It Starts

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97 Days to Go

After three weeks off and a typically over-indulgent Christmas period, the hard work has begun, as I’m now two weeks in to my London Marathon training. Last week was slow, but I managed to do 30 miles this week, including a hill sprint session and an icy 11 miler along the river yesterday morning.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the lack of damage caused by yuletide festivities, so all in all I’m off to a promising start.

I’ve also started my fundraising drive for MQ, so if you would like to sponsor me please follow this link.  If you do, you will help fund critical research into a wide range of mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, ADHD, autism and PTSD.

Many of MQ’s research projects relate to young people, including its latest study on the link between bullying and mental health.  Despite the fact that, on average, three children in every class have a diagnosable mental health condition, 7 out of 10 young people do not get sufficient help.

In terms of my own issues, the most interesting statistic is that 75% of those with a mental health condition start developing it from an early age.  It is thought that bipolar (if that is what I have)  can have genetic, biological and environmental factors, so it may be that I have always had it, was always going to have it, or some biological pre-disposition may have been triggered by one or a number of life events.  It certainly became more of an issue after I had my first child, but I’ve always had the feeling that there was something not right with me.

With hindsight, it is tempting to attribute certain feelings or actions to mental illness (in fact, I tend to use bipolar as an excuse for every time that I’ve acted like a dick), but I guess there is no way of knowing for sure.  I definitely should have received medical help before I did, but how early?  Could the breakdown have been predicted, or even prevented, and if so when? The latter seems unlikely, taking into account another MQ statistic – that on average it takes 10 years for an accurate bipolar diagnosis, so I’ve still got a long way to go.

By donating to MQ you can help answer some of these, and many many other important questions on mental health issues, so here’s the link again.

New Beginnings

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The splendid thing about falling apart silently…
is that you can start over as many times as you like

– A Thousand Flamingos, Sanober Khan

Despite promising (threatening?) to write more often in my previous post, it’s been six months since I even checked my blog.  Why? The short answer is that I’ve had a lot on, but never one to give a short answer, here goes.

Although I’m currently laid up with an injury after another epic stunt of mal-coordination (more on which later) I’ve just started an exciting new chapter in my life, which also marks a new era for my favourite hobby/obsession.

As a result of a change of job and a move to the Cotswolds, for the first time since I started running I have access to a wide variety of routes and terrains, and have the stability and time to commit to a running club.

Rather than the mean streets of Peckham, my closest route is along the unspeakably beautiful Thames Path, not far from the source.  I’m now dealing with stinging nettles and cows, rather than traffic and scallies with fighting dogs. My new employer also has a very active running club, including free fitness classes tailored for runners.

The change of lifestyle (including more sleep and regular routine), and finally getting my medication right, has made me feel better than I have in as long as I can remember.  Although it’s early days, and being all too aware that my condition means that I am always one very small step away from things seeming too great, or very very bad, life is good.

So far, so positive. However, the reason for the gap in writing is that things have been pretty bad, both in life and in terms of running, for the majority of the intervening period between posts.

In fact, as far as running is concerned, only a couple of months ago I was not sure that I wanted to run again.  I had completely lost the love, only putting my trainers on when I had no choice, mainly due to Southern Rail’s complete ineptitude.

As a result, I pulled out of the Pembrokeshire Coastal Trail and the Marato Dels Cims, despite being in the best physical shape than I had ever been, and just stopped running.

It all started so well.  The training plan from my coach, Robbie, was brilliant; I saw an improvement in my fitness and performance after pretty much every run.  I found the structure and flexibility of the personalised plan more beneficial than I thought I would, particularly the tempo sessions.  Doing sprint work was, for me, like a trip to the dentist – unpleasant, very likely painful but ultimately very good.

As the race got closer, however, I started to use training as a stick with which to beat myself. I became obsessed with running further and faster, so much so that even Robbie told me that I was doing most of my sessions too quickly.  And although he was on hand to adapt my training plan on a daily basis I convinced myself that I could not afford to miss a session.

As my mental health is so intertwined with running, it’s difficult to tell whether this was a cause or just a symptom of a wider problem.  It was certainly adding to the anxiety caused by a possible job and house move, and to the normal stresses of modern life, all of which I was not coping with very well.  I was becoming increasingly withdrawn, my moods erratic, and to be honest it almost proved too much for my incredibly understanding and supportive wife.

Thankfully, we did not let history repeat itself. Rather than let the problems spiral out of control we hit them head on, admitting that something drastic needed to be done. So we spent a lot of time overhauling the way that we worked together as a family, I left the only career that I have ever known, and we moved out of London for an altogether different life.  No less radically for me, I also took a break from running.

As will be evident from the above, it seems to have worked.  As with the rest of my life, I’m now enjoying every run. Well, almost.

