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.....

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