The Great Outdoors Challenge is an annual long-distance backpacking trip across Scotland. It is organised by the TGO magazine, an excellent U.K. publication on walking and backpacking. Entries are limited to around 300 participants, and the goal is to walk from one of several starting points on the west coast of Scotland to the east coast. Participants, or challengers as they call themselves, map their own routes from west to east. There are a number of guidelines, but the only real rule is that you have to walk the entire way.
This year was my second Challenge, and I started at Shiel Bridge, a hamlet on the west coast of Scotland. I pitched my tent at the local campground, and headed to the pub at the hotel. There I met a Scottish/French backpacker who was doing the Cape Wrath trail I believe. I also met Thom Sandberg, whose excellent blog also recounts this year's Challenge.
The next day I headed up Glen Licht.
I fell in with another challenger, Ben, who lives in Baltimore and is a photographer. We separated a bit before the youth hostel in Glen Affric, and then, after a terrific bowl of lentil soup and a roll at the hostel, headed up the Glen together. It was windy, and we pitched in a flat area adjacent to the river. I tried to tuck my tent in behind a little grass mound.
I slept poorly that night. I got to sleep fine, but the wind dropped and so did the temperature. In addition, I worried about ticks (have found one on myself earlier in the evening), and was itchy from midge bites a few days prior (after a hill race). It was well below freezing. I subsequently learned that I could shift the down a bit in my sleeping bag so that it is more on the top of the bag, and where it provides more warmth. I wore a balaclava, but could have used a down hoodie.
The next day I walked along Loch Affric and then Loch Beinn a Mheadoin. I talked with David and Holly, first-timers from Wisconsin, who were doing the Challenge as part of their honeymoon. They ended up taking a different route in the afternoon, and I set up an early wild camp near a river.
I was tired from my broken night, and the arch of my left foot was sore - perhaps from going a bit longer than planned on the preceeding day. A camp on my own allowed me to have an early night, and snore if I wished.
The next day I was on the road early, and stopped for a coffee at the Tomich hotel. After this I decided to stay on the road, as opposed to going through the hills (as I'd intially planned), as it was a long pull to Drumnadrochit.
The road walk featured a large climb nonetheless, but on the other side I regained the Affric/Kintail way. This is a newly signposted route that follows forest tracks. I fell in with Tom and Kerry, friendly and worldly challengers from northern Virginia. We walked together to Drumnadrochit, and I checked in to the hostel there.
After a shower, I went to the grocery store, and then enjoyed a hearty meal in a restaurant in Drumnadrochit. Later, I caught up with Tom and Kerry, and then another couple from Wyoming, Matt and Lindley, at a hotel pub.
This first leg of my Challenge route was about 45 miles all in, and I covered it in three days.
I didn't have high expectations for today's 10k race, but I'd done o.k. in a half marathon a few weeks ago (for which I was a touch undertrained), and my 5k parkruns may have provided a bit of speed, so equally, I had some reason for optimism.
The day was partially cloudy and cool, and there was a slight breeze.
I wore my lighter shoes, socks, shorts, and club vest.
I did a bit of a warm-up with a friend, and then lined up towards the front of the crowd. It was clear that I was in the sub-40 minute crowd, so I slipped a bit backwards in the minutes before the start.
Everyone seemed to go out fast, and I felt that I was running too fast. I looked at my Garmin and it read 6:10 pace. Even if I wanted to run close to a 40 minute race, this was too fast. In the end, mile 1 came in at 6:25.
In mile 2 I could feel myself slowing, but there was also a tailwind, so I tried to keep my legs turning over quickly. 2 came in at 6:43.
In mile 3, a teammate passed me, and I tried to stick on his shoulder. He was running a great pace, but I thought I just see how long I could hang on. At this point we passed a runner who had pulled up, and was massaging his achilles.
At the 5K point, my time was 20:16. I was closing in on my goal of a sub-20 minute 5k...
For mile 4, we turned into the wind. I was now just hanging on. Every time my teammate surged, I closed the gap. 4 was 6:45.
