Tuesday, 27 May 2014

7 up in the Lakes

Back in the early autumn of last year, before my injury troubles started, I came across the website of the Lakes 10 Peaks event. Its challenge is to visit the 10 highest tops in the Lake District, and with 17,500ft of total ascent it definitely has a bit of up, but just 45 (ish) miles and a time allowance of 24 hours seemed to suggest it should be doable without too much stress, so in spite of it coming up just a week after the West Highland Way race I put in an entry for this year. My reward for such hubris would probably have been a bit of a nasty shock on the day anyway, because I later found a comment from a runner I know and respect (and who had a top ten finish in this event one year) to the effect that "this is possibly the toughest one-day race in the country". After my progress this year it's very unlikely that I'll get to the start line, but as the nature of the course is the sort of thing I can actually do at the moment  -  lots of hills and no real need for a lot of running - I thought it would be an interesting and worthwhile exercise to recce the route.

I said "ish" when quoting the distance because it's a mountain event, not a trail race. You have to visit the tops plus a number of other checkpoints in a set order, but in between there is no set route, you can pick your own way. In outline, you start from Swirls car park, go up Helvellyn then down to a CP at the south end of Thirlmere.  You then make your way over Bow Fell, Great End, Ill Crag, Broad Crag, Scafell Pike, Sca Fell, Pillar, Great Gable, then down to Honister Pass. All that's left after this is to make your way to Skiddaw then up and down it back to the finish in Keswick.

I'd been up both Skiddaw and Helvellyn a couple of times earlier in the year, then a week or two back I squelched up the Wytheburn valley and over the wastes of High Raise and Stake Pass to take in Bow Fell, so I knew all of the route except the "middle bit". And this centre section, between the checkpoints at Esk Hause and Honister, is the real meat of the course. Glancing through some splits from previous years, I could see that the fastest guys cover these 16 miles and their 7 peaks in something just over 4 hours while people of my sort of ability might expect to take 8  -  yes that's just 2 miles an hour, that's the sort of territory it is. So allowing time for reaching Esk Hause and returning from Honister, I was in for quite a lengthy day out.

An early start from Chester saw me parking at Seathwaite at around 8.30am, and on an overcast but dry day I walked steadily up past Stockley Bridge and on to Esk Hause and the "start line". From here, the first part was known to me from a number of Bob Graham reccies and pacing days, but I decided against taking the direct line to Great End summit over all the boulders and kept on the path to the grass then cut up rightwards to the ridge; not much further, a lot easier, and for me I'm sure quicker. Ill Crag and Broad crag came and went quickly, grand little tops, I've never figured why Alfred Wainwright left them off his list; they're worthy of more status than just that of subsidiary tops of Scafell Pike. So on to Scafell Pike, early enough in the morning to be alone up here for once, and the first real decision of the day.

As a climber I would normally prefer the Broad Stand route to Sca Fell., I've scampered up and down it enough times over the years when climbing on the crags hereabouts, but its main disadvantage is that if you do get it wrong it's a nasty place to fall and you may not live to tell the tale. This is enough to worry race organisers a bit, so it's out of bounds for the 10 Peaks event, leaving the choice between Lord's Rake and Foxes Tarn. I've always been very wary of Lord's Rake since the rockfall a few years ago which left a huge boulder balanced across the top of the first steep bit. It will make its way down the rest of the rake one day, certainly terminating anyone unlucky enough to be beneath it at the time. This might be in two or three hundred years time or might be tomorrow. This is a different kind of danger from Broad Stand, one that cannot be overcome by the skill of the individual. I've spent more than enough time in the past beneath threatening lumps of rock and ice and I've been lucky for nigh on 50 years of activity, so I've decided to give up that sort of thing and hopefully enjoy my old age. It's the Foxes Tarn route for me, marginally slower than Lord's Rake but safe throughout, a quick descent to the left of Mickledore, an easy-angled rocky gully to the "tarn" (really no more than a puddle in a hollow) then a final slope to the summit plateau of Sca Fell.  This final slope has an example of the pitched rock paths now seen in many places in the Lakes and which generally do a good job in combatting erosion, but this must have been an early one and not too well thought out. It was laid straight up the centre of a scree slope with the result that it's now completely covered in scree and virtually unusable. A new path is gradually appearing by default in the grass slope on the right of the scree, which is where it should have been laid in the first place.

