A rough guide to fell running

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What is fell running and how is it different to cross country and trail running? Is there a clear distinction between fell running and mountain running?

Fell running is traditionally a British sport that shares many of the same characteristics as other forms of off-road running; cross country, trail and mountain. However, it is unique in the sense that races are so unpredictable in terms of the weather and terrain. You have to be a much stronger and hardier athlete to cope with the environment. Speed isn’t necessarily the key, but rather strength and resilience. Experience and mountain-craft also play a huge part. You need to be able to find the best lines, because often you are running on a vague trod (or not!) between two checkpoints. There isn’t always a clear path and it’s usually safer to trust a compass rather than other people in a race!

The video below shows footage from a typical Lakeland fell race (Blackcombe 2017 – courtesy of Lee Procter and inov-8).

In comparison, cross country has significantly less climbing, and is contested on runnable terrain in more controlled environments. It’s much easier to predict a winner as there are fewer factors to consider and usually no chance of anyone getting lost! (Although I should confess to getting lost at least once OK twice in a cross country race!!!)

In the UK, trail running is similar to fell running, but again there is significantly less climbing and the trails/paths are more obvious to navigate and easier to run on.

Mountain running is perhaps the closest discipline to fell running. Both have similar types of gradients (up and down) with the only difference being the terrain (see pic below). The fells are more difficult to navigate during a race, with fewer obvious paths and tracks to follow over much wetter, boggier and softer ground. I would also say that mountain runners are typically faster athletes than fell runners as pace plays a more crucial role in races.

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What makes it so special from your perspective?

Fell running is a very unique and specialist sport. It has taken me to places that I would never have imagined I’d ever visit. I’ve seen glorious sunrises, breath-taking sunsets, stunning views and beautiful wildlife. I’ve also been fortunate enough to run with the legends of the sport and shared precious moments with like-minded friends that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

One thing that I love, across all its forms, is that the ‘superstars’ are a different breed of elite. There’s no arrogance or bravado. It makes a refreshing change given what you see happening in other sports. It accepts athletes of all abilities and encourages them to take part. The fact that it’s not elitist means you’re just as likely to share a post-race pint with the winner as you are with the person who finishes last.

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What are the key attributes from a physical perspective?

Fell running is like a drug, it’s seriously addictive. You’re not just competing against other people in the race, you’re battling against both the elements and the terrain. It’s seriously hard, both physically and mentally. There are no short cuts and no easy races. You have to learn to embrace the pain and push your body to the extreme. Your legs need to be strong enough to cope with the steep, challenging climbs and handle hair-raising descents at breakneck speed. It’s one hell of a tough sport but extremely rewarding.

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What does it give you that road running doesn’t?

Fell running couldn’t be more different to road running. The latter is a far more commercial sport. It’s also more expensive to compete and there is significantly less risk of getting lost, injured or being fatally exposed to the natural elements.

For me, I find road running too predictable, boring and safe. I like the challenge of the environment, competing against the mountain rather than the clock.

Within fell running there is also a greater feeling of camaraderie. My biggest rivals might run for different clubs but in reality we’re all part of the same team. A secret society of friends who all share a love and passion for the outdoors. It genuinely feels like you’re part of one big family and that to me is what makes our sport is so unique and special.

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How accessible is the sport to beginners and how do you get started?

Fell running encourages athletes of all abilities to take part and it’s really easy to get involved. It’s also very cheap compared to road running. A typical race costs around £5 and you can win anything from a bottle of wine, to vouchers for your local running shop. One of my most memorable prizes was a 4 pack of toilet roll, for finishing in 2nd place in the Blackstone Edge fell race! Proof in itself that fell runners compete for the love of the sport and certainly not for the money!

I ‘fell’ into the sport by complete accident (excuse the pun). After trying my hand at cross country, it wasn’t long before I was searching for another, bigger adrenalin rush. Someone I know suggested I do a fell race. It began with a steep uphill climb and finished with a wild and crazy descent. My body was working at its full capacity during the entire race, my lungs were on fire and my heart rate was off the scale! But despite the pain, the hurt and the jelly legs, it was a feeling I’ll never forget. I felt alive and free, enjoying the finest natural high in the world.

To try a fell race for yourself, check out the Fellrunner website for the full fixture list. There are also lots of fell running clubs throughout the UK and anyone can become a member.

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Explain the tactical and mental skills required – such as picking the best line, the importance of a recce beforehand etc.

Like any sport, preparation is the key to success. Races are won and lost by seconds, so it’s important to recce routes and choose the best lines. Knowing which direction to run definitely helps, but the weather is so unpredictable that no route ever looks the same on race day! I always recce my important races and train specifically for those key events because I don’t like to leave anything to chance. The more confident I am about a route and my own ability, the more chance I have of winning on race day.

Having experience helps to make you a better fell runner. You need to know how to race, judge your efforts correctly, know which lines to take and most importantly, learn how to navigate safely across dangerous and challenging terrain. Fell running is extremely tactical and unlike other sports the best athlete doesn’t always win. It pays to run smart.

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The gear required – how specialised does the footwear need to be for those starting out? What are the other key bits of kit?

X-TALON 212                                         X-TALON 225

In theory, you don’t need much kit to get started. However, if you want to improve and make marginal gains then you need to use the best equipment on the market. Shoes, for example, are the most important kit you’ll need in order to perform well. Comfort, grip and weight are essential when choosing the right footwear. I use the inov-8 X-TALON precision fit range for fell running because they’re light and provide excellent grip over the roughest terrain. The X-TALON 212 are my favourite for training and the X-TALON 225 are my preferred choice for racing.

ROCLITE 290                                         MUDCLAW 300

I use a range of specific footwear for all types of running. I favour the ROCLITE 290 for the trails and the MUDCLAW 300 for extreme fell. It’s important to wear the right shoes as they will give you the extra confidence you need on that particular terrain. Check out the video below to see exactly what I’m talking about (courtesy of Andy Jackson and inov-8).

Nothing claws through mud like the MUDCLAW 300! Read more about them here.

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inov-8 LS hooded merino base layer

In terms of apparel, the best piece of advice I can give is to wear merino.

I wax lyrical about the super powers of merino – it’s simply the best. When it comes to base layers there is no better alternative. I even wear merino underpants. However, by far the best bit of running clothing I own is the inov-8 long sleeved hooded merino base layer. Yes, it’s expensive gear, but it’s worth every penny.

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Given all of which, what makes the perfect fell runner?

 My fell running hero and teammate, Karl Gray, once told me…

‘To be the best fell runner you have to climb like a mountain goat, run like the wind on the flat and descend like a demon’.

He’s absolutely right. The perfect fell runner is someone who can do it all, over every distance. To win the English Fell Championship you have to be able to compete on all types of terrain, from anything between 3 – 25 miles and in all types of weather conditions throughout the duration of the season (February to October). It’s a tough ask. But then again, athletes don’t come any tougher than fell runners – we’re a different breed altogether.

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All photography by Dave McFarlane (courtesy of inov-8).

Related blogs: HOW I ‘FELL’ IN LOVE WITH RUNNINGRUNNING TIPS: 10 WAYS TO BEAT THE MUD

Kit: inov-8 MUDCLAW 300 | inov-8 LS hooded merino | inov-8 3QTR tights | inov-8 Stormshell jacket | inov-8 race ultra skull | inov-8 merino sock mid | inov-8 race ultra mitt

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Supported by inov-8 | Powered by Mountain Fuel | Timed by Suunto

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Ready to Roc!

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I was recently asked by inov-8 to test their new range of Roclite shoes* – the Roclite 290, Roclite 305 and the Roclite 325. The Roclite has been a popular choice of shoe with trail runners over the last decade but ironically I’ve never actually owned a pair. The inov-8 range is huge and I only ever wear a selection of my favourite shoes – the X-Talon 225 and X-Talon 212 (fells), the TrailTalon 250 (trails/mountains) and the RoadClaw 275 (road). In all honesty I was initially unsure about how much I would use the Roclites and what I would wear them for. Inov-8 persuaded me to work this out for myself to see exactly where they fit into their range and how I might use them for training and racing.

*The 305 and 325 are also available in waterproof GORE-TEX versions – check out Roclite 305 GTX & Roclite 325 GTX.

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Let’s start with the Roclite 305. When the shoes arrived I was immediately impressed with their slick and stylish design. It almost seemed a shame to get them dirty and I even considered preserving them for travelling to races and trips to the pub. However, as soon as I tried them on I couldn’t wait to test them out. This is a shoe that was made for the trails.

305Pictured above: The inov-8 Roclite 305

If you’re a fan of the TerraClaw 250 then you’ll love the new Roclite 305. The shoe is a standard fit, with an 8mm drop (heel to toe differential) and sticky rubber sole compound. At 305g, they’re light enough to race in but, to be honest, I think that they’re an ideal training shoe. They’re extremely comfortable to wear and my feet always feel really well supported and protected. The key features include a strengthened rubber toe cap, which is useful when you hit a stray rock at pace, and the X-Lock design which wraps around the heel of the shoe to provide additional support during a run. I also really like the integrated tongue, which is attached to the upper and helps to prevent mud and debris from getting into the shoe.

Pictured above: A close-up view of the X-lock design for enhanced support (L), the multi-directional lugs on the sole which provide excellent grip (C) and the integrated tongue gusset (R)

Living in the South Pennines (England), most of my training runs consist of road, grass, tracks and muddy fell. I find it a real challenge choosing the right shoe to cope with the ever-changing terrain. What I like most about the Roclite 305 is how confident I feel wearing them on almost any surface. The grip is good enough to handle both the trails and fells, although in extreme conditions I would obviously opt for something more suitable like the Mudclaw 300 or the X-Talon 212 as they both have more pointed, deeper lugs (8mm) on the outsole, compared to the flatter, 6mm lugs on the Roclite.

Overall I’d describe the Roclite 305 as the perfect ‘all-round’ trail shoe and would highly recommend them to anyone who wants support, comfort and grip on diverse terrain.

