Saturday, 8 December 2012

2014 Marathon des Sables




In April 2014 I will join approximately 1000 competitors on the starting line of a race in the Saharan Desert, The Marathon des Sables. Over six days I will run the equivalent of 6 full marathons (approximately 155 miles), carrying with me all that I need to survive; organisers provide a strictly rationed daily water provision and a space in a shared bivouac. Food and everything else needed to subsist and run in the Southern Moroccan Sahara I will carry in a pack.  

Temperatures can reach or very occasionally exceed 50˚ Celsius, the terrain varies from steep energy sapping sand dunes, to long rock strewn, foot crippling wadis.  Competitors must complete each stage, including the longest which is usually around 55 miles, within stringent cut-off times, failure to do so results in disqualification. The Marathon des Sables is recognised as one of the toughest foot races on Earth.

Why enter? Not an easy question to answer and certainly not simple to define concisely, so please bear with me; I had never been fit; I played sports in school, ran sprints with the local athletics club but was not fit. Leaving education I put on weight through excessive eating, alcohol consumption and a total lack of exercise.  I am not entirely sure when but at some point in my early 30’s when totally unfit and near my heaviest I read an article about the Marathon des Sables, whilst impressed by the strength, endurance and bravery of the runners I couldn't identify with them or see any rational reason for anyone entering the race.

In December 2009 weighing close to 17 stones aged 35 and suffering insanely high blood pressure I set out to lose weight and get fit.  Over the course of 2010 I progressed from lung busting, thigh trembling treadmill runs of just a few minutes to 10k, half-marathon and in October 2010 marathon finishes.  I have run ever since moving on to ultra-marathon distances. Seeing an article on the Marathon des Sables a second time but through the fresh perspective of a couple of ultra-marathon finishes I concluded, “I could do that” a thought that reverberated in my mind over several months, sending me back to the organisers website time and again, leading eventually to an internalised “well then, MR Stewart, that being the case, is it not time to put-up or shut-up?”

In April 2014 I will face up to the harsh conditions of the Sahara and submit to 6 days of self-inflicted hardship, what though of those for whom every day brings hardship and struggle?  The travel, entry and mandatory equipment costs add up to a substantive amount and could be used to benefit those who have not, as I have, enjoyed a safe, stable and loved upbringing or help people who have taken a wrong turn, as I have on many occasions, but lack the support network to help them get back on track.

I hope therefore to raise an amount equivalent to the cost of entry, travel and equipment for charity. I will be running in aid of Framework a Nottinghamshire based organisation whose mission is to help homeless and vulnerable people by providing high quality housing, support, prevention, and training services.  They enable people to live independent lives by offering choice and opportunity.

Every penny raised will go directly to Framework as I am fortunate enough to be able to fund the trip, entry and equipment costs myself.

As part of the build-up to the Marathon des Sables, I will:

  • Run at least 3250 miles in training between January 2013 and race start day
  • Run from Milngavie near Glasgow to Fort William along the West Highland Way, a distance of 95 miles over which I will ascend 14,760ft, I hope to do this in under 24 hours (West Highland Way Race http://www.westhighlandwayrace.org/)
  •     Shed a further 1 1/2 to 2 stones, as weight will make a huge difference to performance in the desert
  • Severely try the patience of my wonderful wife Sicilia and incredible daughter Sophia

Whilst I am not expecting James Cracknell or Ian Sharman, the highest placed British competitors to date, 12th and 13th respectively, to lose any sleep over my entry I do intend to run the event hard and place as highly as possible.

I will be delighted if you can help me raise money to help homeless and vulnerable people across the East Midlands. Your donations will make a huge difference to people’s lives and will be an invaluable source of motivation and encouragement to me throughout my training, build-up events and the Marathon des Sables itself.

If you would like to donate please visit my Just Giving page:

https://www.justgiving.com/allyarchi

You will be able to follow my progress in the run up to the event on this blog and throughout the Marathon des Sables itself at:

http://www.marathondessables.co.uk/site/


JustGiving - Sponsor me now!

