Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Wooler Trail Marathon

Ian B noticed it first and said it looked like a good day out so I thought I would give it a try. In truth there was nothing not to like; a 28 mile trail run with 6000 ft of ascent in an area that I had never visited. Then in the glow of the finish at the Lakes in a Day run I tried to persuade John K that October was too early to knock off for the year and he should come along too. In the end Ian didn't make it but John did, accompanied by Katrina who had entered the half distance event to be run on the same day.

I always rather naively assume that all places in "the north" are close together, so I was surprised to discover on the day before the event that the AA predicted a two and a half hour drive from Keswick to Wooler and I needed to be there by about 7am.  No problem on near-deserted roads on a Sunday morning, although as the outside temperature hovered around -2/-3 degC all the way and it wasn't clear whether the final 30 miles along the A697 had been salted, not without its moments. I wasn't sure where I was going to park in Wooler but as I approached the town in the dark and a bit of early-morning fog two obvious race marshals appeared on the main road and directed me straight to a big free car park - a pointer to the great organisation overall on what was to be the inaugural running of this event.

The base for the day was Wooler YHA, a five minute walk from the car park, where I found a rapid and simple registration, John and Katrina who had sensibly come the day before and stayed in the hostel, a welcome from Garry, one of the "Trail Outlaws" organisers, and plenty of time for a cup of tea or two before the start. It was daylight when Garry and his co-director Tim briefed the marathon runners outside the hostel before a short walk to the start for the off at 8am.

Race briefing 

The weather forecast for the day was pretty good, especially compared with the havoc that Storm Angus was predicted to wreak further south. It would be chilly but no precipitation expected and almost no wind.

I wished John well at the start as I expected that he would get round at least an hour faster than me, then we were away.

Ready for the start
The six miles to the first checkpoint were easily runnable on good paths and jeep tracks over open moorland, gradually gaining height but at a gentle angle before a final descent to the CP. I settled into an easy jog, not worrying too much about the field streaming out for what seemed like miles ahead. I had decided that I would run the flats and downhills and jog the uphills when they were gentle; I had originally thought I might finish in somewhere between 6 and 7 hours, but after a comment from Garry to John that he would normally consider 7 hours normal for a training run I suspected that it might be quite a bit more (Garry's a proper runner). The cold conditions made the ground underfoot nice and solid and in the lack of wind I soon warmed up. My windproof and gloves came off fairly soon, and apart from the gloves going back for a short distance over the higher part of the course, stayed off all day. The course was fully marked with yellow arrows at each route option and occasional yellow flags along the way to confirm you were on the right course. I normally like the navigational aspect of events but I must admit that occasionally it's quite relaxing just to follow the signs. We had been told that we must have a map in case the signs got obscured/ damaged/ stolen etc.

4 miles from the start (photo by Trail Outlaws)

Immediately after the checkpoint there was a steady climb of about 1800ft over two and a half miles up to the summit of the Cheviot, the high point of the course. I walked the majority of this, only breaking into a jog on the odd occasions that the angle eased. Most people around me seemed to be adopting the same tactic, and as it was a long straight path following a fence line you could see the field strung out both ahead and behind for quite a long distance. The ground underfoot here was obviously normally boggy but today it was nicely frozen so we were getting good conditions.
Looking back down the path up Cheviot

For the last few hundred feet we got up into the cloud so we lost the panoramic views we had been enjoying so far. I kept thinking we would get through and above it, because it was clear that the sun was not far above us, but unfortunately the summit arrived before the top of the cloud. There were at least three stalwart marshals spaced out over the summit plateau, pretty hardy guys as the temperature was reported as around minus ten up here.

Trail marker near Cheviot summit
From the summit, the track followed a section of "Pennine Way" style slabs for quite a way. I had considered bringing Yaktrax for these because I'd found from my Spine explorations that these slabs can be nastily slippery in cold conditions; however, by the day before the event the hills around Keswick were completely snow-plastered and I assumed from this that the slabs would be covered and Yaktrax unnecessary. As it turned out there was almost no snow on the Cheviots. There were icy patches on the slabs but by concentrating you could avoid them and it was easy enough to make fairly rapid progress. After the longish ascent it was good to get going at a reasonable speed again. I chatted with a Scots runner for a while along here, we both knew the Glencoe area and the West Highland Way path.

A mile or so after the Cheviot summit, the route joined the Pennine Way just before the Auchope Cairn, with a steep descent just beyond this down to "Hut 2" on the PW path. After the slabs on the plateau being quite easy, a lot of us found running down this slope on a frozen surface of grass and mud still needed some concentration  -  I had several slides but managed to hold them before they turned into falls.
Across the slabs on the plateau.

On the final level bit before the hut we could relax a bit with no chance of each step being a potential slip for the first time for a while. Then the hut, which was the second checkpoint, emerged out of the mist and the first marshal to greet me was Phil Owen who I've known for quite a while. Even down here, quite a bit lower than the Cheviot and now out of any snow, it must have been a chilly job.

Approaching the Checkpoint at Hut 2

Phil, who took the previous photo,
marshalling at the hut

The route then followed the Pennine Way northwards for several miles. I've read reports from Spine competitors who have done this section in all sorts of dire conditions, dark, knee-deep bogs, equally deep snow, gale force winds and so on. A cruise for us today, an easy path to follow, no wind and frozen apart from one or two puddles, dry feet all the way if you were careful. It was still probably the worst ground underfoot that we had all day because of the mixture of grass, frozen mud and heather, but easily joggable apart from one or two short rises such as over the Schil, a little hill a mile or so beyond the hut. A bit further on I paused to go through a gate and noticed that I was just 14 miles from the start, exactly half way. The watch said I'd been out three and a half hours; I expected that I might slow down a bit from tiredness over the second half, but we had done the great majority of the climbing now, so it looked as though a finish in under seven hours would be possible so long as I just pushed on steadily.

