In need of my comfort blanky!

Us ultra runners know that a ‘buff’ (trademarked name for a generic bit of stretchy cloth) is an essential piece of kit. It’s a hat, scarf, bandage, sling, flannel, sock, snot rag…whatever we need it to be!

But it’s not something you take along to a road race, or do you? In an effort to be as cool as possible while running one of my ‘force yourself to run faster’ 10km road races, I didn’t bother taking one along.

Ready for the off!

It was hot. Starting temp at 9pm was 38C so, in assessing my necessary kit, I decided a ‘buff’ wasn’t required equipment (especially since it was my turn to carry the keys and was already wearing a running belt). How wrong I could be?

On the starting line

With prize money on offer, the race had attracted some of our faster local road runners vying for a position up front. Steve (hubby) kindly got me clear of the melee around the first bend and out of town. I was soon able to pick up the pace, with a fair descent and find my place in the race.

At about 3km I had my first reminder as to why a ‘buff’ should have come along for the ride. Not used to running this quickly, I was feeling in need of fuel and I stuffed a couple of jelly sweets into my mouth. It was never my intention to swallow. I was puffing too hard to chew. I was only going to give them a bit of a chomp and then spit them out. Now I’ve never mastered spitting on the move and ended up with jelly sweets glued to my neck. A quick wipe over with that generic bit of cloth would have aided removal here.

I need of my blanky!

Hitting the first water stop at around 4km. I grabbed a bottle for a swill down. I was carrying my own electrolytes since it was hot, my idea was to simply rinse some plain water around my mouth and spit. Again I failed, ending up with sputum stuck in my hair. Where’s that ‘buff’ when you need it?

I could see a woman up ahead. Probably around a minute away. I was doggedly sticking to my 4:30min/km pace. That’s quite quick enough for a rehab tempo and the Sahara wind was drying my mouth. (Yes, I’ve not escaped the desert hair dryer. Except this one is always blows dry.)

I really needed to clear my throat. Swirling some water in my mouth, I again attempted to spit. This time down my number. Pretty disgusting and again a ‘buff’ would have saved the day.

Finally winding back into the town, I was glad to push for the line if only to go and get cleaned up. Race done in 44:40, 2nd in age group and 3rd woman overall. Not my fastest 10km but I’m not complaining since the 30 euro prize money will go toward purchasing a new ‘buff’ or two!

Picking up a 3rd prize!

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Why a multi-day race is in your reach!

Mid-year and the time when many runners start to think about the next running season’s big challenge. And entries to multi-day events are starting to fill up. Many competent ultra runners shy away from the multi-day thinking they don’t have the training time to commit nor talent to complete. Well I’m here to tell you that you do have the talent. Multi-day training isn’t about running mega miles in training. Yes, you can run 150 miles a week and you’d probably finish a multi-day event…but realistically unless you’re a pro you’d get injured doing so.

Consistency in training

Like all ultra training, consistency is the key to success. If you can run 100 mile weeks without injury and have the time to do so, then fab, no worries. But realistically most of us amateurs fitting training around other life commitments means we simply don’t have the time or stamina to do so. Having the time to recover from training is after all as important as the training itself.

Here’s my take on multi-day training (which has worked for me).

1. Specificity!
If consistency in training is rule #1, then specificity has to be rule #2. If your multi-day is hilly, then train for hills. Get a hold of that course profile and mimic it in your training. For example if Day 1 is moderately hilly and Day 2 is mountainous, then work through your training plan to copy this. An example would be to incorporate some hill reps into the end of your session on one day, followed by a decent power hiking session (yes, you’ll be walking up a mountain) on the following day.

Great hill training for hilly multi-days!

And if you don’t live in a hilly area, then plan to get to the hills at some point in your training and mimic hills by ending your runs in the gym and hitting the weights. Squats, lunges, deadlifts all hit your leg muscles as uphills do.
Similarly, if you’re doing a multi-day event in the heat…then train in the heat. You need to experience what this feels like so that you can mentally manage how your pace is going to be affected and how you need to alter your hydration. Don’t forget you’ll also be living in these conditions for the event.

2. Maintaining speed
Okay, so you probably aren’t going to setting any speed records running a multi-day event, and while the majority of your training will be done in your lower heart rate zones to trigger that fat burning, if all you ever do is run slow then that’s all you’ll be able to do.
Challenging your anaerobic zones – that’s hard effort not just a little bit faster than your steady chug along pace – will make you stronger and you need to be strong enough to take on the sustained efforts a multi-day involves.
If I run intervals on a track – I get injured. Instead, I’ve swapped speed work for hills (let’s face it, I’ve no shortage of hills to train on now). Running hill reps builds leg strength and gets me blowing hard…I can certainly max out my heart rate which is exactly where I need to be to trigger that anaerobic burn and build power.
I also run (shock horror) shorter road races. As I struggle with pushing my pace doing intervals a 10km up to half marathon road race is ideal for getting me running hard. The excitement of running with others forces me to get my legs turning over. Indeed, my half marathon PB was set a week before the start of a multi-day.
And if all else fails, I love a pyramid session. Because short intervals are so risky for me, I find a pyramid gradually winds up my pace and heart rate in a safer way.

Even road races can be great multi-day race training!

