Jack Gammon: Journey to UTMB - Part 5
Welcome to Blog Number 5, lovely XMiles crew. I hope you are all well and keeping safe.
To start this month’s Blog I would like to take a step back from my normal witterings if I may? And open with a poem. Now I suspect what you might be thinking Dear Reader. What have you done with Jack? The only poems he knows start with lines like ‘There was a young lady from Ealing who had a peculiar feeling’ Well you’d be wrong! Sit back in your favourite chair and let the silvery words of the Lakeland poet Wordsworth soothe your soul…
I wandered lonely as a cloud,
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering, dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
and twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretched in never-ending line like the grim blinking red of stationary Ford Mondeo brake lights...
‘I need the toilet!’ did little Flo utter just 5 minutes after leaving Knutsford services.
A limp expensive egg sandwich doth fall from her slack grip into the rear passenger footwell tossing its head in a sprightly dance.
OK OK! So, I might have changed that around just a teensy bit, but hopefully only to illustrate a point that I’ll try and explain a little more now.
I’m willing to bet that when William Wordsworth sat down to write his beautiful poems about the Lake District he’d probably just strolled down from his beloved Dove Cottage towards the banks of the Mighty Grasmere and sat quietly breathing in the rich scent of the rain on the water as he put pen to paper to sum up the beauty around him.
I, on the other hand, If I ever find myself in The Lake District I’ve probably just endured a 4 hour odyssey of being bent double in the back of our trusty Ford C-max fighting off pins and needles whilst half garotting myself with the weird central seatbelt thing that I have to employ to be able to sit close enough to Flo to play Travel Top Trumps with her as I try not to vomit.
If I’m honest the only rich scents I would have been breathing in for a few hours would have either drifted off the farmer’s fields north of Preston or been slyly sneaked out by Flo who’s been fuelling herself solely on a diet of service station pasties and crisps for most of the journey. (Once again… Take That! Kilian!)
So, it’s with this little opening ramble in mind Dearest Reader that I offer you a confession. One that I have been harbouring inside me for years and can barely bring myself to admit to you all. Please don’t drive me out of town waving running poles to live with the NON RUNNING FOLK… SHUDDER
OK here goes!… ‘Deep breath Jack’
I AM AN ULTRA-RUNNER WHO DOESN'T LIKE GOING TO THE LAKE DISTRICT…
There you go, I’ve said it... *Falls to knees sobbing*
Right! Let me get cracking on clarifying that statement a little as I feel I have to work quickly now to try and win some of you back and stop you leaving in droves (That is of course presuming there are droves of you reading this blather) It’s not that I don’t like The Lake District, I very much do.
The long suffering Bee has an enduring love affair with the Lakes that has seen her wear a trench in the M6 over the years. Bee did countless missions up t’North to learn race sections and train hard in The Fells and it all culminated in the shiny Lakeland 100 medal that hangs on our living room door handle. For the occasions that Bee dragged me up there with her I thank her as it was always great the moment we got there.
So let's do ‘Good bits’ first whilst I’m trying to get you all back on side.
There’s no two ways about it, The Lake District is stunning!
One of my favourite things to do in the Lakes is to sit in one of the many great pubs scoffing great local produce over a pint of Wainwright's. It somehow feels more of a treat to relax by a lit fire up there after that long journey (although that said, on one memorable visit good friends of ours had a pub burger so sketchy they claim to this day it was the inception of the 7 years of Vegetarianism that followed) I won’t shame the pub in question, we’re all allowed a bad day right?
You can glide across a glass calm lake on a paddle steamer whilst chomping on a Magnum without a care in the world, but then at the drop of a hat get your running kit on (not too soon after the magnum) and fling the ‘Hurt Box’ wide open giving yourself a savage training day the likes of which you just can’t find anywhere else. Just by taking ANY of the tracks out of ANY of the towns you can get yourself into some of the purest mountain running and ‘big day’ training arenas anywhere in the country and that is very special. Climbing a wide open fell with the sun on your back as the Herdys nonchalantly watch you labour past has a magic that is hard to beat. I totally understand why people fall in love with the place so quickly.
So what’s the problem Jack? Well let me try and explain. Let's look at my confession again. I said I don’t like GOING to The Lake District not BEING in The Lake District. Anyone who has ‘Tuned in’ to my earlier blogs will maybe remember we live in Warwick, about 30 minutes south of Birmingham and on a good run 3.5 hours away from that sketchy burger. After giving it a lot of thought I know in my heart that it's the journey and the logistics of getting to The Lakes that drain me, not so much the time spent being there. I wish we had terrain like the lakes on our doorstep. I look at guys like Zach Miller and Jim Walmsley training out of Flagstaff and Pike’s Peak and it's easy to see how they train so well with such a trail running playground in their backyards. I guess living in that ‘Big Country’ they might argue that 3.5 hours isn't that bad a run to be somewhere so beautiful, and in a way they’d be right, but it’s not only the drive.
The other element that can sometimes get to me a little about our sorties up north is the factoring in of my other team members. We're ‘A Three’ my beautiful little family and I, two of whom get a massive hit out of running a long way in the mountains and 1 of whom who would happily stay in his/her underpants all day watching YouTube videos of annoying American girls making slime… I’ll let you muse over who’s who.
OK for arguments sake let's say that the under-painted YouTuber is Flo. Now this is not to say that Flo won’t immerse herself in a good walk, she will. She’s great at mucking in once you get her engaged. I’ve been really proud of her on occasion as she’s kept on trucking round a park run or stuck with a 5 miler with her little mate without even really knowing she’s doing it.
That said the kind of days that Bee has needed (and potentially I might need for UTMB) aren't always going to be the place for a 7 year old slime expert from Warwick, and as much as she’s a great kid it's easy for it to feel like folly as the cold rain bounces off her little head for the 3rd time in a day. I always vowed not to be ‘that dad’ who dragged his child through something they weren't enjoying when actually it was clearly about the dad not the child. I adore being with Flo, and wandering about in the foothills of the lakes with some sarnies laughing at the shaggy sheep is a wonderful way to spend time, but I’m also keenly aware of how quickly things can change up there so for now until she expresses a real interest in big days I will er on the side of caution till she's a bit bigger.
So, this can be a bit of a patchwork quilt kinda weekend for us as Bee bangs out a big session whilst Flo and I hang out in the fancy outdoor shops trying on silly hats and failing to disguise our genuine shock at how much mountain bikes cost, only for Bee to come ripping down Ambleside High Street and ‘tag’ me so I can go off and play. I realise this is a huge 1st world problem, and if I’m honest not even problem at all. Just something that needs a little bit of working out, but I can’t help thinking there must be another way. As much as those beautiful hills are the best UTMB playground in the UK there's no getting away from that journey.
I’m going to need some help. So with that in mind I have started making a few phone calls.
Cue Jack Special... A flight of fancy reminisce... bare with me.
When I was a kid in Warwick there used to be a group of lads that I'd noticed seemed to meet early on a Sunday Morning. From what I could make out they used to swim in the local pool by the castle, then come bursting out of the foyer in their Speedos, jump straight on their awaiting bikes whilst donning no more gear than a huge pair of Oakley Factory Pilot sunglasses (Which incidentally I would have died for at the time) and go and tear chunks out of each-other around the Cotswolds for a few hours. They would then return to the park, pull their trainers on (still in their pants) and spin the local dog walkers like tops destroying each-other again on a run. To me they had an almost mystical aura around them in their (wait for it!) bright pink team kit! I ask you to note that this was 1989! and I was fully committed to the endurance sport of irritating my parents and trying to get Tracy Salmon to notice me. The idea of training at the level these fellas seemed to be at felt otherworldly to me.
I guess I didn’t really appreciate it at the time but these guys were...
Now I know there are a lot of Triathletes around these days, but once again this was 1989 and as hard as it is nowadays to imagine our Sunday morning roads without the Lycra, in 1989 these guys may as well have have been from Mars! Cue 16 year old confused swooning. I couldn’t imagine anything more terrifying than actually trying to talk to one of them (although I’m sure they would have been lovely) I was totally in awe. Looking back now they probably played quite a big part in me starting down the Cycling/ Athletics road.
So Fast forward 30 Years (Flipping Heck I’m old!) and I’m scanning through an article on ultra running by a guy called Andy Mouncey who seems to run a coaching company. ‘I know that name!’ A quick Google confirms Andy was indeed one of those pink kit monsters that made my knees go weak all those years ago. Well I’m a big boy now, So, still mildly terrified I give Andy a call and after a quick reminisce and name drop, before I know it I’ve got a coach and Andy has agreed to help me with my UTMB campaign.
Now I have always been a bit sceptical about coaches, or should I say, guys like ME having coaches.
That could be born out of a couple of things.
- Does it smack of taking it too seriously? It’s meant to be fun right?
- Is a coach for the REAL boys and girls? For the guys that really know what they're doing?
A slightly more long in the tooth ME sits quietly thinking about it and it seems now, with the races I seem to find myself pursuing that maybe I am exactly the kind of guy who should be picking up the phone to a coach.
‘What you did it all off the top of your head Jack? without taking any advice?’ Nice One Genius!!?
These races are enormous, and to have the expertise of a guy like Andy who has finished UTMB and the Arch to Arc (google it) can only help surely?
Now ‘Buddy Dan’ from Blog 4 has told me I’m not allowed to keep playing the bumbling Half-wit card in these blogs and I have to let you all know that I’m a seasoned Ultra-runner. So, as clumsy as it feels, I will admit to having done a fair bit of Long stuff over the years. That said though UTMB feels different somehow. Like some kind of Duracell Bunny I do seem to be able to finish 100 mile races through a blend of fitness and bloody mindedness. It does however feel like there could be some very real factors within UTMB that could drain those batteries. One factor at a time and I reckon the experience Dan kindly nods to could see me through, but an icy wet and cold bucket full of factors thrown in my face all at the same time and I’m starting to think preparation and taking good advice could be my only hope this time.
It goes without saying That Andy was fantastic on the phone. He put me at ease almost immediately with his calm ‘If you want it, you can do it’ Northern twang. I’m not sure if it's what you learn at ‘Coaching School’ but Andy wasn’t fazed for a second by my reticence to drive to the lakes every week to go running, On the contrary, he seemed to understand completely. It almost felt like I was to put running out of mind for a while with a kind of ‘we know you can run Jack’ take on things.
I wrote page after page of scribbled notes throughout that first phone call but I think the statement below that Andy handed to me almost not knowing it was my favourite little takeaway.
- YOU CAN’T FIRE A CANNON FROM A CANOE JACK. Now I’m guessing UTMB is the cannon? Which makes me the canoe? I’m not sure, but this of course is a reference to what Andy calls chassis building or strength and conditioning.
Amongst a lot of other bits of ‘Homework’ and test sessions (I’m paying the man right!? I’m not going to tell you everything. That Northern calm on the end of the phone simply said I should fill a rucksack full of sand or bricks, get a box that is strong enough to take my weight (and the weight of said sand/bricks) put it all in the garden and call him at 20:00. I packed up my little pile of kit, called Andy and before you know it I’m in the back garden listening to an old Stevie Wonder Album on my headphones wearing nothing but shorts, work-boots and a rucksack full of sandy bricks. I'm stepping up and down off a wooden crate whilst our lovely but clearly concerned 86 year old neighbour Peter twitches his curtains no doubt wondering whether to call the police or discreetly alert a mental health care team.
I said at the very start of these blogs that I had some reasons for writing them. We all know that getting into UTMB was the primary one. I also mentioned that I genuinely hoped I could maybe help someone along the way. Now only because Buddy Dan has told me to be more confident, maybe I could close with some advice.
I sat here this time last month feeling a genuine sickness in my stomach from not having a clue where to start training for the biggest mountain race in the world. That sickness is still there, but it’s now tinged with an excitement that there’s someone ‘In my corner’ Someone that I’m accountable to, and that I trust to be helpful and calm when it’s all getting a bit much.
That feels really good.
The great Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (A.K.A. Wikipedia) once said That a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step… I just wanted to let anyone struggling for mojo or a foot in the door to their big challenge (whether that be 107 miles in the mountains or your first 5k) that journeys can start with a phone call just as much as a step.
And whilst I'm hammering the quotes
In the words of the young boy from The Boy, the mole, the fox and the horse by Charles Mackesy (check it out, it's a beautiful book)
"What's the bravest thing you've ever said?" Asked the boy
"help", said the horse.
Make the call you’ll be glad you did.
So I’m going to leave you now and go and pop my rucksack and work-boots on. I’ll be at the bottom of the garden if anybody needs me. It's not the DAY ONE I expected for my UTMB campaign but I trust Andy and I’m really happy to have started my plan for the 2021 UTMB
Anyone watched the news lately?
Take care everybody.