Friday, 29 April 2016

Run away to the hills......

The original plan was for a lovely relaxing weekend up in the Cairngorms to chill out after the marathon (plenty of good food, good drink, good company and use of the spa/pampering facilities), but as the marathon hadn't happened, there was nothing to recover from and so it would have been "wrong" not to get out and play in the hills!

As more of a hill novice, I was happy to leave all the routeplanning and packhorsing to my experienced "tourguide" and just carried my own essential gear (though clearly I stole some of his food as well!). We started by driving up to the end of the road at the Linn of Dee and set off up Glen Lui.
The bitter wind was a slight indication of the weather to come but there were also periods of sunshine - oddly enough, at one point the sky was completely blue overhead yet it was snowing!!!! We jogged past the boarded up Derry Lodge (a former shooting lodge) and then headed up the steep slopes on Carn Crom. It was so warm in the sun going uphill that we actually had to remove layers of clothing, though they were soon replaced as we hit the wind higher up. By the time we reached the summit at 890m we were already in and out of the snow (both underfoot and in the air).
Towards Ben Macdui from Carn Crom
From there it appeared to be a snowy ridge run towards Derry Cairngorm though the summit at 1155m was not visible as the snow clouds descended. As long as you were warmly wrapped up, it wasn't bad running weather - though is was more of a run/hike on the uphill sections. It wasn't the easiest to work out a line to follow as your feet sometimes sunk in a very short distance but at other times you were ankle deep in softer snow.

By the time we summitted the visibility was rather poor and the wind was whipping snow into our faces. We descended to the next col to put on full waterproof clothing and eat some food. When the clouds cleared, there were amazing views to be had in every direction. Not wanting to cheat ourselves out of a summit, we detoured slightly to the top of Creagan a'Choire Etchachan (1106m) before heading towards Ben Macdui.

Fun descents in the snow!!

At 1309m, Ben Macdui is the second highest mountain in Britain, but unfortunately I didn't really get to see much of it. I knew there were cliffs over to our left and so we had to make sure we didn't veer too far that way, as overhanging cornices were a worry. It was a good lesson for me in how deceptive things can appear in whiteout conditions. I was constantly trying to look for visible rocks to stay right of, but lines in the snow could be mistaken for an approaching edge. I was so glad to be there with someone who was confident in those conditions, though luckily I managed to avoid him looking back and seeing me in tears due to the pain from my cold almost(!) numb feet!! What a big girl's blouse I was!!

We may not have reached the summit by the most direct route (on a sunny day) but we did just keep climbing until we made it - and I know I was there as I saw the cairn, trig point and view (!) indicator. It didn't seem very worthwhile continuing on our planned loop to a few more peaks as it was tough going in the snow, and there was little (ie nothing) to see so we decided to make our loop slightly shorter. This involved running a certain distance on a specific bearing, then turning and doing the same again on a different bearing, which took us to the edge of the plateau and our final high point of the day (Srin Riach - 1110m).

Looking back at the view as we
descended and the skies cleared

It was fun trying out different running techniques in the snow depending on the slope, the depth and the wetness of the snow, ie straight-legged or knees bent landings, leading with a flat foot or a heel dig etc. The fastest bit of running I did, however, was actually straight down a slope when the map slipped away and started making its own speedy descent - aided by the wind!!

By the time we got back to the valley floor and the longish run out, I was confident of my footing and stride again, and so offered to take the heavy pack for the last few miles. I only ran with that weight for about 3 of the 19 miles...and it was certainly a leg workout, so full respect to Neil for carrying it for the other 16 (though I did try to lighten the load by eating the food out of it!) !!

Before driving back home a couple of days later, we decided to get another "little run" in - this time in the Lochnagar area. I was reassured that it would only be about 20K, so I thought my tired little legs would be able to handle it, though it was forecast to be rather windy.

Lochnagar's northern corrie

We drove to the carpark at the Spittal of Glen Muick set off across the valley to the far side, initially on a track then along a lovely path through the woods. I felt really tired as we ascended a rocky track, as if I was at the end of a long run, but this seemed to improve as we turned off onto a smaller path and climed up to the coll between Lochnagar and Meikle Pap (and it did look rather like its name suggests!!). It would be a shame to miss a summit so we ascended Meikle Pap (itself being higher than Scafell at 980m) and then took a break to eat some food and put on extra clothing as the wind was really rather strong! It was worth it for the great view across Lochnagar's northern corrie with a lochan cradled below.

