Friday, 25 September 2009

Hitting the road

Commonwealth Ultra-distance and Mountain Running Championships

I like to think that I'm both an ultra distance and a mountain runner. Unfortunately, for the Commonwealth championships in Keswick last weekend it was a choice of one or the other. The mountain races were short: an uphill-only race to the summit of Skiddaw, and a lapped up-and-down course over Latrigg; while the ultras were firmly on the tarmac: a 24-hour event on a 1 km course around Fitz Park, and a 100 km route on a quiet road along the back of Thirlmere.

The championships kicked off with the 24-hour event. It started at 12, and after a while we sauntered down to watch the competitors gently jogging in circles around the park. Then we got bored (and dizzy), so we went back for an afternoon snooze. A leisurely meal. A cup of tea. A quiet evening chatting and reading books. As I climbed into my comfortable bed some time later I spared a brief thought for them still circuiting the park – and drifted off for 8 hours deep, restful slumber. In the morning we lay in awhile, did justice to a substantial breakfast, and sat around to digest it. Finally, we went back to the park to see how they were getting on. We'd almost forgotten they were still racing.

The closing stages of a 24-hour race are messy. Vomit-stained zombies shuffled slowly around the perimeter, bloodshot eyes staring hollowly from saggy grey faces. Just one or two competitors could still manage a painful jog. The winner though was approaching a staggering (in more ways than one) 160 miles – an astonishing distance to cover on foot in a day. Just a shame to do it all in circles.

I didn't see much of the uphill mountain race that afternoon, much though I would have loved to climb Skiddaw to watch. Better to save my legs for the 100 km race. Lucy Colquhoun and I had both been selected to run for Scotland – though for this race we'd be swapping our Vasque trail cleats for road flats and seeing how fast we could run on the level for a change.

A number of other competitors from the Vasque series were also running – the English team included Jez (currently leading the series with four race wins so far this year); Allen (not far behind with three wins) and Matt Giles (joint winner with Allen at Marlborough). But with some fast road runners joining them, plus the cream of ultra-distance runners from Canada, Australia and New Zealand, it would be interesting to see how our home-grown talent would compare. Personally, I was just hoping for a solid run and a reasonable position, for I knew I wouldn't be among the leaders on a tarmac course (far from my favourite terrain) with a field of elite international runners.

It was a good race, with the early lead being taken by a Canadian runner. By halfway though, the English runners had pulled through, and Matt Lynas was edging away. Not for long; his lead was soon being devoured by a fast Matt Giles, who then opened up a gap himself. By 95 km the distance was telling on both Matts though, and it was Jez, running his usual steady pace throughout, who came through to the finish just a minute ahead.

My own race was also nice and steady to the 75 km marker – not quite up in the leading pack, but not too far behind, and running smoothly. I felt like I should be able to keep that pace to the end - but my legs began gradually to seize up, and I lost a fair bit of time in the final quarter. I was still only just outside my personal best though, on a slower, hillier course, and my 12th place was good enough to help my Scottish team-mates pip the Canadians to the bronze team medal. In the ladies race Lucy ran an exceptionally strong race to take the ladies bronze (and lead the Scots to the team silver), so the Scottish squad had something to celebrate that evening.

I stiffly, gingerly picked my way up Latrigg to watch the last mountain race the following day. This was more my sort of racing: a forest track, a steep grassy climb, a sheep-track through the heather. Just a shame it was a short course and over so quickly! If this marriage of mountain and ultra-distance running is to spawn a second championship - and it was a great event, so I hope it does - surely a long trail race could be an appropriate addition? I'll be the first to sign up!

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Closer to nature?

Lakeland 100

As I climbed up the slow steady rise out of the valley from Boot a startled vole scurried out of the pool of light from my headtorch into the dark rough grass of the fell. You're certainly closer to nature in races like the Lakeland 100 – when was the last time you saw a vole? Or a badger, like the one that trotted nonchalently ahead of me for a while along the footpath from Blencathra. Normally badgers are stiff, bristly boards occasionally encountered lifeless by the side of busy roads. It comes as a revelation to see instead a warm-blooded animal snuffling about the country at night.

