Sunday, 23 December 2012

Tour de Helvellyn en Hiver

For the first couple of years that I was involved in ultras, I ran the 50 mile Rotherham Round. It was in December; it was usually cold and wet, you started and finished in the dark and for half the course you were in mud above your ankles. But the organisers and marshals at every checkpoint were wonderful and the competitors loved it. I still remember the classic comment of the starter in the dark at 7am in the 2008 race  - "Don't believe the weather forecast, it's going to be a lovely day"  - of course it rained steadily from start to finish. But that's the thing about events in the winter, the conditions are an essential element in the plot; almost as if everyone's saying "OK England, we know you can do a bit of weather, so just bring it on!"  Then Rotherham was moved from December to October. I asked what the reason was and apparently the organisers were spending too much time trying to find lost runners all over South Yorkshire once darkness had fallen (navigation on the course can be tricky in places).  I've run it once since, in its new place in the calendar, and it's still a good outing, but a bit less problematic and so a bit less "special", if you know what I mean.

But when one door closes another usually opens and the excuse to avoid Christmas shopping and such distractions is now provided brilliantly by the "Tour de Helvellyn", which does exactly what it says on the tin on the shortest Saturday of the year. 2012 was the 3rd running of the event. I had entered in 2010 but was unable to make the start on account the whole west side of the country, including the M6, being under a foot of snow. Last year, the roads were OK but the Lake District was still completely snow covered, up to a couple of feet on the higher parts of the course, and we were treated to temperatures which varied from zero to minus quite a lot. This year would be different; flood warnings seemed to be out for half the country and the Met Office forecast for the Lakes included continuous heavy rain, winds up to gale force, wind chill and poor visibility. Yes, the TdH generally has weather.

The course is 38 miles long and by my reckoning has about 6200ft of ascent. It starts from Askham and first crosses Askham Moor to Howtown. On the moor there are tracks easy to follow which don't go where you want to go, and tracks difficult to follow which do - this becomes significant later in the day. In a normal year all this ground is boggy. From Howtown, briefly up to the first unmanned checkpoint at Martindale Church, then up Boredale for the first warm-up climb to Boredale Hause and down the other side to a manned checkpoint in Patterdale at the 10 mile point, where the actual circumnavigation of Helvellyn begins. A bit of narrow road up Glenridding then a steady climb over rough ground to Sticks Pass, the highest point on the course at about 2400ft, then a long descent, at first gentle but with a final quad-sapping few hundred feet down to Stannah Footbridge just above Thirlmere. A bouldery track for a couple of miles to a manned checkpoint at Swirls Car Park, then forest trails with numerous small ascents and descents lead southward above the lake to Dunmail Raise. The route turns for home here, ascending alongside Raise Beck to the col above Grisedale Tarn at around 1900ft, then down the long bouldery Grisedale track back to the Patterdale checkpoint. All you have then is the final 10 miles home, retracing your tracks of earlier in the day to the finish back in Askham.

After a five o'clock alarm and a quiet drive up to the Lakes through continuous heavy rain, I arrived at Asham village hall, checked in, and chatted to one or two people that I knew. We were all unreasonably cheerful, knowing how wet we were going to get over the next few hours, but that's the nature of the game I suppose. An unusual feature of the TdH is that there is no massed start - you start any time you choose between 7am and 9am and everyone's elapsed time is calculated at the end. Figuring that it will be light before I have to make any directional decisions, I wander out into the rainy darkness at about 7.45am. After half a mile a runner in the gloom ahead holds a gate for me and it turns out to be John Vernon - "no mistaking that hat" is his comment  -  so we walk and jog across the moor together. I'm not out to push myself today, just a satisfying completion in good shape is the target; half a stone too heavy and with not much real running in the past few weeks, I'm unlikely to break any records anyway. When it feels tough I slow down, when it feels good I speed up, that will do for today. The ground across the moor is very wet, and difficult to get the best track even in daylight. Just beyond the Cockpit there's a shout from behind we're passed by Dave Troman; he's having a storming year which will continue today as he goes on to a 5th place finish. A mile or so before Howtown I decide I want to go a bit quicker so I wish John well and leave him to the rest of his day. He finishes OK, he always does.

