Thursday, 30 April 2015

A Day in the Dales

My poor battered shin!

With fell running not exactly being my forte, I know that I have to get out of my comfort zone a bit and get some more experience on the hills. However, So far this year, I seem to have just confimed my "Calamity Jane" status. Not only was there the hand incident in Yorkshire, but a day out on some of the Welsh 3000s last weekend saw me come a cropper again. To be fair, I think the weather played a decent part in it.....not so much the frost and ice, or the limited visibility, but the gusts of wind. Some were over 40mph - and when one of those gusts catches you on a ridge with one foot in the air, there's a good chance that your foot won't land exactly where you had intended it to. Surprise, surprise....that's exactly what happened to me, but there was little I could do except get up and keep on going. It was only when my right shin swelled to 2cm larger than my left that I realised what a hard knock I'd given it!

Still, sitting at home feeling sorry for myself wasn't going to get me very far, so I girded my loins to face the Yorkshire Three Peaks Race this weekend. A Welsh friend of mine had suggested it to me as a good training experience....though we might have slightly different perspectives on what makes a good run, as he's actually an accomplished runner (finishing a narrow second on race day!!). The race itself covers about 23.5 miles over the three peaks of Pen-Y-Ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough so there's well over 5200 feet of climbing involved.
The week of beautiful warm, dry sunny weather boded well for the race, but as luck would have it, there was heavy rain all Friday evening and night. We got soaked through just walking down to the field for registration and so retreated to the van for a hot cuppa and to change into race kit (I decided to start with my waterproof jacket on....and didn't take it off until I was back in the van changing after the race....but at least wearing my waterproof buff and gloves meant that I had less compulsory kit to actually carry in my bumbag!).
The race itself started at 10:30am, under the finish gantry, which meant that we had a short uphill run across a field and then we were on the "main" road through Horton In Ribblesdale. Ant (Anthony Bethell) and I started at a sensible position in the field as we knew we were not frontline contenders, and over to the side in case there was any pushing and shoving off the start. We worked our way around people on the short section of road, which is a very useful start to the race as it nicely spreads the field out to avoid a bottleneck at the far end of the village when all 1000 runners turn off the road onto a rough track towards Pen-Y-Ghent. It was nice to be able to chat to someone as we started the climb up to the first summit, as he could point out other runners to me as we moved past them. I had no idea of what our pace was, but it seemed to be comfortable going, though I did notice that although we were consistently passing people, nobody seemd to be passing us, but I guessed that the faster runners had started further forward in the field.

Yippee....a road start!!

