Friday, 26 August 2016

Glenbrook Trail Marathon

Running Wild - the race organisation
Most people may think it slightly crazy to get off a long haul flight (or 3) to Australia and then head out to run a race, but the purpose of my fortnight-long visit was to hang out and catch up with family, "almost" family, and friends. My plan was to get a good long run in before meeting up with them, and then I'd be happy to just chill for the holiday.

With that in mind, I found myself heading up to the Blue Mountains within 24 hours of arrival, in order to run the Glenbrook Trail marathon. I knew it was the end of "winter" but I was in Australia and it had been in the 20s during the day so I was rather shocked to see a layer of frost on the ground and see the thermometer registering -1.5 degrees.

Not the flattest run ever!
The race rules included carrying a 500ml container for water and your own silicone cup to avoid plastic cups causing litter at the feedstations. I did not think I was likely to suffer from dehydration/heat problems (hypothermia was a possibility as I was just wearing a t-shirt and skirt), so my aim was to keep my water container "collapsed" in my pocket after drinking the contents, and just use my cup at the feed stations.

It was also a first for me to have to read the pre-race notes about snakes and other nasty beasties (the course description mentioned a resident black snake), what to do in case of a bush fire and to sign a disclaimer!! I wondered what on earth I was letting myself in for.

The beautiful Blue Mountains
There were 3 separate races on the day - my 42.2K event headed off first at 7:30am with the 34K setting off shortly afterwards, and then the 25K runners leaving last.

As we were the first runners off in the early morning frost, we even startled a few wallabies as we headed out of the carparks of Euroka Clearing and up a steep sharp climb on single track which really got the lungs and heart warmed up. We passed a waterhole (but luckily it was too cold for the resident black snake to be in evidence) and turned onto a rough forest road. Although only about 5km into the race, this was the steepest section to run as the gradient was about 20% for about 350m. However, once up this slope there was a nice runnable firetrail along to the Mount Portal lookout (over the Nepean Valley....but I didn't actually stop to take in the view and see if I could spot the Sydney Harbour Bridge way off in the distance!!).

"What goes up must come down" so the steep slope had to be descended due to the out and back nature of this route segment. By this time, the 34K runners had started so although I got to see a couple of people in my race ahead of me after they had turned round at the lookout, it was more interesting to fly past (well not I;m such a poor descender) almost the entire field of the next race as they were slogging up the hill!!

The first aid station was at about 10K, but as I didn;t feel I needed a drink I carried onto the next 2K of "fast flowing single trail". This was really pretty but did consist of rather a lot of large steps (the Blue Mountains are famous for steps on their trails). Unfortunately my stride wasn't quite the right length to be able to negotiate them easily so it wasn't all that "fast flowing" for me.

The only tarred section of the race was 100m uphill along the main road before another steep descent into a valley. There were a couple of friendly marshals directing runners off the road and onto the trail, but I took fright as I heard them shouting something about snakes to me (as it turned out they were only asking if I had wanted a jelly snake, so how I wished I'd taken the time to listen properly).

The rock-hopping descent down to the creek was made easier by some "steps" carved into the sandstone, but at the bottom I wasn't quite sure which way to go. the trail to the right looked bigger so I started heading that way, only to be called back by two helpful guys who'd seen me heading off the wrong way, so I turned round and followed them up the creek.

Red Hands Cave
This was a beautiful section to "run" as we wound round rocks and trees, crossed the creek several times, dipped in and out of lush forest, skipped over sandy pools and dodged under sandstone overhangs for several kilometres. The trail gradually climbed up passing the culturally significant "Red Hands Cave". This cave is believed to have been a safe place for indigenous women and children (the Darug people) and contains axe-grinding grooves and hand stencils dating back 1600 years.

The next aid station was at the end of this narrow trail and so I grabbed a drink of water before hitting the fire trail which gradually rose over the next 5km to the highest point on the course. It was definitely starting to heat up as the sun rose higher and I was glad to be in dappled woodland. I passed a couple of runners and then linked up with Christian, an ex-pat Brit and so we ran together, happily chatting away.

Out on the wide fire trails
Another out and back section to Nepean Lookout along a gum-lined firetrail saw Christian drop back and me close down the man in front (Stephen) though I'm not sure how happy he was about this. We had to negotiate a couple of barriers on the firetrail and unfortunately I came a cropper on one of these. I tripped on some roughness underfoot while trying to get through the narrow gap and then next thing I knew was that I was lying on the ground having hit my head and grazed my right hand. I tired to get up and run on but realised that I had completely winded myself as I was gasping for air. Stephen ran off ahead of me but Christian came up to my aid and made me stop, catch my breath, wipe the blood off my hands and wash the sand out of my face and mouth before running on with me (yeay - you can count on Team GB to look out for each other!!).

The next section was purely for the marathon runners - another out and back stretch along Pisgah Ridge. Initially this was a relatively wide non-maintained firetrail so Christian and I could still run side by side and chat, but eventually it became very narrow with overhanging branches at heights that they could catch either your head or your ankles. This section was described as an "added bonus" as the route planners had extended the single track to include a steep descent to the turnaround point and taken out some boring loops around the clearing/carparks at the start/finish.

As I headed back up through the thick bush, my right hip started to ache and so I dropped off my the pace a bit, wondering if I had actually clattered it in my fall (sure enough a bruise did develop later). Due to the out and back nature of this section, I could see fellow marathoners behind me and realised that is was unlikely that I'd be caught by the next lady, which seemed to give me a new lease of life (as did finally overhauling the early leader of the race who seemed to have "blown up" big time).
Great medal

Back on the main fire trail again, I passed Christian and knew it was just a case of trying to maintain my pace to the finish. It was hard to know who was in what race at this point as all 3 race routes had converged, though I reckoned I could work it out from our relative running speeds.
Although the last 5K was reputed to be "fast", it did seem rather long to me, and I had to force myself to keep my cadence up and keep pushing on. The ladies' CR seemed to be within my reach, even though there was a "false" sense of approaching the finish. The course took us back to the car parks of Euroka Clearing, but we popped about about as far away from the finish line as it was possible to be. A steep downhill past picnic sites and parked cars led to a sharp turn and an final uphill sprint to the (very welcome) finish line.

