Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Marathon #4 Snowdonia Trail Marathon

I had been looking forward to this race with rare excitement. It's a marathon that people speak of with hushed tones of reverence for its ability to chew people up and spit them out. It's not easy; the mountain is the last seven miles of the marathon, so by the time you reach it's foothills you've already run twenty odd miles, and many of them couldn't easily be described as flat. 

In the five weeks since Yeovil I've concentrated on 1) rest and recovery, 2) walking a lot, 3) running consistent but not fast or long mileage and 4) getting the hills in. The longest run I did in that time was a half marathon, albeit it a very hilly one over the south downs. We also did four hilly races in the run-up as prep, but I took all of them deliberately slowly and ran/ walked them, just as I knew I would be at Snowdon. My highest mileage run week was 54 (with walking added it took it to 92 miles), and I reckoned I'd done as much prep as I needed and was fit enough for the distance and terrain. 

Having never run a mountain marathon before and remembering my friend Kate telling me it broke her when she ran it two year's ago, and also remembering the air ambulance being dispatched to pull someone off the mountain when I did the 10k here last year, it was all a bit of an unknown so I trained more by gut than anything else. I reckoned it would take me between 6-7 hours to complete.

M and I drove up the day before and stayed at the Royal Victoria, the hotel next to the start/ finish field, so we had a very short walk to the start line on Sunday morning. Our friends, Mike and Sue, were also running, Mike doing the 10k a year or so after a heart attack that nearly took him from us, so the four of us met up for dinner in the hotel the night before which was jolly. I had a crap night's sleep owing to the presence of a wedding party who were up half the night and was awake at 6.

We ate an early breakfast and went down to the start field at 6:30am to watch the ultra marathon runners set off on their 36 mile run, before heading back to the hotel to get ready.

Mountain marathons carry a compulsory kit list that you have to take with you. This was full waterproofs, hat, glove, survival blanket, water, food, mobile, long sleeved top and suncream. It made our race packs heavy but it's part of the deal so everyone just got on with it.

At 8:45 the RD gave the final briefing, warning everyone that Snowdon isn't a playground, the ascents are brutal in places and the descents almost more dangerous. I grinned at M, because I'd been telling him all week if he fell off the mountain and my race got cut short I wouldn't be at all chuffed- it was the best way to get him to be careful :o).

Friend Sue, who is a super fast marathon and ultra runner, had had little time for dedicated training for the race so elected to run the first couple of miles with me as I could pace her to a slower start, so we had a very companionable and chatty start as the route led out of Llanberis and up into the fells.

Soon the hills began to bite and I slowed to a walk. My strategy for the race was to treat it like an ultra: walk up all the hills and inclines and run the flat and (where it was possible) the downs. Sue walked with me and then I bumped into Nick whom I'd met at the Charmouth Challenge the weekend before, so we had a bit of a chat before the land levelled out again a bit and everyone started running again.

Soon the hills grew steeper and Sue carried on running, leaving me to my thoughts and own company which, to be honest, is my preference.

It was breathtakingly beautiful out in the mountains. After the first 3-4 miles we came over the top and dropped down into the next valley, where there was a long queue to get over the first of many stiles. Races like this have cut-off points- if you don't make it to the next check-point by a certain time you are DQ'd. It's a safety thing. The cut off time for the first 10k was 1:30 hours- plenty of time in normal circumstances, but add in steep hills, a 20 minute wait at the stile and boggy ground to navigate through and it soon dawned on me that I was going to be ten minutes over time. I felt a surge of panic and turned to ask the people around me what they thought. Many of them had done the race before and all assured me we'd be fine- that the main cut off to worry about was the one at Pen y Pass later in the race. So it proved- I reached the check point at 1:39 and was waved through.

I'd taken 2 ltrs of tailwind with me (carb and electrolyte mix) as well as an empty 500ml soft flask and enough spare tailwind powder to mix up another 2 ltrs for later in the race. I also had two bags of sweets and two blueberry muffin date bars. I sipped the tailwind every few minutes from the start, conscious that the fuelling and nutritional requirements of the race were more important than ever here.

