Welcome to my blog feel free to find out a bit more about me here
Welcome to my blog…
Welcome to my blog feel free to find out a bit more about me here
When does a Marathon become an Ultra? I was sat in the Bunkhouse trying to catch an early night at the base of Snowdon, about a mile just outside of Llanberis, North Wales. A late arrival stirred me from my sleep as he came into our shared accommodation, and thought it an opportune time to give his comforting reassurance for three of his fellow occupants – who were all running the full Scott Snowdonia Trail Marathon the next morning. “Yeah, my mate ran it last year, said it’s about 29 miles and not 26.2”. My overwhelming sense of dread increased, as I had just sat outside watching the clouds drift around one of the many peaks in the area, before midges descended to feast on my carb-rich flesh. Surely with making us “run” up Snowdon, they wouldn’t hide the real distance, would they? I guess it didn’t matter. Even the Technical T-shirt I received at registration earlier that day stated 26.2. I didn’t believe him and he was running the 10k anyway.
The morning greeted us with low hanging cloud and light drizzle, arrival day had been perfect, warm with broken cloud – although unlikely to have revealed the summit of Snowdon at any stage. My initial thought, was at least it wasn’t scorching hot – us baldies have to watch sun exposure you know. One of my Bunkhouse buddies gave us a lift into town – where pre-race registration was at the Electric Mountain Centre. The atmosphere was building and the nerves kicking in. Lots of people were milling around – everybody had hydration vests or belts. To start the race, you had to carry full mandatory kit – given the inclement weather. ‘This is the mountains for you” said the announcer. So my brand new Inov8 5 litre vest was packed with Waterproof trousers/top, a long sleeve top, gloves about a litre of fluid mixed between (not together) Lucozade & flat Coke, a few energy gels and a few sticks of lunchbox size Malt Loaf. I hadn’t really run with it before – other than a parkrun, as the build-up had been restricted by a light thigh strain. Having never done anything like this previously, I was heading into the unknown, in all respects – even the energy replenishment I was carrying was part experimental. Looking around, I felt the novice, my fellow runners looked seasoned in this sort of environment. Runners from all over Wales, the rest of the UK and abroad – I wouldn’t say a high quality field, but people who look like they are used to this terrain and event.
My plan – did I have one? I think I did – Under 5 hours would be a dream – but I knew that would remain a dream. I was thinking for unknown factor that 5:20 -5 :30 would be a reasonable target for 26.2 miles in a maiden terrain effort. Whatever though – I promised myself not to go off too fast like I did in the SDW Trail marathon (a mere bumpy race with only 900m of climb) where I managed a splits of 1:40 & 2:30, which was silly. Before we knew it we were on the start line ready to go, the last thing before we went, a message of “look out for each other” came over the speaker. Then we were off just as the rain started to fall. Trotting out of the Park behind the centre through the town and out off into the Snowdonia hills, within minutes we were climbing, through fields and the odd campsite, sheep, and randomly nomadic sheep just wandering sides of the track., we were already level with the low hanging cloud, as the trail carved its way through the valley along the side of a steep hill…. (when does hill become a mountain?) The leaders were already off in the distance and disappearing into the mist/cloud what looked like almost a KM ahead. I looked behind and the trail of Marathoners & half-marathoners, snaked its way back as it did forwards, as far as the eye could see. The first 6k, we climbed 400-500m +, I was comfortable in myself if I needed to run/walk any of the steeper climbs, particularly early on, as I didn’t want to waste energy with the big-boy still to come, and plenty of time to make up any walk time before we got there. I think I walked about 30 feet up one incline about 2miles in – as did many others. I was playing it smart – unusually. Before we knew it, we had summited and the down-hill looked fast and steep. I do like smashing it downhill sometimes. But this was grass, boggy in places, thickets of tall grass everywhere and steep – and this is when I realised I was a mere amateur amongst seasoned fell runners. They flew down. I was expecting a ‘cheese rolling’ mass of bodies at the bottom, but they were both reckless and graceful at the same time. Then the marathon and half-marathon runners split, them to the left and us to the right, and the downhill section continued along narrow bumpy trail path right the way to the huge lake at the bottom which we skirted for some time.