Food and drink = made for me!
Prize giving
The finisher's medal represented the Red Hand's Cave which we'd run past so long ago, but it felt so well earnt. Despite the fall, I managed to finish second overall (behind Stephen) in 3 hours and 16 minutes, taking a good 12 minutes off the previous ladies' CR! The prize was a voucher for food and drink in the local town, and so as my relatives had driven all the way out there to meet me, what better way could I spend my winnings than on taking everyone out for lunch!!??

Run done - I could now chill for the rest of my fortnight's fact, that's all I could do, as I'd actually done myself a lot more damage than I thought in the fall, developing bony bruising and swelling in my knee, so much so that I couldn't walk without pain for the next fortnight!

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Not your average Half Marathon....

Lowther Estate
As most people know, I've not had much inclination for training and racing recently, but thought I should test the waters of my declining fitness with a nice low key race. The Lowther Trail Half Marathon was on at the weekend, but I still couldn't summon up the motivation to go and run it. On Saturday however, my friend Ant told me that he was doing it to kickstart his running and racing training for the autumn and beyond. This spurred me on to actually enter and so I headed on over there on Sunday morning (after rather too little sleep due to watching the Rio Olympics for half of the night!).

My first clue that this was not your average half marathon were the signs directing people to the "Fell Race", and the next pointer was that a sportident dibber was attached to each competitor's wrist as they registered. This led to much more of a mountain marathon feel rather than a trail race though I hoped the route would be kinder to me, despite the "warning" about taking care at the river crossing.

Having been the race medic many years prior to this, I only had some vague memories of the route (some of which were clearly wrong as I'd recalled it being 10K long rather than over 13 miles!).

Looking back up the start section

The initial downhill start was fast and uneven across the grass of the showground and after half a mile, I wondered if I'd made the wrong decision in running the race. After crossing the river we started a long drag up through the [pretty village of Askham and onto the fells. I felt that I was really struggling by the 1.5mile mark and when I spotted a local swimming pool sign (and a pub) I was tempted to stop. Nevertheless, I'd entered the race to ensure that I kept running when I felt like quitting (as I thought I might do if I'd just gone out for a 13 mile run on my own) so I pushed on - despite feeling like it was much harder than it should be, others were clearly feeling this more as I gradually overtook men as we headed up and out onto the open ground.

The Askham Fells
Everyone had to "dib" into the control at the top of the first hill to ensure there was no cutting of corners or summits but we were "rewarded" with a nice runnable downhill stretch on a mixture of grass and trail. I tried to put into practice what I had been advised about downhill running - ie look a few metres ahead rather than down at my feet, relax and let myself go, rather than unconsciously braking due to a fear of tripping and falling. It may have been the increased mental effort, or it may have been that I was consciously putting in more of an effort than usual on a downhill section, or it may have having (or not having) a horizon in my eyesight, but it did make me feel rather nauseated. It crossed my mind how embarassing it would be if I had to stop to be sick on a downhill section rather than when working hard up a hill!.

I looked at my watch as I passed a "5 mile" marker sign....although we'd actually only gone 4.5miles, it would still have been a PW (personal worst) for me for the 5 mile point in a half marathon!

After some more "undulations" with bracken and tussocks making sure I kept picking my feet up, there was a brief road section (yippee) before an arrow directed us out across open ground. With no obvious path, it was a case of picking the best route through bogs and between reeds, tussocks and thistles. Instinctively picking out good routes comes with hours and hours of this type of running, which I clearly haven't done so I did get overtaken by a man who then disappeared off over the horizon. This was unfortunate for me, as it meant that I then had to test my own navigational and contouring skills on the rough ground. A splash through a 1.5m wide creek made me wonder what all the fuss was about the advertised river crossing, as it didn't even wash off the mud I was now clothed in.

A mile later, I found there was a 15m wide river to wade through. There were marshals at each side and a rope strung across it for use as a handrail (very useful when you are stumbling around on the river bed). I found it very hard to get back into a running stride with heavy, wet (though clean) feet and legs on the far side of the river, though a marshal tried to convince me that it was "not far to go"  (Ha....I thought....only about another 6 miles!!).
Not a bad profile for a hill race, but
testing for a road runner!

The next section was a tough "hands on knees and push" climb (after an initial scratchy thistle field crossing). I admit that I'm not very good at walking up hills as I find it hard to remember to keep putting effort in when I'm walking but I confess to walking up some of this one (though I did run for longer than the guys in front of me....small victories and all that!!). At the top, there was noone in sight again, and I found it hard to spot the next bit of tape marking the route. Luckily I found a sheep trod going across the plateau in the right direction, though I did doubt myself as I'd thought the next "dibber" was at about the 8 mile point.

It was my memory playing tricks on me again, as the marshals were there holding the control 9 miles into the race. From there, we had our final section of grass-running and ended up on another minor road. I was so happy to see some tarmac (even if it did go rather steeply downhill) that I just let myself go and somehow managed a sub 6-minute mile, so gaining a few places. The road was interrupted by several cattle grids, more easily negotiated by men with larger feet/shoes, so I had to brake rather abruptly on a few occasions to avoid my feet slipping in between the bars, and by the last few grids, I opted to run round them in the rough grass.

