Saturday, 27 December 2014

Review of 2014

A game of two halves, 2014, but still with a bit of a surprise in the dying minutes.

I won't dwell too much on the first part of the year, I've documented it well enough already. Sufficient to say that injuries and cures took up a lot of time and precluded participation in many planned events. I managed to keep walking around the hills (almost) throughout, but didn't start running again until the middle of April, a gap of 7 months since things went wrong the previous October.

By the 7th June I felt I could jog far enough to join in my nearest ultra, the Cheshire Sandstone Trail race (34 miles, 2500ft ascent). The time of 7:28:00 was far slower than I would normally cover the route in training, but at least we were (sort of) back in business.

I had reasoned that with the winter and spring walking, speed rather than distance was likely to be my nemesis over the year, so I was not put off by the length of events but was determined to do them slowly. Smell the flowers, skim the cut-offs and generally have an enjoyable and recuperative summer. The plan went into action  on 21st June with the West Highland Way race (95 miles, 14,700ft). I was nervous about having to average nearly 4 miles an hour for the first 20 miles including the first real climb over Conic Hill, but it went OK and from there to the finish I took my time, getting home in 29:37:33. Over seven hours slower than the previous year, but it was nonetheless a very satisfying experience and an eye-opener on what can be done with virtually no training, so long as one is prepared to cut one's suit according to the cloth available.

The plus side of such a slow journey was that I felt recovered and ready to go again within a couple of days, so I had no hesitation in fetching up at Keswick the following weekend for the Lakes 10 Peaks race (46 miles, 18,400ft). A proper mountain course, this one, plenty of climbing, technical tracks, no tracks, and scrambling. I enjoyed it hugely and finished in 21:24:18. 

I had wondered about my long-standing entry in the Lakeland 100 (105 miles, 22,500ft) as this was a course I had found quite challenging enough even when fully fit, but the combination of the West Highland Way and Lakes 10 Peaks experiences gave me enough confidence to turn up at Coniston for the start on 25th July. I'd formulated a scheme of walking all the uphill and flat bits and jogging only the comfortable downhills, and this was good enough to see me to a finish in 38:34:26.

I'd gradually got back into a bit of running by then, covering up to five or six miles at around nine minute mile pace, but longer sessions were still uncomfortable so I didn't push too hard. But at least when the Grand Tour of Skiddaw (46 miles, 7,000ft) came round on 23rd August I was up for jogging reasonable stretches of flat ground. This upped the overall pace a bit to get a finish in 11:10:47 on a beautiful August day.

I'd been so impressed with the laid-back yet well-organised Lakes 10 Peaks that almost immediately after finishing I entered the sister event, the Brecon Beacons 10 Peaks (56 miles, 15,700ft) on 6th September. With the Skiddaw run under my belt and assuming that the Beacons would be easier going than the Lakes (I'd never really been there before), this was the first event of the year that I set myself a time target for, I hoped to get round in under 20 hours. A mistake on three counts: I wasn't yet ready for running long periods, a couple of bad navigational decisions led to my extending the course to over 58 miles, and as I found out on the day, a lot of the territory in the Beacons is far from easy! Still, I finished in 20:51:42 with no real harm done, but resolved to go back to "just complete with enjoyment" for the remainder of the year.

Way back in the year two events in the Lakes had caught my imagination. They were only a fortnight apart and I couldn't decide which one to go for, so after months of procrastination I finally did both. The Lakes 3 x 3000 (47 miles, 12,500ft) came up first on 4th October. The attraction of covering the three classic 3000ft peaks (Scafell Pike, Helvellyn and Skiddaw) in a circular entirely off-road trail run was too good to miss. In the event, the top bit of Scafell Pike was missed (officially!) due to appalling morning conditions on the day, but it was still a nice event, marred a bit for me by the blanket route marking which took away the navigational element which I think is so appealing in mountain events. For this reason alone I may not do it again, but you never know. I finished wet but in good shape in 15:10:02.  The other event, the Lakes-in-a-Day (50 miles, 13,100ft) I will definitely go back to. For great organisation and variety of ground covered, with a bit of everything the Lakes has to offer, I thought it was one of the best events of my year.  I finished in 16:34:53.

I had nothing planned in November but was looking forward to the Tour de Helvellyn in December.  But a bad cold took a grip the last week in November and left me unable to get out at all until just before Christmas, so for the second year running I had to pull out of this classic event before starting.

Earlier in the year I had joined an on-line "2014 miles in 2014" group. With the early injuries, this had seemed an impossibility for me in the late spring, but by November I had just got my head back above the "average" line and it looked like a reasonable December would finish it off. But of course that has gone too now, no big deal but a bit of a sad end to one of these little games we play.

A couple more gentle jogs around the block (or the forest, if the weather looks up a bit) should see me complete around 1950 miles for the year. More important I think is that I have amassed just over 266,000ft of ascent, and I think it is this rather than the miles that has seen me through the majority of the events mentioned earlier. I've now started running again, and it's going to be a fairy long but enjoyable process to get back to somewhere near the fitness I had in 2013; if I can add that to the knowledge I've gained this year on how to complete events when far from in best shape, then I might actually start achieving something again.

So all things considered, not a bad year, much better than I at some times feared. And now, going into 2015 with (touch wood) no injuries, hopes of a better one to come.  2015 will be different in some ways. I may not enter any "100 mile" events. With the Dragon's Back coming up in June, preparation for at least the first half of the year will be about getting used to 30-40 mile days with lots of climbing, navigation and rough ground (and finishing with enough in the tank to set out again the next day!). But I like events, so I will probably do a number of shorter ultras through the Spring; something of a plan is coming together.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

My Waterproof Jacket Leaks!

You'll have seen the discussions of course. Runner A recommends a jacket as the best he's ever used, then five minutes later Runner B says he had one of those but it leaked like a sieve. They can't both be right............can they? And nowadays we get instructions that we must have hoods, taped seams, this, that, whatever; Joe says how can he find the lightest job that will still satisfy the kit inspectors while Bill says take the heaviest you can carry or you'll die. What's it all about?

Well, for what it's worth, here's my take on the subject. The usual health warnings, my views come from a combination of experience in the hills and training as an engineer; I hope they make sense, I'm sure not everyone will agree, but if they prompt a bit of thought that's enough and OK. Also this is an area where it's easy to get bogged down in the science; I'm hoping to get by with only the most  important bits and I might take some shortcuts which will offend the purists, but I'm sure I'm like most runners in just wanting to understand why things that affect us happen and what we can do to try and control them. And if you've read my blog before you'll know that these odysseys of mine can go on for a while, so be prepared if you're going to stay the course.

First the briefest of histories. When I was a lad, if it rained in the hills we donned our "anoraks" (pullover smocks with a hood and regulation front pocket for OS map) made from cotton with some sort of proofing involved. They were OK in showers and a bit of rain but not great when it got heavy. We got wet. Then nylon appeared with Peter Storm, Henri Lloyd and so on, fully waterproof and it kept all the rain out. The problem was that it kept all the sweat in as well so you got pretty much as wet on the inside as it was on the outside. Then Gortex came along with the first "breathable" fabric and solved the problem. Sort of.

