Thursday, 7 September 2017

Switching on the Lights - The World Long-Distance Mountain Running Champs 2017

The sky blackened almost instantly, a malevolent darkness banishing all shadows, accompanied by a foreboding deep rumble. The thunder stretching out a baritone roar before cracking in a spectacular crescendo. Huge droplets began to fall, instant saturation and brown rivers for trails, icy flows shocking a reaction from exhausted feet. 

I’d best describe the feeling as if someone had just turned on the lights. The hazy sluggishness that had blighted the last 150 minutes instantly ejected. Eyes suddenly focused and a primal energy, finally feeling the mental re-connect between brain and body, previously eroded as a defence mechanism against the pain, anguish and disappointment. It may be too late to really matter but it was suddenly time to race. 
Winning the qualifier - Maurice Mullins Wicklow Way Ultra
Here I was again, the World Long Distance Mountain Running Champs.  Another chance to represent Ireland, another chance to pit myself against the best and an opportunity to renew old friendships and create new ones.  This lifestyle could never be a chore, being sent to incredible places by generous federations simply because of the ability to move faster than the norm over steep, uneven and technical ground.  Yet personal ambition can serve to taint these occasions, to create undue pressure that can overwhelm the undeniable enjoyment.  Ultimately, I try to rise above such frivolities, just being there and experiencing is reward enough, but intrinsic desires can be difficult to silence; this year I wanted top twenty. 

Preparation for these landmark events has become a self-perpetuated cliché.  Train well early season, excel at the qualifying event to guarantee selection and subsequently injure myself in the interim, hindering progress at key junctures.  At least this year it was a mountain bike smash rather than the usual over-ambitious mileage.  A torn rotator cuff at the end of April was poorly timed, destroying domestic race ambitions and forcing some creative session planning.  Stints of one-armed turbo-training and terrifying fights for footing on treadmills, rapidly succumbed to pain-defying journeys back into my beloved Mourne Mountains.  Adopting a stiff, right-side dominant style created numerous physiological issues, and descending in slow motion through terror of falling was humiliating, but at least I was out doing what I love.  Ultimately, the distances, and corresponding physical attributes came through, with a first-ever quadruple Slieve Donard (22.4 miles and 3,400m of ascent/descent) dispatched, convincing my fragile mental state that I’d at least last the distance. Unfortunately, the shoulder had prevented any speed work, denying that amazing race-tuned feeling that breeds vital confidence. 

Torn shoulder and some creative training
The Giir Di Mont is a wish-list event, famed for spectacular beauty, inhumanely steep rises and a massively vocal and passionate crowd.  The Italians certainly know how to do mountain races and Premana was no different to previous experiences, a tangible feeling that you’re undertaking something that matters to more than just your own ego. Being swooped from the airport by classically attractive Italian ladies to a waiting BMW reminded me instantly of the advantages of international selection, as did the breath-taking view from the hotel window.  Being the sole Irish representative guaranteed the luxury of a huge room and nobody else to annoy with hastily strewn kit, but also forced an unfamiliar sociability, beyond the usual ‘bubble’ of team mates.  Despite my social anxiety, I needn’t have worried, the mountain running fraternity were, as always, as friendly as they are interesting, and very soon I was at home amongst new friends. 

Usual preparations, unfolding journey-fatigued legs and fretting over weather conditions and footwear selection. There was talk of course alterations if the threatened lightning appeared, ridges and peaks are no place to be with millions of volts marauding free.  Come race time though and the skies were clear, an oppressive mugginess like a physical weight, a sheen of sweat from the lightest of warm-ups.  Packed-in like sardines, the elbows-out hustle of initial exchanges and then settling into a rhythm designed for efficient forward propulsion. The race was on. 
Always a proud moment.  Team Ireland (me!) at the opening ceremony
A downhill start was an unwelcome novelty, hard not to cause lasting damage when the field are set on sub five-minute miles.  Torn between maintaining contact with the front, and fear of over-cooking, I allowed myself to be swept along mid-field.  Plenty of time for making up places when the ascents began, or so I hoped.  The reality was the horrific realisation that my feet were sucking invisible quicksand, muscles weary and head lolling despite the race being very much in its infancy. Climb one, an 800-vertical metre brute with steep, narrow trails should’ve been bread and butter, not the tumultuous mental struggle that it proved.  Knowing you’re going so badly, so early on is a double blow, dreams rapidly disappearing and the bleak realisation that the suffering has barely begun. 

