When I first heard about the Ultra Trail Snowdonia I was immediately tempted. It ticked a few boxes for me. It was in the mountains, a new race, looked like a challenge and started almost on my dad’s doorstep. As I debated how to set up my calendar of major races for this year, I couldn’t let this one go. I went for the ‘short’ version at 50ish miles – I didn’t even qualify for the 100, let alone contemplate entering it!
And so started months of planning and preparation. I’m no stranger to long endurance events, but I’d only done one ultra before – the Tour de Helvellyn last year, which was enough to qualify me for this. I ran a bit more and was consistent, building on what I started last year. I investigated shoes (needed more cushioning for long distance on rocky terrain – plumped for La Sportiva Akashas) and went through several kit iterations trimming a little weight here and there. Although I was going as light as possible, I actually carried all the ‘recommended’ kit as well as the ‘mandatory’. A good example was that I stowed a Primaloft jacket in – I know how cold it can get when you slow down to stop and the weather is bad.
Preparation didn’t stop at kit. I also made my way over to Wales to recce the route, making sure I was carrying full race gear and testing clothing options. First up, section 1 by myself, then meet up with Andy and do section 2. All went well and I was thinking 16 hours might be a good time for the course. Although it was hilly, it was largely runnable. Second trip down and I set up a mini expedition. Running with all the kit and testing out poles, I quickly found I made good use of them on the Snowdon ascent. The next two sections were eye-opening. In the fog and on my own, it took ages just following the line on my gps, up steep slopes and across scrambly ridges. I nearly quit at Beddgelert, but pushed on and found myself running off Cnicht in the dark and fog, head torch useless and blindly following the trail line on my watch. I had never been so glad to fall into the Red Dragon camping pod, get my clean kit on and snuggle under a duvet with a rehydrated meal. The last section the next day was more of the same, with some scary moments on the Y Lliwedd ridge. I revised my time estimates to nearer 20h.
Finally I also wanted a really good map. A few hours with various map software and Photoshop, plus a favour from a friend who could print in colour on A3 waterproof paper and I had a perfectly highlighted route on two very light sheets, 1:25k scale. I wasn’t about to trust a scaled down 1:50k to get me off a hill at night!
In the run up to the race, I got the usual pre-big race type problems. My knee hurt. Work was stressful and I worried I had not slept enough. I got a bug. Actually – a proper virus three weeks out that I thought would be well gone by race day, but in fact I still had a sore throat on the start line …
The night before, I went to bed at 22:00. I tossed and turned for a bit, fell asleep, woke up, and generally attempted to ‘rest’ until the alarm went off at 03:15. I went through my ‘to do’ list and set off with Andy to walk down through the woods to the start in the dawn light.
Section 1 – Llanberis to Waunfawr (Moel Eilio)
Quite uneventful, apart from beautiful sunrise views and my shadow appearing in the perfect circle of a rainbow formed by the mists. I ate plenty and did not get overtaken by hordes of people on the descent. Final run in was chatting with a guy talking about how long he takes to ‘usually’ run 50 miles …
At the feed station, I was half an hour up on my plan, which was concerning and put doubts in my mind. Had I gone out too fast? Also had a bit of faff with my mug, which I resolved to sort out at the next stop!
Section 2 – Waunfawr to Bron-y-fedw-uchaf (Mynydd Mawr)
It was getting hot in the sun and I was slightly stressed as three men ran on my heels full of random chat whilst I was working too hard to stay out of the way … eventually I stopped to let them past. The route was a little different here to what I had recce’d but was obvious enough and we were soon on the steep climb. I worked my way up and was encouraged to eat by another competitor, even though I didn’t feel like it.
On the trickier descent a few people came past, but I was staying calm. Over the road and into the farm for more food. Another 10 minutes faster than plan. Hmm.
Section 3 – Bron-y-fedw-uchaf to Rhyd-Ddu (Snowdon via ranger’s path)
As I set off again, I walked for a while eating. It was warming up now, and I felt a bit dizzy and nauseous when I put an effort in, in a way I hadn’t earlier in the day. I tried to stay calm and steadily worked my way up. I fell in with Geoff from Manchester, who was a welcome distraction. I felt like I was clawing my way up the hill with my poles!
I tried to relax on the descent and stay focussed. There were rocky sections and I stumbled occasionally. I must be getting tired! Here I met an Irish man who I had to ask to repeat almost every sentence! 😀 He had broken his leg at the end of last year and only had it out of plaster in January. Respect.
The next feed station was where I’d meet Andy and dad with my drop bag. They knew from my tracker and a text I’d sent that I was ahead of plan, another 20 minutes, so they were there when I cruised in smiling 1h ahead of schedule.
I had always planned to feed up a bit here as the next leg is the hardest of the race. However, I didn’t really add the planned stop time here into the plan! Not to worry, after a toilet break, couple of bowls of soup and some homemade coconut rice with choc chips and blueberries + reload of snacks and drinks and I was ready to go again. I’d taken half an hour so was still 30 minutes ahead.
Section 4 – Rhyd-Ddu to Beddgelert (Mynydd Drws-y-coed and Moel Hebog)
The climb out of the village is a killer – super steep. I walked up calmly, leading a few others up the way. At one point we met someone sat down declaring it was too hard and he couldn’t do it. I assured him he could and indeed saw him again much, much later in the race. At the top of here there is a sharp ridge. It was so much more fun and in some ways less scary in the sunshine than it was in fog. I clambered up and over, thinking at this point how much I was loving the race and what a shame it was that we had already done so much 😮
There was some pre-race debate about the technical sections and how difficult they were. I think this is all a matter of perspective and experience. I certainly wouldn’t describe it as easy / nothing dangerous as some did, and if you had a fear of heights or airy drops you’d struggle. On the other hand, if you took your time, all these sections were short and doable and I enjoyed them.
We came down to the bwlch and dropped through the old quarries. There was some confusion as the markers weren’t obvious, but a few others and I knew the way and we were soon round and starting the next ascent. My memory of this section was a little hazy from the recce and now I was finding out why. I must have blanked it from my mind! It went on and on, 2 mini peaks on the way to the beast of Moel Hebog. Now it felt like my poles were the only thing stopping me from falling backwards.
The descent was hard as well, down a zig-zaggy scree-strewn path that taxed tired legs. I was waiting for a water refill at a spring I had found on recce but in the end decided it was so close to the feed station I need not bother. I was pretty thirsty though.
Just as I arrived at the community hall it started raining. My dad was there, trying to take a photo with the camera switched off! Also, why, oh why were the women’s toilets up some stairs?! 😀
My estimated time for this section was always going to be prone to a bit more error, so I was moderately happy to see I was only 15 minutes slower than planned, despite how hard it had felt. I hadn’t intended to stop too long here, but decided I needed more soup, sandwiches and rice. 15 minutes later it had stopped raining and I was ready to go. I was now leaving exactly on schedule, 16:15.
Section 5 – Beddgelert to Nantgwynant (Cnicht)
Somehow the break had seized my legs up and I found it hard to get running again. I felt a bit sick and something was going on in my left eye. I made use of the public toilets before the road section, but still couldn’t decide what I should do about stomach – had I not eaten enough? Drunk enough? Eaten too much too fast?
My eye was still bothering me and I realised the contact lens was not sitting as it should. Dammit, what would Izzy do?! I ran to the final junction hoping for a car with a wing mirror, but there was none. I had 4 options: do nothing and hope it settled, take it out and try and put it back in, take them both out and run with nothing, take it out and replace with a new one (buried deep in my bag somewhere!). I decided to try the second option. I couldn’t tell if it was the right way round and it was sticky and dry. A pair of runners caught me up and Sarah was very good at helping me get it back in again without a mirror. It stung like mad (dirty, salty, suncream fingers?!) but that made my eye water, which helped rehydrate it!
Off we went, at roughly the same pace. I hoped to stay with this pair, but when I stopped to refill my water bottle they got ahead and I just couldn’t close the gap. I still felt so sick and every time I put an effort in I felt dizzy, hot and sweaty again. I had to back off. Another runner gave me two polo mints and some chat up the final push, for which I am very grateful. We diverted the easier way to the summit then over the top into the boggy descent. I recce’d this in the dark and it was much easier in daylight. Despite that, the markers were very sparse (this whole section had been subject to some interference) and I went slightly awry once. Back on the main path and I was descending with increasingly sore blisters.