Pictured above: The Roclite 305 in action

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img_8130Pictured above: The inov-8 Roclite 325

The Roclite 325 is a lightweight boot version of the 305, sharing the same design and features. Personally, I haven’t run in them but I have used them for fast-paced hiking in the Lake District hills. Not only do they look great but they’re extremely comfortable to wear and an excellent alternative to a traditional walking boot. A few years ago I walked the GR20 in Corsica and the Tour Du Mont Blanc (similar to UTMB) with a small group of friends. I remember looking for a lightweight trekking shoe and in the end I wore a pair of trail running shoes. Had the Roclite 325 been an option at the time then they would have been the perfect choice. I also think they’d be ideal for extreme long distance challenges like the Spine Race*, especially the GORE-TEX version of the shoe, which would provide extra protection from the elements.

 *Just to confirm I have never done the Spine Race, so I’m only making an assumption based on the terrain and wintry conditions.

Pictured above: A close-up view of the X-lock design for enhanced support (L), the multi-directional lugs on the sole which provide excellent grip (C) and the integrated tongue gusset (R)

The Roclite 325 will appeal to a specialist audience so if you’re looking to invest in a lightweight boot for either walking or running then this could well be the model for you. I would, however, recommend trying on this shoe because purchasing. They fit my feet perfectly when I wear one pair of running socks but if I’m walking all day then I like to wear a thicker pair of socks. It’s probably worth ordering a pair in a slightly bigger size to compensate for this.

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img_8139Pictured above: The inov-8 Roclite 290

I’ve purposely saved the best until last. When it comes to racing, I’m all about travelling light and fast. In my opinion the Roclite 290 is THE perfect trail racing shoe. It shares most of the same features as the 305 but it feels closer to a precision fit rather than a standard. I also prefer the lower drop, 4mm compared to 8mm. Although there is only a 15g weight difference, the 290 feels much lighter than the 305 and is specifically designed for moving fast over all types of terrain. Such is the comfort and fit of this shoe that I’ve done most of my winter training in them, despite much of my running being confined to the road.

Pictured above: A close-up view of the Y-lock design for enhanced support (L), the multi-directional lugs on the sole which provide excellent grip (C) and the standard tongue (R)

Although they are essentially a lightweight version of the 305, there are a few notable changes. Firstly the 290 has a Y-lock design around the heel base as opposed to the X-lock so there is a slight difference in support (nothing of considerable note). The tongue is also separate from the upper like most regular trail shoes and not integrated in the same way as the 305 (although I personally prefer the integrated tongue).

I’ve worn them for hilly training runs and races over long distances on tracks, roads and open fell. This really is the ideal shoe to do it all. They cope better than any other shoe when it comes to variety of terrain – and without me having to sacrifice comfort for weight.

Pictured above: The Roclite 290 in action 

The Roclite family is a great addition to the inov-8 range. I would recommend all three shoes depending on what you need them for. After testing them I’ve found a use for each and I’m sure, if you’re like me, you won’t need much persuading to do the same!

Discover more about the technical features of the shoes in the Roclite range and check out all colour options for men and women in the 290, 305 and 325.

VIDEO: THE NEW ROCLITE: A DECADE IN THE MAKING

Photography by Robbie Jay Barratt and Mark Everingham

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The Hebden

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THE HEBDEN IS ESSENTIALLY THE CALDER VALLEY’S GREATEST HITS

The Hebden, is an LDWA event for both walkers and runners, with a choice of competing on either the 15 or 21 mile route. Such is its appeal, I’ve raced it for the last six consecutive years and I’m not about to give up anytime soon. Technically speaking, it’s not actually a race, it’s a long distance walking challenge that also allows runners to compete. It’s a low-key event and there are no prizes or medals at stake. Nobody really cares if you win, least of all the organisers. It’s purely for enjoyment, a chance to share an experience on the hills with other like-minded people and the reward of completing a long distance challenge in often tough and wintry conditions. The Hebden is essentially the Calder Valley’s greatest hits – a stunning collection of the very best views and landmarks that the local area has to offer. From the beautiful woodland paths of Hardcastle Crags to the imperious Stoodley Pike Monument, which dominates the moors of the Upper Calder Valley. This is a race that has it all and it’s easy to see why it’s become such an iconic and popular event amongst the running community.

I first ran The Hebden in 2011 by complete chance because that particular year it was included in our Calder Valley club championship. At the time there was a strong feeling of animosity between some members of the club because many were concerned we would be ruining a walking event by turning it into a race. I could understand their point but I strongly disagreed. Mainly because the organisers, Alan Greenwood and Carole Engel, were extremely welcoming and very happy that we’d chosen their event as one of our long distance counters. There was, and still is, no reason why the route cannot be shared and enjoyed by both runners and walkers alike.

Pictured above: The walkers and runners all gather in the church hall to register and fuel up before the race (Photos courtesy of Nick Ham).

Quite often before a race begins there is a tense atmosphere with people full of nervous energy. However, at the Hebden everyone is calm and relaxed, chatting about the route and enjoying the plethora of food and drink that’s on offer. I usually eat a light breakfast at home because I know that when I get to the church hall for registration, I can have as much coffee and toast as I like before the race gets underway. I particularly enjoy being mothered by the wonderful Carole and her army of helpers. They cannot do enough to make you feel welcome and looked after. The kitchen is a hive of activity, with a constant stream of happy, smiling people queuing patiently as they wait to be served. The food and hospitality are reason enough to compete in this fantastic event.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPictured above: Chatting with Alan before the start of the race (Photo courtesy of Nick Ham)

I look forward to this race because it never fails to disappoint. Alan is an excellent race organiser – always in control, unflappable in a crisis and genuinely just a really great bloke. He always sends me an annual race reminder so I don’t forget to enter, and he regularly updates me on how the money raised from entry fees has helped to improve the paths and tracks on the route and around the valley. His team puts a tremendous amount of work into the race and the upkeep of the local area. Part of the reason I like to support this event is to help raise its profile and encourage more of this positive action to happen.

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Pictured above: A basic map of the route (anti-clockwise) with the start and finish indicated by the green dot.

This year is much like any other. I’m running with my training partners, Karl ‘The Legend’ Gray and Gavin ‘Mad Legs’ Mulholland, and we’ve all signed a peace treaty by agreeing to race together. We’ll obviously run hard but this is essentially a training exercise and our journey will be filled with good conversation and quality banter. I’m pretty relieved to be honest, as I no longer have to worry about being dropped by either of them – Karl’s impressive training schedule is usually a pre-race concern. I’m also relieved that I’ve managed to get to the start line on time. A few years ago I actually missed the beginning of the race because I was queuing for the toilet. When I came outside everyone had already set off and it took me at least 2 miles to catch up with the leaders!

“I’M DREAMING ABOUT GIANT SLABS OF TIFFIN AND MONSTER SLICES OF CAKE

The route circumnavigates the picturesque market town of Hebden Bridge, which lies at the heart of the Calder Valley. It begins with a fast run out on a woodland track parallel to the railway line, before competitors turn and face the challenging climb of Brearley Lane. A few moments later this effort is duly rewarded with spectacular views and much of the route can be seen across the valley.

Pictured above: The climb to Old Town (L) (Photos courtesy of Nick Ham) and arriving at the first checkpoint in Old Town with Joe Crossfield & Gav Mulholland in 2014 (R) (Photo courtesy of Geoff Matthews)

I find it difficult to hold back during the first few miles of the Hebden because I get carried away with setting a fast pace. I have to force myself to slow down so that I have something left in the tank during the final stages. I glance behind and Karl gives me ‘that look’. His diesel engine takes a bit longer to warm up than mine (usually about 10 miles) so I take my foot off the gas a little. He doesn’t need to say anything. I know the legend well enough by now. A raised eyebrow speaks volumes. Instead, my thoughts turn to the first checkpoint at Old Town. I’m dreaming about giant slabs of tiffin and monster slices of cake. Forget everything I’ve already mentioned about this race, the food stations on the way round are THE best bit! There isn’t a single event on my calendar that has this many opportunities to eat DURING a race! I know that Gav is just as excited as me, and when we reach Old Town I grab the biggest piece of tiffin I can find. I don’t have a problem with eating and running at the same time because they are both my two favourite things in life – don’t ever let it be said that men cannot multi-task. If Shaun Godsman was here now he’d be in heaven. In fact he’d probably just sit here all day and finish off the rest of the cake before the next runner arrives.

10714054064_0a0c76aac3_c.jpgPictured above: The Wadsworth War Memorial above Midgehole (Photo credit)

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Pictured above: The view to Stoodley Pike with Heptonstall Church in the foreground (Photo credit)

I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve run on this route, but what amazes me is how different it always looks when I do. I always see something new that I’ve never noticed before. For example, it took me 4 years to spot the Wadsworth War Memorial above Midgehole. It looks like a mini version of Stoodley Pike, except it doesn’t stand as prominently on the horizon because it’s well hidden by the trees. It’s worth a visit if you’ve never seen it before, although you may struggle to find it! The view across the valley to Heptonstall and Stoodley Pike is also a treat, although today I don’t really have time to appreciate it.

8272066059_aeec9e14e8_b.jpgPictured above: Gibson Mill (Photo credit)

The route continues beneath the monument as it joins the Calderdale Way (leg 4 in reverse). Descending towards Midgehole is both fast and technical but once you hit the road then it’s a long runnable slog to Gibson Mill, through Hardcastle Crags. I always know that if I reach the mill in sub 50 minutes then I’m running well. I glance at my watch – 49 minutes. We’re bang on target. That means we can spend a bit more time stopping for food at the next checkpoint as a reward 😉

“THIS IS A MAGICAL PART OF THE CALDER VALLEY. A SECRET SANCTUARY OF FLORA AND FAUNA THAT EXUDES TRANQUILITY AND CALM

Upon reaching Gibson Mill we opt for the stepping-stones instead of the bridge as they’re not covered in ice or submerged underwater. A couple of years ago (after the floods) we didn’t have the luxury of choice, it was either swim or take the bridge!

30119948953_bd1560a876_b.jpgPictured above: The stepping stones at Gibson Mill (Photo credit: Paul Norris)

After crossing the stream it’s another long climb through the woods before we reach Heptonstall. Unfortunately, the route doesn’t take us past the church or through the charming cobbled streets of the main village, but I’d seriously recommend a visit if you’ve never been before.

The good news for me is that I know there’s another checkpoint at the top of the climb and it usually has lots of jelly babies. When we arrive I’m not disappointed. Both my mouth and bumbag are quickly refilled.

