Tuesday, 19 June 2018

A long post for a long (but FAB) day out!!

A "Bob Graham Round" is a fell running challenge in the Lake District. It is named after Bob Graham (1889–1966), a Keswick guest-house owner, who in June 1932 broke the Lakeland Fell record by traversing 42 fells within a 24-hour period. It has long been thought that Bob Graham chose 42 peaks to match his age at the time of the attempt but his birth certificate shows that he was actually 43 at the time of the Round. It's possible that this was the original reasoning for his attempting it in the previous year.

Bob Graham's original round included four tops that are not in what is now called the Bob Graham Round (BGR). These were:
  • High White Stones (an area just to the north of High Raise)
  • Hanging Knotts (a subsidiary summit of Bowfell)
  • Looking Stead (a prominence on the ridge between Pillar and Black Sail Pass)
  • High Snab Bank (a minor prominence on the ridge to the north of Robinson)
Alan Heaton, who was the first to repeat the round (in a better time) in 1960 replaced these with:
  • White Side
  • Helvellyn Lower Man
  • Ill Crag
  • Broad Crag
Graham must have passed over the first two as they lie on the main path along the Helvellyn ridge.
The Bob Graham Club was proposed in 1971 by Fred Rogerson and the rules for gaining club membership are simple:
  • Starting at the Moot Hall in Keswick, traverse the 42 summits of the Round (or more) on foot and return to the starting point within 24 hours of the starting time.
  • The visit to each summit must be witnessed by a companion and the time of that visit recorded.
  • The times at each summit and names of companions are entered in the membership application form.
The approximate route
The summits

I've supported many friends on their rounds (having covered all but a few of the summits doing so) but had never thought that it was something I was actually capable of doing myself - partly because I'm "rubbish" at running downhill, so thought I could never go the speed required to get round in time, and partly because I'm rather scared of the dark - and I'm bad enough at falling over when running in the daytime never mind the night! My friends Jasmin and Jim had tried to persuade me to give it a go - especially this year as I am now 42 - but I wasn't keen and so didn't take them seriously. However, when I was told that my stress fracture would probably never heal, I could just see a future of minimal running/days out in the hills stretching away from me as I got less and less fit.

My thoughts exactly!!
On the Thursday, I thought about it, realised that I had nothing on at the weekend, and so why not give the Round a go (as long as I could get a support crew together)? I knew I wasn't very fit so I wouldn't be trying to get round quickly (23:59 was my goal) but just really wanted a "last hurrah" of a good day out in the hills with my mates. Not having trained for it, planned it, prepared meticulously or reccied it meant that I hadn't freaked myself out or given myself time to find excuses not to go. I contacted a few good friends (secretly hoping they would all be busy), but (un)fortunately most of them were available and willing to help me. You have to register your attempt in advance and so at 5pm on Friday (once everyone had confirmed that they were good to go), I logged my plan, went shopping for food (and thank you beers/chocolate for my crew) and headed down to the Lakes. The Round is traditionally divided up into 5 legs (as there are 4 road access points and I had 1 supporter for each leg).

How good would it feel
 to be back here ?
There's nothing like short notice to limit the time you have to spend stressing, so although it meant I had hardly slept, I met Jasmin (and dog Moss) ready to start Leg 1 (Keswick to Threlkeld) at the Moot Hall at 3am. My timing was slightly unfortunate in that it was "kicking out" time for the nightclub  so there was an ambulance and a police car there, and some lovely "helpful" drunks (who offered to show us the way to parkrun or guide us up the Yorkshire 3 Peaks - I don't think geography was that man's strong point). I was paranoid that Jasmin would hate running my speed (she has the ladies' record for the round at 15hrs 24 minutes) and so kept apologising as we headed away from town and up towards the first summit (Skiddaw), but enjoyed going at a pace where we could chat all the way up.  We had started wearing long sleeved tops but they were soon discarded as the night was still warm (which didn't bode too well for later....if I got that far) and almost before I knew it, I was touching my first summit. Jasmin reassured me that I needn't worry as I was actually going at a slightly faster pace than a 22 hour round.

You'd never guess it was 4:30am
I was worried about the descent off Skiddaw towards Great Calva (though tried to reassure myself that I'd managed it at a faster pace when supporting other people's rounds) but I actually enjoyed it, though the ground was a lot harder than I remembered it (probably due to the recent lack of rain). We'd discarded our head torches by now (I loved the fact that my t-shirt had a pocket on each side so I could stuff my torch in one and use the other to store food in -every time I asked my crew for food, I'd take some for eating and some for later so I didn't have to keep bothering them!) and dawn was breaking beautifully. I suddenly thought how lucky I was, to be up in the hills with a good friend, away from all civilisation and have the sunrise all to ourselves as most other people were still tucked up in their beds (we didn't see another person for the whole of Leg 1 except for a couple of campers near the summit of Blencathra).
Moss keeping his watchful eye
on my poor descending technique!

