Raising my game – running above the snowline

As I mention in my previous post, I’ve been winter mountaineering for 20 years, including mid-grade mixed climbs and – a long time ago – a couple of unguided ascents in the Alps, including Mont Blanc.   Most of my experience, though, has been in Scottish winter.

It’s obviously impossible to run in deep, unconsolidated snow, but I did wonder what it would be like to run on surfaces that have been compacted by heavy traffic – on the approaches to the most popular coires (Scotland) or cwms (Wales), or ridges and peaks.  I’ve noticed many a time that the snow gets trampled down very quickly, and often, water seeps through from unfrozen burns or rivulets, turning the approaches into snow-ice or even pure water ice in sections.

I don’t mean I’d want to really do this as an approach to a climb (that would entail carrying winter-graded boots and crampons, which would sandbag the runner completely)  but as an activity in its own right.  How would that feel and what distinctive skills and equipment would it take?  The trip would be research into these questions, and also an opportunity to run on the hardest-graded surface of my short running career.

Llyn Llydaw, by Alistair Siddons

Lllyn Llydaw. Photo: Alistair Siddons

I headed off to the Snowdonia massif to take a look.  And as luck would have it, there was snow down to virtually sea-level.   During the evening of my arrival and the following night, there were significant new accumulations of snow in the mountains, and as I headed out the following morning, I wasn’t sure quite what I’d find.

First, I headed for the Miner’s track approach to Snowdon, starting at Pen Y Pass.  A hundred metres or so up the route described by the track, I turned back, finding that I was postholing my way along knee- or thigh-deep snow in places, where the snow had blown off high ground onto what in summer conditions is a broad track.  This wasn’t what I was here for.  To get out of a postholed position, you essentially have to do a one-legged squat – energy sapping in the extreme, and a series of static positions that’s far removed from running.

I turned round.  The car park was filling up quickly, and I figured that if I waited a few hours, this route would get trampled down pretty quickly.  So I headed to the back of the youth hostel, where in summer a path leads up to Glydr Fawr, the first (or last) peak among one of the gentler ridges here.

Mt Snowdon, by Alistair Siddons

Approaching col on Snowdon summit ridge. Photo: Alistair Siddons

I was wearing  my normal trail shoes (Brooks Adrenaline ASRs), but over the top, I’d stretched my new acquisition, mini-crampons from Kahtoola.  I quickly found myself in deep snow, often knee deep, but this time I persisted and gained height by taking a line first west of Llyn Cwmffynnan, then north-west parallel to the course of a submerged high river draining into the Llyn.  This way I avoided the rockier option on the cliffs above the Cromlech boulders.

The footwear/crampon combination was absolutely fine, even on short stretches through gently-angled broken ground, but not cut out for passages of steeper  broken ground.  The shoes have a negative tread pattern, and the crampon spikes are only 1 cm long.  It would be interesting to try the same cramponlets with a trail-running shoe that has a positive tread, but this combo is not secure on icy rock.

I made my way to a little flat area at the 950 metre contour, then headed back.  In descent, the shoe and Kahtoola combintation worked very well.  All well and good, but I certainly wasn’t able to run on the way up, and on the way down,  managed just a few bounds here and there, in the footsteps I’d made earlier on.

Now I headed back to the Miner’s track.  As I’d suspected, there’d been a lot of traffic in the intervening few hours, and I set off again, this time on much-trampled snow.  There were still a few areas of deep stuff with the danger of postholing, but in-between, good, runnable stretches.   I walk-ran in incredible conditions – sunny and virtually windless – all  the way to the head of Llyn Glaslyn, where the route becomes a bit of a clamber.

Here, I continued more cautiously until I thought it unsafe, with my equipment, to go any further.  This was just beyond where in summer, the Miner’s track meets the Pyg track.  But the sun had  been softening-up the south-facing snow for a few hours now, and my footwear combo felt nothing like as secure as a winter mountaineering boot on its own with no crampons.   (And generally, the more expensive the boot, the more aggressive the pattern on the sole, I’ve noticed.)

I reminded myself that the purpose of this trip was to run as far as possible in safety, not to try to complete winter mountaineering routes with trail running kit.  Again, though, I do wonder if there is a trail shoe with an aggressively positive sole that could safely deal with broken ground and/or, soft snow?

I sat in the sun for more than an hour, relishing conditions of exceptional visibility and near-windlessness.   I reversed the steep section easily enough, and then, from the shores of Glaslyn, I was able to run back the whole way to Pen Y Pass without stopping for deep snow, in around 40 minutes.

As a novice trail-runner, I was very pleased with what I achieved that day: plenty of ascent, a technical equipment test and the opportunity to really enjoy my surroundings.

