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 ;-)


  1. Well done Nick. An emphatic pb after your previous disappointments. Sub 9 hours next year? (Best to leave the camera at home!)

  2. J, if I don't replace the camera by next year I certainly will be leaving it at home because it won't be working at all. It's already marginal even when it's dry now. It would save me some time but the downside is I would not get the micro recovery rests.