Thursday, 11 August 2016

Lakeland 100 - back to the party again!

Looking back now after 5 starts and 3 finishes I wondered if I still had anything to say about the Lakeland 100. But it's an event that keeps on giving and returning to Coniston for the 7th year in a row (including one year marshalling and one running the 50) naturally resulted in a host of new experiences and memories to savour. I have to write this stuff down so that I can look back in my dotage at how I used to spend my time, but if you want to come along with the story you're more than welcome.

Preparation hadn't gone exactly swimmingly. A hamstring pulled 4 weeks before the go, probably as a result of taking up running again too soon and too enthusiastically after the West Highland Way Race, resulted in a couple of physio visits and some missed training. Given the go-ahead after 2 weeks, a first gentle outing went fine but the second resulted in the muscle playing up again. I decided further medical consultation was futile as I'd already made my decision. I stopped running but a slowish traverse of Blencathra and a casual outing up Place Fell with Jan convinced me I could still walk OK.  I'd played this game before, I knew how to get round the course with virtually no recourse to running, and as Marc Laithwaite was later to say at the briefing that everyone in the field was probably injured anyway I had no excuse even if I'd wanted one.

Parking on the school field on Friday afternoon, a lot of familiar faces around. Hello to the Consanis, the Steeles, David, Phil and others then in for registration. My kit check done by Steve who I'd run the last day of the Ring of Fire with last year. Dave in the hall but not running this year, mind focussed on the TDS in a month's time. Pick up the dibber "you've done this before haven't you?" Back to the car for a rest and the crossword in the sunshine. Warm but not as hot as last time, 2014, cracking the flags then, all day and night, but a nice cooling breeze today.

"Your main aim is to finish. Anything else is a bonus"  - Marc at the briefing. I know that, except for me the only aim is to finish. I know I can do this race but it's too big for me to have any other goal than to be arriving back at Coniston sometime late on Sunday morning. We shake hands with whoever is next to us, wish them well. No deciding who will finish this year, a higher completion rate has been achieved last year and is expected again; 70% or the boss will be disappointed, we promise to oblige.

Then outside, Nessun Dorma, the Final Countdown and off through the streets of Coniston. Walking at the back for me but it won't cost much time as I know there will be a queue for the gate at the Miners' Bridge. There are still a few people behind me as I settle into the first little climb, then break into an extremely slow jog down to the start of the Walna Scar road. Everything seems OK.

The climb over Walna is one of the biggest on the course but it's at an easy angle on a good track so not too much of a chore and you are rewarded with the first stunning view of the trip at the summit. All the central fells come into view in the evening sunshine. Then it's an easy descent all the way down to Seathwaite. Dib in, refill water bottle, eat a couple of custard creams and a slice of cake then off down the road. I pass Mike at the gate. He followed my "tourist" splits for a 39 hour finish last year but is hoping for a bit better this time.

Walna Scar ascent
I've got the nutrition on this event honed to a plan that suits me so I don't have to think too hard about it now. I carry one 600ml water bottle which I plan to empty during each leg; one leg Mountain Fuel then the next water, alternately until Dalemain. After that, when I won't be eating so much food, Mountain Fuel each time. At each checkpoint I drink another cupful or two of fluid and eat one or two hundred calories worth of food, what ever appeals at the moment. I don't carry any food with me up to Dalemain, after that just a packet of ginger biscuits which I can turn to when nothing else seems palatable. I've eaten and drunk both too little and too much in races in the past and I know this approach works for me in a steady 100 miler. I think now the biggest thing about food is not to fret about it. If you're not hungry then don't eat, you'll still get round.

I pass and repass a number of runners on the section up to Grassguards. I seem to be steadier up the hills but they cruise past on the level bits where I'm walking pretty much everything.  After Grassguards we hit the wet; the section of the course that in any year, no matter how dry, you're going to get soggy feet. Except this year I stay dry because as an experiment, knowing we've had a lot of rain in the Lakes recently, I've gone with "Sealskin" waterproof socks (actually the rather cheaper ex-army version for me) and they seem to be working. Finally out of the swamp and over the fence, the tricky little decent down to Penny Hill then along the river to Boot and Checkpoint 2.

"Andy Cole!" I hear as I arrive, it's Drew and Debbie handing out drinks - pretty high-class marshals at some of these stops. I ask how many people still to come, at least twenty, I must be going too fast then, the last handful is where I should be at this stage. More custard creams and chocolate chip cookies, the sort of thing I never eat at home but on an event like this they really seem to hit the spot. Darkness seems to come early tonight and the torch is on as soon as I leave the checkpoint. I stride up the first mile or so of enclosed path followed by some more lights. I ask if they want to come past but they say they're happy with the pace and will just tag along. So I enjoy a sociable leg over to Wasdale Head in the company of Eamon and Steve. We manage to find a bit more wet ground around Burnmoor Tarn outflow but it then dries out over the next hill. I'm happy with 6 hours to Wasdale but this slightly shorter leg has gone quickly and we're there with a quarter of an hour in hand.

I always feel that Coniston to Wasdale is the "warm-up"; the real business starts here, so a bit of sustenance before setting out. The Sunderland Strollers have a good spread so soup, a cheese sandwich and a quick hit of coke and I'm good to go. Eamon and Steve have been much more efficient, I see them leaving several minutes before me; I don't see them again but they finish OK in around 38 and a half hours  -  my sort of runners. I work my way steadily up Black Sail on my own. I can see lights ahead and behind but they're some distance away. I don't like to stop on climbs so I plod away and eventually catch and pass a couple just at the summit. The ground down the other side suits me and I jog down at a casual pace. I overtake several more runners here but I think maybe because I have a better line; their lights are over to the left but I always go by local expert Dave's rule - "stick by the stream, it's the fastest way down".

Almost no moon tonight so I'm pleased to find the footbridge then Black Sail hut springs up suddenly out of the darkness. Steadily up to Scarth Gap; I'm really enjoying the climbs and the rest seems to be going painlessly enough. I know that's going to change soon though for the few hundred yards from the col down to the "gap in the wall" are possibly the roughest on the whole course. I know that following the big cairns will get me there because I came up here again in daylight barely three weeks ago, but with lights all over the place I get distracted and still manage to find the higher gap rather than the correct lower one. Another runner has done the same but it's only a few yards downthe hill to the path and from there it's easy to Buttermere. Gareth and I stay together all the way to Buttermere; we seem to have a similar strategy  -  run only when it's actually easier than walking.

The two big stages on the night shift are a formidable part of the first half of the race, and that's one of them done. I'm 45 minutes ahead of the cutoffs at Buttermere so I don't need to think about them again, it gets easier from here.

Again I set out alone and it stays that way for the long climb up to Sail Pass. The bracken's higher than normal on the first section and I'm glad I haven't brought poles this year, not many places where they would actually have been any help so far, but they're in the bag at Dalemain, ready for the pulls up Fusedale and Gatescarth after some tiredness has set in. Easy going up to Terry's second cairn and the left turn, then steeply up for half a mile or so to the col. A bit of a haul this bit but it's over quite quickly. I've been gaining on the light ahead since we made the last turn; I catch it just before the pass and it turns out to be Gareth again. We find our way down to Braithwaite together; at Barrow Door it gets light and we enjoy a gentle jog all the way down to the village.

I've been guilty of eating too much here in the past so I just have a couple of bowls of rice pudding and a welcome first cup of tea. We have to carry our own cup for hot drinks this year but at the majority of checkpoints they are still using paper cups anyway. It always seems cold when you leave here, so another layer on and down the road. It's good to get Braithwaite behind you, it means the majority of the hard ground and three of the four big climbs are now done, and coming up is a relatively gentle twenty-five miles or so across the Northern section of the course to Dalemain. In my first three starts (only one of which was successful) I used to look on this section as an opportunity to put on a bit of speed and get some time in hand, but I was advised by a wise friend that the best way to treat it is as a time for recovery after the first tough thirty-odd miles, and since then I've heeded his advice and the second half of the race has been much more enjoyable. So I carry on jogging the downhills and walking everything else.

Along the road then the path along the old railway, then coming out by the Pheasant Inn (best steak pie in the world) I see a figure sitting on one of the seats outside the biker cafe; a bit strange at six in the morning. It turns out to be John K who is spending today watching the race then tomorrow learning part of the "Lakes-in-a-Day" route. We chat a minute or two then I ramble on my way and start the climb up Latrigg. Once out of the trees, every time I look back on opening a gate I see a figure in red a hundred yards or so behind. I eventually work out that it's Mike; I expect him to catch me but he doesn't so we each carry on thinking our own thoughts.  I've been having difficulty staying awake since Braithwaite so I just have to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other; the early morning after travelling through a night is never a great time for me, but I can usually shake off the tiredness eventually. At the non-manned check at the sheepfold I shout to two or three runners ahead who have overshot the right turn, which to be fair is today a bit obscured by the much higher than usual bracken. They lose barely a minute or two. On the run-in down the other side to Checkpoint 6 at the Blencathra Centre I manage to catch another two or three runners, so at least I seem to be progressing through the field OK.

Tea, biscuits and several pieces of Dave's Mum's famous chocolate cake and I seem to be coming round again as I set out for Dockray. The first mile or two has changed this year because of the floods, straight down the road to Thelkeld, not as interesting as the old way but easier. A little cluster of us reach the unmanned check under the underpass together, and for the next mile or so I find myself chatting with Peter and Simon. They are from Jersey and are friends of Steve, who I covered quite a few miles of the Dragon's Back with last year; even with the explosion of participation over the last few years, ultra-running is still quite a small world. I pull away up the gradual climb up to and along the first bit of the Old Coach Road, then it's just a steady walk for most of the way to Dockray.

