Monday, 19 December 2011

Puma Stockport 10. 11/12/2011.

This is a favourite 10-mile road race for many that usually enjoys crisp, sunny weather, but not this year. The wet theme was recommencing once again as we gathered on the Stockport Harriers athletics track and watched the starting arch inflate, then deflate. I wandered across to stick my oar finger in to see if I could help. Reset buttons were pressed, plugs, generator and fan were inspected, but nothing we did could make the generator deliver electrical power to the fan. With the start time fast approaching, the decision had to be made to drag the flaccid dirigible onto the infield and make do with a length of knotted red and white tape instead to mark the start line. News then came in that local scum-bags had stolen the drinks station that had been set up that morning, tables and all. Could it get any worse? No way! The rain, the premature deflation and the theft could not destroy the life and spirit of the Stockport 10 with its friendly and supportive marshals and its legendary goody bag.

Just before it went down.

It was nearly 10am and a capacity field was called to the start line. I stepped across onto the track and found myself at the front. Oops, how did that happen? Imposter alert! Tony Audenshaw (fellow Stockport Harrier and Emmerdale actor)’s animated commentary over the PA gave way to a countdown and hooter blast to send a capacity crowd of nearly 1000 runners on two laps of the track to spread the field before we exited into Woodbank Park. Bashir Hussain had taken over the commentary and remarked: “What an amazing sight”. I looked across to the other side of the field. He was right. A mass of colour was swarming around the track. We would lap the back-markers before exiting into the park, so marshals on the track and instructions over the PA system ensured that there were no crashes and everything went like clockwork.

Now into the park we could ‘get into the zone’ and ‘do our own thing’ to get ourselves back to the finish. At least we didn’t have to worry about the cold rain now that we were generating our own warmth. Our route zigzagged through back roads with spectators watching from their front rooms before bringing us out onto the Marple Road. A short coned-off stretch without pavement took us to the bottom and up the other side past Offerton Sand and Gravel and the petrol station. Then came the left turn and first proper downhill blast down Bong’s Road to the valley bottom, followed by a flat jog to the drinks station just before halfway. Amazingly, the marshals had managed to rustle up some more cups from somewhere, while the local cattery allowed the use of their tap water. A stone wall served as the table.

The halfway mark was passed as we began our first climb up the other side of the valley beside the road (again no pavement and the car drivers were inconvenienced; I heard one clash of door mirrors). Before the top our route mercifully turns left onto minor roads, but it still climbs. Then we enjoy another zigzagging but more undulating route along side roads on the other side of the valley, with marshals at every street corner to guide and encourage us along.

We begin our second descent and the characteristic pear-shaped dome of Pear Mill comes into view in the valley below, but we still have a way to go yet before we pass it and begin our second climb of the day, up New Zealand Road. It’s not that it’s steep but it does go on a bit, and it continues after the left turn onto Turncroft Lane. More ascending finally brings us to the entrance to Woodbank Park where we return via our outward route to the athletics field. Now, allow me if you will to indulge myself with a little personal perspective.

Two consecutive PBs on the Woodbank Parkrun in the preceding two weeks (giving me my first sub-23 on that course) made me sense that a PB was on the cards. Not only that, I’d eaten and slept well in the lead-up and I’d eased off the ‘sauce’ in a serious way (including no bottle of wine the night before like in most previous years). That sealed it. A 'PB' had to be certainty.

I set off at what felt like a comfortable pace around the track and into the park, just like I always do. I wasn’t getting overtaken by herds of runners, meaning I’d set off too fast (like I always do). By the time I’d exited the park and turned left onto Turncroft Lane, I was burning up. I’d overdressed (you guessed it, like I always do). Why do I never learn?

I adjusted my clothing and continued at a pace that felt at the limit of just sustainable for 10 miles. A steady stream of runners was overtaking me. It was all so familiar but I knew that as long as I continued to put in this effort, the PB would come. Running down Bong’s Road the fell-running legs kicked in and I passed other runners as if they were standing still. The descent was too short. Once onto the flat valley bottom, they trickled past me again as I jogged along at my limit.