3. Tempos
Weekday training, where it’s difficult to incorporate a long run around other commitments, involve tempos. I’ve currently got a nice little 6km loop, which is run once, twice, even thrice depending on where I am in my training. Since it’s mainly off road and incorporates a fair bit of ascent and descent it’s impossible to run at a set pace. There’s simply no way I could maintain running it at my marathon pace without exploding. Instead, I run it at 80% of my max heart rate. So for example the first section is flat/ down hill and is run at a fast pace, I then hit single track which winds on a very cambered gradient. My pace drops here so as not to risk twisting an ankle but that HR still keeps ticking over around 80%, I then hit a hard ascent. I run the first 200m or so but as soon my HR starts to pop too high and I’m puffing very hard, I power walk which keeps my heart rate up there. There’s then a runnable section at a fair clip, before a technical downhill. I use this to challenge my concentration when I’m feeling a bit jaded to keep my HR where it should be.

4. Long runs
It’s a common misconception to think that running a multi-day means copying those distances in training. You don’t need to run big miles week after week. I repeat you don’t need to run big miles.
It’s nice to do a fairly focused week as a mental stimulus. For example some Ultra Trail Spain guests are training for multi-days and want a holiday which also allows them to run fairly aggressive mileages in training, but we certainly don’t hit the distances they’ll be tackling in their multi-day…we advise them to save this for their event. And our pace is pretty conservative. all they have to do is run, rest and recover. During our multi-day training camps however, we actually focus more on the other training strategies which you can use in your training schedule and will help you finish a multi-day event.
For AAUT (5 days, 230km and completed three years in succession) my longest run was only ever 40km. The longest day of the event is 70 odd km run after three pretty heavy days. I never found the 70km day particularly hard during the event. Tiring but not exhausting.
My 40km training run was however then followed by a 30km the next day. Yes, I used back to back runs (judiciously) to get the body ‘happy’ with running on tired legs. But I believe in ‘saving’ my legs for the event I’m training for.
I do enjoy long runs and have to resist the temptation to go further. My weekly long runs are a very moderate 40km maybe 50km max…run to a very easy heart rate and not every week. This means I’m on my feet for a good long time and while the length of time makes the run intense, it’s actually very gentle in comparison to much of my other training.
If my heart rate is shooting up during my long run session, then I simply walk. This session is also a chance to practice fuelling and getting the body dialled into digesting on the go.
Progression during long runs is also a good way of getting an extra bang for your buck. But to be honest, I’m too lazy to focus on this much. Plus, living at the top of a mountain means every run is a little bit progressive since I’ve got to get back up the hill at the end!

5. Strength training
For a multi-day or any long race in which you’re going to be out for 5 or more hours a day running, you need to get strong. Strong muscles stabilize your bones from the straightforward hammering of movement they are going to take. Strong muscles stabilize your digestive tract so it doesn’t get shook up on the trail. Strong muscles repair fast. Convinced yet?
Strength training doesn’t need to take up masses of your time – it can but it doesn’t have to. Five minutes concentrated effort it better than none, especially if you’re fatigued after a run.
Form is king however, it’s better to do 3 squats well than 30 poorly. And don’t even be tempted by plyometrics (jumping and leaping while weighted) until you’ve mastered the movement pattern with control. Simple bodyweight drills can help get your body moving the way it should…and if all else fails I recommend checking out global postural reeducation. I knew exactly where I was twisted but this was the only method of physio which could get me straightened out-ish.
If you don’t fancy pushing weights then yoga, pilates, anything which involves carrying your own bodyweight, which is after all what you need to do, is a definite bonus.

6. Cross training
I get injured easily. Ever since I started running, I’ve come to grips with the fact that I can’t run every day of the week. It’s just not possible.
For me, cycling and/ or spinning works, for both higher or lower intensity training. It’s a way of avoiding junk miles. For example, being surrounded by hills it’s impossible to run a recovery run. Your heart rate simply is not low enough for recovery. It’s much better to walk or cycle.
While in the Middle East, I used spinning as a way to notch up my heart rate in the summer when it was too hot and humid to do this outside with a degree of safety. Spinning also builds great leg strength and turnover.
There are plenty of cross training options in the gym. Just think about how that class will help your running. If it leaves you too sore to run, then it’s not going to be suitable while you’re building up for a big event. Circuits can be a great way to get some strength work in for those who really don’t like lifting – just don’t let your form slip.

And I think that’s just about it. The distance never worries me, but the battering my body will take doing a multi-day does…which is where strength comes in. Your aim is to make your body bullet proof and fatigue resistant. The variety of training also keeps you focused.

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Why it pays to Be Prepared!

As all good ultra runners (and Girl Guides) know it pays to ‘Be prepared!’ It’s what we do best and while I won’t be towing the line at an ultra any time soon, I’m just as thorough in my prep for shorter races.

Why? Well, it can mean the difference between a pleasant experience and a gut-buster!

Others might choose to wing it and go with the flow but if planning is going to save me a few seconds here and there, as well as make it all that bit easier, I’m going to invest some time in it.

 

Graveyard running! Doha residents will be familiar with this type of terrain…not usually seen in a Spanish CXM!

