A Rookie’s Guide to Ultra Trail Running

Last weekend I had a first go at running further than a marathon, and just to add a little fun to proceedings I did it off-road. The Weald Challenge is 50km long and 85% of it is pathways, muddy tracks, rutted farm fields (more of these shortly) and climbing over stiles, a lot of stiles…

Here, in random order, is some stuff I learned.

alan_ultra_weald_0003

  1. Ultra running is very inclusive. There are lots of skinny people yes, but there are also lots of other shapes, sizes and ages. They are a very friendly and welcoming bunch.
  2. As with all long distance running events, there will be an old guy at the start in plimsolls, worn vest and shorts, with a running style that looks like rapid-onset scoliosis. You will worry about him finishing safely.
  3. When the hooter goes, you will be thinking, “8km really isn’t that much further than a marathon, is it? How bad can this get?” The answers are a) ‘A lot’, and b) ‘Very’.
  4. You will very quickly find out that trail running is not all on nice broad paths like my local North Downs Way. Farm fields with trodden crops over deep ruts are the running equivalent of those Viet Cong pits filled with Bamboo pungi sticks. That, and downhills are not your friend if you don’t have decent downhill running technique.
  5. Compression socks are really great for protecting you from nettle burn. But not if you leave them in the drawer at home.
  6. The best way to run through a marshy riverside field is to have two large cows follow you with menacing intent.
  7. Pacing yeah? I should know this by now, but however slow you start, it’s still too fast. I got to 30k in a respectable 81st position, by 50k I’d dropped to a humbling 110th.
  8. Ultra running aid stations are the best. Fancy a cold slice of water melon in the middle of a forest after 5 hours of running? Not. A. Problem.
  9. There are adders in Sussex. Well, at least one 3ft long one.
  10. About 10k from the end there will be an old guy in plimsolls, worn vest and shorts, with a running style that looks like rapid-onset scoliosis. He will go past you like you are standing still, probably while worrying about you finishing safely.
  11. At the beginning of the race, climbing a stile over a fence will feel like it’s adding character and charm to your day. At around 48.5k into the race, the 81st stile (yes, 81!) you have to climb will feel like that big f*!king wall in Game of Thrones. PTSD actually stands for Post Traumatic Stile Disorder.
  12. That last 8k genuinely feels like 20. But it so worth it when you get a medal at the finish and a specially made pottery mug (and free coffee to go in it). It’s that kind of stuff that makes local races brilliant.

In summary, I recommend this ultra trail-running very highly. It takes a lot of mental stamina, concentration and some serious leg strength as you can’t just zone out like you do on the road. It’s challenging and fun at the same time, as competitive or social as you choose to make it and with tons to learn and improve on. Oh, and the views are awesome! I’m definitely in for more with eyes on the Pilgrim Challenge next February . Here’s hoping it doesn’t snow!

Thanks Carel and Alechia for the ride to and from the race, the support, the hotdog at the finish and the awesome photos. Special thanks to Alechia for ‘intervening assertively’ when I considered dropping to the half marathon about four weeks out from the race. What was I thinking!?

Black Line London’s Top Posts of 2015

Not only have there been some excellent athletic performances from BLL’rs this year, there have been some excellent literary ones too. So with the year drawing to a close, here’s a recap of our 5 most read posts of 2015.

5. Inside The Peleton by Paul Deen. Back in April Deenzy did what most triathletes never do – ride in a peleton. He wrote this great post about it, so you don’t have to.

4. Roadmap To Kona by Troy Squires. He only went and did it! Here are Troy’s tips for giving yourself the best chance.

3. Makers Gonna Make by Paul Smernicki. We got a great response to our new cycle jersey. Here’s the story behind it.

2. See Paul, I Told You You Could Do It by Paul Burton. Pablo raced a great race in his debut Kona, then wrote this great account of his day. Some boy!

1. If Carlsberg Did Race Reports by Alan Grove. No joke, this is hands down the best ironman race report ever written by anyone, anywhere, ever in all of history and by a country mile our most read post of 2015. Chapeau, Alan.

Makers Gonna Make

Did you know we just designed and made a new Black Line London cycle jersey? Of course you did, because we haven’t shut up about it.

But the reason we haven’t shut up about it isn’t to try and sell you one (although actually you’d look great in it, what with your stunning athletic physique) but because the whole process of making and doing is something we really love, and we’re quite proud and deeply satisfied to have produced something that people actually want to wear.

Continue reading “Makers Gonna Make”

Inside the Peleton – A New Experience.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about group riding since completing the Mallorca 312 last Saturday. It’s something most of us long distance triathletes never do and the view from inside the peleton was a new experience.

Once out of the mountains when it got on to the flatter stuff past Palma at about 170k it got particularly interesting because it was the first time I had experienced riding in a really big peloton among some fairly well drilled riders. 

The 3 of us from Black Line who were riding the event (Me, Mel Wasley and Al Maher) ended up in a big group being led by a Mallorcan team from Manacor -who were all in smart matching kit and riding very disciplined. You hear about being sucked along by a peloton but in all honesty until Saturday I thought this was a bit of an exaggeration, however sure enough, once we were in this group we were scooting along at over 40k per hour by just soft tapping and freewheeling. It was an amazing experience but also pretty stressful as you have to concentrate 100% on not getting too close to the wheel in front, touching wheels and causing a massive pile up….making you the most unpopular person in Mallorca.

