Sunday, 18 December 2011

Christmas Cracker

The "Tour de Helvellyn en Hiver" is a brilliant event. Low key almost to the extreme, it is organised by a very able and enthusiastic crowd led by Joe Faulkner and based in Askham in the North East corner of the Lake District. There are no dire warnings, no pre-race briefings, just an understanding that whatever Cumbria chooses to provide in the way of weather on the shortest Saturday of the year, the race will not be called off so just make sure you're up for it. In Joe's words in the single email you receive when you've asked to be let in, "now let's be safe but have some fun".

I entered the inaugural running last year but failed to make the start line, grinding to a halt on the M6 somewhere north of Preston behind several hundred trucks stuck in the snow. This year the weather was marginally better as I left home just after 5am; I was treated to continuous icy rain for most of the journey which had reduced to a chilly "is this rain or snow?" drizzle by the time I got to Askham Village Hall just after 7am. Welcoming hot tea put a better face on things and there were a few familiar faces - Jon Steele, Nick Ham, and to my surprise that pillar of the West Highland Way and Scottish Athletics, Adrian Stott, slotting in a run during his journey home from Cornwall to Edinburgh, as you do I suppose.

The course itself describes a 38 mile "lollipop" shape, taking runners across the moor (Askham Fell)  from Askham to Howtown, then up Boredale to Boredale Hause and down to Patterdale. From here, you go over Sticks Pass to the northern end of Thirlmere, along the hillside above the lake to Dunmail Raise then back over to Patterdale via Grisedale Tarn, from where you retrace your earlier steps back to Askam.  There are half a dozen or so checkpoints, some of which are manned and some self-clips; the event is run as a sort of loose time trial  - you can start at any time between 7 and 9am, but the checkpoint in Patterdale at 10 miles doesn't open until 10am and the maximum time allowed for the trip is 12 hours.

I had decided I was going to have a comfortable day. Warm walking trousers instead of running tights, a fleece under the jacket right from the start and plenty of food. I wasn't going to be fast but would be happy to get round, near the back of the field but quick enough not to get concerned about the cutoffs. I had intended to start at 7.30 but there was a bit of a queue to pick up numbers and tallies so it was just after 7.45 when I stumbled out of the hall with Adrian, to find it just about light enough to do without a torch and that the precipitation had for the time being stopped. We slid off down the icy streets of Askham then up onto the moor.

First few miles across Askham Fell

Spits of showers were coming and going, the ground underfoot was a mixture of ice, snow and bog, but it was good to be out in the hills and I made steady progress across to Howtown, always in sight of other runners as about 100 of us would set out during the two hour start window.  Three of us arrived together at the first checkpoint at Martindale Church, spotted the clipper, and after a bit of a struggle because it was on a very short cord, clipped our tallies. We then carried on round the church to find on the other side a marshal and a completely different clip - the one we had used was an old one, could have been there since last year!

On the first real climb over Boredale Hause to Patterdale the weather seemed to be improving, though the steepish descent was quite slippery. I had brought Yaktrax and had them on and off during the day, but the regulars knew that the proper footwear for the event was fell shoes. I saw the stud marks everywhere. I felt a bit like a foreigner driving in the Alps, stopping for chains on and off all the time while the locals cruise by with their snow tyres.

In Patterdale I made a rather embarrassing mistake. I hadn't bothered to look at the map, I just knew I would turn left at the bridge and follow the stream. Two other runners did the same. After a while it was clear that we weren't seeing what we were expecting. A too late look at the map revealed that I had come up Grisedale rather than Glenridding. In an event whose only real instructions were  that you had to be able to navigate competently over open fells in winter conditions, I had managed to take the wrong road out of a village up completely the wrong valley. Such is life occasionally. It may have cost twenty minutes or so, and pushed the total distance closer to a nice round 40 miles but it wasn't going to spoil my day. I retreated chastened and got back on track, going up what was now a rather gloomy looking Glenridding.

Up into Glenridding
Beyond the Youth Hostel the track rises steeply for a while, and as these Eastern valleys of the Helvellyn range hold any snow that's going, it was soon getting deep. Skiers were making their way up the track too, and going off the side into the soft stuff to get past them was quite hard work. A runner came past me at a cracking pace, really impressive in the conditions. I didn't see many of the fast guys go past, I suspect a lot of that happened while I was making my little diversion. The next checkpoint was at the footbridge over Swart Beck, and when I got there I was amazed to find a marshal - what a hero!

Marshal at Swart Beck footbridge
I asked him how much longer he expected to be there and he said there were about 15 people behind me. We chatted a minute or two and he offered to take a photo - I don't get many photos of me so I took up his offer.

I had thrown the goggles into my bag almost as an afterthought, but they were really helpful over the next stretch over Sticks Pass.  The visibility deteriorated quite quickly and the wind was blowing around both the odd snow shower and already fallen snow, although with quite a few people having been through before me it wasn't too difficult to pick out the track. Higher up as the pass started to plateau out the wind was covering the tracks rather more and we were approaching near whiteout. I hadn't seen any other runners since just above the Youth Hostel, so it was quite comforting in  this white wilderness to catch up with a group of three just before the top of the pass. Up here it was quite eerie to hear a dog barking quite nearby but out of sight, until we were met by a couple of walkers following the Helvellyn ridge; they wandered off to the left and were quickly out of sight again.

Near whiteout on Sticks Pass
Once we were heading down the going became very easy in the softish snow, a gentle trundle allowing us to keep up quite a good pace. We popped out of the mist a few hundred feet above the next checkpoint at Stanah Gill footbridge directly below us. No marshal here but below the main snowline and the clip easy to find, I let the others get ahead again as I stopped to find some more food out of my bag - I definitely wasn't going hungry on this trip.
Approaching Swirls checkpoint
A fairly horizontal track just above the fell wall seemed to lead in no time to the next checkpoint at Swirls car park just above the northern end of Thirlmere, this one complete with marshal in Santa outfit offering......... mince pies! Never had one of these on an ultra before, must remember that they do go down well. From here to Dunmail raise the route follows a broad forest track above the lake. On the map it looked fairly flat, but it turned out to have a number of quite testing rises. Apart from these it was all runnable so I felt I should probably get a bit of time in hand while the going was easy. Along here I caught up with Tony, a local from near Askham, and who I was really encouraged to find out was about five years older than me - there's clearly some hope for the future! He and I passed and repassed each other, then eventually I ran with him to the finish. We found the next unmanned clip at Homesdale Green Bridge, then after a short distance headed back up towards the snow, climbing alongside Raise Beck up to Grisedale Tarn. The northwest wind was still quite keen but the movement kept us warm enough.
Up Raise beck towards Grisedale Tarn
I found the short stretch contouring the hillside above Grisedale Tarn to be the most trying ground on the whole trip  - fairly deep soft snow over occasionally very deep soft bog, a couple of above the knee incursions couldn't be avoided. On the plus side it was quite dramatically beautiful up there as visibility had improved and the clouds were lifting and parting. I was disappointed not to get a photo but I had been carrying my camera in a waist pocket and the battery was having a hard time in the cold.

