Monday 30 July 2012

White Peak Walk 26mi. 14/07/2012.

This un-advertised and un-promoted trail marathon favourite of the initiated few comes around quickly and always fills months in advance. Originally aimed at and frequented mostly by walkers (traditional LDWA style even though this is not an LDWA event), the 10am start time seems more suited to runners. Some runners do always take part and the fastest (note, not 'winning') time is always around the 4 hour mark, sometimes slightly less depending on conditions. Times this year would have been lengthened slightly because the Derbyshire Dales were more waterlogged than I have ever known in all the years I've been doing this event. There were even flooded lanes to negotiate. Whatever next, at this time of year, I ask you, tsk!, etc. Despite that, the weather just about behaved itself in time for the day and was nigh on perfect - coolish, mostly sunny with only one or two light sprinkles of rain.

My time of 5 hours dead was 3 minutes slower than last year's. I'll blame the mud and pretend that I'm not really over the hill yet.

The following two pictures from November 2011 and July 2012 illustrate our topsy-turvy weather these days.

Bradford Dale on Six Dales Circuit, 12 November 2011.

Bradford Dale on White Peak Walk, 14 July 2012.

Our green and pleasant land wouldn't be so green and pleasant without the rain. Just look at all of the pictures to see what I mean. If you don't live here you'll be envious. If you do you'll be thankful.

Many people post their entries immediately after the event for the following year. Rest assured mine's already in.

Tuesday 17 July 2012

Osmotherley Phoenix 33mi. 07/07/2012.

 Race 7 of 12 in the 2012 Runfurther series.

Half the race organisation Gerry (the other half being Julie) emphasised at the race briefing (aka mud warning) our good fortune in snaffling a brief window in the weather. How right he was. Although we had our very own low pressure system loitering over us for a week, the atmosphere was calm, humid and warm with 'cloud forest fog' lurking in the wings. The monsoon had now rotated anticlockwise to flood other parts of the country. Now the southwest was getting hit from the west after the east had been hit from the south and the north from the east.

I drove north eastwards from Stockport on Friday afternoon in the most hideous downpours as the north copped it from the east. Spray on the M62 cut visibility to virtually zero, that is when we were able to move, because for much of the time we were in a linear carpark or a stop-start conveyor. The journey to Osmotherley (with precious Runfurther sponsors' flags on board taken home on the train from the Classic Quarter two weeks earlier) took all of 3 hours while the return journey on Sunday took just two.

After erecting the Runfurther flags and getting registered first thing on Saturday, it was time to do some catching up - too many friends and not enough time as always. Brief words were grabbed with Dave Cumins (a fast 'b' who drives all the way from the south coast to do these races, including the Kinder Downfall fell race!), Helen Skelton (needs little introduction - a right live wire who wins most races she starts and will probably win the Runfurther series again), Henry Morris (personal trainer and conqueror (finally) of the Hardmoors 110), Jon Steele (Hardmoors race series organiser and weekly ultra marathon runner), Mick Plummer (the other Runfurther grand slammer this year), Jim Mann, David Cremins, Chris Webb, Simon Deakin and more. This event is a massive ultra runner's magnet that draws runners from far and wide. It sold out well in advance, which is not surprising. It is one of the best events in the calendar and one I hope will always be in the Runfurther series. If truth be told, the Runfurther series has turned what used to be a predominantly walking event into a predominantly running event, with some big names and fast times.

Mark Robinson searched me out to ask if he could run with me as he wasn't familiar with the route. Of course the answer was yes. I don't often get the chance to run whole events with anyone. This would be his longest run to date and his second ultra marathon. I told him a lie that it would be my 117th ultra marathon. In fact it was my 152nd.

I chatted at length with Garry Scott, whose first Hundred was last year's Lakeland 100, completed against the odds amidst great personal sacrifice and suffering. [He wrote a moving and personal account that captures perfectly the raw essence of such an undertaking, and which deserves to be in the public domain as testament to the toughness of that event and the human spirit. The Lakeland 100 organisers were not interested - too long / readers won't be interested/get bored, etc. Wanna bet? I wonder how interested they'd have been if he'd won the race?] Since then he's turned into a running machine who leaves me and many others for dead from the off.

At 9am we were sent on our way up the road out of the village and soon into the fog. It was calm, very warm and humid and we were soon sweating. The first mud hit within the first mile. We stumbled, slipped and slid our way across the hoof-pitted sod riddled with shoe skid marks towards the woods, but the scene had already been set for the day; puddles and mud were never far away. Every other time I have run this event the ground has been dry as you would expect for this time of year, yet already our legs were mud-spattered as if we were running a mid-winter fell race. It all added to the fun.

