I’ll start this article by stating that I am in no way a mental health expert. If you are suffering from any form of mental health disorder or illness then always seek the help of a medical professional.
As today is World Mental Health Day I wanted to talk a little abut this subject and share with you a few tips I’ve learned during my 15 years of coaching and personal training.
In recent years people seem to be opening up about their battles with depression or other mental health issues. In fact it seems that our sport of Ultra Running is, for many people, their medicine, their way to deal with depression, stress, addiction, anxiety or low self esteem. It’s great that people feel they can open up about their battles, it helps remove the stigma of mental health problems and gives hope to others in similar positions. People like Rob Krar and Tim Olson have been very open about their struggles and have demonstrated incredible resilience to bounce back and achieve great things in the sport.
Again, I want to stress that if you are suffering from depression or any other mental illness then please seek professional help but if you just feel down from time to time, have periods of low self esteem, or just generally feel a little lost then maybe this 5 point system can help you. I call it the 5 E’s
There have been countless studies showing a direct link between exercise and good mental health. The following is an excerpt from a recent article in Psychology Today by Sarah Gingell Ph.D.
“Put simply: Exercise directly affects the brain. Regular exercise — in part through better blood supply that improves neuronal health by improving the delivery of oxygen and nutrients; and through an increase in neurotrophic factors and neurohormones that support neuron signaling, growth, and connections.
Of critical importance for mental health is the hippocampus — an area of the brain involved in memory, emotion regulation, and learning. Studies in other animals show convincingly that exercise leads to the creation of new hippocampal neurons (neurogenesis), with preliminary evidence suggesting this is also true in humans.
What does this all mean? Theories suggest that newborn hippocampal neurons are likely to be particularly important for storing new memories and keeping old and new memories separate and distinct. Thus, neurogenesis allows a healthy level of flexibility in the use of existing memories, and in the flexible processing of new information.
Much mental ill health is characterized by a cognitive inflexibility that keeps us repeating unhelpful behaviors, restricts our ability to process or even acknowledge new information, and reduces our ability to use what we already know to see new solutions or to change. It is therefore plausible that exercise leads to better mental health in general, through its effects on systems that increase the capacity for mental flexibility.”
“OK, I’m in. But how much exercise?”
Psychiatrist Madhukar Trivedi, has shown that three or more sessions per week of aerobic exercise or resistance training, for 45 to 60 minutes per session, can help. Effects tend to be noticed after about four weeks (which incidentally is how long neurogenesis takes), and training should be continued for 10-12 weeks for the greatest anti-depressant effect.
We’ve all heard the saying “It’s good to talk”. Well it’s true. Don’t bottle up your feelings, your fears and anxieties. Get them out. Think for one moment about how you would react if your partner, friend, or family member opened up to you that they were feeling down and generally struggling a little in their day to day life. Would you judge them? Would you think less of them? Of course not! You would listen and offer any help that you could. It works both ways.
Another useful way to work through anything that may be causing you stress or anxiety is to write your problems down 1 by 1. Then write down the steps you can take to fix each of these issues in the short term, medium term and long term. Just to see everything on paper with the beginning of a plan of action can be a big stress relief in itself rather than constantly going over things in your head. Try it.
Don’t be a passenger in your life, drifting from day to day without a clear purpose. Really engage in the areas of your life that need work however daunting it may seem initially. Taking action, no matter how small is empowering and often the first steps are the most difficult.
Engage with likeminded people. We’re social creatures, we enjoy the security that comes with being part of a group. We like our achievements to be recognised by people that we respect and admire so surround yourself with these kind of people. Most people who read my blogs are runners so you may find that sense of belonging in a running group, a gym class or somewhere completely different. If you’re part of a group that meets at the same time each week it gives you that structure and accountability that breeds security and feelings of belonging.
Understanding why you’re feeling the way that you are goes a long way to helping you feel better. Speak with a professional, learn relaxation techniques and stress management techniques to help you deal with negative emotions. Don’t hide away from your feelings and hope they’ll go away. Learn as much as you can and take action.
Try to be a little better than yesterday, make some progress in some area of your life everyday. Excel in comparison to the you of yesterday. Work towards the things that you really want to achieve in life and reward yourself along the way. Don’t judge yourself on how far you still have to go to achieve your goals, judge yourself on how far you’ve come since you started. Take satisfaction from the process. No matter what you’re working towards you’re going to have setbacks along the way, accept it, don’t lose heart, you can’t change things that have already happened but you can learn from them. If you can learn to enjoy the process then you take a lot of stress out of trying to achieve anything.
If you can devote a little time to these 5 areas of your life each day it may just give you some peace of mind and help you to work towards being the person that you want to be.
Thanks for reading
We all have our own reasons for trail running and no matter what those reasons may be most of us would like to improve, to be faster, to run longer distances, to recover more quickly. In this series of articles my aim is to share with you, in simple terms, some of the processes that are taking place within our bodies, what the implications of these processes are on our performance and how we can train intentionally to improve various aspects of our physiology and in turn, improve our running performance. In this article I’m going to focus on the Nervous System.
What is the Nervous System?
We have 2 principal communications systems within our bodies, the endocrine system which produces hormones (we will focus on this in a future article) and the nervous system. The nervous system can be broken down into 2 parts, the Central Nervous System (CNS) which includes the brain and spinal cord and the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS), which contains all of the nerves outside of the CNS.
