Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Runfurther series race 8 of 12. Lakeland 100 (104 miles, 23,000'). 23-25/07/2010.

I don't mind admitting that I was daunted by the Lakeland 100 and I had been trying not to think about it. I knew it would be extremely tough and I knew I was less fit than I was last year for reasons you will already know. Last year I elected to drop from the 100 to the 50 to better guarantee my completion of the Runfurther Grand Slam of twelve Ultras. However this year I had nothing to lose if I did have to retire, so I thought I'd toe the 100 start line and see what happened. I had a rude awakening. Never have I seen so much general suffering and slowness in other 'runners' (I use that term loosely). Never have I been reduced to such a painful crawl and taken so long and longed for sleep and hallucinated so much since 1996 when I started this ultra-running lark. It was an Epic Event that makes the likes of the Western States 100 with its runnable trails seem like a walk in the park in comparison. On the Lakeland 100 we get to enjoy wet feet, two full nights, unrunnable boulder fields and trench-foot-ravaged feet that are torn to agonising shreds on said boulder fields. The 40-hour cut-off is a good clue to the toughness of this little beauty. I never imagined I would need so many of those 40 hours just to run 100 miles. I never thought that the sight of a long descent would almost reduce me to tears of despair as I sat down at the top of the final mountain in the warm sunshine on my third day of trudging and contemplated the pain that I was about to force myself through yet again on my final push to the finish line.

On Friday I drove up to Coniston to register for the third running of this event, my second attendance and first attempt at the 'full monty'. It was to be the biggest field by a long way with over 500 runners registered across the 100-mile and 50-mile events. It was great to meet up with so many friends and forumites from home and abroad. It helped to take my mind off what we were about to endure. I was impressed by the enthusiasm and attention to detail afforded by Marc Laithwaite and team to ensure that everything went as smoothly as possible. It inspired confidence. At the briefing we were honoured to have fell-racing legend Joss Naylor give us a few tips, then before we knew it we were outside the John Ruskin School in the warm afternoon sunshine dipping our SportIdent timing 'dibbers' to activate our race numbers in the timing system and awaiting Joss' official send-off at 5:30pm. Our time at each checkpoint would be recorded electronically by the timing system and uploaded live to the website so friends and family could follow our progress.

It goes without saying that the race commenced with a climb out of Coniston – 'The only way is up' – and so began our 104 miles with 23,000 feet of ascent and descent. Given the recent sudden and dramatic end to our 7-month dry period, the conditions could not have been better. Warm evening sunshine graced our journey around The Old Man of Coniston along the Walna Scar Road (rocky track) to checkpoint 1 at Seathwaite Village Hall. The next section around Harter Fell to checkpoint 2 at Eskdale Corn Mill in Boot went equally well. The same can be said for the third section past Burnmoor Tarn to Wasdale Head. Burnmoor Tarn was steaming gently in the cool, calm dusk air, which must have cooled below the water temperature. A watery orange moon was struggling to shine through thin cloud behind us as the light was fading. The time must have been around 10pm.

It was an unexpected bonus to reach the third checkpoint in the barn at Wasdale Head with just enough light to run by. Wasdale Head at 19 miles signified the start of the first serious climbs and descents on the inevitable rough boulder tracks. Fortunately I had reconnoitred from here early in 2009 on the guided reconnoitres, so I had a good idea of where I was going. Not only that but there were still plenty of other runners around to provide guiding lights. We climbed to Black Sail Pass before descending steeply to the River Liza and the Black Sail Hut Youth Hostel. Next came another climb up through Scarth Gap past Hay Stacks before descending to Lake Buttermere and checkpoint 4 at Buttermere Village Hall around the other side. I had now done a marathon and pushed the pace to the limits of reasonableness. It had taken me 7 hours 37 minutes. My pace could only slow from here.

I had been looking forward to the next section over Sail Pass to Braithwaite. The instructions I'd noted from our reconnoitre of over a year ago were etched in my mind and on my Tracklogs printout I was carrying – lots of forking left and forever climbing, cross three inlets, fork left up steep scree path at cairn + sheep scoop in soil, etc. It went like a dream and I descended to checkpoint 5, Braithwaite Church Hall 2 hours 17 minutes later for our first pasta meal. That section was 6.4 miles and there had been no slacking.