The descent of Grisedale was tricky at first, slippery snow over a rocky track, but soon eased and I was able to run the last couple of miles down to the main road in Patterdale, and from there round to the checkpoint. By now the clouds had almost gone and it was shaping up to be a beautiful clear evening
Down Grisedale in improving weather
Another welcome surprise at the checkpoint, they were offering hot drinks so a big cup of tea just couldn't be refused. Joe himself was at the checkpoint and I told him I'd had a great day out. It's not quite over yet he remarked, ah yes, just the stumbling around in the dark to get home I agreed.
Tea at Patterdale
10 miles to go. The climb back up to Boredale Hause was steep enough but the last real uphill. Near the top I met up again with Tony and two of his friends also running, another Tony and Claire. Once off the first rocky bit we picked up a bit of speed and jogged most of the way to the final checkpoint back at Martindale church. There was probably some mild game of chicken in play, as lights didn't go on until we needed them to find the clip. The compensation for this was that we had a great view of the now completely cloudless starry night.

The steady pull up from Howtown to the top of the moor could have been tedious, but with people to chat to now and then it passed quickly enough. I had it solidly covered in my GPS as on the face of it it's pretty featureless territory, but my local companions seemed to know every path junction like it was the end of their street; I was definitely getting a free ride. Along the top of the moor both in front and behind you could see spaced sequences of headlights; it felt like we were coming into Heathrow.  But we're not on the final approach yet said Tony, more like just past the outer beacon. Then the ground angle changed and we really were on the final approach, wonderfully easy running all the way down to the finish, bright lights, dry clothes and hot soup. All that remained was to spend 10 minutes de-icing the car for the drive back to Chester.

I finished in just over 11 hours. Quite near the back but that was the plan. Apart from my senior moment in Patterdale in the morning, I had negotiated the course competently enough, met some nice people along the way, and had an enjoyable and very satisfying day out. An early Christmas present.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

To get better times you have to run faster.....

Simples. But interesting how we can deny the obvious if it appears that tiny bit unpalatable.

I've been running ultras for the best part of five years now, and although I look forward to, enjoy, and have fond memories of each race, I started to wonder a bit about what comes next. Apart from my particular bete noir the UTMB, I can do the races. Doing them again is fun, but the challenge isn't quite the same. So, I decided, before I really get too old and decrepit for this game, what's to lose, I should have a go at doing some of them a bit faster. And rather than bumbling on in my own disorganised way I would get a bit of properly informed advice.

So I got myself along to one of these breathe in the bag and run until you drop test sessions, to be specific at the sports clinic run by Marc Laithwaite the Lakeland 100 RD, which is in St Helens quite near me. If you've done one of these you'll know the score, in case you haven't this is the process. You do a test on a treadmill while wearing a mask so that the volume and composition of your exaust breaths can be measured, from which a fair bit of analysis of your abilities can be made.

So I explain what my objectives are and we start with a warm up jog. Now I've got a low resting heart rate, in the 30's on waking stabilising to low 40's later in the day. I can't claim any particular achievement here, it's hereditary I think.  And I've self-tested my maximum heart rate a few weeks ago at around 158, not impressive but I'm not really in the first flush of youth and it's not far off the 220 minus your age approximation. So I jog along really not warming much up at all, so the speed is increased a bit and I manage to break into a bit of a sweat, and we carry on for 5 minutes or so.

Then come a few minutes rest and the real business begins. Every minute, the treadmill speed increases until we're at 15 kph.Then the speed stays the same but every minute the angle of the treadmill increases. Only it doesn't, because after the second increase my HR is at 162 and I'm done, game over. From jogging to exhaustion in no time at all, something of a disappointment really. My tester Angela plugs the figures into the computer and we try to make something of the results. Some peripherally interesting stuff here and there but the basic conclusion is clear - I'm good at running very slowly. My aerobic efficiency is, well, deficient. The problem is, she says, that how well you can perform over 10k or even shorter distances will have a direct effect on how well you do over 100 miles. So it's not speed versus endurance, it's speed and endurance that gets you there.

I go home, have a think, then dig out the records of my training runs for the first three quarters of this year. They look like this:

                    Miles Jan-Mar       Miles Apr-Jun         Miles Jul-Sep
Pace                 T      M                T      M                 T       M  
7 -8                118      6.5             51      7.2              18       4.6
8-9                 112      6.2           148      9.2             132      6.9
 9+                 395    16.0           404     20.2            425    26.5

Pace is in minutes per mile. I don't run faster than 7 minute miles.
T is the total mileage at that pace for the quarter. M is the mean length of run.

This stuff backs up the test result of course, and I guess deep down I know it already. I enjoy long slow runs in the country and on the hills. If I feel tired I slow down, running is for fun, right.

After this Marc and Angela work out an initial 16 week programme for me to follow. To begin with, it's a lot of short and fast. Outings lasting longer than an hour only allowed once in two weeks. Concentrate on flat courses to keep heart rate steady. But I did get started. Everything hurt. 4 minute intervals, 30 minute tempo runs, lamp-post sprints, every session left me knackered, and all for a total of around 25 miles a week.

But I've just had a break, a week's paid work in Chicago couldn't be turned down, and in some strange way I've missed it, sort of like a bit of unpleasant medicine, must be doing you good. I'm rather looking forward to that next feeling of "but it can't still be another minute until I can slow down.....".

Will it work? Who knows? At least the winter will feel a bit different this year.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Brecon Beacons Ultra

I had never been to the Brecon Beacons so I decided the 45 mile Likeys Beacons Ultra was a good opportunity to rectify this, especially as it is run in November when not a lot else is happening. I must have got lucky when I found the website because I don't remember rushing but apparently the event was full within a few days of entries opening back in May. Popularity augurs well for quality so I was looking forward to it. By the time it came round though I had had a month of near inactivity trying to see off an Achilles niggle which had left me minus a lot of miles and plus half a stone in weight. No matter, my head is always convinced I can crank out a 50 miler whatever the circumstances so until the body lets it down I'm happy to go with that; I would just have to take it fairly gently. I had been doing some contracting work all week but sneaked off at 3pm on Friday to drive the hundred miles or so of wiggly roads from Chester to Brecon.

It's a bit strange in the hall on Saturday morning. I've got used to seeing at least a few familiar faces at the start of events but this time I don't know anyone. A guy called Paul recognises me from reading the blog, we commiserate, he had to pull out of the UTMB this year as well, then it's soon around 7.15 and time for the race briefing. Race director Martin tells us "not to fall in the canal" and if we do to "get straight out again" - British Waterways rules, apparently - then we wander out to the start and at 7.30 prompt, 144 of us trundle off down the towpath. The weather is dry and quite mild but still quite Novemberish because the hill fog above the 300 metre level has shown up as forecast. The route crosses the Beacons ridge twice and I guess for this reason it's a "full bag" event  - compulsory equipment of full waterproofs, fleece top, woolly hat and gloves, survival bag, etc, etc, and all food for the trip. Even though it is a two lap race, passing within 50 yards of the start/finish at half way, you're not allowed to pick up or drop off anything from start to finish. Water is available at checkpoints about every 7 or 8 miles which means a 500ml bottle is all you need, but even so with the bag and my additional new ballast I don't feel very sprightly as we set out.

The first three miles are along the canal towpath, then the route swings off right through woods, a couple of fields, then open hillside to the first climb up Tor y Foel, 1200ft of ascent in 2 miles. Of the 5700ft in total on the course, the two ascents of this first hill are the only real full on climbs. I'm sure the boys at the front run up it but all the field that I can see, in front or behind, has settled for a steady walk. Not that I can see all that far because by now we're getting up into the fog. A brief video of the event here gives a bit of the atmosphere of the day. If you don't blink you'll see me towards the end of the clip, recognisable as easily the slowest runner featured (or by way of my usual headgear).

