Snow = Seriously Nifty Outdoor Wanderings

The first fall of snow is not only an event, it’s a magical event. You go to bed in one kind of world and wake up in another quite different. If this is not enchantment, then where is it to be found?

– J.B. Priestley

When my friend and I met up this morning for a long hill run in the beautiful Ochil mountain range in the Scottish Lowlands, little did we know that the world that awaited us on the high plateau would be so very different from the one we were about to leave behind.

As we climbed higher up into the mountain range, we were amazed to catch the first glimpse of a snow-dusted peak ahead of us – the temperatures have been mild lately and we were genuinely surprised and excited in equal measures by the prospects of running in the white stuff.

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But it wasn’t just a little snow that lay in wait – the higher we climbed, the more apparent it became that the snow was plentiful, new and untouched. High up in the mountains we found an unscathed winter-wonderland, inviting us to leave our footprints.

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Above the fast moving and moody clouds the sun was shining brightly, giving rise to an ever-changing spectacle of light as we made our way from summit to summit across the white wilderness. I have lost count of the number of times that I turned and was greeted by views that literally took my breath away.

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We spent the better part of four hours running, skipping, slipping, bouncing and ploughing through the snow-covered mountains. I can’t think of a better way to spend my birthday!

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Lover of the Light

“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”

– Margaret Atwood

Today, the inconceivable became possible once again. This evening was possibly more awesome than Christmas, New Year and the Winter Solstice combined.

Today there was finally enough light in the sky to allow me to squeeze a trail run in AFTER work.

I only managed to run 9km before I had to surrender to darkness once again, but I don’t care. A little staggering around in the dark has never killed anyone and more importantly, I managed to get safely back to my car without the need for any lights at all. That’s right – for the first time this year, I was able to run after work without having to resemble a renegade Christmas tree.

I can’t stop smiling. The seasons are finally turning and this is only the beginning.

Cambo Evening(As I ran, the sun set over Cambo)

Feeling Seriously Runspired!

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“There’s an overwhelming cultural mentality today that difficult tasks should be avoided; that volitional discomfort is an indication of some psychological oddity. Meanwhile, ultramarathons promise exactly the opposite; the expectation is that the race will be strenuous. Your body will get battered, your spirit will get broken, and you’ll question your sanity and emotional stability. (What’s more – you’ll pay somebody a lot of money in race fees for this to happen. If it weren’t for ultrarunning, there’d be a huge boom in masochism support groups. Clearly, we NEED this sport.) It’s no wonder most people think we’re insane.

But here’s the good part: our gain for suffering through all of this is something akin to enlightenment. We understand that our bodies and minds are capable of far more than most people ever realize – that the primary limiting factors in life’s journeys are the extent to which our minds can dream, and to which we’re willing to work to achieve them.

These truths we discover about ourselves are what keep us coming back for more. In that regard, ultrarunners are the fishermen leaving the shore: we’re fully aware that the storms might be terrible – but the rewards we harvest by venturing into the sea are always worth the hardship.”

-Donald Buraglio, The Running Life: Wisdom and Observations from a Lifetime of Running

I can’t think of a more wonderful place to run my first ultramarathon than the Scottish Highlands – what a place to be, what a life to live! Am seriously getting excited about pushing the limits, even though the race itself is still four months away. Here’s what’s in store for me, the backdrop to all the pain I’ll no doubt suffer:

Cateran trail

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I’m feeling so antsy right now that I’m seriously thinking about heading up there and start to recce the trail this weekend – despite the fact that the whole area is currently buried under several feet of snow!

On the Long Run

Oh, Sunday morning – in my world, that means one thing: long run! And what a glorious day it was today; in the midst of the cold, grey Scottish winter the sun managed to melt away the clouds for the morning and even the wind was howling with less vigour that before.