On Sca Fell in just under two hours from Esk Hause, 5 summits done and another decision to make. The event rules allow you to take the next two tops, Pillar and Gable, in either order. This means you have the choice of going back down to  Mickledore, along the Corridor path to Sty Head, over Gable to a checkpoint at Beck Head then a long out-and-back to Pillar and back to Honister, or to go straight to Pillar via Wasdale head, then back over Gable to Honister. The former involves a lot of tricky ground and is a mile or so further, whereas the latter loses probably an extra 1500ft of height which then has to be regained. I don't really like out-and-backs so I opted for the "Pillar first" route, and dropped quickly down the Bob Graham route to Brackenclose and Wasdale Head. This loses about 3000ft in a mile and a half or so, mostly on grass, so is pretty fast but my quads were still stiff three days later, out of condition I guess.

Wasdale head provided top-ups for drink and Mars bars then I set off again for Pillar along the Black Sail path, familiar from several trips around the Lakeland 100 course. It was good to see it in daylight. After a mile and a half or so the route up Pillar leaves the Black Sail track and heads straight for Wind Gap. Described by Wainwright as less popular than the Black Sail route, and by the 10 Peaks race director as "a beast of a climb", it's pretty steep for a mile, first on grass then on scree and with no path to speak of. It took me the best part of an hour to do the steep bit, then it eased off to the top of Pillar. But now the hard work was done, and it was an easy jog down Pillar to Black Sail Pass, then round the north side of Kirk Fell to Beck Head. The final bit of up for the day was Gable, which on this side isn't too daunting. The only downside was that after a day with good visibility all round, the mist closed in over the top three or four hundred feet of the mountain so there was no view on top. What I did find on top was a rather curious sight. Three or four lines of cairns converge on Gable summit, and during the minute or two that I paused there for a drink and something to eat, several parties emerged out of the gloom from different directions  -  and none of them anywhere near the cairns.......

Time to leave. I scooted off down to Windy Gap (the col between Great and Green Gables), then down the stoneshoot on the north side to pick up the Moses Trod track, which I'd not used before but on the map appeared to be a direct way to Honister. In fact it involved regaining some height and it wiggles around a bit in the middle, so if I come this way again I'll probably avoid the stoneshoot and carry on over Green Gable and Brandreth, then cut down left to meet Moses Trod on its last downhill section, shorter and easier I think. I finally made Honister Pass just inside the eight hours I had allowed myself from Esk Hause.

All that remained was to sidle off down to Seatoller then back up to my car at Seathwaite. The Garmin showed a total trip of just over 20 miles and a height gain of around 8300ft. A step on the road to recovery perhaps, but as always a great day out in the Lakes.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

On the wire

Daughter Julia on the phone to me last week.

"How's it going, dad?  ......I mean, should I book my flight to Glasgow?"

"Yes, go for it. I've just run three miles, how much harder can another ninety-two be?"

It's a long story.  I won't dwell on the details but here are the headlines. I pulled a calf muscle back in October last year. By the end of February I was getting a bit frustrated with the number of false starts and re-occurrences of the problem. Two steps forward then two steps back sort of thing. I tried to piece together the reasons with the help of the physio. Well, she said, one clear problem is that you don't have anywhere near the muscle mass on the injured side as on the good one, and that's certainly not helping. I knew the problem. I have a bad knee, had it since a bad ski crash nearly twenty years ago now. Surgery about fifteen years ago helped but it's got worse again over the years as occasional over-rotations have displaced more bits of cartilage. I knew it needed doing but kept putting it off, it's just a bit of pain, you can live with that. But I must have been unconsciously protecting it, and that wasn't doing any of that leg any good. So I bowed to the inevitable and had the job done. The surgeon removed the offending cartilage (a "bucket handle tear" for the technically interested). He also said that I had lost some bone mass causing a cavity on the end of my thigh bone so he drilled some small holes back up into the bone to encourage it to fill up again. It's never going to be a great knee,  I still have a ruptured ACL and some arthritis at the back of the kneecap, but it's a lot better than it was.