Continue reading “Inside the Peleton – A New Experience.”

Box Hill 20 Gallery

Images by Carel Du Plessis of Black Line London’s annual Box Hill challenge. 20 reps, great friends and LOTS of cake.

Kona, Meet Michael. He’s Coming To Visit.

Kona!

I feel it appropriate to start this race report with the word that led me to racing IMUK 2014. In 2012 I raced two iron distance races, the first being Austria which turned out to be a challenging day with some mechanical issues and the goal of going sub 10 hours not being achieved.

Plan B, challenge Barcelona 2012, 9:51 goal achieved, tick!

This was my ironman racing done and dusted; the Kona dream was never really a dream for me and not something I wanted to chase with all due respect.  I love racing, I love the vibe, the competitive nature, the camaraderie and travelling to race destinations with friends & family.  I was not prepared to put more into training with running my own business, ‘wife time’ & other interests!  After 2012 I decided 70.3 distances would be my thing.

Last year a group of us were having a pre-race braai (BBQ) at our villa before Mallorca 70.3 and we were talking Kona. Andy Brodziak, said the following words to me having raced Kona himself, “If you have the ability to qualify for Kona it would be a waste not to use it!” These words stuck with me for some time and the more I thought about it the more the desire started to grow. Having lunch with Raoul de Jongh in Sep 2013 after a run up table mountain, the Kona word came up again. Coming from a man who has done some epic and challenging events, to say that Kona is certainly a must and something that lives up to the hype, my decision was made. I need to get myself to the big island.

IMUK 2014; that’s my race! A hilly bike course, bad roads (equivalent to what we ride in Surrey) and a tough run. The race was entered end of 2013 and I started my planning. I was going to do this properly.  I had a plan! This was now all about Kona.

To add some background, I don’t ride with power, I barely analyse data and I only started downloading my Garmin data three weeks ago. I train on heart rate and feel. When I run I observe my pace but mostly know what pace I am running at due to my effort output. My dad ran 12 comrades marathons (two at sub 6:45 hours) with no heart rate monitor and purely on coke and water. I don’t think he even knows what a gel looks like so maybe this is where I get it from, rightly or wrongly so! My goal over the winter months was to get stronger in the gym to improve my riding. I have always run, since as far back as I can remember. My parents were both runners so that is what we did, we ran. I had never managed a good marathon off the bike and I knew this was due to my bike being my achilles heel. Wayne Smith (who coached me this year) suggested single leg squats and big gear riding. Project “strong legs” became my priority! January and half of February this year was spent in South Africa and I had the privilege of doing some great base training in and around Stellenbosch with Troy Squires. We rode some hard and hot rides on the MTB bikes in the hills of Jonkershoek and some good off road running up and down the Cape Mountains. A solid base was being laid!

When I returned to the UK mid-February, the plan continued…..out on the bike on the weekends and keeping strength work in the gym the priority. At the beginning of March, Wayne Smith sent me my first training program which was simple, consistent training for the next four months. Mallorca 70.3 was part of the training plan and was never a “race” as such. I had a great twelve day block of training with some solid riding (1000kms in 12 days). The race was always going to be a big brick session and that’s exactly what it turned out to be. Back in the UK, my block of ironman specific training commenced and I kept to my key ingredient-consistency! The weeks flew past and the training was complete. Before I knew it, I was driving my car up to Bolton and pulling into the car park of the Whites Hotel three days before IMUK.

The time had come.  I was nervous and excited all rolled into one. 3am the alarm went off on race morning, Sunday the 20th of July and I felt calm! I was excited and keen to get going.  After pre-race Breakfast and coffee we were in the car to Pennington Flash, the swim start of what would hopefully be a solid day out. I had specific times for the swim and bike in mind that I wanted to achieve in order to put me in a good position to execute my run……this was all about the run!

6am Craig Alexander sounds the hooter and off we go, the usual chaos of an ironman swim start. Arms, legs, swim over someone, washing machine and finally…into clear water.  I was feeling calm and got into a good rhythm.  1900m done and it was out of the water for the Australian exit, Garmin reads 27.30! I was happy with that, back into the pond with another lap to complete. Exit 59 minutes, I lost some time somewhere on that second lap but sub 1 hour was always the swim goal.

Wetsuit off….helmet on…shoes on and exit T1! Time to be sensible, my motto was to ride like a tourist for the first 120kms.One rider after another past me.  I knew I had to keep calm or perhaps I was riding too slowly? I kept telling myself I will see them on the run… The first lap of the bike went 100% to plan, I saw my support crew (Mary, Tania, Parys and Paula who were incredible!) and gave the “all good signal”.  The second lap and up Sheep house lane I was still feeling good. It was at the 120km mark my legs vanished! The next 60km were categorically the worst 60kms I have ever ridden in any iron distance race. My legs were aching, my heart rate dropped and the power and confidence disappeared. I kept pushing along with my average pace reducing and finally accepted that this was “not to be my day. Thoughts of did I over train, was that long run to close to race day, maybe I am ill? The demons in my head were talking and talking loud. How am I going to finish a marathon feeling like this let alone run the marathon? Into T2 and very pleased to get rid of my nemesis the bike (my slowest bike split in an iron distance race by some margin).

