Sunday, 20 August 2017

Lakeland 100 and 50 - Trot or Trial?

I once heard a yachtsman say that ocean racing was like standing under a cold shower for hours on end tearing up ten pound notes, but he somehow couldn't give it up.

I've been involved in the Lakeland 100/50 events for 8 consecutive years now, either running or marshalling (I stayed away for the first two years, looking back I can't think why) and it's always been a weekend to remember. 2017 was a non-running year, so I spent 12 hours or so checking runners in, a short while at the 50 start watching sheep go wild near Dalemain, then a further 12 hours on the finish line.

The finish is always a great place to be, welcoming in runners who have made it home from whichever adventure they set out on. The brief for the marshalling group here is to make sure that runners make their final "dib" to give them their finishing time (including a fair bit of "co-ordinated dibbing" for the numerous finishers who want to record the same time as the person they finished with), then escort each runner to the inside finish area, announce their finish as they face the bright lights and applause, then hand them over to receive their medals (and any TLC they might be in need of at that point!).

This year the finish was a bit different for me for two reasons.

Firstly, because this year the finish was in the big tent rather than the school hall, the distance between the finish line and the "reception" was about four times as far as usual. Although that gave us a slightly harder job in making sure that the finishing athlete got into the warmth and safety as soon as possible while understanding the natural tendencies to celebrate with loved ones, take photos and so on, it also gave a longer oppportunity to ask how the finisher had found the experience of their event, which was fascinating.

Secondly, this was the first year that I've been involved in marshalling that we had some bad weather. Although there were longish dry periods, it rained on and off throughout the two days of the events, but what may have been particularly significant was that just after the starts of both the 100 and the 50, paricipants were treated to a noticeable shower. On top of this, as the Lakes had had significant rainfall over the preceding few weeks, the ground was much wetter underfoot than in most other years.

The first finishers I saw at the start of my first "shift" at the finish line were those completing the 100 in between 24 and 30 hours. The earlier ones were mostly in really good shape. When I asked about the rain on Friday night, a common response was "well it was just a shower and it was a pretty warm night, didn't affect things too much". Contrast this with comments from more than one 100 finisher who I saw during my second shift on Sunday morning, who said they had been suffering "since the first torrential downpour just after leaving Coniston".

Of the later finishers in both races that I saw on Sunday morning, of course all were pleased that they finished but it was clear that some had had a much more pleasant experience than others. The two main problems of those suffering were (1) of being continuously wet and cold, and (2) of having problems with feet, blisters and shredded skin. Others however, despite being out on the course for almost 24 hours (for the 50) and 40 hours (for the 100) came back with "no blisters, no problems, will be back next year".

So why did different runners have such different experiences over the events?

I think it comes down to two factors, which are separate but related.  The first is experience. Runners who complete half a dozen or so ultras a year (and I know some who do many more than that) will have had their share of poor weather conditions, and if they operate in the mountain or moorland areas will have had plenty of wet ground to deal with.  Nothing sharpens your decision-making as well as a bit of suffering, you learn how to avoid it. But I suspect that in some of the "big name" races like the Lakeland or the West Highland Way, the event is the sole target for the year of runners who don't have the time to indulge in running and training for more events, and under these conditions experience comes slowly. But it's still possible to mitigate suffering quite a lot by using other peoples' experience and a bit of smart planning.

I always feel good planning is the difference between enjoying an event and just "getting through" it.

Training for the specifics of the event are important; for example for the majority of finishers in the Lakeland 50/100, the event itself will consist of some jogging over uneven ground and a lot of walking up hills and shambling down them so that is what you need to train for, but that's not really what I'm on about here, I'm sort of assuming that's a given that everyone understands. The real issue this year was planning for the conditions.

Everyone knew that it was going to rain to some extent (the forecast said so) and everyone knew the ground was going to be wet (it had been raining on and off for weeks). Let's take these one at a time.

When it rains during a long event you get wet, and unless the sun comes out or you have a change of clothes, it's hard getting dry again. (Forget about the idea of a waterproof jacket keeping you dry in the rain, you get thoroughly wet from sweat). Now being wet isn't a problem (you could stand under a warm shower pretty well indefinitely without getting uncomfortable), but here is the key  -  you don't select your clothes in a long race to prevent getting wet, you select them to prevent getting COLD.
I wrote a complete post about this a year or two ago  ("My Waterproof Jacket Leaks", if you're interested you can find it here), but here are the basics. You stop getting cold by making sure your clothing does all it can to minimise heat transfer, that is:-

- your jacket needs to be windproof (you blow on your tea to cool it down, remember)

- the outer surface needs to shed water droplets rather than hold onto them (this is why you "reproof" breatheable materials, to make them shinier)

- you need something to keep the cold surface (the inside of your jacket) away from the (you hope!) warm surface (your skin). This can be a mesh lining on the jacket or some sort of long-sleeved top; the thicker the top, the better it prevents heat transfer. On top of this, thinner and more flexible shells cling to your shape and induce more heat transfer than heavier, stiffer ones  -  that's why heavier jackets (and/or lined ones) feel more comfortably "waterproof".

