Natural Obsession ……
Every now and again you see something online that encapsulates just how you see the sport you do …. I saw this video and it set me on fire with fresh dreams
Natural Obsession starring the amazingly talented Finlay Wild .
I was pleasantly surprised when my good friend Kenny Short asked me to support him in the Celtman , an Iron distance extreme triathlon and part of the Xtreme race series which now includes the Norseman and Swissman . My surprise was not because I haven’t supported him before but because the Celtman requires a support runner to accompany the racer over 16 miles of mountain running. I’ve not exactly been training much this year , mainly due to a double shoulder operation and tendinitis in my knee. This has made it all but impossible to stay fit. And let’s be honest when it comes to racing Kenny can leave most in his dust!! Ricky Lightfoot would be a more fitting companion for him and right now hes so fit that lately I have struggled to keep up with him even on his “easy” runs. But he was happy that after 2.4 miles of Sea swimming , 120 miles of torturous road biking around Torridon and 10+ miles of running over the Coulin pass I wouldn’t be holding him back any. So one weekend in late June we headed off to Torridon.
We arrived on the Thursday night after a long but very beautiful drive the length of Scotland. Upon arrival at our Hotel we met one of the race support crew. Rhoda from Innerleithen who presently between jobs was taking a little time out and had decided to cycle from her home in the Scottish Borders all the way to Torridon for the event , nice one ! We checked in and met the organisers who are mainly based in the Scottish Borders and Edinburgh. Kenny was on good terms and we joined everyone for dinner later that night. I had already met Paul , pony tailed endurance warrior and the easy going main man of Durty events when I had joined Kenny and the Border triathlon club for a hilly night run up the 3 Brethren. The rest of the group was just as charming and I was happily entertained by their stories of past events.
The next day after breakfast we headed to registration, did the necessary and headed out to recce the course . A short drive took us to Shieldaig where the swimmers would exit the water and transition to the bike . I popped down to the water’s edge and took a temperature reading ,10 degrees !! Now that’s gonna be a cold one. just then Sean MacFarlane arrived , he’s an outstanding athlete and had taken second place the year before. I have previously written of his exploits here and here .. a top fella and always full of positivity for his races , he’s there to race hard but he also very much loves what he does and he has a glint in his eye he talks of his challenges and every time I’m impressed. Kenny and I headed off from the transition to follow the first part of the 120 mile bike section. It climbed steeply out of the bay and headed inland over for the most part winding and undulating roads through staggeringly beautiful if occasionally harsh countryside.
I have kayaked this area many times , the rivers are short , steep boulder strewn torrents when full , a testing area even for expert kayakers. Most will give a scary fight for your life before spitting you out into the sea . The famous Little Gruinard river throws you right out in front of the infamous Anthrax island , you will be amazed just how close that Anthrax testing was to the mainland.
After agreeing on a manageable support plan for the bike stage we headed to the finish of the Coulin pass and start of the mountain run stage . This is where I would be expected to join Kenny and accompany him over Bhein Eighe . A serious mountain stage with a steep ascent to the ridge and summits then an even steeper descent to a half way lochan before a fast run out to the finish. There was a cut off time for this stage and it would favour only the fastest competitors for safety. A plan was drawn and times were agreed . I looked at the mountain and secretly hoped Kenny’s legs were trashed when he arrived at my stage .. well a man can hope
It was now time for the scheduled pre-race briefing, so off we headed to the Torridon centre. We arrived to a hall full of very fit people ! Triathletes have a more muscular build than ultra runners and more often than not are a lot more methodical in their training and diet . It shows . although I like the fact that ultra runners are the dark horses of the fitness world . A rag-tag bunch capable of running for 20 hours at a time yet most wouldn’t even get a second glance in the gym with their skinny legs and the occasional pot belly , compared to the ripped triathlete with quads of steel making all the girls weak at the knees The briefing was funny and light-hearted yet thorough in its need to impress the seriousness of the races nature. Some times these briefings are a little overboard to keep everyone in line. Lets be honest, these types of races may be physically tough but they are ultimately fun races, not an expedition into uncharted danger , everyone is an adult after all and everything takes place in a relatively safe and risk controlled environment so there really is no need to go overboard. Soon we headed back to the hotel for food and a good nights sleep ..
The alarm went off at 3am , we were to be at the bike transition for 4am , Kenny would then be bussed to the start line out of sight at the other side of the bay. The weather was clear but a growing wind had stirred over night making for a choppy sea. I waited at the transition with my Binoculars watching for the swimmers to round the bay. Sure enough the sight of the safety kayakers guided me to the little yellow swim caps struggling to be seen over the chop. Slowly more and more heads appeared round the bend .. Finally the first of the swimmers reached the exit wobbling their way up the causeway. Gradually more and more swimmers wobbled their way up , they were now coming out thick and fast.
My eyes strained to find Kenny amongst the swarm of black wetsuits exiting the water in the morning gloom ,suddenly he was there, I sprung into action and waited or him to exit the causeway .. we ran to his bike and I helped him exit his wetsuit .. His hands and feet were freezing !! He is a tough as nails competitor so a few cold fingers wouldn’t discourage him but it made stripping off awkward. I got involved like no man ever should and I tried not to pull at anything I shouldn’t soon I was helping him into his bike gear and he was off . That steep climb out the bay will soon warm him up I thought.
I headed off to find a support point 30 miles away as agreed .. Not on a climb , not heading down a hill and not on the run out of a hill were my tactics for a support stop . I was trying to keep it easy on Kenny . He arrived at the first stop in good spirits and I handed him his bottle refills .. I slowly moved from stop to stop becoming part of what was to become the Celtman convoy . At about 100 miles in a few ibuprofen were required and Kenny was off on his last push before his run … I sped off to the run transition and prepared for his arrival .
In he came smiling and so glad to be off the bike. A brief rest and refuel before he headed over the Coulin pass , the first of the run stages , 12 miles of low level trail through beautiful scenery although no time to hang around as the cut off still had to be made if we were to run the high level route on the mountain . He was making good time though so I knew he would push on over the pass in good time.