My Garmin file below shows my reduction in pace and a drop off in heart rate: http://connect.garmin.com/activity/546910257

Onto the run…..run time is fun time…or is it!? I had a plan; 4.35 min kms and if I was around 10th in my age group at the start of the run I felt I could run myself into a Kona spot. My thoughts at the time were that there was no chance after that bike I could be anywhere near 10th place! My strategy was adjusted and I thought I would catch my friend Phillipe. I knew he biked five minutes quicker than me and so we could then jog the marathon together and accept that I was not good enough on the day for this Kona dream. Soon enough I was running with Phillipe along the tow path. A brief chat and the question of where we might possibly be sitting position wise in our age group. I was managing to hold my target pace and feeling pretty good.  It was perfect timing when my support team appeared. Mary shouted out that I was 12th  in my age group and the information started to materialise. I soon realised that most of the guys had slow bike splits and the ones that went too hard were already starting to fall apart. Like a hound to a blood trail, I knew it was game on and time to dig deep! I never studied our start list and my philosophy has always been to focus on my own race and not on the other guys around me but there was one chap I knew who was on good form after a great race in Mallorca. I predicted him to be a podium finish at IMUK, Roger Barr.  Running down into Bolton for the first time I saw Roger coming up the hill and not looking healthy at all! I knew if I could keep my pace and run sensibly I would certainly be passing him. One foot in front of the other…..step by step.

At this stage I had linked up with a chap called Joe Duckworth, a local lad from Bolton and we were running a similar pace. Joe had already qualified for Kona at IM Wales & was racing Bolton “for fun” (as you do!). We started chatting and working together. Joe gave me the following words of advice that I needed to hear, “MC keeping running like this and you will go to Kona, the guys will fall apart on this course, it happens every year”. It was these words that sealed the deal in my head and my heart. Another lap down and the word was I was 9th….the stress levels in my support crew and those following me online were immense. I knew that I was doing all I could and that I was digging as deep as I possibly could. I was drawing energy and strength from various thoughts, memories and words (as I am sure we all do when deep in the pace cave).  In particular, a running picture my mom sent me of me running on an athletics track when I was eight years old kept coming to mind. Positive thoughts like I have been running all my life and Wayne telling me that the ironman marathon is not about who runs the fastest but who slows down the least is what kept me going.

The final turn in Bolton town, over the cobble stones and back up the long hill for the last time. Everything was hurting; small quick steps, one last climb and back downhill to the red carpet were my thoughts. Slowing slightly up the hill but still maintaining a good pace. At the 37km mark I past Roger and I knew if I was ahead of him, I must certainly be in the mix! I turned at the top and back down to town for the final 3kms, the legs felt strong and the pace was sub 4.30 minute kms . Down into Bolton, back over the cobble stones and floating with each stride as I turned the final bend and down the red carpet to the familiar ironman voice of Paul Kaye.

Marathon time 3hours, 22min. Finally the marathon off the bike I had been hoping for and on a tough run course in the heat (not to mention off a horrific bike).  Job done! The finish line was epic; I had my medal around my neck and got to share Tamsin’s euphoria of winning IMUK on debut.

Most importantly, there they all were, my stellar support team who gave me the news that I had finished 5th in my age group and that MOST likely we will be booking flights to the big Island.  A sense of relief, happiness and also the reality that in 10 weeks’ time I will have to do this all over again for my last ironman dance, Kona;  what a way to complete my ironman journey. What was never my dream was now a dream finish! Those that race Ironman know it’s about overcoming adversity and digging deep.  On a day when I thought my chances of a Kona slot were totally gone, I managed to run myself from 12th in my age group to 5th.

I still maintain that overriding on the bike is our biggest mistake. Ironman racing really is ALL about the run….the first 30kms you run with your head and the last 12 kms you run with your heart and soul.

Below is my Garmin file for the run:

http://connect.garmin.com/activity/546951216

IMUK is not one of the exotic IM destinations, but it’s a tough and honest ironman course and that’s why I chose it as “my road to Kona”. The people of Bolton were mega in their support and friendliness. Bolton, oddly now, has a special place inside me. A massive thanks to everyone who played a part in my journey but the biggest thanks must go to Mary who made the same amount of sacrifices as I did to allow me to get myself race ready. KONA BABY!

Follow Michael on Twitter.

#IMSA Race Week. It’s On….

AJWWW-161featured 2

Welcome to race week. At this point in the Ironman process, it’s all about the mind and a good performance at this week’s Mind Games can set you up really well for race day.

The training is done. Nothing you physically do now is going to make any difference. It’s for this very reason that I turn to mental preparation in the days leading up to an Ironman.