At this point we have to be clear about what a few of the key terms mean:-

1. "Sweating". This is your body's way of dumping unwanted internal heat generated by physical exercise. A fluid that is mainly water is pushed out through small holes in your skin (pores), carrying some heat with it. What happens next depends on external conditions.  If you're wearing no clothes and the air humidity is low, the water (sweat) will evaporate, gaining latent heat from your skin as it goes and so cooling you down. That's the way it's designed to work. But when your body gets hot and generates sweat, it can't control what's happening on the outside. If you wear a technical "wicking" shirt, the sweat gets drawn through to evaporate on the outside, almost as well as without a shirt. A cotton shirt will absorb the sweat, but it will eventually start evaporating from the outer surface, although you won't feel so comfortable. A rucksack tight against your back will prevent any evaporation at all in that area. And if the air outside is already saturated  -  ie it has already absorbed all the water vapour it can hold, a condition known as 100% Relative Humidity (RH)  - then sweat won't evaporate whatever you're wearing.  But we should say here that the air won't have reached 100% RH until you see visible signs of it; the water vapour starts to condense in the air, and you're walking in mist, fog, a cloud (or the bathroom). The fact that it's raining alone does not mean that the air is saturated (but for sure if there is rain about the air will be already holding more moisture that it would have under a cloudless blue sky).

2. "Breathable".  This is generally accepted to be a material which has "holes" small enough to prevent water droplets passing through while big enough to allow the passage of water vapour. This isn't the precise truth, but it's good enough for us here. It doesn't matter what the material is, or how the "holes" are created, these details might affect the overall robustness of the material but not the explanation of how it might work. The theory is that you can wear such a material when it's raining; sweat then evaporates on the inside of the jacket and so can pass out through the holes, which at the same time are not letting the rain in.

3. "Waterproof". A string vest is not waterproof. Wear one in the rain and you'll get wet. A plastic material can be made completely waterproof - think of the bladder in a Camelback - and if you make a jacket out of it, it won't let the rain in, but it won't let any vapour out either, under any conditions. What we think of as modern "waterproof-breathable" materials are a compromise between these two. The smaller the "holes" the more they lean towards waterproof, bigger holes mean more breathable. Maybe they should more correctly be referred to as "water resistant".  A material that is resistant to a steady rain may not be so resistant if the pressure of the water goes up  -  a tropical downpour maybe, or if you sit in a puddle. That's why modern jackets have some sort of hydrostatic rating on the label  -  a measure of their actual degree of waterproofing. In a practical garment, the resistance given by its basic degree of waterproofing can be enhanced (for example by putting a shiny coating on the fibres so that they "shed" water droplets better - this is what has worn off when you are told you need to have the garment "re-proofed"), or compromised (for example by making holes in the seams when they are stitched  - which is why manufacturers claim the improvement of "taped seams" when they have covered up the holes with some glued-on tape).

So far, I would assume that anyone more expert than me might tick me off for over-simplifying things, but would hopefully concede that I haven't said anything outrageously wrong. But it seems to me there are some elephants in the room even up to here. You may already have spotted them, but let's move on now to some propositions on what might actually be happening when you wear your jacket for running out in real weather.

Let's say you are out running on a coolish but not cold day, wearing a long-sleeved technical teeshirt, and it feels pretty comfortable, not too hot, not too cold. The heat you're generating is being dissipated by your sweat into the air. Then it starts to rain steadily. It's not unpleasant to start with, but after a while you start to feel cold. What's happening here is that the raindrops hitting you and then eventually dripping away are more efficient at conducting the heat away than the air was  (you put air gaps into things to improve insulation, remember?), so now you are losing more heat than you're producing and you start to cool down.

There are three options from here. (i) You run faster to create more heat to warm up, (ii) you increase the insulation by putting on a thicker layer, say a fleece, or (iii) you pull on a waterproof. Intuitively, the best option is (iii) so on goes your lightweight waterproof but breathable jacket. This sheds the raindrops much more quickly and efficiently than your teeshirt so it cuts down the heat transfer, and this enables you to warm up. But as you warm up, you start to sweat again, and now the sweat has a much harder route to escape and evaporate. First of all, it now has to evaporate not into unrestricted air, but into the small space between your jacket and the layer inside it. And when it reaches the shell it (a) has to find its way through the restricted holes in the surface, and (b) even if it gets out it will be faced with air more humid than before you put your jacket on. Sorry, but a lot of your sweat is either not going to evaporate, or evaporate then re-condense as it hits the inside of the shell. You probably still feel quite comfortable, because the heat being taken away now matches again that which you are producing by the running effort, but inside your jacket you are unlikely to be dry.

Most outings in the rain start and end like this. When you stop running you get into a warmer place, change your clothes, and think nothing of it. Your jacket did a good job. But on a longish run, there may be the opportunity for a few other things to happen to affect the balance again, such as:

- you get tired, so you slow down to a jog or maybe even a walk, so you're putting less energy (and therefore less heat) into the system, but the outside conditions are still taking out what they did before.
- the weather gets significantly worse, heavier rain, lower temperature, higher wind, so that although you're still putting in the same energy (heat), the outside conditions are taking it away faster.
- it's a long time since you last ate anything, so more of the work you're doing gets used internally and less goes to warm the surface.

The first thing you realise in any of these scenarios is that you're getting cold. Then comes the realisation that your clothes are wet, because instead of being warm and wet which was comfortable, they are now cold and wet which isn't  -  "my waterproof jacket leaks!" Yes, I'm prepared to stick my neck out and say that so long as you're wearing a jacket that claims to be waterproof, then 99% of the moisture on the inside will have come from you, not the sky. OK, nice to know, but once you get into the "I'm cold and wet" scenario experience shows that you're on a downward spiral to ending your participation in the race (and in anything else if you're really unlucky), so what can we do about it? Before we go on to that, let's just home in on a couple of points that are key to the situation.

1. Breathable clothing was originally developed for activities less intense than running, such as walking, climbing and the like, and was found to work well. But these pastimes are less energetic than running and less sweat is necessary. Walkers and climbers would also not normally use a waterproof shell unless it was part of a three (at least) layer system - base layer wicking, to keep sweat away from skin, middle layer insulation (fleece, etc), then outer shell to keep rain or wind out. The whole system is under far less stress than in running, and the wicking/insulation layers hide any deficiencies better - they keep you feeling warm. Further, these activities are often intermittent, where bursts of energy are interspersed with easier or inactive periods allowing any accumulated moisture to evaporate while none is being produced. Finally, walkers and climbers (sensible ones at least) layer up and down frequently to keep in balance with changing conditions, whereas a runner will begrudge the time spent in doing this.

2. There is nothing wrong with being wet. Hot showers and warm swimming pools are not unpleasant, and certainly won't do you any harm. It's being COLD that gets you, and the problem with water is that, as we've seen above, it accelerates the heat transfer away from your body in a big way. The challenge is, if you can't avoid getting wet, how do you minimise the heat transfer?

So where has all this got us so far? You know now that I'm sceptical that you'll stay dry inside any waterproof jacket, whatever it claims, when you run in it. You know that being wet isn't in itself bad, but being wet (especially if it's raining) promotes heat loss, and if you can't manage that heat loss you can get into big trouble. So is there a strategy that we can adopt that might keep us out of jail? Well, for what it's worth, here's mine.

