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!

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Switching on the Lights - The World Long-Distance Mountain Running Champs 2017

The sky blackened almost instantly, a malevolent darkness banishing all shadows, accompanied by a foreboding deep rumble. The thunder stretching out a baritone roar before cracking in a spectacular crescendo. Huge droplets began to fall, instant saturation and brown rivers for trails, icy flows shocking a reaction from exhausted feet. 

I’d best describe the feeling as if someone had just turned on the lights. The hazy sluggishness that had blighted the last 150 minutes instantly ejected. Eyes suddenly focused and a primal energy, finally feeling the mental re-connect between brain and body, previously eroded as a defence mechanism against the pain, anguish and disappointment. It may be too late to really matter but it was suddenly time to race. 
Winning the qualifier - Maurice Mullins Wicklow Way Ultra
Here I was again, the World Long Distance Mountain Running Champs.  Another chance to represent Ireland, another chance to pit myself against the best and an opportunity to renew old friendships and create new ones.  This lifestyle could never be a chore, being sent to incredible places by generous federations simply because of the ability to move faster than the norm over steep, uneven and technical ground.  Yet personal ambition can serve to taint these occasions, to create undue pressure that can overwhelm the undeniable enjoyment.  Ultimately, I try to rise above such frivolities, just being there and experiencing is reward enough, but intrinsic desires can be difficult to silence; this year I wanted top twenty. 

Preparation for these landmark events has become a self-perpetuated cliché.  Train well early season, excel at the qualifying event to guarantee selection and subsequently injure myself in the interim, hindering progress at key junctures.  At least this year it was a mountain bike smash rather than the usual over-ambitious mileage.  A torn rotator cuff at the end of April was poorly timed, destroying domestic race ambitions and forcing some creative session planning.  Stints of one-armed turbo-training and terrifying fights for footing on treadmills, rapidly succumbed to pain-defying journeys back into my beloved Mourne Mountains.  Adopting a stiff, right-side dominant style created numerous physiological issues, and descending in slow motion through terror of falling was humiliating, but at least I was out doing what I love.  Ultimately, the distances, and corresponding physical attributes came through, with a first-ever quadruple Slieve Donard (22.4 miles and 3,400m of ascent/descent) dispatched, convincing my fragile mental state that I’d at least last the distance. Unfortunately, the shoulder had prevented any speed work, denying that amazing race-tuned feeling that breeds vital confidence. 

Torn shoulder and some creative training
The Giir Di Mont is a wish-list event, famed for spectacular beauty, inhumanely steep rises and a massively vocal and passionate crowd.  The Italians certainly know how to do mountain races and Premana was no different to previous experiences, a tangible feeling that you’re undertaking something that matters to more than just your own ego. Being swooped from the airport by classically attractive Italian ladies to a waiting BMW reminded me instantly of the advantages of international selection, as did the breath-taking view from the hotel window.  Being the sole Irish representative guaranteed the luxury of a huge room and nobody else to annoy with hastily strewn kit, but also forced an unfamiliar sociability, beyond the usual ‘bubble’ of team mates.  Despite my social anxiety, I needn’t have worried, the mountain running fraternity were, as always, as friendly as they are interesting, and very soon I was at home amongst new friends. 

Usual preparations, unfolding journey-fatigued legs and fretting over weather conditions and footwear selection. There was talk of course alterations if the threatened lightning appeared, ridges and peaks are no place to be with millions of volts marauding free.  Come race time though and the skies were clear, an oppressive mugginess like a physical weight, a sheen of sweat from the lightest of warm-ups.  Packed-in like sardines, the elbows-out hustle of initial exchanges and then settling into a rhythm designed for efficient forward propulsion. The race was on. 
Always a proud moment.  Team Ireland (me!) at the opening ceremony
A downhill start was an unwelcome novelty, hard not to cause lasting damage when the field are set on sub five-minute miles.  Torn between maintaining contact with the front, and fear of over-cooking, I allowed myself to be swept along mid-field.  Plenty of time for making up places when the ascents began, or so I hoped.  The reality was the horrific realisation that my feet were sucking invisible quicksand, muscles weary and head lolling despite the race being very much in its infancy. Climb one, an 800-vertical metre brute with steep, narrow trails should’ve been bread and butter, not the tumultuous mental struggle that it proved.  Knowing you’re going so badly, so early on is a double blow, dreams rapidly disappearing and the bleak realisation that the suffering has barely begun. 

The far side of the climb saw essential respite as crag-like technicality underfoot brought out a broad grin and my reckless side.  Unfeasibly steep drops were dispatched with lightweight skips and numerous places were gained.  Making the classic mistake of switching off once the slopes eased, I managed to badly turn an ankle, one of those where you get to see the tread pattern on the sole of your own shoe.  Admonishing myself loudly, I pressed on gingerly, you can run those off but it takes time. 
Stunning views but there's pain to come among
 the peaks
Climb two commenced with a shallow gradient and solid surface, my least favourite combination. The victims of my lightning descent cruised back past, their gearboxes on a different ratio to mine. A new experience as a helicopter downdraft created a micro-hurricane, fruitless to oppose such forces, progress slowed to a crawl.  As seems to be the case, the lowest ebb brings the kindest reactions from rivals who share that intimate knowledge of suffering.  Recognising the pain, a Slovenian offered motivational encouragement before top GB runner Vic Wilkinson invited me to run in her slipstream. Hanging gamely on for a few minutes, the elastic soon snapped, leaving me alone once again to the frustration and struggle. 

Anticipation of another lengthy descent drew enough reserves to survive to the col where a cacophony of noise barely registered with pain-dulled senses. Looking to salvage pride, I threw myself vigorously into the initial switchbacks, tripping, cramping and stopping dead.  Self-pity and acceptance of failure, all that remained was a prolonged death-march to the finish.  And yet, I wasn’t even half way through the distance, a fact previously shielded from my conscience by the internal drive of inevitable completion.  I don’t drop out of races, full-stop.  Never have, and barring genuine injury, never will.  What’s the point when you still have to make your way home, regardless of whether you’ve metaphorically torn off the number?  The numerous helicopters were busy enough extracting several genuine casualties, focus on the next mile and eventually sweet relief will come. Secretive deals brokered between brain and legs, finish this one and we’ll never force you this deep again, time to retire, out to pasture. 

The feed station represented a final throw of the dice. Team GB had kindly carried in essential sustenance, much required but never desired by a delicate, motion abused stomach.  Stopping to re-arrange gels and drinks cost a minute, normally an action considered beyond sacrilegious but I was way beyond caring.  The race could get fucked, one foot in front of the other, left, right and repeat.

Then came the deluge. 

Bright lights in the darkness, the sweet smell of mountain pastures and the noise, my god the pull of the din from an impending feed station.  As if woken from a coma I became suddenly aware of my breathing, my sleeping senses discovered a symbiosis with a newly athletic body.  TV camera in my face and a corridor of mayhem, like the Tour De France climbs, clapping hands, smiles, so much support from total strangers and that wall of sound.  My teeth appear for the first time in hours, not gritted now, opened wide in a disbelieving grin.  Legs churning, on the toes and feeling great, is this really a 25% slope? 

The final 5km ridge-line was a resurrection.  Climbing steadily, I pushed hard up the kicky rises, tempo pace round the cliff-hugging, bench-cut contours.  Passing others for fun at this stage of the race is a novelty, a delight.  Distant figures become targets in the crosshairs and a ridiculous tune trips into my mind, ‘the green train is coming, everybody out of the way’.  Rounding the final uphill corner, I re-pass Vic, never expected that!  One final huge descent, ultra-rocky, uneven, a real rhythm killer and a reality check.  Keep pushing hard but don’t forget to survive, I’m going to make it, tears prick at ducts, it’s been emotional. 

The cruel terminal rise is a step too far, an attempted sprint finish with Team GB’s Jack Wood ends predictably, his huge stride disappearing into the distance.  Push for the line, high fives with the kids hanging over the barrier and done.  Bent double, breathing hard and an overwhelming sense of relief, what the hell just happened? 

I finished 41st, an OK result, 41st in the World!  Comparative to ambition it’s a disappointment but running top 15 splits for the latter half of the race is a big consolation.  I can compete at this level, but still lack the undeniable evidence of finishing position.  Maybe next year. 

Exhausted but happy.  What the hell just happened?
From that point on it’s all smiles, alcoholic haze and the blending of cultures through the medium of drink and shared experience.  These people have a glow, the physical manifestation of health and fitness and a fire in the eyes.  Conversation comes easy, as does sleep once the party dies down.  I love mountain running and I love mountain runners, this was more than worth the suffering.  I hope I’ll be back for more. 

As ever, huge thanks to IMRA for sending me on these unique experiences and to Newcastle AC for some financial assistance. To Anna and the boys for tolerating my obsessive training. To the WMRA, Giir Di Mont organisers and the people of Premana who created such an incredible event, but most of all to the athletes, kindred spirits or as a drunken Bulgarian put it, ‘mountain brothers’; without all of you, this would be meaningless.