Next followed a brief flat section around the outskirts of Keswick and past Fitz Park before emerging back onto the fells as daylight returned. With over 32 miles now completed and my inevitable slowing being true to form, most of the runners I had been running with had now disappeared out of sight ahead and I found myself alone. Strangely yet familiarly from other ultras, after a more substantial feed I found my energy levels plummeting and negative 'can't go on' thoughts flooding my head. I could not trudge uphill any longer. I sat down on the next dry rock that came along and scoffed a Kellogg's Elevenses bar (the one with the subtle cinnamon flavour). It always works. I was on my feet within 5 minutes. I soon caught and overtook a chap who had passed me as I fell by the wayside. Ultras are filled with such highs and lows and swapping of places with other runners.

A lonely out and back along both sides of a big steep valley (where had the other runners gone?) eventually brought me to checkpoint 6 at the Blencathra Centre (40.8 miles). It had taken me 12:32 to get here. Compare that with last year when I needed only 12:16 to complete the whole 50-miler. Mark Dalton and Daniel Aldus were already at Blencathra, Danny tending to his blistered feet. I left before them but it wouldn't be long before they overtook me. This had been the pattern for a few sections now.

The Saturday morning sun was almost too warming as I climbed the old coach road to checkpoint 7 near Dockray (48.5 miles). Mark and Danny had been in sight but I was too slow to hold onto them, so I found myself alone again. After Dockray the route around Gowbarrow Fell was spectacular, with precipitous drops to my right. The sunlit views across Ullswater were captivating. I was alone for most of this 10-mile section to checkpoint 8, Dalemain, 58.5 miles, location of our drop bags and the 50-mile start. The marquee was set aside for we hundred-milers. I made good use of the facilities – pasta, rice pudding, Coke and a change of socks and replenishment of my supplies from my drop bag. Mark and Danny were there again, Danny tending to his feet. I took a picture of the 50-mile runners getting ready for their start before setting off on a route that was now more familiar from last year's 50. It still didn't prevent me getting lost in the fields of the Dalemain Estate, though. I was soon called back on course before too much damage was done to my slipping time.

Pooley Bridge had a few spectators giving their encouragement as we trudged past. Ben Abdelnoor, sitting on the steps of the church beside his bike, offered me words of encouragement as I passed by. Thanks Ben. I was tired and it did me good. As we climbed towards Askham Fell and turned right at the cairn, we kept glancing back for the first 50-milers. It wasn't long before a group of three racing snakes went steaming past with not a word uttered. I wasn't quick enough with the camera, but I was for the second pair, the two Martins. They did utter words of encouragement, and so it continued for the remainder of the event. The encouragement, camaraderie, positive vibes, even respect and awe, that we received from the 50-milers meant a great deal to us as we trudged and dragged our sorry backsides towards the impossibly distant finish. Thank you!

A quick fuelling at checkpoint 9, Howtown Bobbin Mill, 65.6 miles, was to set me up for the tough 9.2 mile section to Mardale Head. The climb up Fusedale to the highest point on the route is rather slow with nearly 70 miles in the legs. I was recalling how fast I did this last year and it felt as though I must have been superhuman. Hoards of 50-milers streamed past. I was happy to see many familiar faces and exchange a few words. Notable was Dave with his gorgeous Border Collie 'Charlie'. I'd heard the tinkle of a dog tag closing from behind and I knew it could be only one pooch. I wasn't wrong. Dave overtook me as I descended from High Kop (highest point). We exchanged a few words before he and his sidekick rapidly vanished towards 'that' descent to Haweswater.

Cloud, wind and intermittent drizzle were becoming more persistent as I picked my way perilously and vertiginously to the banks of Haweswater. The rocky, undulating path beside the reservoir to Mardale Head (checkpoint 10, 74.8 miles) seemed never-ending. I could not believe I ran most of it last year. By the time I'd arrived, the filth (i.e. wind and rain, Lake District style) had set in, so it was time to put on the serious coat. I still had 29 miles to go. I wondered how long it would take me at the speed I was going. Luckily I did not realise that it would be longer than in my worst nightmare.