Someone new came up and I was able to chat a bit to Chris, which was good. Andy bounced up the road to meet us and at that second, one of the blisters burst and it was as if I had been stabbed in the heel with a hot poker. My new friend ran off and I limped into the aid station, where Andy had brought my drop bag out again. It was lucky I had asked them to bring this as it had my glasses in, so I could ditch the lenses. I also peeled off compression socks to apply a couple of blister plasters and tried to eat.
My head went down a bit here, thinking my ‘race’ was over (though I had no intention of stopping). I had taken half an hour longer than planned and was now stuck here for another half hour, treating blisters and close to tears. In reality, I wonder how much my mood dip affected the next leg – after all – my plan had been a ‘best case’ and I wasn’t that far off it.
My dad and Andy exchanged glances as I was determined to set off again but looked terrible (apparently). Several people had come and gone and I was fast slipping backwards through the field. I was really hobbling as I started, but knew from experience the pain would probably ease.
Section 6 – Nantgwynant to Llanberis (Y Lliwedd and Snowdon via Watkin and Miners’ paths)
Again, I was feeling pretty rough. Sections I had run in training I was only managing a walk, and when the path tipped upwards, I couldn’t put an effort in. My legs were fine but the nausea and dizziness kept returning. I allowed myself little micro breaks to stretch out. Even one of my shoulders was getting sore from pole use!
It was now dark and I could see the lights of other runners way, way up on the ridge above me and it felt as if they would never get closer. But eventually they did and soon I was on the scramble. It was good to be distracted and I actually found this OK. Again, we could see the lights of people now far below in the valley and dotted up the hillside as they did their final ascent of Snowdon on the Miner’s path.
The descent to Llyn Llydaw was one of the slowest and most tortuous I have done. The blisters were much more painful going down than up and I no longer trusted my legs to hold me up properly. Little steps looked like looming precipices. However, I was still making forward progress. Ally stayed with me to the end of the techy section, including a part where I may have whimpered, fearing I would slide down a slab of rock and down the mountainside! Finally I got to the easier part of the path and even managed to attempt some sort of run. I had to keep stopping to pee quite excessively though, which was slowing me down!
There was an ‘emergency’ aid station at Llyn Llydaw, where I got a couple of snacks and pushed on. I saw them note down the time. 01:00. Yikes. Next up, 3 drunk teenagers explaining to me how they were going to be the first alcoholics up Snowdon on an impromptu expedition with just their iPhone torches and asking how long it would take, was it this way and was this the steep part? Er no … I wondered if I should be assertive telling them to turn around but decided they would do that for themselves well before they got anywhere near the top. At least it encouraged me into a run to leave them behind!
A few people came past and I really longed for chat and company as I was now suffering from sleep deprivation. However, I just did not have the oomph to keep up and that frustrating dizziness was still there. I had to keep adjusting my zip and hood as I switched rapidly from too hot to too cold.
Finally, the top came and it was just one long run down to the finish. I looked back and couldn’t see anyone close behind. I resolved that no more people would pass me now. Somehow I had a revival, and started running properly. I texted Andy to make sure he’d get to the finish at the right time. The cuckoo woke up and reminded me it was morning again. I blasted through groups of mostly inattentive walkers heading up for the sunrise. I went under the railway, past the halfway house. I stumbled on a rock but saved the fall with my poles. Then it seemed to go on and on and on … I thought I was nearly there?! But I had decided to go for it and go for it I would. The road eventually came, horrendously steep on sore legs, then a trip round the back of the houses and into town.
I ran down the finish chute and fell in a heap …
I did make it in within 24 hours, finally clocking 23:41. However, I had lost over 3h compared to my plan on the last section – a combination of darkness, blisters, sleepiness and probably my mental state. Andy insisted I ate straight away, although I just longed to get my shoes and socks off and lie down. On my way to the toilet I more or less fainted, so my body was definitely having a meltdown!
We woke up dad and he came to collect us, so then I could get into a proper bed and sleep for a few hours…
I did the race a lot slower than I had wanted and was disappointed with my time. I came 99th out of 129 finishers, 166 starters, 191 on entry list – results here. I had put so much effort into planning and preparation, so I felt deflated. On the other hand, I had seen it through to the end and learnt a lot! It was also an incredible and unforgettable experience.
It’s hard to compare this race to others. It’s not just the ascent for the distance (6000m in 89km – strava), but also the ruggedness of the terrain. A few more experienced people were commenting it wasn’t like anything else they’d done, even in the Alps. Also on the positive side, recovery seems to have been pretty good. The blisters are healing fast (they’re not the worst I’ve had!), the soreness was gone by Thursday and I haven’t noticed any ‘injuries’ as yet – even the phantom pre-race knee pain hasn’t made an appearance.
I can’t decide what had the biggest factor on performance, though I suspect I set off at ‘full health’ pace and was affected later by the lingering virus. On top of that though, there are almost certainly a few other things I could change. I’d attach my number on my bag somewhere – it was handy to see timings but it was massive and felt funny on my tummy. Food – I’d take time to ‘cook’ a proper dehydrated meal at one of the feed stations, to fuel up and settle my stomach (I had one but didn’t use it). I probably also need to find a way to eat more on the way. Drink – more water, weaker energy solution, maybe ditch the coke (but never had problems with it before). Blisters – I’d had hot spots before that didn’t turn into anything even after 12+hours. However, 15 or 16 hours in they were causing real trouble, so I should have looked after them sooner. Pacing – undecided on this one! Maybe set off a bit slower. Illness – I’d try and start at 100% health, but this is pretty difficult to control! Photos – I clearly stopped taking these the tireder I was and the darker it got 😀
This was Michael Jones’ / Apex Running first event as race director. There were a few small things I’d change for next year, but on the whole the race was very well organised. I’m ambivalent about race flags as I think people can be too reliant on them, but the course was mostly very well marked. Feed stations had a wide variety of food and didn’t run out – surplus was later donated to charity, which was a nice touch. Volunteers were unfailingly helpful and cheerful, even though some of them must have been in place for 24 hours or more! We got a decent T-shirt, a fantastic Silva dry bag, a buff and a discount at Joe Brown’s shops, which had lots of things you need for a race like this. If I’d been anywhere near them, the prizes even went down to 5th. Finally, the course was nothing if not memorable and certainly a challenge! If you had done your research and knew what you were taking on, it was awesome. Short race video here.
Thanks to everyone involved, from organiser to volunteers, other racers and my supporters. Here’s to next year – I’ve got unfinished business!
For the last in this year’s short series, we were in Grassington in the Yorkshire Dales. My mum gave me a lift over and spent the time pottering around the village, going for a walk in the nature reserve(not yet in flower due to long winter) and watching a team practising a rescue in the falls.
Meanwhile, I was off on the usual 5h of MTBing and running. Sadly, Lucy still did not feel confident enough to race with me, so we both went solo. I felt a bit stressed looking at the MTB map, but as I walked back to the start I formulated a definite plan and felt better.
Off I went, confidence high. However, I soon was riding along and saw what looked like a control on a post. I hesitated but knew it wasn’t the right place and assumed it was a run control. On I went to the right place – no tape, no little box! I dithered, took a photo*, dithered some more, realised what I had seen couldn’t be a run control (wrong bit of map), wondered about going back, thought what would Tom Gibbs do (certainly wouldn’t have still been standing there), and eventually left up the hill.
Now I was anxious and when I saw a public footpath signed that didn’t seem to be on my map I worried further that I was somewhere totally wrong! I also seemed to be slogging up a very long climb off road, and wasn’t seeing any other racers. Hmm. That should have told me something 😉 Over the top and I was definitely in the right place and carried on directly to a control the other side.
The rest of the route seemed to go quite well, but I left a short road out and back and later on another longer loop to leave time for some running and to ‘be sensible’.
