Monday, 11 July 2016

Montane Lakeland 100 (105mi.) Fri 25 - Sun 27/07/2014.

Nearly 2 years overdue but I thought it was about time I finished this report with L100 2016 nearly upon us.

I wasn’t in tip-top condition for this. From being fighting fit a week earlier with 4 PBs for the month, infection, fever and a strong course of antibiotics that would end as the race began had left me feeling less than energetic.

The long hot summer of 2014 was continuing very nicely when I arrived in Coniston on Thursday afternoon. A notice on the door of the B&B asked guests to check their shoes for contamination before entering. A recent cheapskate cosmetic tarting-up of the local roads, combined with the hot sunshine, was resulting in tar and gravel being trodden in. Friday was forecast to be equally hot. If it was hot enough to be melting tar I feared melting ultra-runners as well. It was going to be tough.

Before dinner I wandered around to the school to begin to soak up the atmosphere. They were beavering away getting things ready. A major delivery of provisions had just arrived. I joined many others with the unloading, carrying and storing while Marc ticked things off his long list. Many hands made light work but even so, dinner was severely delayed. There was LOADS of stuff. The ‘Rola Cola’ alone was at risk of creating its own gravitational disturbance. I marvelled at the logistical enormity of the whole operation.

A hearty breakfast on Friday continued my strength build-up. I drove around to the school to park up for the weekend. Registration was slicker than ever:
Follow the barriers through kit check;
Race pack collection;
SPORTident timing dibber fitting to wrist;
Weighing – 62.9kg – I’d lost 2kg.

The rest of the day was mine to relax, chat with new arrivals, doze in the car (I needed the doors open for cooling even though I was parked under the shade of a tree), eat lunch. Mmmm, fish and chips. Stephen McAllister knows what’s good for him.

Pre-race fuelling.

The race briefing at 16:30 was as informative and entertaining as ever. Race Organiser Marc Laithwaite hit the nail on the head with his analysis of the reason people give for running an Ultra:
“Why?”
“To challenge myself.”
But it only becomes a challenge when it becomes difficult, when the suffering really sets in. When you’re sitting at a checkpoint feeling bad, you have a choice. You can decide to call it a day and end your suffering early or you can decide to get up, walk out and continue your journey to the end. Barring physical injury (forget superficial tissue damage like blisters) it all depends on mental fortitude to keep going. Then you’re challenging yourself.

I would try to keep those thoughts in my mind and hope that they would get me through to the end. This might have been my 19th Hundred and 4th Lakeland 100 but nothing’s guaranteed and I certainly wasn’t feeling invincible. To add an extra minor uncertainty I would be trying a brand new pair of Scarpa trail shoes just picked up on Thursday morning. They felt very comfortable so I wasn’t too worried.

I had another lie-down in the cool of the school before the start, delaying until the last minute my exit to deposit my drop bag in the heat. It contained precious ham rolls that had to last another 3 days. As we waited to funnel into the starting pen, Charlie Sharpe came up to say ‘ow do. Although I’d followed his impressive exploits on Facebook (he’s a bit of an animal is Charlie), the last time we’d spoken in person was after the Tour de Helvellyn last December. My money was on him as a possible winner. Garry Scott was another good running acquaintance that was remade. The Lakeland 100 is good for bringing us together like that.

Finally we filed into the pen, dibbing to register our participation as we went. I immediately took up position trespassing near the front line to mix it with the big boys. Crowds lined the barriers inside the school grounds and out onto the streets. Former L100 winner Stuart Mills called across from the other side of the barriers. He’d be running the L50. He wished me luck. I suspect he was thankful not to be setting off in this oven we were experiencing. It was in the high twenties and the sun baked us, aided and abetted by high humidity and zero breeze.

Just before the start the adopted L100 theme song (or dirge if it's not your cup of coffee; I prefer tea), Nessun Dorma, was belted out over the PA by professional tenor Alexander Wall. He coped amazingly well despite the dodgy PA with blown tweeters (just like the old Peaveys in the school hall) and DJ mode which shut off the orchestra backing whenever he sang. Like a true professional he kept perfect time and tune while having to sing from memory, audible cues only appearing when he paused and the orchestra burst forth once again. Come on Marc, get it sorted for 2016. I offered my services on your blog post but the comment failed to appear.

Good singer, shame about the equipment.

Coniston to CP1 Seathwaite (7.0 miles)

We were off, running at conservative pace through Coniston to the cheer of the crowds. We joined the stony track that climbed out of Coniston, where those with any sense and those without superhuman tendencies slowed to a walk. I welcomed the break already. It was hot. Ben Abdelnoor was cheering from the side lines. I assumed he’d be doing the L50 again and wished him luck, but he wasn’t this year.

The SportSunday photographers were in their usual place near the start of the Walna Scar Road, capturing some superb images in the strong evening sunshine.

I sensed right from the start that my fitness was lacking. Where I ran last year, I jogged. Where I jogged last year, I walked. Where last year I ran from the summit of the Walna Scar Road as if on a fell race overtaking all before me, this year I tottered clumsily and weakly while everyone else overtook me instead. I was already 8 minutes behind last year’s time at CP1 but the thought of not finishing never entered my head. I’d emptied my drink bottles and needed a major refill plus electrolyte infusion. That first checkpoint was manic with water all over the kitchen floor and severely overloaded marshals.

