Thursday, 31 August 2017

St Begas Ultra

I entered the St Begas Ultra way back in the autumn of last year. I'd been in the UTMB ballot many times over the years and never been successful, only ever getting a place on the second or third try, whatever the rules were at the time. I assumed this year would be the same, enter the ballot, get rejected, double chance next year. So I was looking around for an event around the end of August, this one popped up and I got my name down. Then in the New Year, surprise, surprise, I got a UTMB place first try. I paid the money, booked a flight, got the medical certificate organised and forgot about St Begas.

And that was the plan until things started going wrong as the year progressed. After last year's UTMB I resolved that I would never again start a race that I knew was near my limit while carrying an injury. I immediately broke the rule with the Dragon's Back and it didn't turn out well. By the end of July, after completing the Lakes Sky Ultra, I knew that I could hang on near full stretch for 12 or 15 hours but any longer would probably be not possible and likely to lead to disappointment; I took the sensible path for once and cancelled plans for  Chamonix.

St Begas was still there so I decided to go along. The only problem was that the year of things not going quite right continued. A week before the race, while running probably a bit too exuberantly down Latrigg after my best time going up this year, I felt the familiar sharp pop in the calf, followed by the hopping to a halt then the slow hobble home. Well that's it I thought, nothing much now for a few weeks.

But it wasn't too painful the following day; I diligently did the stretching and exercises that are second nature by now and by the end of the week I felt I might just have a chance if I was careful. On the Friday evening I jogged four gentle miles around Keswick, keeping to 12 minute miles maximum. The calf felt a bit achey but nothing desperate. If I kept to this pace and walked if things got bad I might be OK. Saturday morning at 5.30am saw me checking in at St Bees.

The St Begas is a 37 and a bit mile outing that starts in Dodd Wood near Bassenthwaite, wends its way across to Portinscale then follows the Cumbria Way down Borrowdale to Rosthwaite. Here it picks up the Coast to Coast path which it takes on and off all the way to the finish at St Bees. It's billed on the website as a suitable first ultra for runners just coming into the game, but it also attracts some pretty competent operators judging by winning times in previous years. I was hoping that its fairly modest ascent of just over 4000ft would give a worthwhile day out while not compromising any future plans too much

The event base is the rather elegant St Bees School where registration was friendly and efficient, with coffee available as we waited for the buses to take us to the start near Bassenthwaite. I didn't know whether anyone I knew had even heard of this event but Tori Miller who I had met on the Dragon's Back and the Sky Ultra came up to say hello at registration, then as we got off the buses at Bassenthwaite I ran into Eric Baird whom I've encountered at many WHW races. In spite of the expansion of interest, ultra running continues to be a relatively small world. After a brief briefing from Race Director Jon Raymond, who said that this was the fifth running of the event, we were under way.

The first half mile or so was uphill through Dodd Wood so that suited me fine, no running required. What was surprising was that I was nowhere near the back of the field, quite an unusual experience for me these days. I overtook a few more runners on the steepish but easy descent from the woods to the main road then settled into a steady jog for the first long "flat bit". I'd never been across the fields from Bassenthwaite to Portinscale before but they were much as expected  -  squelchy and full of cows. The weather forecast was good but it was still overcast at this point, adding to the general gloominess. All this was soon over though and I perked up in anticipation of a much-loved bit of ground, the lakeside and riverside path from Portinscale down Borrowdale to Rosthwaite.

A pattern for the day seemed to be set here. Many of the runners who I was around in my bit of the field were not really used to trail running, indeed a number that I chatted to seemed to have come from the south of England for the event. The result was that as I plodded along at my steady self-imposed five miles an hour pace I was overtaken by numerous people on any easy tracks or surfaced sections, but as soon as we hit any rocks or tree roots I caught them all up again. As we approached the first checkpoint in Rosthwaite Village Hall at 11 miles from the start, my legs were feeling not great but certainly OK, but I didn't seem to be working at the job very hard. I resolved to tackle the uphills with a bit of effort to get a proper workout.

Boardwalk section towards the southern end of Derwentwater

The checkpoints were all indoors and well stocked so you didn't need to carry any food with you at all on the event, and I found one waterbottle quite sufficient. The mandatory kit was the normal stuff for mountain areas though so you needed a pack. At the start we were told that because of the good forecast we could omit waterproof trousers but I couldn't be bothered to dig them out of my sack so took them anyway  -  I guess an indication that I was subconsciously treating this as more of a training day than a race. 