We dumped our wooden numbered tags at the bucket drop at 1.7 miles beside the communication masts as we headed out along the Cleveland Way. The first descent to the lane on wet, slippery rocks required a large dose of mince to avoid catastrophe. Then it was into the woods for another muddy run before we dropped out of the fog for a while as we descended Scugdale towards Scugdale Beck. A quick refuel at CP1 (Scugdale, 4.6mi.) saw us heading up towards Carlton Moor and back into the fog. There was to be a mystery self clip somewhere along the route. I was expecting it to be on the trig point at the summit as I've heard stories that some runners take a faster lower route to the left. The trig point was naked with not a day-glo jacket or piece of tape in sight. Where else could it be then? The plot thickened.

Checkpoint 1 @ 4.6 miles. It was a humid day.

The steep descent to CP2 (Carlton Bank, 7.5mi.) on wet slippery rocks required the cracking open of another jar of mince, as wipeout could easily result in broken bones (in fact it did for one unfortunate participant a year or two back). Another quick refuel had us on our way across the lane and into the plantation, which grows and thickens noticeably by the year. Mark and I caught up with Dick Scroop at this point (Dick's a speedy and competitive OAP who gives me a good run for my money on the Ultras.) For the first time ever we couldn't see where we had to go. The fog was dense. With a large choice of paths to choose from, the compass came out to make sure we picked the right one. Checkpoint numbering issues meant that I looked at the wrong checkpoint on my map and set off on the wrong heading. We went too far left and floundered around in the plantation on a network of little boggy paths that do not appear on the map. A while later we heard voices to our right. After realising which part of the map we should be looking at and finding a path that took us back towards the track we should have been on, we got on our way along the low level path below the ridge having wasted 10 minutes or more.

As we ran along the undulating path with rocky intrusions, I recalled how the sun always beat down and how dry the ground was on the four previous times I ran this race. This year was so different. Mud and water invaded everything and our views faded to white within a few yards in all directions. It was still warm though, which was nice. The track through Broughton Plantation was an absolute shambles for summertime and deserved a stiff letter of complaint to those in charge of the Jet Stream. We gave up trying to dodge the mud and water and just enjoyed getting wet and dirty instead. I was having fun and I laughed at the absurdity of it all. Suddenly, as we rounded White Hill we ran out of the fog bank and a beautifully sunlit vista opened up in front of us, with lush green rolling hills extending to the horizon. We minced for a third time to descend safely the rocky path to CP3 (Clay Bank, 11.2mi.). Not all of us minced, mind you. Dick sprinted in front down to the road with reckless abandon, ignoring the ice-like qualities of the terrain underfoot.

After another tasty morsel at CP3 (date slices this time) we began the long climb towards Round Hill in the hot sunshine. This felt more like it and what we are used to. The out and back to the self clip at the top (CP4, 13.0mi.) allowed quick exchanges of pleasantries with those just ahead and just behind, then came the long, gentle run down towards Chop Gate. The expansive sunlit views with scattered clouds were captivating (see top picture). The fog bank that we had been in earlier was still visible to our right. It looked like that mountain cloud that's a permanent feature on the peaks, and which dissipates on the leeward side, yet these were no mountains.

Mark and I ran into the carpark and CP5 (Chop Gate, 16.1mi.). Almost unbelievably, the chocolate fancies were melting in the sunshine. 'This is what we want', I thought to myself. 'Let it melt, and melt some more. Go on, prove it's really summertime.' I delayed longer than usual at this checkpoint. I'd been putting off answering the call of nature for a good few miles, so when Mark made a beeline for the conveniences for a comfort break I seized the opportunity to do the same. Perfect timing I thought, and a chance to wash sweat, mud and gel gunk from my hands.

The chocolate fancies @ CP5.

Suitably 'comforted' and with a fond farewell to the friendly marshals and a last longing look at the chocolate fancies (I denied myself this time like a good boy), we were off on the next steep climb upwards into the sky, past the first stile on the left to the second one which we had to cross. It was as hot and sweaty as it always is at this point. I had long since been using my Buff as a sweat band around my head to prevent the salted eyes syndrome. (It worked a treat to the the end, with not one single stinging moment.) We could see others snaking their way upwards to the Cleveland Hills on the horizon as we toiled our way upwards in their wake.

