Monday, 30 March 2009

Kipling Kaper 28mi. Sat 28/03/2009

Kipling Kaper
Another low-key event that ended up being one of drama. It was based at Meerbrook Village Hall and was fully booked – good news. We watched Alison send the walkers on their way at 8am before returning to the warmth of the hall to sup tea, chat with fellow runners and wait for the 9am runners’ start. Once on our way the route took us past Tittesworth and Rudyard reservoirs to Rushton Spencer, through a trout farm, up Shutlingsloe, onto the moor via Cumberland Clough (to think we run down that in the dark on the Bullock Smithy Hike), through a disused quarry with spoil heaps of large rocks, through Gradbach and up along the Roaches to the final descent across fields to Meerbrook.

The weather continued to toy with us with a final fling of winter. The forecast light shower or two had become frequent hailstorms with all-too-brief sunny interludes between them. The worst storm hit at the wrong time for me, just as I made my way along the Roaches Ridge. I had seen the squall approaching as I made the final climb. It was upon me with alarming speed. The little pellets did sting as they were driven on icy gusts into exposed legs. I was thankful the wind was on my back. The ground was turned white within seconds.

Shutlingsloe provided the first major climb. The descent down the back side was slow and clumsy because we could not see where we were going; the icy blasts were causing our eyes to water too much. However it wasn’t long before the wind was on our backs after the right turn towards the shale valley and descent. I greeted ‘CollieDave’ and his pooch Charlie beginning their climb as I neared the bottom.

The traverse through the old quarry proved eventful. At the top of the steep descent to the stream crossing, an unseen rock jumped out at my left foot. Oh yes it did. I went flying, ejected two high pressure jets, one of water and one of isotonic as I landed on both hand-held bottles before rolling left onto my back with a sharp rock embedded in the top of my left buttock. I lay there shocked and dazed for a few seconds with the hail bouncing off me, waiting to see if the pain got worse or less. Thankfully it was the latter, and more thankfully no one was in sight to witness the clumsiness, or the strange blue hue that may or may not have affected the atmosphere about the vicinity.

Later on as I was running across the fields with another runner towards the final checkpoint at Gradbach, we saw a helicopter flying up and down the valley and hovering, appearing to be looking for someone, or perhaps a place to land. Soon it was out of sight and all was quiet. As we approached the Youth Hostel, there it was, ‘parked’ in a small lay-by on the lane, its rotors just clearing a tree. We heard that a walker had fallen and broken her leg. We saw a large gathering to our right, as we turned left past the Youth Hostel. That must have been where the casualty was. It wasn’t long, as we were climbing through the woods away from Gradbach towards the Roaches, before we heard it take off. That was a quick rescue service.

I finished in 5:31 to be greeted by the healthiest selection of food – a choice of quiches or pork pie, a choice of cold pasta, rice and pulse dishes, salads, beetroot, olives, pickles, boiled eggs, coleslaw, etc. For afters there was apple pie and custard. Then we helped Vaughan and Anne Wade celebrate Vaughan’s 50th birthday with a rousing rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’, followed by cakes supplied by Anne.

The complete set of pictures is here.

'100 ultras' milestone!

I was looking through my events diaries last night and realised that Starkholmes Stagger was my 100th Ultra marathon since my first one (Bullock Smithy Hike in 1996). By ultra marathon I mean any event over the marathon distance of 26.2 miles. My body celebrated by finally shedding its left big toenail to reveal a knarled replacement growing underneath. I have a fresh white one for a while. Nice :)

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Starkholmes Stagger 30mi. Sat 21/03/2009

Starkholmes Stagger
This was a low-key event for me, which I ran for nostalgic reasons and to keep me ticking over. I last jogged/walked it 9 years ago when it used to start from Starkholmes, up the road from its new location at the 15th Matlock Scout HQ, Matlock Green. The new organisers – the Phoenix Scout Network & Fellowship – did a grand job.

After a frosty start we were blessed with a beautifully warm sunny day. I was glad of the later 9am runners’ start, when it had had a chance to warm up a bit. The rather highly-strung and obviously very enthusiastic timekeeper had us on our way on the dot of 9.

As the event got under way I was soon reminded how tough (up and down) the route is and I was astounded at how little of the route I remembered. About the only bits that had imprinted themselves on my memory were the early run along the main road in Matlock before the right turn up the first long, steep hill, and the route up to and following Robin Hood’s Stride. Apart from that, once I found myself alone in the final third of the route, some map & compass work became essential to supplement the route description; the description alone just wasn’t enough. There was some inevitable dithering and minor wrong turns, but it did not diminish my enjoyment of the Derbyshire countryside – the small fields of sheep surrounded by limestone walls, the steep, tree-clad limestone valleys, the hundreds of knee-scraping squeeze stiles every few yards (some of which were even too narrow to fit a shoe through), the well-drained stony tracks, the picturesque limestone villages, the industrial heritage in the form of disused quarries and railway beds.

I had been expecting to be overtaken for miles before I neared the finish, due to my inevitable slowing made worse by the navigational issues, but no one did. I had overtaken all the walkers (plus a few runners) I was going to overtake, while the more capable runners (including Carolyn, who must have run strongly to the finish without slowing – well done – first lady?) had long since left me for dead. The last walker I overtook told me that I was 5th runner and had no chance of catching the ones in front. Gee, thanks. Tell me about it. I pushed on with renewed spring in my step to maintain that 5th position.

The final run down the hill just before the finish was a bit of a shock. The countryside had recently been gouged up by mechanical diggers, for reasons not obvious to my tired being. It had obliterated the narrow footpath I should have been following, apart from the odd short stretch here and there. Another bit of map and compass work told me in which direction I needed to head for the track to take me back to the main road and the finish. I ran the last stretch and into the hall as fast as I could go (it was not fast). I stumbled inside, nausea welling up, to register my time and hand over my tally before making a quick escape outside for five minutes’ recovery sit-down in the sunshine.

I was soon inside again for veggie stew (a spicy little number), pita bread, lashings of tea (sounds very Enid Blyton) and cakes, and the obligatory chin-wag for two hours with fellow runners and walkers. My time of 5:36 was a PB by 41 minutes, despite the longer route. This was not unexpected given the 9-year gap since I last took part. I have done a bit since then, after all.

I was not surprised when I heard that there had been many navigational errors. In some cases it must surely have added an hour or two on to times (I’m thinking of Matt here, with whom I started the run). I always think that such experiences increase the hunger to return the following year to take care of unfinished business – do it justice, so to speak. Better luck next year, Matt. You have such a massive PB coming your way if you do it again in 2010.

I drove back home to Stockport sporting a healthy suntan, to learn that it had been cloudy all day back home. Oh dear how sad never mind. I took a few pictures as I bimbled round.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

The sacrifices alluded to earlier

Much personal agonising followed the change of the Wuthering Hike date to the 14th March after the initial incorrect date being published on the Runfurther website. The Vasque 2009 series Grand Slam had already been playing on my mind for a long time and the Wuthering Hike now clashed with the 2nd running of the Coyote Two Moons 100mi. in Southern California, for which I was already registered. I’d done it before, but the Grand Slam was a new challenge that brought a whole load of new, tough events in its own right. More than that, I was already registered for the Western States Endurance Run 100mi. and I was almost certainly going to get a place in the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (since confirmed). Two major foreign ultras should be more than enough to be going on with. After a week of mental agonising and discussing the pros and cons with Jez, my mind was made up: withdraw my entry to C2M. That’s done it. I was committed. It was time to get the Vasque series events entered and take the challenge seriously for the first time.

Sacrifice number 2. I have never missed an LDWA 100, always held in late May, since my first one in 2000 (apart from in 2003 due to personal circumstances out of my control). Here for the first time I have chosen not to enter THE annual hundred, which this year is the Wessex 100. Running that on top of the Marlborough Downs Challenge and the Fellsman in the preceding two weeks would surely finish me off. It was time to curtail my greed for the ultras and try to stay injury free. Let's hope I can.

