Week's activity from Strava

Friday, December 15, 2017

Exercise in aging populations

I keep reading snippets on social media and elsewhere about the consequences of an ageing population on healthcare demand, the importance of regular exercise for lifelong good health and, worryingly, the lack of regular exercise taken by many in this ageing population.
I am of course at the age, 62, where lifestyle choices begin to have more than temporary consequences, and my own response has been to choose to be sensible over diet and weight control, but above all to keep "stoking the fires" of competitive endurance running as long as I possibly can.
Clearly not everyone has felt able to make the same choices. In nearly all the offroad races I have completed in the past 13 months, I have been one of a handful, at most, of men my age. I am not the quickest or most experienced trail and ultra runner, but in fields of 150-300 runners totally, I remain unbeaten in my age group at distances above 50 km.
This does not reflect my ability, but more the lack of competition!
In my opinion many factors, not all of them physical, lead people into giving up competitive endurance support as they get older. Social and psychological support or any form of systemic encouragement is virtually non-existent. You become an outlier at just the time in your life when the benefits of exercise on so many physical and mental health markers should make you part of a mainstream that seeks to guide society and make healthcare cheaper for everyone.

As part of an Open Univeristy Open BSc that I worked on part-time from 2009 to 2014, I completed a final year course on Public Health in my final year. Fortunately the marks I obtained on this unit contributed significantly to my award of 1st class honours for the degree as a whole.

As part of the public health unit, a long essay / report was required as 50% of the marks, and in this we were required to design and critically evaluate a public health intervention in our own locality. I think enough time has passed now to allow me to publish this online, as my chosen topic was exercise adherence in people who might be likely to be prescribed an exercise routine by an NHS Doctor, ie. very relevant to the topic. I don't claim my own work to be a masterpiece, but there are references to supporting papers in the academic journals, and I have not seen anything similar proposed in the intervening 3 years, despite the fact that I think it would work.

Here is the complete text and references, including the assignment brief:

You are required to develop a proposal for a public health intervention, using your chosen planning model.

PART 1 Identify what type of public health intervention you plan to focus on and investigate the evidence base for your chosen intervention. Cite relevant sources, justify your particular focus and produce a detailed plan for your intervention.

PART 2 Outline how you would implement and evaluate your plan, clarifying target population for the intervention, timescales and selected methods.

PART 3 Assess the policy implications of your intervention and its relevance to policies and strategies at national and local level.

PART 4 Critically reflect on your work, identifying what you consider to be its main strengths and weaknesses.


"Lack of physical activity is the fourth most important risk factor worldwide for chronic, non communicable diseases, after tobacco use, raised blood pressure, and hyperglycaemia. (Scholes & Mindell, 2012, p1)

"Age 50 marks a point in middle age at which the benefits of regular physical activity can be most relevant in avoiding, minimising, and/or reversing many of the physical, psychological, and social problems which often accompany advancing age." (WHO, 2002, p112)

Public health policymakers throughout the developed world have accepted the implications of the consensus view quoted above and have sought to create interventions that encourage a "healthy lifestyle" profile amongst citizens. In the UK there have been several initiatives, media campaigns and interventions, at both a national and local level, directed towards increasing physical activity levels, alongside those aimed at other risk factors such as smoking, diet and weight management. One particular intervention type has been applied to particular "at risk" groups, usually based on prior health screening at a GP clinic, and this is the "Exercise on Referral Scheme" (ERS), whereby patients are referred for a set number of sessions to a personal trainer, usually at a gym or leisure centre. The aim is to "train" the individual into a higher level of physical activity and measure the results in terms of key cardiovascular, blood chemistry and body mass indicators. Recent evidence has suggested that these interventions have been less successful than anticipated, with adherence to schemes by subjects after an initial period generally disappointing. Their long term benefit in initiating behaviour and lifestyle change has been called into question. The following planned pilot intervention, "Whitchurch gets Walking" (WGW), attempts to address some of the shortcomings of current ERS in a rural setting in North Buckinghamshire where formal exercise infrastructure is not immediately available. It changes the emphasis to psychological support using sports psychologists rather than technical / medical monitoring done by medical staff and exercise professionals. The principal goals of the intervention are centred on adherence to behaviour and lifestyle change rather than meeting pre-determined standards of physical fitness and body mass index. It also employs a social networking approach and virtual tools to monitor progress, with empowerment of the subject in their own lifestyle change becoming a key theme.

