Friday 31 December 2010

Goodbye 2010, hello 2011.

Merry Christmas - I hope yours was a good one, and Happy New Year - here's to a good 2011.

2010 has proven that running continues to soar in popularity worldwide, with events getting more entrants, filling quicker and going to lottery.
2010 taught me how drastically the best-made plans can change and to set new targets. It taught me to make the best of whatever situation we find ourselves in and be satisfied with our best efforts, even if the outcome is rubbish compared to what we may have achieved previously. All the rubbish outcomes make the occasional personal triumph so much sweeter (Bullock Smithy). Heck, even someone else's personal triumph can feel like your own sometimes if you get to live it with them (Round Rotherham).
Most of all, 2010 was yet another year for meeting a great bunch of likeminded people. The running community is the same everywhere. The cameraderie cannot be beaten.

Everything changed for me back in February with the fractured metatarsal, quickly followed by a knee that came out on strike in sympathy. A doom-laden prognosis spelled the end of my running 'career', the end of life as I knew it and the most unsavoury self-pity. The foot's long repaired and the knee still niggles, but I now know it's not terminal. The early prognosis of broken-down cartilage improved a few months later to a much less terminal 'joint in fine condition but a spot of tendonitis' after a second knee surgeon and MRI scan. More by luck than judgement, it turned out that I had been doing the right thing by pushing through the pain barrier with my impetuous return to the events after the period of volunteering (which I have to say I really enjoyed). An injured tendon needs continued light loading and gentle exercise to aid the repair process. Being able to sit, cycle and negotiate stairs relatively comfortably these days are all good signs, though one-leg squats shall probably remain a 'party piece' of the past.

The Heart of Scotland 100 in May was my biggest gamble of the year long before I knew what was really wrong with the knee. It was my surprise do-or-die comeback event. The 'surprise' bit was actually finishing it. When the photograph was taken by Steve Clarke, I thought I'd be out for a few hours' Saturday bimble and enjoying the services of the sag waggon before the first nightfall. I was untrained and unfit and had no right to finish. My slow time and crippled state afterwards were testament to that, but the knee seemed to love it because the return train journey was a lot more bearable. I was beginning to see a way back from the wilderness!

A Runfurther Grand Slam attempt may have been derailed before the first event, I may have done fewer miles compared to last year (1,326 vs. 1,797), I may have got fewer PBs (6 vs. 18) and run fewer Ultras (11 vs. 17), but under the circumstances, 2010 turned out pretty well. There are so many positives to look back on.

Now, what for 2011? The Runfurther series plus LDWA fillers in between are a given (Grand Slam anyone?), but I don't know what to do about the UTMB. Failing to get through the 2010 lottery means that I have a 2011 place waiting for me and I only have until 12 Jan to register my interest. Until a week ago I have said that a return to that event is beyond me, but I'm beginning to feel the calling. Shall I succumb? Help me out here, people.

Wednesday 29 December 2010

Whinberry Naze fell race 4mi. / 890'. 26/12/2010.

Well, that's another race squeezed in before 2010 is out. This is the first time I have ever run a race on Boxing Day. I'm glad I did. It was the last chance to enjoy the frozen snowfields, which remained as dry and pristine as the day they were created over a week before.

The Whinberry Naze Dash is a fun 4-miler with stated 750 feet of ascent (I believe Tracklogs, which makes it 890'), organised by Rossendale Harriers at Rawtenstall. I say 'fun' because the emphasis is on fancy dress, having a good laugh befitting the festive period and not taking it too seriously, although the finishing times tend to contradict that last point. My best, well-rested and un-hungover efforts still got me a bottom half finish, same as usual. I should do some training; New Year's resolution for 2011?

I arrived at registration to be greeted by notices stating that full body cover was mandatory. Oh bum. I had no leg covering. I was going to run in shorts, given the dryness and absence of breeze. The sportswear stall that was setting up outside came to the rescue. I bought a pair of longs so I didn't have to drive the hour back home with my tail between my legs, unraced and unfulfilled. I shouldn't have worried so much. After walking to the starting area, not only were plenty of others wearing shorts, a few were naked but for the odd thread here and patch there (all in the name of fancy dress, you'll understand ;-).

Before the start was a fancy dress line-up / talent competition, which raised a good few laughs and complimentary comments at the effort involved (Jesus, Edward Scissorhands, the nuns, the Pope, etc.) and looks of horror/disbelief/admiration at the nakedness of the threadbound brazen hussies. Then we were set off on our way steeply upwards along the snowbound walled track towards Whinberry Naze. I swear one veg was on full view between the naked buttocks of a brazen one ahead, as a couple of female spectators at the stile cooed in admiration and rubbed their sore chins after just retrieving them from the frozen ground.

