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Welcome to my blog which I hope to develop with some interesting material on ultra running both on the trails and road including reports on races and interesting training runs, views on kit and equipment as well as anything else I find of interest. I love running for adventure, opportunity and well being. Enjoy!

Saturday, 5 April 2014

The North Face Global Athlete Team Summit - San Francisco, CA

I spent the past week in San Francisco along with team mates from The North Face Global Athlete Team. I'm not too sure how to do it all justice in a few words but basically, it was a super cool experience.

The team brings together a unique mix of alpinists, climbers, snowboarders, skiers, endurance runners and adventurers, all leaders in their respective sports. So when the everyone is brought together there is mutual respect flying around by the bucket load along with somewhat scary levels of energy and competitiveness. 

I sea kayaked with Conrad Anker ("arguably the world's most influential alpinist" - a quote from Outdoor Magazine that I randomly read on the way home), ran with multiple winners of races like UTMB and Western States, had dinner with Sochi Winter Games medalists and cross trained (Mountain Athletics) with a selection of them all. Where do you start when chatting with these guys? It's like your dream dinner date fifty times over. Oh, and a full week of it too.

The brand has always put athletes and expeditions at the forefront of everything it does and, being based at the headquarters in San Francisco, the place where it all began 46 years ago, really hammered that home. We also managed to make good use of the outdoors playground that is California by heading north and trying our hand at some different sports whilst hanging out at a beautiful campground set amongst giant Redwoods. 

Sometimes I need to take a step back to remember just how fortunate I am to be a part of it all, but I've certainly come away feeling inspired, honoured and fired up ready for more adventures in the coming year.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Hong Kong 100 (km)

All the great trail races around the world seem to share one thing in common; an iconic course. The Vibram Hong Kong 100 (km) race certainly ticks that box in style. Let’s face it, we run these trail races for the overall experience and sense of adventure, not for a best time at the distance, so it’s a crucial factor.

Before I headed out to Hong Kong for this year’s race I confess to being a little sceptical about a race which, by implication of it’s name, was based around a big city. So how would a trail race work in and around the city of Hong Kong? Superbly, that’s how.

In fact the race delivered a truly unique course like I’ve never experienced before, combining a genuine trail run stacked with technical running and a whopping 4,500m of climbing, with incredible views across the iconic skyscrapers of one of the world’s great cities. Urban and rural all in one; impressive, unique, dramatic. Superlatives galore.

The Hong Kong 100 is also the first race in the calendar of the newly founded Ultra Trail World Tour (UTWT), a series that brings together some of the classic ultra distance trail races around the globe. Standards are high here because UTMB and the Western States 100 – two of the international classics – are corner stones of the 12 race series. But despite being only a few years old, having experienced the Hong Kong 100, I know for sure that it deserves it’s place amongst such great company. The race founders and directors, Steve and Janet, are on to something special. They’re a lovely couple too, and really know how to host.

I was on a fairly whistle-stop schedule due to work commitments. I worked the Wednesday day in London then hopped on an overnight flight direct to Hong Kong, arriving some 12 hours later, now Thursday evening with the time difference. It was a sudden but welcome immersion into vibrant culture, a pleasant climate (18°C and sunny) and dramatic vistas of skyscrapers set against a mountainous backdrop.

I was based with other elites at a youth centre close to the race start on the Sai Kung peninsula. It was a great little base, ideally located for the race start but away from the hussle and bussle of the city, a big plus for a country bumpkin like me. I had little more than 24 hours to get my head straight, shake out the legs and generally sort myself out! Of course trying to stay calm and not do too much the day before a race never really happens in reality so I didn’t worry too much about the long list of commitments and pre-race ‘to-dos’ I needed to address in a worryingly short space of time. Instead I just embraced the whole whistle-stop nature of my trip and tried to do everything with a smile, despite suffering from a little bit of jet lag. So I travelled into town to collect my race number, hung out with fellow runners here and there, had a filming session with the race documentary team, and then packed my kit ready for race day. A quick sleep – well almost – and it was race day, and time to head for the start.

My main worry leading into the race was a lack of course knowledge, an approach which doesn’t follow my usual policy of recceing race routes beforehand, in order to know how best to race them. Oh well, all part of the excitement I guess.

