maps here

But a few thoughts have materialised since the race on the whole fence issue:

- Firstly, the barriers were placed in unnatural places. When you see a road big enough for cars on the map, it isn't logical to have a barrier blocking it. It is really hard to pick out routes because the eye is naturally drawn to these features and in some cases, doesn't see it at all.

- Secondly, and sort of leading on from above, it felt lucky to some extent when you found the/a route. Because you could not predict where blocks would be, it felt a bit random as to whether the route you tried to spot had a barrier at the end or not.

- Thirdly, comparing route choices and picking the best was rarely possible for me. I found I had taken so much time to find a route that finding a second to compare with wasn't worth it. And on the occasions when I could see two options (often the shorter legs) it felt hard to compare lengths because there were so many unnatural s-shaped bends round fences.

Apparently they used 800m of fences! But not all were there to trick us - a really clever use
of fences was to extend corners on buildings to prevent crashes.
Photos taken from the very informative event twitter feed.

I fully appreciate that better orienteers than me will have been able to cope and this may actually be a list of the ways in which my orienteering technique isn't good enough. None of the points above are complaints, more observations on how I tried to deal with the courses set. I should also mention how impressive it was that the organisers pulled it all off so well. I can't imagine the manpower that these races must have taken.

The sprint relay was a fun experience and wildly different to the practice one we did 2 weeks ago in Italy. Not only were there fences but lots more teams capable of hanging with the pace. First leg didn't split up much at all and I came back in the middle of the chasing pack. My mistake this time was losing my place and risking it instead of checking. I had to work hard through the easier park section of the course to pull back through. My teammates did a better job as usual (Murray, Scott and Cat) and we finished 4th nation.

So I've got a bit of work to do before WOC in three weeks time but if I can get rid of this mistake that is creeping back into my sprinting then things are looking more promising than I thought they would.

The trip didn't stop there, the next stop was Kuopio where I flew into last year before WOC and I never thought I'd see again. It was Jukola time and for me this became mainly about getting experience on first leg of a relay as our team succumbed to various things including a mispunch. I was quite nervous about the terrain beforehand as I couldn't get much to fit on the training map the day before and it was rough physically. I went out to focus completely on my own race and see where that landed up rather than aim to be up in the top pack and hang on.


video


Particularly considering my uncertainties I am dead chuffed with my run. I really can't find much I would change with it. There were 2 controls in particular where I had to go a different way to those around me and both times I hit the control accurately. I'm proud of that as it takes some confidence to do so! I finished a minute down on the lead after being nearly 3 down at one point, although that seems to be mainly gaffling differences.

Magical sunset/rise over the military tents

I hope that this mistake free run can get me back on the right track in my sprinting as well. I've got this buzzing feeling that I've not had for a while though that could equally be sleep deprivation.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Life as a professional athlete (part 2)


Last time I was a 'professional' athlete it was by default: unemployed in a new city. In that sense this time round is a much better situation: given up part time job in outdoor shop, I plan to train like a beast until I start a PhD at the University of Edinburgh in September. I am trying to appreciate what could (hopefully?!) be my last long break away from the world of work without the stress of applying for jobs that makes planning ahead impossible.

Pro athlete = lots of training camps. Enjoying Italy.

However, it hasn’t started ideally. This blog could have been called Spring Frustrations – the sequel to the moan I had this winter. In the grand scheme of athlete injuries, I’ve had nothing major this year but I seem to have had a relentless stream of problems disrupting training for more than a few weeks. I suspect it might be because I am trying too hard – ever since November I have been trying to ‘catch up’ for training I have missed. I’ve been chasing the 2013 self in every race, every session feeling like I could see the fitter me up ahead. It’s not been a great place to be, rarely satisfied and as a result I’ve probably pushed the training load too far and this has resulted in niggle after niggle. But after 5 years of near continuous improvements in fitness it was about time for me to be tested...


