What if…?

The other day I planned a long run around Kinder Scout. I’ve been building my training slowly, in between lurgies, job hunting and driving around the country visiting loved ones. This was to be my first proper long run since Lavaredo.

Weather was set fair but as always I packed a vest with extra kit just in case. Waterproof top and bottoms, my Rab synthetic gilet (possibly the most useful piece of kit I own), and a headtorch.

Why the headtorch? Well….. I’m not great at getting up early and I’d had to do 2 pre-5am alarm calls over the weekend so I wasn’t in a hurry to get up! Which of course has a knock on effect at the other end of the day.

Cheese and pickle sarnies packed, dog in car and we were off. A sharp shower started just as I arrived so I put my jacket straight on. I parked at the bottom of Mam Tor and we were off, straight up the first little incline before whizzing down the other side into Edale.

The rain stopped quite quickly and I got very warm so stopped to take off my jacket as I knew there was a stiff climb out of Edale the other side. The sun was shining and it was glorious up there.

Edale

I was exploring a bit today and although I started out along a bit of my favourite Edale Skyline, I was planning to cut across Edale Moor and down towards the Snake Inn.

The plan then was to run along the Snake Path back towards the Pennine Way and then rejoin the Skyline back round to Mam Tor. Sounds easy doesn’t it!

Mac photobombing Win and Lose hills in the background

As Mac and I trotted round I realised how windy it was up there. In the live shots of Mac, his ears are flapping madly. But the sun was shining and it was a beautiful day.

We successfully negotiated our way round and passed Madwoman’s Stones (no comments please!) and reached Blackden Edge.

I have never been round this side before and it was just as stunning as the Edale side. Lots of wonderful rock formations and yet so much quieter – I saw one person for the rest of my time there before reaching the Pennine Way much later.

Blackden Edge

Eventually I came to the path I would take down Gate Side Clough towards the Snake Inn. It involved a bit of scrambling over rocks (does that count towards qualifying for one of the Sky races?!) then down a very steep bit of grassy, rocky ground.

There was a faint path though and as the descent became less severe, I started running again.

BAM! My ankle turned, made a horrible snapping sound and immediately filled my body with excruciating pain. I went down on my arse as my other leg slipped out from under me when all my weight was thrown on it.

I think we all know that feeling don’t we. That deep throbbing pain, makes me feel sick in my stomach, and I’m clutching my ankle, thinking the quicker it fades, the less severe it will be…. come on…. come on.

Eventually it eased off. Mac had come to lay next to me, bless him. I lay there for a minute considering my options.

I looked at my watch. 7.5 miles and 2 hours from the car. I looked at my map. I couldn’t be further away from the car if I’d tried! There was no direct route back – I couldn’t see any other direct paths back across Edale Moor and I wasn’t going to be testing the open moorland.

Time for a cheese and pickle sarnie. And my jacket. The wind was unrelenting and I was quickly getting cold. I shared my sandwich with Mac as the nausea was still there and I didn’t fancy the rest.

I also got my medical kit out of my vest and the small, self adhesive bandage kept in there. It was a long way home whichever way I took so I’d need some support. I also took an ibuprofen to stem the swelling.

Bugger

A good 15/20 minutes had passed. Time to test the ankle and get up. It was sore but ok. Going on definitely wasn’t an option so I had to climb back up the clough. It was slow going but I got there and considered my options again.

Retracing my steps was shorter but also involved descending into and ascending out of Edale. Going on around Seal Edge meant I was cutting the corner slightly from my original, longer, route, but I felt staying on the Edge, which was relatively flat, would be easier on my ankle. I would just hike back.

Black Ashop Moor

So that’s what I did. Within a mile I had to stop again though. That wind was cold and relentless and I decided to put everything I had on in order to stay warm. Over trousers, gilet under the jacket and beanie all went on and to my relief I felt much warmer.

As I trudged my way round the Edge feeling very sorry for myself, I began to think What If? What if my sprain had been much worse? What if the weather had been worse? What if I hadn’t been able to move? What were the worst possible circumstances I could imagine, and would I have been prepared for it?

If my injury had been worse, I think I would have tried to continue down the clough to the road and looked for help either from a passing car or the Inn.

If I had been miles from civilisation, I could have called for help. Randomly that one spot on the hillside was the only time I had reception on the phone until I got back round to Kinder Scout.

So windy it was Kinder Upfall

But what if I’d had no reception? Well, I have set my Garmin tracker to auto start on any activity which is sent through to a designated friend. As it happened that friend was abroad, but realistically, it would have taken them a long time to call the alarm.

And given that the tracker uses mobile reception to send data, and knowing how often my tracker drops because of the lack data in so many of the areas I run in, how long would it have taken them to raise the alarm?

As it happened, I’d sent this friend my planned route purely out of interest so I like to think they would have realised fairly quickly something was up.

What if the weather was shocking? Freezing rain? I definitely wasn’t prepared for that. I was just about ok if I kept moving and was regretting not throwing my gloves in too as my hands were cold.

What if the weather was appalling and I couldn’t move and I had no reception and I had no extra clothing? It’s a scary thought.

Just made it to the car before lights out

All things considered, I think I did ok. How could I have been better prepared? I could have thrown a warm layer in the vest; a bivvy bag and gloves. Basically, the mandatory kit most races ask you to carry.

Of course I made it back to the car (just before the sun went to bed) and I’d managed an extra 13 miles and even raised a bit of a jog across the flagstones on Brown Knoll. And the ankle is grumbling but ok and it will be fine with a few days rest.

So I ask you, dear reader, to ask yourself “what if…” next time you plan an adventure. Ask yourself what if the very worst possible scenario that you can think of happens and would you be prepared for it?

Cankle!!

What next?

I was out running this morning. Along the Dale. When I saw another runner coming towards me. It may surprise you to know this is very rare so we exchanged a smile and a nod and when I came to a gate, as I glanced down to unlatch it, I noticed I was wearing my Hardmoors 60 t-shirt.

I felt a little pride when I realised this. HM60 in 2015 was one of my best races. Indeed, up until the Fellsman this year, I’d have said it was the toughest 100k race I’ve done. It’s also the fastest 100k I’ve done and if I remember correctly I was 11th woman. I was damn proud of that run, which you can see here.

Ah. Those were the days. I was ok then. Since then I’d say the only time I’ve come close to being as fit and healthy as I was in 2015/16 was when I was training for Hardmoors 80 last year. But then I wasn’t that healthy as my back went which caused a DNS.

But my hunger is still there. I can beat that time for 100k. I know I have it in me. But I don’t just want to go faster. It must also be a challenging and interesting course.

I want to set myself this challenge. A 50-60 mile race, in the hills and really train and go for it exclusively. Nothing else before or after. Just focus on training for that race.

So, I’m thinking something in November. The end of November gives me 12 clear weeks to train once Charlie goes back to school. Train hard, race, rest over Christmas.

It’s a tricky time of year. Anyone have any suggestions? Something hilly; something low key; something runnable! I don’t actually mind a bit of mud – it’s the ankle deep bogs I object to. I want to RUN a race, not trudge it.

Suggestions on a postcard please 😬

Lavaredo: Something had to give….

Well, looking back I guess the result was inevitable. It was all too much and in the end something had to give.

I’d had a good flight and drive up to Cortina; I was in great spirits. I went into town soon after arriving at 1pm and registered and visited the Expo. I met up with Jon Crooks for a drink who was doing the Cortina Trail on Friday.

Jon under one of many banners

I slept well on Thursday night clocking up over 10 hours sleep and felt great on waking. Then I had a 2 hour nap from 1.30 to 3.30, which of course I felt groggy waking up from. And I then continued to feel sleepy for the next 24 hours!

If I’m honest, my reflection on this race isn’t great. Arriving for the 11pm start at 10.20pm, the square was absolutely heaving with people. I was trying to meet up with mates Emma and Ryan but there was clearly no chance of that happening.

Then, when I saw people lining up inside the funnel I thought I ought to go and join them at the back. But then I realised there was a queue to join the queue and I was stuck at the back, on the outside of the funnel, looking the wrong way.