1. Choosing and maintaining a waterproof jacket
I personally don't think there's an overall winning brand; after all they're all using the same science and mainly similar materials. I've tried a lot of the reputable guys, North Face, Salomon, Montane, OMM and can't really detect any difference in performance. Better to go with what fits you best I think. I'm not sure that I buy into the taped seams thing but a lot of Race Directors require it and all of the reasonable makers do it anyway. More important for me is the state of the surface. You want it to shed water drops fast. You can't stop it raining but you want the drops that hit you to bounce off as fast as possible before they pick up any heat on the way. Pour water on your jacket and it should form globules and run off. If it doesn't, time for reproofing (or a shinier material).

2. Don't put on a waterproof unless you really need to
It doesn't matter how brilliantly technical your jacket is, it will be nowhere near as breathable as if you don't wear it. The sweat inside starts building from the moment you put it on. I'm quite happy to carry on in a baselayer in gentle rain, or even a light fleece if it's chilly. In the Lakeland 50 one year we had intermittent showers, some of them quite heavy. I passed numerous runners wearing waterproofs. But each time, often just at the point where I would be thinking "this rain has gone on long enough, I need to put a jacket on", the rain stopped. I ran from start to finish in a long-sleeved Helly-Hansen vest and was comfortable throughout and dry at the end. If it's windy I prefer a very light windproof, much more breathable than a waterproof, and I often carry both for this reason. The moment you put your waterproof jacket on is the moment you've decided to transfer from "cool and wet" to "warm and wet".

3. Once you've got a waterproof on, manage the layers
This won't be popular with the faster runners, but less necessary for them either as they continue to generate plenty of heat energy throughout the race. But if your pace drops to a jog/walk or the conditions worsen, be prepared to play with light teeshirt, long-sleeved teeshirt and light fleece under the waterproof to keep you warm enough but not too warm as the race goes on. Once you're really cold you'll probably have to stop somewhere dry to warm up and regroup before you can carry on. In the 2012 West Highland Way Race it rained pretty well from start to finish, well over 24 hours at my end of the field. After the first few miles I put on a long-sleeved teeshirt and a light fleece under my waterproof and was comfortable to the end. A lot of people that day pulled out with near hypothermia  -  my contention would be that they simply were not wearing enough layers. Remember, when you can't generate enough heat to balance what's going on outside when in your normal running gear, you need insulation to slow down the heat loss - you have to take away the sensation of touching the inside of a cold wet outer layer. In fact, I suspect that's why we often believe a heavier weight "mountain jacket" with a light mesh lining is more waterproof than a lightweight running top - it isn't actually more waterproof but it offers more insulation and a cosier inside feel, it doesn't feel so "wet" inside so we think it's more waterproof.

4. Don't stop
I don't mean don't stop for the odd cup of tea or jam sandwich, but you have to realise that unless you can stop in a warm place, you really change the heat balance dramatically by stopping. You'll lose a lot of heat and start shivering fairly quickly, so get going again and get the balance back before you lose it completely. In the re-routed 2010 UTMB conditions were fairly wet and I was with two other UK guys most of the way through the Swiss section. We were all feeling pretty comfortable until one of the others stopped for a comfort break at the Bovine Alp checkpoint. Although it was no more than five minutes, the two of us left waiting were reduced to shivering and jumping on the spot to keep warm, and it took us several miles to get back to feeling comfortable again. I'm sure we've all had the experience where we finish a fairly damp event, spend a half hour or so at the finish if it's inside, chatting, drinking, lazing around, then find that after the hundred yard walk back to the car we're shivering almost too much to get the door open. And if you have no choice but to stop during an event in these conditions, because of an accident or similar, well that's the time to get out the spare DRY top that you've been carrying in the bottom of your bag to put on underneath everything else on just such an occasion!

Wet outings where you get cold can turn into varying degrees of misery. Wet events where you manage your temperature and are comfortable can be strangely satisfying, maybe even enjoyable. As Brits, we ought to be able to manage a bit of rain  -  we get plenty of practice.

No, your jacket doesn't leak.

Sunday, 16 November 2014


A few days ago this sometimes stuttering blog recorded its 50,000th view. Now if you're in a bigger league, this is the sort of interest you can no doubt generate in a week or so but it's taken me just over 5 years. But from quieter beginnings it's built up to around a thousand hits a month these days, and that's more than enough to encourage me to keep rambling on.

Readers have to be quite persistent as I'm not a prolific blogger. An average of a post about every two weeks is all you get. I've often thought of putting up the frequency but never really got around to it because I always try to wait until I think I have something to say that may be of some interest. I'm no good at writing about training, so I tend to wait until I've done an event, or have a view on some general topic to do with running. What does surprise me is how long-lived some of the posts have become. I'd thought that the whole thing was a bit transitory  - publish a post, a few people read it, then you move on and it gets forgotten, but every so often I look at the statistics and discover a post from maybe two or three years back is still getting new views.

Here is a list of the "top ten" posts since I started, in order of popularity:

1. "Well, I think I'd better stop now......" (Oct 2013).  Views on what causes DNF's.

2. "The toughest race in the world" (Mar 2012). An attempt to compare the difficulty of a number of well-known races.

3. "Bad news and blisters" (Nov 2013). What causes blisters and how to prevent them

4. "The other Lakeland 100" (May 2013). A recce of the Ultimate Trails Lakeland 100k.

5. "Views on shoes" (Oct 2012). Comparing different shoe types and how to make choices.

6. "West Highland Way Race 2013" (June 2013). Race Tale.

7. "Pacing and the Lakeland 100" (Jul 2013) Pace strategies for the Lakeland 100 mile race.

8. "At the Lakeland 50 and 100" (Jul 2012). Running the Lakeland 50.

9. "A tourist's guide to the Lakeland 100" (Jul 2014) Running the Lakeland 100 "just to finish"

10."So why does my Garmin tell lies" (April 2012) How Garmins acquire cumulative errors when recording ascent and descent.

Some of these are getting out of date now as technology moves on (for example the shoes and Garmin posts), and I've learned a bit more about other things; they're still interesting for me to look back on occasionally, but I'm often puzzled why these particular posts have proved the most popular. I think I've done better than these, but of course it's up to the reader to judge!

Anyway, I'll keep going so long as I still find things that interest me to write about.

Another little milestone for me this year. It's November, the month when the entries go in for the West Highland Way Race. I've become very attached to this event over the years and I've completed eight in a row. I had every intention of making it a nice round ten and was determined not to let anything stand in the way of that. But since I began this series the Dragon's Back Race, first run in 1992, has been resurrected and 2015 will be the third running, after the second in 2012. Two hundred miles down the length of Wales visiting summits in all the main Welsh mountain groups. Home ground if you like, for though I'm not Welsh these hills are where I spent a lot of my formative years. Has to be done, and going by the history to date the next Dragon's Back won't be until the summer of 2018, when I shall be 70. Next year may be my only realistic chance, so the West Highland Way will have to wait a year. I'll be back.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

"Ultra Running overtakes Angling as Britain's most popular participation sport"

Well, probably not just yet, but you'd have to agree there has been a real explosion in participation over the past few years in what we used to think was a bit of a fringe activity. And there have been consequences, both good and bad.

