Saturday, 2 August 2014

Achieving ambition. The Donard hat trick revisited

Back in 2012 I was looking for a new challenge.  I was enjoying a new lease of life in a new sport and realising that I had a bit of potential in mountain running.  I wanted something that was achievable but seriously challenging and so the Donard Hat Trick was born, boasting three full ascents and descents of Northern Ireland's highest mountain and giving a 15 mile route with 2550m of climbing and obviously the same amount of descending.  Tough in itself, but the real killer was that to complete the challenge I decided on a maximum 3.5 hours to do it!  If you read the link there you'll realise that not only did I never achieve it, I never even got round to attempting it!  I also failed spectacularly to convince any of the elite mountain runners I asked to give it a go either.  Consensus was that it was a bit too ambitious/mind numbing!

Don't get me wrong, I had a good stab at it but limited myself to double ascents culminating in a 2:19:26 (the 1:19 in the old blog is a typo!).  That theoretically put me on target but the reality was that I was almost unable to walk after the two times round and the thought of putting in a 1hr 10m third lap was laughable.  Two pretty successful years of running and racing later, quite unexpectedly the Donard hat trick sailed back into my consciousness.

Slieve Donard in the distance on a much nicer day.  Funnily enough I didn't take any pics today! 

I'm heading off to the famous Pikes Peak race in Colorado in two weeks, representing NI in the World Long Distance Mountain Running Champs.  The route for that race is an all uphill 13.3 miles gaining around 2500m of elevation.  To make matters much worse, the finish is above 14,000 feet, a height where the limited oxygen can leave you gasping for air when you're just standing still!  Extensive research has sadly taught me that for us sea levellers there's nothing we can do when competing at altitude except turn up a month in advance and acclimatise.  Also sadly, sport's funding bodies don't value us mountain runners very highly and so there's no chance of our team being given that opportunity despite physiology tests proving that top mountain runners are at least on a par with top Olympians.  If it's not Olympic or Commonwealth, there's no cash available (not that I'm bitter!).  Anyway, I'm digressing.  Realising that I couldn't simulate high altitude I decided that at least I could try to recreate the difficulty of the Pikes Peak route.  I was fortunate enough to spend an amazing month with the family in Chamonix and Lake Garda during June and July where I was able to put in some big runs with big ascents, adding a new level of endurance to the fitness gained from a great season of competing in Ireland.  Upon returning home I was looking for a breakthrough session that would test me to the degree that the Worlds will, whilst also demonstrating to myself the pacing and nutrition approaches I'll need in order to perform my best in Colorado.  With a bit of thinking the answer was staring me in the face, it was time to resurrect the Hat Trick.

I planned to put the attempt at the end of a heavy training week which included a fast, hilly 18 mile trail run on Monday and a double Donard on Wednesday along with two shorter recovery runs.  In the end I only ran a single Donard on the Wed as I thought my legs were a feeling a bit heavy.  In actuality I ended up feeling great and knocked out a sub 1hr lap which felt so easy that a couple of hours later I'd forgotten that I'd actually trained that day.  A rest day on Friday and I was all prepped and psyched, and then I saw the weather forecast!  Torrential rain and a weather warning for County Down wasn't part of the plan and I felt an initial pang of annoyance but then I saw that the wind was coming from the North giving me potentially a rare tailwind for much of the climb and I perked up a lot.  I don't care about getting soaking but pushing into a headwind repeatedly gets boring very quickly.  The other great motivator was that the Seven Sevens race was taking place in the Mournes that day, a race I was originally going to enter but wimped out when I got injured scoping the course out.  The winner of that race is always aiming to go sub 4hrs and I knew that the winner was likely to be my occasional training partner Seamy Lynch.  A quick text to Seamy and a bet was made, whoever finished their race first was promised a free lunch!

So to this morning.  I prepared as I always do for a race, eating well 2.5 hrs before and then getting as much fluid in as possible.  I planned to start at 9:58, just before the 10am start time for the Sevens so I wouldn't be interfering in the race at all.  You get a lot of thinking time when running so I think the best way to describe my attempt is by sharing my own internal dialogue.

