Chalamain Gap, Cairngorms, August 2014

The Chalamain Gap walk starts from the Sugarbowl car park, on your left as you ascend the road to Cairngorm Mountain, and can be used to access the Lairig Ghru.

Creag a Chalamain offers an excellent viewpoint and a great place to stop for some food and refreshment but, on this particular occasion, the walk was an out and back just as far as the boulder strewn gorge.

Unfortunately the dreader Midge was out in full force at the gorge and was intent on feasting on me!

“The Chalamain Gap is a popular route from here – a ravine filled with a jumble of boulders that makes a spectacular destination on its own, or as part of a journey to climb Braeriach. Further on, the Lairig Ghru pass is a classic long distance hike to Braemar, on the other side of the Cairngorms.” (http://scotland.forestry.gov.uk/forest-parks/glenmore-forest-park/sugarbowl)

Cairngorms Holiday, May 2014

We were due to arrive in Coylumbridge on Friday 25th April. However, a sickness bug struck myself and then Leanne, rendering us unable to travel until the Sunday. Two days gone out of our seven before we had even arrived! Given how bad we both felt (I lost 1/2 a stone in 24 hours thanks to vomiting alone!), we were happy just to be there and determined to make the most of the remaining 5 days.

I’ve seen us spend 14 days in the Cairngorms in the middle of Summer and have 13 days solid torrential rain so my expectations are never that high when it comes to the weather. Monday started misty but soon gave way to temperatures of 22 degrees, making the Cairngorms the hottest place in the country. Bonus! The rest of the week, although not as hot, ranged from sunny to very occasional rain showers and ended with a beautifully sunny day that saw us delay our planned departure by a good few hours.

Myself and Harris made the most of the trails on our doorstep for our early morning run/walks, with Harris enjoying the comfort of the Croozer. We were then joined by Leanne and various family members for walks throughout the day, enjoying trails both old and new.

The above gallery gives an indication of where we went, exploring the trails of Rothiemurchus, the Uath Lochans & Farleitter Crag, Lochan Uaine – The Green Loch, Revack and Loch an Eilein.

So, back to normality come Monday but I can’t complain too much. We are heading back to the Cairngorms for another week in a months time. Can’t wait :o)

The Art Of Tapering?

New post at The Running Bug, The Art Of Tapering? – an account of my pre races nerves, niggles and tapering woes!

Those of you with a race in the near future will likely be turning your thoughts to tapering.

What is Tapering?

“In the context of sports, tapering refers to the practice of reducing exercise in the days just before an important competition. Tapering is customary in many endurance sports, such as the marathon, athletics and swimming. For many athletes, a significant period of tapering is essential for optimal performance. The tapering period frequently lasts as much as a week or more.”

The general idea is that you finish your period of training with a workout simulating the actual race distance and conditions and that this is immediately followed by a period of tapering. The taper is a process of winding down, reducing the extent of exercise over a period of up to 3 weeks. Medical studies suggest that the final three weeks of marathon training programs are critical to training.

“A review of fifty studies on tapering indicates that optimal levels of muscle glycogen, enzymes, antioxidants, and hormones, which are significantly depleted by intense endurance training, are achieved during a taper.”

(Information from Wikipedia)

Useful Links

I have included some links that may prove useful for anyone with an impending race. I would suggest that these are excellent sources of reference and should be read by anyone who has a race to prepare for. Having read the information, it is then down to seeing what works for you. Unfortunately, tapering, whilst theoretically straightforward, is often practically quite different – or at least it is where I am concerned.

Tapering & Me!

In a nutshell, the idea is that you run less and rest more. Sounds good! – or at least it does in principal!

If this is the part where you expect me to tell you how I followed the recommended 3 week taper to the letter and combined it with a few days of carb loading so that I ended up on the starting line brimming with energy and raring to go – stop now or forever be disillusioned!

My first taper was for The Edinburgh Marathon back in 2009, my first marathon. I followed the suggested 3 week taper. I followed the suggested approach to carb loading in the final few days leading up to the Marathon. Come the day of the marathon, I found myself on the line, ready to go – unfortunately feeling rusty, lethargic, and bloated. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I felt like the Michelin Man! (In all honesty, the Michelin Man to the right looks far fitter than I felt that day)

That was the first and last time that I followed the recommended approach to tapering and carb loading!

Speaking with friends who also ran that day, many of them for the first time, there was similar disillusionment with the traditional 3 week taper. It appears that I wasn’t the only one who got it ‘wrong’.

