Monday, 23 March 2015

Hardmoors 55

Since its inauguration in 2010, I have run all of the Hardmoors 55 races except last year when 4 days after some knee surgery it wasn't really practicable. I haven't done any of the other Hardmoors events (the 60, 110 and so on)  -  they always seem to clash with something else  -  but this one comes at just the right time of year when you're ready to step up from the shorter events of the winter into a bit of a longer day out. It's a pretty course (though some bits of the North York Moors are I think a bit of an acquired taste!), and the organisation by Jon (and now Shirley) Steele and their team has always been first class.

It was a cheap weekend all round as firstly Jon had kindly rolled my entry fee over from last year and then  I failed to get organised in time to get a conveniently located hotel for the night before the race, so I elected to sleep in the car at Helmsley Football Club, near the finish and where the bus to the start would depart from at 6am on the Saturday. In fact this year there were three double-deck buses, which shows how much the event has grown. On the first running in 2010 there were I think just about 50 starters  - this year there were over 300.

On the bus over to the start at Guisborough I sat by Mark Dalton, who I had last seen when we ran together in the dark through the woods south of Windermere on last year's "Lakes in a Day" (an excellent event by the way, I've already signed up for this year). Mark is local to the Hardmoor series and helps Jon with a lot of course setting and so-on. Typically, when I saw him after finishing today's race, he was helping to clear up rubbish in the town hall after running a PB. 

This was a morning when everything went right for the organisers. Everyone was on the buses on time, there was no bad weather slowing down the drive and the check-in procedure at Guisborough Sea Cadets Hall went super efficiently. Paradoxically, this left the runners with not a lot to do for an hour or so before the scheduled start. I had a second breakfast of bacon sandwiches and coffee (organised by the Sea Cadets, great job) and then met the Kynastons and Tromans who had the luxury of turning up much later having transport at both ends of the course. Both John and Dave had decided to give the day a good bash and were looking suitably fit and confident. Justifiably so as it turned out. John beat his previous best time of over ten hours by getting home in 9.35 and Dave turned in another elite performance getting third place in 8.24.  Mark Dalton actually finished within a minute of John's time also beating his previous best by a huge margin. It was interesting to read John's write-up the day after the race, describing how he monitored his heart rate and where he was against his last year's splits and targets all through the race, and comparing it to Mark's approach (Mark usually runs without wearing a watch and just goes on how he feels at the time). It's always fascinating how many ways there are to play this game, all giving good results for different runners.

My own ambitions were rather more modest for the day, just to complete my first 50 miler for about eighteen months at a pace you might with a bit of generosity call a run rather than a walk. I told the others I hoped to get round in somewhere between 12 and 13 hours. I was interested to see how I would cope with the longer periods of running, because although there are hills on this course (there is a total climb of something over 8000ft), they come in groups with long flat sections in between. The course today was being run westward, from Guisborough to Helmsley. There may be some logic Jon uses to decide the direction for the year but I haven't discovered what it is yet. I had already done three eastward trips, my only westward one being in the rather challenging conditions of 2013, so I was looking forward to going this way in the conditions we found on Saturday, which were pretty near perfect. Cool, dry under foot and with a gentle following wind for much of the way.

At just before 9am Jon did his final briefing, then the assembled mob made their way outside to start in the road. Being near the back of the queue I missed the count-down and just saw people running as I left the hall, but this didn't really have any impact as we then had to queue again for a few minutes to get up the steps onto the old railway line to get running properly. I guess if you're concerned about every minute at these sort of events you make sure you're somewhere near the front of the queue at the start, but for a casual performer like me it really is of no account over 50 miles! After a mile John Vernon was on duty to direct us onto the uphill track, then after another few hundred yards Flip Owen was there to put us onto the Cleveland Way proper, which we would then follow all the way to Helmsley.

I had no real race plan other than to take things easily as far as Osmotherly at least (about 30 miles), to make sure I could finish in good shape, so I walked all the uphills from the start. After a bit of undulation through Guisborough woods and a stretch of open moorland, the first few bits of up and down proper start with the out and back to Roseberry Topping (2 downs, 2 ups). As I was halfway down the first decent John K came past me in the opposite direction, well on his way already. I was quite surprised to overtake a lot of runners on both the descents and ascents here in spite of going quite conservatively, but a good number of these would re-pass me on the level ground later  -  depends what you're used to I suppose. Another down and up to Captain Cook's monument, then a long downhill to Kildale and the first 11 miles done in about 2 and a quarter hours.

It's a long uphill out of Kildale, all on tarmac and all runnable but again I made sure to walk the steeper sections.  Once you hit the moor it's 8 or 9 miles out to Blowarth Crossing and on to Clay Bank, no real hills so I ran, or rather jogged, all of this section. I could have gone faster and maybe in the past would have done, but I was still nervous about lasting the length of the event if I pushed too hard. Drop bags were available at Clay Bank so time to top up food and drink, although the supplies at most of the checkpoints are so good now that you could probably do the event without carrying anything other than a bit of emergency food. 