I lost Ant somewhere on the ascent (which wasn't hard to do as the weather deteriorated so that even with my hood zipped up, I still felt that one side of my face was freezing in the driving rain, and the visibility was down to just a few metres!) so presumed that he'd forged on ahead and I wouldn't see him again until after we finished back in Horton. Not being able to see the summit checkpoint until you were almost tripping over the marshals made for interesting bottlenecks at the dibbers......and it's amazing how irritated you can become by a hold-up of only a few seconds considering the length of the race (my private pre-race target was to try to finish under the 4 hour mark).
The inital descent didn't seem to be too bad , but that was just because I couldn't see what was ahead of me, as it soon steepened and the tussocky grass became more rocky. I grinned to myself as a marshal warned us to take it easy on the slippery terrain....there was no way I would be taking it anything but easy, but I think he was aiming his comments more at all the runners flinging themselves past me with gay abandon. Even when we were back on the trail we had run up, I took it more carefully than most, as I know my propensity to trip over even the most innocuous of rocks and didn't want to write myself off so early in the event. Still, by the time the steep descent was behind us, only 3 ladies had shot past me (all of whom looked like "proper" fell runners) so this gave me a wee confidence boost.
I realised that my earlier assumption had been wrong when Ant bounded past me down the hill, but as we then had several miles of more gentle undulations on trail, grass, rocks, mud and rough tracks, I caught him back up again....and I also managed to reel two of the ladies back into within eyesight (well it also helped that it was much clearer back down in the valley!). A 1.5K section on the main (well, actually it's quite a minor) road gave us some chatting time and a bit of banter as a runner I know from Carlisle (Steve Angus) passed us by. Tracy (Dean) was there in a layby as "supersupport" and managed to simultaneously take pictures, give Ant some jellybabies, and hand me a gel and bottle. This meant that I could gulp some down and then throw it away tidily at the checkpoint just up the road (Ribblehead) where other people were picking up their drinks. I was amazed to hear that I was in 6th position at that checkpoint......but thinking negatively, I worked out that meant I'd probably gone off way too fast up the first hill and might pay for it later.
The section from Ribblehead to Whernside was "interesting" to say the least. A lot of people come to support family and friends near this checkpoint so you start off with a bit of crowd-dodging (combined with puddle-dodging) on the narrow trail and then have to try to look athletic as you ascend a series of steps in full view of the supporters. After an underpass under the railway, there is a river to ford, a farm gate to hurdle, and a bog to splash through....and that's all before you start the ascent of Whernside proper.
I always seem to surprise myself with my ascending relative to those around me in the field, as I keep on running as long as I can while others start walking, and even when I end up "hands on knees walking" I still seem to be travelling at a decent speed. Not a single person passed me in the whole ascent (even at the top when I had to use my hands to haul myself up -  it was almost as steep as a ladder and I worried about falling off the hillside backwards on a couple of occasons) and I gained many places (including an all important female one!). As I powered past Steve, he asked me what my decending ability was like, and the only answer I had was a truthful "appalling"!
The weather had closed in again, and so it appeared to be a climb up into the unknown until suddenly you landed almost on top of the marshals in their high-viz jackets (full respect to them standing up there as it was now starting to snow!). I think they were trying to encourage runners but reporting that it was the end of that climb, but unfortunately it was the downhill that I was dreading! Several of the men that I had encouraged on the way up then shot past me on the way down, including Ant and Steve, (with Steve commenting that my descending wasn't "that bad", it was just "average" - I wasn't sure whether I was meant to take that as a compliment or not) and I slipped back into 6th female position again ;-(  I spotted the familiar vest of Claire Gordon (my Scottish team mate from Pike's Peak last summer) away in the distance below me and so managed to catch her up just by the next checkpoint, and we commiserated each other on how much we hated technical descents.
Chicking Steve © Mick Kenyon
A quick slurp of drink from Tracy at the road crossing/checkpoint and I was off towards Ingleborough, the last of the three peaks (though again it was shrouded in cloud and so almost invisible). My legs still felt remarkably fresh across the grassy slopes and again I managed to keep running on the boardwalks and paving slabs even when they ascended and became more step-like (well, most of the time). It seemed like several of us had been to-ing and fro-ing all day. It is obviously more noticeable when you pass the same lady every ascent, only to be caught again on every descents, so this time I asked her for "1/4 of her descending ability". The cloud lulled me into a false belief that a steep scramble would bring me out near to the summit, but it did land me next to a supporter handing out very welcome jelly babies. This time I got to give Steve a pep talk as I passed by and then I suddenly I heard an encouraging shout from Ant who came bounding out of the clag in the opposite direction. Not far behind him was another lady  - I'd never in my wildest dreams thought I'd see one of the top 3 ladies so late in the race. As it turns out, I was only 40s behind her at the top of Ingleborough.....though obviously this opened up to several minutes by the time we got back down to the bottom. There was some tape showing the general direction to leave the summit, which was a godsend really, as it was rather disoriemtating to be in a complete whiteout!
About to be overtaken again © Mick Kenyon
It was on this descent that I'd tripped and cracked my hand 6 weeks earlier. I knew it had been due to me failing to pick up my feet as my legs had been tired, so I was determined not to make the same mistake again. Luckily there was nobody running anywhere near me, or else they'd have heard me chanting "pick up your feet, pick up your feet" over and over again. It might have sounded stupid, but it worked, as I passed through the area safely. Looking back, I realise that it probably took up an awful lot of mental energy worrying about it, as the relatively straightforward few miles to run in from there seemed interminable to me, and the finihs couldn't come soon enough. My nemesis didn't pass me until the last couple of miles, but she was much more on the ball picking her way through rocks and mud than I was - still no falling, but I did stumble and lurch into a wall at one point ;-(
In the finish funnel
I was rather worried that I had gone the wrong way as there seemed to be nobody around at all, but luckily some men caught me up with a mile to go which meant that I could be a bit more confident and pick up the pace again as the finishing field came into sight in the distance. A final small hill to power up and down (with a cheer from Ant who'd run out to spot me) and I was into the finishing funnel with a smile on my face!
Somehow I'd managed to finish in 5th place (and hence then had a  compulsory kit check) and smashed my pre-race target despite the conditions (my dipper download was 3:44:44) so I was over the moon!! No injuries, a confidence boost, some hill training and all in all a great day out with friends - what else could you ask for on a wet, windy Saturday in April?

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Oh the Glamour....

Being asked to take part in a photoshoot in the Lake District sounds rather glamourous doesn't it? Right up until you hear that the plan is to meet in a carpark at 5:30am (for some dawn shots) and you know that it'll take you 1.5-2 hours to get there!! It's a difficult decision whether to go down late the night before and try to sleep in the car, or just get up at silly o'clock and go on the day.

