Friday, 7 August 2020

Racing | My race is cancelled: now what?

2020 will surely be defined by two words: unprecedented and cancelled. Due to these unprecedented times, every single one of the world marathon majors has now been cancelled for everyday runners. Runners up and down the country who've got used to a pattern of training from race to race are suddenly left wondering, now what?

After I chose to drop out of my A race this year due to restrictions on training during lockdown, I've been thinking through quite a lot of alternatives about what training, racing and running looks like for me in 2020 and here are some of my thoughts of how you could answer your own 'what now' questions.


1. Virtual races
There are still lots of virtual races happening around the country - why not sign up for one of these and train with the same dedication you would for your usual race? The great Run Through offer virtually every distance up to marathons and their races cost just £20 to enter. You can still show off your #medalmonday and feel like you are part of the racing community with their bubbly online Facebook community and lovely hand written notes each finisher receives in the post.

2. Seek adventure
Who said running required finish lines? This summer the number of people chasing FKTs (fastest known times) is proof of how there are plenty of alternative ways to set a target and work towards it. Take the path less travelled, explore more, try the things you don't usually: road lovers - why not try trails? trail queen - why not try track? Slow down, take a whole day hiking, get in to wild swimming, pick up cycling - remember that adventure is out there for those brave enough to seek it.

3. Go wilder
While many races are cancelled lots of the smaller, often more wild ones are still happening! I'm a big fan of Maverick and from next weekend they are back with mindful Covid-19 returns to racing. The 5km PB might not be on the cards, but you are bound to have a brilliant day on new exciting trails, hanging out in a race village and soaking in the festival style atmosphere.


4. Go faster
This is such a great time to dedicate some effort to getting your shorter distances faster. If you don't fancy hitting the trails, why not work towards a new 5km PB? Follow an 8 week training plan, even work with a coach if you are saving your usual gym/race entry money, and see what you can achieve at the end of a dedicated training block.

5. Go further
The road racing community might have abruptly stopped but there is plenty going on in the ultrarunning community. Always fancied a longer distance? This could be an amazing time to work towards a longer goal: train mindfully, build up slowly but why not work towards a longer distance while the number of races you usually would be smashing round are on hold?


Whatever you decide is next: stay safe, train mindfully and work hard and you never know what you might achieve.

Friday, 19 June 2020

Trigs | Fan Brycheiniog, Carmarthen Fan, Brecon Beacons

Just 6 days before Christmas, I had managed to persuade my Dad to take an impromptu trip to Wales, thanks to some annual leave I swiftly needed to use up before the end of the year.

While I've spent time in the Brecon Beacons before, I had managed to miss off many of the major summits and was keen to explore some of the higher, but still not so touristy, tops. And so with that we drove deep in to the national park, parking at the Tafarn-y-Garreg pub and headed for an incredible ridgeline.


On a clear day, I am told the views from the Carmarthen Fan ridegeline are some of the best in Wales. I, however, was instead treated to misty rolling clouds, with occasional sunlight piercing through the clouds and sudden glimpses of the valley beyond.

That, and not seeing a single other person in our 6 hours out. And that, is why I love winter hiking.


From the pub, for 5km we followed a wide uphill path that lead us to the ridgeline. From here, we followed the ridgeline over multiple tops: quiet Fan Hir bleeds in to Fan Brycheioniog, and the highest point and trig on this summit ridge (802.5m), before blending away in to Fan Foel.


From Fan Foel, the path veers West leaving behind the glacial lake of  Llyn y Fan Fach, taking you down and back up before you hit the summit of Bannau Sir Gaer (known also as Picws Du) before dropping down off the ridgeline via the final summit of Waun Lefrith.



Mountains are temperamental things and as prepared as you might be, the weather can change in an instant. As we begun to descend off Waun Lefrith a sudden icy rain storm blew in and all the layers in the world could not protect us from the biting water that descended.

