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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 …

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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 …

Open 5 Slaidburn – Take 2

I last went to Slaidburn 5 years ago and it was memorable for several reasons. I stayed for a long weekend. Andy came with me, and finally got back in the pool after years out. We got wet and cold more than once and had an ‘interesting’ ride in and out from the nearest (not very near) railway station. Meanwhile, at the Open 5, I did my first ever event as an anxious solo competitor. My pedal fell off halfway round the bike. My write up reports that I had “been working hard on my running over the summer” … some things never change!

Moody skies

Moody skies

This time round, I got a lift down with swimming pal Jim again. The road over the moors was rather too exciting at night in driving rain, but we arrived in one piece, just in time for dinner at the pub and a little walk around in the pouring rain to explore the village. It is small, so didn’t take long!

The next morning dawned … DRY! This was a surprise as the forecast 24 hours earlier had been for heavy rain all day. Registration / breakfast logistics were slightly complicated but I ended up studying the map quietly over my cereal with plenty of time to think clearly.

Registering

Registering

Someone was betting Lucy and I would start at 09:59 and 59 seconds. We were getting chivvied along a lot, both at registration and up at the remote start area. We confounded everyone’s expectations by starting at 09:55. Ha!

We chose to run first, as usual. Due to weather and ground conditions, the bike course was more ‘road’ than usual and had lots of exit options. What I didn’t notice when we started and I marked up the bike control values was that there were high value points on both main loops and that made it committing in a different way.

We set off running happily. I had a slightly dodgy tummy, but both of us had legs that were feeling good at the same time for once! Despite some wet and muddy conditions, we were mostly on paths and moving fast. We caught up male pair James and Chris. Lucy chatted tactics briefly before pulling away. They kept getting closer on the downhills (my fault) but we were faster on the ups and flats. Great motivation. Unfortunately, we then ran straight past a control and had to double back, costing us a couple of minutes. Darn! They ran by laughing!

We ran round the reservoir

We ran round the reservoir

Lucy was on a mission to catch them up as we hammered down a fast track. I was at my limit, hanging on for dear life, but up for it! Up onto a grassy hill and we reeled them in again, joking. Final stretch and we found ourselves in a wood peering at the map. Uh-huh, we’d taken the wrong footpath. We re-emerged, seeing Chris and James ahead in the distance. One final push and we caught them again on the final hill.

As Lucy said, we proved our point and they proved theirs. What an effort! It was one of our longest Open 5 runs together so far, we only missed one control and we came in spot ‘on time’ at 2 hours. This is usually a good split of time to aim for in one of these events.

Snowy hills

Snowy hills

Out on the bike and we decided to go up and down a hill for the first 30 points. Then we headed across a field of mud and onto the bridleway over the moor. We knew the top and far side was ‘boggy’ enough to be marked as such as on the map, though we hoped that we wouldn’t be hampered too much by choosing to approach it downhill.

But first we had to get up and it wasn’t the rideable track we were hoping for. Instead we had to push and push and carry and haul our bikes up what had turned into a rocky streambed complete with icy cold water. James and Chris were just in front, carrying their bikes on their backs (an art I have not yet mastered).

Suddenly, up at the top, Lucy took a step into some soft green stuff and disappeared up to her thighs! Luckily, her bike did not 😀 . I stayed on firmer ground, grabbing both bikes and offering a shoulder for her to haul herself out on. We both were glad we weren’t crossing this alone. We might have sunk without trace!

Planning to ride through the bog of doom

Planning to ride through the bog of doom

Finally we came down the far side, half running, half stumbling until we reached a track we could ride. Then we hit the roads. I had had some woozy moments at the start of the ‘ride’ due to lack of food and the effort we’d put in on the run. I managed to eat some more and was now feeling good. Where we had long flat or uphill stretches we joined up with the tow to stay together and make efficient progress.

A couple of out and backs were nice and quick – no more nasty surprises. But the moor hike and taken an age and we were running out of time. After concluding we could not do the final loop and would have to drop 65 points as a result,  I was peering at the map and starting sentences with ‘maybe if we just … ‘ – which were quickly quashed!

Nice bike ...

Nice bike …

At least the weather was still being kind. The occasional hail shower, a nippy wind and, remarkably, enough sun at one point for me to see my shadow cast onto the hedge at the side of the road.

One final long out and back and we were smashing it up the final hill. We overtook one of the tandem teams, people Jim and I had whiled away the time with the previous night. They joked and shouted at us, then laughed even harder as they flew past on a slight downhill! We repeated this a couple of times before we finally overhauled them on the run in to the finish.

Well, it was a novelty to get in under 5 hours for once … this might almost be a first for us. We thought our score was pretty good and we had raced really hard. But once back at download we could hear everyone else’s chat and knew scores were high all round.

Whilst in the queue for a cup of tea we had another look at the map and realised that one small strategy mistake had cost us a lot of points. This was the day when we should have cut the run short, come in after 1.5h and saved the extra time to get more bike controls. Swapping 30 points on the run for 65 or possibly even 75 on the bike would have shuttled us back up near the top of the leaderboard. At least the post mortem was quick and straightforward 😀 .

Podium

Podium

As it was we only finished 22nd overall. We held on to 1st female pair but it was a tight race as we were only 10 points ahead of Jill and Sharon, snapping at our heels! However, we both agreed that we had put in the sort of effort that we haven’t managed for a while. Now we just need to combine that speed with the right tactics to see what we can achieve. Three more chances in this series!

As usual, thanks to all involved; Open Adventure, course planners and photographs from James Kirby.

Open 5 North Wales

The trip down to Wales was quite eventful. I was travelling with Jim, a friend from the Wild Ones (Edinburgh’s outdoor swimming group). As we approached the summit of Shap on the motorway it was snowing hard and we were driving slowly, trying not to become one more of the various cars and vans strewn around the carriageway. Jim remarked he was anxious as it was 40 years since he did his ice driving training and some time since he’d practised in a car park. I was thinking I probably couldn’t have picked my driver much better …

We arrived at our accommodation safely, a cheerful pub with a spacious room and extensive menu. As we settled down in the bar we chatted to some guys who were racing for the first time. Their ‘main man’, an Ironman veteran, had bailed at the last minute. I joked that maybe it was because there wouldn’t be enough sun or perhaps he was worried about his shorts getting muddy … In any case, after I’d given Jim his detailed tutorial, I passed on a few more tips and we left them still cheerfully partaking of beer when we went to bed! 😀

Misty moisty Welsh mountainside, anyone?

