There has been some interesting stuff around Jack Kuenzle’s recent Bob Graham Round record, including a report/write-up by the pacers, and a podcast in the Singletrack series. The following are a few thoughts from me on it and a couple of quotes from Kuenzle (but if you are really interested it is worth listening to the podcast, which is linked below, as is the report).
It was quite a shock when Kilian Jornet rocked-up in 2018 and took an hour off Billy Bland’s record, which had stood for 36 years. I reckon it was even more of a shock when Jack Kuenzle took another 29 minutes off in on 2 Sept 2022. This is not to say that Kuenzle was not a good enough athlete to hit that time, but more that he was very much an under-the-radar runner to most people before then, despite having done some pretty impressive FKTs elsewhere [Edit: under my radar].
So, how did Jack get those 29 minutes over Kilian, who was acknowledged to be running pretty damn fast on his round. In the podcast Jack explains in detail how he was over here (from the States) to get prepped for the BGR, and how his setting of a new record for Tranters Round was part of that physical preparation. He also reckons he did the BGR in sections almost three times in prep. Before the BGR attempt he says he must have done 3 weeks of 100 miles and 47,000 feet of climbing each week. As part of the build-up he was networking with local runners to create a bank of potential pacers. This included one day when he ran Legs 1 and 2 of the BGR (some 26 miles or so), then hitchhiked back up to Keswick to go on an 8-mile Keswick AC club run.
Like Kilian had, Jack met up with Billy Bland to chew the fat about the BGR and what it had been like in Billy’s day. Jack seemed to really hit it off with Billy, and suggested that “there was no way that anyone could run that fast [over the BGR] in the 1980s”. He argued that the revolution in fueling, the way the route has changed to be easier to follow and tun over, and the tendency to not stop at road crossings, all made a huge difference now. He added that he couldn’t believe Billy had a drink of beer en route and stopped for a sandwich, and also that the BGR hadn’t really been Billy’s focus that for that year. All this added together made Jack suggest that, “Billy Bland was generations ahead of his time, and this was the craziest achievement in fell running”.
Jack boldly opinied that “Kilian’s time was a little soft”, and set out to prove it by attacking Leg 1 aggressively. How this panned out and some near-catastrophies that occurred on the round are highlighted in the pacers report (http://keswickac.org.uk/jack-kuenzles-record-breaking-bob-graham/). Jack concludes his own lively description of the round (on the podcast) by saying his view that when he was suffering a couple of bad patches during it he was thinking, “I’m gonna make it as painful as possible for the next person to break it”.
He also makes a couple of interesting observations on consumerism and professionalism. At one point recently he was given some Inov8 running shorts costing something over £50. He said he didn’t really need those fancy ‘technical’ shorts, as “shorts just need to cover your genitalia”. Talking about Inov8 and the fact they help him, he accepts the conflict there is about this when he says he wanted to do the BGR “without the consumer spray on social media”.
Jack Kuenzle finished by talking about any ‘mistakes’ he made on the BGR, who might beat the record, and what he might be tempted to do next.
The mistakes were really small, except saying he probably didn’t drink enough, and might have benefitted from more ‘waterboys’. As to time savings they were SO marginal: a better line off Halls Fell could have saved a minute or so, and he rues the 90 seconds changing shoes for the run-in as “time wasted”. For ‘who next’, he just mentioned three names: Jonathon Albon, and repeats by Finlay Wild and Kilian Jornet. As to his own ambitions, he mentioned several prominent USA FKT targets, but also thought that possibles would include: Kim Collison’s Lake District 24hr Peaks Record, Kilian’s Mont Blanc Record, and Finlay’s Cuillin Ridge Traverse Record (although suggesting it might be too technical for him to run fast enough over). All would require him to train harder and smarter. A fascinating guy.
The Singletrack Podcast: (it is a long one, with poor picture later on) – Youtube version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R1_h7z2bRIU Audio only version: https://www.runsingletrack.com/jack-kuenzle-fastest-known-time-bob-graham-round/
Extra: for more about the Bob Graham Round and its history, see The Round: https://sandstonepress.com/books/the-round-1
For more about Billy Bland, see his biography – All or Nothing at all: https://sandstonepress.com/books/all-or-nothing-at-all-1
Info coming very soon on ‘Next Book”. Meanwhile a reminder: Copies of all of my books are available from good book shops. Use this link to purchase from @SReadBooks in Grasmere, who have an excellent online service.
