Thursday 16 March 2017

Haworth Hobble 32mi. 11/03/2017.

Race 1 of 12 in the 2017 Runfurther ultra-running championships.

‘The Hobble’ always has a fast and competitive attendance but this year’s depth of field was exceptional. In addition to its familiar status as the first Runfurther race of the year and the first (arguably the largest) annual gathering of quality trail and fell ultra-runners, it was also a qualifying race for an international ultra-running championship. For the first time ever, entries had to be closed in advance at 500. The size of the entry was reflected by the registration queue, which wound its way out of the school, up the path, up the steps and onto the road, while the queue for the eight Portaloos snaked back and forth around the school grounds. A late start was certain. I was amazed when we were only barely 15 minutes late in shuffling our way up the Haworth cobbles towards Cemetery Road. Race organiser Brett, out of sight and earshot up the hill at the head of the throng, must have given the sign. Hundreds of conversations were suddenly cut short as we got on with the day’s task.

Gassing until the G of the silent BANG.

Bronte Bridge was soon reached. My shoelaces were already coming undone. The first climb to the stile queue provided the ideal opportunity to get them sorted out with double knots. We snaked our way via the first photographers of the day to Top Withins and down to the Walshaw Dean Reservoirs. The flagstones, which thankfully were dry (apart from the submerged ones, obviously) made for easy running, while the runner at the front of the queue prevented overdoing of the effort early on.

Climbing from Bronte Bridge.

I was feeling good as we approached the first checkpoint at Widdop Reservoir (7.6 miles). Rick Ansell, a familiar face for many years on these events, overtook me for the final time as we climbed away from the reservoir. He slowly disappeared ahead on the long crossing to Hurstwood Reservoir. A steady stream of runners was now overtaking me. True to form, my slowdown had already begun. The leader over Top Withins must have been too fast after all. I’d probably need to set off walking to avoid a slowdown.

Rick follows me out of CP1. He would finish 53 minutes ahead.

The turbines on steroids (they’re much bigger than they used to be) loomed into view as we approached Checkpoint 2 at Long Causeway (13.3 miles). The aerofoils disappeared into the cloud base at the top of their rotation but the day was already shaping up to be warm. What little breeze there was had disappeared, and humidity was high. I grabbed a quick biscuit in the hope that its energy would somehow find its way into my legs and keep me going until Checkpoint 3 at Mount Cross (15 miles).

HOT DOGS, with cooked onions! I stumbled away from CP3 down the washed-out, freely swilling footpath-cum-stream bed in scoffing heaven. Ketchup smeared my chops. This would keep me going for a bit.

Sustenance at CP3.

For the first time ever we had to queue at the stile at the bottom in Todmorden. The event really was busy. The climb up the other side was laboured, to say the least. The hot dog didn’t quite have the effect I’d been wanting. The legs were emptying fast. Perhaps the whisky at Checkpoint 4 at Mankinholes (19.2 miles) would sort me out, if there’s any left.

TWO BOTTLES! AMERICAN OAK CASKS!! A snifter was dispensed and a fairy cake was downed to put out the fire.

A cheeky little snifter at CP4.

I set off running along the path to the foot of Stoodley Pike with renewed vigour. That’s as far as it lasted. The haul up to the Pike wasn’t pretty. The run/walk down the other side towards Hebden Bridge wasn’t much better. Andy and Sarah Norman caught me up on the descent down the road. Comments to the effect of “what are you doing back here?” were made. On the steep climb up the steps towards Heptonstall I virtually ground to a halt with no energy, jelly legs and feeling faint. I held onto the hand rails like some unfit thing who hardly ventures out of the house. Andy and Sarah said I should be speeding on miles ahead as they left me for dead in their wake. “Something’s not right”, I thought. “Perhaps I should go to the doctor for a full service and MOT”. Walking as fast as I could go up the road to Heptonstall I was still getting overtaken, but all the overtakers were walking too. I looked forward to the next food infusion at Checkpoint 5, New Bridge (24.5 miles).