If you believe in living life to the full, it would be hard to find anything more full-on than running across 103 miles of fell and footpath through a soggy night and through a grey dawn. Though what life is filled with during a race like the Lakeland 100 is perhaps harder to quantify. Often, it's not fun-filled. Dragging your shivering, sodden self from the bog that has half-swallowed you; being lured foolishly from the path by distant homely lights and having to clamber through a felled forest and wade a river to get back on track; the anger and frustration that well up when the mists come down on a high col and you are unsure of the correct path to take – and shortly find you have taken the wrong one; the long periods when, simply, you are cold, and tired, and hurting, and no end is in sight. None of these are fun.

Yet the joys of life are heightened too in these races. The sense of comradeship with a fellow runner who has run with you through the night is something you might never feel for the office mate you have sat next to for years. A cup of cheap, luke-warm coffee in a styrofoam cup thrust into your hand in some scruffy outbuilding by a checkpoint marshall is a sweeter nectar than the finest expresso served in a swanky bar.

To me what matters more than those though is the joy of being in wild places, of experiencing the wilder corners of our country in fair weather and in foul. Wading through damp bracken might not seem fun at the time - but the memories will be far fonder than memories of a weekend watching the cricket. And when the clouds do part and the beauty of the mountains around is revealed, blisters and fatigue can be for a moment forgotten.

Of course the competition makes a race too. I can understand why the road runner runs. But for me I would swap the tarmac for the fell and the bog and the forest and the rocky trail any day. Give me the wet and the wilderness.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Team Vasque dominate Lakeland 100/50

Team Vasque had a great performance at the Lakeland 100 & Lakeland 50 at the weekend.

The 100-mile race has been reported as "one of the country’s toughest mountain races" and is inspired by the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. The Lakeland 100 involved a 103-mile circuit around the Lake District from Coniston, to Keswick, Pooley Bridge & back to Coniston with 23,000 ft of climbing. The 50-mile version started at Dalemain (near Pooley Brige) and covered the second part of the route.

Team Vasque scooped the 1st male & female positions in the 100-miler & the 2nd male & 1st female in the 50- mile race.

Andy Rankin, Martin Inge, Martin Beale

In the 100, Andy Rankin set a new course record, finishing in 22hours 46 minutes & Rachael Lawrance was the 1st and only women finisher in 31 hours 47 minutes, setting the first women's course record time. In the 50-mile, Martin Beale finished 2nd in 8 hours and 46 min (the winner was Mark Palmer in 8hr 29min) & Martin Inge finished 5th in 9 hours 31 minutes. Lucy Colquhoun also set a women's course record for the 50-mile race finishing 1st lady in 9hr 41min (9th overall) and Mandy Calvert finished 5th lady.

Rachael Lawrance

Look out for race reports to come on our blogs & in the race report section of the runfurther website.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Another free t-shirt

IAU World Trail Challenge, Serre Chevalier

Does anyone else get fed up with free race t-shirts? I've lost track of the colossal quantity of unneeded and unworn kit I've gained this year. The 'May Hill Massacre' t-shirt was the first if I remember rightly, with a tasteful dripping chainsaw logo. Draycott Water 35 and a local 10k soon followed with some fairly naff shirts covered with sponsors logos.

My Wye Ultra finisher's shirt is at least a reasonable training top; the Galway 100K t-shirt is moderately wearable. But then for Galway, I was also given a Scottish vest, tracksuit, shorts and a Scottish Athletics t-shirt. It was the end of March, and my wardrobe was already close to exploding.