The descent from Tor y Foel is great, grassy and a perfect angle for just letting go, then a mile or so of easy track and we're at the first checkpoint. There was a warning of a rocky descent from here but it turns out to be just an easy angled stony track, good ground for the Hokas which I've been using since late spring this year. Then comes around 5 or 6 miles of gentle ascent, first along forestry tracks and then an ancient bridleway across open hillside to the high point of the course, the col between Cribyn and Fan y Big. This probably has a proper Welsh name as do most significant "bwlchs" but seems to be known generally just as "The Gap". In the mist, right on the crest, is a small tent with a couple of marshals outside. These guys always deserve more than a word or two of thanks, they were probably going to be there from around 9am to 7pm, what a way to spend your Saturday!

The easy angled but stony track continues down the other side, and I'm cruising down with thoughts miles away when I manage to trip on a loose stone and measure my length. A quick count to ten then start moving things and assess damage - a bloody hand, flow easily staunched by a quick wrap of the faithful WHW buff, nothing broken, adrenalin masking the rest for now, no doubt there will be some bruising and stiffness to come but off we go again. Luckily the field has thinned out enough for no-one to be aware of my moment of incompetence.

Down out of the mist and the next checkpoint soon appears, on the border between hillside and pastoral farmland. A narrow stony track, hemmed in by hedges both sides, then out into fields and country lanes. I catch up with one or two other runners around this time, and chat with a lady who I later find out was Mimi Anderson (check out her CV!), should have twigged when we were talking about shoes and she said she was sponsored by Hoka, but I'm not very good at that sort of thing. Still with company, now a guy from Manchester, we reach the canal again with two miles along it to the start of the second lap.

I was never quite sure about doing a two-lap race, I sort of like to feel my events are journeys rather than performances in an arena, but I'm feeling OK and I know now what's to come, so it doesn't seem too bad. One thing that does leave an impression though is the canal, five miles at the junction of laps 1 and 2 and more than enough for me. No view except trees, no change of angle, in fact no real change in anything - note to self, never do a canal race.

Lap two takes me nearly an hour longer than lap one. The hills are bigger, the distances in between longer, and I run nearly all of it without seeing any other runners, but the checkpoint crews are as enthusiastic and welcoming as ever. As I descend from the Gap for the second time (carefully to avoid a second ground excursion) the mist clears momentarily ahead and I can see a small piece of blue sky, the first and only one of the day.. Dusk is gathering as I reach the farmland before the canal, so I am able to play one last game - can I get to the finish without turning my torch on? The gloom steadily deepens along the tree-lined waterway but the ground is even and I can make out where the edge is. A couple of hundred yards before the finish I'm passed by a runner who has judged her race better than me, but she has a torch on so I nearly lose my vision, but in the end just make it. I finish in 9 hours 26 minutes 19 seconds for 51st place. That's OK, I would have taken that if offered at the start of the day. I would have liked to have seen the Brecon Beacons but apart from that it has been a pretty worthwhile trip.

I have a couple of cups of tea and stay awhile for the prizegiving. The winner Mark Palmer (winner also for the previous two years) got home in the amazing time of 6 hours 16 minutes. That's 45 miles with nearly 6000ft of ascent at a pace that I would be chuffed with for a flat marathon - a shade over 8 minute miles. He has just completed a 14 hour Bob Graham though...

I get changed, thank Martin for a good day out and wiggle my way back through the now misty Welsh roads to Chester, shifting position every few minutes to combat the aches and pains in the legs  - driving home after an ultra is always like this but I know I'll be OK tomorrow.  I call Jan, then stop to collect fish and chips and a few celebratory cans of Boddingtons. As I pull into the drive at around 8.30pm it occurs to me that it's still two hours until the race cutoff time, runners and marshals are still out there in the darkness. What a bizarre game this is.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

A Whole New Experience

I've never bothered too much with injuries.  Don't admit there's anything wrong with you and it will probably go away. It's how we learned the game I suppose, just look after yourself and don't expect any help. Some years ago I left a pink trail in the snow down a mountain in Kyrgyzstan, a place where the possibility of rescue varies from remote to non-existent. The elation of bagging a virgin peak had been somewhat dampened by a bit of incompetence early in the descent; I was still trying to decide whether I had a broken ankle inside my climbing boot when my companion in crime noticed it first. "Hey, you're leaking". "What? Oh, right, I think I'll leave looking at that until we get down". Can't take a joke, shouldn't have joined.

Things fix themselves eventually. So when I took up trail running I had a lot of time for the Joss Naylor approach, "If there's something that ails you, you've just got to shrug it off", and it's seen me through nearly five years of fairly busy activity.

I must be getting soft, or old, or maybe both.

Recently I went along to the physio for the scheduled 3 monthly visit to check that mobility in my lower back hadn't got any worse, and mentioned that I had some soreness in the Achilles/calf area. Let's check it out she said, digging around a bit. Then........ this really isn't great, we need to work on it, forget about your back until we have this sorted out and absolutely no running until then. Three "interesting" massage sessions over the following week or so, each leaving me feeling worse than when I went in but better after a day or two, and she said I was good to go. But there were strings attached. The first day I could run 2 miles at 10 minute mile pace, stopping for a stretch in the middle. And so on. I think getting back is going to take a while.

So I'm not as unbreakable as I thought. A fair degree of hubris exposed and chastened. I'll maybe heed the signs a bit more in future.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

The Short and the Long of it (Chester marathon and the Round Rotherham 50)

I didn't run at all after the UTMB for a couple of weeks or so; disappointment at yet another poor performance on Mont Blanc coupled with some tiredness after a busy summer I guess. Whatever it was, I didn't have the enthusiasm. I diverted to walking, climbing, and other more instantly gratifying activities. Then I came home and entered the Chester Marathon. I still can't think why I did that, except that it sounded like a good event running right through the middle of our historic little city then taking in a fair bit of both Welsh and English countryside, and finishing back in Chester along the river to the Roodee racecourse. There was an added bonus that I could leave home less than an hour before the start.

On the other hand, there were less then three weeks to go before the race and I hadn't done any road running to speak of since April. A couple of ten milers and a slowish eighteen did nothing except leave me with rather sore Achilles tendons in both legs. Roads are hard. I stopped and had a couple of weeks rest, I'd done plenty of mountain miles, enthusiasm would get me through - well maybe.

Around four thousand others thought the event worth entering, enough for starting pens down on the racecourse; I went in with the 3:30 crowd, more in the hope of not tripping over too many Elvis's at the start than for any serious time ambitions. It was going to be a great day for a run, dry, partially cloudy and with a pleasant breeze.

After a five minute delay while crucial bits of road were finally cleared (better than the fifty minute delay just up the road at the Liverpool marathon for the same reason!) we were off. I took my usual approach of just going with how I felt and not looking at the watch until half way. It came up in 1:43,  a bit quick for me and I was probably going to pay for it later. Or rather I knew I was, because although the organisers had billed it as a flat course, we locals knew of the several sharp little rises in the second half that were going to need a bit of effort. I kept on eight minute miles until around mile 21, when the lack of road training kicked in and things got hard. But you can always suffer a bit for three quarters of an hour or so and I made it to the finish in a shade (well a second to be precise) under 3:35. I had trained properly (sort of) for the Rotterdam marathon earlier in the year and taken a minute and a half longer on that, so I came away pleased with my day. The event itself and the organisation had been superb, I'm sure I'll do it again.

The only slight cloud on the horizon was that I had already entered the Rotherham Round which was due six days later, an event which has real class and which I had not been able to get to for various reasons since 2008. I did nothing in the intervening five days and hoped it would be OK.

