Feature: Mark Bullock
How an amateur 20mi/week plodder trained for an elite level SkyRace on just 3 runs a week – and you could too.
What the blue blazes is a SkyRace first of all? Well yes, let’s address that. What’s the difference between trail running, fell running, mountain running and sky running? Everyone will have their own definitions of each and none of them will be wrong, but Sky-running is the current tip of the pyramid in terms of extreme terrain. The idea being that the runner traverses airy mountain ridgelines ‘touching the sky’. There’s a Sky-Running world series of events, and these tend towards being arduous, with lots of elevation, technical exposed terrain, and a high calibre of international standard competitors.
But, they do look amazingly inspiring. That was certainly the hook for me. I saw a YouTube video of SkyRunners on an outrageously exposed ridgeline – part of the Tromso SkyRace, designed by mountain running legends Kilian Jornet and Emelie Forsberg – and was instantly smitten. I want to do that! Months later, after I’d put the date in my calendar for when entry applications went live, I found myself on the website making my registration. I’d heard a rumour they’d had 20,000 applications for last years race, with only 200 spaces available. There was even a facebook page dedicated to the application process itself. Sure enough, the website crashed temporarily under the overwhelming traffic, but on my second attempt, a jaw-dropping surprise: “Congratulations Mr Bullock, your entry is confirmed!” The immediate excitement was followed swiftly by immediate panic. A quick glance at the route profile was disconcerting, to say the least. I’d naively anticipated a route as technically challenging as this (sections of exposed scrambling up to English climbing grade ‘V Diff’) to be an up and back blast from the nearest trailhead. Instead, it was a 37-mile round trip, an Ultra with the siren-call ridge being 17 not-exactly-flat miles from the start, and having to negotiate 3 testing cut off points to progress that far. I’d better start training then.
As luck would have it, a good friend of mine had also applied and also been successful (entering the ‘Elite’ category as a brand supported runner), so we’d agreed to travel together, and I asked to pick his brains for a training plan.
Now. Before we go any further I think it’s important, without being falsely humble, to reiterate that I am an average runner at best. A climber who runs, really. I have been doing my own thing, staying fit, pottering about at no great pace, for years. I know from using Strava that my average weekly mileage is around the 20-25mile mark. I’m also – [cringe] – in my early 40’s and pretensions of being an elite level athlete died for me a long time ago. But I do have a decent level of fitness from which to build and was hoping that with Brennan’s programme, and 4 months of dedication, I could maybe muster enough gains to sneak through some of those cutoff points.
The first thing I noticed was the reassuring lack of volume. He’d prioritised quality over quantity, and been really specific about the sessions needed. Hills, obviously. Long runs, obviously. Supplementing those with basic strength & conditioning exercises and yoga for stretching purposes – these workouts would help me avoid injury. Each month had a weekly ‘build’ of increasing reps, sets, distance or duration for the first 3 weeks, and then dropping the intensity on the 4th ‘recovery’ week. The routine would change month by month as well (for example, June had no hills, instead, a speed focus).
I should also say that in a previous life I have an Exercise Science degree. I feel like I have a good grounding in fitness training and a decent level of knowledge to create my own programme, but if you’ve got a sponsored athlete for a mate, surely it would be churlish not to use them?!
So, 3 runs a week. Plus yoga, plus Strength & Conditioning, once a week each; and if there was the spare energy or time, then a standard 10k steady run, would supplement the overall miles in the bank.
I applied myself religiously, and the first thing that happened was that I felt amazing. After a couple of weeks, I felt leaner, quicker, stronger, and more confident. This is great! After 3-4 weeks I felt utterly goosed! Peaks and troughs of training: If you don’t go through that Valley of Fatigue, you can’t have a higher peak when you emerge from the other side of it. May was the same but even more pronounced. Higher highs and lower lows. My end of month treat (an attempt on my Snowdon Horseshoe PB), was woefully unsuccessful on account of just being in a state of torpor. Utterly, utterly exhausted. The jump from 25mi/week to 40mi/week was only part of the reason for this. It felt like the intensity (whereas I was just loping around the country lanes and trails of Devon before, now I was blasting out 10 sets of hill reps that left me dry heaving at the top of each one) was as much, if not more the reason behind this, as volume. Each individual session I attacked with vehemence. But I was learning all the time, tinkering with nutrition, warm-ups, and the end of May slump was a lesson in what to do when the race taper came around.
In June it was a relief to focus on flat speed. Tempo’s and Intervals felt far removed from what I would need in Tromso, but I trusted Brennan’s programme and made some encouraging gains in 4-5 weeks. My 10k tempo time dropped by over 5 minutes from week 1 to week 4. Then in July, it was back to Hill Reps, and new sessions ‘Pyramids of Doom’ and ‘Kenyan Hills’. Brennan had already told me: “they’re hard. They’re the finishers”. There wasn’t as much Doom in the pyramids as I feared, but Kenyan Hills?! Saints preserve us I wouldn’t wish that session on an enemy. Insanely hard. When you talk to runners they roll out terminology like Intervals, Fartlek, Tempo and so on, but in my 25 years of running, I had never heard of Kenyan Hills before. The reason for that can only be that no one does it more than once and then writes it off forever. Never, ever, doing that again. You might think you’re trying hard. You’re not trying hard. Go and do a proper Kenyan Hills circuit and see how you feel. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
As Taper came thankfully onto the radar, I got a couple of twinges. Hip adductor and Achilles gripes meant I played the balancing act between rest and repair versus not losing what fitness I’d accrued. I basically started tapering about a week earlier than planned and kept myself ticking over with an ad hoc ‘every other day’ drop in intensity and volume.
As we flew to Norway the niggles were still there so I resorted to what I call ‘Vitamin I’ (Ibuprofen) to get me through race day. Registration was a nerve-wracking affair, gawping at the amount of elite international runners in the field, and even the everyday folk seemed to ‘look’ intimidatingly good. Feeling like an inferior middle-aged plodder who was way out of his depth, I tried to take confidence from the training I had done. But the numbers were a bit bewildering and I really didn’t know how they’d add up: 37 miles, 4800 metres of elevation gain, last years winner had taken just over 7 hours. The first cut off on Tromsdalstinden was at 3 hours, but that was only 6-7 miles distance covered. Two miles an hour?! Surely I can do that?! I’d done 9 at one stage in my training! The truth was, I just didn’t know. Thirty miles on the South West Coast Path was taking me around 6 hours, but that was with only one-third of this elevation gain, and who knew how much easier that path was than this trackless mountain route. I was fairly sure a DNF was on the cards, and my main goal was to make it as far as the ridge that had first attracted me to enter.
I set off feeling good, running gently and loosely through the town to the first steep incline and then set about the first uphill walk. Steep, sweat-inducing, a conversation killer, but once at the top, I ran again, feeling like I was placed about midway in the field. Some great fun easy and fast miles followed weaving along a broad ridge and downhill through some mountain bike switchbacks. Then a long slog up to Tromsdalstinden summit and the first cut off. Half an hour to spare! Brilliant!
The top had not arrived a moment too soon. Calves were cramping, and that made the downwards gradient change very welcome. Until cramp moved to my quads and my knee-caps threatened to escape through the front door. This was seriously steep, wet, forest trails that I was having to hang on to tree branches and exposed rocks in a sort of controlled falling technique. The atmosphere was Tolkienesque and wondrous, but this wasn’t really running. After another hour or so of adventurous questing, the flat valley floor enabled better progress through eerie woods and my arrival at the 5-hour checkpoint was a scarcely believable 75 minutes ahead of cut-off schedule. I spent 15 of those precious minutes gained troughing through the chorizo, cheese, and dark chocolate at the aid station. Volunteers started to laugh on my third time ‘back around’. Four hours for 14 miles is still significantly slower than my coast path times though, and I set my exhausted stall out to use the time gained to cruise up to the 6-hour checkpoint which might allow me access to my Valhalla: The infamous Hamperokken ridge. As the forest trail kicked back, getting steeper, rounded a corner, then grew steeper still, I let out an uncouth but wholly justified “Holy sh*t!”, runners with poles (envy) turned and smiled in solidarity. For mere mortals, this was unrunnable. My local Hill Reps were suddenly completely laughable. This was perma-steep as far as the eye could see, disappearing into the cloud, with occasional glimpses of yet higher false summits. This was a hands-on-knees siege that was a victory for sheer stubbornness. Occasionally I’d pause to rest my trembling legs, looking round to see other runners simply turning around in the line and heading back down, heads bowed. By now I was getting cold too, I applied all my layers (race ‘sleeves’, a windshirt – hood up, and gloves), and I was still shivering, but consoled myself that I’d be tagging the top and then heading to immediately lower, more sheltered elevations. Despite being totally spent, the ridge was now so tantalisingly close that I forced myself up to the cut-off check-point. I’d trained hard for 4 months and run 17 bonkers miles against the clock to get here. There was no way I’d make a meek retreat at this stage.
Cow-bells and beaming faced volunteers greeted me and said “well done!” I lingered here. Half an hour spare was a huge relief that had been 4 months in the making. I’d taken an hour and a half to do a one hour climb and no longer had any other gears or reserves to draw from. But the training had paid off and I could really enjoy this mountain now. I made up my mind to wallow in its exposure, take photographs, chat to runners, thank volunteers and wasn’t that worried about the prospect of making or missing the 8 hour cut off (which would be touch and go now anyway).
Immediately, a runner cramped up badly, right in front of me, dangerously close to enormous drops, and I helped her stretch it out, and gave her some salt tablets. Lingering long enough to learn her name and spot her across some exposed sections until she was recovered, I began moving on only to find another guy in trouble: Lying totally prostrate clutching his hamstring, I applied the same treatment. The strong looking Brazilian made a swift recovery and flew past me on the descent yelling “it is totally gone! I will never forget you man!” as he sped by. The tippy top was outrageous. Fixed ropes used by the more nervous runners added to the feeling of extreme exposure, but my climbing background meant suddenly I was one of the more competent on this terrain.
From the early quietness and nerves amongst the runners, there was now noticeably more smiling, chatter and camaraderie. I wasn’t the only one who’d come so far and worked so hard for this. Brazilians, French, Canadians, Kiwi’s, what a wonderful atmosphere was created in this testing mountainscape.
Descending what was supposed to be a fast snow gully to a glacial lake, a complete lack of snow had made this section loose and interminable. A Japanese guy slipped and sent 3 or 4 TV sized rocks my way – “ROCK!” he yelled, and I scampered urgently into the shelter of a nearby boulder to turn and watch them thudding by with alarm. Big! I had to walk even the horizontal ‘track’ through the moraine boulders by the lake, snow cover would have been a huge boon here. How the elite level runners had skipped through this section at race pace on wet quartz boulders was a miracle to me. A testament to their skill, dexterity, coordination and confidence. No amount of intervals or tempo’s would have helped me here, only much more time spent in the mountains.
I looked at my watch: Eight hours had passed. It was over, I would be stopped at the check-point. Honestly, though, I was relieved. If I’d pushed desperately hard up and over Hamperokken I would have made it. If I hadn’t stopped to help or chat I would have snuck through. But honestly, looking across the huge glaciated valley at the imposing bulk of Tromsdalstinden and the prospect of slogging back up through those Mordor Forests … if I’d buried myself to make the 8-hour cut, what did that win me? Seven more hours of heinous struggle to get home? I didn’t want it that bad. I’d got what I came for and had dared to live the dream for a while. At the aid station, the atmosphere amongst the other cut-off-stopped runners was really upbeat. The chorizo and cheese banquet was still in full flow and people were genuinely happy to be getting the coach back to Tromso. High 5’s all around and a few hugs from the assorted cosmopolitan nutcases who’d all relished their niche passion for a few heady hours. It might have only been 8 hours, but for some, it felt like a lot of sh*t had gone down in that time!
Back at our Air BnB the post-mortem began. I swapped tales with Brennan (14th male! Astonishing!) about the terrain, and reassuringly he’d found it very challenging as well. I found it hard to comprehend racing hard for that duration on the ground that brutal. So much respect for the elite guys and girls who are able to run on those boulders, up those climbs, or through those hanging forests. It was incredibly inspirational to see at first hand. And in conclusion, that’s my ‘take away’: I’m quietly proud that an average middle-aged bumbly can – with a great programme and more than a smidge of dedication – manage to hold my own for three-quarters of an elite level World Series SkyRace. That’s been nearly half a years running motivation for me, a wonderful goal to shoot for, and even though I DNF’d, I still feel it was a personal mission accomplished. It could be for you too, so if you’re inspired by them, go for it I say, aim for the sky.
Mark Bullock is still a climber that runs and eats to an elite standard at aid stations.
Brennan Townshend is an elite level mountain runner who is available for coaching and bespoke training plan design here.