Fancy an adventure? Maybe the Spine Race is for you!

race

Step.  Step.  Step. Step.

Keep moving.

Keep. Moving.

My watch says I’m moving at 1.4 miles an hour, I glance ahead through the swirling snow and mist at the fence and hill visible in the dimming light of my head torch, and doubt I’m even moving that quickly.

This was supposed to be an easy section, just 4 miles between refuge huts somewhere in the Cheviots.  I’d even allowed a small amount of optimism to trickle through the barriers.

No food left in my pack, not much remaining in the group (I’d already done a few rounds up and down the line asking people to share anything they had).  Breaking fresh trail through deep snow drifts was sapping dangerously low energy levels.  The biting cross wind snatched all warmth as soon as movement ceased.

I’d been on the go since 2:30am yesterday morning, a long 18 hours with a brief stop in Bryness for soup, mince, potatoes and a perplexing mandatory foot check.

I hoped my torch battery would last, it was tucked under 4 layers next to my chest, but even fully charged and warm I’d be lucky to get 6 hours out of it.

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This is of course the Spine Race, a foot race that takes on the Pennine Way from Edale in the Peak District to Kirk Yetholm just over the Scottish Border.

It takes place in January, primarily to make it harder; the unpredictable but guaranteed variety of weather turning the easiest trail into a quagmire / river / non-trail under a blanket of snow.

Oh and the 268 miles of mostly rough and occasionally unmarked trail.

Mustn’t forget the hours of darkness, 4pm until 8am, and the time limit of 7 days.

Throw all that together and you’ve got a real challenge, so it’s no surprise that over 60% of the field drop out or get timed out before the finish.

It’s not billed as “Britains most brutal race” for nothing.

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What were we doing here?  Why were we doing this?

These aren’t questions that came to mind, they didn’t matter and wouldn’t change anything even if I had the answers.  All that mattered was that we kept moving, one step at a time, slowly, steadily.  Forward motion.  Just keep moving.

My existence was here and now, everything else was peripheral and forgotten.  In a strange way, this is what I’d been looking for when I signed up for this race, escape from the normal world, pushed to the limits of physical and mental endurance, but still moving, still aware of the need for one more step, and another, and another.

Periodically I checked how Dan was feeling, we’d promised to stick together, and after my petulant foot stamping episode in Greendale the day before, I wasn’t going to renege on it.

At one point he was faltering and we debated bivvying somewhere sheltered and heating up our dried rations, but the double decker from Stuart and the last of my beef jerky had kindled a spark behind his eyes.

Onwards then.

Onwards.

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Dan and Esteve at Gregs Hut

I met Dan Connors a few years ago when we ran nohtaraM ehT together, and we’d since followed each other and chatted on Strava.  We’d leapfrogged each other a few times during the first half of the week, and I was very happy to join his group leaving Alston.

When we finally arrived in Greenhead, hungry and cold, I lost my temper over something daft, and had stormed off up a hill after shouting something like “I don’t fucking care what you do, I’m going this way”.  Dan’s comment that I was behaving like a diva and did I need a snickers bar dissipated the tension and we soon found Tom Jones, some shelter and hot food.

When we were finally nearing CP5 in Bellingham, and were working out the optimal plan for the final section (which Richard Lendon helped us finesse, over mountains of hot food and sweet tea served up by his lovely wife Jenny) I said that we should definitely stick together as a team.

Do you mean as a pair of people who happen to be travelling at roughly the same speed in the same direction, or do you mean actually as a team?

Point well made, and well taken.  We were a team from here to the finish, whatever happened.

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The race is long, and the checkpoints are far apart.  On average around 40 miles.  In good weather a good days hike, in any other conditions, 20 hours isn’t unreasonable.

I spent as much time on my own as I could.  I enjoyed settling into my natural pace, not chasing anyone and not waiting for anyone.  I savoured the pleasure of being outside, the satisfaction of navigating by map and compass, thoughts of the outside world receded and I settled happily into the Spine bubble.

There were moments of course, many ups and many downs.  The first day was such fun, trundling along a ridge buffeted by wind and rain reminded me of my childhood in Scotland, I passed many people here but my cheery greetings were seldom returned.

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Onwards.

Onwards.

Eventually we reached the top of the hill and the long anticipated left turn that would take us down to the second hut with it’s promise of shelter and hot food and drinks.

At this crucial time, I made my first and only serious error of judgement.  I can explain it away using a host of valid excuses, but none of them pass muster under the cold unforgiving eye of hindsight.

Not bothering to take a bearing, I burst through the gate and galloped downhill, deliriously happy to be rid of that uphill slog and just moments away from sustenance.

The frozen crust of snow held my weight for a few minutes before giving way and I sank past my knees.

Surely no, no no no no!

For fucks sake no more of this shit!

I changed course and frantically zig zagged down the hill searching out runnable surface.

I could see a few head torches following me.

Stopping to catch my breath, I looked around and was horrified to discover I was way off course, and teetering on the edge of Hen Hole (or Hell Hole as it will be forever etched in my memory).  Hen Hole is a steep gulley, and with the covering of snow and ice would be next to impossible to climb out of.

Laying my single pole flat on the snow in front of me, I was able to slowly crawl up the hill and get back onto level ground.  I could see the fence and further down a couple of head torches.

Satisfied I was back on track I needed to signal to those behind me to maintain height and not get sucked into the pit of doom.

How do you signal directions with a head torch?  Even if I knew morse code, did anyone else?

I ran/fell/crawled back the way I’d come, desperate to catch sight of someone, a thousand thoughts whirring through my head.  We were all tired and hungry, and I’d just led people the wrong way, potentially putting them in danger.

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My first taste of proper adventure (ignoring the icy scramble over Pen Y Gent in the dark) arrived not long after I almost fell off High Cup Nick in darkness and thick fog, when I decided not to attempt the next section over Cross Fell on my own, at least not in the dark anyway.

My wife was very happy with the decision and I made my way down to the pub in Dufton hoping for something hot to eat.

As luck would have it I found Javed warming himself by the fire, and he was happy for me to tag along. Too late for food but the barman was happy to whack some hot water in a bag so I could enjoy some rehydrated spag bol.

Off we marched into the darkness and I quickly pulled away up the gradual incline, which surprised me as I’d assumed we must have been moving at a similar pace to be at the same point after a few days.

Accepting the advice to plod uphill and conserve energy for the flats and downs, I slowed down and pondered the other useful nugget of advice.

You say one of your achilles tendons really hurts, what happens if you think about the one that doesn’t hurt?

A useful thought, and one I returned to many times over the remainder of the week.

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When you’re moving yourself over long distances, mind games and techniques are incredibly important. Not just to provide motivation, but to avoid the downward spiral of painful introspection and obsession that leaves you slightly unhinged at best.

After a pep talk from Tin and upbeat messages from Marissa on Saturday, I’d relied on some simple but effective methods of avoiding negativity and doubt.

One step at a time, step, step, step. Every step is one step closer.

Every tap of my pole, tap, tap, tap. Every tap is one tap closer.

Disney songs, really. Micky Mouse club house courtesy of my daughter Trixy, and the bare necessities, thanks to Paula who texted the entire lyrics.

When I needed something stronger, I remembered a conversation with my mother in-law on Friday night. I was wittering on about whether I’d make it to the end, and she said, very calmly but with total conviction: “you’ll do it”. Lesley, you saved my race, multiple times.

Sometimes though, the only way to block negative thoughts was to fill my head with a single word, over and over and over again.

Step.

Step.

Step.

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Noodles!

I was feeling impatient and eager to crack on over the hills to the fabled highest noodle bar in the country, but (with some difficulty) chastised myself and resolved to learn as much as possible from my companion. With a wealth of experience on extreme ultra running, and the spine race specifically, there had to be important lessons available, even if only from observation.

We climbed higher and unexpectedly found ourselves in deep snow with a nasty wind picking up and obliterating the footsteps of those ahead of us.

It was next to impossible to stay on the path, and finding ourselves mostly wading through thigh deep snow, progress was slow and getting slower.

Patience grasshopper, patience.

Gentle cajoling didn’t seem to speed Javed up for more than a couple of minutes, Gregs hut was a few miles away but at this pace, several hours.

Confessing that he’d only slept for 3 hours so far, and was planning on doing the “double“, we debated our options (after I’d informed him that he was bat shit crazy of course, which made us both laugh).

One curious aspect of pacing in a race like this, is finding the optimal balance between sleep and speed. I’d slept for 6 hours so far, and was clearly moving faster. Was that because of the sleep or just down to my legs? Hard to say.

With the teary parting phrase of “I’m scared you’re going to lie down on some godforsaken hillside and never wake up” overwhelming my rational mind, I wasn’t keen on sleeping in a snow bunker on the side of a mountain in a storm. The problem was that our current speed meant that our core temperatures were dropping fast.

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#photobomb

We needed to make a decision, and the choices weren’t great.  Sleep on the mountain, retrace our steps to Dufton, or find the quickest way down to anywhere there was shelter.

Casting a glance back the way we’d come, the snow and wind had already turned the ground into a pristine blanket with no trace of human activity.

Nearby was a hollow/bunker on the hill and the decision was made for us.

I called HQ to let them know, then grumpily (at least I appeared grumpy, I was actually just scared) followed my bunk mates instructions:

Put on everything you have, dig a coffin in the snow and put your mat in it, get into your bag with everything on and take anything you don’t want to freeze in with you.

Still grimacing from the choice of words, I found myself to be surprisingly snuggly and warm and settled down comfortably, only to start hyperventilating and, for want of a better expression, freaking out.

Headtorch on, and I had a long conversation with myself about the relative perils and merits of the current situation. Assuring myself that if things got really bad I could get myself down to the village very quickly, calling for help on the way if necessary. “Anyway”, the conversation concluded, “you wanted an adventure, and this is pretty exciting”.

Finally calm, I fell asleep for 2 hours, then woke up cold. My companion was in a similar situation and as we debated what to do heard voices calling our names.

I thought I was hallucinating at first but when I saw lights realised it was real.

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As bedrooms go, it was pretty chilly

HQ had sent a couple of chaps up to make sure we were ok, we leapt out of our coffins and within minutes were back on the trail, marching along with fistfuls of mini baby bells and tummies warmed by hot chocolate. The wind had eased off, it had stopped snowing and Gregs Hut and its famous noodles (with fresh chilli, from John Bambers greenhouse) were a hop, skip and daybreak away.

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At the time I was upset that my race had been disrupted, had I known Javed was so tired and was planning on returning to Edale along the same route after finishing, I would have got some sleep in Dufton. I knew he was experienced, but I didn’t feel comfortable abandoning him in a storm on a fell.  You have to do what feels right at the time, you look out for each other and make your decisions with collective safety in mind.

It might be a race, but it’s not always about you.

Although we had let everyone know what we were doing, spending 3 hours on the wrong side of a mountain in the middle of the night, in a storm, triggers an alert.  Hence the physical check.

It’s this kind of intervention that makes you realise that you aren’t at the mercy of the wolves, and whilst in danger, there is a very high probability that help would arrive before anything too dramatic happened.

It just feels like you’re on your own and exposed to survival mode choices, this is where the organisers have got it just right.

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Not looking our best, at hut 1

I couldn’t see the head torches that were following me any more, and there was no way I was going back into Hell Hole.

The quiet but must-be-obeyed voice in the deepest part of my mind, took over.  I sat down and got my phone out, calling HQ I let them know my race number, where I was, and that some people behind me had just gone off course.  Swapping my head torch batteries, and resisting the urge to take some layers of clothes off (I was boiling, but wasn’t sure if the feeling was real or imagined, so opted for the safer choice) set off for the hut.