I'm a pretty decent endurance distance athlete because I'm fundamentally pretty stubborn and don't like giving in when things get tough. I get that trait from my father. And as such, we went traipsing off, leaving the comfort of the paths behind, through the now hail-storm in search of Garreg Las, a Nuttall which is characterised by two distinctive Bronze Age cairns on the summit. It's hard to marvel at a prehistoric pile of stones when you're being whipped sideways by icy blasts of freezing cold water though and we scarpered as quickly as we arrived.

Now with quite some pace, we headed back towards the valley and the rain that had fallen made the formerly easy to jump river crossings swell. As such, we were forced to wade through 7 rivers on the way back, the freezing December Welsh rivers getting the last laugh on our way down.

Suddenly the boggy, pathless monster of a route was transformed by the best Christmas present a girl could ask for: a wide, beautifully laid path. Bliss. As we plodded back dreaming of what we might order at the pub, we were treated to passing four wild ponies who looked more miserable about being out in the rain than I was.


As we arrived back at the pub we threw ourselves in front of the tiny roaring stove and ordered a mountain of piping hot food. After a plate of gammon, egg and chips, a bowl of sticky toffee pudding and custard and a glass of red wine I began to feel my drenched toes again. Sitting in front of the fire, my wet clothing strewn about the fireplace, I was filled with such contentment that only a truly wild mountain experience can give you. Don't get me wrong: I love a beautiful sunny day with clear views and wide paths. But there is nothing like the raw, visceral, wilderness on an untameable day to make your heart beat faster and your spirit truly soar.



_____

"High up in a hollow of the Black Mountains of South Wales is a lonely sheet of water called Llyn y Fan Fach.
In a farm not far from this lake there lived in the olden time a widow, with an only son whose name was Gwyn. When this son grew up, he was often sent by his mother to look after the cattle grazing. The place where the sweetest food was to be found was near the lake, and it was thither that the mild-eyed beasts wandered whenever they had their will. One day when Gwyn was walking along the banks of the mere, watching the kine cropping the short grass, he was astonished to see a lady standing in the clear smooth water, some distance from the land.
She was the most beautiful creature that he had ever set eyes upon, and she was combing her long hair with a golden comb, the unruffled surface of the lake serving her as a mirror."

The Lady of the Lake is a folklore story from the 13th century. The authors name has been long forgotten as the story has been passed down verbally through generations. She has always been associated with Llyn y Fan Fach. She appears also in the stories of King Arthur. 

Monday, 15 June 2020

Trigs | Ben Hope, the Highlands

My father is without a doubt, one of the best hill walkers I've ever met. His passion for the hills has lasted since he snuck out of a school trip to 'nip up' Robinson in the Lake District at 16, to his now inspirational long weeks out in the remote highlands traipsing up and down pathless routes at the age of 70+.

In May 2019, my Dad planned a 30 day trip through the Highlands and I was fortunate enough to be allowed to tag along for chunks of time. While Dad was ticking off new Marilyns, we detoured a couple of times to allow me to tick off Munros.

A short history for you now on Munros: a Munro is any mountain in Scotland over 3,000 feet (roughly 915m) and the approved list is held by the SMC (Scottish Mountaineering Club). There are 282 Munros and a further 227 Munro Tops, lesser peaks of other primary mountains that are still over 3,000 feet.

Munros are named after Sir Hugh Munro (1856-1919) who produced 'Munro's Tables' in 1891 the first list of these hills. As of today, over 6,500 people have climbed all of the Munros.

We woke up on what has to have been the most perfect Scottish May morning: the sky was shockingly blue and the air was warm with no threat of rain. So we headed to the most northerly of Scotland's Munros, Ben Hope, a beautiful lonesome 927m peak set in the most incredible remote Highlands.


Parking at the bottom of the main route by the Strathmore River at Muiseal, I was bemused that a simple sign states 'WAY UP BEN HOPE'. Not one for a navigational challenge then. The route is cut beautifully in to the mountain and consists for a huge part in a series of almost steps, winding up past waterfalls and incredible rock formations gaining height quickly and easily. Once you leave the small river behind, the steps fall away to leave a more exposed flatter final ascent that weaves through spiky rock formations and up grassy slopes.

