Saturday, 23 September 2017

King Offa's Dyke Race

Pre-start manoevering

I thought of having a go at the KODR last year but by the time I got around to entering the race was already full, so I determined not to get caught again and got my name down as soon as entries opened for the 2017 edition. Surprisingly, by the time we got to the start line on 15th September there were less than half the number of entries this year than last (33 compared to 73); this was a bit of a shame because as I was to discover it is a really great event and deserves to be a sell-out every time. Hopefully, by the next running in 2019 word will have got around and it will be full again.

The concept is simple; you follow the Offa's Dyke long distance footpath from Chepstow at the mouth of the Wye in the Bristol Channel to Prestatyn on the North Wales coast. Ten checkpoints/feed stations are passed along the way, all but one inside village halls, sports centres, etc, giving an average leg length of around 17 miles. The clocks is ticking continuously so you can get sleep at any of the CP's (if you have time), but you have an overall 90 hours to complete the course and there are cut-off times at all the CP's. You can have a drop bag for spare clothes, extra food etc, which will meet you every 50 miles. Allowing for diversions to CP's the total distance is 185 miles and the cumulative height gain 29,500ft. A shorter event, the Mercian Challenge, is run in parallel for the first 100 miles and finishing at Montgomery.

The start was due for 8pm Friday evening so I made the easy journey down from Chester to Chepstow by train, with a short walk from the station to registration at the Rugby Club. There was no start list published so the only person who I knew was going was Greg Crowley, as we'd talked about it at the Dragon's Back earlier in the year. But Greg is a different class of performer from me and I didn't expect to see him after the start, so I was pleased at registration to run into Jess Palmer, with whom I'd covered a fair chunk of the Northern Traverse last year. He'd entered the KODR but was recovering from a recent chest infection so had traded down to the shorter event. He was planning to go as slowly as he could over the 100 miles while staying in shape and not having to worry about the cut-offs; a strategy that suited me just fine.

After the pre-race briefing Race Director Richard gave us all a small King Offa coin. The deal was that we would carry this to the end of our race, where we would exchange it for a finisher's trophy. Should we not finish, we were to keep the coin "to knaw away at you until you return in a subsequent year to exchange it at the finish". I put mine inside the small plastic bag carrying the tracker, hoping that the next time I touched it would be in Prestatyn. 

We were bussed the couple of miles out to the start on the banks of the Wye. We walked the first few hundred yards from the rock marking the start of the Offa's Dyke path as the path is narrow and constrained by stiles here, then reconvened at a wider section for the countdown and the start proper. It was by now spot on 8pm and dark.


The first 50 miles  -  Chepstow to Hay-on-Wye

It was amazing just how fast the majority of the field headed off up the trail. I was walking and occasionally jogging with Jess and another runner called Rob, but inside half a mile everyone else was out of sight. I think one other runner, Les Lepper, was behind us somewhere, but apart from that we were detached at the back.

It had been raining on and off but nothing too heavy, and it was turning into a reasonably fine if somewhat misty evening. We were chatting and following the frequent "acorn" signs that marked the national trail without paying much attention to the map. Then we crossed a couple of fields with no track on the ground and found ourselves up against a gate with no stile and no acorn. Oh well, penalty for inattention. Out came the GPS and we followed it back to the trail, picked up the acorns again, put away the GPS and carried on. After we had gone maybe three miles, I pulled out the GPS again and was concerned to see the writing was upside down, at just about the same time that Jess remarked that we were crossing a railway bridge that he thought he'd seen before. Reality dawned; when we had picked up the trail again we had followed it in the wrong direction and were now almost back to the start. Hoping that no-one had been looking at our trackers too closely to reveal this incompetence, we set out again resolving to pay more attention to navigation from here on.

The trail climbed then ran in and out of woodland overlooking the Wye valley to our left - there would have been good views across to Tintern Abbey in daylight - then dropped down to follow the river bank for several miles. The river was creating its own misty micro-climate limiting visibility to barely ten yards, but as soon as we started to climb again it cleared immediately. There followed another long wooded section, where we caught up with Les, who seemed surprised to see us because he thought he was already last. Shortly after, we descended one or two slippery slopes; Jess and I seemed to cope with these a bit better than the others so we pulled ahead. We later found that Rob had a fall down one of these which would ultimately end his race. One more climb up past the Naval Temple and a final 700ft of descent down to the river again saw us at CP1 at Monmouth, 19 (or for us, 21) miles from the start, which we reached an hour or so before the cut-off, nicely on plan.

I have discovered from doing a couple of these long "non-stop" events before that one key for consistent progress is to manage sleep properly and not let the cut-offs compromise this. Two hours sleep when you're tired is all you need and will set you up for another 24 hours at least, but you don't know at the start when exactly you're going to need the first one - it depends on a lot of variables. We had to carry a sleeping bag, or at least a liner, with us because your drop bag would not reach every checkpoint; I chose to take an OMM 1.0 bag because it's much more comfortable than a liner and still weighs almost nothing. Then, I had agreed with Jess that we needed to build up at least a three hour cushion over the first three or four legs, which would enable us to sleep whenever we were tired after that.

We pushed on out through late-night Monmouth and eventually into the countryside beyond. After we had been going about an hour we were caught by Dave Lee (of Spine fame) who had been well ahead of us but managed a couple of laps of a housing estate before escaping the town. We carried on together until the next CP. Jess calculated that our combined age was 199, but that as he was only due to celebrate his 60th next year we should refer to him as "junior". The section was mainly fields, not very memorable but needing some concentration at night. The only highlight was passing the "White Castle", whose ramparts could be seen just off the track in the torch beam. It got light a few miles before the CP at Pandy, which we reached just before 7.30am, now an hour and a half ahead of the cut-off.

The volunteers at the CP's were brilliant right through the event, it was difficult to do anything for yourself. Food appeared, bottles were refilled, garbage disposed of, all wothout having to lift a finger.

The next leg to Hay-on-Wye looked to be good. It started with a long climb up onto the eastern ridge of the Black Mountains, which it then followed northwards with very little undulation for at least ten miles. Once on the ridge you could see the track ahead for miles, and Jess and I wondered why we couldn't see Dave, as we knew he had left Pandy just a few minutes before us. It turned out that he had had another navigational glitch and was now behind us. Along the ridge, which was always very slightly uphill, we had decided that jogging, although possible, was too energy-consuming and so we had decided to walk it all. I knew from the Northern Traverse that Jess naturally walks at a slightly faster pace than me. I was feeling it a bit of a stretch so I told him to go on ahead, and watched as he slowly disappeared into the distance.

The weather was perfect and the views were good though, so even for me the miles rolled by fast enough, and I was soon at the point where I had only a steady, easily runnable descent of about 2000ft down to the CP at Hay, 50 miles in, the first drop bag CP, which I reached at around 1pm, now over 3 hours ahead of the cut-off. I was now in the comfort zone and would not have to worry about cut-offs again for the remainder of the race, unless something went seriously wrong. However the descent had been long enough and steep enough to remind me that I still have a knee that isn't all that great. It hurt on and off from here to the end, but as I was generally going at a fairly modest speed the impacts were not great and the discomfort was manageable.

Jess said he had only beaten me to Hay by 10 minutes or so, so after a change of socks and shirt, fried egg roll, a dish of pasta and a couple of mugs of tea I was good to join him for the next bit.

Hay-on-Wye to Montgomery (100 miles)

The 50 miles from Hay to Montgomery are characterised by an almost endless series of hills oscillating between the 500ft and 1700ft contours; none are very long but most are steep, and there is almost no level ground. This gives a bit of a clue on how Offa's Dyke can pack in a bit more overall climb than the similar length and more obviously mountainous Wainwright "Coast to Coast" route.

We set out from Hay just after lunchtime. Some of the route was through pasture and some through more open moorland, but the hills started coming soon enough  -  Little Mountain, Disgwylfa Hill, Hergest Ridge, and it seemed that before long we were on the long, gentle run downhill to Kington. At Kington at 6.40pm we were approaching 24 hours on the go and just about to go into the second night. I could easily have slept a bit here but the Kington CP was in a tiny hall and the only CP on the course where it was really not possible to sleep. We would have to grit the teeth and carry on to Knighton. Knighton was only 14,5 miles distant so that should not be too much problem.

It got dark almost as soon as we left the CP, the temperature dropped and it started to rain. Added to this the hills on this section were definitely steeper than on the last, so it wasn't going to be an easy 14 miles. What was interesting though was that the path started to follow obvious traces of Offa's Dyke itself, the mound and ditch that we hadn't seen a lot of so far. The path was quite tortuous and tricky to follow at times, through high bracken, woods and open moorland. We met two or three other runners along this stretch, though as we were all moving and navigating at different speeds we didn't stay together long. I was getting sleepy and felt physically very tired on the last couple of uphills, definitely my lowest point in the race; I wasn't certain that I could carry on beyond Knighton, but on the flip side I knew the difference that a couple of hours sleep might make.

Eventually Knighton turned up and we tumbled into the warm checkpoint just after 1am. After a cup of tea I found a quiet spot in a side room (they even had mattresses here) and crashed out after setting my alarm for 2 hours later. I had left my wet jacket over a chair, but kept my wet socks on - I didn't want to put them on again after they had cooled down!

The sleep worked well; I rose feeling completely renewed and after more tea and jam sandwiches was ready to go, as was Jess. It was 18 miles to Montgomery, one of the longer sections, and runners familiar with the route told us that the hills on this section were probably the most strenuous of the whole route. It was dark on the first one as we pulled out of Knighton, but after this there were a few miles of gentle walking, first along a contouring path then along a jeep track alongside the dyke, during which daylight re-appeared.

Everything gets easier in daylight. The navigation becomes easy because you can see features in the distance as well as those close to you, and your peripheral vision means that you can pick out the next few yards of track while still concentrating on your feet if necessary, The weather was getting better too, no rain and the day was warming up. The real rollercoaster started after Newcastle, about halfway through the stage, but in the conditions I found it far less arduous than the hills before Knighton the previous evening, and it didn't seem too long before we were off the last high ground and following a flat section of the dyke towards Montgomery. The official path bypasses the town by about a mile, so our route diverted off through an attractive country estate to finally reach the 100 mile CP in the village hall.

This was end of the road for Jess, and he was pleased enough to collect his finisher's medal after completing his course in just over 40 hours. I wished him well, it had been great to have his company over the first "half" of the trip. As for me, another shirt and sock change, a lovely baked potato with cheese and beans, and I was out on the trail again, this time solo. The comforting thought was that even after a reasonable pit stop I had only used up just over 41 hours for the first 100 miles, which meant that I had 49 hours left for the final 85.

Montgomery to Llandegla (150 miles)

Another long section of 20 miles led to CP7 at Llanymynech. I started off in warm sunshine along a completely flat path following the dyke through agricultural territory. After a few miles though the trail climbed up through wooded plantations for a thousand feet or so to the Beacon Ring, an ancient hill fort, then descended again through more open country down to the village of Buttington where it met and crossed the River Severn. Here began the heralded only "flat bit" of the Offa's Dyke path, as it follows river and canal banks for ten miles. In fact a lot of it was along a modern form of "dyke", as it followed the crest of a levee built to restrict the river during flood periods. I tried jogging at times, but the grass was quite long and it always seemed more effort than was worth it, so in general settled for a steady walk. As dusk fell the track finally left the river to follow the actual dyke again, but this was now across fields full of cows and it was difficult to avoid treading in a lot of slop in the darkness.

The track reached dry land in the village of Four Crosses, from where it followed a canal towpath for a couple of miles to Llanymynech and the CP, where I arrived around 9.30pm. I had plenty of time for another sleep so took another couple of hours here. When I woke up there were several runners all preparing to leave, but there was also a heavy rainstorm going on outside so there seemed to be a reluctance to get out into the night. After a while it slackened off a bit so four or five of us took the plunge sometime after midnight. 

We went at different speeds up the initial steep hill through the woods out of the village, so I found myself on my own for a while, but after a mile or two I came back together with two of the others, Graham and Simon. We had a slightly unnerving experience as we set out across one field and saw what looked like a galaxy of bright lights coming towards us; it was a herd of cows, young heifers I think, on the charge. Some vigorous waving and shouting brought them to a halt about ten yards from us, but they still had another couple of goes as we made our way round them and out of the other end of the field. It wasn't clear if there were any houses nearby but I'm afraid our shouts would have disturbed their sleep if there were!

