Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Six Dales Circuit 25+mi. 10/11/2012.

I returned to Biggin Village Hall for an 11th time to take part in one of my LDWA favourites. I was here in 1999 for the inaugural one and I never grow weary of the beautiful Derbyshire Dales.

As usual we runners saw the walkers off at 8am then registered and waited for our start at 9am. Paul Rushworth, spied only recently at Round Rotherham, was there to do his speed thing once again. He had arrived uncharacteristically early with two hours to spare, then he forgot to register so he started late anyway. (As we stood outside at 9am and listened to the informal brief, he looked at my tally and said “I’ve not got one of those” before running inside the hall like a scalded cat. Oh Paul! )

We knew from our route descriptions that we would once again be on the original clockwise route. (There were five years of anticlockwise from 2005 to 2009. Many people including me thought the gradients made it tougher but my three fastest times came from that reverse route.)

We set off up the road, right then left to reach the footpath down to Biggin Dale. It’s not worth taking the footpath across the muddy fields of deep hoof prints to cut the corner. I know because I’ve tried it several times in past years. Biggin Dale (1) is usually very muddy, wet, rocky and slippery. The polished limestone must be treated as if it were ice. It takes quite a lot out of you to keep a run going while constantly adjusting and scanning the ground with eagle eyes to place every footfall safely.

By the time we reach the bottom we turn right for the gentle ascent of Wolfscote Dale (2). I’ve usually blown up by this point from all the effort and have to settle back into a survival shuffle while I wait for my body to recover some composure. This is when I start to get overtaken. Geoff Holburt usually blasts past around now after struggling with the technical descent, but not this year. Where could he be? Injured? I began to worry a little.

Philip Gwilliam caught me up on the zigzag footbridge-crossing to Beresford Dale (3), followed by a barefoot shoe runner (I think he said his name was Ian). Philip soon pulled away on the gentle ascent beside the river while I struck up a brief conversation with Ian. He had been running like this – basically barefoot save for a thin sheet of rubber sole – for two years, so he was well practised in the technique and seemed to be running comfortably.

Waterlogged pastures were crossed, followed by fields that delivered us to CP1 at Hartington, but still no sign of Geoff. I worried some more. Had he injured himself and had to walk back up the first dale to the hall? I shuffled my way onwards with others up the road out of Hartington to the third footpath on the left over the stile. Darren Graham caught me up as we crossed the fields. He was none the worse for his beastly ‘666’ number assignment two weeks earlier at the Snowdonia Marathon. He updated me on Geoff’s predicament – fortunately not injured, just struggling with the underfoot conditions and losing his shoes in the mud.

Once we got onto the easy running of the Tissington Trail, that’s where Geoff finally overtook me. I just about kept him in sight as we cut down to the right off the smooth trail back onto his nemesis once again – lovely muddy fields – for the climb up to the Bull i’ th’ Thorn Hotel. A dogleg right and left across the main road brought us to the long descending track that would eventually bring us via more fields to Monyash and CP2 in the village hall. Geoff had wasted no time inside and was leaving as I arrived. I spent a little more time and searched out a small chunk of sausage roll, which I washed down with some of my Coke supply as I set off down the road in pursuit. Geoff was now out of sight.

At the right turn off the road I caught up with Christine Stratton, who had left on the 8am start and was motoring along very well. Christine is a long-time friendly face on the LDWA events who goes back to when I started in the ‘noughties’. I had already overtaken loads of the early starters and I congratulated her for being well up the field. I’m not sure she believed me.

A grassy, muddy, then rocky descent into Lathkill Dale (4) demanded more care and poise with foot placement. In the interests of personal safety I was forced to walk at times. The brief respite was welcome. Walkers on the path were still happy to stand aside, having surely done so countless times already for those ahead, while I bumbled my way through. I was always happy to offer my thanks in return. They don’t have to do it but they usually do. I think they like to stand and watch, perhaps in hope of a wipe-out, perhaps to watch an athletic little @ss disappearing down the path. Being averse to unnecessary pain I would always hope for the latter. ;-)

CP2 to CP3 is a long stage, most of which should be run but some of which becomes difficult to run as energy levels are getting well used up. On the long drag to Conksbury Bridge and beyond I was catching up with other runners again, two of whom I recognised as Geoff and ‘barefoot Ian’. Then I began to detect a slight drop in energy levels. I looked up and sure enough, they were beginning to pull away already. "Right, gel, right now, and make it snappy". It began to take effect and within a few minutes I was back to catching up. By Bradford Dale (5) I was back with Ian, who was experiencing similar energy issues. ‘It always happens by now’, I tried to reassure him.

