The Metaphorical Trail Runner

‘Leaps and Bounds’ by Elisabeth Grant**

Long distance trail running has informed other areas of my life. It doesn’t apply just to running. The same can be said of many areas of human endeavour. They can teach us wider lessons than the activity itself.

Over the past 15 – 20 years I have read books on both the science and art of running and tried to put into practice various techniques. Some have stood the test of time and others have been discarded or superseded. Some have been inspirational and challenging. However probably the most influential voices for me in terms of running technique have been the writings of Phil Maffetone and in recent years ‘The Lost Art of Running‘ by movement coach Shane Benzie. Here are a few ways that over the years trail running has informed me about the art of living. Some thoughts may speak as much about my own age and stage of life. Please note in life as in running I am learning! I fall short physically and metaphorically.

Keep head upright and look ahead.

Too much looking at my feet or just one or 2 steps ahead gives poor posture. It also doesn’t inform where I am headed. Focusing on being in the mud or on how steep the trail is saps mental and physical energy.  

I easily ruminate and become absorbed in the difficulties of the present. Doing so stunts vision or nourishing hope of the future. At the same time it is important to be aware of what I need to do in the present. Life’s challenges are not meant to paralyse me to inaction. Seem to me they are an invitation to do something practically, mentally or relationally. 

Watch that step

Feet should land below centre of gravity. Make contact with the ground like a tripod – ball of big toe, just under little toe and the heel.

This gives good proprioception (maximum sense of where the foot is). Especially so if you have shoes with little or no cushioning. The ‘tripod’ is a good position for impact and loading. On tricky runs downhilł keep eyes several paces ahead. Use running poles downhill to have 4 points of impact and not 2. This means that slips are less likely to lead to falls. Put faith in my feet to find the right places. Foot/ eye and brain coordination is faster than my conscious awareness. 

Life needs to be grounded in reality. Easier said than done. However one aid is to acknowledge to myself how I feel about experiences. The good and the not so good. If I absorb the things that happen to me appropriately then I can be resilient. Not to get hung up by daily ups and downs but press ahead. 

The road ahead

Try to keep a cadence of 180 steps/ minute. If wish to go faster increase stride length and not step turnover. Similarly to go slower or climb uphill, shorten stride.

Research has shown a step frequency of 180 steps per minute is the most efficient use of energy. Feet should ‘kiss’ the ground and not thump it.  

Sticking to regular routines help me adjust to and absorb the changing challenges of daily life. In times of storm good, healthy habits weather well.  

For endurance, train according to heart beat, at a low aerobic rate.

Recording heart rate is the best single indicator of combined mental and physical stress. This form of ‘bio feedback’ is very helpful. It is insightful that a negative thought will within seconds increase my heart rate (HR) by 5-10 beats /minute. Cold weather with not enough upper body layers also greatly increases heart rate. The torso needs to be comfortably warm. Conversely wearing full body leggings when it’s not cold enough increases my HR. An incipient cold or infection will also raise HR above normal for activity. I should take it easy or stop running. Running can help to cope with other stresses in life but paradoxically there are also times when the best medicine is a gentle walk. 

I need objective feedback on my life. Another kind of ‘bio’ feedback. Honest friends can help. Wisdom gleaned from sources such as books, culture and art can also be helpful. As a Christian the Bible has become for me a ‘go to’ source of feedback on matters of the heart and life. 

Every once in a while take a mental scan from head to toe of how I feel. If something not right what can I do about it?

Is head upright? Am I looking ahead? Is head cold/ hot? Tension in neck? Shoulders and arms relaxed? Any lower back pains? Am I taking in and enjoying the landscape I am moving through? Does my HR reflect the degree of effort? If high, why? Consciously lower shoulders, elbows down at waist. Hands unclenched, fingers lightly touching each other. My legs are doing the running. The top part of my body should assist that. It’s a waste of energy being tense.

Travelling through life requires some reflection and self awareness. Problems and stress often come from my wrong attitude, a faulty posture, a lazy approach to life. There is usually something I can practically do? Are there also areas I need to be more relaxed about and not worry?   

Try and keep a relaxed facial expression and smile at people.

It amazes me how many runners have gaunt or expressionless faces. Some do not even acknowledge your presence as you meet them. Running should be fun. Some people really don’t look like they are enjoying themselves. It’s hard to have a high HR and a relaxed smile!