Soon I met some MRT people coming back up the hill, they asked how I was and I think I did a passable impression of seeming normal as they carried on saying they needed to make sure people didn’t take a wrong turn off the route.

Finally arriving at the sanctuary, I stepped into a situation no less surreal than the one I’d just fought my way out of.

Anna was borderline hypothermic and was being manhandled into a blizzard bag, whilst being force fed hot sweet juice.  Douglas was helping sort Anna out, Zoe was asleep and Dan was looking totally spaced out.

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I made sure all the mountain rescue people knew there were at least two people off course, and eventually our addled minds figured out their names (Stuart and Colin), also that Javed was behind us and in debatable shape given he’d lost his food (though I’d given him most of my meager stash which should have helped).

After a while Stuart appeared, looking hot and relieved.

I sat worrying about Colin, about Anna, about everyone.  I had some hot food.  I got colder not warmer.  I worried and worried.  Tom said we all had plenty of time to make the cut off, I thought he’d lost the plot, talking about the race in this kind of situation, this was survival man, survival!

Eventually Dan and I decided to move on.  There wasn’t anything I could do for Colin now, and we were taking up valuable space.  Realising that I was cold because I had indeed sweated during my feverish efforts earlier, I put on a dry thermal top, lost a mitten, got my spare gloves out and we prepared to head out for the final section.

As we were shuffling out of the hut, Colin arrived looking as if nothing untoward had happened (maybe it was hidden behind the beard), and noting that “reports of his demise had been much exaggerated” joined us.

We saw a chap being brought in by the race MRT, he was wearing a t-shirt and I recognised him from Saturday night (we’d joined forces along with Damon and battled through the blizzard together).  He wasn’t in the race but was covering the route at the same time as us, which had seemed impressive then, but in my now confused state looked risky at best.  He was shortly airlifted off the mountain as was fully hypothermic (a classic sign is believing you’re overheating, as per my caution earlier).

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With Dan and Colin, just leaving Bryness

It’s been a week since I touched the wall of the Border Hotel in Kirk Yetholm, yet life hasn’t quite returned to normal.

I’m still waking up multiple times in the night, drenched in sweat, with visions of the trail fresh in my mind. At least I’m not panicking that I’ve fallen asleep in the snow, those nightmares stopped after about 6 days.

My food intake is approaching normality, though I still feel distinctly weak and faint before I’ve had breakfast, 8 hours without food is now unusual.

Maintaining body temperature is still a manual process, I spend the hours in the office (when I haven’t had to sneak off for a 15 minute nap) without shoes but wearing a scarf.

The damage report from my physio was surprisingly positive, although my super tight achilles bent lots of her needles, I now start the day with a slightly less painful hobble than a few days ago.

The cracks in my fingers have healed, and I’ve de-grimed enough so that my iPhone recognises my thumb again.

Both of my big toes are still mostly numb – some (hopefully temporary) nerve damage.

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Friday afternoon on the Cheviots

When encountering a fellow racer for the first time, every conversation was almost identical: “have you done this race before?”, “will you do it again?”.  Nobody every asked what you did for a living, it was irrelevant.

Until I’d settled into my stride and the rhythm of the event, I found it unfathomable why anyone would want to put themselves through such an unpleasant experience more than once, in fact I was struggling to make sense of the once.

As time passed however, and I’d had more time on my own to reflect on what was going on with my body and mind during those long long hours, I began to understand.

I’ve often said to people, at least in the last year when my running habit took a slightly different tack, that what I really enjoyed about the hours spent on my feet, was the meditative aspect.

When running, and especially when covering long distances, I ease into a mental place where I’m hyper aware of my body and my immediate surroundings, but little else.

How do my feet feel? Any hot spots? Legs? All ok? Are my shoulders relaxed? What’s going on with my stomach? Time for more food? Is that pain something to worry about or just temporary, check back later. How’s my bearing? What does the map say the next landmark is? Am I warm enough? Too hot? Is that something in my shoe? Empty it out at the next stop. How do my feet feel?…

The Spine throws in a few more things to think about, such that the bubble is almost complete, only the thoughts of family and my daily call home really penetrating.

Physically it’s a challenge, being long enough that any slight niggle has the potential to turn into a race ender after a few days.

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My only blister, a good one though

Mentally it’s tough too, sleep deprivation muddles the sharpest mind, and there are so many reasons to stop. I think I called upon some deeply buried part of myself to manage the rest of me, a tiny but powerful voice that forbade giving up, and was rational and calm when everything else went tits up.

My first real encounter with proper sleep deprivation happened on Sunday night on the long and tedious road from Horton to Hawes.

In the absence of any navigation (which I later found be a real help to stay awake), I felt completely drunk, staggering all over the road and desperately fighting the urge to lay down and sleep.

People talk of sleep monsters, I don’t know about monsters, but I had to fight so hard to stay upright and moving in roughly the right direction.

By the time we got to CP2, 108 miles in and the Challenger finish, I’d been awake for 49 hours with a 1/2 hour nap somewhere in the middle.

I felt bloody awful.

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Clean! (in Edale)

My race strategy, if you can call it that, was:

1) It’s not a race
2) Determine pace by terrain and what feels sustainable
3) Stop as little as possible
4) If have to stop, keep faffage to a minimum (apparently this is called “personal admin” – looked like faffing to me)
5) If I get to the last section, and conditions allow, it’s a race

I soon modified this to include:

6) When an opportunity to eat presents itself, take it. If hot food is available, even better.

On the subject of food, people keep asking me what and how much I ate.

It’s very hard to work out how many calories I got through, but it wasn’t nearly enough.

Food is a very personal thing, but what worked for me was a combination of: cold pizza, Lesleys home made fruitcake, fresh beef jerky, wine gums, snickers (no surprise there), pepperami (wouldn’t bother next time, proper salami or kabbanos would be much nicer).

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A massive feed at the awesome Tan Hill Inn

In checkpoints I supplemented the supplied food with pots of rice pudding, and always kept a couple of expedition food packets in my pack. These are super light (~140g), contain 1000kcals and are genuinely tasty. I have a vague memory of Pavel mentioning them on a blog once.

I discovered that I really dislike 9bars, especially out of date ones, and binned my entire stash somewhere around CP4. Far too sweet and sickly somehow.

The General gave me some advice he picked up on the Dragons Back Race, which was to eat something shortly before hitting a checkpoint. Not only does it give you a nice boost, but it helps kick your brain into gear and avoid mindlessly shuffling kit between different bags. There is also the added bonus that you’re not super narky when you arrive so have no excuses for not being smiley and friendly to the support crew, which makes everyone happier.

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After being a bit blasé with gathering all my kit for the challenger in 2014, and suffering with shoulder agony from my horrible and horribly heavy pack, I shelled out for a 22L Aarn Mountain Magic this year.

It didn’t disappoint (once I’d adjusted the 5 thousand straps ‘just so’), and it felt less like carrying a load of kit than having some warm and comfortable creature hug you from behind (nicer than it sounds).

I didn’t take anything superfluous (but making sure I had enough to be safe in an emergency), and with a borrowed PHD sleeping bag got the total weight down to around 7.5KG, including water. This was about half the weight I had last time, and once the pack was on I hardly noticed it. The huge front pockets meant I rarely had to take it off either, double bonus.

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“An explosion of kit”, at Middleton-in-Teeside

Expecting lots of rain my drop bag had a complete change of clothes for each checkpoint. As it happened it didn’t rain that much, I didn’t really move fast enough to sweat much, and the drying rooms worked really well. So I pretty much cycled through two sets of clothes. Basically my best kit. Apologies to the checkpoint volunteers and anyone who ever found themselves downwind of me!

My best kit consists of 2x helly Hansen “warm” merino wool tops, 5x decathlon wicking base layer tops, columbia and Inov8 3/4 leggings, Rab eVent trousers, North Face Summit Series jacket, Patagonia gilet, OMM Rotor smock, Montane Via Trail gloves, Seal Skinz mitts, a wool hat given to me by my mum after a trip to New Zealand, a random buff from snow&rock, 2x sealskinz long socks, 5x injinji liner socks and 5x decathlon wicking pants (some things just shouldn’t be recycled).

Oh and two pairs of Inov8 trailrocs, one pair slightly bigger, which were lent to me by Matty though he refuses to have them back. Can’t really blame him after everything they’ve been through, the snow and ice ripped so many holes in them I’m not sure they’re up for any more outings.

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Just past the massive owls

We left hut 2 and went straight into a short steep hike up the Schill, which was just the job as I was definitely cold by now, if anything I’d got colder sitting down for such a long time, even though I’d had a big bag of warm food.

I was sent off with Dan, Ryan and Colin.  Tailed by a couple of mountain rescue guys we began the simple trudge along the last section.

4 months ago I was probably the fittest and healthiest I’d been since I was a teenager. Training was going brilliantly and I’d had a huge confidence boost by placing 3rd in the Crawley 12 hour race.

What felt like a minor groin strain after a nondescript 20 mile run, escalated over a few days (and some shorter runs) into excruciating shooting pains every time I tried to stand up, start walking or roll over in bed.

Convinced it was a torn something important, I stopped running, enjoyed my holiday in Italy and booked in with a physio on my return to London.

Our sessions were normally chipper and chatty, so I knew something wasn’t right, and I was referred for an MRI scan under the dark cloud of a potential stress fracture and facing at least 3 months of: No Running.

Suspicions confirmed a compression side femoral neck stress fracture (common in the military and old people) and I was handed a pair of crutches.

Super fit to depressed invalid in the space of two short weeks.

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Leaving Gregs hut

All my training and racing plans for the rest of the year went out of the window, but I hoped against hope that the Spine could still be a possibility.

Determined not to turn into a sad, fat and unfit blob before winter even arrived, I solicited advice from anyone who would lend a friendly ear, and devoured lots of books and blogs.

The upshot was that I covered many miles on my crutches (and slowly weaned off them into walking unaided), spent dull hours in the gym building upper body and core strength, changed my eating habits and food intake (again), swapping a kilo of fat for muscle and dropping to my lowest weight in years.

I saw a bone specialist, went for lots of tests, took so many supplements I rattled (vitamin D, K1, probiotics, Omega 3&6).

After 3 months I tried a few runs, but the muscle atrophy was so severe that within a week my knees were agony and it was clear that everything was totally out of balance.

More trips to the physio, more specific exercises, more dull hours in the gym. I didn’t dare try any more runs, and just kept my fingers crossed that nothing else would go wrong before January the 8th.

In the meantime I slowly added to the mountain of kit, food, maps, lists of pubs and lists of lists of lists that contribute to the huge amount of preparation that a week long expedition demands. I was pretty sure that if I made any serious cock ups on that front, it would derail my race just as much as any physical ailments. I wasn’t leaving anything to chance.

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One of many

So when I stepped (slipped in ankle deep mud) up to the start line at 10am on Saturday morning, I was under no illusions about how tenuous my situation was.

I’d promised family, friends and physios that I wouldn’t run, this was strictly a walking race, and whilst I expected to be in pain, I would drop out if it got to a worrying level.

Many people urged me to postpone it a year, but given how easy it is to talk oneself out of anything, and post rationalise anything using a host of feasible reasons as excuses, I determined to rock up and race, and see what happened.

Two people saw through my façade, both who apparently know me better than most. One was my wife, for obvious reasons, who worried that my sheer bloody minded stubborn determination would drag me to the finish regardless of what pain my body threw at me.

The other was my boss, which sounds weird until you realise that he has an uncanny ability to figure out what makes people tick. He commented that someone who ran so much they fractured their hip isn’t best placed to judge how much pain is too much. I resolved to avoid all painkillers, and his parting words of “if you were fit, I’d absolutely think you’d do this race, as it is, I can’t see you making it” helped me grit my teeth in some of the lower points of the race,  no doubt as intended.

