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!