South Downs Way 100 mile Ultra 2017

Its taken a while to write this blog.  Wasn’t quite sure what to say – many have written how the SDW100 is beautiful etc, what would make this post any different.  So I thought, three questions on my experience of the South Downs Way and my first hundred.

  1. What is it like to run your first hundred?
  2. What sort of training will get you there?
  3. Is the Centurion race a good one to choose as your first hundred?

If you are only reading this for information on the race jump straight down to three – its why I’ve split the questions.  The whole report is a little long, but I thought I would try something a little different.

What is it like to run your first hundred?

I have to admit, I was very worried.  I’d never done more than fifty-ish miles before.  How the heck can you prepare for something you’ve never done before.  Letting the wife know I’ll be a little late home for tea because I’m putting in a hundred miler on the way home from work isn’t really possible.

That’s what makes the sport!  It is always a journey into the unknown.  I recently watched ‘The Race that likes to eat its young’, a film on the Berkley Marathon.  That was all about the unknown.  Remembering that is important.

Back to the question,

The short answer to the question is Great!  It was all the positives I’d heard.  Tough, but very very rewarding.  I’m not religious, but it is fulfilling, being out on the trails all that time.

I had also heard all the scare stories about digging into the dark side, but to be honest I never really found that.  There were times it was hard, but that’s kind of, the point.

What sort of training will get you there?

I’m the sort of ‘Kitchen Sink’ person.  If you like to go light, and take a chance, my comments won’t be too useful to you.  People on mountains in jeans wind me up.  On a day out with the kids I have….well lets say I’m prepared for anything.

I started running about 3 years ago.  One year of trail marathons, one year of fifties, and this year was the hundred.  I was told that I was more ready than most, but I didn’t believe them.  So here is what my training involved.

  1. about 35 to 45 miles per week (about 150 to 175 miles in a month)
  2. squats, and gym work at least once a week
  3. a long run of at least two hours – sometimes up to four, and quite hilly
  4. the long run was without eating – to train for when I couldn’t eat anymore
  5. three or four races a year at the distances mentioned above
  6. I use a HR monitor – 70-75% is race pace, anything over is a hard session.

I put that up to try and show it is realistic for those without young kids (I couldn’t dedicate the time if I had very young kids).  I started small, two years back and built up to it.

Again to show I’m not a brilliant runner…

  1. My fast runs are at about eight to nine minute mile.
  2. My average pace on trail is 12 to 13 minute mile
  3. I get nauseous very easily and have trouble eating while racing
  4. If I am up after 9:30PM I get very tired

What I did do was Recce the entire route – so I knew where to go without stressing

One thing that really helped was volunteering to sweep for a couple of ultras.  The forty miles on my feet at slow walking pace was hard first time.  I usually run and this was new.  Also being at the back, and when people DNF, you have to catch up the next back marker.  That is hard, it means upping the speed after 30+ miles.

I also did a couple of training runs over 30 miles to practice eating, which I don’t normally do.

I know each person is different, and needs to prepare in their own way.  But I thought I’d put that up for those thinking of doing a hundred to have something to think about.  Kilian Jornet’s training plan is of no use to me.  I find it hard to find realistic stories about normal people.

One final thing.  I have a session with a Personal Trainer every two months who advises on my training.  Gives me a specific plan.  Also gives confidence over all the usual things that happen.  My achilles hurt like hell when I upped the mileage.  I have been sick on numerous races.  I had a twinge in my ham.  None of these were serious, but at the time I thought I wasn’t capable.  My trainer gave me the confidence to push through these things.  For the sake of twenty five quid every two months I think it was worth it.

Is the Centurion race a good one to choose as your first hundred?

Yes – its great, and for me was perfect.

Recces

To be truly prepared for my first hundred I needed to recce the entire route.  This is relatively easy.  I did it in three sessions.

Park in Eastbourne – catch the train to Hassock and run back – about 30 miles

Park in Pyecombe – catch the train from Hassocks to Petersfield – about 50 miles

Park near Queen Elizabeth Park – catch train to Winchester – about 25 miles

The second one was part of my final training, about 6 weeks before the race.

This really helped on the day, and for a first hundred the ease of recceing the route was a big thing.

Crewing

I really didn’t fancy the trip back on the coach at the end of the race, so my wife, reluctantly ‘volunteered’ to Crew for me.  I rented a van, which with an air bed in the back, I hoped she could sleep whilst waiting for me, making things easier for her.

The SDW race has fourteen check points.  This was part of the attraction, but also with crew support there can be more points for a breather.  After the first 2 check points there was never really more than 6 or 7 miles between either a checkpoint or crew point.  This really helps with the mental attitude.  Especially later in the race.

One thing I will say about having a crew is that it doesn’t do much for my macho image.

I saw my wife at Check Point 2, and I had taken it easy till then, so that was just nice.

I next saw her at mile 35.  This was getting close to the limit of how far I had run before.  I had worked hard to get to this point still feeling OK.  I thought I was doing well until I entered the field with the Check Point and the van with my wife.  I just started to cry, and loads of my pent-up emotions came blurting out.

Again at mile 51 the relief at seeing her was really uplifting.

At mile 84, Southease Aid Station, was the first time I felt I really wanted to sit down and take some weight off my feet.  Once I sat down it was hard to stand up again.  Knowing my wife was waiting at the top of Firle Beacon, just a couple of miles away, made all the difference at getting up and moving on.

As I say though, a word of warning if you have an ego.  Seeing my wife on entering the sports ground in Eastbourne ….I don’t think a blubbering mess quite captures what I was but you get the picture, it was amazing to give her a hug then….

So for first timers, the ability of having a crew really helps.  I didn’t see my wife for more than a few minutes at a time, yet…I have tried to explain to her the huge difference that support made to me finishing, I hope she understands.

The Start

The start of the race is in Chilcomb sports ground, and you can kit check the night before. I get really nervous before events, so having the opportunity to sort all the formalities out before the last night’s sleep was nice.  Off to the local chippy for some fish and chips.  Google rated ‘Catch’ in the centre of town, and we found that it was indeed, a really good chippy.  I’m not sure a huge bag of fish and chips is perfect race prep food, but in terms of calming the nerves with comfort food, it really did the trick.

The campsite is nice and quiet so getting to sleep for 9:30 was easy.

I got up at 4:30 so I can start eating as much as I can, banana and frusli bars.  It is the competing dilemma of nervousness making me not want to eat, against knowing I must get into a good habit from now of about 200 calories an hour.

Totally Wonderfuel were there offering some great veggie food, but I was simply too nervous to eat anything big.

The loos was a bit of a negative, I wander down and find a huge queue.

queue small

This wasn’t good, so I decided to use the loos at Check Point 2.

This was probably one of the only negatives of the race.  I’m not sure the organiser can do anything about it.  300 people all wanting the loo at the same time – just one of those things.

The final briefing was lovely.  They ask people to raise their hands for certain questions.  There were quite a few doing a first hundred.  Not sure why, but it made me feel less lonely.  I think its because I get a bit intimidated at all these fantastically fit and athletic looking people – which I am not!  Realising I was not the only one in this situation helped a lot – it is the little things that make a big difference.

Finally, we’re off, a jog around the grounds and a squeeze onto the South Downs way proper.

As far as a first hundred is concerned, I’m not sure how the start could have been better.  The relaxing night before, the ease of getting up in the field of the start – very good.