The problem with having such a fantastic hill walker as a father is that I, a rather fit 30-something ultrarunner, am often slightly shocked that I can't keep up with my pensioner of a father! He requires no breaks and just the occasional biscuit to keep him going. Our pace therefore up Ben Hope was enjoyably tough as this simple route gives you the full ascent in your legs thanks to starting at near on sea level. Up and up we climbed.



Towards the summit we were treated to beautiful snowy plains, thick snow crunching under our boots as we continued to gently snake up. As we crossed the final snow field, the summit trig poked out and as we hit the top itself the view to end all views opened out in front of us. Because Ben Hope is the highest point for miles, Scotland seems to open up before you - the weaving coast, the awesome sea, Cape Wrath to the North West, lochs dotted around and miles of rolling landscape. It is quite possibly the most incredible view I've ever been treated to from the top of a mountain.




As it was quiet on the top, we ate our lunch while leaning up against the trig point before having to tear ourselves away from the summit to make our way back down the way we'd come.

If you are looking for views to take your breath away, Ben Hope is the mountain for you.



____

Syenite, mid-way between Granite and who knows what,
Proud above the Loch of the same name.
Jagged, distinctive multitude of rocky summits,
Each ideal to survey the wise expanse of flow,
Always the same,
The roaring stags of October are King here,
The true Loyal residents.

It was not always so, Ribigill, Mharraich
and Bronze age settlement so old no name remains,
but the circle in the moor and the clearance carins,
Speak loud in the silence,
Stone Rows, now buried in the peat,
Peak tentatively out at a world,
That no longer understands their meaning.

Hope springs eternal, smooth to the sunrise,
Optimistic above the loch of the same name,
Falling vertically and catastrophically towards the sunset,
Cliffs tumbling so far they will never end until,
You look towards sunset at the Wrath,
Where the mightiest cliff on the mainland stands,
And beyond Wrath there is nothing.

Crouching down on Hope, I brace myself,
Against the West wind from nothingness and Wrath,
And turn back to gaze upon the rocky security,
Of multi-headed Loyal,
I listen for the Stag's roar,
And await the next sunrise.

Loyal Hope ends with Wrath, Stuart Graham, 2017

Thursday, 11 June 2020

Trigs | Noss Head, Shetland

I am sitting in my running kit on a generously named ferry with a large lifejacket around my neck. Now I respect that this is not what most people request for their 30th birthday present but I was clear: I wanted to go to Shetland with my family and I specifically wanted to participate in Bressay parkrun and climb the hills of Shetland.

Quick detour in case you don't know what parkrun is: parkrun is a free 5km run/jog/walk that takes place around the world every Saturday morning. I love the instant community feel of arriving at a parkrun anywhere in the world and the joy of being outdoors regularly so parkrun is a real home for me. Bressay parkrun, on Bressay island, is a short hop on a ferry over from Lerwick, the main town on Shetland and because it's run on such a tiny island, you run down the main roads on a Saturday morning finishing with coffee and cake in the local community run cafe. It is a total joy.

If you find yourself on Bressay, you can then take another ferry over to the tiny protected island of Noss, a national nature reserve known for phenomenal bird life. And that was why I was, on the weekend of my birthday, I found myself sitting in my running kit on a tiny boat being taken over the Noss Sound to a minuscule island.



Subject to sea conditions, the ferry runs from 1 May to 31 August (you can check if the ferry is running by calling 0800 107 7818) and costs just £5 return per person. On arrival the little visitors centre gives a thorough list of sightings of wildlife recently and we are given an in depth warning about Bonxies (also known as great skuas), a huge sea bird known for dive bombing anyone silly enough to get near their nests. The message is very clearly: stick to the path.


We head out East, following the coastal trail south that in just 9km takes you round the entire island. The sweeping sea views and phenomenal cliffs that are so remote and wild yet well protected are like nowhere in Britain I've been before and it's not long before we've stumbled upon hundreds of puffins, flying in and out of the island between fishing trips. In this protected paradise, they have no qualms about us sitting metres from them and watching them get on with their day.



