Wednesday, 30 May 2018

In the longer run

I was  fascinated by Neil Bryant's recent excellent article in the Ultrarunning Community "Could you run a 200+ miler". A lot of valuable stuff in there for anyone going a bit longer, but I'm not sure that the main principle that emerges, ie that a 200 miler is like a 100 miler but harder, necessarily works for all of us. The reason I think is that Neil is a fairly useful runner, wanting to put in a good performance in his chosen events; for a back of pack "completer" like me, 200 mile races can be much easier experiences than 100's if you tackle them right. I'll try to explain.

My first long race was the Tor des Geants, back in 2012. I hadn't a clue how it was going to work out, my previous longest race had been the Lakeland 100 which I had finished in about 37 and a half hours. When I started the Tor I didn't know what time to aim for or what speed to go at. About 40 hours into the race I hit quite a low point. Since before first light on the second day I had climbed three big passes, the last one at 3300m being the highest point on the Tor, followed by a long descent in bad weather over difficult ground in places, and a final frustrating few kilometers along the valley floor to reach the Cogne checkpoint. I hadn't slept since the start and felt exhausted. I reached the checkpoint, immediately fell asleep for a couple of hours and woke feeling considerably better. I took some time to have a fairly leisurely meal and sort myself out. I decided from now on I would do this thing at a pace that didn't hurt, I hoped this would keep me ahead of the cut-offs, but I would concentrate more on how I was feeling rather than how fast I was going.  What happened was that I gradually worked my way through the field to finish successfully in 275th place out of around 600 starters, and finished going as strongly on the final climb as I had been on the first one out of Courmayeur at the start.  More importantly, once I had found what was for me a comfortable pace, I enjoyed the whole thing. Later in my blog I described the climb out of St Jacques during the 5th stage of the race:

"I enjoyed the great majority of the whole event, but on this ascent I just hit one of those magical periods. It was a still chilly but stunningly clear and beautiful morning, I was moving and breathing easily, and it occurred to me that I was now really in tune with the environment. This was no longer a race, or endurance event, just a journey through a little known but wonderful area of the Alps which as far as I was concerned could now go on for as long as it liked. I couldn't think of anywhere I would rather be at that moment. When we reached the top of the pass we could see the "Geants" all around us  -  Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, Monte Rosa, the Grand Paradiso and all the others. A special moment."

So what had I really learned from this experience?

Well, rationalising it over subsequent years and events, I've come to the conclusion that events for me fall into three classes, based on the overall time allowed and the time I expect to take:

1. Less than around 12-15 hours; these are the "short" ultras of 30 miles up to the easier 50 milers. Most people who have done a few ultras can cope with these fine. I can get a lot wrong such as early pace, nutrition etc, and still finish OK. No special strategy required.

2. Up to around 40-45 hours. Up to fairly tough 100 milers. These are the hard ones for me. I won't expect to sleep because unless the time is generous for the course I won't have time. I don't travel fast enough to make the cut-offs irrelevant. My key strategy for these is to set a timing plan and get the pace right, so I can (just) make the early cut-offs while saving enough energy to complete the course. Nutrition has to allow for fairly continuous movement so needs to be thought through carefully. If things do go wrong, there is still a chance I can pull it out of the fire but I might have to suffer for a few hours and it will be in the balance.

3. Over 48 hours. This is where we get into the 150-200 miles plus territory. I know now I can't wing it or push too hard on these. If things go wrong on days 1 or 2, the thought of having to tough it out for several more days is just unpleasant; it's not what I signed up for. My strategy for these is completely different from 100 milers. My first objective is to stay in good enough shape to keep moving steadily, and not set any time plans or objectives but just let forward progress take care of itself. This means always going at a pace that does not feel stressed, eating proper food in good quantities and taking the time to digest it, and looking after stuff like feet right from the start. If I need to take time out to fix something that is going wrong, I don't wait, I get it fixed as it arises. Sleep probably varies from person to person but I always get enough to make sure I don't feel progressively tired as the race goes on.

I've successfully used this "long race" strategy in recent years in both the Northern Traverse and Offa's Dyke events, and found them both really enjoyable experiences in which I finished in pretty well the same shape as when I started. It does take a bit of nerve to play your own game for the early sections of the race, especially if it means skimming the cut-offs fairly closely. On Offa's Dyke I was in last place after 20 miles, and very near the back on the Northern Traverse for the first day or so, but managed to pull back gradually in both of them to finish in the top half of the field (of starters) in each.

I'm clear that unless they are events where the overall average speed required is just out of my league and I shouldn't get involved, then completing longer races at a comfortable pace in good shape is much more about a sensible strategy and good decision making during the race, rather than being especially fit or determined. You don't need to overcome difficulties when you have thought your way around them beforehand.

I concluded at the end of the 2016 Northern Traverse that:

"With a bit more focus, a bit more discomfort and fewer stops for cakes, I might have gone quicker, but that really wasn't the pointI came for the trip, and the trip had been good. I had survived pretty well, no injuries, no aches and pains, no blisters."

Now all this is about continuous long races, where the clock is always ticking. Long stage races are a completely different thing, maybe for another post another day. But whatever form of game you choose to play, if you're going to be involved in something over several days, then you might as well enjoy it!

Thursday, 17 May 2018

The Ultra Tour of Snowdonia

The UTS is the event that Snowdonia needed and deserved, and if Race Director Mike Jones has the energy and inclination, it will surely attain the status of one of the UK's very best mountain ultras in a very short time indeed.

The format is simple yet ingenious. Two fifty mile loops based on Llanberis showcase most of the best ground that the region has to offer, not only the  battle-scarred classics of the Snowdon, Glyderau and Carneddau ranges, but the beautiful, less frequented and often still challenging hills to the west and south as well. The 100 mile event follows both loops, the northern one then the southern, while the 50 miler takes only the southern loop. The 100 starts at 5pm on Friday evening with a 48 hour total time allowance. The 50 starts at 5am on Saturday morning and as Mike explained  "because the checkpoints are open for the 100 anyway", the 50 competitors have 36 hours to complete their course. So you end up with a 100 mile event that will challenge even the best around, and a 50 that is accessible to anyone who wants to commit a bit of time and effort to preparation then getting around the course.

Similar to the Lakeland UTLD events you may conclude, but don't make the mistake of thinking that the UTS is in any other way "equivalent". The Lakeland 100 has just short of 7000m of climbing, and the 50 around  3000, while their UTS counterparts weigh in with 10,500 and 6000 respectively. Add to this the fact that the ground underfoot in Snowdonia is generally far gnarlier than in the Lakes and you can see that the UTS is no pushover.

But these are the hills of my formative years, so when I found out about the event back in February I just couldn't not go for the inaugural running. I was fighting a long-term injury and had just pulled out of starting the Arc of Attrittion so the 100 was out of the question, but the generous time allowance on the 50 made it possible and I signed up.

I was one of the small crowd cheering the 100 competitors as they set off from "The Heights" pub in Llanberis on on a fairly miserable wet Friday evening. They were going to have an unpleasant first few hours but the forecast was for things to improve significantly later on. Registration had been efficient and low-key and for those of us due to start the 50 a short night's sleep was on the menu before re-assembling in the same location in the 4.30am half light of Saturday morning. I chatted to one or two of the others, Dan who I had met on the Northern Traverse and the Dragon's Back with his girlfriend Claire, Nick who I had communicated with on line but never met face to face before. We wondered about times. It was difficult to predict how you were going to get on with the unrelenting rate of climb. Dan and Nick were hoping for somewhere around the 20 hour mark, I thought I might get 24 or 25 with a following wind. We were near the back so didn't really hear the countdown, but then the pack started moving and we were off.

