Dumgoyne

I intended a slightly longer run taking in the West Highland Way on the return leg back to Strathblane. Unfortunately, I had a flare-up of a calf niggle that’s been troubling me of late so I thought it better to shorten things and just double back on myself. Dumgoyne’s not big but it’s plenty steep so a a nice way to get some hill work in this morning.

IMG_2811 IMG_2812

Great views from up on top of the Campsies with clear skies giving a great 360 panoramas from the top of Dumgoyne and further over on Earl’s Seat.

Dumgoyne Stitch 1 Dumgoyne Stitch 2

I tried out the course feature on the Garmin 910 for the first time and it worked really well. I feel much happier about planning to use it for the Lakeland 50 now. Tried out a set of poles too. I really didn’t get on with them well at all but I’ll try them out on a few more runs before coming to any final conclusion whether to persist with them or not.

The new ultimate direction pack continues to impress but I’ll need to be mindful about taking some additional water carrying capacity if there’s limited access to streams or checkpoints as I’m likely to get through the two 1/2 litre bottles pretty quickly.

http://connect.garmin.com/activity/324635051

Lakeland 50

I ran one ultra and one off-road marathon last year. At some point while training for these I thought it’d be a really great idea to do something longer, something more of a challenge. I attempted to sign up for the Lakeland 50 (http://www.lakeland100.com/) but there was a waiting list (which I put my name down on) and so I forgot about it. Last month the lovely people at the Lakeland 50 emailed and said there was a place available. ‘What the hell, why not’, I thought and took up their offer.

Admittedly, I had only run twice in the 6 weeks leading up to the offer and I’d had two periods of really bad health totalling about 3 months since the last time I’d run long. Oh, and I’d decided to cancel my entry to 2 other ultra-distance events because I had been feeling crappy. That day I decided this would be a ‘good idea’.

A week or so earlier I’d volunteered, at about 12 hours notice, to run a relay leg of the Highland Fling, one of the events I’d intended to run solo and bailed on months previously. I had a fantastic day and I felt great about it in all sorts of ways that triathlon wasn’t doing it for me at the time. So I checked in with Cazz, signed up and have been getting more and more excited about it since.

The race is about 7 weeks away now and I’ve managed to get up to 60km + each week so far without breaking myself too badly. This represents something of a minor miracle for myself, when I think that I spent most of the time between the ages of 15 and 30 managing a seemingly never-ending series of knee, shin and hip injuries whilst playing hockey.

This week I’m hoping to build on this base and take things a bit further and add in some extra vertical metres. and that’s what’s worrying me most, the vertical. Whilst the distance itself is daunting 50 miles (83km), the 9,728ft (2965m) will be what causes me the most bother. Even after last year’s training, at 85kg (on a good day), gravity is not my friend in these type of events. So, with that in mind, this week’s planned long run looks like coming in at about 30km and looks like there’ll be around 1000m of vertical.

I’ll also be trying out the new pack from Ultimate Direction (http://www.ultimatedirection.com/p-601-sj-ultra-vest.aspx), continuing to work on my nutrition and hydration and perhaps trying out a set of poles – every days’s a school day.

Ctrl, Alt, Delete

Well this year’s grand plans to get back racing have crashed and burned and it’s time to reboot and start again.  March has been a total right-off as far as training has gone. I’ve had a nasty throat infection that managed the neat trick of becoming an all-consuming sinus/ear/throat/chest infection. So not only have I missed a month’s worth of training I’ve also managed to go considerably backwards  in terms of fitness and will be off training for a wee while yet. And as far as swimming is concerned this could be even longer whilst a perforated ear drum resulting from the infection heals up.

This week should’ve seen me take part in the Stirling Duathlon. I did the sprint distance a couple of years back and really enjoyed it so I was looking forward to having a run out on my new bike at this year’s championship race. I was hoping to use this to help me gauge where I was and tweak my training in the lead in to the Chester Deva Triathlon in June.

Well that’s not happening any more  s, what to do? Well obviously I’m managing to be suitably sulky and grumpy but how about trying to get some positives out of this?