The route

I think this little rock off the north of Europe is amazing.  Watching Attenborough on the telly about Africa etc, we forget how amazing our island is.  I think we all treat the SSI’s and national parks as normal.  We would, we grew up with them.  In fact, because of the rich seas, the fact that our rock every few hundred thousand years sinks into the ocean makes it extremely special.

I say that because most race reports, whether in Wales, Scotland or indeed the South Downs all say the route is amazing.  That’s because our whole island is.

So sorry to say the usual – the route is amazingly beautiful, and the chance to enjoy it, letting it fill my senses, sights, sound smells, over a whole day, night, dawn, sunset was very very special and I consider myself lucky to have been able to be there.

The start of the race, goes up Cheesefoot head, after that, it is possible to get some good running in.

CP1 small

Going down toward Exton from Checkpoint 1 – just beautiful English country side.

The route is great for a first hundred.  I hoped to reach the halfway point in about 12 hours, leaving me 18 hours to complete the second 50 – I thought I could do that walking.  Given what I have said about my pace – on the day, this was very achievable.  I did the first 50 in about 12 hours, and mainly walked the latter section, finishing in 27 hours.

Chalky middle section – down to Cocking
cocking small

The route does change subtly. The first section is rolling country side.  The middle section becomes hard trail, made of chalk and flint.  The final section is quite hilly, and grassy.

This oddly does help for first timers like me.  It is easy to get some good quick miles under the belt for the first marathon, which builds confidence.  By the time you get to the hilly section, there is a lot of walking anyway.  So it is nice to be able to walk the ups and jog/hobble the downs.

Time of Year

I think one final thing to say to first timers is the time of year. I was nervous about going non-stop for over 24 hours.   I also want to see the South Downs.  So the time of year was great – only six or seven of hours of real night.  I planned to walk this section, brought a radio play to listen to, to distract my mind away from the pain (since there is no views to do that).  That worked well.

I got to Saddlescombe farm just as it got dark.  Mile 66.6, and the check point crew wear little devil horns – great – again it’s the little things that get you through.  And I got to Southease, Mile 84 after dawn.  So only 20 miles in the dark really.

On the converse I was worried about the temperature – it can get silly this time of year.  To be honest, there is time to slow down.  Many people I spoke to complained it was really hot.  Personally, I see too many people with incorrect pacing given the conditions.  I took it very slow in the warm morning.  When it got cooler in the early evening I actually sped up!

Chanctonbury Ring Small

Chanctonbury ring – the trees in the distance in the centre – past Washington –
over half way and still running!

CheckPoints

Finally, finally.

Yes the checkpoints were fantastic.  I really felt that a lot of effort went into them, and they were a big part of the reason I’d say this is a great event for a first timer.

As I mentioned earlier I have stomach issues.  At each check point there was lots of sarnies, lots of fruit as well as the usual sweets.

The options for veggies and vegans were great which is usually a great indicator.

I struggled with my food after mile 51, in fact more bluntly I saw my checkpoint food twice….without going into details.  So after that point I didn’t each much at all, and I think the fat burn training paid off.

That said, at each check point there was always something I managed to get down.

Washington – strawberries!

Housedean Farm (76 miles) – Vegan Peanut butter cakes, I’m not vegan so ate a mars bar cake!  I didn’t realise that was a thing.  I ate it though and it was great, and didn’t come back up!

So all in all the check point crews were amazing, and I have never seen an event with not only such a variety of food, but the care into making  foods for every need.  Simply fantastic.

Conclusion

In summary, the race is great for first timers, and I would thoroughly recommend it.

Finally, sorry this write up is not usual footstep by footstep description of the race.  I just thought that there were enough of them already, so thought I would try and write something a little more helpful for first timers.  Please leave comments on what was useful/boring -I can then amend next race reports accordingly.

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Run Walk Crawl – Brecon to Cardiff Ultra

19th February 2017

The Brecon to Cardiff Ultra is very popular and it is easy to see why.  The extraordinary changes from tranquil canal sides, through mountain passes and ultimately to tragic and historic industrial landscapes depicts the whole of South Wales history in a day!

Though not actually a participant in this year’s race, I volunteered to sweep the route.  I have a hundred-mile race to train for by June.  The discipline of spending the whole day on my feet would be good training for the longer distance in the summer.  In the days building up to the event I was in mixed emotions.  Not ‘racing’ the event I was simply not worried about the distance, however intellectually I knew that over 40 miles was never going to be easy.  I simply could not convince my emotions that I needed to take the day seriously.  Emotionally thinking, I was going to take it easy, and pretty much walk at the back of the event.  It was an odd sensation, because I am normally panicking at the insanity of running almost two marathons back to back, and trying to intellectually calm myself down, knowing I have done all the proper training.  Well, we’d see.

Parking at the end of the route, just on the outskirts of Cardiff, a bus takes the victims, sorry racers, to Brecon.  As I mentioned earlier, the route does cover South Wales history.  Brecon is quite a picturesque town, but it is a garrison town too.  This is an historic as well as practical matter.  In Wales you are never more than a few miles from a Castle.  Edward Longshanks ‘conquered’ Wales in 1282-83 through a massive castle building exercise.  Many are still standing today, and are worth a tour in their own right.  Edward bankrupted England suppressing the Welsh in this way, and was economically unable to use the same tactic in Scotland, and failed to beat them.  Today, the Brecon Beacons is a training ground for the army, and the SAS can regularly be seen tramping around the mountains with massive packs.  Hence the garrison remains.

The busses took us to a school near the river Usk, where we all registered for the day.  The registration venue is a short walk from the start.  We were led down to the Canal Basin next to Theatr Brycheiniog where the race starts.  The start of the race is the very pretty Canal Wharf, which is the start of the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal.  After a short briefing we were away.  The start is a little narrow, as the race twists past some bridges and houses.  After a few minutes we were all running.Usk small

For the next seven miles the race follows the canal, to Talybont on Usk.  Even if you are not into racing Ultras this is definitely a place that is worth a visit for a walk.  It is just beautiful.  Today, the sun was out, and spring was in the air.  Every few miles or so there are information boards which tell of the industrial use of the canal, ferrying ore from the welsh mountains to the ports just over 40 miles away.

Despite it being February, it very much felt like spring.  Swathes of Snowdrops covered the banks, white carpets of hope heralding sweeter days to come.  The canal runs alongside the River Usk, and after a couple of miles we met an aqueduct.  The aqueduct takes the canal over the river Usk, and toward the Brecon Beacons.

aquaduct - small

Aquaduct over the Usk

Being at the back of the pack, and not rushing like usual was very nice, and I was able to soak up the scenery and truly enjoy the morning.  At points along the way I met the occasional friendly rambler or chatty dog walker.  At each of the bridges I also met the First Aid team, specialists specifically brought in for the event, impressively professional.

For the next few miles it is possible to see the Beacons beckoning.  Today they were frowning and intimidating.  Despite the nice weather lower down, the clouds covered the peaks, and there was an ominous and foreboding presence to them.  It was nice to know that today I would be following the Taff trail, clearly marked with no navigational issues.  We also wouldn’t be going that high, but…..well there is a climb.

drawbridgeOn nearing Talybont on Usk, there are some fascinating drawbridges (well, as an engineer I’m fascinated!).  They are still working today to get across the canal to fields and houses.  The one in Talybont is part of the main road to the reservoir and the beacons.

Once past the first checkpoint in Talybont, we start up the hill, along the old iron carrying tramway, that is now the Taff Trail.  The picturesque little cottages, welcoming country pubs, and pretty canal side gardens give way to the low woods of the Beacons. The climb, though not steep, goes on for mile after mile.  I’ve mentioned in earlier reports that it is a tricky section of any ultra, particularly so early in a race.  The gradient is steep enough to raise the heart rate that it is hard work, but not so steep as to warrant walking.  Tough, tactical choices here, just seven miles into the course.

