OMM 2017 – 50th Anniversary of the Original Mountain Marathon: Day 1

Race Report – OMM 2017 Langdale – Day One

This year’s OMM was always going to be a tough one. As it was the 50th anniversary, it had to be an unforgettable event which, in the language of mountain marathons, means utterly brutal. I think it delivered, so well done to team OMM for yet another “enjoyable” and enjoyable weekend away.

I’ve also been carrying a foot/ankle injury since the Old County Tops in May, and as such I’m a little fatter, a lot slower and considerably more cautious about pushing it to the limit than I would normally be; not that that would stop me completely.

The run up to the OMM had felt a bit odd, partly because I hadn’t been putting in the usual training miles for the event, and partly because I didn’t want to let my esteemed running partner – Chris Swanepoel of Kong Adventure and general Keswickian fame – down with my running performance. We’re both competitive with this kind of thing and I knew that my performance was bound to be sub-par this year.

Fortunately however, Chris was happy to run the OMM with me in the knowledge that I was going to be slow, saying that he’d prefer to run with me as long as I gave it my best shot. I said of course I would, but that my ankle was still dodgy so I might have to pack it in if it got too sore (luckily it never did).

To give a brief explanation of mountain marathons – they are a test of navigational and general hill running skill, which take place over two days with an overnight camp in the middle. Competitors can either compete in linear (check points must be visited in a specific order, fastest team round wins) or scored courses (many check points are available to be visited in any order but have varying point values and teams have limited time; the team with most points wins). Teams have to carry all their equipment and food for both days and the overnight stop. In short, not just a quick weekend bimble.

As this year’s OMM was starting from Langdale, we thought we’d take advantage of the close proximity of Chris’ house and stay there on the Friday night, rather than the usual extra night of camping before the race. This was aided by the fact that we had a late start (10:15 to 10:29) which meant we could have a nice leisurely breakfast on the Saturday morning before heading down for our start of the race. It also meant we ended up parked in the registration only field which was a huge bonus at the end of the event – the parking field for those who had to camp at the event centre was all churned up and muddy by the time we came to leave.

After arriving in Keswick at about 5 on Friday evening, I wandered over to Needle Sports to go and say hi to a couple of guys there. I managed to catch Harry Ellis, which was nice, as we hadn’t seen each other since both he and I left Keswick at about the same time just over 3 years ago. Still, it was just like it had only been yesterday that we’d been out climbing together and it’s something I really appreciate about the community in Keswick.

Having caught up with the available Needle Sports contingent, I headed back over to Kong Adventure (I always want to call it planetFear) to catch up with Chris and Dan and purchase a few last bits and pieces. I ended up with some nice socks and a pair of the new(ish) Inov8 Mudclaws, both of which I was very grateful for on the event, the shoes especially. Eventually, Chris’ shift finished, so we bundled into the car and headed on down to Langdale to register, ready to arrive and start in the morning.

Getting into Langdale was a bit of a faff-on – it usually is anyway – and, with the increased traffic because of the OMM, we enjoyed some entertaining night time country driving. There were no major incidents though, and we parked up and headed into the event marquee to see what the craic was.

The OMM usually has a buzz about it, but this year felt considerably more busy than the last two. Chris bumped into a few friends of his (you can’t go anywhere in the Lakes with Chris without getting stuck in conversation with someone or other) and I managed to have a quick chat with Steve Willis – long time orienteer and one of the many faces you look forward to seeing at the OMM. We finally extricated ourselves from the marquee, after having picked up a few 50th anniversary bits and pieces, and made our way back to Keswick in the dark. Langdale had quietened down a fair bit by then, but we still opted to take the back road over to Grasmere rather than head all the way out to Ambleside.

It had gone 8 o’clock by the time we rolled back in to Keswick (as we’d forgotten to pick up a few items from the shop when we were there earlier). Thankfully Racheal had prepared tea for us back at their house, so that once we got back (not far off 9), we got sat down and stuck in to a good, hearty Bolognese (washed down with a pint or two – proper athletes like). The usual catch-up and banter ensued until we decided to hit the hay, somewhere between 11 and 12, ready for a relatively leisurely getting up time of 7:45.

Saturday morning arrived – grey and sullen – although near Keswick it didn’t seem too bad. The forecast had suggested that this would be the case and the weather could have been worse (oh, how we were to learn). A good breakfast, morning coffees, final packing etc. etc. and we were off to Langdale to “enjoy” the 50th anniversary of the OMM!

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Popping out of the bottom of St John’s in the Vale on to the A591, I suddenly realised that I’d forgotten my squidgy water bottles which I had carefully filled with mountain fuel. Swearing about how much of an idiot I was, Chris said not to worry, just pull up opposite the Co-op in Grasmere and get a couple of bottles of Lucozade. So that was that, and we headed back over the back way into Langdale without any further trouble.

Parking up, we were glad to be late re-arrivals. You could clearly see that the other parking field was not in a good state already, and this was before anyone had really started leaving. Getting out of the car and putting on my shiny new shoes (never race with new equipment kids, ahem…) the wind was a little biting if truth be told, but you know what they say; be bold – start cold. Down on the valley floor it wasn’t too bad though, and there wasn’t any real rain to speak of.

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Off we trotted toward the event marquee, only to be directed away from it at the last minute toward the start line, providing a nice little half mile warm up before the main event. I should have known really. The 3rd time out this time and the start line is never at the centre proper. But again, it wasn’t too bad at this point, so we didn’t mind all too much; what’s an extra half mile of nice, even, flat track when you’re staring down the business end of the OMM?

We arrived ready to go at 10:20, pretty much spot on there with our timing, and lined up into our designated start queue. I say queue, we were the only ones there for the Long Score at that particular start time, and tried to steal a sneak preview of the map while it was sat about 2 meters away on the floor. A claxon was sounded, and we stepped forward to be handed the map. This minute with the map before the start would be vital if the wind wasn’t blowing, but it was, and so we had to wait to start before we could crouch down and assess our options. Finally, we were allowed to start, Chris punched our dibber in the start box and we scampered over to a slightly sheltered side to try and make a plan.

