What is the Arch to Arc?

The Arch to Arc is a mega-triathlon from Marble Arch in London to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It involves an 87 mile ultra-marathon run from London to Dover, a 21mile swim across the English Channel and then a 181mile bike ride from Calais to Paris. When it is raced in a relay format it is classically done by 6 individuals doing an hour of exercise and then 5 hours off. Vickie and I will be the first 2 person team to attempt the Arch to Arc and we intend to break the 40hour barrier which will challenge some of the fastest 6-person relay teams. To make it even more unique Vickie will do the entire 87mile run, I will do the Channel swim and we will relay the bike ride (got to play to our strengths, plus I don't like running).

Saturday, 27 June 2015

A Successful Race and an Unsuccessful Training Run - or was it?

This morning I ran leg 1 of the Cotswold Way Relay, which is a 19k leg from Chipping Campden to Stanway, as part of the Cheltenham Harriers mixed team.  I was feeling a little apprehensive about this race given that it has only been 6 days since the 50mile Cheltenham Challenge Ultra.  The club had a pretty strong team out and I didn’t want to let the side down but I was worried my legs might not be up to the job!  Fortunately, they held up and I completed my leg in 1:40 – exactly the same time as I ran when I did the first leg in 2013.  I was not able to push hard on the hills but, all things considered, I was pretty pleased.

I had then planned to run the 15 miles home from Stanway, as my long run for the day was 4 hours.  After a quick re-fuel at the finish on a bar, gels and water I set off, but after about an hour I was feeling decidedly rough.  My right hip was tight, both hamstrings hurt and I had two big, sore blisters on the balls of my feet.  I took a 10 minute break just outside Greet to stretch off and this helped a little.  Once I got going again it was not long before the cramping in my legs returned and I know if I'd had my phone with me I would have certainly called Ollie for a pick-up!  However, there was no point in even trying to fine a phone as Ollie had dropped me off in Chipping Campden and then gone to work so was not available for a collection, and I had to make it back ASAP as I was due at work myself by midday!  This was turning out to be a most unpleasant and unsuccessful training run – or was it? 

I decided that the best way to keep a consistent pace going was to adapt a run/walk strategy.  I started each mile with a 2 minute walk.  After 2 minutes were up I had to start running again (God – those 2 minutes went fast!) and I had to keep running until my Garmin bleeped again to say I had completed the mile.  I was then allowed another 2 minute walk break………..and so on………..all the way home.

And this is why it was perhaps not a completely unsuccessful training session.  I have gained some more mental toughness from having to keep going when I wanted to quit really badly.  I managed to organise myself using a strategy that worked and I know I will be able to implement again if and when the wheels fall off during the 87mile Marble Arch to Dover run.  The miles that I had to run/walk took 12 minutes (instead of the 10 minute target pace that I am aiming to run for the main event).  Therefore I have gained some more information in my preparation regarding my pacing of the miles in the latter stages of the run.  However, my top tip would be don’t expect to be able smash yourself over a 12mile hilly off-road route 6 days after a 50mile ultra, and then expect to be able run on another 15miles without feeling some pain and suffering!!!

Monday, 22 June 2015

Cheltenham Challenge 50m Ultra Marathon

Organised by Cheltenham Community Projects (CCP) the Cheltenham Challenge was a great fun race all around my home training ground of Cheltenham Racecourse and the surrounding fields and up over Cleeve Hill.  It was made even better because of the support I had on the day.  I ran the first 14 miles with Rach and we stuck to the pace plan perfectly.  I saw Ollie, mum, dad, Tim, Amanda and Hector as I crossed the Burgage in Prestbury towards the end of each lap (thanks for making it out of the Royal Oak to cheer Tim!) and I ran the last 9 miles with Nicki and her encouragement and pacing was awesome when my tired legs really wanted to stop for a rest!  I’m thrilled to have been able to keep my target pace going for 50miles, which gave me a time of 8:14hours and 5th overall.  It was not too tricky to scoop the 1st lady prize as it seems there was only one female in Cheltenham daft enough to enter!  This was a brilliant community event to have been a part of and I would recommend it to runners of all abilities.  Have a look at the report from the Gloucestershire Echo for details of results, charities and all of the different distances that are available.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