Panic Training

Don’t. If you think you’re under prepared, consider it a positive. You’re far better off going into an Ironman on fresh legs. You have months of training behind you – if you don’t believe that, consult your training diary. Seriously, just take a look at the miles you’ve logged. It can be quite a motivator. This week is about giving your body rest so it’s gagging to go on race day. Think of this week as an arrow. It’s been built and shaped, now you just need to keep the tip sharp and out of harm’s way until you fire it on race day.

Visualisation

In the sessions you have planned this week, use this time to picture yourself in race situations. Place yourself in the water. Imagine the situation in your head. Remind yourself of what you need to be focusing on in the race (stroke rate/catch/pull/sight/relaxed breathing/swim long). Remind yourself that you’ll be nervous (nerves are good, they keep you alert). Remember nervousness will turn to excitement. Allow yourself to feel excited. It’s one hell of an experience.

Plan things to think about on the bike and run. A mantra; special people; your form. Keep the best bits for when times get toughest. Plan for an emotional rollercoaster. Know there’s going to be times where you’ll have to have stern words with yourself. Plan that speech.

Rehearse in your head what you’ll do in T1, T2 or if you puncture. This prep helps you keep calm should you be faced with a difficult situation.

Dream of the finish. See that red carpet. Allow yourself to feel the wash of emotion you’ll experience when you know you’re going to finish this beast.

Phantom Pains

You’ll get them. You’ll be walking a flight of stairs and suddenly think – what’s that ache in my knee? It’s only natural. It’s like when you’re buying a new car, you suddenly see the model you like EVERYWHERE. Your mind is razor sharp at this point and very much in tune with the body. You’ll overthink every sensation. Don’t dwell on these sensations.

Taper-nitis

Possibly the hardest mind game to control. Am I getting sick? I feel so sluggish. My legs are so lethargic. Stop worrying – it’s tapering. Keep sensible – wash your hands regularly. Avoid public gatherings if you can. But ultimately, just go about life like normal. You’ll look stupid walking around in bubble-wrap.

Race List

Source or create a race checklist. Use this week to get your kit together. Trust me, pulling everything together settles the mind. Don’t leave everything to the last few days. It overloads the brain. Time will run out or get filled by something else. Use the spare time (because you’re NOT training as much) to prepare.

You

Focus on yourself this week. Another week of being selfish won’t kill anyone. Eat well (don’t try anything new), get your bike sorted, kit packed, mind ready. Sleep. Get as many hours as you can. Set ‘get to bed’ deadlines. Sleep now becomes THE most valuable commodity. Work will try and stress you out. Don’t let it. Be honest with colleagues. Tell them this is the week you can’t be pulling your hair out.

Get Familiar

Read the race manual. (Remember all that spare time you’ll have not training?) Read it a few times if you can. Trying to cram in all the info the night before is useless. Knowing the course in your head will help. Picture milestone points on the map. Do the visualisation bit. How are you going to feel at 30km into the run?

Knowing the course detail is especially important on a course with laps. Know how it works. Do I collect rubber bands? How many, where? Knowing this detail on the day is priceless. There’s nothing worse than doubt/panic during the race.

Try to Relax

All of the above seems like you’re going to be busy 24/7. Make time to relax. Read a book, watch a silly movie. Anything to take your mind off the race. When lying in bed, the visualisation stuff really helps. See yourself running relaxed. Biking smooth.

How do you eat an elephant?

Bite by bite.

Don’t think of the race as a whole. Break it into bits. Don’t get overwhelmed. This is more an actual what-to-do-in-the-race, but you’ll start thinking of the race in whole terms before Sunday. Don’t worry about it. Little by little you’re going to get to the finish.

Now’s it’s time for me to practice what I’ve preached. I can’t wait to race. See you on the start line.

 

 

 

Al Maher’s Epic Land’s End to John O’Groats

LEJOG_StartFinish

 


Sunday brunch, over a triple English breakfast, I am wondering what to do with some spare days before Christmas.

I had always wanted to take on the classic cycle challenge from Land’s End to John O’Groats, known as LEJOG, the traverse length of Britain. Like most people I had imagined cycling it in summer to take advantage of the long daylight hours. However the number of days seemed to fit my schedule and despite being winter it would make for an extra challenge. I figured accommodation could be booked on the fly, being low season. I would allow myself the flexibility to cycle as far as each day permitted and had no fixed end date. A quick check of the 10 day forecast and conditions looked good. Why wait for next summer? I was going do it now!

I had never individually raised money for charity before as I always felt I couldn’t ask for money for something like a marathon or the like, as I’ve run many. LEJOG seemed a worthwhile and lengthy challenge. I chose CRISIS, the national charity for single homeless people. They organise “CRISIS at Christmas” each year for the homeless and the time of year seemed appropriate. They also run The CRISIS Skylight Cafe on Commercial Street in East London near where I used to work. I wanted to help.

I went into preparation overdrive. A quick list of things to do before I set out and a t-shirt design that evening with the charity and fund raising details.

Monday I purchased some new items, had the t-shirt printed, booked a train ticket for Penzance, packed my panniers (9kg rear, 3-4kg in the front), which were not light as I was truly packing for winter. I took two front lights, a head torch to light the road, a rear light for the seat post and two for the rear of my bike helmet. I marked the whole route out on a £10 Phillips Road Atlas.

