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.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Runfurther series race 10 of 12. Pumlumon Challenge 26mi. 11/09/2010.

Pumlumon Challenge
A small but perfectly formed group of athletes gathered at the Nant yr Arian Forestry Centre for the 10am runners' start. Despite the field being more competitive than at any time in the event's history, with the record sure to fall, the atmosphere couldn't have been more low-key or laid back as the group ambled almost reluctantly in the general direction of the invisible starting line just seconds before the 'Go' command from Wynn.

This year we would not be blessed with the warm sunshine and dry conditions of the previous two years. However, the heavy overnight rain had thankfully moved away to leave windblown cloud wrapped around the hill tops. The final showery burst passed over shortly before our release into the Cambrian Mountains.

Of all the Runfurther races, this one ranks alongside The Fellsman as being more of a fell race than a trail race. A lot of it is off-path. Even if there is a footpath marked on the map, the reality on the ground can be very different. A tussock-'n'-bog trip-fest can be more the reality. There are two major climbs – Plynlimon / Pumlumon Fawr and Drosgol. The climbs and off-path nature of the event result in slow times for 'only' marathon distance. This year's wet underfoot conditions would not have helped. Furthermore, the route was slightly longer due to a re-route around the road and track to Checkpoint 2. The usual route along the 'footpath' (at least on the map) around the fell was deemed out of bounds, apparently due to some 'spooked' cows.

With the racing snakes well and truly out of sight way ahead, I settled into my usual survival pace and my rightful place in the bottom half of the competitive field, with other runners slowly overtaking me or me occasionally overtaking them. I was hoping to pick better lines this year (races like these involve a lot of luck, practice and prior knowledge in knowing where the most runnable, or even walkable, terrain can be found). I succeeded after Checkpoint 4 after the descent from the source of the River Severn, and on the northern bank of the Nant-y-moch Reservoir. However I made a worse job of it on the descent to Nant-y-moch, circumnavigating the final hill, Disgwylfa Fawr and upon leaving the final self clip at the flooded gate, despite this being my 4th Pumlumon. We are always learning. Getting it right can take years of practice. I shall be better informed the fifth time around in 2011.

I was pleased to see the return of the toffee waffles this year after their unexpected and disappointing absence last year. They brought an altogether more positive aspect to my experience as I looked forward to restocking at the refreshment stops. Also, the fact that I wasn't fighting illness this year might have helped with the more positive attitude.

This was one of the more rare events when I ended up running and finishing with someone with whom I had been leapfrogging for many miles. Tony Wimbush and I ran the final third and crossed the finishing line together in 6:06. It was nice to have some company.

I wouldn't have minded a sub-6, or even a PB, which would have required sub 5:53, but I can't expect a PB every week. It was still a second best, so I shouldn't complain.

The top times were spectacular, given the terrain. Jon Morgan and Ben Abdelnoor finished equal first in 3:56:41. The record had been duly smashed. Third was Stuart Mills (Lakeland 100 winner) in 4:02:25. First female was Kate Bailey in 4:30:54. Second was Nicky Spinks in 5:06. (Nicky was first female in the Grand Raid Pyrenees 100-mile mountain race two weeks earlier.) Third was Jayne Angilley in 5:33. Nine gold medals were earned for times faster than 5 hours. This is the highest yet.

After the race we lounged on the deck of the outdoor centre to eat our food (possibly the best service yet with the runners catered separately from the public in the cafĂ©). We did a bit of 'twitching' – watched the wild birds swarm to the feeder that hung close by, and the red kites swoop and soar over the lake close to their feeding point.

There are only 'before and after' pictures this time. Unfortunately I took no pictures out on the route, electing to keep my camera covered during the run because of the dampness, but mostly because I was getting on with the job or perambulation.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Bullock Smithy Hike 56mi. 04/09/2010.

Report updated 17/09/2010.
Bullock Smithy Hike
15 years, 14 starts, 13 completions and now, in 2010, the year of injury and niggle, I go and get my first ever sub-12-hour finish. WOOOO-HOO! That was unexpected!

Until a week or two before this event I thought I would not be doing it. I was supposed to be away on business. A busy month of Runfurther races made me think it would be unwise to do it anyway because I know what I'm like. If I'm doing an event I feel driven to give it my all, especially on this, my first and most-run event. That would risk diminishing my performance on the races that supposedly matter more – Pumlumon Challenge 26 next week and High Peak 40 the week after.

Well, the business travel was delayed until October and I could not resist the temptation. I handed in my entry in person on Monday (it's my local event) and I booked an impromptu day's holiday on Wednesday to reconnoitre the final 22 miles from Earl Sterndale to get some exercise in the legs. The day was very warm and I probably drank too much electrolyte. It left me feeling far too wasted for comfort. I got a couple of good nights' sleep to sort myself out and I rolled up at registration on Saturday feeling surprisingly chipper.