At the Pennine Way option point, our course took the high level main track rather than the low level bad weather route which goes directly down to Kirk Yetholm. From here  we came down out of the mist and also the ground improved hugely so we had a couple of miles of wonderful running, gently downhill on a wide track with a dry grass surface. A final short ascent over White Law and down the far side led to a junction with St Cuthbert's Way. Here we would leave the Pennine Way and follow St Cuthbert's all the way back to Wooler. Checkpoint 3 was a self-clip checkpoint on the signpost at this junction, and a lady runner who was just ahead of me waited for me to catch up so we could clip each other's numbers without having to take off our sacks, and we carried on together for three or four miles. This was her first trail marathon but she was a mountaineer so we had plenty in common (except age, where I suspect the gap was rather large!). Again the running was good underfoot and gently gently undulating though gradually losing height, we even got a bit of sunshine at one point.

Great conditions on St Cuthbert's Way

We carried on through Checkpoint 4 at the 18,5 mile point and along maybe a mile of minor road to the tiny hamlet of Hethpool. Apart from a couple of remote farms, this was the only inhabited place on the entire route; sparsely populated, this corner of Norhtumberland. We had agreed to go on at our own pace if one of us wanted to push on, and without really realising it I lost my companion on the uphill out of Hethpool. She had thought the cut-off for the finish was seven hours but when I told her it was eight and a half she said that would let her take things a bit easier.

Checkpoint 5 turned up soon afterwards. This was the turnaround point of the half marathon, so from here it could not be more than six or seven miles to the finish, my watch said less than six if the overall 28 was genuine. A final handful of jelly babies (these were available at all checkpoints except the self-clip, and together with a couple of Mars bars were all that was needed to see me round in good shape) and I was off on the final stretch. This started with a bit of a hill which I mostly walked, but once the high point was reached about a mile after the CP, the run all the way back to Wooler from here was brilliant; easy to follow paths, great underfoot, mostly level or slightly descending and with great views all the way. I didn't go flat out because that wasn't the aim of my day, but I enjoyed a steady run all the way and afterwards my watch showed that my three fastest miles of the day came here. The last three or four miles of an event sometimes seem to pass slowly but today I seemed to be back on the track back to the YHA on the outskirts of Wooler in no time.

Fnal few yards into Wooler (photo by Trail Outlaws)
I finished in 83rd place (from 154 starters) in a time of 6:40:41, which would do nicely for a lovely day out with not too much stress and never feeling I was really going hard.

John K had waited around for me to finish. As I suspected he had come in well over an hour earlier in 29th place, another good performance from him. Katrina had also had a good race, finishing the half in two and a half hours and winning the Ladies V50 prize.

Thanks and congratulations to Garry, Tim and all the Trail Outlaws gang and their marshals. For an inaugural running of the event, the thing went like clockwork. I'm sure they have a winner here.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

"It was brutal!"

You may take this as the ramblings of an old duffer wanting things to be a bit slower in an age where everyone expects to be able to do what they want immediately; you may be right and I won't be offended. Equally if I offend anyone, it is not intended. If it makes you think a bit, even if you disagree, then that's enough.

We live in an age of hyperbole. In almost every sports interview or report you come across nowadays, nearly every aspect of the story is "incredible" (incredible: beyond belief or understanding - Collins English Dictionary) and performances are frequently "epic" (epic: an episode in the lives of men in which heroic deeds are performed or attempted;  heroic: distinguished by exceptional courage, nobility, fortitude, etc). We've got used to this over the years of course, but I had sort of thought and hoped that the quiet backwater of ultra running might have escaped the trend.

When I somehow drifted into this world about 10 years ago my daughter, who had watched a lot of my progressive immersion from the sidelines, observed that ultra runners appeared to be "a sociable bunch of rather attractively deranged characters who behave as though what they are doing is entirely normal." I warmed to the description and I think that's how it was. A bit like rock climbing before it became establishment. You went out and did what you did, learned from the relatively few people who were around in the game, had a beer and went home. No fuss, no hype, no Facebook.

Now don't get me wrong. I welcome the explosion of the ultra running scene over the last ten years, lots more events to go and enjoy all over the place, and without a doubt the top practitioners these days are real world-class athletes. But.

A couple of weeks ago I participated as a running marshal on a Lakeland 100 "recce", an activity which I'm now in my third year of enjoying. You cover a section of the Lakeland 100 course in the company of runners who have turned up to get a bit familiar with the route and your brief is to deal with any safety, injury or major navigational problems (don't let people get too lost). It's always a good day out with nice new people to meet in a beautiful area. This time the section was from Coniston to Buttermere and we had the normal well-organised outing. Some found it a bit harder than others but that's what recces are for, to give you an appreciation of what the event itself involves.

Afterwards though I heard and saw one or two comments describing the course as "brutal" (brutal: cruel; vicious; savage; or harsh; severe; extreme) Well actually, no. We had near perfect conditions for the time of year and followed paths that are used frequently by many Lakeland visitors who would describe themselves as walkers or ramblers. I'm not singling out Lakeland participants in particular, I recently saw Offa's Dyke described as brutal, and similarly extreme descriptions have been used about many other relatively benign courses.

Ah, but you will say,  it's not the ground that makes it extreme.  It's the distance we do in a day, the weather we're likely to meet, it's the overall package that puts it out of the ordinary.  And I might have to agree; even on our modest Lakeland recce, 26 miles is probably a bit more than the average rambler would cover between tea shops; and while many of us have enjoyed a gentle sidle up the Pennine Way in September, the same path in the middle of January is an altogether different proposition. But these are difficulties that we introduce for our own enjoyment; and here's the rub.

Up to now you could pass me off for poking some gentle fun at a bit of natural over-exaggeration in a fast-growing sport; but there's a more serious point here. We participate in an activity that we can engage with at a variety of levels to suit our preferences, skills and experience. As the difficulty level of the event rises we willingly accept a bit more discomfort and potential hazard because we believe for us that the rewards of achievement are worth it. But the more we use extreme language to describe our activities, the more we promote the idea that extreme effort and its consequences (extreme fatigue/exhaustion, injury, long recovery times) are a natural part (sometimes the major part) of the game. We recall with pride how we pushed on close to our limits, enduring screaming joints and muscles,  eating and drinking problems, navigational extra-curricular activities, sleep-deprived losses of judgement and other demons, to arrive broken but triumphant at the finish. And the more we do this, the more it becomes it accepted that this is the norm for the game.

