Thursday, 20 October 2016

Off-roading For The Weekend

Having survived the York marathon a lot better than I'd imagined, I didn't want to risk flaring my knee up any more by pounding out some road miles, so I decided that an offroad weekend was in order.

I've previously done an LDWA (Long Distance Walkers' Association) event, and really enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere. The LDWA put on scenic circular routes that cater for walkers and runners (the runners usually starting an hour after the walkers) and aren't races as such, as there are no timing chips and no prizes, and there is plentiful catering en route provided by volunteers (usually from the local WIs).

I'd done the "That's Lyth" event in Kendal with my clubmates a couple of times several years ago, but unfortunately the "Lakeland Four Passes" event had been abandoned before I took up running (though clubmates have done it in the past). It was being resurrected this year, albeit for a much higher price than the previous £7 LDWA entry fee, and several friends were taking part so I had my arm twisted into going down and joining in.

An interesting elevation map!
I read the event description - "It is an absolutely classic 19(ish) miles route taking in four of the Lake Districts most scenic valleys and their adjoining passes. It is a circular route which starts and finishes at Rosthwaite Village Hall in Borrowdale, at the southern end of Derwent Water. The first pass takes you to Sty Head Tarn situated between the Scafell Massif and Great Gable before dropping to the beautiful but always dramatic Wasdale with Cumbria's deepest lake. Onto the second which is Black Sail Pass & the third Scarth Gap, which happens to be the easiest ascent of the day & gives views of Haystacks, Wainwrights resting place to the right. The fourth and final pass is an old miners path and is probably the hardest of the day but you will take in an old miners building on your way to the top of Honisters Pass before returning down to the village hall." - which sounded great, so I entered, downloaded the route description, got out my maps and mandatory kit and headed down to Rosthwaite.

View from the start
Having chatted to Dave, James and Martin in their red polka dot tops ("team KOM" - King of the Mountains) before the start about it being a fun day out, I was surprised to see them all shoot off from the start as if it were a 100m race....then, as I watched them all leap into the air in front of a photographer, I realised why...and it did make a great shot! My friend Simon Franklin (the arm twister extra-ordinaire) and I headed off much more sedately, nearer the back of then field, having a good catch-up chat and generally chewing the fat.

My individual style of "walking the plank"
A good solid path to start
the climb up to Sty Head
It was a gentle run along the Borrowdale Valley up towards Seathwaite, with a mini "via ferrata" section of rock early on (you really didn't need the chain to help you cross it) and a "plank walk" where a bridge was being rebuilt. As we started to climb up towards Sty Head Pass, we soon caught up with the others, first Martin, and then Dave and James. Simon got into a conversation with Martin but just as I caught up to Dave and James, someone else was just commenting "Did you see that girl that was drug tested before the Ring of Steall race?" so I had to confess that it was me, prompting some funny TUE (therapeutic use exemption) discussions, which meant we reached the summit almost before we knew it.

Descending into Wasdale
The guys stopped for a couple of silly photos, but I headed off down into Wasdale, knowing that I would be the slowest descender of us all, and not wanting to hold them up as we dropped down. A couple of guys did pass me on the rocky section of trail, but surprisingly I also passed a couple, and a few more when it became the more runnable grass underfoot. Oddly enough, the boys never appeared on my shoulder...and in fact, I didn't see them again until after the finish.

Up to Balck Sail
The first "feed station" was in the carpark of the Wasdale pub. I downed a couple of cups of juice, along with a couple of slices of swiss roll and some brownies, and took some pieces of marsbar with me for the next section (well, I wasn't sure how well the grated cheese would stay in the sandwiches and I know where I am with brownies and mars bars!!). The initial run out was just undulating (which aided digestion) but as the path wound around the back of Kirk Fell, it started climbing and I resorted to run-walking. I passed several walkers in my event, but there were other peple out enjoying the Lakes and so I had to keep my brain switched on in order to head up to the right to Black Sail Pass, rather than following some hikers heading off left towards Pillar.

2 Passes down, and it looked like a shorter steeper descent down into Ennerdale and up out the other side towards Scarth Gap. From the top of Black Sail Pass, there was not a single person visible in the valley ahead of me. I had to keep checking my map as I ran down, as I really thought that I might have been seriously off route. My map was seriously old, and so marked forests no longer existed, but at least the hills hadn't changed!! I have never been so pleased to be passed by someone, as it reassured me as to my navigation, though it did mean that I could see I'd be getting soaking wet feet in the boggy muddy valley bottom.