Taff TrailThe picture shows the lush green pastures which we are now leaving, along the Trail.  Talybont Reservoir ahead.  Carn Pica to the right and ahead, the invisible peaks that our slow, long climb will take us into.  The Trail here is an old iron works railway line to carry the goods to the canal.

The race route slightly deviates from the Taff Trail half way up the mountain.  Trail Race directors seem to think its funny to make routes that little bit tougher by going through deep mud, and this diversion was no different.  Slippy, ankle deep mud, and now we were in the mist that was turning to drizzle.  To be fair, the weather was excellent for February in the Beacons.  And the climb through the woods with the imposing mountains in the background was wonderful.

Finally, at the top of the pass, a turn left down a short section of road and back on trail.  We were now running near the Merthyr Mountain railway.  I was fortunate enough to run past as the small gauge steam train chugged passed.

A mile later and the second checkpoint came. The lovely Marshalls were unusually happy to see me since I was sweeping, and now they could go home.  The Beacons section of the race was drawing to a close.  One last section of wood and out of the national park.  This section changes gradually from the wild barren moorland of the beacons to the hidden industrial secrets of the south wales valleys.  Coming out of the woods, the route passes the end of the Ponticill reservoir.   Then following an old railway line across an amazingly high, many arched railway bridge.  Within a mile, we reach check point 3, in the town of Merthyr.

Merthyr ViaductIf you just take this route as normal ultra, you will miss so much.  The next section crosses another viaduct, from which you can see Cyfartha Castle.  It is more of a stately home, that a castle.  It was once owned by the Crawshay’s, one of the two coal and iron barons of the town.  The other family were the Guests.  The history of the families describe well how people in the industrial era were treated.  One of the families kept the truck system, where the owners provided everything as part of the renumeration.  The other family paid wages for use in any shop.  Each had their advantages and disadvantages.  All is described brilliantly in an excellent book by Gwyn Williams.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/d/Books/Merthyr-Rising-Gwyn-Williams/0708310141

Ultimately the conditions for the working families led to the Merthyr rising.  As legend would have it, when a white flag was dipped in cows blood, the Red Flag was borne.

Also Merthyr has been told, was the first place a train ran, carrying ore to the works.  Wales hides its history well!

Or you can ignore all this and trundle through Merthyr.

Once out of Merthyr, after about 3 or 4 miles the route comes again to another infamous historic site.  The path passes above the Aberfan Memorial.  A very sad moment in South Wales history, and I could not help but stand for just a moment.  It still brings me to tears if I think about it too much, where just over 50 years ago 116 children, who should be my age now, lost their lives through the corporate negligence of the National Coal Board.

The Taff trail is now a tarmac path (and is for the remainder of the race).  The Directors allow a drop bag in Merthyr to permit runners a change from Trail to road shoe.  Not long after Aberfan is check point 4.  Because of the time of year it was starting to get dark now.  I was glad we were out of the Beacons and dropping much lower in height.  You really feel the difference in weather between the mountains, and the coastal port of Cardiff.   Whilst it had been drizzling in the mountains, the rain was holding off here, and the couple of degrees increase in temperature makes a big difference, especially as you tire toward the end of the day.

frost and sunAfter probably the trickiest junction of the day, a sharp right (indicated on the floor!) to pass under the A470.  A couple of miles and again back down to pretty brooks, streams, and woods.  I was lucky enough to catch the last of the light.  Frost on the ground and sun reddening the tops of the trees.  Throughout the day I had seen such a spectrum of nature’s colours, and such a variety of scenery, its what makes Ultras, no other race offers the time and distance to provide the variety.

In South Wales, streets can be very long (following the valley), but every few hundred yards, the street becomes a different town.  Now we were in Valleys heartland, place names flew passed, Treharris. Quakers Yard, Fiddlers Elbow, Abercynon, Cilfynydd.  It was dark now, and I knew it was only four or so miles to the final check point in Pontypridd.  Many people use this as a first ultra, and the directors make a point of laying on chips at Trallwng Working Mens Club, the final checkpoint.  An added incentive to keep going when it gets tough.  The people I met along the way were certainly dreaming of the chips to come.

After a quick handful of food at the club, it was back out and the final six miles. Now I mentioned earlier that I was a little nervous of today, and rightly so.  I started to struggle with the last section.  I think it was down to the fact that I normally run, and today I walked.  I assume the change in muscle usage played a part.  A blister developed at the bottom of my heel, again I think caused by the walking.  I had run 50 miles in these shoes without a problem.

I caught the last people at the back, and it was a race.  The 12 hour cut off was looming, and the back markers were trying their damndest to get a medal.  I have huge respect for these people.  I know its great to see fast runners (the winner today ran 44 miles in 5 ½ hours! Mad), but if it comes easier to people then…..well to me the people I respect the most are those at the back.  It is truly hard to do something that doesn’t come too naturally.

Its one of the reasons I love Run, Walk Crawl events.  Their mission is to get people to the finish, and they try so hard to do that.  The chips are a great example of the way they try to help with the mind games to get you to the end.

The last mile of trail seemed to go on forever.  If this had been the start of the day, then it would have been pleasant.  In the dark, at the end of 40+ miles, and facing missing the cut off, the last mile went on, and on.  Finally, street lights, houses and a short dash down the hill to where we started the day, getting on the busses over fourteen hours ago.

The people at the back,

just over the 12 hour cut off.

Got their medal though, Finishers T-shirt, and a time on the results.

Why not, they had done the 44 miles and earned it the hard way. That is why this event is great, it supports runners to achieve their goals.

Finally, a comment on the event – do do this event if you are looking for a fast time, a marathon runner looking for an ultra, or are poor at navigation.  If you are looking for Mud, serious climbs and knife edge ridges, probably not the race for you – try the RWC 50  or hundred in the summer.

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Run Walk Crawl South Wales Hundred Recce

29 January 2017

Though it wasn’t a race, I thought I’d write this brief blog post of the recce in case anyone was wondering whether to do the South Wales 100 this year and hadn’t quite decided.  If you haven’t yet visited the South Wales hills and the Brecon Beacons, then you have a real treat awaiting you.  Though I haven’t done the hundred (I did the 50 last year), I have done all the recces, and as such have run the entire route.

It can be wet in South Wales, very wet! And it was one of those days last Sunday when it started raining in the morning and you just knew it was in for the day.  I do hope that this didn’t put any newcomers to the route off on the day.  I can’t see how it would, because despite the rain it was a magical day.

For a mountain Ultra, this is a rare one, in that it sets off from a Capital City, Cardiff.  The event starts just off the M4, or 3 train stops from the main line station in Cardiff.  The actual race offers camping at the start and finish, which is nice.  Its an odd feeling starting from a metropolis (albeit on the outskirts) for a day in the mountains.

The route starts gently for the first mile, following the River Taff, along the Taff trail.  Its very pretty and Herons can regularly be seen here.  Kingfishers are also around to be seen, if you are more lucky.  Seeing the Taff in full flow because of the rain, you start to see the true beauty of Wales.  No matter what the weather there is always something wonderful to see.  The force of the water over the weir was quite breathtaking.

After the first mile its up quite a steep climb to the fairy tale Castell Coch.  Once at the top of the woods it’s a run down along the Taff Trail, through a green barrier, ignoring the first sign to Taffs Well, and following the second.