Descending to Hebden Bridge before the haul up to Heptonstall.

JAM DOUGHNUTS! I sank my teeth into a soft, moist, luxuriously juicy example as I shuffled my way onwards and upwards. I was still getting overtaken by others whose walking was more energetic than mine.

I had just about missed my previous PB finish time (5:58) by the time I arrived at Checkpoint 6 at Grain Water Bridge (27 miles). Another refill of my water bottle and I was off up the road without wasting a second, in pursuit of anyone in my sights. I was overheating in the humid, stagnant air so I removed my long-sleeved running top. I felt an energy return as my sweat began to evaporate and cool me down. Running vest was far more appropriate right now. I walked and shuffled my way to Top of Stairs (yes, really), picking off one or two along the way. However, the group I was really targeting pulled away on the descent of the treacherous rocky track towards Lower Laithe Reservoir. I didn’t trust my clumsy jelly legs down that so clumsy bimble it was for me. I downed my second gel of the day to get me over Penistone Hill without getting caught. It must have worked because I continued to be the one doing the catching. However, it wasn’t quite enough to avoid another PW. I ran in to the finish in 6:51, equalling my PW of 2015, nicely in the bottom 29% of finishers. The good thing was, I didn’t feel wasted afterwards so I was fit for a productive first Runfurther committee meeting of the year and late return home. Being unable to run fast (or run at all) can have its advantages.

Seconds to finish.

Now if we look to the front end of the race, Thomas Payne was the first in 3:54:18 and first woman was Julie Briscoe in 4:31:54. Astonishingly, the first eight finished in under 4 hours. Furthermore, the previous record (I have no idea) was broken by the first few finishers (can anyone fill me in on the details?). I can image less what it must be like to cover that distance on foot over that terrain in that time than it must be to teleport, shape-shift, levitate or penetrate a wormhole through the space-time continuum to the finishing desk.

I took some pictures, which tend to concentrate around checkpoints when I wasn’t exerting my supreme efforts, or dying on a climb and seizing an opportunity for a few seconds' rest.

SportSunday's pictures are here.

Here are the the WoodenTops pictures:

Wednesday 15 March 2017

So what happened after Lakeland 100 2016?

Even though I imagined otherwise, running races proved to be out of the question while the knee recovered from overuse. Both of them had been complaining for years, it has to be said. The increase in shorter faster races (mostly fell) over the past 3 or more years at the expense of some of the Ultras brought me to the brink and the Lakeland 100 was the final nail in the coffin

Up The Nab English Champs fell race, 07/05/2016, courtesy Over Yonder Photography.

The year became one of DNFs (Did Not Finish), DNSs (Did Not Start) and DNEs (Did Not Enter). Races that I did complete rewarded me with PWs.

One month after Lakeland 100 at the end of August I was booked to do the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. I knew it was an impossible ask with my dreadful state of fitness and knee trying to recover, but since everything was already booked with my brother due to join me for the 10-day holiday in Chamonix, I went anyway. I was unsure about even starting but the weather was perfect, if rather warm, so I found myself among the crowd at the start ready to rumble but expecting to crash out on the first descent. Shockingly, as we waited through the announcements with music pounding our bodies, I found myself thinking: "I really don't want to do this".

Aw do I 'ave to? Can't make me.

Once underway I couldn't believe how tough the first climb felt. I didn't remember it like this. By the time we descended towards Saint Gervais it got dark. In previous years, darkness hadn't descended until miles past Saint Gervais. Runners were already falling by the wayside with the heat, lying down, vomiting. Fortunately I had no such problems. I had emptied two bottles of drink with electrolytes on that first section. My only problem was weakness and lack of any semblance of pace. Amazingly, the knee was holding out, so I had no excuse but to carry on in spite of my mind telling me otherwise. I departed the checkpoint less than half an hour ahead of the cutoff.

A little further along as I attended to a loose shoe lace I was caught up by the familiar forms of Martin Thomerson and Brandon Webb. Just when I was so desperate to throw in the towel I had the distraction of a couple of good running friends to snap me out of it and keep me on the running straight and narrow. Martin had almost finished writing a book about his ultra-running experiences and this event would provide the material for the final chapter. I have the book and it's a brilliant read I couldn't put down until I'd finished it. It Kept Me Off The Streets.

We ran through the warm night and into the next day, kicking up the dust from the dry trails. With each long, tortuous descent I was prepared for the knee to bring me to a halt, but no. I was able to plod on, checkpoint by widely-spaced checkpoint, to see how I went. As time progressed, my ultimate aim became to reach Courmayeur at 50 miles. This would be way beyond my initial assumption of not starting at all.

The first warning signs began to appear after dawn on the descent from Col de la Seigne towards Lac Combal, which was hidden beneath a blanket of valley fog.

Descent from Col de la Seigne.

The descent was steep and rocky and the knee finally began to 'talk' to me. It wouldn't have been so bad if we could have continued down the track to Lac Combal like in previous years, but a new gratuitous detour redirected us left, back upwards over boulder fields and snow fields to Col des Pyramides. A marshal blocked our passage down the original logical route. When I jokingly pretended to go that way he wagged his finger at me and said: "No no no, it's forbidden." We both had a good laugh before I dutifully turned left, upwards and off-piste with everyone else on the wild goose chase. I could see why the organisers did it. The views were stupendous. However with energy deserting my legs I had to take multiple sit-downs on boulders to eat yet another energy bar, admire the views and watch the stream of walkers plod slowly and wretchedly by, poles-a-clicking. (At least my hand-held bottles were silent.)

The detour via Col des Pyramides Calcaires.

I wasted so much time resting I was certain I'd miss the cutoff at Lac Combal. Partly to save the knee, partly through weakness but mostly because I'd given up, I ambled lazily down to Lac Combal ready for an interesting ride down from the mountains to sanctuary, so imagine my surprise to discover that cutoff was still an hour away. Oh bum. I needed rest so I laid down for a shut-eye. The sun warmed me nicely. In previous attempts it has still been in the middle of the night at this point.

After 20 minutes of listening to goings-on around me, including the departure of a 'retirement bus', feelings of guilt dragged me up to continue my journey along the glaciated valley and to the next climb to Arete du Mont Favre. The sun was high in the sky and it was hot. As we dragged ourselves upwards, the paparazzi helicopter buzzed us repeatedly before landing at the top behind a hillock.

On the long descending traverse to Col Checrouit I kept a lookout for the mountain top on the left and the Helbronner cable car station. My brother and I had surveyed our route from there a few days before after travelling across from the French side by cable car.

The checkpoint at Col Checrouit was not far off shutting down when I arrived. Previous times when I've been here we barely had the first signs of dawn in the sky over Courmayeur. Now we were basking in blazing sunshine. A live band was playing. I sat, listened and watched and applauded their skill. I had time to kill. I knew Courmayeur would be my ultimate destination and cutoff my saviour. Guilt finally forced me on my way when the Italian waiter from this mountainside restaurant that formed the checkpoint began to return his tables to normal service (cutlery wrapped in napkins and glass tumblers for water).

Approaching Col Checrouit.

I teetered / tottered / bimbled / ambled / whatever-other-slow-adjective-you-can-think-of my way down in the direction of Courmayeur, stopping along the way to take photos of the scenery and overtaking competitors. The temperature was baking so I was content to not be giving a toss and keeping my knee merely talking to me gently instead of screaming in violent protest. By the time I arrived at the bottom in the early afternoon, sunlight flooded the valley with the temperature pushing 30 deg C. In previous years, dawn has only just broken and it would be a long time before sunlight would reach the valley.

Steep dusty descent to Courmayeur - just what the knees ordered (not).