Down on the other side we arrived at CP6 (Wheat Beck, 20.7mi.). Mark handed to the marshal a blue coloured Buff he had picked up that someone had dropped. I'd already picked up a food bar or two to add to the wrappers that others had dropped. (This was a rare race where I finished with more food than I started with.) We didn't hang around for long. I was looking forward to the fiddly navigation through the fields. A sign warned us of the mystery self clip some time after Lower Locker Farm. They hadn't been bluffing after all, but why here? I can't guess where short-cutting could occur around these parts. We jogged our way along in the heat and humidity following the line left by the previous runners through the lush green sodden pastures. Navigation was so much easier than in previous dry years. I warned Mark not to loiter because giant man-eating ants live around these parts. There were hardly any this year. They were probably drowned.

We navigated our way without a hitch via the mystery self clip ("punch your tally anywhere at the bottom") to CP7 @ 24.4mi (described as Hawnby but much closer to and just below Coomb Hill). This, the last manned checkpoint always seems to be hot and sunny with little or no cooling breeze. This year was no exception. I know from experience that I need to refill all water and electrolyte supplies here, so I made sure I took care of business properly.

The mystery self clip.

Shortly after leaving CP7 we came upon a chap on the bank at the side of the lane with his concerned wife leaning over him. As he lay prostrate by the wayside he kept saying to his wife: "Just go, leave me" as if he wanted to be left alone to die in peace. She was having none of it. I sensed that she had never been in this situation before. I asked what the problem was. "Cramp" came the answer. Next question: "Have you taken any electrolytes?" "No". 'This should be easy' I thought to myself, 'Doctor Ham to the rescue.' (I was a pretender in the presence of a real Doctor. I hope he didn't mind me taking charge of this medical emergency.) I'd just mixed a fresh bottle of High 5 Zero electrolyte at the checkpoint. I pulled off the top of the bottle so he could get some good swigs out of it. After some initial reticence he took two big gulps. We checked that he was happy to rest awhile and walk back to the checkpoint to retire, while his wife plucked up the courage to leave him and tag along with us for the final 9 miles. We set off run-walking the final climb and long haul towards Arden Great Moor. I felt sorry that the stricken one would probably recover and bitterly regret retiring. A wilder notion flitted through my mind that he would spring to life and decide to continue.

As we topped out onto the open moor a large area of heavy cloud threatened to our right. Could this be our first shower of the day? Could we run fast enough to beat it to the finish? Wifey looked back, probably in vain hope and let out an exclamation of shocked surprise. "Is that my husband?" I looked back into the distance. His profile wasn't as familiar to me as it was to her, but it sure looked like it. He caught us up at the self clip and final water station on the top of the moor (26.9 miles if you're still interested). He had sprung to life alright and exceeded even my wildest expectations with how fast he caught back up. I offered him another swig of the elixir to keep him going to the end.

Mark Robinson, Andy Norman and Sarah Booth at self clip 1.

The long, undulating, gently climbing miles across the moor always seem to be a struggle and take forever before our left turn and descent back to Osmotherley. The ominous black mass had launched a few drops onto the breeze from afar which found their way to us, but the threat seemed to be receding to be replaced by sunshine once again as we neared the descent. Dick had been proving difficult to hold onto. We'd caught him on a few occasions only for him to pull away again because he never stopped anywhere for more than 30 seconds. He always seemed to be that un-catchable spec in the far distance, but now we seemed to be slowly gaining on him once again.

The overtaking manoeuvre finally occurred on the rocky stepped descent towards Osmotherley. I like this part of the route because it's where I usually seem to do some overtaking. No mince needed to be expended this time because the rocks were dry. Now it was my turn to exhibit some (not so) reckless abandon but I knew I'd be left wanting again as soon as the descent levelled off. Dick would be breathing down my neck. As I passed the reservoir in Oak Dale I was surprised by how empty it was. I had never seen it so low. The earlier drought in the East must have been serious before these monsoons set in. It was never that dry in the West.

Mark and I pushed ourselves over the final mile with its sting in the tail of short, sharp ups and downs that make you lightheaded in the heat. I could not believe how perfectly matched our paces had been. We had also caught up with Marie Mitton and Tracy Wilson, who were pushing a healthy pace to the finish line. We finished as a foursome in 7:21. Dick was indeed breathing down our necks because he finished just 1 minute later. If there'd been a little more flat he would have caught us again. One thing's for sure, I won't be able to do what he does when I'm an OAP.

The stricken one, later found out to be Marc Corner, got a successful finish in 7:35. I am dead chuffed. Well done Marc. I was feeling so sorry when I thought you might not finish when I knew you could with the right fuel. When you did in the end, justice was done.