My mum cheered me through transition, telling me she had done the same for Lucy! The run was actually pretty good. I was keeping a close eye on the map to avoid making mistakes. I did not cheat at the all-too-easy shortcut across a field where you could see the control tape fluttering and not even a fence across, but was not a right of way or open access.
One small overshoot on the road then up into the woods. I was very careful here as it was a maze of paths, but I was dead accurate, if a little slow. Up onto open ground I realised I had a lot more time than expected and could do a larger loop. At this point I heard a shout: ‘I could do with a tow now please!’ It was Lucy coming up behind! We chatted briefly, but I was moving faster up the hill.
On I went, past James for a photo and into an old house to find a control on a roof beam upstairs. The dead sheep by the stairwell gave me a right old fright though … Then it was downhill return to the village. Again I was checking the route carefully- maybe too much. At the bottom I debated one final out and back and Lucy caught me up – she had flown down a LOT faster. I decided against and we jogged back in. I was 6 minutes early!
On review, it turned out my bike route choice was really quite daft. Everyone else went the other way round, got 50 points I left out climbing a road with a fast descent back down, and then leaving an out-of-the-way control, ascending the other way on tarmac where I had faffed around on the moors. I also missed a couple of spots where I could have used that time to get at least one more control, despite my odd route choice. Hey ho, I think I took ‘the MTB day out route’ … which meant I was thoroughly beaten by Lucy and many others! I know I can make really good strategic decisions (like in Edale a couple of months ago), but sometimes one iffy decision near the start can throw it all way off.
I was a bit disgruntled about my poor choices, but I had enjoyed the day out anyway 🙂 I was also super-fast in transition! Back to my mum’s with a fine piece of fruit cake in hand before a trip to Wales for a recce of a large portion of the UTS50. It’s my next race and has been my main focus for a few months!
As always, thanks to everyone involved for more great racing this winter.
* I think is what you’re supposed to do, and don’t worry – I was credited with these points later!
This one was the race I should have done when The Beast came and dumped snow on us instead. Fortunately, I was still able to make the new date and Damien stepped in to get me there when it turned out my lift couldn’t! We even managed to safely negotiate the clock change and arrive in very good time, if still a little bleary-eyed.
For my warm up I went and investigated the tricky singletrack section at the end of the bike leg, which I remembered from last time I did this race. Hmm, I did not do a great job, though I did see which bits I was likely to have to jump off and run down!
The start of the race was a bit of a jostle and I felt like hoards of people just whizzed away from me up the hill, which affected my confidence. All I could do was keep working at it and keep Caroline (my series rival!) in sight. Sure enough, I eventually came past her as the hill went up and up.
A flattish, bumpy and wet puddly section followed, and I hesitated as a guy came through and cut me up. I was trying to keep pedalling hard when Caroline retook the lead! More hills followed – she pulled away as I had to walk, I caught up as she walked … We entered the top of the singletrack together, which I knew was not to my advantage 😀
As she disappeared I walked / ran / scooted and sometimes even pedalled, although I also fell sideways at one point. My best moment on this part was actually riding the final corner and tree roots after working out the best line in warm up. I nearly skidded on my cleat at the dismount line and transition seemed to take forever as I fumbled into my running shoes.
I thought Caroline would be long gone, and indeed she had gained over a minute on that tricky bike section. Skills pay off! However, we were wearing matching coloured tops and I caught fleeting glimpses of her through the trees up ahead. I was trying to go fast but my shins started screaming at me. I wanted to sort of relax my legs but it was impossible, going uphill and working hard over the terrain!
The run route on this race is an out and back. We turned into the twisting uphill section through the trees and I could see no one. But when we popped out, there she was again. I think I even started gaining just a little bit to the turn and back down …
But then returning to the trees she knew where her strengths lay (on foot, as on bike!) and when we emerged she was well out of sight. I think she must have hurdled the logs I clambered over! I only saw her once more, far in the distance, so instead I focused on beating the guy I’d been going back and forth with for a while!
2nd female and 2nd in the series to Caroline, who played it smart and was better on the technical terrain than I!
I had a jolly time and was pleased to have entered again this year. Now just an Open 5 to go before all focus turns to my first big race of the year – my second ultra – 80km up and down mountains in Snowdonia. Can’t wait!
Falkirk – 24th February
Having enthusiastically ‘warmed up’ to cross country, I signed up for the Scottish nationals. They were easy to get to (Falkirk- trains every 15 minutes) and, even better, were 10km long and the same distance for men and women.
The day was bright, dry and sunny. I got there early and had time to potter a bit, peer at the map and jog a lap of the three lap course. It was mostly firm and grassy, with the occasional muddy patch and one or two little steep hills. Apparently this was very benign conditions compared to some other years!
A mass start saw everyone charge up the first hill. Someone who clearly knew me said something as she passed but I didn’t catch it! (turned out it was my friend Grace). Other members of the club were also cheering on corners which was most encouraging. As we went on, I started to pass people, each time focusing on the next person up ahead.
After 1.5 laps I fixed my gaze on a small group in front who were gradually getting closer. I decided if I was able to reach them and then hold position, I’d be happy! Someone yelled out that I was looking really strong, which made me feel great and sure enough I then caught and passed the little group.
We were now two laps in, but suddenly I felt a bit fuzzy wuzzy and knew I was pushing it just slightly too hard! The only solution was to back off a touch and hope the people behind didn’t notice… They noticed!! I was overtaken again but was getting over my wobble.
Final lap done and dusted and a strong sprint finish saw me finish in 63rd place (out of 271) and a time of 46:04 mins (I recorded the course a little long at 10.5km). Results. Pretty happy with that and think I’ll do a few more next year 🙂
Foxtrail 13km – 10th March
A couple of weeks later and the Beast from the East had been and scattered races in its wake. Andy was heading to the final Foxtrail race of their winter series, a 13km based at Foxlake. I had been due to spectate the first time round as it was the day before a race of my own. However, now I was heading over at a loose end and managed to get a last minute entry.
The weather was no longer white and snowy, but raining and windy! We all huddled shivering at the start, though the fun warm up got us all moving. I did a few of these last year, my best position being 5th, and that in the much longer events. However, as Nicola Duncan sprinted off, I found myself next to two other girls. I passed one of them on a twisting trail through the woods and was working hard to keep up with the other.
I had checked the course map beforehand and had a rough idea where we were going. Unusually, the wind was coming from the east, which meant we had a headwind most of the way out and a tailwind on the way back. I stuck behind this girl (I found out later that her name was Claire), getting as much shelter as I could. I was working a bit harder than I might have chosen, but decided it was worth it to hang on as long as I could. It turns out that her pace was strong and consistent. We steadily caught other runners as we made our way out along the course.
At some point she pulled aside to encourage me to pass, but I genuinely didn’t have the energy to do so! We met a couple of other guys and ran with them instead, turning round a field at the far end and retracing our steps over the bridge I hit my shin on during some other race … The memory of the pain still made me wince!
Now we had a tailwind and I tried to relax. I did eventually pass Claire and encouraged her to stay with me. Through some dunes, rising and falling before turning into the woods. At this point I could hear two girl’s voices behind me, so I knew I had not opened a significant gap. Then Nicola ran past! She had gone the wrong way and just come back on track. I thought I should call out and let her know she was back in the lead, but I had no breath and by then she was too far ahead to hear.
I kept working and really loved the section where the route followed a narrow and winding little path along the edge of the coast. I was nimble and my shoes were perfect for gripping the sheen of mud. I knew the course turned back on itself at the far end and was bracing myself for the return of the headwind, this time on my own 😉 What I didn’t know was that it would be on a rough and squidgy track, recently churned up by a farm vehicle!
As I took the final bend into the woods, I glanced over my shoulder. I seemed to be clear of other runners and enjoyed the last stretch to the finish.
Couldn’t believe I had managed to place 2nd female / 8th overall. Results. A lot of people hadn’t been able to make the rearranged date, so I thought I had just been lucky with who had been able to turn up. But my pace was only a touch slower than that at the XC and when I compared my time to the first 13k in the series it was still pretty good. Think I just love racing when the weather is ‘bad’!