The route then takes you through Taffs Well and across the river Taff. Then begins the stiff climb up the Garth.  This hill lets you know just how tough the 100 mile event will be.  Only 4 miles in and, despite the deception of the map telling that the hill is only 300 metres high, this one is definitely a walk in places.  On the way up the hill you pass the Gwaelod Y Garth Inn.  Excellent food and beer at very reasonable rates, its definitely worth a visit if you are staying nearby.  They do allow muddy boots, as walkers and mountain bikers frequent the place regularly.

A very misty morning for today’s climb up the Garth

Once on the top of the hill there is a chance to get some miles under the belt.  Sometimes there are Welsh Black cattle that look significantly scarier than they really are.  Run past some houses with Llamas (I think they were them not the others which look similar), and following the ridgeway path into the woods with some muddy steep sections.

The next section brings you to Llantrisant, via some charming countryside and rolling fields.  Llantrisant has an Arts Centre in the middle of the village, but since the race will be passing here at about 8 or 9 at night, will unfortunately be missed, unless you’re making a weekend of it.

Passing the old fort towards Llantrisant

Once across the busy dual carriageway (not nice this bit!) its into Llantrisant Forest.  Its about now you really start to appreciate being in Wales.  It dawns on you that despite leaving the countries capital, the whole route has been hills, woods, pleasant farmland with brooks, and we are not even near the mountains yet.  The valleys, if seen through the wrong eyes, are economically poor and industrial.  But scratch the surface and it is a poor secret that this is an Adult playground that even for someone who has lived their entire life here, there can still be discoveries and new wonders just around the corner.   When I was on last year’s recce, one of the runners seemed to sum it up nicely.  They said it felt like someone had found a way of making their favourite route a race, and couldn’t wait to show others. This is South Wales, always.

The route through the forest takes us up onto the main ridge that leads to Mynydd Y Gaer.  Because of the mist, not much could be seen today, but normally you can see the sea on one side and over to Devon, and the Beacons on the other.  The route now is a very picturesque little track (muddy not stone) through some sheep and cattle country.  Its one of those places that makes you feel like a kid, on a picnic on a warm summers day, blanket out, cattle grazing and sheltering under a tree, listening to the dragon flies darting around.  Not today though, just mud and pretty scenery.

Finding the trig point at the half way point for the day, we are led down through some bracken to the bottom of the valley and the climb back up to Ogmore Forest.  Once in the forest, more wonderful woodland scenes.  Today though, due to the rain, the path wasn’t simply alongside the pretty little river, it was one itself.  Plodding through the mud and trees was quite fun at first, but after twenty minutes of ankle deep running water, I must admit, my feet did get a little chilly….and lets say I’ll keep my unrepeatable mutterings to myself.

Which River do I run in? – Ogmore Forest

This was the last long climb of the day, and soon brought us out onto the open moor at the top.  There is some tricky navigation at this point.  The paths are not often used, so no tell-tale tracks (which I’d avoid relying on in Wales as they are usually made by sheep!) to follow.  Today was particularly hard, in the dense mist.  There is a windmill farm at this point and you’d think these could be used to navigate from, but it was really eerie.  In the dense fog, they simply could not be seen from 50 meters away.  All you could hear was their gentle swooshing, which seemed to come from all around.  What made the navigation worse is that this area is littered with relatively deep bog.  A missed placed foot meant knee deep mud, and very cold mud at that!

I admit to cheating a bit here.  The route follows the public right of way across the bogs.  However some agreeable engineers have laid some nice, solid, firm, and relatively dry tracks to the windmills, which only take you slightly out of your way…..

Once back on the track, again some little bit of navigation work and deduction to find the easiest route which leads to the top of the mountain.  Once on the right path between the wood and fence it is time to relax, for today at any rate.  The route is easy from here, and once at the Cairn at the top, downhill all the way to Ton Pentre.

Final summit of the day, shame about the views

After about a mile from the cairn we meet the road.  This is locally known as the Bwlch, and is a breathtaking ice age formed valley.  Unfortunately most 100 runners will probably be here at late dusk, so won’t get to see this amazing valley, nor enjoy the ice cream van which usually parks in the lay-by at the point where we meet the road.

If you’re interested in timings, I am normally a 13 to 14 minute miler in the mountains.  And today took me just over that.  Navigation was admittedly tricky due to the mist, but if I was doing the 100 I would certainly be going a lot slower.  The 28 miles of the recce took me over 6 and a half hours.

There are more recce’s of the 100 (and 50) coming soon, and I would advise anyone considering doing them to take advantage of the opportunity.  I used the day as a training run (as I am not doing the event this year) as it is such a lovely day out.  As for RWC who lay on the event, they are very supportive, and one of those organisers who, whilst very professional, are nicely laid back.  To describe that in another way, there were walkers on the recce who felt that 40 hours cut off would be difficult for them.  The RDs have as such created a walkers start time.  They are truly there to support you in achieving a very difficult goal, and create that respectful rather than macho environment that I so love in the ultra community.

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Might Contain Nuts – Winter Race Report

The Might Contain Nuts (MCN) series of races are well loved in South Wales.  How popular they are further afield I am not sure.  Since the ultra is not part of the ‘magic’ numbers (50 Miles, 100K or even 100 miles), I assume that’s the reason I don’t seem to hear much of them on social media.  The Ultra being ‘only’ 42ish miles I fear makes some feel it is not a real challenge.  How untrue!  The welsh mountains do certainly make these events hard, and the number of DNFs are a testament to the deception of the distance compared to the severity of the races.

MCN in spring was my first ever ultra, it was the race that gave me the ultra bug.  The winter edition is now my fifth ultra.  These particular events are great because they are hassle free, which for those of us with stressful jobs is a welcome relief.  Despite the challenge for all distances (they do a 10 and 26 Miler, plus a 42ish ultra), the events are short enough to be able to do in a day, so there is far less worry about accommodation and other things that normally come with doing a 15+ hour event.  Mix all that with the breath-taking scenery of the Brecon Beacons, and you have the perfect mix (for me at any rate).

The Winter Race

Each of the four events of the year have their own uniqueness.  Ordinarily the spring event is very muddy.  This round is usually less muddy, more track, but the dark and changeable winter weather brings its own challenges.

Because all MCN distances are extremely challenging, there is a lovely atmosphere in the room prior to the start.  Anyone doing any race has respect.  The 10 milers are pressured because its straight up a mountain and back, with the focus of time.  The Marathon takes easily 8 hours!  There is no easy option and everyone knows it, so that wonderful feeling of respect pervades the space at these events, and is the main reason I do the sport.

After last year’s fiasco of arriving late due a felled tree in the storms, I made sure I arrived very early.  In December this means dark, very dark.  The drive over the mountains to even reach the event was difficult.  Dense fog and nothing but bleak moorland for visible indications of where the road was meant to be, resulted in driving at not much over 10 miles an hour for some of the journey.  Welcome to the Welsh Mountains!

When registering for these events you get a map, which on the whole isn’t necessary as the routes are very well marked.  There are one or two places you can go wrong in the dark, but is very unlikely.  The organisers claim the maps are to allow competitors to make decisions about water and check points.  So with my registration all done and now with a cup of tea in hand, relax!  MCN bring in Prickly Pear to do the food – excellent stuff, and ‘proper’ food for veggies too.  At the finish they do a vegan chilli, which is really amazing!  I saw Joseph  from Up and Under, but then missed him and unfortunately didn’t get the chance to say hello.  Guessed I’d see him out on the course.