I spent more time in Italy running in supportive shoes on the trails
rather than in the forest. Still, this was far more than I had expected to be
able to do and it was beautiful so I can't complain! 

...Which leads nicely on to writing a bit about a few schools visits I’ve done. I’ve been involved in two initiatives: WinningScotland Foundation’s Champions in Schools and Education Scotland’s Game On Scotland. There are differences between the two but essentially both programmes are trying to get elite athletes into local schools in Scotland to talk about our lives. One of the slogans has been ‘Be your personal best’ which sums it up quite nicely – trying to encourage kids to dream big, put in the hard work, not get deterred by setbacks, and applying this to whatever area of life they choose.  Each school visit ends up being different too but the main aim is to tell the story like it really is: the hard work and the disappointments are the certainties, the glamorous travel and podium smiles a bonus. So many of them will watch the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow this summer and hopefully that will inspire a few dreamers.

Talking to a small class of P3s

Talking to a whole school assembly
With WOC2015 around the corner, I’ve been able to talk about my ‘home games’. I was allocated two primary schools in the Moray area and I had a brilliant few days talking to kids who will have WOC on their doorstep. I’ve never been to schools were orienteering was so widely known – the effort put in by Moravian Orienteering Club and Scottish Orienteering is noticeable. There was such a buzz about the event already and I left thoroughly inspired by the kids’ enthusiasm. 

Getting a class to join in my core training session.

The King of the Forest trophy left an impression!

So now I’ve talked the elite athlete talk, it’s time to walk the walk. My foot has made a semi-miraculous recovery in the last week and hopefully it will now be green lights through until WOC. It’s at least made me appreciate every run and I’m ready to nail the hard sessions – I suspect the memories of the Moray schools will get me through a few.


Saturday, 26 April 2014

European Championships


My first ever European Championships are over and it was a bit of a rollercoaster. It was a good week in terms of performances and results for me even if there was nothing stellar. It's no secret that the organisation was not up to the standards we are used to for major championships and whilst laughable at times, it could be pretty frustrating.

My week started with the long qualifier but the chaos had already begun. The middle qualification day had been fairly surreal and there was no sign of that debate clearing up quickly. We had the promise that the maps were accurate and the controls would be in the right place but it's weird going out without a feeling of total trust in those things. As soon as something doesn't make sense, the immediate reaction should be "what have I done wrong?" I had to remind myself to think like that. Thankfully I avoided too much drama in the qualification race and was safely through in 7th place.

Cat and Claire's arms after the long qualifier - nice.

Not shin splints but thorn defences.

The following day was the sprint qualification, uneventful from my side of things which is how it should be. I enjoyed the course which gave me a lot to think about in the tricky housing blocks at the start and then an enjoyable run through the old town where you had to factor in climb to the route choices as well. I finished 7th in my heat again, knowing that I'd been hesitant at the beginning and eased off towards the end. Even so, the fast times posted were a necessary reminder that I really needed to up my game in the final.

So 24 hours later, after drinking my first ever cup of coffee in my life I was bouncing round quarantine like tigger chasing bees. I went out hard, decisive, none of my usual dithering on routes. Find one, take it, nail it. I finished being pretty happy with my run - my hesitation count low and no mistakes that I could think of. It was no surprise to see later that I had missed a few routes but that was always the risk. I ended up 9th, a solid result in one of the toughest sprint fields I've run against (5 Swiss girls ahead of me!)

