Sunday 22 February 2009

Beacon Bash 2009

This week it has felt like my training has begun. The irony is that everyone else competing in the Atacama Crossing in 5 weeks time will probably be starting to taper their mileage, not ramp it up. If you've been following the blog, you'll know I'm carrying a knee injury. Anyway, I've ran 38 miles this week, further than I have run for a long time.

On Tuesday I decided to run just over 8 miles, instead of the 6 planned, clawing back some miles in order to make up for being unable to train last weekend. However, work meant that I could not start running later than I would have liked. As a result it was 8pm before I finished the run, and so I missed my Yoga class. Still, I figure running before yoga at this stage. The 8 mile run was hopefully my last with my head torch for the winter. I started in darkness, and ran an 8 mile trail route through the woods and over the fields. I didn't wear my knee brace but it felt ok.

On Wednesday I ran my planned 6 miles at a steady pace, but wearing my knee brace to see if it felt any different. I think the only difference is a higher degree of confidence in the joint. I'm considering adding it to my Atacama Crossing packing list. In fact I think it would be foolish to leave it at home.

On Thursday I decided to try a speed session. These sessions can certainly aggravate the knee, but I wanted to try one to see how much fitness I had lost. I run a 3 mile course as fast as I can manage, on the road. My best is averaging 6:52 minute miles. I was well down on that, at 7:20 minute miles, so 1 minute 30 seconds down for the total distance. I didn't expect to get anywhere near my best, but it's still a shock to see just how quickly your speed and sharpness is lost when you can't train for a few weeks. Speed sessions are my most valuable sessions for improving overall fitness, and it is a shame I'm not in condition to do more than one. I think it would be too risky. Still, I hope over the next few weeks to shave a few seconds a mile off each week. If the knee complains, then I'll stop them of course. After the run I did an hour in the gym doing core stability and strength, and some specific exercises to help with the Patellar Tendinosis. There are no exercises to fix the cartilage tear I am afraid!

On Friday I had a physio session; once more I had heat treatment and ultrasound, as well as massage on the joint.

Saturday I rested and prepared for Sundays event. I spent an hour late on Saturday adjusting my new Aarn Marathon Magic 30l backpack, to get it to my liking. I packed a few snacks and mixed up some electrolyte, decanted into two sports drinks bottles in the front pouches. I was keen to see how this pack would perform over a decent distance. I didn't pack too much weight, only 4kg.

I got up at 7am and drove the hour-long journey to Newburgh, near Wigan. I arrived about 15 minutes before the start, registered and got ready for the 9am start. The actual route, elevation and my speed profile for the course are shown below.

I set off from the back of the pack, as I like to, and the route soon joined the Leeds and Liverpool canal for a couple of miles. It's a nice flat and enjoyable section. The weather was pretty grey, a little blustery wind on the hills, chilly, but not too cold. I was wearing full length running tights, a long sleeve Helly Hansen top with a Pertex windproof jacket over the top. The route left the canal and heads steadily uphill to the first checkpoint. I didn't stop at any of the checkpoints today. I just gave in my number and carried on. I was carrying my own food and water supply of course. I need to get back into the habit of self-sufficiency again. There didn't look to be much food at the checkpoints anyway, which is unusual for LDWA events. Most checkpoints on these events are usually overflowing with malt loaf, cake, biscuits and sweet things. Today, most checkpoints only carried water or orange juice, though one or two may have had a little food.

After CP1, the route heads downhill on a farm track into the village of Parbold, and then turns north, heading uphill once more to CP2 at around the 6 mile-mark. The weather was beginning to look a little grimmer at this point.

The route headed up Harrock Hill, which I think I captured in this picture, as I was passing a few runners, and catching up the walkers who had started at 8am.

The view from the top. You can spot the rain drifting in from the right.

No sooner had I got to the top and the wind picked up, and the rain came down. Sheets of drizzle; the kind that really soaks you to the bone very quickly, began to drift in on the wind. The Pertex top I was wearing wasn't waterproof, and fairly quickly got wet. A few runners stopped to put their waterproofs on. I looked up at the sky and gambled that it may not last too long, as so didn't put mine on. The wet weather lasted perhaps half an hour at the most, and stopped. No further rain fell, so I guessed right! The rain had certainly stopped before I reached CP3 at the village of Appley Bridge, and half way point of the course.

