Holiday Thoughts

I think I do this on a yearly basis…spend a lot of my time day dreaming and wanderlusting over possible holiday destinations, none of which tend to come to fruition.

This year’s current obsession of choice (among others) is Scotland’s North Coast 500.

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After weeks of becoming gradually more infatuated with this route, Instagram stalking and compulsive pin saving on Pinterest, I think I have finally come to the conclusion that we simply MUST get up into the Scottish Highlands this summer. Johan has just come back from a trip to the Highlands and Islands (…I’m not jealous at all…) which he will be sharing with you over the next few days, and some of the photos that he’s shown me are simply epic.

I’ve been desperate to get up to the north of Scotland and mooch about on the islands, visit Skye and generally wander around the rugged landscapes that are on offer there, and so I think this summer is the time to actually realise my dream!

Be prepared for a run of posts detailing plans, maps and wishlists…!

The Spine Challenger

I hurt. Mostly my right lower leg, but I hurt. And I only made it to Malham Tarn.

It’s difficult to sum up the Challenger because there’s so much of it, but I’ll do my best.

First and foremost, a huge thank you must be extended to the MRT members, safety teams, doctors, check point teams, HQ team and any other volunteers and staff involved who make the race as enjoyable as a long run up the Pennines could ever be! Wherever we pitched up, there was a smile, banter, and the ever important hot tea ready and waiting. Especially the teams we ran into late at night; I can’t imagine dealing with a group of tired, wet, barely coherent runners is the greatest thrill in the world, but from our point of view I can guarantee it’s very much appreciated!

I was lucky enough this year to have a lift down to Edale, plus accommodation for the night before, with Jim. Due to Jim’s marshalling duties however, that also meant that we were in Edale by mid Friday morning which meant that I managed to get registered and kit-checked nice and early, leaving me the rest of Friday to chill out. Usually this would be great, but The Challenger was such a large undertaking that sitting still with my thoughts was pretty much the least relaxing thing I could do.

I therefore elected to go for a run along the edge between Mam Tor and Lose Hill – from the event centre this would be an ovoid loop of about 10km – which actually did wonders for my mood. However, and I would seriously feel the ramifications of this later on, I found a nice gritstone shelf which I thought would provide a small amount of safe rock climbing (in the form of a single mantel shelf manoeuvre). It did, but I banged my right shin on the way up whilst using it as a counterweight.

This kind of injury was fairly common when I used to rock climb, and after a minute of swearing and rubbing my shin, I thought nothing of it, so continued my run back to the event centre, enjoying the sun and crisp air.

The rest of Friday passed in restless anticipation. Much of it was spent back up in the room reading either my bible of the last couple of months – Damian Hall’s Pennine Way guide (it’s excellent by the way) – or “A day to die for”, an account of the ’96 Everest disaster. My friends Ali and Lisa also popped over for a visit in the evening, which was a very welcome distraction; it was helpful to spend a couple of hours chatting about physics, cats and climbing, rather than the 108 miles ahead.

All too soon it was time to head back up to the room to prepare my sandwiches for the next couple of days. Listening to Genesis, AC/DC and Steve ‘n’ Seagulls, whilst making cheese/marmite and jam/peanut butter sandwiches at a small desk in a hotel room, was one of my more bizarre experiences of the weekend. A quick shower followed and it was time to do a final bag check and get into bed. Sleep was broken but reasonable and all too soon it was time to get up and start metaphorically shuffling towards the start line.

Saturday started dim and grey, in stark contrast to the blue skies forecast. Standing on the start line, it was a little nippy and I couldn’t wait to get shifting and raise my body temperature. En-route to Kinder Scout it started to snow, and by the time we were up to about 400m, there was a decent blanket of snow across pretty much everything. At this point I was moving in a group of about 6. A slight detour from the track left us checking GPS units quickly, but it didn’t take long to get back on track, floundering through snow-covered rocks towards Snake Pass.

Pretty quickly, the group strung out, and I ended up moving at the back at my own pace. Coming down Mill Hill, it looked obvious where the flags of the path were, but this was not entirely the case. I ventured about 20cm to the right at one point and was rewarded with an exciting trip to knee deep bog. Such fun!

An MRT van was waiting at the Snake Pass with tea, cake and sweets, and I stopped briefly to add a fleece to my layering before heading out onto Bleaklow (possibly the worst section of the Challenger).

Almost as soon as I stepped off of the Snake Pass, the weather changed from grey and snowy to glorious blue skies and sunshine. This was one of the high points of the entire race and I really don’t have words to describe it. Pretty soon though, I was at a standstill; if you’ve ever been over Bleaklow, you’ll know that it’s practically featureless, or rather, far too feature-full; another chap turned up pretty quickly however who had a nice GPS trace, and I ran out with him to Torside Reservoir.