Joining the Vasque team, I was given three more tops to wear for races – a vest, t-shirt and a long-sleeved top so to have something for any weather. And a fleece to wear afterwards. Oh, and a whole load of socks, and a few pairs of Vasque shoes. And then a month or two later, along came another two t-shirts, and a couple more vests... plus a windproof top, another fleece... and a few more pairs of socks.

Hurrah for the Highland Fling, which gave us bottle of champagne for finishing. Full marks too to the Fellsman (nothing but a cup of tea), Marlborough Downs (a nice hand-made mug) and the Girton 5K (banana). The Picnic marathon a few weeks ago however compensated for these far more sensible races, netting me a naff sunhat and a canary yellow training top (not to mention some non-wearable rubbish). Though, to be fair, it did have a fine picnic afterwards too. But why can't race organisers just charge a smaller entry fee and make the t-shirts and tat an optional extra?

But running for your country really takes the biscuit. A fortnight before the IAU World Trail Challenge in the Alps last week, UK Athletics sent me a kit form. Foolishly, I ticked the boxes for everything I was entitled to, and two days before the race, an enormous package arrived. For running one little race for them, I got a vest; a short-sleeved running top and a long-sleeved running top; a cotton t-shirt; a long sleeved cotton shirt; a polo shirt; two fleeces – white and blue; a jacket; a couple of pairs of shorts; two pairs of leggings (long and short), a couple of sets of tracksuit bottoms and five pairs of socks.

It's all nice enough stuff, and the shorts, vest and socks I wore for the race were very comfortable. But the rest is really terribly wasteful: I'm never going to wear most of it.

I suppose it is quite an honour to be swaddled so comprehensively in the colours of the union flag, so I shouldn't grumble. My only worry now was running well enough in the race to justify my selection - I knew that while in Lizzy Hawker and Angela Mudge we had an exceptionally strong womens team, us blokes were considerably less strong. Neither of us had run internationally before, and in the selection race Allen Smalls had come third, and I had trailed along gently in fourth. I was well aware that if Jez Bragg hadn't decided to run Western States instead, I would never have been asked – and that there are a fair number of runners in the country faster than me who hadn't for various reasons gone for selection.

I thought I should at least enjoy the experience of running at an international level now I had been given the honour though, and Serre Chevalier was a fantastic race setting. Lots of memories will stay with me - the start with a thousand runners jostling in the darkness along the narrow track out of town; the switchbacks up the Col du Galibier, and the steep rocky ascent to the pass; labouring across the high screes and patches of snow in the thinner air of nearly 3000m altitude; the fast loose descents off the cols; the awesome views to the mountains; the smells of forest and meadow as we climbed out of the valleys.

Having gone off from the beginning fairly hard, I managed to stay ahead of the girls – though not by much. They were certainly the stars of the British squad, with Angela taking the ladies silver, and Lizzy – despite not being on her best form – the bronze. Given the standard of the opposition I was pleased with my 14th place in the overall race (7th in the IAU competition), and Allen came around halfway through the International field too despite the terrain not really suiting him.

As I crossed the line, sweaty and tired from 42 miles of running and 3500m of climbing, a French girl smiled sweetly and handed me a finisher's momento. I glanced down.

Just what I needed. Another t-shirt.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Three Peaks Yacht Race win

We had come to the realisation after the Scafell Pike run that we were out of the running for the king of the mountains trophy and decided to pull out all the stops on the sailing and running to try to win the overall prize: it was a gamble all strategy.

Late on Wednesday evening, it looked like our strategy had gone horribly wrong. It seemed like a line of wind was pushing the chasing fleet towards us as we were rowing in dead calms. We managed to escape the clutches of the Lynn of Lorn tidal gate as the others got within a mile of us. We rowed desperately up Loch Linnhe as we watched the other boats assemble at the Lynn of Lorn tidal gate: the Gates of Lorn.

We rowed up Loch Linnhe for hours until we picked up a feeble wind. We watched the other boats trying to battle their way out of the Gates, but progress seemed slow. It appeared as though one white sail made it out through the Gates.

