Monday, 22 January 2018

Anglesey Coast Ultra

I last ran the Anglesey Coast Ultra back in 2015. January 2016 saw my abortive attempt on the Spine Race and last year I was laid low by a flu bug, so it was a welcome change to get the year off to a productive start again. I remembered 2015 as being a cold and windy day but with patches of sunshine; you can't really expect much in January, the same again would be nice enough.

It's not too far from my house to Holyhead so it wasn't a half way through the night start this time, just an early breakfast and an hour or so drive to the Breakwater Country Park just beyond the town, the base for the event. Events in the Endurancelife Coastal Series always follow a similar pattern; there are 4 races on the day, a 10k, half marathon, marathon (all "nominal" distances to suit the local site) and an ultra which is around 32-35 miles. The course consists of loop along the coast (usually outwards along the cliff edges and returning a short way inland) of marathon length, with "short cut" options to give the 10k and half marathon distances. Ultra runners complete the marathon followed by the 10k, which means that short sections of ground are repeated but I've found this doesn't really detract from my enjoyment of the event. The courses are fully signed so they always give a nice, fairly casual day out in grand surroundings.

The ultra event usually starts first, a half hour or so before the marathon which means that the faster marathon runners pass you at occasions during the day, but on this occasion we were told at the  briefing that marathon and ultra would start simultaneously. I guessed from this that the field was smaller than usual which proved to be the case. Both events were shown as full on the website so I supposed there were numerous no-shows based on the weather forecast which had been uniformly dismal, grey skies, wind and rain.

Most of the runners stayed in the registration tent keeping warm until the start which was around 8,30am, then we were off. It was cold and breezy but at least not raining. We followed the Country Park approach road for half a mile or so then turned onto the coast to make our way first Westward, then South. Within maybe twenty minutes of starting the rain had begun but only showers to start with so I held out against putting on a waterproof. The course took us from sea level fairly quickly to near the top of Hoyhead mountain at 750ft, then across the attractive heather covered headland to the first checkpoint  on the cliffs above South Stack lighthouse about 4 miles in. The 10k would later wend its way back over the summit of the mountain via a different return route from here.

Heading for South Stack with Holyhead Mountain behind

A quick look at the watch showed that I had managed the outstanding pace of 14 minutes per mile to here; as I was hoping to stay under this for the whole event, and we had so far only done one of the least demanding of the four main climbs, I really needed to get a bit of a wiggle on. The conditions were conspiring a bit though; as the route turned southwards it started to rain in earnest so the jacket had to go on, better be wet and warm rather than wet and cold, and the fairly sprightly wind would now stay directly in our faces for the next 10 miles or so. I ploughed on down the coast, pleasant springy turf until the start of the Trearddur Bay area and checkpoint 2 at around 12 miles, a couple of miles of road and promenade through the little resort, then more cliff top with gentle ups and downs and odd bits of rock to the Coastguard station above Rhoscolyn. Next came great grassy descent down to Checkpoint 3 at the near end of Rhoscolyn beach, and by here I had finally got the clock down to under 12 minute miles average; I would need all of that though with the climbs near the end.

We had been warned at the briefing that the inland sections were likely to be muddy, but the first few miles after turning left at the far end of Rhoscolyn beach were not bad at all. It was great to have the wind from behind for a change, the uphills were gentle, and the course followed a series of woodland paths, boardwalks and short sections of minor and unsurfaced roads, all of which seemed to lead back in no time to the coast just south of Trearddur Bay and a run back along the seafront through the village. Another checkpoint at about 20 miles marked the next turn inland. We were now back on the half marathon course and I was cheered to overtake a couple of its participants before too long. But after a couple of tracks, this section crossed a few miles of heath farmland with grass, gorse bushes, and lots of mud in between. Some of this was up to mid calf at times and wouldn't have been out of place on the Pennine Way. I remembered it as being muddy in 2015 but conditions this year were far more gloopy making for slower progress and the odd concern about losing a shoe.

Still, all things come to an end and I knew as we trudged across the final muddy farmyard, shoving a couple of pigs out of the way to get to the gate,  that once we hit the South Stack road the mud would end, but the climbing would begin again. As we gained height up the hill the wind began to make itself felt once more but I was pleased to be off the mud and tackled the first climb, back up to the top of Holyhead Mountain, with some enthusiasm.  For the marathon runners this would be their final climb but many in my bit of the field seemed to be feeling it a bit by now and I was able to overtake quite a few on the way up. The safety marshalls on the top were doing a great job in the cold wind, I said I would probably see them again in something under two hours time.