A month after I returned to running from injury I was tackling a night-time CXM (cross mountain race) which I’d completed the year before. Then it was a warm up for a mountain ultra; this year it was the maximum distance I’d run for quite some time.

Pre-race thoughts

Knowing the course meant I could plan my race to take advantage of the terrain. Conscious that I was barely fit enough to complete the 16 odd km (with 400m +-), I’d have to use the track to my advantage.

The 3 km flat riverside trail on the way out and back were where I planned to pick up some pace, plus – not much damage I could do to my leg here. And, the weaving paved track through the San Juan cemetery – yes, this is a Scooby Doo inspired course – is exactly what I was used to from running Doha pavements. Totting this up, I’d reckoned I’d have just 8km or 50 percent of trickier, riskier, leg-torturous trail to negotiate. Finishing seemed all the more realistic.

A visit to the global postural re-educator physio the day before meant I was in decent shape. He had showed cautious positivity about my progress. Of course he had no idea I was hitting a CXM Nocturna…but no doubt realised I was being as conservative as he wanted. The: “I know what you runners are like!” gave that one away.

The day of the race was hot. Hey, that’s why it was a night race! I wasn’t particularly concerned here – thanks to Qatar – heat is my strength.

Nordic Walkers ahoy!

The race was also the Andalusian Cup for Nordic Walking. The walkers would be setting out an hour before us and following a slightly different course. Steve and I had no idea Nordic Walking was so popular until we rocked up at the number collection.

Signed off as present and correct we headed to a local bar to rest up in an air conditioned room until the start.

Just after 8pm, I started my warm-up. Everything felt okay. There was definitely some twinging in the right knee/ shin/ calf but isn’t there always? My plan extended to starting nearer the back and gradually winding up my pace, ready to hit the ascent up into the mountains and the mines famed for providing the gold used to decorate the Alhambra.

At 9pm we were off, under a dying sun, and keen to make the most of the remaining daylight. The pace seemed pretty quick to me. I think the lead guys were trying to clear the first bit of narrower track before the lead Nordic Walkers hit it heading back.

All too soon we were into the hills and the first hard ascent. I’d overtaken a fair few women but had no idea where I stood in the field as we started to zig zag up the first climbs, which seemed steeper and more slippery on the gravel than the previous year. Combined with steep ascents, this track reminds me of UK coastal path, despite there being no sea in sight. I’d also forgotten about the ‘derelict building balance’. We climbed up onto what must have been the top of the walls of a once substantial building and then balanced along…one false move to the right and you don’t just fall off a wall you also roll down a mountain.

Relieved to reach the top

Reaching the summit, the track widened as we avoided the holes dropping into the old mine shafts. The gradual uphill was most definitely runnable as the lights started to twinkle in Granada below.

Dropping down into a small wooded track, I was aware that the race had started on time this year. Last year, we’d started 20 minutes later and I’d hit the wood as I lit up, weaving between the trees downhill, my beam catching the dust of faster runners. This year I was through the trees and into the cemetery before I needed to hit the switch on my headtorch.

The ghost bride…or Princess of the moon as she prefers to be known!

Following the glowing flags up and down, round and round, the gardens of the cemetery is pretty surreal. I was definitely ready to meet the ‘ghost bride’ at the checkpoint on our exit.

All downhill from now I thought to myself. Last year I’d really struggled with the descent, but this year, on a less crowded track I made good time and was soon crossing the road and dropping back onto the river bank and heading back to race HQ.

I was now passing other runners and Nordic Walkers as I picked up the pace to cross the finish line in pretty much the same time as previously (but running 2km less as the course had been modified to reduce the distance on the river bank).

1st in age group and 5th woman overall.

Don’t you just love it when a plan comes together? I’d finished feeling strong and injury free. Now to plan the autumn season 🙂

Making the podium.

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On the road to recovery

Yes, I’m back running 🙂

A visit to the champ-runner-physio saw her refer me to her own physio.

It seems that she unfortunately had a serious knee injury a couple of years ago – I believe (note: ‘believe’ due to my lack of Spanish language skills) this was an ACL blow-out – and as a result was told by five physios she would never run again. Luckily, the final physio she saw said that ‘yes, he could help her get back running’, and he did.

Given the complexities of my right leg she felt more comfortable sending me to see the physio who got her back running. The treatment suggested combines traditional physio, osteopathy and other techniques to give a whole body approach in a package called Global Postural Reeducator (GPR). Yes, I had to google it too!

What’s Global Postural Reeducation?

Typical physio treats the site of injury. GPR looks at the whole body to discover the cause of injury in an attempt to prevent further occurrence. So, in my case, I knew the knee cyst was not the cause of the injury, merely the site of current injury.

GPR treatment

So I knew physio and osteopathy would be involved, but I was a little bit shocked to walk through the door of the treatment room to see a body shaped table (no nicely padded surfaces here) with rotating arm plates and straps, plus a rope pulley system above. Maybe I sidestepped and started to walk backwards but Marcos the physio immediately pointed at my right hip and said that was the problem.

This was looking good! I’ve always known my good ol’ right hip doesn’t play ball.

The first session involved a general assessment and a discovery of what GPR really involves. There’s definitely some physio, osteopathy and then chiropractic, PNF stretching, yin yoga (almost) and no small amount of torture. It’s certainly an aggressive treatment – you can only manage one of these sessions a week – and it’s 100 per cent dignity free!

