Sunday, 29 November 2015

How do you like the Hills?

I was looking at some Spine Race statistics the other way and was quite surprised to see that over its length it accummulates some 37,000ft of ascent. Now the Pennine Way is in many respects quite a challenging trail regardless of the weather conditions (lots of wet ground, path indistinct in places, often a long way between contacts with civilisation, etc) but I think you'd have to stretch a point quite a distance to describe it as hilly. But it's a long way, so if you imagine some sort of measure of ascent per mile it probably wouldn't score very highly. This thought got me interested, so I worked out a "rate of climb" for a number of events that I have an interest in, to see how they compare.

To get the rate of climb, I have divided the total ascent by half the distance of the race (on the basis that most races have a similar amount of ascent and descent), expressed as a percentage. So if the race has a 5% rate of climb, you will on average be going up a 1 in 20 hill for half the distance, and down a 1 in 20 for the other half. The races I've chosen are a purely personal selection, comprising many that I've done or attempted, and some I might have a go at one day.

Now as I've said before, how difficult an event is to finish depends on a lot more than just its length and steepness  -   ground underfoot, difficulty of navigation, likely weather conditions and particularly the time constraints imposed by the organiser all play a part. But if you want to compare the simple physical characteristics of the undertaking, then I think the table below can give some pointers.

Race                          Length (miles)    Total Climb (ft)     Rate of climb (%)

The Spine                       268                          37000                       5
Tor des Geants               206                           78700                     14 
PTL                                187                           91800                     19
Dragon's Back                 182                           51400                     11
Ring of Fire                    135                           12000                      3
Hardmoors 110               110                           16700                      6
UTMB                             105                           31500                     11
Lakeland 100                  105                           22500                      8
Spine Challenger             105                           16400                      6
West Highland Way           95                           13300                      5
TDS                                  74                           23800                     12
UT Lakes 110k                  69                           10800                       6
Bob Graham Round           66                           27000                     15
CCC                                 63                            20000                     12
Hardmoors 60                   62                           10300                       6
10 Peaks Brecons              56                           15700                      11
Hardmoors 55                   53                             6400                       5
Highland Fling                   53                            5900                       4
Lakes in a Day                   50                          13000                      10
Lakes 3x3000                    50                           13000                      10
Lakeland 50                      50                            9700                        7
10 Peaks Lakes                  46                          16400                       13
Grand Tour of Skiddaw      44                             7700                       7
White Rose Ultra (30)        30                             4700                       6

I'm sure there will be one or two distances or heights that people may not agree with, but I've tried to get the figures from the best available sources (since last year the UTMB list has required a GPS trace, so I'm assuming these are pretty good for those events represented there - it's clear that before that a number of races claimed rather inflated figures for total ascent), but anyway they are accurate enough for some sort of comparison.

What's interesting is that with some knowledge of how the races above actually pan out on the ground, you can see that there are some clear break points where the game changes for the average runner. Events with up to around a 5% rate of climb are runnable pretty well all the way (if you're fit enough for the distance of course!) Events like the Highland Fling, the West Highland Way and the Ring of Fire are running races. Forget about The Spine because of the conditions - the Pennine Way in summer with a light rucksack is runnable ground.

Once you get into the 5-10% range you're into the races where most people will walk a lot of the uphills, but there will be quite a lot of runnable ground in between. This covers the Lakeland 50/100 events and the Harder bits of the Hardmoors.

Above 10% and you're into seriously steep territory - most will walk all the ups and shamble the downhills, and only the talented will average better than 3 miles an hour.

And just out of interest, the Barclay Marathons? To add to the tree roots, briars and mudslides, a mere 21% rate of climb.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

KIcking the Habit

I'm sure we all have a number of circular runs that we do regularly.  Mine are different lengths, different surroundings, different difficulties; some just right for a quick blast, others for a tempo, an endurance run, or just a gentle contemplative meander. We do them because we can just go and run, no need to think where to go or to concentrate too hard on finding the way, easy.

But if you're like me, and I'll take a bet that many are, then you will do each of these circuits the same way round every time you go. Maybe you don't even think about it. The first time you did a particular run you did it clockwise; then every time since. This started to concern me, I don't know why, what does it matter after all, so I tried doing some of my runs the other way round. I didn't enjoy it. I couldn't put my finger on why exactly, but it didn't feel................comfortable. Maybe a psychologist would be able to tell me why but I don't think it would help. I went back to doing all my runs the right way round.

One circuit that I've taken to doing regularly is the circuit of Derwentwater because as a part-time Keswick resident, it's on the doorstep for me. It's just over nine miles on a path that is easy enough under foot to let your mind wander if you wish, and more or less flat with only around 300 feet of climb over the whole length. A mixture of woodland tracks, grassy fields, shingle beaches, with maybe a half-mile of tarmac on the link through the outskirts of Keswick. Often popular during the daytime, the time to get it mostly to yourself is in the hour or two before dark regardless of the time of year. Then, as well as the normal squirrels and sheep, you may meet voles underfoot and owls overhead, as well as surprised-looking champagne-quaffing occupants of the Lodore Hotel's hot tub as you pop out of the woods a few feet from them. I occasionally have a good bash and get round at under eight minute miling pace (a good gate-opening technique pays dividends here), but somehow it's rather too good for that, much more rewarding to take a bit longer, float along and absorb the surroundings.

Right from my first acquaintance, I always went anti-clockwise. I'm not sure why; maybe because you start across very easy ground, the field path and the shaky bridge to Portinscale, a bit of road then smooth going through the woods past Mr MacGregor's garden, Hawse End and down the lakeside. Across to the river and half the miles are already in the bag at a nice pace, you don't need to start thinking about options governed by how high the lake water level is until you turn for home. I was happy doing it this way until I raved about it to Dave Troman, a proper Keswick local. No, no, he said, go clockwise, it's better.

Well, I wasn't sure but you have to listen to the experts, so I tried. Dave was right, I was going the wrong way. I still can't put my finger on why, but I have rarely been the other way since. It's nothing earth-shattering, just a whole raft of little things that work out better. Here's an example. After crossing the bridge over the Derwent at the southern end of the lake, you follow a few hundred yards of boardwalk then some open pasture before diving into ancient woodland. You emerge past a house with a teddy bear in the garage window (he's always there, he gets cards at Christmas), then down through a gate to a path just above the water with a scree bank above. If you get yourself to this point on a sunny evening in late August, then as you round the little headland just ahead you will be treated to one of the finest views in the Lake District, which means, of course, in the world.

Monday, 9 November 2015

White Rose Ultra

Back in the Spring when I was planning my year I was looking for something a bit shorter for November and on paper it looked as though the White Rose Ultra would fit the bill nicely.  30 miles and around 4000ft of ascent in the South Pennines, a bit like the Haworth Hobble I assumed. The application went in but I didn't bother to find out any more about it until a couple of weeks before the event. On looking at the course in a bit more detail I saw that it looked like about 50% road; not too inspiring, but I read one or two blogs from competitors of previous years and they sounded generally enthusiastic, so I went along anyway.

