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Welcome to my blog which I hope to develop with some interesting material on ultra running both on the trails and road including reports on races and interesting training runs, views on kit and equipment as well as anything else I find of interest. I love running for adventure, opportunity and well being. Enjoy!

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Rigby Round Fast-Pack, The Cairngorms: 19-20 July 2014

Well, nearly.

I had a great outing in The Cairngorms last weekend, deciding last minute to take the sleeper train up to Aviemore and have a go at a fast-packing a bunch of Munros as part of my training for UTMB. The Cairngorms are famous for forming the highest continuous mountain plateaux in the British Isles with five of the six highest mountains in Scotland. It’s an area of Scotland I’ve spent very little time exploring, particularly from the western side, so I thought it would provide an ideal location for a weekend challenge. I then stumbled across the Rigby Round, a continuous circuit of all the Munros in the Cairngorms – 18 in total – devised by Mark Rigby in the late 80’s. There are a number famous ‘rounds’ in the UK, and many more less so. This is definitely on the less-well-known end of the scale, so appealed in that sense, but also appeared to offer a suitable degree of challenge.

After a busy week at work I caught the Friday night sleeper train from London Euston to Aviemore which got me right on location very efficiently despite a rather miserable night’s sleep due to the air conditioning being defective on the train. It was a humid 31°C in London, and Garmin told me the temperature was exactly the same in the sleeping berth! My protestations to train staff fell on deaf ears, the response effectively being like it or lump it. I certainly wasn’t about to do an about turn for a reason like that - there would be far more significant challenges to overcome over the course of the weekend.

Arriving in Aviemore at 7.40am Saturday morning I grabbed a taxi to the start point for the round at Loch Morlich Youth Hostel in Glenmore. It’s only about 6 miles to the east of Aviemore – I know, what a wimp – but with the relatively late start it would be tight getting anywhere near half way round on day one as it was.

The route is quoted as being around 75miles with 6,000 metres of ascent/ descent, but it obviously depends on your precise route choice and method of recording the stats. I aimed to complete the round in two days, with an overnight camp between. Previous completions – and there really aren’t that many – have gone continuously targeting sub 24 hours. I was adopting the route, not any time goal, and given the hefty load I was carrying, you will appreciate my aim was building strength for UTMB as opposed to flying round to set a record. I was travelling ‘tortoise style’, carrying everything I needed to be self sufficient for a 36 hour period, including; sleeping system, stove, food, clothing and all the usual navigation and safety paraphernalia for long solo days accross remote terrain.

Whilst I did feel a little weigh-laid by the amount of kit I was carrying, I also drew comfort from the fact that if the weather really did get bad – the forecast wasn’t that great at all – I could just get the tent set up and wait for it to pass through. In the end it was fairly consistent all day; a stiff wind on the tops, plenty of clag (mist) on the tops above 800 metres (that would be for the majority of the day then) and persistent misty rain.

Lairig Ghru; clag ahead!
I went anti-clockwise, heading in to my first summit via Rothiermurchus Lodge and the Lairig Ghru. Braeriach was the first summit and, once into the main part of the ascent, I could see barely 50 metres in any direction. The compass and GPS became a lifeline when picking a line around the head of Loch Enich to Sgor Gaoith and negotiating some rather disorientating ground around the Wells of Dee (I assume the source of the River Dee). The 2nd and 3rd summits formed a triangle, so at Loch nan Cnapan I dumped my pack to move quicker.

There was a brief spell of around an hour when the visibility was better enabling some glimpsing views from the top of Sgor Gaoith and then to pick a direct line across to Mullach Clach a’Bhlair, a rather insignificant hill which you would probably ignore unless you were box ticking like I was. A rather unsightly land rover track then allowed a fast traverse to collect my pack again, and then a return to the trudging with a long and rough contour around the western flanks of Monadh Moor to reach the col before Beinn Bhrotain. Again, I could ditch my pack for a quicker out and back, before following the ridge-line north and over the summit of Monadh Moor. With a lot of the lines connecting groups of hills in this round, the route was often rough and slow and there were few trods to latch on to. I lost count of the number of ptarmigan and arctic hares I spotted, or nearly tripped over. It was amazing to be sharing this claggy wilderness with them, which in the winter would be as close to arctic as you can get in the UK.