I was watching a replay of the stream of coverage of the 2022 Marathon du Mont Blanc the other day and was struck by two things: how well a couple of Africans performed and how the race (ie the podium positions) changed throughout the 42km event. The event has over 2500m of height gain, is based in Chamonix, and is now part of the Golden Trail World Series.
The race was eventually won by Jonathan Albon (centre, UK), from David Magnini (left, Italy) and Ruy Ueda (right, Japan). But I am here to have a look at two African-born competitors, Elhousine Elazzaoui (Morocco) and Robert Pkemboi (Kenya, sometimes Robert Pkemboi Matayango).
Let’s look at how the race panned out for the two Africans. These notes are taken from a second skim watch of the live stream, and relative positions on the course are usually in time elapsed:
After 30 minutes of mostly flat running three runners had got away. Robert Pkemboi, Petro Mamu Shaku (Eritrea) and Juan Carlos (Mexico) were trying to get a a decent break going. As the course started rising Jonathan Albon picked them up, and these four ran together for ages. After the highest point (Col des Posettes at 19.5 km) Carlos was dropped. The remaining three were together after 2hrs 4mins, then Albon broke away around the 2-20 to 2-25 mark. From 29.5km onwards Davide Magnini seemed to have tracker problems, as did a couple of others. At this time Elhousine Elazzaoui seemed to be 4th and Ruy Ueda (Japan) 7th (although quite difficult to tell from the footage). Then at around 35km the leaders were shown as: Albon, Elazzaoui, Shaku, Baronian (France) and Pkemboi. Still no sign of Magnini, but Juan Carlos had dropped out. After 3-06 Elazzaoui was 3 mins behind Albon, and Magnini was up to 3rd, with Ueda up to 4th. Pkemboi was seen walking briefly. At 3-18 the leaders were Albon, Elazzaoui, Shaku, Pkemboi, Baronian, and Ueda (Magnini seeming to be not in top 10, although that was because of tracker malfunction). Then the stream suddenly at 3-20 shows that he is in second. Not much further changed.
The final top 6 were: Jonathan Albon (U.K., lives in Norway) 3:35:20; Davide Magnini (Italy) 33:39:41; Ruy Ueda (Japan) 3:40:42; Elhousine Elazzaoui (Morocco) 3:43:19; Thibaut Baronian (France) 3:47:27; Robert Pkemboi (Kenya) 3:50:44. Albon was at front for much of the race, Elazzaoui moved through in the second half, and Pkemboi faded after his fast start, but held up well in the end.
So what do we know about the two Africans? [Credit: the internet]
Elazzaoui is a son of the desert, born in the Berber tribe of southern Morocco. As a boy, having to contribute to the surveillance of the camels, he would ask his father to let them go far away so that he could run and get them back (barefoot). In March 2017, he moved to Switzerland where he now trains and competes in the major international mountain races, including vertical kilometres.
For more about Elazzaoui see: https://en.everybodywiki.com/Elazzaoui_Elhousine
Pkemboi is part of a project for Kenyan athletes to participate in mountain running (Sky Runners Kenya), created by Octavio Perez. He pulled together a group of runners who had run mountain races in Kenya. Perez says, ‘the idea came to my mind when Kilian Jornet started doing some road races. I thought; If Jornet is capable of doing great things on the road, what would Kenyans be able to do in mountain running? After a lot of turning my head, I prepared some workouts in Iten [Kenya] with several runners there.‘
All of this reminds of something that Sarah Rowell said to me when I interviewed her at the end of last year (for my upcoming book on pioneer women fell and mountain runners). Sarah now spends time supporting the development of international mountain running. ‘I recently joined the WMRA Council as it was a role I felt I could contribute to. My ambition is to see a proper mountain style relay at the Olympics. Two men, two women, over say a 20-minute course, which I think would be better than cross country. The more mountain running becomes mainstream the more in some ways it moves away from its roots. The top runners are earning a living from it. I would like to see them getting the plaudits they deserve. Now we are seeing the Africans coming in, and increasingly winning.’
The Africans will do it if it is financially advantageous for them. The way they get in is through their agents. When you know what the top ones are earning doing marathons it tiers down. They are starting to look at mountain races. At the World Mountain Champs there have been a podium runners from Eritrea before now, and from Kenya too. Personally, but I may be proved totally wrong, I think if you have a course with a technical descent then that helps even things up. Classically you will see the best European descenders can often outdo some of the Africans. By Europeans it is normally the Spanish, Italians and the Brits. In my own way I was always a much better descender than climber.
