Sunday, 29 July 2018

Thank you Lakeland 50/100 for all the stories coming our way.

As the rain bounces off the ground outside my window I’m reflecting on what has been a race weekend of epic proportions. The Lakeland 50/100 doesn’t do things by halves and this year was no different.
My main focus was the 50 as my husband was running that, and I am so over the moon to be able to say the race was a complete success for him. After months of rehab, training, stress and worry, the stars aligned and the boy done good!! What a comeback! I’m so proud.
And I had friends running in both the 50 and the 100. It wasn’t to be for some of them, and for others, the were able to make it to Coniston and collect their finishers medal and t-shirt. And what a fantastic welcome awaits all those who make it there. It’s a joyous and hugely emotional moment for most of the runners. It’s an amazing achievement joining the Lakeland 50/100 family.

The races are tough: the terrain, the weather, the underfoot conditions and the ascent/descent, and in the 100 than incredibly tight cut-offs and lack of sleep. We all enter these races knowing, at some level, that they are going to test us. They are meant to be tough. That’s why we do them. But until race day we just don’t know how much we are going to be challenged. We just know that we want to be part of it.

So what is it about these races that draws us in? Why are we out in the wind and rain, soaked to our skin, running along rocky paths through the depths of the Lake District?

We all have our own reasons for being there. Some are seeking victory, positions, trophies and prizes- pitting  themselves against fellow athletes, battling for the glory. Others are competing against themselves, battling the inner demons that say ‘you can’t do this’ and proving to themselves that actually they can. Others are there because they love the adventure, being outside in the beautiful countryside and going on a journey. And others just love a day or days out in the Lakes with fellow ultra-runners enjoying the running and  camaraderie.

Ultra running is a funny thing. Unless you are running round a track (or short tarmac route) you are all facing slightly different versions of the same course. [Extreme example; in the Spine Challenger by the time I got to approximately 100 miles a ‘river’ had burst its banks and I waded through hip- deep flood water - those further ahead of me didn’t experience this.] And the longer it takes you to complete a race, the likelihood is that you will experience far more weather problems than those who finish in half the time. Conversely those at the front may go so fast that they run into weather issues which may have disappeared by the time later runners get to the same point.

Our races experience is affected by so many factors. We all come into the races with different levels of fitness and different levels of capability. Come race day we may have acquired a few niggly injuries or picked up a bug. Our backgrounds, home lives, work lives, stresses and strains away from running are all different. So while we all stand on the same start line, we are all starting from different places, both physically and mentally. And that’s one of the wonderful things about ultra runners, we are an eclectic bunch of people of all kinds of backgrounds and abilities but we are all heading out on a crazy and wonderful and inspiring journey together. I mean, how many of us feel like we are actually good runners? How many of us feel that we are at our peak, primed, fit, injury-free and ready to nail it? How many of us have not left a pile of stresses and worries behind, feeling pulled in every direction by life, to focus on this one single purpose of getting from A to B as fast or as enjoyably as we can? We have done what training we could, physical and mental, and we face the race. By the end  we have learn new things about ourselves, about our capabilities, and hopefully we have learned new things to try in our training for next time. Yes! Next time! You know you want to!! Or at least, you will in a week or so. Trust me.

There are 1001 different race stories from these events because we have 1001 different race experiences, but we are bonded together by sharing in the event, sharing our stories, licking our wounds and inspiring each other. And you know what, I bloody love race stories! The good, the bad, but especially the ugly! Ha ha.

Go make some stories!!!

Saturday, 14 July 2018

Clyde Stride / Clyde Shuffle

Two weeks ago I entered a race. For £23 you’d be lucky to get entry into a 10k race these days, so the idea of running a 40 mile ultra for that price, and a last minute call for final entries was too much to resist. It was the perfect opportunity to test where I am fitness-wise and strength-wise (general strength but mainly an assessment of my hip/groin).
I never expected to finish if I’m honest. Having only done 5 runs of 10 miles or longer this year (Spine Challenger excepted) with 15 miles being the longest, I just wanted to see how far I could go before things started to break down. I don’t normally do races as training runs but it seemed much easier to do the sort of run I wanted by entering the race - more likely to push on a bit/ make more of an effort - and it meant I could explore a route I have never set foot on before.

I DNFed the race after 20 miles. I was physically ready to stop at about 14 miles.

