Thursday, 28 June 2012

Endurancelife Classic Quarter 44mi. 23/06/2012.

Race 6 of 12 in the 2012 Runfurther series.

I'd been relishing my first experience of the South West Coast Path for months, ever since this race was added to the Runfurther series and my Grand Slam quest demanded that I get myself an entry. Runfurther was introducing me to yet another part of our beautiful country and so my 151st ultra marathon became my first Endurancelife event.

I was not disappointed by the sights, sounds and smells that greeted our senses. Our route took us along the most southerly and westerly extremity of Britain's coastline, in a westerly direction from Lizard Point to Land's End. The coastal scenery with its old mining relics was spectacular. The ocean was never far away and almost always within earshot, while the smell of honeysuckle and other sweet scented shrubs complemented the fresh Atlantic air.

After a comfortable yet criminally short night in the Land's End Hostel (far too good to be called a hostel in my opinion), a 02:45 alarm call got me standing with Alison Brind on the Land's End car park at 03:45 in the gathering light, waiting for the bus to take us to Lizard Point. Stuart Mills recognised me in the gloaming and came over for a chat. The last time we saw each other was at last year's Lakeland 100, when he was giving us enthusiastic support and taking some pretty cool photographs in the process. He will be back competing this year, as he would be today. "There go our Runfurther points", I thought to myself. He's simply too fast for our own good is Stu.

The bus was a few minutes late leaving. Registration in the reading room at the Lizard, the fitting of SPORTident timing 'dibbers', the pinning on of race numbers, the longer than expected walk down to the start and the race briefing* meant that we started running 25 minutes late at 06:25. The sun had already risen and it promised to be a warm sunny day (that is until the forecast rain would arrive).

* The race briefing. When describing how to 'dib in' at the timing stations, and holding up a SPORTident timing box, the Endurancelife MC said: "You stick the knob-end in this hole here". I waited for schoolboy sniggers to ripple through the impatient throng but nary a titter was uttered. Time had obviously dragged on too much and nostalgic memories of Viz, Carry On, Ealing Comedies and various other British institutions of smut and double entendre must have been temporarily forgotten.

The briefing.

The early few miles along gently undulating grassy cliff tops lulled us into a false sense of security. The healthy head wind was nothing that a plodder couldn't take in his stride, though I didn't fancy the chances of the speedsters. I'd started reasonably near the front to avoid the early bottleneck and I was keeping up quite easily, but that can never last for more than half an hour. I was soon getting overtaken as I settled into my survival pace. Although I didn't see, I heard afterwards that someone had shot off ahead of everyone else at the start. That had to have been Stu. There's no-one else who could pull off that strategy. He would be immune to the head wind, of course.

Water station 1 at Mullion Cove (6.3mi.) was welcome but the first timing checkpoint at Church Cove (9.0mi.) would do just nicely for the first water refill and electrolyte infusion, so I pressed on.

Our first beach crossing came at Loe Bar, an impressive strip of coarse sand that separates the sea from a lake of calm water on the same level on the landward side, which must surely be salt water. A sit-down after the crossing was necessary to remove grit from shoes. How on earth do MdS runners manage?

Water station 2 at the "Nauti But Ice" emporium (15.0mi.) was very picturesque. I don't know the name of the inlet but here it is:

Nauti But Ice (off stage to the left).

The following sections induced feelings of vertigo as cliff erosion had forced the path inland, across and back down towards the sea to apparently plunge us into that frigid death fluid that cannot be breathed. Being an avowed land lubber, I suddenly felt uneasy.

It felt like walking the plank to certain death.

The path zig-zagged its way, runners dotted along its length to the horizon to bring us to the derelict mine buildings that I had spied a long time earlier across the bay.

Two of many disused mines.

A warm welcome greeted us from the supporters and relay runners waiting for their runners at the halfway checkpoint at Perranuthnoe (22.0mi.), where we solo runners had our drop bags. I'd been looking forward to this point because my 600ml of Coke had run out and I needed a refill. Martin Beale, who was waiting for his relay runner to arrive, greeted me like a long lost friend, and I wasn't even in his team. (We do go back a few Runfurther years, admittedly.) He grabbed my camera to capture some moments. Picture on right shows dibbing-in (recall the race briefing if you will).

