Thursday, 2 April 2015

A weird feeling

It’s a weird feeling. I’m heading to London to see family while everyone else heads to the Lake District for the JK. It’s a feeling I better get used to as it seems I’m going to have to watch this season from the sidelines.

Although things have improved a bit, I’m not yet back running. Even the best case scenario would be pushing it to be ready for the World Champs in August and, after what I’ve been through, pushing it doesn’t seem like the sensible road to recovery.

I’m hoping it’s not too long until I’m back starting that process though. I’ll probably return to a doing a few more twitter and blog updates at that stage but for the moment I’ve not got a huge amount positive or constructive to say. I’m really grateful to my sponsors Arc’teryx and SILVA who have been really understanding during this time.

Best of luck to all those competing. Enjoy it.

Photo taken from some tweet sometime.
If anyone has copyright issues with it let me know.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Earning my stripes

'The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley'

As it's not long since Burns’ night it seems appropriate to quote the incomprehensible Scotsman.

Things haven’t gone to plan, even though they were quite sensible of plans. Somehow I landed up with suspected pericarditis (an inflammation of the bit around the heart). I probably started training too soon after a virus but I wasn’t really aware of it at the time.

So training in 2015 is yet to start and still feels a bit of way off. Who knows where this leaves me in terms of this season. Obviously it’s too early to make big decisions but I am just about facing the reality that this won’t be the dream season I’d planned to make it.

That’s not been easy to take but it’s better than some of the possible outcomes that chest pains can cause. Being ill or injured is not fun for an athlete particularly one as obsessive as me. I’ve realised what a big part of my life it is – even other non-active hobbies are so much better after a good run or when planning the next one. But as I've probably said before, being ill and injured is just part of being an athlete too. I get the impression that everyone at the top has been through one of these ‘career-in-doubt’ moments and so I'm trying to see this as my turn to earn my stripes.

Some of the last runs I did in 2014 in Torridon. At least they were good ones! 

Friday, 17 October 2014

Limone Xtreme skyrace

"You seem like you've been in a gladiator fight" said the commentary lady jabbing a microphone in my face 30 seconds after finishing.

"Maybe that's a bit melodramatic but I certainly feel like I've been in battle out there" I reply.

I wasn't the only one.
The boys carnage after finishing, including Arc'teryx teammate Florian Reichart.
Photo from Skyrunning Italia facebook page.

Ideally I'd be writing this blog about how I fought through the elements on my way to a top performance but sport doesn't always present the perfect story. Instead I find myself describing the fight that ended with average position on the results board, however that shouldn't take away from a race that really lived up to its name as the 'Xtreme SkyRace'.

The front of the race leading the way through the streets of Limone-sul-Garda.
The limoncello stand on the right an optional first drinks point.
From the Limone Xtreme facebook page

The start is on the edge of Lake Garda and like all the best Italian races, the first km involves weaving through narrowed cobbled town streets cheered on by fans, spectators and confused tourists. There's a supposedly flat 2km section before the hill starts but that was only in a relative sense as it was still bumpy.

Then the hill starts for real. And never seems to stop. The race may only be 24km long but you're still climbing at 16km. I don't want to give the impression it's a gradual slope either - about 1200m climb in 7km is fairly wall-like.

Jono Wyatt produced a really cool video showing the course profile.
Either click the image or here is the link to his facebook page

Up we all go! From the Limone Facebook page 

I think the trick with these sorts of initial climbs is to make them as uneventful as possible. Later on in a race even the smallest bumps seem like mountains and so it's important to have something in the mind and legs to survive them. This was certainly my aim but I picked up a stitch after having a larger than expected piece of dry fruit at an aid station (it's always the little things!) there was no real option other than to run it off so I just kept going knowing that it couldn't last three hours so I was going to have to feel better at some point.

After a bit of a lethal downhill we were back on the climb to the highest point of the course at 1600m negotiating the tricky trail in cloud with about 10m visibility. I caught a struggling but ever-smiling Emelie Forsberg who helped distract me from the pain (it was more talking-intensity for her than me though).

The cloud came in - a photo from the amazing Jordi Saragossa.
His facebook here - his website here

But what comes up must come down... Oh dear, it was quite muddy. After three falls in the first hundred metres I realised this was going to be an interesting one. It may not have been the most sensible tactic but I figured I just needed to throw myself down faster. Backwards logic but if you haven't got any brakes then don't rely on them. It was about this point that thunder rolled across the valley and the heavens opened. Admittedly I did need a shower. There wasn't really much for it other than to plough on and make a joke of it in who knows what language with the other runners.

Just throw yourself off the hill - it will be fine!
Found image here

Finally it was time for the bonus climbs (the published course profile was more artistic than accurate). The ups were now as muddy as the downs as the rain had hit when all the top men were going through this section and it had become like a good old Scottish XC course, except on a 45 degree slope. We were hanging onto branches to pull ourselves up and grabbing them on the way down in the hope of gaining some control.

