Sunday, 28 March 2010

Back to Basics

I got back home at about 2.30am this morning after nearly a week cut off from cyberspace, so it was good to spend a leisurely hour later in the day catching up with the Ultra world. The official results from the Hardmoors 55 were out on the website, I was pleased to find that I had indeed squeezed under the 12 hours by 8 minutes. The results told an interesting little story, of the 42 finishers well over half finished in the same time as one or more other runners - when times get tough we stick together. Thanks for the kind comments on my last post, I enjoyed reading everyone else's take on the day too, I don't think we will forget it in a hurry. My final reflection is what a superb job Jon Steele and his team did in not only organising and crewing such a great experience for us in what must have been very trying conditions for them, but also making sure late into the night that everyone got back safely. Can't thank them enough, and it seems an especially cruel reward for Jon that he crashed his car avoiding a deer in the early hours of Sunday morning. I'm sure we'll all be back next year to help establish this run as the classic it deserves to be.

It seemed a bit unreal a couple of days after the fog and rain of Yorkshire to be skinning up from the Col du Lauteret towards an outlying peak of the Meije under a perfect blue sky, trying to get back into the zen-like rhythm that ski-tourers and maybe UTMB runners will understand, the steady upward movement with a minimum of effort and disengaged mind, letting the surroundings drift by for some hours until the top is reached and you can click back into the world ready for the adrenaline rush to come. The whole week wasn't perfect of course, we had our share of descending cautiously into unknown valleys in fog and trepidation, but also our share of swooping our tracks into virgin powder slopes, playing in the snow like teenagers. But that's done for this year now, skis and all the other ironmongery back in the loft for the summer and the clocks have gone forward.

This afternoon I went for a run, my first since the Hardmoors, just about four miles around the block. I staggered out like a little old man it all felt so unfamiliar, but by the time I was back I was running again, well as close to running as I ever get, and it felt good. I'm looking forward to the summer, a race every month now starting with the Highland Fling in April, no need for any more long lonely training outings, just keep ticking over between the events, some time in the hills to prepare for the sterner tests from May onwards. Life seems pretty simple, we should appreciate it when we have the chance to pursue this very basic but enthralling pastime of ours.

Lest you think I'm getting over lyrical I'll just close with a word on a highly technical piece of running equipment that I've discovered. In the cold of the winter, getting frustrated with not finding suitable headgear for the conditions, I started running in my flat cap. Now this may make you look like a used car salesman on his day off but the peak keeps the rain out of your eyes, it has a much lower tendency to be lifted off by the wind than a baseball cap, and the warmth can be appreciated by those of us no longer quite as hirsute as we once were. I'm on the lookout for a lighter weight model for the summer. I even got one or two flattering comments when I brought this development out of the training closet to tackle the rain and wind of the Yorkshire moors last weekend. The weary passport official was less impressed when I returned late in the evening from a trip earlier this month. "Very French" he observed, "now take it off so that I can see your face."

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Hard across the Moors

On Friday the 19th or Sunday the 21st it would have been a cruise, but Jon being the man of Steele that he is had elected to organise his Hardmoors 55 on Saturday the 20th, to coincide with the band of low cloud, persistent rain and chill winds that settled over the North York Moors for the day. I arrived at the Premier Inn in Guisborough on Friday evening to find John K, Sharon, Tim and Brian Mc already in residence; the real runners soon went off for an early night leaving Tim and me with our beers contemplating a gloomy forecast.

The course covers the first half of the Cleveland Way, the second oldest long distance footpath in Britain, from Helmsley in the West to Guisborough at (almost) the coast, following the northern escarpment of the moors plateau for most of its length.  The word is that there are stunning views throughout but after yesterday I can only claim personal acquaintance with a very small sample of them. The civilised start time of 8am was a bit dampened (yes I think that is the right word) by the need to get the bus from Guisborough to the start at 5.15am, but we couldn't hear any hammering on the roof and even by the time Jon was giving his final briefing at the start line the rain might have been described as "soft" rather than torrential, so I hoped we might somehow have got away with it.

So off we go and I can't get enough steam up to get involved in the 8 minute miling that seems to characterise the mass start of most ultras, so by the time we reach the first gate I'm in the last two or three, just ahead of the sweeper. I settle into a comfortable 10 minute mile pace over this early mostly flat stage and gradually start to overtake a few people. I have no fixed plan for timing but think that I should be able to do around 12 hours; I won't be distressed if it takes longer but I don't want to do too much in the dark after a day in the rain. The temperature is fine and the continuous but gentle drizzle seems almost pleasant.  Three or four miles before the first checkpoint at Sutton Bank I catch up with Shirley who I've known since my first West Highland Way venture in 2007, and we go on together to the checkpoint. This is home ground for her so I don't have to think about navigation at all, follow the local expert, she points out the top of the white horse cut into the slope, hardly recognisable from above.  The course doubles back from the checkpoint and we pass Ritchie coming in the opposite direction, looking cool as ever and full of running; as we pass he's just covered 10 miles in the time Shirley and I have taken to run 8 -  he storms on to another podium finish. I tackle the climb back up to the escarpment alone and then catch up with Adrian, another veteran runner who beat me to the "over-60's" prize in last year's Highland Fling. He will go on to beat me again today by ten minutes or so, but I'm getting closer! We run and chat together for five miles or so, then I stop to walk for some food and he doesn't.

