Sunday, 14 October 2012

A spiritual experience?

Despite already running 3 races this year, I decided I wanted to squeeze in another before the season was over.  I couldn't run the Trail des Aiguilles Rouges with Nikki due to work commitments (I had vowed never to run it again last year anyway!), so after scouring the UTMB qualification list I picked Les Défis du Jubilé.  This race in Switzerland was only an hour's drive from home, covered an area I'd never run before and allowed you to pick your own distance between 7 and 71km.  I was really up for trying to increase my longest distance to date so it sounded perfect, plus the race date coincided with the 7th anniversary of my Dad's death and it seemed like a fitting tribute to the man that first got me into running.  Unusually for UTMB points races it was also surprisingly cheap and easy to enter, not requiring sign-up months in advance, so Nikki's boyfriend Alan also signed up less than a week beforehand.

As race-day approached, I felt unprepared and somewhat concerned - I had never run that far before, training had been less than optimal and I had been trying to ignore suspected plantar fasciitis in my left foot.  It had been 2 months since my last race and during that time I had done a couple of decent bike rides but only 2 runs of 20km+, everything else had been short and sweet.  Holidays had meant a lot of eating & drinking (to the tune of a couple of kg) and the week of the race was spent fighting off a nasty cold and stomach bug, so I wasn't sure I'd even make the start line.  However with a couple of days to go I felt well enough to run and, knowing I could bail out easily along the way, I decided  to give it a go.

Alan and I drove over on the morning of the race, catching 3 deer and a badger in the headlights en route.  We made good time to the start at the Abbey in St Maurice, picking up our race numbers (mine was 313 and 13 is my lucky number so an excellent omen I felt!) and rather unusually collecting our medal in advance.  We passed on the option of a commemorative cross to display the medals in, but made sure we had the required map and directions, listened to the pre-race spiel, packed our bags and headed for the start line.  I knew the race was somewhat religious as it followed a route called the 'chemins biblique', with each stage or 'défi' ending at a church, but I have to admit I wasn't expecting the blessing we received from the local priest at the start!

At 7am it was still dark, but we opted not to carry torches as we knew they'd only be required for a short time.  As we headed up the steep woodland path it was tricky to find your feet unless you were lucky enough to be next to someone with a torch, but even then the fallen autumn leaves were slippery after the recent heavy rainfall.  I tried a couple of "let their be light"s to the gods above, but nothing happened!  The short climb soon opened out onto a meadow path and the sky started brightening into the clear, autumn day that we had been promised.  We were treated to snapshots of mountains in the distance as we wound our way up to the first control in Verossaz at 1hr, where they served gorgeous spiced tea.  We headed uphill and into a forest, traversing the hillside and passing numerous waterfalls, to the next control at 2hr in Mex, where I was disappointed to find chocolate was the only snack on offer.

From there there was a steep, slippery descent and I was glad I had decided to carry my poles as they kept me upright on a number of occasions.  The descent eventually bottomed out at control 3 in Evionnaz, where again there were no savoury snacks, only sweet.  I was really starting to crave salt at this point and stupidly was not carrying anything savoury in my bag.  I had decided not to carry too many snacks on this race after my last race, where the food was excellent and I had got to the finish carrying almost all the food I had started with!  I quickly texted Andy to make sure he brought emergency supplies with him to the half-way point and popped a couple of ibuprofen to try and stop my foot from hurting, which was now starting to nag.

After Evionnaz there was a horrible long, flat section, mainly on tarmac.  Less than 20km in and already my feet were not liking the amount of tarmac I was having to cover in my trail shoes.  My legs don't like flat/road-running much and I had to stop for a stretch to ease my tightening muscles.  My stomach was also unhappy with the amount of sugary fuel I was putting into it and was uncomfortably bloated, yet at the same time I felt like I was starting to flag, which is never a good combination with many of hours of running still to go.  We headed upwards on a winding forest path, which finally spat us out onto the road into picturesque Salvan.  At 4hrs it felt like things were changing for the better.  We basked in the sun for the first time, meaning I could remove my gloves, and they had some delicious local cheese and bread at the control, which satisfied my need for something savoury.  My ipod also started playing Ben Howard's "Keep your head up", which made me think of my dear old dad and despite choking up, it really spurred me on.
The beautiful alpine scenery continued, through woodland, via the pretty villages of Marecottes and Tretien and along another stretch of road to the half-way control at Finhaut.  Here I was overjoyed to be met by Andy & Leila with an emergency supply of TUC biscuits and cashew nuts.  The food at the controls had improved, but I still guzzled both and stuffed some biscuits into my bag, swapping them for a couple of other things that I wasn't going to need.  Knowing I was half-way was very motivational and that plus the sunshine and seeing my loved ones really lifted my spirits and helped me to carry on.  I could have done with my emergency back-up bag however, which Andy left at home.  Mental note - remember to buy small tub of Vaseline for next race!

The steep descent out of Finhaut was not much fun, with lots of mud and slippery leaves on the rocks.  This took us down to the bottom of a deep gorge, where we mud-slid across a couple of bridges before ascending equally as steeply.  The path exited the forest onto the busy pavement-less road at la Tête Noire, on the route between France & Switzerland that I know well, so I made sure I got off the road as fast as I could.  The next section followed a pleasant forest path, winding round the side of a mountain for several km.  The control at La Crêtaz was in a beautiful setting with stunning scenery and views back down to the valley below.  It was manned by some friendly people and I stopped for a chat, knowing I was bang-on my target time and not too pressured to get moving.  The one cut-off I had to make was at the 9hr mark, where you could be stopped from doing the extra circuit which extended the route to 2 points rather than 1.  At 7hr15 I knew I had enough time to make it, bar any disasters.  I was also enjoying the fact that I could now predict my finish time to be approx. 11hrs and counting down how few hours I had left rather than being overwhelmed by the previous enormity of the task made the hours go more quickly.

The next descent was pretty steady until Gueuroz, where it suddenly steepened.  I had been following a guy for some time, who was clearly getting annoyed at having a girl on his tail, but he suddenly disappeared and I never saw him again.  It was steep and tricky going at the time and I am more inclined to think he went the wrong way rather than sped off.  The route markers were generally good, but every now and then they were not quite frequent enough and it was easy to think you had gone the wrong way.  At the control in Vernayaz, the food got worse again, with only apples, oranges and chocolate on offer, although the quality of the chocolate was improving!  There was a short 2km to the next, all-important control in Dorenaz, but as it was all on flat tarmac it really dragged on.  I made the cut-off with over 30mins to spare, but I'd overtaken a few people on that last stretch and didn't want to let them get past me so cracked straight on.  I knew I was slow, but I was determined not to be last.

