Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Mind Games 2 - But the flesh was weak...

Kevin Carr stumbled into the Clonakilty Hotel at 9:40pm on Monday March 16th.  He'd been on his feet for fourteen hours and run over fifty miles.  He looked understandably exhausted, older than when I last saw him, dishevelled and stressed.   I looked him in the eyes.  Bloodshot and glazed with the proverbial thousand yard stare and a look nearing delirium, the day's exertions had clearly taken a heavy toll, not to mention the previous six hundred.

Fast forward seven days and I was dropping a seemingly different Kev at Newry bus station, on the exact spot to the centimetre that he'd stopped his GPS trackers the previous evening.  Looking stronger, more relaxed but with the same steely focus, he jogged off towards Belfast and the end of his brief Irish odyssey.  This is an account of my fleeting role in one of the most remarkable athletic feats in human history, one that astounds me even more for having had a glimpse at the true magnitude of it and one that took me closer to my own personal limits than I'd ever have imagined.

I've explained my relationship with Kev and the reasons he undertook his epic World run in the previous blog.  To briefly summarise, we're old school friends who lost touch for a decade and having regained contact realised that we're both lovers of running, pushing our own physical limits and both sufferers of mental health issues.  I got counselling, Kev ran round the World!

The actual process of running with Kev never really occurred to me until the evening before I left for South West Cork to join him.  Over the previous couple of years we'd kept in touch as he paced around the globe and I'd always intended to join him for the Irish leg without stopping to consider what that would actually entail.  I'm a mountain runner and my strengths and interests lie in running up and down steep, wildly uneven ground as fast as possible.  I actively eschew the road, finding that the tedium and joint pain far outweigh the available endorphins so what was I possibly thinking?  The truth is that I wasn't!  The romantic image of being involved in a truly inspirational challenge along with an old mate had blinded my judgement and even when I realised the immense daily mileage required I blocked out the implications.  As I worked out the logistics of an epic bus journey and threw together some kit it simultaneously dawned on me that not only was I intending to run beyond double my previous maximum daily mileage but I was planning to do it for three consecutive days! The fear of realising what I'd signed up for hit me like a train and I wanted badly to back out but knew that it was by no means an option.  Grabbing my least knackered pair of trail shoes I then grabbed a fitful nights sleep.

The next day began with a frantic series of phone calls that culminated in a very bemused looking taxi driver carrying a pair of Inov8 shoes around the bus station having just sped down from Belfast to Newry via a local stockist.  As an Inov8 sponsored athlete Kev has had a choice of footwear that have been delivered to him throughout the run.  Unfortunately, having recently changed shoe and binned the old ones, he'd suffered a torrid two days between Shannon and Kenmare struggling to adapt to an unfamiliar model.  The result was a race against time that we won by a whisker thanks to a man who left me with the words 'you may have a couple of fines to pick up!'

The eight hour bus journey passed without incident as I enjoyed the rare experience of being able to stuff as much food into me as possible, safe in the knowledge that it'd all get burned the following day.  The bus pulled into Clonakilty at 8pm and I strolled the quaint main street which was all prepped for the big St. Patrick's day parade the following day. I half wished that we'd be able to stay for the festivities!  Then, having explained at the desk that I'm not that fella who's running around the world (they were anticipating Kev's arrival) I settled in and waited for him.

I don't really know what I was expecting.  I've been in intermittent contact with him throughout the run and so I knew the difficulties he faced not just in terms of the physical aspects but also the emotional stress of continually moving, never stopping unless forced to.  However, I don't think I was prepared for how utterly demanding day to day life has become for him.  In terms of the hierarchy of his fundamental needs following that day's efforts, food and sleep should've been the only priorities. Unfortunately he had to precede that by updating GPS trackers, charging multiple essential bits of equipment and checking his physical state.  The failure to undertake any of these tasks could critically delay departure the following morning and with an intended schedule that will incredibly see him shave just two days off the existing record there's no margin for error.  He never intended to finish the run with a month of back-to-back fifty mile days but sickness, bureaucracy and horrendous luck with the weather have slowly eroded his margin for error.  The result has been a gradual increase in the required daily mileage which he said wasn't too daunting with six months remaining but now requires superhuman daily efforts.  We eventually got to sleep at 11:30 with a 5:30am alarm set.

The next morning I wolfed down a couple of bananas, excited at the prospect of running 50+ miles but understandably apprehensive.  Above all I didn't want to be a hindrance to Kev.  He's run alone for so long now and I felt that possibly my presence could upset subtle balances and routines.  I remembered reading that Mark Cavendish actively avoided socialising when nearing the conclusion of his round the world cycling record attempt as he was mentally set so hard in his routine.  Kev allayed my worries by saying that the company would be a good boost and so I felt a bit more comfortable as we started the tracker and jogged out into a dewy early dawn.
Definitely a grimace
What followed has already become a blur in my memory, the brain has an inherent ability to blank out painful experiences, but I remember some aspects clearly.

1) There was no pace that we could comfortably share.  Kev has fine tuned a perma-pace, one that is incredibly efficient and low impact and designed for travelling immense distances but it's not fast. He's also a few inches shorter than me and so whatever I did, I found myself pulling ahead.  I knew that this would bite me in the arse sometime but I had to adapt and adopt a shuffling half step.  It felt uncomfortable and unnatural but it kept us within talking distance.

2) Kev was suffering.  I mean really suffering.  He was gritting his teeth and pushing on but I'd estimate that most people wouldn't consider leaving their beds in his physical state.  He'd been too sick to eat any breakfast, his digestive system was in turmoil and he repeatedly had to stop to dry heave, attempting to expel non-existent stomach contents.  He explained to me that he's actually changed the shape of his bite through 19 months of gritting his teeth and muscle wastage on his legs has diminished his quad muscles to a smaller circumference than his calves!  Anyone expecting to encounter a fine specimen of athleticism would be astounded.  His run has been physically debilitating on a scale that I'd never anticipated.  Pushing bodily limitations is something I'm familiar with but enforced suffering on this scale is definitely at the outer reaches of my comprehension.  We celebrated when Kev reluctantly forced down a couple of jelly babies and marked it as a sign of improvement but he later admitted that it was the worst he'd felt in the whole challenge!

We pushed on to Bandon through quintessentially rolling Irish countryside, the early morning darkness retreating and the first tickles of warmth indicating a fine day to come.  A conversation in a garage encapsulated for me how incomprehensible the scale of the world run is.  The girls there raised eyebrows as we briefly explained where Kev has been but they were more impressed by the evidently more tangible fact that we'd come from Clonakilty on foot that morning.

3)  We looked far from athletes!  I was wearing my Ireland athletics singlet to mark Paddy's day and also I must admit, to show others that I'm an international team runner.  However, at our pace we looked like a couple of lads sloping back from a heavy night out.  Kev had put his donated Eircom hi-vis jacket over his backpack so with his stubble, cracked lips, yellow jacket and baggy waterproof trousers there was no indication that he wasn't an out of shape electricity worker.  We managed to laugh at the fact that we probably couldn't catch the woman on the other side of the road who was out for an early morning jog/shuffle but it's a pride denter that Kev has had to learn to live with.

As we passed the 26 mile mark I rewarded myself and stretched my legs for a couple of miles. Running on ahead in the sunshine allowed me some time to pause and watch a local horse show replete with Father Ted'esque commentary on the speakers.  Kev had perked up and managed to hoover down some sugar laden snacks at the next garage.  Buoyed by his improving state we continued on, the comfortable temperature and easy company coupled with quiet roads and pleasant scenery making the experience pretty bearable.