After nearly an hour happily sitting in the early August sunshine watching these beautiful birds we carry on round the costal path coming to the dramatic cliff of Charlie's Holm and what looks like a speckled white cliff. Upon further inspection these white dots are thousands of gannets, nesting on the sea cliffs. They drop in and out on their quest for fish and maintenance of their nests and the sea seems almost alive with the continual movement caused by diving birds.



Charlie's Holm continues uphill to the main destination of the day, the Marilyn of Noss Head, a 181m summit and amazing view point. This trig point is a beautifully rounded shape, known as a Vanessa pillar, and sits proudly at the top of this phenomenal little island. Standing at the summit, islets and islands forming pinpricks on the horizon, this remote trig point feels like the most remarkable place in the world.





We descend along the northernly side of the island where we are treated to a seal lazily bobbing around in the water. On other days it is possible to see killer whales and minke whales as well as dolphins and porpoise all of whom make the most of the warmer pockets of water that form in the shallows around the islands.

Before we know it we are back at the ferry, slightly shellshocked by the beauty of the island we have just discovered.


____

The sound of water on a shore.

Robert I have noticed that something draws us towards outlying islands. Some force pulls. A quiet bay, an island in its middle - we take a small boat and we row out from the land. We circle the island, looking for a beach. We pull up the boat and light cigarettes. We walk the island's boundaries. We make a fire.
We sit on the beach and drink beer.
We cast our eyes back to the far shore from which we've come.
Night falls and the mainland slips into darkness.
We listen to the waves.
The island claims us.

The crash of the sea on rocks.
A cliff. 
A thousand seabirds.

I have noticed from the study of maps,
The more outlying the island - 
The further out it is in the remote ocean -
The stronger the force that pulls us towards it.

Outlying Islands, David Greig, 2002

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

Training | How to conquer the self-powered commute

As lockdown starts to lift here in London I've seen more of my friends than ever before realise that our city can be pretty easy to navigate by foot or pedal and is a brilliant alternative to taking public transport.

I've been cycle and run commuting for many years now and love the freedom it gives me as well as it being a great way of clocking sessions when you have a busy work week.

With that in mind, here is my guide to take on the city as a self-powered commuter.



1. Be Safe 
City traffic is pretty notorious, if you're planning on commuting by running/walking or cycling make sure you are safe. Be cautious at traffic lights and if you are cycling wear a helmet. It isn't about your cycling skills, it's about those around you - if a driver has a lapse in concentration a helmet could save your life. I've got a nice one from Decathlon that's comfy and fits my head (another important thing!).



2. Be Seen
I also wear a high vis both on my bike and if I'm taking on particularly busy intersections, while running. I've got a snazzy one from Proviz and you can use my code BBFI for 20% off their stuff: Provizsports.com. Finally make sure you've got some lights if you are cycling - it's so easy to think you won't be out and about after dark and then suddenly the sun sets and you're stuck not able to get home.

My funky running high-vis was gifted by Proviz

3. Pick a better route
Yes - running down the main road is 0.2 miles faster. But is it really better for your lungs than running through the park? Allow yourself enough time and pick enjoyable routes that make your commute something you love not something you loathe. Check out the local cycle routes near to you and try different routes to see which ones you like. If you are running detour routes can be the best - I always detour to the top of Primrose Hill as I cut West to East on my commute through London and those snatched moments looking across London are one of the highlights of my day.



4. Invest in a good bag
Your back will thank you for it. If you're cycling think about one that is bright and will keep you lit up especially if you've invested in a bright jacket or high vis - there is no point covering it up! I've got a fluro orange one that helps people see me. If you are running consider your body type: girls get a female specific one! How much stuff do you really need? Can you leave your laptop locked at work? Can you keep shoes in a locker or under your desk? Weight savings make a massive difference. I tend to try and go super light (with no need to take my laptop home and shoes kept under my desk) I wear a decathlon 10 litre vest and I pre-pack my clothes in a plastic bag to keep them non-sweaty. If I need my laptop or shoes I have a brilliant female specific Gregory running rucksack. I've owned it 5 years and it's as great as the day I bought it. Invest in a good bag that is made for your shape and needs. Your back will thank you.



