Friday, 31 December 2010

Goodbye 2010, hello 2011.

Merry Christmas - I hope yours was a good one, and Happy New Year - here's to a good 2011.

2010 has proven that running continues to soar in popularity worldwide, with events getting more entrants, filling quicker and going to lottery.
2010 taught me how drastically the best-made plans can change and to set new targets. It taught me to make the best of whatever situation we find ourselves in and be satisfied with our best efforts, even if the outcome is rubbish compared to what we may have achieved previously. All the rubbish outcomes make the occasional personal triumph so much sweeter (Bullock Smithy). Heck, even someone else's personal triumph can feel like your own sometimes if you get to live it with them (Round Rotherham).
Most of all, 2010 was yet another year for meeting a great bunch of likeminded people. The running community is the same everywhere. The cameraderie cannot be beaten.

Everything changed for me back in February with the fractured metatarsal, quickly followed by a knee that came out on strike in sympathy. A doom-laden prognosis spelled the end of my running 'career', the end of life as I knew it and the most unsavoury self-pity. The foot's long repaired and the knee still niggles, but I now know it's not terminal. The early prognosis of broken-down cartilage improved a few months later to a much less terminal 'joint in fine condition but a spot of tendonitis' after a second knee surgeon and MRI scan. More by luck than judgement, it turned out that I had been doing the right thing by pushing through the pain barrier with my impetuous return to the events after the period of volunteering (which I have to say I really enjoyed). An injured tendon needs continued light loading and gentle exercise to aid the repair process. Being able to sit, cycle and negotiate stairs relatively comfortably these days are all good signs, though one-leg squats shall probably remain a 'party piece' of the past.

The Heart of Scotland 100 in May was my biggest gamble of the year long before I knew what was really wrong with the knee. It was my surprise do-or-die comeback event. The 'surprise' bit was actually finishing it. When the photograph was taken by Steve Clarke, I thought I'd be out for a few hours' Saturday bimble and enjoying the services of the sag waggon before the first nightfall. I was untrained and unfit and had no right to finish. My slow time and crippled state afterwards were testament to that, but the knee seemed to love it because the return train journey was a lot more bearable. I was beginning to see a way back from the wilderness!

A Runfurther Grand Slam attempt may have been derailed before the first event, I may have done fewer miles compared to last year (1,326 vs. 1,797), I may have got fewer PBs (6 vs. 18) and run fewer Ultras (11 vs. 17), but under the circumstances, 2010 turned out pretty well. There are so many positives to look back on.

Now, what for 2011? The Runfurther series plus LDWA fillers in between are a given (Grand Slam anyone?), but I don't know what to do about the UTMB. Failing to get through the 2010 lottery means that I have a 2011 place waiting for me and I only have until 12 Jan to register my interest. Until a week ago I have said that a return to that event is beyond me, but I'm beginning to feel the calling. Shall I succumb? Help me out here, people.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Whinberry Naze fell race 4mi. / 890'. 26/12/2010.

Well, that's another race squeezed in before 2010 is out. This is the first time I have ever run a race on Boxing Day. I'm glad I did. It was the last chance to enjoy the frozen snowfields, which remained as dry and pristine as the day they were created over a week before.

The Whinberry Naze Dash is a fun 4-miler with stated 750 feet of ascent (I believe Tracklogs, which makes it 890'), organised by Rossendale Harriers at Rawtenstall. I say 'fun' because the emphasis is on fancy dress, having a good laugh befitting the festive period and not taking it too seriously, although the finishing times tend to contradict that last point. My best, well-rested and un-hungover efforts still got me a bottom half finish, same as usual. I should do some training; New Year's resolution for 2011?

I arrived at registration to be greeted by notices stating that full body cover was mandatory. Oh bum. I had no leg covering. I was going to run in shorts, given the dryness and absence of breeze. The sportswear stall that was setting up outside came to the rescue. I bought a pair of longs so I didn't have to drive the hour back home with my tail between my legs, unraced and unfulfilled. I shouldn't have worried so much. After walking to the starting area, not only were plenty of others wearing shorts, a few were naked but for the odd thread here and patch there (all in the name of fancy dress, you'll understand ;-).

Before the start was a fancy dress line-up / talent competition, which raised a good few laughs and complimentary comments at the effort involved (Jesus, Edward Scissorhands, the nuns, the Pope, etc.) and looks of horror/disbelief/admiration at the nakedness of the threadbound brazen hussies. Then we were set off on our way steeply upwards along the snowbound walled track towards Whinberry Naze. I swear one veg was on full view between the naked buttocks of a brazen one ahead, as a couple of female spectators at the stile cooed in admiration and rubbed their sore chins after just retrieving them from the frozen ground.

As we ascended steeply through the snow, it was like trying to do a fell race in sand. Each step had to be taken carefully to avoid too much slippage. At the summit, Father Christmas handed out tubes of Smarties, which guaranteed a noisy descent back down to the finish. We rattled our way along the boundary of the firing range with the crack of the guns to keep us moving, contouring the steep slope through the snow drift that made running impossible, daring to let gravity take us to the brink on the steep descents without losing control completely. I did a 360 degree skid on the sharp right turn just before the ice feature (spring), but I remained upright.

The sharp, steep return down the walled track across the finishing line got me a 37m 58s time, 72nd out of 132. I didn't wear fancy dress, save for a purple rinse curly wig, and that came off for the descent to aid cooling! The winning time of 27m 39s (James Logue, Calder Valley) puts it into perspective. I suspect he probably trains. Did I mention a New Year's resolution?

There were a few photographers out on the course. Check out the following links:
David Brett.
Andrew Firth.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Tour de Helvellyn en Hiver 37mi. 18/12/2010.

Now I know what “en Hiver” means. It means cold, snow, ice, a serious challenge, personal responsibility, survival, new experiences, breathtaking views, slip-sliding descents, abrupt unplanned sit-downs, bruised elbows, running in dim monochromatic mountains by the light of the moon, frozen drink bottles, and enlivenment. THIS IS HARDCORE MOUNTAIN ULTRA-RUNNING.

The Tour de Helvellyn en Hiver (en hiver = in winter: French is all trendy these days in view of the popularity of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, followed by the Ultra Tour of the Lake District) provided a unique opportunity for me to join fellow Ultra junkies onto the Lake District fells on the shortest Saturday of the year. I would never have done it on my own. I have Ben’s thread in the FRA forums to thank for making me aware of it. I jumped at the chance of getting my final end-of-year Ultra fix to ease my guilt over the impending overindulgences of Christmas.

This inaugural running, organised by Joe Faulkner, was to be a low-key affair with minimal support, which I found refreshing. The older I get the more I dislike nanny state, feather-bedding H&S rules and regulations. Personal responsibility should be the name of the game. The strong element of self sufficiency adds to the excitement and sense of adventure. As it turned out, the unexpected early Saturday snowfall meant that the support was even more minimal than expected because vehicular access was not possible over the tops to the furthest manned checkpoint. The cold water station was therefore moved to the top of the lollipop stick, to give two refill points over the 37 miles.

“Lollipop stick?” I hear you ask. The route followed a lollipop shape with an out-and-back between Askham, Howtown/Martindale church, Boredale Hause and Patterdale, and an anticlockwise loop at the end that went around Helvellyn via Glenridding, Sticks Pass, Stanah, Dunmail Raise, Grisedale Tarn and Grisedale. The event followed a ‘time trial’ format, with everyone setting off at a time of their choosing over a 2-hour period, keeping in mind that the first manned checkpoint at 12.5 miles would not open until 10:30. I decided a start somewhere between 07:30 and 08:00 would get me to 12.5 miles by around 10:30. At 07:47 I set off in the pouring snow with Fraser Hirst and Gavin Stewart just as the first signs of daylight were beginning to turn the cloud cover a deep shade of violet. Although the temperature was well below freezing, there was no wind, so we were soon toasty warm as we ran out of the village up Askham Fell.

We just about managed without head torches as we soon left the lights of the village behind and followed compass bearings across the fell, rendered almost featureless by the covering of snow. At first there were two runners in front, whose footprints provided reassurance that they were on the right track (I already knew we were right ;-) Fraser quickly disappeared ahead with an early burst of energy, while yours truly got into ultra-plodding mode from the outset. The ice soon became a problem wherever the path doubled as a drainage channel. The snow covering disguised it well. I soon became adept at reading the warning signs and avoided a fall for many hours, but Gavin was not so lucky. Several falls on the descents were probably instrumental in his retiring at the first manned checkpoint. Bad luck, Gavin. We found ourselves lusting over the Kahtoola Microspikes that Shirley was wearing.