The proposed intervention follows the Nutbeam & Harris 5 phase model which integrates theory and evidence based practise into the planning, implementation and evaluation of public health interventions. (Sidell & Douglas, 2012, p256)

Part 1 - Problem identification, intervention rationale and solution planning (Phases 1 and 2)

According to the latest Health Survey for England,
"Adults should be encouraged to undertake each week at least 150 minutes of moderate activity, in bouts of 10 minutes or longer, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity or a combination of both." (Scholes & Mindell, 2012, p2)
The latest evidence suggests that conventional ERS are failing to either achieve these modest objectives with at risk patients or to foster an acceptable adherence rate on schemes which may lead to long term behaviour change. An evaluation of the National ERS in Wales in 2010 found that 45% of patients dropped out within 4 weeks, and in some areas as little as 11% completed a 16 week programme. (Murphy et al., 2010, p13)  In a review of the ERS in Northumberland in 2009-10, even those who completed the scheme only managed to increase their self reported mean weekly physical activity from an average of 52 minutes to 81 minutes, just 54% of the recommended minimum of 150 minutes. (Hanson et al, 2013, p7) A systematic review and  meta analysis of studies on ERS in England in 2011 found that,
"..there remains very limited support for the potential role of exercise referral schemes on increasing physical activity and consequently improving public health." (Pavey et al., 2011, p5)
With supervision of such schemes largely in the hands of referring GP's and the exercise specialists themselves, it is at least plausible that not enough attention has hitherto been paid to intrinsic and extrinsic psychological influences on the subjects themselves. These in turn may help determine adherence levels and influence behavioural change. This is despite the recommendations of Marcus et al.'s landmark study into the subject in 2000 that suggested  five broad areas for further research into exactly these influences. (Marcus et al., 2000, p39)
A study into ERS patients in the West Midlands in 2006 concluded that,
"...to increase their success, there is a need to consider motivationally embellished EoP (Exercise on Prescription) schemes that pull from the tenets of SDT (Self Determination Theory) and aim to foster participants' basic psychological need satisfaction and self-determined motivational regulation". (Edmunds et al., 2006, p738)
A familiar concept in sports psychology is "self efficacy", originally developed by Albert Bandura, who states that,
"...efficacy beliefs largely determine whether people consider changing their health habits and whether they succeed in making and maintaining the change." (Bandura, 1997, p3)
A 2007 study showed an improved ability to manage the life consequences of cardiac disease, and to adhere to rehabilitation amongst patients exhibiting high exercise self efficacy. (Lau-Walker, 2007, pp 196-8)
WGW will be supervised by a qualified sports psychologist with undergraduate students adding support as part of their studies into exercise adherence. It will be open ended in time frame, with long term adherence the primary goal of the intervention.

As well as a lack of psychological support, most existing ERS schemes rely on a resource intensive model, involving supervised sessions by an exercise professional at a gym or leisure centre (Pavey et al., 2011, p2). This format in itself both places the desired behaviour change into an unfamiliar setting for most subjects and makes that setting less accessible to rural populations. In order to remove this further barrier to adherence, WGW will rely on an "at home" setting, in a rural area with "virtual peer" support, rather than the formal support or monitoring of an exercise or medical professional. It also involves no learning of unfamiliar exercise techniques as the base activity is walking, either alone or in small groups. It will rely heavily on empowerment and autonomy of the subjects themselves. Lay-led walking programmes were examined in a randomised controlled trial in 2001, that concluded,
"The effect of health walks compares favourably with other primary care based exercise schemes, including incentives, exercise on prescription and behavioural counselling." (Lamb et al., 2000, p251)

The final element in the intervention addresses one of the weaknesses of the lay led walking programmes reviewed by Lamb et al. These followed a fairly rigid structure of appointed supervised walks on routes with maps sent out by post and a "walk leader". (Lamb et al. p251) As this structured approach was accompanied by low adherence, these "health walks" may simply have become like sessions in a gym, but out of doors, relying on extrinsic influences rather than intrinsic motivation, and with "appointments" to be kept rather than a change in lifestyle to be adopted. In contrast, WGW will allocate participants to small groups who will be linked together in a social media setting. They will largely be in control of their own exercise time, which will be monitored by them, their peers and the programme leader via a free smartphone app, and / or a GPS watch provided by the GP practice on a loan basis. Exercise time will be evaluated cumulatively, allowing for periods of more and less intensive activity, free choice as to time of day and whether or not to participate in social interaction.

