Turn of the Tides

Autumn in Scotland(The Hermitage, Dunkeld, in all its autumn glory)

I have never felt the need to prove anything to anyone with my running; certainly not to other people, but not even to myself. For me, the only real tragedy when running would be if I didn’t enjoy myself. So right now, while my body is still feeling the aftershocks of a very nasty chest infection, I am more than happy to give it the rest that it needs. I decided to bow out of the Cologne Marathon before I even made it to the start line: I’ve always said that I run to be happy and healthy, and I am pleased to say that I have found it very easy to live by those words.

I still run almost every day, but these days I’m very relaxed about it. No watch, no hill sprints, no intervals, no tempo runs. Instead, I am enjoying one easy off road run after the next. It’s brought me much peace, and the intense connection with nature has allowed me to fully embrace and enjoy the changing seasons. This summer has been nothing short of amazing, but I’m now ready to run through autumn and into winter. Bring on the long sleeved tops and chocolate-fuelled long runs!

I have no doubt that the lust to run fast will return – I suspect that it will resurface the moment after I have coughed for the last time. I’m signed up for the Jedburgh Ultramarathon in a month time, and am already getting very excited about that. Sure, I’m not as fit or fast as I was at the start of the year, and very much doubt that I’ll manage another second place finish. Instead, I look at it as my lap of honour; a chance to celebrate a great year of running.

I wish you all peace and balance on this equinox and new moon. Can you feel the changing seasons?

3 peaks autumn(The “Three Peaks”, Jedburgh Ultramarathon)

I am on a journey; with my thoughts, my dreams and my running. Running is my teacher, and with each step I learn a little more about life. I respect the distance but keep testing the limits. I don’t let my demons chase me; instead I am becoming a master hunter. Happiness is not my destination; the journey itself keeps bringing me a wild sense of freedom and unbridled joy. I am on a quest for peace, balance and quiet bliss. I am a seeker, an explorer, a runner!

Into the Footprints of Legends

“Lives of great men all remind us, we can make our lives sublime, and, departing, leave behind us, footprints on the sands of time.”

– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 BGR Robinson

(Getting that “feet in the clouds” feeling!)

Last weekend, my world was centred on a little holiday flat in the Lake District, where thirteen of us had gathered for what promised to be an unforgettable weekend. Armed only with our fell running shoes, a wooden relay baton, a plethora of maps and timetables and a seemingly endless supply of crisps and cookies, we had joined forces in order to take on the mighty Billy Bland Challenge (a relay of the infamous Bob Graham Round).

The location of our base camp could not have been more fitting for our amazing adventures, as we stayed on the dreamy shores of Ullswater and in the shadow of Helvellyn, one of the highest mountains in England. The latter had a special meaning for me, as in 2010 I had attempted to climb the mountain in winter but due to deteriorating weather conditions had abandoned my bid for the summit shortly before reaching Swirral ridge – only to find out the next day that two walkers had died on the mountain shortly after I had made my retreat. The experience served as a sobering reminder that we must always respect the mountains (as an extension of nature in general).

But just before we embarked on our very own running adventure across the fells of the Lake District, it just so happened that someone else’s were coming to their own incomprehensibly epic conclusion. On the same night that saw us enjoying our pre-run pasta orgy in Glenridding, Steve Birkinshaw was due to complete his titanic run of all the Wainwrights; a route which saw him running a total of 515 km (320 miles), across the summits of 214 fells with a total ascend of 36,000 m (118,000 ft). I genuinely can’t think of any adjectives that could adequately enhance my description of this truly epic feat, so I’ll just leave you with the facts and trust that your minds will boggle just like mine has done (and still does!). He completed the round in 6 days and 13 hours, and in doing so not only broke Joss Naylor’s record which has stood since 1987, but also raised many thousands of pounds for individuals with Multiple Sclerosis, a condition which his sister suffers. I wouldn’t have missed the chance to see him finish his incredible journey for the world, so late at night, when everyone else was being sensible by climbing into their bunk beds and sleeping bags, I made my way to the Moot Hall in Keswick to cheer this legend of a man across the finish line.