My concern with this is that as the sport grows, with more and more near-exhausted competitors being out in potentially hazardous conditions, accident rates to both runners and those required to get them out of difficulties are going to rise. We have had mercifully few deaths in this game so far, but I think we've been lucky; and if they do start to arise, the individual tragedies involved will not be the only consequences. The media attention they would generate would have a significant detrimental effect on the sport.

Trail and mountain running is an "adventure" type sport that needs a bit of learning to build up skills and experience for progressively more difficult events. Parallels that I have some background in are mountaineering and ski-touring, but there are many others  - ocean sailing, diving, and so on.  To a certain extent these are "Catch 22" games - to survive you need experience, to gain experience you need to survive. Courses help but can only scratch the surface of real knowledge won by the individual. The key is to progress at a rate that gets you out of your comfort zone sufficiently to extend your knowledge but not so far as to put you at unreasonable risk.

The elephant in the room here is that trail running involves organised events whereas the other games I have mentioned are normally played by individuals or groups devising their own outings. An event has a set course (wholly or in part) or covers a known area which is covered in general by marshals "for your safety".  You can afford to push yourself to your limits because if it goes wrong the organisation will get you out. Make the phone call, push the button on your tracker and all will be well. Except that it doesn't work that way. Get into trouble in the less accessible areas of country covered by some of our UK races in bad conditions and you might as well be on the moon. The race co-ordination may have some idea of where you are but be powerless to extract you without significant further personal risk being involved.

We all get unlucky sometimes; accidents happen; while in full control we can still make bad judgements. Everyone in the outdoor game understands this. What I think is unacceptable though is to get yourself into trouble by attempting an undertaking that was beyond your capabilities right from the start. Other than making use of the facilities available to every competitor (food and drink at checkpoints/aid stations, etc),  I think that if you have to resort to the help of others to get you to the finish (navigation, decision-making, provision of food, organisation of kit, etc), then I don't believe you can honestly say you completed the event.

My view, and as normal I don't expect everyone to agree (but I'll try to convince you nonetheless!), is that any competitor about to enter a race should ask themselves the following questions:
1. Have I the competence to complete this event with something in hand?
2. If things turn out more difficult than I believed, have I the judgement to stop before I become a liability?
- and be able to answer a completely honest "yes" to both.

What do I mean by competence to complete?

I think this falls into three main areas.

1. Fitness. If you've never done it, it's an illuminating experience to be at the finish of a demanding event when the leading runners come in. These guys are tired for sure, but almost without exception you get the impression that after a bit of a sit down and a cup of tea they could go out and carry on performing at the same level. Whatever else happened along the way, lack of fitness wasn't going to compromise their race. At whatever level you perform, I think you need to be fit enough so that at the end of the event in normal conditions, you could actually have gone on for several miles and a couple more hills if you had to. I'm often amazed by the amount of heavy breathing I hear in the first quarter, or even the first ten percent, of a long race. Now, it may just be that it's just the individual's particular style, but it doesn't sound good or give me any confidence that they will finish. You need to have enough in the tank to see you through in good shape, and then a bit more.

2. Navigation. We all make mistakes - but the key is can we recognise and correct them? I've been in events where I've seen  lots of runners whose navigation was so sketchy that they were clearly relying on those around them to show them the way. I don't believe they can be considered to have completed the event. Now I'm not denying that when conditions put you up against it then two brains are often better (or to be more precise, faster) than one in solving problems, but that's where both are contributing, not one relying on the other. I think before you enter an event you need to ask yourself "Can I navigate this course totally alone? In whatever conditions are thrown at me. And when my GPS fails. If you can't answer an honest yes to these, then you shouldn't go.

3. Staying safe within the conditions, for the duration of the race. For 30 miles along the coast or around a lowland forest in summer, this is not likely to require a lot of thought or experience. If you set out on a multi-day trip through the mountains in uncertain weather with checkpoints maybe only coming once a day then you need to ask a lot more questions. Have I got the right kit? Not the mandatory kit which is sometimes there only to meet the organiser's insurance requirements, but the right kit which will keep me warm enough, dry enough, and in good enough shape to keep making progress. Have I tested all this in the conditions in which it might be critical? Do I have a proven food/liquid strategy that I know will carry me through the duration of the event? Have I the experience of the amount of sleep deprivation the event is likely to present? How will I react if it rains for 24 hours, if I face gale force winds, if my water bottles freeze at night? Do I have a plan if I have to abandon my race but I can still walk? And if I can't walk? You get the picture. And between these two not-quite-extremes lie the vast majority of events that need an honest assessment of your ability to cope. 

As a final comment on competence, I'll reflect on where I came in. I really think we have to get away from the idea that the hallmark of success in an event is to battle on "heroically" through pain and exhaustion then somehow get to the finish through a supreme effort of will.  For me, the way to finish an ultra is to understand the challenge, decide honestly whether you can meet it, prepare for it fully and execute it competently.

I have huge respect for anyone who has the energy and commitment to organise an ultra event. Without them we would not be able to go out and play. My only comment to (some of) them is that they should be a bit more consistent in attracting and managing entries. "This will be the hardest thing you have ever done" combined with a non-existent (or token) experience qualification does not make sense. I can't see how running events with a regular drop-out rate approaching 50% benefits anyone (one or two "designed to minimise finishers" events excepted!). Most good events these days are fully- or over-subscribed, so I personally think more stringent entry requirements would not only up the completion rate but allow organisers to sleep a bit more easily in that there will be fewer runners out there approaching (or over) their physical or technical limits.

And from our side, we the runners should be a bit less driven by the publicity and status of the race, than by an honest assessment of whether we actually have a chance of completing it safely in the worst conditions. 

In short, runners should attempt events that are going to provide a real challenge without putting either themselves or others at significant risk.

