Monday, 31 August 2009

Three in a row

Well, afraid I just recorded my third DNF in the UTMB. I called it a day after about 70 miles, further than I've got before but still no cigar. We're spending the next week walking and enjoying the Chamonix valley, then I'm going for a week's climbing at Ailefroide near Briancon. I'll post the story of my race when I get back.

All the other guys here from the WHW family finished the event brilliantly, congratulations to all!

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Relax and Enjoy It

I ran my first marathon in April 2004 and finished in a time of 3 hours and 37 minutes. This is OK I thought, I should be able to get under 3:30 easily enough with a bit of effort. Could I heck, as my Yorkshire wife Jan might say. I ran another 3:37, and a 3:34, and a 3:31, and one or two even slower but I couldn't break the barrier. Eventually at my eighth attempt I finally cracked it. More training, more commitment on the day, and a willingness to endure some pain over the last 6 miles got me home in 3:24, but I really hadn't enjoyed the run and my quads still hurt like hell two weeks after the race. This wasn't what I came for. I filed it away as my "sub 3:30 experience" and decided that I would enjoy my marathons at a more gentlemanly pace in future. Two marathons a year is my ration, one spring and one autumn, and this April saw me on the start line at Rotterdam, the same venue as my very first race 5 years ago. This is a training run in a nice situation I told Jan, with the Highland Fling coming up in 3 weeks I'm going to take it easy and enjoy the day. I did enjoy the run from start to finish. I looked at my watch twice, once at half way and once at 32k, and on both occasions told myself to slow down, I was going too fast and something might go wrong if I kept it up. I finished in 3:17, it was a walk in the park.

I've had similar experiences in runs from half marathons to ultras. Maybe it doesn't work this way for everyone, but for me it seems counterproductive to put pressure on to achieve a particular goal, I do much better if I forget about the watch and just enjoy the day. Just 10 days to the UTMB now, an event which more than any other at the moment I want to do justice to. I did my last real training run yesterday up Snowdon (where else, I think it was my 14th visit to the summit this year), just a couple of gentle jogs on the plan between now and the start in Chamonix a week on Friday. So I've told myself I've done the work, I have no time target other than to finish, I'm setting no schedule other than to keep me ahead of the cut-off times. I'm going out to enjoy a couple of days in the mountains.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

The Devil You Know......

Well not strictly true, I had never run the "Devil o'the Highlands 43 mile Footrace" from Tyndrum to Fort William before, but I had covered the ground a few times as the second half of the West Highland Way race. Early August for the past few years has seen me playing other games in the hills but not this year so time to give it a go. I was looking forward to the race for a number of reasons, not the least one being able to start over this wonderful stretch of countryside without 50-odd miles already on the clock. I was also determined not to damage my chances in the UTMB in three weeks time, so I planned to take it easy and enjoy the ride.

So the support crew is collected from Glasgow airport on Friday night (daughter Julia of course - the deal is she'll drive the car and top up the Camelbak in return for a couple of days rockclimbing on Sunday and Monday) and we arrive at the Tyndrum Lodge just in time for the bar to close. Never mind says George R ensconced in a corner, they're open next door and we're just going round, so the pre-race Guinness is saved. Saturday morning is luxury, fall out of bed then straight round to the Green Welly, literally next door, for the check-in and pre-race briefing. Lots of the usual suspects to say hello to then we can stay in the warm until it's time to go, although the weather looks pretty good already. "Two minutes" shouts Race Director Garry, and still chatting we wander up to the start. I love these low key takeoffs, in a strange way they emphasise rather than detract from the enormity of what is about to happen, then we're off. I start walking (it's a steepish hill after all!) but all around are running, the whole field is streaming past, so I reluctantly break into a very gentle jog.

I have sketched out a schedule so that Julia has some checkpoint times to plan around; it's based on 12 minute miles for 42 miles (I know it's not 43, the arithmetic doesn't work) which should get me home in just under eight and a half hours. I'll take the first half really easily but it will still go quicker because of the territory; I don't need to see her at the Bridge of Orchy so we target the Glencoe checkpoint in 3 hours 15.

