Monday 16 July 2018

My Bob Graham Round

A discovery, an idea, a dream, ultimately leading to a slow fruition of pieces coming together. Having heard of the Bob Graham Round when I first started ultra-trail running I was vaguely intrigued. Over time, the notion of this audacious challenge steadily took hold of my conscience. Then after reading Richard Asquiths much lauded book ‘Footsteps in the Clouds’, it truly landed in my stratosphere as something I really wanted, and more importantly, dared to comprehend.

With my now regular self-authored story of personal pity with over training syndrome caused through a combination of too many 100 milers and shift work – timing would be key. After supporting last years club attempt – an annual tradition for the Dark Peak Fell Runners – I was semi-committed to June 2018. Like most things of this nature it gathered legs and before I knew it my BG attempt sat firmly in my calendar. And was looking to play a part in my lead up to the Lakeland 100.

The real issue was my ongoing health concerns. After 2 years of disappointing performances I needed to change the script – rest alone wasn’t quite cutting it. Firstly I’d taken on a coach at Love to Run Coaching in the form of Dave Troman. Dave is fully conversant as regards my history and problems. So we looked to identify training solutions that sat somewhere between conditioning and adaption, but keeping an eye firmly on quality recovery. The next part of that puzzle was changing occupations. After over a decade of shift work, not getting any younger and trying to juggle life with an ultra-training program something had to give. So a job change allowed me to work a 9-5 to ensure I maintained my circadian rhythms.

Working towards this challenge my last two races had ended in disappointment so I was less than confident. However the training program and the new found sleep pattern had me feeling human again. It’s amazing how over the years what you consider feeling normal is – when in reality when your doing 20-30 mile training runs right before heading out for a night shift – you actually perpetually feel crap all the time.

My training block on the lead up to this was focussed on improving fast hiking. A relative weakness in my skillset. Those in the know are all too familiar with the sorts of gradients encountered on the BG. It’s just not practical to expect to run many of the ups over the 24 or so hours of movement. So with hours of patient and diligent fast hiking, I worked on developing the right systems to tackle this challenge. Time would tell.

On Friday 22nd June 2018 I headed up to the Lake District to face my demons. I landed just after lunch time at the campsite where Dark Peak were already in attendance. At about 3 in the afternoon, with about 4 hours still to wait, I attempted to grab some sleep in Dan Stower’s tent (a fellow contender). With the temperatures slowly cranking up this proved pointless so I just took the time to consume some more calories and try to stay cool. I started to kit up and noticed, in my haste I’d grabbed a ‘pair’ of my favourite, and go to shoe in the form of the Salomon S-Lab Sense 6 SG – But much to my personal amused and horror I’d picked up an odd pair! I’d got a left version 4 (heavily worn) and a right version 5 (brand new). Maybe this was a bad omen, or reflection of my ongoing muppetry?

Just after 6pm we all headed into Keswick to the iconic start point of the BG at Moot Hall. As we landed, my flutter of nerves started to lift and instead I was excited and anxious to get moving. The square was a hive of activity, with people taking photographs of the willing victims. I was happy and calm now surrounded by family and friends. Rupert Bonnington of Mountain Fuel had kindly come out to see me off, along with good friend Mark Richardson.
We had 5 official contenders for the BG – Dan Stower, David Hakes, Fiona Lynch, Yvonne Beckwith and myself. There were also 2 other contenders starting at the same time and capitalising on some of our support. This made for a busy start, but also added to the atmosphere. Comically Tony Audenshaw aka Bob Hope from ITV’s Emmerdale was supporting one of the rounds so he joined the party on leg 1.

As our start time neared, we all stood by Moot Hall enjoying the ambiance, the evening sun beating down. Months of specific training and a subsequent taper manifested as a nervous energy amongst us. Then abruptly, without a countdown, no starter gun or an extravagant operatic send-off (ala Lakeland 100) we were on our way. A steady trot through town and out towards the initial ascent past Latrigg.

My Leg 1 supporter was Stuart Walker, who had willingly loaded his pack with some of my water, food and clothing supplies. However the Dark Peak machine (as its lovingly titled) has us run as a group till at least leg 3. This meant a huge entourage of around 20 runners all filing up the mountains together. This made for a great atmosphere and general comedy all round. I was lucky to also be joined by Casper Caars Sijpesteijn who’d kindly come out to trog up to the summit of Skiddaw with me.