How it works

Most of my first session was spend working on my right leg, hips and lower back. I was pushed and pulled in every direction going. In GPR, the physio applies PNF stretches to try to realign deep functional muscles which have gone awry due to chronic injury and the body’s attempt to compensate around the injury site. This is NOT pain free.

When your body is injured it does everything it can to protect the injury site. If the pain is long term, your internal muscles realign which can cause a multitude of other issues.

My right hip is pants so the rest of my body has over many, many years rearranged itself to try to compensate.  Many of my joints and muscles are doing jobs they aren’t designed for. It’s actually pretty amazing that the human body is capable of this but detrimental in the long run.

Marcos also discovered many past injury sites. Remember the cockroach-leaping-gracilis-strain of a couple of years’ ago? Well there’s a nice amount of scar tissue from that! That cockroach has definitely made a lasting impression. However, on leaving that first torture, err I mean GPR session, the pressure in my lower leg had pretty much gone.

After three sessions we’re working on increasing hip mobility – I have a nice 50 min a day physio set to work on – as well as lengthening my abs, getting my right shoulder back where it should be and leveling out my diaphragm – and I’m allowed to start to run again.

Back running (and racing)

After a couple of painish free easy runs, I decided to get back racing using some shorter races as tempo sessions.

First up a semi-night run in the flat bit of Granada. My goal to hold just under 5 min/km for the 9km. I finished just in time (as it got very dark!) as 4th in age group and 10th women, but most importantly feeling okay.

The start line for the Cuna de Lorca.

Nine days later and I was back on trail for a local CXM Sierra Sur De Jaen Minitrail. In all honesty the 15km was a bit much distance wise, however the 400m positive was manageable and the track of a level surface, which is important for my recovering ankle.

I’m so far back, I’m not even on this photo of the start of CXM Minitrail 😉

I decided to dust of my poles, in case my leg needed some help, and as a result was forced to start at the back (a race regulation). As a slow starter this gave me chance to warm up and gradually pick off the other runners. By 7.5km I was pretty sure I was lead woman after passing a woman at the second aid station. I’d do my level best to hang on, but conscious I shouldn’t push my HR out of my chosen range. This meant I crossed the line in 1:32:07 less than 50 seconds ahead of the 2nd and 3rd women.

While I was delighted to come home campeona, I was aware there weren’t many women running and the heat had tortured the ladies in 2nd and 3rd. I still seem to have my Qatar-gained heat acclimation.

Crossing the finish line and I caught the camera man off-guard. He was also trying to roll out the tape for me to run through (he didn’t manage it)!

My recovery is sound, so here’s hoping my right hip continues to play along. We’ll see at my next GPR session.

 

 

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Granny always knows best!

My granny always used to say: “Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves!”

“What’s that got to do with running?” I hear you shout! Quite a lot as it turns out.

What my granny really meant was that the little things add up…yes, she was probably on about all those pennies spent on sweets eating into my budget…but as regards to running I’m learning the importance of her creed.

Injury alert!

You see, I’ve been sat on the sidelines for the last eight weeks… injured! I’m getting to grips with watching everyone else out running in gorgeous spring sunshine (well, here in Spain anyway), and watching Mr F take part in races I’d quite like to have tackled.

Photo taken while volunteering at a local race.

According to the folks in the know, I’ve got a Baker’s cyst in the back of my right knee. And before the bread jokes start, the condition is named after the guy who first spotted them.

The cyst is pressing on the artery feeding my lower leg. During movement it swells up so much that the oxygen is effectively cut off to my shin…hence why there’s periostitis on my upper tibia…my muscle is screaming out for food! On radiography, there’s also another little lump above the ankle where muscles insert on the fibula – but I can’t really feel it.

No one is really sure what causes Baker’s cysts. They can be asymptomatic of osteoarthritis but there’s usually pain in the kneecap then – and the kneecap is about the only place in my right leg which is never painful. The doctor is of the opinion that my foot has been going one way and my hip the other. My poor old knee is stuck in the middle, hence the cyst.

Pennies = little things

And this is where the ‘looking after the pennies’ lesson comes in; I’d ignored all the little hints that everything was not well until I couldn’t walk without a limp.

*My old orthotics hadn’t felt quite right for ages (downright painful if I’m honest), but I hadn’t bothered to get them checked out.
* Saucony had slipped an extra 2mm heel to toe drop in the new model of my Excursions – I hadn’t realised but my ankles weren’t happy.
* I hadn’t upped my mileage but I was spending more hours out on the trails. Plus, running more single track means more uneven foot placement.
* I’d been a bit lack lustre with my daily physio exercises. My right hip has been slipping back into its old ways. (I really need regular physio assessments as I can’t feel when an exercise is wrong myself.)
* I’d been running at easy pace but I’d not been refuelling adequately. I wasn’t feeling hungry so wasn’t bothering to fill up anywhere near enough. My body was wearing down.
*As I’m hitting that age when my hormones are starting to do weird things, I’d been getting concerned that I was laying down belly fat. I certainly hadn’t slashed my carb intake severely but it seems I had enough for my body to start leeching energy and minerals from wherever it could.
* I hadn’t been wearing my heart rate monitor. My Suunto had finally bitten the dust (the dam thing never actually worked properly in the 18 months I had it) and reverted to my old Garmin sans HR.

