Supermaratona dell’Etna 2016

Up at 4:00am in Millazo. Quietly have a shower and eat porridge in the car as Angelo drives us to Linguaglossa. We are then driven down to Fiumefreddo on the coast. After applying sun cream and signing in we sit on the stony beach and wait. It’s twenty degrees already. The atmosphere is calm, small waves quietly lapping the shore. A few minutes before 8:00am we muster at the start area. The sounding horn goes and we set off.

As with any race, there is an unrealistic number of people in the front few groups. Only a few of us will remain as the hours tick by. I fall into an effort I believe I can hold for four hours. Within that margin of effort I also try and stay in a group (there are two or three solo brave souls gone ahead).The group is going up steep slopes too hard and taking the shallower roads too easily. As such I yo-yo from the front of the pack on the shallow drives and hang onto the back on the steeper roads. Eventually the group slows but I feel okay at this pace so I head on with one other.

The route up to Linguaglossa is rather uneventful and not so memorable – it’s the warm-up for the warm-up. But it is hot. Up to thirty degrees in the bright exposed roads. There are thankfully may water stations – mobile ones too. I take every opportunity I get to drench myself.

I hit the streets of Linguaglossa in about 1:09 into the race. This is the first handover in the relay race and we suddenly have company . Linguaglossa is a fairly ‘flat’ part of the race and saw the fastest 5k of the whole distance for me.

The road leading out of the town is very long and straight. It gently gets steeper until we hit a winding series of switchbacks. It is at this point in the race I feel in my element. The roads were beautiful tarmac, the gradient steep but constant. It was there, winding through the forest that I picked off many runners who had gone off way too fast. Soon I was on my own as I spiralled up the mountain through Sicily’s largest forest. I felt I had nailed my ‘forever pace’ on these slopes. I periodically had company from cyclists and a small car bouncing between runners shouting out positions and time gaps. All I could understand was I was fourth and closing.

Getting into 25+ km I could see third place. I was gaining on him smoothly. It took several patient kilometres for me to pull up next to him. Company gave us a boost and we ran on together. From 30km we were coming out of the forest and starting to see volcanic rock and ice lining the roads. The road was also getting steeper still – a trend I knew would only continue.

Briefly the road flattened as we approached Piano Provenzana at 33km (and 1800m high). This junction was busy with spectators as it sees the race transition to volcanic ask and rock. I hit the transition in just under three hours and although my legs were tight and tiring I felt good. It only took a few minutes for me to be treated to a lesson in just exactly how remainder of the race was going to unfold. A few hundred metres in, crunching through ash, we hit the first of the serious upwards swings. My feet were sinking in the ash, like rough sand, sucking all the energy out. It hurt to push hard against this sponge that was sucking the life out of my legs at an alarming rate. I had to walk. That’s okay, that’s what’s required on such steep, tough terrain. For the next kilometre I employed a frequent walk, ‘jog’ strategy.

Had I gone off too fast? I asked myself, power walking my way past petrified trees and the remaining green life up in this hostile landscape I had felt so in control, so strong on the tarmac, only to be brought down so swiftly, so brutally by the never-ending wall of black ash in-front of me.

Gradually, I walk, plod, jog, walk, walk, jog, walk, walk, walk and with some hands-on-knees efforts walk some more, up, up,up. All the green now gone, just black ash, ice and peaks in the distance. Every ten minutes or so I get to count off another kilometre as I power-walk my way past bemused hikers. Routinely I look back and I can see the runner in 5th place. It’s a strange situation, watching this inevitable overtaking unfold. He was clearly gaining on me and would pass but I had a good five minute of hearing him crunching away at the ash behind me before passing. I make a ridiculous token effort to stay with him that lasted all of thirty seconds before I went back to my sustainable, and less painful, plod. This happened at the 39km mark, he would go on to put five minutes into me I was struggling so much.

Three kilometres on I look back and see the next runner is in sight. He’s walking like I am but slowly gaining on me. This is even more comical than the last time. He’s only a few hundred metres behind me but we’re walking at such a similar pace it could take a while. The track leading through the 42 km mark is steep and this comically slow smackdown looks in danger of not going my way. Luckily just past 42 was almost flat track… and the finish only 800m away. It was like I could turn a key and start an angine, my legs sputtered back to life on the ‘flat’ ground and I was able to make Guiseppe eat black ash. Just 100m from the end the ground pitched up to a sickening gradient and my newly re-animated engine groaned, forcing a brief power-walk, before coming back online to let me cross the finish line in 5th place and 4:24:02 in the shadow of Mount Etna’s crater.