Myself, Charlie and Steve setting off

The decision was actually taken out of my hands, as I got a text rather late on the Saturday evening to say that the meeting time was being pushed back to 11am due to the terrible weather forecast. When I left Dumfries, it wasn't so much wet as very windy , but I soon met the rain. There was a lot of standing water on the roads and my wipers were working doubletime, which didn't bode well. I always thought that it got warmer as you drove south, but my car thermometer continued to drop, so that by the time I got to Ullswater, I was driving through sleet and could see snow just above me.

It wasn't much better by the time we all met up so we decamped to a nearby cafe to plot over coffee. It did look as if the afternoon was going to be better, so we finally headed out at about 13:15. At least the waterproofs got a good test - and did feature in the early photos (for which we just ran a few steps along the start of the path in Glenridding itself).
Angie and I rocking the bobble hats
The shoot was for Berghaus (with Stuart as photographer) who are providing us (myself, Charlie Sharpe and Steve Birkenshaw) with some kit to run the Dragon's Back Race in Wales in June, so it was great to also have Angie along with us (she is both a runner and works for Berghaus). We also had (another) Stuart with us to provide the safety cover so it was a nice little group and made for some interesting chat as, although I didn't know any of the others very well prior to the day, we all had friends in common.
The his natural habitat

Charlie (looking frozen)
receiving instructions

We climbed up higher on the path towards Hellvellyn, stopping at certain points for Stuart to take pictures of the three of us running a few steps up and down the paths and hillside, both singly and as a group. The weather started to clear but there was still a lot of clag (and I learnt that CLAG stand for Cloud Low Aircraft Grounded!) higher up so we stayed relatively low intially. I naively thought that a photoshoot with runners would mean that I also got a bit of a run in, but it was more about walking, standing and chatting - though we did run for 10-20m stretches on paths, rocks, grass, mud and snow (I even lost a shoe in the snow as the ones I was weraing were slightly large - even with a couple of pairs of socks!). In fact - when I got back and studied the map, I figured that we covered less than a mile/hour!!!

Looking back down to Glenridding

It was rather cold up on "them there hills", but full credit to the Berghaus gear - it got a proper test and we stayed warm and dry. Unfortunately, it was getting rather late in the afternoon so I had to bid farewell to the others and turn for home. Such a shame for me as the weather cleared further and they got some great views from the summit as dusk approached, but unfortunately it had already been a long day, I had a decent drive ahead of me, and an early start for work in the morning.

Still, it was a good day out - I had fun, met some new and interesting people, and I admit that otherwise I certainly wouldn't have ventured out to the Lakes when I saw the weather that morning!

Here's to better weather for the Dragon's Back (though at least I know I'll have good gear if it is wet!!)!

Monday, 13 April 2015

Vive La France!

Beautiful Lake Annecy
This year, I had decided against putting myself forward for selection for the World Trail Championships (to held in Annecy at the end of May). I didn't want the pressure of representing GB on what I thought would be a rather technical course (much more suited to other runners) and, as the race starts at something like 3:30am (ie in the dark), I still have a fear of falling over right near the start - not an ideal way to start a 70+K off road race!

Home for the weekend
My friend, Tracy Dean, is running the race for Team GB, and so decided to travel out to Annecy for a week with a friend (Ant) over Easter in order to spend some time running on the actual race route. She invited me to come and join them for a couple of nights, so as soon as I finished work on Good Friday, I made my way to the airport and flew out to Geneva to join them.

?Not the best route
It was very late by the time we arrived at the campsite in Annecy, but it was so nice to wake up there the following morning - even if no hills were visible due to the cloud and rain! We delayed our start as long as possible (with trips to the supermarket etc) but as the weather showed no signs of improving, we thought we might as well get out there and check out the final section of the race route. Ant was faffing, so Tracy and I set off first expecting him to catch us up within a few minutes. There were rather a lot of unmarked tracks (all of which appeared to be muddy rocky streams due to the past few days of heavy rain), but I put my trust into Tracy's navigation as she had run the course the previous year - unfortunately, it appeared rather different with the poor weather, and the trail we were on appeared to be descending rather a lot so we checked the map. Or rather, we tried to check the was still on the front seat of the van!! Ant hadn't appeared yet, so we tried to call turns out that his phone was also still back in the van. We decided to continue on from memory of the contours of the land seen on the map and found the trail again. And then we must have lost it again as it petered out into nothingness!!