4)  Traffic never ceases to be terrifying.  The Irish drivers were actually very conscientious, often indicating and moving well wide of us as we picked our way up a shoulder-less road that was carrying an unexpected volume of vehicles.  Kev filled me in on just some of the shocking occurrences that have befallen him through the run, exacerbated by the width of the stroller that he was pushing for the majority of the route.  He described crazy overtaking, being forced into walls and towards huge drops with nowhere to move to on roads that were never designed for non-motorised transport.  Multiplied by his reactions being dulled by fatigue, poor visibility, terrible drivers, drunk drivers, drugged drivers and more, it's a small miracle that Kev has only been run over once.  My brain was rapidly tiring and as often happens when under stress, emotion came to the fore.  I was genuinely scared and thoughts of my family were prevalent.  The pointlessness of my involvement in this venture coupled with the ever present danger actually made me angry at myself.  At least Kev is undertaking a life changing, never before achieved, multiple record breaking challenge.  What was I actually gaining?  A chance to (possibly) help a mate and run some ultramarathons to simply entertain myself.  Was it worth risking my life for?  I longed for the openness of the mountains and realised how much my love of running is tied into nature and the surroundings.
A fake smile in Cork
The road into Cork demonstrated to me one of the unavoidable pitfalls of the run.  Kev's online maps told him to proceed on the main Cork to Waterford road, bypassing the city.  Greeted by a four lane motorway, we clearly had to seek an alternative, legal route.  This meant an about turn that added an overall 1.2km.  The rules of the world run state that no distance re-covered can be counted, an eternal annoyance for Kev but one designed to stop anyone completing the required 26,000km on a running track before briefly visiting four other continents to meet that second criteria.  There have been thousands of occasions where Kev has had to strike off distances travelled, sometimes just the hundred metres to a nearby garage and back but equally sometimes multiple km as a result of poor or non-existent mapping of areas.  A conservative estimate would be that Kev has run at least 300 miles further than his official stats state.

5)  Emotional tiredness is at least as debilitating as physical tiredness.  Losing that 1.2km hit me hard and I cut a miserable figure amongst the thousands of revellers enjoying the bank holiday in the vibrant city centre.  I asked Kev about this aspect of the challenge, the draining effects of never knowing where he'd sleep that night, not knowing if he could find sufficient food and water, the traffic and a myriad of unknown dangers.  He said that the constant threat of Grizzly Bears throughout Canada was by far the most draining fear, ruining sleep patterns and leaving him on a constant state of alert that battered his Cortisol levels resulting in an unbreakable mental turmoil.  I was beginning to understand the root cause of that thousand yard stare.  This run has to be viewed as being akin to military combat with Kev genuinely feeling that he was under mortal threat for much of it.  The aforementioned traffic and bears, gun toting locals with an aversion to campers, extreme weather (and he's faced some unbelievably shit weather), sickness, lack of safe food and enough liquids, the list goes on.  All of which have conspired to generate untold levels of additional stress.

Leaving Cork we had our only stop in the whole day.  Worried by the '10 year old boy' look of Kev's shrunken quads I was seeking protein and calories, lots of them!  I put away some Southern fried chicken breast and a few sandwiches whilst Kev got some distance between us.  Feeling fuelled for the first time since the morning I vaguely enjoyed playing catch up, overhauling Kev a couple of miles up the road.  Pretty much from this point it rapidly lost any fun.

I was anticipating, and even relishing the point where my body would tell me to wise up and stop moving. This is where the mental fortitude kicks in and you just have to dig deeper and deeper to get what you want.  The subsequent non-stop, mostly straight fifteen miles in fading light tested me to somewhere near my mental edge.  My feet were hurting, both hips giving me abuse and the boredom was preventing any thoughts other than my current predicament forcing their way in.  I longed for the end of the day as the kilometres ticked by agonisingly slowly.  Eventually we reached another garage where caffeine was consumed and we limped on towards Castlemartyr, hopefully our destination for the day.

I say hopefully because we still didn't know for sure where we were sleeping that night.  Someone had kindly promised to donate us a free hotel room but the hotel was about five miles further than we wanted to go that day.  A tiny amount in normal terms, but at the end of that day it would equate to another hour and a half less sleep that night, not an option!  Finding accommodation is another difficult facet of Kev's challenge.  In many places he's camped but even this has proven extremely arduous in countries where the bears (Canada), prevalence of guns and private land (USA), overpopulation (India) and weather (everywhere) have made suitable spots hard to locate.  Add to this the fact that I'm a softie these days and neither of us were in the mood for lying in a ditch that night and we needed to get something sorted.  Hotel manager Milo came to the rescue, not only picking us up but feeding us and dropping us off the following morning, a true gentleman and running enthusiast himself.

We laughed at my rapid physical destruction as I barely scraped up the stairs to the two apartments we'd been given.  I was delighted to be finished for the day and pleased at how my body and mind had aquitted themselves running my first ever ultramarathon.  I glugged down some strawberry milk, read about one page of my book and slept through til 05:30.

The next morning I felt remarkably sprightly as we packed up and headed out.  Luckily we were able to start the day without packs as we'd be running back to the hotel from our previous night's endpoint. Milo dropped us back in the Castlemartyr village and I tried to warm up in the sub-zero dawn as Kev updated his tracker messages.  We walked the first mile to give our bodies a chance to get acclimatised to moving again and then broke into a jog.  That's when the real problems started.  I was getting a really sharp pain in the front of my left ankle coupled with one in the back of my left knee. Kev advised me to walk it off and hope that it eased and fortunately after fifteen minutes I was able to break into a relatively pain free run.  We covered the 14km back to the hotel in an ambling two hours; little did I know that my average speed wouldn't hit those heights again.

Having stuffed in a few croissants and lamented the way that static minutes seemed to fly by we stepped out on to the beach and another beautiful morning.  This should've been a high point but I was suffering badly, the time spent seated had done me no favours and the pains were back with a vengeance.  Several times I attempted to up the pace but the pain was excruciating.  It dawned on me that I'd be walking from here on in.  The mental arithmetic started immediately; maximum average pace around 6km per hour and 66km still to cover, it was going to be a tough day.  Leaving Youghal, Kev was kind enough to walk with me but the previous issues of pacing were immediately apparent again.  Kev is too short to be able to walk at my maximum walking pace and so he had to keep running a few steps to catch up again.  In covering distances like these rhythm seems to be essential and so that approach wasn't really sustainable.
About to begin a VERY tough 6 hour speed march
Youghal to Dungarvan was horrendous.  I was taking the longest strides possible and maintaining a strong rhythm in order to keep the speed as high as manageable.  Unfortunately, as with the previous day, an unfamiliar stride simply created new problems and my body gradually caved in.  I've never done a non-stop 25 mile speed march before and won't be rushing to repeat the act.  Ibuprofen had lessened the tendon swelling in my ankle but I had new issues, big blisters forming on the soles of both feet, battered and aching toenails and constant heartburn from an unfamiliar sugar loaded diet. My mental state plunged to new depths, worsened by a road with no discernible interest and nowhere to stop for a mood enhancing hot chocolate.  It was with mixed emotions that I finally spied Dungarvan.  The view along the coastline was spectacular and it was predominantly downhill but by then I was in perpetual agony and getting increasingly concerned about causing long term injuries. The only break in my continual pain was when the blister that was my little toe burst with a shot of searing wetness and briefly provided an alternative focal point.