I limped out of the hospital on 19th March, with an instruction that the knee would bear weight as soon as I liked, but no running for at least a month. Ten days later I stepped out of the Olympic lift onto the summit of the Belvarde at Val d'Isere, clicked into my skis and hoped for the best.  After a week of brilliant weather during which I kept to the  pistes (more or less) and avoided the bumpy bits (more or less), I felt I was on the mend. On the 19th April, I ran half a mile in six minutes.

But I still had a pretty unsatisfactory right leg. A less than perfectly flexible ankle from a skateboard incident when I was younger (I'm good at falling off things, my skill levels have sometimes not quite matched the game plan over the years) doesn't help.  My first attempts at jogging still caused a bit of aching in the calf and hamstring and I was developing PF in my right foot. Any attempt to push things too fast and I would be back where I started. So how to move forward from here?

I set some rules.

1. I'm going to beat this, even if it takes a while. From mid October to mid April I had lost six months and not made any progress. If it takes another six months or more to recover slowly and properly, that's OK.

2. I will stop using artificial aids. Taping and painkillers have been a constant accompaniment to my running for many years, and with the possible future exception of a bit of preventive taping for long races, I've binned them. Should save a fortune.

3. 12 minute mile pace and 6 miles of continuous running (is 12 minute miles running ?  - discuss) are the maxima allowed until I can come home from a run feeling that both legs are the same. Walking has never hurt throughout this whole affair, so I can walk as far as I like.  No running uphill, no matter how gentle the gradient.

4. Stretches for all relevant muscles, plus eccentric strengthening for right calf every day, and work on the PF.

Now this is all very well, and it's great to be making (slow) progress again, but I do like to have an event to look forward to. Since the problem started back in October I've pulled out of the Tour de Helvellyn, the Anglesey Coast, the South Devon Coast, the Grizedale Trail Marathon, the Hardmoors 55, the Highland Fling and the Great Lakeland 3-Day. The latter two were simply too close after surgery to contemplate, but on reflection for all the others I probably put too much pressure on myself to get running consistently at a good ultra pace too soon. That was because in "short" ultras (say up to 50-55 miles), you normally have to run quite a bit to complete them in the allowable time. But now we are getting into the season for the longer races, and paradoxically I feel that I have a better chance of giving one of these a go because the overall pace required is very much lower, allowing you to walk a very high proportion and still complete within the time allowance.

I have a choice of several for which I already had entries in, but I've decided to go for what has always been my "Desert Island" event, the West Highland Way. I'm not pretending that this is anything other than a chancy exercise but there are positives as well as negatives. The four big downsides as I see it are

1. I won't have done an Ultra (or any other event) since the Lakeland 100k back in September.

2. The race is just about two months after I started running (jogging!) again after the knee surgery.

3. I haven't run at anything above 12 minute mile pace for over six months, and I won't do before the race.

4. I haven't really done any effective running training at all.

On the other hand, I can tell my self that

1. This will be my eighth time in the race, and I have finished all the other seven. I know what the race requires, and I know the course.

2. I have averaged 2000 miles a year for the last seven years. That's a lot of miles in the bank.

3. By now (early May) I have normally covered around 750-800 miles. This year I have only managed 570 miles, but as most of that has been at a walking or slow jog pace, it still represents a lot of "time on your feet" which is what long ultras are really all about.

4. Although I have not got out of breath running this year, I have been able to get some aerobic training by doing lots of walking uphill at a reasonable pace.

5. And finally, the average pace required to complete the West Highland Way is barely 3 miles an hour. I might have to work a bit for the early cut-offs, but after that it can be just a long walk if necessary.

So from here, it seems to be on.  Last year I ran a personal best in just under twenty-two and a half hours, six weeks before my sixty-fifth birthday. Deep down, I felt I would be unable to improve on that in the future and was wondering how to construct a goal for this year's race. Now I have one; if I can get to the finish in Fort William a minute or two before the final cut-off at noon on Sunday 22nd June, that will be a result I'll be as happy with as any of my previous finishes.

I feel that I'm walking a tightrope between now and June 22nd. Any number of things could knock me off between now and then, and if that happens, then it happens. But as of now, I'm on the wire, and it feels OK.