I jogged along carefully, trying to avoid slipping and falling. I found that the faster I went, the hotter I became, which forced me to slow down. However I wasn’t going to remove any layers because, even with the clothes I was wearing, I could feel myself chilling within 5 minutes of stopping at the very occasional checkpoint. Unsurprisingly, with all this clobber including rucksack about my person, running was more laboured than usual and I arrived at the 12.5-mile checkpoint a little after 10:30. Other runners, who had started later, had been overtaking me and would continue to do so throughout the day. Many brief conversations were enjoyed as they slowly passed.

With all this passing, the trail ahead became increasingly well-trodden by footprints in the bone-dry, crystalline snow. This was reassuring. I followed my Tracklogs map printouts to make sure they hadn’t all gone off course. They all seemed to be doing very well ;-)

The snow had stopped but the cloud closed in like a big grey veil on the climb towards the highest point of the route, Sticks Pass, 750 metres. As we approached the gloom, the sun lit up the distant fell behind through a gap in the clouds. At the top the wind was blowing, which had cleared the man-made path on the windward side of the hill. That meant we would have deeper drifts to cushion our steep descent towards Stanah on the leeward, western side.

After the Stanah self-clip came a left turn and an undulating path via the Sportsunday photographers all the way to Dunmail Raise. Memories here came flooding back of Clive King’s Bob Graham Round back in September. Steel Fell looked even more imposing in daylight and covered in snow.

Another left turn at Dunmail Raise took us up the valley between Dollywaggon Pike on our left and Seat Sandal on our right as we climbed the snow-and-ice features towards Grisedale Tarn. The cold breeze was beginning to make itself felt as we levelled out above the tarn. I and another runner suddenly had freezing hands and we had to do something about it, and quick. The gloves that had kept me warm so far were no longer doing the job and I could feel my hands freezing by the second. I just about had enough feeling left to open my rucksack and swap the gloves for a thicker, warmer pair. Getting them onto my numb appendages was a struggle as I rapidly chilled. The other runner made her swap much more quickly and was off out of sight in no time in her quest to generate some heat to warm up again.

I reverted involuntarily to survival mode as I stumbled clumsily along the trod above the tarn, fumbling with my water bottles and map to find a new way of holding them now that the thick gloves had all but banished any dexterity. I passed by a spectacular stalactite-and-stalagmite ice feature to my left, but getting warm again overrode any thoughts of taking pictures now. It was mid afternoon, there wasn’t much more than an hour of daylight left and the temperature had plummeted seriously. There was not a soul in sight. I was alone and in survival mode on a frigid, expansive Lakeland fell as I ran down that trod towards Grisedale. I had my first slips and falls, several times, as I came upon several slabs of frozen drainage water that were camouflaged by the snow. My rucksack provided a smooth landing every time. After a later double fall within two yards of each other, which may have elicited a touch of the “fiddlesticks” (or words to that effect), I noticed my maps were missing and nowhere about. I must have dropped them further back without realising. I walked back up the trail and found them a hundred yards back. If I hadn’t fallen at that point, I would not have realised I’d dropped them. What a blessing in disguise that final fall was!

At the bottom of Grisedale I came upon a mountain biker with camera, who turned out to be one of the event’s photographers. I’d been seeing mountain bike tracks during the day and wondered what mad nutter had made them. Now I knew who they belonged to and realised immediately that he was neither mad nor nutter, since he was ‘one of us’. His bike was very clean, dry and caked in white. He took some excellent pictures.

The almost full moon hung low in a clear, crisp sky as I approached the final manned checkpoint at Patterdale in the advancing dusk. I had been sucking slush and crunching on ice from my drink bottles for a few hours and I was ready for the plastic-flavoured liquid replenishment, which I obtained from the hole that I think had just appeared in the side of the checkpoint’s water container. Was it THAT cold? Hopefully it would last me for the final 10 miles. (I had been enjoying the Coke ‘slush puppy’ in my other bottle, I have to say.)

Within 5 minutes I was getting chilled, so with head torch now on my head and ready for action, I got moving towards the final big climb back up over Boredale Hause. I was soon toasty warm again. As I approached the top in the last remnants of dusk, someone waited for me. It turned out to be Fraser. We were both pleased to have company now that darkness was upon us. We retraced our steps down Boredale towards the first and last self clip at Martindale Church, catching three more runners as we went. We seemed to be going well. My drink bottles had now frozen and I could get no more out of them. The moon was so bright and the ground so reflective, we could see our entire surroundings in glorious, dimly lit monochrome. The surrounding snow-clad mountains stood out clearly in the watery light. I ran without my head torch turned on and could see perfectly clearly where I was treading. What a unique, magical experience.

The final section was just 6 miles and easy, undulating going compared to what we had done. On the wide expanse of Askham Moor we could see a couple of other groups far ahead by the pools of blue-white LED light they cast onto the snow. (I remained anonymous, however, since I was still running by the perfectly adequate moonlight.) The snow creaked loudly with each footstep, sending vibrations up my legs as we made good progress back down to Askham. We arrived back at the Village Hall just before 7pm, to be told that it was minus ten degrees Celsius outside; and there was I, too hot and sweating after the final downhill run to the finish. A first for me was to finish slowest (equal with Fraser) with a time of 11:05. The field must have been dominated by keen, fit, hardcore fell runners. The faster times were quite unbelievable. The winner, Alex Pilkington, finished in 7:23, with Pete Waywell a very close second in 7:27 and Peter Stobbs third in 8:15. How do they do it? Teleportation?

I must thank Joe and his small team of helpers for providing such an awesome opportunity. I’ve been at this ultra lark for 14 years and this was my 126th Ultra, yet this one provided unique, memorable experiences I have never had before. I think the ‘Hiver’ may have helped a bit in that department.

After a good feed and chat in the village hall with the final finishers, I wandered next door to my B & B at the Queen's Head pub for a shower. It was so cold the shower drain pipe froze, causing the water to back up. On Sunday morning I ate my ‘full English’ with frost on the INSIDES of the windows. My Diesel car only just spluttered into life and it took me well over half an hour to chip the ice off and get it defrosted for the drive home. As I left the village, driving very slowly along the snow-covered lane with amazing memories flooding my mind, barely ten yards ahead a deer emerged from the hedge on the left, galloped across the road and melted into the undergrowth on the right. Memories indeed.

I took quite a few pictures this time. It simply had to be done.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Stockport 10mi. 12/12/2010.

What a difference a week makes. All the snow had melted then the frost had returned to give us a typically cool and sunny Stockport 10 from Woodbank Park. This 10-miler, organised by my running club, is an iconic race with an even more iconic goody bag. The teaser and revealer videos about the contents of said goody bag are very entertaining. The long-sleeved technical top we got is an extremely useful piece of kit. It will come in handy for next weekend's Tour de Helvellyn, when the snows will have returned if the forecast is to be believed. As for the dead meal worms, they went out for the dickybirds. The sachets of ketchup, LoSalt and pepper will get consumed in time. The plastic glove will come in handy for some grouting I need to do. The Penguin biscuit (they are HALF the size they used to be in my childhood) will probably get scoffed next weekend, but not before being thrust painlessly in my eye to demonstrate its minuscule proportions.

I'm not surprised the race sold out once again. It was as friendly and well-supported as ever, with brilliant, encouraging marshals at every turn. The friendliness did not extend to the bloated Chelsea Tractor occupant in the petrol station just before Bong's Road, who blared horn and mouth at being inconvenienced by a few hundred more energetic souls than she who happened to be crossing her path. The policeman put her in her place. You never know, she might have enjoyed the spectacle in the end and been encouraged to have a go herself one day soon. It would certainly improve her profile. I think I just saw a pig fly past.....

The outcome was quite good (at least by my standards). It's a hilly course. My time of 1:17:27 was a PB for the third consecutive year and in five completions since 2004. I finished 277th out of 686 finishers (comfortable top half). Advancing years and niggling injuries do not have to be a barrier to PBs, although the time between them may be longer (only 6 this year compared with 18 last year). The winner, a certain Matthew Clowes from Staffordshire Moorlands AC, blazed round the course in 0:50:34(!)

With acknowledgement to Mark Alwyne, the bottom of Bong's Road (at around 4 miles) provided a cool photographic location.

I just received my race number today, three days after the race. The envelope had not been franked. I was one of several hundred who did not receive their numbers and had to get a replacement on the morning of the race. Something smells fishy.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

A bit of a romp in the snow

I was due to do a 10-mile LDWA group walk with friends from the UK and The Netherlands today (Saturday 4th December), but the extreme amount of snow in the Hope Valley meant that it had to be postponed, so we did our own thing instead. We took the train to Buxton and, after a nice meal at The Old Clubhouse, we trudged an out-and-back along the finish of the High Peak 40. I say "trudged" because the snow was deeper than we expected. Here is what the final viaduct looks like in September when it's warm and dry:

Here is what it looked like today:

A pooch from the local farm tagged along for a run:

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Anti-chafing and clothing advice for the ultra runner

This is my first advisory posting. Several people have said to me that I should impart some of the knowledge I have built up over the past 14 years. I have just emailed the following advice, based on personal experience learned the hard way, to an ultrarunning friend who is in training for a major challenge. While I was composing the email I thought it might benefit a wider audience, so here it is.


