Tuesday, 23 April 2013

THE CALDERDALE HIKE 2013 – RACE REPORT

I entered this race on a bit of a whim.  My training has been concentrated on the roads recently.  I have been trying to increase my running speed by doing faster but shorter runs, mainly on flat roads and trails; certainly not ideal preparation for a 37 mile ultra through the moors and hilly terrain of the Calder Valley.  Two weeks before the race I went for an undulating 20 miler which was my sole long run in a while. I had done a few half marathon distances but nothing of serious length that would confidently qualify me for doing an ultra any time soon.  Time to jump in at the deep end.

In the final two weeks I decided to taper of sorts.  If I wasn’t going to be fit enough for the race I was going to be damn sure I was well rested.  The day before I printed out the maps, packed my gear and put my feet up and then suddenly got a pang of panic.  What was I thinking? Suddenly, 37 miles seemed much too far.  Being a long distance runner I am adept at self-deception.  One mile at a time, just 37 times.

In an effort to quell my nerves I made a list of things to do in the morning.  I was going to have to get up at 5am which is a time of the morning when my brain operates at about 20% efficiency.  The list included things like “put clothes on” and “leave the house”. 

After working out how to switch off all of the three alarms I had set the night before, I dutifully went through all the items on the list and set off into the murky gloom of the morning.  And after a sleepy drive up to the town of Sowerby Bridge I registered and had my kit checked.  As usual I stood around at the start feeling vaguely uncomfortable in the presence of all these “proper” runners.  I was fidgeting nervously with my kit and trying not to think about the miles ahead.  



With very little fuss we were sent on our way.  I always feel rubbish in the first few miles of most runs so I settled in to a slow plod up the road to the first checkpoint at Nab End.  There were a few patches of snow and some muddy bits that were to hint at the troubles ahead.  On the steep descent into Cragg Vale my feet were already soaked as I trudged through the first proper bog of the day. 

The hill up past Hoo Hole to Broad Head was hard, I mean really hard.  My legs felt leaden and I couldn’t get air into my lungs quick enough.  Less than five miles into an ultra and I was already thinking about sitting down.  If there were many more steep hills like this one it was going to be a very long day.  My head was spinning and it was too hot but the next checkpoint came along quickly.




The run up to Stoodley Pike was mostly good running with a short, sharp hike up to the monument.  But the seeds of doubt had been sown on that last hill.  I started to think that I had bitten off more than I could chew.  If the distance wasn’t going to get me then the hills surely would.  I started to think I simply was not fit enough for this endeavour.  The monument on Stoodley Pike is a gargantuan of a thing and on a more relaxed day I would have loved to have spent some more time there taking photos.  But onwards, I made my way down to the busy checkpoint in Lumbutts.  I enjoyed the steep descent and even managed to overtake a few runners.  Whilst I am no Kenny Stuart I am a pretty good descender and these glimmers of aptitude gave me a small measure of hope.

A beautiful wooded trail gave way to a road leading into Todmorden and then onto the steep path up to the next checkpoint at a golf course.  It was very hot and I was glad to get a refill of my water and then headed off up to higher and cooler ground.  I was struggling to get into any sort of rhythm due to the patches of snow and mud.  I could see the runners in front of me disappear off into the distance whilst I slogged and plodded along.  I was getting annoyed because a lot of this trail should have been easily runable but I was constantly being reduced to a slow march.



I started to think up excuses for me to stop.  What would I say at the checkpoint that wouldn’t make me seem like a complete wimp?  Could I fake a knee injury, a hamstring pull; anything but saying “I am a failure and I cannot continue running because it is too hard”.  Whilst mulling over these desperate hardships I soon realised that I had not been paying attention to where I was.  I couldn’t see any runners in the distance.  Damn. Was I lost?  I decided to keep moving west; I would hit a road sooner or later and from there it would be easy to find the checkpoint at Mount Cross.  As it happened, I turned a corner and there was the checkpoint.  I was on the right track after all.

