South Downs Way 50

This was my first 50-mile event, and with a busy run-up I wasn’t confident of a good time. I had half an eye on 10 hours, with 12 hours as my real goal. After a fastish uphill start, I settled in to a comfortable pace along the ridge, taking things aid station by aid station. Struggling on the hills turned in to just struggling once I passed 30 miles. I finally made it in to Eastbourne as night (and the rain) started to fall, completing my lap of the track in a shade over 11 hours, pretty chuffed. An incredibly scenic route, chirpy marshals, happy competitors and excellent organization made for an outstanding day.

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Completing my 4th ultra, I realised a few things, life and running lessons:

 1. For me, an ultra isn’t a race. My fell running competitive streak is still inside me somewhere, and it emerged in force during the first half of the race. I need to stifle it in ultras, at least until I’m fit enough to give it free rein.

 2. It’s not all about weight. I was overtaken towards the end by a couple of guys carrying quite a bit more weight than me. This will no longer be an excuse for coming in at the back.

 3. Running hurts. For long stretches in the second half, I found myself walking when it didn’t hurt to run. I need to work on my mental toughness and motivation and push myself more.

 4. Poles could be useful. It may be because I’m just back from a couple of weeks of Nordic skiing, but I really found myself missing my poles on the steeper hills.

 5. I carry far too much food. I haven’t yet done a race where I’d eaten all my food by the finish. I had a ridiculous amount left at the end of SDW; I’m not sure why. I could be getting better at using fat, or it may be because of the impressive array on offer at the aid stations. Aside from the few times I’ve started bonking, I only need enough in me to stop the feeling of empty-stomachness.

 6. Dislocation of expectation still sucks. It’s astonishing how devastating it can be when you get to an aid station having wanted a coke for the last 11 miles, only to discover the faster runners have drunk the last bottle. (check the gif!)

 7. People are awesome. Every race I do, I meet more amazing people. Every one has a different story but, to a person, they are friendly, supportive, and despite having only just met you, they have your back if you need them.

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(Pictures by Centurion)

Brecon Winter 40

As I round a corner and start back up the dark hillside that marks the start of mile 36, my headtorch picks out a figure doubled over at the side of the track. “OK dude?” The response is a heave and the splatter of vomit. He wipes his face and displays a rictus grin before setting off running again. I’ll take that as a ‘don’t ask’.

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Mention Brecon and you would likely summons images of soldiers trudging up hillsides with enormous packs. The area is renowned for its toughness and challenging conditions. It is also the host to a 42-mile ultra marathon – one of the Welsh Ultra Running Series, the Brecon Winter 40.

The start, below Tal y Bont reservoir, is understated. A quick race brief, then we’re off up a track in to the dark. The route is well marked – no navigation is required today, though we all carry map and compass in case the visibility closes in – and the stream of faster runners leads us on. The first 12 miles are a mix of steep climbs, painful descents and flat stretches. By 15 miles I’m starting to feel the lack of training and my pace drops off – I cross a dam and cross a featureless moorland marked with Welsh flags. Not even halfway.

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I feel the impact of those first steep descents with every downward step now – toenails being driven repeatedly back in to nail beds. I refill my soft flasks with water at the CP and aim for a forestry track with my head firmly down. People are coming past me every couple of minutes now, which is making me feel worse. I eat on the move and swallow some painkillers for my feet, hoping they’ll work quickly. After walking a 5-mile climb, I run the last few metres downhill to the road and summon a smile (mostly because of the photographer I can see hiding behind the footbridge), but I know I’m close to withdrawing.

I hadn’t counted on the chirpy marshals’ infectious good humour as I stumble in however. Being close to Christmas, they’re all wearing comedy antlers, Santa hats and big grins. Hugely lifted by their banter, I grab a photo with them and, pride being at stake, set off running again up the hill.

I pass 2 runners tucking in to the Storey Arms Burger Van’s finest fare, but decide against partaking. The marshals’ enthusiasm has rubbed off and my food and brufen have finally kicked in, so I head up the Pen Y Fan path at a slightly faster pace. The wind over the ridge is vicious and the night is closing in as I descend off the shoulder of Corn Du. I catch a small group of guys descending to the CP and we set off along the road section at a steady jog. I stop to get my headtorch out, and soon find myself running alone through dark fields.

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I can see lights ahead that are helping me navigate, and I adopt a walk-run to catch them. I pass one of the burger van guys just as he’s bringing up his dinner. The last few miles are a seesaw traverse along the steep hillside. The 12-hour finish is almost within reach, and I push for it for no better reason than because. 3 of us run in the last 2 miles along the road to cross the line together.