Once through town and onto the trails we hit the first climb and almost immediately everyone studiously took to a fast hike to preserve energy. I failed to realise this initially and only noticed a couple of minutes later as me and Casper trotted upwards. Slowing to a power hike I could feel the strength in my legs from months of training. I genuinely felt bombproof, my body full of energy, ready to tackle what lay ahead. Gone was the weak, lethargic Kirk that had set out on the Hardmoors 55 March and he was replaced with a rejuvenated, healthy individual akin to his old self.

My attempt would hinge on nutrition and I’d been studying calorific counts in all my nutrition. I knew a bottle of Mountain Fuel would give me enough energy for the hour, so armed with 2 bottles I would supplement the extra required for the leg (planned at just under 4 hours). Sipping the new Mountain Fuel Raw Energy ( felt easy and most importantly refreshing. Much easier on the palette than flavoured varieties – definitely a winner in my book. I also had some of the new Mountain Fuel Jelly so I took the opportunity to throw one of these down of the orange variety. Again refreshing and easy on the stomach – less like a gel than I’d imagined. No stickiness and much easier to swallow when your stomach doesn’t want much in the way of solids.

The climb up Skiddaw from the bottom is one of the longest of the whole round, yet it flew by chatting to Stuart and Casper about all things running and adventures. We tagged the top in just under 1:20, comfortably up on schedule which meant we might be moving a little too quick this early on. All the same, David Hakes started a rapid descent off the summit, on the quad track leading to the base of Great Calva. As we got to the next climb, I was gently chastised for my own pace and told to ease back – point taken…

On the climb I dropped in with Fiona Lynch, on her own attempt and had the chance to chat. It’s good to understand other people’s backgrounds and motivations. Not least you can often meet lifelong friends during these all day type endeavours. Again we were up Calva pretty rapidly and had the awful descent through the deep heather I’d struggled with on my solo recce’s. Luckily David and Dan had a much better line which we took which traversed the hill a bit before dumping us out on the right hand side before the extended climb up Blencathra.

I’d been dreading this leg, only because on one my recce’s I’d felt so crap afterwards, yet today I felt pretty good. The evening was beginning to cool and I was strong in my stride. The climb to the summit of Blencathra was spent with both Stuart and Dan chatting various topics as a distraction. As we neared the final kick Stuart Walker reminded us to enjoy the moment and the scenery – to which we were presented with a stunning sunset over Great Calva behind us. I always try to take, even a couple of seconds during these types of events to soak in the moment. Too often it’s the memories later, when the hours of pain and hard ship have waned away, that sit in our minds. Yet to not enjoy it in the moment is almost criminal. Not today – I would savour every seconds where I could.

Tagging the summit it was apparent we were in the region of 15 minutes up on schedule, so to capitalise we charged the descent with reckless abandonment. Dan, David, Stuart and me took off like it was our last downhill of the day. The rocky and technical descent reminiscent of a sky running line in the mountains. And quickly enough we hit Threlkeld as the final sunset disappeared behind us. We ran into the road crossing where all our food and support lay waiting.

Leg 1 – 3:38

Here I thanked Stuart for his kind assistance and fellow Mountain Fueller’s Paul Nelson and Paul Grundy joined me for the next couple of legs. I took the time to sit down and eat a cheese sandwich and have a cup of sweet tea. The tea went down so well I asked for a second, so felt that the nutrition was still on course. I loaded my new porters up with supplies and off we went after around 10 minutes or so.

The train in full effect we jogged up towards the base of Clough Head. It wasn’t long before head torches were on and we commenced the night section. The climb kicked after an initial slope of sorts and got serious steep. My effort here started to feel a little laboured, hard to pinpoint but it wasn’t coming as easy as Leg 1. It was good to talk to Paul Nelson about the Dead Sheep race –although ironically he could tell me almost nothing about it due to a clause in keeping the spirit of the race. The bet I could surmise is it’s essentially a British version of the Barkley Marathon – sounds amazing, but not floating my boat, lol.