The next few km of this optional part of the route headed straight up a steep hill and straight back down again.  I struggled with the uphill as I was really running out of energy but couldn't face any more energy drink.  I necked my only gel of the day in the hope that it would give me a boost and made it up the hill in one piece, somewhat faster than I expected given the amount of stops I made.  At the top they stapled a piece of ribbon to your race number as proof that you had done the extra 'boucle'.  I didn't hang around because there were no interesting snacks on offer and the volunteers were smoking like chimneys in their little hut, not what you want to breathe in after 9+hrs of running!  Plus the old guy behind me had caught up again and I needed to get away.  The descent was steep, with a few more sections of tarmac, but I made it to the final control in just under 10hrs.  Here I had done my maths wrong and thought there was only 7kms to go when in fact I was informed it was 10.5kms to the finish.  Definitely not music to my ears.

The final 10km went on forever.  It was flat, mainly on tarmac and my body just didn't have anything left to give.  I treated myself to short walks every now and then but was annoyed because it would push me over 11hrs.  Finally I could see the abbey at St Maurice in the distance and I knew I was going to make it.  I crossed the finish line in 11hrs05 with Alan waiting to greet me and promptly stuffed my face with the complementary raclette on offer.  I could not believe I had done it - 71kms and not a single blister, woo hoo!  Alan didn't do the extra section due to problems with his knees, not wanting to jeopardise his trip to Mt Kilimanjaro next weekend , but had still completed 68km in an excellent time of 8.5 hours.

It was a bit of a strange race.  If you drop out along the way you are still seen to have finished the previous stage, you could stop and start at numerous points along the way, hike it as a family rather than running and technically take as long as you want if you don't want to do it in just one day.  The biblical route was marked with scenes from the bible.  There were certainly a few people I met along the way that looked like they had never run before and yet were convinced they could go the whole 71km - maybe purely down to the strength of their beliefs?!  Fair play to them.

Bar the usual aches and pains following a hilly run, mainly sore quads from the descents, all was well afterwards (update day 2 - not sure I will make it down stairs/out of the house today!).  My left foot was pretty sore, but not as bad as expected.  I didn't enjoy the amount of tarmac-pounding involved and feel like I ran a road marathon in trail shoes, but apart from that it was a lovely route, particularly up in the hills and villages.  I am so chuffed that I managed to go the full distance, that I kept going when I was feeling rough and that my time was not disgraceful.  I think my dad would have been very proud.  However, I have to admit that I really missed the social aspect that I get from running these days.  My last few races have been run with friends and running alone felt, well, lonely.  It confirmed that the CCC is within my reach next year, but I am so glad not to be doing it alone.  I am sure you agree Nikki Barnard!

For now I am going to take it easy, have a few weeks off running and get my sore foot seen to.  It's been a busy summer and I need to get my body strong enough to tackle next year.  That means cross-training for the next few months, to stop talking about strength and core training and actually make it a habit and equally important, to have a rest.  Plus I turn 40 in a few weeks time, so the perfect excuse to hit the cake and wine for a bit.  Hoorah to that!

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Wheels in motion

It's been a while since my last post, so what have I been up to?  Well you'd be correct if you're thinking not very much training, but then not resting on my laurels either.

Recovery after Ticino was suprisingly good, but I didn't do any real running for a while and took to 2 wheels instead.  I bought myself a road bike this summer and although I haven't managed to do as much as I'd have liked, I've loved what I have done.  Running is great, but on a bike you can cover so much more distance in a short space of time, so it's a very time-efficient form of exercise.  The only problem with biking in Chamonix is that you have to go up and down big hills to get out of the valley.

The weekend after the race, Nikki and I drove to Lake Passy (to avoid the initial hill!) and set off towards Cluses on a fairly straight and flat road.  From there we made the 400m ascent to Chatillon and down to Taninges.  I really wanted to take it easy so soon after the race, so we took another straight, flat road down the valley to Morillon.  It was a hot, sunny morning and after 35km we were starving.  Not expecting to find much, we were over the moon to discover a van selling roast chickens and a bakery opposite.  Cue rustic chicken baguettes smothered with hot jus, perfect!  Nicely stuffed, we made our way back to Passy and treated ourselves to coke, ice lollies and a paddle in the lake.  70km in total and we had barely passed lunchtime.

The following weekend we were keen to get out on the bikes again, this time to hook up with other local bikers and take part in the 'one day, one col' series.  The Haute-Savoie tourist board decided it would be a good idea to close specific cols to motorised vehicles on set days this summer, to enable bikers to have a go at the cols, unhindered by other traffic.  And what a great idea it was.  We met up with a few friends in Taninges and warmed up while heading out towards Mieussy, where the event started and numerous other bikers had gathered, of all shapes and sizes.  The road headed straight up from there and there was really very little let-up for the next 16km and 1000m of ascent.  I thought I was a pretty good climber on my bike, but I found myself really lagging behind our crowd.  It was not too steep to start with, but the climb was relentless, zig-zagging back and forth with little shade and temperature in the 30s.  I tried to stop during a section in a tunnel but it was so steep that I had to work really hard not to roll backwards, clinging onto a post for dear life!  There were a couple of drinks stations en route and the chance to stop at the turn off to the Sommand ski area, where I have skied before.  From there I recognized the road as the cross-country ski route in the winter.  The final section was a little less steep and finally the road reached the Col de la Ramaz at 1619m, with amazing views of Mont Blanc in the distance.  At the top there was a great party atmosphere, with music, drinks and nibbles and a bike demonstration, all laid on for free.

It was a boiling hot day, but despite this some of the group headed off to tackle another Col.  One was more than enough for me, but even the planned cycle on to Les Gets felt so hard in that heat and I got really grumpy when the not very hard final ascent seemed to go on forever.  Luckily there were chips and coke to be had in Les Gets and we had a long, lazy lunch in the shade, talking nonsense and making new friends.  As a newbie to the road-biking thing, it was great to spend time with other people that seem relatively normal, and who see the need to indulge in a plate of lard after punishing themselves.