The uphill started soon after Rosthwaite; along the river to Seatoller then up the Coast to Coast path to Honister. Most events take the old tramway path above here but today we were led up the quarry road and then across the fell to the tramway winding house. Easier under foot but I think a bit more arduous mentally than the tramway. All the way from Seatoller I was jogging the easier gradients and walking quickly on the rest so overtook numerous people on this stretch. We carried on up to the col that leads over to Ennerdale, where there was a marshal to make sure that we took the right turning and didn't end up in Wasdale. Navigation on the course was by a printed Road Book and Map, very like the ones you get at the Lakeland 50/100 races but, I guess in keeping with the idea of making this a good first ultra with no worries about finding your way, there were also marshals at all the key turns. 
Heading for Ennerdale

We got a bit of breeze and the hint of precipitation over the top but nothing serious to warrant a jacket or disrupt the views; this is quite a high pass as you look over and down to the summit of Haystacks on the right, but we were soon losing height again and heading down into Ennerdale. I had last been on this track on the Northern Traverse over a year ago so didn't really remember the details. It was good to find that the steep path down alongside Loft Beck has been "fix the felled" with solid stones and was an easy jog down, followed by a nice traverse along to Black Sail Hut. The next four miles were a bit tedious though, following the jeep track down the valley to Ennerdale Youth Hostel, which was adjacent to the second checkpoint at Low Gillerthwaite Field Centre. All the way down this track I was overtaken by runners at regular intervals as they cruised past easily beating my constant 12 minute mile jog. It was tempting to speed up but things had worked out so far so I maintained the cautious approach.  The clouds had broken up now, the sun was out and the day was warming up, so it was good to get to the checkpoint and top up the water again.
Descending the Loft Beck path

There was tea on offer and I wavered a moment, but this was a 37 mile race not a 100 so I tried to keep up a good CP style and was in and out in a minute or so. More flat ground followed following the jeep track, paths and minor roads along the north side of Ennerdale Water all the way to Ennerdale Bridge. This would be my only criticism of the course planning; it would have added a bit of variety to stick with the Coast to Coast route around the south side of the lake; much harder under foot and with a bit of a climb over Anglers' Crag, but it would have cut the amount of flat track bashing almost in half.

The pull up out of Ennerdale Bridge back onto the low fells of the west was hot, and I had already run out of water again. Fortunately I remembered from the Coast to Coast that there were good water sources in the delightful Nannycatch valley so I was able to top up again. Just as well because in the hot afternoon the final climb up Dent Hill wasn't going to be a pushover. On the Northern Traverse in the opposite direction we had come straight down the steep grassy flank of the hill, but our route today took us up through the forested area to the south via a still steep, stony track called "Bummers Hill". RD Jon had warned us about this at the briefing, but had also assured us that "it will end eventually!" Taken at a steady power walk it actually seemed a welcome break from all the slow jogging on the flat and went quite quickly. The run down the far side on gentle-angled grass was just wonderful, and I probably broke my self-imposed speed limit for a few hundred hards, but apparently with no harm done. A bit of forest and a stony lane brought us down to the village of Cleator and the third and final checkpoint in its village hall at the 33 mile mark.
Easy going down Dent Hill

A quick water refill, a handful of jelly babies and crisps and it was out for the final 4 miles. Most of the first half was on a surfaced cycle track but at least it was tree-lined and shady, then we dived off it for a final bout of trees, stiles and animals to the finish. Again it was tempting to speed up but the head said a few minutes off the time now wouldn't be worth risking damage for, so I carried on at pretty well exactly the same pace as I had made through the fields leaving Bassenthwaite first thing in the morning. We were a little bunch of four approaching the finish. One of the ladies had been passing and repassing me for most of the afternoon, so as we hit the couple of hundred yards of school playing field to the finish I expected her to push on faster than me which she did. The other two runners were going at a slower general pace so without really speeding up I left them behind to finish in 8 hours 39 minutes and 35 seconds, in 62nd place out of 142 starters.

I was pretty happy at the finish. In normal circumstances I guess I would have been shooting for an hour or so quicker, but I was pleased to have completed an outing that a week earlier I couldn't see myself starting and come home in good order and with no damage.

