Tuesday, 31 July 2012

At the Lakeland 50 and 100

A few years ago I ran the "Devil of the Highlands" race from Tyndrum to Fort William along the northern forty-odd miles of the West Highland way. One of my reasons for this was that I had already done a couple of complete WHW races and I wanted to know what the northern half felt like when you didn't have to run 50 miles to the start line. I felt a bit the same way about the Lakeland 50, which follows the same course as the second half of the Lakeland 100; an added bonus here though is that the two races are run together, with the start of the 50 timed so that the finishers all come in over more or less the same time period, which with nearly eight hundred runners involved in the two races makes for a great weekend. I'd also decided that I didn't want a big demanding event just now because I didn't want to interrupt my training for the Tor des Geants in September with any taper or recovery time, so I signed up for the 50.

I left it a bit late considering the Friday afternoon traffic but still arrived at the John Ruskin School in Coniston just about in time to see the start of the Lakeland 100 at 5.30pm. A number of people that I knew were running and I wished them well at the start of their adventure.

Mark Leggett, John Kynaston and Dave Troman at the start of  the L100 

Jon Steele and Shirley Colquhoun starting the L100

John Kynaston was aiming for around 30 hours; I said I would try to catch him before the end but I didn't honestly think it was likely. Within a few minutes they were on their way in the fine sunshine. The weather forecast was good overnight but turning showery before our start at noon the following day.

The school is used as the main base for the event, with camping on the school field and a seemingly continuous supply of food available from the volunteers in the school kitchen. So while the real runners forged on into the night, we L50 dilettantes were able to take our time registering, having supper, and watching bits of the Olympic Opening Ceremony on the TV in the dining room. It was an easy evening and I didn't really get into race mode until the next morning, when a fleet of buses ferried the 500 competitors over to the start at Dalemain just north of Pooley Bridge on Ullswater. While we waited for the start we spent our time cheering on L100 runners coming into and (most of them) leaving their major "halfway stop" on their round.

I'd thought a bit about the L50 race. At over 9700ft it has quite a lot of ascent for a 50 miler, but when you look carefully at the map you see that almost all the uphill is concentrated into 10 discrete climbs, over a total distance of only around 11 miles. I decided that I could afford to walk all of this at the steady pace I'd been practising over the past few weeks, which should leave me with enough gas to run the rest at a reasonable pace -  at least until things started to get hard, which they normally do........

At three minutes past twelve (this becomes significant later) the hooter was sounded and we were off. The first ten miles or so are easy going, a short starting loop on the Dalemain estate then on via Pooley Bridge over a gentle moor to Howtown; just one short walking ascent involved and a lot of fast (well....) running territory. I didn't bother taking a Garmin because I was treating this more or less as a training run, but I guess I was able to keep a 10-12 minute pace going on most of the runnable territory. I'd also decided not to linger at checkpoints, superb and welcoming though they are at this event, so I got into a system at the first one at Howtown and stuck to it throughout the race:   one - make sure to "dib" the electronic bracelet into the machine, two - refill water bottle, three - drink a cup of coke, four - grab something tasty "to go" (flapjack, nuts, jelly babies, always lots of choice), five - thank the volunteers and get going! I doubt if I stopped for more than 5 or 10 minutes total in the whole race.

Out of Howtown comes the biggest climb on the L50 course, over 2000ft up Fusedale to the top of High Kop. I remember that on last year's L100 it was like a furnace, temperature in the high twenties, not a breath of wind and not a cloud in sight. This year in complete contrast running conditions for the whole of my race were almost perfect - cool but not cold, a breeze but not a wind, and occasional showers but long bright periods in between. I wore a single layer long sleeve top the whole way, the rain jacket stayed in the bag. Conditions underfoot were still occasionally sloppy, legacy from the rain of recent weeks, but you can't have everything. The climb went well, the run down to Haweswater was easy and the 4 miles along the lake to the next checkpoint at Mardale head seemed to go quickly. This checkpoint was run by a club called Delamere Spartans who meet in the forest where I run at least once a week, so I said I would get in touch with them when I got home.