The route continued to follow a wandering line through fields, bits of lane and scrubby slopes until the village of Trefonen where we picked up the line of the dyke once more. Simon was moving faster and had gone on ahead, Graham and I continued together. The rain seemed to have mostly gone and we could occasionally see stars so the weather seemed to be improving. We got to a section of very boggy fields alongside the dyke which made for slow progress. We saw a light ahead and as we approached Simon shouted to be careful because he had had a shoe sucked off by the mud. We took a wide line around where he was. He didn't sound distressed so we pressed on, but talking to him later he got very cold sorting himself out so we should have stayed with him and I really regret not doing so at the time.

Graham and I plodded our way on through fields and over hills, eventually it got light and we did a final long descent then reascent up to CP8 in the grounds of Chirk Castle. Graham was very tired and looked to find somewhere to sleep immediately. Shortly after us Simon turned up saying the lost shoe affair had made him feel pretty low but that he was getting it back together again now. I was feeling fine so fortified by a Pot Noodle Curry (at 7am!) I headed out again. Lanes and fields in a gentle drizzle led down to the Llangollen canal, then the rain drifted off as I followed the towpath along to and over the famous Froncysyllte aqueduct. Up through the woods and onto the panorama road I felt I was getting to home ground as I'd reached the only bit of Offa's Dyke that I already knew; living in Chester, the trail from Llangollen to Bodfari is one of my regular training grounds. For the first time since leaving Chepstow I could confidently put the map away and just enjoy covering familiar ground.

Reaching the traversing path under the Eglwyseg escarpment I was suddenly aware that I was almost falling asleep. Fortunately, or maybe causally, this coincided with a bit of warm sunshine so I lay down on the grass and slept for twenty minutes. It was enough to banish the sleepiness completely and I was soon on up the hill past World's End, across the boardwalk and down through the forest to CP9 which was in some tents in the campsite at Llandegla. It had just started to rain a bit again but the marshals had everything really well organised and the plate of beef stew which I had almost immediately after arriving was the best meal I'd had since leaving Chepstow.

Llandegla to Prestatyn (185 miles)

There were one or two runners considering sleep but I wanted to make the best use of the daylight over the Clwyds, so after eating I stayed at Llandegla just long enough for a final sock change. I used Dexshell waterproof socks throughout, a decision based on the assumption (borne out in practice) that the course would be wet enough to ensure that shoes would be almost continually wet. I don't use liners, I just smear my feet liberally with Sudocrem when changing socks. The system seems to work for me, my feet don't stay completely dry but they keep clean, warm, not too wrinkly and I don't get blisters.

I made good time over to Clwyd Gate then on over Y Fenlli to the Moel Famau col. The climbs felt easy enough, either because they are less steep than those further south or because of my familiarity with the ground. The tracks are good here, mostly dry and not technical, allowing you to get into a good rhythm. There are also very few gates or stiles, in contrast with the majority of the Offa's Dyke path. Moel Fammau summit was mist shrouded, but as I dropped out of it on the descent beyond the cloud layers made for a spectacular sunset. It was dark before I reached Moel Arthur, so I traversed this and the final hill Pen y Cloddiau by torchlight. The long descent to Bodfari went well until the final few hundred yards, which I don't do often and which was disappearing into mist and long grass.

From the valley road crossing in Bodfari it was necessary to climb several hundred feet up the hill on the other side to reach the CP. For the first time the instructions seemed a bit imprecise, and it was difficult to see where you were heading, especially up a steep muddy field path. Then a winking light came into view marking the key direction to take. I'm sure this initiative on the part of the CP team saved a lot of frustration for runners arriving at this point in darkness. Further along one of the CP team had come out to meet me (as they did for all runners) and guide me along the final two or three hundred yards to the CP. Unfortunately, just as I reached her we were treated to a sudden torrential downpour, so we both got to the CP rather wet.

The CP was in a little wooden cabin but nicely appointed and they even had a food menu! I had some rather good homemade soup ("Brazilian Vegetable") and a cheese sandwich. I was in two minds whether to sleep an hour or press straight on and get the thing done. In the light of the rain still hammering down I asked if anyone had a forecast; the rain was due to stop later apparently, so I decided I was in no hurry and retired to the back room for an hour. It had stopped raining when I woke, so after some tea and cake I was out of the door and on to the last lap. One of the CP staff had said runners were averageing about 5 hours for the last section; I left just after 1am and made 6am my target. 

There were a few bits of open hillside but it was mostly fields again, still needing attention for the navigation. I think the problem was that I had mentally switched off at the last CP, thinking it was more or less all over, but there were still a couple of substantial climbs, and my dodgy knee had by now siezed up to the extent that stiles were becoming a bit of an effort. Still, the miles gradually ticked by. About 4 miles from the end I was passed by Karl, going at a much more respectable speed than me, but apart from that I saw no-one. There was one last climb up onto a ridge behind Prestatyn, which the path then traversed for a mile or so with great views out over the town, then a final descent down to the last section of road through the town. This was another mile or so and I managed a steady jog most of the way down until interrupted by a footbridge over the railway line. After this the finishing flags soon came into view. The only person at the finish at this time in the morning was RD Richard, who must have had a long night (or couple of nights, as Greg had finished in first place in the early hours of the night before!). All that was left was to step up to the rock marking the finish of the Offa's Dyke Path, trade in my coin for a finisher's trophy and I was done.


I finished in 81 hours 51 minutes 52 seconds, in 14th place out of 33 starters.

Shower, sleep and food (well that was my sequence at least) were available at the finish. A few runners were still around later in the morning. The final cutoff was 2pm but we all gathered at least a couple of hours before that to welcome the last finisher Les as he completed his trip.

It was a good journey, tougher than I expected but I survived pretty well. It's now three days since the finish and the swellings that I had on both feet and especially my right knee have all now gone back to normal. I've felt tired for a day or two but will probably get out for a gentle jog again by Sunday.

This was my first "Beyond Marathon" event and I was impressed by the thought that had gone into the race and the organisation on the day. Richard and his team deserve a lot of thanks for allowing us to play. I'm sure I'll do more.