The field's thinning out now (or to be more accurate, most of it is way ahead of me) so every checkpoint is offering almost personal service to every arrival. Have a chair, can I refill your water, what can I get you to eat and drink? We really are being spoiled by these brilliant volunteers. Soup and bread and a cup of tea will do me fine thanks.  The next section to Dalemain is a long one but it starts off with an easy downhill road section, then a beautiful descent through the woods past Aira Force to the start of the lovely traversing path around Gowbarrow.  Somewhere around here I meet John; he's running more often but I'm walking faster so we seem to maintain the same sort of speed. He can tell I know the way so just cruises for a while but then pulls his road book out  - "I have to keep track of where I am in this, otherwise if one of us slows down I'm lost!" Sound reasoning, so he checks off all the decision points as we pass them. On the climb up Gowbarrow we're caught by Billy, who has been my "sweeper" companion on some of the "official" recces this year. Last year he started very slowly but then speeded up to finish in around 33 hours and it seems that his plan is the same today. We wave him through but he says he's happy just to stay with us for the time being.

I haven't been round this way recently so I'm surprised to see many trees in the wooded section after Gowbarrow have been felled, opening up the path and views and drying out the normally sloppy ground underneath. At this point Billy decides it's time to press on so he trots off ahead at around double our speed and is soon out of sight. I warn John of the wet field coming up after the next road crossing; on the recce back in March Billy and I had to help pull a runner who had got stuck up to the knees out of here, but when we get there all the cows have gone, there is a good track through the now knee-high grass and it's more or less completely dry. Always fascinating how this course changes every time you follow it. When we reach the uphill on the road out of Bennethead I'm walking comfortably a bit faster than John so I press on ahead. I don't see him again but he obviously had plenty left because he reaches Coniston about an hour ahead of me.

Dalemain in 19 hours 11 minutes. That's fine, 20 hours would be OK, anything else is a bonus. Now up into 232nd place, which considering there were 345 starters is a bit surprising; there are now over 100 runners either behind me or out. Dalemain is pretty quiet, the L50 runners left hours ago. Here I must remember to change the batteries in the torch, after that it's all relaxation and being waited on again. Tea, pasta, a clean shirt, poles to see me through the second half, a thicker fleece because tonight is forecast colder. I spend far more time than I should here, over half an hour, but it was great at the time.

I see runners in the distance and pass the odd one or two during the long walk through Pooley Bridge and up over Askham Moor, then a bit of jogging and Howtown (Cowtown?  - cowboys everywhere) comes up. This is a place you must not linger; every minute you stay here the next climb up Fusedale, the last big one on the course, grows by at least another hundred feet in your mind. A bit of an instant energy fix for me, haribos and coke, then off up the road. It's not so bad really of course, it's neither as long nor as steep as Sail Pass, but then that was forty-odd miles back when you were relatively fresh. I just get into a rhythm, get the poles working, don't stop and I'm cresting the col by High Kop just on the hour after leaving Howtown. Just after the first wooden post I catch the first (or rather the last) L50 competitor, a lady making her way steadily across the moor. Then it starts to slope downwards and I can jog down to the lake, past Terry's new post and the lonely cairn. I pass a couple of runners at the footbridge who are not sure of the way so I say it's through the gate and take the right-hand option. This is another track which has appeared as a direct result of the Lakeland 50/100 events; the old one was a scrambly affair right by the side of the beck, the new one goes easily down through the bracken, cutting a bit off the corner in the process.

I used to dislike the section along the lake but now I know it better and can recognise the landmarks I find it easier to get my head round. The last time I was here wasn't so long ago, coming in the opposite direction in the "Northern Traverse" event back at the end of May. Just before the junction with the Kidsty Pike path I pass a couple of runners and ask them how it's going. The lady says she's struggling. I carry on to the Mardale Head checkpoint.  This is special for two reasons. First, I feel it's the place where the hard work of the L100 is really cracked; you're three quarters of the way round with all the big climbs done, there are still some ups but they get progressively smaller from here,  it's mostly easy to follow tracks all the way home. Second, it's run by Delamere Spartans; these guys are actually my closest running club at home, I've been wandering around Delamere Forest for over forty years, and I keep promising myself that I'll join and never getting around to it. This year I will  -  if I ever get around to running at a respectable speed again that is!

Soup and a handful of crisps and I decide to take a breather and sit down in their gazebo for five minutes. Nick is there, having to pull out because his knees have given up. It must have been a hard decision because he doesn't stop often - he's already completed 5 Lakeland 100's. The couple that I passed a bit earlier come in. The lady is convinced she's going to stop here. All around her including me try to convince her to wait awhile before making a decision, she has plenty of time left yet. As I leave she seems to be looking a little better. Her name didn't stick but looking over the results I think it must have been Amy  -  who went on to get all the way to Coniston.

People complain about the next climb up Gatescarth, but it's really just steady on a good track, just one foot in front of the other again, as slow as you like but don't stop and it will soon be done. Half way up I catch two L50 ladies, one of whom I recognise as Nici, but I can't remember where we've met. She reminds me that it was on the January night recce from Ambleside to Coniston; there were three or four of us at the back and at one point up on the moor on the last leg from Tilberthwaite we decided to take a breather. We stopped, all turned our lights off and spent just a few minutes enjoying the place with not a light to be seen anywhere in the darkness.

The bonus with Gatescarth is that when you've reached the top, you have a great descent that goes on for miles, barely a hundred yards of slight uphill all the way down to Sadgill, a no-energy cruise all the way. It's this sort of ground where I think cushioned shoes really come into their own; you don't have to concentrate on individual stones, you can just drop your foot down anywhere and let the cushioning do the rest. You have to be a bit more careful with them on bouldery ground to avoid turning an ankle, but there isn't much of that on the L100 so for me it's a small price to pay. I did my last L100 in Hoka Stinsons but over the last couple of years I've changed to Sketchers Gorun Ultras, which for the sort of running I do, and at my rather pedestrian pace, suit me perfectly.

On the hill just after Sadgill I meet Zelia, who has been a fellow marshal with me at numerous recces and last year's event. This year she's decided to have a go at the L50. She's with 73 year-old Donald, who I remember from last year when I did his kit check and then "dibbed in" at the finish. They seem to be going well and I'm sure they'll finish OK (they do). Then up the rest of the climb, I normally resent this one because you sort of feel you've gone far enough to warrant a checkpoint at Sadgill then you still have this non-trivial little up-and-over to get to Kentmere, but today it doesn't seem too bad. Kentmere and darkness arrive at pretty much the same time.

At Kentmere I reach the point that probably hits most people somewhere in a long race, none of the food at the checkpoint looks appealing, so now is the time to pull out the ginger biscuits, my "go-to" nutrition for these eventualities. I drink two cups of tea and eat four biscuits - at 50 calories a go that's good enough to get me up Garburn, otherwise don't waste time but get out into the night. There are two torches just ahead but they seem to be climbing faster so I just wend my way up at my steady plod. Surprisingly, I catch them up shortly over the top of the pass, along with another two or three runners and we set off down. I seem a bit more comfortable going down so I pull ahead, but we catch others and there is a lot of general passing and repassing down here, I guess because it's an easily runnable track and it just depends how tired you are at this stage. By the time we come out onto the road before Troutbeck I seem to have worked my way back to the front of the little band and it stays that way, apart from being passed by one runner going strongly, all the way to Ambleside.

The climb up through Troutbeck and along Robin Lane seems to go on a bit longer than it should, but eventually it levels, and once through High Skelghyll farm it's down hill all the way to Ambleside. All the way that is except the last bit. The one bit of this whole course that really bugs me, unreasonably so I'm sure but that doesn't help, is Old Lake Road. You come down out of the woods and end up on level ground, 50 yards from the main road by the garden centre. From here there is an obvious, safe, and more importantly level footpath along the main road into Ambleside. But instead of the is we have to take a backstreet with poor lighting and no footpath, up a hill then down again, being (hopefully) missed by car drivers who at the time I get there always seemed somewhat surprised to see runners about so late, which gets you to exactly the same place. Rant over.

The Ambleside checkpoint is full of clowns, including another star of earlier L100's Gaynor. Another quickish stop for me though, more tea and ginger biscuits and away. I cover the stretch from Ambleside to Elterwater completely alone, emphasised by the darkness of the virtually moonless night. It's beautiful over Latrigg and a little tedious alongside the river, a wide level path with the only distraction being the sheeps' and cows' eyes picked up in my torch beam. I pass a couple of runners just before Elterwater then catch up three more just coming into Chapel Stile and tag along with them to the checkpoint. I'm ready to eat again here and the beef stew goes down a treat. I set out with the same three guys along the undulating rocky path along the valley. It's good to have some ground you have to concentrate on again after all the straightforward tracks, especially as I'm starting to feel tired and quite sleepy again now. We make quite a good pace (though still walking, you understand!) through to the boggy bit around the campsite and up the little hill to the cattle grid, then the easy track down to Blea Tarn.

The others stop for something here so I set off down. It's light enough for the torch to go on again here. I've done two recces in darkness since I last saw this section in daylight, and I'm surprised at how straightforward it is when you have a broader field of vision. I remember to stay high after leaving the wall and it's only a few yards of paddling across the top of the moss to the Wrynose road and the final non-manned check. No need to keep anything in hand now so jog down the road and along the track to the old house, then a steady walk up the jeep track past all the false summits, to the final jog down the otherside and the final checkpoint at Tilberthwaite.

I vote myself a two or three minute sit-down here, just enough time for a cup of tea and a handful of jelly babies. I'm really not looking forward to the steep climb out of here, but it's the last one so I stick to the plan, one foot in front of the other and don't stop. I haven't really thought about times since I knew I was clear of the cutoffs, but once over the first steep bit I start working out how long I might be from the finish. It's interesting enough so I push on a bit across the less steep ground up to the final col. I look at the watch here. If I can get down in half an hour, and if I've remembered my other times correctly, I'll be close to my previous best.

