Monday 6 June 2011

Shires and Spires Northants Ultra 35. 05/06/2011.

Race 7 of 12 in the Runfurther series.

This was my first 'Go Beyond' event and my first visit to Northamptonshire. It's always nice to discover new parts of the country. New running events make it possible and Go Beyond added a different slant to what I'm used to. The experience was rather good.

The 35-mile route was flat to undulating with plenty of road, track, trail and fields and the occasional stile. It goes without saying that the countryside was gorgeous - not difficult to achieve in this country. We are truly blessed. It was more runnable and much faster than I'm used to, and tough to achieve the expected speed after last week's Hundred. Once again the ground was dry and rock hard. The shrinkage cracks in the fields of rapeseed and wheat we crossed looked as though an earthquake had struck. We had to run carefully across the 'knobbly crevassed concrete' to avoid twisting an ankle.

For 35 miles in my usual events I would expect to finish in 7 hours plus. This time I managed 6:23, such was the runnability - not bad a week after a surprise Hundred performance. Without the Hundred in my legs (which I must say I did not feel) I might have been 10 minutes faster, but I'm not complaining. In fact I'm pretty chuffed to be feeling so fit and well at the end of quite an intense month of weekly Ultras. The Grand slam is well on track. I hope it doesn't get undone by the three weeks of business globetrotting I'm about to embark on. We are talking South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Shanghai, starting tomorrow.

The winner was Stuart Mills with a time of 4:20. I was amazed to see him still there when I dragged in (he even cheered me in). Stuart's a right chatterbox, a bit like me really. When he'd finished wearing others' ears out we chatted for ages about anything and everything related to ultrarunnimg. What a great bloke.
The finish welcome.

I'll be back in time for Race number 8 - Osmotherley Phoenix. Until then there will be a news blackout.
Pictures are here.

Friday 3 June 2011

Housman 100. 28-29/05/2011.

The annual LDWA 100 is the Long Distance Walkers Association’s flagship event of the year, with organisation and support to blow your socks off with its comprehensiveness. You will never feel better cared for. It takes place in a different part of the country every year. This year the Housman 100 was based at Moor Park School, in the countryside three miles from Ludlow. We would be enjoying the delights of the Shropshire countryside – Stiperstones, The Long Mynd – poet A. E. Housman’s country. We would spend our time mostly on the Mortimer Trail, Offa’s Dyke Path and Shropshire Way Path.

My preparation for this was less than ideal. I only returned from business travel in France on Friday evening (fortunately the volcanic ash cloud allowed me back). After 4 hours sleep and a 4am alarm call I was on the 06:39 train speeding towards Ludlow, feeling a little delicate and thinking to myself: “This is no way to build up to a Hundred”. Geoff Holburt was very kind in picking me up at the station to ease the load on the provided free minibus.

With 523 starters (is this a record?) the hall was heaving and the registration queues merged into one another. Since this constitutes the annual gathering of walking friends from all over the country, many friendly faces of old were met, but there was not enough time for a chat. Time was of the essence and the pressure was on. I hope I didn’t come across as too rude.

With registration paraphernalia in hand it was now time to sort out the bags – breakfast bag, red label; finish bag, black label. Then the most important job – get my bed set up so the thought of it waiting for me in that quiet, dark corner of the sleeping hall could draw me to the finish in the latter stages if things got a bit tough. Anyway it’s always a good idea to get the mattress blown up while I’m still able. The barn sports hall was spacious but rudimentary. Still, at least it would be dry (or perhaps not!). The school fees must be cheap.

There had been no breakfast on the train. I was feeling hungry and had to eat something before we started. The smell of the bacon butties from the café bus drew me. There were only two or three people waiting inside so I joined the queue and waited, and waited, and fumed, and nearly expired, and waited for the most inefficient butty preparation known to man. When I eventually got it there were barely 15 minutes left to get my bags handed in and take the long slow walk to the starting area in Mortimer Forest. I have never seen such a crowd on a Hundred. Walkers were still arriving at 10:00 when Julian and Jo, Welsh and English flags aloft, led us on a rolling start up the single footpath. Easygoing and no pressure, relaxed conversation flowing freely with whoever was close by; I soon forgot my hassled preparation.

We soon came upon a look-out tower. This must be the Welsh border then, but so soon? Where’s the armed guard? Where’s the searchlight? They’re letting us in unchecked??

It started to rain but it was only a drizzle shower and it was not long before the sun started to make an appearance. The ground was bone dry for the most part. The going could best be described as ‘firm to concrete’. The dampness from above made no impact, and in any case the strong wind was doing a good job of drying out any moisture that might have been present.

I caught up with a lady I knew I recognised and found her pace to be just right – she walking, me jogging. Boy could she walk fast. It turned out to be Harley Davidson biker girl Tara Williams, top ‘Strider’ columnist (‘Strider’ is the thrice-yearly LDWA magazine). Her read is very entertaining and her conversation equally so. ‘Full of life’ best describes Tara. She was walking with Wendy Thurrell. We made a happy threesome for a while as the miles floated under our feet and the ever-beautiful views of the countryside flooded our senses. My camera was always at the ready to capture that special scene.

Tara and Wendy at Self Clip 1.

We joined the Offa’s Dyke Path, then on the final approach to Evenjobb we crossed into Wales (we really did this time, and there was no lookout tower to be seen). The view across the rapeseed field at this point was spectacular against the blue sky (see top picture). Evenjobb had Marmite and lettuce sandwiches. What luxury. The checkpoints kept us so well cared for. As I left a Marmite fan approached. I broke the good news to him.

This good fuelling was doing me good and I was feeling strong. I had bid farewell to Tara and Julie. On the way I had caught up with others – Colin, Jacqueline, Lindsey, John, Lesley, Alwyn, Vaughan, Anne, Marla, Jeff, Mark, Simon; great, more opportunities for a chin-wag. Once I had overtaken them I was alone, with only the wind, sheep, cows, bulls and horses to keep me company and the route description as my lifeline to lead me towards the finish. As the evening wore on, the strong wind on the high, exposed sections of Offa’s Dyke was very cooling but I was moving well enough to keep myself warm. The horses looked windswept with their manes blown sideways. They were wary of the noise my plastic tally was making as it oscillated wildly in the wind.

The section from Newcastle-on-Clun (CP5) to Mainstone (CP6) was mercifully short, at 4.7miles, because it was probably one of the toughest sections, crossing as it did the grain of the land on successive steep ups and downs as it followed the Offa’s Dyke Path. The glowsticks were already out in readiness for night time. With 2km to go to CP6, after crossing the driveway to Middle Knuck Hostel, the next simple instruction in the route description glossed over quite complicated route finding with plenty of opportunity to go wrong. On the next steep climb I became convinced I’d gone off route. There were fewer than ten people in front of me so the path was not yet well trodden or easy to make out. I backtracked towards the hostel driveway with the intention of having another go, when I was caught up by others who knew where they were going. I wasn’t off track after all. Their timing was perfect to save me from undue anguish and wasted time.

CP6 had a sudden rush on just after I arrived, which was quite a contrast to the earlier checkpoints. The first later starter caught me up there – none other than 2pm starter Andy Davies. He was amazingly relaxed and unrushed, and chatted for a bit while eating to keep the engine fuelled. He was running on his home turf and would go on to win by over 3 hours in 22:09. (Bear in mind that any talk of 'winning' and finishing positions is most unsavoury and to be frowned upon in LDWA events.) Just after Andy, 12pm starting group Gary Attewell, Colin Travis, Geoff Holburt, Ian Hodge and Chris Pritchett arrived. More perfect timing. I would tag along with them into the night and out into the following dawn. Gary had a GPS and knew how to use it. I made quick efficient progress on their coat tails until Bridges (CP9), by which time the pace was just beginning to get to me. I had to let them go, reluctantly. They would finish equal second in 25:18.

I sat for a while at Bridges in the holey army tent with three-light chandelier, feeling mildly depleted. (Keep it up on the chandelier front, Beds and Bucks, but three Compact Fluorescent Lamps is a bit downmarket I thought. Bring back the 10-lamp crystal jobbies you had at Cant Canolbarth Cymru. We need to feel the luxury ;-)

I knew I had to slow down to survive. I carried on at my own pace, alone again. The weather was closing in and my camera was now safe and dry inside my rucksack. The wind had risen again after a relatively calm early night period, the cloud base had dropped and rain was beginning to blow on the wind. Fortunately it did not come to anything. By the time I was on the ridge in the cloud and heading towards Pole Bank, there was just the head-on gale to contend with. Progress was somewhat slow and not very enjoyable along that long exposed section past Pole Cottage (memories of Long Mynd Hike), but once onto Starboard Way around the gliding club, things began to look up. Chris, who had just been able to hold on through the night and had stopped for longer at Bridges to recover and refuel, came sailing past me as if he were a new man. He was soon out of sight on the descent into the sunshine after Black Knoll. He would finish 9th in 26:02.

I should have mentioned by this point that Mick Cooper was a familiar sight along the way, either waiting or walking in the opposite direction. He was supporting his wife Jacqueline, who was doing amazingly well in the aftermath of a chest infection. She could hardly speak. The sight of Mick provided reassurance on an otherwise lonely journey (checkpoints excepted) that I was on the right path.

I continued at my own pace, taking it one stage at a time (the only way to do these Ultras) and keeping the food / water / Coke / electrolyte trickling in as needed. I was convinced that some of those I had left behind through to daybreak would start to overtake me again now that I was ‘doing my own thing’, but it wasn’t happening so far. If anything the opposite was happening; I was catching one or two others. I felt compelled to push on like hunted prey. I enjoyed the feeling while the going was good.