Once more I just gave my number in at the CP and continued on. There isn't a great deal of ascent on the whole course; around 2200ft, but the vast majority of it is in between 10 and 16 miles. I had packed my walking poles on my pack, but decided not to use them. I would only use them in the event of a 'knee emergency'.

Most of the route is on good woodland paths, and the underfoot conditions were good. There were a few big patches of mud and marsh all day, but most were avoidable and my feet stayed pretty dry. The long gradients between 10 and 16 miles took their toll and by 15 miles my legs were feeling heavy. I had up to that point managed to maintain an average pace of 5mph over all. I went through CP4 just before 14 miles ok, but then the gradual pull up a muddy field, and then a decent farm track tired me out. The route then skirts a golf course, before passing the final checkpoint 5, and into the last short climb up to Ashurst's Beacon, pictured.

Views from the top.

I tagged onto those runners you can see in the pictures for the rest of the route, and it was a good job. I was navigating from GPS, using the same route that I done in 2007. The organiser had mentioned that the last 2 miles had changed, but I didn't realise how much. Fortunately, I didn't have to get the route description out, and relied on one of the others who had reccied the course a couple of weeks earlier. Climbing over the Nth stile that day, we headed in, really made my upper legs ache! We trotted down a couple of fields and to the finish. It took me 4:09, GPS has the distance at 20.55 miles. Average speed 4.9mph overall. I think they did have a meal of pie, peas and gravy on, but that isn't really to my taste so I headed straight home.

It's the first time I had ran that far for 6 weeks. My heavy legs, towards the end of the run certainly showed that, but at the same time by knee wasn't a problem. I didn't need the walking poles or knee brace. The patellar tendon is aching as I type this 7 hours after finishing; the occasional spasm of pain, but I can live with it. I had stiffened up as I drove home, so getting out of the car was a slow and painful process. Let's see how my legs feel tomorrow.

The backpack performed very well. I was worried the front pouches may bounce with the weight of the water bottles, but at the speed I was running, which was typically around 5.5 - 6mph the bounce was ok. I didn't get any rubbing or soreness anywhere either, so the time invested in adjusting the pack last night, was well spent. One gripe was that the toggles which hold the walking poles in place are not strong enough and the poles end up waggling around a little after they work loose. I'm sure I can either replace the toggles, or use some ingenuity to secure them. Other than that, I'm very happy with the pack performance, and I will be using it on the Atacama Crossing. I've identified a couple of areas where the pack could be improved, so I'll probably email the manufacturer and suggest them for a future model.

So, my training has now begun in earnest. Slightly fewer miles this week coming, to ensure my knee has survived today, and also because the week after I am entering a 30 mile event. It will be my peak week. A little too close to the Atacama for my liking, but psychologically I feel I need one 30-miler in the bag to give me some confidence on the 45 mile day five in Chile.

Have a good week.

Monday 16 February 2009

In from the cold

Well, it seems to have warmed up a little here in the UK. It's far from tropical but there are rumours that we could get temperatures in double figures this week. A whole 10 degrees!

I've not got a great deal to tell you this week. I'm still easing myself back into training. On Tuesday I ran a planned 4 mile trail route, at a brisk pace, over the fields and through the local woods. I still have to wear my head torch for these evening runs, as it is too dark to run without one, even at 5pm. I couldn't find my knee support, and so had to run without it, but I didn't have any problems. I then went to the gym to do my yoga class for an hour and a half. I can still do the majority of the class, but I have to modify some poses as my cartilage tear makes it impossible for me to do certain things without pain.

On Wednesday I did a 10k trail route, following a similar rout to the previous day but extending it and including additional ascent. I again ran without my knee support, only finding the missing item last night (Sunday). On Thursday I was called away unexpectedly to work in Newcastle upon Tyne at the other end of the country. I had to drive up there, through some pretty terrible weather, then work until 10pm, and then drive home. I got back in the early hours of the morning, very tired.

On Friday afternoon I was supposed to drive to The Lake District. I had booked a weekend away in a hotel for Valentines with my girlfriend. Unfortunately some personal family circumstances for my girlfriend meant that we cancelled. I've promised to taker her again another time. Obviously I didn't do the 11 and 12 mile walks I had planned in the Lake District, and due to circumstance was unable to train at all. I'll add some extra miles in this week.