After CP2 came the boring interminable flat section, where continuous running became too much of an effort. The flat running along the cycleway beside the railway line was like running through treacle. My running pace was others' walking pace. I got overtaken some more. I walked for some relief from the purgatory. I stopped to take pictures of the special charter train at the Penzance terminus for even more relief. It had vintage Diesel locomotives and old coaches with table lamps at the windows. I've ridden and enjoyed a few in my time. My interest was piqued, but not in the way that dibbing does, you'll understand.

After water station 3 beside Penzance bus station (26.0mi.), the Penzance festival required that we fight our way through a fairground to maintain the coastal path. The road had been closed and traffic had been replaced by joy rides, blaring music, commentary, screams and ghost train sirens.

Our ultra marathon route goes somewhere through there.

Shortly afterwards we were free and making our way towards the blessed relief of some undulations in the terrain - at last a valid excuse to walk and recover on the ups then run and let rip a little on the downs. The roads continued for a while but I didn't care because they were beginning to undulate on their way to Mousehole and CP3 at Lamorna Cove (34.0mi.), which was a long time coming.

A runner gets fed at CP3.

The route had already become mercifully rugged again. It continued in similar vein with a spot of rock climbing and boulder scrambling. The rain was beginning to threaten on the violently steep climb to the final water station at Porth Curno (39.0mi.). I loved it really. At least I wasn't getting overtaken now. The opposite was the case. Even some relay runners were now at my mercy.

I'd been playing cat and mouse with Alison until she disappeared ahead, I assumed never to be seen again until after the finish. However in the final four miles I spotted her characteristic speed walk (I have to jog to keep up) way ahead in the distance. I shuffled as best I could and slowly reeled her in. She spotted me when I was within ten yards, which encouraged her to try a bit harder and pull ahead again. Right, competition time (friendly of course). She used me as an incentive to push on and I used her as an incentive to hang on and catch up. We ended up running across the line in 10:28, together, the only way it should be. We both commented how tough the day had been. The course was so runnable much of the time, yet so rugged and steep at times as well.

Sadly there was no finish venue, no shelter, no post-race refreshment, chat or camaraderie. The local hotel and bar was closed for a special function. With half the enjoyment of doing these events denied us and everyone going their own way upon finishing, we both walked the mile back to the hostel, to a wonderful welcome back from Susie before the rain became a problem. However at 7pm by the time we emerged to go to the pub for dinner, the gale was blowing and the rain was hammering down. I felt truly thankful for the wonderful day we had enjoyed, and felt desperately sorry for the 100 mile runners who had started on Friday evening and were still out there, about to embark on their second night.

Runfurther Karen MacD soon found us in the pub and we were able to enjoy our own threesome of camaraderie, laughter and reminiscences of the day. The local crab salad with Pinot Grigio was food straight from the gods to begin the refuelling - a perfect evening to top off a perfect day.

All the pictures I took are here.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

The Games 100. 02-03/06/2012.

What a spectacular weekend with memories to last a lifetime. The Long Distance Walkers Association certainly know how to put on the best organised and supported events. Their annual Hundred is the flagship event that surpasses all the others, but 2012 climbed to another level altogether. This is why:

1. The route began in London, starting in Hackney and finishing in Windsor. This created the novelty of a Hundred closer to civilisation and through more urban terrain than is usual;
2. It started adjacent to the Olympic Park and passed many of the Olympic Games venues barely a month before the 2012 Olympic Games start in earnest;
3. It was the weekend of celebration of The Queen's Diamond Jubilee, so everywhere was in party mood with music, fireworks, flags and bunting-a-plenty;
4. The route passed the places where the LDWA was born;
5. This year is the 40th anniversary of the LDWA.

I'll add two personal milestones to that list:
6. This would be my tenth LDWA 100 started (hopefully also completed);
7. It would be my 150th ultra marathon.

The route took us from Hackney to Windsor via checkpoints at Millwall, Greenwich, Mottingham/Eltham, Farnborough/Orpington, Biggin Hill, Woldingham, Merstham/Redhill, Box Hill, Tanner's Hatch Youth Hostel, Holmbury St Mary, a wood near Peaslake, Chilworth, Clandon Park, Old Woking, Staple Hill/Albury Bottom, Sunningdale and Windsor Great Park.