Hall's Fell "on sight"
There are three commonly-used descent routes from Blencathra down to the road crossing at Thelkeld - the most direct being the "Parachute Descent" and the longest being down Doddick Fell, both of which I have descended while support other people's Rounds, so I told Jasmin that I would "happily" follow whichever way she decided to go. As it turned out, her preferred route was the third option - down Hall's Fell Ridge, which was a new one for me. I had worried that I wouldn't like the "scrambliness", rockiness and openness of it, but managed to get down it OK so that was a relief. We missed a turning into a farm and ended up in a field (secretly I think Jasmin just wanted to make sure I didn't break her record!!!) but soon were down onto tarmac and heading to the agreed changeover point.

I was doing Leg 2 (Threlkeld to Dunmail Raise) with Konrad (Jasmin's husband) for support. Moss was carrying on for a second leg with us, while Baby Rowan was supervising her parents exchanging which one was looking after each of us (I'm not sure which was the harder job!!!).

It was not yet 7am and I was already overheating....as we climbed (well slogged) up Clough Head, Konrad tried to convince me that there was still time for me to change my mind and go to the pub for a bacon buttie instead of carrying on, but all I could think of was how much I wanted an ice cream (oh well....a toffee crisp would have to do for now!). Surprisingly, considering how hot and bothered I felt, we were still climbing ahead of schedule and I was really looking forward to the section along the Dodds (Great Dodd, Watson's Dodd and Stybarrow Dodd) and towards Helvellyn as it is very runnable. Leg 2 is more of a "runner's leg", as once you've climbed up to Clough Head, it's a lovely run along the ridge ticking off more summits as you go. Unfortunately, on this occasion it was not very enjoyable for me as my right shoulder was really sore and I couldn't run freely. I felt that I actually was having to hold my arm either flexed at my elbow to support the weight of it or had to use my right hand to hold onto my left bra strap (not that I really cared what I looked like).

All 4 members of the
Paris-Rawlik support crew!
A couple of summits were slightly dubious so Konrad made sure that I went to every possible cairn so as to make sure that I didn't accidentally miss one, and we counted them up as we went. I'm not sure I've ever gone the length of that ridge on such a clear day so the views were fantastic (and we could also see every summit rising up ahead of us, though I'm not sure whether that was a good thing or not). The good weather did have its disadvantages as I'd never descended down to Grisedale Tarn from Dollywagon Pike when the ground was so dry and hard. I had coped with the steepness of the descent on previous occasions due to the softness of the ground/dampness of the grass providing some softness and grip underfoot, but this time it just plain hurt....and I could see how far I had to go/how far Konrad was ahead of me.

I'd also never actually seen the climb up Fairfield...and it certainly looked long and steep. Konrad was trying to be encouraging by telling me how well I was climbing, but it was actually the descent I was more scared of - as we had to retrace our steps and the path consists of a lot of small loose rocks and stability/traction/surefootedness aren't my fortes. Still, I managed to get down in 1 piece (Moss had the right idea by refusing to go all the way up to the summit) and then finished off my water and food on the last climb of the leg - up Seat Sandal.

My "happy place" - sitting, chatting,
eating and drinking :-)
I knew that everyone would be able to see my "mincing" descent down to Dunmail (having made sure I took a comfort break out of sight of the road below), but I didn't care as the fact that they were there would mean I could get some more food, drink, and some painkillers for my shoulder. Jasmin had been for a shower and was now back to pick up Konrad and Moss looking clean and refreshed whereas I just felt rather hot and sweaty.  Neil was doing road support for me from there on and so made me sit down on the passenger seat of the car and handed me everything I asked for (redbull as it was too hot for coffee, bircher muesli that I'd made the night before, water and a painrelief....though they did all joke that if I was already onto the codeine, they wondered what I'd be taking by the end).

Setting off on Leg 3 with Tim
If I'm honest, I didn't get everything I'd asked for as there was no ice cream....but luckily that meant I didn't have to come good on my promise to Konrad earlier (saying I would pledge undying love to anyone who gave me an icecream at Dunmail!!). I picked up a savoury wrap, thanked my crew (Jas, Konrad, Rowan and Moss were heading back to Edinburgh, while Neil was heading off to pick up Kim who was due to support me on Leg 4), and set off on Leg 3 (Dunmail to Wasdale) with Tim as my new trusty companion.
Showing the climb up Steel Fell
Leg 3 starts with a bang as you have a steep, hands-on-knees climb up Steel Fell, but once you're up there, world opens up to you again. Tim had looked at a weather forecast which suggested it was going to close in and rain on us at some point on this leg, but although the clouds were gathering in the skies, it looked like we might be going to escape the dire storm predictions. It was rather close and humid so at least the clouds gave a bit of respite from the strong sunshine. I managed to finish off the food I was carrying in order to start running once the gradient slackened off, but we were going at a nice civilised pace so that we could also chat and "put the world to rights".