The far side of the climb saw essential respite as crag-like technicality underfoot brought out a broad grin and my reckless side.  Unfeasibly steep drops were dispatched with lightweight skips and numerous places were gained.  Making the classic mistake of switching off once the slopes eased, I managed to badly turn an ankle, one of those where you get to see the tread pattern on the sole of your own shoe.  Admonishing myself loudly, I pressed on gingerly, you can run those off but it takes time. 
Stunning views but there's pain to come among
 the peaks
Climb two commenced with a shallow gradient and solid surface, my least favourite combination. The victims of my lightning descent cruised back past, their gearboxes on a different ratio to mine. A new experience as a helicopter downdraft created a micro-hurricane, fruitless to oppose such forces, progress slowed to a crawl.  As seems to be the case, the lowest ebb brings the kindest reactions from rivals who share that intimate knowledge of suffering.  Recognising the pain, a Slovenian offered motivational encouragement before top GB runner Vic Wilkinson invited me to run in her slipstream. Hanging gamely on for a few minutes, the elastic soon snapped, leaving me alone once again to the frustration and struggle. 

Anticipation of another lengthy descent drew enough reserves to survive to the col where a cacophony of noise barely registered with pain-dulled senses. Looking to salvage pride, I threw myself vigorously into the initial switchbacks, tripping, cramping and stopping dead.  Self-pity and acceptance of failure, all that remained was a prolonged death-march to the finish.  And yet, I wasn’t even half way through the distance, a fact previously shielded from my conscience by the internal drive of inevitable completion.  I don’t drop out of races, full-stop.  Never have, and barring genuine injury, never will.  What’s the point when you still have to make your way home, regardless of whether you’ve metaphorically torn off the number?  The numerous helicopters were busy enough extracting several genuine casualties, focus on the next mile and eventually sweet relief will come. Secretive deals brokered between brain and legs, finish this one and we’ll never force you this deep again, time to retire, out to pasture. 

The feed station represented a final throw of the dice. Team GB had kindly carried in essential sustenance, much required but never desired by a delicate, motion abused stomach.  Stopping to re-arrange gels and drinks cost a minute, normally an action considered beyond sacrilegious but I was way beyond caring.  The race could get fucked, one foot in front of the other, left, right and repeat.

Then came the deluge. 

Bright lights in the darkness, the sweet smell of mountain pastures and the noise, my god the pull of the din from an impending feed station.  As if woken from a coma I became suddenly aware of my breathing, my sleeping senses discovered a symbiosis with a newly athletic body.  TV camera in my face and a corridor of mayhem, like the Tour De France climbs, clapping hands, smiles, so much support from total strangers and that wall of sound.  My teeth appear for the first time in hours, not gritted now, opened wide in a disbelieving grin.  Legs churning, on the toes and feeling great, is this really a 25% slope? 

The final 5km ridge-line was a resurrection.  Climbing steadily, I pushed hard up the kicky rises, tempo pace round the cliff-hugging, bench-cut contours.  Passing others for fun at this stage of the race is a novelty, a delight.  Distant figures become targets in the crosshairs and a ridiculous tune trips into my mind, ‘the green train is coming, everybody out of the way’.  Rounding the final uphill corner, I re-pass Vic, never expected that!  One final huge descent, ultra-rocky, uneven, a real rhythm killer and a reality check.  Keep pushing hard but don’t forget to survive, I’m going to make it, tears prick at ducts, it’s been emotional. 

The cruel terminal rise is a step too far, an attempted sprint finish with Team GB’s Jack Wood ends predictably, his huge stride disappearing into the distance.  Push for the line, high fives with the kids hanging over the barrier and done.  Bent double, breathing hard and an overwhelming sense of relief, what the hell just happened? 

I finished 41st, an OK result, 41st in the World!  Comparative to ambition it’s a disappointment but running top 15 splits for the latter half of the race is a big consolation.  I can compete at this level, but still lack the undeniable evidence of finishing position.  Maybe next year. 

Exhausted but happy.  What the hell just happened?
From that point on it’s all smiles, alcoholic haze and the blending of cultures through the medium of drink and shared experience.  These people have a glow, the physical manifestation of health and fitness and a fire in the eyes.  Conversation comes easy, as does sleep once the party dies down.  I love mountain running and I love mountain runners, this was more than worth the suffering.  I hope I’ll be back for more. 

As ever, huge thanks to IMRA for sending me on these unique experiences and to Newcastle AC for some financial assistance. To Anna and the boys for tolerating my obsessive training. To the WMRA, Giir Di Mont organisers and the people of Premana who created such an incredible event, but most of all to the athletes, kindred spirits or as a drunken Bulgarian put it, ‘mountain brothers’; without all of you, this would be meaningless.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Stanton Sherpa Review - Weapon At Dawn

I've been mountain biking a hell of a long time now, long enough to see many trends come and go, to witness a niche pastime evolve into the mainstream behemoth it is now.  To see it splinter into ever more diverse categories requiring a litany of increasingly specialist kit.  To slap my forehead at bullshit marketing drives that dictated directions of development.  To watch manufacturers come and go, the brands I lusted over as a teenager virtually all extinct, driven from existence or swallowed by the faceless megacorps.  Today's empires, tomorrow's ashes.

