Wednesday, 27 May 2015

It's a Date of Birth thing......

This bit of rambling is directed towards, how shall I put it sensitively, the more mature pedestrians out there. So if you're under 60, 50, 40 or whatever your personal definition might be, you may want to stop reading at this point. It's a subject that I try not to think about too much and have avoided posting about so far, but three factors are causing a (I hope temporary) change of heart:

1. I set out this year with a bit of discipline to complete three posts a month and May is in danger of sliding by and spoiling my average unless I can think of something to cover which anyone might find marginally interesting.

2. I'm sitting on an apartment balcony overlooking Loch Rannoch. This morning Jan and I drove over to Kenmore, took a short walk for mutual self-justification purposes then had a great lunch. It's now late afternoon, the sun shining over a view I haven't tired of after 8 years of coming to this place, and I have absolutely no desire to get out and run or walk anywhere.(I started this post yesterday, and of course today as I come back to it, it's raining......but then that's Scotland   -   I'll keep coming back)

3. After the events of the past week or so I probably need to give myself a bit of a talking to, and the message always sticks a lot better if I write it down.

To begin at the beginning. I didn't mean to become a runner, I just took it up at a time when I had some free evenings and no access to the pastimes I had pursued up until then. I ran my first marathon when I was 55 and my first ultra at 58. I didn't expect to do many, it was more of a thing to see if it was possible, tick the box and move on if you like. But as you can see from my comment up on the top right of this page, I found it somewhat addictive. The places you go, the people you meet, and yes, in some ways the sense of achievement you get when you feel you've acquitted yourself fairly well by what for 99% of the population must seem a pretty random yardstick. "You ran a hundred miles? Yes. And finished 67th? Yes. No prizes then? No. A well-known event though, like the London Marathon? Not exactly. But you still feel you had a great run? Yes. Not sure I understand this......"  But those of us who play this game do understand, so since those beginnings I've completed 17 marathons and over 50 ultras. It's part of my life now.

When you start in this sport, no matter how old you are you improve. It's about getting the right sort of fitness for the undertaking and learning how to do things efficiently, not making silly mistakes and so on. I ran my fastest marathon (just under 3 hrs 18 min) when I was 60 and my fastest West Highland Way (as an example of a "running" ultra ,in  22 hrs 23 min) when I was 64. I'm now a couple of months off 67 so I'm sure these were peaks; they're times that I'm not going to see again, natural deterioration accelerates as you get older. But in many ways I was lucky starting late. Runners who started out in their 20's may have to face that they are beyond their peak as they hit their 40's or 50's, maybe even younger.

Understanding that you can no longer do what you once could is in no way traumatic; if you haven't got there yet and fear the day, don't worry. If you enjoy what you do (and no-one can effectively explain why, as I said earlier), then you will continue to enjoy it; and it will  keep you out of the pub (or maybe justify more time in the pub, whichever you prefer), no problem. At present I'm not setting time targets for any of the races I'm participating in, just turning up and enjoying the day. But there are still events that I want to have my go at, some of which will need all of my capabilities and probably a bit of luck if I am to finish them. The Dragon's Back in less than a month's time, and the Spine next January will be as tough as they come for me. And although I said I was done with the UTMB a while ago, after a couple of years away from Chamonix I somehow don't think I'll turn down my guaranteed entry for next August. I'd also like to run at least a couple more West Highland Way races and a Hardmoors 110 which I've somehow never got around to. The just publicised Coast to Coast looks a great trip. Yes, there still are plenty of adventures out there to keep a not-quite-as-fast-as-you-once-were participant pretty enthusiastic about the future.

I've learned over the last year or so how to finish events without being in the sort of shape I would have once thought necessary, so if I'm sensible I have a chance of completing all the ones I've mentioned. But that's the rub of course, the being sensible bit.

Ten days ago I ran a race in the Lake District. Short for an ultra, just 32 miles, but a bit hilly and with the mix of ground you expect for the area.  I ran a couple of long uphills, something I hadn't done for nearly two years  - "walk the uphills" had been my mantra. I hammered down a couple of steep rocky descents, overtaking people all the way, because I still know where to put my feet. It all felt good at the time. But a week later aching knees and sore calves were still making any activity a bit problematic. All so unnecessary. I needed a talking-to about this sort of imprudence.

One of the key things I've learned about getting a bit older is that recovery takes longer. You can't feel totally wrecked of an evening and expect to be up and running as good as new the next morning. In fact you can't expect to feel the least bit well-exercised and be good to go the next day. And just because you can still do something, it doesn't necessarily mean that it's in your longer-term best interests to prove it too regularly. So I've written myself a brief set of rules which I hope will, in the words of the old dog food advert, prolong active life........