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Hardmoors 60 - DNF


DNF – DID NOT FINISH

These are the words no one wants on their running CV; regretfully I collected my first at Hardmoors 60 this year.  I am tempted to say first and last however suspect that might be somewhat foolish.

I thought rather than add to the race reports already done I would write a little about making that DNF decision and my feelings since. Readers please don’t worry, or indeed stop reading, this shouldn’t be a write up of my own personal ‘pity party’, hopefully just a little introspection published which read or unread will provide a little catharsis to me.

Going from couch potato and obesity priority lane pass-holder to completing 10 events at marathon distance or longer including 4 Ultras in 2 ½ years had provided plenty of DNF opportunities, not one of which settled more than fleetingly in my mind.

What then happened at HM 60? First some moments I lived to regret:

To all and sundry that asked, “not worried about completing, feel robust, have got the miles in my legs just might be a bit slow”.

Showboating for the cameraman with a little leap and an air born click of my heels, telling myself then, I’ll look pretty damn stupid if I don’t finish now.

Did I show the race its proper due respect? No, no I did not, essentially I turned up to what was planned as the last Ultra of my year under trained, I had plenty of miles in my legs but was not sharp by any standards, with my pace and the duration at which I could run comfortably diminishing by the day.

To the decision then, having started in good company alongside ‘completer’ Phil Turton, I settled into a comfortable early pace nicely lodged in the first third of the field, a conservative start, in good company the first 14 miles passed quickly enough. At 15 miles a feeling I have had seemingly throughout the year set in and my hamstrings tightened and I slowed, the ascents were almost pushing me backwards, not a sharp pain but a dull and very debilitating ache was radiating down the back of my thighs.

I say a pain I have had all year, I don’t recall when it started to affect me just that I had carried it long enough to almost accept it as the norm and attribute it not to injury but lack of training volume and intensity.

Putting a brave face on the situation, I parried Phil’s enquiries as to my wellbeing with the universal words of denial “fine”, “good”, “I’ll settle in soon”, Phil having seen me this way at Coniston Trail Marathon and battle on through accepted them and in good spirits adjusted his pace.

My condition worsened over the next 5 miles to the point the pain was scorching and my running was reduced to the shuffling I saw from most competitors from Scarborough onwards, it was no longer fair to Phil to keep him at my shuffle and I encouraged him on, he gallantly put up a small fight however seemed to know there would be no phoenix from the flames moment this time and moved on with a little trepidation (we had shared the recce duties, leaving Phil 20 or so miles to work out on his own, before hitting the section he had scouted) and some, despite his best efforts to conceal it, visible relief to be moving at his own pace for perhaps the first time in the event.

I shuffled on to the point at which you join the road into Runswick Bay and the next checkpoint, here at the end of the trail I sat, for some reason wanting to get my head straight before heading down to the checkpoint.

It was here sat on the grass directing runners along the road that I surprised myself, shocked would perhaps be a better choice of words, there was no contest in my mind no alternate strategies such as resting, dropping a pain killer, seeing it to the next checkpoint, I settled on a DNF, almost with a smile on my face not in relief  at the days exertions being over but simply and purely because clarity finally struck I was blaming myself for a lack of training volume and intensity where the issue was injury that made training volume and intensity almost impossible; it was here I accepted using Anadin Extra to complete any run over 14 miles in training was indeed folly.

I am cross that it took a race as tough as Hardmoors to reach what should have been an obvious conclusion, I carried the same injury through a 40 miler, a tough trail marathon and even a 24 hour event this year compromising my performance in each.

What then do I conclude from the experience?

Hopefully it has taught me to listen to my body a little more and to treat each race with respect, I knew enough about Hardmoors to know it would seek out any weakness and shine a light on it, the decision should have been made in training not 20 miles into a race.

Certainly to deal with injury issues as they occur and not give in to the FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).

That whilst I am comfortable with the decision I made and certainly will not be haunted by it, there is a t-shirt missing, a facebook post not made, a distance and time not recorded all replaced with the wrong type of tale to retell. 

Will I have another DNF, who knows, will I accept a DNF as a result of ignoring injury issues with the same calm, I will not, that will not be happening and if it does then there is an open invitation to all comers to kick my sorry arse.

One question it raises which awaits answer is, did I act sensibly with a degree of self-assurance to DNF so quickly and with seemingly such little thought or have I revealed, in doing so, a character flaw that will come back in future races to haunt me?

Time then to get fixed, strive to be leaner, fitter, stronger quicker and come back to the Hardmoors series next year ….. well not quite I am a dumb runner after all, I’ll suspend disbelief a little further and take a trot out at Snowdonia Marathon at the end of October first, as it’s my last outing of the year … …

I probably ought to add a little detail to that statement; I have identified the injury as most likely to be a form of sciatica opposed to muscle or tendon damage and will only start the race if I feel I can get around the course, enjoy the scenery and post a result that I’ll feel comfortable sharing, I will otherwise just go to support my pals and kick off rehabilitation with my favourite medicine a mild oral analgesic taken regularly and often, the preferred delivery mechanism being dark in colour with a nice creamy white frosting on top.




Saturday, 6 October 2012

Hardmoors 60 - Redemption!


It had been 9 long months since my last Ultra, the brutal 50 mile Yorkshire Ultra (aptly nicknamed the Frostbite 50) that had ended in a heart breaking DNF at 45 miles and had left me both physically and mentally smashed. For me the Hardmoors 60 was simply about one thing, redemption!!!

A 3.45am start did not seem the best way to begin a day that was potentially going to require 16 hours of running but my recent discovery of hypnotherapy relaxation MP3’s meant that even by this ungodly hour I had grabbed a few decent hours sleep.
By the time I arrived at Filey at 6am to meet up with my pals for the trip back upto Guisborough the pre race nerves were properly kicking in, and my friends were met with the now mandatory sight of me being sick. Believe it or not this is a good sign as it seems to supersede decent performances ;-)

We arrived at Guisborough in good time and waited patiently in line for the mandatory bag checks before being signed in. There was a short delay before the start of 30 mins, something that under any other circumstances would not bother me in the slightest but with my DNF fresh in my mind I simply wanted to be on the move. Finally at 8.30am we moved out into the car park and before I knew it we were off. The start of ultras are a bizarre thing, particularly if you are used to racing “normal” length races as there is no mass scramble to get to the front in the first 100metres. This was going to be a long day, a day whose success would be defined by each athletes ability to pace themselves and everybody was more than aware of this.

Within the first half mile we began to climb into Guisborough woods up a long, steep and boggy hill. As my feet sank into the mud and the water poured into my trail shoes it began to hit me that the storms and torrential rain of the previous week could potentially turn this already tough race into a total nightmare. My worries were unfounded as this seemed to be the only section that had retained the water and if anything the rest of the course had benefited from the rain as the rock solid ground of my recce two weeks earlier was slightly better to run on.

The scenery throughout this race is absolutely incredible and the trails are simply a privilege to run on. The beauty of the area and the constantly changing trail on the Cleveland way means that despite you being on the trail for hours on end, boredom is never a problem, it is simply an amazing area, something that will mean I will return to this race series year after year. We quickly established a comfortable pace and were wracking up the miles at a pleasing rate. In a short time we arrived at our first checkpoint at Saltburn and quickly found our drop bags. I had planned my nutrition carefully for this race and had started taking on calories from the beginning of the race. The body is only able to digest 300 calories while running so I had carried (and eaten) a mars bar and 6 Jaffa cakes during the 2hrs to Saltburn. Given I had only run 10 miles this meant I wasn’t particularly hungry but knowing that I would be running a huge calorie deficit by the end of the day I forced down a bottle of Gatorade, a banana, some crisps and a couple of spoonfuls of Mullerice. I also packed the Mars Bar and Jaffa Cakes that would fuel me till to the next aid station. As the day passed by my decision to eat as often as possible early on really paid off as the further I ran the less I could face food. I have to say my nutritional decisions were probably one of the big plus points of the day and meant I suffered no cramps and no hunger pangs at all during this race. For those of you who have never used Gatorade during ultras then I cannot recommend it enough. My stomach does not tolerate electrolytes well at all but this stuff does not have that sickly salty taste of things like Nuun etc but kept me perfectly hydrated all day. Within minutes of drinking it I could literally feel the energy rush passing through me.