The minimal facilities at Mardale Head encouraged me to get going quickly up Gatescarth Pass to get warm. I soon was as I overtook several others on the climb. As we descended the other side towards Sadgill, the rain began to show signs of abating. Things were looking promising by checkpoint 11, Kentmere, 81 miles. Ahh, Kentmere Institute. What a checkpoint. Fairy lights, music on an amazing-sounding iPod docking station, pasta, pudding, smoothies, friendly service. I didn't want to leave, but I did. The wind had dropped and the evening had turned warm and very humid, so the coat had to come off before the climb up the Garburn Pass.

The remainder became a blur of pain and tiredness. My feet, wet for so long, had become very painful with friction points and raw skin all over, apart from the blisters. Sometimes the pain would suddenly ratchet to a higher, sharper plain as a blister burst. Continuing to walk on the damage soon dulled it back to the background level. The second night had descended and serious tiredness began to kick in. I recall trudging up the lane to Troutbeck to a pounding bass beat and the sound of an engine. The village was in total darkness except for coloured flashing lights from the Village Hall. There must have been a power cut. A generator was providing the only power, which was being put to good use. I sat down on the seat on the village green and ate another pork pie to keep me going. I imagined stretching out and sinking into a blissful slumber, but I soon came to my senses and carried on as I felt the pork pie do its good work. I climbed Robin Lane out of Troutbeck as “500 Miles” by The Proclaimers started to pound out through the open doors. I swear the DJ must have seen my head torch through the doorway and decided to help me on my journey. By the time I arrived at checkpoint 12, the Lakes Runner shop in Ambleside (88.2 miles), where Mark and Danny were already ensconced, I had to have a nap. I curled up under the table for 30 seconds before my complaining knee forced me to stand up. What's the use. I'll just plod on.

With 'only' 15 miles left to do (little did I know it would take me another 7.5 hours) I set off on the familiar reconnoitred route to Chapel Stile. I was desperate for sleep. I looked out for any dry spot where I could curl up for half an hour. Conifer trees seemed to provide the best shelter. I imagined stretching out on the trail and being awoken within minutes by the next runner checking to see if I was still alive. I didn't want to be rudely awakened so I carried on. True to form, Mark and Danny overtook me again. I plodded on through Elterwater and arrived at checkpoint 13, Langdale School porch (93.1 miles) to a delightful beef stew and bread roll. Fantastic.

From here, quite a group of us including Mark got together. (Unfortunately Danny had to stay back to tend to his feet.) I was happy to tag along and let Mark navigate. I knew where we were going to beyond Blea Tarn but that water + bracken-infested section to the road seemed impossible. We were into our second dawn as we hit the road for the left turn downhill. For hours I had been mistaking boulders for sheep and vegetation & shadows cast by my head torch for various other creatures, people and objects, but as daylight increased I really saw things that weren't there. Mark was jogging along in front. I saw a sheep, which metamorphosed into a horse, which shook its head up and down and swished its tail. It disintegrated as Mark ran through it. Then I saw a big cow, a particularly butch specimen facing away from the track. It flicked its tail. It was a rocky outcrop. At one point I saw a car parked neatly in the most impossible place. It remained convincing and became a Mini as I got closer. Then suddenly those smart wheels were a couple of unimpressive rocky patches spaced well apart in a grassy bank. I needed sleep, NOW. I was almost crying I wanted it so much.

We hoisted ourselves into the last checkpoint at Tilberthwaite (CP 14, 100 miles). My feet were impossibly sore and forward motion, especially downhill, almost felt impossible. We didn't loiter long and it was 'every man for himself'. Mark and another chap from our group had disappeared up the steps up the disused quarry. I set off in pursuit, happy to have daylight to show where I was going (not that I had a problem last year in the dark). I climbed up the rock face (yes, really, it is a hands-and-feet job with precipitous drop to the right – not what you would want to be doing in a weakened state while falling asleep). Eventually the route brought me to the top to view the dramatic scene down below of the (functioning) quarry and mine workings. I sat down on a rock and nearly fell asleep. The feelings of foreboding that overwhelmed me are allude to at the beginning of this indulgent missive.