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The majority of us start knowing that we won’t win; indeed, the winner will be home and showered several hours away before we cross the finish line. For most, it is a personal challenge, with a certain time, or just a finish as the target. Many, like myself, are taking this final opportunity to gain much needed points for that chance to earn a coveted Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc place for 2014.

A month later, I’m on exercise and hunting around a hillside for 3G signal to check the entry list on the UTMB website. I type in my name: Refused. My name hasn’t been one of the 2000 drawn from the hat this year. Of 363 British entries, 155 don’t have a place. My entry will be carried to next year, with double the chance of being drawn. I have an extra 12 months to train and get fitter. None of this is of any consolation. I am gutted. Next year.

This event is run by www.mightcontainnuts.co.uk, and is without doubt one of the most friendly and well-organised races I’ve run. The map and route were clear, the marshals were friendly and helpful, and the route was challenging but rewarding. Thanks MCN!

An Ongoing Bucket List

Xmas Run

As I spend more time delving in to the ever changing world of Ultra, I hear of new races and events that tickles my fancy. I’m currently adding events more quickly than I’m ticking them off, so very much a work in progress, but here goes!

Races

Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (just because)

Fellsman Hike April 2013 (my local Ultra)

Sierre-Zinal (I saw this advertised 10+ years ago when I was in the area and have wanted to do it since)

Bob Graham (just because you have to do it at least once)

OMM October 2009/2010/2011(Classic!)

The Spine (Hardcore Winter)

Lakeland 50/100

South Downs Way 50/100

Ultra Trail South West

Trans Vulcania

Other Stuff

Organise an Ultra

Photograph an Ultra

Crew for another runner

Make a running film

Cornish Classic Quarter

Lightning flashes over the coastline, with the rumble of thunder almost immediately following. It occurs to me, a little too late that running along a cliff top probably isn’t the safest place to be during a lightning storm. Obviously thinking the same thing, the chap running next to me glances sideways at the metal walking poles strapped to my pack and lengthens his stride to move away from me as the downpour continues. The path descends to the apparent safety of a rocky cove. I step back to avoid being hit by an incoming wave; the guy in front isn’t so lucky and gets a head to toe seawater soaking. Not for the first time, I wonder why we do this to ourselves.

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The Endurancelife Classic Quarter is the second of 3 events I need to finish in order to qualify for entry in to the 2014 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. The race follows the Cornish South West Coastal Path for 44 miles from Lizard Point to Lands End. Despite having sworn not to run any more long distances, I find myself on the M5 heading South.

A sleeping bag on the back seat and a pre-pack sandwich is hardly the ideal prep for an Ultra. Nor is the alarm going off at 0330; 20 minutes later. I find myself on the top floor of a double decker bus on the winding road to the start. As we get closer to Lizard Point, I realise that what I thought was an offshore lighthouse is actually lightning from a storm. A big one. That should mix things up a bit. The heavens open as we queue to pick up our electronic Sport iDent dibbers and race numbers. I’m also handed a race t shirt and bag of goodies…which I now have to carry as throwing away free stuff seems wrong and I didn’t bring a drop bag with me. Given the extra weight I’m already carrying round my middle, it’s not going to make a big difference and if it keeps raining I might need the extra layer of clothing!

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At 0600, over 200 competitors stand on a track masquerading as a river, soaked to the skin listening to a race brief from someone who has no right to be so bloody cheerful. The first 2 miles are single track along a cliffside, so it is politely suggested that slower runners get out of the way now. As I’m making my way to the back of the group, the horn sounds; by the time we drop down in to the first cove, the field is spread over a quarter of a mile, most of them in front of me.

What I’d naively hoped would be relatively flat running along idyllic white sand beaches quickly turns in to a rollercoaster from cliff top to beach. The first 10 miles fly by in a succession of hands-on-knees climbs and slippery descents, crossing treacherous stretches of greasy rock while avoiding incoming waves, all the time ignoring the water running down my neck. A quick stop at the first CP to refill water bottles and dib in and then it’s onwards, across a long sandy beach which saps my legs and fills my shoes with abrasive pain. By CP2 at 22 miles, the sun has come out and as the temperature rises, morale plummets.

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The leg from CP2 is the fastest part of the course – tarmac for almost 10 miles, past St Michael’s Mount and along the sea front at Penzance. While it’s nice to have a flat section, trying to ignore the heavenly smell of fish and chips is exquisite torture. 2 of the lads I’ve been to-ing and fro-ing with for 30 miles have stopped at an ice cream van for a 99 and a can of coke. Misplaced integrity gets the better of me and I carry on past. As the temperature pushes towards 30 degrees, I regret not getting that ice cream. Not so the runner who has stopped at the pub for a pint of IPA mid-race. He bounds past me 5 minutes later so he clearly has the right idea!