My body had been warning me everything was not well for a long time but I hadn’t heard. The outcome is that all these extra ‘pennies’ have added up and it’s now my turn to make big withdrawal from the injury bank.

Looking forward…

I’ve another couple of weeks of absolutely no exercise due to the diclofenac prescription and then I’ll be under the wing of a physio, (I hear she’s a runner, so fingers crossed for sympathy) before a steady build up back to fitness.

The only running I’ve been allowed to do – getting sorted with new orthoses!

In the meantime I’ve binned my orthotics and got kitted out with a pair of flashy new moulded inserts. The podiatrist is a bit of whiz in football circles – so if all else fails I should be able to kick a ball although I’m not sure what my granny would think of that!

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45 minutes in the hurt locker

I’m an ultra runner. I love lacing up, slinging my pack on my back and plodding out for a day on the trails. But I also know that the best and strongest runners are all-rounders.

As a species, us humans are inherently looking for an easy life. We love doing what we can already do, but this makes us lazy and in fitness terms it means we lose it. Over the last few years, I’ve started to find it more and more difficult to find the motivation to run a bit quicker. True, I do get injured more often than not when I do, but I’ve been shirking my responsibilities to speed.

So, in an effort to ensure I do regularly keep my legs turning over, and get some pace work in on the road, I’ve signed Steve and I up for our local ‘Gran Premio de Fondo’ series of races here in Granada. Yes, we won’t make every race but for 40 euros for the whole series, including timing chip hire, we can’t really go wrong.

Our first race of the season was a flat 10km alongside about 1,500 other folk on 19 February. I knew it wasn’t going to be a speedy, speedy one since we’d had a high volume guest with us all week, but running on slightly fatigued legs was an opportunity not to be missed.

Knowing there would be a large turnout, Steve and I arrived early to get a parking space…so had everyone else! The queues for number collection (including 30th anniversary long sleeved tech top) and toilets were long, but we were quickly at the front and pinning our bibs on our vests and lacing our chips on our shoes.

Gerbil wheel warm ups!

There was time for a quick coffee before the gerbil wheel warm ups. I’m not so keen on trotting around and around in circles so did my own dynamic warm ups, playing particular attention to sideways movement. I knew there’d be loads of lateral switches trying to get clear of the usual running road-block start.

With about 10 minutes to go, we headed to the corrals, which notoriously most people completely ignore! I got to the front of the 4-4:30 min/km pace – which is spot on where I can run….unfortunately there’s always a lot of very ‘ambitious’ runners ahead in these races. I don’t like to start further forward as I know that I do take a few km to get revved up, but for future races I’m going to have to bite the bullet and get my elbows out and muscle up front.

A quick catch-up with Eric of AAUT organization and we were off at 7:40 min/km. Yup, it was a slow start! After much weaving, shuffling and side stepping, I had a eureka moment and tagged on the back of a ‘guia’ guiding a blind runner. I’d spotted that when he shouted ‘guia’ people got out of the way and I could also slip through the gap!

The guia and his charge were breathing heavily at 3km and with a less dense crowd to navigate I passed by. Shortly after, I spotted Eric bounding along. He’s easy to spot, towering over the shorter runners. A few words and I was again on my way.

The course was now out of the town and into the campo, twisting up and over the motorway. Tagging a fellow Moclin runner at about 7km, he passed by me with 1km to go shouting for me to follow him…but if I’m honest it was starting to hurt…and hard.

Me – just in shot! My face says it all!

My time in the hurt locker was risking breaking me and I had to dig deep as the course headed uphill, before swinging into the finish, which I was mighty relieved to see. Coughing and spluttering into the finish tunnel, it was time to grab a goody bag (race tee, banana, juice, water, and croissant) before joining the beer queue.

Crossing the line in 44:24 was good enough for 9th woman and 2nd in age group. I can’t say it was pleasant but definitely a necessary evil. I’d taken about 90 seconds to cross the start line, so my time was where it should be for my current fitness.

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Staying warm over winter

Staying warm Moclin style – with the tradition of La Candelaria.

Qatar doesn’t really do winter…yup, the humidity leaves and it gets a bit cooler… aka pleasanter for your runs but it’s never exactly what you’d call cold.

Spain on the other hand does cold very nicely. Thankfully, our little part of Andalucia doesn’t really do proper cold. While the coast got a covering of pretty thick snow, we’ve had a grand total of nada (to date). It’s certainly been well into minus temps at night, making for slippery road running first thing, but as soon as that sun gets up it’s been plenty warm enough which is ideal for getting out and laying down the foundation for the year ahead.

Following Ultra Sierra Norte, I had a couple of weeks easy. We visited the UK…very dark and wet underfoot….where I went swimming for the first time in ages (including a touch of athlete’s foot!) and bagged a few road miles.

I took a turn out with Torbay Athletics Club – km reps along the seafront off 90 sec rests. Very Doha Corniche-esqe – even palm trees – except there was a gentle drizzle falling. After a couple of weeks easy my legs were zipping along and at low altitude it was simple running.

 

It had been a while since we’d checked out this hill top.

