Monday, 19 December 2016

TDS therapy

Sooooo, the time has come to get a few thoughts down on what went right and what went wrong in the TDS during the summer.

Feels a bit like this.....

I felt really confident on the build-up to the race and was definitely looking for a "racing" performance, not a "just enjoy the day out" event. However, right from the start I just felt that I had nothing in my legs, within 3 hours I was pretty wrecked, by 4 hours I was sitting down in an aid station contemplating a withdrawal.


I stayed at the Col du Petit St Bernard for about 25 minutes, feeling very sorry for myself but managed to get some liquid in me. Looking at the next leg to Bourg St Maurice, it was downhill all the way for about 15km, so I thought I'd give it a go. After half an hour I thought I was starting to turn things around, but as I dropped further down into the valley, the temperature went higher and higher, reaching somewhere around 38 degrees in the town centre. By the time I reached the checkpoint, I could hardly walk in a straight line, felt dizzy and was vomiting. I lay down for half an hour but just couldn't cool down and began to realise that going on to the next climb had "helicopter evacuation" written all over it. I met up with a couple of other runners, Noel and Sandy along with their support crew, and these folk really looked after me, but I was a lost cause. I rang Tracey (first time ever in a race) and had a good chat with her, but I was in a real mess and knew that there was only one option. After something like 90 minutes in the checkpoint, I finally withdrew from the race. It actually felt like a relief at the time and even now, after all this time, I do not regret the decision. A couple of days later, Tracey and I met one of the ladies that helped me get back to Chamonix. She commented that she works in a hospital and has seem quite a few dead bodies, most of which looked much better than I did during that time in Bourg St Maurice. I wish I had some video footage from that time to see just what a state I was in.

On the Bus of Shame - a broken man

I feel that I got lots of things spot on in my preparation, but after some deliberation, I know there are certain points I have to address if I'm going to go back and get revenge on the course.

My general periodisation for the year worked really well. In 2015, I felt that I was a little jaded by the time I got to the Lakeland 100 in July and the TDS was a full month later. With this in mind, I held myself back in training over the winter, not really pushing training until I was nearly into March. This paid dividends as I felt like I was kicking on with my training as summer approached.

I got in lots of big climbs, mainly using Skiddaw and Blencathra, regularly doing double and triple summit visits in one session, always using poles, getting to the point where I was really comfortable with them.

I had my kit totally dialled in Click here.

Kit check

When we arrived in Chamonix, two and a half weeks before the race, I felt really fit and raring to go. I had planned three specific training runs to do in those first few days. Two power hikes up to around 2500m with an easy run down, just to get used to some altitude, plus a recce of the route from Les Contamines to the start of the last climb. Again, I felt great on these sessions Click here.

The final climb - Col du Tricot

Even standing on the start line in Italy at 6:00am, I still felt supremely confident - so what went wrong?

Start in Courmayeur, Italy
The majority of the answers keep coming back to the heat!

When we first arrived in Chamonix, it was hot but not ridiculous. I was powering up the mountains and feeling good. For the next three weeks it just got hotter and hotter and, thinking back, I was always struggling to get on top of my daily hydration, probably putting myself further and further in debt. As I was tapering after those initial training runs, dehydration was never really a problem, but I was obviously getting into a state of general dehydration.

To compound this, we spent way too long out in the heat of the day going for long walks, exploring the valley. I'm not a professional athlete, this is our main holiday of the year and we love exploring. But again, 3 to 4 hours every day in the heat must have had a cumulative effect, slowly sapping my power for the race.

I think I left a bit too much of my preparation to the day before the race, spending a lot of the day faffing around, getting everything ready when I should have been sitting with my feet up, relaxing. Looking back, I was definitely using up nervous energy. This is purely a logistics error and it's bloody annoying to make it!

All of this could have been irrelevant with regards to getting round the course if I hadn't been so bloody minded at the start. What I should have realised, very early on, was that it was not going to be a day that I could race round one of the toughest ultra courses out there. I live and train in the wettest place in England and to try and race in that oppressive heat for the best part of 24 hours was suicidal - and so it proved. What I should have done was re-evaluate my goals for the event and gone for the "enjoy the day out" approach instead of racing. However, I had spent six months training to race this time and my brain was too stubborn to let go of that. I told myself, early on, that I was feeling like crap because it was so early in the morning and I'd only had a couple of hours sleep - keep pushing through it and you'll be fine #fail.