The last weekend in August saw the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc wagon rolling into town.  The UTMB celebrated it's 10th birthday this year and has grown into a huge international event with runners from over 40 countries taking part.  It is made up of 4 races - the 166km UTMB, the 109km TDS, the 98km CCC and the team-based 300km PTL.  The event has been hampered by attrocious weather for the last 2 years and this year continued in the same vein.  The organisers got a lot of stick in the past for poor communication during bad weather years, when they had no choice but to delay start times, vary routes and on one occasion cancel the race once it had already started.  But being part of the team of volunteers and knowing how quickly conditions can change here, I do sympathise with the organisers and appreciate how tough some of those decisions have been.  It's not easy to implement a new route at the last minute and rearrange all the back-up support that goes with it.  Waiting until the weather clears is not an option either when people have flown in from all over the globe.  And despite random kit checks, I have seen how poorly prepared some of the runners are, which still baffles me!  This year the TDS was the only race that ran it's original route, with runners having to endure over 30 hours of wind, rain and sub-zero temperatures, hence the 57% drop-out rate.  The UTMB was changed to 100km, staying below 2000m, which must have been gutting for those that had trained hard for several years, just to even qualify to run it.  I had a great weekend though and saw many good friends finish their races, met some lovely people during my time as a volunteer, got to nose through people's kit, got some useful tips and cried my eyes out over some very emotional finishes.  I cannot wait till next year when Nikki and I have a place in the CCC!

As another fabulous summer of running nears an end, I should be preparing for my final race, the odd-looking Defis du Jublie on 13th October:  To be honest I have done very little running since the Ticino, only 1 run of 20km, lots of boozing and lazy holidays and with so much going on at work at the moment I'm not sure if my visions of running 71km are slightly over-enthusiastic, but I am going to give it my best shot.  The race itself is split into 8 sections and you can bail out at any point, which could be a good or bad thing, too easy to bail if the going gets tough?  Can I do it?  Watch this space.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Ticino Trail - love at first sight

My friend Nikki & I have secured places in the North Face CCC next year, the 100km little sister of the UTMB, despite having never run further than 50km.  So this year we thought we'd better give it a go and a combination of dates, distance, difficulty and locality brought us to the brand new Ticino Trail in Switzerland: a 2-point qualifying race of 58km with 4480m ascent and 4000m descent.  We often train together and are intending to run the CCC as a team so not only would this test our endurance, but give us practice at racing together and running at night.  The race was only 5 weeks after the Chamonix Marathon, so recovery from that only allowed a couple of weeks of additional training before another short taper.  We did 20km 2 weeks after the marathon and it felt hard.  The following weekend I ran with friends over the course of the 30km Petit Trail des Fiz and it nearly killed me.  My left heel really hurt on the ascents and right knee on the descents, so I was in pain most of the time.  I found it so tough and it really scared me that just 2 weeks later I was due to be doubling the distance and ascent.  Nikki ran with another friend that weekend too and also had a pretty rough time.  Did we really have it in us to do an ultra, albeit quite a short one?  Had we bitten off more than we could chew, trying to squeeze in too much this summer?  How would we cope running together the whole way, particularly if either or both of us was struggling from one of our many ailments?

There was only one way to find out, so on Friday 3rd August we headed off towards Switzerland along with my long-suffering, super-supportive husband Andy, trusty dog Leila and enough kit & trail snacks to clothe and feed a small army.  The journey there alone was quite a mission, travelling through French-speaking, to German-speaking, to Italian-speaking Switzerland, zig-zagging up and over the 2500m Furkapass, into the clouds and onto the San Gottardo pass, then down into the stunning Ticino region.  We were staying near the start in Faido and after checking into the hotel for us girls (and campsite for Andy & the dog!) we headed back to Airolo to pick up our race numbers, only to get stuck in stationary traffic from an earlier accident.  Hungry and hoping for an early night, this was not good!  Nikki phoned the lovely race organiser, Fabio, who confirmed they would wait as long as they could so we (and presumably lots of other people stuck in the same jam) could get our bibs.  She had his number on speed dial that day and he didn't seem to mind!  After an hour we started moving, so we dashed into a service station to get food just in case the traffic stopped again, but luckily we made it to Airolo in time to get our race numbers, along with one of the best pre-race goodie bags I have ever seen: folding cup, cap, drinks bottle, energy snack & powder, anti-inflam gel and a pot of local honey!  We uselessly spoke no Italian, but everyone was trying so hard to speak to us, they were just lovely.  We shovelled down some lasagne and got back to Faido for a later than hoped for 11pm bedtime.

I usually sleep so badly the night before a race, but my new ear-plugs meant I was out like a light and slept right through til 7.30, until a huge clap of thunder woke us both up.  It proceeded to pour down with rain - not a great start to the day - but thankfully soon eased off.  Shower, breakfast, final packing of race bags, a lot of vaseline smothering and we walked through town to the start to join about 100 other runners.  As a new race it's not surprising that it was under-subscribed, but after only ever running races in Chamonix with it's Europop enthusiasm for trail-running, it felt strangely calm and somewhat surreal, more like a group of friends going out for a run rather than an actual race.  We even found ourselves at the front of the start line with no elbows jostling for position.

10am and we were off, through Faido and straight onto an uphill trail.  The weather was warm and hinting at getting hot, but a lot of clouds kept it unpredictable.  The first section covered 14km with 1660m of ascent, through forests and out onto open mountainside to the Leit Hut, where there was a food station and 5hr time barrier.  I try not to stress too much about times, Nikki loves to, but when running in an unknown area it was hard not to.  I barely noticed the first 10km, chatting to Nikki and a few other runners and, although it got a little steeper towards the end of that section, it felt gradual and nothing like what we were used to in Chamonix.  We got to the hut in just 3 hours and were happy, knowing that were were comfortably inside the barrier and thus taking the pressure off.  The food station was manned by 3 lovely guys and 2 friendly dogs and had bananas, chocolate, dried fruit, nuts, local ham and cheese, bread, TUC biscuits, tea, water, coke and energy drink.  We chatted for ages, topped up our hydration packs, force-fed fellow runner Daniel (a complete novice from Germany who had no food in his pack whatsoever) and headed off after about 10 mins as we were starting to get cold.  Arm-warmers were put on (they really are one of the best running accessories) to take the edge off the wind.