The Rotherham 50 miler is a brilliant mix of countryside, woodland, canals, rivers, industrial estates and suburbia. You are never in any environment long enough to get bored, it really is a great tour, and the 800m of climbing comes in so many little jumps that it is barely noticeable at all. The welcome you get at the start and at every one of the seven checkpoints is wonderful. Getting lost occasionally is part of the game, almost everyone does, even if they've done the course several times before, as little bits change every year due to things being built, knocked down, paths rerouted and so on.

My memories of previous events were of cold, continuous rain and ankle deep mud. Then three years ago it was moved from December to October because "we were spending all night trying to find people who'd got lost in the dark" and as well as increasing daylight this has improved typical conditions enormously. Even so, the weather forecast for last Saturday was exceptional, wall to wall blue sky, temperatures rising to a 15 degree maximum, and with a slight breeze. I drove across the Pennines before dawn under a cloudless starry sky, to arrive just before the "walkers" start at 6am. I registered and found a few familiar faces, Jon Steele, Shirley Colquoun, and John Vernon. The "runners" start is at 7am, just about light enough at this time of year to run without a torch; I decided to go for nine hours but be happy with ten, either way a torch wouldn't be necessary, I left it in the car.

After the usual low key briefing and start that accompanies many of the best ultras, we were off on the first and longest leg, a bit of park, canal towpaths then fields and hedgerows. It was chilly at the start in teeshirt and shorts; we had expected that but the sheen of frost on the first wooden bridge deck was a bit of a surprise. I ran a few miles with Jon, then he went on when I stopped for a gel and a drink, we would pass and re-pass each other several times during the day. The day warmed, miles and checkpoints passed, it seemed to be going well.

Then at around 15 miles, along a section with hardpacked footpaths before and through Rother Valley Park, my legs started to sieze up. Quads, hamstrings, calves, first tightening then beginning to hurt quite a lot. I clearly hadn't really got over the marathon six days earlier. I was fairly convinced I would have to start walking, but concerned that if I did that this early in the event I would never get going again. I decided to push on until I really couldn't run, get as much ground covered as possible. I started doing calculations on what distance I would have to reach to be able to get home at a walk; I was seriously regretting not having brought a torch because although the finish would be welcoming runners home until 10pm or later, my own cut-off would be around 6.45 when it got dark! But at round 22 miles the tracks gave way to open fields, springy grass and crop edges. I got to the Harthill checkpoint at 25 miles feeling a bit better physically, and a whole lot better psychologically for getting to half way. 

I decided that if I cut my stride (and therefore the pace) significantly, I could probably keep running. I had averaged just over 10 minute miles (plus stops) to half way, so I decided to go for around 11,30's for the second half. It seemed to work, and the whole thing got more enjoyable again. I went through good and bad patches as you do in every ultra, and for me the stops for cups of tea when available definitely get significantly longer as an event goes on, but from about 30 miles on I was sure I could keep running to the finish.

I didn't do any time calculations until the Maltby checkpoint 10 miles from the finish. If I could cover these at 11:40 pace including stops, I might squeeze 9 hours. Well, a stop for an orange squash and a couple of Jaffa cakes at the final Denaby checkpoint couldn't be avoided, and in the last three or four miles anything that wasn't horizontal or better got walked, but I just made it. 8 hours 59 minutes 8 seconds. Perfect pace judgement  -  well that's my story and I'm sticking to it. It was a PB for the event. Now conditions couldn't have been more perfect, but I'm at the stage where PB's are so rare I'll take them with whatever environment advantages are going, the more the better!

I'd better get back to a bit of training again now.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

UTMB 2011

Well if I was going to have a bad race this year I would have preferred it not to be this one, but c'est la vie. I won't tell a long tale, I'll leave that to those who had more successful outcomes, but here is the outline of my trip.

I was a hundred percent certain I would complete the course, I'd had a good year so far and felt fit and ready to go in the run up to the race. On the day itself I didn't feel so great; not unwell, just a bit uncomfortable, I put it down to a bit of nervousness or eating too much in the twelve hours before the start, but it persisted through the following night and day. The start was delayed by five hours until 11.30 on Friday night to allow the runners to chase rather than get fully involved in the passage of a cold front through the region, but the delay was communicated well in advance so was really no problem.

The weather was nevertheless interesting. We had a pretty constant downpour in the few hours up to the start and which continued for the first three or four hours of the race, getting everyone thoroughly soaked, as well as making the downhills very slippery. Then the stars came out and we hoped for a sunny dawn, which unfortunately was not to be. Daylight over the Bonhomme brought clouds, a drop in temperature and a very cold wind. My section of the field was treated to a proper snowstorm over the Col de la Seigne, but by Mont Favre the sun had finally come out and we enjoyed a warm and pleasant run down to Courmayeur.

Despite never feeling on top form, I had a good enough run to Courmayeur, keeping spot on my schedule which was to work up gradually to a couple of hours ahead of the cut-offs by that point, after which you can beat them at a very much slower pace. I was eating and drinking OK, certainly better than on my previous attempts on this course, and while I certainly wasn't going to break any records I was still confident of getting the trip. I enjoyed the final steep descent to Courmayeur and jogged into the checkpoint feeling better than at any point so far.

It was great to get into some dry clothes after being wet for about fifteen hours. Feet and shoes seemed to be coping well, so after I was sorted out I went to get a meal. Problem was, after I'd had a bit of ham and bread, I just couldn't seem to eat any more. I eventually managed half a plate of pasta and a couple of cups of coke. I decided I could sort it out as I went, and started the long climb up to the Bertone hut in the now warm sunshine. I made sure I sipped water and took salt tabs on the way up, and though it felt like a bit of a pull I didn't stop, overtook as many people as overtook me, and reached the Bertone on time. But once out of the trees, although still sunny, it was immediately cold, a freezing wind at 6.30pm. Everyone was putting all their warm clothes back on and I followed suit. I still didn't feel like eating so I drank some coke and set off for the Bonatti hut. This is where my race really fell apart, the cold and wind seemed to drain me of all energy, and apart from a few sips of water and the odd fruit pastille I wasn't doing anything to combat it. The section took me 45 minutes longer than it should have done and I arrived at the Bonatti very cold and tired. I tried sitting down for a bit but nothing improved. The hut staff said I could warm up inside, I said I would like to sleep for an hour so they found me a bunk and some blankets and said they would wake me in time to get down to Arnuva before the cutoff. I was shivering with all my clothes on under the blankets but eventually warmed up and slept a bit.

I felt a bit better when they woke me up, but as soon as I put my jacket and shoes on and hit the outside air I started shivering pretty uncontrollably. No options now though so I downed a couple of cups of hot coffee hoping they would put a bit of life back in me and set off down to Arnuva. I improved from freezing to just cold but was still feeling weak and I was very slow even on the downhills. I got to Arnuva just after the cutoff but the marshal there said they had been extended so I was OK for a half an hour. I thought about it. On a warmish night I might have pressed on and hoped to get through it, but I've been over the Col de Ferret in bleak conditions before and I knew deep down it wasn't very sensible in my current state so I called it a day.

Of course, as usual with a DNF, you wake up four or five hours later feeling absolutely fine but this time even the morning after I knew I'd made the right decision. It was a tough outing and I have great respect for those who made it round. Of the 2309 starters, 1131 finished, a lot fewer than usual. Not an excuse, I just wasn't up to the trip this time, I need a few more things in my favour. But in any case it was still a great experience in the unusual conditions, and anything learned in these hills is never wasted. I will complete this event one day but this just wasn't going to be the year.

