Saturday, 7 October 2017

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Reliability of electrical/electronic devices

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

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

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

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


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

Hand-held gps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GPS Watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Lost.

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

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

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

Efficient navigation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy navigating!


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

Saturday, 23 September 2017

King Offa's Dyke Race

Pre-start manoevering

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hay-on-Wye to Montgomery (100 miles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Montgomery to Llandegla (150 miles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Llandegla to Prestatyn (185 miles)

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 31 August 2017

St Begas Ultra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boardwalk section towards the southern end of Derwentwater

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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