The event base at Golcar is not much more than an hour's drive from home for me so I travelled over on the morning of the race. Fog on the Manchester side of the Pennines gave way to completely clear skies in the East; it was clear we were in for a beautiful day. The satnav delivered me (and most of the other competitiors it seemed) to a road about a hundred yards as the crow flies from the venue but with no obvious connection to it. Eventually some-one found the way in and we made our way along a little path (which turned out to be the "finishing straight" of the run) to the old mill building which was the base of operations. There I met John Kynaston and Debbie Consani, neither of whom I knew was running today; also Mark Dalton who had turned up to support a friend on the 100 course. Three events are run simultaneously around the same course  -  the 30 mile covers one lap starting at 8am, the 60 mile starts at the same time but goes on to a second lap, while the 100 had already started at midnight and would continue on to 3 and a bit laps.

Registration was low key but quick and efficient and it seemed like a good number of us were under way on the dot at 8am. I later found out that there were 50 or so starting the 60 mile event and nearly 200 in the 30 miler. For the first few miles the field was quite packed with a bit of queueing at gates and stiles, but I wasn't in any hurry, having no particular ambitions other than to have a nice day out and get round in good shape. To start with the course wound through field tracks and country lanes, pleasant but not particularly memorable. The weather was fine and sunny and I spent the first 10 miles mainly chatting to John Kynaston. He was running conservatively as he had two laps to complete; this suited me fine and the miles rolled by. 

There were well-stocked feed stations at regular five-mile intervals, but as I'd brought a 500ml water bottle I didn't bother to stop at the first two. At the ten mile point John stopped to top up and I ran on through so I was on my own for a mile or two. The field had now thinned out and it was getting a bit hillier and up onto the moors. Although the course was fully marked, you had to concentrate at junctions to spot the arrows, and at the times when you could see no-one to front or back it was encouraging that the organisers had painted a discreet white double arrow on many posts to reassure you that you were still on track. John caught me again just before the 15 mile feed station  -  half way for me and feeling pretty easy.

The next was a slightly longer stage, 6 miles to the next feed station. Near the start of it we hit a long downhill to the village of Marsden, and just before the bottom we caught up with Javed Bhatti who was also doing the 60 mile event. I'd met Javed at the Pennine 39 run back in July; he has already completed the Spine Race and is entered again for next January so I was interested in his views on one or two aspects of the race. Coincidentally, our course today was just joining a section of the Pennine Way up to Wessenden Head, but definitely one of the easier parts as it follows a really good track. Javed said it was about 25 miles from Edale (start of the Spine) to here, so it would definitely be dark when we got here in January. Today however it was light and the views were probably as good as it gets.

Approaching Wessenden Head with John Kynaston
John was running to try and keep a constant heart rate and as we carried on up the very gradual incline towards Wessenden this meant a walk-run combination so we eventually pulled away from Javed. The feed station was at the top of the climb. I was getting very hot as I still had a thermal vest under my teeshirt, so I stopped to take it off while John carried on. I thought I would probably catch him again soon, but the couple of hundred yards he had gained at the stop remained pretty constant for four miles to the next feed station. I could have speeded up with a bit of effort but I guess we both thought we were running at the right pace for comfort, and that just happened to be exactly the same speed for each of us.

This four miles involved a long steady downhill for well over a mile down a road. There were no signs and I could see no-one ahead of John. I had put the course into my GPS and fired it up as we ran down the road just to check, but I needn't have worried. We were soon at the turn-off to another moorland track, and from there the turnings, and consequently the signs, became more frequent. The tracks continued more or less level to the feed station. Here the course made a sharp right turn so John looked over and gave me a wave. There then followed a bit of bouldery track which I maybe a bit happier on so I eventually caught up with John again. As we were now less than five miles from the end of his first lap, he was mentally preparing to set out again on the second. We reached some slightly slippery downhill single track and I pulled away a bit but this wasn't really intentional, again I just think it was ground that I'm more familiar with as I spend so much of my time running in the Lakes. The ground underfoot was generally very easy on this event  -  the blogs from last year had talked about significant boggy sections but there were none today, just an inch or two of mud in places; a result of the really dry Autumn we've had I suppose.

We went down a hill over a canal, passed some old industrial buildings and this was the one point on the course where the signs had disappeared, possibly removed by local pranksters. I had caught another runner who was equally unsure of the way so I paused to get the GPS out again just to make sure we were still on course. John caught up and we carried on to the end of the lap, a mile or so of mostly uphill walking. John was looking strong and I wished him well on his continuation, but this was the end of the shift for me.

I finished in a time of 5:47 for 37th place out of 169 finishers. I'm happy with that, it wasn't too stressful an experience, generally a grand day out. Would I do it again? Probably not, too much road and jeep track for me really, I prefer ground where you have to watch where you're putting your feet; but on the day, the weather brought the views out to their best so I wouldn't have missed it on this occasion.

John struggled a bit on his second lap, maybe as a result of the hot weather on the first, but still finished his two laps in 13:21 to get 12th place out of 42 finishers. Debbie, in spite of being knocked down by a car (and thought to be a hospital case by those around at the time apparently), shrugged it off to finish first lady in 11:05, in 5th place overall and breaking the ladies' course record. Well, it makes a change from falling in the canal I suppose.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Pennine Wandering

I'm always impressed by overseas competitors who come to some of our challenging races over unmarked courses like the Dragon's Back or The Spine and perform so well without ever having set foot on the ground until the start of the event. Very competent performers.  But those of us operating nearer the back of the pack need as much help as we can get if we are to have any chance of success, and one of the best ways of increasing that chance is to get familiar with the route. This isn't necessarily just for making the navigation easier (though of course it helps) but more about understanding the ground, the lie of the land as it were, so you can plan your journey on the day (or days!) to best effect. The ground underfoot, what the climbs feel like, where you can get water and other supplies and many other bits of information make strategy and decision-making much easier during the event, as well as taking away one area of potential "nasty surprises" if you don't know what's coming.

So with The Spine looming rather more closely on the horizon now, I felt I should get to know a bit more about the Pennine Way. The only part I had covered so far was the section from Middleton to Alston, courtesy of the excellent "Pennine 39" event organised by Joe Faulkner back in July. I wasn't after the full immersion experience (dark, snow, wind etc), just to understand the terrain, and to get the maximum benefit from this I decided that it should be done in daylight  -  most people who have done a few long events are familiar enough with finding their way around in the dark, it's a skill almost independent of where you actually find yourself.

For my first outing a couple of weeks ago, Jan was very helpful in ensuring that my car was dropped at Middleton followed by me at Gargrave after tea, leaving a couple of hours to wander easily through the fields (dry in October but by all accounts somewhat moister in an average January) along to the Buck Inn in Malham and some dinner. Earliest possible breakfast at the pub was 8.30am, so with daylight at least an hour earlier it would have been a bit of an indulgence, so they left me a sandwich out and I started off up the trail at just after 7.30. 

It was misty and quite atmospheric along the easy track to Malham Cove and on up a set of steps to the famous limestone pavement on top. No single track along the top, it seems everyone finds their own way across the rocks until the track reappears with convenient Pennine Way sign at the Eastern edge. Interesting walking along the dry Watlowes valley leads to another little uphill then level ground across to Malham Tarn. It would be easy to run here but I'd decided that as I don't expect to run much during the actual Spine event I would use this trip to experiment with various walking speeds. My aim today was to average 3 miles an hour, including stops, but without running anywhere. I had also made sure my rucksack weight was at least as heavy as I plan to carry in January, 8kg compared with a January target of 6kg, to see what effect this had on overall speed. I frequently carry this weight when out walking with Jan in the Lakes, but never at this sort of overall speed so it was going to be interesting to see how it worked out.

