Monday, 30 June 2014

Pushed to the limit - Mont Blanc Vertical KM

Vertical KM races push you to your limit. It's usually about 8 minutes before I look at my watch and start doing dubious mental arithmetic to work out how far through the race I was, am or will be at the next corner. Soon after that there's not enough oxygen to dedicate to those thoughts and it becomes a long battle trying to override every screaming muscle that is telling you to stop, keel over and never come near a start line again.

My experience at the Mont Blanc Vertical KM (the 2014 Skyrunning World Championships) was that and then some. It's fair to say I was carrying a bit of athlete baggage into the race. The negative feelings after a poor year of training were magnified as I was repeating the race I did well in last year and I was returning to the sport of Skyrunning that I had left at the end of last year on such a high. Inevitably this combination led to a fairly intense and painful race experience.

The course starts in Chamonix centre and after a brutally steep tarmac section you hit the path under the ski lift to Brevent. The gradient is pretty runnable by Vertical KM standards due to the zigzags and it continues all the way up until about 700m. The crowds were phenomenal - lining the course all the way up the slope and with my name on my bib it all felt quite personal (thanks Basingstoke and Moorfoots!)

Ideally I'd have got through the zigzags in a nice rhythm using up as little mental energy as possible ready for the rock climbing section and final push. However it was never going to be that way: rose-tinted memories of how easily I flew up the slope last year made this year's trudge seem far worse than it was. It wasn't just my legs wanting me to stop, it was my head. There's only so many times I could say 'Shut Up Legs'.
Photo from @LaCaveAJaife

Without wanting to be too melodramatic, there was quite a bit of soul searching going on out there. It's one thing not being fast enough but another to not be strong enough to overcome a bit of pain. I'm not a quitter, am I? Maybe I am? It all started to feel quite important out there, a test of character rather than speed, but maybe it has to in order to convince yourself to keep going.

The crowds reappeared at the top section to watch us scramble through some rocks. It was a little hairy with legs and arms full to their limit of lactic on a gradient so steep it was hard to know where to get the next hold. At least the concentration required for that was so great that the ongoing battle against my legs couldn't continue to dominate every thought.

But the toughest bit of all was coming out through the skilift centre and seeing the finish banner all of a few hundred metres away. The crowds were brilliant but I felt like a snail, barely making forward progress. Everything went into that end-of-race slightly warped feeling - time and distance all feeling longer than they should. I searched every memory of my epic sprint finishes to boost me along and quickly exhausting them, I was left on default - imagining I'm Mo Farah at London 2012. This seemed more delusional than ever as I stumbled across the line in a time about 3 minutes off what I did last year.

Thinking it back through with the benefit of perspective and a bit more oxygen, I can see how those 48 minutes became an intense self-indulgent mess of emotions. All worries and frustrations were over-exaggerated, and the ability to get up a very steep hill quickly seemed to rank far higher on the list of important things in life than it should ever do.

Photo from Ian Corless (Talk Ultra/
But that's racing. And it's probably why it is addictive. Whilst my overriding memory of the race is going to be one of pain and disappointment, I'm proud of the way I raced. I've no doubt I'll be recalling these memories in future races. The bar for quitting has been raised that little bit higher.

It shouldn't be a footnote but I do need to thank Arc'teryx for their understanding through all these ups and downs, sending me to these races and supporting me no matter what the result. Thank you also to sister company Salomon (all part of Amer Sports) who have given me race shoes for this year. I can genuinely say that this has made a world of difference after the foot problems I have had.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Finland: forests and fences

Another week, another country. I swapped the Italian mountains for Finnish lakes, extended the hours of sunlight and trebled the number of midges. No less beautiful though - I will remember my drive back from Jukola at 2am with a pink sky and mist steaming off the lakes for a long time.

Running at a more civilised time in the morning than Jukola requires

Anyway, first up was the World Cup round in Imatra on the Russian border. Sprint qualification, final and then sprint relay. My performances in all three sprints were pretty similar: running speed was much better than I expected but I made a mistake about half way through. In qualification this involved running from 6 to 8 and so making the last part of the course a bit of a nervy game. Thankfully I scraped through and ultimately that's all you need to do in qualification.

The final was bonkers despite my preparations. I had expected fences and a really challenging course, however I'm not sure I could ever have imagined using fences to completely change the area like that. I'm also not sure whether I liked it or not and I doubt it matters whether I did.

Link to all the other maps here

But a few thoughts have materialised since the race on the whole fence issue:

- Firstly, the barriers were placed in unnatural places. When you see a road big enough for cars on the map, it isn't logical to have a barrier blocking it. It is really hard to pick out routes because the eye is naturally drawn to these features and in some cases, doesn't see it at all.

- Secondly, and sort of leading on from above, it felt lucky to some extent when you found the/a route. Because you could not predict where blocks would be, it felt a bit random as to whether the route you tried to spot had a barrier at the end or not.