Part 2- Implementation, resources and Evaluation (Phases 3, 4 and 5)

The target demographic for WGW is individuals in the 45 - 54 years old age bracket, resident in the Stewkley, Quainton and Weedon wards of Aylesbury Vale District in North Buckinghamshire. (AVDC, 2012) This is an area of small villages and rolling farmland sandwiched between the larger towns of Aylesbury and Buckingham. There are no formal leisure or sports facilities in any of these villages apart from playing fields, although the countryside has many quiet lanes and is criss-crossed by a network of footpaths and bridleways. Initially 3 groups of 4-6 individuals will be selected from routine health screening tests made at the Whitchurch Surgery. Attempts will be made to group together individuals who are all deemed to be "at risk" from the negative health consequences of reduced physical activity, and who live near to one another. Despite the psychological support that will be offered, it is assumed that there will be a 50% drop out rate as has often been the case in ERS, and if this is the case new patients will be offered induction onto the scheme, and allocated to an appropriate group.
Each group will be then given an induction session, at which it will be made clear that what is being offered is not primarily a "medical" intervention. Recent thinking on health in later life, including Antonovsky's salutogenic paradigm accepts that certain definitions of "illness" as abnormal may be far from helpful in encouraging lifestyle change amongst members of this demographic. (Sidell, 2003, pp28-30) A degree of acceptance of frailties is to be a theme of the intervention, rather than a desire to improve empirical indicators of "normal" health. The session will be given by the intervention leading sports psychologist, accompanied by 1 or two students, with an NHS registered Health trainer present, along with a practice nurse and the public health practitioner as an observer. The session will be used to explore attitudes to exercise and physical activity amongst the group, compare experiences and investigate future opportunities to integrate more walking into the week's routine. The students will be charged with introducing the smartphone app to those with the facility, and instructing others on the use of the GPS watches. The health trainer will be available to discuss any exercise physiology issues as well as to suggest possible exercise routines as appropriate. Whether or not they possess a smartphone, the participants will record their walking sessions using the GPS tracking facility uploaded into a free exercise app with a social media focus called Endomondo.(www.endomondo.com) Endomondo both tracks exercise sessions in real time, plots them with mapping software, estimates calories burned, and allows participants to interact with a wider community of "friends" before, after and, in the smartphone version, during an exercise session. Once uploaded to the web interface, subscribers can view and comment on the workouts of others, seek new virtual exercise partners worldwide and join "challenges". In this way group members can support each other and the programme supervisors can remain informed of the progress of individuals in the group. An objective will be set to all participants of reaching the 150 minute weekly target for moderate activity as mentioned earlier, but engagement with the scheme on a long term basis will be the prime objective. Formal support after this first session will principally be psychological, with the professionals and students looking to help each individuals raise their self efficacy and take charge of their own activity levels. This will be accomplished by weekly telephone conversations, optional "in surgery" group follow-up sessions, and one to one "buddying" with an undergraduate student.

WGW pulls together a different range of resources than seen in most public health interventions. It seeks to influence behaviour change purely using psychological tools and self monitoring, but also offers the opportunity for peer to peer social support and the counselling of a qualified psychologist. The principal demand, apart from the provision of a number of GPS watches, is on the provision of the services of a registered sports psychologist experienced in the field of exercise adherence, and a number of sports science undergraduate students from a nearby university. Health monitoring will follow a parallel course, but will not be operated in co-ordination with the adherence / self efficacy programme. The relevant public health practitioner will be responsible for co-ordination, financial resource allocation (from the ERS budget) and gathering together the strands of evaluation.

In terms of evaluation, the originality of the scheme, and its nature as a pilot programme with small numbers of subjects in a very specific area, means that most value will be found in qualitative forms of evaluation. Phase 5 of the Nutbeam and Harris model calls for measurable and specific objectives. In this sense WGW has combined goals: firstly to improve the adherence to increased physical activity by subjects using a model of empowerment and self determination, and secondly to assess to what extent the intervention design itself contributes to achieving this objective. The virtual tools built into the intervention will enable empirical measurements of time spent in the walking activities, but as more groups are recruited a model such as the Hawe et. al planning and evaluation cycle would be appropriate. (Sidell & Douglas, 2012, p257-8) This model requires a cyclical relationship between the phases of planning and evaluation, enabling re-design of the intervention on the evidence of new information. For example it may be found that the need to use a GPS watch or a smartphone becomes an adherence obstacle rather than an aid to some partcipants, in which case process evaluation would suggest that some subjects may need less formal self reporting methods. All stakeholders would be part of the evaluation process, the psychologist, students, subjects and where appropriate family members of the subjects, but the public health practitioner would take the lead role in drawing this feedback process into any re-design of the intervention.

