Wednesday 15 November 2017

Stanton Sherpa - 'Longer' Term Review

This should be a long-term review.  I intended to enjoy a whole summer smashing this steel wonder through trails of all guises, generating opinion, encapsulating feelings and suggesting improvements, but instead I've been heavily injured, staring frustratedly at an overly-shiny machine, longing for the day I could go give it a kicking.  The great news is that the consultant finally consented, physio gave green light, and since that point I've packed a whole season of riding into a handful of weeks to grasp the essence of the Stanton Sherpa, a real tearaway dressed in a gentleman's finery.
The Sherpa in its natural habitat, tearing up the trails
The ins-and-outs of the build were explored in the 'first-impressions' so I'll not bang on those details too much again, but it is essential to reiterate the sheer uncompromising quality of the frame manufacture.  With so many companies still seemingly content to churn out frames with welds that look like GCSE projects, it's truly refreshing to witness pristine fishscales throughout.  Not just this frame either, having examined tens of Stantons during a factory visit, quality control is in clear evidence, again outshining several shocking examples I've seen from 'reputable' companies who's welders must be prone to the odd shocking hangover.  The paint has also largely survived thus far, retaining it's lustrous deep green, an occasional loving polish regenerating the sparkling nature.  Having not been particularly kind or heavy on forethought, the traditional left-heel wear is in evidence as well as some head-tube rub but either of those issues could've been eradicated by proper protection.
Lazy head tube protection positioning!
The Ride

Stanton give their frames ratings for several categories, thankfully avoiding the temptation to claim that all their offerings are ideal in every situation.  They give the Sherpa a ten for 'trail', nine for 'XC' but only five for 'enduro' which given my default ride style means that it could've been a touch conservative for my liking.  Jacking and slacking with a 140mm set of Pikes pushed it beyond recommendation but I have to say that this set-up feels just fine with no notable ill-effect from the raised bottom bracket once I'd adapted to it.  In fact, after a season on a Ragley where techy climbs needed rotation by rotation forethought to minimise pedal strikes, it's a pleasure just to be able to attack the steep and rooty sections without hesitation.  The downside should be in cornering prowess and the Sherpa does occasionally lack that delicious feeling of carving that you get with super-low BB's or fully-compressed rear ends, but despite not 'feeling' so planted it's not to the detriment of speed or performance.  I'd just love it if the frame came in 18" rather than 19" as a lower top-tube could make side to side weight transfer a bit snappier.

The feel of quality steel is truly incredible and sadly an experience that the majority of modern bikers will never get to appreciate.  Overused adjectives include 'whippy', 'forgiving' and 'springy' but the best way I can describe it is that despite obviously having no shock to dissipate the lumps and bumps, I never feel beaten up at all.  From fire-road bashing to six-foot drops, the Sherpa takes the sting out of everything, flexing when needed but transferring power without fuss.  The majority of our trails are built for 140mm+ travel machines and although I could undeniably go faster with the talent enhancement of a big rig, I never feel out of depth at all.  The precision required to pilot a quality hardtail at full speed, off the brakes over steep and rutted terrain is a rite-of-passage that all bikers should go through, and a rapid way to improve skills.  The Sherpa has the rare quality of making all trails fun, regardless of which direction the slope points and there's a definite smugness to passing the wildly bobbing bouncers on the climbs, letting them eat my dust whilst they fight the flop of their 63 degree head angles.

And whilst on that subject, don't be put off by the 'unfashionably steep' (by modern standards) 67.5 degree head angle.  Admittedly, the longer forks on mine have pushed this below 67 but that's perfect for my local downhills that are rarely steep but always reward quick steering responses.  Combined with a 35mm stem, the front end still doesn't feel at all twitchy and I enjoy all the benefits of improved performance in tight, techy terrain and on the climbs.  The Pikes are run hard with the MRP cartridge ramped well up to prevent any diving under hard braking and it makes for consistent performance at all times.
Pre-Pikes.  A race run on borrowed forks

Thanks to a delay in receiving my Ibis 942 rims (that are just incredible, separate review coming soon) I was running a 142mm rear hub initially along with a Boost 110 at the front.  Switching to the Chris King 148 rear hub would've necessitated a new frame with most manufacturers, but Stanton are smarter than that.  The Sherpa dropouts are spaced at a mid-point 145mm allowing them to be simply flexed in or out 3mm to suit either hub width without any brake alignment issues.  It works absolutely fine, lob in a longer axle and off you go; I'll not lie and claim wheel changes aren't now a bit of a hassle but that can be alleviated by swapping the entire dropout using the superb CNC machined 'Swapout' system that is available in 135 QR, 142, 148 and Singlespeed, very versatile.

Boost conversion was as simple as lobbing in a 148 skewer!
Back to the Ride

Post-crash and torn rotator I suffered a period of 'the fear' where I was riding as stiff as the frozen shoulder joint that still clicked and popped alarmingly with every extended movement.  The flow was all missing, field of vision far too short and fixated on every wet root and greasy rock, necessitating a period of 'old-school XC' smashing instead of the usual enduro loops.  Rides focused on bashing out quick miles on the fire roads, driving hard over the peaks and actively seeking more mellow trails that rewarded smoothness over aggression.  This was a total revelation as the self-appointed 'perfect ten' for trail performance was more than vindicated.  As an all-round trail bike, the Sherpa is nearer to perfection than anything I've ever ridden, the natural properties of carefully specced steel combining with impeccable build to create something just so alive.  At risk of drowning in cliche, the feel just generates an instant smile, fun in all situations short of full-on DH, no indication that the bike is a limiter but not inviting you into the precarious traps that often catch out over-biked but under-skilled riders.

