Lucy had to choose between Open 5 and a holiday (skiing) and picked the holiday. Hmm, I wondered who I might persuade to race with me. I asked Elizabeth who agreed! Hurrah, we were off, but due to other commitments, only for the day, checking in at a nearby BnB for the night and stuffing our faces in one of the many nearby pubs the night before.
As we went to sleep, the wind rattled the windows. On waking, snow was falling from the sky and it looked wild outside. Dinner had been massive so I wasn’t really hungry at breakfast, which is unusual. Off to the start and we were almost last into the car park that was free, but which came with a walk to the hall. We wisely took all our stuff with us.
Time seemed to fly by between registering and it being time to go. We had decided on the long drive down that it was better to bike first. This was Elizabeth’s forte and we would favour more of that and less of a run. Plus, if it was going to get cold and snowy we’d be warmer starting dry and the paths might be less obstructed. By the time we had come up with a vague plan, left the coziness of the hall, dusted the snow off our saddles and made it to transition we had 1 min to go until latest start.
An easy beginning along the road before we turned off uphill on the rough stuff. I slowed to check for features and when / where to look for the control, and looked up to see Elizabeth already powering away. Despite recently coming off worse in van vs Elizabeth, you know that someone who can finish the Highland Trail 550 will be a biking force to be reckoned with. I worked really hard to catch up. It was properly snowy and fun over the top, then slippery on a descent where I lost contact and had to shout ahead to make sure we didn’t miss a control. A descent followed that I’d not be able to ride on a good day, but I remembered it from a previous event and was ready to walk.
Then we were off along an easy track and all was going well. Into a small settlement and I was pondering our original route choice. We were making good time but checking the distance, realistically, that 15 pointer in Bradwell wasn’t worth it after all. Decision made without debate, we moved on quickly, heading straight through Hope and up the other side of the valley.
We passed some 4×4 cars coming off road the other way, with one woman behind the wheel with a smile as broad as her face! Then we caught up Ali and Barbara. This surprised me, but I hardly had breath to explain that I had to keep up before the next control!! From there it got very snowy. It was hard to tell the difference between the track and the road, both covered in snow. I cursed not checking on the start line whether we could use the road and cut onto the path further up, so we took the path and were soon walking.
Then we passed the cut through, easy to use, bother! Maybe cost us 5 mins at most though. It was slightly uphill and the wind was blasting us so hard that even when it looked vaguely rideable, it wasn’t, as the wind would push us off line and into a drift. Last race here I’d been just as cold, but with sleet instead of snow and we were at least riding then. As it flattened off and after what had seemed an age, we finally got back on. It was only now that we finally left behind a man out for a walk who we’d first caught up with about 5km earlier! Soon we were out on what was theoretically tarmac under the snow, and at the top of the broken road.
There was a 35 points down the hill. When we got there we were both frozen and my teeth were chattering. We talked about putting an extra layer on but decided to see if the climb back up would be enough to warm us up. I was looking at another 30 point control and debating the bike / run balance, but then decided no, not worth it. I warned Elizabeth we had a long fast road descent which would almost certainly be unpleasant and not in the slightest bit ‘warming’.
As we crested the top in silence, the blood was coming back into my hands and I was groaning with the pain. I think it was as nothing to what Elizabeth felt as we came into transition. With a recently healed broken collarbone and a still not happy broken finger, her whole arm was going through some sort of torture. We grabbed our stuff, got out of the field and dived into the hall. I heard later that we were not the only ones to nip inside!
I couldn’t help with the pain so got on with sorting out the run map, where all the score markings had washed off. The most important thing when we went out would be to keep moving, so this was time well spent nailing down where to go. After a toilet trip (me) and half a cup of hot water (both of us), we were ready to go back outside. Bizarrely, I still wasn’t really hungry and I think I only ate a couple of bananas all race.
Within 20 mins of the run, the gloves were off and sleeves rolled up. Running is really a magic body warmer-upper! The first part was an easy, if sometimes muddy, run in the valley. The map had a slightly awkward distribution of scores, but we had agreed before that going up worked better for us than running fast on the flat. So we committed to up, taking the fast route on the road we had so recently descended.
Onto the ridge and we had met my calculated ‘cut off’ for diving over the top for a sneaky bonus control at a small quarry worth 15. Back up to the ridge and after we had cleared the slippery steps to the trig point, the running was glorious. We had snow and views and were making great progress. Although it seemed a long way to the next control, it was totally worth it as we dropped down, searching for the right tree.
Then it was a cruise back to the road and a couple more controls before heading with a little sprint into the finish chute. Less than 4 mins late, 8 penalty points, the 15 had been worth it!
Having started last, we also got back last and had barely downloaded and grabbed some chilli and hot tea before it was prize-giving time. As some of the other classes were called out before ours, we realised we had a good score. We won the female pairs, but also came 9th overall, a rare feat! Results here.
It only reinforced my belief that ‘bad’ weather races favour me 😉 Biking first was definitely the right choice, especially when trail conditions unexpectedly deteriorated, as we were able to cut short without over-running our planned time too much. The art of keeping moving and not letting our pace drop after map checks was good discipline. We probably also took fewer risks … which paid off this time!
We regretted our laidback departure, as upon leaving the snow was coming down again. We couldn’t get out over either of the passes towards Manchester and ended up diverting via Sheffield and Leeds … Um .. Not the plan. We did discover though, that you can get a good curry and rice at Wetherby services, and I introduced another person to the pleasure that is Rheged services, just off the motorway at Penrith and easily overlooked. I just missed a train in Glasgow and had the joy of waiting on the platform with the other assorted 23:30 passengers before finally making it home just before 1am. Think that is a record!
So much seems to have happened since we went down to Bowhill for the second in the series, but it was only two weeks ago! With many (fun!) races in succession and a lot of travel for both work and leisure, I’m feeling the load in life and falling behind on reports, so will keep it brief!
As I got everything ready the night before, I decided it would be best to change my front brake pads. Andy criticised me for doing so only the day before a race, I countered that this was me being organised and that in the car park on race morning would be the wrong time. In the car park on race morning, I contemplated my flat tyre, inflated less than two hours before…
Hmm, on the advice of all the engineers surrounding me, we chucked in a bottle of sealant, gave it a shoogle and hoped for the best. I decided to ignore the laughs and ‘helpful suggestions’ about the lack of bite in my front brake and the state of my jockey wheels, and set off for a warm up spin up the first hill.
Back I came, covered in mud and water splashes and I was ready to go! Paul was away, and the race was ably started instead by Diane, who gave us the usual patter, instructions and safety briefing as we all jostled on the line. Setting off up the road, the front of the pack seemed bigger than previous years and took a while to string out. Round the first bend and I was being bumped from both sides and my wheel was buzzed from behind! I got assertive, stuck my elbows out and made some comment or other which did the trick as I soon got a place in the line.
I was climbing well, and thought I was first lady for now. I could still see Jon up in front of me too. We turned onto the slidy, muddy track and I stuck to the unlikely-looking but better line that I had sussed out during my warm up. Then I got stuck behind someone slower and it was impossible to overtake! I bade my time and came round him later. A few big puddles, then the turn down a big descent.