I can do the steeper stuff down to the old miners' cottages so I make the most of it, clattering down at a respectable pace. I'm not so sure when I reach the gravel road, a bit more effort required, but I manage a slightly-better-than-jog, then when it gets steeper near the bottom and onto the tarmac the gradient speeds me up nicely. Outside the Black Bull I see Terry, I'm pleased I'm still running to put on a bit of a show "Well run that man!" is his comment as I pass. I manage to run uphill past the petrol station (my first uphill run of the whole trip), then it's down the road to the school and done.

37:29:01 The best of my three finishes. Only by eight minutes or so, but at this stage in my career I'll take it, thanks.  Apart from a couple of periods of sleepiness I felt pretty sound the whole trip. I'll probably be back. Maybe not next year (time to marshal again I think, it's a lot of fun) but sometime.

Thanks to Marc, Terry and all the gang for putting on an event that just keeps going from strength to strength, and to all the brilliant checkpoint crews for being so helpful, friendly.......and entertaining!

After a hundred miles with no ill effects I was sure my hamstring was cured. I sensibly waited until the following Wednesday before going out for a very gentle four mile run. After three miles it was tight again, enough for me to stop. UTMB in three weeks time now. Ah well, I guess that's another longish walk then.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Views on Shoes (part 2!)

I posted a piece under this title (apart from the "part 2" bit) back in October 2012. The stats show that it's been the sixth most read of the roughly 200 posts I've put on this blog since I started back in 2009, so it must have stirred some interest among a few hundred people at least. Well, in the nearly 4 years since then things have moved on as it were. I've got older and slower, covered a few more miles and run a few more races, learned a bit more from a lot more mistakes. Shoe makers have progressed, proliferated, given us more choice, sometimes more help and often more confusion. And the debate and rhetoric is rising once more, so maybe time for me to throw in my two penn'orth again.

But who is this guy who dares to have a view on shoe choice you may rightly ask? An ageing pedestrian whose best years are clearly behind him, and even back whenever whose best performance was probably a not too special 35th place in the Lakeland 50, no real pedigree at all, haven't we far more accomplished practitioners to heed? You're right of course, so I'll start with a few words of defence.

1. How the top guys experience training and racing is a world away from how I do it. There are good reasons for this which we'll come to later, but it does mean that advice from them to me (and there are a lot of people down my end of the field) may not be all that relevant.

2. You'll know if you've read any of my more "technical" posts before that I like to try and get into the basic engineering of why things work, in fairly simple terms. Equipment manufacturers, either because they think we're not intelligent enough or maybe for other reasons, often don't explain this. Now you may disagree with my conclusions but if what I have to say prompts you to think things through a bit more logically that's a good enough result.

3. I enjoy doing this stuff and if you don't like reading it then you don't have to. I won't be offended.

So let's get back to shoes.

What do we actually need?

Let's start with a bit of history. I'm old enough now that some of it can come from me. When I was a schoolboy athlete I ran on the track in spiked shoes with wafer-thin leather soles, long spikes for grass tracks, shorter ones for cinders (no tartan tracks then of course). Everything else, roads, cross-country and so on was done in gym shoes (canvas tops, flat rubber soles). You slid about a bit if it was muddy but it encouraged a sense of balance to avoid too many face down excursions. When I went to university in 1967, the cool thing everyone wore around town were desert boots (and if you can remember those you're nearly as old as me). It wasn't until a few years later that the style of shoe we now know generically as "trainers" landed.

I started climbing around then, and it was the conventional thing to walk up to the crag in bendy, vibram-soled walking boots (which were also used for rock climbing in all the lower grades), but then trainers came along and we found that walk-ups could be done just as comfortably in this new style of footwear. And if you were going to walk up to Sca Fell Crag or Cloggy in trainers, then the logical next step was to use them for all hill walking unless there was any deep snow around. The term "walking" of course just meant travelling around at the best speed you could, which generally meant walking up and running down. Our climbing club had an annual outing around the Welsh 3000's, traditionally taking in Bristly Ridge on Glyder Fach and the North Ridge and Traverse of Crib Goch. The faster guys would get around in times which would be respectable even by modern standards, and we were all wearing either boots or what would nowadays be called  "road shoes".

If you want a bit of more general history, consider these two bits of information. Billy Bland set the (as yet still unbroken) record for the Bob Graham Round in 1982. Pete Bland developed the sole considered to be the forerunner of all modern fell shoes in 1985.

The point of all this of course is to stress that while the nice shoe designs we have nowadays may be helpful, people were travelling around the fells at fair speeds long before any of them were invented. So no particular shoe design is "necessary"; the only real requirements are a reasonable sense of balance, an ability to put your feet in the right places and a head that can deal with being on steep ground. If you don't have these then no shoe is going to be able to compensate. I'm personally puzzled by events that specify what type of shoe you have to wear. I can only assume that it is governed by some insurance requirement to stop the organisers being sued (well, you fell over and broke your leg but you were wearing the right shoes so that's OK).  If so, I think it's just another example of a problem (my view of course) associated with too many outdoor sports these days, where too much attention is focussed on what equipment is carried or worn, and too little on the protagonist's ability to use it. But I'll get off that hobby horse now and back to the subject.

So we've established that basically you could do any event in any footwear. Now, how does the range that we have on offer nowadays make life better, and how do you make a choice?

What are shoes designed to do?

Well, different shoes are designed to meet the needs of different runners, participating in different styles of running, over different ground. Let's start with the ground. Depending on what style of training and events is your particular bag, you might over the course of a running year have to deal with:

Smooth gravel trails (wheelchair and road bike friendly)
Stonier roads and jeep tracks (think Old Coach Road or Lairig Mor)
Typical UK "mountain" paths (stones, odd boulders, bits of mud and grass, etc)
Boulder fields (think top of the Scafell Pikes, Glyder Fach, etc)
Simple rocky scrambling (Sca Fell, Tryfan, Crib Goch)
Sloping mud and steep grass
Tussocks, heather and other similar nasties
Wet ground (ankle deep)
Boggy ground (knee deep or worse)
Beach sand
Dune sand

Shall I go on? I'm sure you could think of more, but the point is that all these are different, and the "hard" surfaces are different again whether they are wet or dry. No one shoe is going to perform well on all of these, so what we see now is that the shoes we have available have become more specialised to deal with a small selection of these conditions. 

I could ramble on now about there being equally lengthy lists covering the variety in types of event and type of runner, all having a different impact on shoe design, but I think you probably get the picture. It's complicated. So what we need is a set of criteria against which we can judge what our needs are for a particular project, or for our running in general. There are again many to choose from but I'll ignore some (like do you need a shoe colour to match your overall style palette..) and go for the ones that make sense to me.

Criteria for shoe design

1. Grip

Staying upright, making progress over the ground, staying in control down hills are essential parts of the game so grip is important. But no one sole will give you good grip everywhere, Studs are great on ground where they can dig in, grass, mud, etc (particularly when it's wet) but when you're going to be landing on a hard surface (rocks and stones) grip comes from friction, and here the more rubber you can get down the better (think of the F1 guys). This is why "trail shoes" have evolved with a larger contact area than fell shoes - most trails, particularly in continental Europe and North America (markets that many shoe designers are aiming for) are hard packed and usually dry. Bog, heather and near vertical grass are rather more British specialities.

2. Stability

By stability I mean what does the shoe do when you put it down on a surface that isn't horizontal (either in the direction of travel, across it, or most likely at some sort of diagonal angle). Does it hold your foot solid relative to the footprint, or does your foot lurch off in the direction of the slope, banging your toes into the front of the shoe or threatening to turn your ankle. Two main things contribute to stability, the closeness of the fit and the distance between the underside of your foot and the ground. The former depends on whether you can find a shoe of your chosen design to fit your foot, but the second depends on the depth of the shoe base  - the combined thickness of insole, midsole and tread. The deeper the base, the bigger the rotational force your foot will experience; this is regardless of grip, it's just about geometry and mechanics. Thin soled shoes are much more stable than deep soled ones.

3. Cushioning

There has been mountains of debate in recent years about minimal shoes, deeply cushioned shoes and everything in between. Every style has its evangelists but I'm clear that there is no one right answer. What the engineering tells you however is that every time you put your foot down it has to dissipate an amount energy which will be determined  by your speed, weight, cadence, and so on. You can't get away from this, this amount of energy is fixed and has to be absorbed somewhere. What you can do though is to change the time over which it is absorbed  -  energy is a force applied over a time, so if you can increase the time then you decrease the force transmitted back up through your foot and leg, and it is these forces that wear us out over the long term. You increase the time by putting some suspension (springs) into the system so the force has to work against the springs and operates more slowly. Again, think of the car analogy.

Minimal shoe runners adjust their gait to achieve a light, progressive footfall, so the springs are provided entirely by the leg muscles. The rest of us do this to certain extent but less expertly, so we either get battered feet or help ourselves a bit by using a spring in the sole of our shoes  -  cushioning. As we land the cushioning in the sole compresses, absorbing energy, then as we take off it expands again, giving us a bit back (don't be fooled, you never get anywhere near all the energy back either from your muscles or your shoe  -  life's cruel that way).

4. Water absorption

This may seem a fringe issue (well, all shoes get wet, don't they?) but I've observed that a major factor in runners not being able to complete longer races, particularly in our UK conditions, is foot problems initiated and/or exascerbated by continually wet feet. Wet feet for twelve or fifteen hours don't normally hurt anyone, but take that on into two or three days or more and blisters, trenchfoot and so on become real problems. The key design feature here is how much water a shoe retains once it has got wet, Unless you're very unlucky, periods of rain or wet sections on the course are transient and then you get to a dryer section. If your shoes retain relatively little water you can just change into dry socks and away you go; but if your shoes hold water they immediately wet out any dry socks and you're back to square one.

