Monday, 28 May 2012

Western States Training Runs and Different Styles of Races Internationally

The UK during the summer of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee (60 years since coronation),  plus with some national pride for the Euro 2012 Football Tournament and the little matter of the Olympics

Memorial Day weekend at the end of May has the traditional three days of training runs along the lower parts of the Western States course and there are people out doing that as I write. But I'm over in Europe so had to do my best to get in the right kinds of runs - ideally lots of +/-, long downhills and heat.

Without realizing it, I picked ideal events in Transvulcania, Zegama and the lesser known Northants Ultra 35 miler yesterday in the UK. Transvulcania had heat and huge climbs as well as a steep 8,000ft descent to trash the legs. Zegama was a beast, largely due to the cold and muddy weather but again with lots of up and down. Then weekend three had the flatter Northants Ultra but it was on about as hot a day as we get in the UK with humidity to make it tougher too. It also helped that it started and finished two miles from where I grew up and where my parents still live (much easier than trying to do a long run in the rolling countryside filled with farmland and fields).

I hadn't run a trail race in the UK for a while and it reminded me of some of the things I love and also some that I don't like about races here. In the US and Europe they generally mark trail courses really well, especially in continental Europe - I've never come close to getting lost on any mountain/trail races there. The US marks courses too and generally does a good job, although getting lost is still a distinct possibility if you stop concentrating for a minute. But in the UK you pay less for an entry and often have to part or fully navigate a course. That was the case yesterday and I had to run the whole thing with a set of maps in my hand, stopping often to work out which unmarked and un-sign-posted route to take.

The low key, fun atmosphere is a positive part of most UK races but getting lost and orienteering is not the best aspect of racing and is kind of a different event. Each country has multiple types of off-road races and UK fell running is very similar to European mountain races, except for the lack of course markings - I felt like I was running in Northern England in winter while out on the Zegama course. But I can't help but think that finding your way shouldn't be a big part of a running race, especially when it involves stopping a lot and scratching your head.

The US trails are often so well manicured that I'm amazed how people have the time and energy to maintain them so well. It was one of the first things I noticed when I moved to the States and I like it. Going off piste is fun too, but many areas have fantastic trails systems that mean you at least know whether you're on a trail that goes somewhere or not. Many times yesterday I wished for a trail that at least looked like a trail rather than a right of way that goes along the edge of a farmer's field and splits into several possible directions, none of which is noticeably a trail, i.e. any of the directions looks equally as little used and wrong. I'm sure that'll offend some Brits, but it's just a matter of preference.

However, the navigation aspect does make for a different challenge on a rare occasion and I like variety, being a fan of pretty much every type of running and loving road, trail, mountain, jungle, desert...basically anywhere you can run.

So here's a photographic comparison of some typical trails in the US, UK and continental Europe to show some differences. Obviously not all trails are like these but from my racing in all three places they sum up my experience of something like 50+ different ultras across those areas.

A more-obvious-than-most path in the UK through farm land, right outside my parent's house.

Marin Headlands north of San Francisco in the US, used for numerous races, including Miwok and TNF50. 

Part of the Zegama route showing what the higher parts of continental European races often look like (the easy bits, anyway). This could easily be from a fell race in the UK too.

For completeness, I should probably list my results too:

May 12th, Transvulcania 83k, La Palma, Canaries, Spain - 8h20m - 15th (16th really as I was chicked after racing it hard)

May 20th, Zegama Marathon, Spain - 5h21m - 143rd (really 151st, purely as a training run) running in with Nikki Kimball

May 27th, Northants Ultra 35 miles, UK - 4h18m - 3rd (aimed for a training run but had a group of two fast guys who it was worth sticking with to avoid getting too lost...we only added about half a mile but on my own I'd have got lost much more)

Four weeks left until Western States and I'm getting very excited about going back there and doing the full course after two snow years. It'll feel flat compared to the Skyrunning races, which is exactly how Kilian described it after his first attempt.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Zegama and the Hoopla Around The American Invasion of Skyrunning

Kilian winning Zegama. Photo: Bryon Powel of irunfar from his website

This is a just a quick post before I leave Zegama but I think all the Americans (and Brits tagging along) thoroughly enjoyed the experience of running the Transvulcania 83k on the Canaries (off Africa - very hot and humid) and the Zegama Marathon (in the Spanish Pyrenees - very wet, snowy and muddy). The details of the races have been out in the interweb in minute detail thanks to irunfar, Talk Ultra and Ultra168, so I won't go into that too much. But with how slippery Zegama was, I felt very Spanish after a slide down a hill left me with a grassy arse (say it out loud and you'll get what I mean).