I was taking it carefully, as mud flew into my eyes and my bike seemed to be bending beneath me. It wasn’t of course, it just felt like it! Caroline flew past and I did my best to keep her in sight as we did some twists and turns through the woods. A sharp turn up a steep bank and I heard what I thought was a female voice shouting ‘on your right!’. I moved over to the nasty rough line just as they stumbled and stopped. Somehow I managed to power up and chase after Caroline again.
I was gaining along the road, then we turned onto some more singletrack. Every tricky bit she pulled away, every easy bit I pushed hard to close the gap back up again. As we approached the house I knew we were nearly there. One last oomph to get onto the road, and I took the lead as we went into transition.
Now I was in the position I don’t normally like … running scared! I shot out of there like a frightened rabbit and started racing up the hill. Somehow though, the legs felt better than they had on the cross country the day before. It might have all been relative as this time I was passing other people instead of hanging on for grim life! I had no idea how close anyone was to me, so I just went for it.
Down the big descent and one or two people passed me. However as soon as it got easier again I overtook again. We crossed the road, tantalising close to the finish, then headed off onto a never ending fire track, seemingly in the wrong direction.
Before long though, we popped out at the lake. I could hear footsteps behind me gaining fast – luckily it was a bloke. I enjoyed this part of the run, feeling strong as we wound our way in and out of the trees. Final time up the bank and into the finish.
Woohoo, a win this time albeit falling off the first page in the overall standings! Caroline came in 2nd, not feeling her best after a bout of flu. We’re now evens in the series so it will be a head-to-head in the final race in a few weeks time!
Thanks to Marc for a lift, Marc, Ewan and Jon for bike critique 😉 and Durty Events for another smashing afternoon out!
I’ve been properly aware of Marmot Dark Mountains since Lucy raced it with Bruce in preparation for an expedition race. It caught my imagination because, well, why wouldn’t an overnight winter race that sounded wild and tough and difficult?!
After a successful day out at the Tour de Helvellyn, I was feeling confident in my running abilities. Having missed the Open 5 with Lucy I thought I might be able to persuade her to do this instead … after a few weeks debate and body-testing it was a reluctant no (pneumonia is tough).
It was only a week or so until the closing date, but I had nothing to lose so asked Jon if he was free and fancied it. He was and he did. Yes! Oh, but they had sold out that very day! A quick email to the organisers and they were able to slot us on to our first course choice (after some deliberation) of ‘long score’.
This event is an overnight mountain marathon, with ‘linear’ courses graded C to Elite (get the specified controls in order as fast you can, with increasing length, ascent and difficulty of control placings) and two ‘score’ courses short / 8h and long / 10h (all controls have points, get as many points as you can before your time runs out).
After a number of email exchanges covering kit (extensive list designed to keep you safe should you get stranded), logistics and navigation skills it was very quickly time to head south. I met Jon near the bypass at the shop selling practically all the kit you might need for this race. I invested in a new compass as mine had gone wonky twice and I didn’t trust it. Gutted to see the same one selling for £6 less at the event centre!
At race HQ, registration was super slick and we were soon sat scoffing a bowlful of Wilf’s veggie chilli. A pair next to us asked if we had come from Edinburgh – ‘yes’ I said, surprised – ‘oh we saw you crossing the road earlier’ they replied!
We had blank copies of the maps on the table and spent some time poring over them. It was good for me as they were Harvey’s and I’m not used to them. The routes through some out of bounds areas were also worth taking a close look at before we got tired. I remarked that without place names we wouldn’t get sucked into going to places with silly / amusing monikers, plus we’d have to get creative when talking about where we were going. A chap at our table suggested we could use grid references … hmm … safe to say that during the race we stuck to things like ‘shall we take a bearing to the purple line just under that number 4?’
Before we knew it, I was squeezing in last second toilet trips and rushing to get to the line. Everyone sets off at short intervals with their own personalised start time. We were 21:04. Straight up the road for a couple of kilometres, we came up with a rough strategy on the move. We then sped on, overtaking a few other teams.
Even the first control was a learning experience for me, as we debated the best way to approach a control in a stream re-entrant. As we left the footpath (the last one we’d see for a while), I was anxious about how we’d know we had gone far enough and whether we’d be sure we had passed the stream junction … but Jon was talking about steepening sides and was powering on. Next thing I knew, there it was right in front of us.
The next control was on a compass bearing contouring round the hill. This could no longer be classed as running. I counted my paces and just as I thought we should be there, we came across the re-entrant. We were a little too low, but we expected it as the slope had kept pulling us off the bearing in that direction. My confidence was buoyed!
The pattern was set for the rest of the event as I stumbled and tripped over the knee high heather. When it wasn’t heathery it was boggy, there were wet reeds or we were clambering up and down peat hags. I was longing for some of the ‘useful’ sheep tracks mentioned in the pre-race ecological briefing notes but I never saw one! These notes were also detailed in their descriptions of different kinds of vegetation and their relative merits for running. We debated whether we were encountering blanket bogs or the wet acid grassland and wondered where the mythical ‘dry’ acid grassland was 😀
At midnight we both had a slump, trudging through more wet ground. I made myself eat and drink to counter the effects. We got to a gate next to some woods, which is what we were looking for. But something didn’t feel right. The fence was at an unexpected angle. Our doziness was having an effect as we stood there for ages pondering. If we were wrong, we risked going into an out of bounds area and I was determined not to do that. Eventually it dawned on us that there was a second small block of trees marked, slightly obscured by the over printed purple out of bounds colouring. This fitted, we followed the fence and got to the right gate. But looking at the map later there was a much quicker route for the whole section using a road – this was our worst glitch as we took over 30 minutes to cover one km!!
As is often the case on a race as long as this though, we started to perk up again. Next notable call was the manned checkpoint, where someone exceedingly cheery greeted us and offered us port. Port?! I was taken aback and nearly said yes, until I saw Jon shaking his head and saying best not … no, no, of course not, one shouldn’t be drinking alcohol mid race! 😀 Off we went into more thigh deep bogs.
In the dark you can’t see what you’re heading for. We had to work hard to look at the features we could see – the steepness of the ground beneath us, the shape of the hills in the dark sky when we switched our torches off, the peat hags. And sometimes other things gave us clues, like the sound of unseen trees rustling in the wind ahead.
We had a string of fun controls. The moon was out as we visited a knoll, a trig point and the base of some crags. It was still dry, but the wind was blowing hard. If you paused to look around you could see bright dots of white light flung far and wide across the hillsides. It was quite surreal wondering if we had come from ‘over there’ but really having no idea as my frame of reference was never more than next 1 or 2 km.
Other teams were coming and going around us. Sometimes it seemed we were being followed then they’d all disappear and we’d feel totally alone. As we were all on different courses, we were all doing different things. I fell more than once in the heather, but it was always a soft landing. One time my left leg disappeared down a hole, leaving me to do a massive leg press to get out again! Jon helped pull me across streams that were a little too wide, or up banks a little too high.