Still eating.....
I'd supported the first half of this Leg on another round and run most of the second half before, which was probably a good thing, as although Tim had downloaded a GPX file (in case he needed it), he hadn't actually ever run this whole leg before. I recognised most of it, and although we might not have quite found the best (speediest) lines, it wasn't a race and we were ticking off the summits nicely (again, making sure I went to every cairns on the top of the peaks to ensure nothing was missed).

The lovely (NOT!) rocky stuff!!
Some spots of rain on the Langdale Pikes didn't really amount to much so we didn't even bother getting waterproofs out, but it meant that the long climb up Bowfell felt a bit better (as we'd been getting through water rather quickly on the first half of the leg). I had built in a delay on possible timings for the second half of the leg (a good function on the schedule calculator) as it was much less runnable and very rough and rocky, especially around Ill Crag and Broad Crag. Luckily Tim's wife isn't a fan of descending and doesn't like the rocky stuff either, so he was used to looking ahead and picking routes out that would suit her (and hence me) better. The cloud had also closed in on us by now so I couldn't scare myself by seeing what I had to get up and down.

Descending to the start of the
 Scafell Pike climb
Not having anyone for rope support, I wasn't going to go up Scafell via Broad Stand and it looked like a gratuitous extra descent and ascent to go via Foxes Tarn so I elected to climb it via Lord's Rake (Tim had only ever been up via Foxes Tarn so this was new for him...and a good recce for when he does the Round himself). This was probably the section that I'd been dreading the as the last time I'd been up Scafell, I'd slipped, come off the path and fallen down a little cliff completely jarring my shoulder and scaring myself witless about what might've happened. I'd been alone on that occasion, and I felt so much happier with company, even on the horrible exposed loose scree path down from Mickledore to the bottom of Lord's Rake. People have described Lord's Rake in the wet as resembling a waterfall, but it was so dry that all the rocks were incredibly loose and it was like trying to climb up a near vertical scree. The best way to manage it was to partially rockclimb/partially scramble using the fixed cliff-like edges of the gully.

On Scafell...note the lovely views
 we had!!
We made it to the summit (which felt strangely isolated as very few people venture from Scafell Pike over to Scafell), and from there it was "just" a long descent down to Wasdale (joy - another descent!!). I had been warned about the scree (well lots of people talked about having to get stones out of their shoes and socks...or even changing shoes at Wasdale), but I thought the path seemed a lot better than others we'd already been on, though it was a bit loose and slippy. It turned out that this wasn't the aforementioned scree - that came later, after a grassy patch which lulled you into a false sense of security.

The scree was actually one of the most fun bits of the descent as it was so loose you could "run" down it, whereas when there are several "fixed" rocks, you have to be much more wary and are much more likely to fall. When we hit the path at the bottom, Tim ran ahead to the car with my requests (exactly the same as at the last road crossing) and I meandered in on my own (meandered being the word for it as I think I approached Neil from a slightly different direction to the one in which he was looking for me) to enjoy another sit down in the car (to eat/drink/chat and although I stuck with my trusty shoes, I did change my socks as I had collected a large number of stones from the scree in them).

I'd slowed down a bit but was still on time for my planned arrival in Wasdale. This meeting was really the one that the Round had to be scheduled around as I didn't want to get there before Kim who was due to support me on Leg 4. He had been racing that morning and so could only get there for a certain time (in fact, he'd won his race but left before prize-giving in order to help me), and even though Tim had said that he would carry on if necessary so I wasn't on my own, I didn't want to have to rely on this as he was pretty knackered at the end of Leg 3. On the other hand, I didn't want to get there too late and so have to do more in the dark later (including rough descents)...but as it was, the timing couldn't have been better......there'd been a wee bit of rain on Scafell Pike/Scafell but hardly anything and although the heavens opened and it poured down for about 10 minutes, that was exactly when I was sitting in Neil's car in Wasdale carpark changing my socks, eating and drinking :-)

Climbing Yewbarrow = breaking the back of it!
I knew it was a tough climb up Yewbarrow, but let's face it, there's no easy way out of Wasdale is there? I was determined to just get my head down and get on with it, as I think that a lot of the BGR is a mental challenge more than a physical one, and so you've essentially "cracked it" once you're up Yewbarrow. I have seen many runners (many that are "better" than me) give up at Wasdale, and, as the painkillers were helping my shoulder and my leg was coping, I didn't want to be one of them! I hadn't seen and caught up with Kim properly for ages so the chat made the climb pass more quickly and almost before I knew it, I was up and out of the valley and back in the hills.

Dragging myself up Great Gable
in the fading light
It had been a long time since I supported on Leg 4 and I admit I'd forgotten about most of the climbs bar the first one, so Kim had to break it to me gently that I had several more tough drags ahead of me. I think that the summits on Leg 4 are some of the most majestic in the Lakes due to their positioning, ie their separation, but then again it means you have quite a lot of descending and ascending to do as you travel between them. I was definitely feeling my "less than ideal fitness" by this stage - having already been out for about 15 hours and knowing I still had several more to go, I wondered at the mentality of 24 hour runners - how on earth do they keep going (and pushing) for that length of time? More to the point, how do they do that running round and round a running track as the fantastic views and gorgeous sunset/evening light kept me going?

Kim was also starting to fade so I got him to tuck into my food and drink as I thought he'd appreciate (and need) it more than me (whereas I just needed him to get me to the end of the Leg). I have total respect for these "proper" fell runners who can go out and race hard and then still help a friend out (albeit at a lower speed - maybe the slower speed is more frustrating?). It must have been weird for him to be retracing some of his race route in reverse, but it was interesting to hear how it had unfolded for him at different points on the course as we passed them.

You can't beat a fabulous
sunset in the mountains!!
The rocks became more and more red as the sun sunk lower and lower and I started to worry that I wouldn't make the descent to the next road crossing before dark. I descended Great Gable as fast as the terrain would let me and powered up Green Gable, knowing that the last 2 summits were more runnable. It was almost as if I had a new lease of life....but that might just have been relative to Kim's levels of exhaustion as I was now running faster and getting ahead of him on stretches so that I clambered up rocks and cairns to touch the summits on my own. As we started running down towards the mines at Conister, I relaxed as I knew we'd make it without the need for headtorches (and promptly had to refocus as I kept nearly rolling my ankles on tussocks) and it was lovely to see Neil waiting with the car (mmmm....coffee and sandwiches) having picked up Steve (my support for the next section) - and I was also cheered in by name by a total stranger (though it turned out that he was Kim's friend and had come to meet him).

I think I must have looked like I was settling into the car for good, chatting, eating and drinking as all too soon Neil was suggesting that I really did need to get going if I was going to make it round. It was still not quite dark yet so I decided to hold off on using my headtorch for as long as possible (as when I wear it, I feel that the world closes into to become that little circle of light and everything outside of that just gets darker!) - Steve actually put mine on his head and his round his neck for ease of access. Unfortunately Steve's backpack did not have any side pockets, so whenever I asked him for a drink (I wasn't that keen on much food by this point but had more liquid calories instead, though clearly I managed some chocolate bars!!!) we had to stop as he had to take his pack off, unzip it and get a bottle or whatever out of it.

As we came off Dale Head and headed for Hindscarth we found ourselves clambering down over rocks in the dwindling light and Steve commented that he might not have chosen the best route, but we were soon running up and along towards my penultimate summit. I found it difficult to be sure of my footing on the descent from Hindscarth round towards the climb up Robinson but made it there safely before asking for my headtorch once I'd reached the summit as I knew the final stretch down to Littletown involved rocky sections that needed to be downclimbed/scrambled followed by a very steep grassy slope. This caused another slight delay as Steve decided to switch his own headtorch for a better one that he had in his pack but the time didn't seem to really matter by now, as unless I fell I knew that I was going to make it, even it I had to walk the whole of the road section at the end. We didn't go hell for leather on the descent as Steve was careful to get the route right, thinking it all looked rather different in the dark, and I found the that our headtorches reflecting back off the grass was rather spooky and magical all at once.

There was a decent run out of the valley along a rough track to where we hit the tarmac and Steve kindly sprinted ahead to open every gate for me - I knew people "expected" me to pick up the pace on this last section but I didn't think my legs would be having any of that, as I'd already been out for a longer time than I'd ever "run" before,  never mind the previous 6 months of minimal running, nor all the climbing and descending I'd just done! Neil was waiting with the car at the end of the road as he was going to give Steve a lift home and I was going to run the road section alone (as I no longer had any more summits that needed to be witnessed).....and he had my road shoes with him. I couldn't really be bothered to change my shoes as I thought that it wouldn't make much difference to me, and worried that if I sat down then I might not get up again. However, the guys had other ideas - they sat my down on the back seat of the car and each of them removed one of my shoes (poor them) and tried to force my feet into my road shoes (Cinderella has nothing on me). As they were putting in the effort for me, I reckoned I might as well pull them on myself, get up and start running....and it was bliss...it felt like I was wearing slippers - dry fells are great in the sense that you don't spend the day with wet feet, but less great in the sense that they were so hard that the soles of my feet felt as if they were burning (and I've since lost a whole layer of skin from there)!!

Neil had looked at the time and said that he thought there was no point me trying to push hard on the road, especially with my poorly leg, as I was likely to finish in about 22:10 or 22:15, and injure myself more. Sensible advice, but I did feel good running downhill staying ahead of the car until they passed me near Newlands church. I was all alone with my thoughts in the dark after they drove off, the light rain was reflecting in my headlamp, I was tired and I was going uphill (again). It was well after midnight so there was no-one about and I couldn't even be bothered to "hide" away from the road for a toilet stop. Strange as it may seem, that bladder break changed my mindset....I had actually given myself a secondary target for the conclusion of the Round if I didn't make it within 24 hours. As long as I made it back within 25 hours, I would be there before the cockerel crowed to mark the start of this year's Comrades Ultramarathon in South Africa. I have run every step of my 4 Comrades runs, including the dreaded final climb of Polly Shortts, and if I could do that, then I certainly shouldn't be walking up the (much more gentle) climb through the village of Stair.