It's easy wide tracks and a road around the tarn; I seemed to pass the Field Centre (Spine Checkpoint 1,5) at about breakfast time, lots of activity inside but no-one out and about yet. A turning off the track a few hundred yards past the Field centre led to a path through fields and across a minor road to Tennant Gill Farm, where the first ascent of the day, Fountains Fell, starts. It's a gentle ascent up a well-defined path, but the mist got progressively thicker and visibility was down to twenty yards or so as I passed the summit. The path then seemed to dive off rather abruptly down to the right, so I checked the map. This was the first time I had looked at either map or gps that day, because from Malham to here the route is well marked and (in daylight) very easy to follow. Once assured that this was correct, I put the map away and only referred to it once or twice again for the remainder of the day. The path down the fell was good, rocky at first and a bit soggy for the last bit down to a road with a cattle grid. The road to the grid was blocked by a herd of cows which I had to shoulder out of the way a bit to get through - those in the fields South of Malham moved away easily in response to a sharp word or two, but these fell-grazing beasts were clearly made of sterner stuff.

A few hundred yards along the road was the turn-off towards Pen-y-Ghent, and here at last the mist finally dispersed to give the promised fine day. 

Looking back to Fountains Fell in (now!) fine weather

The ascent looks a bit daunting but quite a lot of the height is gained on the gentle approach track and the steep section at the top up a rock staircase (some natural, some engineered) is quite short. I came across other walkers for the first time here, most were doing Pen-y-Ghent as a round trip from Horton-in-Ribblesdale, the village which was my next target. It's a fair way down to Horton and the track is stony but otherwise simple and I got down in time for lunch. I was looking forward to sampling the well-known Pen-y-Ghent Cafe but it turned out to be "Closed on Tuesdays" so I made do with a pint of Coke and a sandwich and chips at the Crown Inn just down the road.

Approaching Pen-y-Ghent

From Horton to Hawes the route is almost all following long jeep tracks, easy to follow. It climbs steadily up to the "Cam Road" which hangs around the 1900ft contour for several miles, and which I already had a passing acquaintance with as it is also followed for a mile or so by the Dales Way which I walked with my brother and our wives back in August this year. On this clear and sunny October day, the compensation for the relative "sameness" of the walking came from ever-increasing views along the way, especially after the Cam Road moves to the left of the highest ground further on.

Signpost on the Cam Road  -  Pen-y-Ghent fading away behind

I left the jeep track for the final descent to Hawes along a narrower footpath across the fell, at first quite rocky but later boggy, ending with a bit of road and a few fields into town. I got to Hawes just 10 hours after leaving Malham which was in line with my 3mph average target, and checked in at the Bull Hotel (which is actually a B&B so I ended up with dinner at the nearby Crown   -  2nd Crown of the day!). Walking at 3mph felt a bit stretching; I could have made it easier by not stopping so long for lunch, but I decided to go for a little bit slower the following day to see how that felt.

Tomorrow was due to be the bad weather day for the week, misty and very wet but possibly clearing up later. The landlady's offer of a bacon sandwich if I could hang on until 7.45 was too good to miss, so it was nearly 8am before I set off wetly through the fields to Hardraw. From here, the next objective was Great Shunner Fell. I had never heard of this before I started studying the PW route a few weeks ago, and then I was quite surprised to find that it is higher than Pen-y-Ghent. It was a steady though never steep climb to the summit through steady rain and pretty poor visibility. The route was initially a jeep track, then turning into a natural path up the fell, intermittently slabbed. Easy to follow in daylight it's probably a bit harder to pick out in the dark. The summit announced its presence with a cairn and the cruciform shelter which seems popular in these parts. The path down was very similar to the one up in reverse, but I speculated that it could be unnerving in fresh untracked snow as there were clearly deep bogs off to the side of the track in many places - the sort of nervous excitement you get when you're the first up a crevassed glacier after a fresh snowfall.

Thwaite, the first sign of habitation since Hardraw turned up; it had a cafe but I was a bit keener not to waste too much time today  -  I had decided to travel slower and it's about 34 miles from Hawes to Middleton. On the plus side, the weather seemed to have shot its bolt and was gradually improving.

Looking back to Thwaite in improving weather

The next section, up and around Kisdon Hill alongside the River Swale, was a delightful interlude. Fairly slow going due to the rocky singletrack but with real variety; steeper contours, trees with a range of Autumn colours, a new view every few hundred yards. It felt more like being back in the Lakes than the normally more austere Pennines. But it didn't last long. A short descent to cross the river (and the Coast-to-Coast path, another project for next year) just before Keld then it was a steady but gentle uphill over the moor to my half-way point for the day at Tan Hill. Apart form the cafe at Thwaite, which is only about 8 miles out of Hawes, the pub at Tan Hill is the only possibility of a warm stop on this 34 mile stretch so in January it would be great to get there during opening hours. Today I couldn't resist a pint of shandy to go with the lunch.

The first section of Sleightholme Moor which follows Tan Hill seems to be generally regarded as one of the wetter areas of the Pennine Way. Even after a very dry Autumn it lived up to this reputation, though I suspect the knee-deep bits that I encountered are probably double this depth in a warmish winter. A couple of weeks at minus ten after Christmas would be great! The "white-topped posts" you read about which are maybe two hundred yards apart keep you on the right line in reasonable visibility, but the line is straight so a bearing should get you from one to the next OK. To start with I was a bit confused because there are white posts all over this moor; the majority of them are markers for bird feeders so you just need to be sure that the speck of white in the distance that you're homing in on is actually a route marker!

But after a mile or so a path appears following a beck on the right, and a bit further on it takes to slightly higher ground to the left. I found the walk across this bit quite inspiring. It's surely a trick of the contours but apart from the narrow trod you are following, from here you can see no sign of human impact on the landscape as far as the horizon in all directions  - an unusual experience in our crowded little island. This ended as I reached a definitely uninspiring new bridge over the beck carrying a shooting road, which the PW then follows for a mile or so. A bit of wet agricultural ground followed after Sleightholme Farm and I didn't find the best way through the little gorge before Trough Heads, but once up on the path across the moor again the constant noise of the fast-approaching A66 made its impact  -  a completely different scene from that of barely an hour ago.

Lonely Sleightholme Moor

Downhill to the natural stone "God's Bridge" then up to the underpass, noting that it would be a dry if somewhat noisy place for a break if Tan Hill is shut, then I set off over the final few miles towards Middleton. I didn't warm to this stretch, a series of featureless, rather boggy moors interspersed with minor road crossings. It got dark around Baldersdale but that didn't seem to detract much from the scenery at this point. By the time I reached the Brough to Middleton road I was just navigating in the dark through wet fields and odd bits of moor. I decided I wasn't learning much now so I forsook the final couple of miles around Harter Fell for the road into Middleton, a bit further but probably much quicker. I reached Middleton 12 hours after setting out from Hawes; only a bit slower than yesterday but it felt much more comfortable so a good bit of learning there. Home in two hours in time for a late dinner.

I'm not sure if I'll manage many (if any) multi-day reccies along the PW, the logistics are a bit complicated to make the best use of time, but I'll certainly carry on getting to know as much of the route as I can by "out-and-back" days from the car. On these, so long as I get one way in daylight, it won't matter if it's dark for some of the way back.

Anyway, that's about 107 miles covered so far  -  only about another 160 to go!


