Tuesday, 20 March 2018

2018 Hardmoors 55 - One Runner's View

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

My history with Hardmoors and the HM55

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

My 2018 race in brief

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

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

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

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

What actually happened after we left Kildale

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

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

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

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

Media Reaction

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

General thoughts about the weather

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

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

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

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

Comparison with other poor weather 55's

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

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

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

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

In Conclusion

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

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Brecon to Cardiff Ultra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

A Sticky Business

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


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

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

First choose your weapon

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

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

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

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

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

So what are they for?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. For balance on uneven ground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Are poles "cheating"? 

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

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

Monday, 22 January 2018

Anglesey Coast Ultra

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

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

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

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

Heading for South Stack with Holyhead Mountain behind

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Review of 2017

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

Overall Statistics

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Winter Cross Ultra

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

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

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

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

The Winter Cross Course

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mammoth Medal

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Escape from Meriden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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