Vasque series race 2 - Wuthering Hike / Haworth Hobble 32mi. Sat 14/03/2009

Wuthering Hike
Eeh, I’ll go t’ top o’ t’ stairs; that were more like it. The second Vasque series ultra run – The Wuthering Hike or Haworth Hobble – was a breath of fresh air in more ways than one. Yes, it was a bit windy, which was a struggle to battle against in the early stages if you were going fast (I didn’t really find it a problem with my profile and at my speed) and the scenery was back to the ruggedness we’re used to on these events. The hills were back, it didn’t rain and we returned with mud-spattered legs and soiled shoes to prove we’d done something. Normality has been resumed. Marvellous.

I drove up with Steve Lang to arrive nice and early to get car parking sorted out. Bonus, the pay and display machines were out of action, so free parking for all. The sun was already trying to shine, the forecast rain having dissipated, never to trouble us. The start venue was much better than the Westfield Lodge venue I’d only ever experienced before; much more space to spread out and decidedly less draughty.

After a few cups of tea (we didn’t get that two weeks ago), a final top-up of food and much essential networking, with 5 minutes to go I wandered up the hill with Jez Bragg to the start on the cobbled street outside The Fleece pub, but where was everybody? There was only a handful of us here. Then the hoard came, sauntering up the hill with a minute to spare. Laid-back, low-key, no pressure (only what you put on yourself), that’s what I like about these events.

After brief announcements from Race Organiser Brett, we were off, a little late, but who cares? Up the cobbled Haworth street we jogged, around the delivery vehicle blocking the road, out of the village then onto Haworth Moor along the Bronte Way. The queue at the stile at Bronte Bridge was only three people deep and there was no illegal fence-jumping this year (at least not while I was watching). We climbed up to the ruins at Withins before turning left and heading across the moor to the Walshaw Dean Reservoirs. Everyone seemed to be turning right across the first dam but I continued on my preferred route to the second dam before turning right. It probably gained me 30 seconds by the time I reached the road.

I got chatting with Paul Dickens with the orange wig, who I’d seen on the Wye Ultra. He’s also going for the Vasque Grand Slam and getting himself sponsored in the process for the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign. Wearing that wig through the hotter summer events deserves all the sponsorship he can get. Good on you.

Checkpoint 1 (7.5 miles) at Widdop Reservoir was as windy as ever. White horses danced across the water towards us as we crossed the dam and headed out onto the undulating track run westwards towards checkpoint 2 (10.5 miles), on the way catching a teasing glimpse of the wind farm way off in the distance to our left.

A left turn at CP2 and the trail veered south past Hurstwood Reservoir, at which point the two Chris’ (Brown and Webb) caught up with me and overtook, running strongly into the distance. Across Cant Clough Reservoir dam we ran and on to checkpoint 3 (13.5 miles) at the wind farm for a broken biscuit. A left turn onto the road took us past the turbines, which span almost silently, save for a gentle whistle from two or three of them, caused no doubt by an unwanted vortex from one of the blades. The whistle rose and fell by the Doppler effect as the source of the noise approached and receded with the rotation of the turbine. I saw flocks of birds flying quite happily between the towers, unperturbed by the rotating turbines. That’s two points from the environmentalists and NIMBYs debunked – noise and disturbance to wildlife (there isn’t any).

Checkpoint 4 (15.5 miles) brought us to the south-easterly cross-country traverse via tracks, footpaths and lanes down to the main A646. I was overtaken again, this time by Cath Worth and Adrian Dixon, who seemed to be enjoying the day as much as I was. This section could be navigationally difficult due to the proliferation of paths to choose from, but thankfully my memory served me well.