Postscript: Elazzaoui and Pkemboi placed 4th and 5th respectively in the Zegama-Aizkorri Marathon back in May, also part of the Golden Trail Series (an event won by Kilian Jornet, with Davide Magnini a fine second, after they had gone neck and neck for much of the race).
For my earlier thoughts (from 2017) on African mountain runners see: https://itsahill.wordpress.com/2017/08/09/future-of-fellmountain-running-are-africans-set-to-take-over/
And for a postscript on that blog post see: https://itsahill.wordpress.com/2017/09/11/postscript-on-african-dominance/
My running and life as a cartographer are briefly highlighted in an article recently published in The Fellrunner. It was also interesting to compare (and contrast) both those aspects of my life with the similar/differing pathways of a fellow running cartographer. Andy Ford is a far better (fell) runner than I ever was, but I do think I may have taught him a thing about cartography and data visualization. [Awaits rebuff on that idea from Andy]
The full 4-page article can be read here [PDF of the article]
Andy Ford’s map work can be viewed, and commissions requested, at: https://www.ottermaps.co.uk/
An image of Andy that there wasn’t space for in the article. It shows him on top of a claggy Coniston Old Man on the way to a win in the Turner Landscape race in 2021.
A description of the early Rivington Pike races (in the late 1880s) suggested that: “tricks of all descriptions were played on the runners in the old days, and that it was impossible to win unless ‘well in’ with the Horwich people.” I have no idea whether Sarah McCormack is ‘well in’ with said Horwich people, but she certainly had no such problems when winning the Rivington Pike fell race this Easter.
She floated over the 5.5km in a new course record of 19-11, beating a record that has stood since 1987, when Carol Greenwood ran the race in 19-38. Glynne Lever, chairman of Horwich commented: “Course records are special and to break one that has stood for so long takes a special performance. What Sarah achieved on Easter Saturday was incredible and will take some beating”.
Fellow race competitor David Barnes enjoyed seeing Sarah set the record, as he explained in a message to me: “What an experience to be in a race with a world-class athlete, thrilling to see Sarah McCormack descend as I toiled my way to the tower, only reaching it after Sarah had crossed the finish line, smashing the record.”
I have not had a chance to speak to Sarah about the race, but she did say on an Instagram post: “Really quite excited to have set a new CR for Rivington Pike fell race! Nice to have two cooperating hamstrings for a very short sharp run.”
Sarah McCormack has competed for Ireland in many international competitions including winning the Mountain Running World Cup series in 2019, and has had a rich vein of form recently, with that record just topping it off. You can read more about Sarah at her profile page here.
Rivington Pike is reckoned to be the second oldest amateur fell race, with its 1893 inauguration being only preceded by the Hallam Chase in 1863. Despite the race’s long history, women have only been racing the Pike since the late 1970s, as I found out when researching my latest book, on the pioneering women fell runners.
After a lot of pressure, including running officially in various races to make their point, women were starting to be given official race status from 1977. In 1978 women’s race numbers were high at several of the established fell races. There were, for example: 21 women running at Fairfield, 17 at Kentmere, and the Burnmoor Chase, 16 at Pendle, and 14 at Rivington Pike. However, they had a separate race at Rivington, an hour earlier than the men, and shorter, despite going to the Pike summit.
That women’s race was witnessed by Bill Smith, who reported it, with helpful comments on who was whose wife:
There were fourteen competitors and Colin Robinson’s wife, Brenda, assumed the lead on the final steep climb to the summit tower, with Sue Styan (Andy’s wife) in second place and Gillian Pile lying third. Brenda increased her lead on the descent to finally beat Sue by 17 seconds, though Gillian was beaten into third place by Anne Pendlebury.
In 1979 the women at least ran the full race, with the men, as many more races, sometimes grudgingly, accepted their presence.
The Rivington Pike race record holder prior to Sarah McCormack was Carol Greenwood/Haigh. Carol was in top form in 1987. She started off the season as she had finished the last, by setting new records at Criffel and Rossendale. Carol then went on to set the Rivington Pike record, which as noted she held for over 30 years. Sadly, I haven’t been able to find much detail of that outstanding record. Even the book that P L Watson wrote to record the history of the fell race* doesn’t give it any space, despite being published 14 years later. It just records: “In the ladies race Carol Haigh was back once more strolling away from a field of 28 women to establish her third record time in a time of 19min 38secs.” This was one of many Course records that Carol Greenwood set, and due to its longevity has iconic status to my mind, and has been acknowledged as such in many comments on FB. Let’s not forget that Carol also won the World Mountain Running Trophy (in 1986). I am sure Sarah’s astonishing Rivington record will also be revered in years to come, especially if remaining unbeaten for a significant spell.
