Monday, 28 May 2012

Northants Ultra 35. 27/05/2012.

Race 5 of 12 in the 2012 Runfurther series.

They don't often come as hot as this, not even in midsummer. There was no let-up on Sunday from the intense sunshine and high temperatures we'd been enjoying all week. Runners would be wilting in the heat, dehydrated, nauseated, vomiting, cramping and reverting to the survival plod, when only four weeks earlier an icy gale and multiple cases of hypothermia and wind blindness caused the abandonment of The Fellsman (reported earlier in this blog). Isn't our climate exciting. At least it's not boring. I love it for all its challenges and surprises.

The Northants Ultra 35 (miles) is based at Lamport Hall and is run in beautiful, runnable, undulating countryside. After saying 'how do' to race organiser Guy Travers of Go Beyond and getting myself registered, I helped Tony to erect the Runfurther sponsors' flags. Then it was time to mingle and chat as we began to cook in the early morning sunshine - Sam Robson, Helen Skelton, Mick Plummer (a fellow Grand Slammer, no less), Fraser Hirst, Dick Scroop - more familiar names than I recall last year.

Vicky Mousley and Helen Skelton.

When Steven Adams (Principal of Go Beyond) put the call out over the PA to gather for the start, everyone seemed reticent to go anywhere near the inflated arch. Is it a superstition thing? I'd already walked underneath it (in the wrong direction) to gain my starting position, having remembered the routine from last year. For a while I stood alone in the starting chute, as usual far closer to the front than my ability warranted. Soon a few of the more confident runners joined me, one of them being Duncan Harris. We exchanged pleasantries (our paths don't often cross), while the majority of the runners lurked hesitantly off the back end of the chute.

Duncan Harris looks disturbingly relaxed considering what he's about to do.

As 08:30 approached and final instructions led to the countdown, Steve's radio mic went all Norman Collier on him. We could just about make out "three-two-one-go" from the intermittent sound bursts and we were off running across the grass towards the hall before turning left out onto the lane and left again down to the main road. A right down the A-road and left at the next footpath that descended across the fields of sheep launched us into the event proper. Phew it was hot already. I wondered how on earth we were going to survive such heat, but Guy did tell us that a breeze had been forecast for later.

The remainder of the day melted into a survival blur - trying to keep hydrated with water and electrolyte, hydrate and fuel with 600ml of full sugar Coke until it ran out, and fuel with the homemade fruit cake from the checkpoints, my Nutrigrain bars, an AccelGel, a Clif bar (uncharacteristically soft and edible in the heat), two cheese and onion rolls and Clif Shot Blocks. It seemed to work and I felt as though I was going quite well. I actually seemed to acclimatise to the heat and direct sunlight even though I was being basted in my own juices, though it did seem strange to be seeking the shaded side of the trail to cool down when usually I would be running on the sunny side to warm up. It felt like running in a foreign country, and it's still only May in old Blighty.

A prominent feature of the day were the fields of rape, their vivid yellow expanse drawing the eye and demanding attention. A lot of the route was on minor country lanes and tracks, when navigation was easy. However when the path crossed fields or the golf course, navigation became more challenging. The supplied flip maps were essential but they could not help with the micro navigation when the line of the footpath was not visible on the ground. I remembered most of the route from last year, with only one field section on the final leg catching me and plenty of others out and bringing us out onto the road too far to the left.

Yours truly amidst the ubiquitous yellow.

I ran with WDAC runner Julian Blackwell on and off for a while. Pleasant conversation was exchanged before he gradually pulled away in the later stages keeping stronger than I, to finish 19 minutes ahead.

