Saturday, 11 July 2009

Osmotherley Pheonix - July 4th - 33 miles

Osmotherley sits on the west hand edge of the North York Moors and much of this route uses the Cleveland Way - a 109/179km mile path from Helmsley circumnavigating the North York Moors National Park and following the coastline through Scarborough down to Filey.

Osmotherley's trademark appearance is a picture postcard scene of a market cross and stone table on the small village green at the t-junction of its 2 main roads.

One of the highlights of the villages year is the holding of the Osmotherley Summer Games and this 33 ultra run (along with 26 mile and 17 mile options) is part of the programme of events.

Its an undulating route with 35ooft of climbing (the steepest at XXX and the longest after 26 miles) mostly off road on soft tracks and well defined man made paths. This makes for easy navigation and gentle running around most of the route.

We started in bright sunshine with more concern over what factor suncream we would need than how many warm and waterproof clothes we should take. (At last a race in warm, sunny weather !!)
The route winds gently uphill from the village hall, meets the Cleveland way as it snakes through Arncliffe Wood and out onto Scarth Wood Moor. ( Great idea to have the first checkpoint as a 'bucket drop' throwing your numbers into a bucket as you pass along a single track path - makes for hardly any congestion before the field spreads out )
The moorland path provides a great view of the local villages nestled amongst the green rolling hills of Yorkshire and this trend of wide undulating paths, single track through forests and flagstone paths across open moorland was the feature of the first half of the event.
We left the Cleveland way at Round Hill and crossed the valley towards the Cleveland Hills. A mighty climb met us at we came out of chop gate and followed a low level path along the valley skirting Arden Great Moor. Apart from this one climb it felt a fast and easily runnable course, throw in the great weather ( even the breeze across the top of the exposed moors was warm !!) and everything was good - up to now!!
As we came out of New Hall we met 5km's of continual climb up to a disused Quarry. It did not look torturous, but after 26 miles it seemed to creep up and drain all your energy as it just kept on rising into the distance - definitely the hardest part of the route.
We then rejoined the Cleveland Way as we crossed Arden Great Moor and back to Osmotherley. There was one more 'kick in the tail' on this route - a very short but very steep climb over Middlestye Bank just before you entered the village.
I thought this was a great route (think back to the Wye Valley ultra which is the same distance) and as short runs go definitely one of my favourites.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Low Alpine Mountain Marathon LAMM 2009 - 6&7th June

The Kintail and Morvich estate, lies 4 hours north west of Glasgow on the A87, it’s 400 square kilometers of mostly Scottish National Trust country, home to the famous Five Sisters (a high ridge 8km long and 1067 meters high), 14 further Munros (hills over 2000ft) and the falls of Glomach, one of the highest waterfalls in great Britain (370ft), this is ‘big mountain country’ – welcome to the 2009 Low Alpine Mountain Marathon (LAMM).

Now in its 16th year, with a very experienced planning team at the helm, it is a two-day mountain orienteering competition with an overnight camp at a remote location. Over 500 teams will run in pairs, must be self sufficient for up to 36 hours and choose from five linear courses ranging from Elite (35km with 2550m climb Saturday / 26km with 2000m climb Sunday) to ‘D-Novice’ ( 21km with 1230m climb Saturday and 16km with 850m climb Sunday) depending on ability and fitness. The aim is to visit each of the checkpoints on your course and the times for both days are aggregated to find a winner.

New this year is the Score Course ,unlike all the other courses that follow a linear route, the score course has a fixed time limit of 7 hours on day one and 6 on day two. Competitors choose from a host of controls to collect depending on location and value – highest number of points over the two days wins. Good route choice and timekeeping are vital, as 2 points are deducted for every minute or part thereof over time. 90 teams will be given the checkpoint locations to plot 30 minutes before the start but the value of each checkpoint is only handed out at the start.

My partner Russ and I are novices at Mountain Marathons – Russ has completed one and this is my first – but we have an adventure racing background so feel well prepared to tackle the score course.

Fast and light is the aim, but there is a mandatory kit list: Each team must carry a tent , food for evening meal and breakfast, stove and means to produce hot food/drink, first aid kit. Each person must wear or carry a whistle, compass, map, pencil & paper, torch, sleeping bag, survival bag, waterproof cagoule with hood, over trousers, hat & gloves, thermal vest and bottoms, warm thicker top, hill food for each day with a small amount of emergency rations to remain at the end of day 2. However with practice and light gear you can get this into 2 X 20ltr rucksacks (we were using the new 20L teranova laser’s) each weighing about 6kg, provided you ‘drink on the go’ from the streams. The other key is footwear, with wet weather expected, plenty of bogs and very steep descents good grip will be key to contouring well and speedy downhill running – I am trying out my new Inov 8 x-talon 212.

