My mum runs 53 miles along Scotland’s West Highland Way

My mum runs 53 miles along Scotland’s West Highland Way

trail-running-chamonix

Not many people take up ultra running in their sixties but my mum, Ais North, has never stuck to the rules.  Last week she tackled her biggest race yet, the Hoka Highland Fling.

This is her story. 

I didn’t feel at all confident when I stood at the start of the Fling Race in Milngavie Scotland on 29 April.

53 miles of terrain that was hilly, technical and long, stretched patiently in front of me. My winter training had not gone well and I felt sluggish and slow. My right glute was also painfully taunting me with the expectation of failure. This was not going to be easy. Who did I think I was, aged 66 and competing with these experienced and younger trail ultra-runners?

It was the cut off times that caused me to fear the Fling. I’d have to race at more than two minutes per mile faster than my previous two attempts at ultra-running. And that was a big ask.

Oddly I didn’t have the butterflies I usually have and when the gun went off I trotted slowly behind the others out of the built-up area and into Mugdock Park. Runners swarmed past but I plodded gently enjoying the rhythm that my heart set me.

I found this section of the Fling fairly straight forward, not flat but gently rolling countryside. Before I realised it, I was just outside Drymen with10 miles done and soon to be at the checkpoint. I couldn’t believe my time was over 30 minutes faster than I had anticipated.

I grabbed my bottle and banana from my husband Geoff and with a cheery wave I set off for Conic Hill.

 

The path on this next stretch goes through gorse bushes and trees on a wide path before leading you gently upwards to Conic Hill. It was an ascent that slowed me down to a walk, then a plod. As I reached the summit a cheery photographer stood snapping everyone

“66 and not out!” I shouted merrily as I passed him.

I’m very comfortable on the downhill thanks to some advice from the Run Experience and its awesome community, so I enjoyed the speedy bit. I reached the cut-off with 36 minutes to spare. 

The next part of the race is a little blurry. I’d been hydrating and fuelling up to this point but I was not that hungry when I bit into my Marmite sandwich. I began to feel tired and although the early part of this section to Inversnaid wasn’t too bad, the most technical stretch was still to come.

There were rocks, boulders, tree roots and damp terrain. I was on my own a lot with the occasional relay runner passing me or slowing to walk up a hill with me.

Around this point I caught up with a few runners and followed them over a stony path, eventually overtaking and leading about five runners to the other side of this section about three miles out of Beinglas. But they eventually overtook me. I just couldn’t keep my legs turning over fast enough to keep with them.

Defying my expectations, I made it to Beinglas and the cut-off with 22 minutes to spare. This was the first time it started to sink in that I might actually finish this.

Geoff was there and as usual cheered me up. I had thought that there was an A82 cut-off at 8:30pm and I was about ready to quit at Beinglas. I felt so worn out after the last section, but one of the volunteers said “no – get going – this next bit’s not so bad – you’re going to make it”.

All the volunteers are amazing on this race and I must thank those who refilled my bottles and rushed me out the other side with food from my drop-bag and words of encouragement. It is amazing how a positive word fuels your heart and your legs and speeds you on.

As I set off again I realised I was going to make it to the finish and collect my ‘Fling Bling’.

I welled up inside – “just keep it together you’ve still got 13 miles to go”, my inner voice chimed as I kissed Geoff goodbye and ran, yes, ran off.

 

Geoff, my most loyal supporter. Taken on the recce run the day before

13 miles is still 13 miles and I was tired and alone. It was pouring with rain so my positive spirit was dampened somewhat and I just kept thinking “not another bloody hill”.

The odd runner passed me silently, I even passed a runner and a number of walkers, but it was a slow, cold and damp slog and even the amusement of cow poo alley and the odd cuckoo sound did not lift my mood. My fear of the A82 cut-off loomed large, and my watch told me I still had a long way to go, and my legs were saying you won’t make it. Two guys passed me – “only Crianlarich hill left and then you’re almost there”.

Ah, Crianlarich, the hill you should keep something in the tank for.

It was hard, but as I reached the summit and began to descend a couple of ladies caught up with me. Michelle, who opened her heart and her Haribo and shared both. She admitted to being so emotional and could not believe she was going to finish, then Shelley appeared. How strange we had spoken briefly in the start pen and now here we were a mile from the A82 and together again, running at a similar pace downhill towards the cut-off with 28 minutes to spare.

