Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Exploring the paths less taken

During my final week in Spain I tackled a couple of longer runs, exploring my own ability to handle the heat of the day and my navigation skills and when these failed me on my last run I had to resort to developing my off trail skills as well.  Turns out Spain has just as many biting insects as Scotland too - perfect training for this weekends Devil O'Highlands then!

Early morning run to the mountain platau

My first adventure I took a path into the mountains north of Rotova, the neighbouring village to Alfuir, our base for the holiday.  
Sunrise, heading out of Rotova, wasn't quite as dark as this to the human eye...
 The path initially was well sign posted with marking on rocks and the occasional sign post standing at key junctions points.  Further into the run the paths were often hard to see though, the paths tended to be the same rocky terrain as the rest of the mountain but with the undergrowth parted a little.  Spotting path markings painted on the larger rocks was crucial to making sure I was still on the right track that took me all the way to the summit.

Heading up stony path, just occasionally I'd mis-step and wish for a rock plate in the F-Lite's.

After half an hour of follow a narrow stony path the great vista of the valleys bellow unfolded.

Looking south over the canyons and valleys all the way to the regions highest mountain La Safor on the horizon.

Looking back towards Alfuir

As I neared the summit I oast a cliff that echoed earily with a bird colony  that must have been settled on the cliff

At the summit, nice to see summit Cairns aren't just a Scottish tradition.

After the summit I headed down one of the spines that spread out from the summit, the return path was less clear than the one up, or perhaps it's just moving faster downhill gives you less time to spot little differences in the scrub for whether the path meanders

Look SHADE!  One very lonely tree  on the top of the mountain
After following the path down along the spine it then fell off the side of the steeply down into the canyon below.

Dropping down into the Canyon, vegetation and ample morning shade enveloped me.
Dropping down into the canyon brought new character to the run, lush and cool.

 As I descend down the Canyon the path grew wider and clearly more well used, with occasional signs explaining the geology, plant life and the route through.

At the bottom of the canyon and on the outskirts of Rotova looking back towards the mountain top where I had descend from.
It seemed like I had been out in the wilderness alone for hours and then suddenly I popped out onto Cami road that took my into Rotova village and then a half mile more back to Alfuir.  In reality I had only been out for 1:47 and had gone 7 miles with 3000ft ascent/descent, but it felt far further such was the varied character of the run.

Afternoon run across ridge and the neighbouring valley

A couple of days later I headed out at 3 O'clock in the afternoon deliberately to challenge my body to see how it would cope in the hottest part of the day (33-35 degrees C).  The previous day I had done a short tempo run in the afternoon and coped well so was confident that I wouldn't over heat as long as I didn't dehydrate.  I hadn't taken my running rucksack with me on holiday so had no easy way to carry water so instead I just took some euro's with the plan of running to the next village over the mountain ridge to the south east, here if needed I could by some water before making my way home.  

Half an hour in, just crested the ridging and heading down a track towards the village just visible near centre of picture.
To avoid using too much water I kept my pace down, using my HR monitor to guage my effort level. This worked well - if I kept my HR below 160, comfortably below my lactate threshold HR of 175, then I could easily keep cool with modest sweating.  I found any time I raised my effort level and my HR went above 160 I could tell my body heat generation was out of step with cooling, I knew it would equalize if I kept working harder but only by sweating lots more - as I proved on my tempo run, but for this run it was all about conserving my bodies water so spotting these little signs was important.

Once out from the woodland on the ridge the track widened and I was rewarded with views of the local ridges and the orange groves in the valley below.  

Descent to valley bottom
The temperature also rose substantially as I descend into the still air in the valley below, particularly once I got down to the tarmac Cami roads that backed in the heat of the day, radiating their heat back to me.  The heat didn't affect me unduly though, I just sweated more and my temperature kept stable and comfortable.  After 50 minutes I arrived at the village of Ador.  This village spreads from the valley bottom up the hillside with streets somehow clinging to hills that look too steep to build upon - spectacular to run through. I still felt comfortable, no signs of hydration so I followed the road around to next village of Parma de Gandia and rather than pop in for a drink followed a Cami road back up the hill towards home.

View looking east back down towards Parma de Gandia and Ador, and out towards the coast on the horizon.
 I left the village behind and headed up a track towards the quarry that I had visited in morning run the previous week so I was finally back in familiar territory. 

Out away from civilization once more I took off my T-Shirt to keep cool not expecting to see anyone for another twenty minutes, but as soon as I came round the next corner there was two women sat in the shade, with them they had an huge dog that decided that I was a threat and bounded towards making lots of noise. Thankfully the women were on the ball pretty quick and the dog responded to commands to return to them.  I padded gently past them heading up the hill, while I was going no faster uphill my HR monitor reading had shot up from below 160 to above 170 and took another few minutes to return to normal, clearly the incident with the dog provided a great stimulus for my adrenalin levels!