The Wheel Size Bollocks

I read a shining review of the Sherpa Ti in Singletrack Magazine a few months back that described it as a 29'er that doesn't feel like one.  Whilst I know what they meant, that it's a big-wheeler that manages to retain the playful nature of its smaller-wheeled counterparts, I think it's time to speak the truth on the matter and admit that when 29ers are properly designed, they pretty much destroy the other wheel sizes.  The Sherpa is easy to hop, flick and chuck but it's also extremely stable, planted and able to truck through the really rough stuff as only 29ers can.  It corners better, holds speed better, simply is better than hardtails with any other wheel size, end of story.  Anyone who can't extract these qualities from this bike is deficient in personal ability, it's not the bike's fault.  Top-end carbon rims definitely do allow the wagon wheels to shine, laterally stiff, incredibly strong and also light enough to overcome the slight inherent inertia and accelerate well, if not snappily, although any sluggishness is really attributable to the draggy 2.4" Maxxis treads and low tyre pressures.
Draggy Maxxis treads that STILL tear with annoying regularity.  Tubeless repair pictured
On that note, I really would love to kit this bike out with narrow carbon rims, lightweight tyres, 100mm forks and a slightly stretchier cockpit to see just what a rocket it could be, it would be a bit fairer on Stanton too considering that's what it's really designed for.

Bits and Bobs

So I said I'd not harp on too much about the kit but it has been used and abused pretty well now with tons of gloop and plenty of ill-aimed power washing so here's how the plug-ons are surviving.

The Stanton Bits:

The aluminium Super Series bars and stem have performed faultlessly so far.  With the bars now trimmed to 760mm and the stem at 35mm I've got almost the right combo of reach and quick steering for all-round prowess.  However, at 35mm diameter, they are an incredibly stiff unit and following several years on carbon bars I have missed the slight inherent flex.  I may go back to a set of 740mm Fatbar Lite for comparative purposes, just to see which I prefer.  That said, I run my forks very hard and a softer set up would be more forgiving making the Stanton combo bang-on.  No creaks, able to cope with me trying to flex the hell out of them and also still looking immaculate.  They grip better than carbon bars in the stem too so no need to risk over-torquing.

The ti-railed Stanton Rigel saddle has been superb, a really comfortable shape, even on recent epics, and extremely hard wearing, looking like new despite being lent on walls and crashed a few times.  Very impressed and I'm seriously picky about contact points.
Very sweet looking set-up!

Pikes need no introduction but the MRP cartridge has been a real game changer, allowing adjustments and tuning that I'd never have been arsed to do otherwise, and definitely getting the best from the suspension.  I'm a firm believer that fork set-up has to be bang on for a hardtail, as fork dive can be lethal, steepening angles and pitching the rider forward.  I've been able to run them super hard as I like them but then back off a bit to improve initial stroke sensitivity but use the MRP to ramp up the curve and keep them high in the travel.  Two clicks from fastest rebound has been perfect.

Bearing Surfaces:

All Chris King, say no more.  Yes, they're extremely expensive and thanks to impending Brexit they've rocketed further, along with Sterling becoming akin to chocolate coins in relative value, but to me anything else is false economy.  The rear hub does drag a bit if you use the old style ring drive lube but I run the oilier stuff and they're always silky smooth.  I bought new ones for the Sherpa but I've still got a set from 18 years ago that would be on this build if they were Boost compatible, they're running as good as new.  The Inset-7 headset is faultless and probably the weakest component is the most extravagant, a ceramic bearing bottom bracket.  It runs superbly but the sealing isn't as good as the other components, good job that re-greasing with the specific tool takes just five minutes, flushing out all liquids and old grease.  Fit, forget, admire!

Bike Yoke Dropper:

Buttery smooth still, despite not touching the cable since fitting, and probably being a bit close with the power-hose.  The lever is ergonomic perfection and the key selling point, the 'Revive' function works a treat.  I have had issues with needing to use that far more than anticipated but TF Tuned have promised to retro-fit a new part that is meant to alleviate the issue for free, I just need to find a spare week when I won't need my bike!  Overall, despite that minor annoyance, it's light years ahead of all other droppers I've used.

Ibis 942 Rims:

I've recently read a glowing review/advert stating that the new Santa Cruz rims are the best carbon rims ever used by the tester, requiring only one truing during the testing period.  Well, here's a fact for them.  Last year I battered a set of Ibis 941's, stock build, for a whole season of hardtail enduro racing, a week smashing round the Tweed Valley, a couple of days and a huge crash in Finale and all the riding in-between and they remained true to 0.2mm with zero maintenance.  Admittedly I weigh just 70kg and am pretty smooth, but when it comes to battering a hardtail through a rock garden during a race, off the brakes and with 18psi in the back tyre causing seriously alarming dull thuds of plastic on rock, you'd expect damage.  This year I updated to the asymmetric 942's and built them myself, 32 hole, 3 cross with DT Comp spokes for a good solid, but still acceptably light combination.  They too have been totally without fault, bar leaking a bit of sealant through the valve hole.

And another thing!  I read some articles stating that carbon rims are 'too stiff' for hardtail riding, a statement demonstrating unbelievable ignorance in the writer.  Lateral stiffness is essential in the rim because you can build whatever properties you want into the wheel.  I've deliberately put mine together at the lower end of recommended tensions to allow them to compress slightly into corners and give a small amount of cushioning.  Get a decent wheel builder, tell them how you want the wheel to perform and they should be able to create the perfect ride attributes.  Why the hell would you want a rim that flexes so you need to tension the hell out of it to stop it bending?!!

Maxxis High Roller/Minion EXO

Grip amazing, tear like a shit ninja trying to do that walking on rice paper trick.  The Minion on the front has a slice that fixed well with an internal patch and external super glue.  I'm on the second High Roller and that has had to be patched and 'tubeless pooed' to keep it together and I've still ultimately resorted to whacking in a tube because I'm bored of sealant leaking through slices and tears, pissing up my back and ruining my jerseys.  Wide carbon rims with low pressure tyres give incredible cornering prowess and all-round grip but the compound technology desperately needs to catch up.

XTR 1x11

After sorting an initial shifting annoyance that was stupidly caused by a ten speed power link on an eleven speed chain (tolerances are very tight with 11 speed cassette spacing) everything has been faultless.  The 30:40 lowest gear is far too low so I'm going back to 11-36 soon and in fact I've wound in the barrel and limit screws so I can only get it into the 32 at the back.  If you need more than a 1:1 ratio to get up a hill and you don't live in the Alps then maybe it's time to get fitter!  Brakes have been superb, easy to set up, adjust and bleed (only been needed once) with the perfect combination of power and modulation.  I always love the shape of the carbon XTR levers too, nice and short for one finger, good hook on the end and grippy dimples.  They don't get cold in the Winter either.

The Bottom Line

Proper craftsmanship shines brightly and this frame screams class and quality, evidently designed by people with a deep understanding of both the metallurgical properties and also how to best apply them in the right wall thicknesses and positions for peak performance.  It's reminiscent of frames I rode twenty years ago, back when top-end steel was considered the peak of technology, but the Sherpa has a slight modern twist.  The angles are bang-on for the intended usage, slaying trails all day, but the versatility of the frame is totally evident in the more aggro guise I've forced it into.  I've a feeling that I'd be straying beyond its limits on really steep tech, the likes of the Golfie in the Tweed Valley, weight thrown a bit far forward on near vertical drop-ins and the higher bottom bracket becoming more noticeable in the catch berms, but Stanton have just released the Switch 9er Ti, almost reading my mind in the search for aggressive hardtail perfection.  At £700 for a steel hardtail frame the Sherpa is obviously not cheap and possibly quite niche, but when you look closely at one, it's immediately evident where the money goes and I was riding far more expensive steel frames in the nineties that weren't as well put together.
The traditional left heel wear on the stay, why don't I ever learn to frame tape from new?
It's holding up very well to abuse, still looking fresh and turning heads although I do wish that I'd put a bit of frame tape in the areas where I knew I'd be rubbing, to further keep the box-fresh look.  Concerns I had over a possible rattling cable within the frame and water ingress at the dropper-post entry haven't at all materialised and I'd really be struggling hard to find any criticisms.  I've raced it, holidayed with it, ridden it fast and hard on all kinds of terrain and it just comes back for more as I've belied the supposed intentions, seeking its outer limits.  I've even shared the pain of a huge smash, been coaxed through a gentle rehabilitation and come back more refreshed and psyched for MTB than I've felt in years, much thanks to the inspirational nature of this bike.  I'd keep it forever but there's a part of my brain that promised my teenage self a titanium frameset many years ago, when it was merely a ridiculous pipe dream.  The aforementioned Switch9er Ti looks the bike of my dreams, not just for now but for the last three decades.  When it arrives I'll definitely miss the Sherpa dearly but bikes have no place for sentiment and I'm bubbling with excitement at how good the '9er will prove to be.  Whatever it rides like, the standards of workmanship that separate Stanton from all but a couple of other large-scale (non-artisan) manufacturers in the world guarantee that it'll be extremely special.

Stanton Sherpa: £700
Stanton Sherpa Ti: £1,850

Friday 3 November 2017

H2 No

Health Warning: This advice is a response to numerous questions received regarding improved mountain running performance.  If you attempt to follow it, do so with care and proper planning.

'Hydrate or Die'

So said the original Camelbak tagline, and at a fundamental level that statement is absolutely right.  Symptoms of dehydration include thirst, dry mouth and lips, headaches, stomach problems, loss of concentration, muscle weakness, low blood pressure and then at the serious end of the scale, death; none of which are conducive to peak performance, especially the last one.

However, I'm about to share an approach that has definitely increased race speed, particularly on the climbs, extremely simple in concept but more complex in actuality, carry less water.
Very hilly 13km, hot day, definitely no need for water
Many people ask me about improving their mountain running performance, somehow under the impression that I may have a clue, based on my own efforts and results.  Having given it endless consideration over the years, the answer doesn't have to be overly-complicated, just lose weight.  That's right, it's that simple and if you drop the bulk through upping training mileages, intensities and gradients then your progression will be more rapid.  

If, like myself, you're a stats geek who pores over ancient race results then likely you've noticed certain runners rise through the ranks, incrementally or sometimes briskly heading north on the results sheets.  If you match the performances to photos or memories then you'll pick up the almost direct correlation between skinnier frames and faster times, but it's not only what's in the body that weighs, it's what's on the body too.

Readers of the recent 'timely reminder' blog will know that when it comes to safety equipment, I don't ever take the mountains for granted, happily lugging all the necessary clothing required to stave off hypothermia throughout the year.  However, technology as it is, I'm in possession of some superb equipment that packs small and is notably lightweight.  Over the years, advances in materials have slashed the grams from our gear, but unfortunately it's impossible to do the same for fluids.

Water is heavy at 1kg per litre.  Imagine the positive effect on uphill motion of dropping a kilo, or even more if you're a serial slurper.  Noticing this, a few years back I began to experiment with drinking less, breaking that reliance whilst maintaining peak performance and hoping not to die in the process.  Initially it was daunting, uncomfortable and at times devastating on energy levels, body almost grinding to a halt, cells screaming for liquid sustenance.  Yet gradually the needs abated, legs no longer fading after an hour, mouth not perpetually dry, and importantly the mental cravings entirely disappeared.  Within a couple of years I was able, and entirely comfortable to complete hard 2-3 hour mountain sessions on 250ml of water or less, even on warm days.  Pre-hydration is obviously important but not ridiculous amounts, usually a glass of water and a cup of peppermint tea as soon as I get out of bed and then straight to the hills.
Hydrate well before and after the race, but don't carry litres during!
The human body is an incredibly capable instrument, ceaselessly adaptable to endless alternate environments and situations.  Maintaining performance on limited fluids seems to be a trainable trait, just like all other aspects of training, the more you do it, the better you adapt.  Buoyed by results, the next aim was ditching the food.

I've never been a huge eater whilst running, possibly because my stomach reacts badly to anything solid being bounced around inside for hours on end.  Gels provide the required energy boosts on occasion but the sugar laden, gummed-up, post-exercise lows were enough to seek limited usage.  As with the water, cutbacks were slow, but over time the same results were forthcoming, a breaking of necessity and fully-functioning muscles regardless of calorific intake.

Do you ever finish a run with water or food to spare?  If so, then you're already set to cut down.  Do you always finish your water as a matter of principle?  Then you're probably also ready to make gradual limitations.  I set off for the recent Mourne Skyline race carrying just 200ml, and even that was for emergencies only.  Forcing down 500ml at the Fofanny Dam feed station was more about getting the caffeine injection required to up the pace over the much more mountainous second half, and I ended up jettisoning about half of the 400ml also carried from the Dam to see me home.  Nearly four hours of boggy running, 22 miles and 3370m of ascent on less than a litre, and I finished feeling comfortably hydrated.  I consumed four gels and finished feeling full, not eating again until some soup at the prize-giving nearly five hours after race finish.  

Even carrying that 200ml for the first half of the race was the same weight as my jacket.  I know runners who agonise over kit weight and shoe weight and who would never carry any more than the bare bones of compulsory lists and yet they'll set off on a two-hour run armed with heavy liquids and food.  The way I see it, even with the most thoughtless cock-ups I'll never die of dehydration in the mountains of Ireland, chances of succumbing to exposure are infinitely higher, and so to keep overall weight down, the jacket will always stay but the food and drink will often stay in the van.

And now time for a BIG disclaimer....

1) This is obviously only relevant if you're already at or near your perfect race weight.  Saving a kilo on pack weight is insignificant if carrying 30kg excess on your body.  Nevertheless, if you're serious about improving then don't be afraid to work on ALL aspects of performance and this could be another useful string to the bow.

2) Even having experimented extensively with this approach over the last four years or so I still make massive and costly mistakes.  Most notably this season when taking on the very hilly 33 mile Wicklow Way Maurice Mullins Ultra on just half a litre.  To compound this foolishness it was a beautiful sunny day, extremely sweaty for Ireland in March.  31 miles in, I was comfortably inside record pace but ended up crawling over the line nearly fifteen minutes outside it.  Needless to say that last two miles was a chastening experience that I thought might cost me the win!
50 hilly km, warm day, 500ml of fluids, almost, but crucially not quite enough.
3) If you're going to try this then do it gradually and don't expose yourself to unnecessary danger.  You can always carry the required sustenance but try not to use it, before ditching it for good and benefiting from the weight saving later on.  Best of luck!

Sunday 29 October 2017

Salvaging Seasons - The 2018 Garmin Mourne Skyline MTR

The last five minutes were undeniably the toughest, so close to the longed-for finish line but with legs threatening to seize again on the unforgiving fire-road surface. Waves of pure emotion rising like giant sobs, catching in my throat and being swallowed rapidly down, long-bottled frustration so close to release.  Oblivious to the ten-minute gap behind and executing a pre-planned kick down the road to the football pitch, reality finally dawned with the inflatable arch in sight and I accepted the fact that the race was mine.  Arms raised, fingers pointing to the sky, this one meant an awful lot.
Spoiler alert! Yes, I won in the end, no suspense here.  Photo Credit: Jayne Bell
October last year painted a very different picture as Team Garmin's Germain Grangier took the Mourne Skyline title and my course record along with it.  Being magnanimous in defeat is infinitely trickier when denied the solace of actually facing an opponent, injury just a fortnight before the race stealing the opportunity for an epic battle.  Knowing that I'd gone five minutes faster than the new record in recent training did nothing to soften the blow and slim consolation was garnered from the knowledge that there's always next year.

Fast-forward again to October 2017, weeks of preparation aimed towards hitting peak on this day, numerous injuries overcome and ambitious sessions logged.  A season of missed targets ramping the significance, and what should have been an end-of-season celebration morphed into a season-defining result.  I wanted my record back but the weather had other ideas, a forecast threatening lightning and gales, gradually relinquishing its power, leaving benign enough conditions but treacherously loose ground.  It would be a race for the win paying no heed to the watch.

A non-functioning alarm saw a panicked breakfast, hoovering a banana and peanut butter sandwich half an hour later than scheduled.  I can't eat within 150 minutes of a race but the Skyline is long and will make light work of an under-nourished athlete so I accept that the first thirty minutes of running will need a gentle approach for the sake of my stomach.  Final checks, grab my kit and head for Newcastle.  Smiles and chat at the kit check table but those on the near-side wear tense masks, everyone keenly aware that suffering is in store, regardless of pace.  Agonising over kit decisions I end up wearing one lightweight waterproof whilst carrying another, adhering to kit-lists but opting to avoid the sweat of more robust materials and parachute effect of hoods.  An almighty shower fills the last twenty minutes of anticipation, guaranteeing a soggy start and a portent of conditions to come.
Moody looking skies about to unleash
Easy pace along the seafront and very tentative up the Granite Steps, slight dizziness and concerns over breathing with the head-cold that has robbed me of energy and last-minute prep in the preceding week.  Cursing poor decisions, the race number on the shorts flicked open by swinging arm, necessitating a frustrating fifteen second fumble to re-attach the safety pin.  Consoled by a lack of record-breaking ambition, I re-join the lead and jog the short section to the ice-house trail.  The Donard ascent so familiar it requires no conscious thought, steps finding themselves and intermittent conversation filling the minutes as we approach the col, over the stile and cruising on...

Seamy Lynch attacks.  A notable stretching of the legs from my clubmate as soon as he crosses to the far side of the solid granite wall.  Caught in two minds I belatedly follow, more through a want of company than control of the race.  Catching on to the back of him I warn about overcooking, having sized up the opposition on the Donard ascent, it's very early days but already I know that the winner will be me or my friend and that question won't need addressing for a couple of hours.  Nevertheless, we stride on powerfully, enjoying the rare opportunity to cover distance at speed before hitting the peaks.  Next up, the unfeasibly steep and slippery Slieve Bearnagh climb is dispatched nonchalantly, satisfying to be leading out the field so effortlessly, but the descents are the concern today, numerous falls in recent forays on the course serving due warning over misplaced steps and over-exuberance.  As expected, the upper-slopes are free of traction, loose gravel and moisture-sheened rock.  Seamy falls but maintains motion, fluid and rhythmic, a class act altogether, whilst I gradually lose touch, my movements more reserved, survival over speed.  Annoyingly, the only minor slide sees ankle catch rock, right on the bone and that instant warmth that signals flowing blood.  Concern and self-admonishment, it hurts like hell, a nauseating burn, but experience says it'll wear off in time and pressing on is the only option.
Right on the bone, just where it hurts!
Exiting the col onto the jagged climb of Slieve Meelmore, Seamus hesitates rather than pressing home the advantage gained coming off Bearnagh.  I smile, his hand revealed slightly, maybe he's not ready to push on solo yet or maybe the doubts over limited mountain miles in recent years?  Either way, we resume conversation whilst running to the summit tower, 'dipping' the checkpoint and pressing on down Happy Valley.  More uncertain terrain, more deep sludge, the leg-sapping continuing even on the downs and an excess of concentration required just to stay rubber-side down.  Lynch falls again but gradually pushes the downhill pace once more, crossing stile and stream a handful of seconds ahead.
Seamy Lynch leading it out on the way to second place.  Photo Credit: Ian Corless
Fofanny Dam feed station is supposedly the half-way point.  Grabbing some barely desired sustenance we hit the mile-long road climb in OK spirits, happy in the knowledge that minimal energy has been burned to this point.  In distance terms we may be nearly 50% done but the hard miles all lay ahead and half a litre of caffeine rich electrolytes will kick start the real race legs.  From here it's about running a consistent pace, short strides and rapid cadence, brain disengaged and the first genuinely strenuous efforts.  The sixth-sense notes that Seamus is no longer on my shoulder, only my own breath audible and no second squelch echoing my footsteps.  He may be fading but he certainly won't blow, a tenacious mindset will keep him hanging on and so pacing remains key, it's not the kind of race where a winning burst is required.  I later learned that he stopped for a piss; I'd have held it in myself!

Over Meelbeg and the caffeine has definitely got the synapses firing, eyes brighter and a spring in the step, friendly exchanges with Justin Maxwell and the marshals on Meelmore and an embarrassing slip into the grime.  For the first time I'm feeling in command, aware of an increasing gap behind despite carefully regulated movement; perhaps spurred on I descend Meelmore's technical rock gardens light on the toes, more risks and yet some genuine enjoyment, racing can't all be serious.
Starting to enjoy myself.  Photo Credit: No Limits
The steep but short side of Bearnagh, hands and knees clawing at heather whilst rubber knobbles strain for grip on the pebble-dashed surface.  An exceedingly rare glance back sees the lead at around a hundred metres, mere seconds for Usain but a lifetime on thirty degree scree.  This is my terrain, legs like pistons and hands pushing hard on knees with every stride.  This isn't just walking, it's an all-body drive for upward momentum and deliberate attack here can be worth minutes.  Cresting the summit, gel squeezed into throat, the sickly-sweet gumminess immediately counteracted by the delightful bitterness of a salt tablet, why does racing necessitate such disgusting re-fuelling?  The wind is picking up as anticipated, blustery gusts swirling, tricky to anticipate, leaning gently into the invisible crutch, waiting for it to suddenly disappear.  A definite sense of relief at departing the lower slopes, the last of the real rough downhill over and an oh-so-familiar run in to the finish.

The final ridge consists of four peaks, ranked numerous times in my head according to difficulty, the first steep and then draggy, much like the third, and the second a mere blip, blink and you'll miss it.  The final hurdle is Slieve Commedagh, steep and unforgiving from this direction but the jumble of decaying man-made steps dispatch you rapidly to the summit tower.  I out-ran Seamus in a sprint race here a few weeks back, a surprising result at the renewal of an old rivalry, but today the pace is sluggish, the heavy drag of thousands of bogged-down steps finally taking their toll.  Mind-control is key here, drawing motivation thinking about my wee lads and their beaming pride if I win, but not becoming overwhelmed by thoughts of the finish, there's plenty can go wrong yet.
Coming home alone on the tortuous final ridge.  Photo Credit: Ian Corless
Commedagh summit is un-manned, looking unusually barren in the worsening clag.  No place to hesitate, dropping wearily down the double descent to the smiling faces at the col and pressing on up the day's ultimate climb.  The king of the Mournes, Slieve Donard is a drag, more power-walking and a tedious internal monologue driving me on, step by step, minute by minute.  Visibility now seriously hindered, I'm almost on the top before seeing it.  Four more ascending paces over the rain-greased stile and it's all downhill from here.

Nothing is ever easy.  Pace has been regulated throughout, sustenance enforced religiously, nothing flash in a performance notable in its tedium and yet cramp still makes an unwelcome enquiry, knocking on the door of my stabilising muscles, threatening total lockout.  A calm head is essential, alter the stride, slow the pace and no jerky movements, every tiny slip sending jerks of pain from confused and fatigued nerves.  Gradually it dissipates but the remainder of the descent will be on tenterhooks, keeping a frazzled brain busy, contemplating the cruelty of potential defeat grasped from the jaws of victory.  Hitting the fire road, for the first time I'm curious about the time, undoubtedly slow but nevertheless interesting enough for a glance at a watch face that tells me it's 6pm on the 1st January 2000, even the watch battery has had enough today.

No glorious sprint in with no chance of records and so a casual approach to the finish allows a mental decompression prior to the line.  A couple of involuntary shouts and some general fist waving before breaking the tape, hands on head in relief and then bent double with the exertion.  Happiness and relief, although unsure as to which is more prominent at this point.  Body and brain emptied beyond healthy limits, there will undoubtedly be repercussions for both in the coming days but for now enjoy the moment, savour the win and the satisfying end to a supposedly indifferent season.
Happiness and relief in equal measure
The time, 3:57:18 is surprisingly acceptable given underfoot conditions, enough to win by ten minutes but nearly eight minutes off record pace and fourteen off PB for the course.  Just goes to show how arbitrary mountain records are really when so dependent on so many factors, doesn't make them any less desirable though!  Further consideration of the stats, 22 miles, near 3,400m of ascent/descent and rhythm-destroying, foot-sapping surfaces throughout adds context.  It's a satisfying physical performance that's near impossible to explain to the uninitiated, most take that time just to do Donard once!
Me, Seamus and Ryan Stewart, men's top three.  Photo Credit: Jayne Bell
Huge, really genuinely huge thanks to all the organisers and particularly the marshals who once again made this the top class event that it is, standing on the mountainside long after I was stood in the pub with Guinness in hand.  Ryan, Justin, Ricky, Ian Corless, all the ladies with the delicious soup, Jonny and the course markers, basically anyone who gave up the time to help out.  You're all what make this sport so great.  Also, massive respect to all those who ran, congrats to Seamy who kept hold of second place, Shettleston Harrier's Ryan Stewart in third and also David and Colm who ran brilliantly for fourth and fifth for a Newcastle AC show of dominance like the old days!  Also have to mention Shileen O'Kane who won the tightest battle of the day, edging out Dark Peak's Megan Wilson to take the win and twelfth overall, superb running!  People ask how we can run that course in four hours but I always counter by pointing out that it's easy when you know you'll be back before lunch.  I reckon it's tougher being out there for eight, particularly when the weather turned biblical about two pm, ripping the hillside apart with gale-force winds and sheet rain.  We all deserve a pat on the back!  Onwards and upwards now towards hopefully a productive off-season.  Looking back, I was actually unbeaten in Ireland this year, just a shame that I only managed three races!  Better luck next year.

Tuesday 17 October 2017

Normalised Abnormality

Knowledge is supposedly power and in a permanently tracked, logged and digitized world, the accumulation of highly detailed training data is remarkably easy.  Unfortunately, that information in isolation is fairly useless, whilst actually utilising it for positive fitness advances is where the real skill lies.  I'm no Strava head.  No Garmin tracks my progress and even the heart rate monitor is only dusted off for tempo work.  That's why, when it comes to retaining the details I prefer the low-tech, less-is-more, old school written diary approach.  Every session completed over the last few years is scrawled and stored allowing a glance back whenever required in order to spot patterns and emulate previous successes.

It's astounding sometimes, perusing the sheer volume of previous efforts, accumulated hours of sweat, grimaces and grins.  Times when training has been completed in spite of fifteen-hour work days, squeezed in long before dawn or way post-dusk.  Memories of discovering new running routes in stormy darkness around unknown cities, of white-outs and soupy fog on featureless moorland, hunching behind boulders in uncompromising mountains with frozen hands turning bezel, following bearings into gale-force storms.  A lifetime of exercise has brought me to my current state, of continual learning, trial and error, stupid mistakes repeated or rectified, and the diaries are always there to help arrange the pieces of the puzzle.
The diary! A record smashing race on Saturday followed by 1100+m of ascent/descent on Sunday and then a 3:19, 24 miler through the mountains on Monday.  Snuck in a cheeky 12 minute plank too for the core!  Normalised abnormality.
Recently, whilst prepping for the Garmin Mourne Skyline race this coming weekend I was perusing the preparation that saw me carve minutes off the course record in 2015.  Much has changed since then, a shift towards longer efforts, a few Ultras, increasing mileages and schedules that would've seemed preposterous just a couple of years ago.  Longer races have demanded more robust legs, and the mental fortitude that only accumulates through over-extension and survival, normalising the abnormal.  A few years back a triple Slieve Donard in sub 3:30 was a pipe dream, last week a weather battered sub 3:10 triple was just one of four mountain runs, totalling sixty miles and over 9000m of ascent, along with several weights sessions and some lovely turbo-trainer recovery time.

It feels like a new realm has been entered, a place where extreme aspirations have become everyday, the auto-pilot of training certainty dragging me further into the hills on a more regular basis.  Running was originally a response to limited bike training time following the birth of our first child, a form of exercise that could satiate the need to suffer and release those endorphins in a condensed format.  Now it's come full-circle, with up to fifteen hours spent on foot per week and latterly even some recovery sessions accompanied by Rowan, the now seven year-old, pushing his own Parkrun PB.  This realm may bring success, desired race results have certainly facilitated the drive but pushing the body has its own intrinsic rewards, as well as dangers.

Injury has been a constant companion accompanying this bodily transformation.  The classic error of the over-enthusiastic runner, pushing too-hard too-soon, over-extending an underdeveloped physiology and rushing the return from enforced lay-offs.  I'd hazard that a majority of people reading this have been through the same cycle, runners are notoriously stupid when it comes to rest and recovery, just ask any physio.  Regardless of the result this Saturday, the process of preparation has been revealing, an inner-strength blossoming through months of injury, and hopefully I've developed the sense to take a few days off afterwards.  I'm sat here suffering with a cold that has predictably struck at the worst possible time, maybe a timely bodily response guaranteeing a genuine taper period.

The season is nearly over.  Like many of you I'll soon be formulating plans for next year, picturing that perfect winter of base miles, idyllic journeys over frozen peaks and crisp mornings in the forests.  This realm of possibilities has a magnetic draw and I want to see where it takes me next, but that can only happen if finally unhindered by injury.  Overtraining needs to be viewed as a form of self-harm, it never ends well, yet resting when feeling strong can be as hard, if not harder than training when feeling unfit.

It's all there in the diaries, all the evidence of past screw-ups is down in black and white.  Time to grab a cuppa, read up and make a fool-proof plan for 2018.

Wednesday 11 October 2017

A Timely Reminder

If we didn't train on awful days in the Mournes, we probably wouldn't be very fit!

And so it was that my final scheduled long-run as part of preparations for the Garmin Mourne Skyline in ten days time took place in a total stinker of a storm today.  In itself, nothing abnormal, as previously explained, if a session is in the diary, it's going to happen and sometimes that means wrapping-up and doubling the suffering.  This morning though brought a familiar tightrope act on the cusp between enjoyment and danger as conditions contrived to create potentially lethal circumstances.