1. Never wear conventional underwear. It's not up to the job of so much movement for so long in damp conditions. (You will know that dampness comes from sweat even if the weather's dry.)

2. Never wear compression shorts or longs. They squash the cheeks together, increasing friction and guaranteeing chafing betwixt same.

3. If it's at all cold, avoid smooth base layers with high Lycra content (e.g. Skins, 2XU, etc.) because it's too cold on the skin, acts like a heatsink and sucks the heat out of you.

4. Never wear cotton (I bet you already knew that anyway).

5. Never wear a loose-fitting technical top as a first layer. The material acts like a file as it moves over the nipples, rubbing them raw.

6. Never wear double skin socks. The layers easily ruck up against each other, creating ridges, pressure points and blisters.

7. Never wear shoes that allow excessive forefoot movement or ANY heel movement, to reduce blistering.


1. Always wear running shorts with liner as your underwear. If it's warm it's all you need and very comfortable, indefinitely.

2. If it's cold enough for leg covering, wear tracksters (brushed material is warmer) over the shorts.

3. If it's raining but not too cold, lightweight windproof trousers (e.g. Montane, fist-sized when screwed up) are all you need over the shorts.

4. Always wear a tight-fitting base layer up top (I favour NikePro short-sleeved or sleeveless shirt, which is lightweight so doesn't suck too much heat out with its Lycra content). This allows you to wear whatever you want on top without any chafing worries.

5. Wear well-padded socks to help fix your feet in your shoes. (This depends on whether you are lucky enough to have 'shoe-shaped' feet, and how snug and comfortable the fit.) I find Thorlos to be the best.

6. As a final insurance against chafing, use a lubricant, but not petroleum jelly ('Vaseline'). It dissipates too easily when it gets warm and loses its effectiveness. For the feet I use Sportslick, plastered top and bottom. For the undercarriage regions I use 'Brave Soldier Friction Zone Advanced Skin Protectant'. Despite its dodgy name it really does work a treat. I have proven it up to well over 30 hours. Both are American products.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Famous Grouse fell race. 5.2 miles with 1,240’ ascent. 29/11/2010.

As I had no event organised for this weekend, I had already decided to run my local Woodbank 5k Parkrun on Saturday, where I got my second fastest time with 23:29. (Please be advised it is a very hilly course and times are slow, so they are, to be sure, honest gov....) I finished 12th, and second in my age group. [That might sound more impressive than it is. There were only 33 runners. The frigid conditions might have put them off.] With acknowledgement to photographer Jon-Paul:

While there, another runner asked me if I would be doing the Famous Grouse fell race the next day. That sowed a seed in my mind. After returning from a party in the evening I logged onto the FRA races calendar and found it. It was only down the road and I wanted to have a go.

After another outrageously frigid night – unprecedented at any time, let alone in November, it’s even come a month earlier than it did last year – I found myself driving to the Famous Grouse pub in Birch Vale in good time to register for the 11am start. It would be my third short, sharp, furious fell race this year and my fourth ever. The sun was out, the sky was blue and the air was calm, yet Daz H's thermometer measured MINUS 16°C on the way to the race. Global warming my a*se. The ground was rock solid and lightly sprinkled with the snow that had fallen on Friday night. There was a healthy turn-out of runners – several fellow Stockport Harriers but the club most in evidence was Pennine Fell Runners with their distinctive red and yellow vests.

The race began uphill, which is how it remained for around two miles. With lungs burning and breathing deeply and heavily, everyone was running. It was good to be able to throw all caution to the wind and push to the limits all the time without having to worry about blowing up or saving something until later. This is a test I very rarely get to do and should do more often because it makes me feel so awake and alive! I feel as though I have my mojo back. With acknowledgement to photographer Mike Barry:

On that first ascent we joined the Bullock Smithy Hike route on its final climb to the ‘Chinley Churn’ checkpoint, then descent to ‘Peep O Day’ cottage (which was used many years ago for a TV drama, the name of which I cannot remember). From Peep O Day we departed from the BSH route, turning sharp left back on ourselves to contour along the hillside to eventually climb steeply to the track we climbed at the start. This was the first time we were forced to walk. I did some overtaking on this section. Then it was a sharp right turn and downhill blast back to the finish, where I got overtaken by a runner I’d overtaken on the final climb. He seemed to glide past effortlessly. I’m thankful to say my knee was not holding me back. It was simply lack of quadriceps strength and, perhaps more importantly, lack of confidence in my legs.

My time of 49:20 got me 63rd place out of 109 finishers. I don’t know if I will ever get to finish in the top half of an out-and-out fell race. Perhaps I might if I practice enough. All things considered I was well chuffed with this result. To average 6.32mph (9:29/mile) with that ascent is not bad for me with my total absence of any speed training. However, my puny effort is put into perspective by all those 62 in front of me. I never cease to be astounded at what the real, serious fell runners can achieve at these races. The first two finished in a shade under 37 minutes. It puts me in awe, quite frankly.

Apparently, this is usually a muddy race, but not this year. On its 21st running, the conditions were said to be among the best ever. Let the global cooling continue.

We finished in the pub for prize presentations and a choice of soup and roll, chips, cup of tea, and “Dobs” (a warming, sweet, watery white wine version of mulled wine is the best way I can describe it). Of course you could have beer if you really wanted it.

There were several spectators and photographers out on the course braving the cold weather. (We runners were alright because our extreme effort meant that we had our own internal furnaces going on.) See the links below for the crop of pictures that show the amazing conditions we enjoyed.

Steve Temple

Neil Coverley

Mike Barry

Richard Sieppe

Wensleydale Wedge 23mi. 21/11/2010.

Sunday 21st November brought typical Wensleydale Wedge weather – cold, damp and breezy, with a temperature hovering just above freezing. Just like in previous years, the shower came down as sleet, then snow as I drove over the steep, narrow, twisting pass from Muker to Askrigg into the breaking Sunday dawn.

At registration, Askrigg Village Hall was crammed with the usual suspects and a few new faces, ready to sample the delights of Wensleydale one more time or for the first time. I noticed an army lad among the throng (he had “Army” printed on the back of his shirt and his severe haircut kinda confirmed it). It’s good to see military personnel using an LDWA event for the purposes of combining training with leisure (dare I say pleasure?). There can surely be no down side to such an arrangement.


Our military personnel past, present and future = honour, responsibility, respect, upstanding defenders of our freedom. You go wherever and do whatever your country asks of you. Your country salutes you.


The route, saturated and swilling from all the recent rains, undulated through ten checkpoints at Semer Water Bridge, Stalling Busk (near), Stake Edge and Side Well/Heck Brow/Knotts (ubiquitous 'Areas of Shake Holes'), Thoralby, Eshington Lane, Freeholders’ Wood, Low Thoresby, Castle Bolton and Heugh. The exceedingly wet conditions underfoot made it ‘interesting’ at times, while the sprinkling of icing sugar snow on the windy tops before Thoralby got us in the mood for winter. I missed taking a picture of it sadly, because I was too busy competing with the other runners around me and not wanting to lose any time. At this point I was just keeping up with a group of three women who had just caught up with me (not that I’m saying I get any more competitive because they’re women).

The usual swapping of places with other runners was going on as usual. Any runners in front were used as targets to aim for and haul back, usually after having overtaken me. Sometimes it worked if they tired, sometimes it didn’t. Army lad and his friend became the next targets after darting in and out of the halfway checkpoint at Thoralby while I loitered over a Marmite sandwich (which simply had to be done). I set off in pursuit towards the self clip checkpoint at Eshington Lane. As I joined the track out of Thoralby I began to hear the hysterical, high pitched yapping of a dog. Eventually, in the valley below me to the right I saw a group of sheep, hemmed in against the stream and fence and swerving backwards and forwards as the source of the yapping, a small white terrier, ran among them, snapping at their legs. The shameful owner was standing about a quarter mile away in the next field, whistling pathetically every so often while his mutt went about its sheep worrying unfettered. Nothing had changed by the time I had climbed over the brow of the next hill. With my farmer’s hat on now, I don’t know about shoot the dog. Shoot the owner as well, the useless, dilatory specimen.

A climb to the A684 on the outskirts of Aysgarth brought us to a short descent to the church, where Sunday Service was due to begin. The doors were open and the organ hummed quietly from within. Over the road bridge, the sharp right turn towards Freeholders’ Wood brought the familiar WW direction sign implying that runners and only one walker take part in the event. If you wonder what I’m on about, do the event next year and you’ll see what I mean.