I quickly showered and got changed into all my warm, dry clothes. I just missed Andy finishing, but hadn’t wanted to risk getting a chill. A hot cup of tea and prize giving later, and we were back on the bikes and pedalling for the train back to Edinburgh and a large café lunch 🙂
Thanks to those who took photos – from the Edinburgh AC photostream, Andy, a friend of someone at the Foxtrail race and me!
Lucy had to choose between Open 5 and a holiday (skiing) and picked the holiday. Hmm, I wondered who I might persuade to race with me. I asked Elizabeth who agreed! Hurrah, we were off, but due to other commitments, only for the day, checking in at a nearby BnB for the night and stuffing our faces in one of the many nearby pubs the night before.
As we went to sleep, the wind rattled the windows. On waking, snow was falling from the sky and it looked wild outside. Dinner had been massive so I wasn’t really hungry at breakfast, which is unusual. Off to the start and we were almost last into the car park that was free, but which came with a walk to the hall. We wisely took all our stuff with us.
Time seemed to fly by between registering and it being time to go. We had decided on the long drive down that it was better to bike first. This was Elizabeth’s forte and we would favour more of that and less of a run. Plus, if it was going to get cold and snowy we’d be warmer starting dry and the paths might be less obstructed. By the time we had come up with a vague plan, left the coziness of the hall, dusted the snow off our saddles and made it to transition we had 1 min to go until latest start.
An easy beginning along the road before we turned off uphill on the rough stuff. I slowed to check for features and when / where to look for the control, and looked up to see Elizabeth already powering away. Despite recently coming off worse in van vs Elizabeth, you know that someone who can finish the Highland Trail 550 will be a biking force to be reckoned with. I worked really hard to catch up. It was properly snowy and fun over the top, then slippery on a descent where I lost contact and had to shout ahead to make sure we didn’t miss a control. A descent followed that I’d not be able to ride on a good day, but I remembered it from a previous event and was ready to walk.
Then we were off along an easy track and all was going well. Into a small settlement and I was pondering our original route choice. We were making good time but checking the distance, realistically, that 15 pointer in Bradwell wasn’t worth it after all. Decision made without debate, we moved on quickly, heading straight through Hope and up the other side of the valley.
We passed some 4×4 cars coming off road the other way, with one woman behind the wheel with a smile as broad as her face! Then we caught up Ali and Barbara. This surprised me, but I hardly had breath to explain that I had to keep up before the next control!! From there it got very snowy. It was hard to tell the difference between the track and the road, both covered in snow. I cursed not checking on the start line whether we could use the road and cut onto the path further up, so we took the path and were soon walking.
Then we passed the cut through, easy to use, bother! Maybe cost us 5 mins at most though. It was slightly uphill and the wind was blasting us so hard that even when it looked vaguely rideable, it wasn’t, as the wind would push us off line and into a drift. Last race here I’d been just as cold, but with sleet instead of snow and we were at least riding then. As it flattened off and after what had seemed an age, we finally got back on. It was only now that we finally left behind a man out for a walk who we’d first caught up with about 5km earlier! Soon we were out on what was theoretically tarmac under the snow, and at the top of the broken road.
There was a 35 points down the hill. When we got there we were both frozen and my teeth were chattering. We talked about putting an extra layer on but decided to see if the climb back up would be enough to warm us up. I was looking at another 30 point control and debating the bike / run balance, but then decided no, not worth it. I warned Elizabeth we had a long fast road descent which would almost certainly be unpleasant and not in the slightest bit ‘warming’.
As we crested the top in silence, the blood was coming back into my hands and I was groaning with the pain. I think it was as nothing to what Elizabeth felt as we came into transition. With a recently healed broken collarbone and a still not happy broken finger, her whole arm was going through some sort of torture. We grabbed our stuff, got out of the field and dived into the hall. I heard later that we were not the only ones to nip inside!
I couldn’t help with the pain so got on with sorting out the run map, where all the score markings had washed off. The most important thing when we went out would be to keep moving, so this was time well spent nailing down where to go. After a toilet trip (me) and half a cup of hot water (both of us), we were ready to go back outside. Bizarrely, I still wasn’t really hungry and I think I only ate a couple of bananas all race.
Within 20 mins of the run, the gloves were off and sleeves rolled up. Running is really a magic body warmer-upper! The first part was an easy, if sometimes muddy, run in the valley. The map had a slightly awkward distribution of scores, but we had agreed before that going up worked better for us than running fast on the flat. So we committed to up, taking the fast route on the road we had so recently descended.
Onto the ridge and we had met my calculated ‘cut off’ for diving over the top for a sneaky bonus control at a small quarry worth 15. Back up to the ridge and after we had cleared the slippery steps to the trig point, the running was glorious. We had snow and views and were making great progress. Although it seemed a long way to the next control, it was totally worth it as we dropped down, searching for the right tree.
Then it was a cruise back to the road and a couple more controls before heading with a little sprint into the finish chute. Less than 4 mins late, 8 penalty points, the 15 had been worth it!
Having started last, we also got back last and had barely downloaded and grabbed some chilli and hot tea before it was prize-giving time. As some of the other classes were called out before ours, we realised we had a good score. We won the female pairs, but also came 9th overall, a rare feat! Results here.
It only reinforced my belief that ‘bad’ weather races favour me 😉 Biking first was definitely the right choice, especially when trail conditions unexpectedly deteriorated, as we were able to cut short without over-running our planned time too much. The art of keeping moving and not letting our pace drop after map checks was good discipline. We probably also took fewer risks … which paid off this time!
We regretted our laidback departure, as upon leaving the snow was coming down again. We couldn’t get out over either of the passes towards Manchester and ended up diverting via Sheffield and Leeds … Um .. Not the plan. We did discover though, that you can get a good curry and rice at Wetherby services, and I introduced another person to the pleasure that is Rheged services, just off the motorway at Penrith and easily overlooked. I just missed a train in Glasgow and had the joy of waiting on the platform with the other assorted 23:30 passengers before finally making it home just before 1am. Think that is a record!
So much seems to have happened since we went down to Bowhill for the second in the series, but it was only two weeks ago! With many (fun!) races in succession and a lot of travel for both work and leisure, I’m feeling the load in life and falling behind on reports, so will keep it brief!
As I got everything ready the night before, I decided it would be best to change my front brake pads. Andy criticised me for doing so only the day before a race, I countered that this was me being organised and that in the car park on race morning would be the wrong time. In the car park on race morning, I contemplated my flat tyre, inflated less than two hours before…
Hmm, on the advice of all the engineers surrounding me, we chucked in a bottle of sealant, gave it a shoogle and hoped for the best. I decided to ignore the laughs and ‘helpful suggestions’ about the lack of bite in my front brake and the state of my jockey wheels, and set off for a warm up spin up the first hill.
Back I came, covered in mud and water splashes and I was ready to go! Paul was away, and the race was ably started instead by Diane, who gave us the usual patter, instructions and safety briefing as we all jostled on the line. Setting off up the road, the front of the pack seemed bigger than previous years and took a while to string out. Round the first bend and I was being bumped from both sides and my wheel was buzzed from behind! I got assertive, stuck my elbows out and made some comment or other which did the trick as I soon got a place in the line.
I was climbing well, and thought I was first lady for now. I could still see Jon up in front of me too. We turned onto the slidy, muddy track and I stuck to the unlikely-looking but better line that I had sussed out during my warm up. Then I got stuck behind someone slower and it was impossible to overtake! I bade my time and came round him later. A few big puddles, then the turn down a big descent.
I was taking it carefully, as mud flew into my eyes and my bike seemed to be bending beneath me. It wasn’t of course, it just felt like it! Caroline flew past and I did my best to keep her in sight as we did some twists and turns through the woods. A sharp turn up a steep bank and I heard what I thought was a female voice shouting ‘on your right!’. I moved over to the nasty rough line just as they stumbled and stopped. Somehow I managed to power up and chase after Caroline again.
I was gaining along the road, then we turned onto some more singletrack. Every tricky bit she pulled away, every easy bit I pushed hard to close the gap back up again. As we approached the house I knew we were nearly there. One last oomph to get onto the road, and I took the lead as we went into transition.