Kev had dropped back to take a phone call and so the last few km were a solo battle against a growing malaise.  I'd long since decided that Dungarvan would be the end of my day.  Making it that far had become an incredible struggle and the idea of another 30km was preposterous.  By the time I reached the outskirts of the town I had a discernible limp and was a shadow of the athlete I'd felt just 34 hours earlier.  Nagging at the back of my mind was a sense of failure and also a sense of letting Kev down but I knew I'd be a hindrance if I continued and instead found other ways to be useful. Having raided the supermarket for Kev's chosen dinner I jumped into a taxi and asked to be taken to Dawn B+B.  I explained that it was nearly twenty miles away so was a bit surprised when the driver stopped after about four minutes.  Having to re-explain myself about fifteen more times and then do all the navigation myself would've been comic if I wasn't so utterly f***ed and the meter wasn't spinning round at breakneck speed.

At the B+B I was able to assess the damage.  Both feet had sizeable blisters in the centre, the nails on both big toes were already blackening and my right little toe was swollen, misshapen, weeping heavily and the nail was totally black.  The tendonitis in my left ankle was back with a vengeance leaving me hobbling and the long strides had caused my right knee to start hyperextending worryingly.  I lay on the bed and contemplated the previous two days.  It had been an audacious plan to run 150 miles in three days, made all the more so by the fact that I'd never even run a marathon distance before.  Looking at it in black and white reveals my utter naivety.  Kev has been building up to these mileages over years of mountain marathons, ultras and the small matter of 24,000km run over near consecutive days during the last year and a half, and even he was suffering heavily.  As much as I'm proud of my bullish self belief, it does sometimes set me up for a fall.  I managed to stay awake long enough to see Kev in, discuss the day and let him know I wouldn't be able to attempt the third day with him.  He wasn't overly surprised!
Found the most appropriate roadside junk outside Dungarvan
I made my way back North the next morning, my enjoyment of the journey tempered by a nagging sense of failure.  Part of me was kidding myself that I'd rejoin Kev following a hectic weekend of coaching work but deep down I knew the fear of killing my racing season before it started would hold me back.  Remarkably my legs felt fresh enough but for a few days I experienced a heavy general fatigue and the injuries continued to hamper me.  I was delighted that in my absence Kev managed to meet up with Irish world runner Tony Mangan as well as having a few other unexpected running buddies and when I picked him up in Newry on the Monday night he was clearly in good spirits.  A good feed and an all too brief chat and Kev was off to sleep again.  Even the normality of conversation with an old mate is too much of a luxury when it limits the body's fundamental need for rest.
A starstruck Rowan got up at 5am to meet Kev
I'd been worried and intrigued for a while about Kev's future plans once the run is over and I quizzed him the next morning as we drove back to Newry.  My biggest concern was that he may not have any plans and would be left with the very real likelihood of some kind of post traumatic stress issues.  He slightly allayed my fears with talk of returning to personal training, writing a book (which I can't wait to read) and other potential challenges involving running ridiculous distances.  His final comment was extremely telling though and revealed how much he's simply surviving from day to day because even thinking a week ahead is so overwhelming.  Far from craving fame, fortune, recognition or material wealth, Kev craves a time when he can start moving without having to press a button on his watch.  The smallest of desires for a man who deserves the utmost respect.
Find the EXACT spot, press the GPS button, start running, repeat.
I wrote these blogs both to promote Kev's monumental achievements and also to highlight the reasons behind his run.  His website www.hardwayround.com states that he 'aims to provide a very real demonstration that an ill mind is in no way a weak mind' and that 'there is no shame in mental illness and it needn't hold you back'.  Kevin's mental strength is astounding.  Witnessing first hand the stresses that he's put on his body and mind and come through successfully is humbling.  Dealing with fear, exhaustion, the unknown and a physical battering on that scale takes degrees of belief and mind management that most of us will never get near to achieving and hopefully most of us will never have to.  Everyone experiences difficulties in their lives and for many of us evolution hasn't blessed our brains with the ability to cope yet.  You WILL know someone suffering mental health issues right now, that is an undeniable fact.  You may not have noticed because you're too busy with your own life or more likely because they're very adept at hiding the symptoms.  There's no doubt that the stigma is lifting and people are becoming more receptive to the fact that mental illness is as tangible and real as all other illnesses.  I truly hope that Kev gets the plaudits he deserves and this incredible journey of his buys him a larger platform to keep sending this valuable message.

I was overwhelmed by the response to my first blog.  From personal messages of thanks from close friends to handshakes and comments from virtual strangers.  Many people called it brave but to me sharing my experiences for my own therapeutic reasons as well as the potential to help others was just another step on a road that hopefully leads to the end of my anxiety issues.  If you find yourself stressed, anxious, unable to think or breathe properly, light headed, tight chested, suffering continual stomach complaints.  If you find the world occasionally goes dimmer, there is no enjoyment in life, nothing to look forward to and an unseen weight is on your shoulders.  If you get manic episodes, times when you're too inspired, too buzzed up to sleep with no kind of chemical assistance.  If you've experienced any of these things at any time then you may have a mental illness.  Don't panic, just seek help and talk about it.  From then on, things truly will start to improve.

Follow Kev's progress as he tears down through England to hopefully finish back at Haytor on Dartmoor inside the record on April 9th.

Please donate to Sane, a mental health charity that Kev is representing so well.  The self-supported nature of his challenge has left Kev unable to really promote his achievements so far, limiting his fundraising potential.  Give a little cash and please share this blog on your social media, his achievements deserve to be raising millions, not hundreds.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Mind Games – Strength in Sickness

This will probably be the only genuinely important blog I ever write!  As much as I love sharing my largely pointless efforts to bust myself in the outdoors in a semi self-aggrandising and semi-therapeutic way, it’s all really just for fun.  This one actually matters.

My old school mate Kevin Carr is running around the World, in fact he’s nearly finished!  He’s given a great recent account here (http://team.inov-8.com/race-against-time-world-record-run/).  He’s a really interesting character.  I knew him from school and riding bikes way back in the mid 90’s but then lost track of him for over a decade.  We met again at a mutual friends’ wedding and he filled me in on life in-between.  He’d recently become the first (and only) ever person to run from Lands End to John O’Groats unsupported and entirely off-road.  Averaging over 30 miles a day for 40 days he took a winding and convoluted route through some of Britain’s most beautiful and mountainous terrain, avoiding asphalt and sleeping in fields and ditches.  He was meant to have a support crew but when that fell apart at the 11th hour he just packed some more kit and went for it.

Naturally I was intrigued to know what was next for Kev and he had some ‘interesting’ ideas of how to push himself physically and mentally through his limits again.  We stayed in touch and so I came to learn of his ground breaking attempt to become the first person in history to run around the World entirely unsupported.  It seemed like a logical step for a man so used to pushing his personal limits.  Obviously physically running that distance is an immense challenge but choosing to do it with no support structure around him has made it infinitely harder.  When he got hit by a car in Perth and the buggy full of kit that he pushes was damaged he sorted it.  When he was struck ill in Belarus and left with 90 non-stop miles of running through a blizzard to reach the border before his visa expired he dug in and got there.  When he was temporarily blinded in India by tiny bits of slate hitting his retinas he dealt with the pain and fear until his sight returned.  He has run an ultramarathon virtually every day for over 18 months through every condition imaginable.  No time to form relationships, no time to stop and recover, no time to feel sorry for himself, no support crews or liaison officers to send him fresh kit and smooth his way through the myriad of bureaucracy he faces.  In short he is a hardman, physically and more importantly mentally. 

Kevin has also lived with a lifetime of depression and mental illness.

He won’t mind me telling you this, in fact, he’d actively encourage it because part of the point of his run has been to help break down the myths surrounding sickness of the mind, remove the stigma and prove with resounding finality that depression is not a mental weakness.  Finding this out about Kev really heightened my interest in his challenge as, along with a love of running and physical adversity it’s something we both have in common.

