Monday, 22 March 2010

A weekend of two halves.

Saturday 20th March 2010 was grotty. After the best part of a month without any rain to speak of, it p****d down all day to undo a month’s worth of drying out within hours. It was the day of the Hardmoors 55, for which I was registered. I was thankful I’d had to cancel my participation. The conditions on the exposed North Yorkshire Moors sounded utterly grim.

It was all change on Sunday. The rain had passed and a foggy start eventually gave way to warm sunshine. It was also the day of the rescheduled Silver Jubilee Two Crosses Circuit from Tottington, near Bury. This year’s exceptional winter snowfall had caused its postponement from January for the first time in its 25-year history. I had registered but because of the clash with the Hardmoors 55, I’d cancelled it. Now I wasn’t doing the Hardmoors and this became a possible option again.

Although my right knee continued to rebel against normal day-to-day existence like negotiating staircases and sitting down, my left foot had improved to the point where I could just about walk at full speed in shoes. I decided I would have a go at the 18-mile route, so I phoned the organiser to make sure I could enter on the day.

Unsurprisingly I received a few surprised comments when I was seen at the ‘Yoof’ Centre in running attire. “You be careful and don’t do too much too soon” was the universal sentiment. They matched my sentiments perfectly. The reschedule had reduced the entries, such that the Centre was not the usual squeeze at registration. I paid my £10 EOD fee and lined up for the 8am start, in considerably more daylight and warmer temperatures than we would have got in January.

I set off running with Jenny Wyles (another one ailing with injuries, so we made a good pair), firm in the knowledge that I would retire at the next checkpoint if I felt discomfort. After all, these were my first running steps in 6 weeks and my injuries are not muscular, but bone and possibly tendon, possibly cartilage injuries that take far longer to heal (if they heal at all), so there’s no point in pushing through even mild discomfort because it will only ‘prolong the agony’.

It was sheer bliss to be out running across the countryside and through the mud again. What a feeling of freedom it gave me. I ran at an easy pace, knee gently complaining from the outset, but it felt a lot more comfortable than when negotiating stairs or when sitting down so I didn’t worry too much, that is until it shot a violent, transient stab of pain through me that was gone before I realised it had happened. My instinctive reaction was to flail both arms out sideways to cushion myself from what was no longer there. Anyone observing from behind would have thought I was trying to fly down the trail instead of run down it.

I continued to run gingerly and was beginning to feel my left foot complaining a little. Julian Brown had caught up and was obviously out for a leisurely bimble rather than a race, because he tagged along for a chat, which was nice. Both injuries were increasingly noticeable as I approached the first checkpoint, Turton Tower at just under 5 miles. I stopped there to save myself from unnecessary damage and bade farewell to Julian. That little run had taken me 50 minutes. It was a start and I felt rejuvenated. A kindly supporter there who was about to leave gave me a lift back to base. It was an expensive 5-miler but it was worth it.

I took a few pictures.

1. I got verbal feedback of the MRI scan results today – something about minor degeneration of the (anterior?) meniscus without underlying tear. That's a fat lot of good the glucosamine, chondroitin and Omega 3 fish oils have done me over the past few years, then. I just pray it's operable so I can return to running, cycling, sitting, driving and descending stairs in relative comfort. Until it gets sorted I can only languish in torment.
2. I am quite shocked at how quickly muscles lose their fitness. After 6 weeks without any running, this 5-mile gentle run has left my legs feeling as if I have run an ultra.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Runfurther series race 1 of 12. Wuthering Hike. Sat 13/03/2010. Supporting and spectating.

Another dry week and good forecast for the weekend promised excellent conditions for this 32-miler from Haworth (twin town Machu Picchu, Peru, no less) – the first in the 2010 Vasque Runfurther series. I volunteered again (dashing any hope of a back-to-back Grand Slam like I'd secretly planned). Race organiser Brett had said he could use some help from around 14:00 for when the rush starts but I was there by 06:30 like I would have been if I were running the event. This would provide the first opportunity since last October / November to catch up with the runners who travel from further afield for the Runfurther races. It was a busy event and first big ultrarunning reunion of 2010.

Brett deserves serious thanks for keeping the event on-track after the last-minute closure of the community centre (dodgy roof I think he said). Even though he was away leading up to the event, he still managed to organise the alternative venue at the junior school up the road, with great help from the caretaker. The enforced change made a serious dent in finances because not only was the school more expensive to hire, he had (even more expensive) two days of caretaker wages to pay, plus the additional hire charges of the Portaloos. He and his volunteers worked intensively and tirelessly all day. We are all very grateful.

I saw the send-off and watched the runners disappear up the little Haworth cobbled street before returning to the school to an empty calmness of bags and benches. The silence was punctuated only by the sounds of the Raynet people establishing their communications links, Brett discussing the day’s logistics in the kitchen with his volunteers and an enthusiastic lad who was bending the ears of anyone who would listen.