As we ascended steeply through the snow, it was like trying to do a fell race in sand. Each step had to be taken carefully to avoid too much slippage. At the summit, Father Christmas handed out tubes of Smarties, which guaranteed a noisy descent back down to the finish. We rattled our way along the boundary of the firing range with the crack of the guns to keep us moving, contouring the steep slope through the snow drift that made running impossible, daring to let gravity take us to the brink on the steep descents without losing control completely. I did a 360 degree skid on the sharp right turn just before the ice feature (spring), but I remained upright.

The sharp, steep return down the walled track across the finishing line got me a 37m 58s time, 72nd out of 132. I didn't wear fancy dress, save for a purple rinse curly wig, and that came off for the descent to aid cooling! The winning time of 27m 39s (James Logue, Calder Valley) puts it into perspective. I suspect he probably trains. Did I mention a New Year's resolution?

There were a few photographers out on the course. Check out the following links:
David Brett.
Andrew Firth.

Thursday 23 December 2010

Tour de Helvellyn en Hiver 37mi. 18/12/2010.

Now I know what “en Hiver” means. It means cold, snow, ice, a serious challenge, personal responsibility, survival, new experiences, breathtaking views, slip-sliding descents, abrupt unplanned sit-downs, bruised elbows, running in dim monochromatic mountains by the light of the moon, frozen drink bottles, and enlivenment. THIS IS HARDCORE MOUNTAIN ULTRA-RUNNING.

The Tour de Helvellyn en Hiver (en hiver = in winter: French is all trendy these days in view of the popularity of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, followed by the Ultra Tour of the Lake District) provided a unique opportunity for me to join fellow Ultra junkies onto the Lake District fells on the shortest Saturday of the year. I would never have done it on my own. I have Ben’s thread in the FRA forums to thank for making me aware of it. I jumped at the chance of getting my final end-of-year Ultra fix to ease my guilt over the impending overindulgences of Christmas.

This inaugural running, organised by Joe Faulkner, was to be a low-key affair with minimal support, which I found refreshing. The older I get the more I dislike nanny state, feather-bedding H&S rules and regulations. Personal responsibility should be the name of the game. The strong element of self sufficiency adds to the excitement and sense of adventure. As it turned out, the unexpected early Saturday snowfall meant that the support was even more minimal than expected because vehicular access was not possible over the tops to the furthest manned checkpoint. The cold water station was therefore moved to the top of the lollipop stick, to give two refill points over the 37 miles.

“Lollipop stick?” I hear you ask. The route followed a lollipop shape with an out-and-back between Askham, Howtown/Martindale church, Boredale Hause and Patterdale, and an anticlockwise loop at the end that went around Helvellyn via Glenridding, Sticks Pass, Stanah, Dunmail Raise, Grisedale Tarn and Grisedale. The event followed a ‘time trial’ format, with everyone setting off at a time of their choosing over a 2-hour period, keeping in mind that the first manned checkpoint at 12.5 miles would not open until 10:30. I decided a start somewhere between 07:30 and 08:00 would get me to 12.5 miles by around 10:30. At 07:47 I set off in the pouring snow with Fraser Hirst and Gavin Stewart just as the first signs of daylight were beginning to turn the cloud cover a deep shade of violet. Although the temperature was well below freezing, there was no wind, so we were soon toasty warm as we ran out of the village up Askham Fell.

We just about managed without head torches as we soon left the lights of the village behind and followed compass bearings across the fell, rendered almost featureless by the covering of snow. At first there were two runners in front, whose footprints provided reassurance that they were on the right track (I already knew we were right ;-) Fraser quickly disappeared ahead with an early burst of energy, while yours truly got into ultra-plodding mode from the outset. The ice soon became a problem wherever the path doubled as a drainage channel. The snow covering disguised it well. I soon became adept at reading the warning signs and avoided a fall for many hours, but Gavin was not so lucky. Several falls on the descents were probably instrumental in his retiring at the first manned checkpoint. Bad luck, Gavin. We found ourselves lusting over the Kahtoola Microspikes that Shirley was wearing.

