Saturday, 30 September 2017

The Long Road to Caldbeck

It’s been another strange year for running and me. Much like last year I was injured in the spring and couldn’t take part in the Brighton Marathon. I have not made the start line for 5 of the last 6 classic Brighton road races and the 6th was cancelled due to high winds!  

I picked up an injury training for the Brighton half and it persisted for a lot longer this time; I ignored the warning signs and suffered badly when I had to hobble home in pain one weekday lunchtime during a light jog around the village.  After several false and painful re-starts an MRI scan in May showed the problem to be fissuring of the patella cartilage which make your knee look like cracked mozzarella (on the inside that is) and does not mend quickly.

Mozzarella Knee
Luckily my first big target for the year was the Prudential London-Surrey Ride 100 cycling event at the end of July and despite not being able to run I could cycle pain-free.  Also I was unemployed for two months in April and May so I was able to get stuck into my training in a big way four months from the event. Regular long rides around Mid-Sussex enabled me to ensure that my ‘hopeful’ target of six hours for the 100 mile ride was an achievable one. I have never ridden this far on roads before (the South Downs way is almost 100 miles but it’s off-road and it took more than twice this time) and I wanted to ride the 100 miles without stopping, so nutrition was a big focus of my attention while training.

The temptation to run kept calling, but each time I tried, even for a 1 mile jog, the pain would return. So I decided not to run at all from late May through to our annual camping holiday in August. That was hard. I love running!  Luckily the cycling got better and better and I approached the 100 mile event in a cloud of excitement and trepidation. The roads were closed and there was a big field, and not having ridden in a group for more than a few miles before I had no idea what the excitement and the drafting effect might do to my speed and endurance.
Waiting for Le Depart
I started from the Olympic Park in Stratford on time with 24,000 other riders and had the best day out that I have had for years. Drafting was easy with no fear of red-lights or dash-outs. No one got too close and I probably spent half the time on someone’s wheel and half with someone on mine. I felt strong at the start of the hill climbs that come after 65 miles and cruised up Leith Hill and Box Hill with bags of energy in store. 

I had originally intended to ride on very low carbs for the day, much like my recent marathon runs but during training rides I had felt tired after 4-5 hours and decided that ‘train low, race not-so-low’ was a fine approach, limiting myself to a pair of Cliff Bars cut into chunks and stored in my frame pack so that I could get at them easily on the move. The day was not too warm and surprisingly I managed the whole ride on just two standard size water bottles. I didn’t felt thirsty until after I’d finished. I probably consumed about 600 calories of carbs during the day including eggs & bacon for breakfast and perhaps the same in total in the 3 days leading up to the event; this compares favorably with the 2-3,000 calories that is generally recommended to get you through a 100 miler.

Much like my experiences running marathons as a fat-burner my energy levels remained high all day. The last 20 miles back into London were fantastic and I rode them at about 22 mph. My average for the whole ride was 18.3 mph, hills and all. This compares rather well with my 18 mph average for a 50 mile training ride just two weeks earlier. No mechanicals, no toilet stops and no accidents all led to a finishing time of 5 hours 30 minutes, which I am very, very pleased with.

My second big target for this year is the Lakes in a Day Ultra. 50 miles of varied peak and forest trails with 4,000 meters of ascent from Caldbeck on the northern border of the Lake District National Park to Cartmel on the southern border, via Blencathra, Clough Head, Helvellyn, Fairfield and the whole length of Windermere.  This is a hard event, a good deal harder than anything I have ever done before and with such a bad knee injury there have been numerous times when I have been sorely tempted to give up on my attempt for this year. I have been living on the knife-edge of a training plan for six months and until 8 a.m. on the 7th of October that’s where I will remain.

I decided that I could train for this event by focusing on long distance walking (which luckily I can do without very much pain) and building in some running from the summer onwards if my knee responded to the period of relative rest from May to August. There was little room for failure here as this left only two months to turn a walking plan into an Ultra plan.

To be clear, no one actually runs all of this 50 mile event; it is a mixture of running where possible and walking on the steeper sections, which make up a large part of the route. The record time of 9 hours 12 minutes was set at an average pace of about 5.4 mph. This may sound slow but remember the 4,000 meters of ascent and decent; the equivalent of scaling Ben Nevis three times. 