Tuesday I took off to the station, panniers on for the first time, they felt clumsy and awkward and I wondered if they’d be fine for the entire journey. I was off to catch the train from Paddington. Due to the speed I put this plan in to action, it meant I hadn’t told many people what I was about to take on. By chance, I ran into one of my best mates Ben, at Paddington. He saw my laden bike, along with me all kitted up and asked what I was up to. I told him I was off to Penzance and he knew exactly what that meant and gave me a few words of encouragement.

That night in Penzance, the B&B would only let me lock (cable & padlock that I had) my bike to the grate in the ground at the front of their house. I went to sleep hoping it would still be there in the morning.

DAY 1 : 11-Dec-2013 Land’s End to Launceston

106 mile / 171 km
[Strava]

LEJOG-Day1

I arrived at Land’s End with the sunrise having already broken through the clouds. I wandered down to the famous Land’s End signpost and due to the absence of anyone else around I tried to take a few ‘selfies’, only to end up dropping and cracking the screen of my iPhone. I wandered up to the Hotel and signed the ‘End-to-Enders’ logbook, the most recent entry being 6th December 2013…eek! One of the hotel staff obliged in taking a photo of me at the Land’s End sign.

A 10am depart; I made my way along the Cornish coast. St. Ives was particularly scenic. I had to have a Cornish pasty, so stopped for one in Hayle. Hit some really hilly sections. Through to Padstow and across the river to Rock. Then into the dark of the night with bike lights blazing and flashing. I arrived in Launceston at Rose Cottage B&B and rewarded myself with a steak and beer at the White Horse pub for dinner. Apparently some of the hilliest parts of the route were now behind me, after only the first day, whew!

DAY 2 : 12-Dec-2013 Launceston to Street

102 mile / 165 km
[Strava]

LEJOG-Day2

The B&B host afforded me an extra banana for my day’s journey. He told me they had hosted a JOGLE (the reverse route) cyclist about a week ago, as I figured it must have been the cyclist who signed the log book on the 6th December. I pushed into Devon and found myself having to change the tube on the front wheel as it seemed to be leaking, though I couldn’t detect where, using the usual means. Snacks at a service station, I was then into Somerset and encountering more tractors and farm traffic on the roads.

Into Glastonbury that evening but had to double back after missing a turn, to a place called Street, and to the Wessex Hotel for my accommodation. I noticed one of the straps on my panniers had broken, after only two days! Pasta and pizza with a pint of Carlsberg for dinner to the sounds of a live act at a nearby Italian restaurant. All was sweet in Street!

DAY 3 : 13-Dec-2013 Street to Nr Hereford

95 mile / 153km
[Strava]

LEJOG-Day3

Light rain in the morning. It was over the course of the day that I had to tend to pannier problems no less than 5 times. Again, thankful for taking some zip ties as they were a saviour, I even had to secure the rack with them. Through North Dorset and over the River Avon. Got lost a bit with the myriad of roads. Some sections here were a little more traffic heavy than I’d encountered. Into South Gloucestershire and over the River Severn.

Skirted through Wales and passed though the lovely town of Monmouth as an amazing sunset took place. Was following the Wye Valley over some hilly quiet roads as it got darker and darker. The muddy farm roads of Somerset had left my bike so dirty I had to give it a gentle jet wash at a service station.

Arrived at my accommodation, The Old Vicarage, near Hereford. Walked 30-40 min into town to the 24 hour Tesco to collect a some cold chicken and a selection of salads for dinner. A stretch of the legs before bed. Feeling good after three good days!

DAY 4 : 14-Dec-2013 Nr Hereford to Ellesmere

94 mile / 152 km
[Strava]

LEJOG-Day4

Pannier problems again from the outset, they continued hitting my spokes on some of the rougher sections of road. I secured them again successfully without too much of a problem.

Highlight of the day was passing up over Long Mynd. I was at first cursing the steepness of the gradient having to push my bike up part of the ascent as it was way to steep for my gearing and load, though I was rewarded with stunning Shropshire scenery. The strong wind blowing across the top of the moorland and the descent into Church Stretton was a blast. Due to the excitement of the descent, I missed a turn had to route back via Stapleton & Lea.

The bike chain was now squeaking so I purchased some general purpose oil from a service station, to use for the rest of the trip.

As dusk approached, the wind was absolutely howling and it was pushing me along at a fantastic pace, up around 40km/hr+ with ease. I imagined my rear panniers were acting like sails. I pulled into Ellesmere to stay at the Red Lion pub. Chicken wings and a massive lamb shank for dinner washed down with a couple of beers. Despite the locals having a big night out in the pub, I slept solidly in my room above.

DAY 5 : 15-Dec-2013 Ellesmere to Blackburn

85 mile / 137 km
[Strava]

LEJOG-Day5

The day was going well until about an hour in and I heard the ping of a broken spoke. The pannier problems from the days before had weakened the spokes. With very few shops open on a Sunday I secured it with tape to the adjacent spoke, released the rear brake, and aimed to nurse it to Blackburn.

The highlight of the day came as I slowly passed and shared a conversation with a guy called Alan from Chester who did LEJOG in 2000 when he was aged 65. I enjoyed hearing him recount his experience and the route he took, it gave me a lift. In fact he was riding the same frame as he did LEJOG on, though he’d since had it re-sprayed.

