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Ötillö Swimrun World Championships 2017

At the end of Ötillö 2016 we asked ourselves: ‘how could we go faster again?’ This was knowing we had picked off the easy changes. Not all of our races this season had gone to plan and I had doubts creeping in. Two weeks out and the time for fitness training was done. The only gains that could be made were mental. So we went out and had a couple of good sessions along the East Lothian coast. We ran on the rocks to find confidence, we swam in the sea, we tried out a new tow arrangement, we had fun, smiled and ate cake afterwards.

In Stockholm, boarding the Silverpilen to take us out to Sandhamn

On our last session Izzy had a shoe crisis! The hole in her trusty Icebugs had significantly widened over the last two hours … We googled and thought about it and finally worked out we could order a pair for collection from the Addnature store in Stockholm…

So we arrived and made our way straight into town to pick up the new shoes! This was followed by café stop number 1 and an enormous cardamom bun. We got to our accommodation late but managed a nice run round town in the gathering gloom. No matter that my sense of direction went slightly awry and we did 5 miles instead of 5km.

Pre race fuelling – one of the best lunches we (have ever?!) had (Tyresta nature reserve)

Stockholm feels familiar to us now, helped by the fact we went back to stay at the same place. We had a lovely few days and managed to get ourselves out to the Tyresta nature reserve for a walk, beaver hunting, a swimrun session focussed on technical aspects and another splendid café. Saturday just time for fancy café number three, a swim at Hellasgården and a sauna, complete with cold lake dips.

On the way out we started to feel the wind and waves

Helen Webster, the 220 Triathlon journalist had asked us a few pre-race questions and something in Izzy’s reply got me thinking. Over the couple of days before the race, we devised a cunning plan. It looked like this:

Cunning Plan

  1. Rosemary eat more and Do Not Bonk
  2. Run the little bits and the technical bits at the same speed as last year
  3. Run the three longer sections at a minimum average of 6:30 / km
  4. Go 5s/100m faster on the swims – whether by swimming faster, going in straighter lines or quicker transitions

I would be allowed to tow as hard as I wanted on the easy terrain, without creating pressure on the trickier stuff. 6:30 / km sounded a breeze, just like a very relaxed training run without hills – how hard could it be?

Izzy is the master weather checker and the closer we got to race day the more it looked to be moving in our favour. We willed the temperature to drop and the wind speed to rise.

Lucky I had a new purple jacket to keep me warm on the way over …

The day before the race we all boarded the boats to Sandhamn. We sat outside as it got progressively windier and wavier out in the channel! Helen came up to do an interview, by which time we were the only ones left on deck… We are hardy having trained all year in Scotland, and were looking forward to some exciting swims like we had in 2015 🙂

At the briefing it was apparent the weather was causing the organisers some serious concerns. I did not realise how close they had been to changing the race until later. However, they didn’t, and I am so glad! This is why I love swimrun more than triathlon. It is up to you to look after yourself and your partner and make your own decision about whether it is safe for you to continue. Nature and the conditions it creates are part of the race and the experience.

The start … we’re so far back it’s silly

All night as we tried to get some sleep, the wind blew and flapped things outside. As we woke up, bleary eyed, it was also raining on and off. Izzy had eaten her soaked overnight oats already and we trotted over for me to get breakfast. I asked for the porridge. There wasn’t any. I was sitting there at 4:30 am eating cheese sandwiches and wishing I had brought my own cereal with me …

It was nearly time to go but I was hoping for one more toilet break! I faffed around trying to do what I could as I really didn’t want to stop mid course 😉 Izzy was waiting outside wondering what on earth I was up to and by the time I scurried out we had to line up right at the very back of the gaggle. Oh well, plenty of time to get back to the front again 😉

Chaos on the first swim exit

The gun sounded and off we went. Someone fell over in the rush before we had even gone 100m. Soon we were at the first swim. We had come to look at this the day before and been left mystified as to where we were going. Turns out I’d been looking at the wrong island. Now we had a strobe light to aim for, 1700m away. This swim is sheltered but was still fairly rough. I thought this may mean later swims would be ‘interesting’. At some point the tow popped off Izzy – we’re not sure why – but she managed to grab the end before I swam off and gave it a good tug so that I stopped!!

We landed and were onto the fabled rocks. Because of the rain they were wet and slippery again, like they had been our first year, except now we had our grippy shoes on. There were more teams in the race and we could feel it, as we got caught in a few short queues. I would skip and bound and nip through a gap, only to find I was separated from Izzy. I kept to my promise and waited, and she kept hers, maintaining a positive outlook. Despite other teams coming between us and slipping and sliding more than once, she did not let it affect her mood.

Follow the coastline

On one tricky bit, I heard a cry out and looked back. Izzy was sliding down the steep rocks towards the sea! I quickly assessed the situation. There was nothing I could do to help, and at least she was heading feet first … Luckily she came to a stop before she hit the water and we were off again. But it was easy to see how several teams we saw during the course of the day needed medical attention. It’s always a balance between risk and speed.

Into the second swim and I remembered it was better to head right. However, we got in to the left and weren’t tethered, so it was hard to change direction. I was also edging away from Izzy and was concentrating to make sure we stayed together. As we got out I was kicked in the face by the person in front. I thought I might finish the day with a black eye but it wasn’t so bad after all 😀 . We slid and slipped and I was all over the place as Izzy headed up the rocks!

The safety boats may have had a tougher time out there than us!

It felt like we were losing time compared to last year and failing even at the first hurdle of our plan. We got to the first longer run and headed for the feed station and cut off. Here I checked the time and was surprised to find we were still on target!

I started thinking OK, so maybe we have a chance this plan will work after all, but we have to push on with the easy runs to do it. It felt hard and I reminded myself it was a race, and was meant to be hard work! I had belief that our timings were feasible, and that we’d done enough work and other races that the legs would know what to do without fear of suddenly fading.

Negotiating a swim exit

The second cut off had been revised due to the conditions and was 45 minutes earlier than previous years. If we’d had any issues it might have been tight, so I was keeping an eye on it. However, we sailed through, still within 1 or 2 minutes of our plan.

This cut off is at an out-and-back so we could see from the teams immediately in front and behind that we were very much mid pack for the girls. Our friend Jenny had had to look for a last minute replacement partner and was racing with a girl called Cat. Cat had never done a swimrun before (!) so we were delighted to see them heading in together behind us! I thought if they had made it this far they’d be able to finish.

Water, water everywhere

Along the way we saw a bit of wildlife, especially a deer and Bambi jumping across our path. I also spotted an anthill and several harmless jellies the water. However, at dinner another British pair said they saw a dolphin, or was it a shark?! I think I was too preoccupied on the swims to have seen such a creature even if it had been right beneath me!

We had also been trading places with Marie and Malin just as we had last year, but this time we pulled away on the easy run. I expected to see them again later, but we never did.

Tricky to run in places like this!

Onwards we went. At some point we slowed to eat and get ourselves sorted at the start of a longer run. Teams passed us but we did not react and kept to the plan. It was important for me to eat! As soon as we settled into our pace again, we would overtake and make up places.

One half of a mixed pair had fallen and was crying on the ground beside us. Her partner said maybe she had broken her ankle and we promised to get help. I knew we were close to a swim entry but there was no marshal and I didn’t think to use my whistle to get the attention of the nearest boat. It was a short swim and immediately the other side there was a film crew and I gave them the message.

The Pig Swim – a few wiggles but no big bends!

Soon enough, we passed through the garden full of noisy and musical supporters and then we were at the infamous Pig Swim. It looked rough like it had the first year we did it, but once we were in, the current did not feel so strong. It was windy and there was a lot of chop and white horses. The waves were coming from our left and I often felt like they were assisting with ‘good body rotation’, except sometimes this ‘help’ went too far! Sighting and breathing were difficult and unpredictable but we got straight over and were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves, if a little cold. We grabbed our Twix and kept moving.