From there we headed down a short, bouldered descent, through green meadows, home to the mushroom-coloured local cows, up and over the blowy Campolungo pass and down a rocky then forested trail into the next control point in Fusio at 22km.  We had taken 5 hrs in total, easily under the 8hr time barrier.  The food here was again excellent, the volunteers friendly and toilets plentiful.  As we were about to leave it started raining, light to start with, then a downpour.  We donned our waterproof jackets and headed out into the rain, up a forest trail and across the Lake Sambuco Dam.  Here the course went along the side of the lake for some time, on a tarmac road, which was unexpected and not too enjoyable.  At the end of the lake we headed back onto a grassy trail and started the long 1100m ascent up to the Lake Naret Dam.  There were 5 of us running together at this point and the guy in front of me suddenly slipped and fell on a wet rock.  It looked like he had hurt his wrist as he was holding it, but as I got closer I could see the all too familiar sight of a dislocated shoulder, not too badly out, but out nonetheless.  Having done this to myself 3 times I know what it looks like and how much it hurts!  I immediately started thinking about what the best plan of action would be, when luckily he sat up and his shoulder popped back into place.  There was instant relief on his face.  We checked that he was OK, gave him some ibuprofen and made him stay in front of us so we could keep an eye on him.

The ascent to Lake Naret was lovely, but the rain kept starting and stopping for 5-10min blasts.  This did give us a stunning rainbow at one point, but also made the trail slippery.  I was the first up the ascent, across the dam and into the 34km checkpoint, which was manned by a lovely, friendly young team of volunteers who spoke excellent English.  I chatted and stuffed my face until Nikki arrived, and topped up my hydration pack again with water & Torq powder.  We learned that we had already covered over 3200m of ascent in total, which gave us a real boost.  Daniel arrived and said his stomach was feeling bad - he didn't appear to be eating solids and was surviving on energy drink alone, a receipe for disaster on such a long run in my experience. The shoulder guy also arrived and said his shoulder was hurting - again, not ideal to carry a heavy pack after a recent dislocation, in my experience!  He left the checkpoint before us and we didn't see him again after that, so I have no idea if he finished.  We waited for another downpour to subside then headed out over the second section of this impressive double-dam and up the Naret Pass.  Daniel had a quick vomit on the way up and we suggested that he might want to go back to the control, but he was having none of it and pressed on.

From here the trail traversed across and down a mixture of rock and meadow trails.  The scenery and wildlife was just so stunning - delicate alpine bluebells, deep golden dandelions, huge purple thistles, bright pink mini sweet-williams and vibrant purple and yellow daisies.  We saw cows, birds, hundreds of butterflies, mice, bats, frogs, tadpoles in the tiniest of streams and I very nearly trod on a marmot that darted across the path inches in front of my feet.  The mountains were breathtaking, despite the miserable weather, with mist enveloping the huge peaks, vast valleys and picture-postcard villages nestled here and there.  The descent took a couple of hours and eventually we came onto a road that wound through the village of Bedretto, where we were met by an excited group of young kids that gave us cups of water, very cute.  Through into Villa and the penultimate checkpoint at 9pm, where it was time to put on our head-torches.  More friendly volunteers gave us soup and didn't flinch when I took of my very wet and smelly socks!  I decided to 'treat' myself to a fresh pair for the last 13km - really shouldn't have bothered because a) my shoes were soaking, b) it started pouring again and c) I ran straight into a river soon afterwards.  Great.

As we headed off into the darkness, the weather was pretty miserable, so we were back in waterproofs, the raindrops clearly picked out by our torches.  We initially ran through a flat, grassy meadow, but as the trail headed back into the forest we slowed to a hike and walked the rest of the way.  The route was clearly marked with a combination of florescent paint, stripey tape and reflective markers, so it was easy to find our way in the dark, but too wet and slippery to risk running.  The expected short ascent was not steep but seemed to go on forever (it was actually twice as much as we'd been advised at the checkpoint) and we were willing for the descent to start.  Moths kept flying into my beam and the eyes of cows lit up as we headed through a field, like they were all watching us.  Finally after 2 hours we stumbled into the last checkpoint at the Pescium ski station.  I was keen to keep moving but Nikki was feeling the cold, so we stopped for some more delicious soup.  We joked with one of the volunteers about wanting a beer, he told us he was sorry that Federer was going to beat Murray at the Olympics the next day (oh how wrong he was) and he offered us a choice of about 7 different types of chocolate, brilliant!

Just 4km remained between us and the finish line and we were 13hr20 in.  I was convinced we could crack 14hrs so we dashed off as fast as we could.  However the rain made the steep descent over wet grass and mud really difficult and we slipped and skidded rather than ran, using our poles all the way.  As we entered the outskirts of Airolo, the markers became hard to see, but we kept running along the road and up into the town.  An old lady got very excited when she saw us, trying to give us directions and following us along the road.  Finally the finish came into view and we ran into the finish area to claps and cheers in a time of about 14hrs10mins.  We were ecstatic, had achieved a time we were really pleased with despite our unhurried approach and did not feel nearly half as knackered as I thought we would.

As we ate our bowls of pasta, then had seconds, washed down with a well-earned beer, we saw other runners finish that we had passed along the way, including Daniel, who was over the moon and really grateful to us for helping him.  We sat around and chatted and the enormity of what we had just done started to sink in.  We had not only run further than we had ever run before, a full 10 miles more than a marathon, but covered a lot of ascent & descent, dealt with changeable weather, ran in the dark and kept moving for 14 hours.  Physically our bodies had coped pretty well - our feet were white and wrinkled from being wet for hours, Nikki had an enormous blister on her heel that she hadn't even noticed, my knee felt sore on the descents but my foot hadn't caused me any problems at all, neither had Nikki's dodgy leg.  I certainly didn't feel like I had just run that far.  But perhaps the most pleasing realisation was how we had dealt with things mentally - we made a strong team, we did not run side by side the whole way (I am usually first up the hills, then Nikki 'gazelles' past me on the descents) but we were constantly checking on each other, we made sure each had enough food & water, we listened to each other if one of us wanted to walk, but we also laughed, helped others, drank in the views and basically loved almost every minute of it.  The mental side of endurance running is as, if not more, important than the physical side of things and not once had either of us considered stopping.  That was a huge achievement.

The winner took 7hrs11 (half our time) and the first woman finished in 8hrs 42.  Our main aim was to finish, but not to come last, which we achieved.  Out of the 75 starters in the full distance race, only 5 runners finished, probably due to bad weather, but possibly also due to that lack of entry requirements for this 117km distance, which could encourage less experienced runners to give it a go.  Lizzy Hawker was on the start line for that race and we fully expected her to overtake us at some point!  The Ticino Trail was absolutely beautiful, well-organised, with great terrain, helpful, friendly volunteers and excellently-stocked refreshment stations.  I would absolutely recommend it and really hope for them that it takes off - the fact that they have UTMB qualification points means it surely can't fail.  I definitely hope to return again.  Nikki and I both have additional races planned for this year, but not together, and soon it will be time to start planning for next year and what we want to do to prepare for the CCC.  Ticino was an important milestone for us, proving that we can race together, go beyond 50km, but most of all that we can do that and still enjoy ourselves.  Afterall, isn't that why we do it?