From Saltburn the trail hits the cliff tops and is very similar for long stretches of the race ie nice undulating trails broken by crazy steep ascents and descents into ravines and seemingly endless flights of stone steps cut into the hillsides. At 20 miles I lost my wing man Archie who was suffering badly with his hamstrings. We had decided to run the whole race together but I had realised early on he was struggling and I was absolutely gutted for him when the inevitable “run on pal as Im gonna drop” came. I was also gutted for myself as Archie is a top bloke whose banter makes the miles pass far easier. Given he had recently run over 90 miles at the Adidas Thunder Run I was hoping his DNF didn’t hit me as hard as mine had at the Frostbite but I know for a fact he will chomping at the bit to “tame the Hardmoors beast” (see you at the 110 big fella). I didn’t realise it at this point but despite losing Archie so early he would still play a huge part in my day.

Runswick Bay
A secondary problem of losing the big lad was that we had split the recce duties, he had done the first half while I had done the second, I now had about 20 miles to run on a route I didn’t know at all before I hit the section I did know (Ravenscar to Filey.) As it turns out I needn’t have worried, I didn’t put a foot wrong as the route is so well sign posted and where there were potential issues rather bemused walkers and tourists would quickly point in the direction of all the other runners. I must have been looking really puzzled as I hadn’t even asked them ha ha!  The race continued and the hours past by without great incident. I normally like to recount some of the bigger and more extreme obstacles during my blogs as a guide to anybody running the race in the future but at Hardmoors such obstacles come so often they are far too numerous to mention. One area that does deserve a mention however is Runswick Bay. There are two reasons for this, firstly the obscene gradient of the road down to the beach which literally smashed my knees to bits as I tried in vain to slow myself down. The second is the ravine at the end of the beach. Now we climbed some crazy shit that day but Runswick Bay ravine was something else. As I approached it (once again seemingly looking puzzled) a lady on the beach simply said “up there and be really careful on the rocks they are very slippy.” My god she was not joking! The ravine had a river running through it and you had to negotiate the slimy rocks along the side of the water before ascending the steps (which didn’t start at ground level but about 4ft up the hillside).

One advantage of running solo was that I was now running at my pace which given the conservative start Archie’s hamstrings had given us meant I was now running freely and moving steadily through the field. While totally not Archie’s fault a 100k race is way to long a distance to be running at somebody elses pace and my advice would be that if your running buddy does not co-incidently run at exactly the same race pace as you then go it alone as one or the other of you will be running well within yourself which will lead to frustration over time. As I ran the section between Whitby and Ravenscar at 40 miles I became aware that my feet were starting to get really sore and felt like they were being nipped on the ball of the foot. I had packed spare socks as had been anticipating Guisborough woods being a bit of a bog so I decided to change. Given I have been wearing lace up ankle braces due to my previous ankle sprains this was a slow process, particularly as I was starting to get cold and tired and needed to try and eat too. Archie to the rescue, despite pulling out many hours ago Archie had been getting lifts from one aid station to another and was essentially crewing the rest of my race, the geezer even taped my disgusting feet (deffo beyond the call of duty) before realising how cold I was and lending me a long sleeved top. Despite Archie’s assistance, a mix of fatigue, cold and my feet meant I was in the Aid station 27 mins, waaaaaay too long. Coming out of Ravenscar and despite it still be relatively mild I simply could not get warm. I donned my hat and gloves but it took another 15 mins before I started to warm up again. In hindsight it had been a long distance between the last two aid stations and I suspect that my sudden inability to get warm was more to do with depleted electrolytes than it actually been cold.