Climbing course!

The next 1km swim actually felt more difficult. I was cold and it felt rougher. The water during the race was 12-15oC depending on the swim, but I think our state of fatigue and nutrition had an effect on how this felt. We made it and the next big stage was the half marathon, where we would really face the crux of our plan.

Just before that we caught a clutch of female teams at a feed station. We all jumped into the 300m swim together and headed off. I was shivering hard but it was short and we’d soon warm up. I think we swam faster than they did, and headed off at speed on the other side. We definitely didn’t want to ‘cab down’ yet, and in fact didn’t need to for the whole run.

Typical Stockholm trail through the woods

Now we had to try and average 6:30 / km for an extended period. In doing so, we would make up a lot of time on our previous two attempts and this was the easiest place to do it. I had forgotten how rough the start was though, and we were barely averaging the right speed, before we suddenly got an 8:11! I wanted to panic and push on and tow hard, but I remembered the plan, and to do so was not in the plan where the ground was more difficult. We had also accumulated several minutes in the stages immediately preceding this, so we had some ‘in hand’. I waited until we got to the wide track and then went for it.

I was pretending I was out for a long steady training run. I tried to relax, to run tall and look ahead, to use my arms and to trick my mind into thinking I had just stepped out of the door and really hadn’t been racing for 8h at all. As my watched beeped and the km ticked over I was feeling good – now we were comfortably going under 6:00 / km!

Scrambling up and over rocks, a feature of the day

The roads go on and on but it was drizzling with rain and nice and cool. This was easier than in scorching sunshine. We ran fast in our suits which have very thin and flexible legs. I remembered to eat, feeling like I was going overboard but knowing I really wasn’t. It made such a difference, I kept my head and did not feel like having a little sit down!

With two or three km to go I felt that the tension in the tow cord was getting stronger and more persistent. We hadn’t been talking much as there was no need and it was better to concentrate on what we were doing and where we were putting our feet. I silently willed Izzy to keep going and told her how far it was. She didn’t quite believe me, because this run is a little shorter than advertised, so you have to trust experience!

It was true though, and we were so delighted to finally get to a swim, chattering excitedly to the marshals. We remembered these sections as a series of short, easy and refreshing swims with some fiddly running in between. The marshals told us to look at the current – it was like a river running left to right. The coast jutted out to our left, so I followed it as far as possible before launching ourselves across. It was hard work but not too bad in the end. I was happy my arms did not feel as tired as they had before we did the long run!

Wind whipping the surface of the sea

We approached the next swim – 350m. There was no marshal but we could see the current again. It looked so strong and this time there was no protection. I hesitated, not wanting to get in. We looked across and I decided to aim for a small hut to the left of the flag. The swim seemed to start well, and I sighted often to make sure we were still on track.

Suddenly, about 50m from shore, the current accelerated and seemed to catch us without warning. We were sliding to the right at high speed! I pulled with all my might and could feel the tow going tight behind me. I was picturing Izzy swinging away from me in the current. We passed the flag where we needed to land and the adrenaline was coursing through me. As I breathed to the right I could see the island does stick out a little – I thought if we could just get in line with those rocks then if we got pulled along we should hit them – if we didn’t get washed around instead! I didn’t want to find out and in my haste started to kick my legs. It might have been counter-productive as then my pull buoy popped out and was bobbing next to me – still attached but ineffective and in the way. I could see the bottom but couldn’t reach it. Izzy told me she tried to put her feet down and failed. There was someone standing on shore but I didn’t pause to look if he had instructions. I daren’t stop throwing my arms over, knowing that as soon as I did we’d be pulled away from where we needed to be without any chance of swimming against the current.

With a super human crazy strength I finally got close enough to grab the rocks with my hands. I hauled myself up, and helped Izzy behind me. Oh my goodness! What a total relief. The marshal was full of praise and admiration as he ran along to show us the way. There was no time to stop, but I was jabbering to Izzy. I am not easily scared but that was SCARY. What happened to straightforward finishing swims?!

Not us, but rough water and steep slippery rocks made swim exits tricky

I feared what might come now between us and the final run. They are all less than 200m, but still … at one swim we couldn’t read the water and when we got in we could see the bottom but were not moving anywhere.

Finally they were over, and we double, triple checked with the marshal. YES this is now the final run!

The staff are dedicated!

At the last timing station I checked how we were doing against plan. We’d lost some of our advantage with those difficult swims, but we were still ahead. We were going to make it, we were going to hit our ’20 minute faster’ target, but could we even make it 30? Izzy tells me to go for it and she will hang on. I say ‘it’s only like two laps of Porty parkrun’. Except then we are faced with a hill we don’t remember …

Us holding each other up at the finish line after a final all out sprint

We got up and over and went for it. We put in a sub-5 min km as we smashed it. Only one ‘Porty parkrun lap’ to go. The final road climb came suddenly. Someone walking back said ‘you are 4’ … eh? ‘Yeah, we’re number 404’, I think to myself. We worked and worked. We nearly caught the male team in front with our sprint finish and I could hardly breathe. Not quite 30 minutes faster than last year, but 28:15. Final time 11:18. Result! Michael Lemmel is ready with the hugs and tells us we’re 4th females. Whaaat?!! We cannot believe it and are super, super happy.

Finish line delight!

We were so early we managed to get changed, eat, drink beer (Izzy) and still make it to prize giving. Just time to buy a t-shirt and go through all the facebook notifications – it had been going wild with friends back home tracking our progress! Results here. We were 15 minutes away from 3rd – close enough to feel we were not miles off the pace, but far enough to know it was not just out of grasp! In fact, we lost all that time in the first 4h and then held the gap. The weather helped us – when the wind was roaring in our ears it felt just like a jaunt down at Gullane. Some other fast teams did not start, or had to pull out due to injuries or sickness. But it didn’t stop us being over the moon.

For a 5 minute edit of the live coverage, including some cool coverage of the water conditions, check out this video:

For me, this was a remarkable case of following a plan and getting our minds in order. It is so much better to race this way, to both be on the same page and to maximise performance.

Cunning Plan – The Results

  1. Rosemary eat more and Do Not Bonk:
    I ate 3 gels, half a Clif bar, ¾ a chia Charge, a pack of Honey Stingers and generally two things at every feed station! (banana, homemade energy balls and energy drinks)
  2. Run the little bits and the technical bits at the same speed as last year:
    Yes
  3. Run the three longer sections at a minimum average of 6:30 / km:
    Run 1 (8.6km) – 6:02, Run 2 (8.0km) – 5:52, Run 3 (17.7km) – 6:34
  4. Go 5s/100m faster on the swims – whether by swimming faster, going in straighter lines or quicker transitions:
    Total swim time 2016 – 3:20:18, 2017 3:15:56 = 3s / 100m faster

It’s nice to go to races now and know quite a few people. Special mention to Cat and Jenny who did finish. Even more remarkable when I found out that Cat had never swum more than a mile nor in the sea before… not really recommended but she had a fantastic attitude and trusted in her partner. Her report here.

Also want to say thanks to…

  • Scott, for coaching and making sure I don’t go too ‘bonkers’, like him.
  • Grace, whose nutrition analysis was spot on and helped me get to the start line 4 kg lighter than last year.
  • Ellie, for her amazing pilates classes that help my strength and balance.
  • Alan for stroke analysis to help me swim faster, or at the very least, more efficiently.
  • Staff at Physis for keeping my body together, especially Rachel for massage and Graham for physio – I know I can rely on you.
  • Andy, for putting up with all my training and away weekends.
  • Izzy, for getting it together and racing her heart out on the big day.

And of course race directors Michael and Mats, all the volunteers and our sponsors sportextremeswimrun.com for suits and goggles and Gococo for socks.