The staggered start works well. I guess if you're a real competitor it might be frustrating not to know exactly where you are in the field, but for most runners it means you pass and are passed by a lot of people so there is plenty of contact. We hit a bit of mist and wind over Boredale Hause but soon warm up on the nice descent down to Patterdale, tricky enough to keep you thinking but not tortuous. A quick top up of water bottle at the checkpoint then it's into the real meat of the race. The ascent of Sticks Pass goes well for me, this year there is no snow and you can see where the path is, and the uphill effort keeps you warm. I guess the temperature is about 6 or 7 degrees in the valleys, dropping as you climb but with freezing level just above the tops. The rain and wind make it feel colder though, and in conditions like these you are always wet, however good you think your gear is - it just varies from warm and wet to cold and wet. The first part of the descent is probably the most unpleasant part of the course today; the track is a continuous stream, and while everyone's feet have been wet since the first mile or so out of Askham, up here it's cold and wet so your feet slowly start to go numb and there's the feeling that they're not completely connected to the rest of you. It's good to get down to the checkpoint above Thirlmere where things are much warmer. The marshals are doing an amazing job today; continuous rain in temperatures not much above freezing must be about the worst to stand around in, and apart from the porch at Patterdale all the checkpoints are outside.

The section through the forest above the lake is a pleasant interlude, we seem to be a bit protected from the rain and wind, and I'm taking things easy and enjoying the day. Just at the point where the route swings up Raise Beck there is a photographer, another stalwart contribution to the day. I turn up the hill but he warns me that other runners doing this have had difficulty getting across the beck, so I detour a few yards down hill to the bridge to be on the safe side. The track up the beck is bouldery and quite steep, most people will use a hand on the rocks here and there, but deep in the gulley it is sheltered and calm and again I enjoy the ascent. Then we're out onto the very boggy traverse around the north side of Grisedale Tarn so it's cold feet again. The long track down Grisedale is bouldery with occasional rocky steps so difficult to get a good rhythm going, but halfway down it improves and then it's a nice downhill run all the way to Patterdale.  There is a 4.30pm cutoff here but I arrive at 2.30 so plenty in hand. 

For the climb back up to Boredale Hause the rain starts to slacken off for the first time, and maybe even stops for a while, but by the time we're back to Howtown it's back and will stay with us until the finish. From around Thirlmere until now I've been passing and repassing another runner, exchanging the odd word or two. We haven't run together because he is running faster than me but walking more often so our overall progress is about the same. He has stopped to check his map just ahead of me and I tell him to just keep going straight on. I show him the easiest way through Howtown from the church because there is an option here and we chat a bit. It turns out he is Phil Humphries from Edinburgh, who will be doing his first West Highland Way next year. Once we get on to the track on the moor I tell Phil to go on, because I will still take it easily on the uphills even though they're not steep on this section.

Just before the Cockpit I have to get my torch out, then I plot what I hope is my best way across the moor. The deeper bits of bog which were avoidable in the daylight are now undistinguishable from any other ground so I get pretty muddy in this final couple of miles. It's fascinating to see lights converging on the top of the final track down to Askham from slightly different directions all over the moor. Then it's a quick jog down the track and into the finish, the warmth, the tea, the soup and the cake.

My time was 9hrs 32mins. An hour and a half quicker than last year but conditions underfoot were definitely easier, although the weather was probably a bit less pleasant overall. 87th place out of 147 starters and 128 finishers, well down the field but it doesn't matter for this one. The satisfaction comes from getting out there in whatever conditions you face on the day and getting round safely and in good order. A super event, I'll be back to see what weather  Lake District serves up next year.