I loved the section between Ravenscar and Scarborough (40 to 50 miles) as was absolutely flying and after a real dip in spirits felt on top of the world. My fresh socks and a couple of bits of tape had my feet feeling fresh and pain free again and I simply could not see anything but an easy finish in a great time. A couple of miles out of Scarborough the head torch went on and I was even enjoying scrambling through ravines in the dark such was my mood. I hit the 50 mile marker in 11hrs and 30 mins and was over the moon as was right on schedule for the time I had hoped for. At about this time I started to feel a niggle in my left knee, nothing too intense but quite sharp, particularly on descents. By the time I reached the end of North Marine drive in Scarborough the knee was agony and I was reduced to a walk. I grabbed some chips in Scarborough working on the basis that if I was walking I might as well take advantage of the situation and I was bitterly cold so thought the hot food may help with this. I have to say I have NEVER eaten chips that tasted so good. I absolutely smothered them in Salt (to the digust of the women in the chip shop) but I barely even tasted it. Soon after finishing this most welcome meal I ascended the vile gravel hill out of Scarborough to the check point. Oh and what a welcome sight. Despite his injuries Archie was back in running shorts and ready to go, top geezer that he is he had decided to pace me for the last 10 miles to Filey. To be fair the pace I would finish this race (walking) meant that it was never going to trouble his injuries too much, indeed that last 10 miles would take a mammoth 3.5 hours. It was absolutely soul destroying. I still felt fit and strong, I had no muscle pain and felt full of running but the pain in my knee was so severe that I simply could not mange anything faster than a brisk walk. The lack of pace meant I was getting more and more cold and despite me wearing gloves my fingers were numb. Eventually we reached Filey Brigg and I knew it was nearly over. Within 20 mins we arrived at Filey High School and walked through the front door where we were met with a heart warming round of applause from those that already finished. It was just gone midnight and I had finished in 15hrs 28 mins. The lads handed me a SERIOUSLY welcome box of Pizza and within 15 minutes
I crashed out in my sleeping bag utterly exhausted but absolutely buzzin.

I am slightly disappointed with the time but only because the injury killed that last section. On the other hand the Frostbite 50 DNF was now firmly consigned to history and my season was finishing on a monster high. I learnt a huge amount about ultra racing during the Hardmoors 60 but I also learnt a huge amount about myself. Over the last 9 months I have often wondered about that last 5 miles at Frostbite, was I actually too injured to finish it or had I convinced myself the injury killed the race when in fact I had bottled it. I have spent 9 months wondering whether I simply lacked the guts and grit to get through to the end of a tough ultra when the pain really kicked in. Well now I know and I am very pleased with the answer. Having got that DNF monkey off my back and smashing what I believed my limits were to bits, I am now looking forward to the Hardmoors 110 in the summer. What intrigues me now is finding out exactly where my limits are and bizarrely I have a niggling suspicion that even the 110 will in time be seen as a stepping stone to bigger things.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Hardmoors 60 - 2012 - Way too fast


Training and Preperation

As you may previously know I recced the Hardmoors 60 route before race day, the only section I had not run was the start through Guisborough Woods. I did not follow a specific training plan for this race, my only goal was to increase the miles per week I ran and managed to run several weeks at 70 mile plus. I ran a total of 684.1 miles including the race itself in the 12 weeks leading up to the race.
Here is a link to my Google doc training plan https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AoEsR9-m8bnmdG5IMUR6a0dKMlBGdFdhUlhHTkJJYnc

I entered this race as a stepping stone towards running my first 100 miler next year. On entering my  main ambition was to complete the distance within the cut offs. I had a great running this year though and had hoped to run this in somewhere between 10 and 12 hours. I was hopeful that this would be more towards the 10th hour than the 12th. This was perhaps a little optimistic to say the least. Given that my last ultra distance race had been in January. What the plan does not show though is that I enjoyed my training during the summer a lot. I started a new routine of running to and from work a couple of days a week. I tried to run on trails as much as possible and even took detours running home to take in extra trails. 

The Race
Guisborough Woods
The start of the race was delayed by 35 minutes. But everything was good natured and it was good to see that kit checks were being carried out for all runners. The race day weather was excellent and when we crossed the start line it was not long before I was climbing up in to Guisborough woods. I had not run this section before and it was a lovely run through the woods to link back up to Cleveland Way.