Mats and Michael after a long day keeping an eye on us all and handing out hugs and love

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Open 5 – Ampleforth

Lucy was unavailable for the last race in the Open 5 series, something to do with a hen do. It was doubtful whether I would come either until quite late, meaning my original ‘new partner’ had made other plans by the time I could confirm. Luckily, Jon (Itera and sometimes SMBO teammate) was up for it instead.

Work was still high pressure and I had managed to catch a bug the week before. Luckily, it didn’t seem to make me feel bad, but on the other hand I was coughing up gunk and lost my voice on Saturday night. My mum dropped me off and as we sat down to plan, Jon had to interpret the squeaks and grunts. The map looked … tricky! The bike had a few options, the general loop looked straightforward, but we were unsure how long it might take to weave in and out. The run looked long and difficult to fit together.

This way to your first abbey of the day

We decided to bike first, to make sure we got lots of good points without running out of time. This is something Lucy and I had decided on last month, though in retrospect it might have been better the other way round for this race. Off we went, and the pace was higher than I’m used to …

This wasn’t a bad thing, as the mixed pairs is a much more competitive category than the female pairs, and Jon and I would need a good race to get on the podium at all. It’s nice to be pushed in different ways with different people. We were debating and debating as we rode up a road about which controls, if any, to drop out, and how bad a particular bridleway up at the top of the map might be.

Poring over the big maps …

We got tangled up with a male and a mixed pair, and were riding across the flat topped hills and fields with them, concertinaing at every gate. I don’t like doing this much, it puts me under the wrong kind of pressure! At the road junction we had to make a decision, which was partially influenced by going whatever way the other teams weren’t, and partly by wanting to go and see Rievaulx Abbey (it is quite spectacular).

Unfortunately, as soon as we turned right we picked up another mixed pair, and they were fast ones! I recognised them as usually jousting for top spot. We were quite matched for speed, even as we fought along the muddy bridleway. It was more rideable than some I’ve seen, so I wasn’t too disappointed. Pushing up a hill I saw Jon turn back and grin as he stuffed in some energy bar and took the hint! Banana down in one.

No bananas for birthday boy Mark – he knows how to transition!

At the ford we again took a decision to go ‘the other way’ and turned back up the hill on our own to go and get an ‘easy out and back’. My lungs were searing from the effort. And easy it was not, as some of the map marking obscured an important detail of the bridleway junctions. We headed down a (what turned out to be the wrong) bridleway looking for a turning that didn’t exist, found ourselves pushing up a steep little valley, back onto the track we should have been on .. grr …

Back over Sutton Bank, and we were screaming down a road hill, at least we would have been if we hadn’t been stuck behind a horse box! At least this meant we didn’t shoot past our turning and soon we were descending down some of the best riding of the day, through the woods. We now got held up behind some horses not in a box. The riders politely asked us to hang back until a wider spot as the horse was jumpy, and I wasn’t going to argue! Once we were past, we whooped and swooped all the way down.

Steve gave me a lift to the station, but luckily navigation to get there was a bit easier

Only a few out and backs up sharp hills to go. My legs were feeling it now and I kept getting left behind. I didn’t seem to have any energy left and was doubtful about how I would be able to run later.

On the way into transition, we passed a lady kneeling and doing her borders. As we left again on the run we laughed with her about the number of people passing her quiet house! She was lovely and shouted encouragement at us.

As we went we mused on when it was I had actually last ‘ran’ anywhere with Jon (not counting long treks in an expedition race). Maybe the 10k round Cardiff Bay, or a long ago Open 5 on Anglesey … Anyway, Lucy must have had an effect on me as after I had coughed some sludge out of my lungs, I was keeping it ‘steady’, but hearing some notes of concern from behind! Oops.

Byland Abbey – abbey number three of the day

The run was hot. I had just popped on my normal sports glasses to race because it wasn’t raining. However, sweat was running across the lenses making it hard to see, and also stinging my eyes. When I wiped them they were smeary, and when I washed them they were streaky! I never have these problems training, I wonder what that says about my usual pace 😉

We went up and down, up and down, lots of little short sharp climbs out and back. Sometimes we seemed to run for an age between controls. Then we were navigating across farmland, having difficulty locating a path which did not match the map on the ground, and coming out on a road back to another abbey. The run had been awkward, with high value points straddling the two obvious ‘loops’. We were calculating whether we could get our final long out and back for 20 points. As we firmed up that each ‘only a kilometre’ was actually ‘a kilometre and a bit’ we realised it was a no-go.

Doing a good job of talking even when I can’t talk

Straight back to the finish, I was trying to push the pace as I know how often the mixed pairs results come down to time. Jon was lagging and I was trying to be encouraging, but it turned out he was nearly getting cramp! Remarkably, in we rolled 4 minutes EARLY. Unheard of.

We were kept in suspense at prize giving as our category was last to be announced. We knew our score was quite low, but were crossing our fingers this was due to a difficult course rather than our lack of competitiveness. Finally, we got the results – 2nd 🙂 I was pleased as I was aiming for podium, though it would have been nice to be closer to the winners (we were 29 points adrift) – wouldn’t it always! Well done to Jackie and Phil who won today. Fullr esults here. The series prize was super close and came down to time only – it went to Molly and Peter (we split them in the results for this race).

Mixed pairs podium

In the post-race analysis I did spot an extra 10 points we could have got on the run in the time we had, but after that it was probably a combination of luck and ‘not blindingly obvious’ different strategies that were needed to do better. Jackie and Phil spent more time running first, which was probably key. I think it also takes a while to get used to a different person and play to each other’s strengths, and Jon and I have rarely raced this format together.

Off with a lift to the station in glorious sunshine for me, another Open 5 series done for the year. Many thanks to James Thurlow and everyone at Open Adventure for keeping me busy and motivated all winter, and to James Kirby for photos.

After coming and going during the race, my voice disappeared and didn’t come back until Tuesday, when the bug got worse and 3 weeks on from when it started I am still fighting … Less than a week to go now until the first swimrun race of the year for Izzy and I – Costa Brava, here we come!!

Lucy and I won the series, so I had to smile for both of us!

 

Open 5 – Church Stretton

It was touch and go whether Lucy and I would race together at this one. Logistics, health and work for both of us getting in the way a bit! Anyway, by the Sunday morning we were both present and correct and admiring the fresh dump of snow on the Long Mynd 🙂

A bleak start. No-one looks in a hurry to set up transition!

We had decided last month that we were going to break with (our) convention and bike first, to try and get all the good points on offer even if it took more than 3 hours, then trim our run accordingly. I was under strict instructions though – no smashing it allowed – Lucy had a big race the following weekend. My coach had said: “may we be blessed with no navigation mistakes and fabby route choices, smooth n silky….”

It was working out like that on the bike at least 😀 After a quick out and back along the road, we set off clockwise, doing the big climb all the way on the road, with the snow rapidly clearing. A horse trotted across the road across us, which was most unexpected. On the way, we figured out a slightly smoother way to get to the controls we were now after, having seen the values (we’d ditched a couple far off on one side of the map). Smooth n silky!

The first big descent was extremely wet. My saddle has a cutaway section and the icy cold water was spraying up right through from underneath … ugh! Then we hit a road in disguise. I got a clod of mud right in the eye and it took some time before it stopped feeling as if someone was sandpapering my eyeball. We were cruising along with a delightful tailwind. I imagined what Andy would have said if I’d planned a road ride along this mud encrusted tarmac 😀

Steep sides…

Although on some of the hills I was dropping Lucy, it was only because my gears don’t go as low as hers – I was happy to let her pull back again. We were making good progress and only really ground to a walk on the final climb back up the Mynd, on a track with deep tractor ruts. It would probably have been ridable if the wind hadn’t been blowing us sideways so hard it was impossible to stay riding on a narrow enough line.