Once up Clough Head a lot of the climbing for Leg 2 is done and it’s then more rolling. This gave plenty of opportunity for some quality running. I’m not sure what happened along here but my stomach wasn’t comfortable and I’d stopped eating to try and let the 2 cups of tea I’d had at Threlkeld settle. On a positive, the summits started to get ticked off more readily up here. The naivety of the blackness of night making any climbs much less daunting.

It wasn’t long before I finally let the contents of my stomach go. An instant relief on my tight belly, but losing valuable calories in the process. I started to gently try and drip feed some fluids and calories back in. Unfortunately this proved to be a bad idea in the big scheme of things and led to a painfully comical repetition over the rest of the leg. Essentially I’d eat when we moved slowly on the ups, throw up the contents of my stomach on the summit then repeat. As the puking got worse and then became dry heaving I knew I was in trouble. Still I marched on and started to plan my strategy at the next road crossing at Dunmail to push away my creeping doubts.

The beam of light at my feet became my own cocoon from the discomfort and impending disappointment. I was trying to stay focussed but it was proving difficult as I lost count of the number of times I’d been sick. It was too early in the endeavour to be suffering this bad, my previous DNF’s all serving to add to the doubt. The reality started to overwhelm me. With the lack of any recent success to psychologically lean on I could only see one outcome. Searching for some ray of light in this dark (both mentally and actually) place a spark of inspiration – a quote from a movie.

There is only one logical direction in which to go – forward.

My mantra would drive me onwards in spite of my current plight. While ever my legs could move and my body produce energy I would travel in one direction, the right direction. For the first time in a couple of years I found my old self, a stubborn and tenacious me that would continue no matter what. Hello old friend, it’s been a while.

Not least this new mind-set, but with positive thinking I began to identify what was going well. Despite the lack of calories my body felt reasonably strong and the legs felt great. Previously with over training syndrome I’d feel as weak as a kitten by now. But not this day, I charged the last descent, a fun grassy trail down towards the welcoming car lights at Dunmail where we’d meet our support.

Leg 2 – 4:53

As we hit Dunmail, I’d already discussed releasing Paul Nelson so he could assist his wife Lucy on her 10 Peaks race. I thanked him profusely for his help and wished him well. Paul Grundy and I were now joined by Simon Mills – Dark peak BG veteran and support specialist. I’d witnessed the full force of a Simon Mills, BG saving support mission from Kris Groom’s successful attempt last year. It essentially consists of expert navigation taking in some cracking lines, an intelligent calorie intake strategy and a strong dash of ‘tough love’. Poor Kris suffered this onslaught last year when his stomach went south at Wasdale – what followed after an initial friendly bedding in period was a series of home truths to push Kris back on course and steer the ship successfully back to Moot Hall.

And so it began – with military precision and efficiency Simon took to organising some nutrition for the longest Leg (3). I already knew in myself a previous stomach settling strategy to adopt in the form of chocolate Yazoo. So I downed nearly a full bottle at the ‘aid’, threw up a tiny amount and left it at that. There were plenty of calories in a bottle so I was confident I had enough to drive me forward for a while. On requesting some of my Coke, which nobody could find, Fiona kindly offered me a small bottle for the next leg.

Not long after we started out over the now deserted dual carriageway with a hint of sunrise starting to rise over the mountain tops. Straight up the vertical face of Steel Fell, we initially followed another group but Simon quickly identified we were on the wrong line. As we skirted up the sheer face it was apparent that everyone was beginning to break up into their own contender/supporter contingents. This was a little earlier than anticipated, but with my nutrition issue I was quite pleased not to be in a position to slow anyone down.

I entered into this event with the ethos of enjoying the experience with friends and soaking up the scenery and experience. In order to do so I had zero aspirations of any kind of fast time – rather I was more than happy to continue on the Dark Peak schedule set at 23:30. In fact even more so as my round was starting to come away at the seams. But in the interests of storytelling; Dan and David appeared to be charging ahead now, with Fiona tailing a little back. As we reached the plateau over Steel Fell I dropped back a little and found my own pace. Yvonne was equally being sensible and taking up the rear with a pace of her choosing (much nearer schedule as we’d got a little ahead of ourselves over legs 1 & 2).

I diligently sipped coke and Yazoo over the next hour or so while my stomach tried to find some equilibrium. It was really hard going but all I could do was repeat my mantra;

There is only one logical direction in which to go – forward.

