Running from Shadows

My Marathon des Sables . . . and beyond

The first sore legs marathon of 2015: done

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My first for 2015, and the first in over a year. With my two longest runs being a long, slow 15.6 miles a couple of weeks ago and the faster Caythorpe Dash a few weeks before that, what better test of current long-run endurance than this hilly beast in the Yorkshire Dales? The race itself wasn’t an official marathon, being last Saturday’s off-road Troller’s Trot 25 Miles, but my plan was to add the extra needed at the end, assuming I could be bothered after several hours of hilly, boggy, off-road running.

Apart from the PowerHours and some fast 3 milers on the treadmill, all my runs this year have been the slightly frustrating ones as I rebuild my endurance (again): . . . long . . . and . . . slow . . . The theory is that with 80% of one’s total run distance in a week being at 75% of maximum heart rate or less, those long, slow runs become progressively easier and much, much faster with no increased effort if they are coupled with those sickness-inducing faster runs.

It’s a method that works very well but those runs can be both a joy and very, very frustrating! A joy because they feel so easy on the heart and lungs, jogging along for hours on end. But frustrating because of the time they take: it would be far easier to just knock out a steady 5 miles in 45 minutes rather than go through them in 55 to 60 minutes.

But that’s where the long, slow distance runs at 75% of maximum heart rate do come into their own: over time, those steady 5 miles in 45 minutes can be knocked out at an average heart rate very close to what it was when taking 10 minutes longer to do the same distance. And that becomes extremely useful when knocking out marathons day after day for a week, as I will be again later this year. The marvels of the aortic valves!

Back to last Saturday’s trot . . . As I haven’t run with a big crowd for some time it was like returning to school to see all your mates again after a long summer. Several familiar faces, the smell of Deep Heat wafting around, excited stories of the winter’s snowiest and boggiest long outings. I met Mack at the start: he was on the 12 mile course for the day, champing at the bit to get going; he always feels like an old man when he’s finished so downs some aspirin and nods off within minutes of the end of these runs. He didn’t say much: that’s because Mack was a very small dog barely 1 foot high with 6 inch legs. I mention this because I’m used to seeing on off-road courses big strapping dogs like sheepdogs or huskies that will plough on easily for 30 miles as a warm up . . . I tried to comprehend how a small dog with 6 inch legs could keep scampering up hill and down dale for a couple of hours, but my brain couldn’t compute.

So what was the plan for the day? I didn’t really have one beyond trying to force myself to make the distance up to a marathon at the end. Enjoy it and take it easy, that was my thinking, as this would be the first of many marathons in 2015 along the 9 month training road to running 140 miles across Cambodia.

On the first nasty hill I caught up with Michelle and John, who are aiming to complete this year’s Marathon des Sables in just a few weeks time. Michelle kindly mentioned my book on her blog some time back and gave me some lovely comments about the book as we heaved up the first hill of the Troller’s Trot: I didn’t envy the 8kg rucksacks they were carrying, but I am jealous that they’re off to the Sahara next month!

The long descent of the first moor was very welcome (see the elevation chart above!), as were nature’s early spring sights and sounds: a week-old lamb was crying a high-pitched bear-bear as it careered down hill to its uphill-running mum bellowing a more mature low-pitched baa-baa; the piercing calling of a pair of curlews, one either side of me; and the unseen shuffling activity beavering away in the thick moorland heathers that surrounded us . . . and the pièce de résistance . . . two chocolate Bourbon biscuits at the next checkpoint.

Just in time too, because the second hill was a real grind and not runnable as far as I was concerned, except for mountain goats and wiry fell runners, neither of which I will ever be. This is where I began to worry if my rash decision of last week to sign up for this race was too soon in my training calendar: there were early tell-tale signs of possible future groin cramping. Fortunately those cramps didn’t arrive.

After crossing a desolate but beautiful Barden Moor at around 10 miles it was another glorious descent past Upper and Lower Barden reservoirs for a good 2-3 miles down to the ruins of Barden Tower and onto the Dales Way, 9 minute miling replacing the 12-14 minute miling it had taken to climb up to the highest point of the course.

Just one more ascent to go, and a comparatively easy one at that.

It was here though I was feeling a bit sick with an increasing urge over the next few miles to violently heave: I’d been chomping down my only non-checkpoint food ration in the form of a Lucozade Strawberry Flavoured Energy Bar. Like all “energy bars” (except one: High Five Energy Bar Coconut) I’ve ever tasted, this was a bit gross: why didn’t I remember my lessons from the last couple of years? Eat normal food on the long runs: time to replenish my stores with salted pretzels and jelly beans, not chemically-induced “flavoured” energy bars.

Add also the fact my water bottle had leaked, since the last checkpoint, most of its 500ml of water with a barely-dissolved electrolyte tablet: I had to drink something, so swilled down what was left of a too highly-concentrated mix of sodium, magnesium and potassium. Not great. Back to the drawing board on selecting water bottles . . .

By now we were following the rushing River Wharfe, distant lambs calling from all around, and the finish was peeping into our consciousness. I was surprised to see my GPS watch telling me I was beyond 18 miles but I was now beginning to feel it; I’d managed to reel in just a few people along the way from my cautious start but it was now getting more difficult to keep them back!

The view from the final top, looking across the valley and down into the tiny village of Burnsall, was glorious: it felt like spring had finally arrived, the winter winds almost banished now, even at these exposed points. From here the descent was quick and easy and I ran along with a guy whose longest ever run beforehand was 16 miles: he was absolutely jubilant to have got that far!

There were just the 4 miles or so remaining now to hug the River Wharfe through Burnsall, along the Dales Way and on to the finish in Grassington. I knew my time would be poor but that wasn’t the purpose of the day’s outing and I was surprised at the leg strength I still had to run a few minutes before slowing to a fast walk, ploughing up the last short hill out of Grassington to the race HQ in the school.

Now could I do it and turn around from the finish and plough on another 1.4 miles to notch up a training marathon? My legs were telling me that enough was enough, but my mind recalled the regret of a race from years ago that was a 25 miler that could so easily have become another marathon to add to my tally . . . so I popped my head in the school’s entrance corridor, shouted out my number, and turned away to run and walk on for another very sore 20 minutes.

Finally, job done. A great but very tough day out around the Yorkshire Dales: 26.2 miles over 2,828 foot of ascent and 3,400 calories burnt off. An average heart rate of 145 beats per minute: not bad! A poor time overall, but not unexpected at this stage of my training.

Having finally stopped running or walking fast, the next challenge was commanding my brain to move a pair of by now very stiff and sore legs to another part of the school for two hot dogs (minus most of the bread). Here I met Michelle and John again and regaled them with dreamful reminiscences of my 2012 Marathon des Sables. Despite having hauled 8kgs each in their final long-run desert preparations they looked fresh as daisies, so should do very well!

Back to the car and home, where within a couple of hours that most delicious of post-marathon experiences washed over me: falling into a deep sleep without ever realising it.

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