Everyone is pointing the wrong way!!

30 minutes still to go. I actually played Backgammon with a friend to while away the time but already I was yawning. I was putting that down to my relaxed approach to the race.

Well, I had to achieve something today

Eventually we were aware of the music changing and a hullabaloo going on and we realised we were starting. So began a long squeeze into and around the funnel, and finally out under the banner into the streets beyond. The crowd watching were amazing and making an incredible noise which was fun. You can see my Periscope here of the start.

I found the going hard from the outset. It felt hard physiologically. Although my heart rate wasn’t particularly high, considering we were going up hill from the off, it felt much harder than it should have done. I was gasping for breath. I wondered if it was the altitude (no idea if we are at any altitude in Cortina?) or just the frenetic pace of the start.

Soon however respite came in the form of another queue at the trailhead. I resigned myself to wait and eventually got on the first trail. For the next 11 miles the routine was then run behind someone else, slow to a walk/halt when whoever was ahead slowed or stopped. You could sneak past people in a few places but I didn’t think it was worth it.

Up and up we went, in the pitch black. Our surroundings were thick forest but I did get a glimpse of Cortina below us at one stage. Otherwise all was black.

My new poles, bought at the expo, came out (Leki Trail Carbon Pros) which I absolutely loved. Once we eventually reached the top of this climb, there were some good undulating runnable bits.

The poles folded down easily and because they were so slim and light I spent much of the runnable bits just keeping them folded in my hands. I much preferred this to running with them “out” – I curse anyone who does so; it makes it so hard to overtake on narrow trails.

Midnight running

By now we are on a much wider (and dull) stoney track; like most fire breaks in forests. There was an occasional glimpse of imposing rock walls or sharp black drop offs next to the trail but still everything is black.

Except for the dust cloud. Imagine 1,500 odd runners passing along the dusty trail and I’m sure in daylight you would have seen a large cloud over the trail. I was aware of it tickling my throat so had to drink regularly to stop that irritation.

Up until now the temperature has still been hot. I started the race wearing a t shirt and it was boiling being part of the crowd, whether standing at the start or running up and down the mountains in the throng.

But coming up to the first checkpoint at 11 miles I’m suddenly aware of a chill in the air and decide to dig out a long sleeved layer at the CP. I’d been sipping on the juice in one of my flasks so needed to top up water anyway.

It was chaos. You weren’t allowed to help yourself so the runners thronged the tables, all with their arms out, holding the water bottles, crying Agua like lost children begging for water. The volunteers had large jugs and were constantly yelling for them to be refilled. I think I stood there for about 10 minutes before mine was filled.

On the table underneath were bowels of food – what food I didn’t know because the bowels were either filled with spilt water or empty from the visiting locusts. Nothing that was left looked appetising so I put my top on and moved on.

I’m feeling really tired now. Running the runnable bits is taking much more effort than it should but again I put that down to the time of night. But the people I started with started to drop me as I slowed down more and more. At one point I had to stop – my eyes were drooping so badly I literally falling asleep on my legs. I sat on a log at the side of the trail and gave myself a bit of a talking to. I dug out my earphones and put on some loud dancing music and set off again feeling much better.

As I was little bit more awake now and we were going downhill, I put the poles away properly and started running properly. To my amazement, I passed absolutely everyone in my sight. Seems they don’t go down hill very fast over here because if I’m over taking them, they must be slow. The downhill was long but despite risking my quads for the rest of the race, I continued down, not at breakneck speed, but it was plenty fast enough to overtake one runner after another.

They also don’t like getting their feet wet because whenever we got to a stream, they’d peel left and right looking for a way across and of course I just went straight through the middle.

Down and down I go and I start to feel great. I can see the faintest glimmer of light in the sky so I know dawn is fast approaching and I’m thinking finally I’ve shaken off the drowsiness and my race can start.

Pre pre-dawn

I’m so hot from running down the hill, and because dawn is coming I feel it’s time to remove all the layers. It is warm as I continue and soon we reach the next checkpoint, 20 miles in.

More chaos but I manage to get topped up quicker and I’m straight out and on. I look around for the timing mat but can’t see one so continue on. About half a mile down the track I see it at the junction with a road. Weird but ok.

Leaving Valbona checkpoint

The next checkpoint is 10 miles further on and I have 6 hours to get there. Even I should manage that!

However here things start to blur again. The drowsiness returns and I’m back to fighting a battle I know so well from my regular runs to the Peaks. When the eyes want to shut, it’s a very hard battle to win and I’ve learned the best way to deal with it is to pull over and sleep for 10 mins.

I come upon another Brit who I say hello to – the first person I have exchanged words with since I left the hotel the night before. He’s got his own struggles however so I don’t press him and drop back.

I see people lying by the side of the trail catching some sleep; something I am desperate to do. But they have a mate with them, keeping an eye. After all, you don’t want to fall asleep only to be continually woken by concerned passers by asking if you are ok. This wasn’t an option for me.

I drop back more and more, struggling up another hill, this time on a cursed road. We dive off into the woods and there’s a magical path through the trees; it’s stunning. But all I do is focus on the narrow path ahead of me and every now and again stumble or trip as my eyes win the constant mini battles I’m raging with them. I look for somewhere to curl up but it’s thick forest or narrow trail. No floor space to lie on.

Wonderful views peaking through the forest

Friends are keeping me going with text messages and updates on CP timings, cut offs and encouragement. I’m immensely grateful for this one source communication – I feel so isolated otherwise.

Misurina Lake

I struggle hugely over the next 4-5 miles to an intermittent checkpoint at Lake Misurina where I get a phone call. This cheers me no end and finally I’m not struggling against sleep. But I’m so slow now. I’m pretty much broken. Somewhere further back it got cold again and I only put my waterproof jacket on. I’m still freezing as I walk, no energy to stop and dig out the other top. It’s frustrating to see the sun yet be moving constantly in the lee of a mountain or inside woods. But I knew soon enough I’d be in the sun.

I’m happily chatting when I notice a man, in hiking gear, pass me and tear off the trail marking flags. My first thought this was someone maliciously removing them and I looked around to see a few runners coming up behind me. I shrug and continue chatting for a bit when I realise one of the runners is walking next to me, wanting my attention. It suddenly dawns on me this is the sweeper and he looks regretfully at his watch, does a cut off sign with his hand and shrugs at me.

Oh! Having just been discussing the fact I had 3 or 4 hours to do 3 or 4 miles, we had thought I had loads of time. Perhaps the cut off is superseded by the sweeper catching you?

The Party at the Back

To be honest, I’m so tired and moving so slowly I’m hugely relieved. I’d enjoyed about 1 hour of this run out of nearly 12 and frankly it wasn’t worth it to me.

For what it’s worth, that last hill took forever would have killed me anyway. It did take our sorry little party nearly the whole time to reach it and we finally reached the Refuge at 10.15. I was cursing the whole way up knowing I was being forced up there only to be driven straight down again!

Lavaredo Ultra Trail

Sanctuary at the base of the mountain – so near and yet so far still!

Lessons learned? Lavaredo was one of the first races on my list because of all the wonderful things I had heard about it. But really, it wasn’t my cup of tea, and even had things gone right for me, those things that annoyed me wouldn’t have changed. It was an experience to do one of the big European races but I’m definitely sticking to the small stuff in future. Not small length-wise of course, just numbers-wise 😉

And I do miss running with my friends. I’m not a loner and while I’m happy to put my head down and do the job in hand for a marathon, for the long stuff I do seek companionship. I count myself very fortunate that so many friends run at a similar pace and I look forward to further adventures with them.

I am really not remotely bothered about DNFs. In my opinion people put too much pressure on themselves to finish at any cost. We do this for love and I think people should trust themselves more that they’re not actually skiving if they feel shit and want to stop; acknowledge it’s just not your day and live to fight again another time.

As I write this blog a panicked text conversation with Charlie has highlighted the need and desire to focus on her and my new home for the next few months. And I’m ready for a rest.