The first major stop is at Osmotherley 22 miles in, and in the final five miles the whole tenor of the race changes for me. I'm running alone across wet open moorland, the visibility is down to a hundred yards or so, the rain, still continuous, is now much heavier and the wind is noticeably fiercer. I'm getting cold, I stop to check the map a couple of times which gets it and me wetter and colder. Down off the moor the visibility improves but I'm now on sloping muddy fields where my trainers can't grip at all and I slide for a mile down to the road into Osmotherley not really generating any warmth. The inside checkpoint is the focus of my attention. I had planned to be here in under four hours, it's going to be five or ten minutes over but I'm not concerned about that just now, I just want to get warm.

Going into the warm hall is wonderful, and the hot tea provided by Mrs Mac even better. I sit down and prepare for how I now realise the day is going to work out. Wet vest off to be replaced with a dry one, lightweight fleece and waterproof on top, waterproof socks on feet - if you're going to get wet, you might as well be warm and wet.  The readjustment has taken a while but I'm much happier as I hit the trail again. I've sort of resolved to run with someone from here on unless conditions improve, and going out of Osmotherley I pick up with Andy from Cirencester; we travel together to the second major stop at Kildale twenty miles further on. The first few ups and downs out of Osmotherley are innocuous enough, muddy tracks through forests and fields, but then we hit the rollercoaster of moorland ups and downs generally felt to be the toughest part of the Cleveland Way. Beautifully laid stone tracks for the most part, occasionally disappearing into misty boggy wasteland, we walk the steep ups and jog the rest. Getting a map out is almost too hard to contemplate so we rely mainly on the trail "acorn" signs when we can find them, and Andy has a GPS which is invaluable on one or two occasions. I get a phone message from Mike M marshalling at Kildale telling me how nice and warm it is in his checkpoint; he always manages to find me at low points, I'm flogging up a steep hill and he knows it's going to be some hours before I get to him - I switch the phone off! A wrapped up walker appears in the opposite direction and I'm shocked out of some sort of reverie when he says "Hi Andy" - it's Pirate Dave devoting his day to marshalling duties. We pass another lone walker - "How far to Wainstones?" we ask - "Up, down, up" is his unexpected but completely accurate and helpful reply. A marshal in a tent is right on the top to get our numbers - the marshals, always dedicated in ultra races, are really excelling themselves today in putting up with the conditions.

After Wainstones the undulations finally relent a bit, but we now have the highest and bleakest bit of the moor to cross to Kildale. In a strange sort of way I'm enjoying this now, can't get any wetter, religiously putting some more fuel in every 45 minutes, not going too fast for it to hurt. We come across another marshal in maybe the loneliest spot of all at Bloworth Crossing; he pokes his head out of his tent to take numbers but also offers us flapjack, what a hero. I mention him to Jon later in the evening, don't worry says Jon he's ex SAS, he likes those sort of places. Nice to know you're being looked after! We manage to run quite steadily from here to Kildale, the only sad part is what looks to be a lump of dirty white snow in the middle of the road turns out to be a dead lamb. I'm feeling much better going into Kildale than I was at Osmotherley so I tell Andy I'm getting in and out as quick as I can, he's going to stay a bit longer. We've pushed on to make the checkpoint in 9 hours, again we're a bit over but I think if I can hold it together until the end then 12 hours is still on. So after a quick cup of tea and a bit of banter with Mike I'm ready for off, and so is Steve W who came in a bit earlier, better still he did the whole Hardmoors 110 last year so he knows the way.

12 miles to go and two and three quarter hours to get under 12. A couple of steep climbs then the woods in the dark, but it should still be on.  As we climb the hill out of Kildale we notice a strange change in our environment - it's stopped raining, and as we break out of the forest to Captain Cook's monument we can see that the sky is clearing. John K will be taking photos here I say to Steve, don't know how he does it, takes me all my efforts to get round the course without these extra-curricular activities. Then we're soon looking at the last bit of hard work for the day, the excursion out to Roseberry Topping. Steve sets a fine pace up the staircase and I concentrate on his heels and hang in. We thank the two young marshals on top for their efforts today, and take in for a few seconds what is now a wonderful view out across the plain in the fading light. Then it's down again and my turn to lead the staircase back up from the col. A bit more moor then we're up the boggy track leading to Guisborough woods, finally accepting that trying to avoid mud and water of any depth is by now a pointless exercise. We can't see where we're putting our feet any longer, so the lights go on. We see another light ahead, maybe it's a runner, but it turns out to be the marshal just before the woods - "number 3 and 24" - it only needs one of us to check in by now. Steve knows most of the turns, and Jon has marked the tricky ones so we're making good progress, then it's down the last hill, check in with the Pirate as we hit the disused railway line, just over a mile to go guys he says. 