I loaded the kit and bike , then headed to the mountain staging point , parked up in the rough , good job I drive a landy. It was howling with wind and lashing down with rain. A stout storm had blown in from the coast and was threatening the race. The top competitors had made it before the worst of the storm and were enduring some harsh conditions up top. As a mountaineer with a fair winter experience I’ve been out in some heavy weather , but I was trained, well practiced and geared up for it . Racers on the other hand are trying to move fast and have the minimal of gear, this shrinks the safety zone quite considerably. I’ve no doubt that there were plenty people in the race who would have taken it in their stride , but I’ll also say there were far more who would have been very uncomfortable up on that mountain top. So it was no surprise to me that long before the cut off time and I’m sure taking the racers experience as a whole. And most probably under mountain rescue team advisement the organisers made the decision to close the high level route for safety reasons. At this point all racers were told to follow the lower level route so as to avoid the exposure of the ridge in this the worst of weather.. Do not confuse “lower level” with “low level” as at around 2000 feet and in that weather it was still to be a tough mountain run through some fantastic scenery including passing the famous triple buttress. Additionally it was about to add a few extra miles to the already LONG day Kenny was having. I waited patiently for Kenny exiting the Coulin pass. The weather was filthy and demoralising but bang on plan he arrived at the final checkpoint and having worked very hard to make the cut off he arrived with plenty time to spare. I knew he desperately wanted to run the summit route so sadly I relayed the news , he stared up through the driving rain at the storm clouds now hiding the top Half of the mountain and although disappointed , he knew he couldn’t argue . In the wind and rain we set off on the final 15 miles .
Slowly we climbed up the tight rock strewn path leading to the col below the summit ridge, there are many highs and lows that you will encounter in a long endurance race and I could tell by the relatively slow pace and Kenny’s somber tone of voice that he was battling through a low. I kept chatting and joking , trying to lift the mood but ultimately it’s the individual who has to pick himself up in the end. Slowly we were gaining ground on a group of four runners who were sticking together for safety in the horrendous weather. We picked up our pace to climb a little faster and pass them . This seemed to be the lift Kenny needed and suddenly he was off , bouncing up the hill like we were just out the car on a training run, here we go I thought. We could see another pair of runners not far ahead, let’s have them said Kenny smiling. The terrain was tough , technical and right up our street … We leapt and bound, floated over rocks and streams and it wasn’t long before we had left several groups of runners behind, we had run through some fantastic mountain scenery over a very challenging technical track and neither of us were feeling short-changed by the route change .
Soon we were dropping height and had hit the beginnings of a rough descent path. The pace upped again and I checked my watch , over 10 miles were behind us and I was now struggling to keep up with Kenny , my watch read sub 7 minute miles …best pace for me and amazing that Kenny was now dragging me down the mountain behind him after over 140 miles and 14 hours of excersion. Eventually we slid out the exit from the descent path onto a small B-road and my legs suddenly were jelly , I had given it everything I had and more on that mountain and there was still a few more miles of hilly road running left … I ran behind Kenny but he’s one fast road machine so I was just holding him back , I looked back to see two of the runners we had left on the hill gaining on us, I told Kenny to kick on without me , after all I had done my part , he said no but I didn’t want him to lose a place in this , the last couple of miles , so I told him to plug it or I wouldn’t be happy … Off he went , finishing in what was probably a 6 minute mile , bloody machine !! we had picked up several places on the run and he finished in an amazing 28th place overall . And I think 11th for age … Given the strength of that field , top athletes from all around the globe and awesome home-grown talent that was a brilliant result. The man is a rock !
The last half of 2012 has seen me suffer badly from tendonitis deep within my knee and my fitness was waning as quickly as my tummy was swelling ;-) but all is not lost as finally during the 6 weeks prior to Christmas I made it back to some form of pain-free consistent training, happy days. And as I am about to go under the surgeon’s knife on the 18th of January I decide on a final burst of effort and set myself a special little Xmas Holiday Challenge , to run the Borders Abbey Way over 4 days.
The Borders Abbey Way is a 65 mile long trail that circumnavigates the best of the Scottish Borders, taking you on your way between 4 ancient Abbeys. It’s a trail that I have used in part but never really followed it in its entirety so I thought why not give it a go and it’s always good to put a goal down while looking for a new adventure
There is nothing extreme about this trail as it travels over hills and through forests for the most part then across farmland and by riverside path for the rest. It is however exceptionally beautiful and constantly varied in its journey. Never was I bored, at every turn there was always something different appearing on the Horizon. In fact I was actually buzzing for the next stage to see what was there , and I live here !! Yes , it is THAT good.
For the most part the hills come between Jedburgh ,Hawick through Selkirk and on to Melrose , with the famous Eildon hills popping into view at every high point , getting tantalizingly closer as you travel east …. the Borders Schiehallion I thought. From Melrose to Kelso and on to Jedburgh the trail is relatively flat riverside path, this makes for great running through. Over the length of your journey which ever sections you do , I guarantee you will see some of the most beautiful scenery the Borders has to offer and you will view it from all different perspectives and angles.
Running it over 4 days the daily mileage was reasonably comfortable for me, and the climbing shallow and easy-going, so even in my relatively unfit condition I was able to enjoy it all. A hill runner would run this route in its entirety , a cautious trail runner might on occasion walk the odd hill but still enjoy the trail either side. I recommend this to everyone from walker to Ultra runner. It is a fantastic journey from start to finish and one that I will return to when I intend to run it in one long push during the build up for my 95 mile West Highland Way race attempt in June. I will have to be patient though as I have an operation and a fair bit of training to do before then , but at least now I know the “Way”
There is a race that is a myth to many , one that most are never likely to see , it’s a mystery held deep within the European mountain bike community. A race where invitation is the only means of entry, a race purely for fun yet there is a winner, one who is elevated to god like status yet is openly mocked for winning . It is a race of endurance, hard trail and brutal climbing. Add to that tricky navigation , remote night stages and a sprinkling of crazy challenges ….. It is everything yet it is nothing !! it is “Men of Porage”
My friend and adventure racer extra-ordinaire Kenny Short rang me up last week , the conversation went like this …
Kenny: Hey Mark fancy a mountain bike race on Saturday”
Mark: ah Kenny I’m no racer on the bike mate.
Kenny: Dont worry Mark its an endurance event you wont need to go fast .