The ‘LAMM revile’ started at 5am Saturday morning courtesy of a traditional Scottish bagpipe alarm call (with snooze control!) and opening the tent we were amazed at two things – clear blue sky (not the bad weather promised) and 500+ tents (when did they all arrive !!)

At 8:10 we collected our map and control cards, there were 24 control points to plot before you could start getting a feel for the right route choice. The options covered a massive 16km X 17km area, with a ‘ lot of climbs’ so it was clear we would have to be very selective.

At 8:30 we picked up the value card – 670 points in total with each checkpoint ranging from 10 – 60 points. We picked a route covering 8 checkpoints totaling 250 points, the distance considering the climb was right on our limit (35km and 2550m of climb). The route was typified by two things – off piste running and steep slopes (up and down), real ankle twisting and quad trashing country, so we knew we would have to keep moving and make no mistakes. We chose to go north – the high route as it looked like being a nice day and why not try the scenic route!!

The first checkpoint was a very steep 800m climb up Beinn Bhaidhe followed by a spectacular ridge run (you could clearly see Skye) to the summit of Ben Attow at 1032m then another very steep decent ‘off piste’ down to the valley floor and back up for the third checkpoint at the source of a dry near the summit of Ciste Dhubh (979m), this set the theme for the rest of the checkpoints - it was going to be a hard day!!.
We were going well for most of the day but a navigational error (we were 200m too high on a spur) at one of the checkpoints lost us valuable time so we we had to bypass one of the easier 15 point checkpoints or face penalty deductions for being late.As it was, we arrived back with less than two minutes to spare after ‘hammering down’ the last set of grassy descents , south east of the overnight stop and the finish of day 1.
Mid Camp was east of Loch na Leitreachset nestled between Creag nan Eilid (656m) in the Killilan Forest range to the north and Creag Ghlas (856m) to the south, a spectacular valley location next to the river Elchaig. When we finished the sun was still warm, the sky clear, no midges, fresh water – it made for an idyllic and almost luxurious feel to the camp as 1000 competitors told their stories of the day, and prepared for the next. We set up camp quickly and prepared our evening meal (cous-cous and dried pasta) to re-fuel for the next day. Elated we had had a good day, exhausting, incredible weather and fantastic high level scenery.

We were all using Idensport tagging which meant that within an hour of finishing the results were published for all to see. The LAMM is very well organised, from timings to facilities to the quality of the courses – a very slick operation.

Interestingly at the end of the day the top 5 teams on the score were separated by only 30 points and the distance and climbs covered were comparable to the leaders of the elite / A courses – so this score class is definitely not ‘the easy option’.The winners of the day had picked a completely different route and gone south, bagging 11 checkpoints totalling 255 points. We ended Day 1 in 4th place with 235 points, only 5 points behind the 2nd and 3rd place teams – so all to play for on day 2.

On finishing Day 1 we received Day 2 checkpoints (22 within a more confined area of 13km X 10km) so we had plenty of time to plot them and plan a couple of alternative routes which we could finalise once we got the values at the start – anytime between 6 and 7am in the morning.

Sunday morning started the same as Saturday with a ‘Traditional Bagpipe alarm call’ at 5am, again bright blue skies, glorious sunshine, in fact warmer than yesterday. A huge bowl of porridge and syrup was needed to kick start our weary bodies and focus on the six hours ahead (rather than the seven hours we had just completed). Camp was taken apart very quickly (easy in good weather) and we were ready – our strategy today was ‘to go for it’ and push hard.

At 6.30am we started, picked up the values and took a few minutes to validate our route choice to make sure we could maximize our score. We picked a route of 11 checkpoints that would give us 265 points if we completed them all!! It would be 33km of running (mostly across boggy plateaus) with just over 2000m of climb – ambitious, but with less extreme climbs than Saturday and easier direct route finding, it felt manageable even with one hour less.

Our route started to the south east of mid camp with two checkpoints in the west Benula Forest Range before passing the famous ‘ Falls of Glomach’ on the way to traversing round AGhlas Bheinn (918m) to a checkpoint at Loch a Chleirich before the final steep decent over to the Inverinate Forest Range. Once there the terrain evened out more and we were able to pick up the pace as we entered the boggy plateaus – or so we thought !! I had an agonising climb up through the valley, I had run out of energy and was struggling to keep up any sort of pace. In the end it took me over 40 minutes to really refuel and by that time we knew we were not going to finish our selected route.