The CNS is the control centre of your nervous system. It controls all physical activity and processes all sensory feedback. It is made up of around 85 billion neurons (nerve cells) in our brains and another billion our spines. Motor neurons in the CNS send messages along axons (nerve fibres) to the muscles in our bodies where the neurons trigger contraction and relaxation which in turn enables movement to take place. In the opposite direction, sensory neurons relay stimuli detected by your senses throughout our bodies via the PNS back to the CNS.
What does it have to do with running?
With any physical activity our bodies must learn the movement patterns required for the task through deliberate practise, running is no different. Think back to the first time you tried to ride a bicycle without stabilisers, your body didn’t have the balance, coordination, control or movement pattern required to perform the task but through deliberate practise it becomes automatic. Now when you ride a bicycle you don’t think about it, everything happens automatically. Running is the same, it’s a learned pattern of movement. If you’re reading this article the chances are that you can already run, your body knows the movement patterns required for the task but can we improve it? Can we make it operate better, faster, more efficiently? The answer is most definitely yes. Through deliberate practise and specific training we can in effect rewire our nervous system in the following 5 areas
Motor unit recruitment and coordination
Any movement begins when we “tell” our body to move. The message comes from the brain, travels to motor neurons in the spinal cord and is then transmitted along the motor neurons’ axons to the muscles. Each motor neuron controls a specific group of muscle fibres within a single muscle. Together, the neuron and the fibres it controls are called a motor unit. Your CNS recruits groups of motor units within a muscle so that they can work together to contract the muscle. When contraction occurs, two mechanisms govern the force of that contraction:
We use both rate coding and recruitment when we run, we generate force by increasing the rate of impulses and by recruiting larger motor units, both are trainable.
Some of the other factors to consider when talking about muscle fibre recruitment are recruitment patterns, reduced inhibition, strength gains and contraction velocity.
Running requires coordinated contraction and relaxation of multiple muscle groups across multiple joints all at the same time. Through many hours of repeated, deliberate practise our nervous system learns and develops new pathways to make this process as efficient as possible. These pathways become hardwired as Recruitment Patterns.
When 1 muscle or muscle group contracts, it’s opposing muscle or muscle group must relax. For example, when our quadriceps contract, the hamstrings must relax. Untrained and undertrained muscles have difficulty coordinating this process efficiently. Training and deliberate practise make this process much more efficient and results in Reduced Inhibition.
When you begin any new strength programme almost all of the early Strength Gains will come from increased nerve recruitment rather than muscle growth. Even if you only train 1 side of your body (which I don’t recommend) the other side of your body will also have some increase in strength just through your body applying what the nervous system has learned on the opposite side of the body.
By performing the correct movement patterns required for running many thousands of times through deliberate practise we can increase the Contraction Velocity of our muscle fibres. Contraction velocity measures the time taken for muscle fibres to reach peak contraction. The faster the contraction velocity the more power we can generate which in turn allows us to run more quickly.
Balance is what keeps us upright (most of the time) when we run. When we run we must push off from one foot, stay upright, recruit multiple muscle groups all at the right time to maintain stability, land on the opposite foot, control the landing forces to stay upright again and repeat the process many thousands of times. As trail runners we are doing all of this while on uneven terrain. If we get this process wrong, for example on a technical downhill at speed, the results can be catastrophic. Fortunately balance is easily improved with specific training.
Proprioception is your body’s awareness of it’s position relative to it’s surroundings and it’s ability to adjust to those surroundings accordingly. The classic example for trail runners is when we step on a loose rock or uneven ground and our foot/ankle must react quickly and automatically to prevent an ankle sprain. This automatic response can be trained by deliberately training in an unstable environment and creating those automatic recruitment patterns that prevent the ankle from rolling.
Our proprioceptive system includes the inner ear and nerves connecting the CNS to the muscles, tendons and ligaments. The nerves relay position, tension and stretch sensations to the CNS. The CNS responds by triggering muscle contractions that hold or alter your bodies position, whichever is required.
A common example of proprioception training is the wobble board, a “controlled” unstable environment.
Nervous System Fatigue
We cannot learn new movement patterns or skills when the nervous system is fatigued. Fatigue prevents the CNS from delivering the brain’s orders to the muscles and prevents our PNS from reporting back to the brain effectively. Ultimately we can’t beat nervous system fatigue but we can learn what causes it and plan our training effectively to avoid it.
The most common causes of nervous system fatigue are short, high intensity exercises. The closer to 100% effort that we train the higher the stress on our nervous system. This is true for both running intervals and lifting weights. We need to ensure sufficient recovery betweens sets and overall workouts.
Symptoms of nervous system fatigue include trembling hands, clumsiness, difficulty sleeping, difficulty concentrating and reduced grip strength. If you recognise these symptoms in yourself then dial back the hard workouts and allow your body to recover.
I discussed running economy in the first article in this series. It is the measure of how efficiently we use oxygen at a given speed. When we consider some of the factors that contribute to improved running economy, weekly mileage, tempo running, race pace intervals, high intensity intervals, resistance training, plyometrics it’s easy to see why targeted nervous system training is so important in our development as athletes. A highly functioning, efficient nervous system has a huge role to play in every one of those contributing factors.
How can we incorporate nervous system training into our programme?
To develop the nervous system our training programme should include the following:
If you would like to know more about how to focus your training to improve nervous system function then please drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
All of the runners that I work with engage in a strength and conditioning programme alongside their running schedule. When I begin working with a new athlete I’m often asked “why do I need to lift weights?” or “how does this help me to run faster?”. It’s also common to be met with the “I don’t want to bulk up” response, especially from female runners. In this article I want to answer these questions and explain exactly how regular strength and conditioning can help your performance.
What is Strength and Conditioning?