Seathwaite to CP2 Boot (14.0 miles)

I was doing so much walking as our journey continued in the sultry evening with the setting sun glaring in our faces. I was 28 minutes down by the time I arrived at CP2 in fading light, resigned to my slower pace. I’d enjoyed some more banter with the SportSunday photographers before the checkpoint, to which a fellow runner remarked: “Would you mind curbing your fan club, Nick.” I laughed some more.

The steep descent to Eskdale before CP2 @ Boot.

Boot to CP3 Wasdale Head (19.4 miles)

Sun shade cap got swapped for head torch before leaving CP2. It was virtually dark by the time I reached Burnmoor Tarn. Last year I’d have been at Wasdale Head by now. I’d resisted switching my head torch on. I took the obligatory photo of the tarn in the gloaming, this time having to rest the back of the camera on the footbridge cross-member to steady it for the 1.5 second exposure time.

We were made to feel loved as we passed through the gate onto the grassy footpath before CP3. An arrow pointed the way and the notice read: “Beautiful people this way”. The marshals on this event are second to none with their encouragement. They all wore marshal T shirts with “Supporting the legends” printed on the back. Cheering and bell-ringing led us to CP3 in the barn, which was as colourful as ever with its disco lights and hippy personnel. I was 45 minutes down here but did I care?

I’d swapped back and forth with Fredelina Yong. We’d done battle on a couple of local fell races earlier this year, me beating her once and her beating me once. We were good competition for each other. She came in to the checkpoint just as I was about to leave. I’d be seeing more of her I was sure.

Wasdale Head to CP4 Buttermere (26.3 miles)

I left CP3 with renewed vigour, overtaking others on the climb to Black Sail Pass. The steep descent to the River Liza and Black Sail Yoof ‘ostel is rough and treacherous at the best of times, but in the dark it’s something else. Head torches spread out below me as I descended in their general direction. I soon realised that I was on a pleasant though very steep grassy descent that was better than I recalled, and it was dry. A prominence of land loomed to my right. The closer runners I’d been chasing were no longer in view. I must have inadvertently drifted off the path to the left and they must have been over the other side on my right. I wasn’t concerned because I was still descending in the right direction, and underfoot conditions couldn’t have been better. Further down at the end of the prominence, the other runners appeared and our paths merged onto the final boggy descent to the footbridge. (That bit is never dry, even in dry conditions like now.) At the bottom I looked back up at the pursuing head torches scattered across the fell side.

I’d forgotten how tough the next climb and descent to Buttermere is. On the climb a runner was bent over by the side of the path, vomiting repeatedly. He must have emptied the contents of his stomach, and some. We asked after his welfare. I asked if he wanted a message relaying to the next checkpoint. He said yes. I memorised No. 17. I feared it would be a long delay because I wasn’t moving fast at all. I walked most of it, taking the right fork and lakeside path for the first time on the approach to Buttermere (it’s much better with fewer undulations than keeping straight on).

I was 1hr 5mins down at CP4 and it had taken me nearly 8 hours to run a marathon. We were still legends though. I informed a marshal about stricken number 17. I was genuinely concerned about him and wondered how he’d make it all that way to sanctuary when so incapacitated. Only afterwards when I checked the results to see what became of him did I discover that not only did he finish, he actually caught me up at that checkpoint!

I enjoyed my first ham roll to get me fuelled and on my way to Braithwaite. So far my fuelling and hydration had been going well, with no nausea and no extreme lows, but it was still early days.

Wasdale Head to CP5 Braithwaite (32.8 miles)

I always look forward to this section. It’s challenging and interesting even in the dark – ascend around three inlets, fork left, climb some more to the top then navigate and descend very carefully; it’s steep. We moved under a clear, moonless, starry sky. The air remained warm and sultry and I was sweating still in the shorts and sleeveless base layer I started with. I began to dread sunrise and the heat that would come with it.

The first signs of dawn were already starting to appear as we descended towards Braithwaite. I would have left Braithwaite by this point last year. I was pleased though to see more of my surroundings than I’m used to at this point.

It’s a long descent before we finally fork left through Barrow Door just before Barrow hill. A couple of head torches could be seen wandering about on the top. They’d failed to take the fork. They set off in pursuit when they saw my head torch on the correct path. They soon overtook me.

As we enter Braithwaite and the sharp right turn that zigzags down to the bottom, it’s surprising how others continue straight on to take the long way round. This year was no exception. I called them back but they knew best. I’d gained on them and a few more as we arrived at the church hall. I was now 1hr 6mins down – just about ‘holding my own’.

Every year, Braithwaite provides the first scene of proper suffering, with runners trying to nurse themselves back to health with the right amounts of the right food and the right drink to allow them to carry on. I didn’t feel too bad considering. I felt like an impostor in an institution of wretchedness. Tony and Giselle Dudley and helpers do a grand job every year, helping us back to health here.

Images of wretchedness abound at Braithwaite.

Braithwaite to CP6 Blencathra Centre (41.3 miles)

As always, the air felt frigid upon exiting the church hall even though it was well after daybreak. It is because this is a low point and the cold air always gathers in the valleys. It would get much warmer again as we gained altitude.

On the gradual climb to the first self-dib point I caught up with Raj Madhas, who was taping his feet. They were not in a good way. Raj was another runner I’d swapped back and forth with over the miles. As I plodded onward it wasn’t long before he came running past. He must have some magic tape. As for my own feet, everything felt fine apart from pressure points making themselves felt on the tops.