6hr Qualification Swim

There is sometimes a sense of de ja vu about some races and training events. Six years ago I was training to swim the English Channel. I had decided to do the Champion of Champions and then try to back it up with a big training swim the following day in Dover harbour. That year I managed just 3 hours in Dover harbour after the 9 miles of racing the day before, I was cold, tired and frankly had had enough. I headed home to Cheltenham slightly worried that I wasn't quite as fit, cold tolerant or as mentally strong as I needed to be. This year I had again ear-marked the Champion of Champions event as a good training swim, only this time I had decided I would back it up with a 6 hour swim the following day that could double as my channel qualification swim. For those that don't know - one of the requirements for swimming the English Channel is to have done at least one observed 6-hour swim in open water of temp 16 degrees of less.
The one big difference from 6 years ago was the extra comfort of a wetsuit, this would at least get around the cold issue although having never swum for so long in a wetsuit before I was also keen to see whether I would be able to manage the issue of rubbing.
I felt pretty good after the 9 miles of racing on Saturday and had enjoyed almost 2000 calories of refuelling in 'The Eight Bells' pub in Dover. On the way back to my hotel I noticed a group of people on the beach and wandered over to see what was going on. To my astonishment a group of 7 or 8 swimmers were doing a 12hour overnight training swim in the harbour. They had started at 9pm and were planning on swimming through till 9am the following morning. No wetsuits, just traditional speedos, glow sticks and an incredible amount of mental strength. It made my own training plans seem somewhat paltry by comparison.
The following morning I hit the swimmers beach just after 8am. The usual suspects were already present, Freda, Barry, Irene and a slowly increasing number of channel aspirants. The overnight swimmers were still going with only one early retiree who had still managed 6 hours of swimming. With that sort of impressive endurance swimming on display there was no way I was going to ditch after just 3 hours. However the first challenge was that I had to explain to Barry and Freda that I was swimming in a wetsuit.
At 9am the overnight swimmers exited the water all looking remarkably good and thoroughly pleased with their efforts. At the same time the morning swimmers prepared to enter, I lathered on my lanolin/vaseline mix around my neck and plunged into the cold harbour waters. The first 2 hours were relatively comfortable, the wetsuit made me feel like I was floating on the surface of the water and I was doing a 2km loop in comfortably under 30minutes, I was certainly not cold. The only slight niggle was a rub that was developing on the right side of my neck. At the 2 hour mark I came in for a feed and reapplied the lanolin. The cup of warm maxim reminded me why I never use the stuff as it almost instantly made me feel nauseous. Perhaps too much association with previous gut-rejection experiences.
The next hour was steady but compared to 6 years previous I was barely aware of the cold. The water was getting steadily choppier and swimming across to the far eastern side of the harbour was living up to it's 'washing machine' nickname. By the end of hour 4 many of the swimmers had gotten out but by this stage I felt I had broken the back of the swim and by the time I came in for the 5 hour feed there was no way I wasn't going to complete the 6 hours. To finish was a great mental tick towards my channel swim goal and I was very pleased to be given the 6 hour qualification certificate from Freda. To my amusement I noticed the certificate had "wetsuit" written in large letters across the top as if to emphasise the point that I had been assisted…………..fair enough.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Champion of Champions

