Tuesday, 26 August 2014

The Grand Tour of Skiddaw

A rather grand sounding name for forty-odd miles you might think but that's how it turned out, with the lovely weather that we had on the day  -  a grand day out.

I decided against an early morning start on the Saturday but almost regretted the decision half an hour from home; the M6 on the Friday afternoon of a bank holiday wasn't much fun. It eventually cleared up north of the Blackpool turn, and things improved rapidly after that -  finding the event base at Lime House School near Dalston easily, a quick and straightforward check-in, a realisation just before dusk that the weather was set fair, then curry and beer at the local pub before turning in for the night.

With the start at 8am the morning was quite casual. Plenty of time for breakfast and coffee and to meet up with a few people I knew who were running. John Gilbert, who I'd run three sections of the recent Lakeland 100 with, John and Katrina Kynaston, and Jonny and Frances, also from Scotland who had also come down to the Lakes for last October's 100k race. I had a quick look around for Andy Robinson, also of the Chester MC, but didn't see him until the finish  -  he runs a lot faster than me! A brief briefing from Race Director Gaynor Prior, then off on the dot of 8am.

The course covers a mixture of terrain; flat riverside farmland along the Caldew to the first checkpoint in Caldbeck at about 8 miles, then a long 12 mile section over the remote but gentle northern fells via Skiddaw House to the second checkpoint at Latrigg, with a steady climb over High Pike on the way; then up the tourist track to Skiddaw summit, down via Carlside and the wonderful Longside Edge to a third checkpoint at Peterhouse Farm near Bassenthwaite village; more farmland, low fells and country lanes back to revisit Caldbeck, this time checkpoint 4, and finally back along the river to the start/finish. Nothing really technical, and all runnable by the fit!

I'd only decided to enter the event a week or so previously but the long term weather forecast had looked fair and I thought it might be a good course to get me doing a bit of running again; I had decided to move my recuperation on from "running extremely slowly" to "running very slowly", that is as well as jogging the downhills I would start jogging as much as I thought sensible of the flat bits as well, while still being careful not to re-aggravate the not-yet-fully-recovered injuries. Looking at the course on paper, I hoped that 12 hours might be possible, but would definitely aim for getting back in daylight, about 13 hours or so. But I wasn't in a hurry and decided I was happy not to rush in and out of the checkpoints too fast because they tend to be really friendly places in this sort of event.

The assembled company made its way up the hill from the start and through the school grounds, then stopped again. We all had to go through a kissing gate which permitted one at a time and there were about a hundred and twenty of us. I guess those with fast finish aspirations would have scoped this out the night before and sprinted from the start to get pole positions, but the delay didn't seem to bother most of us, and after five minutes or so I was running out the other side. Well, I say running but my interpretation was clearly different from almost everyone else's because after ten minutes or so I couldn't see anyone ahead, a situation which continued pretty well to Caldbeck. I suppose I was making 12 minute miles and walking occasionally, but it felt OK so I didn't push any harder and arrived at checkpoint 1 in I think about 110th place  -  securely in the last 10%, my normal position these days!

Coffee and biscuits were available, so after what felt like a second breakfast I set off on the long second leg. It's great countryside once you leave the last farm out of Caldbeck, and surprisingly after seeing almost no-one for an hour and a half or so, I could see a long line of runners stretched out on the ascent to High Pike. I was still clear that uphills would be walked, but I still passed half a dozen or so of them on the way up, and a few more on the way down past the Lingy Hut and down by Grains Beck to the Caldew again. Here we joined a good track alongside the river leading all the way to Skiddaw House Youth Hostel. It rises very gradually all the way but with many flat sections, so I was running about two thirds of the ground along here, which felt OK. I caught up Jonny and Frances along here and we passed and repassed each other a few times  - they were using a similar strategy but running faster and walking slower than me. From the youth hostel we carried on together for a while, but were then delayed by a flock of sheep ahead of us being driven along the same way and completely filling the narrow space between a stone wall on the left and a steep heathery hillside on the right. The farmer was apologetic but nothing could be done and it probably didn't delay us for more than five or ten minutes, and it was actually quite pleasant taking it easy for a spell. A little knot of 6 or 7 runners gathered behind the flock, but then once the way opened up again we didn't see anyone ahead again until we arrived at the Latrigg checkpoint.

The day was starting to warm up here and I think I was a bit dehydrated. I only carried one 500ml bottle between the checkpoints because I didn't expect a warm day and I could probably have done with a second one. I stayed at the checkpoint for a few minutes to top up and drink 2 or 3 mugs of coke before setting off up Skiddaw.