RD Mike on his bike led us out through the streets of Llanberis and on to the easy track of the first climb. He stopped at the end of the tarmac to let the field go by. When I got to him I was already detached from the back of the field by maybe 50 yards. " Having a nice long day out?" he grinned as I walked steadily past.

The first section was a relatively gentle introduction to the day. The route followed a good track up the Maesgwm valley to what my generation will always refer to as the "Telegraph Col" though the line of posts that gave it the name are now long gone, and from there to double back over Foel Goch and along the undulating grassy ridge to Moel Eilio, the high point of section one. The track up to the col is easily runnable but I had decided from the start that I was going to walk all the uphills so before too long everyone else was out of sight; I wasn't bothered, this was always going to be a "run your own race" day for me.

Out of the shade and into the sunlight at the col it was clear that it was going to be a beautiful morning. Blue sky everywhere as I made my way up the easy slopes to the sound of skylarks. I had seen one or two runners ahead in the distance along the ridge, and finally caught two of them up at the Eilio summit. I recognised one of them, it was Raj who I had last seen in July last year when I checked him in at the finish of his fifth Lakeland 100. We jogged together down the gentle grass slope towards the col where the gravel road from Waun Fawr comes over to Llanberis, chatting about past events, future plans, like you do. The descent down the road to Waun Fawr was a cruise, in contrast to my last two acquaintances with it in the opposite direction, when it presents quite a formidable hill at around mile 23 of the Snowdon Marathon. Going through Waun Fawr we passed two more runners; unfortunately they were just about to drop out at the first checkpoint as they were together and one of them had damaged an Achilles; apart from them, Raj and I were the last two of the field into the checkpoint in the pub garden by the narrow gauge railway station. Around 10 miles and 2500ft of climb done  -  we had just about scratched the surface.

Raj was more efficient and left before me as I faffed about eating biscuits and topping up the Mountain Fuel, so I was once again solidly at the back as I set out on the next section over Mynydd Mawr  - the "Elephant Mountain". A short ascent through woods and moorland leads to a long level traverse before the final grassy slope to the summit. This slope was steeper than the ones on the Eilio ridge but not too long, maybe a thousand feet or so, and went quickly enough. From the summit, the run all the way down to valley level again was just perfect; a gently descending grassy ridge, steep on both sides but too broad for a knife-edge, easy running and great views to the mountains on the left and the coast far away on the right. I could see Raj way ahead in the distance. Down off the ridge and through woods for the last few hundred feet led back down to the road near Rhyd Ddu, and a few hundred yards along it to Checkpoint 2 at Bron-y-Fedw Uchaf farm.

The checkpoints were all great, with enthusiastic, supportive and really helpful marshals and a good spread of food at each. I had taken along a few Mars bars and gels but I needn't have bothered, we were well catered for. I was relying on Mountain Fuel for drink, which when mixed at about half the recommended maximum strength seems to work all day for me, supplemented by a drink at each CP for a bit of flavour change, Coke at the "cold drink" CP's and tea or coffee at those (the majority) with heating facilities. After my normal five minute faff another runner appeared along the drive to the farm; at first I thought it might be the first of the 100 runners coming through but it turned out to be Raj who had missed the entrance and overshot to the Snowdon Ranger hostel before he realised his mistake. I left him to feed and water and set off up the next hill.

The next hill was Snowdon, up the Ranger track and back down the Rhyd Ddu one, a classic day out for walkers. Mike had negotiated a way direct from the farm up a jeep track to meet the path from the Ranger hostel just below the Cwm Brwynog col; it was an easy and pleasant alternative but exercised a few different muscles as the numerous gates on it were all padlocked shut and had to be climbed. Meeting the Ranger track we were then in the crowds that flock to Snowdon every weekend and I seemed to be passing walkers every few yards all the way to the top, a real contrast to the near deserted nature of the first two sections. Still it's a nice enough track and it was still a beautiful sunny day so it was a pleasure to be there. Just short of the top I was greeted by an event photographer; I had seen the same guy coming off Eilio and was to meet him again on Moel Hebog  -  he must have covered almost as much ground as the competitors during the day!

It was good to leave the overcrowded Snowdon summit. The track to Rhyd Ddu is a fine one but for some reason less popular than the other well-known routes, so the crowds were now gone for the day. It starts off down some nice rocky ridge sections then blends out into a good path, mostly stony underfoot, for the  bulk of the descent. Just after the top I passed two lady runners, the first people involved in the event that I had seen for a long time, then half-way down Raj came bounding past at a speed I wasn't happy to commit to, wishing to preserve my knees a bit for the remainder of the course. I hadn't been down this way for some years so was delighted to find that a lot of the lower section which used to be rather squelchy and tedious has now been treated to a line of easily runnable flat slabs, leading down to the final mile or so of jeep track to Rhy Ddu.

The checkpoint in Rhyd Ddu was at the village Outdoor Centre, the first inside CP and one to which we had been able to send a drop bag. There were maybe half a dozen runners inside the hall including Raj so I was beginning to feel a bit more part of the event.  Claire was also there, just preparing to set out on the next section. There was some great soup on offer, so fortified by that, a sandwich and a clean shirt I was also out of the door before long, accompanied by Raj.

Now Rhyd Ddu comes up at just over 20 miles from the start with about 2000 metres of climbing done, but if you haven't done this event and maybe intend to in the future, one thing you need to understand is that although you have done 3 of the 7 sections and been up and down Snowdon (once!), you have really just completed the warm-up. This is where it starts for real. In fact if I had just one suggestion to improve the event for 50 runners it would be to have the drop bag at the following checkpoint in Beddgelert rather than Rhyd Ddu.

(Map of the 50 mile loop below, story continues after it)

The innocuous-looking (from the map and topo) section from Rhyd Ddu to Beddgelert is probably the toughest in either the 50 or the 100 event. Not much more than eight miles, it packs in almost 4000 feet of climbing and some sections of hard ground underfoot. The climbing comes in the form of three ascents on steep grass, the first of which starts almost immediately out of the CP up to Y Garn at the eastern end of the Nantlle Ridge. Unless I'm especially tired I find these ascents quite pleasurable. Poles out and just get into an easy rhythm that you can keep up without any real stress and you get into the almost trance-like state that accompanies long ski-touring climbs. One foot in front of the other and let the mind wander. About half way up I passed Claire who was also looking pretty cheerful. I didn't look back but I lost Raj here and didn't see him again, though he finished the trip in good style not long after me, and nearing the top I pulled past two or three other runners. About 1500 feet of climb, far steeper and more relentless than the Fusedale pull on the Lakeland course, but somehow very satisfying.

We didn't go quite to the top. The reason for this was that the course was marked with a series of reflective wands and streamers, stuck in the ground, tied to rocks and fenceposts and so on. Mike said there were 3 or 4 thousand of these along the 100 and 50 courses. I've discussed my view on marked courses before, but briefly I'm a bit ambivalent. I'm a reasonably competent navigator so in many ways on an unmarked course I can use this to mitigate my relatively feeble running abilities, but I also enjoy not having to do the navigation and just relax into enjoying the day out. My experience is that even on a marked course you need to be able to find your way without the flags if necessary, because in mist and/or darkness it is often impossible to see from one flag to the next, and sometimes flags get moved or taken out, either mischievously or by natural causes  -  on my Tor des Geants trip for example, towards the end numerous flags had been taken out by high winds or herds of cattle. Anyway, the line of flags didn't go quite to the top of Y Garn, so neither did the runners.