The weather exceeded all expectations. We were able to lounge outside in the warm sunshine afterwards like we always do. It was good to see and chat with Runfurther Simon Berry at the finish. He was there to take charge of the sponsors' flags ready for the next event (Long Tour of Bradwell). The local fish and chip shop was doing its usual roaring trade fuelling the runners and the revellers at Osmotherley summer fair.

Talking of refuelling, mine consisted of a large cod and chips washed down by a pint of tea, then a selection of homemade cakes from the village fair washed down my another pint of tea. That was after the can of beer that took care of immediate post-race rehydration. I can't think of any better accompaniment to post-race conversation in a village hall with sunlight streaming through the windows and the sound of breakage lurching transiently through the open doors from the crockery-smashing stall outside.

Evening festivities in the Queen Catherine pub included a live band, which was so good I had to delay my retirement up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire to watch and listen. The young exhuberant locals were making merry and involved me in their jollity. I only wanted to admire the musicianship but that was soon supplemented by animated conversation, joking, talking through the desk fan on the bar (yes Duncan), laughter (from me because the fan speech was rather funny), dancing and chasers (a transparent pale green liquid that tasted pleasantly of apples but was probably quite dangerous). Some of the merrymakers were involved in the Phoenix. Duncan had marshalled in 2010, ran the 17 mile in 2011 (very fast it must be said) and ran the 26 mile this year. Unfortunately a knee niggle resulting from recent surgery forced him to stop at 18 miles, but he was blisteringly fast to that point. If he returns next year with a fully recovered knee he could win whatever distance he chooses to do, as long as it's not the 33 because the competition is a bit hot in that one, for obvious reasons (Runfurther talent an' all that).

Here are the pictures - a sunny Osmotherley Phoenix once again even in 'summer' 2012, with gorgeous views of gorgeous countryside. We are so lucky and life feels good.

Tuesday 10 July 2012

Offerton 10k. Wed 04/07/2012.

This was a rare blast from the past. The first and last time I ran this race, expertly organised as always by the ever-friendly, supportive and encouraging Stockport Harriers, was in 2005. Not only that, this would only be my third 10k race in all my years of running.

We set off in a light shower, whose cooling effect was much appreciated but all too short-lived; the evening was warm and humid. The route follows an extended version of the Woodbank Parkrun, beginning with two laps of the track before emerging into Woodbank Park then delivering us to the very bottom and furthest reaches of Vernon Park. The return route then brings us back up THAT hill into Woodbank Park and back to the track (but not quite). We have to do three laps, meaning three 'brutal' climbs. I'd forgotten that we had to do three.

The lead runner overtook me on my second hill climb. He probably finished before I'd finished my second lap and I had to do it all again. Quite awesome. I applauded him and offered words of encouragement as he passed but his focus and grim determination meant that any extraneous goings-on were blanked.

After the third lap we turned right back to the track for a final victory lap to the finish line. As I approached the track, fellow Stockport Harrier Tony Audenshaw (Bob Hope from Emmerdale) bellowed out my name and words of encouragement from the side (he's much faster than I and had finished minutes before). Like the front runner, I was also at my limit and could muster nothing with which to respond as I entered the springy track. I could hear another runner behind me and waited for the familiar sprint finish overtaking manoeuvre. It happened later than expected, just off the final bend and short straight to the finish chute. I always think that runners who can pull a sprint finish out of the bag have not been trying hard enough during the race. I'm always at my absolute limit as I approach the line, with nothing in reserve for anything like a sprint finish, ever.

My time of 0:48:28 was four seconds faster than in 2005, which can't be bad after thousands more miles in the legs and seven more years pushing me towards the big five-o. Here's another interesting statistic. My heart rate averaged at 179bpm (identical to what it was in 2005's race) and peaked at 189bpm. I was at my limit alright.

The winning time was 0:32:12. Did I say awesome?

Not long after my cycle ride back home, the heavens opened and the road flooded (thanks to all the blocked drains that never get vacuumed from one decade to the next). It held off just long enough.

I had planned to run the first of the series of four 5k Sale Sizzlers on Thursday evening to finally hone my (ahem) athletic 'prowess' for Saturday's Osmotherley Phoenix but had to abandon the idea through lack of time. Instead I had to get ready for Friday departure immediately after work.

Wednesday 4 July 2012

Whaley Waltz 5.8mi fell race. 30/06/2012.