We raced over the road – only three miles left, a mere dog dawdle that I normally walk in under an hour. I might just make the 15 hours and even though I was guaranteed a finisher’s place I thought it would be cool to finish on time. Michelle jogged, Shelley and I walked fast.

That last mile – so long and hard. Until you see the end and then somehow the red carpet rolls up and pushes you on and into a jog, then a run and the finish line which I crossed at 15:00:38 which was 2.55 minutes / mile faster than the previous ultras on terrain that was so much harder.

I DID IT.

In spite of my negative thoughts before the race, being a few decades older than many of the runners and gruelling terrain, I managed to reach the looming cut-off times and collect my medal.

It just goes to prove that even when you say you can’t, you can. 

Congratulations to all the runners and respect to the four other women in the over 60’s category who stormed over the finish line ahead of me. They all prove that there is still so much you can achieve as an older runner!

Celebrating with my sister Louise, my friends Anne and Greg and my mum, Heather with my bottle of Fling Fizz!

I’m fundraising again for Friends of Charing Cross Hospital – to buy much needed items for hospital, patients, staff and community. If you could spare a few pennies we would be very grateful. I’m running a 100 mile race (in under 30 hours) the Liverpool to Manchester Ultra Double (#L2MUltraDouble) on 27 May. If you would like to support me on this ultra you can do so here. Thank you

http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/AlisonNorth1

Cat Benger shows me some strength work for running and cycling

Cat Benger shows me some strength work for running and cycling

I am sure most of us can relate to the misery that injury causes us. After I had to drop out of my Thames challenge, an injury that had been kept at bay for months, all of a sudden lost its rag and has been with me ever since. It’s now been five months and with my plan to return to the Thames at the end of the summer, I am doing everything I can to prevent it from ruining the experience and causing long-term damage.

Luckily, there are some experts out there to help me.

As part of a training plan from coach Cat Benger (of ABCpure) I am learning about the benefits of strength and conditioning in ways that can help improve both my cycling and running but also prevent further injury. In this post, Cat explains the theory behind this and shows us some moves we can do at home as part of our quest to get strong and prevent injury.

Cat Benger

 

Training on a consistent basis is key for any runner and/or cyclist to maximise their performance and achieve success in their chosen sport. Often our approach to strength and conditioning (S&C) training is to wait until it’s broken and then get fixed. You should view S&C as an essential part of a balanced, well-structured training plan and as injury prevention as opposed to rehab. Common cycling and running complaints, niggles or injuries can be largely preventable if you’re prepared to incorporate regular S&C sessions, and it doesn’t have to mean long, boring trips to the gym or lots of expensive home fitness equipment.

So why do we need it?

An increase in the strength and power of the legs will improve your cycling efficiency through the application of greater force through each of the pedal strokes. Our muscles are “wired” to perform functions and move in a particular way. If the muscles are not performing as they should and, instead, allowing fellow muscle to take the load, it will eventually start causing you pain.

S&C also helps co-ordination, balance and delays the on-set of fatigue and poor form creeping in. It also increases your functional strength which is our performance of daily movements and tasks, for example climbing the stairs, lifting arms above your head and running for the bus! It is key the exercises and movements are performed correctly with proper form and technique. Quality over quantity is definitely the desirable here. Here are a few practical pointers before you get going:

1. It is recommended doing 2-3 S&C sessions per week
2. Keep the movements controlled, starting with small ranges.
3. Once comfortable, increase the range of movement without sacrificing quality and/or control
4. Start with a low number of repetitions and low weight (where applicable), then gradually increase with the principle that never sacrifices quality
5. Take adequate rest between rounds
6. If you feel any pain, then stop the exercise immediately

It’s really important to remember that everyone is different and there are lots of factors that will influence the frequency and type of session. It’s a good idea to get the advice of a coach or trainer to ensure that you are performing these exercises correctly and in a schedule that suits your individual needs.

For more guidance, get in touch with Cat at www.abcpure.com

Overcoming failed challenges

Overcoming failed challenges

running the length of the Thames

She was utterly magnificent. The mermaid. Beautiful and grotesque at the same time and about four times the size of me. Her tail slithered just under the surface of this remote part of the Thames as her scales caught the low winter light and sparkled green and blue. It was unnatural but brilliant, peaceful but also disturbing because I knew, deep down, she wasn’t really there.