I jogged along carefully, trying to avoid slipping and falling. I found that the faster I went, the hotter I became, which forced me to slow down. However I wasn’t going to remove any layers because, even with the clothes I was wearing, I could feel myself chilling within 5 minutes of stopping at the very occasional checkpoint. Unsurprisingly, with all this clobber including rucksack about my person, running was more laboured than usual and I arrived at the 12.5-mile checkpoint a little after 10:30. Other runners, who had started later, had been overtaking me and would continue to do so throughout the day. Many brief conversations were enjoyed as they slowly passed.

With all this passing, the trail ahead became increasingly well-trodden by footprints in the bone-dry, crystalline snow. This was reassuring. I followed my Tracklogs map printouts to make sure they hadn’t all gone off course. They all seemed to be doing very well ;-)

The snow had stopped but the cloud closed in like a big grey veil on the climb towards the highest point of the route, Sticks Pass, 750 metres. As we approached the gloom, the sun lit up the distant fell behind through a gap in the clouds. At the top the wind was blowing, which had cleared the man-made path on the windward side of the hill. That meant we would have deeper drifts to cushion our steep descent towards Stanah on the leeward, western side.

After the Stanah self-clip came a left turn and an undulating path via the Sportsunday photographers all the way to Dunmail Raise. Memories here came flooding back of Clive King’s Bob Graham Round back in September. Steel Fell looked even more imposing in daylight and covered in snow.

Another left turn at Dunmail Raise took us up the valley between Dollywaggon Pike on our left and Seat Sandal on our right as we climbed the snow-and-ice features towards Grisedale Tarn. The cold breeze was beginning to make itself felt as we levelled out above the tarn. I and another runner suddenly had freezing hands and we had to do something about it, and quick. The gloves that had kept me warm so far were no longer doing the job and I could feel my hands freezing by the second. I just about had enough feeling left to open my rucksack and swap the gloves for a thicker, warmer pair. Getting them onto my numb appendages was a struggle as I rapidly chilled. The other runner made her swap much more quickly and was off out of sight in no time in her quest to generate some heat to warm up again.

I reverted involuntarily to survival mode as I stumbled clumsily along the trod above the tarn, fumbling with my water bottles and map to find a new way of holding them now that the thick gloves had all but banished any dexterity. I passed by a spectacular stalactite-and-stalagmite ice feature to my left, but getting warm again overrode any thoughts of taking pictures now. It was mid afternoon, there wasn’t much more than an hour of daylight left and the temperature had plummeted seriously. There was not a soul in sight. I was alone and in survival mode on a frigid, expansive Lakeland fell as I ran down that trod towards Grisedale. I had my first slips and falls, several times, as I came upon several slabs of frozen drainage water that were camouflaged by the snow. My rucksack provided a smooth landing every time. After a later double fall within two yards of each other, which may have elicited a touch of the “fiddlesticks” (or words to that effect), I noticed my maps were missing and nowhere about. I must have dropped them further back without realising. I walked back up the trail and found them a hundred yards back. If I hadn’t fallen at that point, I would not have realised I’d dropped them. What a blessing in disguise that final fall was!

At the bottom of Grisedale I came upon a mountain biker with camera, who turned out to be one of the event’s photographers. I’d been seeing mountain bike tracks during the day and wondered what mad nutter had made them. Now I knew who they belonged to and realised immediately that he was neither mad nor nutter, since he was ‘one of us’. His bike was very clean, dry and caked in white. He took some excellent pictures.

The almost full moon hung low in a clear, crisp sky as I approached the final manned checkpoint at Patterdale in the advancing dusk. I had been sucking slush and crunching on ice from my drink bottles for a few hours and I was ready for the plastic-flavoured liquid replenishment, which I obtained from the hole that I think had just appeared in the side of the checkpoint’s water container. Was it THAT cold? Hopefully it would last me for the final 10 miles. (I had been enjoying the Coke ‘slush puppy’ in my other bottle, I have to say.)

Within 5 minutes I was getting chilled, so with head torch now on my head and ready for action, I got moving towards the final big climb back up over Boredale Hause. I was soon toasty warm again. As I approached the top in the last remnants of dusk, someone waited for me. It turned out to be Fraser. We were both pleased to have company now that darkness was upon us. We retraced our steps down Boredale towards the first and last self clip at Martindale Church, catching three more runners as we went. We seemed to be going well. My drink bottles had now frozen and I could get no more out of them. The moon was so bright and the ground so reflective, we could see our entire surroundings in glorious, dimly lit monochrome. The surrounding snow-clad mountains stood out clearly in the watery light. I ran without my head torch turned on and could see perfectly clearly where I was treading. What a unique, magical experience.