Now I was in the position I don’t normally like … running scared! I shot out of there like a frightened rabbit and started racing up the hill. Somehow though, the legs felt better than they had on the cross country the day before. It might have all been relative as this time I was passing other people instead of hanging on for grim life! I had no idea how close anyone was to me, so I just went for it.
Down the big descent and one or two people passed me. However as soon as it got easier again I overtook again. We crossed the road, tantalising close to the finish, then headed off onto a never ending fire track, seemingly in the wrong direction.
Before long though, we popped out at the lake. I could hear footsteps behind me gaining fast – luckily it was a bloke. I enjoyed this part of the run, feeling strong as we wound our way in and out of the trees. Final time up the bank and into the finish.
Woohoo, a win this time albeit falling off the first page in the overall standings! Caroline came in 2nd, not feeling her best after a bout of flu. We’re now evens in the series so it will be a head-to-head in the final race in a few weeks time!
Thanks to Marc for a lift, Marc, Ewan and Jon for bike critique 😉 and Durty Events for another smashing afternoon out!
I’ve been properly aware of Marmot Dark Mountains since Lucy raced it with Bruce in preparation for an expedition race. It caught my imagination because, well, why wouldn’t an overnight winter race that sounded wild and tough and difficult?!
After a successful day out at the Tour de Helvellyn, I was feeling confident in my running abilities. Having missed the Open 5 with Lucy I thought I might be able to persuade her to do this instead … after a few weeks debate and body-testing it was a reluctant no (pneumonia is tough).
It was only a week or so until the closing date, but I had nothing to lose so asked Jon if he was free and fancied it. He was and he did. Yes! Oh, but they had sold out that very day! A quick email to the organisers and they were able to slot us on to our first course choice (after some deliberation) of ‘long score’.
This event is an overnight mountain marathon, with ‘linear’ courses graded C to Elite (get the specified controls in order as fast you can, with increasing length, ascent and difficulty of control placings) and two ‘score’ courses short / 8h and long / 10h (all controls have points, get as many points as you can before your time runs out).
After a number of email exchanges covering kit (extensive list designed to keep you safe should you get stranded), logistics and navigation skills it was very quickly time to head south. I met Jon near the bypass at the shop selling practically all the kit you might need for this race. I invested in a new compass as mine had gone wonky twice and I didn’t trust it. Gutted to see the same one selling for £6 less at the event centre!
At race HQ, registration was super slick and we were soon sat scoffing a bowlful of Wilf’s veggie chilli. A pair next to us asked if we had come from Edinburgh – ‘yes’ I said, surprised – ‘oh we saw you crossing the road earlier’ they replied!
We had blank copies of the maps on the table and spent some time poring over them. It was good for me as they were Harvey’s and I’m not used to them. The routes through some out of bounds areas were also worth taking a close look at before we got tired. I remarked that without place names we wouldn’t get sucked into going to places with silly / amusing monikers, plus we’d have to get creative when talking about where we were going. A chap at our table suggested we could use grid references … hmm … safe to say that during the race we stuck to things like ‘shall we take a bearing to the purple line just under that number 4?’
Before we knew it, I was squeezing in last second toilet trips and rushing to get to the line. Everyone sets off at short intervals with their own personalised start time. We were 21:04. Straight up the road for a couple of kilometres, we came up with a rough strategy on the move. We then sped on, overtaking a few other teams.
Even the first control was a learning experience for me, as we debated the best way to approach a control in a stream re-entrant. As we left the footpath (the last one we’d see for a while), I was anxious about how we’d know we had gone far enough and whether we’d be sure we had passed the stream junction … but Jon was talking about steepening sides and was powering on. Next thing I knew, there it was right in front of us.
The next control was on a compass bearing contouring round the hill. This could no longer be classed as running. I counted my paces and just as I thought we should be there, we came across the re-entrant. We were a little too low, but we expected it as the slope had kept pulling us off the bearing in that direction. My confidence was buoyed!
The pattern was set for the rest of the event as I stumbled and tripped over the knee high heather. When it wasn’t heathery it was boggy, there were wet reeds or we were clambering up and down peat hags. I was longing for some of the ‘useful’ sheep tracks mentioned in the pre-race ecological briefing notes but I never saw one! These notes were also detailed in their descriptions of different kinds of vegetation and their relative merits for running. We debated whether we were encountering blanket bogs or the wet acid grassland and wondered where the mythical ‘dry’ acid grassland was 😀
At midnight we both had a slump, trudging through more wet ground. I made myself eat and drink to counter the effects. We got to a gate next to some woods, which is what we were looking for. But something didn’t feel right. The fence was at an unexpected angle. Our doziness was having an effect as we stood there for ages pondering. If we were wrong, we risked going into an out of bounds area and I was determined not to do that. Eventually it dawned on us that there was a second small block of trees marked, slightly obscured by the over printed purple out of bounds colouring. This fitted, we followed the fence and got to the right gate. But looking at the map later there was a much quicker route for the whole section using a road – this was our worst glitch as we took over 30 minutes to cover one km!!
As is often the case on a race as long as this though, we started to perk up again. Next notable call was the manned checkpoint, where someone exceedingly cheery greeted us and offered us port. Port?! I was taken aback and nearly said yes, until I saw Jon shaking his head and saying best not … no, no, of course not, one shouldn’t be drinking alcohol mid race! 😀 Off we went into more thigh deep bogs.
In the dark you can’t see what you’re heading for. We had to work hard to look at the features we could see – the steepness of the ground beneath us, the shape of the hills in the dark sky when we switched our torches off, the peat hags. And sometimes other things gave us clues, like the sound of unseen trees rustling in the wind ahead.
We had a string of fun controls. The moon was out as we visited a knoll, a trig point and the base of some crags. It was still dry, but the wind was blowing hard. If you paused to look around you could see bright dots of white light flung far and wide across the hillsides. It was quite surreal wondering if we had come from ‘over there’ but really having no idea as my frame of reference was never more than next 1 or 2 km.
Other teams were coming and going around us. Sometimes it seemed we were being followed then they’d all disappear and we’d feel totally alone. As we were all on different courses, we were all doing different things. I fell more than once in the heather, but it was always a soft landing. One time my left leg disappeared down a hole, leaving me to do a massive leg press to get out again! Jon helped pull me across streams that were a little too wide, or up banks a little too high.
It started raining just as we ran to a fence and turned left looking for a gate. We got to a bend, paused and realised we had to run back – our gate had been right next to us before and we hadn’t seen it! We’d probably been distracted by other teams around us. This was a small but somewhat annoying mistake, as we nipped through then ran straight back to the same bend but on the other side!
The rain was getting persistent, we were going downhill and I was cold despite having thrown on my waterproof. I pulled my hood up and the sounds of raindrops pattering on my head reminded me of being snug in a tent in bad weather. The peat hags slowed us even more. We visited a massive tower, made amusing by the fact we couldn’t see its hulking form until we almost ran into it!
We had to be careful finding a small ruined structure on a hillside. Jon turned to ask if we could run this bit and I laughed, saying this was my run right now. It was a pathetic attempt, not helped by the fact I was bursting for a wee. I just needed to find a bit of shelter … The ruin didn’t offer much protection but I took what there was. The relief was immense, though it was odd contemplating life peeing on a dark hillside in the middle of the night with the rain cold on my bare skin.
I was debating whether to faff around getting my waterproof trousers or other clothes out. But we’d already been stopped a while for my comfort break so thought I’d get going again before deciding. As we ran off I asked Jon if he knew where we were heading. He said we’d sort it out as we went … odd … turned out later he just wanted to get me moving and warmed up! Fortunately, we had to go uphill and now I could run properly without painfully jolting my bladder. These two factors combined to warm me up nicely.
We had all been warned about the dangers of hypothermia before the event. Look out for fumbles, mumbles, grumbles and stumbles – oh how we laughed about that one several times during the night as one of us tripped again or fell too deep into a bog (I’m sure I heard some muttered profanities)! Luckily, apart from a few shivers, my worst state came when I realised I wasn’t really capable of counting out 100 steps any more without losing track, which I solved by throwing in another few handfuls of food.
