Lakeland c1983, almost

Lakeland stranger things

Dawn light filtered through the green curtains as the bleating intensified in both volume and pitch.  Just one of those things about staying in the Lake District; being woken by a bleating sheep.  Feeling concerned I eventually slunk out from my bunk – my girlfriend was wearing earplugs – and inspected from the window the scene outside. Somehow a sheep had navigated down and was now imprisoned inside a walled garden courtyard.  Futile attempts were soon made to leap up a 4-foot stone wall and escape via a grass bank.  Then the bleating would start again, after eating more greenery, naturally.   I showered, dressed and promptly walked down to the hostel reception to alert of the sheep stramash. “Oh bloody hell, the edible plants….” the staff member blurted out as he leapt from the building as though it was on fire.  No really, you don’t need to enquire if our sleep was interrupted, we’re fine thanks.  I silently kept this thought to myself.

Actually the sheep incident was just one of many things about the Lake District.  I counted a few.  To start with, the individual weirdness of many fellow hostel dwellers was somehow mirrored by the catatonic atmosphere inside one of the two local pubs.  In fact, the pub and the hostel lounge area were clearly competing for an award to best resemble an undertaker’s waiting room.   In my sombre opinion the latter would’ve quietly won, aided by the crimson-red, velvet upholstery and superb extras from [insert name of a zombie film].

There was also a major traffic incident that caused chaos on a narrow Western Lakes’ road.  Typically, this occured on the morning when we’d erroneously decided to support local public transport.  ‘Highway Hedge Hairdressers’ had deployed a tractor with supplementary cutter to provide the necessary agricultural version of a short, back and sides.  The seasonal hedge cutting created significant vehicle queues in both directions.  Honestly, we were delayed by what seemed like most of the morning.  On another day we were almost forced due to persistent rain to head outdoors wearing waterproofs.  Thankfully, the pitter-patter stopped as we were otherwise occupied with an early lunch so found no need to inform social media.  Ha, social media, there was another thing – intermittent wifi connectivity that could only have been bettered had I climbed to the nearest high point and bashed two rocks together.

Oh, and the ridgeline views, just where do I start?

Upwards, labouring hard towards Skiddaw, many descending ramblers nodded a greeting. But each looked at us, up and down, with a sense of bewilderment.  Seems their head to toe waterproof attire was somewhat in conflict with our more minimal shorts and T-shirts.  Each time I smiled in return and waited until they passed before turning around.  Immediately I was drawn away from their confused state and slapped in the face with unique landscape views that whisked the breath away.  This scene was repeated day after day: on Grasmoor, Causey Pike, Brandreth, Great Gable and around Haweswater; it almost even happened at Castlerigg Stone circle.

The mountain views were also frustratingly peppered by wispy cloud and, here and there, an occasional flash of September sunshine.  Annoyingly this offered no real consistency for taking photos so each time was different to before, and some images displayed vibrant valley colours while others contrasted ridge against rocky summits.  All this before I even mention the challenge of having to navigate.  Just as well I carried a map, unlike the unfortunate rambler on Skiddaw who was rightly annoyed that there were no installed signposts to offer the most direct route to the summit.   Call me paranoid, but sometimes I even supplemented the relevant Wainwright walk book with the map.

Perhaps the only time we weren’t sartorially inspected was during a solo blast up and down Robinson.  I received a dignified and almost salutatory cap-tap from an elderly shepherd in wellies, holding a crook and escorted by a trustful collie; a bit like the Lakeland equivalent of Gandalf, perhaps.  After navigating across the treacherous plateau of Buttermere Moss, I turned around to see if he too was now inspecting with disdain.  But the shepherd and his dog had disappeared.  Maybe he was transported away on the back of a giant eagle?  More likely the Moss had claimed another victim?  I even questioned if I’d imagined the brief encounter.  No matter, the blinking low cloud blew hither and enveloped man, beast and moss so we were all soon hidden from view.

In summary, if you want a Lakeland break while retaining some thread of modern life then I’d strongly recommend staying in Keswick, Ambleside or Windermere.  You’ll get pizza, internet and your usual imported lager at a broadly similar, inflated price.  Maybe plan your excursions around travelling only on principal A-roads, especially if you want to keep to a schedule.  I wouldn’t bother supporting the rural bus service as when delayed the drivers will likely offer no solution and probably only smile.  Take extreme care if out running.  The fleeting glimpse of views might lead to an unexpected stumble and unwanted fall.  Other fell enthusiasts may not observe your sense of adventure and quite rightly question why you are moving swiftly – and at risk – over rock and boulder, while in clothing best suited for a Pilates class at Pure Gym.  They may even froth at the mouth when it is pointed out that you are in fact not even wearing Scarpa hiking boots.  It would be shear recklessness to consider anything like wild swimming or scrambling.

Should you book into a hostel – with two village pubs nearby – then I’d suggest avoiding Room 4 (and possibly 5).  While dozing here there’s a high probability that you could be woken by either the bleat of a sheep or from the regular ping of the self-catering kitchen microwave directly below.  Similarly, best to only visit the pub that isn’t fishy about its atmosphere.  While you’re at it avoid the hostel lounge completely unless planning a death by bare walls and muffled whispers.   And if trudging through spongy bog is your idea of adventure, keep eyes peeled at Buttermere Moss for a mystical Lakeland shepherd – he could still be searching for a lost sheep, maybe the one last seen being escorted from a nearby hostel by an irate vegetarian.

Postscript:

We really did enjoy ourselves – honest.  The escape to the fells was just what was needed, although maybe my girlfriend (for months prior a desk-bound writer) hadn’t seen the memo outlining 30+ miles and over 11,000 feet of climb.  We’d strongly recommend catching the bus from Buttermere to Braithwaite then discovering a ridgeline route back – possibly via Grizedale Pike, Grasmoor, Sail etc.  And there’s an amazing AirBnB (Goodcroft) near Shap from where you can run directly to the fells above Haweswater.  We can endorse that the Lakes are open, we embraced a spot of wild swimming and supported local businesses where possible – rum butter was purchased, I ate Cumberland sausage and ONLY sipped Hawkshead ales.  Who knows, we might even return to the hostel life one day?  But if in Buttermere, we’ll likely eat out at The Bridge.

