Friday, 31 May 2013

Ben Ledi Ascent Hill Race and Sponsored Walk Tomorrow!

This Saturday (1st June) the Ben Ledi Ascent hill race and sponsored walk is being held, there will be entries on the day for anyone tempted by what should be a great and perhaps even sunny day!  It's the first time this event has been run with a hill race, but it's been a long standing event sponsor walk. Skidaddle are organizing the hill race part, while the Callander Rotary Club are organizing the walk.  I've already written up the race route in my Ben Ledi Ascent Route article, and with this post I'll provide a bit more info about the event and also a bit my own personal build up and plan for the day and the race itself.  Hopefully this help provide a bit of guidance to those knew to hill racing and to Ben  Ledi itself.


Training for the Ben Ledi

There is no two ways about it, Ben Ledi is a mountain, just shy of Munro at 2884ft but as you start relatively low you still have a juicy 2500ft to climb.  Racing up it deserves respect, both on race day and in training for the challenge.  I wish I could provide a textbook example of how to train for such an event, but I've been plagued by a injury in my left foot (Metatarsalgia) that has lingered for 10 weeks now.  

What little training I have done had been done on the mountains - especially Ben Ledi itself which I've been up 6 times in April and May, and Stuc a'Chroin hill race. My mileage this May only been 27 miles, but included 10,000ft of ascent/descent.  Where this strange mix of training put's me I have little clue, I'm guessing that while I'll far from peak fitness what fitness I do have left should be best tailored to running up Mountains!

For those with less mountain training behind them I wouldn't be too intimidated, how you race on the day is just as important as an route specific training.  I would have been very happy to give up most of hill running this last month if I could have been out training every few days and putting in 30+ miles as week.

Another factor that hasn't quite worked in my favour was comming down with a stomach bug on Tuesday this week, so I lost plenty of sleep and couldn't eat for Wednesday until the evening.  Today I'm on the mend but still not 100%.  Hopefully other runners and walkers will have faired better with training and general health than I have!

How to get to race HQ, Parking and Registration on the day

Ben Ledi is a couple miles west of Callander, just off the A84.  There is small road off to the west of the A84 on the south side of Loch Lubnaig, look out for sign posts for the Strathyre Forest Cabins, you'll cross a metal bridge and then follow the road around to the right.  There are two roads off the right, the first a public one that takes you to the Forest Cabins but on route there is gate on left that might be available to get to the race HQ and parking, and another private road that takes you past some cottages and eventually to where race HQ and parking will be.  I don't know which route will be road will be used on the day yet, it'll be sign posted so just keep an eye out for the signs just after the metal bridge.   Parking will be limited though so share transport where possible.

Registration for walkers will be from 8.30 to 11 am and you'll be able to start as soon as you've registered, runners registration is from 9.30 to 10.30 am with the race start at 11am.

While online entry has already closed entry is available on the day and cost £7.50.

How to race Ben Ledi

A couple of weeks back as a training run and to gather a bit more route information I ran the Ben Ledi Ascent route using the ascent as a tempo session, running around lactate threshold all the way up.  I set myself a goal of running all the way and achieved it save for a few steps across boulders.  Come race day I will probably take more walking breaks on the ascent to mix things up and let different muscle groups take the strain.  My 10k personal best is 39:36, so I'm guessing that most sub 40min 10k runners could probably run the vast majority of the ascent, for anything slower than 40min pb I wouldn't recommend even attempting to run up the whole ascent, it'll just burn you out early and lead to an overall slower time so plan a run/walk strategy for the ascent.

When I ran my tempo run on Ben Ledi the ascent took my 48 minutes, so a bit over my 10 km PB, but overall probably done a bit lower intensity, I'm guessing on race day I might make it up in around 45 minutes.  Given that it's not much slower than my 10 km times I believe that your own 10k PB plus a bit would give you a reasonable estimate for time to the top.  As you still have 2500ft and 3 miles to run once at the top I'd recommend not putting in quite the same level of effort as a 10k on the ascent as you don't want to be totally wrecked at the summit and unable to run a smooth and strong descent.

With most races I find it useful to break down the race in to sections, the route itself naturally falls in to 5 sections that I discussed in my Ben Ledi Ascent Route article.

Section 1 : Forest trail

From the start you head up a gently rising trail that zigs zags through the the forest, rising about 300ft in a mile.  This section should be runnable by most runners.  My plan is start easy for the first couple of minutes before steadily upping the tempo to around my lactate threshold, but not above - I don't want to want to be out of breath and legs burning before the real climbing begins.

Section 2: Diagonal Ascent to Shoulder

Once you leave the forest trail you head up a path that almost immediately becomes quite steep and only gets steeper a few hundred metres in where stone steps adorn the path.  These stone steps are great for walkers but making running awkward as it forces your stride length to match step size which will for all but the elite's is likely to be overreaching.  To try and match these steps and run up will through most people off the deep end into leg burning and lung busting hell so you'll either need to power walk them, or look out for footing beside the trail or between the steps.  I took the later approach when I went up on my tempo ascent, I got up the steps but it took me over my lactate threshold and was relieved when the path levelled off and leaves the steps behind!

The path is quite narrow at points so you'll need to take of other members of the public using the path.

After a stream crossing the well groomed path is left behind and it becomes more broken and rocky, most of it is not too steep and runnable, but there has been a recent landslide that has overrun the path for a hundred meters, it's reasonably steep here, but it may well be just trying to judge a good route through that might entice you to walk bits of this section.  A power walk uphill is rarely much slower than running so I'm planning to run/walk bits of this section.

Once past the landslide section the path levels off and is easily runnable most of the way up to the shoulder.

Section 3: Ascent along the Shoulder to the Summit

The path turns right and heads up the shoulder, but before your do look left as you great a great view down over Loch Venachar and over the Fourth Valley - I find this panorama unfolding always gives me lift, it really feels like the toiling uphill has achieved something.  You are now around 2000ft up and over 2/3rd the way up the ascent.

The route up the shoulder initially makes it way through flatter heathery bogs section that will runnable if a bit awkward to spot a good route through at some points.  As the route steepens up the path become clearer and easier to track - straight up the hill towards the summit.