The runnable descent to Buttermere
Climbing up to Scarth Gap
There seemed to be an unplanned water point at the Black Sail YHA Hut, but it turned out that was for a different event - a trail run round the bottom of the Ennerdale Valley - as I passed a couple of runners wearing different coloured numbers going the opposite way along the path to me. I caught up my overtaking descender as we climbed up to Scarth Gap, and after a breath chat, I bid him farewell at the summit, wanting to just take my time picking my way down into Buttermere. I even found myself heading off the trails to run on grassy slopes instead - what is the world coming to?

Honister Pass over to the right of the photo
The second feedstation was laid out on a wagon top near Gatesgarth Farm. Determined to get my entry fee's worth of food, I went to town.....and later regretted it slightly as I was rather nauseated on the final climb up to Honister (the entry fee was £27 so I'll leave you to imagine my intake.....). It had been cloudy for the first climb, spitting with rain for the second, cloudy again for the third, but the climb up to Honister was definitely the hottest and hardest! I'm not sure if it was steeper, or just that it was later on in the event, or due to the amount that I'd eaten...but there seemed to be more false summits on this one. That being said, I still really enjoyed going up to the mines, but was slightly confused on reaching the top.

The route description had said to ignore most of the paths and follow an old tram line, but before the "race" they had said that the correct path would be flagged. Again I wondered if I was in the wrong place as I saw no flags, but it turned out that it just hadn't been marked yet. As I tried not to slip heading down the wet rocky steps into Honister, I passed a man just setting off to put the flags in place (when I say "flags", they were actually Booths carrier bags attached to poles).

The event medal
At Honister a marshal reminded me that the road was not to be used on the descent, and so I did as told - on 2 occasions even running along a short narrow trail less than 50cm away from the tarmac! The run down into the valley was lovely - some on wide trail, small sections on single track, and several bits on nice soft grass. I counted down the 4 gates in the route description, but although they were meant to be "open so you do not need to climb them", I was a bit of a weakling and ended up climbing the last one after an unsuccessful struggle (lasting several minutes) trying to open it.

Celebrating with the boys afterwards!!!
A sharp cut down a steep grassy slope off the trail took me down to the valley floor and the route then retraced the initial outward section back to the village hall, where I filled up on lovely veggie chilli and tea while waiting for the lads to make it (whereupon we all decamped to the pub for a "debrief" on a great day out)!


James actually running uphill

Simon "loving" the race
Doing the run was definitely a good choice for the Saturday...but I'm not sure I made the right choice on the Sunday. A couple of the guys decided to run an uphill only race, whereas I (along with one of the others) opted for marshalling duties. The weather had definitely taken a turn for the worse - and so although it might have seemed madness to take part in the race, I think it was much crazier to marshal - stanbding still in the wind and rain seemed a recipe for hypothermia! Still, we all made it safely back down again afterwards - another successful fun weekend in the bag :-)

Friday, 14 October 2016

Rounding off the podium at York

I remained undecided about whether to actually take part in the York marathon right up until the end of the week. It wasn't just that knee was still painful, but also that the pain had been limiting my running/training to such an extent that I wasn't actually sure if I had the fitness to get round the course (my struggle over half the distance the previous Sunday certainly hadn't helped my confidence on that score). However, the World Trail Champs (about 85K long with 5000+m ascent and descent) were only 3 weeks away, and the 100K 4 weeks after that, so I realised that if I couldn't actually cover the marathon distance at the present time, then I wouldn't have a chance of making those starting lines.

Steve (the elite field coordinator) was keen for me to come and run (and be interviewed as the "previous year's race winner") but kindly let me make a decision right at the last minute. In fact, my decision was so last minute that I got stuck in traffic (when "someone" made the lovely decision to shut the A1M), missed the TV interview slot and only got to York in time to catch up and have dinner with Steve, Jamil (running his first marathon), Paul Marteletti and his wife Karen (Paul had perusaded Karen to come up from London with the promise (!) that I would be there!!). As usual, Paul and I surprised the others with our cheesecake eating prowess!!

Being rather nervous about how the run would go, I decided to make a plan beforehand and stick to it (that sounds so simple, but I usually just go and run). I wanted to get round (if I could) in about 3 hours, but I knew that there was a chance I wouldn't make it, so I still wanted to have a "useful" run. I had checked with Steve that there were places to be picked up if I needed to withdraw - one was just after the halfway mark, and the other was at about 17miles - another out and back section.

My "plan" was therefore to try to cover the first half in about 2:50 pace and then see if I needed to drop out or slow down to 3:10 pace for the second half (a definite positive split). Meeting my friend Dan on the start line was an added bonus as he offered to run with me, though if I dropped out then he'd push on himself. Telling him my plan also meant that I was more likely to stick to it.
Enjoying the first half ;-)
Hmmm...that hair needs a chop!!