Lap 1
Start easy, find a place to stash a water bottle for later.  11 mins at the ice house is about right but I feel bloated, I clearly ate too much.  I'm sick in my mouth a bit but swallow it knowing I'll need those calories later.  The flatter mid section feels great, I've found a good pace and rhythm and it feels totally effortless.  There's a slight tailwind which feels brilliant, I lose count of the amount of times I've battered into a headwind up here.  On to the really steep steps and the wind is picking up.  Through the col and onto the summit ridge and it's blowing a gale, the icy rain is battering me and it can't be much above zero degrees with the wind chill.  My jacket goes on, I can't see it coming off again today.  Hit the top in 43:20, about perfect.  My legs feel great, no strain at all, time for a steady descent.  Eat three jelly babies, one makes a bid for freedom and jumps back out of my mouth.  Good measured descent, I hit the bottom at 1:10:45, close enough to 3hr 30 pace and feeling totally relaxed.

Lap 2
How the hell are you meant to take on a gel when running up a 25% hill?  I can't even open the stupid thing.  Finally bite the top off and extract the remains that haven't squirted all over my hands.  Grab the stashed bottle and have a quick swig.  Legs feel fantastic, still really easy and totally different to my old double Donards.  Loving the confused looks on the faces of people who have seen me ascending twice now.  Not even out of breath so saying a cheery hello to everyone I meet.  There are some miserable bastards on the hill today, can you really not muster a reply?!  Kudos to the Dub fella who asks if I've forgotten my wallet!  I tell him I left my fags at the top.  Meet Jim Patterson, local running legend walking down.  He tells me he knows I'm in training but today is the wrong weather.  I respect Jim's opinion and his observation worries me.  Five minutes later I meet Anne Sandford, NI team selector and she asks whether this is my second or third ascent and gives me some support, I feel instantly much better.  The track is now a stream higher up on the mountain and the wind smashes me again on the summit ridge.  43:35 up, delighted to see that my pacing is near perfect so far.  All three jelly babies make it to my stomach this time, now for the descent.  I get a strange sensation of enjoyment, real enjoyment!  The descent feels fast and smooth, feet precise, plenty of grip.  So busy waxing lyrical about my new Inov8 X Talon shoes that I catch an edge and go over on my damaged ankle.  No amount of taping would stop that.  Familiar feelings of nausea but I know I can run this one off, concentrate, concentrate.  Hit the bottom in 2:19:53.  I've clawed time back and I still feel strong.  Last time I was in this position I was virtually crawling across the car park!

Lap 3
Better effort on the gel this time, learned behaviours!  The legs feel a bit heavier, calves stiffening for the first time and the quads know they've been busy.  Still hit 11 mins to the ice house so the pacing is still good but it feels harder this time.  I feel a bit fuzzy around the edges, slight hallucinations in my peripheral vision, other runners.  I'm convinced I've slowed but want to give myself a chance at 3:30 with a good descent.  Grind out the final section of the summit ridge, hit the top and touch the tower, glance at the watch, 3:03:03!  Incredible, my fastest ascent of the three at 43:10.  Amazing effort at constant pacing too.  Realise that I've still got plenty in the tank and with a decent descent should complete the challenge within the time.  Feet aren't so precise now but I'm attacking hard.  No need to hold back.  Loving the temperature rise as I descend.  Grab the stashed bottle, no way I'm going to come back up for it.  Out of the trees and sprint, a genuine smooth, relaxed sprint for the finish in the car park.  3:25:13.  Incredible.  I let out an involuntary whoop which gets me chatting to the walkers who hit the bottom at the same time as me.  The time has blown me away but more than that, I still feel strong.  I keep running back to the van, reckon I've got another ascent in me.  Pretty sure I've never felt this fit in my life, delighted and really excited.

So there it is.  A challenge completed and a really gratifying demonstration of how fitness can change and evolve.  I thought I was fit in 2012 but clearly now I'm on a different plane altogether.  The longer runs I've been doing have obviously contributed massively but the ease of it all, particularly in really trying conditions has astounded me.  With three ascents all within 25 seconds of eachother and progressively faster laps culminating in a 1:05:20 for the last one it's safe to say that I got my pacing pretty spot on.  The nutrition went well despite Fort Knox gel packets and freedom seeking jelly babies.  All in all I genuinely couldn't be more satisfied.  I just hope that I can somehow pull off a similar performance at altitude!

As a postscript, I let Seamy off the bet.  He won the Sevens in a very respectable 4:02 despite some questionable navigation and frankly it's a lot harder than my triple Donard.  I think the only fair thing to do is for him to do the Hat Trick and see who's time is faster.  I'll have my steak medium rare thanks Seamy!

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