Since writing the above, I've had my first out-and-back trip from Edale to Bleaklow Head. It was a day of mist, poor visibility and almost continual rain, only clearing at about 4pm. I had read that the stream at Kinder Downfall rarely flows, so after the dry Autumn we've had I expected nothing. After no more than 8 hours of steady rain, it was a 10 foot wide, mid-calf-deep steady wade. Conditions can change fast in these hills!

Friday, 16 October 2015

Lakes in a Day

This time last year I ran in two Lakeland events a week apart; not very sensible maybe but they both looked tempting and I couldn't choose. This year it was an easier decision. Last year the 3 x 3000 Ultra Trail, a 48 mile off-road round of Scafell Pike, Helvellyn and Skiddaw was an excellent event, very wet at first but turning to a nice day on a fine challenging course. The two things that put me off a little however were the use of full course marking which I know some people like but doesn't really seem right to me -  a line of flags across the open fells - and the fact that the course descends the Wythburn valley; this is generally acknowledged to be one of the boggiest areas in Lakeland and having done three or four trips up and down it I felt that I'd served my time here and didn't need to go again.

I'd found the Open Adventure "Lakes in a Day" an even better event; a slightly longer and tougher course but a real journey through Lakeland from Caldbeck in the North to Cartmel in the South, superbly well organised and with a bit of everything the District has to offer. So that was the one for me this year.  It seemed that I wasn't alone in this thinking because the start list had gone up from something under 200 last year to nearly 300 this time.

An early bus ride from the event base in the school at Cartmel deposited us in Caldbeck in time for the 8am start on what was clearly going to be a beautiful day. A quick briefing from RD James Thurlow then the field was jogging its way up gently rising tracks and lanes to Nether Row before spilling out onto the area of open fells generally referred to in these parts as the "Back o' Skidda".  Route choice from here to Blencathra summit was open (I guess on the basis that there aren't really many tracks anyway!) with the proviso that you had to visit High Pike summit on the way, and the organisation knew where you had been because each runner carried a GPS tracker.

The first climb up to High Pike, fairly long but at a gentle angle, saw the field spreading out and by the time we hit the trackless ground beyond the Lingy hut a number of line choices were being pursued. I carried straight on over Coomb Height hoping to hit the track leading down to the Caldew at the bottom of Burdell Gill. I found it by navigating carefully in the mist last year but paying less attention in the clear conditions this time,  overshot the start of it (bit of a lesson here!) and ended up thrashing through the heather all the way down to the river. On the flip side, the river was very low this year so a crossing via the boulders with dry feet was possible, an unusual state of affairs.

Whatever way you tackle it, the climb from here to Blencathra summit is hard work up the tussocky slope, just get your head down and get on with it sort of thing. It gets easier for the last few hundred feet once the Bob Graham trod is joined, and I was happy to reach the top about two and a half hours after leaving Caldbeck. A good trundle down Hall's Fell ridge followed, nice ground for me and I was able to overtake numerous runners on the way down. I had a pang of regret as I ran out into the fields at the bottom though, my quads reminding me that I hadn't had many hilly outings for a couple of months or so. Never mind, soon down to Threlkeld village hall and the first feed station.

Only three feed stations on this event (no need for conventional checkpoints because of the trackers), but what they lack in number they definitely make up for in quality. I had decided that I was mainly here for a good day out rather than any finish time aspirations, so my strategy was to eat well when it was available and rely on drinks only in between. So it was time for brunch now, with a couple of sandwiches, some pastries, crisps and a couple of cups of coffee (and fifteen minutes generally enjoyable sitting around). The result of course is that you can't run for a while after this sort of indulgence, so I decided I would walk all the way to the top of Clough Head from here.

I was passed by a dozen or more runners along the easy track from Threlkeld to Newsham, but managed to repass them on the climb up to Clough Head because that's more my thing. I was a bit surprised at the state of the ground on this climb. Once just a grassy slope, the rising number of Bob Graham attempts in recent years had turned it into a reasonable stepped trod, but it is now degenerating into a muddy slide, maybe as a result of this event and the 3 x 3000. A bit concerning.

Once on the top it was great to stretch out in the wonderful weather (perfect temperature and high clouds preventing it from getting too hot) along the Dodds to Helvellyn. You can't get tired of this ridge in either direction, although by the time you crest the final rise over Dollywagon Pike, you know you've ascended a foot or two. We had been instructed to use the pitched path down to Grisedale Tarn rather than heading straight down the grass (to minimise the erosion contribution of the event, a sound policy I think), I don't think it really takes much longer for the average runner.

I needed to top up with water at the tarn outlet (it's 18 hilly miles from Threlkeld to Ambleside and this is the only water possibility), then on up Fairfield for the last significant climb of the day. 

Climb up Fairfield from Grisedale Tarn

Not too huge this one though, then a couple of little ups and downs over Hart Crag and Dove Crag to High Pike (the second one of these of the day!) leads to a brilliant long run down a gradually descending grassy ridge all the way to Ambleside. For the first time my average speed for the day actually started to climb climb above 3 miles an hour!

Ambleside was the second feed station, providing more diversion in the form of pizza, cake, fruit and tea. No drop bags were allowed on the event, but you could send a change of shoes to Ambleside on the premise that from here the ground underfoot changes from mainly fell to trail. I wasn't bothered about the shoe type, but the chance to change in to dry footwear after the inevitable soaking you get over the fells whatever the basic weather conditions was too good to miss. So with a bit of general faffing another 15 minutes went by before I set out on the second "half" of the course (29 miles done, 21 to go).  The course from Ambleside southwards definitely gets easier, less climbing and much less technical under foot, but it's still 21 miles, about 4000ft of climbing, and for runners in my bit of the field over half would be done in the dark.

The first few miles follow an easy off-road cycle track then a bit of country lane to High Wray,  I jogged to here then walked the mile or two of steady climb through the Claife Heights plantation to its high point.  A half mile or so before the top I caught up with Jim, a runner I had been passing and repassing for most of the day. This was his first ultra and his work locations meant that he was only able to train on a treadmill, so he was doing a pretty sound job so far. As an ex marine though he was obviously quite tough. We made it through the tree line without having to put on torches and started running down the open jeep track on the other side. Just past Moss-Eccles Tarn I was finding my eyesight not good enough to make out the ground underfoot so I said I would stop to get out my torch and put another layer on. I hadn't needed anything other than a vest all day but the temperature was dropping in the fine evening so I pulled on a light windproof top. Jim already had his torch ready so he carried on. I didn't really expect to catch him for a while at least, but when I reached the road at Sawtrey he was stopped there, convinced he was off route. I reassured him that we were fine and we carried on together down the short stretch of lane to the Windermere shore.

What had unnerved Jim was that he had run out of signs.  From High Wray all the way to the finish the route follows a series of footpaths, tracks and occasional country lanes. Apart from a short section around High Dam at the southern end of Windermere, all these are marked on the OS map. A potential problem though is that there are many other tracks and lanes in the area, some on the map, some not, and you have to navigate carefully to get the right ones. In last year's event, the area around High Dam was marked, but only that section. The result was that many runners got lost, took different lines, and so on. I think principally to keep competitors from running along busier roads in the dark, the organisers had decided this year to put arrows on all the key non-obvious turnings between High Wray and the finish. But it was is not full course marking, it was an aid to navigation not a replacement of it, and you still had to know where you were. I think for this event it's a good compromise for this section of the course, but I often find that I navigate better when I concentrate knowing that it's tricky, rather than when I think I'm being helped and forget to plot where I am on the map from time to time.

The route along Windermere follows two sections of shoreline tracks that wander up and down, sometimes on the beach, sometimes a way up the steepish banks, normally through trees and often a bit overgrown, split by a short road section.  Along here Jim and I made good progress, walking the ups and jogging the rest, and passed several runners including Abby who I had first chatted to coming out of Ambleside but who had come storming past us a few miles back. We finally left the lake shore and started the aggressive little climb up to High Dam. I really must come round here in daylight one day, it always looks as though it might be an attractive spot but I've only ever seen it in the dark. A descent through the woods then across a field or two led us to the final feed station at Finsthwaite village hall.

Soup, sausage rolls, cake, tea, coke.........and another 15 minutes passed. I wasn't being particularly checkpoint efficient on this event, but it was nevertheless most enjoyable. We set out again over the little up and down through the wood to Levens Bridge. Only a mile but this bit always seems to take longer than it should.  Abby came past again on the downhill, more sure-footed on the  leaf-strewn rocky steps than we were. Across the main road then a couple of miles of open moorland and a lane or two led to Bigland Tarn, and we were on the last section of plantation before the finish. Tricky navigating last year, this time the fluorescent arrows made life very simple. Then up and over the last bit of moor, following the "Cumbria Coastal Way" and we were then on the last two miles of country road to Cartmel. I warned Jim there was a final up in the road which we walked, from where it was a steady jog all the way down to the finish. We passed several competitors walking, content that they had cracked it and the end was near. With a mile to go we caught Abby, now walking, and persuaded her to carry on with us. Through the village to the warm applause of people exiting the pubs (it was now after 11pm) and on to the finish at the school. With a couple of hundred yards to go, Jim said he just had to walk, his blisters were too painful  -  he hadn't mentioned them at all up to this point, stoical types, these ex-military men, so Abby and I said we would wait for him at the finish and jogged on. He came in about a minute behind us, to mutual congratulations and thanks for the company. Oddly, the results showed Abby about a minute ahead of Jim, but me about a minute behind him! Must be some inaccuracy in the way the trackers work, but of no significance in the overall scale of the event.


Food, tea and medals were available in the school hall at the finish. I was about an hour faster than last year. Officially 15hrs 38min (actually 15:36!), about 100th place from 274 starters. At this stage of my career I think I'll take that as some sort of success.

A great event, certainly one of the best outings in the Lakes, spot-on 50 miles and just under 13000ft of ascent. I'm sure I'll be back.

(photos courtesy of Lakes in a Day)

Monday, 21 September 2015

"Just keep the sea on your left" (part 2 - the Yorkshire version)

After running round the Anglesey Coast Path (the "Ring of Fire" race) a couple of weeks ago, another few miles of navigating by sea should be easy, right?

I had never done the Hardmoors 60, which after knowing the Hardmoors "community" for five years or so now seemed a real omission, so Friday afternoon saw me fighting the traffic (Manchester, Leeds, York) over to a Scarborough packed with visitors thanks to the recent fine weather. I didn't see much of it as a 5am start was required to drive down to Filey to catch the bus to the race start in Guisborough. Author of the Hardmoors events Jon Steele has driven his series with great success from small beginnings to the significant feature of the UK ultra scene that it is now. I remember marshalling at one of the early Hardmoors 110 races when there were about 20 competitors  - the start list for last Saturday's race was well over 200.

I had done the Hardmoors 55, over the inland and recognisably hillier "half" of the Cleveland Way a few times, so my initial thought was that the other "half" down the coast would be a somewhat easier proposition. Fortunately, I checked on the UTMB qualifying races list a week or two before the race; the distances and height gains on this list have to be supported by a GPS trace so I guess they have a reasonable chance of similar accuracy. I was a bit surprised to find that as well as being about 10 miles longer (I knew that already, after all the Harmoors 53 and 62 somehow don't sound quite as catchy), the "flat" 60 actually has, at something over 10,000ft, around 50% more climbing than the "hilly" 55, warranting 3 UTMB points to the 55's 2. So at least I was warned. The final cutoff is about 3 hours longer than the 55 so I guessed adding 3 hours to my typical 55 time (about 12 hours these days) would give me a reasonable target to plan with. 15 hours was the goal.

The weather forecast was not wrong, and even as we set out from Guisborough it was clear that it was going to be a stunning day. I was looking forward to the views.

The man of Steele being what he is, sidling up to the nearest point on the Cleveland way from Guisborough was clearly not considered man enough for a true Hardmoors 60 event; we accessed it at the highest local point  on the North York Moors scarp edge (typically around the 1000ft contour) via a direct and muddy climb ("always like this, whatever the weather" was the local opinion) up to Highcliffe Nab, with a checkpoint on top to make sure no skullduggery was engaged in. The flip side was that we now had a gently descending 8 miles or so down through woods and fields to the coast at Saltburn and checkpoint No 2. The checkpoints were all great, friendly faces, nice food, lots of encouragement. An added bonus for me was that I've got to know quite a few of the Hardmoors "gang" over the years so there was almost always someone I knew (Dennis, Flip, JV, Pat....) to tell me to stp messing about and get a move on.

When we hit the sea at Saltburn and started up the first set of steps onto the cliff top under a cloudless blue sky I felt the run had really started  - this is what I had come for -  just keep the sea on your left down to Filey, 50 miles or so further south. I'll come back to the steps later.......

Once the clifftop levelled out it was great running. The path underfoot was excellent, grass or smooth gravel underfoot, and the topography and Cleveland Way "acorn" signs meant that the map could stay in the pack for 95% of the trip. It was hot but there was a gentle breeze coming off the sea. I found out later that a lot of people had suffered from the heat but I'm generally happy with it. Wear a hat, drink a lot, don't overdo things and it's fine by me, I'd much rather have that than running in the rain all day. I'd decided to keep to around a 12 minute mile average to halfway, allowing me to slow down over the second half as most people do. 15 hours needed a 14 and a half minute average throughout so there was plenty to play with. I wasn't even really too bothered about the 15 hours  - the race started at 8am so 16 hours would get me in by midnight which was equally fine. I'm never going to set any records these days and these outings are too good spend suffering  -  you need to enjoy them.

Apart from the villages of Skinningrove and the delightful Staithes it was rural clifftop for the next 10 miles along to CP3 at Runswick Bay. The heat made itself felt on the descents into the villages but once back on the clifftops it was cool and beautiful. The route went along the beach briefly at Runswick. It's not possible at high tide and there is no inland alternative so you have to wait, but today the sea was well out and the run along the firm sand past all the holiday-makers was fine. Many people we passed throughout the day asked what was going on  -  were were normally dismissed in a friendly but rather Yorkshire way as "complete nutters" when we answered. At the far end of the beach the track climbed back up to the clifftop again.

The enduring memory of this territory for most of the way from Saltburn to Filey is the contrast between the flat, easily runnable clifftops and the regular diversions to sea level. The Yorkshire sea cliffs are continuous for the whole coastal section of the Cleveland Way, and are several hundred feet high at times, but interrupted by numerous gulleys where streams have found their way into the sea. Sometimes these are big enough to generate towns and villages such as Staithes, Whitby, and Robin Hood's Bay, but the majority exist just as narrow inlets into the cliffs. Known as Chines on the south coast, here they seem to be called Wykes. And of course when you come across one, the path goes down to sea level (or near it) and back up the other side  -  "the steps" known to everyone that passes this way.  They are nearly always steps, very few simple steep paths, but they take all forms  -  wooden reinforced steps in the soil, wooden boardwalks, pitched stone steps, and even at one point a flight of a few hundred paving stones. I'm sure this is where the majority of the height gain on the course comes from. They are never more that a few hundred feet high, sometimes a hundred or less, but there are an awful lot of them! I was completely happy to take these philosophically, jog down, walk up and accept that for these few minutes your running average goes to pot  - you just have to go a bit faster once back on the clifftops to compensate.