After hours of rowing and feeble winds, we suddenly got involved in a force 7 blowing down from Glencoe. EADS Innovation Works heeled right over and shot off. These were the only strong winds we had in the whole race. The Martins woke up as the heeling began and we set about manically stacking charts and electronic kit that was lying about the boat. Things were flying everywhere. It brought back fond memories of the 2008 race. North of this wind were the Corran Narrows: the final tidal gate before the finish. If we could get through this with no other boat around, we'd have a clear and substantial lead.

The wind inevitably died down (maybe to force 3) as we went through the Narrows. The spring tide rushes through The Narrows at 4 to 5 knots and is a true tidal gate. Geoff worked his magic and negotiated the gate. At one stage, Geoff was apparently so close inshore that the crew could have picked flowers from the shore! I can't say I was asleep while all this was going on: I was dozing. I couldn't get to sleep: John kept shouting out our progress over the ground (from the GPS). My spirits would rise with sounds of forward progress and fall when John exclaimed that we were going backwards. When I could take the suspense no more, I got up, popped my head out of the hatch into the cockpit and saw the Corran Narrows behind us: what an uplifting sight. Geoff taking EADS Innovation Works through there in light winds, against a spring tide was a work of pure genius.

We sailed and rowed up the upper part of Loch Linnhe. We had maybe 3 more hours of rowing: mostly sailor powered, but some powered by the runners. We were greeted by a beautiful dawn at the head of Loch Linnhe and eventually by the even more beautiful sight of an Fl(2) red buoy: this marked the limit of where we could get our engine on and was a huge relief to everyone.

Within 10 minutes, Team Vasque were stepping ashore onto the pontoon, ready for the final running leg. We had a 2 (or so) hour lead on the next yacht.

I was extremely sceptical of how well we'd run given all the rowing we'd done, the night watches, the lack of sleep. In 2008, I knew that something was wrong as soon as I stepped onto the pontoon. This year, I bounced up the pontoon: this felt promising.

We had a nominal race plan as ever: 30 minutes to Achintee House, 90 minutes to the top, 50 minutes back to Achintee House and 30 minutes back. The most important thing was to get up and down in one piece: to not do anything too clever, too special, too flashy. The race plan was secondary to the main goal.

We could see Ben Nevis 5 miles away, patches of snow covering its summit. The initial issue is a 4 mile road run to the base of the mountain proper. We ran this well, getting to Achintee House in less than 30 minutes. I was then surprised that we wanted to run up the path towards the Ben. I just went with the flow. As we ascended, we never got to the stage where things seemed difficult: the hours of rowing and lack of sleep seemed irrelevant as we raced up Ben Nevis, leading the Three Peaks Yacht Race on a perfect day in the cool of the early morning.

We had a tactical decision as to whether to take the zigzags or climb directly to the summit. We were ascending well on the zigzags and just stuck with that plan. We were really enjoying it now and powered up towards the top, clipping the summit checkpoint less than 2 hours into the run.

We made a little detour on the way down to admire the view down to the CIC hut from the summit cornice. A huge gulley, flanked by slabby cliffs and snow fields, dropped into the abyss, clouds swirling around the adjacent crags. It was a beautiful sight, well worth the detour.

We descended directly, running down scree slopes to meet the main path again, then legged it back down towards the mountain base. This was really enjoyable running, bouncing over the rocks as gravity took us home towards the finish line. In the distance, we could see other yachts making their way up Loch Linnhe towards Corpach. Below the Red Burn, we passed the first set of runners coming the other way: this would be a hot and tiring ascent for them.

Martin turned on the style as we ran along the road sections back to the finish. I tucked in behind and followed him all the way. I thought we ran pretty well to the finish, finishing in 3h20m.