I too have suffered from a mental illness since about the age of 18.  It’s been a combination of anxiety disorder, depression and bipolar all mixed up in a complex and interrelated set of causes and symptoms.  I don’t mind sharing this with you either because I’ve confronted the issues myself and come out much better with the support of some brilliant people.  What I would like to do is share a bit of my story in the hope that it might help someone else realise that they too should seek some assistance and improve their own life exponentially.

Life is good, chasing dreams!
First let’s dispel some myths.

I have a great life.  I have an incredible, caring, loving wife.  I have two funny, affectionate, intelligent kids.  I was brought up in a loving family in a beautiful part of the world.  I like most aspects of my job and absolutely love some parts of it.  I live in a nice house in the mountains, have no real money worries, buy all the shiny bikes and kit that I need (and plenty I don’t need).  I get to go on some great holidays, chase some dreams and follow my interests and ambitions.  I have no real interest in or longing for further material wealth.  In short, there's no reason why I should ever be unhappy.

And I haven’t been unhappy.  I’ve been ill.

I’ve had various symptoms, real physical symptoms, often mild but sometimes serious.  Low periods don’t involve feeling a bit grumpy or down, it’s like a physical weight on my shoulders to the extent that I can actually feel it coming for a couple of days in advance.  During the following unspecified period the things that usually make life so good don’t seem to matter.  It’s not a feeling of sadness, or grief, or anger, worse than that, it’s a total nothingness.  Love, happiness, laughter, music, nature, biking, running, mountains, all these things that are inherently so life enhancing for me under normal circumstances do nothing to raise me from that dulling of my senses.

I’ve also had many periods of crushing stomach pains, vomiting, curled up on the floor unable to stand up types of pains.  These have been recurrent from my early twenties but again, it’s only recently that I’ve realised that every one of them was linked.  Intense physical symptoms of a mental illness caused by anxiety.

There’s a flip side to the downs, for short stretches in the past I’ve experienced incredible natural highs that made me a completely unstoppable force, achieving amazing feats with limitless energy.  They felt great but were ruined by my knowledge that they invariably preceded deep lows.  I don’t really experience these any more, the extreme ends of the scale have disappeared.

If I hadn’t eventually sought some professional help I’d still be unaware that all these factors are so interlinked.  With some gentle prompting I finally arranged some counselling and took a big step towards getting my mind in order.  That was really daunting, finally admitting to myself that all wasn’t perfect inside my head even if all is good outside it.  I couldn’t imagine how the session would go, would it be like a TV psychiatrist, me lying on a couch and them listening and nodding as I babbled on?  I really couldn’t envisage me being able to talk for more than five minutes, let alone an hour!  And yet I did.  It felt a bit self-indulgent at first, I felt like a fraud.  Why should I be here wasting this lady’s time when I have all I could wish for in life?  But I talked, and talked and it just flowed out and it was incredible how an hour seemed to last just a couple of minutes.  I learned to self-analyse, to recognise the triggers, early warning signs that the illness was coming on and began to develop coping strategies to sidestep the lows.  And it’s made a huge difference.  I feel so much more in control and relieved that I now understand something that has challenged me for much of my adult life.

You may well know many people who are silently going through exactly the same things I’m describing.  I’m sure I do.  Maybe they aren’t aware of it or like most people who suffer from depression they are extremely adept at hiding it.  We hide it because we’re ashamed, embarrassed, don’t want to be a burden to those we love and because we don’t want to be seen as weak.

Weakness, mentally weak, unable to cope with life, that’s what I was starting to think of myself.  And yet I’m definitely no failure.  I choose tasks and complete them, see them through with a dogged level of determination.  I wanted to work as a bike tutor and coach and now I write the courses for the National Governing Body.  I took up running in the mountains three years ago, started racing and was representing internationally within two years.  I’m fit, healthy and live very well but still I suffered a mental illness.

Depression is sometimes called ‘the curse of the strong’.  Think about that for a second.  People who are prone to depression are often the ones who bottle emotions up, take the world on their shoulders, internalise, hold it all together so that others around them can be expressive and let go.  My biggest crime in terms of personal attributes is simply that I’m a perfectionist in an imperfect world.  Things that most people wouldn’t even notice cause me to wince internally and that pressure builds up as a physical knot in my stomach until the full blown anxiety hits me, followed by the lows as my head goes offline for a bit to recover.  It’s a really useful trait for many purposes in life and accounts for many of my successes.  Having an overactive attention to detail has also definitely helped my approach to delivering courses and coaching individuals but it has its very definite drawbacks too.

Anyway, enough about me, back to Kevin Carr.

If someone possessing his superhuman powers of physical ability and mental fortitude still can’t control whatever it is that causes the darkness of depression then whoever you are, you should never feel weak because you can’t too.  Kev has attempted to end his life in the past.  I’m one of many people who’s delighted that on that occasion he was a failure.

I’m excited to be joining Kev for some of Irish leg of his World Run.  He’s running from Shannon airport to Belfast City airport starting on March 13th.  Hopefully his attempt to break the round the world speed record will still be on so we should have some long, 50ish mile days to do.  For him this’ll be just another week at the office, a bit nippy after South America but with a better pint at the end.  For me it’ll be five or so back to back days of running double the distance I’ve ever run in a day before.  I don’t run marathons, they simply don’t interest me and so doing a double marathon every day for five days will undoubtedly hurt, a lot!  I’m not going to train my body for this because I want the power and drive to come from my mind.  In a miniscule way I want to experience the emotions that have become Kev’s life.  And like Kev does, I want to prove that I have an extreme mental strength and not a mental weakness.

We’re going to get freezing cold, wet and run through darkness which in a masochistic way I know I’ll enjoy.  It would however be a shame not to have some genuine good come of my efforts and so I’m going to try to tap up you lovely people for cash!  Kev has been running for ‘Sane’, the mental health charity and I’d love to donate as much as possible to them too.

Follow this link (http://hardwayround.com/donate-here/), donate a couple of quid and you never know, you may be indirectly helping a neighbour, friend, family member or even yourself.

You can follow Kev’s progress on his site hardwayround.com.  There’s a live tracker so you can see where we are on what night if you want to donate a Guinness and a foot massage!



Lifeline – 0808 808 8000
Hard Way Round - http://hardwayround.com/

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Congratulations Paul - Aspirant Guide!

After a challenging week of winter conditions Paul has passed his British Mountain Guides, Winter Test!

A big step towards his ambition of becoming a IFMGA Guide. WELL DONE





Sunday, 22 February 2015

Rather you than me mate...

When I was younger and newer to this whole outdoor game it was seemingly the done thing to be into everything.  Paddling horrendously polluted rivers in a playboat, awesome!  Scottish Winter hot aches, love it!  Scared shitless and freezing on a dark Alpine face, bring it on!  As I've matured (?!) I've realised that actually there's a huge variation in what's happening in 'the Outdoors' and in reality some of it I've little interest in doing.  Likewise, there are clearly massive differences in personality type, motivation and levels of devotion required for different activities.   Walking in the Mournes and then going for a coffee is a lot less involved than new routing on a secluded crag but I'm sure it's no less satisfying to the people that love their chosen activities.

For me, I've had extended periods of being obsessed with mountaineering, climbing and fell running with mountain biking being the constant love that still lasts after over 25 years.  Getting out running or on the bike is so second nature now that I often find myself in the forests or mountains before I'm really conscious of what I've chosen to do that day.  The thing is, my favourite pastimes invariably involve physical pain, suffering, getting cold and wet, occasional broken bones and lots of cleaning, maintenance and expenditure.  So the often asked question is why the hell do we do these things?