It was a rocky descent all the way from here down to the event  base, my sort of territory so I was able to overtake a few more marathon competitors on the way down. Then inevitably we reached the sign which said to the right "Marathon Finish" and to the left "Ultra".  All we had left was about seven miles and two further visits to the top of the hill. In deteriorating weather and daylight they didn't seem to take too long, no-one to hold you up on the rocky single tracks this time around. I thanked the marshals at South Stack and on the summit as I passed, they had all had a long cold shift, then the final run down to the finish. I had been wet pretty well all day but a quick change of shirt and cup of tea sorted me out ready for the half mile walk in the rain back to the car and the thankfully this time not toom long drive home.

I finished in 7:39:14 in 26th place (which sounds OK until you know that there were only 41 starters this year!).  At first I was a bit disappointed because this was a couple of minutes slower than my time in 2015 and this year I had finished feeling in much better shape which usually means going quicker. I put it down to the tougher conditions under foot, but then did a bit more digging back in my records to discover that the course was around three quarters of a mile longer this year - the southern loop from Rhoscolyn followed a slightly different route, so that made me feel a bit better about the day.  Interestingly, Endurancelife gave this year's distance as 33,5 miles and my watch showed 33,3 which is a pretty good correlation; I made the 2015 event 32,6. But somewhat surprisingly they only showed 3,500 ft of ascent whereas I've clocked nearly 5000 ft on both occasions that I've done the race. Maybe that's why they rank it easier than their South Devon event in February, whereas I've always found it harder! Anyway, these are just details to play with after the event. The main thing was that in spite of the conditions, both atmospheric and under foot, it was a good day out and a good start to 2018.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Review of 2017

This is really for my benefit more than anyone else's but of course you're more than welcome if you're interested.  I just find it's useful to look back over the year and see if there is any learning for me, mistakes that I hope not to make again, that sort of thing.

Overall Statistics

Total miles run:                                        1911
Average weekly mileage:                            37
Highest weekly mileage:                           185
Total feet ascended:                            308,300
Average weekly ascent:                          5,900
Highest weekly ascent:                         29,500
No of runs total:                                         148
Average no of runs/week                          2.84
No of runs longer than 25 miles                  19


The first half of the year was a bit of a disaster.

I was unable to start my first planned race in January, the Spine Challenger, due to a flu-type bug. I completed the second in February, the South Devon Coasal Ultra, but later questioned the wisdom of this as I twisted a knee badly after 10 miles and should maybe have stopped. The injury plagued me for the rest of the year. It wasn't sufficently healed to start the Hardmoors 55 in March so I pulled out of that too. In April, when I had intended to use the hilly 45 mile Exmoor Ultra "plus" as a final preparation for the Dragon's Back, I was just about running again but had to "trade down" to the 35 mile ultra (still pretty hilly!) instead and complete it at a very conservative pace. In late May I went into the Dragon's Back, a race that I knew would be at the very limit of my abilities, still carrying the injury; not surprisingly the severe descents tried it too much and I limped out before the end of day two. Finally, at the end of June, I went back to the West Highland Way Race, an event in which I had nine starts and nine finishes, and failed to complete that one as well.

A serious chat with the physio gave me at least some basis for a rethink on how I should approach things. "What you have to understand" he said "is that your knees, particularly the worse one, hurt because there is now little or no cartilege left in them. And that's not going to change". The same situation that I'd been warned about by the surgeon a year or two earlier. As both these two are fairly top guys, and both sportsmen as well, I feel I have to believe them. The advice was consistent, so long there is no swelling, further reduction of mobility (a ski crash 20 years ago robbed my right knee of its ACL and also prevented it fully straightening ever since) or noise from the joint, the rest is just about pain management. The main problem I was getting since the February 2017 episode was knee pain coming on after a couple of hours running, so I had been avoiding this situation pretty well ever since.

I decided I had to gradually build up again the length of time I could run for, and in the meantime concentrate on events whose timings allowed for longish periods of walking, and to go for these with the aim of just finishing rather than setting any particular time targets.  The running is still work in progress but selecting the events that suit me better made the second half of the year much more productive.

In July I completed the Lakes Sky Ultra, a mere 35 miles but with 14,700ft of ascent crammed into it, lots of walking and scrambling, airy ridges and some rope-assisted sections. It was a miserable day, low cloud, wind and rain all day but I thoroughly enjoyed it, just beating the 14 hour cutoff by about twenty minutes.

I had an entry for the UTMB after being successful in the ballot for the first time ever, but although I was tempted my head said it wasn't on, so I didn't go. I looked around for something more modest to replace it and ran the St Begas Ultra, a charmng and well-organised 37 miler through the north western Lakes from Bassenthwaite to St Bees; again not spectacularly fast but another "job done" for encouragement.

