Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Dark Side Of The Mind - The World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships

'You lock the door and throw away the key, there's someone in my head but it's not me' 
Pink Floyd - Brain Damage.

Cramp hit instantly, a searing jolt up my calf with none of the familiar tickly warning shots.  Leaping high over the slippery jumble of wet rocks provided safety and speed but the repetitive jolts had extended my muscles too far.  The German I’d been tearing towards eased away and my mind went into instant overdrive.  I’m just 16km into a 42km race, there’s at least 1400m of climb and 2600m of descent still to endure.  If I back off and simply manage my physical state then I may be able to finish the course but this is the World Champs, I’m representing much more than just myself and it’s been an epic journey just to toe the start line.  There can be no let up, the World’s best mountain runners are biting at my heels and I’ve invested too much in this, too many hours slogging through the mire of a Mournes Winter.  Adjusting my gait I find a half skip that maintains momentum without further physical damage and try not to contemplate the suffering still to come.

Just twelve months ago I was a short course mountain runner, pretty rapid on unimaginably steep terrain but largely unproven on any distance over seven miles.  An unplanned sequence of events last season triggered a transformation familiar to many ageing athletes, I discovered an aptitude for the longer stuff and a liking for the protracted suffering of extended physical efforts as opposed to the horror of leg tearing, lung burning half hour sprints.  Twenty plus miles of mountain running requires a different approach, still constantly pushing hard but paying much greater heed to signs of physical degradation and playing off the odds of slower initial speeds to guarantee longer term survival.  This thoughtful, chess like approach to racing appeals greatly, it seems a more civilized way to suffer and so my pre-season race plans were devised around a totally different set of goals to previous years.

Half measures aren’t really in my make-up.  Having decided to focus on stamina based events I naturally sought out the race that would provide the greatest challenge.  The pinnacle of mountain running is the World Championships and so initial tentative contact was made with the Irish federation to ascertain what the selection criteria would be for the Long Distance Mountain Champs in 2016.  The upshot of that found me piling in the miles and battling serious injury over a stuttering, mentally draining but ultimately adequate Winter training block.  I’ve chronicled my unspectacular Wicklow Way Ultra attempt elsewhere.  It was an arduous and frustrating experience with a steep learning curve that ultimately saw me meet the Worlds selection requirements by just one minute in 250.  Duly chastened by my first ever Ultra I set about guaranteeing that Slovenia would be more positive. 

Subsequent training surpassed all expectations, particularly an eight week spell that saw me banging out multiple sub one-hour Slieve Donard repeats for fun, the fastest ever Mourne Skyline, a 3:34 Seven Sevens and all with minimal recovery time between epic mountain sessions and necessary tempo efforts.  I rounded off the block with a couple of races to check progress and duly broke my own Slieve Donard race record whilst comfortably defending the most prestigious of titles.  A late hamstring pull caused last minute concern but the enforced rest was probably beneficial.  I felt physically prepared and whilst obviously lacking pedigree over 26 miles I wasn’t overawed by the task ahead or the gathering of so many truly World Class athletes.
It's all about pulling on that jersey
The arduous journey to Bohinj, Slovenia took its toll with the final ninety minutes of impossibly narrow and twisting mountain roads compounding the nerve fraying madness of Italian motorways en-route from Milan.  It culminated in a vomiting child and a cramping arse muscle but this suffering was countered by the spectacular Alpine environment and the excitement of exploring a new country.  The timing of the Worlds, during a pre-planned holiday had presented a unique opportunity to drag my family along.  I was unsure whether the distraction would be a positive calming influence or would rob me of focus but having them there was a real joy and hopefully Anna and the boys were proud seeing me sporting the Ireland jersey.  The rest of the Irish lads arrived through the Thursday and so we gathered together on Friday to talk tactics and compare eating habits.  Although the usual Irish self-depracation was well in evidence as we mercilessly played down our chances I knew that we had a really talented squad.  Brian MacMahon, Eoin Lennon and Dan Doherty all have International experience in abundance and an enviable set of top class results in an extremely varied range of distances and terrains.  Having competed against Dan and Eoin before and followed Brian’s results I knew that I’d have my work cut out living with their abilities but evidently we had a very balanced squad and nobody could predict what order we’d finish in.  A Friday evening train journey to the race arena in Podbrdo allowed us a bit of time to scope out the finish area and stare up at the dauntingly steep surrounding cliffs as we guessed which of the distant ridges would form part of the Gorski marathon route.  The opening ceremony was predictably entertaining being paraded in front of the crowd accompanied by local school children and a repeat loop of ‘we are the champions’.  Formalities done we scoffed the available pasta and headed for bed, the familiar mix of excitement and trepidation multiplied several-fold by the unknown nature of the course and the stellar talent of the opposition.
Getting ready to be announced to the crowd inside
Race morning passed quickly, a 5am jog in already rising temperatures was a portent of the heat to come but I slipped into the standard routine and my automatic pilot landed me on the start line with a few minutes to spare.  The opening to the race was a confused affair with a mile long jog through the village behind a pace car.  The comfortable speed was a welcoming introduction but the additional unplanned distance certainly wasn’t.  As we passed under the huge inflatable barrier and over the timing beam the flags dropped and the car tore away, it was time to get down to business, months of prep over and no longer any hiding.  This was it, the World Championships, no excuses and no bullshit, just 120 of the best mountain runners in existence and a course that was deemed near impossible by local inhabitants when the Maraton Gorski was originally dreamt up.

