Friday, 23 March 2012

Canyon Meadow 50k. 17/03/2012.

This is California.

I arrived in a cold, wet California late on Friday evening after the flight from Minneapolis had been delayed by 3 hours. Air traffic control was rationing flights because of the bad weather in the San Francisco area. The weather in USA has been topsy-turvy. California was being uncharacteristically cold, wet and stormy, while the mid west was being uncharacteristically hot and breaking all-time records. Earlier in the week while in Indianapolis it had reached 27°C (81°F) – it got even hotter after I left, and later in Minneapolis it was at 24°C (75°F). The lakes were still frozen and there should have been three feet of snow on the ground. Instead there was no snow in sight and I was able to go for morning runs beside the Mississippi before sunrise in perfect running conditions wearing only shorts and T-shirt. I even had to wipe the sweat off my brow.

I finally rolled into my hotel in Oakland, just across the water from San Francisco, shortly before midnight. It was way too late for dinner. A bag of crisps and a Clif Bar had to suffice. 4.5 hours’ sleep saw me rise too early for breakfast (a banana had to suffice this time) for the magical mystery tour by taxi to Redwood Regional Park up in the hills. Canyon Meadow Trail Runs Race Director Wendell Doman and his team were already set up and runners were milling around at registration in the open picnic area. ‘Mountain Man’ Steve Ansell called across to me. I joined him huddled beside the portable gas heater for warmth. I had first met him at Coyote Two Moons in 2008 then again at Western States in 2008 – 2009. Here was another reunion of like-minded friends of old. The international running community is close even when it’s far apart.

Fortunately the rain had finally stopped overnight but it remained cold and damp, while mist hung in the trees. Everywhere was green and wet – just like home, except that home was warmer and drier. The temperature here in California was well down into single figures Centigrade, but it could have been worse. At least the air was calm and it wasn’t raining anymore!

The timing clock was counting down the minutes and seconds to the 8am start. There would be a choice of distances on undulating trails and some single-track around a half-marathon loop (pink ribbons) and a 5-mile loop (yellow ribbons). The choices were:
5 miles (1 x yellow);
Half marathon (1 x pink);
30km (1 x pink + 1 x yellow);
Marathon (2 x pink);
50km (2 x pink + 1 x yellow).
Junctions / turns would be forewarned by white ribbons with red polka dots on the side of the trail where the turn was to occur (I kid you not). I looked forward to the luxury of well-marked trails with no navigational issues to worry about. We rarely if ever enjoy such luxury in the UK. Even if we did I’m not sure that we would subscribe to such unseemly gaudiness as pink ribbons. A more subtle earthen tone that blends better with the surroundings may be more appropriate. I’m thinking puce.

Wendell gives his instructions.

A comprehensive speech and instructions from Wendell by loud hailer (I wish more race organisers back home would use such aids so we can hear them) ensured that we knew what to do once out there. Then we were sent on our way to stumble across the wet grass through the fixed outdoor barbecue equipment (which was all too easy to run into in the mêlée) and onto the trail proper to climb steeply onto the ridge. It was very wet and just waiting to be churned into a sticky, cloying mess by hundreds of pairs of feet. We 50km-ers would have to traverse it three times. Each time would prove to be worse, our shoes becoming heavier and our height increasing by dint of mud platforms until the next area of water draining across the trail allowed a decontaminating wash. Shortly the process would be repeated, several times over.

The first half-marathon loop went well, subject to an inevitable slowdown before the 13.1 miles were up. The split point where the 5-mile loop went left and the half marathon loop went right was very well signed. However this did not prevent one unfortunate guy taking the wrong turn and only finding out that he wasn’t doing the 5-mile race when he arrived at the next aid station on the long loop. He may have had a “D’oh!” moment. Further on, when views suddenly opened up of the tree-clad, misty valley down towards civilisation, I had to stop and stare and take pictures.

The technical steep downhill sections with roots and rocks were the favourite on legs that were not yet tired. Steve caught up and overtook me after the final single-track descent of the first loop (he’s also good on the descents). I got to enjoy the (in)famous American delicacy at the next aid station – peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with white bread. There’s a time and place for a PBJ and this was it.