My first sub 3 hour marathon! Paris 2015

I have run Paris before in 2008 and remember the course as being great but the race overcrowded with a distinct lack of support along the route. Well this time round I can’t fault it in any way. The starting areas

were phased generously (possibly too generously for those further back setting off at 10am) and the support beyond half way was very good! In general the conditions were good with the temperature being 8 degrees at 8am rising to about 15 at noon and very sunny (the C&C vest is firmly imprinted into my pale Scottish skin). Now to the blow-by-blow part of the report…

Setting off over the start line down the Champs-Élysées is quite an experience. The boulevard is so wide it easily absorbs the several thousand in the starting area. With the glorious stretch of open road leading to Place de la Concorde it’s hard to keep the pace in check. The route barely kinks around the Place and you won’t see a serious corner until the 10k mark; plenty of time to get into a rhythm and spread out a bit. At 11k you cruise past Château de Vincennes and curl around Bois de Vincenne (the largest public park in the city) before striding out towards the Seine. I crossed the half marathon mark in 1:30:15 – a little faster than I intended but my heart rate was lower than expected and the pace felt right. I was now committed to a negative split, something I’ve never achieved before. A few km down the road and you join the river, just before Notre-Dame. It’s not long until you are back skirting the edge of Place de la Concorde and curving with the river towards the Eiffel Tower at almost 30k. The river section has a few long tunnels that added some welcome and unwelcome undulations (those planning to run this make sure you have manual splits on your watch as the tunnel will play havoc with your GPS pace). Up until 30k I had been running by the numbers, keeping my heart rate in the low –mid 170s and keeping the pace close to 4:16 min/km. I was feeling a bit sore but not tired, wondering when I could start to feel that the sub-3 was as good as done. Doing mental arithmetic in the last 10k of a marathon is never easy but having juggled the numbers several times I realised I had around a 30 second margin – inside the 3 hours if I kept my pace but a bit close for comfort! Still I kept my pace in check, I didn’t dare speed up until I felt I was in striking distance. 33k, 34k… nope… 35k, 36k, and then 37k came… only 5 to go! Just a Parkrun right… literally a Parkrun, as after peeling away from the Seine the route turns into Bois De Boulogne, the second largest park in Paris. With just that 5k to go it was time to throw the kitchen sink at it. Pushing the pace down to near 4 min/kms I inflated that 30 second margin to a whole minute, and jumped up 600 places in the process! With the 41km sign in view I checked the clock… almost 5 minutes to cover 1.2km. At this point I was feeling pretty battered and seeing the time I eased off a fraction and cruised out of the park, I’d done it. The finish line on Avenue Foch awaited me a few 100ms ahead, a pure formality. 2:59:00 dead with a -1:30 minute split.

The rest of the organisation, funnelling out to get medals and t-shirts was very well done, using the whole of the avenue leading up to the Arc de Triomphe.

I know Paris is not best timed for all those London fans out there but I would definitely recommend giving it a shot one year.

3000 miles and counting


Between October 2005 and April 2009 I ran 3119 miles. This is an average of about 17 miles each week, with a maximum of 54.6 and a minimum of zero. I know this because I am not just a geek but a thorough geek. Every time I ran I would record the distance and time it took. This would only take a few seconds after each run and it soon became habitual. Sometimes it would even give that little extra incentive to go out, to get above a certain mileage for the week.

I’ve resurrected this data as I’ve been thinking about all the racing I used to do. Yesterday I ran the Inverness half marathon for the third time. The weather was pretty grim but I don’t think that’s the reason for my 1 hour 37 minute performance. I can’t be too unhappy at that number; I didn’t feel like I could have run too much faster, maybe a minute, two at the most. However I do think back to that first half marathon, just over five minutes faster, and wonder how I did it on so little training. This possibly hints at how big the mental aspect of running long distances is; the excitement of that being my first half marathon giving me that bit more enthusiasm to dig deeper.

Looking at the mileage I ran over the course of four years it’s interesting to see how writing my thesis and starting a job affected my running habits. Not only does the data end in April 2009, but the mileage does too. I wouldn’t run for months at a time. I did get enough miles in my legs to run the Glasgow half marathon in 2009, but only just. The mileage died again after that. I then entered the UK half Ironman, giving me a surge of effort for three or four months until the event itself in June 2010. Since then again, the mileage dropped to near nothing. Revving up this latest race I’ve joined a local club and been trying to attend the twice weekly training sessions. It’s been going well, which is why I thought I’d post a better time yesterday than I did. I just need to keep at it. Better than quality training sessions, better than really long runs, is just plain old regular runs and I’ve not being doing enough of them.

Back in the saddle

Today I took part in my first running race in quite some time. The last time I donned a racing vest was in September 2009 for the Glasgow half marathon (and what a disappointment that was).

The race was a strange one; a twelve mile relay race with six members running two legs each. That’s the Hartley Cup. The venue is different each year as the hosting club changes.

Despite the quantity of races I’ve done before, I’ve never raced a mile. I found it pretty hard going! I started out too fast, stalled in the middle but finished well. I came in at 6:22 and 6:28 (it’s a mile plus 50m), which I’ll have to admit I’m disappointed with. But really I didn’t feel like I could put any more oomph in so it’s a fair result.

A great atmosphere in the stadium and tasty goodies at the end means I’ll most probably be back next year. And I’m sure I’ll go a damn sight faster!

UK ironman 70.3, Wimbleball

I woke up before my Alarm sounded, about 4:50am. Despite the very warm day ahead, it was quite cold in the early morning. I managed to get myself a cup of tea and a granola bar for my breakfast. Doesn’t seem like much but I knew my stomach would be unhappy during the swim if I had more.

As all the transition kit had been checked in yesterday all that was left for me to check was my tyre pressure and chain. Leaving my bike, sure that I could do no more than worry about it, I headed back to the tent to suit up. Once the wetsuit was zipped up I dropped off my after-race clothes in the transition tent and headed down to the start line.

Getting into the water was a relief – it was considerably warmer than standing by the lakeside! The scenery was stunning, a rolling landscape stretching out to the rising sun. The atmosphere was brilliant. Here we were, fifteen hundred participants, bobbing up and down in the water, quietly, with our own thoughts about what lay ahead. The crowd started to sing God Save The Queen, which at first seemed quite odd, but as more and more people joined in it sounded great and the excitement in the atmosphere rose. The singing ended and a horn signaled the start of the race.


I had unintentionally ended up near the front line. My first time in a triathlon, my first time in a mass start open-water race, and I was right in the thick of it. The first few tens of seconds were okay; then the columns and rows of swimmers closed in. Arms were scrabbling at my back whilst legs and feet were kicking my arms and sides. Luckily I only got slapped in the face once! After the first buoy things calmed down a little, the water all around me was dense with swimmers but we seemed to all have our own little plot.

I could feel the extra speed resulting from such a large body of people swimming in unison. On the whole, my first experience of a triathlon swim was exhilarating, the time passed very quickly and before you could say ‘Tee One’ I was out of the water. I surprised myself, 1.2 miles in 39 mins 34 seconds!

1.9km swim complete!The first transition (T1) involved running 400m to a tent to collect my blue (for bike) bag. An event volunteer helped collect the bits and pieces out my bag whilst I got my wetsuit off. Equipped with my glasses, gloves, pump, helmet and shoes I grabbed my bike and was quickly climbing the first three miles out onto the main bike loop.

I could describe the bike course in two words: very hilly. I can also describe it in three words: very very hilly. It apparently contains no less than fifty-two hills. Yikes. At first my fears were not confirmed, as after initially climbing for a few miles, the course seems to undulate mildly. almost half way round the loop there is a steep descent with a ‘no overtaking zone’. Coming down this hill drives home the altitude you’re going to have to climb to get back up and do it again.

The first of the steep hills was at approximately 20 miles, and it hurt. Crawling up in my lowest gear, turning a very low cadence, I wondered how I would manage a second time up! Not long after this a second and then third climb hit. At the top of Haddington Hill (I think that’s the name) there was tremendous support from spectators. I felt like I was on a mini Tour de France climb. Once this hill was behind, there were a few more undulating sections, but nothing too steep. Then the first lap was over. Onto number two.

On the second lap I did make it up all the hills without stopping, without walking, so I can confirm that you don’t need a triple to complete this race… but it would make it a lot more comfortable! The second trip up the steepest hills (about 14%) left my legs quite sore which didn’t bode well for the run. The last three miles descended towards Wimbleball lake and over a bridge spanning the reservoir. I crossed the dismount line and headed into the second transition (T2). The cycle took 4 hours and 18 minutes, much longer than I had expected and had left my legs worse than I had hoped.

I spent about seven minutes in T2, applying sun-cream and visiting the bathroom (probably too much information there!) then headed out onto the run course.

The course was composed of three laps. The lap covered varied terrain from single track dirt-tracks, tarmac and grass. Keeping with the theme set by the cycle, it was hilly. there was one decent hill near the start of the lap which then led down to the reservoir dam. The first few miles were terrible. My stomach was complaining loudly, I had to stop and let the feeling pass. Once I hit the second lap I was feeling fresher, getting up to my normal training pace. I was passing people every few seconds, this gave me quite a boost (even if some were a lap ahead of me!). During the third lap I lost the enthusiasm and adrenalin from the second and had to stop briefly on the dam due to a stitch. Telling myself that there was only a few miles left, I got going again with the stitch still burning in my side.

As the temperature continued to increase I made my way towards the finishing line, which I crossed after 1 hour and 54 minutes of running. This is the slowest time I’ve ever run a half marathon by far (my PB is 1hr26mins), but I didn’t care, I was finished, and it was ******* hard.

I raised my arms to the sky celebrating as I crossed the line in 7 hours 7 minutes and 3 seconds. I then ate a pork pie. [How’s that for an anti-climax!]

So… in short: this took much longer than I anticipated but I’m happy with my time as I now know how difficult the Wimbleball ironman 70.3 really is and believe the race organisers when they say if you can do Wimbleball, you can easily do any ironman 70.3.

Swim 0:39:34 (646th)
T1 0:08:27 (887th)
Bike 4:17:53 (1038th!)
T2 0:07:24 (1067th)
Run 1:53:46 (328th)
Overall 7:07:03 (831st) – 114th in the Male 25-29 category.