As I checked into the Hill View Hotel in Blackburn I noticed I’d now busted a second spoke. Pizza Hut for dinner and all I could do was scoff at the “500 calories only” pizza options.

DAY 6 : 16-Dec-2013 Blackburn to Kirkby Lonsdale

56 mile / 90 km
[Strava]

LEJOG-Day6

I missed breakfast! It was a 6:45 to 7:45 sitting! So I had some sandwiches from a service station instead.

It was raining from the outset but I had my waterproofs on. The morning hours were dedicated to addressing the rear wheel problem I now had. The guys at Ewood Bikes sold me an affordable replacement Mavic wheel, arranged postage home for my broken wheel and gave me a cup of tea, top service! I was on my way again despite taking a few wrong turns trying to get out of Blackburn.

Off through the Forest of Bowland, which surprisingly wasn’t at all densely populated with trees, though I imagine many years ago it was. The rolling landscape was all very scenic none the less.

As the daylight closed, I had now pushed into Cumbria and checked in to the Blue Pig Inn in Kirbky Londsdale. A really nice little town. Dinner at the Orange Tree pub while a group of locals sang Christmas Carols. I enjoyed Fish n Chips and a few of the local brewery’s ales, their ‘Singletrack’ brew was superb!

DAY 7 : 17-Dec-2013 Kirkby Lonsdale to Gretna Green

70 mile / 113 km
[Strava]

LEJOG-Day7

The host of the Blue Pig Inn advised me of a shortcut through the town and down to the historic Devil’s Bridge, on the way to Casterton. The morning was crisp and I enjoyed cycling along seeing the low lying blankets of fog in the valleys.

Into the Yorkshire Dales and over Scap Fell, which is used as one of the climbs on the Tour of Britain. The cycling was fine until my chain started to slip on gradients of only 3-4%. So without surging I continued cautiously to Penrith and over the lunchtime period had the chain-set replaced. After which I was back on the road and flying along again.

Made it to Carlisle in good time and given there was still daylight ahead, I raced it all the way to Scotland. This was a good mental milestone. I stayed at the Gretna Hall Hotel in Gretna Green. It was curry night! So devoured a good meal and a few pints of beer.

DAY 8 : 18-Dec-2013 Gretna Green to Balloch (Loch Lomond)

115 mile / 185 km
[Strava]

LEJOG-Day8

Excellent progress through the first 25mile / 40km. The route largely meandered either side of the motorway towards Glasgow.

Purchased some Scottish Tablet (a sugar slice) for energy. Took a much needed coffee stop near Adington in order to warm up. Each day, I was now starting to get cold hands and feet after only a few hours of cycling.

Made a few wrong turns around Paisley near Glasgow. From Dumbarton I had a tow-path alongside the river to follow. This allowed me to cycle safely an extra 10 miles in the dark to get to Balloch at the tip of Loch Lomond. A most successful day of 115 mile / 185 km! Stayed at the Tullie Inn, with steak soup and vegetables to refuel me.

DAY 9 : 19-Dec-2013 Balloch (Loch Lomond) to Fort William

84 mile / 135 km
[Strava]

LEJOG-Day9

It was cold and blustery, rain fell as I set off. I followed Loch Lomond from there and because a 300m section of road had been washed away it meant most of the traffic had been diverted elsewhere, being effectively treated to closed roads. At the road construction site, one of the workers said he didn’t mean to be rude but he asked if I was “f**king mental” cycling in these conditions.

Once I got to Crinlairich I had to stop and dry my socks and gloves on the radiators and warm up with two cups of coffee before setting off into the Highlands proper.

As the road crossed through Rannoch Moor, the snow was prevalent and falling. Sleet smattered my face and it was stinging my cheeks. These were the toughest conditions I had ever cycled in. One guy in a car who kept stopping to take pictures of the landscape also asked if I was “f**king mental” (twice in one day!). The cycle to Glencoe was tough and I was concentrating on pushing on through the cold and blocking it out mentally. I was really pushing to make it to Fort William as I knew there were more accommodation options there. I ended up waltzing in to the West End Hotel, soaking wet, to the amazement of the staff.

Dinner in town at the Crofters pub. Haggis neeps and tatties, sausages cooked in Irn-Bru and a pint of Best, a fairly Scottish affair!

DAY 10 : 20-Dec-2013 Fort William to Invergordon

88 mile / 143 km
[Strava]

LEJOG-Day10

After the tough day cycling into Fort William it took me a bit to get going. I’d stopped at a garage at Invergarry for a snack and a chat with the attendant. I later arrived into Drumnadrochit expecting to have lunch, though none of the restaurants or cafes were open, since it was winter and not the tourist season. I settled for some hot chips and a few chocolate milks. A quick photo in front of the fiberglass Loch Ness monster and pushed up over a steep 15% hilly climb into more landscape quilted in snow.