On only my third run in the country, I was coming up to the final gate before heading back onto the short stretch of road to home.  Distracted by a large black and white animal that I think country folk call a “cow”, I put my foot on a loose rock, sprained my ankle and went head first into the metal gate.  I limped home, blood pouring from my head and knees, and my ankle swollen to about three times the size. A week later I’m still limping, and sporting a particularly fetching black eye, which would be embarrassing at the best of times, but being only two weeks into a new job I look particularly ridiculous.

But, despite the mishap, I’m now feeling super-motivated, and ready for the next challenge. Once I can walk again, of course.

Cappadocia

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“Struggling and suffering are the essence of a life worth living. If you’re not pushing yourself beyond the comfort zone, if you’re not demanding more from yourself – expanding and learning as you go – you’re choosing a numb existence. You’re denying yourself an extraordinary trip.”
Dean Karnazes – Ultra Marathon Man: Confessions of an all-night runner

And what an extraordinary trip it was.  After 11 months of planning, training, stressing, talking, blogging, tweeting and generally going on about it, I finally got to line up at the start line for, and (spoiler alert) complete, the Cappadocia Trail 60km.

It’s taken me a couple of weeks to write this as I wanted to do it justice, and to be honest I’ve been struggling to find the words to describe the experience. I think that I’ve also been putting it off because the reason for starting the blog in the first place has now gone, so this post is an ending of sorts, and I hate saying goodbye.

This is a bit silly really, as I’m going to keep the blog going, and am already planning what I am going to do next, including looking at races in exotic locations like Patagonia, Andorra, the Canary Islands and, er, Evesham. but they all seem very far away now.

Anyway, back to Cappadocia.  The weekend started very well, if not a little dauntingly, as I met two Brits that were hoping to win the 110km Ultra Trail – Robbie Britton (@ultrabritton, pictured below) and Paul Radford (@PaulJRadford), together with seasoned trail runner Ben Cox (aka Papa Ferret, @trailferret) and potential winner of the 60km Natalie White (@natsmountain).  A great thing about participating in a niche sport like ultra running is that you get to rub shoulders with, and get tips from, seasoned pros, and rather than looking down on newbies, experienced competitors always seem genuinely pleased that another person has found the sport.  There also appears to be wonderful camaraderie among ultra runners, perhaps because of the difficulty of the challenge ahead, with professionals in most cases finding the race as tough as first-timers.

So, with my head filled with sage advice, and belly filled with carbs from the pasta party laid on by the organisers the night before, and the breakfast laid on by the hotel at 5am, I set off for the race of my life, thankfully avoiding the spectacular, and probably very expensive drone crash just after the start line.

The first few miles were fairly gentle, particularly as I stuck with some 110km runners (the 110km Ultra Trail started at the same time and followed the same course as my race) to avoid the temptation to go off too fast.  Things got a lot tougher about 45 minutes into to the race though, in large part because it started tipping it down.  The course got progressively more difficult too, with wide open plains turning to tight wooded trails. That said, it would have been nowhere near as challenging as Mont Blanc, had it not been for the rain, which turned parts of the course into fast running streams and put many a better runner than me on their arse.

Unlike many such better runners, I actually really enjoyed the rain, and definitely now understand why kids, and Peppa Pig, love splashing in muddy puddles (still don’t get me started on Daddy Pig though). I also felt very smug that I took the organisers’ advice and wore proper trail shoes (Salomon Speedcross 3, in case you’re interested).  The terrain during this part of the race also made it interesting, with the odd cave to crouch through, fallen tree to climb over, ladder to climb up or down or crying dog to avoid.

Before I knew it I was past the third checkpoint at 35km and, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I couldn’t work out whether I was pleasantly surprised by the relative lack of ascent and descent, or missing the up & down of Mont Blanc. By this time it had stopped raining though, my thoughts were diverted by the breathtaking and other-worldly scenery.  Although the internet tells me that it is not the case, and the internet is always right, I still can’t quite believe that Tatooine is not Cappadocia (Tatooine being Luke Skywalker’s home planet, in case you’re not a Star Wars fan).

CSI4drlWcAAiTxo.jpg-largeShortly after checkpoint 4 I definitely was not missing uphills, as they had kindly laid on a monster hill for us. Thankfully, I met another experienced and inspiring ultra runner, Lucja Leonard (aka Running Dutch, @Runningdutchie), who took my mind off my aching legs and kindly took the photo on the right.

Once the climb was over with there was a fairly long but stunning stretch along a ridgeline, and then an uninspiring few kilometres into Urgup.  The finish line somewhat crept up on me, so I barely had time to look for Camilla and make my sprint finish.