Lets’s start with Strength. We can break Strength down into 4 components
Maximum Strength is what you would traditionally associate with strength, it is the maximum force an individual can apply through a specific movement pattern. A good example of this is the maximum amount of weight you can lift on a specific exercise.
Relative Strength is the maximum force you can generate per kg of bodyweight. As endurance runners we don’t want to be carrying excess muscle bulk but if we can train our bodies to recruit more muscle fibres without increasing mass then our relative strength increases.
Explosive Strength is the ability to produce a large amount of force very quickly.
Reactive Strength is your ability to use your tendons and connective tissues to act like springs. They store and return elastic energy each time our foot strikes in the ground. The better the reactive strength the more efficient the running stride. This is the most important component of strength for the endurance runner and is highly trainable through plyometric training.
Strength training is any form of training which focusses on improving any of the 4 components listed above.
What is Conditioning?
Any exercises that don’t focus specifically on the 4 components listed above can be thought of as conditioning. Conditioning exercises tend to have no similarity to running technique but have indirect benefits. Examples could be rehabilitating a weakened muscle/muscle group. Proprioception training for a damaged ankle, regular foam rolling, postural training or mobility work. None of these are specific to running but they definitely have an important part to play in your overall programme.
So now we know what it is, why is it important for trail runners? Let’s look at the benefits of strength training
The benefits of conditioning tend to be more focussed on injury prevention and recovery. By including postural work, mobility work, foam rolling etc into our routine we can reduce our injury rate by addressing problems before they develop into something more serious. By keeping our bodies in balance we greatly reduce our risk of overuse injuries which often plague runners.
If we are injured, engaging in an appropriate rehabilitation programme greatly increases our chances of a full return to function and reduces the chances of the muscle/tendon/ligament from breaking down again.
I hope this article has answered a few questions for you but don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about the issue of “Bulking Up”. I know this is a real fear for some runners, especially females. The truth is, to build muscle is quite a challenge in itself requiring a specific set of circumstances including the appropriate training/eating/resting cycle. The good news for you is that logging lots of kilometres on the trails is not part of this cycle, in fact it’s quite detrimental to the science of building muscle so rest assured, by engaging in a regular strength and conditioning programme you are not about to gain 10km of solid muscle.
If you would like to know more about how to incorporate strength and conditioning into your training then please drop me an email at email@example.com
Patagonia has been a dream destination of mine for a long, long time. I've always loved watching documentaries on the region showing the amazing landscape and wildlife. It's a place I've always wanted to visit but didn't think I'd ever get the chance, so when the opportunity came to race Ultra Torres del Paine in Chile it was an easy decision to make. Fast forward 3 months and I find myself on the startline in Villa Cerró Castillo in Southern Chile with 81km and 3500m+ ahead of me, I was looking forward to this.
It's pretty cold in Patagonia at 7am so it was a relief when the gun went and we could get moving. The first couple of kms were flat, a nice warm up, before hitting the first climb of the day. As we hit the climb I began to pull away from the field, not intentionally, but I was comfortable so I pushed on up the 500m of ascent. The route was on a dirt road so I wasn't really paying much attention to the course markings, I was too busy looking at the colours in the sky before sunrise. As is traditional for me, I missed the course markings that lead away from the route and onto the open hillside. By the time I realised my mistake I'd ran an extra km off course and had to run another km back to the correct route, I met another few runners along the way who had made the same mistake, sometimes 81km just isn't enough! By the time I got back on track I'd dropped from first to fifth but I wasn't overly concerned as I could see the other runners off in the distance and pulled them in by the time we hit the bottom of the first descent at around 12km. The sunrise was pretty special, amazing colours in the sky showing the incredible Torres del Paine off in the distance.
I took the lead again at the bottom of the second climb and as I approached the top I could see two massive birds sitting at the edge of a cliff just 20m for me. They were giant condors, I actually stopped to watch them as they took off. They were massive, a sight I'll never forget. I've seen them on TV before but I couldn't believe how big they are when you're this close to them. I lost a couple of minutes watching them but it was worth it. The chasing pack of 3 caught me so no more condor watching, back to the race! I stayed with the pack until we hit the checkpoint at 15km. Between checkpoints 1 and 2 were a fairly flat 5 kms which took us to the bottom of the toughest climb of the day, a pretty brutal 800m+ over just 3km. This part of the course reminded me so much of an area very close to where I grew up in the South of Scotland called the Dalvean Pass, very green, very steep and very wet underfoot. By the bottom of the climb I already had a gap on the others again and by half way up I could see that the gap was opening all the time so I just relaxed again and really enjoyed the surroundings trying to take it all in. The climb was pretty brutal, really steep and long enough to make you wish it was over but it was worth it for the views from the top, just unbelievable. Underfoot conditions had changed from boggy marshland to volcanic ash and snow. Running along a volcanic ridge in the snow just after sunrise was just surreal, one of those magical moments that stays with you forever. The descent was pretty amazing too, through a forest of dead trees that have turned a white blue kind of colour, just totally alien to anything I've seen before. It's easy to forget that you're in a race in these kind of situations.
The next checkpoint at 33km was supposed to be where I would collect my drop bag that contained my gels for the remainder of the race. Unfortunately I arrived before the drop bag! It meant I'd have to rely on whatever they had in the aid stations for the next 50km, a little bit risky but there was no other option. A few kms outside he checkpoint my mind was still thinking about my lack of nutrition when I heard a strange noise, looked up and saw my first guanaco, kind of like a lama. That seemed to make me forget about my gels, what a place!