Tori and Simon, who she had been running with, had finished 4 or 5 minutes ahead of me and we all then spent an enjoyable hour in the warm sunshine enjoying the fish and chips and beer which came as part of the entrance fee. All round, a nice day out.

Would I go again? Probably not, too much flat ground for me, but it is a very well organised event based on a super location, and in my current state of competence probably just what the doctor ordered. But things get more serious again very soon  -  the 185 mile King Offa's Dyke Race starts at 8pm just 15 days from now.....

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Lakeland 100 and 50 - Trot or Trial?

I once heard a yachtsman say that ocean racing was like standing under a cold shower for hours on end tearing up ten pound notes, but he somehow couldn't give it up.

I've been involved in the Lakeland 100/50 events for 8 consecutive years now, either running or marshalling (I stayed away for the first two years, looking back I can't think why) and it's always been a weekend to remember. 2017 was a non-running year, so I spent 12 hours or so checking runners in, a short while at the 50 start watching sheep go wild near Dalemain, then a further 12 hours on the finish line.

The finish is always a great place to be, welcoming in runners who have made it home from whichever adventure they set out on. The brief for the marshalling group here is to make sure that runners make their final "dib" to give them their finishing time (including a fair bit of "co-ordinated dibbing" for the numerous finishers who want to record the same time as the person they finished with), then escort each runner to the inside finish area, announce their finish as they face the bright lights and applause, then hand them over to receive their medals (and any TLC they might be in need of at that point!).

This year the finish was a bit different for me for two reasons.

Firstly, because this year the finish was in the big tent rather than the school hall, the distance between the finish line and the "reception" was about four times as far as usual. Although that gave us a slightly harder job in making sure that the finishing athlete got into the warmth and safety as soon as possible while understanding the natural tendencies to celebrate with loved ones, take photos and so on, it also gave a longer oppportunity to ask how the finisher had found the experience of their event, which was fascinating.

Secondly, this was the first year that I've been involved in marshalling that we had some bad weather. Although there were longish dry periods, it rained on and off throughout the two days of the events, but what may have been particularly significant was that just after the starts of both the 100 and the 50, paricipants were treated to a noticeable shower. On top of this, as the Lakes had had significant rainfall over the preceding few weeks, the ground was much wetter underfoot than in most other years.

The first finishers I saw at the start of my first "shift" at the finish line were those completing the 100 in between 24 and 30 hours. The earlier ones were mostly in really good shape. When I asked about the rain on Friday night, a common response was "well it was just a shower and it was a pretty warm night, didn't affect things too much". Contrast this with comments from more than one 100 finisher who I saw during my second shift on Sunday morning, who said they had been suffering "since the first torrential downpour just after leaving Coniston".

Of the later finishers in both races that I saw on Sunday morning, of course all were pleased that they finished but it was clear that some had had a much more pleasant experience than others. The two main problems of those suffering were (1) of being continuously wet and cold, and (2) of having problems with feet, blisters and shredded skin. Others however, despite being out on the course for almost 24 hours (for the 50) and 40 hours (for the 100) came back with "no blisters, no problems, will be back next year".

So why did different runners have such different experiences over the events?

I think it comes down to two factors, which are separate but related.  The first is experience. Runners who complete half a dozen or so ultras a year (and I know some who do many more than that) will have had their share of poor weather conditions, and if they operate in the mountain or moorland areas will have had plenty of wet ground to deal with.  Nothing sharpens your decision-making as well as a bit of suffering, you learn how to avoid it. But I suspect that in some of the "big name" races like the Lakeland or the West Highland Way, the event is the sole target for the year of runners who don't have the time to indulge in running and training for more events, and under these conditions experience comes slowly. But it's still possible to mitigate suffering quite a lot by using other peoples' experience and a bit of smart planning.

I always feel good planning is the difference between enjoying an event and just "getting through" it.

Training for the specifics of the event are important; for example for the majority of finishers in the Lakeland 50/100, the event itself will consist of some jogging over uneven ground and a lot of walking up hills and shambling down them so that is what you need to train for, but that's not really what I'm on about here, I'm sort of assuming that's a given that everyone understands. The real issue this year was planning for the conditions.

Everyone knew that it was going to rain to some extent (the forecast said so) and everyone knew the ground was going to be wet (it had been raining on and off for weeks). Let's take these one at a time.