Next came the second big climb up to Gatescarth Pass. I was getting a bizarre feeling on this run. Because I was just walking steadily up the hills and putting in a fair bit of effort on the descents and flat bits, I was actually looking forward to the uphills  -  to get a rest! I marched up to the top and started to accelerate down the other side, when I saw a L100 runner in front of me. They were usually easy to recognise by their numbers being less than 300, and it's something of a tradition in this race that the L50 runners always recognise their senior colleagues with a word or two of encouragement as they pass - after all, whenever I passed a L100 runner he had always been out on the course eighteen and a half hours longer than me. I said something like "Hi, well done" and was just easing past when he said, "Hey, Andy, It's me!" It was John K, who I hadn't expected to see until much later, if at all.  I walked and jogged with him for a few minutes. He said he was fine but had had one or two low points, including running an unnecessary extra mile when missing an unmanned checkpoint in the dark. He was clearly going to finish OK, so I wished him well again and pushed on - sorry I didn't stay longer John. John went on to a 34hrs 33min finish - anything under 35 hours is a fine time for this event, I reckon it equates to something like a 24 hour West Highland Way.

I carried on down the first of the long stony descents, territory made for Hokas. There is still a lot of debate about these shoes but on this sort of ground I think they're unbeatable. I passed numerous runners selecting footfalls on individual stones or searching out short sections of grass to the side of the track, where I could just cruise straight down the middle as easily as if it were asphalt. I caught and ran for several miles with a guy who was trying Hokas for the first time; when we got down to Sadgill he said "that descent alone was worth the £75!" We were soon up and over to Kentmere, another major checkpoint with lots of temptations to hang around for, and where on last year's L100 I spent the best part of two hours getting my body and mind back together after a major low point. This year I was in and out in less than a minute, hands full of chocolate chip cookies and jelly babies. My fuel strategy was pretty simple for this race. You don't need a lot of food to get round a 50 miler, and digesting what you don't need just takes unnecessary fluid and energy, so I took a drink and a gel every hour plus a handful of whatever looked nice at each checkpoint. It was a coolish day so I just took a Succeed cap every two hours for electrolyte. I drank only water, plus a cup of coke for a quick sugar and caffeine hit at all of the checkpoints that had it.

As I settled into a steady walk up the Garburn Pass, I was aware that I was now over half way with only just over 5 hours on the clock. I hadn't set out with any sort of schedule; I sort of assumed I would get round in twelve hours give or take but wasn't really bothered, I was only here for fun. But I was still going easily and a "stretching target" (the sort of thing that always seemed to be popular with the management when I was gainfully employed) started to form in the back of my mind. You always expect to slow down in the second half, and I had never been able to beat ten hours at the Highland Fling in spite of a couple of serious attempts, but although the L50 has more climbs and some tough ground underfoot, it is a fair bit shorter. Maybe. Cresting the pass, I started to push a bit harder down the next long stony descent to Troutbeck, then walked just a tiny bit quicker up the hill the other side. Just a cruise now down to Ambleside.

Ambleside was amazing.  On my previous two visits on the L100 I had arrived late into the night, streets deserted, the town almost sleeping, the checkpoint crew getting ready to end their shift. But this time it was just after 6.40pm and although I was the only runner in sight ahead and behind there seemed to be people cheering at every corner. The final little road up to the checkpoint was lined both sides with clapping supporters, it really made you feel you were achieving something, and of course it puts an extra spring in your step. In and out of the checkpoint with even less delay, I was now on a mission.

Down through the park then on to the steep little hill up Loughrigg. I had been passing L100 runners occasionally but for the first time for quite a while I saw a L50 competitor a hundred yards or so ahead. He seemed to be going faster than me but I must have caught him by spending less time in the checkpoint, so he gave me a target for the next few miles. As the track opened out onto the fell the steepness lessened so I decided it was time I started running a few uphills, nothing to lose now, don't want to "leave it out on the course" as they say. A bit of heavy breathing then over the top and a nice easy descent to Skelwith Bridge. Here I caught a couple of L100 runner, one of whom was Mark Leggett. In spite of an arduous Bob Graham attempt a couple of weeks previously Mark was going well and went on to complete the L100 in a shade over 30hours, a super performance. OK, I thought, as I set off along the most runnable couple of miles of my route, now where's Dave Troman?  Not a chance though, Dave was long gone and at pretty well that precise moment was reaching the finish in Coniston in tenth place overall, in a time of under 26 hours which may even have surprised him. I'm looking forward to his story.