As I continued to tick off peak after peak, I was pleased to be up on the relative plateau taking in Sergeants Man (notoriously missed by Ally Beaven on his impressive winter round). My legs felt good and slowly my body was getting some renewed energy. However it wasn’t long before Simon (rightly so) started bullying me into getting some solids in my stomach. In the end the only thing I could get close to keeping down was a packet of Walkers Square crisps. They immediately dried in my in my mouth like a piece of cardboard. But washed down with a sip of coke I steadily and gradually over the next few hours began to line my stomach. This strategy might just work. However, I would only believe it was possible when I’d tackled Yewbarrow at the start of Leg 4, my psychological halfway point. After all it was all ‘downhill’ (clearly not!) after that…

After a never ending stream of hours just ticking peaks off, Scafell Pike finally came into view, signifying the last two summits before the end of the leg. I was finally starting to really enjoy myself again, I couldn’t take much food in, but it seemed my trickle feed of calories was enough to keep me moving forward. Scafell Pike (relatively quiet at 8:17am) was duly ticked off then the slight descent down towards the base of the notorious Broad Stand (a climb where ropes are highly recommended). We however would deviate right to the semi technical route up Lords Rake and the West Wall Traverse. Lords Rake is an exposed climb up a steep narrow gully strewn with loose scree. However using the wall to prevent any impromptu falls made it feel secure enough. This is followed by the West Wall Traverse which demands a bit of hands on rock action. It was a little slick in places but I can only imagine what it might have been like in truly wet conditions. Maybe Foxes Tarn becomes the only logical route on say a winter round. Reaching the summit of Scafell (Scafell Pikes baby sister) I collapsed to the ground exhausted by the ongoing effort. Simon gave me a friendly, metaphorical kick and we were on our way, ever downwards towards Wasdale.

The first part of the descent was rocky and awkward, followed by a steep grassy section that was marginally better due to fatigue starting to set in my quads. Having reccied this section a couple of weeks prior I knew a stupidly steep scree slope wasn’t far off. I was a little concerned after my memory was a bit marred by the recollection of nearly breaking Debbie’s (Martin-Consani) hand with tumbling boulders set free by my reckless abandon. Not today though, after Simon and Paul set off in front leaving a bit of a gap, I set off and had an awesome ride. The loose scree taking any and all pain from the legs – leaving me to charge down, the constantly moving and fluid ground soaking up the impact. Like a live creature, better ridden the faster you moved, I ran with the unbound joy of a child. One of my highlights of the day.

This left us to have a quick dip in the stream and run the final trail into Wasdale where we could replenish our supplies.

Leg 3 – 6:03

I sat down in my chair and immediately a hive of activity from the amazing support tended to my every need and more. Liz Hutchinson and Jo Yeoman deserve massive credit here. Not only did they force feed me some fruity bread, they did the not so pleasant task of removing my shoes and sock and sorting my feet out. Brilliant support – for which I’ll ever be grateful.
My running support here was planned to be added by Kris Groom with Paul Grundy stopping here. However Paul was having such a good time he decided to add on one more leg. What a star, not least the sheer amount of weight he’d carried for me. Kris had kindly (!!!) brought a cow bell, much in the spirit of my usual (wife and kids) support crew. He thought it might be a good idea to hang it from his bag so it would jangle the entire way around leg 4!!

I looked up to the normally imposing vertical face of Yewbarrow – my ‘halfway’ point. Yet today, with my spirits high it didn’t look as big somehow. The sheer magnitude of the ascent already gained at this point put things in perspective. I didn’t fear it, rather I wanted to get up it to tick it off and get on with enjoying the day out. It was in this moment I realised how much I was enjoying myself, something I hadn’t been able to do during ‘races’ for a long time. My body felt good and I was at total peace with effort put out, and what was required to finish.

We summited Yewbarrow in really good time, despite Paul fighting a sun cream induced blindness. This was it now, I could take a truncated victory march to the finish. It was all but a done deal in my head. It’s amazing what difference a positive mind-set (and some calories) does to your energy levels. I happily skipped over Red Pike, Steeple and Pillar, even running some of the mellower ups. Kirkfell (ironic I guess given the name) took considerable effort, the rising heat adding to the challenge. Still ascending Red Gully, I didn’t lose heart, merely I saw it as another obstacle beaten. Due to this the two Gables took it out of me further, but then I knew the final plateau of leg 4 was ahead before the descent to Honister and a chance to see the family. My spirits were constantly raised by my superb supporters who pointed out my timings as I was some 1hour and 15 minutes up on schedule.

