Talk, talk

A great ‘Conversation with Billy Bland’ at the Due North Events gig in Skipton last Friday. Brill to have a bunch of family there, meet some friends, and sign a few books. Billy was on good form, coping well with a reluctant sound system. His responses were invariably educating and amusing.

introsA different audience and a interesting variety of questions came up. I particularly liked hearing Billy talk about some stuff I hadn’t known about before, or were uncertain of their veracity: for instance appearing on an ITV programme in 1986 called ‘Survival of the Fittest’ (a sort of Superstars contest); his having challenged himself by cycling up and down Honister 700 times one year; and confirming what I always thought was a rural myth, that he ran on the spot in his kitchen once for three hours (but only once he laughed!).

withBillyafterTopically, as it takes place this Sat, I was fascinated to find out that he once won the Old County Tops race (37 miles run as a pair, with 10,000 feet of ascent, starting in Gt Langdale and taking in Helvellyn, Scafell Pike and Coniston OM before returning to Gt Langdale).

In 1992 he partnered Scoffer and said that he suffered mid-race but finished strongly as Scoffer began to suffer towards the end, chuckling as he said it, as he felt he had the last laugh, particularly as they held on to win.

Billy is a fascinating man, who was one of my three ‘fell legends’ in my book that tells the history of the sport of fell running – It’s a hill, get over it.

JossforBAFNEXT TALK: on 19 June I will be doing a double act with Joss Naylor at the Buxton Adventure Festival. He will be talk about his life of running and farming before taking questions. My talking will be about the history of the Bob Graham Round, but also an exploration of the what, why and how of this classic challenge. Details.


The marathon: unrelenting beast

Watching some athletes I coach, and some that are good friends, running the London Marathon was tough. Now don’t get me wrong, I was sitting on the sofa at home watching the TV coverage and tracking them online, while they were negotiating the warmest day ever for a London marathon.

But before looking at yesterday though, I would like to reflect back to the other two big marathons this week. Firstly the Commonwealth Games marathon which took place in the Gold Coast on 15 Apr 2018, and was notable for temperatures around 27c with the men’s race hotter, as it was later in the morning. As the race panned out Callum Hawkins kept chipping away at the lead pack, which included several East Africans (admittedly second or third tier ones as big city marathons are often a money magnet for the very best). Eventually he pulled away strongly and looked set for a clear win, so I went to bed as it was very late and I was sure he would get it.

callumhawkinsFor some reason I was still awake at the time it should be finishing so I turned my phone on and started watching under the bedclothes, like some rebellious schoolboy. Just then the whole thing unwound with the wobble, the fall, the carrying on and finally his collapse, hitting the barrier. It was distressing seeing no water being offered him by the crowd, and even worse no first aid arriving for ages, as he was obviously experiencing considerable distress.

An ambulance came and he was eventually looked after, but not before several other runners had come past him lying forlorn in the side of the road. Just as the winner Michael Shelley came by Hawkins’ arm symbolically had reached out and Shelley almost had to jump over it. I was interested to see if Hawkins had taken adequate water on board, so the next day I re-ran the TV coverage and watched closely at the water stations. He seemed to take loads of water both to drink and to cool himself, and also had a novel plan to be given an ice-cooled baseball cap at each drink station which he replaced the one he was wearing with. Without further info it is difficult to say exactly what happened, but let’s hope Callum can learn from the event, and never experience that again.

SteveJonesI do wonder, given that he had a 2 minute lead with 2 km to go, if he had not pushed on so hard and instead relied on outrunning the other leading contenders in those last couple of kilometres, whether things might have panned out differently. Having said that there is a certain similarity in race approach between Hawkins and Steve Jones, who is now ‘advising’ Callum apparently, and it wasn’t unknown for Jones to set an unbelievable pace, which he couldn’t always sustain. Just saying.

Side note: when I was training hard and was having a good run, I used to imagine I WAS Steve Jones! I admired his work ethic.

20180416_150457Move on a day and we come to the Boston Marathon. As I was sofa-bound rehabbing a new knee I was able to watch that on the Red Button, and boy was that a contrast to the Gold Coast. Temperatures were just above freezing and driving rain in Hopkinton saw the elite athletes wrapped in waterproofs, hats, buffs and gloves, and not just warming up but DURING the race.

There was a strong field in both the women’s and the men’s races and large lead packs set out at a cautious pace in both categories. Mamitu Daska was leading the women’s field after Shalane Flanagan peeled off for what the (very poor) American commentators called a ‘potty stop’.