1. Don't run on two consecutive days. Walking on the other days is OK.
2. Eight minute miles is fast enough. Anything faster leads to pulling things.
3. Stretch every day.
4. Walking in the hills is really good for you; just don't feel you have to travel fast every step of the way.
5. Finish each day knowing you could do the same tomorrow, even if you're not going to.

Racing (well, participating)
6. Plan a time to finish in good shape. Finishing faster and wrecked is failure.
7. Walk all the uphills; the cut-off times allow for this and running uphill is the quickest way possible to run the tank empty.
8. Take technical downhills gently. There are no new knees.
9. Go at a pace where eating is a treat to be anticipated rather than a fuel intake to be managed.
10. Fix any discomfort immediately. You have the time.

So not a long list, and certainly not a list that a runner a few years younger would ascribe to  -  nothing about pushing your limits and getting your best possible performance here! But hopefully, getting these rules in my head will help me play this game for quite a few years yet. That's the plan.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Keswick Festival Ultra

Two years ago I had run the Scafell Pike Marathon as part of the Keswick Mountain Festival celebrations and found it an enjoyable and well-run event. Last year I was out of the game, just about starting to run again, so I was keen to take part in an event at the festival this year and the "50km Trail Race" looked like it was going to be good. An added attraction since we bought a holiday lodge in Keswick earlier this year was the opportunity to fall out of bed and walk a quarter of a mile to the start line.

It was a chilly and very blustery morning when I turned up in Crow Park for the 6,30am start, but the forecast gave the hope that the expected significant band of rain would not turn up until mid afternoon, time enough even for me to get around without getting wet. Keswick-based  Dave Troman was at the start looking suitably fit and confident, another runner not wanting to miss out on his  local event; we wished each other well and wandered over to the start. I didn't check the start list but I think we were around 150 setting off at spot on 6.30.

We were told we must have a map but the course was fully marked so it stayed in the back of the rucksack the whole way round. I'm really in two minds about this sort of course marking. In events in fairly benign locations on well-established footpaths (for example the Endurancelife Coastal series) I think marking is fine. Navigation isn't part of the event and you don't need to take a map (or know how to use one) any more than you do in a city marathon. For events on the open fells I may be a bit too old-school but I think marking is wrong. The Skyrunning Lakes 3 x 3000 race last October was fully marked, I think possibly to attract more overseas competitors, and it just didn't feel right following a line of yellow flags across the hillside (especially in places like from Stake Pass to the summit of High Raise, where there are trods but no established paths). I think up there navigation goes with the territory, if you can't do it you really shouldn't be there. A trail race like the Keswick Festival event falls somewhere between these two; I can see that it gives organisers a bit more peace of mind but I would still rather that the flags weren't there.

Anyway, enough of this rambling digression. A mile or so of easy running took us southwards along the East shore of Derwentwater, from where we doubled back around Castle Head and started the fairly steady first climb up to Walla Crag, about a thousand feet above the lake. I'm sure the leaders ran all this ascent but I was happy to walk the steeper bits and not get too pressed this early on. We had a brief shower as we crested the summit, but that's the only rain I can remember all the way round. A fast easy-angled descent goes from Walla down to Ashness Bridge, from where the course followed the road uphill  for half a mile, then the path alongside the beck all the way up to Watendlath. I was remembering this path from the Lakes 3 x 3000, when we tackled it in the dark after 24 hours continuous heavy rain, knee-deep water nearly all the way. Today couldn't have been more different, a great track, rising very slowly, just difficult enough to keep you interested but not enough to slow you down, lovely running. By now the field had thinned out enough for everyone to find their own comfortable pace and the run seemed well under way.

From Watendlath a short ascent, some traversing on a nice track, and a steep but easy descent led down to Rosthwaite where there was a water point. With 3 checkpoints and 2 other water points in just over 30 miles this was a well-supplied run, and knowing this in advance I only needed to carry one 500ml water bottle; compared with the normal 2 this seemed to make an appreciable difference to the pack load.

A meandering track leads through fields and along the rocky  riverbank from Rosthwaite to Seatoller. It's used to avoid the road in a number of races so I knew it quite well by now, and then we were onto the Cumbria Way track which parallels the road to the top of Honister Pass. After the first steep bit it's at a gentle angle and quite runnable, the only problem this morning being a fierce wind coming right into our faces at this point which made it pretty hard work. Checkpoint 1 proper was just beyond the buildings at Honister slate mines; the marshals there (one of whom was Tour of Skiddaw RD Gaynor Prior) were doing a great job in a very chilly spot. The event's only cutoff time was here, but as it was 3hrs45min and I arrived in just under the two and a half hours it was never going to be a problem. I had decided before the start to treat the event as training but not to make it too easy; I wanted to run as much as I could but not to finish feeling too tired - I wouldn't put as much effort in as I had into the recent Highland Fling, for example.