The sun rose unbroken and unobscured in clear sky as we approached the self-dib. I wanted shelter from it. We got that when we crossed to the other side of the valley for our descent towards the Blencathra Centre. I walked most of the way. I tried to run but the legs were having none of it. I got overtaken aplenty.

I knew that CP6 had a new crew – Team Little Dave – but I did not expect to be greeted by a pink fairy. Even the Union Jack was colour coordinated. Little Dave, a top bloke if ever there was one, had excelled himself to lift our spirits and lighten our early morning Lakeland 100 misery (well, this is a common low point). However I wasn’t feeling too bad, still managing to avoid any major lows. I was now 1hr 7mins down so still just about ‘holding my own’. Second ham roll got scoffed here for the next long stage.

CP6 had improved under its new leadership – less sterile and more homely. The camouflage ‘modesty screens’ probably added that extra feeling of intimacy / cosiness / homeliness. If you want to know how that works you’ll have to do the event next year. Little Dave knows what he’s doing.

The fairy flits around his domain at Blencathra.

Blencathra Centre to CP7 Dockray (49.0 miles)

We negotiated the fallen tree just after CP6 that we’d been warned about. On the descent of the lane and right turn through the gate to the railway track bed, three open air campers were sleeping on the left. Either they were pretending to sleep or they were inebriated, because the regular clanging of that gate since dark o’clock would surely have prevented any normal sleep.

The climb to the old coach road was completely dry and bog-free. The sun was higher in the sky than I’m used to at this point, but thankfully the intensity I’d been fearing overnight was now being slightly tempered by some high level cloud.

The coach road dragged on interminably, especially when mostly walked. As we approached CP7 we were greeted by cheering, bell-ringing marshals. Such encouragement is priceless on an event like this. One of them commented to me: “I’m glad I didn’t have to come out to meet you this year.” Quite, and what a memory. No fuelling problems this year. J I was now back to 48 minutes down, due mainly to the multiple sit-downs I had to take last year until the digestion came back to life.

I tried to recapture some of last year’s fuelling magic at Dockray. I finished the third ham roll I’d started on the coach road and washed it down with the first strong coffee of the event to really kick the digestion into action like it did last year.

Dockray to CP8 Dalemain (59.1 miles)

The fuelling worked to a degree. I was running and catching people again for a few miles. On the path around Gowbarrow Park overlooking Ullswater it was as hot as ever. 2014 was right up there with the hottest of them.

By the time we reached the lanes into Dacre I was reduced once more to a walk. Those I’d caught and been running with disappeared into the distance. I needed a bottle refill to mix some electrolytes and started to scan buildings for outside taps. Soon I passed a farm with someone working outside. I walked up to beg for water. He already seemed to know what we were doing and was happy to oblige. He led me into a dingy barn and switched on the 60W bulb. It made no difference. We could just about make out two taps on the wall, one hot and one cold. He tried both. “I’m not sure which one’s the cold one. I think it’s this one.” He left it running for me to fill my bottle. It was tepid but I put that down to the exceptionally warm summer we were enjoying. I thanked him and wandered up the road to sit cross-legged to get the electrolyte tablet to pop in. I thought about the taps, their plumbing arrangement and the sound the water had made as it came out. A horrible thought began to dawn on me. There had been an absence of hiss, which suggested an absence of pressure:
“That was the hot tap he made me fill my bottle from!”
Images of a polluted header tank with unmentionable dead things in it flooded my mind. This might provide the tipping point to hospitalisation on top of the sweating and gently festering ham rolls that were keeping me going.

Due to my slower pace and the half-hour earlier start time of the Lakeland 50 (11:30 instead of 12:00) I had not expected to see any L50 runners, so I was delighted to see streams of runners circling the perimeter of the Dalemain Estate as I entered. I found their encouragement to be really uplifting when they saw the L100 race number on my backpack and broke out into spontaneous applause. This event really has got every detail covered to create the best possible ultra-running family of mutual understanding and respect. Name, number and event on backpack inform following runners, allowing them to pass comment or whatever, should they so wish.

Applauding 50-milers leave me standing at Dalemain.

I was ready for a sit-down upon my arrival at CP8. I was back to 1 hour down but I couldn’t give a whatsit. I was doing the best I could and I was resigned to it taking longer. I was still moving forward and feeling as contented as it was possible to feel at 59 miles of the Lakeland 100. I sat cross-legged on the grass in the marquee. A marshal brought my drop bag in double quick time and I gave my camera lens its first proper clean (rather than a smearing on my shorts) using a fresh sock. Ultra-running animals and legends Jon Steele and John Vernon gave their encouragement from outside (penetration of our inner sanctum was forbidden). I was waited on with meat stew and bread, Swiss roll and custard, and tea. Raj Madhas sat in the corner tending to his feet again. This would be the last time I’d see him before the finish (and finish he did). With a fresh pair of socks and a restocking of supplies including three more ham rolls, nicely warmed and humming quietly to themselves, I gave my thanks and departed.

The Dalemain sanctuary.

Jon and John look in from beyond the threshold.