The last couple of miles were on forest roads and were also being used for the carriage racing that was part of the Lowther Show. The carriages had right of way, so it was important to remain alert and jump off onto the verges in time as they passed as some pace.
Everyone loves a
"consumable" prize!!

The final sting in the tail of the race was a steep climb back up from the river to the Showground before dibbing in at the finish. A definite benefit to the sportident timing and checkpoints was that after the we "downloaded", we could also see (and compare) ourr splittimes for each section.

I certainly proved that I'm not very good at judging my own pace or effort when the terrain keeps changing and I haven't raced in a  while, as it turned out that I finished hot on the heels of the 10th man. Although it felt tough at the time, I'm glad I did the race, as it forced me to keep going when I'd otherwise have slowed and stopped, and the course was beautiful, with stunning views and really, a little of of everything underfoot (and obviously the icecream followed by nutella and banana crepes at the Show helped!!!)!

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Different pressures.....

Not many of us are lucky enough to be able to make a living out of our hobbies, so sometimes it has to take a backseat to everything else that is going on in our lives. I am sure that other people's jobs are just as stressful as mine, but sometimes it does feel rather all-encompassing.

Recently, I found that the pressure was getting to me so much, that not only was if affecting my sleep, my work and my relationships with family, friends and colleagues but also my running. I did not want the pressure of taregt races, and indeed I did not even feel like going out to run, never mind actually doing any purposeful training.

A break was definitely in order....from work (ie a holiday) and also from running pressures. Having withdrawn from a big autumn race, I decided to just run if and when I felt like it for a couple of weeks. That turned out to be rather little, so I did a few races with friends just to get me out and turning the legs over...and enjoy the fun of running and socialising with mates.

Finishing in the rain at Comber!!
Five of us went over on a daytrip to Northern Ireland to visit clubmate Hazel Smyth's family and take part in their local 10K. Hazel's dad was a speedy runner in his day so it was great to have him out supporting us on the 2 lap course of the Comber 10K. The race was organised by Ballydrain Harriers, and the rain became so hard during the race that all I could think was "where the Bally **** are the drains?"

Still it was a great day out, as the post-race cake spread was fantastic (even I was I had to sit on the floor holding my stomach after my 6th piece....whilst the tables were still piled high!!) and we managed a quick trip to a pub in Belfast before catching the ferry back home.

With Alex, my fellow 3000m runner

Eeeek - a running track!!
The next day was my "track debut". I was making up number for Durham Harriers in their track and field league, so agreed to be the second 3000m runner. I think I caused other people much entertainment asking how the numbers worked for A-string and B-string, whether you were meant to wear socks or no socks, and not realising about how races started with stepping back and then up to the line followed by an actual starting gun. Still at least I didn't get lapped, scored some points for the club...and really enjoyed the support of clubmates there for different events (and my parents faithfully watching in the stands!).....though I'm not sure it's the discipline for me!

The Borrowdale "Half"
The following weekend brought a low-key "trail half marathon" in the Lake District. A couple of Dumfries clubmates and I took part and were rather unimpressed by the level of organisation and value for money (the course was short, people got lost on the way to the start, several of us got lost in the race as signs were pointing in the wrong directions, the aid station was near the finish rather than midway and had nothing left by the time some of the slower participants came through, there was nowhere to leave clothing at the start despite the rain, they scrapped age group prozes on the day, registration were handing out 11 month out of date cereal bars....need I go on?). I ran over to support friends on the Wasdale fell race afterwards which was about 100 times more fun, despite running in monsoon-like conditions!

Up the hill at Moffat
A few days later I ran the Moffat Gala 15K, which is always a good local event. It has everything in undulating few road miles at the beginning, then a steep uphill off road mile, and then 4.5 tortuous downhill roadmiles back to Moffat. I find it hard to get the necessary leg turnover on the downhill (and Moffat never seems to get any closer as you can see it below you the whole way down) so a few guys flew by me, even though my watch told me I was running some fast mile splits (for me anyway). Still, it was a good fun run with clubmates yet again, rounded off with drinks and cakes in the pub to say goodbye to a clubmate who's returning to Australia after several years over here (and an added bonus is that you are given a marsbar for finishing...and you finish right outside the local chipshop :-) ;-) Yummm!).
The Cheshire Half

Parkrun No 50 with my dad ;-)
I then had a weekend of travelling and catching up with people. First of all I went to Durham and actually ran my 50th parkrun there - it was a lovely social occasion as my friend Jacquie was "rundirecting", my mum was "marshalling" and after I finished I went back and ran in with my dad to make it a proper family affair. Unfortunately my dad didn't quite manage a PB but he's had several of those recently, so wasn't too upset by that!

Post-race with Hannah and Steve
Later that day I popped over to see a friend who lives in Cheshire and so ran a half marathon just a couple of miles away the next morning. A couple of other friends (Hannah and Steve) were also running and so it was great to catch up and have a bit of banter both pre- and post-race (and also meet a gentleman who had been a member of Dumfries Running Club a few years prior to me joining). All in all, if I was going to run several non-target races in a row, then that would be how I'd choose to do it!!

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

A Tale From The Back...

The finish goal....
Another finish goal....
Two of the things that I do to get away from the pressures and stresses of work are catching up with family & friends, and I decided to combine both of those last weekend. I went down to Winchester to visit my sister, brother-in-law, nephew and niece, but also took part in an inaugural ultra event, the "Race To The King".

This was advertised as a 53.5mile run along the South Downs Way starting in Slindon (near Arundel) and finishing in front of Winchester cathedral (where I hoped my own little "king and queen" would be waiting!). The weather forecast left a little to be desired, but Saturday morning dawned clear and sunny.

I boarded my 6am shuttle bus (organised by Race To The King) to the start from Winchester Park&Ride, only to find out that the driver had decided that we were to be a "6:30 bus". Still, it was only meant to take about an hour to get there, which left enough time to register, get my number and hand in a bag with some clothes for the finish and make the 8am start (the "runners' start" as the walkers were due to go off at 8:45am).

