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…

Struggles and self-talk – 3 Peaks Fell Race

 

Ingleborough Pic from David Bradshaw/SportSunday

Ingleborough
Pic from David Bradshaw/SportSunday

I suspect it was the trauma of having brought two right gloves to race in that was the deciding factor. For someone who (for some odd reason) seems to have picked up a reputation for being rather OCD about kit, it was distressing to be fair. Every time I looked at my left hand, I was painfully reminded of my glaring ineptitude not to mention going through the trial of trying to get a right glove on a left hand (try it, it’s harder than you think) at regular intervals as I got hot and then cold in the wild ‘seasonal’ temperature variations of the day. I was sure of it in fact, it must have been contributing to my sub-par performance around the 3 Peaks.

It was just one of those days really. It just never got going how I imagined it would. Fatigue started early, almost imperceptibly at first but at a point where you wouldn’t to start feeling tired if the rest of the race was going to be even vaguely pleasant. And so the turn onto the lane up to Penyghent marked where it all started going awry. Less than a mile into a 24 mile race with 5000odd feet of climb isn’t the best place to start questioning things, but there we go, something wasn’t quite right.

The rest of the story is a slightly tragic, rather predictable decline into a fairly advanced state of decay. Highlights included a waist deep immersion into a  bog that precipitated a full cramp attack in both legs and avoiding the walker who went for an impromptu 40ft glissade on his arse down and past me on the treacherous Whernside descent. Ouch. The weather was a bit wild too at times but whilst the snow on the summits made descending interesting, it was also stunningly beautiful as a back drop to my suffering.

After Whernside summit, I was really doubting my ability to finish. The change in gradient from the ridiculously steep climb to the downhill track had somehow rendered me unable to run, and in some pain with my left knee. Hobble, shuffle, hop, curse. Then the thought of sitting in the Bus of Shame back to Horton, explaining what had happened to other hapless souls, flashed across my brain and I resolved that I ought really to finish this bloody thing. That and the fact that I couldn’t do a fell and ‘cross double this year if I didn’t get round.

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Shuffle… Pic from David Bradshaw/SportSunday

Of course in reality, I actually had a reasonable enough run, for a first timer and in quite tough conditions. It was the hardest thing I’ve done yet (whisper it, yes, harder than the cross race). The issue I had was the very poor self talk that started early on, the doubts, the incessant whinges inside my head, all of which did little to help my mental approach to a notoriously tough challenge. I learned many lessons about myself during those 4 hours and 43 minutes, lessons which hopefully I can bring to bear on future long events including a tilt again at a substantially quicker Peaks in 2017. One for which I will actually DO the homework of regular long runs, something which seemed blindingly obvious after the finish, but had escaped me in the run up to it. I’d only really done one proper long run over 20 miles in the run up, and the Peaks was the longest I’d run in 20something years. Not rocket science really, and possibly enough proof to throw doubt on my theory about the adverse performance effect of wearing two right gloves…

Here’s to a return to the Peaks on the last Sunday in September where I can bring my bike with me for company.

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…

Inspiration

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I went to watch the Lancashire Fell Championships yesterday. Or at least the Junior races held before the adults race. I have to declare an interest, as my daughter was racing in the U12 Girls hoping to add the Fell title to her Cross Country title earlier in the year.

I love the atmosphere around Junior fell racing. The kids are competitive when the gun goes for sure, but most of the time are just mucking about, enjoying being outdoors and just being, well kids. My daughter is no exception, valuing being around her Clayton team mates as much, if not more than the positive feedback she gets from the running and competing itself. And that’s how it should be –  a relaxed trip out to some great countryside with a bit of a run thrown in for good measure. Their attitude is a good lesson for us adults, or at least those at risk of taking it a bit too seriously. And it provides me with inspiration – not all of us are race winners but we can all win by getting stuck in at what ever level we bring to the race and persevering through to the finish.

My daughter had a good run too, on a tough course with a long climb out of Sabden up toward Deerstones on Pendle Hill, and straight back down again. The field wasn’t big which was a shame, the fixture possibly falling foul of an Easter Monday date, but she was first home and a win is a win. Particularly when backed up with a proper medal and a big shiny cup to take home for the next 12 months.

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Lost on White Combe

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Though it was the Black Combe Fell Race, it was White Combe that was the problem. Or rather that I was running around on White Combe but not exactly sure where I was running…

First English Champs fell race, first ‘A’ fell race, first Lakes fell race. In at the deep end then. And thick mist from fairly low down on the hill was only going to add to the difficulty.

The start took me aback – it felt so fast. I had it in my head that we’d all roll out like a nice straightforward race up at Pendle Hill and things would hot up at the front as people got warmed up. But this was more like a 45min Vets cyclocross race. Flat out, and bang, straight into one of the steepest climbs I’ve done in a good long while. I should have realised that with most of fell running royalty at the front it was never going to be sedate. First mistake.

Up the first climb, into the mist. Pic from Rupert Bonington

Up the first climb, into the mist. Pic from Rupert Bonington

With a sore knee to fret about due to the severity of the climb and not really being warmed up properly, we grunted our way into the clag and onto the first couple of checkpoints. Nearly 2000ft straight up. As the gradient eased a little and became more runnable, I got going and picked off runner after runner. So far so good.

Black Combe summit, some cheerful marshals, nearly forgetting to dib (new tech for me in a fell race) and we dashed off into the clag on some fast, though not distinct paths. Follow the shadows in the mist and the footprints. Second mistake.

Dibbing at Checkpoint 3, I followed the guys in front, one of whom suddenly stopped, swore and ran off randomly to the left, checked  his GPS, map, or something. A group of us followed dutifully. More moaning from him, stop/start running from us and then the start of a more purposeful effort from those at the front to get back on track for Checkpoint 4. After a bit of this, I got my map out and tried to make sense of what I could (vaguely) see around me. It wasn’t much help, though I assumed we had dropped off too far to the right of the racing line and were contouring round to pick up the Checkpoint. The others in front seemed convinced of what had happened and were heading off fast to rectify the error. I followed again. Third mistake.

After some faffing and the realisation that we were all lost, all 20 or so of us in small loosely affliated groups, I got the compass out and tried to make sense of the map and our direction of travel allied to what I thought I could see in the mist. Another runner admitted to having a breadcrumb trail on her iPhone and set off purposefully to find the route nearby. It didn’t feel right and taking a bearing, I surmised we were heading 180 degrees in the wrong direction, now along the race route. About turn and it was a relief to finally run through Checkpoint 3 again. But, the damage had been done, to the tune of 25 mins or so lost and an extra mile and a half including several hundred feet of climbing.

From then on, I took bearings, visualised timings for distance travelled in advance, stormed the huge 2nd climb and navigated perfectly to the finish, including finding the tricky racing line down  through the heather off the last Checkpoint to find the main track perfectly.

Lesson learned. Don’t wait till you, or someone else in front of you gets lost. Know where you are at all time, have the map and compass out if the visibility is bad and above all, ignore the other idiots who like me, were blindly following someone else they thought would know where they were going.

The extra time out on the fell and the extremely steep climbs combined to mash my legs into a reasonably complete state of disrepair in the following days, so much so that even with gentle riding they have only come round quite late in the week and I have stopped feeling shattered.

Here’s an excellent account from winner Ben Mounsey who didn’t get lost:

Dare to Dream

An extra loop...

An extra loop…