There was half a mile or so of bouldery ground from Y Garn towards and over the top of the next hill, Mynydd Drws-y-Coed. I seemed to be a bit quicker than those around me on this so I was soon on my own again jogging down the far side of the hill. From the col there the flags led off along a foot-wide trod across a very steep grassy hillside; easy enough in the daylight but I wonder what those meeting this in the dark made of it? Then down a bit more steep grass where I passed a slow moving runner to another great bit of near horizontal ridge. This ended at another col where we turned right down past some old quarry or mine workings with some deep holes in evidence, another place to be careful in the dark. Then a bit of generally jumbly ground led to the next climb, another 1000 feet up to Moel Lefn.  Going up here the sky clouded over and we had a few drops of rain. I held off as long as possible but a fairly cold wind had sprung up as well so had to put a jacket on for the final few feet.

The mostly grassy ridge over the summit and the next top Moel yr Ogof went easily then a steep few feet of stony descent led to another col before the final pull up to Moel Hebog,  the shortest but probably the steepest on the section. I seemed to be passing people fairly regularly now including another two just starting this ascent, but then halfway up I was conscious of a runner gaining steadily on me. "This hill!" he exclaimed as he drew level. It was Marcis Gubats, the leader of the 100 event. We pressed on and before long I could see the summit trig point, which I pointed out, and we were soon there. "I've enjoyed it, but now I just want it to end!" said Marcis. We traversed the summit and caught another couple of runners on the first rocky bit of descent, then he seemed to get another burst of energy and sped off downward at a pace I couldn't match.

The long descent off Hebog didn't seem to be as bad as I remembered and it wasn't too long until I was in the CP at Beddgelert village hall. Even so the 8,5 miles had taken over four and a half hours. The soup was again so good that two helpings were necessary, then after a few other bits of eating and admin it was out onto the next section which I felt would go quicker, even though it was 10 and a half miles. The first bit was a picturesque path along the river through the Aberglaslyn Pass, then a mile or so very narrow road through Nantmor village and woods out to the start of the long track up Cnicht. As the road crossed the narrow gauge railway I was held up by a train, complete with double-ended steam locomotive, a real treat for an old engineer like me. After the road section a good track swung generally northwestward towards Cnicht, climbing at a very gentle rate for two or three miles. On all this ground from Beddgelert it was good to get along at a better pace, particularly as I knew it would get dark on this section and I was keen to make as much ground as possible before nightfall. But here, after seeing quite a few runners over the last stretch, I encountered only one other runner who came past me at a better pace than I was managing.

The path steepened and became rockier for the last few hundred feet towards Cnicht summit, and the couple of hundred right at the top were the steepest. Just before this last step I caught three other runners. I had climbed up from this point a couple of times in recent years on the Dragon's Back race, so knew the easiest way was around to the right, but the flags led round to the left. The answer we found out later was that they had been moved by someone just wanting to cause a bit of confusion. I hope that didn't put anyone off too much as there is a way round to the left anyway  - witness the following quote from my 1967 guide written by the venerable Bill Poucher...."the last section is steep and there are two alternative routes: that left is the more popular because it includes some easy scrambling over rock and scree; that right is easier, grassy and less sensational but joins the other just below the cairn..".

We continued over the summit and started the long easily runnable summit ridge. I got ahead of two of the others but caught another two, Paul and Simon, by Lyn yr Adar, when it was just about dark enough to require torches. We found the contouring path that goes around then down some tricky ground to the little re-entrant and the more obvious path on the far side of the stream leading down to Lyn Llagi. But from when this track runs out down to where the route comes out onto the road above Nant Gwynant is not easy in the dark. I had been round there a week or so earlier because I suspected I would be in the situation that now arose. The whole area is boggy and any trace of track on the ground cannot be identified by torchlight. To blast straight down in a straight line would not be the quickest because the area is peppered with small rocky drop-offs which would make this approach a bit tedious. I hoped the flags would be close enough to make it easy, but just to be on the safe side I'd put a trace in my gps for this section. On the night, many of the flags had been removed so in the end we resorted to the trace, but we were still slower than necessary, though I guess more or less everyone meeting this section in the dark would have had the same problem. But once on the road it was just another mile or so gentle trundle down to the checkpoint at the Nantgwynant Cafe.

Having explored the previous descent earlier I was expecting wet feet so had put a spare pair of socks in for this point, and changed into them while the tea was brewing. The soup was excellent as ever with other goodies to fuel up for the last lap. There was in fact still one checkpoint to go from here but as it was at the relatively inaccessible Llyn Llyddaw we were told there wouldn't be much in the way of food or R&R possibilities there and we should make the most of the excellent fare at Nantgwynant. I was a bit indulgent and stayed nearly half an hour here. There were a couple of runners who had decided to call it a day and one of the marshals was arranging a taxi back to Llanberis for them. She said it would arrive in about 20 minutes, now that all seemed far too easy!

Simon and Paul were ready to go, and Alecsa who had barely come in was moving too, so just after 11.30pm the four of us set out up the Watkin path towards Snowdon. After a short way it was clear that Alecsa was going a bit slower, but she said she was quite happy to let us go on so her light dropped slowly back. I just got into a steady climbing rhythm again, and although it wasn't fast we seemed to be covering the ground. After a while I was in the lead and didn't look round until we were at the turning where the track up Lliwedd leaves the Watkin. Only Simon was there, he explained that Paul had been feeling a bit wobbly so had stopped for some more food. It seemed that he was otherwise OK because looking at the splits later he seemed to continued at the same pace as Alecsa to the finish.

I enjoyed the ascent of Lliwedd because there is a bit more finding your way through little rock steps and less of the simple "one foot in front of the other" stuff to increase the interest. I normally find the best line up here is directly up the very left hand edge but Simon preferred to keep a bit further away from the drop so we found a good enough way further right. The summit (or rather the twin summits) arrived soon enough but I warned Simon that the way down was a bit scrambly in places too. We had caught another three runners just as we reached the summit so we became a little gang of five as we made our way down the other side. I remembered most of the way having been up here many times over the years so we made steady progress. When we got to the start of the pitched slab staircase leading down the last few hundred feet to Llyn Llyddaw Simon and I speeded up a bit down to the checkpoint.

All the checkpoint staff were brilliant but these two were real heroes up here for more than 24 hours with a jeep and a gazebo. Not only did we get a welcome, but water and crisps, a nice bonus. They had chairs too but I felt it might be too difficult to get up again once I'd sat down so I declined the offer, and after a minute or two we set out for our final ascent up the Miners' Track to Snowdon. We made a steady pace over the causeway and around the lake, but once we started on the pull up to the top lake, for the first time I felt the climbing was getting hard. On reflection, I think I probably hadn't done enough uphill for the year so far; 50,000ft total going into the event compared with nearer to 100,000 normally at this time of year, a combination of injury, illness and a different training regime. Whatever it was, I knew I could make this final 2000ft but it was going to be slow. I suggested to Simon that he push on because he was still going strongly, and slowly he started to open up a gap, eventually getting back to Llanberis a quarter of an hour or so ahead of me. I still managed to overtake two other runners on the climb however, which gave me a bit of encouragement. I mentally ticked off the landmarks as we passed them, the lake outflow, the start of the steep bit, the junction with the Pyg Track, the start of the Zig-Zags, gradually getting there.

The night had got quite chilly in spite of the climb, and I expected to be met by a fierce wind as I came out onto the ridge, but it was surprisingly calm when I got there and I set off down the Llanberis track immediately. There were the usual summer Sunday morning gaggles of "Three Peaks" groups coming up and it was soon light enough for the lamp to go out. I got into a steady jog/shuffle and the miles went by easily enough, a nice time to savour the last hour or so of the event before it was all over.