I found myself captivated by the unfamiliar smells of the woodlands that were foreign to me. The chief culprits were the eucalyptus trees with their sweet, enticing smell. They were very big and they looked old, decrepit and tatty with peeling strips of bark, which littered the ground.

I completed the first loop in 2:12. “That’s a bit rubbish for a half marathon”, I hear you say. In my defence it’s not a flat road race. I had become rather warm so I took the opportunity while at base to remove my long-sleeved base layer and stuff it into my bag, which was keeping the other bags company on the picnic tables. Most important was to keep my running vest on with race number visible. Could this be the first airing of a Fell Ponies vest in the good ol’ USA?

The second loop was more of a struggle. The mud was stickier and the legs were ‘tireder’. All the hills were walked this time. The trail was also much lonelier now that the field had spread out, all the faster runners were in front and most of the 5-milers had finished. However I did find myself swapping back and forth with Jorge Medina several times. When he was in front I used him as my target to pull me along. I caught him on the downhill before the last aid station (the PBJ one). I left him at the aid station removing a “rock” from his shoe (even grit is bigger in the US) to run back to the base.

Jorge attends to his rock.

The second loop took me 2:47. “That’s a bit rubbish for a half marathon”, I hear you say. (Haven’t we been here before?) Taking both half marathons together, a full marathon of considerable undulation in 4:59 on trails that were not always easy to run was just about spot on to what I’d hoped for. I was hoping for sub 5 hours on more runnable trails.

I wanted to complete the 50k in sub 6 hours, which meant keeping up an average pace of at least 5mph from now on. I wasted no time at the base before heading back up the hill for a third and final time to do 5 miles in less than 1 hour. I seemed to be struggling even more than on the second loop. Not only were the ups being walked but some of the flats were too. I was alone; no other runners were in sight. I felt as though I was the last one out there. I walked, shuffled, slipped and jogged my way weakly to the decision point for the final time. Instead of turning right uphill, now was the time to turn left downhill to follow the yellow ribbons back to the finish. I was over halfway through my allotted hour and I hoped the downhill route back would be much more direct than the uphill route out to the turn point. The trail quickly became very steep, muddy, churned-up and treacherous. As I ran downhill I suddenly found myself barely in control with tired legs on the worst piece of trail so far. A hiker was climbing up in the opposite direction. He was probably expecting a dramatic display that would end with me prostrate on the ground, but fortunately previous experience on the fells enabled me to hold it together.

The time slipped away as I descended through the dank forest to the point where the half marathon loop would rejoin the track I was already on. It was a long time coming. Six hours were nearly up when it finally arrived, when I knew for certain that a sub 6 finish was impossible. I rolled into the finish for the third and final time to complete the final 5 miles in 1:06, for a total time of 6:05. That earned me 25th place. Jorge was next to finish 3 minutes later. Steve had finished 20th in 5:42. The winning time was 4:23. There were 46 finishers.

As evidenced by the ice line, the gas bottle supplying the heater was running low as we huddled around it afterwards while we chatted and refuelled. The post-race banter was in full flow as we cheered other runners who were either finishing or just passing through before going out on their final loop.

Mr Heater was our friend.

Steve very generously gave me a lift back to my hotel in Oakland afterwards, via Starbucks for additional refuelling. Fortunately his Jeep had plenty of room to accommodate me as well as his two other passengers. The day ended with me feeling fulfilled, happy and rejuvenated. Wherever I go in the world, the camaraderie among ultra runners is the same.

Happy enough at the finish line (copyright Coastal Trail Runs).

I took quite a few pictures but you’ll have to wait until I can get home to upload them. Don’t forget to check back.

I'm back. Here they are.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Wuthering Hike 32mi. 10/03/2012.

Race 1 of 12 in the 2012 Runfurther series.

Although I never really stop from one season to the next, the arrival of the first Runfurther race felt like the beginning of the racing season proper because it brought out the first seriously competitive field of the year. It also gave Mr. Tat his first public airing: “Come on Nick, let’s see it then.” Even people who didn’t know what it represented passed comment. They soon learned all about Runfurther! :-)

The race was a sell-out; the biggest crowd in my experience swarmed onto the little cobbled street in Haworth to await the start. The front of the crowd was out of sight halfway up the lane, giving them a nice head start. Race organiser Brett, who I assumed set us off, was also out of sight and inaudible. I was chatting to someone next to me when I suddenly became aware of massed movement in front up the hill. “Oh, we must have started. Best get moving then.”