This coming weekend I am doing a 21 mile Long Distance Walkers Event near Wigan, called The Beacon Bash. I am hoping to run as much of the event as I can. I walked this even in 2007 which a friend and MDS-competitor. I recall that there is not too much ascent, perhaps 2500ft. So, I hope this will a gentle introduction to long distance again. This will be my first attempt at anything approaching this distance since the beginning of January.

I didn't have any physio on Friday as I had had assumed I would be working away. I have some this Friday again though. I am not getting much Patellar pain, which is really good news. The cartilage tear, I am made aware of every day. Little twinges, especially as I climb the stairs or there is any twist in the leg at all. As long as I don't over-extend, or twist the knee in my training, or in the Atacama, I am hopeful that it will be ok. This weekends LDWA event will be a good test of my knee, over a comparable distance to an Atacama stage, albeit on much friendlier terrain with considerably less ascent.

Have a good week.

Sunday 8 February 2009

Winter Wonderland

Well, we are in the midst of a cold snap in the UK; the heaviest snowfalls for 20 years, with some areas getting a couple of feet of snow fall in just one day.

It's not so bad where I am, with just a few inches of snow a couple of times this week, but it's lingering around, making training a little more challenging.

This week was my first week back running, after taking three weeks off, to try and get over the acute pain from Patellar Tendinosis.

I decided to run my scheduled 4 mile trial run on a treadmill, which went ok, but after the run I can only describe my knee as feeling 'strange'. It didn't feel wholly stable afterwards, seemed to feel inflamed. However, after 10 minutes the feeling passed and I went in and did my 1.5 hour yoga session. Only 3 other people had braved the journey to the gym through the snow to attend the class. I am definitely a little more flexible than when I started. I still can't touch my toes, due to being almost certain I have been given children’s hamstrings by accident, but I live in hope!

On Wednesday I had planned a 10k, but opted for a 5 mile instead. I enjoyed running over the fields through the snow, up to the local Wedgewood monument landmark, and then down into nearby Apedale Country Park, for a run through the woods and trails there. I put thermal leggings, as well as running tights on, in an effort to keep my knee joint warm. I also wore my cho-pat knee strap as a precaution and to give me more confidence in the knee. I'm pleased to say that taking those measures seemed to ensure I didn't have any problems on the run. When I got back I iced both the back (the meniscus tear) and the front of the knee (Patellar Tendinosis), just to be safe.

On Thursday I decided to try my speed session, but it became more of a ‘brisk’ session due to the conditions underfoot. I did manage the 3 mile course at 7:30 minute miles, which is well down on my best at about 6:50 average, but I was running on snow and ice, and my fitness is certainly down from a month ago. I think I can be forgiven for the slower time. When I finished, I made use of the snow and piled some onto my knee joint for 10 minutes before going into the gym and doing an hours strength and stability exercises. I am focussing on a lot of squat exercises, and some squats on a decline board. These exercises have been clinically shown to improve Patellar Tendinosis. I am also doing some of these at home too.

On Friday I had a physio session, where I once more had short wave pulse heat treatment on the back of my knee, ultrasound on the front, and some massage on the patellar tendon too. The physio commented that the tendon was much better, and I agree since just the lightest touch was causing me pain 3 week ago. The physio is certainly helping, but the three weeks rest will of course be the major contributor to the recovery. We'll see how it feels in a week or two now I am back to running.

On Saturday instead of doing a planned 8 mile run, I did a 6 mile hill walk, taking in about 7-800ft of ascent. I started from a lovely old building in Cheshire called Little Moreton Hall, which I took a photo of below.

I then crossed fields, walked along the canal and began the ascent, soon reaching snow on the higher ground as I climbed towards Mow Cop (a folly ruin), and local high point.

I should have taken a sledge!

The path then goes through a small wood, which looked very pretty in the snow.

It then emerged back into fields for the last bit of ascent, with views over Cheshire seen here.

Then at the top, views over Staffordshire.

It was bitterly cold on the top. I added a couple more layers of clothes, a second pair of gloves, and a hat. I descended back a different route before rejoining the canal and making my way back to my car for the short drive home.

I am hoping to run as much as possible this week, despite there possibly being some quite substantial snowfall in my area over the next couple of days.