Misty moisty Welsh mountainside = time for a good day out

We were so close to the registration area that we shouldn’t have needed to rush in the morning. But what with a slightly more leisurely breakfast than planned, helping Jim with route ideas, needing to get to a remote transition and the new, earlier start times, Lucy and I were almost last to start for the second month in a row.

We dithered about what to wear as it was cold standing around and forecast for rain. We started straight up a hill and Lucy’s running legs had obviously returned. I had to concentrate hard to keep up and felt a bit queasy from eating so much dinner and breakfast. I was also soon boiling and wriggled out of my waterproof as we walked a steep bit.

The hills were shrouded in cloud. As we approached a high point, I spotted a couple of Santas emerging from the mists. Then another, and another! We ran for a while mingled in with all these people in another race, before we struck out to go ‘off piste’.

Anyone seen Santa round here somewhere?

Anyone seen Santa round here somewhere?

The map had looked daunting with lots of tightly packed contours. But I was having a surprisingly good time, despite the fact I still didn’t have enough breath to chat. What?! Quite a change from last month! Following Lucy downhill is hard enough at the best of times. The hillside was covered in heather and bracken and her movement reminded me of startled deer bounding away at high speed. I lumbered behind, feeling my ankles go a few times before deciding to take it a ‘bit more slowly’.

Making the picture all soft and blurry at the edges doesn't make the contours disappear...

Making the picture all soft and blurry at the edges doesn’t make the contours disappear…

We were moving well but kept debating where to go to next. Out of two controls on Lucy’s ‘optional’ list, we went for one and left the other. At the time it seemed a good decision and we came back to transition after just over 2 hours. The route was interesting and I was happy that I had been pushed hard but still had fun!

Here we come

Here we come

After a change of tops, still anticipating rain, we set off biking. As soon as we were up on the hill proper, the going got more difficult, with variously mud, rocks and bits steep enough to have us off and walking! Over the top we went and as we flew down the other side I wondered if I should have checked the contours more carefully when I was planning. Maybe the ‘shortest’ route wasn’t the best? We also had a decision to make about control ‘number 9’ – worth plenty of points but a bit stuck out on a limb. After changing our minds twice, we went for it, out along a fast road round the bottom of the hill.

Nabbing a bike control

Nabbing a bike control

Tom and Chris (eventual winners) flew past us, so we thought it wasn’t a bad choice.  Lucy had told me about her extreme lack of sleep in the last few days. As we bowled along there were mutterings of tiredness and we might have passed a coffee place, but we only had £1 on us!

Lucy

Lucy

As we turned off road, the mud got stickier and deeper than anything we’d encountered so far, but we were still pedalling. It was not the same story after the control though. My wheels stopped turning as they jammed up. We were pushing heavy reluctant bikes through a mud bath of doom!

We stopped to poke the mud out with a stick and I swiped vainly at my map board to try and see through the smears. I decided we ought to have turned back, lost height and gone by the road. But hindsight is a wonderful thing and now we were committed. I kept hoping it would be better just round the next corner … A kilometre later we finally got to something rideable. Never have puddles been approached with such intention – we needed big splashes to clean some mud off!

Having a good time! (pre mud fest)

Having a good time! (pre mud fest)

Our route choice kept changing as we bumped down a rocky track and then decided to go the long way round via another control and a road climb, rather than retracing our wheel tracks back up the difficult way. And now we were concerned about time. With several high value controls left up on the hill, we had to go up and get them.

See ya!

See ya!

I was very relieved to find ourselves on a rideable track, gaining height at speed. We were tempted, so tempted, to go and do an out and back to some more high points on the ridge line. But Lucy’s sane brain got the better of the situation and we pointed our wheels down a wet grassy track, onto some more slidey stuff and eventually out onto a hard packed track we’d run earlier in the day.

The last control wasn’t straightforward to ride in and out of (or to dib without standing in a river), and suddenly we seemed to be very short of time. We hooked up the tow for the last km dash back to the finish and managed to arrive 2.5 minutes late.

Not too bad, but on reflection we could definitely have been slightly smarter in our route choices … one less run control and two more bike controls in a different order perhaps. But it’s a sign of good course planning that the ‘best’ route for us wasn’t immediately obvious. At least we didn’t have any disasters! Plus, the heavy rain never did materialise.

Si (course planner) looking pensive before the start. Don't worry: it was great!

Si (course planner) looking pensive before the start. Don’t worry: it was great!

We were good enough to win female pairs, and 10th overall. I was also pleased about how well we were moving … still some challenges to set ourselves if we can combine both smart racing and high speed at the same time 🙂

My pal Jim did brill to finish well inside the top two thirds, with a big smile on his face as well. And this from someone who still finds mountain biking scary and proudly has ’60+’ next to his name! Our friends from the pub seemed to have a harder time of it; looks like they had some ‘issues’ on the bike and only just squeezed in one run control. But if you’re reading this, I hope you still enjoyed yourselves?!

Many thanks to James and all at Open Adventure for putting on the event, James Kirby for photos and Si Enderby for course planning. Time to go and run around in the hills in between eating mince pies 😀

Open 5 Muker (Yorkshire Dales)

It’s November already, which means it is time for Open 5s!

Following the last of the summer’s antics, I spent 4 weeks feeling endlessly tired. Then ‘ping!’, like a switch had been flicked, two weeks before this race my energy came back. I felt all bouncy, even if my running legs had taken a short sabbatical. So I was looking forward to the start of the Open 5 winter series.

Did I mention it was wet?

Did I mention it was wet?