We flew *down* here when it was just soggy grass

Popping back out at the top it was all downhill from here. We laughed as we passed Jon slogging up the wet grassy hill as we flew down! Lucy took a tumble on a short section of boardwalk just as I was thinking it might be slippy. I could tell it was a hard one as she didn’t bounce back up immediately, but little was said and on we went. We both got super cold on this descent, not enough pedalling going on. But soon enough we were back for a slow transition whilst we fumbled the changeovers and rammed our unfeeling feet into running shoes. We were so fuddled we both ran off with our bike helmets still on!

Transition – biking done

As we made our way along the road, my little toe felt as if it was broken under the others! The bike had been good, but now we needed to adjust our run to the shorter time we had left (1h42). The points allocation and our remaining time was making it tricky to decided a good route. I let Lucy consider whilst I did my second wee stop of the day. Most unusual, I must have drink too much tea! Ha. Unfortunately we got disorientated near the start, following a path not on the map and losing the map detail under various other markings.

We righted ourselves and were soon moving at a reasonable and maintainable speed. A chap going the other way warned us it was slippery (?!). We did a hard right and the path headed uphill. One control was cheekily placed on the other side of a stream, forcing us to get wet feet. As we ascended a valley with steep sides I realised this was where Lucy said we’d have to escape from at some point … she was kind, as we carried on up quite a while before cutting cross country up the sides.

Hills for running around

We came out on top and I was worried about time. Half an hour left, the finish seemed a long way off and what was this, why were we running uphill again?! It was an out and back to the top and then we really were descending, with more urgency now. The final control at the reservoir was misplaced vs the map, meaning we lost a little time before turning down a large tourist path back to the town. This was no longer ‘steady’, nothing like it … but we minimised our losses and were only 4 minutes late.

Sprint finish!

Enough to win female pairs and secure the series (which we wanted to do as Lucy really can’t come to the last one), and still tantalisingly close, but not ahead of, the mixed pairs 😉 15th overall. Results. This area is a great place to bike and run in all weathers.

Been finished a few seconds now, must be time to review the map and route choices!!

Thanks to Open Adventure for organising, James Kirby for photos, all the volunteers and to Jon and Andrea for a lift home with inbuilt small child entertainment in the back (just don’t get me started on the female representation in ‘Adventure Stories’…).

Open 5 Reeth

I was beginning to believe it, but apparently I am not invincible after all and despite escaping several rounds of illness at work and at home, last week I succumbed to my first cold of the winter. I couldn’t even see who to blame it on, so it could only be ‘someone on a bus’ 😉 . I’d also had a particularly tough week at work and despite a fantastic ability normally to switch off, I needed something strong this weekend to help me forget it all! Friday and Saturday nights I was getting interrupted sleep with one of those annoying scratchy coughs, but by Sunday I was feeling more human and up for the Open 5. Lucy had done a 20 mile fell race the day before, so I was hoping we might even out.

We prepped and after a couple of puffs on my inhaler my lungs even felt in moderate working order. Off we ran and the pace was OK. Then we turned uphill. I was getting too hot, I could feel the blood thumping in my head, and if I paused to think about it I came over all dizzy. Up and up, stumbling over a stile, dodging round the bases of crags and sweat dripping into my eyes.

I ate as much as I could and kept going. Confusion arose at the cave, which we approached from the top. We were looking for it and Lucy pointed shouting ‘here’, except I did not hear her and thought she meant ‘I’ll look this way and you that’. After going round in a circle down and uphill, there she was standing waiting …

Let's just pop up there ...

Let’s just pop up there …

More running, taking the flatter path instead of the lumpy road. There was a ‘rabbit control’ van parked up, but I hadn’t seen much evidence of control, as I’d spent half the run making sure they didn’t get a bonanza of whole human leg falling into their burrow for dinner.

We caught another female pair, then set off in the wrong direction on an unmarked path. The high point that had a ‘null control’ marked on it winked at us, and I kept repeating to myself ‘at least we’re not going up there’. As Lucy announced we needed to backtrack, I was ready to pass out and decided taking my windproof off might improve matters. It did, but my legs still wobbled beneath me. Come to think of it, I pondered, have I really done much uphill running lately?

Bouncy suspension bridge on the run.

Bouncy suspension bridge on the run.

We dropped down to a river and contemplated a wet crossing and another control. Normally I’d have said yes, but I was cream crackered and wanted to get on the bikes. We ran off, picking up speed as a male pair tried to keep up, breathing hard down my neck. I thought they’d overtake but they never quite did and Lucy was having none of it…

Transition came at 1:58, which was spot on what we had aimed for. A slow changeover as I transferred some kit and tried to eat some more. Then we were off, avoiding a silly mistake and heading straight up the hill. I kept pedalling for quite a while until I was reduced to pushing. ‘Noooo’, my legs screamed! Eventually as I stumbled, Lucy took over with a double bike push, instructing me to eat more, right now. I was forever grateful for fast and easy riding over the top, an easier uphill and a fun descent, even if I should have been less chicken on it.

Ohhh please not up there, I just want to pedal!

Ohhh please not up there, I just want to pedal!

That was more or less all the mountain biking, as the rest of our controls were on the roads. Rolling up and down we still seemed to be pedalling uphill a lot of the time. We debated a few options, eventually plumping for one last hill that had 900m of off road push before a long, long tarmac descent on an empty road. In hindsight with the benefit of other people’s choices, we could have made a different decision here, and earned about 13 more points. Maybe it was worth it though, as on the way we passed Crackpot … if we’re going to make mistakes best to do it passing amusingly named places 😀

One of the many steep roads. Reeth 3 miles ... but we did not go that way!

One of the many steep roads. Reeth 3 miles … but we did not go that way!

We lost time checking the wrong side of an arched bridge for a control, and could still see the hidden cave from the run, mocking us in full and plain sight on the other side of the valley. Other than that and my throat, tummy and generally whole body complaining at me, it was an uneventful and super speedy return to Reeth.

Just under 6 minutes left and we had the transition team laughing and shouting at us to hurry up as we dived off for one more out and back up a small hill on the road. I had estimated this would take 10 minutes. The rain was falling now, but we got there in 7, turned around and got back in 3. For once I had been vaguely accurate, as I had almost been with my ’20km to go’ pronouncement 22km from the end!

We just ticked over 5 mins late, which meant 12 penalty points, but it was worth it for a 25 point control. It turned out it was true that James T wanted to do prize giving at 15.15. We stumbled in to the hall at 15:07 then carried on racing to get changed at the van and back again just in time for the start of the day’s results.

First female pair, 19th overall and a respectable, if not dazzling score. My throat and lungs were burning and I felt weebly, but had survived! Good job Lucy can race 20 miles one day and still keep pushing us along and make sure we have a good race the next. The March Open 5 is in Church Stretton in Shropshire, where I have enjoyed racing a couple of times before.

Podium

Podium

Many thanks to Open Adventure for the race, James Kirby for photos, Lucy for the lifts and my mum for pre-race accommodation!

Dales scenery. We saw a lot of this hill, both from it and looking across at it.

Dales scenery. We saw a lot of this hill, both from it and looking across at it.

Open 5 Lake District – Threlkeld

It was nearly time for the first Open 5 of the year and I had not done enough mountain biking! Swimrunning all year had left me out of practice, and a couple of planned rides did not happen. I had arranged to go for a long test ride with Elizabeth, after the ‘rope across bike path incident’. That went well enough and I only fell off once despite the snow patches … so maybe I was ready?!

Low sun

Low sun

I had travelled light to the event and as we sat in the car in the early morning gloom I saw the dashboard thermometer read -3oC and by the time we got to the event start it said -6oC. Hmm. I might have chosen a different jersey if I had known that! However, the forecast was for sunshine and warming up so I stayed resolute. Well, I had no choice. On went the arm warmers, gilet and lobster gloves at least!