The route itself can be summed up fairly simply.  Full marathon distance, from the start a continuous 15km climb gains 1250 metres of altitude before dropping about 1500m to the lowest point at kilometer 27.  Immediately kicking up again very steeply for another 1250 metre height gain over just 7km it then finishes with an eyeballs out 8km downhill sprint, quads screaming and feet burning, desperately seeking sight of the finish line and the relief of a dip in the river.

I was dreading the first climb.  I knew the gradient was too shallow and suspected the tracks too runnable to suit me.  I settled into a rhythm aiming to stay close enough to the front third of the race whilst hopefully not burning myself out for later efforts.  Initially going well it struck me that my pace would be tearing any Irish races to pieces but instead I saw the first forty runners gradually pulling away, lead by race favourite, team USA’s Andy Wacker, the differences between National and International competition perfectly encapsulated in one clear demonstration.  Just ahead of me Dan was plugging away with Eoin gaining distance and Brian long gone, he clearly had a slightly less tempered race plan than my own.
This initial effort lasted ninety minutes and passed through some of the most stunning scenery and enjoyable terrain I’ve ever experienced.  My body felt good and I was comfortably gaining altitude through the lower slopes before picking up places in the steep scree of the last kilometer.  I’d long dropped Dan who was clearly having a torrid time, form deserting him at the most inopportune moment.  He’ll be back in international duty again soon enough, defending his top 20 World Ultra distance ranking in October.  As the final rock strewn rise degenerated into loose switchbacks I passed Eoin, a friendly word and push on the back greatly welcomed, I can’t imagine athletes in other sports often being so warm spirited.  There was no sense of relief at topping out that first mountain, just a satisfaction that I’d got it right, my body felt strong and as I sprinted down the technical and broken initial track I picked up a couple more places, no indications of the sharp pain that was so imminent.

As previously mentioned, that initial burst of cramp was a real shock.  My body had given no indications that it was suffering and yet just a hundred minutes into a 270 minute race I was in real trouble.  A couple of minutes of a shuffling half-step relieved the pressure on the screaming muscles but the mental anguish wouldn’t dissipate so easily.  This wasn’t part of the plan; I’d paced well and am usually comfortable running these distances and elevations in training.  Perhaps the continual nature of the climb had pushed me further than anticipated and was compounded by the immediate repeated impact of the tricky descent.  I shoved a salt capsule into my mouth and awkwardly forced down a gel, no mean feat when skipping over such unpredictable terrain.  Shortly after this I was met by the unwelcome sight of Brian heading back towards me having abandoned the race.  His ambitious early pace, dualling with the front runners on the huge first ascent had emptied his legs beyond redemption.  Suddenly I found myself as the leading Irish runner, a thought that would have definitely buoyed me under better circumstances. 
I was praying to see this sight as soon as possible!
Missing out on the opportunity to pre-scope a course can be a serious disadvantage.  Mentally it’s extremely tough not knowing what awaits you around every corner and whilst I’d memorised the course profile it lacked sufficient detail for me to be truly confident.  I knew that this descent contained a short rise at some point but was completely unprepared for the length and degree of height re-gain.  Without fully recovered legs I crawled through this section, my mental state darkening as I slipped a few places, praying for the recommencing of the downhill.  The heat was beginning to play a part by now; sapping and oppressive every time we left the sanctity of the forests.  I’d joked with Dan prior to the race about the point of feed stations on downhills and why a 26 mile course had a full eighteen stops but with the fear of cramp and genuine prospect of chronic dehydration I was using every single one.  As an inevitable by-product of this re-hydrating I was hit by another unpleasant sensation, I was desperate to wee.  Dan had enlightened me about the ‘on-the-go’ technique sometimes employed during his crazy distance races.  Simply lifting your shorts a bit and maintaining stride whilst relieving yourself may be easy to the initiated but I wear knee length compression shorts and didn’t want to piss down my leg so decided to suffer on.  I had actually trained for this scenario, forcing myself not to go for hours during Mournes epics. The devil is in the detail!