There are three false summits before reaching the actual summit, and each one gets progressive steeper and harder to run, but before each next step section you get a short level, short descent and short level section to catch your breath.  The last steep section is the toughest to run and I'd expect the majority of runners to walk it.  I was only able to run this last one by carefully picking my way up looking for the shortest possible distance between foot holds so I could keep my cadence up, this is quite hard as walkers over the years have worn regular foot holds - good for walking but break up the terrain so much that you can avoid using them when running as they are often the only reasonable footing to be had.  Nipping off the path occasionally helps avoid the over-striding that might push you over the edge in lactate burn hell.

After final false summit there is short respite before you head up underneath the cross that is mounted on crags at the summit, you pass to the right of these crags and then turn left up and then around to the right and the summit Cairn.  Great 360's views of the Highlands to the north and west, the lowlands to the south and east are revealed, if only you've left enough in the tank to have the ability to appreciate them.

Section 4 : Ridge Traverse and descent to Stank Glen

My plan is to not push too hard getting to the summit as the descent is often steep so requires quads are in good shape rather than overworked and solid, cramping or reduced to jelly.  Fast reactions, quick foot placement and smoothly flowing motion are also important for a quick descent something it's hard to do when head swimming in oxygen debt and low blood sugar.

The descent starts really easily with a gentle drop down from the summit and along the spectacular ridge which drops steeply to your right.  At the end of ridge you head left and path then drops steeply down.  The heathery and grassy descent is strewn with small rocks and too steep to comfortable run, the best I've ever achieved is an awkward slow run down but seasoned hill runners may well be able to run it comfortably.  The prospect of serious tumble is pretty high if you do take it too fast though so I'd encourage caution down this initial steep descent.

Section 5: Descent into Stank Glen

After the first steep descent levels off a little there is path that heads to the left towards Stank Glen, this narrower path is steep in places but more easily runnable and really enjoyable section to run as you can start to move more smoothly with the twists and undulations of the path.

After following the small diagonal path you can drop down onto the well worn walkers path or stay higher on more open hillside crossing the heather and grass that while boggy in places offer reasonable footing.  Before you know it you arrive down on the path just before fencing and style that takes you into the Stank Glen itself.  Over the style you follow the path that descends down quite steeply but runnable all the way to a junction in the path which you head right.

Section 5: Stank Glen

The next three quarters of mile through Stank Glen undulates but on average is gently downhill is the fastest and most easily runnable section of whole route.  Again leaving a bit in reserve on the ascent and steeper descent sections will enable you to really enjoy both the views and the speed of this section.

All too soon you'll pop out at the bottom of Stank Glen onto a forest track where turn right and then 20 metres later left downhill.

Section 7: Descent down Forest Path

This final section down the forest path is steep and broken up by roots, rocks and now even fallen trees due to last years storms.  This section is very technical but fun to run down, light feet make light work on this section so keep the cadence up and eye peeled for the best footing.

The path briefly pops out on the forest track which you will have run up at the start, but you don't follow the track, instead look out for the hidden entrance to the path that restarts and heads steeply downhill once more.  This final section of path is very broken and technical but pretty short and before you know it you'll be winding right and back onto the forest track that takes you the last hundred meters of so to the finish, this last bit of track is gently heading downhill so no excuses for no sprint finishes!

How long might it take?

I'm in the shape to do around a 42 min 10k and on my tempo run I did it in 1:18  (hr:mm) when racing I'm sure I'll cut a few minutes off this, and wouldn't be surprised to get in around 1:15, and would love to get near 1:10, but given the week I've had I should probably be just thankful for a finish!  I'd guess multiplying your current 10k time by 1.75 would be a reasonable estimate on your finishing time.  As the route is almost 10k this might well be the toughest and slowest 10k you'll ever do :-)

I expect the winning time will be close to a hour, while I don't believe Presad is around to race to take the time under 1 hour, another local Craig Harvery is signed up and did great in the Callander 10k and is  likely to get near 1 hour,  maybe even under - no pressure Craig :-)

Fast walkers could probably do the route in not much longer than 2 hours, but I'd expect most to go out to enjoy the walk and complete it around 3 hours.

Weather, Clothing and Essentials

The BBC website if forecasting light winds, temperate around 11 degrees, sunny first thing then overcast later in the morning.  Rain showers may arrive later in the afternoon.  Mountain forecast is for 20 mph at summits, great visibility and cloud staying above the summits.  It'll be cool at the summit be will stay above well above freezing.  So there will be no repeats of the harsh winter conditions we experienced doing the Stuc a'Chroin hill race this year!

As the conditions are pretty benign I don't think dehydration should be an issue, it'll be cool at the summit but as long as you don't stop too long anywhere there shouldn't be any need for lots of layers.  I'm planning to run in shorts and T-shirt and bring along my running jacket in case it looks like the rain is heading over early.    I don't plan to take any water with me, if I get too thirst there are streams I can stop to drink out.  Instead of taking water I'll just drink a little 5 minutes before start and then top back up afterwards.

For walkers you'll be out much longer and moving slower so long trousers, several layers and jacket would be sensible.  Having a picnic at the summit is really popular with plenty of space to sit down and enjoy the view of countryside and the daft runners wheezing there way past.

Best of luck to those of your racing and walking tomorrow.  Thanks to all the Marshals and volunteers from Mountain Rescue, Callander Rotary Club and Skidaddle.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Ben Ledi tempo run

I can't resist hill running in sunshine, there is something so invigorating, carefree and joyful about running free amongst the mountains in good weather.  All morning I worked watching the sun shine down enticing me out, eventually I capitulated, deciding upon that I deserved a lunchtime treat and headed off on my bike to Ben Ledi with a plan to run the ascent as a tempo run and attempt to something I haven't yet achieved - to run every step of the 2500 ft ascent.

By the time I had got changed and ready to go high cloud had blown over and blocked out the sunshine and stiff westerly picked up making the cycle out a little cold and harder work than I expected.  My spirits took a knock, I was really looking forward to some sunshine and now it was grey and rather less appealing, part of me was even tempted to turn back and come out another day, I really wasn't sure I wanted to risk exacerbating my foot injury on a drab day.