Departing the van at 8:30am I was instantly exposed to the swirling wind and cold bullets of rain that had the local school kids balancing bags on their heads and scattering for cover.  Glancing up to the cloud-smothered peaks, there was evidently no respite due imminently, despite the forecasted improvements.  Plummeting temperatures would accompany the rising elevation and with an extended ridge-line to cover, there was a strong likelihood of a rasping wind battering me from all angles.
There's a storm brewing up there!
No point dithering, straight into action and a sprightly pace through the lower slopes of Slieve Donard, where the Forestry workers have conspired to decimate a once picturesque path, churning sodden ground with heavy plant and dispatching parts of tree in all directions.  Ankle deep sludge saturating feet and sapping legs so early in a run is a guaranteed motivation killer but today I felt positive, the subconscious drive of suspected good legs.  Beyond the tree-line and on to open mountain, for the first time exposed to the full brutality of a crucifying head-wind.  Gusts that could strip paint forcing a virtual standstill, cold pellets stinging my eyes.  Head-down and pushing on to the col, all intentions of a fast time literally blown away.

Mounting the stile was a treacherous manoeuvre, knees down on the criss-crossed metal and gripping tight to the greasy wood to lever on to the far side of the wall and into the maelstrom.  Virtually blinded by now sleety needles I stumbled on, before suddenly being granted a pardon by the complexities of mountain air-flow; unexpected stillness and a chance to open the legs on a pacy fifteen minute effort round the Brandy Pad to the base of Slieve Bearnagh.  Steep initial slopes rapidly dispatched, the final drag to the summit was unfeasibly slippery, a bogged top-layer breaking free with the lightest of pressure, forcing a power-walk in place of the usual run.  The far-side descent was loose as ever, whipping cross-winds exacerbating the struggle to remain upright, and there was a fair degree of relief in safely exiting the gravelly bottom section.

An eight-minute ascent of Meelmore was matched by an eight-minute sprint to its smaller brother's summit, hoping more than expecting a tailwind on the return ridge.  The surface of Slieve Meelbeg has been dangerous for weeks now, a combination of steep gradient, unforgiving granite boulders and a saturated grass and sheep-shit combination more akin to ice-rink than mountain trail.  Despite tentative technique, I still succumbed to the unpredictability, an impromptu bum-slide that extremely fortunately had no solid objects in its path.  Receiving a long-awaited push from the elements saw yet another eight minute section back on to Meelmore and I was pleased to be ahead of record pace despite nature's onslaught.

In every run of this nature there comes a tangible turning point; a moment when the grin subsides and teeth grit as the seriousness of the undertaking dawns to an endorphin-fuelled brain.  The unforgivingly slippery drop back off  Meelmore, feet skating from sodden turf to teflon like granite signalled this change.  I became aware of an encroaching chill from within, a subtle fall in core temperature that can only signal danger if unaddressed.  Under normal circumstances I'd have layered up further but by now it was a futile act, taped seams laughed at by the horizontal waves of precipitation, any extra clothing instantly reduced to sopping dead-weight.  Balancing between dangerous errors in footwork and the need for rapid progress became mentally taxing as I re-mounted Slieve Bearnagh and hit the final ridge.

It was only twenty-two minutes from Hare's Gap to the summit of Slieve Commedagh but it felt an age, the decision to press-on over the peaks rather than a lower escape route driven by a desire to push hard uphill and stoke the internal burner.  Northern Ireland's second highest peak was a hellish scene, small ripples forming on the upper slopes as the gale squeezed the sponge-like ground.  Despite its proximity to Donard's well-trodden trail, I still had the unsettling awareness of the experienced solo runner that a simple fall and serious injury would likely be fatal.  Sub-zero wind-chill and unending rainfall conspiring to render useless the technical garments and a gradually deteriorating body that would rapidly succumb to exposure.  Needless to say, Slieve Donard itself was scrapped from the menu and a measured descent took on the hallmarks of a personal rescue mission.

Standing in a hot shower for an age, X-Talons still firmly wedged on wrinkled feet, it took twenty minutes before the fuzziness of cold was lifted and brain functions fully returned.  Despite only being October, a timely reminder had been dished out over the perpetual seriousness of the mountain environment.  These lessons are nothing new to me, hence the emergency kit on my back, the phone safe in a dry bag, the spare layers, extra food and ability to make key decisions despite cerebral functions fading.  Nevertheless, that essential learning needs reiterating continually to ward off any cockiness, it only takes one error, one bout of poor preparation and even mountains as friendly as the Mournes are potential killers.

I'll never fear the hills, my love for them is too deep to be overridden by negative emotion.  Respect though is earned, and no matter where they are, how high, how familiar, how seemingly benign, all mountains deserve the utmost degree of it.  Stay safe, plan well and enjoy.  Can't wait to see what conditions we get come race day!

Monday 2 October 2017

Exorcising the Diet Nazi Within

Some demons were exorcised on Saturday.

A record breaking performance in a short(ish) course mountain race laid to rest nagging doubts over a seeming lack of power and speed.  In an injury blighted season, characterised by untimely physiological breakdowns and retrospectively avoidable bike crashes, I've faced an ongoing struggle to get near to tauntingly fast training performances from the previous couple of years.
Smiling through the pain, delighted at finding peak performance again despite a love of Double Decker bars!
It's not been for want of effort or desire.  Despite the pain of a torn shoulder rotator, initially burning and insistent and latterly stiff and restrictive, long forays into the mountains have been endured and enjoyed in unequal measure.  Some have even tickled at the grail of peak performance but fallen a few tantalising minutes short of past marks, denying the satisfaction and bred-confidence that accompanies continuous improvement.

Doubt is always lurking, ready to creep into consciousness from the outer reaches of the psyche where it likes to exist.  Is it age?  Will I never again hit those heights?  And yet, along with these questions has come an unexpected release from a damagingly obsessive mindset that has occasionally threatened to destroy my love of this amazing activity altogether.

I'd be the first to admit that the runner's curse has long exercised its control over my decision making, that destructive force of negativity underpinning all facets of daily life.  Those of you who have also experienced this will recognise the signs immediately, when everything you consider doing must initially pass the mental filter that decides whether a chosen activity will be beneficial or detrimental to running performance.  It's totally binary, activities that aid are allowed, activities that damage or hinder are discarded, yes or no, one or zero.

Family holiday?  Has to be near to mountains and include journeys that fit with training schedules.