After seemingly hours but actually only a handful of minutes the route descended again and my tough spell finally passed in time for me to speed through the low point where I grabbed a bottle off Brian and another off Team Ireland manager and all round gentleman Leo Mahon.  I was surprised to see Andy Wacker there, illness forcing his retirement, but unsurprised to see him smiling through his disappointment, I’ve never seen him not smiling!  The second climb wasted no time in kicking up to a 20% gradient and I glugged back some caffeine drink whilst settling into a rhythm.  Although I was now coping well I was disappointed at feeling sluggish.  This type of steep terrain is my speciality and would normally see me gaining time and places, even in such esteemed company.  I realised that all was still not well with my body and sank into survival mode, backing off to prevent blowing up.  With nothing to entertain me but the incessant grind my mind rapidly darkened again.  It’s at times like this that you really explore the inner workings of your psyche, drawing from more primal reserves to keep moving.  I have blurred memories of this epic ascent, a singing marshal, kind words from a Slovenian athlete, having to pull on fixed ropes as the trail was so steep and surprise at being passed by some top drawer athletes who I’d assumed were already ahead.  Rising beyond the tree line I finally saw the summit ridge laid out before me with about twenty athletes within striking distance.  I can recall shock at still being in touch with so many despite already having three and a half hours of running completed, I’d expected the field to fracture much more.  In better circumstances I’d have reveled in the task of chasing them down but the truth is that by that point the result was arbitrary to me; I just craved the relief of the summit.  A huge and vocal crowd at the top encouraged me to throw caution to the wind on the final descent and I duly responded, lifting my head from its stooped position and focusing on the narrow strip of rocky track ahead.  As with the previous descent I began well, immediately gaining a place but unfortunately another facet of that previous descent then took hold with the worst bout of cramp yet.  This time finding a comfortable stride proved near impossible and I had to ease off and simply see it through whilst frustratingly losing more distance and time.  As before, the contracting muscles ceased their most noticeable complaints after a few minutes and I was able to focus on the task of finishing with a bit of pace and pride.  This last drop proved to be a highlight as although the cramp had robbed me of the chance to gain many places I was absolutely flying for the last five kilometers.  I passed a Ukranian after a short tousle and then flew past a Japanese athlete as if they weren’t moving before fixing my gaze on the Dane about 200m ahead.  I was rapidly eating into his lead and having scoped this final kilometre I knew I’d be able to pass him shortly before the finish but a familiar tension was brewing in my calves and faced with the prospect of having to limp over the finish I gave up the doomed chase in order to finish in the style this race and my waiting family deserved.
Relief at crossing the line...
Sprinting down the picturesque final slope, adjacent to the Alpine stream and beautiful ornate water wheel towards an animated crowd lacked the emotion it deserved.  I was mentally and physically drained and craving the relief of the finish overrode any other feelings.  It was only after a few blissful minutes pouring water on my head, sat in the river and chatting to family and fellow athletes that the pride and satisfaction began to blossom.  I’d finished the race in 39th place, first Irish finisher at 4:24:33.  It had been a monumental effort, exploring my physical and mental capabilities way beyond expectation for a course with those statistics.  I’d anticipated a tough day but am more than capable of covering 26 miles and 2800m of ascent and descent without ever requiring that degree of soul searching and gut wrenching.  Eoin crossed the line just under five minutes after me in 43rd place; he too had suffered exceptionally, particularly given his undoubted and proven talent over greater distances than the Gorski Marathon route.
Soon turns to smiles!
I didn’t hang around long beyond a few thankyous and handshakes, we had a family holiday to commence and I had plenty of time to digest and analyse the race in the lengthy drive to Lake Garda where a chilled Belgian beer and a chilled Belgian friend awaited.