So here are a few take-always from today:

I have missed the excitement of race morning.
It’s been too long since I saw my fellow Scottish ultra runners (from north of home).
Ultra marathons are great ways to meet cool people.
Most people in ultra running are totally sound.
Some people in ultra running are not so much.
It’s hot in the city.
Muscle memory only works if you’ve done the training to remind it.
Navigating and racing at the same time is very distracting and time consuming.
If you don’t know where you are going, you spend the whole time worrying you’re going the wrong way, and you breathe a huge sigh of relief each time you see a marker.
I tried a new drink. It wasn’t for me.
I tried running jelly - it’s still too much like a gel for me.
A Diet Coke and a massive burp can work wonders on a hot race day.
Fat bits can get as sore as muscle bits when you’re running a long way.
Sport Sheild is literally the best thing an ultra runner can use to stop chaffing.
I need new summer running socks - my go-to socks have a hole in!
My Montane skort, no matter how old, or how many times it’s been worn, is my most reliable piece of running clothing. It can do no wrong.
Running across the Raith Interchange was actually kind of cool.
DNFs are never an easy decision but sometimes they are the correct one.
I had been ready to call it a day at 14 miles - legs were sore and feeling used up. Not through lack of energy but through muscle breakdown/lack of training strength.
My hip/groin did better than I’d hoped.
Hard work does pay off, it just takes a lot longer than you hope for.
I’ve made a lot of progress in the past 6 months.
I still have a very long way to go.
I’m still not sure if I will go ahead with the surgery or not.
I like rain and temperatures of about 10-15 degrees.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

The price of ultrarunning/ the price of safety - Spine Challenger - it's not cheap!

In the lead-up to the Spine Challenger race, well pretty much for the whole year really, there was a lot of discussion on the race forum and other online groups about gear for the race.  Like in other group discussions, if you ask a question the responses will be split between those who are genuinely being helpful, those who are simply taking the mick and those who just have nothing positive or helpful to say to anyone about anything.  I once asked a gear question in another group a couple of years ago and regretted it almost instantly.

So, given that I was needing a great deal of advice about gear, I found myself relying on all the other Spine (and Challenger) newbies to ask the advice and I would just stalk the threads in the hope that something useful would come up from time to time.  It's not ideal but it saved me from getting the piss ripped out of me on a weekly basis, I'd had enough of that previously.

The thing about this race is that you are either already heavily equipped with the right kind of gear because you have come to it from a winter mountaineering type background, you are some sort of sponsored athlete or brand ambassador who gets loads of gear given at them for 'free', or you come at it from a standard trail running background (like myself) and whilst you might have a few bits and pieces, you realise that once you have parted ways with a hefty entry fee you then have the purse-emptying task of buying a shopping list full of expensive winter-mountain appropriate gear.  And given that you are going to have to part with a lot of money, you are hopeful that you are going to get good advice about what type of equipment/clothing is going to be good enough quality whilst not breaking the bank.

If you look at the difference in sizes and weights of packs carried by runners in the race, you will see a huge disparity, which can only have a knock-on effect on a competitor's speed during the race and therefore their finishing (or not finishing) time. You are pretty much told this on the race website! This caused many a drawn-out discussion in the online forums too - what's more important price, weight, or safety?

I remember way back when I was preparing for the Lakeland 100 there were many similar discussions about pack size, what shoes, what jackets, the lightest calories etc. Repeatedly there were people complaining about the mandatory kit list, asking why they had to carry this and that. It got really tiresome.  Mandatory kit lists are there for one good reason - safety - should the worst happen, can you keep yourself safe until help can arrive (bearing in mind there are hundreds of other competitors out on the trails who might also need help at the same time as you). Of course there are still those who will try and not carry everything (hoping they don't get caught) and there are those who whilst technically meeting the requirements, are pretty much taking the piss with regards to safety (of themselves and therefore putting others at risk) eg. taking a pair of ladies 30 denier dress tights as their "spare lower base layer" or a compass they got in a Christmas cracker that's barely the size of a £1 coin! It's ridiculous.

Remembering all those online debates back them whilst thinking about the Challenger kit-list made me laugh.  Half of those people complaining about the Lakeland 100 kit list would have been having complete hissy fits about the Challenger list.

The discussions were slightly different for the Spine and Challenger, but not completely devoid of the above issues.  But primarily it came down to what was most suitable for the conditions and cost.  For example, when it came to jackets, it was about how well the 'waterproof' or 'insulating layer' jacket had coped with Spine conditions as opposed to a regular winter outings, and then was it affordable?  For clothing in general it was a combination of performance and price.