1. First, choose your race....

The first time I tried the UTMB in 2006, entries opened while I was on holiday. I entered when I got back home a couple of weeks later; no problem, I think there were still about half the places still available (and no qualifying points required in those days!). Nowadays you might be lucky in the draw, but you can only guarantee that you'll get a start within three years of your first application, and this is surely going to get worse. It's getting the same for all the well-known international events. For the Tor des Geants I think you have a less than 50% chance of success in the draw, for the Western States less than 20%, and so on.

A similar situation is either starting or likely with the popular UK races. This autumn, entries for the Lakeland 50 and 100 races closed out under an hour after opening, with over 1000 runners struggling to get their entry finally confirmed. I entered the Highland Fling a day or two after entries opened and was number 800 or so to register. It  seems inevitable that ballots will be needed for these events next year. A ballot has been necessary for the West Highland Way race for some years now.

It's great to see these races become so successful, and it must be easier for Race Directors to manage their budgets if they know early on that their target entry levels will be met, but I'm rather coming to the conclusion that this isn't a game I want to play. I'll probably keep my hat in the ring for the Chamonix events because for a number of reasons they're quite special for me in spite of their downsides, but other than that I think I'll not bother with races that are likely to be over subscribed in future. The flip side of the increase in interest in the sport is that many new and very worthwhile events are springing up which you can plan to run then enter in the knowledge that you'll get a place. Some of these are every bit as good if not better than the established "classics", so you can get your day out without any of the of the "will I, won't I" entry hassles.

2. There are a lot of people around.....

I guess the UTMB is the event that I have run in regularly that has the biggest field. It's a beautiful course, but with 2300 people on it you're not going to get a wilderness experience, you're rarely if ever out of sight of other runners. If you're happy with that and the organisers continue to manage it as well as they have so far, I don't think it's going to do Mont Blanc too much harm. It's mostly a hard surfaced track that sees thousands of feet a year anyway and the Alpine climate makes the mountains reasonably resilient.

I'm not sure that the same can be said of some of our local hills. Runners have been tackling the Bob Graham Round for decades but it's a tough trip and only a relative few are capable of a serious attempt, let alone a completion. "Bob Graham Trods" have appeared over the years where the best line covers previously trackless ground, but they are in general pretty unobtrusive. Compare that to the Lakeland 50 and 100 races; when I first got interested in these barely five years ago you had to navigate quite carefully to find your way over the less well trodden bits of the route. Now, after 300+ runners a year on the 100, three times that number over the 50 section and countless reccies by prospective competitors, there is an easy to follow track all the way round  -  the only parts you can get lost on are the bits that have always been rocky so the runners leave no trace of their passing. I'm not recording this as a criticism, just an observation of the effect that the events have had on the landscape over a very short period of time. The saving grace for the Lakeland events (which I have used only as an example) is that the formerly less well trodden areas (Seathwaite to Eskdale, High Kop, Blea Moss and so on) are not in particularly popular walking areas so the "damage" is less visible to the fell-using population at large.

We also have an impact on other users of the countryside. On the open fells and wider tracks exchanges between runners and walkers are likely to be pleasant and mutually encouraging, but it's clear that a stream of runners hammering down a narrow track on a rocky hillside is likely to make those coming up feel nervous and possibly less than pleased. And I wouldn't want to be walking the narrow and often tortuous path alongside Loch Lomond on the day that 1000 Highland Fling runners come past. In the early days of its similarly explosive growth mountain biking caused a lot of antagonism which has taken quite a few years and a lot of goodwill to ameliorate.

3. Let's stay safe out there.......

Although there is the odd news item about someone dying from a heart attack on a hot day in a city half marathon or suchlike, running is generally felt to be a healthy activity.  But in spite of the common view, statistics normally don't lie. The higher the population you have in any activity, the more accidents you get. Runners have died on mountain races, just not many so far. I don't want to appear elitist in any way here, but I'm often surprised by the rudimentary knowledge of navigation that I sometimes see in some runners I have met on events, and who clearly have to rely on others around them. Mountains, even our little ones, are not very forgiving of incompetence and a few bad incidents could have a huge effect on the public view of our sport unless organisers continue to be vigilant. I'm rather nervous of the emerging trend to mark courses with flags so that navigational ability is not required.............not until, of course, you lose the flags.

4. And then there's the money.....

When I started this game only a very few years ago, there was no such thing as kit specially for ultra running. One or two small companies made odd bits of lightweight gear for mountain marathons, but in general folk used kit from road running, fell running, climbing and whatever seemed to work. I ran all my early ultras in road shoes (well, rock climbers have always used "trainers" as they were generically called to walk up to pretty remote crags, so why not?). Helly Hansen vests with shorts or Ron Hill "tracksters" seemed to be the name of the clothing game.

Then as ultra running started to become more popular, more "establishment", the outdoor companies saw another potential market; one with a relatively cheap entry level. You didn't need to buy skis, climbing gear, or a bike, so you could afford to spend money on shoes and clothing. North Face started sponsoring the UTMB and we were on our way. Markets need to expand so we need more consumers, so we need to sponsor and create more races, to create more runners, to sell more gear, ever better and more specialised. Again, I'm not criticising, just observing what happens.

5, And the answer is.....

There is no answer. Because there is no question, just a natural progression. Over 30 or 40 years I saw climbing move from a lunatic fringe activity to establishment and on to big business. The same happened with mountain biking (yes, it did start that way, I can remember trips like High Street or the Walna Scar Road on a bike with no suspension whatever (and no helmet!)) but the evolution happened in maybe 20 years. And in ultra running, barely 10. That's the way of the world.

But the beauty is, that if you hunt around a bit, there are still enough crags, bike trails, and yes, even ultra races, to suit whatever your taste is for at least a lifetime.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Map or GPS?

I'm sure you've all seen it in plenty of Facebook threads. Someone invites opinion or advice on brands of GPS and they get a regular stream of "learn to use a map" comments. Clearly, using a GPS is (a) cheating, unless everyone else has one, and (b) dangerous, because it leaves you at the mercy of the elements when it breaks down. Discuss. Well, here's my tuppence worth.

I learned to navigate when in my teens. The scale of the OS maps in use at the time was one inch to the mile; you could also get six inches to the mile, but as these were neither a practical nor economic proposition for most activities, the "one-inch" was the one everyone used. With a bit of instruction and plenty of practice in a range of areas and weathers I learned to be safe and reasonably competent. These are skills that once learned and practised, you don't forget.

Silva compasses look pretty much the same nowadays as they did fifty years ago but the maps have steadily improved. The OS 1:50,000 series (although fully metric, these were still referred to as the "one-and-a-quarter-inch" series by most people on their introduction) gave more useful detail than the one-inch, then later the 1:25,000 seemed amazing, with almost too much information for simple navigation at times. Harveys really cracked it when they started producing their 1:40,000 series, not only a perfect scale but waterproof. So no excuse for not being able to find your way around these days.