It was fun to see what the Skyrunning guys do and to see really European-style races with huge amounts of vert and more technical running than back in the US. In fact, the mud, rain and snow of Zegama made me feel like I was on a fell run in northern England...just wish I'd had some fell shoes with me.

The sport is clearly progressing and becoming more media-friendly and I see no problem there. It got a bit much sometimes to have cameras and microphones everywhere but it still boiled down to two very hard races and some excellent competition and scenery. There's always going to be a place for big and small races alike and the nature of the sport means it'll never reach the hoopla around the main US or European sports. Maybe closer to cycling but probably still limited too much by courses and entrant levels to make it go as far down that road.

It comes down to this - it'll never be a sport of millionaires and the training and commitment it takes to run mountain ultras is so huge that only people who genuinely love it will even consider it. Doing it just for the money just doesn't seem realistic to me...ever.

So back to reality for a while now before the US has it's own mini-media frenzy at Western States. I can't wait to run there again!

Monday, 14 May 2012

Transvulcania and the International Skyrunning Federation

The hotel for the week on La Palma

Part of the 'media frenzy' - Bryon 'irunfar' Powell interviewing Darcy Africa and Nikki Kimball

Sunset outside the media room

A morning run for the cameras with the Salomon contingent

Camels on the island, not sure what the farmers use them for - meat?

Nikki Kimball helps fix Nick Clark's neck after a crick from the long plane ride

A mid-week run with a view - L-R: Dakota Jones, Joe Grant, Anna Frost, Nikki Kimball and Anton Krupicka

Nikki on a great mountainside trail we all found

Nikki, Anna and Tony

The beach near the hotel with a comfy bar above it

Max King's secret tactic for speed - cigars

Hog roast courtesy of the locals

Dakota's prize being shared out - Bryon rocking the look

Nick Clark looks too comfortable with this. Think he should probably try a business suit and leather  couches with expensively bound books on the shelves behind him. Maybe a glass of Hennessy cognac too.

Anna's clearly used to having the cameras in her face the whole time

We were given these when we arrived - a bird only found on the island (see next photo)
This is what the bird actually looks like - not so cuddly

Transvulcania lived up to its billing as a competitive, tough and beautiful ultra in the Canary Islands. It was also hot and fairly humid, draining the energy out of many runners and causing several to drop. Reported temperatures hit the mid-90s in Fahrenheit and left many to walk it in from a long way out.

I came to it knowing that the huge amount of ascent would be very tough for my legs and a fair bit steeper than other ultras I’ve done. It was supposedly an 83km (almost 52 miles) course but most GPS readings had to closer to 70km, so even allowing for some error and tree cover, that meant it was even steeper as the climb wasn’t reduced. 

Here's my Garmin measurement of it - 14,717ft of ascent (less descent than this as it finishes above sea level) and 44.64 miles (just under 72km)

The thing that everyone out here has commented on is what a beautiful island La Palma is, even though most of us hadn't heard of it, just knowing of the more famous nearby tourist islands of Tenerife and Lanzarote. When the sun rises and you get views over black, volcanic lava flows, then the sea far below, it’s hard to not be amazed…even when your body is working so hard to keep climbing.

In summary, the course was a 6,500ft climb to start off with, partially pre-dawn and through villages with a UTMB atmosphere, then a downhill before a steeper climb, some undulation and a final push to over 8,000ft before descending to sea level. Then the last few miles were flat followed by a final, sharp 1,000ft climb and a mile long road sprint to the finish in the blistering heat. From that highest point you could see much of the island (including the finish line over a half marathon away) and I wish I could have spent time enjoying it instead of then hammering downhill and looking just ahead of my feet the whole way.

The International Skyrunning Federation (“ISF”) have moved into the ultra world this year and this race kicks off their season of races with more than a bang. Dakota Jones (6:59) and Anna Frost (8:11) smashed the course records with incredibly impressive runs against stiff competition. Virtually everyone I saw seemed to be in the Salomon kit and I spent the whole day around different Salomon racers – they’ve really thrown their weight behind this.