Race Day

My prep for the event wasn’t brilliant.  I had run the Lakes in a Day in October, and somehow hadn’t gotten back into a proper training routine.  On top of the work commitments and a bout of winter colds I felt I was in less than peak fitness.  Still its only 40 miles – a short one!  Mistake number one, not the lack of training, that’s life, but underestimating this event!

We were called to the start line in the dark.  The route takes a few miles to get up on the mountains, and the race follows the Taff Trail, which is easy in the dark.  So setting off at 7:30 is just perfect to get the most of the very few available hours of light at this time of year.

I had brought my Mudclaws as these events are notoriously muddy, and this event has the joy of the ‘Bog of Doom’, but I decided against them.  This winter has been exceptionally dry in South Wales.  The trails are rock hard.  I find my Claws can be tough on hard ground for too long.  So I opted for my Terraclaws which I used in the Lakes.  I was nervous about wearing what is essentially a summer/autumn shoe in mid-winter, but this route has a fair bit of track later on, so I opted for comfort over grip.  I also thought that the bogs are so deep getting stuck is more of an issue than slipping.

The Start

So there we are, 7:30, in the dark.  The frost of earlier in the week has gone, and the conditions are perfect, no rain or wind.  Fantastic!  And we are off.  There is a regular at these events with a couple of huskies.  I’m mentioning this because I am normally not fond people having inappropriate pets.  Big dogs, with little exercise bothers me.  Big dogs are a responsibility.  However, these dogs are beautiful, and clearly Ultra races are great for them.  The dogs were so full of energy, it really was like the start of a sleigh run, they were excitedly yipping.  Off they went at a pace, dragging their owner behind them.  Really nice sight.

The start of the route quickly brings you to the Brecon – Monmouth Canal.  Following this for a mile or so is a lovely gentle start to the day.  It is here that you really start to appreciate the beauty of the route.  The tranquillity of the canal is followed by a track through woods, which used to be a rail line for carrying quarry goods.  Then up a stony path.  The final section of Tor Y Foel is open hill, sheep pasture and exposed mountain.  Within three miles this route has it all.  Amazing!

Tor Y Foel, on the maps is only 550M high, so can catch out those unfamiliar with the area.  It is a very tough climb.  The first two miles from the canal up the mountain are a gentle gradient, and this was tricky for me.  On races I use a HR monitor to make sure I don’t go shooting off and destroy my legs before we get into the main race.  The gradient was not steep enough to walk, and not flat enough to run comfortably without the HR monitor screaming at me to slow down.  I decided to chance it and tried to run as gently as possible up the slope.  I figured I could try and take it easy down the other side.

Past the first checkpoint just after mile three and the wooded section, then into the mist and the final push of the climb.  Tor Y Foel just gets steeper and steeper.  The route we took was the ‘easy option’.  There is a path from the East that is just straight up.  The path we took is not so severe, but results in a longer climb.  Finally, the top came and I felt a little tired, maybe the running at the bottom wasn’t so wise.

I’ve said in other reports that my downhill has been poor.  I have been practising my running form, and downhill repeats to sort this.  This does appear to be working, because for the first time in a race I overtook someone going downhill.  Then another!  Admittedly quite a few passed me, but – two people!  Really chuffed, training is doing something good.
Unfortunately, I did make the mistake of then being encouraged by this and bolted down the rest of the hill.  After the decision to run up Tor Y Foel, running down it was not exactly a considered approach to the first 5 miles of an Ultra.

Second Climb

At the bottom of the hill we were back to the gorgeous canal, and through the pretty village of Llangynidr.  Along some roads and up the next climb of the day to the high moorland of Llangatwg.  Since I knew I had set off a little fast, I took the chance to chat to a couple of women walking up the hill and slow down a little.

Ben, my trainer from Aspire Fitness, went pelting past shouting at me that if I had breath to chat I could go faster.  He was on the Marathon, which starts half an hour later, and had already caught me up.  I was an hour and half in at 8 miles, and he had run the same distance in an hour!  It was his Gym that got me into this whole mess – really!  They direct Run Walk Crawl events, and two years ago I did their trail half marathon, my first ever running event.  I would never have thought a marathon was possible then, let alone an Ultra.  To me the sign of an excellent trainer, making the impossible possible.

Anyway, I couldn’t let him get away with the comment and sprinted up the hill after him and asked him how I could have caught him if he was pushing it too, at which point I collapsed and he left me for dust, not fair really!

Slowing again to recatch my breath, I made it to the hauntingly open moorland of Llangatwg in the mist and the gently jog back down the hill.  This section is nice, the serenity of winter moorland, rolling grass hills, but with the bleak beauty of the welsh hills, just so special.

Now I mentioned above about these events being famed for mud.  But this year I had definitely made the right shoe choice.  The lane up the second climb from Llangynidr is one of those disused overgrown farm tracks.  Last year the path through the overgrown trees and broken stones was ankle deep in mud, not this year.

Check Point 2 and Mynydd Llangynidr

The next climb, which last year was a slippery mud bath was a pleasant green field.  This did make life a lot easier. We ran past a couple of farms and up the third steep hill of the day to the second check point.

The route now goes out onto the open moor of Mynydd Llangynidr.  For those who haven’t been here it’s well worth a day walk.  It’s not on the usual route for tourists so there is the wonderful isolation that can so seldom be found these days.  Sometimes you will meet the occasional mountain biker, but I have spent the best part of a whole day on the moor and not met a soul.  It is also about the best place in the world to practice map and compass work.  Miles of open moorland and some isolated features of interest to go and find.  Like the Chartist Cave, where chartists used to meet during their campaign.

It’s at this point in a race where I normally find pacing hard.  I pass people and they pass me.  Differing strengths and weaknesses, but it is easy to dragged along at someone else’s pace.  This was clearly the case at this point in the race.  Lots of people I had passed up the hill were now passing me.  It takes some strength to let them go and run my own race.

The route now follows a track down a very pretty steep wooded hillside, past some farms and back up another very steep hillside to Check Point 3.  I did mention that this event was particularly dry, but it is a Might Contain Nuts event and the lack of mud is only relative.  The route down through the wood was very muddy and running through a river of water on what is meant to be a track is all par for the course, and immense fun.  The first female marathon runner went flying past me here.  I know there are matters of fitness, but I do find it amazing to watch these great athletes, it is so far beyond me that I find it a joy to watch.  How do they move their feet so fast over that terrain, just incredible?

Climb Four, CP3 and the lovely ridge run to Dolygaer

The constant climbing of the event is apparent as the next climb comes immediately after we cross the small road.  Through a pretty piece of wood, and a relatively short but very steep climb up to Check Point 3.

Once past Check Point 3, and finally a nice long bit of comfortable track to start to get some miles under the belt, and start to feel as if I am making progress.  Check Point 3 is around the half marathon mark, and it had taken me 3 hours.  There had already been four tough climbs, and only just over quarter of the way round!  The psychology of hilly ultras can grind you down.  It has to be very much – “it takes as long as it takes”.

Next to follow the path that eventually leads to Dolygaer Activity Centre, Pontsticill Reservoir and CP4.  A couple of miles of a track gently sloping uphill, ice and a bit of snow.  An amazing view of the valley below and the Talybont reservoir.  It is here I get a real first glimpse of the mountains, and the real big climbs that are yet to come. Finally, through a gate, and then a nice downhill run all the way to CP4.

The gentle climb from CP3 is taking my Heart Rate too high.  There never seems to be any place on the route where I can let it drop sufficiently for some recovery.  With the silliness of my speed up and down Tor Y Foel, and the fact that after CP3 is the first time that there is anything like a track where some ‘proper’ running can take place I think I was simply overstressing my body.

