Cows, clocks and cheese*

For the record we have arrived at our hotel in Davos, Switzerland. It is 1500m above sea level in the Alps, yet there are many peaks high above the rainclouds which we are unable to see. For the time being, this is a good thing.

*these items are of no relevance to the day, other than being associated with Switzerland

The biggest mountain ultramarathon in the world*

On 30th July 2010, my mother went into hospital for major surgery. If the fact that she still hasn’t fully recovered and consequently had to quit her job was the worst thing that happened, these past 12 months would have been bad enough. But instead (and I say this with care), it was just the start of what turned out to be the single worst year of my life. As things became progressively worse, I needed to find my own way through it and, as I do so often, I focused on my running.

The biggest mountain ultramarathon in the world, and the ultimate challenge would accurately describe the past year, but instead is the tagline of the Swiss Alpine Ultra. Before deciding to run from Paris to London and after withdrawing from the Jungfrau Marathon, I entered this event thinking it would be an appropriate way to generate awareness for what had happened.

Having garnered much support on the journey from Paris to London, I still intended to run my first Ultra. In the Swiss Alps. A 79.1km circular route climbing (and descending) 2370m with 21km on high alpine terrain will undoubtedly be the single most difficult run I have ever attempted. It takes place on 30th July, exactly one year after Mum went into hospital, and will hopefully provide some closure to that difficult period.

In stark contrast to Paris to London, I will be taking significantly less kit and the weather forecast is atrocious – but I have my Vaseline, lycra and gel ready, so I’ll be fine.

Let’s do this.

I suppose it is now time to start thinking about what my next challenge will be…

*see http://www.swissalpine.ch/cms/competition-k78.phtml

Here goes

I have been running for close to a decade and, in that time, have completed six marathons. It took much effort to finally dip below the three-hour mark. Chasing another ‘personal best’ didn’t seem appropriate (let alone motivate me) at this time so, despite being entered into the 2011 London Marathon, it wouldn’t be enough to entice me back into training. I needed something bigger to aim for. I also wanted to do something to raise money for my Grandparents – for which a marathon alone would ‘not do’.

I looked at the possibility of marathoning on consecutive weekends, but the big marathons were filling up fast, if they weren’t already full. And I wasn’t interested in a series of low key marathons. I started to think beyond a marathon. Meanwhile, the inspectors came to work and my training would have to remain on hold for another week.

I thought about the races I had withdrawn from in the autumn and focused quickly on marathons in the Swiss Alps. I soon discovered The Swiss Alpine Marathon in Davos at the end of July, coinciding with the start of the school holidays. At 50 miles, it would be the furthest I have run, on the most difficult of terrains in the most difficult conditions. It was just what I wanted.

I discussed it with friends for a few days to test their reaction and to see if they would be interested in joining me. On 10th December, I entered the race and, almost instantly, my weekly mileage went from 5 to 25. I started telling people of my plans and immediately started to focus on my training. I went for 8 miles alone on the Saturday, and met The Emu and TFP the next day for what would prove to be a difficult 10.

The Emu had already picked up on my Swiss plans and started to tell me some plans he was hatching of his own. He was looking at running the Paris Marathon, the London Marathon the following weekend and running from Paris to London in the 6 days between. I informed him that I had already looked at doing the Paris Marathon in conjunction with London, but that Paris was full. He was aware of this fact – and was already working on how to overcome this hurdle.

I thought about it for a few strides, but it didn’t take long. The marathons being a week apart would reflect the time between my Grandparents deaths. The run from Paris to London would turn the event into a single worthwhile challenge. Suddenly, I was hooked. I wanted to join him. I told him straight away and thought about the prospect non-stop for the remainder of the run, save a brief debate on university tuition fees and the recent riots. In fact, I seemed to think about it non-stop for the following weeks. I had a few concerns, but definitely wanted to do it.

I discussed it with some friends but, aware of the scale of the challenge, I was worried that I couldn’t do it. I wanted some feedback and some opinion, but I didn’t want to appear to be wimping out at the first opportunity. I was scared of failure. It quickly became apparent that we had three hurdles to overcome as soon as possible to be sure that we at least had a chance of completing the task.