Looking at the maps at the start we knew we had to bike first. There was a big, obvious and committing loop winking at us. We wouldn’t want to run first and then find we had run out of time to do it. This was a slight shame as we’d have to ride before it warmed up! In fact just getting to the start was slightly traumatic, as Lucy’s fingers stopped working and we didn’t have the luxury of fully warming them up before we were hustled through the start. We had 3 minutes to spare though, no problem.

Looking at the control values, we had a change of heart. We shouldn’t do the loop, but some funny zig zagging to get all the high value ones to the south. Off we went in the opposite direction to our original plan. One glitch when we paused. ‘Maybe the control is on that fingerpost?’ ‘Let’s carry on and check the next one’ ‘Oh, it was the first one’ – duh! A little time lost, but not a lot.

I was doing OK riding the uphills and wide tracks but was freaking out a bit at the icy patches, downhills and techy bits. Think this was a combination of lack of practice and additional fear about falling on my only partly mended shoulder. I was feeling a bit sick from the fear of it and struggling to keep up, so I just let Lucy lead the way. At the bottom of a long holey section I found her considering the map. ‘We’d be best going round!’ she said. I was more than happy to trust she had figured it out right, so on we went following our original plan, but in reverse!

The downhill was cool and shady, but long, fast and easy-ish. As we saw others labouring up the other way I was pleased to be going in this direction. Another wee error as we turned right at the ‘road’ only to find it was a ‘track’ looking very road like. About-turn and straight on to the next mistake, getting lured by an easy looking bridleway shortcut, only to find it rapidly deteriorating into a mud and gate fest. WHY? We should have just whizzed round the road, don’t know what got into us. Must have been enjoying being off road again after all. 😀

We were joined by a male pair who followed us through a village and another overshoot. We must have been chatting and not paying attention as this control was very obvious – we just didn’t have our eyes out for it! There followed a slightly uncomfortable busy road stretch with the low sun in our eyes, but before long we had one last mega climb to burn our lungs and legs.

Bike map

Bike map

The descent was fun, I was pushing myself a bit more, spurred on by not wanting to get caught by any of the riders we’d seen tailing us into the previous out and back control. A spin down a road closed due to subsidence and now covered in leaves and free of traffic was a delight. We nipped through the outskirts of Keswick taking care with the map. I was tempted to start smashing it, but was very conscious of the run ahead so kept it reigned in 🙂 We were soon rolling back into transition.

We got a control here, I never even saw the stone circle!

We got a control here, I never even saw the stone circle!

It was the right decision to bike first as we now only had 1.5h for our run. I’m not used to racing this way round and probably hadn’t eaten enough, so got some extra food down in transition. We hared off at high speed despite having ‘just-off-a-bike’ legs. I quickly shoved the map in my bag as there was no way I had time to look at it. In fact, I was working so hard at keeping up I never even noticed a fine stone circle in the same field as a control!

Our pace was pretty high, even with rough ground and gates and stiles. I was feeling uncomfortable and my right leg was hurting in all sorts of places. I tried to relax and decided more food and drink was needed. I even resorted to a gel, which was like manna from heaven, so it must have been bad.

Snow capped hills

Snow capped hills

We marched up a rather steep hill, walk, run, walk, run. When we could see the sun, it was blinding. When we couldn’t, the side of the hill was in shadow and was dark and cold, with the grass frozen hard. At the summit we struggled to find the control. ‘’Thread’ 7m east of summit’. Was the summit the top looking bit, or the cairn? What was a ‘ thread’? We were circling the top, taking paces, checking the compass. Lucy was about to get me to take photo proof, when we found it on a little outcrop, only visible from below.

Frozen way up the hill

Frozen way up the hill

Right, decision time. We pondered a longer route getting an extra two controls, but decided to be conservative, taking a route that we should have ‘loads of time to do’. I slid on my bum coming down the steep bank, but then we were off again.

Lucy put me on the tow (no debate) and I was getting pulled along, not being able to see for both the sun and Lucy’s legs two feet in front of me. It was quite funny, but she was relentless even on the rough downhilly bits! I was feeling better, the food must have finally got into my bloodstream. Finally, we rounded a corner and could see the finish up a hill in front of us. Other racers were returning to download along the road and shouted encouragement. Into the field and one last uphill slog, the tow now slack as we were both at our limits.

The sun was much in evidence

The sun was much in evidence

I wasn’t sure how close we were, but as we charged over the line we had 2 minutes to spare. Wow! Well, it was a good job we didn’t go wandering off at the top of the hill. Slightly annoying that we had made a few mistakes on the bike that cost time we could have used well later. Never mind, no race like this is perfect and we were pretty pleased with our score and performance 🙂

Back to download before the cold sunk in and I even had time to wolf down a bowl of Nav4 veggie chilli. James T was very obliging in hurrying along the prize giving. I had a train to catch! We won our category and were 14th overall (same score as 12th and 13th but slightly later back). That top 10 still eludes us, but this was a great start to the season!

Podium smiles

Podium smiles

Looking forward to the next one, which isn’t until February. At least by then I might have remembered how to ride a bike, especially an off road one, and maybe we’ll get to bike second so I am not so broken on the run 😀

Thanks to all involved in organising and to James Kirby for the photos.

SMBO: Falkirk on Fire!

With our last swimrun race done for the year, my thoughts turned to mountain biking. Open 5s were coming up soon and my bike was almost gathering actual dust! It was a last minute decision, but I decided to enter the SMBO event in Falkirk. Scanning the entry list, I spotted Jon and hastily messaged him to see if he fancied pairing up. Affirmative. We were on!

The format was similar to one held earlier in the year: 90 minutes in the daylight, a rest for tea and homemade chocolate coconut brownies, then 90 minutes in the dark with the same map and controls but different values.

It was pretty chilly so we hid in the car to come up with two alternative plans, depending on the control values. The maps were 1:50k OS on one side and openstreetmap on the other. On the move, Jon read off the OS and me off the openstreet map. Sometimes one was easier to use and sometimes the other.

Jon started super fast and I was soon working hard to stay in contact. Some spot on Jon-nav helped us find a control in the woods without error. I was glad just to follow and to remember how to ride this bike!

90 minutes is not very long at all and before we knew it we had to start finalising our plans! Up a hill, looking down on the town before flying down and facing a sprint up another hill … Where did they all come from? The low sun shone through the trees, still golden in autumn colours as we crunched through the leaves.

At the last minute we decided to dive into the woods for an extra control or two on some single-track before racing back to the finish. Perfect timing, 2 minutes late. We finished this stage 3rd overall.

Suitably refilled and it was time for take 2. We now knew both the map and the control values, so were able to plan exactly what we wanted to do. Although there was some overlap, we did visit a different area. All around us fireworks were going off (it was Bonfire night), but I had to keep my eyes on where we were going! Jon started counting down; that’s only 45 minutes left. Whaaaat?! How was it even possible?

It all went to plan though, and we even had time to sail past the finish whooping and yelling whilst we did an optional extra little loop and finished … 2 minutes late again!

Final result and we had the highest score on the night stage and finished 2nd overall. I felt sorry for Davie who ripped his tyre on just about the furthest point on the map and had to run back. After admiring some more fireworks and the bonfire we trundled off (and I had the excitement of catching a tram with my bike for the first time).

Many thanks to Marc for organising an event with a bit of spice, Amelie for efficient sign on and Helen for the great soup and cake! A family affair 🙂

At the results ceremony, you can spot me hiding next to Jon in green!

At the results ceremony, you can spot me hiding next to Jon in green!

Open 5 Todmorden (South Pennines)

It’s more than a bit late for this report. Life seems to have been getting in the way of write ups!

I stayed at my mum’s with my friend Jim the night before. It was an early start, driving through temperature inversions that meant we alternated between bright sunshine and fog. The race venue was still more in the latter state and there was mention of snow on higher ground. I was more confident for sun!

I was racing with Lucy again and we did debate whether to bike first, but stuck to ‘what normally works’ and ran first instead. By the end I was wishing we hadn’t, though unlike the last time this happened, it was less a strategy miscalculation and more of a ‘might have saved ourselves’ option.