Today, I ran out of my front door and along the Fife Coastal Path for 20 miles. I absolutely loved the feeling of going on a running journey – while circular runs are very convenient, it’s always a bit frustrating to run for three or four hours only to finish where I’ve started. The only downside to the point-to-point run was that I had to catch a bus back home, but it wasn’t all bad – while waiting for the bus, I had time to grab a massive sandwich and a Chai Tea Latte – heaven! The ground conditions on the coastal path were ever changing and ranged from harbour roads and crossing flat, bouncy grass tracks to staggering through deep sand and unrunnable scrambles over slippery rocks on the shore. I took each hurdle as it came and stayed happy and relaxed the whole way, as evidenced by the fact that I kept stopping to take photographs:

Heading to the trail:

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Is it just me, or is this just asking to be run?

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I passed several pretty fishing villages:

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Stopped to admire the views:

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This came out of nowhere – I suspect  that I took a wrong turn somewhere and ran into a fairytale…

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Passing some interesting rock formations on the route:

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This is where the going got tougher, but the end (St. Andrews) was in sight:

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After 32 kilometres the sun was still shining on me:

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When training for a marathon, my long runs involve running up to 35 km (or 22 miles) at a reasonably steady pace. In those runs, the goal is to keep moving forward, to dial into a pace and stick to it for the next 3 hours or so.

However, in preparation for the 88km ultramarathon in June, I’m aware that I’ll have to make some significant changes to my approach to running for a really long time. For a start, my long runs will have to get a lot longer; I’m hoping to clock several long runs of 6 hours and in excess of 50 kilometres before then. Right in this moment, even writing about those kind of distances makes me feel a little queasy! I’m sure that training my body to endure what I’m planning on inflicting upon it will be the relatively doable part – it’s the taming of the craziness that is my mind which leaves me feeling a little twitchy!

I’ll also have to take my long runs onto the trails a lot more often before the ultra. At the moment, I like to alternate my long runs between the roads and flat-ish trails and footpaths, which I find is a good combination to prepare me for a road marathon.

Finally, I’ll have to slow things down a lot. At the very least, there will be several pit stops on race day. Although the plan is to run the whole 88km, the reality is that there will of course be stretches that I’ll walk: necessitated, for instance, by particularly steep climbs, eating dinner on the go, giving sore muscles a stretch or break, or even the temporary surrender to fatigue. The idea of walking on long runs is new to me, and while I won’t have to practice the walking itself (duh!), I need to get used to the transition back to running as soon as possible. And I have no doubt that this will get increasingly harder with every passing mile!

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What have you been up to this weekend? Did anyone else get to enjoy the surprisingly fantastic weather?

From 21.2 to 42.2 to 88 to Insanity?

I suspect that I’ve really done it this time. I’ve relinquished whatever shreds of my sanity I still possessed prior to today. I’ve signed myself up for my first ultramarathon. Sort of.

Hey, you know, while I’m on this streak of new running experiences (midnight runs, parkruns, fell races…), I thought, hell, why not try running 88km (or 54 miles) in one day and see what happens?

That’s what I’ll be doing on the 28th of June on the stunning Cateran Trail with two fellow crazy runners. It’s not a race as such (hence I say it’s only sort of an ultramarathon); instead, it’s a charity challenge for a very good cause.

Most people walk the trail, but we’re going to run it. Due to the walkers, it’s got a generous time limit of 24 hours to finish the course. I think it’ll be as gentle an introduction to ultra running as is possible (if such a thing is possible at all!).

Right now, I’m just stupidly excited about the prospects of this new adventure. However, I suspect that my brain is still a little too shell-shocked to fully comprehend what I’ve signed us up for. Until it catches on, I’m just going to enjoy the hype. The fear will come, and I’ve got no doubts that I’m in for some very dark moments that will see me reduced to a shivering, twitching mess of trail trash. Really, I can’t wait!

At the moment, I’m still training for a – hopefully – very fast half-marathon in Inverness in March, followed by a jolly doddle around Rome for the marathon there at the end of March. After that, it looks like I’ll transition into unchartered running territory, by venturing into the land of crazy mileage.

Maspie_waterfall(I’ll be doing lots of this in the spring!)*

But for now, there are other things I must do. For a start, I’ll add my physiotherapist to my Christmas card list and save his number on speed dial. I have a hunch that we’ll become great friends over the next couple of months!