I locked the bike up at the start of the Ben Ledi Ascent route and headed up the forest track.  The took the first mile that gently climbs through the forest relatively but still my heart climbed up into the 170's, still below my lactate threshold which is probably around 175, but still plenty high enough to start qualifying as a tempo run.  After a mile a quarter the route turns off the forest track and straight uphill along the Tourist path.  This section is steep and consists of plenty of stone steps, normally I'd walk the steeper parts but today I stuck to my aim and weaved in/out of the steps looking for the shortest possible   footing so I could keep my cadence high and remain running bouncing upward on the balls of my feet.

After a quarter a mile of steep path my HR was up at 178 and my legs were starting to burn, so to great relief I got to the top of the steps and the path levels off a little and go back to dirt trail, allowing me to relax and recover.  My HR quickly dropped back to low 170's, this gave me a mental boost as it boded well for my being able to run the steeper parts late in the ascent as well. The shallower incline also allow me to get off my forefoot and back to landing and baring weight on my whole foot, as it's my forefoot/metatarsal heads in my left foot that is injured getting off the balls of my feet was doubly welcome.

I stopped at the stream cross to drink, using my hands as a cup, but didn't get the timing right and breathed in as much as I drank so ended up spluttering for a few steps afterwards.  Once over a style I was back running.  This next section isn't that steep but has lots of large rocks to navigate over and around making it difficult to run.  A couple of times I had to walk just to get over rocks and work out good footing, getting off the path helped make it more runnable, but with water seeping down the grass it was slippery making running difficult.  Despite the problems I kept running all but a few steps, any shallower sections were welcome relief though.

Once on to the shoulder the trail become busier with lots of walkers heading up or down.  I was expecting strong winds but it was calm, suggesting that a temperature inversion had set up trapping the stronger winds below.  The cloud had started to thin too so it was hot work climbing so took off my T-Shirt to catch some rays and avoid sweating too much, running without water on a warm day requires a few sacrifices to keep hydrated!

The path up to the summit cross three false summits each one getting steeper which presented an ever tougher challenge to keep running.  The foot holes made my the many walkers were too far apart to make it easy to use them when running so I had to weave in/out of the path looking for the shortest footing I could find.  The final steep climb I passed several walkers and exchanged a few words with each, it's a bit bizarre to be able to be running close to ones limit and still be able to chat briefly, bizarre in a good way - I do wonder if this might be a sign that my body is now burning more fat in response to my change in diet.  Still I did find it pretty tough with my HR up in high 170's, with lactate acid accumulating uncomfortably I was very glad that path levels off occasionally.

I stopped briefly before the summit to try and capture the stunning view to the west, alas my phone camera just doesn't quite capture how big the sky and vista is.

The brief stop to take the photo allows my breathing and the lactate acid build up to drop, feeling fresher I pushed hard up to the summit, with my HR reaching 181, but still short of my max HR, a sign that having been running at lactate threshold for half a hour limits one a little.  Still I was chuffed to bit, I had made it all the way to the summit with only a few brief sections of walking.  I noted the time to the summit of just under 40 minutes, ten minutes quicker than I had done it with Andy during the Ben Ledi Ascent Route recce run a week ago, and then headed immediate off towards Stank Glen.  With a cool breeze and bout of modesty I done my T-shirt and head pass a school group that are just about to get to the summit.

The descent went smoothly and rather than stick to the path chose to run more of the time on the open heather/grass during the descent into Stank Glen.  This experiment worked out well and had few of the problems with grip that I had the previous week.  Once down into hard packed trail of Stank Glen I was back to running a more normal gait but felt pretty tired, the quick ascent and lack of food in the previous 18 hours were evident with my energy levels taking a gently dip.  Rather than push the remaining descent hard I just relaxed and enjoyed the final mile back to the start.  I drank from another stream but again didn't get it quite right, snorting up water - drinking from hands whilst on a run and breathing briskly is something I need to work on.

Running through the final forest section the sun started breaking through providing a delightful dappled light amongst the trees.  A past several groups of walkers, everyone was a high spirits and really friendly and enjoying themselves.  Unfortunately my relatively quick descent down narrow path caught one of the walkers by surprise who, walking downhill with back to me, was a bit startled when I jumped off the trail and went past him.  This forest path section is really technical and requires very quick turnover and accurate foot placement, total concentration is required, but with it it's a real buzz.

Finally I break out from the forest and arrive back at my bike.  Totally time was just under 1:18, 50 minutes for the ascent and 28 minutes for the descent, with an average HR of 168 and just over 1,000 calories burned.  The sunshine was beaming down warming everything and filling valley with a real spring exuberance  - what a contrast to ride out under cloud.

My joy was quickly brought back in check on finding that my bike key had worked it's way out of what should have been zipped up pocket.  Despite retracing my steps to where I put the keys and phone in my pocket I couldn't find the key.  I can only guess that it probably dropped out when I took a couple of photos on the ascent.

Thankfully my ever patient wife Julia was able to drive up and drop off my spare keys and save the day ;-)

A little note on the diet front.  I have changed my diet, inspired by the book, Perfect Health Diet, so that I'm now eating less carbohydrates overall and in particular avoiding most wheat products - fermented wheat is OK, so beer is still on the menu!  Most days I now practice what is called Intermittent Fasting (IF), skipping breakfast, instead drinking a bone broth with some cream or Bouillon with a teaspoon of coconut oil.  I tend to eat the majority of my daily Carbohydrates as part of the evening meal.  There are  lots of facets to the changes in dietary habits that I'm now adopting, once I'm a bit further into this new approach I'll dedicate a post to it.  Six months ago I would have said you'd be crazy to miss breakfast, and no way you could do a hard training sessions in a fasted state, but now it's become normal, my body and mind have adapted.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Ben Ledi Ascent Route

Ben Ledi looms over the Trossachs, providing stunning panoramic views of the Highlands to North and West, and views over the Fourth Valley to Stirling and Edinburgh beyond.  At 2,884ft it's just shy of Munroe, providing a good challenge for walkers and runners, this post will describe the Ben Ledi Ascent walk and hill race route, an event being held this year on the 1st of June, for entry details head over to the skidaddle website.