The near-vertical climb up the hill from Lumbutts provided a welcome walking break and recharged the batteries for the run across the fields (yeah, right) and down the road to checkpoint 5 (19.5 miles) at Mankinholes. The 'battery charging' was completed by 15 seconds pause and the consumption of a jam doughnut at the checkpoint.

Grateful thanks having been proffered to the checkpoint marshals, I was off again in the direction of Stoodley Pike, its ominous, brooding black “obeliskness” looming over the surrounding habitation that hugs the valleys. I shuffled up the track, waiting for the doughnut to kick in, to the final, ever-steepening assault of the steep side. We were soon over the top, past 'the obelisk' (CP6 – 20.5mi.) and descending northerly in the direction of Hebden Bridge, the final descent to which is steep and hard on Tarmac. I was blasting down chasing another group ahead, using my two hand-held water bottles as counterweight shock absorbers to cushion each footfall. A kind lady in her car waited patiently for me to pass before continuing up the road. It must have looked serious. Little did she know.

The climb out of Hebden Bridge was typically Calderdale – near vertical, up endless, black, zigzagging, foot-worn steps around retaining walls, with a bent handrail to hang onto (if you weren’t carrying two bottles). This brought us out onto the long uphill road walk to Hepstonstall and CP7 (24mi.), then down again to checkpoint 8 (25 miles) at the Hebden Water river near New Bridge, where I caught up with Chris Webb again (he’d had to let the other Chris go). At this point I could almost ‘smell the barn’, to coin an Americanism, so a quick water bottle top-up and thanks to the marshals and we were off. It was good to have someone to chat to for a change.

On we plodded up the track towards the summit of the climb, jogging every slight downhill and flat, or gentle uphill whenever the fancy took me. Chris was in walking mode for a while so he let me go too and I found myself alone again to enjoy the wide-open vistas across the moors as the sun struggled to shine. The northerly direction veered north-east and brought us to the descent to the final checkpoint, CP9 (27mi.).

A bit more food to keep the engine ticking over and I was off up the road then track to “Top of Stairs” on the final 5-mile stretch. The descent from Top of Stairs to Leeshaw Reservoir was laboured, to say the least, on tired legs and rocky track, then it was a quick up and over Penistone Hill to the finish. I had never done this route before, so thankfully a local recreational runner who had done the event many times who had just caught up with me was able to point me in the right direction.

The Final run down the cobbled street in Haworth was like a ‘parting of the ways’ as I sprinted (relatively speaking, you’ll understand) through the shoppers, past the busking Spanish guitarist, left down the slope, across the main road and down to the Community Centre for PB number 4 of the year. Then commenced getting on for three hours of tea drinking, eating and chatting. Those home made cakes were amazing and well deserving of their donations. They're the real reason why I do these events, of which I never tire.

Sorry for delaying your return home, Steve, and well done with your 7th place finish. Well done too to Jez for the win, by just three seconds?! It must have been a sprint to the death with 2nd placed Mark Palmer!

Many thanks to Brett, Keighley & Craven Athletics Club and all the marshals, helpers and caterers for a superb Hobble. I will be back. All my pictures of the day are here.

2 down, 10 to go .....

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

My run to work

I started running to work this year during the frigid winter weather. Part of my route takes me along a peaceful trail through 'Mirrlees Fields'. This is an oasis of nature amidst housing estates new and old, industrial estates and a large hospital. Thirty-plus years ago the fields were a golf course, but over the intervening time, nature has reclaimed the area. The path had become narrow and overgrown, down to single person width. This is what it was like in January, past the really narrow bit.