The descent to Honister soon came and I had a flash of emotion at the thought of seeing Emma and Cam. The descent, although the softest ground you could imagine was steep enough to remind my legs they’d done some 25000ft of ups and downs. Still as we hit the flat I felt fantastic so opened the legs up to see what I had left – Plenty it seemed, so maybe quite a bit more to push out over Leg 5 to the finish. I was certainly full of confidence I would finish well inside the allotted time.

Leg 4 – 4:39

Seeing Emma and Cam was a huge lift for me. Their presence reminded me of all the good that comes out of my running. The shared, family experiences and travel that enrich all our lives. Not least, my lovely wife had the usual stroke of genius in regards my nutrition. This time it came in the form of watermelon, which despite the previous stomach woes, I proceeded to smash two large slices.

I dropped off Kris, Paul and Simon here. Even Paul Nelson had come over to wish me well over the last leg. I picked up my close friend and chief navigation expert Ian Winterburn here, along with the other half of the Groom massive in the form of Wendy.

I was keen to maintain the time buffer I’d built up so jogged up to the base of Dale Head to tackle ascent 39 of 42.  As I crossed the road I was excited to see my Coach, Dave Troman drive up to see me at Honister. Much to his surprise I was well up on schedule. A quick hello and I rattled up the hill, trailing Wendy and Ian.
I enjoyed this ascent, saying hi to numerous runners descending off Dale Head in the opposite direction, who were running the Buttermere Horseshoe race. Soon enough we topped out at the summit and were treated the views down the valley.
2 Peaks to go!

As this leg continued I just got stronger and stronger. The final climb up Robinson was pure mountain pleasure. A stiff hike, but I savoured every step, Wendy and Ian were great company, passing the time and effort required to reach the pinnacle of the day. Ian filmed my final ascent for me to serve as a lasting memory of my attempt.

Up on time, it was merely academic now, but I was still keen to get a reasonable time under the schedule. Ian ably navigated us on the premium line off Robinson, onto the final steep grassy drop. Which in all honesty hurt like hell. My quads, knowing the end was near, started to feel the relentless hammer they’d received over the last 21 or so hours.

Down on the trail we started ticking over at a steady cadence. Now off the endless ups and downs my legs really started to come back. Every step I felt my stride opening and a flood of pure enjoyment and joy. This was running bliss! I’d opted to follow the trail run in for the last few miles. The road is quicker, and after being told I was within 5 or 10 minutes of David, I was tempted to gun it for a fun race in. However I’d enjoyed the day so much I figured the trail run in through the woods held much more appeal. And so as the temperatures in the lower altitudes rose exponentially, I cruised on soaking up the moment.

Emma and Cam (on his bike) tried to join us at the marina to follow in, but we were now moving so well we dropped them immediately. My Suunto Spartan Ultra was on a 60 second GPS ping to ensure it recorded the whole run over 24 or so hours. As a result I couldn’t get an accurate gauge on pace, but Emma was recording and estimates we were 7-7:30 minute miling. Still it felt easy – adrenaline now my primary fuel. As we turned onto the final straight I opened up into a sprint – which was all but thwarted by the market vans and tourists meandering outside Moot Hall.

Still after much dodging I found my way to the Hall and kissed the steps to a lovely welcoming. Relief and happiness washing over me. Emma arrived moments later in a flood of tears. We’ve travelled a long journey with my ‘illness’, and this finally felt like redemption for all the heartache and pain. It was a culmination of many lows to reach this ultimate high.

Leg 5 – 2:40
Finish - 22:15

After the race I had some chips and curry sauce with several helpings of beer. All quality recovery fuels right?? Mountain Fuel Recovery followed and certainly contributed to my legs feeling excellent the following day. Probably one of the best recoveries from an event I’ve had, and maybe the hardest event I’ve completed (maybe not in effort, but almost certainly as regards the course). I’d equally put this down to the excellent training and preparation, guided by my coach Dave Troman – can’t thank him enough. I’m also grateful to each and every one of my supporters – without them I wouldn’t have got round this great challenge. And special thanks also needs to go to Dark Peak Fell Runners (particularly Richard Hakes) for organising the BG weekend. 