We both had entry into the London Marathon, but needed entry into the Paris Marathon. We would need somebody who would be prepared to support us while we were running outside of the two marathons. And we needed to be reasonably happy that we were capable of being sufficiently fit. We had our work cut out on all three counts.

Prologue

Many friends are aware that I am ‘up to something’ but, before I reveal all, I think it is necessary to explain some background information. This is also my first blog in a while, and will hopefully go some way to explaining my absence.

I first ran because I wanted to complete the London Marathon. I hadn’t previously been a fan of running, but was drawn by the challenge. To overcome the premise that life would be boring if it were easy, I strive on setting myself such challenges.

And 2010 was proving to be a great year for me. I finally achieved an, apparently elusive, sub 3-hour marathon and had also been promoted at work. I was on a high and everything was going well.

But the second half of the year proved to be more difficult. My Mother went into hospital for treatment to prevent cancer – she ended up being in and out of hospital for six months. The stress was clear on the family – who were involved in four car accidents within the space of one month. Fortunately there were no serious injuries, but all were probably a result of trying to do too much. And with a new job to contend with, I was struggling to train, let alone continue to chair the running club and be secretary for the County road running committee. My mileage was reduced to about 10% of where it had been previously.

I had to surrender my entry into the Jungfrau Marathon, finishing at the foot of the North face of the Eiger. And I also had to let a friend down whom I had offered to run with on the Original Mountain Marathon – an overnight affair where I would have had to carry enough kit for two days on difficult terrain over a distance of almost two marathons.

Then, just as it felt like things couldn’t get any worse, on Monday 15th November, my Grandmother died. Mum already had enough to contend with but, as an only child, she now needed our support more than ever. She pained herself to deal with the ‘necessities’ and the funeral was held two days later. While grieving, a phonecall was received on the Saturday to indicate that my Grandfather had suffered a heart attack. Then, on 22nd November, almost exactly one week to the hour after Grandma’s passing, my Grandfather died. They were both 91 years old and had lived good lives; they were married for 61 of them and apart for just one week.

It felt like the world was falling apart. I had been tremendously close to my grandparents and I was at an all-time low. I needed to do something to regain my focus.

Marathon training schedule

Having run a number of marathons, I was asked earlier in the year to devise a marathon training plan based on the Ryston Runners AC training sessions for Spring 2011. It was ready in August 2010 but, for one reason and another, I have not had time to upload it. With many people now talking about their spring marathons, now seems like an appropriate time to share it.

Feel free to use it, abuse it, adapt it, question it, criticise it, advise me how it could be better or simply ignore it. Either way, I take no responsibility for anyone’s failure to perform other than my own. Enjoy.

http://tinyurl.com/355k7zj

I will, however, leave you with one rule of thumb which was given to me before my first marathon: To get to the finish, first you must get to the start. Good luck.

Pain is temporary

Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever.

Lance Armstrong’s is my favourite take on an old quote, encapsulated by today’s New York City Marathon. Congratulations to Edison Peña who overcame adversity and completed it in less than 6 hours – a true inspiration to many.

Meanwhile, another running legend, Haile Gebrselassie, who said earlier this week “Why should I retire? Why should I say I will retire in three or four years? You retire the very moment you utter those words … I still think about doing more” appears to have spoken too soon.

Which brings me onto another quote: think before you speak.

Update 15th November 2010. Thankfully, Haile Gebrselassie appears to have changed his mind – opting to run the Tokyo Marathon in February 2011.

More than I can chew

It has long been suggested that my eyes are bigger than my tummy, although I have always considered it as merely a healthy appetite.

As a small child, my parents would force me to remain at the table until I had eaten every last spoonful of my dinner; this felt even more painful when I had specifically asked for more. My father would recite lines form Oliver, as my mother encouraged me to eat food that she knew I didn’t like. It’s no wonder that I was a fat toddler, but as I progressed through primary school, my metabolism increased and this has continued to the present day. While I was once a fussy eater, I have grown to enjoy all food, and always seek to try something new. With the exception of chopped liver; I know my limits.

My ‘healthy’ appetite is the one factor that has remained a constant, and I believe it stretches beyond the realms of food and dietary requirements into other aspects of life.