Dalemain to CP9 Howtown (66.2 miles)

The early afternoon sunshine was at full strength again as I walked away feeling contentedly fuelled. I was alone again but it wasn’t long before I caught up with a lone 100-miler followed by the 50-mile back marker. It was nice to chat in passing. On the climb out of Pooley Bridge the suffering really began to set in. Digestion was showing the first signs of rebellion and I was not able to drink as much as I should. I walked virtually every step to Howtown, by which point I was in serious drink deficit.

Little Dave was on his way back up the hill as I descended to CP9. He was doing the L50 with his brother. Mutual encouragement flowed freely. He told me afterwards that I’d looked rough.

I wandered into the checkpoint 1hr 17mins down, worried at the state I’d suddenly found myself in and genuinely fearful for the next long, tough, hot, exposed stage to Mardale Head. It would be foolhardy to start it. Garry Scott reminded me afterwards that he spoke to me and helped while he was waiting for the bus transport back to base. He had retired a few hours earlier. I had little recollection of this. Was I really that far gone?

What I do remember is struggling to find level ground for the chair I was sitting on and a marshal expressing concern for the runner who’d been lying down to recover before going off for a swim in the lake to cool off. She’d given him strict instructions to paddle, not swim (for obvious safety reasons) and he still wasn’t back. A short while later, Brian ‘Stolly’ Stallwood appeared looking very wet.
“Did you swim?” she asked.
“Yes”.
“Naughty boy. I’ll confiscate your strawberries for disobeying orders.”

Stolly had decided to call it a day. He was burning up in the heat and could not imagine embarking on the next stage up Fusedale. This reinforced my own fears. I downed the remainder of the electrolyte drink made with the header tank water at Dacre plus another bottle with the last of the checkpoint’s orange squash. I began to feel a bit more lucid.

With drink bottles topped up (water in right hand and Cola in left as usual) I stood up with Marc Laithwaite’s words ringing in my ears. I chose to walk out and continue on my way despite the voice of sense and rationality in my head telling me to stop. A sign at the exit that said “Just get on with it” helped to galvanise me into action.

Venturing forth into the unknown.

Howtown to CP10 Mardale Head (75.6 miles)

I knew I was doing everything in my power not to fail as I walked up that lane in ‘the oven’. I had as much drink as I could carry and I knew the streams where I could top up when (not if) it ran out. I had more than enough food to keep me going for hours. I had my sun cap to keep the worst of the sun’s heat off my head. I had the emergency survival gear we must take on events of this nature. I’d just keep putting one foot in front of the other. If it went really pear shaped on the climb I could turn around and go back to the checkpoint.

I crossed the footbridge that led us back onto the fell. A female runner was in distress by the side of the path with a male runner giving advice and spelling out her options, one of which was to return to Howtown. It was sobering. As we ascended Fusedale I realised that I was catching and overtaking both L50 and L100 runners (don’t know why but that always seems to happen here, no matter how slowly I think I’m going). I arrived at the oasis where the stream passed underneath the path and a weather-beaten tree provided shade. Runners were sitting in recovery, drinking from the stream or cooling themselves in it, dipping caps and refilling water bottles. I felt no need for any of that and walked on through.

Resting in the shadow by the oasis.

As I climbed, people in varying states of disrepair rested by the side of the path, sitting, bent over looking quite ill, vomiting, or lying down trying to grab 40 winks in the blazing sunshine. As the path became rather steep a woman was sitting by the side in tears. I asked what was wrong. She was having a panic attack over the enormity of what she had taken on. I could understand because I hadn’t been far off that myself. I tried to help her to rationalise her thoughts:
Did she have plenty of drink with her? Check.
Did she have plenty of food? Check.
Sun protection, cap, etc.? Check.
I explained that there are streams where she can refill her bottles if her supplies ran out. If she carried on putting one foot in front of the other, looking after herself along the way, she’d get there no problem. If she really didn’t think she could go on, the best would be to walk back down to Howtown. I don’t know if she continued. I hope she did.

I began to realise that the sun wasn’t as intense as it could have been. A high layer of thin cloud had moved in to take the heat off. In addition, a cooling breeze kept blowing from over the hill. By the time I reached the high point of the event at High Kop, conditions were quite pleasant and bearable. However the oomph was deserting my legs once again and the runners I’d overtaken on the climb now began to overtake me on the descent.

By the descent towards Haweswater I had to sit down to eat ham roll number 4 (the first of the ones that had stewed in my drop bag). I washed it down with the remainder of the Cola I’d carried from Howtown. At the big footbridge I refilled the freshly emptied bottle in the stream. I found the new improved path to the right that joined the narrow, undulating rocky path beside Haweswater, by which point I was feeling surprisingly energetic again. I ran most of that path (at least the parts that are runnable) to Mardale Head, overtaking many L50 and a few L100 runners in the process. Even so, the checkpoint took much longer to appear than I thought it would. That path really does drag on.

I was 1hr 37mins down by the time I arrived. Steve Mee was a familiar friendly face helping out on the checkpoint. I asked for a Cola top-up. “Sorry, none left.” The checkpoint looked rather depleted as if I was Tail End Charlie, but cut-off was still a long way off yet and there were still plenty of runners behind me. This was the only checkpoint that appeared prematurely run-down like this. I know it’s remote but I hope it can be better supplied in future.

Arriving at Mardale Head. The Rola Cola wasn't the only thing in drought.