The Ben Ledi Ascent is 6 miles long with 2,500ft of ascent/descent, following a clockwise route. The route is comprises forest tracks, paths, open hillside and narrow forest paths.  The character of the terrain naturally breaks the route into 7 sections, 3 sections for the ascent, and 4 sections on the descent.


Just after passing the Falls of Leny, turn left off the A84 and follow signs towards the Strathyre Forest Cabins.  You'll drive about 3/4 mile along tarmaced but rather pot holed road and then turn left through a gate and park up as directed by marshals on the day.  Registration will be in the field below.


Start: Follow the track on the left uphill and through the forest.

Follow the track that zig zaps uphill through the forest, after just under a mile you come to a the junction below and follow the track on the left.


A 1/4 mile along the left hand track you come to the path on the right that heads straight uphill.

Follow the path uphill, after half a mile you'll come to small dip down to a stream crossing and then over a style and continue along the path heading left and upward along the path.

A 1/4 mile along the path you will come to an area where the path has been overrun by a recent landslide.  Make you way over the rocks and rejoin the path a little further uphill.  Avoid going straight uphill along the scree, instead head diagonally uphill towards the shoulder, keeping the steepest part of the hill on your right.

Don't forget to turn around and look where you've come from, you get a nice view back towards Loch Lubnaig and Stuc a' Chroin.

After the land slide the path becomes easier to follow, just keep following it up to the shoulder.


A mile after the start of the path you arrive at the shoulder, here you follow the path around to the right and head straight uphill.

Follow the path up the shoulder heading for the Cross mounted on a rocky out crop just before the summit.  The path goes through a few boggy sections so be prepared to find your own best route through or to get your feet wet. As long as you keep heading uphill you should never be too far off the path.  There a couple of false summits with small flat sections and dips in between.

The third steep section will be the final section up towards the Cross, before you reach it the path goes around to the right of the rocky outcrop that it's mounted on, then you follow the path left to arrive at the modest Summit cairn and trig point.

Weather permitting the fruits of your labour will be stunning 360 view, to the east you'll look out over the flatlands towards the Fourth Valley, Stirling and Edinburgh beyond.

To the west and north you'll see the Highlands stretching out before you.  Ben Lomond to the west, Ben More to the north west and Ben Lawers, Stuc a' Chroin and Ben Vorlich to the north and north east.


From the summit head north along the ridge (pictured above) keeping the fence posts to your right.  The ridge drops steeply away to the east/right hand side of the fence posts (only fence posts as there is no longer any fence wire), and gently away on healthy slope on the right so if in poor visibility keep left and on the Westerly side to keep out of trouble.


Around 1/3 mile from the summit the ridge section ends and the path veers off the left and you head downhill.  The descent down this shoulder is steep and broken by many small rocks so take care to pick you path through them.  The path generally keeps left of the fence posts.

After two steep drops the shoulder levels off, and just before it rounds out a path veers off to the right, follow this and head down into Stank Glen.


Follow the path around to the right and head east along the path

The path then heads steeply downhill, you can choose to follow the rocky and broken path or keep further to the right and head down the grass and health.

As you near the bottom of the descent into Stank Glen the path becomes more coherent and takes you down to a Style that is 10m to the left of the gate below.

After another couple hundred metres the path levels off and then you reach a junction, take the right path that takes you along the right hand side/southerly side of Stank Glen.

You are now heading towards the mature forestry at the bottom of Stank Glen and only a mile and half from the finish.  The path through Stank Glen is gently descending and while covered with plenty of stones and a few stream crossing is great for running at a good pace.

Towards the end of the Stank Glen stay right and it eventually drops steeply down to a Forest track.

Once down on the forest track head right and 20 metres later head left down the narrow forest path.


Follow the forest path downhill, there are lots of rocks and roots which makes the last section very technical so watch your footing.

The storms over the last year have brought down several large trees that now block the path, the easist route around them is go past the first on the uphill side, then the next on the downhill side, then the third on the uphill side.

Once past the fallen trees the path takes you to past a view point of the water fall that spills out from Stank Glen.  If you are running too fast you'll likely miss it, but for everyone else the viewpoint is just a few meters off the left of the path so keep an eye out for this magical little view.

The path then takes you back to the Forest track that you ran up in the first mile of the run, rather than follow the track you head back left and downhill following the path the runs adjacent to the stream.

Follow the path, which is a bit broken in places, through the trees until it goes right and brings you back on the Forest Track, turn left and head downhill for the final 200m sprint to the finish back where you started.


When we ran the route to take these photo's we took it easy, taking lots of photos and it took us just under an hour to get to the summit, and 40 minutes for the descent.  On race day I expect to get the time down to around 1 hour and 15 minutes, which is around 80% longer than my 10k times.  I'll expect the elite runners to do it in around 50 minutes.

Walkers should allow for about 2 1/2 to 3 hours walking time for the route.


The weather on Scottish mountains can be harsh and unpredictable, even in June we could see gales force winds and low temperatures at the summit.  Have a read through my Stuc a' Chroin hill race report if you want to see just how extreme it can be up top, even when conditions at the base of mountain are otherwise benign.  The key to being safe on the mountains is wearing the correct clothing for the conditions that you may meet on route, so you should at least bring water proof jackets and extra layers to keep dry and warm in case you end up stopping on route.  Equally it could be warm day so being able to strip down to light base layer may be appropriate   As we can't predict the weather bringing a range of clothing to the start would be sensible.  Mountain rescue will be helping on the day and will provide guidance on safety, if conditions look unsafe they the route will be adapted.

For walkers sturdy walking shoes or boots would appropriate.  For runners fell shoes are advisable as the descents can be wet and slippery in places.  Standard trail shoes like the Trailroc 255's that I wore for the route recce above were fine for all but the steeper wet descents down into Stank Glen where the lugs just didn't provide enough grip so slipped a number of times.  Road shoes will lack the grip and be too high off the ground to handle the technical descents so I'd recommend against them.