A few miles of clifftops and ups and downs led to beach level at the town of Sandsend. From here a long promenade then road led along the waters edge then gradually climbed to the cliff top gardens in Whitby. After the peace and quiet of the clifftops Whitby was a jarr to the senses. It was hot and packed. "Swim through the crowds" had been Jon's advice at the pre-race briefing, and that was about right. Down the steep maze of narrow streets to the harbour, fight your way across the bridge and along the narrow main street. A good walking pace, let alone running, just wasn't possible. But then we climbed the advertised "199 steps up to the Abbey" (one of the least demanding climbs on the course!), out the other side and calm reigned once more. A bit of cliff and a caravan park led to CP4 at 31 miles, half way. I hadn't made my 12 minute average, more like 12:15 but I hadn't pressed anywhere and felt good so I wasn't bothered.

More cliffs and wykes over a short 5 mile section took us to CP5 just above the picturesque little resort of Robin Hood's Bay. Flip Owen refilled my water bottle and I asked him what happened next. "straight down to the Smugglers pub, turn right and up the steps" -  I love these coastal paths, where else could you get directions like that! But in the space of around a mile and a half it was down to Robin Hoods and back up, down to Boggle Hole and back up, down to Stoupe Beck and back up............well, I guess you're getting the picture. A bit more clifftop then we turned inland for the climb up to Ravenscar. A runner I had been sitting by on the bus that morning had said he thought the climb up to Ravenscar was the biggest on the coast; I'm not sure but the cliffs are well over 600ft here and the checkpoint was right at the high point of the village. This was the only inside checkpoint, in a church hall, so a very welcome cup of tea was available. But 41 miles done now, we were definitely starting to count down rather than up.

I was still happy to jog the flats and down hills, but I noticed that my speed on the level was a bit slower than the runners who I kept seeing at checkpoints. I found the answer when a group caught me up just before a descent/ascent; I seemed to be much quicker at going down and up the steps than those around me -  life in Keswick must be starting to pay off a bit! 

The first few miles out of Ravenscar were easy clifftop running, being, as we had plenty of height to lose, mostly gently down hill. The miles passed quickly. Then there was a very deep descent into Hayburn Wyke and the consequent climb back up. But from this point it was clear that the cliffs gradually descended into the distance, getting lower all the time. Although there would no doubt be a few more steps, we seemed to have cracked the last of the big ones. Knowing that there was a long run along the promenade to come I was really hoping to get to the start of Scarborough without having to get the torch out, but I failed by just a few hundred yards. But once on the sea front it soon went off again, even though long stretches of the near 3 mile promenade are very poorly lit. A steady jog soon demolished most of it. The tide was nearly in and patches of the prom were sporadically drenched by waves hitting the sea wall, but I escaped with only having to run through a few puddles. The last checkpoint before the finish was at the far end of the prom by the Spa. A chance for a last hit of Coke and a few peanuts, top up the water and go. "About ten to the finish?" I asked. The marshall said he thought it was only about eight; I should have kept quiet, it was ten, false hopes and all that.

Continuing along the prom I was unsure where the route went, even though I had been warned and read about it. People have got lost here in the past. A guy up near some beach huts above shouted down "That's the way, it's dark and a bit wet, but it's the way". Another runner had stopped to adjust some gear and he confirmed it. He'd done the race last year. Waves were still breaking occasionally over the dark path but we carried on and eventually came to the rising path up the hillside that signalled the escape. After not having spent much time with anyone all day I carried on with the other guy who was Steve for five or six miles. We had experience of the same races, knew some of the same people, it's still a small world in ultras. When we made it back to the clifftop we were directed back down by Marshalls to savour the "Cayton Bay option"  -  last chance for a sizeable descent down a wooded cliff and the consequent steep stone steps back up again. From here though it appeared that the track followed a more or less level course along the cliffs to Filey Brigg, where we would turn off for the finish. We were still going well enough, jogging where it was easy and walking the rest, it looked as though 15 hours was nicely on the cards.

Then three or four miles from the finish I felt I was getting a bit cold so I told Steve to go on while I put a long-sleeved top on. I expected to take seconds but I had earlier tied the top onto the top loop of my bag using the sleeves. It had worked itself into a knot which took a frustrating three or four minutes to free up. I was pretty annoyed but then as I restarted I found I'd lost all the go-forward momentum. I could still walk briskly but couldn't get going into a jog no matter how many times I tried. I don't know if it was the miles from the Ring of Fire finally catching up with me or the slight infection I'd been suffering from, it was just as if my system was saying "had enough for today".The track wasn't very helpful, it was quite narrow with longer grass on both sides so needed concentration to keep on the line of least resistance. The last couple of miles out to the turn on the Filey Brigg seemed to take a frustratingly long time. I passed and re-passed another runner just before the turn, then the way back into town which I expected to be straightforward wasn't. We wandered too far to the right, then we saw another runner back near the clifftop. She had reccied the route and said it was the right way. But then on the next bit she said she had reccied the beach option but it looked as though the tide was in now and we should take the higher path. This involved an initial climb up, and although it was really short I found it hard so the others got away quickly. 

But then it was down the other side, along the promenade and up through Filey town, passing revellers spilling out of pubs, back to the bright lights. The finish wasn't far. Shirley welcomed me in, Dennis made me a cup of tea, I think I told him I was feeling a bit old at that particular moment. But tea is the reviver and I was soon good enough to realise that the quarter mile walk back to a crash-out in the car would be the most effective next step.

15 hours and 9 minutes. Not quite but no disappointment really, times are only stamp collecting after all. I'd had a wonderful day.  But for the second time in two weeks I had to reflect  -  they're quite tough, these flat coastal paths.

Friday, 11 September 2015

"Just keep the sea on your left"

I entered the Ring of Fire race a couple of years ago but had to withdraw before the start because of an injury, so with no long outings planned after the Dragon's Back, this year seemed an ideal opportunity to set the record straight. Last weekend was the event's fourth running and friends who participated in previous years raved about it, so I was looking forward to the trip.

The format is fairly simple; you start from Holyhead and run clockwise round the entire length of the Isle of Anglesey coastal path, just 135 miles back to where you started from. "Just keep the sea on your left" was the navigational briefing.  It's a staged race starting at 1pm on Friday, from where you cover 36 miles to the first overnight stop at Amlwch. A 6am start on Saturday sets you out on the 66 miles to Aberffraw, where you arrive hopefully in time to get some sleep before you're out at 6am again to tackle the final 33 miles back to Holyhead. There are cut-off times each day but they're fairly generous, the total time allowed is 44 and a half hours. There are no major hills but coastal paths normally have a bit of up and down involved and this one collects just short of 14,000 ft of ascent along the way.

Many ultra courses claim to be varied but you'll have to go a long way to meet such a spread of terrain that you get here; the sections that stand out in the memory are the switchback clifftops as good and wild as anything in the country and the long, firm, near-empty sandy beaches, but along the way you also encounter farmland, forest, estuary marshes, sand dunes, shingle, rocks, boulders, the odd bit of seaside promenade and what must be the finest set of stepping stones in the UK.