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Three Little Words

This was new territory for me.  I’d never before failed to finish a race, either through injury or from missing cut-off times.  Yes I’d come close – nearly withdrawing from the Edinburgh-North Berwick road race after 14 miles, and almost not reaching the checkpoints in early attempts at longer fell races.  Three little words:  DID-NOT-FINISH.

Wasdale race no

The 2017 Wasdale Horseshoe was selected as an English Championship race.  An opportunity to race with the best.  Well, to stand on the start line with them anyway.   There would be at least twice the number of competitors compared to the previous ‘standard’ year.  Just follow a local vest and rely on my instincts as a human satnav.  Ignorantly, perhaps, I thought navigating would be less of an issue due to increased number of participants.  Yes, I could easily navigate, if needed, with a compass and a map.  Despite this, I also knew the route would still be my biggest challenge to date.  But I honestly didn’t think the advertised cut-off times would be something to worry about.  Unless of course the weather was most foul.  I truly thought my legs would fail first.  In hindsight, this was very naive.

The summit checkpoints of Whin Rigg and Seatallan had already been reached and passed.  Then the marshal at the Pillar summit checkpoint confirmed what I already knew: I’d been timed-out.  In the moment I just paused; numb, a bit speechless and to some degree no longer functioning as a contestant.  There was no exploding bomb, unsavoury outburst or a McEnroe-esque challenge.  Maybe my emotions were  anesthetised by the stunning views of glorious Lakeland.  I was soon joined by a dozen others, a few of whom were more audibly disappointed and remarking that it seemed ridiculous in the fine weather.  Any marshal from the 2016 event would likely argue the cut-off times are spot-on.

Pillar moody

After a few minutes I descended to Black Sail Pass (still on the race route), down Mosedale and swiftly passed the Wasdale Inn, then back along the valley floor to race HQ.  At the finish I smiled and cheered other Yorkshire running friends as they completed the race, making sure they were ok and providing them with much needed water.  I was pleased for them – genuinely.  But behind the veneer of my support I was starting to boil inside.  As Marcellus Wallace advises Butch in Pulp Fiction: “…you may feel a slight sting.  That’s pride fucking with you….”  The damaged ego was indeed beginning to fissure.

Where did it go wrong?

(Piss Poor) Preparation: in short I underestimated the challenge.  I definitely feel it is possible from West Yorkshire to prepare for 21 hilly miles.  However, I now acknowledge that almost nothing, other than running in the Lakes (or BIG hills), can satisfactorily condition the body – and mind – for a long day up and across the mighty fells.  Hill repeats on Keeper Lane or lumpy runs over Ilkley Moor really don’t substitute for either the climbs out of Wasdale or the sharp descents between checkpoints.

Weather: even on short-to-medium races I rarely fare well in hot, sunny conditions.  The 2017 Wasdale race didn’t offer any respite, especially over a long route with significant climbs and minimal shade.  Despite taking sufficient liquids – there were many unexpected water crossings with fresh, cool top-ups – and wearing my tail-cap the weather did sap my energy.  Had I negotiated beyond Pillar, and somehow then Great Gable, I wonder in what state my leg muscles would’ve been either on the climb up to Scafell Pike or worse coming down Lingmell?

Nav Know-How:  regardless of the expected weather conditions, familiarity with key route sections is fundamental.  I had two fairly minor errors.  Together, these cost me maybe 4-5 minutes in time, while further depreciating overall energy levels, sooner than I’d expected.  The first was during the steep descent from Whin Rigg, very innocuous down grass into bracken and suddenly into a very technical gully.  A more conservative route would’ve followed a zig-zag path through the bracken.  Secondly, I chose not to follow other runners on the lower skirting of Black Crag just before Pillar.  Stupidly, I knew the cut-off time was in the balance.  Rather than pause, quickly look at the map – which would’ve have confirmed following as the correct route – I instead adopted instinct and retreated higher to the boulder-strewn plateau.  Schlepping across the large obstacles I viewed the runners, with whom I’d been following, beyond Windy Gap almost halfway up the Pillar scramble and likely 4-5 minutes ahead.  In that moment my heart sank – I knew that I’d missed the cut-off and my race was over.

Ironically, had the weather been worse then I’d likely have followed the runners without question.  Here, clear visibility worked against me.  Actually, the excellent visibility had worked against me for some time.  At every high junction I could see ALL of the peaks still to come.  Psychologically, this did have a negative impact.  The devil on the shoulder was increasingly whispering words of fatigue and failure.  Ultimately, a better understanding of the route would’ve allowed me to mentally prepare for certain sections and to anticipate where I could easily refuel, recover and regroup.

For example, I had no prior knowledge or gave any real respect to the fell of Seatallan.  Indeed, had I consulted Wainwright’s Western Fells I would’ve learned the following: “When the organisers of a recent mountain race selected Seatallan as a checkpoint, some of the contestants confessed that they had never before heard of the fell…”  Like most of the surrounding peaks I (incorrectly) concluded that the terrain would be rocky or gravel based.  I hadn’t factored that the climb up to (and across from) Seatallan, especially after a few days heavy rain, would instead be marshy and in places downright boggy.

So three little words.  Did-Not-Finish.

Still hurting?  Actually, not really.  After all it’s only a recreational hobby eh?  As my namesake in Pulp Fiction goes on to say: “…Fuck pride.  Pride only hurts, it never helps.” Including the return to race HQ I still covered approximately 18 miles and a similar climb to that reached in the Three Peaks.  On reflection, I now wish on the day that I’d carried on from Black Sail Pass to also climb and descend Great Gable – plenty of time to take some photos and absorb views which are usually obscured by clag and drizzle.  More clinically, this would’ve been excellent knowledge for a future attempt.  A future attempt?  Of course.  Those three little words are no longer D-N-F.  The words already represent something more positive and strategic.

Peaking At The Right Time

I had no idea. No really, I just didn’t know. Friends couldn’t understand. Running friends simply wouldn’t believe me. No, it’s really NOT like running the London (or any other road) marathon. There is so much that needs to be right. And much more that could easily go wrong. Variables. Then for the best part of a fortnight prior to race day I’d had a really troubling injury. Niggles. I’d just have to follow a plan and hope for the best. Blagging. Predicting a finishing time for a long fell race is the work of the dark arts.

The 63rd Three Peaks race was my fourth attempt. I’d improved my time year on year. I had said that after three consecutive attempts that I’d do something different. But last year I was slightly disappointed with my race likely due to the wintry weather. I had started to get the handle on pacing though. For the average novice just getting beyond the cut-offs (after meeting the entry qualification criteria) can be something of an achievement. I really wanted to, at least, reach sub 4 hours 40 minutes and the status of 2nd class.

WP_20170501_14_11_46_Pro (2)Image: Braveshorts

For me suitable weather conditions would be cool, overcast, maybe a bit blowy during which I’d need to correctly pace key sections and fuel at prescribed intervals. Eat when you walk. The weather leading to race day followed a familiar pattern to previous years: a cold, wintry blast with Arctic winds and snow on all the tops. Spring sun had quickly thawed away the snow cover and the 2017 race day initially promised ideal conditions for records to be broken and personal bests to be smashed.

I’d purposely decided to focus my training more on tempo running AFTER hills rather than just doing climb upon climb. My invented S-H-I-T-E* sessions were pivotal. I continued with hill reps and also lumpy training runs but focused more on technique and breathing during climbs then really forced the pace from the top. I probably did more speed work too, including intervals and also negative splits and fartlek. I reckon less than 5% of planned sessions were missed (or revised) and all scheduled races were completed, each with improved times regardless of weather conditions.

...the knowledge might generate unadvisable steps in an attempt to reach an unachievable target…

By ‘eck, the first hour or so was wa’m! Runners were soon removing base layers and opting for the vest only approach after the first peak. Huh, not me, what with my sensitive nipples! After the first climb I was a tad queasy on the schlep from Whitber Hill across to High Birkwith. My legs had felt excellent going up Pen-y-Ghent and there was no issues or concerns with my left leg ITB. My soles were seemingly on fire down the steep gravel path descent. I cursed the recent dry weather and could only find small puddles to bath my blazing feet.

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Image: Sharon Hague

Beyond High Birkwith to Lodge Moor, as the temperature began to cool, the nausea thankfully started to subside as well. I ran strongly along the tarmac road and noted at Ribblehead that I was only marginally down on my best predicted time (BPT). I located my electrolyte drink and refilled the small bottles from my waist pack before drinking the residual 300ml.

At the Winterscales beck crossing I purposely again soaked ankle-deep as the soles of my feet were again on fire. The climb up Whernside wasn’t too bad – I even stopped to demand smiles and waves in a photo. I did start to feel a bit woozy on the steep section but looked forward to the descent. Legs were still tip-top and no emerging issues with the recent niggle.

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Image: Braveshorts

I was very optimistic about gaining time down to Hill Inn as I’d twice reccied with specific routes in mind. I barely looked up, keeping focus on the technical rock and then flag stone steps. At Bruntscar Farm I slowed to gulp down some liquid. Then quickly back to technique, breathing and stride length over cattle grids and along the tarmac of Low Sleights Road. I reached Hill Inn ahead of my BPT. Then I promptly made my only real tactical error of the day.

As I took an available cup of water a checkpoint marshal directed me to a large, salt tub on the table**. For reasons unknown – like most other runners, I’d guess – adding salt to drinking water seemed to be just what my muscles needed. In a cartoon, the character would point to legs which would bubble ‘salt’ and then the head would reply ‘really?’ In approximately 20 minutes my stomach would lodge a bubble protest on its own.

Running up Ingleborough has never been a realistic proposition. Still, after Hill Inn – drink, fuel, photo stop – I returned to a steady shuffle through Souther Scales and up to the flag stones on Humphrey Bottom. The steep steps up to the summit plateau were made doubly difficult as I endured my second spell of nausea, likely due to the salty water. I somehow stumbled up to the moonscape summit, avoiding most floor hazards, and gladly snatched a large, soft fruit pastille from an enthusiastic spectator. I knew my section split would be slower than hoped. I decided not to time check here as considered the knowledge might generate unadvisable steps in an attempt to reach an unachievable target.

I easily located my preferred route off the summit plateau that avoids most of the jagged rocks. I soon developed into a good, solid stride and foot clips were minimal – toenails are overrated though. As a rough gauge I was catching and passing other runners and only one or two overtook me. Perhaps most impressive was not feeling apprehensive when reaching and crossing the sections of smooth limestone pavement – the dry weather likely helped.

About halfway down, at Sulber Nick, I stopped to alleviate dual adductor cramp and drink a bottle of electrolytes. A combination of hurriedness and failed coordination placed most of the contents across my face. This must’ve looked quite funny to any observer nearby – runner stops for stretch then pours weird bottle liquid over face.

The grey limestone soon gave way to the lush green grass of the lower grazing fields. I knew the finish is approximately 1 mile from the dividing FP gate. I glanced at my watch. It registered 4.22 and ‘some’ seconds. There was little chance of doing a 7-minute mile to finish. Arms still pumped hard mind and I’m sure that I bolted up the remaining inclines before hurdling that stone step under the railway tunnel. The finish field area looked inviting with soft green grass, the Inov8 flags rustling and spectators applauding – a really great end to a brilliant race.