RIVINGTON PIKE MEN’S RECORD
Switching to the men’s Rivington Pike race, it is intriguing to see that it has lasted even longer than Carol’s had. There is a quite a story to that men’s record, which I recorded in my book ‘Running Hard: the story of a rivalry’. The following is a slightly edited down extract from the book that tells that story, which unfolded in 1981.
At Easter, John took on the short Rivington Pike fell race, the only occasion he competed in it. John comments on the challenge, ‘I met one of my fell rivals, Brent Brindle, at the 2015 Snowdon race gathering and he reminded me of some background I’d forgotten. Apparently Brindle, Mike Short and lots of the Horwich lads were fed up with Ron McAndrew constantly bragging about his Rivington Pike record from 10 years earlier and how invincible it was.’ An advert was placed in Athletics Weekly citing the record, but John didn’t see it, he went purely on the say so of the others. ‘Both Brent and Mike persuaded me to come up and have a crack at it – so I came up from a holiday and had a go at the record.’
He adds, ‘I had done some very good long distance training, and I was quite relaxed.’ John was certainly building his mileage in training at the time. The four days before Rivington had been 12, 10, 9 mile days and then a 7 mile taper, with his diary noting that the day after he did, ‘a steady 20-mile run on Cannock Chase. New record for time on feet 2 hours 7 minutes.’
Referring to the Rivington Pike race, John added that, ‘it just went so well. You don’t realise what you are doing when you do it, you just run to your capacity, and I took 37 seconds off the record. Later they invited us up for a reunion for the 100th anniversary. The organiser invited all the previous winners back. My daughter was quite young at the time, and she was getting quite agitated as she didn’t want anyone to beat my time.’
Wild was obviously in sparkling form, although he says, ‘when I did my first season in 1981 I kept breaking records. I wasn’t trying to, but it just happened.’ The Rivington Pike race report notes that conditions were good, fine and sunny with a cool breeze and good underfoot conditions. Bill Smith notes in Stud marks on the summits that, ‘Wild was first to the tower in 9-48, 22 seconds ahead of Alan Buckley, and swooped down to victory. Long-serving RMI Harrier Cyril Hodgson, who was officiating at the summit tower, afterwards remarked that he’d never seen a fell runner complete an ascent looking so fresh and as unstressed as Wild did.’ Andy Taylor overtook Alan Buckley on the descent for 2nd, with Jeff Norman coming in 4th.
Studmarks records the pre-race setup thus: ‘An advertisement for the 1981 race in Athletics Weekly cited McAndrew’s record of 16-30, adding: “Ten years is a long time – can it not be beaten?” A further challenge was extended on the race entry form: “Ron says it can’t.” Cross country ace John Wild (RAF Cosford) accepted the challenge.’ Ron McAndrew came 31st in the race and congratulated Wild at the prizegiving afterwards. Ten years may have been a long time, but over four decades later Wild still holds that record.
ALL-TIME GREATS: Time has shown Carol Greenwood and John Wild to be two of the finest exponents of fell and mountain running. I am sure Sarah McCormack will be up in that pantheon too if she carries on running the way she is, both locally and globally.
* ‘Rivington Pike: history and fell race’ by P L Watson, Sunnydale Publishing, 2001
Watching the National Cross Country Champs at Parly Hill yesterday I was struck by something. That was the identities of two runners in the top 10 in the men’s race. This was the crowning race of the cross-country season, on a tough and muddy course at the ‘home of cross country’. Yet in 3rd place was an Olympic Triathlete and in 7th a leading fell runner. They were both running on surfaces that you might not expect them to be on, and in a race that you might not expect to be in their respective programmes for the year. Let’s look closer at those two athletes.