Part 3 - Public Health Policy Implications
In that the intervention seeks to operate against the risk factor of physical inactivity in an epidemiologically significant but certainly narrow demographic group, it could be seen as part of a "business as usual " approach in public health policy. (Jones, 2012, p 478). It certainly cannot be seen as a population wide health improvement or inequality reducing measure as it is presently constructed.The sources quoted above make clear that improving physical activity levels amongst all age groups is seen as a public health priority both in the UK and worldwide. The Heidelberg guidelines list a myriad of benefits for society and individuals through increased physical activity, not the least of which is "reduced health and social care costs" (WHO, 2002, pp 113-115). But despite making this a policy priority, successive governments in the UK have not been able influence the design of interventions that have proved effective. The same problem might be observed in the area of dietary choices or smoking - policymakers in these areas find it hard to influence individual behaviour sufficiently to effect change.
Whilst it remains within a broad spectrum of interventions aimed at improving physical activity levels, WGW certainly does have some policy implications in the specifics, however. It is a non-medically focussed intervention, that has within it a rejection of medically focussed measurements as it's goal, or that a trained professional is needed to "cure" the patient, even if this professional is a registered personal trainer. Were it to be successful, and the meta analyses and reviews of ERS quoted above suggest the "success" bar is extremely low, it would have implications for the status quo of health policy making that is trapped in a paradigm where qualified professionals from within the health service dominate. (Jones (2), 2012, p 414-5) Bringing sports psychologists into GP surgeries and using GPS watches as prescribed devices has implications with regards to ethics and patient confidentiality, possible advice conflicts and funding.
Perhaps the most important implication on policy lies outside the narrow scope of the health service. Transport policy, rights of way maintenance and regulation of the built environment are all implicated if citizens aspire to higher levels of fitness through simple forms of exercise in their locality. If policymakers concede that an environment conducive to taking exercise may help mitigate some of the £11.7 billion spent annually on treating type 2 diabetes (diabetes.co.uk, 2014), even in the WGW locality, protected well lit pavements, well cleared rights of way and rural cycle routes may have to become local policy priorities.

Part 4 - Critical Reflection

WGW takes an innovative approach to an accepted public health issue. It is "light touch" in patient contact time and compared to conventional ERS is not resource hungry. In a climate where healthcare resources are stretched, funding allocations are highly competitive and medical treatment innovations abound, this apparent strength may be a weakness of the idea. Officials viewing from the perspective of the medical or even the socially constructed model of public health may see the intervention as frivolous, and without clearly measurable objectives that can be fed into wider policy decisions. If this is the case the intervention may never get funding.
Calling on the discipline of sports psychology in dealing with patients under treatment brings a range of difficulties. Apart from in professional sports clubs or national sporting organisations there may be little existing contact between GP's and Sports Psychologists, or the psychology department of universities, and the public health practitioner leading the planned intervention may struggle to pull together these human resources. Psychologists may find they are in the difficult area of offering advice to patients that calls into question the disease / treatment paradigm of the GP, or that crosses into the medical domain. This poses an ethical problem that will need very careful managing and clear guidelines. Launching individuals into increasing their physical activity will require that conventional health screening continues as normal, but the intervention team will not be privy to such information under patient confidentiality.
The software and social media interface may not suit all subjects in the target age group. Smartphone ownership is far from general and, although GPS watches are not expensive in comparison with in-home medical equipment, they require information download onto a home computer and internet access to use the virtual tools and social networking features. These all may be adherence barriers for some subjects and give the intervention a selection bias to those of higher socio-economic standing.
Despite these barriers, WGW has some significant advantages, particularly in comparison to existing ERS schemes. As a self-motivating regular exerciser, the author was struck in preparing this intervention plan by the poor adherence results and low exercise level thresholds achieved by ERS throughout the UK, and convinced by evidence concerning the role that psychological support geared towards self motivation could play. WGW has deliberately been designed as a pilot scheme with the narrow aim of improving adherence levels by allowing psychological models with proven success in the field of sports psychology to contribute. Empowerment of patients in their own care is now a significant theme in health policy, and WGW at its most ambitious will aim to encourage subjects to re-identify themselves in respect of their own personal health. The use of small clusters of subjects in a geographical area with few formal exercise facilities means that the intervention is very scaleable, and could be used in other locations, the major difficulty being the availability of a sports psychologist in a location for induction.
Finally, in designing this intervention the author was wary of the advice of not indulging in "blue sky" thinking, and despite thorough research, could not find evaluations of similar programmes elsewhere in the UK. This contributed to design of an intervention that employed personal knowledge and experience as well as information from a prior Open University course on Sports Psychology. Not having directly presented the psychological models available in the text may be a weakness, but it was felt that first space was not available and secondly, in the real world, the psychologist responsible would adapt the models to suit the individuals themselves.