It was day two of my seven day challenge to run the length of the Thames, self-supported, from source to the barrier. And I was about one delirium away from declaring my trail shoe as its own principality and me as prime minister. It’s accurate to say, things had gone a little wrong.

I set off on Monday 5th December with a little running rucksack and a heart full of excitement about embarking on a seven day, 184 mile trail running challenge. To me this was going to end 2016 on a high, after what has been widely reported as one of the more testing years of this millennium. My parents gave me a lift to Kemble in Gloucestershire, where this great river begins, on a cold December morning as the sun was slowly starting to rise.

Here I met film maker, Frit Sarita Tam who had seen my story on Instagram and asked if she could document my challenge at the start and finish of each day. After a scramble over a few fences and a frantic scurry across a railway line, Frit and I finally found the river’s source, modestly signalled by a stone with a fading inscription which I imagine if legible would read something like “Lorna, what the F$$$ are you doing”.

running the length of the Thames

I garbled out a few words to Frit and her camera to herald the start of my great solo adventure and took off down the wintery trail with all the promise of Fivel in search of America. That day I watched the infant Thames grow alongside me as I ran alone through remote fields and passed glassy reservoirs in the crisp winter sun. I followed the little signposts and marvelled at how clear the water was in these rural chapters of the Thames’ story. No floating coke cans or rusty trolleys in this section of the river.

Knowing that fuelling is not a strength of mine, I was militant about keeping my fluids up and taking in regular nibbles of the rice balls my parents had packed me off with. I ran for hours, at times excited about being so alone with only nature as my companion. At other times, pretty intimidated by the lack of human life. Aside from a few tweaks and niggles, I was in high spirits and bounded along this first trail marathon to successfully reach Lechlade, well within the daylight timeframe I was aiming for. Frit came to meet me at the bridge and I gave yet another rambling interview, buoyed that the first day was done. But also aware I had six still to go.

running the length of the Thames

But within the course of the next 24 hours, my fate took a hairpin bend and this story of trail and tributary soon became one of trial and tribulation. Fast-forward to the end of the second day. I was a mile away from my finish point in Oxford, and was facing my ultimate fear; running in the dark. Dusk had caught up with me and I was trudging through the eerie fading light to reach safety.

A thick fog had cloaked the river and rain was pouring down my neck. I had no head torch and my body was in such deficit that I was struggling to take on food. I was about to finish a 30 mile trail run but that final mile felt longer than a very boring corporate training course I was once sent on (which has become my barometer on how slowly time can pass). Each step was like one of its breakout sessions where I, caffeinated to the eyeballs, would have to participate in yet another role play exercise.

It had all been going pretty well until mile 15. I’d run through heavy fog, deep mud and drizzle for most of the morning. At one point I missed a gate with the Thames Path symbol and had to do a Mission Impossible style shimmy under a low hanging electric fence wire to get into the right field. Quite early on, I lunged into a deep puddle of icy water leaving my feet wet for the rest of the day.

But up until mile 15 – all those things were still just part of the adventure. I was feeling relatively good until my head became heavy, then my legs and then weakness flooded my entire body. And of course, there’s the small matter of the mermaid. My mind was playing tricks on me, filling my head with images and figments. Perhaps because I had barely seen a soul out on the path for hours, shapes were starting to take on human forms and I could see figures in the shadows that weren’t really there.

When I did finally make it to Oxford, there was no relief or sense of accomplishment, only anxiety. I went straight to M&S and grappled cack-handedly at the shelves for food, snatching items that made no gastronomic sense whatsoever. (A bucket of mini-Scotch Eggs with a caramel wafer? Sure).

That night in a pokey guesthouse I had a series of nightmares that I was drowning in the Thames. I kept waking up in a pool of sweat despite feeling cold, my legs jittering, overwhelmed by nausea and stifled by panic. I have never known my body to communicate with my brain with such violent messages. Every single cell was telling me I need to stop. T

he next morning, I made the very hard decision to let my body off the hook. I paused my journey on Oxford Bridge and made a teary call to my mum to send for the broom wagon. After releasing my parachute I spent the next few days, whilst lying in bed, trying to rationalise what went wrong. The short answer is, I had a virus. A few days before it had started to show signs but in the throes of excitement I put it to the back of my mind until running 53 miles of muddy Thames path sealed the deal. By the second day it had started to manifest and distracted by symptoms, I also failed to take on food at regular intervals.