The next 25km were pretty wet, muddy and fairly flat. I discovered they had chocolate and bananas in every checkpoint so that kept me going. This section was really remote, no people, no buildings, no signs of civilisation in any direction, a true wilderness. Eventually I started to catch the runners from the shorter races that had started at various points along the same route. I quite like this kind of scenario as it always gives you targets to work towards when you can see people off in the distance. The going was really slow in a lot of laces with the underfoot conditions, knee deep mud, huge puddles, river crossings, not somewhere to be breaking any speed records but a great course all the same.
By 60km the course started to climb again, not a continuous climb but really rolling and with the underfoot conditions and 60km in the legs already it made finding any kind of rhythm pretty tough.The most important thing was I was still moving well and my energy was very good, maybe chocolate and bananas are the way to go. By 78km we emerged from a forest at the top of the final descent, the views opened up beneath us of a massive flat plain with stunning mountains all around. The finish line was in the grounds of Hotel Río Serrano visible from 3km out. The last descent was brilliant, nice smooth single track, really fast running. I hit the bottom of the descent and knew that with only 1km of flat to the finish I had the race won. I just relaxed, enjoyed the moment and took in the amazing location. A really great day.
Thank you so much to the race organisers and Carrerasdemontana.com for the invitation. And thanks to the people I met along the way. I had a really special time.
See you in April Chile!
Anyone who knows me knows how much I love Mallorca. I first visited in 2012 for the Transmallorca Run and have been a frequent visitor ever since. The people, landscape and climate combine to make Mallorca a trail running paradise that keeps pulling me back time and again. The purpose of my latest visit was the Tramuntana Travessa, a 130km race across the full length of the Tramuntana Mountains from west to east. I've wanted to win this race for a few years now. My first attempt in 2013 ended with a fractured ankle after 65km. In 2014 I finished 2nd after rolling the same ankle again at around 90km. I couldn't make the race in 2015 so I was hoping for third time lucky this year.
We arrived on Mallorca 2 days before the race to relax and prepare ahead of the 10pm Friday night start. We studied the race profile and made a plan, what time I would arrive at each checkpoint, what Celeste would have ready for each of the checkpoints and plan B in case things are going wrong. We were very fortunate to have Marcel Ruiz Sanchez helping us too. Marcel is a good friend who lives on Mallorca so he was able to show Celeste the way to each of the aid stations, thanks Marcel!
We headed down to the start in Andratx around 9.30 for the compulsory kit check, a couple of quick interviews and to meet a lot of friends. The running community in Mallorca always make me feel very welcome and I'm very grateful for that, it's my home from home. As we lined up for the start I was reunited with my Compressport teammate and local legend Miquel "the boss" Capo. A few weeks earlier we had ran together practically all day everyday for the 6 days of the Everest Trail Race (see previous blog post). Our strengths compliment each other well so I was expecting to see a lot of Miquel in this race too.
On the stroke of 10 we were off into the night, it was around 8 degrees, clear and with no wind at all, perfect running conditions.
The pace was very easy as we left the town and headed for the mountains. I settled into the middle of the lead group of 7 or 8 runners and just stayed as relaxed as possible to conserve energy for the long night ahead. With a 10pm start and sunrise at 7.52am it was going to be a long time running in darkness. With the Everest Trail race only a couple of weeks earier and the Ecotrail Funchal 80km just 2 weeks before that I wasn't sure how I was going to feel. I'd come home from the Himalayas sick so hadn't felt great in training but thankfully as we made our way up the first climb I was feelining really good. My legs were light and my breathing was relaxed.
As we climbed S'Esclop and started the descent to the first aid station at Boa Estallencs I was on familiar territory, this is where I train a lot (and run out of water) in summer. I knew every rock and turn and that really helped me to stay relaxed in the early stages. We reached the aid station at 21 km as a group of 6 or 7, refilled the water and pushed on towards my favourite climb on the island, Galatzo.
As we started to climb, Miquel and I raised the pace slightly and within a few minutes we were out of sight of the others. It was a stunning night up there with the silhoutte of the Tramuntana against a sky full of stars, really spectacular.
As we made the descent from Galatzo things became a little more difficult. We were both suffereing from stomach problems and had to stop several times. I had made a mistake with my prerace nutrition and was paying the price. It made for an uncomfortable hour or so but eventually I worked my way through it and by the time we arrived at the next aid station at Esporlas(44km) I was almost back to normal. I ate some solid food here to give my stomach a break from the gels and it seemed to help. The next section to Valldemossa was pretty uneventful. We seemed to pick up from where we left off in the Himalayas, I would lead on the climbs and Miquel would lead on the descents. Valldemossa(56km) came and went and we pushed on towards Bunyola. It was around this time that I started to feel tired, it was late into the night, we'd ran around 65km and it was still a long time until the sun would come up. This is where you start to wrestle with your mind. I know my body is capable because I've done it many times before but sometimes the mind needs convincing!
We took a little longer in the aid station at Bunyola(71km). I think we were both feeling the pace by now and I wanted to take on as many calories as I could as I knew the climb out of Bunyola from a race I did earlier this year and I knew it was going to hurt. It didn't disappoint! After Bunyola I wouldn't see Celeste and Marcel until Tossals at 95km. This was the toughest section of the race for me. The last hour of darkness, the fatigue of the long night and kms already run, the kms still to go and the very technical terrain made for some tough moments. As the first light of day arrived I was having some mild hallucinations. We were running through an olive grove and the tree trunks looked like people and animals, I forced a caffeine gel down and tried to shake myself awake. I hit my absloute lowest point just before the checkpoint at Tossals but fortunatley the sugar was beginning to take effect and the sun was waking me up again. Miquel kept the pace honest and forced us on into the checkpoint. I would've been slower without him for sure.