The next 7-9miles, was generally trail, hilly and along the odd road – but always hilly. I had at this point switched into auto-pilot, and tried to run consistent km’s – desperately trying not to go too fast to conserve energy. It was varied, I remember wooded sections, road, many trails through open areas and around lakes. I just can’t for the life of me remember the order that they came in. We ran over a couple of train lines too – although the line looked deserted and rather narrow – almost miniature. We ran through the picturesque village of Beddgelert and several country pubs, which looked really cosy and snug out of the continuous rainfall. Oh, and there were gates and sty’s, some of them marshalled, some you had to open yourself. I’d say at least 15, but could have been a lot more. And a few cattle grids too!
Then we hit the mile 17 marker, I had seen on the profile of the course it starts to get a bit bumpy and climby from here on in, what I wasn’t expecting was the nature of the terrain at this point. After the water station it went boggy/ditch-y and almost felt like proper cross country. Then scrambling up some rocks, then down into a muddy wooded section, we were high again above another lake, but only by 150m or so. At this point I had taken a wrong turn – which is what you get for blindly following others; luckily he had realised his error, and we had to retrace our footsteps up the muddy incline alongside a precarious drop. I used this walk back as a tactical rest. Then we were following the ribbons again. Everybody took that last announcement on board, ‘Look out for each other’. Every time you stopped to take on energy or what have you, someone would always ask after you. I returned the favour to a faller behind me but he waved me on, with perhaps only his pride dented! The atmosphere among runners was fantastic– not racing each other. It was you versus the distance.
Now the real climb started, I think mile18-19. It just went up and not in a particularly straight line. Little did I know that this wasn’t even the Pyg Trail, this was the prelude to get up to the start of that. Run/walk? It wasn’t long before everyone was at walking pace, purely because of the steps. Not ambling, but still trying to get up at a good pace. This was again where I felt out of my depth a little. People were passing me at walking pace. I took a breather to check out their climb methods, and see the route people were taking and to try and take some energy on-board. I think this point the race had just ticked over 3 hours in. I can do this! A little re-energised, I started off again, and it wasn’t long before I needed another break! This was going to be a slog.
20mile water station was the start of the Pyg Trail, or where the hikers start from at least. I took on a banana segment, some orange juice and filled up on Isotonic and sugar-rich cola bottles. From here on-in, the trail became technical. Large boulder steps, scrambling, climbing – with use of hands for leverage. The panoramic views, and runnable parts soon disappeared – at least there were some! The rain drainage was finding its own way down from the top, the water was running down the trail and/or across, so my once muddy Roclites, were now sparkling clean again. The wind was coming in from the side, and with the altitude gain I could feel the temperature dropping. I hadn’t really checked my watch – how refreshing, but duly noted 5min/km down below were replaced by 7min, 9min, 11 min, And soon 14min/km. I think Km 35 or 36 was the worst/slowest – even looking at other competitors Strava times, proved so. Mine read 22mins for that particular km! I can’t remember where or why this was. But I saw a guy who finished around 50th place had taken him 18mins for the same Km. I expect this was probably the time when I started asking hikers coming down how long it was to summit. The responses weren’t soon enough for me. Then eventually – still thinking I had an age to go, I had arrived at the top. I only knew this once I had stepped up onto the ridge. There was an event photographer just before this point, aiming down the steep steps, and my face at this stage is a picture.
4hrs 50mins – and I had summited, but my Garmin was reading 36.5km. Surely we aren’t that close to home – maybe 29miles was right? The descent then started hard and fast, well it would have been fast if my legs never had so much fatigue, and of course, a new pain started after a few minutes. Downhill pain. The Rangers path was much safer and less technical than the Pyg trail, but full of loose boulders/rocks, and some not so loose. My weary legs, were obviously not lifting up as much as I kept kicking rocks that were both moving and stationary. My big toe suffered, and it will no doubt result in me losing another toe nail. The path eventually turned to tarmac, with Llanberis in sight. Then the curve ball came and we diverted off into the woods and a muddy / slippy track. This wound its way out and outside, before coming in at the top of village and the around the back. At this point I relaxed a bit, and then realised we had already gone over 27miles. This was when I had a mishap, I slipped on a wet boulder and levelled out before hitting the ground, fortunately more spectacular than with any force. Everyone, within thudding distance checked on me – but I told them all was good! And on we went. I crossed the finish line in 5.48:25. Which when you take off the extra mileage, wasn’t far off the time I had in mind. And the distance? Well, it’s longer than 26.2, but not as far as 29… so he wasn’t 100% correct. But the climb was as advertised, all 1689m of it, and so were the views. Stunning.