[I was keeping myself fuelled with Coke and a gel every so often when I felt myself beginning to slow down. That was supplemented by a savoury morsel from checkpoints 2 and 3, washed down by Coke. I have found that too little food results in fuel starvation, while too much causes blood to be diverted away from the muscles to the stomach to digest. The end result is the same: seizing legs that won’t run. In extreme cases I seem to turn to lead from lower back downwards. To consume just enough easily absorbed fuel to keep me running at optimum efficiency is a fine balance that’s difficult to achieve, even after all these years.]

On the out-and-back climb to Middleton I met more Ultra stalwarts of the LDWA scene coming back down – early starters Marla and Christine. Guaranteed 'spots' on the annual Hundred, they are sometimes spied on shorter events too. Quick words of greeting were exchanged as we passed. Ian and I continued up to the top then right to CP3 in Middleton village hall. We'd caught up with Geoff once again. I grabbed a quick tuna sandwich, offered my thanks and returned outside to retrace my steps while trying to wash down the sandwich with Coke. Geoff joined me for the final leg but Ian needed to stop to recharge a little.

Back down the track to Bradford Dale we turned right to continue our journey back to Biggin. From here to the finish, Geoff did a sterling job 'helping me to a PB'. I reassured him of the impossibility of that notion, given that it would require us to run the last 6 miles in well under an hour on tired legs. Nevertheless I gave it all I had, my next mental target as usual being the road section past the Friden works.

Early on the climb through the field of cows I heard it for the first time. I have never heard it this early before. The breeze must have been in exactly the right direction to carry it to us. The characteristic whine of the Friden fan could plainly be heard. I used that steady tone to pull me along, waiting for it to grow louder as we drew closer. It would take a surprisingly long time.

We continued up to the top of the hill and right turn at the top of Long Dale (6). The next descent left was less muddy than in previous years, which seemed strange. At the bottom came the right turn into the linear meadow that would bring us to the road. We caught up with Marla and Christine, who were still looking strong.

Finally out onto the road we turned left up the hill, under the railway bridge and past the sinusoidal sound source. Next target the finish. “Come on Nick” said Geoff. “I'm trying” thought I, “very trying”. I was too far gone to reply audibly. We climbed to the main road and crossed to the final few fields. I welcomed the soft grassy fields after the road trudge and gained on Geoff once again. At the foot of the climb over the disused railway line I remarked to Geoff that I had a minute to equal last year's time. The general consensus was 'no chance'. I made the direct up-and-down crossing while Geoff took the more gentle left and right crossing. We arrived at the other side at the same time and my knees felt it more than his. We raced each other across the final fields and out onto the road back to the village hall.

4:43 was 3 minutes slower than last year and 20 minutes slower than my PB of 2007. Ian finished a little later after fuelling issues (I know he can be faster). What a perfect day. Thanks Geoff and Ian for your company.

Will I be back? Given my past record, what do you think? As long as I'm breathing an' all that......

Here are the pictures.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Snowdonia Marathon. 27/10/2012.

This is the only marathon I run. Why?

It’s the beautiful scenery, organisation, camaraderie, friendliness and support. This year for the first time we had our name on our number, UTMB stylie, so supporters called our names as they cheered!

It’s the climbs, descents and off-road bits that take away the drudgery of flat road running.

It’s the hyper-active Runner’s World forum thread that provides entertainment throughout the year.

It's the TV coverage by S4/C that brings the memories flooding back. (This year me and me mate Stu had some considerable exposure near the start line while the anchorman did his piece to camera, ho yes!)

It’s the post-race euphoric party in which Karaoke gets sung (though unfortunately not this year because it was replaced by an aged 4-man ‘Dolly Parton tribute band’ in aid of cheridee). Ooh it was piercing. Put a sock in it.

2012 provided the best weather conditions yet since my first in 2006. The sun shone to make us pleasantly warm (apart from when the cold headwind blew for a while on the exposed back straight of the route). I got to see the tops of the mountains for the first time ever, including the top of Snowdon!

By halfway and with two hours elapsed I knew that I’d be scorching no records, nor the soles of my shoes. A finish time of 4:28 was a marathon PW but at least I suffered no after-effects – which was nice.

I had sensed something special was in store and had taken my camera for the first time on a ‘proper’ marathon. It was special alright with those views. I could say that I was slowed by the snapping but that may just be a little white lie.