Coming down the final road to the pub that marked the end of the Pennine Way, I finally allowed myself to accept that yes, I was going to finish. Normally visualising the end of a race is a powerful motivator, but 268 miles is such a long distance, 7 days an eternity, and with so many obstacles to overcome I never allowed myself the luxury of hoping to get there before the cut off.

All the pent up emotion, stress of that tortuous section to hut 2 and serious sleep deprivation surged up through my chest and I sobbed the final hundred yards.

I remember muttering stupid nothings to myself, “you tosser, how the hell did you just walk to Scotland?!”

There was nobody to be seen, and after quietly touching the wall I sat down on an old plough, thinking this was a suitably low key ending to a very low key race, tears still running down my face.

Colin appeared from the darkness and gave me a hug, which was just what I needed.

Dan arrived and touched the pub, I gave him a hug, but I don’t think army men do that sort of thing. Anyway, it had seemed appropriate given what we’d just been though.

Moments later Lindlay arrived with our medals, apparently our trackers were a bit off and we were early.  No matter, medals and photos were taken and off we went for food and sleep.

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Much has been made of the hardships endured, and it’s easy to overlook how many things made me smile over the week.

Sun rises and sun sets over frozen mountains were spectacular, the views you only see when you’re prepared to travel by foot overnight.

Low Force and High Force on the river Tees were mesmerising waterfalls, especially given the amount of rain this winter.

Leaning on a gate, in the middle of a snow laden forest shortly after first light, chatting to an inquisitive, chubby little robin. This wasn’t a hallucination, but the massive house size owls I saw earlier probably were.

Finding a box of flapjacks at the top of a steep field in Thwaite, marked “for Spine racers”, thanks Emily, that got me to Tan Hill.

Being intercepted by family friends Bill & Janet in Lothersdale. They had a warm car, a flask of black coffee and the best chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had (and I’m very particular about my sandwiches). Thank goodness Peter Gold wasn’t slinking around.

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Some parting thoughts.

It’s a long way, the weather changes everything, it needs to be treated with respect.

There is excitement, camaraderie, beauty and pain.

You’ll meet like minded people and will form bonds that will last long after the event has finished.

Some will make it to the end.

Some will succumb to injury.

Some won’t move fast enough.

You’ll have an adventure.

[downloaded my GPS tracker for strava, obviously]

[Kit notes]

Crawley 12 hour race – report

race

You bastard!  I chased you so hard but I just couldn’t catch you!

Now that was a proper fucking race!  I’m knackered!

I staggered into a sunny spot after a surprisingly short 12 hours of running in circles.  I hadn’t eaten nearly enough food, had spent too much time vomiting, was 8.8 miles over my vaguely realistic target distance and was somehow in 3rd place.

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The circles were laps of a standard 400m track in Crawley, West Sussex, with plenty of space to set up your own personal aid station (the stool was a waste of £4 as I didn’t sit in it once).

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The organisers were very…organised.  Pam Storey and her crew made sure everything went smoothly and everyone knew what was what.  I.e they pointed out that each lap only counts as the circumference of the inside lane, we’d be changing direction at half time and after three hours a six hour race would begin and we’d have to share the space with another load of eccentric runners, undoubtably going a lot faster than us.

Faster than everyone apart from Mark Perkins anyway.

This race was the culmination of a training experiment that started towards the end of last year. There are lots of ultra training plans out there, but they’re generally aimed at just getting you round with the minimum amount of mileage. For some reason there is an abundance of sub three hour marathon plans, but no ultra equivalents.

Instead it seems that you either have to know what you’re doing, or employ a coach. Neither of these really fit my situation, and being slightly misery I thought I’d have a crack at designing my own training plan.

First off, there was the question of an inflamed plantar fascia. Long runs made it worse so I spent the months leading up to Christmas clocking up 50 mile weeks with lots of 5-6 mile sessions, usually twice a day (+1 for living 6 miles from work).

My excellent bupa supplied physio / triathlete prescribed an array of stretches and exercises to be performed at least twice a day, to the mild annoyance of my wife.

Once January hit, my body seemed in good shape and it was time to deploy the plan!

It wasn’t complicated:

  1. Increase weekly mileage by 10% each week
  2. One week in 4 should consist of short easy runs, 30-40 miles in total
  3. Aim for 1 sprint and 1 longer tempo per week
  4. Favour several medium distance (10-12) runs a week, longest run around 15 miles, rather than one very long one
  5. Be flexible and prepared to decrease mileage when any niggles appear
  6. Increase the long run in the final few weeks before tapering
  7. Taper for 3 weeks

I also took the opportunity for a diet change, cutting down my intake of sugar (goodbye lovely lovely maltesers), bread, pasta and rice.

After a few months I was 8kg down and my knees seemed happy with the new arrangement.

Fairly early on I had a rather nasty episode one morning at work. After an uneventful run and before I’d eaten breakfast (it was in front of me, I was even holding a fork), I felt incredibly light headed, confused and started pouring with sweat. After a few minutes it subsided enough for me to get some food down, and I quickly felt normal again.

This was a huge wake up call, calories in were much less than those I was burning in training, and I probably doubled my food intake at this point.  It didn’t take long before I felt a lot better (and was much less grumpy too, a bonus for family harmony).

Weekly mileage peaked at a smidge over 100 miles, and I clocked up nearly 1,000 miles in just under 4 months.

No wonder I got a bit dizzy, this was uncharted territory.

The final long training run of 30 miles was horribly painful, punctuated with lots of pit stops to stretch incredibly tight and painful hamstrings and glutes, the foul weather only made me more miserable.

Thankfully a long (and exceptionally painful) sports massage, coupled with a gentle taper left me feeling limber and quietly confident as race day approached.

After a terrible night sleep (does anyone sleep well before a race?), I ambled the mile to the track lugging my picnic table and supplies for the day.

My plan was to settle into what felt like a sustainable pace, and try to gauge when to pick it up such that I finished with nothing in the tank. This was in direct contrast to my disastrous Tooting plan of going out hard and holding on for as long as possible.

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Once we were off the temptation to chase the leaders was really tough to resist, but Mark Perkins and Max Willcocks were putting down such an incredible pace, one that would quickly be the end of me if I even thought about tagging along.

I reminded myself to run my own race and stick to the plan.

The hours and miles ticked along, I stopped infrequently for water, 3 hourly UCAN replenishment (that stuff is amazing, makes long distance running much easier when you’re not having to eat all the time) and the odd cheese and ham sandwich.

Every hour the leaderboard was updated and I was consistently around 5th place (of 24), with not much between me and Michal Masnik (a friendly face from the Tooting 24h race last year).

Mark was belting it round and it became clear from his 3 hour distances that he was pacing for 100 miles. Incredible to see and humbling to share the same track – I felt exceptionally guilty whenever I failed to hear him coming and he had to dodge around me (being far too polite to call “track”, or maybe just too focused).

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At some point Max dropped out, someone said he was rolling one of his quads, which was a shame for him as he’d been covering some serious distance. It all made sense in a few weeks when he won the TP100, no point spoiling that opportunity with a track injury.

My brother Toby had turned up for the second 6 hours to count my laps, and quickly turned himself into my support crew. He did such a great job I didn’t need to stop at all, keeping me fully loaded with flat coke, sweet treats and plenty of encouragement.

When he told me I was one lap behind third place, with two hours to go, everything changed in my head.

Physically I felt in great shape; everything had hurt after three hours, but quickly subsided and I’d been happily in the zone, feeling relaxed and keeping an even 9 min/mile pace.

Third place up for grabs?  This was something different.

It was one thing to finish feeling like I’d had a good crack, but to bag a podium spot too? It would validate all those long months of doubt at the back of my mind “am I doing this because I’m maybe not terrible at it, or is it just another obsessive hobby?”

I won’t lie, I felt a huge surge of emotion, and may even have shed a tiny tear.

Or was it dehydration and sweat?  We’ll never know.

Time to channel that energy into my legs and pick up the pace.

Michal looked and sounded surprised as I hared past him putting a couple of laps between us. I’d left this as late as possible figuring that it was going to be a lot easier to chase than be chased. One (of the many) good things about a track was that I could keep an eye on anyone behind me quite easily, just as long as there was half a lap between us.

An hour to go and the race felt like it had only really just begun. Michal wasn’t ceding without a fight (understandably – he’d lost time earlier from sunstroke), and our lap times got faster and faster. My last mile was my quickest at 7:30 and I finished just one mile behind Barry Thornton and half a mile ahead of Michal.

Toby had been fully briefed during the final few laps and when I collapsed in a sunny spot of grass he brought water, cucumber, my down jacket and phone.

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I felt truly elated and like I’d given it everything, such an amazing feeling. 78.5 miles in my legs, very happy.

Mark the metronome just missed the 100 mile point at 12 hours but went on to get an official time, the 4th fastest UK 100 miles, a legend in the making!  His report is a great read: 99.6 miles at the Crawley 12 hour race.

I found Michal and we had a laugh before agreeing to a rematch in Tooting, so it’s back to the home made training plan for me, and with the power of Strava I can keep an eye on the competition.

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Scottish Islands Peaks Race – 2015

race

I’m breaking with tradition and writing this on the same day that the race finished.

As I’m working my way through the buffet car on the Edinburgh to London train, I’ll keep it brief.


First, a little bit of background.  The race itself has been going for over 30 years, involves sailing 160 nautical miles from Oban on the west coast of Scotland, and a less than cheeky 11,500 foot over 60 miles of GPS free fell running.

We attempted the race last year but everything didn’t quite go to plan, so we were back with a vengeance.


Head to Glasgow on Thursday morning with 3 bags of kit including enough snickers bars to feed the entire fleet.

Peaceful train journey rudely interrupted by a broken down freight train ahead, 1.5 hour delay.

Arrive in Glasgow, run (run!) across the city centre scattering peanut based confectionary in my wake to catch the Oban train containing other runner Angus.

Chat to Es Tresidder (who also had an early cross Glagow run, but with a family.  Feel less proud of my achievement). He admires our carb loading pizza and Guinness strategy.

Arrive in Oban, see RMan briefly, met by one of our sailors. Kit check.

Meet rest of team, food, wine.

Miss last ferry, pile into dingy, get wet.

Dent the whisky stockpile (it would only distract the poor sailors), chewey peanutty snack for pudding, bed at 1am.

Morning comes round fast, club vests on and catch up with everyone at the start line. Must find a better photo pose.


Go out hard, hang on to it, speed up at the end, finish in 35 minutes and manage not to be sick.


Energy levels sorted by a popular sweet snack bar, have a bit of a rest and cruise to Mull. Not much wind but everyone in the same metaphorical becalmed boat.


Rain starts as begin running and doesn’t stop for 6 hours, beginning of recurrent sailor joke about skinny wippets and bad hill weather. Almost zero visibility due to wind, rain and mist. We remember the route from last year and carefully make it round in 5h 45m. Back on boat at 22:45.

Hot shower, hot food, snickers, admire Dolphins, help drop the spinny, bed.

Get bounced around the cabin, various sails (in bags) land on me during the night. Maybe get 2 hours sleep before landing on Jura at 05:30. Sailors obviously missed both parts of “smooth sail and full English on arrival”. Forgive them as it’s light and have chocolate based treat to hand.


Head up sunny and rain free (!) paps.

Employ cunning fell race tricks and get us down in super quick time. My sister and family set up a mini aid station and give us some lovely cheers as the heavens opened. we finish in 5h 30m, wet.