When it rains during a long event you get wet, and unless the sun comes out or you have a change of clothes, it's hard getting dry again. (Forget about the idea of a waterproof jacket keeping you dry in the rain, you get thoroughly wet from sweat). Now being wet isn't a problem (you could stand under a warm shower pretty well indefinitely without getting uncomfortable), but here is the key  -  you don't select your clothes in a long race to prevent getting wet, you select them to prevent getting COLD.
I wrote a complete post about this a year or two ago  ("My Waterproof Jacket Leaks", if you're interested you can find it here), but here are the basics. You stop getting cold by making sure your clothing does all it can to minimise heat transfer, that is:-

- your jacket needs to be windproof (you blow on your tea to cool it down, remember)

- the outer surface needs to shed water droplets rather than hold onto them (this is why you "reproof" breatheable materials, to make them shinier)

- you need something to keep the cold surface (the inside of your jacket) away from the (you hope!) warm surface (your skin). This can be a mesh lining on the jacket or some sort of long-sleeved top; the thicker the top, the better it prevents heat transfer. On top of this, thinner and more flexible shells cling to your shape and induce more heat transfer than heavier, stiffer ones  -  that's why heavier jackets (and/or lined ones) feel more comfortably "waterproof".

The only added factor here is that faster runners generate more heat than slower ones so can tolerate more heat transfer without feeling uncomfortable. A couple of days ago I ran a bit of the course in reverse, from Coniston to Langdale, in continuous heavy rain. I was completely comfortable in a thermal vest and a thin waterproof shell because as I was only out for a couple of hours I could run all the time; had I stopped to walk I would have quickly felt very cold, so wouldn't contemplate such light clothing for a long event with rain forecast.

I spent a good few hours on kit inspection for this years event. I was a bit concerned by the number of runners presenting really thin lightweight kit which they could only fit into a tiny race vest with difficulty. Sure, it met the specifications in the rules, and was entirely appropriate for a runner intending to complete the 100 in around 24 hours or the 50 in 10 hours. These guys would go fast enough to keep warm. But for those who would spend a lot of time at or near walking pace it was going to lead to a race that wouldn't be much fun, especially as they had no room in the bag for any insulating layer that they could use (as opposed to their emergency layer, which they couldn't). As a runner normally finishing the 100 around the 37-38 hour mark, I wouldn't have set out on Friday without a stiffer than normal jacket and a light fleece that I could wear under it, with a replacement in the bag at Dalemain.

Now let's have a quick look at feet. By Lake District standards both the 100 and the 50 are dry courses. The only places you are likely to get wet feet in a normal year are on the col before Eskdale, possibly short bits up to the Coach Road and coming down from High Kop, and the hundred yards of shallow bog to the Wrynose road (which is almost at the finish anyway). With a spare pair of socks in your bag and plenty of trail to drain and dry your shoes, these are easily managed. But as runners found this year, even a few days of steady rain beforehand can turn the course into one where you can get wet feet in many other places, and under these conditions they are likely to be continuously wet. 

Experienced runners would probably have met and learnt from courses with a lot more wet ground (higher ground in the Lakes or Wales, lots of runs in the Pennines and Dales, etc), looked at the recent weather and prepared accordingly. But here again it's possible to learn from others' experience. Approaches to dealing with wet ground vary hugely, there is no one answer, you have to find out what works for you. But if you wander around the Facebook groups that cover races with guaranteed wet feet potential (The Spine and its derivatives, the Dragon's Back, there are plenty if you look around - remember some of these guys have to deal with continuously wet feet for a week!) you can find lot's of ideas to try.  Too many for me to cover here. But trial is the key, if you think you have found a solution, go out somewhere you know is wet and plough through it for twelve hours or so. Again I wouldn't personally set out on a course like the Lakeland 100 under the conditions we had this year without a strategy which I knew was going to see me through a couple of days with no foot problems.

So in the end, your ultra experience (whatever the conditions) comes down to this:

You can look upon it as a huge undertaking which will test you to the limit in every way, expect to suffer and overcome the suffering, derive great satisfaction from completing it and end up with a bit of a battering that may take you a few weeks to recover from.

Or you can understand the task in hand, both in general and in the conditions predicted for the day, train and plan accordingly, execute your plan, enjoy the trip, then look forward to the next adventure.

I'm not saying either of these is best; both are valid and worthwhile approaches.

It's a choice.