I don’t feel like there’s a lot to say about my Tor Des Geants race itself, but the outcome is something that I think is worth sharing. It could happen to anyone doing these things and people need to be more aware of it.
The race is a 200+ mile lap around the Aosta Valley in the Italian Alps with around 110K feet of ascent, and this was my first time putting on an actual race bib since the Spine in January 2020. It’s the most beautiful course I’ve been on, has amazing local support, and the start/finish of Courmayeur has pizza and gelato around every corner. The Aosta Valley also isn’t just special for the mountains, or the food, but also the people. I cannot thank my Aostan crew enough for their support of a complete stranger who didn’t even speak their language, especially to Marlène Jorrioz who took on the role of crew chief. As with Wainwrights and Pennine Way, I’ll be sending them each a tiny token of appreciation through Trees Not Tees.
This is by far the longest it’s ever taken me to do a post on one of my adventures. It’s now nearly five months since my attempt at the Wainwrights. I don’t know that I have a lot to add beyond what I initially posted on social media, and a lot of this is copy/paste from that, but I at least wanted to collect it all here in one place if for nothing more than my own future reference (and planning 😉).
The Wainwrights are a set of 214 peaks in the Lake District described in the seven books that make up Alfred Wainwright’s Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells. The route can vary a bit, but most recent attempts have been slight variations of what Steven Birkinshaw developed for breaking Joss Naylor’s record in 2014, which amounts to somewhere around 320 miles and 110K feet of ascent. Steve’s record was broken by Paul Tierney in 2019, which was then broken by Sabrina Verjee this year in a time of 5 days, 23 hours, and 49 minutes. It was also completed this year by Chris Gaskin in 11 days 11 hours fully unsupported (alone, carrying absolutely everything needed to finish from the start except water from natural sources).
I thought long and hard about that title. Ok it just came to me. I think I owe Rob Pope, one of my support runners, for the Star Wars theme inspiration. I wasn’t sure though if Damian and I were episodes I – III or IV – VI (Return of the Tennessean?). In any case I suppose Mike Cudahy and Mike Hartley were the original episodes and the only dark side here has been stomach ulcers and weather.
But since this is the longest it’s ever taken me to do a post for one of my runs, I should probably stop with the Star Wars digression and get to it.
Not so fast my friend
I doubt anyone in the UK will get the Lee Corso reference, but up front I wanted to clarify my final thoughts on the never-ending “record” vs. “FKT” debate. To be honest, I don’t really care. If the person hearing the term knows what it means, and the person using it doesn’t mean to offend, then I don’t care. Like when I slip up here and say “no pickles please” instead of “no gherkins” people generally just pause for a second, smile, and then get on with it. To me this one is like the relationship between squares and rectangles. All squares (records) are rectangles (FKTs) but a rectangle isn’t necessarily a square. There are many routes where things haven’t been diligently recorded over the years, and the best that can be said is that something is literally the fastest *known* time. On the Pennine Way, and many of the established routes in the UK that are rich with history and tradition, things have been recorded and record is an entirely appropriate label. So generally I try to respect that tradition and use record when referring to the Pennine Way, but I couldn’t care less which term others choose to use.
A long brewing plan
It might seem that I returned to the Pennine Way just to attempt to reclaim the record. In all honesty, I knew I would likely return before I even finished my own run last year, sometime just before breaking Mike Hartley’s 31 year old record and 8 days before Damian Hall then broke mine. There are certain goals that take on extra meaning, where it’s not just can I do it but how well can I do it. They become benchmarks, for me and for others who seek the same challenge in the future. After some major gut issues last year I felt there was much more I could do.
But of course the record was added motivation. I had the usual competitive drive but also admittedly a simmering frustration from endless jokes after anything I did about how Damian was going to come do it better a week later. They were just harmless jokes, ones which I could have ignored, but instead I deliberately chose to let them grow into a little motivational chip on my shoulder. Damian is a great friend, person, and runner, but we’re also competitors. Every comment was a little poke in my side, and I had a picture from last year above my computer monitor as a reminder to get out for my run on those dreary winter days.
This year I decided to go north to south as Damian and Mike had done, getting the Cheviots & Cross Fell out of the way early. I also made a smarter schedule that would allow me to attack and pick up time in the middle portion of the run, I took steps to prevent a recurrence of my gut issues from last time, and my fitness was probably the best it’s ever been thanks to David Roche, the mutual coach of both me and Damian (but I had him first, kind of like the Pennine Way record 😂).
I arrived in Kirk Yetholm on Thursday evening with Nicki Lygo, my crew chief, full-time road support, and all-around Pennine Way guru. I had a full day to relax and prepare after the long trip. Friday evening we were joined by Jen Scotney, had an inspirational viewing of Totally FKT, and I went down for what I can only describe as a night of “could’ve been worse” sleep.
Conditions on Saturday were nearly perfect as I filled my belly with Scottish porridge and then started out from Kirk Yetholm with Jasmin Paris and Graham Nash at 9 AM on the biggest climb of the route, all the way up to The Cheviot. Last year the little out & back to the summit had seemed endless – at night in terrible weather at the end of the run. In Totally FKT you can hear me vent a bit of bleeped frustration as I slap the trig point on the summit. This time it was over before I knew it, & we made quick work of the entire Cheviots section. I even got to see some Cheviot goats, which had never made an appearance for me on all my previous trips up there. The only real setback was a bog attempting to steal my shoe – sucking it off my foot, my gaiter trying in vain to pull it out before its connector broke and the shoe snapped back down into the muck. It would have been fascinating to watch in slow motion.
My plan had been to go out slower than Damian, and not overtake him until a bit past 100 miles. But we had taken advantage of the good conditions and I was ahead. I felt good about the pace, but still the doubts crept in. Coming out of Byrness, led by Martin Wilson and Ed Hyland, places in my legs were already starting to hurt and feel a bit tight. Was this normal? I’ve done these things so many times yet that part always catches me off guard. I have over 200 miles to go, surely everything should still feel great? Oh, right, I’ve already run 50 miles on tough terrain. Yeah, I guess things are just gonna hurt. I was at least in a much better spot than Martin was used to seeing me in – he had joined me last year on the Pennine Way and my Grand Round during my absolute lowest of lows on each.