A group I had seen leave Bridges (CP9) was at Edgton (CP10) when I arrived. It seems I was chasing them down but could not quite catch them because they left shortly after I arrived, leaving the checkpoint looking familiarly empty. I had sensed by their demeanour at Bridges that some suffering was occurring. This did not change at Edgton. I began to feel like the hunter but continued to do my own thing, feeling utterly thankful for how well I was feeling compared to in most previous Hundreds. My feet were in perfect condition, with no issues whatsoever, not even a hint of a hot spot. It makes such a difference.

The next stage to Whittytree Farm (CP11) had me revelling in the Sunday sunshine and admiring the views (despite the wind). The out and back in the valley prior to CP11 might have looked contrived on the map but I’m sure it was necessary and it certainly brought some gorgeous views of green English countryside. The path was narrow and not yet well bashed. The overhanging stinging nettles had a field day on my legs.

At the tented CP11 with just ten miles to go, I indulged in a whisky liqueur chocolate (among other comestibles). I was well fuelled for the penultimate section, which was the shortest, flattest and easiest. It was the rest before the final ‘sting in the tail’.

Bromfield (CP12) heralded the final, tougher, 5.6-mile section. I could not ease off on the fuelling. I’ve made that mistake before and finished feeling wretched, but not this time. I may have overtaken a couple more here. I don't think it was the group I was pursuing, which must have had second wind and pulled away.

Fully refuelled once again I set off on the climb to the final high point in the forest, using the arrow waymarks as confirmation that I was on route. The climb might have been tough but it was worth it because it brought into view the Mary Knoll Valley set out below, and the lovely descent into it down the rocky path. I was in my element again. I let gravity pull me down, pausing on the way to take some essential pictures. At the bottom came the right turn onto the wide forestry track to the road, but hang on, there’s another junction. This isn’t in the route description. Surely I must keep right and descending. Turning left would mean going uphill again. I made the sensible choice.

I met Mick once again walking up in the opposite direction. “You’ll ‘ave them before the finish”, he said. What? I looked ahead and just around the bend was the group I’d been chasing down since Bridges. They were walking and still seemed to be suffering. I passed them on the road at the bottom of the school drive, pausing just long enough to exchange mutual respect and congratulations on a job (almost) well done. I could not believe that, at this late stage I actually had the energy still to run all the way from the top and continue in the same vein up the school drive and across the field to the finish. The hand bell was rung and the applause rose as I entered the door in 28:52. The same reception was awarded to all finishers from the first to the last. That’s the LDWA for you and the LDWA 100 in particular: fantastic, encouraging, warm camaraderie.

Seconds from finishing and a round of applause.

Earlier on Sunday a supporter at a road crossing had asked me what time I was hoping for. “Oh, sub-30 would be nice” I replied. As soon as I’d said it I thought: “Why did I say that? That’s wishful thinking, a pipe dream. There’s no chance.” So, sub 29 comes as a very pleasant surprise over what was considered to be a challenging route. The conditions were good, though. If it wasn’t for the sheep poo I would have finished with clean shoes.

I owe my success to many things, but chief among them will be the weekly Ultra marathons leading up to this to build up strength and endurance, a slow and easy start, optimum fuelling and hydration little and often throughout (critical and most difficult to achieve), going just slowly enough to allow the fuelling and hydration to work effectively, and zero foot issues, not even a first hint of a hot spot. My La Sportiva Crosslite shoes may be falling apart. My feet may have been falling out of them before I started and the studs may have been well worn, but they are the only shoes to fit my feet snugly without movement, rubbing or pinching. The rents are even bigger now but I can’t bring myself to throw them away, not just yet.

I chatted and cheered other finishers back while supping on some Shropshire Lad ale, two barrels of which had been provided free by Wood's, the generous local brewery. Ale really does go down well and help with refuelling and rehydration after serious physical activity. I think our bodies have earned it. After a clean-up, some bread and cheese (no dinner just yet; I had been eating well all the way round) I retired for a few hours’ kip, which is always difficult soon after finishing. Nevertheless it is an essential start to the recovery process.

Later on in the evening when it was nearly dark I rose to the sound of rain. The sports hall roof was leaking all over. I was truly thankful I wasn’t still out there on the event. I returned to the main hall to cheer more finishers back, chat some more and get some dinner and pudding. Those steak pies were simply awesome. Apparently they were made by a local butcher. That set me up for a proper night’s sleep back in the cold shed.

On Monday morning the volunteers were still beavering away on our behalf and looking a little frayed around the edges after so long on duty, while the walkers were still trickling in after going through a second night. That takes some guts and determination. The last finisher in 47:59 had an involuntary sit-down with the relief of finally being finished. What an amazing effort. In total, 375 out of the 523 starters finished. Well done to all finishers, commiserations to those who were unable to do so and heartfelt thanks to the organisers, volunteers and marshals. It was a massive undertaking that turned out very well. Bring on next year’s The Games 100 in London. That will be my tenth. I’ve been working up to it for a few years.

I took well over 200 pictures this time. The best of the crop is here.