Spine Challenger Recce – Day 3

The final day of the recce dawned, and after a tasty full English breakfast at The Old Stone Trough, we headed straight up to Thornton in Craven to pick up the trail where we left off. I’ll admit that we drove a small way up Cam Lane before getting out of the car; after running up and down the final lane the night before, I didn’t feel too bad about it.

I also popped a paracetamol to start the day, as various aches were really starting to come through, but in hindsight I should have taken it a little earlier. Psychologically though, this was the easiest day to start. I knew that in 26 miles, the running would be done (on race day there’s obviously a further 16 miles to come) and there would be a pint and a hot meal to get my chops around.

Out of Thornton, you’re straight back into joyous farmland, but the field boundaries are a little closer together, and there are significantly fewer gullies to get lost in. Navigation is reasonably straightforward in the daytime, but I also feel that it’s going to be a little easier in the dark than the way into Thornton. I think I’m going to go through the whole area and insert bearing values for quick reference just in case.

Frustratingly I was about 10 minutes into running, heading down a hill, and one of the poles (which I’d borrowed from Lucy) managed to unscrew itself slightly, and then broke – dumping me on, and down, the hill. Hurray! Next set will have flick locks.

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For a period of time, you get the pleasure of joining the Leeds-Liverpool canal. The greatest highlight of this little stretch is a curious double-arched bridge with one arch built on top of another; apparently this happened because one canal bridge was built, then a road was built but the bridge was too low, so they built another bridge on top of the first one! Awesome!

Back into fields and Gargrave is just a short step away. As well as the excellent Dalesman Cafe – I’m hoping that they’ll be open when we’re passing through, to grab a brew and a butty of some description. I also popped another paracetamol to take the edge off the bruising – 70 miles of running gets pretty painful – and handed the broken pole over to Jim.

Back out of Gargrave, and the Pennine Way takes a road past a picturesque country estate before cutting North West back into more fields and dropping to join the river Aire. This is the river which will ultimately lead to Malham and the magnificent Malham Cove. The running beside the Aire is pleasant and quick, and the locals seemed really quite friendly.

Unfortunately, crossing a small footbridge, my legs had a slight mutiny, which resulted in me shouting at myself “F*** OFF!” I thought I was alone, but turning I saw a couple of walkers that had just appeared over the side of the hill to the left, a couple of hundred metres away. They then seemed to turn around quickly, and walk away again. Oops, sorry, it wasn’t you – if you’re reading this now, it was my legs, not you.

Just before Hanlith Hall, I stopped and had a chat for a while with a man who suggested that I have a look at the Dalesman race. He also mentioned that there was a lass up ahead moving at a fair pace; the chase for the mystery Speedcross stud marks was on!

Dropping into Malham, Jim presented me with a cheese and pickle sandwich and a hot cup of tea. Just the ticket for the half way mark of the day. For me, psychologically this was the crux of the day; everything from here kind of felt like mentally going downhill, whilst ironically I had the bulk of the actual ascent and descent left to cover in the afternoon.

Back on the road, and heading north out of Malham a short incline is encountered which slows you down until a short drop to the bottom of Malham Cove gives you five minutes of shifting (whilst trying to dodge tourists who seem utterly bewildered by your outfit and pace). Malham Cove really is spectacular, and as a (currently) inactive climber, it feels like a pilgrimage of sorts. There were only two climbers out which I found surprising considering the mild and dry conditions, but then again I was moving faster and generating more heat.

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The climb up the side of the cove is short and sharp, but enjoyable in a masochistic kind of way. One friendly guy remarked that “it’s easier going up than going down”, so I informed him that I didn’t plan on heading back down, but back down was definitely easier than my option of going to Horton-in-Ribblesdale. Surprisingly, I didn’t really get a response to that…

Up on to the top, and it took a couple of minutes to work out where I was meant to be heading to get back on to the Pennine Way. Happily, it was necessary to head east across the top of the Cove on the famous limestone pavement, and having grown up in sunny Lancaster, limestone pavements feel like home. Its then a sharp left turn to head north again toward Malham Tarn, passing by a docile highland cow (not a permanent fixture I assume), and into the small rocky gorge at the very top of the shallow ravine.