For the next few miles we were in the foothills, running along lanes, through woods, over bridges and by a lake. It was so beautiful and peaceful and awe-inspiring with the mountains as looming presences all around us. The field thinned out and I found myself on my own at the 12 mile point and wondering if I'd gone wrong, but then some tape came in view and some other runners so I breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed. I got a piece of grit in my shoe and decided to stop and take it out, dealing with it before it rubbed a blister, and made a mental note to get some gaitors before the next run.

I wasn't expecting any major hills till mile 18, but at mile 14 I realised I'd been wrong- we started the climb out of the valley and up the side of the mountain. There were a couple of people behind me moaning and I decided I couldn't cope with that- I mean, why enter a mountain marathon if you can't do hills? - so I decided I would have to walk faster to put some distance between me and them. This meant I caught up with a guy who had a Transvulcania shirt on, a race I've been reading about recently, so I asked him about it and we had a bit of a chat as we climbed the hill. This turned out to be a good move- he'd done the marathon last year and this year was doing the ultra so he knew the course. I kept with him more or less to the top of Snowdon.

At Pen Y Pass everyone breathed a sigh of relief- we'd made it through the final check point with bags of time to spare so all we had to do now was climb Snowdon and run back down into Llanberis to the finish, some seven miles away.

I'd refilled my water bladder at the check point at mile 14 and the additional weight was uncomfortable on my back. I'd been fiddling with it over the last six miles and couldn't get it comfy again no matter what I tried. It wasn't an ideal distraction with a huge climb ahead but the terrain soon became so brutal I stopped noticing the back pack!

The Pyg trail is not a well-paved track to the top of Snowdon. In some places, it isn't a path at all: it's boulders, rock face, slabs of rock, and you end up scrabbling, climbing, crawling and clawing up it. For three miles. I did fine until half a mile from the top when suddenly my mental focus went. I could feel my emotions turning in on themselves and exhaustion reached out towards me, something I hadn't felt once yet on the run. A rock face confronted me and there was no obvious route over or through it. I didn't know which way to go. Luckily, I have been doing a lot of reading about ultra running recently and the one message that has sunk in is: if you start to lose the plot on a long, difficult run, eat and drink. Nine times out of ten it's low blood sugar making you tired and confused and food sorts it. I knew tailwind probably wouldn't be enough to fuel me round and although I'd been eating sweets too I knew they wouldn't either, so I'd also packed some blueberry date bars. I pulled one out of my pack and took a bite. At the same time, my Transvulcania friend appeared. I don't know which way to go I said, watching as other people tried and failed to get through the seemingly impassable face of rock in front of us. This way he said, and scrambled up. The blueberry bar and my new friend did their work- my head cleared, my emotions settled and I scrambled up using my hands to pull myself up and onto the rock and followed him over the non-path beside some boulders. He really saved my bacon I think.

Once we'd got through that very technical section I started to feel better. The blueberry bar was just what I'd needed- real food, and I was able to take over and walk in front again when my new friend flagged. I do love the way runners help each other out on these events. It's very selfless. Anyway, we were now approaching the summit and the day was clear as a bell so you could see for miles. The marshals at the top were cheering, other people also out summiting Snowdon were saying well done and I was feeling fab again.

I got to the top, thanked my new buddy for getting me up the mountain and set off down the Llanberis pass.

If I'd thought the descent would be easier than the climb I was, if not wrong, then not entirely right either. It too was technical, with loose, sharp rocks everywhere as trip hazards. After 22 miles of running, walking and climbing, my quads and hips now really started to complain about this steep downhill section. I tentatively ran, catching my toe in a rock and only just saving myself from tipping over. I caught the eye of an old chap who was walking with his wife and we grinned at each other. Nearly! I said. Oh, I'd have had to get a photo if you had! he grinned back, in a broad welsh accent. Yup, I said, I've just run 22 miles, I'd be really cross if I fell over now! As I ran on down the hill I heard the people behind me all saying: She's just run 22 miles! It made me smile.

