The drive to Marignier from home is pretty spectacular, avoiding the google maps promoted routes via Evian or Chamonix, instead taking in the cambered curves of the Pas de Morgins, the sheep fields on the Col de Corbier and the Portes des Soleil ski towns ski towns of Chatel, Morzine and Les Gets. The route is riddled with memories for me: ski holidays from decades gone by, lay-bys once stopped in to marvel at autumn colours in the Val d’Abondance, hairpin bends where I have watched pro cycling greats ply their trade.
The ‘Mole’ appears before dropping into the town of Taninges, its grassy summit poking about above the tree line. We’ll have to go over that twice in the race.
There seem to be a lot more people around than last year, over 300 starters for the main race, and I worry that my aim of sub 5 hours will no longer be good enough for a top 10. Trail running is a fast growing sport, and here is the evidence. More pressing concerns are finding a parking space, the size of the queue for race numbers, and the need to both warm up and find the nearest toilet with 15 minutes to go until the race starts.
We line up, and it’s off up the road out of town. The ‘warm-up’ loop. This is the first 5km of the race, first on road and then trail, climbing more gently than the later efforts. We drop down a little, passing the spot I rolled my ankle last year, and I allow myself a smug grin that I am 100% fighting fit.
The first climb is an absolute beast: 1,200m of vertical gain in just 6km. There is not a lot of running going on, except for the brief road section half-way up, so it’s poles to the ready and working out if long strides or a fast cadence is more efficient. I end up doing a bit of both. Eventually the summit comes, and a race volunteer shouts that I am in 24th place- this surprises me- at the same point last year I was significantly slower yet in 18th place, curse all those other people like me getting into the sport.
I fly down the long descent, making up five places quite quickly. I can’t seem to put a foot wrong, and gracefully skip through the technical sections and glide over the many loose, rocky sections. Just as I am mentally congratulating myself for the improvements made in descending, I catch my left foot on a rock, and wipe out in dramatic fashion. Both knees smash into rocks, as do my left elbow and shoulder. I quickly get up, blood from gashes in my knees is already trashing my brilliant white compression calf-guards, and my shoulder hurts like hell. I wobble a bit, and test everything to see if it is broken, dislocated or just bruised. Two runners stop and look worried, there is a fair bit of blood, but I wave them on. I head on down, my knees hurting with each stride at first, but then the adrenaline and rhythm take over and in just a few minutes I am at the bottom of the climb.
At the half-way mark in La Tour, bottles are filled, and its back up again, a full vertical kilometre. By the top I’m flagging a bit, and the start of the middle descent is initially slow and painful, however confidence and the speed it brings return, and things look up. Again, just as I’m caught thinking that things aren’t so bad and sub- 5 hours is still possible, I fall for the second time, a carbon copy of the first, but with a less rocky landing. Nevertheless, the missing skin on my left palm loses another layer at the exact same point, my right knee bleeds some more, and I release an awful lot of expletives. Runners start passing me as a once again gather myself, not too many, but enough to let morale sink a bit. As I set off again, one, and then two tiny ladies pass me, light-footed and effortless on the down. I envy their small frames and efficiency.
The final climb is shorter, but we are into the midday heat now and it takes a toll. I pass a couple of people, including one of the girls, and settle into a sustainable pace. I pass a few British walkers chatting near the summit, and feel comfortable in my euro-runner disguise, surprising them with a cheery hello as I move through. The summit breathes fresh wind, but then my least favourite part of the race comes: the long drop.
The descent loses 1300m in under 5km, averaging -27%. My knees are trashed, and everything hurts. I pass somebody suffering with cramp, and then get passed myself by a group of four. I play a game of leap-frog with another runner, both of us briefly stopping to rest quads alternately, but as we reach the end I pull away, knowing there is just a kilometre to go. The second place girl passes me once again with her smooth descending, and I am unable to catch her as we approach the line.
I finished in 5 hours 9 minutes, a lot better than last year, but short of the goal. As the first aiders patch me up at the finish (for the second year in a row), I rue my lapses in concentration and over-confidence on the technical descents. Back at home, cold beer in hand and ice pack in full rotation around my body, things feel a little better: 50 minutes is a big improvement over this distance, and there is still time to lose more weight and train for the downs!
2016 was all about the running, with the road bike getting fresh air only a handful of times. The sporting aim of the year was to qualify for UTMB, and this was achieved, albeit with full knowledge that entry is still a lottery- you have to be in it win it! The draw is released on 12th January, and even if unsuccessful this time around, the events completed for qualification points led me on a journey that was pretty awesome in its own right.
The year started with a typical winter mixture of trail runs, ski tours when the conditions were good and nordic skating, all building the engine. The highlight of the month was when the deep snow came, making skimo laps from the front door possible, skinning out to the field at the end of my road and looping the fresh powder in the pastures.
A couple of runs stick in my mind from February: the first was cranking out some hill reps in a blizzard, a session I remember thinking would help toughen me up and test my kit. It helped. The second was a training marathon, running down the mountain for a flat 15km before turning and heading back up. The trouble was, the way back up had plenty of snow in the shady sections, changing the pace to a painfully slow one just when I was running out of ‘oomph’ anyway; in hindsight it was a good session to help deal with being forced to go slowly so close to finishing, something that would come in handy in races.
The long runs were in full swing by March, and a consistent theme of the first half of the year was discovering new trails further from home that injected new enthusiasm into my training, vindicating the decision to embark on the ultra project in the first place. One such run took me across a couple of valleys onto paths less trodden, past waterfalls that must only be seen by a few people each year. It is a wonderful privilege to live somewhere that continues to inspire.