The only added factor here is that faster runners generate more heat than slower ones so can tolerate more heat transfer without feeling uncomfortable. A couple of days ago I ran a bit of the course in reverse, from Coniston to Langdale, in continuous heavy rain. I was completely comfortable in a thermal vest and a thin waterproof shell because as I was only out for a couple of hours I could run all the time; had I stopped to walk I would have quickly felt very cold, so wouldn't contemplate such light clothing for a long event with rain forecast.

I spent a good few hours on kit inspection for this years event. I was a bit concerned by the number of runners presenting really thin lightweight kit which they could only fit into a tiny race vest with difficulty. Sure, it met the specifications in the rules, and was entirely appropriate for a runner intending to complete the 100 in around 24 hours or the 50 in 10 hours. These guys would go fast enough to keep warm. But for those who would spend a lot of time at or near walking pace it was going to lead to a race that wouldn't be much fun, especially as they had no room in the bag for any insulating layer that they could use (as opposed to their emergency layer, which they couldn't). As a runner normally finishing the 100 around the 37-38 hour mark, I wouldn't have set out on Friday without a stiffer than normal jacket and a light fleece that I could wear under it, with a replacement in the bag at Dalemain.

Now let's have a quick look at feet. By Lake District standards both the 100 and the 50 are dry courses. The only places you are likely to get wet feet in a normal year are on the col before Eskdale, possibly short bits up to the Coach Road and coming down from High Kop, and the hundred yards of shallow bog to the Wrynose road (which is almost at the finish anyway). With a spare pair of socks in your bag and plenty of trail to drain and dry your shoes, these are easily managed. But as runners found this year, even a few days of steady rain beforehand can turn the course into one where you can get wet feet in many other places, and under these conditions they are likely to be continuously wet. 

Experienced runners would probably have met and learnt from courses with a lot more wet ground (higher ground in the Lakes or Wales, lots of runs in the Pennines and Dales, etc), looked at the recent weather and prepared accordingly. But here again it's possible to learn from others' experience. Approaches to dealing with wet ground vary hugely, there is no one answer, you have to find out what works for you. But if you wander around the Facebook groups that cover races with guaranteed wet feet potential (The Spine and its derivatives, the Dragon's Back, there are plenty if you look around - remember some of these guys have to deal with continuously wet feet for a week!) you can find lot's of ideas to try.  Too many for me to cover here. But trial is the key, if you think you have found a solution, go out somewhere you know is wet and plough through it for twelve hours or so. Again I wouldn't personally set out on a course like the Lakeland 100 under the conditions we had this year without a strategy which I knew was going to see me through a couple of days with no foot problems.

So in the end, your ultra experience (whatever the conditions) comes down to this:

You can look upon it as a huge undertaking which will test you to the limit in every way, expect to suffer and overcome the suffering, derive great satisfaction from completing it and end up with a bit of a battering that may take you a few weeks to recover from.

Or you can understand the task in hand, both in general and in the conditions predicted for the day, train and plan accordingly, execute your plan, enjoy the trip, then look forward to the next adventure.

I'm not saying either of these is best; both are valid and worthwhile approaches.

It's a choice.



Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The Lakes Sky Ultra

I don't often say this, but if you're a runner with a bit of feeling for the fells, then this is a race you should definitely do at least once in your career.

I can't really remember when I entered the Lakes Sky Ultra. I think it must have been back in the autumn of last year when I still had realistic Dragon's Back ambitions because when I got the reminder email with the final details around three weeks ago it did seem quite a big undertaking in the light of all the problems I'd had this year. Still, I'd paid so I decided to go and give it a shot; the best I could hope for was to get round the course within the time allowed, so I planned for that and in the end that's what happened. 72nd place out of 73 finishers doesn't sound too great (although out of 100 starters it sounds slightly better), but all round it turned out a very satisfying day out, certainly my best effort for 2017 so far.

Most Race Directors are guilty of a touch of exaggeration in their advertising but as Charlie Sproson is one of the few people to have completed a Ramsay Round so must know his way round a hill or two, I think you have to take notice when he describes his race as 

 "........one of the spiciest races in the country. 56km of Lakeland paths, trails and tussock, 4500m of vertical grind, grade III scrambles and knife edge arĂȘtes - this race has it all. It is not for the faint hearted and racers will need to be competent on steep rock scrambling sections. It is extreme. It is gnarly. It is hardcore. It is awesome."