I’d scribbled down targets a few weeks before race day – this would form my BPT:

PYG – 43.00/ HB – 34.00 (77.00)/ RIB – 29.00 (106.00)/ WH – 47.00 (153.00)/ HI – 26.00 (179.00)/ ING – 46.00 (234.00)/ HOR – 46.00 (FINISH 280.00)

Then compare with my race splits:

PYG – 43.06/ HB – 34.19 (77.25)/ RIB – 28.46 (106.11)/ WH – 46.33 (152.44)/ HI – 24.40 (177.24)/ ING – 49.12 (236.36)/ HOR – 43.59 (FINISH 280.35)

Shame that I’d missed sub 4.30 by less than a minute – should I have taken that photo on Whernside, stopped for a brief chat with friends at Hill Inn or gulped that cup of salty water? Maybe. There are so many variables to consider though. Much had gone well for me on the day. Personally, I had my strongest Three Peaks race to date and lopped off another 16 minutes for a shiny new PB.

Wider than this, the question I immediately asked running friends while clutching my finish printout: what about Rose and Sara…? I was really chuffed to learn that my girlfriend Rose had easily reached Hill Inn before the cut off and then later finished without too much pain or any fall injury. Also, Sara Demaine, a former club mate, had managed to burst through ahead of the cut-offs and successfully finish at the first attempt. I suspect both will return in 2018 to knobble another chunk from their respective PBs. I was sad to learn that both Leigh Hinchliffe and Ollie Roberts had to retire. But my race was extra enjoyable: I got to run various sections with friends and good acquaintances from many clubs based in Leeds, Yorkshire, Lancashire (shhh, keep that quiet) and Scotland. I was especially chuffed for my mate Ben Mason who was the first Pudsey Pacer to cross the finish line while claiming a massive PB.

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Image: Jenny Cooper

Also, there were so many goodwill supporters on the course from the claret and golds to the clubs who were marshalling at checkpoints and key sections, including (but likely not limited to) Pudsey Pacers, Horsforth Fellandale, Bingley Harriers and Keighley and Craven AC. A particular nod and acknowledgement to Martin Bullock who stepped up to the (very demanding) volunteer role of Marshal Director and as a competitor the change was seamless. Bravo.

So, you won’t likely see my name on the entry list in 2018. Certainly not. Instead, I’m probably going to try something different next spring. Unlikely to be feeling nervous inside the marquee on race day. Probably not dropping labelled bottles into the two plastic tubs. Approximately 90% decided. But 10 months until entries open. Plenty of time to decide. And again be tempted. Glad there’s no early bird entry.

*Short Hills Into Tempo Efforts (copyright Coach FRB)
**Drinking the sodium chloride cocktail was in no way mandatory and the marshal did not influence my delirious decision-making

Back To Burbage

Runners often use inappropriate descriptions to underline the amount of effort they’ve just applied in a race – this is relative to individual intensity, terrain and other variables such as weather conditions and experience. Fellrunners sometimes dismiss routes as being mostly trail or even too easy. Indeed, if hardened bogtrotters don’t return from a winter race with filthy mud splattered up to the armpits they will say that either the route wasn’t challenging enough or the weather of late has been very favourable. I’m guessing Tigger Tor is never described as easy and the route is always a challenge.

The mist, sticky dark-brown bog and cold grey millstone seemed oh so familiar. In 1999 I’d been taken here upon my first visit to Sheffield. I vividly remember the same gloomy weather, heather-lined footpaths and weaving between the large boulders that formed the tor outcrops. Admittedly, I had no idea that fine views were usually available, west to the Hope Valley and south along to and beyond Froggatt Edge. Today would be different. And not.

LK and PM

Warmth at last. After the usually frenetic start a short stretch of tarmac, soggy field then tarmac was enjoyable just to feel some warmth in the bones. We even left behind the early mist and – as witnessed in some photos – blues skies emerged overhead. The first mile over and on to the moor proper, and the first route choice, just after CP1. Skipping up the rocky track most runners veered left down into bracken and on the single width footpath across the hillside covered in heather. I followed Totley AC green straight up the track to meet Houndkirk Road.

The next route choice was soon on offer: bear right across the boggy heather or straight on the track again likely longer. Both would join to meet the part marked area of the route. This time I chose the heather. Quickly I wound in the pace though as the underfoot conditions were wet and soft. Heather claws were also catching nearly every footlift, and snagging at shoe fabric and laces. My shins were soon burning from the repeated scrapes. I ploughed on, passing a few who were clearly finding the early terrain hard work. Still don’t know if this route choice was advantageous or just leg-sapping.  Local knowledge better.

I experienced the first of my three tumbles just after CP2. My legs were more tired than expected and the lethargy might’ve been partly due to a week-long cold. After the open moor crossing I was just looking forward to stretching out. I’d just scaled down the rocky drop from Burbage Edge and could see copper bracken beneath me. A voice near me mentioned something about a stunning view so instinctively I looked up. Rock clipped, stumble, roll and curse.

Route choice and local knowledge was a pivotal factor. Yes, I should’ve got my map out to check. But as the mist had lifted I was caught with the racehorse mentality of running alongside whoever was moving near to me. After wading through a deep section of a water crossing I passed some hi-vis tabards next to a conifer woodland. I knew this must be CP3. The gradient climbed up immediately and underfoot was frosted white. I remember my exhaled breath was visible, like smoke from a puffer engine. A short stiff rise led up to Higger Tor and enthusiastic supporters around CP4.

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Suddenly, runners sprayed off in all directions between the grey gritsone boulders. Again, I did think about getting out the map and compass. Quickly the edge of the tor arrived and I could see runners skipping down through the bracken and rock to again merge, approximately 300 metres down the hill. The group of runners around me increased the pace across the boggy plateau, peppered with hidden smooth rocks. As we approached a short and seemingly innocuous incline my mind started to wander. Almost immediately I didn’t quite find a solid footfall and I experience my second fall – I actually went down in instalments but failed to raise an arm in protection, so I went face first into a shallow puddle. A woman runner nearby sarcastically asked if I’d lay down for a rest.