April brought the need to keep up the mileage and also to travel for family and work, with the stand-out training run not in the Alps, but in the undulating green hills of North Hampshire, UK. When visiting family I scoured the map for an interesting long run, when I stumbled upon ‘Watership Down’ 15km from where I was staying. In my ignorance I had not realised this was actually a place, so headed out for a long one to go and see some rabbits. The best bit was not finding dead rabbits (there were lots) but finding myself crossing ‘the gallops’, a hilltop race horse training track. As I did so several pairs of race horses passed me clearly doing some sort of interval training; running on the path alongside them was invigorating, their power and speed infectious. I was reminded how the simple act of getting out of the door and moving can bring all manner of surprising experiences.
May was all about the Ultra Tour du Mole in the French Alps, a bonkers race that was basically 3x vertical kilometres with the down thrown in as well. This served as the perfect lead in to the summer ultras, but did leave me with my first bad ankle sprain of the year for which I have still been paying the price. I learned how to use poles effectively on steep vertical and to stow them for the descents, and that I would be better off carrying ibuprofen in future races.
After many misfired attempts to reboot training after the sprain, I finally got going by the end of June, and managed to get in the ‘big week’ that was a pre-ultra target. I had read somewhere that a good goal was to cover the same distance and elevation in a week of training as that of the race, so I pulled out a 114km running week towards the end of the month, feeling confident that the monster to come was actually possible.
The taper began in early July, and a quick hop to the UK to see my newly born niece provided the chance to get in one final speedy effort, at the Basingstoke 5k Park Run. I went out hard, and on the last lap it was down to just me and one other chap. The course was surprisingly hilly, so I used my alpine advantage to nail the final descent, getting a 10 metre gap. The reality however was that my training was not exactly geared up towards generating a finishing kick, so I was passed in the final 500 metres to the line, finishing second in just over 18 minutes.
Next was the ‘A’ race of the season, the formidable Trail Verbier St Bernard. This was a brute of a race, but I knew I was ready for it and my slow and steady strategy paid off with a respectable finish. The event was everything I’d hoped for and more, with slick management, epic scenery and the challenge I sought. Next year it will be faster or bust!
I allowed myself 11 days of no running (1 day for each 10km raced in the TVSB) and then started to rebuild into August, knowing that the base was there and the key was to avoid injury and burnout. I did manage two long runs, the first of which climbed up an incredible trail from the Rhone Valley to the Croix de Javerne, the reward being one of the finest ridges in my region with views to the valley far below, Lac Leman, and home. The second was an ascent of the Dents du Midi with a friend, finding wild conditions at the summit and practising some loose scree descending back down.
Then came the Ultra trail du Barlatay, a jaunt around the Vaudoise pre-alps with an interesting 11pm start time. The weather was not kind for this one, and lessons were learned about trainer choice in particular. I won’t forget the mud and cow pats in a hurry.
Work got busy in September, and the runs were short, but hey ho, I figured the hard training for the season was already in the bag. I ventured out for one 3 hour run taking in three of my favourite local ridges, but paid the price for doing too much too soon by suffering a repeat of ankle troubles. A race pace mountain run the week after this made things worse, but my competitive ego got the better of me… another lesson learned.
It was a pressured period ahead of the Défis du Jublié, and hours of training were seriously curtailed as I also nursed ongoing ankle issues. I was however fresh as a daisy for race day and this worked well, converting a fast start into a top 10 result- again, lessons were learned, this time that I can experiment with a faster pace from the outset, and need a good taper before big events! This race was pretty much my last run of the year, with an MRI revealing ligament damage that had not fully healed from the earlier sprain, with me compensating and creating a chain reaction of related ankle/calf problems.
November was rest, rest, rest, with a couple of short ski tours thrown in when we got some powder. Physiotherapy helped to iron out all the compensatory issues around the ankle, but activity was pretty much non-existent. The upside was investing in family time!
Finally short runs could resume in late December, but nothing above 20 minutes, a far cry from the year before where mileage was already getting high. My great hope is that a lengthy enforced off-season has left me mentally fresh, ready to ramp up the mileage towards summer 2017.
Of course there is more to life than just running up mountains, and this year I have enjoyed seeing my children continue to develop, my wife embark on fresh challenges (including running a trail marathon herself in October), and my career continues to provide both purpose and its own unique alpine experiences. Hopefully the decent snow will come soon and we can play on winter toys for a while, before attention turns towards 2017 running goals…
2016 running in numbers:
Total runs: 156
Total time running: 208 hours 16 mins
Total distance run: 1674km
Total elevation gain: 85,259 metres
Total races: 4
Longest race: 112km
Average race weight: 74kg
Ankle sprains: 2
Total time injured with no running due to ankle sprains and related issues: 14 weeks
Most used trainers: Inov-8 Race Ultra 270 (412km)
Number of pairs of trainers used in rotation: 9
Goals achieved: 3 big ones- under 24hours in the Trail Verbier St Bernard, UTMB qualification points, top 10 in an ultra
Last weekend I lined up for the fourth and final race of my first ultra season, the ‘Défis du Jublié‘, on paper the easiest of three UTMB qualifying races that I had targeted. At 60km and with an advertised 3000m of vertical ascent it looked like a walk in the park compared to the epic Trail Verbier St Bernard earlier in the summer.
The course starts in a small Swiss town called St. Maurice, famous for it’s 6th century Abbey, and indeed the race is held on the ‘Chemins bibliques‘ a series of footpaths in the district that the race aims to promote.