We had an interesting few moments looking for a river junction. We thought we might have missed it and Jon’s altimeter suggested we’d gone too high on the wrong fork. We decided to test if we had gone wrong and pace 100m on a bearing to our right. If we were correct, we should hit the other stream – remarkably we did, and it wasn’t long until we got to the control. High fives for quick and accurate correction!
We were running out of time and had to make some choices. In retrospect and looking at the teams ahead of us in the results, we should have left some earlier controls to leave time for the better value ones we were now dropping. We decided to head down the hill for a 50 pointer and for the first time in many hours, follow a track / path back out again. I had been over on my ankle 3 or 4 times and it was sore with every step so I had to protect it and be careful. I felt bad as I was holding us up, but couldn’t risk making myself immobile.
We ascended a rough, peaty and very wet bridleway and joked about trying to ride it. I thought it looked vaguely familiar but dismissed the thought as silly. Looking at the map later, I realised Lucy and I had indeed ridden down it in an Open 5 some time ago!
I had been checking bearings and the map, but now abandoned that and just focussed on keeping up. We had one last control to fit in then we were out of there. We ran to the fence, hesitated turned left, nooo, it should have been right! Back we went, got to the path and it was not as fast as we hoped. Then we hit the road and it was time to SMASH IT. My ankle was absolutely fine on this lovely flat surface and I was going for it. Now Jon had to keep up with me as we did two sub-5 minute km, rounded the corner and dibbed 14.5 minutes late.
The penalties really start ramping up at 15 minutes, so I was pretty pleased we had made it. Into the hall and we could see we had finished 10th overall / 3rd mixed pair. Full results here. We were close to 2nd, but the winners were well ahead. Return to the car, quick change, back to hall for hot breakfast and prize giving. Cheers and applause for the organisers, volunteers and all the winners.
This was my first mountain marathon and what an introduction it was! I was glad to have someone who I know I can trust with me (in fact, it is part of the entry requirements that one of the pair must have experience in similar events, including day time events at the level up). I learnt so much about the navigation, really putting to use and relying on techniques that I’d only previously known the theory of. 10h was plenty of time to practise and get it right!
I liked being on the score course and there was no danger of it turning into a procession of follow-the-leader. There wasn’t much chance to enjoy the scenery or have any great appreciation of where we were (other than being in wild countryside!), but I loved the challenge and the experience. Short video recap:
The high retirement rates and lengthy race times on even the ‘easier’ linear courses left me wondering. We had almost gone with A and I might have done elite with Lucy. Would I have been capable? I thought probably so, given the distance we covered, but maybe that is a question to answer another year! Race director’s report here.
We had a nap, drove to Tebay, ate some more stodge, got halfway home, had another nap. I was dropped off, came straight in for another nap. Then I was informed by Andy that I smelled like a farmyard and had to get in the shower … I did as I was told!
Along with a resolution to get back to training sessions with the running club, I had paid my membership fees for both Edinburgh AC and Scottish Athletics last year, with a view to doing the occasional race. The club is big and successful and I wanted to feel like part of a team. Finally an opportunity came round – an XC race on a day when I wasn’t somewhere else in the country doing some other event…
I duly signed up for the 3rd and final race in the East District League, plus the Scottish Masters – oh yes, I just sneaked into the age category for that one 🙂
The first was at Broxburn. I was picked up and off we went, with the amount of snow increasing the further west we drove. The day was gloriously sunny and the course covered in the white stuff. We didn’t have a lot of time, and after faffing to park the car, go to the toilet, find the start, get a number … there was not a lot of time for warm up. Instead of doing a full lap I ended up doing half a one and sprinting back to throw off final clothes and line up.
The start was fast and furious, with lots of jostling of elbows. I went out much too enthusiastically and after about a km felt like I had made a mistake. I slowed down and tried to regain control, though it was difficult with constantly changing terrain, level of snow compaction and mini hills! I started to feel slightly better, though these things are all relative. Round we went on lap 2. Halfway I thought I was going to be sick and I was willing it to all end. But I couldn’t just stop, so I pushed on! Never been so glad to see the finish line – 36th and just about counting for the club’s vet team.
This was my first XC race since university, so it had been a long time. I was shocked how tired I was for the rest of the day, despite running less than 6km. What a workout, but it was fun, honest!
So much so, that two weeks later I was in Kilmarnock for the Scottish Masters Championship. In between I went and raced for 10 hours overnight on a wild hillside, but that story will have to wait until my next post. I was also rather well stuffed with Polish perogi the night before, which I was hoping would turn out to be some sort of rocket fuel.
I entered this to make up numbers for the W40 category – three to count. Sadly one got sick in the morning and couldn’t make it. This meant no team for us as, despite having four W50s, we couldn’t nominate one of them to run down a category.
Well, I was there now, so I might as well go for it! Learning from last time, I was a bit more conservative at the start. We all settled down after a km and positions didn’t change much after that. After the delights of the snow in Broxburn, this time we had gloopy mud and a grassy field that sucked your feet in ankle deep. There was also a steep climb and my favourite section twisting through some trees.
Two laps again. My legs were heavy and I had thoughts going through my head that I wasn’t recovered after the previous weekend, and what about tomorrow when I had another race lined up. Nothing I could do though, so I ploughed on. This time I was comfortable charging into the finish straight, buoyed by the shouts of some of my clubmates. Or maybe not, as afterwards I felt queasy again and had difficulty breathing normally! 17th, which I thought sounded quite good, until I remembered that I was practically the youngest there 😀
Jenny came 4th overall and the W50 team (Jill, Sue and Karen) did brilliantly, easily winning the team prize for their category. W40 – well, we need to get more people out next time because we had potential! The event was really well organised by Kilmarnock Harriers and the course was interesting, so I’d go back.
Thanks to all involved – host clubs, Enid and Karen for organising the teams and entries, Richard for the tiffin that got sent over in his absence and tasted fantastic, the people who gave me lifts, all the other athletes who cheered, photographers and Alex for making sure I did not do too much on Thursday! I’m sure it must be good for me somehow, I might do one again 😉
I decided that it was time for me to do my first ultra. A longer than marathon length run, without any extra sports mixed in to break it up. My theory was that winter would be a good time. It would be clear of swimrun training / racing, I could put my feet up for a break over Christmas and with a bit of luck we’d get some epic weather!
After a lot of searching for events that met my criteria, I settled on the Tour de Helvellyn. Run by Joe Faulkner / Nav4, who I know from adventure racing, it’s 60km over hills in the Lake District, with no route marking plus limited and not guaranteed feed stations. Perfect!
I spent a lot of time preparing for this one as it was my main target for the winter.
- Quickly realised I’d need a bigger race vest bag to carry all the kit. Impulse bought one when spending a voucher on something else.
- Tested bag and all kit on a long run round the city when the sun was still shining and I could wear shorts and t-shirt. You never know when you might need a survival bag and heavy duty waterproof.
- Got zip fixed on my primaloft jacket after over a year, so I could take and use it as an emergency layer.
- Read a lot of other people’s blogs!
- Bought two new pairs of possible shoes and got them broken in, after discovering the upper was about to part company with the sole on my both my old pairs.
- Weekend trip to recce the lollipop part of the route with Izzy and Elizabeth. This also served as one of a couple of long days out on my feet.
- Found out my compass didn’t point north any more. Fixed it by waving it at a strong magnet.
- Designed a version of the map that got the whole route onto two A3 sides at 1:25k and arranged to get it printed onto a single sheet of waterproof paper. Thanks Paul!
- Every good race deserves a spreadsheet. On this one I calculated slow, likely and fast paces, working out when it was best to start to make the most of the daylight, arrive at the first checkpoint within the specified time window and not miss the final cut off.
- Decided last minute to recce ‘stick’ part of route on mountain bike the week before. Investigated the footpath/ road shortcut option which is reputedly possibly maybe faster than going round the bridleway.
- For the first time in ages, cooked two types of feed zone portable, after thinking about the fact I couldn’t last 9+h on flapjacks and honey stingers.
All that was left was to negotiate the work Christmas lunch, a very busy train and possibly icy roads to get to the start / community hall in good time on Friday night.