Saturday, 21 July 2012

3rd time lucky

July saw my third attemp at the Chamonix Marathon.  After last year's blistering heat and too-fast start, which saw me running 12 mins slower than the previous year, I said I was taking a year off that race.  Then I went and won a free place in a draw, which I was not allowed to give away, so I couldn't waste it!

The Chamonix marathon was my first ever marathon - not an easy one to start with you might think, with it's 2500m ascent, 1500m descent and finishing at an altitude at 2000m.  But it's where I live and I managed to gradually build up from the hilly half-marathon to full distance over a couple of years.  As with many other races of this ilk, it's got increasingly popular, so when I attempted to enter back in 2010 it was already full 2 months earlier than the previous year.  I continued to train for the event and sneakily managed to swap bibs with another girl who had decided to pull out the day before.  I had no expectations and only hoped to get round.  There was a 9hr time limit and I knew that most of my friends took around twice as long to complete it as they could a flat marathon.  It was very hot, 30 degrees plus, which does not agree with me on most days, let alone when I'm trying to run in the mountains.  It was a very tough race, but I was happy to get round in 7hr46.

Year 2 saw me, or so I thought, training smarter rather than harder.  I was so excited about doing the race again, convinced that I would smash my previous time, but that excitement led me to go off far too fast at the start and totally run out of steam way before the tough final 10km section.  It was even hotter that day too, most of my supporters were flagging just watching in the heat, so I really struggled.  I barely managed to run the later sections where I had targeted an improvement on the previous year and dragged my sorry arse over the line 12 minutes slower.  I was totally gutted.  I had been convinced I'd be faster, I had trained so much harder, so surely it was a done deal?  I know now that my lack of race experience showed that day.  I sprinted the first few kms, using up too much energy too soon, then didn't take on enough fuel until it was too late.  I bonked on one of the tough later ascents, trying desperately to get more fuel in and somehow managed to carry on, albeit at a snail's pace.  I announced at the finish that there was no was I was going to do the race again the following year.

This year was different.  Despite not feeling faster or more confident than the year before, my training had gone well - running through the winter, the Annecy marathon 10 weeks beforehand, more interval work, more hills and group training with faster ladies.  I was trying not to get my hopes up after last year's disappointment, but I felt good in the lead up to the race.  Another big difference for me was the weather.  The day before the race was super-hot, but on race day the forecast was for lower temperatures and some rain.  Bingo!  I had also re-evaluated my fuelling, gear and pace, in light of other races.  My main concern was making sure I did not repeat the errors of year 2 and not to put too much pressure on myself.  Don't think there was much chance of that with many big boozy nights out a couple of weeks before!  Oops.

The marathon weekend is a favourite of mine in Chamonix.  The town comes alive with visitors, the weather is usually boiling and there are plenty of races to spectate.  New last year was the vertical kilometre - a 'sprint' from the town centre to the top of the Planpraz cable car, directly under the lift, with an ascent of 1000m.  The race takes part on Friday evening with runners leaving at 1 minute intervals, a big screen showing the finish line and this year some big names, including Anna Frost and my favourite boy, Kilian Jornet.  Saturday is for the Cross, a 23km shorter version of the marathon, plus the 10km race.  Every year we have visitors coming to try their hand and I love supporting them and my local friends in their respective races.

5am on Sunday meant porridge with raisins, nuts & honey, final weather-friendly kit decisions, mixing my Torq drink and trying to keep the nerves at bay.  We leave home soon after 6am, amazed to see loads of people running into town to the start.  It's cool, but not as cloudy as expected, so I have dressed in summer kit with the mandatory waterproof in my pack.  We meet up with friends, all eager to get going, but looking nervous.  I am feeling surprisingly good.  By the time we line up ready for the start at 7am, I am excited and really looking forward to the day.

My strategy was this - to take it really easy over the initial, fastest 15km of the course between Chamonix and Vallorcine, take it steady on the uphill slog to the Aiguilette des Possettes, try not to fall over on the steep downhill to Le Tour where any rain could make it slippery, run all the flat and downhill sections between Montroc and Flegere and hope to have something left in the tank to get to Planpraz.  I had packed cereal bars, dried bananas, Clif shot blocks, sesame snaps, 1litre of 6% mix Torq in my Camelbak, pledged not to eat any of the random things they have at the stations that I wouldn't usually eat on a run (saucisson, cheese, manky melted chocolate and prunes) and to drink coke whenever possible (sounds odd I know, fizzy drink while running, but all my running pals swear by it too).

7am, the music is pumping out into the town centre and we're off.  We run through town to the cheers of hundreds of bleary-eyed spectators, out towards le Praz and up to Lavancher.  I resist the urge to zoom through the woods as per last year and take it really easy.  There are usually a few bottlenecks due to the narrow path, which can be quite frustrating when you know it's a runable section, but it wasn't too bad.  I made it to Argentiere and Montroc very slightly slower than expected, but knew I had to conserve energy rather than hammering it to make up a few minutes.  In reality I was comparing my time to a training run that actually started a bit closer, so I was right not to panic.

On through Tre-le-Champ, over the Col des Montets and down through le Buet is my favourite part of the course.  The trail is easy going and the views towards the mountains breathtaking.  I popped behind a rock for a wee and somehow managed to get my ipod cable wrapped around my knickers, which took a bit of sorting out!  I saw my friend John and then Helen, a first-timer who was clearly struggling with her fuelling.  I was expecting to see my husband Andy in a few kms at Vallorcine, so told her to hold on and we'd get her an emergency re-hydration drink.  We got to the refreshment station where I drank coke, ate some dates and topped up my Camelbak.  When Helen opened hers it was still full - a clear sign that she wasn't taking enough fuel on.  We put energy powder in there and headed off.  Luckily Andy was where I'd hoped he would be, so we retrieved the pre-mixed bottle of re-hydration salts and Helen downed it.  I have to admit I was really concerned about her at that point as she seemed a bit delirious and I thought she might have gone beyond the point of no return, but she's very determined and amazingly pulled it back.