Long events where I had to keep up some speed were problematic but I felt that those just requiring a bit of nous and the ability to keep going would be OK, so I had no doubts about taking up my place in the 185 mile, 29,500ft King Offa's Dyke Race in September, for which 90 hours overall was allowed. My intuition proved correct and I managed to finish in just over 82, putting me in the top half of the starting field for possibly my best result of the year.

I had entered the Lakes in a Day in October; I had completed all three of the previous runnings, found it a great event and planned to do at least five on the trot, but two punctures on the way to the start put paid to the plan. Again, looking around quickly for a substitute saw me back at the White Rose 30, which I had done a couple of years ago, for another unspectacular but reasonably competent day out. I then entered the intriguingly different Escape from Meriden later on in November. Enjoyable in it's own right it was also encouraging in that I put in the most miles over 24 hours (around 85) that I had done all year, getting another "top half of field" finish in the process. Finally, social commitments put the Tour de Helvellyn out of reach in December so I went down to Hampshire a couple of days after Christmas to round the year off with the pleasant Winter Cross 50k, which I managed to complete at an average pace of not much over 11 minute miles - and at this stage of the game I was more than happy to take that.

So, a year of two halves, as they say. Two events and a lot of disappointment up to the end of June followed by a re-appraisal of capabilities and six successful races in the second half of the year.

I'm hoping that I'm going into 2018 with more realism and optimism. I have a pretty full programme mapped out and with the exception of one event, which I think will test me pretty well to the limit, I'll be disappointed not to come away with a much better score than for 2017.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Winter Cross Ultra

Well, only 15 posts on this blog during 2017; a poor effort, but 2017 wasn't great for a lot of reasons, I'll try to do better on both running and blogging fronts in the coming year. It's easy to start with as the final event of 2017 was both enjoyable and encouraging.

I had always planned to do the Tour de Helvellyn as my December outing but quite late on an annual social event which I expected to be on the 23rd turned out to be a week earlier, on the day of the race, so I reluctantly had to withdraw and look around for something else to do. The Winter Cross Ultra on the 28th seemed about right from both date and length perspectives. It would mean an early start to avoid an overnight stay but in our game you get used to being up at odd hours of the night, so I signed up for the "fun run" 50k distance. A longer 45 mile option was available but I suspected I would be falling asleep on the way home if I went for that one.

A 2,30am alarm saw me up and heading south on the 200 mile trip to the event headquarters in the small village of Meonstoke, about 10 miles southwest of Winchester. In spite of the dire warnings of extreme weather on almost every motorway sign the journey was easy and uneventful, though snow by the roadside was a bit more apparent south of Oxford. The last few miles were interesting as I hadn't looked at the map but just relied on the Satnav which took me through 7 or 8 miles of narrow,  skittery, icy lanes. The temperature which had been slightly above freezing as I left Chester was now, four hours later, solidy into minus figures. I parked in the signed area and walked the five minutes or so to the village hall for check in.

The Winter Cross is so named because is follows four out-and-back legs from the Meonstoke village hall base, each of which roughly follows a main compass point direction. The first goes north along a disused railway line, 5k each way, a nice little warmup, the second and third east and west respectively, both mostly along the South Downs Way and 10k each way. This completes the 50k event but for those carrying on the fourth leg goes south for another 10k each way along the railway line again.

The Winter Cross Course

At the short briefing RD Phil Hoy suggested we walked up the steepest hills, promised that there might be one or two slippery sections but it wouldn't be a mudfest, but also that there was a very big unavoidable puddle about 500m from the start  -  "more like a lake" - and that we would all get wet feet. At 8am the assembled field trundled off.

The front runners saw the lake and its icy coating, decided this was really no way to start the day and looked around for alternatives. Fortunately, the lake was clearly a seasonal feature of the path to the railway line and the local dogwalkers had established a way around it through a bit of wood and up and down a couple of little slopes, and this is the way that the vast majority of us chose to go. We kept our feet dry but funneling around 130 runners at a mass start into a singletrack with two stiles was not going to be quick, and it was five minutes or so before I actually got running again; we'll call that logistical delay number one, the significance of which will become apparent later on.

It was a pleasant enough run up the railway line, gradually ascending all the way up to the turnaround point and of course a nice gentle cruise back. It was still pretty cold as the sun was not up yet but with almost no wind quite comfortable. Back at the first checkpoint outside the village hall I had a quick drink and carried on. With drink stations every 10k there was no need to take a water bottle. I just had a bumbag with a collapsible cup and a windproof top as there was no prospect of rain. The drink stations all had a good selection of snacks as well so I didn't bother to carry any food either.