Steve Birkinshaw

(A night to remember: the legend that is Steve Birkinshaw)

So when Louise and I (cheered on by the rest of the team) found ourselves standing on the steps of the very same Moot Hall the next morning with our minds on a mission to blaze the trail of Bob Graham to Honister Pass (i.e. leg one of an anti-clockwise Bob Graham round), I can’t deny that it felt rather iconic and special. We were about to step into the footsteps of many, many incredible athletes who have tested themselves on the fells of the Lake District before us.

Our original plan was to begin our journey at 7am, but because we were all a bit nervous, we did what nervous runners do best, and at 6:45 we all embarked on a warm-up relay to and from the parking lot loos, which we finished in an official record time of 20 minutes.

Then, finally, at 7:05, Louise and I dashed off down the High Street of Keswick, which much to our general amusement elicited precisely absolutely no reaction whatsoever from the locals who were setting up their market stalls. Clearly, they are used to this kind of behaviour from obsessive fell runners and have taken to politely ignoring it. Our plan was to blast along the 6 mile road section to the base of our first hill as fast as we could; an objective which we more or less achieved, despite two seriously adversarial forces acting against us. Firstly, the “road” we were running would be the perfect setting for a most masochistic hill sprint workout, and the sun itself had risen with a fierce determination to fry us up for breakfast at 7am.

BGR leaving Keswick

(And we are off!)

But we kept our heads down and carried on, and soon enough we reached the base of Robinson. A stiff climb and a scramble later, we stood at the summit of our first fell. From then on, the going was a lot easier, and we could simply cruise along the flanks of the mountains to the next summit on our route, Hindscarth.

Although our task was to keep shifting, I still had plenty of time to enjoy the stunning views from the top of the world. The sun was out to get us with a vengeance, despite it still being very early in the morning. Dripping in sweat, we were near the summit of Hindscarth when we commented on the fact that we seemingly had the fells to ourselves that morning.

BGR Hindscarth

(Reaching for the sky)

I can only assume that it was precisely because we said these words out loud that we encountered at least 50 hill walkers on the summit of Dale Head. They were all wearing event numbers and were very official looking. On the plus side, though, I can’t deny that a very wicked part of me derived a great about of pleasure and satisfaction in charging past them down the slopes of the mountain.

Although I was a little sad to not have spent more time in the mountains, it was awesome to be welcomed and cheered into Honister Pass by our team after 2 hours and 34 minutes. We exchanged some quick hugs and cheered and hollered the next two runners up the steep slope of Grey Knotts. The running part of my journey was over as quickly as it had begun.

And breathe. I returned to the headquarters and showered and ate cookies and crisps until I felt vaguely human again. Back on the ground, the atmosphere was abuzz with maps and timetables and code text message such as “Pillar 12:03”. However, there wasn’t much more for me to do at this point; as I was a last minute addition to the team, I had not been planned in for any duties in terms of logistics or support. I felt a little bit bad about that, but upon eating my eights cooking of the day I remembered how nice it felt to be cheered on at Honister Pass and decided to nominate myself as the official team cheerleader.

As it was, the official cheerleader started by failing miserably at the first hurdle. I sadly missed the next handover entirely; partially because eating cookies took longer than I thought, and Wasdale Pass happens to be a long drive away from the shores of Ullswater. But most importantly, Caroline and Louise had seemingly soared across the fells and had covered their part of the route in a magnificently quick 4 hours and 6 minutes!

There was not much for me to do but to guard and periodically quality control the cookies and crisps at operation headquarters for the rest of the afternoon, look at more maps – or rather, the same maps over and over again. Slowly and subtly, I felt a shift in the mood of our little troupe…  At the start of the day, our general agreement had been to just enjoy the challenge and see what happens. However, due to the fact that we were covering the ground faster than we thought, by the time dusk arrived it began to dawn upon us that there was a possibility that we could complete the challenge in 24 hours…

I’m pleased to report that the official cheerleader was actually present at Dunmail Raise, where I witnessed the very exciting descend of Anita and Liz on the tricky slopes of Steel Fell and cheered to be best of my abilities when they handed the baton over at 8:13 pm. I won’t deny that I felt a little envious when I watched Moira and Cathy trek into the sunset; the gorgeous day was promising to turn into an even more stunning night for us all.