We stopped in Tossals for hot coffee, some sort of Mallorcan cake, banana and probably some other things that I've forgotten about. We laughed about the effort, the distance still to go, the things we were going to eat in Pollenca at the finish line and tried not to think about the remaining kms.
At this time of the morning and particularly at this time of year the climb from Tossals to Massanella was just stunning. The low light of the morning, the sun on the Mallorcan rocks and everything much greener than in the summer, it was probably the most beautiful I've seen Mallorca look, or perhaps I was low on sugar again, either way it was nice!! We crossed the highest point of the race at around the 100km mark and descended into the final aid station at Son Amer after 106km. I was feeling much better by now, tired and ready to finish but nothing like I had felt a couple of hours earlier. As we left that final aid station I hugged Celeste and Marcel and thanked them for their support, they made the effort so much easier. We only had 1 small climb left and then a steady descent towards the finish before the remaining few kms on the flat into Pollenca.
At Son Amer we were told that the 3rd placed runner had pulled back 35 minutes on us in a short space of time, I found this hard to believe but we pushed hard for a few kms until we had it confirmed a few kms later that this had been a mistake and he was in fact an hour behind us. So after a mini stress we could enjoy the remaining 20km and we had a nice surprise when in the last few kms Celeste and Marcel(who had also been supporting Miquel) joined us on the road and ran with us for a few hundred meters. It was great to share that moment together as it had been a team effort all night and we now knew that we would win the race so it was like a quiet celebration before we reached the town.
For the last few kms we were joined by some locals on bikes and the police on motorbikes to guide us through the winding streets of Pollenca. After 130kms together we knew there would be no sprint finish, we had shared the race and we would share the win, in fact, in the end neither of us broke the tape first, that honour fell to Miquel's son who ran with us for the last few meters to the finish line, the next generation and I'm sure it won't be the last time he crosses the line first!
It had been a tough race, longer than I expected time wise and more technical than i was expecting too. No doubt having the Everest race and Ecotrail in the few weeks leading up to it contributed to the effort also but this race was important to me. I had wanted this one for a long time and it was the perfect way to end the season.
I don't believe you can experience true happiness unless you've also experienced true misery. Those kms between Orient and Tossals were true misery but on Sunday as we gathered for lunch with Celeste, Belen, Antonio, Xavi, Angie, Borja, Antia, Pau and John knowing I had achieved my goal and surrounded by good friends that was true happiness for sure.
It was a pleasure as always Mallorca, until the next time.
The Everest Trail Race was much more than just another race. It was an experience of a lifetime. Two things above all else make this race so special, the people and the landscape. The Himalayas are like nothing I’ve ever encountered before and the people who call this place home are equally unique. It’s an unforgiving environment making for a tough life but the people, despite having very little, are the happiest, friendliest, most content people I’ve ever met. Always smiling, always with a warm “namaste” as you pass even while they climb a steep slope at altitude with a weight equal to their own bodyweight strapped to their head. Unbelievable.
So how about the race? It started in the village of Jiri and over the course of 6 days we covered around 100 miles with 25,000m+- broken down as follows:
Stage 1: Jiri-Bhandar 21.5km with 3795m+
Stage 2: Bandhar-Jase Bhanjyang with 3486m+
Stage 3: Jase Bhanjyang-Kharikhola 2521m+
Stage 4: Kharikhola-Phakding 2479m+
Stage 5: Phakding-Tyangboche 2224m+
Stage 6: Tyangboche-Lukla 2105m+
Each day would follow the same pattern, woken by the amazing Sherpas at 5.30am with a warm tea, breakfast at 6, start running at 8, lunch, snooze, sometimes another lunch, dinner at 6.30, bed at 9. We were sleeping in tents for the first 4 nights then mountain lodges for the last couple of stages. Each runner had to carry everything they needed for the week, clothes, sleeping bag, mandatory safety equipment etc while the race organisation provided the tents and all meals. My pack for the race weighed around 4kg which is a lot heavier than my usual race pack but wen I saw a Sherpa carrying a full size fridge freezer on his head the 4kg didn’t seem so bad after all.
There was a definite pattern to the racing too, every morning the gun would go and the young Sherpa Lama Passang would disappear up the the trail, myself and my Compressport teammate Miquel Capo would settle into our own rhythm and we wouldn’t see him again until the finish line! There was only 1 exception to this when on day 2 we managed to beat him over the highest point of the race but every other day he was out of sight. Not only did he win the race but he was always on hand in the camp to help the other runners, a lovely guy.
Running in these mountains didn’t really feel like racing. It was just as tough as racing, even more so at times due to the altitude and the terrain but it just felt like an adventure. I ran all day every day with Miquel and at least 3 or 4 times on each stage one of us would point at a massive snow covered peak and say “look! Everest!”. We were wrong every time until day 5! On day 6 we decided to spend the day with the other runners and that was a really nice way to finish, relaxed, taking pictures, dodging donkeys and yaks. In the end Passang won, Miquel was second and I was 3rd. We also won the team category along with our Menorcan teammate, the ever smiling Raul!
Another really nice thing about this race is getting to know all of the other runners. Normally at a race, you run, maybe have a chat with the people who finish close to you and then you go home, but here you were living with all the other runners all week. We had runners of all abilities from all over the world and it was great to spend time with all of them. A special mention for Geordie Jim aka Jimalaya. Jim had never done an event like this and by the end of stage 1 and 2 he was cursing and saying never again but the way he grew into the race and boosted the morale of everyone around him was great to see.