At the halfway point I was taken aback by a time split of 0:37:49. Last year’s PB was 1:17:27. I didn’t think this would leave enough cushion for the inevitably slower second half, which contained both of the major climbs. I would not let up for one second, though. It's not over until it's over. I did not even allow myself the wasted effort of wiping the rain drops off my watch face to read the time until I’d ascended New Zealand road and turned left onto Turncroft Lane and was halfway up the hill to the park. “1:12:??.” My heart skipped a beat. That was better than I could have hoped for. “It's in the bag. Bring on the PB!”

I pushed even harder to make sure I didn’t let it slip through my fingers. The gradient levelled out as I entered the park. I began to overtake one or two who had overtaken me on the final climb. I glanced at my watch. “1:14:??.” Other runners jogged in the opposite direction clutching their goody bags (show-offs). I began to hear Tony’s excitable commentary drifting across the park. The stadium still seemed a long way away and time was ticking. I turned the corner and wiped the rain off my watch face one final time. “1:16:??.” That’s too close but I should just make it with seconds to spare. I beasted myself on the final push along the straight into the stadium and my heart sank. I’d forgotten that we had to turn right and do a half lap of the track to finish. Tony shouted out over the PA: “And here comes Nick Ham, ultra runner extraordinaire …..”. I missed the remainder of what he said because I was barely surviving the unplanned-for half lap of flat plod. I think he went on to pass a joke about the skeleton cycling top I was wearing. A male runner sprinted past as if he were starting a 5k. “If you can do that now you've not been trying hard enough for the past 9.9 miles”, I thought to myself with my last vestige of lucid thought. The female runner who had overtaken me on the final climb and who I'd re-overtaken in the park, overtook me for the final time just before the line. I just about held off another runner who was rapidly closing on me to cross the line and stop my stopwatch.

As I recovered in the finishing funnel queue I checked the time Р1:18:16. Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather. 50 seconds outside last year's PB. So much for abstinence and healthy living, eh? What's it to be next year, a bottle of white or red? One of each? I might just complete the set with a ros̩ as well and win the race.

We were presented with a medal in the form of a soap on a rope called STOCKPORT STENCH REMOVER. The always original and very quirky goody bag contained a variety of bits and pieces including lollies and 'tattoos' for the kids. Useful items included pens, a paper pad and, most importantly, a long-sleeved technical shirt in fluorescent yellow-green and black – ideal for glowing and standing out on those runs into the cool evening as daylight fades to black.

Once again the Stockport 10 did us proud. I shall be back next year for a 7th go. After a little recovery I was back on the bike to cycle home into the teeth of the cold wind and rain.

I only took a few pictures before the race this time.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Gravy Pud fell race 5+mi. 04/12/2011.

As I drove towards Tintwistle with my headlight beams cutting through the dim light and pouring rain (it was mid morning, incidentally) and the hills disappearing into cloud, an inner voice said: "What on earth are you doing? Turn around and go back home, you fool." Before I'd had a chance to act on this 'advice', another 'voice of reason' replied: "Don't be nesh, suck it up and just get on with it. You can't back out now you've blabbed on your blog." I continued to Tintwistle as planned. By the time I arrived, the rain was now only 'spitting'.

I had nearly an hour to register, chat and keep warm in the Bull's Head pub. It was good to meet Ian Winterburn and Will Meredith once again. By the time we ventured outside for the 11am start, it actually wasn't raining! I was chatting with Percy, who had only found out about this race yesterday. This was his first race. I was impressed by his keenness for turning out on such a day. I couldn't give him any advice because I was also new to this race.

The turn-out of 168 was particularly impressive, given the weather conditions. It had rained all night (for most of the weekend in fact) and the forecast for today was bad. It was turning to sleet, hail and snow as the weekend progressed. People who had travelled over the Woodhead Pass had to negotiate wet snow on the road.

The 5 mile (approx) route was well marked and marshalled and ideal for first-timers. As most of it was on tracks and paths (most of them swilling with liquid mud today) with only a short off-path section for the hands-and-feet climb to the top of Lees Hill, it was more runnable than usual. The addition of the obligatory ups and downs made it a right lung buster (but aren't they all?).

