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

Race Report – OMM 2017 Langdale – Day One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah alright, that’s a good idea”

And off we went again…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(OMM day two to follow soon)

Bob Graham Round – Leg 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A couple of things to remember here:

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh dear, I really should have eaten more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Important stuff now:

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

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

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

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

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

‘Till next time!

Scafell and Slightside via Burnmoor Tarn

Another Mother’s birthday, another trip to Eskdale with the family, and therefore another run up from Boot to Scafell. Only this time, I actually managed to get to Scafell.

It’s been a goal of mine for a year or so, particularly as I enjoy the tops between Eskdale and Wasdale a lot – possibly one of my favourite little bits of the Lakes, and an area which usually remains relatively quiet despite its close proximity to Wasdale – arguably one of the more popular valleys.

As a bit of background; we were staying with family friends – Peter and Fionna. Peter especially, is very familiar with the hills surrounding Eskdale, having walked a huge variety of routes from the valley, and as such, is always worth consulting before a run. In this instance I’d planned to head up Slightside, as of last year’s foray, before heading on up to Scafell and dropping back down to Burnmoor Tarn, but Peter suggested running the other way around as the descent from Scafell to Burnmoor Tarn is incredibly rocky. It was excellent advice, as the scree I encountered was just the wrong size for descending quickly; too big to surf, too picky to get through rapidly.

As it was a family weekend, I wanted to get out early to avoid taking over the daytime. A friend of a friend was attempting the Bob Graham (he managed it with time to spare), and it was suggested that I meet them at Rossett Pike to have a look at the route up Bowfell in preparation for my attempt (hopefully in late June/early July this year). However, without a lift up Hardknott, it was going to be a serious day out just for me as well, and I felt would take too much out of the day, so elected for a shorter, albeit awesome, route.

Setting off just after 9am, the sun was out, a light frost was hanging around in the shade from the night before, and there was a slight breeze. In a word, it was perfect.

The first stretch takes you up from Christcliff (which lies pretty much half way between Boot and the Woolpack Inn) to Eel tarn, and is characterised by gorse and bog-myrtle, resulting in a lovely fragrant first ascent. I’d decided to try and run as much uphill as possible, as my performance at the Causey Pike fell race had left a little to be desired for someone with my uphill pedigree.

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As it was, I managed to run all the way up to Eel tarn where I stopped to take in the surroundings. I can never get bored of that area, it’s just fantastic – wide open Lakeland tops, basking in sunshine; Eel tarn is small, but perfectly situated, and you get the hulking mass of Scafell lowering in the background, with all the famous tops around Wasdale thrown in for good measure. Brilliant!

Moving on, I tried to keep the pace up on the flatish section to Burnmoor Tarn. This whole stretch is rapid running on soft, even ground, rising slightly from Eel tarn before dropping you onto Lambford Bridge. Here, the bridge gate was stuck shut – not a problem for me as I just vaulted the gate – and I spent a few minutes trying to un-stick the latch. The chain had twisted around and moved to the far side of its tethering ring, and I just couldn’t budge it.

Giving up on the gate as a lost cause (or something which would take far too long to fix on my schedule), I pushed on towards Burnmoor Tarn. Losing the path, I ended up thrashing my way through some boggy long grass for about five minutes, until the path revealed itself to me, and I could yomp on to Burnmoor.

Burnmoor hove into view, with the shooting lodge peeping over the hillside; “ah, it’s good to be back”. Running up the length of the tarn, I double checked the path up to Scafell, had a quick drink and got shifting again, trying to keep my pace down below 5min/mile.

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It was time for the big ascent up to Scafell summit, and I decided to try and run as much as possible. I managed pretty much the whole way up Hard Rigg, but eventually had to slow down and stomp my way up. Hitting the boulder field which characterises the entire top of Scafell, I slowed right down and followed a narrow path which switch-backed its way up and up. I wouldn’t like to come down this unless I had to, nice local knowledge there Peter, cheers!

After a good 15 minutes of stomping and scrambling, I arrived at the top of England’s second highest peak. At 964m, Scafell summit stands 13m below the summit of its better known Pike. In the clear bluebird April sunshine this was an unexpected blessing; I looked over to Scafell Pike, and could clearly see a number of people hanging out on its summit. In comparison, I was on my own, on my own little piece of heaven.