Boat, snickers, hot shower (LOVE the shower), hot food, snickers.

Worry as the sailors faff around for ages with ropes and sails whilst big waves splosh over the boat.

They seem to know what they’re doing / I can’t see straight let alone help.  Leave them to it and go to bed.

Get bounced around but this time I land on the sail bags, much better this way round.

Get approx 10 minutes sleep (apparently 2 hours) and roused as we come into Arran at 21:30 on Sunday night.

Sailors swear at the yellow brick tracker as its rebooted (again) so they can see where we are during the run. Pointless as no phone signal but remote families happy with our sudden progress as the website finally updates.


Snickers, ginger cake (from my mum, picked up on Jura, totally hit the spot and a welcome snack alternative), wet wet weather gear, head for the hills.

Rain turns to hail on the Goat Fell ascent. Get lost in this mist on summit. Have a snickers and break out the compass.

Find path, decend briskly, trot back to the boat for 02:30 Sunday.

Sleep deprivation, darkness, wind and no engines allowed make for a hairy pickup. Short wave radios help to get us in the right place to be yanked on board.

Snickers, water, too tired for a shower, in bed fully clothed.

Roused in an hour to don sailing clobber and prepare for final run to the finish line at Troon.

Creaky legs deliver us into the race office for an official finish time of 05:19, 5th in class and 9th overall.


Retire to boat for celebratory snickers, rum & ginger wine, crisps and bed.

Awesome weekend, thanks to the organisers for everything, hope to be back again.


Update: I jotted down some notes on what kit I used, if you’re interested.

Strava:

Tooting 24h 2014 – or – How not to run your first 24 hour track race

race

As usual it’s taken me far too long to get this written down, but with the Crawley 12 hour race in a few weeks I thought this was the perfect time to remember what I did wrong.  It would be nice to have a list of things I did right, but sadly, no. I still managed to cover about 107 miles, which isn’t bad but falls short of what I think I should be capable of (although past performance isn’t nessesarily an indicator of the future!). The race itself is very simple (how many times can you run round a 400m track?), and is a perfect example of everything I love in an event. It’s small, extremely well organised by incredibly friendly and approachable people. The low key approach engenders a great atmosphere and the motley collection of runners were packed with interesting stories and enthusiasm. Being able to run shoulder to shoulder with a 80+ year old on course to complete 100 miles, and a trio of superhuman ladies who smashed records and crushed the entry level for team GB Ultra was both humbling and inspirational. This is a true, and (mostly) serious list of tips for running your first 24 hour track race. Some, if not all of the points are totally obvious, and normal people really shouldn’t need the advice.

I'm no elite

I’m no elite

Make sure you actually have a place in the race

Yes, yes, obvious. The thing is, I sent my application off and promptly got stuck into training and planning. As the  weeks went on, and I languished on the waiting list, the mental focus that an imminent race gives you just wasn’t there. This meant that training was half hearted at best, and I figured that I’d pretty much wing the planning part: running in circles for ages: I’d just done the GUCR, how hard could it be?

If you don’t have a confirmed place, then at least pretend you have and train accordingly. Finding out two days before doesn’t give you nearly enough time.

One chap even turned up on the day and snagged a last minute place, though he crashed out in a bent-double vomiting state after a short few hours. Another arrow in the back of the last minute race entrant.

Don’t start the day with a massive hangover

Again, not something that should really need to be spelled out. However, the lack of concentration and general over confidence given #1, plus having heavy drinking friends round the night before culminated in a very not-ready head and body come race morning.

It’s hard to say whether this is the biggest mistake I made, quite possibly though, as it led to most of the others.

Work out your target pace sensibly, based on reality

Final results

Final results

For an elite athlete, calculating your goal distance using last year’s winner is a very good strategy, particular if you’re also aiming to secure a place in Team GB.

If, on the other hand, you are not an elite, and last year’s winner was other worldly Marco Consani, who covered 154 miles, then your sights have more than likely been set far outside the range of your physical capabilities.

In practice this means that you’re constantly berating yourself for going too slow, when in fact you’re going about twice as fast as you should be.

I would say to pick a comfortable marathon pace, then drop that by about 25%, probably more.

Don’t set off too fast

Lack of planning, large hangover and ridiculous ambitions and yes, you’re already going way too fast. I did the first marathon in under 4 hours, was near the top of the score board and felt great.

Obviously it didn’t last and my pace halved very soon after.

Having a bleary eyed notion of “go out as hard as possible and hang on as long as you can” is just daft, glycogen gets instantly depleted leaving you running on fumes way too soon.

If you’ve lapped James Elson, you’re going too quickly

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Say no more!

To be fair to James, he looked to be suffering from an injury and pulled out before the end. Plus I was clearly going to blow up.

Don’t try new food on the day, as lovely as it might look and taste

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Hangover to blame again. I remember thinking how delicious the melon and grapes on the food station were. They were cool, refreshing and gave me a nice little boost.

Fast forward 10 hours and I’d pretty much set up camp in the men’s room, and when I wasn’t  there I was painfully dragging my sore and bloated belly back as fast as I could hobble.

Not a good idea.

Do try and remember your lap counters name

More generally, be nice to your lap counter, they’ve got a long gruelling night ahead of them, and sense of humour failures don’t make for a pleasant atmosphere.

Chances are they are looking after a few runners, and when a lap only takes a couple of minutes they’re hard at work.

On the odd occasion when they are distracted, being able to call our their name will save you valuable seconds, and is a whole lot polite than yelling “Did you get me? Luke here, hello?! HELLO!”

Having support really… helps

My wife and child stuck around for the first half hour, but when my 3 year old daughter had seen me run round in circles and not win or even finish, she soon got bored. Not before entertaining everyone with happy shouts of “daddy!” every time I passed her.

They also rocked up again for the  last hour, and that alone kept my spirits up for at least 4 hours.

Other people had whole families camped out all night, feeding and watering their runners regularly. Not sure how I’ll persuade mine to do the same, but I think it would give a massive psychological boost, especially in those famously miserable hours just before dawn.

Don’t underestimate the mental aspect

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I honestly hadn’t given much thought to what it would actually be like running for 24 hours within such a confined area.

All the big races I’d done in the past were huge loops or “epic adventure” point to point routes.

The key difference, which was obviously clear to every person who commented on my upcoming loop fest, is that every step forward, every second spent moving, takes you one tiny sliver closer to the end.

When it finally dawned on me that I could just sit down and the race would still end at midday, regardless of whether I did any sort of moving or not, was a revelation.

A revelation that took a lot of willpower (and two 30 minute snoozes in the back of Hughs car) to purge and get back into any kind of constant forward motion.

In summary

It was a lot harder than I thought it would be, deserved more respect than I gave it, and was absolutely bloody brilliant.

I’ve got a confirmed place for September, so that’s one item ticked off the list already!

Geoff, the legend

Geoff, the legend

Scottish Islands Peaks Race – DNF!

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The Scottish Islands Peaks Race (SIPR) – DNF – Report

It’s 2015 and this is something I’ve been meaning to write for a while, partly because it was great fun, but also because it’s nice to share amazing experiences. Anyway, given that we’re having another crack at it this year I thought if I jotted down some notes from our last attempt, it might give us a helping hand. Let’s see.

The trouble started long before race day. Finding a sailing crew was easy, finding a running partner turned out to involve what is best described as blind dating, ultra-runner style.

First up was an old friend who’d been threatening to join me on a hilly outing for months. A sub three hour marathon under his belt gave me a touch of ability anxiety, but I reckoned I could take him on anything involving a load of mud and slippery rocks.

For some unfathomable reason he decided to take his family and (re) emigrate somewhere much sunnier than Scotland.  With the departure to Sydney set for the weekend after race day, perhaps the prospect of deep bogs and driving rain was a worse prospect than packing everything for a family of four.

Much more importantly, we were now a couple of wiry calves short of anything you could call a fell running team.

Next up was a childhood companion from the fair isle of Jura. Now, we had the opposite problem: working as a gamekeeper he spent most of his waking hours neck deep in everything you can find on a Scottish mountain (including  the occasional pile of dead deer). Road running was understandably not much of a priority, but we convinced ourselves that the combination of sheer bloody mindedness and years of mountain craft would get us through whatever obstacles presented themselves.

Devastatingly one Sunday night saw his wife involved in a (thankfully not fatal) head-on car crash. Several weeks of worry and soul searching later, his wife was back home and he was attempting to stop three small children from doing any more damage to their very tender mother. Needless to say we didn’t hold him to his race obligations, looking after close family being one of the few acceptable excuses!

Roll on number three, third time lucky and all that.

I started harassing all my fellow ultra-runner friends in earnest at this stage, and after a couple of false starts was put in touch with an incredibly fit and experienced chap from somewhere near Wales. Checking out his stats cranked up the team outlook, but did nothing for my fell running status anxiety. Completing a 50 mile mountain race in one day is a decent achievement, but doing that every day for five days, without GPS, to traverse the Dragons Back (length of Wales) is an otherworldly feat.

Lots of enthusiastic emails and texts ensued, along with a couple of phone calls. This was proper blind dating now, and everyone was getting very excited as the big day drew near.

Too good to be true? Of course!

Even the best are susceptible to a badly placed foot on a slippery slope, and before anyone could say “stay in bed and don’t go near anything that might cause injury”, the damage was done and with a heavy heart he took the doctors advice and stepped down. In hindsight a very wise decision, a “bit of a sore ankle” turned out to be much worse than it sounded and it would be months before any kind of running was to take place.

With mere days before the race it was action stations all round. A blanket appeal was thrown out to every social media site and forum we could think of, including the mass spamming of the entire fixed income trading floor at a large investment bank (I figured there’s bound to be at least one testosterone filled triathlete up to the challenge).

The race directors pitched in too, canvassing all the running clubs they could think of, and posting our desperate plea on their website.

At one point the saturation was so complete that my sports masseur in South London said one of his other clients had seen my “lonely runner seeking runner for ups, downs and shared energy gels” advert, and was considering applying.

With one day left before I was due to head northwards we had four serious contenders, and I’d taken on the joint role of Cilla Black as well as the earnest seeker of companionship.

Many phone calls later the worthy Angus from Edinburgh packed his bags, threw in his Carnethy club vest and leapt on board the train to Glasgow.

A mountain marathon veteran and owner of a race saving altimeter now firmly in the team, we really were in business, and it was two excited fellows who boarded the tiny train to Oban. Laden with running gear, whisky, Guinness and a pile of cold pizzas we looked less out of place than the smattering of commuters, as we started the three hour journey north.

Pre race fuelling

Pre race fuelling

We spent the journey getting to know one another, and plotting probable best routes for the Jura leg (the others being less ambiguous), and quickly met up with the rest of the team on the good yacht Sonata (not in a pub, first surprise of the weekend).

The very organised race crew meant the kit check was a breeze, and with the “it’s not your fault if I drown or fall off Ben Mor” waiver duly signed, we retired to the local for a good dose of their finest race nerve calming brew, and bowls of specialised running fuel (aka crisps).

Sonata, twitchy

Sonata, twitchy

Our sailors had actually spent the last few days repairing bits of the boat –

Club rivalries put aside for the weekend!

Club rivalries put aside for the weekend!

which isn’t as worrying as it sounds, old wooden boats, even ones designed by William Fife, need a lot of tender loving care).  They’d also been trying out the various new bits of kit bought specially for the weekend, so a few pints seemed downright necessary.

The first running leg is a mad six mile dash up and around the hill IMG_0359overlooking the town, and was introduced purely as a Le Mans style means of throttling the number of boats leaving the harbour at the same time. I’d been advised by SIPR veteran Tin to keep nothing back and if I didn’t taste blood by the end I hadn’t tried nearly hard enough!  So, off we hared into a bright sunny day, pushed on by the prospect of a few hours of easy sailing before Mull.