From here it’s an uphill slog onto Black Hill. I’m going to try and avoid tedious route description here; if you want that, I covered it reasonably well in my recce write-ups. On the way up to Laddow Rocks, I was feeling far from 100%. But what was going on? I’d been moving at a nice pace, I’d been eating, what the hell?

Finally, it clicked.

Dehydration.

I stopped for a couple of minutes, drained both my bottles, and immediately felt better. Shifting on, I passed a couple of lads who were looking a little worse for wear, probably needing to eat and drink as well.

Approaching Wessenden Head, I started to bump into guys I didn’t expect to see again. In particular, I ended up chatting to Iain on the way from the final river up to the road and giving a little encouragement as he seemed on a low ebb. As it was, we ended up running together all the way to Lothersdale, where Iain stopped for a nap. Thanks for your company Iain, it was good craic, and it helped a lot with the dark and the cold which is really the best help you can get on the Challenger.

All the way to the M62 passed without incident, and more importantly, in the daylight. Another brew-stop just before White Hill provided welcome hydration, and the butty van at the M62 provided a welcome bacon butty. From here, it was onwards along the blowy moor side of Robin Hood’s Seat down to the next stretch of reservoirs (more tea here). Reservoir paths gave rapid way to the lumpy ground before Stoodley Pike, followed by a pleasant descent into Charlestown. Those of us who had recce’d the route knew the climb back up that was waiting… Hurray!

Eventually , CP1 hove into view, for a sit-down, a sock change and a hot meal. We spent about an hour ensconced at CP1 before deciding it was time to get a shift on. Erik had been running with Iain and myself since somewhere around Standedge, but was taking a little longer to get everything pulled together so we set off without. As it was, he would catch us back up with us just after Withins Top and stay with us until Lothersdale.

Coming out of CP1, my right shin started to feel a little tight, but I thought nothing of it. By the time we were at Walshaw Dean reservoirs however, it was starting to feel pretty sharp, so I removed my right calf-warmer to try and take strain off it. I was also starting to move a little more slowly as high impact steps were getting painful.

The next few hours pass in a dark, painful blur. Leaving Cowling was especially painful – I almost quit at the MRT van there. We stopped briefly on Ickornshaw Moor at the stone hut to layer up a little more,  before dropping into Lothersdale where Iain stopped for a sleep. Erik and I continued on for a couple of miles together, but he was obviously becoming frustrated with my reduced pace. On the way up to Elslack Moor he pulled away, and I decided to drop back a little to run with Sarah Davies into Thornton in Craven.

The weather over Elslack Moor was awful, and I was glad to see the trig point appear, followed shortly by the road. Heading downhill towards Thornton, I was keeping my eye out for the track off to the left which the Pennine Way follows. Oddly, Sarah’s Harvey’s map didn’t show the road and track split; in fact the road didn’t show anywhere beyond the track, and so Sarah almost head off down the road rather than down the track. I have wondered whether this was the source of Pavel and Eugeni’s misadventure, although I would have thought that Pav at least would know the route by now.

By this time, running was becoming really quite painful. A diet of paracetamol and ibuprofen managed to get me through to Gargrave without any serious issue. It had become light again around the Leeds-Liverpool canal, and although the morning had turned up grim and grey yet again, it was nice to be able to see.

Sarah stopped with our other running companion, Oriol, (who we’d met heading back up onto Elslack Moor from the wrong side) in Gargrave for food and a toilet break, and I decided to press on at a rapid hobble, worrying that a stop would mean seizing and dropping out. I’m fairly certain I spied Erik on the horizon as I entered the joyous fields North of Gargrave, but he was well away, and I was moving slowly.

The journey to Malham became an exercise in coordinated hobbling. Will Green positively bounded past me just prior to Hanlith Hall, but despite my obvious slow pace I was feeling almost upbeat when I arrived in the town. On the journey through Malham Cove however, Sarah and Oriol passed me again, and even commented on how it looked as though I was hurting. My right shin and ankle were just sucking all the joy out of the experience at this point, but I staggered up the side of the cove, had a slip on the limestone pavement, and made my way through the gorge before dropping to the tarn car park.

Perching on a rock in the car park, one of the MRT guys ran past to his car before spotting me and asking how things were going. “Aye, not so bad, but my right shin is really painful, I think I bruised it.” “Yeah, it won’t like that. Get on up to the Field Centre and John will sort you out with teas and stories”. Cool. A resting point was in site. At this point I was just looking forward to a sit down, but I think the idea of stopping was in the back of my mind.