My laces were frozen solid by the time I got to the car-park,  and of course my feet weren’t dry, but didn’t ever get unbearably cold.  I quickly brewed up a litre of sports drink on my Jet Boil, smiling inside at the realisation that I’d unlocked a new way of getting deep into hills and back again – running light.

Lightweight winter trail-running kit

Kahtoolas (mini crampons), lightweight ice-axe and 32 litre OMM rucksack.

My pack for the day was the OMM classic 32 (litre).  In it, I carried: an old Trax top (similar to Buffalo in design), Dachstein mitts, a balaclava, a leg base-layer, a small Petzl headtorch and spare batteries, a cut-down map, a compass, 500 ml of isotonic drink, a double Mars bar and a packet of mixed fruit and nuts.  I was wearing a base layer on top, lightweight gloves, beanie hat and some old mountaineering leggings of a brand that I can’t recall.  I had a lightweight breathable Nike running top stuffed into my pack to start and worn during an extended rest.

My ice-axe: the Alpin Tour 50 from Climbing Technology, which is very light.  I don’t know in grammes, but it seems to weigh next-to-nothing and was heavily discounted in a local shop.  It’s perfect for general mountaineering but isn’t at all technical (and doesn’t have to be for this use). This slides through the bottom gear loop of the rucksack, so I fashioned a smaller loop out of tat to secure the tip of the shaft.

I could have done with ski poles on the steeper ground (to be honest, an ice axe isn’t going to stop you cascading over the broken ground above Glaslyn if you slip), but haven’t worked out how annoying it would be to carry them strapped to the pack.  That’s a test for another day.

Posted in Beachy Head, Off-road, Snow, Snowdonia, Trail running, Weather | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Seven Sisters revisited

Yesterday, I returned to a section of the Beachy Head Marathon. My goal: to try out trail running above the snow line for the first time.

I’m lucky to have a solid background in winter mountaineering in Scotland, including mid-grade climbs (to IV, 5) and of operating and navigating in severe storm force winds for 12 hr + days. My goal now is to close the gap between winter mountaineer and winter hill runner.

Yesterday was a perfect introduction. I warmed up by walk-running from Seaford to Cuckmere Haven, where I tried but failed to find a river crossing before the road bridge near Exceat. I ran back, only stopping to talk to an octogenarian ex-special services officer who suggested with a hint of a smile that I could have taken my shoes and crossed in bare feet. (This was in an air temperature of -1.5 c with significant windchill on top because of a stiff 15 mph wind).

The ground was iron hard, frozen turf with a covering of sugar snow. Hardly a soul was out. My shoes were very capable in these conditions and held well even on the short sections of looser, unconsolidated snow.

Beachy Head under snow

Approach to Beachy Head, 19 January 2013

Next I ran from the Birling Gap – far more blustery than Cuckmere Haven – to Beachy Head and back. I was well warmed up and after gritting my teeth for the climb from Birling Gap to the old lighthouse (now a home) I enjoyed the ever-easier rhythm of running along with my new Karrimor OMM 32 litre rucksack, a very snug fit.

I was road-testing this with extra kit that I didn’t need and I’m already convinced it’s definitely worthwhile having a running-specific rucksack.

Highlight of the day: little snowfields everywhere, covered in hare tracks, but few human footprints. Also, wavelets developing in some patches of snow – I love how snow has so many forms.

This is my first mobile blog post. I’m heading for north Wales on very empty roads in light snow and am looking forward to a high-level mountain run tomorrow.

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Feature in Outdoor Fitness magazine – my Beachy Head Marathon

I wrote a feature about my prep for the Beachy Head marathon and my experience of the race, published in this month’s (Jan 2013) Outdoor Fitness magazine.

The feature is no 4 in a series – ‘Leave your comfort zone’ – about people who achieved something they thought impossible.  Of course, I no longer think that and will definitely be repeating it next year and working for a faster time!  The hilarious headline and captions are the magazine sub’s work – the rest is mine.

Oh, I did have a line about finding a dead Kestrel on the Seven Sisters.  It was freshly killed by another bird of prey and its neck was broken.   The body copy was either too long, or this reference was deemed a tad too poetic for an account of an endurance test, so that’s not there any more.

Beachy Head Marathon

Beachy Head Marathon start

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Beachy Head marathon: my race report

27 Oct 2012.  It’s my birthday and to celebrate, I’ve elected to do something I’ll never forget.  I’m standing at the start line of what’s claimed to be one of the *toughest trail marathons in the country – Beachy Head.  I’ve trained for this since January and I’ve managed to arrive at the start line uninjured and fit to run (although my last post explains how things nearly unravelled just a couple of weeks earlier.)