So what's the verdict?  Overall I'm pretty delighted, 39th is a big improvement on 81st at my last World Long Distance Champs in Colorado two years ago.  Even more satisfying is the fact that this was only my second ever marathon distance race and experience and miles in the legs count for a lot over longer distances.  I was only four minutes off the top 30 and twelve minutes off the top 20 in amongst some very classy athletes and I feel that with a bit more specific training I should be in that World's top 20, not bad for a 38 year old who's only been mountain running for five!  We spent the next three weeks enjoying the best of Italy during which I trained hard and discovered the only way to counteract that drained feeling is a constant flow of electrolytes rather than excess fluids to get past the sluggishness and unlock the underlying fitness.  I'll store that knowledge for next time.
Great Irish team relaxing post-race
Representing internationally is always a great experience and one that I’m immensely proud to do.  I came to mountain running relatively recently and so reaching this level and being offered these opportunities is slightly bemusing at times.  Knowing the sacrifices I make in terms of diet and lifestyle whilst dragging out the motivation to train endlessly in often trying conditions makes me eternally appreciative that there are other like-minded people doing the same thing.  Without fellow athletes to compete against I’d never have the chance to push myself so hard and explore my own weaknesses so thoroughly.  The dark side of the mind is a difficult place to dwell but visiting occasionally is a powerful drug, enticing you to seek the next challenge and further discover the limits of your capabilities.  I can fully understand why athletes are compelled to continually push further and harder in search of their breaking points, who knows where it will take me next?
Huge thanks to my fellow Irish athletes Dan Doherty, Brian MacMahon and Eoin Lennon as well as our excellent team manager Leo Mahon who made the Worlds such an enjoyable experience. Thanks also to Gerry Brady and all at IMRA as well as the organizers of the Gorski Marathon and the WMRA.  It was an excellent event, really professionally run and as ever the World Federation looked after us well.  Time now to get back to the Mournes and prep for a big record attempt.
Massive thanks to IMRA who even got Anna added as a team official!

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Graphic Scenes of Suffering - The Maurice Mullins Wicklow Way Ultra

Feb 1st 2016 – The physio removed the needle from my calf and a flood of relief spread from the twitching muscle.  The dry needling was uncomfortable and left me feeling bruised and tender but I was happy to try any method that may get me running again.  He delivered the verdict pragmatically but it felt like the executioner taking a swing.  I should put thoughts of running a mountain Ultramarathon in eight weeks time firmly out of my head and just focus on recovery.

March 26th 2016 – I skip from foot to foot and look around at two hundred other athletes afflicted with the same masochistic tendencies as myself.  The driving rain and biting wind bring goosebumps to my forearms and I note that I’m the only person here not wearing a waterproof jacket.  In these conditions I figure it wouldn’t keep me any drier after ten minutes and I hope to warm up at some point on the mountain.  Race rules read, a short speech and we’re off.  How the hell did I end up here?

The Maurice Mullins Wicklow Way Ultra would never have been on my radar a year ago.  As a short course mountain running specialist my races rarely touch ten miles, making up what they lack in distance with brutal gradients and technical underfoot conditions.  Late last season I discovered a certain aptitude for stretching my legs a bit further, culminating with a big win at the final round of the prestigious UK Skyrunner series in October.  Duly inspired by my enjoyment of initial forays into the longer stuff I set about planning a change in direction for the 2016 season.  A combination of seeking new challenges as well as a desire to represent Internationally led me towards the Irish trials for the World Long Distance Champs and the World Mountain Ultra Champs.  Ultimately, that led me to that freezing windblown mountainside in late March.

Back to November 2015 and a wholesale change in distance had required a corresponding adjustment in training technique, so I set about acclimatising my muscles and joints to longer term pounding as opposed to super steep and high intensity.  Initially my legs responded really well and importantly so did my mindset with an average training run comfortably doubling in length almost overnight to a quick 16 miler.  I figured that rather than trying to become a plodder I’d instead be better off maintaining my leg speed and trying to extend the distance I could hold that pace and hopefully push up towards the required 32 miles.  Pre-Christmas this saw me advancing to some very hilly sub 2hr 50 twenty four milers and my confidence was high that I’d be able to get my 32 mile time to somewhere around the 3hr 50 mark by March.  Then in the New Year disaster struck…

I felt no different as I ran on into the second lap of my standard eight mile loop.  Legs were going smoothly and pacing was steady.  As I hit the slope at mile nine, out of nowhere both calves locked simultaneously and painfully.  The sensible option would’ve been to stretch off, walk back and get some rest in, so naturally I carried on and finished the session with a deep and spreading tension tearing my calves apart.  Equally stupidly I did what most runners do and after a mere day of rest headed out to ‘test’ the injury with a tough tempo session.  Unsurprisingly the legs locked again, this time after only two gentle miles and for the first time in my short running career I was faced with an injury that I couldn’t just man-up and run through.

