Thursday, 4 August 2011

Mountains and Mole Hills

Things over the past few weeks have been pretty hectic to say the least, and in the words of Cindy from Scary Movie, “It’s been a while!” since I’ve had the opportunity to actually sit down and reflect on things.

It seems like a lifetime ago now that I flew out to Galway for the World Trail Championships, where I donned my GB vest for the first time in nearly 3 years. Thinking back, that was a fantastic weekend, and once again I met some great people and made new friends from the ultra running world in the form of  Stuart, Craig and Andrew, as well as seeing the more familiar faces of Allen, Julian, Karen, Lucy and last but not least Heather.

GB Team minus Andy Smith and Julian Rendall
The race itself was certainly not what many of us were expecting, and with living in Stoke, no amount of running could have prepared me for what we encountered over in Galway. Heavy rain in the preceding days meant a last minute change to the course on safety grounds, and what a course it was! Two summits of two mountains, totalling something like 7000 feet over a 70km course – add to that open moors, forest trails, and almost waist deep Irish bog - to say the course was challenging was an understatement.

Within the first few miles, I had already found myself walking up the steeper parts of Diamond Hill, but things were about to get tougher. Parts of the course were extremely boggy, and despite my attempts to avoid the deeper bits, I found myself sprawled out  on the ground, or having my leg sucked down on at least 5 occasions. If the energy sapping bog wasn’t enough, the ascent up Benbaun Mountain – the highest point in County Galway – almost finished me off.

Starting off as a nice little mountain trail, we then encountered even more bog as we started the climb, and the higher we got, the steeper the mountainside, so much so that eventually I was crawling on hands and knees, dragging myself up and clinging for dear life onto tufts of grass which weren’t really that secure due to the boggy ground. I remember getting to the top and being filled with relief, and jokingly saying to some marshals “I hope you aren’t going to make us come up HERE again!” and them saying quite seriously “Oh yes, you’ve got to come back up!” They weren’t lying, and on the way back up, having covered in excess of 30 miles of trails by now, the old legs were burning like crazy and I knew that the second decent was going to hurt.

Having made the summit of Benbaun for a second time, I now had to negotiate the way back down to the forest below. This side was far steeper, and I was conscious that my legs really had had it, and now they had to support me down what could only be described as a cliff face except it was grassy rather than rocky. It certainly wasn’t runnable, and with just wearing trail shoes and shorts and vest, I realised how stupid this was. I’m no mountain goat, and with the tiredness setting in, I got quite emotional and just froze on the way back down, starting to cry like a baby and thinking of Andy and my animals back home. Pulling myself together, I realised there was nothing they could do, so I came down on my bum and found myself sliding down the hillside, clawing once again at tufts of grass to slow myself down and stopping me from just tumbling down out of control.

Thankfully I got down safely with no cuts or bruises, although some of the runners on the day did fracture bones amongst other things. It was a welcome sight to see Andy Smith at one of the checkpoints – an absolute star who is so patient and understands the needs of us ultra runners so much. He offered some words of encouragement, and off I went with about 10km still to go.

The last few miles were really tough. I had been running without a watch for pretty much all of the race, but knew that it must be about 9 hours already that I had been out. I was hungry, I was desperately thirsty despite having stopped to drink from the mountain streams on numerous occasions, and I was sun burnt. There were very few people around by now and even the marshals had disappeared which meant me taking a wrong turn twice in the last 5km.

Del and Heather at the finish
Approaching the finish in Letterfrack, I got all emotional again. I’m certainly no mountain runner, but I had made it and I had finished, and not only that, I was the second British lady to finish. Ok, it had taken me a shocking 9 hours 38 minutes to do 70km, but what a flaming brilliant experience! It was great to see Anne at the finish, another member of the GB Management Team, and I think she too was relieved that I had got back safely. Lucy had had a brilliant run to finish 3rd, whilst the British men had all had excellent runs. Heather finished about an hour behind me, but unfortunately Karen had decided to withdraw from the race just before the turnaround point – a wise decision given that she would be representing GB again at the beginning of September, this time at the World 100km.

All in all, a great experience, and although it was tough, I would love to go and do it all again as this time, I would know what to expect.