It'd be a lie to claim to have been unaffected by the decades of 'progress'.  I undeniably appreciate that all aspects of bike design are exponentially better than the late Eighties when I commenced my lifelong passion.  The capabilities of equipment and athletes are so far in-advance of our most outlandish predictions from back then that the sport is often barely recognisable, except deep down, no matter what you do, it's still all about tearing around on two wheels for shits and giggles.

Nowadays plastic is everywhere, suspension obligatory, cassettes expanding, bars lengthening, seatposts dropping, stems shortening, axles extending, wheels growing, tyres widening, trade shows trading, retailers discounting, pushing aggressively, sell, sell, sell, buy, buy, buy and dispose.  Wear it out fast, instant obsolescence.  'Last years colours mate, time to move on...'

The 2017 Stanton Sherpa in aggro mood
And yet beyond my cynicism there is a hint of hope.  The craftsmen are returning and companies who covet quality, longevity, individualism and pride are fighting back.  'Outdated' materials are suddenly the hot new thing and shocked magazine editors with short memories are being blown away by designs beautiful in their simplicity.  The right grades of steel and titanium, inherently perfect for biking, are being improved by dedicated experts, wealthy on knowledge and experience, and are once again challenging the space-age wonder composites.

It's against this backdrop that I came across Stanton Bikes.

I've been a fan of Stanton ever since getting schooled by a rival hardtail Enduro racer on a raw finished Slackline a few years back.  The aesthetics of his steed, perfect welds and simplicity of frame layout seemed to scream 'fun', and every time I saw it I had a slight pang of jealousy.  At the time I was piloting an extremely fun but terrifyingly twangy Ibis Tranny but a sponsorship deal with Ragley took me back to steel and then in 2017 a chance e-mail led me to a dream scenario.

Dan Stanton is a bike geek.  I'm not sure if he'd be flattered or deeply offended by the moniker but my first ever conversation with him convinced me of the fact.  I'd tentatively enquired about a possible deal and to my surprise he'd asked me to give him a ring.  An hour-long chat ensued covering all things bike and I was immediately struck by his overwhelming enthusiasm for the seeming mundanities of seat tube diameters and metallurgical properties.  His knowledge eminently dwarfed my thirty-odd years of biking experience and we thoroughly enjoyed putting the industry to rights like grumpy old men venting at the world.  He offered me sponsorship, I danced a jig around my house!

Neat Cabling, Clean Lines, Bright Bars!
Now this is meant to be a bike review, and yet so far it reads like a mix between an industry rant and a gushing fanzine, but here's the deal.  I've been placed under no obligation to say anything positive about this machine whatsoever.  I'm not being given kit as a racer, more as a writer and a coach, someone who's opinion is regularly sought, so I guess Dan was being astute in considering effective ways to spread the word, but that came at a distinct risk.  If I didn't rate the bikes and components then I guess I'd return them and say no more but if people asked my opinion, I'd give them it with both barrels.

So what do I think?

First up, we need to consider another question, why the Sherpa?  As a fully signed up 'Enduro' type, bumbag and all, I should really be showcasing the 650b ripper, the Switchback.  With slacked out geometry, ISCG mounts, internal routing and beefy gussets surely that's the Stanton designed for the likes of me, not their more sedate, more upright 'trail bike' offering?  Except for one thing, all wheel sizes smaller then 29" are dead to me.  No doubt some of you will stop reading right here, stalled by your indignation, off to slag the rapidly expanding list of DH pros who are currently seeing the light I was blinded by two years ago.  Now that geometry is dialled, the big-wheeled machines are more capable in virtually all applications.  They fill in gaps to maintain speed better, roll faster, have more cornering grip, and are more stable in the tech than smaller wheeled offerings.  I've been saying for a while now that by 2020 you'll struggle to find any flagship Enduro models that aren't 29'ers, it looks like DH will follow suit too and XC has long-since made its decisions.  The Slackline and the Switchback both look lovely but I'll not be swinging a leg over either.


With a 67.5 degree head angle and a recommended fork travel of 100-120mm I was always going to be tweaking the Sherpa in a direction it maybe isn't exactly designed for.  140mm Pikes have jacked up the front end, slackening it for the steeps but have also raised the bottom bracket height which isn't ideal for cornering stability.  I've directly contradicted advice in over-forking the frameset but the only qualms Stanton had were over ride-qualities and definitely not regarding the frame's ability to handle the extra leverage.  I've also fitted a bottom-bracket secured ISCG mount having been denied a race victory last year by stupidly placing my faith in narrow-wide rings and clutch mechs.