With Bill Johnson and Jayson Cavill joining for sections, we made our way through the boggy forests north of Hadrian’s Wall, had a nice run along the wall, and arrived at Greenhead where I took a seat for the first time. I was a bit over 11:12 and 64 miles into the run, about 40 minutes ahead of Damian’s pace and over an hour ahead of where I had planned to be at that point. Weather conditions had been great, but underfoot conditions were definitely a bit messier than I had hoped.
Tim Wiggins led us flawlessly through the quagmire known as Blenkinsopp Common while Graham Thomas tried to keep me fed and focused as night fell. The section between Blenkinsopp Common and Alston has a bit of a reputation as many people’s least favorite part of the whole route. For me, it reminds me of the fields I run around in Somerset. It’s like I’ve been training for that section ever since I moved to the UK. At Garrigill I had a seat again. This part had been planned – I wanted to get some significant calories in before the long climb over Cross Fell, and Sharon Dyson had prepared a nice buffet headlined by a burger.
I layered on extra clothes and set off with James Elson and Andy Blackett. I knew that the trek up The Corpse Road to Greg’s Hut would just be long mindless climbing, something I’ve discovered is one of my bigger strengths (thanks Rat Jaw!). I’ve still yet to be on Cross Fell in the day, or without clag, but this was the least bad conditions I’ve had up there. The wind wasn’t even bad. Coming down the other side into Dufton I hit 100 miles almost right at 19 hours as the new day arrived.
In my plan, this section is where I would take the record. I saw an opportunity over this stretch to gain a significant amount of time where both Damian and I had slowed down last year. I was over an hour ahead of my 58 hour 14 minute plan, but I had no intention this year of being content with a buffer. I was not just out to break a record; I was out to set one at the outer edge of my limits. There was also still plenty of time for disaster – bad weather, sleep issues, stomach problems – when at the edge for that long it doesn’t take very much at all to fall off.
So I stuck to the plan. The Cheviots and Cross Fell were already out of the way, and I was on my way home. I headed up High Cup Nick led by Tom Middleton and flanked by Julian Jamison, who I think is the first person outside my family who ever crewed me (2016 Barkley) and who happened to move from DC to the UK at about the same time as us. After a wet and slightly precarious descent next to Cauldron Snout and a scramble across the boulders alongside the River Tees, Mel Steventon joined to finish bringing us along the long flat path into Middleton (no relation to Tom 😉). We made good time, and as planned added a nice buffer on the record pace, but this is one section that I didn’t enjoy as much going north to south. The waterfalls along the River Tees and High Cup Nick are some of my favorite parts of the route, and the view in this direction wasn’t as enjoyable or lasting.
Last year I was in the depths of my ulcer-induced crisis at Middleton – wasting a good chunk of time attempting to nap, eat, and do everything I could to reset my body. This time I briefly had a seat, got some food down, and moved along. I set out with John Parkin and Elaine Bisson for the push to Tan Hill Inn. I considered Tan Hill to nearly be the midway point (in terms of time) going this direction, and if I could get there in good shape then I felt pretty confident that I could make it the rest of the way in time. Sabrina Verjee and Ben Turner joined for a solid pick-me-up at what is probably my least favorite part of the route: Sleightholme Moor. When I first encountered this section it was during the Spine Race in the middle of Storm Brendan. I felt like I was wading down a river, complete with an occasional stake in the ground acting as a buoy to keep me in the main channel, I mean path. Fortunately conditions were a bit better this time around, but altogether avoiding the mud and bogs was impossible.
Oftentimes in these things I feel a bit like I’m a baton and all the support is doing the actual work. At Tan Hill Inn I was handed off to Darren Moore, Matthew Beresford, and Matt Neale (with Zepp the Collie!): all a regular sight supporting people’s big adventures. Howard Dracup and Carmine De Grandis also joined as we pushed on to Thwaite and up Great Shunner Fell, the highest point remaining. We flew down the other side with sub 8 minute miles, which at that point felt like accelerating down the first big drop on a roller coaster. It was a nice smooth runnable descent, the kind you have to take advantage of. We arrived in Hardraw, 153 miles in, in under 31 hours. Last year, heading the other direction and just over 100 miles in, I was already starting to have issues and took my first nap. This year I still hadn’t slept and I moved on without sitting down.
Sam Booth, who would help get me through nearly half the remaining miles, led the way out while Forrest Gump afficionado and podcast host extraordinaire Rob Pope lifted my spirits with his Tennessee socks and seemingly endless positive energy. It would be needed, as the trek up from Hawes to the Cam High Road and down into Horton was the first really tough stretch I had. Sure, things hurt before that, and there had been difficult parts, but this was the first time I *really* struggled. The weather got rough, with rain and wind picking up before turning to hail. I tried to move faster to stay warm, but I was suddenly having significant pain in my feet.
At Horton I changed shoes. I had been in Jackals up to that point but I decided to switch into an oversized pair of Akasha with a special gel insole that I keep around to try to deal with foot swelling and pain that can occur this far into something. I was also glad to start the climb up Pen-y-ghent and give my feet a break from the pounding of the previous few miles. Martin Stone and Ross Jenkin (who just completed his amazing Big 4 at 40 challenge) joined us for the climb as a beautiful sunset provided our backdrop and rainbows shot up ahead of us.
I felt renewed, and we continued on over Fountains Fell, the last real climb until the home stretch. We arrived at Malham Tarn, 181 miles in, at 37 hours and 28 minutes. The plan had worked. Since Dufton I had been methodically chipping away at the record time, about 10 minutes at each checkpoint. I started the day at Dufton about an hour ahead and by the time I reached Malham Tarn I was 4 hours up with about 80 miles to go.
Weather so far had been not awful relative to some of what I’m used to. Underfoot conditions weren’t great, with plenty of muddy and boggy sections, and there were the stretches of heavy rain and hail, but most of the bad weather fell into the category of what I would call extremely annoying and uncomfortable but not limiting. This weather affects what most people likely will do, but not what they can do. Importantly, there had not been the strong southerly headwind I had feared.
But at that point I also hadn’t slept. Damian had already gotten a nap or two by then. Like a racecar driver deciding to get new tires early, those naps can pay dividends over that critical 2nd night when sleep deprivation really starts to be a major factor.