I’d ended up having a chat with another guy moving fairly quickly. He wasn’t part of the Spine contingent however, and was heading down to Settle. I’d walked up with him, apparently slightly off the Pennine Way during our conversation, which meant that I’d exited the gorge earlier than I should have done, and missed Jim who was lying in wait for a photo opportunity after parking up at Malham Tarn.

As I passed through the car park, I saw Jim’s car, and wondered where he’d gone. Assuming that he’d probably gone up to the tarn for some photo opportunities, I pushed on, resolving to phone him if I couldn’t find him before peeling off the tarnside path. As it was, I couldn’t find him anywhere, so tried to phone him to let him know what was going on at the foot of Great Close Hill. Signal was patchy, and we had about five different calls where I think we managed to exchange about three words, before I gave up and just sent a couple of texts to explain what was going on.

No problems there; once the message got through I picked the pace back up and wolfed down a couple of shot blocks for good measure. Passing the Field Centre, and just about to head up the Way toward Fountains Fell, a couple stopped me and asked if I knew if they could walk all the way round the tarn. “I dunno guys, but I’ll have a look… Erm… well you can, but there’ll be a lot of road”. “Oh thank you very much, we think we’ll just go back the way we came then”. Righto! No bother, ‘but why didn’t you check your own map?’ I wondered internally. Nowt so queer as folk eh? But then again, most people would say that about anyone voluntarily running the best part of 100 miles over three days.

From here, for me, the Way takes on a friendly feeling. I just love limestone Pennine country; it feels like home, and I kept a good pace whilst enjoying the sights, smells and general ambiance of the area. I stopped briefly at the bottom of Fountains Fell for a Mars Bar and a couple of en-route photos, before ploughing on. I also noticed the re-appearance of what looked like Speedcross stud marks, and wondered how far ahead the wearer was.

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About 2/3rds of the way up the Fell I came across a couple hunkering down for a bit of scran, and asked if they were out having a look in preparation for the spine. The man said he wasn’t, but he was obviously aware of what the Spine Race was. “I’d take my hat off to you if it wasn’t so cold”. One of the aspects I most enjoyed about the whole recce was the random meetings with total strangers who were almost invariably good, friendly company.

Passing over the top of Fountains Fell, there’s a collection of cairns which almost look like some bizarre meeting of folk. I also noticed someone moving quickly, and thought “haha, got you at last!”

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A quick stop for a couple of photos of the excellent scenery, and it was time to pick the pace up. I could see the figure in the middle distance, moving fast, but stopping every now and again. So I took the breaks off as best you can at the end of 85 miles, and began a rapid descent to catch up.

I’ve become better at descending over the past couple of years, but this was a tough chase. Eventually Ella (she turned out to be an MRT member) stopped enough times, and moved slowly enough for me to catch up. We descended to the road together, but I then slowed to eat and Ella moved off. Shortly however, Ella bumped into Jim, and I caught up again. We all wandered along the road for half a click or so, discussing Spine Challenger strategy and kit before reaching Jim’s car. Ella dashed off, and I halted to have a quick water refill and brew before tackling the final obstacle – Pen-y-Ghent.

It would be a lie to say that Pen-y-Ghent was easy; it’s a sharp climb no matter how you look at it, but I kept the pace reasonable, and ate as much as I could before hitting the gritstone-festooned capping slopes. From here on in it becomes more of a scramble, albeit a really easy one, and eating is not an option. It also felt as though I’d almost caught Ella once more (I’m not competitive, honest), so I pushed for the top.