Then came GPS. At first, although you could get a hand-held version the accuracy was so poor that in most cases it was still more precise to use a map. OK for sailing your boat or flying your plane, where I guess you can plot your route so that the odd hundred yards doesn't make much difference, but not good enough to stop you walking over a cliff in the fog. But then the Berlin wall came down, the Americans took the scrambling off the satellite signals available to the masses, and  GPS can now tell you where you are  -  exactly. And that does make a difference.

I've played over the past 7 or 8 years, and come to the conclusion that wherever a GPS can take you, you could have got there equally well with a bit of steady map and compass work. And most of the time I still prefer to use a map. The screen on a GPS is pretty small, and I like the fact that the map gives you the big picture at the same time as the detail you're interested in at the moment, rather like running in daylight when you can see your surroundings as well as the next few feet compared with running at night when your vision is restricted to the pool of your headlamp. But I think there are a few situations where the GPS is worth its weight because it can save you a lot of time.

The first of these is in wild weather. When it's blowing so hard you can barely stand, the rain is torrential, the snow blizzard-like, these are the times when using a map and compass is a bit of a trial. Gettting yourself into a position where you can hold enough of the map steady to read it, transferring bearings between map and field, what to do with it as you cover the next hundred yards or so, I'm sure you've been there. Much easier with the GPS in your pocket, or held up your sleeve, pull it out, flick the light on, a quick check on where to go next, and away.

Another situation is when you are navigating across featureless ground in poor visibility. If you can see a hundred yards or so, no problem. Decide the bearing, fix your mark (rock, tree, whatever), go to it and repeat. If it's dark, depends how good your torch is.  At fifty yards visibility it's still doable, though with twice as many marks to make, and each mark brings with it a possible slight error. Once you're down to ten or fifteen yards it gets tricky.  The overall error grows and it may be hard to find useable marks. If there are two or more people you can use each other as marks, but on your own you don't have that luxury. I sometimes wonder at folk I see trying to follow a bearing by just looking at their compass needle. We all drift to one side or the other when we do this (if you don't believe me try it on a park or football pitch, see if you can walk a straight line looking only at your compass without glancing at your surroundings).  Under these conditions the only safe way to go is to aim off aggressively to reliable features, which may end up with you covering up to 50% more ground than by the optimum route, in addition to all the time taken faffing. With a GPS, just checking that you are to the right or left of your desired line is lightning fast, and you take the shortest possible route.

Finally, I like to use a GPS in forestry plantations. Forestry roads, tracks and paths often change frequently, swathes of trees are felled, etc, so what you see on your map is often not what you are faced with on the ground. A GPS will confirm changes instantly rather than your having to stop and work out what has gone on.

So to go back to the title, for me it's map and compass and GPS, use the tool most appropriate for the conditions. For what it's worth I use a Garmin etrex 30, weighs just 150g, simplicity itself to use and the standard AA batteries last all day. I don't take it on every event. In "Trail" races such as the West Highland Way or the Hardmoors and Lakeland 50/100 events you are mostly following clear trails, and on any trickier bits I think there are more than enough features to make a map at least as fast, if not faster than the GPS. But in the "mountain" type races, where you are often picking your own route over intermittent tracks or trackless ground, I think it's worth the weight in the pack.

So what about the critics? First, is using a GPS in an event "cheating"? Well, I've already said that in certain conditions I think it can save a lot of time, so if you use one and another runner doesn't, then I think you have an advantage, regardless of how good the map skills of the other guy may be. But I've also observed that some of the people who criticise the use of GPS are quite happy to go out and recce the route of an event they've signed up for. Now if using a GPS is a bit like taking a calculator into the exam with you, then a recce of the route is like seeing the exam paper well in advance; you can't have it both ways. So where I am is that if the event allows a GPS and I think it's worth it, then I take it. What actually constitutes cheating is decided by the Race Director. For a few years I'm sure there will be some traditionalists who make a point of going without a GPS (or without poles for that matter!). We've seen it a lot in the climbing world; artificial chockstones (nuts), sticky rubber boots, chalk, and numerous other developments have been seen as "cheating" by reactionaries to start with, then they get accepted and the world moves on.

Secondly, does using a GPS put you in potential danger if and when it breaks down? Well, no it doesn't, if used sensibly.  You can see from what I've said above that  I think a GPS gives you an extra club in the bag, to be used in addition to your map and compass skills, not instead of them. I believe that no-one should undertake an event in any of the UK's wilder areas until they are fully competent to navigate using a map and compass. I'm not sure that I really approve of the recent trend for marking some events, or even the use of "roadbooks", as these suggest that you can get away with not being able to navigate. I understand where this comes from. In the US and much of continental Europe, walking in the hills is different. You follow a well-marked trail until you come to a junction, where there will be a signpost. A map is hardly necessary unless you choose to go "off piste". You don't need to be able to read a map to enter an event. But that's not the UK tradition; we've (so far) been brought up to understand that when you wander off into our hills, you should be able to bring yourself safely down again, and it would be a real shame to lose that ethic.

The single most important principle of navigation is to know where you are now.  It's a rule we all break at times, often through over-confidence or laziness, and when we do we are reminded why it's so important. Because if you know that, it doesn't matter whether your next step is to pull out a GPS or a map. Either, with the right skill, will get you to where you want to go next.

Happy navigating, whatever your preference!

Thursday, 16 October 2014

"Lakes in a Day"

Well, for the second weekend running I was off to the Lakes for the inaugural running of a nice looking 50 mile event. The Lakes in a Day Ultra, organised by Open Adventure, goes from Caldbeck in the far north of the district to Cartmel in the south, via Blencathra, the Helvellyn range, then lesser heights, woodland and lakeside trails to the west of Windermere. A base with facilities for camping at the Priory School in Cartmel and buses laid on to take runners from here to the start in Caldbeck makes it an easy trip logistically, so although I was still feeling a little tired from splashing around the wet 3 x 3000 the previous Saturday I was looking forward to the day.

I travelled up late Friday afternoon, registered at the school then wandered into Cartmel for a meal and a beer before bedding down in the trusty Octavia with the alarm set for 5.30am. It seemed to rain pretty steadily for most of the night, but Saturday dawned dryish if still rather grey and misty. The buses left on the dot at ten past six, getting us to Caldbeck with a few minutes to spare before the scheduled 8am start. A quick chat with Jon and Shirley Steele, the briefest of briefings, then we were off.

The first few miles were familiar ground to me, following the same route out of Caldbeck, up High Pike and down to the Lingy Hut to that taken by the Grand Tour of Skiddaw back in August.  By here the field was starting to spread out, we had had our first sharp rain shower, and we had reached cloud level.

Unlike most "mountain" ultras there were very few unmanned checkpoints ("dibber boxes")  to ensure that competitors completed the required route; instead, the course was shown on the map supplied by the organisers and each runner carried a tracking device so it could be seen whether any illegal shortcuts had been taken. The system seemed to work well, and has the added advantage that race HQ knew where everyone was at any time.

