Monday, 22 January 2018

Anglesey Coast Ultra

I last ran the Anglesey Coast Ultra back in 2015. January 2016 saw my abortive attempt on the Spine Race and last year I was laid low by a flu bug, so it was a welcome change to get the year off to a productive start again. I remembered 2015 as being a cold and windy day but with patches of sunshine; you can't really expect much in January, the same again would be nice enough.

It's not too far from my house to Holyhead so it wasn't a half way through the night start this time, just an early breakfast and an hour or so drive to the Breakwater Country Park just beyond the town, the base for the event. Events in the Endurancelife Coastal Series always follow a similar pattern; there are 4 races on the day, a 10k, half marathon, marathon (all "nominal" distances to suit the local site) and an ultra which is around 32-35 miles. The course consists of loop along the coast (usually outwards along the cliff edges and returning a short way inland) of marathon length, with "short cut" options to give the 10k and half marathon distances. Ultra runners complete the marathon followed by the 10k, which means that short sections of ground are repeated but I've found this doesn't really detract from my enjoyment of the event. The courses are fully signed so they always give a nice, fairly casual day out in grand surroundings.

The ultra event usually starts first, a half hour or so before the marathon which means that the faster marathon runners pass you at occasions during the day, but on this occasion we were told at the  briefing that marathon and ultra would start simultaneously. I guessed from this that the field was smaller than usual which proved to be the case. Both events were shown as full on the website so I supposed there were numerous no-shows based on the weather forecast which had been uniformly dismal, grey skies, wind and rain.

Most of the runners stayed in the registration tent keeping warm until the start which was around 8,30am, then we were off. It was cold and breezy but at least not raining. We followed the Country Park approach road for half a mile or so then turned onto the coast to make our way first Westward, then South. Within maybe twenty minutes of starting the rain had begun but only showers to start with so I held out against putting on a waterproof. The course took us from sea level fairly quickly to near the top of Hoyhead mountain at 750ft, then across the attractive heather covered headland to the first checkpoint  on the cliffs above South Stack lighthouse about 4 miles in. The 10k would later wend its way back over the summit of the mountain via a different return route from here.

Heading for South Stack with Holyhead Mountain behind

A quick look at the watch showed that I had managed the outstanding pace of 14 minutes per mile to here; as I was hoping to stay under this for the whole event, and we had so far only done one of the least demanding of the four main climbs, I really needed to get a bit of a wiggle on. The conditions were conspiring a bit though; as the route turned southwards it started to rain in earnest so the jacket had to go on, better be wet and warm rather than wet and cold, and the fairly sprightly wind would now stay directly in our faces for the next 10 miles or so. I ploughed on down the coast, pleasant springy turf until the start of the Trearddur Bay area and checkpoint 2 at around 12 miles, a couple of miles of road and promenade through the little resort, then more cliff top with gentle ups and downs and odd bits of rock to the Coastguard station above Rhoscolyn. Next came great grassy descent down to Checkpoint 3 at the near end of Rhoscolyn beach, and by here I had finally got the clock down to under 12 minute miles average; I would need all of that though with the climbs near the end.

We had been warned at the briefing that the inland sections were likely to be muddy, but the first few miles after turning left at the far end of Rhoscolyn beach were not bad at all. It was great to have the wind from behind for a change, the uphills were gentle, and the course followed a series of woodland paths, boardwalks and short sections of minor and unsurfaced roads, all of which seemed to lead back in no time to the coast just south of Trearddur Bay and a run back along the seafront through the village. Another checkpoint at about 20 miles marked the next turn inland. We were now back on the half marathon course and I was cheered to overtake a couple of its participants before too long. But after a couple of tracks, this section crossed a few miles of heath farmland with grass, gorse bushes, and lots of mud in between. Some of this was up to mid calf at times and wouldn't have been out of place on the Pennine Way. I remembered it as being muddy in 2015 but conditions this year were far more gloopy making for slower progress and the odd concern about losing a shoe.

Still, all things come to an end and I knew as we trudged across the final muddy farmyard, shoving a couple of pigs out of the way to get to the gate,  that once we hit the South Stack road the mud would end, but the climbing would begin again. As we gained height up the hill the wind began to make itself felt once more but I was pleased to be off the mud and tackled the first climb, back up to the top of Holyhead Mountain, with some enthusiasm.  For the marathon runners this would be their final climb but many in my bit of the field seemed to be feeling it a bit by now and I was able to overtake quite a few on the way up. The safety marshalls on the top were doing a great job in the cold wind, I said I would probably see them again in something under two hours time.

It was a rocky descent all the way from here down to the event  base, my sort of territory so I was able to overtake a few more marathon competitors on the way down. Then inevitably we reached the sign which said to the right "Marathon Finish" and to the left "Ultra".  All we had left was about seven miles and two further visits to the top of the hill. In deteriorating weather and daylight they didn't seem to take too long, no-one to hold you up on the rocky single tracks this time around. I thanked the marshals at South Stack and on the summit as I passed, they had all had a long cold shift, then the final run down to the finish. I had been wet pretty well all day but a quick change of shirt and cup of tea sorted me out ready for the half mile walk in the rain back to the car and the thankfully this time not toom long drive home.

I finished in 7:39:14 in 26th place (which sounds OK until you know that there were only 41 starters this year!).  At first I was a bit disappointed because this was a couple of minutes slower than my time in 2015 and this year I had finished feeling in much better shape which usually means going quicker. I put it down to the tougher conditions under foot, but then did a bit more digging back in my records to discover that the course was around three quarters of a mile longer this year - the southern loop from Rhoscolyn followed a slightly different route, so that made me feel a bit better about the day.  Interestingly, Endurancelife gave this year's distance as 33,5 miles and my watch showed 33,3 which is a pretty good correlation; I made the 2015 event 32,6. But somewhat surprisingly they only showed 3,500 ft of ascent whereas I've clocked nearly 5000 ft on both occasions that I've done the race. Maybe that's why they rank it easier than their South Devon event in February, whereas I've always found it harder! Anyway, these are just details to play with after the event. The main thing was that in spite of the conditions, both atmospheric and under foot, it was a good day out and a good start to 2018.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Review of 2017

This is really for my benefit more than anyone else's but of course you're more than welcome if you're interested.  I just find it's useful to look back over the year and see if there is any learning for me, mistakes that I hope not to make again, that sort of thing.

Overall Statistics

Total miles run:                                        1911
Average weekly mileage:                            37
Highest weekly mileage:                           185
Total feet ascended:                            308,300
Average weekly ascent:                          5,900
Highest weekly ascent:                         29,500
No of runs total:                                         148
Average no of runs/week                          2.84
No of runs longer than 25 miles                  19


The first half of the year was a bit of a disaster.

I was unable to start my first planned race in January, the Spine Challenger, due to a flu-type bug. I completed the second in February, the South Devon Coasal Ultra, but later questioned the wisdom of this as I twisted a knee badly after 10 miles and should maybe have stopped. The injury plagued me for the rest of the year. It wasn't sufficently healed to start the Hardmoors 55 in March so I pulled out of that too. In April, when I had intended to use the hilly 45 mile Exmoor Ultra "plus" as a final preparation for the Dragon's Back, I was just about running again but had to "trade down" to the 35 mile ultra (still pretty hilly!) instead and complete it at a very conservative pace. In late May I went into the Dragon's Back, a race that I knew would be at the very limit of my abilities, still carrying the injury; not surprisingly the severe descents tried it too much and I limped out before the end of day two. Finally, at the end of June, I went back to the West Highland Way Race, an event in which I had nine starts and nine finishes, and failed to complete that one as well.