Mardale Head to CP11 Kentmere (82.1 miles)

I set off climbing to the next pass and soon forgot about the Cola denial. As in previous years, the clouds were beginning to thicken. The descent of the other side down that rocky, treacherous track was even more interminable and unrunnable than ever. I couldn’t do anything other than walk. As Kentmere gradually drew closer, true to form the first rain started to fall. I just avoided having to put waterproofs on before arriving at the Institute. Does it ever not rain at Kentmere? I was now 1hr 43mins down.

Jenn Gaskell provided a warm welcome and waited on me admirably with tea, smoothie and savoury pasta. They really hit the spot. Jenn has taken on some serious Ultra challenges in recent years so she instinctively knew what we needed. I took my time emptying my shoes of stones and letting my increasingly sore feet dry out a little. All this walking was tugging at the soles, causing them to break down. That’s normal. What wasn’t normal was the pressure point that had definitely developed on the 5th metatarsal on my right foot. The shoe uppers seemed to be less than ideal.

Jenn provides a nice welcome at Kentmere.

The rain was still coming down so on went the waterproof top and bottoms. It was also well on the way to getting dark so camera got put away and sun cap got swapped for head torch once more in readiness for the second night. I felt in no mood to venture out again but “I’ve started so I’ll finish”.

Kentmere to CP12 Ambleside (89.4 miles)

I left the checkpoint with freshly filled Cola and water bottles. Within 30 seconds there was an explosion to my left and something hit the side of my face before landing on the grass verge. The Cola gas pressure had blown the top off my drink bottle. I made sure I released the pressure more regularly after that.

I resumed my walk-cum-shuffle and immediately began to overheat. Typical. Unzipping jacket and rolling up sleeves wasn’t enough. I was burning up. I stopped to take the jacket off and put it back in my rucksack. A minute later, big rain drops started to hammer down. TYPICAL. I carried on for a few more seconds to see if it would stop but it only got heavier. I hurled verbal abuse at the sky as I took rucksack off again to retrieve jacket, during which time I got soaked and nicely cooled down. After that I was able to move in comfort through the deluge even with the jacket on. Bonus!

I wasn’t used to doing this in the dark without the visual cues to jog my memory. I caught up and tagged along with runners ahead, moving forwards to join other runners whenever I felt able. Running was off limits; we just walked or shuffled as fast as we were able. The rain was mercifully short-lived and soon died out to reveal another moonless starlit sky. As we approached Skelghyll Woods I was moving ahead but there were no more head torches in sight. I knew not to descend left too early like I did last year. Navigation went perfectly into Ambleside then went awry just before the checkpoint when I turned left too early. I and another runner who’d followed me floundered about in the church yard trying to get to the checkpoint building which we could see, before realising that we had to exit the way we’d gone in and follow the road round to reach it.

We entered the sauna that is CP12 (it’s always too hot in there). I was now 2hrs 13mins down. Ham roll number 5 got washed down by another cup of tea to set me up for what I always feel is the homeward stretch: only 15 miles to go.

Ambleside to CP13 Chapel Stile (95.0 miles)

I tried not to linger too long before heading out across the park to hit that steep track upwards and chase down the next head torch beams. I was feeling much less alert than I usually do. In fact I felt as if my brain was shut down and just functioning enough for survival. What was strange was that, even though I was so tired there were no visual anomalies in my peripheral vision, no hallucinations, nothing. I was just a brain-dead zombie in pursuit of head torch beams ahead.

I soon tagged onto another group. By the time we reached the flat, oh-so-runnable riverside path to Elterwater I could only walk at 2mph. The others went ahead. When I reached the other end I went around the car-park in circles trying to find my way out to the road. My brain was frazzled. At that point the others came back down the road, having turned right by mistake. We found our way to the track on the left hand side of the river up to the quarry. I caused a bit more off-route floundering in Chapel Stile before we found the track to the camp site then CP13 with the aid of someone’s GPS. (2hrs 33mins down.)

The Langdale checkpoint was big, spacious and an oasis of calm. The meat stew has always worked wonders here, restoring energy to tired legs, so I had some with bread, and coffee for that extra caffeine kick. I was ready to go but the people I’d entered the checkpoint with weren’t, so I jumped up to join another group that was just leaving.

Chapel Stile to CP14 Tilberthwaite (101.5 miles)

Unlike last year when I led a group of 50-milers from CP13 in unbelievably energetic haste, this time I was following, dragging my sorry a*se and trying to stay awake. We came to the high ladder stile with Conservative tendencies (pronounced leaning to the right). I made a hash of descending the other side on my uncharacteristically tired legs, missing the bottom rung and landing in haste on all fours between and astride rocks. No damage was done but the top popped off my drink bottle again. The Cola I’d carried from Kentmere soaked into the ground. There’d be no more after that.

In stark contrast to last year I trudged weakly up the steep climb after the left turn, always bringing up the rear. The first hint of daylight just allowed us to glimpse Blea Tarn on our left as we headed towards the dreaded rocky then boggy navigation to the second and final self-dib at the lane. I’m not used to having daylight to navigate by at this point. We walked down the lane to turn right onto the interminable track up and over to Tilberthwaite. ‘Interminable’ becomes a lifetime when you can hardly walk. I was utterly spent with nothing left in the legs. Those I’d been shuffling with quickly disappeared into the distance and over the horizon, leaving me to trudge in self-pity and utter wretchedness. My legs were dead and my feet were sore. The Scarpas weren’t doing me any favours after all. I eventually trudged into the final checkpoint 3hrs 12mins down.