It takes effort to enjoy life as it is. Doing so is good for me and maybe also for those I meet.

** elisabethgrantart.com 

Big Day (and Night) in the Mountains

Stob Ban

For about 12 years now I have recruited the help of others to support me in various long distance running efforts. To date I have never been a support runner for someone else. So when a friend Cammie Kennedy whom I regularly run with in the hills asked for help this was a chance to change that. Cammie hopes to do the Charlie Ramsay Round (CRR) this summer.

“The Ramsay Round, also known as the Charlie Ramsay Round, is a long distance hill running challenge near Fort William, Scotland. The route is a circuit of 58 miles (93 kilometres), taking in 24 summits with a total climb of around 28,500 feet (8,700 metres). Ben Nevis, Great Britain‘s highest peak, is included in the route along with 22 other Munros… The aim is for participants to complete the route, on foot, within 24 hours. Runners must start and finish at the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel, and may run the route in either a clockwise or anticlockwise direction”.  

Ramsay_Round

Note for non-Scottish readers – a ‘Munro’ is a mountain in Scotland greater than 3,000 feet. Most of the Munros on the round have hard to pronounce names if you are not a Gaelic speaker. 

Start/ finish of last section from Loch Eilde Mor to Glen Nevis Youth Hostel. Yellow line is whole CRR route.

Much of the CRR is remote and hard to access. Quite a bit is unmarked over bog and boulder strewn terrain. Contenders need to work out the best lines up and down the mountains if they are going to go fast. Cammie (herein known as C) is planning on a clockwise route. There are really only 2 access points for support help. This splits the run into 3 sections. Originally I was to help him on the mid section and in August 2020 did a practice run with him covering that. However plan has changed and now am supporting on the last section, involving the last 10 of the 24 summits. 

A word about running support. Idea is that C doesn’t carry anything other than some drink, phone and a special GPS tracker linked to emergency services. I needed to carry clothing, food/ drink and any other gear he requires as well as my personal gear/ food etc. On his actual attempt he will have 3 support runners (incl. me) for the 3 sections as well as a couple providing logistics/ transport for the rest of us. 

This week in order to familiarise myself with the route and for C to plan his strategy we spent 2 days exploring this last section from transition point at Loch Eilde Mor to the finish at the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel outside Fort William. Depending on how things went C had in mind 3 possible places for us for overnight campsites.

A word about camping in the wild. I am someone who likes my creature comforts and have to say was not looking forward to this part of the survey. Camping experiences from earlier days have generally been memorable for their mishaps and misery. Unsurprisingly it has not been a pastime pursued in later life. As a student I took an Asian friend camping. My thought was it would be a good way for him to see Scotland. Our cooking gas canister exploded while we were in the 2 man tent on a hillside. My reaction was to immediately leap out of tent. I got away relatively easy with singed eyebrows and burnt hair. Remember the amusement of fellow students at the surprised looking facial expression I had in the weeks following. My friend however was paralysed with shock and remained longer in the flames and suffered more severe burns. Anyhow I digress.

On 1st May after a first early breakfast left home to Fort William and met up with C at 0830. Left his car at Glen Nevis youth hostel. Next up was  a 2nd breakfast at a well known chain beginning with M. Then we motored to Kinlochleven. Left car there and at 0940 began a 7km hike up to the transition point where I would meet him ‘on the day’. At last the actual support route was starting!

Leaving Kinlochleven

A word about maps. On paper or screen many of these grand mountains seem less than a km apart. Do not be deceived, a km can involve same effort as 10km elsewhere! It is a priviledge to visit such places of rugged beauty. However they demand respect and care. 

Transition Point, Loch Eilde Mor

At last at 1120 we began what would be the section I would be supporting C on. It starts with a long, slow slog up to Sgurr Eilde Mor. 

Looking up to Sgurr Eilde Mor from start

With camping gear and food we were each carrying 8-10 kg. With these loads and the terrain it meant that much of the time we were just trying to fast walk with the occasional run.

We then made a long descent where discussion centred around what was the best line to take and where to cross the stream in the valley below. C was trying to follow the line taken by the CRR record holder, Finlay Wild. Theory being if he was the fastest he must be taking the shortest lines between peaks. 