I wasn't best prepared for the jaunt. A leisurely walk along the Dales Way with my brother and our wives (10 miles a day and a regime that meant we actually put on weight over the 8 days involved), followed by consecutive celebratory long weekends with friends and relatives we hadn't seen in a while ensured that August was a wonderfully enjoyable write-off. I showed willing by walking up Skiddaw with my daughter Julia two days before the event - we jogged back down the steep track to Millbeck and as I drove down to Anglesey there were twinges in my quads that I hadn't felt for a long time. Still, I was probably well enough fuelled to complete the course even if I ate nothing from start to finish. I had no ambitions for the event other than to complete and enjoy it, so at least there was no real pressure involved.

Although Race Director Bing told us that many more had originally signed up (and presumably had subsequently had some second thoughts), it was about a hundred of us that set off from Holyhead to the sound of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" on a dry but breezy afternoon. I settled down somewhere between middle and back of the pack as it rambled around the coast out of the country park, down through the town and out over the causeway, off Holy Island and on to the bigger part of Anglesey. The only people I really knew in the field were Helen and Mark Legget, but as they're both much more competent performers than me I assumed they were well ahead.

The first real obstacle was the Llanfachraeth estuary. On the first running of the race (and on the only other time that I have run round the Island, for fun about 8 years ago) this involved a lengthy knee-to-thigh-deep wade, but they've worked a lot on this trail and there is now a sturdy new bridge upstream making the route a lot drier (and incidentally 4 miles longer!). The first checkpoint was here. The checkpoints were all a joy, friendly faces, lots of support and a good selection of snacks to keep us going. On average they were 8 miles apart but depending on accessible spots this varied from 5 to 12 miles in practice. It meant that you never had to carry more than one water bottle in between.

After the estuary the coastline started to build up into the higher cliffs and more rugged paths of the North West coast, no big climbs but plenty of up and down. Continually interesting running in stunning scenery.  I kept to my plan, walk the uphills and jog steadily on the rest, aiming for  a 4mph average speed.  It was good to get around the North Westerly point of the island, because the fairly strong wind that had been directly in our faces was then coming from over your shoulder. The beauty of the coastline was only interrupted by the huge shed-like bulk of the nuclear power station at Wylfa, in the shadow of which was checkpoint number 3, the last before Amlwch 10 miles further on.

Just before Amlwch we had to locate the first of "the books". In common with pretty well all coastal paths, on the Ring of Fire it's possible to take shortcuts at many places along the way. To discourage runners from taking the bigger ones there were strategically placed books along the way, each to be found in a waterproof box with a large flag alongside for easy location;  runners had to tear a page from the book and present it at the next checkpoint to prove they had been there. Failure to produce a page resulted in a time penalty of 3 hours, so not finding the book was really not an option.

In the last hour before Amlwch it got dark and the track was very narrow along the top of what was clearly a high steep cliff, requiring a bit of caution. But as soon as we got to the book the trail turned inland and we were soon running through the streets and on to the first night's stop in the local sports centre. I arrived after 8 hours 27 minutes of running in 56th place, at just before 9.30pm. The stopover was really well organised; plenty of space in the sports hall to lay out your mat and sleeping bag (overnight bags were transported onwards each day for you), hot showers and some good hot food available at the still-open sports centre cafe. I was soon washed, fed and resting. I felt pretty good, well, good that is for someone who's just covered 36 miles.

From the depths of sleep it seemed to start quite softly, but grew rapidly louder until it was all you could focus on. That song again  -  ''......and it burns, burns, burns, that ring of fire....''.  Ah, yes, the morning alarm call courtesy of the organisation, 4.50am.  Those of us continuing were up, breakfasted, bags packed and out ready for the re-start at 6am. It was still dark.

I guess we were all wondering how the legs would feel, mostly we take the day off after a 36 miler, so it was a fairly cautious caravan that started out when the bell was rung. But we soon warmed up, it soon got light, and with the dawn came the promise of a beautiful day. I had a plan for Day 2; I wanted to finish feeling good and by midnight, that is after 18 hours running. That should leave me with enough time to eat and sleep to make last day enjoyable rather than a trial. 4mph pace would get me to half way in 8 hours, leaving 10 hours for the second half allowing for tiredness and the night shift, which should be 3 hours or so.

The day started with more miles of undulating clifftop, much like the evening before, absorbing and with great views, then a long detour inland around a sandy inlet. The first checkpoint was a bit of a hike away at nearly 12 miles out but they passed easily enough. The path then started to burrow into woodland on the cliffs to the next checkpoint outside the pub in Red Wharf Bay. From here there was a long level section, first along the sea level margin grass, then along the top of a sea wall and a track, after which came the second biggest climb on the course, up to the TV mast on Bwrdd Arthur. All the morning I had been passing and re-passing the same few runners; by now most people were finding the right place in the field for themselves. I ran and chatted with the odd runner or group from time to time but not often for more than a mile or so. It's not that I'm antisocial, it's just that we all have different strengths and weakness and if you stay with someone for too long you both slow down because at any one time you go at the pace of the slowest, and can't recoup that later. I tend to walk everything uphill (but I can walk quite fast), and jog the rest. Others have different strategies such as walking slower or more often and running faster in between, and so on.

We now left the coast for several miles and followed fields, tracks, and tiny roads Eastwards, finally popping out onto the coast again at the lighthouse at Penmon Point, the furthest Northeast tip of the island, where there was another checkpoint. All the checkpoints had good food but this one had fresh orange segments which all the runners seemed to be going for in a big way, a reflection of the hot conditions. I got to here half an hour up on my 4mph schedule, and since the halfway point at Beaumaris was now a mere 5 almost flat miles away, my plan seemed to be going well.  But we soon discovered that these 5 miles contained a couple of miles of pebble and shingle beach. It would be interesting to see how fast the leaders covered this sort of ground, but for me and the people around me it was a slow and rather ungainly walk.

Beaumaris was a bit of a culture shock after the sparsely populated areas we had been through so far - a holiday resort in full swing. On the flip side, quite a few people seemed to have heard about the race so there was a lot of vocal encouragement as we went through. The half way checkpoint was at the far end of the seafront. From here, as one of the runners arriving the same time as me observed, we would be counting down rather than up.

The next section involved a short climb to a high road with great views over to Snowdonia, then a descent into Menai Bridge and a path along the shoreline under both the bridges. As I came down the hill it was starting to get really hot, so an additional hundred yards or so off the trail into the town for an ice-cream seemed a good idea - it would be the last chance today! The stage from the checkpoint just after second bridge (the Britannia Bridge) to the next one by the Sea Zoo further down the straits was probably the least interesting of the whole trip. The land adjacent to the strait for the next couple of miles is part of the Plas Newydd estate (once owned by Lord Uxbridge of Waterloo fame) with no rights of way across it, so a dive inland over fields is necessary followed by more of the same on the far side of the estate. Some of the latter could be avoided by going along the beach at some times of day, but as I passed this area just 30 minutes after high tide it wasn't an option for me. Still, it was another few miles in the bag.