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If you’ve never been, the views from Scafell are stunning (given that it’s a clear day that is), and I’d even go as far as to suggest the peak itself has more to offer than Scafell Pike. After drinking in the views for five minutes I consulted my map again, had a sip of my dwindling water, and set off picking my way down toward Slightside. I met the only person I saw on my run at this point, a young shepherd by the looks of him, and exchanging a brief “hello” we were both on our respective ways, him heading up, me heading down.

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From Scafell to Slightside, the terrain varies from picky and rocky, to a lovely sweeping grass slope, and back to picky and rocky as you hit Slightside summit. Another stop for reflection and to enjoy the views, and I was back on my way, dropping off the southern end of Slightside and contouring around toward Stony Tarn.

I managed to pick the wrong track between Slightside and Stony Tarn, but realised when Cat Crag and Dawsonground Crags appeared on my right instead of my left. More tramping across boggy ground ensued, and I managed to drop myself onto the track which skirts around the north of Stony Tarn.

The pace picked up again, and I bombed downhill past Eel Tarn and down toward Christcliff, clock watching the whole while. I’d said that I could do it in 2h30 before heading out; Peter had hedged at 3 hours, and my watch was showing 2h11 as I hit the top of the final slope where paths part ways to Christcliff or the Woolpack.

I can get under 2h15, come on.

Belting down the hill, I ignored the gorse and brambles as much as possible, and hit the track up to the house at about 2h12.

Go go go!

Sprinting up the track, I finally made it into their car space and stopped my watch. 2h13, get in!

All in all, including photo stops and gate fixing attempts it had taken 2h31, which was pretty much bang on. I’d managed to get a little sunburnt as well (always happens in the Lakes in April), and arrived home to a big mug of tea and some biscuits. Perfect.

Thrunton Thriller – High Fell Events

The day after the Daffodil Run, I had another half marathon ish race – The Thrunton Thriller. For those of you in the know, good, you can probably stop reading in all honesty; for those of you not, I can sum up to whole experience in seven words:

Bloody hard work; well worth the effort.

However, I shall try to elucidate a little more about the experience.

As with most trail/fell runs (this definitely falls more toward the fell side of affairs in my opinion), it was an early start at about 9am, meaning we had to be out of the house and moving to get to deepest, darkest Northumberland at an unholy 7.30am (to allow for registration). I know that’s not really that bad, I just like to complain here and there about non issues, and who doesn’t? Even on the car journey up, and the wander to registration I could tell that my legs were feeling a little tired, and that more importantly, my left ankle was still suffering from the day before. Oh well, I kind of expected this, and mentally prepared myself for a grind rather than a race.

Eventually, everyone was registered and milling around at the start line, waiting for one of Barry’s almost enigmatic safety talks. Tension was building a little, I couldn’t really wait to be on the way, and eventually we were off!

The Thriller starts fairly innocuously at first; a gentle drag up the forest track lulls you into a false sense of security. Already though, my left ankle was complaining from the hammering the day before, but I elected to keep shifting in the hopes that it would loosen up as we kept moving.

Fairly shortly, you’re funnelled off down a smaller woodland trail. Here, I managed to pick up a few places, skipping around people and enjoying the softer ground, but still my leg and ankle felt wooden and pushing was not on the cards. We popped back out onto another section of forest drive, and I decided to give the uphill a bit of an attack.

Nope, no joy there. Legs feeling like sandbags, I made the difficult decision and decided to reel it back and just keep moving with the intention of finishing.

A couple of miles passed without much excitement, but as I was starting to settle into a rapid plod, the course dropped us over a calf-deep burn and then up one of the muddiest, slipperiest slopes I’ve ever had the “pleasure” of ascending. However, my familiarity with gopping moorsides started to produce an advantage, and I started to move faster than many folk around me.

You’d hope that this short slippery bank would be the end of it, but no. Of course, it was just the beginning, and the race now spent a good while ascending up the top of Thrunton Crags. However, the angle was way too steep to run, so my hill-stomping expertise started clawing back places, passing quite a number of lads who had overtaken me on the much more trail-y forest track.

The top of the crags presented the field with typical sandstone moorland peat – dark, sloppy, slippery, or heather bashing for a little more security. Great! Again, a few more spots clawed back. Passing Jim at one end of the crags I informed him

“my legs feel like flappy meat tubes”

They really did. Two hard half marathons back to back after pretty much nothing meant that I was suffering, but enjoying myself immensely as I did it! The sun was out as we crossed along the crags, and the ominous clouds hanging over the Cheviot hills refracted the sunlight from behind us, producing a stunning rainbow.