A rough profile is shown below, with another of the first 52km of the Lakeland 100 on the same scales for comparison. You can see that 4500m (14,700ft)  means a fair bit of up and down.


On the application form we had to confirm that we had the scrambling ability to complete the course, promise not to fall off anything steep into embarassing places, and to exercise "sound mountain judgement" should the need arise. We also had to declare we were fit enough in wind and limb to take on the course. I wasn't too sure about this one but I'd decided after the West Highland Way that the best way to treat my knee was to ignore it, taking heed of the Joss Naylor advice that "if something ails you, you've just got to shrug it off or you won't achieve much in the hills". I'm sort of getting used to the discomfort now anyway, so I guessed it would probably be OK. Three days after the event it's a still bit swollen and sore but nothing disastrous, so with some rationing and careful planning I think it will see me through a year or two more running yet.

Registration was on the Friday evening at the University of Cumbria's Ambleside site, which was also the start and finish point for the event. After the normal kit check and picking up of dibbers, trackers and everything else that seems to complicate races these days, a meal was available followed by a compulsory briefing in the lecture theatre. Charlie showed us videos of the first running in 2015 (it rained a lot) and the second last year (it was sunny), and said that everyone was doing too many races these days because at least 40 entrants had withdrawn before the start due to injuries; nevertheless we would be a select field of around a hundred runners. He told us to look after ourselves and each other and have fun, and finished with the weather forecast which ended with the phrase "sunshine is unlikely".

A civilised start time the following morning meant that I didn't have to leave Keswick until well after 6am after a proper breakfast, so was nicely set up for the day. We gathered under very low cloud for the countdown and were off on the dot of 7am. Everyone started off running up the hill (pretty well any direction out of Ambleside is uphill) so within two or three minutes I was established firmly at the rear with fifty or so yards gap between me and the back of the pack; I don't often run up hills, especially not first thing in the morning, but I wasn't bothered, I knew most of the ground ahead and I had a plan for (just) getting round in time. At the first gate I stopped to say hello to Karen Nash, who I knew from Facebook but had never met; she was supposed to be running but was one of those who had unfortunately had to pull out through an injury. After that, everyone else was out of sight, having disappeared into the mist ahead.

I have to admit that the weather on the day wasn't great. Visibility generally fluctuated between twenty and about a hundred meters; we had heavy rain at times and some dry spells but the overall impression was of a steady drizzle, made a bit more wet by the fairly constant wind that meant that my main audible memory of the day was the continual ripping of the wind at the race number pinned to my leg. Not an unusual day for the Lakes though, "if you can't take a joke you shouldn't have come" sort of weather.

The thing started with an ascent of the eastern arm of the Fairfield Horseshoe, from Ambleside up to Fairfield summit. I've covered this ground at least a half dozen times up and down over the years but there are lots of choices on which side of the wall to go where, which path to use when there are choices even on one side, etc, and I have to say the line the race took was the best I've ever used. How did we follow this line?....because the course was fully marked as are all "Sky Running" events. I'm always in two minds about this; it somehow seems wrong to have all the navigation done for you when out on the hills and it certainly takes away any compensation that slower runners might gain by being better navigators, but it also takes away some of the "home advantage" locals might have from knowing the ground. Today however there was a slight problem. The markers (normally small red flags on thin metal "wands" stuck in the ground, rocks, fence posts, etc) are normally placed at about 20 - 50 metre spacing depending on the terrain, which meant that because of the mist there were many occasions when you arrived at a flag but couldn't see the next one. This was OK when following an obvious track or ridge, but a bit disconcerting when the line just ploughed off across country with no other markings. I think that probably slowed everyone down to some extent but with a bit of care it worked well enough.

I walked the steeper uphills and jogged the rest up to the first checkpoint on Dove Crag, by which time I had overtaken four runners so was now not actually last. I told the lonely looking marshal that she wouldn't have to stay up there much longer, then pressed on over Hart Crag and Fairfield, then down the quick descent to checkpoint 2 at Grisedale Hause. The route then followed the Bob Graham line around the west side of Grisedale Tarn and up the steep grassy trod to the well-known lonely fence post on the track just short of Dollywagon Pike. Halfway up here a photographer appeared out of the mist, an event that was repeated in all sorts of unlikely spots throughout the day.

Along the track towards Helvellyn I caught up with another runner and we carried on together for a mile or so. He told me that he was a bit impressed with the class of the field; he said he'd been in a race down in South Wales a couple of weeks previously where he had come second in a field of over two hundred, now here he was in the last half dozen of a hundred! We passed the filming team on Helvellyn (like you do) and set off on the first bit of fun for the day, down Swirral Edge and along to Catsty Cam. "Now the flags will be along the crests of the ridges" RD Charlie had told us at the briefing, "and that's where you go. No going down onto to the granny tracks along the sides!" He wasn't wrong; throughout the day, if there was a crest to be found, that's where the line went. The greasy condition of the rocks needed a bit of care but we seemed to be making quick enough progress. We checked in with another chilly-looking marshal on Catsty Cam (these guys all did a sterling job in the conditions, especially later in the course where they were out for much longer), then followed a knee-testing descent down the west ridge to the old dam in Keppel Cove. There was another checkpoint here which had water, so I stopped to top up a bottle. I reached here three and a quarter hours from the start, the marshal said the leaders had been through an hour and a quarter earlier, so the field was starting to spread out now. With such poor visibility we had really no awareness of where anyone outside our little bubble was on the course.

A traversing line following a sort of path led westwards round to Red Tarn Beck, then it was straight up the grassy fellside to the "hole in the wall", another checkpoint and a well-known landmark on the approaches to Helvellyn from Patterdale. Striding Edge next, which as most of the moves were uphill or horizontal could be taken at a faster pace than the descent of Swirral in the prevailing conditions. 



Striding Edge (all photos in this post are taken from the Lakes Sky Ultra
Facebook page, just to give an impression of atmosphere on the day.I don't
know who the individual runners pictured are)
I caught up with three ladies on the last few hundred feet, then as we popped out onto the summit plateau again we immediately lost the flag line.  We knew we were heading for Nethermost Pike so turned left and kept moving. I explored a bit down towards the edge and found the flags again, along an almost sheltered little trod a bit down from the top. We slowed down a bit to avoid losing them again. Just before Nethermost one or two yellow flags started appearing in between the red ones. On the summit checkpoint the marshal (the famous John Bamber of Gregs Hut on the Spine Race) explained that he had brought yellow flags up to mark the dibber point, but it in the conditions he found when arriving on the summit you couldn't see from one red flag to the next so he had used them to make the line a bit easier to follow; I think all the runners will have appreciated that, especially on the next section which was finding the start of a little-used descent down the east ridge of Nethermost to the top of Eagle Crag.

This started off down a steepish rocky ridge but this gave way to grass at an easier angle with good running for a while. The girls got away from me down here but I caught them again as they stopped to tighten shoe laces before the steep descent alongside Eagle Crag. I was happy with mine so pressed on through, first down a rocky gulley then some very steep grass and finally a rocky corner leading to the scree below the crag. There were two or three marshals in this area and they had rigged a knotted rope down the corner which in the slippery conditions was welcome.

I had pondered shoe choice for quite a while before the race. I've been using Innovate Roclites for more technical rocky ground recently and they seem very nimble, but don't really have enough cushioning for me to wear all day. The entry rules for the race specified a lug depth of at least 3mm so I guessed there must be some steep grass in places. In the end for the first half of the race I wore Scott Kinabalu Supertracs which have a good grass/mud grip and are very comfortable. You needed care on the wet rock with any shoes so their deficiencies on that score were not too much of a handicap on the day and I was happy with the choice.


Descending past Eagle Crag



Dropping out of the mist below Eagle crag we met with the best weather conditions of the day. Suddenly you could see right down the valley to Ullswater below. On the other hand, you could also see the next bit of the course with many runners strung out on it. After crossing Grisedale Beck at the big footbridge we were faced with a climb of around twelve hundred feet up extremely steep pathless grass to the base of Pinnacle Ridge on St Sunday Crag. A lot of techniques were in evidence, some runners taking it in manic short bursts followed by gasping rests, others taking it very slowly and steadily, some trying to use poles but it was really far too steep for them to be any use. The most effective for me seemed to be to walk up steadily, hands on knees on the less steep bits and grabbing the bilberries for a quick pull on the steeper sections. I resisted the temptation to look up too often and the base of the crag seemed to arrive soon enough. There were marshals at the base of Pinnacle Ridge and at various points along it. The rocks were greasy in places but less than I had expected. At the briefing we had been told that the steep crux corner would be in the course but when we got there the marshals had us avoiding it via a fixed rope up some steepish grass around to the left. Whether this was down to changing conditions or some other reason I never found out. I reached the top of the crag about 45 minutes after crossing Grizedale Beck and was relatively pleased with that.



Pinnacle Ridge
From St Sunday Crag it was a very cruisy couple of miles or so down a nice grassy track to the halfway checkpoint in Side Barn at Patterdale, with the last ten minutes or so in the "unlikely" warm sunshine.

The overall time allowed for the event was 14 hours, ie for a 9pm finish. Patterdale was pretty well exactly half way in distance but the first half contains far more climbing and technical ground so the cut-off here was set at seven and three quarter hours; I had hoped to arrive in seven but was about six minutes over that. In dry conditions with good visibility I'm sure I could have knocked at least half an hour off that, so I was happy enough with progress so far. I just needed not to hang around too much from here on.