Along the flat path from Skelwith Bridge to Elterwater I was probably doing 9 minute mile pace but not gaining on the guy ahead. I finally passed him on the gentle rise after crossing the river when he paused to walk for a short while, then I was soon at the Langdale checkpoint. Four or five other L50 runners were just setting out so I did my stuff quickly and tagged onto them. They had obviously stiffened a bit from too long a stop and were slow to get going so I went past, but I could hear them behind for the next few miles so they must have quickened up again. This bit of track is undulating and bouldery but runnable in good light so I pressed on. It then steepens up to a sharp climb to Blea Tarn which I walked, passing a guy who said it "felt like Everest" on the way. I passed more L50 runners on the track through the woods by the tarn then set off on my least favourite stretch of the whole route, the tortuous track out to the Wrynose road. There was an unmanned check right at the end of this, so no incentive to drift down out of the boulders and shortcut through the deep bog down to the road, which I'm sure I would have been tempted to do otherwise. As I "dibbed" my bracelet in the checkpoint I was aware of someone coming up behind. Glad to get that bit out of the way I said, the other runner agreed. It was a young guy called Nick running the L50, and we carried on together from that point to the finish.

I hadn't covered this ground since last year and couldn't remember where the next couple of turns were, but Nick had reccied the section very recently. We ran down the road, across a flat bit and carried on running up the hill on the far side. "There's a signpost at the the turning" said Nick "It says one mile to Tilberthwaite but it isn't, it's quite a bit further than that!" We resolved to run to the signpost, then we walked some of the steeper sections but ran when we could to the first false top, groaning a bit as the second and finally third real top arrived. On the descent we discussed the 10 hours. It didn't really look on, we both knew about the steep climb out of Tilberthwaite, but we decided to keep pushing at least to make best use of the remaining daylight because it was now touching 9pm and starting to get a bit gloomy. A bit of heavy breathing from Nick along the road but he was back on song for the final down slope to the last checkpoint. A cup of coke, grab a flapjack and go, no need to top up the water, I was unlikley to drink anything else from here to the end.

We had just under 50 minutes to cover about 3 and a half miles with just under a thousand feet of climb and twelve hundred of descent. Nick took the lead up the steep steps and the scrambly ground beyond, and for the first time in the day I was glad to follow someone's heels, he did a great job up there. Two guys we had caught at the checkpoint were also pressing hard, and as the slope eased off onto the open fell I waved them through. This turned out to be a good move because although I lost two places here, they gave us a great target on the long gentle uphill to the final pass and we probably ran a lot more than we would have done without them. We counted down the final uphill, two hundred yards, a hundred yards, yes that's definitely it, downhill all the way from here.

But the course still had a final small problem for us; we had a fairly technical descent of a few hundred feet and dusk was fast approaching, just the worst time for my eyesight (it's a date of birth problem I'm afraid). I didn't want to put my specs on, and neither of us wanted to get a light out because the re-adjustment would likely cost us more time than it would save. So we pressed on down carefully but as fast as we could, a last grassy shortcut then we were out onto the relatively smooth track at last. How far from here I asked, a mile and a half or so was Nick's guess. Eleven minutes on my watch, not really enough as it was almost dark now but we kept going, picking our feet up high to avoid tripping on the stony track. Then the asphalt arrived much sooner than we expected, how fast can you go Nick, I think there's still nearly five minutes left, you might do this even if I can't.  He hared off into the darkness. I did my best, certainly reaching my highest speed of the day but he was still twenty seconds ahead at the end.