I really can’t complain. I’ve had a great 6 months of running this year and made so many improvements: running Hebden 22 with Mac; finishing HM50 with Con despite my back; The Fellsman with Chris and Dan; smashing my marathon PB at Halstead and learning new skills and finding a new love of the mountains at Scafell. There’s so much still to look forward to!

View from the Refuge

Scafell Sky Race

Scafell was the last major run I had planned before my number 1 race for 2019; Lavaredo Ultra Trail.

Although very different races in their own right, they are both an exciting step in an entirely new direction for me. I also believed Scafell would set me up nicely for Italy as it was the only opportunity I would have to get some longer ascents in.

I can honestly say I loved it and this long planned weekend far exceeded the expectations I had of it. Whilst I’d seen video shots of runners skipping along boulder fields and down scree slopes, nothing can prepare you for the real thing and I realised I found this sort of running so much more exciting and engrossing than some of the ultras I had done recently.

I planned a long weekend for this event. As I had at the Lakeland 50, I booked a room at the Sun in Coniston for a luxurious 3 nights. I anticipated some major leg pain and didn’t want the prospect of a long drive on the Sunday to prevent me from running my best. While I didn’t plan on racing Scafell hard, I did want to push myself to a certain degree to make it work for Lavaredo.

The race is well organised by Race Director Charlie Sproson and registration, with a full mountain kit check, was done on the Friday evening. It was pouring with rain then and it wasn’t expected to be any different the next day.

Katie Allen Scafell Sky Race
Can you spot what is wrong in this photo?

Having done registration I rocked up a bit casually the next morning at 7.05 to find there was no room where the race briefing was being held. Lots of people were standing on the stairs, or trying to go round to other entrances of Sticklebarn, to no avail.

We had all been keeping a weather eye on the forecast (😬) during the week and it was looking pretty grim with heavy rain and wind but Charlie had kept everyone up to date via Facebook and email and it was decided the full course would be run, to the relief of all the competitors. After all, we’re there to test ourselves on the route and terrain, not cruise down the valley bottoms keeping out of the weather.

I met a lady waiting outside who said all she knew of the course was that the Great Slab would be taken out. Great Slab? I felt completely clueless but decided ignorance was bliss and I would charge on regardless and hope that any course changes would be clearly signed posted. Otherwise, I assumed the safety briefing was like any other; take care of yourself and take care of others.

My one mistake on the kit list was where I thought the mandatory long sleeved top could be worn or carried: turned out it had to be carried as an emergency layer. This meant I was faced with wearing a t shirt for the start as I hadn’t brought a spare long sleeved top. Bugger. It was cold!

So I started in a t shirt (merino though of course) but also put my waterproof top and leggings straight on too, because not only was it raining but they kept the wind off too. However we felt down at the bottom, it was only going to be windier and colder at the top.

Katie Allen Scafell Sky Race
Shivering already

We were dibbed into the starting area and after a brief word from Charlie, we were waved off.

I started roughly in the middle of the pack which streamed out of the yard and into the fields behind the venue. Straight up of course. Unfortunately, when you are a middle of the pack runner, it does tend to mean you get caught up in all the pinch points and there was a particularly bad one going over a ladder on a wall that seemed to take ages.

So far, so normal. Like most hills I had done. A bit of a path, a bit of grass, people popping round each other as they settled into their ascent pace.

The higher up, the harder it got to overtake. The path either narrowed or disappeared completely. People tended to follow each other in a line but although I tried to follow my own line up, I noticed at the switchbacks people crowded together and didn’t want to you to squeeze in if you hadn’t queued as politely as they had. So British 🙄.

Of course, being the Lake District this ascent was longer than usual for me but I was feeling fresh and full of energy and happily ploughed onwards and upwards, eyeing up my next prey to overtake.

As I’m going up I realise it wasn’t just colder but very cold. I’m going to have to work hard to stay warm and cursed my error roundly. I suffer the cold a lot and am normally much better prepared but as I was moving house it meant I’d taken my eye off the ball for this weekend slightly.

We get to the top, and almost immediately descend. Two things become apparent. My leggings are billowing in the wind and causing my feet to catch and my shoes aren’t tight enough. I run on for a bit, enjoying passing people going down hill for a bit but reluctantly come to the conclusion I must see to both problems sooner rather than later.

Gritting my teeth as all the people I’d just passed streamed by me, I bent down and whipped off my leggings, gaiters and hauled at my laces. I got running again fairly quickly and while that wind on my legs was sharp, I was able to descend with much more confidence.

We go round Stickle Tarn (or rather round it then through it – the first of many shin-deep river fords) and then up again on the next ascent towards High Raise. The wind and rain are almost exactly the same now as they were at Hardmoors 50 in March. Visibility is much worse and although the course is beautifully marked with flags, sometimes it was really hard to see from one flag to the next; barely 100 meters.

I’m not good at converting kilometres to miles but I was sure that the main checkpoint that had food and drink, CP5, was about 6 miles in. My watch screen was permanently on the gpx of the route so I had no idea of time or distance; made all the worse by the weather and the terrain slowing things up.

I don’t remember much about coming down from Greenup Edge into Stonethwaite but I do remember being surprised by a dibbing checkpoint at “ground level” So to speak. There was a bit of roadwork here which immediately took it’s toll on my legs and a long stream of vintage souped-up Ford Escorts going by before I crossed a road.

I’m pretty sure I went past an area I recognised where I did a recovery run with Johnny and Sarah after Four Passes in 2017. My mind was already going a bit foggy! Another couple of miles and I finally reach CP5 and food. To my surprise (and joy) I rotated my screen round to show distance to see I had gone over 10 miles. This is great news to me – only a few more and I’m more than halfway. I have barely touched my two bottles so I grab a piece of soreen loaf and fly on through the dibber.

Now I am feeling tired and I am starting to be concerned about the cold again. Out of CP5 we went straight up again on another big climb next to a waterfall.

Katie Allen Scafell Sky Race

It was got quite technical and it reminded me of the last climb in the Lakeland 50 in the pitch black, headtorch lighting our way as we climbed a small technical bit but listening to a huge roar of a river, and clearly a big drop off the side, as we went.

I knew if I was tired I would be slower and if I was slower I would get colder. As I was already on the edge of being cold, I had to do something then before I hit the top. Where the land sloped more gently after the main waterfall, I stopped and took out the waterproof leggings and the long sleeved top. I wasn’t sure if putting it on would disqualify me but I needed it and would accept the consequences if so.

Onwards again, trying to make up the places I had just lost. We are now getting to one of the most technical bits of the course as we approach Great Gable and circle it underneath the summit. May I just remind you, patient reader, that the weather is still doing it’s best to power wash us off the mountain.

Here the sides of the hill slope steeply away to our right. There are smooth boulder fields which are actually giant ice cubes; each foot placed immediately starts sliding unless you can wedge your foot between two of them.

There are scree slopes to traverse, along which a faint line has been trodden down to make a path. There are medium size rocks of random sharp shapes, with no discernible path of flat rock to tread on at all.

The focus needed here was absolute. There was no looking up, around or sideways to enjoy the view (well, I did but only briefly and you must stop; don’t try to look whilst moving forward!).

This actually helped me greatly. My attention was on everything but the chill factor and my legs were getting a sort of rest as I hopped around, over and through rocks. I promised myself a cheese and pickle sarnie and a can of red bull at the next checkpoint so I was really looking forward to that.

At this point I’m in front of a couple of other runners; no idea who they were as I didn’t dare look behind me. We’re crossing a (thankfully rough not ice cube-style) boulder field and as I stepped from one rock to another, my left leg got caught between two boulders. This made me topple forward, pivoting on the ankle, my right leg tried to find purchase but couldn’t so I went splat.

I slammed into a large rock and gripped it tightly as this large rock happened to hang out into open space. I was literally clinging on for dear life as if I was sliding down the neck of a bolting horse, on which I’d lost my stirrups.

Katie Allen Scafell Sky Race
Looking back down to Seathwaite

I carefully wriggle my left foot free of the rocks, highly aware of the two runners behind me who had stopped to watch with interest, gripped the rock I was hugging tighter, remounted it and moved on. “Mind that one” I said in a slightly shakey voice.

The next challenge was just after another scree field where there was a scramble. But the rock was so slippery, and the ledge so high, that there was a volunteer there hauling people up to the ledge he was on by grabbing their vests. I’m sure the Health & Safety Executive would have kittens if they saw that.

Onwards and round; I suddenly appear to reach a ledge with a drop away to nothing below it, where I must hug a boulder to inch round it. No. Surely not…. please no. The runner behind said “up” and I look slightly left and up and thankfully the path goes a different way. I’m so aware of the drop to my right and focus fiercely on my hand and foot placement but daren’t stop to admire/grimace at the view because of the runners behind and the CP ahead luring me on.

Finally, we are out of the worst of it and I can see a runner ahead actually running. The lady behind me said she thought the CP wasn’t far away. Thank goodness. I look down and see my beloved inov-8 trousers are ripped beyond repair from my fall. My merino gloves are in a similar state. This rock hopping is an expensive business!

Katie Allen Scafell Sky Race
Ripped! Time to go shopping….

With huge relief I get to the checkpoint point at the Sty Head Stretcher Box and I am told Scafell Pike has been taken out of the course for safety reasons. It does seem somewhat ironic that the one part of the course removed was the mountain the race is named after but I was also relieved. I ate my sandwich as I walked but it was still very cold. I drank a can of redbull as quickly as I could and with spirits much lighter I run on – only 6 miles left!

The course now went straight across to Esk Hause. From there we climbed more boulders up to Esk Pike then on to Bowfell but these reminded me more of climbing in the Cairngorms and bothered me less. The weather had also calmed down greatly and I was climbing strongly again so it was with a loud “Wahoo!” I summited Bowfell, much to the amusement of the checkpoint volunteers.

Katie Allen Scafell Sky Race
Bowfell!

Now it was all downhill. There was some tricky rocks at first which slowed me down, to my great frustration. But faster and faster, as the boulder fields dropped to more occasional boulders here and there and finally to the path, which although filled with tourists, I flew past. All the while thinking the finish was at the bottom of this bloody great mountain and what a relief it would be to finish.

The stone path was still wet, so I avoided it where possible by going down the grassy bits on the edges. Focusing fiercely again on foot placement, glancing up occasionally to see people ahead that I would pass, walkers and runners. I was loving it and letting myself go, knowing this was nearly the end and I didn’t have to save my quads for anything more.

Down and down, the path changing from gravel to stone and back again, always hunting the grassy slopes either side. I passed a guy I’d exchanged a few words with coming into CP4 much earlier, his race over judging from his limp. A quick check to see he was ok and onwards – I’ve been in that position so many times I simultaneously sympathised and determined to make the most of the fact my body was still working.

Down and down, there’s a crest and I see the farm finally at the bottom. I increase my speed even more, relishing the feeling of being at the end. I race through the farmyard and pop straight out onto a road, with a runner I’d just passed now hanging on to me, giving me pressure.

Wait, what….. road….? I glance down at my watch and see the line continuing on, off the screen, no sign of the finish. I look up and see the bobbing heads of other runners ahead over the tops of the walls and hedged lining the road.

I quail but it can’t be that far. Now I must dig in even more and use that endurance I’ve spent all year building up. The road is still slightly sloping downwards and I use it to my full advantage.

It hurts. My legs are screaming but my focus is entirely on finishing as fast as possible. We come to a zig zag in the road, up through another farm. I finally remember from pouring over the map that we return along the Cumbria Way. As I go through the farmyard and get back on a footpath, I finally see the finish on my watch. Probably not much more than a mile to go. The path is painful, rocky with steep little slopes in places but the end is in sight at last.

I get to the finish, dib in and bend over desperately trying to get in air. I’d finished and what a relief. My tracker and dibber were removed without me even noticing.

Although the weather, or more honestly, my lack of preparedness, made the first half of this race hard, looking back within 5 minutes of finishing I knew I had loved it. As a newby to this sort of terrain I was also slightly star-struck…. “did you SEE that scree slope??” but I am sure the next time I run down or across a scree slope I’ll be waaaay cooler about it.

I’ve suspected for a while now this type of running suits me. I have huge admiration for those who are able to run, get in a rhythm and keep running all day. They are the 100 mile vets, the ones who can grit it out no matter what.

But I am not like that. More than a marathon of running in one go and I get bored. My body feels like it’s run out of oil and I’m forcing metal against metal when I run. I love terrain variety. I’m happy with heights and happiest going up hill, knowing there’ll be a flat bit or a downhill after that. It lets the different muscle groups rest as I rotate through between quads and hams and glutes.

I didn’t discover what the Great Slab was until home after the race when I googled it. It was pretty much as described and certainly in that rain it would have been lethal. I’m not sure where it was though because my watch didn’t show a deviation off the route again.

By the way scree slopes are much easier than you think – dig your heels in and keep your body over your feet and you’ll be fine. Give it a go! It was such FUN!

Scafell Sky RacePhoto credit Scafell Sky Race/Charlie Sproson

Hardmoors 50

Well.  On the one hand I’m totally speechless.  On the other I have so much going through my head about this race.

We knew the weather was going to be interesting.  The debate leading up to the race was whether to start with waterproofs on; what to wear, what layers to pack.  I really don’t mind weather so long as I’m prepared for it.  And I was.  I knew I was going to run; I wasn’t going to hang around, so wore my long sleeved merino hoody under my OMM Kamleika, long merino socks under tights, with my inov-8 waterproof ultra light over-trousers.  At no point did I regret my clothing choice, except for wishing I had more at the very end.

Anyway, to the race.  Once I realised the usual arrangement of meeting a coach at the finish of the race first thing in the morning and taking it to the start had been changed, I arranged for a taxi to take us from the finish to the start.  The rain had woken me at 2.30am and by the time we drove across the moors to Guisborough, the roads were fully flooded and we were very grateful for our grand Land Rover Discovery taxi as it ploughed through the waterlogged roads.

Our registration passed without comment and my friend Con and I hung around like you do, waiting for the start.  We said hello to another Hardmoors old hand, Nige Hargreaves and was supposed to meet up with Chris Randall too but the Scout Hut got busier and busier, eventually forcing us out of the main hall and into one of the side rooms.  We found Helen and from there we got hotter and hotter so decided to go outside to wait for the start at 8am, which was only 5 minutes away.  It was raining hard outside and we quickly became wet and cold, getting restless as 8am came and went and nothing seemed to be happening.

Eventually, at 8.18am, something happened at the front and people started shuffling forward.  We were off!

Down in Guisborough, although the rain made itself known, the wind was quiet and we had an uneventful mile or two to the bottom of Highcliff Nab.  I have gone up here once before at the start of Hardmoors 60 but the mud surpassed my memory and much mincing and swearing ensued as the still closely grouped runners slipped and staggered up the steep hill.

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Photo credit: Conrad Wild

When we reached the top the wind hit us and we staggered at its force. Wow, ok. So this is what it’s going to be like.  We set off down the flag stones, with the next stop Roseberry Topping.

In case you don’t know about the Hardmoors series, check out their website here.  Hardmoors 55 is a race run between Guisborough and Helmsley along the Cleveland Way but this was a special year; not only was it the 10th anniversary of Hardmoors 55, but it was also the 50th anniversary of the Cleveland Way so the director Jon Steele decided to make this year’s race “special”. The race was reduced to 50 miles (he is notorious for all his races being over the advertised distance) and we spent the entire race trying to figure out where on earth he had changed the route to make it supposedly shorter. However, the one obvious difference was Roseberry Topping. We had to climb it twice. Great!

The actual climb up it isn’t so bad in my book, but the wind at the top took our breath away. Take a look at my periscope clip to get an idea of what it was like. Then we had to descend off the right side of Roseberry Topping (the phone got put away as I saw it meant climbing down!) and down we went, fighting the wind as it tried to snatch our footing from us, dodging people coming up who were already on the return trip. This descent was never ending! Down the stone path, through a gate, down a muddy path, switch back, all the time making way for runners coming up (we are all still bunched up at this stage), down through the woods to a checkpoint at the bottom. Turn straight around and go back up! Ugh.