Tilberthwaite to FINISH Coniston (105.0 miles)

I spent as little time as possible sitting down at Tilberthwaite, just enough for a bit of food and another coffee in the hopes that the caffeine might kick-start something, anything, into action. I walked up the steps and paused at the top to look back down onto the checkpoint. I rarely get to see it in daylight. I wished I had my camera out. As I walked slowly to the final high point I got overtaken by another 100-miler who was also walking, but not as slowly as I was. Then I was alone again for the steep, rocky descent, which I took painfully slowly and clumsily.

Once onto the runnable track down into Coniston I was too weak to take advantage. I tried to run and failed. I could only trudge at barely 2mph. As I did so, “Huge Guy” came bounding past me at speed to finish 3 places and 9 minutes ahead. I had run with him and swapped back and forth for most of the event. His name was Hugh-Guy but his rucksack strap covered the label to leave “Hug Guy”, so he effectively became “Huge Guy” for the duration of that event until his rucksack was unbuckled.

When I hit the tarmac at the bottom of the track I took my shoes off to ease the foot pain and walk the final half mile to the finish in socks only. The relief was immense. The strappy uppers of the shoes (part of the lacing system) had pressed into the tops of my feet and bruised the metatarsals. Someone who was walking up the track must have taken pity on me. He turned around and walked with me to the school, offering words of encouragement. My final dib in 37:21 was 3hrs 43mins behind last year’s time. I was led into the hall to an announcement and a round of applause, draping of medal, issuing of finisher’s T-shirt, surgical removal of dibber and printout of split times. I was elated to have finally finished so the recovery process could commence – drying out, mug of tea, large bacon and 2 egg barm and crash-out on the crash mat with distant sounds of finishers and applause ringing in my subconscious.

It was hard won this year.


Photo album is here.

May 2014 - main event The Valleys 100

Only 2 years overdue, here's a completed draft from 2014. Enjoy the memories.

May is the month of serial compulsive fell racing, with back-to-backs, evening and weekend races, all short and intense. If Saturday mornings are free I would do the parkrun as well. I have found that keeping the body on the boil like this increases speed, maintaining or even reducing race times as I advance through my early fifties. I even got my first ever mentions in race results in 'The Fellrunner' (the FRA magazine). Many fell runners aspire to getting their name in the Fellrunner results, especially slower ones like me. Age sometimes has its benefits.

The end of May always brings one of the main highlights of the year - the annual 100 mile event of the Long Distance Walkers Association. This year it would be based at Pontypool and would take us on a journey through the valleys of South Wales.

Sat 03/05. Glossop 3-day race 1: Chunal fell race.

Final descent before final climb to the finish.

Three and a quarter very steep miles from the Grouse Inn between Hayfield and Glossop on a beautifully warm, sunny day. Conditions underfoot were exceptionally dry. I was pleased to get a PB considering all the walking I had to do (a lot of it is too steep to run and even then you're blowing out your a***e). I rewarded myself with lunch at the Grouse, eaten outside of course. Photo album.

Sun 04/05. Glossop 3-day race 2: Moorfield 5k road race.

Waiting at The Beehive for the next finishers.

This is a hilly circuit on country lanes from The Beehive pub in Glossop. 6 seconds outside PB this time but I still rewarded myself with al fresco lunch at the Beehive afterwards. Photo album.

Mon 05/05. Glossop 3-day race 3: James's Thorn fell race.

Nearing the top.

This 5-miler is a tough out-and-back with a loop at the top to climb and descend James's Thorn. I was very annoyed to go off-route at the top. With half-dead brain due to the intense effort and thanks to removed marker flags, I made the mistake of following runners ahead instead of veering left, turning what should have been a PB into a PW. It was a grand day for a detour, though. Photo album.

Thu 08/05. Buxworth 5 road race.

Five miles on steeply undulating country lanes from the Navigation Inn at the Bugsworth canal basin. Heavy rain storms abated just in time for race start. This was my first time at this race but I seemed to do surprisingly well compared to other familiar faces around me. Perhaps the back-to-back fell races were already doing some good. It enjoyed a big turnout considering the poor weather beforehand. No photos this time due to the poor light.

Woodbank parkrun kept me out of mischief on the 10th before a brief trip to London intervened.

Fri 16/05. Hayfield 3-day race 1: May Queen fell race.


The weather was back to warmth and dryness for this intense 3-miler from Hayfield up Lantern Pike and back. This one's quite rare in that the children run with the adults. Many of the children beat the adults quite comprehensively. I was pleased to get another PB with 27:53. Serious speedster Andi Jones won in 19:36. Photos.

Sat 17/05. Hayfield 3-day race 2: Mount Famine fell race.

We descend to climb and climb to descend.

This is another one based from Hayfield. It is a serious undertaking. It's only 5 miles but it starts off as it means to go on - with a hands-and-feet scramble up Elle Bank. Every possible hill is climbed and descended, sometimes more than once. The day was hot, the sun was intense and clouds of large insects hovering in the breeze along the ridge made you scared to breathe properly because you'd ingest them. An insect down your wind pipe is not welcome when you're already gasping for air. Those are my excuses for being 3:15 slower than I was last year (final time 1:05:19). Photos.

Pennine team cool-down.

Sun 18/05. Hayfield 3-day race 2: Lantern Pike Dash fell race.

Winner Daniel Chan on his way back down.