With regards to the reminder of your equipment, i.e. the heavy part, weight was a constant source of discussion: weight vs. performance vs. cost. As someone who was probably one of the less experienced racers when it comes to winter mountain conditions I needed to buy (or borrow) about 90 % of the content of the mandatory kit list.  So from the horrifying moment that my race entry was accepted at the beginning of February I started scouring the January sales and online sales pages. Mother's day presents, birthday presents Christmas presents - everything was based around my kit list. Multiple times I had to dip into my savings.  I was watching every single penny, and watching every discount website waiting for things to come on sale (or hoping they would).  The gear didn't need to be 'this season' or the latest colour, it just needed to work, and work well enough. Winter conditions mean safety is key which means you can't turn up in any old sh*t, but quality brands tend to cost money, so it was all about learning which brands offered the best quality for the least money.

I experienced a lot of good and bad customer service during 2017.  Some companies were frankly appalling! And others were absolutely superb.  My online favourites - Alpkit, Sportpursuit and Tiso.  Real shops I went into - George Fisher, Pete Bland and Costwold Outdoors in Keswick (these three were also good online). And without my 'winter kit consultant' (ha ha) friend SJ I would never have found my backpack.

My most expensive piece of kit was my sleeping bag (£200).  It was also my heaviest at 865g.  I bought the lightest one I could afford that met the sub-zero requirements. It was the Alpkit Pipedream 400 which I learnt about in the Spine discussion groups. I still can't believe I spent that much money on a sleeping bag when all previous sleeping bags have come from Tesco at around £15!! No joke.  I haven't slept outdoors since Guide camp in my youth - that was quite some time ago.

Whilst I imagine that many of the 'fast and light' competitors (on the Challenger?) would have gone for a more lightweight emergency bivi bag (weighing as little as 100g), I opted for safety and took the weightier (664g) option of the Rab Storm Bivi. When I speak of safety, I speak of it in my own context.  Given that I'm less experienced, it was important for me to feel safe with the equipment that I was carrying and that I would be confident that if something went very wrong I would be able keep myself safe until help arrived. A 100g bivi bag would not have made me feel safe.  Clearly non of us plan on something going wrong, but inevitably they do, and we need to be as best prepared as we can.  It is our responsibility as competitors to keep ourselves safe.  It is not the responsibility of the Safety Team - they are our BACK-UP.

I started buying things for my race in February in the sales, and I bought my last items in one week before the race (not that I was cutting it fine or anything). That final item was actually a new head-torch.  Not the best planning but I had increasingly lost confidence in my Petzl Nao as it had failed me on numerous occasions (perhaps it was just too fiddly or just wasn't a good 'fit' for me).  Again I was stalking the forums and decided to buy a Black Diamond head-torch. It needed standard sized batteries and they were super easy to change.  And having adjusted the settings on the computer I knew the light would last through the 16 hour night on 1 set of batteries no problem - this was of key importance to me.

One key piece of kit was the GPS unit. But luckily I didn't have to shell out £200-£500 on a new unit as my lovely friend SG let me borrow hers - a Garmin Oregon. Not only did she lend it to me for the race but for the three months prior to the race for me to practice with too! She's an absolute gem of a friend. I have never used one before - always been a map and compass person - but there's no doubt I am saving up to buy one in the future.  What a fantastic bit of kit! It gives you a (perhaps misplaced) sense of comfort knowing that you have that extra layer of 'navigation power' for when conditions are not conducive to manual navigation (hoping that it works!).

Entering the Montane Spine Challenger and Spine Race is expensive.  The entry fee alone would put most people off, including myself (which is did for some time)! But I decided I wanted to do a big extreme race before I was no longer capable of such things. I wanted to do something super special and a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  That was another reason to finish the race - I couldn't afford to pay the entry fee again.  Often people say 'there's always next year' if you're thinking of a DNS or mid-race contemplating a DNF, but that's just not the case. Yes, if you're an elite or sponsored runner and don't have to pay entry fees etc. but for your average runner then it's not such an easy prospect.  It's a bit different to paying £7 for your local hill race.

So was it worth it? For me, yes. Most definitely.  It was an extremely challenging, and at times horrific and brutal experience, but my goodness I wouldn't have changed it for the world. Well, except my stupid non-waterproof supposedly waterproof socks! Ha. It was everything I signed up for and then some. Pushing myself like that meant I had to dig deeper and find new strengths I didn't know I had.  And the people involved in the race - they were some of the finest humans I have met on my running adventures. The people make the Montane Spine Challenger.

The Hart family had a tough 2017, and the look on my husband's face as I arrived at the finish, and the enormous hugs and non-stop questions I got from my kids when I got home - PRICELESS!  In our 'running lives' we were due a win, and we got one. It was freakin magic!  And now I have lots of cool gear that we can have lots of future adventures with.

Keep adventuring...

