It's occurred to me that I've been a bit slow on the blogging front of late, probably even slower that my normal running speed. The year started well with three posts in January but then declined with only one in each of the following two months. At times like this I often wonder whether it's just because I don't have anything worth saying nowadays, whether I should just call it a day and wrap things up. But it's the place where I dump all my thoughts on running, both on the events and other stuff; I find it interesting to look back over from time to time, so I'll probably continue.
It was puzzling to see where March had gone to after the Northumberland Coast Ultra at the end of February. My main focus was to have been the Hardmoors 55 on the 19th, but I then had the opportunity to go on a ski trip with my daughter and her friends. I'm finding that ski-touring seems like hard work these days so I don't go with the gang I accompanied for several years, but the chance of plenty of lift-served piste and off-piste in the Trois Vallees with an enthusiastic and fairly adventurous young team was too good to miss. As a bonus, we had good snow and great weather.
Back at home it was the normal story for this time of year - the odd bits of good weather didn't coincide with my available days and I didn't get out in the hills as much as I would have liked, so I spent most of my time on the trails in my local forest or doing laps on our nearest "mountain" (Moel Fammau in the Clwyds), a rise of all of 900ft from car park to summit! I did a few road runs in preparation for the Manchester marathon, but more of that in a later post I think. So I have the feeling that I need to buckle down and get some quality miles and feet of ascent in before the real season starts, which for me is at the end of May. Assuming I manage to get fit enough, I'm really looking forward to the summer and a great series of events.
First, another little warm-up at the end of this month with the Endurancelife Coastal Ultra down in Pembroke. I like this well-organised no-frills series and this will be my fifth over the last two or three years; up until now I've done the events at Exmoor, South Devon, Anglesey and Northumberland. Pembroke is classed as "moderate" at about 34 miles long and with what looks like about 4000ft of ascent. Pembroke is where we spent a lot of family holidays when our children were young so I'm looking forward to the re-acquaintance. I won't go for broke on this one but it will still be my last "run all the way" event until the autumn, a good test of whether I have a bit of the speed/stamina combination required.
Things get more serious with the Northern Traverse starting on the 30 May. This is a new event taking on the well-known Wainwright "Coast to Coast" route from St Bees to Robin Hood's Bay. Starting at 10am on Monday morning,you have 5 days to complete the route which is just short of 200 miles and 40,000ft of ascent. It's run by James Thurlow's team "Open Adventure"; I've done their "Lakes in a Day" event twice and been impressed, so I think the organisation will be good. An added incentive for me to finish not too late on Friday is that we have tickets to the Keswick Beer Festival that evening! Sleeping is possible at the checkpoints (tents provided) but they are about 40-50 miles apart and don't fit logically with the days, so I guess making the best compromises between getting some rest and not wasting the daylight will be the key. I originally thought I could recce quite a lot of the course but I haven't found time one way or another. I know the bit through the Lake District and the North York Moors section follows the Hardmoors 55 route for about 15 miles, but the rest of it will be completely new to me.
Then towards the end of June is the West Highland Way, still my favourite event on the ultra calendar. Having done eight in a row up to 2014, I took last year off because it clashed with my (failed!) attempt at the Dragon's Back, so I'm looking forward to getting back on this brilliant trail. I ran the Highland Fling (the first half of the WHW) last year but I don't think I'll go again, it's a bit too big and crowded for me now. All credit to John Duncan and his crew, they've made it one of the UK's premier and high reputation ultras, but that's not really what I go to Scotland for. Limit on numbers keeps the longer WHW a rather more serene affair, much more my scene.
Similar to the WHW in generating its own family atmosphere is the Lakeland 50/100 weekend in late July, with many runners going back year after year. This will be my seventh year of involvement. I marshalled at the start and finish last year, a great experience after competing the previous five years, and this year I'm going back again to run in the 100.
A unique feature of the Lakeland is that the organisers run a series of four recce weekends throughout the year which in total cover the whole course. They are worthwhile events in their own right, usually with some related talks on the Saturday evening and buses to the start on the Sunday, allowing you to run the relevant course section through manned checkpoints back to your car. For the last couple of years I've run as sweeper on the recces and had a great time. Last year I did all four, but this year clashes with other events have meant I can only manage two, the last being the Buttermere to Dalemain section about ten days ago. I was asked to do the Saturday talk for this one - they had last year's winner Paul Tierny for one of the earlier talks this year so at least I could speak from a completely opposite point of view in terms of competence! Actually, my main theme was pacing because I believe that many of the runners who DNF in the Lakeland 100 do so because they go too quickly over the first half, particularly the first thirty miles or so where nearly all the hard ground on the course is concentrated. Another thing I touched on was the recce coming up the next day, described by Race Director Marc Laithwaite on the website as "one of the easier sections of the route with relatively good tracks and few aggressive climbs and descents". In fact, Buttermere to Dalemain is 33 miles and nearly 6000ft of ascent - requiring quite a bit more effort that the Pembroke ultra I'll be running in three weeks time! The fact that Marc's statement is completely true just illustrates what a challenge the Lakeland 100 presents.
The recce run went well, we had fine clear weather even if continuous rain for the preceding two days made it a bit sloppy underfoot at times. As on the previous recce from Ambleside to Coniston, I shared the sweeping duties with Billy Burns, who is himself doing all four this year. Last year Billy completed the Lakeland 100 in 33:37, a time which I'm sure is beyond me, but what was more impressive is that he did it on the back of an extremely conservative first half. He arrived at Dalemain, generally thought to be the halfway point in time for a well paced race, in 18:22 in 204th place, and picked up 100 places before the finish. He's going for the 100 again this year and I predict the improvement will be significant!
Sweeping was fun as usual, you get to chat to a lot of nice people about their experiences and ambitions, at a pace that is normally well within your own. Then occasionally the last runner will decide they've had enough for the day and drop out, so you have to make sure they have a reliable route back to safety then put on a bit of a push to catch up the new backmarkers. Billy and I ran on our own from Blencathra to Dockray, with estimates of how much we had to catch up varying between 20 and 40 minutes. We eventually just failed to catch the pair ahead before the checkpoint. but it gave us a pretty fair workout for a while. It was good to get back on the course again, though I don't expect I'll have time to revisit much more of it before the race in July.
And then at the end of August, the UTMB is lying in wait. Back once again to the big Chamonix party!