My condition going into it was not great; work had been taking it’s toll with many weekend commitments, and I was nursing a few injuries. The first is what I suspect to be tendonitis on the inside of my right ankle, perhaps a niggle from a sprain earlier in the season. The second was that both big toe nails finally gave up on me in September and fell off; where the left one had been re-growing there was significant pain as it decided whether it wanted to to grow inwards or outwards.
To manage the tendonitis I took a week of total rest and then a tried a period of cross training on the road bike after a failed attempt to ramp training back up, and this was probably just what my body needed after cranking out a couple of big summer ultras. For the toenail problem, I read that soaking it in warm water several times a day helped the nail and skin to separate, and thankfully this worked wonders, with the pain finally subsiding two days before the race. They still don’t look very pretty though.
The hard facts (well, Strava) showed that I had only managed one run over 3 hours in the 8 week period since the Super trail du Barlatay, and I was averaging just a few hours a week of training. The hope was that by putting in a good early season of work, and in completing the long summer races, I had a good enough base to fall back on- avoiding total burnout was now the priority.
In terms of kit, I had opted for the Inov-8 Race Ultra 270 shoes to cope with the mix of trail and road, and compared to the new Inov-8 Trail Talon 275s I had recently bought and my other go-to ultra shoe, the Salomon sense pro, the 270s had the most generous toe box for my recovering toenails to wriggle around in. The Salomon sense 3 vest has just about lasted the season although will need replacing as it has lost most of it’s stretch, and I once again opted for the S-lab exo twin skin shorts having had zero issues in the big races so far. I opted for poles and was glad I had them on some of the uphill, but to be honest this was one race that I could have done without them.
Race day arrived, with a 7am start in the shady side of the Rhone Valley. Having got used to sunrise in my south-facing mountain home, the darkness for the first hour of racing caught me off guard and I looked on with envy at those runners who had thought to start with a headtorch. Given the shorter length of the race I had decided to go faster than usual and try to hang on to a good position throughout. I couldn’t quite tell how many were ahead of me in the dark, but I had a feeling I was on for a top 10 after the first climb to Vérossaz. Here the trail tucked up under the Cime de l’est of the Dents du Midi before popping out into Mex and the long, technical down hill back to the valley below. Three runners came past me here (I still have work to do on the downs…), but never got much of a lead as we hit the flat, and by the time we began the endless switchbacks up towards Salvan I had made my way back through them, leading a small pack up to the village at the top.
Here my strategy of not really stopping at the aid stations worked well- I filled my bottles in fast flowing water fountains in every village and had taken stacks of food with me- so where I breezed through, others were re-fuelling and stopping for a few minutes longer.
I was surprised by how much running was on road higher up on the course, where we kept on climbing to Les Marécottes before a long but fairly gentle fire track ascent to Finhaut. It was after Finhaut that the route took a dramatic turn towards the technical, plummeting down into the steep-sided valley of the Trient river on a rocky trail, before heading straight back up the other side on steep trails and steps towards the main road linking this part of Switzerland to France. We covered 1km on this road with no pavement, doing battle with fast cars and indeed in my case a suicidal overtaking manoeuvre that nearly wiped out the runner in front of me.
It was at this point in the race that I started to feel some niggles: fatigue from the steep climb but more worryingly cramp in my right calf muscles- perhaps compensating for the tendon issues and almost certainly because of my poor training period ahead of the event. I had to stop and stretch it a little, but soon the course changed to a most welcome descent along a fire track that saw the pace rise to below 5 minutes per km on the gentle gradient. This was the pattern of the next portion of the race: fast downs all the way alongside the Trient river valley with a bit of lovely undulating footpath in the middle of it.
We came out of the woods just above Vernayaz sooner than I expected, and made the final descent to the Rhone Valley floor. I was very much on my own now, and the long road straights to come revealed nobody in front of me, and nobody behind, so I braced myself for 13km of flat road running knowing that I was unlikely to gain or lose position. I had thought that this would be an easy end to a 60km race, but in truth it was hellish. the combination of the hard surface, a headwind and cramping calf muscles meant that the fast finish I had been dreaming of never really materialised, and was replaced with several forced stops to stretch.
The road did eventually end, and after a very pretty detour through some maize fields on the outskirts of St. Maurice I found myself coming down into the town behind the train station, and across the finish line next to the Abbey. My time was 6 hours 54 minutes, good enough for 9th place overall, my first top-10 in an ultra. According to my geeky excel percentage calculator, this was also a big improvement on how close I was to the winning time, showing that either I’m progressing well or that the competition was worse!
This race wraps up the season for me, a season where I have loved the challenge of a new project, asking my body to respond once again to new and different training stimuli. I have the points to put in a UTMB entry and now enter the lottery for next year’s race, and I’ve also entered the Trail Verbier St Bernard again- it was so well run and had such an epic route! If I don’t get the UTMB place then this becomes the ‘A’ goal for the 2017 season: to see if I can knock a couple off hours off my 2016 time.
The next chapter is to go beyond just finishing ultras to push on towards faster times, but right now it’s all about enjoying a late autumn with a few cold beers, some trails on the mountain bike and before long a winter of cross country skiing and ski-mountaineering…
Starting so late was a weird one, Friday involved a lot of sitting around, trying to nap and keeping the feet up- the Olympics helped here- until finally we scooted across a couple of cols in the car to get to L’Etivaz. As the night drew in, we duly faffed with kit, and nervously watched to see how many of the 100 or so participants had opted for the earlier 9pm start to give themselves a better chance of beating the time cut- quite a lot it turned out. This was an interesting choice to have to make: run for 2 more hours in darkness and potentially avoid wetter weather on the following afternoon, or go for more daylight running, possibly soaked through. When we lined up at 11pm, it seemed to be the minority of us who had gone for the later start.
As the ‘elites’ (as we were kindly called by the announcer) headed off, Thom and I quickly realised that we could not match the pace of the fastest runners, letting them slip away in the first couple of kilometres, watching head torch after head torch disappear around the bends, never to be seen again. Behind us was one runner, and the threatening “dindindindindindin” sound of a following motorbike- kudos to the rider, he must have liked the technical trails!
After a brief separation, Thom and I ran together for the first 20km or so, across moonlit cols and past still lakes, the only clue that water was there a feeling of blackness and the odd torch reflection. After the Col du Pillon, we started climbing what had looked like a nice contouring path to above Les Diablerets, and I lost Thom as he changed batteries in his lamp. Now alone, I worked on my rhythm and ticked along the actually viciously undulating path, muddy sections of which were a hint of things to come. The night was glorious: clear and inspiring, and as I looked across the valley I could see the head torches of the 9pm starters beginning the ascent of La Palette, some 2 hours ahead of me.
The drop down into Les Diablerets was brutal on the legs, but nothing a restorative slurp of coke at the first aid station couldn’t fix, and soon it was on to the longest climb of the race from the heart of the town to the summit of La Palette. The first section went well enough, and before long I was at the top of the Isenau gondola; what then followed was a wall-like ridge with a precipitous drop either side, with the wind picking up on the summit.
As I dropped down the other side, my Petzl Nao torch started blinking three times at me- a sign that the battery was going to die. This was surprising as I had set it to last 10 hours, and here I was only 6 hours into the night… After a muddle to change batteries (or not as it turned out- my 2 AA spare batteries were not much good in a torch that needs 4 AAA ones…) the lamp switched to a reserve mode I had no idea even existed, giving me just enough light to make it to dawn. I did have a Petzl e-light in reserve, so it would not have been a total disaster, but perhaps cost me 10-15 minutes of stoppage time.
The long night was coming to an end, but the next phase of the race was deeply confusing; as I looked across the ridge there were head torches sprayed everywhere- I knew I had to climb La Pare, but had somehow miscalculated the scale of the climb in the middle of the ridge- the Cape au Moine. Oh well, one foot in front of the other and soon we were rewarded with a truly stunning sunrise to the East- this was a spectacular place to witness this and it lifted the spirits immensely as the route took a sadistic turn up incredibly steep grass slopes away from the footpath.
I hurtled back down to Isenau in daylight for an aid station stop, being rewarded with my drop bag and a fresh pair of trainers. The weather was due to take a turn for the worse, and had I had them, this was the perfect place to switch to mud shoes. Alas, my current trainer rotation is big, but in my quest to find the perfect ultra shoe, I had neglected to diversify into shoes that can excel in the mud- something like the Inov-8 Mudclaw or Salomon Speedcross.
There was a good bit of running to be had around the contour to the foot of the Pic Chaussy climb, and then it was up again, this time through the huge metal avalanche barriers above the hamlets below. Making my way through some of the 9pm starters was heartening, and as we dropped down the other side I had the faster runners from the 46km race coming through to push the pace on a bit.
As we descended into Les Mosses, the heavens opened and the story for the final third of the race began to unfold. The trails soon turned to a sloppy mix of mud and cow poo, with bogs galore and descents greasier than a fry up in a truck stop cafe. As the grip disappeared, so did my chance of a sub-15 hour time, and the final circuitous tour of Mont Chevreuils became a painful slog up and down undulations that would have been a doddle in the dry.
The final aid station deep in the woods was a huge morale booster. Having been on my own for some time, just seeing other people was somehow comforting, but these volunteers went above and beyond- one guy held my poles, another filled my bottles and I was being served coke by someone else. As I turned to climb the mud away from them, they erupted into a roar of: “allez allez Steven” along with applause and whoops, driving me to the edge of an emotional breakdown before I quickly pulled myself together and got my head down for the last bit of climbing.
Mud, mud and more mud later, and I entered the muddiest section of the course dropping from the main road just below La Lecherette into the river valley heading back up to L’Etivaz. About 300 people had already been that way in all of the race formats that day, turning the trail into a 3 metre wide strip of churned up slop. There was little point trying to hop around the worst of it, better just to plough on through the middle, the mud trying to suck my shoes off every other step. As I turned right for the last kilometre to L’Etivaz, the trail improved, and it was finishing sprint time only to find Thom waiting at the finish, who I learned had pulled out at Les Mosses due to knee pain.
My final time was 15 hours 21 minutes, nearly 4 hours behind the winner. Being a bit of a data geek, I calculated that I was 34% slower than 1st place, actually a 2% improvement on my 36% behind the winner in the TVSB16- I’ll take that! It was 16th place overall, 13th in category.
Final thoughts: This was actually a great course, any mountain race is going to get sloppy in the wet, I just need to improve on running in it and to get some new mud trainers. The night start is a novelty and leads to serious sleep depravation, but the sunrise up high was epic. Having completed two alpine ultras this summer, I’m still highly motivated by the ‘project’ and the game now is about chipping away at those times- I’m sure that kit alone (trainers and the head torch issue) could have saved me 45minutes to an hour, the rest might come from improving the descents on tired legs. Not now though, now is for a week of solid eating and gearing up for the start of the next academic year at work.
Apologies for the lack of images, I thought about getting the phone out a few times, but decided to just savour the moment instead and push on. So far there are some pics of the event here.