The Courmayeur checkpoint seemed strangely dead as I approached. There were no drop-bag monitors looking out for incoming runners and shouting race numbers back to the drop-bag crew. All we got now were the last remaining drop bags left hanging on racks for collection, without fanfare. I grabbed mine and climbed the stairs to the inner sanctum with 12 minutes to spare for a sit-down meal of pasta. My race was over - 50 miles in over 19 hours with some climbing involved.

Courmayeur - dead upon arrival.

For 50 miles I took a ton of pictures. It's the scenery.


Backing off on the speed and volume of running has done nothing for the fitness but it's allowed the knees to recover from the weekly hammering I'd been giving them. They feel better than they've done in years.

Some statistics for 2016:
Total distance                   >1,523 miles
Number of Ultras               11
Total Ultras (1996 - 2016) 200*
Number of races                74
Number of PBs                  3
Number of PWs                 17

* The Round Rotherham 50-miler in October (where I got a PW, naturally) was my 200th ultra-marathon.

Tuesday 14 March 2017

Two more Lakeland 100s came and went

Lakeland 100 2015 rolled on by, where I ran in a pink tutu in honour of LittleDave Cumins, checkpoint captain extraordinaire at the Blencathra Centre. It was a strangely liberating and comfortable experience - despite the normal running attire underneath. ;-) It also served to mark the special occasion of my 500 mile award (five Lakeland 100s completed). Finishing time was 35:25:02 but that was after going backwards after Ambleside. After being on PB pace through the pub-goers of Ambleside with daylight to spare, the wheels well and truly fell off and the last 15 miles took me 8 hours to grind out. Night fell and sunrise returned during those 15 miles.

LittleDave appears right, resplendent in pink at Blencathra.

Dressing up by the checkpoint marshals has become a theme to add levity to the proceedings when the going gets tough. They compete to outdo each other. One or two runners give them a good 'run' for their money. L50 runner James Harris caught up with me as I left the Mardale Head checkpoint.

The full photo album can be found here.

Nick and James at Mardale Head.

The coveted 500 mile award in 2015.

Then Lakeland 100 2016 was soon upon us alarmingly quickly, with a few PBs and PWs in between (more PWs of late as the year marches on). This would be my 50th race, 9th Ultra and 2nd Hundred of the year. I was set up for an easier pace with Stuart Blofeld. Stu had recently completed the Wild Atlantic Way Audax on his ElliptiGO bike, an awesome achievement, so he wasn't planning on going fast. I would tag along with him in an orange tutu this time (less of a clash with the running club colours, don't you know). The weather was perfect - not too hot and it didn't rain. We jogged along through a warm and sweaty night (a familiar scenario on the L100) into a new dawn on Saturday at Braithwaite. The diversion after Blencathra due to the washed-out bridge had us bypassing the perfectly safe road crossing via the bicycle/pedestrian refuge to go 'round the houses' via the additional self clip to arrive back to where we could have been quite safely 10 minutes earlier. Jenni Cox, who was in our running group at that point, had her ear bent about 'elf an'safety nanny state gawn maird'.

Shuffling our way along the wrecked coach road to Dockray (those floods really did do some damage), the midges were mercifully scarce this year. I can't imagine why. The long section to Dalemain saw us enter the estate just after the L50 runners had been released. They would be on their circuit of the estate. I felt compelled to run as fast as I could to reach checkpoint and drop bag sanctuary before the first L50 runner caught us. This was the best time to arrive at Dalemain because the support from all the L50 supporters was so uplifting. I think they were cheering the tutu though. We all made it with time to spare. As we sat in the tent and the L50 runners streamed past, a streak of pink signalled the passage of LittleDave Cumins. He had managed the Blencathra checkpoint once again through the night before shutting up shop and getting himself to the L50 start to run it in a blistering 11 hours.

(Fairies reunite and clash colours at Blencathra.)

Suitably refreshed and re-socked to stave off trench foot and blisters, Stu and I were on our way to Howtown and beyond. As we ran through Pooley Bridge I was greeted by Mark Willet, who just happened to be walking along. I'm sure it must have had something to do with this most auspicious weekend. Great to see you, Mark.