After quite a few false shouts of "100m to the last summit" we seemed to finally turn for home. The slightly scary thought of being 1300m above the finish and only having 7km left to run crossed my mind but it wasn't like I fancied a longer route home either. The descent was fantastic and ridiculous at the same time. On the rare moments that I could take my eyes off the path, the views of Lake Garda were stunning.

Kilian showing everyone how to descend.

.....And collapse. After negotiating cameras, commentators and other runners with similar levels of energy and coordination to me, I made it to Arc'teryx team-mate Florian and some others who had already made use of Lake Garda's recovery powers.

From Jordi's twitter 
Just scraped into the prizes in 10th place winning a hamper of
limoncello, red wine, smoked trout and pasta. Dinner!

That may well have been one of the last battles I'll have with the hills for a while and it was as always perversely enjoyable. I'm not sure what next season holds for me in that respect but I know that I will be returning at some point for some more 'type 2 fun'.

As this season draws to a close it is an appropriate time to say a massive thanks to Arc'teryx who have given me the opportunity to test myself against the biggest hills in Europe and against the best runners in the world over the last three seasons. I've had some of my best experiences on and off the race course whilst on these adventures, which I've tried to share through this blog. I have run up and down things I never thought possible, raced for longer than I ever thought I could and redefined the word steep. Having these races to aim for has also influenced how I've trained back at home - discovering new routes on local hills, giving me a reason to travel further afield to bigger mountains, or finding that motivation to run up 1000m hills twice in one day. Thank you Arc'teryx for your support both when it's gone well and when it hasn't.

I also need to thank Amer Sports who provided me with Salomon footwear for this season's skyraces. These shoes are designed for the skyrace conditions and it is no surprise that my long term foot problems have improved since I've started wearing them.

And finally thanks to everyone who sends me nice messages of support, luck and congratulations either through this blog, twitter or facebook.

Now for some winter miles...

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Double British Champion

The summer has ended on a high with wins in both the British Sprint and Middle distance championships.  The September scheduling meant there was a reduced start field but I was pleased all the same to retain the sprint title from last year and to finally win the middle distance (the only individual British title I hadn’t won). I felt rusty technically and physically but this was a preferable outcome to blowing things on one control as I’ve done so often in the past.

Win for Murray too! 

Sunday also marked the end of my semi-professional orienteering/running career. I’m starting a PhD at the University of Edinburgh and I’m really excited about that. I still plan to train and race hard but just with a little less travel. This may even be a positive change as I’m not sure it has always been the best thing saying yes to every race possible, no matter what country it's in.

I’ve tried to make the most of the last 6 weeks by getting up in the Scottish mountains as much as possible. This started well but tiredness kicked in and it has been good to take a season break over the last few weeks, something I didn’t really do properly last summer and paid for it.

The real highlight of the summer* was spending a few days in Torridon with adventure photographer Colin Henderson and mountain guide/amazing climber Paul Tattersall from Go Further Scotland. I’d always wanted to explore these mountains and I felt so grateful to be up there with people who knew them well and in such perfect weather conditions.  I’ve put a few photos below but go to Colin’s blog for more. And then go to Torridon and see it all for yourself.

The next big race is the final SkyRunning race in Limone (Italy) in October although the priority has to be on getting properly fit and healthy so that I can get some big winter miles in by the end of the year. Motivation is high at the minute - the countdown to WOC2015 has started and the September sun is wonderful. 

*obviously the most exciting thing all summer was getting engaged to Murray. Yey!

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Double Vertical KM - Matterhorn Ultraks

Well that wasn't my best race ever and I can't really explain why. My stomach wasn't great for a large part of the race, my foot hurt, I felt a bit dizzy. But I think these are more excuses than reasons as there are always things that go wrong in a race. I find the best thing to do is ignore them and a good performance is usually there if I want it. That didn't really happen on the 2VK.

I think I ran past this lake. Or at least one equally amazing.
Photo taken from Matterhorn Ultraks facebook page

The course itself was fairly brutal. For starters we had a decent climb out of Zermatt (1600 ish) onto nice forest tracks followed by a gentle flat section before more climbing up to Sunnegga (2250ish, 6.5km). Then a small descent before the main course of a relentless climb up to Gornegrat at 3150m (total race distance of 14km). Ouch.

Despite it being a bit of a tough day out, it was still better than not being out at all. There was a magic moment I will never forget: seeing the Matterhorn appear over the skyline of the hill I was climbing, centimetre by centimetre as I got higher. A perfect blue sky and not a cloud touching it.

There's something special about a view that you've run to. You earn it. I think it's the same biking and I imagine climbing. You can get some amazing views from your car window but it's never the same as if you've run there. So I earned the privilege of watching clouds form on the side of the Matterhorn, identifying the peaks of Monte Rosa, looking at the incredible patterns in the glaciers. It was well worth it.

Peaks include Monte Rosa, Castor, Pollux, Breithorn, Kleine Matterhorn and then the Matterhorn itself in the clouds far right.

As a footnote - I have to be a bit honest. Although bad races are just part of being an athlete, I can't claim to breeze over it as easily as this blog might make out. I'm annoyed at myself and it gives me a good lot of motivation to put things right in my last Skyrunning chance of this season at Limone in October.

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 (

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: 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.

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.