5649663467_f7bc1195f9_b.jpgPictured above: The church of St Thomas in Heptonstall (Photo credit)

From here we continue to follow the Calderdale Way (in reverse) until we reach Blackshaw Head, before descending back down the valley towards Burnley road. This downhill section of the course, through Jumble Hole Clough, is my favourite by far. I always feel like I’ve accidentally stumbled onto the set of The Hobbit and I’m being chased through the woods by an army of Orcs. This area forms the old boundary between Yorkshire and Lancashire. So if I do happen to spot any Orcs then they’ll probably arrive from Tod’Mordor’- the dark side of the valley 😉 Perhaps these feelings are heightened further because my tiny companions look just like hairy hobbits, especially Gav, who could easily be used as a body double for Bilbo Baggins. Jokes aside, this is a magical part of the Calder Valley. A secret sanctuary of flora and fauna which exudes tranquility and calm.

14760013922_54b6b9f65f_bPictured above: The remains of Old Staups Mill, Jumble Hole Clough (Photo credit)

My favourite descent is swiftly met by my favourite checkpoint. It’s like an Aladdin’s cave stacked full of sugary and savoury treats. There’s so much choice that we have to stop for couple of minutes just to make sure we don’t miss out on anything delicious. I’m offered a coffee on arrival and I’m very, VERY tempted to say yes but decide it won’t be the easiest thing to drink on the steep climb towards Stoodley Pike. Instead I grab a beef pate sandwich and another monster slab of tiffin (rocket fuel!). I chuckle to myself as I spot a pile of beef dripping sandwiches and wonder how many other races in the world offer this kind of food halfway round!?! I’m just waiting for the year that Gav (the herbivore) eats one by mistake!

Pictured above: My favourite checkpoint near Callis Bridge (Photos courtesy of Nick Ham)

The climb to Stoodley is the longest and steepest ascent in the race but today Gav is making it look easy. I exchange glances with Karl and we wonder if he’s on performance enhancing drugs or whether he really did eat a beef dripping sandwich by mistake. Either way he’s got far too much energy so I put him back on his lead, just in case he tries to run off and leave us. Besides, in another 2 minutes the KGB (Karl, Gav & Ben) will need to be camera ready for SportSunday so we can pose for team photos. It feels a bit like Groundhog Day because every year the lovely Laura and David Bradshaw stand in the same place taking images. The only difference being the weather, and today we’ve been very fortunate.

HEB 1_0002 (1).jpgPictured above: With the legend Karl Gray (C) and Mad Legs Mulholland (R) (Photo courtesy of SportSunday)

“THERE IS NOWHERE TO HIDE ON THE KILLER STEPS. IT’S DEATH OR GLORY

Although the route doesn’t travel directly past Stoodley Pike, Calder Valley’s most famous landmark dominates the skyline from start to finish. Very rarely does it disappear from sight and it looks impressive from every angle. The monument is almost within touching distance as we reach the summit of the climb but we immediately turn left and head in the opposite direction towards Erringden Moor. A few years ago we got lost in the mist whilst crossing the moor but thankfully there’s no chance of that happening today. Gav leads the way and within minutes we begin to quickly descend through Broadhead Clough towards checkpoint 4. This marks the point where the 21 mile route leaves the 15. In the past I’ve been sorely tempted to switch direction and just complete the shorter race. However, today I’m feeling good and another piece of tiffin helps persuade me to carry on.

4703293289_6e90bd9c21_b.jpgPictured above: Stoodley Pike standing tall and proud. The Hebden route can be seen in the top right hand corner of the image (Photo credit)

In my opinion, the climb out of Turvin Clough to the top of the valley is the crux of the race. After 15 miles, it separates the men from the boys. My legs feel heavy and I’m beginning to tire. Unfortunately for me there is nowhere to hide on the ‘killer steps’ – it’s death or glory. Survival mode kicks in and I’m forced to dig deep. I know once this climb is over I can make it to the finish. It’s a huge mental achievement. Gav skips up them effortlessly and I just try and hang on to the back of him. I can hear Karl behind me trying to do the same. Surprisingly, at the top I actually feel ok. In fact, I’ve not only survived them but I’ve somehow discovered a second wind. I decide it’s a good time to give Gav a taste of his own medicine so I push the pace to the next checkpoint. I think it’s the thought of more tiffin that spurs me on.

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Pictured above: The ‘killer’ steps (Photo courtesy of Brian Fisher)

The route briefly rejoins the Calderdale Way (Leg 1) before descending sharply down towards Cragg Vale. Then, just before we hit the main road we turn once more, back uphill to Hollin Hey Wood and the final ascent. Now, as much as I hate the killer steps, they don’t even begin to compare with how I feel about this climb. It absolutely fills me with dread. I can’t EVER remember enjoying it and I ALWAYS struggle to run up it without wanting to stop. But not today. Today I’m determined to put my demons to rest as I prepare to launch one final attack. I take a deep breath and give it everything I’ve got left in the tank. It’s very rare that I ever run faster than Gav on a climb so I must be going well. You can imagine my relief and excitement as I sprint the final few steps to reach the top. It’s only taken me 6 YEARS to finally conquer it! Thank God it’s all downhill from here.

I check my watch as we begin to descend and I know we’re on for a sub-3 hour finish. I’m happy with that. We cross the line in 2:56, just 3 minutes outside of the record. Not bad considering all the time we spent pausing for food.

Strava | Photos 1 | Photos 2 | Results

The only way to finish a good run at the Hebden is to eat, shower and then eat some more. So I kick off the post-race celebrations with pie and peas (Yorkshire style), mint sauce on top and not a slice of beetroot in sight (take note Lancastrians). Apologies to Caroline Harding who has to witness me eating inhaling it in less than 20 seconds. After a (very) brief pause it’s straight on to the rhubarb crumble, countless mugs of tea and finally, all washed down with some glasses of mulled wine. I think at this point you can safely say I’ve got my money’s worth from the entry fee. Unfortunately the quality of the showers aren’t quite on par with the standard of the refreshments. I can confirm that the cold water does nothing to help revive Gav’s #PRP!

IMG_2510.JPGPictured above: The amusing race report in the Halifax Courier

kgb.jpgPictured above: The KGB (From L to R – in that order) with the wonderful Carole Engel (post-race).

So there you have it – the full Hebden experience. If you, like me, are a fan of running, eating, and spending a day on the hills with other like-minded people, then this is the event for you. But be warned – this race sells out quickly and there are only a limited amount of places available for both the 15 and 21 mile challenges. Keep an eye on SiEntries for the 2018 edition of the Hebden and other LDWA events.

Finally, I’d like to extend my sincerest thanks and appreciation to Alan, Carole and their amazing team for all their hard work and organisation. Without you it wouldn’t happen and it certainly wouldn’t be the same. See you again next year!

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Supported by inov-8 | Powered by Mountain Fuel | Timed by Suunto

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A runner’s guide to winter survival

runners-guide-to-winter-survivalWinter.

As a runner, it’s the time of year you’ve probably been dreading. The clocks go back, the light begins to fade and the weather is inevitably on the turn. Summer is nothing but a distant memory and it becomes increasingly harder to find any kind of motivation to train. But fear not, help is at hand!

Here are my top tips for surviving the winter and embracing the cold…

dont-make-excusesIt’s ok. I get it. You’ve just finished work and you’re absolutely shattered. It was dark when you left the house this morning and it’s dark now as you’re leaving the office. It feels like you haven’t felt the sun on your face for months and it’s cold outside, really cold. When you open your front door the only thing on your mind is settling down on the sofa in front of a warm fire, whilst watching television and eating the dinner you’ve been dreaming about all afternoon. It’s only 6 o’clock and you have an uncontrollable urge to head upstairs to slip into your pyjamas. Besides it’s just started raining outside and your favourite TV programme is calling out your name from the SkyPlus box.

‘What if Daryl from the Walking Dead dies in this week’s episode whilst I’m out training? How will I ever forgive myself? I suppose I can always run tomorrow instead. Yeah tomorrow, I might even do a double session. Now where did I put that XL bar of Dairy Milk?’

Sound familiar? Trust me when I say that this is my dilemma pretty much every day of the week during winter. I always say the hardest part of training is actually getting changed and leaving the house because it’s the easiest time to give up and make excuses. I have to play some serious mind games with myself in order to get a session done. One of my best tips is to not set your central heating on a timer for when you get home. It’s best to make your front room as cold and uninviting as possible so that you’ll want to go outside just to stay warm. Plus think of all the money you’ll save! It’s a win, win situation. I’m thinking like a true Yorkshireman now – Dave Woodhead would be very proud. A quick turn around is the key. No more than 15 minutes to get sorted and changed before you head straight back out for a run. Have all your clothes and kit laid out ready to go, drink coffee standing up and DO NOT sit down on the sofa…REPEAT after me….DO NOT SIT DOWN ON THE SOFA! Now go and enjoy the tropical weather outside, your house is bloody freezing!!!

mountainfuel-34Photo taken by Robbie Jay Barratt

shine-brightlyI’m probably the least qualified person to dish out head torch recommendations. I am, after all, the guy who turned up to a night race on the Amalfi coast in Italy, wearing a £5 ‘Ebay special’ head torch with 2 used AA batteries borrowed from the TV remote in my hotel room. Admittedly not the best idea I’ve ever had.

Read more here… Italian Adventures: Part 1

IMG_4952Pictured above: Nervously waiting for the start of the Praia San Domenico night race with my £5 head torch.

During the winter months a decent head torch is an essential part of your running kit. When you’re pounding the pavements during the dark nights, you need something to light your way and make you shine brightly. Thankfully I do know someone who knows what they’re talking about…

Fell running guide to head torches

Make the sensible choice (like I’ve finally done!) and invest in a decent model.

train-as-oneFor most people, running alone in winter is a daunting prospect. Dark lonely roads and paths can be scary places, especially for women. It’s the best time of year to run with a friend or better still, in a group. Not only will it help you feel safer, it will also give you more motivation to train. Joining a club is a great way to meet new people and discover new runs. You’ll be surprised at just how many amazing places there are to run in your local area. Over the years, my friends have introduced me to hundreds of new training routes and I get VERY excited whenever I find a new trail (yes I really am that sad!).