In the end we had to miss out a 25 point checkpoint, it would be another climb up to the crags at 750m just below and to the north of Sgurr an Airgid summit, and to be honest we did not have it in us –the finish line was still some way off.

It had been a long hard slog up the valley northwards aiming for the col between Beinn Bhuide (703m) and Sgurr an Airid (841m) but once there the finish camp could be seen at the bottom of an incredibly steep decent. We now had 15 minutes left to get there and divert off to the final 10 point checkpoint, a final ‘unload everything push was required’, Russ fell over twice (fatigue and cramp)on the way down and we had to ‘fight through’ a variety of other course runners but we got to the finish line with 90 seconds to spare and collapsed in a heap needing to recover before we could ‘download’ the days scores.

We were delighted to have finished Day 2 with 240 points, 1st on the day (to our surprise) which brought us up to 2nd over the weekend.

Races like this, although 13 hours long are decided on one or two minor points, ours was on Day 1 spending 10 minutes trying to find a checkpoint at the wrong height!! This was the difference for us between first and second place over the weekend. However, every team has their tale of navigational errors and lows of energy, its part of the race. The score is a good event , you cannot concern yourself on who is ahead like in the linear routes. You have no idea which route any team is taking so you have to concentrate on your own race, you set the pace, you push as hard as you want, you rely on your navigation and route choice skills (most of which is ‘off piste’)- to be competitive and enjoyable, you dictate how hard or easy you want the experience to be.

A great weekend of racing, the organisation and marshalling is outstanding for such a large field over six different routes, we were spoilt with weather, the ‘big mountain’ scenery is stunning and two mountain marathon rookies produced a damn good performance – see you next year !!

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Marlborough Downs Challenge - 33 miles - 16th May

A scenic one lap route across the Wiltshire Downs, along the Wansdyke &
through Avebury Stone Circle.
A gentle off road course, crossing fields and rolling hills, a couple of hill climbs (one on muddy tracks up to Cherhill Monument) , 'Dyke' ridge running (quite windy and exposed), a couple of miles alongside a canal and a 'white horse' created a nice morning out running in the Wiltshire countryside.
A fast course (not for me !!) shown by the first four runners (mostly vasque team) this year coming home inside the course record, the weather helped as the rain held off for most of the run and although 'blowy' on top of the Dyke and Cherhill Monument, a lot of the run was protected and the prevailing wind was behind most of the way home.
For me, a tale of two halves - The first 15 miles to CP4 was very pleasant. A nice run through West Woods up onto the Wansdyke path with great views (from here you got a great sense of rolling deep green countryside) and down along the canal up to bridge 139. I was with a group of 5 runners (including Tim - another Grand Slammer), feeling good just ticking over enjoying the warm weather, conversation and general scenery.
Then, we started up Quakers Walk Path (after grabbing a few jelly babies), through Roundway and began the long walk up to Leipzig Plantation. This hill - done me in !! - I went from feeling good to feeling 'old and jaded' in about 20 minutes. I even had a 'brain freeze' coming out of the woods going the wrong way down the next path (considering the right route was the size of a motorway, it was quite a feat to go wrong here - note for other runners - never follow the guy in the orange wig !!).
Not sure what happened really, I had been eating and drinking but somewhere going up the hill my head switched to reminding me of the 61 miles I had done seven days earlier and my body seemed to give up - feet and ankles hurt, could not seem to run more than 50 yards - then the rain came down which was the last straw and I fell into a walk / slow jog - pathetic really !! I 'trudged' up the last climb of the day to Cherhill Monument with the wind in my face and passed the famous 'white horse' landmark (a chalk horse in the side of Cherhill Hill), where we joined the runners from the 20 mile route, heading for home.
It took me about an hour to recover and it was not until I got to the otherside of Avebury that I began to run again with any consistency - could have been the cup of sweet tea I had or the 5 minute chat I had with Fred ( a guy I met last year doing the coastal marathon series) reminiscing on what seemed easier times !!
After Avebury the route is fast and flat(ish) and with the wind behind us you could smell the finish line (maybe this was the real reason I picked up again), and it felt good to be able to keep running again.
I finished feeling disappointed in my performance, (where was my 'grit and determination') others had been at the Fellsman last weekend and managed to keep going, maybe I need to find a way to recover more quickly (I definitely wont be doing a hard training session two days before the next event- in hindsight - a stupid idea) or just get fitter !!.
It is a nice gentle course, with easy navigation and good scenery. Well worth a run out on a warm summers day.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Fellsman Hike 9th May 2009

What a monster !! 61 miles ' of very hard and rugged moorland' in the Yorkshire Dales - , 8 climbs - 11,000ft in total, crossing 3 featureless -boggy moors (local knowledge a big help here !!), with 2 hours of sleet,torrential rain and gale force winds thrown in for 'a bit of a challenge'!!