Interestingly, looking back I saw that I finished the 190mile, 28,000ft of climb "Northern Travese" last year in 81:28:11.  To have got within just over 20 minutes on two such different courses seems strange  -  there must be a story there but it will have to wait until I've given it a bit more thought.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

St Begas Ultra

I entered the St Begas Ultra way back in the autumn of last year. I'd been in the UTMB ballot many times over the years and never been successful, only ever getting a place on the second or third try, whatever the rules were at the time. I assumed this year would be the same, enter the ballot, get rejected, double chance next year. So I was looking around for an event around the end of August, this one popped up and I got my name down. Then in the New Year, surprise, surprise, I got a UTMB place first try. I paid the money, booked a flight, got the medical certificate organised and forgot about St Begas.

And that was the plan until things started going wrong as the year progressed. After last year's UTMB I resolved that I would never again start a race that I knew was near my limit while carrying an injury. I immediately broke the rule with the Dragon's Back and it didn't turn out well. By the end of July, after completing the Lakes Sky Ultra, I knew that I could hang on near full stretch for 12 or 15 hours but any longer would probably be not possible and likely to lead to disappointment; I took the sensible path for once and cancelled plans for  Chamonix.

St Begas was still there so I decided to go along. The only problem was that the year of things not going quite right continued. A week before the race, while running probably a bit too exuberantly down Latrigg after my best time going up this year, I felt the familiar sharp pop in the calf, followed by the hopping to a halt then the slow hobble home. Well that's it I thought, nothing much now for a few weeks.

But it wasn't too painful the following day; I diligently did the stretching and exercises that are second nature by now and by the end of the week I felt I might just have a chance if I was careful. On the Friday evening I jogged four gentle miles around Keswick, keeping to 12 minute miles maximum. The calf felt a bit achey but nothing desperate. If I kept to this pace and walked if things got bad I might be OK. Saturday morning at 5.30am saw me checking in at St Bees.

The St Begas is a 37 and a bit mile outing that starts in Dodd Wood near Bassenthwaite, wends its way across to Portinscale then follows the Cumbria Way down Borrowdale to Rosthwaite. Here it picks up the Coast to Coast path which it takes on and off all the way to the finish at St Bees. It's billed on the website as a suitable first ultra for runners just coming into the game, but it also attracts some pretty competent operators judging by winning times in previous years. I was hoping that its fairly modest ascent of just over 4000ft would give a worthwhile day out while not compromising any future plans too much

The event base is the rather elegant St Bees School where registration was friendly and efficient, with coffee available as we waited for the buses to take us to the start near Bassenthwaite. I didn't know whether anyone I knew had even heard of this event but Tori Miller who I had met on the Dragon's Back and the Sky Ultra came up to say hello at registration, then as we got off the buses at Bassenthwaite I ran into Eric Baird whom I've encountered at many WHW races. In spite of the expansion of interest, ultra running continues to be a relatively small world. After a brief briefing from Race Director Jon Raymond, who said that this was the fifth running of the event, we were under way.

The first half mile or so was uphill through Dodd Wood so that suited me fine, no running required. What was surprising was that I was nowhere near the back of the field, quite an unusual experience for me these days. I overtook a few more runners on the steepish but easy descent from the woods to the main road then settled into a steady jog for the first long "flat bit". I'd never been across the fields from Bassenthwaite to Portinscale before but they were much as expected  -  squelchy and full of cows. The weather forecast was good but it was still overcast at this point, adding to the general gloominess. All this was soon over though and I perked up in anticipation of a much-loved bit of ground, the lakeside and riverside path from Portinscale down Borrowdale to Rosthwaite.

A pattern for the day seemed to be set here. Many of the runners who I was around in my bit of the field were not really used to trail running, indeed a number that I chatted to seemed to have come from the south of England for the event. The result was that as I plodded along at my steady self-imposed five miles an hour pace I was overtaken by numerous people on any easy tracks or surfaced sections, but as soon as we hit any rocks or tree roots I caught them all up again. As we approached the first checkpoint in Rosthwaite Village Hall at 11 miles from the start, my legs were feeling not great but certainly OK, but I didn't seem to be working at the job very hard. I resolved to tackle the uphills with a bit of effort to get a proper workout.

Boardwalk section towards the southern end of Derwentwater

The checkpoints were all indoors and well stocked so you didn't need to carry any food with you at all on the event, and I found one waterbottle quite sufficient. The mandatory kit was the normal stuff for mountain areas though so you needed a pack. At the start we were told that because of the good forecast we could omit waterproof trousers but I couldn't be bothered to dig them out of my sack so took them anyway  -  I guess an indication that I was subconsciously treating this as more of a training day than a race. 

The uphill started soon after Rosthwaite; along the river to Seatoller then up the Coast to Coast path to Honister. Most events take the old tramway path above here but today we were led up the quarry road and then across the fell to the tramway winding house. Easier under foot but I think a bit more arduous mentally than the tramway. All the way from Seatoller I was jogging the easier gradients and walking quickly on the rest so overtook numerous people on this stretch. We carried on up to the col that leads over to Ennerdale, where there was a marshal to make sure that we took the right turning and didn't end up in Wasdale. Navigation on the course was by a printed Road Book and Map, very like the ones you get at the Lakeland 50/100 races but, I guess in keeping with the idea of making this a good first ultra with no worries about finding your way, there were also marshals at all the key turns. 
Heading for Ennerdale

We got a bit of breeze and the hint of precipitation over the top but nothing serious to warrant a jacket or disrupt the views; this is quite a high pass as you look over and down to the summit of Haystacks on the right, but we were soon losing height again and heading down into Ennerdale. I had last been on this track on the Northern Traverse over a year ago so didn't really remember the details. It was good to find that the steep path down alongside Loft Beck has been "fix the felled" with solid stones and was an easy jog down, followed by a nice traverse along to Black Sail Hut. The next four miles were a bit tedious though, following the jeep track down the valley to Ennerdale Youth Hostel, which was adjacent to the second checkpoint at Low Gillerthwaite Field Centre. All the way down this track I was overtaken by runners at regular intervals as they cruised past easily beating my constant 12 minute mile jog. It was tempting to speed up but things had worked out so far so I maintained the cautious approach.  The clouds had broken up now, the sun was out and the day was warming up, so it was good to get to the checkpoint and top up the water again.
Descending the Loft Beck path

There was tea on offer and I wavered a moment, but this was a 37 mile race not a 100 so I tried to keep up a good CP style and was in and out in a minute or so. More flat ground followed following the jeep track, paths and minor roads along the north side of Ennerdale Water all the way to Ennerdale Bridge. This would be my only criticism of the course planning; it would have added a bit of variety to stick with the Coast to Coast route around the south side of the lake; much harder under foot and with a bit of a climb over Anglers' Crag, but it would have cut the amount of flat track bashing almost in half.