Patterdale had coffee and soup, bread and biscuits, all very welcome after seven hours fairly hard work. You also had a drop bag opportunity here, so I put on a dry shirt and changed my shoes and socks. I didn't expect anything too steep over the second half of the course, more traditional Lakeland paths rather than cross-country terrain  so I went with my favourite Skechers GoRun Ultra shoes; Hoka-like comfort but with great grip on rock, wet or dry (but also pretty useless on steep grass). I also picked up my poles which I had felt would only get in the way on the first half but might be a good aid for tiring legs over the second half. I left Patterdale after a twenty minute stop, probably a bit indulgent but it meant I set out feeling in good shape and ready for the second half of the day.

We lost the good weather almost immediately, by Boredale Hause we were back in the clag and it stayed that way for the rest of the day, now accompanied by more frequent and heavier periods of rain.

The easy track made for rapid progress along the "Coast to Coast" route past Angle Tarn and round The Knott to the flank of Kidsty Pike. I was power walking the steeper bits and jogging the rest, and I passed several other runners along this section. High Street was bleak. The route left the main track just before the summit and set off across the fellside to look for a descent down Long Stile ridge to the west. The rain was hammering at this point and it was very difficult spotting each flag from the previous one. I had put a trace of the route into my Suunto watch and was just about to fire it up when the start of the ridge appeared and navigation became simple again. The ridge had rocky steps but the route left it after a few hundred feet to cut down across the grass to the outflow of Blea Water, and from there down an easy track to a checkpoint at Mardale head, reminiscent of "Lakeland 100" visits.

Another longish climb followed, up past Small Water to Nan Bield pass and then following the Kentmere Horseshoe track up to Mardale Ill Bell. Flat ground now, still searching for the elusive red flags in the gloom, along to Thornthwaite Crag where eventually the familiar tall tower emerged out of the mist when I was barely twenty yards from it. I knew from previous visits that there was a deep, rocky gap to get from here to Stoney Cove Pike because it figures on the Joss Naylor Challenge, but somehow today it didn't seem too daunting. Once on top of the Pike however a glance at the watch revealed that I didn't have too much time to spare to make the 7.15pm cut-off at Kirkstone Pass, so the couple of miles down the easy grass here were probably my fastest of the day. I caught half a dozen more runners just before the road and we made it with over ten minutes to spare, speculating whether this was actually a bit tight or simply good pace judgement. "Lots of time left yet!" was the marshal's verdict.

The six or seven of us set out on the last leg more or less together. Now there is a really nice path from Kirkstone to the top of Red Screes; a few manufactured steps, a bit of easy scrambling, a nice track up the grass to finish. But RD Charlie was having none of this and a hundred yards from the road the flags left the path and headed out rightwards, to find a way up steep grass, collapsing muddy trods, greasy little gulleys and various other forms of God Wot, to emerge back on the track just a few steps from the summit. The term "masochist" was heard in the conversation more than once, but all was forgiven as we heard the sound of the cowbell announcing the marshals on the summit. Her words to me as I made the last "dib" were "It's downhill all the way from here and you've more than enough time to finish, the world is rosey!"

The others went haring off but I really was in no hurry now. I like to enjoy the run-in on these days out if there is no time pressure, so I jogged steadily down the easy but squelchy three miles back to Ambleside in probably the heaviest rain of the day.

I finished in 13:42:17, nicely inside the 14 hour limit in the end. A great day out over a pretty spectacular course.

Would I go again? Well, I would love to have a trip round in good weather when it would be even better, but 2018 will be time for my bi-annual rendezvous with the Lakeland 100 and the two events are too close together for an old dodderer like me to manage both. After that, I'll see. Never say never, as they say.

Lots of thanks to the organisers and marshals who put on a super event in less than perfect conditions. Without you, we couldn't have the fun that we do.

(If you're interested, there is quite an atmospheric little video here made on the day by a competitor in a similar position to me in the field for most of the day).


Friday, 30 June 2017

Dragons and Devils

I've been a bit remiss in keeping up to date on here lately. I could blame pressure of other activities, nothing to write about, lack of motivation, a host of things maybe, but what it comes down to really is that it's much easier to write about success than failure and I've had a setback or two over the last month or so. Two long-anticipated and treasured events, the Dragon's Back and my tenth West Highland Way race have both ended in DNF's. But since I started this blog I've covered all my events for better or worse so I won't start ducking out of my responsibilities just yet.