This was my 7th consecutive year. God willing I shall return for at least the next three to make it a nice round ten, then take it from there.

Right I’ll shut up and let the pictures do the talking; it was a first and may be the last.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Round Rotherham 50mi. 20/10/2012.

Race 12 of 12 in the 2012 Runfurther series.

Life pressures and business travel to Italy meant virtually no running in the three weeks between Hardmoors 60 and this, save for a couple of 5ks at my local hilly Woodbank Parkrun in the two intervening weekends. Curiously they yielded my two fastest times on that course, the second of which was a PB of 22:47 – well chuffed with that. So I rolled up pre-dawn to the Dearne Valley College on the outskirts of Rotherham knowing that either I’d be well rested and romp home to an easy PB, or I’d be under-trained and have to beast myself mercilessly to a mediocre finish. Those of you with your finger on the pulse probably already know the answer.

The black sky was clear and star-filled and the air was surprisingly mild as we watched the early 6am starters get sent on their way. There would be no frost on the first footbridge this year. Afterwards there was an hour to kill at the runners’ registration in the overheated sports hall. It soon passed as I chatted with so many acquaintances. This event lived up to its reputation once again as being a great running family reunion, probably helped by the fact that it’s the last race in the Runfurther series and quite a few runners were seizing their last chance to bag some points. For me it was just another day in my 'weekend job'. I like my weekend job. It’s my preferred occupation. ;-)

It was good to see Dawn Westrum and Garry Scott for the first time in a long time, within a minute of my arrival. I didn’t know who to greet first. Needless to say Garry waited his turn patiently. ;-) A rarer reunion was with Dark Peak Fell Runner Rachel Findlay-Robinson, last seen in the environs of the Brownlee Olympic Gold Run in August. Another rarity this year was Cat Lawson, on her way back from injury. Good to see you back, Cat.

Before we knew it we were called outside into the mild early dawn to listen to the warnings of mud before being sent on our way at 7am along the roadside footpaths, now illuminated by LEDs. (!) The mist hung low over the first lake as usual. Once again I thought that I should take some pictures but I never do so soon when we are all fresh and ‘putting our foot down’.

Garry caught me up a couple of miles in and commented about me ‘going out with a bang’. Well Garry, it never feels like it at the time but hindsight proves it always to be true. That’s why I never caught you again. I never caught all the others who were overtaking me either. It's just the way it is. I've grown used to it over the past 1.5 decades.

At Elsecar Heritage Centre I spy billowing steam from a steamed-up locomotive for the first time in all the years I’ve run Round Rotherham and Elsecar Skelter. Someone would be in for a treat today. I get my camera out for the first picture on the run. The lens is steamed up from the combination of the cool morning air and my overworked, perspiring torso.

The next muddy climb up to the woods gave us our first taste of the muddiest conditions since the event was brought forward in 2009 to October. They were more akin to the December conditions we’d become accustomed to. However I didn’t care because we were in for a mild, calm, sunny day – the 4th year in a row of perfect weather.

Like last year, the sun made its first appearance over the horizon after Wentworth as we descended the track with Keppel's Column beckoning on the skyline. It wasn’t long before we were climbing the hill towards that bulbous monolith, steeling ourselves to put on our best face for the first batch of Armada Photography photographers. After that was the quick run down the road, across and down to Checkpoint 1 at Grange Park. The sun still hadn’t quite reached the checkpoint.

The little people in the woods have always captured my attention. This year (finally) I allowed myself enough time to photograph every one. It's a shame that local ne'er-do-wells have decided to modify them with blue spray paint. Still, it'll fade in time, as will they.

On the approach to Tinsley, after the diversion (hopefully the last year of this) and before the railway footbridge, the compacted soil/mud single file footpath had been washed away underneath an industrial fence that can best be described as a series of vertical metal shards with serrated edges designed to lacerate flesh. I joined the queue inching our way past the hazard, using the fence for essential support. I heard afterwards that many people cut their hands on it, at least one requiring stitches at the hospital.

We had two ladies from Sweden taking part this year (Maria Jansson and Sandra Lundqvist). Around this point (just before Tinsley) their conversation was drawing my attention because I am not used to hearing spoken Swedish. They ran effortlessly ahead and out of sight to finish over 1 hour 20 minutes ahead of me. There's an impressive example of not slowing down.

In Tinsley on the climb towards the trading estate, with not even 15 miles done and feeling the effects of my earlier exuberance I was forced to take my first walking break. I struck up a conversation with a 6am starter I'd just caught up with as I waited for my body to recover a little from the incessant running up to that point. It always happens here when fitness is lacking. In a good year (2011 and 2009) it doesn't occur until Rother Valley Country Park, where I think it hits most people.