Since taking up running longer distances in mountains, I have embraced the humble trekking pole as an aid to climbing. This post does not seek to debate the merits or methods of running with poles, but rather what on earth to do with them when you are not using them. I could find very little on this in the ultrarunning blogosphere, with most ‘how to’ guides using pole carrying systems on vests/packs.
Here seem to be some options:
Just carry them. Modern running poles are ridiculously light- mine come in at 290g for the pair, and are no trouble to hold either collapsed or fully extended (at the balance point) in one or two hands. I find myself using this method on undulating terrain when I might need them quickly, but find that when drinking/feeding/dealing with long technical descents they do get in the way. It is also deeply unpleasant to deal with someone else’s waving poles in front of your face.
Use a pole carrying system on your pack. Most of these seem to be geared around poles that are not collapsed, so not so good for my Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z’s. I had already pulled the trigger on the Salomon S-lab Sense vest that does not include a pole system, so I needed other options. The Compressport Ultrun seems to have a system for collapsed poles and might be interesting- others take note!
Improvise under chest straps/within pack bungees. I have not tried this so cannot pass comment, and could find little written about it…
Use a belt with collapsed poles held by loops in the small of your back. For some reason I like the idea of poles being out of the way here yet easy to access on the hoof, so have been trying out two belts with the system- the Archmax Pro, and the Inov-8 Race Ultra.
Archmax Pro Belt
This is a really simple system, with a wide pull on elasticated belt about that contains 6 open pockets, with two elastic loops on the back for the poles. From my experiences so far, the pockets can hold food/gels, dog leads, a phone, a small first aid kit… You just have to remember the pockets are not zipped so a bit risky for high value items! I have even found that the larger pocket on the front can take a soft flask up to around 400ml. The pole system works very well, with the loops easily pulled open to get the poles in, and the silicone strips stopping any bounce. When racing with this belt I used the pockets for extra gels, and a small first aid kit; on shorter runs I tend to slip this belt on to put the dog lead in.
Dislikes? I question the durability of the pole loops, after a few long runs the loops started to loosen and fray. Sizing is tricky as well, and they seemed to come up a little small in my opinion.
Inov-8 Race Ultra Belt
This is a simple narrow belt with an elasticated section to try and keep things comfortable. It contains 6 small loops you can add/take off for gel carrying, and 2 number holding toggles. The poles are held in what is advertised as a padded system, with two elastic loops with a toggle on each. The toggles make it easier to stow the poles, but do flap if not done up when the poles are in use.
I like the idea of an integrated pole and number belt with the possibility of extra gel storage, however I prefer the pocket design on the Archmax to the elastic loops used here. So far, this belt has not been nearly as comfortable as the Archmax system, with more potential for chafe.
Conclusion: In spite of the durability concerns, it is the Archmax belt I will be wearing for my next ultra, perhaps with safety pins to turn it into a number belt as well.
I am convinced that there is a better way to be found here, and I look forward to seeing how the big manufacturers might incorporate better pole stowage in their kit. Perhaps someone out there already has the perfect solution- if so then I would love to hear from you!
Having a young family brings huge joy to my life, alongside bouts of sleep deprivation and tests of patience. A bit like ultra endurance events then! Finding the time to get the miles in can be a significant challenge alongside the demands of work and family life, however there are some tried and tested methods that can help keep all needs balanced. Here is my 5 point guide that follows a few years of trying to have my cake and eat it:
1. Be efficient- this is blindingly obvious but perhaps it’s worth pointing out some little things:
a) Have kit ready to go and try to multi-task with warm-ups/stretching etc. My 4 year-old loves doing active stretches with me and I count this as teaching her good habits.
b) Make each workout count. You’ll find lots out there on this, and it’s something that I learned from having a coach and training with power on the bike- avoid junk miles. Every minute of training should count; a power meter on the bike and pace/HR running help to focus in and get the most out of a workout. Add in a coached training plan and you’ll be squeezing every last drop from your precious training time. Don’t think this means hammering every session, recovery runs and rides are just as important as the hard stuff.
c) Time on your feet. Perhaps like me, you have a garden to look after in the summer and snow to clear in the winter, all of which can extend a workout beyond the allotted time. This summer we are DIY landscaping our garden, so I’ve cut back the running hours and count the time digging as training- it’s all time on your feet after all.
d) The good old “Meet you there.” This involves using the lost time spent travelling (usually during the kids nap time) to either run or bike, the goal being to meet ones partner/family at the other end. I can’t believe that any endurance athlete with a family is not already doing this. Once a week my family and I usually head to the Rhone Valley to the bigger towns for some shopping, and it almost always involves me or my wife running one way or the other. It helps that this involves 900m of vertical ascent on the way home!
2. Take them with you. On the bike this might mean a trailer, something I never really got on with; although I can see it’s perfectly good training pulling the kids along, I can’t help but miss the feeling of speed and flow that normally accompanies riding bikes. Running is harder, although my wife often takes our 4 year old to the local jogging loop trying to do intervals around her. The downside to this is the unpredictable tantrum that can bring the session to a rapid end!
3. Early doors. Get up and out before everyone else, ready to spend the day at work or with family. Sometimes this is the only way to meet training goals- just be prepared to want to go to bed by 9pm every night.
4. The evening or night run. Good to practise running with a head torch, and no lost hours with the kids. Except the next day when you pass out in front of the TV.
5. Adopt a holiday ‘training camp’ mentality, pushing fitness on in time off whilst looking to maintain/not lose too much when work gets intense. Sounds good? Don’t forget to invest in family time as well, the goal here is balance after all!