In third place was Alex Yee, who won the silver medal in the Men’s Triathlon at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics [in July 2021] and the gold medal in the Triathlon Mixed Relay five days later. He was also the winner of the 2021 Super League Triathlon Championship Series. He was of course a very good runner before concentrating on triathlon. For instance, he was 3rd as an u17 in the National in 2015, so is very familiar with cross country. He always has an edge in the running at triathlon, and is no slouch on track and road. On 19 May 2018 Yee set a PB in the 10,000m of 27:51.94, less than five seconds outside the British under-23 record of 27:47.0 set in 1971 by Dave Bedford. On 8 August 2020, in the Podium 5 km at Barrowford, Lancashire, Yee ran 13:26 behind winner Marc Scott in 13:20, the second fastest 5km time ever by a British athlete.
The seventh placed runner was Dan Haworth, of Matlock AC. He has recently become a real force in the competitive fell scene, along with clubmate Billy Cartwright. Dan was second (to Billy) in the English Fell Championships in 2021, and also set the fastest leg time in the British Fell and Hill Relay that year. Digging deeper, one finds that Dan Haworth is no stranger to the National (which I believe Alex Yee had never run as a Senior before). Although he only finished 119th in 2019, he improved that to 19th in 2020 – excellent progress, chipping more off this year, and challenging for the podium, as we will see. Dan also had good cross-country form this winter. He won the Notts/Derby County Champs and was 3rd in the Northern Champs race.
So how did the race yesterday pan out? I am not party to their respective thoughts and ambitions, but this is how I see it, both from watching at the time and reviewing the video stream later. Towards the end of the first lap Yee was in something around 30th place. As they passed me out on the course for the first time Haworth was sitting tight in lead pack of four, and looking comfortable. Yee was moving gradually through, and had got up to 13th place. As they ploughed through that second lap Haworth became isolated in 4th (photo: copyright Steve Chilton).
Yee moved through to 7th and then up to 5th, in his graceful style. Somewhere on the third lap (all very obscured on the stream as they were lapping the masses by then) Yee moved past Haworth into 3rd place. Haworth was being challenged hard on the last downhill and run-in and lost a couple of places, to finish 7th, whilst Yee stretched out for a fine bronze medal (photo: copyright Karen Murphy).
Later that evening I got to thinking about parallels to this situation. Having profiled top fell runners John Wild and Kenny Wild, I knew they had both had several cracks at the National in their time. But, here’s the thing – neither of them finished as high in the National as Dan Haworth just has.
Kenny Stuart ran his Nationals AFTER he had won the British Fell Championship (3 times in 1983, 1984 and 1985). He finished 25th in Newcastle in 1986, 17th at Leeds in 1990, and his best was 10th in 1988 at Newark (ironically on a pretty flat [race]course, as I recall). Kenny Stuart liked cross-country, won the Cumbria County champs a handful of times, but never won the Inter-Counties, despite several attempts.
John Wild competed 7 times at the National from 1974-1983, and his best result was BEFORE he turned his attention to being a fell runner (and winning the Fell Champs in 1981 and 1982). That was his 8th position in 1977, also at Parly Hill. Despite winning the Inter-Counties cross-country twice (in 1977 and 1980), John Wild reckoned that he was a high mileage trainer in his heyday. But he says that he rarely performed to the level he should have in the National cross-country championships. For the months of November, December and January he was fine, but he seemed to get jaded, which he claims wasn’t anything to do with the extra distance of that race.
Now for an interesting connection between these two eras. In 2017 Dan Haworth was thinking about taking his running more seriously. He had read my book on John Wild and Kenny Stuart* and reckoned he could learn from their training, as detailed in the book. He contacted me at the time and we discussed how that might work, and I also put him in contact with John Wild (there was a Derby connection between then).
The following link will take you to Dan Haworth’s blog, where we discussed the book and the possibility of following some of the training ideas: https://sabbatycle.wordpress.com/2017/10/16/running-hard-blog-tour/
Dan followed through on the idea, and noted the following on another blog post: “In October  I decided to try and train like two fell running greats Kenny Stuart and Jon Wild. After some conversations with Steve Chilton, author and documenter of Stuart and Wild’s most exciting 1983 season of running rivalry, examined in Running Hard, we chose training themes of consistency, speed, hills and stamina. With training philosophies based around “full on, no days off, multiple double days each week, sometimes 3-session days,” it was set to be a bit of a change from the slap dash running I have done before.”
You can see that full blog at: https://sabbatycle.wordpress.com/2018/01/17/some-time-running-hard/. It gives his impressions on how it was going. Seeing his later results there was certainly a good bounce of training effect achieved by ‘running hard’.
* The book – on John Wild and Kenny Stuart’s parallel life stories – can be obtained from good bookshops, or (if you must) from the BigA by clicking on the link: Running Hard: the story of a rivalry.