Yippee for French bakeries!
A bit of bush-bashing (which gave us a few leg scrapes/war wounds) brought us back on track - and we should have had the courage of our convinctions and stuck with it. Unfortunately, we weren't convinced that we'd got it right, so when we hit the crest of the ridge, we decided to try to continue along it instead of dropping down to a minipass the other side (ie the correct route, which Ant took when he got there a few minutes later). Tracy and I then spent rather a long time picking our way along the ridge - at times over rocks and small cliffs, at other times having to work our way round trees - but we were following marks of sorts on the trees (it turns out that they were just marking foresty divisions rather than actual routes).  To cut a long story short, we were celebrating getting off the ridge and back onto a trail, when the trail brought us out practically back where we started (via a storm ditch). We still didn't know what had happened to Ant at this stage, so decided to run back along the road towards Annecy - and luckily bumped into him outside a lovely little bakery, where we could dry off and refuel before returning to the campsite.

With a map this time...

The next day seemed a bit clearer, though the tops were still all in cloud, and the plan was to look at the first section of the run, so Tracy and I set off straight from the campsite - Ant was going to drive to the summit of that section and run back to meet us, so we'd have transport at the end. The trails were much better defined on this side of the valley and so it was a pleasant run, even though it was a slow relentless climb. The gorund was much drier, the sun came out and we even passed a few other people on our travels. There was a road crossing 1/4 of a way into the run and so we stopped for a brief rendezvous with Ant (once bitten, twice shy - wrt the meeting up dramas of the previous day) and then continued on our way.
Breaking trail....

Playing in the snow

There seemed to be pieces of tape at regular intervals, as if someone had been out and marked the route for us (I doubt that they would have lasted from the previous year's race), but we followed them slightly too closely - as the route they marked was longer than our intended path. Still, we were enjoying the clear air and were happy to work off the cheap (but good) French wine from the night before. Once we got above 1000m, we started to come across patches of snow and ice, which gradually coalesced until it was no longer possible to run. If the surface was hardened, it was rather slippy, and if not, you could sink into it up to your knees. Still, it was rather fun......until the clouds closed in! Ant had texted to say that it was very poor visibility at the top, but that he was setting off down to meet us. It was really hard work trudging through the deep snow, so whene we came across some pisted cross country skiing trails heading up towards the summit, we decided to make the most of them. We were no longer sinking into the snow (and so weren't destroying the pistes) so though noone would really mind - and what's more we only caught sight of 2 skiers the whole time!

Woohoo - a road!
Unfortunately it meant that we missed Ant (yet again....starting to become a bit of a habit now!!), but as we had phone contact this time, it meant that he retraced his steps and reached us just as we finished our coffee and easter eggs in the summit chalet. Then it was all change as Tracy drove the van down the next section while Ant and I ran. I was rather excited to find a section of road to run on (the snow was too deep to use the trail), but before long we headed back off onto the actual race route - though I did stop to watch some of the kite skiiers on the way. Ant tried to give me some tips to improve my downhill running, but I think I'm a lost cause.....and I think his suggestion of trying small sections with my eyes shut, to build up some confidence in my foot placement, would just see me end up in hospital!
Kite skiiers
Later on, it was my chance to educate the other two....but in a subject I know much better than offroad! I introduced them to both chocolate crepes (well, it was Easter Sunday) and raclette (mmmm....melted cheese!). Both got the thumbs up!!!

Looking down onto Annecy
View across to the previous day's route
Just my luck - we woke up to clear skies on the morning I was due to leave! It was chilly (about zero degrees) but it had all the makings of a beautiful day - and was forecast to stay like that for the rest of Tracy and Ant's stay. In a way, it was a good thing that Tracy and I had gone off course on our first day, as it meant that I had an excuse to go back on a day when there was a chance of fantastic views. The plan was that Ant and I would start the climb from the far end, while Tracy drove back to Annecy and ran up to meet us at the summit (you can guess where this is going can't you?). Everything started off swimmingly - it seemed like a totally different trail compared to 2 days ago just because of the dry weather.

Looking back the way we'd come!
We climbed up to the summit and were rewarded with amazing views over the whole lake, across to the other side (where we'd been the day before) and down over Annecy itself. It was so beautiful...I just wanted to stay there for hours, rather than head back to Geneva airport. It did seem a trifle odd that we hadn't yet met Tracy, but I thought that she might have been doing some reps on a steep section of climb. By the time we were almost back into town we still hadn't seen her - and a text conversation showed that we had, indeed, missed each other again. Sitting down eating our emergency food by the van (as Tracy had the key with her) and Tracy called us - she was a bit lost on a trail in the forest and knew we were short of time to make my flight. It turned out that she was actually round the other side of the mountain, so she just descended as best she could then did some "speedwork" tearing through town to join us.

All's well that ends well however (well, it's a shame actually, as I'd love to have stayed out longer - just being there for a couple of days reminded me how much I love France - the place, the scenery, the people, the food and the drink) and I made my flight....and went back to work jealously thinking of the pair of them enjoying several more days of running in glorious sunshine!!