We didn’t come back anywhere near first (fell runners are fast!), but we did

This really isn't a normal race

This really isn’t a normal race

ok, and with a seamless transition to the dingy were powering out to meet Sonata.  She was getting a few race twitches of her own, obviously well aware of the good breeze that had been building all morning.

The wind held well, and after being seventh around the point it was a lovely reach straight down the sound of Mull to Salen.

Sunshine!  It didn't last

Sunshine! It didn’t last

Well chosen sails and a happy boat took us to 4th in our class (fast yachts) and all too quickly it was time to get kitted up for the first proper leg, a less than cheeky 23 miles up, over and round the highest point on the island.

Naturally enough the sunshine packed it’s bags and the mandatory waterproofs were out of our packs before we made landfall.

A quick but thorough kit check and we were handed a bag of orienteering tokens with instructions to attach them to all the orienteering kites we could find on the list of OS coordinates. We’d be out of the race if we missed one, so safely stow them we did.

The route starts and ends with 3 miles of tarmac, followed by a couple of

Yon misty hill, etc

Yon misty hill, etc

miles of rough track. At the point that the track becomes a path most people change shoes and leave their road ones in a plastic bag (or just lying on the ground, lets face it everything is going to be sopping wet after a few hours in the misty hills).  We made our first (possibly only) navigational error here and deep in happy conversation missed the turning to traverse along the valley, and followed the river instead.  We didn’t lose much time but were both annoyed at such a silly error so early.

The path is very faint in a lot of places, but it’s pretty clear from the map which way to head, and an uneventful hour of steady climbing delivered us over a ridge and into thick fog, rain and wind.

There wasn’t much to do but try and keep a steady course, keep climbing and hope we didn’t veer too far the left and miss the main summit altogether.  Staying slightly to the right was our best option as a brutal drop back to the starting valley would be (hopefully) hard to miss.

A brief scramble and, yes, there was no going forwards, a sheer drop into howling wind was inches from our feet.  We were on a narrow ledge with visibility of ten meters at best. The big question was whether we were to the right or left of the summit.

Whilst we were pondering this, and becoming more certain of our bearing (and also very cold, this was a shocking place to be dithering), a small group of vest clad runners clearly bearing SIPR numbers came bounding out of the maelstrom heading determinedly in the opposite direction from us.

Ah ha, I thought, some friendly people to put us right.  “Have you summited”? I shouted, I got neither eye contact nor reply.  “Rude fucker” I muttered.

Another group of racers piled up the mountain and shot past us, just as Angus quietly said, “they’re all wrong, we’ve got the right idea, quick lets go”.

Competitive orienteering lesson #1: It’s a race man, a race! Every team for themselves!

Five short sharp very uphill minutes later and we’d clipped our tag to the top of Ben Mor and were belting down the other side hoping to pick up the right contour for the next OS reference.  At this stage we we’d gained a few places since leaving our road shoes (it’s really handy being able to count the tokens and know how many are ahead of you!).

The altimeter and Angus’s excellent map skills soon sorted our the next two references and we’d moved up the field some more.  I tried to text the boat so they could get a bit more shuteye, but as soon as I (eventually) got a signal, my battery died.  Trying to capture the run using my iPhone strava app was clearly a bad use of limited resources.  A different context for #stravawanker.  No doubt our gallant sailors were probably up and getting ready to go, our original estimate being very optimistic and without any allowance for disgusting weather and energy sapping peaty bogs.

Still, our mood was definitely buoyant, we’d got through the worst of the course, and had just entered the original valley.  Just an easy traverse and a few miles of road before we could check this one off the list.

Until.

Disaster struck.

I heard a loud crack and span round to see Angus on his back looking more surprised than in pain.  He was in pain though, a lot of it.  A foot, no doubt imbued with the imminent prospect of a hot shower and a glass of whiskey, overshot it’s rightful placing, slid the wrong way and dumped the full weight of it’s owner the wrong way.

Angus did well not to pass out on the spot, and after a couple of false starts we made our careful way down the valley.  We were both outwardly hopeful that this was a minor sprain and no real damage had been done.

This was the end of the race though.

We made our slow, cold, wet and hobby way back down a drizzly valley and Angus even ran some of the road section back to the boat.  Total time on the Mull course was over 5 hours, slightly more than we’d hoped for, but the weather had hardly been in our favour.

We kept an optimistic angle on the ankle situation, deciding to see how it looked when we got to Jura.

Not what ankles are supposed to look like

Not what ankles are supposed to look like

Our sailors greeted us with probably the best welcome we could have hoped for.  A hot shower, bowls and bowls of steaming beef stew and a couple of cans of Guinness. Not what we were expecting on board a racing yacht but oh so, so perfect.

Bundled up in dry clothes and sleeping bags, lulled by the gentle rocking of the boat, deep sleep was only minutes away.

I woke up hours later and was still being gently rocked, my now slightly more alert self registered the lack of wind, but dismissed it as an excuse for more sleep and conked out again.

The next time I woke up it was to the hum of the engine, which did not bode well: engines in a sailing race (outside of emergencies) being somewhat frowned upon.

The crew had realised that our slow progress in the water meant we had no real chance of completing the course, even if Angus was able to run (which with an ankle as big as a melon he really wasn’t), and had taken the  executive decision to motor to Jura and give us a chance of sailing as much of the rest of the course as we could. No point drifting in circles for twelve hours waiting for the tide, might as well salvage some of a sailing weekend for the Jura to Largs leg.

Sailing through the corryvreckan whirlpool, an unexpected fright!

Sailing through the corryvreckan whirlpool, an unexpected fright!

This serves to highlight that this isn’t a race that you can get round just on meticulous planning, there are so many variables, and you’re at the mercy of the weather in more ways than one. This is also what makes it so compelling, if it was easy, what would be the point?

I got on the phone to the Jura runner who couldn’t make the race, and we arranged to meet in the village and head up the paps anyway, it was too good an opportunity to miss. Donning wet waterproofs wasn’t much fun but the hard climb straight up Beinn An Oir took my mind off any minor discomfort.

The outing turned out to be an unexpected treat and I spent a very happyIMG_0433 couple of hours being shown all the special local routes off the peaks (whether I’ll be able to remember them this year is another matter).

After an evening in the Jura pub catching up with family and friends, a few hours of sleep, and we were heading off into wind and wet towards Largs, a sailing team of 5 now, no more running expected.

Angus passed the test of being left at the helm for hours in the rain without complaining (or stopping smiling)

Angus passed the test of being left at the helm for hours in the rain without complaining (or stopping smiling)

It was a fairly gruelling few hours until we got round the Mull of Kintyre, then a nice and easy sail in past Arran.

It’s hard to sum up the weekend in a few sentences, but this really is an epic race that really gets under your skin. It’s hard enough to be seriously challenging, but not impossible. Teamwork is vital, even down to making sure everyone gets a chance for the odd bit of sleep.

Our shore crew were amazing, having supplies and ready to go stews, soups and sandwiches meant we could focus on the important bits, like eating!

The wooden heads will be back this year, let’s hope it’s windy (but not too windy) and a bit less slippery…

GUCR 2014

race

I am done, finished.
I’ve have had enough with this race, and am just too tired to carry on. My feet hurt, I can’t keep my eyes open and I’m starting to get cold.

Such were the thoughts flashing through my mind at 3am on Sunday morning. I’d been running for 18 hours and had covered about 95 miles of the muddy and wet grand union canal towpath from Birmingham. Paddington basin, and the finish, were another 50 miles ahead.

Calm the night before

Calm the night before

It had started fast, way too fast.

With a belly full of instant porridge, bananas and coffee, I had joined the other 109 runners in the weak 6am sunshine as we charged off from Gas Street at a brisk 9 minute mile pace. It was so easy to get caught up in the crowd, swapping race stories and tales of how we came to be here.

The first 26 miles came at me hard. Stiff legs and a painful knee nagging reminders that I hadn’t recovered from the SIPR (albeit only half of it) the previous weekend.

Ready to rock

Ready to rock

A gentle trot

It felt faster than it looks!

If the first marathon of 6 feels like this, what chance do I have of getting to the end? The thought of bailing out and saving my body from unnecessary punishment became a serious proposition. It would have been a shame but there was no point in doing myself actual damage.

It’s hard to remember what changed my mind.

Perhaps it was doggedly sticking to my fuelling plan of a sandwich (peanut butter, nuttela and banana) or wrap (hummus, chicken, green pepper and cheese) between every checkpoint, supplemented by 2 or 3 cereal bars and an ellas kitchen pouch (baby food yes, but you can always get it down).

Perhaps the pouring rain turning the wet path into a lethal slippery streak of mud, one that threatened to kick me into the canal every time my concentration wandered, generated enough of a distraction from negative thoughts.

Perhaps it was because I slowed down a bit, let those running at a record breaking pace go on ahead, and settled into a comfortable rhythm. You could say I started running my own race.

Or maybe it was a pile of ducklings.

Nap time for some

Nap time for some

Whatever it was, the next 24 miles were a joy. My legs felt great, knee number two had given up trying to derail the adventure and the odd spell of sunshine lit up the bright yellow rapeseed fields and calm canal waters.

Trundling happily into the 50 mile checkpoint after 9 hours, to be greeted by part of the SIPR team (who also happen to be my uncle and aunt) made me even happier. Fully loaded on smoothies, bananas, shortcake, smiles, hugs and bemused encouragement, I was hefted back out onto the route, and bounced my way along to the 70 mile point.

It would be dark before the next checkpoint, so a great deal of faffing was in order. Change of top, shoes, socks. Tights on, headtorch in bag. Hot quiche and beans devoured.

I was sitting opposite a very fit looking fellow who had looked fairly settled before I arrived. We got chatting and happened to leave at the same time. The conversation continued and it became clear that our paces were exactly matched. We gently jogged into the darkness, talking of this and that, but not the enormity of the 75 miles still to go, we hadn’t quite hit half way.

A glimmer of not rain

A glimmer of not rain

At the 85 mile checkpoint, which was supposed to be drinks and snacks only, we were treated to hot soup, what a bonus! A couple of other runners looked in a pretty bad way, anguished heads held by swollen hands, shivering bodies swaddled in warm blankets. At least 20 people had dropped out already.

A definite team now, David Allen and I made our way onwards, breaking the run down into 5 mile stages. At an hour a pop this was about the biggest challenge we could face at any one time.

Lightheaded, confused and weak, bad news.

Skipping the last mid checkpoint sarnie was hardly a good idea, but it’s so easy to fall into the not eating trap. Your stomach isn’t fully functional (blood being sensibly diverted to more obviously useful muscles), saliva is a distant memory and anyway, you’re rocking along having a great time.

I’d broken my own rule, and it was made specifically for this situation. Luckily I was keeping a close mental eye on how I felt, and within minutes of necking a rocket fuel sandwich was back taking my turn to lead our little train ever closer to London.

Coming closer to the 100 mile checkpoint was when I slipped into the next low point. An hour before dawn is the hardest part of any overnight race, especially if you’ve been hammering away at it for nearly 24 hours already.

The spine challenger, and the dark dark moments in what felt like perpetual darkness was fresh and raw enough for me to spot this instantly. Recognising that my body and mind were fine, and that this was a mere distraction caused by circadian rhythms, I dismissed the “call it a night and go to bed” voice and carried merrily on.

“Merrily” may be overstating it somewhat, but covering 100 miles in about 21 hours gave us a good confidence boost.