What followed was near two months of mixed frustration, enjoyment and farce.  The frustration largely emanated from the total lack of improvement despite nearly two months of non-running rest.  Living with an uninterrupted view of the mountains transformed from the usual joy to a simmering resentment.  The satisfaction of knowing that I could be up amongst those peaks at will replaced by a debilitating depression at the realisation I couldn’t even walk up them.  I felt that their presence was mocking me, exacerbated on the rare sunny days where not enjoying their views and freedom seemed like a crime.  This frustration was tempered by a refreshing shift back to constant bike riding, the time freed up by non-running allowing a mix of structured turbo training and thrashing round the woods in the rain.  Mentally this was fantastic, really refreshing with the added bonus of re-finding my bike speed and actually bringing some tangible improvements in top end anaerobic performance.  I’d have probably been happy to settle for continuing the run free existence were it not for a nagging feeling that part of my identity had been removed.  The mountain running scene is full of incredibly friendly, humble, talented individuals and being a part of that has brought me a real sense of belonging since I stumbled into it a few years back.  Whilst not being a runner doesn’t mean being instantly banished, it does rob you of those shared experiences upon which the camaraderie is based.  I wasn’t prepared to walk away from that yet.  Likewise, there’s a belligerence to my mindset and if I’ve decided to do something then by sheer force of will it generally happens.  If that means exhausting all avenues in order to achieve my aims then so be it.  And so it was that seven weeks, four physios, massages, stretches, needles, weights regimes, foam rolling and research later I finally found the farcical solution to the ailment myself.  To give due credit to all the physios, they had diagnosed the problem but been deflected by the assertion that I hadn’t changed my shoes recently, and I hadn’t.  What I previously failed to realise though was that the intensity of my new regime had internally collapsed the heels in a three month old pair of Inov8’s so whilst they looked visually perfect they were essentially wrecked.  The additional heel drop had put too much strain on my calves for them to cope.  Diagnosis made, shoes changed and remarkably within a week I completed my first three hour run, celebrating my return with a favourite route along all the peaks of the famous Mourne skyline.
The Culprits
Depending on viewpoint the timing couldn’t have been worse/better.  Four weeks is hardly textbook prep time for the longest race of your career, however it was theoretically long enough to squeeze in a mini-periodisation of three increasingly hard weeks followed by a one week taper.  That was enough incentive for me and so it was that I somehow went from unable to run a mile to a sub four hour trail 32 miler in less than twenty days.  I also managed to squeeze in a new PB on my eight mile testpiece route and even a fantastic but freezing bike recce of the Wicklow Way course itself.  I can’t say that confidence was high, I was painfully aware of how fragile my physical conditioning was, largely built on foundations of sand. Having seen the course I also realised how little it suited my attributes.  Despite containing 2,000 metres of climbing, unfortunately none of it was steep enough for my strengths to kick in.  I feel my body noticeably settle into a rhythm once hills get super steep, something clicks and I find the going easier, not harder.  The flipside of this is that until that gradient is reached I often suffer and despise gradual ups and downs.  I knew I’d be fighting for rhythm throughout the race, a thought that brought trepidation. 

My taper week was as hateful as ever, every little tweak over-analysed and a creeping sense of dread culminating in my calf symptoms returning at the last minute and me being unsure whether I’d complete the course, let alone be competitive.  I’ve learnt to largely ignore all these feelings, form is so often uncontrollable and it always amazes me that despite all the hard training, sensible diet and mental acclimatisation I still rarely know whether I’m going to cruise the course or die a death.

We rolled into the Wicklow mountains to be greeted by a constant sheet of rain.  Cloud hung low around the peaks with little indication of any rapid improvement.  I agonised over kit choice with waterproofs, gloves and buff all pulled out and then stuffed back in the bag.  Ultimately I stuck with wearing a short sleeve base layer with the obligatory jacket in my bum bag.  I’d rather suffer than overheat.  A chilly wait on the start line and a few friendly and knowing conversations and we were off.  I headed out alone, happy to try to find my pace along the road section unhindered by the distraction of others.  Dropping down across the river we turned onto the Wicklow Way trail that would be our companion for most of the following thirty miles.  The initial 3km climb went smoothly with easy effort punctuated with snippets of chat; it’s always nice to get to know the athletes who may be your companions for a few difficult hours.  A fight with a gel pack took me on to the Alpine style rocky descent that had been so much fun on the bike in glorious sunshine just a week previously.  I led the field on to the long forest road descent and that’s when the problems started.  I’d woken in the night with stomach pains but dismissed them as pre-race nerves and spent the early morning forcing down the requisite calories to undertake this epic.  Unfortunately they returned with a vengeance, a painful swirling and slopping feeling that was moving rapidly downwards.  I don’t want to be unnecessarily graphic about what followed but needless to say I lost the lead as I dived for cover in the bushes.  The last thing I wanted was to have to force a pace so early in the race but I felt the need to re-connect with the lead group and tuck in to recover.  Heading into Curtlestown Woods I re-joined them but looking around at their serene faces it was clear that I wasn’t as comfortable as my front-running mates.

We pressed on together towards Crone Woods with me listening but barely able to contribute to conversation, my stomach was already churning again and I was dreading forcing down more gels at my pre-decided point.  I was caught in a classic Catch 22, knowing I’d need the energy provided but very aware of the debilitating impact of further fuelling on my present condition.  Reasoning that the status quo was better than hitting the wall completely further down the line I literally sucked it up, the gooey gel hitting my stomach like a very unwelcome guest.