The first thousand feet of the track up are steep, then it eases off pleasantly to the top, and for the first time I was able to let fitness govern my speed rather than concern over injuries. I caught a few more people up here and soon reached the top, where Joe Faulkner was marshalling; I told him I'd just entered his Tour de Helvellyn in December  -  a brilliant event, I've done it twice already. It will rather different weather for that he remarked. Too true, today was just stunning; views down to Keswick then over most of the Lake District, and Skiddaw almost completely purple with heather. Then it was off down the lovely descent all the way to more or less ground level again. After the first drop, I set off up the track contouring to the right of Carl Side, but I wasn't sure if this was cheating or not so I cut back up left to the summit then back down the ridge to Longside. Once on the sharper bit of the ridge it's a great run down.  As I started down off Ullock Pike I saw two red shirts ahead, which I was fairly sure were the Kynastons. I seemed to be catching them up quite quickly, but then as the ground levelled out and the route contoured through some fields and over a couple of streams they seemed to get away again. I paused a minute to watch a red squirrel playing by the last stream, then I finally caught them just as we arrived at the Peterhouse Farm checkpoint. John and Katrina were quickly off again, but I needed to stay and re-hydrate again so was maybe five minutes longer.

The next couple of miles of the course was the only bit I didn't really enjoy. I should have read the description carefully field by field, but I didn't and was soon off track. I got back on line again but the event map wasn't really at a big enough scale to see individual features so you needed to rely more heavily on the written description and work out which was "the field corner with the ladder stile" for example, before pressing on. No complaints, just me being incompetent. I was glad to get to Orthwaite Cottage because from there to the end the route became very straightforward again. I saw no other runners between leaving Peterhouse Farm and reaching Caldbeck, but I enjoyed the gently undulating, contouring route, following alternately green fell roads and quiet country lanes. Looking at the Garmin output later, the final mile gently downhill into Caldbeck was my fastest of the day at just over 9 minutes.

The marshals were as great as ever. I stopped a while for tea and jam sandwiches, and asked where everyone else was. A bunch left a few minutes ago, I was told, and you're not doing too badly, you've gained 50 places since you went through here this morning.

So off on the way back down the river to the end. I was feeling pretty good, well you're always a bit more tired after 38 miles than you are at the start but no pains from the calf or knees so I decided to jog the remainder as continuously as I could. I walked the steep little uphills but managed to keep going on the rest, and eventually caught and passed a few more runners. 12 hours was in the bag and it looked at one point that 11 might just be on, but the 44 miles on the tin is an underestimate, most people seemed to make the course about 46 miles long. With two or three miles to go I caught John and Katrina again and chatted with them for a while, but after a really good run Katrina was taking the odd walking break now so I pushed on. In the last mile I caught a couple of French guys who had made the trip from France specially for the event; I was pleased for them that the weather had been so good. After a few hundred yards with them it seemed a bit unfriendly to push past with the finish so close, so I stayed with them until the end. I was still able to cover the section from Caldbeck to the finish a few minutes faster than on the outward trip, so I was pleased with that.

I finished in 11 hours 10 mins 47 secs. An hour or so faster than I had anticipated. Conditions had been almost perfect but I was still pleased with an average of just over 4 miles an hour for the course, and no aches and pains of any significance.  It felt like I'd made quite a good step on the road to recovery. The results show I was in 42nd place of the "solo" entrants, but I was also beaten by 4 pairs, putting me actually in 50th place at the finish, just in the top half of the field, I think that's progress.

Thanks to Gaynor and the team for putting on such a friendly and enjoyable event. There are many ultras to choose from nowadays and each has to find its niche to survive; I'm sure this one will. I think it's an ideal race for anyone who wants to step up a bit from the "long distance footpath" style of race and experience a bit more of what our hills have to offer. A bit like the Lakeland 50 in terms of challenge, the climbs are fewer but bigger, the country a bit wilder at times, the views much better, but with the gentle starting and finishing sections both warming up and getting home when you're tired are relatively easy. As I said at the start, a grand day out.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Rambling, Reviewing and Planning

Yesterday I went out for a run from our house which I know is exactly a half marathon distance and got around it in just under an hour and fifty-six minutes  -  an average of 8 minutes and 51seconds per mile. Well, not much news there, you might think, that's the sort of effort my old granddad can put in after a heavy night out. But it is all relative you see, after wondering back in March whether I would ever see a nine minute mile again, I was really quite chuffed. For the first time this year I got around to thinking that one day I just might be a runner again. How long will it take? There's the rub.

I asked the physio that question when I went to take stock a couple of weeks ago. I saw a guy new to the practice, semi retired I guess but was told (not by him) that he once worked for a premier league soccer team so should know something about getting injured bits to work again. It was an interesting session. Someone prepared to ignore the date of birth implications and just consider the collection of bones, muscles and ancilliary bits in front of him. After he'd found out practically how far things would move, what hurt and what didn't and so on, the verdict. Yes, you're still short of a lot of muscle in your right calf. And by the way, you've still got restricted movement in your right knee, your back isn't very flexible, your balance on both legs is poor, and your core strength is nowhere as good as you think it is. Yes, of course you can fix it, but you'll have to work at it and be patient. With a following wind it might still take a few months. So I have lots of exercises and a plan. By Christmas, a one fifty-six half marathon won't be anything to be proud of.