Plus at Christmas there will undoubtedly be plenty of festive club runs and excuses to eat lots of food after you’ve finished training. If you’re really lucky, there might even be someone at your club who’s into a bit of Stravart. Check out our Calder Valley team attempt of a Christmas tree on Stoodley Pike last year…

Tree.pngPictured above: The CVFR Christmas club run 2015 led by Ian Symington.

treat yourself.pngThe best way to get motivated is to buy some new running gear. Is there a better feeling than slipping on a new pair of inov-8’s and heading out for a run? I don’t think so. Go on treat yourself, it is nearly Christmas after all.

It’s also important to remember that treating yourself doesn’t always have to be expensive. Try letting a new pair of running socks or gloves ‘accidentally’ fall into your shopping trolley. Or if that’s still too much to spend then keep it cheap and simple. All is takes to float my boat is a bacon and egg sarnie at the end of a long run, washed down with a cup of strong Italian coffee. Tough training sessions should always be rewarded.

Roadclaw.pngPictured above: From road to trail. The inov-8 Roadclaw 275 is a shoe for all seasons.

Merino.pngI’ve previously blogged about the super powers of merino – it’s simply the best. I’m all for saving money (as you’ve probably already gathered!) but when it comes to base layers there is no better alternative. I even wear merino underpants. However, by far the best bit of running clothing I own is still the inov-8 long sleeved hooded merino base layer. It’s expensive gear, but worth every penny. Try Aldi for cheaper alternatives or check out Sportshoes who always have some great discounted prices (I usually have a discount code, so if you want one just get in touch).

Whatever clothing you choose to wear, don’t make the same mistake as I did last year at Lee Mill Relays…

Bad Education

(Warning! Reading this blog make leave you feeling very cold. Probably best to wear some merino clothing whilst you read it)

challenge-yourselfSetting yourself a challenge is the best way to motivate yourself during winter. You could set a personal weekly goal for mileage and climbing, or for the entire month. You could even try running every day. The Marcothon is a perfect challenge for athletes of all abilities. The rules are simple, you must run every day in December. Minimum of three miles or 25 minutes – which ever comes first. The challenge starts on December 1st and finishes on December 31st. And yes, that includes Christmas Day. It’s not a competition, just a personal challenge.

MountainFuel-36.jpgPhoto taken by Robbie Jay Barratt

Another great idea is to challenge a friend or compete as a group. See who can do the most mileage in a week or month and the winner has to buy the drinks (believe me, there’s not much I wouldn’t do for a free cappuccino!).

Personally I set myself a target of 50 miles a week and aim to climb between 8,000-15,000ft when I’m in full training mode. I use Strava to track my progress and I always join their monthly challenges for distance and climbing.

enjoy-racingThe winter months are just about the only time I allow my body to recover. After a season of hard racing I like to get back to training and enjoy running on local trails. However, I like to use cross country races to stay fit and I love racing at Christmas. There are a number of really great races to take part in, some with optional fancy dress. These events are always well organised and VERY enjoyable.

ben-mounsey-x-keswick-x-shot-by-robbie-jay-barratt-7Photo taken by Robbie Jay Barratt

Here are my top recommendations for reasonably LOCAL races over the festive period…

(see the Fellrunner site for more details and other races)

  1. Sunday 27/11/2016 Lee Mill Relay (6.2 miles/1115ft climb – FELL RACE) @ 10:00am
  2. Saturday 17/12/2016 Hurst Green Turkey Trot  (5 miles – TRAIL RACE) @1.00pm
  3. Sunday 18/12/2016 Stoop (5 miles/820ft climb – FELL RACE) @ 11:30am
  4. Monday 26/12/2016 Whinberry Naze (4 miles/751ft climb – FELL RACE) @ 11:30am
  5. Tuesday 27/12/2016 Coley Canter (8 miles – TRAIL RACE) @10.00am
  6. Saturday 31/12/2016 Auld Land Syne (6 miles/984ft climb – FELL RACE) @ 11:30am

plan-adventuresPlan your next adventure.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a park run or a mountain race in Italy. It’s good to have something to motivate you and train for. The next time you’re out running in the cold wind and rain, just remind yourself why you’re doing it and think about your goal. Whatever you decide to aim for, it’ll be worth all the effort when you get there.

tis-the-seasonIt’s not all bad. Running in winter can be amazing. Embrace the weather, make the most of the weekends and if it snows, then lace up your trainers and get out for a run. Think positive, enjoy yourself and don’t forget to do it with a smile. Tis’ the season to be jolly after all 🙂

13227836_220971738287021_2361841371930374055_o.jpgPhoto taken by Steve Frith

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Supported by inov-8 | Powered by Mountain Fuel | Timed by Suunto

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Film trailer: Run Forever

EXTREME RUNNING CHALLENGES

nicky spinks head shot

 In May 2016, the inspirational Nicky Spinks made fell running history by becoming the fastest person to run a Double Bob Graham Round. The 49-year-old cancer-survivor marked 10 years post-diagnosis by running the 132-mile Lake District route, which included around 54,000ft of ascent, in a time of 45 hours and 30 minutes. She took over an hour off the previous record set in 1979 by Roger Baumeister, who was there in person to support Nicky during her attempt.

Now the story of Nicky’s incredible life and phenomenal Double Bob Graham Round success will be told in a new film called RUN FOREVER. The film will be premiered at the Kendal Mountain Festival in November, after which it will have its public release. To whet the appetite we have this exclusive film trailer.

NICKY SPINKS – PUSHING HER BODY TO THE LIMIT

Starting and finishing in Keswick, a standard Bob Graham Round involves a 66-mile circuit of 42 summits including 27,000ft of elevation gain, to be completed in less than 24 hours. Nicky, a farmer from Yorkshire, did all that twice, and became only the second person after Roger – and first woman – to go sub-48 hours. Her achievement gained widespread national media attention.

Prior to her record-run, the longest period of time Nicky had run for was 36 hours. Entering into unchartered territory, she pushed her body and mind to their limits and endured countless highs and lows. She was supported throughout by family and friends, including fell running legend Joss Naylor.

Nicky was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006. She underwent treatment and made a strong recovery. Since then she has set multiple fell and ultra running records across the UK and placed high in some of Europe’s toughest races.

Blog posts by Nicky: My Double Bob Graham Round | How To Run Further Than You Thought Possible

Nicky Spinks DBG 7

Suunto Spartan Ultra vs Suunto Ambit 3 Vertical Review

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The Suunto Spartan Ultra – one of the most eagerly anticipated GPS watches of all time. Much has been promised and lots is expected. The question is – will this gadget live up to all the hype and is it worth the lofty price tag?

Last month Suunto asked me to trial their flagship product and I was more than happy to oblige. As I’ve only been using the watch for the last 4 weeks, this won’t be an exhaustive review. However, it should provide you with enough information about the Spartan Ultra should you be interested in an upgrade or looking to invest in your first GPS device.

When the watch arrived in the post I was most impressed with the lovely personal touch on the packaging – Suunto had obviously done their homework. I currently own a Suunto Ambit 3 Vertical blue (purchased in May 2016). Previous to this I had a Ambit 2R in black. The difference between these two models is vast so I was interested to see how much better the Ultra is compared to the Ambit 3. I use my watch primarily for running – road, trail, fell and mountain. I use the data in Movescount but I also upload all my activities to Strava as I like to engage with a wider audience and compare my efforts against those of others. Aside from basic use, the main feature I use is navigation, so much of this blog will focus on the accuracy and reliability of the GPS tracker and the ease of uploading and following routes (GPX files).

Ultimately I want to know if the Spartan Ultra is worth the extra money (RRP £599 compared to RRP £325) and how much better it is (if at all) than the popular Ambit 3.

Pictured above: (L) The Suunto Spartan Ultra and (R) The Suunto Ambit 3 Vertical Blue

Suunto’s comparison of both watches can be found here

1. FIRST IMPRESSIONS

I love my bright blue Ambit 3 Vertical but the all black Spartan Ultra is seriously nice. It’s lighter than I expected and the silicone wrist strap, like the Ambit 3, is soft, strong and very durable (this was already an improvement from the Ambit 2). The obvious difference between the two devices is the higher resolution, colour touch screen of the Spartan – a HUGE advancement in technology. The watch face is bigger than the Ambit and it’s much clearer to read and navigate through the menu. I was worried that the touch screen technology might not work that well in the outdoors, especially wet weather. However, I was surprised at how well it still operated with moisture on the screen (although when completely immersed in water you simply have to rely on the buttons to navigate the menu). The screen is also made from sapphire crystal which means it won’t scratch like the Ambit and I don’t have to worry about buying a screen protector. The bezel is made from titanium rather than steel, a more durable and superior material. Another big improvement on previous generations is the magnetic charger.

2. KEY FEATURES

Connectivity: Both watches use a bluetooth connection and I use the Suunto moves app to download my routes. I know some people would prefer a Wifi connection (like the Fenix 3) but I’ve experienced no problems with bluetooth and my runs are always downloaded and synced to Strava within minutes of finishing exercise.

GPS: The key thing for me is the quality of the GPS. The Spartan is quicker at receiving a signal (instant). Both watches have accurate GPS during exercise and I use the fastest recording rate on both which obviously impacts on the battery life. However, given that I never usually train/race above 3 hours, this is never an issue. The battery life of the Spartan is just slightly better than the Ambit – 15 hours rather than 14 in time mode.

Interface: Suunto have completely re-designed the user interface from the Ambit. The good news is it didn’t take me long to navigate the menu and it’s really clear and easy to use. There is also the ability to customise the watch face. A small improvement but one I really like.

Logbook: The Spartan Ultra gives a more complete summary of your training status on the watch. The colour screen enables much richer displays in general and more data on screen. All essential training concepts including pace, splits, rest and recovery are more clearly presented than on the Ambit.

Step and calorie count: This is a new feature on the Spartan and I have to say it’s VERY addictive. It gives you a preset target of completing 10,000 steps every day, although unfortunately this target cannot be changed manually. I’m not afraid to admit that I find myself regularly checking it throughout the day – eager to find out how many steps I’ve done. Prior to using the Spartan I was genuinely considering purchasing an activity tracker, so for me this is a key feature. There is also a calorie count, but the only thing this does is encourage me to eat more!

IMG_1026 2.JPGPictured above: The step count in action. The daily target of 10,000 steps is the blue line, which you can see has been achieved in this photo.