The fog denied us the breathtaking view over Powerscourt Waterfall and instead we were treated to the disappearing back of Tom Hogan’s Team Canada jacket (I presume a swappsie from a previous World Champs, when I started chatting to Tom on the first climb of the day I was expecting a Canadian accent!).  He made a strong move and gently opened a gap on myself, Eoin Lennon and Barry Hartnett, none of us wanting to commit to the chase at this still early stage.  Watching Tom slip and skate down the steep drop towards the base of Djouce mountain I was glad of my X-Talon’s heel grip as I actually held back to ensure I’d have someone to shield me from the powerful wind on the open mountain.  Just a week ago I’d ridden up this section on bone dry trails, giving cheery advice to some out-of-their-depth Americans who’d overstretched themselves in a doomed attempt to summit Djouce.  This time it was me feeling pushed as Eoin decided to force the pace over the ridge and on to the boardwalk.  The punishing sidewinds toyed with us, daring me to lean into them to stay upright before abruptly ceasing, removing their invisible crutch and leaving me swerving and staggering to stay on the wooden sleepers.  Eoin was really motoring and so skipping round Barry I stuck to his back, drafting along at an alarming pace.  We picked off Tom on the steep exit from the boardwalk, his road shoes grossly deficient on the saturated ground, and rapidly opened a hundred metre gap.  As we hit the Ballinastoe Woods track Eoin apologised for the effort, explaining that he wanted to reel in Tom before exiting the rough stuff.  I felt that he wanted to work together, extending our advantage and under normal circumstances I’d have definitely concurred.  Unfortunately my digestive system had other ideas and I had to agonisingly watch Eoin and then Tom disappear again whilst I hid in the dense trees.

Briefly re-joined at the half way feed station I unfortunately couldn’t quite liberate my feed bottles fast enough to leave with the lead pair and so the metaphorical elastic stretched and then snapped as I watched them gradually ease away on the extended climb back where we’d just come from.  As an out and back route, the following half hour should’ve been a spirit lifting series of exchanges with friends warming up for the 26km Trail race as well as the outgoing Ultra runners.  I certainly saw many friends and appreciated their encouragement but was barely able to respond beyond a slack-jawed thanks and a raised thumb.  My quads were struggling to acclimatise to climbing again and the forced speed of the descent had sapped me beyond expectation.  The mental anguish of feeling this rough at merely the half way point weighed heavy and I’m sure I cut a dejected figure as I sluggishly retraced my steps over Djouce.

Photo Credit: Mick Hanney
A sliding, windmilling sprint back down the river that used to be a trail off Djouce mountain brought possibly my only enjoyment of the whole race, the familiarity of uneven ground and soft bog allowing a mental relaxation and rare freedom in my movement.  This was reflected in speed as the gap closed to around 50 metres on the steep rise back to trail running above Powerscourt, the grinning faces of groups of kids sat on the wall at the top juxtaposing dramatically against my pain-etched features.  Initial tickly shots of pre-cramp in my calves were allayed by some fluids and a salt sachet but the stomach issues weren’t so easy to defeat and another frustrating minute lost put the final nail in the coffin to any aspirations of re-joining the lead pair.

From that point onwards it was a lonely exercise in pacing, passing only a couple of the 08:30 starters to reassure me that I was still moving sufficiently fast.  Inexperience may have hindered me in this instance as I treaded a conservative line, preferring to reserve energy rather than push on and risk blowing up.  Ultimately I lost a few minutes as Tom and Eoin fought eachother for the win but the legginess I felt on the final road section convinced me that I hadn’t held back too excessively.

Initial emotions on crossing the line were relief tinged with disappointment.  My time of 4:08:55 (don’t believe the official results) would usually have been fast enough for a win but in reality it was considerably slower than I’d hoped.  I set myself high standards and Jonny Steede’s 3:56:47 record was always the target.  Perhaps I was being unrealistic given my lack of experience at this distance combined with the unorthodox preparation.  Problems on the day definitely cost me a static few minutes and maybe a few more as a result of the energy sapping nature of my ailments.  The clock doesn’t lie though and who knows what issues Jonny may have faced whilst setting his blistering pace?  The other key fact is that Tom and Eoin battled the same elements and came out faster.  A race that long will definitely reveal the rightful winner and the better athletes showed me up on the day.  Fair play lads, I’ll be back!