It wasn’t long after leaving Malham Tarn, where I had joked about an afternoon finish (sub 56 hours), that the sleep monsters began to attack. I felt myself drifting as we made our way through the precarious rocky terrain of Malham Cove, then began to stumble and stagger through the fields that largely make up the section between the Yorkshire Dales and the Peak District.
For the remainder of the run James Ritchie and Suzy Whatmough would be swapping out alongside me, with Jim Graham providing additional road support. James and Suzy previously had the opposite of Martin Wilson’s experience with me: always seeing me early on before I decayed into the miserable wreck they were now witnessing.
By the time we reached Gargrave, I had decided to give in to a nap. I got some food down and requested 20 minutes. After 10 I woke up with throbbing legs and a shivering torso. Instead of getting a move on I spent another 20-30 minutes trying to warm up, my support crew bring me hot bags of water to shove in my jacket. I largely regret warming up there rather than trying to by moving on, but who knows. If I hadn’t have had that time to reset a bit then maybe I would have crashed and burned shortly after.
The stop did undoubtedly refresh me. My pace picked up and I was more energetic and alert. But the question is always whether it’s enough of a pick-up to make up for the time stopped – in this case needing a minute / mile faster for 45 miles to break even. Mark Rochester and Ben Cliff led me through the rest of the night, which I would describe in more detail if I remembered it in more detail. Just before dawn I stopped for one more nap, a much more efficient 10 minutes in Cowling just past the 200 mile mark at 43 hours.
The remainder of the run was constant highs and lows – often swinging back and forth by the minute. There were stretches where I felt like I was flying, followed shortly by me wondering what I was doing and questioning the life choices that had led me to do it. The climb up Stoodley Pike felt endless, but I was spurred on by another fount of seemingly endless positive energy: Danny Bent. With Danny singing and Dave Beales leading, we made our way to the White House pub.
Another band of heavy storms rolled in, and I knew I was in trouble when people started handing me my full waterproofs and good Gore-Tex layers. But, few things keep you awake better than hail in your face. My stomach also began to shut down. On the move I was relying nearly completely on my 8 month old daughter’s baby food squeeze pouches. At support points I was stopping just a bit to get in rice pudding and pot noodle.
The final stretch was a bit of a daze. My anchor leg support runners were Jamie Rutherford and Marcus Scotney, with Simon Bennett providing reinforcements through a storm going over Black Hill. On Bleaklow my mind had just enough bandwidth to fixate on and follow Marcus’s bright yellow shoes. I had slipped into that state where I wasn’t entirely sure if it was real or a dream, just that I was still controlling my actions.
I followed those shiny shoes past Kinder Downfall, over Kinder Scout, down Jacob’s Ladder, and through the fields leading down to The Old Nags Head pub in Edale. I turned the last corner, went through the last gate, and released my final reserves of adrenaline to cruise down to the finish where my family was waiting. I didn’t specifically plan the timing this way, but for the entire run I had the motivation of knowing that if I ran fast enough I’d finish at a reasonable hour and they would be there. 58 hours, 4 minutes, 53 seconds, for ~3.5 hours off the record and a finish just past 7 PM – even the pub’s kitchen was still open.
A collective record
Any record like this is a collective achievement, built on the efforts and imagination of the past, competition and support of the present, and the desire to leave a mark for the future. I would not have had the courage to go for sub 60 hours without Damian’s incredible run. I hope my record also drives someone to do what they otherwise wouldn’t have thought possible and that at some point in the future the time is lowered again. There is still time that can come off of it now, and in the future further improvements to the trail and to gear will leave people with advantages over us similar to what Damian and I had over earlier efforts.
Then of course nothing like this would be possible without incredible support. My wife Jessi is an absolute rock, supporting me and four kids during these adventures, my coach David Roche has gotten my fitness to a place I didn’t know existed for me, and my returning crew chief Nicki Lygo has selflessly given so much to my and other Pennine Way efforts and also helped me work out some of my gut issues. Jen Scotney and Sharon Dyson were also flawless road support throughout, and I had a small army of amazing support runners and a number of others who unexpectedly contributed valuable support along the way.
But could it have been faster?
At the outset I mentioned that my main goal was to see how well I could do it, to put down a time on this route that truly reflected my capabilities. I feel I did that this time. I’m not only thrilled with the outcome, I’m content with my performance. But of course that still didn’t keep me from analyzing it and picking everything apart. So, time to geek out a bit.
For something this long, a 58:04 finish pretty much nailed my 58:14 schedule (the schedule I shared on the OpenTracking page was slowed down to be just fast enough to beat the record). And, it was pretty consistent with the 57:59 schedule I originally made last year (which is the schedule David referenced in a Trail Runner Magazine article).
My basic approach for creating schedules for these types of challenges is to:
Map out the route with some nominal average level of effort applied to it (or better, find the data for an actual run on the route, like, say, maybe Damian’s run from last year 😉)
Upload it to Strava and let it calculate the GAP (grade adjusted pace)
Create an ideal curve with a smooth decay of my GAP, based on previous experience and top performances for similar lengths of time on a track (where there are many fewer variables to contend with)
Reverse Strava’s pace to GAP conversion from step 2 and apply it to my ideal GAP curve from step 3 to get my “ideal” split for each mile
Of course the process above isn’t perfect, and for routes like the Pennine Way in particular it’s problematic because GAP can’t account for underfoot conditions and weather, but in general it works pretty well for me and over distances this long the law of large numbers comes into play and errors mostly average out. And most importantly, I haven’t yet come up with a better method.
The chart above shows a few things. First, why my plan revolved around the middle section. The moving average of Damian’s pace (green line) had a significant uptick from around mile 85 to around mile 210. That’s where I felt I had the most to gain, and I would need to capitalize on that opportunity to hold on during Damian’s big surge over the final 20 miles.
Second, my actual pace (black line) was really close to my plan (dotted red line). At the beginning when conditions were good I was moving a bit faster (but still following the same trend). At the end, when conditions got bad and I just wanted to go to bed, I slipped a bit. The end result was finishing 10 minutes ahead of schedule after over 58 hours.
Lamb Hill Refuge Hut
Road after Padon Hill
Bellingham (Spine CP)
A689 west of Lambley
Middleton in Teesdale
Tan Hill Inn
Horton in Ribblesdale
Thornton In Craven
A58 White House pub
A57 Snake Pass
From the start to Greenhead I built up a buffer of a bit over an hour on my schedule, maintained that buffer until the stop at Gargrave (between Airton and Thornton In Craven), but then only got behind schedule a few times, the most being 12 minutes at Kinder Downfall.