The only bit of the course which had a free route choice was from High Pike over to Blencathra summit, mainly I suppose because there are no real paths in this area. The first objective was to get down to the River Caldew. On the Tour of Skiddaw we had gone down Grains Gill to the big track to Skiddaw House, but a mile can be saved by pushing directly over Comb Head and that's what most of the field seemed to be doing. A variety of lines were taken with runners seemingly scattered fairly widely over the hillside in deep heather in the fog, but we all managed to converge on the jeep track that the map said was there for the final run down to the Caldew, where we were out of the clag and for the first time that day in some sunshine.

Thinking about the course earlier in the week and mindful that the amount of rain we'd had might make wading the river at this point "interesting", I had planned to go a mile or so upstream to the pole and fence that spans the stream just above the traditional Bob Graham crossing point, then pick up the BG trod to Blencathra, but the organisers had provided a direct option by way of a temporary bridge which seemed too good to miss, and was in any case quite a classy construction.

Bridge across the Caldew

Any hopes that this might keep feet dry were quickly dispelled however as we then had to cross a knee-deep tributary stream anyway. The next few hundred feet were tedious, trackless tussocky grass, the sort of territory where you're always convinced that everyone has picked a better line than you. As soon as the ground started to level out on the edge of Mungrisdale common I cut rightwards to pick up the BG route and things got a lot easier to the top of Blencathra. By now we were in thick mist again - the cloud level on the tops seemed to be hanging around persistently at about the 2000ft level so no views again. There were a few other runners around but in these conditions they seem to disappear into the fog when not far off.

I had my first navigational moment on Blencathra. I knew the way, I'd been there before. Up to the top, turn left onto Hall's Fell Ridge and straight down to Threlkeld, easy. Except after five or ten minutes on the ridge I suddenly realised I wasn't on a ridge at all but following a vague track down an open hillside. A bit of a pause to consult map and compass more carefully and I worked out that I'd sidled off the ridge to the right and was heading into the gulley between the ridge and Middle Tongue. I traversed horizontally back for maybe a hundred yards to get re-established and carried on down, paying a bit more attention. The path got easy just as I came down out of the mist, typical. I don't think mine was the only error, looking at the shots taken by the photographer near the bottom of the ridge, quite a proportion of the runners appear to be emerging from the lower part of the gulley so I might have been quicker just pushing on down!

Down out of the mist on Blencathra

Quickly from there down through the fields to Threlkeld and the first main checkpoint and feed station at 11.40am.  There were three of these stops on the course, at Thelkeld, Ambleside and Finsthwaite; all were indoors, warm, welcoming places with lots of good food, real oases along the way. I didn't stay long at this first one but was soon out and onto the longest stage of the day over to Ambleside.

We followed the old railway path under the main A66 and along to Newsham. The next few miles to Helvellyn would be an exact reversal of what I had done last weekend in the 3 x 3000 event. The climb up Clough Head is long and steep, but by following the BG trod just to the left of the rocks I seemed without going any faster to overtake quite a few runners who were seeking less steep ground over to the left. Once on top, that was the major effort for the stage made and I could enjoy the remainder. Easy running in now lovely sunshine over the Dodds, Raise, Whiteside and Lower Man to Helvellyn, following my now re-established regime of walking the ups and jogging everything else. By the time I got to Helvellyn I was in the last bit of mist again, so I celebrated by not paying attention to the path -  navigational moment number two  -  and realised quite soon that I was making good progress towards Wythburn rather than Grisedale Tarn. No real harm done, a contour across the hillside got me back on track with the loss of maybe five minutes at most. I should have topped up water at the tarn outflow but forgot and was running on empty by the time I got to Ambleside. Fairfield was a pull but went quickly and the long run down the "easy" side of the Fairfield horseshoe to Ambleside was pleasure all the way.

I had hoped to reach Ambleside in daylight so was pleased to trundle in a minute or two before 6pm. Pasta, pizza, tea and dry socks set me up nicely for the easier second half of the route, but which would be done mainly in the dark. I was surprised to see Jon Steele and Mark Dalton at Ambleside as they had taken off a lot faster than me from the start, but Jon said he'd found the climb up Clough Head hard and had also injured a knee so had been forced to slow down. I left on my on but expected them to catch me up.

The route from Ambleside tracks the western shore of Windermere, sometimes closely, sometimes a mile or so distant. The start was a few miles down the cinder cycle track alongside the road to Low Wreay, which apart from the steeper ups I took at a steady jog. On the half mile of tarmac up to High Wreay we lost the last of the light and I caught up with Iain, who I was to stay with for the next few miles. We made our way through the woods to the top of Claife Heights, with one pause to check that we really were in the right place  -  plantations are hard in daylight, let alone in the dark. Then the run down the easy track past Moss Eccles Tarn to Sawrey was fine on what had become a nice moonlit evening. There followed a bit of road then a twisty lakeside footpath, through fields and woods and even along bits of the lake beach at times, which was slower going. A hilly bit of road then another section of lakeside path, a bit more tortuous this time, led back to the road near the YMCA water centre.

The last couple of miles or so to the Finsthwaite checkpoint involved a stiff climb of a few hundred feet through woods up to Scott Heights, then over to High Dam. As none of the paths were marked on our maps, this was one of the few sections of the course to have been marked  -  just as well, it would have been quite tricky without, as I said woods are not easy at night. I suggested Iain carried on as I was going to stop for a minute to get my poles out.  Now alone, I made my way steadily upwards and just before the top I was caught by another headlamp, this time it was Mark. I expected him and Jon to have caught me earlier but he said Jon's knee was clicking so he'd had to slow down and told Mark to go on. Jon wasn't far away though, he turned up at Finsthwaite OK. The checkpoint was again well-appointed, soup and hot sausage rolls to see us through the eight miles to the finish. Because of the darkness in the second half,  the race seemed to acquire an atmosphere you usually associate with much longer events, where runners travelling at similar speeds congregate at the checkpoints for some mutual chat and support before setting off again into the night. One of the staff did an impressive knee strapping job on Jon, who then declared himself good to go. He was going to be accompanied by Shirley for the last stretch, so off they went. I followed a few minutes later. It was now around ten minutes past ten; I had hoped to finish before midnight, 16 hours after starting, but that looked unlikely now, I had to average over 4 miles an hour and get all the navigation right.

There was a little climb through woods again, then a steepish descent to Newby Bridge and another steady ascent out of the other side of the village. Patches of thick fog appeared from time to time, making visibility pretty poor. Not far out of Newby Bridge I saw some lights ahead in the gloom and found it was Jon and Shirley. We followed a long, muddy, narrow path over a bit of low moorland, then a short road section led up to Bigland Tarn. Just beyond here the route joined the Cumbria Coastal Way until the final road section. We hoped it might be well marked, and to start with it was good, over a little rise and across a bit of moor. Then it plunged into another plantation and things got harder. The tracks on the ground didn't really match those on the map (do they ever in plantations?)  and we'd lost the CCW signs. We caught up with another half dozen runners including Mark who were equally perplexed. Fortunately this bit of wood was relatively short and we soon stumbled out onto a road crossing barely a hundred yards from where we should have been.

Now we were on open moor again and the track relatively easy to follow, of course the CCW posts appeared to keep us company. A gentle up and over, a short wood, then we were out onto what we knew was the final couple of miles of narrow road into Cartmel. I was with Mark, slightly ahead of the others. We ought to show willing I suggested, so we broke into a jog, then a slowish run. The others followed and we all manged to keep it going to the finish, all finishing within a few minutes of each other. I lost out to most of the others, including Jon who overcame his knee pain to put on a fine effort over the last mile. I must be getting old.