Back down to the col and then straight up the next slope, known as the Ladder for its steepness. I have to say that this was rather a scary ascent for me. The sun was shining brightly but there was a big windchill so that the snow had quite a hard crust on top of it. I found it hard to get my feet to sink into the crust far enough for good purchase so I kept being blown sideways across the icy surface as I climbed (despite trying to stab my mitted hands through the top as extra anchor points). It was the one time when I wished that I was heavier, or was carrying a heavier pack at least (though not enough to have seriously offered to carry the heavier gear).

On top of Lochnagar - not the warmest of days!!

I was so relieved when the slope eased off onto the plateau and realised we had reached the top of Cuidhe Crom (1082m), and luckily it was still clear so we got further fantastic views as we ran round to thr right following the edge of the cliffs (though not too closely). The wind felt like it was blowing shards of glass off the surface into our faces as we tagged another couple of cairns on the way round to the rocky outcrop of Cac Carn Beag (at 1155 this is the true summit of Lochnagar). The cloud was coming and going and so there were brief glimpses of the whole Cairngorm massif, though I could understand why Queen Victoria is reputed to have written "it was cold, wet and cheerless, and the wind was blowing a hurricane" when she made the summit!

I enjoyed running across wide expanses of snow from there, though had a few funny moments when descending off the plateau. I was trying to land as I'd been shown 2 days previously (with a straight leg to sink into the snow and get some good purchase) but would suddenly hit a raised lump/rock with one foot. This would throw me totally off blance and see me pitch headfirst into the snow - comedy really!

Some of the joy might have come from thinking that Carn a'Choire Bhoidheach (1113m) was our last Munro, but then I heard the words " we're about halfway distance-wise but have done most of the climbing"..... After dropping back down to start yet another climb, I was very tempted to just lie down in the snow for a rest. It's amazing how much energy is required to take each step when the snow is sticky and wet. By the time we got to the top of Carn an t-Sagairt Mor at 1047m, I wasn't up for much chat or looking out for our last glimpse of the view to the north, and even had to be convinced to eat some food.

Looking towards Loch Muick from Broad Cairn
The food clearly worked as we made great time after that, knocking off Cairn Bannoch (1010m) at a fast pace. In no time at all we were on our last peak (Broad Cairn at 998m) looking down towards Loch Muick. From there I could pick out the path down across the slopes below and along to the end of the plateau, from where a few steep rough zigzags took us down to the lochshore. The final few miles were covered at breakneck pace, as my stomach was now loudly protested about how long it had been since it had been adaquately replenished. As it turned out, that "little run" before driving home, had been 18 miles long and covered about 3800feet of ascent, but I have to admit that it was worth it!

If I thought that I'd coped well with the hills, this was certainly put into perspective the weekend afterwards. I went down to the Lake District to assist on a speedy Bob Graham Round. A traditional BGR is a 66 mile, 27000 foot ascent of 42 of the highest Lake District peaks that mjst be completed within 24 hours. The fastest known time for a lady was just over 18 hours, and Jasmin Paris was aiming to run faster than this, possibly covering the distance in under 17 hours. I know that Jasmin is an amazing runner, and the fact that I was the only female crazy enough to be doing any running support should have given me a clue as to how fast she was going to go, but she outran everyone's expectations (including her own). I was going to run Leg 5 (Honister to the finish at the Moot Hall in Keswick) as it had the least amount of technical hill running and a road section to finish with. Jasmin started at 4am and I got updates at the end of every leg about how much time she had made up on her planned schedule. I worried that if she carried on gaining 30mins per leg, then I wouldn't keep up over the last 3 summits and actually have to do a road time trial at the end.