It was interesting to see everyone shoot off at the start, as always seems to happen in races. It's not just that I'm very slow to get going, but people really do set off as of its a sprint. The York course exaggerates this as there is a steep downhill straight off the start. I knew that the downhill would irritate my knee, so was even more conservative than usual (if that's possible, knowing how much I dislike a fast start).

The initial couple of miles wind round the centre of York itself and there is usually a lot of vocal support. This year was no exception and it was great to see and hear cheers from people I knew (although it did prevent me from dropping out as I passed Betty's tearooms......which had been suggested to me!).
Chatting away

Dan and I chatted away the first few miles, with me pointing different things en route as the previous two York marathons came back to me. Some things were very different (such as the weather - the first one I ran was cold and foggy while the second one was actually rather hot and sunny) but other things were just the same (such as the minister standing outside of his church encouraging/blessing people).

Running "happy"!

A couple of people commented on the fact that we were talking away, but it meant that we could run at a nice comfortable pace with the miles ticking over - and I think that I was in about 8th place as we crossed the 10k timing mat. We didn't really speed up, but kept going at about 6:30miling, but this meant that we gradually moved up the field and by the time we reached 10 miles I was into a podium position.

My knee had been a bit sore for the first few miles, but having Dan there for company meant that I didn't think about it too much, and it seemed to settle down so I forgot about it. Now there was just my fitness (or lack of) to worry about. There was a timing mat at the 13 mile marker, but the halfway point was also marked so a time check there showed 1:24:55 - almost perfect pacing!! Soon after this there was a short out and back section with lots of crowd support, so it didn't seem appropriate to stop there. I wasn't feeling bad and my knee was OK so I decided to keep going at a similar pace and just take it mile by mile.

I remembered the long straight(ish) section from 14 miles onwards from last year when I find it a tough solo run in the sun, and it was definitely easier with company, though I did feel that I was starting to flag. Now in second place, I had noticed that I was about equidistant between the leading and third placed ladies so I wondered how long I would remain there. I just focused on getting to the end of the next dogleg as I knew that was also a "dropping point" if necessary.

With Dan on the second out-and-back
The second dogleg is about 3 miles long - slightly downhill on the way out and hence uphill on the way back. Just before I started down it, I spotted Paul coming back and turning off towards York, with a good lead at the head of the field. This meant that I would then see every runner ahead of me as I headed down that section. I gave Jamil a wave when I saw him, but he wasn't looking the cheeriest as he had been suffering from leg cramps (though he still ran a mightily impressive 2:30 marathon debut).

The long out and back might sound soul-destroying to some, but it means you can check gaps and positions in the field, and also that you can support, and be supported by, other runners. You also see roadside support twice on this section, so I got two shoutouts from Katherine Merry and her accompanying camaraman (last year she did the pre-race interviews and we kept getting the giggles...not that I felt much like giggling when I saw her this year!).

With "my cyclist" in tow...
By the time I got to the 20mile marker, I knew I would make the finish line so it was a case of just thinking 1 mile at a time. The closer I got to it, the more I wondered if I would be able to hold on to 2nd place (having previously finished 3rd and 1st, that would round off my podium positions nicely!). The cyclist who came alongside to mark "second lady" reassured me that he couldn't see anyone behind me, so I really started to think it was possible.

I had caught up to couple of other men for company by now - and we were starting to pass the 10 mile runners (they started after us, but finished on the same course), so Dan headed off to get a few faster miles in himself. I spotted the clock when I passed the 40K mat - and it was showing 2:40. I then started calculating times in my head and couldn't believe it when I worked out that I might actually finish under the 2:50 mark (this is actually quite something for me, as I've always run marathons in under 2:50 or over 3 hours).

My complete plate collection!!
I knew the final hill was steep, but I prefer ups to downs and this year I had a big grin on my face as I ran up it, as I really hadn't thought that I'd complete the distance when I started out that morning. Coming round the final corner and spying the gantry with the clock on it, I couldn't believe my eyes...I'd actually managed 2:49:04 to round off my podium positions and keep me away from a 2:5x marathon!!

The ladies' podium
This year's marathon may have had the best weather - cool and overcast (but not foggy) at the start, there was some drizzle halfway through, and the sun was shining at the end - but it was definitely the most enjoyable of the three that I've run, as the chat made the miles tick by....and it certainly gave me a massive confidence boost with regards to both my knee and my fitness. In fact I was only 16s slower than last year, which just goes to show that endurance doesn't fade as quickly as I'd thought. Massive well done to the winning lady (Sarah Lowery) though, who just dipped under 2:46 to record an 8+ minute PB - impressive or what??!!!