Unfortunately race day coincided with the Goodwood Festival of Speed which meant that, despite the early hour, we were soon stationary in traffic jams. Different bus drivers opted for different routes, but unfortunately ours chose the worst option as we were the last people to arrive at the start fields in Slindon. By this time we'd been on the bus for nearly 3 hours so, along with my breakfast, I'd eaten half of my emergency food!!!

The official start
They obviously couldn't delay the starts (of over 1000 people) for 32 of us, so a speedy registration and briefing saw us heading off at about 9:25am. I asked how we could then compare ourselves to those that had started at 8am as it was effectively 2 different races, and the other starters joked that it wouldn't matter as we weren't exactly going to be competitive!!! Still, it was a chip-timed event and as the rules mentioned times for the event rather than positions across the line, it didn't really matter much, as we all still had to complete the same distance.

My aim for the day was to have a nice enjoyable long run, see how I'd recovered from Norway, and not be drawn into racing in fact, it appeared that the delayed start would help me with is as I was running completely on my own after we'd crossed the first field.

Good weather early on
The route was incredibly well signposted so there was no chance of taking a wrong turn, but I kept the course maps handy "just in case". The first few miles were lovely running, but I did get a hint of the tough mental battles ahead as I gradually caught up and passed people that had been on shuttles buses which were delayed slightly less than mine. As most of them were walking, I was soooo tempted to stop running and just walk with them, as they'd all seemed to be having a lovely time chatting away and taking in the scenery.

Having only started 40 minutes behind all of the walkers, it wasn't too long before I found myself at the back of some rather large groups of people. On wider trails, it was relatively easy to duck and dive overhanging branches, dodging between people, long grass, brambles and nettles, but it became more difficult when the path turned sharply and narrowed significantly. Somebody asked me how many times I'd said "would you mind if I tried to squeeze past?" and I think it was actually numbering into the hundreds. Most of the walkers were lovely and considerate, but there were a few patches where it was nigh on impossible for me to overtake, despite accumulating a few bramble scratches and nettle stings.

Some lovely peaceful running
At the first checkpoint I just grabbed a cereal bar, some juice, some sweets and kept going as I was in the thick of the walkers' field by now. The second checkpoint (at the 15 mile point) was teeming with people and so I got rather confused by it and missed most of the offered food (which it turns out were the savoury pastries I spent almost the whole route craving). I think they were away from the actual route, beyond some yoga mats where people were sitting down,most stretching and tending to blisters etc. Still, I found some bananas, gels, coke and water to refill my bottle, and so was happy to carry on.

On the next stretch, as I was passing runners, I started to quiz people on their start times. Everyone said 8 am so I felt that I could now relax as I was no longer playing catchup. For some reason, I had just thought that all I needed to do was to catch up to runners in order to have some company to run with. Thinking about this for a split second shows what a foolish idea this was, as if I'd made up 85minutes in 15 miles, then we clearly weren't going to be running the same pace.

Ominous clouds roll in...
On one hill, I ran past 3 men who were discussing the fact that walking up hills wasn't really much slower than running and they said that "no one would run up here". I then heard them correct themselves with "no one except her" as I moved away ahead of them!

The weather had been great up to now, quite warm and humid with some sunshine, but the forecast had always been for it to deteriorate from about lunchtime, and it certainly lived up to expectations. Black clouds rolled in ominously, and then the heavens opened. The first few showers were short and sharp so I didn't bother getting out my waterproof, but as they became more prolonged I wished that I had done so before I became soaked through.

The mud here was ankle deep
when I ran through it!!
While still on the delayed bus to the start, I'd joked that I had probably been overconfident in not packing a headtorch, as I didn't think I'd finish after it got dark, but I actually almost came to regret that decision. Running on a very narrow path through dark woods in a thunderstorm was almost asking for an accident, especially as a lot of the tree roots were hidden by mud or water. Thankfully I made it through unscathed and started to climb up to the halfway checkpoint (overnight camp for those covering the distance in 2 days).

It had been raining so hard that the path was more of a stream and it felt as if the hillside was sliding down almost as fast as I was trying to run up it, but before long I had made it to the halfway point. There were a few hardy supporters out in the rain as I passed under the timing gantry, but I was glad that I was not going to stop there and put up a soggy tent.

Hot drinks and soup were available, but now that I'd caught up to the main field, I wanted to keep going so just grabbed some bread and some brownies and headed off. There was a definite thinning out of the field by now as, not only had I passed a lot of people, but quite a few were stopping for the night.

The rain stopped, and my clothes dried out, but I felt that I was definitely starting to flag. I wasn't sure if it was the Norway race still in my legs, or the lack of mileage since, or just the fact that it was a long way to run. Still, everyone has low spots in a race, and if you manage to get through them, then things so improve as seemed to happen to me. All of a sudden I'd made it to another checkpoint and was now counting them down.

I was told that fewer than 10 ladies were ahead of me, but this didn't mean much as I didn't know exactly when I'd started relative to them, though it did seem to give me a bit of a boost. People were few and far between, but as I was still overtaking people and nobody passed me, I figured that I just be running a bit better than I felt I was. I do remember saying to a lady as I passed her that I was "over it now" and "just wanted to be in Winchester"!!!

The name "Old Winchester Hill" lulled me into a false sense of being near Winchester as I still had about 15 miles to go. The rain started beating down again (it was so loud on the roof of the portaloo I found at that checkpoint, that I was tempted not to come out again!) but by this time, I just couldn't be bothered with my waterproofs......I just wanted to get to the finish!