3276 words includes in-text references
K311 Course Materials
Sidell & Douglas, 2012: Sidell, M. & Douglas, J., 2012, 'Chapter 9: Using evidence to plan and evaluate public health interventions', in, Jones, L. & Douglas, J. (eds), Public Health: building innovative practice, pp 71-98, Sage Publications for The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK, 2012.
Sidell, 2003: Sidell M., 2003, 'Older People's Health: Applying Antonovsky's Salutogenic Paradigm', in, Douglas J. et al (eds) A reader in promoting public health, challenge and controversy, 2nd edition, pp 77-88, Sage publications for The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK, 2003, 2010, UK.
Jones, 2012: Jones, L., 'Chapter 15: 'Building Healthier futures: barriers and enablers', in, Jones, L. & Douglas, J. (eds), Public Health: building innovative practice, pp 71-98, Sage Publications for The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK, 2012.
Jones (2), 2012: Jones, L., 'Chapter 14: 'Understanding and Influencing Polich Change', in, Jones, L. & Douglas, J. (eds), Public Health: building innovative practice, pp 71-98, Sage Publications for The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK, 2012.

Journal Articles
Hanson et al., 2013: Hanson, C.L. et al., 2013, 'An evaluation of the efficacy of the exercise on referral scheme in Northumberland, UK: association with physical activity and predictors of engagement. A naturalistic observation study.' in BMJ Open (2013;3:e002849 doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2013-002849) online at http://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/3/8/e002849.short . Accessed 24th May 2014.
Pavey et al. 2011: Pavey, T. et al., 'Effect of exercise referral schemes in primary care on physical activity and improving health outcomes: systematic review and meta analysis' in BMJ Open (2011;343:d6462 doi:10.1136/bmj.d6462) online at http://bmjopen.bmj.com/. Accessed 24th May 2014
Marcus et al., 2000: Marcus, B., et al, 2000, 'Physical activity behaviour change: issues in adoption and maintenance', in Health Psychology, vol 19 (2000) no. 1 (suppl) pp 32-41, The American Psychological Association, USA, 2000.
Edmunds et al, 2006: Edmunds, J., Ntoumanis, N., Duda, J., 'Adherence and well-being in overweight and obese patients referred to an exercise on prescription scheme: A self-determination theory perspective', in Psychology of Sport and exercise, vol. 8 (2007), pp 722-740, UK, 2007.
Bandura, 1997: Bandura, A., 'Self Efficacy', in Harvard Mental Health Letter, vol 13., March 1997, Issue 9, p4. Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., USA, 1997.
Lau-Walker, 2007: Lau-Walker, M., 'Importance of illness beliefs and self efficacy for patients with coronary heart disease', in Journal of Advanced Nursing, vol.60 (2) pp. 187 -198, UK, 2007.
Lamb et al., 2001: Lamb, S.E. et al., 'Can lay-led walking programmes increase physical activity in middle aged adults? A randomised controlled trial', Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 2002, vol. 56, pp 246-252, UK, 2002.
Other Published Material
Scholes & Mindell, 2013: Scholes, S. & Mindell, J., 'Is the adult population in England active enough? Initial results from the Health Survey for England 2012', Health & Social Care Information Centre, London, 2013.
WHO, 2002: World Health Organisation, 2002, 'ANNEX 4: The Heidelberg guidelines for promoting physical activity among older persons' 2002, Keep Fit For Life, pp. 112-119, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, accessed 24th May 2014.
Murphy et al., 2010: Murphy S. et al., 'The evaluation of the National Exercise Referral Scheme in Wales', Welsh Assembly Government Social Research, 2010. Crown Copyright, UK, 2010.

Endomondo.com : "Free sports community based online software for real time GPS tracking of cycling, running etc." online at http://www.endomondo.com/ Accessed 29th May 2014.
Diabetes.co.uk : "Cost of diabetes treatment in the UK 2010" online at http://www.diabetes.co.uk/cost-of-diabetes.html. Accessed 28th May 2014.

Evolved to run. Born to run. Older, greyer, still running.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Running Bling

I don't really make too much of a big deal of the medals and tee shirts you get when you finish some races, but have to accept that it has become a "thing" in some running circles.