I arrived back at The Heights not long after six o'clock, 25 hours 19 minutes and 41 second after setting out. I ended up in 107th place out of 166 starters. Happy enough with that.

It was a superb course really showing the best that the Welsh hills have to offer. Tough but beautiful. I am in awe of how the winner Oliver Thorogood could get round in just 11 and a half hours, beating the second placed runner by an hour and a half. It would have been interesting to see how Donnie Campbell could have got on, he was with Oliver until CP2, when I heard he had to pull out with an injury.

Runners in the longer event faced one of the hardest 100 milers around. To give some idea of this the winner Marcis Gubats, who last summer completed the Lakeland 100 in 20:52:35, finished in 34:05:00, beating the second placed runner by nearly 6 hours (which explained why I never saw any other 100 runners on the course). For my West Highland Way friends, Jamie Aarons, with a WHW personal best of 19:28:23, finished first lady and third overall in a time of 41:23:16.  Now with better course knowledge and specific training I'm sure these times will come down, but it will always be a really big mountain challenge. This year 47 runners set out on the course; 13 finished.

Congratulations to Mike and his team for making the inaugural running of the event so good. This one will only get bigger.

Saturday, 7 April 2018

Old Dog, New Tricks

I was determined that I was going to be a bit more diligent with the blogging (and the running!) this year so was disappointed to discover that after a good start in January and February I had slipped to just one post in March. Not good enough, so here's a bit about my 2018 plan of action to try to kick myself out of the pleasant but rather dubious pastime of wandering along near the back of ultra fields while claiming I'm still some sort of athlete.

The weekend of the 11/13 May this year will see the first running of the Ultra Tour of Snowdonia 50 and 100 mile races. I'm sure that over the next year or two these events will get established as being up there with the very best ultra trail races in the UK, maybe Europe. As with the well-established "Lakeland" races, the 50 takes the second half of the 100 and has a generous time allowance, while the time allowed for the 100 means that it is well beyond "twice as hard" to complete. But the similarity ends there. Both events have more testing ground underfoot than the Lakeland and the height gains are far more daunting; 6000m for the 50, that's the same total climbing as the Lakeland 100, while the 100 matches the UTMB with over 10,000m of climbing. 36 and 48 hours respectively are the time allowances. The challenge is pretty irresistible, but for this year I had neither the fitness nor the right gap in my planned events to consider the 100  -  next year maybe  -  so I signed up for the 50. If you're interested in participating in the inaugural running of a race that I'm sure is destined to become a classic, then get your name down for one of them now, I think there are still places  - next year you'll probably need to be quicker on your feet (or mouse-finger) to get in.

But on the application form was a tick box for "Would you be interested in coaching?". I'm not quite sure what led me to tick the box, maybe the feeling that I've reached a bit of a plateau, wondering whether I'm just trying to delay an inevitable decline now, whatever, I decided that an informed opinion and some structure to what I do wouldn't come amiss. The RD for the UTS events is Mike Jones, a runner with two Lakeland 100 wins and an 8th place in the CCC to his name, say no more. As well as organising events, Mike's  "Apex Running" also offers the coaching. A bonus for me is that Mike lives just a ten minute drive away from me in Chester, so it was easy to meet and establish whether he thought taking on a near septuagenarian with dodgy knees and suspect muscles would be a worthwhile exercise for either of us. After a couple of hours chat we decided to give it a go.

My "training" over the past few months (years?) had degenerated into three basic sessions. (1) An easy trundle round the attractive but easy-going trails in my local Delamere forest or my other local Borrowdale, (2) Repetitive hill sessions, walking (or on keen days jogging) up one of the local hills and jogging down a number of times, because I've always felt that the ability to carry on bashing out the climbs through to the end is what gets you round the sort of events that I'm mostly interested in,  and (3) longish days out in the hills at a walk/jog pace. I had convinced myself that going faster than 9 minute miles would lead to muscle injuries, and that 3 sessions a week was all my dodgy knee would stand. Nevertheless I was still getting out for 30 or 40 miles a week with several thousand feet of ascent, a regime that was seeing me slowly through most of the events that I entered. I sort of knew that if I wanted more then things had to change. I was conscious of two quotes, the first from many years ago by Sebastian Coe who said "Long slow runs gets you long slow runners" and a comment I had from Marc Laithwaite's "Endurance Coach" team quite a few years back, "Well if you want to get better times you're going to have to run faster!". So worth a last shot with Mike I think.

Well I've been at it for just over a month now and my weekly activities have changed fairly dramatically. Six runs a week plus two more exercise-based strength and balance sessions. So far nothing very long or with much elevation, in fact my average weekly mileage has gone down if anything, but in general much faster stuff. Lots of exercises combined with the runs, strides, hill sprints, other drills. Mike is encouraging me to do a Parkrun every Saturday when there is no event on.  I did my first with my daughter Julia just before Christmas, when we just squeezed under 30 minutes; this morning at Keswick I managed 23:22. Encouraging but still not much faster than the pace which I was able to sustain for 26 miles when I got my marathon PB just nine years ago. But the real thing is that I seem to be able to run at this pace with no muscle problems, which I am sure is down to a thorough warm-up routine which I'm now sticking to every time I go out. 

The strength and balance exercises are hard, as Mike said "you will discover weaknesses" and these are the only sessions which have caused niggles, first with abs and more recently with a quad and I have to be sensible with these so they don't become counterproductive; but realising what one is lacking is a bit of any eye-opener for someone who has up until now just gone out of the door and gone running with no other preparation.

The plan to start with is to improve basic speed for the London Marathon in two weeks time. I entered this just for the experience because I hadn't done it for well over a decade. I had no time ambitions and because my "good for age" time to guarantee entry is now 5 hours I would have been happy to get around in that. The new target is 4 hours (well 3:59 actually, I'm told I have the right first number in focus!) Unthinkable at Christmas, it's now I think a good target though by no means a "gimme" and one that I'll be made up with if I get.

After that I need to start working on the hills again, as the hillier races then start coming on apace starting with the UTS50 in May. 

My medium target with Mike is the Lakeland 100 at the end of July. I think this is an event that I know quite well now but even at my age I feel I may have a PB in there somewhere so I want to see if I can get one. As a two-time winner of the event this has some appeal to Mike too, so it has become my "A" target event for the year.  I divided all the other events I wanted to do into categories "B"  (may have to push a bit to get them done but don't want to come out needing a month off!) and "C" (events which I have an emotional attachment to but won't improve on my PB so would just like to finish with the minimum effort and not interrupt the overall training plan).  This seems to be working so far. I found a fairly stern comment on my logbook before the Hardmoors 55 ........ "Remember this is a "C" event  - run accordingly!". I remembered, took things easily and so was up for a fairly full week following it.

Early days yet but I'm hopeful and enthusiastic. Whether it makes me a better runner or just an older one time will tell. Watch this space.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

2018 Hardmoors 55 - One Runner's View

I sat down to write my normal race report on last Saturday's HM55 but it occurred to me that I've probably done enough of those already, so instead I'll try to explain how I feel about this year's race and the events that developed during and after it. As always, my views, I don't expect everyone to agree.