The pull up out of Ennerdale Bridge back onto the low fells of the west was hot, and I had already run out of water again. Fortunately I remembered from the Coast to Coast that there were good water sources in the delightful Nannycatch valley so I was able to top up again. Just as well because in the hot afternoon the final climb up Dent Hill wasn't going to be a pushover. On the Northern Traverse in the opposite direction we had come straight down the steep grassy flank of the hill, but our route today took us up through the forested area to the south via a still steep, stony track called "Bummers Hill". RD Jon had warned us about this at the briefing, but had also assured us that "it will end eventually!" Taken at a steady power walk it actually seemed a welcome break from all the slow jogging on the flat and went quite quickly. The run down the far side on gentle-angled grass was just wonderful, and I probably broke my self-imposed speed limit for a few hundred hards, but apparently with no harm done. A bit of forest and a stony lane brought us down to the village of Cleator and the third and final checkpoint in its village hall at the 33 mile mark.
Easy going down Dent Hill

A quick water refill, a handful of jelly babies and crisps and it was out for the final 4 miles. Most of the first half was on a surfaced cycle track but at least it was tree-lined and shady, then we dived off it for a final bout of trees, stiles and animals to the finish. Again it was tempting to speed up but the head said a few minutes off the time now wouldn't be worth risking damage for, so I carried on at pretty well exactly the same pace as I had made through the fields leaving Bassenthwaite first thing in the morning. We were a little bunch of four approaching the finish. One of the ladies had been passing and repassing me for most of the afternoon, so as we hit the couple of hundred yards of school playing field to the finish I expected her to push on faster than me which she did. The other two runners were going at a slower general pace so without really speeding up I left them behind to finish in 8 hours 39 minutes and 35 seconds, in 62nd place out of 142 starters.

I was pretty happy at the finish. In normal circumstances I guess I would have been shooting for an hour or so quicker, but I was pleased to have completed an outing that a week earlier I couldn't see myself starting and come home in good order and with no damage.

Tori and Simon, who she had been running with, had finished 4 or 5 minutes ahead of me and we all then spent an enjoyable hour in the warm sunshine enjoying the fish and chips and beer which came as part of the entrance fee. All round, a nice day out.

Would I go again? Probably not, too much flat ground for me, but it is a very well organised event based on a super location, and in my current state of competence probably just what the doctor ordered. But things get more serious again very soon  -  the 185 mile King Offa's Dyke Race starts at 8pm just 15 days from now.....

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Lakeland 100 and 50 - Trot or Trial?

I once heard a yachtsman say that ocean racing was like standing under a cold shower for hours on end tearing up ten pound notes, but he somehow couldn't give it up.

I've been involved in the Lakeland 100/50 events for 8 consecutive years now, either running or marshalling (I stayed away for the first two years, looking back I can't think why) and it's always been a weekend to remember. 2017 was a non-running year, so I spent 12 hours or so checking runners in, a short while at the 50 start watching sheep go wild near Dalemain, then a further 12 hours on the finish line.

The finish is always a great place to be, welcoming in runners who have made it home from whichever adventure they set out on. The brief for the marshalling group here is to make sure that runners make their final "dib" to give them their finishing time (including a fair bit of "co-ordinated dibbing" for the numerous finishers who want to record the same time as the person they finished with), then escort each runner to the inside finish area, announce their finish as they face the bright lights and applause, then hand them over to receive their medals (and any TLC they might be in need of at that point!).

This year the finish was a bit different for me for two reasons.

Firstly, because this year the finish was in the big tent rather than the school hall, the distance between the finish line and the "reception" was about four times as far as usual. Although that gave us a slightly harder job in making sure that the finishing athlete got into the warmth and safety as soon as possible while understanding the natural tendencies to celebrate with loved ones, take photos and so on, it also gave a longer oppportunity to ask how the finisher had found the experience of their event, which was fascinating.

Secondly, this was the first year that I've been involved in marshalling that we had some bad weather. Although there were longish dry periods, it rained on and off throughout the two days of the events, but what may have been particularly significant was that just after the starts of both the 100 and the 50, paricipants were treated to a noticeable shower. On top of this, as the Lakes had had significant rainfall over the preceding few weeks, the ground was much wetter underfoot than in most other years.

The first finishers I saw at the start of my first "shift" at the finish line were those completing the 100 in between 24 and 30 hours. The earlier ones were mostly in really good shape. When I asked about the rain on Friday night, a common response was "well it was just a shower and it was a pretty warm night, didn't affect things too much". Contrast this with comments from more than one 100 finisher who I saw during my second shift on Sunday morning, who said they had been suffering "since the first torrential downpour just after leaving Coniston".

Of the later finishers in both races that I saw on Sunday morning, of course all were pleased that they finished but it was clear that some had had a much more pleasant experience than others. The two main problems of those suffering were (1) of being continuously wet and cold, and (2) of having problems with feet, blisters and shredded skin. Others however, despite being out on the course for almost 24 hours (for the 50) and 40 hours (for the 100) came back with "no blisters, no problems, will be back next year".

So why did different runners have such different experiences over the events?

I think it comes down to two factors, which are separate but related.  The first is experience. Runners who complete half a dozen or so ultras a year (and I know some who do many more than that) will have had their share of poor weather conditions, and if they operate in the mountain or moorland areas will have had plenty of wet ground to deal with.  Nothing sharpens your decision-making as well as a bit of suffering, you learn how to avoid it. But I suspect that in some of the "big name" races like the Lakeland or the West Highland Way, the event is the sole target for the year of runners who don't have the time to indulge in running and training for more events, and under these conditions experience comes slowly. But it's still possible to mitigate suffering quite a lot by using other peoples' experience and a bit of smart planning.

I always feel good planning is the difference between enjoying an event and just "getting through" it.

Training for the specifics of the event are important; for example for the majority of finishers in the Lakeland 50/100, the event itself will consist of some jogging over uneven ground and a lot of walking up hills and shambling down them so that is what you need to train for, but that's not really what I'm on about here, I'm sort of assuming that's a given that everyone understands. The real issue this year was planning for the conditions.

Everyone knew that it was going to rain to some extent (the forecast said so) and everyone knew the ground was going to be wet (it had been raining on and off for weeks). Let's take these one at a time.