In mile 5 we headed along a road with traffic on the other side. I tried to relax, and let my arms hang loosely for a few seconds. I also tried to smile. I stayed with my teammate, and 5 came in at 6:33.
Now we neared the athletics stadium in which the race would finish. I was feeling o.k., so I slipped in front of my teammate. Up ahead I could see another teammate who I wished to catch. I closed the gap on her, but in the meantime my colleague caught me up and passed me again. 6 was 6:41.
We headed around the back of the stadium, and then onto the track for the final 100m. I sprinted.
My time, now, is a touch unclear. On my watch I was 40:53:99. That hundredth of a second matters, because my previous PB is 40:54.
So let's see what my chip time turns out to be. I would be quite pleased to set a PB at age 50.
But even if it isn't, it was still, for me, a good run. At mile 3 I was just at the point of slowing up a bit, and instead I sped up and raced with my teammate, and this pushed me to do something I've never done before (or, haven't done more than once before!).
Mon.: no running (legs tired from backpacking over the weekend)
Tues.: swim 1300m; run 4 miles
Weds.: run 11.1 miles, second half at tempo
Thurs.: no running
Fri.: run 5 miles on track (1 mile at 6:53)
Sat.: run 5 miles (3.1 of which were Parkrun)
Sun.: run 6 miles on trails
My running has been generally consistent over the past three months, and I've been trying to get in a mid-week long run to prepare for my upcoming half-marathon.
I hadn't has a stab at my 5k for several weeks because of other commitments. I did an easy track session on Friday evening, and thus went into Saturday morning Parkrun accepting that I wouldn't be absolutely fresh.
I met a friend at the start, and kidded him about me following to get under 21 minutes. He said his training hadn't been going well, so that was unlikely.
In the event, he ran well, and although I kept him in view, I couldn't close the gap.
A guy in football clothes passed me repeatedly on the hills, but I caught him back on the descents.
For the final 400m I strided out thinking this would net me a few seconds.
In the end, officially, I finished in 21:00.
I was hoping to dip under the 21 minute mark, and on my watch I'd just done so, but it was a good run nonetheless.
My suspicion is that the longer runs are helping my general fitness, and this is filtering through in my times.
How I can shave another minute off of this time is a big question.
This past weekend my son and I went for a short backpacking trip in the highlands. In the middle of the night I woke to the light rustling of snow hitting the tent.
I won't detail my training the past three weeks, but it has been consistent, and it is starting to bear fruit.
My first good run was my latest attempt at improving my 5k time. At my local Parkrun I went out steady, and then ran hard for the rest of the race. At points I couldn't imagined running any faster than I was. My time was 21:11, the best time 13 months.
The week after I ran a local cross country event. It was bitterly cold, and the race featured a large puddle that runners encountered on each of the three lap event.
But I ran well. I traded places with another member of our club who is stronger than me. He prevailed in the end, but just.
The final good run was a long relay race in the hills. My assignment was a hilly 10k section, and I managed it faster than I'd done in my two previous attempts. Moreover, I felt like I could have run all day.
Mon: run 5.6 miles after driving home from England
Tues: run 9 miles with club
Weds: no running
Thurs: swim 1350m (before pool closed for New Year's Eve)
Fri: run 5 miles
Sat: run 4.5 miles (3.1 of which were a parkrun)
Sun: run 6 miles with club in woods
Hey, 30 miles for the week! Haven't seen that for a while.
My parkrun effort felt good from the start. I didn't go off too fast, but felt strong on the first hill. Along the back flat I kept a fast past. I used the ensuing downhill to stride out. Heartbreak hill, as always, was a challenge, but I ran fast to the base, and survived the climb. On the gradual downhill I again tried to pick up the pace, and maintain it over the last 800m to the finish.
21:23 all in. This was a faster time than any I'd achieved in 2015.
I suppose the days are getting longer, but it doesn't feel that way. At 8 in the morning this week, my front door still benefited from having the light on.