As usual, there were a scattering of control points from 10 to 50 points available, but then there were a couple of 70 pointers out around Ennerdale and Pillar! I discounted them but Chris was super keen to head out and try and pick them up, so we compromised and made a plan with a cut off to turn back to the overnight camp if time was looking tight.

As this was the 50th anniversary, it was always going to be one to remember, and the course planners (thank you Mr Falkner) provided us with a nice steep uphill climb straight away on to Martcrag Moor and the first control point, giving a little shy of 500m climbing within about the first km of racing – vicious. From there, it was a quick descent down Stakes Beck to where it meets Langstrath and the next control nestled within a smallish sheep pen. The weather was still holding reasonably well at this point, and my chosen clothing system of good old Brynje sex-mesh under a set of OMM tights and a windshirt was working a dream.

Straight away it was back off up a hill toward Bull Crag and the third control point hiding somewhere on one of the indiscriminate knolls. On the way up we passed Kip and Dan – two of my friends from my Imperial College days – racing down the hill. It turns out they’d made a navigational error and headed to their 4th rather than 3rd control (they were competing on a linear course), but that’s a different story. The clag was starting to come down a little bit and it was pretty indiscriminate up there. Fortunately, Long Crag was visible and we could take a rough back bearing to narrow down the search and it didn’t take long to find the pesky blighter.

Immediately, we started descending again, this time down the back of Sergeant’s Crag into Greenup Gill and the next control point. This one was pretty easy and we dropped back below the cloud line for a little while. The weather was still just about holding and we were moving well; my ankle had been strapped pretty well before heading out and for the time being it was holding.

But no rest for the wicked! We’d picked up a 40 pointer and a 50 pointer on this little excursion but there was a lot more day to go. Back off up the southern flank of Sergeant Crags we headed to drop back down to Langstrath just above Black Moss Pot. No swimming today though, as our route took us straight back up the other side of the valley onto that indeterminate wasteland better known as Rosthwaite Fell. We’d passed through a little cloud on the way over the shoulder of Sergeant Crag but now the weather really started coming in. However, the mesh/windshirt super combination was still keeping me comfortable and the fourth steep uphill of the day was keeping me nice and warm.

Cresting Rosthwaite Fell, a nippy wind made itself know. There were three controls to pick up here; the clag was coming down quickly and we needed to keep moving and keep sharp. The first control fell quickly – it was only a couple of hundred meters from a fence corner on an easy bearing – but the next proved more elusive. Chris seemed half aware of where we were, and I knew where we were in theory, but the feeling of running around features and hills you know but knowing you’re there in a purely academic fashion was bizarre.

Finally, we descended slightly around a knoll and bumped into another team looking for the same point. A short conversation later and we headed up the gill we were stood next to, which did indeed prove to be Comb Gill, and thus dropped us directly onto our next control. Whilst the clag was bad and the wind was driving rain, we were still in our windshirts, although the thought of putting on a waterproof had now crossed both our minds. It was grim up there, but good fun!

Just one more control to find! Then we could drop off Glaramara, and get out of the shit…

Taking a swift bearing and making good note of the features to follow, we set off towards Hind Gill. We were looking for a track followed by a path; if we hit the gill we’d gone too far. No track (something that may have been a track). Possibly a path? Definitely the gill… Not really sure. We knew that we weren’t far away so we headed slightly uphill. A couple of knolls presented themselves and we knew we were close. A team appeared out of the mist and accidentally signposted the way to the control – we weren’t more than about 20 meters away in all honesty, but it did speed up the search. Punching the control, Chris insisted (I didn’t offer any resistance) that we don waterproofs (matching OMM Aether Smocks) and we then got shifting as fast as possible do get down out of the wind and driving rain.

We crossed Hind Gill and found the path downhill toward Seathwaite. Still, I knew academically where we were, but with absolutely no recognition of the surrounding landscape. The mudclaws were working a treat and as we dropped below the cloud, Seathwaite valley and farm appeared below us. Ah! Then I knew where we were properly, and also that we had to head back up the other side of the valley up Sour Milk Gill to pick up our final 50 pointer.

For any who have never been up to Gillercombe, it’s pretty much a slog any way you look at it. This time was no exception, but at least I didn’t have a bouldering mat on my back this time! Eventually, the marsh at the top appeared and we squelched our way across to the sheepfold. Time was starting to feel tight – at this point we had about 2hr10 left – and I was getting twitchy. We said hello and thank you to the marshals waiting there; they told us that time was running a little tight, and that our next planned control was going to be taken down in the not-too-distant future.

Green Gable was next on our list. Time was feeling tight, but there was a 40 pointer which looked reasonable to find. Until we started going up the hill.

A never ending ascent into yet more clag drained my enthusiasm for heading off back down the other side of Green Gable. Chris was pushing to go and find it, but as the gradient started to ease conceded that we’d missed the feature we were looking for and, that as time was getting really tight (1h40 left before our 7 hours were up!), we probably should start heading back.

We hunkered down on the ground briefly just in the lee of the hillside to work out the fastest way back. Down to Styhead tarn, across to Sprinkling Tarn and over to Esk Hause seemed the most direct option. The plan as we were setting off was to stay on the path and head over Bowfell to eventually drop into Mosedale.

We moved fast all the way to the ascent up to Esk Hause, slowing only because of the gradient. I was not keen for Bowfell, not another hill, not today! So on the uphill I had a little study of the map.

“Why don’t we head up Esk Pike (we’re practically there anyway) and drop off the front? There’s even a couple of 20s to pick up on the way down, and we know that section half-reasonably well…”

“Yeah alright, that’s a good idea”

And off we went again…

Back off of the path, and the clag started to make a difference. It’s bleak around upper Eskdale, even on a good day, but running on a bearing in the clag and wind made for an interesting experience. It actually went quite well and we found our first control point in good time. The marshal who had been posted there for the day was not looking happy and I didn’t blame him – the weather really was wild – so we said thank you for sitting out there all day and disappeared off into the clag again.

It felt almost like the home stretch then. There was one more control to get on the way down and then we could get ourselves onto the path down Mosedale to Cockley Beck – a track we both new all too well.