My history with Hardmoors and the HM55

I first met Jon Steele, or rather he stopped to check if I was OK, when I was throwing up in a field in Switzerland during the 2009 UTMB race; he went on to finish, I didn't. I've known Shirley even longer, since we made our way fairly painfully over Rannoch Moor during what was for both of us our first West Highland Way race back in 2007. From the start I was interested in the Hardmoors 110 but somehow it always came too close to other things I wanted to do, so it was great for me when Jon decided that its first spinoff the Hardmoors 55 would be run in March 2010. I signed up straight away and was one of the 57 hopefuls setting out from Helmsley on a dull March day. My first experience of the North York Moors was the cold, the rain, the biting wind, the near zero visibility for much of the way and the enormous feeling of satisfaction on finally getting to (I think) the Rugby club in Guisborough just short of 12 hours later. I've been hooked on this event ever since, and although I've missed three due to illness or injury I've always come back whenever I can. I've still never got around to the 110 but I've done the 60 and for me it just doesn't compare; the 55 is by far the best part of the Cleveland Way.  Last Saturday was my sixth trip along the course.

My 2018 race in brief

I'm a more mature and steadier pedestrian nowadays than back in 2010 (some would say geriatric and extremely slow I dare say); furthermore I wanted a good day out rather than to prove anything, to finish in a state where recovery wouldn't take more than a day or two. I confessed to John and Katrina Kynaston in the pub the night before that I was happy to take the full time allowance if required, but would start conservatively and aim for around 15 hours. From previous experience I split this into 5 to Osmotherley, 6 to Kildale and 4 to the finish, to give me some mental yardsticks to work to.

It all went pretty well to plan. I got to Os in about 4 hours 45 mins and rewarded myself with a 15 minute stop for tea and sandwiches. The meat of the effort comes from here to Kildale; a few miles of undulation then a long steady climb up to the top of the Moors' northern escarpment, followed by some short sharp climbs over the "Three Sisters" to Clay Bank, then a long jeep track with gentle ups and downs out to the remote Bloworth Crossing and back to Kildale. I'll talk about the weather later but the only thing that really slowed progress was having to take the rocky descents cautiously as they were slippery from snow and ice build-up. In the 2013 event we knew there was going to be more snow about so I'd taken Yaktrax. I hadn't bothered this time; they would have been useful but it was no real disaster, just a bit more care required. I had a couple of slips but nothing painful  -  my heaviest fall was while jogging down the fairly steep snow-covered tarmac road about a mile out of Kildale. I hit Kildale around 6 hours after leaving Os, that is at just about 8pm. 

I was in good time and no hurry so I made the most of the facilities in the hall. Three or four cups of tea, two of soup, ginger biscuits and various other goodies; I then put on my spare warm layer and waterproof trousers as I expected colder temperatures and slower progress over the final section, and I was good to go. The hall was full of runners; some were looking cold and as if they were unlikely to continue, but the majority seemed to be making preparations for the final push, including the Kynastons who had come in sometime during my half hour R and R session. I left at around 8.30 pm, and going out of the door met two other runners just setting out; it seemed easy enough to agree to carry on together as we were all concerned with just getting it done now rather than chasing any particular times. The other two were Paul Burgum and Paul Hudson, who were great company as we made our way over to the finish. We had been told at Kildale that the short but steep out and back to Roseberry Topping was now to be omitted, so there was no technical ground to impede progress, and even though we walked the whole way we were home just before midnight. Allowing for the later than 9am start, my finishing time was 14:38:01.

And that would have been that.  Except when chatting to Shirley just after the finish she said only a couple more finishers were expected after us.  The explanation, which came as a bit of a surprise, was that the race had been stopped not long after we had set out, with no more runners being permitted onto the course beyond Kildale. During the time that we had been completing our last leg, everyone at Kildale had been evacuated back to Guisborough and the majority had now gone home. My immediate reaction was that I had been really lucky to leave Kildale in time to miss this stoppage. Beyond that I was tired enough to concentrate mainly on the 10 minute walk back to my car and the short drive over snow covered roads back to my hotel in Middlesborough.

What actually happened after we left Kildale

I have pieced this together from various text messages and Facebook posts from people I trust on day after the race. If it is not entirely right this is unintentional and I'm sure those with better knowledge will put me right.

A bit earlier in the evening Cleveland Mountain Rescue had gone to assist a vehicle stuck in a ditch near Kildale. Several inches of snow had built up on roads around the area and the CMR 4x4 vehicles were very helpful in the conditions. While they were there they looked into the Kildale checkpoint to see how things were going with the race; Jon's preparations always include keeping CMR appraised of all his race plans. This will have been sometime between 8.30 (when I left Kildale) and 9pm (which was the cutoff time for Kildale in any case). At that point they suggested to Jon that in the now deteriorating conditions, evacuating any runner who got into trouble on the last section of the course would not be easy, and that a safe option would be to not let any more runners leave Kildale.  Jon concurred and the race was stopped.

Again making use of their 4x4's, CMR were then extremely helpful in ensuring that all the runners stopped at Kildale were transported quickly and safely back to the finish in Guisborough, where they could resume with their own plans for getting away from the finish of the event.

So no runners were rescued from the course at any point, all made their way safely down to checkpoints, either on their own or escorted by fellow runners, under their own steam. The race organisation and runners had cleared the course competently to places of safety, and anyone not then at the finish was given a lift back to there. Some runners reached checkpoints hypothermic to some degree; they were warmed up on the spot and no-one was hospitalised.

Media Reaction

I'm mentioning this for any readers outside the circle involved in the race on the day, and anyone who may stumble on this post at some time in the future. Media reports soon started to circulate claiming any number from 30 to 100 runners brought down from the moors by mountain rescue teams. This generated all the normal on-line uninformed comment and criticism, whether the race should have started and so on. Jon received his share of hate mail. The national media were involved by Monday when a piece on the Radio 2 Jeremy Vine show covered the race. Thankfully, the opening comment was by a member of CMR who calmly related what had actually happened, praised the Hardmoors organisation, and said that CMR were quite happy that the race was been started, and equally happy when it was stopped at an appropriate time. This rather took the wind out of the sails of the "someone got it wrong" experts but they had a go anyway. I also heard a piece on BBC Teeside where both a CMR member and Paul Burgum (who I covered the last section with) did a good job in telling it like it was. It may not be quite dead yet but the media will move on to something else soon. 

General thoughts about the weather

Ever since it's first running Jon has stressed in the run-up to the HM55  that it's a race likely to be run under winter conditions. Runners need to have some idea of what that means and prepare accordingly. It seems to me that the weather forecast for the 2018 event, which had been consistent for at least a couple of days ahead of the race, was very accurate. The expectation was for near zero temperatures, a 40-50 miles per hour easterly wind and frequent snow and hail showers which the BBC said would feel "blizzard-like when you are in them". That's exactly what we got. We knew what was coming. Common sense would also tell you that conditions were likely to feel worse as the temperature dropped when darkness fell.

As one of the last finishers into Guisborough just before midnight, I was one of the runners out on the course longest on Saturday so feel that I'm in as good a position as anyone to comment on the weather.

First let's be clear. Whatever terminology you hear or see in the media, and ignoring the odd bit of hype you get from ultra runners and their mates, Saturday's conditions were challenging, but certainly not "extreme" or "brutal".   Many Spine or TdH competitors would regard them as a normal day at the office. Anyone who came into a checkpoint colder than was good for them had not experienced extreme weather; they had learned the valuable lesson that for them, in those conditions, they did not have enough clothes on. It is impossible to be prescriptive about this, I've heard or read about runners who went through the whole of the race with a base layer and a shell and were comfortable, and others who had multiple layers and were cold. It depends on how fast you go, how much heat you generate, how much fat you carry and many other factors, but the main point of learning that runners should take from this is that a mandatory equipment list can only ever be a suggestion of what might keep you alive; there are no guarantees because we are all different. You need to find out what works for you.

