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.

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