This was the longest stop. It was going to be 20 miles to the next one (the longest gap in the whole race), we were cold, and it was going to get light soon. It made sense to eat as much of the fried potatoes, scrambled eggs, sausages and beans as was acceptable, and start the last 45 miles feeling as refreshed as possible.

Sunny Sunday

Sunny Sunday

I was hoping to see some friends and family in Tring and Berkhamsted on the way through, but had anticipated slowing down a lot more than I had. We shuffle/walk/ran through Tring at 5am, and somehow I didn’t think anyone would appreciate a phone call from a sweaty, muddy and sleep deprived canal creature. Even if he was accompanied by a Jean Paul Gaultier lookalike (I can’t remember who said it, but there is a definite likeness to David).

The scenery was lovely as we got closer to then passed the M25 (which felt like a very significant landmark), and did help a tiny bit to distract our minds from the now near constant pain in our feet.

I only picked up one tiny blister (hilly twin skin socks, you rock), though they had always been a big pain problem for me. This time it was just the soles of my feet that hurt. They really really really hurt.

I remember clearly when I thought I’d first become an “ultrarunner”. It was in the days and weeks after an overnight 50 mile race in the Peak District. The feeling was intoxicating, not dissimilar to landing a new, higher paid job or aceing exams at school. I basked in the satisfying knowledge that I’d joined the ranks of superhumans I’d been obsessively reading about for months.

Was this what it felt like to become a non-ultrarunner?

I texted my wife:

If I ever say I want to do this again, tell me I’m not allowed!
Xx

I wondered about the futility of the pursuit.

Grinding it out

Grinding it out

I didn’t question why I was here, that was easy. I’d got caught in the GUCR race report trap and became fixated on what many described as the hardest thing they’d ever done. Tales of 5 minute power naps, face down on the towpath, pushing through mental pain barriers and the huge drop out rate latched onto something deep in my head. Take that, add a few beers, throw in the internet and suddenly you have your name in the hat.

I honestly felt sick when my name was drawn out of that hat. Shit, I have to do it now.

The miles stood no chance against our metronomic pace, suddenly 125 had passed (I’d misread the map and expected it a mile further ahead, a delicious mistake).

Ditching our wet overnight kit felt liberating, clean socks and a fresh t-shirt rejuvenating. Stuffing our faces with snacks and tea, a quick hello to Paul Ali and Stouty and we were rolling through the sunshine to the penultimate checkpoint, just 13 miles away.

Evenly spaced bridges became our friends, walk to one, run to the next, walk, run, walk, run. They passed by quietly, the towpath got busier as Sunday joggers and cyclists passed with quizzical faces.

A famous badger said that anyone can run an ultra. In fact lots of people say this, and now I’m saying it. The crucial bit is wanting to.

Assuming you don’t succumb to something serious that involves you being physically taken off the course and put somewhere where it’s hard to rejoin, like a hospital, then it just comes down to how much you want to finish.
It really is nothing more than having the sheer bloody minded determination to carry on despite every part of your body and mind telling you to stop.

I’m not sure that’s really a skill.

Perhaps then there is something else to be gleaned from these runs, something other than the satisfaction of finishing and knowing you didn’t give in to the “weak” voices urging you to quit.

This wasn’t the hardest thing I’ve ever done, that was the first few months of being a new father. Not to say this wasn’t a major challenge, it really was!

I suspect that there is a certain amount of conditioning that happens to your body over repeated long runs, and that this reduces the number of body parts screaming for a top spot on the pain register.

Still, pain seems to be an integral part of running a long way, even if you can reduce and contain it, something will hurt. This much is clear from the amateur race reports scattered across the internet and from books by elites such as Scott Jurek and Killian Jornet.

I could've kissed it

I could’ve kissed it

I didn’t know signposts could be beautiful, until I saw the 13.5 miles to Paddington one.  A cheeky half marathon left and a handy checkpoint for a quick spot of refuelling.

I was happy enough to be this near to the finish, but a hug from Nici Griffin was a lovely gesture and lifted the spirits beautifully. James wasn’t dispensing hugs but cheerfully dumped a large bag of sweets and crisps onto the table, just the ticket.

Apparently there were two people just ahead of us, and Nici reckoned we were moving faster, so less dilly dallying and more racing please. Wolfing down a packet of crisps and half a can of coke each we left the station in record time, the competitive spirit was still running high. I suspected this was a ruse to keep is moving, but at this stage everything helps. Relentless Forward Motion was the team motto after all.

Guess what happens if you eat a load of sugar, salt and caffeine really quickly after running 133 miles? I don’t really know, but feeling more than a trifle peculiar I ground to a halt as I wondered what to do about this new situation.

Water laced with fresh lime juice luckily roused me from my stupor. Run a bit, walk a bit, run a bit, walk a bit, drink a bit, eat a bit, run a bit, walk a bit…

This way we soon caught up with Heike Bergman, suffering from shin splints. The 3rd lady at last years Spartathalon looked dismayed as we trotted past, we felt bad but of course carried on, there were 6 miles to go and this was still a race.

One reads about finding enlightenment through transcending pain and suffering. Robin Harvie touches on it, and I hear of people finding an inner peace once they’ve shut the pain into an ignorable mental compartment. Maybe. I do feel more aware of my body, and it’s limits, and there is definitely a sense of shared experience after races like this. You catch an eye and know that behind the brave smile, hurt was endured.

The ultrarunning community is a great one to be part of, people tend to be selfless, open and short of the same few screws as you. This race embodies so much of what I love about running. The low profile, feeling like part of a big family that encompasses the organisers, volunteers and other runners. It’s cheap too, like the best fell races. No fanfare, no fuss, and if you’re polite someone might make you a pot noodle.

Less than a mile to go and we started bearing down on the other runner Nici had hinted might be catchable. He was walking, but glanced over his shoulder, then he and his buddy started frantically tightening straps and making ready to run. We cruised by at a stonking 4 miles an hour, big smirks plastered across our faces.

No, No, No, No! I’ve just had the shittest two miles of my life, there is NO WAY you can overtake me now!

A couple of minutes later they came muttering and cursing by, shuffling ever so slightly faster than us.

We chuckled all the way to the finish. It was mean but funny. I’ve been overtaken with 100 yards to go and it’s horrible, I wasn’t about to inflict that on anyone else, but amusement is hard to come by after 144 miles.

Massive team effort, to the last

Massive team effort, to the last

Crossing the line was a lovely feeling, not nearly as big a sense of relief as I expected, but being able to sit down and not get straight back up again was heavenly.

I went from hot, sweaty and sunburnt to cold and shivering within a few minutes, a result of not eating or drinking that much during the final push. The wonderful volunteers sorted me out with a blanket and microwaved pasta pot, and I was able to watch someone fall into, and be rescued from, the canal from a comfortable position. Dick was very happy, he’d been waiting 20 years to see that. I’m just glad it wasn’t me, the canal was looking distinctly mucky.

Tired and happy

Tired and happy

I was sent on my way with more hugs and kisses (Dick did offer but we settled for a photo), this really was a nice race! Getting the tube was a bit tricky but home, my girls, food, a shower, wine and bed weren’t too far away. I managed to stay up until 8pm, quite an achievement!

Me and the Main Man

Me and the Main Man

As the memory of the final 11 hours of pain recedes, “never again” is slowly morphing into “I can do it faster”. Not next year though, unfinished business at SIPR and the Jura fell race are the big priorities for May 2015.

I will be back one day, it’s just too good a race to only do once.

(Yes, I really did carry an extra 300g just so I could post this on strava)

Chuffed

Chuffed

A few notes for prospective canal runners:

  • The supplied maps are excellent. Totally water and bend proof, very clear directions on all tricky bits, mile markers, checkpoint details (drinks & snacks / hot food / bag availability). Just don’t stash them near anything that might leak ink when wet, mine went a bit blue from another bit of paper.
  • Bags are available very regularly, roughly every 15 miles, so you don’t need a large pack as you can replenish stocks often. I used an inov-8 race ultra vest (which I love), but even that was bigger than I needed.
  • I opted for two pairs of road shoes and changed half way. In retrospect the amount of rain before and during meant trail shoes would have been a lot better for the first half. The last 45 miles are almost entirely on hard packed path, so nicely cushioned road shoes are a must, unless you’re a compete masochist.
  • Make sure you pack enough warm kit for the night section, it gets pretty cold even in May, as even the slightest breeze over the canal cools the air a surprising amount.
  • Consider carrying a super lightweight wind proof jacket or smock. I had an inov-8 windshell and had it on and off about 5 times during the day on Saturday, it was just enough to keep me mostly dry and by keeping the wind off stopped me from getting cold. It was thin enough to dry out just hanging off the back of my pack.  Incidentally this is my current favourite bit of kit, I use it often, yet it’s light enough to always take, just in case.
  • Avoid staying in the travelodge if you can, it really is as noisy as Dick warns, apparently the Jury’s inn and premier inn are both much quieter. Listening to stag and hen parties lurching down broad street does not make for a restful night.

Thanks to Ross Langton for photos of me “running”.

Not running

Not running

The Spine Challenger ultramarathon – Race Report

race

“I’ve got pneumonia”, announced Martin.

“Christ” I thought, doubled over coughing and wheezing, “so have I”.

Cold, icy and slippery

Cold, icy and slippery

6:30am on Sunday morning, 67 miles into a 106 mile race, somewhere in Yorkshire:  We were both so tired that the muddy verge next to the canal looked like a great place for a quick lie down.  Cold and confusion hadn’t fully taken hold though (the briefing on hypothermia was firmly stuck in my head), but there was little enthusiasm for getting cold muddy bodies into sleeping bags.

Quietly we were both wondering what the hell we were doing here, why we’d signed up for such a daft race, (it would have been hard in the summer, but winter! Completely, utterly, ridiculous), and throwing in the towel meant sleep and warmth, the only important things in life right now.

This was the lowest point of the race.

The Spine Race

I got more than one "bloody hell you're not going camping are you?" comment

I got more than one “bloody hell you’re not going camping are you?” comment

The full race takes on the entire 268 miles of the Pennine Way.  Starting in Edale village in the Peak District, it winds its way over moor, mountain and dale, before finishing in Kirk Yetholm, just over the Scottish border.

Described as “Britians most brutal race”, competitors have 7 days to complete the course, with checkpoints (most including bunks) few and far between (every 50 miles or so).

I didn’t do that.

The baby version goes from Edale to Hawes in Yorshshire, and covers a paltry 106 miles of the trail.  This seemed a more manageable distance, and anyway, for my first 100 mile race was more than tough enough.

Build Up

"Ready" to go

“Ready” to go

The weeks leading up to the race followed the usual pattern, or a pattern I now recognise. Worry about illness and injury (real and imagined), anxiety (about the mandatory kit list), eating a lot (awesome), and a complete lack of anything resembling actually looking at the course or really working out how much food I’d need.

Once I finally bought everything on the list, I felt much happier and relaxed. Then it was just a case of getting me and my overloaded bags up north.

Spotting a similarly heavily laden fellow on the funny little trans Pennine express, we struck up a pseudo English/French conversation which helped to take my mind off the enormous task ahead.IMG_9219

I hadn’t even checked where I was staying (my companion didn’t actually have anywhere booked, so I was one up on him at least), assuming Edale would be ablaze with Montane Spine signs and banners.  A tiresome dark, damp trudge up and down the village was reluctantly undertaken before we found both the peak center and the village hall (obviously right by the station).  Apparently they don’t turn on the light by their sign because nearly everyone arrives in big groups and knows where they’re going.  Clearly they cater to more organised types. Not the best start to the weekend.

The briefing was brief but very informative, the organisers obviously knew what they were doing, and the focus was very much on keeping us alive, which was quite a sobering thought when I’d spent quite a lot of time talking down the dangers to my wife.