Finally, the organisation. To stage a race of this type in that environment takes a lot of courage. So many things can go wrong out there and if they do rescue is very difficult. Jordi Abad and his team do an unbelievable job. Very courageous but very professional. The runners are in safe hands. The team of Sherpas are from a different planet, including guys who have stood on the summit of Everest 5 times, these guys are the real stars of the show and it was an absolute pleasure to meet every one of them. Everest Trail Race I salute you. Namaste
I'd never been to Madeira so I wasn't really sure what to expect from this race but it's safe to say I was pleasantly surprised. The island is beautiful, very green, steep and technical. It's a lot like Scotland but with winter sun. We arrived on the island a couple of days before the race so had an opportunity to do some sightseeing and to enjoy a couple of the local restaurants in the main town of Funchal. It's a very popular tourist destination but still manages to retain a real authentic feel. The people were very friendly and the food was great.
The night before the race we had the Compressport Q&A session and the community run where Julien Chorier and myself had the chance to run with some of the local runners and other competitors through the streets and indoor market of Funchal, a nice way to relax and loosen the legs ahead of the race.
The race itself is an 80km loop, starting and finishing in the centre of Funchal and taking in 5100m of altitude gain along the way. It's essentially 2 big climbs from sea level to 1800m and back down with a few more ups and downs along the way. The race organisation had arranged an apartment for us 2 minutes walk from the start line so around 5.45am we walked down to the start and on the stroke of 6 we were off. The first few kms are flat along the sea front until we reached the bottom of the first climb. Fairly quickly we were down to a lead group of 5 or 6 runners at the head of the race and it stayed this way all the way to the top of the first climb and most of the way down to the checkpoint at halfway.
With 40km and 1 major climb to go I knew before the start that this is where the racing would really begin. As soon as we left the checkpoint Julien started the attack and within a minute we were alone at the head of the race. It was a pretty steep climb and after a few kms I had to back off and allow a small gap to open. I kept Julien in sight all the way up the climb, focussed on eating enough and staying hydrated. By the end of the steepest sections the gap was 3 minutes but as we arrived at the checkpoint close to the summit it was back down to 1 minute. We left the trail to join a road at this point. We were up in the clouds so the visibility was down to about 100m. I could see Julien no more than 30 or 40s ahead. I put my head down and pushed to try to catch him before the summit. A few minutes later I realised I couldn't see Julien or any course markings for a while, I carried on for a couple of hundred meters more and still nothing. I had missed the turning back onto the trail! I turned and ran back the way I had come and sure enough, the markers were there. Frustrating but it was done. I got my head back in the race and set about trying to close the gap.
At the next checkpoint on the descent Celeste told me the gap was 6 minutes thanks to my error. I was descending well so felt that I still had a good chance to win. The descent was a really nice mixture of technical trails and smooth fast running through forests, villages and open mountain. I was moving really well and after around 5 or 6 km of descent a spectator told me the gap was less than 3 minutes, game on! With another 5km of descent then 6km flat I was confident I could pull back the remaining time. As we left the mountain and forests behind the course was following small waterways and winding down through steep village streets. I was pushing hard and must have lost focus because a couple of local girls started waving at me and pointing back up the hill. I'd missed another turn! I was only 300m off course but it was a very steep 300m back up hill to the turning which had been obscured by a parked car. I knew the lost time was probably too much to make up but I tried to take back as much as I could. By the time I saw Celeste at the checkpoint with 6km to go the gap was 5 minutes. Too much to make up in such a short space of time along the flat coast so I just enjoyed the remaining kms and finished 2nd.
After the race we had a nice dinner with the whole Compressport crew to round off a great weekend. Thanks a million to Celeste for being there in every checkpoint, to Mauro for driving Celeste all over the island and to Patricio Fernandes and his team for a great race.
I left Scotland for Barcelona at the end of June with the intention of competing in the 2nd race of the Alpinultras series, Ultra Valls D’Aneu, before heading to Mallorca for a week to recover. Unfortunately that plan came to an abrupt end a couple of days before the race when I sprained my ankle badly in the hills above Castelldefells. It was a tough blow to take as the Alpinutras has been my main focus for this season. The blow was softened however after I exchanged a few messages with Mayayo from carrerasdemontana.com and an invite was secured for Ultra Sierra Nevada, part of the Spanish Ultra Cup, 2 weeks later instead. Rather than spending a week in Mallorca relaxing I would go for 10 days instead and spend my days training in the Tramontana, my favourite training ground.
Thankfully, I emerged from the days 10 unscathed with around 250km and 12,000m+ in my legs and fairly well acclimated to the heat. I even managed to squeeze in a race while I was there at the Crono Escalada Bunyola, a 4.8km uphill time trial, where I was shown a clean pair of heals by a few of the local youngsters in temperatures approaching those more commonly found of the surface of the sun!
I arrived in Pradollano, a beautiful ski resort at 2100m in the Sierra Nevada the day before the race. The town lies at the foot of La Valeta, the 3,394m peak which would form the final climb of the Ultra before dropping back down to finish in the centre of the town. A really beautiful setting for a race and a perfect place to relax for 24 hours before the start on Friday night at midnight.
Eventually, 2 weeks later and in a completely different mountain range than planned, I find myself on the start line in Granada ready to race. The music is banging, Depa “la Voz” is whipping up the crowd and boom, we’re off! 103km with 6000m+ ahead of us.