I was about a mile from CP4 and I felt really nauseous.  I have stomach problems when running, and it’s one of the things I am trying to learn to manage.  I slowed to a trot to see if it would pass.  I had run the last three hours on Tailwind, and a few treats. I drank some water and trotted for about half a mile.  I didn’t lose too much time because it was downhill and I could drop my HR without losing too much speed.

Nope, nauseous still there.  I didn’t want to spend the next 7 hours feeling sick! Now the thought of having heavy chewy food when feeling sick seems counter intuitive, but I thought about how cheese had helped in previous races.  I had brought a couple of cheese sarnies with me, just to try.  So I slowed to walking pace and nibbled on one.  A runner flew passed shouting ‘lunch time then’, it is nice the way people talk, and keep an eye on you.

Amazingly the sandwich worked.  After about 3 minutes the nausea had gone and I was trotting along enjoying the sun.  CP4.

The Bog of Doom!

Fill the water bottles, no more Tailwind I think from now on. Then down to the reservoir, and up to the ‘bog of doom’.  They train the Special Forces here.  People see the army training over the peaks and it is obvious to think climbing the hills is hard; but the bog is the killer.  It looks nothing on a map, so if unaware, the psychology of it really gets you.  On this race this can be a real challenge, since at this point we are still under half way, and still have the major climb of the day to overcome.  Energy sapping bog is the last thing needed!

Today though, was the easiest I have ever crossed it.  Most was frozen still, so where there was water, standing on it carefully made crossing easy.  I have tried so many times to find an easy way across the bog, but never have.  It is simply a slog to get across.

Now I was across the bog I could really start enjoying the event.  Up to the trig at Mwyalchod, then along the magnificent ridge that leads to Pen Y Fan.  The winter route doesn’t normally go this high, but this year due to forestry work, there was an extra mountain thrown in for fun.

I am a little nervous of exposure and find ridges tricky.  This ridge however is wonderful.  There is a very precipitous drop on one side, but a lot of moorland on the other, so when my fear gets too much I can move away from the edge.  This means I can relax and enjoy the views, and they were fantastic, with some snow still lying on the ground near the summits.

The climb from the reservoir to the summit near Bwlch Duwynt is over 6 miles.  If this was earlier in the race a lot could be runnable, but at this stage there is considerable walking.  It is here that fitness can be seen to be an advantage.  The six miles took me over an hour and a half.  I did try and run from time to time, but soon found the exertion was too much.  I was nervous of burning out with still a long way to go.

The day is getting on a little now, I had taken five and a half hours to reach the Bwlch. I was just over half way, admittedly most of the climbing was behind me, but it is now nearly one o’clock.  At this time of year it will be getting dark in a few hours.  It’s those little things that make this event such fun, and hard.

From Bwlch Duwynt it’s a mile of downhill running to the car park, CP5 and the marathon mark.  The route was icy, firm underfoot and relatively steep.  All that way plays havoc with the joints and the pounding …..I know I need to get stronger to do this, but it takes time.

Anyone who knows the Brecon Beacons will know of the path from the car park to the summit of Pen Y Fan – it is a motorway of tourists.  A well laid out path makes the mountain very accessible.  So after nearly six hours of mountain marathon I probably looked a sorry sight to the crowds.  And you certainly do get that look, at first its surprise – “they ran up there!” – then you see it sink in – “nutter, just mad!”

Burger Vans and Corn Du

Given the cheese sarnie matter earlier, there are burger vans at this car park….I was very, very tempted.  I go nuts for fried onions….but thought the better of it.  My stomach was doing OK, so took no risks.  The checkpoints on these events are old school, jelly babies, and liquorice all-sorts if you are lucky.  I like this, the support crew do what they are supposed to do, give loads of support, check for medical problems that we may not own up to with the determination to finish etc.  They really are a great bunch on these events.

I now could look forward to the last truly big climb of the day, back up to Corn Du.  I am usually strong on climbs but I think my exuberance earlier on was starting to take its toll.  I hadn’t really let my heart rate drop all day.  As a result the last 100m of the 350m climb up the hill was a struggle.  That said I find it amazing how the state of mind can have an effect.  It may well have been because I had psyched myself up for Corn du as the last hard slog, knowing it was mainly low ground from here on in.  On the way up I met and chatted with the guy with huskies, really lovely chap.

Finally after what seemed an age, the turn to the left to leave the mountains and a nice gentle run through the grass for some miles to CP6.  Thirty miles done, and only 11 miles to go.  There is an enjoyable section of road from this point.  I guess the reason the Directors have designed the course this way is to get most runners off the high fells before it is too dark.  No more climbs above 400M.

The Roads and Lowland Sections

This bit of the race I did find hard, really hard.  I walked to eat another sandwich, and my stomach wasn’t causing too many problems.  Taking it easy for 5 minutes to get some good food in before some easy miles and a sprint to the end, or so I thought.  This is where MCN events can bite you, my mind was in the wrong place I guess.  If I had been more focussed it would have probably been easier, but I thought that the road section would be easy and the miles would drift by.  But the 3 miles of road and lanes really dragged, and I had to fight hard not to walk.  I missed a marker which made it worse, taking even more time.  I’m not that competitive, but when you think that miles will go by in 10 minutes, but take 18 or twenty that can be tough on the mind.

At each milestone I had noted in my preparations, I was thinking, 11 miles to go, ten miles to go, 9 miles to go, 8 miles to go… and so on.  I had made the most basic of mistakes in an ultra and focused on the finish, rather than achievable milestones.  I was struggling mentally.  I forgot to simply enjoy being outdoors.  The country side here is very pretty, and a nice change from the mountains.  If only I had taken time to appreciate the amazing route.  The day started with lonely moors and high mountain ridges.  There were now rolling hills, wooded valleys and hidden streams to cross, the sort of stuff that make life worth living.

When I got to CP6, with just a handful of miles left to go I had got my mind sorted.  There are a few stings in the tail for this route.  After Corn Du, the climbs are small, but there are at least 4 that can take the wind out of your sails, especially after 30+ miles of mountain.

The Marshall at CP6 had Hobnobs, I tried hard not to steal the entire packet, love them!  Now with some oaty sugar in me I was set for the last 5 miles.  I was fortunate to be quick enough to have gotten this far in the light, but it was getting seriously dark now, so put my head torch on.  A couple of short road sections and some paths through fields.  The section is well signposted, with luminous sticks regularly placed at sections where you may go wrong.

Finally, at the end of a countryside section, we are brought back to the canal, and I know home is not far.  The last half mile is a return of the way out, and it’s nice to know how far it is.  Then up a steep slope to see the finish.

At the end everyone is so welcoming and make you feel brilliant.  It is quite an achievement to complete an ultra, particularly a tough mountain route such as MCN.  The people at MCN support you in feeling that.  I finished in under 10 hours. Considering my training had been poor, and I messed up the psychology in reflection I am pleased with my result.  But the main thing is I enjoyed the scenery and the route very much.

So to wrap up, a massive thanks to the MCN team, yet another great event.  Apparently they are going to mix things up next year.  I hope they don’t change things too much, the events are great as they are!

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Lakes in a Day – Race Report

Lakes in Day Race report           

The Lakes in a Day was my first Ultra outside of South Wales.  My first ever Ultra was the Might Contain Nuts ultra in March, a 40 miler over the Black Mountains.  I’d then done the Preseli Beast (32 Miles), and Run Walk Crawl South Wales 50.  The Run Walk Crawl event was absolutely amazing.  It has a high dropout rate and 3200M of climb.  I’d managed that OK, so was feeling a little confident that I could do the 4000M, 50 miles of the Lakes in a day, but….