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Women and ultrarunning - a few personal ramblings

When I was interviewed after my Montane Spine Challenger finish last month, a question I was asked near the end of the interview struck a chord. It was a question regarding the lack of women in the race, and ultra-running in general. It was a timely question given the current climate about equality and women's rights.  And just this evening I saw a very long thread of discussion on Facebook about giving women a higher percentage 'quota' in a race lottery to ensure more are racing.  In this case, whilst I'm not against the sentiment, I'm very much of the opinion that a lottery is a lottery - nobody should be getting special treatment in a lottery - we should all be entering a race with the equal chance of getting in, no special treatment.

I don't wish to repeat all the different ideas and opinions about what should be done to 'rectify' the lack of women represented in ultra-running; some ideas were constructive and positive, others were complete nonsense.

For race directors, I think their role is quite limited, but still important.  Prize money should be equal, prizes should be equal.  If the first 3 men are getting a 6 pack of beer, then do the same for women.  It's horrifying the number of races I have been to where women are given household appliances as prizes! Honestly if I was ever good enough to podium in a race and they had to cheek to give me an iron as a prize, I'd walk away leaving the iron on the table.  (I frickin hate ironing!)
Women need equal billing as men. Treat the results equally, the prize-giving equally, press conferences and advertising - create a sense of excitement about the women's field in the same manner as the men's field. In my mind, it's not a complicated thing. (I'm sure there will be those that disagree.)

One reason for women not entering is perhaps the lack of role models.  I am not referring to the elite field though.  There are fantastic women at the elite level who are inspiring to watch, and follow on Instagram and other social media, many of whom are giving the men's elite runners a run for their money.  I follow plenty of these women and men on social media and I'm amazed by what they can all do.  But the bottom line is they do not inspire me to go out and race.  They are elite, and by virtue of that, achieving things that probably feel impossible to most women (or men). But they are pushing boundaries and creating exposure which in itself is key in facilitating women's participation.

But when it comes down to it, what is really going to make 'normal' 'everyday' women runners want to run a 100 miler? I'm 'normal' and 'everyday.' (others may disagree - cheeky!) So what made me want to run a 100 miler? What made me want to get up at stupid o'clock in the morning to train, and head out in the dark and awful weather once my kids are in bed to get more miles in?

The answer came in the talk/interview with Fiona Outdoors. She said she loves to write about seemingly ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I replied to her, than I am just an ordinary working mum. "Seemingly ordinary" she interjected.

I am not an elite runner.  I am a middle (at best) to a back of the pack runner, whether it's 5km to 100 miles.  I don't even 'look' the I should be a runner (especially not since I had the kids).  I don't look like most of the women runners you see on Instagram and elsewhere.  These days when I go to a race (to run or support) I feel like I am 10 time larger than everyone else.  But I would imagine that's how a lot of women runners feel; massively self-conscious and lacking in self confidence and the belief that they could do something amazing.

I am that women.  I have spent my life battling insecurity and self-doubt. But somehow a seed was sown in my brain, a question; what could I do? My first ultra was not inspired by some distant elite runner on the cover of a magazine. I was on my way to my first marathon (which I entered due to the encouragement of a fellow female running club member - also not a front of the pack runner) and we travelled alongside the West Highland Way.  Apparently people ran the whole of this trail, in one go! And not only that, two members of my running club had done the race, one male and one female. Wow, I thought.  I wonder if I could do that? It looks such a beautiful place to run. I hadn't even run my first marathon at that point. And the people who had inspired me were friends.  I thought that if they could do it, maybe I could.  Not through any kind of arrogance, but seeing them as seemingly ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

Back then I didn't have the belief, but I had a sense of wonder.  I had the work ethic and I had the support of my club. Crucially I also had the time!

Things are different now that I am a working mother of two young children. How are they different? Time.  I just don't have the time I used to have.  But I have to find ways to make the time.  I don't have an extensive network of childcare.  I can't run commute or run at lunchtime.  Some parents can  but these options are simply not available to me.  So I have to make sacrifices elsewhere. But how can a working mum do that? Through support.  So whilst I don't have the time I used to have I do still have the support.  I have a husband who can look after the kids when I am training (late at night or at silly o'clock in the morning), and I look after them when he is training, and sometime we all 'train' together. We have lots of adventures. We are a team.

I'm still not sure I have the belief, but my husband and my kids believe in me so I have to trust them and learn to believe in myself.  I am lucky.  I still have that sense of wonder, the work ethic and the support and belief of my friends.