At  sea level in Eastbourne, the start, it’s a few degrees above freezing and there’s a steady northerly wind.   Up there on the South Downs, there’s a windchill of around minus four centigrade – those who haven’t dressed for this are in for a shock.  The wind will hit gale force in gusts very soon.  Later, it’ll touch a steady gale, gusting stronger.

We’re off.   The best club runners launch at full tilt up the starting hill, which looks about 1:1 gradient in places.  The rest of us either jog or walk.  And for the entire race, the same tactics remain: the best run all but the very steepest gradients, and the masses run the flats and downhills and as many of the shallowest gradients as we can manage.

The sun is brilliant and as we rise up to the top of the first ridge, we can see for miles.  This degree of clarity is exceptional, and I’d run the whole marathon all over again just to be able to have unencumbered horizons like this.

I’ve never run a marathon until today – only a flat half – and I know that for me, it’s a mind game.  I’m wearing a Garmin, but I deliberately don’t look at the  miles I’ve put behind me and I even manage to avoid seeing the mile markers at checkpoints.  I just run the mile I’m in.

This strategy works so well for me that I’m not entirely sure how far I’ve come until I overhear someone saying we around mile 18.  I stop here at a checkpoint serving mini sausage rolls- not appealing to me, although others seem to love them – as well as the chopped-up mars bars we’ve had available at the major checkpoints so far.  I eat 2/3 of a mars bar and down 3 cups of tea, each with 5 spoons of sugar, and a mug of tomato soup.

It’s fantastic to see my supporter, Alberto, standing at the top of a ludicrous flight of steps we’ve just climbed, his camera in hand.  He’s been waiting there since the first runners came through – a long time ago now.  I’m concerned that if I stop for longer than the time it takes to exchange a few words, I’ll seize up, but I’m delighted that my friend is there to breathe in the raw essence of the experience.

I’m starting to hurt shortly after this.  It’s a combination of muscle cramp in my right leg, from not taking onboard enough electrolytes, and pain in my ankles and the soles of my feet.  I think they’re just pulverised from miles upon miles of hard trails, some of which have loose flints lying on the surface, and others, pieces of chalk.  I can’t be sure, but in places close to the start of the run, it looks as if the recent very heavy rain has washed away the topsoil, leaving  harder lumps of chalk behind.

I don’t know where I am when the sun goes in and a rough squall comes in from nowhere, with sleety, horizontal rain.  The cramp in my leg is so bad that I have to walk for fifteen minutes before I can shake it off.

The sun does come back again, but the wind stays challenging and strengthens even further.  Running along the Seven Sisters, I spot a freshly dead kestrel, its neck broken by a larger bird of prey.  I want to take a closer look at this strange symbol and consider the story behind it: it would be a good excuse to stop, after all.  But I know that if I do slow or stop now, I’ll find it impossible to shift gears again.

My last few miles are into a shocking headwind.  The lightest runners can only make progress with huge effort.  Many are walking, but here, my mass is an advantage and I can still run the flats and downhills.

It isn’t easy to finish the race, far from it.  My strategy is to pretend I have to rescue my child from somewhere another five miles on, and I find the strength to do it.

Oddly, it’s not at the finish line that I feel overwhelmed with joy, but at the crest of the hill that runs down towards it.  It’s a transient feeling, perhaps a minute of euphoria.

But do I mind the medal going round my neck now? Do I mind my laces being undone and the timing chip being taken out?

Of course not.  This feels good.

And I’ve achieved my three conservative objectives.  I finished the race.  I enjoyed it, and I didn’t get injured.  Next year I can get more ambitious if I want to.

And when my kit’s all washed and my limbs are rested and I replay the race over and over in my mind, I’m happy.    I’ll be back again next year, that’s for sure.


Thanks to Dave Wise of Trek and Run for filming and posting this video.  He and his team also wrote their own acccount of the race, here.

*’One of the toughest trail marathons in the country…’  The figures speak for themselves.   Right up to the last minute, people were posting on forums and Facebook, desperate to get places for this event.  But 400 people out of a field of 1,700  – almost 25% – either didn’t start of did not finish.

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Beachy Head marathon…taper, taper, taper!

This morning I felt good and rested after my weekend long run.  I thought it might be a wise idea to get out and do some very low mileage just to keep things moving and to stop my metabolism from slowing down too much.

Take this last comment with a pinch of salt as I don’t know if there’s any decent science behind it.  However, I have read that if you rest completely, this can be a signal to your body to shut down a bit, so that your immune system is less effective and you feel generally sluggish.  Cue colds, sore throats, blah blah.  Not at all what you want just before running a marathon.

After a mile warm-up, I did just 3 x 800 metre repeats at around 10K pace, with a minute recoveries in between, then warmed-down and stretched.  Not a taxing session,  but just enough to feel still ready for action next Sat.