I completed the race in 8 hours and 22 minutes, well under my 9 hour estimate, which I am incredibly proud of.  More importantly, I can now properly call myself an ultra runner.  Perhaps I am not so much of a fraud after all…

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Out of the Darkness

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So, that’s it.  I’ve just completed my last long run before Cappadocia – now it’s all about tapering and rest.  If I’m not ready now, I never will be.

As this week marked Bipolar Awareness Day, World Mental Health Day and National Poetry Week, I really wanted to write a post about all three, but have struggled.  Not that I didn’t have any ideas, I’ve just been wrestling over whether to share something very personal, and very difficult for me to write, but I’m going to as I think it illustrates how difficult living with mental illness can be, and why many people never get the help that they need. Particularly, the brutal wake-up call that I had at my last appointment with my psychiatrist shows that I, like most depression sufferers, am a terrible judge of my own mental state.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that things weren’t great for me for at least a couple of months after the race, but I had no idea how bad things were until just a few weeks ago when Dr. Craig read out an email that he received from my wife, in which she expressed her concerns about my behaviour. It turns out that this summer I probably experienced a hypomanic phase (a less serious form of full-blown mania); something I still don’t have much recollection of, although on the bright-side it supports my bipolar diagnosis. Listening to Camilla’s email was one of the most difficult things that I have ever had to do, mainly because I was so unaware of how bad things had become, and its taken a lot for both of us to decide to reproduce even a sentence of it on the blog, but here goes:

Over the last, I would say, two months or so, Russ has become increasingly erratic, irritable, aggressive and forgetful. Not in a very extreme way, but enough to worry me, and his temper has been putting a strain on me/our relationship…This really isn’t like Russ – he has a strong temper, but used to be a gentle and patient person….I hope you can see why this is hard to raise with him, because trying to discuss it usually leads to him being quite evasive / claiming I’m exaggerating or him simply not being aware of quite how angry he becomes in these situations – it is as if a kind of rage takes over. This makes it hard to reason with him, even though he seems very rational most of the time.
If I live until I’m 100 I don’t think that I will even begin to repay the debt I owe to Camilla for saving my life last year, and always believing that the “real” me was somewhere inside. To anyone reading this who may have been told, by people they trust, that their behaviour has been giving cause for concern, please do listen. It’s been hard for me to do, but I’m slowly learning that when dealing with mental illness, you really have to trust the instincts of those close to you.
I am determined to try and show Camilla that I will keep fighting this, starting by dedicating the below extract from a beautiful poem that appeared in this quarter’s Like the Wind Magazine, written by Alex Van Oostrum:
I run…
but never away from you
away from dark places
when life has me in a corner
with its hands around my neck
when thoughts start to choke me
and I need to breathe
so my mind isn’t a jigsaw of voices
that don’t fit together any more
to find a flame
when the candle is burnt out
away from fear
towards the light at the end of the tunnel
but never away from you…

P.S. if you would like to read more about Camilla’s experiences, you can read her article in the wonderful Standard Issue Magazine:

http://standardissuemagazine.com/voices/living-with-bipolar/.

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Inside Out

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“Life isn’t just addition and subtraction. There’s also accumulation,
the multiplication, of loss, of failure.”

– Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

It’s been another uneventful running week, which is mainly because I’ve been on a crash diet to shift a few pounds before the serious training starts. I’ve been doing the Clean 9 which, if you haven’t heard of it, is like a hardcore Slim-Fast, where you also drink shower gel (alright, aloe vera gel). You also have to cut out all caffeine, alcohol and refined sugar, the former being particularly difficult for a coffee-addict like me.

I don’t really need to lose that much weight but, as you may have noticed, I am very much an all-or-nothing person, so decided that a short-sharp shock would be the way to go.  Apart being extremely hangry for the first three days, it’s made me feel pretty good, and has definitely worked.

As it’s been quiet, I’ve decided to do my first and last movie review. We took the kids to see the new Disney/Pixar film Inside Out this weekend, which is set in the mind of Riley, an 11 year-old girl, the main characters being her five emotions – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear.   The plot revolves around her family’s move to San Francisco, and how her emotions react to the upheaval.

I’m a massive Toy Story fan (genuinely and unashamedly think it is one of the best films ever made), but I think Inside Out may be as funny, exciting and moving, if not more.  It has a brilliant cast (including Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling and Bill Hader), is meticulously researched, gorgeously animated, intelligently written and, like Toy Story, has some great set-pieces and one-liners for adults as well as children.

Most impressively though, it expresses some of the most complex abstract concepts, such as the birth and development of human consciousness, personality and the self, explains how important emotions like sadness and fear are and why a person can’t be happy all of the time in an ingenious, simple and truly beautiful way.  If nothing else, it is hands-down the most thought provoking kids’ movie I have ever seen.