Mark: Fuck it then Kenny I’ll come along ….. what is it ?
Kenny: it’s the Men of Porage and this time its set near Innerleithen.
Mark: THE Men of Porage race Kenny ?
Kenny: yes !! THE Men of Porage
Mark: fuck !!
Originating in the Czech Republic , home of some real hardcore nutters when it comes to sport so you just know it is going to be tough. I’m not sure of the UK history but to quote Lawrence Tring : “About 8 year’s ago a British Porage event was launched with élite riders from mountain bike endurance and orienteering/trail-quest events invited” , obviously 8 years later they were scraping the bottom of the barrel if I was getting an invite . it’s a race that travels to a different venue every outing and is a slightly different incarnation every time. This year it was set close to me in Innerleithen, so not to far to for me to travel either. Gary Tompsett of Rat Race fame was in charge of this Porage so it was sure to be a good one.
Kenny picked me up at 11am Saturday morning. Andrew Tullie would also be accompanying us , good news as Andrew is part of the greatest Orienteering / hill running family EVER !! he would be the man to count on when things got tough. We were to be at the Corner House Hotel Innerleithen and be ready to race for 12 noon , here we would be escorted as a peloton to the starting point which was unknown to all. About 50 riders from all over the UK were in the hotel car park excited and nervous in equal doses. Suddenly a rider appeared and after a short briefing we were off , a 50 strong mountain bike peloton heading for Traquair house. As we arrived we were told to position our bikes against a long wall as if preparing for a mass start. We were then ushered to the top of the garden by the old Gates and given a briefing on what to expect , 50 miles at least , 20 checkpoints to reach , probably 3000m of climbing all in …. WOW !! I knew I was screwed right here We would be given 4 maps , but only 1 at a time , once we had hit the CPs we would be “rewarded” with our next section of challenges before moving on to the next area of the the Peeblesshire hills. Gary then told us there was a twist to the starting of the race. We had to race the 400 metres to the huge maze situated at the back of the house , find the centre to get our first CP then head back to the bikes before disappearing into the Forests and hills of Traquair , amazing !! but before all this the Porage oath had to be taken ….
It was now tiem to go , all of a sudden we were running down the length of the Traquair gardens to the maze at the back of this grand old house. In we went, 50 adventure racers fleeting like mice in a laboratory puzzle, all trying to find the centre of this ancient maze . After 5 minutes we realised that it was harder than we thought , hmm let’s think … here! shouted Kenny seeing a hole in the maze leading to the centre , as we squeezed through the short-cut the event photographer caught Kenny with his camera .. ha-ha red-handed !!!
We noted the CP number and found our way out , running quickly to the bikes and trying at the same time to decide the best route to CP2 …. for this checkpoint we headed into the forest trails and used a logging road to gain height before heading out and over the moors to come round onto the next hill, man !! what a slog !! My legs were on fire after nearly one hour of solid energy sapping climbing !! eventually we left the forest and headed over the high ground , the inclement weather had left the paths soft , muddy and very wet , hard going indeed. At times I wished I had been running , it would definitely have been easier .. yet I was enjoying being out there so much , really buzzing that after my injury , I was finally back racing in the hills , albeit on wheels.
Eventually we made our way up and over the amazingly beautiful Gypsy Glen and down over the hills to Peebles where we had to find a checkpoint deep in the countryside to the North . It was dark now and we were relying on good judgement and luck, actually just luck We made it back to Peebles and I looked at my watch , 4 hours on the bike already and we still had to find a railway tunnel before we could head on to the next map. A stroke of genius happened , the organiser had made one of the CPs next to a good old SPAR !!! yassssssss !! in we went and grabbed the goodies , stuffed ourself full of Bounty bars and wine gums .. Next we headed North east to a trail that took us to a point above the railway tunnel , or so we thought. We found a sweet descent trail and dropped height , and more height until we ended up on the banks of the Tweed !! aaaaarrghhh SHIT !! we had over shot the tunnel and dropped way more height than we had meant to. 30 minutes of hauling bikes around a steep and over grown banking ensued and eventually we had found the tunnel , 200 metres long and pitch black we scanned its walls looking for a CP number , eventually finding it in a small bay full of nasty nasty things ,the unmentionable. We sent the bold Kenny in first
Finally we shot out the tunnel and headed for the final checkpoint to receive our next map , this took us to Cardrona Village and a pump track where we had to complete the challenge of pumping our way round with out a pedal stoke , easy and we were off heading down the country lanes towards Traquair house again for another crazy checkpoint , every hill now felt like a serious mission to my very tired legs .
We arrived to a moon lit Traquair house and a checkpoint full of Beer !! we gave our names to the official so he could check us in, at night things get a little more serious and a cold night like we were having takes no prisoners to anyone stuck in the hills . Kenny gave his name and all of a sudden the official picked up a tin of cat food , eat he said to Kenny. Kenny looked up , why ? you must eat or you forfeit your race due to cheating in the maze …. hahah Andrew and I laughed , Kenny picked up the cat food and ate it .. eeuurgh ! Kenny turned round and said “Tuna and jelly isn’t my favourite , I much prefer chicken and gravy” this cheered me up no end. We headed out of traquair and the back roads to the final CP at Innerleithen downhill car-park We met Gary who offered us an extra loop to spice up our adventure … we accepted it and headed down to Walkerburn to climb to the the reservoir high above , the trail is reputed to be a tasty local secret , this would be fun at night. Unfortunately our powerful bike lights were now dropping like flys and we were down to Zipka head torches . No good for technical trails , Tullie was also on a promise !! you can’t keep these young lads from their Shnazzzms so we bit the bullet and headed back to Innerleithen to call it a night … 8 hours in the saddle , thousands of metres of tough technical ascents and descents … lost many times , cold and exhausted !! and lets not mention my arse !!! Never had such a good time for ages
Alan Watts ….