Some modern shoe designs are extremely comfortable because of all the padding on the uppers, but these are the very designs that hold the most water. Try some experiments weighing various shoes dry and fully wet and you'll see what I mean.  

(Events in which you can guarantee to meet wet ground almost continuously for days  on end (such as the Pennine Way) need a bit of specialist thinking so I'm excluding them here. There are experts around and I'm certainly not one of them)

So these are my significant criteria. It's just a question of choosing a shoe using these and we're sorted? Well actually no, because you will have seen already that there are some pretty big incompatibilities here, and as with anything, design is always a question of finding the best compromises for the job. Let's look first at the trade-offs.


There are a lot, but I think it's really only worth  concentrating on the three bigs ones, which are

1. You can't have a perfect grip on all surfaces. As we covered earlier grip on grass needs studs and grip on rock needs rubber. 

2. You can't have good cushioning and good stability. Cushioning increases the sole depth, which directly decreases stability.

3. If it's wet, you can't have upper shoe comfort and dry feet.

The runner

So far we've only talked  about the shoe in isolation, but equally important is the runner's shape, ability and ambitions.

Foot Shape

I posted another piece back in November 2013 entitled "Bad News and Blisters" which is another one that has has a lot of views (in fact it's my third most read ever) in which I claimed that the most important thing about any shoe choice is that they fit your foot. I have a slight reservation on this nowadays which I'll explain later but it's still a good base to work from. If you are recommended, or pre-select, a design which on try-out you find is too wide, too narrow, too tight or loose on the instep, etc for you, then probably the best thing to do is try something else.

Ability and Ambition

If you look at the results of most major ultras, the difference in finish time between the leading finishers and the back of the pack is normally a factor of around two, sometimes even more. If the winner of the Lakeland 50 gets home in 8 hours and another competitor takes 15, then it's not just that the winner is a better runner, he(or she) is playing a completely different game. It's the difference between running a 9 and a half minute mile average (and by inference a lot faster than this on the downs and flats) and a long walk. I would be really surprised if the same shoes were equally suitable for both competitors to get the most out of their day. Stability and grip become paramount when you're flying down rocky ground, comfort is probably far more important after a longish but fairly pedestrian day on your feet.

So choose your weapon.

As I said in my earlier post back in 2012, I'm not going to translate this thinking into a recommended brand of shoes, because it should be clear even from getting this far that there is no "one size fits all" answer. It used to annoy me when I saw runners making specific recommendations, even for individual races; "shoe X is definitely the best. shoe Y is unbeatable, and so on". Now I see it so often that I just let it pass. But if runners do seek recommendations from others who have experience of a particular shoe "in the field" I think it would be far more helpful to them  to ask specific questions rather than just "how good is it?" "What's the grip like on wet/dry rock,? how stable on technical ground?" etc might be better questions.

So all I'm going to do here is to put up a few scenarios about how I now go about choosing shoes. Everyone will be different from me and will reach different conclusions, but there's no reason why the thought process shouldn't work for everyone.

As an aside, this will lead to an assumption that most runners will have a range of shoes available for different races (depending on the range of events that interest you). If you're not at that point already I think you should consider it; the long term cost is no different (think about that one for a moment if you initially don't agree).

To illustrate my thinking I'll try to refer to well known events that many runners will have some experience of; my natural preference is for hilly events these days but that's just because I can't run very fast, still there should be enough for you to get the idea. Unless the event has specific difficulties with for example a lot of wet ground, the two most important factors for me are how long is the event and how much technical ground it has. 

Something like the Scafell Pike marathon is a no-brainer; only twenty six miles but getting on for twenty of that is technical ground (It's difficult to define "technical", it tends to mean different things to different people, but let me have a shot and say that it means ground where you have to make an individual decision about each footfall, and most footfalls will impose some sort of lateral force on your foot). So for this race I would choose a shoe with good wet/dry rock grip and good stability. I wouldn't be too bothered about cushioning because (a) it's not all that useful on this type of ground, and (b) I'm only going to be out for 6 hours or so, so quite happy to put up with a bit of battering. Last time I did it I wore Speedcross which I'm still using now, but I'm considering a move back to one of the Innovates which seem to have come on a bit recently (I tried Rocklites about 6-7 years ago and found that I enjoyed them but couldn't last more than 20 miles without their hurting my feet, but both my running style and shoe designs have changed quite a bit since them). I'm also looking around for a stable shoe that gets a bit more rubber down for events that feature a lot more rock and scrambling sections. The pleasure that you get from moving over rocky ground in stable, grippy shoes makes using anything else to seem like driving a truck after a sports car. But for those of us a long way from the top of this particular game, the problem is that we can't keep it up for long  -  for me, the daylight hours of a long summer's day is about all I can do, any more and my feet are wrecked.

At the other end of the scale perhaps is the West Highland Way race, 95 miles of dry, hard-packed trail with maybe 7 or 8 miles of technical ground in total, the remainder very easy underfoot. I would never go with anything other than well-cushioned shoes on here, my favourite these days are Skechers Gorun Ultra. These shoes are actually too wide for me across the front but fit well everywhere else, so I'm happy to compromise and place my feet a bit more carefully where it's rocky. 

I think it's important to make some sort of objective assessment of the ground in any race before making a shoe choice. For example both the UTMB and the Tor des Geants have reputations for being nearly as hard as they come, but this is due to the length, climbing and altitudes involved. Underfoot they are both on well constructed, easy paths, so cushioned shoes are a no-brainer for me. 

The Lakeland 100 is a hard one to judge. It has a reputation for being a big, gnarly 100-miler, maybe the toughest in the UK. This is possibly justified, but if you look at the ground underfoot it has some short sections of  technical trail, maybe amounting to 10 miles in total, otherwise the predominating feature is long, stony but straightforward paths and jeep-tracks, the sort of terrain where for me cushioning really pays off, particularly in the second half. If a drop bag was available at Braithwaite, 30 miles in with most of the technical stuff done, I would be tempted to go for stable shoes at the start and change to cushioned there, but as it is I'm happy to go with cushioned from the start. 

The compromise you make is to be a bit more careful (ie slower) on ground where you might turn an ankle, but at my pace this doesn't cost a lot of time in the overall scheme of things. 

I've completed the race in road shoes (Asics Nimbus) and Hoka Stinsons in the past. This year I'll probably go with the Skechers. The real payback comes on all the easy stony paths and road sections (all of leg 1, nearly all of Braithwaite to Dalemain, Gatescarth, Garburn, most of Troutbeck to Chapel Stile, etc) where you can cruise along in comfort without having to concentrate too hard. But then I'm never completing this event at more than a 3mph average -  if I had ambitions in the 25-30 hour range I might choose different shoes.

Events with both lots of technical ground and lots of "grass and track" are harder to call, but some of them have retrievable dropbag options that allow you to change shoes, usually into cushioned ones later in the event. This works well on the Lakes 10 Peaks (change at Honister) and Lakes in a Day (change at Ambleside).

In 2012 I had converted to Hokas for a cushioned option but they were really still in their infancy. They've come on a lot since then with many different designs, generally trading cushion for a bit more stability. I still keep one pair on the go (last ones Rapa Nui, now moved on to Speedgoats), because although they always feel a bit heavier and less manoeverable than the Skechers (and nearly twice the price!) they've gradually grown to cope with wet ground a bit better, with more resistant uppers just above the sole area and less padding - Hoka are obviously learning from European feedback where Skechers are clearly designed for the dusty dry trails of North America. The only problem with Hokas (within this "cushioned" category) is that they have never overcome the poor grip problem, get them on steep wet grass and it's never a completely certain experience. I found the Rapa Nuis to be a good choice on Day 3 of the Dragon's Back, keeping dry and comfortable feet without too much performance compromise.

I seem to have banged on a lot about cushioned shoes, but I guess that's because I wear them a lot. I'm not trying to convert anyone, just explaining why I do what I do. I see quite a few runners wearing cushioned shoes at events these days, but also many (probably the majority) who do not. But I also read a lot on forums of runners who have finished events in various degrees of foot pain and believed that's just the way it has to be. I don't think it is; remember, we do this for fun.

So that's it then. No magic answers, just I hope a few ideas that may prompt a bit more logical thought on shoe choice. I'm happy to be shot at as always.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Rule No 1: Don't underestimate the West Highland Way

Sitting on the tailgate of the car, drinking tea in the warm sunshine at the Bridge of Orchy station, chatting with Jan and Julia and John Kynaston. Finally admitting that this probably wasn't the most sensible project I'd undertaken. Grin from JK "Since when has conventional wisdom governed any of this stuff for you?" Ten minutes later, walking up Murdo's hill with Jon Steele, Jon's having a funny sort of day too. We console ourselves that we still have 19 hours left to cover 35 miles.

It all started back in the autumn of last year. An event that had been crying out to be put on, a race along Alfred Wainwright's famous "Coast to Coast" route, the most popular long distance path in the country, had finally been taken up by James Thurlow's "Open Adventure" team and would be run in 2016 under the banner "The Northern Traverse". Open Adventure had invented the "Lakes in a Day" which I had run for the past two years so I knew their organisation was top notch. The combination was too good to miss and I got my entry in almost as soon as they opened. Then around came 1st November and the West Highland Way entry. I'd missed last year and needed my Scottish fix. I got my name in without thinking twice. I had a vague idea that the two events were close, but chose not to dwell on the details of that. I knew how to do the West Highland Way, I'd already completed eight for heaven's sake, it would be fine.

Fast forward to this summer. At around 7.30pm on Thursday 2nd June I jogged into Robin Hood's Bay at the end of the Northern Traverse feeling pretty pleased. 3 days and 9 hours of stunning countryside and mixed weather and I was home inside the first 20 with no injuries, no blisters and a general sense of having survived well. I took it easy until the following Wednesday, then went for a gentle undulating 6 miles in the forest, everything still worked. With my typical occasionally unthinking enthusiasm I went back around the same route two days later, this time at well under 8 minute mile pace; the result was a very sore hamstring and a feeling of foolishness. Just a week to the West Highland Way race, better be no more exercise until then.

At the Friday evening conference with the smaller than normal crew (John had taken his family to France for the week, sensible fellow, leaving Jan and Julia with the unenviable task of trying to limit my mistakes during the weekend to manageable proportions) I pulled out a handwritten back of envelope schedule to get me to Fort William in 25 hours. Could go up or down, I said (probably more likely up, I thought) but we'll stick with it to Auchtertyre then re-assess. I left them to their sleep and wandered off down to the start to face the music.

The first few miles rumbled by, punctuated by only two incidents of note. First, somewhere on one of the very early stoney tracks I tripped over a rock and made a reasonable impression of a commando roll, leaving me with sore palms and a sizeable gash on the knee which I didn't discover until I had a shower thirty hours later. It woke me up a bit but clearly not enough as I then took the Mike Mason turn a few miles further on; fortunately after a couple of hundred yards I sensed I was in the wrong place and back-tracked to the correct route without losing more than a minute or two. My feeling of incompetence was only mitigated slightly by learning from Graeme McClymont in the pub afterwards that he and Fiona Rennie, with almost 20 completions between them, had made the same mistake just a few moments after me.

At Gartness I caught up with Adrian Stott, engaged on his 15th trip up the course. I should have known better than to ask why. On the road he was pulling me along a bit on the flats but I think I'm a slightly faster uphill walker so I didn't see him after that. It had been a short, moonlit night and the torch went off in the field up to Drymen. I had to run one or two uphills that I would maybe liked to have walked before Conic Hill, but the path up the hill itself has been improved so much that it seems to have no steep bits at all now;  so overall the first 19 miles didn't seem too arduous and by the time I clocked in with Big Davie at Balmaha I was spot on the 4 hours my schedule required and went on to a surprisingly midge-free meeting with Julia further down the car park. My dodgy hamstring had been getting a bit sore during the running so I had previewed a bit of taping to be done, but then remembered I'd left the first aid kit in the hotel and hadn't brought it down to the car the evening before, in spite of assuring the girls that I had everything sorted and they should just get some sleep. I had also made up some drinks and put them in the coolbag, another item I'd now left in the hotel. After a cool display of efficiency in my last event I was approaching Frank Spencer like competence in this one. Never mind, we coped with what we had and I said cheerio see you at Beinglas.

Steady progress up the loch was the plan; 2 hours to Rowardennan, 2 hours to Inversnaid, 2 hours to Beinglas. The first bit went fine. Just before Rowardennan I caught up with Ian Rae with whom I've spent more than a mile or two on this course. He had a sore foot from an injury more than two months ago. He thought he would drop at Rowardennan; it would be a hard decision, with 11 finishes already he knows how to get to Fort William. We jogged into the checkpoint together, I hoped he would continue (in the end his injury finally stopped him and I last saw him driving out of Glencoe, where he wished me well for the finish). In the few miles to Rowardennan the midges had started to make their presence felt, but when I stopped to pick up my drop bag they really hit with a vengeance. It was impossible to do anything standing still, you had to keep moving to achieve anything. I walked out eating rice pudding and midges. For the next 10 miles to where the route leaves the lochside, all you could really think about was the midges, they were worse than I had ever known before. I saw runners wearing nets, again a sight new to this year. I took off a T-shirt and made a hood of it, with just the squashed neck-hole to peer through. It helped but not much. We were used to passing through clouds of midges, par for the course, but this was just wall to wall continuous insects. In the end I found the most (but not very) effective method was to hold the spare T-shirt in a hand and make continuous swishing moves in front of my face.

A slight distraction was the new lower route between Rowardennan and Inversnaid, much more attractive than the dull forest road we'd used in the past. Along here I caught up Jonny Rowan and we carried on together to Inversnaid, where I picked up another pot of something to be eaten al transito  - slow down and you just get more midge than custard. Jonny stopped for a bit of TLC to painful knees, but he caught me up later and we eventually outran the insects on the climb up to Dario's post. I sidled into the Beinglas checkpoint within a minute of target at 11am. The ladies were there with milkshakes and ginger biscuits (my requirements) and sunscreen (Jan's requirement for me) then I was off again up Glen Falloch.

The ten miles from Beinglas to Auchtertyre are hard, maybe the toughest on the whole course. A few short, steep descents and the rest is continuous uphill, the gradient changes but never relents. It's a rocky track and today it was hot. By the time the track crossed the main road I was aware that it was hard work. But the reward is that after Auchtertyre all the technical stuff is done, just one foot in front of the other to the end. At 12 hours and 40 minutes from the start I was 10 minutes down on schedule when I reached the checkpoint but was able to tell myself that I still felt good. The fact that I had already lost 3kg in weight maybe told a different story.

I have a regular plan for the next stage. Pick up lunch at Auchtertyre, jog the easy bits through to Tyndrum, eat lunch walking up the long hill after Brodie's shop then run all the easy stuff to Bridge of Orchy.  I met Shirley Steele just after crossing the river so Jon must be around somewhere near, then George Reid with a sizeable entourage was at the road crossing, excuse for a brief chat stop, then up the hill and out with the butties. I started running again just after the creep under the railway, but in a few hundred yards I heard voices behind, which turned out to be Jon Steele and Sarah Colquhoun. Jon said he wasn't having a great day but Sarah said he was going to finish OK. I suspect they wouldn't have let him back in the car if he'd stopped, I know how tough these all-female support teams can be.....

We stayed together down to the bridge at the low point but Jon was clearly a bit faster than me so from here they went on ahead. But I expected to run pretty well all the ground from here to the station, normally a very easy section for me, and was a bit concerned to find that I just couldn't. Any semblance of a jog was just too hard, so I ended up walking almost all of it. By the time I met Jan and Julia at Bridge of Orchy station I was almost an hour down on my 25 hour schedule and the only thing certain was that it was going to get worse. My Northern Traverse chickens had come home to roost. With so many bigger, gnarlier events around these days it's easy to think of the West Highland Way, however beautiful and classic, as being in effort terms a fairly gentle 100-miler that you ought to be able to do any day of the week. It isn't. None of them are. 95 miles on foot is still a long way. Rule No 1  -  don't underestimate the West Highland Way.

I took a breather, drank some tea and had a bit of a think. If I couldn't run to here then I wouldn't be able to run Rannoch Moor, which my schedule depended on. It was time for a Plan B.

I told the girls that I would walk from here to Glencoe to get some composure back. I would still be there in plenty of time to leave before the requirement for a support runner over to Kinlochleven, and from then on I would just adjust my pace to whatever I had to do to stay in the game to the finish. I was sorry but they would be getting to bed rather later than we had planned. They were remarkably relaxed and positive, just do what you have to do was the response, plenty of time left to get to Fort William.

After a few yards with Jon near the start of Murdo's hill, I left him to digest his lunch and moved ahead, walking steadily. This sort of stuff I could do all day. Murdo was today accompanied by Peter Duggan and his whistle, and I was welcomed with the Star Wars theme. On a sunny day it was a wonderful if rather bizarre scene. Easily down the hill and round over Victoria Bridge to the gate at the start of the moor and the first long hill. Walking gently over the moor in wall to wall sunshine was brilliant. I relaxed and just took it all in.

But I wasn't done with a challenge or two yet. This is always one of my favourite sections of the course, and I'm normally running it at a reasonable speed so it seems to fly by. But today it seemed to be taking a long time. I felt like I should be getting near to Glencoe but then a reality check  -  I hadn't even got to Ba Bridge yet, and that was miles from the end. My Suunto watch had run out of battery at Bridge of Orchy so I just had a normal watch to go by, with no real judge of speed. Jon Steele had come past me again miles back, going at a much better pace than I could raise. I must be going really slowly, I needed to speed up. I walked faster but it seemed a real effort. Ba Bridge and the trees came and went, then the final long hill to the high point, but even the downhill mile or so to the checkpoint seemed hard work. I struggled into the Ski Centre car park at just before 8pm. For the first time that day I just slumped in the passenger seat of the car, not thinking about what lay ahead, just glad to have stopped moving.

I couldn't see myself leaving without a long rest. I had a cup of tea and some soup, and asked Julia to find out what the checkpoint closure time was; midnight was the answer. I could certainly recuperate if I stayed here until just before midnight, but it would end up being a long, long day for the crew, and it would cause another problem. If I left after 9pm, Julia would have to accompany me over to Kinlochleven which meant that she wouldn't be able to do the last stage, she knew two stages were too far for her. For a minute or two it all seemed too complex, too hard, and wouldn't it be easier just to drive around to Fort William and collapse into a warm bed. But of course this was immediately followed by the thought of the ridiculousness of pulling out of an event with only 25 miles to go and over 15 hours left on the clock. It was just a question of getting the logistics right. At 8.45pm I made the decision; "OK ladies, I can do this, I'm out of here. See you in Kinlochleven." Out of the car and down the road. I didn't feel great, but I knew I could do the next stage, and I was moving again.

The sunny day had turned into a clear but cool evening, now with a sharp little breeze. I was glad of a jacket for the first few miles to Altnafeadh but soon warmed up climbing the Devil's Staircase. I have had  one or two tough times up here over the years but this evening everything seemed fine. I wasn't going fast but nothing was hurting, I was making steady progress and enjoying the fading day. I finally had to switch a light on just before reaching the smooth works road a couple of miles before Kinlochleven, and finally reached the community centre checkpoint just after 12.30am.  I was pleased to find that my weight had stayed constant since Auchtertyre, but what I needed most of all now was a sleep. I agreed with Julia that we would set out at 3am, but after a good hour or so I was awake and much refreshed. We fortified ourselves with tea, coffee and marmite sandwiches and eventually got out of the door at around 2.30am.

Again, I've had some fairly bad experiences in this last 14 miles, pushing on near the edge of exhaustion to achieve some particular time target, unable to eat or drink much, just toughing it out to the finish. Today, with Plan B now firmly on track and no doubt about the outcome, it was just a pleasant walk. By the time we reached the top of the first climb it was light enough for torches to be put away, and we just made our way along the wild valley, chatting and admiring the views. Lundavra didn't come along any quicker than previous years but it somehow seemed not quite the effort we were expecting. The ground underfoot was dry, no paddling through puddles or streams today. (In fact the whole course was as dry as I have ever known it; I wore one pair of shoes from start to finish, and afterwards they were still clean enough to be worn to the prizegiving and the pub that evening). As we approached Lundavra we could see the smoke from the bonfire and heard Queen drifting towards us "......don't stop me now, I'm having a good time...." Seemed appropriate and we managed a dance move or two into the checkpoint.

Five minutes by the fire then onto the last lap. Still some hills to be done but not so big now, Julia getting tired too but then we see the last hill up to the fire road at the high point and from there it's downhill all the way to the finish. We jog the slopes and walk the flats and it goes quickly. At the road we call Jan and she's there at the finish, appearing in the car park just as we arrive.

30:48:20.  Nearly six hours over the plan, eight and a half over the PB, but somehow it doesn't matter too much. All finishes are worth having. Fewer mistakes next year, I think. Well, that's the plan.

Thanks to Ian Beattie and all his team for continuing to arrange this wonderful weekend's holiday every year, the lack of sleep after all the work involved beforehand must be hard, we owe you a lot.

And of course to my long-suffering yet always charming and elegant crew, Jan and Julia, you know it couldn't be done without you.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

The Northern Traverse

I made my way carefully over the "Three Sisters" of the Cleveland Way escarpment, Cringle Moor, Cold Moor and the Wainstones. It was something after 2am, the mist had brought the visibility down to maybe 15 yards in the torch beam and the enthusiastic northerly wind was making the gentle rain feel a lot wetter than it should. I didn't know whether there was anyone else on the course for miles in either direction  -  two and a half days after the start the field had got pretty strung out. Not a great place to have an accident I mused. A bang on the head, broken leg or even sprained ankle would generate some interesting complications at this point. Then almost immediately the next thought, of course, this is why we do these things. I was completely happy in my world.

1. Preparations

When the Northern Traverse event was announced last year I got my name down almost straight away. A route I had always wanted to do but never quite got around to (Wainwright's "Coast to Coast" from St Bees to Robin Hood's Bay) and organisation by James Thurlow's "Open Adventure" outfit (I had done the inaugural "Lakes in a Day" run in 2014 and enjoyed it so much I already had already had my entry in for 2015) were a combination too good to miss.

I had ideas about recceing the course, but most of last autumn was taken up with preparations for my (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt on the Spine Race and once we were into the new year other priorities intruded, so somehow it never happened. I knew the Lake District section (Ennerdale to Haweswater) because we spend a lot of time there and some of the North York Moors (Ingleby Cross to Bloworth) from the Hardmoors events, so in the end I decided that would be enough and I would just enjoy the experience of coming to the rest "fresh".

I learned from the Tor des Geants back in 2012 that a good strategy for me in multi-day races is simple. In that race I reached a very low point towards the end of Day 2 and was on the point of dropping out, but then got a grip and concentrated on looking after myself rather than the progress I was making. By Day 5 I was going as strongly again as I had at the start. You can tolerate a fairly high degree of deterioration over say a 100 miler taking maybe 2 days; it's short enough to "hang on" to the finish, but get to double that mileage and it won't work. Even if you can tolerate toughing it out physically, spending several days in increasing discomfort doesn't seem like much fun.  So for me the only way to tackle a long event is to enjoy the journey, go at a pace at which you always feel good, look after your feet, and let forward progress take care of itself.

I wasn't sure how long the Northern Traverse would take. At almost 5 days the overall time allowance seemed fairly generous for a course of 190 miles and 28,000 ft of ascent. With the event due to start at 10.00am on Monday 30th May that meant a final cutoff at 8am on the Saturday morning. I guessed I could do nearer to 4 days; I had promised to meet friends and family at the Keswick Beer Festival on the Friday evening, so allowing a few hours for the train journey back that seemed to fit OK. I would take it steadily then push a bit near the end if necessary.

The Open Adventure concept for races is one that appeals to me. You have well stocked, well organised "Feed Stations" along the course at regular intervals, to which a drop bag containing spare shoes, clothes and so on may be sent, but in between these you are very much on your own  -  no course markings, no intermediate checkpoints, no marshals. no "safety team". You need to be responsible for yourself. In fact there are no conventional checkpoints at all because competitors carry a GPS tracker, which as well as showing the organisation where everyone is on the course, is used as the basis for all time recording. There is an SOS button on the tracker which will initiate a rescue, but once pressed it signals that you are out of the race; and as James said at the briefing "Getting lost is not an emergency!" The course for this event was defined as a line on maps issued to runners, and the rule was you must not deviate from the line by more than 200 metres; if you found yourself accidentally off course you had to go back to the course at the place where you left it. On the Northern Traverse there would be four feed stations at convenient (or sometimes, the only feasible) locations. The longest stage between feed stations was 46 miles and the shortest 28 miles.

2. The Lakes

Gathering for the start at St Bees, the only two of the starters I had met before were Greg Crowley and Matt Neale, but there wasn't a lot of hanging around after handing in drop bags and picking up trackers, and at precisely 10.00am we were on our way under a cloudless blue sky, tackling the first short climb up onto the cliff path. The route followed this northward for about four miles, a bit more of the "just keep the sea on your left" navigation that had seen me through so many miles last year in the Ring of Fire and Hardmoors 60 races. I chatted for a mile or so with Dan Milton who also thought he would take around 4 days, but he seemed to be going naturally a bit quicker than me so I encouraged him to push on and catch up with his girlfriend Claire Turton a few yards ahead. They were intending to run the whole race together.

The field soon spaced out and by the time we turned inland at Sandwith I could see no-one either ahead or behind. I suspected there were few if any runners behind because right from the start I had adopted a regime of only running when it seemed easier than walking. In general, this was all the downhills plus any flat sections that had easy ground underfoot.

The run along the coast was beautiful but after that the course followed sundry field paths, tracks, bit of minor road and old railway line through generally uninspiring countryside and old mining areas. Somewhere along here I was caught and passed by Anne Green but otherwise saw no-one else. It was great to leave all this behind on the gentle ascent of Dent Hill, our first real countryside, with views and skylarks and the Lake District drawing us in beyond. As the vista expanded I saw one or two other runners ahead  -  I wasn't completely alone then! Jogging down the steepish grass on the far side of the hill I met another runner coming back up  -  he'd dropped his glasses and was going back to look for them. I sympathised, I can see well enough in bright daylight but haven't a chance of reading the map at night without my specs.

The weather was superb, fine and warm. Later, some runners complained of the heat but I love these conditions. I stopped to refill my water bottles in Nannycatch Beck as I hadn't started out with much from St Bees.  In spite of the recent good weather I knew that water would be clear and plentiful through the Lakes but I would need to plan much better across the peaty Pennines and the relative dry North York Moors. In no time we seemed to be at Ennerdale Bridge, end of "Day 1" for Coast to Coast walkers. I knew there would be a cafe here but as it was a bank holiday I was wary of relying on it so for this first day I had brought more food. On this sort of event I would normally set out on each leg with just a bag of Haribos and a few sachets of Mountain Fuel. I ate my cheese sandwiches walking the lovely path along the southern shore of Ennerdale Water. I actually overtook a few runners here! The long forest road from the end of the lake up to Black Sail hut is not too interesting, but once there I felt I was on home ground. Another couple of runners were taking a breather at the hut, but the quality of the rest of my day now depended on reaching the cafe at Honister before it closed at 6pm.

From Black Sail the route goes up alongside Loft Beck, the first real climb of the day, and it was good to be properly in the hills at last. The track across the top, once featureless, now sports a cairn every few yards so I guess a few Coast-to-Coasters have got lost up here to prompt this. Then it was easily down to the old tramway and then the cafe with nearly forty minutes to spare. I took my time over a big latte and an all-day breakfast panini, the first hot food of the day.  There were several runners in and around the cafe and as I started out I ran into the guy who I had seen back on Dent Hill looking for his glasses, who turned out to be Jesse Palmer. We carried on down the track to Seatoller and then Rosthwaite together, chatting to discover that we had many mutual friends and had done a lot of the same events. But as we started the ascent of Greenup Edge it was clear that Jesse naturally favoured a slightly faster pace than me so I encouraged him to go on and wished him well. I loved taking the long ascent up past Lining Crag and over the usually boggy ground to the pass at my own pace, I couldn't think of anywhere I would rather have been on such a stunning sunny evening. The jog down the other side, bouldery and tricky at first, then a bit of grass to the top of Far Easedale, then a long varied track all the way down to Grasmere was also pure pleasure. There was a photographer near the bottom, so my tale contains a rare photo  -  I don't normally bother to take pictures, I just like to remember the experience.

Nearing the bottom of Far Easedale

Just before Grasmere, our route turned off for Thorney How, a hostel offering free hot drinks, so the chance of a cup of tea was not to be missed, accompanied by a large and delicious slice of flapjack. The people at the hostel had a live feed from the trackers so I asked how many people they still expected through. It was good to learn that everyone had by now crossed Greenup Edge, barely an hour back.

The next ascent up to Grisedale Tarn is mostly on an easy path up steepish grass, so out came the poles.  I had debated with myself whether to bring them or not on this trip; for the normally technical ups and downs in the Lakes I don't find them much help, but on long easy ascents such as you get for mile after mile in the Alps they give you a sort of "four-wheel -drive" and help you get into a rhythm which makes life a lot easier. I decided they were worth the weight in the bag and had already used them on Dent Hill and the long forest road. I ate my remaining food, a marmalade sandwich, and pressed on upwards. It was getting progressively darker and as I reached the col the light had to go on. But from here it's an easy four or five miles down to Patterdale and the first feed station at the Starkey hut. I arrived five minutes after midnight, fourteen hours from the start, a couple of hours quicker than I had anticipated but conditions had been exceptionally good.

The ritual of arrival. A cup of tea, decide a shower is an unnecessary luxury tonight, so the first job is to sort out feet. Socks off, clean, inspect for damage, no problems, a fresh application of Sudocrem all over and clean socks. Now we can concentrate on the rest. Chilli and baked potato, more tea, magic. Decide to have a snooze for an hour but don't really sleep so up for coffee, flapjack, thanks everyone and out into the night.

I left Patterdale with Jesse and another runner but as soon as we started climbing it was clear they wanted to go faster than me so I let them go on and carried on at my own pace. It was light by the time I reached Angle Tarn but it was cloudy, and from here up to Kidsty Pike, the high point of the trip, visibility got progressively worse. Our map showed a direct route from the top of the Knott to Kidsty, but I decided in the mist it would be as quick to follow the main path south to pick up the good path that I knew went up Kidsty from near the little col. Less than a quarter of a mile further and I thought quicker and safer on the day.  There was a cold breeze on top so it was good to lose some height down the long descent to Haweswater, which starts off easily but has one or two scrambly sections lower down, At the bottom we joined the path along Haweswater shore which I have followed many times in both directions on other events. It was warmer down here and the sun was starting to break through. Once at the dam at the end of the lake, a few miles of nondescript farmland led to Shap. As I approached Shap I caught up with Hisayo Kawahara and asked her how it was going. "I'm just so tired!" she said. We jogged the last few hundred yards to Shap where there was another potential hot drink stop at the New Ing Lodge. We found not only hot and cold drinks but free cheese and pickle sandwiches, what a bonus. Interestingly a number of runners converged on Shap within a few minutes of each other, we saw Jonathan Wood, Dave Rowell, Dave Howarth and Daniel Aldus also at the Lodge pitstop. Then five minutes later Jesse arrived, having spent a while searching for Kidsty summit in the mist. I had heard that water was problematic between Shap and Kirkby Stephen, 20 miles further on, so made sure I had a full litre. I also felt a need for some ginger biscuits, so I popped into the Co-op to get some.

I somehow expected the 20 miles from Shap to Kirkby to be dull, just a link between the Lakes and the Dales, but it turned out to be very enjoyable. Rolling limestone moors, solid underfoot and now under a blue sky. No severe gradients so they passed quite quickly in a mixture of walking and jogging, and before long I was turning up at feed station No 2 at the Rugby club in Kirkby Stephen at 3.30pm, about 12 hours after leaving Patterdale.

3. The Dales

It had been a sweaty afternoon so time for a shower at Kirkby, a plate of lasagne and some melon (what a discovery, full marks to whoever thought of this) and a brief chat with Anne Green who arrived at about the same time. Proceedings were enlivened by the building fire alarm going off  for no apparent reason. The gallant feed station crew eventually found a way to turn it off after about five minutes. I still felt I could do with some sleep though so I went out to a tent. Maybe it was the wind flapping the tent, maybe the metal signs on the railings by the rugby pitch creaking, but again I didn't do more than doze for an hour, so I gave up, had a 5,30pm breakfast and set off into the Dales.

The climb up to Nine Standards Rigg was fairly long but very gentle and on a road then a good track all the way  -  another place I was glad I'd brought the poles. On the way up I passed Ed Strong who had stopped to adjust something; I expected to see him later though as he seemed to be going more strongly than me. I could see the nine big cairns from quite a way off but as I gained height the clouds started to swirl in, and by the time I reached the standards they appeared quite atmospherically out of the mist when I was almost on top of them. I didn't know it at the time, but this was to be the end of the fine weather for the trip.

The route off the Rigg was easy to follow at first but then got quite vague, though a saving grace was that after all the fine weather we had had it was mostly dry  -  it was typical Pennine moorland that is normally squelchy all over. I was glad it was daylight because that meant I could keep picking up the traces of the path that were there, it would have been much harder at night. I think had it been clear you could see the odd marker pole which turned up from time to time, but visibility was maybe 50 yards or so by now. The route aimed for what was shown as a jeep track where it turned left, but you couldn't tell from the map whether that would be a solid gravel road or an easy to miss double trod in the grass; it turned out to be the former, so it would have been easy to take a slight "aiming off" bearing and blast straight down to it, but those are the sort of things you only find out by being there (or talking to someone who has). I was happy enough to take my time and be careful.

A mile or so down the track it crossed a bridge but a smaller path carried on without crossing. I pulled out the map to check and as I stopped I heard a voice from behind "How are we doing then Mr Cole?" It was Jesse and Ed; we carried on together down to Keld.

Jesse had reccied a lot of the route so it was easy to cruise along without thinking about the navigation for a while. We turned off along a small path to keep high above Keld when the main track went down, but then the other two were setting a pace too fast for me so I let them go on ahead. It was now dark. A few minutes later the lights had stopped. When I reached them Jesse explained that he had stopped for some "foot maintenance". They passed me again as I was nearing the curiously-named Crackpot Hall. Jesse said the route got a bit tricky through the old mine workings but it basically followed the left side of Swinner Gill. They soon got ahead, gaining height, and their lights disappeared into the darkness.

Conditions were now getting a bit tricky.  It was dark and misty, and a cold wind had sprung up. But the main problem was that it had started to rain a bit making all the rocks gleam in the reflected beam of a torch. I was going through an old mining area with piles of stones everywhere so it was difficult to make out a path amongst all the rubble. I found the gill and followed it upwards, sticking to the left bank. The path was narrow and quite tortuous with little scrambles in places and passing more evidence of old mining activities. I persisted and before too long saw lights above me. I gradually caught up and discovered that it was Jesse and Ed working out whether they were at the right place to cross the stream.  I pulled out my gps, it hadn't helped in climbing up the gill because I had just drawn a straight line from somewhere near the start, but it confirmed this point pretty well spot on, so we crossed and soon our path turned into a much bigger track across the moor. When I got home I looked in the guidebook I had to see what it said about this section. This is what I found......"The path now bends north behind the [Crackpot] Hall to climb above the narrow gorge of Swinner Gill. Make sure you head uphill to follow the correct trail or you'll eventually find yourself on a lower, parallel but precipitous sheep track barely two boots wide and clinging to the side of the gorge below the correct route. Whichever route you stumble on, before long you arrive at the eerie remains of Swinner Gill smelting mill with waterfalls alongside. Again from here it's possible to stray onto a tricky path alongside the north banks of East Grain Beck instead of the easier way a little higher up the valley side, but both deliver you with a sweaty brow onto the breezy expanse of Gunnerside Moor".

I guess it's all pretty easy in daylight, but I'm still  not sure which combination of the above options I took! One thing for sure though the "breezy moor" was dead right. We were now up on exposed ground at around the 2000ft contour and the wind was fairly whipping across. Jesse recognised the turning to the descent to the footbridge across Gunnerside Gill, remarking dryly as we scrambled down out of the wind that "The only problem is we've got to regain all this height on the other side". Nevertheless, he led us down and up, down the long track to Surrender Bridge and through the tricky field paths to Reeth with only occasional resorts to a gps to confirm direction from Ed or me. He was going more strongly than either Ed or me, his only problem was blistered feet which were clearly giving him some problems on the downhills. But without his knowledge this section would have taken me a lot longer. Reeth was very quiet, and as soon as we realised that the Dales Bike Centre, who had kindly left their toilet block open for runners, was not actually in Reeth but in Fremington half a mile down the road, we were out of it.

As we reached the bike centre it was not far off getting light. Jesse said he would push on without stopping, Ed said he would rest for a while and my intentions were to use the loo, fill up my water and then carry on. Ed and I went inside and he settled down on the floor; I was in and out quite quickly and off down the next section, which was a mile or so of road down to Marrick Priory.

On the "Priory Steps" up through the wood towards Marrick village I was suddenly hit by overwhelming tiredness. I needed to sleep, if only for a few moments. Just before the end of the wood I lay down on the stone slabs and crashed out for 10 minutes. It was enough, after that I made reasonable progress through the fields to Richmond, feedstation No 3, which I rolled into a shade after 8.30am. I was looking forward to Richmond, run by Jon and Shirley Steele, I've known them a while.  I first met Shirley in 2007 when we were both making our way fairly slowly across Rannoch Moor in the West Highland Way Race, and I ran across Jon three years later, or rather he ran across me as I was throwing up in a meadow in Switzerland during that year's UTMB. I try to do at least one of their "Hardmoors" events each year. Shirley was at the door as I arrived. "How was that then?". A bit of a tough shift, I had to admit.

My primary need now was for sleep, but I had a cup of tea and some cake while I sorted feet. Taking my mug and plate back to the kitchen, I had a somewhat bizarre conversation with Shirley. ....

"Andy, exactly how old are you now?"
"Er, not quite sixty-eight, a couple of months to go."
"So your date of birth is 1948, right?"
"Er, yes."

I usually make some quip about being the same age as the NHS at this point, but my sleep-deprived brain couldn't put it together. And I'm still not sure what it was about. I thought they were supposed to ask you who the Prime Minister was when you were perceived to be a bit out of it.

A solid two and a half hours sleep made the world of difference. Chicken stew with potatoes, peaches and yoghourt, lashings of tea and I was good to go, ready to face the "flat bit". I really wasn't looking forward to the twenty miles or so of flat fields across the Vale of York. I was glad it had come in daylight because agricultural territory can be tricky at night because there is often no path on the ground, you're working from field edge to field edge. But I was pleasantly surprised, the whole way was good, easy to follow tracks, no sloppy ground and reasonably interesting countryside. And it had some villages, which always give the possibility of a nice pit stop. At Bolton-on-Swale there was no shop or pub, but a sign outside the church offered "Self-service tea and coffee", so I spent a somewhat serene 10 minutes inside on my own brewing up. A few miles further on Danby Wiske had a pub, another little sit down for a pint of coke and two packets of wonderfully salty crisps. By now, most places you visited had heard of the race and seen some runners. The chef at the pub knew more about where people were ahead of me than I did.

A mile after Danby Wiske I came upon a sad sight. Jesse's feet had finally given up and he was unable to continue. He was now only able to make progress by walking on his heels which meant his speed was "two  miles an hour and falling". He'd rung his wife to pick him up in Danby Wiske and was making his way slowly back there. But for his foot problems I'm sure he would have gone on to finish inside three days.

My own thoughts were now focussed on Ingleby Cross. There was a pub there and if I could make it there while they were still serving food, a good meal would see me onto the North York Moors in good shape. Another runner had caught me up a few miles back but had then stopped to adjust something. I expected him to come past at any minute but he must have been going only a little faster than me because I didn't see him again until we were just approaching the notorious A19 crossing. He turned out to be Chris Haswell, and we discussed how close we were to the pub. It looked like touch and go on getting there in time so I'd hatched a plan B which was to go into the shop at the petrol station on the A19 for pies, sausage rolls, and any other  worthy food they had. Chris declared this his plan A by getting a large coffee as well, while I chose to forego the drink and make for the pub, now only a half a mile or so distant. Meals were until 9pm, I arrived at four minutes past. I smiled as nicely as I could to the lady behind the bar. She was sympathetic but the chef would have to be consulted. She came back with "You can have cottage pie or chilli con carne".  I stayed an hour.

4. The Moors

It was dark when I set out from the pub, I had got quite cold in the wind and rain the previous night on the moors above Keld, and as tonight promised more of the same I suited up before starting. Paramo jacket (great for anywhere you're not going too fast, just a vest underneath is all that's required, keeps you dry and comfortable in all conditions) and OMM overtrousers (the only ones I've found that don't make a continual rustling noise), then off up the hill to the Cleveland Way. I've done this section half a dozen times over the years so no problem in tackling it in any conditions, tonight was just a bit slower than normal. I followed the track easily over Scarth Moor and Carlton Bank, although the visibility was down to almost nothing. The rocky track ends abruptly in a sloping field just before Lord Stones Cafe, easy to know which way to go...........if you can see the cafe. But I was happy it was straight on down and soon the cafe lights appeared out of the gloom. I tried the washroom doors to see if I could top up with water but they were all locked; no disaster, I had enough to get to the Lion Inn at the pace I was going.

I remember from my first trip over here on the inaugural Hardmoors 55 back in 2010 that it was very misty and difficult to find the way back onto the rocky track after the cafe. No problem with some familiarity though  -  find the fence, follow the fence, simples. I enjoyed picking my way over the three little peaks, remembering the last time I had been this way was in the "formal fun run" at Jon and Shirley's wedding a while ago.

Coming down to Clay Bank in  different conditions..........

I paused a while to have a drink at the road crossing at Clay Bank and was quite surprised when two other runners came past  -  I wasn't as alone as I had thought. I didn't recognise them but looking back at the times I think it must have been John Fraser and Chris Bird. They carried on and I didn't see them again.

Easy ground now, the broad track over the moors to Bloworth Crossing. It was daylight now but still misty and that just emphasised what a lonely spot this is. I remembered one windy September night when I had brought my tent out here to marshal one of the early Hardmoors 110 races; nowadays Jon makes it a self-clip so the guild of "Bloworth Crossing Keepers" who have taken numbers and handed out jelly babies here is no more. New ground for me beyond here though as Wainwright's route leaves the Cleveland Way and heads south down the old railway track to the Lion Inn.

It's around six miles from Bloworth to the Inn (Feed Station No 4) and I found it one of the most frustrating sections of the whole trip. It's dead level and easy ground under foot but somehow I just couldn't summon up a jog. I tried counting steps, running towards marks and so on, but all to no avail. Fifty or sixty paces and I was walking again. Just too tired I guess. In the end I gave up and just walked steadily. I think the surroundings would have been impressive if I could have seen them, it was clear that thousands upon thousands of tonnes of material had been shifted to create the cuttings and embankments for the now defunct mineral line, but for me they just disappeared into the mist. So I plodded on with my thoughts and waited for Blakey to appear. At least the wind seemed to be coming mostly from behind now.

The Lion Inn sits on Blakey Ridge, a high, exposed place. There is nothing else there. In fact nothing else around for miles. Yet the Inn is popular for this in a similar way to Tan Hill on the Pennines, so no spare space to get a base inside. The original intention was to have the feed station in a small marquee next to the Inn, but we had been told back along the course that it had proved impossible to get any tents up there because of the wind, but food was being served out of a van. It didn't sound too promising, and I had got it into my head that it was probably better to push on through, lose some height out of the wind, then get things together in one of the villages between the moors and the coast. When I arrived however at around 7am,  I found the amazing Joe Faulkner running a 24 hour bistro, complete with comfortable seating for 6 diners, in the back of a transit van. Two bowls of chilli and a pint of tea and I already felt a different person. I was undecided now whether to carry straight on. It was only 28 miles to the finish, but they had managed to get some of the small tents up outside the van now so a rest was possible. "Look", the ever-wise Joe advised, "Go and get an hour's sleep, have some breakfast and you'll still have 12 hours to finish in daylight." Decision made.

An hour's solid sleep, porridge and coffee, and I was out into the gale again on the last lap. The crew of the feed station at the Lion, which was open for longer than any of the others, were far more deserving of a finisher's medal than any of the runners.

The first mile northwards up the road was directly into the wind and it was hard enough just to make progress, regardless of the speed. Then a track turned off at right angles and we gradually veered round to moving south again then gradually started losing height. After the first mile I was able to run all the way down to the first village at Glaisdale, 5 or 6 miles distant. A 4mph average rather than the barely three I had been achieving down the railway. There's a lot to be said for a sleep and some food. Glaisdale was awake but I felt I was going well so decided to give it a miss, and followed a muddy riverside path then a bit of road to Egton Bridge which the route sort of skirted, then an easy level track to the larger community of Grosmont. Chris Haswell caught me up again along here and we stayed together a bit and chatted. He said he thought he was suffering from shin splints and it was getting painful. I had decided to stop in Grosmont but he was carrying on so we parted again.

I found a place for tea and jam scones, like you do in these Yorkshire villages. I was glad that I did because the next bit was quite a shock, as the mile or so of road out of Grosmont proved to be one of the steepest climbs of the whole course. Having taken off all the waterproofs at last I was a bit chilly coming out of the cafe but really warm again by the time the road levelled out. A bit of nondescript but harmless moor led to the charming hamlet of Littlebeck. From here, the next mile or two alongside the beck, going up a wooded ravine, would have been wonderful had the path not been so obliterated by slippery mud. As it was it was still fairly spectacular. I stopped for a quick look at "The Hermitage", a cave hollowed out of rock with a rock "bench" inside (and where I found out chatting after the finish that Ben Taylor had stopped for a sleep), then diverted a few yards for a look at the "Falling Foss" waterfall. The mud ended as we came out of the trees, then there was just a little climb up a road onto the moors again. Chris appeared again here; I don't know how that happened, but this time he passed me and stayed ahead to the finish!

The two miles of moor from here to the outskirts of Hawkser were my least favourite part of the whole trip. Boggy trods, ankle deep and worse if you didn't get the best line. Slop like this belongs on the Pennine way where it would be made welcome, not contaminating the otherwise brilliant Wainwright coast-to-coast route! But then we were out onto dry land at Hawkser. I sat on a stile to wring my socks out, and as I was doing this Chris Bird came running by at a cracking pace, clearly intent on the finish. But I knew it would come soon enough now, so I carried on through the village and down to the cliffs of the North Sea.

5. The End

I knew it was four miles or so to the finish, but I wasn't really in a hurry. The stretch from the Lion had gone relatively quickly, it was about 6pm as I went through Hawkser so plenty of daylight left and the chip shop would still be open when I reached the finish. I was pleased that I was still able to jog some of the level bits along the coast, and the downhills went easily. Visibility was much better down here and as I approached Robin Hood's Bay I could see Ravenscar up on the cliffs in the distance. Then it was off the cliff path and down the long steep hill through the town to the seaside and the finish. Race Director James was there by the slipway, ready with a welcome and a medal, and then as I sat and reflected for a moment or two, fish and chips magically appeared.

I finished in three days, nine and a half hours, in 19th place. The word was that there were 60 starters but I could only see 50 on the live tracking. Whichever it was, I made it comfortably into the top half of the field and that's a bit of a bonus for me these days. With a bit more focus, a bit more discomfort and fewer stops for cakes I might have gone quicker, but that wasn't really the point. I came for the trip, and the trip had been good. I had survived pretty well, no injuries, no aches and pains, no blisters. 

Was I going to join in the competition sprint up the hill to the village hall? I think I said something like well I made it here from St Bees without having to run up a hill so I'm not going to start now..............

This was a great event over a wonderful course. Thanks to James and all his team for managing to get it so right first time.