A serious chat with the physio gave me at least some basis for a rethink on how I should approach things. "What you have to understand" he said "is that your knees, particularly the worse one, hurt because there is now little or no cartilege left in them. And that's not going to change". The same situation that I'd been warned about by the surgeon a year or two earlier. As both these two are fairly top guys, and both sportsmen as well, I feel I have to believe them. The advice was consistent, so long there is no swelling, further reduction of mobility (a ski crash 20 years ago robbed my right knee of its ACL and also prevented it fully straightening ever since) or noise from the joint, the rest is just about pain management. The main problem I was getting since the February 2017 episode was knee pain coming on after a couple of hours running, so I had been avoiding this situation pretty well ever since.

I decided I had to gradually build up again the length of time I could run for, and in the meantime concentrate on events whose timings allowed for longish periods of walking, and to go for these with the aim of just finishing rather than setting any particular time targets.  The running is still work in progress but selecting the events that suit me better made the second half of the year much more productive.

In July I completed the Lakes Sky Ultra, a mere 35 miles but with 14,700ft of ascent crammed into it, lots of walking and scrambling, airy ridges and some rope-assisted sections. It was a miserable day, low cloud, wind and rain all day but I thoroughly enjoyed it, just beating the 14 hour cutoff by about twenty minutes.

I had an entry for the UTMB after being successful in the ballot for the first time ever, but although I was tempted my head said it wasn't on, so I didn't go. I looked around for something more modest to replace it and ran the St Begas Ultra, a charmng and well-organised 37 miler through the north western Lakes from Bassenthwaite to St Bees; again not spectacularly fast but another "job done" for encouragement.

Long events where I had to keep up some speed were problematic but I felt that those just requiring a bit of nous and the ability to keep going would be OK, so I had no doubts about taking up my place in the 185 mile, 29,500ft King Offa's Dyke Race in September, for which 90 hours overall was allowed. My intuition proved correct and I managed to finish in just over 82, putting me in the top half of the starting field for possibly my best result of the year.

I had entered the Lakes in a Day in October; I had completed all three of the previous runnings, found it a great event and planned to do at least five on the trot, but two punctures on the way to the start put paid to the plan. Again, looking around quickly for a substitute saw me back at the White Rose 30, which I had done a couple of years ago, for another unspectacular but reasonably competent day out. I then entered the intriguingly different Escape from Meriden later on in November. Enjoyable in it's own right it was also encouraging in that I put in the most miles over 24 hours (around 85) that I had done all year, getting another "top half of field" finish in the process. Finally, social commitments put the Tour de Helvellyn out of reach in December so I went down to Hampshire a couple of days after Christmas to round the year off with the pleasant Winter Cross 50k, which I managed to complete at an average pace of not much over 11 minute miles - and at this stage of the game I was more than happy to take that.

So, a year of two halves, as they say. Two events and a lot of disappointment up to the end of June followed by a re-appraisal of capabilities and six successful races in the second half of the year.

I'm hoping that I'm going into 2018 with more realism and optimism. I have a pretty full programme mapped out and with the exception of one event, which I think will test me pretty well to the limit, I'll be disappointed not to come away with a much better score than for 2017.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Winter Cross Ultra

Well, only 15 posts on this blog during 2017; a poor effort, but 2017 wasn't great for a lot of reasons, I'll try to do better on both running and blogging fronts in the coming year. It's easy to start with as the final event of 2017 was both enjoyable and encouraging.

I had always planned to do the Tour de Helvellyn as my December outing but quite late on an annual social event which I expected to be on the 23rd turned out to be a week earlier, on the day of the race, so I reluctantly had to withdraw and look around for something else to do. The Winter Cross Ultra on the 28th seemed about right from both date and length perspectives. It would mean an early start to avoid an overnight stay but in our game you get used to being up at odd hours of the night, so I signed up for the "fun run" 50k distance. A longer 45 mile option was available but I suspected I would be falling asleep on the way home if I went for that one.

A 2,30am alarm saw me up and heading south on the 200 mile trip to the event headquarters in the small village of Meonstoke, about 10 miles southwest of Winchester. In spite of the dire warnings of extreme weather on almost every motorway sign the journey was easy and uneventful, though snow by the roadside was a bit more apparent south of Oxford. The last few miles were interesting as I hadn't looked at the map but just relied on the Satnav which took me through 7 or 8 miles of narrow,  skittery, icy lanes. The temperature which had been slightly above freezing as I left Chester was now, four hours later, solidy into minus figures. I parked in the signed area and walked the five minutes or so to the village hall for check in.

The Winter Cross is so named because is follows four out-and-back legs from the Meonstoke village hall base, each of which roughly follows a main compass point direction. The first goes north along a disused railway line, 5k each way, a nice little warmup, the second and third east and west respectively, both mostly along the South Downs Way and 10k each way. This completes the 50k event but for those carrying on the fourth leg goes south for another 10k each way along the railway line again.

The Winter Cross Course

At the short briefing RD Phil Hoy suggested we walked up the steepest hills, promised that there might be one or two slippery sections but it wouldn't be a mudfest, but also that there was a very big unavoidable puddle about 500m from the start  -  "more like a lake" - and that we would all get wet feet. At 8am the assembled field trundled off.

The front runners saw the lake and its icy coating, decided this was really no way to start the day and looked around for alternatives. Fortunately, the lake was clearly a seasonal feature of the path to the railway line and the local dogwalkers had established a way around it through a bit of wood and up and down a couple of little slopes, and this is the way that the vast majority of us chose to go. We kept our feet dry but funneling around 130 runners at a mass start into a singletrack with two stiles was not going to be quick, and it was five minutes or so before I actually got running again; we'll call that logistical delay number one, the significance of which will become apparent later on.

It was a pleasant enough run up the railway line, gradually ascending all the way up to the turnaround point and of course a nice gentle cruise back. It was still pretty cold as the sun was not up yet but with almost no wind quite comfortable. Back at the first checkpoint outside the village hall I had a quick drink and carried on. With drink stations every 10k there was no need to take a water bottle. I just had a bumbag with a collapsible cup and a windproof top as there was no prospect of rain. The drink stations all had a good selection of snacks as well so I didn't bother to carry any food either.

The start of leg 2 saw a sample of the trickiest ground of the day, narrow country lanes with almost invisible black ice on top, so we skated our way carefully for a mile or so to join the safety of the South Downs Way. This followed a series of fairy gentle ups and downs across fields, through woods and the odd bit of farm road to the checkpoint at the turnaround 10k further on. The sun had come up as we started the leg giving us wall-to-wall blue sky, and with a couple of inches of snow covering the downs, lovely views all round. The ground under foot was mostly frozen with just the occasional ice covered muddy puddle so the going quite easy. I wasn't going at a particularly quick pace, I was having no real problems from my knees so everything felt pretty good. The homeward part of the leg was equally pleasant.