Having navigated successfully the fields on the approach to Castle Bolton, I saw that my quarries had built up a bit of a lead and were already on the lane up to the castle. Once onto the lane I heard another barking dog, this time a bigger one. I looked to my right and saw a chocolate Labrador-type dog face-to-face with a sheep at the edge of a field. What is it with dogs and their sheep-worrying obsession? As the dog went from side to side, the sheep turned to face it at all times, standing its ground. Every so often it went to head-but the dog. The stand-off and barking continued as I climbed out of sight and earshot.

At the Castle Bolton checkpoint I grabbed a couple of orange segments to suck the life-giving juice out of them and, with bright orange 'gum shield', set off running westwards on that l-o-o-o-n-g, undulating track . As the miles passed beneath my feet I gradually overtook the three women with whom I had been running on and off for most of the event. On the approach to the trail bike practice area I saw my quarries again. I seemed to have gained on them a little. I wondered if I could catch them again before the finish if I pushed just a little harder. I tried my best, at which point I was suddenly overtaken quite comprehensively by another bloke, who had crept up silently from behind and sailed past effortlessly as if as if I was standing still. Where on earth did he get all that energy from at this stage in the event, when everybody is usually flagging?

Undeterred, I pushed as best I could over the new footbridge and got quite close to my targets on the next short sharp climb. Shortly before the final checkpoint a farmer to my left waited for me to run past before opening his gate to release his flock of sheep onto the fell. The three women were far enough behind (out of earshot by now) to not be inconvenienced by the crossing flock.

My targets were stubbornly out of sight now. The terrain did not allow a far enough view any more. I checked my watch as I approached the last checkpoint at Heugh. I had just exceeded the 4:04 I had taken to complete the whole event in 2008. Not to worry. It came as no surprise and I was not dispirited. I had been looking forward to the final 1.2-mile blast across the fields to the finish and all I wanted to do now was give it my all as if I were on for a PB anyway. I loved every second as I competed with myself, pushing the limits, lungs bursting and heart rate into the 180s.

I was happy with my final time of 4:22. It may have been 18 minutes outside my PB and I may not have reeled in my ultimate targets, but the outcome was a darned sight better than I managed at last weekend's Six Dales Circuit, and I didn't feel trashed by the effort this time.

The few pictures I took are here.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Six Dales Circuit 25mi. 13/11/2010.

The weekend after Snowdonia I ran my first 5k Woodbank Parkrun since 26th June. It was a struggle but at least my 24:08 wasn't a Personal Worst for this hilly course.

Moving on another week, Six Dales Circuit is one of my old favourites. The limestone countryside of Derbyshire is truly beautiful. I first did this event in 1999 (two months after the moon was blown out of Earth orbit, for those who used to watch Space 1999 - remember September 13th 1999?). I felt as though I was making a comeback; after a solid run through to 2007, other events (really the Runfurther end-of-year parties) meant that I could not do this in 2008 and 2009, so 2010 felt like a comeback year as I reacquainted myself with Biggin Village Hall once more. Furthermore, this was the first Long Distance Walkers Association event I had done since Elsecar Skelter on the 14th August. I was amazed at the turn-out of walkers on the early start. The LDWA is alive and well. It was good to be back to a no-pressure outing in the countryside and to meet so many old flames.

This year the route returned to my preferred clockwise route after changing to anticlockwise in 2005. It took us through Biggin Dale, Wolfscote Dale, Beresford Dale, Lathkill Dale (see picture above), Bradford Dale and Long Dale via checkpoints at Hartington, Monyash and Middleton. Somehow the ascents always seemed less onerous in this direction, but that perception was no aid to me this year. Poor preparation in the preceding week, culminating in a pre-race evening dinner of prawn salad, did not provide the optimum conditions or fuelling for a decent performance. The body was weak and the legs were clumsy, so I enjoyed the scenery and the checkpoint food (cheese oatcakes at Monyash Village Hall), chatted to fellow shufflers and took more pictures than of late along the way. Unusually for this event, the sun shone throughout, so I didn't mind being out for longer than usual. The catching-up afterwards in the village hall lasted for nearly three hours and it was nearly dark by the time I left. I don't ever remember staying for so long after this event. It was good to be back. Allow me to leave you with this gem from Bradford Dale.

For the record, my times over the years for this event are:
1999 - 5:59
2001 - 6:17
2002 - 5:17
2003 - 5:47
2004 - 4:36
2005 - 4:27
2006 - 4:26
2007 - 4:23
2010 - 5:06

As you can see, I've gone downhill a little. I hope it was worthwhile because here are the pictures.

Next weekend is Wensleydale Wedge from Askrigg - another old favourite of mine.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Snowdonia Marathon. 30/10/2010.

Snowdonia Marathon
Judging by the lively, year-round ‘SNOD’ thread on the Runner’s World forum, the universally positive comments, the number of converted marathon first-timers and my own personal experiences over 5 consecutive years of running it, this must be the best marathon in the country. For a ‘road marathon’ it isn’t half bad for those who run mostly off-road hills and trails. This year, on its 28th running, it was made even better by some route improvements (a bit more off-road trail on the first descent and a nice downhill finish straight onto Llanberis High Street without the detour back around the back of the village).

The new route required a road start closer to Llanberis to make up the distance lost on the other two modifications, so shuttle buses were no longer needed. We got to start in the correct direction with a nice bit of downhill to start off with, instead of in the wrong direction followed by a 180-degree right turn onto the road. On the first descent, after the sharp right turn at Pen-y-Gwrd, we were soon diverted right through a gateway and onto a stony track that descended more directly and more steeply to Bryn Gwynant, where we rejoined the road. I could not believe my luck as I let rip down there in my element, and to think this is regarded as a road marathon.

We were challenged by the weather as usual. It may not have been quite as cold, windy or wet as it has been in previous years, but when the showers came, they really came. It all added to the excitement and challenge of this race. It just wouldn’t be the same without the adverse weather conditions to add spice to the experience and give us something to talk about afterwards.

I was in my usual survival plodding mode and getting overtaken well into the second half until the true order got sorted out. The regular water stations provided excellent support. I had my own water bottles and only needed an occasional refill, but a few cups of electrolyte drink really hit the spot and kept the energy flowing.

Runners of all shapes and sizes were there, and I was reminded once more that outward appearance is no predictor of speed. I got overtaken by a man in Halloween fancy dress (I assume) which involved a wig and a long cape. I thought how hot it must have been to run in as he slowly disappeared into the distance. Another time I was aware of a strange squelching sound behind me that was taking a very long time to catch up. When it eventually did, I realised it was the man’s minimalist running shoes that reminded me of Plimsolls. He slowly disappeared into the distance too. I also heard afterwards that someone ran the race in Vibram Fivefingers. Ouch!

The final climb from Waunfawr, over the top past the old slate mines and down into Llanberis was as memorable as ever. I had enough left in the tank to not walk (I hesitate to call it running) all the way to the top. I joked to one of the many supporters cheering us on, who remarked that I looked as fresh as a daisy. I must admit I was feeling pretty good at that point. On the way I was noticing the ominous blackness to my right over the mountain. The next shower was beginning to make itself felt by the first spots of rain, but this looked altogether more dramatic. As I neared the summit I saw a bright silvery flash from the blackness. “That was a bright camera flash”, I said to myself, “and why would someone be taking pictures over there?” Of course I knew what it was. I waited for the rumble, which soon and protractedly came a-booming.

I couldn’t care about the rain but I did care about getting struck by lightning. I felt a rush of adrenalin as I summited the final climb. Despite my minimal clothing and slow pace compared to ‘real’ runners, I was still working hard enough to keep quite warm. Even my lightest weight showerproof top would have caused me to overheat, so I never bothered putting it on.

I had overtaken countless runners (who were walking) on the climb, and hoped that I hadn’t overdone it for the descent. Not on your life! I blasted down the other side like I always do, taking it carefully at times when the running became skating as my road shoes slid down the sodden grass with flowing surface water. The rain was getting heavier. Everyone else seemed to be standing still. I expected a bit of competition when we reached the first bit of tarmac track and solid footing, but it never happened. Everyone still seemed to be standing still. I suppose it was quite steep for road runners, but not for trail runners! My quads were doing their thing and the knee was not complaining. I was so in my element at last. I had waited over 4 hours for this and it was as good as I had imagined.

