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.

History

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.


Etiquette

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.




Monday, 22 January 2018

Anglesey Coast Ultra

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

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

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

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

Heading for South Stack with Holyhead Mountain behind

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Review of 2017

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

Overall Statistics

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

Races

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, 6 January 2018

Winter Cross Ultra

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

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

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

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

The Winter Cross Course























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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mammoth Medal