The start of leg 2 saw a sample of the trickiest ground of the day, narrow country lanes with almost invisible black ice on top, so we skated our way carefully for a mile or so to join the safety of the South Downs Way. This followed a series of fairy gentle ups and downs across fields, through woods and the odd bit of farm road to the checkpoint at the turnaround 10k further on. The sun had come up as we started the leg giving us wall-to-wall blue sky, and with a couple of inches of snow covering the downs, lovely views all round. The ground under foot was mostly frozen with just the occasional ice covered muddy puddle so the going quite easy. I wasn't going at a particularly quick pace, I was having no real problems from my knees so everything felt pretty good. The homeward part of the leg was equally pleasant.

Phil had said that this was the toughest leg so with that in mind I had decided to see how I was feeling after it was done before setting any targets for the finish. As I slid down the final bit of lane back to the hall checkpoint again I saw that I had averaged 11:44 minute miles so far so I felt that aiming for a sub 12 minute mile average for the race was about right. I needed to go to the toilet so I went in to the ones in the hall but had to wait a few minutes for one to become free. Let's call this logistical delay number 2, the effect was that when I set out on the westerly leg 3 my average had gone up to 12:15, so a bit of work to do.

Phil had warned us that the longest hill on the course was at the start of leg3 but "it does end eventually". After a brief but sharp downhill and a couple of fields we were into it. I started out jogging but after a while decided that was taking a bit too much effort so I probably walked the final two thirds of it. It was about two miles long overall and I'm sure most people ahead of me will have run it all. It started up a narrow lane, but thankfully there was no ice on this one, then for the last bit went up an easy track to the summit of "Beacon Hill". It was great to reach to top, obviously because it was the end of the hill but also because we now had this two miles of great downhill to look forward to on the way back. An interesting feature of this course format was that you were always passing faster runners on the outward section of each leg and slower ones on the homeward stretch, so for the next mile or so of this one it was good to encourage returning runners that they had almost reached the top of the downhill! The remainder of the leg out to the final (for us) turnaround was gently undulating jeep tracks and forest paths, fairly fast ground so I set about working on my average pace.

I hadn't chatted to many people along the way but about a mile before the turnaround I caught up with Charles, who was a local runner for this race but who had done the Lakeland 100 five times so we had plenty of common ground to talk about. He was doing the longer 45 mile event so still had 20k to do when we got back to the hall. Our pace seemed to be bringing my average down nicely, so we stayed together on the homeward section until we reached the top of the long hill.

It's never easy to set an overall time target for a race because unless you've done it before, you don't know what the distance is  -  "50k" might mean anything up to two or three miles either side of this, that's just the way ultra running seems to work. But by now it looked as it was going to pan out at around 32 miles according to my watch, and if I got a bit of a wiggle on there was a chance I could get under 6 hours for the trip. I used to think this wasn't important, but having finished a "Lakes in a Day" in 15:00:40 and even worse a West Highland Way in 26:00:05,  I'm now conscious that if I happen to be within a shout of an hour barrier as I approach the finish I may as well put in at least  a bit of effort and try to get under it.

Understandably Charles didn't want to change his comfortable pace so I wished him well and set off down the hill, which proved just as enjoyable as I anticipated. Near the bottom I caught another runner who waved me through as he felt I was going a lot faster. I told him we were on for 6 hours if we kept going so he then tagged along. I wasn't looking forward to the short uphill but we dug in and caught another runner who was walking, and encouraged him to join us. Looking back, without logistical delays one and two this would all have been so much easier, but probably not as much fun.

The three of us carried on the final couple of hundred yards to the finish line, finishing in 5 hours 59 minutes and 7, 8 and 9 seconds respectively. Close, but job done.  I had eventually got my pace down to 11:14 which I was quite pleased with; I'd actually sort of run for most of an event  -  I haven't done that for a year or two. We were each presented with what I think is the biggest medal I've ever got for finishing a race - they obviously believe in bling in Hampshire, we speculated that it might affect fuel consumption on our journeys home  -  and to top it all a mug of mulled wine at the finish. The event carried on being well-appointed, with nice warm showers and cups of tea and soup. 

But my longish day was wearing on so I had to set off for the trip back to Chester.  All was fine until a bit south of Warwick when I felt I might start to nod off, so I pulled into the services there. My intention was to try the trick of a shot of coffee followed by a short sleep, but I was beginning to seize up a bit by now and during my hobble/slide across the frozen-snow-covered car park I suddenly felt chilly and hungry so the sleep was replaced by a visit to Burger King.  That seemed to do the trick and I finally arrived home in time for a second dinner at around 8pm.  I slept pretty well.

Mammoth Medal