Off we went, almost, but not quite last out. Straight up a hill and back down again for the first control. Lucy had the end of a cold in her lungs, but I wouldn’t have known it as we were flying along and I was breathing hard trying to keep up. Navigation in the town was tricky and we ended up the wrong side of the canal and unable to get on the bridge. I later found out there was a route through a beer garden, but we never spotted that! We lost about 5 minutes here, take note.

Onwards and up onto the hills, where navigation was a bit easier. We found a control on a footpath / stream crossing, where I’d say the ‘footpath’ was only barely hanging on to its status. We were up high and scooting along a ridge with great views. Stoodly Pike (with a great big tower) was like a siren, with a 30 point control on it.

We got another control then paused to contemplate our options. I had roughly estimated the bike length at 32km. We needed to allow 3h. Though sometimes, depending on terrain, we’d do it quicker than that. How long left for the run? 7-8km at 6-7 minutes per km. Just over 40 minutes then (see what I did there?). Lucy really wanted to go to the tower. Well, we had won the series already and it looked fun, she said. I was more anxious but, yes, the tower did look inviting, it seemed it was almost as long to take the direct route home and if we weren’t going we should have decided a control ago … so off we went.

Darn, we ran round the tower looking for a balcony, before realising it we had to go inside, up a spiral staircase in the pitch dark, no lights. This was slow!! A couple more minutes lost.

Running back down, Lucy had to wait for me, though I found my legs again on the flatter road section. It was along drag back along the canals and through Todmorden. We came in 49 minutes after our deliberations, with only 2h40 left for the bike.

As previously ascertained, there really was no other option for the bike leg but to go all the way round the big loop. I couldn’t see any other sensible alternatives, so off we went. Maybe we both already had a sinking feeling about this, as I’m not sure our usual ‘drive’ was in evidence.

We're sure there should be a control here somewhere

We’re sure there should be a control here somewhere

I navigated well through town, only for us to promptly get confused and take the wrong bridleway, ending up pushing in hot sunshine. Studying the map very carefully afterwards, I can see the bridleway we took was on the map – I just couldn’t see it at the time. It was tricky to read due to the hundreds of paths, contours and ‘stuff’. Yes, it was hilly. We turned too early, which I kicked myself about, as usually I have an eye on the distance as well as the junctions. This cost us about 7 minutes – are you keeping a tally?

Once on the right track it was a ride / hike mixture until we hit a road at the top and flew like maniacs with a tailwind. This felt better, maybe we had enough time after all, our average speed was going up. Off road again onto a fun track to a reservoir. We were heading for a ‘permissive bridleway’ – sometimes these indicate high use paths and are better quality, but sadly, not the case today. I briefly considered going the long way round, but we didn’t – others reported doing this and having a much better time.

So forlooorn ...

So forlooorn …

Anyway, after another km of pushing we finally made it to a decent track. 40 minutes left, we had to go fast. Unfortunately, it wasn’t towing territory. And besides, my stomach was not feeling great, I was queasy. Maybe I hadn’t been drinking enough in the unaccustomed sunshine! We got to the control that was missing (luckily we’d heard someone shout something about it), so we took a photo to prove we’d been there and headed off again.

We're finishing quite late

We’re finishing quite late

We were nearing the end and got to a section with loads of gates. We were doing ‘gate relay’ – one of us go through, ride ahead to the next one, whilst the other shut the first and caught up, to switch over again. We were nearing a farmhouse and it was my turn to hold the gate. I shouted “200m past the farm, then turn left!” Unfortunately, the message didn’t land, as Lucy turned at the farmhouse and I was chasing her down the road shouting “um, I don’t think this is right!” whilst desperately trying to work out how this way went (it was a sort of square). Eventually Lucy stopped, we had overshot the alternative junction and had to turn back. Another 2 minutes gone.

Things were getting pretty bad by now, chat was rather minimal. We both just wanted to be home. It should have been ‘all downhill’, but it wasn’t. The final turning had a ‘Road Closed’ sign. “Do you want to find out why?” asked Lucy. “Yes!” I said emphatically. We really didn’t have time to faff about. I was encouraged when a group of motorcyclists roared past and when we got to the point, it was only half the single lane road dug up, so we had no problems getting through. There was a possible shortcut through town but we weren’t certain of it, so we stuck to the main road and finally drew into transition.

19 minutes late. The sad sight of only our shoes and bags sitting forlornly in transition by themselves.

This was a disappointing end to the series. Despite the lovely countryside and demanding course, I think we weren’t quite on it. Even so – frustratingly, if we had eliminated the nav errors we’d have only been about 5 minutes late – and have had an excellent score – which goes to show that it wasn’t our planning that was out as such, just our execution of it!

We came 2nd female pairs, only 5 points behind 1st (penalties go up at 5 points per minute after 10 minutes). Results here. Although this wasn’t the end I’d hoped for, we had already done enough to win the series. I had a pleasant train journey direct back to my mum’s and a hot dinner waiting for me!

Here and here a couple of reports from other friends at the race, who weren’t so busy getting back so late 😉

Many thanks to Open Adventure, James Kirby for photos and all the course organisers and other volunteers.

Until next winter …

Open 5 – Askham (Lake District)

Pre-race preparation was perfect, with a café stop, a wander round an outdoor shop, a photography exhibition (tweed making in the Hebrides) and a pub dinner. Shame about the early start, but we successfully navigated round all the closed bridges and got a space in the village not too far from registration.

Whilst waiting for Lucy to arrive I got chatting with a few people about the routes. The bike looked fairly straightforward – with the main decision being two controls stuck up on a fell. The advantage of them was that they were on the Roman road (High Street), so visiting them would make my dad happy.

When Lucy appeared we got ready remarkably quickly and headed up to the start. But then some last minute gear fettling threatened to eat up all that spare time we had. Luckily the right screw was twiddled in the right direction first time, and we were ready to go!

Run first as usual, and we set off at pace, soon hitting a long road stretch. My shins were complaining but I just ignored them. We had to leave an out and back fairly early on – as it turned out that might have been our best chance at more points but it just didn’t seem worth it at this stage. We were soon enough heading up onto the hill and I was enjoying the softer ground, even if we had to leap over tussocky stuff.

There was a choice to be made between a straight off-track line to the furthest out controls, or a route on tracks that we decided would be faster. We also got to check out a section of bridleway we’d potentially be riding up later. Even better, we got there with a mountain biker and were able to see that a) he was riding but b) only a little bit faster than we were running.

Descending a steep bank I was left behind (as expected) but generally I was feeling good. Lucy had raced the day before as well and was only just back from the tooth infection that had done for her last month. I was keeping up without dying, which only tempted me to look at the map, which wasn’t too helpful. We stopped at a control, ‘ignored’ it, ran downstream, then back up. A mistake from a combination of the paths on ground looking a bit different to the map (which fooled me) and me distracting Lucy (who wouldn’t otherwise have been fooled by that).

She was getting a bit tetchy as we were running out of time. I hadn’t noticed, but she was right. 1h55mins gone already, and there was no way we’d be back in 5 minutes! Nothing for it though but to stick at it. I looked at the bike map to check our route still made sense in the light of reduced time and to make some comparisons between different point collections.

We flew down into the finish. The longest run time-wise in a while and I think our longest distance Open 5 run ever! Close to 20km. Off on the bikes and it was an ‘easy’ road loop to start with. The sun came out and the lanes were pretty even if they went up a hill. We feared this would be a repeat of the Forest of Bowland, where the optimal points route was short run and long bike.