Custom graphics from

The Pikes themselves have an MRP cartridge fitted, set-up firm to prevent diving but allowing a slightly lower air pressure than my rock-hard preferences, to improve initial-stroke sensitivity.  Pikes are a proven winner, in my opinion still the best mix of performance, reliability and long service intervals on the market and the MRP invites continual tweaking to further enhance the ride.

The groupset is XTR 1x11 with the Trail brakes, a stunning looking and generally faultless performer that although not as light as some SRAM offerings, is still my number-one choice every time.  Trail SPD's have been transferred once again from my last bike, they're simply peerless despite a pile of new competition.

Bearing surfaces are all taken care of by Chris King with an Inset 7 headset, ISO boost hubs and a ceramic bottom bracket.  It's obscenely expensive kit but I've got a CK fetish and find it the perfect antithesis to the dismal quality components used for cost-cutting by most companies in order to pointlessly upgrade a rear mech or other 'visible' part.  I've still got the Classic hubs received seventeen years ago on my twenty-first birthday and thousands of miles and many rims later, they're still like new with just one freehub bearing overhaul.  Class and style.
Boost Chris King and Ibis 941 rims

XTR gearing
Bars are Stanton aluminium in bright orange, initially cut to 780mm, the stem is a Stanton 35mm and saddle is Stanton Ti.  I stopped short of the own-brand grips, unable to depart from ODI Ruffians.  For the dropper I actually parted with my own cash to try a BikeYoke Revive as it seems to address the bobbing issue that has killed my previous five Reverbs.  More on that later.

My overwhelming love of 29'ers does come with an expensive caveat in that I find big carbon rims are indispensable for their lateral stiffness and refusal to come out of true.  The Ibis 941's have been faultless for over a year now and are soon to be upgraded to the asymmetrical 942's.  A Huck Norris is in place within the Maxxis Minion DHR 2.4 Wide Trail as a protection for the pricey plastic and a futile attempt to stop me tearing back tyres on a monthly basis.  Front tyre is a Minion DHF WT with pressures generally run around 18 and 22psi.

Enough talk, how does it ride?

Oh wow.  The first time I rode this bike was on practice day of the Vitus Enduro season opener, in conditions best described as 'testing' and on surfaces ranging from deep mud to grease to loam to exposed boulder field.  It was adorned with a borrowed Talas 140 fork from the years when Fox had lost their way worse than Father Ted in a lingerie department, but despite this huge hindrance I instantly felt at home having been raised on the lithe, whippy feeling of high quality steel tubing.  The Reynolds 853, 631 and 525 that is targetedly utilised throughout the frame has a 'personality' if that doesn't sound too pretentious and even if it does, then I know what I mean and I'll stand by the statement!  It soaked up the chatter and retained a lateral stiffness not apparent on last year's Ragley which suffered from frame to tyre buzz under heavy acceleration.  Despite losing by a miniscule 0.6 seconds on race day I was delighted, I've never felt such instant affinity with a bike and knew that with proper forks I was on a thoroughbred race winner.

At this juncture it's worth mentioning the frame detailing.  The welds are immaculate, and I mean utterly perfect.  Stanton use a factory which insists on a minimum fifteen years of welding experience before they'll entertain a CV and it massively shows in the uniform fishscales.  The curved seat tube and custom drive side yoke comfortably accommodate the big wheels and tyre widths up to large volume 2.4's, whilst keeping chainstays to a chuckable 435mm.

Very neat yoke and no clogging issues with 2.4WT rubber
The frame can also take 27+ tyres up to 3" if that's your thing but having ridden a few fatbikes I can assure you it's definitely not an upgrade in my book.  The seat tube junction is art and the head tube gusset is a lesson in subtlety.  Cable routing is painfully neat with simple external lines clipped under the top tube and down the stays, and stealth dropper routing entering the top of the down tube, leaving to circle the bottom bracket shell before re-entering at the base of the seat tube.  It'd be good to see some sort of included cover for those not running that option and maybe a rubber attachment to prevent water ingress round the cables for those who do. 

Simple cable routing and subtle gusset
The swop-out dropouts are extremely clever, facilitating rapid changes for different hub widths and singlespeed lovers.  A huge unforeseen bonus is the upcoming Boost conversion kit, allowing all Mk2 Stanton frame owners to adopt the new 'standard' for minimal expenditure.  Finishing is superb with classy graphics well lacquered over a shining green paint job.  The stony slop of early rides left a few superficial scratches on the top tube where my shorts rubbed but these have polished out, and the chips from a huge smash in Finale Ligure would almost certainly have happened to any paint coating.  Overall, it's still looking fresh and new, a facet that I certainly appreciate.  The metal headtube badge is a classy touch befitting of a top end frameset.