LindenI didn’t notice at the time but later found out that fellow American Desi Linden had slowed and stopped when she saw this, then helped Flanagan back to the lead pack, in a similar way that a domestique will do for their team leader in cycling Grand Tour races. Eventually this domestique went on to win the race though as others faded or lost interest in running in the atrocious conditions. Linden was quoted afterwards as saying that she held back to help her team-mate because she was thinking of dropping out herself, but revived to finish strongly, and win by 4-10 in a slow time of 2-39-54.

kawauchiIn the men’s race Geoffrey Kirui seemed to have the race won as he took a big lead, but in a parallel to the ladies race he faded, was overtaken and came in 2-25 later. The strong man that overtook him turned out to be Yuki Kawauchi (whom the commentators had dissed for having the nerve to test the field early on by twice taking the race on), who strode on through the sodden roads to win in a slow 2-15-58. In his post-race interview he came up with the classic tough-guy line that the weather was just perfect!

IMG-20180422-WA0006Ever since I stopped running I have watched the London Marathon live (ie on the streets). We have evolved a plan to move to multiple watching points, which currently are 9m, 15m and 20m with a one-stop tube ride from Canada Water to Canary Wharf (and jog) for the first move, and a swift walk/jog for the second. This year though I was housebound, so was setup with TV on, App loaded and a personalised chart to track friends and their predicted finish times. The forecasters had been saying it was going to be a hot day and it was, reaching around 24c. The App gives times for each 5k section for the athletes you have loaded, in my case nine of them. This was supplemented by comments, photos and videos from our WhatsApp group dedicated to the day. We watched Mo Farah having his drink bottle issues, and the 5k splits were rattling in to the App. By the time folk went through 10k we had a reasonable idea who had a chance of achieving their ambitions and who might well be destined for a very tough trip.

maraAppSome people handle heat better than others, and some cope with setbacks better than others. On this day ‘my’ nine athletes suffered varying degrees of pain and pleasure. One pulled out at 15m as it ‘just wasn’t his day’, and he wanted to be able to take his big training to another marathon later in the year as he coveted a sub 2-30 time. Others stuck to pre-determined targets, which in some cases were ‘on’ nicely until after halfway, but drifted away from them. Of the eight who finished, none had negative splits – I wonder who did in the ever-increasing temperatures? Their first half to second half differentials ranged from 2m 23s to 35m 29s. That last one was an athlete who had trained really hard, yet suffered from about 5 miles in, and who finished some 90 minutes or more later than I had expected. The decreasing pace is clearly shown in the splits, and the athlete showed HUGE strength and determination to guts it out and finish the race.

The two who probably had the best experience had both had disrupted training builds and had decided that a PB was not on, lowered their target, set a pace that was sustainable and came through relatively unscathed and in one case admitting to having:

 Really enjoyed the day, high fives and hugs with family en route included.

marathonmanIn my marathon days I had a range of experiences: a dropout in Sheffield, also a mega-hot day elsewhere that did not go well, one where everything seemed to go perfectly, and a PB one which I remain proud of to this day (which actually wasn’t perfect, as it was slipping away towards the end, and took some serious hard graft to complete). So, I feel I know what these guys were going through, and can appreciate the ups and downs they will have experienced, and the massive achievement dragging a screaming body over that line must have been.

[Image: first London Marathon 1981]

What is particularly pleasing is that having spoken to several of them, their spirits remain high, and I am sure they will all learn from the day. One has for a while now had an ambition to beat my 2-34-53 PB, and surely will be back, and is eminently capable of doing so. Another, who probably had the toughest day of all (on their debut marathon too), which could have put them right off the event, sent a message to me after the event, saying:

Proud of myself for finishing but obviously not a good day. Time for a break and then I’ll be back. Next year! Unfinished business.

I will be there to support them both, work with them on their training, and hopefully be on the streets of London to witness the personal triumph that I so hope they achieve. What all the above does show is the marathon is a tough event, even when it goes well. When it doesn’t it is an unrelenting beast.

Upcoming: evening with Billy Bland

Billy Bland does not do many events, and even less often outside of his native Lake District. So, the ‘Conversation with Billy Bland’ event in Skipton on Friday 11 May 2018 is a fantastic opportunity to meet and hear the views of this outstanding sportsman, and fell legend.