Back to the hostel and met up with Martin Wilcock and Sam Robson, who I’d arranged to share a room with and hopefully tag along with on the race.  They were already in bed and weren’t budging, despite repeated mentions of pints of lager (obviously more experienced at this sort of thing than me!).

Sadly I found that there was a kitchen but no food, and I’d missed the food at the pub too. First dip into my cold sausage and potato stash then. Decent bit of faffing moving stuff between my pack and my drop bag, and back again. Managed to find a couple of people carrying as much as me, which made me feel slightly less of a clueless nubie.

Off to the pub then, to be honest I couldn’t help it, it’s become a sort of tradition, plus I thought it might help me sleep. When you’re sharing a very small room with three other blokes, earplugs aren’t going to cut it alone.  The 6am alarm came round far far too quickly.

Race Morning

IMG_9211More cold sausages and potatoes – of course I hadn’t thought about breakfast – far superior to the gels I saw some sucking down, too early for that. Martin kindly gave me one of his marmalade sandwiches, Paddington Bear style, which went down very well.

Back down to the village hall for a quick and successful kit check and to get my GPS tracker attached (provided by opentracking, really handy for friends and family), picked up a state of the art cotton spine t-shirt and commenced hanging around in the drizzle waiting for the start.

Warwick was looking sadly at his GPS and said that he’d somehow managed to delete all the race waypoints, and would have to rely on the OS map and just follow the marked Pennine way trail.

“How to make a hard thing harder eh”, I wryly noted to myself.  Then found that whilst I had all the waypoints, I’d managed to join them together into a 3,000 mile road route, so it was next to useless.  What a complete Tool.  Martin and I had planned to run together anyway, but at this point I was almost prepared to physically attach myself to him just in case he was feeling particularly fast.

The race started slightly late, in a very muddy field to very little fanfare.  Those of us who set off at a run were grumpily berated.  I was so glad to be moving I couldn’t help but run, and also needed to warm up as the promised sunshine had been replaced by driving sleet and hail.

Martin, Sam and I jogged along chattily, remarking on the sad lack of scenery but keeping a good pace.

IMG_9220The sleet gained intensity and waterproofs were needed within half an hour, we lost Sam around this point and assumed he’d rocketed on ahead (we later found out he was helping an injured runner off the mountain).  As we climbed we were quickly covered in snow and greeted by amazing views of a snowy Peak District.  Not the anticipated weather, but a real treat nonetheless.

Hammering along windy streams in snowy gullies was great fun and the snow helped traction on the underlying mud nicely.

At this point I discovered my new Sealskinz mittens were soaking wet!  My hands were warm, but this was a huge disappointment so early on.  Thankfully the combination of 1000 mile liners and Sealskinz knee high socks were working properly and my feet were toasty.

Eventually we dropped down from the hills to Torside reservoir, this was about 16 miles in and the sun came out.  The roadside checkpoint was very basic, so basic in fact all they had was a pen and paper.  This wasn’t unexpected, but still a little surprising.  No mollycoddling here.

I thought I’d stop for a quick water refill from my backup supply, move some food around and text home.  My super quick, highly efficient pit stop was met with “fucking epic faff mate” from Martin when I caught up with him again.  I think sharing one of my peanut butter, nutella and banana sandwiches helped to distract him from my slowness, at least for a bit.

Straight up some hill, then we wound our way along a huge flagstoned path through the moor.  Around here we saw number 9, who had fallen and (his words) “smashed his hip”.  He wasn’t moving very well and was intending on pulling out at the next road crossing, roughly 23 miles in.  Gutted for him, all that training and planning, thrown away on a single slippery stone.  Given how often Martin fell over, I had real concerns about one of us doing some damage too.

The next 12 miles were fairly uneventful – a pretty straightforward run over the moors, broken up with an introduction to bacon and vegetable cake (surprisingly good) and a stunning sunset.

We stopped in a slight hollow to put extra base layers on, extract head torches and reshuffle food.  I didn’t think I was suffering in any way, but kept forgetting what I was doing and dropping things on the ground.  When I eventually set off again my hands were so cold I couldn’t even unclip my mittens from my pack.  Figuring the best thing was just to keep moving I shoved them into my pockets and trailed Martin into the darkness.

Hooray! a cup of tea!

Dropping down to the A58 by the Blackstone Edge reservoir (mile 35) we were greeted by some very cheery ladies who made tea and tried to ply us with mince pies.  I wasn’t really generating enough saliva at this point to deal with pastry, but the thought was lovely and warmed by the friendliness and tea, we headed off into the mist counting down the miles to checkpoint 1 and hot food.

A lovely crisp Sunday morning

A lovely crisp Sunday morning

We dropped down into somewhere called Charlestown at mile 43 and I was convinced the checkpoint must be here, so was somewhat dismayed to hear from a road marshall that it was “a tough, uphill 5K, not far really”.

Somehow we took a wrong turn near some houses, fields and maze of paths (both on phones to home, so they shouldered all the blame), but found our way again after a decent time walking in circles.  Up up up we went, and found another road marshall who directed us off the Pennine way and into a village “look for the montane sign and don’t miss it”.  Where was this checkpoint!

I went sailing past the sign, obviously.  Backtracked and then down a steep muddy track into some woods.  Where on earth were we going?  Eventually we found it, there must have been road access but this was a very well hidden place, don’t know what it was for, maybe something to do with scouts.

46 miles in, not even half way!

Chastened by earlier faffage I had a dry top and dry socks on, fresh batteries in my garmin and headtorch and was eating beef goulash before Martin had even taken his shoes off.  Not quite, but I won this pit stop (everything’s a race, isn’t it?)

Total turnaround time was 50 minutes, 20 minutes longer than planned but not too bad.  Putting wet muddy shoes on was the worst part, but it was nice to have dry clothes and socks on.

Back up the cursed steep muddy path and before long we were back on the moor.  It was now about 10pm.

Long, Icy, Cold, Dark

I honestly don’t remember much about the next 6-7 hours and 30odd miles.  There was a lot of ice, it was very dark and a huge amount of effort went into staying upright (something some people managed better than others, but if you will wear slippers then you will slip).

IMG_9221It was getting really hard now, sleep deprivation was slowing thoughts and taking over.  22 hours on the go and all I could think about was lying down and sleeping.

The talk on hypothermia did pop into my head a few times though, and I knew it would be foolish at best to stop without getting into a sleeping bag (and bivvy bag), but that seemed like a momentous effort.

Martin had said that his mate might pop up with his van to give him a bit of support, but this seemed like such a far fetched notion to my sleep addled mind that I pretty much dismissed it.

RMan and his magic van

Saviour

Saviour

Incredibly Martins phone went and within minutes we were sitting in a very snazzy VW van eating hot instant noodles and drinking tea.  It was completely surreal but the best possible thing that could have happened.  We allowed ourselves a 10 minute power nap (in reality 10 minutes of micro sleeps, weird dreams, twitching limbs and confusion), and trotted off into the slowly gathering sunlight.

I had no idea what 10 minutes of closed eyes combined with a bit of sunlight can do.  I was almost skipping through the frozen fields I felt so chirpy – a total transformation.  The frost covered ground and bright sunshine was an absolute treat, and seemed to more than make up for the soon forgotten darkness we’d left behind.IMG_9228

The miles trundled by and we arrived in Malham without much ado.  By this point the sun was fully up and I started to get serious doubts about whether I could continue at this pace.

We climbed up the steps at Malham Cove, and drenched in sweat had to shout ahead to Martin as he started running at the top.  I couldn’t run, my legs were ok but I was breathing hard and felt like something was missing.

Agreeing to walk for a bit (I told Martin that I would finish the race, but I wasn’t sure if I could keep up) Malham Tarn checkpoint 1.5 came round at mile 84, and we were treated to a cup of tea.  The gruff yorkshireman manning the post said “it’s not a food stop and its not supposed to be a brew stop, but I suppose we can help you out a bit, though we are running short on teabags”.  By the time we left here I was very cold and it took a while to warm up again.

Martin said that he might drop out soon as his lift home might not wait for him to finish the whole thing.  I think this gave me the kick I needed, and filled in the missing bit of determination.  The thought of getting myself, alone, along the next 20-odd miles, without nice waypoints to follow was just what I needed.  I think this counts as giving myself a stern talking to, because by the time we got to the top of Fountains Fell (1200 foot, mile 89) I was back on it and charged down the hillside.

Weather, No Shortage Of

No shortage of mud

No shortage of mud either

We’d been warned that the weather was due to turn nasty on Sunday evening, and indeed could see rain clouds in the distance.  Buffeted by strong winds as we climbed gingerly over ice and rocks up Pen-y-gent (why is there a Welsh mountain in Yorkshire?) I was very glad to be doing this in the daylight, without rain.

The longest descent followed, and then it was a happy couple of runners who hung right and took the high road to cut a couple of miles from the route by skipping Horton in Ribblesdale (an officially sanctioned shortcut I hasten to add!).

The following miles were covered on pure willpower, every slight incline was silently declared a hill and walked up, every flat or downhill was greeted with shouts of pain as sore legs, feet and shoulders creaked into a slightly faster than walking motion (calling it running is stretching things a bit).  Neither of us wanted to run, and took it in turns to make the first move, as soon as one sped up, the other had to follow.  Every second running now was one less second we’d have to spend in the rain later.  Plus, Martin had a lift to catch – we’d promised to be in Hawes by 6.

An interminably long, cold hike up Cam Fell seemed to take forever.  The wind was whipping in from the side and I was starting to get cold.  Just to make it even harder, the mist was so thick I had to hold my head torch low down to see where I was going (and try and avoid falling on more ice).

The final descent was a lot harder than I thought it would be.  My vision of a sheltered cruise was cruelly shattered and replaced by ankle deep icy mud, driving rain and a barely visible path (which meant eyes glued to GPS, which in turn meant wading through even deeper muddy puddles).

I was now officially cold.  We deployed one up front to keep an eagle eye on the path, and one behind to keep an eye on the route (those lake district runs with Nic really helped here), and without any more mishap we eventually trundled into Hawes.

The only way to get warm!

The only way to get warm!

We were greeted with a burst of clapping and a warm hall when we finally found checkpoint 2.  All I could say to Scott Gilmour (one of the organisers) as he shook my hand was “that was tough, really bloody tough.  Thanks though”.  Not sure I really meant to thank him, but I was still smiling, so the pain was obviously receding already.

34 1/2 hours, and joint 5th place.  Very pleased with that.  Of the 40 that started this race, only 20 made to the finish, it really was that hard.

I’m not sure if I’d recommend this as a first 100 miler, but if you like hills, don’t mind the cold and like a challenge, then this is for you.

No goubunku, etc.

Track Log

Strava reckons I burnt 18,000 calories, that’s nearly a weeks worth: http://www.strava.com/activities/106071918/overview

Notes on Kit, etc

  1. Get a pack that isn’t uncomfortable even when empty.
  2. Check the bloody route is loaded properly on your Garmin.
  3. Sealskinz socks aren’t actually waterproof (or maybe that was foot sweat, yuck), but they are warm.  Wear liner socks though, as the material is quite abrasive.
  4. Make sure your shoes are big enough to allow for swollen feet and two pairs of socks.  One of my big toes is still half numb and doesn’t look very happy.

Dusk ’till Dawn ultramarathon – October 2013

race

My knee hurts.

A bizarre looking outfit

For years I’ve been able to happily (and probably smugly) reply in the negative to the stock non-runner question of “oh no, I couldn’t do that, don’t your knees hurt”.

Not today. My left one really flippin hurts. Walking downstairs is a major expedition.