We've all heard the ultimate answer to this question, 'because it's there' supposedly provided by George Mallory when probed on why he wanted to scale Everest by a New York Times journalist.  It's a great answer, sufficiently reasoned for those of us who understand and suitably vague and infuriating to those who don't.

However much I appreciate that quote it is a bit grandiose when considering why it is that I, and my friends and peers do the things we do day to day.  I feel priveleged to be in contact with many inspirational people who are regularly pushing their limits, experiencing life despite discomfort and danger and yet I'm still not sure many people appreciate the reason why they pursue these goals.

We live in a world seemingly ever more removed from genuine experience where the rush to share (boast) via social networks often seems to be the actual goal of the activity in the first place (and the irony of me blogging about it isn't lost on me).  I'm not sure whether this is a new phenomenon.  The 'outdoors' seems to have always been full of blaggers, wannabes and bullshitters.  They just used to hang out in the pub/outdoor centre/shop telling anyone who'd listen about their latest supposed adventures.  The internet has given these folk the chance to instantly share their 'achievements' with infinitely more people and soak up the plaudits for their 'extremeness' from their Facebook friends.  These aren't the people I'm talking about because the answer to the question 'why' for them is simple.  They want recognition and they want to purvey a certain image and that's their prerogative.

I love looking through old pics to remind myself why!
The ones I really want to ask 'why?' are a little harder to track down largely because they're out there doing the very thing they love.  They to me are the true heroes but why the hell do they do these things?

Having thought about it a bit I've realised that I've already answered my question, it's because they love doing these things.  So I guess the correct question to ask is not why they do it but why do they love it?

Yesterday myself and big Seamy ran up the frozen face of Slieve Donard and over to Slieve Commedagh getting cut in half by a howling and freezing gale, crawling on hands and feet in places.  Seamus managed to leave his leg bruised and bloodied when the top layer of a frozen bog gave way and the ice sliced and smashed his leg, not that he noticed in temperatures that must have been around minus 15 with the wind chill.  I couldn't feel my face at all coming off the Commedagh summit and I wished I couldn't when the feeling returned and the burning began!  And did I enjoy it?  Yes absolutely.  I enjoyed it at the time and I really enjoyed it retrospectively.  Why do I love it?  The exercise, the fitness, the challenge, the camaraderie, the views, the fresh air etc etc.  I guess if I asked my mates why they love what they do I'd get a similar list.  Does that activity appeal to many people?  No it definitely doesn't.  I tend to get a 'fair play but rather you than me mate' response and that's from 'outdoorsy' people not to mention the 'normal' public out there.  Each to their own and many prefer a trip to the gym, an afternoon in the pub or even open boating!

Everyone's Everest is different and I guess I did run up Donard because it's there.  It would've been a lot harder running up there if it wasn't!

Keep chasing your Everests folks! 

Friday, 9 January 2015

The annoyance of mortality!

I'm not sure what age I was when it dawned on me that I wouldn't live forever.  Certainly now that I'm closer to forty than thirty it seems to be much closer to the forefront of my mind than ever before.  I remember years of smashing myself up on bikes, breaking numerous bones and simply being gutted that I'd be off the bike for a while.  Last year, when I damaged thumb ligaments and realised that I'd be out for a few months, for the first time I thought in terms of the likely percentage of my remaining lifespan that I'd be off the bike because of that injury.

Want to run the mountains more!
Now that's admittedly a pretty morbid way of thinking and I'd admit to being a chronic over analyser of life in general but I can't deny that increasingly my lifestyle behaviours are being considered but luckily so far not dictated by my new found awareness.  The good thing is that as I've just mentioned I'm not doing less as a result of a fear of getting damaged, in fact I'm a bit of an anomaly in terms of getting ballsier as I get older.  I'm certainly happier now hitting bigger gaps and drops than I ever was as a kid and the fear of getting hurt is definitely not more prevalent now than when I was younger.

So how is my new found appreciation of death affecting me?  Well, I just want to do so much in life that I'm starting to worry about cramming it all in.  Even worse, so many of the things that inspire me require me to be fit and healthy so I feel an overwhelming obligation to keep myself in good nick.  Even worse again is the fact that every year, more and more events, holiday destinations and ambitions appear, making my (hopefully) long term bucket list grow exponentially.

Take 2015 as an example.  My plan for this year was to race some Gravity Enduros and do a couple of the more prominent Irish fell races.  It's now the 9th Jan and already this is what my plans have expanded to;

- Run the three remaining Ulster XC races (my club have finally pressured me into trying to help them win the title).
- Join my mate Kev for the Irish leg of his round the world run (http://hardwayround.com/) and run from Shannon to Belfast.
- Do several Irish fell races including the longer NIMRA's, Slieve Donard and a couple of selected Hill and Dales.
- Qualify for the NI squad again for the Snowdon International Mountain Race.
- Run for NI at the Masters World Champs or Ireland at the World Champs.
- Do some Gravity Enduros.
- Do some First Tracks NI Enduros .
- 3 weeks with my family and friends at Lake Garda.
- At least two other family holidays.

I want to bike more!
 So before the year has really got going my diary is already getting packed.  Add to this the fact that much of my coaching and qualifications work is weekend based as well as wanting to see my wee family as much as possible and already it looks like something has to give.

I still haven't decided what to drop yet but the decision certainly isn't helped by my awareness that every year I'm a year older and sometime fairly soon I'll start to get a bit slower!
And holiday with the family more!

The great thing about all this though is that if you flip it on its head, this First World problem is actually just a world of endless possibilities.  Isn't it great to be living in a time when all these brilliant events are getting laid on, all these destinations are getting awakened to the possibilities of outdoor sports and we're able to consider that as long as we look after ourselves well then we can realistically hope to continue enjoying them way into our 80's and beyond.  Lifetime can't be unlimited but life itself doesn't need to be limited if we find the right balances.

I think I prefer that way of looking at it!

With that in mind I've just seen this  http://www.pinkbike.com/news/2016-trans-bc-6-day-enduro-2015.html
I wonder if a few weeks in Canada will appear in my 2016 diary?!!


Saturday, 6 September 2014

Oxygen Debt - The World Mountain Running Championships

August 1992 - 14,000 feet above sea level

I bent double over my ice axe and glanced upwards.  Mont Blanc's tin box Vallot Hut didn't appear to be any closer than at my last agonised look, hardly surprising given that in the ten minutes since then I'd barely managed twenty steps.  The afternoon sun warmed my neck as I gulped in air, desperate for that reassuring feeling of deep breath hitting the bottom of my lungs.  The headaches and nausea were a portent of the horrendous night I had in store and the impending storm wasn't the main reason that there would be no summit attempt that year.  Welcome to 14,000ft Mr Bailey, now get back to the valley where you belong...

August 2014 - 14,000 feet above sea level

Where the hell is the A-Frame?  We're above the treeline and moving well but there's been no sign of the structure which definitively marks the transition to the open mountain section, the section I'd been repeatedly warned about in the last 48 hours, the one that reduces World Class athletes to arthritic wrecks.  My world has diminished to just the few metres directly in front of me.  Scotland's Claire Gordon is pushing a solid pace, still running towards a superb category win for her.  I'm more than happy to tuck in and keep pace, I was told we wouldn't still be running at this point, I was told wrong...