Incidentally, it is because of the need for total internal refraction of sunlight by rain droplets that you will only ever see a rainbow with the sun behind you, and clouds in front. Fun fact of the day…

Eventually, dropping off the end of the crags, we were subjected to a lovely steep descent into a small valley. Immediately climbing back out along the side of the woodland, another “enjoyable” section of heather/bog presented itself. And once again, my ankle kept my speed down – annoyingly I knew that I should be able to move much faster, but a continually collapsing left ankle left me treading gingerly and allowing people past whom I would usually spend the second half of the race reeling back in.

Arriving at the aid station, Lucy took some quick photos, and I downed a couple of cups of water. Mmm, hydration. All the volunteers at the aid station were excellent, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention and thank them at this point – so thank you excellent volunteers, the events wouldn’t be the same/work without you.

From the aid station, the route funnels you down into another steeper, larger valley, and then snakes you around for a while. I don’t remember a whole lot about this section, apart from it was sunny, I kept playing leap-frog with one of the lads I’d been running with/passed/then passed by earlier on in the race. Eventually, another uphill kicked in, and confusingly lead us passed the aid station again? What the hell? Okydoky.

Lucy shouted something as I stumbled past again, not sure what, and away we were, back into the forest. We ran by a couple of guys presumably marshalling in the woods who asked how the course was.

“pretty hard really”

Followed by a short, sharp kick up onto a long shallow drag up more forest drive. At this point I’m ashamed to say I was reduced to a run/walk, and the lad from Heaton Harriers who I’d been to and froing with managed to pull away slightly. I was passed by a few more relatively fresh looking souls, but as we started turning off the main track again, I found the same lad again, stopped in his tracks.

“You alright mate?”

“Yeah, just cramping”

“I can offer you a shotblock, but’s that’s about it”

“No it’ll be alright, I’ve had a little drink”

Shifting on at what can only be described as a shuffle, I awaited the inevitable overtake. About five minutes later, it happened, but truth be told I wasn’t too fussed. It had been a good outing, and the craic had been excellent.

We dropped down a long steep woodland bank, back onto forest drive, and I thought “this must be it, home stretch”. However, we’d just passed Barry, and after commenting on how evil the course was, he had told us the best was yet to come. So at least in that way, the sting in the tail didn’t present as too much of surprise, but what the jiminy!

Back up into woodland, on what can only be described as one step worse than a trod, full of scratchy pine branches, along and back down to the real finish. I couldn’t entirely believe it was over, and I almost head-dived down the final bank (not intentionally) and flailed my way across the finishing line.

What an excellent outing!

Milling around at the finish, I had a little chat with various people, and it seemed that the general consensus was that it was a hard course. I’d agree with that.

Eventually, Lucy reappeared with the car keys, and I hobbled back to the car, goody bag in hand, to get changed and sit down. It was about 1pm, so we went back home and had a nice relaxed afternoon. Cracking.

After the sub 2hr race the day before, this came in at a somewhat slower 2h46mins. Not too bad really, all things considered, and we’ll be back again next year to improve on that badger!

And finally – thank you Barry for organising the event; it’s an excellent race, and well deserving of its fierce reputation.

If there’s one half marathon race to run in Northumberland, this is it! (Although it may be a little longer than 13 miles, as I heard some of the 10k runners mention that they’d done somewhere around 8 miles/13km).

**For more photos of the event, go to Lucy’s Flickr page here**

Daffy Do ‘17

Another year gone, another slog along the side of Ullswater with a short, sharp trip up and down Hallin Fell in the middle for good measure. Slog may not quite be fair, as it’s one of my favourite runs on the calendar, but the Daffodil Run, put on by Joe Faulkner of Nav4, is a little tougher than its approximately half marathon distance may suggest. It’s not the hardest half marathon I’ve ever done, but it’s a fair stretch further than a nice flat road half…

Lucy, Brenda (Lucy’s mum), and myself all set off from Newcastle to reach Pooley Bridge for about half 10 on Saturday 18th March, which should have, in theory, given me a nice half hour or so to get registered, and final checks sorted before setting off in the mass start at 11. Once we got into the village hall for registration however, we were told that everyone was just heading out as and when, so once I was good to go, I could get shifting if I fancied.