From Clay Bank to Osmotherly is by far the most interesting section of the course, a series of short hills along the scarp edge of the moors. Underfoot it is often artificially laid flagstones (the ubiquitous "anti-erosion" measures that we see in most popular UK hill areas nowadays). They do improve the overall landscape but they are rather uneven and require a bit more precision in foot placement than the grass, dirt and loose rock that they replace, so some concentration is required if trips and falls are to be avoided. A short way along we came across John V and Flip again complete with tent at the Kirby Bank checkpoint. Flip asked if it was cold for the runners as it was a bit chilly standing still, but I couldn't encourage him that I was other than rather happy with the conditions.

Time passes quickly on this section and Osmotherly seemed to turn up in no time, but the watch told a different story  -  it was seven hours from the start when I reached the checkpoint and a welcome cup of tea. I tried to get in and out efficiently so was about 5 minutes by the time I'd had a bite to eat,topped up bottles, restocked food, and was on the longish climb back up to the moor again.

I'd thought about this hill and the section to the end during the preceding section, wondering how to tackle it. From the top of the hill the course descends gently for nearly 20 miles all the way to the finish. When the event is run in the opposite direction the gentle uphill can be run at a good pace as you are fresh, and the two or three miles of steeper downhill to Osmotherly pass in a flash. In today's direction the decision was how much effort to put into the hill and how much to save for the easy ground after. In the end, swayed by the fact that I'd eaten quite a bit in Osmotherly, I decided to take it easy and the three miles out of the checkpoint took the best part of an hour. Cresting the hill I was then able to run nearly all the next ten miles to the White Horse, cruising through the Paradise Farm checkpoint without stopping.

But after the road crossing at Sutton Bank the light was fading and the descent to the final checkpoint at the White Horse car park was through woods, so I stopped to get out my headtorch before going down. At this point I discovered a bit of an error in that I'd forgotten to bring my glasses. In daylight I can see well enough to run over uneven ground, and even in the dark it's OK if I go slowly enough, but when trying to run at any pace in the dark I can't really make out where to put my feet, neither can I really see either map or GPS without a lot of concentration, so the pace slowed pretty dramatically from here.

On the flip side, the checkpoint at the White Horse was brilliant. There was a huge amount of both encouragement and goodies, and John V who had by now moved his duties along to here had even provided chips - best fuel ever for the finishing 9 miles! So fortified by these and a handful of ginger biscuits I set off up the steps, the last significant uphill of the day. 

Along the first part of this section the ground was quite easy underfoot. Two guys passed me who were going at a good pace and I managed to hang onto their lights for quite a while so at least I didn't need to do any navigating, but when the ground got a bit harder after Cold Kirby I couldn't see my footing well enough and had to drop back. All this section is very straight forward in daylight but in the dark there are several turns you can get wrong. I turned on my GPS and mostly left it in my pocket, encouraged by the periodic pings as I passed waypoints, but every so often I'd need to stop for a bit of a peer at the screen to make a turn decision, though there are just about enough Cleveland Way signs to get you by if you look out for them.

I remembered the last section of road, but not quite where you turned off from it, but once I'd seen the track off into the woods I knew it was straightforward to the finish. Then suddenly the fields turned into a track, then a road, and finally the signs to Helmsley Town Hall and the finish.

How nice to finish an ultra not covered in mud.

My time was 12.12. Within what I thought was my target, and only 20 minutes slower than my first run over the course when I was five years younger, so I'll take that. A slight regret is that had I pushed on a bit earlier I would have got more of the course in daylight and maybe got under 12 hours. But there's always next year.

Thanks to Jon, Shirley, and all the Hardmoors crew for another grand day out.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Feeding the Rat

January 2014, an email exchange with a Scottish friend;

"Hi Andy, I've been glued to the live updates on this race............Amazing how they are so spread out, and how far ahead the lead guy was. Amazing, full stop!.......I wonder if you would be interested in giving it a go?"

"Hi Murdo, Yes, me too, I've been checking every few hours ....................I'm torn, I've been thinking about it for a year or so. The distance and pace required to finish are my sort of thing but I'm not sure about the cold....."


October 2014, a conversation with a Yorkshire friend as we make our way up to Sty Head through the wind and rain on the Lakes 3 x 3000:

"So then JV, I see you're up for the Spine, what prompted you?"

"Just a brilliant challenge, really looking forward to it. You ought to give it a go."

"Not sure I'd enjoy it, all that cold and snow. And I've already done my share of wandering around in the dark with spindrift going down my neck......"


January 2015, glued to the live tracking for another year.  JV completes his trip,  the rat's gnawing away.