The Pikes Peak ascent and marathon is world famous amongst endurance athletes and mountain runners.  The ascent section climbs a massive 7,815 feet over 13.32 miles of constant uphill over trail and open scree slopes.  This year it had been selected to host the World Long Distance Mountain Running Champs adding even more prestige to one of the most coveted titles in running.
Pikes Peak in the background (from halfway down it)
Personally I'd spent the whole of last Winter telling anyone prepared to listen that I was done with competetive running and was returning to mountain bikes.  Damaged thumb ligaments in November and a call to arms from the Newcastle AC Cross Country squad had realigned my ambitions for 2014.  The possibility of representing NI at Pikes Peak and getting a trip to Colorado cemented them, I was destined to train harder and race better than ever before.  A mantlepiece full of trophies is testament to the success of the racing but the pure enjoyment and fitness gains from my longer runs in the Alps, Lake Garda and the Mournes also showed me that I could make the transition to longer distance racing from my usual five mile sprints over the peaks.  Final training efforts went brilliantly and it was with growing excitement that I realised that I'd be heading to the States not just injury free but also in superb form.

The 25 hour journey passed mostly without incident through Dublin to Colorado Springs via Chicago despite a desperate drive from the airport accidentally taking in the long stay car park and some tunnel visioned, sleep deprived Interstate terror.  On the way I'd met my NI team mates Justin Maxwell and Chris Stirling and waiting at the accommodation was Peter Bell.  The team was complete and full of excitement for the challenge ahead.  Despite the exhaustion of the journey the time difference played its tricks and I lay awake from 3am, struggling to relax but consoling myself that it'd make getting prepared at 4am on race day an easy prospect.
Where we stayed was none too shabby!
Having arrived a day earlier Peter had taken the brave move of walking the full Ascent course the day we arrived and so was full of useful information, the summation of which was that it was going to be seriously hard and that the lack of oxygen is a very real factor.  Having been out of breath on the stroll to the castle (yes castle!) for our breakfast I wasn't about to doubt how strenuous running would be at twice that altitude, however, we needed to experience it for ourselves.  We headed to Manitou Springs, parked up and ran a steady hour up the 'W's' to 'No Name Creek', about a quarter of the full ascent distance.  I have to admit that I was delighted how sprightly my legs felt, lacking the expected hangover from being cooped up on American Airlines flights for so long (basically it was like a long-haul Ryan Air!).  However, the thin air even below 8,000ft was alarming.  Any short increased effort put me in the red for way longer than it should've and I felt that I was only operating at about 60% of my lung capacity.  As such, I had mixed emotions as we enjoyed a brilliant jog down the switchbacks we'd just climbed.

Thursday evening we were joined by Dr William Elliott, renowned physiologist and seven times Pikes Peak veteran.  I'd been really looking forward to meeting him and gleaning as much information as possible about the challenge ahead.  I've never been faced with any event that has so many inherent uncertainties before and so soaked up his words of caution and inspiration intently.  After giving us a really detailed breakdown of the course and the efforts required, particularly for us sea level dwelling 'flatlanders' as we're known in mountainous Colorado he asked us for our predicted finish times.  I was caught in two minds, reveal my prior estimate (prior to the continuous warnings to go VERY easy for the first 7-8 miles since we'd arrived) or play safe and avoid risking looking like an idiot.  Being someone who is familiar with being driven by a risk of failure and not being overly averse to looking an idiot I stuck to my guns and gave a firm and confident sounding 'sub 3 hours'.  The reality in my head was that I had no clue whether I'd be much nearer the men's average time of 4:20.
Team NI psyched and ready to race
Race day started at 3:30am and for the first time ever I was praising the effects of jet lag as I took a night time warm up jog outside.  I felt awake, focused and really excited, any trepidation was hidden at the back of my conscience and I was delighted to finally be getting on with the thing that had been my focus for so long.  The World Mountain Running Association laid on transport to the start and it was quite amusing to see a queue of identical people carriers pulling up to the accommodation, the sort of thing you normally associate with FBI raids in crap detective films.  Arriving in Manitou Springs there was already a palpable buzz in the air, the sun was starting to appear in a beautifully clear sky and nearly 2,000 runners were trying to go through their warm up routines in the confines of the main street.  Team NI were all looking relaxed, posing for some souvenir pictures and laughing at the athletes who felt the need to add intense sprints to their warm up for a 13 mile uphill race, each to their own I guess.  I'd decided the day before to heed all the advice and set off extremely easy so as the countdown finished and the gun sounded I relaxed into the easiest race pace I've ever used and allowed a couple of hundred people to run past.  I'll continue from here with my stream of consciousness as it does allow you all to appreciate the inane thought processes that take place during these events!

Mile 1, relax, steady, don't chase.  People are streaming past and I could easily keep up with them.  This is contrary to all my usual race tactics but I'll see many of these people again when they're dying higher up.  Ignore the cheering crowd, ignore the pride, focus on the pace, find a rhythm.

Miles 2-4, this is too slow.  I feel far too relaxed.  I'm practically jogging and not even breathing hard, I warn people passing me to take it steady but most ignore me.  Some are wheezing and breathing really hard, I laugh internally.  Get passed by someone with a Go-Pro strapped to their head, a f***ing Go-Pro!!  This isn't a serious runner.  Have to fight the urge to pass him, bury him, teach him to respect the race and the mountain but relax, back to the rhythm.  Pass No Name Creek, into unknown territory.  Start passing the victims already including a South African I've been chatting to a bit, I tell him to relax, he tells me he's already in survival mode.  He's in for a very long tough ordeal and I'm still not even breathing hard.  I think the advice may have been right!

Miles 5-7.5, finally off the leash.  The course has flattened and I'm kicking on.  Ding Dong battle with a Polish runner, he's faster on the flats, I pass when it steepens.  Lost in personal competition we pass a dozen others.  Drink, measure effort and get a real sense of enjoyment.  Push on towards the half way mark and 'Barr Camp'.  I know I want a gel just before the aid station but how will I know where it is?  I hear it hundreds of metres before I see it, this is the USA, enthusiastic crowd support is practically a National passtime.  I really appreciate the shouts, almost as much as the Gatorade but what the hell does 'yeeeehhhhh represent real good' actually mean?  Check my watch, bang on 3hr pace, satisfaction.

Miles 8-10, I've read the course notes, I know that mentally these are the toughest miles.  Over half way but not yet on the open mountain, like a no-man's land of extreme effort.  Steeper narrower trails, uneven steps, legs rapidly deteriorating but I'm still passing people, still pushing on.  Cramping, out of the blue, really didn't expect that.  Been chugging the Gatorade but must've sweated much more than I thought.  Stuff in a salt capsule, unbelievably disgusting, instant relief.  Push on, enjoy the pain.

Miles 10-13, the open mountain.  I've read and been told so much about this section.  'It's unrunnable', 'it'll destroy runners', 'people lying and puking everywhere'.  Like anything built up that much it's an anticlimax.  Contouring trails are 90% runnable, don't walk, I haven't come all this way to walk.  Stick to Claire, she's going well and we're still passing athletes.  The body feels OK but the head is all over the shop, overwhelming dizziness, vision looks like it's through a filter, fuzzy peripheries.  I fall on to boulders deliberately to avoid falling on them accidentally.  No summit, does this mountain have a summit?  Why the hell does this fella keep sprinting past and then stop in the middle of the track?  Dickhead!

Miles 13-13.32, 'go on, you can make sub 3' shout the wellwishers.  I know this already, my pacing has been perfect.  I will make sub 3.  Just a few more short switchbacks, the finish, kick out a sprint, I always kick out a sprint.  2:56:50.  Medal round my neck.  Medics ask 'are you OK?'  Yes I'm OK thanks, but the dude who kept sprinting past isn't, he's collapsed at the finish.  I've done it, a rush of emotion, surrounded by smiles, I think I enjoyed that!