It’s been over a month now since I dropped out and I have done very little with my body since then. It’s also taken this long to feel like writing about it but I am glad I waited because now I can give you a better-rounded account and not a 20,000 word dissertation full of self-loathing. When you have to drop out of a challenge it feels like an utter failure. Whilst there were several scientific, rational answers, all my brain wanted to do was berate me for being weak, not having the stamina, being ridiculous for even thinking I could do it. In fact, for a few weeks after pulling out, I was horribly mean to myself which made my recovery slower.

But, there comes a point where you have to stop being a dick and accept that you aren’t the only person on earth to have missed the bar somewhat. You need to acknowledge your mistakes and that it wasn’t your day but mostly understand that some stories need the adversity to make them interesting. Imagine if Harry Potter was just a story about a tween that got into a good school and never had to fight off an evil Lord that was trying to kill him and everyone he held dear. Or if Cinderella just became a princess without being bullied by her wicked step sisters whilst scrubbing their floors. It would probably be as boring as that corporate training course I went on. And they wouldn’t have learned as much.

Around the time of my Thames howler Patti Smith accepted the Nobel Prize on behalf of Bob Dylan by performing an arrangement of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”. It was one of those performances you occasionally watch that comes out of nowhere and hits you right in the head. Of course, it was sung beautifully in Smith’s soulful way, but what made it even more moving and personal to me was that she seemed to forget the words after the second verse. Smith composed herself, apologised by saying “I’m sorry, I’m so nervous” and carried on singing to the end. What I realised when watching her was that forgetting the words and stopping the entire Philharmonic Orchestra half way through the verse, didn’t negatively affect her performance at all. Instead, Smith just sounded more powerful and the vulnerability she showed made her voice all the richer.

So just as Patti Smith’s song was done in two parts, so shall mine. I’m going back to the Thames once I have sorted out a knee injury and built up my strength and fitness. Hopefully this slight hiatus will only make me more determined to push on.

Thanks for everyone’s support so far. This river will be run.

Getting ready to run 184 miles of the Thames Path from source to barrier

Getting ready to run 184 miles of the Thames Path from source to barrier

trail-running-chamonix

Two weeks ago I suddenly realised there is only one month left of 2016 and therefore just enough time to squeeze in one last challenge for the year.

So on Monday 5th December, I’m going to run alongside the River Thames from its source near the Cotswolds to London’s Thames Barrier. The entire Thames path is 184 miles so I will try and run the equivalent of seven marathons in seven days (aka the Craig David of adventures).

I’ll watch it widen from a tiny trickle into the magnificent snaky serpent we all know (from Eastenders). It will be tough but I’m excited about setting off on my own with just a little running rucksack. Each night I will check into riverside b&b’s along the way and learn something new about this brilliant body of water and the towns and villages that flank it.

There’s one small thing to mention – I haven’t run longer than 5km since Spring. This summer I have covered plenty of miles, but they’ve all been on my road bike. I certainly don’t recommend launching into a multi-day marathon on little running training but part of me is curious as to how much I can rely on my stamina and push my limits. I am hoping all my cycling has built up at least an endurance base and there’s nothing quite like jumping into the deep end (of the Thames).

I am hoping that the path is clear all the way to London and there are no obstacles to hold me up like flooding or boggy ground that will suck my weary legs into the depths of the underworld where Old Father Thames will transform me into a human/ fish hybrid creature with gills and webbed toes. I also have the world’s worst sense of direction so I am really relying on the fact that there is clear signage along the entire 184 miles route. I am taking an OS map with me but there is still a very high chance of the Thames snaking off without me. Finally, I had plenty of opportunities to run this path in the summer but instead I decided to do it in the chilly month of December to add an element of meteorological roulette to mix. Basically, I’m going to be cold most days and will be against the clock with the number of daylight hours available.

I haven’t done a solo challenge yet this year and I want to experience what it’s like to remove yourself from the hustle and bustle and complete a distance with only your own mind and body to motivate you.

I am seeing it as an excuse to take myself out on a little solo staycation, giving myself a break from my freelance business and treating myself to overnight sleeps in the little villages I will pass.

With the barely any time to prepare for this challenge, I’ve instead focused on what I am going to enjoy about this run rather than getting my knickers in a twist about the sheer distance.