1982 billybob3

Billy and some of support (including some other fell legends) celebrating his 13 hrs 53 mins Bob Graham Round record outside the Moot Hall in 1982. [For full story see: The Round: in Bob Graham’s footsteps]

This type of event depends for its success on two things: the personality of the speaker; and the involvement of the audience. Billy has specifically asked for an unscripted evening, so come along and ask him some challenging and searching questions. What is a given is that Billy’s personality will shine through, and that he will both entertain and educate the audience.

IMG_5356Billy did just that at the gig that Due North Events held in Keswick back in February. For a flavour of that event have a look at my report entitled: ‘I wasn’t the best, but I was a tryer’. The questions from the floor, and a few prompts thrown in by me (as MC on the night), were wide-ranging and meant that Billy covered topics such as his background, training, rivals (with some exquisite put-downs, including some of his own family!) and current lifestyle. Billy also spent ages talking to people after the formal part of the gig.

One not to miss, so book your tickets today.

They are likely to sell out (the Keswick gig did). [Advert: I will be MC again, and copies of all three of my books will be available to buy at the event, at discounted rates]

On the fells and marathons: Dave Cannon

cannonken“A fully trained athlete is on the verge of illness all the time. Someone once said this when asked how much training you should do: “it is a bit like blowing up a balloon. You blow, you blow a bit more and then POP, back to square one”.
Dave Cannon in a profile published in the Winter 2017 issue of Fellrunner.

This comes from a profile I wrote of him after I met him in 2017, when he was working as elite athlete coordinator for the London Marathon. He was British Fell Champion in 1972, and later moved to the marathon to run 2-11.

cannonroyleI had a long and fascinating chat with him at Marathon HQ, about his running, on the fells in particular, and also his marathon running days and work with elite marathoners, including coaching Kenny Stuart.

Cannon was known as a great descender on the fells, and gave this description of competing in the Whernside Junior race:

You have a wall to get over when descending. Well I was coming down so fast, I was not going to stop to climb it, so I took off a few yards from the wall, got one foot on top and over! There was a fell race follower watching the race at this point and he said to me afterwards that he had never seen anything like it before. I hadn’t the heart to tell him it hadn’t been intentional.

The full article can be read here [PDF link], and includes some great stories about his training and racing, together with him talking about being diagnosed with ME/CFS, which effectively finished his career.

Cannon is one of four case studies on CFS that are included in an article I wrote with Steve Birkinshaw, which was entitled Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in elite athletes, and was also published in Fellrunner.

[Other profiles: Jack Maitland; Hugh Symonds and Malcolm Patterson]

Excitement (and disappointment) on the road to the VLM marathon

More thoughts from the coach’s viewpoint on the marathon journey for three club athletes. Since the original blog post, an exciting marathon journey, there have been two months of great training, interspersed with weather disruptions and some injury and recovery issues to address. The three athletes (who retain their anonymity* for these blog posts, for the moment) have handled the build-up well, considering their differing degrees of disruptive incidents.

StravaTP has had the clearest run of training weeks, clocking the eight weeks of January and February at a steady build.

The Strava graphic shows that build since serious training started. It pretty much exactly matched the plan I had set, with easier weeks included at regular intervals. On a low-ish mileage plan agreed with me it has been interesting to hear TP looking with wonder (and possibly envy, I suspect) at the mileages two of the club’s top runner’s are putting down (up to 100 miles per week just now). The last week of Feb for TP was 48.5 miles.

The great thing about the build has been the long run progression (in miles): which has gone 11.6, 15, 16, 17, 15, 18.5, 20, 18, 19.5. All have been handled with increasing confidence, and parallel increases in leg weariness. The 15 mile week was a mini taper to do a half marathon, picking up a PB on the way, for another confidence boost.

Reading back through TP’s online diary, which is virtually always the first to be completed for me to review, shows only very minor disruptions. A bit of a cold in January didn’t hold things back too much, and the comment after the 18.5 miles (longest run at time) was:

Painfull toenail, but if that is the worst then I am OK with that.

SP had some foot issues in December that necessitated some days off, and two very low mileage weeks in the steady comeback. Insoles that were supposed to ease the foot issues in fact produced massive blisters, which were a problem for quite a while, which SP seemed to gutsily ignore (I will spare you a photo of the damage!). The positive attitude is shown by this diary entry, after a 16 mile run in January:

Really tough run today, legs felt heavy and tired. [TP] pulled me round most of the way but got it done, that’s the main thing. Blisters heeling well, think the 2 days off helped. Onwards and upwards!

