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!

Friday, 20 May 2016


Short fast races have never been my thing, and after the heat and dehydration of WFLWR the weekend before, I wasn't exactly looking forward to the Masters' Relays this weekend. In fact, "dreading it" might have been a more accurate description. Still, I love a good club outing and the atmosphere at relay races is brilliant - we get to hang out together, cheer each other on, and everyone steps up to the plate as we're all counting on each other.
I was the odd one out on the team as the other 3 (Lisa, Sian and Hazel) are all actually Northern Irish - they tried to coach me to a good accent, but I doubt  I was the best student. We were racing in the V35 category (Hazel was team baby and so determined our age grouping) which meant that our first runner (Lisa) had to start a couple of minutes ahead of all of the other age groups (though she was not running alone as there were 42 teams in the V35 competition).
Team DRC
Sian was in the "holding pen" for the next runner so Hazel and I went out onto the course to cheer Lisa on. She had a great run and came round in 3rd position which, although it set us up well, certainly put the pressure on the rest of us - I felt even more nervous about running the anchor leg now! I managed to cheer Sian on as she came past on Leg 2 but then it was my turn to go into the pen. I hate being enclosed like that, and it's awful not knowing how your teammates are getting on. My anxiety level rose as the first few leg 3 runners made it home, but there were also a lot of ladies being lapped so it was important to look for the lap letter on the end of each bib. Sian had handed over to Hazel in 8th place and Hazel maintained this on her lap. It felt natural to stand on the start line and watch Hazel run up the bank, but I was ticked off a good few times for not looking forward and "straightening up". The official starter would place his hand on your shoulder and then lift it when it was time for you to set off.
After the first few metres straight down a slope, most of the first mile was a long drag uphill. I overtook quite a few ladies (but they all had the letter C on their numbers and hence weren't on the same lap as me) and so worried that adrenaline (ie the fear of letting my teammates down!) had made me go off too fast. The second mile contained a long switchback so I managed to see the race leaders and count my position in the field. We were in 8th place but the next lady wearing a "D" seemed a long way away.
I managed to keep working away, gradually reeling people in (and spurred on by the cheers of my teammates) even in the last 200m sprint uphill to the finish, but there was too much work to do. I overtook 19 ladies on my lap, but unfortunately only one of them was a 4th leg runner, so although I managed to record the second fastest time on that lap, we still finished in 7th place. Still, we were all happy with our results - not too shabby for an ageing bunch of distance runners - and enjoyed a lovely team day out in the process!
The town crier
The next day brought a different race - the Chester Half Marathon. In order to earn a certificate of recognition for  achieving a certain standard of running over the year, there are certain time targets you must meet over 3 different distance categories. I had achieved the "Gold Plus" targets for a LV40 but my goal was to meet the criteria in the Open category rather than be limited by my age. I had missed the time in a HM by 20s (although admittedly I was still injured at the time and probably shouldn't have run at all).
I wouldn't say that Chester is the fastest course around, being net uphill, but it was one I hadn't run before. The town crier started us off at 9am on the racecourse and the first mile took the runners up and into the old town. It was nice to run along some of the old streets and through arches under the walls.
I still head off to avoid any trampling!
The main part of the race was out in the countryside, along quiet leafy roads, though it did get rather hot in the sun. Everyone said that it was important to "hold something back" for the final mile as it was uphill back into town to finish outside the Town Hall, but I really had nothing left after the previous day's race. The one thing I can say for certain (well I can say it now as I didn't have the energy at the time) is that there is nothing more disheartening than having your watch beep to tell you that you've covered 13miles, you round a corner (still going slightly uphill), and see an official sign stating "400m to go"!! I nearly cried!!
What a goodie bag!!
Luckily the finish gantry soon came into view and I could see from the clock that I was safe, even if crawled those final few metres. Although nowhere near my PB, I'd dipped under my target time by over a minute and actually had run the second half of the race faster than the first, despite that last mile. The goodie bag made the trip even more worthwhile as it was full of haribo, chocolate and other edible treats....exactly my kind of reward!!!
To finally finish me off, I ended up heading down to Carlisle with some clubmates on Wednesday night. I had really enjoyed the Urban Trial Race the year before - so although I was not expecting any heroics (my poor legs didn't know what had hit them with 3 races within 5 days), it was another good evening out. The sun was out and 18 of us made the trip down from Dumfries to run. A couple of ladies shot off and so I was happy to settle into 3rd position, but by the time we climbed up the steps onto the bridge over the main road, I had caught them and passed them. After running the first km chatting to my clubmate Jim, he pushed on ahead and so the rest of the race was run solo. When I say "solo", I gradually worked my way up the men's field.
Chatting/running with Jim
I could see Jim running strongly ahead of me - finishing 3rd overall - and while I managed to almost catch the young lad in 4th place, his legs were definitely stronger than mine in the final few metres, but I was genuinely surprised to have finished without my legs/body giving up on me in protest! Haribo must be in favour just now as there were many packets available on the finish line - and another club mate and I did enter into a further competition so see how many of recovery jaffa cakes we could polish off afterwards! What better way to spend a Wednesday night than running round town and country with your mates, finishing off with sweeties and jaffa cakes!!??

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Running out on the Fens

Although I really like the concept behind the RedBull Wings For Life World Run, it's often nice to take a break from things,so I wasn't planning on running it this year. Certain life-changing events can drastically alter plans and that is why I found myself going to the Cambridge race this year. Last year I ran in South Africa, and although I had a good run (finishing as 5th lady in the worldwide competition) I was outrun by a special lady called called Riana van Niekirk. Only a few short weeks after the event she was diagnosed with a terminal illness, but we kept in touch through her subsequent treatment and she remained both strong and positive, with the idea of returning to her running firmly fixed in her mind. Unfortunately, she passed away a few weeks ago, and as I wrote a short memorial piece for her club, I realised that I'd had the honour of running her last race with her, and she would have given anything to run one more time, so I entered the event that day, to run it "for her".

With my pink ribbon for Riana!
Having seen the start list that included a London 2012 marathoner, I knew the win was out of the question, but Riana would have given it her all, so I wanted to run as far as possible on her behalf (and if I'm honest, I wanted to see if I could run as far as I had in the previous 2 events for myself as well). This definitely put me under pressure (though I know it was pressure from myself) and so sleep for the few nights before the event went out of the window. In fact, race morning saw me awake at 5am, lying in my bed eating chocolate and trying not to think about it.

Having arrived at Parker's Piece, I picked up my race number, did an interview for RedBull LIVE and then went and caught up with a couple of old friends and their young children in a playpark. Time passed so quickly that I nearly didn't make it back in time for the start of the event! I ran down the road towards the gantry only to see everyone lined up behind it, but luckily I climber over a fence and made it in time. 

There was time for a brief catch up with Steve Way (who was aiming to run 80k), and an introduction to Caitriona Jennings (the Irish 2012 marathoner and 2015 World 50k contender) . Caitriona said she was hoping to run at least 50k, whereas I had originally thought of aiming for 45-50k myself. However, it was the hottest day of the year so far (about 26 degrees) so I decided that I'd better modify my goals. A guy called Benjamin (in a Serpies vest) said that he was aiming for 45k so I decided that he would probably be running a similar pace to me. 

The route....
There was the usual hectic start as people sprinted off around a couple of corners and through the centre of Cambridge. It was quite surreal to pass Danny MacCaskill (running with music blasting from his backpack) and along streets I'd wandered as a student, and then past my college and forming stamping grounds).

As we ran up the hill towards Fitz and then Girton, the heat of the day really struck me. Although I knew we'd gone off too fast as it had been quite exciting going through town, others had gone off even faster, as I passed a lady after a couple of miles that I'd seen shoot off with the fast men right from the word go.

I'd expected Caitriona to be well ahead of me, so was surprised to be joined by 2 cyclists bearing the placards "leading lady" on their handlebars. They asked me to let me know if I needed water or anything, which I thought would be rather important as the day progressed. There were no clouds in the sky and even the wind felt hot, so it was difficult trying to work out whether to run the shortest line on some of the windy roads, or whether to aim for an edge with overhanging trees to try to snatch a few seconds of shade.

Still with Benjamin at this point
Just after the 10k mark, Caitriona ran past me as if I was standing still, and within about a kilometre, she was already 100m up the road. Fair play to her.....she looked really strong, and I had expected her to be way ahead of me right from the start. Unfortunately, this also meant that the 2 cyclists disappeared as I could no longer ask for any water outwith the official feed stations. 

Benjamin dropped back a bit and so I found myself running alone along the hot roads until I managed to reel in another guy. Interestingly enough, he called me by my name as he'd remembered running with me at the Silverstone event a couple of years ago! I wasn't half impressed at his memory!

Having just grabbed water at the feed stations I'd passed, I decided to try to go for something more at the next one......unfortunately this was a bit of a failure. The bananas being handed out were still in their skins, and I didn't feel like peeling one as a I ran, and the drinks in cups were rather difficult to I went back to water for the rest of the run (though I did appreciate the jelly babies when they had them!).

In the heat of the day
Soon after this Neil came cycling down the road to find me. He'd driven out and parked in a village further along the route and cycled back in. It was great to have someone to chat to (although I did get rather a few renditions of Leicester City songs along the way) who could also give me advance notice of how far ahead the next water station was. 