It wasn't brutal, it was just beyond our experience at the time.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Preparing for Dragons

I'm writing this as a sort of "message to self" if you like, to keep my mind straight in tackling next year's Dragons Back race. Now if you've already completed this little jaunt, or have entered and are just wondering how you are going to while away the long evenings between completing each day's running and dinner, then this isn't for you, click out now. But if like me you realise that this is possibly the most demanding undertaking you've attempted in the running game it might be worth staying with me for five minutes or so.

I tried the event in 2015 and didn't finish. If you want to spend another ten minutes reading the full story it's here, but basically I wasn't fully fit so I hatched a strategy to allow for that; there was nothing wrong with the strategy, it allowed me to operate to the best of my ability at the time but it wasn't good enough to finish the race and I ran out of time before the end of Day 3. I was close enough though for me to believe that with a bit more fitness and a slightly better plan another attempt would be worthwhile so I have entered the 2017 race.  This post is about what I think I learned in 2015.

1. Don't underestimate just how tough the route is

A lot of people do. In the 2015 race, 126 runners left Conway, a fully vetted field who had to have demonstrated in their applications that they had at least a reasonable chance of making the finish. 65 actually got there (51%).  Looking sensibly at the statistics for the first three days helps to see why:

Day 1  -  31 miles, 12,500 ft of ascent
Day 2  -  34 miles, 11,600 ft of ascent
Day 3  -  43 miles, 12,200 ft of ascent

These are fell-running figures. To the best of my knowledge there is no trail race currently run in the UK that matches these rates of climb. Day 1 has an average ascent per mile of 403 ft (it's actually double that because half the miles are downhill, but a good enough figure for comparison). The figure for the first 33 miles of the Lakeland 100 (generally thought to be by far the toughest third of an event which is a yardstick for a gnarly UK 100 miler) is 260 ft. And the ground underfoot in the Lakeland is much easier. On the DB Day 1 all competitors will use their hands on some sections. Most runners will find Day 2 harder than Day 1. For the slower (less fit) contenders, cumulative fatigue will make the first half of Day 3, where around 27 miles and 9000 ft have to be covered at an average of nearly 3 miles an hour, the toughest section of the week.

I think as a rough guide, each of the first three days presents a challenge at least equal to half a Bob Graham round (which coincidentally also has a climb rate of just over 400ft per mile).

2. Don't play cutoff roulette

I've done a couple of week-long "continuous"  races where basically so long as you keep putting one foot in front of the other and stop for a couple of hours sleep occasionally you'll finish in the time allowed.  The Dragon isn't like that. Moving over the ground that it covers would often be very problematic in the dark, even with gps, so it makes sense for both runners and organisers that it is run as a stage race in daylight (mostly!). So even on paper, seven hours out of every day are not available for forward progress. In practice, it's more than that. In 2015 I planned to be out on the course for 15 hours a day and set my speed accordingly. I completed Day 1 in 14 hours and Day 2 in 16 (I made a navigational bad judgement on Day 2 which cost at least an hour) so I was hitting my pace plan fine. But I found it didn't leave enough time to recover each day. If you arrive at the overnight camp at 10 or 11pm (when the more competent competitors have been resting and eating for several hours), by the time you've had something to eat and drink, got the worst of the mud off, sorted your feet, unpacked your sleeping stuff and got your kit ready for the next day, it will be well after midnight. And if you want to be away at the first opportunity (6am), you need to be up early enough to have your overnight bag packed and be first into the breakfast queue, so you won't have had a lot of sleep.

I decided that I was just too close to edge last time. For 2017 I will try my best to get fit and competent enough to complete each day in 12-14 hours to leave a better cushion for rest and the odd glitch. I'm going to spend a lot of time between now and next May running in the hills and doing a lot of uphill. 14 hours seems an awfully long time for 30-40 miles of progress. It isn't. For me, it will mean running (jogging) as much of the downhill and flat as I possibly can. In 2015 my strategy was to walk the uphill and flat, and only jog the downs; it wasn't fast enough.

3. Look after your feet

I've done a lot of long races in a lot of bad conditions, and I've never had blisters or any other foot problems. Until the DB.  By the end of Day 2 the medics were telling me I was borderline to get through the week. I think it's safe to say that each day, sooner or later, you will get wet feet. The continuously hard ground will work on that and if you don't spend the time to sort things out, even if it seems too much effort at the day's mid-point stop or by headtorch in a tent at the end of a hard day, it's easy to get into a downward spiral. I won't make that mistake again.

4. Get the route wired.

We're lucky for 2017. We know the route ahead of the event, a luxury that competitors in the first three runnings of the event didn't have. We won't have to make route decisions after the gun has gone off. I have no knowledge of the route beyond Elan (midway point of Day 4) but I will make sure I do by next May. I know that pre-knowledge of the route is thought of as "impure" by some runners, even looked upon as cheating, but if the event is near your limit you need every bit of edge you can get. The gps trace on the race website is, from my knowledge of the areas involved, the easiest way of linking up the probable checkpoints; maybe not the fastest for a real fell-runner but certainly the best for me, so that's the route I'll take. I won't be too proud to use my gps, even on ground which I think I know, if the conditions make it the sensible choice. I can use a map and compass as well as the next guy but gps is much faster. If we get the checkpoints confirmed in advance I'll put them on my gps trace. I suspect that in the conditions we got on the day, the first half of Day 1 in 2015 came as a bit of a shock to anyone who didn't know the ground and wasn't a competent navigator.

So I've got a fair bit to work on during the winter and spring. 