I came so close to getting through the Dragon's Back in 2015 that in spite of being a couple of years older I just had to give it another shot. In 2015 I got into the second half of Day 3 and had I managed to complete that, the statistics show that almost everyone goes on to complete the race from there. I needed to be just a bit fitter. Preparations were good until a misplaced foot in a short event in February left me with a fairly bad knee. I won't bore you with the details, if you're a follower of my blog you'll already have read too much about it already. By the end of February I was sure the DB wasn't on as I couldn't run at all. I did however keep on walking in the hills, building up plenty of distance and height gain though all at a fairly pedestrian pace. As the days got longer in March and April I covered a fair bit of the course in 25-35 mile days and they seemed to go OK. I still couldn't run beyond about an hour of jogging without pain but I convinced myself that walking would get me round. I broke the rule that I had set myself only the previous summer, that I would never again go into an event on the limit of my capabilities carrying an injury; I turned up for the start in Conwy on 22nd May.

Day 1 went well. We had good visibility over the Carneddau and I made it to the midpoint base at Ogwen half an hour faster than in 2015. Thick mist over the Glyders cost a few minutes in careful navigation but I found a better line down from Glyder Fawr to Pen-y-Pass so still ended up in credit. The final leg of the day round the Snowdon horseshoe was also misty but uneventful and I was pleased to finish the day in around 13 and a half hours, over an hour faster than in 2015,  feeling in good shape and ready for Day 2. I had felt a couple of knee twinges on the steep descents from Snowdon and Lliwedd but nothing too serious and I was sure that with the overnight rest everything would be fine. I ate well, slept well, and was ready for a 6am startvthe next day.

Very thick mist and drizzle made the ascent of Cnicht a bit depressing but it went quickly enough. From here though the recommended route follows a very steep trackless descent over bits of rock, scree and grass. In 2015 the visibility was good so you could navigate several hundred yards ahead and then concentrate fully on your footing. This year though, constant vigilance on the route as well as foot placement was necessary and somehow this combination took its toll on my knee to the extent that by the time the ground levelled out I was in some trouble. I got into a bit of a negative spiral here as the very poor visibility, the mostly trackless ground and the significant pain from my knee made the longish ascent of Moelwyn Mawr a bit of a trial. The steep rocky descent to the col between the Moelwyns was worse, putting more stress on the knee. I took a bit of a psychological battering here also as faster runners who had set out later than me came dancing past. I used to be able to do that, I was thinking, but I just can't now. I was reduced to planting my poles down the hill and leaning heavily on them to make each down hill step; it was a slow process. Things improved a bit on the relatively easy ascent and descent of Moelwyn Bach, and the steep but much easier descent down the old quarry inclines to the Tan-y-Grisiau lake. I was still relying on the poles a lot but at least I could get into some sort of rhythm. The mist had now dispersed, the day was looking up, and I was able to get into a slow shuffle along the old railway path and down through the woods to Maentwrog.  Easy ground and quiet lanes followed, gaining a bit of height to the north end of the Trawsffynydd lake.

I took another psychological hit here. In 2015 around half the field, including me, had done the next section by following the main road to the east of the lake then cutting back to the half-way checkpoint for the day by the Roman Steps via a marked track over an easy col. This had been fast and easy. We knew the main road was going to be out of bounds for this year but I had still scoped out and reccied a good option which I thought would be at least half an hour faster than the recommended route; unfortunately when we got our event maps at registration, my route was off the edge of the map so could not be used; we all had to take a route over very rough ground to the west of the northern Rhinog ridge. A couple of miles of this was through trackless heather and rocks where I went painfully slowly because not only was my knee hurting at every step but I was worried about damaging it further if I hit one of the hidden holes in the ground that you get in this type of territory. I was leaking time fast here, and was concerned that I would miss the  cut-off at the Roman Steps checkpoint. The final steep descent down to the checkpoint was the final nail. I reached the checkpoint with about five minutes to get out again, but then I knew that I had the hardest ground of the day still to come over the Rhinogs, and at the speed I was going I had no chance of covering it at the pace required. so I reluctantly called it a day.

I was really disappointed as I won't get another shot at what must be one of the most rewarding mountain races in the world, and still one which I think without the February knee crash I could have completed.

I hadn't thought much about the West Highland Way race, four weeks later, as most of my thoughts this year had been on the Dragon's Back, but I was looking forward to the event as it would be my tenth start, a bit of a landmark as I had never failed to finish. It had been my first long ultra back in 2007, when I didn't really understand what I was getting into and struggled to the finish in thirty two and a half hours. Following that, a quest for improvement saw better times year on year, and I eventually reached the average respectability target of sub 24 hours in 2010.  There followed a couple of years when my focus was really elsewhere but I couldn't resist turning up in Milngavie so resulted in mediocre finishes around the 26 hour mark. The following year, 2013, I decided to make the race my main focus for the year and I trained specifically for the course. It's much more runnable than most mountain ultras, with very few "in-your-face" climbs and only very short sections of technical trail underfoot, so the ability to run consistently through to the finish is important. The training paid off and I achieved my personal best for the race of just under 22 and a half hours when I was just short of my 65th birthday, so I'm sure I'll never see that time again.  In contrast in 2014 I edged my way conservatively to a 29 and a half hour finish about 12 weeks after having some knee surgery. In 2015 the timing was a direct clash with the Dragon's Back so for the first time in now 11 years overall I didn't make it to the start in Milngavie. In 2016 I turned up for the start just two weeks after finishing the 190 mile Northern Traverse race; it wasn't a stylish trip but I made the finish in just over 30 hours.