The path around Malham Tarn seemed to last forever; it was with mixed feelings that I hobbled into CP 1.5 to be ordered to take a seat, and to be instantly plied with hot drinks and questions.

As soon as I sat down, I knew it was over. The fun had gone from the event, and I knew another 25 miles of running would do nothing more than hurt me further. Sarah and Oriol were still having a brew as I arrived, but left shortly after. I wished them all the best, and as far as I can tell, all went smoothly for them to the end. I hope this is the case. It was a pleasure to have shared their company for at least part of the journey.

The staff at Malham were excellent, and I have to extend a special thanks for their help and hospitality. The medic had a look at my leg, and she was fairly certain that it was soft tissue damage only. Teas, coffees and hot chocolates were provided in a near-constant flow, and my “emergency” dehydrated food was put to good use. All in all it was a very pleasurable couple of hours. Many familiar faces passed through and I was able to wish them all safe journeys. I think John Bamber got a photo of me falling asleep in my chair; I’d like to see that one!

Eventually, Christian and Christina arrived to pick me up and take me up to Hawes. Christian had unfortunately dropped out at Ponden and the drive round to Hawes was complete with pleasant conversation about the race and prior races.

Landing in Hawes, Lucy was waiting for me at the CP along with Brenda and Jim (Jim was in charge of running Hawes CP). Getting sat down, I was plied with more tea and soup and asked by other medics if I was alright. I replied in the affirmative; it was just a bruise turned nasty (it’s still pretty nasty now, over one week on!).

Wouter appeared pretty shortly after (or at least I think it was shortly after; forget travelling near the speed of light, running the Spine has weird time-dilating properties) which let me congratulate him on his excellent 4th place. I also chatted with a few familiar faces, although I was starting to struggle with where I knew folk from. If I see you out and about in the future and I look a little confused, that’s probably why.

Eventually, we piled into Brenda’s car, and set off on the journey back to the Toon. I’m not sure I’ve ever been that tired before, and I don’t think it was long until I was asleep in the back of the car. The rest of the evening is a bit of a confused blur, as well as the next day in honesty – all I know is I spent most of it either on the sofa, or hobbling slowly around our flat and swearing at my leg. Standard.

So final thoughts:

I really enjoyed the Challenger (until my leg really started hurting). I’ll be back to finish it off, and most likely graduate to the full Spine in time. The camaraderie is excellent, and I hope to see many of the folks I spent time with again.

Brynje base layers are awesome.

Cold malt loaf is bad – so is cold Pepperami, and cheese sandwiches. Next time, I’m going for peanut butter and jam and the odd, but effective, marmite and jam sandwiches. Oh, and nice fatty salami.

I need a decent GPS trace to get over Bleaklow and Elslack Moor.

Fair play to all who finished – now rest!

Once again, thank you for reading if you got this far. It got a little rambling towards the end, but I hope it gave an impression of the “run”. For now, I’ve got to rest and sort this damn leg out – if only I could apply a sensibility filter to my activities, but then I guess I wouldn’t have entered in the first place if I worked that way.

So ‘til next time… Take care!

Spine Challenger Recce – Day 2

After stopping for the night at the Carriage House, we made our way back up to where the Pennine Way crosses the A672 (SD 983 142 for any interested enough) to pick up where we left off. The mist had cleared overnight, giving us a good view of the surrounding landscape.  My legs were feeling stiff after day one but started to loosen up as I made my way over the M62, to join a trail of flagstones up and over (hurray) Robin Hood’s Bed.

Blackstone Edge Reservoir quickly hove into view, and the Pennine Way dropped down to meet the Roman Road (most of the stones actually date from Medieval Times) and the Aiggin Stone – an old way marker for travelers.

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For the next few miles it pretty much becomes reservoir central; this is no bad thing though, as the ground is flat and makes for rapid movement. It gets even better when Stoodley Pike appears on the horizon – having spent a couple of New Years at Mankinholes Youth Hostel, it’s like seeing an old friend. At this point I met a guy walking to Hebden Bridge, and spent a few minutes chatting away before speeding up and heading on.

For a while, Stoodley Pike seems to stand still in the distance. The drag across the moor side here isn’t too bad really, but the stationary monument both encourages you on whilst paradoxically grinding you down mentally (although I doubt this will be an issue in the dark). Eventually, upon reaching Stoodley Pike, the Pennine Way takes a sharp turn east before descending north through Callis Wood. The way down to Hebden Bridge is a nice quick bridleway, and gives a welcome boost of speed. Although to really enjoy it you have to put out of your mind that you’ve got the whole way to come back up the other side.