Shortly after this, we were treated to a new widened path of crushed sandstone - much better for running and cycling on compared to the partly submerged bricks that had always been there. A couple of weeks ago as I was crunching my way along this pristine new trail to work, I heard the characteristic staccato sound from a woodpecker. I've never heard such a thing before or since around these parts. When the sound was louder I stopped and listened. The next time it sounded, I realised it was in the tree directly above me. I looked up and saw a wood pigeon eyeing me suspiciously. I waited for the next sounding, and there it was, way above the pigeon, a black silhouette of a bird against the overcast sky, managing to get a surprising tone out of the highest, thinnest bough of the tree. I could see the crest feathers on its head rise and fall as it sounded off. It was magical. I ran the rest of the journey to work with a big smile on my face.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Vasque series race 1 - Wye Ultra 30mi. Sun 01/03/2009

Wye Ultra
Ooh, another new event to try and a new part of the country to explore. I had been looking forward to this for weeks. The forecast wasn’t looking too bad and I was going to stop over on Saturday and Sunday for a ‘relaxing’ long weekend.

After my arrival on Saturday pm to a surprisingly dry Ross-on-Wye, I checked out the deserted rowing club – only 2 minutes’ walk from my B&B. There’d be no problems getting to the start. A long chat with the landlady introduced me to the town’s facilities. I wandered around at dusk to marvel at the ancient history and interesting shops in Ross before finding my way to a convenient local pub within spitting distance by the river, where the fuelling and hydration commenced for the next day and where I reserved my post-race Sunday roast-beef dinner.

Sunday dawned dry. The forecast rain had not materialised and the cloud was already thinning to reveal the warming sun. Upon arrival I began to hear about the poor organisers’ dilemma: the planned 15-mile out-and-back was in ruins due to a bridge closure. They had only found this out the day before. The only solution was to bring the turnaround point back to 7.5 miles and run the shorter out-and-back twice. This was the only way they could accommodate all the runners, including the relay runners, safely. Oh well, I’d never done a double out-and-back before. It would be Novelty Number 1.

At registration we were issued with timing chips, which we strapped around our ankle. Novelty Number 2: to have our race times timed to the second. As we milled around among a few rowers and their very long boats, waiting for the 9am start, it was great to catch up with so many running buddies, in some cases after quite a long gap.

9am soon approached and we were ushered onto the grass outside the gate. The day looked to be warm so I was already in T-shirt and shorts and feeling quite comfortable for it. The organisers had advised us that we needed to be self-sufficient. Personal needs drop-bags were deposited for the aid station and I had my two hand-held bottles in hand ready for the off. They would last me for the entire duration without needing a top-up.

We were instructed to look out for the arrows and orange chalk markings along the trail, the air horn blasted and we were off down the riverside path, which soon went left away from the river, up a little blip and onto a wooded trail. This soon brought us onto the 2.5-mile flat-ish road section, which provided easy running on fresh legs. The leaders were soon vanishing into the distance. (Apparently the road section was unavoidable, since the river path alternative was in very poor condition in places.)

The end of the road section brought us to the base of ‘The Hill’ and the enthusiastic vocal support of two delightful ladies at the entrance to the field. Ahh, off-road again and an excuse to walk. The climb probably took all of two minutes before the climb over the precipitous stile at the top and the right turn onto the shaded, undulating woodland trail. The occasional orange arrows and highlighting of trip hazards like roots and rocks were very thoughtful. I wasn’t used to such mollycoddling – Novelty Number 3.

The trail eventually brought us onto a concrete track, which descended to a road. The group in front had disappeared and there were no markings to tell us where to go. We soon realised we should have turned left up another track. (I later heard that a local miscreant had removed the arrow that should have shown us the way. The organisers were replacing it upon my return.)

After another delightful, leaf-strewn, undulating woodland trail, we descended to the road and the descent to the aid station, where we were directed over the timing mat. With no aid being required yet, I was straight off along the gravel path, left across the road bridge and left down to the riverbank for another undulating, wooded trail run to the 7.5-mile turnaround point around “Crashie’s Cone”. Up to now I had been running on and off with Julie, Mark, Jason, Matt, David and the bloke with the spotty shirt. A mile or so from the turnaround, the leaders came back in the other direction, which required the occasional nimble deviation up the bank to give them free passage (their need was greater than mine). Novelty Number 4: to see the elites in full flight on an ultra run.