Despite this issue, the build-up went pretty well, going from 35 miles in the first week of the year to 43.8 by the end of February. There were long runs of: 12.2, 15.2, 16, 17, 14, 18.5, 20, 18, 19.4. The 14 mile week was for a new PB in a half marathon, part of my standard marathon preparation planning. Talking of which, SP is monikered from having added a neat ‘Planning’ tab to the diary that indicates exactly how each week was planned to happen, giving coach great information and encouragement on the commitment that was going into the training.

So, despite hiccups the long runs have been great, and the weekly mileage good, though sometimes less than the plan. SP is very sensitive to this shortfall, and gets (unnecessarily in the bigger scheme of things) stressed about it, which usually involves a WhatsApp discussion between us, with me just trying to keep things in perspective.

On a week with 5.5 miles shortfall (from a plan remember, so all relative) SP Whatsapped me:

My foot is really sore and decided an extra 6 miles wouldn’t be productive. Unfortunately it does leave me 5.5 miles short which I am not happy about.

thumbsupOne week later the longest week’s training (including a first 20 miler) had been done, and another week on, and with a solo 18 mile run in the bag, I was sent this photo to show things were back on track.

Two of the greatest pleasures of working closely with athletes are seeing them overcome setbacks, and the joy with which they let you know that they have.

HT had got up to 15 miles on the long run by mid-January, but then holidays took priority and three very quiet week’s ensued (in terms of both HT’s mileage and in the banter level at the track!). Since then the mileage has been erratic, but the long runs have been fitted in diligently, with 14, 17 and 18.2 completed strongly to the end of February. Circumstances have to be taken into account in any coach-athlete relationship, and I was well aware of HT being in a difficult place in some aspects of life at the moment. We had a short heart-to-heart at one point, agreeing that in the circumstances a lowering of the expectation that we should both have regarding a potential finish time for the VLM would be best. After the discussion I received a positive message, looking forward:

Thanks for caring. It’s just hard to get motivated sometimes, I’m just up and down! See you tomorrow at track!

So in a positive mood all three athletes were due to run in the Rhayader Round the Lakes 20 mile event on the first weekend in March. A trip away, a change of training scenery, and a bunch of fun was anticipated. Unfortunately this was when the ridiculously named ‘Beast from the East’ hit the UK. The snow conditions meant that travel was risky and the trip was off. rhyadercancelled

All got out together at home and managed 19.5 miles training in ‘slushy and slippery’ conditions, prompting a WhatsApp photo and message: ‘Tough conditions but all done, Stevo!’

Seven more weeks of training. All three need to take that attitude forward.

* The identifiers are not their initials, but are respectively: TP = Teacher’s Pet; SP = Spreadsheet Planner; and HT = Holiday Time; for reason’s best known to me, but which might have become obvious as we progress.

1 talk, 2 Wilfs, 2 Wainwrights

IMG_0004I had a lightning trip to the Lakes for a talk and a walk last week. The train up went well and I strolled down to Wilfs to set up for my Bob Graham Round (BGR) talk, part of their Slide-Supper series. I always get nervous before giving these talks, so it was great to get the laptop in place and checked out.  Having long-term friend Mike Cambray there in support, and also to meet Richard Davies (technically an ‘internet friend’, I suppose) and Mel Steventon for a chat before we started helped me relax. We all had a fab casserole and rustic bread, and a coffee or tea (or a beer from the next door  Hawkshead beer hall) before getting down to business.

I have revised the talk from the first time I gave it, adding video clips of my friend Neil Walker’s BGR, some very short readings from ‘The Round: in Bob Graham’s footsteps’, and some belting stuff from the ever-quotable BG record holder Billy Bland. The latter were from the excellent ‘Conversation with Billy Bland’ evening that Mel Steventon’s Due North Events had organised in Keswick last month. It was great to see Mel at Wilfs, shyly raising her hand with a few others when I asked who in the audience was perhaps thinking of doing a BGR.

A great quote from Billy Bland I shared concerned how hard he pushed himself, and whether he felt pain when running hard. At the Keswick evening his considered response, when asked this, had been:

I have never felt pain in my life when running, and I mean that …….. I consider I trained hard, but I may have given up easy sometimes. John Wild would run till he was sick. You wouldn’t catch me doing that, I’d just slow down. My strong point was preparing myself for what I was going to do.

