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.