  • Reset this year’s goals
  • Look at what went wrong in the run up to getting ill
  • Buy more triathlon stuff on the internet (this will make me faster even though I can’t train, honest)

So the plan now is to concentrate on the British Championships race in Liverpool 6 weeks after Deva. Deva is now scheduled to be in a heavy block of training and a week after a 10k race on the Mull of Kintyre. Hopefully these do the job of some quality breakthrough session in the run in to Liverpool. Hopefully I’ll have a good run-out at Liverpool and then take a look at what to include later in the year. For now I’m thinking probably Gullane and maybe Aberfeldy Middle Distance which I’ve only done once, back in 2009

I’ve also used Training Peaks to go back over my training in the weeks before getting the infection. From looking at the Training Stress Scores and Training Stress Balance metrics it provides it looks like I was overdoing things with intervals on the turbo; so I’ll be keeping a close eye on the numbers when I get back to training and backing off early as a precaution when necessary. hopefully this will allow me to get the consistency of training required by reigning back a bit from volume or intensity as a preventative measure.

So, a slightly different focus to the year after a slightly delayed start but perhaps better to stop and re-assess things now than blowing up a week or two away from the year’s main aims.

Mindfullness

cycle that’s not stopping

Some of you reading this might know that I have depression. I’ve cycled through periods of deep lows back to a level where I function pretty well on a day-to-day basis for a long time now. These typically follow a pretty familiar pattern which I’ve tried to capture in at the end of the post.

I’ve worked hard to try to stay well now for a number of years and I’ve tried various treatments both on their own and in combination to do this. I’ve not found one thing that, on its own, seems to work but I know that I need to do the following to stay functional.

  • Have a regular sleep pattern
  • Exercise for at least 1 hr a day
  • Stick with my medication

I don’t say well, because even doing this I don’t feel at all like I’m firing on all cylinders. Also, I struggle with all three of these, particularly keeping a regular routine, so as well as doing all of these things I need something that will help me to do them in the first place.

So what next?

Well ,in the past, one thing that I’ve tried and found helpful has been Mindfulness meditation. So for the next eight weeks, at least, I’m setting myself the task of sticking with a Mindfulness programme.

The evidence seems to show that mindfulness can make a real difference, both physically and mentally. I have tried this for a brief period before as part of a set of group sessions. However once the sessions and support finished I didn’t manage to keep it up on a regular basis and gradually stopped altogether. So, this time around why do I think it’ll be any different? Well for one, I’m writing about it; I hope this will have a similar effect that signing up for a race and having to train for it has. I also hope that by taking things at my own pace rather than trying to achieve a lot in a relatively small and time limited number of sessions that I’m able to give each progression the time it needs.

The plan is to try to do each week’s practices at least 6 days out of 7 and only move on to a new week’s set of practices if I manage this. Each week I intend to recap and review how the mindfulness practices have gone for my own benefit but also for anybody else who might be thinking of trying this approach.

So Week 1 starts today and concentrates on becoming aware of the autopilot. Practices will include; eating raisins, breathing exercises, deliberate (but small) changes to break up an everyday routine and doing one or two everyday tasks mindfully. All of this shouldn’t take up more than 20-30 minutes a day and seems like a pretty reasonable investment of my time.

Hopefully next week I’ll manage to pull some thoughts together on how it’s going.

A personal take on depression

Each time I start to feel down I have the same familiar physical sensations of anxiety. These cause me to pause and reflect and I can usually look back over the months preceding this to see that I’ve been distracted, sleeping poorly and usually fairly run down. If I’m lucky I ride this out; it’s just a wee blip and I get back to trundling along fairly reasonably. If I’m not lucky, my mind gets to work on solving the ‘problem’ of why I’m down. It goes into an intensely logical state and analyses all it can to try and think my way out of this. The stream of, ultimately unhelpful, thoughts are constant; hyper-critical, self-absorbed, anxious and mildly paranoid. They shoot off tangentially to new avenues of inquiry all too frequently. I can’t focus or get even simple tasks done, which I then add to the list of failures and frustrations, and I get angry, agitated and more down on myself and everyone else.

Usually I can keep this in check. It stays internal, I fight it and quite often I win. Sometimes though I only think I’m winning and instead it’s gradually chipping away at me. Then it can be something small, apparently inconsequential, and not usually making any sense to anyone else, that floors me. In the past it’s been a regular meeting, a disagreement with someone and once even (and I kid you not) a failed attempt to wrap a sandwich in cling-film. That’s all it takes to finally break. It doesn’t seem much but really it’s the accumulation of countless of tiny self-criticisms and undermining thoughts. leading up to that point that does it.