A badly stuck van (MASSIVE thanks to my Newcastle AC team mates for dragging us out despite the untimely sleet storm), a two hour drive to dissect the race and by 7pm I was safely back in County Down.  The redemptive powers of smiley kid’s faces, home-made carbonara and a roaring fire soon overcame any disappointment.  Time to relax, have a beer, wait for the DOMS and plan for my next race.

Huge thanks to IMRA for a great event, to the marshals who always have the toughest job and massive respect to all my fellow competitors.  The unifying qualities of shared suffering can never be underestimated and spending some time on the finish line meeting runners as they came in was really life affirming.  If ever you needed to explain why so many people gladly pay to go through that experience, just ten minutes spent there wordlessly encapsulates it all!

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

The worst job in running - Feetures socks long-term test

Being my running socks must be one of the most unenviable jobs in sport.  Unlike most courteous running sock owners who bash out the miles on trails and roads, I insist on dragging them through stinking peat bogs, gravelly granite and sodden moorland instead.  If the Buddhists are right then I sincerely hope that when George Osborne and David Cameron pop their clogs they get reincarnated as a pair.  Until then I'll definitely keep using Feetures.
They spend a LOT of time in here!
A couple of years ago I ran for Northern Ireland at the World Long Distance Mountain Running Champs at Pikes Peak in Colorado.  The fact that the race was 13.5 miles ALL uphill wasn't an issue, but with the finish line at 14,115ft in the crawl inducing, oxygen lacking air I knew that my chances were limited.  Knowing that there was no sensible way to acclimatise I instead focused on preparing all the controllable variables as professionally as possible.  I ran multiple ascents of Slieve Donard back to back, dropped my bodyweight to its lowest safe limit and then started to search for the marginal gains.

When it came to socks I'd always raced in my lucky pair with the orange stripes on.  They'd been with me for 100% of my race wins and so were clearly dripping with lucky charm (neatly ignoring all the defeats they also witnessed).  However, being black and made of heavy cotton I thought they may not be suitable for the thirty degree Colorado heat and so decided to get some 'proper' running socks.  A quick e-mail to 2Pure, the extremely generous Feetures distributors, and six shiny new pairs of Feetures Elites appeared in the post.

First impressions weren't that exciting, after all they're only socks and I tossed them in the garage with my hefty pile of running stuff.  When it came time to try them, closer inspection revealed they were more interesting than initially anticipated.  For a start the socks are left and right specific, and why not?  After all, shoes are totally different for individual feet and they aren't designed to mould to the skin like top quality socks are.  They also feature reinforcement where needed in the heel, sole and toe box whilst being at their thinnest on the top of the foot for some breathability.

Putting them on was a pleasure, silky to the touch they hugged my feet with just a hint of compression and no sign of blister inducing slack spots and once I started to run I became an instant convert to the concept of specific socks for specific tasks.  The inaugural test was a jaunt over the peaks with plenty of uneven, technical ground and a range of surfaces.  What immediately struck me was how much my shoes were slopping around on my feet where they'd never previously felt loose.  The fixed proximity of the sock to my skin highlighted my inadequate lacing, I just never noticed because my socks used to move with the shoes.  Re-lacing my Inov8's generated a whole new level of control that's virtually eliminated the ankle rolls that previously blighted me.

That was eighteen months ago and the six pairs have all had a thorough testing during that period.  From thirty degree heat in Italy to minus ten in Ireland my feet have never felt excessively uncomfortable from the conditions.  Their longevity has been pretty astounding and although the silky feeling is a distant memory they still feel good on my feet and remain very snug fitting.  They are showing no signs of wearing through in any areas despite having been used around sixty times each on average.  Put like that they'd have only cost me 25p per pair per run and are still going strong.  The equivalent would be like a pair of shoes lasting me for over 300 runs and that's definitely a pipe dream!  It's not just the running either, that's sixty washes each too and considering a pair of socks I won from another major running kit manufacturer shrank after just a few spin cycles it further demonstrates the quality of the materials.

Not much else to say really.  Since using the Feetures Elites I've suffered far fewer ankle injuries, no blisters (despite regularly running for up to four hours with wet feet) and feel I have better control in techy ground.  I never expected any of that, I was just looking for some cooler socks.  Spending 15 quid on a pair of socks seems a bit excessive but there are discounted bargains out there and the longevity has been remarkable.

In short, I totally recommend buying some for any running applications, I can't ever envisage running without a pair ever again.  They've been THAT good.

As for the lucky socks, I've taken to wearing them on Saturdays to make Wolves win the football.  A brief look at the Championship table clearly shows I must've used up all the luck already.

Feetures are at www. and if you want to sell them then contact

I know I got them for free but I definitely wasn't asked to write this review and if I wasn't so impressed with the socks (and currently injured, and if the weather wasn't so awful) then I'd never have bothered my arse writing this!