- Thirdly, comparing route choices and picking the best was rarely possible for me. I found I had taken so much time to find a route that finding a second to compare with wasn't worth it. And on the occasions when I could see two options (often the shorter legs) it felt hard to compare lengths because there were so many unnatural s-shaped bends round fences.

Apparently they used 800m of fences! But not all were there to trick us - a really clever use
of fences was to extend corners on buildings to prevent crashes.
Photos taken from the very informative event twitter feed.

I fully appreciate that better orienteers than me will have been able to cope and this may actually be a list of the ways in which my orienteering technique isn't good enough. None of the points above are complaints, more observations on how I tried to deal with the courses set. I should also mention how impressive it was that the organisers pulled it all off so well. I can't imagine the manpower that these races must have taken.

The sprint relay was a fun experience and wildly different to the practice one we did 2 weeks ago in Italy. Not only were there fences but lots more teams capable of hanging with the pace. First leg didn't split up much at all and I came back in the middle of the chasing pack. My mistake this time was losing my place and risking it instead of checking. I had to work hard through the easier park section of the course to pull back through. My teammates did a better job as usual (Murray, Scott and Cat) and we finished 4th nation.

So I've got a bit of work to do before WOC in three weeks time but if I can get rid of this mistake that is creeping back into my sprinting then things are looking more promising than I thought they would.

The trip didn't stop there, the next stop was Kuopio where I flew into last year before WOC and I never thought I'd see again. It was Jukola time and for me this became mainly about getting experience on first leg of a relay as our team succumbed to various things including a mispunch. I was quite nervous about the terrain beforehand as I couldn't get much to fit on the training map the day before and it was rough physically. I went out to focus completely on my own race and see where that landed up rather than aim to be up in the top pack and hang on.

Particularly considering my uncertainties I am dead chuffed with my run. I really can't find much I would change with it. There were 2 controls in particular where I had to go a different way to those around me and both times I hit the control accurately. I'm proud of that as it takes some confidence to do so! I finished a minute down on the lead after being nearly 3 down at one point, although that seems to be mainly gaffling differences.

Magical sunset/rise over the military tents

I hope that this mistake free run can get me back on the right track in my sprinting as well. I've got this buzzing feeling that I've not had for a while though that could equally be sleep deprivation.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Life as a professional athlete (part 2)

Last time I was a 'professional' athlete it was by default: unemployed in a new city. In that sense this time round is a much better situation: given up part time job in outdoor shop, I plan to train like a beast until I start a PhD at the University of Edinburgh in September. I am trying to appreciate what could (hopefully?!) be my last long break away from the world of work without the stress of applying for jobs that makes planning ahead impossible.

Pro athlete = lots of training camps. Enjoying Italy.

However, it hasn’t started ideally. This blog could have been called Spring Frustrations – the sequel to the moan I had this winter. In the grand scheme of athlete injuries, I’ve had nothing major this year but I seem to have had a relentless stream of problems disrupting training for more than a few weeks. I suspect it might be because I am trying too hard – ever since November I have been trying to ‘catch up’ for training I have missed. I’ve been chasing the 2013 self in every race, every session feeling like I could see the fitter me up ahead. It’s not been a great place to be, rarely satisfied and as a result I’ve probably pushed the training load too far and this has resulted in niggle after niggle. But after 5 years of near continuous improvements in fitness it was about time for me to be tested...

I spent more time in Italy running in supportive shoes on the trails
rather than in the forest. Still, this was far more than I had expected to be
able to do and it was beautiful so I can't complain! 

...Which leads nicely on to writing a bit about a few schools visits I’ve done. I’ve been involved in two initiatives: WinningScotland Foundation’s Champions in Schools and Education Scotland’s Game On Scotland. There are differences between the two but essentially both programmes are trying to get elite athletes into local schools in Scotland to talk about our lives. One of the slogans has been ‘Be your personal best’ which sums it up quite nicely – trying to encourage kids to dream big, put in the hard work, not get deterred by setbacks, and applying this to whatever area of life they choose.  Each school visit ends up being different too but the main aim is to tell the story like it really is: the hard work and the disappointments are the certainties, the glamorous travel and podium smiles a bonus. So many of them will watch the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow this summer and hopefully that will inspire a few dreamers.

Talking to a small class of P3s

Talking to a whole school assembly
With WOC2015 around the corner, I’ve been able to talk about my ‘home games’. I was allocated two primary schools in the Moray area and I had a brilliant few days talking to kids who will have WOC on their doorstep. I’ve never been to schools were orienteering was so widely known – the effort put in by Moravian Orienteering Club and Scottish Orienteering is noticeable. There was such a buzz about the event already and I left thoroughly inspired by the kids’ enthusiasm. 

Getting a class to join in my core training session.

The King of the Forest trophy left an impression!

So now I’ve talked the elite athlete talk, it’s time to walk the walk. My foot has made a semi-miraculous recovery in the last week and hopefully it will now be green lights through until WOC. It’s at least made me appreciate every run and I’m ready to nail the hard sessions – I suspect the memories of the Moray schools will get me through a few.