From there the route goes straight up a steep hill, through the woods and spits you out onto a ski piste, where the track widens and winds up to the Aiguilette des Possettes.  I was munching on alternative snacks of Shot Bloks and dried bananas and it seemed to be working a treat.  The next drinks station had a jolly man with an accordion and stunning views towards the Mont Blanc Massif.  The weather had been warm up to this point and luckily the rain had stayed away, but it was starting to cool down and cloud over.  I met Helen at the top of the Posettes again, who stuffed her rubbish into my bag - charming!  What was wrong with your own bag Helen?!  She still seemed a bit out of it.  I knew she was faster than me, so was happy to have her in my sights and I think that focusing on her took my mind off things.  The route down from the Possettes is pretty treacherous - steep, rocky, lots of steps cut into the hill, numerous first aid posts in case of accidents - and at one point a lady fell hard, right in front of us, which brought things home a bit.  I found the descent slower than last year, although actually I was faster!  I think we were more bunched-up, so the lack of space between runners made it feel slow.  By the time we got to Le Tour, I was feeling tired, but my quads felt relatively OK and I got back to Montroc ahead of time to see my work colleagues supporting me.

At the Tre-le-Champ refreshments I saw Helen again and Nikki also caught us up.  It was great to see the girls and we all filled up our Camelbaks with water and more powder.  The guitarist stationed there started belting out 'Highway to Hell', which seemed very appropriate with my least-favourite part of the route coming up!  Helen scooted off and we all dispersed again, up towards Flegere.  This section is uphill with some enjoyable undulating parts, which I was happy to be able to run for the first time in 3 years.  I passed the area where I had bonked last year, feeling OK and definitely far cooler than before.  The tough, steep slog up to the Le Trappe ski lift passed much faster than expected, a section where I usually want to sit down and give up, so I was chuffed to be feeling so good.  The weather started coming in and it was very misty when we emerged from the trees.  Another quick slog up the piste to Flegere and I was at the final drinks station.  This was the first point when I realised I was making good time.  It was 6hr20, I had done the final section in 1hr10 last year, so surely that meant I could make 7hr30?

So I went for it.  I barely stopped at the refreshments and decided not to bother to put my coat on, as a lot of other runners were doing.  That was a good call as they all seemed to change their minds after a few minutes and stop to take them off again!  It was only raining lightly and it was actually really refreshing.  I went as hard as I could, running all the downs and flats, stomping the ups.  I came out of the last tree section, onto the last downhill, knowing that I could make 7hr30 if I kept this up, there was only the final uphill left and I knew it wasn't far, but I really wasn't sure how long it would take and the mist meant I couldn't see the last ascent or the finish line, only hear it.  I stormed up the hill and before I knew it, I could see spectators, my friends and the finish line!  I ran over the line in 7hr21, a whopping 25mins off my PB.  I was elated, grinning from ear to ear.

Helen & John finished just ahead of me, Nikki came over the line (and burst into tears!) soon after, so we all finished within 10mins of each other.  It was fabulous to all be there together, all very happy, with Nikki & I smashing our previous times - she knocked 45mins off!  I was leaping about like a madwoman, still felt relatively OK and actually think I could have gone a little harder or further.  But my training and strategy had paid off, the weather had been kind and I was in a totally different place at the finish to both of my previous attempts.

Looking back at the race now, I am very happy with how I approached it, everything went according to plans and comparing my splits to the previous year I made up most of my time in the later half of the course, so think my strategy was spot-on.  Who knows what enabled me to make such improvements but it must be the mix of good training, cooler weather and fuelling that worked.  For me having liquid carbs in my Camelbak rather than having to rely on solids & gels, both of which tend to get harder to digest as the race goes on, was a big change.  But also having my friends around me, taking the pressure off myself and enjoying the day was a real plus.  My recovery has also been easier than previous years and I ran 20km just 2 weeks after.  I could still barely breath at that point last year!

So onwards and upwards.  My next race is the 58km semi-Trail de Ticino on 4th August.  Further than I've ever run before.  Bring it on.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Ladies that lunge

It's been a great few weeks on the Chamonix trails.  Nikki is up and running again, Ali is back from her hols and we have been making new friends and dragging them out with us at weekends.  Clearly the fact that they are way faster than us is totally unfair, but it's great to share the trails with them.  The Chamonix Ladies Weekend Running Club is in full swing!

We have discovered the delights of an ice bath at the end of a run, thanks to new girl Meredith, using the freely available glacial river water of Chamonix.  The rivers are pretty high and strong at the moment, so sitting in them isn't that advisable, but we have found access via the rather murky gravel yard near where I usually park up.  It is painfully cold, as demonstrated here, so a few seconds is all that can be tolerated by most, but boy it feels amazing afterwards and definitely seems to aid recovery.

The storms of a few weeks ago are not yet forgotten and there are still loads of trees down, even on major paths.  I'm not convinced they are going to manage to clear them all before the marathon which is only 4 weeks away.  We ran up to 2000m today and there is still plenty of snow on the ski pistes too, which is not surprising after the winter we've just had.

I have been happy with progress on my long runs.  I am only increasing by 2km or so per week, with 26km achieved today, but there is lots of ascent & descent involved and I have run up long, hilly trails that I had convinced myself were impossible previously.  I wouldn't say it's easy, but have taken local advice and changed my technique to frequent smaller steps and am surprised how possible it actually is.  I couldn't sustain that over marathon distance in the mountains, but hopefully it will improve power in my legs for stomping up those hills in a race.  I have been trying to swim more, do core exercises to improve a weakness in my lower back and am now the owner of a shiny new road bike to extend my cross training and increase leg power.

Poor Leila dog has had to take a bit of a back seat since the vet diagnosed her with tendinitis in one of her legs.  She is a very unhappy girl when I throw on the lycra but have to stop her from following me out of the house.  Hopefully it's just a minor blip in her running career and I am shovelling anti-inflammatories, omega 3 fish oil and chicken-flavoured dog glucosamine down her in an attempt to get her back on the trails with me.