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Natural Development - Are Trail Centres Killing Technique?

My earliest forays into the world of mountain biking primarily involved dragging and shoving my half tonne, mud caked six gear Emmelle through Exmoor's boggy murk to reach a mile of semi-rideable rockiness that led to the road home.  Over the following few years I hungrily discovered the sheer joys of rooty Devon woodland singletrack, slipping, sliding and crashing my way through my early teens until at seventeen myself and my best friend jumped on a train and blagged our way to Chamonix for an incredible introduction to Alpine riding.  With my eyes subsequently blown wide open I've continued to seek opportunities to experience a whole spectrum of different terrains and biking challenges throughout the world.

In addition to the obvious immediate pleasures and unforgettable memories that these experiences have provided I was recently also pondering their lasting impact on my abilities as a biker. Undeniably I've learned how to crash!  Seventeen broken bones (so far) are testament to that but what about my skills development? As a professional MTB coach I'm afflicted with a constant need to analyse whether I'm still getting better or has age instigated my gradual and inevitable decline?  And the conclusion?  I'm not sure yet, but one thing is certain, I've served a long and fruitful apprenticeship that's gradually and organically shaped my trail techniques.

Times have changed massively since my first rides in the late eighties.  Mountain biking has witnessed exponential growth in terms of both participation and general awareness. Mainstream money has floated in and the results are seen in the plethora of trail centres that have made quick-hit 21st century mountain biking what it is.  Whether this is a positive or not for the sport is a different debate.  My area of interest is whether the introduction of some of these groomed, sanitised and weather resistant strips has been detrimental to the skills development of the new breed of bikers?

More often than not these days beginners that I coach have their first experience of 'natural' trails in their initial session with me.  For many, the thought of riding anywhere other than a trail centre has never even occurred and increasingly I've noticed bikers displaying a noticeable trail centre style of riding that manifests itself in a few clear ways.
The only people who should ever sit down on descents are those without pedals!
The first is a tendency towards remaining seated on downhills.  I see this as being the fault of smooth, graded trail surfaces which, although punctuated by the odd rock gardens and drops, generally allow descending techniques that would've liquidised my internal organs if I'd attempted them on the rutted, washed out rock fests I originally learned on.  The availability of well priced, decent full suspension bikes has also made this approach possible and therefore many people remain blissfully unaware of the fundamental importance of weight shift. On my local trails here in Northern Ireland there have been a seemingly disproportionate number of broken bones for the amount of usage. Many have been caused by riders pitching over the bars because they don't fully understand where their weight should be distributed.

The next issue I've noticed is a lack of cornering ability. Whilst solid surfaced, banked corners can definitely be a lot of fun, among many beginners I think they can promote a lazy, passive approach to getting round bends. On loose, natural, flat and off-camber corners the fight for grip generates rapid improvements in terms of body positioning and pressure application with pretty immediate feedback from the slippery ground. After a couple of washouts and grazed knees riders tend to find the limitations of their tyres and realise how hard they can push into corners if they're active and aggressive on the bike.  Whilst the non-slip nature of most trail centre corners prevents crashes, it also negates the need to search hard for more grip and as a consequence seems to slow development.

Finally, I often witness an inability to react to unexpected terrain changes. Many riders I meet have an intimate knowledge of every last drop, corner, bump and berm of their local trail centres. They can cruise round half asleep, safe in the knowledge that come rain or shine the trail won't throw up any nasty surprises. All those innate, subtle weight shifts that are needed to keep rubber side down on the roots never get developed and so their first taste of riding on wet mud and greasy wood becomes a total disaster.  I've coached people who've ridden mountain bikes for years who have no idea that leaning a bike over on an angled root will almost certainly end badly and so they're transported back to the realm of total beginner whenever they first leave the gravel tracks.

This combination of a static position on the bike, a passive riding style and the non-development of the subconscious adjustments required to survive wet natural trails has, in my opinion stunted many new rider's development. It's not all bad news though; there are obvious upsides to trail centres. Without them I reckon many of today's bikers would've never initially taken up the sport and I'd always rather see lots of people riding not that well than just a couple totally owning the trails. The other big plus is the growth of pump tracks.  Few things give me more pleasure than seeing the local kids on chainless skip bikes with no grips or brakes doubling gaps and carving corners instead of hanging round bus shelters being bored or staring at their phones.  Our local pump track has become a really popular hang out for people who may otherwise never have bothered getting on a bike.  If they get the opportunity and the inclination to keep riding then we're going to witness a really talented next generation!

My message to anyone who may read this and recognise themselves, please don't take it as criticism! There's a whole world of ever evolving natural trails just waiting for you to take them on so get out there and get grinning, just don't forget the kneepads!