Not the 'Cat Stane' (which is at Edinburgh airport!) but the 'Cop Stone'

Not the ‘Cat Stane’ (which is at Edinburgh airport!) but the ‘Cop Stone’

However, as I pondered I wasn’t so sure. I still thought we could get round all but two controls, and maybe even out and back to one more. It was tempting as it was the one on the Roman road. We calculated 30 minutes to get 15 points, an hour to get 55. As we rode we debated and thought it would be close for the 15 pointer. We thought about other combinations – would cutting it short on another loop on the way back be worth the offset? Sadly, no, we decided it would be nuts to try and we should play it safe. Then I think we relaxed slightly, alarmed at the prospect of getting back 20 minutes early.

Debating strategy!

Debating strategy!

Realising what was happening, we changed gear again and hurried up a bit. Lucy led the way down a fun, fast rocky descent towards the shoreline of Ullswater. It was impossible to read the map at that speed with those bumps, but we pulled up just before the bridge with the control. The furthest one out was up a sharp little kick to a church. We tackled it off road, deciding it was shorter and better graded than the road – and we were right.

Typically, having gone from thinking we had loads of time we now realised we had to get a proper move on. We estimated 14km and we had 40 minutes.

Pushing the pace along the lakeside I wondered if Lucy would need a tow, but she was safely tucked in my slipstream and that was enough. Good thing too, as I didn’t have it in me to go any faster and felt slightly queasy! It wasn’t until we turned up the final hill some time later that I gave a short helping hand. There was No Way we could get back late on this one after all our earlier debates!

Glorious Ullswater

Glorious Ullswater

I didn’t dare think we were safe until we hit the final bit of bridleway, screeched down the hill, faffed with a gate and hammered into the finish. 5 minutes early! Brilliant.

We decided it hadn’t been so crazy to do a long run today after all, even if it had been slightly unintentional. It had been a race with much thinking and strategizing on the move. After so many previous events where high scores had been the norm all round, we hoped that our high score this time would be a little more out of the ordinary.

At prize giving when the scores were read out, we were mentally counting the number of people ahead of us. Gargh, missed top 10 by one place – 11th! But we had much improved and won our category, so we were happy. Results here. One more go at it this season!

Thanks to Open Adventure (event), James Kirby (official photos), Andy Kirkland (personal photos) and everyone who made the event possible.

SMBO Falkirk Day / Night

Falkirk Canal Tunnel

Falkirk Canal Tunnel

  © Copyright Rob Burke and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

A couple of weekends ago, it was the first SMBO (Scottish Mountain Bike Orienteering) event of the year. I wasn’t sure about entering because of my dodgy knee. It was complaining about cycling so racing didn’t seem too wise. However, I then persuaded Iain (14) and, more importantly his dad, that this would be an ideal event for him to come and do with me.

And so it was that I turned up at Iain’s house 5 minutes late, and we scuttled off to get the train to Falkirk. Pedalling to the venue from the station was more uphill than down, but we arrived in one piece. Lots of people I knew were there, including Jon, bearing a spare map board for us to borrow.

The twist in this event was that it was a day / night. Clue in the name. The total race time was 3 hours, but it was split into two. 1.5h to ride in the day time, then all the control values changed and we had 1.5h to ride again once it got dark!

Iain is great on a bike, but he doesn’t get much practice. He is also more than competent with a map, so we set off on the day stage with him navigating and setting the pace. There were two versions of the map – an OS one (which Iain had) and an openstreetmap one (which I had). This was handy as sometimes one had better information than the other. We wound round some fun singletrack and blasted down a hill to the canal. We were moving fast! A detour into some woods, where there were some grumbles about a ‘hill’, then back onto the canal and to the long tunnel that looked a bit dark and spooky!

We went another way, aiming for a ‘fast’ route on some tarmac, missing the turning, riding across some grass and getting tangled up in the Scottish Cross County Championships. That part might have been my fault. Iain did spot a bit of the Antonine Wall on the way though. Then off to a mausoleum. We were looking for the gate and were at the perimeter wall, when we realised we had gone the wrong way round. “Shall we backtrack on the path, or just go straight up through the woods?”, I mused. Up we went, and then down, which was a bit of a laugh, as when we got to the gate we’d gone round about two thirds instead of one third, which Iain was only too quick to point out to me.

1.5h doesn’t last very long and suddenly, when we were as far away as it was possible to be from the finish, we found we had only 24 minutes left. Unfortunately, this was also the point that the trail got really technical, then disappeared under a pile of felled trees and branches. We had to bash through to the main path then escape onto a road. Time to race to the finish! Hey, but maybe we can get that control on the other end of the canal tunnel? We started off to it, before realising it was in a deep cutaway and it was a long way round if weren’t prepared for a vertical jump.

We had already started off to it but turned around and pedalled like crazy for home. It was a good time to teach Iain the adventure racing art of being towed. His lesson took 5 seconds: ‘hold this with your hand, let go straight away if anything goes wrong, pay attention to what I’m doing!’ and off we went! Turns out he was a master at it.

We got back over 7 minutes late, which was disappointing as it meant we lost 20 points. Luckily, we still had 155 left! This is another thing I like to teach; you should always get best value for money by riding longer than you really should. ‘Oooo, my legs are all wobbly’ Iain said, as we queued to download!

It got cold quickly as darkness fell. We ate soup and cake. And a bit more cake. And maybe another piece. With our lights all set up I asked Iain if he had ever ridden at night before. No. Well, a race is as good a time as any to learn! We still had the map from earlier, but no control values. We had a guess at where the good scoring ones might be as we knew they would swap around from the day stage. We also planned two possible loops that were a bit more conservative than our first attempt! I measured them, counting as I moved my finger along the route. ‘What distance is each thing?’ ‘A thingy’ ‘What’s a thingy?’ ‘It doesn’t matter! This afternoon we rode 25 thingies, and this loop is only 22 of them!’ 🙂

Off we went, pedalling hard to warm up. Back down to the canal again the direct way, and we moved as fast as we had in the day on the first part, which was a repeat. Iain remarked that this time, his legs didn’t feel like they had only just started, and his bum was sore! The ‘hill’ in the woods put in another appearance, to more groans.

Then we approached the tunnel again. Now, at night, the inside looked less spooky than the outside! We rode along it, admiring how it is hewn out of the rock, dodging the big drips of water and trying to concentrate enough not to fall in.

We were now on unfamiliar territory but were following Iain’s dad’s signs for the John Muir Way. Round an estate and across a pond, up a hill with views out to the lights of Falkirk. The ground was getting frosty and we rode through a few Slush Puppy puddles. I was doing more navigation this time, with Iain keeping an eye on things. Once I told him to go ahead and get the control so I wasn’t ‘taking over’ all the fun bits, and he rode straight past it!

We used the tow a little bit, but Iain was feeling good again. We got back near the start and were on a road when I heard a clatter behind me, then silence! Alarmed, I stopped, expecting to see Iain in a heap, but in fact he was still riding along. ‘What happened?!’ I asked. ‘Oh’, he said, ‘I was just looking at Orion, swerved to the side a bit and hit this plastic thing in the road!’ … panic over.

We actually had a few minutes left, so although we were almost back, we popped into the woods to get two more controls we had saved up. They were tricky to get in and out of, as there was a little maze of forest tracks and mountain bike trails. We debated a bit which way to go to get out, but ultimately the answer was ‘towards all those lights!’.

We got back just 38 secs late, which was much better than stage one. In fact, our night performance was better all round, as we scored 224 points!

We were cheered by the tales from other people – who had got back as late as we had in the day, or gone the wrong way, or got lost. It just goes to show it can happen to the best, even my Itera team mates! 😀

Points tallied, and we finished 3rd generation pair (adult with an under 18). Excellent work. This category was the second biggest on the day, with 10 entrants! Great to see so many families out. We missed out on the lights prize for being back closest to time on the night stage by 37 seconds … Never mind. Results are all here.

Time to cruise back down the hill and catch a train. At that time on a Saturday the passengers tend to be quite merry, and it turns out there were already bikes in both bike carriages. We comically ran along the platform twice before choosing our spot, jumping on, and wriggling into two spare seats.