The rapid overtaking continued onto the road proper and I wasn’t slowing down. The rain was turning into a deluge now. Still no-one was catching me. I passed the junction where we used to turn right back out of the village, but not this time. It was a left turn, still downhill, then right to the blow-up finish arch in 4:15. Wow. I had expected 4:30 because I had been feeling anything but race fit, but I surprised myself by equalling my Personal Worst of last year. What a result. A commemorative slate coaster was thrust into my hand by a marshal and a silver sheet was draped around my shoulders to keep me warm as the deluge turned to hail. The timing was perfect. I was thankful for the sheet’s protection from the worst of the impact.

My heart rate averaged at 170 beats per minute for the 4 hour and 15 minute duration of the race, and it peaked at 184bpm (no doubt on the ‘sprint’ finish). I had little or no after-effects in the legs in the following week. My limitation is my cardiovascular system. It defines me as a plodder.

I and several others from the Runner’s World forum had accommodation in Llanberis for the weekend. Pete’s Eats kept us fuelled simply and cheaply (I had two dinners after the race). We rounded off Saturday night by a drink or five and a right good Karaoke session in the hotel lounge bar until midnight. What a fantastic weekend we had.

I only took a few pictures after the finish. S4/C, who televise the race every year, were at the finish line later on after I had showered and changed at the hotel, which was conveniently located close by.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Runfurther 2010 end-of-series party. 23/10/2010.

The weekend after the final race in the 2010 Runfurther series of ultra marathons saw the end-of-year party and prizegiving. The Runfurther team, I suspect mostly Karen MacDonald, organised a superb weekend in Hope, Derbyshire. Saturday's proceedings started with a 3-hour orienteering score event in the afternoon. The rain was offputting so the turnout may have been a little poor. I was the last to set off, which was a good move because that was the cue for the rain to ease off. With my map extract, tally and marker pen issued by Karen I was off, feeling a little like a headless chicken as I tried to orientate myself, decide how to get as many checkpoints as possible in the most efficient way possible, and work out where I needed to go to reach my first chosen checkpoint. I decided I needed to cross the main road from the pub and up the lane opposite.

This was only my third score event. The first one was a Dark & White event from the Pindale Outdoor Centre just up the road a few years ago, when I got back an hour late and lost all my points. The second was the Runfurther party from Ambleside a couple of years ago. Although it's supposed to be fun and no pressure, I can't help getting stressed by it because I cannot help being competitive, yet I cannot run and survive, make my brain work to read the map and compass and understand which direction I have to go. The eyes see but the brain fails to link everything together. Call it old age, or have too many brain cells been killed off by the passage of too much wine under the bridge. What? Hic!

Anyway, as I set off up the lane, confident of where I needed to go, two young female cyclists came towards me and asked which way to Hope. After a second for the brain to whir (accompanied if I'm not mistaken by a faint smell of burning) I thought to myself: “I know that”. I felt chuffed that I had familiarised myself with my surroundings so quickly. “Just go to the end and turn right”, I said confidently. Off they went. Then a voice from within suddenly screamed at me. “Oh NO! NOT RIGHT; LEFT!!” I had forgotten which way I had turned in to the pub carpark on my journey from Hope and I had already forgotten that I had crossed the main road from the pub. What an utter shambles. I was anything but orientated. I ran back down the road towards them and shouted several times but they didn't hear me. I'd just told them a pack of lies and sent them on a wild goose chase towards Sheffield. I hoped that they had more common sense than I had and they would realise the fundamental error in my defective verbal instruction that I had helpfully reinforced by gesticulation to the right, just to confirm that I knew my right from my left. Racked by guilt, I ran backwards and forwards feeling even more like a headless chicken to find the left turn I had been looking for, since I had now lost track of my position on that first lane. That set the tone for the afternoon.

A visit to a checkpoint was confirmed by writing down its 3-letter code on our tallies. As I bumbled, backtracked and floundered my way across the hills and valleys, my path crossed with others' paths as we followed our chosen routes. I found myself running with Sarah Rowell for a while. I knew where I was going at that point because it involved (for me) an out-and-back on familiar ground – part of the Long Tour Of Bradwell route. Sarah joined me having run down from the top of the hill on her quest to bag all of the checkpoints within the 3 hours. She dropped me on the next climb.

As I continued to head off on wrong headings (NE instead of SW, SE instead of NE, setting my compass SE instead of SW and backtracking from the right heading to the wrong heading because the compass said so – you name it, I made that mistake), I found my way to a checkpoint that wasn't there. After 5 minutes searching in vain and with a little over 10 minutes left before the 3 hours were up, I decided it must have been stolen, gave up searching and decided to head for base. Off I ran confidently and soon found myself on another section of the Long Tour Of Bradwell route. Something wasn't ringing true between my path and the one on the map. I was 90 degrees out again, off the map and heading towards Bamford, though I didn't know it at the time. Still, I recognised the path so I carried on because I felt committed. Ever been there?

Once out on the road I made the inspired guess to turn right. I asked of the first pedestrians I met the direction back to Hope. “To the end and turn right” was the reply. On my way I passed the station. Ah, right, time to apply my intelligence again. If that's the station (Hope station of course, what else?) and I need to turn right to Hope, I need to turn left to the finish. I turned left and started running towards Sheffield. Yes, you guessed it. ANOTHER navigational error. I can't even get it right on major A-roads. After a mile or two of not recognising the road I'd driven along a few hours earlier, it dawned on me that the station wasn't Hope station after all. It must have been the next one down the line (Bamford, but since it was off my 'maplet' I didn't know). I turned around, stressed and cursing my stupidity, to trudge all the way back to the pub in the rain (which had returned on cue, just to cement my self-misery) to give Karen back her marker pen 20-odd minutes late and see how many points I'd lost.

I was booked into the pub B&B for the night, so I wasted no time in checking-in and warming up in the shower ready for the evening's festivities. I might be the world's worst navigator under pressure but at least I'd got some exercise in that débâcle.

The bar was buzzing with ultra runners and their other halves by the 7pm 'Champagne' reception. We enjoyed a slideshow of images from the year's races over drinks, conversation and dinner (and what a fantastic spread the caterers laid on for us). All the prizes and presentations were made to the series winners, some of whom unfortunately couldn't be there due to other commitments. Next came what we had all been waiting for – the talk and slideshow from Stephen Pyke of his Scottish Munro-bagging record earlier this year. Spyke smashed the previous record of 48 days and 12 hours by completing the challenge in 39 days and 9 hours in spite of unseasonably cold and snowy weather for its duration up to the beginning of June. In addition to climbing the 283 peaks, he had to run, cycle and kayak between them. He raised a laugh when he said in all seriousness that he never considered himself to be an ultra runner. Spyke, if you weren't before you are now ;-)

The evening began its wind-down with the cutting and consumption of the Runfurther cake – the best one so far – a rich fruit number that wasn't too sickly and went wonderfully with a double brandy. Everyone had dispersed by midnight and I staggered upstairs to my waiting bed.

On Sunday a few hardy souls mountain biked or ran a few miles in the hills in bright sunshine to put the shine on a most excellent weekend, while Yours Truly made an early exit home up Winnats Pass to catch up with the weekend's chores. Thanks Karen for organising a fantastic climax to the 5th Runfurther year. Bring on 2011. I only took a handful of pictures in the evening (sorry).

Next year's provisional races were mentioned, but since they are not yet finalised I have been asked not to publicise them. We must wait before we commit ourselves. There's still plenty of time anyway.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Runfurther series race 12 of 12. Rowbotham’s Round Rotherham 50mi. 16/10/2010.

Apologies; I know this report is a few weeks late but I've been busy.

I returned from my final US destination – San Diego – via Chicago and Frankfurt just in time to get myself sorted out and repacked, then get some sleep before a Friday pm drive over the watershed to Wath-upon-Dearne. As I arrived at the hotel I was watching two weeks of dry weather getting undone by a torrential downpour. It might not be too bad by Saturday, but the ground certainly couldn’t be as dry as it was last year.

Around 05:45 on Saturday I had to fight my way out of a darkened, bolted and barred hotel, setting off the alarm in the process. They had not risen to provide the early breakfast as promised. I made the short journey to Dearne Valley College in time to see the early (6am) starters sent on their way, some of whom I would never catch. I was registered on the later 7am runners’ start as usual, but this year I had come to realise that, thanks to all the business travel I was not race fit, pure and simple. Many familiar faces were present, some only seen occasionally. I had not seen Mike Blamires since last year’s Round Rotherham. It was a good reunion of old friends.

After our send-off speech we were set off on our way into the breaking dawn. The street lights in the early stages meant that we could manage without head torches, and so began a day of running at the limits of sustainability, which turned out to be a lot slower than it was last year. I was getting overtaken from the outset and those who were behind me last year had soon disappeared ahead out of sight. Duncan Harris made by far the quickest overtake. He must have had a late start. Ooh, the pressure. I just resigned myself to the usual, which was ‘surviving the moment’ to the best of my ability for as long as it took until I’d finished.