It was a long ascent but eventually we got back up underneath the trig and off down the path returning the way we had come.  Con flew off as he loves whizzing down the descents but I was more lady-like (of course).  Not only was I wearing Hoka Challengers but I was cautious to pace my legs as I knew there was nearly 10,000 feet of elevation coming up and I wanted to keep my powder dry.

Next stop was Kildale, a drop bag checkpoint. When I was arranging our drop bags the night before, Con questioned why a drop bag point was only 10 miles in.  I didn’t know the answer, but I did think that I wouldn’t need to carry any food at the beginning and any weight saved is a bonus to me, considering the fairly hefty mandatory kit we had to carry.  As we ran, however, I realised we had had breakfast at 5.30am and by the time we arrived in Kildale at 10.45 we would be hungry.  I was looking forward to my cheese and pickle sarnies and stuffing my vest with goodies to see me through Bloworth Crossing.

I knew the next 8 mile section very well. I had done it in both directions, and had also waited anxiously when I was crewing for a friend on the other side of it. I knew it was a long slog and mentally a tough challenge even in calm weather. Once we had climbed up onto the moor again, it was a long rocky track to Bloworth Crossing itself – a convergence of trails and tracks up on the moor. This was where American Werewolf was filmed and you can see why the lads were advised to stick to the path.

There is a stark beauty to these moors and when you look in detail at the flora and fauna around you it is stunning, but taking in the big picture I find it very bleak; moors stretching in all directions to the horizon, the wind whipping across with no natural features to stop it until it hits you. And that’s on a calm day. On this day it was anything but calm and the rain lashed across us horizontally, the track flooded with water, turning it into a river and the immensely strong gusts of wind trying to push you over.

The race director had sent an email out before the race suggesting that some sort of goggles might be a good idea in case the weather was similar to the previous year (heavy snow). However, in these windy conditions I was very grateful for my goggles and put them on.  Although my vision wasn’t great with them, the footing wasn’t precarious enough to matter and the sharp needles of rain on my face were very painful.  By pulling up my buff and tucking them under my goggles, I was protected.  Con said I looked like I was about to fly a biplane but frankly I didn’t care!

I knew once we reached Bloworth, we were more than halfway to the next checkpoint so I was pleased when we finally reached that point. Con and I couldn’t talk in this weather so we had been running along together in silence and sometimes another mate of ours Dennis would catch us up, chat for a bit, and keep going. He was struggling with an injury but when he was running he looked very strong and always ran past us but then we caught him as he kept stopping, I assume to stretch.

Finally we descend down, out of the wind (how is it possible it was in our faces the whole way??) and to the Clay Bank checkpoint. Another memory point – both of my previous DNF at HM110, when my mate Gav was crewing me and was at the gate to meet me with a cup of tea, and also the place where I, in turn, had crewed him and waited anxiously for his arrival off the moor in the dead of night.

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The first of 3 Sisters after the Clay Bank checkpoint.  Con looking well chuffed!

And now we had the 3 Sisters to look forward to – 3 sharp little hills which somehow weren’t nearly as impressive as I remembered from before. Perhaps training in the Peaks really has helped me. As I came to the top of each hill, I was still strong enough to immediately set off at a trot and although my legs had complained crossing the moor, suddenly they felt loose and running at a good trot came easily.

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I knew Con was struggling with foot pain and he dropped back slightly but I wasn’t concerned. I knew he’d get his second wind soon enough. However, a couple of miles from the next checkpoint, Scugdale (these place names are so glamorous), I glanced over my shoulder to check he was there but found myself staring at a complete stranger behind me.  Oh no, it’s ok, that must be Con behind him.  No. My gaze slipped back to each figure along the flagstone path, searching for the fairly easily recognisable silver overtrousers but he wasn’t anywhere to be seen.  Shit!

I was appalled and instantly felt guilty.  We were mates and were running this together and somehow I had dropped him without even noticing. I got my phone out but it was soaking wet and although I keyed the right password in, it said I hadn’t and locked me out. I turned and started running again; without him in sight I must crack on. I had an agenda and even despite that, you absolutely couldn’t stop for long without getting very cold, very quickly.

I pause when I reach the checkpoint, try my phone again and get locked out for even longer – ffs!!  I wanted to check the tracker to see how far back he was. But again, I didn’t dare hang around long and cracked on towards Osmotherley.

The next few miles passed without me noticing much – all my focus was on running while my legs felt good. Walked the steep hills, jogged the creepy-uppies, run everything else. I was leap frogging with a couple of friendly guys who I’d had a quick shoe chat with (imagine!!) and came down with them into Osmotherley, 30 miles in, 20 to go and the second drop bag checkpoint.

By this point my brain was starting to fry I think and although I was compos mentis enough to produce my headtorch at the spot kit check, when I retrieved my drop bag I looked vaguely in it and stared at the food laid out on the tables and had a momentary brain shut down. I wanted to push on. I had said to Con when we got here I’d take my shoes off and give my aching feet a rub, wring out my socks etc but my feet were feeling fine and I had this sense of urgency to move on. I grabbed a sandwich and bag of fruit out of the bag, put the bag back in the pile for Con to retrieve later, and left within a few minutes.

I was now surrounded by strange people, not the familiar ones I had been frog hopping with for miles before.  It’s funny isn’t it how you get used to the people around you even if you don’t talk to them.  But my new companions were a miserable lot so my head went down again and now my focus was purely on getting to the White Horse checkpoint before dark.  Once I was there, it was 10 miles downhill to home.  Easy.

We looked happy at the beginning!

Ha.  Perhaps this is where I went wrong. I was so focused on getting to White Horse, that when I did, the wheels kind of exploded off. I did slow down in the last couple of miles and I did have to get my headtorch out just before I reached it but the descent to the checkpoint took its toll, and the never ending track to the checkpoint itself through the woods, a nasty muddy track, slowed me to a walk. My back was aching, my stomach was aching, my arms were aching. I was simply exhausted.

After staring blankly at the checkpoint marshals, I pushed on but just before climbing the steps out I stopped and got out my microfleece.  I knew I was struggling, it was now full dark and it would get very cold.  I did a bit of a sort too and emptied the pockets of my stuffed vest into my dry bag in the back and set off again. Once I had climbed back up (I may have used the handrail here), you had to run back along the same track you had run in on and here I passed several headtorches on their way to the checkpoint. I looked at them all carefully in case one of them was Con but they weren’t.

Don’t get me wrong – I can and do races by myself but when you enter with friends, so long as everyone is roughly of equal pace, you stick together and keep each other going. It is one thing to enter a race alone, mentally geared to running alone, but quite another to suddenly find yourself alone when you had been running with your best friend. Coupled with the fact I was feeling guilty anyway, I did feel a bit sorry for myself at this point (ok, I threw my toys out).

Soon enough I had to turn off the escarpment path and turn east for Helmsley.  I got a little lift when my watch said there was only 9 miles to go – I thought it was 10 so that was a bonus. But my heart sank when the path turned to very wet, very thick mud.  I slid and staggered along, my feet getting very cold and wet again (in the last 5 miles or so the rain had stopped so I had pretty much dried off under my coat and leggings.

My back was sore. My feet were sore. My stomach was sore. My arms were sore. My poor biceps had been carrying my forearms in the 90 degree position for 11 hours and they weren’t used to it!! I thought I would design little slings on my vest that I could hook my arms into to rest them.  Yes, as you can see, my poor brain had gone.

My death march continued on, getting passed occasionally by people still able to raise a jog. I arrived at a road and again stared blankly around me.  Where to go? I remembered I had a watch that could helpfully tell me this important information and I consulted it and continued on, staggering down a road into the face of an oncoming car.  I managed to avoid getting squished.

I didn’t remember this bit at all but my only memory of this section was from 3 years earlier in reverse, so I wasn’t surprised I didn’t know where I was. I heard footsteps behind me and I exchange a few words with the chap who joined me, then I heard a familiar sound. The sound of a breath being forced out sharply, as you do when making an effort. Con!! I turned, saw him coming up behind me and gave him a huge hug.