Since my youth I have had a strong interest in both the nature that surrounds me and who I am within it, not in a flaky way I might add ! I’m not dancing in the streets shaking my tambourine just yet but I have been strongly drawn to looking deeper into life than most . Over the years I’ve read books, listened to philosophies and even tried to experience various belief’s and religions and have built a strong association with Buddhism. I have even immersed myself in some of its teachings through several retreats at the Samye Ling centre near my home, every time thoroughly enjoying my stay. Am I a Buddhist ? unfortunately not, I am in no way a person pure enough of soul to restrict myself to the practices of Buddhism no matter how much I respect it as a way of life. My drive for knowledge is not about religion , it’s about wonderment of nature and the why of me , it’s a big picture I know
I have asked the following question many times; Is it because I am an outdoor sportsman that I wonder about the world or is because I wonder about the word that I am an outdoor sportsman ? chicken and egg ? I remember my early days as a climber sitting on tiny ledges looking out at the vast topography below me, taking it all in and wondering, this wonder is probably what sets me apart as one of the people who take notice and look deeper into what is spinning around me, many doubt, some mock and most just aren’t interested in anything apart from the confines of their daily life, but for those interested enough to look there are beliefs and teachings out there that when you take the time to read or listen to may actually make more sense than what you actually have believed to be true before. laughing yet ? ask yourself a question, do you use a mantra to help your running , if the answer is yes …. Ever wondered why you use it and why it helps ? read on …….
A video titled “What if money was no object” seems to have captured everyone’s imagination in the outdoor sports community right now, probably because it helps justify spending time on our own desires, many of us giving priority to our love of our sport over financial gain or family commitments, an explanation on “living the dream” it eventually hit my inbox or twitter feed and a name came up from my past, Alan Watts , a British philosopher and writer who I had a real interest in during the 90s. Back then his books and transcripts had been a huge force in giving me answers and questions about myself, he ignited a lot of little sparks that still burn within me all these years later. So it was with great interest that I watched this little video go “viral” all these years later . I have spent the last few days looking back into Alan’s work and decided to post a few of his interesting videos for all to enjoy …..
Below is an exert from his website http://www.alanwatts.org/
About Alan Watts
Alan Watts was born in London in 1915, at the start of the first World War. At a young age he became fascinated with the Far East, and at fourteen he began to write and was published in the Journal of the London Buddhist Lodge before writing his first booklet on Zen in 1932. He moved to New York in 1938 and then to Chicago, where he served as an Episcopal priest for six years before leaving the Church. In 1950, he moved to upstate New York before going on to San Francisco to teach at the Academy of Asian Studies. Among Alan Watts’ earliest influences were the novelist Sax Rohmer and Zen scholars D.T. Suzuki and Christmas Humpreys. In late 1950, he visited with Joseph Campbell and composer John Cage in NYC.
Alan Watts was profoundly influenced by the East Indian philosophies of Vedanta and Buddhism, and by Taoist thought, which is reflected in Zen poetry and the arts of China and Japan. After leaving the Church, he never became a member of another organized religion, and although he wrote and spoke extensively about Zen Buddhism, he was criticized by American Buddhist practitioners for not sitting regularly in zazen. Alan Watts responded simply by saying, “A cat sits until it is done sitting, and then gets up, stretches, and walks away.”
1950′s and early ’60′s
After teaching at the Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco, he became Dean and began to give regular radio talks on KPFA, the Berkeley free radio station. In 1957, he published his best-selling Way of Zen, and in 1958 returned to Europe where he met with C.G. Jung. He was an early subject in pioneering psychedelic trials, and, after recording two seasons of the public television series Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life, travelled to Japan several times in the early sixties. By the late sixties, he had become a counter-culture celebrity, and travelled widely to speak at universities and growth centers across the US and Europe.
By the early seventies, Alan Watts had become a foremost interpreter of Eastern thought for the West, and was widely published in periodicals including Earth, Elle, Playboy, and Redbook. He appeared on CBS television’s Camera Three in 1969, and in 1971 he recorded a pilot for a new show titled A Conversation with Myself for NET, the precursor to PBS. When the series was not produced, he recorded the shows with his son Mark and his long-time audio archivist Henry Jacobs in 1972. Overall, Alan Watts developed an extensive audio library of nearly 400 talks and wrote more than 25 books during his lifetime, including his final volume, Tao: The Watercourse Way. Alan Watts died in his sleep in November of 1973, after returning from an intensive international lecture tour.
Some of my favourite lectures ..
Penchrise Pen Hill race …
Penchrise is a little known hill nestled near Hawick , full of history and with an epic view on a bright day. It is also the main feature in my local hill race “The Penchrise Pen race” , a relatively new hill race organised by Keith Murray, one of the borders finest hill runners , a man who can climb hills like a Kenyan runs the flat. Keith has found a little gem with his race and I’m sure it will gain in popularity once word gets around. As a fledgling hill runner and a training buddy of Keith I had looked forward to it for a while, so it was with sadness that I could not run on the day due to the tendinitis in my knee. Not to miss out entirely I went along to help out and I was lucky enough to Marshall from the summit on what was one of the nicest days of the year.
The race starts at the old Stobs camp near Hawick GR500094 , it was the base of a military camp from 1903 and later became a prisoner of war camp during the second world war , loads of info and pictures can be found here: Stobs camp . Nowadays it’s used for everything from Mini Rallys , a quiet place to practice reversing your caravan and even teaching your kids to drive for the first time , none the less a beautiful setting and the perfect staging post for this cracking hill run.
The race would start at the camp and head up towards Penchrise following cattle trails and sheep trods before heading steeply up to pass Barnes loch before joining a rough track for a short distance before veering up to the summit of Penchrise to touch the trig point and head down the other side dropping all the way home. The run at only a little over 8 km and a pretty gentle climb of only 280 metres its pretty easy in comparison to a lot of hill races in the calendar but with the beautiful setting and the easy access it is definitely a race worth doing , a great introduction for a novice or a speed trial for a seasoned campaigner, you can go as hard as you can for the top, see what you have in your legs and once you get there grab a few seconds of that view before tearing down the other side for home … a race day that everyone is sure to enjoy.
This years date for the race although perfect for the late good weather was also the day after the Two Breweries hill race over at Traquair , an 18 mile hill-fest of epic proportions so it was always going to be a tough call for entries , however a decent amount of dedicated runners arrived including several Two Brewery racers going for the double crown and a bunch of local stalwarts from the Teviotdale harriers, it would definitely be a closely fought race at the front and a great day out at the back .The weather was a beautiful cool sunny day so visibility was to be outstanding and the views would be enjoyed to the full.