The race was underway at 8am, with 1,600 excited runners let loose on the trails in beautiful conditions with clear sunny skies, very little pollution and great visibility. It was the equivalent to a good spring day in the UK, and certainly a welcome change from the appalling winter conditions we’ve experienced in the UK. Perhaps a little warm even – I shouldn’t complain. The local’s enthusiasm for trail running was very apparent with stacks of shiny, cutting-edge, kit on display – only in Chamonix have I seen a field of runners outdone.

Start line (credit: Lao Yao / Vibram Hong Kong 100).
The race route largely follows the Maclehose Trail, Hong Kong’s primary long distance trail, a real belter of a route which explores coastline, peninsulas, forest and mountains. It was a fast flat start with an impressively competitive feel. Two packs led the way for the first 11km or so of mostly tarmac to control point one, merging together just before. You could tell the guys who were setting their stall out early, it was no nonsense running. The field had real international depth, with all the contenders having multiple wins to their names, so it was clear the competition for places would be fierce.

Frantic early pace (credit: Lao Yao / Vibram Hong Kong 100)
Hitting the trails for the first time was fun, and worth the wait. We were soon out on to the coastline peninsulas, cruising the trails across open headlands, white sand beaches and sections of dense forest. It was sensory overload with all the colours and sounds to take in, particularly with the excitement of running on a new continent for the first time.

Pretty nice, huh? (credit: Lao Yao / Vibram Hong Kong 100)
What I soon found out was that concentration was key. A lot of the trails in Hong Kong are hard baked mud or indeed concrete with steps making accurate foot placement essential to stay upright, and high cadence equally important to maintain a strong pace.

I ran with the lead pack of 20 or so runners until around 15km, at which point I realised it wasn’t a sustainable pace for me, particularly given that most of the 4,500 metres of total ascent was back loaded, and worth saving some strength for.

If I’m honest, I took a fairly relaxed approach to the race as a whole with my training not remotely specific to the course. I haven’t done much climbing over the winter months, and admittedly I’ve been favouring leg speed over hills on the basis there’s a long year ahead. It’s also fair to say the winter we’ve had in the UK so far hasn’t been particularly conducive to long days in the hills. The priority was definitely enjoying the experience and getting some solid running in the bank as opposed to a ground-breaking performance. So I did my own thing, and actually enjoyed having the space to take everything in around me, without the hussle and bustle of running in a combative pack.

The kilometres seemed to tick by reasonably well for the first half of the race as the route hugged the coastline, before later heading inland towards the hills. My pace was very steady, but I suspected that I was losing ground on the leaders because my general fluidity wasn’t great, and I had to work hard in moving from checkpoint to checkpoint.

However the amazing contrasts continued, from the hussle and bussle of the checkpoint areas where the volunteers couldn’t do enough to help you, to the serene and calming sounds of the waves lapping the shore right next to the trail. Peaceful coves, rustic villages and an abundance of wildlife were all there to be enjoyed.

Then the climbing and rising temperatures started to kick in a bit more and the distinction between the two halves of the race became clearer. The climbs and descents came thick and fast – nothing spectacularly big – but cumulatively significant. Perhaps it would have been easier if you could switch off and run to your stride, but stride length was firmly dictated by the going of steps, and perhaps it was a little too restrictive for my liking.

One word: "Steps". (credit: Lao Yao / Vibram Hong Kong 100)
I expected there to be casualties from the early pace, and there were, but never as many as one would hope. But each place I gained was real motivation for more, and I started to close in on the top ten. By the 80km mark I was definitely suffering, perhaps the lack of really long runs in training, or just a bit of early season rustiness. Thankfully the real suffering held off until that point because mentally I was now on the home straight, despite some fairly savage final hills to negotiate.

Not a bad backdrop for the final sections (credit: Jeanette Wang)
Lurking in the distance as the culmination of the race was Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kong’s highest peak at just under 1,000m, and a real twist in the tail of the race coming so late on. By the time I started to make the final climb the sun was setting against cityscape either side of the ridge. Blocking out the skyscrapers, it could have been the high alpine meadows of New Zealand’s South Island. As it was, I was in apparent touching distance of a mega city. With clear views to both front and back to satisfy myself there would be no change to my finishing position, I was able enjoy it, and quite memorable it was. The top of the climb was at the 98km mark, and then just a couple of kilometres of road running free fall to the finishing gantry. I finished in 10th place, a smidgen under 11hours, as the first European home. It wasn’t a race that any of the newcomers found easy, particularly those from the other side of the globe, but it was a solid opening run to the series, and a truly great all round experience. As the opening race of the new UTWT series, there’s definitely a lot to look forward to.

Finishing chute

Me moaning about - err - steps.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

UTMB 2013

Here's a link to my write up on this year's UTMB, published on the Run247 website.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Back to it

It’s amazing to think that six months have passed since I finished Te Araroa and that’s the last time I posted anything here. Whilst the blog suggests otherwise, I don’t really feel like I’ve been ‘away’ from running as such but patience has been important to claw myself back from the rather low place I was in physically.. In the few months immediately after the expedition I wrote a lot about my experiences for magazines and interviews, and reflected upon the experience as a whole. I’m sure you’ve had enough of all that, and I certainly think it’s time to start looking forward again.

The plan from here is to get back into some racing and ‘shorter’ challenges, and initially to have a go at some races that remain unticked on my bucket list. I get asked a lot whether I will do another ‘long trail’ project, and hand on heart I couldn’t say no to that question, but it would definitely be a few years down the line because the impact on body, mind, family and friends is massive. However some shorter fastest known time (FKT) challenges appeal to me, of which there are plenty to choose from in the UK for starters. I am mulling over some options for next year at the moment. Hush hush.

But right now I’m feeling in a really good place in terms of strength, health and fitness. Hurray. It’s a good job really, because in a couple of weeks time I shall once again be on the start line for the The North Face Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc; possibly not the most forgiving ultra race around, particularly as a comeback race. And of course it’s not a new race to me, like I said would be my focus. But it’s a race I really love, and the last time I had a ‘clean’ build-up i.e. without much racing involved in the few months beforehand was 2010 on the comeback from injury, and that year I had a belter. So why not hey…..

So what have I been up to over the last six months? Just pulling myself back together really. Back in health now, I’ve realised just how low I really was after Te Araroa. Yes, I know, it’s not a massive surprise to hear I was deeply fatigued after all that running, but actually, I was pretty bad. In the final part of the run, I never really properly recovered from the stomach bug that stopped me in my tracks for 3 days, and I really just soldiered on, determined to finish the job in hand. We suspected it was giardia at the time, but after it lingered for weeks on return to the UK, I had various tests and I found out I was actually suffering from salmonella. So the chances are it was salmonella all the time, and with my beaten up immune system it probably lurked in my body for several weeks, and only really responded positively after two courses of antibiotics. I will never really know for sure, but what I do know is that my recovery was particularly drawn out by my body’s struggle to absorb what it needed, and it’s never great to have something like that sit around in your system for too long.

I started doing some light running, walking and swimming within a few weeks of getting back around mid-February. I felt like I was learning to do all these things for the first time again, such hard work it proved to be. The complicated picture of having a beaten up ‘system’ mixed with general fatigue simply from the duration of the run was hard to pick my way through. The exercise I was doing didn’t involve any significant exertion, so I felt it important to at least get my limbs moving again after so much ‘rust’ had accumulated.

Before I finished Te Araroa my plan had been to taper down from the daily distance and running routine by at least doing a little bit each day for the few weeks afterwards. But what actually happened was that as soon as my mind knew it was all over, so too my body let go, and physically my body was just not up to anything. I soon let go of that idea, and did nothing in the immediate aftermath.

I started to turn a significant corner during a holiday to Scotland at the end of April. Running around the low level tracks of the local glens was a really positive experience, and I could do it without stopping – progress! From that point I gained some consistency, and step-by-step, run-by-run, my endurance and speed started to creep back.

Mindful of just drifting back into a ploddy Te Araroa pace and that finding some ‘speed’ would be the real challenge, I entered a couple of local road races to try and push myself on. The first was the Purbeck 10k which was, frankly, horrible. The first 5km was bearable, but the second 5km was horribly painful. I’ve never been overtaken by so many people during a race. But it gave me some focus for a spell of speedwork, and tempos runs to work on threshold pace, and that proved successful with a win at a local 8mile fun run and 2nd place at a half marathon. Progress….

By this time I was starting to run ‘long’ again, with a staple diet of one or two twenty milers per week, sometimes a little bit more. Without any taper I ran the Cortina Trail race in the Dolomites which again felt like part of the process of getting me back to the right place. I wasn’t competitive – I’m not sure I ever will be at the shorter ultra distance races without specific focus – but I ran a solid race, did my own thing, and at a slightly slower pace I could easily have held on for a much greater distance.

I then felt like there was a platform there for UTMB, so I’ve spent the summer focusing my training accordingly, with several trips to the mountains to get the necessary climbing and descending into my legs. I’ve been to the Brecon Beacons, Shropshire Hills, Scottish Highlands, round the UTMB course over 3 days and Snowdonia for my annual Snowdon ‘reps’ session. With these training weekends alone, it’s been quite a summer already with some great weather to enjoy long days in the mountains.

Col du Bonhomme on the UTMB course
You can read about these outings in the blog posts I’ve written for run247.com:

In all honesty I still don’t know for sure how my body will be over 100 miles in the mountains, and I won’t know the answer to that until at least after Cormayeur on the UTMB course. It’s a fine balance between pushing yourself hard to get fit, but not tiring yourself so much that you’re actually losing strength in the process of training. Whatever happens in UTMB this year, I’m out to enjoy it, and I’ll certainly be starting with a big grin on my face, simply from the experiences I’ve had over the summer, and the sheer excitement that a unique race like UTMB brings. Let’s just cross our fingers for some better weather this year, and a race on the full course.

Poles? Maybe, haven't decided yet.

on the Ramsay Round route, big Ben in the background

Chamonix bound on the last day of my UTMB training loop

The last munro on the Ramsay Round route. Phew.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Te Araroa - articles and coverage - UPDATED 14/02/13

Pre Expedition

Ian Corless

The Independent newspaper


The Telegraph newspaper - The Adventure Interview

Competitor online

Run 247

Run 247

'Advendure' - Greece

Mid Expedition

The North Face Journal - photos, video, blog, infographic

North Island video dispatch 

Epic Adventurer

Wilderness magazine, NZ

Marathon Talk - podcast interview

Trail Runner Magazine

Ian Corless/ Talk Ultra

Run 247

Outside online

Post Expedition

iRunFar's detailed expedition round-up

Ian Corless / Talk Ultra interview

Ian Corless expedition round-up 

Run 247

Mud, Sweat & Tears

Wilderness magazine, NZ

Trail Runner magazine, US

Te Araroa - official website, NZ

Outdoors Magic

Go Trail

Planet Fear

Independent newspaper

The North Face website - expedition photo collection by Damiano Levati

Peignee Verticale, France

U-Trail, France

Telegraph newspaper

Tim Taylor - NZ Kayaker - our Cook Strait Guide - Tim's write up

'Advendure' - Greece

Day 53: Riverton to Bluff - THE FINISH :o)

Start: Riverton (2,988km)
Finish: Bluff (3,054km)
Distance for the day: 68km
Cumulative distance: 3,054km
Distance to Bluff: 0km

At a 1601hrs this afternoon, 53 days 9 hours and 1 minute after setting from Cape Reigna, I finally completed my long journey down the Te Araroa trail, arriving in Bluff – lands end on the southern tip of New Zealand’s South Island. Gathered there waiting were my crew, Mark & James, my wife Gemma, my mum and my mother-in-law, Hilary. Damiano from the Storyteller Collective was there capturing the moment on photo and video, just has he done so magnificently throughout the expedition. They sprayed me with champagne and we danced around the landmark yellow finger post like we’d just won the lottery. There were bystanders around too, probably wondering what the heck was going on, but none of us gave a hoot. It was raw emotion for me; all my heart and soul, sweat and tears, had been put into realizing this moment, and it almost happened too suddenly to take it all in. I’ve been a robotic state for most of the time since I started – in my own little bubble – and I think it’s going to take several days to snap out of it. My body is also going to want to know what the heck is going on when I don’t run tomorrow; so I think some wind down jogging/ walking is going to be important.

So how did the day unfold? Well in the usual manner really. A 5am alarm call felt a wee bit harsh as we had all been up late last night – I only got in from the trail at 9.30pm – but there was a nice buzz in the air from the thought of the finish. It was exciting to think about the day ahead, but that doesn’t make it any easier to get out the campervan door with so much cumulative fatigue in my legs, not to mention the mental tiredness. But once out, and 10 minutes or so up the road, everything started to warm up and then we were away. The sky this morning was incredible, the colors rich and colorful, before the sun eventually rose from the sea and brought the day to life. Once through Riveton, the route was straight on to the beach for 25km around a nicely curved, sandy bay, and it was a lovely spell for solitude and reflection which was exactly what I needed after many weeks of relentless and intense running. The running was far from easy with a mixture of sand and shingle, but I felt strong from thoughts of the finish and kept moving on at decent pace.

From the end of the beach it was on to the road all the way through to the outskirts of Bluff, skirting to the west of Invercargill, most of it on the shoulder of Highway 1. It wasn’t all that much fun and the tarmac was unforgiving underfoot, causing further soreness in my feet and ankles. But the soreness wasn’t really occupying my thoughts, it was more occupied with thoughts about finishing. I had music on the go to help switch off, but it seemed to bring on regular emotional streaks where I was breaking into tears. I’ve said before that this run has worn me down and exposed my inner emotions, and there were so many examples of that today.

By lunchtime at 1.15pm I had 50km under my belt, and thoughts of a mid-afternoon finish were starting to get muted. I didn’t really stop long for lunch, I just wanted to get the job done, so it was straight back on the road through to the outskirts of Bluff. So all that was left was a 7km stretch of trail around the Bluff peninsula to the Stirling Point fingerpost, the official finish to the trail. The first 3km of this section was rough running through long grass from marker post to marker post, but then I hit the millennium trail, and nicely graded gravel track leading all the way to the finish. It was a real blast. No tomorrow to save myself for, nothing to lose, no reason to hold back. But no time to really prepare myself for stopping; that’s the bit which is going to feel very strange.

We’re now sitting in the communal room of Bluff campsite, sharing photos, drinking cider and beer, and starting to reflect and share the memories. Where do you start? I’ve spent 53 days reflecting, and now I need time to reflect. Work that one out - very strange. But one thing I know I will be doing for sure is taking a week’s holiday with my wonderfully supportive wife. I feel like the luckiest man alive….

It’s hardly suffice, but just initially I want to say a massive thank you to my incredible support guys, James and Mark. They have given up nine weeks of their life to support me with this expedition and words can’t express how grateful I am to them both for what they have done. It is with great sadness that this team will split up from tomorrow – it really has been an incredible team effort – I have just been fronting it.

I hope to share some of my reflections about the expedition as a whole over the coming days. I too don’t want it to stop, so I will get a few more posts out.

And finally a big thank you to everyone who has followed my journey and provided so many supportive comments and feedback. I hope you have enjoyed it all as much as I have.

Sunrise on the Beach (credit: Damiano Levati/ The North Face)

The day is alive! On the beach.... (credit: Damiano Levati/ The North Face)

Focused on the final day (credit: Damiano Levati/ The North Face)

Finished! (credit: Damiano Levati/ The North Face)

The team celebrating at the finish (credit: Damiano Levati/ The North Face)

Friday, 1 February 2013

Our Kea Campervan

Where would the Te Araroa expedition be without our Kea camper van? Well, there would be no expedition! The van provides us with the freedom & flexibility that we need to provide Jez with a superbly comfortable haven wherever & whenever he needs it.

He will often arrive at the van after one or two nights away under canvas or in a hut, dreaming of that hot shower & a large plate of freshly cooked food. It revives him & prepares him for the next arduous Te Araroa trail section. What we have really appreciated is the comfort & reliability of the van - in fact, if we could, we would like to take it home with us!

So, thank you Kea Campers, for providing us with the means to carry out this expedition - we couldn't be doing it without you!

Our amazing Kea Camper