When it rains during a long event you get wet, and unless the sun comes out or you have a change of clothes, it's hard getting dry again. (Forget about the idea of a waterproof jacket keeping you dry in the rain, you get thoroughly wet from sweat). Now being wet isn't a problem (you could stand under a warm shower pretty well indefinitely without getting uncomfortable), but here is the key  -  you don't select your clothes in a long race to prevent getting wet, you select them to prevent getting COLD.
I wrote a complete post about this a year or two ago  ("My Waterproof Jacket Leaks", if you're interested you can find it here), but here are the basics. You stop getting cold by making sure your clothing does all it can to minimise heat transfer, that is:-

- your jacket needs to be windproof (you blow on your tea to cool it down, remember)

- the outer surface needs to shed water droplets rather than hold onto them (this is why you "reproof" breatheable materials, to make them shinier)

- you need something to keep the cold surface (the inside of your jacket) away from the (you hope!) warm surface (your skin). This can be a mesh lining on the jacket or some sort of long-sleeved top; the thicker the top, the better it prevents heat transfer. On top of this, thinner and more flexible shells cling to your shape and induce more heat transfer than heavier, stiffer ones  -  that's why heavier jackets (and/or lined ones) feel more comfortably "waterproof".

The only added factor here is that faster runners generate more heat than slower ones so can tolerate more heat transfer without feeling uncomfortable. A couple of days ago I ran a bit of the course in reverse, from Coniston to Langdale, in continuous heavy rain. I was completely comfortable in a thermal vest and a thin waterproof shell because as I was only out for a couple of hours I could run all the time; had I stopped to walk I would have quickly felt very cold, so wouldn't contemplate such light clothing for a long event with rain forecast.

I spent a good few hours on kit inspection for this years event. I was a bit concerned by the number of runners presenting really thin lightweight kit which they could only fit into a tiny race vest with difficulty. Sure, it met the specifications in the rules, and was entirely appropriate for a runner intending to complete the 100 in around 24 hours or the 50 in 10 hours. These guys would go fast enough to keep warm. But for those who would spend a lot of time at or near walking pace it was going to lead to a race that wouldn't be much fun, especially as they had no room in the bag for any insulating layer that they could use (as opposed to their emergency layer, which they couldn't). As a runner normally finishing the 100 around the 37-38 hour mark, I wouldn't have set out on Friday without a stiffer than normal jacket and a light fleece that I could wear under it, with a replacement in the bag at Dalemain.

Now let's have a quick look at feet. By Lake District standards both the 100 and the 50 are dry courses. The only places you are likely to get wet feet in a normal year are on the col before Eskdale, possibly short bits up to the Coach Road and coming down from High Kop, and the hundred yards of shallow bog to the Wrynose road (which is almost at the finish anyway). With a spare pair of socks in your bag and plenty of trail to drain and dry your shoes, these are easily managed. But as runners found this year, even a few days of steady rain beforehand can turn the course into one where you can get wet feet in many other places, and under these conditions they are likely to be continuously wet. 

Experienced runners would probably have met and learnt from courses with a lot more wet ground (higher ground in the Lakes or Wales, lots of runs in the Pennines and Dales, etc), looked at the recent weather and prepared accordingly. But here again it's possible to learn from others' experience. Approaches to dealing with wet ground vary hugely, there is no one answer, you have to find out what works for you. But if you wander around the Facebook groups that cover races with guaranteed wet feet potential (The Spine and its derivatives, the Dragon's Back, there are plenty if you look around - remember some of these guys have to deal with continuously wet feet for a week!) you can find lot's of ideas to try.  Too many for me to cover here. But trial is the key, if you think you have found a solution, go out somewhere you know is wet and plough through it for twelve hours or so. Again I wouldn't personally set out on a course like the Lakeland 100 under the conditions we had this year without a strategy which I knew was going to see me through a couple of days with no foot problems.

So in the end, your ultra experience (whatever the conditions) comes down to this:

You can look upon it as a huge undertaking which will test you to the limit in every way, expect to suffer and overcome the suffering, derive great satisfaction from completing it and end up with a bit of a battering that may take you a few weeks to recover from.

Or you can understand the task in hand, both in general and in the conditions predicted for the day, train and plan accordingly, execute your plan, enjoy the trip, then look forward to the next adventure.

I'm not saying either of these is best; both are valid and worthwhile approaches.

It's a choice.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The Lakes Sky Ultra

I don't often say this, but if you're a runner with a bit of feeling for the fells, then this is a race you should definitely do at least once in your career.

I can't really remember when I entered the Lakes Sky Ultra. I think it must have been back in the autumn of last year when I still had realistic Dragon's Back ambitions because when I got the reminder email with the final details around three weeks ago it did seem quite a big undertaking in the light of all the problems I'd had this year. Still, I'd paid so I decided to go and give it a shot; the best I could hope for was to get round the course within the time allowed, so I planned for that and in the end that's what happened. 72nd place out of 73 finishers doesn't sound too great (although out of 100 starters it sounds slightly better), but all round it turned out a very satisfying day out, certainly my best effort for 2017 so far.

Most Race Directors are guilty of a touch of exaggeration in their advertising but as Charlie Sproson is one of the few people to have completed a Ramsay Round so must know his way round a hill or two, I think you have to take notice when he describes his race as 

 " of the spiciest races in the country. 56km of Lakeland paths, trails and tussock, 4500m of vertical grind, grade III scrambles and knife edge arĂȘtes - this race has it all. It is not for the faint hearted and racers will need to be competent on steep rock scrambling sections. It is extreme. It is gnarly. It is hardcore. It is awesome."

A rough profile is shown below, with another of the first 52km of the Lakeland 100 on the same scales for comparison. You can see that 4500m (14,700ft)  means a fair bit of up and down.

On the application form we had to confirm that we had the scrambling ability to complete the course, promise not to fall off anything steep into embarassing places, and to exercise "sound mountain judgement" should the need arise. We also had to declare we were fit enough in wind and limb to take on the course. I wasn't too sure about this one but I'd decided after the West Highland Way that the best way to treat my knee was to ignore it, taking heed of the Joss Naylor advice that "if something ails you, you've just got to shrug it off or you won't achieve much in the hills". I'm sort of getting used to the discomfort now anyway, so I guessed it would probably be OK. Three days after the event it's a still bit swollen and sore but nothing disastrous, so with some rationing and careful planning I think it will see me through a year or two more running yet.