Arriving at Pen-y-Ghent summit, I could see that I’d almost caught up, but Ella was now descending with speed towards Horton-in-Ribblesdale. I was bonking a little, so crammed all the readily available food into my mouth, exchanged pleasantries with a couple of guys on the summit and began my own, somewhat slower descent.

I’m reasonably familiar with the northern/western descent off of Pen-y-Ghent, having walked the Three Peaks a couple of times, and the characteristic snow field was very much in residence. It was here that I was glad for a pole and almost thought about donning micro-spikes, but for a 200m traverse it wasn’t really worth it. Once the main steep section was passed, it became possible to ramp up the pace a little – less energy had to be used on preventing a runaway descent – and the final fingerpost towards Horton was a welcome sight.

The final track is fairly nice; a gentle descent without too rough a surface, although there are a couple of sections where an ankle could be turned if due care wasn’t taken. A most annoying prospect if the trip had been the race proper.

In the dimming pre-dusk, I met Jim just outside of Horton, and we ambled down to the car to finish at 4pm; 27 hours of moving time after starting on Thursday. A quick change in the car park (Brynje vests develop a very interesting aroma over three days), and we popped down to the pub to try and get some food. Unfortunately, food wasn’t on until 6pm, so we packed up and headed on to Hawes for a chippy tea. One of the best meals I’ve had for a long time, and I really hope they’re open for finishing on the race.

Eventually, it was time to head home; what a great “weekend” of running. I’d scoped out some of the more tricky sections on the route, gotten lost on some others, and generally got a handle on the distance and pace required for the race. I know I’ve said it before, but if I can pull this out of the bag again on the race, I’ll be a happy man!

So that’s it. If you’ve made it this far, I thank you for reading. I hope my account has been as enjoyable to read as it has been to recall.

Once again, a huge thank you to Jim Imber who made this recce possible; thank you to Lucy who has been massively supportive with regards to my training and nerding out before the event; and thank you to Rhodri Lewis from Nordic Life for his excellent customer service and efforts to get the Brynje baselayers to me in time for the recce.

I’ll be posting another blog about my thoughts a week or so on (and possibly some GPS data if I can work out how to get it shared), so until then, take care and have fun :D.

Johan

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!

