Sunday, 13 July 2014

Boot camp

As many of you know my A race is Spartathlon. It is the one race I want to finish. All others are merely the means of getting a finish in Greece. The weather during Spartathlon is hot.

·       Not some English heat wave hot.
·       Not even German hot.
·       But really fucking hot.

A muggy car fumed polluted heat in Athens, followed by a humid heat along the coast road, to a dry heat in the Peloponnese. I would like to say, followed by the warmth of the Sparta people as you arrive to kiss the statue. But as I have not run that far I can't really say that.

The speed with which you have to do it plus the heat, means getting some form of heat training is recommended if not required. Some people in the British Spartathlon team have access to universities with heat chambers, which sounds like a good idea. But not me, bin liners are the closest I can get.

I have been getting up at 4:45 am to start running since January, in a virtual club with Mark Woolley in Spain and Nick Papageorge in Denmark. Facebook starts buzzing at five am with 'Morning' messages followed by a bit of childish scatological banter. Then it is time to get up and run. I had started off doing ten kilometers around the lake near my flat and this has graduated to running the sixteen kilometers to and fro to work. Although getting up so early is good discipline for Spartathlon, I know it is not enough. I need some heat training and a method of sorting out my biggest problem. I get through the night on long races and then I am so annoyed that I quit for girly bullshit reasons.

I have been searching for the reason for nearly a year. Not fit enough? I am getting faster and lighter than ever, although I could still lose a couple of kilos...not mentally tough enough? I have been through stuff that would make most people take the easy option out.

No matter how much I want a finish at the beginning, all that desire leaves me. It has happened three times now. Spartathlon 2013, The Hill 2013 and Tortourderuhr 2014. Mark Cockbain, whose opinion I respect a lot, because of what he has done, thinks I'm just being a pussy.

Mark Woolley, Nick and I had been discussing what happens to me and we think we have a possible answer. Mark invited Nick and me to his place in Malaga for a boot camp in to prepare for Spartathlon and explore the issue face to face or rather foot to foot as it would involve a lot of running.

I was thinking I couldn't afford it. Unbeknownst to me Mark and Nick conspired and announced that they would pay for me to fly out. It turned out my contract was extended and Ryanair did cheap flights from Dortmund to Malaga, so I didn't have to take them up on the offer, bloody nice of them, all the same. It illustrates that I have met lots of really nice people since I took up ultra running.

I arrived on the Thursday morning waited for Woolley to pick me up at the airport. He was surprise as I always found that teachers are late for classes.

At this point it is appropriate to thank Mark' wife,  Elena and their kids for putting up with me and Nick. We can be a bit loud at times.

As we drove from Malaga to his house in the hills, it was apparent the conditions would be idea heat training for Spartathlon. This part of Spain is very similar to the Spartathlon route and the weather is a perfect match, hot and dry. After we picked up Nick, we chatted for a while and exchanged greeting presents as you do when you stay with friends.

What a pair of mugs
Nicks boot
Dinner at the Woolly house
Fat & Ugly paddling
Planning the route

At the start 
Ronda Bridge
Start of the park
The most important conclusion of the boot camp for me that I need food and lots of to keep going. Oh and to try and keep a consistent pace and not try to speed up unnecessarily.
Then we prepared for the first run. Nick being somewhat daft had picked up a plantar fasciitis injury and couldn't run. In fact walking was an issue and he had to wear a boot to protect his foot. Therefore he was going to follow us on a bike and needed to adjust it for his frame.

I went to the loo and after I flushed it I noticed that the pump was rather loud. Then I went to Woolley's cellar to see what was taking them so long. It turned out the rumble I had heard was not from the pump, but Woolley's enormous Harley Davidson.

Fortunately Nick wasn't going to follow on the Harley but Mark's mountain bike. After changing the pedals so that Nick's shoes could clip in we drove off in Mark's 4x4 to the start of the trail. Mark said this was to be a simple warm up run.

‘Just up the trail a bit’ he said.  6km and 500m of climb later we reached the halfway point, a large concrete cistern filled directly from a mountain stream. I was very glad of the water and a moment’s relief.

That evening we went for a meal in a local restaurant and found out about Mark's allergy to fish. He lives near the sea and doesn't like the beach or fish. Odd fellow.