Nipping back to the car (we’ve got a shiny new car – woohoo!) I changed into my trusty Fellraisers, got into my running shorts, and made sure I had everything I needed in my bumbag, before popping back into the village hall to let Joe and co know that I was setting off, and to record my start time. Last year, when I ran the Daffodil Run with Kip, we came in at 1h59min, so I was keen to get a faster time, and was secretly hoping for sub-1h50min.

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The start of the daffodil run is a long drag up from Pooley Bridge, onto the Ullswater Way and up to The Cockpit. Initially running on metalled roads, this soon gives way to the characteristic rocky track which makes up the majority of the run, but there’s still a little way to go before hitting The Cockpit. From The Cockpit, you’re treated to a lovely rolling descent all the way down to Howtown. Whilst you have to keep half an eye on the track, the views are spectacular! Ullswater isn’t a lake I usually head to, but with the clouds sitting high and the Helvellyn range in the background, it’s hard to beat.

Due to the non-mass-start, the running started to get really quite fun; it became a game of spotting someone in the distance and then trying to reel them in. Admittedly, I only managed to pass one quick runner on the way out, but whilst approaching the top of Hallin Fell another chap passed me on the way back down, and I knew the chase was on!

It was also a race of mixed weather; mild to start, passing to pretty damn brutal on the way from Howtown to Martindale (although the rain felt like it would pass quickly so I decided on keeping my windshirt on rather than switching to a waterproof), then to gloriously sunny pretty much as I hit the top of Hallin Fell, where I found the legendary John Bamber – a pleasant surprise to say the least. After a quick chat, and a summit photo, I said goodbye and got shifting once again, happy in the knowledge that I had a runner to chase on the way back.

A quick sip of water on the rolling top flank of Hallin Fell, and I was on my way. Descending isn’t really my forte, but this felt good – steep grassy hillside allowed for reasonable relaxation, and I arrived back at Martindale Church just as a group of walkers I had passed on the way to the church were leaving. “You’ve been all the way up and down already?” Yep, and it’s time to crack on.

Stopping for a minute or so with Jim at the food station, I downed a cup of water, inhaled a Jaffa Cake, adjusted my shoes – my foot-beds had folded up on the way downhill – and skipped off up the bank out of Martindale. I met a couple who were walking the Daffodil Run, informing them that they were almost half way through, which was met with great ‘enthusiasm’ by the lass. On the way to the main path again, I took the right-hand trod, decided that was wrong, crossed to the left hand one, and then found out that the right hand one was, in fact, the better option. Never mind! I dropped straight down to the path proper and got on my way.

I could see the guy I from the top of Hallin Fell in the distance, so I got a pace on as best as possible. You’d think that on the way back all the hard work was over – not so. The nice long rolling descent from the way out becomes a gradual uphill all the way back to the Cockpit.

Slowly, slowly, I reeled in various runners, pushing to catch up. The distance between the other runner and myself seemed to be reducing, but the uphill was making it hard to get a real pace on. Eventually, I had to accept settling into a walk/run progression, but still, ground was being gained.

Eventually, Stu Smith hove back into sight – the Cockpit, and thus the final descent, wasn’t much further. Push. Push. Push. Pass the marshal at the Cockpit (ensconced in a Nordisk Telemark II; nice tent), to hit the track and descent. My quarry had made enough ground to get away for good, but I managed to reel in a couple more people as I made my way down the hill into Pooley Bridge.

Finally, I ran by Lucy and Brenda, returning from their short outing, but kept shifting as fast as possible as the end was quite literally in sight. Trotting into the village hall, my time was recorded, and I was pointed towards tea and cake. The cake is always good on Nav4 events, it really must be said, and this time round I enjoyed and excellent fig slice.

My final time was 1h52, a 7-minute improvement on last year’s effort, but still just shy of the sub-1h50 I was aiming for. Maybe next time? I’d definitely like to run it again – it’s certainly a very well organised event, along a very enjoyable route, and with an atmosphere that I find promotes taking it at your own pace – be that full race pace, or as many families were doing, a relatively leisurely stroll. And just because it bares mentioning again, the food is cracking! Soup, cake; some of the best I’ve ever had, and what more could you want?

After a quick chat with the other runners, we headed off back to Newcastle to recover for the next day’s race (The Thrunton Thriller). My left ankle was feeling a little stiff, but overall I was happy with how it had gone, and looking forward to the next race and the rest of the season.

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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 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