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Jim was waiting at the P.W./A646 crossing point just outside of Hebden Bridge, where we had a quick chat and a water refill. During the race, CP one is just up the hill from here (well, up and down and up the hill from here), so whilst the bank up through Charlestown is a proper grind, psychologically it isn’t too bad. There’ll be hot food and a warm dry spot not far away!

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Reaching Colden and heading onto the moorside above, I slowed down a little to really nail the nav through this section. As the field boundaries here are very close together it’s easy to become a little disorientated, and so I took a few minutes to double check my exact location with the GPS, and have a Boost chocolate bar. Mmmm…

Following a fairly well worn in track northish across the moor, I enjoyed a rolling descent towards Gorple Lower Reservoir. It’s nice to have these little sections of softer ground, and by this point my feet were starting to complain. 40 odd miles of running will do that I guess.

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Finally approaching the next rendezvous point, the path drops you into a small but incredibly picturesque gorge. A quick grind back up toward the metalled road, and I made my first tiny navigational mistake by taking the first path to the road rather than the second. I doubt this would result in penalisation on the event as it adds distance to the route, but you never know, and it’s been duly noted for next time around.

Meeting Jim at the layby under Clough Foot, I was rewarded with a cup of tea and a surprisingly good cheese and ham sandwich. My feet, and particularly my right foot, had been bothering me from just after Hebden Bridge, so we talked it through and I decided to take a paracetamol to try and take the edge off and allow me to move with my natural gait again. I have to add in here that I usually try to avoid using pain killers, and don’t think I’ve ever used them for an “athletic” endeavour in the past. However, the paracetamol did the trick, and as I continued on to the Walshaw Dean Reservoirs my feet were feeling much more comfortable, allowing me to move more fluidly and thus more rapidly.

More moorside greeted me as I ascended and then descended over the excellently named Dick Delf Hill. Onward to Ponden, but stopping briefly on the downhill at the ruins to take in the open landscape. On blowy, clear, overcast days, there are few landscapes more atmospheric that the Pennines, and it’s always worth taking a moment or two to appreciate the wide-open valleys with their bleak but majestic appearance.

I reached the head of Ponden Reservoir at about half three, pausing for a short chat, before pushing on toward Ickornshaw Moor. As always with fell routes, what comes down must go up, and the bank out of Ponden is another good example of an uphill grind. I have a tendency, which I think is probably a legacy from my “short distance” fell running days, to push right up to the wire on uphills, and have to remind myself to dial it back. Getting up fast is no good if I burn out for everything later!

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Contouring round Crag Bottom, I met Harsharn – another chap obviously out on a recce for the Spine. We stopped for a few minutes, and it turned out that he was considering the full Spine Race having been unexpectedly timed out at Byrness last year, due to horrific conditions across the Border Ridge (the conditions had convinced the organisers to bump the cut-off forward). Harsharn seemed enthusiastic though, and I look forward to catching up with him in January. And of course, he knew Jim from last January’s Spine. The world of adventure racing is very small indeed.

Coming over Ickornshaw Moor the sun was beginning to set, providing a golden hue uncharacteristic of the rest of the trip. A typical moorland track then leads down Cowling which is distinct in the most part, but peters out slightly as you pass a building next to beck. I have to admit to having a slight panic here. In the dimming light, fine details on the map were less visible, and I began to doubt where I was. Pulling out the GPS, I confirmed where I was, and finally capitulating to use my headtorch, I noticed the details which would have kept me happy minutes before. Silly lad.

Descending quickly into Cowling though some bog which would thoroughly qualify as “goppin’”, the end felt in sight. I knew a couple more hills lay in wait, but I could almost smell Thornton-in-Craven and a pub meal.

A quick cheese and water refill, and it was time to get a shift on. Lothersdale was the next road crossing (although Jim would not be waiting here), but the way was full of fields which are notoriously difficult to deal with in the dark.

I had a serious low point around Low Windhill, having to stop, eat, and have a real talk to myself before getting on again. There was also a slightly odd, almost spicy scent around here which I found a little unsettling.

Another field and another mistake found me thrashing around in a small gully, trying to handrail my way along a fence line. Eventually giving up, I pulled out the GPS yet again to find that I was no more than 30 meters from where I should be. Dark fields, what a pain! However, I now know to stay a little right of the fence, and where the exit should be, so better on the recce than on the event.

Out of Lothersdale and over Thornton Moor progressed without any major hitches.

Until I hit more fields.