With visibility so poor, and my pack avoiding any sort of dexterity in my movement, it was a testing day for sure, and the climb to the next group of summits including Angel’s Peak, Cairn Toul and Devil’s Point felt like a real grind. Once on the ridge it wasn’t bad at all, with some enjoyable boulder hopping on the tops of the summits.

I was hopeful of getting closer to Ben Macdui before succumbing to the lure of a hot meal, dry sleeping bag and comforting tent, but with the misty rain prevalent for most of the day now getting stronger, I decided to call it a day after 8 Munros, seeking out a camp spot at the foot of Carn a’Mhaim. It was also fair to say that the steep and rough flanks of this hill were not particularly enticing in the fading light and on tired legs.

Corrour Bothy at the end of Day 1. Not great conditions. Camera stayed in pocket for most of the day!
It wasn’t all that easy finding a suitable camping spot out of the wind and avoiding the bogs but I got there in the end. It was a delight to get my wet clothes off and feet dry, as well as to get a hot meal and brew on the go. The New Zealand sourced freeze-dried meals by Expedition Foods really hit the spot.

Not a bad overnight camp location despite the gloomy conditions
It was late by the time I had myself sorted – gone 11pm. Sleeping time would now be a little compromised with 10 Munros and more than half the total distance still to cover on day two. I settled on a 4.30am alarm, aiming to be packed up and on the go within an hour. With a slightly fitful night’s sleep, it wasn’t too hard getting up when the alarm went, although it was raining heavily, and my heart immediately sank with the thought of another wet trudge on the hills.

Packing was slowed down somewhat by the presence of midgies, but I was on the climb up Carn a’Mhaim by 5.45, and on the summit by 6.30. The timing was perfect because no sooner had I started moving, the rain cleared and breaks in the cloud started to appear. The climb itself wasn’t half as bad as it looked the evening before, perhaps just the rest gave me a new lease of life. Ben Macdui was next offering the biggest climb of the day, and somewhat teasing glimpses of the incredible scenery around me, now right in the heart of The Cairngorms. The summit usually provides some of the best views in the area, but the clag was still hanging around up high, so it wasn’t to be.

Novelty - I can see something!
A bag drop facilitated an efficient out and back to Derry Cairngorm before a quick descent to the outlet to Lock Etchachan and a north-easterly ascent of Beinn Mheadhoin. By this time the views were really opening up, and I was even rewarded with a little sunshine. Heaven. I took a poor line off Beinn Mheadhoin following the wrong gully too far to the north, but it did the job and got me down to the head of Glen Derry before re-ascending to the plateau between Beinn Bhreac, Beinn a Bhuird and Beinn a Chaorainn. Again I dropped my bag to climb two of these hills, reclaiming it for the latter, from which I would head north across to Fords of Avon and then Bynack More. It was around this time that I had to make decisions on timings, because the day was now getting on, and I was conscious of my 21.15 train departure from Aviemore. With great disappointment I had to leave the most easterly summit, Leabaidh an Daimh Bhuidhe, which would have added over an hour with a long out and back. It was too risky - the timings simply didn’t stack up.

Ford of Avon - in the river - and very refreshing

The summit of Beinn a Chaorainn
I had some finely tuned timings worked out in my head for the last couple of summits which would have me finished by 8.30pm, and I seemed to hit all those one by one. From Bynack More, the penultimate summit, there was a really imposing view of Cairn Gorm which was the final summit, involving a significant descent to The Saddle near Loch Avon before a steep ascent of the south east side of Cairn Gorm. From afar it seemed unachievable so gave me some anxiety late on, but on closer inspection there was a good diagonal trod which got me up there efficiently.