In the meantime of course, best part of the event season is on us and I do like to have a good day out at regular intervals. My strategy since June of  "running extremely slowly" has been successful in getting me through the West Highland Way, the Lakes 10 Peaks and the Lakeland 100 without affecting the overall rehabilitation process, so I decided to keep it going through the rest of the summer. I think I'm now in the transition to the next phase, "running very slowly" (ie running a few of the flat bits, not just the downhills) which should make a few more events accessible.  I enjoyed the Lakes 10 Peaks so much that I entered its sister event, the Brecon Beacons 10 Peaks on the first weekend in September and I'm really looking forward to that one. It's an area I don't know well and I won't have time to go down for a reasonable recce so it will be all new on the day. Then a few days ago I also decided to have a go at the Grand Tour of Skiddaw this coming weekend. When I was finding my way around the Wainwrights a couple of years ago, I found the areas to the north of Skiddaw and those to the west of Pillar some of the most uncrowded and unspoilt in the district  -  go there midweek in November and you can almost guarantee not seeing a soul all day  - so an event over the northern fells seemed too good to miss. I don't expect to get very far up the field in either of these events, but I'm sure I'll enjoy them.

Last weekend I was the meet leader for our climbing club's annual "Cloggy" Meet (aka Clogwyn du'r Arddu, the big cliff that you can see easily from Halfway House when you go up Snowdon from Llanberis). Well, as happens quite often, conditions weren't good enough for enjoyable climbing on the big cliff that weekend so the meet members wandered off to other things, climbing at Gogarth or round in Ogwen, or walking to various places. I chose to re-acquaint myself with the "Pen Ceunant Round" - a mountain day out that no-one outside of the Chester Mountaineering Club will have heard of because it was devised by and for club members, based on our hut in Llanberis. It takes in every worthwhile summit in the Snowdon massif while covering only a minimum of ground twice, and though only just over twenty miles in length it packs a punch with almost 10,000ft of ascent. I had done it some years ago in miserable wet conditions and hoped for a better experience this time as though the cliffs were still wet,  reasonable temperatures and a nice wind were drying out the ground underfoot. And two weeks after the Lakeland 100 I was ready for a day in the hills again. For those interested, the "round" takes the Llanberis track towards Snowdon but ignores the summit (for now) and takes off along the ridge of Crib y Ddysgl to Crib Goch; a descent of the east ridge then a bit of off piste directly down to Llyn Llyddaw, across the causeway then up and over Lliwedd; by now you've covered most of the Snowdon Horseshoe, but on reaching the Watkin Path you ignore Snowdon (again!) and turn downhill for a few hundred yards until another longer trackless section takes you to the col between the south ridge of Snowdon and Yr Aran; up and down Yr Aran (the only ground covered twice) then up the south ridge to Snowdon summit (at last, but a twenty minute queue for tea and buns in the cafe on my trip due to the huge crowds there!). The crowds diminish as you head off down the Snowdon Ranger track, and disappear completely when you leave it to follow the steeply undulating grassy ridge down to Moel Eilio, followed by a lovely grassy run back down to Llanberis. I had a great day out and was ready to join the others for food and beers at the Heights in Llanberis later that evening. The trip reminded me that compared with the Lake District, where I have spent most of my hill time in recent years, that covering ground in the Welsh mountains is, well, hard. This modest journey had my quads complaining for many days longer afterwards than either the Lakes 10 Peaks or the Lakeland 100.

But these were the hills of my formative years and it's always good to go and spend a day or two there again. Especially now, because I have an entry in for the third running of the Dragon's Back Race, due to be held in June next year. This event covers all the main mountains in Wales, from the Carneddau in the north to the Brecons in the south, in a continuous route over five days. You only get exact route details on a day by day basis, the only thing you know ahead of this is the overall direction and that very little of the ground is likely be covered on what a typical ultra runner would regard as a trail. Got to be one of the best experiences going. I was hoping to get some good "mountain marathon" type events done earlier this year as this is a gap in my CV for entry requirements, but as things turned out this wasn't to be so I just have to go with the experience I can claim so far. The event is certain to be oversubscribed and the organisers' policy is to offer half the available places to those applicants who they feel have the best qualifications, and to ballot the other half among those who have the minimum qualifications to have a chance of finishing. I was hoping to get into the former half but I doubt that I will now. We learn on 30th September if we have a place or not. It's unlikely that the next running will be before 2018 so I guess this may be my only shot at it, but time will tell.

But it's a win-win anyway, because if I don't get in to the Dragon's Back I'll be able to go and run my 9th consecutive West Highland Way race next June. I always had a hope that I might do ten in a row, so that would keep me on target!

So plenty to look forward to as I gradually work my way back to fitness. I have a couple of entries in for races this October, both in the Lakes again. One is the "3 x 3000", which starts and finishes at Keswick and takes in Scafell Pike, Helevellyn and Skiddaw with a lot of interesting ground in between, and the other is the "Lakes in a Day" which goes from Caldbeck to Cartmel taking in Blencathra, most of the Helvellyn range and Fairfield on the way which makes for a great north to south traverse of the district. I'll decide nearer the time whether to run both of them gently or whether I'm ready by then to have more of a crack at one of them.

After that, maybe a month off then the Tour of Helvellyn to get out of the final Christmas shopping in December, before starting on some proper training for next summer.

At last, enough confidence to have a plan!