Through the village of Mousehole and on to the overgrown coastal path again, I start to feel like I’m going backwards. The heavy rain and heat have made the wood like a greenhouse and I haven’t paid as much attention to eating as I should have. For the first time, I check the time cutoffs. In order to keep people safe and make sure they aren’t running in the dark, there are cutoffs throughout the day. I make CP3 with half an hour in hand, but my quads are now cramping with every downhill step, so I’m barely moving forwards. I chug down 3 mugs of foul tasting electrolytes followed by a pork pie and some jelly babies and head back up the cliff. Chances of finishing before the cut off are diminishing with every step, and with them my hopes of getting a place for Mont Blanc.

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(image c/o Endurance Life)

Two particularly cheerful ladies running the event as part of a relay team come past me on the climb. Coincidentally, at the exact moment they pass me, the electrolytes kick in and I manage to pick up the pace and chat with them for a couple of miles. They eventually drop me, but the extra pace has brought me back in range of the cut off at the final CP. With 20 minutes to spare, I drop in to the cove to find no marshals. Bugger. I waste 5 valuable minutes searching the car park and beach in case they’re hidden away. Nothing. Double bugger. With 39 long miles done, less than 5 miles to the finish, I know I’ve missed the final cutoff.

There are no recovery vehicles so, head firmly down, I start plodding towards the finish and my car for the long drive North. I hear footsteps coming up fast behind me; it’s the ice cream guys from earlier. “No rush fellas, we’ve missed the cutoff.” As I’m barged off the path in to the undergrowth I hear “Check point’s on the cliff up there you silly tit.” An adrenaline-fuelled sprint gets me to the cliff-top CP with just 3 minutes to spare. From here it’s a few short and incredibly picturesque miles to the visitor centre at Land’s End. Most of the competitors have already packed up and set off home but as I cross the finish line with the sun setting over the sea, it’s hard to care that I only just made it, in almost last place. I finished, one very tired step closer to a place on the start line in the Alps next summer.

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http://www.endurancelife.com run a series of coastal trail running events from 10km to Ultra distance in some of the most beautiful parts of the UK. Get involved!

The Fellsman Hike

It’s 4 a.m., pitch black and I’m near the summit of Buckden Pike. It’s minus 5 and the wind is blowing the snow at 35 mph straight at us; it’s April in the Yorkshire Dales. As I lie in 6 inches of frosty mud and cow shit looking up at the stile I’ve just elegantly descended arse-first, realisation dawns that this may not have been such a good idea after all…

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Organised by Keighley Scouts, The Fellsman Hike was first put on in 1962 as a long distance walk – 61 miles and 11,000 feet of ascent in a horseshoe between Ingleton and Threshfield, taking in many of the highest peaks in the Yorkshire Dales. With the increasing popularity of ultra running events (generally considered to be a run of longer than marathon distance), it has become a permanent fixture on the long distance calendar, sponsored by The North Face and is a qualifying race for the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc – my ultimate target in 2014.

As a slightly (!) overweight former fell runner in my 30s, I can only conclude that it is the onset of some sort of mid-life crisis that compelled me to enter an event that, in most years, 40% of those who enter do not complete. I’ve run a few mountain marathons and an Ironman triathlon in the past, but the most recent of those is 2 years and 2 stone behind me. Yet somehow I found myself on the start line in Ingleton, looking up at all 2000 feet of the first climb up Ingleborough. Light blue on your fitness test does not prepare you for this. I spend a few minutes catching up with a group of old friends, some of whom are challenging for a medal position; “Bloody hell Ben…you’ve got fat!”. I know this is the last time in the race that I will see them.

My 2 goals are: 1) to finish, and 2) to do so in less than 24 hours. I have a rough plan in my head to walk the uphills and run the downs and flats for as long as possible, and keep eating and drinking every 20 minutes, in the hope that constant sugar will be a good substitute for the fitness I’m lacking. I’m carrying a lot of food in addition to the required safety kit; I’ve learned in the past that trying to survive off gels and sweets is fine for a couple of hours, but before long I won’t be able to handle anything sugary. As such, I’ve developed a highly scientific combination of bags of dolly mixture, jelly babies and cashew nuts interspersed with pork pies and pepperamis. Though it sounds (and is) bizarre, pepperamis will repeat on you for at least an hour after eating, so are great to take away the taste of dehydration and sugar!