I caught up with a lady who was doing the ultra and we ran on for a bit, but the downhill was just too steep so I said good luck and dropped back to a walk while she sailed on. I heard a cheerful hello! you again! as a chap I'd chatted to in the queue for the stile all those mile ago came sailing past. He was running his 88th marathon. Earlier, I'd climbed a section with a woman who'd completed the Thames Ring 250, a non-stop 250 mile race, only four weeks earlier. I knew I'd be slow today, she said. Ultra runners are a different breed.

I'd been out of signal range for most of the run, had just managed to send L, my mum and running guru Abz some photos from the top and to receive a message from M to say he'd finished in under 5 hours (his target) and won his age category (seriously impressive stuff as it was very competitive field full of fell runners and we don't have any mountains to practice on at home), but had had no other contact with the outside world for over six hours. Now, however, the signal came back on the phone, so I gave M a call to tell him I was OK and only half an hour away. We had a nice chat and then I ran on again.

When I hit the road I walked with two guys who were just finishing their 3 peaks challenge with one hour spare. They looked strung out. One had had two hours sleep, the other no sleep at all, but they still asked about how my race had been and were really lovely about the achievement. I ran on and caught up with two old veterans of the race and we had a laugh about me being full of energy still while they were both feeling knackered. They were lovely too. Then I ran on again, the road levelling out as it came out opposite our hotel. We'd recced the finish the night before so I knew where the path went. I was feeling remarkably well considering I'd run just over 26 miles, been on my feet for seven hours and just climbed up and down a mountain.

As I ran down towards the finish lots of people were cheering and calling out my name (the numbers had our names printed on them) and saying well done, and then there was M with the camera and a bunch of flowers. I ran on past him and round to the finish gantry, crossing the line feeling ridiculously well and still with energy to spare. My time was a fraction over 7 hours, I'd run 27.2 miles, the furthest I've ever run and climbed and descended a mountain at the end and I felt great.

What an amazing experience. I honestly don't know how I'm going to top that.


Monday, 10 June 2019

Marathon #3 Yeovil

5 minutes to go to the start!

23 miles in and the end is in sight

It's ten months since my last marathon. A combination of injury and illness has meant I've had to miss five in the intervening months, so Yeovil yesterday was an important one for several reasons: 1) to put the missed ones behind me, 2) to see whether I could run a sub 4 hour time (my previous best was 4:11) and 3) because I really enjoy the challenge/ sense of achievement/ bliss of a long distance run when there's nothing to do but keep going till you've finished. The simplicity of running is a good thing in a busy and complex world.

It wasn't a massively early start to get there, which was a good thing because M had got up at 4am to cycle 80 odd miles with Tall Paul on Saturday. We left the house at 6:45 and were in Yeovil soon after 8 (incidentally travelling along part of the Harrow Way - a section of the A303 - to get there). The race started at 9 so there was plenty of time to get ready without rushing. At 8:40 I pinned my number on, put on the vest containing the bladder which had my hydration, nutrition and electrolytes in (essential for running a marathon because you can't fuel 26.2 miles on body reserves alone) and started some gentle warm ups. At 8:50 I pulled the hose of the bladder (the bit you drink from) over my shoulder to hook it under the front straps of my vest ready to use and wondered why it had suddenly grown in length. I pulled it a bit more and the whole thing came away in my hand. Unzipping the pack I realised that it had detached itself from the fastening. No amount of force, asking politely, pleading or swearing at the bloody thing would get it to go back in. 


With ten minutes to go I suddenly had no means of supplying myself with the water/ carbs/ salts I would need to fund the four hours of running I was going to be doing. There was water on the course and I always have an emergency pack of sweets just in case, but these would not be enough to get me round the distance at the pace I had trained for.

I had packed one emergency 500ml soft bottle that fitted in the front of the vest, so I tipped the water out of that and poured some of the carb mixture in it, but that wasn't going to be enough for the whole 26.2 miles- usually, I get through 2 ltrs on that distance. With the clock now really ticking and everyone else gathering at the start for the off while I was still in the carpark, I improvised by tipping another 500ml into one of the dogs' water bottles that I keep in the car for their hydration emergencies and stuffed that in the other pocket :o). It barely fitted and would be a pain to get out to use, but it would have to do.