You are required to take the food and drink you need on race day, marshals won't be providing water on route.  There is one stream crossing on the assent, and a couple of streams crossed in the Stank Glen on the return leg, if you are desperate or need to offer your dog a drink then you can use these.  However, on the top half of the hill there aren't any sources of water so you'll need to carry you own over this section.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Stuc a' Chroin 5000 : Racing on the edge

The Stuc a' Chroin hill race has a reputation for being brutal and for this 25th Anniversary the weather this year was every bit as brutal as the terrain. Whilst waiting at the finish for a friend to finish news filtered through that two runners and a marshal had had to be taken off the summit and airlifted to hospital, setting up an anxious wait for him to appear. When we stood at the start 4 hours earlier the benign conditions gave little hint of what was to unfold.
One week before the race I did a couple hours of marshalling for the Highland Fling at Drymen on a beautiful sunny morning.  While my foot injury hadn't healed sufficiently to allows me to race the Fling, witnessing so many runners heading past on a great adventure was inspiring, being part of great race means more than just covering the distance and so it is for the Stuc a' Chroin hill race.  If I couldn't do the Fling I wasn't going to miss the opportunity of running it, with another week of rest and a race 1/4 the distance I could easily rationalize away the risk of exacerbating my injury.

Last week when I ran the Balfron 10k with my running friend Andy I had raised the idea that we should both do the Stuc a' Chroin hill race 6 days later.  It was a bit of a hard sell, all the local runners who've done the Stuc a' Chroin hill race have come back with tales of how brutal the 14 miles and 5000ft ascent/descent are, with some declaring 'never again' on finishing. I had done it once before two years previously and got round in 3:22 suffering with cramp in the hot conditions.  Having done a number of ultra's since then I have learnt to be less intimidated by terrain and distance, one simply paces oneself for the day. With an idea to run the Lochalsh Dirty 30 in June we needed to get training for it, so with the promise of sensible pacing on the day and the goal of using it as training Andy warmed to the idea of finally tackling the Stuc a' Chroin.

Andy agreed on condition that he tested his legs out on a run up our local mountain Ben Ledi, so we went up on Tuesday after work. The sun was shining and light winds at the summit made for a magical run.  Despite my lack of running over the last month I felt strong on the ascent and descent and my foot didn't shout at me.  Andy had a great run too, but struggled with legs of jelly on the final few hundred feet of descent.  Miraculously Andy didn't report any muscle soreness or fatigue the following day, in contrast to me - despite my 4th ascent of Ben Ledi in a month I was hobbling around with classic DOMS.  The rest of the week I rested up giving my foot a chance to heal for the big day.

Saturday came and the weather in Callander was sunny with light winds. Forecast was for rain showers arriving later in the afternoon, with a little luck we'd be finished by then I reasoned. I took my Montane running jacket and long sleeve running top just in case, not expecting to need them.  Andy picked me up and we headed up to Strathyre and as we drove the blue sky filled in but still looked benign.  On registering I was told that my race number of 175 was so grand as to deserve a spot prize which I was to pick up on finishing the race, two years earlier I had won the fastest local prize so it looked as if my good luck  was continuing.

In great spirits we lined up at the start with 206 other starters.  Amongst the lean, mean and hardened hill runners we both felt rather like impostors, the best hill racers in Scotland were out to run and it was a glorious sight and great atmosphere. We were there to witness and be part of the 25th Anniversary race. The race started on time and we all surged forward, BRING IT ON!

50m's into the run I was walking as the field made it's way along the narrow path up the first hill. It took a couple of minutes to get into running, I was happy to be near the back and taking it easy, my plan wasn't to race hard but take it easy on the first ascent and see how the day unfolded.  The lack of quality of training in the last six weeks due to injury had taken pressure off any expectations of a quick time, so I was there to enjoy the race. After half a mile slowly working my way through field I caught up with Andy and we ran together for another mile, Andy's plan was the same as mine - to take it easy respecting the distance and the route we'd be taking. Not all runners looked to be so cautious with quite a few of the runners we were overtaking breathing hard, and this was on the first few easy miles on forest track ascending above Loch Lubnaig.  Shortly before leaving the track Andy decided to take it easer and I continued slowly moving through the field, on this first ascent conscious to keep my HR below 170 bpm, 5 below my lactate threshold leaving higher efforts for the next climb - the brutal climb out of Glen Ample up Ben Each.

The route heads through a brief section of woodland and then the trail starts heading up to the open hill. Once we were off the track conditions underfoot deteriorated rapidly, the previous day of rain turned the trail into a boggy, muddy mess. All too often I found myself sinking shin deep into mud.  Half an hour into the race and my feet were soaked and my lack of more aggressive lugs on my Trailroc's was was proving inadequate for the conditions. I was slipping regularly and for the first time in four years of running I completely lost traction and fell, finding myself eating mud and heather.

While I had little traction I was still running well within myself and was jumping off the narrow trail through into the heather to pass runners who had gone out too fast and were now puffing hard.  Finding myself running easily and strongly offset my frustration with slipping regularly.  Light rain had now set in so I zipped up my Montane running jacket and prepared to descend down into Glen Ample.

I knew the route was steep and took it easy knowing that I was already struggling with grip.  With a few seconds of starting the descent I found my feet sliding away from me. It took me a second or two to arrest my progress as I slid down on my back.  Back on my feet again and even more cautious I continued but again fell and did so several more times as the same runners I had picked off in previous minutes poured past me until the gradient eased off.  Without a pair of Talons or Mudclaws there was nothing I could do about it.

Once through the bogs at the bottom of Glen Ample the route crosses a track where Marshals were handing out bottles of water.  I took a quick sip, thanked them and headed on, keen to try to get in front of runners that had past me on the descent.  The climb out of Glen Ample up Beinn Each is a brutal 1500ft climb, following a tiny path that is only wide enough for one runner so you have to follow single file, scrambling the 45 degree slope locked in step.  Just occasionally the path opens out enough to allow you to pass slower competitors, when it does you have to put in a short sprint to pass a runner or two and then get back in line.