I headed up to the summit to set up my marshalling station (get my camera out) … and below are a few shots from the day . A great race ! with fabulous cake …
“After reading this I shook my head and laughed at my own antics , so I think for the benefit of readers new to this blog Id better explain a little , I have a degenerative shoulder injury sustained while whitewater kayaking nearly 2 years ago, one which I am scheduled to have surgery on in October, I have postponed this operation twice to avoid missing my summer and its racing but this was Ill advised as it has rapidly became very unstable over the past few months and I am now having trouble just keeping it in its socket , keep reading you will understand why I write this”
I arrived in Chamonix last week to beautiful weather and high spirits, my knee was feeling better for my semi-taper and the thought of a cool sunny high level run across the Alps was making me happy. This was a good feeling because lately the thought of running was not having that effect on me , quite the opposite in fact . Trying to keep fit has been a hard battle between injury and lack of interest , I should have been psyched for this race, training hard and banging in the 90+ mile weeks like I had been previous to the Marathon Des Sable and the Himalayan100 the year before but instead I was suffering from tendonitis in my knee and had struggled to get in 25 quality miles a week and these were an effort both physically and mentally, C’est la Vie. I would head to Chamonix and try to finish the TDS no matter what , hopefully I could just keep plodding to the finish-line, after all how hard could it be ?
I was staying in a lovely apartment located bang center of town with 3 of my ultra-running compadre’s , Johnny Millen the dark horse of ultra running , a guy who really can run with the best yet never tries to give the impression he is anything special , in fact he lives by the Joss Naylor code of looking like a throwback from the 70s school of fleece and woolly hats he was entered in the 160km UTMB race , next the Lentil kid , the super modest yet incredibly talented Paul “Pyllon” Giblin, only his second year of Ultra-running yet already a growing force in the Scottish Ultra scene, winner of last years Cateran and powering himself to second place in this years West Highland way Race , rounding off my talented bunch of companions was Davie Bell, a super experienced and indomitable ultra runner / adventure racer who over the years has completed more races than even he cares to mention, UTMB and WHW race include …… Errrr, now wheres my qualifications ? , Hmmmmm did I mention I was good at kayaking once ?
After settling in our first foray into the Chamonix countryside was a steep bimble up to the top of Le Brevent , a huge mountain towering over Chamonix at 2525m high. I left the apartment thinking we would be running up a switchback trail but no, not us , it was to be straight up the side of the mountain following the steepest mountain bike trail we could find … half way up as I puffed along at the back I swung under a tree that blocked the path , I held on a second to long and managed to dislocate my arm much to the alarm of the lads … I found a rock twisted on it to pop it back in place, painful but nothing Im not used to by now. As we progressed onwards and upwards I felt the altitude and my legs were ever tiring , not the best pre-race prep I know ! Eventually we reached the clouds after a climb of over 1500 metres .. at this point Pyllon and Johnny decided to race to the top ….. Bloody hell !! I was already knackered , quickly they disappeared into the mist bounding up the hill ….. Davie and I opting for the “old bulls” approach of cruising up to enjoy the “pleasure” … Pretty soon Davie and I decided to the head down towards the cable car restaurant for a crêpe and Cafe’ and let the whippets go for it …. Davies remark of “they’re a stone lighter than a meringue” made me laugh as we jogged down towards the restaurant. It was a truly beautiful place to chill out , with superb views of the Mt Blanc massif opposite . After our lunch we decided on descending via the cable car to save our quads for later in the week. Johnny and Pyllon eventually arriving home hours later after what most would consider a very hard day in the mountains , to them just a warm up of things to come.
The next few days were spent ambling around in beautiful weather,eating,drinking and eventually registering for our chosen races. Johnny queued with us for a while until eventually noticing that the UTMB registration wasn’t until later in the day The usual identity and kit check ensued for Davie and I but Paul was pulled aside for a blood test , those élite athletes get all the fun we were given our free T-shirts , mines being a little on the tight side … my lack of training the past 6 months hasn’t been kind … never mind its something to work on once I get back to proper training , my goal is to get that T-shirt to fit again !! After all the excitement we headed home to relax. The next morning we went for a “brisk” 10km trail run by the river to keep our legs oiled , I glanced at my watch which said 6:40 m/mile pace as Pyllon casually chatted to me on the home straight !! personally I was ready to collapse later that day Katie , Johnny’s girlfriend arrived in town so we were all put on our best behaviour , well for 10 minutes !! she was cool and very nice to , so we all headed out to the square for something to eat , a last supper !
As we headed home for an early night I noticed the weather was taking a turn for the worst and it was feeling pretty heady , electricity was building and we were certainly heading for a storm .. We sat discussing the possibility of bad weather and what we would do about it when a text arrived in from the organisers , they were obviously concerned ….
Another text came in later to tell us it was now compulsory to carry 4 layers of winter clothing, the ball game had changed .. running across high ground with the heat of the sun and complete visibility is one thing, crossing it in winter conditions is another,the TDS race would be especially tough as this was a route away from the ultra trail , a race over exposed and remote ground, I thought to myself “you can pick them mate” my fingers were crossed. Our pick up was at 5am , we would see what the weather was like then . All night the rain lashed down and the thunder and lightning bashed and clashed relentlessly. I don’t think I slept a wink during the storm, I can remember seeing my watch say 3am then It was 5am and time to roll … outside was a deadly calm, the storm had stopped and the air was still .. out we went to the bus that would ship us through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Cormayeur our start line. We arrived to a cold but dry starting line , the cloud was low however but hopefully as the sun came up it would rise. Paul headed to the front of the starting line, he meant business …. Davie and I content to sit nice and cosy in the middle … the sun was rising and music started to play , the atmosphere was building and as the darkness drifted away I saw the lean and mean faces of the other runners , this was a tough race and one filled with athletes from all around the globe , at least 40 nationalities was accounted for. This was no marathon full of fun runners , it’s not going to be fun , this was a high altitude 75 mile mountain race with 23,500 feet of positive ascent over extreme and difficult terrain raced to tight cut off times and would not finish for most until at least 24 hours later , only the qualified need apply… I wondered what I was doing there among these hardened individuals , maybe last year but this year, hmmm I had the experience and the stones but did I have the legs , I didn’t know !