Finally
5. Take it easy
Don't have a shower at work? Me neither. Go slow. Take it easy. Walk if you fancy it. Try to leave a bit too much time and if you arrive really early why not treat yourself to a coffee? That £2.90 peak tube fare you saved should cover a flat white instead. Be kind to yourself!



Good luck and have fun out there.


Post in conjunction with Proviz Sports. 

Friday, 22 May 2020

Trigs | Snowdon, Snowdonia

It is less than a week before Christmas and the guy at the Youth Hostel reception desk is looking at me like I'm nuts. "You want to go over Crib Goch?" he repeats, "At this time of year we'd only recommend that for people who really know what they're doing, you know, people who've spent a lot of time in the hills." This should annoy me but actually it makes me laugh, what does a person who spends a lot of time in the hills look like? I'm evidently giving off the wrong vibe as I hold my beer and quiz him in the bar the night before my planned ascent.

I love the idea that people think hill baggers are still 'anoraks'. Obvious in the daylight. I continue to shock new friends that I can bore them for hours with my supposedly needless trivia about trig points. I confirm to the guy on the front desk that I definitely fall in to the camp of "know what I'm doing", hence the quizzing. "I'm just trying to ascertain how much ice is up there: is it crampons and ice axe kind of weather or not? Happy to carry stuff I don't need just in case just thought I'd ask your opinion." I then find out the route of the problem: he's not actually been over Crib Goch himself. Ever.



There are many routes up Wales' highest summit, Snowdon, and many are wonderfully friendly to beginners. Personally my love of the hills doesn't involve snaking up behind hundreds of other hill walkers so for me the natural route of choice is Crib Goch, in deepest winter. On the 20th December I make my bid for Wales' summit. Heading out of the YHA which is happily perched at one of the highest starting points for Snowdon, Pen-y-Pass, this crisp morning leads the valleys around me to be lit with the most phenomenal ethereal light while clouds trap the sunlight above me. I follow the easily marked Pyg Track until it splinters off to it's much unfriendlier elder brother of a route, the Crib Goch climb.

Crib Goch is a knife-edged arête which translates as 'red ridge' in Welsh. As I slowly pull myself along the ridge I'm delighted that while there is fresh snow, there is no ice making for really enjoyable climbing. On the day I'm there the ridgeline opposite, along with the famous Miners Track and the lake, Llyn Llydaw, keep swelling in and out of the mist and I feel like I have been lost to a dream world. It is believed that much of J R R Tolkein's vision for The Lord of the Rings came from the time he spent in North Wales and you can see why. For hours I see no one, which surely is not a statement many can say on their ascent of Snowdon.

Once over the knife blade of Crib Goch's summit, the kind-of-path threads it's way onwards before curving over Garnedd Ugain's trig point and continuing round to the left and the giant of Snowdon makes itself known with the surprising path convergence of my route and the railway line. There are no trains at this time of year and a smattering of other walkers pass cheerily but with hurried pace as the chill has started picking up and it has begun to snow. The mountain is reminding me that winter is here.



At the summit itself I gaze longingly at the cafe and dream of hot chocolate I could buy on days other than a wintery December before climbing the final twisting stairs that lead to the trig point itself. This trig is of special significance, as the highest point in Wales it was crucial in the triangulation of 1802 that led to the first accurate map of Wales by the Ordnance Survey. The Surveyor's work on top of the mountain, using a 200-pound theodolite they had had to carry up the mountain, was hard going due to the tapered nature of the summit but the discomfort they faced in triangulating from such a point was offset by the view, described by a witness at the time; 'Snowdon lies right in the centre of the British world, and commands from it's summit, views at once of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, and of the intermediate islands of Anglesey and Man.' (This quote is taken from Rachel Hewitt's wonderful Map of a Nation: A biography of the Ordnance Survey).


The view from Snowdon (1085m) has the potential to be as astounding today but on the day I reach the summit I'm nearly blown off sideways by the snow that is now attempting to lodge itself in any crevice I have failed to cover with waterproofing material and the sky is a thick white of snow drift which doesn't lend itself to great views. I quickly skim off the summit and head South down the Watkins path to cross the summit of Y Lliwedd. This amazing ridge line gives views back of Snowdon and Crib Goch that make this longer route down worth the effort and I eventually drop back down on to the Miner's Track which feels like a motorway compared to some of the paths I've ventured on today.