An impressive turnaround was observed in Dave Bowen, who reminded me that we chatted last year (he tried his hand at my beloved Bullock Smithy Hike last year!). As I was catching him up after checkpoint 3 I saw him lean forwards and irrigate the ground with a stomach-full of water. He was in survival plod mode with rebelling digestive tract. I said that he needed some proper food inside him to kickstart the digestive system and offered one of my cheese and onion rolls. He declined with thanks because he was expecting to meet his support with pasta at Long Buckby. As we passed through I left him there refuelling as I plodded on. Shortly afterwards he came steaming past like a new man to finish 38 minutes ahead. What a comeback on functioning digestion.

An exhausted Dave shortly before his rejuvenation by pasta.

I was extremely impressed by Dick Scroop's performance. His training is certainly paying off. Where once he used me as his target in races, now I use him as my target. I was chasing him several times but could not hold on. He finished 11 minutes ahead as the first MV65 finisher, seemingly unfazed by the heat. Dick, you are a machine and I'll have some of what you're on, thankyou please!

Tony (fellow flag erector) had a storming run as far as the last checkpoint, where apparently he was in 8th place, but a cramping body and legs that would no longer support him forced a retirement. How frustrating was that? Thankfully he seemed to have recovered by the time I finished.

The forecast breeze did pick up slightly as the day progressed, which took the edge off the heat, but after the last checkpoint with only six miles to go, it had dropped. I was running in an oven (OK, it was upper 20s C but it's an oven to us) and my wheels were falling off. I felt nauseous even though I had been hydrating and fuelling. Any effort made it worse and, save for the odd burst of shuffle, I walked the majority of that final leg, getting overtaken all the way, to finish in 7:07. That was 44 minutes slower than last year. With last year's level of fitness I would have been around 20 minutes faster than that.

Phew, finished at last! Steve is poised with the medallion.

I felt wrecked by the time I passed underneath the finishing arch. The finisher's medal was hung around my neck and I made a beeline for the tea tent to begin my rehydration. It was unbelievably hot in the intense sunshine without breeze. The cool grass offered scant relief. A leg massage later (with donations to Teach Africa) confirmed that the legs were in perfect condition. It's just the engine that holds me back.

The winning time was 4:16. Such an unimaginable feat was perpetrated by Duncan Harris and Craig Holgate. According to the results they passed through every checkpoint at the same time. Perhaps one didn't know the route while the other did. If true, imagine what the winning time would have been if they were both familiar with the route. There again, perhaps not. I feel a headache coming on.

Nearly three hours after finishing (that's three hours more baking time in the sauna), the last runner having finished and the sponsors' flags having been packed away, I drove out of the grounds of Lamport Hall in conditions that might never happen again for this event. What an amazing day!

I took a few pictures to help me rest and recover along the way.

I hope I recover in time for next weekend's Games 100.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Old County Tops. 19/05/2012.


A 37-mile Lake District fell race over Helvellyn, Scafell Pike and Coniston Old Man for teams of two, with tough cut-offs. Proper runners only need apply.

I was on short notice to accompany Daz Burns on this one. I've wanted to do this race for a few years but this year would not have been my first choice, given that it was sandwiched between the Brecon Beacons 40 and Northants Ultra 35 in a long run of Ultras. Never being one to look a gift horse in the mouth, when the call came through just before the Brecon 40 that my services would definitely be required in a week's time, I grabbed the opportunity, assuming that I'd be able to wing it as usual. Our entry was despatched post-haste.

After a stressful week with insufficient rest, I joined Daz early on Saturday morning for the drive up to the New Dungeon Ghyll hotel in Great Langdale. We arrived in cool, damp, breezy conditions, but the forecast predicted an improvement.

After pre-race instructions the biggest ever field was sent off along the valley bottom track a few minutes late due to the registration overload. I soon became too hot and had to stop at the end of the track to remove my windproof top. A spectator / supporter was ringing a cow bell by way of encouragement. I was already near the back of the field and the ringing soon stopped. I requested a continuation of the jangling to encourage me as my running vest and spectacles came off in a tangled, inside-out mess with the windproof. My request fell on deaf ears since all the runners had passed, so I was left to grapple with my attire in shamed, observed silence. Once I'd got myself sorted out and ready to jog on, Daz was way ahead and waiting and I was off the back of the field. That set the tone nicely for the day.