The music stopped and the race director made an announcement to everyone , then BANG , we were off !!! The race headed down through Cormayeur across the bridge , which crossed a very nice grade 5 kayak gorge and then it climbed up , and up until we hit a fire road heading VERY steeply up to a cable car station several thousand feet above at Col de Checrouit . I got my poles out and run/walked up the relentlessly steep and rapidly deteriorating path to the top , was I glad to see that checkpoint , my legs were on fire! A good excuse to stop and rest if only for a few minutes , I grabbed some bread and honey and headed off-road and steeply up again , this time heading to Col de Youlaz . It was lashing down with cold rain at this point and I put my waterproof jacket on before heading out into the open country , as I approached the Col I saw a huge bottle-neck of runners , it was like a line of ants snaking up a huge rocky slope finishing in a muddy scramble to the top over loose shale and with a death drop to the side , nice !! I sat in the bottle-neck for well over an hour ! slowly moving up the mountain one step at a time, at one point a large group of runners tried to move past the bottle neck and a large argument ensued. I started to shiver as my temperature had now plummeted due to the slow pace , I had to strip off in the sheet rain and try to get a warm thermal on , this was turning into a nightmare scenario ! stuck in the open freezing to death. As I began to approach the rocky scramble ahead , rocks were careering from above and people were slipping and sliding everywhere , there was real danger here , bodies shoe-horned into a slippy mud strewn rocky ascent was certainly not a good thing. Thoughts of falling with a shoulder like mine are not positive thoughts , my inability to stop myself falling was making me nervous imagine a dislocated shoulder stuck on this ice rink of an ascent ,8000 feet up a mountain top … screw that … I was uncomfortable to say the least .Eventually I topped out , frozen to the bone but at least I was moving again , the rain had made the descent path a mud slide , people were falling everywhere in front of me .. I slid myself , twice , the second time I held myself onto my poles and subluxed my shoulder, here we go again !!! it went straight back in , but this really shit me up and I picked my way slowly down the descent of slippery rock,mud and grass for what seemed like an eternity … I just couldn’t risk a dislocation out there , I was now realising that with the current state of my injury I had put myself at risk in a way I had never considered .. eventually we hit a trail and I could confidently run again without fear of slipping so I headed for the checkpoint at double speed. My knee at this point was already feeling weak , god this is starting to sound terrible, like the oldest runner in the world has a running blog .. haha , I hit the checkpoint at La Thuille and sat there considering whether to just pull out there .. I was soaked through , frozen and obviously not fit enough to take the full challenge of this race on , Davie was nowhere to be seen , probably miles ahead at this point so what’s the point of continuing … well plenty !! I was in the Alps !! and the following section was manageable ,so why not continue checkpoint to checkpoint and enjoy my day .. I grabbed some noodle soup and some more bread and headed out into the rain , up and up again I went eventually topping out at a nice lake , I ran along the lakeside before climbing again to Col du Petit-St-Bernard. I arrived here soaked through and it was howling , there were lines of guy laid out with silver blankets on … shit !! I headed straight though and ran the flat before a nice trail twisted its way 4000 feet down to St Germain , my knee at this point was weakening rapidly and I had to lay off the steeper parts of the descent but as I dropped height the temperature picked up and I felt myself warming up . I caught up with a french man , Basile . He was amazed that a Scotsman was not at the front of the race, after all we live in the mountains . haha … he was funny and told me he had run the UTMB and CCC several times, and had been in the first TDS race in 2009 , they started the TDS he said, for runners looking for something more extreme and mountainous that the other races , not so far as the UTMB but tougher and more rugged … next year they will change the course , and race from Chamonix to Courmayeur … Hmmm , Ill keep it in mind .. ha-ha What I do realise now is that there is an ignorance to what the TDS race is actually about, I originally thought it was the worst half of the UTMB and that is why it was less famous and never needed a ballot entry, the CCC being the best half and hence the reason for its popularity but NO, the TDS is a race set out in an entirely different ilk to the CCC or UTMB , it was devised in 2009 to be a race to suit the mountain goats, the runners who want away from the Ultra trail , runners who really want to go into the wilds and rough it , it is longer than the CCC in distance and it has sections on it harder then the UTMB so be ready, this is no sister race to the UTMB, it’s a brother from another mother !! Its nasty and this year only 44% of the 1500+ TDS runners finished the race.
We cruised the last few miles into Bourg St Maurice together and it was here I decided to call it a day , I looked high into the mountains above me, looking at where I had to go , it was dark and foreboding , nightfall only an hour or two away , the forecast was for even more bad weather. I doubted that even if I wanted to continue whether I could move fast enough to keep warm through the night , so after 35 miles and nearly 10,000 feet of ascent/descent I decided to call it a day , feeling a little foolish to have thought I could sneak a finish , this race was proper TOUGH and needs 100% respect and superb conditioning to finish, two factors I hadn’t been able to give …… I sat for a while contemplating my day, despite everything it had been a good one no Gilet for me , just a tight T-shirt , but still a great alpine adventure. I checked my phone , Paul was sitting in 25th place from 1500 runners , WOW !! that was amazing , this was a field of super tough runners racing in extreme conditions and Paul was right up there at the front !!!! And Davie was forging on up the mountain in front of me , good man the runners were now fast dispersing from the checkpoint so I walked the last few metres to cross the line and register my retiral from the race . There were several buses of runners retiring and I was pointed to the one in the middle , I climbed on and fell asleep , waking up in Cormayeur !!! bugger , they had shipped me back to the start I thought , nightmare !! but no , it was the right bus and a quick change of buses and were off through the tunnel back home.
I arrived back at our apartment where Johnny was chilling out following the race , Paul was now 23rd , superb !!! Davie hadn’t been heard of for several hours , no concern really , he knew what he was on . I showered and piled Ibuprofen down my throat , I headed out to get something to eat. I headed to a café close by the finish line , the Poco Loco .. one awesome little burger bar and the reason for me falling off my vegetarian wagon for a few days , burgers are my Achilles heel and after 35 miles I was needing a fix !! It was now nearly 1am and the first of the TDS finishers were coming in so I grabbed a bench near the finish-line to watch ….. News came in that Davie had retired from the race high on the mountain , Hypothermia had set in and he had to withdraw from the race unable to keep warm through the night , that just shows how tough it had got up there after dark , he is nails !!
