Monday, 25 October 2010

Can Lake 50 Ultras. 09/10/2010.

Can Lake 50
I thought I would never make it to Rochester NY airport, thence to Canandaigua on Friday evening. I was waiting at the gate at La Guardia NY airport, enduring the same, daily torment of the past week, keeping everything crossed that my pre-booked-and-paid-for seat still existed. I’d been lucky up to now but my run of luck was about to run out. I had become used to hearing the daily calls, barked out over the tinny, squawky PA systems that sound as if they are based on first-generation telephones, for volunteers to give up their seats due to the routine overbooking that curses internal air travel in USA. (Apparently the government allows it. The government should be BANNING it.) This time the airline had gone too far. Even with the volunteers, passengers were denied travel on the flights they had booked. I was one of the chosen few (one who didn't shout in protest or threaten the use of lawyers). I was about to be stranded and I felt sick. However, by some miracle the overworked, overstressed yet surprisingly calm man at the podium was able to find two alternative flights to replace our one flight and get us to our destination several hours late, but still before midnight. Deep joy. We felt so privileged. Armed with my compensatory voucher for $125, useful only to American nationals, I made my way to the new gate where, you guessed it, the flight was delayed, but fortunately not so much that I missed the next flight to my final destination. US air travel is the pits.

The Can Lake 50 Ultras are 50-mile and 50k road runs from Canandaigua in the Finger Lakes region of northern New York State. I’d normally go for the long option, but logistics meant that I would have to be content with the 50k to prevent me from seizing up completely on my two-week business tour of the States. It had been a toss-up between New York and Tampa, Florida, where I had to be by Sunday evening. Consultation of the UltraRunning calendar meant that I would be spending my weekend in New York and getting to see those much talked about autumn colours.

I walked down to the Finger Lakes Community College from  my accommodation close by, but unfortunately I just missed the 7am start of the 50-mile race. We 50k runners would later get taken by school bus with its 12” leg room part way around the course until just 31 miles of it remained, at which point we would offload to our starting area beside the lake. The sun shone brightly, the sky was a vivid blue and the air was cool – perfect for running. We cheered a few passing 50-milers running through their 19-mile point before we were set off on our way at just gone 10am. We all wore a timing chip on our ankles for second-perfect recording several hours later at the finish.

Compared to the rough terrain I’m used to, the undulating roads provided easy running – too easy, meaning speed was up, meaning leg trashing would be accelerated. Leg trashing was brought even further forward by my lack of fitness, thanks to a week of sitting down with no exercise, late arrivals at hotels and surviving on junk food grabbed whenever the opportunity presented itself. (Picture if you will a midnight dinner of two bags of crisps and a pack of cakes from the hotel kiosk.)

I was enjoying the autumnal views, the pleasant conditions, the friendliness of runners and supporters and the excellent race support as I shuffled my way along, but I was not enjoying how slow it was feeling. Still, I wasn’t in a hurry. It would take as long as it took as I tried to find my stride while chatting with 50-milers and 50k-ers along the way. I ran with fellow 50k-er David Weiss for a good while, during which we had an interesting conversation about the specialist glass industry as we ran past the vineyards (I never knew they had vineyards there).

My experience was made a pleasurable one by the fantastic support and attention to detail given by Race Director Tom Perry and his team of volunteers. Everything is covered with nothing left to chance. Not only is there good support along the route, there are pre-race refreshments and a post-race sit-down buffet meal. Taking into account the wealth of detail on the website as well, it is the perfect event for the Ultra first-timer. It’s pretty good for the Ultra veterans too. Our swag included a finisher's medal and a useful technical T-shirt of fluorescent yellow colour, which is perfect for running in the gloaming while remaining visible. It might get its first airing on next weekend's Round Rotherham.

After the finish, my heart rate monitor told me that my pace was a little slower than, and my heart rate much higher than it was for the much more rugged 32-mile Wuthering Hike in 2009. The ministry of funny walks over the following 4 days from my trashed legs confirmed my lack of fitness. Still, I had another week of sedentary existence, cramped for hours in cattle class airline seats (provided my bookings are honoured) to regain full racing fitness for next week's Round Rotherham 50-miler. I live in cloud cuckoo land, you know.

I took a few hazy pictures through my contaminated lens (but at least the camera functions now after its wash).

Friday, 1 October 2010

A US jaunt

I'm about to tour the US for a couple of weeks on business, on a rather punishing schedule of customer visits. Next weekend I had the choice of either being in the New York area (after last meeting on Friday) or the Tampa, Florida area (before first meeting on Monday). I scoured the UltraRunning calendar to see how I might keep myself occupied and on the boil for the following weekend's Round Rotherham, and I found the Can Lake 50. That settled it - New York (or Canandaigua, to be more precise) it would be for the weekend. Uncharacteristically I have plumped for the shorter of the two distances, only for practical and logistical reasons. 50k should still keep me out of mischief. This will be my first US race since Western States 2009. I'm quite looking forward to it.