After picking my way down the final boulder field masquerading as a path, I hit the final track down into Coniston. Even down that runnable track I could only plod painfully at 2mph. Another 100-mile runner overtook me at this point, the first in a VERY long time. 50-mile finishers Jenny and Ken Wyles, informed by the live timing updates, knew of my imminent arrival and walked up to meet me. What a pleasant surprise. They accompanied me to the finish (103.5 miles) and did a fantastic job fetching and carrying for me in my weakened state. Thank you both! Now in the sanctuary of my sleeping bag and staring towards the lights on the hall ceiling, I slumbered luxuriously to the sound of applause for each subsequent finisher.

My final time was 38:16. Would I do it again? Would I??

I only took a few pictures, not enough along the route, unfortunately.

Postscript – Thurs 29/07.
I have just run the third of the series of four Manchester Sizzler 5k races. I managed 00:21:59, which is only 15 seconds short of my best for this year. My feet are much improved, while my gutless engine made my L100 slow enough to avoid trashing my legs. The way I feel now I could never imagine what I finished only four days ago. Bring on Dovedale Dipper on Sunday!

Thursday, 22 July 2010

I'm going to play in the Lake District for the weekend.

I'm sorry I still haven't had a chance to update you on Baslow Bootbash, Osmotherley Phoenix and White Peak Walk.

Tomorrow I and loads of others are off to Coniston to thrash ourselves around the fells for the weekend. The 100+ mile Ultra Tour of the Lake District starts at 17:30 on Friday and finishes by 09:30 on Sunday. It is the third running of this event with the largest ever field by a massive margin. It will be a major reunion of running friends old and new, from home and abroad. If I finish it I would hope not to take as long as the full 40 hours. Two full nights and those precipitous rocky mountain trails could be a challenging mixture. We will be electronically timed and live updates will be posted to the website as we go, so please follow our progress and wish us well. We'll need it.

Below is a scene we will not get to see because it will be dark. I took it during one of the guided reconnoitres in 2009. It shows the River Liza as seen from Black Sail Pass. We will have to get down there. Did I mention it will be dark?

There's just been a slight hitch in that my big toenail, traumatised during the Heart of Scotland 100, has just come off. The exposure of such tender flesh is not what one would choose just before embarking on another one. I've just upgraded to size 11s so hopefully my tootsies will remain unmolested this time.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Tracks to Trig uphill fell race. 1.1 miles, 875 feet. 17/07/2010.

Talk about from the sublime to the ridiculous. If it's not 106 miles it's 1.1 miles. My new-found taste for pushing the pace a bit saw me toe the line yesterday at this little beauty, the shortest fell race in the FRA calendar. It started from the footbridge over the railway in Chinley and climbed to the trig point on private land at Chinley Churn. It had a twist as well because it adopted a time trial format, where runners were set off at 1-minute intervals. The first one set off at 11:00. My turn was 11:25. There were 33 runners registered out of a possible 60. A second twist was that we had to guess our finishing time. The closest guess would win a prize. I had no idea what to expect. I guessed 14:40, then feared I'd been rather ambitious. To avoid cheating, we either had to surrender our watches or stick tape over the face. I chose the latter, since it was my heart rate monitor and I wanted its recording.

Rain had been threatening for a while and was increasing, driven on a healthy breeze, by the time I was counted down and set off over the bridge, left up the steps and right round the corner into the trees and out of sight. Phew. My already breathless slowdown could now go unnoticed. I ran as best I could up the grassy slope, following the line of orange flags to the lane at the top. I hoisted myself through the stone stile, grateful for having two free hands for once instead of the obligatery handheld bottles that are a permanent fixture during any other event.

A right and quick left up Over Hill Road brought a few hundred yards of tarmac, offering the opportunity to cover maximum ground for the effort expended. Some of the earlier starters were trotting back down. I felt an added frisson of excitement from the quarry/prey feeling given by the time trial format. I was already catching the previous runner in front. I wanted to catch as many as possible and get caught by as few as possible. For once I could push myself to the limit without fear of blowing up because I did not have to save myself for the next few hours. Unlike my normal ultra running, where I can hold a comfortable conversation, now I was struggling just to breathe, with lungs burning. Now I know the meaning of the phrase "Lungbuster". I never get to 'enjoy' its sensation normally.