Footnote: Georgia Taylor-Brown, also an Olympic medal winning triathlon, finished 4th in the ladies National yesterday.
Finally, a question: do you know any other males or females whose main focus was NOT cross-country who have come 1st, podiumed, or even in the top 10 in previous National Cross Country Champs? If you do, then let me know in the Comments.
I like a good running book. These are the ten best books on (or around) running that I read last year (but which were not necessarily published in 2021). These are my reviews from my Good Reads pages. Four 5*, five 4* and one 3* this year. Despite working on my fifth manuscript all year long, I got some good reading in – always the best alternative to writing when you need it.
A Quarter Glass of Milk: The rawness of grief and the power of the mountains – Moire O’Sullivan (O’Brien Press, Mar 2021) 5*
Moire O’Sullivan shows immense courage in writing a book about coming back from her husband’s suicide. The inability for her, and it seems her partner, to understand what is going on in their lives is particularly heart-rending. The recovery process, which has certainly not been easy, is written with the commendable intention of helping others. It is quite revealing how many people she speaks to afterwards then open-up about their own issues, often depression-linked. Hopefully they all benefited from talking openly to each other. At a simplistic level it was sad to see Moire losing her running mojo, but uplifting to see how she took on other challenges to bring herself to some kind of new-normal, as she brings up two very young children. Written very well, it is an inspiring read.
Faster! Louder!: HOW A PUNK ROCKER FROM YORKSHIRE BECAME BRITISH CHAMPION FELL RUNNER – Boff Whalley (Great Northen Books, Sept 2021) 5*
A fascinating book about a very interesting character, who managed to combine a punk lifestyle with being a champion fell runner. What makes it so believable is that Boff was also in the same music scene, and was a clubmate of Devine’s. He was there and did it, on both fronts. He has a delightfully honest explanation of the problem of recalling situations or conversations of yore. His answer to that is explained early in the book, when he says to Devine: “…. the bits you can’t remember, the conversations and the details and all that – I’ll make those bits up.” I really like Boff’s relaxed writing style and thoroughly recommend the book.
Relentless: Secrets of the Sporting Elite – Alistair Brownlee (Harper Collins, July 2021) 5*
Alistair Brownlee (and his named co-author) have compiled a very interesting account of what drives people at the top of their sport, and all the hard work they have to put in. He has used his priviledged position to interview many top sports sports people, some of whom may be something of a surprise. The two most interesting chapters for me were on Kilian Jornet (and how he has balanced his love of different sports and life itself), and the one on failing, which Brownlee points out many top sportsmen do much more than they succeed. It is fairly unusual, in my experience, to find a book from an active athlete that is so deply researched, well written and full of interest.
Joss Naylor’s Lakes, Meres and Waters of the Lake District: Loweswater to Over Water: 105 miles in the footsteps of a legend – Vivienne Crow (Cicerone Press, Sept 2021) 5*
A beautiful book on just one aspect of Joss Naylor’s amazing legacy. His run around the lakes, meres and waters was undertaken in 1983. He recently re-walked most of it (he is now in his 80s), accompanied by photographer Stephen Wilson and author Vivienne Crow. Naylor relives moments from the day and comments on the landscape and nature that surrounds him, including the changes that he notices. The book is enhanced by some photos from the original round, and benefits from a generous and well-designed layout, that shows off Wilson’s photos well. It was an amazing achievement back in the day, and the book is a brilliant re-telling of the tale.
In It for the Long Run: Breaking records and getting FKT – Damian Hall (Vertebrate Publishing, May 2021) 4*
Damian Hall has been a journalist much of his life and has shown he can research and weave stories, but can he write a book about himself and his move into ultra running? He writes fairly briefly about his upbringing and admits to not having it particularly easy. He also says that on reflection he had ‘a kind of chronic outsider syndrome’. Rejecting team sports, which he did not excel at, he took to running, eventually entering a half marathon. This was something of a lifechanger and the rest of the book details his descent (or ascent, depends on how you look at it) into off-road trail/ultra running. When he realised he needed coaching advice he seemed not to be able to settle on a suitable coaching arrangement (working with several different coaches and going solo sometimes). Eventually he became a coach himself, as he moved towards supporting himself (and his family) by coaching and with sponsorship (seemingly reluctantly). Having described his obsession with the UTMB, several record ’rounds’ he achieved (including solo/unsupported ones), and some ‘fastest known times’ on long-distance challenges (I do not like the acronym FKT), he gradually became edgier as he moved to the climax of his ultra career (so far) and describes the build-up and execution of his record for traversing the Pennine Way (beating friend John Kelly’s record set just 8 days previously). He displays a fine turn of phrase in highlighting the highs and lows of that effort, with some good banter about, and with, his top quality support crew. So, to answer my initial question, he DID write well about himself. It is a fascinating read if you are remotely interested in ultras, being in the ‘lumps’ he so loves, running itself, and also how you can do all this and try to contribute less to climate change by making some life choice changes. As a tribute to the author I have included as many explanations in brackets as I can (where possible), as I have never seen so many in one book, and am pretty sure my editor wouldn’t have allowed them (all).