We were ‘enjoying’ the one patch of drizzly clag to afflict the country as we ran up onto the moors and into the stiff breeze. Thankfully it wasn’t too cold and the sun did make an appearance later to make it quite warm. Before that, however, Top Withins was as cold, wet, windswept, enshrouded and desolate as it always was. The wet stone slabs that followed, intermittently forming the footpath over the moors, were as slippery and dangerous as they always were too.

Widdop Reservoir soon arrived, the newly ‘carpeted’ dam of last year appearing out of the cloud now with a healthy crop of grass. After Widdop on the long drag to Long Causeway, true to form my pace was dropping to one that I could sustain by the refuelling I had already started (as opposed to the early pace that is sustained by the fuel already stored). I began to get overtaken as running became more difficult and the plod set in. I can’t even claim ‘ultraplod’ yet because I’d only done 10 miles. Is everyone else affected the same way or is it just me? Jon Steele was one of the many to overtake: “I’d recognise that tattoo anywhere” came the comment as he caught me up on another Ultra in his year of consecutive Ultras.

The wind turbines at Long Causeway remained out of sight in the cloud. We left the road and hit the farm track and stile to the right off it into the pathless boggy fields to stumble parallel to the track before re-emerging onto it via another stile, to the sound of a gun ‘banging’ away. That was probably the warning to anyone who should dare to take the logical route straight down the track, as indicated on the map. I wonder if anyone who dared to take that logical option survived?

A descent and climb through more fields brought us to another farm track. The checkpoint arrived a little earlier than expected; it was at the end of the track at the top road junction instead of lower down at the turn-off from the lane. At 15 miles, this checkpoint offers the first substantial food. I repeated last year's strategy of a hot dog with ketchup and a doughnut for the road. I knew it might slow me down temporarily but past experience has shown me that it will pay dividends later on.

As we ran down the track after the checkpoint, Wendy Dodds came running up in the opposite direction. She said something but I didn’t hear what it was; I thought there had been an accident and she was running back to the checkpoint for help. Another runner came running back. I asked what was wrong. This time I understood; they had gone off route and they were running back to the checkpoint. I learned afterwards from Wendy that she had followed the wrong wall downhill to the right in the fields where we are diverted off the track for a while.

Underfoot conditions were the wettest, muddiest and greasiest I remember on this event. On the final descent into Todmorden I slipped and fell on some greasy cobbles, drawing blood from my right knee and leg. I wasted little time in crossing the main road and powering up the other side of the valley to Mankinholes where I knew medicament awaited. ;-)

Last year I found out after the event that whisky had been on offer at the Mankinholes checkpoint (19mi). I wasn’t going to miss out this time. When I arrived I saw half a bottle of Jura and a shot glass on its own table. Luke, aka ‘Mr B’ was doing us proud with some quality gear. How fortuitous that he doesn’t like whisky. With a handshake by way of introduction and words of gratitude for what I was about to receive, I took a couple of sips (only). I thought he might be taking some back home but it all went. Top bloke is Luke.

Stoodley Pike had been lost in cloud and was only beginning to appear after Mankinholes, where the sun had come out. Things got better from there as the cloud continued to recede. After the steep slog up to the Pike, the wind was very strong at the edge but it was from behind to blow us along almost too forcefully. However it soon reduced away from the edge. I was surprised to catch up with Mike D-H again at the left turn stile (I can’t remember when he last went ahead). I had told him about the efficacy of low dose Ibuprofen to combat muscle and tendon soreness after it has set in. He now had such soreness and had virtually ground to a halt. His mind now sullied and in a time of need, he was about to take his first performance-enhancing drug.

I continued ahead on the long descent to the next major road crossing at Hebden Bridge. Before the final descent a rainbow hung low over Heptonstall, our next target on the other side of the valley. The climb up was as tough as ever: just put one foot in front of the other and keep walking until the gradient eases sufficiently to begin running again. On the way up, like last year we passed Clive once again on his doorstep offering water and Jellybabies. I was sucking on another gel at the time and had to pass on his generosity, but plenty of others availed themselves gratefully.

