Ultra Tour du Mole 2017

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 in review

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

Happy New Year!

Défis du Jublié 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…

Balancing the hours

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!

One of the few times I have been caught training with a bike trailer. Works for some, less so for me.


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.

Ultra recovery

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.

Ice cream break in the velodrome
Road closed below, trails definitely open above

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.

Stannard peeling off after a turn in the Rhone Valley

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.

Kit Review:

Canfield Brothers ‘The One’ MTB.

She’s the one

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!


I love riding bikes. I love the speed of travelling and the freedom it brings; on the road bike I feel like I was born to turn over pedals, on the mountain bike I find my flow.

Nevertheless, there is a beautiful simplicity to running, and doing so solo in big mountains is a unique feeling; embracing the climb, the loneliness and becoming self-reliant once again.

This autumn I rediscovered a lost feeling, and now it’s time to keep the momentum going.