 I feel that I have taken a lot on board from this experience and am determined to go back and get a TDS finish to my name. I have no problem with any person beating me but I hate being beaten by a course. So, I have just entered the TDS for 2017 and will be keeping my fingers crossed for the ballot in January. Significantly, I have decided to do my racing in the UK next year, having a crack at the Hardmoors Grand Slam, leaving a TDS finishers gillet as a target for Chamonix. Sounds like a plan.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Training in Chamonix

With a week and a half to go, I have now finished my training for the TDS race and am switching to taper mode. For once, I feel ready to taper and am looking forward to easing back.

I planned three main sessions for Chamonix. I wanted to get up to 2500m altitude a couple of times after suffering a bit at those heights in the UTMB race two years ago and I wanted to have a look at the course over in Les Contamines which is, hopefully, the area where I will be going into the dark. That means I will have recced the final 4 hours of the route.

If you are sitting in the UK watching this video, probably in the chucking rain..... sorry ;-)

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

TDS kit vlog post

I thought I'd try a different way of presenting things today.

As I'm about to head out to Chamonix, I've started to put together my kit for the TDS race and had the idea of doing a vlog (video blog) to explain what I'm taking with me during the race.

If I'm happy with the results, I may do something similar with regard to nutrition, drop bag kit and whatever else takes my fancy.... watch this space.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Every day is a school day

So, I've been umming and ahhing for a few weeks as to how to go about writing a report on the Keswick Mountain Festival and the 50k trail race.

I was really keen to have another bash at this race having enjoyed the event so much last year. Being able to run in a big event in my own town is just too good an opportunity to pass. The whole weekend took on a special importance a couple of months before, when I was asked by Berghaus, in conjunction with Mountain Fuel, to do a talk during the Mountain Festival; something along the lines of an introduction to ultra running, or as I see it "what I wish I'd known five years ago".

In preparation for the presentation, I spent a good few hours at various times being filmed on the trails and fells around Keswick, with a film put together featuring a few local athletes and our playground. This was played just before the talk and seemed to go down well and acted as a nice introduction.

Berghaus shoot (James Appleton)

I was a little worried that, with a time slot of 3:45pm on the Friday afternoon, there might not be many folk there for the talk (Tracey agreed to come so there would, at least, be someone there). I needn't have worried; it was a full house, with some even sitting on the floor.

Talk in progress (James Appleton)

It was tricky to know how to pitch the talk. sitting in front of me were some runners making their first attempt at an ultra in the 50k race that weekend and others who have won 100 mile races; a potentially tough gig.

Anyhoo, it seemed to go down really well, lots of questions and, in fact, I stayed around outside the tent for another 45 minutes chatting. The area of most interest was the core conditioning that I've been doing all winter. We even did some demonstrations on request.

I must admit, despite standing up in front of people every day for my job, I got a real buzz from the whole event and would definitely jump at the chance to do something like this again.

Tracey and I spent most of the weekend at the Mountain Festival, which has grown into a spectacular celebration of all things mountain. As well as Friday evening for the talk, we spent most of Saturday afternoon on site after I went down to register for the race and, finally, I arrived at 5:30am on Sunday for the 6:00am start and left the event at about 7:00pm on the Sunday evening. The weather helped; the views from the event site down Derwentwater were just stunning.


In last year's race, I ran a very conservative first half and smashed the second half, but gave myself just a little bit too much to do and finished second, just over 2 minutes down in 5:08 hours. As I have documented previously, I have held back the training so far this year with more than one eye on the TDS race in Chamonix at the end of August. it would be interesting to see what shape I would was in after running just four days per week in training. I hoped to be able to run a smidge quicker than last year but wasn't sure if that was realistic or not.

The field was stacked, including UK champions Donnie Campbell and Beth Pascall. I generally know my place in the pecking order, but I still hoped to go out a bit faster than last year and see what happened. From the start, the pace was frantic to say the least. I was 7 minute miling and the leaders were waltzing off into the distance - this could have disaster written all over it for me. I thought I was easing back, but the GPS data says otherwise.

My nutrition plan was to use Mountain Fuel Xtreme energy drinks throughout, supplemented with some fruit bars and pancakes during the first half, with a homemade gel in a soft flaks for the second half. I've had some good training runs with my homemade gels (based on some pureed fruit, Mountain Fuel Xtreme Energy and Morning Fuel), also using one during my win at the Kielder 80k, so I was confident with this for the final few hours of the race. However, after about an hour, I felt in the pocket of my race vest to find .... nothing! Disaster - the soft flask had bounced out somewhere on the trail and my nutrition plan had fallen out with it.