I have never done things ‘by halves’ and am rarely known to turn down an opportunity. If that opportunity involves good fun, challenge, achievement or food, then the chance of me turning down that opportunity reduces exponentially. I also have the advantage of being young and I sometimes feel that a limited life experience gives me a blissful ignorance of what I may be letting myself in for.

I blindly followed my brother into marathoning, entering my first marathon before I even liked running. Little did I know that I would still be running a decade later.

I wasn’t satisfied with my Bachelors degree, so followed it immediately with a Masters and passed with distinction.

And wanting to study teacher training at the local university, I applied to Oxford University because it was oversubscribed the previous year. Thinking that I wouldn’t even be interviewed, I ended up living there (and I even competed in varsity).

And so I arrive at my next quandary. Mountain marathons are multi-day off-road events where you have to navigate yourself and carry all of your own supplies and equipment. A very experienced runner whom I have run with on only a few occasions has entered the Original Mountain Marathon (OMM – www.theomm.com) and is looking for someone to join him. As soon as the opportunity arose, I was there. “I am interested”, I proclaimed. What was I thinking? What sort of mountain or navigational experience do I have? I don’t even have any kit. But it thrilled me. How could I possibly turn down this opportunity?

And once again, I recognise the signs. I feel like I am biting off more than I can chew. But the buzz is exhilarating. This is what is all about. I am petrified, but I love it.

Two fifty nine

I began running nearly nine years ago with the sole intention of completing  a marathon. Never shying away from a challenge, my target soon became the elusive 3 hour mark. The most recent attempt was an assault on Rotterdam.

After an extended period of consistent training, I had been refining it for the preceding months and racing well. However, in the weeks leading up to the race day, my legs hurt more than previously. I was unable to sleep the night before and, on the day, I felt sick when I woke up, wasn’t hungry and had to force a bowl of cereal in. Approaching the start line, my legs went to jelly; the only positive thought I could find was the fact I was as prepared as I had ever been and this time, I had experience on my side.

I knew exactly what I had to do. I just had to deliver.

At the start, I was caught up with slower runners and didn’t see the first or second km markers, so when I went through 3km in 14mins (more than 90secs off target), I thought “Don’t panic”. Fortunately, I didn’t and quickly found my target pace (4mins 09secs per km) and maintained it.

That was until 20km. I hadn’t even reached halfway when my quads started talking to me, politely telling me they didn’t want to go the distance. I tried to blank the negative thoughts, but monitored the situation. By 30km, they were shouting at me, willing me to give up. I ignored their call; giving up wasn’t an option, so I nursed them as much as possible giving them an extra 10secs every km as well as a splash of cold water.

At 32km, my calf seized as a result of subconsciously changing my stride to accommodate my quads, so I stopped momentarily to pour a cup of cold water on them and continued; the pain subsided. I started doing the maths on the run – I had close to 45 minutes to complete the final 10km, which feels like a walk in the park when fresh but, clearly, I wasn’t – I needed to average 4:30 per km.

This meant 4:15 for 5km followed by 4:45 for the final 5km, however I was on 4:30 by 36km – it was going to be touch and go. I crossed the 40km line (4:37 for the km) with less than 10 minutes to go. Then I remembered a marathon is longer than 42km, about 1 minute longer, so I had to pick up the pace – I had no choice. The 41st km took more than 5mins so I knew I was in trouble. I felt unable to pick up the pace and my quads were now screaming at me. With 1km to go, it was down to 4 mins, but I had no strength left. With 500m to go, I first caught sight of the finish line. It was now or maybe never again. I tried to kick and I felt like I was increasing the pace – in fact I felt like I was sprinting, despite my stride length being barely that of a brisk walk.

Eventually, I crossed the line. I glanced at my watch over the line and it was close. Very close. I thought I had probably done it. I didn’t actually stop my watch until 3 hrs 11 secs, so could not be sure. I needed to find out, but the only internet cafes I found in Amsterdam had a peculiar herbal smell. This was arguably the worst bit of all – the not knowing, but fortunately I received a message the next day with confirmation. Two hours fifty nine minutes and fifty eight seconds. One whole second to spare – I have rarely been known to make life easy for myself.