It started raining just as we ran to a fence and turned left looking for a gate. We got to a bend, paused and realised we had to run back – our gate had been right next to us before and we hadn’t seen it! We’d probably been distracted by other teams around us. This was a small but somewhat annoying mistake, as we nipped through then ran straight back to the same bend but on the other side!
The rain was getting persistent, we were going downhill and I was cold despite having thrown on my waterproof. I pulled my hood up and the sounds of raindrops pattering on my head reminded me of being snug in a tent in bad weather. The peat hags slowed us even more. We visited a massive tower, made amusing by the fact we couldn’t see its hulking form until we almost ran into it!
We had to be careful finding a small ruined structure on a hillside. Jon turned to ask if we could run this bit and I laughed, saying this was my run right now. It was a pathetic attempt, not helped by the fact I was bursting for a wee. I just needed to find a bit of shelter … The ruin didn’t offer much protection but I took what there was. The relief was immense, though it was odd contemplating life peeing on a dark hillside in the middle of the night with the rain cold on my bare skin.
I was debating whether to faff around getting my waterproof trousers or other clothes out. But we’d already been stopped a while for my comfort break so thought I’d get going again before deciding. As we ran off I asked Jon if he knew where we were heading. He said we’d sort it out as we went … odd … turned out later he just wanted to get me moving and warmed up! Fortunately, we had to go uphill and now I could run properly without painfully jolting my bladder. These two factors combined to warm me up nicely.
We had all been warned about the dangers of hypothermia before the event. Look out for fumbles, mumbles, grumbles and stumbles – oh how we laughed about that one several times during the night as one of us tripped again or fell too deep into a bog (I’m sure I heard some muttered profanities)! Luckily, apart from a few shivers, my worst state came when I realised I wasn’t really capable of counting out 100 steps any more without losing track, which I solved by throwing in another few handfuls of food.
We had an interesting few moments looking for a river junction. We thought we might have missed it and Jon’s altimeter suggested we’d gone too high on the wrong fork. We decided to test if we had gone wrong and pace 100m on a bearing to our right. If we were correct, we should hit the other stream – remarkably we did, and it wasn’t long until we got to the control. High fives for quick and accurate correction!
We were running out of time and had to make some choices. In retrospect and looking at the teams ahead of us in the results, we should have left some earlier controls to leave time for the better value ones we were now dropping. We decided to head down the hill for a 50 pointer and for the first time in many hours, follow a track / path back out again. I had been over on my ankle 3 or 4 times and it was sore with every step so I had to protect it and be careful. I felt bad as I was holding us up, but couldn’t risk making myself immobile.
We ascended a rough, peaty and very wet bridleway and joked about trying to ride it. I thought it looked vaguely familiar but dismissed the thought as silly. Looking at the map later, I realised Lucy and I had indeed ridden down it in an Open 5 some time ago!
I had been checking bearings and the map, but now abandoned that and just focussed on keeping up. We had one last control to fit in then we were out of there. We ran to the fence, hesitated turned left, nooo, it should have been right! Back we went, got to the path and it was not as fast as we hoped. Then we hit the road and it was time to SMASH IT. My ankle was absolutely fine on this lovely flat surface and I was going for it. Now Jon had to keep up with me as we did two sub-5 minute km, rounded the corner and dibbed 14.5 minutes late.
The penalties really start ramping up at 15 minutes, so I was pretty pleased we had made it. Into the hall and we could see we had finished 10th overall / 3rd mixed pair. Full results here. We were close to 2nd, but the winners were well ahead. Return to the car, quick change, back to hall for hot breakfast and prize giving. Cheers and applause for the organisers, volunteers and all the winners.
This was my first mountain marathon and what an introduction it was! I was glad to have someone who I know I can trust with me (in fact, it is part of the entry requirements that one of the pair must have experience in similar events, including day time events at the level up). I learnt so much about the navigation, really putting to use and relying on techniques that I’d only previously known the theory of. 10h was plenty of time to practise and get it right!
I liked being on the score course and there was no danger of it turning into a procession of follow-the-leader. There wasn’t much chance to enjoy the scenery or have any great appreciation of where we were (other than being in wild countryside!), but I loved the challenge and the experience. Short video recap:
The high retirement rates and lengthy race times on even the ‘easier’ linear courses left me wondering. We had almost gone with A and I might have done elite with Lucy. Would I have been capable? I thought probably so, given the distance we covered, but maybe that is a question to answer another year! Race director’s report here.
We had a nap, drove to Tebay, ate some more stodge, got halfway home, had another nap. I was dropped off, came straight in for another nap. Then I was informed by Andy that I smelled like a farmyard and had to get in the shower … I did as I was told!
I decided that it was time for me to do my first ultra. A longer than marathon length run, without any extra sports mixed in to break it up. My theory was that winter would be a good time. It would be clear of swimrun training / racing, I could put my feet up for a break over Christmas and with a bit of luck we’d get some epic weather!
After a lot of searching for events that met my criteria, I settled on the Tour de Helvellyn. Run by Joe Faulkner / Nav4, who I know from adventure racing, it’s 60km over hills in the Lake District, with no route marking plus limited and not guaranteed feed stations. Perfect!
I spent a lot of time preparing for this one as it was my main target for the winter.
- Quickly realised I’d need a bigger race vest bag to carry all the kit. Impulse bought one when spending a voucher on something else.
- Tested bag and all kit on a long run round the city when the sun was still shining and I could wear shorts and t-shirt. You never know when you might need a survival bag and heavy duty waterproof.
- Got zip fixed on my primaloft jacket after over a year, so I could take and use it as an emergency layer.
- Read a lot of other people’s blogs!
- Bought two new pairs of possible shoes and got them broken in, after discovering the upper was about to part company with the sole on my both my old pairs.
- Weekend trip to recce the lollipop part of the route with Izzy and Elizabeth. This also served as one of a couple of long days out on my feet.
- Found out my compass didn’t point north any more. Fixed it by waving it at a strong magnet.
- Designed a version of the map that got the whole route onto two A3 sides at 1:25k and arranged to get it printed onto a single sheet of waterproof paper. Thanks Paul!
- Every good race deserves a spreadsheet. On this one I calculated slow, likely and fast paces, working out when it was best to start to make the most of the daylight, arrive at the first checkpoint within the specified time window and not miss the final cut off.
- Decided last minute to recce ‘stick’ part of route on mountain bike the week before. Investigated the footpath/ road shortcut option which is reputedly possibly maybe faster than going round the bridleway.
- For the first time in ages, cooked two types of feed zone portable, after thinking about the fact I couldn’t last 9+h on flapjacks and honey stingers.
All that was left was to negotiate the work Christmas lunch, a very busy train and possibly icy roads to get to the start / community hall in good time on Friday night.
It was a little bit daunting to arrive at the hall and not really know very many people. However, I soon found I was sleeping two along from someone I had met at a swimrun and then Steve who is a friend of mine from Open 5s popped up! I felt better already. I set up the old-skool campbed that Izzy had lent me, feeling a bit daft in amongst all the high tech kit. However, I did not feel so daft after a comfortable nights’ sleep!