HR monitor: Both watches use the same chest strap, with monitor, to record heart rate. There isn’t an integrated optical heart rate monitor built into the watch, as I’m sure many people were expecting. To be honest it’s not something I’m too disappointed with. The HR strap was improved after the Ambit 2 – it’s comfortable to wear and gives an accurate recording during exercise.

Additional features: Suunto have promised many upgrades to the Spartan Ultra. ‘Coming soon’ seems to be the message, so expect some new features and software updates in the near future. See the specification for more details. I should also mention that I’ve not experienced the software problems that many other Spartan owners seem to have had. Perhaps it’s because I only use mine for mountain, trail and basic running – many of the negative reviews I’ve read are from athletes using it for other sports like swimming.

3. NAVIGATION

Navigation is another key feature for me so a ‘proper fell run’ was needed for a true test. I chose the new Castle Carr inaugural race route. Prior to this test I’d never done the race, I’d no idea of the route and without a map or guidance from a watch I would inevitably get lost. Thankfully the navigation feature, on both the Ambit 3 and Spartan Ultra, allows you to download or create a route and then follow it on the screen whilst running…

14206059_279436152440579_743139688365304502_oPictured above: (Old vs new) Gav Nav vs the Spartan Ultra on the Castle Carr race route

I needed this feature to be simple. I don’t do instructions, I’ve better things to do with my time than read through a booklet when I can just fiddle around, press a few buttons and hopefully get a gizmo to work. I wanted to see how easy it was to upload a route to my watch and just follow it. So I found the Castle Carr race route on (Race organiser) Bill Johnson’s previous Strava activities. I downloaded the GPS file to my computer, uploaded it to Suunto Moves and then synced my watch (i.e. plugged it in to my computer). 1st job done in about 1 minute! No instructions, no messing, easy to work out – route now saved and ready to use. This process is the same on both devices.

14138646_279437039107157_8625262177785166540_o.jpgPictured above: Using the navigation feature on the Spartan Ultra. The blue line is the route I’m following and the white ‘bread crumb’ line is the actual line I’ve taken.

suunto-ambit3-vertical-blue-hr_664_2_8_1393Pictured above: Using the navigation feature on the Ambit 3 Vertical. I’ve used this during races and in training and it’s a good visual aid. However, the screen is smaller and harder to use when navigating at pace.

I opened the route on my watch screen and use the navigation feature so I could find my way. A few menu choices and button presses later and, as if by Harry Potter magic, I had the route up on my display. The display is also bigger than my Ambit 3, and because it’s also touch screen and in colour, then it’s clearer to see. It shows a white trail, where you’ve been and where you are, compared to the blue line which is where you should be going.

Although both watches have the navigation feature, the ease of use and clarity of the large colour screen (when navigating at pace) is far better on the Spartan Ultra than the Ambit 3.

Video above: Once a route has been saved, uploaded to Suuntomoves and synced to the watch, it’s really easy to open and use the navigation function.

4. SUGGESTED IMPROVEMENTS

  1. Personally I really like the information that the Ambit 3 vertical provides about ascent gained. As a mountain runner I like to know how much climbing I’ve done during the week. Unfortunately the Spartan Ultra doesn’t display this information on the watch.
  2. The ability to customise screens for the chosen activity.
  3. The step count resets every day and it’s not possible to view your weekly total. (n.b. this feature has now been included since this blog was published – Dec. 2016)

5. THE VERDICT

Based on my comparison it’s clear to see that the Spartan Ultra is a better watch than the Ambit 3 – but so it should be for the price. How much better depends on what you need it for, how you use it and how often you use it. The Ambit 3 Vertical is a fantastic watch. If you already own one and it ticks all the boxes for you, then I wouldn’t say you have to rush to get an upgrade just yet. Also if you are new to exercise and are just looking to purchase a watch that tracks your GPS during exercise, then there are much cheaper alternatives serving that sole purpose.

The Spartan Ultra is a watch for the serious athlete. It’s also a gadget that would appeal to tech geeks and those who spend hours poring over training data. It looks good and feels good – far more robust than its predecessors. I love my Ambit 3 but admittedly I’d find it very hard to go back to using it now I’ve experienced the Spartan Ultra. In my opinion it’s a watch that could potentially be the difference between winning or losing a race, when precious seconds count. For me, navigation in races is vital. I would genuinely purchase the Spartan just because of the improvements of the navigation feature and the large, colour touch screen. I think it’s worth spending a bit more money to have some extra confidence in a race. That said I don’t think it should ever be solely relied upon for navigation – I use it as a back up for confidence or when I’m really really lost on the hills. Which to be honest is almost every fell race that I do!

So there you have it – my simple review of the Suunto Spartan Ultra. If you can afford one and it meets your requirements, then this could well be the watch you’ve been waiting for. Plus it looks damn good on your wrist!

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Italian adventures (Part 3)

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Friday 26th August (My Birthday)

21 pizzas and 54 Aperol Spritz later, I finally arrive in Susa for the World Masters Mountain Running Championships 2016. It’s hard to accept that at 35 years old I’m finally classed as a ‘mountain running veteran’. It really doesn’t seem right. I’m old enough by only 2 days to compete and the youngest athlete in the race.

My first impressions of Susa are good. The town is relatively small but very charming. It has easy access to spectacular countryside and is surrounded by steep, mountainous terrain. There is a constant stream of visitors because of its important Roman ruins and medieval monuments such as the amphitheatre, the Graziane Thermal aqueduct, Porta Savoia and l’Arco di Augusto. Worth a visit just to admire these impressive ancient relics

alpes--1103-.jpgPictured above: The beautiful town of Susa (photo credit)

One of the things I love most about mountain running is that it takes you to some amazing places in the world to compete. Up until a few months ago I’d never even heard of Susa yet here I am, about to find out what this beautiful part of Italy has to offer. I’m not disappointed. I’m also not surprised. I’m yet to visit a part of this great country that hasn’t left a lasting impression on me.

“THIS IS A COURSE THAT DESERVES SOME SERIOUS RESPECT…THE STEEP GRADIENT IS RELENTLESS

There’s a large contingent of GB runners who’ve also made the journey to Susa. I’m looking forward to racing but even more excited about spending the weekend with great friends. I’m 100% here for the experience and to create new memories both on and off the mountain. Needless to say my pizza and spritz tallies will have dramatically increased by Monday morning.

img_0884Pictured above: Spritz o’clock – GB crew on tour!

Saturday 27th August (RACE DAY!) For ALL Female categories and Male V55-75

I wake up on Saturday morning feeling extremely jealous that the women get to race a day earlier than the men. As Lou Roberts quite rightly pointed out to me yesterday – they get an extra day/night of drinking and we men have to prolong our celebrations until at least Sunday afternoon. It does however give me a chance to cheer them all on and get a sneaky preview of the course. Well, at least half of our course – the men’s race on Sunday is almost double that of the women’s race!

I’m carrying a full bag of bottled water up the mountain because we Brits aren’t used to racing in this heat. It’s seriously warm. Even at 9am I’ve a ‘full bead on’ (translation: I’m sweating profusely). I’m thinking if I do a good job as water-boy, then tomorrow the women will repay my kindness – well that’s the plan anyway! Although it’s very much dependant on how much they all have to drink tonight.

I slowly jog/trudge up the mountain like a cart-horse and I begin to understand why Lou has abstained from alcohol over the last few days. This is a course that deserves some serious respect. Aside from the fast flat run out on the road it’s ALL uphill and the steep gradient is relentless. Starting at 500m, it’s an 800m+ climb (6.5km) for the women and 1445m (11km) for the men. I’d best get used to the idea of climbing hard for well over 60 minutes.

Pictured above: Looking after the GB ladies and carrying out my waterboy duties.

It’s not long before the first lady appears and it’s amazing to see a GB vest at the front of the pack. Julie Briscoe is leading the way and she’s closely followed by Lou. Both are class international athletes and it’s no surprise to see them battling for the gold medal. However, what’s just as exciting is that my good friend Kirsty Hall is having the race of her life!!! She’s in 7th place and looking super strong. I urge her to jump in front of the chasing group and a few moments later she’s moved up to 3rd and pulling clear. Hard to believe that 18 months ago, following career-threatening knee surgery, Kirsty couldn’t even walk up a hill, never mind run up one! This is amazing to watch!

dy3_72363Pictured above: Lou Roberts working hard on the climb (photo credit)

dy3_72493-1Pictured above: Kirsty Hall in the hunt for bronze (photo credit)

IMG_0881Pictured above: The Golden Girls! Julie Briscoe (2nd), Lou Roberts (World V40 Champion!) and Kirsty Hall (3rd)

It’s official – a Great Britain 1, 2, 3!!! Lou Roberts is crowned the new WORLD V40 CHAMPION with Julie Briscoe in 2nd and Kirsty in 3rd!!! It’s a very proud moment and I’m absolutely thrilled for them all. The ladies have set the bar extremely high and I’m just hoping they’re not expecting the men to follow suit in the morning. I might even have to lay off the beer and spritz tonight!

Sunday 28th August (RACE DAY!) For ALL Male categories and Male V35-50

We’re gathered, shoulder to shoulder, on the start line and everyone is jostling for position. Quite funny really as there are clearly some overly ambitious people stood far too near to the front. In a race like this it doesn’t matter where you stand at this point. It’s a long way to the top and the best man on the day will always win. The mountain will ultimately dictate our fate, not a sprint start.

“THIS GUY HAS CLEARLY NEVER BEEN ON AN ALL-INCLUSIVE HOLIDAY WITH A YORKSHIREMAN BEFORE…I’VE NOT TOUCHED A SALAD SINCE JULY

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Pictured above: Calder Valley Fell Runners on tour! (L to R) Lee Shimwell, me, Karl Gray and Jason Williams.