Soon it was a right turn up to another stile and onto the footpath towards Cracken Edge. This follows an old quarry railway incline. It is steep, so it would have been no ordinary railway. I overtook my first runner here and gasped a couple of words of encouragement. At the first wall we were directed left off-path up a vertical grassy fell, guided by another line of orange flags. It was a hands and feet job. I soon realised I had the wrong shoes. My general purpose trail shoes slipped badly on the wet grass and wasted my efforts.

I was wearing a cap to keep the worst of the rain off my glasses. This meant that my eyes were shielded from the line of flags above me as I climbed. Brief stops and glimpses upwards were eventually not enough. As I got caught by the runner behind me we both realised that the line of flags was turning right and wasn't continuing vertically upwards. Great, we could both run again as we contoured instead for a few yards.

The climb continued less steeply over fields. I was catching my second runner. I had to walk for a few more seconds before trying to run again and eventually I overtook him. Suddenly I had the third runner in my sights as we joined a vehicle trail that climbed the field and turned left to climb to the trig point from the back. I closed in and just about caught him at the finish. I was so exhausted I forgot to stop my stopwatch for a while. I grabbed a cup of water from the support vehicle and sheltered from the wind and rain behind the open door to put on my windproof top for the run back down, which I took fast to keep warm.

After this nice little exertion, most of us went to the Chinley Community Hall for homemade tea and cakes. The Village Fete was just getting started. We reminisced on the short sharp shock we'd just experienced to the strains of Abba over the PA as the rain stopped. I eventually got around to peeling the tape off my watch. I was almost a minute faster than my prediction. I reckon something around 13:50, subject to official confirmation.

If I'm free this time next year I'll be back, with a better time prediction based on experience rather than a wild guess.

My official time was 13:47. It's also possible that next year could alternate to a downhill race with a start at the top instead. Up to last year that would have delighted me but now the prospect fills me with dread.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

BOO! There, bet that scared you.

I'm still here. Sorry for the long silence. It's not through choice I can tell you. Work, but mostly computer problems, are the culprits. Long story short: infestation - brief fling with Windows 7 - too much incompatibility - revert to Windows XP - all programs work wonderfully after initial installation - things fall apart badly once all the patches, fixes and service packs are installed - weeks squandered on this timewasting activity - Tracklogs still unusable after all that. I am not a happy bunny.

After the revelation of the HoS100, the creaking knee has not got any worse on the whole. Small incremental improvements are coming from the runs. The events seem to provide therapy in the longrun. On balance they appear to be my knee's friend, so I'm building up slowly but surely. One-leg squats are a distant and fading memory but I can at least shuffle my way around with only mild discomfort.

I celebrated the unexpected 100 completion with my first Woodbank Parkrun the week after. Parkruns are a series of weekly 5k runs up and down the country. They are a brilliant incentive to build up speed, compare times and chart personal improvements. I have done three so far. It's quite a hilly 5k so times are down. My best time was 23:17 on the second one.

I have also entered the series of four Manchester 5k Sizzlers in Wythenshawe Park, held fortnightly between 1st July and 12th August. It's flat so times are quicker. I managed 22:10 on the first one and I've just run 21:44 on the second one this evening. If memory serves me right, that might not be too many seconds off a PB. Things are looking up and the speed events seem to be working.

That's not all either. Hold onto your hats but I'm getting a taste for short sharp fell races as well. I completed my second such event on 26th June - the ~6-mile Whaley Waltz. It was a double-header day with the third Woodbank Parkrun first. And get this, I've entered the Tracks To Trig this coming Saturday, which is a 1.1-mile uphill time trial. I haven't decided yet whether to do the Parkrun first.

As you can see I have a newfound healthy taste for the shorter faster stuff as part of my return to fitness, but don't panic, I haven't neglected the longer stuff. I have already completed Baslow Bootbash (27 miles), Osmotherley Phoenix (33 miles) and White Peak Walk (26 miles). Photographs are already uploaded and reports will follow in due course. There's plenty more in the pipeline but I don't want to count my chickens yet.

It's been amazing to get back out there again, mixing and mingling and actually taking part.

I leave you with a Mark Hartell special from Osmotherley Phoenix. I might just be returning.