The first couple of check points seem to breeze by and I ran the first 26 miles in around 04:07 and was holding on to my aim of being very close to 10 hours. Just after that though I started to feel myself needing to slow down. Feeling the need to slow down was to become a consistent feeling for the rest of the day :) I went through Sandsend feeling a little tired but still ok. It was as I got between Sandsend and Ravenscar that I hit my first real problem. My water bladder must have developed a leak, as I had no water left. Ran for what seemed to be a long time between Whitby and Robin's Hood Bay with no water. On reaching Robin's Hood Bay I managed to buy some water and that water tasted heavenly! I phoned Adnan who was running with me from Ravenscar to let him know I was going to be behind time. When I started to run again after stopping at Robin's Hood Bay I knew I was slowing down a lot. It was great to meet Adnan(a fellow Sunderland Stroller) at Ravenscar. Although, I had mixed feelings of guilt, as it was supposed to an easy run for him between Ravenscar and Filey to see what the course is like and also act  a training run. On leaving Ravenscar I tried to put on a  brave face and at least attempt a very slow jog. I eventually had to admit to Adnan that the afternoon was likely to be a walk/run rather than a run/walk. I am grateful that Adnan took this in good heart and managed to take some great photographs of the route. I have shared some on this blog. Full list of Photos here at Hardmoors FaceBook page. http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=oa.534820779878184&type=1 and here https://picasaweb.google.com/109329056987770728995/Hardmoors602012

After Ravenscar things became a bit of a blur and a bit of a dark spot. . Thankfully Adnan was able to capture some of the great scenic views along this stretch. I think I was somewhere between self pity and leg cramp central.










I am showing these series of photos to show both the lovely views and as reminder to myself that I save my legs for these inclines which are still runnable if you haven't set off way too fast :)








Scarborough castle comes into view and raises my spirits. Manage to get my legs going again . Scarborough is also not quite as close at it looks at this point as the bay snakes around to the right.










The thought of  my last drop bag keeps me going at this point. So does the lovely array of colours :)
 


Filey getting closer
So glad that Adnan captured this moment on camera. I remember running towards the moon and thinking what a faboulous view. Although I knew I was not going to be finishing in daylight anymore. My delayed finish and broken finish time dreams were almost worth it for it for this moment alone. As it went dark I enjoyed putting on my head torch and running in the dark it had Winter last time I had run on the trails in the dark. As we approached Filey I was convinced that I was over 12 hours, but I was not sure if the race started 08:30 or 08:35. It wasn't until the official results came out that I knew that I did manage to finish in just under 12 hours. I do not really feel I should even take the credit for the 12 hour finish. If it was not for Adnan and Emma (A relay runner) pushing me to run  a little more often I would not have made 12 hours! So a big thanks to Adnan and Emma :)

I ran the last 36.13 miles in 07:49:20. Probably the first and last positive split I will ever run! The aggressive start was a very painful mistake both physically and mentally. I started to develop bad leg cramps and my quads were screaming on the ravines. Brain damage by Pink Floyd also started playing in my head(and still is!) as my resolve to finish in 10 hours, became 11, became 12!

This was a bitter sweet race for me. I am delighted to have finished my first 100km and it tops of a great year of running for me. However, the course broke me, I set of  too fast. I had to dig deep to keep moving in the latter sections of the race. I can be thankful that I have learned the hard way on a 100km run, rather than a 100 mile run. Going to be a touch more conservative setting my pace for Hardmoors 110 next year, which will be my first attempt at running 100 miles. At the end of the day my pacing was too aggressive in the first 26 miles, this has left me feeling that the course had beaten me. To finish on a more positive note I loved this course and look forward to running it again next year :)

 Finally Thanks to:-
Adnan, Ray, Alistair, Phill and Emma. A very big thanks to everyone involved in setting up this fabulous race. I look forward to taking part in the Hardmoors Series next year as a grandslam entrant.