The commentator announces my name as one of the pre-race favourites – FFS! I can’t help but chuckle to myself. This guy has clearly never been on an all-inclusive holiday with a Yorkshireman before. It’s not a pretty sight. This trip has cost me an absolute fortune but after a week I was already back in profit. I’ve not touched a salad since July. I just hope no-one has any serious money on me to make the podium because it would be a wasted bet. Now don’t get me wrong – I don’t want to come across as negative because I’m really (REALLY!) not that kind of person. As soon as that gun goes off there won’t be a single person in the race trying harder than me. I’ll absolutely destroy myself to get to the top and by the end I’ll be laid on the floor in a horrible, sweaty mess. But I’m a realist. I’ve not specifically trained for this race at all. I’m doing it because A) I can B) It’s a great excuse to stay in Italy for another week and C) The most important reason of all – I just love running up and down mountains. Time to enjoy the views (yeah right!) and embrace the pain…

We’re off!

I let the Usain Bolt impressionists sprint off as I settle into a very comfortable rhythm. I’m determined to pace myself sensibly and run my own race. I’m cruising down the only flat section of the course, saving my energy for the brutal climb. So much so that I even strike up a conversation with Karl (Gray) and we talk race tactics. Operation ‘try not to blow up before halfway’ is going well so far. In fact I’m pretty proud of myself for not going silly on the road. I must be getting sensible in my ‘old age’ – perhaps one perk of being a mountain running veteran 😉

The main problem with setting four age categories off at the same time is that nobody really has a clue what position they are in their respective race (unless you’re winning of course!). Right now I’m somewhere in the top 30 and aside from the guys directly in front of me, I don’t know who else I’m really racing – a strange feeling if I’m honest. Nevertheless, my steady start is beginning to pay dividends as I begin to work my way through the field. I’m just tapping out a constant rhythm, fully aware of how much climbing I still need to do.

“FINALLY I CAN HEAR THE THREE C’S – CHEERING, CLAPPING AND COW BELLSMUSIC TO MY EARS

It might come as a surprise to many when I say that this is the longest continuous climb that I’ve ever done in a race. 1445m of sheer ascent with no respite, aside from a very small section in the middle, before rising again sharply to the finish. It’s why I’m being overly cautious – I’m really scared of blowing up before the final ascent. Even though I’m climbing well within myself, I’m still managing to pass people and slowly but surely moving up through the order. However, I’ve still absolutely no idea how many V35 runners are in front of me and I won’t know until the finish.

final-climbPictured above: The final climb to the finish (photo credit)

As I hit the halfway point (women’s finish) I feel in surprisingly good shape so I begin to increase the pace. Unfortunately it’s a false confidence. 5 minutes later I’m back on the ropes and hanging on for dear life. The path leaves the cool shade of the trees and the route becomes exposed. The intense heat of the sun is a real shock to the system. I’m absolutely gagging for a drink. Seriously, I’d do anything right now for a mouthful of water. As if my thirst isn’t enough of a problem I’m now being attacked by flies. Lots of bloody annoying flies. I can’t even run fast enough to escape them either. This finish can’t come soon enough!

Finally I can hear the three C’s – cheering, clapping and cow bells! Music to my ears. The end is in sight. With clear daylight both in front and behind, I cruise into the finish. I’m in 12th place overall and 8th in my category. There’s no need for a sprint and I’m relieved because my legs are heavy and the tank is empty. I’m just glad it’s over. Now, somebody pass me a beer.

img_0862Pictured above: All smiles at the finish. (L to R) The legend Mark Roberts, me, Karl Gray, Lee Shimwell and Jason Williams.

Race finished and it’s time to head back to the start. We have 2 choices – wait for the hot, crowded bus or run back down the mountain on tired legs. It’s a no brainer. Now it really is time to enjoy the views. It was honestly worth all the effort in the race just for this descent – pure bliss!

img_0936Pictured above: Descending back to Susa.

The best bit of course is yet to come. An opportunity to celebrate and enjoy the occasion with friends, both old and new. A particular highlight is meeting Chris Grauch, the 2016 US masters champion. He joins us on the run back down to Susa and even treats us all to a round of beers on our return – what an absolute gent! Note to self – I must plan a trip to Colorado to pay him (and Peter Maksimow) a visit one day. It’s also a real pleasure to finally meet Francesco Puppinho who is due to compete for Italy in the World Mountain Running Championship in Bulgaria. Without doubt a future world champion in my eyes!

img_0864Pictured above: Post-race celebrations with Chris Grauch.

img_0863Pictured above: Enjoying a beer with Francesco Puppinho.

img_0865Pictured above: Sandwiched between 2 champions! (L) 3rd in the world Kirsty Hall and (R) World Champion Lou Roberts

Of course, I can’t finish this blog without another mention of our golden girls, who quite rightly stole the show. However, I can’t believe this photo cost me 49 pence! Now Lou is world champion and Kirsty is 3rd in the world they’re making serious diva-like demands! I had to take 3 pictures to get the best light and they charged me for all of them! Both have also asked me to mention that they are available for hire at public events for a very reasonable fee. I hear Lou is opening a new supermarket in Wigton next week and her new book ‘How to get faster than Mark Roberts in 5 easy steps’ is due out in time for Christmas (signed copies also available). Kirsty is currently working on a new range of sports clothing for dwarves and really small fell runners, having spotted a gap in the market. I suppose with this in mind I should consider 49 pence per photo a real bargain!

img_0872Pictured above: Sandwiched between 2 legends (L) European Mountain Running Champion, Martin Dematteis and (R) Future World Champion Francesco Puppinho.

Finally, I’d like to take this opportunity to congratulate all of the athletes, the medallists (especially the GB and Irish athletes!), the organisers for putting on such a great event and, of course, all of my teammates and friends for helping to make my first World Mountain Running Masters Championship such an amazing experience. I’m looking forward to next year’s event already!

Roll on 2017…

 

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Italian adventures (Part 2)

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I’m sitting on the hotel terrace enjoying one last drink with friends before the transfer picks us up for the airport. It’s always a sad moment when something so good has to come to an end. I’ve enjoyed the most amazing holiday. It’s usually at this point where I dread having to fly home and go back to reality. This time however is very different. I have to keep reminding myself that my Italian adventure is far from over. I’ve another two weeks to enjoy in my favourite country. It’s the longest I’ve ever been away from home and I’m in danger of getting seriously used to this kind of lifestyle.

IMG_0480Pictured above: A view of Collina from the top of the valley, on the climb to Rifugi Lambertenghi

The next part of my journey takes me to Collina, a tiny village nestled high in the Carnic Alps and only a couple of miles from the Austrian border. I’ve been chosen to be part of a three-man Great Britain team that will contest the prestigious mountain relay, *Tre-Rifugi. I’m on leg 2, which climbs the infamous Sentiero Spinotti, by far the most dangerous section of the race but equally the most exciting. I’ll start at 2000m and climb another 397m over 3.8km from one rifugio to another. I’ll also have to wear a helmet because the route is so exposed and the danger of falling rock (or falling mountain runner!) is exceptionally high. I’m excited. A strange way to get my kicks you might think, but it’s these kind of experiences that I live for.

*It’s also worth mentioning that anyone can enter a team into Tre-Rifugi – you just need 3 (slightly crazy) mountain runners!

This video on Youtube shows footage from leg 2 (2014).

Pictured above: (L) Climbing Sentiero Spinotti and (R) Annie Conway approaching the foot of the climb (both photos from a route recce the day before).

Pictured above: My inov-8 GB racing helmet.

Joining me in the team is Max Nicholls, one of our country’s finest young talents and a good friend of mine. We ran together in the World Mountain Running Championships last year and this is his first year as a senior international athlete. Such is his climbing prowess that he’s already made the senior Great Britain team at this year’s event and he’s the perfect choice for leg one (uphill only with 4.5km and 739m of climb). Callum Tinnion (recommended by Ricky Lightfoot), is on anchor and has the task of throwing himself down a 871m descent in 4.7km to the finish.

“I DON’T HAVE TIME IN MY LIFE FOR REGRETS OR MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

The GB women’s team is also a serious contender for the win. World Long Distance Mountain Running champion, Annie Conway, is on leg 1, Georgia Tindley on leg 2 and finally Charlotte Morgan on leg 3. In addition, Ruaridh Mon-Williams and Euan Nicholls (brother of Max) are running as part of a GB junior team and hoping to impress on legs 1 and 2 respectively.

IMG_0484Pictured above: The mountains are calling…

We arrive late on the Friday night after a long day of travelling. We’re staying with my friend and race organiser Tony Tamussin, along with Anne Buckley (team organiser) and Triss Kenny. Tony’s wife, Maria, is waiting for us at the airport and has just driven 2.5 hours from Collina to Venice to pick us up. It tells you everything you need to know about the Tamussins. Tony is such a great guy, an absolute legend in my eyes and I’m very grateful for his family’s generous hospitality.

It’s worth the long journey because Saturday is a brilliant start to my Tre-Refugi experience. We recce the route as a team and I get my first look at what I’m about to face. Tony, had previously warned me about the severity of the climb but his description didn’t do it justice. It’s a crazy but exhilarating leg, I love it. These kind of experiences, to race on a route like this and in a beautiful place like Collina, don’t come around very often. I don’t have time in my life for regrets or missed opportunities. I’m going to enjoy this race and savour every single moment.

Video: Climbing Sentiero Spinotti on the route recce

IMG_20160820_125620Pictured above: With Annie Conway & Georgia Tindley after we’d climbed Sentiero Spinotti

Race day finally arrives and it’s a bizarre feeling having to climb 739m just to get to the start of my leg. I’m classing this as my warm up and even though I’m only walking, this activity is definitely going on Strava. I’m not climbing this high just to waste all the ascent I’ve just gained – I don’t care what Phil Winskill says!

22_Il_Lago_VolaiaPictured above: Lago Volaia with the Austrian rifigio (Wolayerseehutte) 

When we finally reach Rifugio Lambertenghi, I’m greeted with the most wonderful panoramic views. There’s a small lake (Lago Volaia) at the summit and to the left of it is another rifugio – Wolayerseehutte. Oddly enough this one is in Austria! Crazy to think that if I walk about 100 steps I’ll cross the border. I decide to stay in Italy as I don’t feel comfortable about being in a different country with less than 30 minutes to go before the start of my leg – it just wouldn’t feel right!

“IT’S A GOOD JOB I AM RACING BECAUSE I HAVEN’T GOT TIME TO THINK ABOUT HOW CRAZY THIS CLIMB IS”

As I warm up I spot none other than mountain running god, Marco De Gasperi. Oh jeez! I’m going to need more than my pre-race shot of espresso to keep him in sight. He has the very impressive record on this leg and he’s favourite to take the spoils today.