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

If Carlsberg did weekends....

It's amazing how quickly things can turn around and you can start a weekend "feeling blue" yet finish it with a massive grin on your face.

When you're feeling a bit miserable, you always want your mum, however old you are, so I started the weekend by heading over to Durham (good thing too as when I picked her up at the station, there seemed to be an inordinate number of drunken people around).
I met up with my friend (and Durham clubmate) Rosie Smith on the Saturday and we had a good catch-up while heading through to Gateshead for the first XC race of the North East Harrier League. I wanted to see how my knee felt whilst running a bit faster....the answer was OK whilst "racing" but still painful to warm up and cool down ;-(.

The back of the "fast" pack
The XC seems to have moved into the 21st Century this season with chip timing, but there was still the old "grassroots" element of the startline being spray painted at our feet. The level of participation shows how popular running is becoming - the NEHL covers only the northern part of the NE, yet there were still 352 people running in the senior and vet ladies' race.

The XC expression of pain!
 I can see the benefits of the handicap system in some ways, but in other ways, it makes it an odd race. Most people run in the "slow"pack (which also includes anyone who is new to the League/didn't run last season, no matter their ability - ie 287 runners) but a "medium" pack (49 runners) starts 2 minutes after them and a "fast" pack (16 runners) 2 minutes after that. Results are not based on actual time, but position across the for example Rosie was by far the fastest runner and finished 4th, but that meant that she had to work her way past 333 others - and had a 4 minute handicap with the race distance only being about 3.8 miles). I finished 42nd and found it hard enough to try to pass that many people on such a narrow short course (and was 9th fastest!). Still, it is always a great social event with lots of banter and support from both within and without the club across all the age groups.

Later that day I drove down to Derbyshire to visit and catch up with Eleanor Robinson. Eleanor has been involved with British Athletics for many years (as a runner and then as support/team management) and still holds British records over ultra distances and times, and regularly sets age group records. There is no person I (and most other runners who've been supported/fed by her) would rather see listed on the support staff when going to represent GB at one of these events!

She had roped me into running a local half marathon - well, initially it was meant to be a marathon but unfortunately that had been cancelled and become the Chesterfield Half Marathon. I wasn't sure how I'd fare both fitness-wise and knee-wise but thought that if I didn't give it a go, then I would never know.
The twisted spire of Chesterfield
The mayor and mayoress at the startline
Unfortunately the start was delayed by about 20mins when we were all in the starting pen...and it wasn't exactly the warmest but nevertheless we were soon underway. The course was rather a "figure of 8" shape so that we got to run through the centre of Chesterfield twice. Despite the twists and turns of the market place and the "cobbles" (they were actually decent sized flat stones and so there was no danger of slipping/twisting ankles), I did enjoy the support in town and it was nice to see/run towards the famous leaning spire.

I didn't feel too bad for the first 4 or so miles, but then my lack of recent proper running started to kick in. I don't think I'd run more than 6 miles continuously for 6 weeks, and I knew that I was just going to get slower and slower. It was so tempting to stop, especially as my glutes and legs complained bitterly on the uphills. Still, a look at my watch did reassure me that I was still running much faster than a walking pace and so I managed to keep going (although it did feel very much like shuffling at times....and probably looked like it too).

Not the flattest HM
I hoped that at least I'd managed to lead the first lady out to a good pace for the first few miles, and that she would be able to maintain it when she passed me at the 4.5mile point. Although I felt that I was running every mile slower than the previous one, I managed to keep her just within sight and only crossed the line about a minute behind. I was over the moon to have made it all the way round without knee pain, though my fitness definitely left something to be desired (maybe I shouldn't have had the post-race chips and chocolate cake!!)!!!

It was sore afterwards and so one of the post-race sports therapists applied some lovely "therapeutic" pink tape before I jumped into my car and headed off through the Peak District and down to Wales for my last fixture of the weekend.

This was the most fun, and the one that I thought might actually be the hardest for me.......

It was, however, the most important, as I think that when you say you'll do something for a friend, then you do everything in your power to keep that promise to them. Despite being tired from racing and it involving a lot of driving I knew I had to get there...