Once through the quarry I was back in shade and heading downhill and then back along the local Cami roads through the orange graves to Alfuir.  On arriving in Alfuir I passed a group of old men in the shade who were all socializing and taking easy, not sure what they made of this pasty faced brit out running during the middle of the afternoon.  This run was only 1:17 but again it felt longer, a small little adventure taking in new routes and scoping out just what it's like to be heat adapted.  While I never felt thirsty on the run but on my return drank a couple pints of water.   What I did find encouraging was I never struggled to cool my body during or after the runs - my body just seemed to know how to keep things in equilibrium as long as I was hydrated and able to evaporate the sweat from my body.

Final long run, that ended up being a bit more epic than panned

All holiday I had my eye on how to get to the top of one of the higher local ridges, it had sat there majestic and undiscovered.  I had wanted to find a direct route up but none of the maps we had included paths for the ridge but from googlemaps satellite imagery I knew there were tracks along it's flanks and what looked to be a path along the ridge to the summit and back to Valley local to Alfuir.  

With one day left, my legs strong from the running every day, my forefoot better than it's felt in months and my body adapted to heat I just had to take the opportunity.  I was up at sunrise and raring to go.  I drank half a litre of water, left a note detailing the route and suggesting it would take me around 2hrs and slipped out on my final adventure.

Tranquility of dawn, alone on track 40 minutes out.
I decide to do a loop going out on the larger tracks that went beyond the summit, then go back up and and along the ridge towards the summit, where a summit path heads off the track and up to the summit and then down the other side and back in the Valley.  If I couldn't find the paths then I could always back track.

Attempt at a panoramic, the bright light causes the phone's stitching software a few problems though, still great view though.
 Once I had got to the furthest point I now headed back towards Alfuir but up the hill, with the track cutting diagnoally up the towards the top of the ridge.  The extra height provided great views over the valley towards Rotova and the ridges and canyons where I ran earlier in the week - detail in the first entry above.

View north towards Rotova and place on my previous mountain run.
Once the track got to the ridge top it went over the top and dropped down the other side, but rather than follow it towards the south side of the ridge I turned left and follow a path that headed directly along the ridge towards the summit.  This path was sign posted for the summit so I was confident that it would take me all the way. Initially the path started out easy to follow, albeit at a slow pace due to it being very rocky, little paint markers and small cairns along the path helped me spot it's route.  After about a mile along the path I reached a singpost with two path choices one back down into the valley on the north side of the ridge, back to track where I had come from and one path heading along the ridge towards the summit.  I had come this far so it was an easy choice - to the summit I went.

Except the path clearly was less used now and became harder and harder to follow.  It was basically just rocks and scrub and an occasional slightly clearer bit.  I no longer could spot any paint markers or cairns but now was within half a mile of the summit.  I tried using my phone's googlemap imagery and my GPS location to help hint where the path might be/have been but the bright sunshine swamped the display and made the small faint details unreadable.  In the end I ended up just judging my own best way up to the summit, this meant moving slowly through the scrub that scratched at my legs.  I had been enjoying the adventure but after the hundredth scratch I found myself cursing the hidden twigs and thorns that seem to catch me no matter how carefully I moved.

Finally I got to the summit at 2500ft and was rewarded with great views, all those scraps melted away as I soaked up the sunshine and great vista's.

View from Summit south east towards La Safor.

Summit cairn, looking east along the ridge and the direction where my intended path should be
View from summit looking north east towards Alfuir
I had now been out for 1hr 40 minutes and new I was going to be late back so I texted to day I'd be half an hour late, giving myself 50 minutes to get the last four or so miles home - all downhill, half on good Cami roads I figured I could do it. So off I headed, and initially from the summit I found bits of path that took me down to the track the went along the south side of the ridge.  I joined this breifly before following a sign on rock that pointed along a path.  This path matched up with one I had spotted on googlemaps imagery so was confident that it would take me back home.

This confidence was shaken about 50 meters into following this path as it disappeared into scrub.  I found it again by heading in the direction I knew it would be heading. Once I got back to the path I followed it down to junction, with only one route signposted to a font.  This route was headed to into the Valley I wanted so I followed it.  This route took me down below a cliff edge but initially it was easy to follow so off I went with assumption if the locals use it then it would be good enough for nibble runner like me!

