Saturday, 22 August 2009

Tour du Mont Blanc, here I come!!

I've had two weekends off the ultras to build up my strength for a serious biggie next weekend. I have run my local Parkrun 5k at Bramhall Park for a couple of weekends. Last weekend's effort was poor (22:21), so I resolved to run to work every day last week in the expectation that I would improve this weekend. I did; I squeezed out 21:50. It wasn't a PB but at least I broke through the 7mins/mile pace, just, and I felt fit and well after the cycle there and back. Consider it a mini duathlon.

The UTMB starts at 6:30pm next Friday, 28th August (5:30pm UK time). We are allowed 46 hours to complete it. I would hope to do it within 36 hours if my body doesn't fail me, in which case I would finish by 6:30am on Sunday. I understand you will be able to follow the thousands of participants live on the website. Please follow my progress and send me good vibes. I'll need them after the Western States debacle. I fly out on Monday to acclimatise (we exceed 2,500 metres altitude during the race).

My runner number is 3835.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Vasque series race 9 - Long Tour Of Bradwell 32mi. Sat 08/08/2009

Long Tour Of Bradwell
A warm sunny day was in store as 70-odd runners slowly gathered at Bradwell sports club, complete with hat and gloves as per the kit requirement (fortunately we didn’t have to wear them!), ready for 31 (actually 32) rigorous miles up, down and around the Hope Valley and beyond. Our route would be punctuated by 18 electronic dibbing points to keep us on course. Once registered and issued with our Sportident timing chip ‘dibbers’, we mixed and mingled casually, chatting and soaking up the sunshine before being encouraged to make our way to the start.

We wandered up from the sports club to a safe massed start point on a lane. At 9am we were set off on a compact route that contained elements of the Bullock Smithy Hike, High Peak 40, Peaker’s Stroll and Chatsworth Challenge, among others. The optional early climb out of Pin Dale was a hands-and-feet job with high risk of slipping back down, but it was worthwhile because those of us who took it gained a good few seconds on the people who followed the easier track that zigzagged to the top.

The descent down Cavedale was predictably treacherous. Most people slipped at least once on the wet limestone polished smooth by thousands of feet. Descending is definitely the most risky. I ran down there very gingerly.

The day was really heating up as we climbed up to Hollins Cross. Then there was another rocky descent down towards Edale. A footpath cut across the fields to emerge at the top of the village.
The second big climb took us onto the edge of Kinder and the Druid’s Stone, formed like a toadstool. From there the route was taped, thankfully, to lead us across the heather and down to the drainage valley that led us directly to the Youth Hostel. Then came another traverse of the valley we had previously crossed to Edale before the climb back onto the ridge at Back Tor and left up Lose Hill. The sun beat down as we passed the recreational amblers and standers. The breeze on top was welcome though all too brief because we were immediately off down the hill again towards Killhill Bridge.

The route then took us up via Aston and around Win Hill to Ladybower Reservoir of Dambusters fame. Most appropriately, as I climbed out of Aston a Lancaster bomber flew over from the direction of Ladybower towards Hope behind me. It was not going very fast and the drone of its four Rolls Royce Merlin engines took a long time to fade away in the calm summer air.

The reservoir was soon in view and I took the out-and-back descent via another checkpoint to cross the dam to the next checkpoint and another water fill-up (there had already been several, for which I was very thankful, given the heat). I could still feel last weekend’s miles in my legs and they were feeling heavy already, with only 17 miles done. I was plodding more than I should have been doing. Those fitter than I (including ones who had done the Lakeland 50 or 100 on the previous weekend) were well ahead and out of sight from the outset, so I had no reason to be ‘off the boil’. I just got on as best I could, keeping the food and drink going in and taking in the views.

The next climb was a long one up country lanes to circumnavigate this year’s rampant bracken that had obliterated the paths we would have taken. It skirted Bamford Moor and took us onto Stanage Edge. On the climb up I missed checkpoint 13, as did many others. It wasn’t in an obvious (our assumed) place, but it was in the only place it could have been, as explained by the conscientious Race Organiser afterwards.

From Stanage Edge and the checkpoint at Upper Burbage Bridge came more interesting navigation down the valley to Burbage Bridge. The checkpoint was soon found, tied to the tree after the bridge and road crossing (I wasn’t going through that river tunnel). Continuing the gradual descent beside the stream brought us among scores of day trippers, walkers, picnickers and children paddling in the stream. It was a typical, old-fashioned British summer scene. At the next footbridge and path crossing, I was pleased to see the occasional tape markers showing the way to the right across Lawrence Field above the woods on barely discernible paths through the bracken. With the aid of the tape, navigation went well as I descended through Bolehill Wood, through the relics and evidence of past quarrying activities now well camouflaged by nature. A jog along the river brought us to checkpoint 17 at Leadmill Bridge (27 miles) and another welcome refreshment stop.

Now with only 5 miles to go I wanted to run; I tried but couldn’t sustain it. I was in survival mode. I plodded the ups and intermittently shuffled the flats and downs as best I could. By Abney, the finish was getting close but it was still uphill, so still I plodded. Finally, the left turn off the track over the stile brought me towards the paragliders and the top of the ridge. Hope Cement Works beckoned me home, and fortunately we didn't have to go as far as that. I shuffled down the hill and along the roads of Bradwell to finish in 8:04, which is probably half an hour slower than I should have done on this route. It leaves plenty of room for improvement and a nice PB next year in the second running of this event (this was its inaugural year).

I shall return, since this is among my favourite running countryside. I hope the photographs communicate its beauty.

That's 9 down and 3 left to go. The year's marching by quickly.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Vasque series race 8 - Lakeland 50mi. Sat 01/08/2009

I drove up to Coniston on Friday morning, calm in the knowledge that I didn't have to set off into the fading light on 100 very tough miles in 12 hours of deluge. I had seen the forecast and it wasn't good. I was already feeling sorry for the 100-mile runners.

I arrived in plenty of time to chill out, catch up (again) with anyone who happened to be around and get myself across to the secondary school to get registered and attend the Sports Science Conference, which was very interesting. The team from Liverpool John Moores University has built up a lot of knowledge from analysing the muscular hearts of we ultra-runners. I had been their guinea pig three times before (all at Western States) and was about to be one for a 4th time. They're old friends now!

Andy “Doing Big And Scary” Mouncey gave a brief but spellbinding motivational talk on ultra-running and why we do it. His words about why we do it – reminding ourselves of our overwhelming personal reason for completing such a challenge when we hit our lowest point out there – really hit the mark. His words remained in the forefront of my mind, at the ready as soon as I might need them.

My appointment with the medical researchers was at 4:30pm in the Sports and Social Centre. My height was measured and I was weighed. Nothing much had changed since the first time at Western States in June 2007. Then I was led into the 'inner sanctum' for … ahem … 'further procedures'.
Blood-letting took place in the showers (quite horrific, and without the shower curtain!). Electrocardiogram and echo cardiogram to measure the heart took place in the changing room. The light was low so they could actually read their screens this time. (A month earlier at Western States, the tent was so bright (not to mention hot) in the sunlight that they had to drape blankets over their heads to be able to see the screens.)

As the time approached 7:30pm I wandered out with the intrepid 100-milers in the light and intermittent rain, which had been falling for a couple of hours. It wasn't cold and the wind was light, thankfully. They were set off down the road in the overcast evening light with enough time to reach the first checkpoint at Seathwaite (7 miles) in daylight. I walked up to the bottom of the miner's road, which would also be the return route, to see the last of the walkers (sensible people – it was uphill) disappear around the corner. I returned to the social club to partake of the barbecue and listen to the live music. The music never happened; the musicians must have had a better offer.

The rain bucketed down in the night. It was still raining heavily well after daylight on Saturday but had stopped by 10am when we boarded the school buses that would take us to our start point at Dalemain. The journey took 1.5 hours, during which ultra-runners' knees were in all manner of contorted positions – in someone's face (not necessarily their own), up the back of the seat in front, embedded in the back of the seat in front while sustaining some damage to the coccyx, in the aisle, through the window …. I did say it was a school bus, didn't I?

The sun made its first appearance as we neared Dalemain. When we 'got off' (sorry, disembarked), it was very warm, not to mention humid. Sensing the humidity, my camera immediately threw a strop and refused to work. It probably thought it was raining. Pictures from the trail are lacking as a result. We were set off at midday on our 3.8-mile loop of the Dalemain Estate to get our distance closer to 50 miles. We were all wearing timing chips on our ankles, so the timing machine squealed in delight as we all ran across the mat and started our respective 'clocks'. The humidity was oppressive and everyone was sweating buckets. I had emptied my water bottle by the time I'd returned to the checkpoint. I was allowed some water, but “no food, it's for the 100-milers”.