I am fearful of heights.  I regularly run along the ridge in the Brecon Beacons to try and overcome this fear, but it is always there.  I was very glad that the Lakes in a Day route allows an alternative route down from Blencathra than Halls Fell Ridge.  I was also a little worried about running in the lakes for the first time. Would the environment be so different?  50 miles is a long way to learn the hard way.

So earlier in the year I recce’d the route from Threlkeld to Ambleside, and from Ambleside to Cartmel.  The first part was to understand if I would have any issues with going up the ridge to Lower Man, which leads to Helvellyn.  Also to try and understand my rate of progress across the ridge.  My earlier races had shown me that people who keep an eye on pace, particularly marathon runners, soon come unstuck.  Trying to keep to a 10 minute mile along a ridge such as that in Helvellyn is only something that Elites can do, and certainly not middle of the pack runners like me.

During the recce I’d used my amazing La Sportiva Bushidos, from my favourite outdoor shop Up and Under in Cardiff.  Their personal advice certainly beats Internet shopping for gear that your life is dependent on.  Ian Corless recently reviewed the Bushidos and didn’t like them.  I have come from a walking background, and find the shoes like a running version of my old boots.  They provide loads of protection, and good support.  In Ian’s review there is a comparison between them and Inov 8s.  The Inov8s do provide more freedom, but I think they serve different purposes.

The Helvellyn Ridge is very rocky compared to the South Wales Fans, and I was glad of the solidity of the Bushidos.  They were a very good shoe for the recce, and I think they are perfect for this route.  During the recce I managed about 3 to 4 miles an hour – this included map reading in the mist.  Also the ridge up Lower Man was OK for my vertigo, so long as I strode straight up it.  The slope to the right is quite gentle and that gave me confidence.

With the distance between Threlkeld and Ambleside being 18ish miles, that meant that in the race water would certainly be an issue, since I completed the recce in about 4 to 5 hours.

Race Day

I was camping at Cartmel – something laid on by the event, and that was great, no fuss about accommodation.  I rose at 5:00AM to catch the 5:45 bus provided by Open Adventure.  I grabbed a bowl of Ready Brek.  I find that very easy to make that time in the morning.  It can be a little stodgy for a race, but eating at 5:15 for an 8 o’clock start I thought it would be OK, and it was.  Set up with Oats for the morning, and grabbing my pack which I had prepared the night before I went to the busses.  Being October it was very dark at this time, and did make it feel like the middle of the night.  Though to me that is the nature of Ultras, that little bit of extra effort, up early and going till late at night places demands.

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The lights of runners getting ready for the day was inspiring

I like races with bus journeys, it is a chance to meet people with a little time.  I find it good not to meet new people just before the race where my nerves start to get the better of me and I am probably a little unsocial.  I always find everyone I meet on these events truly wonderful, and I think it is one of the main draws of the sport.

The bus journey is an hour and half and got us to Calbeck in plenty of time.  Time to check all is there and get clothes ready for the race.  The bus journey is also during dawn, so you get a chance to enjoy the increasing visibility of the Lake District.

Caldbeck to Threlkeld.

This was the only bit of the route I had not recce’d.  I’d assumed that early in the race there would be plenty around me to assist with navigation, and also taking it a little easy to navigate would slow me down, to ensure I didn’t rush off.

I have never done a race with 300 starters.  I like to start at the back, people seem to shoot off really really fast.  On the South Wales 50, I genuinely was at the back at the start.  That policy seemed to work well as I overtook many people on the day and finished in the top 20%.

It worked out a little differently here.  Oddly enough for quite a wide moorland, the paths up High Pike and Blencathra are narrow.  There is a well-trod single path.  To the side is dense heather and high grass.  As a result, I was at the back making slow progress.  When I did try to get past people, by getting off the path my work rate was very high, something I was trying to avoid so early on.

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If you look carefully you can see the snake of runners up the hill, I’m clearly a long way back going up the first climb

One excellent feature of this race is the live tracking.  Looking back at my progress on the tracker, I did really seem to get stuck at the back, and lost the best part of ¾ of an hour.  What I don’t know is if I pushed myself a little earlier would I suffer later on.  Something to explore.  For me, I think if I ever do the race again, I will need to push it for the first mile to get sufficiently in front so I can move at a pace I like to keep.

In the end I didn’t wear my Bushidos I was warned against changing at Ambleside since wet feet and dry shoes don’t bode well for blisters.  I had intended to use them for the 1st section, but plumbed for a shoe that I thought would be better for the whole route.  I was trying out some new Inov 8 Terraclaw 220s.  These have a 4mil drop.  I was a little nervous about the grip since the tread is not too deep.  Over the moors, they worked wonderfully.  The grip was surprisingly good for a general purpose shoe.

The run down from Coomb Height is interesting.  I took the direct route to the river, but those who veered to the left and took the track did seem to go quicker.  Another lesson.

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Crossing the river is entertaining, so long as its taken carefully

Once over the river the long trek up Blencathra.  About three quarters of the way up a lot of people followed the GPS of the 2015 route past Foule Crag.  This is a very steep route to the top.  I took the straighter route, under the scree and round up to Blencathra.  This did seem quicker.

I had aimed to feel comfortable at the top of Blencathra.  It is approximately 1100M of climb into the race, so if I felt good here then I knew I was not pushing it too hard.  I passed the trig, and immediately started to jog down to the right, following the route to Blease Fell, rather than following most people down Halls Fell.

This was due to my Vertigo.  I would really love to do the ridge, it looks wonderful, and I always find it a source of deep regret that I am challenged this way.  Maybe with a bit of work I will be able to tackle the ridge next year.  The problem is that if I do try and go for the ridges I spend weeks worrying about it, rather than looking forward to a lovely weekend.

I was worried that I would be the only person doing the Blease Fell route.  This didn’t prove to be the case though, there were a few of us.  The path is very clear and easy to follow.

Having looked at the map previously, the main route did lead to a car park near the Blencathra Centre, a long distance out of my way.  There were some minor paths marked, but I’ve been in the hills long enough to realise that what is written on the map as a path may not be that obvious in reality.  This slowed me down checking the map.  As it happens, there is a clear pile of stones after some zig zags down the main path.  At the stones you can either go to the centre or go straight down the hill and then follow a path that takes you pretty much to Threlkeld – easy.

First Checkpoint.

I don’t like to spend too much time at checkpoints.  In the case of Lakes in a Day, this is a shame.  The spread of food is amazing.  Rolls, fruit, everything you could want.  In previous events I have had stomach issues.  I have tried Tailwind and even that gives me stomach problems.  On this race I was experimenting with eating only savoury food at checkpoints and trying to keep intake between 100 and 150 calories an hour.  I had some Tailwind from Caldbeck, but nothing else.  So 3 hours to Checkpoint 1, and 200 calories I was a bit behind calorific intake.  Grabbed a few cheese rolls, some fruit and away.  If I was to provide one moan about the race it is the water situation.  The place was very busy and only 2 water butts.  It took a good ten minutes to get my water.  As I said above the next section is very long and I wanted to take 2.5 litres of water.