From reading the previous year’s race reports I knew that the next section of the route was potentially going to be the hardest.  The hike up to Hoof Stones Height was not too bad but it was only a calm before the horrors to come. Oh, the horrors.  You see, there is no path along the top of the moor just a long myriad of tussocks and bogs.  The terrain was relentless and seemingly endless.  I don’t know how anyone can run over this stuff.  With every step the peaty earth tried to hang on to each tired leg.  After a small aeon in the age of man the bog finally came to an end and mercifully, the path became a beautifully mud-free well trodden track.  I felt like sinking to my knees and kissing the dry ground. 

Unfortunately, the horror bog had taken its toll.  I had turned my ankle up on the moor and as I ran down to Widdop Reservoir things were not looking good.  Every time my foot landed at a certain angle on the uneven surface of the path it became a burning ball of pain.  This discomfort would dissipate after a couple of minutes and then flare up again whenever my foot landed awkwardly.  I won’t lie; there was part of me that thought this was the perfect excuse to give up.  I had a proper injury now but I still couldn’t bring myself to say the words: “I give up”.  Somehow I managed to box that thought away in a dark corner of my mind whilst trying to convince myself that the worst of the hills and bogs were over.

From the checkpoint at Widdop I left feeling refreshed.  The tarmac road gave my ankle a bit of a rest and I was soon past the Walshaw Dean reservoirs and on up to Top Withins.  I felt pretty good and was glad of the flagstones that paved the way up to the ruins at the top.  I could hear a fellow runner swearing and grunting behind me all the way up.  I’m not one to usually take solace in another’s misfortune but I was glad that I wasn’t quite at the sweary grunting phase.  That would come later.

On the way down my ankle started playing up again.  I was getting frustrated.  The descents were where I was meant to be making time.  Instead, I was hobbling down at barely more than a jog.  I could see other runners disappearing off into the distance and midway along the Millennium Way path I had had enough.  My spirit was crushed.  I made the decision that at the next checkpoint at Tom Sells Seat I would take as much time as I needed to rest and gather myself.



As I approached the checkpoint the rain started coming down and the wind picked up.  I quickly donned a jacket and gloves, gulped down a couple of painkillers and headed off into the gloom with a big handful of jelly beans.  I started to feel a bit better.  The painkillers were helping with the ankle and the warmth of an extra layer made me feel good.  I’ve always liked running in the rain and the pattering of the droplets on my coat made me smile.  This was much more better.

It was a good hike up to Top of Stairs.  I even managed to overtake a few runners and felt pretty strong.  Apart from the ankle my legs felt good. 

At the top there were various snow drifts to contend with which slowed everything down and filled my shoes with ice cold melt water.  No sooner as I was through the snow, the route dropped down to the next checkpoint at the Grain Water Bridge where I stocked up on custard creams and squelched off up the valley towards New Bridge.  Subconsciously, I had the notion that if I managed to get to New Bridge I would have a good chance of finishing.  Invigorated by this thought I was quickly at the next checkpoint where I was given a warm cup of sweet tea.  This was very necessary as I knew that the next climb was going to be tough. 

The steep climb up to Delf End Farm really started to take the wind out of my sails.  I wheezed my way up to the checkpoint by which point a group of about six lads passed me on the final ascent over Low Brown Knoll.  I knew I was going to get to the finish but my pace was slowing.

At the top of the knoll I was confronted with yet more bog.  I started to get cross.  This was perfectly good, runable terrain being hopelessly spoilt by ankle deep mud.  Seriously, I would have been quicker in a canoe.  My foot was hurting again and I was getting cold.  Really cross now.  Humph.

With wet, cold feet I saw my escape route: a small path leading down towards The Lowe Farm.  Down through the farm I found a road which would hopefully lead me to the checkpoint at Jerusalem Farm.  From now on it was all road-running.  No more bogs. Wahey.

