Wednesday, 30 December 2009

2009 summary: some ups and some downs.

This concludes my first year's running blog. I have Karen MacDonald of Runfurther to thank for persuading me at the Wye Ultra to start it. It has been rewarding and therapeutic, if time-consuming.

For me, 2009 was another great year of pushing personal athletic boundaries and always learning; learning what my body can do, learning some new ways to fail and learning how not to fail against adversity if the carrot is big enough (thoughts of the Runfurther Grand Slam during the Pumlumon Challenge and High Peak 40). It was also another year of meeting old and new running and walking friends and exchanging stories of success and sometimes failure (the latter on my part at least).

2009 started off pretty well. A couple more 10th anniversaries were bagged on the events (Rombald Stride, Anglezarke Amble) and I'm still surprising myself with more PBs, even on a 10th completion. No doubt the frozen and firm conditions early on helped with some results (The Hebden, Two Crosses Circuit, Rombald Stride). Not many weeks later we enjoyed early warmth and sunshine (Wye Ultra, Starkholmes Stagger, Calderdale Hike, and that only brings us up to April).

The first half of the year brought some really good races with satisfying outcomes:
3rd Jan – The Hebden (PB1);
11th Jan – Two Crosses Circuit (PB2);
7th Feb – Rombald Stride (PB fodder but new, slower route);
14th Feb – Anglezarke Amble (10th completion and PB3);
14th Mar – Wuthering Hike / Haworth Hobble (PB4);
21st Mar – Starkholmes Stagger (PB5);
28th Mar – Kipling Kaper (PB6);
18th Apr – Calderdale Hike (big PB7 and highest Runfurther points (805) this year, probably ever);
2nd May – local 5k Parkrun (PB8);
9th - 10th May – The Fellsman (big PB9 by 1hr 34mins);
16th May – Marlborough Downs Challenge (PB10);
6th Jun – Wharfedale Off-Road Marathon (PB11);
13th Jun – Three Rings Of Shap rings 1 and 2 (fastest times on both rings).

This is all getting very boring and repetitive I can hear you say, but fear not. It couldn't possibly continue, especially since I've been at it for just on 14 years and the big ol' five-o isn't far over the horizon now. I must have been on borrowed time for years as it is. Time to come back down to earth. Here are some not-so-good races with less than ideal outcomes:

27th Jun – Western States Endurance Run.
Retired (timed out) at 62 miles after vomiting blood for 34 miles. Nausea was beginning to set in at 19 miles, already forcing me to a walk.
Lesson 1. If you ever do Western States, drink water between the aid stations and only drink GU2O at the aid stations, NOT ALL THE TIME. In other words, do what I always used to do, until this year. Stupid boy :-(
This was my first Hundred DNF. I learned that a Hundred completion is not a given just by slowing down a bit if it gets tough. Sometimes, medical issues can make it impossible, no matter how slowly you go.

25th Jul – local 5k Parkrun (PW).

28th - 29th Aug – Tour du Mont Blanc.
Retired at 77 miles, drained and devoid of leg strength. I was beyond the restorative qualities of food and drink. I had run on empty for too long on the quest for an aid station with food.
Lesson 2. If you ever do the UTMB, do not rely on the aid stations for food when you need it. Be prepared to use your own for regular fuelling. The aid stations sometimes become the back-up, not vice versa as my mind was conditioned towards.
This was my second Hundred DNF. I was beginning to make a habit of this all of a sudden. Now I would not complete a 100-miler in 2009 when originally I had planned to complete three.

12th Sept – Pumlumon Challenge.
I was just recovering from the lurgy and I would not have travelled had this not been a Runfurther event. The Grand Slam was at stake so 'needs must an' all that'. I felt quite perky on the start line but it didn't last long into the race. My finishing time was virtually an hour down on what it should have been. I earned my lowest Runfurther points so far (643). I was too far gone afterwards to face the long journey home. I crashed out in a local hotel to build sufficient strength to return the next morning.

19th Sept – High Peak 40.
Allow me to quote from my running diary: “I have felt tired, lacklustre and disinterested in life all week. It was a chore to even be present at the start. I was only there through Grand Slam obligation.” I love this event and this was to be my 10th completion out of 10 starts. I was shocked at how negative I was feeling. If you read the blog report (linked above) you will realise how close I was to dropping out and shattering the Grand Slam dream. But I didn't. I came back to finish feeling stronger than I felt last week and grab a near-PW for this event and my lowest Runfurther points (606) of the year.

Taking a more positive line again, the second half of the year wasn't all doom and debacle at the events. A few more PBs came my way. The best one, which must rank alongside the Calderdale Hike for the rewarding feeling I felt, was the Round Rotherham on 17th October. The event had been brought forward a couple of months in the hopes of killing off the run of bad weather we had endured for the previous two years. It worked. Abnormally dry months leading up to the event produced perfect conditions for PBs all round. My time of 9hrs 13mins was a PB by 58 minutes. I never imagined being able to run a 50-mile trail race that fast. Needless to say I was 15 minutes down on my Snowdonia Marathon time the following weekend but I couldn't care because I was still on Cloud 9.

My running year ended with an early enforced taper and cancelled events due to a dose of 'flu (not the 'man' variety either; this was real) then a cold. The first winter snows provided beautiful running conditions for a few last-gasp runs to work before the overindulgences of Christmas.

Some statistics for 2009.
Miles completed – 1,797 (excludes training runs because I didn't do any).
Personal Bests – 18 (where there was a previous completion to compare against).
Personal Worsts – 1 (where there was a previous completion to compare against).
Number of Ultras – 17.
Total Ultras since 1996 – 115.

Looking forward to next year:

I received a pair of Vibram fivefingers for Christmas. Being an habitual 'bare-footer' I've hankered after a pair of these since they first came out in the US a year or two ago. I have not run in them yet but they feel very comfortable to walk in. I look forward to trying them on my runs into work. I may report on them early in the New Year.

The stark realities of the Western States Endurance Run lottery were brought home to me this month. I did not get picked so I will not be going to Squaw Valley next June to put right what I messed up this year. My 4-year habit has come to an end. Well done to all those who did get in. Do yourselves proud on that course.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Stockport 10 (miles). 13/12/2009

It’s been a month since I’ve done any running thanks to the flu after Dunnerdale requiring five days off work and my first ever sick note for such an occurrence. That has been followed by weeks of gurgling lungs, a lingering cough and a distinct lack of enthusiasm for running. Even my plan to run a 5k Parkrun on Saturday (to remind my body what running feels like) fell by the wayside. My final preparation for the rude awakening and baptism of fire was the consumption of a bottle of red on Saturday evening while watching the X-Factor (go Joe!). I had turned into a sloth and I was beginning to hate myself.

On Sunday morning I cycled to the Stockport Harriers track in the cool winter sunshine feeling a little more delicate than I should have been feeling just before any run, let alone a 10-mile road race. I knew a Personal Worst was a certainty.

The weather gods were smiling on us like they always do for this event. I joined the general massed migration towards Woodbank Park and the running track, where I was greeted by the usual carnival atmosphere of gazebos, stalls selling sporting wares and crowds of runners, supporters and spectators milling around. Much to my shame, this was my first visit to the track since last year’s Stockport 10, yet it seemed like only yesterday since I was there.

After a meet-and-greet session of club mates and other runners seen weeks or months before on various ultra events, I joined the throng on the track to await the instructions, count-down and “GO”. The race was a sell-out, no doubt helped by the always excellent friendly support and the (in)famous goody bag at the end. I wonder what it would contain this year.

The first mile through the park and out onto the minor roads went quite well for me, after which there may have been a slight drop-off in my pace. Don’t ask me why, but the fact that I was rapidly overheating (my head was beginning to boil so my festive Santa hat had to come off) and the fact that the other runners slowly began to overtake me may have had something to do with it. It wasn’t exactly a comfortable or pleasurable experience, more like a case of just holding on and surviving to the end. I rolled my sleeves up, which helped a little more with the cooling.

As we approached the first single file coned-off section along the edge of the busy A-road without footpath, there was a back-up in the traffic caused by a car waiting to turn left but unable to do so because of the stream of runners crossing the side road. I immediately felt guilty like I always do when car drivers are inconvenienced like that. (I always envisage seething tempers and road rage.) I glanced behind me and noticed a small gap in runners. I slowed down to allow the car to turn. The runners behind me didn’t take my cue, and then Bob Hope from Emmerdale, who was manning the crossing, shouted: “No no, carry on”. I was overruled and we had right of way. My feeling of guilt did not abate as I crossed the road like a sheep.

A descent and brief climb up the other side brought us to the top of Bong’s Road and a merciful departure from the traffic. I was officially hot and had to strip right there, so I spent a minute removing vest and long-sleeved top, replacing vest, stuffing top in tiny bum-bag and reattaching bum-bag to waist before setting off down the hill. The improved cooling invigorated me and I felt better able to run.

I bypassed the drinks station at the bottom end of Bong’s Road at around the 5-mile point; my hand-held water bottle was keeping me well supplied with water. The Santa hat which I was also carrying did not bother me because I am used to carrying water bottles and route descriptions for up to 30 hours at a time while out running. I was beginning to get a lot of joking from the marshals about the hat, and why wasn’t it on my head? If it went back onto my head I would surely explode. It made me smile. What a friendly race this is.

I glanced at my heart rate monitor several times as I ran. It was showing 182 – 183bpm every time I looked. I wasn’t surprised it was so fast. It had been raised for weeks. If I survived to the end I was now anticipating a PW of monumental proportions.