But generally my schedules, while tending to err on the ambitious side, are for average conditions and reasonable allowances for breaks. Going back and looking over my data on Strava, I had about 2 hours total time stopped with 1.5 hours of that coming in the last ~70 miles starting with the 45 minute Gargrave stop.
So that sounds like a lot, but the question is always whether the benefit outweighs the time stopped. Coming into Gargrave I had dropped to ~13 min GAP (grade adjusted pace) and then coming out I was around 11:30 GAP. So I needed to retain that benefit for ~30 miles to make up for the stop at Gargrave. And who knows, if I hadn’t have had a bit of a reset there maybe I would have gone over the edge and irrecoverably imploded.
This all leads to the question: what could be done under ideal conditions? No mild hypothermia at Gargrave, less stopping, less mud, and better weather. If everything went perfectly, I think I could do ~56 hours. But the probability that things that went wrong would go right is now less than the probability that things that went right would go wrong. Part of the beauty of these challenges is that there are always marginal gains – perfection is nearly impossible.
And someone might decide to have a crack at it (I hope one day they do!) who is better than me – better fitness, better mentally, and better prepared. The Pennine Way might also keep getting more flagstones until the whole thing doesn’t have a single step in mud. Then we can again refer back to some of the best performances on the track for similar amounts of time. The American record for 48 hours on a track is ~11 minutes per mile, which is about 48 seconds better than my GAP, which translates to about 55 seconds better pace, which would give a time of 54:20. Increase the pace a bit due to the slightly longer duration, then decrease it a bit due to people who are better than the current American record, and we’ll call it even. I reference the American record just because that’s what I have the data for, and because expanding to the world record would include a certain seemingly untouchable outlier from Greece who would really skew the numbers here.
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Not much changed on my gear compared to last year. For shoes, I was in the La Sportiva Jackal up until I switched to my intentionally oversized Akasha in Horton. Both the Jackal and Akasha did very well and were well-suited for that terrain and distance. The Akasha has long been my general purpose go-to shoe for long distances, only starting to get pushed aside a bit when the Jackal was released last year.
I again wore a pair of XOSKIN toe socks with a pair of their non-toe socks over top. They were soaking wet for nearly the entire time, but never once did I even remove them. No blisters, no foot issues at all. This is a strategy that has been working for me for years now. As important as it is to avoid foot issues at these distances, I have no plans to change a thing. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I also had an XOSKIN long sleeve top on nearly the entire way, and a pair of their new XOUNDERWEAR liner briefs. No chafeage anywhere.
My feet were also no doubt helped by my Ultimate Direction FK Gaiters, which stayed in place (despite one having front hook broken by a bog early on) and kept the dirt and grit from the bogs out of my shoes. I don’t see gaiters in the UK nearly as often as in the US, probably because there’s less sizable debris (rocks, sticks, etc.), but over that distance keeping even the small grit out is important. I also wore an Ultimate Direction Race Belt, where I kept my schedule, gloves, and a few other small odds and ends. I used Ultimate Direction FK Poles, first just on the steeper sections and then more liberally near the end.
At night I used my lightweight and reliable Petzl Actik Core, which was perfect for these situations where I have frequent road support and support runners guiding the way. If solo, with tougher navigation, or needing light for longer stretches on a single battery, I would normally use a Petzl NAO+.
The periodic deluges required a bit of a rotation between my La Sportiva Run Jacket and Ultimate Direction Ultra Jacket + Pants (trousers). For the worst of it, my crew threw my La Sportiva Odyssey GTX jacket at me, which is actually designed as a skimo jacket. It’s a great lightweight waterproof that provides a lot more protection than most running waterproofs (which are designed to be the bare minimum to meet most races’ kit requirements).
I used a COROS Vertix, which has proven to be an outstanding watch. I originally decided to try one because of its battery life, but its interface and other features have also been great for what I do. The navigation now includes waypoints, and it was quite nice to know how far (and how much climbing) before the next checkpoint. I did just have a bit of an issue at the beginning due to me trying to load my original full GPX route into it, which had over twice as many datapoints as most handheld GPS devices can handle. So I’ll remember to downsample those a bit in the future. It did need to be charged once along the way.
Nutrition required some changes from last year. It’s not that what I ate last year caused my stomach problems; that wasn’t the issue at all. But I found in training leading up to it that I had a bit of PTSD of the stomach (not at all trying to make light of actual PTSD, but I can think of no other way to aptly describe it). Like if you eat something and then get sick later, the thought of eating that food can make you queasy in the future even if it’s not what actually caused you to get sick. In my long training runs even the thought of pulling some of my previously tried and true foods out of my pack would make my stomach tighten up.
So I had quite the spread for this, with far more options than I would ever eat. I ate pretty well throughout, aiming for 250 – 300 calories an hour, although I do feel I started to get a bit light on calories over the final stretch. That’s one reason I stopped more often was to try to get some food down.
When I was packing things up my son pointed at something and said, “Dad, is that healthy food?” I kind of laughed and said that no, nothing here was healthy. But for endurance events of this length, these are the important criteria for food, in order:
Food that you’ll eat
Food that won’t keep you from eating later (i.e. won’t give you GI issues)
Food that won’t get squished or fall apart in a running vest
Food that has the optimal nutrient profile and will be converted to energy and absorbed in the scientifically proven quickest and most efficient way
As much as we’re all sold on #4, that doesn’t matter at all if it’s something that doesn’t meet criteria 1 and 2. And really, I think those same criteria apply outside of running as well. Except for #3. It’s hard enough to not be able to take ice cream on a run; I would never want to impose that rule on every day life.
My coach is big on recovery and time to adapt to big stimuli, so I had a week off. The usual recovery nemesis, DOMS, wasn’t that bad. Honestly I’ve had worse from marathons (running hard on asphalt for 26.2 miles hurts!). But edema / water retention always leaves my legs swollen like tree trunks for a week or so.
Systemic exhaustion and lack of energy are bad for ~1 week. Sudden “attacks” where gravity seems to increase by 10X, mentally it feels like I’ve been hit by a train, and there’s no choice but to lie down.
Sleep deprivation: I can’t just go sleep 30 hours. Clawing back sleep debt is gradual over 2+ weeks. I don’t sleep well the 1st night with the adrenaline, aching muscles, etc. Plus, life. I have a job and a family. A huge reason why this is my first blog post since January is that for me running is in addition to all those normal parts of life; a week after I posted about doing less in 2021 a lot happened that left me no choice but to do less in other areas. Life has its own highs and lows just like an ultra does.
Hunger. For 3-4 days my stomach instantly incinerates anything tossed into it. Day 1 by 2 PM I had eaten everything in the fridge that was supposed to feed our entire family for dinner. I also often get cotton mouth & tongue ulcers from multi-days. So I largely stick to soft foods (treacle pudding and ice cream in the pub at the finish, and of course a nice southern breakfast complete with sweet tea).
The “post-race blues.” These things really wreak havoc on hormones, plus even if successful there’s the mental shift of no longer having *the goal* – as if it had been pulling me forward but someone just cut the rope. It takes a while to mentally refocus.
By about 10 days later I had started easing back into running, feeling fairly normal and going about life as usual. I even finally got my first Covid vaccination two days after finishing (my coach’s response to whether that would be ok: “Generally the 1st dose has some mild inflammation, which for you right now is like throwing a cup of water in the ocean”).
At that point my sights were set on the next challenge, and part of the delay in getting this post finished was due to getting plans together for that.
The Full English
Last year I put together two big back to back adventures (The Pennine Way and The Grand Round) and called it The Hartley Slam in recognition of Mike Hartley’s incredible feats that helped pave the way for those and so many other big running challenges in the UK. Those challenges took me across Wales, England, and Scotland. This year, except for those first few miles of the Pennine Way in the Scottish Borders, I’m sticking to England for “The Full English.”
In mid July I’ll be setting off for an attempt at the Wainwrights, a set of 214 peaks in the Lake District. The route can vary a bit, but most recent attempts have been slight variations of what Steven Birkinshaw developed for breaking Joss Naylor’s record in 2014, which amounts to somewhere above 320 miles and 110K feet of ascent. Steve’s record was broken by Paul Tierney in 2019, which was then broken by Sabrina Verjee recently in a time of 5 days, 23 hours, and 49 minutes.
I’ve been planning this for close to a year now, and Sabrina has been unbelievably supportive throughout – not just in a “cool that sounds great” sort of way, but in going out of her way to actively support me and provide me with the information and guidance needed to have a good attempt. It’s likely she’ll be out there guiding me around on sections and has offered their house as a stop for a shower and nap if the timing is right. Yes, I also carried her stuff around for a few legs of one of her attempts, but between learning the route and getting a good final training stimulus before the Pennine Way that benefitted me as much as it did her. I should also note that I’m not the first to go after the Wainwrights and the Pennine Way in the same year. Sabrina did that already too, last year.
On one hand I’ve been blown away by her support, but on the other it simply exemplifies the fell running community I’ve gotten to be a part of while living here. I’ve also learned a great deal on the Wainwrights from Carol Morgan. For someone like me who doesn’t have the chance to make it to the Lakes very often, challenges like these would be impossible without others paving the way. There have been quite a few Wainwrights runs over the past year, some in pretty brutal conditions, and a recent unsupported completion (no help, no resupplies, starting with absolutely everything needed to finish except water from natural sources) by Christopher Gaskin in 11 days 11 hours.
As part of this challenge, I’ve decided to set up a fundraiser for Action Medical Research. I would have set this up before the Pennine Way, but going back to the whole lack of time thing, I never got around to it. The charity has been very supportive in helping me set things up, though. I’m thrilled to be working with them and to be able to contribute to their mission. Even the smallest donation helps, and while a far less important reason to donate it will also give me a nice boost through those inevitable lows when I’m wandering around the Lake District wondering what I’ve gotten myself into.
I’ve mentioned in previous posts that one of my great passions is kids who have the cards stacked against them. Last year with the Hartley Slam I supported Blueprint for All (formerly Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust). They’re doing amazing work and I will continue to personally support them, but in doing these fundraisers I believe it’s as much about raising awareness and the follow-on benefits as it is the direct immediate donations. I hope in highlighting a few different charities that more people will see one that really resonates with them and drives them to be actively engaged and supportive indefinitely. It’s the whole give someone a fish vs. teach them to fish thing. I was actually made aware of Action Medical Research myself through Rod Tredgett and Raring to Row, a four person team rowing 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean.
Action Medical Research is another charity that fully resonates with me. While Blueprint for All helps young people who are socially or economically at a disadvantage, Action Medical Research helps kids who are medically at a disadvantage. They are the the leading UK-wide charity saving and changing children’s lives through medical research. They also remind me a bit of one of my favorite charities back in the US (St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital) and they contribute to a cause that’s near and dear to Nicki Lygo: ending Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. I hope everyone can find a good cause that they’re as passionate about as Nicki is about this. For all her work supporting people like me and Damian on our crazy challenges, Nicki more than deserves some support herself.
Pennine Way podcasts
Well, as usual, what I thought would be a quick post largely copy / pasted from what I had already posted on social media turned into a rather lengthy endeavor. But if you still haven’t quite gotten enough of the Pennine Way, below are some podcasts I did after my run. I’ve made it one of my goals this year to do far fewer podcasts, taking the time to focus on other things (including the things that cause people to ask me to do podcasts in the first place). But the ones below are with people I always enjoy having a chat with, and who I know will ask the good questions.
I love winter running. For me, one of the few places that can compete with the view from the top of a mountain is a forest blanketed in snow. Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening is not only my favorite poem, it’s probably the only one I actually know by heart. When I worked in Washington, D.C. my greatest respite was my commute home from work. Anyone who has dealt with a D.C. commute is probably pretty confused, but I didn’t take the constantly jammed beltway or the over-crowded and prone-to-catch-fire metro. I left my office in Dupont Circle and in just over 2 miles I hit the trails in Rock Creek Park, which would take me the remaining 12 miles home.
My favorite time of year for this wasn’t when it was sunny and 90+ Fahrenheit with 90% humidity. It was when I was in the dark and cold, and the air was calm and crisp. Snow was a bonus, with thousands of tiny crystals glimmering in my headlamp’s beam on the ground and in the trees. It was magical, and peaceful, and I felt as if I had the whole place to myself.
As great as winter running is, it of course has its dangers. I want to be clear: this post isn’t meant to be a comprehensive set of winter safety recommendations. It has some suggestions to hopefully add to your comfort and your enjoyment of winter conditions. Before venturing out, always be sure you have the proper experience, knowledge, and gear, and that you’re aware of all conditions you *might* face. Not what you’re likely to face, but might face with even just a tiny probability. Gradually work your way up from short days out to longer adventures. Learn from problems others have encountered and don’t be an idiot like I was on a November hike in Yosemite back in 2013. This is even more true this winter with emergency services in most places already pushed beyond their limit from Covid. Here in the UK, any winter adventures currently shouldn’t be overnight or involve travel from home.
Nature isn’t the only danger
I also recognize that the scene I describe in the first paragraph is one that unfortunately many women don’t feel they can safely enjoy. If one of my daughters were old enough to go out for a run, I can’t say I would feel very good about her doing it in Rock Creek Park at night. Without launching into an entirely different topic that I’m severely unqualified to speak about, I’ll only add two more things to that. First, if you’re a guy please be aware of these issues and listen to and support the women who face them. Second, if you face these issues yourself, please consider carrying mace. Not just for bears. I’d love for my daughters to one day think it’s the cool thing to do if they go off running through the woods at night.
Emergency avoidance > emergency preparedness (but do both)
If there’s one thing you take away from this post, and don’t even read anything else, let it be this: mountain rescue is not a safety net or a security blanket! Be sure you let someone know where you’re going, and carry some sort of tracking and communication device, but otherwise when you plan, prepare, and venture out, pretend that mountain rescue doesn’t exist. Your mindset must be that you’re on your own – there will be no one coming to get you and if you get in trouble you need to always know the quickest route out and be able to keep yourself warm and safe at least through the night. Then if you do experience an emergency situation and someone is able to come get you back to safety then you can be pleasantly surprised and appropriately overcome with relief and gratitude.
Now moving on to the actual topic of the post: finding greater joy and comfort in winter running. And this isn’t just about comfort, it’s also about performance and injury prevention.
The most obvious discomfort in winter: it’s cold. I’ve long been a fan of the saying, “there’s no such thing as bad conditions, just inappropriate clothing.” In the past couple of years I’ve found that that’s not necessarily true. It’s not the temperature that causes the unavoidable problems, though. It’s poor visibility, immobilizing wind, or sloppy underfoot conditions. Subzero temps (on either scale), or light precipitation and wind… those can all be addressed by wearing the right kit.
Core is key
I used to think that I was really susceptible to cold hands. I’ve collected quite the variety of gloves to attempt to remedy this problem. It turns out, the problem was usually that I wasn’t protecting my core enough. If it’s not sufficiently warm then the body essentially says, “abandon the extremities, protect the vital organs!” Moreover, it’s using extra energy in that attempt to fall back and defend the keep. Running along with a cold chest might feel manageable, maybe even nice, but if the chest starts to become unbearably cold then we’ve stopped talking about comfort and now we’re back to the issue of safety.
Second to the core are the legs. I used to overlook these entirely. I even had a saying I used for years – “tights are for the teens” (as in degrees, Fahrenheit). I would happily run around in bare legs in freezing temperatures. I reconsidered first at the behest of my coach, David Roche, who penned the article I linked above about performance and injury prevention in cold weather. It turns out, muscles don’t like being cold. And leg muscles, well, they’re kind of important when running. I’ll now start covering up my legs when temperatures are just above freezing, and just like protecting my core it also helps with overall warmth extending to my extremities.
But the other stuff is important too
Protecting the core doesn’t mean you can run around in freezing temperatures with bare hands. I used to go with the minimal choice that was bearable for gloves. Having available fingers that can manage zippers, open food packaging, etc. is important. I’ve always been a fan of lightweight gloves with built-in mitten covers like the La Sportiva Trail Gloves. Those are still my go-tos for “chilly” temperatures, but when things get really cold I’m less shy about moving up to heftier gloves. I’ve found that my hands are happier and more nimble if they’re warm and cozy throughout the run but really cold for a minute when I rip the gloves off to use my fingers, rather than being constantly a little cold in lighter weight gloves that I never need to remove. I’m still a huge fan of the flexibility provided by over-mittens, though. Mittens will always be much warmer than gloves of comparable weight.
Feet are often overlooked. As ultrarunners, we’re used to dealing with all sorts of strange things going on with our feet. The gradual onset of frostbite is not something that should be casually ignored or battled through because we’re super tough, or something. Wool socks are a must, and it might be necessary to get shoes that are a size or two bigger to allow for multiple layers of socks. If feet are stuffed into shoes without enough room for blood flow and a bit of toe wiggling then extra socks can do more harm than good. Gore tex shoes and waterproof socks are also great for extreme conditions, not because they’ll necessarily keep your feet dry in all conditions, but because if your feet do get wet they’ll provide a bit of a wetsuit-like effect to keep your feet warm.
One mistake that’s easy to make is to judge what’s needed in a race or long day out based on what’s been needed in training. In ultrarunning nearly everything is magnified in races, but this is especially the case for cold weather. Generally we aren’t moving nearly as fast in a big mountain 100K as we are in an hour long training run. The slower we move, the colder we get. And the longer we’re out, the more that matters and progresses from a slight inconvenience to a major problem. It’s also a much worse situation than getting hot. If you’re hot you can always slow down or even stop, or go lie in a cool mountain stream for a few minutes. If you’re cold, and you’re fatigued or dehydrated, the solutions to those problems are in direct conflict. This is again why if you’re headed out solo into the mountains you absolutely need to have enough gear to stay warm even if you’re forced to stop moving completely.
Zippers are a modern marvel
Saying “dress in layers” is probably the most trite thing I could say in this post (albeit very important and true) and there are tons of resources detailing how to do this properly. I’m going to expand that a bit and say dress in layers with zippers. Conditions can change quite quickly in winter in the mountains, and there can be substantial differences even between two spots 10 meters apart. A long steep climb in the sun and protected from the wind can leave you wondering why you’re not in shorts and a t-shirt. Then once on the ridgeline getting hit by the wind with snow underfoot and clouds coming in overhead it can suddenly be dangerously cold.