I was at the top of Cairn Gorm at 7.20pm and from there I called a taxi to pick me up from Glenmore at 8.30pm. It was the same driver that had picked me up the day before, so I was hopeful he wouldn’t let me down. I just needed to run the lengthy descent via the ski centre to get there in time. That was all fine, there’s nothing like a deadline to focus the mind.

Panorama from the top of the final summit, Cairn Gorm.
And before I knew it I was tucked up in bed on the train south, nodding off for a well earned sleep, ready for work in London the next day. Quite some weekend.

Western States 100, 28 June 2014

This has done the rounds on Twitter & Facebook already, but just in case you missed it here's my write up on Western States.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

The North Face Global Athlete Team Summit - San Francisco, CA

I spent the past week in San Francisco along with team mates from The North Face Global Athlete Team. I'm not too sure how to do it all justice in a few words but basically, it was a super cool experience.

The team brings together a unique mix of alpinists, climbers, snowboarders, skiers, endurance runners and adventurers, all leaders in their respective sports. So when the everyone is brought together there is mutual respect flying around by the bucket load along with somewhat scary levels of energy and competitiveness. 

I sea kayaked with Conrad Anker ("arguably the world's most influential alpinist" - a quote from Outdoor Magazine that I randomly read on the way home), ran with multiple winners of races like UTMB and Western States, had dinner with Sochi Winter Games medalists and cross trained (Mountain Athletics) with a selection of them all. Where do you start when chatting with these guys? It's like your dream dinner date fifty times over. Oh, and a full week of it too.

The brand has always put athletes and expeditions at the forefront of everything it does and, being based at the headquarters in San Francisco, the place where it all began 46 years ago, really hammered that home. We also managed to make good use of the outdoors playground that is California by heading north and trying our hand at some different sports whilst hanging out at a beautiful campground set amongst giant Redwoods. 

Sometimes I need to take a step back to remember just how fortunate I am to be a part of it all, but I've certainly come away feeling inspired, honoured and fired up ready for more adventures in the coming year.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Hong Kong 100 (km)

All the great trail races around the world seem to share one thing in common; an iconic course. The Vibram Hong Kong 100 (km) race certainly ticks that box in style. Let’s face it, we run these trail races for the overall experience and sense of adventure, not for a best time at the distance, so it’s a crucial factor.

Before I headed out to Hong Kong for this year’s race I confess to being a little sceptical about a race which, by implication of it’s name, was based around a big city. So how would a trail race work in and around the city of Hong Kong? Superbly, that’s how.

In fact the race delivered a truly unique course like I’ve never experienced before, combining a genuine trail run stacked with technical running and a whopping 4,500m of climbing, with incredible views across the iconic skyscrapers of one of the world’s great cities. Urban and rural all in one; impressive, unique, dramatic. Superlatives galore.

The Hong Kong 100 is also the first race in the calendar of the newly founded Ultra Trail World Tour (UTWT), a series that brings together some of the classic ultra distance trail races around the globe. Standards are high here because UTMB and the Western States 100 – two of the international classics – are corner stones of the 12 race series. But despite being only a few years old, having experienced the Hong Kong 100, I know for sure that it deserves it’s place amongst such great company. The race founders and directors, Steve and Janet, are on to something special. They’re a lovely couple too, and really know how to host.

I was on a fairly whistle-stop schedule due to work commitments. I worked the Wednesday day in London then hopped on an overnight flight direct to Hong Kong, arriving some 12 hours later, now Thursday evening with the time difference. It was a sudden but welcome immersion into vibrant culture, a pleasant climate (18°C and sunny) and dramatic vistas of skyscrapers set against a mountainous backdrop.