Dick Scroop (amazing MV60) caught me up in the Tinsley Trading Estate. We always enjoy a good tussle on the Ultras, using each other as carrot-and-stick to push ourselves. (It took me almost to the end of the High Peak 40 in September to catch him!) The horses watched intently as the line of runners ran through their field to the road and I got overtaken by Tom Keely.

Checkpoint 2 at Treeton was as sunlit and colourful as ever. I had my first kneel-down here to squeeze the seizure products from my leg muscles. It works for a while. This is the view from that rejuvenating position just in front of the waste bins.

The next stage (don't miss the right turn between the boulders at the top of the hill) brought us eventually to Rother Valley Country Park. I was definitely in survival mode now and waiting for my second wind, which I knew would come. Its strength would depend on my level of fitness. Jo Miles and Alison Brind (more regular carrot-and-stick subjects of mine) had just disappeared into the distance. I had yet to pass through the 20 mile point. I think it was around this point that I caught up with LDWA stalwart Garry Burdin. Now 70 years old he's still as strong as an ox. He walked the full 50 miles in 12:35. Now that’s impressive.

After Rother Valley Country Park I was catching up with a runner who was walking at that moment. I saw him reach down to his right upper leg and I suspected something was wrong. I called him back at the road crossing (he had overshot the left turn up the track and was heading up the road to Norwood) and asked how it was going. ‘ITB injury’ came the answer from Michael Richardson. I offered a low strength (200mg) Ibuprofen to reduce inflammation. Tendons respond well to that. A man of principle, he declined my attempt to lead him astray with drugs. As we chatted it transpired that we both knew another runner from his part of the world. We jogged on together to Checkpoint 3 at Harthill (25 miles), where his family was waiting to support.

As we left CP3 I heard my name called. Dawn was just arriving. She was going well! Michael left his family to join me for the next stage across many finely ploughed fields and past the airfield where the calm, sunny conditions allowed plenty of flying and our best air display yet. A biplane was one of the aircraft doing circuits, while a speedier monoplane was doing high speed low level passes. At some point thereabouts I think I must have gone ahead of Michael.

At Turnerwood before the first level crossing, the householder was out once again with her table of refreshments – much appreciated; thank you, whoever you are. At the climb up to the track crossing I heard a train horn. This would be the first time ever I would have to wait for a train to pass. The delay was minimal before I was able to climb up onto the ballast and cross to the other side.

 She beat the train....

 ....but I didn't.

I made my only navigational error a little later at the golf course where, following my nose I continued ahead on the old route instead of turning right to take the permissive path through the tunnel. A quick backtrack got me and a few others back on route to only lose a minute or two.

I always look forward to checkpoint 4 at Woodsetts (30 miles) because it’s over halfway and I can begin to imagine the finish and let it pull me ever more strongly. It’s also where our drop bags are – cue a major Coke refill. Tea, soup and bread were also enjoyed here. Dawn had caught up with me again by the time I left to hit more multiple field crossings. I caught up with David Cremins, Mark Dalton and Kevin Day as we approached the next small industrial estate. They were taking it easy because they had a 30-mile event in Langdale planned for the next day. I learned from them that, unfortunately Jon Steele had to retire earlier due to his knees rebelling against the onslaught of ultra marathons he’s doing this year. He would also be doing Langdale next day and was saving himself for that. (See, I’m not the only crazy Ultra junkie around here. There are crazier people out there.)

The woods seemed to be going on for ever and I was in shuffling survival mode once again as I tried to keep up with David, Kevin and Mark. Checkpoint 5 at Firbeck finally arrived, where more refuelling was enjoyed in that somewhat over-specified though undeniably smart new village hall – 35 miles done, 15 to go. I wasted minimal time before setting out on the long zigzag section across wide expanses of open fields. Just get your head down and grind out the miles, next mental target Roche Abbey.

My memory is hazy; I can’t be sure but it was around here (or possibly just before Firbeck) that I felt a tap on my back as Michael caught up with me. He had finally succumbed and asked his family for an Ibuprofen at one of the checkpoints. His pain had now vanished and he was transformed, back running strongly again. He was soon out of sight. David and Mark also overtook me and slowly pulled away into the distance to leave me alone once again.

