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.


John Kynaston said...

Great report Andy and another successful run.

It was great to catch up on Sunday before and after the race.

Thanks for 'encouraging' me to run!!

All the best for your preparation for the Spine Challenger.

Tim said...

Thanks for great write up Andy and really pleased you enjoyed your trip to Northumberland