Pushed on to Invergordon as it hit dark. It wasn’t hard to miss the giant oil rig platforms in the distance, all lit up, which were being renovated by the shore. The host at the Ship Inn tumble-dried my wet clothes which was super nice. A pub dinner and on the walk back I noticed the sky starting to clear, so I crossed my fingers for favourable conditions in the morning.

DAY 11 : 21-Dec-2013 Invergordon to Wick

80 mile / 129 km
[Strava]

LEJOG-Day11

Got cracking early and made good progress with no rain. The sky and the sunlight at this latitude and time of year was throwing off some amazing colours!

Stopped in Helmsdale and on advice of a local had a great coffee with cake and mince pies at a local art gallery. En route, I saw “John O’Groats” on a road sign for the first time, with 85 miles to go. Some windy conditions but a comfortable days cycle, I was feeling pretty fit.

Checked into my accommodation in Wick at the Bank Guesthouse. A pretty low key night, though because I was excited for the final few miles in the morning it wasn’t easy to get to sleep.

DAY 12 : 22-Dec-2013 Wick to John O’Groats

16 mile / 27 km
[Strava]

LEJOG-Day12

The morning sun was glorious and I enjoyed the final miles. The low-slung winter sun cast an amazing light for my arrival. It was an immensely satisfying feeling when I arrived at John O’Groats. It had been a truly fantastic way to see Britain, in all its winter beauty!

As I collected the last stamp on my transit verification form (to be acknowledged as an “End-to-Ender”) I learnt that in the coming months / year they’ll be enabling an embedded timing device at John O’Groats. This will mean that it will not matter what time of day you arrive, your journey can be verified on arrival 24/7.

I caught the train from Thurso to Inverness where I boarded The Caledonian Sleeper which travels overnight to London. A great train journey to cap off a great and truly memorable cycling journey!

Summary Data by Day

LEJOG_Summary
Here’s a short video, I hope you enjoy it!


IMG_9287-001
THANK YOU to all the friends, family and colleagues that generously donated to LEJOG-Crisis£882.55 was raised for CRISIS. Each donation and comment spurred me on more than I could have imagined.

@alastairmaher

 

Onwards and Upwards: Paul Burton’s Pre-Season Musings

Tick tock. The passage of time means that as the new year dawns numerous races have been entered, flights have been booked, a winter base is hopefully being built, and dreams have been built on winter cycling holidays and endless chats over Spanish lattes and leche leches (seriously – try one of these in Lanzarote. Amazing).

So here are my reflections on my 2013 and aspirations and pre-season musings for 2014. Feel free to abuse/heckle/doubt/praise/laugh as appropriate. All comments welcome.

Black Line London Bananaman

2013…

The Good:  The entire first half of the year, 1.21 half marathon, 2.55 Ballbuster, 9.30 Ironman South Africa, qualifying for the GB age group team at Hyde Park worlds, pretty much anything on a bike, winning Thorpe Sprint, winning Bananaman team TT with Sam and Jim, riding a bike round London in the world champs like I stole it, crossing an Ironman finish line with a friend (twice), training and racing with Black Line Londoners, testing my limits, racing in Budgy Smugglers.

The Bad:  Most of the second half of the year, blowing up at 30k on the run at Ironman UK, walking in a race for the first time, injuring my foot in winning Thorpe Sprint, most of my running off the bike, finding out where my limits are a little too often, missing a Kona slot by one place, racing in Budgy Smugglers.

The Ugly:  Stomach shutdown at Ironman 70.3 UK and spending most of the run in the bushes… whilst racing in Budgy Smugglers.

blackline-bananaman-16

2014…

What will change:  Lots… working with a proven coach to improve my run technique, track sessions, lots of core/glutes/leg strength work, easier easy sessions, harder hard sessions, swim squad, big gear bike work, less volume chasing, understanding my training data better with the help of Training Peaks geekery, more balance in my diet alongside the easier easy sessions to help build a fat burning machine, more sleep, and more diligence in planning the year’s training and racing to peak only at the right times. Oh, and coffee. I’ve started drinking coffee. Truly life changing.

What won’t change:  Testing my limits in races, using my bike strength in races, having fun training and racing with Black Line Londoners and other Lycra-clad friends, keeping the Spanish economy afloat with numerous training holidays (Lanzarote and Andalucia already ticked off since the end of last year) and unnecessary purchases of expensive objects made of carbon fibre.

What I’d like to happen: Get better, be as good to the finish line as I have been to T2, cross the finish line of an Ironman alone (for once), watch Kona unfold from the race course rather than the sofa and for the Budgy Smugglers to get left in the drawer.

See you at the races. First up for me and a number of the Black Line London gang, is Ironman South Africa on 6 April. Let’s see if I can ride for show and run for dough.

Mel vs Hills. Mel Wins.

Anyone who knows me will know I like a good hill. I train on hills, I try and race on hilly courses, I’m all about the hills! I also have a fear of going fast and using aero-bars  so hills are helpful here as I don’t need to do either.

I’m not sure exactly where it comes from but I remember that when I first bought a road bike and started cycling properly even the little inclines around Richmond Park struck fear into my heart and most of the time I would be found taking the anti-clockwise loop around there! However with a bit of persistence, hard work and consistent training the impossible became possible and I was soon able to take on the baby ascents of Richmond Park at a respectable speed and HR! After a year of training only in Richmond Park I started to get brave and headed out to the country lanes of Surrey and their selection of hills put in some consistent training. Half the time I think it’s as much about controlling your mind and the little voices as it is about strength!