So with this experience, overall I was confident that whatever the circumstances I could somehow get to Fort William for my tenth finish. I had had ups and downs with the knee since pulling out of the Dragon's Back. I couldn't really run but I could jog efficiently enough. As a last test I had an outing on my local long-distance footpath, the Cheshire Sandstone trail, a couple of weeks before the WHW. The 34 miles and 3500 ft of ascent took a gentle seven and a half hours, well over an hour slower than my best effort over the ground, but good enough as a confidence-builder.

I turned up at Milngavie with a schedule that should get me to Fort William in 28 and a half hours, leaving six and a half more to cater for things going wrong.

The usual team of my wife Jan, son John and daughter Julia, my crew for every single start in MIlngavie, were assembled for dinner in the Premier Inn and everything seemed fine. I went down for the start in good spirits and set off right at the back when the field set off. We were promised some weather this year and over the first nineteen miles to Balmaha this resulted in a total absence of midgies which was an unusual but very welcome state of affairs. After walking all the ups and jogging the rest I arrived in Balmaha spot on the 4 and a half hour plan to meet John for a quick bite and off up the loch. 

I had allowed myself an extra half hour on my previous most conservative time to Beinglas, with the result that I was in danger of arriving early so had to slow down to a walk for the final mile or so to avoid getting there ahead of Julia. As it was I was still a little ahead of the 11 hour plan. Along the way I had met and chatted to many other runners, Neil MacRitchie, Fiona Rennie, Nicole Brown, although I was going slowly there were were still plenty of folk around. 

Another conservative leg saw me to Auchtertyre 14 hours after the start, feeling nicely warmed up and pleased that I was now over half way with the majority of the technical ground behind me. The knee had hurt consistently from the start, but I was taking paracetamol every 6 hours and it wasn't getting worse so I felt it would likely be OK through to the finish.

On the next leg to Bridge of Orchy the wind seemed to be getting up and the promised rain started to arrive. When I met the team at the station I decided to swap my lightweight jacket for a heavier version as it looked like the weather could only get worse. Murdo and his crew were doing a grand job up on Jelly Baby Hill, it looked like they had been wet for some time.  For me the crossing of Rannoch Moor was a bit bleak, quite a strong wind and some lengthy heavy showers. It was probably a mistake that I had not put on waterproof trousers at Bridge of Orchy as everything I had on from the waist down got completely soaked in the first shower and stayed that way to Glen Coe. Nevertheless I managed to run a lot more of the moor than I had the previous year and I trundled into Ski Centre checkpoint around 19 and a half hours from the start.  From here I had over 15 hours to cover the remaining 23 miles, no problem now.

I stopped at Glen Coe to change lower half and have a cup of tea and some soup. The crew had decided I would be accompanied from here so Julia and I set out after maybe half an hour. Up and down the "false start" hill then on to the Devil's Staircase. I wasn't fast but we didn't stop and the top seemed to come up quickly enough.

Something changed for me here. I can't put my finger on what, but from the top of the Staircase onwards the whole thing seemed to change from steady progress to a struggle. I think one factor was that because of my very conservative schedule and also because of the heavy cloud cover, it was soon dark. I had only ever done this descent in the dark once before, on my very first WHW race, and I remember vowing at the time that I wouldn't do it again. Tonight, with the fierce wind and rain, my knee now hurting at every step, the difficulty of picking out the track in the darkness and the continuous bouldery ground, it seemed a real energy-sapping trial. I was conscious of having to apologise frequently to Julia for my slowness. When we finally made it to Kinlochleven I was aware that I had to have a rest. I didn't feel great, not feeling like eating or drinking, but I had been in that situation before and still made it to the end. I still had no doubts about finishing.

I expected to crash out for an hour or so as I had on many previous races, including this one, and wake feeling 100% better and ready to finish it off. The problem was that once stretched out in the warm I just didn't feel like sleep.