On familiar trails my instant love affair continued with the bike feeling extremely sprightly, climbing confidently despite an overall 29.2lb weight that reflects a sturdy build.  Descending was a dream, big wheels and quality tubing combining to provide a ride quality that diminishes natural advantages provided by suspension.  A trip to the Italian Riviera would be a perfect opportunity to drive this point home, competing with friends on 140mm bikes down trails that push all aspects of equipment and ability.

The art of welding at its absolute finest

Really neat frame detailing and Swopout dropouts
Finale was a revelation.  Confidence came easily on epic, unfamiliar descents with a distinct lack of fatigue from the juddering of repeat rockiness.  The steel served to smooth the buzz expertly and by day two my brakes were getting a holiday themselves as I trusted the precision of the Sherpa to point and shoot over some serious features.  Day three we were accompanied by a guide who was clearly and vocally impressed by the Stanton as I dropped a bus full of bouncers and held the wheel of his Intense M16 downhill rig.  Of course, the inherent downfall of bikes that demand limits be pushed is the fallibility of the rider, and sure enough the next run witnessed a gruesome smash that has left my left shoulder virtually unusable three weeks on.  Clipping a tree at maximum velocity saw the hardest impact I've ever suffered in a biking career that has already generated seventeen broken bones.  Torn rotator cuff, heavily bruised intercostals, smashed hip and elbow bones, bar some tiny paint chips the Sherpa was untouched.  Solid.

So I clearly love it but it can't be perfect. 

No it can't, and there are aspects I'd change.  At 6ft on the button, the dimensions of the 19" frame suit me well, allowing me to spec my favoured 35mm stem without feeling hunched at all, but it's the longest seat tube I've ever run and I'm left feeling too high up on the bike.  Two photos from Finale highlight this perfectly, both taken at the same spot on exactly the same corner.  My mate Tony on his Orange Five is looking much more poised and attacking despite our technique being virtually identical.  The shock compression clearly helps lower his centre of gravity, stabilising his position and carving deeper into the corner but I look too high and slightly hunched, having to use more body language to gain the same effect.  Part of this is the trade-off of riding hardtails but a lower top-tube would greatly assist positioning.  Being slightly too high also makes rapid weight switching between corners harder as it seems tougher to throw the bike from edge to edge and still retain perfect balance. 
Tony looking poised...

...but me looking a bit upright
Although the swopouts are genius, I'd rather see them held in by chainring bolts like they are on the Switchback than the three small heads.  I'm not a fan of mini allen key fittings as they're more likely to round for ham-fisted mechanics and are also harder to replace if you haven't got spares.

BikeYoke dropper is smooth and ergonomic but still flawed

As previously mentioned, there's nothing included to plug the Stealth holes if you're not using them which means a bit of DIY unbefitting of a £700 frameset.

The BikeYoke dropper is extremely smooth and the lever is superb.  The feature that tempted me to purchase it was the release valve that eradicates any bobbing with a turn of an allen key and compression of the post.  Reading up beforehand they intimated that this process may be needed every three months or so but in reality it's twice per ride.  I'm persevering for now but I'm going to be contacting them to complain.  Yet another flawed dropper post to add to the list.

I've bent a link on the XTR chain causing skipping gears but don't remember any big impacts.  Obviously eleven speed chains are going to be weaker than equivalent price-point ten speed ones but it's been an unpromising start.

Yet another brand new Maxxis rear tyre tore on its second use.  I've tried most major manufacturers and they're all the same, but it's the eternal frustration of aggro hardtailing.  The Huck Norris potentially saved the rim but the holes were too large to plug and so I had to put in an inner-tube.  Unfortunately that meant wrestling the latex covered snake into my bag to pollute the other contents as inner tubes and Huck wouldn't both fit in the tyre.

I've trimmed the bars to my preferred width of 760mm.  They felt good at 780 but trails here are tight and I can't help wondering whether that extra 10mm on the end was the difference between a squeaky bum bar clip and the horror crash that has left me currently incapacitated.  I guess I'll never know.

The Bottom Line.

This is the best put together bike I have ever owned, end of story.  Detailing, build quality, ride attributes and finish are all up with the finest examples of MTB workmanship I've ever seen, it truly is a sight to behold and a joy to ride.  I've had more capable bikes, the Ibis Mojo HD3 being the most notable in thirty years of top end machines, but no others exhibiting this degree of craftsmanship and all round rideability.  At £700 for a steel frame it definitely isn't cheap and without years of experience you may not appreciate the differences between this and the pile of cheaper identikit steel offerings from other companies.  But that's the point of no-compromise products, those who know, appreciate, and those who don't have yet to learn.  I couldn't begin to comprehend the minutiae of subtleties between two V8 engines or differing computer operating systems but bikes are what I do and the Sherpa is worth every penny.  Unfortunately Brexshit has forced a recent price rise and with the UK economy being manhandled by idiots I guess there's no guarantee that further elevations won't eventually be in the pipeline, but in manufacturing the US Dollar is king and a plummeting pound is putting the squeeze on bigtime.