Lucy had warned me of various potential impediments to our performance, the most serious of which was a sore wrist. Any little niggles I had paled into insignificance next to how I felt at the first race last year (injured). So we planned to bike first, with lots of options to bail out early if it was too bumpy and Lucy couldn’t hold on any more! We were both happy to try and run as far as we needed to.

Catching up with Terrex teammates

Catching up with Terrex teammates

It was a scramble to get ready on time as James had ‘put the clocks forward’ half an hour and we only had until 10am to faff! It had already started raining before we set off. So we donned our waterproofs and started almost, but not quite, last. First challenge: writing control values onto wet maps. I tested out the free all-weather pen I got at Ötillö and it did the job! We did have to adjust all our routes though, because the controls we had planned to miss were high scoring 🙂 .

Straight up a hill and I was very hot, glad I hadn’t put on a warmer jersey. About an hour later on top of a wild and windswept hill, I really wished I had. We were soaked and the rain was pelting into our faces, stinging our skin as we squinted ahead. At the very top of a hill we had to search for a control ‘on a rock’ … We must have examined 20 rocks and gone back and forth a few times with two other racers without finding it. Just as we were about to fish out the phone for a photograph to prove we’d been there, the little flutter of red and white tape caught my eye. Got it!

Time to descend… slowly for Lucy’s wrist. Slowly for me it turned out too, as my front brake decided to fail. Later it came back, just as my rear brake got all sticky. Trip to the bike shop in order.

Both descending carefully!

Both descending carefully!

We got colder and colder as we descended to a raging stream and old mining buildings for another control. Eating had seemed too much of a hassle with wet gloves in the cold, but we both paused to get something before turning to ride back up the hill and wait for some warmth to return.

Soon we were off the hill and could hear our voices above the wind again.  This was important as we hadn’t seen each other for 6 months and had some serious chat to catch up on. Lucy kept telling me we had definitely ridden up this road or track together before – apparently in the first race we ever did together! But it all looked new to me 😀 .

Think we cycled up here, but this track was nice and wide for easy chatting

Think we cycled up here, but this track was nice and wide for easy chatting, so I wasn’t paying full attention …

We completed the second circle on our figure of eight route, picking up all the higher scoring bike controls and coming into transition after 3h:20. This was actually longer than we’d normally plan for. Luckily Lucy’s wrist had held up well enough and we were happy with our route choice. We also found the benefit of having multiple watches and knowing the ‘real time’ we had set off. One of them had claimed we had gone into a time warp and had given us several extra minutes!

After we had worked out how much time we really had left and done some transition teamwork (me tying Lucy’s shoelaces whilst she ate and checked the map), we were off again. Still raining, so we kept our coats on. I wasn’t paying attention to the route but very quickly we arrived at the river we had been warned ‘might’ be difficult to cross. After a summer of swim-running a bit of water didn’t faze me, but we linked arms for extra safety and waded over. I just about escaped with a dry crotch…

Fording the river (hi Eddie!)

Fording the river (hi Eddie!)

We joined up with Lucy’s friend Angus, who just wanted some chat as we hauled ourselves up a near-vertical hillside. No problems providing that! I took the opportunity of the slower pace to wolf down a chia charge flapjack – always taste good. Every time I put my hands down for support, I hit a prickly baby thistle. My calves and back were burning. But then we were up, on a rocky technical path. Lucy flew ahead whilst I did my best to minimise the size of the gap. Down to a spectacular waterfall (TAKE CARE warned the control descriptions, and we certainly did), then turning to cross the hill we had previously biked over. Ideally, the return route on the other side of the river was the one to take, with higher control values, but it was also longer and we didn’t have time.

TAKE CARE!

TAKE CARE!

We battled a headwind before cresting the hill and flying down the other side. My big toe (which I hurt in my last race) started complaining again, but by now it didn’t matter. We could see the finish down below us and just had to zigzag down and do a couple of wiggles and we’d be there. I was up for a sprint finish, but remarkably we didn’t need one. I slowed back down and we cruised in more than 2 minutes early! We must have been feeling off colour 😉 .

Lucy’s new yellow van was right by us, so we got the boot up and hid from the rain whilst we rapidly changed. One of the advantages of running second in bad weather is that you can finish all nicely warmed up. Before long it was back to the hall for a cup of tea, some veggie chilli and prize giving. We were delighted to have won. We had a fairly low score, but so did most other people too.

I love an exciting waterfall

I love an exciting waterfall

It felt like we had ridden within ourselves on the bike, but we could definitely feel our legs on the run, so perhaps that wasn’t a bad thing. I thoroughly enjoyed myself getting out in the wild and catching up with Lucy. Looking forward to the rest of the series. Many thanks to the organisers, Open Adventure, all the marshals, Nav4 for the food and Mandy for giving me a lift and braving the insane weather conditions on the way home 🙂 .

Prizegiving. Still wearing *that* jumper

Prizegiving. Still wearing *that* jumper

Ötillö – Swimrun World Championship 2015

At the finish line! The only actual picture of us racing ...

At the finish line! The only picture of us actually racing …

After months of preparation we were on the start line for Ötillö at 6am in the gloom of early morning light. We’d already had two nights of ‘feels like we hardly slept at all’, experiencing an almighty thunderstorm back in Stockholm and an early start and nerves on Sandhamn. In our 3 days in Stockholm we had eaten enough to sink two battleships, had a delightful costume-only swim in a lake, kicked back in a sauna, gone for a 5km jog, contorted ourselves on a portable foam roller and met up with friends who popped over from Finland. We had left strange piles of empty beetroot juice bottles by the bins and scribbled all over my hand paddles. We were ready.

As several mixed couples had a pre-start kiss I felt left out … so I got a cheek-to-cheek and air kiss from Izzy! Then we were off. After running in silence for a minute or two Izzy said: “Thanks for doing this with me. I thought I should say it now in case I feel differently later”. I was equally grateful to be racing with her and couldn’t believe our moment was finally here.