Supporting Clive's Bob Graham Round. 25/09/2010.

The Bob Graham Round is a tough personal challenge on the Lake District fells that starts and finishes at the Moot Hall in the centre of Keswick High Street. It can be run either clockwise or anticlockwise, it visits 42 peaks and it must be completed within 24 hours. According to the route I painstakingly plotted on Tracklogs, the distance is 65 miles give or take a bit if you get the best lines, with a total ascent of 26,050 feet (give or take a bit again).

Many months ago, Clive King asked me if I would be free to support him on his attempt. I had heard so much about this epic challenge in recent years, so many running friends had completed it and so many had asked me when I was going to have a go, I welcomed the opportunity to get a first taste of what it's all about. I was happy to help wherever I was needed (knee permitting). I would be pacing (muling) on leg 3 of the clockwise route from Dunmail Raise to Wasdale.

I drove up at Friday lunchtime to the campsite at Bassenthwaite in increasing sunshine. The wind and rain had cleared and a cold, fine weekend was in store. Clive was already there, surrounded by kit and boxes of food and drink and looking amazingly cool. He planned and plotted with possibly the most important person of all – chief-cook-and-bottle-washer Nigel – who would be providing the food at the aid stops. We chatted to more supporters as they trickled in through the afternoon.

I arrived early because I wanted to learn the ropes while soaking up the maximum BGR atmosphere. For one thing I did not want to miss the start from the Moot Hall at 7pm. After a partial fill of fish & chips from the chippy opposite the hall (I always find the more touristy the area, the more stingy the portions), it was just about time. Clive hugged his children goodbye and lined up with Jim Mann and pacer 'yak' Dave Almond. Jim and Clive had arranged to run at 'Clive speed' into daylight on leg 3, after which, 'given the green lights', Jim would continue ahead with his support runner to try for his own BGR completion. They touched the green door, started their watches and were off down the road. Within 10 seconds they veered right and disappeared into The Golden Lion pub. “There's confidence for you”, I thought. “Going for a pint already before they've even started.” I didn't realise there was a passageway that went through the pub building.

I returned to the camp to watch the moon rise into a cold, crisp sky and try to grab a few hours' sleep before my 'tour of duty'. An owl was giving it some with its screeching, while the cold made it difficult to sleep despite wearing all my clothes. (I was already dressed for duty and had more on top. There was not much room to move inside my sleeping bag.) I counted down the quarter-hours to 01:30 by the chiming of the church clock, then it was time to get up for the half-hour drive along the A591 to Dunmail Raise, after scraping the ice off the windscreen (thanks Dave). Dave Hindley joined me. He would also be a mule for this section.

Nigel was already at Dunmail preparing the food. Dave and I loaded Clive's leg 3 provisions into our rucksacks, which added to the already considerable weight of our own personal provisions, and awaited the arrival of the runners. The moon and stars shone brightly in a crystal clear atmosphere. As we waited for the head torch lights to appear at the top of Seat Sandal, which was clearly visible in the moonlight, an owl flew by on its journey down the valley. The lights were a little late in appearing. By the time they arrived at the road crossing it was clear that Clive was battling mental demons that were telling him he couldn't go on. A few pep talks later from those skilled in the art (me excluded), Clive was eating, drinking and changing his shoes for the next climb up towards Steel Fell. We set off around 15 minutes behind schedule – nothing too worrying at this stage. The off-path climb was steep, slow and laboured. It was a new experience for me to launch straight into such a climb at 4am. Clive seemed to be going well. I would not have wished to go any faster and I'd only just started.

As we picked off the peaks, Dave and I stayed close to Clive so he could access his supplies. However, when the steep descents appeared, my knee found me out straight away. I could not run. I rapidly got left behind as I stumbled clumsily down at a walk before trying to catch up when the terrain eased. I found myself humbled as I realised that a BGR would be an impossibility for me unless my knee can get better (it's showing no signs so far). Leg strength, descending ability and confidence had deserted me.

Clive battled on. I just about kept up by missing out some of the out-and back peaks he ascended. The wind on the tops was bitter, the puddles were beginning to freeze and silvery-white frost glistened on the grass and rocks in our torchlight. Jim and expert navigator Mark Smith ran strongly ahead many times but always waited dutifully for the rest of us to catch up before leading the way again.