I am incredibly lucky to have a supportive family, and a job that has great blocks of holiday as well as a philosophy of embracing challenge. By no means do I take this for granted, and therefore try to repay my wife the same space and time for her own goals, a simple equation of fairness. I also try to use my own endurance adventures to inspire those I teach, using personal experiences to educate about goal-setting, challenge and what is possible if you are willing to put some effort in.
The bottom line is: it’s all possible, providing you are willing to make it work and do your best to give back any time you take. If you want those around you to support your hours of training, it can only come through supporting them in every way you can.
Postscript: For a great read on obsession and relationships, check out Andy Kirkpatrick’s superb post that rams home the need for getting this right.
After the learning curve of preparing for and racing my first ultra, the last week has been learning about ultra recovery. After a fair bit of reading, I chose to stick to ‘the rules’ laid out in the irunfar.com post on the topic, going for 1 day off running for every 10km raced given that this was a big vertical ultra. The first 24 hours after the X-Alpine were pretty stiff, with swollen feet and ankles and obvious dehydration, but I was surprised at just how good I felt after just one day. “Respect the recovery” was high in my mind, so it was feet up and short dog walks at the start and end of the day to stretch out.
By Friday, 5 days after the X-Alpine I could not resist the sun coming out, so took the MTB out for a whirl on the new flow trail that was opened this year in Gryon, the next village along from where we live. The Villars-Gryon ski resort is about a decade behind the times when it comes to lift served mountain biking in the summer, so this trail is most welcome and offers fun for all the family (Our 3 year old has even had a crack at sections of it on a balance bike). I was surprised at how much 3 laps took out of me, and in hindsight the whole body nature of fast DH mountain biking was probably a bit too much too soon.
Subsequently, one week on from the race I was now feeling worse than 48 hours after, with the quote: “Trail ultra recovery is an inch deep but a mile wide” stuck in my mind. A few cold beers and some family payback time after hours alone in the mountains soon sorted me out, and this week it’s been more MTB fun, culminating in a day of celebrating cycling.
Today saw stage 17 of the Tour de France pass through our neck of the woods, and after much deliberation about where to go, we decided to focus on the kids and not have them out on the baking hot roadside for too long. I dug out the knee pads and MTB and headed down to the Rhone Valley via my favourite forest trails, met my wife Cat in Ollon and then just caught the caravan coming through as the kids woke up from their nap. Rather than sit around, we then zoomed through the back roads to grab an ice cream at the UCI HQ in Aigle, where they are currently hosting the junior world track championships. After a couple of qualification rounds of the team pursuit (exhilarating to watch trackside) off we went back to Ollon, our 1 year old’s lolly still dripping everywhere, to see the break, and then the peloton roll through. Having been to many bike races in the past I know the best place to watch is usually the TV, so we legged it back up the mountain to catch the finishing climbs.
Tomorrow will be a run; 11 days out of trainers has hopefully left me well recovered, the next step is a gradual rebuild to full mileage over 2 weeks. The rest has certainly left me itching for more, and with the weight now dropping off I’m hoping to go better in the Ultratrail du Barlatay.
I built this bike in the Autumn of 2014, as the ‘last of the 26″ chargers’. In a way, I was 6 months ahead of my time in trying to build a bike that could handle burly alpine DH yet still pedal back up- the current crop of enduro bikes will handle the downs and destroy this bike on the ups in terms of weight. That said, this bike sports 203mm of coil sprung rear travel, with a single crown 180mm FOX Float fork up front allowing it to suck up the big hits and rocky sections. It really is a dream to ride, long and slack, and with a bit of a diet and a oneup 42 tooth cog on the rear it climbs pretty well for a 15kg monster truck. Canfield Brothers have a sterling reputation and they were amazing to deal with in terms of the purchase and shipping. Their current Riot 29er looks like a great bike and one I would consider if looking to buy now. Overall ‘The One’ has been a cracking project and inspires me to ride bigger and jump higher (still not that far), but in reality it’s just too much bike for long alpine climbs where I find myself wishing for a carbon enduro rig!
The Trail Verbier St-Bernard (TVSB) X-Alpine was set to be my first ever ultra-marathon, a decent enough challenge at 111km with 8400m of climbing and descending. This came about as part of a longer term project to qualify and run the Ultra-trail Mont Blanc, but also as a goal in itself for 2016. The ultra dream began in Autumn 2015 having run a low-key charity mountain marathon from Gstaad to Villars, where the infectious enthusiasm of the students I did this with egged me on to try bigger things…
I put in a good winter and spring of training, culminating in the ‘Ultra Tour du Mole’ in May, confusingly not actually an ultra at 35km, but with a hefty 3200m of climbing this was the perfect tune up for what was to come in the summer. The Tour du Mole was tough- not least the constant steep up and down nature of the course, but also the fact that I sprained my ankle badly after just 5km. Perhaps foolishly, I finished the race, but the downhills were almost unbearable given the compensation I was having to make to keep weight off my right ankle.
After the injury, there was a trip to the doc for some x-rays and 3 weeks of rest, trying to get some road cycling and a few light runs in, but finding the sprain constantly aggravated. It took a repeat visit to the doctor 4 weeks out from the TVSB to ask his frank advice- was running an ultra a realistic goal? He was confident that the sprain would heal, and that I should try and ramp up my training again- one easy week to build back up and then a full high mileage week three weeks out from the event. The ankle would feel stiff, but the loading would help the blood flow and healing to occur. I followed the advice, putting in a big 115km/7000m vertical training week with 3 weeks to go until the big one, and finally it felt like the ankle would hold up.