Although it seems like all of the reviewers agree that it is a fantastic film, it obviously struck a chord with me, and got me imagining what the inside of my mind would look like, compared to Riley and her parents’.  Each of the three had one controlling emotion, Joy for Riley, Anger for her dad, and Sadness for her mum, although in the adults’ brains all of the emotions had a lot more control over the body’s reactions. For me, I’m pretty sure that in my mind there is a constant power-struggle among Joy, Sadness and Fear, which regularly turns into a punch-up (sometimes allowing Anger to sneak in and take over).

Actually, not long after we first met, Camilla had an iPod case that had cartoon monkeys banging cymbals, dancing and playing drums and other instruments.  I used to tell Camilla that it was a depiction of the inside of her brain (jokingly, of course), so I am going to take some, if not all of the credit for the concept of the film.

One of the most interesting questions that I’ve been mulling over is whether everyone would start out with Joy as the dominant emotion, particularly as the things that make my two year-old Caspar happy include looking at dogs, smelling beer (don’t ask), anything to do with poo and Peppa Pig (don’t get me started on that knobhead Daddy Pig).  From speaking to my parents, however a mix of Fear and Sadness may have been in control of my young mind, and that is certainly true of the teenage me. Mind you, this is probably also the case for most 15 year olds.

As you only see Riley’s development, the film does not express whether sadness or anger had always been in charge of mum or dad’s mind, or whether it changed over time.  What is definitely clear from the film though, illustrated by the increased size of mum and dad’s “control consoles” as opposed to Riley’s rudimentary operating system, is that with maturity comes greater control and balance of all of the emotions.  Unfortunately, some of us just need a little bit of help to keep the status quo…

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Liguria

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“Correr es la mejor medicina que existe”*
– Haile Gebrselassie

I’ve been on holiday with the family for the last couple of weeks in Italy, staying in a tiny village called Velva in the Ligurian Apennines. Unbeknownst to me (honest), the villa we were in was on the Giro d’Italia route, and had well signposted trails, perfect for a trail runner with no sense of direction. What’s more, the trails were as beautiful and challenging as Mont Blanc, particularly as they were overgrown with brambles and full of loose rocks.  In the six mile route I followed, I dropped down into the valley below Velva and back up to Missano, then back to Velva on the road. Velva itself doesn’t appear to have changed since it was built into the hillside in the 13th century, and until I got to Missano, the only semblance of human life I saw were a couple of long-abandoned buildings.  I also ran into a stag again, much more timid this time (still not a sign, you’re not getting me that easily). The photos really don’t do it justice.

Not sure whether it was the new medication working, the trails or being on holiday (probably a mix of the three), I’m feeling much better than when I last posted.  Far be it from me to question Haile, but although I’m not sure that running is the best medicine, it is definitely a very effective one.

Velva SunsetVelva, Liguria Velva, Liguria IMG_8872 Velva, Liguria Velva, Liguria Velva, Liguria Blackberries Velva, Liguria Grapes IMG_9015 Velva, Liguria IMG_9006 IMG_9010 IMG_9042IMG_9035 Ligurian Apennines Velva war heroes Ligurian Apennines Velva, Liguria Moon

* Running is the best medicine

Just a Marketing Gimmick?

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“Trails are like that: you’re floating along in a Shakespearean
Arden paradise and expect  to see nymphs and fluteboys, then
suddenly you’re struggling in a hot broiling sun of
hell and dust and nettles and poison oak…just like life”
– Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums

As you will have noticed, I’ve not posted for a while.  Alright, you probably haven’t, I’m not getting delusions of grandeur, at least not regularly.

After the race I took a training break, so apart from a run in Seattle (I only managed the one – the beer is too good there), and blacking-out in Sydenham while trying to run off a virus, not much has happened in the last few weeks.

I did do a sub-19 minute 5km race at the start of July (The Great City Race, again), which I should’ve been happy with, but as I missed out on a PB by 8 seconds, despite starting near the front, I’m still a bit annoyed about it.

I also won an entry into the Snowdonia Trail Marathon, and race gear from Scott (massive thanks to Scott and Climbers Shop in Cumbria), but annoyingly I forgot that I’d entered and couldn’t make the race, so gave the place to James and shared the kit with him.  I did keep the free shoes though, mainly because they were called “Trail Rocket”, and from what I’ve seen so far this is a fair description.  I wasn’t that sorry to miss the race, particularly because of the torrential rain (see picture of James below) and because James, as a former local, got a far better time than I ever could, which I’m claiming as a result for team Up & Down Runner, and therefore me.

To be honest though, the main reason for not writing is that I’ve not been feeling great recently; a combination of inevitable post-race comedown, not looking after myself properly and, well…if I knew exactly why then I wouldn’t need the drugs.