Up until now I’ll have been depressed and anxious though outwardly appearing functional and pretty normal but when this hits I can’t function. The world becomes too busy, noisy, scary and unwelcoming a place. I can’t think. Even simple tasks will be beyond me.  It feels like a huge pulse of unwanted negative emotion. It feels extremely intense but usually doesn’t last at that level for all that long. Afterwards I’m left with a crushing low that’s experienced as a physical sensation as much as felt in the mind. It exhausts me and my brain feels sensitive, raw. I am left with no resilience and submit to the depression I can’t fight off any more.

I’m lucky, I’ve always managed to come back from this place. Sometimes it taken longer than others but every time, even if its only just fleetingly, I worry that I might not get well again.

So that’s what’s appealing about the mindfulness. It’s about looking for a release from that worrying and finding an acceptance about how I am at any given moment.

Glen Ogle 33 – My First Ultra

I arrived in Strathyre still in darkness, and in snow; wet, sleety stuff rather than the fluffy Christmas card variety. I parked up, munched on some malt loaf to top off my breakfast before heading over to registration. This confirmed that the temperature was tending toward the Baltic end of the scale but it was still dark and I had my fingers crossed that despite the forecast for sleet it might brighten up. I exchanged my medical form for my race number and headed back to the warm of car to get kitted up.

Top ultra tip #347: don’t pack you water bottles and your dry kit in the same bag. I had one extremely soggy race top and a pile of now wet clothes to change into post-race. Thankfully I had a few spare items if I needed but I cranked up the blower on the car to get me warm and hopefully dry out my race gear.

20 minutes later, all was well. I was toasty and my kit was dry. I wandered over for the perfunctory and mercifully brief race-briefing. Huddled amongst 150 or so other runners I didn’t hear any of it and followed the rest as we crossed over the road and into the forest for the race start.

The start is on a hill, which at least prevents you taking off too fast. I happily plodded off toward the back. Reasonably confident that I’d be around their based on how quickly I thought I could complete the course compared to last year’s race times.

I had a really simple race plan, run about 7min30/km on the flat, a bit faster on the downs (but not too fast to avoid blowing my quads), a bit slower on gradual climbs and walk anything that counted as a proper hill. I figured if I had a good day I’d run the course just over 6 hrs, on target pace about 6.5hrs and if I had a horrible day somewhere about 7.5hrs.

Basically, I reckoned that only in the worst case scenario was Ii going to run as slowly as at Glencoe 4 weeks ago because the terrain looked like it was going to be much easier and there would be much less climbing. On the other hand, I’d never run that far, had done not very much training, had only run one marathon 4 weeks earlier and had injured something around the top of my hamstring doing it.

The first 7kms are through the forest on wide trails, up for half and then down and doubling back a bit on some switchbacks. I stuck with the plan and walked the ups – watching the majority of folks pull well ahead – and cruised the downs. It was reassuring to see that some older guys chatting away about longer and harder races were also taking this approach to the early stages of the race.

The next section to Lochearnhead rolled along Sustrans NCN7, mostly through the woods in their bright orange autumn colours and with a wee patch of snow here and there. Most of this was on whindust and the patches of dropped pine needles also gave a nice spongy surface to run on. What wasn’t so nice was the rain and sleet on this section. I was warming up and thinking of dropping a layer but was making good time and so decided to crack on. It turned out to be a good call because this is where we got the only really crappy bit of weather all day. I don’t know if was the weather but my mood definitely dropped here. Conscious of a few dark thoughts, I made sure to keep on top of my nutrition early on and got a gel down and kept taking my Clif Shot Bloks at regular intervals.

Nearing Lochearnhead the path turns up a series of steep switchbacks for about 1km and then another 5 or 6km of a gradual incline straight along Glen Ogle itself. As the course climbed upwards, my mood seemed to pick up too. I felt pretty good and looking back at my pace that shows as I was going a bit quicker than planned. Still, people seemed to be steadily pulling ahead and I tried to stay concentrated on doing my thing and not worrying about them.

One of the things I like about the kind of running I’m doing at the moment is that it really challenges your expectations and assumptions. At the start you can usually pick out a few people who will be tearing off the front and also those who you reckon might be bringing up the rear with the sweepers. But, for the huge chunk of people in between – so varied in shapes, sizes, appearances, kit and demeanour – just looking at them as a casual observer I defy you to predict their race performance.

How this most obviously manifests itself to me is seeing not only wizened looking older men and women tapping out a strong pace and putting hours into me but also when I get passed by many, many people who if you saw them in the street you might wrongly assume weren’t the sporty type. There’s something oddly pleasing to being overtaken at 45km by a pair of middle-aged women who are chatting away quite happily whilst I have on a face that looks like I’m practising to qualify for the international gurning championships.   

Back to the race – Crossing the road at the top of Glen Ogle we go off on a wee loop of the forest near Killin. Just as I’m entering the forest I get passed by the lead runner who’s finished this loop and is about to start the descent back down the Glen to the finish. At this point I’ve covered about 18km and he’s at 31km and absolutely flying. About 30 minutes of downhill running let me know that I was going to have real bother with my hamstring for the rest of race. Just 5km of uphill now up to the highest point on the course. Mostly hiking but with an occasional wee jog this wasn’t a too good a section for me. To stop myself from indulging in feeling miserable I brought a picture of Eilidh, Ruairidh and Cazz to mind. It’s difficult to stay feeling too down when you have a picture of wee smiley people in your head. I managed to just about hold the gaps to the runners I catch sight of ahead but coming to the crest of the hill a needed a few wee stops to rest and stretch my left hamstring.

At the top I know that there are no more significant hills to come. Quickly downhill now to the road crossing and the penultimate aid station. I stop to fill up my pack with water and grab a cup of sugary coffee. I manage to keep the pace up for the next 5km. It feels really slow an effort full though. I don’t realise it at the time but I ran up most of this hill faster than I was now going down. I focus on my breathing and posture but I feel tired. The runners I went through the aid station with are slowly pulling away and so I try to clear them from my thinking as I can’t use them to pull me along any faster. And then I get to the switchbacks. The downhill has been worse than expected but not disastrous. The pain in my hamstring is still there but not so noticeable. Mostly this is because my knees begin to ache and this is taking my mind off my hamstring. Also the sun’s out now and there’s a cracking view to my left all the way down the hill looking down to Lochearnhead and eventually over the loch itself.

37km in and I begin to worry. As the descent got steep though there’s real pain as distinct from the soreness there had been before. Like a drill into the outside of my knees a real sharp burning pain from the bursa on each side. I stop. I shuffle. I stop again. I have a wee stretch. I shuffle a bit more. The course starts to roll fairly gently parallel to the road again and for the next 5km I hike even the slightest incline, try to run anything flattish and shuffle gingerly on the downs.

I get to the aid station at Kingshouse to start the final section which is all on road and loops past Rob Roy’s grave and Balquidder back through the forest and into Strathyre. Someone says, “Well done, keep going big man”, in a way that suggests what he means is, “your, entirely the wrong size and shape for this but fair play to you and good luck anyway”. The aid station is pretty much at marathon distance and a few thoughts start running round my brain. It’s only 10km to go; I’ve just run a marathon over an hour faster than a month ago; I have to run as much of what’s left otherwise it’s not an ultra – it’s just a marathon with a wee walk on the end.

First though, there’s another wee hill and I’m stuffed, I really am. I walk as briskly as I can and resolve to get some carbs on board to make what’s left as bearable as possible. Tragedy strikes, I drop the wrapper of my gel and have to bend down to pick it up. Damn, that hurts!  A car passes and the bemused occupants get to watch me perform some kind of wincing slow-mo squat in the middle of the road.

I manage to get back into something approaching a run again. A couple of cyclists who’ve not long past me have stopped by the side of the road, “got your second wind?” they shout out. More like seventh or eighth wind I think to myself, as I give them a polite nod of the head. Up a wee hill and into Balquidder where a local kid kicking a football about thinks that right now, at this moment, the funniest thing in the world would be to shout and sing ‘Keep on Running’. It’s not.

I get though the village and just ache. I stretch out my legs again and try to summon up the will for the last open stretch of road back to the forest. I’m just about maintaining 9min/km which I’m hoping will get me back somewhere not too far off my 6hr30min target. I know that it’s gone but I want to get as close to it as possible. The walking breaks are more frequent now and I’m beginning to think that there’s not much more running left in my legs.

I get passed by two women who must be in their late fifties/early sixties. One of them turns to the other and says, “Do you need a wee break for a walk now?”, “No let’s keep going”, the other replies. They are kicking my ass and off into the distance they head.

Strangely, I don’t feel down about this. Instead I feel good that they are having a great race. They are obviously having a good time, their smiling and chatting away and all after running about 48km. My mind wanders a bit and I start to feel a bit emotional. It’s the first time I’ve allowed myself to think of today as any kind of accomplishment. I think back on being unwell over the last couple of year and how different the feeling of being able to run 50km is to getting out of bed being too much or being unable to face going out of the house and I well up for a moment. But this too seems as self-indulgent as wallowing in the hurt in my legs would be and I press on and try to concentrate on my breathing and my pace.

I get to where I think there are only a couple of kms to go and I’m getting caught by someone else. She catches up to me but doesn’t go past. She’s really struggling too. She’s got really bad blisters and is hurting badly. We have a bit of a blether and our pace picks up a wee bit. Her name is Carolyn, she’s found running and say’s she’s a reformed fatty. I don’t say too much but we talk a little about running and the science of it and how to keep going when it gets hard. She thanks me for running with her and I tell her I’m going much faster since she’s caught up. We get faster by over a minute for each of the three kms we run together as we accelerate toward the finish. We catch sight of someone in yellow up ahead. It’s the first person we’ve seen in a while, have we caught someone up? No, it’ a marshal which means we must be nearly at the finish. “200 yards to go”, he shouts at us. A quick dart through the woods, over the shoogly. I smile for the camera (they miss the smile and instead take a picture of a burst baw) we double back into the car park at Strathyre and it’s over.

There are not too many people around the finish but from those who are around there are shared congratulations and a tangible shared acknowledgement of what we’ve all done today. It’s a different feeling today than Glencoe. I feel physically worse at the finish than Glencoe but it definitely felt like the difference in the mental effort required today was even greater. Maybe it’s because of this but I feel more positive about today’s run. It’s not a jumping and shouting euphoria, rather a more quiet sense of satisfaction.

I pick up my reward for finishing; a special Glen Ogle 33 Brew Dog Punk IPA and hobble back to the car. I’m confident I’ve never been in worse shape after any other event but as I drive home I’m undeterred and already starting about the work that I’ll have to do to rehab and prepare for what’s next.

Distance: 50.89 km
Time: 6:44:29
Avg Pace: 8:00 min/km
Elevation Gain: 943 m
Calories: 3,162 C

http://connect.garmin.com/activity/240001138

Glen Coe Marathon

Glencoe Marathon 2012

Earlier in the year having no concept of what it is like having two under 3s in the house I signed up to do the Glencoe Marathon. This would be the inaugural year of the event so details were a little vague but it looked promising. Now I’d never run a marathon before; I’d once got to about 30km or so training for the Edinburgh marathon and that broke me. So, what possessed me to have a go at another marathon, and one that was all on trails and with 1600m of climbing?

Well, I’d been doing a lot of reading about ultra marathons and I’d been a bit scunnered with what I’d been perceiving as the increasing commercialisation of sport in general and the rapidly growing endurance events market in particular.

The Glencoe Marathon seemed to come along and allow me to do an event that was well organised but raise money for charity and have an experience that might be pretty close to running an ultra.

So, I was now signed up and committed to running this thing. I’d done a few longish runs and was relatively confident I could plod my way round. I’d also convinced Cazz that the four of us should go up to Fort William for the race and we piled my kit and the kids into our wee car and trundled up the road.

Paul, Sharon and me at the start line of the first Glencoe Marathon

Sunday morning came with some of the best weather I’ve ever seen in Fort William. It was clear and a wee bit chilly and I could see nothing but clear skies as I walked down to catch the bus to the start line.

It was all very low-key here. We signed in handed over our kit bags for the finish and huddled together and engaged in the usual pre-run chat while we waited for the gun to go off. I met up with Paul Crowther and Sharon McKinley before the start. Given how well that they’d been running throughout the summer it looked like they’d go pretty well in the event.

The fast runners looking to push a fast time lined up first and were off a few minutes later the rest of the field set off past the Clachaig Inn and down the side of the A82 through Glen Coe.

The first half of the race took us through Glencoe, over the Devil’s staircase and down into Kinlochleven. For a couple of miles we ran on a mix of singletrack and Land Rover track underneath the Three Sisters. We were stuck in single file for this section and once in the line you were stuck at this pace until the track widened out. I knew I was running faster than the pace I’d planned at this point but because it was slower than my usual pace I still felt good and let it go. Turned out this was a bad idea but more of that later. We crossed back over the road at the now notorious Jimmy Saville’s cottage at Allt-na-Reigh. Another couple of kilometres on decent track followed before another couple of km over open bog-land to get onto the Devil’s Staircase.

I’d managed to go knee-deep in the bog a couple of times before the start of the climb and my feet were soaked through. The weather was still glorious though, so I figured that they’d hold together for the duration. From the start, I’d always planned to walk the Staircase so I packed away my ego and let any thought of trying to hold onto anyone else on the way up go. I set into a steady plod and watched person after person, of all shapes and sizes, overhauled me.

Once at the top I did manage to go past a few people taking a breather and although I thought I could go faster I took it steady on the way down, reminding myself it was a long day.

The view on this section of the run was spectacular. In one direction you look out over Blackwater reservoir and Glas Bheinn. Keep running on and the view shifts with the Mamores laid out in front of you. Sadly, something was gnawing away at me at this section into Kinlochleven. In the car on the way up we had, on occasion, let some of Eilidh’s songs onto the iPod rotation. One in particular was beginning to cause issues. ‘Wednesday is Watermelon Day’, by the Wiggles. For those of you unfamiliar with this little ditty it something like this,

Wednesday is watermelon day

It’s the third day of the week

Wednesday is watermelon day

It’s melons I love to eat

I love what I do on a Wednesday

Wednesday is watermelon day

It’s the third day of the week

Over and over and over and over and over again. Stuck in my head and it wouldn’t go away.

Despite being way back in the field, I could see that I was up on the pace I had planned and would be into the halfway checkpoint 30mins earlier than planned. I thought I might go through before Cazz, Eilidh and Ruairidh and miss them. I shouldn’t have worried as I could see them at the end of the road. On the way past, I took Eilidh’s wee hand and she ran along to the food station with me. Absolutely my favourite part of the whole day.

Kinlochleven about half way in

Eilidh gave me a race update. Obviously worried that her dad might not win, she let me know that some of the other runners were in front of me. Un-phased by this news I took on some carbs and a cup of soup. Knowing that you’ve got at least another 3 hours of running to go allows you to be intensely relaxed about aid stations.

mmmmmm soup at halfway

Half way until about 30km was without doubt my least favourite section of the race; couple of kilometres of climbing out of Kinlochleven and along the base of the Mamores. I didn’t appreciate the climbing and I could feel my hamstring tighten and glutes begin to ache. I walked the ascent and started running again when we hit the land rover track. The track continued to weave it’s way upward and I knew now that the second half was going to take me much longer than the first. I dropped the pace to a steady plod which I managed to hold on the flats and downhills. I was reduced to a hike on most of the uphills.

I was now quite settled mentally that I’d make it in one piece to the finish. Having never run more than about 36km before and with the lousy build up it took until the 30km mark for me to be totally sure that I  was going to finish without  ruining myself.

Trying to keep my form at about 30km

There were many kilometres of lumpy land rover track, undulating  but never too steep before we made it through some cleared forestry and round the bottom of Meall a’Chaorainn where we started to get a view out to Glen Nevis. This was also the only time in the race there was any hint of rain. It drizzled for about 10 minutes but really light and the drop in temperature from the cloud was more of a worry than the rain.

I was flagging quite badly but managing to hold onto a couple that were not too far up the track. I worked hard to keep them at the same distance until the final aid station. Once there I had a wee pause as from here the was the penultimate climb of the day and my hamstrings were telling me in no uncertain terms that they had had about enough. I didn’t let them whine for too long though and I had a blether with a woman from Ainster Haddies which kept me going on the way up. She’d paced herself much more evenly so when we hit the top she powered on and I settled back in to a shuffle.

The next stretch was downhill and my quads were taking a pounding. I started to make some ground up on runners ahead who were now having to walk the downhills. I was still struggling on the ups and was caught be another guy who I got chatting to. We discovered that this was the first marathon for either of us but he seemed even more haphazard about his preparation than me. He’d heard about the race and signed up on a whim about 10 days ago. After a bit of a chat and running together I took it easy to get some food on before the last few miles and he put a wee gap on me. This suited me fine. I mostly prefer to run on my own, in my own wee world. This was especially true now as my knees and ankles were really starting to protest and it’s quite hard to keep up pleasant small talk through a grimace.

A wee windy section now through the woods, much nicer to run on than some of the lumpy track we’ve been on for most of the day. Next up one final wee (but spiky) climb and we’re onto the forest track that’ll take is down into Glen Nevis. Quick check of the Garmin and it looks like it should be about 3km, and all downhill. I know this section because I’ve biked it as part of the Ben Nevis Triathlon. It’s basically two massive sweeping hairpins and a flattish and straight section parallel to the road through the Glen but we seem to be too high up for us to reach the finish in 3km. Because it’s so close to the end I get a bit carried away and run 3 fast (for this point in the race) kilometres  Unfortunately I’m still not at the finish so something has gone badly wrong.

On the plus side there are people out there in even worse shape than I am, unable to run the downs and still walking when we hit the flats. It really hurts now but below us I can just about see where I think the finish should be. It’s not clear where we’ll be cutting down to the main road and the finish so I am running along fairly tensely in case there’s some horrible sting in the tail.

Thankfully there’s not and it’s a quick drop through the trees down, a sketchy muddy bank, over a stile, though one last wee field and onto the road and there it is; couple of hundred metres up the road are the banners for the finish. One last look at the Garmin as I cross the line 44km, 6:30:26.

I’m not sure what I expected at the finish, a massive outpouring of emotion, an enormous sense of achievement? I definitely didn’t expected to be as underwhelmed as I was. I sat down on my bum in the field for a few minutes then walked over to pick up my drop bags and see If I could find Cazz and the kids – no sense of elation or achievement, maybe that would kick in soon?

Turns out that Eilidh was having a bit of a strop back at the car park down the Glen, so Cazz and the wee people were delayed. So I started to walk back to meet them and boy did it hurt now! This felt way worse than I had running. Clearly my joints had decided to hurt just enough to not stop me getting round and were now unleashing on me what they had in reserve.

Cazz tells me that I looked remarkably fresh when I made it back to them and that I often look worse coming back to the flat after a midweek run. I certainly didn’t feel that way but she insisted on taking a few photos to confirm this. Turns out I didn’t look too bad after all!

What I remember feeling like at the end

Looking fresh Mr. Marshall or what Cazz remembers I looked like at the finish.

Although, as I’ve said, there was no immediate elation at finishing I definitely enjoyed the race. The event was really well run, the scenery was stunning (helped in no small part by some atypically brilliant weather) and all of the people involved, runners, marshals and supporters, were supportive and encouraging.

Having spoiled myself with this as a first marathon, I don’t think I could face one on tarmac. So, next up is the Glen Ogle 33; my first ultra and only 4 weeks after my first marathon. I hope my legs hold up and hopefully I’ve learned a fair bit from this race that will help with running one that’s even longer.

Some thoughts on developing coaches

Following the birth of my son Ruairidh, I’ve been away from day-to-day coaching for a while. During this time I’ve also reflected a bit on what makes a good athlete, a good coach and how you develop the qualities necessary to be either of these two things. No doubt some of this has been because this period of time has coincided with one of the most remarkable sporting summers in recent years. It seems natural to come to the end of this period of reflection at the start of a new training year for the sport and club I am most heavily involved with.

So this week I’ve started to help format Vicky Begg’s excellent ideas for this year’s Glasgow Triathlon Club training plan and made a start to completing the coaching coursework that I’ve been putting off now for months.

What I’ve been struck by is the disconnect between where I instinctively feel my coaching should go and be about and the rigid and dogmatic approach as laid out in coach education. Perhaps I’m choosing examples that suit my own agenda, but I’ve been struck by the performances of teams and individuals that have followed their own path rather than the accepted mainstream practice within their fields.

To start I’ll select a Scotsman. Andy Murray is a success in spite of the LTAs system, not because of it. The brief period he was under their wing he regressed as a player. The following years have definitely not been easy but are the result of the relentless pursuit of an approach which is bespoke to him as an individual.

For all that I have joined in the regular cyclist sport of ‘Brailsford Bashing’, British Cycling and Team Sky’s success could never be described as the result of applying the same thinking or methods as everyone else. They have found a way to accommodate talent when they find it, no matter how challenging to work with or how many obstacles it presents. The mindset of the coaches in this set up something to be aspired to. They have taken what is tried and tested and pushed it to its limits. Where things are done out of respect for tradition, they have turned them on their heads, gone back to first principles and found a formula that works for their athletes rather than selected or moulded athletes to fit that formula.

These examples seem to contrast with the cut and paste performance programmes and systems which appear to abound in other (particularly endurance or individual) sports in the UK at present. It’s like there’s an acceptance that if you put an identikit system in place that has all the bits that you’ve learned about in your coach education courses and Performance Coaching MSc courses and follow all the steps like they are written down in your textbook or laid out on your PowerPoint notes then success will come. The problem is that this approach is a bit like painting by numbers. Artists might have formal grounding but they become great when they find their own voice and avenue to freely express themselves. This is the bit that I think most mainstream coaching and coach education fails to get. Coaching is far more art than science and it is only by making what we have learned something new that is ours’ and our athletes’ that it becomes any good and elevated beyond run of the mill.