Congratulations to the finishers who all had great runs in the various races, to Ritchie, Mark, Bob A, both John M's, Neil, Borkur and anyone who I know that I forgot. Commiserations to Jon and Shirley, George and Karen, Helen, Flip, and above all Jez for whom it must have felt very disappointing. Next year will be better, guys. But for me the inspirational performance of the weekend has got to be  Graeme.  After a year of injury, disappointment and inactivity, he had enough determination to dream that he would be running through Chamonix last Sunday having completed the UTMB. He was.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Touring in Style

With only 4 weeks separating the Lakeland 100 from the UTMB I wondered what to do about training, how to keep ticking over without doing anything too punishing. In the end I decided that a couple of 5 milers a week and a bit of hill walking around the middle weekend would do the trick. When I discovered that on August 10th I would be seeing Julia off back to Gatwick from Geneva airport after a week's climbing it all became too clear, the best hillwalking in Europe was on the doorstep, I would just have to do a Tour. About 4 days should cover it without too much stress so I booked a flight home for the 14th. With all the usual TMB paraphenalia, plus a sheet sleeping bag, towel and washkit, enough spare clothes to deal with weather changes and to make the evenings a bit more pleasant for both me and my fellow refuge/gite occupants, sunscreen for 4 days and a couple of maps, I certainly wasn't going to travel light, in fact my sack weighed in at over 6kg, but that wasn't the point, this was to be a walk not a run. And in fact that's the way it turned out; I walked every step of the flats and uphills, and only broke into a shamble on the downs when it was easier than walking, the steeper descents in practice.

Day 1: Chamonix to the Refuge Croix de Bonhomme, 27.9 miles, 9504ft ascent, 9hrs 45min.

I left the faded but somehow still charming grandeur of the Hotel Richemond at 8am on a cloudless morning and was soon off alongside the river to Les Houches with the Col de Voza on the skyline. When I reached the col I still hadn't decided on a detailed game plan. The classic TMB walk skirts the valley side around to Les Contamines, losing no height, whereas the UTMB trail drops way down to St Gervais almost 700ft lower than Chamonix. I pondered over a Mars bar, then made a decision. I would follow the UTMB trail in its entirety - at least that meant I wouldn't have to make any more decisions.  I set off up to the Chalet at La Charme, then down the 3000ft drop through the treelined ski area to St Gervais.

Les Contamines and the distant Bonhomme pass from La Charme
Chalet at La Charme
Down the piste toward St Gervais

The reward was the beautiful Sentier de Val Montjoie all the way through woods and pastures along the stream up to Les Contamines, where I sat eating a late lunch at around 2pm in the town square. But there was till a fair way to the Bonhomme col, gentle for the first part up to La Balme, then tougher up to the top

Towards La Balme
Final ascent to Bonhomme (lowest point on ridge ahead)
In the UTMB race all this territory from La Charme to the Bonhomme and beyond is covered in the dark, so it was a real joy to see it all in daylight. From the Col de Bonhomme the trail traverses the ridge to the left, slightly rising again to the Croix de Bonhomme refuge at around 2500m altitude. I reached the hut at 5.45pm, plenty of time to carry on down to Chapieux but I like being in the mountains rather than the valleys so I checked in for the night, feeling that I'd earned my dinner.

The Bonhomme refuge

Day 2: Refuge Croix de Bonhomme to Rifugio Elena, 32.6 miles, 9715ft ascent, 12hrs30min.

This was going to be my big day as I was aiming for the Elena right from the start. I was first out of the hut at 7am and down the long descent to Chapieux. This is tricky at night because it's steep and in many places there are numerous pathlets rather than one clear trail, but in the daytime when I could see both the detail and the bigger picture at the same time it was a real cruise and I was down in under an hour, just about coinciding with the general leaving time at Chapieux. It's 3000ft from here up to the Col de la Seine, but the first 1000ft are done on a traffic-free road  - traffic-free that is apart from the donkeys which seem to be gaining popularity as a means of carrying your bags while walking the TMB!

Down to Chapieux
And up towards the Col de la Seine
The climb to the col itself is steady but with a very smooth track and goes quite quickly. I was greeted on top by a chilly wind  - I've been up there half a dozen times and never known it different. For some reason I decided to take a photo of my sack at the summit cairn, after which my camera kindly informed me that its memory was full, so that was it  - and I hadn't got to any of the spectacular views yet!
But then it was down into Italy and the warm sun was beating the chilly wind so things were looking up again.

I spent all of this day gazing upon the spectacular wild side of the Mont Blanc range, none of your tasteful trees and gently-sloping glaciers here, all rock and sun and crazy tortured ice. I remembered climbs done in the past, the soaring South Ridge of the Aiguille Noire; the remote Gugliermina pillar on the Aiguille Blanche where we had a freezing bivouac on the Col Innominata after not quite making the trip in the day;  later on, the beautiful Route Major on the Brenva face of Mont Blanc, and the long tiring way down from the Grands Jorasses after climbing the Walker Spur on the north side. A bit wistful too for I know my days of Alpine Grands Courses are over now, but I still love these hills and it was a privilege just to be there and reflect on "those happy highways where I went, and cannot come again".

But I was playing a different game now and the day passed easily enough, quickly down to the Rifugio Elizabetta then up again to the Arete de Mont Favre, the lovely descending traverse ending so unpleasantly in the ski resort desecration of the Plan Checrouite. But the descent to Courmayeur was good, no dust cloud being kicked up by runners ahead today. Although I knew it would probably cost me my dinner at the Elena, I just couldn't resist stopping for lunch in Courmayeur, raw ham paninis and ice cream washed down with a litre of coke. Fortified by that the near 3000ft back up to the Bertone didn't seem bad at all, I didn't bother to get my poles out, just drifting up the well graded zig-zags to the hut.

Not far beyond the hut I had a bit of cow trouble. Picture the scene: the trail is a horizontal balcony maybe three feet wide, above and below is very steep grass, and coming round a corner I came upon a herd of cows parked on the path. They didn't want to leave the path and neither did I, we all thought it better for our health that we stayed on the horizontal. I herded them along in front of me for maybe a couple of hundred yards, looking for a better place; there wasn't one, neither were they inclined to move very quickly  - their territory I suppose. Eventually we reached a spot where the uphill slope relented marginally and I scrambled up and round. Further along the path for the next mile or so I came upon narrow tracks that left the main trail on the uphill side, ran parallel for thirty yards or so then returned. Next to a superb track they could only have one purpose  - I just hadn't been patient enough to keep herding until one of these "bovine bypasses" turned up.

This is one of the very best parts of the whole TMB, a good track and spectacular views. But eventually the bit of up to the Refugio Bonatti arrived and so I came to the hut. At 6.15pm I could justify staying here the night, but it was great weather and I was feeling good so I pushed on. A loping descent to Arnuva (the half-way point in time for the majority of UTMB competitors though at over 60 miles well over half the distance) then a little sting in the tail with the best part of 1000ft back up to the Elena. I arrived at 7.30 and as I walked into the Rifugio people were eating. The crucial question, was I still in time for dinner? The chef would be consulted. The word came back, it was OK, eat now, check in later. The plate of spaghetti was a good enough meal, but it was followed by veal and ratatouille with polenta, apricot tart, fresh fruit and coffee. I do love Italy.