I've been running/racing/training since I was 14 years old, I teach A-level psychology, I teach A-level sports psychology, so how come I dealt with this incident so badly? As I think back, I seemed to panic and, for some reason,  put the hammer down for the next hour or so. The only thing I can liken it to is when you fall in a shorter, faster race and, with the rush of adrenaline, go full gas to catch up again.

Going full gas! (Rupert Bonnington)

What all meant was that I was constantly gaining time on last year, but wasn't thinking about how this might impact later in the race. To put it simply, I didn't deal well with the incident from a psychological point of view, which, to be honest, really rattled me for a week or so. During the race, I just tried to fuel myself from the drinks I had with me, making no effort to try the food at the checkpoints. So, as I look back in the cold light of day, the inevitable drop-off in performance that came over the final hour and a half, was catalysed by the speeding up after dropping the bottle and the refusal to adapt my fuelling strategy - both should have been dealt with much more efficiently.

The upshot was that after being around 6 minutes up on last year's time, I ended up finishing in 5:21 hours, some 13 minutes slower (losing 19 minutes on last year's pace over those final stages). I still managed to dig deep and finish in 8th place, so not disastrous, but not quite what I wanted.

As you can tell, I'm disappointed with the outcome and the way I dealt with the whole situation, but I feel I have learnt from this and will be better prepared to cope in the future. I'm certainly going to run through more scenarios of what might happen and how I might deal with them - good psychological preparation.

Interestingly, I have been absolutely loving my training since the race. I always intended to ramp things up after this race and have my mind firmly fixed on Chamonix. Perhaps this was just the kick up the back-side that I needed at the perfect time. I'm now clocking up 10 to 12 hours of training per week (which is a lot for me) and am coping well. Bring it on ;-)

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Kielder 80k race report

After six years of rocking up at ultra races, I can finally pen some thoughts on a WIN :-)

It's been an interesting winter with regards to preparation for the season, with experimentation on a number of factors. I've had a long delay in the start of my running training with the hope of peaking at the end of August, there has been the new focus on core and strength exercises, I've been playing around with the concentrations of the Mountain Fuel Xtreme Energy drinks, introduced sweet potatoes to my race food and started mixing my own gels.

At this point in time, I've no idea whether any of these factors has contributed through some marginal gains, but who cares, I've got a win.

What I do know is that I have enjoyed checking out the trails round Kielder. This is a new race to me and, with any new race, I try to take the opportunity to recce the course. Four trips up to Kielder gave me enough knowledge to know how to pay out my energy on race day with the most important point to note that the tougher running came in the first half of the race, with some seriously fast tracks in the final few hours. This blog is not the place to dwell on the various navigation mistakes I made on these recces - what happens in Kielder, stays in Kielder!

4am in the campervan, the alarm goes off, I pull back the curtains and can't see out. Two inches of snow at low levels, six inches on the fells. This could make things interesting.

For the first hour and a half loop to the Kielder Castle checkpoint, I settled in with three others, forming the lead group. It felt like a good but comfortable pace. After a bit of chatting, we sussed out that Jacob and Hugh were on the 100k event while Jon and myself were in the 80k. So at this point, at least, I had an idea of who I was up against.

We all arrived together at Kielder Castle, just a quick refill of a bottle and we were all away, ready for the next three and a half hour loop over the higher and rougher terrain. The snow had not been an issue for the first section from the start, but now it became a significant variable. As we climbed, the snow became thicker and the visibility became less. I was starting to think that safety in numbers might be the order of the day over the fell section so I tucked in with Jacob, Hugh was a few paces behind and Jon was just drifting out of sight, depending on the visibility. I had already got my compass and map out, but the course markings were just about close enough together to see us through the open fell section.

As we came back into the forest, a slight rise saw me open a small gap on the others and I thought I'd push on a bit here. I wouldn't normally open the gas this early in a race but I was concious of the fact that my strength is on the rougher ground and I felt I should try to take advantage of this. I had no idea how far back Jon was; the trees prevented any long views back, so I had to presume he was just out of sight. I made good use of the steep climb to Three Pikes and the (very snowy) single track to Grey's Pike and opened up a lead. In for a penny, in for a pound.

Photo - Ian Mulvey

Coming back to Kielder Castle, I thought that if I could get in and out before the next runners arrived, it would give me a psychological lift. The marshals were great and you know you are getting the star treatment when the race directors (Ian and Paul) offer to sort out your drinks bottles. Within two or three minutes I was on my way with no sign of any other runners.