I've switched off now, think I'm home, so this last mile hurts more than it should, but we're both keen to press on, probably hitting 9 minute miles for the first time in the race, not bothering to look at watches in the dark, what will be will be. There's the road underneath, where's the path, where is it? Then the orange tape, down the steps, across the field and there's the cricket pavilion at the finish. Whats the time? Both our watches have run out of battery, the lady marshal noting the time says its just 8pm - relief, we started two or three minutes late so we'll be just under the twelve, magic.

Upstairs into the warm to watch the prizegiving and find out some of the stories of the day. Stuart Mills has won in just under 9 hours, an hour longer than I would have guessed for a winning time, must have been tough for everyone. John K's made it home, 10 or 15 minutes ahead of me, Adrian was with him at the finish. Some of the others had a hard time, Sharon, Brian, and Tim all deciding to stop and stay alive when being overtaken by exposure and hypothermia in the gruelling middle section. About 45 minutes after I finished I wandered downstairs to get changed and Shirley came in, tired but happy, a hug as she walked through the door. When I got to my car just down the road, I had to scrape ice from the windscreen, it had just been that sort of a day. Back at the Hotel the beer and chips went down just fine, topped off with John's birthday cake - what a way to spend a birthday.

The organisation of the event by Jon and his team was superb throughout, even more so in the prevailing conditions. I'll have to go back next year now to see where I was running, the weather can't be any worse.........can it?

I'm off for a week's ski-touring tomorrow morning - hope the Ecrins has better weather than Yorkshire.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Snow, Spain and Spring

Now don't get me wrong, I like snow and cold weather. I've still got two ski trips planned for this year and I've spent more than my fair share of time wielding ice axe and crampons, but every time I've been out for a run since mid December it's meant wrapping up warm and pulling on the woolly hat and gloves, and the novelty is wearing off. I want to run in the warm again. So after we left home in sub-zero temperatures last Thursday morning to find ourselves four or five hours later eating lunch al fresco under a blue sky watching the boats bob gently up and down in Barcelona harbour, things were definitely looking up.

We spent Friday and Saturday doing the tourist bit with the Picassos, Miros and Gaudis, and put on a pound or two enjoying the wide variety of food and drink that this lovely city has to offer. Late one afternoon we drifted into the Marathon Expo where Jan picked up leaflets selling Brussels in the autumn and Vienna next spring. That's the way it goes you see, I don't get a lot of choice these days, it's a tough life. But there was still a race to be run, or sort of run.............I'm content that my marathon PB stays in the past and I don't run much on the roads these days but I find these big city adventures still have an irresistible charm as a great morning's running, so getting round in good shape without too much stress is the game for me now.

The organisation was efficient but pretty laid back, I turned up at the start area about a half an hour before go to find no-one in the start pens as yet. I went for a wander around then queued for the loo, to find that by the time I got out the gun had gone leaving me very near the back of the 10,000+ field. But who cares, I was here for fun, it was a great morning for running, dry and just the right temperature and everyone around was friendly. The route takes in all the major sights of the city, first going out to the Nou Camp stadium, a poignant one this, I've been a Liverpool supporter since first turning up in the city to start work on a PhD forty years ago, but it looks like it's going to be quite a while before the team gets to places like the Nou Camp again. After that, back to the Placa Espana near the start, along to the Sagrada Familia, out to the east of the city and back along the sea front, finally finishing down the Ramblas to the Columbus Statue and back to the finish in the start area. Lovely streets, easy under foot, hardly any hills, good crowd support, what more could one want.

I threaded gradually through the field at an easy pace, keeping to my now regular marathon tactic of not looking at the watch until half way, which I sidled through in a few minutes under two hours. Come on now, I know this is for fun but it ought at least to be a good training run, so I got my finger out a bit over the second half to finish in an unremarkable but satisfying 3 hours 37 minutes.

After four days of good weather, later on Sunday afternoon it started to rain. Of course it didn't deter us from the post race celebratory night out, but it was still raining the following morning. No problem as most women will tell you, when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping, Jan knew where to go. Breaking through into daylight at lunchtime we were aware that the rain had turned to sleet, and then snow. By early afternoon the streets of this normally sunny city were covered in a couple of inches of damp slush. The urban transport system must leak a bit because the normal fifty minute ride out to the airport took over two hours. It seemed fitting that when we landed back at Liverpool the temperature was about minus two, pretty well exactly what it had been when we left nearly five days earlier.

On Tuesday I made my weekly trip over to Sheffield to see my mum. On descending the Snake Pass I was aware that although the upper reaches of the Ladybower reservoir were still covered in thickish grey ice, the sky was blue, the sun dazzling, and the outside temperature in double figures. Maybe Spring is after all just around the corner.