Wednesday, 10 October 2018

A Run With No Witty Name - A candy bar, a falling star, or a reading from....

6th October 2018
Crooked Tracks Wiltshire
Tisbury, Wiltshire
Wet, cold, windy, wet, overcast, did I mention wet?

“I know it is wet and the sun is not sunny, but we can have lots of good fun that is funny.”
Dr Seuss, The Cat in the Hat

The dry bit

Standing in a marquee, waiting for the brief, as the rain starts to lash down outside hopefully has not become a trademark of Crooked Tracks races, but it's edging that way.  The forecast for the race day had predicted rain, every forecasting website, weather broadcast, soothsayer and Sharman said it would rain and on the walk from the car park to the start they were all proved correct.  I quickly booked in, said hello to my friends helping with the race organisation before returning to the car for my kit, yes I should have brought it down on the first trip but the hill climb warmed my muscles for the journey ahead.   Once again I was crewed by the very able Caroline Watson and, unlike Maria Harryman, she tells me how well I am doing and not "you've slowed down".

As the minutes ticked away until the 9am start it was apparent that something was not right.  The medical cover was running late and without their attendance, the race was not going to start.  We huddled in the marquee as medics finally arrived and Neil (RD) checked they were here for the race, once confirmed we were encouraged to leave the shelter for the race brief and at 9.24 the race was started, straight up the first hill towards the car park again.

About to start - using the minimal approach
The route climbed north out of the National Trust before heading west to Fonthill lake and then heading back eastwards towards Ridge and then north-west and dropped down towards Fonthill Bishop at 4.5 miles.    Already the route was proving to have character, as promised there was a great mix of open field, wooded track and a little road.  From Fonthill Bishop, we climbed north towards the A303 over an exposed field, the wind gusting the rain into us and soaking any part that had to this point stayed dry.  We passed a shooting "party", drenched through their precious Barbour jackets and every bird in the area already flushed out by the front-runners.  At the A303 we turned southwest and climbed a small unmarked road, again totally exposed to the elements.

Climbing up from the A303
The route turned back towards the A303 and running parallel before turning southwest on Ox Drove, a beautiful, but rutted track, running just south of Chicklade and turning south at 7.6 miles to see the first checkpoint at the end of the short road.  Caroline was ready with a fresh bottle of Tailwind, words of encouragement and food, although the food supplied by the organisers at the checkpoint was sublime and in quantity as I passed by.  I also got to say a quick hello to Stuart Argyll of AVR before he left me in his wake.

Arriving at CP1 (7.8 miles)
The route now headed south, passing west of Hindon, crossing open fields and wooded tracks, the rain still not easing and depriving us of the beautiful views seen by those who had attended the recce runs.  The constant undulation and now slippy tracks qualified my choice of wet trail shoes for the race.  I was also using a 3ltre Naked Running Band for the first time in a race, rather than a conventional hydration vest, being able to carry all the compulsory kit and a few extras I was more than pleased to have everything to immediately to hand. At 10.2 miles we cleared Fonthill Abbey Wood, dropped downhill and onto a path that had recently been cut back, holes cratered the rough track and I managed to find one, down like a sniper had got me from half a mile.  I could feel the stinging of the bramble I had landed in, but nothing was broken or hurt much more than normal.  With no one close enough to laugh at me I hauled myself up and set off again.

At 10.6 miles, east of East Knoyle, the course turned southeast, through Newtown and on to Wardour, getting conveniently turned around in the ground of New Wardour Castle, a country house and former school, continuing south for a mile before heading west to Old Wardour Castle and checkpoint 2 at 16.7 miles.  Again, Caroline had arrived in plenty of time to swap my soft bottle and supply of food but didn't stop me eating from the luscious spread supplied.  As I was about to leave the checkpoint, FAC OFF elites Richard Corp and Roger Devereux turned up and after a man-hug, I set off again before I got too cold.

Old Wardour Castle
In the usual English weather way of messing up your day, the temperature was dropping as the day progressed and periods of walking, exposure to the wind or stopping at checkpoints meant more time to warm up my body.  My fingers always take an age to thaw and I needed to get moving again, I used the wooded climb away from the checkpoint to get the blood flowing, across the top of the hill, and then down and eastwards towards Swallowcliffe at 20 miles.

From Swallowcliffe the route loops around a field and heads towards the A30 then it doubles back almost on itself.  At this point, there was a lack of yellow route markers and a group of runners stood looking for inspiration or divine intervention, in substitute for both I checked my GPS and led the group to a yellow marker some 100 metres up the trail.  Tape and route markers used on races are often removed by walkers thinking they are tidying up, blown away by the elements or even removed by landowners.   Most of the route was well marked but at a few key points, the marking could have been more prominent.  The yellow tape was also hard to spot at times in the low light and autumn colours.  Both points are already high on the "lessons learnt" list.