The final section was just 6 miles and easy, undulating going compared to what we had done. On the wide expanse of Askham Moor we could see a couple of other groups far ahead by the pools of blue-white LED light they cast onto the snow. (I remained anonymous, however, since I was still running by the perfectly adequate moonlight.) The snow creaked loudly with each footstep, sending vibrations up my legs as we made good progress back down to Askham. We arrived back at the Village Hall just before 7pm, to be told that it was minus ten degrees Celsius outside; and there was I, too hot and sweating after the final downhill run to the finish. A first for me was to finish slowest (equal with Fraser) with a time of 11:05. The field must have been dominated by keen, fit, hardcore fell runners. The faster times were quite unbelievable. The winner, Alex Pilkington, finished in 7:23, with Pete Waywell a very close second in 7:27 and Peter Stobbs third in 8:15. How do they do it? Teleportation?

I must thank Joe and his small team of helpers for providing such an awesome opportunity. I’ve been at this ultra lark for 14 years and this was my 126th Ultra, yet this one provided unique, memorable experiences I have never had before. I think the ‘Hiver’ may have helped a bit in that department.

After a good feed and chat in the village hall with the final finishers, I wandered next door to my B & B at the Queen's Head pub for a shower. It was so cold the shower drain pipe froze, causing the water to back up. On Sunday morning I ate my ‘full English’ with frost on the INSIDES of the windows. My Diesel car only just spluttered into life and it took me well over half an hour to chip the ice off and get it defrosted for the drive home. As I left the village, driving very slowly along the snow-covered lane with amazing memories flooding my mind, barely ten yards ahead a deer emerged from the hedge on the left, galloped across the road and melted into the undergrowth on the right. Memories indeed.

I took quite a few pictures this time. It simply had to be done.

Tuesday 14 December 2010

Stockport 10mi. 12/12/2010.

What a difference a week makes. All the snow had melted then the frost had returned to give us a typically cool and sunny Stockport 10 from Woodbank Park. This 10-miler, organised by my running club, is an iconic race with an even more iconic goody bag. The teaser and revealer videos about the contents of said goody bag are very entertaining. The long-sleeved technical top we got is an extremely useful piece of kit. It will come in handy for next weekend's Tour de Helvellyn, when the snows will have returned if the forecast is to be believed. As for the dead meal worms, they went out for the dickybirds. The sachets of ketchup, LoSalt and pepper will get consumed in time. The plastic glove will come in handy for some grouting I need to do. The Penguin biscuit (they are HALF the size they used to be in my childhood) will probably get scoffed next weekend, but not before being thrust painlessly in my eye to demonstrate its minuscule proportions.

I'm not surprised the race sold out once again. It was as friendly and well-supported as ever, with brilliant, encouraging marshals at every turn. The friendliness did not extend to the bloated Chelsea Tractor occupant in the petrol station just before Bong's Road, who blared horn and mouth at being inconvenienced by a few hundred more energetic souls than she who happened to be crossing her path. The policeman put her in her place. You never know, she might have enjoyed the spectacle in the end and been encouraged to have a go herself one day soon. It would certainly improve her profile. I think I just saw a pig fly past.....

The outcome was quite good (at least by my standards). It's a hilly course. My time of 1:17:27 was a PB for the third consecutive year and in five completions since 2004. I finished 277th out of 686 finishers (comfortable top half). Advancing years and niggling injuries do not have to be a barrier to PBs, although the time between them may be longer (only 6 this year compared with 18 last year). The winner, a certain Matthew Clowes from Staffordshire Moorlands AC, blazed round the course in 0:50:34(!)

With acknowledgement to Mark Alwyne, the bottom of Bong's Road (at around 4 miles) provided a cool photographic location.

I just received my race number today, three days after the race. The envelope had not been franked. I was one of several hundred who did not receive their numbers and had to get a replacement on the morning of the race. Something smells fishy.

Sunday 5 December 2010

A bit of a romp in the snow

I was due to do a 10-mile LDWA group walk with friends from the UK and The Netherlands today (Saturday 4th December), but the extreme amount of snow in the Hope Valley meant that it had to be postponed, so we did our own thing instead. We took the train to Buxton and, after a nice meal at The Old Clubhouse, we trudged an out-and-back along the finish of the High Peak 40. I say "trudged" because the snow was deeper than we expected. Here is what the final viaduct looks like in September when it's warm and dry:

Here is what it looked like today:

A pooch from the local farm tagged along for a run: