Stirring custard. Or why I run like a cyclocross rider.

I went on a Fell/Offroad Leader in Running Fitness course last weekend. It was an absorbing and inspiring introduction into coaching for running, something I’ve been wanting to do for a bit since becoming involved with the Junior groups at Clayton Harriers, with whom my daughter trains.

We spent time on the course looking at uphill and downhill running technique, with the usual element of peer assessment to see how we could improve each others running style. I was described as ‘stirring custard’ with my left arm and hand whilst running. Not my right, just my left which apparently dangled out to the side, with a strong elbow bend and didn’t drive in the ‘pocket to socket’ forward plane that is conducive to efficient forward motion. Combine that with some fairly nasty twisting across my pelvis and core under effort, and you have an inefficient style with lots of energy wasted. And a bit of a bruised ego, for my part.

I’d gone away thinking about this, and how I might correct it with drills and excercises in the gym and begun to work on it. It was out on my cyclocross bike that I realised with a classic lightbulb moment why I was doing this, why I was stirring custard.

It was I deduced, as a result of carrying and running with a cross bike for years and years. A habit and an evolution of hours of training spent doing something inherently unbalanced and unhelpful. Watch this video of a professional cyclocross race in Belgium from a couple of years ago. These are the best riders in the world, and it features in particular, arguably the greatest ‘cross rider of the modern age, the recently retired Sven Nys (in Belgian Champ red, yellow and black).

 

When Sven and the other riders hit the long sand carrying section to run, they also seem to stir to varying degrees with their left arm, balancing and helping along forward motion with an unhelpful bike across their right shoulder.

Here’s further proof, this time with me (as second rider) training in 2012 for the 3 Peaks Cyclocross race with teammate Dave Haygarth. Hmm.

 

I seem to have learned to run like a cyclocross rider very well. Except I still do it when not carrying a bike. Food for thought, and for retraining myself to run like a runner a little better. Now to work on that pelvic/core twisting…

Entering the Lottery

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Time was when I used to enter the 3 Peaks Cyclocross and not even think about whether I would be able to ride, or not. It just wasn’t that popular.

But that was 1991 (when I was MUCH faster, honest) and before social media, the growth of the cycling press and the rise of ‘challenge’ events and sportives. The Peaks back then was the preserve of (mostly) Northern cyclocross devotees who would meet in late September for a crazy canter round Yorkshire’s finest on their patently unsuitable bikes, before resuming the winter seasons 1 hour lapped ‘crosses in a Park the following week.

Fell runnners showed up first – and spectacularly and rightly made the event their own – before some curious mountainbikers and the odd ‘outdoor’ athlete joined in the fun. I didn’t ride after 1992 (DNF) until 2005 and it had already changed greatly by the time I came out of, ahem, retirement. The real change though has been in the last 3 or 4 years where its popularity has rocketed, to the extent where the event now attracts well over 1000 entries for its 600 or so places. And people are getting turned away in large numbers. Regular 3 Peakers, pit crew who have supported riders and the event for years but fancied a do themselves (incl my pit crew Mark), cyclocross devotees, newcomers, the curious and so on. The nature of the event, I believe, has changed. But that’s another discussion…

Nevertheless, following 2 years out after breaking my neck and back, I have thrown my lot in and submitted an entry. To pre-selection only mind – I’ll have to wait till July to find out if I am successful. And I’m not holding out hope, ironic given my level of public blogging/social media obsession in recent years, aided and abetted by ex team-mate Dave Haygarth who runs the current and excellent 3 Peaks Cyclocross Blog (go check it out).

I’ll let you know if I am successful. In the meantime, I shall commence training as if I am riding…

 

In the run up to the 3 Peaks…

One of the serendipities of adding fell running to my original long-standing diet of cyclocross has been that the opportunity to compete in the 3 Peaks fell race has become available. Having ridden the cyclocross version on numerous occasions, I had been curious to see how the fell race compares to the two-wheeled version. This represents a reverse kind of cross-over to the invasion of the fell runners into the ‘cross race in the late 80s and early 90s (albeit with me lacking their considerable talent), a cross-over in which the likes of Andy Peace and his fellow Helwith Bridge Alers, and of course multiple ‘cross edition winner Rob Jebb brought fell running fitness and nouse and married it to an ability to pilot a patently unsuitable bike over their familiar terrain.

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En route to Penyghent, final peak of the cyclocross race, 2013. Pic: Geoff Waugh.

Since Christmas 2015, I had been harboring a desire to compete in both 3 Peaks versions in 2016, particularly having had 2 years out from the ‘cross race having broken my neck and back in 2014. This meant ramping up my running from its usual sub 5 mile distance and getting some fell races in. Preferable some longer, harder ones.

Of course, entry requirements proving requisite ability were not at the forefront of my mind and it was a bit of a shock when I had to actually prove my capability on the entry system with a couple of completions of recent fell races of sufficient difficulty. Not having those races under my belt I attempted to ‘talk’ my way into the race with tales of multiple ‘cross race finishes, and even pulling out my 1991 top 10 finish as evidence of intent, if not ability. It met with a polite and eminently fair ‘get your race counters in before 31 March and we’ll let you in’ response.

A cold and boggy 19 miles round the Wadsworth Trog, completed successfully in early Feb was one counter and the English Champs race at Black Combe in March was the other (though that was hardly a ringing endorsement of my navigational abilities). My reserve/backup race in this exploit was the tough local-to-me Heptonstall fell race, one which luckily I didn’t need as a cold struck just before that weekend. With these counters logged and my entry confimed, the only thing remaining was the small matter of continuing preparation for a 24 mile fell race with 4500ft of climb between March and the end of April. A ‘2 out of 3’ Peaks recce at nearly race distance with friend Rob ticked many of the boxes, namely that I could run the distance and was going well on the climbs before a further racing tester beckoned at the Cat A Donard Commedagh Horseshoe race in Northern Ireland.

Descending off Slieve Commedagh. Pic: Mickey Shields

Descending off Slieve Commedagh. Pic: Mickey Shields

The first round of the British Champs, this was also going to be a good hard race and although well short of the Peaks distance would give me a further grounding in super steep climbing and descending. Just without the long transition sections in between. I hadn’t run in the Mourne Mountains, or even visited for that matter, and was duly blown away by their rugged beauty, as well as their bitingly steep climbs. A hangover run on the day after the race confirmed their appeal as a stunning mountain running venue, compact and accessible but still feeling ‘big’ compared to my familiar Pennine and Yorkshire running grounds.

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In all honesty there haven’t been enough long runs in my preparation really, simply due to slackness on my part. There has been a good amount of climbing on steep ground on the fell though, and I run fine on the flat which will help with the transition between Penyghent and Whernside. I’ve hit the gym too in recent weeks, in an effort to correct some weaknesses in my core and functional strength (and stop my knees from hurting) and it really feels like it is paying off.  We’ll see how things go in the Peaks. Whilst some feel it isn’t a proper fell race, more like a trail race with 3 climbs, for me it would mark my graduation to fell runner in a nice ‘coming full circle’ kind of way given my history over the terrain. I’d like to get round efficiently, with some modicum of speed even, but it is a long way to race and with a reasonable amount of climbing so I am being realistic about making sure I simply complete.  At least I don’t have to lug a bike round with me…