Day 3: Rifugio Elena to Col de Forclaz, 25.5 miles, 6607ft ascent, 9hrs45min

The Col de Grand Ferret is the high point of the TMB (unless you take the Fenetre d'Arpette from Champex to to Forclaz, which the UTMB doesn't) but at the Elena you're quite a long way up already so in less than an hour from starting out at 7,30am I was up and over, arrivederci Italia and bonjour La Suisse. The trail down to La Peule is normally brilliant, except last summer when it was a slippery slide all the way, very runnable but this time I just strode out at an easy but fast walk. The sun was warming up and I stopped to take my long-sleeved top off at a spot where six years previously Jan and I had sat and watched a huge bird of prey, a lammergeyer we thought and hoped, circle effortlessly in the thermals with hardly a flicker of wing movement. Today I had to make do with the squeal of a marmot poking his head out of a hole not twenty feet from me to see what the day had to offer.

At La Peule the TMB trail goes straight down to Ferret then along a valley trail to La Fouly, and so did the race last year due to the difficult conditions; but this years race takes two significant detours, one to the left before Ferret and one to the right after it, both of which involve significant height gain but are both stunning tracks (if you're in a state to appreciate them during the race....). I followed these then the trail down the river and along the amazing Crete de Saleina down to Praz de Fort. I was hoping for a cafe there but no luck. But all was well and I got my cheese sandwich and pint of coke at Issert just a bit further on. 

Issert is the beginning of the end, for although you are still a long way from Chamonix, this is where the roller coaster 30 mile home stretch starts. From here there are almost no flat bits, it's up or down all the way to the end. The first climb up to Champex winds through the forest along the Sentier des Champignons, along which are many carved tree stumps -  mushrooms yes, but also all kinds of animals and insects, and at one point a pot of soup and a bottle of wine. Champex was Jan's favourite stop when we walked the Tour six years ago, and when I got there this time I saw a vintage Bugatti (her favourite car) parked outside the Hotel des Glaciers (where we had the best meal of the trip)  - I just had to send the text. Then I was up and out of the town and on the track down to Champex Bas. At one point I came upon an adder crossing the track in front of me. It didn't like the hot stony ground much as its movements were quite jerky, but it seemed completely oblivious to me as I stopped to watch it.When it reached the grass its became much more silken and the beautiful creature was soon out of sight. 

Next came the climb up to the Bovine Alp. I was tempted to go over the higher Fenetre d'Arpette because it was a beautiful day and I hadn't been up that way since traversing the ridge of the Ecandies at least twenty years ago, but I had made my decision to follow the UTMB course and I would stick with it. The Bovine climb preys on the minds of UTMB suitors because though it's not the biggest, it is one of the toughest on the course and it comes quite late on.  After passing that way a few times now, I divide it into four sections, the jeep track, the steep track, the stream crossings, and the "bad news" (this is how the guide book we used on our first Tour described the final pull up over the boulders and tree roots through the trees to the alp), and taken one at a time they're not too bad. 

Then it was the long gentle descent to the Col de Forclaz, reached at 5.15pm. Again I had time to go on, but I had no personal knowledge of places to stay in Vallorcine, Trient is a gloomy little place down in its almost completely sunless valley, and I had stayed at the Forclaz before. I was happy to get checked in, have a shower and spend the next hour and a half sinking beers on the sunny terrace. Now when Jan and I stayed here in 2005 we had chicken and chips for dinner. Daughter Julia, who had done the Tour a few years earlier with one of her friends, said "yes, we had chicken and chips there too." No prizes for guessing what the menu was going to be.then; they feed you well here, but if you came two consecutive nights I suspect you might be a tad disappointed.

Day 4: Col de Forclaz to Chamonix,  18.4 miles, 5548ft ascent, 7hrs30min

The final run in but still no pushover. I was away after the best breakfast of the trip and soon down to Trient in the cool of another cloudless morning, though the waitress had warned there was some risque d'orage apres midi. As I stopped to take off my fleece in preparation for the next climb, a large tick landed on my rucksac. Well, better there than on me I thought as I knocked it off with a pole. I been close to literally hundreds of animals on the trip, and hadn't given these bugs a thought, I would be a bit more circumspect in future.

The climb up to Catogne is long and fairly steep but well engineered and with a good surface. A great place for poles, I wouldn't be without them on this sort of terrain. On bouldery and more technical ground I find they just get in the way, but ascents like this are what they were made for. I got into that effortless rhythm that you normally only achieve on a ski ascent, where every move is identical and economical and you can let your mind wander without having to concentrate on the ascent at all. I must have wandered off a bit too much, because it was only on emerging onto the alp that I discovered the sky had covered over completely and a wind was springing up. But familiar sights started to appear to let me know that I was getting nearer home  - the Emossons dam across the valley, Mont Buet behind it, and on my side of the valley the Posettes chair lift, accessing a lot of excellent but not too serious off piste ski-ing if you're ever passing that way at the right time.

Down in Vallorcine I felt a chocolate deficiency so I called into the station bar for a Mars bar and a Coke. As I left to set out on the Chemin des Diligences (the old coach road) up to the Col des Montets, there was a clap of thunder from across the valley. Slightly unnerving. I've had my fair share of electrical storms in the mountains and while the experience may well be character-building it's definitely unpleasant at the time. But looking at the sky and feeling the weather, it seemed less of a hot weather storm than a gradual change in the weather, may be a new front coming in. In these circumstances you usually get a bit of precursive unpleasant but not too serious weather for a few hours before things start to go bang in a big way. I decided it was going to be OK.

By the Col des Montets it was raining steadily so for the first time in the trip I pulled out the waterproof and set off up the claimed sixty zig-zags to the final high point, the Tete aux Vents. With the rain and the rocky track it was rather like a normal summers day in the Lake District. By the time I had traversed halfway to the Flegere however the rain had stopped and the atmosphere was much warmer again. I could finish in comfort, but good old Mont Blanc had had his say, just letting us know who was really in charge around here. I stopped for lunch at the Flegere, but there were lots of people and lots of noise, I had really finished up at the Tete des Vents, the spell was broken now so I sloped off down through the trees to the big town below.

Overall  104.4 miles,  31,374ft ascent,  39hrs30min.

Interesting that without hurrying at any point my total walking time was well inside the 46 hours allowed for the UTMB. This proves or prevues nothing of course, it's a bit like saying that if you can do individual Bob Graham sections within the time allowed then the round itself will be a cruise. But what it does reinforce I think are the wise words of my friend from Yorkshire, who always says that to get round these big events you don't have to be fast, you just have to keep going.

But the real reward for me was that the trip, which started out as a bit of a training exercise, turned into a wonderful journey through the mountains. I was very lucky with the weather. At times, particularly early and late in the day, I saw very few other souls for many miles and was able to take in fully the beautiful and dramatic environment through which this often overused and abused trail wanders. It's an experience I won't forget for a long time.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Lakeland 100

I had a bit of unfinished business with the Lakeland 100, having had to pull out last year with 89 of the 105 miles completed; on the other hand with the UTMB coming up just 4 weeks later I didn't want to feel too trashed at the finish. This is a big, burly event, nearly 7000m of climbing, difficult ground underfoot for a lot of the way and tricky navigation on the wilder sections which nearly all come in the dark. I thought 36 hours would be a reasonable target on which to base a timetable.

A few familiar faces appear in Coniston, Jon Steele, Shirley Colquoun, John Vernon, Flip Owen, all enjoying the warm sunshine just before the 5.30pm start. Then Joss Naylor sounds the hooter and we're off. One of the four big climbs, up to the Walna Scar pass, is in the first leg but everyone has lots of enthusiasm at this stage and the 7 miles and 2200ft of ascent go quickly with stunning views everywhere, getting me to CP1 at Seathwaite in 1hr34, 10 minutes faster than planned and around the middle of the field. The next two legs to Eskdale then on to Wasdale Head have no big climbs (around 2000ft in total for the 12 miles) but plenty of opportunities to twist an ankle or get your feet wet - even on a dry weekend like this the knee-deep Lake District bogs can catch you out. I arrive at CP3 Wasdale Head after 4hr45 feeling pretty good but knowing that this is where the real work starts.