I made the tape in 9hrs 56mins 55seconds. Where did that extra three minutes come from? Yes, you got it  -  I was wearing an ordinary wristwatch, not a stopwatch, and had completely forgotten about the 3 minutes delay at the start. Sometimes a bit of technical incompetence helps you on your way. 35th place. Possibly my best ultra performance to date, and with my 64th birthday next Monday one I'll be doing well to repeat; definitely one to treasure. Into the bright lights, welcoming supporters, satisfied fellow-finishers, nice medal and tee-shirt, and wonderful bowl of chilli.

This is a great weekend, whichever race you do. I'm sure I'll be back.

Monday, 23 July 2012

No more running then

Well, not strictly true but the West Highland Way race is a sort of tipping point in the season for me most years as it's the last event of the summer period where actually being able to run  is required. Although it has some climbing, the WHW is very much a runner's race - if you're fit enough you can keep up a good pace most of the way because the hills are generally gentle and the going under foot is pretty good. Training for a good time means plenty of long trail runs, 20 milers or so, at around 12 minute mile pace for me (and I guess around 8 minute miles if you're Jez Bragg or Terry Conway!). At 95 miles it's still a long event, but one where the winners are shooting for the 15-16 hour mark and a competent middle of the pack guy won't be happy at much over 24.

But then the game changes, the big races take to the hills and everyone slows down. In the Lakeland 100, which even last year's winner Terry has described as "a power walk with a bit of running thrown in", getting under 35 hours for the 105 miles is pretty respectable; under 30 last year would have seen you in the top 25 out of over 200 starters. The similar length UTMB takes even longer and the majority of finishers take 40+ hours. The reason of course is that these events have a lot of ground where because of its steepness or technicality, almost everyone is going to walk. And it seems to me that if that is what you are going to do in the race, that is how you should train for it.

So since the WHW I've limited actual running to around 10 miles a week total at a fairly gentle pace on easy trails. My two big effort days each week, one on my local Clwyd Hills and one in either Snowdonia or the Lakes, just involve going up and down hills; walk up, run down (but only if it's easier to run than to walk). I've stopped being at all interested in the miles covered, I'm concentrating only the total feet of ascent. 10,000ft a week is the minimum target with an occasional bigger week thrown in. At least you get to train in some nice places and the weather at last seems to be on the turn.

I've two events coming up to see whether this plan is successful or not. First, the Lakeland 50 next Saturday. No special preparations or taper for this one, if I'm fit enough I ought to be able to soak up a hilly 50 miler as part of the training, not too bothered about the time but it will be a good test of where I'm currently at.

Then a few more weeks of up and down before the big one, the Tor des Geants which starts in Courmayeur on 9th September. Of all the events that I have done since I started in ultras about 5 years ago, this is the first one where I have had occasional thoughts of "just what have I signed up for here?" when I think of the scale of the undertaking. 200 miles and 24,000 metres of ascent (compare this with 100 miles and 9,000 metres on the UTMB, which I have yet to finish). I was chatting with John Vernon who put it into perspective - "Well, think of it as three Bob Graham Rounds, it's the same distance and height gain.........". A bit daunting but the flip side is that you have 50 hours to complete each of the BG's. Should be able to do that if I can keep going, we'll see. Back to Moel Famau tomorrow, 900ft up, 900ft down for a few laps. If nothing else it's a good place to listen to the WHW podcasts.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

And now for something completely different.....

A couple of weeks after the West Highland Way race I was on duty as a support runner for a Bob Graham Round attempt, so it was off with the Hokas and on with the fell shoes for a week or two. The aspirants were four very fit and competent running friends; I'll let them tell their own stories if they choose to, this is just about how my day out went.

My "shift" was to navigate and pace the third leg from Dunmail Raise to Wasdale Head, around 15,5 miles and 6800 feet of ascent. The scheduled time was from just before dawn at Dunmail to a late breakfast in Wasdale, just over 6 hours. This sounds like quite a comfortable pace, and it is  -  unless of course you have already completed legs 1 and 2, with their combined 25,5 miles and 11,100 ft of ascent, after which anything must start to feel a bit taxing. BGR old hands will tell you that unless you're a record-breaker, speed is not the key, you just have to keep going. And don't worry too much about high mileage training  - time on your feet and a steady diet of 10,000ft of uphill a week for a few months is what gets you round.