I was based with other elites at a youth centre close to the race start on the Sai Kung peninsula. It was a great little base, ideally located for the race start but away from the hussle and bussle of the city, a big plus for a country bumpkin like me. I had little more than 24 hours to get my head straight, shake out the legs and generally sort myself out! Of course trying to stay calm and not do too much the day before a race never really happens in reality so I didn’t worry too much about the long list of commitments and pre-race ‘to-dos’ I needed to address in a worryingly short space of time. Instead I just embraced the whole whistle-stop nature of my trip and tried to do everything with a smile, despite suffering from a little bit of jet lag. So I travelled into town to collect my race number, hung out with fellow runners here and there, had a filming session with the race documentary team, and then packed my kit ready for race day. A quick sleep – well almost – and it was race day, and time to head for the start.

My main worry leading into the race was a lack of course knowledge, an approach which doesn’t follow my usual policy of recceing race routes beforehand, in order to know how best to race them. Oh well, all part of the excitement I guess.

The race was underway at 8am, with 1,600 excited runners let loose on the trails in beautiful conditions with clear sunny skies, very little pollution and great visibility. It was the equivalent to a good spring day in the UK, and certainly a welcome change from the appalling winter conditions we’ve experienced in the UK. Perhaps a little warm even – I shouldn’t complain. The local’s enthusiasm for trail running was very apparent with stacks of shiny, cutting-edge, kit on display – only in Chamonix have I seen a field of runners outdone.

Start line (credit: Lao Yao / Vibram Hong Kong 100).
The race route largely follows the Maclehose Trail, Hong Kong’s primary long distance trail, a real belter of a route which explores coastline, peninsulas, forest and mountains. It was a fast flat start with an impressively competitive feel. Two packs led the way for the first 11km or so of mostly tarmac to control point one, merging together just before. You could tell the guys who were setting their stall out early, it was no nonsense running. The field had real international depth, with all the contenders having multiple wins to their names, so it was clear the competition for places would be fierce.

Frantic early pace (credit: Lao Yao / Vibram Hong Kong 100)
Hitting the trails for the first time was fun, and worth the wait. We were soon out on to the coastline peninsulas, cruising the trails across open headlands, white sand beaches and sections of dense forest. It was sensory overload with all the colours and sounds to take in, particularly with the excitement of running on a new continent for the first time.

Pretty nice, huh? (credit: Lao Yao / Vibram Hong Kong 100)
What I soon found out was that concentration was key. A lot of the trails in Hong Kong are hard baked mud or indeed concrete with steps making accurate foot placement essential to stay upright, and high cadence equally important to maintain a strong pace.

I ran with the lead pack of 20 or so runners until around 15km, at which point I realised it wasn’t a sustainable pace for me, particularly given that most of the 4,500 metres of total ascent was back loaded, and worth saving some strength for.

If I’m honest, I took a fairly relaxed approach to the race as a whole with my training not remotely specific to the course. I haven’t done much climbing over the winter months, and admittedly I’ve been favouring leg speed over hills on the basis there’s a long year ahead. It’s also fair to say the winter we’ve had in the UK so far hasn’t been particularly conducive to long days in the hills. The priority was definitely enjoying the experience and getting some solid running in the bank as opposed to a ground-breaking performance. So I did my own thing, and actually enjoyed having the space to take everything in around me, without the hussle and bustle of running in a combative pack.

The kilometres seemed to tick by reasonably well for the first half of the race as the route hugged the coastline, before later heading inland towards the hills. My pace was very steady, but I suspected that I was losing ground on the leaders because my general fluidity wasn’t great, and I had to work hard in moving from checkpoint to checkpoint.

However the amazing contrasts continued, from the hussle and bussle of the checkpoint areas where the volunteers couldn’t do enough to help you, to the serene and calming sounds of the waves lapping the shore right next to the trail. Peaceful coves, rustic villages and an abundance of wildlife were all there to be enjoyed.

Then the climbing and rising temperatures started to kick in a bit more and the distinction between the two halves of the race became clearer. The climbs and descents came thick and fast – nothing spectacularly big – but cumulatively significant. Perhaps it would have been easier if you could switch off and run to your stride, but stride length was firmly dictated by the going of steps, and perhaps it was a little too restrictive for my liking.