(Pooley Bridge photo courtesy of Mark Willet.)

We mostly walked to Howtown in the afternoon heat. I tried to run a few times but soon gave up. Walking was definitely on the menu.

The hillbillies and cowboys at Howtown were really uplifting. This is essential at this stage, where we L100 runners are experiencing the suffer-fest. It's probably the heat of the afternoon taking its toll. When we arrived I was taken aback by ".... is all we've got left" ending the description of available comestibles. Surely we're not that far back down the field? Nevertheless, suitably refreshed (I would never have known), Stu and I plodded our way up Fusedale past the false summit to the ultimate high point at High Kop. From there we should have been able to run down to Low Kop but the legs were having none of it. I plodded, bringing up the rear.

The descent to Haweswater continued in the same vein until my left knee began to protest with alarming ferocity (strange, since it's always been the right one that's niggled the most for the past 7 years or more). By the time we reached the interminable 'path' beside Haweswater I couldn't load the knee at all. I'd already downed some Ibuprofen, which had done nothing for the pain. Stu offered a couple of Paracetamol. I'd not tried those before under such dire circumstances but I was willing to try anything. As I struggled along the minor descents over the next hour, standing and wondering how I could negotiate them and manage the pain, I realised that the Paracetamol were doing nothing either. The pain just got worse. I was crippled to a standstill. Tears of anger and screaming frustration welled up. There was no way I'd be able to manage the final 29 miles of ascents and DESCENTS after Mardale Head if a simple step down caused so much pain. Even walking on the flat and uphill was getting painful as I dragged in to Mardale Head at 75 miles, the most remote checkpoint where I would never choose to withdraw, no matter how bad things were. Trouble is, I couldn't walk any more.

Mardale Head: Stu would continue, I would stop.

I asked for a medic to give me a once over. She tested for quad tightness, leg flexibility, any signs of pain with passive bending of the leg. Nothing. I was in good shape. Yeah, right. Try active bending of the leg. Get me to walk down a step, a gentle slope and you'll soon know about it. My Sportident dibber was unceremoniously hacked from my right wrist and I was officially retired from my 6th Lakeland 100. Stu had stuck with me dutifully as I dragged in to Mardale but he was now free to continue without external impediment to his first L100 finish. Thanks Stu for your company and support while I wallowed in self pity.

I realised afterwards that I should have offered him the tutu to continue its journey to the end. Perhaps I saved him from embarrassment by not 'thinking on' and foisting it upon him. I sat in the checkpoint drinking tea and soup and eating sandwiches provided by the caring marshals. I'd been cooking a load for a good few hours by now so I seized the opportunity of my retirement to have a relaxing sit-down and add to the pile in one of the two well-used Portaloos, still toasty from the day's unbroken sunshine. Flies tickled my bottom as I relaxed and pondered my ignominious situation. The fact that I have to use such facilities these days on a Hundred tells me how well I eat compared to years ago, when the need never arose until well after the finish.

After returning to the checkpoint I soon began to shiver in the rapidly cooling evening air. A frigid night was in store. A marshal suggested I board the retirement bus ready for the next departure after dark. Very soon I couldn't bear to sit in a seat with legs screaming with pain as they began their recovery process. I had to get out and walk around to get some relief. I was shivering uncontrollably. A kindly marshal offered me a place in her car as she was about to return to Coniston. Another needy retiree joined us. Oh the joy: I could sit with legs outstretched. On the way we did a circuit of Ambleside in the last remnants of dusk to cheer the runners on. I should have been right there right then, getting cheered at myself.

I made my first ever premature return to the school without announcement or fanfare, sidling my way in sideways hoping to go unnoticed; no medal, no T-shirt. I'm not used to this. The good thing was that Stu went on to finish successfully on Sunday morning after 38 hours and 15 minutes out there.

Saturday night recovery positions at Coniston.

Stu completes in 38hrs 15mins.

Stu took a video record of the event.

My full photo album is here.