We were advised it was ‘lights on’ at 6am, so I was duly awakened and served porridge, toast and … I hesitated over the tea then declined, knowing it would cause frequent pee stops if I did! The most difficult decision of the morning was which shoes to wear … Inov8s that are good on wet muddy stuff, or my Icebugs which I thought would be better on ice but have little by way of cushioning and can give me sore feet on stony surfaces. Reports were of ice aplenty, so I went with the latter.
I was warned there could be queues for kit check, but maybe they had more people on it this year, as there were none at all. I stuck to my plan and headed in to get looked over a few minutes before 7:45. They were very good and it wasn’t too difficult to wiggle everything back into the bag again afterwards.
Headtorch on and off I went. It was snowing. This wasn’t in the forecast! After about 10 minutes I realised it was light enough not to need my torch and switched it off. There were not many people around as I headed up the hill and onto the moors. I think the ground was more frozen solid than the previous week when I had recced this part, but there was less sheet ice. I was confident in my route to the Cockpit, then headed down across the hillside towards Ullswater.
The Cockpit to Side Farm – outward ‘stick’ – everything under control
A few people overtook me on the moors, including a lady running with another chap. It turned out we were going almost the same speed. I said hello but they weren’t much for talking, even as we passed and re-passed each other a few times over the next 10km or so.
I took what I had decided was definitely the shorter route on a footpath down to the lake and up the road. A number of people around me did the same, although looking up to the hillside on our left I could see crowds who had stuck to the bridleway. I was in good spirits at Martindale church, the first checkpoint, as I made sure to eat something and kept a good pace on the road section.
Soon enough I was at the ascent to Boredale Hause. I kept running here for as long as I could, and when forced to walk I ate some more and powered my way to the top. There were lots of people around now, as everyone was converging on the next checkpoint which had a fixed opening time. At the top, everyone headed a different way to the one I had checked out with Izzy. I debated what to do but in the end followed them. It looked more direct – and it was.
We re-joined the bridleway I was expecting, where several people skipped down the rough descent, overtaking me with ease. I tried to stay cool. When Nicky Spinks glided past, I was trying to copy her style! Soon at Side Farm, first food checkpoint. It opened at 9:30 and I got there at 9:35 – perfect! I grabbed some crisps, malt loaf and satsuma and headed straight out again. Along through Glenridding and Nicky and her friend were still in sight for quite a while.
Side Farm up and over to the other valley – first half of lollipop – what a lot of snow / wish I could descend more proficiently
Up the hill past the YHA and I knew I had run most of this with Izzy on legs more tired than these, so I kept running! As we reached the end of the road, there were plenty of people around carrying skis. I mean, there was a bit of snow, but I was astonished they thought they could ski on this? When we had run here earlier in the year, Elizabeth asked if in the race I would do the zig zags or cut the corners. I had answered that it probably depended what everyone else was doing. They were cutting the corners.
It didn’t look too bad so I followed. At one point I wasn’t sure if the path went left or right (it was covered in snow), but everyone was going right. I went with them, but was soon wondering why, as other racers were on the main path above us and we were scrambling up a snow-covered boulder-strewn hillside. I concentrated on putting my feet in the same places the person in front had marked out and tried not to dwell on the fact that I wished I had gone the other way! It was with some relief that we re-joined the path.
Swart Beck footbridge came quickly, a picture perfect winter scene of white snow. Now I understood the skis! I was very glad I was not the first to come through, because it meant I could follow the trodden path in front and avoid any very deep snowdrifts! A few more passed me, including a very fast and cheerful girl in a running skirt. I couldn’t stay with them at all and just tried to hold my own pace. I realised I was well down the women’s field and decided this meant I could find time to take a couple of pictures to capture the experience!
Over Sticks Pass it was cold and white with a dense fog. Not windy though, so it could have been worse! The long descent was nothing like the recce. This time it was a race through soft snow. Others were still braver than me, even though I told myself any fall would have a soft landing. Emerging from the fog and dipping below the snowline, we were on one of the steepest parts. I cursed as I fell several times, once almost attempting the splits. Streams of people came past me and it was rather demoralising. I thought this was just everyone I had managed to overtake earlier on the hills, but in retrospect a large portion were probably faster runners who had started later than me and were catching up.
I was relieved to get to the fingerpost at the bottom in one piece and turned left to make my way along the valley. This path was rough and stony. We had pondered race tactics here before and noted that it would be easy to expend a lot of energy trying to go fast. I kept a lid on it and concentrated on not having an unpleasant fall. There was someone behind me who decided to do the same. It was actually quite good to have their footsteps urging me on a little, but agreeing that their toes kept catching and tripping on things too!
Swirls car park to Side Farm – second half of lollipop – I am in love with ultra-running
Arriving at the car park I was disappointed that the toilets were shut (though this was one of the few chances to nip behind something) and surprised to find a feed station. I stocked up on handfuls of food again and walked the first hilly parts of the fireroad eating and drinking whilst it was easy to do so. I also tucked into some of my own savoury snacks. Then it was time to run. I made good time along here once my legs got going and before I knew it, I was at the waterfall and ready to start the next climb.
Here there was another route choice – to cut across open hillside or follow the path along to the river then turn left. I stuck to my plan and smiled to myself as the two other runners who had stopped to think about it also followed me. We could see someone cutting across, but I decided this time I was not going to be influenced. I was glad of it, as it was easy running on the path, the river was straightforward to cross at the bottom and I was soon on the path heading up the other side of Raise Beck.
At this stage I was feeling fantastic. I spotted Santa up ahead taking photos and I was leading a group of people who had passed me in the woods earlier on. At the top I tried to pick up the main path instead of landing up in bog around Grisedale Tarn. However, I soon got confused and found myself romping across fresh snow, in the right general direction, but certainly not on a footpath! Suddenly I felt my left leg sink … right up the full length of it, with my foot at the bottom in something very cold and wet! Eek! A runner called out if I was OK … I was and managed to hoik myself out. “Are you on the path?!” I yelled. He was, and I hastily made my way up there.
I took the next descent down Grisedale a little carefully due to ice, but again was spurred on by someone else who was running just behind me. I recognised the places we had stopped and chatted on our recce and was thinking about how much I LOVED this ultra-running thing. I planned to eat again when we hit the wide easy track at the bottom. Despite finding myself on some little path with the main one below me (how was it possible to drift off it? I have no idea) I soon dropped back down and got munching and into a good rhythm.
In my head I was thinking ‘two more checkpoints, two more small-ish hills. That’s all, and you’ve just passed marathon distance!’ I kept up running all the way into the return checkpoint at Side Farm, avoiding looking at the short but steep climb to Boredale Hause ahead. More snacks taken and I decided to top up my water a bit too. I had probably only drunk about a litre and still had some left but thought it worth the precaution, especially once I had gone to the trouble of fishing my drinks bladder out to check.
Side Farm to Cockpit – return ‘stick’ – body in meltdown
I was feeling chirpy as I headed out and up the hill, despite being overtaken by a handful of faster runners. I followed the same plan as before, walking and eating and choking on a stray grain of rice … then halfway up something bad happened. I don’t know what. I just felt weak, so tired. I was at about 45.5km. I thought it would be fine after the hill. As we crested the top my head told me to start running again, the gradient was easy, but my body refused. We got to the descent and my legs felt like jelly and not entirely under my control. It was tricky and I slipped and fell. I had to let two guys go away as I tip-toed down. Soon enough it flattened a little and became grassy.