Fast forward to mid-July, and it was off to Verbier, renting an apartment with my family close to the start/finish- good planning given the 4am start time. I went in with three goals: bronze, finish the race; silver, finish in under 30 hours; my personal gold was to finish in under 24 hours. This sort of effort was unprecedented for me, so I had no idea if the three goals were unachievable, or too easy…
Sleep on the Friday night was OK, and I felt surprisingly alert when the alarm went off at 3am, although forcing down some oats and putting on suncream (The forecast was superb: sunny, hot and dry) in the pitch black felt weird. My wife woke up as well so I took the chance to ask her to slap a load of bodyglide on my back.
The start of an ultra was an interesting experience; I seemed to have timed it to perfection: drop bag duly dropped, portaloo visited and then just a five minute wait for the start. What followed was a rock concert build up- fanfares (put your hands is the air!) and a cheesy blast of the Final Countdown by Europe. After such grandeur, what followed was a hilarious slow shuffle across the line, with half the field not even breaking into a jog- we all knew what was to come. In spite of my British reluctance to whoop, it was a fitting start to an epic event.
Off we set through the streets of Verbier, picking up speed on the tarmac, and then it was the warm-up climb above the town, before dropping down to Sembrancher as the sun rose. The valley cruise was lovely, what felt like free kilometres with all the climbing and descending to come.
As it got light, I found myself on the lower slopes of La Catogne, a fearsome beast to start the race with (if you can call 1 hour 30 mins into a run the ‘start’): 2000 metres of vertical ascent into increasingly technical terrain. I felt good, pacing my heart rate to no more than 150bpm. The decision to wear a heart rate strap was taken to gain useful data, the cost was potential chafe, I put my faith into bodyglide to save me. A real highlight of the race occurred as I made the ridge, a Helicopter flew close alongside me for several minutes, causing a huge adrenaline surge to carry me towards the summit. Sadly there is no footage of me in the cool little clips the organisers have been pumping out, but they are still included here to help bring my worlds to life a bit.
The descent was bonkers, a steep rocky gully with scree and loose material everywhere. It felt like dropping off a cliff. Eventually the terrain mellowed and I dropped into Champex for a short pit stop to empty debris out of the shoes, refill water and sample the soup. Mmm, salty.
The next few kilometres out of Champex were stunning; streams and a path along the very Valasian ‘Bisse’- ancient canals that contour the hillsides. Sadly the contouring didn’t last long and we turned left up a steep footpath towards the Orny glacier way above us.
This was another huge climb, on steep terrain that went from forest, to very blocky scree, to ice and snow. A quick bottle fill and a handful of raisins at the Cabane saw me turn and head back down, with the first kilometre running back through those still climbing- a fun exercise with poles waving everywhere and limited places to plant your feet.
Descending the snow fields was entertaining; there seemed to be three methods: Firstly, abandon all hope of running, sit down and let gravity do the work- the snowy descents were marked by several backside shaped luge tracks! Method two was to slide on both feet, with established tram tracks appearing after the first runners had been through. The final method was to try and run down digging heels in,I opted for this but ended up with some sort of hybrid of method one and two, almost sending myself down to the Orny glacier rather than back onto the footpath…
The steep downhill took us alongside many waterfalls under the imposing spire on the Clochers du Portalet, and with the Saleina Glacier beyond this it was worth looking up every now and again to take it all in, what magnificent terrain to race through. As I dropped to the valley, the heat became more and more oppressive, with clear skies and the middle of the day approaching. The cruise up to La Fouly was hot, but welcome after the two steep efforts behind us, and it was a real treat to see my family a few hundred metres before the aid station, although my daughter Charlotte soon turned and ran the other way when she got a whiff of me after 10 hours of running.
After a short food and drink stop, it was off again, firstly an easy double track ascent followed by undulating footpaths, and then steeper trails up towards the Lacs de Fenetre, which when we reached them were still full of ice, with the corrie itself still covered in a thick layer of snow. I couldn’t seem to get my heart rate up anymore on the climbs, now topping out at 140bpm even though I felt like it was hard work.
We passed briefly through Italy, climbing up the Grand St Bernard monastery for an aid stop, before heading up a lovely path to the Col des Chavaux and then a glorious downhill all the way to Bourg St Pierre. I was more on my own than before though this section, and I truly appreciated the calm and space to think. Throughout the race I tried to focus my thoughts on several positive things. Early on I decided to try and recall every run and bike ride I had ever done, in an effort to convince myself I had the endurance base necessary to survive! The one that kept coming to mind was when my brother and I attempted to walk/run from Rochester to Canterbury, along the North Downs Way in the South-East of the UK. I must have been about 14, him 16, and although we didn’t finish, stopping at around the 45km mark (I just measured it, happily the phone box we used to call mum for a rescue is still marked on the map!) it was an early lesson in the need to prepare better for endurance. Later in the race I thought more and more about my family, and how supportive they were of these ultimately pretty selfish ventures.
Back in the real world, I noticed that I had ski toured in the bowl we descended into, giving me a certain familiarity with terrain and distance, so I opened up a bit although was occasionally stopped by river crossings, one of which was quite deep and fast flowing. Before this crossing I had thought I wouldn’t bother changing shoes in Bourg St-Pierre, afterwards my feet started to go pretty soggy, so entering the sports hall and finding my bag stashed with grub, dry socks and a fresh pair of trainers was most welcome.
It was now just after 8pm, and I didn’t hang about too long at the aid station, taking just a small plate of pasta, and headed on into the evening up towards the Col de Mille. The first section was a long drag, but the reward was a contouring path heading towards the setting sun; seeing runners ahead silhouetted above the Dents du Midi I know so well from another angle was a special memory.