The Miner's Path drops me back off at the Youth Hostel and inside I order a whisky from the same guy at the reception desk. He's slightly impressed and slightly surprised by my order but as I settle down in front of the roaring fire of the hostel bar and pour over The Mountains of England and Wales (Volume 1: Wales) by John and Anne Nuttall I think he starts to realise that underneath my rather sheep-like appearance, an anorak of a wolf lies.



___

"A week ago, when I left home,
I little thought that I should come
To Snowdon's châlet - thence to see
The sun in heavenliest majesty.
Moonlight and mist at night-fall threw
A veil o'er all; - one argent hue
Enclos'd the earth, while far above
Gleams of a brighter world of Love
Wafter the soul beyond the sky,
Far, far, into Eternity!
But when the morning broke, and day
Once more resum'd his brilliant sway,
I saw - but words can never tell
That fire-line on the horizon creeping! -
At once upon my knees I fell,
And, for my very joy, much weeping!"
Written on the Summit of Snowdon, September 11th, 1845, Rev Henry Wellington Starr, 1845
Tragically, on the Rev Starr's second ascent of Snowdon in 1846, he had an accident on the descent. The weather had been poor and he'd chosen to climb alone something rarely done at the time. His body was discovered by a huntsman in 1847.

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Trigs | Pitch Hill, Surrey Hills

It's a beautiful 25 degrees in May in the UK today which is obviously an absolute rarity. I've spent the morning at the more famous 'true summit' of Pitch Hill's parent, Leith Hill, the second highest point in the South East of England having great fun attempting to run up and down the steps that lead from the Windy Gap car park to the tower that sits proudly at the summit.



While Leith Hill is an amazing viewpoint, it holds nothing to it's much less well known child of a hill, Pitch Hill. Just further up the road, I have parked in 'Hurtwood Car Park 3' and while the name is less than inspiring this area is far from. The Hurtwood is an area of 2000 acres of privately owned Common land in the Surrey Hills that feels like it has been pulled straight out of a Lewis Carroll novel.

Rather than following the most direct line up to Pitch Hill, I head out West along a narrow footpath and past The Warren, a small summit with a privately owned windmill sitting proudly on top before turning left to lose some height as I descend South down Horseblock Hollow, picking up an access only road and footpath that cuts back across the Warren lower down with beautiful views all the way across to eventually the South Downs.



At the end of The Warren a network of tiny incredibly steep paths lead me up towards Pitch Hill. These routes up crisscross and snake up the hill in such a steep manner I feel like a naughty schoolgirl creeping in to the woodlands along long forgotten paths. At times I am almost crawling, dragging myself up the path through the dense woodland until I suddenly hit a clearing that opens out to my right and the summit of Pitch Hill. After tapping the trig point at the top I continue to the far corner and the main Viewpoint where a small information board has been built in memory of the founders of the Long Distance Walkers Association, Alan Blatchford and Chris Steer. You can see why they would have chosen to put a memorial here of all places. I catch my breath and take in the 270 degree vista that enables me to see all the way out to the Shoreham gap and the channel beyond.

South East England opens up before me and in the beautifully quiet woods, I feel like I am a million miles away from London - just 30 miles away as the crow flies to the buzz and hum of Canary Wharf and the centre of town. Here I find myself in a moment of true serenity, caught between the rays of the sun, the dense wood and the eye wateringly beautiful views.


_____

"The heathland earth enmeshes secret glass, come see through this
cyclists flicker and echo down braided greensand paths,
their hunt in the forest ripping new wounds
in land enriched by scars. Lightening, flash-bulb blue,
ghosts the moment, lost voices alive in birch and oak,
at hide-and-seek inside the fort's enclosure.
A grasshopper's shed skin clings to a stalk - what's flown,
flies here still, its breath a maze of insect shadows."
Greensand Way, John Wedgewood Clarke, 2016