The next half hour...
I'm a firm believer that you have to grab your finish line emotion and hold on to it hard.  Like a snapshot, how do I feel right at this very moment?  If you wait even five minutes til the heart rate is down and the head is clear then you can forever be left with the unanswerable question, 'was that my best'?

As I crossed the line I felt great.  Even sitting here long after, even despite the drunken fuzziness of altitude I can still recall a deep satisfaction.  I wandered through the other international runners, chatting away.  Some were already displaying that post-race malaise, could've, should've, if only.  Pretty soon my thoughts will go the same way but that finish line sense of pride, completion, discipline, effort, pain and realised ambition has been banked and I'm all the better for that.

Summit smiles, just after the finish
Justin arrived shortly after and Chris soon after that.  The cameraderie of Team NI felt very real as we captured the obligatory post race pics, smiling faces with an astounding background vista.  I barely know these lads but I'm extremely proud to be associated with them, shared experiences that will last a lifetime.

The next ten hours...
Amongst the best of my life!  So many highs, enhanced by the mass euphoria of a town overflowing with endorphins.  Free pizza and beer (thanks WMRA), massages (thanks Billy) and easy conversation with some genuine running legends, normal people with abnormal abilities.  On the hour long drive down from the summit we got chatting to 3rd place finisher Andy Wacker, a phenomenal athlete and really nice guy.  He insisted on driving us to the team USA post-race pool party where we relaxed and drank amazing local beers with many of our fellow Internationals.  The chat was engaging and fun, I love being surrounded by people who do, not just dream of doing.  Next challenges were discussed, I'd better think of one myself.  The party wound down before midnight, virtually everyone there would train the next day.

Top of the infamous 'Incline'
The next few days...
Everything looked a bit different.  The subconscious weight of nerves had disappeared and I enjoyed everything massively, even the mundane tasks of shopping and driving around.  We ran the day after the race, a steady 13 miler with the hellish 'Incline' ascent at the end, a 3/4 mile long, 2000ft elevation gain climb which hits 68 degrees at its steepest point.  The following two days I did some of the best biking of my life, brilliantly guided by Kip, an ex-pro racer who showed me just a few of the incredible local trails including a 41km descent back off Pikes Peak.  It's no easier on the way down!  We ate lots, ran more and soaked up as much of the stunning scenery and effortless hospitality of the American people as we could.  As ever my mixed emotions of missing Anna and the boys began to tip the balance towards feeling ready to leave and so a perfect trip ended at the perfect time.
About to descend Pikes Peak.  Worth the trip just for this 36km of singletrack!
Postscript, what did I learn?

1) I'm not a World Class athlete.
Sage Canaday (Team USA) won the race in 2:10:03, nearly 47 minutes faster than me!  He is World Champion, I never will be.  No real surprises there!  I finished 81st of 1,760 starters and 14th in my age category, not bad for a flatlander!

2) I'm nowhere near as far off as this result would suggest.
The defining factor in this race was, as predicted the altitude.  I have no doubt at all that had it started at sea level I'd have been way up the field.  My 'Triple Donard' final training session ascent times were a combined 2:10:05 and that comprised over 200m MORE ascent than Pikes Peak as well as being steeper and on looser ground.  You could argue that I had the recovery time on the downhills inbetween but anyone familiar with running hard down steep ground will tell you that the opposite is true.  Team USA dominated Pikes Peak and they all live and train at altitude.  Likewise, it's safe to assume that all the athletes from the Alpine countries have been brought up in or moved to the mountains to train and race.  One of the Germans lived on Pikes Peak for the 17 days preceding the event, the others used oxygen tents and masks.  Team England had to commit to being in the States at least two weeks before the race etc etc, moan, excuses!  Team NI would've loved to have been out there long enough to acclimatise but we're part-timers with jobs, young families and very limited funding.  I'm happy I did the very best I could in terms of prep but was defeated by the unique attributes of the race.  

3) Could I have pushed harder?
This question is one I've pondered hard.  I definitely heavily heeded the advice to go easy for the first half and felt more comfortable than ever before in a race.  As a result, despite being a sea level dweller I actually picked up ten places in the real high altitude section above 10,000ft.  I wasn't going any faster but others were dying on their feet after clearly going out too hard.  I could definitely have gone 15 minutes quicker to No Name Creek and probably another 10-15 quicker up to Barr Camp, the question is would that have killed me in the second half of the race?  In truth, unless I do it again I'll never know.  If I did get the chance to do the race again I'd definitely run it in a completely different manner, going off with the leaders before settling into my own rhythm further up the mountain when they kicked on.  I'd love to go back for the marathon at some point but pushing hard in the first five miles of twenty six would be even more ill advised so I'll probably have to accept that I'll never truly know the answer to this one.

4) Colorado was amazing.
I love the USA!  As a natural cynic I always thought the over the top friendliness of Americans would feel insincere, an act put on for the tourists.  I couldn't be further from the truth.  The overwhelming openness and enthusiasm of people I met, from professional runners to garage attendants was completely infectious.  I felt like a different person out there, talking to total strangers felt so natural.  I met some truly interesting, interested and engaging people from all ages and walks of life.  Couple this with beautiful accommodation, great weather, stunning mountains, top drawer running and biking, cheap and good food and it was obviously going to be a truly memorable trip.  I'd love to get back there again.
This sums up Colorado Springs.  The Jack Quinns Tuesday night 5k sometimes gets 2,000 participants!
Being a part of the World Champs and Pikes Peak race was an incredible opportunity and experience which I earned through hard training, solid domestic race results and being prepared to stump up a large proportion of the cash required myself!  Massive thanks to Anna who is always so supportive of my 'holiday' plans and who I'm sure had a hard time looking after the boys and also working all hours whilst I was away.  To my fellow NI team mates Justin, Chris and Peter, you were brilliant and easy company as well as being great athletes and training partners.  Big mention to Dr Billy Elliott for the top advice, endless support and friendliness and for being the best possible advocate for the race and Colorado in general.  The WMRA looked after us very well and the runners from all over the world made the event truly special along with the Colorado locals who were all so accommodating.  Thanks also to Feetures Socks, 2Pure, NIMRA and Newcastle AC who all contributed in different ways.

To any runners looking for a challenge it's pretty clear from the tone of this blog that I enjoyed the Pikes Peak ascent.  I'd really highly recommend you do all you can to meet the entry requirements and get signed up.  It truly is an experience that'll stay with you for a lifetime.



Saturday, 2 August 2014

Achieving ambition. The Donard hat trick revisited

Back in 2012 I was looking for a new challenge.  I was enjoying a new lease of life in a new sport and realising that I had a bit of potential in mountain running.  I wanted something that was achievable but seriously challenging and so the Donard Hat Trick was born, boasting three full ascents and descents of Northern Ireland's highest mountain and giving a 15 mile route with 2550m of climbing and obviously the same amount of descending.  Tough in itself, but the real killer was that to complete the challenge I decided on a maximum 3.5 hours to do it!  If you read the link there you'll realise that not only did I never achieve it, I never even got round to attempting it!  I also failed spectacularly to convince any of the elite mountain runners I asked to give it a go either.  Consensus was that it was a bit too ambitious/mind numbing!

Don't get me wrong, I had a good stab at it but limited myself to double ascents culminating in a 2:19:26 (the 1:19 in the old blog is a typo!).  That theoretically put me on target but the reality was that I was almost unable to walk after the two times round and the thought of putting in a 1hr 10m third lap was laughable.  Two pretty successful years of running and racing later, quite unexpectedly the Donard hat trick sailed back into my consciousness.