I knew my pace was gradually slowing, partly due to the heat and partly due to how heavy my clothes, socks and shoes felt as I was pouring as much water over myself as I could get my hands on. I would slow as I climbed up into the  villages and then unconsciously speed up when I turned onto some cooler tree lined lanes. I had a few brief chats to runners in passing (and to some locals who had come out to support - though none of them seemed keen to take me up on my offer of taking my number and running on instead of me) but the road did seem very empty stretching out ahead in the sun.

No wonder my foot was sore!
My brain got a bit addled as I tried to work out how far I'd run. I think I had convinced myself that 30 miles equated to 50k, so I was rather disappointed when Neil pointed out it was only 48k. The road had become much rougher and my left foot was getting very sore (I'd actually felt a blister forming on my little toe after only about 5-10k due to my wet socks and shoes) but he did a good job of encouraging me to push onto the 50k sign before the catcher car got me (no, not just by saying that he would cycle off and leave me if I did actually stop and walk as I was threatening to do)!!

By this point, I was just desperate to see that car so that I could stop running, but it seemed to take forever to close in (but then again, it could have been that I'd been given inaccurate information by the cameramen/film crew when they drew alongside me on motorbikes!).

The 50k sign came and I managed a little raised arm salute/cheer as I'd seriously doubted I'd make that distance in those conditions. Another motorbike came past and told me that the catcher car was about half a mile behind me but that a couple of other cars were preceding it. I didn't think that the catcher car would be going twice my speed yet, though I had been running over 3 1/2 hours by now, so this meant that I probably had at least another mile or so to run.

If they'd been this obvious, it would've helped ;-)
After a couple of hundred metres or so, a couple of white cars drove past me, but I didn't really look at them, as nobody said anything and there were no flanking bicycles or motorbikes (as there had been at the Silverstone event). I was therefore rather surprised when a white van following a short way behind them shouted at me to stop running as I'd been passed. I was shocked and so pulled up sharply. So causing me to bend over double with a stitch. What an anticlimax that was!!!!

Still, at least this time there was a bus that I could get on to go back to Parker's Piece for a well-earned beer (though it did take a while as I'd run almost as far as Chatteris, which was the furthest point away from the start of the whole route)!

Despite another slightly disorganised ending, I still think it is a great event, and think I did as well as I could have done on the day (2nd lady and 5th overall out of over 2000 starters in Cambridge)......for myself and in memory of Riana. You cannot affect anyone else's run and so massive congratulations go to Caitriona for winning the ladies' event (4th overall on the day) and Steve for the men's event. 

Monday, 9 May 2016

Team Raidlight

This weekend, I attended the first get-together of Team Raidlight UK. As it is a fairly new concept, I wasn't sure what to expect, but who can complain about a weekend which consists of some friends getting to get her to run, chat, eat and discuss the company, the brand and products.

Pre parkrun picture ;-)
Unfortunately I had to leave early to attend a race, but I'm really glad I managed to be there for some of it. Although none of us are exactly happy running short fast races, we started out with a mob match at Hanley parkrun in Stoke on Trent (which was actually a parkrun debut for several of the team). It was fun and friendly and we all secured PBs (though for most of us, that was because it was our first attendance there) recording both the first 2 men and the first 2 ladies across the line.

After that we headed back to Leek for a brew, some snacks and to hear more about the company and concept itself. Unfortunately Benoit Laval (the MD) had to cancel his trip over from France at the last minute (as he hadn't recovered from "The Barkley") but in attendance were myself, Beth Pascal, Tracy Dean, Utte Baird, Dan Lawson, Ant Bethel, Kim Collison, Janson Heath and Dave Bethel.

Benoit founded the company in 1999 in his native France. As a textile manufacturer and a runner (having run in the French national team for several years), he actually started to manufacture the original garments himself. He used his own experiences to manufacture products that really worked, ie packs with pockets that you could access while running, tops and bottoms with useful pockets (for gels, keys, compass etc), slightly reinforced shoulder panels to help with the wear and tear of carrying a pack, heat sealed seams to prevent chafage, and then built the company up from there taking on a few employees at a time.

Team Raidlight is open to everyone, from those competing at the sharp end to midrange and back-of-the-packers with incentives for all. If you join "the team" there are incentives to score points, eg by posting pictures, reviewing kits, sharing lifts to events or just generally interacting with the brand. These points translate into money off further purchases and soon add up.

There is also a "trail station" set up at Raidlight HQ in Chartreuse where people can register and run the trails for free, checking out kit and trying it out, in return for giving feedback on it. This trail station is open in both summer and winter to cater for different sport preferences......and I personally would be really interested in going out there for a visit.

Unfortunately, I had to head off at lunchtime (though somehow I did manage to find the time for my first "Staffordshire oatcake".....and I'll be back for more of those...yummmm!!!) so did not have time to get out on to the hills with the others to test/feedback on kit, but it was still a great start to the weekend - and will hopefully lead to many more get togethers/catch-ups in various places at various races!