So, beware – it is not a one size fits all approach and should be approached with caution. I think the main thing is to do what feels right. Listen to your body, and obviously to consider at all times that this is intended as a wind down period so that you are in the best possible shape on the big day.

If there is one thing that I have learnt about tapering, it is that it fairly highlights any niggles you have and this is also something to beware of. I can’t recall where I first read that but I have to agree with it. While you are in the full on training stage, punishing the body week in, week out, it is only natural to feel tired and/or sore. When you still get those feelings having backed off from training, that is when the mind goes in to overdrive – am I injured, how bad is it, will it be sorted in time for the race, and so on. My advice to you is ‘Don’t Panic!’

I am writing this the day before The D33, the first of the Scottish Ultra Marathon Series races for 2012. I have spent the past week panicking! Everything from illness concerns, injury concerns and kit concerns has gone through my head this past week.

The extent of my ‘tapering’ was that, for the first time in a month, I did not run in excess of 20 miles. Last weekend I started my taper with runs of 10 and 12 miles respectively. I reached these arbitrary distances as a result of a quick poll on Facebook amongst friends who are also running tomorrow. With responses ranging from Munro bagging to 5 mile runs, I plumped for what I saw as the middle ground.

Unfortunately, things did not go to plan! Neither run felt particularly good.

The main problem was the throbbing pain in my right shoulder. You would think that this would have little bearing on your ability to run. Unfortunately, it prevented me from swinging my arm naturally, something that was essential to running with any ounce of speed! I tried running with my right arm hanging by my side – this didn’t help in the slightest. Fortunately the trail was quiet – no one was around to witness my attempt at a zombie run. By the time I returned from my run on Saturday I was fairly despondent. Less than a week to go and I was injured.

Now normally I would be clueless as to when I had incurred the injury. That was not the case on this occasion. I thought back to my descent from the trails around the Lairig Ghru less than a week earlier, arms windmilling as I tried to descend with even the smallest element of control (fail!). This was most definitely when I had done the shoulder some damage.

Bugger!

The Sunday run went marginally better, but only because the sharp pain in my shoulder was replaced with a numbness from mile 8 onwards. On top of that, I was distracted by the heat which was most unexpected, offering the potential of starting the years tan!

One thing that I was reminded of which again put me off ‘tapering’ was that I usually feel pretty ropey in the first few miles of any run, up until the point where everything settles down and I just get on with it.

When I am running shorter distances, that point of contentment appears to come relatively late in the run and, as a result, I do the whole over-analysis of what went wrong/where/how etc.

The Final Countdown

The return of Mrs Mac from a month away working in Houston certainly got the week off to a good start.

On the Monday neither I nor Mrs Mac felt 100%. I thought long and hard about what they say about planes, people, recycled air and germs.

At that point, I wrote off my impending race. I was almost certain that I was in for a dose of the flu. My tendency to fear the worst kicked into overdrive!

All things considered, I decided I would be on the start line, regardless of how poorly I felt. This was, after all, the first race of the season and I would be there, flu or no flu.

On Tuesday I felt fine – or at least health wise I did. So that will be the no flu option then. Ahem – Panic over!

I ran for just 3 miles on Tuesday evening but it was enough to highlight that the shoulder injury was still with me.

Bugger! (Panic resumed)

On Wednesday, my new Hoka Stinson Evo trainers arrived. (Panic momentarily forgotten)

Now any sane person would probably discount the thought of running 33 miles in brand new shoes. You should ***never*** run in brand new shoes.

With this in mind, I ran just under 5 miles on Thursday evening. I now, ahem, consider the shoes to be broken in and will toe the line in the Stinsons on Saturday morning.

On the plus side, the Hokas felt lush.

On the down side, there’s still no sign of a let up in the shoulder injury.

Bugger! (Panic resumed)

So, a day until the D33, the first of the Scottish Ultra Marathon Series races, and I know that I will not be 100% when I reach the start line. I had hoped to attain a new PB. I have revised this. I only want to finish, anything else is a bonus.

I have not, however, sunk into the depths of despair. Thinking back to this time last year, my longest (and only) long run had been 18 miles. Thanks in part to the mild weather, I have racked up a good few long runs with the longest being 30 miles. In 2010 and 2011 my January & February mileage was 210 and 201 miles respectively. In 2012 I racked up 335 miles – which, in panic mode, leads me to consider ‘have I overtrained?’ (arrrgghhhh! I just can’t win!)