The major climb up the other side from the river valley wasn't as bad as some of the road runners would have you believe. After all, if it's a road which cars have to drive as a matter of course, it can't be that bad. It doesn't compare with proper footpaths and mountain trails where cars cannot pass. Some of those HAVE to be walked. I kept the jog going all the way, electing to run on the rough verge to keep the terrain as close as possible to what I'm used to.

I was now holding my own compared to those around me. The bpm feedback might have looked as though my heart should be beating its way out of my chest, but I couldn't feel it and all systems seemed to be just under control, so I carried on giving of my best, offering friendly retorts to the marshals' continued humorous references to my hat. We wound our way left and right, up and down roads to the bottom of New Zealand Road and the second and final climb. I shuffled my way onwards and upwards, trying to push my pelvis forward and resist the temptation to hunch my back to improve my posture and maximise the speed and efficiency of my running, but it was difficult because I was so tired from all the incessant running.

The left turn at the top of New Zealand Road did not bring relief. Still we climbed to the next bend, where we entered the park and our route finally levelled off. I could soon hear the muffled, clipped tones of the PA system at the Stockport Harriers track. I glanced at my watch and simply COULD NOT BELIEVE that a PB was almost in the bag. I gave it all I had through the park as I sprinted towards the athletics track on the far side. Perhaps I should qualify that. My “sprint” would have looked like a recreational jog to any sedentary bystander who could not possibly understand.

I entered the athletics ground and heard my name announced in the fuzzy, compressed style to maximise volume without overt distortion (any audio buffs reading this?). Imagine a butch kazoo if you will: “Number 67 is Nick Ham”. Another runner overtook me as I entered the track but I couldn't give a toss. It's normal at this stage when I'm going flat out. I can only give my ultimate best and I have long since realised that my ultimate best falls well short of what others can muster. I live with it and work around it.

Half a lap of the track and no more overtakings brought me home in 1hr 19mins, a PB by 1min 45secs over last year! That got me a top half placing. What a pleasant surprise considering my less than ideal build-up and my time-consuming striptease at the top of Bong's Road.

The goody bag did not disappoint. The principal prize was a very useful runner's technical T-shirt in fluorescent yellow (for the dark nights) by 'more mile'. I've worn it already on my Monday run to work. It's worth the entry fee alone. In order of increasing quirkiness, further goodies included:
A handful of flyers;
A lolly (“Who loves ya pussy cat?”);
A Penguin biscuit;
A Cadbury STARBAR;
A Stockport 10 sticker;
A mini aerosol of Sanex anti-perspirant;
A sachet of Flexitol deep cooling gel for the feet;
A sachet of Flexitol heel balm (“visible results in 3 days”);
A balloon (brand new, never inflated);
The LoSalt challenge with 5 sachets of the stuff (they forgot that serious sweating from serious exercise needs sodium);
A Robinsons Brewery key ring;
A plastic pouch from Leo Fixings containing two plasterboard fixings;
And finally, 'da piece of resistance', a plastic disposable glove with a pinch of dead meal worms and a pair of eyes (in small, paper sticker form) in one of the fingers.
All of the above was delivered in a Sweatshop carrier bag.

I challenge other races to top this. No wonder the race fills up.

Here are some statistics to amuse and entertain:
Distance – 10 miles on road (undulating – hilly);
Time – 1:19:00 (PB in 4 races since 2004);
Average heart rate – 178bpm;
Maximum heart rate – 190bpm.
Compared to Dunnerdale in the last report, which was bad enough, that heart rate is shocking. Call me an athlete? I laugh in polite derision at such an absurd notion. Ultraplodder by name, ultraplodder by design, ultraplodder by nature.

I took a few pictures, but not during the race, you'll understand.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Dunnerdale Fell Race + Vasque Runfurther end-of-year party. 14/11/2009

I’m now back after a good dose of flu, probably caught as I mixed and mingled at Broughton Mills, LakesRunner in Ambleside and Wilf’s Café in Staveley. It was a busy day and this is my belated report all about it.

Dunnerdale Fell Race / 5mi. / 1,554'.

The rain had poured and the wind had blown well into Saturday as I drove northwards through flooded roads to my first ever short, sharp and furious fell race. Dunnerdale had been suggested as the ideal precursor to an evening’s drinking and entertainment. I seized the opportunity and dusted off my ancient Adidas Swoop Mk1s with their worn down studs.

Situated in the far south west of the Lake District, Broughton Mills Village Hall, circa 1927, ancient, wooden and dimly lit by 40W bulbs, was soon heaving to the largest ever turn-out for the Dunnerdale Fell Race as runners sheltered inside to await the cessation of the rain and the 12:00 race start. The rain did stop, and we were sufficiently close to the centre of the storm system for winds to be calm.

As midday approached, we gathered outside on the lane. We were edged back up the road outside the pub, further up from the village hall. There would be no route shortening. The unprecedented crowd meant that we were slightly late setting off. I was in my rightful place towards the back, so the first I knew that the 276 runners were on their way was when the people in front started to move. We had a sedate walking start. I never imagined that on a fell race.

The field soon thinned out and I was overtaking other runners on the brief stretch of downhill road before it became uphill road, then track, then fell. I knew that I could force my pace throughout, since it was only 5 miles and I did not have to worry about the inevitable blow-up and slow-down that would normally be an issue. And so it was that I actually found myself running uphill as well as down. Only the steepest ups forced the shuffle briefly down to a walk.

The anticlockwise route took us via 4 peaks and through 1,554 feet of ascent/descent through its 5 miles. I had my 1:12,500 map print-out with me but it remained in my bumbag for two reasons:
1. I had virtually memorised the route as I had reviewed it over and over again in nervous excitement during the previous week.
2. There were so many people out in front, the views were so clear and the route through the mud was that well trodden, it would have been impossible to get lost anyway.

I pushed up and down the hills and put in as much effort as I have ever done. My steep and slippery descents were less confident than I would have liked as my worn fell shoe studs tore perilously at the soggy ground and I descended, barely in control, with the sound of other runners close behind. I didn’t want to get in the way and hold them up. On the verge of wiping out I was wishing for new fell shoes.

I got overtaken a little, but not too much, on the steep descents. Once onto the final road stretch I pushed as hard as my body allowed as we climbed back up to the finish in the farmer’s field, where I queued for a minute before the timekeepers were ready to register my arrival. I had taken one hour by my watch to do the 5 miles. My flat-out effort got me the expected bottom half finish and resulted in an average heart rate of 176bpm and a peak of 191bpm. The winning time was an unbelievable 39:36. I wonder how fast his heart rate was.

The meat and potato pie, tea and biscuits went down a real treat as I chatted with other runners in the hall afterwards. The queue for the food ended up stretching the length of the hall. I was glad I got in there early.

Fed, watered and warmed, I drove via Coniston (memories of the Lakeland 100) round to Ambleside, where a visit to Ian Barnes’ LakesRunner shop was long overdue. It was popular with the Runfurther crowd – Andy Rankin and Paul Dickens were there, so more chinwagging took place; oh, and try on a pair of La Sportiva Crosslight shoes. Such unaccustomed comfort in a shoe, but they didn’t quite have my size so I placed an order.

A new café is in creation upstairs, which should be really good. Proprietor and rather capable fell runner Ben Abdelnoor will have his work cut out keeping the appetites of all those climbers and runners satiated. He and Ian have already had their work cut out building it, by all accounts.

Here are some statistics to demonstrate the intensity of short fell races:
Distance - 5 miles.
Time - 1 hour.
Average heart rate - 176bpm.
Maximum heart rate - 191bpm.

Vasque Runfurther party.

I drove further round to Staveley and my B & B on the hillside overlooking the village, where I had plenty of time to get cleaned up for the main event – the Vasque Runfurther end-of-year celebration. It was conveniently located a short walk away in Wilf’s Café at the Hawkshead Brewery. A hotpot supper and dessert, a well-stocked bar and a MASSIVE Vasque Runfurther cake kept us well fuelled until past midnight.

Two talks with slideshows were put on.

The first by Stuart Walker described his British Isles Challenge, a daunting solo, 1,400-mile human-powered journey from one end of the British Isles to the other (including sea crossings and 3-peaks climbing). He only had 4 weeks to complete it and he was greatly challenged along the way. What he achieved against adversity was little short of heroic. He did it for charity and, most unfairly, he is still quite a way short of his £10,000 target. So please, anyone reading this, if you are so minded, please consider making a donation. His chosen charities surely deserve it after he sacrificed so much.

The second talk was a hot and cold talk given by Amanda and Andy Heading. For the hot talk, Amanda described her Marathon des Sables experience, while for the cold talk, Andy described his Yukon Arctic Ultra experience – 430 miles in north west Canada in the frozen depths of winter.

The evening was topped off with the prize-giving and spot prize draw, and cake. There was lots of swag to give away from our sponsors. Andy Rankin and Rachael Lawrance won the prizes for the most series points out of their four best races, while Tim Whittaker and Julie Gardner won the prizes for the most points overall. There were four Grand Slammers – runners who completed all twelve races. In order of points they were Tim Whittaker, Paul Dickens, Julie Gardner and me. The final results can be found here.

I washed down a large slab of cake with a large brandy, the clock struck 12 and the evening drew to a close. With several wrong turns I eventually found my way by torch light back up the hill to the B & B, where I dreamed of a most enjoyable running year and a Grand Slam that most nearly wasn’t.

I took some pictures of the evening’s proceedings. That cake must have weighed a ton.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Roaches Fell Race 15mi. 08/11/2009

This provided a rare opportunity for me for a 'short' blast in the hills. I almost got my lungs burning! It's a serious runners' event that's based from Meerbrook Village Hall and very well organised by Macclesfield Harriers. The out-and-back route climbs via a filthy, slurry-infested dairy farm near the beginning and end (I bet their milk goes off quickly, and KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT as you slosh through to keep the splashes out), up along the Roaches ridge, down the other end, across the river, up and down a lot more before climbing Shutlingsoe (a mini Ingleborough?), where we go around the trig point at the top before retracing our steps. We enjoyed a brief respite in the weather and the sun shone upon us, but it was nippy and the mud was voluminous (especially around that farm). At its worst it reminded me of a mini Tough Guy. Trying to run across that on the return leg risked inducing crippling cramps.

This must be the only fell race that puts out red carpets for us. In the early stages, as we queued at a stile near a farm residence, we caught the unbelievable sight of red carpet covering the grassy bank on the other side up to the gravel track! It was there to protect the grass from the worst of all those fell shoe studs. By the time I returned, it was rucked up and folded and serving no useful purpose. SACK THE CARPET FITTER I say!

The out-and-back format allowed a glimpse of the speedy ones on their return leg as the slower ones, destined to finish well down in the bottom half, continued towards the climb up Shutlingsloe to the trig point turnaround. They ran just within their capability that they could sustain until the end. So did I. The difference was exactly 1 hour at the end of 15 miles. They must be a different species to me.

I have no business here in such racing snakes', speed merchants' races, so despite my best, lung-busting efforts I still finished well down in the bottom half of the field. Nonetheless I was pleased to beat my previous time of 3:21 (in 2007) by 13 minutes. 3:08 - only 9 minutes to knock off to get a sub-3, then I might get into the top half. Perhaps next year? But that would require less quantity and more quality, like, lay off the ultras and do speed sessions every week. No chance! I run for fun, not for obligation.

I did not take my camera because I would have tripped up in the river and wetted it, and as we know it wilts even at the smell of dampness (although on hindsight a complete dunking might teach it a good lesson on what real dampness is). However, 'finniganjones' took some amazing action shots here, which just have to be linked. The descent to the river on the return leg was steep.

Next week is a 5-mile fell race (Dunnerdale). I have never turned out for such a short jaunt in the hills. Dare I say it's hardly worth getting out of bed for, but it precedes the Vasque Runfurther party in the evening which I must attend, so in for a penny.....
I expect to be humbled even more comprehensively. I might be last and I might kill myself in the process.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Halloween Bottoms Up 23mi. 31/10/2009

This event, most ably organised by West Lancashire Long Distance Walkers Association, marked a long overdue return to the type of event I know and love, the ones I cut my running teeth on after I took up walking thirteen years ago. It was a grand reunion of walking friends of many years’ standing whom I hadn’t seen in months. It was refreshing to return to the low-key, informal, no-pressure atmosphere after so many larger running and grand slamming events. That isn’t to say I didn’t still run this one, mind you. If there’s a chance for another PB I’ll always try as long as I’m not injured. I wasn’t injured, so I tried. My legs had already felt recovered straight after Snowdonia (unlike Round Rotherham) so I felt ready.

My last participation in ‘Bottoms Up’ was in 2005, but since 2006 I have always run the Snowdonia Marathon and the two events have clashed. However, a delay by one week this year due to a wedding booking at Hoghton Village Hall, where it is based, allowed me to take part again. In view of the 4-year gap and considering how well I was feeling after Snowdonia, I was only envisaging a PB. Anything less just wasn’t on the agenda. Such confidence was rather dangerous considering my previous finishing time of 4:05. (There weren’t many runners back then, so that time earned me an unaccustomed equal first place.) Nevertheless I felt a sub-4 could be on the cards this year, while a first place finish was absolutely out of the question in view of the larger and more capable field taking part.

After seeing the walkers off at 8am, we runners returned inside the Village Hall for a chat, a cup of tea and to await the arrival of the remaining runners while we waited for our 9am send-off. There had been some overnight rain to ensure the traditionally muddy course would live up to its reputation. However, the sun was shining again for us and the temperature was still unseasonably warm – mid to high teens Centigrade. Another brilliant day was in prospect.

Before we knew it we were outside and with “It’s about time, I suppose you’d better be on your way”, or words to that effect, we ambled out onto the A6061 and turned right up the hill towards the long straight approach drive to Hoghton Tower. With a left turn and another left off the drive at the gatehouse, we were out into fields. Within the first 3 miles or so we visited Samlesbury Bottoms and Hoghton Bottoms (hence the event name). I was running with Chris Brown and Geoff Holburt. I would use them as my pacers for as long as I could. They are faster than I am and I knew I would not be able to hold onto then until the end. We were soon overtaken by Ian Hill, who’s even faster and most definitely uncatchable by the likes of me.

We mopped our brows as we ran over Butler’s Delf and across the fields to the first food stop at 6.6 miles (the temperature and humidity were causing the perspiration to flow). The broken up lumps of caramel crumble might not have looked very appetising but they certainly hit the spot. With the fuel beginning to course through our veins we followed our noses through the woods to the top of the hill and the first tally clip. After that came a long, downhill run through the woods, across fields and through more woods to the playing fields of Witton Park. I love down-hills. I was in my element.

After a short canal stretch (I hate flat running; I was not in my element) we three arrived at Checkpoint 2 (9.9 miles). I had been noticing the sensation of something lightly touching the inside of my right ankle and it felt as though my right sock might be rucked up around my toes. I didn’t pay too much attention. I assumed the ankle sensation was a muscle twitch, but when I finally looked down I noticed the insole to my shoe was trying to escape up the side of my leg. A quick readjustment soon put that right and I ran in comfort again to catch up to Chris and Geoff. As we ran we caught up with and overtook the walkers, one-by-one. It was often a case of ‘long time no see’ and many brief but animated conversations took place.

I always remembered that uphill lane to Checkpoint 3 (11.9 miles) at Tockholes Village Hall to be a slog. It was no different this year. I struggled to keep up with Chris and Geoff as I shuffled my way up the hill. I had run virtually every step of the way so far and I felt a sub-4-hour time was almost in the bag. An egg sandwich went down very well at the checkpoint. I couldn’t quite stomach the hot dog like Geoff had.

On the descent from Winter Hill (not ‘THE’ Winter Hill), the track took us down past Darwen Golf Course. There were quite a lot of of walkers and runners on the track at that point. I noticed a group of golfers at the tee to the left. One was lining up and going through the motions of driving his projectile through the pedestrians, before petulantly throwing his club down onto the green, flailing his arms sideways and shouting at us to “Get out of the f…..g way”. We were appalled by the rude, self-centred outburst.

I just about clung onto my pacers' coat tales as the miles continued to pass. I was surprised at how little of the route I had remembered. Perhaps I'd pushed so hard in previous years I had not taken much in. Perhaps a sub-4 finish wasn't such a done deal after all. Not much was sinking in this year either. I was just trying to survive and keep my targets in sight, pouring all my energy into the running that was becoming a shuffle as I began to slow down. I desperately wanted to walk but I couldn't afford to. I closed my mind to everything apart from the essential activity of putting one foot in front of the other at a pace that was as far advanced from walking pace as I could muster. I felt myself rapidly failing in that endeavour, but I'd been here before, literally thousands of times.

I was bringing up the rear as I arrived at Checkpoint 4 (18 miles) in Brinscall. There was no time to get food or drink because Chris and Geoff were already on the way out and I had to give chase, with barely 5 miles left to go. It was a good thing I had enough drink left and more than enough food to keep me going for longer than I would ever need today.

Now was the time when I needed a boost. I took my first few slurps of Coke as I gave chase up the road to the right turn at the post office. The sugar-caffeine infusion just kept me in the game for a few more miles and I kept my targets in sight until the right turn onto the towpath of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. With just two miles to go I caught the last glimpse of Chris' fluorescent yellow-green top disappear around a bend. He was just too strong for me and we were back onto flat running and I don't do flat, especially when the legs are screaming for me to stop. However, Geoff was not keeping up either. Chris was too strong for him too.

I finally hauled Geoff in just after leaving the canal as he was taking a short walking break and my pained shuffle had been just sufficient to close the gap. I checked my watch and couldn't believe how much time had passed. We had been running for nearly 4 hours and a sub-4-hour finish was now impossible. Now all I could do was aim for a PB. Geoff provided great encouragement. “Come on, I'll pull you home to a PB”. The final climb across the fields was not steep but required supreme effort to countermand the screaming legs that were commanding me to stop, or at least WALK. “Not just yet” I kept telling them.

“Come on!”, Geoff kept calling back, as if I were his pet dog. I didn't mind. I was happy for any encouragement I could get. The four-hour mark passed as we descended to the long drive to Hoghton Tower. “Come on!” I chased Geoff down the drive and back out onto the A6061. He could so easily have raced ahead to a sprint finish (he always has more in reserve than I have), but he didn't this time. With only a minute left to get a PB, that village hall seemed too far away. “Come on!!” “OK, I'm trying. I'm very trying.” I ran down that road as fast as I could go, turning left carefully onto the footpath to the Hall to avoid slipping on the piles of fallen leaves, to finish in 4:04. I could not believe I had run so fast in 2005 to only be able to beat my PB by one minute this year, after forcing out all that running. Perhaps a little of the Snowdonia marathon (and the Round Rotherham) was still in my legs after all.

Many thanks to Geoff for his selfless encouragement to pull me to a 'sprint' finish.

Chris was able to make up around ten minutes in the final 2 miles to get a comfortable sub-4-hour finish.

Like the Snowdonia Marathon last week, this was an eyeballs out race with no opportunity for taking pictures on the way. I only took two at the beginning. Sorry for the boring show this time.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Snowdonia Marathon 26.2mi. 24/10/2009

Pre-race fuelling - one of the by-pleasures of all this exercise.

Snowdonia Marathon
We're seeing a familiar pattern for the Snowdonia Marathon - wind and rain for three consecutive years now, so this had to be the weekend to end the long run of amazing weather just to keep the 'SNOD' weather tradition alive. I certainly didn't envy the people doing the OMM in mid Wales at the same time.

After last weekend's 'pleasures' my legs were feeling heavy and laboured on the runs into work, so much so that I cycled in on Thursday instead. By Friday my legs felt just about normal and 'ready to do their thing' again at the weekend.

The driving rain before the start didn't bother me too much because I walked from Llanberis up to the start, which just about kept me warm. I figured that would be much better than joining the LONG queue for one of the free buses. I met a couple of people from the Runner's World forum (the SNOD thread has to be the best and most lively thread going), including one who was going to act as sub-4-hour pacer. I intended to run with the sub-4hr group. Once in the starting pack there was just enough shelter and warmth from the surrounding bodies to keep the worst of the shivers at bay until the start. Also, the very mild temperature in the low teens Centigrade (mid to high 50s F) eased the chill factor. We were about 20 minutes late setting off because of the delayed buses.

As soon as we had set off and before we had reached the road proper, I had already lost the pacer - he was behind somewhere - so I just decided to run my own race like I always do. He overtook me some way down the first descent. I asked him how his 4hr pacing was going. I always like to look on the positive side and fondly imagined he might have been 5 minutes ahead of schedule, but when he said he was 1 minute down I knew a 4hr finish was beyond me. My hip flexors had already stiffened and I was pushing hard through the discomfort, so I told him a 4hr finish was beyond me this year as he slowly pulled away.

I passed the halfway point in 2:02. "I wonder if I can run a negative split and still get close to 4 hours?" I thought to myself. "Not unless a miracle happens" came the quick subconscious answer. "I've never run negative splits in my life, but considering I set off slower, I'll give it a damn good try." I amused myself watching the aerodynamic antics of, and trying to race, the polystyrene cups that were getting blown at high speed away from the drink stations. The wind was very strong and the cups always won. What a hideous litter problem.

I ran more of the race than I have ever run before, including most (but not quite all) of the final climb at Waunfawr, but my time of 4:15 turned out to be a personal worst for this event (4:13 in 2006, 4:06 in 2007 and 4:00 in 2008). I'm not at all disappointed with this result. It's hardly surprising under the circumstances. I know I pushed myself to my limits at the time, I had a fantastic day and I met some fantastic people.

It was a shame about the lack of electricity at the sports hall at the finish. A lack of warm restorative drinks meant an early exit to the car to get changed and warm before going to Pete's Eats for a few pints of tea, an enormous carrot soup + bread roll and a gigantic chilli-con-carne. Later on I joined other RW forumites, knocking back the drinks until midnight. I was very tempted by the Karaoke when it started up but I just resisted the urge to get up and warble.

I WILL be back next year, if not to run the marathon, to get up on that stage in the Padarn Lake Hotel bar and show them how it's done. I think a Neil Diamond number might be in order ;-)

I didn't take any pictures on the run because this is an eyeballs out road race and there was no time, and my camera remained sealed in a waterproof bag anyway. There are just a few before and after pictures.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Rowbotham’s Round Rotherham 50mi. 17/10/2009

The three triumphant Stockport Harriers - Andy Fowler, Nick Ham, Andy Shirres.

Rowbotham's Round Rotherham
What an amazing ultra-running experience. It has reaffirmed my love of ultra running. It felt so good to have a body that once again did everything I asked of it, but this time even exceeded what I expected of it. Everything went as perfectly as it could go. Three consecutive years of PBs by a few minutes and never being able to break the 10-hour barrier became a PB by 58 minutes and a finishing time of 9:13. Obviously the conditions helped and it would have been ‘PBs all round’, but to improve by 58 minutes on my 4th completion way exceeded my expectations. I averaged 5.42 miles per hour over 50 miles of trail, including checkpoint stops. For many that's not fast (there were 37 finishers ahead of me after all) but for me it’s verging on superhuman, so I'm ecstatic!

I drove over the Woodhead Pass on Friday evening for overnight accommodation in the Sandygate House Hotel in Wath upon Dearne, which is very close to the Dearne Valley College and convenient for the early start on Saturday. Since Geoff H was staying at the same hotel, we went out for a drink and a chin-wag; there was a lot of catching up to do since our events hadn't coincided for many months. Alcohol consumption isn’t my normal pre-race preparation, but why stop a favourite pastime just because of an ultra? We topped the evening off nicely with some last minute carbo-loading from the local chippy at closing time.

Sleep took a long time coming thanks to the disco until midnight, followed by the drunken revelry outside and the boy racers with their sewage pipe exhausts and rubber band tyres. About 4 hours’ fitful sleep were the best we could hope for.

The weather had continued to astound us with its kindness as we gathered in front of the sports hall in the cool pre-dawn to await the timekeeper’s instructions and send-off. There were some minor route changes: a footpath dispute causing a minor deviation, a reinstated bridge to restore the original route of a few years back and an alternative final few hundred yards to the finish.

There had still been little significant rainfall since August and we were looking forward to the driest conditions on record – such a stark contrast to the freezing cold, gale-driven sleet and mud bath of the previous two years. In addition, the fact that the event had been brought forward by two months ensured that head torches would not be needed for most runners. I took a calculated risk and left mine behind in the hall.

The walkers had set off at 6am and the relay runners would set off at 8am, but we runners were sent on our way at 7am along the cycle ways and footpaths, beside the river with the dumped shopping trolleys and fly-tipping towards Elsecar. I ran the first 5 miles to Elsecar at a pace that felt just comfortable yet sustainable. Chris Brown, Geoff Holburt and Mark Dalton (three people I use as pacers, unbeknown to them) were not far behind. After the left turn over the railway and the climb into the woods, as I removed the layer that was now keeping me too warm, Colm McCoy passed me and said: “Thanks for setting the pace there, Nick”. That was very kind I thought, but it did concern me. He’s an ultra runner of much greater capability, so I must have set off too fast. Oops, let’s hope I don’t blow up later on.

Very shortly we were into Wentworth, past the church and looking for the left turn along the concrete track. I never remembered which left turn to take here because of confusion with another event – the Elsecar Skelter – which covers similar ground at that point. Anyway, not to worry; there were loads of markers out this year which begged us to carry on to the second left turn, but once we got there where I knew we HAD to turn left, they didn’t direct us left. That settled it. The tape had been tampered with. With some minor curses of frustration from our group we followed our noses down the track and back across the large ploughed and sown field to the track we should have been on. Fortunately, thanks to the dryness of the finely ploughed soil, not only did our shoes remain dry and uncaked, we left no footprints behind. That made me feel slightly less guilty about our trespass. Now I’ve made the mistake I shall know for evermore to take the first left at the brow of the hill. We’d probably lost 5 minutes or more but I didn’t let it bother me. I just continued to concentrate on running within myself and marvel at the balmy, dry conditions we were enjoying considering it was already mid October.

The uniquely bloated outline of Keppel’s Column folly soon came into view on the climb to the ridge after Thorpe Hesley. The climb up the rough heath to the bulging column brought the first of the photographers into view, just like last year but this time they didn’t have to be concerned about keeping their equipment dry. With 10 miles now done it was a quick descent from the swollen erection (oh behave; it’s a convex-sided tower!) along the road to Grange Park and Checkpoint 1. “Let us eat cake.”

The woods either side of Droppingwell Lane contained some interesting bronze sculptures that quite commanded my attention as I passed by. I still wonder about their significance.

The minor reroute around the disputed path after Hilltop was not a problem. The original route as we passed by on the road below looked overgrown with brambles anyway. At least the new route was clear.

Just after Tinsley and the industrial estate, the sharp right turn footpath junction that remains invisible until you pass it, catches someone out every year. This time it was Geoff. As he passed it I called him back. It allowed me just enough time to sneak in front for a short while.

With 15 miles gone and with Sheffield Airport to our right, a newly waymarked and freshly mown wide path across the lumpy and now fully grassed waste ground guided us to the steps down to pass underneath Sheffield Parkway. The adjacent derelict railway line seemed to be gone and new things were afoot for that area of wasteland now. We ran beneath a scaffolding jungle that enshrouded the motorway bridge above us. I look forward to returning next year to see what new use replaced the dereliction.

With so much building and regeneration going on in these once heavily industrialised or mining areas, there are changes to see every year. It must keep the race organisers on their toes ensuring that the footpaths are accessible each year. It also keeps it interesting for us participants to see the changes as dereliction is replaced by regeneration or, better still, returned to nature.

The restoration of the original route after Catcliffe, thanks to the rebuilding of the footbridge, proved interesting. I’d remembered the right turn onto the main road but the route beside the river had escaped my memory. Our running group at the time appeared to take a non-optimum route too low down, which required a scramble up to the top when ‘jungle’ blocked further progress. However, once up on the top at the field edge, the route became clear and runnable again. Geoff, who’s like a Duracell bunny and just keeps going without seeming to slow, had again built up a good lead and was vanishing into the distance towards Checkpoint 2 at Treeton. The shiny new bridge across the river looked impressive.

CP2’s new location in the entrance to the cricket club was a big improvement – much better than on the road/footpath junction. “More tea vicar, and how about a spot of tiffin to soak it up?” I availed myself of the comestibles, then followed another short stretch of new route that delivered us perfectly onto the concrete causeway over the boggy shores of Treeton Dyke.

Our route continued right onto the ex A57, past the dog kennels with the baying hounds, past the joinery works and left onto the Trans Pennine Trail cycleway beside the railway line. The viaduct, then the double-back over the road bridge and back onto the trail, now on the left-hand side of the railway line, provided my next mental targets before entering Rother Valley Country Park, which brought us 20 miles into the run. The sun was shining and this ex-mining area is an oasis of countryside, but this is never a happy point for me (and other runners, by several accounts). Here’s why:

The relatively flat nature of this event means that most of it has to be run. There is less variation and there are fewer 'walking up' and 'running down' breaks than I am used to. Consequently (speaking for myself), even though I keep feeding and watering myself judiciously throughout to avoid a ‘bonk’, there comes a time when the pace cannot be sustained. A slowdown and a more drastic intake of food become necessary. That point ALWAYS occurs here, at 20 miles, all five times I have started this event. It caused my first ever DNF in 2001 when I did not realise that you can bounce back strongly from such lows. Fortunately I did not have to sit down this time. I just walked, took out a mini pork pie and washed it down with Coke. It provided a good opportunity to chat to a couple of walkers I’d caught up with.

Shortly afterwards, Mark and Chris overtook me. I tried to shuffle in their wake but the sustenance was not yet doing a good enough job for me to be able to keep up. I did not feel frustrated by my weakness and inadequacy like I might have done in my less informed past. I bided my time and waited for the body to start cooperating again, which I knew it would do sooner or later.

I continued to shuffle my way, ultraplodder stylie, along the long flat stretch then uphill to the A618, chatting with other walkers as I caught up with them. We had been comprehensively overtaken by relay runners for a good while now. They were easily identifiable by their indecent speed and their absence of equipment. I wasn't carrying much but at least I had a bum bag. I didn’t envy them one bit. I was happy to be going at my own slow pace and experiencing the whole event rather than a small part of it.

I was alone again as I climbed beside the derelict canal towards the M1 underpass. I was struck by the unusual silence, then I noticed that there was no water flowing down the water course, such was the recent lack of rain. That’s a first and probably a last.

Just like in previous years, as I climbed into the fields, energy was being restored to my body and running was becoming easier. I continued to overtake other runners and walkers as we crossed the unbelievably dry, finely ploughed fields to Checkpoint 3 at Harthill. This was 25 miles – the halfway point! “How about a dainty jam sandwich this time? Don’t mind if I do.” I was surprised to see Mark there. He just needed to regroup; he would bounce back, like we all do as long as we can eat and we give it time.

I paused just long enough for the dainty morsel and to refill my bottle before emerging to take the sneaky little snicket on the left up to the road. A feral 'chav' called out some ‘encouragement’ from its car as I waited for it to pass before crossing to the footpath opposite. Thankfully I was soon back into countryside again – lots of fields to cross, many finely ploughed and seeded, the footpath invisible were it not for the faster runners who had already created a faint trail with their light footfall.

I looked out carefully for aircraft as I crossed the end of the grass airstrip with its battered and squashed, vintage red and white barrier.

The marshal at the railway crossing seemed somewhat superfluous, since we were just as capable of spotting and hearing advancing trains from afar as he. However, UK nanny-state law stipulates it. On the other hand, the marshal at the A57 crossing was definitely needed. The 60mph two-way traffic was only allowing one or two runners across at any one time when I crossed. Two sets of eyes were needed for survival.

Checkpoint 4, Woodsetts, nearly 35 miles, was a flurry of activity with relay runners milling about, just arrived or waiting for their team mate to run in. I was amazed to see Chris and Geoff inside – I'd actually caught them up! I kneeled down to squeeze the lactic acid out of my leg muscles and restore life to them as I partook. “Two tuna sandwiches and Coke to please sir?” You bet.

With minimal delay I was out of there ahead of Chris. Geoff was waiting at the other side of the sports field. He wasn't sure of the route and needed a running companion who knew the way. It was good to be running with someone again. It wasn't long before Chris caught us up. His refuelling had kicked in well. We jogged along together, between the hill and the works, past yet more fly-tipping then past Langold Lake, but shortly afterwards, in the woods, they pulled away. They're stronger than I and Geoff now had a new navigator. I found myself alone again. Shortly after that I wasted a few minutes, unsure of the path's exit onto a busy road that was described as a lane on the (excellent) strip map. Some runners I'd passed earlier caught up and confirmed the path's exit onto the road was here. I was off again, shortly to arrive at Checkpoint 5, Firbeck, 35 miles.

A quick bottle refill and biscuit and I was off again, back into the fields. I was prepared this year for the long left – right – left – right – left – right stretch across the wide open fields that in previous years seemed interminable. (If you’ve done the event you’ll know what I mean. If not and you’re curious, I’m not talking about marching. You’ll have to do the event next year to experience the delight for yourselves.) I could see a couple of other runners way ahead and I was able to keep up the shuffle-jog (still faster than walking) in an attempt to close the gap. They became my new target. These fields, and Roche Abbey which wasn’t far away now, provided more of the mental milestones that kept me going.

Roche Abbey always delights yet saddens me. The grandeur of its remains delights me, while the fact that it was mindlessly smashed up, along with all other religious buildings during the dissolution in King Henry VIII’s reign, saddens me; such mindless wanton destruction. It has languished since 1538!

Two more photographers were lurking around the Abbey, watching me take my own pictures before they took mine. I was still alone, the two runners ahead remaining out of sight and seemingly uncatchable. Perhaps I should stop taking pictures.

As I climbed through the woods on the approach to the 40-mile mark, a young couple walking in the opposite direction asked if there was an orienteering event going on. When I told them we were running a 50-mile trail race, the glazed look of incomprehension followed by the gawp of incredulity were familiar. “What, in one day?” came the natural retort.

My next mental target was the church graveyard at Maltby. I nearly caught the two runners on the approach but they got away again when I paused to take more pictures.

Checkpoint 6 at Maltby had an uphill road approach, most of which I walked. The legs were feeling very heavy and running was an effort. I finally caught up with the runners (David Egan and Marla Howard-Cutts) after CP6. This was Marla's first event after her fall in the High Peak 40 a month earlier (I had helped her to her feet when I passed). Her fall had been far more serious than I realised. It had put her out of action until this event. It was good to see her back doing another ultra and going faster than ever. Both she and David had really taken some catching-up. We enjoyed each other's company for a few miles through Hooton Roberts to Old Denaby. On the ascending track prior to Old Denaby they were pulling away from me again and I was struggling to keep up. My legs needed fuel, like they always do at this point, so out came a Kellogg's Elevenses bar, which always does the trick.

By the time I arrived at the final checkpoint (CP7, Old Denaby) the food was already doing its job. I was feeling revived again. With only three miles to go and alone again (the way I like it, feeling like a fugitive trying not to get caught) I could 'smell the barn' and I was off, heading back towards the relative squalor of past industry. My memory was working perfectly and navigation was going like a dream as the route twisted and turned down roads, over bridges, under bridges, by canal, river and railway line, past derelict pub and past a stagnant stretch of canal whose surface culture looked like a manky green shag pile.

I'm nearly home. I hit the new route to the finish – bear left across the road into the field and follow the markers (thankfully not interfered with this time) on the twisty footpath to the cycle track (much better than the longer way round the road we used to do). Down the cycle track, college buildings coming into view and there's no-one behind to catch me. Nonetheless I give it my all, running as fast as I can down that dry, gently descending track to another new section. Tape directs me to the left, across soft cushioned grass, past groups of cheering spectators and through a gate left open in our honour to the sports courts. A final, gravity-assisted sprint down the ramp to the finish makes me feel superhuman considering I've just run 50 miles. I can hardly believe how emphatically I have PBd. I arrive just 5 minutes behind Chris and Geoff, having not seen them for over 15 miles.

Mark did bounce back. He finished 37 minutes later.

In view of the dryness, the camera mostly behaved itself and I took quite a few pictures. Without them I might have been 5 minutes quicker ;-)

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Vasque series race 12 – Longmynd Hike 50mi. 03-04/10/2009

Longmynd Hike
Despite my body’s unwilling exertions in the High Peak 40 and Pumlumon Challenge the week before it, my recovery continued in the two weeks leading up to the Longmynd Hike. Gone was the constant tiredness and disinterest in life; back was the desire to write my race reports and upload the pictures I had taken, and back was the desire to start running to work again in the week leading up to Longmynd.

I drove down to the Church Stretton School to arrive 3 hours before the 1pm start to get checked in and kit checked. First priority was to get my bed set out ready for my return. The carpeted classrooms were fast filling up with an assortment of mats and sleeping bags. Soon they would be spilling out into the corridor as the prime spots were taken. That’s why you need to arrive early. With that essential priority out of the way, check-in and kit check were very efficient and the best ever, thanks to lots of officials working in parallel in separate halls.