Towards the end of the zigzags I spotted someone ahead who was walking. We runners learn to recognise far-off profiles, and I was recognising Cat. I soon caught up. She was in a world of discomfort I know only too well – i.e. body seizing up from lower back downwards. She blamed lack of training due to her injury. After checking that she was fuelling and hydrating properly, the only thing left was to try to lead her astray as well. She was more desperate and her resolve was weak. Willing to try anything to ease the discomfort and help her to finish, she gratefully accepted my 200mg offering. We shuffled on together towards Roche Abbey (more photographers) and beyond into the woods, where she paused to tap out a message on her Star Trek communicator and I jogged on towards Maltby with Kevin chasing me down once again.

 Head for the church.

Since 2011, checkpoint 6 at Maltby has arrived a little sooner now that it's in the village hall just after we have gone through the graveyard. We have just under 10 miles to do at this point. In a good year I enjoy chasing other runners down and overtaking from here to the finish, but not this year. I did a bit of overtaking (e.g. David and Mark for the umpteenth time) but I was still getting overtaken as well, or playing cat-and-mouse with others as we swapped places. I had been swapping to and fro with Mick Cochrane for quite some time and he was now my carrot-and-stick subject – my 'competitor' in our little part of the race to help me to push that little bit harder.

Checkpoint 7 at Old Denaby (47+ miles) is always a long time coming. It was a very long time coming this year. The muddy flood in the gateway just before the checkpoint had been covered by sheets of plywood, which were now half submerged. I've never seen it so wet. My personal Coke and food supplies were still healthy so it was a quick hello-and-goodbye for me as I headed out to that left turn down Ferry Boat Lane to the second of our two railway crossings – another train horn and another minor wait. What a coincidence. I’ve never had to stop for a train before and now it happens at both crossings.

For the final 2-3 miles I imagined a lonely run once again, picking off and overtaking other runners and feeling like the hunted. Not so this year. There were more runners about and we were going at around the same speed, give or take the usual to-ing and fro-ing. I had just left Mick behind at the checkpoint but I knew he wasn't far behind.

I was delighted to see that the putrid green floating mat on that dead-end stretch of canal in Swinton was no more. All the litter had gone, the banks were tidied up and swans paddled lazily on the clear water. At the same point my attention was drawn below and to the right by the grunt of multiple engines and the squeals of little tyres on shiny floor. Go-karts were racing around inside an industrial unit while a few spectators looked in through the open doorways.

I heard the voices of other runners closing from behind. On the climb up to the final road crossing, David and Mark overtook me for the final time. Such was their closing speed I joked that I thought they were relay runners. I sensed someone else not too far behind so gave it all I had to avoid another lost place, running the final section up through the rough scrub-land and out onto the path back to the college (ahem – now lit by LEDs).

I followed the tape across the grass and hit the downhill ramp with tunnel vision. It was now too late for the finish line photographers. People cheered from the side but I was barely able to muster an acknowledgement. I wasn’t even wasting effort on an unnecessary thought that might deflect me from that single goal of getting to the finish line as quickly as possible. I collapsed to the ground underneath the gazebo to begin immediate recovery while counting my lucky stars that we didn’t have to continue running round to the back of the hall to the finishing desk like in previous years. Mick came steaming in 16 seconds after me. He really was breathing down my neck.


Cat ‘enjoyed’ (she might argue with that word choice) an impressive comeback, finishing only 5 minutes after me. She maintained she would never have done it without the Ibuprofen. I hope your recovery continues, Cat. It won’t be long before you’re hours ahead of me again.


Another beneficiary of the big 'I', Michael had romped home in 9:43:05, having made up over 24 minutes on me after that pat on the back as he passed. The anti-inflammatory properties of even one low-dose Ibuprofen are truly impressive when the reduction in discomfort is so marked. In my experience, complaining muscles and tendons seem to respond well and you don’t (should not) have to pill-pop to get worthwhile relief.

 Michael and his heavy shoes.

My finishing time of 10:07:30 (compared with 9:14:20 in 2010) was all I deserved with the absence of training in the lead-up. Nevertheless it was still a fantastic day. Many thanks once again to the organisers for delighting us with the slick, friendly organisation of this most memorable race. You can rest assured that, as long as I am able I will be back next year for an 8th completion. It will be my first as a V50.

Here are the photos I took.

Well that’s it then, the Runfurther Grand Slam done and dusted, with more events and more parts of the country added to my memory banks thanks to Runfurther. I may not have finished with a final flourish like I did last year but it’s still a Grand Slam. Well done to the other Slammer Mick Plummer. You understand the addiction don’t you, Mick?

RFGS3 glow of success (thanks to Garry Scott for taking the piccie).