Another area of training has been in terms of food to eat on the go.  Now this is something I have practised hard at!  However last year, despite thoroughly testing snacks all summer, I ran the Trail des Aiguilles Rouges without hardly eating anything.  Cereal bars became indigestible, too many gels disagreed with my stomach and the only thing that got me round were High 5 tabs in my Camelback.  Luckily that race was only just an ultra (50km), but realistically I can't expect to do longer races without addressing the issue.  Ali thinks Scott Jurek's natural, vegan ways are the way forward, and up until now I wasn't convinced.  But recently I visited the local Asian supermarket and picked up dried bananas, salted banana chips, dates, nougat, sesame snaps & peanut cracknel at bargain prices.  So far it seems to be working, particularly the dried bananas, and I am still liking Clif Shot Bloks for a quick gel fix and cake (of course!), so fingers crossed.  The Chamonix marathon will be my first real test of the new approach.  I bonked in that race last year too in the last 10km, but the scorching 32+ degrees had a lot to do with that.

I have to admit I have been experimenting with wine a bit of late too!  But honestly, the older I get the more I hate hangovers, even little ones, as they just stop me from enjoying my precious weekends.  So I am knocking that on the head as much as possible.  I do love a drink, don't get me wrong, but I love my weekend runs even more.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Back in the game

Summer is finally on it's way in Chamonix (well, as long as you ignore the snow forecast for tomorrow) and it's now 4 weeks since the Annecy marathon. 

To be honest there has been more eating, drinking and merriment going on than running over this period, but I think we earned it, pounding those pavements?!

My recovery was slow, as expected.  No knee or muscle pain, which was pleasing, but very tight around the upper legs & buttocks, even after a few weeks and my lungs were knackered for the best part of a week.  I ran at the end of week 1, then in week 2 I was feeling great and aimed for a 8km x 2 return hilly trail run, only to turn back after 6km and walk most of the way back.  Too much too soon.  Week 3 was better and I managed my planned 4 sessions including 18km at the weekend, but hills still felt hard.  To be fair this could be due to my lack of hill running prior to the marathon, so I shouldn't be too tough on myself.  Last weekend I did 22km on the trails and was loving it, but forced myself to turn around so as not to overdo it.  Just as well I did because 8km from home the heavens opened and I nearly got washed away!

The weather has been really unpredictable here recently, though that's nothing unusual in the mountains.  Huge winds brought down lots of trees and the trails were more like an assault course for a while, which me and the dog thoroughly enjoyed.

There are now only 6 weeks to go till my next race, the Chamonix marathon, which has 2.5km of vertical climb and 1.5km of descent.  It struck me today that although I am feeling really fit compared to previous years, I haven't done nearly as much trail running as I would usually have under my belt for mid-May, so I need to start cranking my training up a bit.  I'm following an ultra-training plan from Trail Running magazine which suggests 2 x 60 min, 1 x hill intervals, 1 x long run, with core strength, weight training and rest days in between.  The long runs are supposed to build up to 7-8 hours at their peak, but to be honest I've not been able to increase at the rate I'd like to, so am a bit behind, but then I probably didn't do 5 hours+ until July/August last year.  I am also doing intervals/speed work for one of my sessions, to add a bit of interest and to attempt to increase speed over distance - despite my best efforts I am really not a fast runner.

My two best running buddies and I haven't hit the trails together much yet.  Ali is having far too much fun horse-riding in Montana and Nikki is still struggling with the injury that stopped her from running in Annecy, but we should all be back on track before long.  After the Cham marathon, Nikki & I are doing the Trail de Ticino in Switzerland in August, watching the UTMB for inspiration at the end of that month (ready for our CCC attempt next year!), Nikki is doing the Trail des Aiguilles Rouges at the end of September and I am aiming for a 60km+ race in either Italy or Switzerland in October.  So we had better get our skates on and get training.  Come on the Birds with Altitude!

Monday, 16 April 2012

The long and winding road - my first road marathon

If you run marathons, the first thing people ask is "what's your PB?"  7hr45 doesn't sound very impressive, even the unfittest of my friends could smash that, but if you factor in altitude, heat and mountains it makes a bit more sense.  Having never run a road marathon before, and not really wanting to since discovering trail-running, I started to wonder what I could do in a 'normal' marathon race.  Would I be any good?

I failed to gain a place in a major race this year, so had a window of opportunity to try a road marathon before the trail running season got underway.  I signed up for the Marathon du Lac d'Annecy on 15th April with my pals, Nikki & Ali.  A very snowy season here in Chamonix meant that the trails would be inaccessible until late spring anyway, it would give me a good level of fitness through the winter and hopefully kick-start my trail marathon training.  I loved running during the winter, training at night on the x-country ski trails, wearing crampons & head-torches and disappearing up to our thighs in fresh powder in the woods at weekends.  Leila the black lab couldn't get enough of it either.  As the huge snow dumps in town melted, we gradually substituted snow & ice-running for roads and made a weekly trip down to an area where we could run on snow-free roads for our long run.

We followed a training plan from Runner's World, knowing we were pretty slow compared to most other runners, but aiming for sub-4hrs.  We managed a couple of half-marathons in training at race pace (11km/hr), but really had no idea if that would be achievable over double the distance.  Our plan did not include any 20 mile runs, which seems unusual and at odds with most advice I'd read about?  I really wish I'd done one anyway, at race pace, to know how realistic that pace was, but hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Then a couple of weeks before the race, Nikki had to pull out.  Shin-splints or possibly worse were causing her a lot of pain after one of our long sessions.  Our physio recommended various exercises to improve imbalances in her running technique, but no running.  I started having problems with one of my hamstrings, which felt unhappy whenever I did any speed work, but swimming, massage and stretching seemed to keep that under control.  Ali was fine but seemed to be more interested in late-night sessions than training, and also managed to collide with a pillar a few days before the race!  It felt like we were falling apart as a result of our training.

We headed to Annecy the day before the race and took our minds off running with a little retail therapy and a lot of eating.  No cake, but a big fat banana split for pudding!  The weather on the day was less-than perfect - persistent rain and below-average temperatures.  Better than searing heat I know, but still a bit of a shame for runners and spectators alike.

The rain was heavy enough to require a jacket at the start. Tempting as it was, the umbrella hat was a bit too uncomfortable to wear while running, although my husband made good use of it when spectating!

I had read up on and practiced my pacing so decided to go for just under 11km/hr, or 5min30/km.  In training that had felt comfortable for some weeks so I didn't think it was daft.  I did consider taking it a little slower, but was worried that, if I went too slowly initially, I wouldn't make that time up in the later stages.  I expected to be able to continue at that pace for at least 3/4 of the race and could take it slower at the end if I needed to.  I lined up behind the 3hr45 pacemaker with the intention of keeping them just in sight, but not quite as far back as 4hr.