March 2015, application accepted. Barring mishaps, I'll be on the start line 9 January 2016. Time to dig in the loft for the cold weather gear.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Mud and Castles

On 28 February the annual Belvoir Challenge celebrated its 25th year. Run on the Belvoir estate in Leicestershire, the format is always the same, two races with a common massed start, one around 26 miles and a shorter version at 15 miles. Both races are open to runners and walkers, the only time limit is that after the scheduled 9am start, everyone has to be finished before 6pm.  Interest is maintained year to year because (a) a lot of the course covers areas of the estate not normally accessible to the public and (b) the courses themselves vary from year to year. The event draws a crowd, and this year there were about 1300 participants at the start. I ran the full course two years ago, when it was almost 27 miles with a height gain of 1400ft; this year's comparable stats turned out on the day to be 26.3 miles and 2000ft of ascent.

I was just a little apprehensive to be competing because I hadn't run a marathon for a long time. I had done plenty of ultras, but for me these usually involve walking a lot of the uphills and generally taking life easy in preparation for the longer events in the summer. A marathon distance seems too short for this sort of wimping out, and as I knew most the course would be runnable I felt I should bite the bullet and give it a go.

The drive down was not uneventful, detours caused by road works and an accident turned the 110 mile trip into 140, but I still arrived in good time to check in at Harby Village Hall, the base for the event. The road accident, not far from here, had apparently caused delays for many competitors so the start was delayed until just after 9.15am. The event is apparently famous for mud but on my only other acquaintance in 2013, the weather was cold and crisp so the majority of ground was frozen and we were treated to a snow shower at the finish. Today was going to be different, temperatures around 7 degrees and overcast with a bit of drizzle before the start.

We hit the first mud within a few hundred yards of the start. Enclosed green (now brown) lanes, ankle deep, gooey, slippery, and nowhere to escape. Keeping upright was hard enough, making forward progress even more problematic; energy sapping stuff. All this was made more interesting by the regular appearance of stiles causing a fair bit of queueing in the large packed eld. After maybe a couple of miles there was an interesting slither up a short steep bank to a stile leading into a field, then we lost the constraining hedges, the mud lessened and things got much better. I had forgotten about the mud. When the Rotherham race was held in December, usually immediately after ploughing, I used to take an old kitchen knife for quickly removing clods to keep the weight of accumulation on feet down, but now I had to resort to scraping on stiles and fenceposts along with everyone else. For most of the course though it wasn't too bad, we just kept coming across patches of a few hundred yards or so that gave us the treatment.

The stiles were interesting too. I suppose in Cheshire we must be getting soft; our Sandstone Trail used to have well over fifty of them but it's now down to half a dozen at most, the others being replaced by the seemingly ubiquitous kissing gates  -  a trend that I think we're seeing almost everywhere, but not at Belvoir  -  they like stiles here.

If all this makes it sound like the run was hard work at times, well it was. But once past the initial mud roads it was in pleasant undulating countryside, a mixture of field edges, woodland, farm tracks and country lanes, going through occasional small villages where you often came across a checkpoint. The checkpoints were brilliant, friendly marshals and great homemade cakes. During the course of the run I made my way through chocolate brownies, muffins, tiffin, scones and spongecake  - although I was warned of this because it does say on the event's website that it's definitely possible to put on weight during the course of the race.

I had thought that I might go for a 10 minute mile average for the race, but pace on the really muddy bits soon came down to something more like 12's, so with the stiles and checkpoint distractions I decided to go for 10.30 as a target, and managed to get to then hover around this for the duration. It meant running a lot of long slow uphills but I hadn't done that for a while so I'm sure it did me good.

The land hereabouts seems to consist of long ridges and troughs, with good views from the ridges. After 15 miles or so we were on a ridge top and could see Belvoir Castle on an adjacent ridge across the valley, a fine looking pile. I was sure that we had passed by the front gates in 2013, but not this time, though we eventually reached the ridge that it was on a little further along. There was a great bit of track along this ridge with woods on one side and views out over Harby and the adjacent villages on the other. By now we had also rejoined the 15 mile course which had taken a "short cut" half way along ours, so there were plenty of people to target and overtake. I had been surprised that on the more remote stretches of the 26 mile loop you could be completely on your own at times in spite of the large field.

At 23 miles there was a long easy descent through another small village, but there was a final little sting in the tail with another couple of miles of "mud road" back to Harby. But overall, an enjoyable and well-run event.

I finished in 4 hours 37 minutes. Not sparkling for a marathon, even a trail run with a bit of climbing, but in the prevailing conditions I was happy with that compared with my 4 Hours 28 minutes in 2013, on a flatter course in much easier conditions. I was in 62nd place out of about 330 starters on the 26 mile option.

Well the warm-up for 2015 is now done. First "proper" event coming up in three weeks, the Hardmoors 55.