‘All Distoreintated’

Perhaps the shock of the fall but CP5 and CP6 passed without notice. I really was a bit disorientated, despite visibility being good. I recognised changes in direction but subtle rises over shoulder and rocks always limited full distance views so destinations were always restricted. The route up to Carl Wark was extremely boggy at first then, as the gradient rose towards the tor, the route forced runners to swerve left and right to avoid large boulders. Runners who’d already reached CP7 were returning and making the descent towards CP8. A shorts scramble around the marshals then the pace again increased. My momentum soon overtook control as I went for a third and final tumble into soft moss and reeds.

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All Rights: Frontrunner Sheffield

A short beck crossing was refreshing of the feet and then the steep pull up the other side again sapped much leg energy. I somehow managed to climb the short rise up to the rocky edge and CP8, where cheery marshals offered out sweets and encouragement. I took the opportunity to gulp some water from my waist pack. The route alarmingly veered right into heather and a single footpath. I had expected to stay on a defined path for nearly a mile. I quickly calculated that this direction must cut off another corner. Again, shorter distance overall but likely more energy-depleting. I followed other runners.

Bingo

The route here was definitely technical. Overgrown heather screened the footpath that was sometimes rocky but mostly claggy peat in a chiselled trough. The undulating gradient offered the odd glimpse at a rocky outcrop that I guessed would be the next CP. Another footpath junction sent runners on a track, to the left, while others continued on the heathery boggy trod. I knew there were fine views to my right and kept concentration on my footfall. This was ‘Bingo Running’ – eyes down.

Cheerful support at CP9 suggested the last climb was near and then it was all downhill to the finish. I summoned energy from somewhere and started to again overtake a few runners on the climb up from a boggy beck. Striding out from the bracken of the moor I soon reached CP10. I had to make a quick decision to return via the longer route on the rocky track or take my chances through the heathery footpath. I followed two women in front and quickly regretted my choice. I was quicker at descending and there were no obvious passing places. I tucked in and consoled myself at hopefully saving some energy for the road descent after CP1/11.

Again I discovered some reserves for the 1 mile of tarmac freefall. Rather than blow out too quickly I tried to keep my pace steady and with a strong technique. A few blokes edged passed me as we neared the turn towards the grass lane that I assumed led to the finish. A sneaky incline ramp soon arrived and this was misjudged by some runners who were reduced here to a fast walk. I shuffled passed and even managed a strong tempo towards the finish line.

Overall

A belting route with a challenge over every tor, between each boulder and among the many bogs and becks. Fabulous weather conditions in the end, although I’d imagine this race is a considerable test if windy, wet and/ or with poor visibility. I would strongly recommend that the host club consider placing some signs with the marshals at each of the checkpoints – I’m a human satnav and yet on more than one occasion I was confused as to where I’d just passed. This would enhance safety in case of an emergency. The facilities at race HQ were splendid and the opportunity to wash in a hot shower was gladly taken. I’d recommend and I will definitely return.

A Midfield Maestro’s Guide To Box – Box Running

Quite surprisingly it takes quite a bit of oomph to deflate a two-foot tall, yellow and black giraffe.  Other animals in the back of my car were awaiting a similar fate.  Painted cardboard boxes were already carefully flat-packed on the pavement and the linen shoulder-straps neatly tied to the side.  My Chinese neighbour was returning home and looked on somewhat intrigued.  Once I’d explained where I’d been and how these items had been used, she still seemed a little perplexed: “But I thought you were a serious runner?”

For several years now, I’ve spent the dark and lonely winter nights, designing, building and accessorising fancy dress outfits to wear at the Auld Lang Syne fell race.  The event very much encourages and almost expects entrants to wear fancy dress.  More recently my costume has also incorporated a cardboard box.

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When I say ‘design’ this means mentally mapping an idea without actually sketching, drawing or listing anything. The ‘build’ process similarly involves cobbling material together usually with the aid of tape, ties or much tutting and frustration. A brief search on the internet for cheap accessories shipped from China and supplemented by trips to local charity shops. I really don’t spend excessive time on this as it probably seems.

At no point have I properly attempted to test the suitability of running with the box and costume. I know this is recommended for runners doing VLM or charity races. I do not see this as a feat of engineering and suspect at some point to feature in a case study example for a Health and Safety training video.

Why go to all this hassle? No real reason – to me, it’s simply a festive fun thing to do. Plus, with a box, it’s a bit more of a run challenge; I suppose not unlike fellrunning over say the easier road running. And the annual Auld Lang Syne race acts as a traditional, light-hearted bookend to another year of running – a celebration of how silly we all are to run up and over filthy, boggy moors?

Rose, my girlfriend, formed part of the dastardly plans for the 2016 race: we would collectively form a two-box Ark, in costume as Noah and, err Norma, with inflatable animals bouncing to and forth. I could therefore also inflict on someone else the ignominy of attempting to run in attire wholly inappropriate to the terrain or weather conditions. Besides, Rose doesn’t really like fancy dress so was happy for me to envelope her into my plans for silliness.

From the initial idea I always knew that the concept would work: the image of the flowing biblical costume, crafted cardboard and colourful animals. If nothing else, the image would be excellent for the out and back double beck crossing. But running in or conjoined to a cardboard box, over moorland, always relies on guile and an excellent running style. And ideally still weather conditions. Any help from retained running craftiness is restricted by reduced vision (see Stormtrooper) while the structure renders any good running style to replicate that of a constipated rhinoceros.

During the drive to the race Rose was still sceptical that the weather was blustery. The skies, above the Bronte moors, were indeed grey and typically moody. Only when I fought to open the car door did she concede the forecast was spot on. The thought of collecting the memento beer at registration and a coffee powered me out of the car. The struggle back into the fierce wind then made me think that the integrity of the costume design would most certainly be tested. In meteorological parlance it was indeed ‘blowing a hoolie’.