A lot of the vernacular surrounding ultra-running focuses on overcoming difficulties  -  finding your limits, pushing through the pain and so on. The only thing I would disagree with on Paul B's radio interview would be the description of ultra running as "an extreme sport". I'm a sixty-nine year old pensioner with dodgy knees; people like me don't do extreme sports. To keep themselves safe runners really have to get away from this sort of mindset. What we do is a hobby, accessible to almost anyone who wants to put a bit of time and effort into learning the game. It takes us to beautiful places, we meet like-minded people and derive great satisfaction at times. All we need is to do a diligent amount of training and learning, set ourselves a sensible game plan for each race that takes account of our current fitness, skills and knowledge, and then execute the plan, no drama, no heroics. The amount that you have in reserve is what keeps you out of trouble. 

Comparison with other poor weather 55's

The 2010 race was run in miserable cold conditions. No spectacular snow or gales but the continual near-zero wet cold that the British climate is good at providing, easy to misjudge from the relative warmth of a lower level starting venue. Under these conditions runners are always wet as well as cold and there's nothing like wet clothes for stepping up the heat transfer from your core to the outside world. There were several cases of hypothermia, runners were warmed up in blankets and sleeping bags at the indoor checkpoints, the finishers finished and I think everyone involved agreed it had been a great event.

In 2013 the temperatures were slightly lower than last Saturday and much of the country was covered in snow before the start. The easterly wind was similar. We never saw the sun. However, the race overall was probably slightly easier because that year it was run from East to West giving a tail wind for a lot of the distance, and safer because the final section headed to lower, more sheltered ground as the temperature dropped.  Some sections were definitely more trying than we found last Saturday however. The leg from Kildale out to Bloworth was directly into the gale and the track filled with deep powder snow. The path from Sneck Yate to the road before the White Horse was completely obliterated into a snow slope for most of the way and runners at my end of the field had it all in the dark. The loop to the White Horse was cut from the course but most regulars still took much longer than their normal times.

But the big difference between these years and 2018 is that there were far fewer runners on the course - 57 starters in 2010, 135 in 2013, 342 in 2018  -  far fewer to deal with if a percentage got into trouble or circumstances changed rapidly.  I'm not saying that this was good or bad, just that it's a fact.

So on Saturday evening, with (I'm estimating here) around 50 runners in Kildale potentially setting out over the last exposed section in dropping temperatures, and evidence that others had already found the preceding section too cold for their kit, it's clear that CMR and Jon made the only sensible call and that was to halt the race. I would suggest that the numbers in both these groups influenced the decision.

In Conclusion

I'll be back for more Hardmoors 55's, so long as I still have the legs and lungs to do them. It's a special event for me. I would understand completely if Jon decided to move it back a month or so to get warmer conditions; no-one needs the aggro he's had to put up with over the last day or two. But from my perspective, I hope not. Part of the beauty of these moors is their wildness, and it would be sad to lose that. Other races are available along these trails in summer, if that's your thing. Lots of runners have already said that they had a great time on Saturday so clearly got their decisions right; others will have gained invaluable lessons from their outing and their tales will swell the knowledge pool. I hope, maybe in vain, for times when there will be no need for a "mandatory kit list" for these events, that we will all have learned enough to understand what's required. A day or two before the 2013 Hardmoors 55, when much of the country was snowbound and events were being cancelled all over, the message from Jon to competitors was clear ".......we won't cancel the race but you all know what the weather is going to be like. Pack some warm stuff and give it a good thrash."  All you need to know, I think.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Brecon to Cardiff Ultra

I was on the start list for the Arc of Attrition but two weeks out it was clear that I wasn't in a suitable state to take on the challenge. I had reccied about half the course so had a good impression of the ground involved and this, together with the impact of winter weather, limited daylight and tight cut-offs for someone of my abilities all added up to an event which under any circumstances would be near my limit to complete. I had finally decided a year ago that I would not go into races like this carrying any sort of injury so it was a no-brainer: although I was making progress my knees still weren't good enough to last the course yet, so I reluctantly pulled the plug.

I looked around for a less demanding event around the same time and found the Brecon to Cardiff ultra, 44 miles with fairly minimal climbing (around 2000ft) and a good surface underfoot. It would be a good test of how far I could a actually run, without the excuse of hills for extended walking breaks. A bus was provided from the finish (at Nantgarw, actually a few miles short of Cardiff) to the start, so I travelled down on Saturday afternoon and stayed at a hotel a 15 minute drive away; making the 6am bus departure time was then a fairly relaxed process. There were actually three buses including a double-decker so a lot of runners had decided to take this option. I don't know how many started the race but when I entered the SI list was up to 338, so I guess around three hundred on the day would be about the score.

After a bus trip of about an hour, the check-in process at event start base at Christ College in the centre of Brecon was fairly painless, then after a quick briefing mainly about the weather, everyone walked the five minutes or so to the start line at the basin of the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal. I think we got away at about 8.15am.

The first seven miles were absolutely flat, following the towpath of the canal, so after ten minutes or so it was easy to get sorted out into a group that was going at a  pace I felt comfortable. I had a fairly loose target which was to see if I could run the whole race at under 12.00 minute mile pace. I had translated this into aiming for about 11 minutes per mile on the flat bits and for the this first canal section that turned into 10,30's - maybe a bit quick but it felt comfortable enough. The weather was a bit bleak to start with; grey skies, temperature just above freezing and a noticeable north westerly wind. The forecast promised sleet showers and we seemed to get them at regular intervals, though none of them lasted particularly long and they seemed to be either snow or hail rather than sleet. This meant we weren't getting wet from them so I was happy with starting out with a windproof top rather than a waterproof one, so cutting down the sweat and subsequent chilly sensations from condensation inside the jacket. The running was easy as the towpath had a firm base nearly all the way, either gravel or naturally firm earth, much better than the ankle deep soft mud I had encountered for so many miles on the Shropshire Union back in November. There were frequent puddles which many runners jumped or detoured round but I've never understood this tactic, I assume you're inevitably going to get wet feet at some point so using a lot of energy to delay it by an hour or so doesn't make sense  - maybe I get this way  because I cover so many miles on our northern hills and moors.

The first checkpoint was where we turned off the canal at Talybont-on-Usk, water and jelly babies available. The longest distance between checkpoints was about 9 miles so I only took one 500ml bottle and topped it up at each one if necessary. This cut down the weight a bit, but the kit list included all the normal gear for a trip in the mountains; sensible in the conditions I suppose but from my point of view not much was used.

The next section climbed gently but steadily for another 7 miles or so on gravel forest roads. There were enough gaps in the trees to see the Talybont reservoir to come into view below us on the right, a place I remembered from both the Beacons Ultra and the Brecon Beacons 10 Peaks which both visit this area. I kept going at a steady jog most of the way, just stopping to walk for 5 minutes each hour which had been part of my plan from the start to use some different muscles occasionally. I passed several groups of runners up here, some whom were walking continuously and some who were adopting a run/walk strategy. I don't normally run long hills on events but I felt it would be a good training exercise for me today as there wasn't a lot of climbing overall.

The final mile or two of trail swung north westward so we were fully aware of the wind, then  it popped out of the trees just before the high point of the course at around 1500ft, to join a minor road running south west. We were greeted with a longer shower, this time much more like sleet, but after a few hundred yard the road started to lose height, then we left it to follow another undulating forest trail off to the left. Several runners that I had overtaken on the uphill were making better speed on the downhills and came past me again, but my downhill speed was governed mainly by wanting to keep the knee impacts as gentle as possible so I was happy enough to let them go. Another mile or so and we left the forest road for a short steeper path down to the dam and road at the end of the Pentywn reservoir, which led in a couple of hundred yards to checkpoint 2 at 16 miles from the start.