It took a while to recover from the race in Ireland and it was 2 weeks before I finally got out for a proper run again. I had aches and pains in my legs for about a week, and it caused great amusement for the folks at work, watching me hobbling up and down the stairs, and struggling to carry all the drinks when it was my turn to make the tea.

Having spent a little time in the mountains, it whetted my appetite to get out and do even more mountain walking, and so a couple of weeks later, my dad and I headed off up the Lake District with young Wilson for a few days backpacking.

I hadn’t been backpacking for about 20 years but the excitement started to kick in when I was struggling to get everything in my rucksack the night before we left.

The plan was to head off up the Old Man of Coniston, head towards Mosedale, and camp at the foot of Bowfell. The second day, we would head up to Esk Hause and Scafell Pike, back down through the Langdale valley followed by another wild night of camping around Tilberthwaite, before heading back to Coniston.

Things as ever didn’t go to plan, and as we struggled with our weighty rucksacks up the Old Man, glorious warm sunshine turned to heavy torrential rain, and the mountains were covered in cloud. We hovered in the valley for near on an hour, iffing and areing about what to do, but in the end we bit the bullet and carried on. Thankfully the cloud cleared, and as we summited The Old Man, we could make out the peaks in the distance that we needed to head towards.

Dad had been brilliant. He’s now 63, has smoked since he was about 18, and whilst he still cycles to work everyday, he’s not as fit or strong as he used to be. He got cramp, he struggled with the weight of his rucksack, he needed a ciggy every couple of hours, and yet he never complained.

We already knew that we wouldn’t make it to our desired destination tonight, so opted to head down the valley towards Wrynose and Hardknot Pass, and as soon as we found some running water and a small flat area to camp on, we would stop.

By now, it was 8pm and we hadn’t found anywhere. Cloud was moving in again, so we needed to head further down before dark. Luckily, we eventually found a flowing mountain stream, and whilst the ground was somewhat rutted, boggy and on a slight slope, it was an ideal spot to set up camp.

Wilson loved it, and that wild dog side of him came out as we set up camp. As night started to draw in, the cloud cleared, and we could see Scafell across the valley, and the forests at the foot of Harter Fell in the other direction. With no light pollution, we grew accustomed to the dark and it seemed to stay lighter much later. It wasn’t until turned 11pm that we finally headed off to bed, with just the mountains and a few sheep for company.

Our wild campsite at about 9pm

The following morning, it had started raining again, so after a breakfast of porridge and dry bread, washed down with a cup of tea and an ovaltine, we waited for the weather to clear. Dad’s legs were stiff from the walk yesterday, so we reassessed our plans, and decided that we would head for Tilberthwaite today and camp in the woods there instead later this evening.

Progress was slow once we had packed up and started on our way. The mountainside was wet and boggy, so we had to keep finding alternative routes, and then once we hit the valley bottom, we had the climb to the top of Wrynose to contend with. The weather by now had actually warmed up considerably, and despite filling our bottles up with stream water, it wasn’t enough and we were absolutely parched. I’d actually been eating as much food as possible, as I figured that it would lighten the load in my rucksack, but dad never really eats much, and I had a sense that not only was he dehydrated, he was also lacking energy from lack of food.

Despite this though, spirits were still high. Wilson was still thoroughly enjoying his adventure, and we took tons of photographs of the beautiful Lakeland scenery.

We eventually reached Little Langdale, and I remembered this section of the road from when I did the Langdale Marathon a couple of years ago (a brilliant 2 lap race by the way for anybody that ever fancies doing it – very hilly, but very scenic). We knew there was a pub ahead, and figured that a nice cold pint would hit the spot and make us feel tons better. We went one better than that – not only did we have a pint, we completely splashed out and had gorgeous fish and chips too! Sitting in the beer garden, having finished our grub, both dad and I had this moment of dread when we realised that we now had to get our rucksacks back on in front of everybody else in the beer garden, knowing full well that it was likely we would topple over with the weight! Trying to act all cool and calm, we both turned a grimace into a smile and pretended all was well!

We set off for Tilberthwaite, the plan being to either camp in the woods, or to head up to Weatherlam, where there was supposed to be some very good areas for wild camping. It was again getting late, and despite the food and beer, dad was still struggling somewhat and was wobbling all over the place. As we found the mountain path that we thought we needed, it became clear that it was actually the path on the opposite side of the river that we needed, and we were amongst slate mines with no water nearby, and certainly nowhere safe or suitable to set up camp.

Disappointingly, we had to make a decision to head back to Coniston, having only had one night out on the fells. It meant another couple of hours walking, but it was the only thing we could do given the circumstances.

We didn’t arrive back there until turned 11pm – it was dark, and we were intending to stay on Coniston Hall Campsite before heading back home in the morning. However, given the noise coming off the campsite and having been spoilt the night before by being miles away from anybody with complete silence, we didn’t fancy mixing with the crowds. Camping wild is special, and we would have preferred that rather than putting up with all those people and the noise.

We headed home instead, but I have to say that, whilst I love my cosy little backpackers tent and absolutely loved snuggling up to Wilson in my sleeping bag, it’s always nice to get home to the creature comforts, which I always appreciate far more having roughed it in the wilds, even if only for one night.

And so comes the final instalment of my recent adventures – The Adidas 24 Hour Thunder Run. I’ve wanted to do this event for the past couple of years but have never managed to get a team together and haven’t been confident enough or crazy enough to tackle it solo. However, this year I finally got the opportunity to take part, and with a team of 8 from Trentham, it was another recipe for a brilliant weekend of camping!

The Thunder Run is a 24 hour relay that starts 12 noon Saturday and finishes 12 noon Sunday. The course is approximately 10km, and is all off road through woods and fields. The rules are that unless doing it solo, there must be a member of the team on the course at all times – including the night time when those woods certainly get dark!

The team consisted of myself, Rob, Deb, Dan, Lee, Jill, Ken and Kerry, a good mix of experienced runners and those that had only been running for a couple of years. Ken had kindly done some maths and worked out the approximate time of day that we would all be running, based on our average 10km time. On that basis, it meant that we would all be running every 6 hours or so and clocking about 28 laps in total, with my schedule being approximately 1pm, 7pm, 1am, and 7am.

The TR24 Green Army of Trentham
The atmosphere at the Thunder Run really was amazing, and it was just like a huge runners’ festival with tents and people all over the place having loads of fun. The only difference was that instead of mud, we had scorching hot weather with absolutely no breeze, with very little shade away from the burning sun.

My first lap went ok, setting off steady without going mad but at a decent enough pace to keep sub 45’s going each lap. I hadn’t had the opportunity to reccie the course before hand, so didn’t really know what to expect, but within about 200 yards of the start the first climb started – a sharp climb up through the woods up to the 1km marker, before it flattened out a little and became more undulating. The heat really was intense and there was no air movement at all, and it was a relief when I had completed the field sections that were quite exposed, and entered the much cooler woods.

I completed my first lap in about 43.30 and although I felt ok, I also felt the effects of the heat, and all I wanted to do was drink a gallon of ice cold water, and hide in the shade. A few of us felt a little off that afternoon, probably from the sun and the heat, but just a few hours later, we were off again for our second laps.

For me, now I knew what to expect, I was able to relax a little and on finishing, my time was once again around about 43.30 – clearly being an ultra runner helps to keep consistent pacing going!

By now it was late evening, and dusk was setting in. I managed to have some grub before settling down in my tent for a bit of kip, although I knew that come midnight, I would be woken up ready for my third lap – this time in the dark.

My night vision is terrible – even with the millions of carrots I’ve eaten over the years, and despite eating spinach in an attempt to look like Popeye and improve my eyesight, I really do struggle in the dark. And yet at about half past midnight on Saturday night/Sunday morning, I started my third lap of the Thunder Run with just a head torch to help me get round. This was the part I was most looking forward to as running off-road in the dark is a lot different than running in the dark in the city where street lights guide the way.

The first section up the sharp hill seemed to go on forever in the dark. It was so quiet with very few other runners around me, and all I could hear was my own breathing, and my feet scrunching at the gravel and dirt on the path. Up ahead I could make out some movement, and shortly afterwards, I overtook a group of runners who had resorted to walking in the darkness.