The Champion of Champions is one of the British Long Distance Swim Associations (BLDSA) key annual events. It is a challenging format of a 5 mile race in the cold water of Dover harbour followed shortly by a 3 mile race and then finally a 1 mile race. The water temperature is not likely to be much above 14 degrees and it might be calm and sunny or it might be wet, overcast and windy. I had done this event twice before and to say I had not enjoyed it would be an understatement. I may have finished it, I even won the men's trophy but I felt it got the better of me both times and this year I was determined to come out on top.
In my mind the real challenge of the event is the 3 mile race. Each year I have done this race I have nailed the 5 mile race, got out but been very cold and struggled to warm up. Then got back in and about a mile into the 3 mile race fallen into a deep dark hole and really laboured to finish.
I had a different strategy this year which involved skipping the hot showers after the 5 and 3 mile swims (a controversial method to warm up anyway). Instead I would throw on multiple layers of clothes and critically I would eat, eat and eat. I theorised that previously I had wasted too much time warming up in showers which may not have been getting my core warm anyway when I needed to be replacing lost energy by refuelling. I also understand that you are burning a large amount of energy shivering and warming up, maybe as much as when you are exercising (if you get very cold) and one of the main reasons I have struggled in the 3 mile race was not a lack of fitness but a lack of glycogen used up trying to maintain my core body temperature. With this new strategy in mind I was almost looking forward to this year's race and when I headed off at 5am to make my way down to Dover, I was as upbeat about the challenge as I get when contemplating a long, very cold swim.
I arrived in Dover just after 8am and was greeted by the new event organiser Mark Sheridan. It was 3 years since I had last swum in Dover harbour and one of the nicest things about doing another BLDSA race was all the familiar faces. BLDSA events are not for the faint hearted so attendances are not going to challenge the Great North Swim, as a result there is always a sense of familiarity and camaraderie among the regular faces and swimmers. As people steadily arrived the sun was shining, the water was calm and I was almost looking forward to getting wet. Despite the fact that this was really a training event for me and I needed to save myself for the 6 hour qualifying swim I would be doing the next day I was sizing up the competition. I suspected Chloe McCardel would be my main competitor, Chloe is a good friend and I have swum and trained with Chloe many times over the years. She is an extremely accomplished long distance swimmer having swum the English Channel 7 times and is the current world record holder for the longest unassisted ocean swim, she is also very quick!
I was a bit slow getting into the water for the first race and was still making my way out to the optimal start spot when the siren went. I jumped into action and headed towards the first turning buoy of the 1/2 mile circuit. I was second to the buoy behind a green capped swimmer but I soon passed him on the way to the second buoy and by the time I reached the 3rd and final buoy, of the first lap, I had opened up a small lead over Chloe who was now in second place. I settled into a steady pace and tried to tick off the laps one at a time. By the time I was on my 3rd lap I was passing the back markers and I could no longer tell how close Chloe was. I had a few uncomfortable moments between laps 3 and 6 as I went through the normal phases of feeling the cold and then adjusting. By the time I turned for the start of the 7th lap I felt reasonably comfortable and started to think it would be more desirable to keep swimming and get the 9 miles over and done with in one hit rather than having to get out and back in again. I was swimming strong in the last few laps and was surprised to find myself lapping the green capped swimmer who had led me at the start, nevertheless as I made the final turn and headed to the finish line I felt glad the first part was over. I got out quickly and threw on the clothes just as the shivering started. I quickly got some hot energy drink into me and saw that I had a opened up a small lead of about 5 minutes over Chloe. A good start, but I knew it was not enough if I struggled in the 3 mile as I had in previous years.