Thrashing around and worrying about timing out with regards to a pub meal, I stopped thinking properly and spent a good 10 minutes running up and down the same small stretch of field between Park House and Wood House.

GPS time again, and I finally realised my error. I’d stupidly assumed Park House was Wood House, and was getting more and more confused as my map and compass refused to match up with what I was seeing on the ground. Major lesson to be learnt here – and one I end up repeating in almost every write up: if things are going a little pear-shaped, take five, and trust the map and compass. I’m not a pigeon. My nose is not magnetic.

Finally sorting myself out, I hit the track through the fields, down past Spring Barn (who’s lights provided a useful navigational aid) and onto the final metalled road to Thornton. Setting a fair pace for the finish, Jim set his usual flashing light beacon when he saw me approach.

I found the car, but no Jim. Where was he? I ran up the road into Thornton, but found no Jim, so headed back to the car.

Still no Jim. What the hell?

A quick phone call (thank god there was signal) and Jim appeared from down the road, which was a little confusing. Discussing how we’d managed to pass each other, we got packed into the car and off to The Old Stone Trough for a well deserved pint and a rest for tomorrow’s final push.

I finished the day at 19:30, half an hour behind schedule, but never mind. Mistakes are better made on the recce, and I’ve picked up plenty of cues for navigation on the event.

As always, I’d like to thank any tenacious readers for making it this far; it’s a long write up, full of mundanities, but I hope you’ve enjoyed it non-the-less. I feel it would have been difficult to distil the experience down much further, which will always be problem with long distance running.

I’d also like to say a special thank you to Jim Imber yet again; without his willingness to help, this would not have been possible – or orders of magnitude more difficult.

And if there are any tiny specifics you want to know, give us a shout, I’ll do what I can to help.

Spine Challenger Recce – Day One

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What a day! Setting out from Edale in some serious mist, I headed towards my first ascent of Kinder Scout ever. Visibility was generally alright, making route finding easy enough, but annoyingly preventing any descent views of the surrounding landscape. Across Kinder and down to Snake Pass was all very atmospheric however, with tors of rock looming out of the clag like spectral sentries of the moorlands. Unfortunately (or fortunately) it’s been pretty dry recently, and Kinder Downfall was little more than a babbling brook.

From Snake Pass, the difficulties ease somewhat. There’s very little ascent or descent to speak of, and I bumped into Andy, another Spine Challengerer out on a recce. The pace down to Torside reservoir was therefore a little slower than I’d have set on my own, but it was well worth the time penalty for a good chat with another competitor to pick up some hints and tips.

Jim was waiting just south of the reservoir with a thermos of soup and freshly baked rolls. What more can a runner ask for really?

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From here it was a long drag to Black Hill; Andy has set off on his way while I was enjoying my soup, but we expected to cross paths again in the nearish future. I had a bit of a word with myself on the steep uphill to Oaken Clough, as I was getting frustrated with the slower pace I was forced into by the gradient, and realised that I probably needed more food.

A couple of friendly walkers informed me shortly after that there was another chap just 5 minutes ahead; it had taken me a little longer to catch Andy than expected, but I soon saw him cruising along ahead. A quick “how’s it going?” and I passed by to head through the most goppin’ piece of bog I’ve had the pleasure of associating with on the way up to Black Hill. The clag was still in, and a hoolie was blowing at the summit but I needed food again. Crouching behind the raised trig point, I had as much of a Chia Bar as I could stomach, and a Baby Bel for good measure, before setting off on the descent to the next rendezvous point at Wessenden Head.

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A quick chat with Jim, and a water refill (there’s actually a good river just before Wessenden Head, so this fits quite nicely with how race planning will likely go), and I foolishly followed the map into some obviously horrible terrain. I now know to head up the road a little, and go round the metalled track, rather than bashing through deep thick grass, uneven slopes and a couple of very deep river-cuts which would make even the Scottish Borders terrain proud! Bugger that on the race!

Passing by Wessenden Head, then Wessenden reservoirs, the light was beginning to fade, and the Pennine Way drops you most kindly down to a river, then brings you back up along a stream gully. What a joy in the dusk! Although I’ll secretly admit to enjoying it an odd kind of way.

Light fading fast, I decided to hold off on using my head torch for as long as possible. This made navigation a little tricky, and after I’d stumbled for the 4th time in a minute, it was time to get the head torch out.

A couple of reservoirs later (there’s a lot of reservoirs along the Pennines), we were at the penultimate rendezvous. A friendly trucker informed me that he’d ruined his knees by running too much when he was young, which was particularly constructive at that point, but it was good craic so no harm done.