Back at base, here in Moclin, and getting ready for Christmas the weather was super. Steve and I got out exploring and discovered so new gems of trails. Long ones, short ones, narrow ones and plenty of dead ends too! Being reticent on the sunscreen application I burned the tips of my ears pretty badly. Top tip folks, keep the sunscreen going even when you think the sun isn’t at its strongest. I was then consigned to wearing a flappy desert cap – you know the Goofy ears ones – while my ears healed.

New Year heralded a weather change and a few weeks’ chilly snap. A few dull days were brightened up with some strength work incorporating the dreaded Mirrodor steps into tempo sessions. Squatting, leaping and lunging up and off steps certainly makes picking your feet up on trails harder work and a nice way to simulate that post-50km feel.

A favourite view at dusk.

And that’s it, you’re pretty much up to date with where we’re at and what’s been happening. Weirdly, I have zilch races booked in this year. I’d like to get a 100 miler in, and I do have my eye on a 130km here in Spain toward the end of the year. There will no doubt be a few others on the horizon.

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Wet, wet, wet at Ultra Sierra Norte

Hereby follows an apology:

Dear feet,

Recently, I subjected you to horrendous conditions and for that I am truly sorry.

I want you to know this because I appreciate how awesome you are. Where other people get blisters and black toenails, you never let me down. No matter how far we run, you are perfect.

I try to look after you, keeping your nails short, wearing comfy socks which are neither too tight nor too slack, and always wearing appropriate shoes to ensure you get the best conditions possible…but I’ve let you down and allowed you to get wet, wet, wet.

My shoes were clabbered up.

My shoes were clabbered up.

I’d like to emphasis that this was through no fault of my own. You see it rained…torrentially…and you know as well as I do this wasn’t supposed to happen. You see, we read Kirsty Reade’s review of the Ultra Sierra Norte Marathon race on Race 247 and according to her the race is perfect for those seeking some winter sun.

I did indeed ignore all knowledge of northern hemisphere meteorology and somehow believed heading west in a country would mean less rain (thinking Wales V England here) and that despite forecasts to the contrary it would hale sunny come race day. As you know the opposite happened; it streamed down Thursday night, Friday daytime and Friday night. There were puddles in puddles and the 100km ultra race start was delayed 20 minutes as race officials worked out a roping system to get everyone safely across a flooded river at around 25km.

Thankfully the forecast was slightly wrong and the rain stopped for the start, we streamed out of Castilblanco de los Arroyos, Sevilla, and onto jeep trail and within 1.5km – we hit the first flood water at 2km. Step-stoning around the side, most still had dry socks but at 2.5km I decided I couldn’t reach the gate folks were using to balance around racing flood waters without getting wet and simply waded through…you were now wet 🙁

At 6km we hit the first mud on a narrow, rough verge-side track, not so bad, since I was well up in the field. We then enjoyed about 8km of easy running on a wide 4X4 trail, but alas the fog came down thickly and I took you – and two guys in tow – the wrong way across flooded pasture. The water was simply swilling off the fields, I could see no course markings but could hear CP 2 at 16km.

Ready for the startline

Ready for the startline

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The checkpoints were well stocked.

I’d already lost count of the number of flash floods we’d crossed as we hit the first descent. It was slippery and steep and there was a fair bit of grit flying around. I ignored the stone which flipped in the heel of my left shoe and dug under my heel. I’d remove it later I thought to myself, and carried on.

We were now into the Sierra Norte national park. The fog had lifted slightly and the views were pretty amazing, even in the wet. There was a heady scent of eucalyptus – definitely not rosemary as other reports have suggested, although there was plenty of rosemary around – as we bumped up and over wide gritty track descending to the roped river crossing.

Crossing 50m of swirling torrents we grabbed the rope, hung on balancing over stepping stones awash with water. As I neared the far bank, one of the guys assisting shouted ‘primerio’ as I lurched into deep water to grab his hand and get pulled ashore. His reference to primerio I suspected referred to my near-miss dunking i.e. I was the first to very nearly fall in.

Next up a short track of gravel with that lasting sideways drag on the legs feel post trudging through a strong current, we were quickly climbing up a sporting firebreak of hard ascent and the water was squeezing out my shoes but sucking in grit. Not as aggressive, or as long as our Granada province climbs it was enough for me to take a few places.

Onto wide jeep tracks once again in damp woodland, the kms ticked by with more burst rivers rushing over the top of the trails rather then underneath the bridges as they should, I continued to ignore the grit biting the underneath of my heel.

Eventually I decided to plop down on a rock and remove the offending stone for another to immediately take its place. At 30km crossing another cambered firebreak, I was forced to a standstill as another chunk of grit bit into the bridge off my right foot. As you know, I wear hard plastic orthotics and so there’s nowhere for a stone there to go but into you guys. Hopping on the spot and trying not to put my sodden sock to ground and pick up more grit, I managed to get my brand new Saucony Excursions (yes, I know, brand new shoes for the race but I was after every mm of grip I could get) on before turning hard left and dropping down steeply through a pine forest.

There was one near miss as the pine needles gave way and slide down on my backside, pushing my sticks forward to get a grip before we slid into thorns. Washing my fingers off in another handy river crossing, it was uphill again as two guys who’d caught me on the descent tell me I was primero. I said I didn’t know and left them on the up.