After leaving Jerusalem Farm I suddenly started to worry that I might finish in last place.  Silly really, since my goal was always just to complete the 37 miles.  I had no notion of competing with anyone but myself.  But pride got the better of me and I focused on quickening my stride and soon enough passed an ailing runner.  Now all I had to do was keep my form and run strongly to the finish.  Easier said than done, I was running well but tiring quickly.  Not a whole lot left in the tank.

Soon enough I found myself at the last checkpoint and made an important route choice.  I saw the group of runners who had passed me near Delf End take the path along the north side of the canal.  I decided to follow my planned route and follow the train line past an old scrap yard and on to the final sting in the tail.  The climb back into Sowerby Bridge was cruel.  I could see the church at the top of the hill but the climb was steep and had me stopping on a few occasions to fill my lungs with the damp air.  I knew that my choice of route along the canal had gained me a few places and I wanted to keep it that way.  But I was spent.  Just keep going.



Mercifully, the road levelled out and I knew I was going to make it.  Past the church and down towards the Cricket Club.  My legs were screaming but I was intent on enjoying these last few metres.  I kept thinking, “well bloody done, boyo”.  With as little fanfare as the start of the race I took the final few steps into the Pavilion, handed in my tally and looked for the nearest empty seat to collapse into.

I sat there for an age.  Someone commented that I looked very thoughtful but in fact it was the opposite.  My mind had gone blank; if anything I was thought less.  I had been concentrating on continuous forward motion for so long my mind was having trouble readjusting to the real world.  I slowly came to and realised I was cold and damp to the core.  I changed into some warm, dry clothes and wolfed down a large helping of baked potato and cheesy chilli con carne all washed down with a cup of sweet tea.

After 9 hrs and 6 minutes of walking and running I felt amazing.  This is what it’s all for. 

Have to say a big thank you to the race organisers.  Everyone was very friendly and if it wasn’t for the kindly support from the checkpoint marshals I don’t think I would have got round.

Monday, 19 December 2011

On The Raggedy Edge

It seems that I’m a bit shit at blogging. I know I promised to update this much more often but the truth is that when everything is going well I struggle to write it down. Now, give me something to complain about and I’ll scribble a thousand words in under an hour. When everything is going well it just seems so very boastful. I guess it’s my blog though so I can be a bit smug. So, here goes. I am fitter than I’ve ever been. I am thinner than I’ve been since I was in my teens. I feel stronger, faster than ever and dare I say it, much more content than I’ve been in a few years. That’s it. It’s all good.

There are some serious reasons for this. I have followed my training plan very consistently and have treated rest and easy runs with much greater respect. It hasn’t been perfect. I have missed some runs but most importantly I haven’t tried to play catch up with the miles I have missed. In my opinion, the reason I haven’t gotten all injured again is because of the training plan. I devised this plan with help from information in Bryon Powell’s book Relentless Forward Progress. I incorporated rest weeks and made sure that the weekly mileage increase did not exceed 10%. And I think that's the key, building up slowly.

Not so long ago I couldn’t run a mile and had to take a month off from doing any serious exercise. It was a real low point and gave me doubts that I could ever reach my dream of doing an ultra. It was a wake-up call that this was going to be different to how I had imagined it. I was not going to be a natural runner. I would not easily become one of these whippet like distance runners, bounding up mountains without breaking a sweat. This was going to require thought, planning and determined application. This was going to need a huge amount of effort just to move me from injury ridden to consistent. Above all, this was going to require time. Patience is the key.

With those thoughts I got my head down and put in the miles. I have come out of that with a renewed sense of optimism and most importantly, I still enjoy running. Of course, I’m still bloody rubbish at it but I don’t feel like I am playing catch up between where I am and where I should be.