The arrows were clear and easy to spot
At the penultimate checkpoint I heard that the race leaders had been through less than 90mins ahead of me, and that there were only about 5 women ahead, but I wasn't sure how accurate this info was, as people might have miscounted or missed people in the heavy rain. I really thought that I'd gone the wrong way around this time, as there were several stretches of over 100m that involved wading-running as I appeared to be running in a rivulet or along some flooded roads. Several busy road crossings had been unmarshalled but I didn't think that I'd missed any arrows....and sure enough, there were some at the side of the flooded sections!

When I got to the last checkpoint, I did ask if they knew the timegap, as I only had "about 7.1" miles to go from there. They told me that they'd heard that leader had finished but weren't sure exactly when, but that the first lady had been quite a way back from him when she passed through there. I decided that if I could just push on and up my pace to the finish, then I might be able to record a time that was relatively high up the field.

I hoped that the last few miles might be on a good surface into Winchester, but my heart sank as I saw that I had to head further up hill and down dale on rough ground. I looked at my watch when I passed a sign marked "5 miles to the finish". It showed 7hrs 22 minutes, but I couldn't say with confidence that I hadn't actually stopped it when at checkpoints etc.

I had originally thought that I might take about 9 hours for the event but my sister had said to friend of hers (that I met while waiting for the bus) that I might be around the 8 hour mark. Looking at my watch, I thought that I was going to be painfully close, and probably miss it by minutes.

Finally.....the finish gantry...yippee!!!
Still, I wanted to try to break the 8 hour mark and so I forced myself to pick up the pace when I hit some tarmac (even though it was painful as it was rather steep downhill). I managed a 6:48 mile, followed by a 7 min mile, even though this one was partly off road again. The distance wasn't quite adding up but I was now into Winchester itself. I shocked a male runner as I flew past him in another 6:50 mile (not bad for my 54th mile of the run) but every time I thought I was going to turn towards the cathedral, the arrows pointed the opposite way. It almost seemed like the race organisers had been deliberately cruel and were making us run a lap around the cathedral before getting there.

That well-earned hug ;-)
Finally I rounded a corner and sad the finish gantry so I sprinted for it (well, it felt like sprinting even if it didn't look like it). Unfortunately I didn't spot the fact that there were several steps to go down until I was almost on them, but luckily I didn't quite hot the deck  despite how wet they were. After crossing the line, you had to pull up abruptly to avoid a statue, some more steps and the actual cathedral itself, but luckily my sister was there to catch me with a big hug!
Decapitation was attempted

What a well earned hug it was as I'd finished (the 54.2 miles) in 7 hrs 57 minutes and 11 seconds. As it turned out the first man had finished in 8:15 but he was very gracious about this when we found out our times, as I'd never expected results like that. It was lovely to have the family there at the  finish, even if my "king and queen" did then try to decapitate me with their swords!

The timing/bus problems at the start were rather unfortunate, but all in all I really enjoyed the was a lovely scenic route with a bit of everything (in terms of terrain as well as weather) and the different options meant that it was achievable for everyone, whether they wanted to do it all in one go, or over a couple of days, without having to worry about navigation or support. Well done Race To The King!

Thursday, 16 June 2016

In the land of the Midnight Sun

The midnight sun in Svolvaer
I could describe the inaugural Lofoten Ultratrail very the most brutal one-day race I have even run.......but that just wouldn't do it justice.

When I was invited to take part in the race, I confess that I wasn't exactly sure where it was to be held (apart from "Norway") but when I found out that the Lofoten Islands were reputed to be the most beautiful in Europe, I jumped at the opportunity to go and run there (as what better way to see stunning scenery than by running through it?).

I thought it was slightly unusual that a headtorch wasn't included on the compulsory kit list, but it made sense once you realised that Lofoten is within the Arctic Circle and hence in the "Land of the Midnight Sun". The initial plan was for the 50 mile race to start at midnight so we got to run through this amazing light, but unfortunately there was a large demand for the start to be moved to 9am. All was not lost as, due to an airline mess-up (trying to put a positive spin on 17 hours of travel), I did not actually arrive in Svolvaer until 1:30am.....and could see that the sun had still not set on the mountains.....beautiful!

I also got to experience the extreme changes in weather first hand as it was 22 degrees, hot and sunny on the day I arrived, yet the next day was wet, windy and about 5 degrees. Who knew what the following day (race day) would hold - we were told not to bother believing the weather forecast as it was so changeable.

Race day dawned (well, not really as the sun hadn't actually set) without least not until half an hour before we were due to start. We were all sitting in the bus having been driven an hour from Svolvaer to the Viking Museum, when the rain started beating against the windows. What an omen! Luckily it stopped and so we all piled off and lined up on the start line, only for there to be another shower as we waited for those runners who'd forgotten to fill up their waterbottles before leaving the hotel. Luckily the starting speeches were brief and so we were soon off and running (and warming up). There was an initial small loop down to the water before we came back past the longhouse and starting flags. We had been told that the first few miles (until we joined the 100 mile race route) would be well marked, but a couple of us managed 2 wrong turns in that initial loop....oops!

After crossing the main road (which was v well marked) we headed uphill on trail. At this point it started to snow.....not exactly what I'd expected after the warmth of my arrival day. The trail wound up and down through small bushes and scrub - it was impossible to see at times so you had to look ahead for small flags spaced about 50m apart. This meant that 4 of us had bunched up by the time we hit the road on the other side of the hill, so we could bounce the navigation off each other. As the only foreigner, I found it amusing that the three Norwegian guys I was running with were looking to me for the nav. To be fair, I was thumbing my map as I ran, whilst one of them was just following his GPS watch and another was trying to use his phone to help him find the route.

We were fairly evenly matched over these few of the guys ate up any flat road more quickly than the rest of us (his stride length was about twice mine), 2 of them loved hurtling down the rough downhills, yet I had the advantage when we went uphill. I have two main memories of that is how beautiful the scenery was (especially as you crested a hill on a small trail and looked down at the next fjord, rather than cutting through a tunnel like the road did) and the other is how much the racks of drying fish stank as you ran past them!

The first "service point" (this was a new thing for me - a "Service Point" was a simple aid station with some food and drink, whereas a "Check Point" was one where you had to go inside and speak to the race crew/medics etc) was on the deck on a house at the end of the village. I don't like to stop for long so grabbed a drink, ate an "Arctic" (ie muesli) bun, picked up another for the road and was away with the guys in my wake.
The route description for this segment describes a "run around the coastline to the lighthouse and then on to Eggum village" - which I interpreted as a nice easy flat coastal/beach run. I couldn't have been more wrong, but as it turns out, the guys had all thought the same thing as me so we were all taken by surprise. The coastline was very dramatic with steep slopes running straight down to the sea below, and so we found ourselves running on narrow, windy, undulating paths along the slopes and cliffs. It was stunning, but you had to keep your brain switched on at all times in order not to stumble on rocks and find yourself hurtling down towards the water. At other times we dipped right down to sea level, sometimes lowering yourself down over rocks onto shingles or timing your boulder hopping for short dashes between waves. All great fun, but I'm not exactly the fastest person over such terrain so 2 of the guys soon disappeared out of sight. I caught up to one when we started clambering up and down rocks but the other guy (Frode) was way ahead as he described it as his "favourite terrain for running".
As I neared Eggum, it became much easier to run at a decent pace and I managed to catch up with Frode (and the overhead camera/drone!!!) so we had a brief chat before I moved ahead along the following road kilometres. I tried to get into a steady rhythm on this quiet section while tracking my progress along the map. Very few cars passed that way but those that did all gave a friendly wave. The rain and cloud would come and go as would the sea on my left and the mountains on my right. I could see the location of the next checkpoint away in this distance, and knew that the portion of the race I was most worried about started there.

I finally arrived at the checkpoint and went inside to check in with the race crew. They seemed surprised that I did not want to stop while they brewed me a hot drink, but as I was so anxious about the next section, I just grabbed a handful of chocolate (yummmmm.....chocolate with salt crystals in it was exactly what I needed), a couple more Arctic buns, some electrolyte drink and headed off.

photo credit Kai-Otto Melau

The next 16K or so looked like they would be the toughest (well for me anyway) of the whole event. It looked like we had to climb mountains, run along ridges, and route-find ourselves as there were no obvious trails marked on the map. The initial climb up from the checkpoint wasn't so bad as there was a decent rough path and it was partially runnable. Apart the 100mile competitor that I passed I could see nobody either ahead of me or behind me, so I knew I had to be completely self-reliant. I could work out where I was as I ran along the top of the first ridge (and there was a lovely reassuring small Arctic Ultra flag marking the highest point) as the weather was clear enough for me to identify specific lakes, streams and valley features below, but suddenly the trail petered out. I had looked ahead and worked out a vague route but I wasn't too confident of this when I saw the actual terrain underfoot - springy heather, low shrubs, small trees, rocks, bogs and sharp drops. Luckily I finally managed to get my borrowed GPS to work. However, I discovered that it is not possible to follow a trace accurately unless you are superhuman and can avoid all the obstacles put in your way.

After a few false summits I saw the highest point of the route a long way ahead and to my left. Unfortunately it appeared that I had a lot of descending, circumnavigating and climbing to do to get there. I passed another couple of 100mile runners who were gently climbing down slopes, but pushed on myself as I felt that all those following me would be much more confident of their route choice and mountain skills. I did spare a thought that my tracker might be providing some entertainment for those following at home as I was probably running around like a squirrel searching out its store of hidden nuts. At least all the climbing was an excuse to refuel with the supplies I had in my pack. The climb up onto the highest peak of Daltuva was so steep that I also had to use my hands to haul myself up and I worried about overbalancing and falling off the mountain if I actually straightened up fully. Eventually it flattened off to become a more rounded summit, but this meant there was a snowfield to traverse. Although it was a rather slippery section (and cold, as it actually snowed again just as I got there), I found some reassuring tracks of those who'd passed by earlier so I knew that I wasn't too far off course.

The descent from Daltuva could only be described as "interesting". I could see the road far below but no obvious way of getting there. For those people that know Wales, the closest thing I can liken it to was coming off Crib Goch without a path in strong winds - I wasn't feeling exactly confident that I'd even make it. If I tried to look at the GPs trace too closely as I got lower I would find myself either ankle deep in a bog, scrambling over huge rocks or trying to negotiate a miniwoodland area. At one point I even realised that there was a lake appearing to my left - and the map showed that it should definitely be on my right.

spot the tiny dropbag
I managed to scramble back up round and down the right (ie the correct) side and finally picked up a little trod so could get back to running at a decent pace. Suddenly I came across 2 camaramen associated with the race. They gave me some nice encouragement, but I really didn't believe them when they say I'd navigated the section well and was leading the race. Having not seen anyone for hours, I was convinced that I'd dropped right to the back of the field.

After a mile or so along the road, I got to the refuel point...or "special service station" where our drop bags were. Everybody seemed to have a lot more in their bags than me - change of clothes, shoes, socks, the kitchen sink etc - whereas I just had a can of redbull, some cereal bars, minicheeses and small chocolatey snacks (all of which I grabbed and took with me....though I downed the can at the time).

The loneliness of a longdistance runner
I was so relieved to have made it safely over the mountainous section and knew I could relax as the next 10K were all on road. I'm not sure I've ever run a road 10K wearing soggy, heavy trail shoes and carrying a pack (having already run more than 50K) but I determined to make the most of it....despite the fact that I seemed to be running straight into a fairly stiff headwind. The scenery more than made up for it though, as the road wound round fjords and mountains, over huge humpbacked bridges between islands, and there was hardly a vehicle in sight.