There has been some discussion on the DB Facebook page about suitable preparation races for the event. Well, my view as I alluded to above is that I don't think there are any that truly replicate what you're up against in the UK, certainly not in the winter/early spring. Later in the year you have stuff like the Clif Lakes 10 Peaks, the Lakes 3 x 3000 and the first part of the Lakes in a Day, and I'm sure there are others (such as the Lakes Sky ultra which I haven't done yet but have signed up for next year), but all are too late as warm-ups for the DB. But I personally like to have an event every month or so to keep me sharp and enthusiastic, so for what it's worth here's my run-up to next May, chosen to be fun, to contribute in some way to DB preparation, but above all not to compromise it:-

Late November:  Wooler Trail Marathon  - 28 miles 6000ft
Late December: Tour de Helvellyn  -  38 miles 6000ft
(notice these, and most of the others that follow, are nowhere near DB rate of climb)
Mid January: Spine Challenger 
(planned before my DB entry decision - no help at all to DB but should not compromise it at this stage)
Early February: South Devon Coast Ultra  -  34 miles 4800ft
(coastal series are the most reliable for reasonable weather early in the year)
Mid March: Hardmoors 55  -  55 miles 8000 ft  
(for a longer day out)
Early April: Exmoor Coast Ultra plus  - 45 miles 11,800ft
(best final warm-up I could find, if height figures are to be believed, I did the Exmoor "standard" ultra three years ago which was 35 miles but only about 6000 ft)

No big distances except the Spine Challenger which by it's nature will be a fairly slow affair. Of the others, I find I recover fairly quickly from anything that takes 12 hours or less, especially as I will be treating many of these events as training rather than races. So I think this is a reasonable programme interspersed with the hill training (which will mostly be in the Lakes) and I'm looking forward to it.

That's about it, well enough for now anyway.

If you're a potential DB "tail-ender" like me, hope the training goes well and see you in May.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Lakes in a Day 2016

Saturday 8th October saw the third running of the "Lakes in a Day" event organised by James Thurlow's Open Adventure team. I had taken part in and enjoyed the two previous ones so what was not to like about a third trip down the course? The run starts in Caldbeck, over in the north lands "back o' Skidda", and winds its way over High Pike and Blencathra, Clough Head and the whole Helvellyn/Fairfield chain to Ambleside, then down the west side of Windermere to Newby Bridge, finally finishing half a dozen miles further south at Cartmel. It has a bit of everything the Lakes has to offer and is a great day out, though at 50 miles, 13,000 feet of ascent and plenty of tricky ground underfoot it's no soft touch, much more challenging and varied than say the more famous Lakeland 50.

By this time of the year I sort of feel that the season is winding down gently, after the training effort of the spring and the major target events of the summer, it's time to take things a bit easier and tip the balance a bit more in the direction of enjoyment rather than achievement. That's the way I have approached the Lakes in a Day in the past and I saw no reason for changing now. A fine autumn day out amongst the hills and woods of the Lake District will do fine for an October Saturday, albeit quite a long one as my previous times for the event have been 16hrs 34min in 2014 and 15hrs 38min in 2015.

A 4.30am start from Keswick saw me down at Cartmel in time to catch the buses back to the start. I'd said I would look out for John Kynaston who was also taking part, but across 3 buses in the dark at 5.30am the task proved too difficult so I just grabbed a seat for the sleep up to Caldbeck. On arrival it was straight into the pub for coffee and a sit in the warm until 10 minutes before the race start  -  I've played this particular game before. Venturing outside again, about the first person I saw was John who then immediately interviewed me for his blog, asking what were my two top tips for the day. I suggested that he should not miss filling up with water at the Grisedale Tarn outflow as it is the only source on the long second leg, and to watch the navigation over the final few miles in the dark. John was shooting for a time of around 13 hours so I didn't expect to see him again all day  -  I said I would probably show up around midnight if he was still awake.

James is pretty strict about getting his races away on time so at 8am precisely we were off down the road and then soon up and out onto the fells. As usual I was very near the back after the first 10 minute cavalry charge but started passing people as we got stuck into the first climb up High Pike. I spent a fair bit of this in company with Jacqueline who it turned out had done the race in 2014; we discovered that we had finished within a few minutes of each other, both beating Jon Steele when he was "docked" half an hour for missing the route. This is another feature of the Open Adventure events, they work on a set route on a map which you are given; there are no "dibbers" but each runner carries a tracker and all your timings are based on the information relayed by that. And if you are seen to to have taken an unwitting "shortcut" then time penalties will be applied!

Both previous runnings of the Lakes in a Day had seen good weather and today seemed to be following the pattern, just a few high clouds and an almost perfect temperature, it was shaping up to be a lovely day. After High Pike you're treated to a bit of easy level running along the Cumbria Way track, but when it dives off down to the left our route carries straight on over the more or less trackless Coomb Height. I had mentioned to John K to navigate carefully to the jeep track descending the far side, otherwise you find yourself with a few hundred yards of knee-deep heather, but I needn't have bothered. Since I was here last year all the heather had been removed by a fire so you could run almost anywhere on the hill with no difficulty at all!

The next obstacle is the River Caldew. It was running very high in 2014 so James's team had built a temporary bridge, then last year it was so low that you could skip across the boulders without getting your feet wet.  This year was more typical conditions, necessitating a few yards of knee-deep wading  - not to bad if you don't fall over! After the river is the climb up Blencathra, "Well, an hour of uphill from here" remarked the guy behind me. And actually, that's more or less what it turned out to be. It's hard work for the first two thirds, up deepish and sometimes tussocky grass with no path, but then gets easier as the Bob Graham path is joined for the final third. Joe Faulkner was marshalling on the summit  -   he seems to pop up at most of these Lakeland events.

After that it was an enjoyable easy scramble down Hall's Fell Ridge to the village hall in Threlkeld and Checkpoint 1, which I reached in just under three and a quarter hours from the start. I later found that I was in 169th place at this point which surprised me as I thought I must still be quite near the back, although I had been passing people steadily after the first couple of miles.

For today I had decided against eating lots of the good food available at the checkpoints, on the basis that this slows you down for half an hour or so afterwards, so my main calorie input was Mountain Fuel, which I've been playing with for a year or so now, supplemented by a couple of Shotblok bars and flapjacks. So I was at Threlkeld just long enough to refill the bottles then out again. Outside I saw Keswick Locals Dave and Tracey Troman, so I stopped for the briefest of chats. Dave said that John K was only about twenty minutes ahead of me, but we'd just covered the ground that I suspect John was least comfortable so I expected him to be hours away by the finish.