More stumbling along in the clag brought us finally to the last checkpoint. We were pretty much at the end of our 7 hours at this point, and all thought was on getting back as quickly as possible. There was a 40 pointer just a little further down the track we were on, but in the wrong direction for dropping into Mosedale. Annoyingly (in hindsight) I thought that the penalties for being late increased from 1 point to 2 points to 5 points, as they do in the OMM Lite events. If I’d read the information on the map (RTFQ!) I’d have realised that it was a flat 2 points lost per minute over your time, and in that case, it would have been well worth our while to pick up another 20 pointer close by, and the 40 pointer! Idiot!

But never mind; it’s one lesson I’ve learnt the hard way, and one I won’t forget quickly.

Scooting along Lingcove Beck we knew we were looking for a track on our left to drop into the top of Mosedale. I knew from the direction of the track, and the bearing of a beck we’d just crossed that it wasn’t far away, so we kept the pace up in the hopes that we’d find it soon. Unfortunately, we ran past it, and almost to the 40 pointer, but in our false understanding of the penalty system we just turned back with a little care to find the track proper. Thankfully, it only took a couple of minutes to find so we picked the pace up again to “enjoy” a slippery descent down to Cockley Beck and our campsite for the night.

As we neared the end, the road appeared on our right, and Lucy and Jim could be seen waiting there to take a couple of action shots. However, Chris had the race line in his sights (don’t forget this is part of the OCT and therefore a descent we knew reasonable well) which involved not going onto the road. Waving, he tried to get Lucy and Jim to head down to see us appear onto the road – something they just about managed to make. My legs were not happy by now, I was (and still am) way out of shape, and we’d been out for over 7 hours. Pacing down the road, we pushed to the finish to dib at Saturday’s finish line.

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What a relief! It was getting dark; the weather, whilst not a foul as on the tops was still pretty grim and all we could think about was getting the tent up and warming up a little bit before sorting tea out for the night.

As it was the 50th OMM, there was cake in the check-in tent (mmmm). We got our results from the marquee, and we were somewhere around 46th-ish. Not too bad considering we weren’t expecting to be competitive. My foot had held on reasonably well for the day, but it had been a bit of a drag.

All that was to be done, was to find a reasonable spot to pitch – not an easy task this year it has to be said. All the dry ground was sloped, and all the flat ground was bog. Eventually, we found a small patch that was flat and not too damp. Great! Pitching up we settled in for the night and actually felt pretty comfortable. One useful lesson from this year was actually to leave the race clothes on – especially as I was wearing mesh base-layers, everything dried out quickly, kept us warm, and we didn’t have to worry about putting on soggy clothes in the morning – bonus!

Thanks for taking the time to read this far. I know it’s been a bit wordy, but I always think it’s worth trying to convey the ups and downs of an event like the OMM. Really, that’s the answer to “why do you do things like that” – because it can be really shitty, but at the end of the day, when you’ve been out trying your best, it’s great to pitch up and enjoy an evening with an old friend and look at what went right as well!

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(OMM day two to follow soon)

The Sill – the UK’s National Landscape Discovery Centre

On Friday, we were lucky enough to be invited, after taking part in a photo shoot for the new and improved Northumberland National Park website,  along for a behind the scenes tour of The Sill, near Hadrian’s Wall.

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The architecture of the building has been carefully thought out, making it look like it gradually comes out of the ground, with the grass carpet running from top to bottom. We were treated to a tour of the building itself, and the carpeted roof, with both the architect and an ecologist from the Park.

The interactive exhibition inside is brilliant for all ages, and tells the story of the county of Northumberland.

This gives young and old the chance to learn everything they need to know about the Park and the surrounding area, from rock types to the best places to go for a walk.

There is also a new YHA on site, which can only be described as colourful, cosy and definitely family friendly. We were bowled over by the dining area and kitchen, as well as the wonderfully spacious rooms. We’ll certainly be staying here as soon as possible!

But don’t take our word for it, check it out for yourself!

Northumberland National Park Photoshoot

A couple of months ago, we were asked by Andrew at Northumberland National Park, if we would like to come along for a photo shoot in the Park, as part of the overhaul of their website. Of course, we jumped at the chance, and were highly flattered to be asked!

We met up at the Lordenshaws carpark, and spotted the rest of the group half way up Simonside. Johan had been asked to do some shots while running, and so trotted up to see what was going on. It was interesting for me to watch the photographer work, and be on the other side of the lens. Johan was in his element, flying up and down the track with the other 2 runners, taking direction and having a pose.

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Then it was my turn! We walked up to the first cup and ring stone on Lordenshaws, and were told to “Look excited about the rock!” and act natural.

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I’m terrible when it comes to having my photo taken, all I can do is grin like a cheshire cat, and it shows in these photos! Even when we were asked to ‘act natural and just talk to each other’, I struggled to keep composed. But I guess it makes for enthusiastic photos!

After a stop off and break in Rothbury, we made our way to the next stop; a picnic on the banks of Harthope Burn. Here, we were joined by a couple of families, giving the afternoon a more family orientated feel. Even though it rained, it was such a beautiful spot, and it was only a matter of time before Johan took himself for a paddle in the burn. Here, he was swiftly joined by a couple of the children who had come along for the picnic, and spent a few hours splashing around and climbing rocks. The girls loved it and reveled in announcing that ‘that man’ was going to show them the best way up the river.

I sat on the bank, out of the way, and took some photos of my own. It was lovely to see Johan having such a good time in the water.

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We thoroughly enjoyed the day, and still feel privilaged to have been asked to play such an integral part in the new website. It’s very strange, but so rewarding, to see ourselves.Picture1

The new National Park website is brilliant, and definitely worth checking out: https://www.northumberlandnationalpark.org.uk/

Old County Tops ’17

The Old County Tops.

What a race! What an experience!