The weather had been dry and warm for a good while and the forecast was just about holding out. Conditions could not have been better – not too warm, not too cold and dry underfoot. The turn-out was impressive and thought to be a record since the start of this event in 1976 – quite impressive considering it's not part of the Runfurther series. It just goes to show the increasing popularity of ultra trail running. I would wager that the Internet and blogs such as this pique runners' interest, they have a dabble and, once dabbled, they're hooked. A case in point is my fellow Stockport Harriers. We had a big turn-out last year. They dabbled. They became hooked. They came back for PBs. They conquered. They will want to return next year for more PBs. I know. I've been at it for 15 years and I still want more.

Anyway, the anvil was struck in Devonshire Park at 12:01 and I set off with a surprisingly large number of other runners along the alternative route along the main road, left up Towers Road and left across the fields towards the golf course. This might have saved a minute compared to the route I'd always taken since 1996.

I settled into a pace that I hoped I could sustain. Using the Lincoln University medical research results from last year, I had to keep my heart rate around 165bpm for maximum endurance without blowing up. It only peaked towards 175 briefly during my early exuberance, but it was not long enough to do any harm. I found myself already slipping behind my PB schedule of 2007 by the first checkpoint at Bowstones. I expected it and wasn't worried. I knew I couldn't be as fit as I was in 2007. I just had to make the best of what I had in 2010.

The descents down to Chinley Churn, to the valley before the slog up to Edale Cross and down Jacob's Ladder were slower and more painful than usual thanks to the knee. By the time I arrived at CP4 (Edale, 17.4mi.) I was around 10 minutes down on my PB schedule. Not too bad, I thought; still redeemable. This deficit remained constant, give or take a few minutes, for the next 25 miles to CP11 (Cumberland Cottage, 42.6mi.): even more promising. I was holding my own.

As is often the case during ultras such as these, I found myself running alone quite early on, while leapfrogging back and forth with other runners of a similar pace – Mark Dalton, Geoff Pettengell (another BSH veteran), Julian Brown & Jo Miles (Julian ran the Grand Raid Pyrenees on the previous weekend!), Amanda Calvert and Stephen Watts with son Alastair (Stephen ran the PTL on the previous weekend!!).

I was fuelling myself with Coke, which supplemented the variety of food from the checkpoints, so I was able to sustain a decent pace after the initial slower start. There were crisps, jam sandwiches, bananas, soup & bread.

The orange segments at Peak Forest always bring the child out in me as I do the big orange gum shield impersonation, sometimes in public as I run up the main road towards Miller's Dale. Come on, own up, I bet you do it as well.

As I ran across the fields of lush green pasture towards the road into Wheston, I caught sight of a flock of sheep being driven along the lane to my left. I knew what was going to happen, and it did. I couldn't outrun them. Our paths met at the point where I emerged onto the road. I waited while the two sheepdogs guided them into a field just before the farmer's vehicle that was stopped across the road ahead. The dumb animals were having none of it. They shot out of the gateway again, squeezed past the vehicle and continued down the road. The farmer growled his commands to the dogs, who duly obeyed and chased off down the road to fetch them back, which they did except for one. When the remaining sheep realised it was alone, it galloped up the road like a horse, past me as I dutifully stood to one side, to rejoin the flock. I have never before seen (or heard) a sheep run so fast.

Back to the food. The jam doughnut at Chelmorton was eagerly scoffed. I was ready for it but I remarked to Julian and Jo that either it would make me sick or it would fuel me well. Fortunately the latter proved to be the case. All fears of nausea had vanished by the time I was running across the fields via those nice new hand gates on the approach to Earl Sterndale.

The hot dog at Brand Top was also eagerly scoffed, and again nausea never featured as I adopted the most efficient ultra-running lope I could muster along the road to Knotbury, now by the light of my head torch. Amanda, Steve and Alastair chose the field route to the right up to Hilltop. Although it appears more direct on the map, it involves more climbing and proved to be marginally slower than my more runnable road route.

Now into darkness the night remained mild, calm and dry and I was still glistening with perspiration whenever the breeze dropped. My daytime attire of vest and shorts would not be added to. I set off from Cumberland Cottage in pursuit of Steve, Alastair and Mandy, who had left with barely a pause. They were out of sight but they couldn't be too far away. I began to make up time for the first time. The Coke was doing its thing and keeping the legs fuelled like never before. As I arrived at CP12 (Walker Barn, 46.9mi.), the other three were just leaving. I'd clawed back good time. A quick refuel and I was off on the descent (with a bit of up) to the final checkpoint at Whiteley Green (51.1mi.). For the first time I'd been able to run the entire canal towpath and I'd caught up with my three targets before we'd hit the checkpoint. I'd made up more time but I was still 5 minutes behind my PB schedule. I would need to knock 12 minutes off that on the final leg to get a sub 12. “Impossible”, I still thought to myself. I'd said to Steve earlier: “If I think I can get a sub 12 I'm living in cloud cuckoo land. Sub 13 is far more realistic."