Threlkeld to Fairfield

Follow the arrows under the main road – a compulsory bit, for safety purposes, and very sensible.  Then up Clough Head.  I knew this was going to be one tough climb, and in my head I knew once this was over the whole race would get easier.  If you ever do this race be sure to make sure you are prepared for this hill.  It is 500M straight up.  Very tough and easy to get the heart rate so high that you burn your muscles out, and only 12 ish miles into the race.  In South Wales we have a similar hill, Tor y Foel.  Race Directors use it knowing that people will have a false sense of the steepness not being on the main Brecon Ridge.  I approached Clough Head in the same way.  Easy and Steady to the top.

That over I could now open up a bit, and take the nice run down to Calfhow Pike.  I was glad I had done the recce.  The next section is quite a few miles, and there are some climbs, but none too serious.  If I was unaware of how long the ridge was, I think I would have found it mentally challenging.  My efforts to save energy up Blencathra, and up Clough Head now was paying dividends.  I was making good pace and catching a lot of people up.  Past Great Dodd, Stybarrow Dodd, Raise and then Helvellyn came quickly.  Now it was all downhill to Grisedale Tarn.

Passing people down Dollywagon Pike you could see people were now starting to suffer.  I find it’s the downhill that hurts, not the up.  Quad muscle busting is a favourite among the uninitiated hill runners.  Next up Fairfield and the last big climb of the day.  The weather was still holding out, and I can’t believe I travelled so far in the lake district without rain.  Very lucky.

Fairfield to Ambleside

My downhill running needs some work.  I had passed many people on the way up Fairfield, but now they were all catching me up.  I don’t know why, but there you are, I cannot seem to keep a good pace downhill.  On this route, finding the wall after Hart Crag is nice, you know navigation is easy from here because you simply follow it all the way to Ambleside.  That said there are some tricky sections.  High Crag and Sweden Crags can lose you a lot of time scrambling down the rocks.  There are easy runnable paths around them, but get it wrong and it’s a genuine scramble.  This time I took the left side of the wall (there are gates at a couple of points in the wall).  A number of runners who were easily 5 or 10 minutes behind me after the climb up Fairfield caught me up going down the right side of the wall.  Whether that is because I am slow down hill, or because the right side is a faster route, I will check next year.

At this point I did question my wisdom at using the Terrclaws.  I did not want to change my shoes in Ambleside, so had left the Bushidos behind.  The claws have no rock plate, and the balls of my feet were getting a little sore.  I wondered if I was developing a blister, there of all places!  The rocky ridges had started to take their toll.

Through the town, past lots and lots of people, which is weird, to the checkpoint.

Again amazing food, but not for me.  I grabbed a couple of pieces of pizza, and ran out of the door.  Again to take some time filling water.  8.5 hours to this point, not bad and on target to get under 15 hours.  What I wasn’t sure about was how tired I would become over the next 20 miles.

Ambleside to Finsthwaite

At the checkpoint I had got my head torch ready for the ensuing dark.  The signposting from the route is very good here.  The route is not meant to be marked, but to be honest I think that this section is very well marked. All the way, and no excuses for getting it wrong.

I literally ran all the way up the long haul to High Wray.  I made very good time, and was hitting 12 minute miles.  I was pleased with this, at having paced myself to have lots of energy here.  The route here is so different from the high fells, and is absolutely beautiful.  The section past Claife Heights has to be my favourite.  The run through the high fells is breath-taking, but after a tough day in the hills the tranquillity of the woods is just wonderful.

Down to the lake and the first of two stretches that hugs Lake Windermere.  If you look at the length of the lake from here it will hit you mentally, just keep plodding.  The going is very technical here.  It is only a lakeside path, but as the dark creeps on, plenty of tree roots and stones to catch you out. Makes lifting your knees a must, or to avoid the inevitable face full of mud, you’ll end up at walking pace.  A steep style onto a short road section, with a pretty short sharp steep hill and off into some dark woods back down to the lake.

The final lake section, and I am starting to get a little sad as I leave the lake I will be soon finishing and missing this amazingly beautiful place.  The climb up from the YMCA (careful not to miss the gate) is very steep and muddy.  I knew it was coming, but it is one of those climbs at the end of a long day that can really hit you mentally.  At the top a swift run down, passed a couple of people sitting down who clearly had not expected the climb, and into an oddly dense wooded section, then a nice path to run down to Finsthwaite checkpoint.  Again, the marking is excellent, trusting to them is important, as the path slips out of view a few times in the dark and there is a little gate between houses that is easily missed.

The final check point.  Three soups on offer.  As a vegetarian, this is brilliant. Not having to wrestle between having meat as it is the only thing on offer or eat my sugary reserves.  The food on this ultra is great.  For the first time someone was kind enough to fill my bottles here, allowing a swift turn around.

Finsthwaite to Cartmel

Out the door and into the woods that lead down to Newby Bridge.  Some nice support from people enjoying a pint here.  It is nice to know that I’ll be one of those people soon, with only six and a half miles to go.  Up the last long gradual climb and into Bigland Allotment.  This is one of the bits that I find my old XP Petzl frustrating.  There is a lot of mud, and the low lumens of the lamp makes it slow.  I’m sure I would have been much quicker in daylight.  Maybe a trip to Up and Under for a new Petzl Nao for Christmas!  After the slow progress of the mud, a short road trip, past the lake of Bigland Tarn and the penultimate descent.  A few people are starting to fly past me on the descents, clearly scenting home.  I catch up with a man and woman who have been chatting and its nice to have some company for the last stretch.

The low drop of the claws was taking its toll, with a twinge behind my left knee.  My own fault, I hadn’t run for more than 2 hours in them in one go.  That said, the lightness and flexibility of them had been brilliant.

I always find it odd how tiredness hits me with only a few miles to go.  Must be a psychological thing. Over Speel Bank and into the woods.  Again if using a gps, or if you’re good with a map, the signage here makes route finding easy.  Onto the road.  Now I must say I found this the toughest part of the day.  It is about two miles of road into Cartmel.  I suspect I was expecting to find this bit easy, but it did go on and on!  Fortunately having the two people to run with really helped.  We kept up a good pace and watched the lights of the race course slowly get closer.  Into the village, with loads of wonderful support, and to the finish in fourteen and a half hours.

At the end there is free massage and amazing showers.  That’s great.  It is also nice to finish early enough (10:30 if 14.5 hours) to be not too late, and be able to relax a little before bed.  I was very nervous about the long drive back to South Wales.  The message, and a few hours sleep really helped.  It’s the little things like this which make the event a wonderful weekend with everything just right.

The good things

Finishing under 15 hours; great food at the check points, and generally the whole organisation of camping at start and finish.  The route is great.  The mountainous first section is breath-taking, then when the hard work is over, the peacefulness and beauty of the woods is wonderfully enjoyable.  The Terraclaws are a great shoe, and were perfect for this route, given it was very dry.

Eating savoury food certainly helped stomach problems.  I did eat some sugary products near the end, but only sparingly.  This is an individual thing and clearly try things out for yourself is the big lesson.

Lessons to be learnt

Try going a bit faster in the beginning so as not to get caught behind the pack.  I finished the SW50 in 13.5 hours and that was not much easier.  So a lesson on tactics in popular races.  That all said, if I were fitter I would have gone faster.  So more squats I think would certainly help.

The Inov8s were great, but I think next time I may try the shoe change and wear the bushidos for the first rocky section.  This will protect my feet.

This being my third mountain ultra I was caught between being nervous of over confidence, and risking pushing it a bit. I think in hindsight I was too cautious.  I use a HRM to judge my effort, and will up the HR slightly next time.

Would I do the race again?  Definitely, and would recommend it wholeheartedly.

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