It’s a really nice start, winding through the streets of Granada, past Alhambra, the Arabic palace, all lit up and eventually out of town and into the mountains. The pace is fairly sedate and there’s a large lead group of around 20 runners. It’s still well over 30 degrees so I’m happy to just sit in and conserve as much energy as possible . This was the pattern of things for the first 25km or so as we eased our way into the race. The first tough climb came shortly after the 25km mark and this is where the lead group disintegrated. By the time we dropped down into the checkpoint at km 34 we were down to a group of 4 and by checkpoint 5 we were down to 3, Remi Queral, Alex Fraguela and myself.
The 3 of us stayed together, keeping a nice pace but not working too hard over the next couple of major climbs and after a long night we were treated to a pretty spectacular sunrise over the Sierra Nevada from Alto de los Jaralles. With a new day always comes a real boost in energy and it was around this time that I decided I was going to attack out of the checkpoint 6 at the 70km mark so I ate well and made sure I was well hydrated as we dropped down from 2000m to the checkpoint at 1000m 70km into the race. I collected my drop bag at the checkpoint and chatted briefly with a Scottish woman who said she had heard a Scotsman was in the lead so had come out to support, thanks for that! It would appear I wasn’t the only one who planned to attack from here, Alex left the checkpoint 1st trying to open a gap followed by Remi. I lost about 30 seconds here but caught them before the foot of climb at which point Remi attacked hard, very hard!! I went with him, thinking the attack would be short-lived but this was a sustained attack which continued for several kms. We were close to the limit and anytime we could see back down the mountain there was no sign of Alex or any of the other runners. We took it in turns to set the pace, each trying to break the other with occasional periods of truce while we recovered, it was pretty full on racing for a while, even on the easier forest road sections we were shoulder to shoulder neither of us wanting to give an inch. We would occasionally laugh about the brutality of it as we climbed higher towards Pradollano.
By now the sun was high into the sky and as we hit the road section into town it was pretty hot. We laughed as we passed our hotel, joking about having a beer and lying in the cold water of the swimming pool but unfortunately that would have to wait as we were at the foot of la Valeta, the vertical km of climbing over the next 4km before dropping back into town to the finish line. We hit the climb together, baking under the midday sun and again each trying to break the other, it was brutal but brilliant at the same time, pure racing. We stayed together until around 2400 or 2500m altitude at which point Remi began to open a small gap, I was trying to close it but the higher we climbed the more I began to struggle. My old friend altitude was getting the better of me again. The higher we climbed, the slower I moved and the gap just kept getting bigger. It’s a horrible feeling, my heart rate was through the roof and I was barely moving, just like in Emmona back in May. The climb seemed to take forever and with every step Remi was pulling away and Alex was closing in from behind. By the time i reached the top Remi was out of sight on his way back into town and Alex had caught me. As he moved away on the descent there was nothing I could do to respond. I just kept moving knowing that I would eventually feel better as we got lower down the mountain but by the time that happened it was too late, the damage had been done. I rolled back into town for 3rd place after an epic race. Congratulations to Remi for a brilliant win and to Alex for his strong finish. I really wanted to win but I had nothing more to give on that last climb and when you give your all you can’t have any regrets.
A massive thanks to the race organisation and to Mayayo for making it possible. See you next time!
Where to begin with Emmona?? They say a picture says 1000 words, well the picture below tells you a lot of what you need to know about Emmona, it's steep, it's high, it's relentless.
This was my first major objective of the season, the first of the 3 Alpinultras races I will compete in. The race starts and finishes in the beautiful town of Sant Joan de les Abadesses in the provence of Girona, Catalonia, covering 130km and climbing more than 10,000m along the way.
I spent most of the week leading up to the race in the Guadaramma mountains close to Madrid and arrived in the Pyrenees feeling really fit. My training has been different this year, I've been managing a torn calf that seems to reoccur anytime I run hard on the flat so I've had to focus much more on quality mountain runs and a lot of strength work in the gym. I've been unable to run any reps or tempo runs for quite some time but I've found a recipe that seems to work and as a result I've been climbing better than ever before and my endurance is good thanks to some pretty big training weeks like the 230km with 11,000m+ in Mallorca a few weeks earlier.
As I stood on the start line waiting for the 10pm launch I was really happy with how I felt, injury free and in good form. The organisers put on quite a show for the start of Emmona with huge crowds lining the streets out of town, music, fireworks and torches giving the runners a great send off. As soon as we left the town a group of 6 or 7 of us formed at the front of the race and thats pretty much how things stayed for the entire night. We were really lucky with the conditions, a beautiful clear sky, a bright red moon and comfortable temperatures.
I felt great all night, the mountains and terrain are very similar to the Scottish mountains so it felt just like home, albeit a little warmer and higher. We got the first 4 major climbs out of the way without incident and arrived at the 55km checkpoint, Vallter, just after sunrise. It's always a great feeling when the sun comes up during a race, it seems to shake the fatigue out of your body, for a while at least.
From Vallter the race really begins, we were already at 2000m altitude but we were about to go a lot higher. I left the checkpoint in the lead but it was way too early to be striking out alone so I waited on a couple of Basque runners and we tackled the boulder field climb together, climbing straight up to 2500m. This is where I first started to feel the effects of the altitude, my heart was banging in my ears and the effort was much more than it should've been at that pace. It was really stunning being high up in these really rugged mountains at first light, also pretty cold the higher we climbed and the wind was getting stronger making the narrow ridge sections a little interesting.