I warmed up within a couple of km and was ready to lose my hood, but the rain was annoying without it.  Andy & Nikki appeared at about 14km, so I grabbed my cap.  I saw them a couple of km later and ditched my jacket as the rain had started to ease off, however I made the fatal error of leaving my gloves in my jacket, which I really regretted later.  I felt great for the first 18km, no problems at all with the pace, in fact I felt like I could have run faster.  After that things started to go downhill.  My running tights started chafing and got really uncomfortable.  Unfortunately my favourite tights had disintegrated 3 weeks beforehand and although I had tested out my new ones on a longish run, it was obviously not long enough.  I stopped a couple of times to try and sort things out, but the tub of Vaseline I'd applied earlier clearly wasn't doing its job!  I didn't ever feel like I'd hit 'the wall' but everything gradually started seizing up and running just felt harder.  I had eaten well beforehand, hydrated sufficiently, taken gel blocks, energy drinks and anti-cramping tabs along the way, so I am confident that my nutrition wasn't to blame.

I managed to maintain a reasonable pace up to 30km, but after that I dropped down as low as 9km/hr.  It became evident by 35km that I wasn't going to hit my target time, which was quite demotivating, but I kept going, mentally aiming instead for 4hr10.  My hands were freezing  which was hard to ignore and was making the rest of me feel cold too.  I was 'treating' myself to a short walk at every km marker, imagining my easy runs from home and pretending I had only just started running rather than already having a lot of km under my belt, to try and convince my body that it wasn't tired.  Nothing really worked, I was hobbling in pain, so I just had to keep plodding on until the finish line was eventually mine at 4hr12.  My buddy Ali crossed the line at 4hr18 - I know she wanted to go faster too, but realistically she hadn't done as much speed work and is usually a little slower than me, so I think she should be very proud of her achievement.

I'd be lying if I didn't say I was a little disappointed with my time - my mum thinks I'm being hard on myself, but you have to have goals?  I knew I could run a marathon, but the whole point was to do it well.  I thought that my pace would allow for a little slowing and that I could still achieve my goal.  The one question I didn't ask myself was "will I be more upset if I take it easy and know I could have gone faster, or if I don't achieve sub-4hrs?"  The latter is definitely the case, but I was too focussed on the former.

The first surprise in all of this is that I didn't totally hate my road-marathon experience!  It was supposed to be a bit of an experiment and there is no way I will ever prefer it to trail-running, but there is something quite soothing in the monotony of running on a flat surface and it requires much less concentration than running on an ever-changing surface.  Despite the weather, there was a great atmosphere along the race route and, had there been clear skies, the scenery would have been lovely, so it's maybe quite different to a city marathon.  Ali & I have already decided that we will do it again, if only to show that we can so sub-4hrs.

The second thing, which is no surprise, is that recovering from a road race feels so much harder than after a trail race.  Hilly, trail-running works your muscles with much more variety than road-running and subsequently my legs barely hurt after a trail race.  2 days post road-race and I'm still struggling with walking on the flat, let alone stairs and am really not convinced that pounding the tarmac is good for you.  It feels like someone is standing on my lungs after my speed efforts - trail running is much easier for me pace-wise.

The third pleasant surprise, which we are all very happy about, is that we may have proved that cake & wine could indeed be part of the magic formula to successful marathon running.  I think we all had our best training runs after messy weekends of unhealthy living.  So hoorah to that!  But for now, we're heading back to the trails, where we belong.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Me and my running blog

So then, blogging.  Seems like everyone is at it.  Why do it, what could I get out of it?
Well I like talking and these days that mainly seems to be about running.  This clearly bores my friends that don't run and probably even those that do.  Hopefully spending time putting it in print will get it off my chest and make for some more interesting banter in the pub.

It wasn't always like this.  A few years ago I was pretty normal, not interested in running or exercise at all for that matter, apart from the occasional stroll or swim and a bit of skiing in the winter.  Living in the French ski resort of Chamonix, there are a lot of extremely fit people around, making the most of the mountains in all seasons.  There is also a vibrant après-ski scene which is ideal for undoing anything healthy you might have achieved during the day.  In my younger days I was definitely more interested in the latter.

Then a few years ago, my lovely dad died.  I decided to do the Lausanne half-marathon as a one-off, to raise money for charity and because it was something my dad and I had done together when I was growing up.  He was my hero, training for and completing the hilly Isle of Wight marathon when he was in his 40s, a boozy, ex-smoker, pub landlord, who raised money for our primary school.  I was pretty good at running too, which he always encouraged but never pushed, until I went to University and discovered beer, boys and death metal.

I got round the Lausanne race in an acceptable time, my annoying husband who barely trained did so even faster and we raised more money than we'd ever hoped for.  My dad would have been so proud.  The next year I ran the Chamonix Cross - a half-marathon at altitude, with 1500m ascent, off-road, up and down rocky mountain paths.  My first ever trail race.  I was hooked.  The feeling of running in the great outdoors with breathtaking views, on challenging terrain, no pounding of pavements, was amazing.  Plus you got free beer at the end - what's not to like?!

Since then I have run the Chamonix Marathon and various other trail races.  I also volunteered as a helper for the awesome Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc - a 166km race around the Tour du Mont Blanc.  Inspired by what I saw, not content with just running marathons and happy to have found a sport where age appears to be no barrier when I am pushing 40, I am now aiming to become an ultra runner.  Why not?  Last year I completed my first 'ultra' the 50km Trail des Aiguilles Rouges, with 4000m ascent and descent.  It nearly killed me, I was almost last, but I did it.  "Never again" has become my standard first line after a race, although nobody believes me anymore.  And neither do I.

But running isn't all about races and gives me more than just a sense of achievement - it clears my head at the end of the working day, gives me quality time with my equally running-addicted dog Leila, has made me lose weight while allowing me to stuff my face with even more cake, and has put me in touch with friends, old and new, that share my new-found obsession.  Weekends are spent exploring new routes, admiring stunning views, pushing ourselves further and faster, getting up in the middle of the night to practice with head-torches, trying out (lots of) new trail snacks, swimming in mountain lakes when 30 degrees gets too much, hurting sometimes, but above all enjoying spending time together, talking, laughing and making the most of this fantastic, free, facility on our doorstep.

So that's me.  I plan to write about my training, races, dreams, failures, ups and downs.  If I can pick up some tips from all of you along the way, fabulous.  And if I can inspire someone to get involved, even better.  Whatever happens, I will never ever give up my wine and cake.