I did a quick self-assessment. I felt too hot, my legs hurt, I wasn’t quite with it. I took action in the only ways I know how! A buff was snatched off my head. I ate a gel and a packet of honey stingers (reasoning that I had run low on energy coming over the last big hill and that the food at Side Farm wasn’t sugary enough to have kicked in yet). I slowed down a touch to let my body recover. I drank (I didn’t think I would be dehydrated in this weather, but knowing me, it was entirely possible). As another couple of people passed I exchanged a few words. “How are you?” they asked. “I’m in a dip” I answered. Off they ran. We had a long road section and I worked hard to keep moving and keep the gaps from widening. We got to Martindale and I was on the home stretch. ‘Only’ an hour or so from here! “Are we nearly there yet?” I joked with the marshals, hmm, I’m sure they heard that one a hundred times that day!
Cutting across the zigzags of the road, I paused to admire the view. It was quite stunning, with the sky pinkish from the low sun, and the hills reflected in the still waters of the lake. At the bottom I ran along the road feeling heavy. I had words with myself. If I ran like I felt, I would feel like that and worse. I tried to make myself run ‘properly’, nice and tall with some zing, in the hope it would lift my mood!
Up the footpath and back onto the bridleway. Now I started the mind games. 8km to go. Just like a lunchtime run at work with Neil and Jonah. I imagined what we’d be talking about; parkruns and races or gender identity and workplace confidence (!). 5km to go, just a parkrun. 3.5km to go, just the final run at Ötillö with Izzy by my side. 2.5km to go, just a run along the esplanade at Silverknowes. I made myself run the sections I knew I had ridden up the previous week. I ticked off the landmarks and promised myself more Honey Stingers at various points. I drank and drank, glad I had topped up after all. Somewhere near the top, I recovered…
The Cockpit to Askham – yippee!!
Suddenly I felt alive again! There was no one in sight in front or behind but I was happy in my own world again. I was running along familiar ground, and it was still light. I knew I would make it back well inside my target time despite the wobble. I took a slightly delirious selfie and charged down the hill and into the village. I realised I hadn’t checked which door the finish was at, but guessed correctly that it was the same one I had come out of. I ran round the corner. I tripped on the steps and crashed into a shut door. Joe opened it, looking bemused, and directed me to the table inside so that my number could be scanned for the final time. That was it! I had finished!
I wandered into the hall in a daze. The hall was hot and packed with runners, all doing their own thing, tucking into food and oblivious to me. I missed the feeling of finishing with a friend who has shared the same experience. I felt a few tears well up in my eyes, all emotional from the effort, but blinked them back and texted my coach and boyfriend instead. I could hardly move my legs, let alone climb the steps to the stage to retrieve my change of clothes. Luckily I had been organised and was able to get my stuff with minimum faff, shower, change and sit down. What bliss! Sitting down!
I chatted with a few people and settled down to wait for Steve. At some point tables were cleared and I was able to set up my camp bed. My sleeping bag was so soft and snuggly. I nearly fell asleep at 19:30 (utterly unheard of for me). Just after 20:30 in came Steve, to a big cheer as part of the last group to make it and not get cut off. Hurrah!
I finished in 8h24, inside my target of 9h. I was 9th female, 50th overall. Results here. I pondered if I had got my pacing wrong at the start, but I know I’m usually so good at this, and you’ve got to learn sometime! My split placings were fairly consistent. I don’t regret setting off with conviction as I did, even if I was slower coming back. I did also recover the situation when I blew up. Despite being mindful of eating frequently, it seems I should do it even more, as well as drinking more too. All in all, I decided I hadn’t done too bad for my ‘first ultra without any handy swimming breaks’. Post-race damage seems to be limited to general exhaustion (caught the bus to work for a week), sore legs, the skin off one heal and one bruised toenail. But I’ll wait to see how quick I properly recover before fully committing to another!
Many thanks to Joe and team at Nav4 for the race, to all the photographers (donation made to Patterdale Mountain rescue), to Steve for taking me back to the station and my fellow racers John and Hisayo for company for 3h as we waited for the first trains out of Penrith!
Race 4 of the winter was the first Open 5 of the season, based in Coniston. On Saturday, I took advantage of the location to recce the part of the Tour De Helvellyn I hadn’t visited recently (the race I’m doing next). It was snowy, icy and cold and progress was slow, even on my bike! I nearly ran out of time to get fed at the café, but luckily just made it.
Lucy had been properly ill with pneumonia and wasn’t sure if she would race. We arrived together on Sunday morning still undecided! I thought she would go with me … she asked ‘what if we had to finish after 3h?’ I admitted I was happy to go slow, but wanted to be out for most of the time. She decided to go solo and I last minute paired up with Jon instead. I joked that she had better not beat us …
So after planning, Jon and I set off on the run, hoping the ice would melt a bit ready for the bike whilst we were out. Straight up a hill towards the coppermines, catching a few teams and soon hitting the snow line. I thought I’d run quicker than Jon, but he was running easily as I breathed heavily. Just warming up, I told myself.
We could see Phil and Jackie up in front and we were catching them. After a delightful snowy track traversing the hillside we got to a decision point: straight across and risk getting caught in a quarry, or round the paths? We went round and soon met them coming the other way – wrong choice for us – we were 4 minutes slower!
Running along I was opening my legs out when just in front Jon skidded and thumped onto the floor. That’ll be ice beneath us then. Bit of hopping across semi frozen bogs, reeds and long grass and it was my turn to fall forwards. It was a soft landing in heather and snow, but surprisingly cold!
My tummy was rumbling, which is quite unusual mid race and suggested I really should eat. A full flapjack went down the hatch. Now we were heading off the hill and I thought it was time to go fast. I pushed myself to keep speed on the techier bits, using the sound of Jon’s footsteps just behind to spur me on. I loved running through the woods. We got to the lake and dashed back along the shore, suddenly popping out in a campsite I recognised from a race where I had totally overheated! Very different now.
I sensed Jon was dropping a little, so I backed off the pace and started looking at the bike route. It was tricky to decide which way to go round. We spent some time in transition discussing. What with that and having to take my gloves off to undo shoelaces, my fingers were frozen by the time we left.
We headed off up a road which soon became a long hill. Jon was really pushing the pace and I was working hard to keep up. Just what I needed to get the blood back in my fingers! The first half of the bike went well, nipping in and out to controls and making good progress. I was trying hard not to look at the map and to let Jon get with it instead of getting left behind. We had a slight altercation with a lady who didn’t want us on her drive (turned out this was due to a hitch in communications). I felt sorry that someone would get so emotional all day just for a few riders coming past.
We got to a control where the route to the next one was up a hill. It was a long push-up slog, through mud and ice and rocks and roots. We spent over 20 minutes getting to the control at the top of the hill and it somehow robbed our momentum. The sign on the gate saying ‘warning cattle grazing’ was true – as we came across the strange sight of some ‘panda’ cows grazing in the woods … The descent was very icy and we came down cautiously, though mostly on two wheels rather than two feet. Somehow that was another 30 minutes gone, though at least it made me ride some really rough bumpy stuff, just because I was so grateful whenever I saw an ice-free patch!