I’m sure it’s completely related to spraining my ankle recently, which in turn meant that I hadn’t really done any training for this race over the past two months. I also hadn’t really thought that much about it until a couple of days before, when I started to get a decent case of “I’m about to run quite far, up hills, in the dark, and rain” nerves.

The day itself started quite nicely, taking my daughter trampolining first thing followed by a large breakfast.  Hopping on the train to Sheffield laden with food was also a breeze.

The next few hours were mostly fraught however, the train batteries were apparently flat (full marks for a new excuse), I missed my connection and made it to Losehill Hall just in time to get kit checked, fill my water bottle up and get to the start line.

The start line

The start line

Once we were off I felt thankfully relaxed, and enjoyed the last bit of daylight as we headed up to the first checkpoint.
From here to Cave Dale is all a bit of a mystery, and the GPS wasn’t helping (it’s a pure maze of tiny paths, more stiles than you’ve ever seen, a railway line, a main road, some fields and a river).

The rain didn’t really start till after CP3, but when it did it properly meant it, as did the wind. At this point I was keeping pace with a friendly chap and we wisely decided to put everything on, waterproofs, hat, gloves – the lot.

We later heard that someone had succumbed to hypothermia around this time, and I’m not surprised, it was really rather nasty.

A quick stop at CP4 (Earl Sterndale) for a cup of tea and rice pudding, then straight up a hill (through someone’s rockery) and onwards.

My plan for this race was to not obsess about splits or projected finish time, spend very little time at checkpoints, run briskly,
avoid coke (to see if that helped sleeping afterwards), and to enjoy myself.

I barely looked at my watch, and only registered the milage when passing a CP and noticing the mile marker on the map.

Arriving at the cat and fiddle tested the resolve, last year it snowed here, and I started to freeze over as I filled my water at the outside station. This year however everything was indoors, we burst into a toasty room, were plied with all manner of treats and I spotted a few pints lined up on the bar. Sadly we moved on after a snatched tea and flapjack. No sitting down.

From here on the weather improved (apart from the mandatory fog over shining tor) and it was a steady run all the way down to Taxal where the encouraging and always smiling Wendy was handing out jelly babies and taking numbers.

A few soggy fields and some steep (but paved) hills took us to the final manned checkpoint at Cracken Edge, and burgers. This was the only hot food CP and had been the matter of some debate for several hours. The idea was great, but I just didn’t have nearly enough saliva. Everyone else seemed very happy with the setup, but I made do with a flapjack and water.

A mere half marathon to go, and by far the most technical part of the course; lots of hills, tracks, mud, rocks (and a river). I’d remembered this from last year, which helped hugely. I’d kept plenty in reserve so was very happy trundling along and trying to stay upright.

On a particularly slippery descent we came round a corner to find someone on their back looking very unhappy. He sat up and said he’d fallen and hit his head. We stayed with him until he was ok to carry on, though did suggest several times that he go back up the course to the manned CP.

The grim sweeper

The grim sweeper

Made it back to base in a whisker over 12 hours and in joint 16th (of 95 starters). Bit slower than last year but I put that down to the mud and general slipperiness.

Cracking night out, had lots of interesting chats, the volunteers were spot on (filling water bottles, plying food, friendly banter), and of course Richard and Wendy being on top of, and thinking of, everything made the whole thing feel very slick and well organised.

My knee still hurts, I hope no one asks about it, perhaps I’ll deny being a runner until it’s better.

Race website

Splits

CCC (Courmayer, Champex, Chamonix – 100K ultra)

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Snap, crackle, pop
The first thing everyone asked me was “did you hear a noise when you fell over?”
I couldn’t tell whether I had or hadn’t. I’d heard lots of noise alright, swearing, the crunching of gravel, ringing in my ears, parakeets in the trees, but nothing that sounded especially like ligaments popping off a bone, or a tenon being torn.
Then again, what do those things sound like? I suppose you’d know if you heard them.
To rewind slightly, I was doing a final set of hill repeats in Dulwich woods in preparation for the CCC on the Friday. A tiny lapse of concentration on a sharp and slippery corner saw my left foot slide under me resulting in a classic hill running injury.
Lots of rest, ice, compression (and as much elevation as can be found while sitting at a desk all day, i.e none) was employed once I’d stopped feeling sick and faint.
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This was closely followed by two separate physio visits, a large dose of internal fretting, lots of time spent persuading family and friends that pulling out of the race wasn’t necessary – it was just a flesh wound.
I can’t pretend I wasn’t quietly wondering whether I was doing the right thing by going anyway.
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Sleeping’s cheating
 
I digress, this is supposed to be about the race.
The first thing that struck me after arrival in Chamonix was the sheer scale of the races taking part that week (TDS, CCC, UTMB, PTL).  I think there were over 6,000 runners covering hundreds of miles in the mountains.
Kit checks, drop bags, aid stations, check points, transport, communications. The list is long and sounds like a lot of work.  It might cost a lot to enter, but the organisation is absolutely first rate.
One slight niggle, but purely selfish.  I was kit checked and declared fit to race before 2pm on Friday afternoon (registration finished at 7pm), but somehow was allocated a 6am coach ticket for the transfer to the start line (later registrants got later buses),  a potential two whole hours in bed lost!
Luckily the cafe proprietors of Courmayer saw sufficient opportunity in the hordes of runners and opened early, so several coffees and chocolate croissants kept me quiet until it was time to get to the start line.
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Run the downhills man!
Setting off in the third wave meant that I had a lot of catching up to do – sprained ankle or not – but the narrow trails made this much harder than anticipated.
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Most of the route, especially for the first 50K, were fast and runnable, but because of the number of people it was very hard to overtake.
The best technique seemed to be to leap at every slight widening of the path – which really meant running on much more treacherous terrain – and putting in harder busts of energy and speed than were really ideal.
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Being in an amazing beautiful setting with mountains and glaciers in every direction was amazing.  It was just a shame that my inner monologue was cursing the slowcoaches ahead of me who were walking everything.
I don’t mind walking uphill, I’m no Charlie Sharpe after all, but flats and downhills?  Seriously?
Wobble
The aid stations were approximately every 10K, and were reliably stocked with simple but effective mountain fare with a few modern extras.
At first I was suspicious of the piles of saucisson and cheese with bowls of noodle soup, but quickly realised that they were packed with good slow release energy.
The usual piles of bananas, flapjacks and other sweet treats were present, as well as a stack of Overstim produce, which went down better than expected (by 80K I was eating pretty much anything to be fair).
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Heading up a hill towards Champex-lac for the 50K mark I remember feeling distinctly “odd”, and wasn’t entirely sure what I was lacking or had had too much of.  Turns out I was hungry and dehydrated, no real surprise after a day out in the sun.
Hot pasta and bolognese sauce at the next aid station was well received, though I was glad not to be part of the chaos that surrounded all the supporters seeking their runners.
Micks sticks
As soon as we started other peoples running sticks were annoying me, and I saw a couple of people get whacked as the runner in front failed to get purchase.
Around the 70K point I was flagging a bit and my ankle started to ache.  Out came my borrowed poles and the stability they gave was a real surprise (once I’d mucked around getting them to the right length – whilst running obviously).
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After this I stormed up the remaining mountains, then watched in dismay as everyone came pounding past my careful self as I gingerly descended with “concentrate lats, concentrate” repeating in my head.  I wasn’t sure I could face rolling my ankle again, and I certainly didn’t fancy explaining to the girls in my life that my reccy had turned into a full on race, and I now needed a stick to walk.
Sitting down
A 10 minute rest at Vallorcine with a bowl soup seemed the only sensible thing to do before tackling the final mountain, and the long descent into Chamonix.  The long (long long) line of headtorches stretching up and over the really rather large looking mountain above didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would, maybe it was the thought of a beer and something cold to soak my feet in that spurred me on.
Fed up
The route down the mountain started off fairly technical, and after about 6K joined a ski run before lurching into some soft trails in the trees.  Eventually my patience wore off and the mounting frustration of seeing tens of people pass me got too much and I picked up the pace and legged it to the finish line.
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Didn’t quite get there in under 23 hours, but at 3 1/2 hours under the cut off, and in position 587 of 1900 wasn’t too shabby a result.
2014?
A great course, fantastic organisation and support – every village and town had locals out cheering and shouting “bravo Luke” – and nearly always someone to chat to…why wouldn’t I go back and have another go!
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12 Labours of Hercules ultra marathon

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Race report on the 12 Labours of Hercules ultra marathon20130726-141927.jpg

A thick head and sleeping through the alarm gave the morning a more frantic start than planned.

Peanut butter, honey and banana sandwiches and a slightly experimental isotonic mixture (fresh lemon and lime juice, salt and bicarbonate of soda) were thrown in a bag and dashed over the moor to Castleton in Derbyshire.

Nerves had been increasingly bothersome, probably because 78 miles and 17,000 ft were significantly further and higher than I’d ever run, so when Richard said “go” I felt relief more than anything else.
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Hill training had been fairly elusive over the past few months, south London hardly being famous for lofty peaks. Loping straight up a hill for labour 9, I caught the leader of this small group (I chose this one to start as most were doing others) about 3 miles in and had a very pleasant chat before leaving him behind near the top of the final ascent.

Everything was going very well, I felt like I had plenty in the tank and it wasn’t too hot. So it was back to base and straight back out.

After about 8 hours my big toes were complaining about the rocky descent from Mam Tor, a quick bit of toenail trimming and tightening of laces eased the pressure but the damage had been done. It’s taken 10 months to grow these nails back!
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Half way through labour 6 I started feeling very weak, which worried me as there was no warning at all and there were over 40 miles still to go. A good dunk in the river at Edale, followed by 20 minutes sitting in a field emptying my bumbag of calories chased down with another half litre of water and I was off, fully charged.

I learnt my lesson and took full advantage of pizza, samosas plus my own bag of food at each visit back to base, often forced down. Hills need fuel!

Labour 11 was 5.5 mile out and back along the Limestone Way, with a burger served by a friendly group of cadets half way. I was joined by a friendly scouser doing his first ultra, who switched from walking to running as I overtook him – nothing like a bit of competition to get the legs going! It was dark by the time I got back to base, 12 hours in, which made the descent of Cave Dale more hairy than necessary.
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I had a feeling labour 7 was going to be annoying so thought I’d get it done next. My hunch wasn’t wrong and I took several wrong turns and an unexpected (but correct) route through a cement factory before I powered past two others to the 600ft checkpoint.

Back at base I had another southern fried chicken wrap, loads of coke and dashed out on labour 12. This was billed as mostly road and easy to navigate, both not entirely true! There was a real kicker of a hill about quarter of the way too. I was back at base 3 1/4 hours later for my longest half marathon time ever!

Quick fuel and coke top up then out for my penultimate leg, 2.5 miles up Win Hill and back. By this point sore feet and more solitude than anticipated left me power walking most of this, lashing rain at the peak didn’t help.

The last labour was a cheeky 4 miler, on road, with a pretty descent ascent. This was a great way to finish and I got up to a satisfying clip on the way back to finish in 5th place in 22 1/4 hours.

I expected to be broken by the end, but apart from losing a couple of toenails, two small blisters and minor dehydration (despite drinking over 20 litres of water), I felt in great shape. Swimming, cycling, speed work and plenty of core and upper body sessions had kept everything working well with none of the aches and pains I’d previously considered a normal part of long distance running.

As expected Richard and Wendy were super organised, incredibly encouraging and downright nice all the way through. I tip my hat to another great race and I’ll definitely be doing more beyondmarathon events (already signed up for the October dusk till dawn!).

Next up is the CCC round Mont Blanc at the end of August.

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