Ö till Ö 2015, Foto: JakobEdholm.com

The first swim at sunrise

As we got to the beach we looked across the expanse of sea to the next island. 1.7km, just over a mile. There was a strobe light, but as soon as we got in, I lost sight of it and just aimed for a suitable looking bit of land. We had plenty of other racers around us and were overtaking those who had set off fast. I got disorientated part way over, seeing rocks on the seabed below us. How was it so shallow in the middle?! The first time I got a taste of the water I was pleasantly surprised. It was almost like a salty sports hydration drink, and did not induce the sort of sounds that we get from North Sea mouthfuls (think; cat with a fur ball in its throat).

As soon as we got out we were in for a shock. It doesn’t matter how many photos you look at, how many videos you watch or how many people you speak to who have been there before. You can’t know how the terrain really is until you experience it. Slabs of wet, slippery rock and boulders. I am not the most sure-footed and Izzy felt worse. Our practice attempts at uneven get-ins and outs were no match for this!

Team after team streamed past us. I tried to stay calm and kept moving until the next short swim, when I slipped forwards. I could feel myself going and did a ‘superman’ move to distribute the impact, bashing my knee hard and scuffing my palms. Someone helped me up and we jumped right in the water. I felt a bit shaky and my knee was sore. I imagined I had cracked my knee cap, until I realised that was probably ridiculous and I had better just get on with the job in hand.

The golden source of information all day

The golden source of information all day

Some time later we had just 4.5km run to get to the first checkpoint. I checked the scribbles: we were well off our target pace. But, hang on! I suddenly realised we were cutting it fine to even make the cut-off, something I had not anticipated at all. We had 35 minutes, no problem for a normal run, but we had no idea what the terrain would be like and we had already been on the move for 2.5 hours. There was no way we could allow ourselves to go out of this race, let alone at 9am.

Soon we were breathing heavily and finding it hard to talk. When I asked Izzy to check our pace on her gps watch we were under 5 minutes / km. Panic spurred us on and we fell into transition with 14 minutes to spare. Little did we know it, but we were almost at the back of the field, with only about 15 teams behind.

From that point on I kept an eagle eye on the time cut offs. I knew we had to build more of a buffer. The effort had taken a lot out of us and we were using the tow. I was worried because I knew I couldn’t pull for the long 20km run to come. Izzy later said she had been feeling low as well, demoralised by our difficulties on the rocks.

Difficult sea conditions

Difficult sea conditions

Although the first swim had felt fairly tame, things were going to get more interesting. Several of the crossings had strong crosswinds, currents and waves. I am sure if I had been on holiday and stood on the rocks looking out to sea I’d have decided it wasn’t possible (or safe) to swim. But here we were, clambering in and setting off towards another elusive strobe light.

We already knew that small-looking waves on land can seem huge when you’re in them with just your head above water. But these appeared quite big to start with! A few times I’d turn to breathe and almost roll over, getting a wave right over my mouth and missing a breath.

We also had to aim to the right of where we actually wanted to go. This was quite fun, as you could physically feel the angle of the wind and currents against you, and by keeping this angle constant go in a straight line. It almost reduced the need for sighting! Which was useful, since half the time all I saw when I lifted my head up was water …

It felt dangerous and it felt exhilarating. Most of the time we were strong and effective and knew we were passing or leaving teams behind on each swim.

Some interesting places to get out

Some interesting places to get out

I did have one aiming glitch, when we came the wrong way round a rocky outcrop and got grounded in shallow water. After one swim I felt tired, so we swapped the lead for the next – and I apologise to Izzy for my inability to follow properly!

The second cut off came and went and now we started making good time, moving at the pace we had hoped to go at from the start. We still only had 31 minutes in hand though. We tried to be efficient in feed stations, stopping to drink two or three cups of water or energy drink and picking up food to eat whilst we walked out and kept moving.

The infamous ‘pig swim’ loomed large. I almost wished no-one had told us anything about this difficult swim! But in the briefing we were informed some people might take an hour over it. Really? For 1400m? At any rate, I was determined this would not be us and set my stop watch as we got in.

We emerged smiling and triumphant on the other side after 29 minutes of swimming. My swimming mojo had returned 🙂 . We had spectators here, cheering and handing us a Twix bar. Izzy asked me something but I could only say “I’m trying to climb up these rocks, eat a Twix and do a wee all at the same time … but I will answer when at least one of those things is finished with!” We passed through the third cut off with 61 minutes to spare.

Tricky terrain in the woods

Tricky terrain in the woods

The next section of the race is a bit of a haze. I am not sure what happened, but we slowed down somewhat. My knee was sore from both the fall and the slight injury I was carrying from an adventure race in Ireland 5 weeks earlier. We were tiring of the hard conditions underfoot. We were also moving inexorably closer towards the 20km run section, which I was more afraid of than the pig swim.

Finally we were there, 55 minutes before the cut off. I was doing a lot of mental calculations about how fast we needed to move to make the final time cut. I knew it should be OK but also knew we were both tired. Our legs were sore and quads were burning. I burbled out loud to Izzy who pretended to sound interested, in much the same way as she had when I tried to describe our swims against the wind in terms of vectors of the forces acting against us relative to our direction of intended travel …

Physics in action

Physics in action

The result was that we had to run each km in at least 8 minutes. I decided to set my stopwatch and ask for a distance check every 8 minutes. All very well in theory, though by the time we were getting to 12 x 8 and beyond, the maths was making my head hurt. Not to worry; it was a great distraction.

After 8 minutes we’d done 1.3km. After 16, 2.5km. Then a tricky section where we only covered 1km in the time slot. Soon we were back on wide tracks and asphalt roads. The km ticked by and we gained 200-300m every 8 minutes.

We rewarded ourselves with a pack of Honey Stingers (pomegranate) halfway to the first feed station. We passed through someone’s back garden and a lady with a team list shouted “Go Rosemary! Rule Britannia!” – now that’s dedicated supporting! Small children sat on the verges shouting “Heja! Heja!” and our feet fell into the rhythm of their chants.