The head torch soon went on, and rounding the col at La Vaurdette the Cabane du Col de Mille was in sight with low lights glowing away. I soon found out that the night plays tricks with distance perception, because the Cabane looked about 100 metres away, when it was in fact over 2 kilometres with some tricky terrain in between! The final run into the hut was however flat and less technical, much needed by then.
The volunteers in this aid station seemed especially on the ball, I felt them look hard at me to see if I was going to survive, so I gave a cheery ‘bonsoir’ (It was now approaching midnight) and duly filled up my bottles. Down I went, initially well on the easier gradient, but more slowly where others seemed to just let it go on the steeper slopes in the middle. The bottom levelled out again and finally I was in Lourtier.
The finish that followed was pure evil. Strava tells me that the next 4km averaged a 22% gradient, with sections much steeper than this. It took over 2 hours to ascend to the La Chaux ski station and now my heart rate was unable to go above 125bpm although perceived exertion was still high, perhaps this is normal in an ultra?
I was by now totally consumed by the 24 hour ‘gold’ goal, having spent a large amount of mental energy calculating kilometres, vertical speed and time, eventually figuring that if I could get to La Chaux in 23 hours, I should be able to cover the last six kilometres in under an hour…
By now my legs were however toast, and the descent was tricky in places, although mercifully I managed to get some speed up on a brief section of ‘Bisse’ trail, before plunging into the forest once more. The technical down eventually gave way to a dirt track, so on went the afterburners (well, that might be a bit strong, more like the lawnmower engine by then) and before I knew it I was at the Medran lift, crossing the bike park trails with the final sprint down the road into the centre of Verbier.
Crossing the line was emotional, and fairly solitary, with the big crowds having stayed away for 3am in the morning, but hey ho, it was amazing to have pulled it off, and to have met the ‘gold’ goal I had set. I ended up 32nd overall, with 203 finishers and 270 dropping out at various points along the way.
The aftermath was just a couple of hours kip before the kids woke me up, such is life these days, however my wife was spectacularly supportive in taking them out for the morning, and nursing me in general for the day.
I was unprepared for the swelling in feet and ankles a day after finishing, but this didn’t last long, and at the time of writing 3 days after crossing the line, I’m feeling remarkable well recovered, although staying away from the trainers for a little while longer.
I would like to thank the organisers, the amazing volunteers and all the runners around me for chats, smiles and ‘Bravos’. Most of all I thank my ever supportive family for their encouragement in all the training and during the event itself. The TVSB X-Alpine is a very special race indeed, and if you are seeking a big challenge in the Alps I can heartily recommend it.
What next? I will now be chasing points for UTMB, with the Ultratrail du Barlatay, a very local race to me next in the diary…
I had been using the Race Ultra 290s all year (more drop, cushioning and a slightly wider toe box in my opinion) but felt that the 270 might be the perfect ultra shoe for me. I was not disappointed, with it’s healthy toe box, good tread and 4mm drop leaving me supported enough, but also able to connect with the technical terrain in a way that the 290s lacked.
I took these to shove in my drop bag, and I was not planning to use them as if anything the narrower toe box would be a problem with swollen feet. The river crossing and sweat however made a change essential, and I was pleasantly surprised by how good they felt for the final 35km. The extra toe protection might have saved my bacon at night as well as I stumbled a few times.
I bought this watch for battery life and accuracy, and have been totally impressed with it over the past 6 months. I took a light and small charger to to put in the descent into Bourg St-Pierre, and it lasted a treat. The course was so well marked I had no need for the navigation, but it was nice to know it was there in case of a wrong turn in the dark.
Although only a 3 litre vest, having watched this video, I was confident I could pack everything I needed. A 5 litre drybag in the large rear pocket housed kit I hoped not to see- long sleeve layer, ¾ length tights and foil blanket. This did bounce a little during the race and probably contributed to the chafe on my back- nothing too bad! I also found I could easily take 3 500ml soft flasks with one in a side pocket- essential on this hot weekend. I’m not sure the vest is supposed to stretch quite so much to take all this kit…
This seemed like a neat solution to carrying poles on long descents and flats, although to be honest holding them was not much trouble either. The pockets were useful for spare gels and a small first aid/blister kit. Overall this and the compressport number belt probably contributed to a little more chafe above the waist than I would have liked!
Expensive, but gel pockets handy (my belts made these obsolete though!). The main thing is that these were totally chafe free and comfortable throughout- I didn’t change at my drop bag. Highly recommended.
Worn to get around the full leg mandatory kit requirement, but very comfortable throughout. Did they help? Who knows, the jury is out on compression kit, they certainly didn’t hinder me! I was however left with a hilarious tanned stripe between short line and just below the knee.
The new reactik+ looks like the perfect head torch for ultra running, but hadn’t come out when I bought the Nao. Never mind, although a bit heavier it has superb performance, with customisable profiles to balance brightness and burn time- I tweaked and played to get it perfect ahead of the race, with no need to use the spare batteries I took.
I had tried these in training to make sure they didn’t disagree with my stomach, and found them to be an amazing way to maintain some sort of electrolyte balance whilst sweating buckets and chugging litres of water from mountain streams. I took 1 every hour with food.
SIS and MyProtein gels/bars, MyProtein tricarb drink
Tried and tested over years of riding and running, no stomach issues.
Home made rice cakes
A good move. I made some bacon and egg rice cakes to offset the sweet bars and gels, and found this recipe as a free sample from the ‘feedzone’ book. They were excellent! Thanks to my colleague Ivor for the inspiration and taste tests.