Progress was slow in the early summer but I had the 100 mile ride to focus on. My consultant hinted that he could provide a cortisone injection if the pain didn’t recede but he also reminded me that this might lead to a false recovery. Knowing me I’d be tempted to run before I could properly walk and in the long term this approach would probably speed up my inevitable decline. I hope to keep running for a good few years yet and so a proper recovery was clearly the best way forwards, even if it meant not making the start line once again.

As has happened before (see my BHM post) things started to improve during our camping holiday in August. I'm sure that being on my feet all day rather than sat behind a desk is very good for the legs. I managed a little jogging at first and this progressed to a 15-mile walk-run by the end of the fortnight. This together with several brisk long walks of between 20 and 30 miles in length at a pace of 4 mph left me feeling much more positive about my ability to complete. I had hoped to beat 13 hours (if I am fit I normally take the record time and add one third) but my "I’d be happy with this" target of 14 now seemed just about achievable. Although having never walked or run this far before this does leave a lot of scope for error! 

There was pain during the long walks and I’ve spent many hours on the point of packing it in and calling for Uber and a pizza; but often as not the pain would melt away after an hour or two leaving me able to walk happily for another 4 or 5 hours. I’m not suggesting that we should ‘run through the pain’ as many hard-as-nails fell runners would advocate; when the pain comes I slow down, change my gait, have a drink of water or pick some blackberries. The challenge has been more mental than physical, and as we get older I think we get stronger mentally.

I may have mentioned once or twice before that I love running fast and challenging myself. My wife, a personal trainer, often remarks on how most people need someone to motivate them to get their trainers on and do some hard work. But that’s not my problem at all; conversely what I need is someone to hold me back. With typical over-enthusiasm I returned from France with a desire to burn up the hills in anticipation of the mountains to come in October. As soon as I’d unpacked the trailer I put my Salomon’s on and tore up and down the Tank Tracks 4 times. It felt great, up until 100 yards from the end of the last hill when a tiny prick of pain stabbed my left calf.

Over the following month that prick of pain has receded but only slowly. I’ve cursed my stupid self many times but oddly it may have turned out to be a good thing in the end. The mild pain spreading from a tight ball in my calf has not stopped me from completing a series of brisk 30-mile walks and I’ve thrown in some light running too including an pleasant jog along the 7 Sisters from Cuckmere Haven after 7 hours of brisk walking. 

Cuckmere Haven looking like a watercolour
Without this restraint I may well have started to focus too much on running and not enough on fast walking. Long hill runs require lots of recovery but my target-paced walk/runs are much lighter on the limbs and very much more specific training for what I am hoping to achieve. It’s going to be a long slog but I’ve been slogging it out at about the right pace on a regular basis for several months now. 

When I decided to continue training for this event with a bad knee I set myself a red-line, a target training effort that would decide whether Jane and I would make the long-haul up to Cumbria for a weekend away from the kids and mostly away from each other. I try to be realistic and I like to finish what I set out to achieve. I have DNF'd only twice before and I did not feel good. I want to enjoy this experience and I knew that if I was not in a fit state to perform then there would be little chance of that. Better to be in the garden weeding!

And so in order to go to The Lakes I had to complete a 30 mile route with at least 1,000 meters of hills in under 7 hours with no bad knee pain with at least 3 weeks to go before the event. Ordinarily this would not be such a challenge for me but from where I was sat back in April I clearly had a mountain to climb. A fortnight back, with no time to spare I passed the test and now my bags are packed and ready - despite the fact that I write this post from Portland Oregon! I’ve seen enough of the South Downs Way for this year and now it’s time to head north. 

With one week to go I have just about enough miles in my jet-lagged legs, I have a willing chauffeur (actually Jane put me up to it in the first place), I have the hotels booked, I have the shiny new kit required, I know the route (I receed the second half while on holiday in the Lakes at Easter and I know the first half from the past) and, most importantly it looks like I really will be there on the start line with 450 other runners in Caldbeck on October the 7th.

What could possibly go wrong?