Monday, 21 August 2017

The Hare(s) and the Tortoise

I have known of the Ultravasan race for several years now and it always looked rather appealing. It is a 90k trail race in Sweden along the route of a famous winter ski race (the Vasaloppet, which started in 1922). I knew that I wasn't fit enough to attempt the full event, but as my friend Jo was going out to race it, I decided to go along, support her and attempt the 45k version. 

Seeing what they'd said about me
at the press conference!!
It was a great excuse to get away, catch up with many overseas friends, and test my ongoing shin problem and see where my fitness was at. Thursday became a very long travel day....arriving after 11pm....and Friday was taken up with the press conference (for both of us), registration, technical meetings, race briefing etc, so all too soon it was time to prepare.

Jo's race started at 5am so it involved a 2am rise for breakfast and the bus ride there.....mine was more civilised in that I had to get the bus at 7am, but further sleep was still rather elusive. I made my way to find the buses in the pouring rain....which rather set the scene for the day. To be fair, the rain was lighter when I got to the start field at Oxberg, but it was still rather chilly. I tried to follow Jo's race as long as I could, but all too soon it was to strip off, hand in my bag, pick up a GPS tracker, and make my way to the start.

I knew that there were several faster women in the race, so my main aim was to make sure I didn't get drawn in to running with them, and just run my own race on feel. Luckily, there was no way I could have gone at their pace as I watched them sprint away from me as soon as we started (with a soggy, muddy run across some rough ground). I was glad not to be in a crush as, knowing my coordination skills, I would probably have tripped over the railway lines we had to hurdle before we entered the forest. 

I think there were about 10 ladies ahead of me after the first kilometre but over the next couple I gradually weaved round people until I was running alone, as third lady, with the first two (Fanni and Lisa) out of sight. I was happy with this, as I'd thought I'd be further down the field than that, and I figured that I'd never see the leaders again. I found out later that they ran together for the first 15k and then Fanni moved ahead of Lisa.

The route consisted of some single track through the forest, some grassy sections, and some forest roads with definite inclines and descents. The forest was very pretty and we were beside a lake for some of the early stages, but it was rather wet and muddy underfoot. The race director appeared at a road crossing about 10k in and told me that I was only 45seconds behind the second placed lady, but unfortunately didn't tell me what I was more interested in.....which was how far ahead of 4th I was!

I got the occasional view!!
After a while, the 45k runners swung round and joined onto the 90k route and so I expected it to be very busy from here on in, but I hardly saw a soul.....and so I wondered if I was way behind the main part of the field. I had been expecting to finish about half an hour after Jo finished the race, but I'd also thought that we would be running a faster pace than those going twice as far as us, so I'd kind of thought that I'd be joining their route in the thick of it. I was happy running along on my own, as it gave me a chance to look around...and look at my foot placement. It also meant that I really could just relax and run at my own pace, but the challenge was to keep reminding myself that I was actually in a race and not just out for a run through the forests.

The rain got lighter and heavier but never eased up and there was absolutely no point in trying to keep your feet dry, as puddles stretched across the whole path for some considerable distance at times.....which actually made me lift my feet higher than usual as I did try to clear them of the water each step. 

The route of the Ultravasan 45
With about 17k to go (the route markers counted down kilometres Comrades-style) I caught up with Jo. I nearly decided to just run along with her for company (having reassured her that her 3rd position was secure as I'd not passed another lady since our routes had converged) but just then I spotted Lisa away ahead in the distance through the trees. This spurred me to keep going my own speed in the "hope" that she might be tiring. However, she seemed to have spied me and picked up her pace as unfortunately I lost sight of her again. 

A bit further on, where we turned off onto a "sandy trail" (the rain was biblical as this point so it wasn't like any other sandy trail I've ever run on), I saw the race director again. He told me that I was "20 seconds off the podium" - I'm sure this was meant to encourage me, but it actually had almost the opposite effect as I thought I must have been in 4th place all this time without knowing it. 

I soon realised that he had meant that I was only 20s away from Fanni and Lisa who were now running together again, as I saw them ahead of me on a switchback through the trees. As I came into the last checkpoint (with about 9k to go) they had just left it, with Lisa now leading out the race. I skidded round the turnpoint and pushed on, having discovered from Graham (Fanni's boyfriend, who I knew prior to the race) that the 4th placed woman was a safe 5 minutes behind us.

When I caught Fanni, we had less that 8k still to run and I urged her to push on and work with me, but her early pace may have caught up to her and she waved me ahead. That last section of the race was definitely the hardest for me.....Lisa seems to be staying a constant distance ahead of me, I had to keep wiping the rain out of my eyes, and the terrain wasn't exactly the best for trying to get tired legs to move at any speed. The forest trail was wide, but the puddles were wider still, and though I did my best to pick a more solid foot placement, I rolled my ankles a few times when the water     came up to my shins and I couldn't see where I was putting my feet.

"Slowly, slowly, catchee monkey" as the saying goes, and I realised that I was gradually reeling Lisa in. I gained ground up every incline and she didn't run away on the descents. I knew she would have a faster finish than me so wondered how late I could leave it to pass her without her being able to come back to me. With 2k to go, I knew that I could maintain my pace to the finish.....I may not be fast, but I can keep going. I felt that although another few kilometres of race would mean I'd be home and dry as I could have carried on, but as it was I was going to run out of race.

1K to go....
I passed her and tried to make it look easy as she dropped back. Weirdly enough, an official bike passed me going the other way. I thought it was coming out from the finish to lead the first lady home so couldn't understand why it had passed me, but as it turns out, they wanted to film the gap to make it more exciting for people watching the big screen at the finish line. The bike then came up behind me.....I could hear is splashing through the puddles on the grass and I was convinced it was Lisa sitting on my shoulder ready to sprint past.

A surprised but happy winner :-)
The last kilometre seemed to go on forever, especially as it involved a steep bouncy wooden bridge to climb up over the railway line and down the other side. Turning into the final straight I heard them announce me....and only me, so I knew I had a gap....but I was still rather scared to accept a wreath and run in wearing it, as it would've been gutting if this had led to me being overtaken, but luckily I was safe as the final gap was about a minute.

The 45K podium (l-r, Lisa, myself and Fanni)
My C-goal for the race was just to finish it, without my shin flaring up too much, my B-goal was to try to run under 3.5 hours, and my A-goal was to try to make the podium. Never in my wildest imagination did I think that I might win in a time of 3:06.
Jo crossing the line...rather cold and wet!

To be fair I probably then became the finish marshal's biggest nightmare, as I wouldn't leave the area until I'd cheered Lisa and Fanni in......and then my antidoping chaperone had to stand out in the rain with me, as I wouldn't go off with her for testing until Jo had finished.....3rd lady in the 90k race - what an awesome effort! Double celebrations for our room! #GoTeamJo

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

SuperSupport Extraordinaire!!!

The Lhairig Ghru...again so soon...
With trying to keep so many balls in the air at the present time, I confess that training and racing has taken rather a backseat. I did sneak a local event in - the Moffat 15K race as it's a perennial favourite (even if I don't think so at the time when I'm dragging my carcass up the steep mile of uphill track in the middle of it), but mostly I've just been getting out into the hills and running with friends at the weekends.

At least he wasn't sprinting the descents
This has taken the form of supporting many different challenges.....the Scottish 24 hour record, several Bob Graham Rounds, a 60@60 and a Paddy Buckley Round.

Still standing (and smiling) at the finish
The previous Scottish 24 hour record was set 29 years ago by Jon Broxap when he summited 28 Munros in 23 hours and 20 minutes (though another summit was later upgraded to make it 29 Munros). Jim Mann went to the Cairngorms and set a new record of 30 Munros in 22 hours 18 minutes.

1 of his many Munros
I can appreciate just how phenomenal an achievement this was (never mind making last orders in the pub at the end) as I supported him on a leg (and 2 bits of legs). I only managed about 40miles and 9 Munros compared to Jim's 86+miles, but that was plenty for me - and it was a pleasure to be part of such a fantastic weekend.

DRC does Moffat!!
Down the neverending hill to town

A couple of days later I squeezed in the Moffat Run as it is a good local race with a big club turnout. The race starts (this time without a count down so I was actaully facing the wrong way chatting to friends) in the centre of the High Street and consists of 3.5 undulating miles along the valley floor, then a tough offroad uphill mile to the "high road", followed by 4.5 miles of constant downhill winding back into Moffat (which you can see in front of you but never gets any closer).

Finishing down the High Street
Hitting the edge of Moffat a slight incline catches out tired legs before you "sprint" back down the main street to the finish. Although my legs were definitely feeling the miles from the weekend, I was really pleased to find that I finished only 40seconds slower than last year (1s per mile of supporting Jim) despite powerwalking some of the hill, which is the first time I've not tried to run the whole way (though I still overtook some of the guys on the uphill!).

A 60@60 is an extended Bob Graham Round where the challenge (once you are 60 years young) is to "bag" 60 summits and make it back to the Moot Hall within 24 hours. David Waide was attempting to do just this, and I'd agreed to help him out with support on Leg 2, which involved a 4am start from Threlkeld so I went down and joined them at the campsite on Friday night. I didn't sleep well as I could hear the weather deteriorating and I was slightly anxious about doing the support alone as David said he preferred to get his nutrition from drinks rather than food so I knew there would be a decent amount of weight to carry.

David duly appeared, had a slurp of coffee, took a banana and we set off to ascend into the clag up Clough Head. I had a bottle for David in one hand, his half-eaten banana in the other, and everything else in my backpack. Once we got into the clag, the visibility never looked up. The ground was about the wettest I've seen it underfoot and I did end up almost thigh deep in a bog at one point quite early on in the leg. The rain got heavier and the wind picked up but we managed to keep moving along well, chatting whenever conditions permitted. Looking back on it now, it must have been a comedy sight to see me juggling the banana and water bottle, whilst trying to write down the summit timings, report the splits to David as he asked me for them, and also get out extra waterproof top and trousers out of my bag for him. Luckily I managed it all well enough without ever losing sight of him in the cloud.

We spotted the flags out to mark a race going the other way, and some race marshals (who thought we were lost) tried to get us to turn around and go the other way. It was fun to recognise and cheer on the race leaders as they passed by descending Fairfield as we climbed it, but then we got mixed up with other runners as we turned round and descended again (confusing yet more marshals as we then appeared to be choosing to go off course). Unusually for me, I was able to descend well and ran down to Dunmail ahead of Fairfield to report in and hand over to the 2 supporters on the next leg. I spent the rest of the day helping David's sons get to changeover points and helping with car shuffles and was all set to run with him along the road section to Keswick at the end. Unfortunately the weather took its toll, and although he managed to bag all of his 60 peaks within the 24hours, he missed the final road section as he'd run out of time. It was an incredibly long day for me and the Waite boys, but not half as long as it must have been for David - fair play to him!

Sally and partner Simon ready to go
The next weekend, it was back to Bob Graham duty...this time to support my friend (and GB trail teammate) Sally. I'd also roped in another mate Jon who was keen to get out onto the hills, so we headed into Keswick late on Friday night to try to get a couple of hours' sleep. We ended up being a small "crowd" that set off from the Moot Hall at 2am, as another runner joined us for the first part of the leg until his support runner caught up after sleeping in, while another guy wanted a decent run out as training for an upcoming event. Sally was fired up and tapered so we had plenty of energy for catching up as we ascended Skiddaw. The summit ridge was more difficult due to the strong winds and rainclouds (head torches in the hands instead of on the head to prevent the blinding cloud reflection) and then it was a very boggy run off across to Great Calva.
Climbing up from Mungrisdale Common

It was nice to support Sally - not only because we're good friends, but because we're quite similar in our running likes and dislikes. We enjoy climbs and aren't so fond of descents (hence we ran a lot of the race in Italy together). The route that she was following for Leg 1 worked well for me, especially in the wet as I found it easier to go slightly further but along a more runnable descent and then flat section (rather than trying to peg it down through thick heather whilst avoiding hidden ankle-twisting holes). We also went a longer way off Blencathra but could run it all rather than skidding around over slippery rocks, so again I kept up and even managed to run ahead along the final road stretch to warn them that we were coming into the handover at Threlkeld (and get to the cake first!!).
Descending off Blencathra

Jon and I ran back to Keswick, ate food, grabbed some mores rest and then headed on down to Wales for the next support job of the weekend.....the final leg of a Paddy Buckley Round. Unfortunately, just as we arrived we heard that the runner had been forced to stop due to sickness, so we (ate again...and then) turned round and disappointedly headed back north (though too late to make Sally's finish as she'd powered round in 19:37). Still, this meant that my legs weren't as tired as I'd expected them to be at the end of the weekend, so I agreed to some further support on a last minute Bob Graham attempt.

A "nicer" view from Threlkeld
A sunny ascent of Skiddaw
In total contrast to the wet, windy weather of very early on Saturday morning, the sun was shining as I drove back down to the Lakes after work on Monday. I met up with Chris and we set off from the Moot Hall at 6pm.
This time I was the lone support on Leg 1, but as the pace was a bit slower I could just relax, take some pictures and enjoy the views (the only problem I had was the late discovery of some shoulder/neck chafe from carrying Chris's pack).

Sunset across Mungrisedale Common
There were no worries about routefinding in the evening light, and so we even bounded down off Great Calva through the heather this time. Another friend came up to meet us on Blencathra to make sure we got the route of the parachute descent right, and I handed Chris on to his next leg support at Threlkeld safe and sound (well actually I had to go a bit further as the "supporter" needed to fix his leaky waterbottle and then catch up). I kept in touch with them over the night and next morning, but unfortunately he had to stop at Wasdale.


Summiting Dale Head - peak 1 of Leg 5
Back at the Moot Hall
You'd think I'd have had my fill of the Lake District and BGRs by this time, but the very next weekend, after catching up with friends in Glasgow, I found myself heading back down again. I had a slightly vested interest in supporting Robin on Leg 5 of his Round as I'd run Leg 2 with him 2 years ago but he ran out of time and stopped as Honister just as I was due to rejoin him. This time was more promising and we climbed the last 3 peaks before the sun set, descending down to the road in twilight. Another friend of his joined us for the road run in and we made the Moot Hall 21hrs and 57minutes after he left it (I reckon the sub-22 was because I wouldn't let him stop to sit down and change his shoes with 4.5 miles to go). Job done!

"Mum on the megaphone"
Andy and Josh - Go Team GB!
That is definitely it for my running support for a while....though I did have a great weekend down in London watching and cheering during the World Championship marathon. The course was a 4-lapper so we got to see the runners 8 times as I ended up standing with Callum's mum Sandra Hawkins on the Embankment where they ran out and back.

Supporting with Sandra
Callum moving up into 4th place
I shouted myself hoarse in the men's Callum ran an amazing race to record a new PB and finish 4th (A funny memory is his mother shouting at him to "Come ON!!" down a megaphone and me shouting at him to "Listen to your mother!!"). The ladies' race followed and then it was time to return home to start thinking about my own running....eek!!!

Aly in the ladies' race