I've mentioned the alterations I'd love to see, a slacker, beefier, internally routed, ISCG mounted aggro 29'er built around a 140mm travel fork would be an approximation of perfection.  At this point you've got to ask yourself why as a sponsored rider I'm not already on top of the range Sherpa Ti?

Maybe this frame was always a stopgap?  With an expected recovery time measured in months, maybe I'll never ride the Sherpa in anger again?  Maybe one of greatest hardtails in the history of MTB is about to drop?  Maybe...

Off the brakes and destroying Finale...

Until it bit back and destroyed me!

Friday, 31 March 2017

Feeling The Burn - The Maurice Mullins Wicklow Way Ultramarathon

It was never my intention to lead from the gun.  I really just wanted some clear space, away from the sound and sight of other footsteps in order to settle into my familiar, trained, tried and tested rhythm.  I'd spent the last four weeks perfecting a pace that covered 32 hilly miles in 3:54:00 and the sooner that kicked in, the sooner I could relax and enjoy my surroundings.
They're behind you!!  Fast early pace.  Photo: Barry Murray
Following the safety car, all 210 Ultra runners dropped down to the bridge that signalled our initial steps on to the beautiful Wicklow Way trail.  I savoured the moment as we began to ascend, the tension of the previous week dissipating as it finally dawned that I'd arrived at the start line fit and healthy despite the usual hypochondriac over-analysis of every recent sneeze and twinge.

Whenever I race, a certain hyper-awareness kicks in, listening for the breathing patterns and strides of my competitors.  I like to be out front which removes the possibility of seeing everyone else's form, checking their features for signs of strain, and so I've learned to form a visual picture without the dangerous pointlessness of looking over my shoulder.  Half way up that initial climb it slowly dawned on me that those familiar sounds weren't in evidence and I was alone.  There was nothing I could do about this, my pace was set and I was basically on auto-pilot, if nobody fancied matching it then I'd have to accept that it could be a lonely few hours ahead.  I crested the summit, stretched my legs along the slight undulations and revelled in the buzz of long-anticipated competition and warmth of long yearned for sunshine...

I didn't plan to run the Maurice Mullins Ultra this year.  Truth be known I had a chastening experience in 2016 and as someone who doesn't hugely enjoy hard packed surfaces and moderate gradients I'd have happily passed.  However, I do love competing for Ireland, being given the opportunity to travel as an athlete and pit myself against the World's best on the biggest stage and as this race was the World Champs qualifier for 2017 I realised I'd have to return.  Last year I came to Wicklow on the back of just three weeks training following a debilitating calf injury.  Fortunately this season my preparations were unhindered and I'd done a specific four week block of trail sessions, focusing on being efficient in movement and pinpointing the perfect pace.  A couple of comfortable 2:54, twenty-five milers over the Tollymore hills had me feeling confident and I fancied my chances of toppling Jonny Steede's rapid 3:56:47 record, particularly after seeing the weather forecast for the 25th March.

This race seems to have been blighted by poor weather in recent years!  Certainly on my one previous experience the high winds and intermittent showers made for testing times on the open mountain sections and lent a certain dankness to the forests.  This year a breathtaking sunrise accompanied the start of my journey and perfect blue skies led down to Glencullen where sunglasses at sign-on were prevalent.  With the early morning rays already generating a soothing warmth and the convivial nature of the usual pre-race banter it was easy to enjoy the last hour before the big start.  I decided to heed the forecast and ignore all my four base layers of differing thickness, opting to wear just the vest instead, a decision I definitely appreciated later on.  Final stretches, race briefing, sip of water and we were off.  Just 32 miles to go!
Stunning sunrise to start the journey
The first sixteen miles were pretty uneventful and at times hugely enjoyable.  From the techy rock drops of the first descent to skipping up Djouce mountain in the sun following the breathtaking beauty of Powerscourt Waterfall that almost stopped me in my tracks.  I passed Crone Wood feed station in 54 minutes and felt really comfortable although the decision not to stop and take on water was foolish given the conditions.  Even worse, I opted to down the 250ml of electrolytes I'd allocated to this section in order to save weight which left me without a drop all the way to the Ballinastoe half-way point.  Last year I downed 500ml at that point but the ensuing stomach issues left me overly cautious this year and I'd only packed another 250ml.