The Whaley Waltz is one of the many excellent fell races orgainised by Goyt Valley Striders. It is a 5.8 mile race from Whaley Bridge uphill to Windgather Rocks and back, to end with a plunge into the river Goyt to cross it before running up to the finish line. It is combined with the Whaley Bridge Carnival to increase the entertainment factor for the spectators. We fell runners are more than happy to oblige, of course. (This also offered me the rare chance of a short, sharp, up 'n' down blast to blow out the cobwebs from running only Ultras.)

To prepare myself for the afternoon shock I ran my local Woodbank Parkrun in the morning, to remind myself what fast running feels like. It's never pleasant, especially for one so unaccustomed. The 23:39 result was average, therefore good. Although it wasn't a PB (impossible under the circumstances) it was nowhere near a PW. Interestingly it was identical, to the second, to two years ago when I did the Woodbank Parkrun + Whaley Waltz double.

I took the midday train a few stations up the Buxton line to Whaley Bridge for early registration, to check out the river depth, to see if I could remember the out and finish route from two years earlier, to chill out in the sunshine in the park, to have a natter with all the familiar faces and to catch the start of the carnival. The arid heatwave of 2010 was replaced by pleasant coolness, saturated ground, brimming water tables and yet more rain waiting in the wings.

The first monsoon shower hit as we gathered for the start. This sent the hordes scuttling up the side road to the shelter of the railway bridge. By the start, the rain just oozed out of brightening cloud with patchy blue sky. Steam rose from cars and road as the warm sun began to re-emerge.

We were sent on our way along the main road through Whaley Bridge in the wake of the carnival procession before we turned right down a track, into the park and right uphill onto single paths. The mud-and-bog-laden field of cows was unnerving as we crowded in the top left corner, waiting for our turn to climb the stile onto the single path with overhanging branches and fences to weave under or around. Our rest break was welcome for us but unsettling for the agitated bovines, who tried to ram their way through the barbed wire fence in the direction of the footpath-restricted single line of runners after the stile.

We eventually emerged into open fields and onto open fell, when the next rain storm moved in. I was quite cool enough while running and already began to dread the water immersion at the end. Rest breaks while running in the single path queues allowed recovery and marginally energetic overtaking manoeuvres when the path widened a little, with a few places gained on the climb to Windgather Rocks. I had Daz Burns (my Old County Tops partner) in my sights on most of the climb and got within 10 yards of him at the top. Tom Snaith, who had been on his usual barcode timing duty at the Woodbank Parkrun in the morning, was on marshal duty at the top to direct us on the right turn around the cone. The familiar rock climbers' paraphernalia was on the ground as we traversed along the top before beginning our long descent. The big difference this year compared to 2010 was that the grass on top was green instead of brown.

I ran downhill as fast as I was able or dared, but my chosen target for the day (Daz) was already pulling away as his long legs covered the ground much more efficiently than mine. The wet, muddy paths with roots and rocks made me take more care and go more slowly than I was able to do two years ago. Another thing that made me hold back was the river plunge at the end, and the fact that I needed to be able to be composed and not gasping my last breath when unable to do so under water.

The runners I had overtaken on the climb soon overtook me on the descent, and some. We crossed the same road we had crossed on the outward leg. Paul Hunt (also at the Woodbank Parkrun in the morning) marshalled us across safely and offered encouragement for the final descent past Toddbrook Reservoir dam and that dreaded immersion. I could hear the cheers of the crowd as I got closer. I got overtaken some more as I made sure I could survive that high risk environment for air breathers. I waited on the muddy bank for a second or two to wait for the two women and a man who had just overtaken me to move out of the way before jumping as far as I could. I landed in deep water with the river bed sloping steeply upwards. I stumbled forwards and discovered that my hands were resting on the bottom. It didn't feel so bad after all, even for this non-swimmer. In fact it felt surprisingly non-frigid. I started to have fun as I kicked my feet wildly to clean the cow poo and mud off my shoes. I looked up and saw a camera lense in my face. Big Fat Jim's handywork can be found here; rather good it is too. I got overtaken some more by others wading around this lover of dry land whose race-long fear had suddenly evaporated.

I got up and dragged myself up the bank and onto the track. I got overtaken some more again as I ran up the final few yards to the finish line, just 34 seconds slower than two years ago, which sounds about right for the more conservative descent this year. What is it about this race that makes it so addictive? Why do I want to return immediately to do it all again?

Daz finished 1:29 in front of me, having made up most of that lead on the descent. Well done Daz. If I do more of these fell races I may be giving you a better run for your money next year! ;-)

An excellent three-part video of the finishing plunge has been uploaded to YouTube by Stephen Bull. Here's part two (the most important one of course). Daz is at 7:10. I'm at 8:30.

A few more pictures of the day are here, mostly courtesy of my dad.