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Today, I ran eight miles over the hills around Conwy through driving rain and heavy clag. I had chosen to wear shorts which was a bit silly in December but I was alright. The coastal winds kept blowing one foot into the other and tripping me towards a precarious drop down to Dwygyfylchi. Aborting the exposed coastal path, I decided to run inland towards the shrouded bulk of Tal-y-Fan. As I climbed higher I lost myself in the thick clag and ran in a big pointless loop as I tried to look for the right path. I stopped to look at the map and compass. I was cold. It was time to go home. Any ambitious thoughts of trotting up to the summit were put to bed. I was craving lashings of hot soup and bread, not to mention a sit down. The compass was pointing me in a general down direction (which is handy when looking for an estuary) and soon I found a road I knew. With boots full of boggy water I sloshed the rest of the way back home. After bashing the sheep shit from my shoes I had a shower and ate until I couldn’t move. Lying on the sofa now, I can see hints of blue sky through the window.

Through the cold and the wet; the tiredness and genuine fear of peril, I loved every minute of it. I think it’s the ridiculousness of the situation that I enjoy. Running round aimlessly beneath a small mountain, cold, lost and practically underwater; laughing like a buffoon when I found the right path. I do this for fun. So do lots of people. I just wonder why. I hope no one finds out.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Now Running Without Knees

First of all, some good news: my knee seems to be totally better. I thought that I would get a bit geeky and write down exactly how I got better. By doing this I’ll know how to recover if I get a recurrence of the problem.

Rehab

Since having a whole two weeks off from running I have been teaching myself to run slowly. This is more difficult than it might sound especially because I run pretty slowly anyway. But, I have been focussing on running at a very easy pace. My lungs and heart get stronger much more quickly than my legs so if my heart rate is too high on every run then it’s a pretty sure thing that my legs will soon break down. The five weeks of rehab went like the following:

This low mileage was accompanied by lots of stretching. I also did some gentle physiotherapy on the knee every day. The last run of the rehab block was a strength test to see if the knee was better. I went for a 5 mile fell run up and around Foel Lus. It was hard work and there was a lot of walking but my knee passed its first test with flying colours. It was time for my next stage of training.

Strength

During this phase of training I focussed on strength. This meant leg exercises targeting the knee ligaments and the quadriceps muscles. I slowly increased the amount of hill work and fell running. I also ran with a weighted backpack to increase effort level. All of this, while keeping the pace very slow. The mileage was as follows:

I got a slight twinge in my left calf that got worse during the second week so I backed off a bit. However, on the whole my legs felt pretty good during this phase. Most importantly there was absolutely no tweaks or twinges from the dreaded knee. Touch wood, I am better. The next phase is the “Base Phase”. This is where I will increase my weekly mileage from 30 to 40 miles over a period of six weeks. The emphasis here will be on long runs for endurance and fell runs for strength. I’m staying away from all that speed work/tempo nonsense for now.

I’ve lost a little weight which is handy but my diet is all over the place. I am not eating enough healthy stuff, vegetables and the like. This will need to be changed when I up the mileage.

Since becoming injured the goal of completing the Snowdonia Marathon was replaced by the goal of getting healthy again. Now that I’m relatively injury free I need to start deciding on some new racing goals. It was always my goal to start doing fell racing this year but I never quite felt I was fit enough or experienced enough over that sort of terrain. Whilst I have enjoyed training on the fells I was never race fit, especially on the ascents. As soon as felt that I was close I was always knocked back by some injury or health problem. Story of the year really.

So, the short term goal is to get fit enough to start feeling truly comfortable on the fells. This will give me the confidence to start doing some races next season.

My long term goal is to complete the Malvern Hills Ultra next May. This 52 mile race across the Malvern Hills will be my first (hopefully, of many) ultra marathons. I have been fascinated by the idea of doing an ultra marathon ever since I started running. I will never run a super fast 10k or a sub 3 hour marathon; speed is certainly not my forte. But maybe, with a bit of bloody mindedness, I may be able to find out what my limits are in terms of distance.

So, there you have it. That’s how I got better and that’s what I’ll be up to next year. I’ll try and update this thingy a bit more often now that things are a bit more, you know, shiny.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

It's Not All Bad

Right then. It’s all gone to buggery over the past month and a half. I am not going to be able to run the Snowdonia Marathon. This is not bad luck and although it is my body that has broken, it is my mind that allowed it to. Once again, I am painfully reminded that I have to do better to be better.

In my last post I diagnosed the problem and offered solutions. These solutions still stand but I was way off on my time frame for recovery. I immediately took a week off from training and then set out on a slow six mile run. This almost crippled me. So, I thought, I’ll take another week off. I then went out for a very slow run only to be confronted with the same pain. I had to admit to myself then that the recovery time for this was going to be much longer. The 20 milers in the pipeline for September and early October were simply not going to be possible. As a result neither would running a marathon be sensible.

I have to be pragmatic. There will be plenty more marathons to run and Snowdon certainly isn’t going anywhere. The focus is on getting my knee back to strength. I prescribed two whole weeks free from any running and then two more weeks of very small amounts with plenty of rest periods, stretching and physiotherapy. I amapproaching the end of this month of rehab and despite being less fit than my sofa, I have been moving without any pain or discomfort.

The dreaded training plan spreadsheet and Garmin watch have made their return. I am using the Garmin to make sure that I am not running too fast. I also want to track and monitor my progress to ensure that any successes and mistakes are clearly identified. I have used the spreadsheet to make sure that my weekly mileage increases sensibly. By calculating the percentage increase from one week to the next I can make sure that this doesn’t exceed 10%. This will mean I can build up my base fitness whilst trying to keep the knee problem in check. Every four weeks or so, I have set ‘easy weeks’ where the mileage and effort level are decreased. The emphasis on the first part of my training is rest. My focus is always running up something or on the longer runs. I have a habit of not doing some of the shorter recovery runs as I find them boring. This has to change. I am using a heart rate monitor to make sure that my effort level in these recovery runs is kept down. There is no such thing as over training, just under resting.

Once again, failure is met with a plan. Just got to dust myself off and carry on running. I hate the fact that I have to reintroduce science, plans and schedules back into my running. I don’t run because I want to follow a plan. I run because I enjoy it. It’s horrible to be confined by all that nonsense. However, it’s the only way to get back to health without making the same mistakes as before. Once I get the fitness and strength back in my legs I might feel confident enough to ditch all the science stuff.

I have bigger and better plans for next year which I’ll talk about later. Nevertheless, I have to get healthy and strong if those dreams are going to be realised.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

PFPS, FFS.

I haven’t blogged in a while. This is because nothing too exciting has happened. I have been putting in the miles and trying to look after my runner’s knee. This is generally what happens:

1. I go out running.

2. My legs feel great. I feel great. I love running.

3. After 4 or 5 miles my knee starts to become uncomfortable.

4. After 7 miles I start to worry and fret that the pain is constantly getting worse.

5. I think about stopping and seeking alternative transport or shorter routes home.

6. I realise that I’m running in the middle of nowhere. There is no escape route.

7. After 10 miles the pain is particular acute on any ascent and I am reduced to walking on even the slightest up hill.

8. After 12 miles the pain is so constant that I am reduced to hobbling along paths and pavements, being overtaken by pensioners and small children.

9. I stop running. Eat. Work. Rest. Sleep.

10. I wake up the next morning feeling refreshed with no pain in my knee.

11. I go out running. See point 2 and repeat.

This is the process which I go through almost daily depending on the mileage and the amount of hills. I have been running mainly on the flat and as a consequence most of it has been on roads and pavements. This is pleasant but boring. I would much prefer to be up a mountain or lost in some maze of valleys somewhere. What’s even more annoying is that (apart from the knee) I feel fitter than ever. It is just this one problem that needs sorting out. This is me, sorting it out.

OK. PFPS (patellofemoral pain syndrome or runner’s knee) is characterised by discomfort seemingly originating from the contact of the posterior surface of the patella (back of the kneecap) with the femur (thigh bone). The prolonged, repetitive compression on the joint causes pain and will eventually lead to the thinning and softening of the cartilage beneath the patella (I looked that up on Wikipedia to sound ‘knowledgeable’). Here are some of the problems and their possible solutions.

Problem: Overtraining or overreaching.

Solution: Physically and mentally I feel great so I don’t think I’m overreaching. It is only the left knee that is a problem and my legs feel pretty fresh even after a long run. However, the knee is clearly getting a lot of use and since PFPS is an overuse injury the obvious solution would be to use it less. Since I am training for a marathon this is not really an option. And besides, this would only be treating the symptom rather than the cause. As soon as I would increase the mileage the problem would arise again. However, I have been putting in some high mileage runs recently so it might be wise to do low mileage for a week or so to see if I can shrug this off.

Problem: Weak quadriceps.

Solution: I favour my right foot and as a result the muscles on my left leg (which is where the trouble is) are less strong. The quadriceps which hold the patella in place are responsible for making sure that it is aligned correctly during the bending and straightening of the leg. As the quadriceps muscles tire through distance or hills the alignment of the patella becomes squiffy and pain is felt. The obvious solution is to isolate and strengthen the quadriceps muscles on the left leg to correct this imbalance. It would also be a good idea to strengthen the core muscles to assist the quadriceps during running.

Problem: Tight hamstring and calf muscles.

Solution: I often find that the pain follows a tightening of my left calf muscle and that during the pain all the muscles on the back of my leg feel very tight. Now, I am rubbish at stretching. I don’t stretch for long enough or often enough. I am hoping that proper stretching will aid in this recovery.

Problem: Too much force on the knee as a result of being overweight and having a lack of cushioning on my shoes.

Solution: I am slightly too fat to be running. I could do with losing another stone. My weight is slowly coming down as I increase the mileage. I just have to be patient and eat less cake.

My shoes are about 450 miles old and I have just checked them over to find that they have almost no cushioning left in them. It’s a bit silly of me not to check these sooner. The same problem occurred at the end of my last pair of shoes (same brand). So I have changed to my other pair of running shoes which are pretty much unused. I stopped using them ages ago because, like a lot of Asics shoes, there’s this little ridge on the insole that always causes me blisters after about 4 miles (something you can never find out in the shop just before letting go of £80). This annoyed me because, other than that, they are a very comfortable shoe. I suddenly had a brain wave (should of thought of this sooner!) and decided to cut out the offending ridge. This has left the shoes a little airy and not very waterproof but should stop any offending blistering. We shall see. If it doesn’t work then I’ll just have to shell out for a new set of Brooks.

Problem: Overpronation.

Solution: I overpronate quite badly and rely on shoes to correct this. The observations made in the previous section hold true here as well. My old shoes were not giving me the correct level of anti pronation. New shoes will hopefully correct this.

Going through all these points has been a bit of a wakeup call to me. As ever, injuries are not ‘acts of God’ and there is always a reason or reasons as to why. Unfortunately, it takes me a while to suss out the reasons because I am stubborn and occasionally moronic when it comes to these matters. I have been running by feel, doing as much or as little as I want day by day. In terms of mileage and the quality of my running this has worked pretty well. However, as a consequence, I have been stupidly neglecting the basics. I forgot that I need to “understand the holistic nature of being a runner” (Lore of Running, Noakes). This means that in training to run one needs to train the whole system in every aspect of one’s life. Now, I’m not going to become totally obsessed but approaching more aspects of the whole system will help me here.

On the plus side I am really enjoying my running, especially the long runs. Despite the knee, I am getting fitter and stronger. If I can get rid of this injury then I feel confident in my ability to run much further. So, in conclusion, the following steps should lead to recovery:

1. Lower mileage for 7-10 days. Nothing over ten miles.

2. Change to new shoes with better cushioning.

3. Strengthen core and left quadriceps.

4. Stretch the left hamstring and calf muscles properly and regularly.

5. Wear my knee support whilst recovering.

I am sorry that this post has been boring and if you’ve stuck with it this far then you have too much time on your hands. I like to make lists when I problem solve. I think it’s a blokey thing. Incidentally, I am designing a cake holder for running. It’s like one of those funny little gel holders but for cake. Iced buns and scones seem to work well but jam donuts are a definite no-no for obvious reasons. I think I might actually be gaining weight during my long runs.