By the time we got back to Edinburgh it was 21:30 and we were pretty peckish. Luckily Papa John’s was perfect as we could wheel our bikes right inside and sit in the warm to wait for our order. The only deficiency was that their pizza sizes were measured in slices (‘since when has a slice between a unit of measurement?’). We ran up the hill giggling, with hot smells wafting out of our boxes. Before long, we were camped in the living room, telling our tales, eating pizza and swigging coke (despite parental disapproval)!

I can’t ride the next event in April, because I’m organising it.  But Iain already wants to come, so his dad will have to do the honours instead!

Many thanks to Marc and his team of helpers (young and old-er!) for putting on such a fun and accessible event.

Open 5 – Blanchland (North Pennines)

It was time to head down for another Open 5, and this month I was going with Glen, another newbie who I’d convinced this would be a good idea! Due to snowy conditions, we headed for the coastal route. Numerous signs announced the presence of coffee chops, but it took a couple of detours and a double stop at a level crossing to find one open and willing to serve us. We continued the theme once we arrived in the Pennines, as we visited three pubs before getting to one that a) could serve us and b) had something I wanted to eat.

Snowy hills greeted us in the morning

Snowy hills greeted us in the morning

Lucy had texted me halfway down to say she wouldn’t be able to make it 😦 . It was not entirely unexpected as she had warned me of a bad tooth infection and was somewhat drug-addled and exhausted. She often gives me warnings about things, but this is the first time I’ve known something to actually stop her, so it must have been really bad.

After a noisy night in the youth hostel (why did the beds creak with every turn?!), it was a rush in the morning as time slipped away. Solos have to be away earlier than pairs, but our plans to set off promptly were scuppered as we had to defrost the car enough to open the doors and scrape all the frozen snow off the windows.

I haven’t done an Open 5 solo since April 2012, so it was almost a novelty and I was a little anxious. I felt under pressure as I looked at the map and tried to figure out something sensible. Bike looked OK, but that’s the one I’m used to planning for! I kept staring blankly at the run map waiting for inspiration to hit. Jon (Itera team mate) appeared and I felt better after we chatted a bit. He sort of offered to team up as a mixed pair – but by that time I had psyched myself up for solo and registered and … but on reflection, I think I’d say yes if there was a next time!

I headed out with Glen after making sure he was all sorted and was remonstrated with for letting him pin his number on sideways. But we both set off at almost the same time, with the snowy whiteness and bright sunshine making my map highlighting stand out brilliantly. Makes a change from rain washing it all straight off again 🙂

I had decided to run first, since that’s what I normally do. It would also mean I got the part I was less confident about done, and I hoped that the sun and traffic would clear some of the roads by the time I got to biking.

In actual fact, most of the run went OK. My only strategic error was at the start, as I did a long wiggle to get a 10-pointer. For the same extra distance I could have got 20 points later on instead. Luckily, I didn’t realise this at the time, so it wasn’t on my mind! Instead, I was enjoying being the first person to make tracks in some of the deep snow. Even the cross-country romp across heathery moorland was fun.

Off the hill and down to a river crossing, searching for a control on a tree 2m downstream. I followed footprints but could not find it anywhere. Super fast Tom Gibbs arrived looking in the same place me, and then someone else I had previously overtaken joined us. All 3 of us milling around … Just as Tom said, “maybe they meant upstream”, Glen appeared from the other (upstream) direction and we spotted it behind him!

The engine house

The engine house

On the move again, and I was pretty pleased with how it went. I didn’t panic in the woods following one lone set of old footprints through the snow (it would have been impossible to find the path without them) and managed to eat a whole chia charge flapjack on a run down a road. Crossing the river and heading up a steep hill, a car came past me before skidding to a halt and sliding down again backwards. I kept out of the way and headed for a final small loop via an old engine house which I’d like to have explored a bit!

15.5km done in 2h4 mins, dropping 4 controls worth 50 points. I did wonder how much I was missing the ‘Lucy effect’ though. Normally she navigates as fast as I can run, and pushes the pace in between as well. This time I was having to keep an eye on the map, and mentally kept asking myself ‘if Lucy were here, would I be running faster now?’.

I did a quick transition and was back out on the bike, up a road I had checked was clear of ice as I had run in. Two easy controls on the long climb up to the woods. Here I was very careful to stay on the rights of way (byways), though there were faster routes on the fire roads. Clearly there had been some frozen puddles earlier in the day, which were now pools of water filled with shards of broken ice. I just went through the middle of most of them, getting a shock when they were deeper than expected!

Controls peeking out from the snow

Controls peeking out from the snow

There was a muddy slog up a hill. I was with another team and a solo, who stopped to check our direction. I said: “If anything we’re heading east instead of southeast, which would take us directly to the control”. I continued on and came out at a junction with a big track in front of me that I wasn’t expecting. ‘Hmm, funny’, I thought, ‘but this is the byway’, so I turned left for an out and back. Suddenly it occurred to me – was that the junction with the control? That I had been heading for? That was where a big track led off? I shouted to the others to ask if they had checked – they said no, it definitely wasn’t there. We rode the distance I expected, but the trees were now too close, and there was no control on the posts. Darn! Now I was convinced it was back where we had come from. Yes, the map was wrong, but if I had engaged my brain and not got distracted I probably wouldn’t have made the mistake!

Blanchland bike 2

It had cost me about 9 minutes, and I was determined to make up time by pushing on. Fortunately, the riding here was amazing. In contrast to the roads of last month, this time we were up on the moors. What might normally have been straightforward wide tracks were made fun by snow. I even had a chance to notice some of the amazing views, briefly! There followed a twisting, winding bridleway, where I was relieved that others had marked the way before me – I wouldn’t have wanted to be the first, trying to work out where it went.

As I popped out near the start, I allowed myself a minute or two to work out where to go on a second loop. I could definitely get all but one remote control on the moor. But as I calculated things, I realised I would definitely be back about 15 minutes early if I did that. I hedged my bets, going round the controls in such a way as to leave the decision to the end. Yes, it turned out I had to go out and back to the trig point hidden on a hill in the clouds. Tom went past me again, and gave some words of encouragement. It was actually a nice section to finish with, even if I did fall off on my way back down!

Happy days

Happy days

As I hit the road, I was short of time. There were a final 15 points on offer on a route that was no further but was off road. I simply didn’t have time. I shot off down the tarmac, just as a hailstorm whipped up and combined with a headwind. It pelted my face and felt like hundreds of stinging needles. I shielded my face with my arm, and peered out from one slitted eyelid, hoping nothing would come the other way … Finally, I got back to the finish, narrowly avoiding a car which turned without indicating. What a stressful end! I dibbed, 1 second over 3 minutes late – ouch! 8 penalty points, not too bad.

I got changed rapidly as the descent and hail had chilled me. It was a strange experience having to queue to download and not having to queue for food. That’s what leaving half an hour earlier does! I had got a high score but, like last month, realised so had many other people.

Podium

Podium

When results were announced, I had won the female solos, but it was close. Overall I was just outside the top 20. Despite having done some amazing fun running and biking, I felt a little flat. I know there were a couple of minor changes I’d make, but no race is ever perfect. Maybe I am out of practice, or maybe pairs suit me better, but I definitely missed having someone to push me on, to chat to on the way round and to share the ups and downs with! At least next time I’d know to say yes to Jon. And get better soon Lucy! 😀

Snowstorm!

Snowstorm!

Glen had a good time too, didn’t get too lost, and finished in time. I think he’ll be back 🙂 . It only remained for us to drive home by the scenic route, watching a beautiful sunset over the snowy moors, before descending into darkness and more falling snow.

Thanks to Open Adventure for putting on the race, Joe and friends at Nav4 for food, and James Kirby for photos.

Still looking at the map ...

Still looking at the map …

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