The second day started shortly before eight am and was to be 50km tour of the mountain on which Mark's house is perched. We ran down to the valley and began the circumnavigation. I soon began to wish we had commenced at five am. The sun was up and it was already above thirty degrees.

This is where I found out that Mark teaches Physics. It is a good job it is not Geography as the guy has no concept of the difference between hill and mountain. Four hundred meters of climb does not a hill make...that is a mountain.

The weather just kept getting hotter and hotter and Woolley wouldn't let me stop. The pace was quite relentless, just like it needs to be for Spartathlon. Nick was encouraging us from the bike and providing us, well mainly me, with food. I was taking a regular five minute walking break every hour to eat whatever food Nick provided. There were fountains fed by mountain streams at regular intervals. I was soon overheating and dowsing my body with water. At 40km I really had had enough. As I walked to where the other two had stopped to wait for me I really wanted to tell them to fuck off. Mark could see I was suffering and told me to take some gels. This picked my mood up for a while.

I started wasting energy calculating the distance left and the speed we were going at. This is completely pointless. You just have to keep running until the end and not to worry about these silly numbers.

By now we were going downhill and we passed the entrance to the trail head we had driven to the day before.

“Not far Rob, Not far” that Tiny Unt knows what far is!

We were about two to three kilometers from the end and Woolley starts to panic as the fountain he was planning on dousing me in isn't there. I don't remember if that is because it was dry or had been moved. The pair of them led me to a fountain on a roundabout and soaked me for what seemed like five minutes. It felt good and I must have looked really bad.

As we set off I declared that there was no way I was going to run up the hill to his house.

'Don't be silly Rob. Walking up there would be really soft and you hate soft people. I am going to make you run up.'

We reached the turning and started running up. Well it was more of a fast shuffle. But still I was moving up a couple of hundred meters of climb and we reached the bottom of what seemed like an endless flight of stairs.

I paused and looked up to see Woolley a quarter of the way up waiting for me. He started a countdown.

What the fuck is he doing?
The cheeky cunt thinks he has broken me.
I am going to chin the little shit when I catch him.
You will never catch him
I will get him

I set off and nearly caught him. Just as I reached the top of the stairs I turned up to see another slope. I knew at the end of the route at Woolley's house there was a pool, this drove me on. As we reached the pool I dived in and I swear steam started bubbling away

Basically he had broken me.

We had a quiet night, joining the Woolley family in a meal. His kids entertained us with stories of what it is like to be at the same school that your father teaches at.

We also discussed my performance. I was wondering how I would cope with the 100km we had planned for the Sunday.

Mark expounded 'You're a Fat Unt. You have a lot of weight to keep moving. You need to eat a lot, a lot more than today. Nick will support you on Sunday and give you food. Don't think about what he gives you, just eat it.'

Well who am I to argue against a man of Woolley's record. I can eat for Britain, basically I am 150 kilo man trapped in a 75 kilo body. Just as long as there was no jam, Jam is just wrong. It looks wrong; it smells wrong and tastes wrong.

The next day was to be a recovering run. My legs were still sore from the day before. Mark took us up the road to the park again and we started running up his ‘hills’ to the cistern we had drunk from on the Thursday. My heart was beating very hard, so we kept the pace slow.

When we reached the cistern Mark took his socks and shoes off, walked up the stairs by the side of it and disappeared over the edge. I followed and saw him perched on the edge dangling his legs in the water.

'Cold water, best thing for a recovery.'

I finished climbing up and jumped in. Damn! It was so cold I couldn't breathe. My balls went up so far I was speaking in falsetto tones. Nick was a bit slower coming up, what with having to take the special bike shoes off and his injury.

'What's it like'
'Lovely' I squeaked.
Nick jumped in and nearly had a heart attack. His face was contorted in pain. I couldn't stop laughing.

We ran back down the mountain pissing ourselves. That Saturday afternoon we went into Malaga for a spot of shopping and had a paddle in the Mediterranean

That afternoon Woolley planned the 100km route, struggling with technology.

He sent me and Nick to buy supplies. We bought shed loads of food. 30 liters of water, Sausages, hams, Peanut M&Ms and 12 rice puddings which took us a while to find. You need to look for Arroz in Spain.