Only now did we feel as though we were on the event proper as we set off on the undulating route to Pooley Bridge. I was struggling in the heat and stopped to take off my T-shirt. Now down to my base layer and with much better ventilation and cooling, I set off with renewed vigour. Being adequately cooled makes such a difference to how much effort you can put in.
The whoops of encouragement and hysterical cheering from the crowds in Pooley Bridge were a thing to behold – NOT. A sly sideways glance if they thought we weren't looking was the best we could expect. Oh, that British reservedness. Mustn't draw attention or stand out and above all, musn't cause an unseemly commotion in a public place. On the climb out of Pooley Bridge an emergency evacuation helicopter flew past to rescue an injured runner from nearby (Dalemain if I recall correctly).

The first checkpoint proper was at Howtown Bobbin Mill (11 miles) on the southern flank of Ullswater. I noticed the timing mat was not being used and numbers were being taken manually instead. The previous night's rain had wrecked them and they were no longer working. I was ready for some food and a water bottle top-up from the tap at the kitchen sink. I set off again and caught up with 100-milers Ozzy Kershaw and Tim Whittaker. I chatted for a few minutes before going on ahead. I found this very sobering. They are so much faster than I am, yet here I was leaving them for dust without killing myself. What a difference 50 miles in the legs make. How much slower would I have been with those 50 additional miles in my legs?

On the climb up to the high point of the route – High Kop – I came upon 100-miler Paul Dickens sitting by the trail, dutifully watching over his buddy Russ Ladkin (also a Hundredeer). Russ was suffering with the dreaded stomach issues and was taking a recovery rest. He struggled all the way to the end, and finished that darned thing in 36.5 hours. What an achievement, and kudos to Paul for standing by him to the end.

The run from High Kop down the grassy ridge to Low Kop was magical – easy, fast, cushioned, gravity-assisted coasting (only because my legs were fresh). I felt thirsty and took a swig from my hand-held. Eurgh! Essence of hospital disinfectant! NHS Number 5!! That tap water had been treated to kill off the bugs.

The descent from Low Kop through the bracken was interesting. Once we had found a well-disguised trod it didn't go too badly. The descent by the raging brook to Haweswater was a precipitous scramble at times but went without a hitch, then it was a right turn and undulating technical trail along the western shore of Haweswater to the checkpoint at Mardale Head (20 miles). I was glad to get here. First, they had Coke. It might have only been your 'Rola Cola' but it was still full sugar Coke with caffeine and it hit the spot. Second, I had reconnoitred from here to the finish on the official led reconnoitre events, so I was looking forward to putting what I had learned into practice.

I set off up the hill on the biggest climb so far towards Gatescarth Pass with a fresh spring in my legs, pausing only briefly to look back and take in the scene of Mardale Head and Haweswater beyond. I had been overtaking other runners (not just 100-milers) for a good while and I wasn't about to let that stop. Once over the top I was stopped in my tracks by the magnificent view with the sun illuminating the valley below. The air was cool and my camera was working. Whoopee.

The next checkpoint at Kentmere Institute (26.5 miles) was a sight to behold – balloons, fairy lights, and real savoury food. The whole set-up brought a smile to everyone's face. Pasta tubes and tomatoes in sauce never tasted so good.

Next came the 4th climb, this time over Garburn Pass, followed by a lesser climb from Troutbeck to Skelghyll Woods and finally down to Ambleside. The checkpoint in Ambleside (33.5 miles) has to be unique in being the only one in a shop – Lakes Runner. Proprietor Ian Barnes was there providing an enthusiastic welcome, being a keen ultra runner himself. When he saw me approaching he seemed beside himself with excitement. “Nick Ham, you're absolutely flying”, he shouted down the road. I wish. His excitement waned somewhat when he found out I had dropped to the 50. Sorry to disappoint, Ian. I sat in there drinking soup with the 5th placed 100-mile runner. I never normally get to sit in such exalted company mid-race; I felt privileged. We enjoyed the live music provided by the artiste. I stood up to take a picture. The shop was warm. There would have been some condensation. You can guess the rest :-(

As I left the checkpoint at 7:57pm I was again amazed and humbled at how much an extra 50 miles takes out of the legs. I still wasn't getting caught, even by these elite 100-milers. The only overtaking being done was by me. I was still running alone, putting my route knowledge into practice as night approached. It adds an extra frisson of excitement that keeps me alert and pushing towards the finish as fast as I can go, hoping that my navigation goes perfectly and others' might falter (just a bit). There's the competitive streak for you.