Heptonstall on the other side.

After the gratuitous climb to Heptonstall came the rough steep descent back down to the valley and the checkpoint at New Bridge. Legs were now tired and jellified. I took another broken biscuit from the checkpoint to keep the legs fuelled for the next long climb. It turned out to be savoury, which was pleasant but probably not the best choice for quick energy release. (I was amused how the event’s supply of broken assorted biscuits came in boxes marked “Fragile” – hardly appropriate I thought. You could drop them from a skyscraper and it wouldn’t make any difference.)

Mike, now drugged up to the eyeballs with ‘I’s, breezed past me effortlessly near the summit before the final checkpoint. I tried to shuffle in his wake but it wasn’t happening. I had to watch him descend alarmingly quickly into the distance and out of sight.

I caught up with Andrew, aka Derby Tup at the final checkpoint at 27 miles, which came as a surprise. I had been running with him much earlier before he went ahead. He had had issues at the stile after Stoodley Pike where I had found Mike about to ‘succumb’. He recounted how he had stumbled off the stile and fallen to the ground, his whole body cramped up like never before. He had slowed down but amazingly was still going. I cannot imagine what it must feel like to have so much cramp, let alone keep going as well.

I pulled ahead of Andrew on the final climb towards Top of Stairs. However it wasn’t long before he, and Wendy who had finally caught up, breezed past. I watched them disappear quickly out of sight as I stumbled clumsily down the rocky, ankle-twisting track towards Leeshaw Reservoir. My legs were shot, not muscle soreness (I rarely get DOMS), just leaden and devoid of energy as usual. I had done all I could to fuel them and ease their discomfort, including taking two ‘I’s during the course of the day. There was no more I could do now except walk.

I walked some of the flat road but fortunately there was no-one else around to witness this lack of athleticism. There was slightly less shame in walking the uphill road towards Penistone Hill; it is quite steep after all. At the right turn I forced myself to run again, all the way up around the hill and down to the finish. There were plenty of walkers out who offered their friendly encouragement. My uphill shuffle, equivalent to a robust walk, must have looked pathetic. At times like that I aspire to be a proper jogger. By the final descent I made maximum use of gravity to tease out a half decent semblance of a run back to the school.

I romped home in 6:21, which was a minute or two slower than I managed last year – not bad I suppose after a month without running a step. The busted toe was a little sore but not sore enough to hold me back. It has just about recovered just in time for The Series. How lucky is that?

As always, many thanks go to Brett and his helpers for putting on such an excellent event whose ups, downs, terrain and runnability make it quite a toughie to begin the Runfurther series.

I took a handful of pictures.

Monday, 5 March 2012

A quick update

I know I've been a bit quiet. That's because there's been nothing to report. I've done no running since Anglezarke Amble (and I didn't run much then, either). Da poor ickle wickle toe wot got busted four days before Anglezarke complains if I have to wear shoes to get around. It doesn't like being squashed by footwear that, without exception, is not designed to conform to the shape of real human feet. (At least I thought I was human, the last time I checked.)

My first exercise since Anglezarke was a reconnoitre of the new Calderdale Hike route last Friday and Saturday with a couple of walking friends (26 miles in 8:34 and 17 miles in 5:42). It was leisurely and very enjoyable to investigate new paths among the Calderdale infestation of such, but the toe swelled painfully in sympathy. For obvious reasons I didn't do Peelers Hike on Sunday.

Next Saturday brings the first race in this year's Runfurther series - the 32-mile Wuthering Hike. I won't be running another step between now and then in the hopes that the toe improves a little further. I shall be hideously unfit and prime PW material, but I reckon a PW is better that a DNF or, worse still, a DNS. I've been there before and don't want to be there again if I can help it.

For the following Saturday (March 17) I've seized the opportunity of being in the San Francisco area to enter the Canyon Meadow 50k trail race. The Rivington Pike fell race on Easter Saturday has also come to my attention. It would be a shame to miss that one on a weekend that is usually race-free. The race schedule needs another update but it'll have to wait. As I'm rather busy these days, don't hold your breath for big race reports or pictures at least until April. In the meantime, Happy Running and stay injury-free.