Talking of drugs, I was corralled by Camilla into seeing the psychiatrist again, because of my volatile moods, extreme forgetfulness (see above) and because I’ve developed a side-effect (whether of the meds or old age) of falling asleep at the slightest provocation.  Great on long haul flights, not so good in meetings, or while driving…

The outcome of my session was more medication on top of the two that I’m already taking, which I think now means I’m officially on a “cocktail” of drugs.  On the other hand, maybe I already was, as, after all, a martini, screwdriver and snakebite only have two ingredients. Perhaps the latter is stretching the definition of “cocktail” too far – can’t see Bond ordering it shaken or stirred, unless he was in a student bar Bristol in 2000, and it was my round (unless he fancied a Southern Comfort and Lemonade instead).

Sorry, got side-tracked.  Actually, the most important thing that came from my session with the doctor was that he has, CONFESSION ALERT, never definitely diagnosed me with bipolar disorder.

Although many of my symptoms support the diagnosis, and I am on medication used to treat bipolar, which seem to be working on the whole, I am not quite bipolar enough for a certain decision.

This is the story of my life – got the basics right, work hard and show a lot of promise, but don’t quite have the flair to get to the top.  As I said in my first post, if I do indeed have bipolar disorder, I am the most boring sufferer in history, unless my “Maserati moment”, as Dr. Craig calls it, is still to come.

The other issue, which is more general, and far more interesting, is that in many cases a definitive identification of a mental illness is very difficult, or even impossible.  There’s no test or scan that you can do for depression, so doctors may only have the testimony of others, or evidence of the most unreliable witness possible, the sufferer, on which to base the diagnosis. It also seems, at least to a psych-idiot like me, that very little is known about the workings of the brain compared to every other part of the body. A good example of this is that two out of the three drugs that I’ve been prescribed are predominantly used to treat other ailments (epilepsy and psychosis, respectively), and although there is apparently lots of evidence to prove that they ease bipolar symptoms, it’s not yet been fully established why this is so.

Maybe this is also why it can make mental illness difficult to understand; at times there can be no sign that anything’s wrong, and even when there is it can just seem like an over-the-top, but not completely unwarranted, reaction to an everyday situation.

Do I need a label?  It would certainly makes things easier, and I could pretend that I was a misunderstood creative genius, but it seems, at least medically, that it really only makes a difference in the drugs prescribed, and I’m fine with trying anything that works.

So, there you go, “Up & Down Runner” may be a complete fraud; a cheap marketing gimmick. Please forgive me, but “Up & Down, But Not Consistent with a Diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder, But Then Again Maybe It Is, Runner”, would not be quite as catchy, or fit on a t-shirt.

Right, I’m off to buy a Maserati.

NB: I know that the photo at the top does not really relate to the post, it’s just the best photo of me that I have…

James Hampton - Snowdonia Marathon finish

MdMB Part III: The Race of My Life

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“If you’re not pushing yourself beyond the comfort zone,
if you’re not demanding more from yourself – expanding
and learning as you go – you’re choosing a numb existence.
You’re denying yourself an extraordinary trip.”
– Dean Karnazes, Ultra-Marathon Man:
Confessions of an All Night Runner

Three weeks after completing Marathon du Mont Blanc, I’m still struggling to put the experience into words, but it’s about time that I gave it a go. To be honest, I’ve been struggling with a post-race downer, and I need to re-focus with Cappadocia only 12 weeks away. In fact, Alan has well and truly re-surfaced, although as I’m in Norwich this weekend (complete with incorrectly pedestrianised city centre, and giant Nazi-saluting copper “dogs”) that was inevitable.

In my last post (MdMB Part I) I described the festival atmosphere of the weekend, and some of the many reasons why I fell in love with Chamonix.  What was surprising though was that my favourite part of the weekend wasn’t the build-up, watching the other races, or the post-race celebrations, but the race itself.

Just in case it isn’t already clear, I love running, and spend most of my life doing or talking about it.  Mont Blanc is however the first race that I have enjoyed the whole way through. In every race before MdMB the negative side of my brain had at some point, no doubt egged on by my feet, legs, back and chest, ruined the fun for the rest of me.  It always started with polite questioning – “Are you sure you’re ok?” “Aren’t your legs starting to hurt? Haven’t those gels made you feel a bit sick?”, but then developed into recriminations, histrionics and threats of strike or reprisals. These questions were never even asked during MdMB.  In fact, when I finished I had exactly the same feeling as I did at the end of our wedding, that it ended too quickly and that I wanted to go back and do it all again.

The race started in the centre of Chamonix at 7am, just as the sun was rising above the mountains. The start area was packed with the 2000+ runners and their supporters, together with a surprising number of committed locals waking early on a Sunday to cheer on the runners.  With only a limited amount of faffing, we were off heading through the narrow streets of the town. It felt great to start, after three days of watching other people run and 8 months of build-up.