OMM Lite/Bike Autumn 2016

After two unsuccessful attempts at placing first in the OMM Lite Long Score, this time round felt as though it may be the one. I had convinced Chris Swanepoel to be my running partner, on the assumption that if I was running with someone who was a stronger runner than I was, then it was likely that we would be able to cover more ground, and thus stand an excellent chance at placing highly/first.img_2659
I have to admit I was a little nervous; when we ran the Old County Tops together Chris was in much better shape, and I could only feel like I’d let the side down. I really didn’t want this race to be a repeat of that, especially as we’re running the OMM together in October. The OMM Lite was an excellent chance to calibrate our pacing, route planning, and get Chris used to OMM format events.img_2665
This, it turned out, was an excellent idea. We eventually placed fourth overall, but covered way more distance than anyone else we talked to – over 100km across the weekend!
Our troubles started on the Saturday. Running wise, the weather was excellent; not raining, clear skies, and a nice breeze to keep us cool. However, and this is really stupid, having almost cleared the course on the Spring Lite whilst being much less fit, we assumed we’d be able to repeat course clearance again. Which was wrong. Very Wrong. img_2666
Running on the assumption that we were going to get to every check-point, we very quickly planned a route and set off. As always, the first checkpoint felt sooooo far away, but after dibbing for the first time, the wheels of the machine started to turn much more freely. Soon, we were blasting round our chosen route, picking up even the awkward controls, and even passing teams we’d passed already due to our wiggling path. It felt good! It always does when you’re moving well…
As three and a half, and then four hours passed, it became obvious that we weren’t going to get everything. We were at top of the course about then, so had to start making provisions to get back to camp. Ditching an attempt to get a difficult 50-pointer, we headed  toward the start of what would have been our second loop. We were both running low on water as well; fortuitously we found a water-butt full of rainwater and, without any better options, refilled our bladders.
The end of Saturday was an exercise in suffering. We started up a path which looked like it would cut off a reasonable corner, only to find it was overgrown and virtually impassable, so had to turn back and go for a serious hike up the road. We then followed a path through the forest, which should have dropped us about 300m from a control, but this time the path disappeared almost directly after a foot-path sign. Stumbling through dense vegetation and lumpy, boggy ground, we made it back onto a major track, only to struggle with the problem of not knowing where on the track we were. Fortunately, a cyclist bombed past us on the major trail, and we picked up the run again.
Eventually, and after a serious conversation, we pushed on to grab a final couple of check points. We were going to be late, but these points would tip the overall balance into the positive. Forest tracks are hard going at the best of times, but with the clock ticking, and a voice in the back of your head saying “Go home! Go home!” this final leg was a serious test of how deep we could dig. Picking up the points, we made swift time down through the forest, and to the base of the hill up to Cropton.
Here, the hill made us pay, and at the end of 60+km it was slow and painful. Chris had his watch on, and said at the end that the hill on its own had cost us somewhere around 50 to 60 points, slowing us down just as we had to get back. But we were back, and not feeling too bad, all things considered.
A pub burger, a pint, and a good sleep got us ready and raring for the next day’s challenges.
A Sunday morning breakfast of Extreme Food and Mountain Fuel porridge filled us up ready for another 5 hours of running. This time round, we planned to pick up big points where we could, with contingency plans for heading back if we were running behind schedule. We also both felt surprisingly fresh considering the previous day’s running.
Hatching a plan, we set off down the Hill of Despair towards our first check point, which was our final check point from the Saturday. Cogs were turning as we made our way, and before long I asked Chris how much it was worth. 20 points! Is that all? I’m not dragging back up that long slog, let’s go along the lower road and pick up these 10 pointers instead. Just as many points, flatter running. Great!
All-in-all the running was going well. We hit our check points at, or even just before expected, and were feeling strong at the furthest most point with about two hours to go. It was here that we made our final error.
Experience was telling me that we should be heading back, pretty much the fastest way possible. Chris was excited, and had a loop of high value check points firmly in his sights. We sat for a couple of minutes looking at the maps, and against everything I know, I agreed to continue on with Chris. It was easy to get caught up in the enthusiasm; we were running well – it seemed completely feasible.
The mid-day sun was beginning to take its toll though. I’m not good in hot conditions, and there was little to no shade around this part of the course. Running started to slow. Navigation was still pretty good, but a single error, followed by another confusing woodland section compounded matters. Psychologically, I was beginning to feel the strain, but the only way out was onwards.
Dibbing at the penultimate control, home was in sight. We were still shifting reasonable, although I was really starting to feel like throwing up. Chris, being South African, wasn’t bothered by the heat. Damn Northern acclimatisation, it’s usually good for sports like the OMM, but not this time.
Approaching the final control before home, we arrived to find it being packed away! “It’s after 2 now” we were told. Fair enough, but what about late arrivals like us, and amusingly, another team behind us. The final push began.
I’m pretty sure I whimpered a little when Chris demanded that we pick up the pace again. Oh dear, I’m dying. This is horrible. The team who were behind us peeled away up an obvious track, which, in hindsight we should have used. In my absolute certainty in my navigation, I said we should continue, and pick up a smaller, but more direct track. It never showed. We fortunately came across the next track along, and took it up the merciless hill back to the finish. Finally, we were just outside the camp, and pushing through everything, we trotted back in to finish on 300 points for the day, after a rather hefty fine of 150 points!img_3688
I’d like to say I could have given more, that we could have made it back a little faster, but I couldn’t. Chris didn’t seem bothered by the heat, but I get a feeling that we’ll be in reversed roles on the OMM. Cold and wet is my forte.
To look at the positives though – we placed especially well, considering all our mistakes and 240 penalty points. More than that though, we ran well together, kept pace together, and proved that our route finding skills, although the planning could do with a little tweaking, were generally pretty damn good. It’s also left me feeling like I won’t let Chris down on the OMM, which is important. I was upset with our time on the Old County Tops, and I knew that one was my fault. img_3692
As always, the campsite was good, the vibe was excellent, and there were plenty of old friends and familiar faces to catch up with. Good work OMM, keep ‘em coming. We’ll be there again. (Until I place first on the Long Score; guess I’ll switch to bikes after that…)