We exchanged our stories; he had dropped so far behind because he had waited at the checkpoint thinking that perhaps I had gone to the loo but he had started feeling much better quite quickly after losing me and when comparing our split times afterwards you could see him reeling me in as the time between us dropped from 20 mins to 8 mins at the previous checkpoint.

I explained I was done in and death marching in. Whilst slipping in this infernal mud. I might as well have worn road shoes but I still didn’t regret my shoe choice. I had to keep stopping to stretch my back, my feet were still incredibly cold and painful and whenever I tried to jog when it wasn’t muddy, I immediately felt nauseous. It was a very long, very painful slog back and took us 3 hours to cover that 9 miles.  You’ve all been there and I don’t need to describe it further.

When we got back we found out there had been over 100 DNFs out of the approximate 500 entries.  The provisional results show 300 finishers so that means there were about 100 DNS.  It was very cold and if you couldn’t run, I can see how there would have been many casualties. On our march back to Helmsley I got very cold, miserably cold but I knew the end was in sight so kept walking fast (something to thank Chris Randall for!).

Although I was utterly miserable for those last three hours, and disappointed that I had imploded so much after running so well and strongly to the White Horse checkpoint, I have only taken positives away:

  1. I am much stronger going up hills.
  2. I am much stronger mentally at running along the boring flats.
  3. I went into this race knowing my endurance wasn’t great so I am not surprised that I only made it to 40 miles.  But I made it to 40 miles very well considering the conditions and elevation and that was the point of this race after all; to boost my endurance.
  4. Although my back went again, I had been managing it throughout most of the race well.  It had been twinging during the drive up so I suspected it would give me trouble but I was able to keep on top of it. Everyone has their weaknesses and when you are exhausted from battling 40 mile an hour winds, when every muscle has been tensed to fight the next gust, if I didn’t have a back problem something else would have started hurting to slow me down.
  5. I finished. With these sort of races, I think finishing is something to be proud of.

So, the first part of my training for Lavaredo has gone to plan and completed successfully.  Next up? Watch this space ;0)

 

 

 

 

 

“The belonging you seek is ahead of you, not behind you”

As many of you will know, the last couple of years have been a tough battle with my back.  I dnf’d all ultras in 2017 despite seeking help from doctors, osteopaths, chiropractors, physiotherapists and even an acupuncturist. Throughout all of this I went to a gym and had a private coach for 6 months doing strength training with me.  None of it worked.

However, towards the end of 2017 there was a glimmer of hope as I finished the South2North 2 day Peak District race which was 30 miles on day one and 25 on day two.  With some gentle but consistent training over winter, I successfully completed my local Peddar’s Way Ultra which was 48 miles. South Downs Way 50 was also successful, as was a 30 miler 2 weeks after that, recceing a new course with a friend. But this hopeful start was dashed by an epic DNF at Skye Trails Ultra in May but then a successful SVP100 finish in August.  There is no rhyme nor reason.  The cause is muscular and if I catch it early I am able to fend off the pain by focusing on lengthening my spine, keeping my pelvis at the right angle.  When I am tired I tend to arch my back and logically one can see the added pressure this brings to bear over distance.

Then a friend helped me with a completely new training plan leading up to Hardwolds 80 in November last year.  Rather than just running randomly, he suggested an 12 week plan which included two blocks of 60 miles a week for three weeks, with one rest week in between.  I had never done this mileage before but was up for giving it a go and the difference I felt in myself was amazing.  Perhaps there is an element of psychology here as I’ve always felt getting the miles in was important but being a single mother has made consistent running hard.  But having the 60 mile weeks as a goal not only got my miles up but ensured I was running consistently, every day except Mondays as a rest day.

At the end of the last block of high miles weeks, I ran the Beachy Head Marathon as my last long run before tapering for Hardwolds.  I was feeling so good, so fit and lacking in any pain, I decided to run it hard.  I had a great race, felt strong and hammered the hills, up and down.  But the following week, going out on a normal run, my back seized and I was forced to walk home.  It continued to spasm over the next few days, forcing my decision to DNS Hardwolds 80 that weekend.

Despite this, however, I was feeling decidedly optimistic.  The training had gone really well – being strong and fit clearly helps me control my back.  It was a stupid mistake to go so hard at the marathon, and I clearly need to improve my form going up and down hills, but I felt no disappointment at missing out at Hardwolds.

Last September the same friend suggested I enter the Lavaredo ballot. To me, going abroad for a race was a whole new level and I wasn’t sure I was ready for it but I thought there was no harm in entering the ballot.  To my amazement, when I received the email confirming my entry in October, the excitement I felt at doing this race surpassed any feelings of wanting to go back to finish a race I had failed at before (I had entered Hardmoors 110 too).  Having been to Chamonix, running with friends for a few days last August, I realised that I love those technical mountain trails and even the climbs and actually I’ve had enough of English winter mud.

So not doing Hardwolds was no issue for me and my plans for 2019 took place; with every run and training week planned, leading up to Lavaredo at the end of June.

So, here we are.  Hardmoors 50 is this weekend.  I’ve done some good training although I feel it has slightly lacked long runs.  But that is what this coming race is for – getting my endurance up gradually over the next few months.  I am happy to endure the English mud for the benefit of training and getting stronger and I am looking forward to starting this race for a 3rd time.  In 2016 I ran this race the opposite way with friends, and did it in 11 hours 48 minutes.  You can see how happy we all are above 😉 but I shall be aiming for the same time, albeit over a supposedly shorter course and going from Guisborough to Helmsley is technically easier as the big climbs are in the first half of the race, with the last 10 miles being generally downhill.

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Will my back go?  I have no idea.  But I have done everything I can to prepare myself and as this weekend’s race is merely a stepping stone, I won’t be devastated if it doesn’t go to plan.  I am looking forward to running with my best mate and other friends who have all been so supportive to me over the last, very hard, year.

Carpe diem :0)

Feature photo credit: Conrad Wild

 

Watch this space 👀

I am building up to writing again. I do enjoy it, but it only happens when I feel passionately about something…. I have so many hopes for this year; already I feel I am suffering a set back but because I started working towards my goal from so far away I am as yet unperturbed.

Don’t worry, I’ll keep it strictly running based 😉

All roads lead to Lavaredo 🙌

St Oswalds 80

This is my first blog. Probably my last too but this race made me feel strongly enough to write about it. I may witter on. Consider yourself warned.

I entered St Oswalds within a week of DNFing Hardmoors 110. I was hungry to get a 100 mile race under my belt and felt my DNF was an unlucky combination of factors I could avoid next time. St Oswalds had always been top of my list and it fitted perfectly over the September weekend that Hardmoors 60 was on that I was no longer interested in running, now that I was out of the Hardmoors Triple Challenge.

The first hint of unease came when I tried to find out about checkpoints. Friends on twitter who had done the race before had told me there were plenty of checkpoints, about every 6 miles, but all I could find on the website were checkpoints spaced very far apart. I sent an email and got a reply listing checkpoints every 10k or so and a place name next to them. This was great but one of the checkpoints listed on the website was not in this email. I replied asking for clarification but never heard back. I asked my twitter friends and one of them kindly emailed me with a description of the checkpoints. Very helpful, but I also needed more detail.  I dropped it, had other stuff to think about at that time and didn’t follow it up.

A couple of weeks before any race is when I really start to focus on it, thinking about where it is, the terrain, pacing and what my plans and aims are for the race. At Lakeland 50 I used a pacing card I had copied and adapted from Joe Butler which worked really well. It has the checkpoints listed on it, distance between checkpoints, total distance to each checkpoint and the time I am planning to arrive at that CP and the subsequent average pace I need to maintain in order to get to that CP by that time.  This is not cast in stone, just something to aim for and even if pacing is way out (as it was when I fell and hurt my back at L50) it is still a useful tool to be able to get out and see what distance it is to the next picnic table and gives me the ability to recalculate timings etc.

So I send another email asking for clarification. Also Joe asked me to enquire whether the two drop bags we were allowed would be returned to us.  By this point Joe and I had agreed he would run it with me rather than just crew me, something I would be very thankful for later.  Whether or not drop bags are returned is crucial to know. Does one only put disposable items in it or can one put a spare pair of shoes or clothing to give you more options to adapt to conditions during the race.