But on that note, here are the numbers…

The day to day route

Monday 5/12/16 – The Source to Lechlade – 23.25 miles
Tues 6/12/16 – Lechlade to Oxford – 29.5 miles
Wed 7/12/16 – Oxford to Goring – 30.5 miles
Thurs 8/12/16 – Goring to Marlow – 28.5 miles
Fri 9/12/16 – Marlow to Chertsey – 25 miles
Sat 10/12/16 – Chertsey to Putney – 23 miles
Sun 11/12/16 – Putney to the Thames Barrier – 20 miles

What to pack

As this is self-supported, I need to carry everything with me, on my back. This worries me slightly as I’ve had a weak left shoulder for about eight years after damaging it in Australia doing manual labour on a pearling boat (that’s another chapter). So, weight management is key although I’ve decided to do this in December, typically not the warmest month so layering will be important. Apparently the first few days of the Thames path are pretty rural and therefore I will also need to take food and plenty of water with me so I don’t run out of energy. This is what I plan to take (with a little bit of hand washing liquid so as not to offend anyone after seven days of running in the same kit….)

Leggings
Merino base layer
Soft shell
Buff
Pants
Socks
Water bottle
Map
Food
Phone
Chargers
Watch
Light down
Packable rain jacket
Gloves
Hat
Food
Go Pro

I am sure that by Sunday 11th December, I will be pretty excited to swap my trail shoes for my road shoes and run the last 20 miles from my house in Putney to the Thames Barrier where I will leave the river to make its way to the sea and beyond!

Reasons to take your training indoors with Zwift

Reasons to take your training indoors with Zwift

review-of-zwift

Firstly, winter is coming. But there are more reasons to release the bats from the forgotten corner where your turbo trainer has been languishing since spring. It will soon be time to reposition all the furniture in your house so that you, the turbo trainer and your bike can all squeeze in front of a laptop precariously balanced on a stack of boxes to reach your eye line.

My previous relationship with turbo training was very poor. I would look at the howling gale outside, pull out the trainer, sit in the saddle for five minutes whilst fiddling with youtube to find something good to distract me during the session and then pretty much give up seconds later out of sheer boredom.

I have a strong assumption that my poor attention span was down to a lack of context as to what benefit the session was having on me. I had no idea how hard or fast or I was peddling and whether it was all just a pointless box ticking exercise. Things have changed recently with an upgrade to a Wahoo KICKR SNAP, a smart trainer, and a subscription to virtual reality platform, Zwift.

review-of-zwift

Zwift is described as “your digital destination for fitness, fun and adventure” and from my early impressions of it, I tend to agree. It gamifies the normal indoor session by transporting you through your laptop into a magical virtual world where you join lots of avatars of real life cyclists who are all on the platform, at the same time, across countries around the world. As soon as you select your route and workout and start to spin, that natural competitive spirit within you sets your wheels in motion and your focus on pipping the rider ahead.

This is the new age of indoor training. It brings a different level of data that ignites a natural curiosity within you about how many watts you can produce and what’s round the next corner of this mystical virtual dimension. Not normally one to really care about data, I find myself analysing the numbers and working out how I can shave off time and increase power. It’s nothing short of addictive.

The Zwift platform has by no means reduced my desire to get out into the outdoor, real world. That will always win my vote in a choice between code and road. But it gives you options when the winter brings dark nights, short days and weather that makes you wonder if you will make it back home with all your phalanges. It’s an option for those days when you are too time poor to get out on a four hour ride, when you need a quick blast and when it’s just not worth skidding on a wet road just to get the miles in.

The technology behind Zwift is impressive in that it connects with all your other training tools. I use my Wahoo heart rate monitor with and upload my training to Strava as I would an ‘al fresco’ ride so that all of my hard work does not go unnoticed.

I feel like this ‘smart’ approach to indoor training is on the cusp of something huge. It’s not just a gamified way for me to get my miles but has also managed to disrupt traditions within professional cycling. The Zwift Academy is an initiative with pro-women’s cycling team CANYON/SRAM offering one female Zwift rider a chance to win a pro contract with the team for the 2017 season. The competition is getting tense as the final in December will seal a rider’s fate. What an incredible opportunity for an amateur cyclist to develop their skills and take part in virtual challenges to prove their worthiness to be part of a hugely successful women’s cycling team.

I am at the very beginning of my adventure through Zwift Island at this early stage in the autumn but I can’t wait to really take advantage of all the features when the thought of spending 20 minutes grappling with my overshoes leaves me cold. I’m trying to convince my friends to get on it too so that we can race each other’s virtual selves and get fitter in the process.