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!


  1. congratulations nick on this great achievement! 12 out of 12! you must be stoked :-D

  2. You are so right Stu. I might have got the lowest points of the 4 'slammers but it was a personal triumph. My fellow 'slammers are way outside my league and I got my highest ever points (in my 4 highest scoring races) in the four years of this series, so stoked I am!!!!!

  3. Hi Nick

    I am doing the Lakeland 50 next year and and need to buy a backpack for the event and wanted to get an idea of what size backpack will be big enough for the event. any comments?