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Points to share:

  • Thanks to the photographers and videos, plus the many, many shouts of support
  • To some others – I wasn’t Jesus
  • The bow was intentionally hollow so I could identify trod from trip-hazard
  • Harland & Wolff do not advocate affixing a bow to the quarterdeck using brown parcel tape
  • In a stiff breeze Biblical headwear doubles as an effective (and somewhat dangerous) blindfold
  • Have I just been overtaken by a ghost in a coffin?” Yes, I replied with sarcastic tone – one with a pink albatross attached to the back. Pffft.
  • If anyone discovers an elephant trunk on Withins skyline, please collect (sorry) and donate as an exotic gift to your local Japanese restaurant
  • Does anyone know if there’s a Guinness World Record at VLM for a Noah (or Norma) plus Ark…?

From Withins To Holtby Lane

– a tale of marathon recovery and preparedness…

I’d known for some time that the period from early September into October would be challenging.  My running mojo had thankfully returned during August and in time to adequately prepare for the Yorkshireman off-road marathon (YORM) and Yorkshire marathon.  The plan was to complete the former, recover and with the usual unorthodox approach then prepare for the latter.  Conveniently, nearly all recovery would take place in the South of France while on a three-week holiday with my girlfriend Rose; luckily, she too would be ‘doing the double’ so the challenge would be shared.

This should read as a template on how best to recover, rest and eat properly between challenging run events – what actually occurred was the easy adaptation into Occitan lifestyle: nothing functions until caffeine and croissants are consumed in sizeable volumes, salads are delicious (especially avec vin rouge), and cooling down in a lake is deemed worthy of a Strava workout.

Two becomes three.  An opportunity suddenly emerged just before the YORM to enter and compete in the semi-marathon du Toulouse.  A steady recover run in the sunshine immediately filled my thoughts and warmed my bones.  Impulsively, I drafted*a medical certificate and submitted along with an entry form and the lowly fee of EUR-17.  Ok, not quite three FULL marathons, but this race could act like a safety net between two acrobatic platforms – tapering is just a buzz word, right?

A steady negative split on an undulating lakeside trail was our first run post-YORM.  We’d just completed the 2-day drive from Leeds via a ferry crossing and south on French autoroutes.  The weather was slightly overcast and our bodies were somewhat carseat crumpled.  The run would be a leg-loosener and link to my half marathon a few days later.  The humidity sapped all energy, legs were unresponsive and although autumn colours had arrived early, I didn’t enjoy the plod.  Abbey brewed beer and pizza with salad later helped.

…we jointly completed a few core workouts on the village petanque court…

Up to the Airbus city of Toulouse.  The AirBnB was cheap.  The location was ideal.  The Blagnac airport was nearby.  So too was the start of the half marathon.  But the residential area was next to a major road.  And a tad rough.  Plus we’d not taken into account that the flat above would be hosting a sleepover – seemingly this was attended by at least a dozen kids and comprised Olympic furniture demolition followed by relay shuttles to/ from the single bathroom with click-pull light.  For me sleep was limited.  I dropped Rose at the airport just after 7am – she was returning to the UK for the day to attend a book festival.  I then returned to the asylum detention centre for a power nap.

After what seemed like a blink I was up for breakfast.  Fuelled by caffeine I floated to the race HQ.  The half marathon route was described as a scenic lap through countryside, along a canal and into a quiet residential setting.  A few thousand entrants were either attempting the single lap 10km or double lap semi-marathon.  The first few kilometres were a blur and haze: sleep deprivation and cultural challenges of language and run etiquette.  At the first feed station I munched on some dried fruit, threw water on my face and ignored my tiredness that felt like a lumbering hangover.  En route, I’d already counted at least three informal, traveller settlements, much flytipping and the promised countryside was actually an industrial area between the edge of Toulouse and the airport.  I decided to ignore sightseeing, pace on and annoyingly narrowly missed out on a PB.

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Toulouse markedly improved over the next 24 hours.  Rose returned late from the UK.  We’d moved into a hotel.  I’d eaten almost everything unhealthy on offer.  And opened wine.  The following day an inspired choice was hiring velo-Toulouse (like Boris bikes…) and great fun in the sun, during which we drank coffee, criss-crossed the River Garonne and admired the impressive brick architecture.

But what about the running?  Away from the city and back to the countryside we then set about properly training, erm, recovering, preparing.  The gravel track up to Bouichous (boo-shoo) provided a secluded spot, near the ‘scrumpied’ fig trees, to do some hill reps with a stunning view during recovery.  We also discovered a new, hilly loop via Saint Colombe that included forest trails, gravel tracks and a return on a dismantled railway.  The dismantled railway, Voie Verte or green way, was again exploited for our last long run – we separately ran out for 9 miles then turned and headed for home.  Leafy, rustic villages came and went, and tantalising rivers flowed passed.  Stupidly, we’d set off a bit later than intended and the midday sun was soon piercing during the final 5 miles.  The reclaimed tunnel sections were welcome points of refuse, offering shade and a dramatic drop in air temperature.  Ahead of Rose, at approx 15 miles, I’d detoured via a supermarket at a nearby town to stock up and surprise her with cold, flat coke.  She almost wept with thanks.  Romance isn’t dead; must’ve been the French air…

Perhaps the piece de resistance was our epic run in the mountains: approximately 15 miles of trails, peak tops with stunning views in all directions, and silent, vacant forests (well, except for the bears and wolves…).  Still, I was mildly cautious as we approached the isolated summit of Clot de Mort!  Among all of these runs we also cycled (admittedly, mostly to the boulangerie for pain au chocolat), swam in the lake and, much to the amusement of the locals, we jointly completed a few core workouts on the village petanque court.

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A brief stay in Paris allowed us to catch up with friends and break the car journey.  Nonetheless when we returned to Leeds we were stiff, tired and not really feeling recovered or prepared for a road marathon.  So, between the expected return to normalities of laundry and work, I somehow managed to squeeze in a few short and sharp runs – when I say a few, I mean 4, and sharp was actually varied in pace/ climb, but each was well below my aspired race pace.  I even stretched, foam rolled and ate well while drinking plenty of water.  Game on.

On race day, I felt brilliant.  Well for the first 15 miles anyway; it really was a pleasure during most of these miles to run with fellow clubmates Morven ‘the marathon machine’ Wallace and Peter Enever.  Then, even after I’d had a wobble for 5 miles or so, again it was great to run the last few miles with David Brooks, especially as we were both struggling but I wouldn’t let him stop.

I missed my target by 6 minutes.  This was still a PB mind.  But I’d already gained a massive course PB at the YORM.  And I’d enjoyed and explored new and varied runs while in France.  Was this ideal recovery and preparation?  Probably not.

One day I might actually do what is considered suitable training.  Until then, I’ll repeat this quote: “A man’s reach outlies his grasp”.

*this may have been produced, somewhat illegally, with aid of computer software and a forged signature

Solving the Rochdale riddle

This year, I’ve tried to select and compete in different fell races.  So far I’ve encountered bad steps in the Lakes, that knotts are not necessarily small hills, and sinking a pint on the finish line feels like standing on a ferry amidst choppy seas.  Last week running friends from Leeds jokingly said I’d get more than sickly feeling when I announced that I was heading to Lancashire for my latest fell foray.

North-east of Rochdale the moors rise steadily towards a tower of wind turbines.  Like much of the Pennine area – from a distance – the terrain seems inocuous and the gradient appears unlikely to buckle or cause blaspheme to any bold or brazen bogtrotter.  How wrong?

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Turnslack fell race is something of a regional classic – 8 miles and just a pip over 2000 feet of ascent.  My girlfiend and I had arranged to meet a friend and show what all this hill running was about.  Yes, he’d already dipped in his toe over the Pentlands, but this was different.  Registering and changing in the parish church was certainly odd.  As was queuing for the toilet down the aisle while the vicar sat nearby befuddled at three-down in the Times crossword.

The start on the road outside soon resembled a sketch by the Chuckle Brothers.  The Race Organiser no sooner started the pre-race information and another car would want to drive through.  After the umpteenth repeat I think he basically muttered, something along the lines of, ‘Oh bugger it, the course is well-flagged, 3-2-1 GO!’

An uphill rocky track soon had the leg muscles firing then steeper grass climbs elevated us high above and away from all recent hilarity and commotion.  I’d just about caught my breath when a sudden near vertical drop took us through the first of many cloughs.  Hades Hill didn’t present the expected fear and trepidation.  The sun did hide behind a blanket of darker clouds and a cool headwind limited any silly attempt at a premature bolt over the moorland.

What will occur if you run over 8 miles of hills near Rochdale?

The wind was soon behind and the moors fell away beneath me.  I whizzed down a well defined grassy track passing a couple of less confident descenders.  Orange route flags flew by in a blur.  My eyes watered and my only real concern – as always – was not to lose my contact lense.  Just as the track levelled near a farm three runners ahead of me stood in a huddle, either with hands on hips or scratching heads.  I knew instantly we’d all gone wrong.  Over my right shoulder, maybe a quarter of a mile away, a line of coloured vests snaked up through the bracken on the next climb.  Bugger.

The climb was tough.  Perhaps as I’d just hurdled through long grass and bog to regain the race route.  And there were tussocks.  With bog-filled hazards in between.  The next descent was again fast and furious.  Admittedly, I was trying to recover some of those places lost during the off-route adventure.  A short beck leap led straight into chest high bog reeds.  Then more tussocks.  And, on the plateau above, boggy tussocks.  Running form was reduced to an effective shuffle and the pace was cranked out in a low gear.

Greater Manchester soon filled the valley below and the pristine view was framed by the whirl and whoosh of several wind turbines.  Just when a wide track offered some hope to stride out the orange flags peeled left and directed all runners through shin-high grass, laden with football-sized rocks and boulders.  Much like the next level on computer game, the bracken landscape soon followed.  Weaving left and right over undulating gradient started to make my legs feel a tad weary.  Then whack!  I’d obviously lost concentration and started to taste tea and heavily iced cake.  My big toe crunched against a rock.  Every footfall down the track and then up the steps to the cemetary finish was painful.  But the tea and cake soon after masked all pain.  And the church pews were surprisingly comfortable.

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The three grimaces – throbbing, survival and chaffing

Although we didn’t win any prizes – the bathroom scales snagged by 3rd place looked impressive – all agreed the race was definitely a belter and one to recommend.  The route certainly packs a punch and, like most parts of Pennine moorland, the distance and climb crams in so much detail and diversity.

What will occur if you run 8 miles over bog and moor near Rochdale?  Your legs’ll Turnslack!

 

 

 

Fairfield: A Lakeland Adventure…

Observations

  1. Despite the generous 12.00 race start, best not to travel through Saltaire from Leeds on a Saturday morning
  2. After fully hydrating on the 2hour car journey, be aware that registration (and toilets) is a brisk 15 minute walk from the Pete Bland stall and car parking
  3. Registration requires a full kit check – you may be invited to return to aforementioned Pete Bland stall to purchase any omitted kit
  4. Listen carefully to any pre-race advice from ectomorphs that mentions ‘best route off’, ‘keep left here’ or ‘to avoid the bad step…’
  5. The start emerges from a large group huddle on grass to a sudden charge towards Rydal Hall, possibly resembling a herd of wild bison – see link below
  6. The first 2 miles, like most other hill races, are horrific
  7. A little knoll between Nab Scar and Great Rigg provides possibly the best pee-stop anywhere on the Rydal range with stunning views south over Lake Windermere
  8. I regret forgetting to pack my camera
  9. There is plenty of rock, particularly those dinner plate size, vertical slabs that catch the occasional foot lift and send runners stumbling forth like a drunken buffoon at closing time
  10. Despite the very best of intentions – following a Lakeland club vest – I still navigated to the top of and then scrambled (fell) down the ‘bad step’
  11. The final half mile along a limestone cobble track was at best unpleasant and worst bloody nauseating
  12. Gutted to learn on the drive home that at the finish I’d missed the complimentary tea and flapjack
  13. Avoid Saltaire when returning to Leeds on a Saturday evening

Checking You Out

There’s only so much I can squeeze into my waist pack.  My waterproofs are not designed to micro-size by NASA. For extra protection, I also prefer to wrap them – separately – inside plastic bags.  Unlike some of the lithe, size-small fell racers, who appear to carry their mandatory kit in titchy carriers, I never seem able to reduce the extra bounce of my load.  This is not fellrunning parlance or a euphemism.