Unlike the previous two times I have done this event, when my rucksack felt impossibly heavy and cumbersome for running, I was very careful with my kit selection to satisfy kit requirements without taking unnecessary extra plus the kitchen sink.
Out was the heavyweight rucksack liner that’s good for keeping your stuff dry even if you have to use your rucksack as a flotation aid, in was a plastic bag as the liner.
Out was the heavyweight survival bag, in was the featherweight silver blanket (still within the kit rules).
Out was the second spare long-sleeved top (I never need to wear three).
I was particularly pleased at persuading the official to allow me to take my 1:25,000 Tracklogs maps with the full route plotted on, in place of the three heavy paper maps. He only agreed to this after I’d demonstrated their waterfastness by squirting my water bottle over them, and his desk (the desk wetting was unintentional). He was so impressed he simply had to say yes.
I did not skimp on the food. We had to be self sufficient so I took four SIS gels, an assortment of cereal bars, a Marathon bar (I refuse to use that ridiculous-sounding new-fangled ‘S’ word), three Marmite rolls, a turkey roll, six fig rolls, two mini pork pies and half a chewed malt loaf left over from Pumlumon. I knew I wouldn’t eat all the food but we did need to have emergency rations in reserve as well. I thought I was covered, so did the official.
In addition to my two hand-held bottles with one dose of electrolyte turbo powder for the final quarter of the race, I carried two small bottles of Coke for that essential sugar & caffeine boost to keep the legs moving when energy levels started to run low. Most of the weight came from the food and drink.
[By the end of the race I had consumed the Coke, three gels, three fig rolls, a peanut butter Cliff bar, both pork pies, a turkey roll, a Marmite roll and the electrolyte turbo powder mix. Add to that the cold drinks, mushroom soup, chicken soup, Bovril drink and coffee at the checkpoints, I kept pretty well fuelled throughout.]

At 12:30pm we sauntered the mile or so along the side streets and footpaths across the railway line and main road to the starting field. I had never seen such a big turn-out. Loads of officials lined up along the fence at the bottom of the field with our tallies, which we collected in exchange for our chitties signed earlier at kit check. As we awaited the 1pm send-off I wandered up to the front, where the speedy ones had gathered ready for their quick getaway. I had previously noticed the modest size of Andy Rankin’s pack; his bum bag now looked even smaller alongside the backpacks everyone else was wearing. He did assure us that it contained the full kit requirement. Perhaps he was telling the truth, since I don’t think he eats much on his long runs and he certainly has no time for washing up. I felt quite envious. I give my best performances when wearing a bum bag rather than a rucksack. Having said that, mine was feeling a lot less burdensome this year.

I quickly moved back from the front line to my rightful place in the pack just before we were sent on our way. I shuffled up the trail at the edge of the field with the 500-plus other runners and walkers. I was noticing the ravages of drought. It had hardly rained in over a month – since August in fact – so the ground was very dry and the grass was quite brown and stunted under the shelter of the trees. How surreal to be running in such conditions in October. The weather was finally beginning to turn but giving no cause for concern. The first vigorous Atlantic depression of the autumn was tracking eastwards across Scotland. The forecast had predicted strong winds and only drizzly showers for Saturday, with everything calming down and clearing up by the evening. I was not worried and was looking forward to a cool, dry run.

Most of us mere mortals walked up to the top of the first of twelve hills – Caer Caradoc. It was quite a sight to see the runners (actually walkers at this point) snaking their way up to the summit, where Checkpoint 1 (1.5 miles) was situated. As we ascended we soon noticed the familiar theme – the wind got stronger the higher we climbed. It wasn’t really a problem, it added to the excitement. I braced myself to take pictures.

The run down Caer Caradoc and around the right of Little Caradoc’s summit was steep and fast, with only one slip on the shiny grass. My landing on my hand-held bottles was soft as they ejected two high pressure jets of liquid. A short stretch of road brought us to the foot of hill 2 – The Lawley. The ascent to CP2 (3.5 miles) at the summit and the descent provided the first out-and-back. This event is already very friendly with great camaraderie. The greetings, “how-do”s and “well done”s as we first pass the faster ones on the way up, then the slower ones on the way down, make it even more so. It’s amazing how many acquaintances one can build up over thirteen years of eventing. The run off The Lawley was entertaining. It was necessary to run at a tilt, leaning to the right against the wind over the steep drop-off.

After the descent back to the road and calmer conditions, there was a flat section across fields and roads before beginning the slow, steady climb via CP3 (High Park, 6.9 miles) to CP4 (Pole Bank, 9.7 miles) at the summit of hill 3. The so-called drizzle showers had been getting heavier and more persistent since High Park as we gained altitude, but I wasn’t worried. It was only drizzle and they were only supposed to be showers. It was just the wind that was making it seem heavier. I was running in a thin long-sleeved top but I was comfortable, so I resisted putting on any more clothes. I didn’t want to overheat. I kept telling myself the rain would stop soon.

The final ascent to Pole Bank provided another brief out-and-back and a few more friendly “how-do”s before the left turn and long gradual descent across the fells to Coates farm, where our route joined the return route we would be following much later in the dark. I crossed the forbidden cattle grid (you'll have to do the event if you're wondering what I'm going on about). As I descended, the rain eased off as I had been expecting. Checkpoint 5 (12.4 miles) at Bridges provided a low point (geographically speaking) before the long, slow climb up the road towards Stiperstones, but BAD NEWS, the rain started again, more intensely than before. As we plodded up the road, all we could see was a wall of black cloud ahead as we battled our way into the driving rain. I and those around me were saying: “This shouldn’t be happening. The forecast didn’t predict this.” Still I held off putting my waterproof on as I climbed towards the Stiperstones Carpark. After all, it was only supposed to be drizzle showers, right?

The tent we would be using as a checkpoint on the return leg was already erected on the far edge of the carpark and occupied by a marshal who was sheltering from weather to which we had become most unaccustomed. As I departed from the return route I NEARLY diverted there for some shelter to get my showerproof top on, but at the last instant I didn’t bother and instead continued through the gate up onto Stiperstones. The wind was howling from my left and I was finally beginning to get cold, but I could see the first signs of brightening sky to the west, while the rain seemed to be easing.

I picked my way carefully across the exposed rocks and stones to the summit of hill 4 and CP6 (Stiperstones, 14.9 miles). At the first rock outcrop that provided shelter from the gale, even though the rain had all but stopped I was now officially cold and needed to reduce the wind chill, so I finally relented and put my lightweight windproof layer on. I needed to get running to get warm, but not just yet, not across the lethal rocks of Stiperstones. They are an accident waiting to happen. I bided my time.

Shortly after leaving CP6 I was surprised to see Mark Rawlinson going in the opposite direction back up to the checkpoint. He said there’d been a serious accident and he was returning to warn the marshals. Further down the trail, where the lethal rocks were fewer and it was just about safe to start running again, I saw Ian Hodge, knee tightly bandaged, being helped very slowly back up the trail. He had tripped and fallen and gashed his knee very badly. He was out of the race, which was very sad. He had put his first aid kit to good use and demonstrated the importance of the compulsory kit requirement. The accident also demonstrated the selflessness of our fellow runners by the help and support given by two of them. After checking that they were alright and didn’t need any further assistance from me, I continued my descent towards Habberley. The rain had stopped, the sky was turning blue, the sun began to shine and I was warm again.

From Habberley, hill number 5 – Earl’s Hill – was another out-and-back. Although I was now very warm I resisted taking off my windproof layer until I had completed that exposed, windy section. Checkpoint 7 (20.1 miles) was at the summit. As I descended back down I passed Mark on his way up. I know he’s faster than I but I was still amazed that he’d caught up again so quickly. I expected him to pass me before the next checkpoint, which saddened me a little because I would quite have liked to have him in my night-time group, but he'll be too fast and get grouped earlier with a faster group. Oh well, this event is the luck of the draw when it comes to the night-time grouping.

Once back down and out of the woods I was officially hot and had to strip (oo-er missus), so off came the windproof and cap and on went the Buff to keep my head warm against the worst of the wind chill, since the passing of the rain had introduced cooler air and a cold night was forecast. I had been keeping the food and drink (including the life-giving elixir for the ultra runner – Coke) trickling in as I progressed and I was feeling good. I was at just the right temperature, I felt lean and mean and raring to go. I set off running back along the track, passing and acknowledging other runners on their way towards Earl’s Hill, overjoyed at how well I was feeling compared to how I felt on the previous two events. I seemed to be back in the running again.

I ran most of the road stretch, overtaking a couple of other runners on the way, to CP8 (Bank Farm, 22 miles), where I had my first soup (mushroom). It went down a treat and set me up well for the next stage, which I had really been looking forward to. I wanted to get to Shelve (where I would be grouped) in daylight and I was looking forward to navigating my way on what I believe to be the optimum route, on my own for the first time. As I left CP8, Mark was just arriving. He would catch me very soon now. My navigation through Maddox’s Coppice to Snailbeach, along the mining railway bed then along the road and footpath to Shelve went like a dream. I ran most of it, eating a mini pork pie on the way to keep my energy up, and I was catching and overtaking other runners, but where was Mark? He still hadn’t caught me. I caught up with Giles, who was running his first Longmynd Hike in 18 years (!) We ran across the fields and into CP9 (Shelve, 27.6 miles) together. In the distance to our left in the advancing gloom was the looming black mass of Corndon Hill. The dim lights on top marked the next checkpoint. Then Giles drew my attention to the full moon that was rising behind us. The wind had all but dropped, the sky had cleared and it promised to be a glorious night for running. I was feeling good. Bring it on!