Two weeks after BG I’ve got a mountain race in Snowdon, so another 22 miles and 8000ft ascent. This will be a team event so probably much more relaxed. After that, it’s Lakeland 100 at the end of July. I’ve finally got some confidence back that this is achievable.

                   Thanks to Salomon and Mountain Fuel for their ongoing support.

Sunday 4 February 2018


'Good judgement is the result of experience and experience the result of bad judgement'
- Mark Twain

A sad paradox really, but in order to gain sufficient experience to inform our choices wisely, we must
sometimes make mistakes. How many times do you hear quotes from high achievers in sport that
state they only truly learn from their failures. This is a lesson I hold close to my heart in all my endeavours in life, not just running. For to fail, is to learn and sometimes what hurts instructs. The pain of failure is only the symptom, it's the learning that is inherently the cure.

To say I’ve made some mistakes in my fairly short running career would be an understatement. I’ve
committed a catalogue of errors, but through each painful setback I’ve taken a step back in the right
direction. Even now I look forward to embracing future faux pars in my quest for improvement.

This article serves as a brief precis of some lessons I’ve picked up in ultra-running that I hope could
help others along the way…

Good form is ever more important in ultras

Several years ago I went on a running form class with Accelerate running store in Sheffield. It seemed a strange idea at the time, after all I already knew I could run a bit. What could they possibly tell me that I wasn't already doing? It turned out, quite a lot! What resulted was a higher pace at the same heart rate, thus proving to myself that improved running form could speed me up, while maintaining the same effort. Speed for free! Who in their right mind would turn that down?

From my experience cadence was the first easy fix. I believe most people could improve by merely picking up their cadence a little. It's oft touted that 180 steps per minute is the sweet spot, but research shows it's more complex than that with regards to pace and individual running styles. Suffice to say, at least once a week I'll use a training run, be it fast or slow and aim for the magic 180spm. It will probably feel too fast and awkward the first time you try it, but as you dial it in the effort levels drop and muscle memory takes over. I believe the science behind this is in harnessing the elasticity of our muscles and tendons. As a product of higher cadence we also have less ground contact time, meaning reduced injury risk.

Posture was another important part of our form that often needs addressing. We need to stay tall, hips stable and forward (not sat back). The forward lean that allows us to move efficiently forward comes from the ankles not the hips or back! For this I try to feel I'm standing tall, almost stretching myself and I imagine a rope tied around my waist pulling me forward. This prevents me from folding slightly back at the hips, a product of too much sitting in modern society. Of course our posture would always benefit from some core work.

You can do too much

Part of the allure of ultra-running is our shared fascination with the seemingly impossible. Of course
running these huge distances is more than achievable by the average healthy human being. The huge
uptake in the sport in recent years shows how accessible it can be. However this comes with it an inherent danger. Belief and positivity will get you so far, possibly further than you'd ever imagine. Eventually though our bodies can and will retaliate. Stress in whatever form is accumulative and when our individual breaking point is found, that's where things start to unravel. This could lead to burnout and issues with our hormonal system. It's becoming ever more documented in our sport, particularly at the elite end of the spectrum, where bright shining stars are fading after only a couple of years at the pinnacle of the sport.

In order to combat this issue it's best to consider building slowly in this sport. And by slow I mean years of incremental increases in distances and stresses. The now well known line of no more than 10% increase in weekly distance is only the tip of the iceberg. Consider the type of training in this equation too. Your slow runs need to be exactly that, and speed sessions or long runs need to be married up with quality recovery days.

I offer this advice from personal and painful experience. Without retreading my already well discussed backstory (see Balance), consider I've been trying to bounce back to where I was nearly 2 years ago. It's well worth avoiding this hole in the first place, but if you feel you're already there somewhat, write off your racing schedule and get serious about recovery. Fitness and health aren't necessarily the same thing, health being our main priority.

Get a coach

Leading on from the last topic, my recovery is finally coming together with the assistance of a coach -  love to run coaching. It pays dividends to have someone overseeing your training that isn't emotionally attached to the outcomes. From personal experience when the first stages of burnout begin, the natural reaction of a passionate runner is to train harder, fearing we are lacking fitness rather than having done too much.