Night out?  Extremely unlikely, unless the preceding day involved 'pre-burning' thousands of calories with an excessively brutal session.

Fancy a pint?  No thanks (because I'd rather eat those 250 odd calories in solid food).

I'm guessing that those reading this will split between nodding knowingly at a glimpse into the mirror of shared obsession, or shaking heads in a mix of pity and bewilderment at the lengths of fun-avoidance that are so prevalent in a lifestyle skewed towards fitness above all else.

And from a bodily perspective, those tough (but inevitable) decisions can yield incredible results!  When it goes right, the discipline to eat better, train harder and sacrifice more creates stronger athletes, but not without potential repercussion.  The accompanying mental frailties of an 'at-all-costs' approach can be utterly crushing, especially when performances fall short of expectations.  It's no surprise that the world of professional sports is riddled with damaged mindsets, crises of confidence and underlying mental health issues.  The strive for perfection will always be fruitless, it's an intangible concept that will always taunt the seeker.
Grimacing through the pain, mile-long sprint finishes hurt but aren't hindered by a few pints the weekend before!
I read with interest, anger and disappointment the fact that Petro Mamu, 'winner' of the recent World Long Distance Mountain Running Champs, in which I competed for Ireland, has failed a drugs test.  My anger isn't for myself, after all, I've now gained a place, but for those who were denied the rightful rewards for their undeniable efforts, particularly Francesco Puppi, who's gold medal was stolen from him by a drugs cheat and who should've stood atop the podium in his home nation.

Personal opinion only, but backed by hearsay from many reliable sources, I believe drugs are becoming rife in amateur sport, polluting bodies and cheapening performances.  I firmly believe all levels of competition are witnessing those whose mindsets fail to appreciate the boundaries, justifying artificial enhancements to gain a competitive edge or merely through curiosity.  I've been tested, I'm clean, and I simply can't comprehend ignoring both the moral imperative and potential health detriments of pumping your system with those toxins.  However, human nature is sometimes hard-wired to push the limits.  I hoped naively that the limited financial rewards within mountain running would keep the cheats at bay but unfortunately that's clearly not the case.  Worryingly, there's also the distinct possibility that more robust testing procedures will witness more failures, simply on a law of averages.

Anyway, I digress, the blog was meant to be about ditching the self-destructive puritanical streak that dictates lifestyle choice in a distinctly un-rounded direction.  This season has seen a more relaxed attitude altogether, still extremely healthy but not ridiculously restrictive, and mental health has undeniably benefitted as a result.  Last night, after a very satisfactory sporting weekend, I happily saw off three pints of Guinness, a salted caramel Magnum and a Double Decker, behaviour that was unthinkable just two years previously when I wouldn't even drink a sugary hot chocolate in the month before an event!  Today, as-per-plan, I ran a mountainous 23 miler and felt none the worse for the previous evening's excesses.  It's all just sugars really, and over three hours and 2,000 vertical metres of slippery trails and battering headwinds will see off those easy-burned calories with change to spare.

Saturday's result demonstrated that the new approach can still produce peak performances.  No drugs required, no fascist eating regime, just a happy mental state and hard training.  Now I'm off for a vindaloo and a bottle of gin, I'd advise against anyone following me tomorrow morning!

Photo credits for the superb shots are Judith Robinson and Jayne Bell respectively.  Thanks a million for documenting a great day out so well.

Friday 29 September 2017

The Privilege of Pain

I'm knackered.

That dizzying, slightly drunk feeling tiredness that seeps into your being.  Brain a touch slower and limbs, although not drained of energy, lacking a certain co-ordination.

And I'm hungry.
Not quite the fridge hoovering post-race binge, but a nagging, unquenchable emptiness, only quietened with a steady flow of nuts and fruit tea.

The crazy thing is that these are unfamiliar post-training reactions for me.  Last week I managed over twenty hours, including four long trips into the mountains at various speeds and a hilly hundred-miler on the bike.  All of those fitted comfortably within a busy enough working week and usual family fun time without any of the current symptoms.  The difference is that after a year-long absence, the dreaded hill reps have re-commenced.
Doesn't look much but round the corner she steepens and goes on and on.
Today's session really boiled down to just ten minutes and eight seconds; within the context of usual efforts not even a quarter of the initial climb into the mountains.  However, the gut-churning, soul-scraping nature of the intensity generated shock reactions, body unsure how to process unfamiliar stresses.  Those five sets of two-minutes reduced well-honed quads to quivering wrecks and forced heart-rate into the unwelcome and possibly unhealthy reaches, way beyond familiar thresholds.  For the first time in memory, breathing was insufficient, the final rep accompanied by a panicked panting that couldn’t service desperate lungs, like windscreen wipers unable to clear a deluge.

Last night’s dreams were dominated by a recurring theme, a repeat loop of impending dread endlessly culminating at the base of that climb.  As ever with this session, the jog in was taken at a deliberately ponderous pace, accompanied by spurious excuses to further dither.  Any last requests for the condemned man?

And yet I still did it, all alone.

No shared burden with clubmates, milking the motivation of combined suffering.  No coach or trainer bellowing encouragement, adding extrinsic meaning to arbitrary timings.  No reason at all not to back-off a touch, just un-turn the screw, drift to the line instead of the desperate drive, eyes on stalks and bile in the throat.  No reason except desire.

In a relative write-off of a season, a renewed appreciation of health has become dominant.  Sessions like these aren’t a burden to dread, they’re a gateway to happiness and satisfaction, and being able to survive them, to force positive bodily adaption is a privilege.  Fitness is a gift, a combination of hard-work, dedication and particularly at my age, a bit of luck.  I think it was Billy Bland who said that racing was the reward for all the hours of unheralded toil and he was right.  That unique feeling when questions are asked of physical capability and the body has the answers is extremely special.

On Saturday, I’m finally lining up again for a short-course race.  It’ll be 13km of desperately steep terrain, bogged out by incessant rainfall, getting dragged along by the best mountain runners in the country.  It’s going to be hell and I’ll probably get battered.

I can’t wait!