Well, after this year, one I’m not sure I’m going to repeat for a while…

Last year, Chris (of Kong Adventure fame) and I ran in the Old County Tops (OCT). We managed to get round in one piece, which seems to be considered an achievement of sorts, but much slower than we would have liked. This was mostly due to the fact that I was mid-injury, and unable to do any real training (or even running for that matter). So, hoping for a better time for the round, I managed to persuade Chris to try the OCT again this year.

The Old County Tops is a classic long distance fell race which summits the three highest peaks of the old counties of the Lake District – that is Helvellyn (Westmorland), Scafell Pike (Cumberland) and Coniston Old Man (Lancashire). The route starts from the New Dungeon Ghyll in Great Langdale and summits each hill in the order given above, creating a round of (nominally) 37 miles, and an ascent/descent of about 10000 feet (or about 3000 meters).

On the Friday evening before hand, I headed over to Keswick, met up with Chris and Rachael for a pint, and we then headed on back to their house for a pasta chili to fuel up for Saturdays trials. After a quick post-tea bag pack and map study, we headed off to our respective beds, ready for a 6:15 start on Saturday.

Waking up on Saturday morning, hopes were up for good weather. At Chris’s house, opposite Threlkeld, it was sunny and fine, with a few clouds passing by. No real hint of rain so to speak, but oh how little we knew! Flailing around, we scraped a breakfast of scrambled eggs on toast together, plus some other things on toast, abluted, and threw ourselves into the car a little later than we’d hoped.

Time was tight, and so we opted to take the back road from Grasmere, over the tops, to drop into Chapel Stile – twisty as hell, but quicker than the Ambleside road. Just as we were dropping into Langdale the heavens opened, but just as quickly closed again, and we hoped that would be the worst of the weather over for the day.

Hahahahaha!

As soon as we pulled into the Stickle Barn car park, it really started to hammer down – massive raindrops soaking everyone caught out in the open, whilst everyone still getting out of their cars stopped momentarily or hid under their tailgates, struggling into waterproofs. Not the best start to 30-odd miles in the Lakes…

Running over to registration, I found Chris inside the marquee set up by the Achille Ratti Club (the race organisers) mid-way through kit check. Joining him, I dropped my bag on the table and struggled to get everything out and back in again to satisfy the marshals, before heading over to get our race numbers from a different table and flail around, yet again, trying to safety pin my number to my front. One of the race organisers announced that it was time to head out to the start, raising a collective grown from the gently milling masses. Oh well, here we go again!

Setting off, we kept the pace slow in the knowledge that there was an awfully long way to go. It was hard not to get caught up in the early excitement and get dragged along faster than we wanted to go. Everything was feeling good on the way over to Grasmere and the weather lifted a little – waterproofs off!

Running past the Traveler’s Rest we turned up onto Great Tongue to skirt Seat Sandal and Grizedale Tarn on our way up Dollywagon Pike. As we passed the pub, the heavens opened again (waterproofs back on) and we ran by Lucy and Jim just as I was grappling with a zip malfunction; an excellent photo opportunity.

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The way up Great Tongue went fairly well, a nice run/walk allowed ground to be made relatively quickly without burning out. We even reeled in a fair few people who had passed us on the way through Grasmere. As soon as we started heading up the flank of Dollywagon the clag set in. There was a charity walk of some description heading down from Fairfield, and they all seemed fairly cheery in view of the damp weather.

The temptation was to push as hard as possible up Dollywagon to try and gain a few places, but again Chris dispensed some words of wisdom and pointed out that even with our slower pace, we were actually only about 2 minutes behind last year’s time. This was to prove important about half an hour later on when we left the first food station.

The track from Dollywagon to Helvellyn passed without incident – nice and fast with mostly running, walking only when our calves complained. The walking group had set up a couple of tents just shy of the summit, so that in the clag you got an exciting “Ooh, we’re there – ah crap, no we’re not!” Fortunately, the summit proper really wasn’t very far away, but in the clag it wasn’t visible from the walker’s tents, eliciting a brief moment of despair followed quickly by a moment of relief and elation.

At the summit we unzipped jackets and shouted “108!” at the marshals (thank you marshals for sitting up there in the shitty shitty weather) and about-turned to drop South off of Helvellyn to the Wythburn car park, and some well-deserved sandwiches. It’s a steep descent, and I find it pretty tough. However, we managed it better than last year, and I was able to switch my legs back on pretty much straight away. Hitting the car park, we de-bagged, de-jacketed (and re-jacketed with windshirts), grabbed a couple of sandwiches, refilled water bottles and got shifting – much better than last year where I ended up standing around for 10 minutes trying to get my legs back awake and to force a couple of sandwiches down.

We trotted up a little forest track to the road crossing for the Wythburn, feeling pretty fresh – at this point last year I was struggling to run at all. Crossing over the A591, all was well, and as we came across the first field next to Steel End Chris commented on how much better we were moving compared with last year’s attempt. Lucy and Jim had picked an excellent spot again, and shouted encouragement whilst taking a couple of photos as we plodded past.

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Oh dear! At this point, nature called and I had to answer. I won’t go into any details here, but we lost about 10 minutes and a lot of positions.

Feeling lighter, we got moving again on possibly the most horrendous stretch of running in any race, anywhere. The Wythburn might be glorious in sunshine, but I’m yet to experience it! We managed to get to The Bog before the rain decided to make a reappearance, and by the time we hit Greenup Edge it was jackets back on.

It’s bloody grim up there.

From Greenup Edge you skirt the northern flank of High Raise and aim for Stake Pass. Chris was moving quickly here, but my left ankle was starting to cause me problems. The weather had also come in again, and we were subjected to a wet cold wind, whipping into our faces. This was where I became somewhat hypothermic last year, and we were both conscious that we were cooling down with the worst yet to come. I kept telling Chris to keep moving, but of course he couldn’t get too far ahead, so we were locked in a battle of Chris trying to keep warm enough, and myself trying to move fast enough to allow it.

Just on from Stake Pass, we met a group of runners with a lovely collie who encouraged us on. “Well done lads, keep it going!” “Thank you, where are you off to?” “We’re out supporting!”

It was nice to see a few friendly faces, and even better considering the gopping weather we were experiencing. So whoever you were mysterious supporters – thank you!