At the top of the hill out of Tyndrum, down the slope and under the railway and I'm happy to run now. It's brilliant, striding out down the perfect slightly downhill track, feeling great. I can see runners in the distance but even at this early stage the field is starting to thin out. I eventually catch a couple of runners a mile or two before the station and we carry on together. One's a guy of my generation, and we chat happily about our injuries for a while like old men do, then down across the main road and a steady walk up the hill. One or two people overtake us but I don't want heavy breathing this early on so we let them go. At the top it's different, this is what I came for and I'm away down at speed and soon on my own again. The midgies are getting uppity around the Victoria Bridge, though walkers that I pass say it was worse earlier this morning. Across Rannoch Moor the sun comes out, the uphills are gentle, and I'm starting to run most of them now. I pass and chat to a number of runners, eventually coming level with a guy who I first noticed before the Bridge of Orchy. It turns out to be Flip, who I know from the WHW forum but have never met before, and we run the second half of the Moor together. On the last uphill we see Murdo, cheering everyone on; running or not, he never seems to miss an event on the WHW, it's people like this who keep you coming back for more. At the crest of the last hill I call Julia to say I'm nearly at the checkpoint, should be there in 15 minutes but I make it in under 10. I'm 17 minutes up on my schedule but as I find out later from John K's usual thorough analysis I'm halfway down the field in 45th place - it seems everyone's going well. But I can't see Julia after checking in; I do a quick trot around the assembled support teams, still no sign, so I call her again. "You're too fast, I'm still running down the road from the Ski carpark!" so I jog up to meet her and we do a quick restock of fuel by the roadside. I've changed to Nuun rather than Succeed Caps for electrolytes in the last few weeks, they seem to work better for me (you don't have to remember to take them!), and I'm doing the whole race on gels, one every half hour.

On past the Kingshouse, up the hill, and I need a comfort stop but can't find any big enough rocks to hide behind so I wander off the track up the hillside for a hundred yards or so to get out of sight. I get a good view of several runners going past below me, so some targets to follow and I'm soon back down again to join them. The Devil's Staircase goes to brisk walking in spite of having to pass a caravan of thirty or so Spanish walkers near the start, I'm feeling a different person from how I was here in June, and then comes the downhill. I've looked forward to being here in good shape for a couple of years at least, and it's great to let go. I'm not really bothered about a time and I don't want to tire myself out but the joy of running down this perfect slope just takes over and I bounce from rock to track and back again loving it. I do look at my watch though and I'm puzzled. I was way early at Glencoe in spite of seeming to go slowly, but I'm only just going to beat my schedule on this section in spite of getting a good lick on. The slight detours to meet Julia and off the track before the Altnafeadh cost me a bit of time, but then I twig the main reason; I've based my schedule on times to the Kingshouse, but the checkpoint is at Blackrock Cottage and they're a mile or so apart - my world makes sense again.

George said last night that when you reach the sharp right-hander over the stone bridge you've just covered a marathon distance from the start; this is my conversation-opener as I catch the runner ahead who I've been tracking for a while. It's WHW Runner Ian and although we've said hello a few times we've never really talked, even though it was his blog that first made me aware of the UK ultra scene (so I guess if it were not for him I wouldn't be writing this...). The track from here to Kinlochleven is easy downhill and mindless so we carry on together. We chat a bit about times for the day, I say I'm looking at eight and a half hours but I think I'll be 15 minutes up at KLL so eight and a quarter looks right. He says get your act together (or words to that effect), you must be able to do the last stretch in under three hours so you should be under eight. Well you don't ignore advice from someone with eight WHW finishes, so eight hours becomes the target, and we look for our respective supporters after checking in.

I think Julia and I are efficient in KLL, a minute or two at most for a new litre of drink in the Camelbak and a handful of gels, but by the time I'm jogging out down the road there's Ian ahead of me again - I suppose that's what years of practice does for you. I walk steadily up the first long hill passing three or four runners, then walk with Tony for a while as we reach the jeep track for the last bit before it levels out. I have a great run from here and am really pleased with my time from Kinlochleven to the end (John K covers the same ground a couple of minutes faster and feels he is going slowly - just depends on where you set your sights I suppose!). The Lairig Mor track stretches away miles to the first crest, I can see many walkers with their waterproofs and huge shrouded rucsacs - by now it's started to drizzle gently, perfect for running - but no runners except one in the far distance, and it takes nearly 30 minutes to catch him. Now there are no runners as far as the eye can see so Angus and I travel on together. I find if you can meet someone going at near the pace you want to do, the time and distance seem to fly by, and in no time we can see the trees at the start of the forest. Angus walks a bit to regroup, and I accelerate into the downhill knowing it's only seven miles or so to the end. I walk a short sharp rise just before Lundavra, and just as I start to run again a voice says "You don't have to run just because I can see you." I look up and it's George, who supports Ian on the WHW, coming in the opposite direction!