More wide track combined with off piste firebreak up and overs and we rolled into CP36 ish. The chaps again told me I was lead woman. I wasn’t so sure, removed more grit from my shoes, put my jacket on as it was raining (once more), and headed out onto the track. The guys were right a km or so later a lassy from the Ukraine came bounding by. I picked up pace, a little relieved that I was no longer the hunted, and kept her in sight.

As I was now boil in the bagging in my waterproof jacket, I wasn’t feeling so great. I took off my jacket before stuffing plenty of food down my neck. Hitting the next CP, I attacked the ham sarnies and banana chunks before heading out onto slate track. Focusing on stuffing a Nakd bar in I missed a left spur up a wide firebreak not realising until I’ll trotted 2.5km into a crossroads with no markings. Scanning the horizon I could see tape fluttering in the distance on a hill. Cue turnaround and go back to find where I’d gone off track – that’s an extra 5km for the mathematically challenged 🙁

Back on route, trail eventually became track and I was into the 56km checkpoint and drop bags. My coconut water caused some interest among race officials. I downed a coffee, removed my waterproof leggings and changed my socks. Yes, feet you were to enjoy 8km of feeling dry.

Back out and there was a steep camino uphill before an equally steep trail descent and then a groundhog day firebreak which just went up and over, up and over for mile after mile, with a nice little stream in the bottom of every valley. Into the next CP, I was pushing on conscious that it was late afternoon.

More flooded track as dams had burst, another CP and a firebreak ascent before a moderately tough descent. The light was fading and I wanted to get down before fishing my headtorch out and lighting up. My watch read 80km. Heading through game park in the dark, there was definitely something snuffling and snorting to my right – I wasn’t hanging around to find out what as I hit the official 85km checkpoint.

“No more technical!” I was told. It hadn’t been particularly technical so in my naivety I thought we’d fly home…in reality I was heading into the Somme. Running alongside a fence, with the road the other side, we trekked though plough, rocks and flooded fields. The earlier marathon runners had turned the ground to quagmire and progress was slow.

Feet – you were sodden and now covered in mud. Myself and a pair of other runners ping ponged taking it in turns to take the lead through the mire. Worse; the fog came down. The glow stick markers were increasingly difficult to see as we ploughed on.

Popping out onto the road through a hole cut in the fence we hit another checkpoint. The guys were looking jaded and I just wanted to get finished so I took the lead and pressed on…back through the fence and off the road, cursing as odd cars whizzed past hooting as I tackled km after km of mud, dropping into streams as water flooded off the fields. Eventually I emerged at CP12, just another 5km and I’d be done.

Crossing the road, I traced through trail we’d run earlier in the day but with 200 plus runners now through, the narrow track had turned to soup. I slip-slid through, relieved as I turned onto hard trail breaking into a run. Time to get this done! I could hear the finish line – a cheer as another runner finished – another 10 minutes and I was there being interviewed by Chito Speaker as the 2nd female. It turns out the runner heading over the line 10 minutes earlier was the lead woman. If I hadn’t added an extra 5km, I lamented, but such is trail running.

The race was completed – 14 hours 8 minutes and 22nd across the line.

I felt fine, ate a hot pork roll, and headed back to the sports hall where we’d spend the night. I showered, amazed at how great you guys looked. I was expecting blister on blister thanks to the grit; toe nails hanging off…but there was nothing. I suspect I have damaged the second nail on my left toe and there’s a small rub mark on my right foot – but that’s it.

My right hammy had been nagging from 8km but that’s nothing new and aside from that, nothing. I feel fine. Seems like the terrain we run over in organizing Ultra Trail Spain running holidays makes for ideal training 😉

Thanks to my feet, we bagged a 2nd place and some delicious honey.

Thanks to my feet, we bagged a 2nd place and some delicious honey.

So please forgive me feet, it seriously wasn’t that bad was it? I wasn’t one of the crazies stood on the start line shivering in lunas. Would be interesting to know if they were two of the 114 finishers out of the 221 starters or if the mud sucked their sandals off at 90km.

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Jamon and trails

Race prizes in Spain are a beauty to behold to ultra runners…since they usually involve our all time favourite items…namely food!

So far I’ve bagged olive oil, peaches, asparagus from road races. Yup, I know it’s enough to make any ultra runner drag his or her lazy ass around a bit of tarmac. You often get a sample delicacy just for showing up.

But for me, the biggest prize I’d set my eyes on was a jamon. These are often offered as prizes but so far had eluded me.

The sun is shining bright over Moclin.

The sun is shining bright over Moclin.

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As I’m just heading into my last 100km ultra for the year; I’ve been forced to top of my high endurance miles with some faster work. Now, as I’ve done more long distance stuff, I’ve fallen out of love with the speed. It’s just too darn hard work. Tell me to run for a day long no problem, but ask me to sprint for 5km and well, it’s a slog. Plus, I really struggle with my right leg…you know the one with the knackered hip, torn hamstrings, slack ligament and dodgy foot. It really doesn’t agree with doing speed anymore. Following it making its complaints known after the Santa Fe 10km, I’d given the Granada half marathon a miss in exchange for long, steady miles.

We'd put in some big miles, and no rides home with a mule.