Eventually, Angle Tarn appeared, and we skipped across the stepping stones to the marshals and a welcome mouth full of soggy liquorice allsorts. Again, the difference in how we were moving when compared with last year was remarkable. This time was a quick “108” “right off you go”; last year was a good ten minutes spent drinking tea and then a deathly shuffle away from the check point.

Off up to Esk Hause we went, moving reasonably well, but Chris still commenting on feeling cold. Just after the fork in the path to go to Great End or Scafell Pike, I suggested that it might finally be time to put our waterproof trousers on. A quick sit down and a problem with cold hands and zips later, we set off, slightly warmer and a lot more waterproof.

The grind up to Scafell Pike seemed much worse this year – that’s probably because I remember it this time round. Last year I definitely wasn’t entirely lucid! We passed a couple of large groups of walkers, obviously really “enjoying” the weather, and who helpfully failed to move aside at all.

At one point on the way down Ill Crag I sat down for a second on a stone block (naughty naughty). I was starting to cool down a little too much, and unusually Chris seemed to be succumbing to the effects of the weather as well. Nearing the top of Scafell Pike, I slipped over on the wet rocks, precipitating a pretty impressive side-slam accompanied by some rather strong language. I don’t really remember a whole lot about this section other than a lot of slow moving across greasy rocks, and awful, awful weather.

Eventually, we hit the top of Scafell Pike, although how Chris managed to recognise it I have no idea! It may have been the marshal huddling in the clag (thank you marshals), but again, I have very vague recollections of this whole section.

As with last year, we plumped for the direct descent from Scafell Pike down to Great Moss, heading down steeply just right of Esk Buttress (excellent climbing on Esk Buttress by the way, sampled during a previous life). Chris was definitely moving much faster that I was at this point; the lack of training on my part was starting to show. Chris managed to stop for a second just before we bottomed out to Great Moss and pull his water proof trousers off, whereas my slow pace left me with my trousers flapping around my legs.

By the time we were at Great Moss and heading toward Moasdale the weather had cleared a little bit. The worst was finally over weather wise, but mistakes loomed on the horizon (quite literally).

Moasdale passed without any particular incident – fairly rapid downhill running. We reeled in a few people, were passed by a couple of teams and started looking forward to more sandwiches at Cockley Beck.

Reaching the food station, we started loading up on cakes, sandwiches, tea and juice. I have to put in a huge mention for the volunteers here – they were awesome. Cheery, a bit of banter, and they all seemed quite happy to help out tired runners despite (presumably) having been stuck outside in the rain and wind for quite a while. So Cockley Beck food station people – thank you, you’re awesome. One of the ladies offered to refill my flasks, and as I was packing them back into the race vest I was struggling a little.

“Get in there you… Flange!”

It’s good to make people laugh, and to have her respond with “brilliant! That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard all day!” was a delight. I meant it as a throw away comment at an inanimate object, but I’m glad it made someone laugh. It’s for the running commentary that a few of my friends used to go climbing with me.

Trousers off, sun shining, and refuelled, Chris and I headed off on our last leg – The Old Man of Coniston.

We were still moving better than last year but knew we hadn’t done enough to hit our 8 and a half hour target. Never mind – push on.

The way to the Old Man is pretty mundane although the views are fantastic. Up the side of Grey Friar, heading for the saddle point between Grey Friar and Great Carrs. A reasonable track is then picked up which skirts Swirl How and hits Levers Hawse. Greavesy appeared above us at this point which was encouraging – he was on the way home with his partner, but it felt as though we weren’t too far behind at least.

But oh how little we knew. We picked up the start of the racing line to the top of Old Man, which avoids the summit of Brim Fell and kept moving at a reasonable pace. We really should have been paying a little more attention here. A few silly mistakes all compounded together and ended with us heading half way up Dow Crag – oops.

On the way over from Grey Friar, I had pointed at the mass hiding Old Man and asked “that’s Old Man isn’t it?”. “No, that’s Old Man” Chris had replied, pointing at Dow Crag. “Ok” I said, whilst a tiny alarm in the back of my head went “that doesn’t look like Old Man”, but I just went along with it. Usually, I run with a map in my hand, but in our fatigued state, and with my navigating mind switched off, I let it roll.

So down into Goat’s Hawse we went, rather than taking the cunning line up and around to the summit of the Old Man. And then up onto the flanks of Dow Crag. Annoyingly, I felt like I was moving pretty well here, and we’d have been on top of Dow Crag pretty quickly had it not been for Chris going – er, this isn’t Coniston – and then a walker cheerily informing us that we were on the way up Dow Crag.

Ah, bollocky cock wombles!

Well, back we go.

As we hit the bottom of Goat’s Hawse, two more runners appeared and we waved them back. “Oh no, have we gone the wrong way?” “Yep.” So as a four we headed up the undesired extra climb – woohoo!

After not too long, we hit the summit, shouted our numbers to the marshals and took the correct line back down toward Black Spouts from whence we would descent to Three Shire Stone.

From the Old Man of Coniston there was a group of about four teams all moving roughly together. In the final stages of the race, it felt as though there may be a little race on! One lad was obviously suffering, and we quickly passed him and his team mate, passing on our commiserations. I believe he made it back though, so that’s good; fair play to the lad!

After a quick traverse and a slippy descent down to Three Shire Stone the race was one. A team of a couple of ladies had nearly caught us on the way down, whilst a couple of lads had dropped behind. Not wanting to be caught, we pushed on down the road – lovely jarring road – before turning left towards Blea Tarn. Keeping the pace up, we managed to keep and even slightly extend our lead. It’s been said that the Old County Tops, unless you’re a proper racing snake, is a race against yourself and is more of an adventure than a race, but now it was a race!

We passed Blea Tarn, trying to keep the pace up and slowly reeling in a pair ahead of us. The few we dropped at the Three Shire Stone we could often hear, but not see. All good, and we dropped down the final hill to the campsite with what felt like a bit of breathing room.

Again, we took the road option, having failed yet again to recce the shorter routes through the fields. It adds a couple of hundred meters, but at least it’s fast and easy. Coming passed the first lane on our right, the pair of women runners appeared from the lane and we kicked the pace up a gear.