Above Honister the route followed the straight old tramway track, a relic from the days when the mines were a huge enterprise. Steeper than the track up to Honister but with still the same strong headwind, it was too much for me and I stopped trying to run and walked steadily to the top. Over the crest, paths lead up to Haystacks (reputedly A W Wainwright's favourite hill) on the left and Fleetwith Pike on the right, but our way went straight on down between the two, on a track that was steep and quite rocky  -  "technical" as they tend to say nowadays!  We soon lost the wind going down here and I must have been doing something right as I overtook quite a few runners down here.

Once at the bottom, we were faced with several miles of flat running which I wasn't really looking forward to - on these sort of events I prefer the ups and downs. The first couple of miles along the Western shoreline of Buttermere were familiar ground on an easy track taken (normally in the dark) by runners in the Lakeland 100 race. From there it continued all around two thirds of the Crummock Water shoreline.  I knew the first bit as far as Scale Beck, having been that way to climb Mellbreak and the fells beyond, but after that it was new territory. Much narrower than the Buttermere track and with lots of both rocky and boggy sections,it was nevertheless really interesting with a particularly charming section through woods along the Northeastern side. I passed a few more runners along here, though slowly enough to have a bit of conversation along the way. It was quite surprising how many were on their first trail run and a number said they had never been further than a marathon before.  They could have picked an easier way to start I mused, but everyone that I saw was still really impressed with the quality of the route. Just rounding the Northern tip of the lake I had a pleasant surprise. I hadn't looked at my watch since the rocky descent from Honister and I had guessed that by now we must be around  halfway, say 15 or 16 miles. The Garmin showed well over 19; on the run-in already..........well, sort of.

Checkpoint 2 turned up at Rannerdale Bridge, along with a nice patch of sunshine. I remarked to one of the marshals that I was ready for a nice long hill to walk up, after all the preceding level ground with no excuse not to run. She said I wasn't the first to voice the thought that morning.

But the gradually rising track up to Rannerdale, through the famous bluebell fields and on up the valley offered no guilt-free rest so had to be done at a (rather slow) jog. The last few hundred yards to the top steepened up though so I got my walk eventually. Over the Rannerdale col we sidled down and round,along a narrow path across some open grassy hillside, after which I found myself on well-known ground again, the long steady climb from Buttermere village to Sail Pass, also part of the Lakeland 100 route. I've been up this path several times but always walked it; on the L100 it comes after 25 miles of already tough ground, and with the best part of 80 miles still to go energy conservation seems a better strategy than speed. I was here fresh and in daylight a few weeks ago, but on that occasion I was playing sweeper on one of the organised recce days, so even then it was at a walking pace. So I was quite surprised today that with not too much effort having gone before and the knowledge that this was the last significant climb of the day, the majority could again be done at a steady jog with just a few sections of walking on the steep exits from the 3 stream re-entrants crossed along the way. Another bonus was that on reaching the junction where the L100 steepens up for the final pull to the pass, today's route carried on at the same gentle angle to its own col just a few hundred yards further on.

I'd never been down the other side of this col before and it was another great surprise. The track down above Rigg Beck was superb; never more than a couple of feet wide through the heather, a good surface with no nasty surprises, and at an angle which encouraged a fast pace all the way down; the best part of two miles of fun. Checkpoint 3 was at the bottom, then it was a bit of road through Newlands and a short climb to the easy jeep track skirting Cat Bells to Hawse End.

I got to Hawse End in just over six and a half hours. I had said to Jan earlier that I was hoping to get around in about seven and a half, but I know from having run it many times that it's only about three miles from here back to Keswick, so it looked as though with a bit of application a sub-seven might be on (also though, it was clear from the mileage already covered to this point that we were being treated to an extra mile or so on the "50km"). I pushed on feeling pretty good for this stage of the game; a tiny sting in the tale was that the flags routed us over the little hill before Nichol End, where the track round the hill via the boatyard is almost the same distance and with no climbing, but the game was nearly done now. Through Portinscale, over the wobbly bridge and across the fields, the finishing straight enjoyed by so many Bob Graham finishers over the years.

It looked in the bag hitting the edge of town with several minutes to spare, but I'd forgotten just how far it is down to the lake and around the park, but I just squeezed under the seven hours with 6:58:07 at the finish, for 33rd place. Dave T was at the finish, having secured second place with a terrific run in just over 5 hours. On my Garmin I made the course 32,5 miles with 6500ft of ascent. It probably won't be run again as the trail run for the festival seems to vary from year to year, but it was a great morning out, offering a real variety of what the Lakes has to offer. We were lucky with the weather, the promised rain came in mid afternoon and continued pretty well without pause until the following lunchtime, but then that's the Lakes.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Back to Snowdonia

I've enjoyed my recent wanderings in mid Wales, nice hills, but in some ways they just reinforce the knowledge that the mountains of Snowdonia are painted on a bigger scale than anything else south of the Scottish border. I felt a bit of a need to go back, so I decided to follow what is my best guess for the first half of Day 1 on the Dragon's Back race  -  the Carneddau from Conwy to Ogwen.