*I realise that this picture might give the misleading impression that I’m planning on standing around a lot under a waterfall in preparation for running an ultramarathon. Although it sounds like good fun too, I don’t think that this would adequately prepare me for running 55 miles. It just so happens that I’m not running (yet) in this picture, as I was walking my most awesome and most loyal friend, the lovely Myra. She’s 14 years old and sadly can’t join me on my runs anymore. I often take her for a little walk before I run, so she gets her exercise and doesn’t feel left out. Note to self: try to get a decent picture of trail running self, so people don’t think that all I do is stand around on the trails!

The Devil and The Craven

Today I passed another milestone in my journey of new running experiences: I took part in my inaugural mountain/fell race. I should have guessed from the name of the race, “Devil’s Burden”, that I’d be in for a heated experience; but little did I know that I was about to take part in one of the biggest mountain races in Scotland. Despite infernal weather, a record 111 relay teams lined up on the start line on this not-so-fine morning, meaning that there were a grand total of 666 bedevilled runners blazing around the Lomond Hills. Really, I couldn’t make this up. I have therefore come to the conclusion that I must have been temporarily possessed when I readily agreed to join them.

The reality is that I run in these mountains a lot and am familiar with the terrain and routes. However, the reality is also that apart from a number of trail races, I tend to only seriously race on the roads. I therefore had no idea how I would fare when unleashed amongst the human equivalent of a herd of mountain goats.

My task was simple: start on the very muddy banks of a reservoir and run in a more or less straight line to the next village. Oh, and there’s also a 1500 foot hill in the way.

I was positively surprised by not embarrassing myself completely with my ability to tackle the mud, surefootedness and speedy uphill climbing. Unlike some other runners, I never once fell over or got caught in barbed wire fences. Hey, for the first 5 kilometres or so I actually deluded myself into thinking that I could pass for a fell runner. Before I knew it, I found myself standing amongst the howling winds at the top of the world (or summit of East Lomond), with only the 450m descend into the abyss separating me from the finish line. There were no paths – just a steep, slippery slope consisting of bog and heather with some pointy rocks thrown in for good measure.

That’s when… well… I’m still trying to come to terms with that happened next. I caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of my eye, blazing past me – a trick of the light? An infernal apparition? No, wait… a runner! It made sense, but wh… how? Then more came flying past me, sometimes in groups of two. They weren’t just passing me; they were disappearing beyond the horizon. On a hill. Going down. How’s that even possible? Witnessing the infernal downhill speed of fellrunners was a sight to behold and one that left me utterly dumbfounded.

downhill running(This is what was happening in my head.)

Great. My already slow descend was further stalled by the fact that my mind was now preoccupied with trying to make sense of the madness that surrounded me and no longer paying attention to where my feet were going. Was I really not as fit as I thought? – Always a possibility. Were my shoes not up for the job? – Maybe a contributing factor, as I was wearing trail, not fell shoes. Did all of these runners have no regard for personal safety? Or an active deathwish? – Perhaps, although it would be one hell of a feat to just happen to run into 665 suicidal individuals on a mountain top in Scotland. Then, the truth dawned on me… The real reason why they were hares going down the mountain and I was a tortoise (and in the real world tortoises don’t win races against hares), is that this tortoise is also a phenomenally gigantic whimp.

That’s right – the truth is that they were all much braver than me. I was haunted by visions of falling flat on my face and slithering down the hill with only my teeth digging into the mud to slow my momentum. Meanwhile, the other runners were heading for the finish line, evidently not bothered by what their brains – or quads – had to say about the matter.

I made my way downhill as fast as I could, which wasn’t fast at all given that it was all I could do to resist nervously chewing on my fingernails or curling up in the foetal position. And as I was descending, looking supremely comfortable, graceful and sublimely in my element (*cough*), who should I run into but the official race photographer? (Don’t even bother asking… the answer is NO!).

Another fantastic new experience, another lesson learned, another thing to add to my ever-growing to-do list!