“Oh, burn us off now then!” we heard them comment as we almost bounded off. Well, er, yeah, sorry.

Then, just as a bonus, the pair of lads we’d be chasing around Blea Tarn emerged just ahead of us, coming down the next lane on the right.

It’s on!

One more gear notched up and we practically sprinted into the finish, ahead of both our micro-race competitors. I just need to learn to run at that intensity for more of the time, it felt great!

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Well, until we stopped at least. Then I collapsed, lay down on the floor, and Chris mooched off to find himself some grub. After a few minutes I managed to get back up and start moving – Lucy kindly fettled me with some soup (which was excellent) and a piece of cake. Dom appeared, which confused me – last time we’d seen him, he was coming down Scafell as we were heading up. Turns out he’d taken the path back down to drop by Chambers Crag to Great Moss, which had taken ages. The direct route is faster after all.

Eventually, I scraped myself off of the floor. Chris, Lucy and I all gathered to head back to Chris’, and we said our goodbyes to Jim who was heading back to Newcastle. I fell asleep for much of the journey home – apparently I was just flopping about in the front seat – and after a shower and a brew at Chris’, we all headed over to the Horse and Farrier in Threlkeld for a much deserved pub dinner.

A grand day out, despite the Wythburn.

In the immediate aftermath, I was pretty sure this year was the last time around. Chris, I’m sure, is done with the OCT, but I’ve redeveloped a desire to give it another crack. We’ll see how we’re feeling in the New Year…

As always, if you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading; I hope it wasn’t too much of a rambling tale.

Check out Racing Snakes for more photos of the event:

https://racingsnakes.com/store/index.php

https://racingsnakes.com/store/gallery/Old-County-Tops-2017-%E2%80%93-Lucy-Imber/214/page1/

https://racingsnakes.com/store/gallery/The-Old-County-Tops—Jim-Imber/215/page1/

 

 

 

Bob Graham Round – Leg 1

Starting my fell running life whilst living in Keswick meant early acquaintance with the Bob Graham Round (BGR), and a cultivation of the veneration and respect such a meaty challenge deserves. It helped of course that planetFear had some reputation for employing people knowledgeable of the BGR, and, particularly during the summer months, we’d get BG hopefuls popping in and discussing the BG with Huw, Steve or Chris.

I was still very much a climber dabbling in fell running at that point, so the BGR felt like a huge, impossible task, only available to the very best fell runners, but I always thought that it would be something I would like to have a crack at. Even now, I certainly would not put myself anywhere near the category of “the very best fell runners”, placing consistently mid-pack in fell races, but my performance on The Spine Challenger (injury not withstanding) made me think that the BG may be a serious possibility.

So let’s wind on – toward the end of February I was feeling a little at a loose end. The big challenge which had been on the horizon for the past year had been and gone in an unremarkable anti-climax (due to my own stupidity it must be said), and I needed something new to look at. The BGR seemed like the obvious candidate, so I posted on Facebook that I was considering it and had an excellent response back from people happy to help.

So that was that, and I may have dropped myself in it a little, but I’m hoping that 2017 will be the year of my (at least first) successful Bob Graham Round…

Fast forward to early May, and I hadn’t managed to get to the Lakes and complete any recces of any description, but finally a weekend was free, I had no reports to write for my PhD (well, I kind of do, but that’s another story), and I could commit to looking at a leg of the BGR.

I elected to start with the easiest, and arguably most convenient leg – leg 1 – which runs from Keswick, up Skiddaw, over to Great Calva, up on to Blencathra, and back down to finish in Threlkeld. I’d also suggested to Lucy and her parents that we all go over to the Lakes together, which would allow them a nice walk whilst I “enjoyed” myself on the hills, and to top it all off, Steve (whom I used to work with at planetFear) had said that he was up for joining me on my run.

Great!

An early morning start had us driving over to Keswick on Saturday morning, with the plan for Steve and I to meet at planetFear (now Kong Adventure, but we still think of it as our old workplace) and set off on our adventure. Which actually worked pretty well, plus I was able to borrow an Inov8 race vest from Kong Adventure (review to follow) for the run.

Heading back to Jim’s car, I booted up, whipped off my trousers (shorts were pre-worn underneath) and we were off. Steve had a running watch with him, so we could keep track of how we were progressing, particularly in relation to the schedule outlined by others for a ~23 hour round (the BG must be completed within 24 hours, from Moot Hall to Moot Hall, to count).

All was peachy to begin with. The foot bridge from the top of Stanger Street across to Fitz Park was washed away in the floods of 2016, so to get to Spoony Green one must go up past Packhorse Court, down past the Youth Hostel and up through the Sport Centre grounds. It’s not really as slick as the old route, but it only seems to take an extra minute or so.

Up Spoony Green is an old training route of mine (and almost everyone else who lives and runs in Keswick), and is a good test piece for uphill running. When I still lived in Keswick, almost three years ago (gasp!), I could run the whole way up Spoony Green to Latrigg car park; I was keen to see if I could still manage the same feat, and thankfully I could. It might have even felt a little easier, which is nice considering the loss of familiarity with the route.

After reaching the gate post, Steve and I dropped the pace a little to get breathing back under control, and headed on to the car park, before heading across to the start of the tourist path up Skiddaw.

I’ll not bother too much with the description here – Skiddaw tourist path is fairly unremarkable in all honesty – but it was great to be back; Kewsick always feels like home.

We hit the bottom of Jenkin Hill slightly ahead of time, then the fence crossing below Little Man slightly more ahead of time. Conversationally, it was a scintillating ascent – Steve had just been watching the 2hr marathon attempt which we talked about on the way up, and the regime of walk the steep uphills and jog anything we could move comfortably on meant we hit the top of Skiddaw about 12 minutes ahead of schedule.

A couple of things to remember here:

1 – when the paths fork after the second fence crossing, bear right. Left goes up to Little Man, and unless you want to add a summit, don’t do it! That should really be obvious, but I had a brain fart and almost tried to go that way. The things I do without a map in my hand!