Then we ascended to reach a lochan (little lake) midway between Binnein Beag and Binnein Mor. They were the next 2 peaks on the list. Filled up with water from a stream. I was using purification tablets which may or may not have been necessary. There C left me with his gear as Binnein Beag was an out and back. He would do this on his own, and then return back to an agreed rendezvous point where I was waiting. I noticed almost immediately how chill it got hanging around. Need to layer up immediately when not moving. C was quick, only 30 mins. I think shedding a 10kg pack meant he felt like he was floating. 

Cammie ascending Binnein Beag (small figure in red)

We then ascended Binnein Mor. Still quite a lot of snow around and we aimed for the least snowed area. However when we reached snow level I found it a bit steep for me with no crampons. C carried on. I decided to go a long way around on ridge where there was no snow. Eventually we met up again on the summit.

C ahead of me on Binnein Mor, having taken the snowy route
View leaving summit of Binnein Mor ( 2 other walkers ahead of us)

Next up was the unpronounceable Na Gruigaichean. Reached by following a trail along a long ridge. After that next on the list was An Gearanach. Another out and back where I would wait for him. However C having done this mountain twice before decided not to do. So we climbed the next one Stob Coire a Chairn. By this point my memory is finding it hard to distinguish each top. Just awed by the ever changing vista of these grand mountains. We also ascended several tops that C would say were not classified as Munros. 

And so to the second last peak of the day, Am Bodach. Whether it had been a long day or not the ascent I found gruelling. It was only afterwards we discovered I could have taken a route avoiding the summit and rejoined him on his descent. Plan to do this on his actual CRR attempt. 

As we approached the last peak of the day Sgurr an Lubhair we also saw C’s last out and back for the day, Sgurr a Mhaim. We were at right angles to the long ridge that led to it. Known as the Devil’s Ridge it looked both imposing and an awful long way. The time was after 1800 and we both had the same thought. Why doesn’t he just do it early the next morning? Instead let’s do Sgurr an Lubhair and find our campsite for the night. Absolutely no objections to that! 

Campsite below Sgurr an Lubhair

C had loaned me a 1 man tent and he was bivouacing (basically sleeping in a bag). Despite him showing me twice how to set up tent I struggled. I find the whole process fiddly, a bit like trying to untangle nylon fishing line. Being weary and chilled probably also didn’t help. Sheepishly I asked for C’s help. 

The highlight was the long anticipated hot meal. Add boiled water to a bag of dehydrated food and wait 15 mins. Voila! A warm, nourishing chicken tikka with rice. Definitely the creature comfort highlight of the day. Add a miniature bottle of wine and some tea and it sounds quite luxurious. In reality the mist was descending and it felt quite desolate with a chill in the air. Sitting outside on stones I was starting to exaggerate in my mind how comfortable the tent would be. However first things first. C wanted to play cards! Now if it had been round a campfire I might have been excited. This felt a bit like an unnecessary continuation of what most of the day had been, a physical and mental challenge. In a true spirit of the support runner, I obliged. So we played ‘bothy’ cards. Even let him win (only kidding). Bothy is the name for a, usually remote and simple, shelter in Scotland. Walkers and climbers can use for free. It was an unasked for education in the variety and locations of bothies throughout Scotland. Glad he won first time and didn’t want to play more! As the sun set we were blessed with a beautiful pink glow on the hills

Unloading all the contents of my rucksack into the tent I then entered my ‘world’ for the night. The main feeling was the cold and just how little room there was to move around. Background noises were the gentle sounds of nature. The gurgling little stream we were beside and the occasional honking sound of the ptarmigan. A surprise was good WiFi reception. Had a rather surreal time listening for a while to choral worship music from Ireland. Truly the phone is another world in your hand.

Sleeping bag was warm everywhere except for head and shoulders. I had changed into dry clothes but needed more heat. Was very grateful for the chemical hand warmers I had brought. Clutched them for most of night. Unsuccessfully willing the heat from my hands to flow to head and shoulders. My super lightweight air filled ground mat was extremely slippy and hard to keep sleeping bag on. As said earlier my camping experience has not been marked by particularly happy memories. Finally got some fitful sleep and was glad when 0520 came. Time to rise! C was already up and after a brief greeting he left before his breakfast to do Sgurr a Mhaim, the Munro he missed the night before. 

In the meantime I devoured 2 left over tuna sandwiches from day before. Also boiled up water for 2 teas and a coffee and cooked breakfast. 

Cooked breakfast, sausage and beans.