But for now, we headed back to headquarters for about an hour of sleep and more crisps and cookies. A few hours later, we got a text message (“Clough Head 0:52”) which sent us driving across the Lake District at a speed that would surely have left Buzz Lightyear a little green around the nose, as the leg 4 runners had kept to the general pattern of the day and had exceeded all expectations. The final handover at Threlkeld was rushed and there wasn’t much cheering either, despite the presence of the world’s worst cheerleader. It turns out that apart from those who are loopy enough to take on the Bob Graham loop, most people in the Lake District prefer to sleep in silence around 2 am in the morning.

BGR Night

(Sleepy cheering on the verge of dawn)

If I was jealous of the evening runners, it was nothing compared to what I felt when I saw the headlights of Ally and Charlotte fade onto the slopes of Blencathra. Despite the fact that it was stupid o’clock, the first signs of light were glistering on the horizon and the night was illuminated by a sickle moon.

Another hour of sleep and more cookies and crisps and brewing over maps at operation headquarters later, the joyous text message of “Skiddaw 6:03” sent us all on our way to Keswick once more.

Now, I realise that there is nothing that can possibly excuse what I did next. I would nevertheless like to reiterate that it was very early in the morning indeed, and those of your who know me should realise by now that I cannot be passed for a human being before 10:30 am on any given day. I’d enjoyed a full two hours of sleep during the previous night and had left the flat before even contemplating breakfast (apart from crisps and cookies, but I stopped counting them long ago). Furthermore, I had not taken anything with me, as my plan was to head up Skiddaw to meet the last runners, fulfil my cheering duties and accompany them on the last kilometre of their journey, perhaps offering to carry one of their backpacks down the mountain.

It was another glorious morning, and a zombiefied me greatly enjoyed a little morning jog out of Keswick and up into the mountains once more. I stopped after about 20 minutes of climbing and turned around to marvel at the views of yet another magnificent break of day. Beneath me, Derwent Water lay sleepily in the valley, and a glance to the right revealed the inviting flank of mighty Skiddaw… Wait, what? Embarrassingly slowly it dawned upon me that this made no sense at all. Why was Skiddaw on my right? No person in the world with a sense of direction vaguely superior to that of a piece of plywood (or myself for that matter) would journey from Skiddaw down to Keswick via the peak of Latrigg, which is where I had finally derived that I must be standing…

Having sacrificed my dignity at dawn to the sun god on the wrong mountain top – not to mention the fact that there was now absolutely no doubt whatsoever that I had earned myself the world’s worst cheerleader badge – I commenced my trot of shame back to the Moot Hall in Keswick, where in a very awkward twist of events, the final runners were the ones who were waiting for me.

Ally and Charlotte had made it back to Keswick at 7:11 am, which meant that we have completed the Billy Bland Challenge in 24 hours and 6 minutes! Naturally, all of us simultaneously blurted out all sorts of suggestions of how we could have run our particular leg a little faster. I’m sure we can do it, although I’m not quite sure how, as everyone talking at the same time isn’t conducive to actually taking anything in. In reality, I can safely say that nobody was even remotely disappointed. I think the challenge so immense that an old cliché couldn’t have been more true; the journey had meant more to us than the destination ever could. Besides, it just means that we will have to do it all again next year!

BGR_Moot Hall

(Full circle: 7am (again) at the Moot Hall (again)!)

I want to take this opportunity to say a massive thank you to my fellow runners:  Louise, Caroline, Lou B, Liz, Anita, Moira, Cathy, Ally and Charlotte. You ladies are amazing! Also, we couldn’t have done this without our incredible support crew, consisting of Adrian, Bill and Graham; all of whom possess athletic prowess that put us all to shame but who were nevertheless more than willing to just support us and let us enjoy our moment. Thank you all for letting me be part of this adventure, for a wonderful weekend of teamwork and for being part of memories which I am sure will stay with me for a very long time!

As for little old me, my own journey was not quite over yet. Despite the severe lack of sleep and directionally challenged start to the day, I felt ready and downright needing to embrace the last day in the Lake District. Thus, I turned to face the shadow behind us. A nice and easy jog up Helvellyn seemed like a fitting way to take some time to reflect upon and celebrate my own journey in these mountains.