1.2 miles intense burn straight up and down Lantern Pike's steep side from Little Hayfield. The sun shone gloriously once again but thankfully there was a bit more breeze to cool us down a bit. The out-and-back route provided ideal photo opportunities. Even though this is short and intense I took my camera and snapped away as I slogged my way to the top. A cropped version of the photo above of Daniel Chan in mid flight got printed in the Fellrunner magazine. I surprised myself how well it turned out considering my main aim was to race, not take photos. Photo album.

Sat 24 - Sun 25/05. The Valleys 100.

The weather had taken a turn for the worse down south (there was nothing wrong with it up here in the north west). A storm system had rotated lazily for several days dumping its rain on South Wales and other parts, and it would continue to do so during this premier event in the LDWA calendar. What had become uncommonly dry ground for that part of the country had been transformed into a swilling bog-fest that was even wetter than usual. Add to that no visibility of the valleys that had been expected for so long, race organiser David Morgan and his massive band of helpers felt understandably thwarted.

I drove down to Pontypool on the day for the 2pm runners' start, hitting the rain just south of Birmingham. We'd been given to understand in no uncertain terms that anything faster than a saunter would be forbidden on the normal 10am start under pain of being made to sit on the naughty step at the checkpoints until they opened. I was mildly thankful for this as I arrived in torrential rain. Surely it would ease by the time we would start?

We registered in the school hall at the bottom of the hill where we would be sleeping after the event. The place was a dump. We had a choice of toilets in different locations and not one of them was serviceable. Most had no lock on the door, some had no toilet seat, some had no working lights, most had no toilet paper or soap, one was blocked and overflowing. Get the picture? I dreaded to think how hundreds of us would manage after the event. I needn't have worried because we would finish and get fed in the new building at the top of the hill, whose facilities were luxurious and faultless in comparison.

The rain had eased to a light fall by the time we started but full waterproofs were still the order of the day for warmth and comfort. Water flowed everywhere. An already tough route would be made even tougher. The rain would continue to a greater or lesser degree for a further 24 hours before sunny interludes would be punctuated by further showers. There would be no escape.

From Pontypool our route took us via checkpoints at Cwmcarn Forest Drive (8.3mi.), Maesycwmmer Village Hall (18mi.), Trallwn Community Centre (25.9mi.), Brynffynon Hotel, Llanwonno (32.4mi.), Moriah Hall (37.3mi.), Gelligaer Community Centre (42.8mi.), Deri Community Hall (46.6mi.), St. Aiden's Church, Butetown (52.3mi.), Bedwellty House, Tredegar (baggage stop, 55.7mi.), Georgetown Community Centre (breakfast stop, 56.4mi), Pen Y Fan Pond (62.9mi.), Senior Citizens' Hall, Nantyglo (70.9mi.), Cwmavon Village Hall (79.7mi.), Keepers Pond (84.0mi.), Llanellen Village Hall (89.5mi.), Goytre Scout Hut (95.0mi.), Folly Tower car park (98.1mi.), Finish (100.2mi.).

Because of the dire conditions I could quite happily have retired at the first and second checkpoints. Everyone I spoke to expressed the same feelings that I had; they weren't enjoying it one bit. Revelations just learned back home swirled around my head and increased the urge to give up. My heart just wasn't in it. However after the third checkpoint at marathon distance I resigned myself to just getting on with it and finishing what I'd started.

WET!

Sunday morning - deliver us from what we endure ;-)

We as participants just got on with the job of sloshing one foot in front of the other until it was all over, if we didn't succumb to trench foot first. Well into the second day on Sunday a steep rocky footpath descent that sometimes doubles as a stream had become a raging torrent. A hastily arranged reroute was put in place before nightfall to avoid the risk of walkers carrying on over the precipice.

The precipitous torrent - heading down to the watery abyss.

On Sunday evening the 4 hour later start, combined with the hostile conditions, meant that I was just pushed into the second night for the first time on an LDWA 100; I rocked back into the school just after nightfall after 32 hours and 32 minutes of wet. I would have been OK going on the 10am start after all. Many who opted for the early start were hours faster than I was. I should have ignored the dire warnings. There are runners and there are runners. Some "runners" are slower than some "walkers" over 100 miles. Attempting to separate the two categories will always be futile.

Hardly surprisingly, the drop-out rate was one of the highest for an LDWA 100. I could so easily have been one of them were it not for the Magnus Magnusson mantra I apply in such situations: "I've started so I'll finish".

Here's the photo album.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Western States 100 week Thu 25th

This was the first day of official activities, which began with the Western States welcome by Race Director Craig Thornley and WSER Foundation President John Trent. The RD has changed since I was last here. The previous RD was Greg Soderlund. The only familiar face for me was Mo Livermore, who has been a part of the race since its inception. You would never believe it to look at her; she never seems to age. Our greeting was a reunion of old friends. She remembers me for completing the very hot 2006 event with no heat training and without a single salt tablet, when most other runners were popping S-caps like there was no tomorrow. (There nearly was no tomorrow for those who overdid it. Vomiting and DNFs were common.) Latest medical research recommends doing exactly what I did instinctively back then - drink to feel as thirst dictates and take an electrolyte drink or soup at aid stations if salt in food is not enough.