We caught a few backmarkers up on the first climb over the shoulder of the hill but lost those places again on our alternative route into Grasmere that avoided the main road. Our second climb took us up into the strong cold wind, which required the donning of the windproof top once again. Our first proper peak would be Helvellyn via Grisedale Tarn. This was the third time I'd been up here and the first time I'd seen it unfrozen and without a thick coating of snow. Nevertheless the wind was strong and cold on Helvellyn and the ground was dusted with wind-blown snow if you looked downwind into the clag to see where it had lain.

Hardy marshals on Helvellyn summit.

Our descent SSW from the trig point went well initially, if slow (thanks to me), but a premature veer right took us down Middle Tongue instead of to the left of it like I'd intended. That slowed me down even more as lack of confidence in my footwear added to absence of athletic ability. We were reminded at the checkpoint at the bottom that we were near to the back of the field.

I was still waiting for the energy to kick in as we made our way along the permissive path to Wythburn. I continued to wait in vain as we began the climb in the direction of High Raise, next target Angle Tarn. The wind had suddenly dropped and it was getting quite warm, but I wasn't going to waste more time taking off the windproof again. Angle Tarn cut-off would be at 5:30 elapsed for those 18 miles, and it was looking tight. I had come to the realisation much earlier that I was struggling far more than I should have been. I was finding it difficult to run the bits I should have been able to run, but I could cope with hiking. However, hiking is incompatible with this event. My shoes didn't help my confidence (Walsh Spirit Peak in case you were wondering). Their clown-like pointed length was a constant  trip hazard over the rocks, boulders and tussocks, while their (slightly worn) studs offered no grip on wet rock, mud or wet grass. I lost count of the number of times I slipped over. I minced and plodded my way onwards as fast as my gutless powerplant allowed. I was forever left wanting and had become the big fly in the ointment, the monkeywrench in Daz' OCT works as he repeatedly had to wait for me to catch up on the climbs and the descents. All I could do was apologise and remark how shocked I was, not so much with the terrain but my inability to traverse it at anything other than hiking speed. It made me realise more than ever that a Bob Graham Round is way beyond my capability.

The outcome was inevitable; I got us timed out at Angle Tarn, where we arrived 5:38 after starting for an average speed of 3.2mph. This would have been my 149th Ultra Marathon. Instead it turned out to be my first ever time-out or DNF without injury. Daz, I am sorry for wrecking it for you. I'll return to where I started 16 years ago - shuffling my way around the LDWA events. I have no business with these proper fell races for proper runners. I'll get me coat.

Timed out at Angle Tarn.

After a bit of a sit-down picnic we began the 4-mile walk of shame down Mickleden to Great Langdale and the finish. I even walked most of that with only the occasional jog. Quite simply, I was good for nothing that day.

The good things about the day were the amazing sights in places I'd never been before, and the chance to hang around in the warm sunshine at the finish at a time I would never normally be there, when the sharp end runners were finishing. Now if only I were blessed with their speed ........

....... I'd probably get more injured?

The sad thing about the day was that I never got to pay my first visits to Scafell Pike and Coniston Old Man.

Thanks to Achille Ratti for a superbly organised challenge, which I'd like to be able to complete someday.

Judith Jepson and Digby Harris just finished in 7:54:50.

I took pictures.

Monday, 21 May 2012

'Might Contain Nuts' Brecon Beacons 40. 12/05/2012.

Race 4 of 12 in the 2012 Runfurther series.

Cribyn panorama.

I left fading showers behind on Friday afternoon to drive down to Talybont-on-Usk for my accommodation at the outdoor centre/bunkhouse. Registration on Friday evening removed the stress and hassle of having to do it on Saturday morning.

Saturday dawned cool, calm and cloudless. The record turn-out of runners was impressive compared to last year. The boom in ultra running continues unabated. This was race 4 of 4 in the Welsh one-day ultra running series put on by 'Might Contain Nuts'. It is the only MCN race in the Runfurther / UK Ultra Running Championships, which is why I was there. I like this event because it offers the rare luxury of a fully marked route, while the convenient accommodation at the event centre for before and afterwards makes for a perfect ultra running party weekend.

After a roll-call of residents to make sure that no-one was still in bed, and instructions of which markers to follow and not to follow (there was a walking event also taking place), we were sent on our way a few minutes late. Despite the cool ambient temperature the lack of wind, the sunshine and physical exertion meant that we were soon toasty on the first climb to Tor y Foel.

The stream / linear pond that was supposed to be a path after checkpoint 1 demonstrated how much wetter it is this year compared to last year. Water and mud would become a much bigger feature. Did someone mention drought? Lucy Clayton passed me shortly after the flooded path. I commented that either she's much faster this year or I'm much slower. I suspect a bit of both. (She was equal first female last year with Sam Scott. I finished with them after they caught me up in the cloud on the peat moor before the final descent.)

Exchanging a quick word with Lucy.

After checkpoint 2 the long climb to Pen y Fan involved plenty of trudging through tussocks, water and bog. It was impossible to run even though I tried a few times. Paul Higgs had a lucky escape from the bog monster that lurked in front of the tied-up gate we had to cross. By the time I reached the tourist path I could do little more than walk. (I'm sure I ran most of it last year.) I was even overtaken by a slightly overweight recreational hiker. Did he not realise I was supposed to be one of them there ultra runners? What is the world coming to? Where's the respect? It's an outrage, I tell you. Shortly afterwards I was able to regain the lead when I activated the pathetic shuffle down to checkpoint 3/5.

Bog monster got Paul.

The run down to checkpoint 4 was a welcome relief from the trudge but the path was busy. At the footbridge at the bottom I became trapped in a crowd of walkers. I waited my turn to file through the kissing gate before turning right along the parking lane in search of the checkpoint (it was at the end last year). I got to the end and still no checkpoint. I asked a fellow runner where the checkpoint was. “Back there” came the response. It can't be. I've kept my eyes peeled and I've seen nothing resembling our checkpoint (no 'Craft' flag, no vehicle, no water, nothing). Confused and frustrated at the time I was now haemorrhaging, I started to walk back along the lane, observing and asking. Last chance saloon was the point where our descending path joined the lane. There was a vehicle with paraphernalia that did not look likely and which I had dismissed on the way down, but it was the last chance, so I asked. As expected it was not our checkpoint but they seemed to know where it was. I was directed back up the path I had descended earlier. Disbelievingly I walked back up to the kissing gate and looked over. The crowd of walkers had dissipated. On the grassy bank on the left was a pile of water bottles and a small group of people standing beside them. There was nothing to identify them, no 'Craft' sponsor's flag which my eyes had become attuned to, nothing. I approached and asked if they were the checkpoint I was looking for. They were, and I was the first person they had missed (despite me displaying my race number prominently on my front). I had evidently missed them as well and lost ten minutes in the process. That shows how busy it was when I passed through. I made sure they were aware of my lost time as I refilled my water bottle, before retracing my steps. I checked my watch and calculated that the speed I'd been going and the time just squandered were making a finish time of over 10 hours most likely. Compared to last year's 9:24, that was a bit rubbish, but I could only do my best. I'd keep plugging away as always.

The climb back up to checkpoint 3/5 via a different route was no less of a struggle compared to last year. The uphill gradients were well and truly trudged. This year we did not have to ascend Corn Du. Instead we contoured to the right of it on our way to the summit of Pen y Fan. From there was the ever-exciting initial climb down and ridge descent to checkpoint 6 on the lowlands, where the sun always shines and it's always warm (in my experience). On the way down, the vivid patches of yellow in the far distance signified fields of rapeseed crop – always so eye-catching in full bloom at this time of year.