The next six miles or so between checkpoints 2 and 3 contained the sharpest uphills on the course, though none of them were long, as we worked our way through the forest to the west of the Ponsticill reservoir. It was still cold and the showers had not gone away, but in between we were starting to see increasing amounts of blue sky and sunshine which enhanced the fine views already in evidence since we had crested the high point. A scattering of snow on the hilltops completed the picture.

Before long the forest tracks led back to a road over the dam at the end of the reservoir. A half mile of road led to a surfaced cycle track through woods alongside a river, with a lovely gentle downhill gradient all the way to the half-way checkpoint on the outskirts of Merthyr Tydfil. The previous checkpoints had been roadside but this one was inside a small hall and very cosy. We had been allowed a drop bag to send to here; the recommendation had been to use trail shoes for the first half and road shoes for the second. Actually the ground had been so firm and there was so little mud that road shoes would have been fine for the whole trip, but I had gone with the advice so swapped my Hoka Speedgoats for Skechers GoRun Rides, which felt like carpet slippers as soon as I put them on. I also took the opportunity of a dry shirt, so with a drink and a bit to eat the stop probably took a rather indulgent 10 minutes and I was right up to my 12 min/mile limit as I rejoined the course.

After a bit of urban work through Merthyr, the course settled down onto a surfaced cycle track alongside the River Taff (The "Taff Trail"), which it would follow almost all the way to the finish. There were still plenty of runners around, I would occasionally pass one who was walk/running and then one going at a faster pace would come by. I ran for short periods with others but never for very long as I was trying to complete my exercise of running (well jogging) about 50-55 minutes in each hour; I reasoned that if I could keep that up and not stop for too long at checkpoints then I could achieve my 12 min/mile target. So far it seemed to be working but I still had the best part of twenty miles to go and any prolonged walking would really put a hole in the average.

I'd looked on the map before travelling down to Wales and it seemed that the 22 Miles from Merthyr to the finish were likely to run through an urban landscape, but in fact the cycle track (which was once a single track railway line) found it's way into plenty of green space within the fairly narrow Taff valley and was generally really pleasant running. Seven miles out of Merthyr another checkpoint appeared at Aberfan, accompanied by another squally shower. As the day was warming up (well maybe up to 3 or 4 degrees!) and the route now less exposed, I had left my windproof in the drop bag and was now happy in a vest and light fleece. The showers continued to be mostly hail or snow so not really wetting. Crisps and Jaffa cakes saw me on my way  -  the checkpoints were well-stocked, although I had taken a couple of Mars Bars in my bag I never needed to eat them  -  and I followed the trail another 8 miles down to Pontypridd.  The trail was now cutting roads more frequently and at each crossing there were plenty of supporters and spectators to encourage the runners along.

A mile or two before Pontypridd we ran into probably the worst shower of the day, heavy hail which went on for ten or fifteen minutes, rapidly turning the trail into slush and making me wish I hadn't put my hat and gloves away a few miles previously. But then it stopped almost as quickly as it started and the sun was out again so the world was still looking good.

The Pontypridd checkpoint was inside a workingmen's club and looked far too inviting, hot drinks snacks were on offer inside. I was tempted but with only 6 miles to go I just filled the water bottle outside and headed out on the last stretch. Again, a bit of town to clear then we were on the cycle track heading through woods, though this time it started to pull further away from the river and gradually gained height. Though uphill it was a very gentle gradient and I was pleased to be still running after a fashion. After an hour or so I recognised the buildings of the college which was the finish point down in the valley to the right. At first encouraging, the sight became a bit more unnerving as the trail seemed to keep climbing and go right past it. At this stage there were no other runners in sight and at times like this there is always a bit of doubt that you may have missed a turning. We had been given a paper map at the start but mine had got so soggy and unreadable that I'd thrown it away, on the basis that the second half followed a well-signed bike trail. Only problem was, I knew we had to turn off the trail to the finish at some point and I wasn't sure where. Major turnings had however been well marked up until now, although the Race Director had explained at the briefing that the local population wasn't averse to playing with or removing them on occasions.

I needn't have worried, a few hundred yards further on the trail cut a road, and race signs clearly led off to the right down into the valley. A few steps, a footbridge over the main A470, and I was into the last few yards to the finish. A nice welcome, a finishing arch, plenty of spectators and a round of applause as you crossed the line. I finished in 8:32:44 which worked out at an average 11.40 per mile for the trip, I was happy enough with that. I was in 98th place out of 253 finishers, as I said earlier I don't know how many started but it was a good turnout. My right knee had hurt for some periods but I took painkillers when necessary and it wasn't too distracting. 

The race was well organised and marshalled and overall an enjoyable and satisfying experience. I'm not sure if I would go again because of the amount of hard-surfaced track, but in my current phase of trying to get back into some consistent running and not just walking up and down hills, it came at the right time and was an encouraging outing for me.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

A Sticky Business

Poles, batons, "cheat sticks", whatever you call them, they've come to the trail and mountain running world and they're here to stay.  Strongly held contrasting opinions are not slow in appearing as soon as they are mentioned. So what's it all about? Let's try to set aside all the rhetoric for a short while and tease out just how and why this bit of kit really affects us and this game we play.


I'm not sure exactly how the process started but I guess it was around 30 years ago that I first became conscious of people starting to use poles as a fell-walking aid. We called them ski-poles at the time, because of course that's where they had come from. Downhill skiers had always used poles to balance and initiate turns, and to push along the flat bits. More significantly, both cross-country ("langlauf") skiers and ski tourers (or ski-mountaineers if you prefer) had used them to provide steady progress on flat and ascending terrain, advancing one ski and the opposite pole together then repeating on the other side in a steady walking rhythm.  More of this later, but for now it's easy to see how someone must have seen that this walking rhythm on skis could apply equally well without them, probably first on snow then later on dry land.

Just over 20 years ago, when poles were well established tools for walking easy angled snow, I set off with a friend to climb the Aiguilles Grises route on the Italian side of Mont Blanc. Quite a lot of Mont Blanc is at an easy angle so we took poles. The route starts from the Italian Val Veni and another friend gave us a lift from Chamonix round to there. It was only when we reached the hut, something like a six hour walk from the valley, that my companion realised that he'd left his ice axe in the car. Nevertheless he managed quite adequately with his poles to reach the summit and descend the Grands Mulets route back to Chamonix. Probably not Sound Mountain Judgement as the experts would term it these days but a pretty good indicator of the usefulness of poles as a walking aid.

First choose your weapon

There are basically two types of collapsible pole (collapsible so you can stow them on or in your pack when not using them), telescopic and fixed-length.

Telescopic poles normally have three sections which slide inside each other and can be fixed at any extension length by locking ferrules at the joints. Advantages of these are that they can be set to different lengths for different conditions or different people. Disadvantages are that they are generally bulkier and heavier than fixed-length poles, and their integrity under load is dependent on how well you lock the ferrules. They are normally made from aluminium alloy; carbon models are available which are more expensive but  much lighter, however they are harder to lock/unlock and susceptible to break rather than bend, especially in very cold conditions.

Fixed length poles are more commonly used by runners these days. They consist of three or four lengths of alloy tube which slot into each other like a tent-pole. When assembled they are held together by an internal shock cord which is tensioned into a slot in the top section and held there by a simple jammed knot. They are normally lighter than the telescopics, much faster to assemble and stow, and rigidly secure under load. The disadvantage is that the length you buy is going to be the only length you can use until you throw them away. Selecting the best length for yourself is a bit like selecting ski poles; hold the pole with the point on the ground, on level ground and with your upper arm vertical  - your forearm should then be horizontal. This won't be the best for all conditions but is probably the best compromise.

You can pay anything from around £10 to over £100 for a pair of poles. In general you get better performace, features and longevity the more you pay, but convincing yourself that you're getting value for money for a particular model within a given price range is not easy. You tend to get more choice and better value by buying in the Alpine areas rather than in the UK.

Whether and when you put baskets on the ends depends on the terrain you envisage covering and how you want to operate. On snow and very soft ground,  poles with no baskets can sink in enough to make them almost worthless, but they tend to hamper easy stowage and are not needed on harder surfaces. I've reached a bit of a compromise with my fixed-length poles by fitting home made baskets around 3cm in diameter, which are good enough for most mud and grass but small enough not to get in the way on the pack.

So what are they for?

Poles are used for three basic scenarios, and which you choose to use them in will depend on the prevailing conditions and your own strengths and weaknesses.

1. As an aid to progress when climbing on easy ground

If you've ever been ski touring you will be familiar with the almost zen-like state you can achieve steadily skinning up a long slope in a good rhythm with poles and skis working together. Height seems to be gained almost effortlessly and as every movement is the same you can let your mind wander where it will. The same can be done using poles when walking, and as well as helping to promote the rhythm the pressure you put on the poles will aid upward and forward motion, taking at least some of the effort off your leg muscles.

The two keys to efficient ascending are (1) establishing the rhythm, and (2) planting the poles in the right place. For the second of these think about the physics for a moment. The only force a pole planted ahead of you is likely to impart is one which pushes you backwards, so to aid forward motion the pole must be planted level with or slightly behind the line of your body.  Your hand will be forward and the pole inclined backward as you plant it. This means that you won't be able to see the spot where the point of the pole contacts the ground. That's why this type of progression is only  possible on easy ground. It can be as steep as you like, but it must be regular enough (a) for the rhythm and (b) so the pole will stick every time and not go skating off a rock or plunging into a hole.

Paths in the Alps, and on continental European hills generally, are often well engineered with steady gradients and an even surface - grass, earth or gravel, and it is here where poles were popularised and come into their own for aiding ascent. For those familiar with the UTMB, think of the paths up the Seine, Mont Favre, Ferret, Trient and so on. Such ground is less frequent in the UK where many paths are just the result of the passage of feet rather than any engineering,  so are much more uneven. Again, using a well-known route as an example, poles for ascent on the Lakeland 100 will only be really useful on the ascents out of Coniston, Keswick, Pooley Bridge, Howtown and Troutbeck. For much of the other ground they are likely to be more of  a hinderance than a help because of the uneven ground. Using poles in this mode on rocky ascents like the top half of Black Sail is just a waste of time and effort.

2. To lessen the load on your legs, particularly knees, when descending

Now if you had asked me about this ten or even five years ago I would have said don't be daft, we're runners; we run the down hills, on any tricky ground there's enough mental stress trying to manage sensible landings for two points at speed, adding another two into the mix is just asking for trouble. I always stowed my poles at the top of the hill and ran down as fast as my brain could cope. But around 20,000 miles over the past ten years, on top of a lifetime of climbing and mountaineering, have left me with one or two deficiencies and I have to admit I now use poles to take the strain occasionally when the going gets tough. I'm still better off without them on the  most technical terrain but on easier long descents the use of poles planted a pace or two ahead, either alternately or both together, definitely makes life easier on the knees. If this stage hasn't reached you yet then it will, if you carry on with this activity long enough.

Ideally you want longer poles for descending than ascending, you can reach a bit further down the hill more easily. If you use telescopics you can adjust them to suit (if you can be bothered with the faff) but fixed length don't give you this facility. I find that holding my poles with the palms of my hands over the end of the handle grip works well enough.

Worth a word here maybe about how you normally hold poles anyway. A friend of mine once commented after finishing the UTMB that he was getting cramp in his hands and forearms towards the end from gripping his poles for two days. I commented that if you hold them like ski poles only the lightest of grips is necessary for most of the time. Not being a skier he didn't know what I was talking about. Now I'm sure 90% of people reading will know this already, but just in case you don't......

You hold a pole by putting your hand upwards through the loop, then grasping the grip together with the loop as it comes up between your thumb and forefinger. The length of the loop should be adjusted so that this leaves you with a comfortable hold in the centre of the handgrip when your wrist is pressing downwards on the loop. You may have to find a compromise loop length that works with and without gloves so you don't have to fiddle about changing it when you put gloves on or off. Then when you use the pole to push down on, the majority of the force is taken through your wrist to the loop, not through your handgrip on the pole.

3. For balance on uneven ground

Again, this is what ageing ramblers do isn't it, not fit young ultra-runners? Well, maybe. But even in the days when I put my poles away at the top of every climb as not required until the next one, there have been occasions when they have proved useful, sometimes near essential, such as:

- adding some security on long muddy descents. One year on the UTMB it rained solidly for several hours before the start of the race. The first descent from the Col de Vosa down to St Gervais, normally a straightforward grassy slope, became a continuous mud slide. Runners without poles had a very hard time.

- crossing deep fast flowing streams with rocky beds. Not falling in or getting swept away becomes even more attractive when the temperatures are near zero.

- following icy (or more often, sporadically icy) tracks; poles can often make secure progress possible at a better overall speed and without the faff of donning Yaktrax/Kahtoolas etc.

- providing extra security in very windy conditions. Poles can sometimes keep you on your feet when otherwise you may be blown over; although in windy conditions a pole is liable to get blown horizontal when you unweight it, so this needs good wrist control and a bit of practice.

- (I'm sure I could think of more if I took a few more minutes)

And I'm not too proud to admit that these days I'm happy to use poles to provide a bit of extra security on ground that I would have been happy to cross without them a few years ago, crossing streams and longer wet areas,progressing on wet and greasy bouldery tracks and so on.


One of the reasons why poles seem to cause such offence to non-users is that they are often not correctly controlled, and I have quite a lot of sympathy for this. There's no excuse for inconsiderate behaviour when you're carrying around a couple of sharp pointy sticks in close proximity to other runners.

In summary, this means that you shouldn't carry poles in such away that you are likely to "spike" anyone else; whether contact is caused by your crashing into some-one else or their crashing into you is not relevant  -  slips, trips and stumbles happen and it's up to you to ensure that no damage occurs from your poles if they do. Two basic rules should see you right:

1. Poles should be stowed on or in packs with the points downwards (or at the very least sideways, never upwards).

2. When you hold your poles in one hand to run without them but without stowing them, you should hold them with the pointed ends to the thumb/forefinger end of your grip (not the little finger end). The points will then naturally come to the front where you can see them and point them downwards, rather than upwards and backwards into the face of the runner behind.

Are poles "cheating"? 

Of course not. The Race Director decides the rules for his race. If poles are allowed then using them is just as legitimate as any other piece of permitted kit. If you perceive that they may give an advantage to runners using them (which you must if think of their use as "cheating"), yet decide not to use them yourself, then that's a personal choice to handicap yourself and nothing to do with anyone else. There are races than do not permit poles (the West Highland Way is one example), but also races that do not permit other stuff, such as GPS, support crews, support runners, pre-knowledge of the course, and so on.  There is no moral high ground in any of this, we just have to remember that this is a game we're playing, and when we sign up for an event we sign up to the organiser's rules.

So I'll continue to think about the ground any event I sign up for covers, and if poles are allowed and I think they'll pay back the effort of carrying an extra 360 grams, then I'll put them in my bag.