I had decided to keep myself sane with a bit of exercise by cycling back up the route to the final checkpoint, 4.5 miles from the finish, in time for the first runners. My trusty steed was unpacked from the car and awaiting me in the lobby, gleaming with cleanliness, but not for much longer.

As I waited to set off up and over the 'Top of the Stairs', I tried to make myself a bit useful by clearing the sink of its washing-up collection and topping up the tea urn ready for the later rehydration rush. Brett introduced me to the talkative one, who turned out to be none other than ‘Turbo Tom’ off the FRA forums, youngster of speed on the fells. I’d enjoyed his forum postings over the weeks – straight to the point and no beating about the bush. It was good to put a face to them. He was planning to go for a bit of a run, so we agreed to accompany one another up the return leg to the last checkpoint.

Tom was running at a decent pace but he still had breath to spare to chat as we climbed. The track became steep and uncyclable over the tops in the rocky sections and across the ‘slush puppies’ (remnants of snow drifts). Running was much more efficient but Tom was good enough to wait for me and hold the gates open. We arrived not much over half an hour after setting off, just as the marshals were finishing setting up the checkpoint. We relaxed in the sunshine to await the arrival of the first runners.

It wasn’t long before the first three appeared around the hill, running down the track towards us pretty fast. Adam Perry (Pennine), Ian Philips (Matlock) and Ben Abdelnoor (Ambleside) arrived and left together, but Adam and Ian finished equal first in 4:18 and Ben third in 4:20.
The first female through was Kate Bailey (Meironydd), who finished with the very impressive time of 4:34. Second female Sarah Rowell (Pudsey & Bramley) arrived at the checkpoint with the bit between her teeth and a look of grim determination and concentration. Looking the most focused of all, she finished in 5:11. Third female was Karen Nash (Preston) in 5:30.

The first team was the Martin duo; Messrs Beale and Indge (IPWireless) finished in 4:30. Close on their heels in second were Andrew Jebb and Andrew Nichol (Bingley) in 4:32. Third were Martyn Pollitt (Burnden) and Mark Russell (Bolton Tri) in 4:46.

Adrian Dixon (Krypton) put in another sterling performance to be the first V60 to finish; his time was 5:42.

I took pictures for as long as I could before having to get back on the bike for the return journey and my tour of voluntary duty. Phew, that climb was brutal. The lowest gears on my bike got a good work-out, not mention me and my dodgy knee. I enjoyed a chat with Wendy Dodds on the way. I tried to keep out of the way of the runners and hope I did not to inconvenience them, especially over the technical sections where they were quicker.

After checking with Brett, the timekeepers and the caterers, it turned out my services were not needed back at base after all; great, more chin-wagging and photograph-taking then. By the time I left at 16:00, the throng had subsided considerably. I then endured a journey home with right knee seriously rebelling from the exertions on the bike. The intense, gnawing dull ache was almost sending me sick and I couldn’t straighten my leg to get any relief until I arrived home 1.5 hours later. Once on my feet again, the knee quickly eased, then my left foot was reminding me that perhaps I had ‘exercised’ it more than I should have done. Another week’s sedentary existence is called for I think for the next stage of recovery.

Pictures (all 132 of them) are here. Sorry I couldn’t stop for longer to photograph more runners coming through the checkpoint. I know how you like to see your action shots on t’web ;-)

Monday, 8 March 2010

Troller's Trot. Sat 06/03/2010.

This is my first ever 'race report' on a race I did not do. I changed my planned participation to a voluntary role instead for a bit of giving after all the years of mostly taking. Organiser John Sparshatt had put out a request for more volunteers. It was an ideal excuse for me to still go and soak up the atmosphere, and be useful in the process.

I set off at 05:30 on the 1.5-hour journey to Threshfield, to arrive in plenty of time for a pre-race chat with friends old and new. One of the first people to greet me was Chris Brown with the words: “Nick, I'm not used to seeing you with clothes on”. Cheeky sod. What he meant was, I didn't have my legs out like I normally do and I was wrapped up in readiness for checkpoint duty. I took my place in the check-in queue multiple times as I saw familiar faces for a friendly chat. There was a good turn-out of forumites from the FRA forum. It felt strange standing in that school hall so familiar for The Fellsman as well as Troller's Trot, and not be pumped up with post-race or pre-race adrenaline.

Just before 08:00 we sauntered outside to the road ready for the start. The sad announcement was made that, after 18 years of this wonderful and increasingly popular (with the runners) event, it will be no more unless someone else takes over as chief organiser. John is retiring from organising events now. I thank him and his army of volunteers for all their efforts and the joys and challenges they have given us for so long. It is very clear how much everyone appreciates it. When speaking to him afterwards he said he almost felt guilty about stopping. It's very understandable; I would feel the same way, but he has to draw the line somewhere. Let's hope someone else does step in to take on this big responsibility.