Soup, tea and coke, then on with the headtorch and off to tackle Black Sail pass. Wasdale to Buttermere has over 2300ft of ascent in the first five miles, up and down stony paths and almost paths. Tonight there is no mist or rain so you can see headlights ahead, I still have to think a bit to find the right stream crossing going up Black Sail, the way down the other side, the bridge over the river before Black Sail Hut, and the gap in the wall coming down from Scarth Gap but it all goes OK. I'm followed over all this territory by a French guy, who declares at that "surely no-one can find this route without some local knowledge!" - not really true but I get his point, this is not like the TMB. There is no moon tonight but no clouds at all, and descending into uninhabited Ennerdale gives us fantastic views of the stars. Eventually we reach Buttermere lake, then it's a gentle couple of miles jog around to CP4 in the village. I'm there a minute or two past 1am and with the cutoff not until 3am that's fine. I stop for a drink and some food and just as I am about to leave Shirley arrives and carries on through almost right away. We catch two other guys at the first turning point, and the four of us then do the majority of the next climb, the third of the four big ones over (another) Sail Pass, together. I remember that the final mile or so down to Braithwaite has a great angle and surface, so I say I'm going to run it all. Shirley comes with me and we arrive at Braithwaite together, 33miles in, at 9hrs44 from the start.

Again Shirley pushes on almost straight away, but I say I'm going to take some time here. I decided beforehand that around 24 hours is the most I can manage effectively in a single push, so I will break this event into four sections and have longer "recuperation stops" at Braithwaite (33m), Dalemain (59m), and Kentmere (82m).  These are big checkpoints that serve meals, and also have space for you to sit (or lie) around for awhile to get your head around the next section. Braithwaite in particular is a great place to reach, marking the end of the really wild part of the course and coming before the easiest 25 miles or so. I take in plenty of pasta, rice pudding and tea, change my wet socks for dry ones, and leave after about 30 minutes rest.

There are two completely flat miles out of Braithwaite, but I'm feeling good and I don't want to spoil that with indigestion so I settle for a steady walk. Somewhere along here it gets light enough for the torch to go back in the bag. A longish but not arduous uphill then gets me to Latrigg and the Back'o'Skidda track, by which time I'm ready to run again. These sections from Braithwaite to Dalemain contain lots of runnable ground so I try to make the most of them. I run the first one to Blencathra Centre mostly on my own. From here the route drops down through a few steep fields to a disused railway line which we follow for a mile or two, and along here I catch up with Jamie who seems to be going about my speed so we carry on together. Just before the end of the railway we catch Shirley again; she says she's not doing too well, being unable to eat very much. There's a significant climb from here up to the Old Coach Road. I take it very slowly and steadily, Shirley and Jamie a bit faster so they reach the high point well before me. The Old Coach Road, another very runnable track, snakes off across the moor towards Dockray for another 3 or 4 miles. I overtake Shirley who has stopped for a breather, and just before Dockray catch Jamie again. Dockray is the nearest checkpoint to halfway in distance (49 miles) and I still feel remarkably good. Jamie and I run almost the whole of the next long (10 mile) section together. It goes downhill on tracks through woods at first then follows a beautiful rising balcony singletrack above Ullswater. By now it's around 9am and starting to get warm, it's going to be another cloudless day. Jamie and I reach Dalemain just under 17 and a half hours after leaving Coniston, good going as my plan was for 18. 

Another half hour stop and a good meal here, more pasta followed by Swiss Roll and custard, with the usual (for me) pint of tea. I have a fresh pair of shoes here too but decide not to change  - for the first time in a real event I have been wearing the relatively new super-cushioned Hokas and they have proved excellent; in fact after changing my socks at Braithwaite I don't look at my feet again until I get back to Coniston. I head out at a steady walk along the river towards Pooley Bridge. Jamie comes with me, he is clearly a faster runner but this is is first long ultra and he says he thinks my tactics seem to be working so he'll tag along. Dalemain, which I leave at 11.30am is also the start point for the Lakeland 50 race, which leaves here at 12.30 for a 4 mile preliminary loop then follows the same course as the L100 until the finish. We calculate that the first L50 runners will start passing us at around 2pm.

The stage from Dalemain, through Pooley Bridge and over to Howtown is one of the easiest on the course, 7 miles, less than 1000ft of climbing and easy underfoot. We walk strongly to the highpoint at roughly halfway, then run the rest to Howtown. The next leg from Howtown to Mardale Head is an altogether different proposition, beginning with the biggest climb on the whole course up to High Kop on the High Street ridge. Initially the climb is just steady, but it is by now a very hot day and there is not a breath of wind. Fusedale feels like a furnace. Just here the leaders of the L50 come past - and these guys are running! But another great feature of this event is that from here to the finish we will be passed by L50 competitors who always seem to offer a word or two of encouragement to those of us who have reached exactly the same place by a rather longer oute. The final 1000ft of the climb are steep and tough. I sense that Jamie is falling steadily further behind me but my rule is never to stop on a climb so I shout back a word or two of encouragement, he says keep going I'll get there. I don't see him again and found out later that he stopped at the next CP, a shame because he was going really well up until then. At the top, a few hundred yards of easy walk is followed by wonderful downhill grassy slopes all the way to Haweswater, so the running is easy again. I'm not going as fast as most of the L50 runners however, and down here one of them recognises my West Highland Way teeshirt as he goes past and shouts to me. It turns out to be Steve Weston who ran in the WHW this year, and is having a good run today also.

But when we reach the lake the second problem of this long (9 mile plus) stage kicks in. Four miles of tortuous singletrack along the lakeside, rocky ups and downs and hot hot hot. I'm relieved to reach the Mardale Head CP, feeling for the first time pretty battered. Tea and soup changes the outlook a fair bit, and I resolve to take the next climb up to Gatescarth Pass fairly slowly. I do, and it goes, then I run (or rather jog!) all the way from the top down Longsleddale to Sadgill. The little climb up from here takes more out of me than it should, as it did last year, and I can't run down the other side. I feel a bit queasy here, normally a sign of low electrolytes. I've been taking Succeed caps but maybe not enough for the hot conditions. I take another now, but I don't really have enough water left to dissolve it and I throw up almost immediately. I sit by the track for five or ten minutes to compose myself then walk the final mile or two to the Kentmere CP very slowly.

Entering the hall at Kentmere I feel pretty awful. I certainly can't contemplate eating or drinking anything, I just stretch out full length on a bench. Although I assure the checkpoint staff that I'm OK, just need a rest, that's far from how I feel. My race has fallen apart in a very short time, I can't imagine going on from here. Half an hour later I feel no better. I'm going to have to pull out again, I've not even got as far as last year. Maybe these long events are just too big for me. I'll have to pull out of the UTMB too, it just wouldn't be sensible to start. I've reached my limit in ultra running.

Eventually, the voice of reason gets heard. You've got lots of time left, why make a decision now? Just hang around a bit longer.

After about an hour and a quarter I start to feel just a bit human again. I have a cup of tea and a small plate of pasta. I don't relish them, but it's a start. No good reason not to go on. I'll take the next climb up Garburn pass very, very gently. Maybe I'll get by. I get up and over the pass,  then walk steadily down the other side in the company of a L50 runner who insists his name is just Moose - a local from Cockermouth and a really nice guy, he helps me a lot. On the next climb up from Troutbeck I tell him to go on, I'll take it steadily, so he does. It's now dark again, and as I walk up to the high point above Jenkin Crag I remember being here last year, seeing John Vernon's light getting fainter and fainter as he pulled ahead of me into the distance. It occurs to me that I'm going better, and feeling better, this year - maybe I'm on the way back! My pace quickens on the downhill to Ambleside, more tea in the CP there and I'm good to go, though still tired.