I was worrying about time, Jon less so. But then we went wrong in the quarry, mistaking the path for a river, wasting about 5 minutes. We needed to smash it, but as soon as we got to the road there was yet more ice. Oh no… This was so different to what we’d found in the first half of the ride. We had to forfeit a 30 point control near the end and still came in just over 8 mins late / 18 point penalty.
Somehow I felt a bit flat. Just when I’d wanted to let rip, we’d had to ride cautiously and it seemed we could have done better. Looking at Lucy’s score, we only got 12 points more! This despite running much further, getting wet feet and riding almost the same route backwards half an hour faster! Ach well, it was all good training, and I had a lovely day out in good company 😀 And we still did enough to get 3rd in mixed pairs. Results here.
Lucy won female solo with a score that would have won is female pairs as well. I felt sad that she didn’t feel she could have raced like that if we had been together. Though as she pointed out, a lot of the pressure comes from the self not wanting to let the other down, even if they say they’re happy to bimble. For Lucy not to race with me, I knew it must have been serious as we have got through a lot of events together ‘sub-par’!
And then we were off on the long drive home. I can recommend the services at Rheged for good food! Many thanks to all involved as always – Open Adventure (event), James Kirby (photos), Nav4 (food), Lucy, Jon and Andrea (assorted accommodation, lifts and racing with me!).
Race three of five in my pre-Christmas splurge was the Foxtrail night ultra, which we entered as a 3-person relay team. After first persuading Izzy, Marie got the call. And after convincing her that it was not an all-nighter and was not on Sunday, she was in!
The race course was 4.9km laps on trails in the dark. Some people were doing it solo, but I am saving my first ultra to be a big loop instead of many little ones! We arrived in good time and got set up in the start / finish / handover / party marquee. The plan was to start on single laps, monitor our pace and adjust as necessary. The goal was to finish 15 laps within the 6h time limit, so that we could fit in a final 16th lap. There was no published start list, so although I knew we had a dream team, I did not have a sense of whether it was dreamy enough to be gunning for the win!
We decided to go off in descending speed order, which meant Marie started. I knew she’d enjoy the bustle of elbowing her way through in the mass start! I warmed up and waited anxiously at the handover. In she came, in a fast time and second lady. I flew off and soon caught the other female team in the woods. Up ahead I could see my friend Neil, who had joined a male team at the last minute. He was wearing something luminous and easy to spot! I couldn’t catch him, but was pleased to see him as he can run a straight 5km a lot faster than I can …
Handover to Izzy who was ready and waiting; that set the pattern for the rest of the night. I had set up a spreadsheet to check our progress and make sure we were on target. Everything was going to plan, so I couldn’t be happier 😀 In between laps I updated the numbers, ate, chatted and made sure Marie was ready to go. She always was, despite her tendency to suddenly undress or run to the toilet 3 minutes before Izzy was due back!
I knew my first lap speed was unsustainable. The second felt better, but I dropped more time again on every lap (about 5s/km on average every time). That was a bit disappointing, but I realised others were dropping more. We got an update after 6 laps and we were leading the women’s field! This brought a beam to my face. On lap 3 I overhauled Neil just after I whooped my way through the mid-lap DJ rave barn. I wondered if I’d regret it, but didn’t – our pacing was better and we finished a lap ahead of their team 😉
It was not as cold as it might have been (well above freezing) and the forecast rain was little more than light showers. This meant I survived by throwing on a big coat between laps and getting progressively stinkier in the same running kit …
Lap 4 was painful although I overtook a couple of other relay runners, including internet / Newcastle Glenn who seemed to have breath to chat to another runner! We were, of course, lapping the solo runners at regular intervals. I felt a bit bad to be speeding past knowing I was doing a fraction of what they were, but everyone was so polite. Some said well done and I’m sorry I had little more in me than to grunt a reply.
At some point I knew that barring any disasters, we were safe for getting in 15 laps before the final fireworks. However, I offered to Izzy that she could do 4 laps and I’d do 6 if she preferred (Marie was already lined up to do 6!). She gamely decided to go for the full house. So I set off on my 5th with an all-out last effort.
I was rewarded with a stitch, nausea and a final time slower again than lap 4!! After that I was rather relieved not to have another one to go, and managed to shower and change whilst Izzy ran her last lap. We yelled Marie out, grabbed some food, admired the firework display and waited for the finish! Great sprint into the tent.
All our efforts were rewarded with 1st female team and 5th overall, as the last team to squeeze in 16 laps. Event video here! I had a jolly old time and still had energy to chat to Marie on the way back to Edinburgh. I’m a night-time sort of person. Next morning I dragged myself out of bed to meet for a sea swim and extended cafe stop – a delayed reward from the night before! Mind you, I was exhausted by then. Turns out doing 5 x 5km intervals is harder than it looks on paper.
A great race which I am sure will be back on the calendar again next year. Thanks to Foxtrail for organising, Bob Marshall and Andy Kirkland for photos, my team mates for being awesome and all the other racers for the friendly vibe.
I was surprised to find it was 2014 when I last did this race, but when we arrived it was like I’d never been away. Four of us went over in one car; three racers and one supporter / photographer! We were nice and early, which suited me as we got parked near the start and I had time to go out and ride my bike.
Even though this race starts with a run, I decided my time was better spent riding round the bike course. My heart would get going and my brain would get in tune with the course. I was glad I did as it was quite technical, especially in the first half. Knowing what was coming up and that I could ride it gave me more confidence later.
We all gathered at the start line, the hooter went and we all shot off up the hill. I was breathing hard but moved from 5th to 2nd girl. 1st was Isla, out of sight and never to be seen again until prize giving! After that effort, I was overtaken on the up and on the down so I was back to 4th! This route goes straight up a hill and straight down a hill, with plenty of gloopy muddy bits. I was slightly out of control on the downhill, but was really trying to do my best to stay in contact.
I think I was a bit slow trying to sort my bike gloves out, and by the time I left transition there was no sight of the other girls. I powered on anyway. People were flying past me, but then a train of us got stuck behind a slightly slower rider. I kept my cool and concentrated on using the saved energy to work hard on the uphills. This was the pattern: technical down: get overtaken. Straightforward up: overtake some of them back again.
First Jon came flying past with a shout, then Marc, who didn’t recognise me. I was keeping up with him, though he got away at the end. I fell on a very slidey bit, but landed on my feet and narrowly avoided causing a pile up behind me. I unexpectedly caught one of the girls, Sarah, who was dressed incognito in black (just like me!). This meant I didn’t realise it was her until I was alongside. I said hello and worked hard as I passed.
There was no sign at all of Caroline ahead in her turquoise top. Coming up the last hill, rounding the lake and preparing myself for the final steep sting in the tail, I thought I had 3rd, but worked it to the finish line. Turns out Caroline had taken significant time on me on the bike!