26 checkpoints to keep you on track - although there are a couple of areas of route choice that are important to get right - namely across Fleet Moss and Blea Moor. The event starts with a huge climb up to the summit of Ingleborough at 724m (quite intimidating for a rooky) which quickly stretches out the field and puts a marker down for whats ahead!! The terrain is 'black toenail' and 'quad trashing' (hills) for half the time and feet freezing and ankle breaking (moorland) for the rest - definitely a tough combination.

The organisation and logistics were superb, a mammoth operation executed with real efficiency and enthusiasm from start to finish - what a pleasure. The 'menu' on offer at the 9 refreshment stops was very impressive and a definite highlight - I got caught in the storm on the way up to Blea Moor and the Hot Pasta at the next roadside checkpoint was very welcome as I had to strip off (apologies to those in the tent at the time !!) and put all my spare gear on to keep warm and dry !! I have to admit to sitting there for a good 20 minutes listening to the torrential rain wondering why oh why I ever thought this was going to be fun !!

However, hot tea and pasta gives a renewed perspective and off I went into the rain. It was really quite a lucky event for me in terms of route choices, at Fleet Moss I happened on someone who had done a reccy of the route the week before and when darkness fell at Park Rash I was grouped with Colin - a Fellsman Veteran who knew the route home like the back of his hand (although the flashing orange beacons outlining the route helped a bit !!)

Conditions were not kind this year, high winds, sleet, heavy rain, temperature on the fell tops was close to freezing - this probably accounts for the 142 'retirements' this year (some 38% of starters). There is no doubt the biggest talking point in the 'recovery areas after the events ' was 'where were you when the storms hit - wherever it was, it probably was not comfortable.

'The terrain is tough, with most of the Yorkshire Dales’ peaks crossed, along with energy-sapping peat bogs, add in the difficulty of night navigation for all but the fastest runners, and you have an event that tests the stamina, fitness, mental strength and all-round fellrunning and walking abilities of even the toughest competitors.' Huge respect to all who braved the weather and finished the route.

You have to work really hard on the one, dig deep when needed and have the resolve to just keep going - just look at the picture opposite!! - worth it ? - absolutely - oh, and another three points towards the Ultra trail du Mont Blanc.

If you're wondering about the hair !! The wig, bottle and top are in support of the Muscular Dystrophy - the charity I am running the grand slam for - oh alright then - I like to be noticed !!

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Calderdale Hike - 36 miles - 18th April

A Traditional event in its 31st year, one that I found very inspiring (and hard on the old legs!!) Lots of ups and downs, good variety of terrain, navigation and route choice were straight forward if you kept to the main routes and the weather was great, steaming in the low lying villages and warm / breezy up higher.

I am beginning to learn that not having to carry much kit and plenty of organised food & water stops is a nice way to run an ultra. Definitely makes it easier to drink and eat 'proper food' along the way when there is variety and its 'on tap', much better than overdosing on high carb and protein food (which is a bit of a trait I have).

One thing though, it seems you cannot come to this area without someone wanting you to run up to (well OK - walk up!!) Stoodley Pike Monument - this time after 30 miles !!. A real sadistic twist, especially for a guy from the fens, at least it gives the legs a well earned rest and a chance to refuel on the move.
All the fastest guys were missing from this event, saving themselves for next weekends Highland Fling / Scottish Ultra Trail Championships which explains how I managed to come 4th.(outstanding for me) How could this be ? as I know there were more people in front of me at the start. I had forgotten that as well as a 36 mile race there is a 27 mile race starting at the same time and somewhere on the route our courses split - no idea where that happened !!
There is also an option just to walk the route in teams of four, they certainly had a good day for it, and definitely have a different approach to the event, much calmer, relaxed, always time to stop and admire the view, even let the runners 'push in' to get their checkpoint card stamped - makes me wonder if rushing past, head down, watching where I have to put my feet is the best way to appreciate such great scenery - leave that for another day !
Anyway back to the route, definitely a 'must do at least once event', good facilities at start and finish (cricket club) and even a 'proposed route map on show' which definitely helped some of the route choices (Long Causeway to Holme Chapel...). I could imagine that crossing Midgley Moor to Keighley Road could be quite tricky in the mist and rain,thankfully none of that rubbish on the day - blue skies and great visibility.
It is the hilliest course I have seen and to honest quite intimidating when you listen to locals talk about this climb and that hill ! Best advice I can give is copy the proposed route and just go for it! I think lots of planning is overated - I favour a 'just run and see 'approach, I like surprises along the way - keeps things interesting.
The refreshment stations and checkpoints along the route are armed as ever with good humoured helpful volunteers who offer words of encouragement as well as the occasional 'that way' directional commentary. Well worth a day out.