I tried to make the most of the flat pavements, but we were soon onto the gently undulating fire tracks and out towards Argentiere. Although uphill, the first few miles were fairly gentle.  Rather than stick to my original plan of taking it very easy, I took the advice of a MdMB veteran (more on which shortly) and tried to get as far forward as I could, to avoid the worst of the traffic when the course got narrower.

Actually, this was my only gripe of the weekend; there were just too many people on the course.  It was very difficult to keep to your own pace, as you were either stuck in a bottleneck or getting jostled from behind. It actually became dangerous at a couple of points where you had people trying to overtake on single-track paths where one wrong step could end your race, or in some places, your life.  Although it was great that there were so many people doing the race, in my humble opinion they have to start in waves next year, just as they did with the Vertical KM.

Apart from twisting my ankle on possibly the flattest section of the course, the first 11 miles flew by, and before I knew it I was at the aid station at the bottom of Aguillette des Posettes, faced with the 1km vertical climb that I had been dreading since I entered the race.

Thankfully, you could only see the start of it from the aid station, and because of the tree cover you did not at any point have to look from bottom to top.  It was undoubtedly the toughest hour or so of my running life, and every time I thought I was at the top there was another slope in front of me.  Bewilderingly though, I really enjoyed it.  There was no question of being able to run up it, so it was simply a matter of putting hands on knees and slowly edging up and diverting my attention from my burning glutes, quads and calves.

As this was the slowest part of the course, I could chat to the other “runners”, which definitely passed the time.  This was particularly the case with Charlotte, who I had met the day before at the Expo.  As well as being a veteran of the race and Chamonix resident, she is also one half of the team behind Sky Lines (http://www.sky-lines.eu), who had the simple but ingenious idea of making temporary tattoos containing all of the details of the race (see above, modelled by my puny forearms), so she quite literally knew the course like the back of her hand.

Indeed, just as I was starting to struggle up the hill Charlotte pointed out to me that once we were at the top, we were on the home stretch.  Seemed an odd thing to say with just under half of the race left, but with the hardest part over, it made sense at the time.  If that wasn’t enough of a kick, the view at the top, massive cliché alert, made all of the effort worthwhile.  The rolling green slopes, uninterrupted view of the Mont Blanc Massif, thin clear air, the snaking line of runners and the old man on top of a trailer playing an electric guitar is now the place I go to in my head when things start to get too much.

We then headed downhill, at the same steepness as we came up. It was absolutely petrifying, but also incredibly fun.  It felt great to be travelling fast, and because I was concentrating on every step, it made the time pass even quicker.

With the most challenging part of the run over with, we headed back to civilisation and through Le Tours. It felt very odd (and not in a good way) to be back on tarmac, but it wasn’t long before we doubled-back on ourselves into the tree line and to the very welcome aid station at Tré Les Champs. The station was buzzing, and I would have quite happily stayed and chatted to the crowds, eaten cheese and saucisson and listened to the band playing Bob Marley.

But I had a race to finish.  Next came a much shorter, but deceptively more technical peak than the first, with unstable rocks, twisted tree roots and other potential race-enders. Apparently, this section was included this year after previous complaints about the race not being technical enough. Thanks for that, last year’s runners.

With the tricky peak at Le Bechoz dispensed with, there was a long, slow climb to the final aid station at Le Flégére. This was the only part of the race that dragged.  There was less to look at, it was baking hot with no shade, and I’d run out of water.  But, near the top of the climb, I caught up with my cousin, mate, and Bear Grylls, James (he of the Rocky training regime), who I’d lost at mile 10.  We made it to the final aid station together, and after a quick coke (cola, to be clear), sit down and jug of water over the head, we went out together for the final 6km to the finish.

In previous races, I have been accused of abandoning previously made plans to finish as a team in search of personal glory.  But this time it really was by accident, honest. As James and I set out from the aid station we agreed that it would be brilliant to cross the line together.  James, for different reasons, also had a horrendous 2014, and it was just as much of an achievement as it was for me to be on the start line.

After a little time to let the coke go down, I gave James an inclined nod to the front of us, being the universal sign for, “let’s push on”.  I am pretty sure that James nodded back, so for the first time I took the lead and overtook a couple of people in front of us.  I’d suddenly got a massive burst of energy, buoyed by the fact that we could now see and hear the finish line in the distance, so kept overtaking at every opportunity.  I was concentrating on this so much, however, that I forgot to check behind me.  By the time that we got to the final switchback up to the line at Planpraz, I realised that I couldn’t see James anywhere.  The path was too narrow to stop, so I could do nothing else but push on.

Before the race, I’d warned Camilla that I’d be a mess, physically and mentally, when I crossed the line, and fully expected the last 18 months of awfulness to come flooding out. As is nearly always the case in life, it did not conform to expectations, and all I felt was elated, the only negative thought being a sense of disappointment that it was all over, 06:54:10 after it started.