On my Grand Round this past summer, I faced Storm Ellen in Scotland at a time when my body was completely drained and no longer capable of regulating its own temperature. I ended up getting decked out in 10 layers up top. All but my base layer had a zipper, and on some climbs I would unzip all of them about 3/4 of the way. Once up top, they were all zipped back up. Even a lot of shell pants / trousers have zippers on the side that can be used like this for temporary ventilation.
Cold isn’t the worst enemy, wet is
Avoiding over-heating isn’t critical due to real-time comfort; it’s due to sweat that can come back to do real harm later. If base layers are wet when it gets cold again, it’s going to be extremely difficult to stay warm and again an uncomfortable situation can very quickly turn into a dangerous one with hypothermia a real possibility. This is also why having a shell is so important in any sort of wet conditions – even if it’s just clag that can slowly be absorbed by an exposed inner layer. A good shell (or two) can create its own nice dry and warm micro-climate (nano-climate maybe?) around your body. Don’t wait until you feel cold to worry about rain, sweat, or anything else that can get you wet. Stay dry at all costs!
Be prepared to abandon ship
Being able to recognize an unacceptable level of risk is important across pretty much all decisions we make. Risk is basically the probability that something can happen times how bad it would be. The “how bad could it be” part of the equation is high if solo in the mountains in winter. The probability of something going wrong can change quickly, and when it does we need to recognize it immediately and escape. During these outings I’m constantly considering changes to internal and external conditions and forcing myself to answer the question, “is it worth it?” in terms of the most up to date risk / reward profile.
Always know the quickest and best exit from every spot along the route. GPS devices and phones are great, but those aren’t 100% reliable. Have a map and compass and a familiarity with the map before heading out. And always have a headlamp (or two or three)! With the shorter days it doesn’t take much for a run to get extended beyond dusk, and getting stuck out there as the temperatures drop even further can quickly get dangerous.
In the brief window when Wales was open to visitors before the Covid curve started flattening against the wrong axis in December, I went to the mountains for some winter solo fun. I was having a great day out when I face-planted into a bog. I was completely soaked through from head to toe. My hair was wet, all my inner layers were wet, my pack was wet (which is why it’s a good idea to put spare layers in ziplock bags). I had nothing dry left. I continued along for a bit just fine, but as evening approached the temperatures began to drop and the wind picked up. Cold + wet is dangerous; cold + wet + wind is the absolute nightmare scenario. I knew the situation would only get worse, and pulled out my map to find the quickest way off the tops and back down to the road. I’m disappointed I wasn’t able to finish my planned run that day, but it will be there another day and now so will I.
It’s not just about body warmth
Food and water are always important for mountain running, and in winter they can be much trickier to manage. Food can be difficult to open with gloves or cold hands, and can freeze and be difficult to eat. Calories are another ingredient to staying warm, though. One thing I like to do is take the next thing I’m going to eat and stick it up my shirt sleeve, like a little oven to warm it up before enjoying.
Water is even more difficult. Many of the usual sources could be dry or frozen. Always plan ahead where to refill, and consider whether something to break through the ice might be necessary. Sometimes giving a forceful (and careful) heel kick to the edge of the ice can do the trick. If in doubt, carry extra water to ensure you don’t run out between viable sources. We might not be sweating as much as summer, but the dry air causes a lot more water to be lost through the skin and mouth. And don’t eat snow! You can bottle it and let it melt first, but don’t eat it directly – that will cause further dehydration.
Bottles, particularly valves, can also freeze. Having a shell that fits over your vest can usually take care of the problem. Another solution for moderate freezing conditions is to put a wool sock over the top of the bottle. Bonus: emergency pair of socks (or gloves)! Also try to alternate sips between bottles to keep the valves from freezing solid.
I made this mistake myself on my most recent winter excursion: an attempted solo unsupported mid winter Bob Graham Round. Everything was going great, and it was an absolutely beautiful day and incredible experience, but I over-estimated the availability of water and slowly became dehydrated to the point that I had to stop with just one short section left.
For my recent failed solo unsupported mid winter Bob Graham Round, below is what I took. Note that I have relationships with many of the companies mentioned below and much of the gear was provided to me. For a full list of those companies, and in some cases discount codes, see this page.
La Sportiva Blizzard GTX (the built-in studs did remarkably well)
XOSKIN wool toe socks
Dexshell Hytherm waterproof socks
La Sportiva Radial Pant
La Sportiva Zagros GTX pants
XOSKIN form-fit long sleeve top
La Sportiva Combin Down jacket
La Sportiva Zagros GTX jacket (tied around my waist much of the time)
La Sportiva Skimo Gloves
La Sportiva Race Overgloves
Generic knit Santa hat
La Sportiva Beta Beanie
Janji neck warmer
Ultimate Direction Mountain Vest 5.0
Ultimate Direction Race Belt 4.0 with Adventure Pocket (I really like the additional easily accessible storage a waist belt can add)
COROS Vertix with approximate route loaded
Bob Graham Round Harvey map
Garmin eTrex 32X with OpenStreetMap topo maps loaded
Backup pocket compass
Phone with OS Maps loaded
OpenTracking GPS tracker and satellite communication device
Petzl NAO+ with extra battery
Petzl Actik Core
Petzl Bindi (always have backup lights)
Extra in pack
First aid kit
Dry XOSKIN form-fit long sleeve top
La Sportiva Rook long sleeve
La Sportiva Odyssey GTX jacket
La Sportiva Merak soft shell jacket
Blizzard 3 Layer Survival Blanket (bulkier, but highly recommended over a standard Sol Bivvy for solo outings in true winter conditions)
When I was first approached about making a film on my 2nd attempt at my Grand Round project, I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about it. What if I failed again? Or got injured and had to stop on the very first round? This was a personal project, something I was passionate about doing for the adventure and individual challenge. As Covid emerged and escalated, it wasn’t clear that I would be able to do it at all much less whether there would be any available support for a film. In the end, I’m incredibly glad we moved forward with it and that Phil and Jon from PH Balance Photography came out to capture and share the experience. They did a wonderful job and this is something I will always cherish looking back on.