Given the difficulty of the course I thought top 10 was a tough aim and would still require besting some incredibly strong runners. In the end I got 16th in 8:20, but am very encouraged that the 8,000ft+ descent went well (ideal training for Western States), moving from 30th at the top to my final position a half marathon later.

It was a tough day and the heat was more of a factor than I expected, with dehydration causing me some issues (my own fault for not drinking enough), but the North Americans had a much better showing than at UTMB with the men’s win and 3rd (Nikki Kimball) and 4th (Darcy Africa) in the ladies’ race. In fact, I was the last of the North American men to finish (Geoff Roes dropped after some nasty stomach problems) so the rest were all ahead – Rickey Gates (10th), Joe Grant (11th=), Mike Wolfe (14th). Full coverage of the race and results is here.

If you get the chance to run this and like the idea of a beautiful tropical trip before the summer starts, plus a very hard course, then this is perfect.

The next few days have a 3-day seminar about the future of Skyrunning, plus some pool time. Then off to northern Spain and the Pyrenees for the Zegama Marathon. At the moment none of us plan to go all out as we have varying degrees of minor limps, but I’m sure some of the guys out here will end up going hard. Fantastic trip so far and well worth the long flights – thanks ISF! 

Monday, 7 May 2012

Race Travel

The trail to Everest Base Camp at the only ever running of the multi-day Land of the Yeti Duathlon, 2009

Tomorrow I head off for the Canary Islands for the super-stacked Transvulcania 83k with around 15,000ft of climbing in a double marathon. It starts off a month of travel back to Europe for the Skyrunning Federation conference and two of their races (the other is the Zegama Marathon in the Spanish Pyrenees), plus the Northants Ultra by where I grew up and a quick trip to Chamonix for some training. Bryon Powell from irunfar will be covering both Skyrunning races live and has noted yet another long list of fast runners will be there - see his article here.

Both these mountain races are extremely tough by my standards in terms of the amount of climbing so they're mainly a new and harder challenge for me and a chance to see some new places and faces. One of the things I most love about ultras is that they provide an excuse to see incredible locations around the world and I've tried to use races to see more of the planet, having raced in over 30 countries currently (I have zero chance of ever completing my wish list as I won't live long enough to fit it all in - I'd need a millennium). New cultures and friends really add spice to life, although returning home can sometimes be depressing...although that's not really the case now I'm in Oregon, which kind of feels like a permanent adventure.

Without events that take me to some of the best scenery I can imagine, I'd probably never have seen the middle of the Sahara, small alpine villages or a whole host of other fantastic places. I'm often amazed by the commitment and organizational ability of race directors to create courses in harsh environments and out of the way locations, so I'm very thankful for the great work so many of them do, often purely for love of running and not for profit.

Race travel has been a large part of my life since I started running in 2005 and I can't imagine doing without it (just ask my wife who complains that it'd be nice to have the occasional holiday that didn't include a race). But I also try to take advantage of local races too since travel can be a hassle. Given I'm not from the US, just being here and doing almost any event feels like it's exotic. So this year I've got plenty of trail races close to Bend, OR, as well as fantastic Oregon ultras like the Gorge Waterfalls 50k in March and the Waldo 100k in August. I'm even counting Western States 100 as kind of local since it's at least in the same time zone (that's close for Americans, but not for my British sense of distance).

The one big downside to all this travel, excluding the cost, is adjusting to time zones. My wake up call for Transvulcania will be around 3am local time...or 7pm for my West Coast-adjusted body. After a couple of days of flying then just two days to adjust to this, I'll be a mess. I suspect the Americans may suffer a little from sleep deprivation at the race so don't be surprised if that gives an edge to the European athletes (plus many of them train on more similar terrain, which has a tiny benefit - although we have plenty of tough terrain to play on in the US).

So I hope to have a really enjoyable time meeting some of the most talented people in the sport and seeing places I'd probably never have visited otherwise. Is there any other sport that can offer this to the same degree and allow competitors to get into the least accessible, most beautiful areas? Or if you prefer you can race along a canal which seems to be popular back in the UK, offering such sights as dead homeless people, shopping trolleys (carts), toxic water and being attacked by killer geese.