It was a little bit daunting to arrive at the hall and not really know very many people. However, I soon found I was sleeping two along from someone I had met at a swimrun and then Steve who is a friend of mine from Open 5s popped up! I felt better already. I set up the old-skool campbed that Izzy had lent me, feeling a bit daft in amongst all the high tech kit. However, I did not feel so daft after a comfortable nights’ sleep!
We were advised it was ‘lights on’ at 6am, so I was duly awakened and served porridge, toast and … I hesitated over the tea then declined, knowing it would cause frequent pee stops if I did! The most difficult decision of the morning was which shoes to wear … Inov8s that are good on wet muddy stuff, or my Icebugs which I thought would be better on ice but have little by way of cushioning and can give me sore feet on stony surfaces. Reports were of ice aplenty, so I went with the latter.
I was warned there could be queues for kit check, but maybe they had more people on it this year, as there were none at all. I stuck to my plan and headed in to get looked over a few minutes before 7:45. They were very good and it wasn’t too difficult to wiggle everything back into the bag again afterwards.
Headtorch on and off I went. It was snowing. This wasn’t in the forecast! After about 10 minutes I realised it was light enough not to need my torch and switched it off. There were not many people around as I headed up the hill and onto the moors. I think the ground was more frozen solid than the previous week when I had recced this part, but there was less sheet ice. I was confident in my route to the Cockpit, then headed down across the hillside towards Ullswater.
The Cockpit to Side Farm – outward ‘stick’ – everything under control
A few people overtook me on the moors, including a lady running with another chap. It turned out we were going almost the same speed. I said hello but they weren’t much for talking, even as we passed and re-passed each other a few times over the next 10km or so.
I took what I had decided was definitely the shorter route on a footpath down to the lake and up the road. A number of people around me did the same, although looking up to the hillside on our left I could see crowds who had stuck to the bridleway. I was in good spirits at Martindale church, the first checkpoint, as I made sure to eat something and kept a good pace on the road section.
Soon enough I was at the ascent to Boredale Hause. I kept running here for as long as I could, and when forced to walk I ate some more and powered my way to the top. There were lots of people around now, as everyone was converging on the next checkpoint which had a fixed opening time. At the top, everyone headed a different way to the one I had checked out with Izzy. I debated what to do but in the end followed them. It looked more direct – and it was.
We re-joined the bridleway I was expecting, where several people skipped down the rough descent, overtaking me with ease. I tried to stay cool. When Nicky Spinks glided past, I was trying to copy her style! Soon at Side Farm, first food checkpoint. It opened at 9:30 and I got there at 9:35 – perfect! I grabbed some crisps, malt loaf and satsuma and headed straight out again. Along through Glenridding and Nicky and her friend were still in sight for quite a while.
Side Farm up and over to the other valley – first half of lollipop – what a lot of snow / wish I could descend more proficiently
Up the hill past the YHA and I knew I had run most of this with Izzy on legs more tired than these, so I kept running! As we reached the end of the road, there were plenty of people around carrying skis. I mean, there was a bit of snow, but I was astonished they thought they could ski on this? When we had run here earlier in the year, Elizabeth asked if in the race I would do the zig zags or cut the corners. I had answered that it probably depended what everyone else was doing. They were cutting the corners.
It didn’t look too bad so I followed. At one point I wasn’t sure if the path went left or right (it was covered in snow), but everyone was going right. I went with them, but was soon wondering why, as other racers were on the main path above us and we were scrambling up a snow-covered boulder-strewn hillside. I concentrated on putting my feet in the same places the person in front had marked out and tried not to dwell on the fact that I wished I had gone the other way! It was with some relief that we re-joined the path.
Swart Beck footbridge came quickly, a picture perfect winter scene of white snow. Now I understood the skis! I was very glad I was not the first to come through, because it meant I could follow the trodden path in front and avoid any very deep snowdrifts! A few more passed me, including a very fast and cheerful girl in a running skirt. I couldn’t stay with them at all and just tried to hold my own pace. I realised I was well down the women’s field and decided this meant I could find time to take a couple of pictures to capture the experience!
Over Sticks Pass it was cold and white with a dense fog. Not windy though, so it could have been worse! The long descent was nothing like the recce. This time it was a race through soft snow. Others were still braver than me, even though I told myself any fall would have a soft landing. Emerging from the fog and dipping below the snowline, we were on one of the steepest parts. I cursed as I fell several times, once almost attempting the splits. Streams of people came past me and it was rather demoralising. I thought this was just everyone I had managed to overtake earlier on the hills, but in retrospect a large portion were probably faster runners who had started later than me and were catching up.
I was relieved to get to the fingerpost at the bottom in one piece and turned left to make my way along the valley. This path was rough and stony. We had pondered race tactics here before and noted that it would be easy to expend a lot of energy trying to go fast. I kept a lid on it and concentrated on not having an unpleasant fall. There was someone behind me who decided to do the same. It was actually quite good to have their footsteps urging me on a little, but agreeing that their toes kept catching and tripping on things too!
Swirls car park to Side Farm – second half of lollipop – I am in love with ultra-running
Arriving at the car park I was disappointed that the toilets were shut (though this was one of the few chances to nip behind something) and surprised to find a feed station. I stocked up on handfuls of food again and walked the first hilly parts of the fireroad eating and drinking whilst it was easy to do so. I also tucked into some of my own savoury snacks. Then it was time to run. I made good time along here once my legs got going and before I knew it, I was at the waterfall and ready to start the next climb.
Here there was another route choice – to cut across open hillside or follow the path along to the river then turn left. I stuck to my plan and smiled to myself as the two other runners who had stopped to think about it also followed me. We could see someone cutting across, but I decided this time I was not going to be influenced. I was glad of it, as it was easy running on the path, the river was straightforward to cross at the bottom and I was soon on the path heading up the other side of Raise Beck.
At this stage I was feeling fantastic. I spotted Santa up ahead taking photos and I was leading a group of people who had passed me in the woods earlier on. At the top I tried to pick up the main path instead of landing up in bog around Grisedale Tarn. However, I soon got confused and found myself romping across fresh snow, in the right general direction, but certainly not on a footpath! Suddenly I felt my left leg sink … right up the full length of it, with my foot at the bottom in something very cold and wet! Eek! A runner called out if I was OK … I was and managed to hoik myself out. “Are you on the path?!” I yelled. He was, and I hastily made my way up there.
I took the next descent down Grisedale a little carefully due to ice, but again was spurred on by someone else who was running just behind me. I recognised the places we had stopped and chatted on our recce and was thinking about how much I LOVED this ultra-running thing. I planned to eat again when we hit the wide easy track at the bottom. Despite finding myself on some little path with the main one below me (how was it possible to drift off it? I have no idea) I soon dropped back down and got munching and into a good rhythm.
In my head I was thinking ‘two more checkpoints, two more small-ish hills. That’s all, and you’ve just passed marathon distance!’ I kept up running all the way into the return checkpoint at Side Farm, avoiding looking at the short but steep climb to Boredale Hause ahead. More snacks taken and I decided to top up my water a bit too. I had probably only drunk about a litre and still had some left but thought it worth the precaution, especially once I had gone to the trouble of fishing my drinks bladder out to check.
Side Farm to Cockpit – return ‘stick’ – body in meltdown
I was feeling chirpy as I headed out and up the hill, despite being overtaken by a handful of faster runners. I followed the same plan as before, walking and eating and choking on a stray grain of rice … then halfway up something bad happened. I don’t know what. I just felt weak, so tired. I was at about 45.5km. I thought it would be fine after the hill. As we crested the top my head told me to start running again, the gradient was easy, but my body refused. We got to the descent and my legs felt like jelly and not entirely under my control. It was tricky and I slipped and fell. I had to let two guys go away as I tip-toed down. Soon enough it flattened a little and became grassy.