Slieve Donard in the distance on a much nicer day.  Funnily enough I didn't take any pics today! 

I'm heading off to the famous Pikes Peak race in Colorado in two weeks, representing NI in the World Long Distance Mountain Running Champs.  The route for that race is an all uphill 13.3 miles gaining around 2500m of elevation.  To make matters much worse, the finish is above 14,000 feet, a height where the limited oxygen can leave you gasping for air when you're just standing still!  Extensive research has sadly taught me that for us sea levellers there's nothing we can do when competing at altitude except turn up a month in advance and acclimatise.  Also sadly, sport's funding bodies don't value us mountain runners very highly and so there's no chance of our team being given that opportunity despite physiology tests proving that top mountain runners are at least on a par with top Olympians.  If it's not Olympic or Commonwealth, there's no cash available (not that I'm bitter!).  Anyway, I'm digressing.  Realising that I couldn't simulate high altitude I decided that at least I could try to recreate the difficulty of the Pikes Peak route.  I was fortunate enough to spend an amazing month with the family in Chamonix and Lake Garda during June and July where I was able to put in some big runs with big ascents, adding a new level of endurance to the fitness gained from a great season of competing in Ireland.  Upon returning home I was looking for a breakthrough session that would test me to the degree that the Worlds will, whilst also demonstrating to myself the pacing and nutrition approaches I'll need in order to perform my best in Colorado.  With a bit of thinking the answer was staring me in the face, it was time to resurrect the Hat Trick.

I planned to put the attempt at the end of a heavy training week which included a fast, hilly 18 mile trail run on Monday and a double Donard on Wednesday along with two shorter recovery runs.  In the end I only ran a single Donard on the Wed as I thought my legs were a feeling a bit heavy.  In actuality I ended up feeling great and knocked out a sub 1hr lap which felt so easy that a couple of hours later I'd forgotten that I'd actually trained that day.  A rest day on Friday and I was all prepped and psyched, and then I saw the weather forecast!  Torrential rain and a weather warning for County Down wasn't part of the plan and I felt an initial pang of annoyance but then I saw that the wind was coming from the North giving me potentially a rare tailwind for much of the climb and I perked up a lot.  I don't care about getting soaking but pushing into a headwind repeatedly gets boring very quickly.  The other great motivator was that the Seven Sevens race was taking place in the Mournes that day, a race I was originally going to enter but wimped out when I got injured scoping the course out.  The winner of that race is always aiming to go sub 4hrs and I knew that the winner was likely to be my occasional training partner Seamy Lynch.  A quick text to Seamy and a bet was made, whoever finished their race first was promised a free lunch!

So to this morning.  I prepared as I always do for a race, eating well 2.5 hrs before and then getting as much fluid in as possible.  I planned to start at 9:58, just before the 10am start time for the Sevens so I wouldn't be interfering in the race at all.  You get a lot of thinking time when running so I think the best way to describe my attempt is by sharing my own internal dialogue.

Lap 1
Start easy, find a place to stash a water bottle for later.  11 mins at the ice house is about right but I feel bloated, I clearly ate too much.  I'm sick in my mouth a bit but swallow it knowing I'll need those calories later.  The flatter mid section feels great, I've found a good pace and rhythm and it feels totally effortless.  There's a slight tailwind which feels brilliant, I lose count of the amount of times I've battered into a headwind up here.  On to the really steep steps and the wind is picking up.  Through the col and onto the summit ridge and it's blowing a gale, the icy rain is battering me and it can't be much above zero degrees with the wind chill.  My jacket goes on, I can't see it coming off again today.  Hit the top in 43:20, about perfect.  My legs feel great, no strain at all, time for a steady descent.  Eat three jelly babies, one makes a bid for freedom and jumps back out of my mouth.  Good measured descent, I hit the bottom at 1:10:45, close enough to 3hr 30 pace and feeling totally relaxed.

Lap 2
How the hell are you meant to take on a gel when running up a 25% hill?  I can't even open the stupid thing.  Finally bite the top off and extract the remains that haven't squirted all over my hands.  Grab the stashed bottle and have a quick swig.  Legs feel fantastic, still really easy and totally different to my old double Donards.  Loving the confused looks on the faces of people who have seen me ascending twice now.  Not even out of breath so saying a cheery hello to everyone I meet.  There are some miserable bastards on the hill today, can you really not muster a reply?!  Kudos to the Dub fella who asks if I've forgotten my wallet!  I tell him I left my fags at the top.  Meet Jim Patterson, local running legend walking down.  He tells me he knows I'm in training but today is the wrong weather.  I respect Jim's opinion and his observation worries me.  Five minutes later I meet Anne Sandford, NI team selector and she asks whether this is my second or third ascent and gives me some support, I feel instantly much better.  The track is now a stream higher up on the mountain and the wind smashes me again on the summit ridge.  43:35 up, delighted to see that my pacing is near perfect so far.  All three jelly babies make it to my stomach this time, now for the descent.  I get a strange sensation of enjoyment, real enjoyment!  The descent feels fast and smooth, feet precise, plenty of grip.  So busy waxing lyrical about my new Inov8 X Talon shoes that I catch an edge and go over on my damaged ankle.  No amount of taping would stop that.  Familiar feelings of nausea but I know I can run this one off, concentrate, concentrate.  Hit the bottom in 2:19:53.  I've clawed time back and I still feel strong.  Last time I was in this position I was virtually crawling across the car park!

Lap 3
Better effort on the gel this time, learned behaviours!  The legs feel a bit heavier, calves stiffening for the first time and the quads know they've been busy.  Still hit 11 mins to the ice house so the pacing is still good but it feels harder this time.  I feel a bit fuzzy around the edges, slight hallucinations in my peripheral vision, other runners.  I'm convinced I've slowed but want to give myself a chance at 3:30 with a good descent.  Grind out the final section of the summit ridge, hit the top and touch the tower, glance at the watch, 3:03:03!  Incredible, my fastest ascent of the three at 43:10.  Amazing effort at constant pacing too.  Realise that I've still got plenty in the tank and with a decent descent should complete the challenge within the time.  Feet aren't so precise now but I'm attacking hard.  No need to hold back.  Loving the temperature rise as I descend.  Grab the stashed bottle, no way I'm going to come back up for it.  Out of the trees and sprint, a genuine smooth, relaxed sprint for the finish in the car park.  3:25:13.  Incredible.  I let out an involuntary whoop which gets me chatting to the walkers who hit the bottom at the same time as me.  The time has blown me away but more than that, I still feel strong.  I keep running back to the van, reckon I've got another ascent in me.  Pretty sure I've never felt this fit in my life, delighted and really excited.

So there it is.  A challenge completed and a really gratifying demonstration of how fitness can change and evolve.  I thought I was fit in 2012 but clearly now I'm on a different plane altogether.  The longer runs I've been doing have obviously contributed massively but the ease of it all, particularly in really trying conditions has astounded me.  With three ascents all within 25 seconds of eachother and progressively faster laps culminating in a 1:05:20 for the last one it's safe to say that I got my pacing pretty spot on.  The nutrition went well despite Fort Knox gel packets and freedom seeking jelly babies.  All in all I genuinely couldn't be more satisfied.  I just hope that I can somehow pull off a similar performance at altitude!

As a postscript, I let Seamy off the bet.  He won the Sevens in a very respectable 4:02 despite some questionable navigation and frankly it's a lot harder than my triple Donard.  I think the only fair thing to do is for him to do the Hat Trick and see who's time is faster.  I'll have my steak medium rare thanks Seamy!