I never cease to be impressed by the speed and fitness of the faster runners in these fell races. The leaders sprinted off up the track from the start, while I settled into my usual survival jog with a steady stream of other runners gradually overtaking. I was breathing hard and could not have gone any faster. It wasn't long before Percy caught up with me on an early climb and pulled ahead a little, but as soon as the gradient eased downwards again, I let gravity do its thing while my legs maximised the effect by braking a little here and pushing a lot there. I made up some places.

On the climb of Lees Hill I was detecting a rapid reduction in light levels. At the highest point of the course, the hail started to fall. This didn't bother me because hail bounces off without wetting you. It soon turned to rain though, and continued in that vein until the finish.

The second half of the route is not all downhill by any means. There are plenty of ups as well as sharp turns, always with a marshal to point the way. It was alright for us because we were running to keep warm. They were standing to get cold. Thank you marshals for your sacrifice on our behalf.

I was mostly holding my own in the second half, with one or two catching me and me re-overtaking or catching one or two others. Percy was still somewhere behind but I had no idea whereabouts. I could only hear anonymous pursuers near and not so near by their heavy footsteps splattering in the muddy puddles or their laboured breathing hissing through their teeth.

By the final run back down Arnfield Lane to the finish I was giving it all I had but I seemed to be moving so slowly considering the runnable downhill cobbles that were now passing beneath my feet. I'd given my all out on the course and now I had little left to give on what should have been an easy downhill sprint to the line. It felt like those dreams I used to have where I am trying to run but making no progress, as if running through treacle. The effort had left my legs feeling weak and clumsy. I felt as though I was bumbling haphazardly to the finish barely in control. For some time I had been hearing footsteps and heavy breathing from several pursuers. Now they were getting closer. I pushed a bit harder to hold them off and hoped it would be enough. I just about made it to the line before turning around and seeing Percy right there behind me. Give it 10 more yards and he would have had me. Well run Percy. You'll surely beat me next time.

The Bull's Head was crammed and buzzing afterwards as tea and cake or beer and chips were consumed. This is the small room:

There was a bring-a-cake competition for post-race sustenance. I gawped in wonderment at the creations by runners and their other halfs. Mmmmm, cake:

During the prize presentation the pub dog raced backwards and forwards barking loudly every time a round of applause went up. Many thanks to nblg for putting on such a well organised run and getting the results out so quickly. What a slick operation you run.

I was happy to finish more comfortably inside the top half than ever before in a short sharp fell race.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

PBs are like buses....

.....none for ages then two come along at once.

Last weekend I ran my local Woodbank Parkrun and surprised myself with my third (only my third) PB of the year. 23:04 was 11 seconds faster than my previous fastest for that course, which I did in June 2010. My older brother joined me for his first running of this Parkrun with its two big hills, and beat me by 1 minute and 8 seconds. I knew he would probably be faster than I but the fact that the difference was so big came as a bit of a shock. It just proves the benefit of daily shorter runs - which my brother is far more committed to keep doing - over my usual one long run (sometimes very long run) per week for producing speed. Well done Julian!

Wind forward to today and I found myself running Woodbank again, having been telling myself all week that last weekend's result wasn't a fluke just because I saw my brother slowly disappearing into the distance, causing me to push that little bit harder. No, I always push hard, brother or no brother.

I know myself well because I was right. I got my 4th PB of 2011 with a 22:49 finish - 15 seconds faster this time. This increase in speed is becoming meteoric. Where could it take me, to hell and back or over the moon? I think the latter.

Tomorrow will be another short blast, this time on the Gravy Pud fell race. Although I don't sound like one, I am a northern boy and I do love gravy. I shall be partaking in the Bull's Head afterwards, probably in the form of a lake contained within a giant Yorkshire pudding.

Roll on to next weekend and it's the Stockport 10 on Sunday. I'll be helping out on Saturday with packing the famous goody bags. I shall get a sneak preview but my lips will remain sealed.

Moving forward to the following weekend brings the Tour de Helvellyn - a 38-mile serious undertaking in the Lake District - to begin the end-of-year wind-down with just the odd fell race over the holidays to keep me on my toes. Here's what I wrote about last year's inaugural TdH in exceptional conditions.

Watch this space.