One final comment. Having heard one or two people recommend Drymax socks, I bought a couple of pairs recently. They claim to look after your feet and prevent sore spots or blisters and I had tried them out but not yet in a race. The step of faith you have to make is to resist the temptation to put any grease or tape or anything else on your feet, just rely on the socks. On the TdH my feet were completely saturated for over 9 hours. The course covered surfaces including shallow mud, deep bog, continuous water, stoney trails, bouldery tracks and some road. At the end, my feet were as good as they were at the start. The socks seem to work.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Blogging, Latin and the Question of How Far to Run.

Normal health warnings apply  -  persistence maybe required.

I see from the witheringly comprehensive Google information system that this is my 100th blog post. Not exactly prolific for someone who started back in 2009, but I have neither the ability of the Paisley Super-blogger to make training sound interesting nor the sharp wit of the Pirate to make almost anything else a good read, so I generally hang around until I think I have something to say. Maybe I've said enough by now anyway, 100 might be a good point to sign off, but I would probably carry on jotting and rambling anyway  and then it's just a question of hitting the "publish" button, so I'll think on for a while; I'm something of a creature of habit. What is clear though is that blogging has changed a lot even in the short time that I've been in the game. While there are many more active bloggers these days giving a huge choice of tales, rants and other stuff to dip into, paradoxically the technology seems to have moved on to consign blogging to the "yesterday's technology" pile. As Andrew Neil might put it, those of us who have spent years coming to terms with the interweb in general now have to move on to the fleecebook.  An altogether more immediate and punchy medium, maybe not for the likes of we brought up to look before we leap, but I'll probably have to make the effort to sidle in and keep up a bit more.

I was in some company spanning the generations the other day and the conversation started with facebook then turned to communication in general, education, and the pace of change. The silver oldies of course believed that real education ceased somewhere around the early 70's while the movers and shakers dismissed the relevance of anything that happened before the dawn of the digital age. This is par for the course, but I was still able to raise a bit of mirth and incredulity by confessing that one of the entrance requirements I faced back in 1966 for my degree course in engineering was a GCE pass in Latin. The younger members of the group suggested that this was probably more relevant in my day when the Romans had not long left Britain, but had no sensible place in modern thinking. I'm still inclined to disagree; though I've long forgotten the exploits of Scipio, Pliny and all the rest I still remember enough to help me decipher the odd bit of modern language, both English and others. But many of us will appreciate a bit of cod Latin, the "alternative translations", close enough to sound about right while being completely wrong. My school motto Abeunt studia in mores could be properly translated as "study breeds character" but a more popular version among the students was "if you work too hard you die".  Later in my academic career I spent some time at Liverpool with an office facing the clock tower and its proclamation Fiat lux  - let there be light, or maybe even "wash your car". Sometimes you don't need an alternative, the original is expressive enough, such as Semper in excreta sumus,  profundum solum variat  -  I'll leave you to work that one out. And finally there are those that have no genuine translation but are a just a modern concoction for effect  -  one that has stuck with me over the years was a favourite of my dad's  - Nil carborundum illegitimi,  generally understood as "Don't let the bastards grind you down".

But on to running, which is what this blog says on the tin. Around this time, most runners' thoughts turn to formulating some sort of a programme for next year. How many and which races to run? When I first stumbled into ultra running  -  hard for me to believe that it was still only five years or so ago  -  the wisdom seemed to be that one big event a year was the safest plan, with maybe a couple of 40 or 50 milers taken gently to lead up to it. I know quite a few good performers who still think this is the way to go  -  make one race your focus and use everything else as preparation, otherwise you won't deliver your best performance. They're in good company, this is what the guru Tim Noakes has to say - "As a result of the damage caused by the ultramarathon, I would suggest that if you wish to specialise as an ultramarathon runner, you should race only once each year or perhaps, even better, only every second year at the ultramarathon distance. If you race more frequently, you will never achieve the fastest time of which your body is capable."