Posted in 10K, 800 metres, Beachy Head, Common cold, Immune system, Long runs, Marathon, Science, Sore throat | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Beachy Head Marathon…last long run, finally

Here we are.   Not even a week left before the race.   I keep thinking of all my co-runners and their plans.

Everyone has a strategy, everyone’s making decisions, right up to the starting line.  I love thinking about this.   There’ll be meticulously detailed lists in some households.  Others will commit nothing to paper but have done this many times before and will have a mental map of the course and know exactly what they’re doing.

As for me, I ran my last long run yesterday, a 14 miler.  That’s pretty much it now.  I might do a quick kilometre or two in a couple of days, just to keep my legs turning over, but the race outcome for me isn’t going to be affected one way or another by these tweaks.

I’m told it’s all about rest, nutrition and hydration now.  Ask me again in a week’s time and I’ll be able to comment in more detail!

Posted in Autumn, Beachy Head, Eastbourne, Long runs, Marathon, Off-road, Seven Sisters, Taper, Trail running | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Beachy Head Marathon… counting down

Since my last post, I’ve done just two runs.  Last Sat I pushed it out to just under 18 miles, along the canal to Limehouse and back and then round Walthamstow Marshes, partly on hard trails and partly on quaggy tracks and uneven grass.

This is great scenery at this time of year.  I was running alongside amazing monoculture stands of Michaelmas daisies,  purple with yellow anthers, and tufted  Old Man’s Beard.

Michaelmas daisies

Monoculture stands of Michaelmas daisies grow on Walthamstow Marshes in autumn

Before my unscheduled hospital stay, I had planned on doing a longest run of 21 miles, but I should survive the course with this 18 miler under my belt, even if it’s psychologically tougher.

On Wednesday I did a bit of a sharpener on a treadmill in the gym – just 20 minutes on an  hill profile (preset) course at level 11 out of 12.  This took me from flat progressively up to a 6% gradient and at an average speed of just over 11 km/hr.  I know there’s no training effect possible in the time left before the marathon, so I simply wanted to keep my legs turning over without digging a deep hole from which to recover, and that seemed to do the trick.

I finished off with some core stability work and left it at that.

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Beachy Head Marathon…it wasn’t supposed to be like this!

Bit of an unexpected turn of events.

On 2 October, I unexpectedly ended up in hospital – first in a resusc. unit and then on a cardiology ward.  I spent eight days out of commission in hospital.

Eight days.   Not only could I not run, but for most of them, I barely left my bedside – first because of wires and tubes, and then, in case I missed a visit from one of the doctors.

There were a few minutes at the weekend when the ward was quiet and I was allowed out locally.  It was lovely to amble round the market, but I probably walked around 800 metres that day.   The rest, virtually nothing.     In the darkness of the ward – curtains closed for much of the day because some patients needed to sleep virtually round the clock – not only did I not see daylight, but my imagination couldn’t see much beyond the wall opposite, either.  As time went by and it became obvious that my stay was to be longer than I thought, I seriously considered binning the whole endeavour.

But anyone in this position thinks very, very hard about this option. Not only because of the months of training that have already taken place,  not only because there’s charity sponsorship at stake (I’m running for AgeUK) but because the goal becomes so overwhelmingly important in its own right.

I didn’t want to sieze up completely, so a couple of times I did some basic bodyweight squats, lunges and planks.  But that was my lot.

This time is gone.  There’s nothing I can do to bring it back.  It’s time that should have included my last long run and then begun my taper, but having agonised over this, I’m not going to play catch-up now.

Today, the day after I left the hospital after eight days of virtually no activity whatever, I ran a very gentle six miles, essentially as a loosener, and then did some basic stretches.   All the taper plans I’ve read are for experienced marathoners after a decent time, and emphasise speed work in the last two weeks.   This approach isn’t relevant to me, a novice marathoner attempting a notorious hill marathon – especially now, after a period of compromised training.

I’m going to give it a couple of days and then work out how best to spend the remaining time.   In the meanwhile, I keep reminding myself of the three goals I set myself for this challenge:

Finish the marathon.  Enjoy it.  Avoid injury.

I can manage that.

Posted in AgeUK, Autumn, Beachy Head, Hill running, Hypoxia, Long runs, Marathon, Pulmonary embolism, Taper | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Beachy Head Marathon…remember this

Have fun.  Finish it.  Avoid injury.

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Beachy Head Marathon count down…

With 26 days to go before the Beachy Head marathon, I’m in the week that’ll include my final long run.

A couple of days ago I did a good session with 1 x mile repeats, ten in total, and 400 metre jog recoveries.  Just a little twinge today means I binned my self-scheduled hill interval run and reluctantly did cross-training in the gym instead.

The race finally seems real.  Not taking any chances!

Posted in Autumn, Beachy Head, Injury, Long runs, Marathon, Trail running | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment