Race Report: Trail de Queribus

It’s been a while since I’ve done a race review…that’s because it’s been a while since I’ve done a race! It’s safe to say running and I weren’t on the best of terms for a while, I know why, but that’s a post for another day.

Cucugnan, France.

This one is to tell you about one of the most exhilarating, challenging, beautiful and demanding races I’ve ever done. The Trail de Queribus in Cucugnan, France.

First, an explanation. I only came across this race because I have a friend with a house in Cucugnan who informed me there was a trail running festival in May each year and he planned to be out there for it. This friend is the race whisperer; he has the ability to mumble something in passing and an hour later I’ve booked flights and accommodation for another foreign marathon. Long may it continue! When he mentioned the 21km race and an extended break in the continental sun I was sold, I didn’t even look at the race details, just paid my money and booked my flights. Perhaps if I’d looked at the web page a little closer I may have hesitated a moment longer…

Look at that course profile!

It turns out the race I had signed up for was a 21km mountain run, with 1,200+ metres of ascent to the top of two mountains flanking the town of Cucugnan, which included sections where they’d simply forgotten to put a path…probably because it seemed like too much hard work given the jagged rocks and treacherous terrain!

Had I paid a bit more attention I would likely have paid a bit more respect. There may even have been some training involved, I think it’s a course that deserves it. As it was I flew to France with a few hill runs and not much more in my legs since Milan marathon. There followed a few wonderfully relaxed days touring the area, taking in the sites of the Gorge de Galamus and a local swimming hole. We’d also popped to Girona for the day and collected Kristina, the Danish national trail running champion…another reason I probably should have done some training! It was fantastic to spend a few days with a running pro though and talk about how she got there, the races she’d done and what her plans were for the future. I’m certain she’ll feature in this blog many more times in the years to come. You can read Kristina’s version of events HERE, but you may want to translate the page…

All smiles at the pasta party…despite not getting in to the free booze!

Sunday was race day, after a wonderful evening of communal pasta and live music in the marquees erected for the event. There was also free booze but I only had a very small glass of local wine, so maybe I was taking it seriously after all? The race started at 9am in the streets of Cucugnan, with lots of excited shouting and cheering in French that you didn’t need to understand to enjoy. A quick lap of the town with the cheers of the crowd to spur you on and we were out in to the countryside and the first climb of the day. This immediately stretched out the pack, the racing snakes at the front disappeared in to the distance while I very quickly settled in to a fast march along with many other runners. The climbs in this race were brutal, I don’t remember any gentle ascents just lots of lung-busting, leg-shredding climbing.

The first climb…I didn’t stick with these crowds for long.

The first 6km climbed to the high point of the race. Not the high point in terms of altitude, there was still over 100 metres of that to gain, but for views and drama it’s hard to beat running through a medieval castle. For me the challenge was the terrain not the clock, so I took a few moments to enjoy the incredible scenes laid out below me and gaze across the Pyrenees and beyond. I’d love to return one day when I wasn’t running for a proper look around.

The French consider THIS a “trail”.

From the castle it was a further climb over broken rock, sometimes turning from running in to speed scrambling, and at other times practically crawling from jagged rock to jagged rock. The course markings were brilliant, route finding was no problem, but there was definitely nothing you’d call a trail in this section of the trail run!

Things ticked along nicely through the kilometres, although there was very little opportunity to relax and open the legs, the course demanded attention practically every step of the way. Even the downhills were challenging in their steepness and ground conditions, alternating between slippy dust and broken rocks, but the sun and views and novelty of running through the mountains made every step enjoyable.

My Spanish friend!

I made a friend on the way, in fact I made several. I must admit my shame that the only French I managed during the race was to apologise for being English and not speaking French, but everyone then immediately switched to their best broken English to point out a particular view, tell me it was hot or welcome me to France. One particularly large chap informed me he was going to run “like a boat”, slowly but ever forwarded. It reminded me of my own “be a shark” motto that came in handy later on. I also met a Spaniard who spoke French but no English. What followed was several kilometres of sweaty charades as we communicated as best we could without sharing a common language. Then disaster struck…

My Spanish friend was insistent I should look at something over the valley, despite being on a technical downhill section. I resisted for a while, but curiosity got the better of me and I risked a glance. That’s when I planted my foot on a loose rock and went over on the historically weak ankle, as I tend to do when I go running in mountains! To add insult to injury it turns out the Spaniard was just distracting me while he stopped for a pee!

So the last 8km of the run were more of a stumble, limp and hobble. I pushed on whenever I thought I could trust my ankle but on any broken ground I was reduced to a very cautious trot. It did give me a chance to take in the beauty of the region, stop for a while in the village of Padern for refreshments and chat with other runners as they passed me. I was determined to see the finish line though, there’s no DNF in my DNA – plus I didn’t know the French for “can you take me home please?”

The course had been challenging but fun, in the last few kilometres it just got challenging. The final climb was the steepest I have ever taken on in a run; there were parts where you could reach out and touch the path in front of you without bending over, it felt like running up a wall. Coming over the crest of that climb and seeing the village below, that final descent should have been a delight. Unfortunately I couldn’t even enjoy the downhill by this stage as the uneven ground and dodgy ankle made even that a steady shuffle rather than a flying downhill sprint.

Running – It’s about making friends and memories.

And so, 5 hours after starting and at least an hour later than I’d hoped I reached the line. The finish was at the same marquee where the post-race party was to be held and I was greeted by friends and tables full of drink and food. I learned that Kristina had managed 4th place despite running 1.5km extra after getting lost, which is an incredible effort and by my calculations means she would have been in a race with the first lady if she’d stayed on course! Our other runner, Rachel, ran a very respectable time just over 4 hours, so was also there to greet me at the end and celebrate a job done and a fantastic trip.

I’m already thinking about going back if invited, and taking the course a little more seriously and training accordingly. I also think I’ll avoid any Spaniards and maybe leave that glass of wine until after the race, it can only help!

The runners all home and happy…with random French lady for authenticity!

Thanks to Just A Little Bit for organising the trip. They don’t actually do tours, but they do do brilliant t-shirts so go take a look!

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Resolutions, Dreams & Goals: The Difference

“Training is having a goal, being intentional in your actions, your effort has purpose and your energy has focus” – James Clay, to every athlete he has ever and will ever coach.

Firstly, fuck resolutions.

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There, I said it. All this “new year, new me” bullshit, I can’t stand it. I didn’t want to say anything before, I wanted you to have an idea of the changes you were going to make and the first day of the year does serve a purpose in prompting people to have a look at their lives and highlight the things they want to see differently in twelve months time. However, if you waited for a specific day in the calendar before making that change for no other reason than the date, well that tells me a lot about how much those changes mean to you. If they were important, if they burned in your soul and you were wholly committed to them, you’d have given up chocolate on December 28th or gone for a run on December 31st. Don’t confuse a resolution with anything other than a vague wish to do something for a while and be different at the end of it.

It’s quite possible your resolutions tie in to your dreams. Dreams are wonderful, magical things…you can do anything in dreams, be anyone, achieve the impossible. It’s no coincidence that “dreams” means both those vague hopes you have for the future and the often crazy sub-conscious musings of the brain when you’re asleep. Both are intangible, uncontrollable and most times nonsense.

Here’s some examples of dreams:

  • I won the lottery and was given the cheque by a leprechaun who turned in to Terry Wogan but I woke up just before he signed it
  • I want to get fitter
  • I’m driving in my car and the brakes don’t work and I realise I don’t know how to drive and I’m going to die
  • I want to lose weight
  • I can fly, but it turns out I’ve gone to work without putting my trousers on again.
  • I want to eat more healthily

Dreams. Vague thoughts and ideas with no basis in reality.

So that leaves us with goals. I LOVE goals. Goals don’t need a calendar to determine a start date. Goals aren’t vague or imaginary. Goals can start right now, are real and will get you to were you want to be.

Goals need to be S.M.A.R.T. That’s right folks, it’s acronym time!

smart-goals(There are other versions of this acronym, but my blog my rules!)

Let’s take another look at some of those dreams turned in to goals:

  • I want to get fitter = I want to complete a half marathon in 4 months time/I want to take three minutes off my parkrun in my 50th run/I want to be able to cycle to work every day when the clocks change
  • I want to lose weight = I want to lose 14lbs in 8 weeks/I want to be under 90kg before my birthday/I want to be a size 12 for that wedding in June (it’s worth mentioning here that I have an issue with weight and scales, but that’s a post for another day!)
  • I want to eat more healthily = I will eat 5 portions of fruit and veg for 5 days out of every week/I will commit to “no meat Monday” for a year/I will only eat Cadbury’s Mini Eggs 5 times this easter

With one simple exercise on paper we’ve defined what we want to achieve to create the future we desire. With clearly defined goals we can start to break down the steps needed to get us there (more on that in a blog post coming your way soon…)

So, I ask you dear reader, now the dust has settled on a few weeks of bank holidays and endless prosecco and we are back to something approaching normality, now you’ve made some vague resolutions and tried them on for size, what are your goals?

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What Does A Running Coach Do?

“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” – Benjamin Franklin, 1789.

I’d like to add something to that list please Ben, if you don’t mind. The other cast iron definite, an unwavering truth, a rare guarantee in a world of uncertainty is this, when you tell people you are a running coach they will respond with “Ooh, can you write me a training plan?”.

In fact, the conversation invariably goes a little something like this:

Runner: “Oooh, can you write me a training plan?”

Coach: “Of course! When do you want to get together for an hour to discuss your running history, current activity, future commitments. I’ll need you to think about what sacrifices you are willing to make to fit in the training you need, and things you just can’t compromise on. I want to now what support you have from partners/family/friends. We need to work out your target pace so bring some race times. Then we can plan how often we’ll get together for sessions, I’ve got my diary ready, when are you free?”

Runner:”…….”

I’m going to let you in to a secret; if you just want a training plan with no consideration given to you as an athlete then you don’t want a coach, you want a copy of Runner’s World. In fact, here you go, trusty Hal Higdon training plans as used by runners the world over who have completed races. But if you want to compete not just complete, if you want to reach your potential, then you need a coach.

So, what do coaches do?

If they aren’t there to churn out training plan after training plan to runners who want nothing more than to be told what miles to run, then what are coaches good for? Well here’s a very brief list of some of the things a decent running coach should do… (I will probably expand on some of these points in future posts)

  • Help you set realistic goals and interim targets
  • Monitor and record your progress
  • Keep you consistent and motivated in your training
  • Warm you up and cool you down (because none of us do it when we’re on our own)
  • Help you prevent injury
  • Work on your technique for improved efficiency and speed
  • Work on your strength and conditioning (again, something you don’t do on your own)
  • Give you all the instruction you need to get the best from your speed sessions and hill reps
  • Advise on fueling and nutrition
  • Help determine a race strategy
  • Keep you accountable on the days you are training alone
  • Signpost to other professionals for massage, physio etc
  • Link all of the above back to your goals and make adjustments when needed
  • And yes, they can help you create a training plan that is bespoke to you and built around that weekly swimming lesson you can’t miss and the fact you won’t want to do a long run on your birthday

Image result for running coachSo there you have it, next time you meet a running coach have a think about all the benefits they can bring you and your running and find some way of tapping in to it, whether it’s one-on-one coaching, group sessions or just a chat. They will have qualified because they want to work with athletes and make them better runners, and not because they want to spend their evenings writing training plans!

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The Truth About Exercise & Social Media

It seems there are two types of people in this world.

Image result for facebook likeThere’s those that post about exercise, whether it’s Facebook statuses about running, Instagram pictures of Crossfit rigs or tweets celebrating a particularly bendy yoga session. Alongside them are the people who like these posts, comment with congratulations and support, ask questions, seek knowledge, share and in myriad other ways interact in a positive way…

Related image…then there’s those that just don’t get it. Some of these group are vocal about not getting it, mocking people for posting about exercise, levelling accusations of “always posting about running”, feigning surprise when another picture of trainers/a watch face/the running track hits their timeline. These people can sometimes be so vocal it stops the athlete from publicising their activities via social media.

But I’m here to tell you it’s okay, in fact it’s good for you to share that status, snap that Garmin, tweet that race result, and here’s a few reasons why…

Image result for dopamineChemistry – We all know exercise leaves you feeling good, right? That’s because it releases a number of chemicals in the body including serotonin and dopamine. Dopamine is the key one here, it is the body’s way of rewarding us with feel-good vibes, and is a large part of the reason for addictions (as most addictive behaviours – drinking, gambling, drugs – stimulate the release of dopamine). Know what else promotes a flood of dopamine in the body? Social interaction, and recently it has been proven that this includes likes/shares and comments on social media. So that runner’s high we all love so much can be reproduced and extended by a strong support network on social media. In fact that support network is key…

Image result for runners talkingBetter Together – Running can be a particularly lonely pastime and is fraught with the risks of injury, poor technique, crap training plans and never knowing which of the dazzling array of races available each weekend is the best. Not all of us are lucky enough to have a local club or running network we can be a part of, and this is where the online running community is so brilliant. One of my favourite hashtags is #AskSomeoneWhoKnows and with social media you can do exactly that. I’ve been given a speed session plan by an Olympic gold medalist on Twitter and  learned a new way to coach running posture from a Facebook video, and this wealth of knowledge is available to anyone who can log on!

Image result for motivationMotivation’s What You Need – If you want to be a record breaker! Motivation works both ways… Firstly there’s how social media can motivate you to be better, perhaps in the form of following other athletes who you aspire to emulate or coaches who’s advice you trust. But also there’s just the sight of others getting out there, doing the thing you love, that can be enough to inspire you to lace up and hit the streets. We’ve all sat and watched the rain on the windows, making excuses for not running, but as soon as you see a “I didn’t want to but I did and it was awesome” post you’re pulling on the lycra and getting excited about the rain on your face and wind in your hair! Never underestimate your ability to motivate yourself either, Facebook memories can often throw up reminders of that perfect run last year, or the race in 2014 when you know you hadn’t done the training and it sucked. Use your own past experiences to fuel your fire now. The other way is incredible too, there is little more rewarding than being told “you inspire me”, few things will light your fire more than the idea that your running is helping others to enjoy theirs…but if you don’t post about it that can’t happen!

Accountability – This is a bit of a weird one, because it relies on you being of a certain mindset to begin with. If you get in the habit of posting your training plans there are people out there who will know what you’re meant to be running. Some of those people care enough to ask you how your session or long run went, and telling them it didn’t happen sucks! Another version of this is the morning declaration, “only 8 hours of work and then I can get out for some miles, can’t wait!”. Posts like that, with the right support network, can keep you accountable and make it harder to skip those important midweek sessions when it’s raining or you just can’t be arsed! (I know one athlete who schedules their post-training posts in the morning so they have to see it through or go and delete things embarrassingly!)

Image result for echo chamberThe Echo-Chamber – 2016 was a weird year, not least because of all the new phrases we had to get used to – Brexit, post-truth, pengest munch – and one of the most interesting was the idea of the echo-chamber. Essentially what it boils down to is this: the circles you move in (online and off) are dictated by your choice of friends/career/location etc. Therefore the people you surround yourself with are likely to have similar philosophies and beliefs to you, which is why no one can quite believe we voted to leave the EU when everyone they know voted to stay and everything they saw online said we would. The same was true in America; all the negativity for Donald Trump echoed around the interweb among like-minded individuals but as they were unlikely to have friends/followers on the other side their voices were never heard by their opponents. How is this relevant to exercise? Well imagine if your echo-chamber bounced back to you lots of positive chatter about exercise. Your friends list will, over time, become inundated with fellow athletes and on Twitter it can be even more immediate as you follow whoever you choose. Surround yourself with the right people online and suddenly your running community is huge and supportive and wonderful and when you aren’t a part of it you miss it…what better motivation to get out the door and do something worthy of a Tweet?

So there you have it, social media can be an athletes greatest ally. Use it, post about your efforts and hard work, your successes and the runs that maybe don’t go so well, and see who and what comes back to you. You may be surprised by the results. I’ll leave you with this thought though…

Image may contain: 6 people, people smilingThe Internet Is Like A Sports Bra – By which I mean it’s more supportive for women! I’d love to get blokes better at chucking around the kudos the way the girls do, movements like #ThisGirlCan are absolutely brilliant and there’s no reason why boys can’t provide that same level of motivation and support for each other. That’s why I’ll be using social media a lot more in 2017 to promote running, my own and other people’s, and if you’re part of that group that just don’t get it? Well, you’ve been warned!

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Learning Teaching

No thought could have been further from my mind on that 2009 evening, as I threw up in an alley less than a kilometre in to my first ever run and stumbled home in tears, but last weekend I qualified as a Coach in Running Fitness with UK Athletics.

The running continued despite that disastrous start, and eventually got easier. Then I was tricked in to running a marathon so I pounded the streets of London in 2011. Somewhere around that time I joined a running club, smartest move I ever made, and many more races followed. Then in 2014 I was offered the opportunity to do my Leader in Running Fitness qualification. All of a sudden people were looking to me to be responsible for their running, they wanted advice as well as looking after, and I gave them both but often I was passing on things I’d read or heard, but didn’t really understand. I trained with people who got better, I paced people to new personal bests in parkruns and half marathons and I really really enjoyed it. But I couldn’t shift that nagging feeling that whilst I was being effective it was more luck than judgement and while there were people who respected my experience and knowledge they put a lot more faith in me than I did myself.

Then I heard about the Alpkit Foundation, a grant awarding body without all the usual restrictive criteria that leaves men in their thirties stranded. (Why the Princes Trust cuts people off at 25 years old is a mystery to me, no one really knows what they want until they’re 40!) Long story short, in exchange for a promise to get more people outside and active they offered to pay for my coaching qualification, and so it was that in March of this year I started the process of qualifying as a whistle blowing lap counter.

CiRF-booklet

In truth the journey started many years ago. P.E. Teacher is the only career choice that I regret not exploring more, but by the age of 18 I’d had enough of academia and needed to get out in the world. I had done several coaching courses whilst at college, but there wasn’t much call for rugby coaches or tennis advisers in the world of insurance where I began my working life. I have taken the whistle since, instructing in gyms in my twenties and as captain of the rugby team insisting on an extra weekly training session in my 30’s (mostly just to satisfy my desire to coach, but you can’t argue with the two winning seasons that followed!)

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The mechanics of qualifying as a coach are long and boring; it involves classroom days, practicals, exams and constantly submitting plans for feedback, some of which is even positive, occasionally! It all culminated last Sunday with a day of assessment on my ability to plan a training cycle as well as individual sessions and then deliver coaching to a group who were far from engaged, primarily because they were all stressing about their own assessments!

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Now I’m not one to brag – stop laughing – but here’s how the day is supposed to go: Assess plans, get feedback, deliver sessions, get feedback, present amended plans, get more feedback, deliver second session putting in place all the corrections you were given in the morning, feedback again, go through plans one last time to discuss how you could have done everything better, get a pass or fail.

My day went like this: Assess plans, deliver session, get called Coach and asked if I’d hang around and do the cool down in the afternoon.

So, it seems I actually do know my stuff after all, and now it’s official!

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Many people have asked me what’s next or what I plan to do with my new found opportunity, and the simple answer is nothing. Not yet anyway. I enjoyed coaching a group over the summer, and I have a couple of athletes interested in working with me over the coming months. I’ll be more actively involved in my club now, covering sessions wherever needed and doing so with a renewed confidence. But mostly I will be continuing to learn, adding new drills and skills to my portfolio, attending every class and course now available to me to better understand all I can about how to make people better runners, because essentially that is where I get my pleasure, from seeing people improve. This isn’t a career move, I’ve no intention of charging people to work with me or quitting my job, much as I’d love to wear a tracksuit all day!

I think my next challenge, the final piece of the confidence jigsaw, is I need to get myself fit again. After a summer of festival building (read: bbq and cider), injury, distraction and no targets I’m hardly an example to others of the benefits of a jog! So, the next few months are all about me, my running and maybe a spring marathon, and as soon as I can walk the walk I’ll look to take on some athletes and talk the talk with them too.

But in the meantime, I may just blow my whistle a few times, now I’m qualified to do so.

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