As we stuck to our own pace, we steadily passed teams. 10 of them, in fact. I’m sure I saw a snake as we tripped along, but Izzy was beyond caring (unless it ate her, in which case, she stated, she’d be pleased it had ended the run). Enthusiasm was dipping somewhat but we pushed on, maintaining an average speed of 6:09/km, which I was pretty pleased with considering we were already nearly 50km in to this race at the start of it! To Izzy’s displeasure I insisted we wriggled back into our wetsuits before the start of the next swim, on a section that had us walking anyway. And soon we were back at the sea, the final cut off, 39 minutes to spare.

After a moment where I celebrated and Izzy greeted a playful dog, we just had the final section to go. We were going to do this thing. A bit of running, a bit of swimming.

The trouble was that we no longer trusted our legs. They were wobbly on the uneven stones and refused to work as we hauled ourselves out of each swim. The transitions we’d practised so often were getting slower and more fiddly and no sooner had we got our legs working on the ‘runs’ (walks?) it was time to swim again. Finding the route, watching for the colourful marker strips in the trees that had shown the way like a dance all day. Sometimes we couldn’t see them even as they were right in front of our eyes. Our pace had dropped again. Perhaps without the focus of the cut offs our minds were less strong to will our tired bodies on.

Try doing this when you're tired

Try doing this when you’re tired

At last we started the final 3.2km run. We forced ourselves to ignore our screaming muscles and run properly. As we looked up ahead I remarked “oh, a phalanx of teams”. We drew closer and saw that Pippa Middleton (celebrity sister of Kate Middleton, royal, in case you’re not up with these things … ) was amongst them. Our friends had urged us to make sure we beat her, and I admit we were surprised she had still been in front of us! We might have sped up somewhat as we gunned for the line. 1.5km more and we were faced with a cruel uphill finish. Then we were there.

We celebrated, we moved forwards, I collapsed onto a bench and started crying from all the emotion. We had actually made it! We had (as is my wont) under-estimated the difficulty of the undertaking. We had our highs and lows, times when we felt weary and wondered how we’d ever finish in time, and times when we were high on the craziness of what we were doing. Now we had done it. We had finished a World Championship race and we were proud.

ÖTILLÖ 2015

I won’t lie. The week after has been tough … talk about post-race blues! The body and joints are tired and achey, my knee hurts and my emotional state is unpredictable at best 😉 . The thoughts of ‘we could have done better’ are creeping in, and we have moved from ‘not next year’ to ‘maybe next year, if we could get in again’. We both want to conquer those slippery rocks that drained us of so much physical and mental energy and time at the start!

Izzy is emphatic that it is the toughest thing she has ever done (despite several Ironmans and Celtman under her belt). I probably agree: multi-day adventure races are a test of sleep deprivation and endurance but the intensity is much lower.

I still keep reminding myself that only 1 in 4 people who want to do this race are selected to start. We swam 10km and ran 65km in one day. Two things I have never achieved before. I will hold onto those facts, even though they seem unreal 🙂 .

Many thanks to our sponsors and supporters for this race: Head (wetsuit and goggles) Gococo socks (blister free compression heaven) and BeetIt (nitrate power). It has been pointed out I should thank my long-suffering colleagues, friends, family and boyfriend for putting up with almost a year of Ötillö chat, trials and tribulations. Also my coach, Scott, for his sage advice. And finally, my straight-talking physio Graham, who has endless patience, a cheeky sense of humour and without whom I might not have even made it to the start line.

Now all we need to do is recover enough to do it all over again at Loch Gu Loch – a Scottish equivalent based around Loch Ness, but slightly shorter. Then I can get my bike back out and slide gracefully into winter racing.

Borås Swimrun

According to the race briefing notes 🙂

“And by “I don´t have a partner” I don´t mean match making but a partner for the race. Use our FaceBook page for any last minute replacements or requests. Who knows what a new race partner will lead to though…”

This bit was easy. Izzy and I are racing at Ötillö in September and we needed to practice! We chose Borås swimrun, to the east of Gothenburg. It fitted our schedule, was relatively cheap and easy to get to and a good first race distance to try. The format was similar, but instead of swimming between and running across islands, we swam in little pools, zig-zagged across a large lake and ran up a lot of hills. Overall, 14 runs totalling 29km and 13 swims totalling 5km.

A view down the length of Öresjö. Looks a long way!

A view down the length of Öresjö. Looks a long way!

Unfortunately, Izzy got sick on Monday night before the race and didn’t eat for two days. Luckily, by Thursday she had enough energy to pack, but even at the airport on Friday she was feeling a bit unsteady. Uh oh! Saturday’s plan was to eat and eat …

“For a complete information regarding accommodation please visit http://www.borasboras.se. Yes, that´s right, TWO Borås in that web address – that´s how awesome Borås is!”

Well, we didn’t use the website because a friend at my Italian class had told us all about airbnb. I’d never heard of it before, but after a quick search, we were booked in to stay with the lovely Peter and Monica just outside town. More on their generous hosting later, but this worked out really well for us.

“And for the love of God, make sure to cut your wetsuits above the knee joint! You´ll thank me after the race…”

Almost everyone at Ötillö chops the arms and legs off their wetsuits. This makes it easier to run, reduces the risk of chaffing your bendy bits (backs of knees, insides of elbows) and means you can easily pull your wetsuit off your upper body to run if you want to.

Chop, chop ...

Chop, chop …


 
Ouch!

Ouch!

 
 

Despite laughing when I read a race report from last year, where the competitor had chopped their wetsuit at the start line, we found ourselves with this job still to do on Saturday! One of the advantages of staying with a family was we could ask to borrow scissors. Even better, Monica works with textiles and is a designer, so we got a proper pair to use!

We spent all morning drawing lines on our suits and cutting bits off them.  This was followed by some intensive dry land transition practice, which was when Peter arrived home. We hastily explained why we were running round his house, joined with a bungee cord and wearing wetsuits, pull buoys, swimming hats and goggles. He just looked slightly bemused 😀

“We won´t, however, distribute smaller race maps for you, the competitors. In our experience they don´t really serve a purpose and are never looked at. To keep track of the course we recommend you to write down all the swims and runs on your hand paddles or fore arms. Maybe even get a tattoo with it.”