I found a few really old ones at the back of a drawer. However much I try to believe they are not important to me, I have resisted all attempts to bin them!

My 10 mile, Half Marathon and Marathon PB performance medals are up there, along with a couple from Lausanne 20 km and Morat - Frieburg in Switzerland.

1985 - 1998

And here's the last one, the Dartmoor 3 in 1, 5 Tors / 4 Tors / 3 Tors races from a 3 weeks ago.

Plus ca change!
Evolved to run. Born to run. Older, greyer, still running.

The now obligatory "it's a year since" blog post

Note to self: must try harder....

Why have I, once again left it nearly a year before blogging again? It's not as if I don't have the time. The truth is that running is again pretty much a constant in my life, but perhaps I don't feel the urge to communicate the minuteae to the world - a few photos on Twitter and Instagram seem enough.

It may be because I've read a few blogs from runners that are just so self-absorbed, and I would hate any reader to turn away with that idea. One in particular was turned into a book that I downloaded for Kindle. It remains unfinished, while most other running books get devoured with great speed.
(I really should blog about great running books..)

Anyway, the adventures of a 62 year old runner and his crazy spaniel continue. Mainly we can be found on Dartmoor plodding about, but the last 12 months has also seen lots of goals set and most of them achieved.

I've raced 4 times over more than 50 km on trails since December 2016. I am currently unbeaten as an MV60 at these distances.

I've been able to run 3 Fell Running Association fell races, from a clifftop race in Dorset of 12 km, to a Yomp in the upper Eden Valley of 34 km. In each of these I've found 3 or 4 old 'uns quicker and / or more experienced on the terrain.

Four of my favourite outings have been on Dartmoor, ranging from the local village fell race of 16km up to the 55km full North to South Crossing of Dartmoor.

I didn't get into UTMB - OCC in 2017 but have doubled my chances to get in for 2018. I've now got quite a few qualifications points - having run 74 km and 80 km races this year, I can now even go for the next one up, CCC. But let's not push my luck too much.

I am now in two running clubs. As a "masters athlete" I joined my local regional club, South West Veterans AC, and have worn the purple colours whenever I could. I have also recently joined the running group Tamar Trail Runners. Despite this, virtually every mile of my running is done alone, or should I say, with no human company. Cocoa gets to do nearly all of it, apart from the races, which seems a little unfair. Although he has completed Killerton and Tamar Trails Parkruns and has a PB of under 26 minutes with the berk on the other end of the lead.

I have been taking coaching advice since February from an experienced mountain runner and ex English Fell running champion, Natalie White, who is based in Chamonix.

I currently have 7 pairs of trail / mountain running shoes on the go, and one pair of road shoes that I never use.

I have been through the "Hoka phase" and have now grown up. My last purchase was a pair of Inov8 X-TALONS.
I've got a race coming up this weekend: the Endurance Life Coastal Trail series Gower Ultra.

Hopefully I will actually post a blog about that soon.

Evolved to run. Born to run. Older, greyer, still running.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Still Alp - obsessed

This blog post is certainly out of sequence...

Today, December 15th 2016, I entered a race in the Alps.

Typical of my "blogging career" to date, I left off blogging months ago, whilst not even half way through posting about the Tour du Mont Blanc. Maybe it's because this is meant to be a blog about running (mainly) and I'd already blogged about all the proper running that took place on the trip. I may return to it, especially as I have some great photos to share, but then again, I may not.

I knew setting off on the TDMB that I would be leaving some gaps and that Lisa, in particular would have at least 60 km of the total "unwalked".

Lisa and I parted the ways on the last Saturday, which was spent entirely in Switzerland, and was mainly downhill walking in the Swiss Val Ferret, dodging numerous showers. Perhaps prophetically we decided to walk right down the valley (leaving the TDMB route) to the railway junction town of Orsieres.

Lisa ceremonially binned her cheap poles and got her connection to Martigny and the around Lac Leman to Geneva and home while I "cheated" and got the bus up to Champex Lac for my last day of walking on the Sunday.

Since coming home in early July, the running has continued to go pretty well. It's been relatively easy to get into a routine of running virtually every day. Cocoa needs exercise and so obviously loves tearing around up on the moor, and I am finding it easy both to the find the time and the incentive to get out. But somehow or other I had convinced myself that I no longer needed to be competitive in my running, despite the fact that it should be obvious that goal setting had always dominated my periods of regular running. Gradually as the year has passed, I've seen some goals appear out of the mists that I frequently encounter on my moorland runs (that was a bit of a laboured metaphor, sorry). I've been steadily accumulating miles, and perhaps more significantly, elevation gain and loss, in my running stats. Today I'm looking at 3300 km of running and 100,000 m of elevation for 2016 in my Strava profile. I've dared to imagine myself as a budding mountain runner due to a combination of relatively untroubled hiking with a 7 kg pack on the TDMB and daily uphill and downhill running every day on Dartmoor.