In the final mile before the checkpoint, runners started joining my road from the right hand side. They had just started the 24K and so we would be on the same route from now on until the finish. After being alone for so long it was a bit of a shock to see so many people....and I was jealous of their lovely fresh legs. The race rules dictated that although the 24K runners could carry straight on up the road after we crossed the final bridge, I had to go and have a medical check to ensure I was fit to continue. I'm afraid I made the medics jog across the parking lot and into the buildings with me, as I didn't want to stop and walk. I was cleared to carry on, but they were surprised that I didn't want to sit down, rest and have a cup of coffee...."plenty of time for that at the finish" was my reply.

photo credit Kai-Otto Melau
Joining back into the melee of 25K runners, I was surprised to find myself running faster than several of them on the tarred and then gravel road. I managed to maintain some sense of pace on the following narrow path up the side of the fjord, but when it became a case of picking your route across rocky beaches, I started being overtaken again. The next section was rough tussocks and my legs were definitely betraying me, as I couldn't keep up with those who'd just passed by, no matter how much I wanted to.

Next came another steep climb that just seemed to go up and up. The element of navigation was now not an issue as the 24K was marked out by flags some distance apart so you just had to look for a marking in the distance and make your way to it. Whenever it was possible to do so (as I seemed to spend a lot of time on my hands and knees crawling uphill very slowly) I urged people to pass me so that I didn't slow them down. I was trying to surreptitiously check their race numbers to ensure they weren't in the 50M race, but then again I couldn't have put up a fight if they had been. That was my lack of fuelling on the road stretch catching up with me - I know that I didn't judge that well, but as I was running faster along there, I hadn't felt like eating. A couple of people said they "recognised me from Facebook" and that I was leading the 50M by over an hour....but I hadn't a clue what they meant or how they knew this (unknown to me the race FB page had been updated with a picture of me running along in an earlier stage).

photo credit Alexis Berg
Fabulous scenery again, but I wasn't exactly in the best state for taking it in - I thought I'd reached the top, only to realise that I had to scramble down a long steep slope and then climb up another snowfield. The weather wasn't being very kind to me either as the wind had picked back up and I was rather cold. Luckily, I managed to get some more food on board before I descended to the final service point. I have never been a good descender....and the terrain didn't help as you had to pick your own path/choose which rocks to jump off, but luckily the bogs you landed in saved your knees when you propelled yourself off the "minicliffs".

The last summit in nicer weather (my first day)
What a difference that food made - I felt so much stronger in the last few kms, even in the drizzle. I'd walked this bit of the route on my first day there, but seemed to be covering the ground much quicker than then, even though I had already passed the 75K mark. The last summit came almost before I expected it, and suddenly I was using the rope to lower myself down the other side. The lower section of the path had seemed rather technical on my recce walk, but on race day I just got on with it knowing the end was in sight.

A final steep gravel road down and I knew I was on tarmac all the way to the finish. I ran through a tunnel into Svolvaer, down to the waterfront, avoided a few walkers on the boardwalks, ran the "victory" lap of the town square and finally broke the tape on the finish line (which was a fish drying rack!!).

I had no idea how long I'd taken (10hrs 38mins), or where the next person was (Frode finished in 12:14) but all the tough bits were forgotten...I'd made it to the finish (52ish miles and something like 14 thousand feet of elevation gain later)....what an amazing day it had never to be forgotten!!!

I am so glad that I had the opportunity to see and run in such a beautiful place and meet such amazing friendly people....full marks to the crew of the Lofoten Ultratrail!!!

Friday, 27 May 2016

Old County Tops

My original plan for the weekend was to take part in the Keswick Mountain Festival 25K trail run on Saturday and then support some friends in the 50K run on Sunday. However, a last minute change of plans saw myself and Neil gaining a last minute entry into the Old County Tops to make the field up to 130 pairs.

The "Old County Tops" is a classic Lake District fell race run in pairs and held every May dating back to 1988. The race is a circular route, starting in Great Langdale and taking in the three highest points of the old counties of Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire (being Helvellyn, Scafell Pike and Coniston respectively) before returning to finish in Great Langdale.

The exact distance and amount of ascent are dependant on the route you choose, but the general consensus is about 38miles and 10,000 feet of ascent.

Neil isn't a "fan" of running so said that he doubted he'd keep up with me on any flat bits (somehow I doubted that) but I was really worried about letting him down with my poor descending skills....and my legs that were tired from having run/raced so much in the previous fortnight. We agreed that we'd just treat it as a fun day out in the hills without any pressure but I still hardly slept on the Friday night through a combination of worrying about being rubbish, and by listening to the wind and rain beating down on the skylights!

Although we only had a 2 mile drive to the start line, we still managed to leave registering and having our kit checked until the last minute (that sausage butty was important!!), joining the huddle of other runners sheltering in the marquee away from the rain. It was nice to catch up with a couple of familiar faces, but people aren't always the easiest to recognise when wrapped up in their waterproofs and it's still before 8am!!

So much for the "easy" start - people seemed to hare off down the rough lane along Langdale from the word go (Neil included), though it's probably just that I'm a slow starter. As soon as we crossed over the main road and started to climb up and over to Grasmere, things settled down and became more relaxed. I imagined that most of the field would be more at home on the fells than me, so was surprised to pass several on that first short ascent. The difference between road and off road events was no more obvious than on these climbs as people chatted and laughed as they passed each other (with a couple of people recognising me, much to my surprise!).