This high ridge section continued for 10 miles, all at high altitude and somewhere along this section I lost contact with my Basque companions, I was really suffering, trying to keep calm and continue to eat and drink but it was a struggle. I have a mixed relationship with running at altitude and today was certainly the worst I've ever felt up high. The only thing I could do was try to maintain a decent pace and get back down to the lower slopes as quickly as possible. In this 1 section alone we crested 4 peaks that were above 2800m and another 2 that were over 2700m, it was really brutal. I tried to remember all the reasons why I was there and some of the messages of support I'd had from friends and family before the race, anything to try to remain positive but it was tough, really, really tough. Without doubt, physically, the worst I've ever felt during a race and there was still half of the race to go. Eventually, after an eternity, I summited Pic de l'Aliga at the end of the ridge and from here it was a 700 or 800m descent into the checkpoint at Nuria. I was still in 3rd position but feeling really wasted and in all honesty I don't remember too much about the descent, I just remember catching the 2nd placed runner just before the checkpoint.
I decided to take my time in Nuria to eat and drink well, I lost a few positions as runners arrived after me but left before I got moving again. From Nuria we had a 1000m climb straight to the highest point of the race at Puigmal. It was a pretty soul destroying experience, as the higher I climbed the harder it got with the altitude again and it was really difficult not to think of how far we still had to go. I tried to just focus on getting through the next couple of hours until I could get back down to lower altitude. This section of the race was my lowest point mentally, a real sufferfest. Lot's of personal reflection and promising myself that I'd never race again ha ha ha.
From the peak of Puigmal we dropped around 1900m in a little over 10km, a fairly steep descent with some really rough, technical terrain but thankfully as I arrived at the checkpoint in Planoles I began to feel half human again. I met my friends Albert and Sergio here, we laughed about how terrible I'd been feeling, I ate some food and Albert told me the closest 2 runners were together 20 minutes ahead of me. There were 43km left with 2 big climbs but neither of them went above 2000m. I had the hunger back to race again and set off to see if I could make up some time. I was still suffering but nothing like the way I felt up high. Towards the top of the penultimate climb I caught sight of the 4th placed runner, it gave me a real boost. I caught him by the top and passed him on a fairly flat section, he tried to go with me but I was moving really well and as we started to descend I dropped him fairly quickly. This was one of the best descents I've ever had in a race, I felt really fresh and was moving really free, it certainly didn't feel like I had 100km with 9000m+ in my legs. That's the amazing thing with Ultra trail, you can feel like death 1 minute but if you just hang in there and do the right things your body can come round.
When I reached the checkpoint at Campdevánol with 21km left they told me that 3rd place was now only 12 minutes ahead. Again this gave me a real boost. I set off to tackle the final 1000m climb and then the long descent into the finish determined to make the podium. My excitement was short-lived! After around 10 minutes of climbing hard I exploded again, I had to really slow down, get some caffeine and sugar into me and ride it out until I recovered some strength. I did begin to feel better again before the final summit but any realistic chance of the podium had slipped away. I still pushed as hard as I could, made more difficult by the torrential rain that arrived with an electrical storm.
It was such a welcome sight to see the town again as I descended down through the forest. It had been a long, long night and day but it was almost over. The final couple of kms into the town were really enjoyable, I knew I was finishing 4th, not what I had wanted before the race but given how I'd felt I was satisfied and more importantly I was still very much alive in the Alpinultras series.
It's safe to say I was pretty happy to reach that finish line and hold the famous shield. It was great to meet my friends and simply to stop running what was without doubt the most difficult race I've ever ran. I even timed it right to have some dinner and get home in time for the Champions League final! I didn't quite conquer Emmona but just as importantly, Emmona didn't conquer me. Congratulations to Ion Azpiroz for his win, he ran a great race. Nos vemos en Valls d'Aneu!!!
I really loved Menorca when I visited it for the first time last year so when I was invited back again this year I was really keen to go. The only problem being the race is only 1 week before Emmona Ultra Trail so running one of the longer races at the Cami de Cavalls wouldn't be possible. Ideally, after running the North Coast 100km last year I would've loved to have run the south coast 85km this year to complete the loop of the island but I decided to be sensible and opted for the 57km instead.
I arrived on the Friday night, a few hours after the full 185km race had started, and was met at the airport by team mate Pau Capell fresh from his victory at Ultra Trail Australia. Along with Pau's girlfriend Marta we headed straight to one of the checkpoints at around 50km into the race to see another of the Compressport team, Laia Díez. Laia was already in a bad way, vomiting in the checkpoint, shivering and generally not looking too good. With 130km still to run things weren't looking too good for her.
My race was due to start at 11am on Saturday morning so I spent what was left of Friday evening having dinner with my Father and step Mother who were on holiday on the island. My father was also running in the 37km North Coast race, must be in the blood!
Race day arrived and it was hot,hot, hot! We drove down the start on the South Coast in Cova den Xoroi. There was all the usual pre race build up of photos, music, catching up with friends etc and at 11am we were off. Pau and I had already decided that we were just going to run together and enjoy the day, he was tired from Australia and I was racing in Emmona 1 week later. We had a great time just enjoying the stunning coast line, passing the runners from the races which had set off earlier in the day. As the temperatures began to soar later in the race and I began to suffer with the heat Pau kindly slowed down, thanks Pau!! We eventually crossed the finish line together in around 4 hours 30 minutes, more than an hour ahead of the 3rd placed runner.
A little while later Laia Díez crossed the line, having suffered all night and all day, not only finishing the 185km race but actually winning it!! To turn things around the way she did took enormous mental strength, Enhorabona Laia!!! With Nuria Picas also winning in the 85km South coast race it was a good day for the Compressport team.
Hopefully I'll be back to tackle the 85km or 185km race next year.