As a man, I have been on a massive learning curve with running ….
As a man, I have been on a massive learning curve with running and chafing, and I feel I’m still on it. I was a footballer by trade – and by trade, I mean I ran around a lot, and from ran around a lot I mean that I went from Centre Forward, to Right-Midfield, to right-back, to left back in the dressing room. And the only ever irritation I suffered from was blisters from new boots, and being an unused substitute. This new-boot-syndrome took me years to combat, I was down to predicting where the blistering may occur and putting a plaster there first. I got there in the end though and that was to Vaseline my feet until they my football boots were broken-in, and it was still never 100% fool proof. I’ve managed to carry this on to running shoes too, with the aid of Injinji toes socks. Actually, maybe that will be another blog, because they’re a godsend.
So let’s just get it straight out there. Chafing on the nipples and chafing on the ‘undercarriage’ (thigh chafing, and above). It was a shock to the system how problematic it was once I had started upping distances. I did the Surrey Spitfire, 20 miles. This is around the famed Top Gear test track and out into the countryside x 2 laps. 20 miles. It was the longest organised race I had done as part of Paris Marathon training in 2014. I think I did it in 2 hrs 29mins. Perfect preparation, I felt the training had been going well, and I felt good all the way through. In the final km or so we passed a busy pub, and the patrons all seemed to be watching me trot past, which I thought was odd. I was wearing a white running technical top, from the Richmond Running Festival half. People were talking to me post-race all poker-faced, and all the while I had no clue that my right nipple had been bleeding profusely. With a red solid circle visible on my top, and with sweat soaked patch, lighter red in colour around it. I got back to my car for a quick change and looked down. I almost cried in embarrassment, that I had been so completely unaware – all that time. Top changed pronto. The real pain and suffering starts when you get home. Bath or shower time, adrenaline lowered and wounds raw – it smarts a bit. Then the post-pain pain, of looking at the official race photos – oh dear.
I have no idea when my first chafing in the undercarriage region started, it’s been my nemesis, as recently as three weeks ago. Due to either ignorance of my distance tolerance, clothing ‘failure’, general laziness / forgetfulness, or for going on a longer than planned run. My latest episode had me walking back to the car like John Wayne, there is another analogy for how I was walking, but I won’t go there.
Liberal applications of Vaseline have been my friend, in both respects, the old favourite. It works, but it just gets everywhere, hands/clothes/phone/steering wheel. Unless of course you can use something to apply it with. Also, I know this from my football days, it is also an insulator, so during the warmer summer months it can’t be good for the area in general! I’m currently trying out a product called glide or bodyglide in various forms – it’s a very easy to apply anti-chafing cream in a wax format, although I have not used it enough to be a viable Vaseline alternative just yet. The best cure so far though for undercarriage problems has been wearing good quality compression shorts of some kind, keeps everything securely in place, and adds an extra skin. I have had a splitter though (my clothing failure). And I’ll be honest, that particular instance was worse than any normal running chafe, as the area of skin protrudes out through the compression garment! That was over a week off from any sort of sporting activity.
For the nipples? Well, I tried plasters / band-aid, but they kept falling off at some unknown point. Electrical tape is my current remedy. It smarts a bit to take the tape off, but it has stayed on 100% of the time, which is the main thing. And it’s dirt cheap, a roll of it will last an age! When I get my hands on some I may also try some masking tape. Which hopefully may disconnect from the skin a little easier post-race. I may update this blog, as this is a journey rather than a destination. And I hope I can learn off other runners and the methods that they use for chafe prevention, feel free to comment and drop me line if you have a successful tip!