I’ve had the draft of this post open on my computer for over a week, the relentless cadence of the blinking cursor mocking me as I sat here idle, unable to figure out how to even start. Do I start with a simple summary, repeating the same old statistics on distance and elevation? Or maybe I should wax philosophical on one of the many things I wrestled with or discovered on this journey. The literal journey itself – the incredible places and landscapes I got to explore… surely a remark on that would be a suitable start. And of course I would be horribly remiss to not lead with a mention of the amazing support I received throughout, without which none of this would have been possible.
The truth is, none of those things alone would sufficiently reflect the experience I had. In fact I’ll go ahead and say that I’m incapable of putting it all into words even with a full write-up. So I’ll skip the whole synopsis bit and get right to it, with everything included in due course. You can find a recap of each section over on my Instagram starting here if you would rather have a brief summary or don’t have time to sit down to the ensuing novella (this is the longest report I’ve written by a wide margin, and I’ve written some long stuff). If you’ve fully exhausted your Covid19 Netflix watchlist and are in for a full binge reading session, there’s also a prequel trilogy on why I decided to do this in the first place, how that first attempt turned out, and what was different going into this second attempt.
Like nearly everyone, my 2020 plans were pretty well wrecked by Covid19. I’m still hoping to cram in a couple of big challenges, though. I’ll be chasing a Pennine Way FKT and giving another attempt at my Grand Round project, barely a month apart. As alluded to in my previous post, I’ll be raising money for the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust through these efforts.
When Covid first really started escalating, with lockdowns, race cancellations, and other restrictions rapidly coming into place, I was at my family’s farm back in Tennessee just a few miles from Frozen Head. With Barkley canceled, I went out to Frozen Head for a “No Barkley Barkley” – 5 loops around the park, all on trail within daylight hours, completed within 60 hours. I wore flags on my pack for each of the countries that would have been represented at the race. Jim Matheny from WBIR came out to cover my finish and do a socially distanced interview afterwards for the segment below.
All year there had been another mountain looming in the distance, some other challenge around the corner weighing on my mind. At the end of that road lay Tor Des Geants, a trek around the Aosta Valley in the Italian Alps covering about 205 miles and 80K feet of elevation gain. After getting my first DNF at Ronda dels Cims, I had gotten in a pretty good block of training and was eager to get out there and race. Besides, the last time I went to race in northern Italy I ended up with a rather unpleasant helicopter ride afterwards. So if I could avoid that, I was at least making progress.
The race was one of those types of experiences that will continue to grow in value to me over time, and was complete with all the extreme highs and lows that might be expected during such an event. It was also on the most beautiful course I’ve ever set foot on and was embraced by the villages and rifugios we traveled through in an amazing way. Yes, there were a few logistical issues I wish could have gone better, but that’s to be expected for an event this large and something that I’m sure will continue to improve.
I wasn’t foolish enough to think I was indestructible, but I also didn’t know where my breaking point was. Over the past two years I’ve had a pretty heavy race schedule, with an ultra, long FKT attempt, or iron distance triathlon about every six weeks. And for the most part they went pretty well, great even. Sure, I was just hanging on through some of them (most recently, Lavaredo) knowing that I wasn’t in the best condition for them, but I had never in my life DNF’d a “normal” race (i.e. Barkley and The Grand Round excluded).
Lavaredo had a lot of firsts for me: first time in Italy (and Austria, after driving down from Munich), first time in an ultra that big and competitive, first time competing in an ultra between April and November, and first time in a race in anything that would be considered an alpine environment. I had an unforgettable experience and I think I ran a fairly smart race, but in the end it wasn’t my best outcome. Oh, and yeah, first time in a helicopter too.
I did not achieve what I was aiming for on The Grand Round, but I ended up with more than I could have hoped for. I have never been more proud of a failed pursuit or gained as many unexpected positive outcomes. Of course I wish a few things had gone differently and that I had been able to finish. I’m an overly competitive goal-driven Type A perfectionist who is horrible company for a “casual” game of anything, and falling short will always gnaw at me. I went out to seek a challenge, though, and based on the criteria I laid out I got exactly what I was seeking. If everything was predictable, there would be no excitement or passion, no adventure, no exploration. In a way, the plan has to be for things to not go according to plan.
As it stands I had an incredible adventure and learned a great deal, both specific to the challenge itself and more broadly applicable to my own life. I also learned that there is at least one thing that I can reliably plan on: the passion and selfless support of the fell running community. I’m still in a bit of disbelief at their generosity, and I come from a place that I’d say epitomizes southern hospitality. I’ll tell you what, though, we sure ain’t got no monopoly on kindness.
I wanted to get my thoughts on why I’m doing this “Grand Round” out ahead of time, before they’re forever altered by the pain, joy, and experience of actually doing it. For my own sake as much as anything, I wanted them crystallized in writing and set aside for me to reflect on afterwards. Because honestly, I’m terrified. This is likely to be more challenging than even Barkley, and I haven’t been this terrified of anything I’ve attempted since my very first attempt at Barkley. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing; actually I’d say the opposite.
You can’t always get what you want But if you try sometimes well you might find You get what you need
We’ve all at some point or another had those lyrics stuck in our head, and we’ve all probably had a number of situations where they were quite appropriate. I think a key word that really gets overlooked, though, is try. You don’t just sit there and have what you need fall into your lap.
Training for Barkley is a bit of a conundrum as it is. There are so many variables involved in the race that it is impossible to optimize training for all of them. This year I had a couple more wrinkles thrown in: I was getting ready for a big move and trying to somewhat hide the fact that I was doing Barkley. At the same time, though, I had the benefit of more experience and more confidence under my belt, and a much different mindset approaching the race.
Unlike other John Kellys in DC, I’m not afraid to put my name on an op ed. Granted this one is, or should be, much less controversial. With so many high profile issues, a lot of smaller but important things can slip through the cracks, like the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Everyone knows about national parks, and yes they’re incredible, but it’s really the smaller, more local things that most of us get to experience on a more regular basis and that more directly impact our lives. A lot of those are at risk without the renewal of the LWCF.
Some on-course footage, pictures, and commentary from my time crewing and acting as a random course checkpoint at the 2018 Barkley Marathons. The video and audio quality are pretty horrible, but this is what I got so it’s this or nothing. And maybe grainy, noisy footage is appropriate for “on-course” Barkley coverage. 😉 Thank you to James DeFilippi for loaning me his camera for the weekend.