One word: "Steps". (credit: Lao Yao / Vibram Hong Kong 100)
I expected there to be casualties from the early pace, and there were, but never as many as one would hope. But each place I gained was real motivation for more, and I started to close in on the top ten. By the 80km mark I was definitely suffering, perhaps the lack of really long runs in training, or just a bit of early season rustiness. Thankfully the real suffering held off until that point because mentally I was now on the home straight, despite some fairly savage final hills to negotiate.

Not a bad backdrop for the final sections (credit: Jeanette Wang)
Lurking in the distance as the culmination of the race was Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kong’s highest peak at just under 1,000m, and a real twist in the tail of the race coming so late on. By the time I started to make the final climb the sun was setting against cityscape either side of the ridge. Blocking out the skyscrapers, it could have been the high alpine meadows of New Zealand’s South Island. As it was, I was in apparent touching distance of a mega city. With clear views to both front and back to satisfy myself there would be no change to my finishing position, I was able enjoy it, and quite memorable it was. The top of the climb was at the 98km mark, and then just a couple of kilometres of road running free fall to the finishing gantry. I finished in 10th place, a smidgen under 11hours, as the first European home. It wasn’t a race that any of the newcomers found easy, particularly those from the other side of the globe, but it was a solid opening run to the series, and a truly great all round experience. As the opening race of the new UTWT series, there’s definitely a lot to look forward to.

Finishing chute

Me moaning about - err - steps.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

UTMB 2013

Here's a link to my write up on this year's UTMB, published on the Run247 website.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Back to it

It’s amazing to think that six months have passed since I finished Te Araroa and that’s the last time I posted anything here. Whilst the blog suggests otherwise, I don’t really feel like I’ve been ‘away’ from running as such but patience has been important to claw myself back from the rather low place I was in physically.. In the few months immediately after the expedition I wrote a lot about my experiences for magazines and interviews, and reflected upon the experience as a whole. I’m sure you’ve had enough of all that, and I certainly think it’s time to start looking forward again.

The plan from here is to get back into some racing and ‘shorter’ challenges, and initially to have a go at some races that remain unticked on my bucket list. I get asked a lot whether I will do another ‘long trail’ project, and hand on heart I couldn’t say no to that question, but it would definitely be a few years down the line because the impact on body, mind, family and friends is massive. However some shorter fastest known time (FKT) challenges appeal to me, of which there are plenty to choose from in the UK for starters. I am mulling over some options for next year at the moment. Hush hush.

But right now I’m feeling in a really good place in terms of strength, health and fitness. Hurray. It’s a good job really, because in a couple of weeks time I shall once again be on the start line for the The North Face Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc; possibly not the most forgiving ultra race around, particularly as a comeback race. And of course it’s not a new race to me, like I said would be my focus. But it’s a race I really love, and the last time I had a ‘clean’ build-up i.e. without much racing involved in the few months beforehand was 2010 on the comeback from injury, and that year I had a belter. So why not hey…..

So what have I been up to over the last six months? Just pulling myself back together really. Back in health now, I’ve realised just how low I really was after Te Araroa. Yes, I know, it’s not a massive surprise to hear I was deeply fatigued after all that running, but actually, I was pretty bad. In the final part of the run, I never really properly recovered from the stomach bug that stopped me in my tracks for 3 days, and I really just soldiered on, determined to finish the job in hand. We suspected it was giardia at the time, but after it lingered for weeks on return to the UK, I had various tests and I found out I was actually suffering from salmonella. So the chances are it was salmonella all the time, and with my beaten up immune system it probably lurked in my body for several weeks, and only really responded positively after two courses of antibiotics. I will never really know for sure, but what I do know is that my recovery was particularly drawn out by my body’s struggle to absorb what it needed, and it’s never great to have something like that sit around in your system for too long.

I started doing some light running, walking and swimming within a few weeks of getting back around mid-February. I felt like I was learning to do all these things for the first time again, such hard work it proved to be. The complicated picture of having a beaten up ‘system’ mixed with general fatigue simply from the duration of the run was hard to pick my way through. The exercise I was doing didn’t involve any significant exertion, so I felt it important to at least get my limbs moving again after so much ‘rust’ had accumulated.