Thankfully too, James crossed the line a couple of minutes later, so we were able to head into the recovery tent together, where some genius (in fact the geniuses at Micro Brasserie de Chamonix (http://www.mbchx.com)), put a beer tap at the end of the line of bottles of water and recovery drinks.  It was hands down the best beer I have ever tasted, although disappointingly they refused to fill up James’s 500ml flask, or my hydration pack with the stuff.

Charlotte, my race companion/pacer/coach also came in just after us, so hit her target of sub-7 hours.  Rev, the third member of the UDR trio, also had a great race and came in well below the time he was predicting, and loved the experience almost as much as I did.

I couldn’t find much about the race online, so here are the main questions that I had before the start:

  • Will road shoes do? NO. Even though it was dry this year there is no way that I would have stayed on my feet without my heavy duty Salomon Speedcross 3s.
  • What about poles?  A controversial subject. I have never tried them, and coped absolutely fine without. I was pretty fed up by the end of the race at being jabbed in the leg by them though, or by people turning a dual-track path into a single-track by spreading their arms as much as possible.  So if you get on with them, use them, but be prepared to be hated by the people that don’t (mainly at jealously during the uphills).
  • Should I do much hill training?  As I’ve mentioned before, I only did one real mountain run before the race, so you can cope without, but the more you do, the more confident you will be on both the up and downhills.
  • What about the altitude?  From our collective experience, it’s definitely a good idea to do some altitude training if you can.  James really struggled, and actually had to stop at some point. As I was lucky enough to work next to, and be supported by, The Altitude Centre, it didn’t bother me at all.
  • How hard is it? Very, particularly the first climb, but if you can do a flat marathon, and get some practice on hills, it’s definitely doable.
  • Should I do it?  If the answer is not obvious already, YES YES YES.

I’ll see you next year, although I may well be doing the 80km.

Next up – Cappadocia Trail 60k, T-12 weeks. It’s got a lot to live up to…

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Training Weeks 8-10: The Final Push

Tryfan

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely,
“and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
– Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

Last week was my first break from posting since I started Up & Down Runner in April.  I’m in my final training push for the Mont Blanc Marathon, which is now 14 days away, so every minute counts.  After today it will all be rest, recovery and avoiding anyone that looks like they have even a little sniffle.  Seriously, if you are going to come near me, make sure you’ve used some hand gel.

And what a final push it has been. I went over 20 miles for the first time in more than a year, met one the greatest ultra-runners in history, spent a lot of time in the Altitude Centre, and, dear readers, finally managed to run up and down a mountain.

As The King of Hearts suggests, I will begin at the beginning. Week 8 involved lots of road miles, and what I thought was a hilly long run up and down One Tree Hill and the roads around Forest Hill, followed by flatter sections around Dulwich and Brockwell Parks and Wandsworth and Clapham Common.  It’s only by running that you realise how close everything really is in London, and how many beautiful open spaces there are.  I have now also realised that London is not very hilly.

Week 9 was the big one. On Tuesday I went to an event held by Like the Wind Magazine (if you have not checked it out yet, do http://www.likethewindmagazine.com – It’s Not How To Run, It’s Why We Run); a talk by, and Q&A session with, Lizzy Hawker.

Lizzy Hawker is unquestionably one of the greatest ultra runners in history. Among many other achievements she is five time winner of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, current 24 hour road-running record holder, first female outright winner of the 153 mile Spartathlon and record holder for the 320km route from Everest Base Camp to Kathmandu.  Her new book, called Runner – A Short Story About a Long Run, is an inspirational read, whether you are interested in running or not.

Among her many other talents (she has a PhD in oceanography from Cambridge), she is able to encapsulate why something as simple as putting one foot in front of the other means so much to so many, and, much like Frankl (Mind Control I: The Last Human Freedom), to show that most, if not all, people underestimate their capabilities and potential.

In the first chapter of Runner, Lizzy (we’re on first name terms now) explains how she whole-heartedly took the King’s advice for her first UTMB – she started running and just kept going until she stopped, which happened to be at the finish line, before any other woman.  As you may have already noticed, particularly if you’ve met me, I have a tendency to over-think things and assume that any new challenge is beyond me.

As a case in point, before Tuesday I’d been very worked-up about the planned trip that weekend to Snowdonia, my first ever mountain run.  After the talk, I asked Lizzy for a tip, and all she said was “enjoy the mountains”.  So, for possibly the first time in my life, I ignored my natural instincts and just went with it.

And enjoy the mountains I did.  I went with my friend, cousin and all-round Bear Grylls*, James, to Snowdonia National Park.  Starting in Capel Curig, up 650m to the top of a very windy Moel Saibod, back down then up another 600m or so the top of Castell-Y-Gwynt, then a loop round back to Capel Curig. The toughest, but most fun 16.5 miles I have ever run.  Much like my illness, the first up was tough but manageable, but the down was petrifying.  Trying to keep up with a human mountain goat, look where I was going and avoid peat bogs, holes and sharp rocks was almost too much for me to cope with.