Pressing on in the dark I soon found myself within a cloud, which deadened every sound, and reduced visibility to about 30m. Not too bad really, but the sheer amount of slippery peat made for an interesting mile or so. Might have been running slightly off piste there…

One final car park before the final hill of the day – White Hill – and there was a car whose alarm seemed a little faulty, going off every couple of minutes. When I got there, the issue was explained; I’m pretty sure it was some early-evening doggers looking for some strange. Once I’d walked off up the next section of the Pennine Way, the alarm mysteriously stopped sounding…

Across White Hill, the clag really came in. Visibility was down to 10m at the most! At least the path is fairly benign at this point, and rapid time was made over and down to the end of day one. I found myself thinking that if visibility was like that on the race, and snow was on the ground, navigation would be almost impossible with a map and compass. Time to brush up on those GPS skills perhaps!

A couple of thoughts or realisations from the day:

I need gaiters. Grit in the socks isn’t great, so let’s minimise that!

Brynje mesh baselayers are awesome! I know a few of my friends have been converts for years, but you have to experience it to understand just how good it really is! Used in conjunction with a Rab Vapour-Rise jacket, I spent the whole day at pretty much the correct temperature, and with my skin almost dry whilst the outside of the jacket was soaked. Working that hard, I’d usually be dripping from mile one, but not this time. Definitely a convert.

Poles help. I know, sacrilege when you’re talking to the fell running community, and I wouldn’t use poles on a fell race. But when you know you’ve got days (or lots of hours when we’re actually on the event) to go, and you’re carrying full emergency kit, they help. A lot.

As always, thanks for reading, and I’d like to extend a special thanks to Jim Imber, without whom this experience would be much more painful and difficult.

Stay tuned for the next installment ‘Spine Challenger Recce – Day Two’…coming soon.

OMM 2016 – Glentrool

Another October; another OMM. This year saw me pairing up with Chris Swanepoel of Kong Adventure in Keswick. I had already competed with Chris at the Autumn OMM Lite earlier this year, and our previous outing had seen us over-cook the run slightly, covering more than 100km over the weekend. We’d subsequently picked up some fairly hefty penalty points, but overall our performance had left us feeling positive about our teamwork and decision making, or at least that we knew what not to do.

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Rocking up to Glentrool in the late afternoon on Friday; having taken Friday and Monday off for the OMM; we headed straight up the event HQ so that Lucy could receive her briefing for the weekend. This left me hanging around until Chris arrived which wasn’t too much of an issue; there are always plenty of people to catch up with, and the setting sun lit up the surrounding landscape in a way we could only hope for over the next couple of days.

Chris arrived just as the evening light was going, and we spent a few minutes chatting on before coming up with a plan for the evening. Setting up our base-camp tent, we headed back to the event HQ for our pasta party, which was followed by a burger and chased down with a couple of pints – only the healthiest scran for elite athletes such as ourselves *ahem*.

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(For those of you who haven’t competed in the OMM, you have to carry a tent for the overnight camp on Saturday, but it’s a huge advantage to have a larger, more comfortable tent for the Friday – and possibly Sunday – night, as you then don’t have to pack up a tent on Saturday morning which is probably damp and heavy.)

Getting up on the Saturday we got our chops round double bacon butties for breakfast, a big mug of coffee, and started our long walk to the start point. We discussed possible plans, agreed again on tactics, and I tried to keep myself calm; after placing 3rd last year, I’d put a lot of pressure on myself  to do well this time round – possibly a counter-productive way of thinking…

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Getting our maps, we (I) dibbed the starting box, and we moved to the side to look at check point values, and estimate our route with Chris’ pre-prepared knotted string. Linking the 50-pointers through as many 40- and 30-pointers, we decided on a route quickly and set off up the hill.

I’ll try to avoid boring the socks off of everyone here with tedious route descriptions, and go for a nice snappy summary of Saturday’s running: tussocky and claggy. Most of the day was spent in a 200m wide dome of grey, but when the cloud did lift the views were second to none!

Taking some conservative navigation around Loch Enoch set us back a little, but was better than getting lost in the mist. We’d also forgotten to eat enough, so at about this point I started to bonk; setting us back even further.

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But then good fortune; the clouds lifted a little and we were running on some of the faster tracks of the weekend. This allowed us to quickly tick off a couple of big-pointers on the way to the overnight camp.