Phil had said that this was the toughest leg so with that in mind I had decided to see how I was feeling after it was done before setting any targets for the finish. As I slid down the final bit of lane back to the hall checkpoint again I saw that I had averaged 11:44 minute miles so far so I felt that aiming for a sub 12 minute mile average for the race was about right. I needed to go to the toilet so I went in to the ones in the hall but had to wait a few minutes for one to become free. Let's call this logistical delay number 2, the effect was that when I set out on the westerly leg 3 my average had gone up to 12:15, so a bit of work to do.

Phil had warned us that the longest hill on the course was at the start of leg3 but "it does end eventually". After a brief but sharp downhill and a couple of fields we were into it. I started out jogging but after a while decided that was taking a bit too much effort so I probably walked the final two thirds of it. It was about two miles long overall and I'm sure most people ahead of me will have run it all. It started up a narrow lane, but thankfully there was no ice on this one, then for the last bit went up an easy track to the summit of "Beacon Hill". It was great to reach to top, obviously because it was the end of the hill but also because we now had this two miles of great downhill to look forward to on the way back. An interesting feature of this course format was that you were always passing faster runners on the outward section of each leg and slower ones on the homeward stretch, so for the next mile or so of this one it was good to encourage returning runners that they had almost reached the top of the downhill! The remainder of the leg out to the final (for us) turnaround was gently undulating jeep tracks and forest paths, fairly fast ground so I set about working on my average pace.

I hadn't chatted to many people along the way but about a mile before the turnaround I caught up with Charles, who was a local runner for this race but who had done the Lakeland 100 five times so we had plenty of common ground to talk about. He was doing the longer 45 mile event so still had 20k to do when we got back to the hall. Our pace seemed to be bringing my average down nicely, so we stayed together on the homeward section until we reached the top of the long hill.

It's never easy to set an overall time target for a race because unless you've done it before, you don't know what the distance is  -  "50k" might mean anything up to two or three miles either side of this, that's just the way ultra running seems to work. But by now it looked as it was going to pan out at around 32 miles according to my watch, and if I got a bit of a wiggle on there was a chance I could get under 6 hours for the trip. I used to think this wasn't important, but having finished a "Lakes in a Day" in 15:00:40 and even worse a West Highland Way in 26:00:05,  I'm now conscious that if I happen to be within a shout of an hour barrier as I approach the finish I may as well put in at least  a bit of effort and try to get under it.

Understandably Charles didn't want to change his comfortable pace so I wished him well and set off down the hill, which proved just as enjoyable as I anticipated. Near the bottom I caught another runner who waved me through as he felt I was going a lot faster. I told him we were on for 6 hours if we kept going so he then tagged along. I wasn't looking forward to the short uphill but we dug in and caught another runner who was walking, and encouraged him to join us. Looking back, without logistical delays one and two this would all have been so much easier, but probably not as much fun.

The three of us carried on the final couple of hundred yards to the finish line, finishing in 5 hours 59 minutes and 7, 8 and 9 seconds respectively. Close, but job done.  I had eventually got my pace down to 11:14 which I was quite pleased with; I'd actually sort of run for most of an event  -  I haven't done that for a year or two. We were each presented with what I think is the biggest medal I've ever got for finishing a race - they obviously believe in bling in Hampshire, we speculated that it might affect fuel consumption on our journeys home  -  and to top it all a mug of mulled wine at the finish. The event carried on being well-appointed, with nice warm showers and cups of tea and soup. 

But my longish day was wearing on so I had to set off for the trip back to Chester.  All was fine until a bit south of Warwick when I felt I might start to nod off, so I pulled into the services there. My intention was to try the trick of a shot of coffee followed by a short sleep, but I was beginning to seize up a bit by now and during my hobble/slide across the frozen-snow-covered car park I suddenly felt chilly and hungry so the sleep was replaced by a visit to Burger King.  That seemed to do the trick and I finally arrived home in time for a second dinner at around 8pm.  I slept pretty well.

Mammoth Medal

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Escape from Meriden

"In Meriden, a 500 year old cross marks the centre of England. You have 24 hours to get as far as you can away from Meriden. You can only travel on foot. The Crow will be watching you."

Well, you can't really pass on a challenge like that, can you. And I love events with almost no rules, it seems to take the game back to where we started before all the insurance, kit lists, medical forms and so on trickled in over the years to make what is an essentially very simple pastime complicated. Like when we used to rock up to Milngavie Station Yard on an April Saturday morning about twenty minutes before the start of a 50 mile run to check in and receive the iconic briefing from Murdo MacDonald - "Hello everyone, this is the Fling, there are no rules, just try to let us know if you drop out, see you in Tyndrum, off you go now!"

Escape from Meriden is a bit more structured than that but only where necessary. You have 24 hours, starting at 11.59pm on a Friday evening, to get as far away as you can. You can go in any direction and use any route you like, so long as it is on public access land. The distance you get will be measured "as the Crow flies" so getting a route that is as near to a radial "spoke" from the start pays off with minimum wasted miles. Clear 30 miles and you get a silver medal, 60 miles a gold, and 90 miles for the coveted "Black Crow". Everyone carries a tracker for the distance recording. And that's it. You can enter as a solo competitor, a pair if you like company, or a chained together pair if you really want to get close. You can have a support team to follow you around if you want, but that seems a bit against the spirit of the adventure and I didn't see much evidence of many runners having support (at the start at least).

The other appeal for me is that a bit of planning and making good decisions on the day pays off, which keeps an old duffer like me at least in the same game as the real athletes if still nowhere near their achievements. My house in Chester is about 70 miles as the crow flies from Meriden so that seemed like a reasonable target. Looking at previous results (the event had been run twice before, once in November and once in the summer), I guessed I would have to cover around 85 miles on the ground to get home if I picked a fairly efficient route.  In the very unlikely event that I still had time left, pushing on up the Wirral to West Kirby would get to the Black line. Main trunk roads are not the most pleasant pedestrian experience, especially at night, so the realistic options available seemed to be roads with pavements, (hopefully) quieter country lanes, old railway lines, canal towpaths and easy to follow tracks and footpaths.

The Shopshire Union Canal runs from the Wolverhampton to Chester, passing within 100 yards of my house, so it seemed to be the most logical feature to base my route on. To reach it from Meriden there were several options but eventually I chose a route mostly through the leafy suburbs of the West Midlands to hit the Shroppy at Brewood just south of the A5, around 33 miles from Meriden. Google Streetview showed the line having a few miles of country lanes, but the majority along urban roads with pavements, most of which appeared to have street lighting. So, good to go.

An easy train journey on the Friday evening saw me in Birmingham International station at around 9.30pm, studying the timetable of the X1 bus to Coventry. "Yes, you're in the right place" said a voice from behind. It was Andy Adkin, also heading to Meriden from Manchester. By the time the bus arrived there was a little gang of around eight runners waiting to get on for the short trip to Meriden. Registration was simple, just a question of picking up a number to pin on somewhere (16 for me) and a GPS tracker to go in the top pocket of the rucksack. Plenty of time left for lazing around, drinking tea, and chatting to some of the other runners about their plans. People seemed to be heading towards every corner of the country  -  this really is a great event format. Looking at other runners' gear I seemed to be travelling fairly heavy, but my thinking was that comfortable self-sufficiency needs a fair bit of stuff, and I was aware that although the weather seemed pleasant enough at the moment, going into the second period of darkness was likely to be the crunch period. I was starting off in a light fleece and pertex showerproof, but in the bag I had a fairly chunky goretex and light down jacket in case things got chilly and/or wet. And I wasn't intending to travel particularly quickly anyway.