Before I finished Te Araroa my plan had been to taper down from the daily distance and running routine by at least doing a little bit each day for the few weeks afterwards. But what actually happened was that as soon as my mind knew it was all over, so too my body let go, and physically my body was just not up to anything. I soon let go of that idea, and did nothing in the immediate aftermath.

I started to turn a significant corner during a holiday to Scotland at the end of April. Running around the low level tracks of the local glens was a really positive experience, and I could do it without stopping – progress! From that point I gained some consistency, and step-by-step, run-by-run, my endurance and speed started to creep back.

Mindful of just drifting back into a ploddy Te Araroa pace and that finding some ‘speed’ would be the real challenge, I entered a couple of local road races to try and push myself on. The first was the Purbeck 10k which was, frankly, horrible. The first 5km was bearable, but the second 5km was horribly painful. I’ve never been overtaken by so many people during a race. But it gave me some focus for a spell of speedwork, and tempos runs to work on threshold pace, and that proved successful with a win at a local 8mile fun run and 2nd place at a half marathon. Progress….

By this time I was starting to run ‘long’ again, with a staple diet of one or two twenty milers per week, sometimes a little bit more. Without any taper I ran the Cortina Trail race in the Dolomites which again felt like part of the process of getting me back to the right place. I wasn’t competitive – I’m not sure I ever will be at the shorter ultra distance races without specific focus – but I ran a solid race, did my own thing, and at a slightly slower pace I could easily have held on for a much greater distance.

I then felt like there was a platform there for UTMB, so I’ve spent the summer focusing my training accordingly, with several trips to the mountains to get the necessary climbing and descending into my legs. I’ve been to the Brecon Beacons, Shropshire Hills, Scottish Highlands, round the UTMB course over 3 days and Snowdonia for my annual Snowdon ‘reps’ session. With these training weekends alone, it’s been quite a summer already with some great weather to enjoy long days in the mountains.

Col du Bonhomme on the UTMB course
You can read about these outings in the blog posts I’ve written for run247.com:

In all honesty I still don’t know for sure how my body will be over 100 miles in the mountains, and I won’t know the answer to that until at least after Cormayeur on the UTMB course. It’s a fine balance between pushing yourself hard to get fit, but not tiring yourself so much that you’re actually losing strength in the process of training. Whatever happens in UTMB this year, I’m out to enjoy it, and I’ll certainly be starting with a big grin on my face, simply from the experiences I’ve had over the summer, and the sheer excitement that a unique race like UTMB brings. Let’s just cross our fingers for some better weather this year, and a race on the full course.

Poles? Maybe, haven't decided yet.

on the Ramsay Round route, big Ben in the background

Chamonix bound on the last day of my UTMB training loop

The last munro on the Ramsay Round route. Phew.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Te Araroa - articles and coverage - UPDATED 14/02/13

Pre Expedition

Ian Corless

The Independent newspaper


The Telegraph newspaper - The Adventure Interview

Competitor online

Run 247

Run 247

'Advendure' - Greece

Mid Expedition

The North Face Journal - photos, video, blog, infographic

North Island video dispatch 

Epic Adventurer

Wilderness magazine, NZ

Marathon Talk - podcast interview

Trail Runner Magazine

Ian Corless/ Talk Ultra

Run 247

Outside online

Post Expedition

iRunFar's detailed expedition round-up

Ian Corless / Talk Ultra interview

Ian Corless expedition round-up 

Run 247

Mud, Sweat & Tears

Wilderness magazine, NZ

Trail Runner magazine, US

Te Araroa - official website, NZ

Outdoors Magic

Go Trail

Planet Fear

Independent newspaper

The North Face website - expedition photo collection by Damiano Levati

Peignee Verticale, France

U-Trail, France

Telegraph newspaper

Tim Taylor - NZ Kayaker - our Cook Strait Guide - Tim's write up

'Advendure' - Greece