And I also need to pack the extra weight and volume of water. What then unfolds resembles a head-scratching dilemma from the Krypton factor.  Thankfully, I descend from a long lineage of hunter-gatherers and my spatial awareness ranks high on the scale for Neolithic know-how.  By luck more than design I always somehow manage to compress a few small fluid containers among other items of my mandatory kit.  When I finally zip shut the waist pack I immediately prey that I’m not kit-checked at race registration as I’ll need to repeat this highly technical undertaking.

Alas, at the Fairfield Horseshoe fell race last Saturday every entrant was checked. A very slick production line was assembled by the host club, Ambleside AC.  After completing a registration form, marshals inspected that runners were carrying all mandatory items on the check list. Their registration form was marked to confirm compliance and the entrants progressed to the next desk to pay and receive their race number.  A most excellent system – bravo for insisting and checking.

” The marshal then eyed me up and down before asking if this was my first fell race?”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, during my kit inspection items were questioned. Firstly, I’d recklessly advance completed and printed an official FRA registration form (to avoid the usual queue) which did not have a box to tick that my kit was compliant. Thankfully, not a big issue, my checker agreed.  More worrying for me was his challenge that I must carry a colour map.  He began to suggest I needed to return – over half a mile there and back – to the Pete Bland Sports van at the parking field to buy an official race map.

I protested on two grounds: firstly, I’m Scottish and therefore genetically very prudent; and second, my black and white OS copy sufficiently displayed both the race route while demarcating features, should I need to perform an emergency exit. With the sun wrinkling and cracking the canvas of the marquee tent he agreed, on this occasion, to let me enter.  As I progressed to pay my fee and claim my race number, the marshal then eyed me up and down before asking if this was my first fell race?  Oh, the final insult.

With a bit extra venom I pinned my race number to my vest and gritted my teeth as I folded my map back into its small plastic bag.  Yes, the marshal was only performing his role with a concern for my safety and that of route marshals – I support this entirely.  Though, I did wonder how many Lakeland runners would be grilled, or even refused entry, for not carrying desired types of the mandatory kit?

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Favouritism obviously allowed certain clubs to wear resort clothing…last resort! Courtesy of Judith Jepson

Inevitably, as more runners clearly decided to take advantage of the glorious weather, the start was postponed by 15 minutes. Still, bravo to the race organisers – each arrival was fully processed through kit check to registration.  Meanwhile, I re-inserted all necessary items back into my waist pack. The mandatory kit first, then the usual battle to force in a 500ml flat satchel of water, two 100ml electrolyte solutions and a DAB radio for race updates!

Some runners nearby boasted that they wouldn’t be taking any water. I reckoned that I’d likely be out for over 2 hours.  Yes, it’s always a faff to carry, but I’d sooner squeeze in some fluids than later attempt to squeeze out a foul-coloured wee.  Each to their own – provided of course their own is compliant, adequate and there’s no need to draw on the use of my large, heavy waterproof trousers.

Many Miles To Go

It started one morning with a call from my Dad.  ‘There’s space on the FWW3 if you’re interested…{insert silence}… It’s Frank’s stag do’.  He’d got married a few years ago, I recalled.  But then the stag do was so successful that it’s been an annual event ever since.  This year – Frank’s Wild Weekend 3 – a few berths in the bunkhouse were surprisingly still vacant, so the net was extended out a bit further.  Did I fancy the trip?  Possibly yes.  A number of things to firstly consider:  where was the weekend to visit; could I face a potentially long car journey over the border and beyond; and would I recover sufficiently (from the outdoor activities/ intake of alcohol) in time for the Three Peaks Race?

Kinlochewe, Wester Ross was the destination.  Beyond Inverness, turn 90o west and travel through several functional towns with nondescript homes that are dwarfed by neck-turning scenery at every cattle grid.  The landscape, weather and to some extent the people are gritty and hard: think Game of Thrones, but minus the hobbit sex and incestuous relationships – actually, maybe just the hobbit sex.   This is remote Scotland where men are men, and sheep are scared…

While away, I joined a group run around the Heights of Kinlochewe to gasp at the stunning Fisherfield Mountains from Lochan Fada.  This was described as a 10 mile flattish adventure that might get a tad blustery at the lochan bealach.  The 15 mile loop was anything but flat, although I really enjoyed the long climb in the first half and then the technical descent was all good training.  Less said about the burn crossing or driving snow, mind.

Also, after an initial walk with my Dad, I then enjoyed a solitary climb up a steep-sided and snow blasted Corbett – Meall a Ghuibhais – followed up the day after with a sharp 5 mile/ 1200 feet blast on trails, heather moorland and woodland tracks.  Lots of ideal climbing for the Three Peaks and severe impact on the quads.

Either side of the long journey to the frozen tundra of the north, I’d enjoyed training runs out over the Three Peaks Race route.  Prior to the Scotland weekend the weather had been decidedly wintry and as I’d pointed out to my girlfriend this might be invaluable on race day.  I really didn’t beleive this, though.  Surely the weather would be better than the freezing temperatures and snow showers experienced in 2015?  Then, after the Highland adventure, I was sun-drenched on a wa’m, blue-sky day out up and down Whernside.  This was how I hoped the Three Peaks Race would be.

And now, with almost 72 hours until the big day snow if falling outside and all peaks are expected to be white, bogs will be treacherous and the going will almost certainly be ‘very soft to sinking’.  Running in this weather can be endured.  Marshaling will however be a right challenge.  All the training has been completed and the added value of Highland mountains was rewarding.  Now it’s nearly time to nobble off the final chunks covering 24 miles of the dales – oh, what shoes to wear over gravel, stone and limestone blocks…?