Early on I teamed up with Brandon to share the intricate route-finding from the 42 pages of abbreviated yet necessarily detailed route description. We had been going at the same speed since the start so it made sense to team up. We enjoyed a dry Saturday that became warm and sunny but rain was forecast for later. We kept our fingers crossed that the inevitable would be delayed for as long as possible.

As it was The Queen's Diamond Jubilee, there were flags and decorations in all the villages. This seemed strange when usually we would only see such decoration on our checkpoints. It was great to see the party atmosphere but it did keep us on our toes.

This is not a checkpoint.

Trails down the hillside left by the first few participants.

As the day drew into the evening we heard many parties in the distance with bass booming. The rain finally began to make its first tentative appearances after 8pm as we arrived at checkpoint 7 (Merstham). The early darkness made way for a spectacular firework display to our left in the pouring rain as we climbed past the quarry and lime works before checkpoint 8 at Box Hill Village Hall.

I arrived at CP8 soaked and decided it was time to put some clothes on. While I did that the first 12 noon starters arrived. Geoff, Colin and Ian had made up 2 hours on us in a repeat of last year's Housman 100. We kept seeing them as far as the breakfast stop at CP10, after which they were too fast for us. Brandon and I continued to stick together though, which I appreciated because he had reconnoitred the night section.

The rain had been starting and stopping since 8pm. It wasn't raining when we arrived at CP9 (Tanner's Hatch YH, 57.1 miles) but as we sat and refuelled under the gazebo, heavy drops began to fall on the roof and intensify. We emerged into the deluge as the paths in the woods rapidly turned into streams and everything was awash. I feared it would be set in for the night but thankfully it had all but stopped by the time we reached CP10 (breakfast stop, 63.4 miles), by which time it had washed debris onto the roads and created floods. A fresh dry pair of socks and a sit-down meal of bacon, hash browns, tomatoes, baked beans and two slices of toast set me up perfectly to re-emerge into the darkness to begin the final 37 miles. It always felt cold upon emerging from a checkpoint but we soon warmed up (sometimes too much) once we got going.

Sunday dawned late and slow under heavy overcast conditions right down to ground level. Yes, the cloud seemed to extend to the ground as we were in constant fog. The air remained drizzly and the trees dropped their accumulating water onto us in bigger drops. Photograph-taking remained impossible with my camera safely inside my rucksack. I had expected much worse rain after seeing the forecast. An absence of wind as well made me think that we'd had a lucky escape.

We were both surprised at how lonely the event seemed to be, even with our jog-walk strategy, pauses to get the navigation right and longer pauses at the checkpoints to refuel properly. We were among the first ten to arrive at the checkpoints on Sunday. We had the undivided attention of the amazing marshals, who were still fresh and not yet frayed around the edges. Many of them remarked how long they had to wait for the first runners through after they had opened. We had been expecting to get overtaken as Sunday progressed but it didn't happen. The opposite seemed to be occurring; we were catching and overtaking others who had set off faster and faded more.

At one point on the first day as our route took us past the rusty sheds, I was studying my route description while walking when I suddenly trod on something and tripped over it as I tried to jump over the obstruction. When I turned around I saw what I thought was a dog, but someone later told me that is was a young fox, which figures. It was dead of course and baking nicely in the sun, which was still out at that point.

After the rain on the second day our shoes, which had begun to dry out a little, became soaked again as we dragged our feet through the soaking vegetation that overhung the many overgrown footpaths that were only 6 inches wide anyway. While we were running down one of these paths I suddenly noticed a movement just in front and stopped instantly to avoid stepping on whatever it was. A toad was walking ponderously up the path and stopped inches from my feet before realising that it may be in danger, when it jumped lazily to the left.

We picked up a third member to our team in the later miles as Megan joined us. We were all mostly in walk mode with the occasional pained jog, encouraging each other to put one foot in front of the other as best we could. All three of us had harboured the secret desire to beat 30-hour personal targets. Now that it was looking very likely we shared our secrets to make them secret no more. As we shuffled on together we began to realise that a sub-29 finish could even be on the cards. That enthused us no end. Our legs may have been complaining but we were not going to pass up such an opportunity easily. We hoped to stick together to the end.