About half an hour after the start, the sweepers set off for a long day's saunter at the back of the pack. An hour later I joined John Stewart for the drive up to Waddy Lathe, the last checkpoint at mile 9 of the 12-mile walkers' route. We were joined by a Raynet man, who maintained communication with base, to await the arrival of our customers. The weather was overcast, cold and threatening to drizzle, but there was a permanent patch of sunlight and a rainbow in the valley below. As I waited, clip board at the ready, I chatted to the casual walkers who passed by, and set one couple on the right path via the hidden stile adjacent to our checkpoint (the first stile in the route description you're supposed to ignore). John stood by with the clipper to clip the tallies. It wasn't long before it seized up mid-clip. Thank goodness we were on the walkers' route; a runner would never have hung around for the minute it took to free punch from tally. Walkers are so laid back and chilled. John resorted to the scissor accessory on his personal multi tool / Swiss army knife / Leatherman-type thingy for the remaining 'punching'. Our 34th and final customer passed through before 11:30. The Raynet communication was very useful in telling us that there were no more to come and we could return to base, otherwise we would have stayed out for another hour.

As we pulled into the lane to the school we gave way to a runner who had just run up the hill and was a few seconds away from a comfortable sub-4-hour finish. I felt very envious. When I got into the hall to report to the timekeeper with our checkpoint data, I was amazed at the number of runners already finished, draped on chairs in various stages of sweaty recovery. The faster and more recovered ones were already forming a long queue for dinner. The even faster ones were already stuffing their faces. The racing snakes and whippets had probably long gone home ;-)

After more than 2.5 hours of chatting, drinking tea and getting all sorts of knee advice from those with 'previous form', I set off home, happy at having got to my first event in four weeks to serve and socialise, but no matter how hard I tried, I could not banish the sense of what was missing. I felt empty; I hadn't exercised or pushed myself to the limit of physical exertion like I have done every other time I have made that journey.

All the pictures are here.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Things ain't so bad

Things are looking up with the foot. The swelling has reduced sufficiently for me to wear a proper shoe for the first time today at work.

As for the knee, I've accepted the pain now. I have the MRI scan appointment for next Wednesday, so I can see some progress. I've cycled to work every day this week. At least it's less painful than descending stairs and it means I'm getting a bit of exercise, so now I only climb halfway up the walls.

On another positive note, I'll be setting out at 05:30 to Threshfield on Saturday to help out at Troller's Trot (I was due to be running it). I know several of you who will be running it. I'm down to man a checkpoint on the short route and most of you will be doing the long, but I'm sure we'll catch up before and afterwards.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

That’s it then.

I’m now into the 4th week since the break. The left foot recovery has remained pretty static for the past week – still a little swollen, red and warm. It remains uncomfortable to walk in any other way than very slowly with a sandal whose forefoot strap holds it together. It may just be turning the corner as of this evening. Bones repair in time and I expect a full recovery.

Break plus 20 days:

What is more terrifying for me is my right knee, which is getting no better as I languish. If anything it's getting worse by the week. For as long as I can remember it has always crunched when I have straightened my leg but it was never painful. During last year it became increasingly niggly, with dull pain down the front of the knee during events when descending. However it was never severe enough to stop me and I did not complain; the euphoria of each event dulled any discomfort. It did not recover during periods of lay-off towards the end of last year / beginning of this. Eventually, sitting down with knee at right-angles became uncomfortable and descending stairs became increasingly painful. It must have affected my running and caused me to put more stress on, and damage, my left foot. The VFFs finished the job nicely on 8th February after barely 3 weeks of occasional use.

Now into my 4th week of enforced sedentary existence with zero running, the knee has worsened to the point where it constantly reminds me that something is very wrong. Even walking (which is naturally slow, brief and easygoing at the moment) is uncomfortable now. Climbing stairs has become painful but descending stairs is the real ordeal. Within the space of a month I’m suddenly reduced to hobbling around like an arthritic OAP and it’s not nice. I feel out of control of my destiny, trapped with no way out. The very thought of running is far-fetched nonsense at the moment. I’ve been living on borrowed time for long enough. Now even the glucosamine, chondroitin and omega fish oils cannot paper over the cracks any longer. Unlike the busted foot, THIS isn’t going to get better on its own.

I await an appointment for an MRI scan to tell me what the damage is. Assuming it's damaged cartilage of long standing (I can't see how it could be anything else), the best scenario might be some peripheral tidying up to stop tendons twanging across it, thereby restoring full running, walking and sitting capability. Magic! However I really cannot help myself being overwhelmed by a worst-case scenario of the cartilage within the joint being so compromised it's beyond repair, spelling the end of my running career. The only thing that kept me fit, healthy and sane will have been snatched away from me.

Three weekends worth of events have been lost so far, with one per weekend to follow until further notice. My running diary is in tatters – a write-off. I don’t know when I will be back, if at all. It was good while it lasted. Even cycling is painful so I can’t return to that as an alternative to keep the fitness up. (Even sitting here typing this is painful.) When I look to the horizon and see only a big black cloud with no light on the other side I am reduced to tears of self pity and nostalgia. It’s the end of life as I know it. I'll retire to the couch in front of the goggle box with my feet up, comforting myself with booze, peanuts and crisps as I watch my legs waste away and my waistline do the opposite.