As I plodded along by the rubbish-filled stream and canal towards Elsecar, getting overtaken all the while, a glance at my heart rate monitor showed 176 beats per minute. That could not continue. It needed to be 10 – 20bpm slower if I was to survive the day. I eased my pace even further but could not get the rate below 170. “Stuff it”, I thought. “The only way I’ll get it down is to walk, and I’m not doing that so soon. I’ll just carry on for the 2 hours or so until the inevitable blow-up occurs, then take it from there.” I knew the routine. I would only take walking breaks when I was forced to, then the all-too-familiar survival strategy would commence of walk, fuel, wait for the 2nd, 3rd, 4th winds to kick in, try to run whenever possible and enjoy the scenery and camaraderie along the way. It would be a serious comedown after my performance of last year but as long as I was making forward progress, a DNF would never enter my mind.

My navigation was going perfectly while hardly having to refer to the excellent, cartoon-style strip maps. I usually have a knack for remembering routes. I was surprised in the early stages by getting overtaken by several groups of runners who I knew had been in front. They had failed to fork left to Elsecar, among other failure-to-fork-left mistakes. Some must have lost a lot of time, but it didn’t take ones so fit very long to race to the front of the field again. Colm McCoy was one of the ones who added extra miles. I remember him last year, on the climb through the woods just after Elsecar, thanking me for showing the way. I’m sorry I wasn’t fast enough for you this year, Colm ;-)

As I made my way towards the halfway checkpoint at Harthill, it seemed that ‘every man and his dog’ (and, just to prove I'm not sexist, ‘every woman and her bitch’) had overtaken me, usually with a comment to the effect of: “What are you doing back here, Nick; you’re usually miles ahead”, to which I would reply: “Tell me about it. It’s called lack of fitness”. Somehow I didn’t care. I knew it would happen. I was already resigned to the fact and I had accepted it. Although I was so much slower I was still playing the same mind games, pushing and eking the best performance out of myself. With my perceived effort it still felt as though I was on for a PB. “Just keep pushing.”

By halfway I had found my jogging equilibrium. Shortly after Harthill as I jogged across the fields I spied a familiar figure up ahead. I soon caught up with Mike Blamires, who had overtaken me before 20 miles. Poor Mike now had mental demons going on, had lost the will to continue and was on the verge of dropping. However, he tagged along as we began to talk about anything and everything, and so began a great team effort of mutual encouragement to the finish line. Mike now had an incentive to keep pushing and I had a good reason to keep pushing. These Ultra Marathons are usually lonely affairs as most people push their personal boundaries alone. Now was one of those rare occasions when I got to run with someone. Mike’s and my paces were amazingly well matched.

At Maltby after we had passed through the 40-mile point, Mike checked his watch and commented that we had done a pretty good time for 40 miles (around 8.5 hours I think). He started talking of the possibility of a 50-mile PB. After having been on the verge of dropping, that was a revelation. It was all we needed to keep pushing for our strongest possible finish. We saw the runners ahead as targets that had to be picked off before moving onto the next. We did some good overtaking over those last 10 miles. On the last climb before the final checkpoint at Old Denaby, I was getting competitive and not wanting other runners we had recently overtaken to catch up again, but Mike was beginning to fade. Shaky legs = low blood sugar = food needed, and quick. I offered a Snickers bar. Just one third of it had him motoring up that hill within minutes.

The final 3 miles of fiddly yet entertaining navigation through the arse-end of the back of beyond went seamlessly and satisfyingly as we ran virtually every step of the way, not wanting to get caught by the chasing runners. I felt as if I was on for a PB as well as we ran together to an amazing sprint finish in 10:43. Mike got his PB. Woo-hoo!

As we ran down that final track towards the college, Mike, overflowing with elation and emotion, shouted: “Nick Ham, you are a f----n legend.” No Mike, YOU are the legend. What you did, to finish a 50-mile Ultra with a PB after so nearly dropping out was utterly inspirational. Your success and elation became my own. It made my race so worthwhile, so enjoyable and so memorable. Thank you so much for your company.

The PB glow.

This, the final race in the 2010 Runfurther series brought some super-fast times and impressive performances. Duncan Harris and Harald Aas finished equal first in 6:29:35. The organisers and volunteers did their usual superb job, and Henry Marston's strip maps and course information were the business. It was a stroke of genius to bring this event forward to October.

We had a few rain showers along the way and my camera got its first soaking since its decontaminating wash. It never faltered. The conductive, salty sweat deposits that must have been shorting out its switches and buttons must now be gone. See here for the pictures I took.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Can Lake 50 Ultras. 09/10/2010.

Can Lake 50
I thought I would never make it to Rochester NY airport, thence to Canandaigua on Friday evening. I was waiting at the gate at La Guardia NY airport, enduring the same, daily torment of the past week, keeping everything crossed that my pre-booked-and-paid-for seat still existed. I’d been lucky up to now but my run of luck was about to run out. I had become used to hearing the daily calls, barked out over the tinny, squawky PA systems that sound as if they are based on first-generation telephones, for volunteers to give up their seats due to the routine overbooking that curses internal air travel in USA. (Apparently the government allows it. The government should be BANNING it.) This time the airline had gone too far. Even with the volunteers, passengers were denied travel on the flights they had booked. I was one of the chosen few (one who didn't shout in protest or threaten the use of lawyers). I was about to be stranded and I felt sick. However, by some miracle the overworked, overstressed yet surprisingly calm man at the podium was able to find two alternative flights to replace our one flight and get us to our destination several hours late, but still before midnight. Deep joy. We felt so privileged. Armed with my compensatory voucher for $125, useful only to American nationals, I made my way to the new gate where, you guessed it, the flight was delayed, but fortunately not so much that I missed the next flight to my final destination. US air travel is the pits.

The Can Lake 50 Ultras are 50-mile and 50k road runs from Canandaigua in the Finger Lakes region of northern New York State. I’d normally go for the long option, but logistics meant that I would have to be content with the 50k to prevent me from seizing up completely on my two-week business tour of the States. It had been a toss-up between New York and Tampa, Florida, where I had to be by Sunday evening. Consultation of the UltraRunning calendar meant that I would be spending my weekend in New York and getting to see those much talked about autumn colours.

I walked down to the Finger Lakes Community College from  my accommodation close by, but unfortunately I just missed the 7am start of the 50-mile race. We 50k runners would later get taken by school bus with its 12” leg room part way around the course until just 31 miles of it remained, at which point we would offload to our starting area beside the lake. The sun shone brightly, the sky was a vivid blue and the air was cool – perfect for running. We cheered a few passing 50-milers running through their 19-mile point before we were set off on our way at just gone 10am. We all wore a timing chip on our ankles for second-perfect recording several hours later at the finish.

Compared to the rough terrain I’m used to, the undulating roads provided easy running – too easy, meaning speed was up, meaning leg trashing would be accelerated. Leg trashing was brought even further forward by my lack of fitness, thanks to a week of sitting down with no exercise, late arrivals at hotels and surviving on junk food grabbed whenever the opportunity presented itself. (Picture if you will a midnight dinner of two bags of crisps and a pack of cakes from the hotel kiosk.)

I was enjoying the autumnal views, the pleasant conditions, the friendliness of runners and supporters and the excellent race support as I shuffled my way along, but I was not enjoying how slow it was feeling. Still, I wasn’t in a hurry. It would take as long as it took as I tried to find my stride while chatting with 50-milers and 50k-ers along the way. I ran with fellow 50k-er David Weiss for a good while, during which we had an interesting conversation about the specialist glass industry as we ran past the vineyards (I never knew they had vineyards there).

My experience was made a pleasurable one by the fantastic support and attention to detail given by Race Director Tom Perry and his team of volunteers. Everything is covered with nothing left to chance. Not only is there good support along the route, there are pre-race refreshments and a post-race sit-down buffet meal. Taking into account the wealth of detail on the website as well, it is the perfect event for the Ultra first-timer. It’s pretty good for the Ultra veterans too. Our swag included a finisher's medal and a useful technical T-shirt of fluorescent yellow colour, which is perfect for running in the gloaming while remaining visible. It might get its first airing on next weekend's Round Rotherham.

After the finish, my heart rate monitor told me that my pace was a little slower than, and my heart rate much higher than it was for the much more rugged 32-mile Wuthering Hike in 2009. The ministry of funny walks over the following 4 days from my trashed legs confirmed my lack of fitness. Still, I had another week of sedentary existence, cramped for hours in cattle class airline seats (provided my bookings are honoured) to regain full racing fitness for next week's Round Rotherham 50-miler. I live in cloud cuckoo land, you know.

I took a few hazy pictures through my contaminated lens (but at least the camera functions now after its wash).