A very happy (tired) me!!
The classical "Finisher's Pose"!!
That was it - my head was back in the game - and I started running. Even though I've supported a speedster like Jasmin on Leg 5, I've never run it all before, but I felt like I was flying. A couple of cars passed me as they drove out from Keswick and Portinscale - I moved to the side but didn't let my pace falter. Neil came back out to make sure that I hadn't taken any wrong turnings, but almost as soon as he'd appeared he had to leave to get back to Keswick as the road route in is longer than the running route. I've finished several races in Portinscale (although not in the middle of the night) so being tired along that stretch was a very familiar feeling for me. I crossed the footbridge and found the back lane towards Keswick, managing to negotiate both the kissing gate and several drunken walkers staggering home from the local pubs/festival. It was almost an anticlimax to be running as fast as my legs would let me along an almost deserted street past empty market stalls towards the Moot Hall. Just before I reached it, Neil appeared out from the alleyway from the carpark and filmed me passing him. I reached the steps, touched the stonework and looked at my watch.....21:57....and bent over trying to catch my breath and not cry (though I admit that I did actually find myself suddenly flooding with tears as I drove home later)
The calorie burn is the bit that impresses me most.....
though I'm sure I consumed way more than that!
I'd succeeded  not only in doing something that I didn't think I was capable of, but I did it much faster than I thought I could, and probably ran one of the quickest final sections along the road....but mainly I'd achieved my goal of having an amazing day out in the hills with my friends, and I cannot thank them enough for believing in me much more than I did in myself, and being prepared to drop everything last minute to come and support me. Thanks to Jasmin Paris for Leg 1, Konrad Rawlik for Leg 2 (Rowan Rawlik for overseeing the first road crossing), Moss for Legs 1 & 2, Tim Budd for Leg 3, Kim Collison for Leg 4, Steve Birkenshaw for Leg 5 and Neil Talbott for road support and shuttling everyone around (and to Jasmin, Tim, Kim and Neil for the pictures - what memories!!).

Friday, 15 June 2018

The Final Push

Off we go...into the Scottish sunshine again
Although I had been given a start time of 8:30 and Iestyn one of 8am, Shane (the race organiser) kindly let us split the difference and start together at 8:15 and so gaily headed off (backtracking for a short way along the way we'd arrived down to camp the previous night) chatting away. The sun was shining and and the sky clear so it looked like it would be another warm one (a heat wave for Scotland!).

And back down to the coast
We started off on a beautiful route over moors and up round mountains into quiet glens and down to almost inaccessible remote sea lochs. As usual, I enjoyed leading the way as we climbed but following Iestyn and his tent mate Alasdair on the descents meant that we motored past many others (including my lovely tentmates) as I was scared of being dropped. Somehow, Iestyn and I lost Alasdair when we got down to the flatter ground near Glencoul bothy on the loch shore. Instead of heading around the shore line (why take the low level route when you can climb and descend again?) to the next "arm" of the loch we ploughed on up over the promontory and were rewarded with more amazing views. It was stunning and made you wonder why on earth the place wasn't overrun with tourists (but then again...not many people like to stray far from roads/civilisation....which was completely to our benefit).
Climbing up over the promontory
Being rewarded by stunning views!
Having descended back down to sea level, we came across a CP  - not a "scanning" CP but at least a "manned" one, which was rather fortuitous as there were also some horses blocking our route and I was rather nervous of passing them...but with safety in numbers, we negotiated a way through and carried on down the side of the loch. Turning away from the water we headed up again on a hot winding forestry road, passing a freshwater loch and then climbing up a small path to one of the few summits we "bagged" in the course of the week.

What goes up (ie me!)..
...must come down!!
From that summit there was no path at all, and it almost appeared as if a couple of other runners were waiting at the summit for someone to follow. Iestyn and I were happy navigating using our maps and actually looking at the geography/scenery rather than slavishly following a GPX trace, so we bounded across open heather, up and down little tussocks etc and then dropped down a very steep descent towards some small lochs. Looking back to where we'd come from, it appeared that we must have looked confident enough that several people were actually just blindly following us!!!

Escapee medics!!!
Playing cat and mouse on the trail
We then reached a section of rough track which became wider and slightly more manicured as we eventually wound down to an actual tarred road. Iestyn and I played cat and mouse with another runner along this section, but we felt that we were going at a relatively constant pace so "clearly" it was him that was speeding up and slowing down (well, that's the story I'm sticking to anyway). We sped by on the flat tarmac and were cheered on (or "off" as we then left the road and headed back onto a track) by 2 of our lovely medical team who'd actually escaped from camp to visit the beautiful countryside.

Still more amazing views
The route then teased us more than a little as it was achingly hot and it looked as if the track was going to head back up into the mountains, but at the last minute, we swung a 90 degree bend to the left and carried on back towards the coast again. From a quick glance at the map it looked like a very long straight stretch of about 10km to another road, but appearances can be deceptive (surely we'd have learnt that by now!!). We were chatting away encouraging each other to keep going in the hot sun, when we realised that we'd had a(nother) attention lapse and carried on slightly too far along the track and had to cut back across some rough ground to stay in the right valley. Luckily for the runners we'd passed on the track, the area was fairly open so they could see us ahead of them and so avoid making the same mistake.

A narrow track came and went up and down along the shores of two small lochs but it felt like we were making little progress in the heat. Luckily we then had a small river to wade across so we actually lay sat down in it, soaked our heads and faces and refilled our bottles, which gave us more life for the next section. I was very thankful for the rejuvenation as the final track was rather beautiful and it was a joy to run down the final section of "river" out to the road.

Running down the road
Finally...at camp!
There was a marshal at the road junction who gave us some tasty jelly babies and tried to spray us with water from a canister. When I say "tried", he did his best, but as we were some of the earliest people to pass him, he hadn't really got it working very well yet! The final few miles were all on road, but Shane had described it as "one of the most beautiful roads you'll run along". Coming from Tassie, Iestyn thought the road "wasn't bad" but that he had better at home. I know I am known as a "roadrunner" but I would gladly have taken out that part of the day as the sun beat down relentlessly on the tarmac. We were being teased again as we passed people sitting out in a cafe and then outside a shop selling ice cream.....we did debate stopping but by that point I just wanted to get to camp and was worried that if I stopped, my leg (and the rest of me) would give up in protest and I'd never make it (that was probably a wise decision as someone else bought an ice cream only to find it was 2 years out of date!!).

Cresting the last hill and spying camp
- what a relief!
Sunset at camp was sooo worth it!
The road seemed to get longer and longer and we found ourselves agreeing that even the smallest incline was now "uphill" so we could "legitimately" walk it - that's the official line anyway, though I think that Iestyn was just humouring me as he seemed to be getting stronger and stronger as the week progressed. He certainly kept me motivated throughout the day as it was a very long hot one, but we finally crested the final hill and saw the road down to camp - we picked up speed, "cruised" in (making sure not to cut the obvious corner!!) and were delighted to find that we were actually camping by a freshwater loch which meant another chance of a full body immersion/clothes wash. We also had phone signal in this camp, so I could get updates on the evening's football as well as my lovely Ultramail which told me that although it had felt like tough going, I'd had another strong day, finishing a long way clear of the "competitive ladies".
Around the freshwater loch
The all singing, all dancing marshal team
The final day looked like a short "glory leg" of "a mere 16 miles", but we knew Shane too well to believe that. A short trail/grass section round the end of the loch took us to a point further along the road we'd been on the previous night. It was slightly nicer to run along it earlier in the day with fresher legs, but it still seem to wind gratuitously up and down and round needless corners. The first checkpoint was "manned" (or womanned)...and what a way to do it. As we approached they appeared to be singing, dancing, clapping and waving in a line so as to bar the road ahead (probably a bonus for those to tired to navigate, as the road ended not far beyond them and they were actually waving us off to the right to double back on ourselves away from the last bit of tarmac of the whole route.

Approaching the beach section
We ran on rough tracks up hill and down dale for many miles, whilst hardly passing anyone....this is the price you pay for having a good day the day before...as Shane was adamant that faster runners shouldn't start before their advisory times (by this stage of an event, many people are just keen to get to the finish) in order that the race crew/marshals had time to get into position. Eventually we ran over a grassy area scattered with a few tents (what a beautiful place to camp....right up until a load of smelly runners come charging through, disturbing the tranquillity) and down onto soft golden yellow sand.

Not the easiest of terrains for tired legs
The beach was beautiful but crossing the sand was hard work on tired legs. I had the added problem of my right shoulder/rotator cuff. Ever since the very rough, steep, rocky, heathery traverse on day 4, it had been getting more and more painful. I don't recall a specific injury but I was using this arm a huge amount to hang on to tufts of heather as I lowered myself down small drops and also used it to push up/catch my weight as I landed (the hillside had been sloping up to my right).
My "makeshift" sling!
It had become so painful over the last few days that the only way I could run the downhills or flat sections was if I stuck my hand through the chest strap of my pack to act as a sling (uphills weren't so bad as I could my hand on my hips or thigh to take the weight off the shoulder). I don't like to take painkillers whilst running as I think you can do more damage to yourself if you numb the pain too much, but it had become necessary for the last few days (I couldn't even use my right arm to get in/out of my sleeping bag or pack/carry my overnight bag). I probably looked like an idiot running like that...but then again...none of us were exactly beauty pageant contenders by that stage in the event!