This is why when I read about the Rapha Rising Challenge on Strava it looked perfect for me! Having got my A race out of the way for the year I liked the idea of a different kind of challenge.

Taking inspiration from the Tour de France the challenge set was to accumulate over 7,235m  of climbing in 8 days. This total is apparently the same amount of climbing as elevations of the Peyresourde, Ventoux, Sarenne and Alpe d’Huez combined.

Given the challenge began on a Sunday and ended the following Sunday it made most sense to break it up into 3 weekend rides and one mid-week ride….

Chiltern 108 miles of hot hilly hell

Chiltern 108m Hilly Hell

For my first ride I hit the Chilterns. It is up and down the whole way round (as you can see from the profile) but scenery is gorgeous and the roads are generally small country lanes, although you do have to watch out for potholes which are sometimes more like craters than holes.

It was one of the hottest days of the year so getting nutrition right was key to having a good ride. Unfortunately, I was so intent on not getting lost I spent the first 50 miles staring at the route on my Garmin and not getting enough food and drink in. Not a nice feeling! I had a spent 20 mins sitting under a tree eating a sandwich and drinking a coke before setting off again. Unfortunately the damage was done and the next 58 miles passed at a snail’s pace, a very sweaty snail! But, I knew that if I wanted to complete the challenge I had to the get the climbing in so I plodded on round. While it was painful at the time I think rides like that are great to have in the bank. When things get tough in a race or training you can look back and remind yourself just how bad it could be!!

Total climbed: 2,439 mtrs

Midweek Top-up

Midweek Top Up

By the time it got to Wednesday I’d just about recovered from Sunday’s fun so I took advantage of the glorious weather and flexible working hours and headed out for my usual Surrey hills loop which gave me another 750 mtrs to add to the pile!

Total climbed so far: 3,189

 

Legs of Steel

Legs of Steel

 

For Saturday’s ride I talked fellow BLL’r Paul D into a circuit of the Legs of Steel route. It definitely helped to have some company to distract from all the climbing. Unfortunately, the Garmin lost a few 100 mtrs climbing so I finished the day slightly down on where I should have been. I also had to admit defeat and take the train home.

Total climbed so far: 5,085

 

16 Ascents of Box Hill 

Box Hill

 

 

The final day I still needed 2,150mtrs of climbing and really couldn’t face another long ride around Surrey to get the final metres. I had discussed the idea of doing hill repeats of Box Hill on the previous days ride with Paul.  At the time it seemed like a crazy idea, but now faced with the prospect of another loop of the Chilterns or Legs of Steel route it looked like quite a good option… I started out early. Funnily enough I found the first 4 or 5 laps the hardest but once I’d got into a rhythm it was actually quite relaxing. It’s also great people watching, I hadn’t realised quite how popular Box Hill was until I’d done this. Every descent down I passed a constant stream of people making their way up on all sorts of bikes at all sorts of speeds. A great people watching and bike spotting opportunity!

Finishing the 16th lap was a great feeling, not least because I could finally stop at the cafe for a well deserved slice of cake! It was a great challenge to do, so satisfying that I’m thinking of making it a regular event (when I say regular I mean once a year regular ) So let me know if you fancy joining me in 2014….!

And if you’re interested the overall winner managed to accumulate over 41,000 mtrs of climbing over 7 rides during the 8 days. Now that’s impressive!

Total climbing at the end: 7,293

 

My top challenging hilly routes:

Chiltern 100 169km and 2,400 mtrs of climbing

The sportive is held once a year and offers 3 different distances. I use these routes as training rides when I fancy something different to the Surrey or Kent hills. The routes are mainly on country lanes and all your efforts on the climbs are rewarded with stunning views across the Chilterns and some fantastic descents. You are also treated to some fantastic place names, I challenge you not smile as you whizz down Pishill! But my favourite place name is Speen, probably because it is a sign you’re on the home straight!

Legs of Steel (long) 81km and 1,600 mtrs of climbing

This is probably a staple hilly route for anyone who cycles in Surrey. Again it is a route used for an annual sportive, but is a well trodden circuit for Surrey cyclists all year round. It takes in all the classic Surrey hills starting with Leith hill and finishing off (finishing you off) with Box hill. It’s a course that keeps your interest by combining long grinding hills with some short-sharp-take-your-breath-away-hills!

 King of the Downs – 185km and 2,700 mtrs of climbing

I first did this route a couple of years ago with two friends. It seemed like our day was doomed before it even started.  It was pouring with rain, a man was sick on our bikes in the train (one of the many hazard of the first train on a Sunday morning), one friend fell off his bike before we’d even started and then realised he’d only bought one booty and no waterproof.  We then proceeded to start the race by cycling in the wrong direction. However once we got over these issues and got on the road it turned out to be one of the most challenging and fulfilling days climbing I’ve had. The route takes you around Surrey, North Downs, Ashdown Forest and Kent and takes you through a “greatest hits” of climbs in these areas.