Unfortunately, I tend to think that we are heading down a route which hopes to find enough talent that it can throw at the system and sufficient numbers will survive the process and by some Darwinian process a crop of excellent athletes will emerge at the top.

However, I don’t think we have that luxury. With increasing completion for resources and the group of individuals interested in pursuing sport I think we’ve got to start to develop a much smarter approach. I’m not so daft to think that others haven’t seen this and know very well that we need to treat athletes as individuals. Clearly, there are lots of national governing body programmes that recognise this, however this is undermined by the fact that in the UK many of these organisations are signed up to a prescriptive UKCC Coach Education syllabus. Whereas these coach education programmes hammer the point that we need to communicate effectively with athletes and respect individuals they fail to see the irony that they are doing exactly the opposite of this with coaches.

At the start of a UKCC course you will generally go through the exercise of identifying the many qualities of a good coach and the huge variety of roles they have to perform. Here are some of the things I think are necessary in a great coach:

  • Exceptional communicator
  • Visionary
  • Leader
  • Innovator
  • Negotiator
  • Conflict & crisis resolver
  • Team builder and developer
  • People manager
  • Outstanding technical/tactical/strategic skill
  • Philosopher
  • Politician
  • Futurologist

How many of these are developed in your average Coach Education programme? How many Coach Education programmes have some kind of mentoring system in place to help their coaches work on these skills?

I think there are a number of fairly obvious errors in the existing programmes. Starting from a philosophical standpoint, I believe they are trying to apply a formula to something that cannot be described by a single (or simple set of) formula(s). I believe this fundamental error underpins most of what’s wrong with coach education.

This problem is confounded by the fact that Coach Education is designed and administered, by and large, by people who are not world class coaches or educators. Once in a while these courses will be delivered by excellent tutors but invariably the starting course materials are mediocre and they have to work against them to provide some excellent learning.

As someone with an educational background in sports science, it also strikes me that far too much of Coach Education is about sport science. Don’t get me wrong, I like sports science; I’m a sports science geek. Coaching’s not sports science though. The two are different beasts. When I reflect on my own coaching I’m inclined to think that my tendency to drift into being a sport scientist is one of the worst aspects of it. I’ve been fortunate enough to be coached and observe some amazing coaches. Without exception sports science was a miniscule amount of what they did on a day-to-day basis. When they needed to utilise it they got in the people who were the relevant experts in those areas they needed support in.

Thinking about those great coaches, what set them apart from the mediocre ones was the vision to see the future differently and an openness to find a unique and novel way to get there. They thought differently, asked awkward questions and worked hard to do the things other people weren’t doing.

So in an ideal world how would I educate coaches?

  • I’d treat them like we talk about treating our athletes, as individuals. The current level based system inhibits individuality, critical thinking flair and expression.
  • Create personalised development opportunities. These should be needs based and have to be different from a traditional programme of classes and modules. Each coach needs to be supported to identify their own pathway and nurtured through opportunities that enhance their unique qualities
  • Give coaches time. We recognise we can’t create world-class coaches overnight so our coach education programmes also have to take cognisance of this.

That’s all pretty generic stuff though isn’t it what about the detail?

Well I’d focus on a programme that is truly athlete centred. Teaching coaches about Bompa’s periodisation, 1000s of swim drills, buying into a particular swim philosophy, how to complete forms appropriately doesn’t in my opinion necessarily make them good coaches.

So how about doing some of this instead:

  • Teach them how to truly understand who their athletes are. This goes beyond just the person in front of them at the track. The picture of your athlete-client needs to take into account family, background and a myriad array of other elements.
  • Educate coaches to identify and deliver based on an athlete’s needs.
  • Use the first two points to identify individual development pathways. We still design and deliver programmes that require athletes to conform to them not the other way about. This might mean a lot more work. We might come to the realisation that in our own setting we need two, if not three separate but parallel pathways
  • Crucially we need to have athlete and coach pathways that are developed in parallel. Just as not every athlete aspires to gold medal performances, not every coach wants to be a high performance coach. This doesn’t mean that they don’t want to be a highly performing coach. As a sporting community we need to provide development opportunities for coaches to become excellent participation coaches just as much as governing bodies might want to have international class elite coaches.