It’s like race day but amplified – you know the feeling where the hours are counting down, the nerves are kicking in, and you just want to get started – the way I feel now is like that, only I started 7 days too early and maintained it for the best part of the week! (Who am I kidding, I am still panicking – I will still be panicking until about an hour in to the run when hopefully everything will start to settle down and I once again attain that point of contentment.)

All things considered, I should feel better prepared and, with this in mind, I have to ask myself, why but why have I spent the last week panicking!

The weird thing is that I think the successes of last year are partly to blame. The logical way of looking at things would be to take the experiences of last year and to take this as proof that I can complete my ultramarathons. I have, however, taken the successes of last year and turned them into a stick with which to beat myself! What if I can’t do them, what if I get a DNF, what if I don’t get a PB, what if my miles are slower and not, as you would expect one year on, faster.

Only time will tell how tomorrow, and indeed the rest of the 2012 season, will turn out. The main thing that I need to do is to keep some perspective on what’s important and to try and enjoy the races, to learn from them, and to try and better my previous performances if at all possible but to work within whatever set of circumstances I happen to find myself in on the day!

Best of luck to all those running this weekend and especially to those who will be with me at the D33. I hope that your race day build up is considerably less stressful than mine!

A Podcast Moment

Having been listening to more running related podcasts, I thought I would share this gem with you as it may well strike a chord with a number of Running Bug members. It was a US based podcast and the presenters were interviewing someone who had lost a lot of weight but was, like myself, still classed as ‘heavy’ in comparison to a typical ultra runner. If I recall correctly, the guy in question was now approximately 16 stone, having started at 28 stone, an amazing amount of weight loss.

“think running an ultramarathon is tough? Tough is walking into a meeting hoping that the chairs dont have arms, tough is walking on to a plane and seeing in people’s faces the worry about ‘is this guy sitting next to me’.”

Hopefully I will not need to dig deep this coming Saturday, but if I do, then this is one that I can certainly give some consideration to. I was really touched to hear the above in the interview.

At the end of the day, I choose to put myself through the ringer in my ultramarathons. I know that there will very likely be low points and yet I choose to make these testing times part of my life. When I heard the above it certainly put things into perspective and it made me think long and hard about just how judgemental people, myself included, can be.

Cairngorm Weekend & A Triple Countdown

New post at The Running Bug, ‘Cairngorm Weekend & A Triple Countdown‘.

Saturday morning started off sunny enough, or at least it did for the first 3 miles. With the prospect of a long day ahead, I did not think twice and stopped to pull on my trusty The North Face Triumph jacket. If ever a product was aptly named, it was the Triumph. Super lightweight and extremely packable, it is the kind of jacket that happily sits in your pack until those rare days when it really is needed. Today was one of those days.

My plan had been to run from Coylumbridge, where I was staying for the weekend along with some of Mrs Macs family, up and in to The Lairig Ghru. I walked The Lairig Ghru in 2005 and then had a partial foray from Braemar as far as the Devil’s Point in 2006. Both visits preceded my interest in ultra running and, as such, I felt that a return to the Lairig Ghru was long overdue.

I had spent a great deal of time pouring over maps on the Friday evening, formulating a number of different options for the following day. As it was, I ended up following an entirely different route! Approaching the 5 mile mark, the weather was quickly deteriorating. The rain, by now bordering on torrential, was starting to take on a more snow like quality. That alone would have been tolerable. However, as I ascended towards The Lairig Ghru, the wind was increasing in it’s ferocity, by now to the point that I couldn’t even hear the music in my headphones.

Looking ahead, I could see only the most unwelcoming of grey skies. Today was most definitely not the day for a run in The Lairig Ghru and, given that most of my preferred route options also involved bagging some Munros and taking in the views, I questioned the sensibility of continuing on. Today I would be lucky to see the trail, never mind the stunning views that the mountains of The Cairngorms can offer.

I hummed and hawed and even took some photos, quickly wiping the sleety rain from the lens of my iPhone.

Sense prevailed.

I turned and started to descend. 5 miles of uphill slog soon gave way to a cracking bit of descent and, as far as payback goes, it does not get much better than this; rocky, rooty, singletrack that eventually opens out into wider forest trail.

A quick text to the in-laws let them know of the change in plans. If anything did go wrong, I certainly did not want them to be looking in the wrong place!

I set off in the direction of Loch an Eilein, a route quite familiar to me.

Just as an aside, this route makes for some excellent biking. The route lends itself to building up a fair speed and there are a number of burns that just have to be cycled, usually resulting in a good soaking from the spray.