My time in the end was 16:34:53 which gave me a provisional 84th place out of 152 finishers (don't know how many starters the were).  I seemed to be the first "over 60" home by the simple tactic of being the only entrant in the age group. The overall winner's time was 10:37:21.

Finishing at the school was superb. We were treated to baked potatoes with a choice of fillings (definitely chilli for me!) and lots of tea. We sat around eating and relaxing in the warm for a while, then went off to make use of the wonderfully hot showers. I've done a lot of ultras over the years and this was without doubt one of the best organised I've done; for Open Adventure to achieve this on the first running of the event was a great performance, many thanks to the organisers and all the marshals.

There was some debate about the distance. 48 miles was on the tin, most people who had Garmins got 52-53, but then almost everyone made an error or two along the way. Race Director James has since said that the best route on the day was actually just on 50. As for the 4000m of climb, I think the jury's still out! It may be right, but I think everyone found the climbs tough, due to the steepness and the ground underfoot. Whatever, this is a great course, with a bit of everything that the Lakes has to offer. I'll definitely be back next year!

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

The Lakes 3x3000 UT

I entered this event way back in the year, I can't really remember what the attraction was, other than that it was in the Lake District, a beautiful area not far from where I live. However  I only cottoned on to what the "Skyrunning" series was all about fairly recently; basically they are ultras that go to the tops of hills rather than around them and need to have some technical content along the way. Had I realised this earlier I might have gone for one or two of the others, the Lakes being the third of this year's UK four race series. No matter, now we know. The Lakes 3 x 3000 does what it says. Starting and finishing at Keswick it visits three of the four 3000ft peaks in the area, Scafell Pike, Helvellyn and Skiddaw using a logical off-road course  -   50 miles, about 13,500ft of climb (including a number of subsidiary peaks) and less than a mile of tarmac in total. The other 3000ft peak Sca Fell is omitted because it was felt to be "a bit too technical" for a running race; not quite sure about that one, other events go there, but overall it looked like a good day out.

I've been training "properly" again for a month or so now but still have nowhere near enough fuel back in the tank to have a good blast at an ultra, so this was to be another event to be taken gently in my year of running very slowly. Actually, participating in races over this summer without really having the fitness to do them justice has taught me quite a lot about alternative completion strategies, so every cloud and all that, but I'm still hoping to be back in action better next year. Losing the extra half stone or so that I've put on this year might help a bit too. Anyway that's all a bit peripheral so back to the events of last weekend.

I met Carrie Craig as I checked in at the race HQ in Keswick on Friday evening. Come down to sample our part of the world I enquired, yes but I've brought some Scottish weather with me she said. She wasn't wrong, although the Lakes can do weather quite well too. The forecast had been stunningly accurate. Heavy continuous rain started as I drove into Cumbria on Friday afternoon and eventually stopped mid morning on Saturday. The 3 x 3000 course starts up the wettest valley in England and then descends the boggiest one in the district. I wondered if any of the overseas competitors knew what was going to happen.

Back at the hotel I sorted through my stuff. All OK except the shoe choice. For all this year I've been using Skechers Gorun Ultras, a great shoe from a rather unlikely manufacturer. Lots of cushioning, light and manouverable and with a nice grippy sole,  "Hokas with attitude" if you like. I had brought two pairs with me, the old ones had done about 600 miles and the heel tread was almost gone; the new ones were identical but unworn, straight out of the box, I hadn't had time since getting them to go on a checkout run to make sure the manufacturing, sizing and so on was all as it said on the tin. I thought about the course and one or two of the steep grassy descents; it would have to be the new one, I hoped they would be OK (they were).

Some suitors clearly feared the worst because of the 300 entered for the race, just 200 turned up at Crow Park for the 5am start on Saturday. Nearly everyone was wearing full waterproofs already as we huddled under the canopy of Keswick theatre for the briefing from Race Director Ian Mulvey. He told us that due to the conditions we wouldn't be going to the top of Scafell Pike but would be going directly from Sty Head up to Esk Hause. It was difficult to judge whether disappointment or relief was the predominant reaction to this, mostly everyone just looked wet. There was one guy dressed only in a vest and shorts, it's nice to see that the odd example of the traditional (crazy?) Lakeland fell runner is still around. But we all knew it would seem better once we got going, and we were off into the darkness on the dot of 5am.

Any illusions we might have harboured about conditions not being as bad as they looked were dispelled in the first half mile before we had crossed the Borrowdale road.  A hundred yards of the track was just over ankle deep in water; everyone's feet got wet at that point and stayed wet for the rest of the day. But there is always a perverse sort of enjoyment in this sort of stuff, and anyway we'd probably had it far too easy for most of the summer, time to start paying some dues. Crossing the road into Great Wood the narrow single track started to meander and rise and fall through the trees, crossing a number of streams that aren't normally there, to come out onto the narrow Watendlath road at Ashness Bridge. The water was pretty well up to the arch but the old stones have seen it many times before and didn't seem too worried. A few hundred yards up the road then off onto the footpath that follows the edge of Watendlath Beck up to the village of the same name.

Now this path is a popular afternoon stroll for families and casual walkers, pleasant easy walking and picnic spots. When the race was planned it was clearly seen as the easy warm-up bit. Early Saturday morning it was interesting. Long sections had been overrun by the now fast-flowing beck, guessing where the submerged track was or taking avoiding action on the steeper grassy banks further out was the choice. As the track crossed several tributary steams the decks of the wooden plank bridges could just about be made out by head torch, a foot or so beneath water level.  Knee and even thigh deep sections had to be negotiated carefully, I suspect watching what actually happened to the runner ahead was a tactic adopted by most.  I think we were all fairly glad to gain a bit of height in the last few yards before Watendlath, taking us clear of what was referred to later by most competitors and marshals as "the swimming section".

I was settling down near the back of a fairly strung out field as we made our way over the few hundred feet of rise up and down to Rosthwaite. Hitting the village it was just about light enough for the torch to go out, seven o'clock on a rainy, claggy day. An easy track through the fields led to Seathwaite and the first feed station. Just before crossing the road near Seatoller I passed a guy walking his dog in the fields. Not great weather for you today he remarked. I had to agree.  He looked remarkably like Billy Bland, probably because that's who it was.

Progress got a lot easier from Seathwaite up to Sty Head, the good track not affected by the rain although Stockley Bridge was impressive; the normally placid rock pools so perfect for bathing on a summer's afternoon had been replaced by a continuous raging cataract. On the climb up to Sty Head I caught up with John Vernon. I hadn't seen him at the start, he said he'd only made it with a minute or two to spare, so hadn't heard about the intention to miss out Scafell Pike. Mountain man that he is, he wasn't too happy about that. We chatted most of the way to Sty Head about the summer and future plans (John's up for the Spine in January, not my cup of tea thanks!). When we got to Sty Head the clouds had lifted quite a bit and the rain was starting to slacken off, so it would have been quite possible to take in the Pike, but I guess conditions would have been far worse for the leaders an hour and a half or so earlier, so we did as we were told by the marshal and set off up the track to Esk Hause. This short-cut took about three miles and nearly a thousand feet off the course, but at the prize-giving on Sunday Ian Mulvey said that the overall times taken by runners were pretty well spot on what had been predicted for the full course in normal conditions, so it seems that the course modification just cancelled out the conditions on the day.