It’s a nervous wait until we’re greeted by the first glimpse of a runner. It’s Antonino Toninelli. No surprise – he’s a class act. To be honest I feel sorry for his teammate on leg 2 – he’s going to have Marco chasing him down and the guy’s an animal on this kind of climb. Rather him than me! Sure enough, a few moments later the legend himself sets off in hot pursuit when Xavier Chevrier comes home in second place. Max is in 7th and he’s had a great leg. I’m pleased that we’re in the mix for a top 10 finish and I’m more than happy to be chasing rather than being chased.

Tre Refugi_BenPictured above: The start of leg 2 with Rifugio Lambertenghi in the distance

I’m off! Straight into full race pace as the start of the leg to the foot of Spinotti is a super-fast descent. It’s also extremely rough and very technical. I’m playing catch-up but I know I can’t go too quick or I’ll risk blowing a gasket before the climb even begins. I know what’s coming and I have to hit this ascent with fresh legs or it’s game over.

I’ve paced it well. It seems I’ve also managed to claw back some precious seconds as Roman Skalsky of Czechoslovakia comes into full view. He’s firmly in my sights as I begin to climb…..and climb…..and climb. Wow! This is seriously steep! Now, you may have looked at the picture above and sniggered at the fact that I’m wearing a helmet. Well, right now I’m not laughing because a few falling rocks have just missed my head. Unfortunately they hit me on my back and I’m immediately reminded of how dangerous this race really is. Maybe I should’ve worn a suit of armour!?! I’m feeling a little under-dressed right now. A few more loose rocks fall and strike my arm as I reach out to pull myself up on the metal chains. I’m on a via ferrata. Worse than that I’m RACING on a via ferrata!… Holy S**t! It’s actually a good job I am racing because I haven’t got time to think about how crazy this climb is. The only thing I’m thinking about right now is trying to catch Roman. I take a few risks by climbing straight up the rock face rather than following the faint zig-zagged path. I’m digging my nails into the rock, spreading my weight and using every single lug on both x-talons for grip. This is completely mental. This is VERY dangerous. This is absolutely brilliant!

IMG_5628Pictured above: Sentiero Spinotti. You can see the approach from the left and a faint path up the face of the climb.

I’m exhausted when I finally reached the top. I’m not sure if it’s the altitude or the fact that I’m working on my absolute limit. Probably a combination of the two I think. My legs feel like lead and I’m drawing breath like I’ve been underwater for hours. I’m not holding anything back that’s for sure. There’s no smiling for the cameras and no time for conversation with the small group of spectators that have gathered at the top. The only thing on my mind is 6th place, and I still have some serious work to do. I don’t feel like I’m making much time on the climb but as soon as we hit a technical, rocky descent, I’m back in my element. I’ve always been able to descend well at pace and right now I’m putting this skill to good use. I manage to catch Roman on one of the more runnable sections and I make my move immediately. I jump in front and attack like a Tour De France cyclist in the Alps. I want to put as much time as possible between us so that I’m not having to battle with him all the way to the finish. It’s working. Suddenly there’s clear daylight between us and I’ve only one climb left before the final descent.

“IT TAKES ME ABOUT TEN MINUTES TO COME ROUND BEFORE I FEEL VAGUELY HUMAN AGAIN”

It’s not much of a climb but this feels seriously tough. I’m blaming the altitude again. Either that or the fact I’m fresh from a 2 week all-inclusive holiday and right now I’m regretting every single slice of pizza that’s passed my lips. It’s one of those races where I’ve not taken my foot off the gas since the start and I’m in a world of pain. I can’t tell you how relieved I am when the gradient begins to point down and I can finally see the finish.

Pictured above: The agonising sprint to the finish and the 2nd changeover.

It’s deceiving how far away the finish is. It looks within my reach but I feel like I’m in a bad dream where I’m running on the spot and I can’t go any faster. Just another few metres to go…..come on….keep going….nearly there….YES!!!! Thank god for that! Callum is off and I collapse on the floor. My work is done. I’ve gained a place and we’re up to 6th with a decent lead over the Czechs.

It takes me about ten minutes to come round before I feel vaguely human again. The hot, sugary, lemon tea that’s being served in the Rifugio Marinelli is working its magic. I’m drinking the stuff like it’s Aperol Spritz and at this rate there’ll be none left in 10 minutes. They need to have this stuff after races in the UK – this is liquid gold!

As we walk back down to the finish, news filters back that Callum has comfortably held onto 6th place, the women have finished 2nd and the juniors have won! Plenty to celebrate at the presentation – I can’t wait for that first beer.

Video above: Ruaridh busting some serious moves on the dancefloor…completely sober.

Pictured above: Partying hard in Gino’s bar (Marco still wearing his helmet from leg 2!)

The après-run celebrations do not disappoint. It’s always great to spend time with the team, Tony (absolute legend!), his family and the other italian athletes like Luca Cagnati and Marco De Gasperi etc. All I can say is thank god I didn’t have to race up Sentiero Spinotti on Monday morning.

I’m blaming the altitude for my monster hangover 😉

 

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Italian adventures (Part 1)

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It was set to be the ultimate vacation – planned to absolute perfection. Two weeks of relaxing on the Amalfi coast in the Nastro Azzurro hotel, followed by two weeks of travelling around Northern Italy and racing in the beautiful italian mountains. Firstly in the prestigious Tre-Refugi relay and then the World Mountain Running Masters Championships a week later in Susa. It’s the stuff dreams are made of and needless to say after a month of hard racing in July, my body was definitely ready for a well-earned break.

OBSESSED IS JUST A WORD THE LAZY USE TO DESCRIBE THE DEDICATED

It will probably come as no surprise to most people reading this when I say I was still planning to train whilst on holiday. Mainly because I was staying in an all-inclusive hotel and there was a real fear that my GB vest may turn into a crop top after some serious over indulging on good italian food and fine wine. There was also another reason I wanted to continue training – I just love running! Now I understand that to 99% of the world’s population, running on holiday is a criminal offence. But to me it’s a lifestyle choice – it’s also the best way to explore new places and create memories that will last forever.

Path of the gods2.jpgPictured above: Il Sentiero degli Dei (The Path of the Gods)

The night before we were due to fly I searched the internet for mountainous places to run with spectacular views. It didn’t take me long to find what I was looking for – Il Sentiero degli Dei (The Path of the Gods). The name alone filled me with excitement. Within minutes I was downloading maps, visualising routes and planning my italian adventures. Then shortly after I had a major breakthrough – accidentally stumbling upon the Trail Running Campania website and completely hitting the jackpot! Unbelievably there was a night race in Praiano (15km from my hotel) the day after I was due to arrive in Sorrento – Night Trail Praia San Domenico. My mind was working overtime – would it be possible for me to enter and take part in the race? Would I be able to master the public transport system and find my way to registration? Most importantly  – would I be able to persuade my wife to let me run? The latter obviously was the biggest and potentially the most expensive barrier in my quest to do the race. I knew it would require some serious powers of persuasion and it would undoubtably cost me money in the airport duty-free as compensation.

locandina-praiano-16.jpgPictured above: The race poster from the Trail Campania website.

I think it’s pretty obvious what happened next. My running kit and x-talons went straight into my suitcase and I emailed the race organiser, Michele, who confirmed I’d be able to race. Next mission – try not to get too drunk on Friday night (er…didn’t happen! Whoops!) and then safely attempt to get to Praiano.

“I COULDN’T HELP FEELING HOW LUCKY I WAS TO BE IN SUCH A BEAUTIFUL PART OF THE WORLD

I’d barely even unpacked before I found myself waiting for a bus, dressed in full race kit. Needless to say I got a few strange looks from the locals as I stood on the roadside praying that the public transport service wouldn’t let me down. Aside from my hangover, it was here that I faced my first problem. The local tabaccheria had no bus tickets left and it was the only shop in the tiny village of Colli Di San Pietro where I was staying. I was just going to have to hope the bus driver would take pity on us.

After a nervous wait, the bus arrived and I did my best to explain to the driver (in my finest Yorkshire/Italian) that we didn’t have tickets. Cue a few fake tears, a dash of charm and major over use of the words ‘grazie mille’.  Finally he gave in to my pathetic plea and let us both on for free. I was so relieved I’d almost forgotten about how many cocktails I’d downed the night before and started to look forward to how amazing it was going to be running on the path of the gods.

positano_main.jpgPictured above: The beautiful town of Positano (www.winewedsandmore.com)

As the bus travelled down the famous Amalfi coast I couldn’t help thinking how lucky I was to be in such a beautiful part of the world. First we passed through Positano, the area’s most picturesque and photogenic town, with it’s rows of tiny houses tumbling down to the sea in a cascade of sun-bleached pink and terracotta colours. It’s the kind of town that should be on everyone’s bucket list of places to visit. A few minutes later we arrived at our destination, Praiano,  known as the heart of the Amalfi and perhaps boasting the most romantic and fascinating views of the coast. I’ve been fortunate enough to race in some amazing places but this has to be an entry that goes straight in at number 1.

“HE’S THE FINEST RUNNER IN CAMPANIA AND THE DEFENDING CHAMPION OF THE RACE

Perhaps it was a stroke of luck that we ended our bus journey in Praiano. For as soon as we’d stepped off, the driver ploughed straight into the side of an oncoming car and demonstrated just how dangerous it is to drive on the Amalfi roads. They must get paid a fortune in danger money! We didn’t hang about to observe the carnage it caused to the traffic, as we immediately faced our next challenge – finding the start of the race. In typical fashion I’d not researched the map to see where we needed to be, I just assumed there’d be signs pointing us in the right direction (typical bloke!). I put my finest Yorkshire/Italian to good use again and asked a few of the locals where we needed to go. ‘Up’ was the answer and sure enough after a few minutes of steep climbing we found a sign that convinced us we were on the right track. Now when I say ‘up’ what I really mean is ‘steep up!’ Getting to the start was the equivalent of climbing Trooper Lane. ‘This is going to cost me more money’ I thought, as I felt an angry burning glare from my wife.