I know the way over Loughrigg to Skelwith Bridge having walked, run, or biked it many times, and I pick up three L50 runners who seem happy to tag along, and I'm happy to have the company now well into my second night out. On the short road section down to the bridge we meet Sarah, a L100 runner who joins our band, and the 5 of us continue together for most of the way to the finish. At the next CP at Chapel Stile there is a log fire and beef stew on offer, it tastes wonderful, and for the first time since Kentmere I'm confident again that I'm going to make the finish.

The first three miles of the next leg comprise a rocky, boggy, undulating, difficult to follow track along the south side of Langdale. Sarah is an Ambleside local and knows it; the rest of us are more than happy to let her do the work. Then it's a steep climb up to the pass above Blea Tarn, down to the tarn and then probably the worst track on course skirting Blea Moss down to the Wrynose Pass road. By the time we reach the road we are all soaked to the knees again, but on the plus side it is starting to get light. Down the road, then a simple two mile "up hill and over" jeep track to the final CP at Tilberthwaite. I'm starting to feel really good again now, and vote myself a cup of coffee, the first of the event, for a bit of added go on the last steep climb. I'm wanting to get away now but unwilling to leave the other four who have definitely helped me over the last couple of legs, so we set out together on the final steep 900ft climb. By the time we get to the high point there are three of us, the others have said carry on they'll get there soon. By now my bad patch is well and truly over and I feel I could carry on for hours. We discuss running down to the finish but it's rocky ground, so we walk. A few hundred feet and then its an easy walk to the finish. The L50 guy decides to wait for his companion so Sarah and I carry on down the last mile or so together. We could run now, but we agree not to. She's tired and I always find these last few minutes of a big event too precious to waste in an effort for a few minutes off the clock. We actually lose 5 places in this last mile or so to people jogging, but for me this is nothing compared to letting the high go on for a few minutes longer before you have to face the music at the finish. We save our presentation run for the last hundred yards or so, and cross the line back in Coniston 37 hours and 39 minutes after setting out, 94th out of 226 starters.

I feel great, the Lakeland ghost laid. I get a meal, then a shower, then wander off for a few hours' sleep before the prizegiving.

A great event, certainly the biggest and most satisfying one I've completed. The course, organisation, checkpoints, and all the people who run them were superb. The winner's time of under 22 hours, breaking the previous record by nearly an hour, was an amazing performance. This race is a classic, every serious ultra runner should give it a go.

(no photos sorry - I'm currently in Chamonix for a bit of climbing and can't make the portable technology work!)

Saturday, 16 July 2011

No More Training then

Over the past three weeks I've re-familiarised myself with most of the Lakeland 100 course. Three sessions, around 30 miles each, two beautiful summer days and one with its fair share of rain and electrical activity. The efficient Cumbria bus service means that you can get to pretty well anywhere in the district from your start point in a couple of hours or so, avoiding the need for tedious "out-and-back" trips, so I've been travelling over ground that I don't see very often all the way.  I've thoroughly enjoyed it, but that's it for now. It's two weeks until the event and the work's done, I can't believe that any miles I do from now on will have any effect on the outcome. A bit of gentle walking or maybe a 3 mile jog or two, but I've got a slightly sore Achilles so perhaps I'll just put my feet up, drink some wine and get plenty of sleep.

After the Lakeland I'll be off to the Alps for a week or so climbing, after which I plan to go round the UTMB course over 4 days (ie slowly!). By then it will be less than two weeks until the UTMB event, so back to taking it easy again.

Wonder if I'll ever do any actual running again.........

Sunday, 10 July 2011

So why exactly do you want to run this race?

It's a question that came up in a blog, or maybe a blog comment, after the recent West Highland Way race. I'd never really thought too deeply about it. The suggestion was that doing a particular event because "that's what I do at this time of year" was not a good enough reason. Maybe, maybe not, I'll park that for now while I look at reasons why anyone might enter a race and see how they relate to me, and maybe to you.....

1. I want to win the race.  The most obvious reason of all of course -  after all we are talking about a race, which implies you have a winner  - but for the majority of us this so far removed from our capabilities as to be no reason at all.  And yet the appeal of an age group win  (however artificial the boundaries are - why should you win a prize at 50 that a much better 49-year-old isn't entitled to?) is maybe there. Races which recognise my own age group (the Hardmoors, the Highland Fling, etc) definitely give me an extra incentive to push a bit.

2. I want to hit a particular "barrier" time.  This lets you set yourself a personal goal which is challenging but which you believe is achievable. This has definitely been a strong driver for me. I wanted to do a 3 and a half hour marathon, a 24 hour West Highland Way, etc, and I still believe that given a good day I can get a sub 10 hour Highland Fling. The problem (?) is that once you achieve your goal, where do you go from there  -  no way will I ever do a 3 hour marathon so what is my reason for entering this distance in the future? But of course there is no reason why the barrier should mean anything to anyone except ourselves, so we can set it where we like.

3. I want to run a Personal Best.  Another powerful individual driver, but I think you have to recognise two limitations. Firstly you have to believe that a PB is still possible: increasing age, chronic injuries, etc may just make it an unrealistic ambition, and secondly you have to believe that the effort required, both on the day and in the months beforehand will be justified. I think there are still races where I can get a PB, but there are others in which I know deep down my lifetime best is already on the board. I ran my first marathon when I was 55 and got my PB of 3:17 when I was 60. Everything went right that day, it's not going to happen again. I've just read the report of the 1989 West Highland Way race.  After setting a time that has never been bettered on the course in use at that time (nor arguably on the one run today), Dave Wallace said he wouldn't be back the following year, with the telling remark "That was my best shot".

4. This race is a big challenge for me, I just want to complete the course.  I'm sure most of us have been here. Our first 50 miler, first 100, did we really know how it was going to turn out? This is how I am still approaching big events like the Lakeland 100 and the UTMB. Do I really believe after failing on each of these that I can now get round - of course I do, what better reason is there?

5. I enjoy this race so much that I'm just going to keep doing it as often as I can, I don't care about my time. I can understand this as a reason, but I can't personally sign on to it yet. I want more out of my day than that. This coming October I will run the Rotherham 50 miler again. I've done it twice before, I'm unlikely to run a PB because I will have had a few weeks off in the period before it, but having been within a whisker of 9 hours I know I won't be satisfied getting round in 12.

6. This is a training run in enjoyable surroundings with good company. I know people do this, but I find once I get into the atmosphere of an event I can't treat it wholly as "training" .

I'm sure there are other reasons but these seem the most significant to me.

Against this background I'm clear that I enter different events for different reasons. Also, if you choose to run an ultra roughly every month (which I have done in the spring/summer for the past couple of years) you're probably not going to achieve your absolute best performance in any of them. I'm accepting this because I just love being part of the events, but I've also realised that I've entered some events without being able to tick any of the boxes I've defined above. So thinking this through a bit has been good for me. I'll now make sure that I go into each race with a clear idea of why I'm there and what I want to achieve.

But I've also realised that I have another powerful reason why I do this, which must be shared by many other ultra runners out there. We do this because we can, and we'll go on doing it until we can't. Which, hopefully, will be quite a while yet.