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.

Anima Sana In Corpore Sano

Climbing the Aosta valley to Tete de la Trenche (Italy), 2019 CCC (UTMB Series race)

I am no Latin student but the above phrase is the motto of a well known sports shoe company. It roughly translates “A Sound Mind in a Sound Body.” I am querying what a ‘sound’ mind and body might mean as more years go by.

In 2021 I only did one race, an ultra*. From results I see I was the oldest finisher. It felt a strange ‘achievement’ for which there were no prizes! Something that I would maybe look up to in others but attributing to myself am not so keen! Not sure I want to be the oldest anything!

How long to continue training and entering competitions? I have no clear answer. Obviously it is a highly personal decision. Those who have stopped training and competing will no doubt have their stories. 

As far as the body is concerned a key thought is to care for it and avoid injury. Learn to appreciate the environment of trails and mountains and the natural way it exercises my body. Avoid as much as possible running on roads and hard, manufactured surfaces. 

About 10 years ago I came across the writings of the coach Phil Maffetone**. For some years I had been following marathon style training plans and thought this could be utilised for ultra running. I pushed my body but would often feel niggling injuries. Subscribing to the ‘no pain, no gain’ philosophy I thought this was to be expected. However running was supposed to be fun. Training was stressing my body and probably mind too much. It’s likely not the only reason but since adopting some of Maffetone’s training philosophy I have been injury free. This is by no means a summary but some of the major takeaways for me have been…

  • Train at a low heart rate (HR) 80-85% of the time. By low he means very low. Idea is that you learn to run (or train at any other sport) at your maximum aerobic function (MAF). This makes for more efficient running i.e. after a time you run at same speed but at lower HR. For me this should be about 120 bpm. In reality for me it is 125-130, still a lot lower than it used to be. 
  • Avoid sugar and refined carbohydrates in their many forms. Eat healthy fats and unprocessed food. I try but fall short. This kind of message is more mainstream nowadays. Maffetone was saying these things decades ago but like the prophets of old was often ridiculed. 

Combining the low heart rate training and dietary advice helps the body burn fat when training. I don’t pretend to be very strict in following this but know it has helped me. 

The more difficult area to address as time goes on is what is going on in the mind. I suspect many older runners just stop one day and it has largely to do with how they think. Rather than the cause of their stopping being some major physical deterioration or life changing injury it is what is going on in their head that is the source of their decision. The effects of stress are subtle. As Maffetone advises add up all our stresses, both physical and mental. They all influence each other. Relationship, lifestyle, work or mental/ physical health issues all impinge on how we will perform physically. In some ways this is counter intuitive. Most runners will attest to the great way that running affects mood and releases stress. This is true and getting outdoors and taking in the beauty of nature will always be good and refreshing. There are no easy answers but there are times to be kind to body and mind. Sometimes you can get similar physical and mental benefits by going for a leisurely stroll instead of a gruelling run. 

Of course our physical strength, endurance and flexibility deteriorates. For me the temptation is to become discouraged because I get slower or take longer to recover. Instead I should accommodate to that fact by adjusting training and recovery. Crucially I need to re-evaluate my goals. I have to accept there will come a time when a 24+ hour race will be beyond me. 

The problem is that after training and doing 20 ultras over past 12 years I still think I should be improving, not deteriorating. Telling myself it’s all about discovering my limits. There is something about the mentality of doing an ultra where the mind controls the body. Finish one ultra and the mind says I can do better next time. The pain, agony, fatigue and nausea are miraculously forgotten a day or two afterwards. Perhaps I can do same thing faster? Maybe there is some other challenge that is more difficult? It is like being fiercely competitive with myself. I am my own worst enemy. 

Can I reconcile a belief in the amazing potential of mind and body with the reality of aging? Maybe I shouldn’t ruminate so much and just get on with it? Whatever my issues I can take inspiration from the likes of legendary Italian mountain runner Marco Olmo***. He won the 170km UTMB outright in 2006 & 2007 at the ages of 58 and 59! The oldest to ever win it. The following year 2008 Kilian Jornet took the title but he was less than half Marco’s age at the time! Marco is now 73. Anyhow whether competing or not I still hope to be lacing up my shoes and be out on the trail for as long as I can.

Meeting Marco Olmo in Chamonix (France), 7 Sept 2019.