After successfully finding race registration I then had to explain to the organiser that I was the crazy English tourist who had emailed him the night before. First question in italian – Did I have a medical certificate? Er…no! Time for some more Yorkshire/Italian, a woeful ‘please take pity on me’ face and a huge reassurance that I’d run a few mountain races in the past. Phew! It worked. Now just to translate the registration form…‘Parla Inglese’? Answer: ‘No.’ Thankfully someone behind me in the cue replies ‘Si’! It’s music to my ears. Cue the arrival of the hero in my story – Leonardo Mansi. He’s the finest runner in Campania and the defending champion of the race (although I didn’t realise this at the time). Leonardo looks every inch the athlete – small, light and exceptionally lean. He’s dressed in full Salomon regalia and it’s clear from his impressive physique that this is the man to try and beat. He also happens to be the nicest guy you could ever wish to meet and extremely modest about his athletic ability.

IMG_4952Pictured above: The smile masks my fear of getting lost during the race.

With registration complete, it was now time to focus on the race and pray that my £5 headtorch from China (Ebay special) would survive the night. Or rather – pray the batteries (I borrowed from a TV remote in the hotel) would last the duration of the race!

As clearly the only foreigner in the race I stood out like a sore thumb. I began to warm up, conscious of the fact that I was being sized up by all the other athletes. You didn’t have to speak italian to know what everyone was thinking. Who is this crazy Englishman who’s turned up to compete in this tough mountain race? Why is he not sat in a bar drinking cocktails and eating pizza like all the other thousands of British holidaymakers? He’s either a decent runner or one crazy loon! I suspected that most were thinking the latter. Leonardo approached. ‘Ben. What’s your best time for a 10K?’ I replied in my best italian. Instantly the mood changed and there was lots of frantic chatter amongst the other runners. It seemed I’d just suddenly become the pre-race favourite. Oh s**t! I thought. Why didn’t I just lie?!! I’m gonna have to win this bloody race now!

I’m stood on the start line. I’m wondering if I’ve made the right decision to enter a mountain race on the first day of my relaxing 4 week holiday. I’m worried I might get lost, I’m worried about my crappy headtorch and now I’m worried about not winning. I don’t have a clue where the race goes and the finish is in a different place to the start. This could easily turn into an absolute nightmare. I know I have to start sensibly so the trademark ‘scalded cat’ start goes straight out of the window. I’m following Leonardo and I’ll see how it goes after the first mile.

As the race begins I’m caught in the middle of the pack and it’s a real fight to get to the front. I dodge and weave before eventually settling behind the lead group. We sprint through the narrow paved streets, full of twists, sharp turns and steps. Steps – I’d best get used to that word because I’ll be running up and down thousands of them before I reach the finish. There’s almost a good kilometre of fast running before we hit the first climb and begin to climb hundreds of (you guessed it!) steps which seemed to last forever. It was here that I decided to throw caution to the wind and abandon my race plan. In a moment of madness I injected some pace and quickly opened up a lead on those behind. There was plenty of doubt in my mind as I feared I’d gone too hard, too early. But it was too late now, I had to stick with my brave decision and continue to work the climb.

IMG_4955Pictured above: Working hard on the climb as I approach the ‘Path of the Gods’ (courtesy of Fabio Fusco).

THIS WAS THE MOMENT I’D BEEN WAITING FOR – THESE WERE THE VIEWS THAT HAD TEMPTED ME FROM THE COMFORT AND LUXURY OF MY HOTEL”

As I began to settle into a steady rhythm I was taking the steps two at a time and feeling pretty strong. I kept glancing back to see if there was anyone behind but to my relief I’d established a very commanding lead. My fears of getting lost were also put to rest, as the course was really well-marked with red and white tape. Leonardo had reassured me of this before the race but I wasn’t sure if he was just trying to tempt me into shooting off at the start in the hope that I might get lost. I should have had more faith in him, he is after all one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met.

Finally, the steps began to disappear (for a short time) and I turned a sharp right as the route joined the ‘Path of the Gods’. This was the moment I’d been waiting for – these were the views that had tempted me from the comfort and luxury of my hotel. Part of me wished I could’ve paused for a few minutes to enjoy the beautiful sunset and amazing panoramic views. Instead I was a panting, sweaty mess but it didn’t stop me from glancing round from time to time to appreciate exactly  where I was.

Path of the gods.jpgPictured above: The sun sets over the Amalfi coast (courtesy of Fabio Fusco).

As I reached the highest point of the race, I sensed that I was soon approaching the main descent. It was a relief because the light was fading fast and I didn’t trust my headtorch enough to solely rely on it’s beam. It was because of this I sensed the urgency to increase the pace, running so quickly downhill that I’m sure the local spectators thought I’d stolen something. The descent was a series of steep and very thin steps. I was taking some big risks. The kind of risks you shouldn’t really take when you don’t have additional travel insurance for a serious mountain race. I tried not to think too much about that but instead just focussed on not breaking a leg as I bounded down, taking 4-5 steps at a time. There were a couple of moments where I nearly lost control. There were lots of hairpin turns, sharp corners, steep rock jumps and all the time I was looking further down the path so I didn’t take a wrong turn. Although I was flirting with serious injury, I can’t remember the last time I felt so alive. It was an amazing feeling – charging down the mountain at breakneck speed. People pay good money to ride on rollercoasters and here I was getting nature’s version for free (OK aside my 10 euro entry fee). I knew then, in this moment, that I’d made the right decision to race. It was worth all the worry, the travelling and the effort to get here. I was completely in my element. This is what I’d come to Italy for.

I was disappointed when the fun finally had to come to an end. I’d descended to sea level and by now it was pitch black. As predicted my headtorch was as good as you’d expect for £5. I might as well have been running with my iphone in hand, using the glare from its screen to guide my way. Nevertheless it did make the last section of the descent a little more exciting as there was a small wooded section before the main road in complete darkness. I wasn’t hanging around either!

“I’M NOT EMBARRASSED TO SAY I WAS SUFFERING. SUFFERING BADLY.

What goes up, must come down. Or vice-versa in this case. I felt ready for the finish but a firm reality check told me there was still a long way to go with plenty more climbing to come. I glanced at my watch which read 8km. I still had another 3k to go and it was all up! This is gonna hurt! I thought. To be honest, at this point I don’t think I quite realised just how much! I felt strong on the first few flights of steps but then I quickly began to tire. Heavy legs from crazy descending and an unquenchable thirst that seriously threatened my chances of winning. I wasn’t used to this heat, even at night it was still too warm. I’d also drank the last of my water at 6km. Time to tough it out.

As a long-suffering Leeds United fan I’m no stranger to pain but this was one of those occasions where I was going so far into the hurt locker that I couldn’t see a way out. I had no idea how many more steps were left to climb and I was even glancing back to see if I could see the glare from another headtorch. I’m not embarrassed to say I was suffering. Suffering badly. I’d love to say that I felt amazing, that I blew the rest of the field away with ease. But I’d be lying, it simply wasn’t the case. I don’t think people always realise just how much elite athletes push themselves during races. Lots of my friends see me at the top of the race results and think that winning just comes naturally, that I just turn up on the day and cruise to victory. Let me just confirm that I’ve never in my life ‘cruised’ to a win. If anything I can’t remember the last time where I wasn’t absolutely trashed and completely ruined after a race. So trashed that I’m on the verge of collapsing and gasping for air, as I struggle frantically to get my breathing under control. This was another one of those occassions. I literally squeezed every last drop of energy to get the finish, used every ounce of strength I had to climb that last set of steep steps. A few of the spectators near the top were cheering me on but I couldn’t even speak or raise a hand to say thanks. I must’ve looked like the slowest, sweatiest and least impressive race winner they’d ever seen. But I didn’t care. Because as soon as I saw that finishing tape I sprinted across the line with everything I had left and collapsed on the floor, gasping for air and struggling to breath.

You might at this point be wondering if I still thought this race was a good idea? The answer is easy. Of course it was, it always is. Even when I’m on my absolute physical and mental limit, going through the worst kind of pain imaginable – it’s always worth it.

FullSizeRender (6).jpgPictured above: Leonardo Mansi (L), me and Luigi Ruocco (R)

What made this victory even sweeter was that I’d broken the course record and won by over six minutes. It seemed that the rest of the field were also suffering on that last climb. I was relieved to hear it wasn’t just me. Had I known at the time I might have walked those lastfew  sets of steps and taken it a little bit easier to the finish. Or perhaps not. Who am I trying to kid? I only have one race mode and that’s ‘eyeballs out’ all the way.

ResultsPhotos | Strava

I was really happy to see Leonardo finish in second place, followed by Luigi Ruocco in third. Luigi improved his time from the previous year by minutes and I think it’s also the first time he’s made the podium. It was the performance of the night in my eyes. After the race we chatted, we ate and we soaked up the amazing atmosphere. It was a world away from the bustling streets of Sorrento and I really felt like I was experiencing the ‘real’ Amalfi coast and not just the tourist hotspots. For me this race was all about enjoying a unique experience. I had the pleasure of running on new, spectacular mountain trails and I made friendships and memories that will last a lifetime. THIS is the reason I run.

“THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE ARE FREE

What also made the night for me was the generosity and warmth of the italian people. Firstly Leonardo who looked after us, the race organiser and his team who made us feel so welcome and finally Luigi, who gave us a lift home at the end of the night after we missed our bus. I was most grateful. Expecially as he’d travelled to the race with his young family and he’d clearly driven out of his way to take us back to our hotel. He asked for nothing in return so I offered him my prize of a one night stay in a 5* hotel in Praiano. I felt it was the least I could do to match his kind generosity. Besides, I’d also won a beautiful ceramic bowl, hand crafted in Positano, so this would serve as a perfect reminder of such a wonderful race. You’ll be pleased to know that it’s still in one piece and I haven’t dropped or smashed it…yet! 😉

 

A few days after the race I enjoyed an amazing day of running from Ravello to the top of Monte Cerreto with Leonardo, Luigi and Giovanni Tolino. I travelled over 4 hours in total that day via bus and moped but it was worth every effort. I must thank them all for giving me such amazing memories and showing me such a beautiful part of Italy that I would never have experienced on my own.

It’s true what they say…the best things in life really are free.

Leonardo’s hotel (Parsifal) is also worthy of a mention. If anyone is seriously considering a break to the Amalfi coast to relax (or run!) then this is the place to go. It also boasts one of the most amazing views I’ve ever seen from it’s terrace.

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