However, at the top of Castell-Y-Gwynt, after some sage advice from James, I remembered the words of Lizzy Hawker, and possibly the greatest philosopher of our times, Master Yoda – “Do. Or do not. There is no try”.  So I cleared my mind and just did it. Not only was it so much easier, but I also bloody loved it. Granted I was still not able to keep up with James, but I did look more goat than Bambi.

Although maybe that was wishful thinking, particularly after a fell runner who ran past me said “thanks love” as I let him past.  I may have been wearing tights and a headband, but I would have thought that the beard would have cleared up any ambiguity about my gender.  There is an obvious joke here, but I have two beautiful friends from North Wales, so I won’t make it.

The start of week 10 mainly consisted of resting my poor quads and knees, but by the middle of the week I was feeling great, and have managed to get in some good miles.  In her brilliant article in the equally brilliant Standard Issue Magazine (standardissuemagazine.com/living-with-bipolar/), my wife questioned whether I was just repeating all of the mistakes I made in the lead up to the Royal Parks Ultra in 2013 (more on which next week). However, rather than feeling scared and stressed, focusing on all of the training days that I have missed, I feel ready to stand on the start line.  I don’t know whether I will make it to the finish line, but I no longer care, the fact that I have got to the beginning is enough.  After that I will just keep on running until I stop.

*To be honest, anyone that has ever put up a tent is Bear Grylls compared to me.

Like the Wind Magazine and Runner by Lizzy Hawker DCIM100GOPROG0080329.  DCIM100GOPROG0040228. The Cantilever, Snowdonia

My Running Playlist

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“Can you hear the road from this place? can you hear footsteps? voices? can you see the blood on my sleeve? I have fallen in the forest. did you hear me?” – The Loneliness and the Scream, Frightened Rabbit

Running with music is an oddly controversial subject, with purists believing that it’s an unnecessary distraction, and ruins the detachment from the modern world that running brings.  Whilst I’m not averse to this, it doesn’t really apply when you’re going past lines of buses, people talking needlessly loudly on their phones and yoots playing whatever it is they listen to nowadays at top volume out of their phones (alright, Granddad).

I also love music, but don’t get enough time to enjoy it, so listening while running through London allows me to drown out the noise of the city, and combine two of my favourite things.  The trouble is that my preferred genre would most accurately be described as “miserable men with guitars and beards” (being a miserable man with a beard myself), which is not really conducive to prolonged physical exertion.

While there is definitely a time and a place for cheese, and I completely understand why Eye of the Tiger is on so many people’s exercise playlists, it doesn’t work for me for two reasons.  In the interests of brutal honesty, I’ve got nothing against a bit of S Club 7, Daniel Beddingfield or a fat slice of Thin Lizzy*, but they are not songs that I would choose to listen to without booze, friends and terrible dancing. As I’ve said, running for me is all about isolation, and getting into my own cozy homemade void.

Secondly, for me a running playlist needs to strike a delicate balance between relaxation and distraction, and focus and motivation.  This is why my chosen songs are a mix between euphoric, melancholy, angry and adrenaline-inducing.  Again, I blame the bipolar.

So, after much experimentation, I’ve come up with a list of songs that work for me, and some of the highlights are below.

A few have made the list because they are suited to running: Slow Hands by Interpol appears on a few running compilation albums, as does Enter Sandman, and apparently Where I End and You Begin has close to the optimal 180 beats per minute for running.

Although it’s definitely not about running, The Loneliness and the Scream really could be, and I’ve been known to let out a scream while listening to it.  Particularly the above quote; “falling in the forest” accurately describes my approach to trail running.

Other songs are there because they have personal significance.  From Born Slippy triggering reminiscences about my teenage years, My Number being perfectly timed with a massive endorphin rush near the end of my first Ultra (more on which later), to The ’59 Sound, which was playing on the radio when I left hospital for the first time after Freddie was born. You don’t need to tell me what a terribly inappropriate song this is to remind me of my son being born, as I’m the guy that wanted Fistful of Love by Anthony and the Johnsons as the first dance at our wedding (even his collaborator Nico Muhly [namedrop alert] told Camilla that it was a really weird choice).

The third category comprises of songs that are simply brilliant. I don’t need an excuse to listen to New Order, R.E.M., The National or The Twilight Sad, and I would happily listen to Bloc Party’s Silent Alarm from start to finish at any time.

Right, I’m off to do some falling in the forest, speak to you next week.

* Alan again, sorry (https://updownrunner.com/2015/05/04/mind-control-ii-overcoming-alan/)