Finishing the 5 mile race
Over the next hour and a half most of the rest of the field finished and it was interesting to see how differently people had coped. Many of the seasoned open water swimmers and 'larger' individuals looked comfortable and barely affected by the cold while some like myself were looking decidedly uncomfortable. There were a couple of retirees at this stage (including green caped swimmer) who had really suffered with the cold. Meanwhile I had soup, jam sandwiches, chocolate puddings, energy gels, sweets and various high energy snacks. The 3 mile race came around and I nervously prepared for what I considered the real challenge of the day. This time it was Chloe who led me to the first buoy and I initially contemplated just sitting on her feet but I found I was comfortably swimming quicker than her so I moved in front. I once again opened up a lead and as I completed the 2nd lap (1mile) I thought, right this is where it has all gone wrong in previous years. To my surprise and happiness I found I was swimming well and not feeling like I was out of energy. The sixth and final lap was hard as my muscles were cold and fatigued but I was able to maintain a good pace so it felt like my strategy had worked well and I was even more pleased to discover that not only had I finished first again but I had extended my lead by even more time than in the 5 mile race. More shivering followed but I warmed up again and refuelled with as much as I could stomach. The final 1 mile race is mentally relatively easy as the worst is well and truly behind you. For the first time I led to the first buoy but instead of opening up a lead I found a junior swimmer sticking resolutely to my feet. Three junior swimmers were doing just the 1 mile race and this particular 14 year old was obviously up for a race which slightly disappointed me. About half way round the final lap he came up next to me and looked to be making his move, for a very brief moment I contemplated just letting him go but it was only a very brief moment. I picked up the pace and swum on his shoulder until we rounded the final buoy, we both picked up the pace in the final 200m and with 50m to go I decided to sprint, I touched the finish line 6 seconds ahead and felt a twinge of guilt for being so competitive when it really didn't matter, but again it was only a twinge. In the end my aggregate time for the 3 races was 15 minutes clear of Chloe in 2nd and 30 minutes clear of the next male finisher. But my main achievement was the feeling that I had finally managed this race properly and for the first time felt like I had defeated the event rather than being defeated by it. That said as happy as I was with how I swum I suspect it'll be another 3 years before I contemplate tackling it again. Big thanks to Mark Sheridan for organising a great race and well done to all the swimmers who took part.  
Champion of Champions - Chloe and me 

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Wetsuits - getting to the rub of it.

In 2009 I swam the channel in accordance with channel swimming rules - one pair of bathers, one swim cap (non-neoprene) and one pair of goggles. This year's Arch to Arc swim is a 'wetsuit allowed' swim which means, if successful, I will be one of the very few people that will have swum the English Channel both with and without a wetsuit. On the one hand it is this wetsuit assistance that convinced me that swimming the channel was worth doing again - my previous swim was memorable for how miserable I found it, how bitterly cold and sick I got and I swore at the end I would never ever contemplate a repeat effort. On the other hand I have never really got on with swimming in a wetsuit. I find them physically restrictive, uncomfortable and I invariably end up with a nasty wetsuit rub around the neck. It is this last issue that has weighed on my mind recently. The sort of rub that I have had in the past from a 2 hour fresh-water swim is potentially nothing compared to what I may suffer after 9-10hours in salt water. The advice I have received is to lather on the vaseline and lubricants and hope for the best. Next weekend I plan to do a long swim in Dover harbour so I will take my supply of "channel grease" with me (lanolin + vaseline) and see if I can overcome the wetsuit  rash after 6 hours of sea swimming, if it works well then great, if not it'll be back to the drawing board and a week of looking like I have some sort of S&M fetish pastime (which is probably as equally socially unacceptable as trying to swim the channel in a wetsuit).

Classic wetsuit rub on my neck 

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Wild Swimming in the River Wye

I spent 2 lovely hours wild swimming in the River Wye on Sunday. I explored this part of the river for the first time last week and thought I'd have another go this weekend. Starting at the bridge in Glasbury-on-Wye I headed upstream following the river as it weaved through the town. Although the water level was relatively low it was still deep enough to swim in comfortably. The steady flow provided a nice bit of resistance (I would guess probably about 2km/hr) but I managed to make steady progress and by the time I reached the end of the town I was swimming with only sheep, cows and the spectacular Brecon Beacons as my backdrop.

The previous week I had swum for probably just over a kilometre upstream before the river got too shallow to go any further. This week as I approached the end of my stretch I was waved over by a fisherman who politely informed me that that particular bit of the river was for private fishing only. I pointed out that I had been swimming in the river for nearly an hour at that point and had not seen any fish in the river worth wasting his Sunday on, but he seemed keen to continue his sedentary activity. As I made my way back downstream in the glorious sunshine and with the quiet, yet spectacular countryside all around me I couldn't really blame him.