After a fairly short briefing, during which RD Richard's main messages were to stay away from main roads with no pavement and not forget to post our trackers back on Monday, we were out of the hall and milling around on the green by the 500 year old stone cross. "Go" was at 11.59pm. I hung around a short while to witness the amazing spectacle of 120 runners scattering in all directions, made even more impressive by the 100 who had taken up the offer of a free, lightweight, bright orange boiler suit to wear over their clothes - the mass jailbreak theme was really brought to life!

I joined a dozen or so participants heading north along the dark country road to Maxstoke, about 3 miles distant. A bit of chat at the start but then we soon separated into our various paces and I was alone, one of a string of lights heading out into the darkness. At Maxstoke I lost the last of the bobbing lights as everyone else seemed to be continuing north, whereas my way led more northwest along a much narrower lane which led in another couple of miles to the first town, Coleshill. It was now well after 1am but Friday night is the universal "night out" time so I wasn't surprised to see a huge gang of young people around in the centre, either waiting for taxis or just not wanting to go home yet. The atmosphere was noisy but friendly enough; I had turned my light out and no-one seemed to pay any attention to an ageing jogger in a woolly hat trundling past, not even the young lady pulling down her knickers for a wee in the gutter.

After a short unlit section along a dual carriageway with a footpath, I turned under a motorway bridge to emerge at the village of Water Orton, and from here it was mostly residential suburbs for miles. The next major town was Sutton Coldfield and by then it was getting pretty late. Apart from a trio of homeward-bound singers it was quiet apart from the occasional taxi. The only other residents I saw were three foxes, one of which didn't realise I was there until I was about ten yards away when he sensed me and scuttled quickly off; they live in Sutton Park I suppose.

I was enjoying the progress. The route was gently undulating for most of the way, with long gentle uphills which I walked, and similar downhills which I jogged. I was maintaining about a four and a half miles an hour average pace which was easily as good as I had hoped for. My dodgy knee had hurt for the first two or three hours and I was looking forward to a painkiller at 4am, but by then it had stopped so no drugs required it and stayed trouble free for the rest of the run. My route bisected Walsall and Aldridge then carried on through Bloxwich, the last major urban centre, by when it was going to work time for the early starters. I knew there was a 24 hour petrol station on the exit from Bloxwich, so I had my first stop for a large latte and picked up a bottle of Oasis at the same time. I wasn't particularly cold but it was still good to have a hot drink.

Crossing over the M6 by Hilton Park services, I was then back into unlit country lanes for the last time. Not great at first because there was now quite a lot of "taking a short cut to work" traffic to avoid, but it was getting light fast and by the time I passed the prison near Cross Green it was time to turn my lamp off. It was only about three miles to Brewood, I hoped there would be a shop open there before I joined the canal because I was now running short on supplies. Two Snickers bars, a quarter pound block of Dairy Milk and a packet of Haribo Starmix had somehow disappeared during the night, along with a litre and a half of drinks (and the large coffee). I'm normally not too fussy about what I eat on these outings so long as it has calories, so as long as there was a shop open I was sure I would be OK. I do get bored with water though so on this trip I just went with a variety of drinks, whatever was available, Lucozade Sport, Oasis, Ribena, Vimto, that sort of stuff. In Brewood the Co-op was open, so I topped up with another litre and a packet of gingernut biscuits which would see me good for a few miles, then it was onto the canal.

Thomas Telford's canal, which eventually became known as the Shropshire Union, or the "Shroppy", was the last major narrow canal built in England.  The skill of the surveyors and the tenacity of the constructors, selecting the lines and levels and moving the vast quantities of earth required, created a waterway that was level and straight, with long elevated sections and a minimum of curves and locks, effectively the HS2 of the day. Unfortunately, this also created a feature which is not so inspiring to run along, especially for someone who does most of his stuff in the Lakes. But I knew this before I started and it was the obvious efficient route for the direction I wanted to go, so I was prepared to live with the potential boredom; if you can't take a joke you shouldn't have joined sort of approach. Step 1, out came the radio and I was accompanied by Radio 4 for the next 8 hours or so.

The first landmark came up as the canal crossed over the A5 on the short "Thomas Telford" aqueduct which I'd seen many times from the road below but never from up here before, doubly significant today because it was just a few hundred yards short of the "Silver Medal" line, 30 miles as the Crow flies from Meriden ; whatever happened now I was guaranteed some bling for finishing.

One thing that I wasn't really prepared for was the softness of the towpath surface along the majority of the canal. There were some sections of good firm grass or prepared surface, but the majority seemed to be either slightly tussocky or damp and muddy. In sections where the canal was tree-lined there was also a continuous carpet of leaves to be kicked through. But I was still making good enough progress with my walk/jog approach. I tried alternating miles or half miles, sometimes time periods like 10 or 15 minutes, sometimes just going to "that bridge in the far distance" to break the thing up a bit. I was determined to get to 40 miles in under 10 hours and it duly arrived in 9.55 but I had a feeling the writing was on the wall now and the inevitable slowdown wasn't far away. On the plus side I still had 14 hours left to cover the remaining (estimated) 45 miles to Chester.

At Norbury Junction at 44 miles in a teashop appeared over a bridge on the far side of the canal so I had my first sit down since Meriden accompanied by a pot of tea and a substantial chunk of flapjack. Rather forbodingly though, a sign on the bridge warned canal users that this was "the last services for 10 hours cruising!" The  11 miles from here up to Market Drayton seemed a fairly long haul but somewhere along this stretch I met a cyclist coming in the opposite direction who greeted me with "Are you escaping from Coventry too then?" He had seen a couple of others earlier who he said were looking a bit tired. How far ahead, I asked, maybe two or three miles was the reply. A bit of a spur, maybe I would catch them. I never did, they must have got a second wind and speeded up, or so I thought at the time. The day had brightened up though, after a gloomy morning we were now getting odd patches of sunshine, though still chilly enough for me to keep my hat and gloves on for more or less the whole trip.

I'd run out of fuel again by Market Drayton but the canal only skirted the town so a detour to find a shop was necessary. Morrisons was the first after about half a mile. I nipped in to the front snacks area for a couple of bottles of drink and more chocolate and retraced my steps to the canal, not wanting to spend too much time off the main direct route. I later found out that this was at just the time that Nick and Andy were in the Morrisons' cafe refuelling so I passed within a few feet without seeing them. They then left the canal and made some faster progress along roads from there.

After Market Drayton I rolled on through Any Answers, a play based on a Graham Greene novel, Weekend Womans Hour (!!??), but so did the canal and the brushes with civilisation started to become more frequent. The first real flight of locks since the start led down to Audlem, where it got more gloomy again as the second period of darkness approached. The Bridge Inn was virtually on the towpath so I felt by now that this was one gift horse I really shouldn't overlook.

It was wonderful in the pub. I settled down in a corner by the fire with a large coffee and an even larger bag of crisps, listening to the locals chatting over the "one before going home for tea" and watching the sports results on the TV. The rugby against the Aussies had gone pretty well and Liverpool had secured a comfortable 3-0 win so the world seemed pretty much to rights. I could have stayed (a lot) longer, but chivvied myself out of the door after about twenty minutes feeling good and looking forward to the evening. I should have got another bottle of drink here but didn't bother as I had half a litre left and it wasn't too far up to Nantwich.