With just under an hour to go we were getting close to camp, and were presented with a navigational decision. The String told us that we only had enough time to pick up one of two checkpoints – either a 40 or a 30 – plus a 20 on the way back in, and so we plumped for the 40-pointer. The route to this check point was straight up the side of “Nick of the Gulley”, which after 5 hours of running was not a pleasant option, but manageable. We blasted up the hill to the level at which we had to traverse, overtaking many parties in the process, with one chap asking if he could hold onto our bags or stay in our slipstream. Chris kindly informed said chap that his slipstream smelt a bit of peanuts, not something I’d noticed fortunately, and we were on our way.

Traversing into the gully to find the 40-pointer, we checked the map and description as we descended, but failed to spot the control and kept descending.

Ooops – error.

We arrived at a boulder at the bottom of the gully just above the treeline which was accompanied by an excited “ah, here’s the checkpoint!” from Chris, only to be followed by a “er, that’s not the right checkpoint” from me.

Both our hearts sank. Shit. What do we do?

I had a little scout up another trod coming in along the bottom of the line of crags, but saw nothing. Chris had started reading the description again and was up for having a search of the area for the control.

I made my worst mistake of the weekend here by insisting that we leave and just get home. After the penalties of the OMM Lite I was twitchy about timings, and had failed to take into account the fact that the final 3km were going to be very fast going, being metalled road and hard trail.

Looking back, it’s obvious that we should have spent 10 minutes checking the area. Talking to other competitors at the overnight camp, we realised that we must have passed within about 20m of the control point, but there were also comments that it was a little difficult to spot.

Sitting at home, writing this piece with the benefit of hindsight, I find it all too easy to kick myself for a rash decision to move on. At the same time I have to recognise that I was worried that we would never find the control, and waste precious minutes; in different circumstances, leaving would have been the correct call. But making the correct choice under pressure is what separates the cream from the crop, and I made it wrong in this instance. Annoyingly, it was these 40 points which ultimately dropped us 6 places in the rankings. Lesson very much learnt – if you’ve gone to the trouble to get to a 40- or 50-pointer, spend a few minutes searching around if it’s not immediately obvious!

Back on track, and cursing the illusive control point (point AI if anyone has a copy of the map and is interested), we blasted down the road and onto the final trail. To soothe our sorrows, the race organisers had kindly placed a booby-prize 20-pointer on the way home, and picking it up about 5 minutes after landing on the road confirmed that we were going to be back with time to spare.

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Happy days. Arriving at the camp site in the worst rain of the weekend (which was pretty innocuous in reality) we dibbed in to be shocked with a 9th place ticket. Hmm. Not the start we wanted, but checking the score board, there wasn’t too much in it between 9th and 3rd… By the end of the evening we were down in 11th place, but ready for a fight on the second day.

Putting the tent up under some trees provided a little respite from the prevailing conditions, and we proceeded to stuff as much Extreme Food down our faces as possible, before retiring to our surprisingly comfy, X-Frame supported beds.

Sunday started with the mandatory bagpiper for OMM events held north of the border. A nice wake up call for 6am, but as we weren’t due to start running until 9am we stayed in “bed” for another hour until restlessness forced us into action.

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Wriggling back into yesterdays damp, but slightly warmed clothes (we’d put them in our sleeping bags overnight to try and get them to dry) we emerged from our polyester cocoon to begin eating, packing up and getting ready to go. As 9am rolled round to greet us, we found ourselves on the start line, picking up our map and getting ready to attack day two.

Making our plans fairly quickly through the use of the string, we set off at a brisk pace. The start of day two flew by without any major hitches, and as we were on a later start, many of the popular paths had been trodden in, making the going a little easier.

Not for long though. The way to the 3rd 50-point control was either via a circuitous climb up by a river followed by some hefty bog-bashing, or via an incredibly steep climb directly up a gully which would drop us almost directly onto the control. We opted for the steep gully option, and I’m happy to say that it worked pretty much perfectly! Bonus.

From here, more tussocky joy awaited us whilst we whipped (alright, stumbled) round to gather the next few controls and begin heading home for the final time.

Handrailing along a fence, the clag descended just as we were about to begin our final climb. This was particularly bad timing for us, as the grey and muffled atmosphere made our ascent into the cloud feel almost never ending. Step, step, step; check bearing; check vague hillside; step, step…

We finally arrived at the saddle point between Lamachan Hill and Larg Hill, still in the clag, followed closely by; “Looks like the saddle point Chris, there should be a track somewhere around… oh, here it is. Excellent!” Time was starting to run out though, and we had just over an hour to get back to the event centre which was about 10km away – but all downhill, thankfully.

With time pressing, we flew down the hill from Nick of the Brushy, taking a “short cut” to the gravelled forest track through a firebreak. It was definitely shorter distance wise, but I really do hate firebreaks!