A couple of hours later I still felt the same. It was puzzling and frustrating. I discussed what to do with John and Julia. The longer I waited,the more was the chance that I would perk up; but if I then didn't, it would mean I would have to move faster over the last 14 miles in no better shape than I was now. At about 3.30am, feeling no better than I had when I arrived three hours earlier, I set off with John. I had drunk a couple of cups of tea and some Coke and eaten a few ginger biscuits, fuel which I hoped would at least see me well into the final leg. I was very slow up the hill to the jeep track with one stop for a moment or two of dry retching, but we made it eventually. For the first time in ten years, John asked me whether I felt we should go on. I was still walking and unwilling to admit defeat so I said we should carry on up to the jeep track. I had built my hopes around the feeling that once we got onto the track it would be easier. It starts off with some gentle downhill and we were making progress even if it was quite slow. But when the gradient changed to uphill I was brought almost to a standstill. About a mile along the track it was clear that I was not going to make it to Fort William. I reluctantly admitted it to John and we turned round and retraced our steps slowly down to Kinlochleven.

Even now a week later I'm not clear on what went wrong. I suspect a lack of overall fitness from not training at a high enough quality may be part of it, but certainly I didn't manage the day well. A result that was straightforward finish from Glencoe became impossible 10 miles later and letting that happen was just naive. I'll think about it and learn from it.

One positive that came out of my WHW experience was that although it was a bit painful at times, my knee stood up to 83 miles of activity and was not swollen afterwards so there can't be anything drastically wrong with it. I'm going to push on through and trust that it will improve over time.

Will I be back for another midnight in Milngavie?  Of course.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Chamonix Dreaming

The town of Chamonix has played a fairly big role in my life over the years. I first visited in 1965 as a 17 year old hitch-hiker. I was impressed by the scale of the mountains and went for a short walk on the Bossons Glacier, which came much nearer to the valley in those days (no gear of course, I just walked out onto the ice). Later, having served my mountaineering apprenticeship on less demanding hills in Norway, Austria and Switzerland, I came back as an Alpinist and spent a couple of weeks or so in the valley every summer for many years. Family holidays grew out of this, then as the children grew older we all came back for skiing many times. I walked the "Tour du Mont Blanc" with Jan in 2005 and since then have returned most years for the races at the end of August.

When I was in the town last summer I speculated that it must be near my 50th visit. When I got home I looked through diaries and photo collections and discovered that it was in fact my 55th. We've taken photos over the years, sometimes more enthusiastically than others, but enough to bring back memories. In the few I've posted below, although other climbing partners appear, the main people you see (apart from me) are my wife Jan, children John and Julia, and my friend Malcolm with whom I shared most of the climbing.

First visit to Chamonix in 1965


The Midi telepherique station in 1965


On the summit ridge of the Aiguille du Chardonnet 1977


The Brasserie Nationale in 1977  -  not the smooth restaurant it is now but a scruffy bar patronised by British climbers


On the Frendo Spur of the Aiguille du Midi (the one underneath the cable car wires) in 1977


Camping on the Pierre d'Orthaz field (the one by the big boulder in Les Praz) in 1978



Bivvy by the Argentiere Glacier in 1978


Climbing the famous "Fissure Brown" (first climbed by Joe Brown) on the Aiguille du Blaitiere in 1979


The Frontier Ridge on Mont Maudit in 1979


At a belay on the Walker Spur on the Grands Jorasses in 1981  (note the state of repair of average British climber's equipment!)


On the North Spur of Les Courtes in 1984


Low tech camping in the Vallee Blanche in 1984



Bivvy on the traverse of the Chamonix Aiguilles 1984


In the Coutourier Couloir on the Aiguille Vert in 1985



With John and Julia at the Chosalets campsite in Argentiere (the "sloping field") in 1985


On the Route Major on the Brenva Face of Mont Blanc in 1986



Summit of Mont Blanc with Malcolm 1986


Damp weather in Orthaz Field 1986


The old Midi Cable Car  1988



Leaving the Midi for the Vallee Blanche with Julia and Malcolm  1994


Vallee Blanche 1994


Vallee Blanche 1994



Descending to the Mer de Glace with John 1994


Climbing "Children of the Moon" 1995


John and Julia, Easter 1996


Skiing the Vallee Blanche, 1996


Climbing the Aiguille de l'Index with Julia, summer 1996


Descending from the Couvercle Hut with John and Julia 1997


On the Summit of Mt Blanc du Tacul  with Malcolm1997

Skiing to the Grand St Bernard Monastery 1999


Great snow at the Grands Montets 2001


Ready to ski the Vallee Blanche with Laura (niece) and Julia 2001


Walking with bag, Julia and Jan 2006


Othaz field, no campers now in 2007. The town has been cleaned up!


UTMB Finish 2010 (course shortened due to bad weather)


After UTMB 2010


Start of the Waiters' Race 2010



The Bonhomme Hut in daylight 2011 (always dark on the UTMB)


 With Jan at Plan de l'Aigulle 2013


 Near the Brevent 2016


Never tire of this view, 2016