The tent at Shelve was dry and cosy (you could have sat on the ground it was so dry) and the compulsory grouping into three or more occurred for us here. I had some more soup (chicken this time) and a turkey sandwich. I put my head torch on and put on a second lightweight long-sleeved top, since it would be quite chilly when we emerged back out into the night. Giles and I were grouped. All we needed was a third person and we could be off. Suddenly Mark arrived. He’d taken a less than optimum route through the woods to Snailbeach. He had pushed hard to catch up since Stiperstones and had done really well to succeed. He was keen to be grouped with us and I was keen to have him grouped with us. I knew we would make a really good team. I couldn't have been more happy.

We were soon off into the night down Shelve Hill in the woods, which was drier than usual after so little rain in such a long time. Unfortunately there was still a muddy patch, which Giles slipped on and launched himself to the left to land in the undergrowth, just falling short of smashing his head into a tree as he landed. It was a close call. I pulled him back up and we were on our way again. We three struck up an animated conversation and as we progressed it soon became clear that navigation would not be an issue. Giles had reconnoitred the route carefully and knew exactly where to go. I also felt very confident of where I was going. I hadn’t done the route in two years but I was amazing myself at how I was remembering the intricacies of the route. I had no concerns. It was imprinted on my mind and I could have done it alone. It was great that we were in such total agreement about the optimum route.

We made good progress along the lanes and track to the base of hill 6 – Corndon Hill. It was now fully dark. We took it steadily up the steep climb through the heather on the good path that does not appear on the map. As we neared the top we could see the lights of the next group at the bottom of the hill, which unnerved me a little. I didn't want to get caught. Checkpoint 10 (30.1 miles) was at the summit. A quick tally clip and left turn and we were off, following the fence off the hill. With markers to keep us on the right route to avoid upsetting the sensitive farmer, our navigation was a breeze down to CP11 (Woodgate Farm, 31.5 miles). We allowed ourselves a brief refreshment stop here. I had a cup of coffee for the caffeine boost and to wash down the second pork pie. As we left the checkpoint we could see the head torches of our chasing group descending the hill. It made me want to run and get away. I really didn't want to get caught.

The so-called footpath from Little Cefn Farm to Welsh Lodge is neglected, flooded, overgrown and decrepit, with decayed/rotten/collapsed stiles. The locked metal gate with barbed wire wrapped around the top and a collapsed stile as the only means of getting over the fence is a disgrace. The farmer obviously likes walkers a lot and honours his obligations to maintain the footpaths that cross his land – NOT! Giles did an excellent job of leading us faultlessly through this wilderness. We proceeded on our privileged access onto hill 7 – Black Rhadley. The moon was shining so brightly we could see without our head torches. Checkpoint 12 (34 miles) was at the summit of the stiff climb. It was strange to climb through heather over such steep, rugged terrain to a caravan at the top. The track it was parked on went right up to the edge of the hill. There was no longer any sign of our pursuing group now. We must be making good progress.

From Black Rhadley with the checkpoint's excitable dog in tow for a while, it was a gentle jogging descent down the track to the lane. All systems were go; Mark was doing a good job of keeping a check on everyone, that we were eating and drinking OK and there were no issues threatening. Keeping the communication going like this was good. The biggest issue seemed to be Giles' tired legs and knees that screamed to him on steep descents, which was hardly surprising considering he was not used to running ultras. (I mentioned before that he last ran Longmynd 18 years ago.) His pace and ability to push through the pain were astounding in the circumstances.

We followed the undulating lane – footpath – road to CP13 (36.3 miles) in the Stiperstones carpark. NOW was the correct time to enter that tent. We proceeded through to the inner sanctum where the timekeepers were and where it was surprisingly warm. A runner was already there, head covered, wrapped up and stretched out with a blanket over himself. What I could see of his face rang distant bells with me but I couldn't be sure. Most blokes look the same to me. I asked if he had retired, to which he replied no, he was just resting. As we were about to leave he asked if he could join our group. I said he could, but we were doing quite a bit of running, and could he run? “Yes” came the reply. We were soon back out onto the road we had last traversed in the opposite direction in daylight in the driving rain. Things were so different now. It was cold and dry, the wind had dropped and we could run by moonlight. We introduced ourselves to our new recruit and it transpired that he was none other than Paul Dickens, another Grand Slammer and a fast one at that. My poor powers of recognition came to embarrass me yet again. But what was he doing this far back in the field? He should have finished by now. It transpired that he was another near casualty of Stiperstones much earlier in the day. He had twisted his ankle and hobbled from there, eventually to rest for a long time at CP13. He wasn't letting his G.S. slip through his fingers now. Even though he was so much slower than he was accustomed to, he still had plenty of time to finish, so on he persevered.

Considering our two sufferers, we continued at a respectable pace as a new, friendly group of four. We jogged down the road, through Bridges, then walked up the hill to Coates Farm (recrossing the forbidden cattle grid on the way back) then we split from the outward route as we continued straight on towards Medlicott. After Medlicott Cottage we turned right up hill 8 to CP14 (Pole Cottage, 40.8 miles) at the top. This was a gentle climb compared to the others, but the path was all but hidden by the heather in places. I enjoyed a Bovril drink at CP14, which really hit the spot. Paul was struck by a bout of nausea and vomited, but we were soon on our way again. The night seemed very cold now.

Giles set the pace along the road across the top (he didn't want to be dragged along too fast). As we jogged along, a couple of boy racers came from behind in their little cars. We kept to the side to let them pass. Acceleration was violent as they did so. They disappeared over the brow of the hill and we heard the sound of revving engines and screeching tyres. Within a few minutes we could hear them coming back again. We took fewer chances this time and kept well out of the way on the grass verge. One of them said something from his open window as he passed, but it was so fleeting I didn't quite catch it. I think he said “Thank you” for keeping well off the road for them.

Just after that disconcerting experience, at the brow of the hill we turned left off the road onto the track across the fells to Minton. The trail undulated before the final steep descent to CP15 (43.4 miles) and the only self clip of the event, which was well identified by a flashing red cycle light. From there came another undulating, low level section by country lane, ploughed field, main road and track to the foot of (final) hill 9 – Ragleth Hill. The climb up there was very steep, slow and laboured, particularly at this late stage in the game. We saw some head torches ahead. Hey, was this another group we were about to overtake? Doubts arose when I could only see two lights, when groups were supposed to be at least three. We soon caught up with them. They were two chaps who were walking the route self supported because they had not been able to get a place on the event. They had set off at 8am (5 hours earlier than we had). That's commitment for you. We bade them farewell as we continued up over the summit to CP16 (45.5 miles). We were doing well and I was feeling surprisingly strong. To tell the truth I would have liked to be going a touch faster, but all things considered we were doing amazingly well. We were particularly impressed with Giles' performance considering he wasn't used to this, and I sensed that Paul was battling on valiantly and suffering in silence.

My previous Personal Best on this event was 12:04. We had 2 miles to go (yes, our optimum route according to Tracklogs is 47.5 miles long) and I had less than half an hour to equal it. It was a downhill finish and my legs were still strong so I was sure I could do it, but we had to stick together as a group so I didn't think it was possible. Paul had been resolutely quiet (suffering in silence?) but seemed to be holding on to Giles' pace. We offered our best encouraging words to Giles and we set off on our mission. There was another minor climb along the ridge before our descent to the left off the ridge finally commenced. I wanted to blast it but Giles' screaming knees set our pace. Down the steep, slippery, treacherous, knee-wrecking path we went, which eventually brought us into the back entrance to the civilisation of Church Stretton. I kept jogging a few yards before waiting for the others to catch up. I checked my watch. 'No chance', I thought. 'I'll just go along for the ride and enjoy Giles' triumph.' We descended to and crossed the main road and turned right then left past the station. I managed to persuade everyone to allow me to show them the short cut to the right across the playing fields. Then Mark said “Come on, let's help Nick to get his PB” before setting off across the field. I couldn't believe it. I looked back to check on Paul and Giles. They were holding on. Mark led the way onto the road and turned right on the final 100 yard dash to the school while I held back and bridged the gap between him and Giles & Paul. We pulled each other through the gate and along the passage to the hall where the timekeepers were sitting at their desks. I stopped my stopwatch as they cut off our tallies and noted the time. I made a quick calculation to subtract the bonus time that had been awarded while I waited to be grouped at Shelve. 12:04 I reckoned. I'd equalled my PB. We offered each other our most heartfelt congratulations on a job well done. It was a friendly experience of great camaraderie. Giles had pushed his body, which was unaccustomed to such exertion, to an amazing finish and was in obvious discomfort as a result. Paul had overcome injury and nausea to finish in style against adversity, while Mark just finished in style, having run several miles more than the rest of us. It was unique to have two Grand Slammers complete their Grand Slam successfully together in the same team on the final event. I felt privileged to have run with Paul because he's always out of sight ahead of me (when not injured).
[Paul was due to travel out to Brazil in a couple of days to take part in the Brazil 135 mile stage race in the Amazon Jungle. Good luck with that, Paul. If you can keep hydrated, a man of your calibre will do very well. Just get that ankle better in time (within the week?!)]