Passing half-way at 1:56:00 I was delighted to be exactly on planned pace and still feeling strong, and the lengthy climb back up Djouce passed pretty quickly with the hundreds of snippets of support and conversation.  Huge thanks to everyone who stepped off the boardwalk, taking the softer line to let me pass.  The 90 degree bend that signals the top of the climb took me by surprise as for some reason I thought the trail went right to the summit and so I was a bit unprepared to commence the slippery descent, small patches of snow serving as a clear reminder how the weather could have been so different.  A few comedy slips on the off-camber mud led to the bottom of the hill and up the steep rise on the other side, temporarily power walking as a creeping nausea started to temper my progress.  To stave off any early cramp, salt sachets were downed and I paced on well back to Crone Woods, pausing temporarily for water this time and allowing a quick time check.  2:57:20, still on record pace and despite the discomfort of the nausea, still covering ground fast.

By now I was getting distinctly bored of my own company but the drifting nature of my thoughts allowed whole sections to pass without conscious input.  I knew my lead was sizeable at half way and given the continued fast pace I was confident it had remained.  This was confirmed at the final feed station where I grabbed some water and settled in for the final climb.  As I jogged up the final jumble of granite boulders I made the fatal mistake of allowing my mind to skip to the finish and the promise of fluids and a cessation of movement.  That thought combined with the still very real possibility of the record prompted me to push on a bit hard on the flat of the ridge and into the descent with the clock at 3:39.  Just two and a bit miles to go, mostly downhill, I figured ten for the descent, six for the road and a finish time of 3:55.  Then it all went badly wrong.

Cramp can come in two ways, the sneaky gradual tightening or the instant jolting shock.  I managed to experience both simultaneously with quads seizing immediately whilst calves spasmed in tickly shots. Mind in overdrive I adopted a bizarre shuffle, contorting legs into any shape that temporarily alleviated the locking.  I'd long since accepted that I'd won the race and now suddenly that was far from a foregone conclusion.  It seemed so cruel that with the bulk of the work done my body could deny me at the last minute but I'd obviously asked too much of it without heeding the messages sent in return.  For the first time that day I started looking over my shoulder, convinced that Barry Hartnett would be appearing on the horizon.

After walking a bit and then ultimately stopping to vigorously rub my rock solid calves I was finally able to re-commence a hobbling jog.  Survival was now the primary concern and I craved the finish or even just the change to the uphill of the road.  Crossing the bridge I allowed myself a lingering look across the valley and back up the track and was quite astounded to see it bereft of runners.  The result was now unquestionably in the bag as long as I could actually reach the finish.  That final section was cripplingly tortuous as I prayed for the GAA club to appear at every slight bend in the road.  Face contorted in pain, I hobbled in, unable to appreciate the joy of the finish line, mentally spent and continuing to seize.

That last two and a bit miles took a whopping 32 minutes for a final time of 4:10:44, a couple of minutes slower than the time I ran last year for third.  My dreams of the record smashed to pieces by inexperience, poor decision making and a body that wasn't quite up to the task.  Watching Barry cross the line a few minutes later it was clear he'd experienced very similar symptoms and given his superior pedigree and experience over this distance maybe I hadn't cocked up as badly as I thought.  Maybe the conditions were always going to be the decisive factor this year, we don't really legislate for it being too hot for March mountain races in Ireland!
Finish line agony after a very tough last half hour.  Photo: Mick Hanney
Post-race saw the usual rush for cheap calories whilst catching up with familiar faces and sharing battle stories.  I'd have loved to have had the option to drink away the aches in the glory of a sun drenched beer garden at Johnnie Fox's but the North was calling and so I fought my way out of the car park and headed for the mayhem of the M50.  Job done, great result and ultimately I definitely got what I came for, International qualification and another very important lesson learned.  Drink early, drink lots and drink often!  I'll keep that in mind as we head to Italy in the height of Summer!
Followed by delight at not needing to run any more.  Photo: Mick Hanney
Huge thanks as ever to all fellow IMRA competitors who make for such happy atmospheres at races and biggest thanks to all organisers, helpers and marshals.  It was a superb event again, really smoothly run and a credit to all involved.  Also massive thanks to the Mullins family who have created such a lovely trophy which looks great on the mantlepiece.  My kids love it!  Now I need to work out how to return it next year without having to run that damn trail again!
Top three Ultra men along with Barry Hartnett and Paul Tierney

Friday, 17 March 2017

My Left Knee and the Germ Factories

My wee boy is ill.  Not just the usual coughs and splutters, this time it's a relentless puking, totally exhausted, heart-wrenching genuine sickness.  He's been awake half the night and is currently laid up and off school.

Now Dylan is bulletproof and despite the obvious discomfort he's remained totally upbeat, so much so that I actually took him out to the park and to Lidl as he seemed like he was well on the mend.  All was good until half way through the shopping when he announced he was going to be sick and promptly puked on the floor.  This was straight after declaring 'I'm not boking in a box' after I'd rapidly shoved an empty cardboard container under his mouth.
The boys not feeling sick!
Now I'm not sure where the logic lies in being perfectly happy vomming up on a supermarket floor but not a box, but then logic and four year olds are often very separate entities.  Anyway, where this is all going is towards the fact that kids are often sick, they're mini germ factories who we shove in close proximity to other germ factories on a daily basis.  Unsurprisingly, the germs have a field day and create combinations of illnesses to flatten our children and in-turn, often flatten us.