The walk (mostly) through Windsor Great Park was a nice touch as our route wound in and out between the lakes, rhododendrons, trees and shrubs. It was a shame the air was so drizzly but at least it wasn't raining properly. As we approached the final checkpoint in the park, Megan advised us that there was a group of 4 closing on us from behind. NO! We can't get overtaken now. Not at this late stage. We abopted the jog-come-shuffle once again but she insisted that we carry on alone as there was no jog left in her legs. With a slightly heavy heart because I'd wanted all three of us to finish together, and with Megan's further insistence, Brandon and I jogged on to the final checkpoint. We checked our watches and realised that we had less than 1 hour to run the last 4 miles for a sub-28 finish. WHAT? Never in my wildest dreams. I wanted to give it my best shot.

I set off running up the incline towards the Copper Horse with Brandon close behind, when he told me to go for it alone because he did not think he could make that time. Oh no, not again. We'd done pretty well the whole event together and I wanted to finish together, but he insisted that I do my best to go for that sub-28. I paused, torn between loyalties but time was ticking. He insisted once again and I went, running up that hill to the top. Windsor Castle lurked far away in the murk at the other end of the Long Walk as I stood beside the Copper Horse. I wished my camera were accessible to take pictures of this place I'd never visited before.

I set off running down the hill and onto the never-ending drive to the white gates. Through the pedestrian gate I turned left and wasted minutes wondering why what I was seeing did not match the description, before realising that I'd missed a line in the description and needed to continue up to the main road before turning left. At the top I was met by a marshal who was getting increasingly damp in the thickening drizzle. He very kindly ran with me to show me the safe road crossing and point out the waymarking signs that led back to the school. I guessed I may have been getting privileged treatment with being among the first few participants he'd seen

I was running faster than I had done for the entire event on legs that felt curiously unfatigued. The running was flowing so effortlessly, dare I say fast, that it felt obscene for a plodder such as I to be flaunting such unfettered athleticism at the end of a 100 mile event. With one eye on my watch I searched in vain for the sign that would indicate the final right turn into the Trevelyan Middle School and figured that the turn would be obvious when I got there. It was and I turned. Once in the grounds I scanned for the finish sign but only saw an LDWA sign, so I ran to the next sign I could see. It pointed me to the showers. A bit premature under the circumstances, so I returned to the LDWA sign and opened the door tentatively. A round of applause picked up. I'd finished!

Brandon finished 11 minutes later and Megan 5 minutes after Brandon. Mutual congratulations flowed freely.

Even with the minor hiccups I got my sub-28, but it was a close shave. 27:58 was an LDWA 100 Personal Best and the icing on the cake for a weekend of milestone piled upon milestone. What memories, never to be repeated. I was sorry that we did not stick together to the end but Brandon reassured me that he was happier that I'd gone for it instead for the personal record. That got me quite emotional. Thanks Brandon.

I'd barely got myself comfortable before I was presented with my certificate and 10 Hundreds award. The chap sitting next to me was awarded with his 20 Hundreds award. I was impressed. It got me looking forward to the next ten years, which commence with the Camel-Teign Ivor's Dream 100 from the west to the east coast in May 2013.

I commenced my refuelling with tea, a can of beer (part of my Glossop Running Festival winnings, don't you know ;-), a chicken casserole dinner, a beef casserole dinner, three hot dogs, and more tea.

As Sunday afternoon moved into evening, the rain increased once again. A Jubilee party next door, which had been blaring us out with music all day provided us with an amazing firework display. Some of the evening finishers got to run the gauntlet of the falling hot debris to mark their momentous entrances through the doorway.

In the night as I slumbered in the hall and heard more outbreaks of rain hammering down onto the roof, I felt sorry for all the walkers still out there slogging their way through a second wet night, and a much colder one at that. The slower ones who have to go through two nights have it much tougher.

Footnote: an entrant flew across from Singapore especially to do this event as a qualifier for the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. I hope he went away impressed by the LDWA organisation, facilities, friendship, camaraderie - you name it, it's got it.

Here are the pictures I took, before and after rain.