The first half of the run is surprisingly pain-free. I summit a cold and snowy Ingleborough, with a trail of faster entrants snaking ahead of me, descending carefully on treacherous ice. I pass the checkpoint (CP) at the Hill Inn, filling my bottle before heading up Whernside. I pick up a piece of flapjack from the CP staff in Kingsdale, not noticing at first that they are all in fancy dress. This strikes me as slightly odd, but I’m already heading up the (at times vertical) side of Gragareth so don’t have time to think about it.

The summit marks the length of my longest training run, before an achilles niggle put a complete stop to my preparation; getting here is already an achievement. However I have my eyes set firmly on the finish, 50 miles ahead of me, so I set off across the boggy moorland with, as I find out, Helen (an IT specialist for the local Police) and Tom (a truck driver) for company. It is over the next few hours that I discover what ultra-running is all about. For most, they aren’t competing against other people; they’re competing against themselves. As a result, everyone I meet is unfailingly friendly and chatty, sharing a special bond forged by the fact that we have chosen to go out in to what remains of the wilds of the UK and test ourselves. It doesn’t mean hanging about for someone who can’t keep up though, and Helen and Tom soon disappear over the skyline.

The cloud of the morning turns in to bright sunshine in the afternoon, then in to snow as the sky darkens. For safety, competitors are grouped once it gets dark. I’m not sure my group are that chuffed to be lumbered with me as I slow from a jog to a shuffle, but as long as I keep going, they’re stuck with me until it gets light. For me though, this is a blessing, as 3 of the guys I’m grouped with have done the event before and know the route so I don’t have to worry too much about nav.

The leg from Fleet Moss to the aptly named Hell Gap is notoriously challenging to navigate even in daylight. With virtually no moon, no clear landmarks and the wind constantly pushing us off course, it becomes a waking nightmare. The grassy tussocks turn in to 8 foot deep muddy trenches and it’s only because Nick, a thoroughly nice chap who comes up every 2 years from Kent (it clashes with his daughter’s birthday so he can’t do it every year) distracts me by chatting away and making the rest of the lads ease off the pace, that I keep moving.

As we reach Cray, I put on another layer under my waterproof smock and force some tepid tomato soup down to try and warm up. As we set off up Buckden Pike, a hill I know well from my fell running days, I’m feeling like crap. Things are much improved however when I bring the soup back up. The feeble light from my headtorch barely illuminates the small tent next to the cairn that is our next CP. I get my tally punched then head down off the top. With my mind elsewhere, I don’t notice the sheen of ice on the next stile; the wind catches me and whisks me off it backwards. Fortunately my fall is broken by a large muddy puddle. Nick hoists me up and as we descend, we pass the memorial to the Polish airmen who died here when their Wellington Bomber crashed in to the hillside in a blizzard in January 1942. In these conditions, it’s easy to see how it could happen.

By the time we reach the foot of Great Whernside, we’ve been on the move for 21 hours and there’s a flock of birds flying round my head. It’s when I start shooting them down with a bow and arrow that I realize they’re a product of my very tired brain hallucinating.  We have about 10 miles left to “run” to the finish line; it’s by no means certain at this point that I’ll make it. Luckily, as day breaks and we are ‘de-grouped’, Nick tells me he’ll stay with me. In my exhausted state, this nearly brings me to tears; this is the closest to retiring that I have come, as I know I’m holding him back. It’s made worse by the recovery bus driver shouting out “Is anyone stopping here? I’m heading back to the finish now!” But I can’t get so close and give up. I dig deep, shove some jelly babies in my mouth and some Vaseline on my severely chafed undercarriage and we set off up the last big hill of the race.

As we crest the summit, the snow has died away but the wind has picked up; a brief stop to get our tallies punched and to help stop the marshal’s tent blowing away and we’re on the home stretch. 24 hours and 25 minutes after leaving Ingleton and 13 hours behind the winner, I make it over the finish line in Threshfield. As I ease my shoes off of my bruised feet, I promise myself, “Never again. Not like after the Half Ironman, or the full Ironman. This time I mean it.”

Looking back a month later, this is still the most challenging event I’ve done, made bearable by the amazing competitors and checkpoint staff. But I’m already experiencing that sensation, familiar to all athletes, of painful memories diminishing and cheerful memories becoming better and brighter. I’ve just sent my entry in for the next Mont Blanc qualifier, the 44 mile Classic Quarter in Cornwall. Oops.

The event website is at www.fellsman.org.uk, and you can read the astonishing story of the survivor of the Wellington crash at www.buckdenpike.co.uk.