Shortly after that C returned. Seemed energised from his first peak of the day. While he had his breakfast I packed my gear, eager to work up some heat from exertion. There was a pervading chill in the air so it was nice to set off at 0740 in the morning mist for Stob Ban. It’s profile was intimidating when seen the night before. Most of the route involved traversing well to the left of the vertigo inducing ridge. 

Top of Stop Ban

After Stob Ban only one Munro left. Involved a long and relatively gentle ridge ascent to Mullach nan Coirean. The mist came and went for much of the time. Sometimes Ben Nevis would loom over the whole marvellous range. 

It was now a long descent to Glen Nevis. Down, and down, to the road that led back to the youth hostel. Our adventure ended as it began with another calorie filled refuel in a well known fast food restaurant. 

It is an honour to be asked to help. When the time comes I hope to be of support in his epic challenge.

One Yard At a Time

Yard 1 – 49 mins 11 secs

This January I got the disappointing news of not being selected in the lottery for the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) CCC race. For ten years I have been running other exciting races that would qualify me for entry into the lottery. These other races have been immensely enjoyable in their own right. However I realise that my desire to also get in to UTMB races has influenced what races I run. How many UTMB qualifying points does a race have? Despite the hurdles it has been a great adventure to be able to enter and complete 3 UTMB series races. You can read my write ups here. However I now feel these races are getting so popular one could spend years just trying to get a place. The training is hard enough! What the UTMB is to ultras has now become what the London Marathon is to marathons. A victim of its own success where gaining an entry place becomes as big a challenge as doing the race!

Yard 2 – 47 mins 30 secs

My ballot disappointment in January has led me to not enter anything this year just because it is a qualifier for UTMB. Instead why not think a bit ‘outside the box’ in terms of endurance events? This spring therefore I hope to do a ‘backyard’ ultra. The Cow Shed Backyard Ultra starts at 12 noon on Sat 16th April on a farm in Northumberland, England. It follows the same format as the notorious “Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra” ** started by Gary ‘Lazarus’ Cantrell. The ‘backyard’ concept embodies his idiosyncratic way of designing endurance events. Lazarus is also the founder of the even more quirky ‘Barkley marathons’. 

Yard 3 – 47 mins 45 secs

For the ‘Cow Shed’, as with other backyard races, competitors must complete a 4.17 mile trail loop (6.7km) on the hour every hour until only 1 runner remains. The ‘Cow Shed’ also has about 150 m ascent/ descent each loop. The bell will be sounded exactly on the hour and if you fail to make the starting area before the bell rings, then you are  disqualified from the event and become one of the majority who ‘Did Not Finish’ (DNF). There will be only 1 who does not receive a DNF and she/he is the winner!

Yard 4 – 50 mins 41 secs

How has my training been going? I have been practising running on similar terrain and same distance loops as the event will be. A mixture of farmland, single-track trail and woodland dirt tracks. Most times I have sat in the car on breaks. On its own I can complete a loop fairly comfortably in under an hour and have been generally doing 50 minute loops. This gives me 8-10 minute breaks before starting again. I can lie or sit, eat or whatever during the break time. Problem is as I tire and go slower my breaks get less. This is just when you want more rest! It sounds like the experience on the day will be quite social. Unlike normal ultras the field will not be stretched out over many kilometres as everyone still in the race is back together on the start line each hour.

Yard 5 – 50 mins 26 secs

During training the most I have done is 7 ‘loops’ (or ‘yards’ as they are known). Doing that same route over and over every hour you could get tired of the same views. However on each of the 7 ‘yards’ on my recent run I took the views shown in this blog. Each taken at a different point on my route each time I went round. I hope you will agree it was a scenic route.

Yard 6 – 53 mins 09 secs

During the event disqualification will be by either not making a loop in an hour or not starting to do another loop. Deciding not to begin a new ‘yard’ is the most common way people get knocked out. As Lazarus says ‘it’s easy until it’s not’. 

Yard 7 – 54 mins 43 secs

4.17 miles each hour sounds an odd distance to cover but that is 100 miles (160km) in 24 hours. I have ran more than 24 hours but never at such a pace. I usually slow down considerably with stomach problems and fatigue after 10 or so hours. So it is an open question as to how many ‘yards’ I can complete. Maybe getting hourly breaks is something that changes how I cope. For better or worse! 

** The BBC have done an article on Big Dog’s. A 15 minute youtube video also gives a good feel for this type of race.