The sun had risen by the time we climbed Bow Fell. It was a steep, perilous, rock and grass traversing climb, where a slip would result in a rapid, involuntary and very destructive descent to the bottom of the valley. I was left severely wanting again and soon found myself alone as I struggled slowly up the climb. Each step up was so much slower and weaker than it should have been, to ease the loading of and discomfort in my right knee. This was the first serious terrain I had traversed since it all went wrong. I felt inadequate and frustrated at this unaccustomed impediment. I feared I was on the verge of becoming a liability on Clive's big day. I was supposed to be supporting, not vice versa! When I crested the ridge, there was no-one to be seen. I shouted out as loud as I could but my voice wafted uselessly onto the wind. I made an intelligent guess and bared left across the mini col towards what I assumed was the highest peak. Mercifully I saw Mark and Dave waiting for Clive and Jim to descend from the summit of Bow Fell. I joined them with a big sense of relief. The wind was bitter as we waited. I was getting chilled.

On the approach to Esk Pike, with Clive's agreement, Jim and Mark went on ahead at their own pace. They soon vanished into the distance. Clive and Dave were behind them and I was well and truly bringing up the rear. After Esk Pike we were due to meet Roger Griffith at Esk Hause for a flask of warm tea and sandwiches for Clive, but he wasn't there. We were well behind schedule by now and it was likely that he had left, thinking he'd missed us. It was suggested I divert right down the tourist path to the cross shelter to see if he was there, then follow the easier tourist path down into Wasdale. This meant that I would miss the opportunity to see Broad Stand from below, which I had been looking forward to, but with the way I had been struggling to a shameful and embarrassing degree I was happy to oblige.

I enjoyed a more leisurely walk, attempted shuffle and stumble but mostly a walk, down the rocky path in the warming sunshine. Now the pressure to perform was off and the risk of letting Clive down was removed, I began to enjoy myself a little more. I had more opportunity to take some pictures and I chatted to a group of walkers that I saw climbing past Styhead Tarn. They caught up with me at the stretcher box at Sty Head as I paused for food and drink.

Well into the morning now, many more walkers were passed on the final descent to Wasdale. I was still wearing my head torch and got a few inquisitive looks and comments. I finally arrived around 6 hours after we set off from Dunmail. (There was a hiccup as I waited at the wrong carpark at Wasdale Head, wondering where the support crew was.) The distance according to Tracklogs was just under 16 miles. That's 2.67mph. How sobering is that?

There was only one rational decision that could be made by the time Clive arrived at Wasdale. He saved himself from further punishment and relinquished himself to the loving arms of his wife Myra, followed by the supportive caress of the picnic chair, followed by the relieving leg massage given by Olly (who was due to have run leg 4 with him).

Clive, you will be back, better informed, better prepared and with the knowledge to conquer the challenge. The fact that you are already talking about your comeback is a very good sign.

This was principally Clive's BGR weekend, but I hope he won't mind me following on with Jim's onward journey.

After he continued ahead, Jim gave his support runners a good work-out as he powered his way through the remainder of leg three and legs 4 and 5. By the sound of it he ran like a man possessed, running leg 4 on a 16-hour BGR schedule. I had got a lift back to camp with the ‘groupies’ (runners’ wives) and grabbed a few hours’ kip before waking to a text message that Jim was flying and expected back at Keswick in 20 minutes’ time. I jumped into the car and got there in time to join the two groupies and their children, Dave A and Pippa on the Moot Hall steps to look out across the Saturday market for the first signs of faster-than-normal human movement.

Jim and Nigel eventually appeared, fighting their way through the throng. With yards to go they were forced to divert between the market stalls by a delivery van parked on the road. After fighting his way back out through the flowers, Jim touched the green door a little over 22 hours after setting off.

He looked amazingly strong and none the worse for wear. I predict a good 18-hour or less BGR completion waiting for Jim. Nigel was looking understandably weary after having supported from the beginning and run the final road section to the finish. What a guy. Clive appeared with his family to offer his congratulations and looking somewhat refreshed after a few hours’ kip. I know Clive will be back for another go. Refuelling commenced within the golden half hour in the adjacent lounge bar. Fortunately they were not precious about standards of attire. Celebrations continued later on in the pub in Bassenthwaite.

I was awed by my first BGR experience – not just the physical challenge of doing it (which is daunting), but also the mental challenge of committing to it and starting, the logistical challenge and the people. I was humbled by the willingness, the selflessness, the helpfulness, the eagerness of the BGR community. Everybody wants to help others in their attempt, such that no-one is left wanting if they want to take on the challenge. It is one big family of giving, encouragement, support, mutual respect and understanding. I always said that I could never do a BGR because I don’t know enough people to help out, and anyway I don’t like putting on people. I now know that I will be inundated with volunteers if I ever gave the nod. The one fly in the ointment is that now I may never be physically capable of taking it on. You need a body you can really put your confidence in to perform on the most extreme ups and downs. I don’t have that anymore.

All the pictures I took are here.