The climb up Clough Head is quite stiff but it's shorter and much easier underfoot than Blencathra so seems to go relatively quickly, then you are rewarded with a great ridge for miles, only short uphills, all the way to Helvellyn. This is a trip that I do fairly regularly, it's good running with nice views and a frequent bus service back from Ambleside to Keswick. This was probably the section of the course that I did fastest relative to the rest of the field and I arrived at Helvellyn two and three quarter hours after leaving Threlkeld. A bit more easy ridge now but at the back of your mind is the final big effort of the day, the climb up Fairfield. So down the rocky path to Grisedale Tarn, refill a water bottle and get stuck in. It's not long, probably around a thousand feet of vertical, but it's steep and fairly unrelenting and comes at a time when you're starting to tire, having been on the go for six hours or so by now. I felt I was slow but that's relative as I continued to overtake people on the way up. I passed one lady with my usual comment "How's it going?" and she said she had run out of water. On reflection, I suppose it wasn't very helpful to point out she'd just passed a full lake of it. I told her that is was only about five miles to Ambleside though, mostly down hill when you've cracked Fairfield.

And it is. I jogged easily over the rocky tops of Hart and Dove Crags then started the wonderful four miles of continuous gentle downhill. The only "problem" here is that a wall runs the entire length of the ridge with a path on either side and it's easy to convince yourself at almost any point that the one on the other side is better, which can often lead to a lot of crossings. Today I decided to avoid this mental game altogether and stick to the left hand side all the way down. The usual bogs were minimal and it was a lovely run down. Just before the bottom though the mountain wouldn't let us go without a final snap at the heels and we were presented (I was with three or four other runners at this point) with an obvious section of deepish bog ahead, only avoidable by crossing the wall. The general feeling was that as we had fresh shoes waiting in Ambleside, ploughing straight through was the obvious option.

Odd to be running through crowded Ambleside on a sunny Saturday afternoon after over eight hours of relative quiet on the fells. A few cheers though from people who knew about the race, and a great reception from those around the checkpoint at the Church Hall. I reached Ambleside in 8 hours 44 minutes from the start, now in 110th place. The only drop bag you are permitted in this race is a shoe change at Ambleside because the ground underfoot changes quite markedly from fell to trail at this point. I changed shoes and socks, had a couple of cups of tea, refilled water bottles. I must get some better water bottles. I normally use proprietary PET bottles that have had drinks in - Coke, Lucozade, etc - because these are much lighter than the specialist "running" ones and you don't get any PE flavour. But the ones I had brought today had narrow necks and it was taking an age to get each sachet of Mountain Fuel into the bottle; I refilled six or seven bottles during the day so the time added up rather frustratingly. I ate a quick slice of pizza and shoved another in my bag "to go", then was off again, but my inefficiency here was huge, I spent nearly 20 minutes at Ambleside.

From Ambleside, the route follows undulating prepared cycle tracks and country lanes for several miles which I jogged along steadily at maybe 11/12 minute mile pace, then it crosses Claife Heights, a climb of a few hundred feet and descent down to Sawrey and eventually the Windermere shore. In the woods going up through Claife I was passed by four runners going at a good pace; they said they had just worked out that if they cracked on they had a chance of finishing in under fourteen hours. I hope they made it, it seemed like a long shot but I didn't see them again. The ascent through the woods is easy enough, then you are out into open country again for the descent, a lovely track down past two little tarns and then into the sort of pastoral farmland that tells you that you're starting to leave the fells behind. 

When I reached the lakeshore beyond Sawrey it got dark enough to get out a torch. It seemed that I had got further than on my previous completions of this run so I must be going a little bit faster, but I hadn't bothered to look at my previous splits so this could have been due to different conditions or the date being different.

But when it gets dark I'm hopeless. Outside in daylight, even if it's quite gloomy, I can operate pretty well without my glasses and have good enough vision to see distance, the track, my feet and the map/gps/watch etc all perfectly well. But in the dark all that changes. I need my specs and as these are varifocals I have a continuous battle to keep tabs on the track ahead, the ground underfoot and any device I need to consult. It was a fine enough night on Saturday, but if conditions cause the lenses to get steamy or wet the situation gets several times worse. The result is that I'm very liable to trip on rocks, roots, etc. In longer events I compensate by going much slower at night, often dropping to a walk even where I could otherwise run, but in a 50 miler like this you want to keep pushing along a bit. So I was resigned to slowing right down on any uneven ground and just speeding up when we got to bits of easy track or road. I'm seeing the optician next week to explore whether there might be a contact lens option that could work better, but I'm not over-hopeful.

Tracks that would be lovely in daylight but are a bit tortuous in the dark, both to navigate and to run, lead along the lake shore through woods, fields and beaches for several miles, only interrupted by a short stretch of road in the middle. Then a couple of miles before the next checkpoint at Finsthwaite the route leaves the lake near the YMCA centre climbs a few hundred feet again up to a little tarn at High Dam, then down a rocky path through woods to the checkpoint in the village hall. 

The whole section of the course from where you first hit the lakeshore to the finish in Cartmel, about 15 miles in all, can be tricky at night. There are many paths and options, a lot of turnings you have to get right, not much permanent signage  and in some places the paths you need to use are not marked on the OS maps. To make things easier, on the first run in 2014 James's team put luminous arrows on the section from the YMCA to Newby Bridge, about 4 miles in all. A lot of runners, me included, still took wrong turnings and had to find ourselves again, particularly on the bit south of Newby Bridge, so in 2015 the YMCA to the finish was marked which made things a whole lot easier, and was a major factor in my improved time over the two years. This year, the whole of the route from Ambleside to the finish, I think about 22 miles in all, was marked!

I reached Finsthwaite 12 hours and 37 minutes from the start, in 102nd place. I reflected that if all had gone to plan, John K should just about be hitting the final couple of miles of road into Cartmel by now (he was). Tea, soup, change of shirt as the night was getting a bit cooler, refill one bottle. These things should take no real time, yet checking my watch it was on 12 hours 53 as I walked out of the door and back into the night.

I wasn't really bothered though. I had had a great day so far, and with over 3 hours left to cover the 7 or 8 miles to the finish I was going to make it easily before midnight. Three or four runners were behind me as I tackled the short but steep little up and over through the woods from Finsthwaite to Newby Bridge. I asked if anyone wanted to pass but everyone seemed happy enough with my pace, brisk walk up gentle jog down. They all went past as we hit the road in Newby Bridge though as I stopped when a voice from the darkness exclaimed "Hey, Andy Cole!" It was Billy Burns who has a caravan in Newby Bridge, and with whom I had shared the "sweeping" duties at the Lakeland 100 reccies earlier in the year. A brief word or two then Billy jogged with me as far as the Swan pub, where we wished each other well. There was good support from people outside the pub and other bystanders as we went through the village, then it was out into the darkness again.

I expected the bit of low moorland to Brow Edge to be boggy and it was, but then I knew that the markings would make the final bit of cross country round Bigland Tarn to the Cumbria Coastal Way and over Speel Bank easy to follow, and they did, then I was out onto the final two miles of narrow country lane to the finish.  I should have looked at my watch here but I felt I had made my pacing decision back at Finsthwaite so I didn't bother. The road dips down past a farm then climbs for about half a mile, up a slope which is runnable after the first short distance, then it's a gentle downhill all the way to Cartmel. I jogged down enjoying the evening and the satisfaction of having completed this great event for a third time; I felt in pretty good shape for a pensioner who's just covered fifty mountain miles.

There was encouragement from outside the pub in Cartmel, then it was soon through the village, out to the school and the finish under the arch. I arrived in 96th place, finally breaking into the top hundred and the first third of the field. My time was 15 hours............and 41 seconds!

There is always good food at the end of this event so I went through to the hall and dropped my bag on a chair. As I was getting my first cup of tea John K appeared, pleased that he'd had a good run and finished in a minute or two over 13 hours, his "gold medal" target. I got some food and we chatted for a while. He said this would be his last event of the year but I tried to persuade him to come to the Wooler Trail Marathon next month (a few days later, I found that I had succeeded!)

The Lakes in a Day is a great event, one of the very best the Lakes has to offer, a wonderful course and great organisation by James and Open Adventure. I would recommend it to anyone. I can see a fourth entry on the horizon already.....

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

A New Start and the High Peak 40

Three weeks ago I decided that enough was enough. I had faffed around for nearly three years with calf and hamstring injuries, none serious enough to stop me doing anything for longer than a week or two at a time, but enough to prevent any consistent running training during all this period. This year started reasonably well but the problems re-appeared in early May, and I hadn't run for more than four or five miles at a stretch since the Pembroke Coast ultra in late April. Over the past couple of years I convinced myself that being able to walk up hills well and shamble down the other side effectively was an alternative strategy. I could get away with almost no running, at least on the longer events.  Walking and a minimum of running got me through two West Highland Ways, two Lakeland 100's, a Northern Traverse, a Ring of Fire and plenty of 50 mile and shorter events, all in generally unimpressive times. But it wasn't good enough for last year's Dragon's Back nor this year's UTMB, where being able to cash in on a bit of speed over the easier ground builds a much needed buffer against being timed out. I had paid the deposit on next year's Dragon's Back and as things stood it wouldn't be worth confirming my place in January of next year - it would be the same story as last time.They say one definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. Something had to change.

After a fair of amount of discussion with the physio we concluded that;

1. The injuries that I was getting were small partial muscle tears of maybe only a few dozen fibres from the thousands in the relevant muscles, enough to cause discomfort and concern (and some rehabilitation time) but not serious overall.

2. I was getting these almost certainly by working the particular muscle too quickly, too soon and with insufficient warming up. Inattention to sensible rehabilitation.

3. I need to strengthen these muscles and get them used to working faster, but with a programme that will not cause further damage and more time-outs.

Doing things gradually and progressively will be the key. "Active recuperation" was the term the physio used. This means that you improve better and faster by using muscles rather than resting them. There may still be some discomfort, but unless it is intrusive or affects my normal running gait that's OK. So the three key changes that I'm making to how I train are:

1. Warm up thoroughly before each session of running. I have found that for me, an effective technique is to walk briskly for five minutes, then jog slowly for another five minutes, then do some gentle stretches of hamstrings and calves. It's frustrating if all you want to do is get out for a run, but needs to be observed every time. All my injuries have come in the first fifteen or twenty minutes of a run.

2. A regular and gradually increasing programme of strengthening exercises for these muscles.

3. Build up the mileage actually run (rather than walk/runs), but start with low mileage and slow pace, and build up both gradually. My starting "maximum allowed pace" is 11 minute miles, and I won't exceed this for the whole of September. I'm intending to go to 10 minute miles in October, but we'll see; this will certainly be the maximum, even for short outings.

So during the first two weeks of September I covered 60 miles in total. I threw in the odd hill such as Latrigg on a pleasant late summer evening, but mostly it was easy ground taken at between 11 and 12 minute mile pace. It felt very slow, but at least it was all running rather than walking, culminating in a continuous lap of Derwentwater, which at 9 miles was the longest continuous run I had done for months.

It was a start. Now some discipline is required to continue the job.

I had had the High Peak 40 in the diary for quite a while. Although it's been going for thirty years now and is an event almost on my doorstep, I had never done it and it looked good. A 40 mile loop starting in Buxton and taking in many of the popular trails and dales in the southern section of the district  -  mostly in the white peak but straying on to the grit of Rushup Edge in its northernmost reaches. I was dubious now whether such a potentially "runnable" course would be wise at this early stage of my new regime, but the event caters for walkers as well as runners and the maximum time allowed is 14 hours, a less than three miles an hour average, so I reasoned I could run what I thought would be sensible and walk the rest. I was quite surprised to discover that in the Peak, which really has no actual hills, the course has a total ascent of 5500 feet, but I suppose if you go from dale to plateau often enough then it all tots up. I thought by walking the ups, running the downs and jogging the flats for as long as I could, I ought to be able to average four miles an hour and get round in ten hours. If things went wrong I still had plenty of time to walk a lot more. Considering just over three years ago, before my injury problems started, I managed the 53 mile, 7000ft of ascent Highland Fling in under 10 hours, it's a bit humbling to see how low my ambitions (and abilities) have fallen.

Harveys Ultramap
The web site said the course would be marked but you had to have means of finding your way around in case the markers got tampered with on the day. The maps I had only covered the course using two rather hefty Outdoor Leisure sheets, so I lashed out on the new Harvey's "Ultramaps" Peak District Central and South. While being a full 1:40,000 scale like other Harvey maps, these are brilliantly compact, I hope they bring them out for more areas soon to cut down the need for so much origami on running events.

It's about an hour and a quarter from my house over to Buxton so getting there for registration at 7am in Buxton Community School was no problem. After being issued with our number and tally card (for clipping at checkpoints, no fancy modern electronics in this very traditional event), most runners milled around in the school hall or the car park outside until we were called to the start just before 8am for the briefest of briefings ("we've had quite a bit of rain, it'll be wet and muddy at Water-cum-Jolly"). On the dot of 8am we were away.

On these shorter events everyone except the walkers seems to start off fast and after the first mile or so through the streets of Buxton my 11 minute mile pace saw me pretty much at the back of the running part of the field. I was encouraged though as I picked up a few places on the first little climb which was maybe four or five hundred feet up to Burbage Edge. It was a beautiful cloudless morning, but over the other side we dropped into the shade of the hill and it was still quite chilly. A bit of old railway line led to the first checkpoint. A feature of the race was the huge number of checkpoints, twelve in all, one every three miles or so all the way round. They were all well stocked with water, orange squash and chocolate biscuits so there was really no need to carry anything in the way of food or drink. I had taken a single 500ml bottle, and once I had emptied it after the first 45 minutes I never bothered to refill it but relied on a couple of cups of liquid and a handful of biscuits at each checkpoint. A bit alongside a reservoir and a quick 600ft up and down over Eccles Pike and checkpoint 2 turned up, but even by here it was becoming clear that the ascent involved wasn't going to be ficticious. 

I had now caught a few more runners so seemed to be part of the race again. My strategy of running everything that I could at between 11 and 12 minute mile pace and walking only the steeper uphills seemed to be working so far. The route consisted of stony jeeptracks, bits of very quiet country road, some grassy single tracks across the moors and some wooded dales, a nice variety. The marking was excellent without being over the top. Black arrows on a fluorescent pink background were visible at least fifty yards away, but they were only sited where a change of direction was necessary. Staying on the same track without turnings, you might not see an arrow for a mile or two. I really didn't need my maps to follow the route, but on an unfamiliar course I like to know where I am and what's coming up next so I kept the map out for most of the way round anyway. It was a long steady pull from the outskirts of Chapel en le Frith up to Rushup Edge, the high point of the course, but great running along the top with grand views once you got there. A short dip down then up over a tourist-encrusted Mam Tor to a steep 1200ft descent down to Castleton.

We had had the benefit of a bit of cloud cover through the mid part of the morning but it had now dispersed and down here it was hot. Browsing a few write-ups of the race beforehand, two features seemed to keep coming up as memorable in runners' minds and the first one of these was the long ascent up Cave Dale out of Castleton, which was reported usually as "seemingly endless". It's definitely all runnable but in the conditions on the day I was happy to take it at a steady walk. The entrance to Cave Dale comes at twenty miles, the half way point of the course. I reached it just on four and a half hours; I felt this was good news, no problems so far and as most people slow down as a race progresses it would allow me to take an hour longer for the second half and still get inside my ten hour target. 

The reward for the effort up Cave Dale was a long gradual descent which went on apart from one very short ascent for nearly ten miles and through three checkpoints! First across the moor and down through Tideswell and down Tideswell Dale to the banks of the Wye, then along this through Litton and Water cum Jolly (slightly muddy but not wet as it turned out) to Cressbrook, then over the river and quickly up to the old railway line, down again along this to the well-known Monsal Head viaduct. We celebrated last New Year for a few days with friends at Monsal Head on the hill just above here, so it was good to see the area in September sunshine rather than January rain. Still downward, following the Wye once more along Monsal Dale to the A6 crossing. But all good things come to an end and we were now faced with another long uphill, following Deepdale for a couple of miles to checkpoint 10.  

I had been passing runners fairly regularly all day and the average pace on the watch was still just under 13 minutes per mile, and somewhere around here I began to entertain the idea that ten hours was going to be easy and nine might be attainable. I was actually ready for the walking break up Deepdale but I had been surprised that I had been able to keep a steady 11-12 minute mile pace going all the way from the top of Cave Dale to the A6. My right leg was aching a bit but no obvious pain points so nothing to stop continued progress at this speed.

However, the second feature that I was pre-warned of arrived now, an infamous three mile road section. I new it was going to be almost dead straight and that you could see it stretching out ahead for miles, not what you really want after thirty miles or so; the thing that I didn't know until I got there was that it was also gently uphill all the way. But I felt I was on the home straight now so I was determined to run it all, which I did, sort of, managing to keep a steady 12 minute mile jog going until the course hit the fields again. I felt I'd won at this point but there were still one or two little obstacles to come. 

The first was a series of grassy fields, gently down hill, no problem except that separating them were stone wall stiles requiring a climb up one side and down the other. After nearly eight hours of motion my legs just didn't want to perform these manoeuvres.  Then immediately after this we had another Deepdal to deal with, not along this one but across it. No more than about 200 ft down one side and the same back up the other, but both down and up were very steep, narrow, and with plenty of brambles to nag at you. After these I was pleased to reach checkpoint 11, a mere 2,8 miles (so the checkpoint team told me) from the finish. 

With nearly 45 minutes of my nine hours left as I set out on the last leg, I was sure it was a cruise now. A mile later I wasn't so sure. Uphill fields of long grass made progress unexpectedly tough for a while, with more walking than I really wanted. This carried on until a brief downhill through a farm, out of the countryside and into the town, where we were immediately rewarded with a steep uphill road. As my watch showed us into the last mile it became flat at last, a bit of road, a bit of grassy park, then the lane leading to the school and the finish.

The official results haven't been published yet but I stopped my watch at the finish at 8:51:20. Under the circumstances I was pretty pleased with that.

Now I just have to build on it. Starting with the sensible approach to recovery that I've never observed before  - no running until Wednesday then make it short and slow!