Upon my return through the aid station I grabbed a quick Marmite and cucumber sandwich from my drop bag to keep me going and power me back up the hill to the wooded trail. Each passage through the aid station required the crossing of the timing mat, no doubt to ensure that everyone passed through four times within expected time periods to ensure no cheating (as if anyone would!). Curiously, the water refill table was adjacent to the mat, so anyone getting a refill was activating the timing equipment continuously, causing it to wail wildly. I returned to the club turnaround point to complete the first half in 2:14, which works out at 6.72mph. What? Surely not. I'm not that fast. Was it really 15 miles?

Unsurprisingly, the second half would be much slower as the inevitable slowdown occurred. The jog was becoming a plod and any uphill was welcomed as an excuse for a brief walking break. It was time to settle back into the 'just enjoy it and take each minute as it comes' mode. The cheerleaders at the bottom of the hill were still cheering wildly. The sun was shining warmly and life felt good. As I neared the top of the hill the lead runners began to pass me on their final return leg. I paused at the top to watch them race down the hill. I took more pictures on the second half (any excuse for a few seconds’ rest, which makes all the difference in the survival stakes).

On my final return leg and the final approach to the top of 'The Hill', I could hear the cheerleaders letting rip with a Gary Glitter number: “Come-on come on, Come-on come on”. I got the same treatment when I reached the bottom. I took their picture. They deserve an accolade for the best encouragement for all the runners, without exception.

The final road section was a trudge (I hate flat terrain). The plod was reduced to a shuffle but it was the best I could muster. I was getting overtaken but who cares? I'm so used to it. As I headed towards the final 'blip' descent to the river path, I got overtaken for the umpteeth time by spotty shirt bloke. He was obviously faster than I was but he was pausing at the aid station, so we kept overtaking each other. I raced past him again on the all-too-brief downhill as I let gravity power me down the blip, but once onto the flat I slowed to the inevitable shuffle again, at which point I was re-overtaken for the final time. I checked my watch and it began to dawn on me that I might beat 5 hours (I had assumed sub 6). I gave it all I had and increased my speed to a plod to finish in 4:54, giving an overall speed of 6.12mph. Quite unbelievable for me. Either the course was short or the trail was MUCH more gentle than I'm used to. The second half took 2:40, speed 5.63mph.

We were greeted at the finish with a goody bag, which contained a couple of flyers, a small bottle of spring water, a technical T-shirt (very useful), a runner’s finisher’s medallion and – wait for it – a Frisbee. The last item must be the organisers' way of encouraging us to keep fit between races with a spot of cross training and cardiovascular fitness optimisation.

Facilities at the finish can best be described as frugal. The absence of any laid-on pots of tea or food at the finish meant that everyone embarked on a premature journey home (probably thirsty and hungry). The usual social gathering did not happen. The prize presentation at 4:30pm was a wash-out. Only two runners – me and second place finisher Matthew Ray – were there. As a result I won a spot prize (by default obviously). Moral: if you want a spot prize, stay for the presentation :-)

I have left with fond memories of the weekend. The format was a novelty and it allowed a rare glimpse of an ultra run that mid to back-of-the-pack runners would not normally get to see. It formed a nice gentle introduction to the 2009 Vasque series. It was the first running of this event and I have no doubt that there will be some tweaks to make it even better for next year.

1 down, 11 to go......

Preamble to 2009

I've taken on a lot of challenges this year, one of which is to try for the Grand Slam of all 12 of the Vasque Runfurther ultra running series. I had to make some serious sacrifices to take this on, more of which in a later post.

I've been a challenge event junkie for over ten years, meaning I do a challenge event most weekends. I have the LDWA to thank for providing the wonderful wealth of events to choose from. I average a marathon per week across the hills, all contained in a weekend event.

This year I've been getting serious; I've been running to work every day instead of cycling. It's not far but the daily running paid dividends after the first week. Three personal bests so far, in ten years of doing the same events, have been the reward.

My events so far this year include The Hebden, Two Crosses Circuit, That's Lyth, Rombald's Stride and Anglezarke Amble.