Again, zero response. I was pretty annoyed by now but a day or two later an email was sent out and at least one of my queries was answered; drop bags would not be returned. The description of water, sweets and coke at every CP until Warkworth was alarming and depressing. Joe and I made sure we had plenty of food in our drop bags but they were 47 miles into the race and I was hoping like hell that, as someone said, “oh there’s bound to be more than that at the CPs”. I think I really did go into it thinking no one would only offer jelly babies for that distance.

I had decided to travel up to Northumberland by train, remembering what pieces I was in after HM110 and it also allowed me to return home a day earlier as I wouldn’t need the extra night’s rest in order to drive back after running for 24 hours. Joe was also going to take the train which meant we were relying on taxis to ferry us about. I don’t like this reliance on others for transport but decided it was better than doing all that driving.  It also meant I had to get some poor taxi driver to pick me up from my lodgings at 5.15am as the coach taking us to the start from the nearby finish hotel departed at 5.50am. Oh no wait. Here’s an email, the day before the race, to say the bus is now departing at 5am. Great. I didn’t need that extra hours sleep anyhow. Some explanation would have been nice, which local friends in the know supplied saying it had something to do with the thunderstorms the night before. Hmm.

My humour level has descended to “pretty narked” by now. However, we get there in the end, I managed a power nap on the bus and a beautiful day was dawning over the pretty Holy Island where we were to start. It was lovely to see the newly (and secretly) wedded happy couple Emma and Ryan; Mark, Keith and Glenn (“the Boyz”) and to finally meet Tricia and Johnny. Johnny and Sarah were spending the weekend running around the area and had kindly offered to meet and cheer us on and help in any way they could. I hadn’t seen Sarah for ages so it was lovely to catch up with her. I do love my twitter friends and feel very lucky to have met so many top people.

And so to business. I have my usual panic when I try and load a course onto my watch (it takes ages, then freezes and nothing seems to happen but somehow if I’m patient when I press start, it works) and after the usual RD briefing I pay absolutely no attention to, we are off.

 

 

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A long way to go

St Oswalds is certainly an amazing course and threw multiple terrains at us. To begin with it lulled us with a beautiful castle-lined coastline; we came across gorgeous beaches and quaint villages. Comparable to Hardmoors 60 but without the steps – we thought we were onto a winner! Despite the course elevation profile only showing 5,500 ft over the whole 100 miles, once we had crossed the causeway it certainly started out pretty lumpy.

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Sarah and Johnny cheering us on at the end of the causeway
We knuckled down, concentrating on getting some miles in the bank and the first 10 miles went pretty quickly. As expected, the first little CP was water only which was fine. At the 12 mile CP there were a few jelly babies and I was tucking into my chia flapjacks by this stage. I really don’t want sweet food in the early stages of an ultra – to me jelly babies are a life saver when all appetite has gone and you can just nibble on them. Hey ho, off we go looking forward to the first main CP in Bamburgh, thinking there’d be more substantial food on offer after 30kms. My knees were really hurting for some reason and running down hills was very painful. Joe was also complaining of his legs aching more than they should do at this stage but we put our aches down to my undertraining over the summer and his 100kms run back and forth across the Humber Bridge 4 weeks earlier (I know, don’t ask).

Approaching Bamburgh we met Chris Randall, another face to put to the twitter profile and it was nice to have a little chat with him and compare notes. He was doing the 50k and looking forward to a pint at the end.

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Bamburgh Castle
Having done a small loop inland, coming back towards the coast Bamburgh Castle tantalised us as it appeared and disappeared behind hills and sandy bluffs but eventually we caught it and saw the welcome sight of Johnny and Sarah waiting for us under the castle. Sarah had the most amazing sight in her hands I had seen so far, however, and she passed over the packet of salt and vinegar crisps. Heaven. They lasted about 5 mins, 4 mins 55 seconds longer than they should have done but I was taking care not to inhale crumbs, something I can assure you is not a pleasant experience when running.

To my dismay the Bamburgh CP was yet again water and jelly babies only. Sarah gave me another packet of crisps to take with me and we moved straight off down the coast.

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This was very pretty and we came across beautiful golden beaches and little sandy coves. We passed through little fishing villages and this part strongly reminded us of Hardmoors 60 and we wondered how our friends Kirk, Dennis and Nigel were getting on there. The pain in my knees had disappeared, as had Joe’s achy legs, and I suddenly realised that with the hot day our salts must have been low. At the previous CP to Bamburgh I had not bothered to mix up Mountain Fuel in my bottle which would explain why I was low on minerals. Doh! I made sure not to skip it for the rest of the day. So on we went, settled into a good ultra rhythm of running and walking the hills. It might not have been speedy but we were both mindful of the miles ahead, and assured ourselves that we were going to finish this no matter what and that we were there to encourage each other when one was going through a low patch. I have no shame in telling Joe to slow down when we get to a road section, as being the speedmeister he is, he naturally zooms off when back on his natural habitat of flat tarmac.

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Still happy at Craster
Ever onwards, we pass through a village where I buy a very fetching fuchia pink visor as the sun glare was very harsh, and another one where I buy some Pepperonis – I am really hungry now (having scoffed all my onboard food already) and we finally reach Craster and the 50k race finish. Surely there’ll be food here? No. However that Pepperami has had an unwelcome effect on my tummy so am relieved (in both senses of the word) to find loos.

Sarah and Johnny meet us again, and again supply us with life saving crisps. It was great to see Tricia finishing and we were rather envious of the 50k finishers all tucking into pints and settling down to enjoy the rest of their day. Off their feet. With food. Are you sensing a theme here? Food.  I also took the opportunity to put some time into my feet. All ultra runners know how essential it is to look after ones feet.  I have two issues to look out for. My little toes get squashed and then they swell and then they get more squashed. And the soles of my feet basically start screaming after a certain amount of mileage. My toes are dealable if I wrap them up so at Craster I put a huge blister plaster on the one complaining the most and the usual hot spot under my big toe. All comfy and ready to go.

We started to realise many people were suffering with the heat and were dropping out. So in the heat and the sun our pace quickly dropped into the familiar ultra shuffle and we adopted a run/walk strategy that worked well.

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We passed Boulmer, Alnmouth, commenting on how many golf courses and caravan sites we were coming across.  Warkworth was stubbonly refusing to get closer but at last, come dusk, after dreaming about cheese for many miles, we came into the pretty town of Warkworth and the first drop bag point in a lovely cosy cafe. Ironically it was also the first checkpoint they offered proper food: delicious soup, brownies, bread, tea etc, even a super helpful volunteer who offered to take anything we wanted to the finish, despite rules saying no drop bags would be.  It was a welcome respite and I quickly wolfed down a big tub of cottage cheese (my new not-so-secret ultra weapon), soup, chocolate brownies and the essential cup of tea.

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Still a long way to go

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Headtorches on (dark so early now!) we were looking forward to turning inland and the change of scenery it would bring. The terrain now changed to rutted and muddy field tracks and we watched in awe as a huge blood red moon rose above the town we had just left.  Navigation was fairly easy at this stage; handy red and white tape was normally in a good position and the tracks went on for long enough that the map could go away for a spell while we ran.  Approaching Felton is where we started to encounter cow strewn fields, with steep ups and downs, wet boggy grass and ankle turning divots. Combine that with navigating across a pitch black field, trying to find the correct point to exit the field whilst nervously keeping an eye on the eyes blinking at us in the dark, made the going very tough and slow. Always having to stop and check the map is frustrating and now that the sun had gone down the temperatures plummeted too and it got very cold.

The organisers had thoughtfully put reflectors in such a way that you could navigate from one to the other quite easily. The only trouble was having got used to this we then found several were missing, or broken, and some had just been turned in the wind so that they didn’t reflect in the right direction.  Crossing fields with barbed wire fences and/or hedges means you need to find the right point to get across which can be tricky when you cannot see visual references because of fog or darkness.

