When a fen runner met the Alps

Mozart 100

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Road specialist Stuart Haw's journey from flat Peterborough to the hilly Mozart 100

If you study the local maps carefully and understand contouring, it is possible, with a fair amount of planning, to run hills in Peterborough. True, to the naked eye, the city may appear to be pancake flat but if you look carefully, there’s one – albeit man-made – rise in a local housing estate or perhaps more conveniently the slip roads off the city’s once praised bypass system do offer budding mountain runners the opportunity to run for almost 30 seconds in an upward direction. You could always call it mountainous, as long as you’re prone to exaggeration that is, or live out of town in the even flatter Fens.

But it’s venues like this that would-be mountain runner Stuart Haw has as his only go-to options when it comes to working hard. It’s not for nothing that a local council is named South Holland – eight metres of elevation on a long run is a big climbing day for our flatlands resident. So, it’s no surprise that by his own admission he finds himself better suited to the road (he has a PB of close to 15min for 5km) although only time would tell if his decision to turn that speed into an attempt at racing the Mozart 100 in the Alps would be the right one. “I needed to see for myself why trail running is so life-changing,” he says. “And,” he argued, “if I could do it as a lifelong Fenland resident, then anybody can tackle the mountains.”

 “I’ve always thought of myself as someone who’s fairly suited to road racing,” says Stuart. “I mean, I used to run to school along a main road and after that would do plenty of miles around the cities I have lived in like London, Newcastle and of course, back home in Peterborough. Likewise, my best races have been in road running events. But I wanted a change, a new challenge, something completely unique for me. Really and truly, I’m pleased you helped me discover something so many trail runners take for granted and know all about – the Ultra Trail World Tour.”

What would it take to tackle the Alps? Hills, strength and mental resilience all seemed important, but as the first few training miles started to unwind, common sense also seemed to be a pretty important element. Despite reading that some of the miles would take 20 minutes or longer, initially he scoffed at such a thought. Stuart is, after all, a fast runner who can jog six-minute miling quite easily. In fact, one evening he ran a 15-mile paced run on the grass that surrounds the running track (a clue as to how hilly that run was) at 5min 45sec per mile. Good.

“I’ll take the first part easy, and jog at six-minute mile pace,” he said with an air of authority in the final days before the event. His training had gone well; he was in shape. Six-minute miles? This is the Alps. Six-minute kilometres would be nothing short of miraculous.

“I have run loads of cross-country races, including the National (seven miles, a bit hilly) and the Southerns (nine miles, rolling), so I feel I have what it takes in terms of handling tricky terrain,” he argued, eventually agreeing that “the  inclines will challenge me the most.” Note he used the word ‘inclines’ rather than ‘cliffs’...

“Anyway, I have based myself in Newcastle for the past two years. Newcastle boasts some fantastic spots for running, and unlike the routes I had previously worn out, these included some rather hilly sections,” he continued, waving his hand in the air to emphasise the giants he has conquered on a daily basis up north.

“I spent the first few months of 2021 training around the hills of Exhibition Park and Town Moor in the city. While these parks do not boast dizzying altitudes, there is a gradual 1km climb following by a 100m 45-degree climb. So, intervals run as loops around this terrain can serve as fairly challenging trail training! I took inspiration from the interval training that I had been doing when training on the roads and mixed this into a longer run. For example, to prepare myself, by gradually increasing the distance, and being able to run around 50km, I would run one hour of tempo around the steepest part of this park (Cows Hill), then refuel before running another hour of intervals, broken up in different ways each week.

“Training in this way required a complete shift in philosophy and methodology, as the objective was no longer speed, it was keeping the engine going for the necessary duration over tough terrain. Therefore, I needed to take on fuel, water and energy in a way which was novel for me.”

“I was able to experiment with Lucho Dillitos initially. These are sugary snacks which are easily and swiftly digested to provide a fast source of energy whilst training. I also tried other natural drinks including Tenzing, and Science in Sport BETA Fuel gels. My reasoning here is that, when you’re racing, often the race organisers provide an array of supplements, so I really wanted to experiment with different ones.

“And actually, I found taking on board these supplements and gels to be a challenge at first. So, I decided to experiment with some longer runs on flatter terrain, where I could push myself to run faster and more accurately replicate how the gel would be consumed in the ultra event. After a few weeks, I became more accustomed to how the gels felt and my body started to respond well to them.”

Stuart didn’t become a fast road runner by accident. He knows the importance of preparation. And, being the organised type, he set about making the most of what he had. “After looking at a few maps, it dawned on me that, frankly, my training was not cutting it. So, I decided to travel across the north east of England and parts of Scotland to immerse myself in more appropriate training conditions,” he explains.

“Firstly, I travelled along the Northumberland coastline, visiting a new destination each weekend of spring 2021. I ran trails in Seaham, Alnmouth, Tynmouth, Angerton, and Berwick. This was as much to continue my spirit of adventure as training. Travelling to these places meant I could experiment with longer, slower runs and ensure I experience the climbs of cliffs and seafronts. Plus, in each location I tried to run 20 miles per day as this was an appropriate distance to cover in preparation for covering a marathon later in the year. This also required further practice of taking on fuel and hydration techniques.”

Training sorted. All Stuart needed to do was tackle the 100… well make that the marathon option; after all, 100 miles for a runner whose last race lasted just over two minutes is quite a stretch.

“Chatting with a group of runners over breakfast, we discussed the course and even talked about what pace we thought we would run – anywhere between six minutes and 10 minutes a mile (we thought) given the 2000m of ascent. Well, that was wrong! The first mile in town was easy enough and I jogged along at seven-minute pace, but as we headed into the mountains the climbs took me by surprise! We instantly dropped to 13-minute miles, and that was at the front end of the race. That said, I settled in around 10th place.

“I reached the first checkpoint in a great place; I knew the pace had levelled out and I found myself being able to run with people who were more suitable. This was largely due to the flatness of this part of the course as we continued around the lake. The sites were truly spectacular! It’s why I took up trail running in the first place.

“Plus, what what I really loved was that, as we continued towards the halfway point, the sense of community was noticeable. Runners felt a duty to help motivate each other, and to encourage one another to maintain their pace. For instance, one of the elite racers from the 106km race who had dropped out due to an injury had, in typical ultra-running style, jogged the route to cheer his compatriots on!

“Miles 14 to 18 were undoubtedly the hardest I’ve ever run. The climbs for this part of the course were steep and unforgiving, and they separated the ultra-trail beginners – me – from the more experienced, who had wisely run the first half of the course at a steadier and more reserved pace. I had to walk.

“From there it was an all-too-familiar blur of runners passing me on both sides and me cursing under my breath ‘never again’. Mostly, though, I got back into a rhythm and even survived the uphill finish (thanks for that) to cross the line a respectable 36th place and seventh junior. And take home with me a new-found respect for mountains.

Pic credit: Jasmin Walter

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