We’d put in some big miles, and no rides home with a mule.

It had settled, we’d knocked out a 50km, it did get nagged with a series of climbing reps. (I reckon I’d been pushing off too hard from it.) And I’d had to back off. The Moraleda 10km was a do or die. It would either play along or it wouldn’t. I’d run the race as a tempo effort and try to maintain a steady pace throughout.

None of us were exactly sure how the race would pan out since it was the first running of the event. Most of the speedy folks had been lured into an 8km night race on the Friday before. The 10pm, aka freezing, start time had put me off of that and so we’d headed over to Moraleda. I knew the course wouldn’t be flat, but neither will my 100, so it suited just fine.

The uphill start wasn’t easy. My hammy got a grump on within 600m but I backed off and it was okay. A pair of womenn whipped past and I knew they’d be the lead pack as they picked up a younger girl just ahead. By 1500m, I was pretty sure I was in 4th.

At about 3km we headed onto a jeep track and uphill. Aside from the ascent the trail reminded me of the wind/ 4X4 shaped sand of Zekreet, Qatar. I was on my territory and easily trotted past the girl in 3rd. I could see the two lead women ahead. By now a girl with a ponytail was just stretching out.

As we hit flat trail, my hammy wasn’t going to let me open my stride, but I was doing okay and maintaining a moderate pace. Hitting about 6km we started to drop downhill. I was closing on the woman in shorts and bra in 2nd – braver than me in long socks and arm sleeves as I was cold. Unfortunately the continual downhill triggered a bit of stitch and I had to ease back for fear for seeing my breakfast. The women in 2nd pulled away again, and the girl now in 4th came past me. There was still all to play for as I could still see the ponytail plait of the lead woman bouncing along.

Hitting the flat again, my stitch passed and I was able to close in on the girl in 3rd. As we hit more uphill, I was in touching distance, but turning a corner the gradient was steeper and my hammy protested. Less ascent and I was back up with her; however the distance was too great and as we turned into the downhill finish she pulled away.

Congratulating each other – such is the way in Spain – I was happy with my time. About 30 seconds faster than Santa Fe on a hillier course. I was 4th woman overall and 2nd in my age group. The woman in the bra and pants won the veterans, in front of me. But better still, I’d got my hands on a jamon!

Finally I'd got my hands on the prize.

Finally I’d got my hands on the prize.

I’m now into 100km taper; having my usual arguments with my right leg – still free to a good home – and hoping it’ll get me round the 60 miles. A week to go and we’ll find out.

On first glance the course is reasonably fast with just 2,000m + and -. In reality however, the weather forecast is rubbish in Seville over the next week and on race day, and after 16km of easy running, the course map indicates there’s 40km of hellishly technical stuff. Bum shuffling is going to be so much fun in the rain. Think I need to get myself some waterproof pants.

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Hitting the trails – thankfully

Following my 10km charge, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks nurturing my niggly hamstring, blowing the cobwebs out on our local trail race, and discovering the benefits of recent endurance training.
On lurching over the line at Santa Fe, I knew my hammy would need some careful management. There were definitely some residual changes going on, but having felt similar pains before I know I’m best to keep moving…but very slowly. There was nothing else for it but to get a high mileage week under my belt. Yes, I know that every physio, GP, witch doctor will always recommend the opposite but I understand my legs and more importantly my hips. The worst thing I can do is stop entirely. Everything just ceases up and then, when I do move, muscles tear.

Following my nose and ended up a bit far from home.

Following my nose and ended up a bit far from home.

So pack loaded, I headed out from Moclin on the Monday for a magical mystery tour. This was to be a theme of the week as I clocked a steady 20km, 25km, 40km… The weather for the week started slightly mucky but by the Thursday was positively roasting. There was definitely as much walking as running going on and gradually, slowly by surely, my hammy decided life was worth living. (Before you all get too jealous, I was working…honest…route finding does involve a lot of getting lost, doubling back, and eking out supplies.)

By Friday I was ready to put my legs up. Heading back out on Saturday for a short totter down Moclin’s firebreak I was all set for Sunday’s CXM – the direction of the race route had changed and I wanted to check how slow I’d be heading downhill.

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Moclin CXM had the interesting scenario of an uphill start and uphill finish. Either way a tough ask. The day dawned warm and after liberally applying sunscreen we were off. Just a steady one for me as I didn’t want to risk my carefully nurtured hammy. The uphill start suited it nicely and it was well warmed up before the first downhill on which the main field when flying off. Let them, my strategy was saving my quads for descents later in the race over 24km and with 1,800+  there was plenty of climbing to be done too. This clearly suits me! I love nothing better than a strong and long climb, and much fun was had picking off some very competitive girls. I knew they’d get me on the downs so didn’t put as much effort in as I probably should have but this race is part of a longer game.

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Another relatively high mileage week was to follow, I’ve got another to chalk up this week and then I’ll be into taper. Facebook friends will know, I’ve just chucked in some faster hill work and fingers crossed the hammy is holding out. Three weeks and I’ll be lining up on the start line of another 100km, and I’d like to think I’ll stand a reasonable chance. Of course trail 100kms aren’t that straightforward for us amateurs but here’s hoping the weather, fueling, trails all go to plan 😉

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