Running the route meant I actually got to take in a bit more of my surroundings than usual and stayed drier than normal!

As I ran around Loch an Eilein I passed a turnoff that takes you out and around Loch Gamha. Generally I miss this bit out but I figured that it would add on approximately 1 mile to today’s route and would make for a good change in scenery.

As it was, I ended up going wrong somewhere and ended up instead heading westwards in the forests around Inshriach. (This might sound daft but I came across a couple who had done exactly the same thing!) I finally popped out of the forest somewhere just above Loch Insh, some 7 miles south of Aviemore. I stuck to the quiet B970 road on the return to Aviemore, for fear of once more going astray!

Now, whenever I hear the word Inshriach, it is usually quickly followed by the words cake and shop! Described by The Observer’s Dan Lepard as “one of Britain’s Best Cake Shops”, the Inshriach Nursey & Cake Shop just happens to be on the B970.

As I ran past the entrance I did an automatic left turn. I was approximately 18 miles into the run by this point and figured that there was no harm in stopping for some coffee and cake.

The cakes alone should be enough to tempt you but, just in case you need any more convincing, I should also mention the view. The majority of customers sit along the back wall, facing out onto a variety of bird feeders. The number of birds there is quite astounding. What’s even more astounding is that any of them can take off after gorging themselves on what’s on offer! While I was there I was fortunate enough to see a woodpecker as well as all manner of smaller birds. There were no squirrels on this occasion but the birds, only a couple of feet from my position at the window, more than entertained me.

Leaving the cake shop was difficult! Not only was I enjoying the view but my muscles were also starting to seize up. I soon got back into the running and finished off not long after, back in Coylumbridge, with a total of 22 miles. Not a bad day. Not the anticipated location or mileage but I did get some great hill training in, covered some new ground, and had the added bonus of coffee and cake.

Funnily enough, cake also featured in the excellent Talk Ultra podcast that I spent a large part of the run listening to. The cake element came in an interview with Salomon athlete Anna Frost. Normally I listen to trance music while running but, on this occasion, I decided to catch up on my podcasts. It seemed quite appropriate to be tuned into a running podcast while out on the trail and I enjoyed the ‘company’ of human voices!

Saturday evening consisted of an excellent meal at The Cairngorm Hotel in Aviemore before returning to our accommodation in Coylumbridge. Sitting at the window, making the most of the starry Cairngorm view, I was fortunate enough to see something fairly sizeable shooting southwards through the sky. It turns out that I was not alone in my observations and the meteorite made quite an impact (no pun intended) on the following days news.

Waking early on Sunday morning, I was aware that we would be departing around lunchtime and, as such, threw on some running kit and headed out the door.

I ran up towards The Lairig Ghru, covering the 5 miles of uphill yet again. What a difference a day makes. Whilst not exactly blue skies, the weather was a considerable improvement on the previous day and would have been sufficient to entice me further up in to The Lairig Ghru had I not been due to return home.

Tired legs soon gave way to reckless abandonment as I ran/fell/plummeted down the first 2 miles of the trail. With arms swinging like windmills, my hands were trying in vain to act like wind paddles and provide at least a degree of stability and control. My attempts were doomed to failure. It was all I could do not to go over my ankle, almost coming a cropper on two occasions in a fashion that would have seen a very early end to the season through injury.

If Carlsberg made trails, they would surely lay claim to this one. My eyes remained glued to the trail before me, whilst also trying to ensure that I didn’t wipe out on any low branches. As I arrived at the bottom of the first two miles of downhill I stopped for breath and checked the Garmin. I had hit just over 7 minute miles. If only I could run that fast on the flat!

Arriving back in Coylumbridge 10 miles later, I was happy in the knowledge that I had squeezed the most out of my weekend in the Cairngorms.

I have a week in the Cairngorms at the end of March to look forward to so I will be back on the trail there soon.

Countdown!

It’s countdown time, or, to be more specific, triple countdown time. Firstly, I am counting down the days to the return of Mrs Mac after a month without her thanks to time spent in Houston with work.

The second countdown is for the first ultra of the year, The D33 an out and back from Aberdeen to Banchory on the 17th March.

The final countdown is to my 40th at the end of the month. The ‘blow’ of turning 40 is slightly softened by the change of status that 40 years affords, to Male Vet and an accompanying earlier start at The Hoka Highland Fling.

Actually, let me retract that. I have never felt as good as I do now thanks in large part to running. I certainly don’t feel 40 and I very much doubt that this will change in the next 24 days!

Happy Running!