I couldn’t have worked any harder though, so I was satisfied. I’m not tuned up for this sort of crazy fast racing! 3.7km run, 6.4km bike and it was all over 😀 3rd female, 2nd vet, 1 box of chocolates and 1 bottle of beer.
Thanks to Paul / Durty Events for a seamless race with an amazing friendly vibe, Ewan for driving us over and Andy for most of the photos. Results here.
This was the first of four racing weekends in a row before Christmas! Next up: Foxtrail Nighttime 6h Ultra (Relay with the Dream Team).
Throughout the year, events pop up which catch my eye. I put them in the calendar as a reminder ‘just in case’ I get the opportunity to do one of them! So when we started discussing going to see my dad in November, I noticed ‘Coed y Brenin off-road duathlon‘ pencilled in…
It was decided, the visit planned and the race entered. It was organised by Always Aim High, whose triathlons I had a habit of doing a few years ago. They’ve grown a lot since then. This event was a new one and I thought it might be low key as a result. In fact, it nearly sold out!
In the last couple of weeks, I’ve made the effort to get out on my mountain bike, riding a few tricky trails on the way to work. I usually struggle finding my MTB groove for the winter, but was pleased to discover I was enjoying it straight away! After pondering over the maps in a bit more detail I realised that a lot of the bike course seemed to be on fire roads. I couldn’t decide if this was good as I wouldn’t have to stress about my riding skills, or bad because I would have to rely on some bike fitness and not just skills!
On race morning my tummy was churning with nerves. On the plus side, I had sorted out a rapidly deflating rear tyre just by tightening the valve core! After sorting out kit and racking my bike, the technical officials came over and asked if my handlebars came with the bar ends. No, I added them. Then they pronounced that they were ‘clip ons’, might skewer someone if there was a crash, and therefore not allowed. Panic! I’ve never touched them before, but grabbed my multitool from the seat pack and figured out how to get them off.
I was sure I had read the relevant rule beforehand and thought it didn’t apply. Numbers were being read out on the tannoy calling other offenders. I nipped back up to registration where I’d noticed the rule posted up earlier on. ‘No clip ons (aerobars) allowed, but standard bar ends authorised’. I ran back, queried the ruling, had a discussion and we concluded I could fit them back on again … After all that stress it was basically time to throw off my jacket and line up!
I looked over dressed compared to many athletes, with a long sleeved windproof and a little race pack. However, it kept raining, there was a northerly wind, and I wanted to stay hydrated and fuelled for a 3h race, not just a 9km run. After a friendly chat with a fast looking girl (who turned out to be the eventual winner) we were off; up, up and up! This was my first ever run-bike-run duathlon and I had Andy’s voice in my head telling me not to go too hard on the first run. I tried to keep a steady pace, even as I kept swapping places with the same guy.
There was a techy grassy wet downhill bit where I wished I had on Inov8s instead of Icebugs, a bouncy bridge, and more climbing to a feed station that I ignored, having sipped water all along and taken a gel on a climb. Another muddy rocky descent and then transition appeared sooner than I had expected. I raced in, stuffed down a banana, changed my bag along with my shoes and got out of there.
The bike was mostly straightforward. Annoyingly, one of my bar ends was now at the wrong angle, but I put it out of my mind. One guy elbowed past me on a narrow section at the start but then it was wide fire roads. My friend from the run came by with words of encouragement and onwards we climbed. I did spot a good view or two as well 🙂 . At one point we turned off, rode through some big puddles and up the first ‘technical’ section – a bit narrower and rocky. I enjoyed the power climb!
It was very quiet out on the bike, and I was pleased only a handful of other people came past. I must have hung on to some bike speed after all. The descents were fast and into the headwind; I was glad of that jacket now. I had got off at the entrance to the short section of trail centre singletrack, and as I rode out of it had to stop to straighten my mudguard. At this point a girl came alongside and we chatted a little as we climbed the steepest fireroad. At the top a guy was fumbling with a broken rear mech. She stopped to help and I hesitated, surprised. I thought I was in about 4th and she could have been racing for podium. I’d stop to help someone seriously injured or unwell, but take the view that you should be self sufficient for mechanicals. I pushed on.
Rounding the end of lap 1 and as I munched another banana, I caught someone I’d been drawing in on for a while and was surprised to find it was another girl! So now I thought I might be 3rd. Knowing what was coming up gave me more confidence and I powered away. I enjoyed some of the fast descents, really starting to get used to the bike and riding. I thought there might be issues passing lapped riders or people on the sprint course, but only met a few others.
Coming out of the singletrack, the same girl from before caught me in exactly the same place!! This time she said nothing and pulled away quickly. I kept my cool, rode hard and held the gap. Down the final descents and into another rocky section, I was catching back up. Just before the turn onto the final narrow section I was on her wheel. We were caught behind two slower sprint racers with another guy who had screeched in between us, but we all rode in line until the track widened up into transition. I dismounted and jogged up to my shoes, seeing everyone else walking. I had drunk well on the bike and didn’t need my bag for the final 5.3km run.
As I ran out, I heard announcements over the speakers welcoming back the full course leaders and several sprint racers. My laces were flapping and I paused to try and tuck them back in, decided it was a waste of time and ran on. I thought I had a running advantage over the girl who was near me, but didn’t want to take chances. Behind me I could hear steps and breathing. I was not alone. However, I was determined not to look back. I was going to run strong and fast out of every steep bit. I ate my gel and stayed calm. Someone was right on my shoulder, they were going to pass … but didn’t. Were those footsteps light enough to be a girl’s? I heard a cough and thought it could be … I still didn’t look back. At the feed station they stopped and I ran through. Just one long descent, skip over the stones and roots and run like I had done with someone breathing down my neck the first time. I sensed I had got a gap and I was going to hold it.
The final bend came into sight and we had to sprint up one more incline to the finish arch. Andy had made it back from his trip to a gold mine on time and informed me that I did not look strong and tall at that moment!! Cheeky, but the photos do not lie. I was still not sure of my place, but as we wandered off to the car I was called back to find out I was 3rd overall! Yay … It had indeed been a girl behind me – finishing with an 18s deficit in the end. I felt bad as she may have been on podium if she hadn’t stopped, though that was her decision and I had been able to react when she did come past. Full results here.
After 5 or 6 weeks off, this was a great start to winter racing! Very well organised with super friendly marshals. I’m not used to racing on my own and was glad to exchange a bit of banter with them on the way round! Tasty Welsh Jones Crisps, a Wild Trail bar and a slate coaster on the finish line (I can never have too many coasters). Hot showers and changing at the end, and some more chat with other racers. I was happy spending my Odlo prize voucher on a pair of fancy arm warmers. Even better, we had plenty of time to get back to Caffi Gwynant for a splendid meal, including the most amazing lemon posset …
Roll on the rest of pre-Christmas races – 4 more in the next 5 weeks!