* West Highland Way Challenge Race Report (A. Grant)

**    I also found Maffetone’s book ‘The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing’ helpful.

***  You can read some background here 

Valley Thoughts

Aiguille du Midi

Over almost the last decade my wife and I have made several visits to the lovely French town of Chamonix and the valley named after it. Situated at the foot of Mt. Blanc, the Aiguille du Midi at 3,842m towers over the town. You need to crane your neck to see it. The valley on its eastern side is created by the Mt Blanc massif. Mt Blanc itself at 4,809m is Europe’s highest mountain and straddles France and Italy. Switzerland is also part of the massif. Country borders seem influenced by the geography of the mountain passes.

Our visits to the valley have been for a few reasons. One has been my taking part in the Ultra Trail du Mt. Blanc (UTMB) series trail races** and on other occasions to be a spectator cum tourist at said races.

It has been a wonderful experience to participate in these events that, like the massif, cover 3 countries. Despite my being just an ordinary ‘back of the pack’ runner it is great to be at the same start line as the world’s best mountain and trail runners. During the week of races there are approx 8,000 ultra runners taking part from 80+ countries. Here in Scotland ultra running is a niche activity. In Chamonix for a week in late August it is mainstream and I feel normal. The French fete their top runners in a way you don’t see anywhere else. 

My three races there have probably been the toughest physical experiences of my life. The unrelenting steepness of the mountains and the thinner air see to that. The occasions have also been life affirming. For me running long distances provides opportunity as a Christian to challenge both body and spirit. The truth is I need at times to step out of the comfortable routines of life. In ways that can’t be described in words God nourishes, blesses and equips to continue to live the much longer and more challenging race of life. We exist in a physical world but it takes spiritual resources to truly live.

All UTMB races end (most also start) in Chamonix in front of St. Michel Church in town centre. A few times I have sought solace from tension before races by sitting on the steps in front of the church. From there I ponder the massive cathedral of the Mt. Blanc massif that looms in front of me. Sandwiched between two silent but potent symbols of God’s love, power and presence.

St. Michel Church, just before starting the 2012 UTMB
Cross, overlooking Vallorcine at north end of the valley.

The visits to Chamonix in more of a tourist capacity have obviously been more relaxed. That’s when either I have not competed by failing to get through the ballot process or felt unable to muster the mental or physical resources to take part. Then I have simply enjoyed being a spectator cheering on others as they strive to achieve. Also taking time to hike and enjoy the spectacular vistas.

Chamonix of course is home to many other sports; hiking, the home of alpine climbing, rock climbing, mountain biking; skiing; para gliding and wingsuit flying to name a few. I have met young people who are enthusiasts willing to forego studies or career, live simply and realise their adventures. Working in hospitality, as taxi drivers or as guides they pay for their outdoor passion in climbing, skiing or whatever. Elite trail runners who train there year round are often sponsored by big name outdoor gear companies. The place is also a magnet for tourists. These different types of people are exemplified in my journal entry of 2 Sept 2015…

We have got in the habit of having breakfast in a small cafe which wasn’t far away from the chairlift to Aiguille du Midi. The cosy premises seemed to comprise of 2 types of people. One group were relaxed chair lifters out for the day and dressed in the latest fashionable ski and outdoor wear. Another group had the business air of serious mountaineers or rock climbers laden with safety ropes and equipment. Of this latter group I observed one wizened figure who seemed to be a mountain guide. He looked like he was waiting for his clients for the day. His face seemed to show a man used to being in the high mountains and who lived an intensely physical life. I imagined his trade reflected a nobility missing from much of modern life; that of making a living from a rugged life of outdoor adventure. I never talked to the man but sometimes a face inspires a story.

Chamonix as a town is not that remarkable. At the beginning of the 20th century it was largely unknown. At times the Chamonix valley was even cut off from the rest of France during bad winters. Now it is a mixture of adventure playground and expensive tourist magnet. The people who have come to make a living there and those who have come to enjoy it’s beauty as tourists or sports enthusiasts made it what it is. The same forces may change it for the worse as the stark, wild and pure beauty of the mountains are made accessible to more and more. 

Other changes in the environment of the region may have consequences further afield. The glaciers that used to encroach on living areas have now receded far up the mountainsides. Even in under a decade you notice the difference. 

This is not an advert for the town or the valley. It became special to us due to spending time there and doing things we enjoyed. I’m sure you have places equally special. 

Coffee table inspiration!

** A series of several different races around Mt. Blanc, varying in length and difficulty. You can read my experience in these races here.