I loved everything about the day and the race. The mountain runners are wonderfully friendly people and wicked athletes. I, on the other hand, have learned a lot about myself as a runner, including that I am a first class pansie. My next mission: wrestle the heart from a lion and then run as though my life depended on it (away from the angry beast) and down the steepest of hills.

Finally, I’d like to take this opportunity to say a huge “thank you” to the other members of my relay team for giving me a chance to run with them. It was a truely fantastic experience and one which I most certainly hope I’ll get to repeat in the future – only faster! I tip my hat to you crazy downhill runners!

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Chasing the Dawn

I don’t really function well in the mornings. For a start, I absolutely need a shower before I can pass for a reasonably well adjusted human being and even then it takes all the focus I can muster to ensure that I don’t leave the house naked. Breakfast becomes a viable option only after I’ve been awake for at least an hour, but two are even better.

It won’t surprise anyone then when I proclaim yet again that I’m no good at early morning runs. It’s as though my body thinks that it’s actually sleepwalking and my brain refuses to obey me. It’s certainly not a time when I’d expect a rave run.

But this morning I woke up early and decided to go for a run regardless of my mind threatening to stage a dirty riot at the mere thought of the endeavour. You see, there are three rules that I run by:

1) Have fun – if it’s not fun, make it fun.

2) Always, always listen to your body – battle with your mind if you must, but work with your body.

3) Keep changing things and try new things – keep moving forward.

I thought that an early morning run would be a perfect opportunity to practice all three of my running decrees at the same time: it’s certainly an uncommon experience for me and I wasn’t sure how my body would react. I expected to have to work hard to find a way to make it enjoyable and as such it had the potential to teach me new and valuable things.

Before I left my house I had the sense to wrap up nice and warm, as the world I was about to step into was dark and frozen. I had to stay in tune with my body, as I wasn’t sure how well I’d physically cope with running on an empty system. I aimed to find a pace that was bearable, but quickly managed to settle into a rhythm that was slow enough to allow me to actually enjoy the run. Before I knew it, I was gathering momentum and yet I was so comfortable that I felt I could have gone on forever. I realised once again that all my previous worries had been completely unnecessary. And just then, my efforts were rewarded with the sights of a wonderfully stunning sunrise:

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It was a gentle run – sleepy, solitary, and utterly magical; the ultimate morning run.

Have you ever been convinced that you’d not be able to enjoy a run, pushed yourself to do it anyways, only to experience something amazing?

I Love Explorunning

Lately, my response to virtually any natural scenery on TV has been embarrassingly predictable. Whenever I find myself staring at an image of a beautiful field, rugged mountain, endless beach, old forest, or a wide open desert, my mind gets all bouncy and screams: “I want to run there!”

I am aware that this is due to  a combination of my serious, chronic affliction of wanderlust washed down with a good old case of the grass being greener on the other side mentality. The truth is that I already live in a truly beautiful corner of the world. A whopping two minutes from my doorstep lies the sea, where I only have to decide whether to turn east or west, for forty kilometres of coastal trails await me in either direction. A short drive takes me to run on mountain trails, up the famous Glens, under waterfalls and to award winning beaches that have even featured in movies about running.

But still, that lust for new adventures remains as strong as ever. It’s a bottomless pit really. I hope to travel and run for a long time yet, but naturally and for all the right reasons I can’t do this all the time.

In the meantime, there is really no reason why I can’t at least partially satisfy my hunger for new adventures in the beautiful part of the world that I happen to live in. (When life hands you awesome trails, you’ve got to run them!) I’ve had some of best fun while running new routes, and here’s why:

  1. New trails, new fun. Running means I can cover more ground in one go than I ever could while walking. Win!
  2. It widens my horizons. I love adding to my ever growing repertoire of stomping grounds. Even on the rare occasions when the whole route turned out to be terrible (for running or otherwise), at least the run gave me some new knowledge that I didn’t have before. But no matter what happens, it’s always a new adventure.
  3. I tend to focus much more on the surroundings and orienteering aspect of the run, rather than the run itself when I recce a new trail. This can be great on long runs, as I tend to eat up the miles without my mind noticing what’s happening and hence it never proceeds to moan about it or tries to convince me to stop.
  4. Running new trails invites me to let go of any plans and just enjoy every moment of the outing itself. It’s impossible to fully plan how the run will pan out in terms of distance and pace when running on new ground. I have lost count of the number of times I had to double back on myself when trying to find new routes. On a recent run I took a trail up a mountain so steep I could reach the top only by climbing up on all fours. While this was a workout that would make even a Navy Seal break a sweat, my recorded pace was somewhere in the laughable region of 20 minutes per kilometre for that part of my so-called run. But oh, the views!
  5. Running new trails is great for building my confidence and challenges me to be ready for anything. I’ve come across obstacles and paths that I would never have contemplated traversing if I had known about them beforehand. I’ve come up against streams, hills, and piles of fallen trees that would make me turn around on my heels if I had encountered them on my home turf. However, after running for 15 kilometres, I usually find the prospects of conquering these obstacles much more tempting than turning around. As a result, I’ve found myself up to the hip in icy waters, knee deep in the mud, clinging to walls and climbing over as well as under numerous trees. I’m growing increasingly comfortable and skilled at running in the mud and through water, jumping over logs and climbing over fences.
  6. It gets me lost. At first, the idea of being lost was a bit scary, but with each time the fear got less while the the fun factor grew. I like getting a little lost now and know how to deal with it. I have come to the conclusion that being lost (within reason) is good for me, because it really pushes me into the unknown.

Badass Lost

I’m sure it will come as no surprise then when I confess that I have just bought detailed maps covering virtually all of central Scotland, and I will be most disappointed if they don’t lead me to even steeper hills, deeper rivers, greater views and bigger adventures in 2014.

However, should I fail to update this blog for a week or so, please assume that I’ve taken the getting lost part a little too far and kindly organise a search party or two, okay?

Running Bloggers, Merrily Running Together?

First of all, I want to wish everyone a very happy Christmas! I hope you’ll have some very relaxing and invigorating festive days as this year draws to a close. Let 2014 be the year when all your wildest dreams come true and chase you, incarnate, down the street.

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So far, I’ve spend my Christmas riding, running, eating, and getting merry in many ways. I celebrated Christmas Eve with a little evening run around St. Andrews, including a spell of running on the West Sands, the beach made famous by “Chariots of Fire”.

St. Andrews beach

Today, I ran up the Bishop in the Lomond Hills, which seemed appropriate for Christmas Day. However, when I say run, I mean that I crawled up the hill (I took the steep path up from Scotlandwell) only to be almost blown away near the top and getting very wet feet on the boggy descend. Nevertheless, it was lots of fun, life affirming, and certainly a great workout that allowed me to tuck into Christmas dinner without shame.

Bishop 1

Thank you all for being part of this great community of running bloggers! A few days ago, the lovely TartanJogger and I half-jokingly contemplated the possibility of going for a run together at some point. It’s made me think that there are many fellow running bloggers here who I’d just love to meet for a run. Any thoughts, any takers?

Let the Storm Rage On

That’s it: I’m officially on annual leave for the next two weeks! Naturally, the weather is terrible, but I didn’t let that stop me from heading out for a cool, celebratory trail run. I was really hoping to find some snow, so that I could finally build my first snowman of the season. With that goal in mind, I ran up the highest ‘mountain’ in the county this afternoon. (Don’t be too impressed though, the highest peak in Fife is West Lomond, which at 522 m isn’t really all that high – the run from base to peak and back is about 12km).

Lomond Storm

Sadly, I found no snow on the peak, just some very wild winds and a hailstorm, neither of which lends itself to the building of snowmen. I only encountered one other person who was crazy enough to also be out -hiking- on the mountain trails in the middle of a storm in December. In typical British style, he made some comment about the weather as I passed him. Call me weird, but I didn’t feel like stopping for a chat while the strom raged on around us; instead I just shouted something about heeding the call of a hot chocolate and resumed my downhill charge – weeeeee. What an awesome run! At the risk of sounding like the good old Coca-Cola advert: The holidays are coming!