What we did on Saturday:
Izzy and I had been targeting the swimrun rankings and competition this year. However, the rules for the prizes were changed near the end of the season, and to win we suddenly found ourselves contemplating entering both the sprint and the main Ötillö world series ‘1000 Lakes‘ races in Germany at the start of October. We went for a run in the Pentlands after work one evening and decided to do it …
So after arriving on Thursday and settling into our fantastic apartment, we went for a short run, which I managed to keep to the agreed length! And on Friday a swim in glorious sunshine. We nearly couldn’t find our way back in to our landing point, but otherwise survived! Last year we did very well here, partly because the water was colder than many people are used to. This year, it was 3 weeks earlier, meaning the water was still plenty warm enough to play in wetsuit-free.
We stocked up at the supermarket and made careful plans for our food over the weekend. Andy had impressed on us how we should treat the events like a two day stage race and be careful what we did both during and after the sprint. Obviously this meant stocking up on as many kinds of foreign chocolate flavours as we could justify eating …
Saturday start was fairly relaxed – register, briefing, back to house to change and kill time, start at 11. The sun was shining, the gun went off and everyone really sprinted! I think we were leading the ‘sensible’ bunch but still went 4:32 for the first km. Approaching the first swim, our main rivals for the series prize were just in front. We’d been stronger swimmers than them when we raced in Borås earlier in the year, so I was confident of catching them. However, we got in and my goggles immediately leaked – something that hasn’t happened to me in a swimrun race before! I stopped and faffed but never solved the problem, swimming 900m worrying my contact lens might wash out or get infected, and squinting lopsidedly as I sighted.
We never did catch Maria and Josefine either – turns out they’ve been getting highly effective swim coaching all summer! We were still close though as we ran through the trees. At one point we overtook but they sped up again and we tucked in behind. We had the points advantage so only needed to stay near them, not go crazy. Just then Izzy tripped and fell! It looked innocuous as the ground was soft. She said she hit her head, but she seemed OK and we carried on slightly slower.
As the race progressed, we kept the girls in sight but the pace was pretty rapid. On the final run we could still see them and were gaining slightly, but I was happy to stay like this. I ate at the feed stations even when I didn’t feel I needed it … it was important to stay fuelled and feed the muscles mid race today, ready to perform tomorrow.
I smashed across the final swim, thinking we might catch them up with a straighter line. Not quite, but we ran in to the finish just 24 seconds behind, in 3rd place. The girls who won were waaay ahead and also racing on Sunday. We finished, jogged back, had our milky drinks and a fried egg sandwich, went back for prize giving then home again for another egg sandwich, feet up, then pasta for dinner!
Izzy’s head was fine, but her hand was swollen from the fall, so we bought the cheapest frozen veg we could find in the supermarket and regularly iced it all evening. I even looked up compression bandaging on YouTube and used my compulsory bandage to do a pretty good job of swaddling it up. By morning it looked much the same, but we reasoned if she’d managed to finish today she could do it tomorrow…
An earlier start on Sunday as we boarded the bus in the dark. We set off a little later than expected and hit roadworks and a diversion on the way! We were calm as all we needed to do on arrival was get straight into the toilet queue and put our damp wetsuits back on. We chatted to Ulrika and Helena, the previous day’s winners, as we waited and then made our way to the start. Josefine and Maria came to give us a hug and say good luck. They said they were tired but we didn’t know if it was just bluffing 😀
The gun came as a surprise and we were off. No wrong turnings on the way to the first lake this time, and it was more like a triathlon swim, with a lot of pushing and shoving on the way. Two teams squeezed me from either side and I was left spluttering for air. As we got out to the feed station, we met Michael telling us to keep it steady and that the others were just in front (I think – though it was hard to catch whilst concentrating on everything else!). I wasn’t wasting energy here and tried to ignore everything else and make it our own race. We soon drew close to them, but every time we tried to pass, they accelerated a little and I decided to wait and make our move on the longest run, of 7km. However, as it happened we went past just before the preceding swim.
I thought this might be the crux, where we pulled ahead of a big bunch of teams. I swam down a short river section confidently, having just passed a few female pairs and seeing one we could catch ahead. Out into the main lake and suddenly a pair in orange bibs were coming past! What? I am not great at drafting but I jumped on their feet and worked hard to stay there. Eventually they pulled away, just as another pair came past and I went with them instead. This was like ‘sprinting’ a swim at the start of a triathlon, ignoring what had come before and was to come after! I was finding it mentally quite challenging to be racing so closely with so many other teams.
We left the feed station first and were running through the woods at a fair pace. We could hear the voices of the other girls ringing out behind us for a long time. About 2km to go and I could feel the tow cord getting tighter. I was feeling tired too and hoping we had not pushed too hard too soon… A short swim and another 4km run which I found tough. I still had energy to admire and point out some of the enormous fungi growing in the woods around us though. The increase in support around the course was also noticeable and fantastic – I think the locals now had a better idea of what was going on!
At last we got to a long 1.2km swim and some clear water. We seemed to have pulled away from the other teams although the threat of them reappearing kept spurring me on. In fact it was as if we had finally ‘found our place’ in the race and had some space from everyone. The swim went on and on and on … But when we got out we were on a section we had done the previous day. I was hoping we might be in 4th as given who would likely podium, it would mean direct qualification to the world champs next year. It felt like we had overtaken so many teams, but I had no idea where we were now.
We still caught a couple of male teams and finally were on the last run. This felt much harder than yesterday! My hamstring had been playing up a bit since September and now I could feel it affecting my gait. I said nothing and pushed on. The final swim across to the castle, we were catching two male pairs but didn’t quite make it! Sprint finish and we discovered one of them were our friends Ben and Jonathan.
Only enough for 5th place / 37th overall, although we had moved up from 11th in the early stages. Full results here. It was enough to win the series, despite strong competition from Josefine and Maria, plus Helena and Ulrika storming up behind with two speedy wins in two days. Our pace was faster on both swims and runs compared to last year, which I like to think is fitness but may have just been the extra degrees of warmth!
No qualification to the world champs this time. The girls get one fewer place per race than the other teams, which is something I disagree with. The strength in depth of the girls’ field has grown massively over the last couple of years, which is great. You can go all the way down to 9th here and see a team that finished 77th overall in September. However, there was a big build up for the series prize and we walked away with €2500, biggest prize ever!
Thanks to race directors Mats and Michael and all the other organisers and volunteers, to the photographers Jakob Edholm and Pierre Mangez and to sportextremeswimrun.com for their support this year. Also to Graham at Physis who got my shoulder back in good enough shape after Ötillö for it to be pain free this weekend.
We thought we didn’t know many people going to this race – but turns out there were many familiar and friendly faces. It was great to catch up and get to know people better 🙂 Time for takeaway pizza and more chocolate before the journey home on Monday. Due to the persistent swelling and evident pain, I insisted Izzy went straight to the minor injuries clinic to get her hand checked when we got back – turns out she had a broken finger! No swimming for her for a while!
That’s the end of the swimrun season. I’m taking October off racing, before launching into a packed Nov / Dec with off road duathlons, an Open 5 and my first ever swim-free ultra.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Rosemary eat more and Do Not Bonk
- Run the little bits and the technical bits at the same speed as last year
- Run the three longer sections at a minimum average of 6:30 / km
- 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.
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.
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 😉
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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?!
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!
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 …
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.
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
- 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)
- Run the little bits and the technical bits at the same speed as last year:
- 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
- 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.