Monday 19 December 2011

Puma Stockport 10. 11/12/2011.

This is a favourite 10-mile road race for many that usually enjoys crisp, sunny weather, but not this year. The wet theme was recommencing once again as we gathered on the Stockport Harriers athletics track and watched the starting arch inflate, then deflate. I wandered across to stick my oar finger in to see if I could help. Reset buttons were pressed, plugs, generator and fan were inspected, but nothing we did could make the generator deliver electrical power to the fan. With the start time fast approaching, the decision had to be made to drag the flaccid dirigible onto the infield and make do with a length of knotted red and white tape instead to mark the start line. News then came in that local scum-bags had stolen the drinks station that had been set up that morning, tables and all. Could it get any worse? No way! The rain, the premature deflation and the theft could not destroy the life and spirit of the Stockport 10 with its friendly and supportive marshals and its legendary goody bag.

Just before it went down.

It was nearly 10am and a capacity field was called to the start line. I stepped across onto the track and found myself at the front. Oops, how did that happen? Imposter alert! Tony Audenshaw (fellow Stockport Harrier and Emmerdale actor)’s animated commentary over the PA gave way to a countdown and hooter blast to send a capacity crowd of nearly 1000 runners on two laps of the track to spread the field before we exited into Woodbank Park. Bashir Hussain had taken over the commentary and remarked: “What an amazing sight”. I looked across to the other side of the field. He was right. A mass of colour was swarming around the track. We would lap the back-markers before exiting into the park, so marshals on the track and instructions over the PA system ensured that there were no crashes and everything went like clockwork.

Now into the park we could ‘get into the zone’ and ‘do our own thing’ to get ourselves back to the finish. At least we didn’t have to worry about the cold rain now that we were generating our own warmth. Our route zigzagged through back roads with spectators watching from their front rooms before bringing us out onto the Marple Road. A short coned-off stretch without pavement took us to the bottom and up the other side past Offerton Sand and Gravel and the petrol station. Then came the left turn and first proper downhill blast down Bong’s Road to the valley bottom, followed by a flat jog to the drinks station just before halfway. Amazingly, the marshals had managed to rustle up some more cups from somewhere, while the local cattery allowed the use of their tap water. A stone wall served as the table.

The halfway mark was passed as we began our first climb up the other side of the valley beside the road (again no pavement and the car drivers were inconvenienced; I heard one clash of door mirrors). Before the top our route mercifully turns left onto minor roads, but it still climbs. Then we enjoy another zigzagging but more undulating route along side roads on the other side of the valley, with marshals at every street corner to guide and encourage us along.

We begin our second descent and the characteristic pear-shaped dome of Pear Mill comes into view in the valley below, but we still have a way to go yet before we pass it and begin our second climb of the day, up New Zealand Road. It’s not that it’s steep but it does go on a bit, and it continues after the left turn onto Turncroft Lane. More ascending finally brings us to the entrance to Woodbank Park where we return via our outward route to the athletics field. Now, allow me if you will to indulge myself with a little personal perspective.

Two consecutive PBs on the Woodbank Parkrun in the preceding two weeks (giving me my first sub-23 on that course) made me sense that a PB was on the cards. Not only that, I’d eaten and slept well in the lead-up and I’d eased off the ‘sauce’ in a serious way (including no bottle of wine the night before like in most previous years). That sealed it. A 'PB' had to be certainty.

I set off at what felt like a comfortable pace around the track and into the park, just like I always do. I wasn’t getting overtaken by herds of runners, meaning I’d set off too fast (like I always do). By the time I’d exited the park and turned left onto Turncroft Lane, I was burning up. I’d overdressed (you guessed it, like I always do). Why do I never learn?

I adjusted my clothing and continued at a pace that felt at the limit of just sustainable for 10 miles. A steady stream of runners was overtaking me. It was all so familiar but I knew that as long as I continued to put in this effort, the PB would come. Running down Bong’s Road the fell-running legs kicked in and I passed other runners as if they were standing still. The descent was too short. Once onto the flat valley bottom, they trickled past me again as I jogged along at my limit.

At the halfway point I was taken aback by a time split of 0:37:49. Last year’s PB was 1:17:27. I didn’t think this would leave enough cushion for the inevitably slower second half, which contained both of the major climbs. I would not let up for one second, though. It's not over until it's over. I did not even allow myself the wasted effort of wiping the rain drops off my watch face to read the time until I’d ascended New Zealand road and turned left onto Turncroft Lane and was halfway up the hill to the park. “1:12:??.” My heart skipped a beat. That was better than I could have hoped for. “It's in the bag. Bring on the PB!”

I pushed even harder to make sure I didn’t let it slip through my fingers. The gradient levelled out as I entered the park. I began to overtake one or two who had overtaken me on the final climb. I glanced at my watch. “1:14:??.” Other runners jogged in the opposite direction clutching their goody bags (show-offs). I began to hear Tony’s excitable commentary drifting across the park. The stadium still seemed a long way away and time was ticking. I turned the corner and wiped the rain off my watch face one final time. “1:16:??.” That’s too close but I should just make it with seconds to spare. I beasted myself on the final push along the straight into the stadium and my heart sank. I’d forgotten that we had to turn right and do a half lap of the track to finish. Tony shouted out over the PA: “And here comes Nick Ham, ultra runner extraordinaire …..”. I missed the remainder of what he said because I was barely surviving the unplanned-for half lap of flat plod. I think he went on to pass a joke about the skeleton cycling top I was wearing. A male runner sprinted past as if he were starting a 5k. “If you can do that now you've not been trying hard enough for the past 9.9 miles”, I thought to myself with my last vestige of lucid thought. The female runner who had overtaken me on the final climb and who I'd re-overtaken in the park, overtook me for the final time just before the line. I just about held off another runner who was rapidly closing on me to cross the line and stop my stopwatch.

As I recovered in the finishing funnel queue I checked the time – 1:18:16. Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather. 50 seconds outside last year's PB. So much for abstinence and healthy living, eh? What's it to be next year, a bottle of white or red? One of each? I might just complete the set with a rosĂ© as well and win the race.

We were presented with a medal in the form of a soap on a rope called STOCKPORT STENCH REMOVER. The always original and very quirky goody bag contained a variety of bits and pieces including lollies and 'tattoos' for the kids. Useful items included pens, a paper pad and, most importantly, a long-sleeved technical shirt in fluorescent yellow-green and black – ideal for glowing and standing out on those runs into the cool evening as daylight fades to black.

Once again the Stockport 10 did us proud. I shall be back next year for a 7th go. After a little recovery I was back on the bike to cycle home into the teeth of the cold wind and rain.

I only took a few pictures before the race this time.

Sunday 4 December 2011

Gravy Pud fell race 5+mi. 04/12/2011.

As I drove towards Tintwistle with my headlight beams cutting through the dim light and pouring rain (it was mid morning, incidentally) and the hills disappearing into cloud, an inner voice said: "What on earth are you doing? Turn around and go back home, you fool." Before I'd had a chance to act on this 'advice', another 'voice of reason' replied: "Don't be nesh, suck it up and just get on with it. You can't back out now you've blabbed on your blog." I continued to Tintwistle as planned. By the time I arrived, the rain was now only 'spitting'.

I had nearly an hour to register, chat and keep warm in the Bull's Head pub. It was good to meet Ian Winterburn and Will Meredith once again. By the time we ventured outside for the 11am start, it actually wasn't raining! I was chatting with Percy, who had only found out about this race yesterday. This was his first race. I was impressed by his keenness for turning out on such a day. I couldn't give him any advice because I was also new to this race.

The turn-out of 168 was particularly impressive, given the weather conditions. It had rained all night (for most of the weekend in fact) and the forecast for today was bad. It was turning to sleet, hail and snow as the weekend progressed. People who had travelled over the Woodhead Pass had to negotiate wet snow on the road.

The 5 mile (approx) route was well marked and marshalled and ideal for first-timers. As most of it was on tracks and paths (most of them swilling with liquid mud today) with only a short off-path section for the hands-and-feet climb to the top of Lees Hill, it was more runnable than usual. The addition of the obligatory ups and downs made it a right lung buster (but aren't they all?).

I never cease to be impressed by the speed and fitness of the faster runners in these fell races. The leaders sprinted off up the track from the start, while I settled into my usual survival jog with a steady stream of other runners gradually overtaking. I was breathing hard and could not have gone any faster. It wasn't long before Percy caught up with me on an early climb and pulled ahead a little, but as soon as the gradient eased downwards again, I let gravity do its thing while my legs maximised the effect by braking a little here and pushing a lot there. I made up some places.

On the climb of Lees Hill I was detecting a rapid reduction in light levels. At the highest point of the course, the hail started to fall. This didn't bother me because hail bounces off without wetting you. It soon turned to rain though, and continued in that vein until the finish.

The second half of the route is not all downhill by any means. There are plenty of ups as well as sharp turns, always with a marshal to point the way. It was alright for us because we were running to keep warm. They were standing to get cold. Thank you marshals for your sacrifice on our behalf.

I was mostly holding my own in the second half, with one or two catching me and me re-overtaking or catching one or two others. Percy was still somewhere behind but I had no idea whereabouts. I could only hear anonymous pursuers near and not so near by their heavy footsteps splattering in the muddy puddles or their laboured breathing hissing through their teeth.

By the final run back down Arnfield Lane to the finish I was giving it all I had but I seemed to be moving so slowly considering the runnable downhill cobbles that were now passing beneath my feet. I'd given my all out on the course and now I had little left to give on what should have been an easy downhill sprint to the line. It felt like those dreams I used to have where I am trying to run but making no progress, as if running through treacle. The effort had left my legs feeling weak and clumsy. I felt as though I was bumbling haphazardly to the finish barely in control. For some time I had been hearing footsteps and heavy breathing from several pursuers. Now they were getting closer. I pushed a bit harder to hold them off and hoped it would be enough. I just about made it to the line before turning around and seeing Percy right there behind me. Give it 10 more yards and he would have had me. Well run Percy. You'll surely beat me next time.

The Bull's Head was crammed and buzzing afterwards as tea and cake or beer and chips were consumed. This is the small room:

There was a bring-a-cake competition for post-race sustenance. I gawped in wonderment at the creations by runners and their other halfs. Mmmmm, cake:

During the prize presentation the pub dog raced backwards and forwards barking loudly every time a round of applause went up. Many thanks to nblg for putting on such a well organised run and getting the results out so quickly. What a slick operation you run.

I was happy to finish more comfortably inside the top half than ever before in a short sharp fell race.

Saturday 3 December 2011

PBs are like buses....

.....none for ages then two come along at once.

Last weekend I ran my local Woodbank Parkrun and surprised myself with my third (only my third) PB of the year. 23:04 was 11 seconds faster than my previous fastest for that course, which I did in June 2010. My older brother joined me for his first running of this Parkrun with its two big hills, and beat me by 1 minute and 8 seconds. I knew he would probably be faster than I but the fact that the difference was so big came as a bit of a shock. It just proves the benefit of daily shorter runs - which my brother is far more committed to keep doing - over my usual one long run (sometimes very long run) per week for producing speed. Well done Julian!

Wind forward to today and I found myself running Woodbank again, having been telling myself all week that last weekend's result wasn't a fluke just because I saw my brother slowly disappearing into the distance, causing me to push that little bit harder. No, I always push hard, brother or no brother.

I know myself well because I was right. I got my 4th PB of 2011 with a 22:49 finish - 15 seconds faster this time. This increase in speed is becoming meteoric. Where could it take me, to hell and back or over the moon? I think the latter.

Tomorrow will be another short blast, this time on the Gravy Pud fell race. Although I don't sound like one, I am a northern boy and I do love gravy. I shall be partaking in the Bull's Head afterwards, probably in the form of a lake contained within a giant Yorkshire pudding.

Roll on to next weekend and it's the Stockport 10 on Sunday. I'll be helping out on Saturday with packing the famous goody bags. I shall get a sneak preview but my lips will remain sealed.

Moving forward to the following weekend brings the Tour de Helvellyn - a 38-mile serious undertaking in the Lake District - to begin the end-of-year wind-down with just the odd fell race over the holidays to keep me on my toes. Here's what I wrote about last year's inaugural TdH in exceptional conditions.

Watch this space.

Thursday 24 November 2011

Wensleydale Wedge 23mi. 20/11/2011.

People were saying that 2011 provided the best weather in the history of this event, which I can quite believe. Every time I’ve run it there has been one constant – cold that gnaws into you. Add to that any number of variables – frost, snow, sleet, rain, swilling mud and wind. This year it was calm, warm and sunny with cloudless blue sky. The only cloud was at ground level in the form of fog, which clung to the valleys and sometimes wafted over the ridges. The day was pure magic and Nidderdale LDWA did us proud once again with their friendly organisation and support. It was a sell-out with no entries on the day – a good accolade for an event based in Askrigg, which could be regarded as being a bit out of the way. For most it takes considerable effort to get there, do the event and get back home in one day.

Although we ran through some wet and muddy patches it was nowhere near as liquid as in previous years. The low river levels in the valleys and the dried-up stream bed reminded me once again of the lack of substantial rain this year. We don’t often get to see such low river levels in summer, let alone in late November.

Martin Dietrich arrives at checkpoint 3.

People who have done this event in recent years will have noticed the evolution of the rocky ATV track on the descent into Thoralby, which merges and unmerges with ‘our’ footpath. It finally led me astray this year. I had just been caught up by another runner at CP4. Shortly afterwards, the grassy bridleway forked left on a gentle ascent across the moor. We didn’t recognise this so we backtracked to the rocky track to continue our descent down that. He soon disappeared into the fog as we descended and I found myself alone, running down a track I did not recognise. I passed a couple of horses, one doing the usual Jake the Peg impersonation, like they do.

I came to a fork and took the left across the stream. I felt unsure so I dithered and backtracked. I finally got my map out but I could not make my plotted route fit what I was seeing. I checked my compass and confirmed that I was descending in the correct direction (NE), so I carried on. No-one had caught me up like should have happened with all my dithering, which added to my concern. The track became a tarmac lane, whereas the track I should have been on turns sharp right and left with steep rocky descent to the tarmac, where I would turn left.

I jogged on, hoping that all would become clear. Two workmen on my right were smiling as I passed. The smiles might have been leers and a sarcastic comment might have been on the tips of their tongues. I offered a friendly “Hello” to test them and got the same in return, from both of them! The warm November sun must be doing some good, I thought. I passed some discarded fluorescent fittings on my left (4' singles, tubes included, since you ask). They looked perfectly serviceable and I thought they might come in handy one day, but I was already carrying two drink bottles and might have struggled to carry them. I passed them by with a heavy heart. ;-)

Shortly I saw some other runners ahead descending from the left to the lane I was on. I realised what had happened. I had somehow found myself on the alternative right-hand parallel descent down Side Road, which I had always been aware of on the map but never taken. Now I’d taken it by accident. It was good to try out the alternative for the first time, even though it was inadvertent. I might just take it every time from now on as there is little to choose between it and the intended Haw Lane descent, and there is no proscribed route description to oblige us to take a particular route.

I arrived at CP5 in Thoralby Village Hall, a fraction under halfway, in 2:05 or so, having wasted what must have been 10 minutes with my navigational dithering. Since I always slow down as events progress, I knew already that my PB of 4:04 was way outside my grasp. Still, so what? The day was beautiful and I would get to spend longer out in it, innit?

As I crossed the main road at Aysgarth to the church drive, the bells began to peel to call everyone to the Sunday service. I have not heard this for a good few years. I must have been late enough this year to hear them once again. The lopped trees that lined the drive still had plenty of green leaves, which contrasted well with the golden colours of autumn on others – not bad for late November. The absence of frost so far has delayed the fall.

The church near Aysgarth.

There was no point in pushing for a time since it had already slipped through my fingers, so instead of turning right up the road to take the most direct line to CP7 like I and most others do, I decided to carry straight on and check out the footpath up through the woods towards the canal, to descend back down to the checkpoint from the other side. Someone in the car park at the top said: “Oh, you’re doing that Wensleydale Wedge, aren’t you? How’s it going?” “It’s a lovely day for a bimble”, or words to that effect, came my reply. I took Adrian Dixon by surprise as I sneaked up on his checkpoint from behind, having gone the long way ‘round.

As I emerged from our latest fog blanket, Bolton Castle, the position of the next manned checkpoint, glowed on the other side of the valley as it basked in permanent sunshine. My legs were leaden as usual and I walked at 3.5mph or shuffled at 4.5mph for as long as I could switch my mind off the discomfort. I was enjoying taking photographs to provide some sort of excuse for my turn of slowness. I glanced at my watch and suspected that even a sub 4:30 finish was out of the question. Other runners had been overtaking me since the start but I had been alone for a while now. I walked up past the castle to CP9 at Castle Bolton, getting caught and catching up at the same time. I had company once again.

Bolton Castle basks in the late November sunshine.

Checkpoint 9 at Castle Bolton.

I wasted little time in setting off on the final 7 miles westwards to the finish in zero wind and warm sunshine. The fog bank was never far away across the valley to our left, but the escarpment to our right glowed brightly in the low winter sunshine. A group of four runners (two men and two women) overtook and slowly pulled away as I shuffled pathetically on heavy legs along the long, undulating green path. A rocky stream bed that descended from the escarpment on the right was dry. The old lead mine workings were the driest I’ve ever seen them.

Ivy Scar and disused lead mine workings.

Shortly before the final checkpoint, CP10 at Heugh, Ken and Jenny caught up with me. Jenny asked how I was doing and I had a bit of a whinge to vent my frustration about legs that had refused to cooperate for most of the day (sorry Jenny). I used Ken and Jenny as incentive to pull me into the checkpoint, pausing only long enough to get my tally clipped and take a couple of pictures. I glanced at my watch and realised that sub 4:30 might be on the cards after all, but I’d have to push hard and would not know for certain until I’d hit the road and crested the final rise before the village hall.

Leaving checkpoint 10; 1.2 miles to the finish.

I set off on the final 1.2 miles of (mostly) downhill to the finish. At last, some lovely grassy downhills and technical path through the woods to let gravity take me. I suddenly found myself bounding past the others who had overtaken me on the slog from Castle Bolton. For the first time the running was flowing relatively freely as we ran across the fields and squeezed through the wall stiles, holding the hand gates open for each other. As I worked my way through the other runners and built up a bit of a lead, holding hand gates open was no longer necessary and I could really let myself fly. It was just past midday, the sun was at full strength (such as it can be in winter) and there was no breeze. It felt like a warm spring or autumn day. The effort was making me overheat. My Buff, which had been around my head as a bandanna initially to soak up the water droplets from the fog, now had to come off to aid head cooling.

I hit the road and ran downhill to the final little rise, which slowed me down alarmingly, before descending to the final left turn. Then I did something I wouldn’t normally do. I overtook another runner just 10 yards from the village hall. I couldn’t help it. I was on a roll and wasn’t going to slow down now in the interests of good manners and gentlemanly behaviour. “You first.” “No, please, after you.” I hoped he wouldn’t mind. I checked in and turned around to shake his hand and offer my congratulations as he arrived. He was cool. :-)

My time was 4:27, which was better than I had feared. However, the conditions were the best ever, yet I have run it faster on 4 occasions and slower on only 2 occasions. It’s a case of ‘must do better’. Am I finally over the hill? Judging by this year’s virtual absence of PBs, I have to assume so.

After refuelling and chatting for an hour or two, I set off on the long walk back to the car parking area in the factory yard. On the way I passed a view that I have always admired in Askrigg but have never before seen in such a good light. I got my camera out for the final time to photograph the ancient stone-flagged footpath that winds its way up the fields towards the church with the escarpment providing the backdrop.

Askrigg in November.

Here is the crop of the pictures.

Friday 18 November 2011

Roaches Fell Race 15mi. + Runfurther prizegiving. 13/11/2011.

The back-to-back event weekend had to be done since the Runfurther prizegiving had reverted to its roots by following 'Roaches'. I enjoyed the opportunity to run it again, which I have done every other year since 2007.

The route is an out-and back from Meerbrook Village Hall across some private farmland to access the Roaches ridge along to the end before descending through the woods towards Gradbach. We ford the river (nice and low this year) to access more private farmland that takes us onto footpaths to Wilboarclough at the foot of Shutlingsloe. We then enjoy the climb all the way to the top, around the trig point and back the way we came. Although there is plenty of up and down along the way, it averages uphill out and downhill back, which usually results in negative splits even after tiring.

Return river crossing.

Although the weekend was mild and dry, the wind had risen and the hilltops were enshrouded in cloud. The Roaches and Shutlingsloe were not nice places to be hanging around, but the marshals had to do just that. Hats off to them. Despite the low river levels, the surface mud and some bogs were lively. Some runners went in deep, as evidenced by one who was sporting completely plastered legs at the finish. The farm close to the start and finish with its slurry tracks and hoof-hole mud-pit fields was as breathtaking as ever. Since it occurs after the second river crossing, we finish well and truly soiled. We make do with the streamlet close to the village hall for communal bathing facilities.

Post-race wash.

The out-and-back format allows me to see the real runners on their return leg. Winner Kim Collison hove into view first as I was crossing the fields just before Wildboarclough.

Kim Collison.

After the previous day's efforts my legs were feeling heavy, so I was surprised to get to the halfway point at the trig point in 1:39. It was the same as in 2009 when I hadn't run Six Dales Circuit the day before. This pleasant surprise was tempered by the fact that I did not recall my legs feeling this heavy in 2009. I tried my hardest on the return leg but I was not able even to maintain a run at all times when I should have done. Half a litre of Coke and a Nutrigrain bar limited the damage to a 1:40 return leg (my first ever slower second half). I may have finished in the bottom 22% but it wasn't all bad. I was still 2 minutes faster than in 2007 when I last ran it the day after Six Dales Circuit. We must be thankful for small mercies.

I hung around, chatted and drank tea afterwards to wait for the Runfurther presentation and cake scoffing. Karen McDonald and team have done another great job this year and the Runfurther sponsors have done us proud. There were some impressive athletic achievements from the biggest ever field of runners. Although several winners were present, it's a shame that more of them could not be there to receive their prizes.

I always know I can never win any running prizes with my lack of speed, which is why I felt especially lucky and privileged to have remained fit and healthy to complete the Grand Slam without any issues. This year went a lot more smoothly than my first grand slam in 2009, when the wheels were falling off at Pumlumon and they lost some spokes as well at the High Peak 40. It so nearly didn't happen then. Now I have two under my belt. Woo-hoo!

Comparing 2009 and 2011 I'd have to say that this Grand Slam has been the more challenging of the two, with tougher events and more of them falling on consecutive weekends. The first challenge, which I have to say daunted me, was in April to June, with Highland Fling 53 on 30/04, Marlborough Downs Challenge 33 on 14/05, Brecon 40 on 21/05, Housman 100 (my choice) on 28/05 and Northants Ultra 35 on 05/06. I find it difficult to believe now but I sailed through them unscathed, getting stronger as I progressed. Then I went away on international business travel and did nothing for a month. Come Osmotherley Phoenix, my fitness had escaped me and I bagged myself a PW.

[Incidentally, my PB for this event occurred after running Western States 100 on the previous weekend, and I PB'd on that too! There's no substitute for keeping it up (missus).]

The next challenge was running Long Tour of Bradwell 33 on the weekend after Lakeland 100. There were no issues there either. As far as my body is concerned the events are just my weekend job. It's all part of the routine that I've grown accustomed to. If I don't do them my ability to do them soon reduces within a week or two. The more I do the more I can do.

For my 2011 full set of Runfurther 'weekends at the office' I got a box of Clif Bars (always appreciated for ultra-running fuel), padded Injinji toe socks (always appreciated for comfy tootsies) and a personalised print listing this year's 12 races completed. The piece de resistance will earn me some respec wiv da yoof in the town centre and draw the attention of the CCTV cameras. The personalised Runfurther hoodie has all the races listed on the back. It will also keep me nice and warm after the winter events. It will surely come in
useful after Wensleydale Wedge this Sunday. Thank you Runfurther!

Here are the pictures.

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Six Dales Circuit 25mi. 12/11/2011.

Approaching the High Peak Trail.

This is one event I have never plotted on Tracklogs so I don’t know the true distance. However, upon finishing, the universal consensus among those with their newfangled Star Trek satellite communicators was that it was 26 miles, give or take a few steps. Not being one to exaggerate (much), I make that a marathon distance technical trail & cross-country run through six of Derbyshire’s beautiful dales. It’s fast yet testing. I keep coming back for the challenge. This was my 10th completion since 1999. It was marvellous once again to return to friends of old for a low-key LDWA walk (or run).

I had just parked in the farmer’s field ‘car park’ when Dawn ‘adventure girl’ Westrum pulled up alongside. What a pleasant surprise. We were both beginning a weekend double whammy; she would be doing a long mountain bike ride on Sunday and I would be forcing my tired legs around the Roaches Fell Race. As we left the parking field the walkers had just been sent on their way, chased along the lane by a bus. Some were normally runners but were taking it slow and easy as they nursed themselves back from injury.

Biggin Village Hall was nice and warm as we registered and waited for our send-off at 9am, by which time the fog-cum-low cloud had lifted a little. The informal “Go” was uttered and we jogged our way up the lane. I felt most disconcerted because I found myself in the lead, and no-one was overtaking. This abnormal state of affairs continued into the first dale (Biggin Dale) until one, perhaps two, trotted past on that first technical descent to put this pretender back in his rightful place. I enjoyed hopping over the slimy wet limestone at a pace that was slow and controlled enough to allow me to place each foot safely without slipping. By the right turn and easy run up through Wolfscote Dale, I was already feeling the exertion. I had to ease back a touch, at which point Geoff ‘speed goat’ Holburt sprinted past, never to be seen again until the finish.

The sun was warming and the air was calm. I couldn’t believe how warm it was for mid November. Scott Sadler had tagged along with me for route-finding and conversation as we turned right into the third dale (Beresford Dale). Roger Taylor did the same on and off, between stopping back for chats before catching us up again. We would get to finish the event as a threesome. I appreciated the rare opportunity to run a whole event with someone. Don’t get me wrong though. I hadn’t miraculously speeded up to their level. They had slowed down to mine. They were having a relaxed, non-competitive ‘recovery jog’ day with no race pressure. I on the other hand …. well, I’m sure you can guess.

I have “P” permanently etched on my left eyeball and “B” etched on the right. PBs have suddenly become like hen’s teeth this year. From 18 in 2009 and 6 in 2010 (my first ‘proper’ injury year), I only have 2 of the blighters so far this year, and one of those was for a cycle ride, which hardly counts since it involved sitting down. ;-) It has been a barren year like no other on the PB front. For the first time I have more PWs than PBs. More than ever before this had to be the usual eyeballs-out race, but only with myself. To race with anyone else would be quite futile and would only end in tears of disappointment, unbridled gene envy and spitting of dummy out of pram (would I ever!). [Dawn, just in case you were wondering, for “dummy” read “pacifier”, and “pram” is an abbreviation of “perambulator”. It is an altogether more substantial affair than your typical pushchair, sorry, ‘stroller’. ;-)]

CP1 at Hartington.

The scissor-wielding marshal was waiting for us at Checkpoint 1, Hartington, to clip our tallies. Since I was well supplied with my own food and drink I made an immediate getaway to get a few seconds’ head start on Scott and Roger. A minor hiccup in Hartington village (my brain was dulled from the extreme physical effort) soon had us climbing the lane towards the stile on the left that would launch us across more fields. We climbed to the wall corner before descending fell-run style to the valley bottom and right turn to Parsley Hay. Through the farm with ever-present barking dog and up onto the High Peak Trail we did climb. A left turn delivered us onto the barely perceptible downhill ‘easy’ run, during which I caught up with Vaughan and Anne. They would normally be running but Vaughan was recovering from injury and highly frustrated to be seeing us run past. You'll be back before you know it, Vaughan. The disused railway bed eventually brought us to the right turn and the relief of the next climb up more fields to the Bull I’ Th’ Thorn Hotel on the main road. Scott was hoping to meet his parents here but we were too early for them. Had I been too fast? Probably, because my legs were getting heavy already. As I shuffled on down the track opposite, Scott texted his parents. He soon caught me up again. By the time we arrived at Checkpoint 2, Monyash Village Hall, they were there to cheer him on. Excellent.

Once again no food or drink for me. My own supplies were doing me just fine. I set off down the road on the long stage to checkpoint 3 to let Scott catch up again, turning right down dale number 4, Lathkill Dale, which eventually brought us into No. 5 Bradford Dale (that almost flat running is so draining). Although the ground had been wet and muddy from recent rains, the rivers in the dales were either low or hidden in the limestone below ground, in stark contrast to last year when they were flooded. However I was amazed to see that the stream in Bradford Dale had also dried up. I have never seen this before, even in the height of summer in July when I do the White Peak Walk.

Dried up Bradford Dale in November!

As in most previous years I was forced to ‘regroup’ on the gentle ascent of Bradford Dale. By “regroup” I mean it was the first time when I was forced to a walk when I should have been running. I forced yet more fuel down my gullet in the regular weekend quest to coax some life back into the legs. The track curved right and climbed steeply towards Middleton. Marvellous – a real excuse this time to walk and recover. It’s what I crave and need on the events and it’s why I find flat ones so tough. A change is as good as a rest. You need hilly runs to get rests. At this point, Roger caught up again after his longest gassing absence so far. We took some catching that time, he said. Now if I hadn’t slowed down, how long would it have taken him then?

Some speedier runners were descending from Middleton as we climbed the out-and-back to Checkpoint 3 in the village hall. My only checkpoint food was taken here in the form of a handful of Satsuma segments. The climb had rejuvenated me a little and I was ready for the run back down the hill and right turn to continue our journey to the finish. According to Scott’s and Roger’s GPS, we had done 20 miles, so we had just 5 left and a little under an hour in which to do them to equal my PB of 4:23. The race was on as we three powered our way up and down the fields and lanes via dale number 6, Long Dale. “Powered” might not be entirely accurate. OK, it’s a lie. The reality is this: I struggled and failed to make two dead, heavy, leaden stumps do a half decent impersonation of a pair of runner’s legs, while Roger and Scott dutifully slowed and waited every so often for me to catch up. The time marched on ominously and I began to realise that, even at my pace, the distance must be more than 5 miles. PB time came and went as we were passing the Friden works. From then on it became a case of damage limitation to avoid being slower than in too many other years. Though Scott and Roger may find it difficult to believe, I never stopped pushing right to the end.

The final section was more like 6 miles and total GPS distance was 26 miles. Our time was 4:40. I have run four faster years – in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007 (PB year). Never mind. A PB is merely the cherry on the icing on the cake. I never much liked glacĂ© cherries anyway. Most important are the personal challenge, camaraderie (thank you Scott and Roger for your company) and the wonderful countryside at our disposal in which to run. For legal access and scenery, there is nothing to compare in any other country. I’ve said it before and I shall say it again – we are truly blessed in this beautiful country.

Across the Tissington Trail to the finish.

Geoff romped home second in 4:03 or thereabouts (I think). The winning time was 4 hours (not that there is a winner in these events).

The post-event meal had three courses – soup and bread (best if you were salt deficient; even the butter seemed laden with the stuff), stew and veggies, and cold rice pudding and a selection of tinned fruit for dessert. Lashings of tea aided the rehydration. Staffordshire LDWA always does us proud, all for £7.

Roger, Dawn, Helen Skelton and I found ourselves sharing a table for post-event laughs, jokes and refuelling. Helen is this year’s female winner of the Runfurther series. She was another runner who had walked as she recovered from injury. As we dined, Helen brought up the subject of what speed would be deemed acceptable to fire off a snot rocket. Racing cyclists and runners do it with nary an eyelid batted. Being dressed for speed helps with the acceptance. Even shufflers and plodders may get away with it if they 'look the part' (take it from me). However, on this day, Helen was a walker. I never did gather whether she actually caused shocked revulsion or nearly did, but my guffaws must have caused a disturbance in that village hall. In the words of Dick Emery, “You are awful, but I like you”. :-)

The pictures I took are here.

Tuesday 1 November 2011

Snowdonia Marathon. 29/10/2011.

Once again I'd long planned to make a weekend of it in Llanberis, with a bit of a run in the middle of the proceedings to justify the gut-bashing and vocal exercise. I checked in to the Padarn Lake Hotel on Friday afternoon and immediately saw notice of our post-race entertainment. (By “our” I mean the Runner's World forumites from the 'SNOD' thread.) Stuart had joined me for the obligatory meal in Pete's Eats with any other runners we might have happened upon, after which we went to the sports centre to get registered.

I had arrived in mild, calm, sunny conditions with clear views of the summits (very rare at this time of year, in my experience). By nightfall the wind was rising and the cloud was rolling in. By Saturday morning, true to Snowdonia Marathon tradition the gale was blowing and the drizzle had long since been launched upon it. Forget the summits, even the foothills were obscured.

After pre-race photographs I walked with Blofeld (not the baddy off James Bond with fluffy white cat whose heavy-handed stroking amounts to a mauling, but Stuart) uphill to the start area. I had adopted my normal brisk walk to keep warm and was overtaking everyone else (shame I can't run faster than everyone else as well). I heard a restrained yet emphatic “Nick” from behind. Jez! The Braggster was sauntering in chilled fashion to the starting area, wrapped up against the elements with hooded waterproof and gloves. This will be the ONLY time I get to overtake Jez. We exchanged a hand-to-glove greeting and chatted for a few minutes to fill each other in on progress after our UTMB DNFs, during which Ian 'Dark Peak' Winterburn caught up and extended his greetings. He was on the look-out for Iain Ridgeway to say ‘ow do. All these people are way outside my league. As we walked and chatted I found myself in a place I had no right to be: five yards from the start line. “Oh well, what the heck”, I thought. “They’ll never know.”

Chatting with Stuart we came to the conclusion that it was too warm for wind-proof jackets because we were already comfortable while standing still. With less than two minutes to go I took mine off and stuffed it into my bum-bag. It proved to be the right decision because my long-sleeved technical top with club vest over the top, shorts, white Inov-8 cap to keep the worst of the rain off my glasses and Buff around my neck to keep wind chill at bay would serve me well and keep me comfortable throughout the race. (No, I wasn’t the barefoot runner. I did have shoes and socks on as well.)

While I enjoyed my minutes of fantasy ‘at the sharp end’ we waited for the announcements and the S4/C television crew to allow our send-off. Unlike in recent years, the air horn was sounded almost early. I started running at a pace that felt comfortable to me and found myself keeping pace with Stuart for a minute or two. I knew it could not possibly last. They always start this way. I had to ignore those around me and get on with my own race. And so began a steady overtaking for the next 22 miles.

Our route ahead up the first pass disappeared into a black pall of windblown cloud and rain. As I ran upwards I was feeling confident of a good performance and likely PB. I had got a virtual PB on the Round Rotherham and had 2 weeks to recover, with daily running to work to maintain the edge. My heart rate was at its optimum of 165bpm for maintaining decent pace and it proved that I wasn’t overdoing my early pace. I would just keep up this effort and the PB would come automatically (wouldn’t it?).

My starting so near to the front turned out to be a good move. All those I know, most of whom are faster than I am, were able to exchange a few words as they glided past me during the course of the race. Never before have I experienced such a friendly and familiar SNOD. It was brill. I even exchanged a few words with Karl Hinett when he overtook me on the first climb (see my Dovedale Dipper report). (He finished in 3:52 and would be running the Dublin Marathon on Monday 31st to keep his year's worth of weekly marathons on the go.)

I took the first descent carefully, not wanting to push the pace too much and trash myself. As in previous years a stitch started on my right hand side, but it only slowed me slightly for a minute or two before it was gone. The sharp right turn brought us into a strong head wind, which only lasted for a few yards. The off-road section that followed was welcome. I was in my element as I picked my way down the rough, technical track, letting gravity take me. Other runners were suddenly blocking my progress as it became my turn to glide past. Near to the bottom, the track became a narrow lane before climbing steeply back up to the road, after which point normality resumed and I began to get overtaken again.

The undulating road through Bryn Gwynant to Beddgelert saw me slowing a little but still making decent progress, or so I thought. I passed the halfway point in around 1:55. I was shocked that it had taken me so long after seemingly running well in the first half. I knew immediately that a sub 4 was probably out of the question because the second half of this race is slower for most, certainly for me. My legs had begun to feel heavy and stiff from the hips, just as in previous years. Although I was fit as far as heart rate went, the legs must still have had a bit of the Round Rotherham in them.

The support we received from spectators was amazing considering the rain and wind. At least we runners were keeping warm by running. They didn’t have that luxury. The sound of applause, usually the muffled wet slap of glove on glove, was never far away.

As the miles ticked by I monitored the time and began to suspect that a PW was unavoidable. 4:15 must surely be exceeded. From expecting a PB to predicting a PW was coming as a bit of a shock but I wasn’t really bothered by it. I would just do the same as I always do – always keep plugging away as best as my body allows. What will be, will be.

I had to enjoy brief walking breaks as I consumed my four gels along the way to keep myself fuelled. The last one was on the final climb at Waunfawr, which I was unable to run as much as I did last year (a PW year). Alternating between walking and shuffling I caught up with Barny C again, who had passed me some miles earlier (I can’t remember where). That came as a bit of a surprise. I thought he was gone for good.

Climbing that final hill brought us into the teeth of the ever-present gale from the right, which is worse now that most of the forest has been cleared and we can no longer enjoy its shelter. Wind chill was approaching its maximum so I started to run to keep warm as soon as the track began to level out and undulate before the slate quarry. My final gel had kicked in and I was overtaking again. Woo-hoo! By the summit a lean to the right and compensatory staggering were required to remain upright. I didn’t stop running though.

Through the gateway at the top, the path continues to undulate once or twice more before the final descent, which I'd been looking forward to all race. That final gel and the change of muscle use on the climb had left me feeling fully revived. I involuntarily reverted to fell-running mode. All the mid-race dragging my ar*se along those 'flat' bits was forgotten as I blasted downhill, weaving between the mincers and wincers, gliders and sliders, stumblers and grumblers. My new Brooks Defyance shoes were giving me amazing confidence on the wet, muddy, stony, grassy path. I didn't slip once. I was astounded to be feeling so strong, as if on a short fell race, at the 25th mile of a marathon I had run so slowly up to now. I was spotting, chasing down and picking off other runners I'd seen disappearing into the distance miles earlier as if they were now standing still, yet it was all seeming so effortless. I was just letting gravity do its job.

I hit the Tarmac and it became even steeper, such that even I had to apply the brakes a little to avoid runaway, but my well-seasoned leggies stood me in good stead to continue the overtaking all the way down to the High Street and right turn to the line, on this best of finishes of the best of marathons.

My time of 4:11 got me 638th position, which was pretty mediocre and not what I was hoping for, but at least it wasn't a PW after all, and my legs (quads, calves and knees) exhibited not one iota of soreness, DOMS or any sensation of having been used in the days that followed. 15 years of Ultras have had one benefit at least.

And how did the others do? Rather well it has to be said. Several marathon PBs were achieved among friends and forumites, on THAT course in THOSE conditions. Stuart finished 114th in 3:26 for a marathon PB. Ian finished 108th also in 3:26 on his first marathon. Iain finished 12th in 2:51. Jez finished 7th in 2:45. WHIPPETS!

The winning time was 2:36 by Rob Samuel. Second was Murray Strain in 2:38. Last year's winner Richard Gardiner finished third in 2:41.

First female was Kelly Morgan in 3:11. Hot on her heels in second was fellow Runner's World forumite Ruth Johnstone in 3:12. Hot on HER heels in third place was Ellie Sutcliffe in 3:13.

Did I mention whippets?

Pete's Eats was well patronised once again for post-race refuelling. After that came the bit I'd been waiting for all year – the Karaoke party in the Padarn Lake Hotel lounge bar. On the assumption that we would have run another wet one (we weren't disappointed) I had been dreaming all year of singing “It's Raining Again” by Supertramp. I recall looking through the MC's book of songs last year and failing to spot it. A check this year confirmed it, so I asked him. He replied that he had virtually every song we could wish for in his database, and that the list was only a small snapshot. He checked and there it was. . I hadn't sung a note since that very party a year earlier, the vocals on this one go rather high and I wasn't sure how the voice would perform, but it was so appropriate it just had to be done. I returned to our SNOD gathering to top up the Dutch courage in the form of more red wine and wait for my name to be called.

I suspect it was the first time that track had ever been accessed. It's not exactly a top Karaoke hit after all. Things were going swimmingly until the music started to falter, miss the odd fraction of a second here and there and the lyrics on the screen began to disintegrate into alien characters. Aargh. The moment I had dreamed of all year was about to fail in tatters. Luckily it didn't give up completely and we muddled through to the end. I suspect his bits must have become corrupted – seized up through lack of use by cobwebs and fluff. I'm an expert. I know these things. ;-)

Our Runner's World forumites' post-SNOD party, planned all year, rocked like never before until 12:30 (11:30 after the clocks had gone back). There were several rather excellent performances by other singers. I managed to squeeze in a few more – Elton John and Kiki Dee "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" (duet with Andrea), Neil Diamond "Beautiful Noise" (I think that was when the first of the 'laydees' got up onto the dance floor and demanded male attention; I didn't know where to put myself; she would have eaten me alive if there hadn't been witnesses), The Monkees "I'm a Believer", Queen "We Are The Champions" (a massed mauling by all the runners). X-Factor eat your heart out. It was a blast. I can't wait for SNOD 2012.

The rain had stopped, the stars were shining, the wind had dropped and it was very mild by the time we emerged. Much to our amazement the burger fan outside in the carpark was still open and serving. Being very close to the finish line it had served the crowds well during the day. Now it was aiding the runners' refuelling process, post revelry and post (ahem) imbibing. 'Dirty burgers' were consumed with relish to aid a good night's sleep and farting (there's nothing like ale and cooked onions for that, is there?).

What a weekend. I don't think it can be topped. Can it?

Wednesday 19 October 2011

Rowbotham's Round Rotherham 50mi. 15/10/2011.

Race 12 of 12 in the 2011 Runfurther series.

I had spent the best part of two weeks fantasising about a warm, dry, sunny Round Rotherham where the running flowed, the navigation by colourful cartoon map went flawlessly and I collapsed exhausted at the timekeeper's desk for a PB finish. Much to my amazement IT ALMOST ALL CAME TRUE!

After a comfortable night's sleep and hassle-free early exit from the Sandygate Hotel (this hotel has improved markedly since last year and is good for a sound night's sleep now that discos and parties are off the menu), I arrived at Dearne Valley College sports centre in plenty of time to see the early 6am starters off. Once they were on their way into the cold clear pre-dawn, we later starters could get registered and have a natter. I was spoilt for choice with so many well-known faces but not enough time to catch up with gossip. There was action girl extraordinaire Dawn Westrum, Runfurther Karen, two-time Grand Slammer (to all intents and purposes) Dick Scroop who does flippin' well for his age; speedy Jim Mann, Geoff Holburt, Karen Nash, Martin Beale (too preoccupied to natter), David Jelley (too busy nattering to others to natter), Roger Taylor, Fraser Hirst (just back from long haul air travel but would it slow him down?), Will Harris, Julian Brown, Greg Crowley (the other 2011 Slammer and speedy with it, but I missed him AGAIN) and Rick Ansell (not usually elusive but he was this time); Garry Scott (speeding up nicely), Jon Steele (a good turn of speed as long as it's not hot), Mike D-H (who's moving up the ranks rather well). I could go on but you're probably bored to tears already.

Ian Bishop had a black and white copy of the strip map in his hands and asked me about the changes for 2011. I fetched my colour copies and hopefully put his mind at rest.

Shortly before 7am a whistle was blown with great force in close proximity to me to advise us that we needed to be moving outside. With ears ringing I joined the exodus. The first light of dawn was just beginning to show in the cloudless sky. The temperature had plummeted to the lowest level so far in this mild autumn – not that far above freezing.

A cool dawn.

After the instructions and wait for 7am to arrive, we were off to get into the groove of a day's running. We trod carefully over the frosted footbridge. The mist hung low over the lake ahead. I should have taken pictures but I was running. Geoff seemed to be on fire today; within a mile or two he was pulling away out of sight. Garry with his white Inov-8 cap on back-to-front was keeping in sight for a little longer, but not much. Wow, he's speeded up since the Lakeland 100. I glanced at my heart rate monitor readout to see if I was overcooking the pace. 165bpm – perfect – optimum for going long without blowing up. The last two weeks of running to work must have done me good. Without that daily raising of heart rate it probably would have been 175bpm and I'd be crashing and burning within 2 hours. I sensed already that it was going to be a successful day.

The sun made its first tentative appearance above the horizon as we passed the wood yard before Wentworth. It wasn't much higher as we descended from Wentworth, when I was finally driven to capture some images. Dave Cremins and Josh Whiteley were in the frame as they overtook me. (It would turn out that we would play cat and mouse for the day, as shown by my photographs, and finish within a minute of each other.) Keppel's Column beckoned on the horizon.

Dave Cremins and Josh Whiteley.

On the climb towards Keppel's Column in the calm air with the sun well above the horizon, there may have been ground frost but I was plenty warm enough by now, so off came the wind-proof top to set the attire for the rest of the day – vest and shorts, initially with Buff around my neck to stave off the remaining early morning chill. Armada Photography were in their usual positions taking pictures.

Checkpoint 1 at Grange Park (10 miles) soon arrived. I loitered to take care of business. Dick said “Take your time Nick, take plenty of pictures”, etc. before making himself scarce. Jon arrived, and then it was my turn to be off. Descending through the woods to the valley before Droppingwell Road I was surprised to see Karen Nash running back from the right along the track we had to cross. She’d been on a bit of a detour. She soon pulled on ahead up the other side. As I watched her pull away, a pedestrian came down the path, passing Karen shortly before passing me. I said hello and got a “Hello love” back. I gave him the benefit of the doubt and elected not to give him a good slapping. Either it’s a quirky local term of greeting between males or his mind was still all of a whirr from having encountered Karen 15 seconds earlier ;-)

Once again I had been amused and visually entertained by the little bulbous people beside the path before and after Droppingwell Road. I should have taken more pictures but I was running!

I turned right up to Hilltop and down, bypassing the disputed footpath that we used to take but haven't been able to take for several years now, down to the road, left then right down the secret hidden footpath between factory fences known only to Round Rotherham participants and others in the know. Here I caught up with Dick, who had strayed up the hill to the right, apparently led astray by another race marker flag. I called him back. According to the strip map, at this point the Meadowhall shopping complex is to our right. So far I have never seen it, so this time I decided I would look right, probably while crossing the railway line. The footbridge was made of metal and the walls were very high. It was damp and very slippery. We needed all our attention to avoid coming a cropper. I forgot to look right. I still haven't seen the Meadowhall shopping complex from the Round Rotherham route. Is it actually there?

Next came the run beside river and canal and left turn up through Tinsley. 15 miles are not passed yet but I have always slowed down by this point. I needed food. I sucked on a gel and used it as an excuse to have my first guilty walking break when I could have been running, before recommencing the shuffle up around the industrial estate. I was surprised by how the field had spread out and how I was already alone.

The bus lane before Sheffield Airport now has a padlocked gate across it. Cutbacks! The wasteland that follows has been transformed over the past few years, now with hotels and landscaping and a decent footpath to follow instead of ankle-twisting waste land. A new boundary and stile preceded the underpass beneath Sheffield Parkway. I caught up with Will Harris, who was unsure of the way. “Left to Catcliffe”. Catcliffe came and went and we climbed up to the expansive fields (landscaped ex coal mining area) beside the river, to the big substantial footbridge left over the river, over the railway and on to Checkpoint 2 at the cricket club in Treeton. Dick had caught up with me again. He urged me once more to loiter awhile to eat, drink, sort myself out and take plenty more pictures. I began to suspect ulterior motives behind his friendly advice. ;-) ;-)

Looking like summertime at CP2 @ Treeton.

I left CP2 up the footpath, looking for the big rocks on the right that signalled the right turn. They seemed to be a long time coming. I began to have doubts and slowed down. The runners who were catching up from behind confirmed that I was still on the right path. We continued and soon, there they were. A right and left downhill brought us to the concrete bridge that crossed the bog area to Treeton Dyke.

Approaching the leftmost viaduct arch along the Trans Pennine Trail (how this path has improved from unkempt mud bath to proper cycle path since I first did the Round Rotherham) I couldn't help noticing the mass of solar panels on the south-facing house roofs up the hill to the left. The first of the relay runners had overtaken me. Will Harris overtook me for the final time to ultimately finish 37 minutes ahead. A couple of minutes later I caught up with Karen Nash again. “Something's not right”, I thought to myself. “I shouldn't be seeing Karen at this stage in a race”. She was suffering with painful right hip and was fighting back tears of anger and frustration that her body was preventing her from doing what she knew she could do. BEEN THERE, DONE THAT. I trawled through my experiences to offer the best encouraging words I could find. I asked if she needed an Ibuprofen but she was already well dosed in that department. We plodded and consoled into the Rother Valley Country Park before she forced herself, with a groan of frustrated anger, into a shuffle that soon took her ahead and out of sight. Bear in mind she was 'crook' and I was fighting fit and on for a (near) PB. She finished 44 minutes ahead of me. Some have got it and some haven't.

I carried on with my shuffle and soon caught up with Julian Brown, who was WALKING. “Hello”, I thought. “Either he's injured, he's been overdoing it recently and can't manage it, or he's only interested in a pleasant stroll on a warm sunny day (in mid October)” We walked, jogged, chatted and played cat and mouse for the next 16 miles until the big open fields after Firbeck, where I was 'running' well at PB pace but he caught up with me for the final time and ‘sauntered’ ahead in relaxed fashion to finish 17 minutes ahead.

Several field crossings (they are so much better than in December) brought us to Checkpoint 3 and the halfway point at Harthill, where Runfurther Karen was snapping away with her camera. The sun was blazing and everything felt good. I spent minimal time here before resuming my journey.

After Harthill came many fields, freshly ploughed with young crops of grass or some other plant life across which our path took us. Occasionally the field path was not visible and we had to guess our route across, trampling more of the crop than should have been necessary. It’s the farmer’s fault, I thought, for not re-establishing the route across. Sometimes there was a tractor track across the field to guide the way, but when it was absent, we guessed and trampled and built up heavyweight mud platforms on our shoes.

The calm sunny day with good visibility meant that the airfield was active, with light aircraft doing circuits and landing as I passed the end of the airstrip.

Someone had thoughtfully built a scaffolding footbridge across a boggy area before the railway crossing.

Jon Steele crosses bridge over bog.

Railway crossing.

The permissive underpass at the golf course under the A57 still looks shiny new and pristine, making me wonder if the golf club rather than the local council is taking care of it.

I caught up with a Vibram FiveFingers wearer on the approach to Checkpoint 4 at Woodsetts. He’d done well to pad along for nearly 30 miles but his toe joints were getting sore, so he would be changing to ordinary shoes from his drop bag at the checkpoint. I’d hardly eaten any of my food so I did not need much restocking from my drop bag – just another 500ml of Coke, four more gels and a Nutrigrain bar and I was good to go.

Dave Hardy enjoys a bite at CP4 - Woodsetts. Josh and Dave C contemplate the fayre.

Even though there are still 20 miles to go I always feel as though I’m on the homeward stretch once I leave Woodsetts. It’s just a case of keeping up the fuelling and hydration, holding it together, enjoying the beautiful scenery, ticking off the landmarks and counting down the miles back to the college.

There were more sunny open fields to cross, the causeway between the fishing ponds and left turn across more fields. The sun was warm and I was fair working up a sweat. The Buff had migrated from my neck to my wrist hours earlier.

Julian caught up with me once again just in time to advise me that I needed to fork left in the woods to get to Langold Lake. I was having leanings to the right at that instant and could have wasted a few seconds. At the lake we came across an RSPCA woman who was lugging a cygnet in a cloth carrier. It had been reported by a member of the public that it couldn’t open its beak properly, so it was being taken to ‘hospital’ for investigation and ‘repair’. Julian and I spent a good few minutes chatting with her and I took more pictures (with her permission).

Cygnet 'goes for repair'.

At 35 miles and Checkpoint 5 we came upon the first change for 2011 – the new, posh, Firbeck Village Hall on the left, just opposite the old one, now boarded up. I just needed a quick water bottle top-up and I was off before Julian once again to begin the long, zigzag crossing of the wide open fields. I found myself with Dave and Josh again, but not for long. They, followed by Julian, disappeared into the distance. Nevertheless my crossing of that section, which on a bad day can seem never-ending, went quite quickly and comfortably.

Before I knew it I’d turned sharp right down the lane and left onto the grassy path towards my favourite part of the whole route – Roche Abbey. I gawp in wonderment every time I pass such structures and lament the mindless destruction of our heritage that was perpetrated during the tyrannical reign of King Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1500s. Think of what all these monasteries would look like now if they hadn’t been looted and smashed up nearly 500 years ago! Armada Photography lurked within the shadows as usual to capture those special images as I ran through the grounds.

Remains of Roche Abbey.

I was still alone and I was enjoying the solitary concentration of running as fast as my body allowed along that undulating wooded path, eventually diagonally left to descend across the fields and into the wood again to the church graveyard on the right, where the strong dappled sunlight created stark contrasts between light and shade. Here was the second change for 2011. Checkpoint 6, Maltby, had been brought back half a mile or so to just after the 40-mile point. It was now under cover in the church hall. My legs were somewhat leaden after all this running and I had to adopt my kneeling therapy to squeeze the blood out of the muscles and restore better function to them. It always works to a greater or lesser degree. After 30 seconds of that and a quick water bottle refill from the tap, I was off, leaving Jon Steele taking refreshment (I expected him to catch me soon).

The penultimate section to Old Denaby always seemed a long hard slog, but it’s even longer now. Nevertheless I always relish these final 10 miles because I usually pass other runners all the way to the finish. This year was no exception. I got my head down, got on with the job and slowly picked them off one-by-one. The full sugar Coke was on virtual drip feed to keep the legs fuelled. When that was no longer enough, a Kellogg’s Elevenses bar, eaten half at a time, kept me on the boil. I was getting competitive now and first thoughts of a PB started to flit through my mind. Could I beat 9:13? All photograph-taking was off limits from now-on.

The third and final change for 2011 was passed without incident (new massive field after the old railway cutting with tractor track diagonally across to show the footpath route).

The usually visible path diagonally left up the field after Firsby Hall Farm was not there. Instead a wiggly ‘trod’, which degenerated into a fanned-out trampling of the farmer’s field towards the top, delivered me more directly than ever before to the dip and footpath descent through the woods towards Hooton Roberts (I love that name). A brief walking break up the lane to the crossing of the main road was followed by a nice downhill run on the other side. A couple shouted encouragement from their car as they passed in the opposite direction. I glanced at my watch. I forget what I saw – something like an hour maximum in which to get a PB. I thought to myself: “No chance; I’ll never cover the remaining miles in that time. I’ll aim for sub 9:30 and be satisfied with that.” I didn’t let up, though. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t try my best to the end.

I’d lost count of the number of people I’d overtaken and I now had another two in my sights. I caught them at the right turn onto that final track over the top. I recognised them as two I’d run with on and off during the day. A few pleasantries were exchanged before I set my sights on a lone runner further up the track (another one I’d run on and off with). We ran together down into Checkpoint 7 at Old Denaby. I didn’t need any provisions now because it was a short hop to the finish. I left within seconds, alone how I like it to follow the route like I know the back of my hand.

I ran like a hunted animal, like my life depended on it, twisting and turning along the intricate route across railway (thank goodness there were no trains coming and I didn’t have to waste time climbing over the bridge), across the river and alongside the canal, through the station, beside the big river and biscuit factory (no biscuit smells this year) and over the big road bridge to the delightful Swinton.

True to form, the sound of car abuse drifted to my ears as engine screamed and rubber was torn off on the side roads for which I was headed. I prepared myself for evasion tactics. Luckily by the time I got there it had stopped. Instead I was greeted by the sight a table with drinks at someone’s front garden, with the residents offering us refreshments. I’d seen it earlier on in the day but this was a first for Swinton. I declined with thanks. My two drinks bottles would last me for the final mile+.

A right and left past the derelict pub brought me to the canal spur. I was still overtaking but this time I was amazed to be catching up with Dave and Josh, whom I hadn’t seen in nearly 15 miles, and they were WALKING. We rounded the end of the dead-end canal. I glanced at my watch. There were 2 minutes to go to PB time, making a new PB a rather forlorn hope now. I was just flabbergasted to have got here this quickly. I didn’t look at my watch again. I forced myself to run with Dave and Josh up the path to the road, across and into the scrub land opposite. We zigzagged around the bushes up to the track that led us down to the college. I was giving it all I had but I couldn’t hold onto them. I veered left across the grass past cheering and photographing spectators, down the ramp past more Armada Photography, past Geoff who shouted PB encouragement to me – “Too late, it’s already gone” I gasped, up the car park and round the back of the hall to the physical support of the timekeeper’s desk. “What time did you make it?” “9:14:20”.

Aaargh, I'd missed it by less than one minute (it was 9:13:24 in 2009). Never mind. I never honestly believed I’d get anywhere near a PB so it turned out rather good in the end. I was 56th (38th in 2009). Now, if only I hadn’t spoken with the RSPCA girl for so long…..

Dave and Josh finished in 9:13:43. No ‘if only’s this time. I’ve already said I couldn’t hold onto them.

It was sweet to finish with a flourish with a best personal performance of the year and to get my highest Runfurther points on the final race of the series. It was the 'cherry on the cake' of a great year's running. The amazing weather (sun tan in mid October indeed) and amazing event organisation and support made for a perfect ultra-running day.

The other Grand Slammer Greg Crowley, who I always seemed to miss (or fail to recognise) at the events, finished 38th in 8:40:01. His Slam has been impressively speedy, earning him big points. Very well done Greg.

The race winner was Ian Symington with a time of 6:47:14. Words fail me as always when presented with evidence of such speed.
Ian Bishop finished second in 6:50:04. Well done Ian B. Now, what would you have done if I hadn’t given you all that route advice at the beginning? ;-) ;-)
Third was Kevin Doyle in 6:53:05.

Geoff Holburt finished 18th overall in 8:05:15. I don’t know how you do it Geoff, you speed freak ;-)
Fraser Hirst’s air travel obviously didn’t slow him down, since he finished 35th in 8:37:39.
Will Harris was hot on his heels, finishing 36th in 8:37:45.
Garry Scott was 44th in 8:54:34. The new speedy Garry. Well done you.
Julian Brown had an easy day but still bimbled home in 48th with an impressive 8:57:27.
Jon Steele finished close behind me in 9:20:00 for 59th place.
Mike D-H, he with good blog, came in 112th in 10:28:56.
Dick was not far behind, finishing 116th in 10:37:12. Well done both.

First woman was Helen Skelton in 8:00:10.
Second woman was Victoria Mousley in 8:25:30.
Karen Nash was third in 8:30:51. That’s an impressive result Karen after our little ‘hike’ together through Rother Valley Country Park.

Dawn smashed her PB with a 90th place finish in 10:01:46. She's another one who writes a mean blog. She made a striking comparison between her 2010 and 2011 times. Last year, when she had terrible navigational woes in the early miles, she started and finished in the dark. This year, fitter and faster and without any such route-finding issues, she started and finished in daylight. Well done Dawn.

My picture-taking tailed off seriously towards the end, as already explained. Here’s the cream of the crop: RRR pictures

The Round Rotherham is so far the only UK race that is a qualifier for the Western States 100. How bizarre is that? It will change of course as more races get submitted. I shall be chucking my name into the WS100 hat for 2012. The same goes for the UTMB hat. It’s already in the LDWA Games 100 hat. Bring on 2012!