On through Lundavra and I walk all the little uphills before and through the forest; after having such a great morning I don't want to spoil it by getting trashed just for the sake of a few extra minutes. The forest is great in daylight, the track wiggling its way through the trees past a hundred sights that you miss in the dark, but I do recognise the uphill zig-zag that marks the start of the last real uphill. The path has been re-routed yet again near the top, and I am aware of another runner ahead for the first time since I left Angus a mile before Lundavra. We burst out into the clearing and the big track to the end, should I take the shortcut to the right, yes, no, oh well past it now anyway, past the other runner who's going OK but a bit slower, now just stretch out, let the speed of the hill take you down. After the big bends I find a runner walking, downhill all the way now I shout so he joins me - I later find out this is Lawrie - and in what seems like no time we are at Braveheart car park. A quick call to Julia and just the road to do.

The finish of this race is great; not stumbling across the car park in the dark to crash through the door, not splashing across the stream to be faced with a final uphill to the line, no this is a true finishing straight, level and fast with the crowd (and there still is one) cheering you to the end. 7 hours 39 and a bit minutes, 23rd place.

Two well-known climbers were a few years ago engaged in a cutting-edge first ascent in the Himalayas. On a particularly trying section, the second man called up to the leader "How's it going, Michael?" to which he received the reply "It will be retrospectively enjoyable, Patrick". I have spent a good few miles in races over the past three or four years experiencing retrospectively enjoyable situations. When you get a run that is just pleasure from start to finish I think you have to treasure it. On Saturday evening back in Tyndrum, Julia felt in need of a bit of exercise before our fish supper at the Real Food Cafe; in the warm gentle rain we jogged down to Auchtertyre and back, just another few miles on this WHW trail which I am learning to know.

Thanks to Garry and his organising team, and to all the people I met along the way, for a great day out.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

The UTMB and me

I first went to Chamonix in 1965, hitch-hiking through France for a month or so in the school holidays when that sort of thing was felt to be an adventure (see view of Midi Cableway Station as it was then!). I didn't renew the acquaintanceship until the mid 70's by which time I had become a climber. With a few gaps I've been back at least once a year since, mountaineering, rock climbing, ski-ing, biking, it's a town that has few equals for that sort of fun. We even considered buying a place there a few years ago but never got around to it and nowadays you need serious money to get in even at the very bottom end. So I sort of feel that I know the place.

The Tour du Mont Blanc is a long distance footpath that circles the Mont Blanc range as closely as possible without having to set foot on any permanent snow or ice, traditionally starting and finishing at Les Houches near Chamonix. It's a classic walk, established and waymarked many years ago and you'll find a couple of guidebooks to it in most outdoor shops. But it somehow didn't really interest me compared with the attractions higher up the mountains until my daughter Julia walked it during her school holidays a few years ago (much to our relief at the time the kids tend not to hitch-hike these days, they go by EasyJet..) She came back and raved about it to the ageing parents "You guys ought to go, you'll really enjoy it", so a year or two later Jan and I packed our rucsacs and went, it took us 11 days for the trip, great weather all the way with a good meal, bottle of wine and a comfy bed every night. But one of the things that made the biggest impression on me during the holiday was that as we were in Chamonix getting ready for the off, we witnessed the finish of the "Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc" race. This was in 2005, not quite the party that it is these days, but to see the runners getting back to town on Sunday morning after covering a route following most of the Tour du Mont Blanc route non-stop was pretty inspiring. Although I had only run my first marathon a year earlier, and had not even heard of the ultra running scene at the time, I had to have a go and when we got home I entered for the 2006 race - in those days entry was a fairly leisurely affair and it took several weeks for the maximum number to be reached.

Now the UTMB is a pretty long and hilly affair, which you can see if you compare its profile to that of the West Highland Way on the same scale (I hadn't heard of the West Highland Way either then so this comparison would have been completely lost on me at the time, but has had a daunting affect since).......

.........but I rationalised that the speed required to complete in the allowed time wasn't too great (just over 2 miles an hour) and I was used to having a couple of days or so in the mountains with almost no sleep. My climbing club did a yearly circuit of the Welsh 3000's as a bit of "Alpine training", and I did a number of similar longish days in the hills before turning up at the start line in Chamonix. Somewhere between arrogant and naive I guess. About 17 hours later I arrived in not quite halfway Courmayeur realising that (a) I wasn't going to go any further that day, and (b) I had an awful lot to learn about this game if I was ever going to complete the event.

So I got into "ultras". I've enjoyed the ride so far, and completed a few now. But the UTMB was always there nagging at me; I entered again in 2008 to feed the rat. This time I knew a few of the competitors and some of us met for a quiet drink in the square a few hours before the start, Mike M, Tomo, Jez, Jim D, Borkur, all looking fit and confident. For me this was going to be different from 2006, I was an ultra-runner now, I'd completed two West Highland Ways, I was going to tick the box, it was just a question of what time I would get around in. The payback for this hubris came at about 2pm the following day in 30 degree heat just short of the Bertoni hut, still not half way in terms of effort required. I ground to a halt, overheated, dehydrated, under-fuelled, finished. I called Jan to tell her I was pulling out, "and" I said, "if I ever say I'm going to try this again, stop me." But we've all been down that road, memory of discomfort fades quickly, a DNF can only be partly filed away, unfinished business demanding later resolution. So I'm back this year.

What have I learned, what's different? Well although its rather obvious it's easy to forget that to crack the UTMB you have to climb a lot of big hills, so training only on runnable trails isn't going to pay off unless you're exceptionally talented. So I've put in the miles this year but also walked a lot of ascent, about 200,000 feet since January, I hope it's enough, but it's taken time. I talked to Hugh after the Wuthering Hike, he completed the UTMB last year but wouldn't go again for a while "too much time commitment for training", I know what he means. Secondly, I will approach the event with determination but a lot more humility - 45 hours plus will do fine (the cut-off is 46); in particular I think in this event more than most the average performer needs to start slowly or the climbs just kill you off early on, I'll try to stay just ahead of the cut-offs until at least half way. Finally, although I've read of people doing this with minimal food, I'm sure to give yourself a chance you have to stay focussed enough to keep the food and drink going in, and not get distracted by times, other people, or other stuff going on. So that's my this space.

I'm off to Scotland tomorrow night for Saturday's "Devil of the Highlands" run (Tyndrum to Fort William, 42 miles), which will be my last long outing before the UTMB three weeks later. After that I'm telling myself to take it fairly easy for three weeks, should be enough miles in the bank by now, just try to stay uninjured and avoid the swine flu!

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Bob Graham and New Tricks

I've been walking up a lot of hills recently as training for my latest attempt on the UTMB at the end of August, because the UTMB is mostly walking up hills and I don't expect to run much of it. To make a change from my local Welsh peaks I've been taking the extra hour and going up to the Lakes more often, using the Bob Graham Round route as the basis for some good days out. In 1932 Bob Graham covered his circuit of 42 summits (he was 42 years old at the time) starting and finishing at Keswick in just under 24 hours. Since then around 1500 runners have repeated his trip "officially" (recording and validating their times at each top, and joining the Bob Graham Club) and an unknown number unofficially, just doing it for their own satisfaction. The actual distance and ascent is the subject of some debate, and ultimately depends on the exact route you take to join up the summits, but it's somewhere between 60 and 70 miles and around 27,000 feet of up; it can be done clockwise or anti-clockwise, each direction having its fans. I once thought I might have a go, but after trying one or two sections I became convinced I couldn't do it.

For the non-superhuman of us, and assuming the normal objective stuff like maximum daylight and good enough weather, getting around the BG requires three qualities:
1. To be able to do the climbs - this is just about getting fit and getting the miles in.
2. To know the route. Some is on conventional paths, but a lot of the ground is generally covered only by runners engaged in this particular project, so learning the best "lines" is crucial - again this is just practice.
3. To be able to descend rapidly, even when tired, over a lot of steep and virtually trackless ground, rocky ridges, boulders, scree, steep grass, deep heather, you get the picture. This was where my problem came.