Friday, 1 October 2010

A US jaunt

I'm about to tour the US for a couple of weeks on business, on a rather punishing schedule of customer visits. Next weekend I had the choice of either being in the New York area (after last meeting on Friday) or the Tampa, Florida area (before first meeting on Monday). I scoured the UltraRunning calendar to see how I might keep myself occupied and on the boil for the following weekend's Round Rotherham, and I found the Can Lake 50. That settled it - New York (or Canandaigua, to be more precise) it would be for the weekend. Uncharacteristically I have plumped for the shorter of the two distances, only for practical and logistical reasons. 50k should still keep me out of mischief. This will be my first US race since Western States 2009. I'm quite looking forward to it.

Supporting Clive's Bob Graham Round. 25/09/2010.

The Bob Graham Round is a tough personal challenge on the Lake District fells that starts and finishes at the Moot Hall in the centre of Keswick High Street. It can be run either clockwise or anticlockwise, it visits 42 peaks and it must be completed within 24 hours. According to the route I painstakingly plotted on Tracklogs, the distance is 65 miles give or take a bit if you get the best lines, with a total ascent of 26,050 feet (give or take a bit again).

Many months ago, Clive King asked me if I would be free to support him on his attempt. I had heard so much about this epic challenge in recent years, so many running friends had completed it and so many had asked me when I was going to have a go, I welcomed the opportunity to get a first taste of what it's all about. I was happy to help wherever I was needed (knee permitting). I would be pacing (muling) on leg 3 of the clockwise route from Dunmail Raise to Wasdale.

I drove up at Friday lunchtime to the campsite at Bassenthwaite in increasing sunshine. The wind and rain had cleared and a cold, fine weekend was in store. Clive was already there, surrounded by kit and boxes of food and drink and looking amazingly cool. He planned and plotted with possibly the most important person of all – chief-cook-and-bottle-washer Nigel – who would be providing the food at the aid stops. We chatted to more supporters as they trickled in through the afternoon.

I arrived early because I wanted to learn the ropes while soaking up the maximum BGR atmosphere. For one thing I did not want to miss the start from the Moot Hall at 7pm. After a partial fill of fish & chips from the chippy opposite the hall (I always find the more touristy the area, the more stingy the portions), it was just about time. Clive hugged his children goodbye and lined up with Jim Mann and pacer 'yak' Dave Almond. Jim and Clive had arranged to run at 'Clive speed' into daylight on leg 3, after which, 'given the green lights', Jim would continue ahead with his support runner to try for his own BGR completion. They touched the green door, started their watches and were off down the road. Within 10 seconds they veered right and disappeared into The Golden Lion pub. “There's confidence for you”, I thought. “Going for a pint already before they've even started.” I didn't realise there was a passageway that went through the pub building.

I returned to the camp to watch the moon rise into a cold, crisp sky and try to grab a few hours' sleep before my 'tour of duty'. An owl was giving it some with its screeching, while the cold made it difficult to sleep despite wearing all my clothes. (I was already dressed for duty and had more on top. There was not much room to move inside my sleeping bag.) I counted down the quarter-hours to 01:30 by the chiming of the church clock, then it was time to get up for the half-hour drive along the A591 to Dunmail Raise, after scraping the ice off the windscreen (thanks Dave). Dave Hindley joined me. He would also be a mule for this section.

Nigel was already at Dunmail preparing the food. Dave and I loaded Clive's leg 3 provisions into our rucksacks, which added to the already considerable weight of our own personal provisions, and awaited the arrival of the runners. The moon and stars shone brightly in a crystal clear atmosphere. As we waited for the head torch lights to appear at the top of Seat Sandal, which was clearly visible in the moonlight, an owl flew by on its journey down the valley. The lights were a little late in appearing. By the time they arrived at the road crossing it was clear that Clive was battling mental demons that were telling him he couldn't go on. A few pep talks later from those skilled in the art (me excluded), Clive was eating, drinking and changing his shoes for the next climb up towards Steel Fell. We set off around 15 minutes behind schedule – nothing too worrying at this stage. The off-path climb was steep, slow and laboured. It was a new experience for me to launch straight into such a climb at 4am. Clive seemed to be going well. I would not have wished to go any faster and I'd only just started.

As we picked off the peaks, Dave and I stayed close to Clive so he could access his supplies. However, when the steep descents appeared, my knee found me out straight away. I could not run. I rapidly got left behind as I stumbled clumsily down at a walk before trying to catch up when the terrain eased. I found myself humbled as I realised that a BGR would be an impossibility for me unless my knee can get better (it's showing no signs so far). Leg strength, descending ability and confidence had deserted me.

Clive battled on. I just about kept up by missing out some of the out-and back peaks he ascended. The wind on the tops was bitter, the puddles were beginning to freeze and silvery-white frost glistened on the grass and rocks in our torchlight. Jim and expert navigator Mark Smith ran strongly ahead many times but always waited dutifully for the rest of us to catch up before leading the way again.

The sun had risen by the time we climbed Bow Fell. It was a steep, perilous, rock and grass traversing climb, where a slip would result in a rapid, involuntary and very destructive descent to the bottom of the valley. I was left severely wanting again and soon found myself alone as I struggled slowly up the climb. Each step up was so much slower and weaker than it should have been, to ease the loading of and discomfort in my right knee. This was the first serious terrain I had traversed since it all went wrong. I felt inadequate and frustrated at this unaccustomed impediment. I feared I was on the verge of becoming a liability on Clive's big day. I was supposed to be supporting, not vice versa! When I crested the ridge, there was no-one to be seen. I shouted out as loud as I could but my voice wafted uselessly onto the wind. I made an intelligent guess and bared left across the mini col towards what I assumed was the highest peak. Mercifully I saw Mark and Dave waiting for Clive and Jim to descend from the summit of Bow Fell. I joined them with a big sense of relief. The wind was bitter as we waited. I was getting chilled.

On the approach to Esk Pike, with Clive's agreement, Jim and Mark went on ahead at their own pace. They soon vanished into the distance. Clive and Dave were behind them and I was well and truly bringing up the rear. After Esk Pike we were due to meet Roger Griffith at Esk Hause for a flask of warm tea and sandwiches for Clive, but he wasn't there. We were well behind schedule by now and it was likely that he had left, thinking he'd missed us. It was suggested I divert right down the tourist path to the cross shelter to see if he was there, then follow the easier tourist path down into Wasdale. This meant that I would miss the opportunity to see Broad Stand from below, which I had been looking forward to, but with the way I had been struggling to a shameful and embarrassing degree I was happy to oblige.

I enjoyed a more leisurely walk, attempted shuffle and stumble but mostly a walk, down the rocky path in the warming sunshine. Now the pressure to perform was off and the risk of letting Clive down was removed, I began to enjoy myself a little more. I had more opportunity to take some pictures and I chatted to a group of walkers that I saw climbing past Styhead Tarn. They caught up with me at the stretcher box at Sty Head as I paused for food and drink.

Well into the morning now, many more walkers were passed on the final descent to Wasdale. I was still wearing my head torch and got a few inquisitive looks and comments. I finally arrived around 6 hours after we set off from Dunmail. (There was a hiccup as I waited at the wrong carpark at Wasdale Head, wondering where the support crew was.) The distance according to Tracklogs was just under 16 miles. That's 2.67mph. How sobering is that?

There was only one rational decision that could be made by the time Clive arrived at Wasdale. He saved himself from further punishment and relinquished himself to the loving arms of his wife Myra, followed by the supportive caress of the picnic chair, followed by the relieving leg massage given by Olly (who was due to have run leg 4 with him).

Clive, you will be back, better informed, better prepared and with the knowledge to conquer the challenge. The fact that you are already talking about your comeback is a very good sign.

This was principally Clive's BGR weekend, but I hope he won't mind me following on with Jim's onward journey.

After he continued ahead, Jim gave his support runners a good work-out as he powered his way through the remainder of leg three and legs 4 and 5. By the sound of it he ran like a man possessed, running leg 4 on a 16-hour BGR schedule. I had got a lift back to camp with the ‘groupies’ (runners’ wives) and grabbed a few hours’ kip before waking to a text message that Jim was flying and expected back at Keswick in 20 minutes’ time. I jumped into the car and got there in time to join the two groupies and their children, Dave A and Pippa on the Moot Hall steps to look out across the Saturday market for the first signs of faster-than-normal human movement.

Jim and Nigel eventually appeared, fighting their way through the throng. With yards to go they were forced to divert between the market stalls by a delivery van parked on the road. After fighting his way back out through the flowers, Jim touched the green door a little over 22 hours after setting off.