I pulled away from John on the final bit of uphill to Esk Hause, then was on my own down past Angle Tarn and over to the top of Stake Pass. The route from here goes up to the top of High Raise, a climb of around a thousand feet over tussocky trackless grass. I had hoped to use a bit of local knowledge here, using a developing trod that I had discovered while doing the Lakes 10 Peaks back in June, but a feature of the Skyrunning series is that the courses are fully marked in all places where any navigational decisions had to be made, so the flags led straight from Stake Pass to the start of the trod! I'm not sure about course marking. I'm sure it makes life a bit less nervous for the organisers, it makes the events more accessible to overseas competitors less used to navigation, and it does take away any local knowledge advantage, but I do think that navigation is part of the deal for mountain races and I'm a bit sad if it's not required. I did a longish ultra in the Brecon Beacons a month ago and I have to say that part of the satisfaction of finishing in good order was navigating around an area that I had no previous knowledge of.

I caught a few runners on the way up to High Raise, so there were always a few in sight on the next section from there down to Greenup Edge then the Wythburn valley to Thirlmere. Wythburn is generally acknowledged as the boggiest valley in Lakeland. On previous trips I have taken a wide route to the south of the higher bog, but the flags led straight down the middle today, so I followed everyone else. It was ankle deep most of the way down with occasional knee-deep stretches. Deeper bits often came up unexpectedly and on one of these my momentum carried me on as one leg got stuck; I think this is where I picked up a slight quad tweak which I felt for the rest of the day. It was pretty unpleasant all the way down but you can't have the Lakes without a bog or two and eventually I was out into the final fields before Thirlmere. By now the rain had stopped and there was even a patch or two of blue sky appearing. It looked like it might turn out to be a game of two halves as they say, things were looking up. I trotted round to Wythburn Church where the second feed station and dry socks were waiting.

Just over six and a half hours from the start, not quite half way and most of the climbing still to do, but things were going to get better now. The weather was definitely on the up and I knew the ground conditions would be much better from now on, getting progressively easier to the finish. I encouraged one or two runners at the checkpoint to carry on for this reason, they said they didn't fancy a lot more of what they had just encountered and had been thinking of dropping out.

The steady climb up Helvellyn took just an hour, then it was off across the Dodds, one of the easiest sections of the day, especially as in this race you didn't have to go to any of the Dodd summits but just take the contouring path that finds the easiest way along the ridge. Apart from a sharp hailstorm near the top of Raise it was fine, a chilly wind but great views and some easy progress at last. There was a checkpoint on top of Clough Head, the only unmanned one on the course, then flags again showed the easiest way to pick up the steep trod leading to the Old Coach Road. I had a a bit of a fall down here, probably going a bit too fast due to over-confidence and managed to twist slightly the knee-that-should-not-be-twisted, but I sat still for a few seconds before trying to get up and it seemed that no damage had been done. Pay more attention!

I have normally climbed up the short but tedious section from the Coach Road down to Newsham House, either on the Lakeland 100 course when it gets you early on after the first night and you're at a bit of a low ebb, or in helping or recceing for Bob Graham Rounds, so it was a real pleasure to take it in reverse, easy running on soft grass down a nice gradient. There was an unexpected extra feed station near the start of the old railway track below Newsham, so I stopped a few minutes for a cup of tea, very welcome. After that the course again follows the Lakeland 100 in reverse, along the railway then up the hill towards Brundhome, but then branching off along a bridleway that climbs gently up to the Latrigg Carpark and the next feed station/ checkpoint.

From Latrigg the course goes up round the Glederaterra valley to Skiddaw House, on to Dash Falls then steeply up over Bakestall to Skiddaw summit and back down the tourist track to Latrigg again before finally dropping down to the finish in Keswick. Latrigg was a good place to see how the race was going. I arrived there just over 11 hours from the start, by which time the winner had finished two and a half hours previously and there was a steady flow of runners coming down from Skiddaw having already completed their "loop". A bit daunting maybe. Still, on the plus side it was a nice early evening and I had a chance now, which I couldn't have envisaged at the start of the race, of getting to Skiddaw summit in daylight.

I had decided that if I was still going OK by here I would have a go at jogging some of the gentler uphills  -  over most of the summer I have not run any uphill gradients at all in events  - so the track up and round to Skiddaw house went quite quickly. I caught and passed two or three other runners along the way, but every time I chanced to look round I could see two more some distance behind me.  I had been aware of this pair, who I had in my mind as "red jacket and blue jacket" since running over the Dodds and we seemed to have kept up a similar pace ever since. They (a man and a woman) eventually caught me on the final few yards of the downhill into the checkpoint at Dash falls. I was beginning to feel a bit like Butch Cassidy, I said to them, ah you'll get away again on the climb they said, that seems to be how it works. But I had already decided to take five at the checkpoint to get ready for Skiddaw so they set out ahead of me. I chatted to the marshal, she'd been there for hours, it was now about a quarter to six and she wouldn't leave until nine she said, although you're not really on your own with nearly 200 runners going past! All the marshals did a great job in conditions varying from nippy to very unpleasant, they all deserved our thanks. But the weather was not great again now, we'd had quite a long chilly shower around Skiddaw House, the wind was getting up and I knew it would be much colder on top. I put on another layer on top and my waterproof trousers to keep out the wind, and had a bit to eat and drink. I was tiring but going well enough and quite happy.

I finally caught red jacket and blue jacket just as we reached Skiddaw summit, but then they got away again on the downhill and I never saw them again. On Skiddaw there were grey clouds overhead but it was still clear out to sea and we were treated to a spectacular sunset. The summit marshal, huddled in his bothy inside the shelter ring wasn't bothered, he was looking the other way out of the wind. He still had a long shift to finish, another hero. My quad tweak was hurting a bit on the descents now so I kept the pace down to minimise any potential damage, jogging rather than the easy running which is normally possible on this descent. The lamp had to go on again before the final steeper descent down Jenkin Hill to Latrigg. No cup of tea this time with the finish so close, just a quick swig of coke and off. Before leaving I looked back up, there was still a succession of lights coming down the long track.

Descending a track that I've covered many times both up and down, round Latrigg then down Spooney Green Lane to the outskirts of Keswick, I was able to reflect that it had all worked out well enough. It was a far from spectacular performance but I had got round another ultra in a reasonable time, in good shape and with no major damage. Recovery seems to be progressing OK. Then I was across the park, through the town and at the end. I finished in 15 hours 10 minutes. That's OK, I would have taken that at the start. A day when we had seen and coped with a range of what the Lakes has to offer, in places and climate; a satisfying day out.

This was the first running of this event. I'm sure it will prosper, maybe become a classic, it has all the ingredients. Will I do it again? Maybe, but I'm not sure. I've made three or four trips up and down the Wythburn Valley now  -  maybe that's enough for a sane person.