Last time I raced the Stuc a' Chroin I was maxed out going up Beinn Each, pushed on by runners right on my heels, and desperatly trying to keep in touch with runners ahead.  This year I found the climb much easier, perhaps because I was being held back by slower runners this year, and my HR rather than going up as I climb actually went down to the low 170's and my breathing was easy.  From the half way point up the climb I took every little opportunity to overtake, my legs responding to the intense sprint to get past runners.  Once back in step with others around me the lactate build in my legs subsided quickly and I was back in comfortable climbing mode. I found myself perplexed by just how better my body was responding to the climb than others around me who were wheezing away.

The summit of Beinn Each was now in cloud, the wind had picked up and the rain was unrelenting, but Mashals at the summit were cheerful and really supportive, handing out jelly babies and water.  Running strong I was looking forward to following the undulating ridge towards the final climb up Stuc a'Chroin, but thanks to the cloud I had to make do with the guidance of Marshals and flags.  As soon as we started descending down to the ridge my cautious speed on descent meant that I was again being passed by those more confident about footing.

Loosing hard won places so easily was depressing but now the trail was rocky, wet and very slippery so I couldn't risk pushing harder and taking another tumble.  As we progressed along the ridge those that passed me began to falter and I was back to steadily making my way through the field.  A few hundred meters before the climb at Stuc a'Chroin the lead runners appeared through the mist. I never cease to find delight in the ease with which the elite's dance along the trail.  Ever a gentlemen, local running legend Presad passed and shouted encouragement.

The ascent of Stuc a' Chroin began, but as visibility wasn't great I couldn't get any idea of just how far I had to go, so I just followed the ribbon of runners up and up.  The faster runners were now streaming down past us from the summit making for some interesting close passes as the those climbing had heads down checking for footing and the those descending were scrambling for a good line across the slippery rocks, snow, mud and heather.  Again I found the climb easier than those around me and passed many runners who were struggling.

Eventually I passed a Marshal who said it was only 100 meters the summit. It turned out this was distance rather than elevation so pretty soon I found myself up next to the summit Cairn.  After getting my number marked with an X, and a swift drink of water, I check my time - 1:56, two minutes ahead of my previous time.  I was surprised and delighted after loosing time on the descents and what felt like an easy climb I had expected to be 10 minutes down on my previous time, not 2 minutes up, ohh yeah game on.

On turning round at the summit and back into wind the weather suddenly asserted itself ferociously, gale force winds, icy sleet blasting exposed skin. It wasn't an environment I wanted to hang around in and I made my way down as quickly as the slippery rocks would allow me.  Again I was loosing places on the descent, but in those conditions all I cared about was steady progress down.  I passed Andy who was making good progress up to the summit and he looked strong, I guessed that he was less than 5 to 10 minutes behind.

Whether on snow, rocks, grass or soil I was slipping and falling onto my back regularly, on one fall I twisted and arrested my fall awkwardly, straining my back, shoulder and wrist that subsequently tightened up.  Thankfully after a couple of minutes the tightness wore off and I was back running comfortably again.  Psychologically the fall stayed with me, while my energy levels were great and my legs remained strong the constant battle to stay upright and failing was frustrating and I found myself cursing the lack of grip out loud.

After descending back to the ridge the route goes back on itself half way towards Beinn Each, then heads into a diagonal descent back into Glen Ample and the Marshal point that we first passed at the bottom of the ascent up Beinn Each.  I was looking forward to this next section as the path wasn't too steep and the heather and grass should allow for good running and quick progress. The constant rain had different plans though, and I found myself with even less grip and again slipping out of control for seconds at a time and falling regularly.  My slow progress meant I lost a few more places. Never in my life have I run with consistently poor traction - curse my super wide feet that prevent me from wearing those lovely but narrow fell shoes.

Finally at the bottom of Glen Ample I was glad to be heading back up hill, at least I could grab hold of the heather to help assist with traction on the ascent.  I didn't have long to delude myself in this as when crossing some boggy ground I stepped into what looked like reasonably solid ground, the bog swallowed my left leg leaving me waist deep. I pulled myself out of the bog with my hands. Now head to toe covered in mud I just had to embrace the conditions and engage a black sense of humour - at least the constant rain will wash it all off!
With the next ascent I had the chance to gain back places and even made up a few more.  The previous time I ran the race I suffered badly with my calf cramping, this time I was feeling strong.  I ate a gel on the ascent, more out of curiosity - it was a freebie from a previous race and while I not big into gels it went down easily and didn't taste too sickly.  The climb out of Glen Ample seemed to be over before it started and I was out onto the open hill once more.  My hope of picking up pace was thwarted by the bog on top the hill that sucked my shoes down on every stride.  Oh joy.

The path then heads down along a deer fence back towards the forest where it rejoins the track.  Again I looked forward to getting back to something resembling a path and better footing, but while the path was less boggy it was far more slippery and I was constantly slipping sideways as the path traversed the slope.  Thanks to the constant rain the underfoot conditions had deteriorated substantially from earlier.  Just before you enter the short section of woods the path headed downhill steeply and the only way I was able to stay upright was to grip the the deer fence with my hands and slowly step down.  I knew the hell of slipping constantly was soon to be over so my mood picked up.

After a short descent between and through the trees the path opens out onto the forest track and the welcome sight of Marshals and firm footing at last.  Two miles to go on gently descending forest track was a joy!  My pace quickened and I set about reeling in the runners ahead.  I was running strongly and rapidly catching up with runners that were struggling ahead, when quite unexpectedly I heard footsteps approaching from behind.

Another runner who had taken the first half easy like myself was also finishing strong, he drew alongside and we fell into step and started chatting.  Jim was up from the Lake District and was a well seasoned fell runner, clearly better prepared than me as he'd checked the mountain forecast for the Stuc a'Chroin summit. At 4pm it had been forecast to be 55mph winds, sleet/rain, 2 degrees with a -10 degree wind chill.  Neither of us felt the winds were quite that strong but it can't have been far off.  Descending at 7min/mile pace we passed quite a few runners that were either staggering along or walking probably due to cramp.  We kept the good pace up nattering away like we were on an afternoon stroll and in no time we were descending to the finishing field.