Equally using some science in our training allows us to get to the next level in our performances. I for one spent my initial years aiming for quantity rather than quality. My reasoning was twofold; firstly I thought ultra running must be specifically about accumulating excessive mileage to toughen the body for the challenges of racing ridiculous miles. And secondly I was committed to enjoying the miles of trails on my doorstep, choosing not to run intervals or tempo runs on boring stretches of flat surfaces. It transpires I was wrong, improvement means training all the bodies systems not just the aerobic base. And this needs to be periodised into specific focussed phases so we can peak for our goal races. I can only thank Dave for assisting me with identifying that recovery is a must and pain is 'painful'.

Nutrition wins the day

This is the oldest one in the book but it amazes me how many people choose to ignore this most basic of rules. We're happy to bleed in training out on the trails, yet we often fail to fuel the body correctly. This can encompass several different traps, one I'm guilty of at times can be too little calories to sufficiently refuel my body. I tend to eat pretty clean with vegetables and fruit making up the majority of my intake where possible, but I'm prone to skipping meals.  To avoid this pitfall I try the little and often rule. My primary occupation makes eating in the manner sometimes difficult with me out of the 'office' for hours on end. To counter this I pack healthy snacks I can easily transport with me such as a piece of fruit or nuts, this also serves to stave off cravings for the dreaded fast/convenience food, which my colleagues continuously tempt me with!

Another mindset some people tend to drop into is in respect of over eating poor foods. After all we've just burnt say 1000 calories on a long run - why not gorge on calorie dense, but sugary foods. There is a place for some treats, but everything must be in moderation. I tend to enjoy a tasty Mountain Fuel recovery drink after long runs, before eating a healthy meal to quickly replace lost electrolytes and calories.

Of all the experiential lessons I've learnt, this has to be one of the most important. Yet how easy it is to stray from a healthy day to day habit... Stay the path and the rewards in recovery and performance will certainly follow.

Don't skimp on your kit

In ultra-marathons, the need for quality kit is amplified as you’re going to be out on the course much longer. Problem solving on the fly is part and parcel of this sport, which is why you’ll want to equip yourself with the finest solutions. I've been caught out in the mountains early in my running career with substandard protection and it's a hard lesson learnt. Suffice to say I wouldn't skimp on purchasing the right products for the job.

Footwear is likely the single most individual and important purchase you’ll make and as a premium product the Salomon S/Lab Sense 6 ticks the boxes. Designed in collaboration with mountain running legend, Killian Jornet, the Sense Ultra is a super lightweight race shoe, yet with adequate protection to deal with the most formidable trails. Also remember to stay safe from the elements, it’s not like toughing out a short 10k, where in contrast in an ultra you may be on the hills dealing with inclement weather for many hours. The Salomon S/Lab Hybrid Jacket will keep you warm and protected from the elements, but won’t compromise performance being lightweight with motion fit.

A little strength and conditioning goes a long way

A passion for running can be as rewarding as it can be destructive at times. We accumulate miles over  many joyous hours on the trails, yet this needs balance. One way of providing this is to do some strength and core work. That's where taking a little time to work on the parts of our bodies that miles in the legs don't always work. Not least the parts that do get worked thousands of times repetitively on the run need extra strengthening.

There are hundreds of specific core and strengthening sessions available on the net that are easily accessible. Trust me even a 10-15minute session 3 times a week will give big returns in injury prevention and being able to hold good form late in a race.

Train your weaknesses but play to your strengths

I would imagine we're all guilty of this at some points in all and every walk of life. It's almost become human nature due to our culture to stick to what comes easy to us. We spend much time avoiding pain and discomfort, yet procrastination often leads to more pain and stress.

In a running forum, I'm a pretty good ascender (I normally gain places late in races on long climbs) and I'm fairly metronomic on the flat at an ultra pace. Where I'm weaker is on working my top end speed and descents. I've learnt over time that committing some time to these weaknesses is where I'll get the biggest gains on races. That doesn't mean they necessarily become my strengths, rather the margins to the other competitors shortens. Then I can still capitalise on my strengths when the time comes.