Cross Country: A 3,700-Mile Run to Explore Unseen America – Rickey Gates (Chronicle Books, April 2020) 4*
A very interesting window into the experience of running across America. Many excellent photos of down-home Americans and each a snapshot of the place he is passing through. Gates really seemed to want to meet the ordinary Americans on his travels. Hard to imagine running that far with a selection of trolleys and carts. It is worth looking out his video of the trip too for further insights.
Inside a Marathon: An All-Access Pass to a Top-10 Finish at NYC, Featuring a new Boston Marathon Chapter – Scott Fauble and Ben Rosario (Independently Published, June 2020) 4*
A fascinating insight into the sports training of a top athlete, both on a day-to-day basis and over a season. It is jointly written by the athlete and the coach, so you get two differing perspectives on each ‘period’ of training. The athlete (Scott) writes in a somewhat quirky style. I lost interest in his burrito choices. The coach (Ben) explained himself well, including when (and why) he changed sessions as he reacted to circumstances.
Win at All Costs: Inside Nike Running and Its Culture of Deception – Matt Hart (Dey Street Books, Sept 2021) 4*
It is a well written book, written in a journalistic style, and gives a good backdrop to the main players in the Nike/Salazar scandal. Some of the stuff about Nike practices from some of the main players is very unpleasant indeed. It is important to expose how big companies abuse power, and in this case athletes. A recommended (and depressing) read, which just might lead you to re-think your choice of athletic clothing.
Game On: The Unstoppable Rise of Women’s Sport: The Unstoppable Rise of Women’s Sport – Sue Anstiss (Unbound, Sept 2021) 4*
For many, many years women have struggled to get the same recognition as men in their chosen sports. Is this now changing? Anstiss argues that it is, and that investment will provide a secure basis for the future of many sports, so sportswomen will soon be getting the backing and the facilities they deserve. Her interviews with leading sportswomen are the basis for assessing the situation, mixed together with much factual background data give a convincing positive case. Anstiss writes well and hopefully books like this can inspire the next generation as they come through.
The Meaning of Sport – Simon Barnes (Short Books, Aug 2007) 3*
Simon Barnes understands his sport and its meaning and importance in society. He writes very effectively on the subject. The book does jump about between different sporting events, but somehow it remains coherent. He’s particularly good on boxing, which he hates, but has had to report on. He argues that it relies for its success on the deliberate infliction of irreversible brain damage. He adopts the term ‘Redgrave’ as a measure of sporting greatness, which is quite neat and justified too.
So, what was the best book on running published in 2021? Well,no contest really. It has to be this one: All or Nothing at All: The Life of Billy Bland – Steve Chilton (Sandstone, paperback July 2021) – available from the author, the publisher, and all good bookshops. Check it out.
It is time to review the blog after another weird year. I did fewer blog posts over the year, less than two per month.Two other stats: referals came from Facebook at a 7:1 ratio over Twitter (compared to 5:1 last year). This surprised me, except that Twitter is one account, whereas I can post notifications in a number of FB Groups). Visitors came from 70 different countries, with USA and Ireland once again being distant second and third places behind the UK.
MOST VISITED PAGES
The third most visited page on the blog was actually one from Jan 5. It was the text of a review of ‘Fell and Mountain Running’, a book of Pete Hartley’s photos that I edited with Denise Park. The review can be read here: https://itsahill.wordpress.com/2021/01/05/athletics-weeklys-review-of-fell-and-mountain-running/ The book is still available here.