I was bouncing along with joy at this point. I let out a "whoooohooo" and let gravity speed me homewards, over taking one last runner.  At the bottom of the path it turns sharply right and flattens off into the field, and this rapid change in direction at high speed set off a brief cramp in my left calf.  Thankfully it didn't take hold and I put in a final sprint for the pure fun of running a great race.

On crossing the line I undid my jacket so the Marshals could see my number and they called out my finishing time 3:18:17, a PB by four minutes.  I was really chuffed, despite awful conditions and lack on any descent training since February I had run a great race.

I collected my cup of soup and then sheltered in the adjacent prize giving tent watching the runners head in.  I was expecting Andy to come in around 3:40 but this time came and went.  There were other runners who had finished but were now being treated for hypothermia.  Speaking with one of the Marshals I heard that two runners and a Marshal had been airlifted to hospital.  My joy at finishing well turned to concern for those heading to hospital, and also increasingly for the whereabouts of Andy.  My phone had got wet during the race and was no longer functioning so I couldn't attempt to call him or call home.

The prize giving went ahead at about 5pm, around 4 hours after the start, and still no Andy.  There were a few late finishers still coming in and getting rousing applause - as much as the winners, then finally I spotted Andy heading to the soup tent, wrapped in a blanket.

Andy had made good progress to the summit of Stuc a'Chroin but shortly after he began the descent he heard a scream from uphill and turned around to see a women tumbling downhill towards him.  She tumbled into his arms and somehow he was able to keep upright and arrest her fall.  Afterwards he continued on his descent but started to notice that he was now getting cold.  He kept moving but couldn't get warm, and began noticing oddities with his eye sight.  He got back down to Marshals in Glen Ample and reported that he didn't feel great, and they suggested that he'd warm up on the ascent out of Glen Ample.

He headed on but didn't warm up, and on getting to the top of the ridge the boggy/slippery conditions on the path back he just found himself getting colder.  He made his way down to the Marshals at the forest trail and reported in that he was feeling pretty unwell.   Thankfully they had a four wheel drive jeep that they bundled him into with heaters on full and wrapped him in a blanket and brought him back to the finish.

Back at the finish and with cup of warm soup the Marshals were great making sure he got back in the Jeep to warm up.  Shortly after another runner suffering from hypothermia joined us in the Jeep to warm up.  She had finished the race but had to have a cut on here knee dealt with cooled down too much. She was now shaking with blue lips that gave the Marshals concern.

After half an hour Andy had warmed up a little so we headed to pub to warm up with a cup of coffee and to find a fire.  Once Andy's sense of humour returned I knew that he was well on the mend.

Even now four days later I am struck by how close we all must have been to suffering from exposure.  Apart from my fingers I never felt cold during the race. Sure it was windy and wet, the underfoot conditions were awful, but I never felt threatened by the conditions.  I felt strong, warm and well within my comfort zone.  But just how long would it have taken for things to turn sour? An injury or incident that slows you down for a few minutes?

I am also left wondering how much the role of hypoglycaemia and hypothermia might be entwined on events like this. Low blood sugar slows you down and you generate less heat from your muscles, and low blood sugar itself thwarts some of bodies natural mechanisms for keeping warm.

For the last few months I am having been changing my diet away from predominantly carbs to eating more fats and I believe I'm seeing hints that my rate of depletion of glycogen is now lower - I certainly felt strong with consistent energy levels throughout the race.  Might being an efficient fat burner also help with avoiding hypothermia as well?   Could this be something the Inuit benefit from?

Reflecting on the race fills me with mixed emotions.  I am not a risk taker by nature, but in these conditions I didn't worry when I perhaps I should have been more aware of the potential risks.  However, despite my troubles with injuries and lack of training my legs and feet held up really well, I ran a strong and well paced race and finished really strongly.  This is a race that I have learned a great deal from, both about myself and about respecting the mountains and their rapidly changing weather.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Running Events in and around the Trossachs this Spring/Summer

The Trossachs is only a hour drive from Glasgow and Edinburgh and provides a great mix of mountains, forests, glens and lochs to explore, yet it's often overlooked as people drive through on their way into the highlands.  Below are some great running events in and around the Trossachs that might tempt you to this beautiful playground.  I've also included a couple of extra races that are a bit further afield, they are included as I'm either planning on running them or felt they deserve an honourable mention.

May 2013

4th May: Stuc 'a Chroin hill race, Strathyre, 1pm start

The gloriously tough long hill race, 5000ft ascent/descent and 14 miles.
Further information: at

5th May: Chloe McIntyre Memorial 5k, MacLaran Leisure Center, Callander.
A family orientated 5k fun run that raises money for Yorkhill Children's Hospital.
Further information go to the-chloe-mcintyre-memorial-fun-run-callander

June 2013

1st June: Ben Ledi Ascent, 2,500ft ascent/descent hill race and charity wak
Further information: and my route description.

Callander Crags race. Normally run on a weekday evening in June, but haven't spotted an online confirmation of the exactly date, but my best guess would be Wednesday 5th June, 7:30pm  starting at Tupilen Cresent.  I plan to run it with my eight year old daughter as she's caught the running bug!  Update: 26th May 2013, just got email from race organizer that the event has had to be cancelled due to injury.

8th June: Lochalsh Dirty Thirty,  a low key but beautiful and challenging 30 mile walk or run on the mainland opposite Skye.  Three hour drive from the Trossachs but I've ran it three times already and loved every minute.
Further information :

9th June: Strathearn Marathon, Hilly marathon starting nr. Comrie
Not quite the Trossachs but just over a couple of hills!
Further information:  strathearnmarathon homepage

July 2013

27-28th July: Callander Highland Games with Hill Race.  Whether it will be run on the Sunday or Saturday hasn't been decided yet. Update: 25th May 2013, it looks like the Highland Games has just been cancelled due to problems with the games field, so this great event is unlikely to be held this year.
Further information:

August 2013

4th August: Devil O' the Highlands, classic 43mile race from Tyndrum to Fort William, it's already fully booked though but I'm one of these lucky ones!