Cheering on teammate Kris Jones to a brilliant 6th place.
Photo: Dave Rollins

Thankfully I got a rest on Monday cheering on teammates at the middle final. It all seemed to be going smoothly until late that evening it emerged that the long maps had been uploaded onto the internet. A mad few hours followed and we went to sleep not knowing whether there would be a long distance final. Amazingly I woke up the next morning to find out I would be racing with new courses planned and printed. I don't know how they managed that. My race itself was technically pretty good but somehow not as satisfying as it should be. I had three words in my head: compass, concentration and purposeful. I didn't manage the latter. I started off with total focus on the map deliberately not thinking about the speed. It was only when I saw the yellow and blue shirt of a Swede catching me that I managed to engage my legs. I decided to not let her overtake for as long as possible and in the end she never did. I loved racing by the end - I felt fast and in control and it was so much fun. I ended up 21st which is a respectable result I would have been very happy with at the start. But as always, there are always glimpses of what it could be. I'll try to take it as motivation for the future rather than being too annoyed at myself for now.

We may not get a medal often but when we do, we will certainly shout about it!
Photo: Dave Rollins

However, these were all thoughts I had much later on. After finding my lost SI card, it was all about my teammate Cat Taylor's bronze medal. Its been almost four years that we have spent training and competing together through so many ups and downs for us both. She has pushed me to my best results and I'm so glad I was there to celebrate her getting the medal she really deserved.

Two broken down cars later, it was time to focus on the relay - my first in a GB shirt since I was a junior. I had a job to do on first leg, probably the same as every other girl I lined up next to: come back in the mix. I just about did that, finishing about 45 seconds down, 7th in a stream of runners. I had a good start, wobble in the middle but a good finish. It didn't work out for the team in the end but one day it really will. I loved playing a bigger part in relay day than just spectating, again good motivation for the next few months training.


In sync with the man of the day, Gustav Bergman, on the spectator run through.

It was a small miracle that we got through the week with worthy winners of the finals. I'm sure there are a lot of people who slept even less than me during the week to ensure this happened. Thanks to all those who stepped in. Eva Jurenikova has written a really constructive blog about what could be done in the future.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Finding form


April's barely started but the orienteering season feels like it is in full swing. The last month has been busy with a week sprinting in Italy, a club (IL Tyrving) trip to the Danish Spring, the GB World Championship selection races and most recently two World Cup races in Spain. The World Cup races have been the highlight so far as I came 5th in an epic long distance and 7th in the middle distance. I've really worked on my technique over the winter and I knew there were some good races in me. I really clicked with the terrain and felt confident and comfortable racing. I'm not going to pretend that I would have got such good results had more national teams turned up but the performances were good and probably still World Cup PBs for forest races.

Photos from David Rosen

My long distance route.
GPS tracking seemed to be a bit unreliable so this is what I think I did!
(It's a bit clipped on the right. My computer skills not up to much.)

The weekend before was also pleasing in terms of performance but less so on the results side. We had our World Championship selection races in relevant limestone terrain to this year's competition - the stuff I had tried (and failed) to get my head around when preparing for the 2011 World Championships. I did a much better job this time round with two solid forest runs, not perfect, but I felt like they were a fair reflection of my ability. Sadly it wasn't enough to get an individual forest run which I had been half hoping to prepare for, but I am part of the relay squad. I finished the weekend off with a good sprint run, coming 2nd to a flying Cat. That earned me a sprint and sprint relay run, two races that were always in the plans. The full team is here and it's really exciting to be part of. We had a great world championships week last year and we're capable of surpassing that.

So with two good weekends in the last fortnight it's easier to put aside some bad runs at MOC where I couldn't explain why I was so far behind the winners. It's time for me to move on and forget about what I have and haven't done in training and get on and race. I'm clearly in decent enough shape to pull out some good results so time to get rid of the excuses and get ready to race hard at the Europeans.

 
Amazing forest in Italy

It's going to be tough preparing for WOC sprint in Venice

I'm really grateful to Silva UK for their support over the winter. I've been using the new race compass that has been designed with the Swedish Orienteering Team. It's really clear helping you to see more of the map underneath. Also, they provided me with a Silva sprint headtorch which I've been using for weekly night orienteering sessions. I think this training has been great for making me be so much more precise when orientering. It's also been great fun, thanks Forth Valley Orienteers!