It was in October 2012 that I ran the one and only Ultramarathon of my running life, a 48km low key event in Nottinghamshire, without a great deal of "vert". Two and a half weeks ago, I ran another one, but this time it was 54km and with over 2400m of vertical gain and loss. I'm 4 years older, but now I have the hills well and truly in my legs, so finishing had to be a realistic goal, didn't it? (I will blog on this in separate post.) Finishing would mean 1 magical "UTMB Qualification Point".

And that's what I now have, so I have entered the OCC, the shortest of the 5 races in UTMB week. The odds of getting in are about 2.5 to 1 against, but if I fail these odds are double in my favour for 2018.

OCC stands for Orsieres - Champex - Chamonix, 55km mostly on the TDMB route and appropriately, at least 2/3 of it is on sectors that I missed last summer.

I have a goal - if I get in - and if not I will just have to find another one....

Evolved to run. Born to run. Older, greyer, still running.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Tour du Mont Blanc 2016 - a 9 day adventure - partly nostalgic - in the Alps. Part 1

So I've done the obligatory kit review in the last blog post and now comes the "report of the trip".

It's not going to be a day by day account - far from it - nor a diary. Those interested in times, distances, stats etc, can find me on Strava - Charlie Massey - or on Suunto Movescount - charliecoffee - and see the entries for June 25th to July 3rd inclusive. It's all there, including the extra bits that Lisa and I did, and showing the "gaps".

I / We (Lisa was there 2 days less than I) never completed the Tour du Mont Blanc, and we knew we had to make some compromises due to time constraints and the desire to spend at least 3 days walking with rest of our group.

Principally I left 3 gaps:

1. The Italian section from Courmayeur to the head of Val Ferret (Arp Nouva) below Grand Col Ferret. We took a morning off in Courmayeur and got a bus to the bottom of the Col.

2. From Col de la Forclaz in Switzerland across to Vallorcine in France (missing Col de Balme & Aiguillette des Posettes). I decided finally on the last day to walk down to Martigny rather than end up on the "wrong side". Frankly I just wanted to take the train around Lac Leman for sentimental reasons.

3. A small gap being the final part of the climb up to Champex Lac after walking the Swiss Val Ferret. We walked down to Orsieres together so I could say good bye to Lisa at the station there. I then got the bus up to Champex Lac before climbing the mile or so up the path alongside a torrent to my overnight stay at Relais d'Arpette.

The first 2 of these are in a way 'unfinished business' and I would love to go back one long weekend to complete these two sections, along with taking the high variant route over Fenetre d'Arpette at 2665m which was probably my only big regret of the trip.

On my first day (alone) in Les Houches, I decided on a start point for my TMB at the far end of the valley, and thought I would just try to cover as much of the northern sector as I could, retaining the option to take a cable car / ski lift down to the valley when I decided that I'd had enough. So I took the train up to Vallorcine and started. It was drizzling a bit and clouds were fairly threatening on the high peaks, but the sun came out as I began jogging from Vallorcine to col des Montets, so I decided to tackle the steep variant that goes directly up to La Flegere with an option to take in Lac Blanc as well. This also avoids the infamous ladder section on the main path up from Tre le Champ on the other side of Col des Montets. In my enthusiasm to get started, it turned out I was beginning to take some pretty stupid decisions. The path was very steep, and above about 1800m I pretty quickly became enveloped in thick fog, which then turned to steady rain. Snow patches began soon after as I continued to climb and it became less and less obvious where the main path went. Luckily I donned full waterproofs just in time as the rain got heavier (the first of several good decisions). I did contemplate turning back, but with my altimeter showing 2150m by now, and knowing the condition of the path I had just climbed, I decided to press on. I was buoyed by the fact that a walker in shorts and a light windproof top passed me just as I was procrastinating. He turned out to be Scottish and his "we're up here now, so we may as well get on with it" encouraged me also to get on with it. This showed blind faith in someone that I'd never met, but despite the fact that he was obviously ill-equipped, for some reason I deferred to his judgement.