I went to the other hall to remove my shoes and socks and excess baggage and clothing, then get some food and drink. Mark came through and said “12:03”. What? I had miscalculated. We had actually managed to force a PB for me by 1 whole minute over 50 miles. That's the icing on the cake. Not only had I completed my Grand Slam, I had returned from the brink to do so and I had finished in style with a Personal Best. What a result. I feel absolutely elated. This ultra running lark is simply the best.

Right, that's …... 12 down and zero, zilch, none, zippo, nada, not a sausage to go. Target achieved!

Pictures are here (until the rain ravaged the camera to deleterious effect).

Andy Rankin, he of the enviable bum bag, won the race in 8:02. Not only that, he won the whole series, snatching an extra 32 points over Jez Bragg. Well done Andy!

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Vasque series race 11 - High Peak Challenge 40mi. Sat 19/09/2009

High Peak 40
Never have I felt so unenthusiastic about a race, even life, as I felt before this one. Even though the fever had left my body and I had been to work all week, I’d had no desire to run there and all I could think about all week was bed. I’d felt drained ever since the previous weekend’s Pumlumon Challenge (and long before that). I was only sitting in that registration hall in Buxton Community School to keep my Grand Slam dream alive, not for the pleasure of running ultras. I couldn’t imagine running an ultra being very pleasurable at the moment, which was sad because I knew there was yet another warm, dry day in prospect for one of my favourite, most runnable ultras. More than that, it would be my tenth completion if I could just get round. Those prospects, and the sight of more familiar running and walking friends (there was another healthy turn-out from my running club Stockport Harriers) bucked me up somewhat, although it might not have been obvious at the time.

I was soon wandering down with the others to the start area on Broadwalk. The timekeeper stood there, wall clock in hand, ready to send us on our way at 8am. The first few miles felt painless as I jogged along, only slowing to a walk when the gradient steepened for the climb up to the first stile. I found myself further back in the pack than I was accustomed to, but I was quite happy to be queuing and resting for a few seconds. We were soon over the top and down onto the railway bed that contoured round to Checkpoint 1 (Bonsal Incline); then came the easy, gravity-assisted coasting run down the Bonsal Incline to the Goyt Valley and the bank of Fernilee Reservoir. I was already in the groove and enjoying myself.

All systems were go and feeling sustainable through Checkpoint 2 (Taxal layby), through the best jungle Derbyshire has to offer on the diversion around Cadster Farm to Checkpoint 3 (Digleach Farm) and Checkpoint 4 (Beet Farm). I was keeping the food and drink trickling in to keep the energy up, running the downs and walking the ups to keep things ticking over sustainably. On the descent from South Head down the rocky track I came across Marla with concerned friend in attendance. She had taken a bad tumble. After confirming that nothing was broken and she was just badly shaken, we helped her to her feet. I jogged on down the track to the stream-crossing and began the climb up the other side towards Checkpoint 5 (Rushup Edge). Energy was deserting me already and the digestion was showing the first signs of rebelling. I was just 13 miles into the event and my race number was 13. Is there something significant here? I’m not superstitious so I ignored the irrational number thing.

The plod had begun and I began to get overtaken quite comprehensively. I had entered survival mode ridiculously early. What damage was I doing to myself by continuing? Would whatever virus that may still be infesting my person be driven deeper into an organ to do serious damage if I battled on? I wanted to go to sleep and imagined the quickest route to my nice warm bed: drop out at CP5 and get transported to the finish. I could drive home in an hour; but what about the G.S.? How would I make my excuses about failing at the penultimate hurdle? Could I make them sound convincing enough or would I come across as a ‘wuss’? If I did drop out there would be no need to do the Grand Slam finale – the Longmynd Hike in two weeks’ time, which I couldn’t even contemplate doing at the moment. Would I regret dropping? Of course I would. Would I regret making myself even more ill by continuing in my wretchedness? Of course I would. My mind was a whir and preoccupied with constructing the most dramatic, convincing excuse for dropping out. Karen passed me and asked how I was doing. She was left in no doubt about my negative thoughts. “But you can’t drop out now. Just walk it. I’ve already got your T-shirt so you’ve got to finish.” It bucked me up a little but the negative thoughts continued to rage overwhelmingly. Marla passed me at a slow jog and soon disappeared on her way to CP5. That was great to see and bucked me up a little more, but the negative thoughts were still there.

I trudged up to CP5 and sat down. The thin layer of low cloud was receding, a straight line separating it ahead and a cloudless blue sky behind. The sun came out to provide some luxurious warmth and enhance the beautiful rolling Derbyshire countryside. It was another gorgeous day. I topped up my hand-held bottles and had another bite to eat. My stubborn streak was kicking in; I’d started a challenge that needed finishing and with as little further thought as possible I got up to begin the long trudge up Rushup Edge. Let’s see if I still wanted to drop out so much at the next checkpoint.

Trudge I did. Any attempt at running was a 10-second shuffle at best. Other runners continued to overtake me, though not as often as before, since most of them had most likely already passed. I had to sit down twice more on the top of Rushup Edge; first I gazed at the Edale valley below and took five portrait images for stitching together later to create a panorama through almost 180°, then I watched a parascender launch himself in the opposite direction off the ridge into the breeze.

The short sharp drag to the summit of Mam Tor went at a crawl with my heart rate at 178bpm. I don’t know what the members of the public must have thought of the sight of a so-called 'runner' (insofar as he was wearing a club vest and running shorts) dragging himself along at that pace. I couldn’t care. I was concentrating on surviving, not what others may be thinking. I continued down the ridge among the hikers, walkers and mountain bikers to Hollins Cross, which was like Piccadilly Circus it was so busy. The right fork down towards Castleton soon brought relative peace again (you can’t get mountain bikes down there). As I walk-shuffled my way down the lane towards Castleton and Checkpoint 6, another group of runners overtook me, asking how it was going. I replied honestly and mentioned something about being ill. As they pulled away to a few yards ahead I swear I heard one of them say something about getting some weight on, as if my weight has anything to do with contracting a virus and performing poorly in an ultra. Impudent baggage; I’ve not been ill for years, but what does he know, fatty!

Having been able to jog a little down to CP6 (19 miles) I realised that my digestion was not quite as rebellious as it had been feeling. My early drop in pace had just about saved the day. I had another bite to eat and drink before jogging down to the main road and walking up to the entrance to Cavedale. ‘You know, I think I might just finish this thing. I can envisage the highlights of the route all the way to the end and I really look forward to reaching them one-by-one. I’ll plod for as long as I have to and jog for as long as I’m able.’ On the approach to Cavedale, I and a couple of other runners gratefully accepted the offer of some electrolyte drink from a supporter at the side of the road, who was there to support her runner.

The drag up Cavedale was slow and steady but thankfully not too much of a chore. I had found equilibrium and was feeling considerably better than I had been feeling. As I emerged onto Old Moor, on the way retrieving a shiny new compass that someone had dropped, I began to close on other runners in the distance. I had targets to aim for and I found I was able to jog to get closer to them. Anyway I needed to find out who this compass belonged to! At CP7 (Bushy Heath) I still hadn’t found the owner of the compass, so I left it with the marshals for later return to base. Shortly afterwards on the long downhill jog (yes, I was still running!) towards Tideswell, the next runner I caught up to proved to be the compass’ owner. He didn’t realise he’d dropped it but at least he now knew that he had, and where to retrieve it.

It was like old times as I managed to run virtually every step to CP8 (Tideswell Dale). With continued careful fuelling I was able to sustain the catch-up-and-overtake strategy to the end, which invited a few comments from those who had overtaken me earlier and thought I was on my last legs. They couldn’t believe it and neither could I, but I was finally enjoying this event like I always have done. The fact that I was so much slower than normal is immaterial. It felt like PB fodder to me. I was eking the max out of what my body could manage at each moment, I was running again, I was catching up with other runners and conversing a little before moving on with the next one as my target. I was feeling like I usually feel as I’m pushing the limits yet still in control. What a turnaround. Thank goodness I didn’t wimp out after all. What a fraud I would have been and wouldn’t I have cheated myself, big time. The stubbornness got me through the low patch. It never ceases to amaze me how ultrarunners can come back relatively strongly from such low points. It’s just abnormal to get the low point so early on.

After Tideswell Dale I continued my pursuit through CP9 (Upper Dale on the Monsal Trail), CP10 (High Low) and CP11 (King Sterndale - always a lovely warm welcome there); and get this, I actually managed to run most of that never-ending road from High Low to Chelmorton. Things really were looking up.

I always look forward to the sight of the viaduct on the outskirts of Buxton, and the footpath we take on the raised terrace near the roof of the leftmost arch. It signifies a near finish and another personal victory. I so nearly never got to see it this year. As I walked up the final hill I saw Julie (another Grand Slammer and a very capable one at that) on her way home by bicycle after another blistering finish. I exchanged a few words with 'superwoman' across the roofs of the speeding cars before we continued on our separate ways.

I shuffled up the access road to the finish, pausing long enough to take the final picture. My time of 9:20 was not far off 2 hours slower than it should have been, but I was chuffed. Chuffed to have finished, chuffed to have completed my tenth HP40, chuffed that the Grand Slam was surviving by the skin of its teeth and chuffed to be feeling as well as I was feeling. My state of health continued to improve in the following week. I did not feel at all trashed or wasted like I did after Pumlumon. The enforced exercise seemed to kick the virus into touch finally, not allow it to take hold again (thank goodness). Bring on Race 12 and the Longmynd Hike in two weeks’ time!

11 down, 1 to go.

All the pictures are here.