But we all know that there are lots of runners out there doing far more than this with apparently no ill effects. An event every two or three weeks is the norm for some, then upwards to extreme cases like Jon Steele who will complete 50 ultras during this year. Ah, you will say, but these guys are only achieving quantity by compromising on quality, none of their events will represent anywhere near their best possible performance. Maybe, but that begs the question what the individual wants out of the game anyway. If we simply enjoy the taking part, we may be quite happy not to worry about our potential  and just get the fun of participation many more times a year. A bonus of this approach is that we don't need to worry about "peaking" for one particular time  -  if we happen to catch a cold or turn an ankle that week, no problem, there are plenty of other events to enjoy.

We still don't have the whole story though. What about the guys who turn in a stream of top class performances every year?  Last year Jez Bragg broke existing records in the Highland Fling and the Fellsman, and came 4th in the Western States (probably the most competitive ultra in the world) in the space of two months. This year Terry Conway broke the West Highland Way and Lakeland 100 records within 5 weeks. No compromise on quality here. But is this just a question of elite runners with huge talent putting so much time into their training that they are now playing a different game from the rest of us, to which the Noakes' rule no longer applies? Well for sure ultra-running at the top is becoming more "professional" in terms of the time athletes are prepared to put into their preparation and the results are getting more like other more established sports. Mo Farah turns in a world class performance then comes back a few days later and does it again. The bike racers go out and ride for five or six hours at speeds averaging nearly 30 miles an hour, then do the same the next day, and the next for two or three weeks. No consideration here of one major effort a year being the limit. But does this changed mindset percolate down to those of us with much lower abilities and aspirations?

When I look back over my own short ultra running career, I can't really find a difference in performance between the years when I competed the most (seven ultras and two marathons) and the least (three ultras and two marathons). Generally I run in an event, feel pretty knackered at the finish then get back to normal quickly enough to start running again two or three days later and return to full activity in about a week. I can't see that it makes much of a difference then whether the next race is in three months time or three weeks. 

It seems to me that the only real thing that stops us running an ultra shortly after another one is some sort of physical damage  -  bad blisters, over-stiff or sore muscles, aching joints and so on. We may not like to accept it, but unless we had an unlucky episode in the last race - say a fall or a badly turned ankle  -  then this damage is likely to be the result of insufficient preparation for the event; not enough training  - or to put it a different way, our brain was capable of more than our body so we pushed into an area where more damage was done than on a training run. Maybe we were happy to do this anyway for a one-off result, but it was a choice not a necessity; more training would have got us to the same place without the pain.

I think the other barrier to competing more regularly is psychological. We feel we ought to be tired after covering fifty or a hundred miles, so our body obliges us by actually feeling tired and we take it easy until the feeling goes away. But in my experience, so long as there is no actual damage, if we believe we can go out and run again then we probably can. Before this year's Tor des Geants race I couldn't see how I could keep going for five or six days on less than three hours of sleep per night; but I knew a lot of other people had done just that in previous years, so I made sure that I prevented damage by looking after my joints and feet and assumed everything else would be OK. In the event, I found I was going more strongly on Day 5 than on Day 2. Again, back in 2010 the West Highland Way race came less than three weeks after a LDWA 100 mile event. I wanted to do both so I did, and my WHW time was a personal best (out of 4 finishes up to that point) by quite some margin. I don't attribute any bragging rights to these examples, they are just illustrations of what can happen when you say "no, I won't be tired, it will be OK."

There are limits of course. I'm sure I couldn't do a Jon Steele (an ultra every week) without seriously cutting down my speed aspirations, and I'm not prepared just yet to be satisfied as a collector of finishes. I'm sure I still have a PB or two waiting to be teased out. But I've come to the conclusion that next year an ultra or a marathon once a month is fine by me. I've already entered three 100 milers and three or four shorter ones, and I'm sure the year will fill up nicely before too long.

Nil carborundum illegitimi.