Last week, my lung problems started to return. I tried an easy five mile run on Friday evening, and came home out of breath and coughing. I could not do parkrun on Saturday.
However, this week my lungs improved, likely because the steroid inhaler was doing its thing. Thus, I was able to make a third attempt to improve my 5k time.
Training-wise, the week was mixed in part because of Christmas:
Mon. no running
Tues. run 6.2 miles (Richmond Park, London)
Weds. run 6.7 miles
Thurs. no running
Fri. no running
Sat. run 4.1 miles (1 mile warm-up + parkrun)
Sun. run 4 miles
The parkrun was in England, with my wife and brother-in-law. It featured two laps on tarmac, and then two muddy laps of a large field.
I wasn't really expecting to improve my 5k time on this effort, as I suspected that my lungs were not fully back after last week's decline.
The weather was good, but the mud was slick. My time was 22:22. This was 11 seconds slower than my last effort, though it is difficult to compare because the course was different.
Two positives: I was able to run this week. I finished in 15th place, out of a field of 89.
Earlier in the week we visited the National History Museum in London. My son and I particularly enjoyed the various fossilized sea reptiles mounted on the wall. Earlier this year I'd read about the discovery of these on the England coast in a excellent book entitled The Dinosaur Hunters. It's an account of how early discoveries of large bones, many made be amateur fossil collectors, challenged the views of the Earth's age and biblical accounts of creation.
When snapping this photo, I did not notice the small child who also stood in wonder at these creatures.
But I recovered. For three months after the summer, there were no problems. I was back to running, and racing.
During that time I took a mannitol challenge. This is a test where you inhale increasing concentrations of mannitol (a sugar like substance), until you have difficulty breathing. I inhaled up to the highest concentration without a response. This suggested that my lungs were not overly sensitive, as they are in asthma. Still, the test is not definitive.
All during those three months, I took two puffs of my steroid inhaler in the morning and in the evening. After a while, this seemed unnecessary, but I thought I'd continue until I was told to stop by the consultant. I recorded my peak flow each morning and evening, and these remained in the 500s.
I had a meeting with a lung consultant two weeks ago. I felt that this was probably superfluous, but it had taken a while for this appointment to be scheduled, so I wanted to hear what he had to say.
He asked how I was feeling and I told him I was fine.
He suggested, as I suspected, that I reduce the steroid inhaler dose to one puff in the morning and evening, and then come off of it altogether.
I asked if perhaps it really wasn't asthma, and that I'd just had bad luck with some chest infections.
He thought that was possible, but the pattern of my peak flow reading from my last bad patch looked like the an asthma response. Also, I'd responded well to steroids. Three times.
In any event, I was to see how things went with a lower dose of the inhaler, and then without it.
One puff every morning and evening went fine. Again, no problems.
And then I stopped using the inhaler altogether.
The first sign of a problem came after my track session last week.
We did a warm up, then a hard mile, 2 x 800s, and 3 x 200s on a cold, rainy night.
When I arrived home, I was coughing. My wife noticed.
Still, I felt well. On Friday night I noticed just a slight wheeze during the night. Again, because I was feeling well, I didn't think this was anything.
On Saturday night, I was out a bit late for the running club's Christmas dinner. That night, again, there was a little wheezing, but it had been a full night, and I'd walked home from the pub.
On Sunday night the wheezing was clear. On Monday, I recorded my lowest peak flow (450) for three months.
On Tuesday it was 430.
I called the consultant.
He listened to my symptoms. He also told me that my blood tests had come back, and that I did not have any allergies. However, my eosinophils (white blood cells) were elevated.
With the reappearance of symptoms following my cessation of the inhaler, and my elevated eosinophils, he was confident in his diagnosis: asthma.
I was to go back on the inhaler immediately.
For three months I had begun to believe that my previous breathing problems were in the past. I was well. But a few days without medication revealed that this was not the case. And I wondered if this was the case for other conditions. If you are feeling good, it is hard to believe that anything is wrong.
The days are very short now. The other morning, at 8:30, it was still largely dark outside when I took a photo of the back garden