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OMM Lite / Bike Photo Blog

Hey everyone,

I feel that we must apologise for our absense recently – I’m putting it down to work and just being generally busy.

We’ll be catching up and bombarding you with retrospective posts over the next few days, so be prepared to indulge in our antics!

To start with; last weekend was the OMM Lite/Bike in beautiful North Yorkshire. I went down to support Johan again and reprise my role as photographer, helping out the OMM team with a few shots out on the course and at the start/finish.

This was Johan’s first event with his new partner Chris from Kong Adventure in Keswick, a team that I think are going to go far. They came 4th overall in the Long Score, not bad for their first outing! I’ll let Johan fill you in with all the gory details though!

Now for the photos…

 

Wainwrights Challenge – (almost) The Dodds

On our continuing mission to seek out new hills, far from civilization, the next target was The Dodds – the fells making up the northern end of the Helvellyn range. Fortunately we know people who live in Threlkeld, which removed difficult parking issues, and provided us with a BBQ to come back to in the evening.
Setting out a little later than planned, we crossed the A66 with ease (not something you hear every day), and started the climb towards Threlkeld Knotts. If you haven’t explored this area I’d really recommend it. Although part of its appeal is that it’s much quieter than many of the surrounding areas, so don’t all rush at once…
Threlkeld Knotts is a hidden gem. Much like my other favourite Lakeland fells, it’s not the biggest, but offers excellent views just off the beaten track. It also provides an interesting route up Clough Head, passing a couple of disused quarries. The higher, smaller quarry contained a couple of locals pissing about on dirt bikes which looked like a cracking way to spend a sunny Saturday morning. From then on we saw no one until the final traverse onto the southern flank of Clough Head.
Neither of us have previously explored these fells, which is where a large amount of the appeal of The Wainwrights lies. Clough Head provides unparalleled vistas across to the Northern Fells, with bonus views of the Eden Valley and the Pennines. What’s not to love? We also bumped into a group reccying the Bob Graham round – good luck to them for their attempt at the end of the month.
The joy of the Dodds is that once you’re up, the hard work is pretty much done. There’s a bit of a sting getting onto Great Dodd, but really it’s comfortable yomping the whole way along. The problem is that it’s totally exposed, with Lucy being blown all over the place on the summit of Great Dodd.
Watson’s Dodd is, by comparison, nice and gentle – an extended plateau protruding between Great and Stybarrow Dodd. Unfortunately due to the BBQ in the evening we had to turn around. Skirting around Great Dodd, we dropped onto Mosedale Beck to join the Old Coach Road back to Threlkeld. At Mariel Bridge we were treated to a parade of green-laning Landrover Series who kindly offered us a lift to Dockray. It’s a shame that was the wrong direction as it looked awesome.
It looked like there was a quick cut from the Coach Road back to the track to Threlkeld. It doesn’t exist. We took a bearing which should have dropped us right on to the cut, but found nothing. Before accusations of crappy navigation are thrown around, my nav is not that bad, and Chris backed me up when we got home; obviously he’s had the same idea in the past, with the same result.
Finally we were tramping back up past the little church in Threlkeld to enjoy a well deserved BBQ. Nipping back into Kewick we availed ourselves of the excellent beer selection in Booths, and rounded the day off with a tasty 7.5% bottle of Halcyon.