First over the line was Dawa Sherpa , a mountain goat from Nepal. After that they came in sporadically but every runner had a look of relief to be finished and most had a 1000 mile stare as the realisation of what they had been through sank in now the running had stopped . I was keeping an eye out for Paul , I think I was drifting off to sleep when Johnny Millen arrived on my bench with Katie , Paul had held a 25th place and was just about an hour away from finishing …. fantastic .. we went in to the cafe’ for hot chocolate and a heat as we waited . WE kept our eyes on the feed waiting on Paul to come through the last checkpoint , soon he had passed through so we headed out into the street to stand at the finish-line …. I received a phone-call from Paul’s sister , the swizzler, they were watching us back in Glasgow on the finish-line web-cam , haha She was texting Johnny and I requests for Bolt arms and the Mo-bot .. live on camera ha! Brilliant .
Suddenly a wisp of a runner burst round the corner to cheers and whistles , it was Paul , I grabbed my camera and shot him running across the finish , I shouted him to let him know his family was watching and tried to grab a few more shots . 18 hrs and 35 minutes of super tough extreme running across the high mountain passes of the Alps , horrendous weather and mud strewn trails , he had held his own against some of the best mountain runners in the world , he had proved himself once and for all !!!! I was made up for him !! he was shell-shocked and tired but still found time to tell us the tales as we headed home …… a great night !!
We awoke to the news that the CCC and the UTMB would now be altered due to the weather conditions , the CCC would not cross the high paths and would stay closer to the valley and the UTMB would not cross the Border and would circle Chamonix , the distance cut by 60km … apparently we were the crash test dummies during the TDS .. haha , now do not be fooled though , the weather and underfoot conditions still made these races super tough and just as challenging. I could sense a mixed emotion from Johnny , he had come to test himself out against the mighty Ultra trail Mont Blanc and he was being short-changed but also a slight relief he didn’t have to go the distance in the conditions outside , either way his race would be ultra-tough , he would go hard !
We chilled out most of the day as we awaited Johnny’s race , soon it was upon us and the dark horse running machine was raring to go , a 58th place in last years CCC and a long list of fast times in the hills Johnny is an off road runner of the highest calibre so I was excited to see him go for it over the shortened course .. he would of course be up against some of the worlds best but he would dig in up those hills and give it real welly I was betting .. Off Johnny went to the start and Paul , Davie and I headed off to get a good vantage point to see the runners leave Chamonix to run through the night … we were stood watching a cordoned off street expecting the start of the UTMB.. suddenly a dirty tired runner came up the street , he was the winner of the CCC , a sudden realism that we were watching the wrong race … Paul ,Davie and I ran (in reality hobbled) down the street like 3 old age pensioners as our raced out legs just didn’t want to work , we hit the main street just making the UTMB start and cheering them all off .
We left the square and went to chill out in the apartment keeping an eye on the race updates for Johnny’s place , he was 250th , pretty good ! then he 220th , then 180th …. wow !! pretty soon it was midnight and I couldn’t keep my eyes open , outside the rain had come in and I imagined their night run to be a tough one …. I awoke to find Johnny in 170th place … now that’s out of 2400 runners !! I imagined him in his vent shorts and old woolly hat running past state of the art top to toe Salomon wearing runners giggling in his madness through lack of sleep .. he’s a geordie Soon we were at the finish line waiting on his arrival and sure enough he sneaked round the corner in his trademark plain kit , but in an incredible 165th place !! yahooooooo !!!! he looked fresh as a daisy and was looking like he’d just done 10km not 100km …. superb !! way aye man ye did greet !!! … A fellow adventure runner and good friend from my home town , Jason MacDonald also completed the UTMB this year and I was lucky enough to meet him in Chamonix before he headed off to Les Houche .. nice one Jason , Well done
What a great trip with great people, we had our races , we had our laughs and I ate a burger !! I learnt that if you don’t do the miles in training your legs will not do the miles racing , I learnt that it’s finally time to stop pushing , admit I’m injured and chill out until I’m able to be fit again , I learnt that great runners are normal people and that my French is merde , but most of all I learnt that you should always let your eyes acclimatize to the light before sitting on a toilet seat in a toilet with no lightbulb !!!!
#goodtimes #runninglong #kissmyhashtag #daddeo
The Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie ….. the TDS race of the UTMB mountain running Event.
“Wilder and more technical than the UTMB® and the CCC® it is a race in exposed country along the ‘Grande Randonnée’ paths crossing though the high Mont-Blanc, Beaufort, Tarentaise and Aosta.
A mountain event, including numerous sections at high altitude (>2,500m), in weather conditions which can be very difficult (night, wind, cold, rain or snow), requiring a very high level of fitness, the appropriate equipment and a real capacity for personal autonomy”
What now seems like forever ago I entered the UTMB race but failed in the ballot to get a place, therefore I was offered a place in the TDS race which runs alongside the CCC and PTL races to form the The North Face® Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc® mountain running festival based in Chamonix….. now I’ve got that mouthful of abbreviational mumbo jumbo out the way lets talk English.
The North Face UTMB festival is a magnet for mountain runners worldwide and boasts the highest number of entries in any event of its kind. It will be amazing for me to be part of it and I fully expect Chamonix to be buzzing with top runners from all over the world including some of the worlds top mountain athletes ,hopefully I will spy a few of my favorite “celebs” during the week Even if I don’t I am heading out with an illustrious bunch of extremely fit compadre’s including Johnny Millen the Geordie hill cruncher , Paul Giblin the “floating” Scotsman and the one and only Sir Davie Bell of Bathgate , need I say more !. Whatever happens in Chamonix I’m in for a good time !