Once I had got round the front face of the cliff the nice bit of path disappeared into the bush.  I back tracked but still couldn't find it.  I tried to spot the path on my phone's imagery but the sunlight swamped the subtle lines of the paths, so I pulled my T-Shirt over my head to try and get a better look. I gave up after a minute and decided the easiest to traverse down to old orange grove a little down and back along the ridge, this grove had a track to it which I could follow back down the valley.  On pulling my head out from my T-Shirt impromptu sun shelter I saw a mass of flies on my right calf, they were all biting after my blood so I swiped/splattered them away and my calf was left dripping blood as they chemicals the flies had injected to get prevent my blood from clotting was working great.  Ohh the joy!

There was in theory a path down somewhere but I could find it so had to just make my way through through the bush.  I put the crappy flies behind me and focused on picking a safe route down to the Orange grove, away from published paths and off my previously specified route I really didn't want to risk injuring myself.  The ridge was covered with 5ft high bushes/trees that had previously perished in hill fires and were spiky and black with charcoal.  While it was pretty unpleasant 10 minutes traversing through the burnt scrub it did at least get me down from the ridge and to an orange grove and at some hint of civilization.

Looking back from the orange grove towards the cliff I had traversed from.
I say hint of civilization, it turned out it was a rather historical hint as all the grove hadn't been touched for many years and was over grown and little easier to move through than the scrub.  To add to joy I found a bramble to remind me of home and leave a nice cut line across my shin too.

Found the elusive track below the disused orange grove, now looking back up towards the ridge I had descend from.

I had been following broken paths and going through the scrub for an 1hour and quarter but had travelled only 2 miles, and was now 2 1/2 hours into my adventure.   I dispatched a quick text to say I'd be half an hour more, this time I was back on familiar tracks and near to tarmac'd Cami roads and while bitten, batted and cut I was still feeling strong, and raced all the way home.  The last two miles on the Cami roads I putting in sub 7 minute miles.  After 3 hours and 1 minute I was back in the house at Alfuir, an hour late and rather a picture on one had been through an epic run.

After so many pretty pictures, here's a few spoilers!  Turn away now if you like your running blogs sanitized!

Legs and F-Lite's fully christed into full on off trail running.
Alive, so of course I'm happy!
After I had cleaned up and had a big brunch I was ready for the day, well almost, I really struggled to get on my right shoe... my lower calf and right ankle had begun to swell up in response to all the insect bites.  I counted 16 individual bites on my right calf but only a couple on my left.  Strange that... still I'd rather have just one swollen ankle...

Unfortunately I had to return the next day, this meant an hour and half drive in the car to the Alicante Airport with an ankle that was getting progressive more swollen and then a flight back to the UK, and then a four and half hour drive home to home from Manchester airport.

My ankle remain inflamed for the next four days so while I otherwise fit and raring to get back to training on my return I had to take it easy.  I had planned to do a 4 hour final training run as my final long run before the Devil O'Highlands race but had to abandon this as my recovery from the inflammation took too long.  Ahhh those pesky flies, seem to be a cross bred between clegs and midges - bite like clegs, swarm like midges.

Still I wouldn't missed the adventure and the memories and learning something new about how amazing the human body can be at handling the heat.


  1. You third run was certainly epic. It is impressive that you were able to conserve body water content so well in the heat. Did you weigh yourself before and after? On comparable runs in arid country I usually lose several Kg in weight. Nowadays I carry a Camelbak, though it is difficult, and perhaps undesirable, to achieve full replacement of fluid as the body adopts its own strategies to maintain electrolyte balance.

    Good luck with the Devil

    1. We didn't have any scales at the house in Spain so I never got to check my weight loss.

      All I can say is that I never struggled with the heat and never felt any significant signs of dehydration. I don't think my body was conserving water though - when needed I clearly was sweating a great deal to get rid of heat I was producing. I do believe the strategy of keeping comfortably aerobic all the time on the longer runs helped avoid any big diversions in my core body temperature and avoided any big shifts in my sweating patterns. So my adaptation to conserving body water was a conscious management one rather than physiological adaptation.

      The physiological adaptations that I saw were the ability to sweat significantly more, enough to match heat production even during a tempo run at hottest time or day, and the adaptation of my to reduce salt losses when sweating. I suspect the later adaptation meant that my blood chemistry stayed pretty stable even though I will have been steadily dehydrating due to sweat.

      The approach I have try to take it smooth out the physical loads on my body so that it can stay around a comfortable equilibrium. Tomorrow during the Devil I will try and do the same, although tomorrow it will be more about conserving muscle fatigue/damage, conserving glycogen stores in my muscles and liver, keeping my digestion ticking over with a modest but consistent food and fluid intake. I'll be using my HR monitor to help catch times when I drift to too high level of effort. Based on my average HR during different race distances I believe a average HR of around 158 to 149 is probably a reasonable target.

      If I can keep my effort level consistent then I'll avoid dipping disproportionally into my glycogen stores and the oxidative stress that this will incur. Together this should help keep my in better shape for the last 15 miles which will be the toughest.