The climb from Ambleside up by Loughrigg Fell, down past Elterwater and on to the penultimate checkpoint at Langdale School (38.5 miles) is short and sweet. I arrived with daylight to spare. The timing mat was still plugged in and the machine was wimpering pathetically to itself. It did not demur as I wafted my ankle chip tantalisingly within its range. Poor thing. I begged the sadistic checkpoint volunteers to put it out of its misery. They did. A marshal with a strong Australian twang served me well with soup and tea, then I was off again on the Cumbria Way, heading for the scariest bit of navigation of all as night finally descended and a light rain started. Nice! I switched my head torch on when I hit the left turn up the track by Side Pike. Navigation was still going well and I was still running with all systems green. Things were looking good. I continued in my own pool of light, remembering the reconnoitre from several months before as I descended to Blea Tarn.

The next section across open boggy ground to the road had been worrying me the most. Once beyond the stony path, there is no path to follow, only featureless, water-logged fell-side. I deviated too far to the right and floundered in bracken and hidden boulders and potholes. I ended up on my back a few times, but every landing was soft and gentle, thanks to the bracken. I got my compass out to check my heading. I was way too far to the right. Back out of the bracken and follow its edge to the road. I was soon there.

Behind me was a large group of head torches hunting me down. NO! I turned left down the lane and ran down the hill feeling like a hunted animal, turning right over the bridge and onto the track at the allotted point. The seemingly long track up and down eventually brought me onto the road to the last checkpoint at Tilberthwaite (45.5 miles). I was sustained by another cup of soup (we need the salt) and a cup of tea, plus the last quarter of a Marathon bar (I think they call them “Snickers” now – how ridiculous) I'd started several hours earlier. As I sat, the first three of my pursuers caught me, but I wasn't unduly concerned. I was about to leave and they had just arrived. I was off, up the final climb towards Hole Rake. One of my pursuers did not need much of a break and was in hot pursuit. I climbed past Horse Crag and the disused quarries as fast as my legs would allow. I soon lost my pursuer.

This last section is a potential navigational nightmare but it needn't be. All it needs is the confidence to follow the trod for long enough to reach the tree just beyond the waterfall, where you cross the brook to pick up the obvious trod again which takes you up to Hole Rake and over the top. It went well for me. A funny thing happened on the final climb up Hole Rake, though. The air was calm and the light rain had abated some time since, but I was suddenly assaulted by a head-on gale that lasted for about 10 seconds but was strong enough to rip my cap and head torch from my head. I suddenly found myself in darkness. I looked behind me to see a light source tumbling down the trail. I was lucky; it didn't go too far. I quickly restored the headgear and, fearing getting caught by 'other light sources', I was off again to the summit and the sight of sodium vapour civilisation in the valley far below me.

Time to switch on fell-runner mode. I was loving the opportunity to run downhill again, this time by torchlight. I had noticed I always gained on other runners on the downhill, and darkness wasn't going to make any difference if I could help it. The trail became increasingly steep and rocky and the bracken was as rampant as ever, overgrowing and obscuring the trail. I slipped several times on hidden wet rocks and rapidly landed on my backside, or just my back, but as always, the landing was like falling on a feather bed. I wasn't deterred and carried on running, still imagining I was being hunted down. I picked up a cap that a previous runner had dropped, to return to its owner upon my return, then I was onto the miner's track. I realised I had lost my route book with maps (it must have happened at my last fall) but it didn't matter now because I knew where I was going. I had retrieved one item and lost another. If anyone found L50 route instructions with "Nick Ham" written on the top on the descent to Coniston, you now know how they came to be there.

Now on the easier surface and gradient of the miner's track, I could really pick up the pace. I ran for my life, past Miner's Bridge and soon hitting Tarmac. I looked for the left turn and slight short cut through Ruskin Museum to the road. A left and right down through the houses and school brought me to the next road, where a right and left brought me to the finish in 12:16. I was well pleased; my target had been 14 hours. The first three of my pursuers finished 9 minutes later, by which time I was already being 'seen to' by the medical researchers. It was a good opportunity for a lie-down and a shut-eye.
The L50 winner was Mark Palmer in 8:29, followed by Martin Beale in 8:46 and Andrew James in 9:19.
The L100 winner was Andy Rankin in 22:46, followed by Steve Birkinshaw in 24:05 and Jez Bragg in 26:58. All amazing performances.
All the pictures I was able to take are here.
8 down, 4 to go.