When we got back the kitchen was full of the aroma of curry. I love a good curry me. Unfortunately, we would miss it as we were going to sleep under the stars in the national park we were to run through the next day.

It was siesta time and as we settled down Mark told us that the curry was for us and would we mind staying instead of the camping adventure. Tough call, but I will elect for a curry over camping every time.

We got up at five am and drove the few hours to the start in Ronda, an ancient town 100km from Woolley’s house. We started at around seven am at the gates of Ronda’s bull ring

The start is quite spectacular as we have to run over a bridge across a gorge

We saw a few locals out with their dogs and quit a few drunks. It was very peaceful, but I am not one for silence, I asked Mark loads of questions about physics and he proved to be an excellent teacher.

We reached a roadside cafe frequented by bike and the Spanish Ferrari club at about 12km and stopped for a spot of breakfast. I had anchovies on toast...lovely. 

We went on a while and then reached the entrance to the Sierra de las Nieves National Park.

This has some spectacular scenery and loads of hills. The pictures below do not do it justice at all.

It is completely unspoiled and in the time we were there we saw three other people and two houses, loads of goats and sheep though.  The animals roam free and we had to walk past a bull who stared very suspiciously at us.

Mark tried to point out a horizontal line on the mountain the distance to me.

‘See that line above the trees’
‘Well that is where we are going to run’

Later I found out that Mark does not know the meaning of horizontal as the trail in the mountains was far from flat.  Twenty kilometers in and we had taken two and half hours. We climbed over one mountain trail and then dropped down the other side, over and over again.

Nick was stopping on regular intervals and giving me masses to eat. One specialty was rice pudding decanted into plastic bags. You can use it as chill pack and then tear a corner from the bag and suck the rice pudding out. 

Not far into the park we were at over 1,300m looking down of a massive rolling plain of grass. Mark said it reminded him of the Fields of Rohan from the Lord of the Rings. I had to agree, it was beautiful.

With the amount of food Nick was giving me it was not long before I needed a dump.  I perched myself in the V of a smooth sided Lime tree.  I couldn't help thinking that with the amount of nuts Nick was giving me, I was turning into a squirrel.

Nick managed to find some goats and pigs to stop by.

As we left the park we had covered over 50km and we ran down from the mountain plateau to a town called Tolox. This reminded me of the bit on Sparta last year, during which I got muscle cramp in my calf. This time I barely felt the steep decent in my legs. We stopped and had a coffee and alcohol free beer.  Nick pointed out that town’s name rhymes with Bollox.  That is about as intellectual as we got during the second half of the run.

An example of the depths of childishness we descended was the snake. We spotted a dead rather flattened snake on the roadside. I picked it up, hid it in my hat and then at the next stop put it on the passenger seat. It is shame we didn’t see Nicks face when he found it.

I started thinking about the distance covered and was quiet pleased that I felt good and didn’t even feel the 70km or so in my legs.  By this time we could see the mountain that marked the end of the run.

‘Just 15km to go ‘Mark said at the roundabout
‘Just 15km to go ‘Mark said at the top road
‘Just 15km to go ‘Mark said at the end of the village before his

Basically he had no idea. 

I sped up for a while and tried to get so far ahead of Mark I could hide in the car....but I am not that fast.

We got to the end without any more notable events.  I was really pleased to have done the 96km with 2000m of ascent in twelve hours.  The constant feeding also meant I had no problems with quitting. Our Chrissy couldn't understand why we didn’t keep running until the GPS watch said 100km.  I pointed out that Marks watch said 98km so you really can’t count on them. 

Sadly, I have to announce the passing away of two dear friends.  I finally dumped my Orange Asics GT2000. These babies have done over 2,000km and two tubes of shoe goo.

Being a plodder I don't need a fancy dan lightweight shoe. I am too heavy for minimalist ones and Hokas give me blisters. I have been using Asics for almost all of my running, more than fifteen years. I get a trail pair for the winter and a normal pair for the summer and run them into the ground. I generally keep the summer pair going with Shoe goo until the uppers fall apart. 

Rest in  Peace, you faithful friends.


  1. Glad you "enjoyed" your stay here Rob!!! Indeed, my dad isn't too good at telling how much longer we have...