I had taken my jacket off on the way into the checkpoint and spent the next 30 minutes regretting that. My fingers, in particular, went really cold and I struggled to sort out food so just relied on some drink for a while. I went through a bit of a low for this period but, as the sun started to warm me, I perked up. This section takes about two hours and brings you out at the dam, at the other end of the lake. I must admit I spent a lot of time looking back over my shoulder, trying to get a gauge on how much of a lead I might have but the terrain never really allowed a good view.

Photo - Ian Mulvey

Finaly, just as I was entering the checkpoint at the dam, I was joined by three other runners; Simon, Mark and Ryan, who were the three leaders of the 50k race which started some hours after us. This was going to make the final couple of hours interesting, as the one part of the course where I could get a good look back was round the cycle path round the lake all the way back to the finish, but I would have no idea whether those chasing me were in the 50k or the 80k. I basically told myself that if you wanted to guarantee the win I would have to assume anyone might be chasing me down so I'll just have to try and stay ahead.

I tried desperately to hang onto the three leaders in the 50k but that was never going to happen and they drifted away, chatting and smiling. I then spent the next hour and a half looking back over my shoulder and kicking myself up the backside every time I felt I was easing off - not easy to do after all that running. It was definitely a grind compared to the bounce I had for a lot of the day, but a grind proved to be enough to hold off any others and I crossed the line in first place in about 8:45 hours - happy bunny.

In the end, I had over an hour on Jon in second place, but I wasn't to know that and it was pleasing that when I needed to dig in I was able to push myself over the final 90 minutes or so. So, after coming so close to an ultra win at the 2014 Osmotherley Phoenix, I had finally claimed a top spot. OK, so it wasn't the UK Ultra Championships with a stacked field, but I just wanted to be able to say I had actually won one of these bloomin' events. Job done.

I've done a couple of the High Terrain Events races and have enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere and personal touches from the team in charge. You feel like you are a part of the event and not just a number on the entry sheet and the race directors are all very sociable with the runners, regardless of where you appear in the results. It seems that many first time ultra runners are doing their events and I get the impression these runners are getting a positive experience. Long may that continue.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Pre Kielder 80k Ultra

So, this weekend is the High Terrain Events Kielder 80k Ultra, which will be my first race of the year. Unusually, I'm not really sure what kind of shape I'm in as I line up on the start line. I took a long break from running training at the start of the winter and only really began this year's build up at the start of February. Normally, at this time of year, I would have had four steady months of training in my legs rather than the eight weeks at present. Those eight weeks have only averaged about 40-50 miles per week over just four runs. However, I have had a longer period of core conditioning, something new to me, and also had a turbo session each week on my bike.

My hope is that, after the Kielder race, I can slightly ramp up the training (hence the easier/later start) towards the Keswick Mountain Festival and then again kick on to the TDS in Chamonix in late August. With this kind of periodisation, I have to accept that I will not be at my best this weekend (there is, hopefully, more to come) but I have to admit that I feel ready to race and I'm looking forward to seeing what difference, if any, the core work has made.

Kielder Water

I've had a few trips up to Kielder to have a look round the course. It's very fast, on really good tracks apart from one loop which has some good off piste fell/marsh/bog sections - something to suit everyone.

So, I suppose I'm looking for a good solid performance, having some strength in my legs over the later stages, I'm trying a couple of nutrition ideas in a race for the first time (thanks to the guys at Mountain Fuel for the advice) and really want to enjoy the experience to further fire up my mojo for the next stage of the year. We shall see.

Whilst training with Rupert from Mountain Fuel earlier in the week, we did a bit of filming and I put together this short clip. It's a shame that my (free) editing software and old computer can't make full use of the mega HD of the camera, but you get the idea of the gorgeous trails on my doorstep.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Mom bullied me into this one!

You know it's been a long time since you posted when your mother starts to complain about the lack of blogging updates.

Yes, it has been a ridiculous length of time since I posted, but I have got an excuse; I've been lazy. More seriously, I think the immediacy of Facebook and Twitter leaves blogging for a different purpose.

Anyhoo, to bring those three people who are interested back up to speed, I lost a bit of mojo after the Lakeland 100. I promised myself a couple of weeks recovery time but two became three..... well you know how it goes. Fortunately, I had a two week holiday out in Chamonix to re-ignite the fire and enjoy the atmosphere of the UTMB week. What a great time we had! We saw the winners of every race during the week and all this was with the backdrop of a two week heatwave. I didn't even have any pangs of jealousy as I never intended to race but I did make the decision that I want to go back this year and have a blast at the TDS.