Registration was on the Friday evening at the University of Cumbria's Ambleside site, which was also the start and finish point for the event. After the normal kit check and picking up of dibbers, trackers and everything else that seems to complicate races these days, a meal was available followed by a compulsory briefing in the lecture theatre. Charlie showed us videos of the first running in 2015 (it rained a lot) and the second last year (it was sunny), and said that everyone was doing too many races these days because at least 40 entrants had withdrawn before the start due to injuries; nevertheless we would be a select field of around a hundred runners. He told us to look after ourselves and each other and have fun, and finished with the weather forecast which ended with the phrase "sunshine is unlikely".

A civilised start time the following morning meant that I didn't have to leave Keswick until well after 6am after a proper breakfast, so was nicely set up for the day. We gathered under very low cloud for the countdown and were off on the dot of 7am. Everyone started off running up the hill (pretty well any direction out of Ambleside is uphill) so within two or three minutes I was established firmly at the rear with fifty or so yards gap between me and the back of the pack; I don't often run up hills, especially not first thing in the morning, but I wasn't bothered, I knew most of the ground ahead and I had a plan for (just) getting round in time. At the first gate I stopped to say hello to Karen Nash, who I knew from Facebook but had never met; she was supposed to be running but was one of those who had unfortunately had to pull out through an injury. After that, everyone else was out of sight, having disappeared into the mist ahead.

I have to admit that the weather on the day wasn't great. Visibility generally fluctuated between twenty and about a hundred meters; we had heavy rain at times and some dry spells but the overall impression was of a steady drizzle, made a bit more wet by the fairly constant wind that meant that my main audible memory of the day was the continual ripping of the wind at the race number pinned to my leg. Not an unusual day for the Lakes though, "if you can't take a joke you shouldn't have come" sort of weather.

The thing started with an ascent of the eastern arm of the Fairfield Horseshoe, from Ambleside up to Fairfield summit. I've covered this ground at least a half dozen times up and down over the years but there are lots of choices on which side of the wall to go where, which path to use when there are choices even on one side, etc, and I have to say the line the race took was the best I've ever used. How did we follow this line?....because the course was fully marked as are all "Sky Running" events. I'm always in two minds about this; it somehow seems wrong to have all the navigation done for you when out on the hills and it certainly takes away any compensation that slower runners might gain by being better navigators, but it also takes away some of the "home advantage" locals might have from knowing the ground. Today however there was a slight problem. The markers (normally small red flags on thin metal "wands" stuck in the ground, rocks, fence posts, etc) are normally placed at about 20 - 50 metre spacing depending on the terrain, which meant that because of the mist there were many occasions when you arrived at a flag but couldn't see the next one. This was OK when following an obvious track or ridge, but a bit disconcerting when the line just ploughed off across country with no other markings. I think that probably slowed everyone down to some extent but with a bit of care it worked well enough.

I walked the steeper uphills and jogged the rest up to the first checkpoint on Dove Crag, by which time I had overtaken four runners so was now not actually last. I told the lonely looking marshal that she wouldn't have to stay up there much longer, then pressed on over Hart Crag and Fairfield, then down the quick descent to checkpoint 2 at Grisedale Hause. The route then followed the Bob Graham line around the west side of Grisedale Tarn and up the steep grassy trod to the well-known lonely fence post on the track just short of Dollywagon Pike. Halfway up here a photographer appeared out of the mist, an event that was repeated in all sorts of unlikely spots throughout the day.

Along the track towards Helvellyn I caught up with another runner and we carried on together for a mile or so. He told me that he was a bit impressed with the class of the field; he said he'd been in a race down in South Wales a couple of weeks previously where he had come second in a field of over two hundred, now here he was in the last half dozen of a hundred! We passed the filming team on Helvellyn (like you do) and set off on the first bit of fun for the day, down Swirral Edge and along to Catsty Cam. "Now the flags will be along the crests of the ridges" RD Charlie had told us at the briefing, "and that's where you go. No going down onto to the granny tracks along the sides!" He wasn't wrong; throughout the day, if there was a crest to be found, that's where the line went. The greasy condition of the rocks needed a bit of care but we seemed to be making quick enough progress. We checked in with another chilly-looking marshal on Catsty Cam (these guys all did a sterling job in the conditions, especially later in the course where they were out for much longer), then followed a knee-testing descent down the west ridge to the old dam in Keppel Cove. There was another checkpoint here which had water, so I stopped to top up a bottle. I reached here three and a quarter hours from the start, the marshal said the leaders had been through an hour and a quarter earlier, so the field was starting to spread out now. With such poor visibility we had really no awareness of where anyone outside our little bubble was on the course.

A traversing line following a sort of path led westwards round to Red Tarn Beck, then it was straight up the grassy fellside to the "hole in the wall", another checkpoint and a well-known landmark on the approaches to Helvellyn from Patterdale. Striding Edge next, which as most of the moves were uphill or horizontal could be taken at a faster pace than the descent of Swirral in the prevailing conditions. 

Striding Edge (all photos in this post are taken from the Lakes Sky Ultra
Facebook page, just to give an impression of atmosphere on the day.I don't
know who the individual runners pictured are)
I caught up with three ladies on the last few hundred feet, then as we popped out onto the summit plateau again we immediately lost the flag line.  We knew we were heading for Nethermost Pike so turned left and kept moving. I explored a bit down towards the edge and found the flags again, along an almost sheltered little trod a bit down from the top. We slowed down a bit to avoid losing them again. Just before Nethermost one or two yellow flags started appearing in between the red ones. On the summit checkpoint the marshal (the famous John Bamber of Gregs Hut on the Spine Race) explained that he had brought yellow flags up to mark the dibber point, but it in the conditions he found when arriving on the summit you couldn't see from one red flag to the next so he had used them to make the line a bit easier to follow; I think all the runners will have appreciated that, especially on the next section which was finding the start of a little-used descent down the east ridge of Nethermost to the top of Eagle Crag.

This started off down a steepish rocky ridge but this gave way to grass at an easier angle with good running for a while. The girls got away from me down here but I caught them again as they stopped to tighten shoe laces before the steep descent alongside Eagle Crag. I was happy with mine so pressed on through, first down a rocky gulley then some very steep grass and finally a rocky corner leading to the scree below the crag. There were two or three marshals in this area and they had rigged a knotted rope down the corner which in the slippery conditions was welcome.