IMG_9996One book quote I used was from Jim Mann (the winter BG record holder), who on one day was carrying the GPS tracking device (which transmitted his progress to a map on a website) for Steve Birkinshaw on his all the Wainwrights record effort [whose book launch I had attended in his very room]:

Steve was having a [power] kip on one of the tops, and I was trying to draw a picture on top of the fell by moving around with the tracker. I just needed a 6-7 minutes to get it done, but he work up too soon.

I finished the talk with some thoughts on how  BGR completers, their pacers and their reccies were adding significantly to the path erosion on some of the fells. At the end I commented that it might be good to consider this impact, try to lessen it, which is something the Bob Graham Club are highlighting. I suggested offsetting it by contributing to groups doing footpath repair/improvement work.

One fixthefellssuch group is the excellent organisation Fix the Fells. We took a beanie hat collection of loose change, and with that and some money from my book sales I was able to send a donation of £45 to Fix the Fells. Thanks to all those who contributed. 

The next day Mike and I slipped back down to Wilfs for a filling breakfast whilst waiting and hoping that the weather was about to clear. I am gradually working through bagging the Wainwrights and we highlighted two over Patterdale way that would do nicely for a short day. Arnison Crag and Birks provided a great walk, with superb views of snow-clad summits all round from the latter. Coming off the sharp end of Birks we saw caches of large rocks, which looked liked they had been helicoptered in to do some path improvement there.


That is it for book talks for the moment. The next up are a ‘Conversation with Billy Bland’ with Due North Events in Skipton in May, and a double bill with Joss Naylor at the Buxton Adventure Festival in June [see links to book places].

Billy Bland: “I wasn’t the best by any means, but I was a tryer”

20180218_145500Billy Bland was on top form at the Due North ‘Conversation with Billy Bland’ event at the Skiddaw Hotel (Keswick) on 9 Feb. After a brief introduction from me, he fielded questions from the audience and entertained them royally for over an hour and a half. Thanks to Billy, and to Due North, and especially the audience for making it such a great evening.

I met with Mel Steventon (from Due North) and Billy in the bar beforehand to go over the plan for how the event would hopefully go. I was having a pint to try to settle the nerves I get before these events, and Billy sipped an orange juice. He was as calm and accommodating as you like saying, “let them ask whatever they like”, and “yeh of course you can tape the responses for later”.

withMelandBillyThe questions from the floor, and a few prompts thrown in by me, were wide-ranging and meant that Billy covered topics such as his background, training, rivals (with some exquisite put-downs, including some of his own family!) and current lifestyle. Looking back at the transcript there is a masterclass in training and preparing from an (old school) elite endurance athlete in there, such were the depth and reach of some of the responses.

Just one example was when he was asked what he would do differently, with hindsight. His reply included:

I would always say to anybody who was a winner immediately that I was sorry for them. Because I think you need to get beaten a lot of times, and serve your time. Then there is a lot more enjoyment when you get to where you want to be, or as good as you can be. I wouldn’t want to change owt really.

Billy actually wasn’t a very good runner early on, finishing nearly last in his first race, and took several years before he was able to win his first race.

1982 Billy B with Martin StoneA real bonus was Martin Stone being in the audience, as he was one of the pacers on Billy Bland’s 13-53 Bob Graham Round record run in 1982. He gave a real feel for that epic event from the inside, so to speak. I had interviewed Martin [in the long track bottoms in the photo, which is of the run-in to the Moot Hall from the 1982 round] for my book The Round: in Bob Graham’s footsteps. In responding to Billy on the night he said that he was privileged to be part of it, and pointed out something that I wasn’t actually aware of.

It was quite possibly one of the very few BGRs where no vehicle has gone round to Wasdale. Billy insisted that was too over the top, so Bob Whitfield and I had to walk over from Borrowdale with bottles of Mackeson and his wife’s fruit cake in our sacks.

IMG_5356I am transcribing the audio file, and will be writing the event up for the next Fellrunner (and later this blog). Suffice it to say for now that it was a marvellous evening, which I heard some excellent feedback on. Billy spent ages talking to people and signing books.

I will be working with Due North on another ‘Evening with Billy Bland’ at Skipton, on 11 May. [Details and tickets] Come along to that event and ask your own questions.

IMG-20180212-WA0002My wife and I stayed on a couple of days to experience the Lakes in snowy conditions. Doing a couple more Wainwrights even though the weather wasn’t great, the best experience was coming off Barrow, where it had been blowing a hoolie. Down towards Barrow Door it was more sheltered and the scenery just magical (photo above, no filter or adjustment).