Both Chris and I went into surprise bogs multiple times, often to the knee, or both knees, or even both knees and an elbow. Exciting stuff! Plus all the branches invariably spearing you as you shift from the main firebreak to the narrow rows between the trees when a large fallen pine invariably blocks your path. It’s never fast, but it is an adventure, and cursing under my breath as a write this, I know I also have a smile on my face recalling that adventure within an adventure race. It was fairly obvious that a few other parties had suffered similar fates, and bursting out onto the forest track we were greeted by a number of teams jogging almost casually back to HQ, who fortunately seemed quite entertained by our expletive-laden arrival.

From here on in it was just rapid descending, stopping only to pick up the final two 50-point controls on our way back. Crossing over Water of Trool with about 15 minutes spare, we suspected we may have just gotten away with it! There was a 20-pointer to pick up in the penultimate field, but by this point I’d given up caring and just wanted to finish, so we made a bee-line for the finish instead and crossed the line with 2 minutes to spare, tired, muddy, but extremely happy with the day’s running.

In hindsight, we could have easily picked up the 20-pointer, and we’d only have lost a couple of points for being late. We could have also taken a better line up on to Lamachan Hill, heading up between Scars of Milldown and Scars of Lamachan, which would have also added another 10 points onto our score, but these are minor quibbles with an otherwise well-executed piece of navigation.

Interestingly (or at least for me), my PhD supervisor used to compete in mountain marathon events, and his interpretation of the available route pretty much matched my own decisions; a vast improvement over a year ago where virtually every decision I had taken was torn apart mercilessly. But I digress…

I’d like to thank all of you who made it this far for reading. I hope it hasn’t been too waffley, as I feel events like these need a little fleshing out for proper armchair appreciation, and I hope a few may be inspired to come and join in with the suffering fun on later events.

I’d also like to thank the OMM team who make these events possible; once again it’s been an excellent event.

And that’s that

Until next time

Ta Ra!

Stanley Ghyll and Birker Force

With the OMM 2016 just round the corner, I’ve been trying to get out and about a little more to get some miles in my legs. The first run of much interest for a while took place this weekend when we went over to Eskdale to celebrate my brother and my birthdays (our birthdays are just 16 days apart).

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The original plan was to get up early and head up via Eel Tarn and Burnmoor Tarn to hit Scafell Pike, and descend back down via Scafell, Slightside and the Great Moss. I’d anticipated about 3 to 3 and a half hours for this round, which would have worked out quite nicely if I’d woken up early. But as Saturdays often work out, we ended up sleeping a little longer than expected, and by the time we were up, fed and watered the 4ish hours it would take for the run and subsequent cool down/shower would put me way out of sync with everyone else.

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Not wanting to pass up my opportunity to run in one of my favourite Lakeland valleys, I had a quick peruse of the map for a shorter route which would provide a bit of ascent and excellent views. I settled on a classic round (for us), joining the riverside path as quickly as possible from Christcliff, running down (West) to Stanley Ghyll, up Stanley Ghyll, East across the tops above Birker Force, back down to Low Birker, and back along the river.

I won’t blather on about the views, which were exceptional as always. I will be just a little nerdy, now having a running watch, and say that I was out for 56 minutes, with an average pace of 6min30/km. So now, I’ll leave you all with a few photos of my run. Enjoy!

Oh, and see you at the OMM…

 

Phantom 20 follow on review

Following my sparkling endorsement of the phantom 20, I have found a fairly fundamental issue with the phantom 20. I still consider the carrying system (i.e. the yoke system to avoid asymmetric loading whilst running) to be exceptional, but the issue is related to the back panel.

During long runs (longer than about an hour), the thin foam panel which should reduce or prevent abrasion works its way out of its sleeve in the back of the pack. This is probably exacerbated by the presence of a bladder, but especially for Lite events, a bladder is an unavoidable necessity.

The result is excessive chaffing on the lower back which has happened every time I’ve used the bag fully loaded. The nub of the issue is that the foam back panel is too soft and therefore rucks up during a run, and coupled with a top-flap which is insufficiently secured, the foam rides out of the bag over and over again.

The solution is pretty simple; add a few grams to the bags’ weight. Increase the overlap of the flap at the top with the panel below, and add more Velcro. Three times the amount that’s presently there would make a reasonable start by my reckoning. Add some sticky rubber to the foam back panels, and increase the rigidity of the foam back panel to prevent or reduce it from riding up whilst running.

On that note, I’m off to make some changes to my bag. And to OMM – it’s frustrating; the Phantom 20 is so close to being an excellent bag. Please, please, please sacrifice some grams on the bag, and fix the one issue I’ve been banging on at you about for over a year!