It was now fully dark. I'd made the decision in the pub that my jogging had finished for the trip and I didn't bother to put the radio back on. I was happy just to cruise along in the darkness with my thoughts at a steady three and a half miles an hour, a pace that I can normally keep up for quite a long time. Some fairly assertive "Canal Closed, Turn Here" signs raised a slight concern but I assumed the towpath would still be passable and this proved to be the case. In fact there was quite a lot of major maintenance going on along the length of the canal that I travelled, with boats "marooned" in between workings until the Spring I guess.

On a trip like this you have to create landmarks because there are no set checkpoints to break the thing up. Nantwich was important to me because it got me to Page 10.  I had printed out my route as an OS 1:50,000 map on a series of A4 sheets. Eleven sheets covered from Meriden to Hargrave, about two and a half miles from my house (I thought I might just make these last two and a half without a map..). Now there wasn't an equal distance covered on each sheet of course but ticking the sheets off as I went through the day was definitely satisfying, and getting to the "last but one" would be a welcome milestone. So, Nantwich, Page 10.

The canalside mileposts gave the countdown to Nantwich. The first one I'd seen was "Nantwich 34" and we were now down to "Nantwich 1". The only problem was that when that mile was done there was no sign of any useful facilities, just an almost completely dark marina. The map showed that the canal was almost a mile to the West of the centre on a high embankment, and at 6.30pm there was no guarantee of shops anyway, I would be hoping for petrol stations. I had completely run out of drink but decided to press on to Barbridge 3 miles further on in the hope that it would be better.

Just as I passed the start of the Llangollen canal at Hurleston Junction, my headlamp started to fade and it started raining. From other competitors stories after the event I think we had the best of the weather coming North, the South had a much wetter Saturday, but for me it was now going to be wet to the end. I stopped to put on my waterproof jacket and change the torch batteries.

Barbridge was also significant because it marked the "Gold Medal" line for the event, 60 miles from Meriden. I reached it at 7.45pm after travelling just over 71 miles. I was no way going to make it to the "Black" line but it seemed silly not to push on to see how far I could get in the 24 hours. I was still hoping to get home, a totally artificial target but then if you actually tried to find anything at all rational about the game we were playing I think you might be a bit pressed. I thought I remembered there was a pub at Barbridge, because you can see it from the road on our normal route from Chester to the M6 southbound, but it only became apparent that it was on the other side of the canal when I had gone a hundred yards past the access bridge. "Well, I'm not going back," I thought, and pressed on. Fifteen minutes later I was having a bit of a word with myself; this was the second poor decision I'd made this evening, and I really know that it's not an incapacity to deal with the challenge that normally screws up events, it's making bad decisions. There was almost 4 hours of the time still to run, if I was going to use it efficiently I needed to get some fluids on board.

The map showed a pub at Alpraham, a short detour off the canal, so by 9pm I was in the Tollemache Arms with a pint of Coke going down nicely. While sitting comfortably I looked at the remaining distances on the map. Maybe three and a half miles to the Shady Oak near Beeston, another four to Hargrave, then two and a half home, say ten in total. It still looked OK but I mustn't hang around. I rang Jan to let her know my plans and that I still hoped to make it home. I finished my fourth packet of crisps of the day (nothing but healthfood on this trip) and wandered out into the night again at about 9.20pm.

I jogged the half mile of road back to the canal at Bunbury locks just to show some purpose then started my last stint on the towpath. I hadn't gone many yards when my torch started to dim, at first slowly then rapidly. This was a bit worrying. My spare batteries had lasted barely an hour and a half. I'd started out with a brand new set in Meriden, but the ones I'd put in at Barbridge were just three that I'd found in the drawer taped together. I'd assumed that as I hadn't untaped them they were spares from another trip so were OK. Evidently not. What I had left was a tiny spare torch, used mainly for changing batteries in the dark, and another taped bunch of three batteries which for all I knew now were no better than the ones I had in the torch. I persisted for as long as possible with the fading ones until I was going so slowly that it didn't make sense so I stopped and put the last set in. They seemed OK but then so had the previous ones  -  nothing for it but to press on (they just about made it to midnight but another lesson learned, I'll only ever go with new unwrapped spares in future!).

The path was getting muddier and slower going, not helped by the now steady rain. The Shady Oak looked cheery and very tempting, probably a good job that it was on the far side of the canal and would have involved crossing the bridge, otherwise I might have sidled in. It seemed a long way to Tattenhall, the novelty was starting to wear off a bit now but I was still just about keeping in touch. But the mile or so from Tattenhall to Hargrave were the worst of the whole journey. Really boggy now, for the first time I had completely soaked feet, sliding and stumbling. After what seemed an age I emerged onto the road at the Hargrave bridge. There are two and a half miles of road parallel to the canal from here back to my house; I must have run them hundreds of times. I'd felt that if I could get to here with half an hour left I was in with a chance on the easy surface. I looked at my watch; it was 11.35pm  -  24 minutes until the Crow got me.

I started to give it a shot but as soon as I started running I realised that I couldn't. I was too tired to maintain the slightly faster than 10 minute miles required - a pace I hadn't got near for the whole distance so far  -  for more than a few paces at a time. As soon as I realised that it was game over, the urgency left me and I was reduced to a very slow shuffle for the last twenty minutes. At midnight (just to be on the safe side) I stopped, called in the cavalry and Jan was with me in five minutes.

The whole thing was a great experience, with a bit more sense of adventure than you get in many ultras these days. In spite of not quite making my target I found myself really quite happy with my performance. I'd never travelled so far on such flat territory before and the damage I expected from repetitive use of the same muscles didn't really happen. I was tired enough Sunday but more or less OK by Monday. I've decided not to go running again until Wednesday just to give a good recovery period. I think the escape format is brilliant, I'm sure I'll get around to doing another one sometime.

Officially I made it to 69,1 miles from Meriden, which put me in 15th place out of 74 starters in the solo category (another interesting feature of this event is that no-one gets a DNF!). My watch at the finish showed that I had covered 85,5 miles on the ground. I am really impressed by the guys who made it to 90 miles who will have covered way over a hundred miles on the ground, on their own and with no support, in November.

This was my second Beyond Marathon event, after Offa's Dyke in September, and I can already see why people keep coming back. Many thanks to Richard and the team for putting on such an intriguing event. I've already signed up for Deadwater next year!

Monday, 13 November 2017

White Rose Ultra

I really had no intention of running the White Rose ultra this year, but after failing to make the start of the Lakes in a Day event from getting two punctures on the way there, I had a quick look around to see what was available to fill the gap and the White Rose seemed an easy decision. It offers a choice of 30, 60 and 100 mile courses all based on a 30 mile loop in the southern Pennines near Huddersfield, only about an hour and a quarter drive from Chester so it would be possible for the 30 at least for me to travel over on the morning of the race and get back in time for dinner. I ran the 30 a couple of years ago in the company of John Kynaston (it was his first lap of the 60) in wall to wall sunshine; I had enjoyed it, but though the views are good and there is a fair bit of climbing (around 4500 ft this year), the course follows a lot of easy tracks and quite a high percentage of country roads, so the pace required is reasonably quick, which I thought wouldn't be great for my knees in their current condition. In 2015 John and I had taken 5 hours 47 mins for the lap; I suspected I would not get anywhere near that this time, but the cutoff for the 30 miles is a fairly generous 8 hours so I could take it much easier and still get round. I needed the trip anyway, having done nothing of note since Offa's Dyke back in September.