2 – rather than follow the track the entire way to the summit, Steve divulged some local knowledge by heading right on a little trod after the second cairn on the right, as you’re heading up the final climb, allowing a corner to be cut off. Not a massive gain, but every little helps, plus I feel the ground on the trod was actually more runnable with my silly left ankle than the blocky horror show that is the top of Skiddaw main path.

 

At the top of Skiddaw we posed briefly for the obligatory summit photo, Steve grabbed a sandwich out of my race vest for me, and we were on our way. It was chuffin’ windy!

 

From here you drop down the northern nose of Skiddaw roughly until it plateaus, then hang a right directly down the hill to meet and cross a fence. Once over the fence (fortunately not barbed), you head straight down Blake Hill which provides nice soft running, albeit with a few divots here and there. Steve showed his pedigree here, and soon left me way behind. Always happens on the downhills (the bastard).

Crossing a small saddle just before Hare Crag (one of many in the Lakes), Steve warned me of a boggy section directly before obligingly falling waist deep into it. Shortly after, we popped out onto the bridleway, ate something (I was feeling hungry), and headed off up Dead Beck towards the summit of Great Calva.

A couple we briefly met on the track asked “Bob Graham?” “Nope, just reccying today” we replied.

Great Calva is by far the smallest hill on this leg, but is still a heathery slog. It was alright really, but I was still feeling hungry and could tell that my legs weren’t doing all they should. We did have a nice talk about chess though, which I always wish I had persevered with. You just can’t do everything, and a PhD is quite enough brain work for now.

Approaching the summit, I mistook the southern cairn as the top and lost a few meters to Steve as he picked out the trod round to the summit cairn proper (11 mins ahead of schedule). We had a quick sit down out of the wind (still bloody windy) to have a look at the map and discuss options. Steve recommended taking the fence-line down to Wiley Gill and on to the Caldew, but mentioned the “racing line” taken by the rapid folk aiming for a fast round. I elected for the handrailing fence line option – I’m not looking to break any records.

On the way down the hill, my nose started really giving me some trouble. I’d been suffering from either hayfever or a bit of a cold, and thought my nose was running badly, until I realised that it was in fact bleeding. I stopped briefly to wipe the worst of the blood off of my hands, and got back on it to catch up with Steve who had left me behind, yet again.

Arriving at the River Caldew, I washed my hands and face – feeling instantly better – and we faffed around looking for a crossing spot. I eventually got bored and waded through a shallower looking part, particularly as all the rocks looked as slippery as a Westminster Politician (eeh, look at me politiking), and we started to ascend the opposite bank up towards Blencathra.

At this point, my lack of food the previous night and a significant breakfast before heading over really started to take its toll. Steve produced one of his many protein bars, and that helped me along for a little while longer.

Conversation turned towards music, physics, the podcast “In Our Time” (which I’m still yet to listen to, despite it sounding absolutely fascinating), and how much Blencathra has it in for Steve.

We weren’t initially following a trod, but with this section, the rule seems to be go up. As we arrived at the plateau of Mungrisdale Common, the pace picked back up again until we began to ascend just below Foul Crag.

Another route option presented itself; do we go up the side of Foul Crag and along, or do we cut more aggressively, taking a corner off, but risking popping out in the wrong place and travelling across more difficult terrain. Again, I elected to look at the reliable option as I plan to run this leg in the dark, but just as we reached the base of Foul Crag proper my body decided it was time to sit down.

Oh dear, I really should have eaten more.

Fortunately, there was a nice little shelter to sit behind, and we spent a couple of minutes (it felt like 10 or more!) sat down chatting about my (distant) plan to move back and set up a research laboratory after my PhD plus further post doc work. The wind was still fairly brisk however, and so we got a shift on pretty quickly.

Steve then picked out a cut which rose gently to the right to deposit us near enough right on top of Halls Fell Ridge (8 mins ahead of schedule). A quick chat with a couple of guys up there, a photo of me pistol squatting on the summit platen(?) and a quick discussion about Halls Fell Ridge or Doddick Fell later, and we were on our way down off of the final mountain of the day.

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Now, I understand the rational of going down Halls Fell Ridge (HFR), or even the parachute route if you can do it (one can dream). It’s direct and fast, if you can move properly.

However, I’m not fast on awkward descents. I’m better than I was, but descending is my big weakness. HFR epitomises awkward descent – next time I’m going down Doddick Fell; at least I’ll be able to run it!

I was to have one more nutritional malfunction on the way down.

Just after leaving the scrambley, rocky section, my whole body just flopped. Irritatingly, I could feel that my legs still felt fresh and strong, and muscularly, I was fine. But my brain was sluggish, and things just didn’t want to move. Steve asked if I was ok, I replied with something along the lines of “I really should have eaten more before setting off”.

I want to avoid over-dramatising the situation, but this is something you will never quite get until you experience it yourself. Fortunately, I’m stupid enough to have experienced it before, but wise enough to choose good running partners, knowledgeable enough to recognise the effects quickly, and most importantly, understand how easy it is to fix. Interestingly, the outward effects aren’t entirely dissimilar to those related to mild hypothermia, which is why Chris tried to feed me through a hypothermic section on last year’s Old County Tops. But it is crucial that you realise what is going on.

At this point Threlkeld (and a pint) was in sight, so Steve passed us a flask of Mountain Fuel infused drink, which I necked there and then. For the record, Mountain Fuel should be drunk in small amounts, regularly, to avoid throwing the whole lot back up again! No problems this time though, and within only a couple of minutes my legs sprang back into life, allowing us to descend with great aplomb. (Not really great aplomb, but I was no longer a shaking mess).

Cruising down the road into Threlkeld, Steve checked the time. We’d lost our time over the schedule, but were still on for four hours – not bad considering I’d been on the verge of bonking for the past hour or so!

Heading toward the center of the village I reduced to a walk and just enjoyed the sunshine. It was fantastic! We turned into the Horse and Farrier, just in time to meet Brenda heading back out into the car park and waving us in to join Lucy and Jim at the bar. Pint in hand, we headed back out into the sun and enjoyed a well deserved sit down on the most wobbly picnic bench I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing, before heading back in for a pub meal. (Excellent food at the Horse and Farrier by the way.)