I was about 50 miles into the day by now and decided that I could afford to walk the last two sections of the day and still get in by midnight. The first one was a lengthy 10 miles; a mile or two of lanes and tracks led to the mgnificent stepping stones over the Afon Braint near Pen-lon, 30 or 40 yards worth of blocks about 4 feet square and at least the same in height.  Another mile of lane led to a track alongside Newborough Forest back down to the sea. From here the course follows Newborough beach for about 3 miles. I had been wondering what the surface would be like and how hard it would be to make progress, but after a couple of hundred yards of soft dunes it turned into a magnificent firm beach, a pleasure to walk on and a wonderful place to be in the now setting sun. Another ''honesty book'' was located at the far end of the beach and I just reached it before having to turn my light on. I had caught up a group of 3 or 4 runners at this point, and in the general banter we let our concentration slip and missed the path back into the forest, which resulted in our having to cross a bit of soggy ground to get back on track a bit further on. They then ran on while I continued walking steadily. For the last half mile to the checkpoint there was a choice of track, either following the main forest road or following a slightly shorter but narrower track nearer the edge of the forest. I chose the latter and hadn't gone far when a barn owl swooped past and landed in a tree maybe twenty yards ahead. As I passed under it, it repeated the manoever several times, keeping up with me for a hundred yards or so until it got bored with the game. Brilliant.

Flag locator for the honesty book on Newborough Beach

The checkpoint was a welcoming oasis of light in the darkness, so I stayed a few minutes for something to eat and drink then set out on the final 6 miles of the day. It looked easy, a final cruise home to bed. The first three miles were just that, over a long causeway to Malltraeth then some nice little fenced-in paths and a lane to Hermon. Going through Hermon village, a lady wished me luck and warned me that she had just seen several runners ''lost in the fields'' on the next section. Forewarned, I pulled out the GPS and concentrated. The second field was a deep cornfield but had a track though it made by some sort of agricultural machine that made progress easy. It was heading a few degrees off from the right direction but I could see that in a few hundred yards it would meet another track which would take us back on track. A runner came up behind me at a great pace so I stepped into the corn to let him through.''Is this the right track?'' he asked, more or less, I replied. He shot off ahead but stopped after a while and waited. There were runners' lights off to the left and he was unsure. I explained what I was doing and said I thought we were in a better place than they were so he elected to stay with me. His name was Ben, and he said he was going fast because he ''just wanted to get the day over with and go to bed''.

After a while we converged with the other lights and I told them I thought they were now on track.  Although they too had a GPS we had some debate on which was the right way which led to Ben and I getting separated from them again. I was happy that I was OK, we were bang on the trace, but it was the sort of ground where you needed confidence in the kit. We passed through a series of tussocky fields with no paths. In daylight you could probably have picked out each stile from the previous one, but in the dark you had to rely on the trace getting you there. It was really encouraging that at each field end we arrived within headlamp distance of the next stile. Eventually we reached a track along which we could see the lights of the day's end stop at Aberffraw less than half a mile away. But there was another honesty book out on the dunes to our left which meant that we had to cover another mile or so before we finally arrived at the village hall. We checked in a few seconds before midnight; it had been close in the end but my plan had worked! My time for the day was 17:59:42 and I was now apparently in 26th place.

A much smaller hall this time but even more friendly, full of people already asleep or satisfied that they had had a big but successful day out. No showers but it didn't seem to matter. Drink tea, eat pasta, go to sleep. Life gets so simple on these outings.

''........and it burns, burns, burns, that ring of fire....''  Oh, must be 4.50am again. Lights on, Bing trying to do a briefing to a hall of people still half asleep. Banana milk, ginger biscuits, find trainers, roll up bag and mat. Amazingly, those going are outside and ready to go at 6am again. A few bodies still on the hall floor, deciding not to participate further.

My plan for the final day was simple; don't worry about times or positions, just beat the cutoffs, take it easy and enjoy the trip. It had been great so far, no sense in spoiling things now. With the Hardmoors 60 coming up in less than two weeks I wanted to finish in good shape. It was a cooler morning, cloudy with the Northerly wind in our faces again but not so strong as on Friday. We wound our way out down the Aberffraw estuary, then over some rocky and sandy beaches, stoney tracks, grassy headlands, and a final mile of dunes to the first checkpoint of the day at Rhosneigr. The checkpoint was outside a bistro (owned by Bing's mum I think), and was providing tea, coffee and bacon sandwiches. What a way to start the day!

I had run into Rhosneigr with a guy called Steve, and he elected to carry on with me after the break. I insisted that after eating so much I needed to walk for half an hour and he had no objection, so although the couple of miles along the beach north of Rhosneigr are almost perfect to run on, we walked. Others must have had the same plan because no-one overtook us. A messy section of fields followed, along the channel between Anglesey and Holy Island, where constant vigilance with the map was needed. The route was signed but not at all crucial turns and it was easy to find yourself on the wrong side of the field if you weren't careful. But the next checkpoint at Four Mile Bridge soon turned up and we were then back on Holy Island for the 20 mile home stretch.

A few lanes and tracks led back to the coast at Silver Bay and another honesty book, from where we wouldn't lose sight of the sea all the way to the finish. Bays and headlands followed all the way to the final checkpoint at Trearddur Bay. Steve was a Spine Race finisher this year so I was able to spend a lot of time pumping hin for information on how he approached that race, which I'm looking forward to in January with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. The last checkpoint in a long race is always a joyful place; everyone who gets there knows they are going to finish, and whatever aches and pains they might have are going to stop before too long, and so it was at Trearddur Bay. I had thought that I might make it back to Holyhead by 3pm but it looked as if that wouldn't happen now, we had gone too slowly. On the flip side, I felt nowhere near as bad as I should have done after covering 125 miles, and I had enjoyed the whole thing up to now. We set off on the last 10 miles.

More bays and headlands, another book to be de-paged, a slight navigational error as I led us too near the sea approaching the final bit of road up to South Stack and we had to fight our way back up through some quite determined gorse, then we were on the road then off down the track towards Ellen's Tower. Along the Castel Helen clifftops we saw climbers and my mind wandered back to my first abseil into the unknown from here back in the early seventies, when climbing at Gogarth seemed even scarier than it does today. We had caught up another runner who said he had finished the race last year, and the three of us made our way up to the carpark, down the road, up to the old coastguard lookout above South Stack, and along past the rather ugly communications installations to the steps up the side of Holyhead mountain. I lost sight of the others somewhere around here but I didn't think they would mind. I often like to enjoy the last mile or two of a long event on my own, to reflect a bit on the journey before the return to the normal world. And up here especially it was my kind of territory more than anywhere else on the course, rocky tracks, gradients, and a bit of wildness. I loved the long descent out to the North Stack radio station, and even the not insignificant reascent back up to the final little col. A bit more rocky track, a grassy track, then the finish in sight. And as I approached the finish..

''.......and it burns, burns, burns, that ring of fire....''

Cheers from everyone there, congratulations, a medal and a wonderfully welcome beer from Bing, and the Ring of Fire was done. I finished with an aggregate time for the 135 miles of 36:05:05, in 35th place. This is a great event, a big thank you to the race directors and all the marshalls who did such a fine job. Although it's a bit tougher than it appears on paper it's a really friendly experience because of all the support you get  -  no long sections out in the wilds like you get on mountain events!

I hung around at the finish for a while, soaking up the atmoshpere and watching and cheering as runners came in. Whatever music was playing, it immediately changed to "Ring of Fire" whenever an approaching runner was spotted, a great touch. Mark Legget had already been back some time and Helen arrived shortly after me, they had both had good weekends. It was tempting to stay longer but eventually the thought of a shower and another beer or two drew me away to the short drive back to Chester. I thanked Bing and wandered off to the car.