I had pondered shoe choice for quite a while before the race. I've been using Innovate Roclites for more technical rocky ground recently and they seem very nimble, but don't really have enough cushioning for me to wear all day. The entry rules for the race specified a lug depth of at least 3mm so I guessed there must be some steep grass in places. In the end for the first half of the race I wore Scott Kinabalu Supertracs which have a good grass/mud grip and are very comfortable. You needed care on the wet rock with any shoes so their deficiencies on that score were not too much of a handicap on the day and I was happy with the choice.

Descending past Eagle Crag

Dropping out of the mist below Eagle crag we met with the best weather conditions of the day. Suddenly you could see right down the valley to Ullswater below. On the other hand, you could also see the next bit of the course with many runners strung out on it. After crossing Grisedale Beck at the big footbridge we were faced with a climb of around twelve hundred feet up extremely steep pathless grass to the base of Pinnacle Ridge on St Sunday Crag. A lot of techniques were in evidence, some runners taking it in manic short bursts followed by gasping rests, others taking it very slowly and steadily, some trying to use poles but it was really far too steep for them to be any use. The most effective for me seemed to be to walk up steadily, hands on knees on the less steep bits and grabbing the bilberries for a quick pull on the steeper sections. I resisted the temptation to look up too often and the base of the crag seemed to arrive soon enough. There were marshals at the base of Pinnacle Ridge and at various points along it. The rocks were greasy in places but less than I had expected. At the briefing we had been told that the steep crux corner would be in the course but when we got there the marshals had us avoiding it via a fixed rope up some steepish grass around to the left. Whether this was down to changing conditions or some other reason I never found out. I reached the top of the crag about 45 minutes after crossing Grizedale Beck and was relatively pleased with that.

Pinnacle Ridge
From St Sunday Crag it was a very cruisy couple of miles or so down a nice grassy track to the halfway checkpoint in Side Barn at Patterdale, with the last ten minutes or so in the "unlikely" warm sunshine.

The overall time allowed for the event was 14 hours, ie for a 9pm finish. Patterdale was pretty well exactly half way in distance but the first half contains far more climbing and technical ground so the cut-off here was set at seven and three quarter hours; I had hoped to arrive in seven but was about six minutes over that. In dry conditions with good visibility I'm sure I could have knocked at least half an hour off that, so I was happy enough with progress so far. I just needed not to hang around too much from here on.

Patterdale had coffee and soup, bread and biscuits, all very welcome after seven hours fairly hard work. You also had a drop bag opportunity here, so I put on a dry shirt and changed my shoes and socks. I didn't expect anything too steep over the second half of the course, more traditional Lakeland paths rather than cross-country terrain  so I went with my favourite Skechers GoRun Ultra shoes; Hoka-like comfort but with great grip on rock, wet or dry (but also pretty useless on steep grass). I also picked up my poles which I had felt would only get in the way on the first half but might be a good aid for tiring legs over the second half. I left Patterdale after a twenty minute stop, probably a bit indulgent but it meant I set out feeling in good shape and ready for the second half of the day.

We lost the good weather almost immediately, by Boredale Hause we were back in the clag and it stayed that way for the rest of the day, now accompanied by more frequent and heavier periods of rain.

The easy track made for rapid progress along the "Coast to Coast" route past Angle Tarn and round The Knott to the flank of Kidsty Pike. I was power walking the steeper bits and jogging the rest, and I passed several other runners along this section. High Street was bleak. The route left the main track just before the summit and set off across the fellside to look for a descent down Long Stile ridge to the west. The rain was hammering at this point and it was very difficult spotting each flag from the previous one. I had put a trace of the route into my Suunto watch and was just about to fire it up when the start of the ridge appeared and navigation became simple again. The ridge had rocky steps but the route left it after a few hundred feet to cut down across the grass to the outflow of Blea Water, and from there down an easy track to a checkpoint at Mardale head, reminiscent of "Lakeland 100" visits.

Another longish climb followed, up past Small Water to Nan Bield pass and then following the Kentmere Horseshoe track up to Mardale Ill Bell. Flat ground now, still searching for the elusive red flags in the gloom, along to Thornthwaite Crag where eventually the familiar tall tower emerged out of the mist when I was barely twenty yards from it. I knew from previous visits that there was a deep, rocky gap to get from here to Stoney Cove Pike because it figures on the Joss Naylor Challenge, but somehow today it didn't seem too daunting. Once on top of the Pike however a glance at the watch revealed that I didn't have too much time to spare to make the 7.15pm cut-off at Kirkstone Pass, so the couple of miles down the easy grass here were probably my fastest of the day. I caught half a dozen more runners just before the road and we made it with over ten minutes to spare, speculating whether this was actually a bit tight or simply good pace judgement. "Lots of time left yet!" was the marshal's verdict.

The six or seven of us set out on the last leg more or less together. Now there is a really nice path from Kirkstone to the top of Red Screes; a few manufactured steps, a bit of easy scrambling, a nice track up the grass to finish. But RD Charlie was having none of this and a hundred yards from the road the flags left the path and headed out rightwards, to find a way up steep grass, collapsing muddy trods, greasy little gulleys and various other forms of God Wot, to emerge back on the track just a few steps from the summit. The term "masochist" was heard in the conversation more than once, but all was forgiven as we heard the sound of the cowbell announcing the marshals on the summit. Her words to me as I made the last "dib" were "It's downhill all the way from here and you've more than enough time to finish, the world is rosey!"

The others went haring off but I really was in no hurry now. I like to enjoy the run-in on these days out if there is no time pressure, so I jogged steadily down the easy but squelchy three miles back to Ambleside in probably the heaviest rain of the day.

I finished in 13:42:17, nicely inside the 14 hour limit in the end. A great day out over a pretty spectacular course.

Would I go again? Well, I would love to have a trip round in good weather when it would be even better, but 2018 will be time for my bi-annual rendezvous with the Lakeland 100 and the two events are too close together for an old dodderer like me to manage both. After that, I'll see. Never say never, as they say.

Lots of thanks to the organisers and marshals who put on a super event in less than perfect conditions. Without you, we couldn't have the fun that we do.

(If you're interested, there is quite an atmospheric little video here made on the day by a competitor in a similar position to me in the field for most of the day).