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!!!