I did a quick self-assessment. I felt too hot, my legs hurt, I wasn’t quite with it. I took action in the only ways I know how! A buff was snatched off my head. I ate a gel and a packet of honey stingers (reasoning that I had run low on energy coming over the last big hill and that the food at Side Farm wasn’t sugary enough to have kicked in yet). I slowed down a touch to let my body recover. I drank (I didn’t think I would be dehydrated in this weather, but knowing me, it was entirely possible). As another couple of people passed I exchanged a few words. “How are you?” they asked. “I’m in a dip” I answered. Off they ran. We had a long road section and I worked hard to keep moving and keep the gaps from widening. We got to Martindale and I was on the home stretch. ‘Only’ an hour or so from here! “Are we nearly there yet?” I joked with the marshals, hmm, I’m sure they heard that one a hundred times that day!
Cutting across the zigzags of the road, I paused to admire the view. It was quite stunning, with the sky pinkish from the low sun, and the hills reflected in the still waters of the lake. At the bottom I ran along the road feeling heavy. I had words with myself. If I ran like I felt, I would feel like that and worse. I tried to make myself run ‘properly’, nice and tall with some zing, in the hope it would lift my mood!
Up the footpath and back onto the bridleway. Now I started the mind games. 8km to go. Just like a lunchtime run at work with Neil and Jonah. I imagined what we’d be talking about; parkruns and races or gender identity and workplace confidence (!). 5km to go, just a parkrun. 3.5km to go, just the final run at Ötillö with Izzy by my side. 2.5km to go, just a run along the esplanade at Silverknowes. I made myself run the sections I knew I had ridden up the previous week. I ticked off the landmarks and promised myself more Honey Stingers at various points. I drank and drank, glad I had topped up after all. Somewhere near the top, I recovered…
The Cockpit to Askham – yippee!!
Suddenly I felt alive again! There was no one in sight in front or behind but I was happy in my own world again. I was running along familiar ground, and it was still light. I knew I would make it back well inside my target time despite the wobble. I took a slightly delirious selfie and charged down the hill and into the village. I realised I hadn’t checked which door the finish was at, but guessed correctly that it was the same one I had come out of. I ran round the corner. I tripped on the steps and crashed into a shut door. Joe opened it, looking bemused, and directed me to the table inside so that my number could be scanned for the final time. That was it! I had finished!
I wandered into the hall in a daze. The hall was hot and packed with runners, all doing their own thing, tucking into food and oblivious to me. I missed the feeling of finishing with a friend who has shared the same experience. I felt a few tears well up in my eyes, all emotional from the effort, but blinked them back and texted my coach and boyfriend instead. I could hardly move my legs, let alone climb the steps to the stage to retrieve my change of clothes. Luckily I had been organised and was able to get my stuff with minimum faff, shower, change and sit down. What bliss! Sitting down!
I chatted with a few people and settled down to wait for Steve. At some point tables were cleared and I was able to set up my camp bed. My sleeping bag was so soft and snuggly. I nearly fell asleep at 19:30 (utterly unheard of for me). Just after 20:30 in came Steve, to a big cheer as part of the last group to make it and not get cut off. Hurrah!
I finished in 8h24, inside my target of 9h. I was 9th female, 50th overall. Results here. I pondered if I had got my pacing wrong at the start, but I know I’m usually so good at this, and you’ve got to learn sometime! My split placings were fairly consistent. I don’t regret setting off with conviction as I did, even if I was slower coming back. I did also recover the situation when I blew up. Despite being mindful of eating frequently, it seems I should do it even more, as well as drinking more too. All in all, I decided I hadn’t done too bad for my ‘first ultra without any handy swimming breaks’. Post-race damage seems to be limited to general exhaustion (caught the bus to work for a week), sore legs, the skin off one heal and one bruised toenail. But I’ll wait to see how quick I properly recover before fully committing to another!
Many thanks to Joe and team at Nav4 for the race, to all the photographers (donation made to Patterdale Mountain rescue), to Steve for taking me back to the station and my fellow racers John and Hisayo for company for 3h as we waited for the first trains out of Penrith!
Race 4 of the winter was the first Open 5 of the season, based in Coniston. On Saturday, I took advantage of the location to recce the part of the Tour De Helvellyn I hadn’t visited recently (the race I’m doing next). It was snowy, icy and cold and progress was slow, even on my bike! I nearly ran out of time to get fed at the café, but luckily just made it.
Lucy had been properly ill with pneumonia and wasn’t sure if she would race. We arrived together on Sunday morning still undecided! I thought she would go with me … she asked ‘what if we had to finish after 3h?’ I admitted I was happy to go slow, but wanted to be out for most of the time. She decided to go solo and I last minute paired up with Jon instead. I joked that she had better not beat us …
So after planning, Jon and I set off on the run, hoping the ice would melt a bit ready for the bike whilst we were out. Straight up a hill towards the coppermines, catching a few teams and soon hitting the snow line. I thought I’d run quicker than Jon, but he was running easily as I breathed heavily. Just warming up, I told myself.
We could see Phil and Jackie up in front and we were catching them. After a delightful snowy track traversing the hillside we got to a decision point: straight across and risk getting caught in a quarry, or round the paths? We went round and soon met them coming the other way – wrong choice for us – we were 4 minutes slower!
Running along I was opening my legs out when just in front Jon skidded and thumped onto the floor. That’ll be ice beneath us then. Bit of hopping across semi frozen bogs, reeds and long grass and it was my turn to fall forwards. It was a soft landing in heather and snow, but surprisingly cold!
My tummy was rumbling, which is quite unusual mid race and suggested I really should eat. A full flapjack went down the hatch. Now we were heading off the hill and I thought it was time to go fast. I pushed myself to keep speed on the techier bits, using the sound of Jon’s footsteps just behind to spur me on. I loved running through the woods. We got to the lake and dashed back along the shore, suddenly popping out in a campsite I recognised from a race where I had totally overheated! Very different now.
I sensed Jon was dropping a little, so I backed off the pace and started looking at the bike route. It was tricky to decide which way to go round. We spent some time in transition discussing. What with that and having to take my gloves off to undo shoelaces, my fingers were frozen by the time we left.
We headed off up a road which soon became a long hill. Jon was really pushing the pace and I was working hard to keep up. Just what I needed to get the blood back in my fingers! The first half of the bike went well, nipping in and out to controls and making good progress. I was trying hard not to look at the map and to let Jon get with it instead of getting left behind. We had a slight altercation with a lady who didn’t want us on her drive (turned out this was due to a hitch in communications). I felt sorry that someone would get so emotional all day just for a few riders coming past.
We got to a control where the route to the next one was up a hill. It was a long push-up slog, through mud and ice and rocks and roots. We spent over 20 minutes getting to the control at the top of the hill and it somehow robbed our momentum. The sign on the gate saying ‘warning cattle grazing’ was true – as we came across the strange sight of some ‘panda’ cows grazing in the woods … The descent was very icy and we came down cautiously, though mostly on two wheels rather than two feet. Somehow that was another 30 minutes gone, though at least it made me ride some really rough bumpy stuff, just because I was so grateful whenever I saw an ice-free patch!
I was worrying about time, Jon less so. But then we went wrong in the quarry, mistaking the path for a river, wasting about 5 minutes. We needed to smash it, but as soon as we got to the road there was yet more ice. Oh no… This was so different to what we’d found in the first half of the ride. We had to forfeit a 30 point control near the end and still came in just over 8 mins late / 18 point penalty.
Somehow I felt a bit flat. Just when I’d wanted to let rip, we’d had to ride cautiously and it seemed we could have done better. Looking at Lucy’s score, we only got 12 points more! This despite running much further, getting wet feet and riding almost the same route backwards half an hour faster! Ach well, it was all good training, and I had a lovely day out in good company 😀 And we still did enough to get 3rd in mixed pairs. Results here.
Lucy won female solo with a score that would have won is female pairs as well. I felt sad that she didn’t feel she could have raced like that if we had been together. Though as she pointed out, a lot of the pressure comes from the self not wanting to let the other down, even if they say they’re happy to bimble. For Lucy not to race with me, I knew it must have been serious as we have got through a lot of events together ‘sub-par’!
And then we were off on the long drive home. I can recommend the services at Rheged for good food! Many thanks to all involved as always – Open Adventure (event), James Kirby (photos), Nav4 (food), Lucy, Jon and Andrea (assorted accommodation, lifts and racing with me!).