When I was a young (and maybe not so young) mountaineer I used to pride myself on my confidence and lightness of step, getting down things fast was not a problem. Then a bad ski-ing crash 15 years ago left me with a pathological fear of breakable crust and a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament in my right knee. The surgeon who cleaned up the resulting cartilage damage explained that ligaments are tricky things to fix, and if I was a fifty grand a week footballer he would probably have a go but as I wasn't he wouldn't. I should be able to work on the muscles to compensate for most of the loss of stability, and I should try and prevent any unexpected over-rotation. So I wear a hinged brace for ski-ing, but it's too cumbersome for general mountaineering and running. In the early days I had one or two "unexpected over-rotations" which resulted in quite a lot of ouch and several weeks of not doing very much afterwards. Since then I've been more careful, much more tentative going downhill.

I couldn't make the Bob Graham descent times; Blencathra to Threlkeld should take 30 minutes, I was nearly 45, Seat Sandal to Dunmail should be 15, I couldn't break 25, and so on. So I accepted the inevitable and contented myself with using the BG as a nice route to walk and train on.

Then a couple of weeks ago I parked in Langdale at around 10am with the intention of exploring some of the Wasdale to Dunmail section. The day intially looked good, but by the time I reached Sty Head on the way over to Wasdale, the mist had come down to around 2000 feet or less. I didn't want to slow down navigating over Sca Fell, so I went up the good track to Great Gable and back, hoping it might clear. It didn't, so still without any fixed plans I followed the Corridor up to Scafell Pike and then the main path back towards Langdale. Shortly before Esk Hause a young lady came running towards me out of the mist at a fair pace. Had she come from Great End, I asked. Yes. Was she on a bearing, or did she know the ground? She knew the ground, why, was I on a Bob Graham recce? Sort of, I said. Well, I'm doing a solo Round today, she said. Did she know a good way from Bowfell to Rossett Gill, and if so could I tag along for a bit? No problem; she seemed glad of the company, she'd been on her own since leaving Keswick at 3.30am.

Her pace up Esk Pike was slower than I expected. No problem, she said, this is a good pace for the Round. Down the other side was a different story, and I had to work to keep up. I was starting to get a bit concerned about the Bowfell descent but I couldn't back out gracefully now. We boulder hopped up Bowfell then back down to the col; she went a short distance further then plunged over the edge, I clung on about 10 feet behind her trainers (we were both wearing road shoes, agreeing later that the comfort was worth it) as we crashed down steep grass, rocky outcrops and odd bits of scree. By not having to think about the route, I could keep up. Brilliant I said as we hit the flat ground at the bottom. I know a good line on the next bit too she said, are you coming? The day was looking up now, sun starting to break through and I was enjoying the ride, so I carried on. Over the long wet moor to the Langdale Pikes we went, the high plateau from Thunacar Knott to High Raise and Sergeant Man, then gradually down with only bits of track here and there over Calf Crag to Steel Fell and Dunmail Raise. I paced the ups at the speeds she wanted, and she showed me the way over the trackless bits and led the downs, on which I was surprisingly getting more and more comfortable and having more fun - I had no choice on the pace here, I just had to go. We chatted about the solo Round. Well you don't go on the official list she said, but you know you've done it and that's the important bit, quite a few people do it this way nowadays, less hassle to fix up, less guilt if you decide it's not your day. She had arranged to meet a friend for the last section so she wouldn't have to do it alone, at the end of a long day and in the dark.

She had a bag stashed with food and dry shoes at Dunmail. Sure you're not tempted to carry on, it's a nice evening now? But I had promises to keep, so I left her still on schedule to tackle the bracken slope of Seat Sandal while I trotted off down the road to a pint at the Travellers Rest then the last few miles back to my car.

I took stock as I jogged the last bit. My Garmin showed 30 miles and the best part of 10,000 feet, but more importantly I had somehow rediscovered some confidence in going downhill like you should. I'd taken a quick look at my watch before we started the last steep descent off Steel Fell to Dunmail; just over 10 minutes to the road, the BG schedule says 12. Maybe I will have a go next year after all............maybe.