Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Vasque series race 10 - Pumlumon Challenge 26mi. Sat 12/09/2009

It’s a long time since I’ve written a race report; this one is almost three weeks late. I apologise for the silence but I’ve been off the boil for a few weeks (since my aborted UTMB attempt, in fact). It’s taken all my effort to hold onto the Grand Slam by the skin of my teeth and fulfil as many essential obligations of life as I can. Secondary activities like blog-writing have taken a necessary back seat in favour of bed.

The fever having deserted my body, I dragged my depleted self, now down to 9st 11lbs, prematurely from my sickbed a couple of days before driving the two-and-three-quarter-hour journey to the Nant Yr Arian Forestry Centre for the Pumlumon Challenge. For the second year in a row we were blessed with gorgeously warm, calm, sunny weather. Upon arrival I soon saw Martin Beale and asked him if he was going to pull a win out of the bag after a couple of near misses. I fancied he might just do it this year (if I didn’t beat him to it – HA, in my dreams even if I was fit). Other familiar faces were there to greet – the other Martin, Julie with her pooches, Paul, Ozzy, Tim, Will, Simon…. As I gathered with the small but perfectly formed group of runners and listened to Wynn give the starting instructions, I marvelled at how much better I was feeling than I did only two days ago.

Suddenly we were off, jogging round the lake in the direction of the Cambrian Mountains and wide blue sky. I went at a pace that felt comfortable and sustainable as we made our way up Dinas to Checkpoint 1 on the summit. The climb up to the lane after crossing the Afon Rheidol was waymarked this time to make sure there was no short cutting across the field and over the fence. There had been complaints and we had been warned.

Checkpoint 2 brought the first drink but no food. Then it was a quick descent to the temporary footbridge (how thoughtful) before the long climb up Pumlumon Fawr with big views of the Nant-y-moch reservoir and its dam far to the left. Later in the day we would be viewing it from the other side from atop Drosgol.

At the summit of PF was the second refreshment stop. I was looking forward to a piece of banana (I recall bananas being dispensed here in previous years), but no food this year, only the bottled water again with pink tops. Not good. I was thankful that I’d brought more than the suggested emergency rations. I chewed on my malt loaf, among other comestibles.

I delighted in the expansive views as I took the long, undulating path across the tops towards the meteorological station and Checkpoint 3 (no food again). I was beginning to flag, walk more and run less. The sun was hot and I wasn’t thinking as clearly as I should have been. Foolishly I did not refill both water bottles but I still had at least half a litre left. I turned left in the forest and walk-jogged down the track, looking out for the left turn out of the forest up the Severn Way. Save for the odd recreational walker on the forest track, I had been alone for a good while. Most of the runners were well ahead and out of sight. I had done around 11 miles and I was done with running. I plodded up to the source of the River Severn. That was where the footpath ended. It’s normal to turn back from there, but not us. We continued off-path down the fell side, following occasional fluorescent orange markers to the stream crossing and Checkpoint 4, which wasn’t there this year (Wynn had warned us of its absence during the pre-race briefing).

At “Checkpoint 4” I was surprised to see Simon sitting down with his feet in the stream. He needed to cool off and had stomach issues. I needed more water, so I availed myself of the stream as well, making sure to fill my bottle upstream of Simon’s feet ;-) We were both suffering in our own ways and set off together on the worst section so far – 2 miles of tussock-bashing, bog-dodging slog with no consistent trod to follow. It’s the last thing you want when you’re feeling less than energetic. It becomes a survival thing.

We eventually arrived at the refreshment stop at 15 miles, where the walkers finished their event this year. Yippee – the first food. Oh, half flapjacks. That should keep me going until the next checkpoint then. Worse than that, they tried to ration the water. They’d only been issued with one bottle (500ml) per person. I was complained at for filling both water bottles – a whole litre! Water rationing is inexcusable. Anyway what’s wrong with tap water, which is limitless and costs nothing? Bottled water isn’t limitless, costs money and is unnecessary.

Next came another leg-wrenching tussock ‘n’ bog slog. I can never find the ‘footpath’ that jumps out at me so clearly from the map. The off-path theme continued another mile virtually to the bridge over Afon Llechwedd-mawr to the foot of Drosgol. I inched my way up Drosgol with recovery sit-downs as Simon slowly overtook me, letting out occasional mooing sounds as he tried to keep the technicolour yawn at bay. I was thankful I only felt as weak as a kitten.

Checkpoint 5 was at the summit of Drosgol. Amazing views opened up on the descent, where you have to guess the best route down to the reservoir inlet crossing (this year’s choice was my worst so far). I seized the opportunity to take a panoramic view (any excuse for another rest). Simon was running down quite fast and appeared on two exposures, so you see two Simons running off Drosgol on the stitched result!

I was looking forward to the next refreshment stop at the junction of the mine track, where we have always got Belgian toffee waffles. I plodded my way up the hill to the T junction to be greeted by more pink-topped water. “Sorry, they didn’t give us any food this year.” This was getting all too familiar. The malt loaf got another good seeing to, along with the remains of a Snickers bar, washed down by the last of my Coke. My bum bag was getting much lighter now. A left turn and feeling newly energised by the sugar and caffeine rush, I shuffled my way up the track to the self clip at Checkpoint 6, still alone. The plod to the next water stop took longer than it should have done. I observed that the ‘cupboard was bare’ on the food front and was no longer disappointed. I didn’t need their food now and I remained thankful that my own emergency supplies were more like a day’s survival rations.

Once across the stream I veered left off the track in the direction of Disgwylfa Fawr. As I tried to find a route through the mountainous tussocks I tripped and stumbled like a drunkard, wrenching my tired legs and nearly switching on assorted muscles permanently, with potentially crippling consequences. I stopped dead to let them calm down before looking again for the waymarker that I was sure should be there somewhere. I saw it much further up the track. I carefully stumbled back down to the track and turned left to the marker, where I turned left again up the fell. However, now we seemed to be too far down the track and the route seemed to be directing us around the right side of Disgwylfa Fawr instead of the left side. What the heck, I’ll try out a new route round the right side, then. I made my way across the tussocks on the shortest route to higher ground on the shoulder of the hill, which was tussock-free and runnable. On the way I caught up with Simon again, a chap (Dick according to the results) with whom I’d been playing cat and mouse earlier before he left me for dead, and a group of four runners. I left them all behind as I found my way round (further than I expected) to the self clip at Checkpoint 7. That lake in the gateway is a laugh. I managed to do the splits on a rock on one side and a bit of wood on the other and keep my feet dry.

I was shuffling along surprisingly well, I had just overtaken six people and I hoped desperately not to get caught again before the finish. I gave it all I had, even shuffling (i.e. a fraction of an mph faster than walking) up the hill towards the final woods to the finish. I didn’t dare look back, but when I heard voices they didn’t sound too close. I was feeling invincible. I dragged myself up the final climb before running somewhat clumsily down to the finish, pausing just long enough to photograph the finish line, only 1 hour later than I should have done. My time was 6:43. The group of four finished just one minute later. I was nearly caught.

Although the pasty meal at the finish was nice, I did miss the traditional Welsh Cawl. Nonetheless the food and tea went down a treat as I chatted with Julie and others and caught the last 30 seconds of the presentation. Martin Beale did win in 4:19, two minutes ahead of Hugh Aggleton. Paul Dickens (another Grand Slammer, and a fast one at that) came third in 4:53. They were the only ones to get a gold medal for finishing in less than 5 hours.

I felt absolutely wasted after this event. There was no way I could drive up to 3 hours home, even less so after such a late finish. I simply had to get accommodation, no question. I had come prepared for the possibility in view of my recent state of health. I set off driving eastwards, looking out for B&Bs and hotels, the first B&B was full. I stopped in at the George Borrow Hotel in Ponterwyd, barely 2 miles from Nant Yr Arian. They had one single room left at very reasonable cost. Someone up there was looking after me. I got cleaned up and crashed out for 12 hours (only for half of that was I able to sleep).

By Sunday I felt somewhat more human and ready to continue my journey home. I was soon back into the fog that was spilling over the hill, from which I had emerged on Saturday morning on the drive in.

That's ten down two to go. My Grand Slam survives - just. All the pictures I took are here.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Bullock Smithy Hike 56mi. 05-06/09/2009

Bullock Smithy Hike
Live Hiker progress updates are available on the BSH link above, as it happens.

For the first time in 13 years I'm not running this race. I have volunteered my services instead. (I wouldn't want to overdo it after last weekend's excesses, after all.) I will be helping at penultimate checkpoint Walker Barn, 46 miles, which we will be setting up at 6pm this evening.

I watched the Hikers set off at midday today. It is a good turn-out considering it's not part of the Vasque Runfurther series this year. I have uploaded 12 pictures so far, hot off the press. More will follow if the camera can hack humidity levels that might approach 30%. :-(

Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc 166km. 28-30/08/2009

You no doubt will have gathered by now that I bagged my second DNF of the year last weekend at UTMB. I managed 77 of the 104 miles in 25:42. It was a truly awesome experience in all respects - the carnival atmosphere; the crowds, not just on the sidelines but in the event as well (over 2,000 took part); the cheering and support: "Bravo", "Courage", Allez - allez - allez"; the scenery; those rugged, jagged mountain peaks touching the sky with glaciers draped between them.

The weather was just about perfect - cooler after the first evening, sunny by day and dry. My stomach, aided by medication, was behaving itself and I was able to drink and eat. The climbs and descents were monumental and on a scale never before experienced. The line of torch lights zig-zagging into the sky above and stretching out to the horizon in the valley below is a sight you will never see unless you do this event.

Things went well for me well into Saturday as I braved the walking poles and overtook on the ups and downs. Problems began later on when I wasn't eating enough in the end. I had been banking on more checkpoint food than there turned out to be. Lack of advance knowledge leading to less than perfect planning led to me running on empty for a little too long. My body started to eat itself and trashed my leg muscles beyond the point of no return. Even after a long rest and copious refuelling at La Fouly, my legs didn't want to know. I could only plod downhill, while uphills were virtually stationary. I got as far as Champex-Lac. It might only have been 27 miles to the finish but there were three major climbs still to do that I could not face in my weakened state. I might have been able to wing it on an LDWA 100, but not here. This was not the time or place.

I have no regrets about my decision to take a bus journey back to Chamonix from Champex-Lac. Subsequent developments confirmed my decision so strongly I reckon I was psychic. The medication had solved one problem and created another (years of ultra running and learning to listen to my body are paying dividends). I would not have been in any fit state to fly back home on Monday if I had continued.

I look forward to returning again to do it properly with better prior knowledge and a few packed lunches to keep me fuelled as I go, no stomach medication and another day of recovery time before my return flight. We'll be extremely lucky if the weather is as good as it was this year, though.

My camera succumbed to the humidity again, so there were no pictures between nightfall on Friday and Saturday afternoon. The pictures I did take are here (click on Slideshow).