More and more headlands, but nice running!
We were now over halfway through the last day and we left the coast for some trackless wilderness. Some paths came and went, but it was great to be able to just pick your own way for most of it. There were lost of people closing up on each other now so there was no danger of going the wrong way (unless you failed to keep the sea on your left) even though we could just see more and more hills appearing in front of us, with no sign of the final lighthouse. After a creek crossing there was a particularly steep climb up to one of the "summits" on the route. Iestyn and I seemed to be fairly strong on these climbs, but not as strong as the leading men - as Jim (in 2nd place) climbed faster than us...but even he was doing a good "hands-on-knees" walk, and the leader kept pace with us until he shot off down the other side.

The lighthouse seen from above
(which was my only impression of it
prior to the event)
The actual finish line!
The lighthouse teased us by coming into view and then disappearing again as we headed for yet another rough hillside. I knew it couldn't be far to the finish by this time, and sure enough, we hit a rough vehicle track near the top of the climb. This was the final push to the finish and so we picked up the pace and followed it as it wound round to "Cape Wrath". We rounded a corner and there it was (though clearly there was another bend in the road to negotiate first)....a very welcome sight, though I have to say that I felt rather cheated. I had been imagining a brilliantly white lighthouse standing proud and isolated on a hillside with us approaching it from below - as it photographs of lighthouses on cliffs...or the Mull of Galloway lighthouse at the southernmost tip of Scotland (and much nearer home). There wasn't even a finish banner!

Happy Finishers!!
Still, at least there were a few feather flags and marshals cheering us in. We crossed the line together....but then I made Iestyn go back and run in again so that I could take a photo of him doing so (actually that was just my sneaky way of tiring him out a bit more so I could get into the queue for sandwiches and a can of fizzy pop first). People had their official "finisher's photo" taken - they took mine but then it was excluded from the Facebook album - a bit like my times from results - presumably because I'd missed day 3 (though some other non-competitive runners got theirs but never mind, I know I made it there and in a decent time too!)!

The "ferry"
Waiting for said ferry
Having finished, we then saw why there were so few of the race crew actually at Cape Wrath...and why it took so long for them to get there. We were shuttled along the rough singletrack road in minibuses....it took about an hour to travel 15km...but at that speed we could wind down the windows and encourage those still running up to the finish. We were then deposited at the end of the road to await a "ferry" which could carry 8-10 passengers at a time across the river estuary, and from the far side we were then bussed to Durness, where a campsite with showers (cold...but at least running water), pubs, cafes and chocolate shops awaited!

The whole crew at Durness!
Not too shabby as final sunsets go...
What an amazing experience the week was - I am sooooo glad I did it - another memory to be treasured and never forgotten! It was an epic adventure and a chance to catch up with friends old and new, visit beautiful remote parts of Scotland, get away from the stresses and strains of working life and, for me, a proper bootcamp as I'm sure my fitness improved day by day at a greater pace than tiredness accumulated. It was such a shame to leave that world behind and travel back "to reality" even if it took 12 hours to do so!!

Monday, 11 June 2018

Back in the "Long" Game...

I was a good girl and started Day 5 at my allotted time, which unfortunately meant no chat from Iestyn (as he was long gone!) but I did still have some company. Poor Filippo had not had a good night as he had been up being sick, so he thought it better to start earlier than planned as he didn't have as much energy as usual and, at 45miles, it was the longest day (and I made sure to carry some diarolyte sachets and glucose tablets with me in case he needed them). The first part was rather hairy as we had to run a brief section along the main road to Ullapool, with buses, coaches, lorries and cars roaring alongside us. Luckily we soon headed off onto some wide double track/forestry roads climbing up through remote glens. I kept chatting to Filippo as a way of making me pace myself and checking that he was OK, but as we got higher, he suggested I continue at my own pace. One thing I did find slightly dispiriting, was that if you start later, it takes an awful lot longer to catch anybody up, and this lets self-doubt creep in. Nevertheless, I was still enjoying myself as beautiful views opened up in front of me.

Some of the early forestry track
I navigated myself what I hoped was a good route as the terrain became trackless, contouring round a summit shrouded in mist and then descending down towards a pretty loch where I finally began to see more people (needless to say that Filippo galloped past again on this rough ground). This section was really beautiful as you has to run up and down small hills and round little corners following the line of a stream, whilst ducking under overhanging tress and avoiding muddy sections underfoot. At the loch the route rounded some fences and doubled back on itself to join a track (I gather some people massively cut that corner in order to make the cutoffs but I'm not sure how they thought they would get away with it when we were all carrying trackers!) and then the long track run began. It started off as a rough double track which meant you had to remain switched on not to trip on loose stones, but luckily it was still overcast and so not too hot. The later start did actually mean that, for the first time, I got to see the leading 2 men chasing each other down as they passed me by (ok so they were run/walking up a slope whereas I was just plain walking, but at least I got to shout some encouragement).

