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Running the French Alps

People will travel the World to discover the best Mountain Trails and a number of areas have become ‘musts’ to visit. None more so than Chamonix in the heart of the French Alps, more so if you are based within Europe.

Mont Blanc from Chamonix

Mont Blanc from Chamonix

Chamonix, has always been well known as a ski destination and as Trail and Mountain Running developed, so the Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc was instigated and is now considered to be one of the top long distance events in the World.  As a result during the key racing period accommodation in the area can be tougher to find than in the height of the ski season.  That said some of the outlying villages offer a superb alternative, all be it with less of the thriving night life of busy bars and restaurants.  Rail and bus links along the valley are excellent and getting about is pretty straightforward.

Chamonix, centre, with its cold emitting river...

Chamonix, centre, with its cold emitting river…

So with all of this in mind, Chamonix was definitely on my list of places ‘to run’ and with Debs I had my own personal guide as this was her eighth trip to ‘Cham’, including her completing the UTMB.  Debs, to be fair had always promised this holiday and so this July (2018) we were off.  Liverpool to Geneva, followed by a short bus ride across the border to Cham.

Running The Alps – Things to Look Out For…
There is much to consider with a running holiday and it always surprises me that few give the notion a second thought beyond travel and accomodation.  Especially when it comes to thinking about your training before you go, how you manage your runs whilst you are out there, let alone when you return back home.

We had six days out in Cham, plenty to fit in, and a rough plan of action – although much would depend on the weather, after all we are staying in the mountains.
Going into the trip we used the Peak District for training, practicing routes with a more trail bias and plenty of up and down. We certainly were not afraid to practice walking, up and down and I definitely took Debs lead in ensuring the effort was constant on each training run, up, down and on the flat. It is one thing that Debs does so well and I always have a habit of being a little quick early on.

Ascent by zig-zag

Ascent by zig-zag

I had been told that the climbs around Chamonix are very runnable, as they zig-zag their way along and up the side of the mountain, yet they would be so much longer than pretty much anything else in the UK. I was warned that descending would be great fun and would most likely feel harder than the ascent especially as we would be looking to plan routes with the greater gradients within the descent. It kinda makes sense if you want to run more than walk through the whole of the run. As with everything there would be exceptions to this.
Going into the holiday we also tapered through the last week of running – even having a couple of days off. Neither of us could see the point of arriving tired. We also both knew we are not as running fit as we would like to be and that this was going to be a pretty big week for us.
It wasn’t the time on our feet that we were so much concerned about, it was the height gain over the course of the week that would most likely be the main consideration.  If you live in the Lakes, North Wales or Scotland then this would likely be less of an issue, yet is still worth bearing in mind especially if you intend to stretch yourself a little more and tackle runs at a higher altitude.
Another consideration was that we planned a longer, harder day to be followed by a shorter and easier run the next day.  We both felt this sensible option would ensure we stayed a little fresher for the end of the week and still be able to run long and high.  Another consideration for us was that this was our first week off in the last 12-months, we were pretty tired, so ensuring a little R&R was definitely a good thing to add into the equation.
We pretty much stuck to the above plan and it worked.

Maps are a must, yet the guideposts help...

Maps are a must, yet the guideposts help…

Now Chamonix sits at around the height of Snowdon and that is before you have done anything. We were planning on climbing the same again or more on our longer run days. On day one we topped out at 2204 meters and climbed and descended just shy of 1,400 meters over 19 kilometers. One of the plus points is that once you are up, you can stay up. The long terraces are fantastic. Single track running that just winds it self around the mountain side. They roll, sometimes they kick and on other occasions they can be pretty technical.

Terrace Running

Terrace Running

A head for heights is recommended in places as you step across exposed sections or you encounter a short section of ‘iron work’ built into the rock to allow safer passage. By careful route planning you can certainly keep the tracks and trails less technical and with less iron-work, therefore more runnable. Yet, I was with Debs and there was gonna be none of that despite the fact I very much like to see the ground beneath and around my feet.
Yes, by the end of the week we had scrambled around and over plenty of rock, we discovered ladders built into the rock to ease passage with out the need for ropes.  Yes, I really enjoyed those!! Hanging on for all my worth – remembering to keep 3 out of 4 parts of my body connected to the ladder and to not even consider looking down. It worked, I moved relatively smoothly and most definitely with less haste.

Better the wooden 'steps' than the ironwork.

Better the wooden ‘steps’ than the ironwork.

Now to running downhill – oh my!  That was an experience and a half. Especially on the Monday.
We were running down from Plan d’Aguille a drop of around 1,000 meters and a distance approaching 3.2km. Yikes, despite the zig-zag nature of the descent, that was tough.

At this point, descending looks straightforward enough...

At this point, descending looks straightforward enough…

It was rocky and rooty at the same time, the corners tight and a natural flow always being broken up by the nature of the ground and the ever changing gradient through the zig-zags. We took a couple of stops on the way down…it was mentally tough too, you just could not stop concentrating for a second as the risk of a trip was pretty high. Something I know others have noted and commented on – I totally get that now.

So now I understand. Debs economical pacing that has always appeared to come so naturally to her was most likely honed here in the high mountains of the Alps. An efficiency of necessity, yet as always there was a little in reserve should she of needed it. She just has this knack… very pleased to have let her take the lead and to have in the main followed – not all the time though, gotta let loose every now and then.

Definitely feeling the heat... Approaching 2,000 meters

Definitely feeling the heat… Approaching 2,000 meters

Now lastly, here’s another important consideration. You may well feel that overall you are moving economically and all is well. Just don’t forget the fact that these climbs are pretty much non stop up and as in the case of the week we were in Cham the temperature was well above the seasonal average of a high 22°C. It was also noticeable that despite climbing 1,000 meters that it was still ridiculously warm and we had both expected a noticeable drop as we ran higher.  Add into this that at 2,000 meters you do notice that you start to take in lung fulls of air, taking ever increasing deep breaths. My breathing muscles certainly knew they had worked day one!

Trails Wind through an expansive landscape

Trails Wind through an expansive landscape

Oh, and don’t just assume that those lovely looking streams and rivers and high up lakes will cool you down.  Indeed they will! Just remember they are fed by snow melt and often the glaciers in the region – they were freezing and even your hand felt numb after a couple of minutes just holding it in the water.  As you approached the wider streams, rivers and the lakes you could feel them emitting ‘cold’, even the main river flowing through Chamonix.

Snow feed lakes and streams...a chilly dip if you dare...

Snow feed lakes and streams…a chilly dip if you dare…

By the end of the week the weather was more normal and running was definitely more comfortable, even needing a long sleeve top to sit outside one of the many refuge cafe’s you find half way up a French Mountain.

From a kit point point of view we took everything and almost the kitchen sink. Remember, you are visiting the high mountains and they can be much less hospitable than what we see in the guide books. We took full winter kit, including quilted jackets and larger packs.  Each day we carried full tights, long sleeve tops and at least a windproof jacket. Hat and gloves were again the norm within our packs. This despite the fact that most days a sun hat and glasses were the order of the day. You just never know.

Even in July, the occasional snowfield to run across.

Even in July, the occasional snowfield to run across.

Shoe wise we took summer trail grip for hard packed rock and loose steep ground through to trail studs if the weather turned nasty.  Truth is fell shoes would have been too studded for the terrain, plus the risk of ripping the studs off on the steeper rocky sections would have been high.
Inov-8 Roclites, rocked, as did the Topo Terra Venture, with the Scott Supertrac RC’s really coming into their own.

Personal Highlights
It was more than just about being in the mountains. Everytime I have visited the big hills I am always humbled by the shear scale of these peaks from their jagged edges to their rounded summits. It looks to be impossible that you could even get to the height we did without encountering some impassable obstacle. Yet I guess if they can get a cable car up there…

Having fun through the rolling landscape of the woodland on the lower slopes

Having fun through the rolling landscape of the woodland on the lower slopes

The Single track running for me was the definite highlight, along the terraces of ‘Grand Sud’ was mightly impressive with so much to see.  Yet, for me it was the descent through the trees from the Loriaz Refuge Hut, descending into Vallorcine.  Fast, runnable and with enough technical ground to keep you occupied.

Coffee with a view, another must do.

Coffee with a view, another must do.

We were also prepared to catch the Chamonix Express to travel up the valley to explore. There was a certain excitement to this and it added to the adventure.
As to the scenery, well, where does one start…

A different day, another spectacular view

A different day, another spectacular view

Now we are back home. A great holiday with my best mate and plenty to look back on. Happy days running in the high mountains always take some beating.
As to training, well a nice easy week to recover and then to get back to normal the following week. Oh and to plan the next trip.
Chamonix, we’ll be back.

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Going long at Ladybower

Despite running for almost 15 years, it’s been over a decade since my last official marathon. Indeed, the 2018 Ladybower Trail Marathon was my first ever off-road attempt at this distance. A venture into the unknown.

To attempt this at Ladybower reservoir was particularly special for me as I spent so much of my early years as an athlete running and cycling around its shores. It was made extra special by the beautiful summer weather we got to enjoy on race day. With not a breath of wind in the air, and the sun beating down, it was more akin to racing in continental Europe rather than the Peak District.

After racing the first 10 miles with the leaders in the shorter distance race, it was then over to me to race against the clock for the remaining 16 miles. I knew it would be tough to maintain my pace and form.

However, one of my main goals for the race was to try and race hard under fatigue – as preparation for challenges to come later in the season.

Having negotiated the climb above Fairholmes, the race was fast and undulating for the final 10 miles. Despite dropping off my target pace, I maintained my target heart rate and just about held my form. It was also an excellent opportunity to get some good racing miles in my Scott Trail Rockets. They will be the shoes I use for World Duathlon Championships this year so I used the race as a chance to get properly re-acquainted with them.

Excellently organised with a fun, relaxed atmosphere, I would highly recommend the race to anyone looking to tune up their long-distance race pacing. Big thanks to Team Accelerate and Scott for your support. My 2018 season continues to progress in the right direction as I build towards big races in September and October. More exciting updates to follow soon.

In the meantime, I’m enjoying the opportunity for a couple of weeks training in the French Alps, with a couple of evening adventures out on to the mountains too :).

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(Not) Keeping up with Kilian!

On the 8th July 2018, history was made in England. The record for the Bob Graham Round, a fell-running challenge in the Lake District comprising 66 miles of rough terrain traversing 42 summits, was emphatically broken. The previous record set by Cumbrian fell runner Billy Bland in 1982, a blistering time of 13hr53mins, stood unchallenged for 36 years, leading many to believe that it would never be broken. Pretty lucky then that on the eve of an attempt by the best mountain/ultra-runner the world has arguably ever seen I happened to be staying just 2km from Keswick, where the challenge starts and ends…

I arrived in Keswick early Saturday afternoon, up for a few days for a family holiday. With my main target race of the year coming up in two weeks, the Snowdon International Mountain Race, I was planning a run early Sunday morning up the steep slopes of Skiddaw, a climb of similar length and steepness to the one which I will be racing up in Wales, as it would be a perfect opportunity to get in a good race-pace effort on a long, sustained climb. I knew I would have to be up early to get my run in as we had planned a family walk Sunday morning. With the run down to Keswick, going up and down Skiddaw itself and the run back to the campsite, I reasoned that I would need to be setting off around 6am to complete the 13mile/21kmish run in 2hrs or so and be back by 8am. Whilst pondering all of this in my head and dreading the early alarm, I received a message in a running group chat that Kilian Jornet, who that week had posted an image of himself ‘enjoying the fells’ in the Lakes on his instagram, was setting off on a Bob Graham Round (BGR) attempt on Sunday morning at 6am. The first summit of the BGR is Skiddaw, a 5mile/8km climb from the Moot Hall in Keswick. What a coincidence! My planned trip to the lakes had somehow come at the perfect time; I could get my tempo run up Skiddaw in whilst running with (read: behind) the best mountain runner in the world. I knew that keeping up with Kilian Jornet would be no mean feat, especially given I had heard that top-class English fell runners had been drafted in as pacers as no one else would be able to keep up; the likes of Carl Bell and Rob Jebb for example. However I thought that if he was going at a pace he would have to sustain for 13hrs, I would maybe be able to keep up for just the first 5 miles to the summit of Skiddaw if I was going all out! I decided to go for it, how often do you get a chance to run with Kilian Jornet (hell, how often do you get the chance to run with Carl Bell either!)?! I packed my running rucksack and set my alarm for 5:20am, excited for what tomorrow would bring and wondering if Kilian would actually be at the Moot Hall in the morning.

Morning came. I flew down the trail to Keswick and arrived at the Moot Hall to a small gathering of folk, maybe 15 people, with the small, unimposing figure of Kilian Jornet stood arms crossed, looking calm but eager to start. Carl Bell stood alongside, proudly sporting his Keswick vest, ready to pace Kilian around the first leg of the round from Keswick to Threlkeld, ticking off the summits of Skiddaw, Great Calva and Blencathra. The fact that England’s current best long distance fell runner (Carl won the latest round of the English Fell Running Championships, the long counter ‘Darren Holloway Memorial Buttermere Horseshoe’ fell race, by a massive 9 minutes and broke his own record in the process) was Kilian’s pacer for the first leg shows the talent he possesses, and made me seriously wonder the hell I thought I was trying to run with them!

6am came and Kilian jogged down the steps of the Moot Hall and followed Carl through the ginnel next to Sweet Temptations cake shop and out towards Skiddaw. No one followed. I waited until the camera crew had gotten their shots of the pair heading down the alleyway, and then once they had moved stormed after the best mountain runner in the world and arguably the best fell runner in England in hot pursuit, not wanting to lose them before they had even left Keswick! I caught up to them, and hung back for a bit whilst trying to decide how I was going to proceed; should I just run 20m behind them so as not to disturb of put them off, or should I go and ask if I could run alongside them? I opted for the latter option, which I saw as more polite and respectful, and found myself running alongside Kilian Jornet, a surreal experience given I have seen countless videos of him running with his effortless style in various mountains the world over. The conversation was brief, and went something like this:
Alex: do you mind if I run with you guys up to Skiddaw?
Kilian: no, come along!
Carl: alright mate!
Alex: eyup mate!

Told you it was brief. I was elated that they were fine with me trying to keep up with them, though from following Kilian online I never expected him to react in any other way; his deep passion for mountains and his enthusiasm for sharing experiences such as these with others is no secret. We covered the first kilometre in 03:57, a blistering start for a 66mile/102km run with 8,000m of climb, but then again this is Kilian Jornet and he is no ordinary runner. I was feeling good at this point and enjoying the experience of running alongside two legends of fell and mountain running, day dreaming about what it would be like if this was a race and I was competing with them for the win of a huge international race. Back to reality and we started on the first real uphill, up Spooney Green Lane as we traversed around the side slopes of Latrigg. The pace up this section was relentless, and as we went through the 2ndkm which had 128m of climb in 06:06 (Grade adjusted pace 03:32/km) my heart rate had crept up to 190bpm, AKA my full on, out and out race pace! Looking across at Kilian and Carl, I saw relaxed, composed expressions and couldn’t hear any of my strained breathing replicated. Uh oh, maybe I’d bitten off more than I could chew! Still, I hung on in well and as the trail flattened off I was breathing a little easier and my heart rate reduced to L3 effort, meaning I was still working hard but not flat out.

We reached the car park below Latrigg and were greeted with photographers and supporters, and passed a runner coming the other way who clearly had no idea of just who he had run past. I’m sure with the publicity around the attempt that came out as the day went on he must have realised at some point. We were now 4km in and I was beginning to feel it, having been in my L4/5 HR zone (read: hard/very hard effort) for a good 20 minutes with no sign of respite. I had planned on running up to the summit of Skiddaw, then perhaps giving Kilian a celebratory high-5 as he continued on what was sure to be a historic run, but this vision suddenly became a pipe-dream as we hit the start of the steep, steep path up Skiddaw. We began climbing up slopes of 20-30% grade, with this 5thkm climbing a whopping 270m. I stuck with Kilian and Carl for a couple of minutes with my heart-rate going through the roof, reaching 195bpm; for context, my maximum is 204! At about 4.3km in, the gap between me and two runners in a completely different league began to widen and it dawned on me that the rest of the climb would be a lonely affair. Perhaps the most awe-inspiring thing about the whole morning was the ease at which both Kilian and Carl could just keep moving so lightly, effortlessly and efficiently up the steepest of climb; I remember reading in the book ‘Born To Run’ about how the author had been given the advice of ensuring his stride was ‘light and fast’ before worrying about pace, and to me, watching Kilian and Carl easily pull away, they seemed the embodiment of ‘light and fast’. Meanwhile, 30m back down the hill, I was more the embodiment of ‘heavy and slow’, as I resorted to power walking up the hill. I stuck in as best I could with the intention of trying to stay as close as possible, arriving at the summit in around 55 minutes. Kilian and Carl had arrived nearly a full 4 minutes prior, in 51:17 (see Kilian’s blog here for all splits and his thoughts on the day). Kilian and Carl completed Leg 1 in 2hrs 7 minutes, and by the time Kilian finished leg 2 (which Carl also ran) in an accumulated time of 5hrs 38 minutes, he was well up on Billy’s record. Billy had cycled out to Dunmail Raise to shake Kilian’s hand and wish him well, highlighting the class and grace of the man.

I kept up with the attempt via social media throughout the day, where Kilian continued to make up time on Billy’s record. I went down to the Moot Hall to watch history being made, with hundreds of people clapping Kilian in as he completed the Bob Graham Round in 12hrs and 52 minutes, accompanied by an entourage of local runners, including young runners from Ambleside AC and Keswick AC, who had ran the final few kilometres with him. A truly fantastic performance from an extremely talented runner, probably the best mountain runner the world has yet to see. It was an absolute privilege to be a part of it for the first 20 minutes, and to be there as history was being made – what an inspirational day!

Running with Kilian and Carl on the lower slopes of Latrigg!

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This girl can?

12 weeks ago I sat and wrote about the journey I was going on to come back from injured to runner, to embrace a challenge of the #peakrunners LadyBower Trail Marathon. Given the last 12 months it was going to be quite an achievement: my long runs were only 7-8 miles. Not going to lie – there were some days I thought, ‘what have I done’?

I took advice Austen and Stu at Accelerate on training schedules and we developed a plan. Key thing here, I was involved in developing that plan AND I stuck to it. No diversions with the tempting local races, no sneaking in extra sessions. I stuck to it!

So, with just 4 long runs under my belt (20, 18, 20 and 21 miles), my holiday in Ibiza coincided with week 1 of taper. Morning runs exploring the trails, followed by lots of lounging around and the odd G&T/ Aperol Spritz (all inclusive hotel, plus I’m sure it helped me relax).

Friday night, before race day, panic and nerves set in. Self doubt city! Saturday morning, I woke before my alarm, still nervous. I struggled to drink my coffee…that never happens. I had a word with myself: enjoy the race, be proud you’re at the start line, you’ve achieved so much already: you got this!

Mile one done, feeling good, mile two….hmm, maybe I’m going to quickly? I reigned it back and from there, steady as she goes, enjoying the scenery on such a beautiful morning. Mile 10 appeared before I knew it and with a water refill, happily plodded on. I let a couple of people overtake me, telling myself ‘run your own race Cazza, leave them be’. Mile 14.5 and yikes the ascent loomed. Actually, this was my favourite part, scrambling in the woods! After the descent, I realised I had caught up with the two women ahead of me, then overtook them, with 7 miles to go. My race strategy worked, I was a power house, feeling great and overtaking.

At mile 21 I had a goosebumps moment. I’m going to do this and in under 4 hours. And I did! Finished 3rd lady, 3:52 and I felt amazing. I was buzzing at the end.

I’m still in shock. I achieved my goal and more, through hard work and discipline and I am so very proud of myself. HUGE thanks to the #Accelerate team, especially Stu and Austen, for believing in me and he lovely Dave at #Peakrunners and #Mountainfuel fo the event.

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Ibiza chills – Marathon prep

Sitting on my sun lounger in Ibiza, tough life! Week one of taper on holiday comes highly recommended 🙂

One week to go until @peakrunners @ladybowertrailmarathon and I think I’m looking forward it. Think!

Loved the trails and exploring San Antonio and managing to avoid that last minute “oh god I haven’t trained enough” thoughts. Back Saturday so with a week to go so there’s plenty of time for that.


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