Jasmin Paris has already smashed the ladies' record for the Bob Graham Round (BGR) in the Lake District, and the overall record for the Charlie Ramsay Round in Scotland, and so "all" that was left was the Paddy Buckley Round in Wales. I say "all", but most people wouldn't even dream of attempting to run all three rounds in one year, never mind at record pace, but Jasmin is no ordinary person (in the nicest possible way ;-) )! The Paddy Buckley Round is over 100km long and covers 47 summits, and is often considered to be considerably harder than the BGR (and much less wellknown, so more seldom attempted; to "complete" any of the Rounds, the circuit must be covered within 24 hours). Jasmin started in Llanberis at 5am and although I had been going to help with an early leg if she'd set out on Saturday - the appalling weather led to a delay by 24hours, so I knew I would only get there in time for a later leg on the Sunday.

The "family run"
I made it to the leg3/leg4 changeover ahead of her schedule and so went a short way up the road run in (with my new bestie, Moss the puppy). Konrad ran in with Jasmin giving her a pep talk and encouragement, and I ran alongside with Moss so that he felt he could join in a "family run").

Despite Jasmin looking the most tired I've ever seen her (for her that is), she was still clipping along at a decent pace. She had 3 supporters heading off on Leg 4 with her, and I was a bit worried about whether I might actually be a hindrance rather than a help, so I agree to meet them halfway through the leg.

On top of Y Gyrn
After seeing her off, Ant Bethell and I drove to the end of the leg and ran back in to meet them on top of  Y Gyrn. We got there well ahead of schedule and so watched the sun setting on the various hills around (resulting in the mosquitoes coming out as the temperature dropped), before spotting the 4 figures pop over Moel Lefn and head towards us.

I had carried up lucozade, water and some food up in my pack...and actually felt useful as Jasmin wanted the lucozade as soon as we met her, ate some of the food I had (admittedly she wasn't up to eating much) and I replenished the water stores of the other support runners!

The chat we had as we climbed up Mynydd-y-Ddwy-elor must have been one of the most surreal I've ever had, as Ant was telling us how much it cost him to buy a box of 200 dead baby male chicks to feed his eagle-owl, but hopefully it distracted Jasmin from the effort she was having to put in.

Beautiful views while waiting for Jasmin
I wasn't sure how the section along the Nantlle Ridge would go as it was a bit more "technical" than my normal running, but I knew that if I dropped back slightly on those sections, then I'd catchup as soon as it was runnable or involved any climbing. This is, in fact, exactly what happened, and I actually really enjoyed going along there in the fading light as the views and the sunset were spectacular.

We all headed down from Y Garn towards the forest in the valley on slightly different lines through the bracken and grass. I nearly collapsed with shock when I realised that Jasmin was actually following my line (though I'm sure this was entirely accidental - I just happened to be in front of her the way she wanted to run from the summit to the bottom). As it got dark, we saw one of the next support group shining a torch out from the treeline to help us with our heading, and Ant ran slightly ahead with a bright headlamp on so we could aim for him.

Ant watching the sun set over the hills
Once we hit the trees, it was a straightforward run along forestry roads (with a sneaky little shortcut on single trail that nearly caught me out in the dark) to the handover point. This section seemed a lot longer to me than it had on the way out, so I can only imagine how Jasmin must've felt. It wasn't a time for much inane chat, but more to just check my pace and remain alongside her for anything she wished - silent support, lucozade, food, silly chat or whatever. I'd switched her headtorch on and given it to her as we hit the trees and the light from it was so good that I didn't feel the need to put mine on at all. Two of the guys were running with/just ahead of us and Sarah was a few yards up the road with her headtorch on so we could see if any corners or inclines were coming. We'd sent Ant on ahead with Jasmin's requests for the pitstop and next leg, so they were ready when we came in.

A brief change of clothing and a speed-feed later, we waved her off on the final leg. She was running more to feel than to a schedule, but although she'd started Leg 4 10mins down on record pace, she'd maintained this and so set out on Leg 5 with the same deficit. Jasmin can dig deeper than anyone else when it matters and, knowing she had Konrad with her, we were hopeful that she'd make the time up (especially as she'd said beforehand that there was some slack in the last leg).

By the time I'd changed and had some food it was after 8pm, so I reluctantly decided to head home (well it was a 5 hour drive and I'd to be at work at 8am) rather than wait to see her in, but I got a jubilant text a few hours later. She'd done an amazing 18 hours and 33 minutes, taking almost half an hour off the previous ladies' record....!!!!

How amazing is that.....not only smashing the records of all 3 Rounds, but to do them all within a few short months....and how privileged have I been to have been able to witness it from so close-up!! Wow!! How to end the weekend with a big grin on your face (and I'm sure that Jasmin will have had an even bigger one, no matter how tired she was at the end!!)....