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Finally, we dropped Steve back off in Keswick before turning around to head back to Newcastle. All in all a grand day out!

Important stuff now:

Firstly, thank you to Jim for the lift, beer and food; Brenda for the company and Werther’s Originals in the car; Lucy for your encouragement and patience. Thank you to Steve for the company, sharing local knowledge, and feeding me because I was too stupid to eat enough before, and pack enough for the run.

And finally, as I’m sure you’re all now bored of my ramblings; long distance fell running is an eating game. The top boys make it look effortless, and I’m sure they’re better adapted than I am, but even so, everyone talks about nutrition. The annoying thing is that I know this, I’ve learnt it the hard way many times, but I keep making the same mistakes – possibly through some misguided idea of where long distance starts. In reality, it starts when you’ve used up all your breakfast (and a bowl of cereal is not enough!) and there’s still a hill (or more) to go.

So the main thing to take from this, aside from a few navigational hints and tips, is that eating is important. Eat before, eat during and eat after. Don’t stop eating just because you don’t feel hungry right there and then – it will catch up with you, and if you’re not used to being hungry and powerless on the fells, it could easily turn bad. Fortunately, it rarely does.

Fell running and mountain marathons are great. They allow you to be a fat man hidden inside a thin man’s body, and that my friends, is why I do it…

That and the views and the thinking space and the exercise…

‘Till next time!

Brynje Super Thermo Mesh

Sometimes old tech is better than new tech, especially if it’s improved via the use of new(er) materials. Brynje Super Thermo Mesh is a prime example of this.

To put it simply, and quite frankly, Brynje Super Thermo Mesh baselayers are far and away my best outdoor purchase this year, and probably within the last three years. Let me first say that I’m not sponsored by Brynje, a Brynje supplier, and even paid (almost) full RRP for these bad boys. But they’ve been worth every penny! Although you probably shouldn’t wear them to go to the pub…

It’s difficult to really explain how effective these are. Let’s first start with a little fuzzy science (by that I mean I’m not going to use any quantitative information, and rely more on anecdotal evidence backed up with some sound reasoning).

In a “traditional” layering system, you aim to keep yourself comfortable by insulating yourself sufficiently from outside influences (rain, wind, etc.), whilst preventing your body from overheating and sweating too much whilst working hard, and subsequently cooling down too much when stopped or at a reduced effort.

For now, we are going to exclude the shell (which is mostly responsible for acting as a barrier), and mid layers (responsible for increasing insulation when necessary) and focus on the base layer. We can consider the base layer as a mechanism primarily responsible for insulation (usually by trapping air next to or near the skin), and for moisture management (i.e. moving sweat or errant rain away from the skin). Modern base layers are generally pretty good at the first job, whilst often fairly poor at the second.

This is because even modern technical clothing, whilst capable of drying out much more rapidly than the bane of all outdoor enthusiasts – cotton – still retains moisture within the fabric until it is able to escape from the fabric to the outside world. Until this moisture can escape, it sits in the baselayer, cooling you down when you stop, and making you feel a little uncomfortable otherwise.

Unlike solid-weave clothing, Brynje mesh really excels in both respects.

Envisage it as fishnet clothing with smallish holes. The string which makes up the fishnet creates pockets of air next to your skin. These air pockets are responsible for insulation, as long as there is an extra layer on top of the Brynje (for instance a wind shirt); it’s the same idea as a knitted woolen jumper. Conversely, if you’re too warm it’s easy to vent heat quickly just by exposing some skin (probably a bad choice of words).

At the same time there is only string in contact with, at a rough guess, 30% of your skin, and the weave is made with polypropylene which is inherently hydrophobic, reducing the amount of water it will naturally absorb. This combination of relatively low contact area and low water absorption means that very little moisture is held against your skin, even after extended periods of hard effort. Instead, moisture is moved quickly away from your body, keeping you warmer and more comfortable.

A personal favourite is to combine Brynje with a super-breathable softshell, such as Vapour-rise, which really excels at moving moisture outwards. As an example, at the end of each day on my Spine recce, the outside of my jacket would be soaking (or at least visibly very damp) but the Thermo Mesh and my skin underneath would be almost dry!

Another example comes from my recent trip to Scotland. Walking up to our camping spot for the first night we experienced some of the worst weather I have ever had the pleasure of encountering – sideways driven wet sleet anybody? – and was thoroughly miserable by the time we made camp. After pitching my tent in a short window of reasonable weather, I dove inside to get rid of my very wet outer clothes to find that my baselayer and skin really weren’t far from dry, and when morning rolled round there really wasn’t any discomfort when I put my (slightly damp) baselayers back on. In fact, they warmed back up so quickly that it made putting all my other clothes back on pretty much a non-issue. The thicker threads of the Brynje separates damp outer clothing from your skin enough that you don’t feel particularly damp and clammy, and if clement weather (or even just no precipitation) rolls round, it gets a chance to dry off.

Honestly, I could go on for hours about how good the Brynje mesh is. Basically, if you feel you can deal with the fashion faux-pas that is string underwear, get some. You won’t be disappointed.

Inov8 Boot Experiment: Follow-up

After waxing and baking my Inov8 Roclite 296s to try and restore their waterproofing, I went with some friends from school to the north west of Scotland (write up to follow), where the waterproofing was very much put through its paces.

Unfortunately, my experiment did not re-proof my boots – I had damp feet for pretty much the whole week – but it did provide a rather unexpected benefit: the increased hydrophobicity of the outer mesh meant that mud and dirt had a hard time sticking to the boots, and so I ended the days with mostly clean, albeit damp boots.

So in summary:

Greenland wax won’t re-waterproof lightweight mesh boots, but will hugely reduce dirt sticking to the boots.

Using the wax at the start of a boot’s lifetime may help maintain the boot’s waterproofing by preventing dirt from penetrating the outer fabric and abrading the inner membrane.

Leather boots would probably be fully re-proofed…

Hope this helps :).