We had hired a car so it was easy to drive out to the race area in the afternoon and have a look around. We went on a little walk round some of the course, and I studied the maps. It was all becoming clear what we had to do, though looking down the lake and knowing we would be right at the far end, out of sight, was a bit daunting!

Route notes, side 1

Route notes, side 1

I also wrote all the route stages on a small piece of paper and laminated it in an unused membership card holder. After I had done that and looked at the map many times, I had the route firmly ‘tattooed’ onto my mind!

“Weather: We will have weather”

We could feel the wind buffeting the car on the way to the start on Sunday morning. But when we arrived the lake (Öresjö) looked fairly calm. I mused that perhaps further down, it would be less sheltered and the wind would have got some waves up. I wish I’d been wrong!

The day before. Everything looks so tranquil ...

The day before. Everything looks so tranquil …

The water hadn’t warmed up as much as the organisers had hoped, so the long swim at the end had been shortened. We did still have to do 5km in total, with one leg of 1.3km. The water was about 11ºC. Cold, but not unlike our training conditions. Unfortunately, we hadn’t yet swum in a wetsuit with missing bits, but there was nothing we could do about that now!

“Since we have a lot of teams on hand and a very narrow beginning of the first run, we´ll send off every category separately to avoid any unnecessary queuing. If you still end up queuing you may consider this a blessing in disguise as the first run features an ascend of 120 metres. SMART PEOPLE WALK THE START (official race slogan)”

With about 10 minutes to go we were standing in all our kit ready to go and listening to the briefing. I was looking at everyone else’s clothing and kit choices, to see what we could learn. Suddenly I noticed timing chips on people’s ankles. Argh! Where was ours?! Izzy sprinted back to the car to retrieve it just in time!

Then we were on the start line. Izzy suddenly said to me ‘Don’t go charging off at the start!’ I looked at her, surprised. ‘But I thought that’s exactly what we’d agreed to do, to avoid the queue on the hill?’. ‘I’ve changed my mind’ she said, and I could tell from the look of panic on her face that I’d better listen! So we ran to the hill at a steady pace and walked up.

It was really not a bad strategy, as for the next hour or so we just steadily caught and passed team after team. We didn’t need to ‘burn our matches’ so early in such a long race.

The first run. Theoretically we're probably in shot somewhere, at the back of the line. Photo credit: Johan Valkonen

The first run. Theoretically we’re probably in shot somewhere, at the back of the line. Photo credit: Johan Valkonen

I was sure that we could save a lot of time just being smooth in our transitions. As we neared the top of the hill, I knew the first short swim was close. We went through the routine we’d rehearsed the day before and would repeat throughout the day:

‘zipped up?’ / ‘zipped!’
‘unlooped bungee?’ / ‘yes!’
‘goggles on?’ / ‘goggles on!’
‘paddles ready?’ / ‘ready!’
Then, right at the water’s edge: ‘pullbuoy round?’ / ‘yes!’
‘OK, in we get … ready to go?’ / ‘let’s go!!’

The middle section of the race was one of the hardest. After a number of shorter runs and swims, we had our first big crossing of Öresjö. We were swimming well, despite the waves hitting us from the right. I seemed less thirsty after the three big swims, probably due to the amount of lake I accidentally swallowed! This won’t be so convenient in the sea water of Ötillö.

We overtook a lot of people here, but at one point I started to feel cold and irrationally panicky. I reminded myself of the race briefing: ‘if you get cold, keep swimming!’. I was very relieved to make land on the other side. I think we were being filmed as I shouted ‘we made it!’. A short run round a hill and we were heading back across the lake. It didn’t seem so bad the second time.

“from reading the rules on our web site you should know that your biggest security out there will be your partner. And vice versa. Stay together!”

We were racing using a bungee tow cord. This is quite standard in adventure racing but a strange concept to many triathletes. In the water, it kept us close together. When it was busy, it meant we didn’t lose each other. When we had to cross wide expanses of open water, with the wind whipping up waves and creating white horses it was reassuring for me to know Izzy was never more than 3m away. Practically speaking, by removing the need to keep checking on where we each were meant one less thing to think about. This was significant when also trying to breathe, sight and swim fast enough to stay warm!

Just about smiling still!

Just about smiling still!


 
Before the start. At last I don't look like I'm dressed strangely any more ...

Before the start. At last I don’t look like I’m dressed strangely any more …


 

We did learn it was easy to get tangled up in a bungee when getting out though – something we’re already thinking about how to fix!

The second use is on land, if one of the pair is feeling stronger than the other. I was towing Izzy behind me, feeling the tug on the cord as I gave a helping hand. A race like this is all about teamwork and getting to the finish line as quickly as possible – but still together!

“All race officials will wear yellow vests with a Borås Swimrun logo on them. Be nice to them! The race officials that is. Not the vests.”

As we passed spectators and aid stations, the support was amazing. Every time, people cheered and clapped and shouted. Many things were said to us. Here’s our quick guide to conversing in Swedish during a race:

They say You say
Anything that sounds cheerful, enthusiastic or welcoming Hej hej!
Anything preceding the offer of food or water, or showing the way Tack!
Anything that sounds like important information OK!

 

It was funny when we’d get into the water and Izzy would ask me ‘did you get all that?’. I’d say ‘um, swim to the red flag?’ … I wondered what else there was to say. Perhaps, watch out for killer piranhas?

After running up and down another hill it was time for the longest swim, of 1.3km. The house and garden we were aiming for looked obvious when we started. But soon we seemed to lose sight of other competitors, and sometimes I couldn’t see where we had to go. Each time I sighted, I might see the house we were aiming for, or I might get a view of nondescript land or a wave instead! Halfway over I felt a bit alone and had to stop to double check we were going the right way. We were. My pullbuoy kept working its way down my leg, which was annoying.

Pre race contemplation

Pre race contemplation

At last we could see the landing flag clearly, but there were reeds between us and it. We tried to swim through but they were sharp and unyielding! How frustrating. We had to detour upwind to get round them. Other swimmers came in higher than us and were fine. If there’s a next time I’ll remember this!