Unsurprisingly, several guys shot past on the downhill stretch, but I was not going to let this put me off - no way was I going to go crazy and injure myself early on in the day by trying to keep up. As it turned out, we then had a short stretch of road through Grasmere and out the otherside, which meant that I could actually have a section where I didn't feel like the "weak link". It was amazing how much of a gap we opened up on many of those quicker descenders on that short stretch so that we were alone as we headed off up Helvellyn. Having worried about finding the correct point to turn off the road and head up the hillside, you couldn't exactly miss the supporters with their cowbells!!

I am very glad that Neil was confident of his navigation up towards Dollywagon Pike as I felt rather disorientated in the low cloud, but once we reached the ridge it was easy running along what I would call the "reverse of the Bob Graham route" to the top of Helvellyn. As we neared the top we spotted other pairs leaving and starting their descent, but as we headed off we noticed how many more pairs there were behind us. Everybody takes a slightly different route off the hill aiming for the checkpoint at the Wythburn carpark, but I tried to follow Neil's line while repeatedly telling myself to concentrate and not to be rubbish. Hopefully it worked, as only 2 pairs appeared to catch us on that descent (having appeared from a slightly different direction at the bottom). Still, at least I could reassure myself that I'd managed at least 1 of the "Tops" if I had to plead defeat after that!

I hadn't really been drinking much up to that point so took on cups of both water and squash at the checkpoint. Rather than stopping to eat the lovely jam sandwiches and maltloaf, we grabbed some to take with us and eat on the next leg, but unfortunately left them on the table when picking up drinks....schoolboy error, but at least we were still carrying some of our own food.

The next stretch was a long one up the Wythburn valley - there was a poor quality path for some of it, some boggy ground for other parts and some general rough ground to climb up to a col by High Raise. Somewhere along this valley we realised we'd covered at least 1/3 of the distance and 1/3 of the ascent.....another milestone ticked off! Neil thankfully set a precedent by helping me whenever we had to cross a deep or wide stream so no major accidents were had there.

The weather really hit us after we'd crested the col.....and I can't say that the next section was especially enjoyable. The ground was very rough and chossy underfoot, and the wind was driving huge painful raindrops into our eyes, faces and bare legs (earlier I'd been glad I opted to wear I wasn't so sure). I started to wonder why on earth I hadn't stuck with the 25k trail run plan.....

A brief section of lull (apparently Bowfell was sheltering us from the wind and rain even though I couldn't actually see it) after Angle Tarn gave us a chance to eat some food and prepare for the wind on the ridge (i.e. getting our overmits on) and then we were back in the brunt of it.

We'd caught up to the guys ahead of us by the time we reached Angle Tarn and pulled away from them as we climbed, soon losing sight of them in the cloud. Neil picked a route to avoid the worst of the boulder fields and tried to keep me informed of what lay ahead on each short section.

Suddenly I realised that we'd made it....Scafell Pike and the second of the "Tops"....but oh no, that meant there was another steep descent coming up!!!!

Luckily there was only one moment when I came close to tears on the way down......and that may actually have had more relation to my lack of gymnastic ability. Wet rocks are rather slippery, even more so when covered in moss, yet when my feet skidded in opposite directions, I don't think they'd remembered the fact that I've never been able to do the splits.....owwwwww!!!

Still, all too soon we were down in the waterlogged valley below and heading towards the next checkpoint at Cockley Beck. Although relatively runnable (in a fashion) this section was rather long, undulating and "splashy". We were starting to flag a bit and so finished off all the food and drink we were carrying (this was actually the only water I took in all day apart from what was at the checkpoints, due to the weather conditions).

A tiny road section into Cockley Beck enabled us to flash our numbers at the marshals so the time at the actual checkpoint was spent eating malt loaf (me) and drinking tea (Neil). We found out that (much to my surprise) we were still the leading mixed pair, as it had been impossible to work out where we were in the field due to the variety of routes taken in the cloud off the various tops.

It was a long slog up to the col between Grey Friar and Swirl How and I definitely felt my tired legs slowing down. However, it appeared that others were feeling it more, as we again overtook a couple of pairs on the ascent. Once reaching the ridge (well, it appeared to flatten out ,but that was all I could really make out in the cloud) there were a couple of miles to run out to Coniston Old Man and back). We got to see a few of the faster male pairs returning as we neared the "Top" and as a total surprise, my friend Beth and her boyfriend appeared out of the clag to give me a hug!

Unfortunately, the out and back section showed us that the second mixed pair (Steve Pyke and Judith Jepson) was only a matter of seconds behind us. I knew that this would spur Neil on as he's a competitive soul, but my legs protested at me that I couldn't give much more, and it was all they could do to keep running, whilst trying to think about foot placement and not falling. We were caught just as we got down to the road at Three Shires Stone (the Wrynose Pass), and if truth be told, I was actually thigh deep in a muddy hole at the time!

It became quite a battle to the finish after that....we managed to run away from them to a certain extent as we headed down the road, but then they passed us as we had to cut across rougher, wetter ground towards Blea Tarn. Neil was urging me to keep pushing as "it's not over yet" but although I desperately didn't want to let him down, I could give no more than I was.

It came down to a couple of small navigation choices in the end, such as the other pair taking a path that cut through the campsite, while we went out of the gate and round via the road. Still, I was delighted to finish in one piece, never mind in the top 10 overall in 8 hours and 10 minutes. We'd exceeded all my pre-run expectations as not only had we been competitive all day, we'd made them (in their words) work hard for the mixed pair prize - after over 8 hours of running, we were only separated by a mere 90 seconds. There's no shame in that as both Jude and Steve are former event winners, whereas it was our first outing. We maybe had a touch more speed, but their nav was spot on.

All in all, it was a great day out - I'm glad we did it (and that Neil put up with me and my tired legs) and I learnt a lot......though I'm amazed that I still managed to get up at 4:30 am to go and cheer on my friends at the 6am start of their 50k on Sunday!