Descent from Pen y Fan.

A quick refuel at CP6 and an interesting conversation with the marshal about heavily discounted supermarket produce on its sell-by date (prompted by my consumption of a long-expired mini pork pie that had been unrefrigerated for 24 hours and been cooked for the day in my rucksack) saw me power my way back across the fields, lanes, tracks and climb towards Cribyn. After a slow initial two thirds of the event I seemed to be getting stronger and for the first time began to overtake people instead of vice versa. It was good not to be climbing into the tempest this year as I overtook others on the ascent of Cribyn's exposed corner. A group of marshals watched from the top as we toiled our way up the steep staircase. From the top there were views I had never seen before as I set about running down along the ridge on freshly jellified legs towards the final checkpoint (CP7). This section seemed shorter this year now that I could see where I was going. I was feeling surprisingly energetic after the steep descent and after a final water bottle refill I set off up the final climb to the long run along the left-hand edge of the ridge.

Checkpoint 7 down below.

David Minchin caught me up and started to discuss finishing times. He sowed the seed in my head that not only were we likely to smash 10 hours, a PB of sub 9:24 might be on the cards. I continued with renewed vigour. The right turn across the peat moors proved to be no problem this time with perfect visibility. I observed where I had strayed from the path last year before being rescued by the leading ladies, and with continuing energy ran across the Fellsman-like peat hags and bogs towards the poshest cairn in history with luminous arrow on the top just for us. This marked the beginning of the ever-so-long, often steep, sometimes up(!) descent with a few more bogs along the way to swallow the feet, squelch, squirt and splatter my person. The eventual arrival at the Talybont Reservoir dam crossing was a relief because it signified the end (almost). The reservoir was overflowing, which figured given the wetness of the course. Drought? Don't believe the hype.

Talybont Reservoir.

I glanced at my watch and, amazingly, a PB might be on the cards – unbelievable given my earlier prediction. I had really picked up the pace, though, after a long slow start. The body was finally adjusting to what I was asking of it. The rocky track, which sadistically sometimes ascended, seemed interminable and the canal a long time coming. More occasional glances at my watch confirmed the minutes slipping through my fingers. Eventually the White Hart Inn came into view, which signified the left turn along the canal for a short way. John Taylor, who I had overtaken on the final descent, had re-overtaken me and was a few yards in front. I tried to hold on and used him as a visual target to drag me along, up the brief incline to the track and along to the lane to the finish. However, he gradually pulled away and I had nothing with which to respond (a familiar story). The time ticked down to 9:24 and I still wasn't there. I finally crossed the line in 9:26 but I knew it was really 9:16. Now if that repositioned checkpoint had been visible, my PB (like hen's teeth these days) would have been official. Miffed isn't the word.

Lucy Clayton knocked 38 minutes off her time of last year. I knew she was running faster this year. This got her 6th female place, which compared to last year's 1st place is indicative of the increased competition. Well done Lucy.

Thanks to the big crowd there was more chat and camaraderie over the weekend. The excellent food provided throughout by the one-man catering staff provided a good reason to linger and refuel. It was much better than last year. He must have done a roaring trade.

After two dinners plus snacks I went for a luxuriously warm shower before wandering up to the White Hart with others for drinks and endorphin-fuelled animated conversation until late. Afterwards as we wandered back to the Outdoor Centre we stared in wonder at the night sky, all the stars made visible by the clear atmosphere and lack of light pollution.

Finally to bed, I laid my head on the pillow and stared up through the roof window above my head for one final look at the stars, and saw a shooting star streak across the sky. With that I fell into the fitful sleep that always follows a tough day of running, only restless, well-used muscles preventing deeper slumber. They'd be recovered by morning, though probably not sufficiently to do it all again.

The photographs I took are here.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Glossop 3-day running festival. 05-07/05/2012.