Xavier Thevenard winning UTMB

Like a child in a candy shop, I went a bit crazy on the first day. A couple of hours doing some upness followed by a kamikaze drop left my quads trashed for the next few days. Eventually, I got back in the swing of things and even did some recceing of the last few hours of the TDS course.


I came back from Chamonix in pretty good shape and had the Lakes 3x3000 80k in October to look towards, unfortunately, I just seemed to hit a wall once the new term started. I managed to do some training at weekends but nothing really during the week. I just felt jaded during the week but then quite enjoyed my weekend adventures. It got to the point where I wouldn't have been bothered if the event had been cancelled.

In the end, I really enjoyed my day out at the race. It was good the get my competitive juices flowing again. I tried to be sensible and get to the top of Scafell Pike without using up too much energy. Once on the rough ground, I ran with Sarah Morwood who was leaving most of the field behind. I opened up a gap of a few minutes on the long and, at times, technical descent from Scafell Pike and it pretty much stayed at that distance for the remaining six hours of the race. I must admit, I did feel like I was being hunted for all that time but I was pleased that I managed to stay ahead, especially when I later found out just what a fantasic year Sarah had in the build up. I'll just say ..... Great Britain international and leave it at that!

Prize giving for 4th place

During the race, I stubbed a toe three times, continued racing for 60k and discovered, after an X-ray the next day, that I had in fact broken it - go adrenaline!

After the event I just felt that I wanted a really good break with no pressure of training, so for the next three months (yes, THREE months) I just went for a run if I fancied it and the weather was nice, if I couldn't be bothered I didn't bother. I did spend one day out acting as a guide on one of the Lakeland 100 recce events which was fantastic, running from Coniston to Buttermere.

So let's have a word on this new season. I put my name in the hat for the TDS in Chamonix at the end of August. Now, this race has never been over subscribed; you put in an entry and you get a place - simple. So Tracey and I booked our accommodation early, only to find that there would, for the first time ever, be a ballot for places. That meant a few nervous moments waiting for the draw but all came good; I got my place. The season is now built around a peak at the end of August.

There is a mantra that says something about training the same way will get the same results. Although I am getting on a bit, I still feel there is life in the old dog yet, so I'm still looking for ways to progress and, after some conversations with Lakeland 100 winner Paul Tierney, I knew what my focus was going to be - core strength and muscular endurance. What tends to limit my performance in the latter stages of an ultra is rarely cardio-vascular related, yet I spend most of my time training that system. What slows me down is failure or degredation of the muscular system.

To that end, I worked with Paul and his partner Sarah McCormack (check out both of their palmares) to bring their exercise class, Missing Link Fitness, to Keswick. To sum up the approach, I have copied this short paragraph from the website

We believe that the human body is designed for being active within its natural environment for most of its waking life. It expects to be used for a diverse range of movement patterns, such as climbing, balancing, jumping, running, crawling and manipulating objects.  Before the advent of modern civilisation, all humans were professional athletes, relying on their strength, skill, speed and endurance to survive in the wild.

I'll be honest here - I was crap! Over the weeks, I slowly started to improve and could see the benefits. Then, disaster! Storm Desmond not only trashed our beautiful town, but also decided to wash away the main road between Keswick and Ambleside, meaning Paul and Sarah couldn't get here. So, since December, I've been doing my own adapted version, trying to do one longer session of 45  to 60 mins and a shorter session of 15 to 30 mins each week. It is slowly getting easier and I think I can feel the difference already and, quite surprisingly, I'm enjoying it.

The TDS is at the end of August, so I'm trying to plan things carefully and build fitness through the year. To that end, I only started running training about six weeks ago and am limiting myself to four runs per week up to now, supplemented with a turbo bike session and the core strength/movement work. This adds up to a decent week of training but I don't feel like I'm pushing it yet - hopefully lots more to come.

I'm also tinkering around with some more nutrition variations with the help of the lads at Mountain Fuel, already thinking about what I might be able to do in the TDS.

Spring has sprung :-)

So that's kind of where we're at for now. First race of the year will be the Kielder 80k Ultra in three weeks time. I've had a look round most of the course and it looks very fast apart from a four hour loop on the fells, so it will be interesting to see where I'm at come race day, but I'm trying to remind myself of the bigger picture.