I'd imagine we've all got some area of our running we'd consider our Achilles heel (excuse the running pun...). Take some time to pay some attention to it and you'll reap the rewards in the long run.


Experience is the sum of our lives, hard lessons learnt but to be embraced. These are a few examples of what I've learnt in running so far. The learning never stops though and I embrace all the experience it gives me.

Feel free to disagree with some or even all of what I've said, after all thats how we learn right - by getting stuff wrong...

Tuesday 14 November 2017

Salomon S-Lab Sense Soft Ground


The Salomon trail running range caters for a vast range of running types and terrains. Sat at the centre of this catalogue is the piece de resistance, the S-Lab Sense. The stripped-back racing shoe, with all the technological knowhow of the Annecy based company evident throughout. The familiar red colour scheme signifying its sole purpose in allowing us to run fast and light along the trails without compromise.

In order to specialise the shoe for wetter and slicker ground, Salomon released the Soft Ground version of the Sense. In doing so they found the sweet spot between functionality, performance and specificity, particularly in notoriously tricky British fell conditions. The Soft Ground bridges this gap by combining the superb minimalist elements of the Sense range, but adding an aggressive outsole with deep luxurious lugs. Although not the shark tooth shape of the Salomon S-Lab Speed, ( they are still hugely competent in greasy conditions. By combining almost infinite grip, with race ready Sensibilities (see what I did there), Salomon have come up with The mountain shoe for the market. Yes there are other options out there, that may suit some people, but they don't come without compromise. Salomon have come up trumps with the S-Lab Sense SG's and they currently sit as my favourite shoe. 

I threw on a brand new pair of the 6th generation of the S-Lab Sense Soft Ground to support 2 legs of a friends Bob Graham Round attempt. They required no bedding in, immediately out the box they fit like an old pair of slippers. Over the next 20 miles and 10,000ft of ascent the SG’s took the terrain in their more than competent stride – be it bogs, thick mud or even wet rock. They’re also now a meagre 225grams, so even after the punishing climbs and descents from the worst the Lake District has to offer my legs felt fresh and my feet light. It's a foregone conclusion what will be on my feet when I take on my own Bob Graham Round next year.

Climbing high in the SG's on the Bob Graham Round

Over 6 generations of S-Lab Sense, the fine tuning is evident throughout the shoe. The fit seems more generous than before with a squarer toe box that allows toes to splay more. Yet despite this, accuracy isn't compromised at all, the 'Endofit' technology means the sock like fit makes the shoe genuinely feel like part of your foot. This in turn gives supreme confidence when hammering descents at high speed. Foot placement feels accurate on technical terrain increasing performance.

Despite a minimalist mindset when producing this shoe, Salomon has in no way sold the end user short on protection. The obligatory Profeel Film is ever present to protect your foot from rocks and other obstacles. And although not completely bombproof in order to maintain minimalism, in turn it doesn't affect proprioception whatsoever. In respect of race performance and dexterity this is the ideal level of protection. Whereas some more dense soles on the market could offer more layers of protection, they do so at great cost to speed over technical ground.

The upper on the shoe is the usual sumptuous combination of exotic materials and glued overlays. The mesh keeps debris firmly out, yet the plastics ensure longevity. It's this area that truly separates the Salomon shoe from its rivals, these shoes are made to last, even in the harshest environments. In previous iterations of the Sense range I've eventually split them at the sides where the toe box flex's most. This has clearly been identified and now rectified with strategically placed reinforcements to these previously vulnerable areas. I've currently run just over 300 miles in a pair of Sense SG's and they show little sign of wear. This despite spending several hours in punishing bogs and rocky conditions at the Salomon Nevis Ultra and having daily runs in the Peak District where the peat is notorious for degrading shoe materials.

Not only is it a win all round with the shoes upper, they also looks damn sexy! The combination of red with black detailing make these the Ferrari of the trail shoe market. Maybe a little loud for some peoples taste, but undeniably eye-catching.

Turn up to any mountain/fell race and you'll see Sense SG's in abundance. This is for good reason, there's little else on the market that comes close to this hybrid of technological and minimalist oxymoron. With durability and functionality optimal throughout the design, I can't imagine anyone being disappointed with a purchase.

Taking on the technical ground with ease at the Salomon Nevis Ultra