Yeovil is a small, low-key but well organised and very friendly marathon. About 190 people were running, one of whom was a friend who has run over 100 marathons. I fell in with her and we did the first 3 miles together. She was pacing her friend to 4:20, so once I had warmed up I left them after 3 miles and picked up my pace to where I needed to be.

As well as the virus which had scuppered three of the last four weeks of training, I'd also had a dodgy stomach all week after a BBQ last weekend so had no idea how this run would go. Not to over-share, the lack of loos on the course was a worry! I was running well pace-wise but I was not feeling great. My stomach was griping and my energy felt low. Normally, 13 miles is a breeze for me but mentally, the whole first half felt like a struggle and I found myself thinking if it didn't get better I would stop at the half way point - the course was two laps which would make that easy. 

I'd rung M from mile 4 to ask him to empty another dog water bottle and refill it with the carb/salt/ water mix so at least I would have another 500ml for the second half. The plan was to swap it as I ran past him so I wouldn't need to stop. As I approached the 13 mile mark there was M looking ashen-faced holding out a bottle of fruit juice and saying: I'm so sorry, I dropped the rest of the tailwind! I've got water or fruit juice? It really wasn't my day for fuelling! As I still had 500ml left from the start I told him not to worry. I still wasn't feeling great, but by the time you've run 13 miles on a marathon there is little to be gained from stopping, so I carried on, telling myself I was still on target for a sub 4 time and all I needed to do to get it was maintain the steady pace I was currently running at. Surely things would start to improve soon?

By 16 miles I was feeling really rough. My stomach wasn't happy, my head was switching off and I was feeling the pressure of running faster than I wanted to. All I wanted to do was have a short walking break, but I knew the minute I did that the sub 4 time would disappear. I'd had enough. I wasn't enjoying it, I didn't care about the time, I wanted to walk, have something to eat and refocus. 

Marathons are not easy runs, but neither are they impossible. They deserve respect because I've seen them chew up even the most accomplished runners, spit them out and stamp on them, but they don't deserve reverence. They are perfectly doable if you get your preparation, pace, fuelling, hydration and mental approach right. This one was slipping away from me mentally and I knew I had to do something quickly or I would be stopping altogether.

So I took some time out. I walked a bit, I ate some sweets, I considered what my goal with these long distances really was- where my joy in doing them lay. And I had an epiphany: it really wasn't about time. What I wanted was to feel I'd run strong. The sugar kicked in soon after and I started running again. I felt better, my stomach settled down, the grip of the sub 4 released me and I settled down into enjoying the run.

I fell in with a nice chap and ran the next couple of miles with him, chatting. This evened out and slowed my pace and made it more regular and comfortable so before I knew it I was at 18 miles and feeling fine. I slowed down for another short walk and was surprised to feel dizzy. Luckily I was near a water station so I took a bottle and a handful of pretzels, and soon after it passed and I was able to run again.

Now I was approaching the fabled 20 mile marker, which is where I had felt exhausted on my previous two marathons. People say a marathon is two races in one- the first 20 miles and the final 6 and I was prepared to find the last six really tough, but nothing happened. I ran on, feeling fine. The next stage where it can really bite is 23 miles- the final three can be really hard. I braced myself, but again, nothing. I was running steady and feeling good. At mile 24 I decided to up the pace and see what happened. I went from 6 min/ km pace to 5 and ran the final two miles at that pace, pretty comfortably.