A chilly wait at Honister
Unsurprisingly, her pace steadied during the day (still blisteringly fast but not gaining as much as earlier) though I was still rather nervous about letting her down on the final few steep descents. We ended up with a good group of guys at Honister to support the "glory leg" so we agreed that I would set off just a couple of minutes ahead and they'd catch me up. As soon as I saw Jas heading down into the carpark, I was off up the other side as she hardly broke her stride coming acorss the pass. I made good pace up Dale Head but did keep turning back to see if they'd catch me before the summit (Jasmin could see me climbing ahead of her, so hopefully it spurred her on to keep pushing). I decided not to wait for them on the summit (as descents are not my forte and I was sure they'd fly down them) so I continued along the route, with regular checkbacks on her progress. I saw them all leaving the top of Hindsgarth (the penultimate peak) as I climbed up Robinson and thought that I might just survive the leg. I knew they were planning a short but very steep run off the ridge and so forced myself to take that option so that they didn't pass me. It felt like I was in a race (with the "fear of Jasmin" spurring me on) but surprisingly I got down to the valley bottom before seeing them crest the edge.
Having reached the track, I decided to hotfoot it along to where some other supporters were waiting at the end of the road to tell them that she was on her way (as it turned out I did this at 6:45 mileing!!). The final few miles are along the road back to Keswick - some people take the time to change into road shoes, but Jasmin wasn't stopping (and I don't think she actually owns any road shoes!!). The group of guys was quite large by this point, and so people naturally jogged off in little groups chatting to each other (as it's not often that you can catch up with that many fellow runners of a similar standard).
Leg 5 support team in full swing
However, myself and the two guys that had been down as "official leg support" (and Jasmin's fiancee) made sure that we stayed with her, running alongside to chat to her, look out for traffic, and supply her with whatever food or drink took her fancy (which was actually just pepsi by that point). Amazingly, despite her tiredness, she still looked strong and was able to smile and chat to me!!

As we came in to Keswick, severeal of us dropped back to allow Jasmin to run ahead to the Moot Hall, but the route appeared to be blocked by a huge throng of several hundred people. We (the support team) glanced at each other wondering if someone had arranged this to mark the end of such an amazing run.....but it turned out that it was just fortuitous timing. A charity walking group was having a briefing before they set off up a hill and so they all turned, cheered and created a path through for Jasmin to finish what was an epic day out!!
Jasmin's run into Keswick
She completed the round in 15 hours and 24 minutes - the 5th fastest time ever. That is a brilliant time for anyone whether male or female, and I can see that being the fastest known time for a lady for many years to come - it was amazing and humbling to have had the opportunity to have been just a tiny part of such an awesome run - respect!!! What a legend!!!

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

"Round the Houses" ?? - well, the name does describe the route rather well......

A lovely surprise pressie from Fiona ;-)
Having never been one to sit around moping, I decided that I should get out and run on Sunday rather than sit around following marathons that I'd planned to be racing. I wasn't confident enough of my return to form and fitness to go to the Scottish 10 mile championships, so instead opted for the Jim Dingwall "Round the Houses" 10 K in Grangemouth. I thought this would be a lower key event, and it would also give me the opportunity to catch up with my lovely "running mum" Fiona Matheson (her club organise the event, and it was actually the 50th running of it).

Not really the most inspiring route!!!
Little did I know that there were only 300 runners in the Strathclyde Park 10 mile race, whereas almost 1000 had entered the 10K. While registering, I heard that it was set to have the highest quality field of any race so far this year in Scotland.....which was quite surprising, as the route isn't exactly scenic, though it is rather fast and flat. Still, as I caught up with Freya Ross in the toilet queue, and then watched Hayley Haining jog past my car, they did seem to have a point. I met up with Fiona, we commiserated each other over various tendon issues (interestingly, neither of us had suffered with the usual running Achilles problem - hers was a tendon in her foot, and mine my shin!), went for a jog, gossiped and spotted various other familiar faces lining up. The race was doubling up as the Scottish University 10K Championships so I knew there would be speedy youngsters, but when I also saw Lesley Chisholm and Jenny McLean, I didn't think I'd even have a chance of making the top 3 LV40s.

Although the race started down a wide road, we were penned in quite closely to make sure that everyone crossed the chip mats, so I took my usual place right at the side and off the front so that I could get away without any mishaps (I wonder when that fear will leave me?). There's little to say about the route as it really does go "around the houses" in a big square and is mostly on main roads. The first few miles seemed rather fast, but I was well back in the ladies' field, but after a mile or so I started to close the gaps to those in front of me. It's always tempting to relax and take your foot off the gas whatever the race distance, but gradually reeling people in does motivate you to keep going.
A short track finish

I'm not used to chasing so many (young) ladies in a race, but it made for a good tussle. I'd get past one and then she'd overtake me again, and then we'd both move up on the person in front. Unfortunately this did mean that I was running wide on a very long gradual left hand bend into a breeze as I wasn't going fast enough to get ahead, but slightly too fast to tuck in behind. I was trying to keep my eye on Lesley up ahead as I know she is slightly quicker than me over the shorter distances. I hoped that she would drag me along to a decent time, and my watch did have me just ahead of PB pace at the halfway point.