So I followed him along what was now a much more obvious track up onto a ridge that disappeared into the fog. "Lac Blanc" was also clearly signposted. It was then that I heard a rumble of thunder, and then a few minutes later another one much closer. It was not until one followed with sparks flying on the rocks around me that I came latterly to my senses and assessed my predicament: on a high exposed ridge, in poor visibility, in an electric storm, carrying metal poles. What an idiot! Scottish man pressed on into the gloom. I threw my poles down as if they were red hot and re-assessed quickly. A repeat thunder - lightning - St. Elmos fire etc incident made my mind up. It's time to get down off this ridge and wait this out or change route! So I jogged back down to some relative shelter and headed back towards the junction of paths lower down.

After that I made better decisions. I met two Russians (older than me, heavier, huge packs and capes) who were heading the same way as the suicidal Scot. I convinced them to follow me back down and take a lower more sheltered route to La Flegere. After a bit of downhill scrambling through some heather, we were quickly on a more established path. About 15 minutes after this I could see the sky beginning to turn blue down the valley whereas to my left, in the direction of Lac Blanc, it was black and thunder continued to rumble. I pressed on, hoping to intersect the path taken in the Mont Blanc Half Marathon with runners suffering as they pressed onto the finish at 2000m up. Strangely there was no sign of them, just a drinks station being packed away as I reached the La Flegere lift station and cafe. After my pit stop I felt pretty good so my day ended at Planpraz after a mixed hike through forests and across some ski pistes, in great weather with the summits starting to clear across the valley.

In the midst of this I had my first encounters with the serious quantities of snow that remained above about 1900m, and thankfully I was able to deal with it easily. I had the right kit after all!

Later I read on the Mont Blanc Marathon website that they had re-routed the half marathon to finish in Chamonix town. The weather forecast had made it unsafe to be above 2000m that morning......

So that was why the finishing stretch was so deserted!

We had initially wanted to do quite a bit of running on the trip, but ultimately only really got to run 3 times. Frankly, with full pack, the joy was a bit lost and I personally did not feel so safe running down rocky paths with about 8 kg on board. However this took nothing away from the enjoyment, allowing us to look up frequently on the downhills, and enjoy the view, rather than being constantly in that zone of looking at the ground 2 footplants ahead. Travelling uphill it made little difference. Neither of us are in the category of runner that can get into a running rhythm on rocky paths or snow at 20% gradient above 2000 metres altitude.

We went on one run that we both absolutely loved, and memories of that will stay for a long while. We once again took the train up the valley to the last stop at Vallorcine. We then followed the TMB path back to Le Buet before branching off up the valley north of the Aiguilles Rouges, along the Berard torrent and past the spectacular waterfall of the same name.

The trail varied between steep rocky sections and gentler rolling parts where we could get a rhythm going. It was a beautiful day and despite climbing over 650 metres in 6 km or so, we just got warmer and warmer, as the valley rose towards the Col de Salenton at its head.

This run has a "reward" at the half way / turn around point, with the Refuge de Pierre a Berard nestling under a large boulder just before the trail heads up into the snow below the Col. So we just had to spoil ourselves with their take on Gateaux aux Myrtilles, watched over by a flock of young Bouquetins. A throughly recommended 13 km outing to get you inspired to do more mountain running.

Before our "easy day" running, Lisa and I had completed the section Planpraz to Les Houches - but in the reverse direction, turning a "mainly downhill" section into a "almost totally uphill" section.

The weather again started foggy as we wound our way up through the woods, climbing the 1200m or so to Bel Lachat. It was during this that the realisation started to dawn on me that any fears I had over Lisa's physical preparation and aptitude were unfounded. She was well able to cope with anything I could. Later on I would discover that she could have left me for dead at any point!

We found serious amounts of snow as we headed up towards Le Brevent above 2400m and onwards to Col de Brevent. Also the main path markings lost their meaning here, and whatever tracks existed on the snow became the de facto route. This is a big warning to anyone following a GPX track in these conditions. It could in fact lead you into trouble. The route on the ground and orientation by map, altimeter and compass might be far better. At one point, slightly confused by the snow tracks towards Col de Brevent, we asked a rock climber who was perched on one of the crags where the TMB main route was. He professed to have no idea. Either he didn't and was a particularly tunnel visioned sort, or he wasn't interested in offering help. Unusual.

We finished our day at the same point I had finished the day before, but this time we did get to see finishers of the Mont Blanc Marathon (at around 7 hours in) at Planpraz. Strangely it didn't put me off the idea, although one guy repeatedly drinking water and vomiting against a wall by the lift station didn't seem to having too great a time.

Evolved to run. Born to run. Older, greyer, still running.