The second most visited page was one from later that January. It was a piece I wrote about the joys, and problems, of self-publishing a book – the very one mentioned above. It might give a few insights into DIY publishing to anyone wanting to go down that route. It can be read here: https://itsahill.wordpress.com/2021/01/12/self-publishing-it-aint-been-easy/
The most visited page was from January 2021, where I did a little gentle analysis of the completions from the previous year on the Bob Graham Round. It shows the continuing interest in the BGR since Kilian Jornet set the new record in 2018. It also gives some info on the male/female stats for the year. The post can be accessed here: https://itsahill.wordpress.com/2021/01/02/bgr-completions-2020-update/
MOST DOWNLOADED CONTENT
The most downloaded content was an article I wrote for the December 2020 issue of Cumbria magazine. It was some early thoughts on pioneering female fell runners, and is in fact a precursor to the book I am currently finalising the manuscript of. It can be accessed here [PDF file].
The second most popular content on the blog was an article I co-wrote with Steve Birkinshaw for The Fellrunner way back in 2018. It was a case study of four athletes who had suffered CFS [chronic fatigue syndrome] in varying degrees of seriousness, and how they came back from it, or didn’t. It can be accessed here [PDF file].
The third most downloaded piece was a profile of fell runner Hugh Symonds, again an article I wrote for The Fellrunner, way back in 2016 (so no idea why that was so popular, but it was downloaded 197 times). It can be accessed here [PDF file].
MY FAVOURITE POST
Finally, the blog post that is my favourite from the year is one from March 2021. It is my thoughts on the Sub 7 Sub 8 Triathlon Project, which aims to ‘smash through the 7 hour barrier for men and the 8 hour barrier for women’ for an Ironman distance triathlon. It is in a way a parallel idea to the Nike Sub-2 and Ineoes 1-59 projects (for the marathon), and is equally as artificial. The event was planned for Spring 2022, and as far as I know is still live. The blog can be read here: https://itsahill.wordpress.com/2021/03/02/sub-7-sub-8-triathlon-project/
NB: Most of my writing can be accessed through the links on the CV page on this blog: https://itsahill.wordpress.com/curriculum-vitae/.
Bob Wightman has released the figures for Bob Graham Round (BGR) registrations, completions, male/female split, direction of travel, etc. for 2021, which as always make interesting reading, and that I have commented on before. [eg https://itsahill.wordpress.com/2020/01/08/bgr-completions-2019-update/]
I have updated my spreadsheet, and the graphs of several aspects of the data, which are illustrated below with a couple of comments on each.
This first graph shows the data just for completions since 1971. The black line is the actual numbers completing, which was at its highest ever level in 2021, after a downturn in 2020 because of lockdowns. The red line is the trend line which is obviously up (after recovering from the Foot and Mouth blip of 2001) and the dashed blue line is the 6-year moving mean, also trending upwards.
More recently figures for registrations and completions have been published, allowing analysis of completion percentages. The graph below is of the last 10 years, showing upward trends in registrations and completions (these figures are for males and females combined), but interestingly NOT an increasing percentage actually completing. It invariably hovers either side of 50%. The next two graphs look at the male/female data.
The men’s data pretty much follows the pattern of the total data (there are still many more men than women involved). 2021 shows a rise in men’s registrations and completions for the year, with both being the highest ever. The completion rate of 51.87% for men is the third highest since I have been looking at this (the highest was 54.95% in 2019), although it is always hovering just above or below 50%.
The women’s completions, of 17 (red line) were the highest in this 10 year period, from a highest ever registrations number (40). The percentage line (green) is at the top of this graph as the numbers are higher than either the registrations or completions, and had previously shown an upward trend, but this year’s percentage of 42.5% completions bring that trend line down as it is again well under 50%, admittedly from a small sample size.
The original data, and much more (including gems like: the average age of successful contenders was 38 yrs 11 months) is available at the Bob Graham Club website.
A three-page piece I wrote recently about physiological testing of athletes is now available for download [as PDF]. It explains why I ended up not getting an athlete in for lab testing.
Also available for download (as two PDFs) is a two-part profile of fell running icon Gavin Bland from me that appeared in two issues of the Fellrunner magazine in 2021. Go to my CV page for the link to those.
Gavin Bland was a phenomenal athlete from an early age, but it didn’t always come easy, as this except shows.
In 1993 Gavin Bland became the youngest ever winner of the Three Peaks race in appalling conditions. Gavin says it was his luckiest win ever. ‘We had gone around the course a fortnight before, three of us – me, Scoffer and Bob Whitfield. I was absolutely knackered and hanging on. I thought, “what am I doing this for?”.