If I’m honest this is a race that has me a little worried, it is a very serious undertaking for anyone, it is over remote high mountain terrain with an unrelentingly tough course from beginning to end. I’ve run up Scottish hills, baked in hot deserts and ground my way up Himalayan mountain trails but never have I undertook something as long and as unrelentingly tough as this race. It is 112 kilometers long and has 7150 meters of technical ascent and descent . that’s 23,454 feet or 8 Munros from sea level to summit , it’s all to be done in one single stage and my calves and quads will be screaming for mercy if I can keep going to the end. And that is the burning question in my head right now, it is what I keep asking myself over and over , will my legs keep going and will my knee hold up ?
This year has been exceptionally tough for me, my shoulder which was wrenched violently from its socket while kayaking a spot of Alpine white-water gnarl during my last visit to the french alps has now deteriorated to the point where it dislocates for apparently no reason other than twisting it the wrong way , making anything but running near impossible, and even running has recently started to give me a gnawing pain deep within the socket. It has also been another big year of change in my life. Working out-of-town at the University made my early seasons training very tough to keep consistent and I let my mileage slip badly,thankfully I was welcomed into the “screaming calf society” of the local hill runners who beasted me twice weekly with hill reps and intervals after work . My weekends have and still are chaotic , having left self employment behind means finding time to spend with my daughter is a lot tougher, I took on a freelance programming contract to help pay the bills on-top of my new full-time job thinking I could “sqeeze” it all in, then at the same time I was asked by a local charity Anthony Mundell Memorial Fund to help train their charity runners in the 10 weeks leading up to the Edinburgh Rock and Roll half marathon. This I enjoyed immensely but all the juggling of my spare time meant that again I dropped back my training even further, still I was happy enough, running has to take a back seat to both my daughter and making a living. I felt I still had loads of time before the light nights and the start of the summer where I could run to my heart’s content ….. well think again Marko !! My first ultra-race of the year, the 55 mile Cateran55 came quickly in May and I should have been better prepared. It saw me run well until shortly after 40 miles a rapidly stiffening groin and quads slowed me down before a sharp pain in my knee at mile 50 saw the last 5 miles take me nearly 2 hours. It was an amazing race and I seemed to be better by mid-week so stupidly I went on to run the Edinburgh marathon with Rhalou only 7 days later , pain set in early and I kept running despite knowing better, this knocked another nail into my ultra running coffin for 2012 !! I had an enforced rest for a few weeks before running the Lairig Ghru mountain race which saw me stiffen up at 9 miles before my knee went half way up the pass !! fuck me!! only another 19 miles to go !! :) I was having no luck at all , I soldiered on to the end and still enjoyed the race despite everything. I then had a full months lay off, hoping for a miracle recovery that has never came. In the end having to cancel both the Lakeland50 and The Devil ‘o’ the Highlands in the hope of being fit for Chamonix. Since then I’ve juggled rest and light running in an attempt to keep some CV in me yet let my knee heal at the same time. My shoulder operation is due soon after the race in October, this will see me on several months downtime . So at least when I get to the race I can give it my all and not have to worry too much about injuring my knee as I’ll be recuperating anyway . Errrr did I really give that as an option .. haha The past two weeks have finally seen me out and about running on my local trails trying hard to get mileage into my legs. It’s not been pretty either, I’m nowhere near as fit as I was last season, not even close! My brain tells me to pull out yet my heart says try your best , so I’m left hoping that I can run,walk,limp and hopefully crawl over that Chamonix finish line before the cut off time ……….. have I got enough in the tank?, can I keep moving when my body tells me to stop? …. keep your fingers crossed , I’ll be crossing mine
Sean MacFarlane does ….. The Celtman !!
I wrote about Sean MacFarlane once before here .. http://www.runner786.com/2011/07/04/west-to-east-beast-a-serious-challenge-and-then-some/ and if you read that already then you know that Sean is an exceptional outdoor athlete and has ran, biked , swam and kayaked just about every conceivable terrain out there , he likes it tough and he likes it long so when the Celtman extreme triathlon popped up as this years must do extreme multi-sport event he was sure to enter …. this is his write up ……
Cold Black …… by Under Armour
I was recently contacted by Under Armour during a Blog outreach program where they chose unassociated athletes suitably qualified ( I use the term “athlete” loosely ) to test and independability review their products , on this occasion the new Cold Black technology in the form of a wicking outer T-shirt. Its a combination of its existing Heatgear principle with a new heat reflecting fabric called Cold Black that is meant to keep you cooler in the heat of the sun. It reflects the suns rays and stay cool …… does it work ? watch the videos then read on compadre’ …….
I don’t do a lot of reviews on the blog to be honest , it really has to be something that blows me away to the point I need to tell everyone but this time I was super stoked to do it as Under Armour is one of my favorite brands for compression/wicking and whether kayaking, climbing or running, 99% of the time I’m wearing their product …. Under Armour has kept me comfortable all over the world from kayaking the Grand Canyon of the Himalaya to running the Marathon Des Sable …. so I agreed to independently test and blog my opinion , good or bad . And a week later a Cold Black T-Shirt arrived through the post . It must be stated though that the Cold Black technology is aimed at use in the heat of the sun so as I live in Scotland, and we were going through a spell of horrendously wet and cold weather I had to wait a while to review it properly , however it was worth the wait as a heat wave hit Scotland on the same week the Edinburgh marathon was being run and luckily enough I was entered. Game on Cold Black !!! lets see just what your made of …..
I decided to try it out the day before the marathon with a short 10 mile blast across the countryside on my local trails , the sun was high and the temperature a touch over 25 degrees Centigrade , the T-Shirt was comfortable enough on , clean inside seams so no chafing and looked to be very good quality especially given that it was only £22 in the shops , that is pretty cheap for a running T-shirt, let alone one which apparently blocks the heat of the sun. So off I went and after a mile or two being baked in the open I could visibly feel the difference , the T-shirt was actually feeling like it was cool to touch , sweat was dripping off my brow and the heat of the sun burnt down on my arms but the T-shirt was not hot at all , not only did it reflect the Suns rays, it did not retain any heat either so it felt cool to wear. I felt I could have done with a smaller size to benefit fully from the sweat wicking but it was fine and I sailed up the trail back to my house pretty impressed. My final opinion is that I wish I had one when I was running across the Sahara and Gobi , I can guarantee the next time I’m in the desert I will be wearing one
Absolutely nothing to do with running but check this video out !!! Awesome !!