Highland Fling - 53 miles - April 25th

Wow !! A scenic run along the West Highland way , including the full length of Loch Lomond, with Iconic views, forest paths, moorlands, great weather, and, I have never felt so trashed in my life !!
I walked (alright hobbled) away from this event with a truly amazing vision in my head. As you go over the top of Conic Hill and Loch Lomond opens out in front of you - its just outstanding - all who get to this part of Scotland should take look (not when its misty though), I don't think 'scenery running' gets much better.
Tactically, this was not a good race for me, I started too fast ( I found myself running with the runner up from 2008 - how stupid is that !!) after 20 miles I could not seem to get into a rhythm, could not seem to get my nutrition right, did not feel like eating what was in my drop bags, lacked energy even on slight inclines and seemed to spend a lot of time walking. My head seemed to be in the wrong place and the last 30 miles just seemed to be a slog - but what an event - I loved it!!
Its a gentle start to this event, good runnable tracks for the first 12 miles or so, easy route finding (Lots of gates though - don't run at the front or back of a pack or you'll feel like a doorman!), you get a false sense of security. Someone told me there was only one hill (Conic Hill at mile 19) on route and at this stage I believed them !
However, once you leave Balmaha, I can guarantee - 'undulating' it may be described as but 'hilly' is how it feels after 27 miles as the route meanders along the shores of Loch Lomond. There is a fantastic section between Inversnaid and Inverarnan (35 miles - ish) where the path becomes rocky, rooty and in some places precarious - a good 'fun section' that although hard makes you smile as you navigate it with tired legs trying not to end up on your face!!
When you reach Bein Glas Farm it does feel like you're heading for home (mainly because you believe that what is in front of you can't be as hard as whats behind you), however there are a couple of surprises on the final 'flat section', the climb up the old military road up to Crainlarach tests the resolve a bit - you can see the path ahead of you rising miles in the distance up and up and up !! The run through the forest is definitely hilly and at 47 miles, the steep descents really start to stress your quads, but once through that the final 5 miles run in is straight forward as you are 'marshalled' into Tyndrum flagged by munroes (big hills over 2000ft !) either side (some still with snow on!).
I have never tasted 'Stovies' but was really glad to get the opportunity at the finish as I was definitely on my last legs, and what a great goodie bag !!
It had been a great day out. Mesmerising views, my furthest ever ultra, great weather, and even points towards the 'Trail du Mont Blanc'. The step up to 53 miles for me had been a mix of pain, determination a inspiration - not a bad combination. I applaud everyone who makes this distance, it definitely commands respect - but achievable for all !!

Monday, 6 April 2009

A Coventry Way 40 miles - 5th April 2009

What a find !! Even the sun shone all the way round!! I would recommend this to any ultra beginner as a great introduction. 90% off road, flat (undulating in parts but not hilly), 7 refreshment stops on a circular route, a very well organised low key event. Navigation is via a well detailed route book around a course that circumnavigates coventry 5 miles out, everyone starts at different times so its great to run your own race and focus on the things you need to. Times vary from 6 hours to 17 hours (for walkers) might get a bit boggy if heavy rain but otherwise good runnable tracks, footpaths towpaths and even a golf course!! At the finish, refreshments and a hot meal - All for £10.

The start is in a village called Meriden and follows a well defined path 'The Coventry Way' through fields and onto 4 miles of disused railway track before crossing a picturesque golf course (watch out for those balls!). After meandering across more fields and villages, there is a 4 mile section down a towpath next to the Coventry Canal which leads across an undulating section of farm tracks, through a forest and back to Meridan.

What makes this a great starter event is its low key nature - being able to start at your own time - a well defined route book and a very runnable course with enough variety to keep things interesting. Very slick, very friendly - well worth a visit.