At one point we entered a field and the path looked like it could be followed simply enough. But halfway across the field was a new fence. Not on the map. The path clearly crossed it but there was no stile or way over.  We saw two headtorches pause at the stile into the field but then they continued along the road to where there was a bridge over the river and a road that then nearly paralleled our route north of the river across the fields.  Joe suggested we do that but on checking the map there was no way of crossing back over the river before Rothbury and it would have meant going much further. Not what we wanted.  We needed to stay south of the river.  The field we were in had the river as one of its boundaries and I found that the new fence, right where it ended on the river bank, had a small section of rails that we could climb over.  Very carefully, very gingerly, with a pitch black fast flowing river inches away it was not a place to slip.

Fog also rose and made visibility tough. When some miles took 30 minutes you know you are in for a long slow one. Joe was getting very tired and I was anxious to get him to the large checkpoint at Rothbury as soon as possible. He even fell asleep on a stile while I quickly ran up a fence line looking for a way over. The map was telling me we were at a point where the path diverged; the left path took an old railway line straight into Rothbury and the right path wiggled down to the river through fields. We needed to be on the railway line which was just over the fence and across a thick bit of copse but I couldn’t find a way across.  We climbed a wall but only found a huge chasm that looked too hard to get down – I assumed the railway line was at the bottom.  We climbed back over and two more headtorches appeared in the fog and with some relief I turned to them explaining my problem. We all agreed we couldn’t go that way so continued down the hill and eventually found another way over to the railway line.

It was a relief to start jogging again but by now Joe was really struggling and literally falling asleep on his feet so we slowed to a walk. I grabbed his arm and dragged him onwards, trying to talk to him and cajole him to the CP.  If he had passed out and gone over there is no way I could have got him back up again.  We eventually got to the 100k mark at 2am and Joe immediately went to sleep on a padded bench seat. Someone kindly put a space blanket over him and I concentrated on getting us some hot soup and food and started sorting through our drop bags. But I got very concerned when I looked over and saw the space blanket shivering. I was straight over, kicking some poor bloke off the comfy seat next to Joe and waking him up, forcing him to change into the warm dry clothes he’d packed into his drop bag and eat some hot soup. I was horrified to see, when Joe took his waterproof jacket off, all he had underneath was the tech t-shirt he’d worn all day. No wonder he had got so cold and, as we subsequently discovered from the paramedics, the tiredness was the body starting to shut down.

Big trembles were still going through him as we discussed the fact he didn’t feel able to carry on and I must continue without him. I knew carrying on was the right thing to do – I still had some running in me but I found it very hard to leave my running partner behind and I was also anxious about travelling alone through the night in such conditions. A couple were just leaving and Joe suggested I ask if I could join and they very kindly said yes.

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So off we went, into the cold fog, passing the incoming paramedics who looked after Joe. Out of Rothbury straight up and onto moorland. Moorland? Yes, somehow I was transported in time and having slogged up what felt like a small mountain, I was back on Bloworth Crossing, the scene of my previous DNF at a 100 miler. Thankfully I was still running and had on good gear so we were able to move fairly quickly across this bleak windy landscape. My feet, having been excruciatingly painful, were feeling better (I reckon it was the wet freezing grass in the cow fields that numbed them) and a body scan showed remarkedly little was complaining.  After a quick introduction (David and Vicky) and explanation of why I was leaving Joe behind, we all fell into silence as we ran, shuffled, stopped to scratch our heads over which way next and generally stumbled our sleepy way across the moorland.  The full moon, made hazy by the fog that still lingered even up there, cast an eerie light over everything and the heather and stone still did their best to trip us up.

My headtorch battery had run out when I was still with Joe, probably because I had it in full Super Nova mode and it subsequently gave up after 5 hours. So I then had to put ordinary batteries in it, in a less bright mode which I found rather dim. A few hours of this and at around 5am I realised the dimness was the batteries running out again, not just my dodgy eyesight. However running with complete strangers, having thrown yourself at their mercy because you don’t want to be alone, puts you in an awkward position. Having gone from being in charge of navigation I was meekly following the others (keeping an eye on the map to make sure they weren’t going wrong of course) and I didn’t feel comfortable asking to slow when I needed to take off my coat, and then again when I needed a wee.  So when I realised I needed to change my headtorch batteries you’ll probably all roll your eyes when I say I didn’t want to ask for another stop to change them and so I continued on, trying to use the light from the full moon and the torch light from another bloke who had joined us and was just behind me. We had by now entered Harwood Forest and the going was really tough and we were completely slowed to a walk as we picked our way round bogs, sedge grass, logs and all manner of things doing their best to trip up sleepy runners. Not being able to see properly really wasn’t helping matters but my brain was addled and I was too worried about asking for another stop to realise a quick stop to change them would have made my life so much easier. I continued to urge the sun to hurry up and just as we exited the forest itself and emerge onto the tracks between the trees the sunlight was enough to see by. Relief. However, the slow picking our way across the forest floor had taken its toll and everyone remained walking a slow plod and the distances between us grew as we all slowed. I put my down jacket on but the cold still crept in, in its usual sly way. My eyes started drooping and I mused how it had taken this long for sleep to catch up with me and decided that concentrating on navigation really helps focus the mind and sleep just hadn’t got a look in. Now however, following the others in a sheep-like fashion, I was suddenly absolutely exhausted. My feet were screaming again and my walk resembled that of a party goer at 5am in the morning after a good night out. Ah those were the days. I was in misery. The pain in my feet was like walking on hot coals. The miles had been wonky throughout the race (the gpx track from the website stated 104.9) and my mileage was a good 6 or 7 ahead of that advertised at each CP. So despite my watch approaching 80 miles travelled, it was still saying 30 miles to go. I calculated how long it would take me to finish and the answer clashed with my train home. I even thought about dismissing the train home, finding someone to take my daughter to school the next day and continuing no matter how long it took. But the pain in my feet wouldn’t go away. I was in company that, despite the kindness, was strange and above all I simply didn’t care enough about getting to the end. I was miserable, in pain, to all intents alone and this is not what I wanted. It was another 5 achingly slow and painful miles to the next CP. I spent every second wishing it over. When I saw a van at the end of a long track ahead I burst into tears of relief. This is not what running is about for me. It brings tears to my eyes just remembering it. I refrained from throwing myself at the feet of what turned out to be an ambulance crew in charge of the CP and just stood there crying and shaking my head. Vicky was struggling with the cold and had been bundled into the front of the ambulance to warm up – they were not letting her leave until her temperature rose from where it was at 35°. David very kindly offered to give me a piggy back to the finish (! my own friends refuse to do this for me) but I was adamant about my decision and was given a seat in the back of the ambulance. I immediately contacted Sarah and Johnny, who I knew were planning on coming to see us at the finish so hoped they were near enough to possibly rescue me. I had had some contact with Joe after I left and now discovered he had been transported to the finish at Chollerford but was otherwise stuck so he was rescued at the same time.  I shall always be hugely grateful to them for that, as well as the crisps. I’m not sure yet which was more important.

I’m not one to say never again. Who knows  what lies over the horizon. But I have decided that for now 100 milers are not for me. Many out there are able to dig in, grit their teeth and continue into the pain regardless. I can’t because the end result isn’t more important than the pain I am going through. And frankly death marching for 30 miles is simply out of the question to me. So I accept that I am not up to it now. I love the 50-60 mile distance that is runable the whole way, that doesn’t destroy my body or make me question my mental strength. I love the mountains and the variety of pace and scenery that comes with it. I have learned that what keeps me going is a passion for my surroundings and discovering new places. I love navigation, working out where I am and where I need to go; it keeps me focused on the now, not worrying about later stages of the race.  Perhaps I should have been brave enough to leave that CP alone – it might have given me the focus to drive forward instead of merely following.  But I am not one to dwell on what ifs.  It is what it is and can’t be changed and valuable lessons are still taken forward.

So in essence I would say a fantastically tough course; for my purposes it was badly organised this year but I know plenty who would love it so yes, I would recommend it. But not to novices like me: only to those hardy souls who I admire and respect enormously – the 100 mile runners.