The start/finish location had been changed since 2015. Back then it was in a dingy old mill building, this time it was in a rather smart Visitor Centre at the eastern end of the Standedge canal tunnel near Marsden, and I arrived in good time just after 7am to register ready for an 8am start. The weather forecast was a bit mixed. Rain for definite at first, followed by a clearing later in the day with a drop in temperature and a rise in wind speed  -  so wet first, then cold!

All three events were started off simultaneously on the dot of 8am, after a brief briefing from RD Wayne Law, so around 350 competitors left the visitor centre and set off up the first hill. It was raining. The pattern of the loop was fairly simple, a series of climbs up to moor level followed by returns down to valleys, in a jagged loop. The first up/down was fairly short, but the climb was up a narrow tarmac road so it enabled the field to thin out to everyone's preferred pace easily, without any jostling or difficulties with overtaking. Not that I was really interested in overtaking anyway, but it was encouraging to see that all the field around me were walking the hill and I wasn't completely at the back. The ascent was followed by a nice runnable descent back to valley level; I had decided to keep my jogging fairly comfortable even on the downhills to see if I could get round without too much knee pain, and on the first descent this seemed to be working fine.

The most memorable ascent is a long gentle one from Marsden, picking up the Pennine Way path after a mile or so all the way up to the highest point on the loop near the A635 at the top of the Wessenden valley, at around the 1500ft contour. It's a gentle climb on a nice track with good views. In 2015 this had come over halfway around the course, and with it being a hot day John and I found it a bit of a pull and had to walk from time to time. This time though, because of the new location of the start/finish, it was the second ascent of the day, and in the cooler, rainy conditions was runnable, or at least joggable, all the way. Near the start I fell in with and started chatting to a 100 mile runner, Perry, and we spent most of the remainder of my day together. It was good to have the company. On the ascent it had stopped raining and as we were jogging steadily we were warming up so jackets came off (it was never wet enough to warrant waterproof trousers all day, but then these are a garment I don't wear often anyway).

There was an unmanned water station at the high point but neither of us needed to stop. There were two water points and two food points (which had stuff like biscuits and jelly babies) around the 30 mile loop. I was experimenting with going light on food and drink because I've been doing a bit of "no food" training to try to get better at fat burning, so I took  no food with me and just picked up a ginger biscuit and a few jelly babies at the two points they were available. That and the litre of water that I started with seemed fine for the 30 miles.

There was a very long easy descent after this, but after that I don't really remember much detail of the rest of the course. It was a series of ascents, many of which I walked, and descents, but all on good ground under foot, country lanes, jeep tracks and the occasional but infrequent bit of muddy footpath, across farmland, bits of moor and through villages. The route was fully marked and I suppose not having to pay attention to a map makes you less aware of the overall scheme of things, a bit like when you're using a satnav in the car.

After the initial rain had stopped the day got colder and windier as forecast, presumably in the wake of a passing weather front. Jackets went back on again and as the morning turned into a grey afternoon it started to feel a bit bleak. Still, it was pleasant enough to be out in the countryside and making steady progress.

The steepest uphill on the course had been reserved for the final mile or so before the finish, a bit of a sting in the tail when we thought we were almost done. The end for me came in just over six and a half hours, as I came in in 102nd place out of 197 finishers. Around 45 minutes slower than two years ago but I was happy enough, it had been a fairly relaxed trip and I wasn't out for personal records. I wished Perry all the best for the two and a bit more loops he still had on the agenda and sidled off inside for tea and a warming bowl of chilli. One of my knees had been a bit painful for the final 10 miles or so but otherwise I seemed to have survived OK.

I really didn't envy the 60 and 100 competitors carrying on into what was clearly going to be a pretty chilly night. It must have been tough, the attrition rates were quite high - only 12 out of 36 starters completed the 100; unfortunately, Perry was not among them.

Meanwhile I could enjoy the warmth inside and was back in Chester for dinner as planned. A generally friendly and well-run event but I'm not sure the running surface is really my thing, it's doubtful if I'll go again. I'm writing this a week later after returning from one of the Lakeland 100 recces yesterday, from Coniston to Buttermere, 27 miles and around 7000ft of ascent; tougher ground and slower, but more to my taste these days.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Map, compass,......................and GPS.


Unless we stick to races which follow lines of flags or equally well-marked trails we all have to do some at times. It may be just deciding which track to take at a junction in good visibilty, or it could be finding your way across a trackless, featureless plateau on a dark and misty night, but it's all navigation. And we are all more or less comfortable with the deal, ranging from "I'd much rather follow someone who seems to know what they're doing" to "I'm happy with my own abilities under all circumstances". To help us find our way we have a range of tools which we may or may not have the desire, or the ability, to use.

I last posted about this around three years ago but it's a subject that I think is always interesting to return to from time to time, and in particular the "map versus gps" debate which raises its head on Facebook groups with some regularity.  Two positions that I don't really understand are (a) "the only way to navigate properly is using a map and compass, anything else is cheating", and (b) "I'll carry a gps as a backup to using my map and compass (or vice-versa), but I will normally stick with my preferred method". Let me try to convince you that the game is more complicated (and much rewarding) than this.

So let's have a look at how we navigate, what tools are available and how to choose and use them. What qualifications do I have for addressing this? Well, none at all really, except that I first set a map to a compass over fifty years ago and have been finding my way around hillwalking, mountaineering, ski-touring and running outings fairly regularly ever since. I get lost from time to time (and we'll come to what "getting lost" means later), but anyone that tells you they don't is being a bit economical; the key then is getting back on track, which I don't think I've ever failed to do. Of course, you'll get my view of the world, which certainly isn't the only one, and if all I do here is to make you think a bit more about yours, then the exercise will have been worthwhile. The debate is part of the fun. So here goes:


If you don't have regular flags to follow, then the first thing you need is a map. Actually, even with flags you might need something else. On the Alpine events such as the UTMB, TDG and so on which always follow paths, flags will always keep you on track, but where the event crosses trackless ground at times such as in the Skyrunning races, it's possible for mist to obscure one flag from the next, leaving you with a bit of work to do if there's no path on the ground. So if ever you read or hear when entering an event that "the course is fully marked", it's a wise move to take this with a pinch of salt and at least have an overall idea of where it goes. But I digress, back to maps.

We're spoilt in the UK; the maps available to us are pretty well as good as they come.  The OS 1:25,000 series are detailed enough to get you anywhere, and have been available (originally in the "2,5 inches to the Mile" form) for as long as I can remember. The other option for the runner is the Harvey's 1:40,000 series. They don't cover the whole country but do take in a lot of interesting areas such as the Lakes and most of the long distance trails; they're waterproof and you don't need as much paperwork to cover the ground. Many events produce a bespoke map in this style, Lakeland 50/100, Dragon's Back, the "10 peaks" races and so on. The only real disadvantages are that you don't get as many contour lines and you don't get low-level field boundaries.

I'm assuming here that anyone reading this can read a map, that is to understand what is meant by the various lines and symbols  -  if you can't, just pick one up and look at the key in the corner! But for a map to be any use on the ground you need to have two other bits of information  -  (1) where are you NOW? and (2) in what orientation should you hold the map to represent the ground around you? In a landcape with plenty of features, you can orient the map from the ground just by turning it to represent what you see, and you can constantly check where you are as you move by noting landmarks as you pass them - path junctions, corners of woodland, footbridges and so on. Most runners using a map as a prime source will fold it to show just the section they are currently traversing, and put their thumb on the landmarks as they pass them  -  "thumbing the map". In my view, even on ground that you are unfamiliar with, this is the fastest way to navigate ground with plenty of features in clear weather in daylight (for example most of the national trails, the Lakeland 100 course and similar trips) You get the big picture and the detail simultaneously and it is easy to see where to go and to judge progress.

"Thumbing the map" in easy territory in 
daylight (Offas Dyke Race)


But what happens when things get a bit less clear, say the mist brings visibility down to a hundred metres or so? Well what happens is you lose the landmarks by which you oriented your map - the church spire, the clump of trees, the stream, the nearby hills, the track zig-zagging up the hillside, so you have much less confidence that it tells you accurately what's in front of you. This is where you set the map to the compass (I'm not going to describe that, you know how to do it). Again, if the ground has reasonable features, most runners won't bother with bearings, they will just hold the compass in the same hand as the map and keep orienting the map as they go to keep the N-S gridlines lined up with the needle  - orienteering compasses have a thumb grip (and often no degree markings) to make this easier.

Now to the next level of difficulty; it's still daylight, still misty, but there is no path on the ground to follow. This might be on an open hillside or moorland, or even in a series of cultivated fields where there is no path, you're just moving from one stile or gate to the next. Here's where the scale and accuracy of the map can help. There is a lot of detail on the 1:25000 OS maps, which means that identifiable features are closer together. In a series of fields with each boundary and the line of the path marked on the map (even if not on the ground), you can often just keep the map oriented in your hand and set off in the direction shown on the map from one landmark (say the corner of a field) with a good chance of finding the next one (say the exit gate) if it's not too far, maybe a couple of hundred yards; you may not hit the gate spot-on but it won't be far away when you reach the field boundary and should be within sight.

But if your map shows less detail (such as the Harveys 1:40,000), or identifiable landmarks are further apart, you may need to be more precise about how you progress from one to the next; you may need to follow a bearing. Again I'll assume that you know how to translate a direction on the map to a bearing on your compass; but it's how you follow the bearing that often gets overlooked. Not many people can follow a bearing accurately by just looking at the compass and moving in the direction that it points; try it on a park or football pitch, you're likely to find that you rapidly veer off to one side or the other like most of us. The normal way to follow a bearing is to select something in the far range of your vision that is on the bearing and then go to it; then repeat the process with more of these "bearing markers" until you reach the landmark you set the bearing for. Bearing markers will be rocks, fence posts, trees, anything that doesn't move; the further apart they are, the more accurate your progress will be.

This sounds OK, but what if the ground in front of you is so featureless that there are no features you can use as bearing markers? Well, there are at least three tactics that you may be able to use to get somewhere;-

1. If you are not alone, you can use each other as markers; one person goes ahead on the bearing, directed by one standing still to go left or right to stay on the bearing until at the limit of visibility. You then move to him/her and repeat the process. No good if you are alone though!

2. You can accept that you may not follow your bearing accurately by "aiming off". Suppose your next landmark is a footbridge across a stream. Your concern is that you will miss it, so you set a bearing to miss it deliberately, say by aiming to the left of it by a hundred hards or so (how far you aim off depends on how far away it is), When you eventually hit the stream you now know that you have to turn right and follow it to reach the bridge.

3. You may not have features in the precisely the direction you want to take, but you may be able to use other reliable features as "handrails". In the example I gave above, instead of aiming off you may find that a wall or fence leads from where you are to meet the stream say a quarter of a mile from the bridge. You can then follow the fence then the stream as reliable handrails; you will travel further but you will know where you and get to where you want to go without problems.

All this so far is pretty standard stuff and anyone who has spent any time wandering around the hills will have probably used most if not all of these techniques. It's not rocket science and easily learned and practised. But what you notice is that as conditions get progressively unhelpful, then navigation gets a bit more time consuming, both in thinking time and often in travel time too.  But then there are a couple more factors that influence ultra running events in particular.


Now you may be different but when I've gone out for a day in the hills I've normally tried to confine my activity to the daylight hours, which makes the whole thing not only easier but a lot more fun. Ok, I might have walked up a few glaciers in the dark on "Alpine starts", and had my share of benightments, but these were normally minor parts of the trip and a bit of faffing around navigating carefully didn't compromise the day too much.  But once you get into the ultra game, unless you confine yourself to shorter events in the summer, then progress in the dark is very much part of the deal. It might be only two or three hours at the end of an event because you don't travel as fast as the leaders, or maybe 16 hours out of every 24 on the Spine, but either way how you navigate in the dark will have a significant impact on your race.

In the dark, everything gets more difficult. Running itself is more difficult for a start. In daylight, even in quite thick mist, you're getting signals via your peripheral vision on the near distance of the way ahead, allowing you to concentrate on where you put your feet while adjusting your direction of travel at the same time. In the dark you have no peripheral vision so must concentrate on one thing at a time.

Navigation, as we've covered up to here, is still completely possible with your map and compass, but again because you get limited feedback from the ground, only what you can see in your torch beam, then everything gets slower. Which leads to the other factor:


Ultra events are races. Now you may not actually be competing to win, but how fast you cover the ground will always be important to you. And as we have seen, the impact as navigation gets more difficult, through featureless ground, poor visibility and darkness, is that you move slower. How fast you navigate might be the difference between meeting the race cut-offs and missing them.

So here's where we start to get to the real debate. Do we have any more tools nowadays that will help us counteract this reduction in speed? And of course the answer is yes.

Reliability of electrical/electronic devices

Let's get this one out in the open before we start.  A frequent criticism I hear of the use of electronic navigational aids is "What happens when they go wrong?" Well I have two answers to that:

1. I have been using electronic aids to navigation, in the form of watches (in their non-gps form), altimeters, hand-held gps units and more recently the gps-enabled watches, for around forty years now. I have never had one fail, other than when I forgot to charge it or put batteries in.

2. I would never advocate the use of electronics as an outright alternative to a map and compass and the ability to use them, so whatever happens you will always have a way to navigate.

So what I'm much more interested in is what can the electronics do for us that is better than a map and compass.


Long before the advent of gps we were using altimeters. Knowing the elevation you are at gives you a real step up in information to work with. It helps pinpoint your current location, gives you good feedback on where you are on a long climb for example, and also allows you to "handrail" a contour when no permanent features are available. This latter technique was the one that got you up crevassed glaciers in the mist in relative safety. On the Tor De Geants, an altimeter is on the mandatory equipment list (or was when I did the event five years ago) and proved much more useful than anything else in giving you feedback on how far up a particular climb you were ("Just how much longer is this going to go on upwards?") On all modern gps watches you get an altimeter as part of the deal, so it's really worth learning how to use it and when it can help you. But the real development in electronic navigation came with the advent of the hand-held gps.

Hand-held gps

These were a bit of a waste of time until the end of the cold war, not having more than about a hundred metre accuracy until the signals from the military satellites on which they depend were unscrambled for civilian use; nowadays, if you stand still for a minute they will pinpoint your position to within a metre or two, giving you immediate access to the fundamental rule of all navigation, that is knowing where you are NOW.

There are lots of models out there, the one you choose will depend on your individual priorities. They all have the facility to load a predetermined route and then to show you where you are in relation to it  -  you can in effect just "follow the line". All but the most basic models will allow you to load maps as a background to the line, so you can see where you are in relation to the world around you as well as in relation to your route. Larger models allow you to have a bigger screen so can see more of the map, but are bulkier and heavier to carry. Touch-screen models are faster to operate but I personally would only use a button-operated type  -  slower and clunkier but unaffected by weather and can be operated wearing fairly thick gloves.

However, just like a map or a compass, a gps is of limited use unless you take the time to understand what it can do and how to get the most out of it, and then practice as much as you would with a map.  Buying a gps to put in your pack as a "back-up" should navigating with a map get too challenging is for me a pretty questionable exercise. Without practice, you may find it no better than (or even worse than) a map.

In good visibility on almost any ground, a competent map navigator will be faster than a gps user  -  he is getting more information simultaneously and can translate that into action immediately. But when conditions begin to cut off some of the information available, a gps will start to become faster. Taking bearings, using bearing markers, aiming off, using handrails, all of this fairly time consuming stuff becomes unnecessary, you just follow the line on the screen. The flip side is that in doing this you become (if only psychologically) more detached from where you are on the ground. I use a Garmin ETrex30 unit, which when set to the scale that I feel is most efficient for following a route, shows less than one square kilometer of map on the screen. Great for negotiating the next two hundred metres but you get no idea of the big picture, what the next mile or two of ground is likely to be like, any obstacles, climbs, etc coming up, how far to go to the next checkpoint, and so on.

Route screen on my Etrex30 gps - easy to follow but a limited 
view of the world

A great combination in poor conditions, especially at night, is to have a companion so that one of you can work the gps and the other the map. By feeding each other information you can make rapid progress and understand the big picture at the same time, almost as well as in clear conditions.

I think it's worth a word here about how you put routes into a device. I often see comments or questions such as "can I get a gps file for route (X)". Technology is so simple and easy these days, you can just see a file somewhere and with a couple of clicks it's in your machine. I personally never do this. I like to see the file on a map first, then I recreate it using the waypoints that I choose rather than the ones that the originator has chosen. This is because the originator's aim is to describe the route, whereas I want to follow it, and these are different objectives. I may want to put waypoints at all the key direction changes, and ignore a lot of the others for example. Plus, I find that by actually manipulating the route manually a lot of it stays in my brain before the event much more easily than if I just imported it without thinking.

GPS Watch

But why would you bother with a hand-held gps, when you can follow a route just by using your watch? Well, for me, a few reasons:

1. On a watch you only get a route line, no map possibilities, so although you can still follow it there is nothing to tell you where you are on the ground at any point.

2. Gps watches always run from rechargeable batteries, and the gps function is a relatively high power use, so charge has to be managed carefully even on shorter ultra events. On a hand-held you simply put in another set of batteries and are good for another couple of days.

3. Most runners keep an eye on elapsed time and distance, maybe even other parameters such as pace, quite regularly, and if using the watch for navigation as well this means frequent switching of functions which can become a bit of a pain over an extended time period.

But this doesn't mean I get no navigational input from a watch. One task that I find it very useful for is providing a fast spot check on current location. This can be useful for, eg; 

1. Settling those "well I think we're about here" sort of conversations (maybe with yourself)

2. Getting a quick progress report. Say you're going along a long, easy to navigate track but in misty or dark conditions (Lairig Mhor, Cam Road, Old Coach Road sort of territory) there aren't that many features to tell you what progress you're making so getting your location can answer the "how much more of this do we still have to do?" question. It's just another way of getting the bigger picture.

These are just examples; there are plenty of other occasions when a ten second exercise on the watch to give you your precise location can give either useful information or a confidence boost - worth the time I think.

Getting Lost.

We all get lost on occasions -  by which I mean either (a) you don't know where you are, or (b) you think you know where you are, but are mistaken.  In my experience this normally happens not because you don't have the ability to navigate that particular ground but because you lose concentration and take your eye off the ball. You may be chatting to another runner, going along a series of tracks that don't seem to need any detailed navigation, following other people because it was pretty easy so far and you didn't feel the need to find your own way  -  then suddenly it dawns on you that you've broken the first rule  -  you don't know where you are NOW.  I find this can often be exascerbated by not having all the tools to hand  -  map, compass, gps etc maybe still in sack.  You're then tempted, rather than stop and get sorted out, to push on in the hope that you will see someone else or get an indication on the ground that convices you that you're still on track. That way lies a lot of time wasted.

I've tried to instil some personal discipline by making sure that on any event that I don't know pretty well from start to finish, I have all the tools to hand; map, compass, gps, all in separate pockets of lightweight frontpack which took a couple of hours to make and clips with two mini carabiners onto the straps of any pack I happen to be wearing (shown in the photo earlier in this post). With stuff handy it's easy to keep an eye on where you are on the map. And if all else fails I still have two devices that can tell me precisely where I am now (hand-held and watch), and I use them sooner rather than later. I always switch the hand-held on to follow the route, even if I don't intend using it much if at all - a set of batteries will last a day or two and it seems a small price to pay to get information quickly when you need it. Similarly with my watch; on a long event I won't bother with the "running" mode, I just switch it to a "walk" mode so it still gives basic feedback on time and distance but the battery will last a couple of days so if I need it for a quick position, it's available.

Now this doesn't mean that you can't get back on track without using the electronic devices; if you've learned your stuff well you will do it  - but it will take longer. Which leads us nicely to the end game; what am I really saying after all this ramble?

Efficient navigation

I'll recap what I said earlier here; these I my views, you don't have to agree with them but I've developed them over a fairly lengthy period and they seem to work for me. So my philosophy is as follows:

1. Of course I want to navigate accurately, but I also want to navigate efficiently so that I don't waste time either on the navigation or by covering unnecessary distance.

2. I have numerous tools to help me navigate, and it seems foolish not to use them all.

3. I have discovered that for me, in daylight and with good visibility, I move faster using a map, or a map and compass combined.

4. I know that in poor visibility or at night, unless the ground has regular easily-identifiable features, I move faster using a hand-held gps. I will normally refer to the map regularly for the bigger picture.

5. If I am in any doubt at all about where I am in any conditions, I will immediately get a grid reference from my watch.

6. This means that any new piece of navigation kit that I get, I have to take the time needed to learn to use it effectively, and to practice with it so I know exactly what it will and won't do.

Happy navigating!


Well, all that sounds ok. But I've been in the Lakes for a week or so just pottering around on routes that I know well  - the only navigation equipment I've taken with me is my brain. This afternoon I just started to look out my kit for the "Lakes in a Day" event which starts first thing tomorrow morning.............and realised I'd left my compass back in Chester.  A quick sprint down to Blacks for a replacement. You may re-assess my competence if you wish.........