I began to fantasise and cuckoos and clouds started to flood my thoughts as I set off running along the Middlewood Way in the lead. It wasn't long before the other three overtook me and slowly disappeared into the distance. I carried on running to the best of my ability (yes, I was still running and quite unbelievably it was feeling relatively comfortable and painless). I slowly overtook another runner before the left exit at Bridge No. 12 at Wood Lanes. I carried on running, zigzagging right-left-right along roads, tracks and footpaths to the top of Towers Road. I was still running as I exited that interminable drag onto the main road. I checked my watch and caught my breath – only 10 minutes to midnight. I picked up the pace up the slight incline past the garden centre. I wanted that sub 12 and feared that the final road section would take more than 10 minutes. I needn't have worried. I hit the timekeeper's desk 11 hours and 56 minutes after I'd set off (rounded up to 11:58 by the uncharacteristically inaccurate BSH timekeepers). I had gained 15 minutes on that final 5.3-mile section. Steve, Alastair and Mandy had finished very strongly, 4 minutes ahead.

I finally achieved what I honestly thought was beyond me now even if race fit. I'd gained everything on the final three sections (around 14 miles). I was able to run all the way to the finish for the first time in my life. I actually felt like an ultra runner for once instead of an ultra plodder. The running flowed so freely and painlessly it seemed unreal, like the most perfect dream. Furthermore I did not feel trashed during or afterwards. Good hydration and fuelling have to be the reason. I drank 1.5 litres of Coke along the way.

There were some impressive performances. Mark Ollerenshaw was first male in 9:05, followed by Ian Symington in 9:14 and Steve Temple in 9:42. (Steve provides the amazing results breakdown and analysis.) Sally Keigher was first female in 10:35, smashing her own record of last year. She finished equal 6th with a load of other Stockport Harriers. There was a very strong field this year. I finished 30th, which is considerably lower than in previous years despite my PB, another indicator of the strength of the field. Ultra running is certainly on the up in the UK. How good is that?

The post-race chat in the dining hall was as entertaining as ever as we compared notes and shared a couple of cans of beer that Tony Audenshaw had left behind. He said we could before he left. Thanks Tony, it was still nice and cold and it went down a treat. Isn't it interesting how alcohol has no effect on the head when the body is still craving energy after an ultra.

Worrying was the news that a walker was still missing between Edale Cross and Edale, the checkpoint outside Edale Village Hall having eluded him. Mountain rescue trackers and a helicopter had been called out for the first time in the event’s history. Thankfully he was eventually found, by which time he must have been very hungry and thirsty. That 3.6-mile section had taken him over 9 hours of wandering up and down! It sounds incredible but apparently true.

I took a few pictures – fewer on route than I would have liked because I was trying to push the pace a little.

Nigel Aston always writes a very good BSH account. This year's can be found here.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

A nice long sit-down. 28/08/2010.

It was the weekend of the UTMB, Grand Raid Pyrenees, Ridgeway 85, Smuggler's Trod and more, but just for once I was sitting on my fat thin a*se eating pork pies washed down by cheap champagne (I know how to live it up) while most other readers of this blog were probably exerting themselves. I was doing something I've wanted to do for years - take a steam train ride on the Settle to Carlisle railway over the Ribblehead Viaduct. Finally the opportunity had arisen, so I accompanied my Dad for the long round trip from Stockport to Carlisle and back. We watched the countryside pass by from our vintage carriage (there were nine of them) of the Cumbrian Mountain Express as we were hauled most competently by the beautifully-maintained Duchess of Sutherland steam locomotive.

We had three hours or so to kill in Carlisle, which impressed me with its historic centre and vibrant market, the likes of which I only get to see at Christmas anywhere else. However I could hardly wait for the most important part for me - the Carlisle to Settle journey through Fellsman and Three Peaks Fell Race country.

The Fellsman: we crossed the Artengill viaduct over the track up from Stone House towards Great Gnoutberry.

The Fellsman: we travelled beneath the descent from Blea Moor before disappearing into Bleamoor tunnel and underneath that ventilation shaft that we head towards as we run along the roof of the tunnel.

Three Peaks Fell Race: we crossed the great Ribblehead viaduct itself with the first Three Peaks cut-off point way below. Plenty of walkers stood, gawped and felt compelled to wave. It's strange how steam trains have that effect on people.

Three Peaks Fell Race: We passed by Horton-in-Ribblesdale, start point of the Three Peaks Fell Race with Pen-y-Ghent looming in the backround, this time with a rainbow hat on.

Thank goodness Michael Portillo convinced Margaret Thatcher to save this line from closure way back in the eighties. It is now a thriving route with regular passenger services, which bring life and tourism to the towns that are served by it. Its use today far exceeds the projection that was used as justification for its reprieve nearly 30 years ago.

The full set of pictures is here.