After the welcome we hiked to Emigrant Pass for the brief ceremony at noon. I joined WS volunteer 'UltrAlena' Hansen to share the flag carrying. Alena will be volunteering at Rucky-Chucky nearside this year. On the way up we breathed the dust of heavy construction vehicles as they climbed to chair lift construction works.
 
A big crane that reminds me of Jez.
 
A cement mixer kicks up the dust.
 
The ceremony at the top with Mo Livermore and Tony Rossmann was moving. Tony's description and pointing out of the route to beyond Robinson Flat was particularly interesting. I recall while running the race in previous years that, as we leave Robinson Flat and run around Little Bald Mountain, the trail briefly turns back and we can see all the way back to Emigrant Pass. This is with more than 30 miles behind us. After that we begin to lose altitude as the route descends towards the canyons (even though we've already been through the first canyon before the climb to Robinson Flat).
 
Tony Rossmann and Mo Livermore conduct the ceremony.
 
At the top I met up with three other UK runners James Poole, Chris Howe and Henry Church. James had been feeling so energetic he went mountain climbing as soon as he arrived.
 





















 
James descends his mountain.
 
After the ceremony we descended back to High Camp where we met the oldest entrant Gary Knipling, who does pretty well for a 71yo.
 
With 71yo Gary Knipling, oldest competitor at WS this year.
 
The 4th cable car ride of the week to the bottom saw us proceed by way of the newly erected starting arch to lunch at Fireside Pizza. It took my mind back to the pizza eating competition I had with Jez Bragg and Paul Charteris back in 2008 (I think). There was none of that shenanigans this time.
 
Henry, James, Chris, me - time to race start.
 
Here are the day's photos.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Western States 100 week Wed 24th

I had an easier, 6-mile day today with a jog down to the village and a trek up to Emigrant pass on the official Western States route, followed by a third descent by cable car (free if descending only). As I approached the village I noticed the floodlights blazing up the ski slope. No doubt they were testing them for race day because we use their light for the initial climb before dawn finally breaks.
 
Testing the ski slope lights.
 
The slog up to the top was not easy in the blazing sunshine. I'm thankful for the much cooler conditions we get at 5am race start. A water bowser climbed the trail spraying water to keep the dust down before returning to the bottom and repeating.
 
 
Track is dampened temporarily behind the bowser down below.
 
I arrived at Emigrant pass with another runner hot on my heels. He was Sam Fiandaca. As we chatted, another runner joined us, who turned out to be none other than Ian Sharman. Ian has 5 consecutive top ten finishes at Western States. Although a Brit (obvious when he speaks, but I think I hide mine well ;-)), he lives here in the US. We spent a while admiring the views out to the horizon along the Western States route and chatting about all things ultra-running before Sam set off down into the Granite Chief Wilderness for a run and Ian and I descended in far more leisurely fashion back towards High Camp. (We elites know how to save it all until race day. ;-))
 
Ian Sharman and Sam Fiandaca joined me at Emigrant Pass.
 
The day's pictures are here.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Western States 100 week Tue 23rd

That's more like it. I could keep up a more respectable uphill hiking pace today despite the temperature ratcheting up and the sweat flowing freely, and I even managed some running! After yesterday's struggle amidst much puffing and panting and pauses to admire the view (actually to recover and catch my breath), and zero inclination to run, today I felt a bit more energetic. The acclimatisation must be working. It's following the same pattern as the four previous times I've been here.

I entered Squaw Valley village via the front door today for the first time instead of from above via the back door. I joined the Shirley Canyon trail from the top end of the village to the right of the cable car. The footpath climbed variously through pine and fir trees, alongside a tumbling stream and across wide expanses of steeply sloping granite. The cable car to the left was soon out of sight on the other side of the mountain as the path took me on a now familiar wilderness journey.
 
Entering the village via the front door.
 
Guess where the trail goes.
 
The trail was marked in parts by markers of blue spray paint, known locally as blazes (blazing the trail with blistering blue blazes), which were fading and easily missed. Across the open granite slabs and boulders they disappeared completely. Scanning left to right revealed nothing blue with nothing to follow apart from my nose uphill. Inevitably I lost the trail and the nose-following continued up terrain that required hands, feet and a dash of daring. I was thankful for the extreme grip provided by the rough granite. Seemingly any gradient could be climbed without a single slip.

I knew I was aiming for Shirley Lake. I aimed right towards a clump of trees that seemed to surround a depression and it wasn't far from the stream, so I guessed the lake might be there. The ground foliage beneath the trees was impenetrable but a steep granite slope appeared ahead which I climbed, mountain goat style, to get a better view from above. There was no lake. I contoured back along the precipice with increasing sense of urgency because I had to catch the last cable car from High Camp at 5pm and I hadn't even reached the lake yet!

Climbing now to the left brought me back to the trail with a massive sense of relief. The markers were newer and more frequent for now and led me to Shirley Lake. Across the other side of the lake was a cable car terminus. I guess the lake forms a winter playground for the skiers from the High Camp area high above.
 
Shirley Lake.
 
The path climbed around the lake to join the steep access track left up to the wide plateau above High Camp. After power walking to the top I ran (note, "ran") down to High Camp in time for a sandwich and taking in the views before taking the penultimate cable car down at 4:40pm. The 1.5 mile climb back up to the guesthouse completed a reassuring afternoon's exercise and another 7 miles under the belt.
 
High Camp down below. Fire smoke still lingers on the horizon.
 
Here's the photo album.