I saw a couple of episodes of "Extreme Dreams" on the BBC iplayer this week. It is a show where some 'ordinary people' join celebrity (and MDS finisher) Ben Fogle on some adventure. In Episodes 16-20 they are crossing the Atacama Desert. In all honesty the programme itself is crap. It is badly edited, horribly repetitive and thus nauseating to watch, but it did give me a great insight into the terrain I will be running on in 6 weeks time. The razor sharp salt flats literally sliced everyone’s shoes (soles and all!) to pieces, and tore holes in their clothes. I had heard the salt flats were uneven and tough to walk on, but I had no comprehension of just how bad they were. They are literally miles and miles of coral-like razor sharp and uneven terrain. Running is impossible, walking is difficult. An awful lot of this terrain is on the 2009 Atacama Crossing course. At least I know what to expect. If you are in the UK, you can go and view the TV show on iplayers website (BBC2) and see for yourself. Forewarned is forearmed and all that eh?

Oh, I amost forgot, two of the people went down with severe altitude sickness and had to be evac'd. One guy in one of those portable altitude bags. The altitude issue is playing on my mind a little. I fully realise exertion makes altitude sickness even worse, so I will have to be very careful in the first couple of days of the event. That is the prime time to be hit by the effects, which can vary from a headache to death! I've got my fingers crossed for headache.

Have a good week.

Tuesday 3 February 2009

Atacama Crossing Training Plan

Now updated for the 2010 race, click here for a link to the spreadsheet. I've uploaded it to Beyond Marathon, the Ultra events website that I run.

Just six weeks until I fly to Chile to take part in the Atacama Crossing. You may or may not be aware that I have recently been diagnosed with torn cartilage (Meniscus) and Patellar Tendinosis of the left knee. I am due to have surgery when I get back from the event. I don't know if my knee will carry me through the event, or even through the training plan posted below, but all I can do is try. I am getting weekly physio on the knee to try and reduce to pain.

I have created a seven week plan which has a mixture of running and some walking too. I have taken out all but one speed session, and even that I may have to replace with an easy pace workout if my knee won't take it. Also, I may end up doing more walking than running sessions if I am struggling with the knee pain. I have two events planned; a 21 mile and 30 mile hill runs (or walks) in the next few weeks, shown in the plan.

You can find other training plans discussed, along with the world top Ultras at

You can see the race stage lengths are included in the plan, as the race organiser has published them on the 4deserts website.

Stage 1 42km
Stage 2 42km
Stage 3 40km
Stage 4 43km
Stage 5 74km
Stage 6 10km

So every day is marathon distance, almost double marathon on stage 5, and a 10km spring to the finish on the last day. Additionally they posted a video showing a course flyover in Google Earth, which I have carefully transposed back into an actual Google Earth file. The course shown is just an approximation, but it does crucially give altitude details.

You can download and view the course in Google Earth, from this link.

It is the racing at altitude which makes this event particularly difficult. We are likely to experience 30% less oxygen between 3000 and 3500M, and 20% less for the rest of the course.

We start the race at 3000M, climb over 500M on stage 1, before dropping back to back at just under 3000M to camp. Then we lose overall altitude on day 2 and camp at 2300, camp at 2500M after stage 3, 2300M after stage 4, 2500M after stage 5, and it’s a 10km run on day 6 to end at 2400M in San Pedro de Atacama.

The course is punctuated with river and salt flat crossings, just to make things even more challenging. This will be my toughest challenge so far.

In other news this week, I have still not run a step at all. Today will be my first attempt to run in more than 3 weeks.

Last weekend I attended a Navigation course in the Brecon Beacons in Wales, run by member Tin Tin from the MDS forum.
I am so reliant on GPS than I really needed to learn how to use a map and compass properly.

I am pleased to say that I know can, thanks to Tin Tin's expert tuition. We had a power point presentation on Friday evening, then went out on the nearby fields and hills on Saturday morning to practice the theory. We learned to take bearings; estimate distance travelled using both time, and counting paces from analysing the map and contour lines. We had a couple of hours off and then went onto moorland at night to practice the skills. It was very cold, and very windy, but we all managed fine.
I am now feeling confident and will be navigating using only map and compass next weekend when I go to the Lake District for a couple of days walking.

Here are a few photo's I took at the weekend.

So, tonight I will try to run. Fingers crossed for me. Have a good week.