Helvellyn summit

(Relaxing on the summit of Helvellyn: A wild kind of relaxation.)

After scrambling down Striding Ridge, I once again couldn’t resist the pull of gravity and blazed down the mountain with legs as fresh as they had felt the morning before. About half-way through my charge down the mountain, a middle aged man stepped aside a I passed him and saluted me.

“I wish I could do what you are doing”, he said. I stopped and turned to look at the summit of Helvellyn behind me, with the Red Tarn at its base and the two dramatic ridges leading to peak. In comparison to the day before, it all seemed to tame now.

“Why don’t you?” I smiled back at him. He told me that he “only” runs marathons, and I told him that I find marathons really, really hard! Then, in a moment of supreme immaturity (because some things never change), I blurted out, to a complete stranger, on the slopes of a mountain, what we had been up to the day before.

His response? He shook my hand. It doesn’t matter how far you run, or how fast, or on what surface. Runners just get each other.

 

“While it is well enough to leave footprints on the sands of time, it is even more important to make sure they point in a commendable direction.”

– James Branch Cabell

Running with Spirits of Bob and Billy

I’m currently wondering just how many times I can begin a post with the words: “You guys, I’ve done it again…”

While I love my e-mail spam folder, I’m so glad that it doesn’t just gobble up every unexpected message. Last week I got one message I would have hated to have missed. I don’t know if I should be flattered or alarmed by the fact that when a runner was needed to step up to a hill running challenge of epic proportions at a few days’ notice, someone thought of little old me. Even more concerning, perhaps, is the fact that I agreed to jump on board in a heartbeat.

Somehow, I may have just agreed to join what promises to be a supremely well organised Billy Bland Challenge run. This weekend. I should probably be wondering how I keep getting myself into these (running) situations, but instead, I’m once again just super excited!

lake-district-3(The stunning fells of the Lake District are calling!)

For those of you who haven’t heard of the Billy Bland Challenge or Bob Graham Round, I think it’s fair to say that it’s the holy grail to many long distance hill runners in this part of the world. It all started back in 1932, when a fellow named Bob Graham went on a long hill run in the Lake District and managed to bag 42 peaks (with a whopping 27,000 foot of total ascend) in just under 24 hours. Despite many subsequent attempts, this feat was not repeated until 1960, when Alan Heaton traversed the same peaks in an even shorter time. Since then, a number of notable runners have been able to repeat this achievement. The fastest known time for completion of the Bob Graham round is an unbelievable 13:53 hours, achieved  by Billy Bland in 1982. The ladies record is a very respectable 18:12 hours, run by the awesome Nicky Spinks in 2012. Earlier this year, the legendary American ultra runner Scott Jurek completed the Bob Graham round, with only 16 minutes to spare…

If it’s run as a relay, the Bob Graham Round is called the Billy Bland Challenge. The ultimate goal is still to complete the round in under 24 hours. If it’s an official attempt at the challenge, a total of ten runners are needed; five legs are run by two runners each.

I’m currently trying to figure out what one needs to pack for a weekend of running mayhem and very little sleep. I’ve packed some clothes, an air mattress, a sleeping bag and enough food and drink to feed a small army should we need to invade the lakes instead. And all that remains to be done then, is to make it through work tomorrow, get in the car, and head south… What a way to spend a summer weekend.

I will, of course, report on the outcome of my latest running escapade early next week. But for now, I have to run (literally!)…

“The most important thing in the Billy Bland Challenge is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.”

– Pierre de Coubertin

Bob Graham Round

A Full Moon Run Of Legends

Last Friday (the 13th), just after midnight, I met a legend, and together we ran across a nature reserve under the light of the full moon. Really, I couldn’t make this up.

You see, last week, I was on the verge of entering a marathon in Burma. I really wish I had; it sounds totally amazing. But instead, I entered a 78 mile, 24 hour ultramarathon in good old England…

There’s so much I could – or should! – be freaking out about, but right now my main concern is the fact that my surname isn’t Forsberg or Frost. The implication of this is that I’ll have to run at least some of the distance at night. Now add to this the indisputable fact that I am a massive pansie, and we’re firmly into meltdown territory. And because this is one issue that just can’t be solved by avoidant coping or chocolate, I did the sensible thing asked for help on the internet.