Wednesday was forecast as the best choice for weather by a mile, but with this as a given it was never going to be an early start. A 9.30 appointment at the Liverpool Passport Office meant that by the time I had driven down to Bangor and got the coastal bus back to Conwy, it was 1pm by the time I set out up the jeep track towards the Sychnant Pass. I had decided on an easy pace on two counts; firstly I was still trying to chase off the last remnants of a cold - why do they seem to last so long these days?  -  and secondly I wanted an idea of the time taken for the trip with no positive running, just a bit of shambling down hill whenever it was easier than walking. Nevertheless, the first few miles went rapidly along easy tracks and grassy trods, before a final ascent led to the craggier summit ridge of Tal-y-Fan (2000ft).  This fine little peak would be cherished in Lakeland but here it is merely an often-disregarded  outlier of the Carneddau. The path along the half mile or so of summit ridge gives a bit of a taster on  how the terrain of Snowdonia can slow one's progress even in seemingly innocuous situations, but with wall to wall sunshine and no-one in sight in any direction it was still a good place to be.

Looking back towards Conwy from Tal y Fan

Towards the Carneddau from Tal y Fan

The way onward takes you to a small col then over the heather-clad mound of Foel Lwyd, followed by a steeper and longer descent to the old bridleway crossing the range from Llanfairfechan. It's a bit of a pull from here up the next hill Drum (2460ft), grass all the way but no surprises, and I reached the summit just 3 hours after leaving Conwy. Halfway to Ogwen, a lot of up and down done already and I hadn't even climbed a "real" hill yet. That was to be remedied soon enough though, as the first "three thousander", Foel Fras (3090ft), was just along the ridge, down a bit and up quite a lot, again on nice short grass. When you get to here you have the feeling that all the real climbing is now done and it's just a ramble along the ridge then down to Ogwen (which is not quite how it actually is however!).

Foel Fras summit plateau

Easy progress led to the next top Foel Grach (3200ft) with its little emergency hut just below the summit. I remember sheltering here many years ago on a Welsh 3000's trip. The mist was down and the rain continuous, we were equipped in the appropriate gear for the time (teeshirts, army & navy plastic cagoules and road trainers) and we needed to shiver inside for a few minutes to get some feeling back before pressing on. I don't ever remember carrying any food or drink on those trips, maybe a Mars Bar in your pocket, we relied on a few cups of tea at Ogwen and Nant Peris and what water we could get from streams.The confidence of youth I guess, we're now older and wiser and get to carry a rucksack even for running! But it was a beautiful day on Wednesday so I just looked in for old times' sake and pressed on.

I had decided to ignore the "off-route" three thousander Yr Elen (a mostly out-and-back trip which adds  around 45 minutes to the journey) so from Foel Grach it was a quick and easy traverse to the highest point in the group, Carnedd Llewellyn (3490ft), but for the last section just before the summit the ground turns from grass to rock, and stays that way pretty well to Ogwen. Reaching the summit of Llewellyn at around 5.30pm I met the only other walker I saw all day. We agreed it had been a stunning afternoon. The views out to sea had been particularly fine, though only emphasising just how many wind turbines there are out in Liverpool Bay these days.

The traverse from Llwellyn to Carnedd Dafydd (3424ft) is interesting but always seems to take longer than it should  -  and Wednesday was no exception. An absorbing bit of rocky ridge leads to a section of jumbly boulders; there is grass over to the left which appears to offer a quicker way, but any attempt to use more than a few yards of it at a time always leads to a loss of height which then has to be regained. Eventually a reasonable stony path re-establishes itself on the ridge to the summit. The stones carry on to the final top Pen yr Oleu Wen (3207 ft). The way is is mostly downhill and runnable if you watch where you put your feet, but I had a nasty fall running here a couple of years ago so I'm a bit more cautious nowadays.

Approaching Pen yr Oleu Wen in the evening sunshine

I had a final pause to admire the view from the top then set off down. These days it always takes me around 45 minutes to get off this hill, whether by the bone-crunching direct route down to Ogwen Cottage or the more circuitous and eventually boggy way down to Glan Dena. I chose the former on the grounds that at least it brought me out at the right end of the lake for my onward travel. I finally climbed over the Alf Embleton stile onto the A5 just under six and a half hours after leaving Conwy. Seventeen and a half miles and just over 6000ft of ascent. Jogging some of the flat bits could easily knock a half hour or more off this, but I think it will probably do for the DB anyway, no need to rush early on. It had been a nice afternoon.

No buses through Ogwen this late in the day, so all that was left was to jog the eight miles down the A5 back to the car........