I discovered this on Friday and decided to have a go to get some much needed enforced speed work under the 31" belt before next weekend's Brecon 40 (shame athletic performance doesn't match outward appearance). This is turning out to be a bijou, perfectly formed series of friendly races.

Saturday was the Chunal 3-mile fell race with 1,001' of ascent from the O Sole Mio restaurant. It was an out and back with an anticlockwise loop at the end that tortured us as it toyed with the hill. At the start, race organiser Des Gibbons who also ran the race, closed gates and collected the flags on the way round, jokingly congratulated Jack Ross in advance for winning the race, and why don't we just go straight to the prize presentation. Des you wag. ;-) The climbs and descents were steep and tough. The loop at the end was long enough that, even at my slow pace I did not meet Jack on the return leg. An eyeballs-out performance with palpitating heart and peak of 202bpm got me 21st out of 26 finishers. Naughty heart. I hope the barbecue and imbibing planned for afterwards will improve matters for tomorrow's race. My time was 38:34, winning time 26:56. Results.

Chunal: waiting for the start.

Sunday was the Moorfield 5k road race from The Beehive pub. The weather was even better. The air temperature might continue to be unseasonably cold (global warming my rear region) but there was no wind and the sun was luxuriously warm. Des ran again after handing over the starting orders to the publican (I think). He mumbled "Go" under his breath to send us off running the undulating lanes in an anticlockwise loop out to the A57 and back to the lane to the finish. The lane to the finish contained a big uphill section. I was forced to power walk while my gasping tongue licked the road clean along the way. I didn't lose time on those in front trying to run it. My time of 25:08 (without palpitations) got me 15th out of 25. Winning time was 20:09. Des finished 4th in a speedy 21:36. It is a hilly route. Results.

Finishers at Moorfield 5k.

Monday's race was the James's Thorn 5-mile fell race with 1,611' of ascent from the Royal Oak on the A57 out of Glossop. The cold breeze was stiffening and the forecast rain was threatening as we waited for Des to return from marking the course. He whizzed down in his car a couple of minutes late and turned around with his hazards flashing. A peep of his horn signified the start as he drove up the road just in front of the front runners to lead us to the turn-off up the track thence onto the fells. A wide panorama of looming hills opened up in front of us which I'd never seen before. The view excited me. I could see our track descend down and swing to the right to begin the serious climb on the fell all the way to the top. We set about running upwards into the strong head wind as spots of rain began to blow in. The course was amazingly mud-free and it was brutally runnable for the most part, until after a false summit or two and the final climb around the back of the hill to the top, which became very rocky.

There was a small loop at the top to avoid too much clashing of the return runners, of whom I saw only one. Dave Taylor came flying back down like a thing possessed with a look of concerned concentration etched on his face. He was there before I had a chance to think about getting the camera out.

From the top it was virtually downhill all the way to the finish (save for the uphill return on the track). I got overtaken by only two on the return (I think), but I had been doing some overtaking of my own on the climb, so it balanced out. The rain never came to anything and the sun was trying to show itself again. With the wind now behind us and with the increase in speed, cooling was becoming a problem, so off came the skull cap, windproof got hitched behind the head and sleeves got rolled up to make it just bearable. Out onto the A57 it was a downhill all the way back to the pub as I chased the runner in front. I hammered as fast as I could go but, as always, it didn't feel fast enough. It was enough though because no-one else was near as I crossed the finish in 47:11. That got me 36th out of 55. Winning time was 34:48. What a machine is Dave.

Afterwards in the pub, prize presentations were made after Des and helpers had sorted out the results. Not only were there prizes for that day's race, there were also prizes for the whole series. Tom Jackson won the series. Not that many had done all three and some of them had gone home. You know what that meant? I won my first ever bling in a fell race, by default as Des read down the list in increasing desperation. I shall treasure my gift until my dying day because it will surely never be repeated.

The results as best as I can manage so far are here.

Plenty more climbing still to do on James's Thorn.

Link to photo album.