I went out to practise my Leg the weekend before. Conditions were quite bleak, visibility nil, continuous rain and a blustery wind, but that was all to the good as it allowed me to check that the navigation was OK and the pace was doable whatever the weather. It went fine but it occurred to me on Great End, where the really bouldery territory starts and I had not seen anyone all day, that this would be a silly situation in which to slip and break an ankle so I retreated back down into Langdale. I missed the bus by 15 minutes which of course forced  me to while away a good hour and a half with a late lunch and a beer or two in the Old Dungeon Gyll, so the trip ended pretty well.

At 5.30pm on Friday the runners and supporters assembled in the pub next to Moot Hall (it was too wet to stand around outside). Up to this point I had been very doubtful whether the attempt would start. The weather had been bad for days, there were flood warnings out across half the country and I had passed several crashes on the M6 driving up, clearly caused by the wet conditions. The Met Office mountain page for the Lakes had amber warnings for rain, hill fog, and wind.  But the runners were made of stern stuff and spirits were high so at 6pm we cheered them off.

I got myself some fish and chips then drove slowly round to Dunmail, parked up and settled down for the night. Just after exhausting my efforts on the crossword I got a text from the support at Thelkeld, the road crossing after Leg 1.  I didn't get the details, just that the runners were forty minutes behind schedule, one runner had pulled out but three were continuing into Leg 2.  It didn't sound good. The rain was hammering down on the roof of the car, not the sort of rain where you convince yourself that it won't seem so bad when you're outside, the sort where you absolutely know it won't. Before getting some sleep I idly re-checked the weather page on my phone. As it flicked on I could see that the amber warnings had gone but there was now a red one. Specs on to make sure I was reading this right. The red warning was for strong sunlight. By very early morning the rain would stop; contrary to all previous forecasts, Saturday was going to be a clear sunny day. I set the alarm and nodded off. When I awoke the valley supporters arrived and we waited for the runners to appear. 

I later learned that their experience through the evening and night had been grim. As well as torrential rain and near zero visibility, the Skiddaw Leg had seen gale force winds which threatened to sweep them off their feet. Descending Hall's Fell Ridge from Blencathra proved impossible so they detoured off to the side, losing a lot of time. The runner who dropped out had had a migraine causing some concern but he got down safely. The bad weather continued into the first part of Leg 2, giving them navigational difficulties which cost more time, and the continual battering from the wind and rain was very debilitating.

When they arrived at Dunmail the 40 minutes lost had turned into nearly two hours and one of the remaining three had already decided not to go any further. But they had started with a fairly aggressive schedule and if they could claw back half an hour or so in the rapidly improving conditions, a 24 hour round might still be on so two runners elected to continue. We set off up Steel Fell.

Although it was still very wet underfoot, we were rewarded with one of those magical Lake District mornings when you can see for miles, the sun gradually warms you as it rises, the light shows the fells at their very best and you can't think of anywhere you would rather be. As far as Scafell Pike we saw not another soul, making me decide again that it really is worth the effort to get up and out at first light, whether there is some special event involved or not.

But it was clear from very early on that the lads were tired, the rigours of the preceding nine hours had taken too much out of them. We more or less held to schedule as far as the Langdale Pikes but we weren't gaining any back. And from then on we steadily leaked more minutes; in spite of gentle attempts to up the pace, it wasn't going to happen. Thoughts moved gradually from completing in 24 hours to maybe carrying on and completing the Round anyway, and then to the realisation that although possible this would be a lot more discomfort for a less than ideal reward. Still, we visited every top on the Leg before descending to Wasdale, rest, food and families. Theirs had been a fine effort. Two other BGR attempts had started out an hour or two later and neither got this far. The frustration to everyone was that the forecast changed so late. With a bit more weather knowledge the attempt would have started 6 hours later and in all probability would have been successful for everyone. But that's the Lake District. I think they'll be back.