Further information:

24th August: Killin 10k, Killin

Further information:

September 2013

7th September : Highland Perthshire Marathon, Aberfeldy.
Further information:

28th September: Trossachs 10k, Aberfoyle
Further information : EntryCentral and Trossachs 10k Facebook page

November 2013

Glen Ogle Ultra : Strathyre. Currently our only local Ultra, no official date on the website yet, but it's usually at the beginning of November.
Further information:

Skidaddle are also planning a bike race around Glen Finglas and a Ben Ledi Triathlon.  I don't know the dates or whether they will be able to go ahead yet, but both events look to be great to do or watch.

If I missed an event let me know and I'll update this page.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Weekend at the Races, Part 2 : Balfron 10k

My weekend at the Races continued with a consolation race of doing the Balfron 10k in place of the Highland Fling.

Sunday Morning : Balfron 10k

What difference a day can make.  Saturday was clear with light winds, Sunday was overcast and windy with showers thrown into the mix.  As a fallback race I wasn't at all psyched up to race, normally I get nervous before a race but picked up my friend and follow Callander runner Andrew Dimmer and was completely relaxed and comfortable and just happy to be out and being part of something big.

The Balfron 10k is the a local 10k that has been running for a number of years is exceptionally well organized and attended.  The field was even bigger than the Flings and all had to assemble in road in front of the Balfron academy campus.  I knew from the previous time I had run at that one had to get near to the start line to avoid being tramped behind hundreds of slower runners.  I squeezed in 10  meters back from the start line and we were off, albeit at walking pace till we crossed the line when the field started opening up enough to start running.

The first half mile I was weaving in and out of slower runners, by the time we descend the first hill out of Balfron the crowds thin out and find myself running alongside a dozen or so runners moving at a similar pace.  The next two miles are undulating but on average downhill and keep place going uphill and overtake runners on the descents.  Checking my HR monitor is a little alarming though - already up in the 178 to 180 range, while I don't feel I'm working hard and my breathing is relaxed I don't feel comfortable - I lack the elasticity and smoothness in my legs that I normally have.

From the 4km marker out turnaround point at half way I keep position but am now having to work harder to maintain the speed.  When I ran my 39:36 PB at the Killin 10k in August last year I saw similar HR readings and the pace out the half way point was actually similar, but this time around I could tell that maintaining the intensity would be much more of a struggle. Shortly before the turn around point the leaders pass us on their return leg, we cheer them on and I take comfort in being over a minute up on my splits for my previous Balfron 10k.

Once around the turnaround point a couple of runners surge past me and as I'm already working plenty hard enough don't take chase, instead work on keeping in touch with the other runners ahead who I've been tailing for the last 1km.  My time at the turn was just under 20 minutes, given my lack of race fitness I'm chuffed to be progressing so near to my PB pace.

Rather quickly reality set in, the turnaround has us heading back into directly into a stiff breeze which takes the speed out of the descents and makes the uphills slower, everything now feels much harder work.  Out the outbound leg we clearly benefited greatly from the tailwind but hardly noticed it so was fooled into false sense of ease of progress.  The return leg wouldn't benefit from any free speed, on average uphill and into wind it was to become a real slog.

I wasn't the only runner suffering, despite all the hills being perfectly runnable several runners ahead were slowly badly and two stopped to walk on one of the longer ascents. I gained a few places and held off others on that had been behind me, but all I felt like doing was stopping myself, sustaining the level of effort was tough.  It was odd, my HR was still way high, up in the 176-182 range, normally this would be above my lactate threshold,  but my relatively calm breathing compared to those around me, and lack of leg burn suggested I wasn't going too anaerobic, but my legs were just unresponsiveness and lacking in any bounce.

The final km marker came and went and shortly after we were heading up the last hill back into Balfron.  Spectators lined the street and cheered us on.  A runner that I had overtaken on an earlier hill was now chasing me hard, but both of us were out of touch of the runners ahead so it was going to be half mile race in between us too.  I keep the intensity up expecting to drop him but still he I could sense him not far behind, with around 100m to go we turn into the drive way of the Balfron Acadmay campus, it's a steady uphill all the way to finish with hundreds of vectors roaring us on.

My chaser began to pull up beside me but I know how much crowds love a sprint finish I can't help but find last reserves of strength and accelerate and pull back ahead.  With 40m to go it looks like I've got it sown up and straight line it to the finish.  I'm aware that my line would be closing off a way through to my competitor who is on my inside, the thought occurs to me the killer instinct would have me close off the gap, but this just isn't sporting so shift myself over to give him a fighting chance and proper crowd pleasing photo finish.  With  5m to rather than being beat he finds a final surge that brings him level and moving faster, there is too little time to respond he just pips me to the finish.

I am astonished that I was able to find the sprint finish - perhaps the best sprint finish of my life, I go across to my challenger to congratulate him on a brilliant finish.  He wasn't having anything of it, rather than sharing respect for a worthy competitor it was the exact opposite, it was like I had done something wrong.  What a contrast to running an Ultra where everyone shows respect for the public, marshals and each other.

Thankfully the marshals are much more friendly, they dutifully remove my timing chip from my foot, give me good bag and T-shirt and a few slices of oranges.  I gingerly walk to join the crowds and cheer the other finishers.  Not long after I finish Andrew comes in, chuffed to bits with how his run went.

After quick change and a cup of tea the heavens open and we head back home.  Just as we area leaving we spot one of the organizers sticking up results on a window - amazingly they were printing out the results as runners came in so we could get our gun time and chip time right away.  This was another example of the really impressive organization behind the race.

My chip time was 41:50, 23 seconds faster than my Callander 10k the previous week, this would be great but Callander 10k is substantially hillier (~550ft vs 300ft), and I raced the Balfron 10k much harder, shown by my average HR of 178 at Balfron being 3 bpm higher.  In hindsight I went out too fast and struggled to maintain the work intensity, but also I think a week off running probably left my body detuned.

I also think my relaxed state prior to the race rather than being a good thing probably meant that I didn't have the elevated Adrenaline levels that make speed so much easier and putting up with discomfort so much more bearable.  Perhaps I was expecting too much to race well off such poor training and the psychological hit of having to pull out the Highland Fling.

Full Balfron 10k race results can be at here.