M was waiting near the finish and at that point my watch was saying I only had a few more metres to go, but the marshals were turning us away from the finish to run round a sodding playing field! It really messed with my head. My pace dropped by a few seconds and the old voice telling me I'd had enough and needed to walk was back. I ignored it. Ahead, the entire path was taken up with four half marathon runners who looked completely exhausted. I had no energy to run round them so I called out asking them to move, which they very kindly did. I caught up with the lady in front as the wretched path turned us again away from the finish and moved us back into the middle of the playing field. Then it swerved again to take us round the edge of an athletics track. My watch pinged at this point, telling me I'd run a marathon, but the finish was another 200m ahead! Summoning up every last ounce of strength I possessed I pushed on so I would cross the line with a PB, and made it over finally in 4:09, knocking 2 mins off my previous PB. If you go by the actual marathon distance recorded by my watch it was 4:08, so I was pretty pleased.

This marathon was definitely an exercise in running faster, resetting the goal mid-race and regrouping mentally with a new focus. Marathons are great teachers and I learnt a lot on this one. I was very happy with how I'd run and with the pacing, I felt strong despite everything, but it did bring home to me that I don't like running road marathons to chase a time- it's relentless and a little bit joyless and the pressure is constant. Back to the trails and a slower pace for me next time I think. Despite everything, I was extremely pleased with how strong I felt on the race and afterwards- I even jogged over to the athletics track to watch my friend come in. I'm toying with the idea of doing a 30 mile run later in the year and this marathon was the first time I've felt like I could have gone on and done more miles, so lots of positives to take from it.

A lovely race, through lovely countryside with super marshals and great fellow competitors- thanks Yeovil! And thanks Ted and Pop for saving the day with your water bottles!!

Hope all are well? CT :o).

Thursday, 30 May 2019

London Vitality 10k, Moths, Beetles and a Water Shrew

Monday saw us in London for the Vitality 10k, a race through central London on closed roads. 20,000 people took part. It was quite something. We were up at 5:30 and on the train by 7:30 and got into London with plenty of time to walk to Green Park and sort out the bag drop and a meeting place. A number of the Hares had come with us and, as with the London marathon, the organisers had handily had alphabetic meeting places put up, so we plumped for H of course.

The start was outside Buck Pal and it was arranged in waves to manage the relative speeds of the runners. M was in the top wave just behind Mo Farah and I was in the third. It was well managed and ran smoothly so we weren't hanging about for ages BUT as always happens, some people had been over-ambitious in their predicted times and there was a fair amount of dodging slower runners who had put themselves at the front then run out of steam after a mile. Grrrr.

My race went well, given that I'd been off for a week with a virus, then done a reasonably fast parkrun on the Saturday and a long ten mile run on the Sunday. I managed to knock 2.5 mins off my PB and come in at 47 minutes, which I was thrilled with. Some of the credit for this has to go to a lovely chap whom I ran most of the way with. After the first couple of miles we realised we were about the same pace and stuck together for the remainder of the race. Sometimes I went ahead, sometimes he did, but we always managed to join up again. We had this kind-of unspoken accord that happens sometimes in races where you don't say a word to each other but you just know you're keeping one another going. Anyway, we got to the final 100m marker and I said to him come on buddy, let's sprint, so we did, and we crossed the line together. We shook hands at the end and thanked one another - he was chuffed because he hadn't managed to go under 48 minutes before and I was obvs thrilled with my time. Then we went our separate ways. I do think running brings out the absolute best in people- complete strangers helping one another out in a kind of silent support. It's brilliant.

So now I'm on marathon taper, which I do not enjoy- not enough running, too much eating. It messes with your head and you feel fat, slow and slothful. I shall be very glad when the weekend after next rolls round and I can get on with it!

So on to the other part of the post, which is about moths! I don't put the moth box often these days because I worry about the collateral damage, but the other night I decided to and see who came visiting....

scorched wing

alder moth


white ermine

poplar hawk


broken barred carpet moth

silver ground carpet

orange footman

white banded carpet

light brocade

shoulder-striped wainscot

pale tussock

mocha moth


The rose chafer has been back three times....

And I'm not sure what this is. Any ideas??

I have also been very lucky this week to see a water shrew hunting in our stream for the first time in my life. They are normally shy, nocturnal creatures so it was an absolute treat. Hard to spot in the photo below unless you know what you're looking for but I promise he is there. Magic!

Hope all are well?