My local ultramarathon running group on Facebook is a very friendly and supportive bunch, but before you declare me complete insane, I’d just like to reassure you that I do know some of the members personally. I was hoping that one of them could be persuaded to accompany me on a night run, show me the tricks of the trade and help me get my confidence up a little.

And sure enough, my plea for help was promptly answered – my rescuer a man who everyone in the group refers to only as “the legend”. I’ve never had the privilege of meeting him before myself, but virtually everyone else in the group I have run with has immediately told me all about his considerable running achievements and adventures. How could I resist learning from the very best?

On the eve of battle, however, I wasn’t sure what was freaking me out the most; the general idea of running in the dark, the thought of heading willingly into a remote forest with a strange man, or the prospects of running with someone who’s run over 100 marathons, and literally every ultramarathon I could think of and then some. Yes, including the famous Marathon de Sables. Twice.

forest night

The fact that I have returned from the midnight wilderness to write this post is an unfortunate spoiler of my unscarred survival of the night. Prior to that particular Friday the 13th, I firmly believed that night running could only ever be a miserable affair; I had braced myself for feeling tired, cold, insecure, potentially frightened and most certainly lost.

I can’t think of a time when I’ve never been so wrong about anything. Night running is amazing. Especially in lovely forests, by the light of the full moon and in the company of legends. There was a light drizzle, but the humidity felt warming and coupled with the many glimpses of lush green, gave the whole run an almost tropical feel.

We chatted freely and many giggles rung out into the night. Along the way, I had great fun skipping across the minefield or frogs that were out and about at night. We even stopped for a chocolate break at some point (confirming once again my long held belief that chocolate really does solve every problem) – I’m not sure if running gets any better than this.

Tentsmuir beach night

The legend sure lived up to his name. He was a great guide and taught me about running in the dark, but in doing so I feel that I learned a lot about life. Once again, I experienced that most limits exist only in my mind, and that it is possible to encounter truly amazing territory if I dare to go beyond them.

On a practical note, the legend has shared an incredibly useful night running tip with me, which I’m sure he won’t mind me passing on to you. As soon as we took off, he told me that he never actually wears his head-torch on his head! Instead, he wraps the strap around his wrist and then holds the torch in his hand. I readily followed his advice, and can confirm that it worked very well for me. Using the light this way means that headaches from tight headbands are a thing of the past. It’s also much easier to look around when holding the torch in hand. Fellow runners very much appreciate this technique as well, as it ensures that they won’t constantly get blinded and losing all the night vision just because someone dared to look in their direction. And finally, I’d imagine it looks a lot cooler as well.

Do you have any thoughts on night running? Have you tried it? Do you love it as much as I do?

Reaching the Sky

“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”

– Sir Edmund Hillary

Alright, East Lomond isn’t exactly Mount Everest. And I’m definitely not Sir Edmund Hillary. But last week, for the first time ever, I managed to run all the way up to the summit of East Lomond (448 m).

East Lomond

I love the Lomond hills, I run there often and I’ve stood at the summit of the peaks many times. But parts of the ascent are incredibly steep and thus far my journey there inevitably involved at least some power hiking. But no more – on Friday, I finally ran all the way up to the top! It wasn’t fast, and it certainly wasn’t pretty, but to me it represented something that I genuinely never thought I’d be able to do. I must confess that I revelled in my victory so much that the descent involved a rather embarrassing outburst of that celebratory “pretending-I’m-an-airplane” running style.

Do you have any running challenges that might seem impossible but that you are determined to conquer regardless?

Mind the Map

You guys, I’ve gone and done it again. I’ve gotten lost. And this time, I don’t just mean to say that I got lost on my long run again (although that happened, too!). Instead I seem to have gotten a bit lost in this beautiful spring and life in general. It’s all good though. I think I’ll call it wander lost.

One side effect of this wander lost is that I haven’t found the time to update my blog in ages, even though I’ve experienced, seen and realised much that I would love to share.

Last weekend, for example, I went on a Hebridean island-hopping long run. My journey took me from the mainland to three different islands and involved five ferry crossings. The views were just stunning; sleepy fishing boats, sea birds, the occasional seal and more mountainous islands shrouded in mist on the horizon. I spent almost the entire day travelling and on my feet that day, although I only ran for four hours and covered just over 40 kilometres. The best part was that it didn’t feel like a long training run at all; instead it felt like a real adventure.