My tentmates Kirsty and Kate
on the endless track

The skies cleared and the track became smoother and so it was harder to keep the motivation to keep running along it. I had passed someone I knew (Matt) earlier in the day but he seemed to have had a new lease of life and passed me on the endless track. I thought I'd quickly lose sight of him but he seemed to stay a fixed distance ahead of me for a while so not letting him out of sight became my new target, which in turn meant that I had to keep moving forwards at a decent pace. I knew that the first manned checkpoint (CP) of the day was halfway along this section but it seemed to take forever to get to it. Although it cheered me up to catch groups/people and chat to them (including Matt on the tarmac road just prior to the CP), I was very tempted to consider stopping when I reached the checkpoint, especially as it was just beside a pub (though the event rules did allow us to go and buy cold drinks and fresh snacks in the pub....bliss!!).

Not a bad CP setting
As I ran into the CP, I talked myself into "manning up" and continuing with the day by making a private promise that I would stop the next time my number was scanned (these marshals told me that it was 10K to the next CP, but I think they meant 10miles!!) but the double track just seemed to continue on endlessly. You could see it winding away ahead of you for what looked like miles! It descended down to the river and from there it looked like there would be some welcome shade from the map. Unfortunately, this was not the case as the trees had been felled, so there was a rough scramble uphill around many treestumps before joining another higher level very exposed track. Although we had been warned that there would be little water on this section and we should look to the sides of the track for nearby streams, I found myself having to fill up at some of the tiniest trickles but I preferred the chance of a stomach upset to dehydration!!

The track descended to what I thought was the next checkpoint, but unfortunately (for me...thanks to my earlier promise to myself) the marshals did not scan us but just cheerily waved us through. I caught up with Karoline - Filippo's partner (and also South African) - who was the third ranked lady in the overall standings. She called me the "Comrades Queen" as I passed her so I thanked her for the compliment but reminded her that my highest Comrades finish was 4th - to which she replied that I was "a winner in her eyes, having been beaten by 3 Russians before they were banned". Not much further up the track ahead of her was Filippo, who was having a low spell, but as this was where the double track finished, I thought he would soon perk up again on the rougher terrain.

Heading up the valley and spotting
it would be a "decent" climb to get
 out of it
By this time I was into the last few miles of the day but, looking ahead of me, I could see that they weren't going to be very quick miles (no change there then!!). The route appeared to go up to the head of the valley, and then you had to climb out of it and down the other side towards the overnight camp....and there was no trail. As I worked my way round some slopes along one side of the valley, I caught up to Sarah (the second place lady in the "competitive standings") but she didn't seem especially chatty as she was rather concerned about how much of a gap there was between herself and Karoline. I reassured her that I wasn't being put into daily results and so she could happily let me pass and then get an idea of the way ahead by following me as I crossed some streams at the bottom of the valley and headed up the long climb to the col.

Climbing does reward you with some
amazing views!
Although it seems hard at the time (especially when you are also trying to eat and breathe) I do prefer climbing to descending. Unfortunately I slightly overdid it and went a wee bit higher than I needed, so had to head down to the small trail leading over a narrow pass and down towards the overnight camp. I couldn't see anyone ahead of me again so got my map out to confirm I was on the correct path as two diverged of opposite side of a stream, one descending and another one climbing more (yeay...it was the uphill one I wanted). Being "slightly" tired at this point, I missed the note telling us to "stay high above the gorge" and I accidentally strayed into said gorge. I found myself on a very narrow slippy precipice overlooking a long drop, and so when I'd finally managed to slow down my panic-breathing, I backclimbed up to where I should have been (and shouted a warning to those that were now cresting the trail behind me).

Tent city....finally...and food o'clock
Happy Days!
The descent down to the camp was far from "simple". After a decent run down the narrow trail, the route appeared to head off back over rough ground again, so off I headed (and as predicted I saw Filippo fly past). Still, I'm not really sure that this was the optimum route choice as I then had to climb down another near vertical slope to cross the stream again and rejoin a path that looked remarkably similar to the one I'd been on earlier, only this one had the other ladies now hammering down it. Karoline chatted as she caught me up, but Sarah was keen to push on to gain as much lead as possible. I let them go as they were happier bounding down than me and my dodgy leg but they remained in sight and I could see them switching positions ahead of me.

The view from the tents by day
As we gained a wider stable trail lower down I closed the gap back a bit, and also passed the long suffering Filippo again as he was fading fast. I asked him if he wanted to come with me, but he assured me that he'd be fine and make camp solo as he was now into the final mile. A special treat when we got to that camp was that the nearby loch was a freshwater one so I got another delightful fully clothed dip to cool and rinse myself (and my minging kit) off!!

And the view at night
Although I would never find out how I'd done each day as the results were only published for "competitive" runners, we had "Ultramail" delivered every evening (ie messages from friends and family at home), so I would find out whether I'd had a "good day" or not by this circuitous route. I hadn't managed to catch up to Iestyn all day so thought that I must have been one of the slower runners (especially when I think about how close I'd come to stopping - it was only the fact that I never had my barcode scanned again from the halfway CP to the finish that kept me trucking on) but my confidence took a big boost when my Ultramail told me that I'd been the fastest female overall on the day !