Much to my delight, I caught and passed her at the 8K point, with all of us ladies slowly creeping up the overall field. The end of the race is not the best, psychologically speaking, as you have to run past the stadium, turn 180 degrees round bollards in the road, run back a kilometre, and then skirt round the back of the track. When you finally skid round onto the track, you've less than 100m to go for it to the finish line. I was managing to keep in touch with the girls in front, but knew their young legs would have more of sprint in them than I did.

You have to love a printout of your time as soon as you finish
Although I know I should be pleased with my time, it was actually disappointing to see the finish clock, as I must have run the second 5K slower than the first, despite moving up the field. When I looked at my watch afterwards it was my 4th mile that was the slowest one, as each mile after that got progressively quicker again. Still, I was happy with my run all things considered- and it is testament to the depth of the field that my time (which was over a minute faster than the first lady ran in 2014) put me in 10th position (though only 21s separated positions 4-10)....but you have to challenge yourself and race faster ladies if you want to get the best out of yourself!

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Marina Madness

Family Zakrzewscy hit Hartlepool (post race sunshine)
I'd originally planned on running the Marina 5 as a pre-marathon sharpener, but have obviously had to pull the plug on the marathon as I didn't think I'd do myself justice as I'd had to take 4-5 weeks out of training. However, I haven't tried a short, fast race since the tendonitis so I thought that I might as well give it a go. I thought there would be a decent field as it was also doubling up as the North East Masters' Championships, and it gave me a good excuse to spend a weekend catching up with family.
Mama demonstrating how warm it was on the prom
It was lovely of my parents to come and support me on the day, and it really felt like a family outing as we headed down to Hartlepool on the Sunday morning. In my last race, we picked up our numbers in a castle (an old prison), and this one kept up the unusual venue tradition as we had to register on a boat. Still, there was a nice cafe on the boat - my mum and I both spotted the delicious-looking carrot cake to try after the race (and it tasted as good as it looked!!!). It was easy to spot my bib as there was no entry on the day and the 600 numbers had been pre-allocated in alphabetical order. For once I wasn't last, but I still thought it wouldn't be that tough a challenge to finish in a higher position than my number (599)!!

The appealing North Sea?
It was lovely to catch up with a couple of friends, but as it was rather chilly, I decided to go and check out the start of the course as a warm up. I have to admit that the North Sea isn't at its most appealing on a cold overcast morning, and I was very reluctant to strip down to my race kit (how I wished I'd kept my gloves on, as my hands didn't warm up until I was on my way back to the finish!!).

Starting through the houses

We all gathered in the street (with bollards and tape hemming us in to ensure everyone crossed the starting mats for accurate times) and were started by a cannon (not exactly the most common start gun!!). The first half mile was along streets between houses so we did have to be careful of cars (both parked and still driving, though the marshals were very helpful) but then we were up a rise and onto the prom.

Picture credit Karen Newton
The race then consisted of 2 miles along the seafront before turning round a marshal at the very far end and coming back on yourself. This meant that you could see the field stretching out ahead of you, but also spot others on the turnaround and encourage each other as you passed. I had originally thought that it was quite a still day, but there is never no wind by the North Sea. As the wind was in my face on the way out, I hoped it would then be a tailwind as I tired on the run back - I'm sure it was to some extent, but it never feels that way!!

I worked my way up the field slowly but steadily on the outward leg, but wondered if I'd overcooked it without realising, as I spotted the second lady coming towards me once I'd passed the halfway point. In my head, she looked fresh as a daisy while I was exhausted, so I expected to see her fly past all the way back. It did give me confidence to overtake a couple of men on the return run, as this must mean that although I felt tired, I was still moving OK (either that, or they were just more tired!!!).

Into the finish

Getting support from runners coming the other way (clubmates, friends and even total strangers) is definitely a was the fact that I'd not heard a single shout for other ladies. Coming off the prom, through the carpark and back between the houses I knew I had less than half a mile to run. We were marshalled onto the pavement rather than the road, which meant negotiating kerbs and grassy segments, but the finish line came into view without any major stumbles. There wasn't a clock on the finish line so I had no idea what my time was going to be, but managed to talk myself into pushing right to the line.
A chilly prizegiving ;-)

It turns out that it was worth it, as I really surprised myself by clocking a much faster time than I'd expected (my fastest for about 3 years and a cheeky new CR by 14s), but it also meant that my legs were rather tired on the run back to Durham (possibly not the best idea I've ever had!!).