We need more seemingly ordinary women doing extraordinary things.  Fight the feeling to shy away from what they have achieved and let people know what they have done. Shout about it, write about it. Blog about it. I recently read a social media post of a runner complaining about people writing blogs about their races.  If you ask me, I think more people should blog about their races.  Provide other runners with a resource to learn, to give them the knowledge and confidence to help them tackle an event.  I know I couldn't have tackled the Spine Challenger without all the knowledge I gained from previous racers blogs. (If you don't want to learn from blogs, don't read them, but they are a fantastic resource for learning and preparing.)  Let other seemingly ordinary people see what is possible.  Let's help each other do extraordinary things.

Whilst sitting at the finish checkpoint in Hardraw after finishing the Spine Challenger, feet soaking in a bucket of warm water to clean them for 'inspection' the final lady finisher came in, and it was reported that that was all the women in now, we were just waiting for male finishers. One of my fellow racers commented "What a fantastic bunch of women we have in this race, we just need more of you." I think roughly, the DNF rate for women in the race was on a par with the men's DNF rate.  So one could say that once we have the courage/'training'/support/belief to start, we have the same chance of finishing as the men.

I hope there are lot more women out there who may seem ordinary, just like me, but who can also do extraordinary things. We can do this.

(Apologies for being a bit rambling but time is limited and I needed to get a few thoughts down on something that is important to me: I speak as an ordinary women/mother/wife/daughter/sister/friend... I hope other women can speak out on the issue too, and preferably a lot more eloquently than me).

EDIT: On reflection perhaps we can look at it both ways:

seemingly ordinary people doing extraordinary things


ordinary people doing seemingly extraordinary things.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Every setback leaves behind a path to make your comeback

So I mentioned in my blog post Another Spanner in the Works that I injured my hip in a non-running incident. Because of the injury I found running for any length of time (above 20 minutes or so) painful and would have to take a walk break. During the final 3 months before the race much of my training was done by walking in the local hills or run/walking in the local forests.  My inability to run was one of the reasons I very nearly didn't start the race.  Not only was I facing the toughest race of my life, I was attempting to complete it whilst not being able to run without pain.

It was only 6 months since I had last attempted to run a race when I was in pain before I even started, and that had been an unmitigated disaster, so what made me think this time would be any different, especially when this race was 100 times harder than the SDW100? The answer is twofold. Firstly, I WANTED this.  I don't do bucket lists.  I don't do races just because they are on some arbitrary list of 'races you have to do before you die' that appears practically every other month in some sort of running publication. I just don't buy into all that.  Racing means time away from my kids so there has to be a good reason for me to do it. The Montane Spine Challenger presented multiple personal reasons for me to enter, and then once I started I had lots more reasons to finish.

One of the reasons to keep going was my hip problem.  It was constantly sore throughout the race, although much less acute than my shoulder or my feet. And now, 3 weeks after the race, my shoulder is back to normal and apart from some fairly severe achilles tendonitis my feet have recovered too.  But my hip is painful, almost all of the time.

With my x-ray results before the race showing no issues I decided that I would do the race because I could do any damage to anything bone related (or so I thought with my extensive medical knowledge! ha).

My MRI was scheduled for 2 days after the race finished.  I was dreading it as I do get a bit claustrophobic. Mainly I was nervous about what the possible diagnosis would be.  Whilst I tried to remain positive about it, I couldn't help but replay the list of possible results in my head. Not knowing is always difficult, but at the same time you dread getting the results in case it's not the outcome you hoped for.

So my results came through, and thankfully it was not the worst case scenario. Unfortunately it was not good news either. My injury is not fixable without a very difficult surgery, which to be successful requires a very good surgeon, and an long period of recovery. It's difficult news to come to terms with, but come to terms with it I must.

I have started a program of physiotherapy but hopefully before too long I will be put onto a surgery list. With it being a difficult surgery there is a good chance that it won't work, and even a chance it could make things worse.  But it is important that I stay positive and hope for the best, and give myself every chance of recovery.

The irony is that whenever you tell somebody that you are a runner, or especially an ultra-runner, they will question whether that is good for your knees or you joints, and the thing that has injured my hip was being a mum: Trying to be a helpful mum at that!

So I ran the Spine Challenger with the unconfirmed knowledge that it may well be the last time I compete in a race for a very long time.  If this was going to be my last ultra than I better make sure I finish it.  And thank goodness I did as it was the most glorious race finish of my life.

Maybe I have gone out on a high, or maybe there is more to come.  Only time will tell.  I will do everything I can to ensure my hip will work again.  I know it is going to be very difficult but life is full of challenges.  I can only hope that my best is enough because I want the chance to make many more memories running or walking in our wonderful countryside. But more importantly I want to be able to be able to be an active mum with my kids.  I don't want to stay broken and have to make excuses to not fully participate in what they are doing.

A positive attitude to achieve positive results. Chin up.