I can totally accept this, being contaminated by your offspring is part and parcel of being a parent and I often play the bug lottery, watching the latest strains work through my family, hoping fruitlessly that I'll somehow avoid the lurgy and be able to power on.  I remember when my older boy was a baby, thinking that the cold he had probably wouldn't effect me because he was tiny and I was big!  As a result I carried on as normal, letting him slobber and sneeze all over me, with the upshot that I got it worse than he ever had and spent the next three weeks coughing my lungs out.  This startling lack of medical knowledge no doubt had Louis Pasteur turning in his grave and taught me a vital lesson the hard way.

Being sick is often little more than an inconvenience to most people.  You feel a bit rotten, deal with the symptoms and largely carry on with life until it passes.  Being sick as an athlete can be pretty devastating, particularly in the run-up to a big event.  It can ruin months of careful preparation and effort in one fell swoop.  At present I'm just coming to the end of a very tough four week training block and everything is going brilliantly.  Times are getting faster despite no increase in effort and recovery is coming easy, the very definition of improving fitness.  My first big race of the year is in a week and everything feels like it's falling into place.  To get my body in this situation has taken a lot of hard work, overcoming injury, adjusting plans, dieting hard and getting out in some testing conditions.  Training to peak for a big event is pretty formulaic and has always worked well for me unless the spectre of illness has appeared to f**k it all up.

I remember reading Brad Wiggins' book and empathising with his obsessive attempts to stay healthy during the Tour De France.  Using hand-sanitiser literally every time he touched anything may seem a bit ridiculous but when you work so hard for a singular goal that can be ruined so easily then it's understandable (a lot more so than using TUE's to gain an unfair, drug-fuelled advantage anyway!). The human body is so fallible and weak, it takes so little to knock it out of kilter and athletes are even more susceptible than non-athletes.  Systematically battering ourselves, breaking down muscle to allow it to rebuild also temporarily downs our immune systems, leaving us more open to attack.

As a teenager, my Mum could never understand why I was constantly sick.  She thought I was a hypochondriac but I was actually just someone with an immature body and a poor understanding of recovery periods.  I'd hammer myself in training and then smash myself in races on freezing Winter days, without ever really backing off until the inevitable cold came along to force some much-needed rest.  These days, I'm a bit more savvy and have learned the necessity of allowing my body to rebuild but there's no controlling the spread of illness and if it's going to get you, there's little you can do.

Having said that, I do all I can.  The week before a big race often sees me becoming a Vitamin C junkie as that familiar hyper-awareness of every single bodily feeling kicks in.  I'd love to know if other people count down the days on race week, delighting on waking every day without the tell-tale tickly throat or heavy lungs?  I certainly do!  Another, more regrettable facet of race week is often putting up a metaphorical shield between me and the kids.

I'm normally really huggy with the boys, and on top of that they're constantly trying to attack me, squash me and beat me up as all small boys should with their Dad!  This means that we're in close proximity a lot of the time which is usually a total joy.  All of that changes at race time as I hold them at arms length, keeping the coughs and sneezes away, desperately struggling to retain a healthy distance.  There is a ton of associated guilt, it's hard to explain to the lads that I don't want a bedtime kiss until after Saturday, but I guess that it's just another part of the selfishness that pervades the attitudes of competitors.

Now, on to my left knee.  For some bizarre reason it has some kind of medical clairvoyance and every time I'm about to succumb to any stomach related problem it aches incessantly.  It's not a knee problem and it dissipates as soon as the gut is fixed but it's come to serve as a handy early warning system.  This morning, a few minutes into a steady 16 miler I felt a couple of twinges and immediately went into panic mode, extrapolating that Dylan's bug must be about to strike. Fortunately, it went as soon as it arrived and a few hours later I feel absolutely fine.  I live to train another day without contracting this particular bug.
My magic left knee and entirely ordinary right one.
Anyway, I'm not entirely sure what the point of this blog is!  I guess I'd like to know whether anyone else alters their parenting routine and becomes hyper-aware of bodily feelings when their big goals are approaching?

I'd also love to hear that my behaviour is sort-of normal, and that temporarily avoiding my kids is acceptable, if only to assuage my own guilt.  The only massive upside to it all is that much like enjoying a rare post-race beer and sugar-fest, being able to go back and have a fear-free squish fight with the boys is an incredible joy and makes the temporary germ avoidance tactics feel almost worthwhile.

As a postscript I'm delighted to say that Dylan is now well on the mend.  Stay healthy everyone!