The finish line was a welcome sight: our crew and support crew were there. We were sprayed with bubbly as we crossed the line. It was a fantastic feeling to have won the Three Peaks Yacht Race. This had turned into a life ambition and now it had been realised: you can't be unhappy with that! I was especially happy to win it with Geoff and Gary on board EADS Innovation Works. We'd shown loyalty sticking together and sticking with Lightning Reflex (aka EADS Innovation Works). It might have been possible to find a bigger, faster boat, but it was important to me for us and Lightning Reflex to stick together.

I thought we'd stood a good chance of winning the Ben Nevis leg with our time of 3h20m. In any other year, that would have been a stand out time. It is a testament to the quality of the runners in the race this year that 3h20m seems to have only got us third place and that many running teams have posted sub-4 hour times.

The day has been taken up with chatting to the other crews, lounging around in the sunshine, eating haggis burgers and the obligatory trip to the local pub: where three of us fell asleep at the table - according to team tradition. The finishers' party starts tonight: I need to stay awake. Tomorrow, I can sleep on the long trip back to Bristol.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Slow progress east of Lismore Island

Progress has been slow up the east side of Lismore Island. There was a good gust of wind half way up that had us tanking along at 8 knots, but that died almost as soon as it started. We then got to the Lynn of Lorn which is a little strait at the north end of Lismore. The tide turned here.

Things were looking a bit desperate. Objects on the land were transitting oh so slowly. The GPS showed us stopped in the water. The Lismore ferry came over and offered us assistance (we've had about ten offers of assistance from other mariners and all seem somewhat bemused when we explain that we're intending on rowing to Fort William). When we declined their offer, they told us that the tide was turning and we'd need to move quickly. We were only a few hundred metres from open water.

This somewhat desperate situation got us motivated. We got all four oars out and started rowing with some determination. We started moving at 2 knots through the water, seeing objects on land slowly transitting. Inexorably, we passed the northern tip of Lismore, out into Loch Linnhe and our first sight of Ben Nevis which is so near, but so far.

We have seen other yachts come up behind us. They have made good progress in the band of wind behind us. This has been pretty demoralising. Our hope is that they will have a battle on their hands getting out through the Lismore tidal gate. Out in Loch Linnhe, we seem to be making progress against them, but who knows?

The marine life continues to be very exciting. We've seen beautiful jellyfish sculling for whatever they eat, otters swimming around watching us and seals that seem to pop out of the water, clap and dive. I like to think they're cheering us on.

The ideal scenario now is that we get enough wind to progress while the rest of fleet suffer in the calms of Lismore. This might sound unsporting, but we've had our fair share of rowing and it's only fair that they have to do their penance.

The nightmare scenario now is that everyone gets strong winds. The mile or so that we've pulled in front through hours of rowing may count for only 10 minutes in strong winds. In a dead calm, the mile advantage will keep us an hour ahead. This is an hour that the runners will need given the effort that we have put in with the rowing.

I can't comment on current conditions for competitive reasons. We keep our spirits us, show plenty zeal and hope for the best.

A seal or otter dives in front of Ben Nevis as the sun sets and the runners prepeare to sleep. Whatever happens, we'll have a battle on our hands on the Ben and we need to rest.

Exciting developments coming soon

I've been trying out a pair of the new Transistor shoes that should hit the shops in early 2010 - it's exciting stuff!! They are super light and built using a different technology that means no insole and a much lower profile. The lower profile means that they offer great stability and, although intentioned as a road/trail crossover I have already taken them through their paces on the Canyons section of Western States course twice - they give great confidence on the descents. Despite the lower profile and weight they offer good support and good cushioning (even for my ageing knees). I now have a pair with a bit more grip and forefoot protection for those pesky stones and plan to try them out on the traditional sufferfest that is the Hardrock 100 course recce - imagine, no acclimatisation, 3 and a bit days on trail carrying everything, loads of elevation,scree,rocks, snow and thunderstorms and all the while worrying about bears! Ah well, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger and I'll have my new shoes to keep me happy :) Look out for them - they rock!!