He looked amazingly strong and none the worse for wear. I predict a good 18-hour or less BGR completion waiting for Jim. Nigel was looking understandably weary after having supported from the beginning and run the final road section to the finish. What a guy. Clive appeared with his family to offer his congratulations and looking somewhat refreshed after a few hours’ kip. I know Clive will be back for another go. Refuelling commenced within the golden half hour in the adjacent lounge bar. Fortunately they were not precious about standards of attire. Celebrations continued later on in the pub in Bassenthwaite.

I was awed by my first BGR experience – not just the physical challenge of doing it (which is daunting), but also the mental challenge of committing to it and starting, the logistical challenge and the people. I was humbled by the willingness, the selflessness, the helpfulness, the eagerness of the BGR community. Everybody wants to help others in their attempt, such that no-one is left wanting if they want to take on the challenge. It is one big family of giving, encouragement, support, mutual respect and understanding. I always said that I could never do a BGR because I don’t know enough people to help out, and anyway I don’t like putting on people. I now know that I will be inundated with volunteers if I ever gave the nod. The one fly in the ointment is that now I may never be physically capable of taking it on. You need a body you can really put your confidence in to perform on the most extreme ups and downs. I don’t have that anymore.

All the pictures I took are here.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Runfurther series race 11 of 12. High Peak 40mi. 20/09/2010.

High Peak 40mile Challenge
Once again a Runfurther series race gets to enjoy a large, quality turnout, and it seemed a very sizeable turnout by HP40 standards. There were loads of first-timers, unlike this ultra-plodder, who was about to enjoy his 11th completion, surely in a faster time than last year’s illness-wracked drag, but how much faster? Foreign business travel in the week leading up to it, which is never the best training I find, would probably preclude a PB.

In the registration hall I was spoilt for choice for chin-wag targets – so many friendly people, so many running acquaintances new and old. I fear I might have neglected a few. If you felt neglected it wasn't personal. I arrived with over an hour to spare but it seemed no time before we were asked to make our way down to the starting area on Broadwalk, parkland down to our left and B&B mansions up to our right. I had my clapped-out camera with me again and I intended to use it more this time. I clocked a couple of Vibram Fivefingers wearers, who were going to run the race in them. Respect!

I went to the front of the group to take pictures and listen to the strident tones of the speech-Meister, words to the effect of:
“Is this your first time?” (More than 50% hands go up.) “Then try a Hundred one day. You might like it.” The poor man didn't consider some HP40 first-timers might already have done several Hundreds, tough Hundreds, very fast Hundreds, and won them.
“Thank the marshals or else”. As if we wouldn't ;-)

I was feeling slightly star-struck as I rubbed shoulders with the serious speedsters at the front: winner of this year's Lakeland 100, winner of this year's Fellsman, UK 2010 100k champion, ….. Of course I was an outright imposter being there but I didn't care. I'd stood in that position many times before, and if these real athletes wanted to come and join me, it would have seemed churlish and unfriendly to withdraw to the back, what?

Chinese timing by means of hand-held wall clock with precision quartz movement was used to count us down to the 8am start, and so began the familiar torture of a route that is just a bit too runnable, with too few walking breaks, so the legs get trashed just a little. The course is always well marked, and particularly well so this year. The checkpoints for refuelling are frequent and welcoming, while the countryside and the views are beautiful, if a little touristy at times. The weather was quite a bit cooler than it's been for a good few years, which would have aided fast times. At least the rain just about held off, which is more than can be said for Saturday night and Sunday. We were so lucky.

The Errwood and Fernilee reservoirs in the Goyt Valley, viewed nicely from the top of the Bonsal Incline, were well down, which I found surprising after the return to normality of our climate at the end of June (i.e. the rain came back after its 7-month absence). Here's what it looked like from the overflow end:

My camera became even more clapped-out after it fell, corner first, onto a stone early on, after which the screen failed mostly to light up and the sounds failed mostly to sound. I continued to snap away blind, not knowing what I was taking or if it was working.

We got to enjoy once more that giant, green rhubarb-like vegetation on the diversion around Cadster Farm, though somehow this year it seemed to be more battered and less rampant than in previous years. (I look forward to the time when that short stretch of lane gets returned to public use.) On the road climb that followed, Andy Butler was sitting outside his house, brew in hand, to cheer us on. He joined me for the power walk to the top to exchange a few words. Needless to say I slowed down to fit more words in, overenthusiastic gasbag that I am.

As we skirted Eccles Pike along the road, the reservoir down below in the distance (Combs Reservoir?) looked even more depleted. How come? It's rained plenty in recent months, hasn't it?

The mostly road and track route brought us to Rushup Edge, then left up the ridge, down that nice new trail to cross the road before the climb to the top of Mam Tor (we received awestruck and admiring comments from a woman as we powered to the top), then gently down to Hollins Cross before turning down towards Castleton a la Bullock Smithy Hike. I tottered down the eroded path as fast as my knee allowed. My legs, descending muscles less strong than they used to be, were already getting shaky.

The climb up Cave Dale provided a welcome walking break. The tourists commented on my race number – Number 1. I didn't bother explaining to them that it was a reflection of keenness (to enter the event), not athletic ability.

The next checkpoint at Bushy Heath heralded a long, consistently downhill road stretch through Tideswell, past the piano showroom on the right (I've never heard the ivories being tickled since 1998 when I first passed that way) to Checkpoint 8 at Tideswell Dale. The shuffle was sustained, but it always strikes me how slow it is at that stage, despite the easy downhill.

The next stretch through Litton and Cressbrook Dale to the Monsal Trail is truly beautiful and one of my favourite parts. It was good to see Checkpoint 9 moved down to the viaduct, where we leave the disused railway line and where they warned in the pre-race briefing that the waymarker is always tampered with. There would be no chance of anyone being led astray this year. I hope they keep the new location.

The survival 'run' brought me to the A6 crossing and Deep Dale 1. I failed to run all of the climb up to High Low, even though I have been able to in a previous 'superhuman' year (for me). Other runners, many of them familiar faces, had been overtaking me for hours. They continued to trickle by, one-by-one.

I had another kneel down at Checkpoint 10 (High Low) to kill two birds with one stone – decant my third and final half-litre of Coke into one of my hand-held bottles while squeezing the lactic acid out of my complaining leg muscles. The Coke, periodic kneeling (not necessarily at checkpoints or while decanting Coke) and the two Ibuprofen tablets I had already taken had exhausted my repertoire of things to keep me going. I set off along that 'yellow brick road' that undulated and twisted its way to the horizon and beyond. I 'ran' every step at a pace that probably equalled a healthy walking pace. I could do no more. I switched my mind off as I writhed my very being towards Chelmorton and the relief of a bit of downhill.

The traverse of the fields among the frisky, inquisitive cows to that cleft in the planet known as Deep Dale 2 involves the climbing of several stone stiles. Legs turned to jelly by so many miles of enforced 'running' are on the verge of giving way, while calves that teeter on the brink of spasm are nearly switched on for good by every slip and stumble on the precipitous zigzag descent to the bottom. The climb up the other side proved to be a breath of fresh air and an opportunity for recovery. I finished the Marathon ('Sniggers') bar that I had already half eaten to get more needed fuel into the system as I enjoyed the power climb. As soon as it began to level out on the fields on the other side, I actually wanted to run now. The respite from the trudge on tarmac on the (almost) flat had restored power to the legs. I ran through the final checkpoint at King Sterndale, pausing just long enough to get my tally clipped. In previous years I have usually stopped for a cup of sweet tea but I had my Coke to keep me going this year.

Now it was my turn to do a spot of catching up and overtaking as I pushed myself to the finish. I hadn't run this fast for a few hours. I felt rejuvenated. I had long given up on a PB (sub 7:38). My next target was sub 8 hours. I could see it slipping through my fingers as the viaduct came into view and I headed towards the terraced footpath underneath its leftmost arch. Despite my (relatively) strong finish I could only manage 8:04, which is fourth best out of 11 finishes. I was 67th out of 164 finishers. I hate to think what my time would have been had I not consumed 1.5 litres of Coke. My legs have not felt so battered with DOMS in a long time.

I enjoyed a post-race massage followed by more chatting over a cuppa and a couple of sausage rolls. The Vibram Fivefingers reappeared, somewhat more muddy than before. Their wearers – Liam Sheils and Garry Steel, had actually completed the event without obvious damage to feet or calf muscles. I'm even more impressed.

The winner was Duncan Harris in 5:20:15 (he won The Fellsman in May this year). Second was Brian Cole in 5:39:55 (he is the 2010 UK 100k champion). I heard a rumour that he might not have been at his best on the day. Third was Ian Bishop in 5:48:50.

First female was Cat Lawson in 6:56:48, followed by Karen Nash in 6:59:15 and Siobhan Evans in 7:05:47.

I took more pictures than I dreamed possible, given the lamentable state of my equipment.