20140426_110432(Views from the long run, looking out towards Arran)

On Tuesday night, I commemorated my return home from the west coast of Scotland by running another accidental half marathon. I had only set out to run about 10km on the cold and misty evening, but bumped into a running buddy on my way home and couldn’t help myself but join him for more of the same again. It’s been a lovely reminder how mental milestones can be shifted.

Fog Coast(A foggy evening on the coast, near Crail)

Yesterday, I had to travel to Stirling for work. The downside of this is that it means a painfully early start to my day. However, this is more than made up for by the fact that the drive home takes me past the lovely Ochil mountain range in central Scotland. Thus, I ran up the Mill Glen, straight up to the peak of the Law (in fairness, this part of the route involves significantly more scrambling and power-hiking rather than running), and then over to the summits of Ben Cleuch and Ben Ever. While descending from Ben Ever, I set a new personal record; by adopting a running style that can only be described as a renegade miniature human windmill impersonation, I not only struck terror into the hearts of sheep all over the mountain, but also ran my fastest kilometre of the year so far, in 3:26. My quads hate me today, but it was totally worth it!

20140502_151019(Looking east from the summit of Ben Cleuch)

Tomorrow I am heading back up to the Cateran trail for more proper ultramarathon long run training. In the rain. I genuinely can’t wait!

Finally, I came across this nifty heat map of popular running routes around the world today. I immediately consulted it to find out if others are privy to what I believe to be my very own secret running places. Apart from looking really pretty, I think this map could be very useful at times. For example, if I ever really want to run on my own (say, when I have just been to see my horse and haven’t had a shower), it could direct me to places where I’d be highly unlikely to encounter another runner. The local motorway, for instance.

I hope you are all doing well and are enjoying the spring as much as I am.

20140502_143350(Spring in Mill Glen)

 

Ever Changing Scenery

I suffered a serious lapse of self-control over the Easter weekend. And no, I’m not even talking about the inexcusable amounts of chocolate eggs I have annihilated. Here’s what really happened: four days off work, mixed with the most beautiful spring weather, sprinkled with the threat of a looming ultramarathon was all it took to turn me into a temporary binge runner.

The first run was a long trail run on the coastal path; I loved rolling out of bed and simply hitting the trail until I felt like jumping ship, at which point I headed for the road and jumped on a homeward bound bus. Saturday was parkrun day, and my legs were so fresh they even had a PB in them. It was a lovely day for it, as it also happened to be the second anniversary of my local parkrun. As such, there was much cake eating and rejoicing with the totally awesome people that make St. Andrews parkrun the fantastic event that it is!

Sunday saw me back on the amazing Cateran trail, for more exploration of the ultramarathon route. This time, I went on my own, and although the going was tough, I enjoyed every moment of it. Yes, even the bit where I got lost in a swamp and power hiking was all I could do to ensure that my shoes would stay attached to my feet. There’s learning in that, too, I am sure!

SONY DSC(Loch Beanie, near the Shoe-Stealing-Swamp-of-Doom)

On Monday morning, I joined a real ultramarathon runner for another 18 mile run in a local Nature Reserve. My legs still felt surprisingly good, but general fatigue was finally and predictably nipping at my heels. It was a challenging run, but I’m glad I did it.

All in all, I ran 96km over the four day weekend. The only explanation I can offer to explain the fact that I felt perfectly fine on Tuesday morning is that my legs were so traumatised that they simply stopped talking to me. Still, I’m sure that they are grateful for the little (relative) rest they are getting right now.

As I am typing this, I’ve put said legs up on a very cosy sofa of a holiday cottage on the west coast of Scotland. While I’m here on business (I’m attending a training course on animal assisted therapies – it’s awesome!), I can’t help but feel that this is almost a mini vacation. For a start, I’m waking up to this view every morning:

cumbrae

This cosy little cottage also happens to be fully decked out with maps and hiking guides for the area, which I continue to study vigorously. Naturally, you can expect another post about my explorunning upon my return to civilisation (and a stable internet connection)!

I hope you are all having a great week, too!