Then we hit another patch. They looked smaller this time and we wanted this swim to be over. I could feel my buttocks shaking, whether from cold or tension, I wasn’t sure. We just barged through this time, getting scratches on face, arms and legs. Izzy, who was behind me, seemed to emerge less scathed – perhaps my paddles had hacked a path through!

“DNF (did not finish): Do not DNF.”

We were out, running, but soon back to a river. We got some more unintelligible instructions, but it turns out these ones might have been important. I just got in and started going upriver. I’d told Izzy this was a short swim, and distance-wise, it was. But the current was strong, and the water tasted funny. We kept hitting logs beneath the surface and I saw some people resting at the sides. It was taking forever to get anywhere and I was desperately looking for the exit round every bend.

Racers leave the river of doom. Think our faces probably looked a bit like this too! Photo credit: Johan Valkonen

Racers leave the river of doom. Think our faces probably looked a bit like this too! Photo credit: Johan Valkonen

Soon enough, up ahead I could see fallen trees blocking the way, and a clutch of other racers. I paused to tread water and see what was going on, but was getting dragged backwards! This was quite scary, so I powered forward and caught onto a log. It moved and I had to let go as it floated away. Then I grabbed another and hung on, feeling my legs pulling away from me downstream until Izzy was there too and we could talk. Everyone was getting out, so we followed them and made our way along the shore briefly before jumping back in for a short stretch.

Suddenly we were at an aid station and a timing mat. There were loads of people shouting and cheering. I felt dazed and slightly traumatised!!

“When running on a road, a path or a trail we won´t have as many markers. The rule follows; ”keep running forward until a sign tells you otherwise!” If you, by any chance, find yourself running on said road or trail for a very VERY long time and/or the sun sets, chances are you´ve run the wrong way. Turn back and run back the same way you came. If, on the off-chance someone actually do run the wrong way, we´ll have ice cream for you in the finish area, a free start for next year, a compass and a shoulder to cry on. DON´T RUN THE WRONG WAY!”

As we approached aid stations we’d check what we doing. Were we stopping, and what for? This way we could coordinate and move on quickly without getting annoyed with each other or wasting time. We did carry some food and water and were testing how well this worked. We learnt: soft bottles down a wetsuit leg can easily work their way out. A hard bottle in a flipbelt stays put but is slightly awkward to get in and out. Pockets on the backs of jerseys are hard to use. Pockets in the fronts of wetsuits are easy to use.

I was surprised how difficult it all was. Stuart, a former Ötillö racer, had warmed us that the constant in and out of cold water and change of activity was hard, and he was right. Throughout the race, there was so much to think about. Keeping track of the stages, knowing when a swim was coming up and preparing to transition, planning around aid stations and sighting on the swims. All this will have taken energy and added to the physical demands of constantly getting cold and having to warm up again. It was definitely not the same as swimming 5km then running 29km!

The exit from the first long lake crossing. Photo credit: Johan Valkonen

The exit from the first long lake crossing. Photo credit: Johan Valkonen

On we pressed. This is the first time Izzy and I have raced together. I was looking for clues about how she was feeling; in footfall, breathing, talking and the amount of pull on the tow rope. As we moved along the longest run sections, I could tell she was finding it hard as well.

Even so, we were still steadily catching and passing quite a few male pairs. Despite how we felt, the results show that we were strong in the section after the timing mat, making up ground on (though not catching) the team in front of us, and moving away from the team behind us.

A random short swim across a pond and back was actually a relief, despite us forgetting to zip up our suits. I knew the end was in sight from here, and kept pulling Izzy along and trying to crack jokes. I think I managed one or two laughs, though my ‘chariots of fire’ rendition near the end may have left something to be desired!

“podium placings will receive nice prizes and a lot of admiration from everyone else.”

We had absolutely no idea where we stood in the placings. It’s possible that some of the excited cheering was telling us something, but we didn’t know. Even if we’d kept track at the start it would be impossible to see who was passing who on the swims.

About an hour before the end, I thought I’d seen a girl climbing out in front of us, but wasn’t sure. I knew in any case that we were going as hard as we could, and that what seems close in the water can be much further on land. I decided to minimise potential stress and kept quiet.

20150607_170152

As we finished, we got a hug and medal from the race director. Then he told us ‘you are 3rd female team!’. We were ecstatic and hugged each other and jumped up and down and hugged him again, even though we were wet. In fact, the 2nd placed girls had been just two minutes in front and had known we were behind, so had felt the pressure! 1st place were a long way ahead. We were 15th overall out of 80 finishers, though several teams had to withdraw due to the cold and plenty of others appeared not to start at all. Full results here. We were delighted. This was our first ever swimrun, our first race as a team and we did it off the back of a bad week for Izzy.

We also learnt so much that will help us in September. Right now the thought of doing double that distance is daunting, but at least we are prepared!

“You´ll get some delicious food served after finishing the race.”

“We’re vegetarian. Do you have anything?”.

“You like pasta, yes? You could pick the chicken out?”

Er … No thanks, maybe we’ll just go and buy a cake and drink tea out of a glass before heading into town for a giant Thai tofu curry!

Remind me, which country were we in again? Sweden does giant flags

Remind me, which country were we in again? Sweden does giant flags

We got home tired but satisfied. Peter and Monica had put the sauna on and we were soon indulging in ‘therapeutic’ heat treatment. Something we’d have never got elsewhere!

Many thanks to our sponsors and supporters. Especially Head, whose wetsuit was invaluable and designed for the job. Also BeetIt for giving us the best start and Chia Charge for on the move nutrition and post-race protein bar. Next time we should also be wearing Gococo compression socks – more on those later!

Finally, thanks to Jonas Colting for putting on a great race. I’m sorry I was concentrating too hard on everything else to admire more of the scenery. But he did the most entertaining briefing notes I’ve ever read and everything went smoothly. Prizes were running shorts from Salming and free entry for next year. Let’s see how we feel about that later! 😀

Haglöfs Open 5 – Peak District

The final of this winter’s Open 5 series was in the Peak District. Practically ‘home ground’, as Lucy grew up near here and Andy lives ‘just over the hill’. Unfortunately Andy was away working on Saturday, so I came down and stayed with Lucy and her dad instead.

I was annoyed to have forgotten to take my Feed Zone Portable snacks out of the freezer, but Lucy had some recipes and ingredients for other treats. I was also suffering from muscle complaints. A sore shin had appeared on Monday (I thought ‘what would Graham (the physio) do?’, the answer: rest, ice, gentle massage), plus an achey hip and a funny back muscle getting out of the station. I was getting paranoid, but had a happy evening chatting and constructing what were, in effect, homemade Nakd bars. Soon I had forgotten about aches and pains and it was time for bed.

Next morning I woke up and the first thing I noticed was a parched and sore throat – uh oh! We set off almost on time, but still had to park in the slightly more distant parking area. The map was interesting and we had quite a bit of discussion about it. We also debated what to wear (cold in the wind, warm in the sun, rain forecast later) and engaged in our usual faff.

We did manage to set off a little earlier than normal, but not much! We also decided to stick to ‘tradition’ and ran first. Lucy has obviously much recovered since the previous two races as we were speeding. I was back to my usual position i.e. following. But I was keeping up and enjoying the trails. We had what felt like hundreds of little gates with latches to fiddle with and stiles to clamber over. I paused to avoid Lucy’s trailing leg each time and then scampered after her.

We only had two minor hiccups. First, Lucy’s plaits fell out! This is the only time we’ve had ‘hair issues’ in a race, though I was also keeping my buff on to keep mine in place as I really need a cut! Next we made one small nav error, quickly corrected but to the puzzlement of a couple with a dog. We ended up running past them three times 😀 .

We chose to go for an ‘optional’ 10 pointer, adding about 1km to our run. Just after that we caught up with two guys on a stretch of road. One of them clearly decided to race us and picked up the pace. Lucy responded and I came up next to her. His pal was getting left behind. We did not slow. I thought: ‘you’re just leaving your partner behind, and did you know we can comfortably keep this up for another hour?’. As we crossed a stile into a field, they both disappeared behind us and we had a little chuckle about it. Sorry guys!

Edale-run-1

The hill was tough, but the ridge was fun with the wind behind us. I tripped for the second time in the race and sprawled onto the ground, my map blowing across the hill in the gale. Luckily Lucy caught it and we were off again. Down the final hill my knee was a bit sore and I became more cautious. Lucy had to wait. But when we got to the road we were pushing along to the final control.

We came in after 2h9mins. A little longer than planned, but not unreasonable and my shin had been fine :-). I’d had a few looks at the bike map on the way as I was concerned about getting caught at the end. We wanted to go round clockwise to enjoy the best descents and the easier (better surfaced) climbs. But this meant leaving a committing big hill at the end. After a quick discussion, we made a decision before we set off to drop a control early on.

Did someone say 'team' ?"

Did someone say ‘team’ ?

On the first very steep hill, Lucy stormed up whilst I got off and pushed a bit. “Good effort!” I shouted, but Lucy responded “I’ve got other issues now!”. Put delicately, we had some severe ‘lady pains’ to deal with. Cruising and downhills were fine, but efforts were impossible. Sadly our first aid kit had no pain killers, so we are very grateful to the fellow competitor who gave us some paracetamol whilst Lucy rolled on the ground in front of a bemused photographer. A technical downhill that had me walking more than once cheered Lucy up a bit, but some more on-the-floor manoeuvres were carried out whilst we waited for a mountain biker to rummage in his bag for Ibuprofen. He couldn’t find them! So we carried on and implemented use of the tow on the uphill tracks and on the roads.

We were making fair progress now and feeling more chipper, but decided to miss an awkward control for 10 points involving extra climb and instead bombed along a road. About 10km to go, an hour left and our average speed so far was over 13km/h. Looking good!

Making Important Decisions

Making Very Important Decisions

Unfortunately, halfway up the next hill it started raining. We came out of a small valley onto an open, flat and exposed moorland just as the heavens really opened and the wind got up. We were battling straight into the gale and were staring at the tarmac under our wheels as hailstones clattered off our helmets. I knew we had to turn right when the bike computer said something-point-two km, just after some trees on the left. But we couldn’t check to see the turn off by just looking up, and we seemed to be barely inching forwards. I managed to stay upright (I’d already been blown off once, earlier on) but we were both having trouble riding in a straight line.

Eventually we got to the control in the corner of a wall. We decided to duck down and throw our coats on even though we were already soaked to the skin and ‘nearly there’. It helped, but I went from ‘OK’ to shaking with cold. Suddenly we felt we had to get back very urgently. We knew we’d now have to miss an accessible control on Mam Tor and just return as soon as we could. There wasn’t even any debate. Hands were frozen and on the next uphill headwind section Lucy couldn’t even hold the tow. I tried to push her instead but it felt like a loosing battle against the elements. Scientific studies show that swearing can make you feel better, so we turned the air uncharacteristically blue until we turned with the wind and headed downhill for the final run back to the big yellow finishing arch.

Shame we didn't have a view like this on our way back!

Shame we didn’t have a view like this on our way back!

We actually came in 3:40 minutes late, despite missing a control at the end. Thank goodness we’d also chosen to be slightly conservative earlier on!. But oh how we’d wished we’d set off earlier in the morning 🙂 . The finish area was almost deserted and the marshals told us people had been bailing out early. We’d had no choice! We rushed to the car but had to ask someone else to undo our buckles to get at the keys. I haven’t been so cold all winter. After a rapid change and some hot veggie chilli I was feeling better, but excessively tired!

We won our category, came 11th overall again and won the series. Full results here. I also think we had one of our best ever runs in an Open 5 together. When I got back home I was feeling a bit ropey and by Monday morning had a full blown cold. That would explain the sore throat and some lacklustre training the week before – but I’m just grateful it didn’t arrive a day earlier!

Thanks to Haglöfs for sponsoring the series, their kit is really great for outdoor adventures. Also to Open Adventure for the events, James Kirby for photographs and all the marshals and course setters. Looking forward to the next lot already!

Just about warming up, wearing almost all the dry clothes I had with me.

Just about warming up, wearing almost all the dry clothes I had with me.

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