It really was a great experience, and despite my concerns about my ability to see, I somehow managed to get round and ran with confidence, somehow avoiding collisions with tree roots or other runners and managing to stay on my feet. Surprising I ran just 2 minutes slower that my day light time.

Back at the tent, I jumped straight into bed and drifted off to sleep for the first time since the previous morning, but by 4am, I was wide awake again, starving hungry and in desperate need of a cup of tea. I made myself a bowl of porridge, and before I knew it, it was time to go again for my 4th lap of the course.

This was the hardest lap for me, probably due to lack of sleep, dehydration and hunger. I didn’t feel motivated for it in the slightest and had that awful Groundhog Day feeling of “here we go again”. Arriving in the change over area whilst waiting for Rob to hand over the batton, everybody else looked in the same boat – bleary eyed and absolutely shattered, and yet spirits were still high and there was some quiet chatter whilst we all waited for our team mates to come round.

My Garmin battery had by now conked out, so I had no idea how fast I was running on this lap, but having found out that we were lying in 12th position, and that we might actually squeeze in 30 laps as a team rather than the anticipated 28, I felt like I just had to go for it and set off at the fastest pace I could given the circumstances. I was overtaking loads of people by now, many of whom were walking, but I was determined not to walk even when the hills appeared, and just focused on getting to the finish.

Approaching the 7km mark, a lady jumped out of the bushes and whilst I thought “I know her!” it didn’t actually register that it was Kerry until she spoke. The team wanted to know if I wanted to just carry on and do a 5th lap straight after this one, or whether I wanted a break and go later on in the morning. I was in desperate need of a drink and thought it would be a bad idea to continue, especially as I’d gone off and a faster pace, but on approaching the 9km marker, I wondered whether I should just get it all out of the way and carry on, then I could just relax and chill out for the remainder of the event. I decided to wait, and on coming to the end of the lap, I handed over to Debbie having just ran around 46 mins.

By now, the sun was once again staring to break through the cloud, and yet again the temperature was rising. Rob had now finished his part in the relay, so too had Debbie, Lee and Dan. I’d said that I would do a 5th lap, and so was waiting for Ken to come through this time. With about an hour to go before the end of the relay, the campsite was buzzing, with teams desperately trying to get in as many laps as possible. We were still 12th, and getting a full 30 laps in, or just over 180 miles between us, seemed even more likely.

The last lap for me really was hard. Sleep deprivation, the heat, hunger and thirst made it tough, add to that the inclines and the twisting and turning through the woods, and it nearly did finish me off. But then I thought of the team and what we had achieved, and I thought about finishing and being able to relax, and it spurred me on to the finish, before handing over to Jill for our final lap of the event.

Seeing Jill bringing home the anchor leg and exceeding our original target brought a tear to the eyes and a sense of immense pride in the team. We certainly aren’t an elite team, and yet we had done absolutely brilliantly to maintain our 12th position out of 147 mixed 8 teams, and finished 19th overall. It was an emotional moment, and one that will stick with all of us for quite some time. Collecting our finishers’ medals, and taking tons of photos, we could all go home with a sense of satisfaction.

TR24 Post Race - and what a BRILLIANT effort by an EXCELLENT team!
Some members of the team have written impressive reports about the weekend that capture the spirit of the event and the emotions we as a team experienced far better than I’ve done here. But what I will say is that we pulled together as a team, we worked together as a team, and we succeeded as a team – there was no angst, there was no tension, and as a result we got through it. We’re already talking about next year’s event, but to give somebody else the opportunity to be on the team, I think I might just go solo next year to see how far I can go, unless I can find some other crazy person who would like to work as a pair.

And so having been on a high from all the activity over the past few weeks, the excitement continues with a third attempt at the Dovedale Dipper on Sunday, and then the Leek Half Marathon and BMAF Half Marathon Championships in a couple of weeks. Following that Andy and I will be having a well earned break sailing around the Med before heading back home for the Commonwealth Trail Running Championships in September. It really is true when they say there’s no rest for the wicked!! 

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