My last Will and Testament before Fellsman

The Fellsman is in 9 days. At some point during the 20 hours thereafter I may well die.

This race was one of the first on my list to do when I ventured, innocently, into the world of ultras. Gazing around me in wonder, I heard about a notorious race across the Yorkshire Dales that only the most hardy consider and thought YES! I’ll do that. Sounds nice.

Travel forward in time and experience, to when Chris Randall asked if I fancied running it with him and Dan Thompson. Good mates that I’d ended up finishing SDW50 with last year (or, more accurately, they found me wandering on the trail and dragged my sorry arse home).

I considered and decided it would be a good training run for Lavaredo. How so, I hear you say. Well, they might be very different terrains but in terms of elevation, difficulty underfoot and time on feet, the Fellsman should set me up well. In fact I’m rather hoping after the bog hopping slog of Fellsman, Lavaredo will be a joy by comparison.

I’ve only started really focusing on the Fellsman since Hardmoors. And it’s only really been in the last few weeks as the lads and I discuss and prepare for the race, that I realise how hard it’s going to be.

It might “only” be just over 60 miles, but it has 11,000ft of elevation as it climbs some iconic hills in the Yorkshire Dales and, of course, there are the moors.

I know exactly why the American lads were warned “don’t stray off the path” in the film American Werewolf in London and it had nothing to do with werewolves.

I am starting to suspect the terrain may well be very similar to that of the Trotternish Ridge of Skye. And one where my friend Emma advised me to embrace and learn to love the 30 minute mile. Dear god. Some of you may remember Skye nearly killed me. The Fellsman definitely has the potential to finish me off.

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However, I have added a new weapon to my arsenal. Poles. Yes. I have actually bought poles. And I like them. And the more I research the race the more I believe they may actually save me. And save my back.

I have enjoyed going over the map and plotting the route.  There are some major changes to this year’s race and there’s nothing more I love doing than pouring over a map, trying to visualise the terrain.

Although technically you must navigate yourself from checkpoint to checkpoint, there are only a certain number of ways one can go from A to B via bog so there are gpx files available and comparing those to the notes from the Race, and a bit of healthy competitiveness between me and Chris over who plots the best route (obviously me) and I’m pretty confident we won’t get lost*.

I even ordered my own custom OS map so that I could get the whole route on one map instead of two.

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Putting all my gear together has been interesting. The mandatory kit list is long. 5 long sleeve tops!! An emergency foil poncho hoodie as well as a bivvy bag?! 3 pairs of trousers?!

And somewhere it is advised a 16l -20l pack is optimal. After putting everything together in a ridiculously huge pile, I realised my largest race vest is 12l. Damn.

I have an 18l Osprey pack which I use for day trips and walks with C. That will have to do. It’s nothing like a race vest however; no pockets at the front. I’ve bought some bungee cord to make up loops for the poles.

I took it out for a run for the first time the other day. Holy shit it was heavy and bulky.

Those poles really do have their work cut out.

So, if you never hear from me again after next Saturday you’ll know why. I’ll have stepped onto the moor and immediately sunk into it without trace.

*Disclaimer; written after 2 glasses of wine so ridiculously optimistic at the time of writing

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