From the A30 the track headed north, downhill onto a narrow road until reaching checkpoint 3 at 22.6 miles, located in the pub car park of the Compass Inn, Sutton Mandeville.  Again, the food and drinks on offer were outstanding.  I looked around and decided today I need something more substantial.  I filled my face with peanut butter and jam wraps and then back to Caroline's car to swap bottle.  The rain had finally stopped, so I towelled myself off and changed my top and cleaned my glasses!  The sports glasses are way better to run in but still need polishing once in a while.  I felt a lot better for the quick change, added a pair of gloves and set off, almost the wrong way.  This was another point where the signs could have been better, even the GPS seemed unsure.  As I stood there Caroline appeared and pointed me in the right direction.  Cheers, Caroline!  Many people made that same error.

Somewhere in the woods near Teffont Evias (apparently)

From the checkpoint, we headed northeast across fields to Teffont Evias, looping back down to Lower Chicksgrove where the path leads north, up through the old RAF Chilmark site, with Danger signs on either side, the fenced-in path is a mile long and flat compared to most of the run.  The fenced path ends at around the 27-mile mark and the route turns sharp left, heading west and back towards Ridge, picking up the same route as we had started on.  The route then heads southwest, looping a field, before crossing another.  Although I couldn't see the finish marker on my watch, a quick check of the ETA told me I was very close and I almost got distracted and took a wrong turn, the two girls that had been on my tail for the last mile had shot off at this point down the wrong track.  I shouted to them and headed off in the right direction.

Climbing up over the last hill I spotted the car park ahead and knew it was all downhill from there, no seriously!  At the carpark, I turned south and could even see the top of the marquee in the distance, I let the hill do the hard work but opened up as well as I can after 30 miles.  I kept pushing, not wanting to check if the few runners that had been behind me were anywhere close, just run.  Then I spotted Caroline part way up the track, shouting encouragement at me.  With my few spare breaths I asked if anyone was near me?  There wasn't, I had achieved my aim of only letting one person pass me in the last 10k.

I crossed the line, finishing (by my watch) in 6:13:54, and considering the conditions and it was only two weeks since Snowdon I was happy with the result.

After the race, a vegan hotpot was available with bread and butter, washed down with sweet tea!  I had second helpings and cake.  Luckily Caroline had managed to park close to the finish so I got changed and headed back for some more cake and tea, before hugs and farewells to my friends and crew. 

Chatting with Neil (RD) - what a guy

An undulating course

112 started and 102 finishers. Finish time 6hrs 13 mins 54 seconds = 41/102

Ultimate Direction Waterproof Top, Asics dual skin shorts, Decathlon fleece tops, Saucony KOA ST, Naked Running Band

Tailwind, marmite wraps, peanut butter and jam wraps/sandwiches, fig rolls and flat coke.

Totally and utterly!  The area is beautiful, the route is both challenging and delightful, a multi-terrain course that twists and turns through some of the most truly outstanding scenery in the South West.  The food laid goes well above and beyond many races I have attended and the staff could not have been more helpful.  Neil is aware that the course marking needs some attention for next year, but as an inaugural 50k race I have to give it top marks.  Yes, some of the staff are my friends, but they are well aware that if the race had been a stinker, I would have reflected it here.

Neil stood on the finish line, in the wind and rain, and greeted every runner back through the arch.  Only when the last runner finished did he allow for the volunteers to start packing up and the marquee to be taken down.  A friend and a gentleman, thank you for your brilliant races.  See you in January for a few hills!

Strava - don't laugh

Friday, 28 September 2018

Mount Snowdon Ultra 50 - Hunting Smaug

22 September 2018
GB Ultras 
Looped course starting and finishing in Betws-y-Coed.
Weather/Conditions: Clear skies, low/high cloud, sleet, rain, sunshine, calm and windy.  Somehow we avoided a plague of frogs.

"Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest."
Haruki Murakami

The 3.30 alarm was no issue, nor leaving the accommodation at 4.30 to arrive at Betws-y-Coed for 5.30, even the 6.30 start was okay, in fact, it was all part of the journey.

Before the race, Caroline and I had decided that we were starting and finishing together, regardless of the result.  A first ultra can be daunting, making that first ultra a mountain race is nearly insane, but we were on the starting line with Damion Godwin from Devizes and seemed silly not to at least give the race our best shot.  The 100-mile competitors, including Ben Bridwell from Devizes, had already set off.  The route initially followed the A5 west from Betws-y-coed, slowly climbing through woods to 4.5 miles where the path left the trees, crossed the A5 at Capel Curig and ran parallel to the road north-west to the first checkpoint, just short of 9 miles at the base of Tryfan.

Mile 10 led us onwards to the first climb and took us 18 minutes to complete.  The mountain loomed over us and we spotted the other competitors way up on the side of the mountain.  We already realised that Jo Farion's decision not to take part due to a fear of heights was a good one!

At the base of Tryfan, the route up the mountain can be seen over my left shoulder.

Mile 11 was a climb of 1,167ft and took us 52 mins 24 secs, there really was no faster way up and once on the higher slopes no way of overtaking.  We climbed to just short of halfway up, in file, and then turned south, following the precarious Heather Ter Path, south-west along the side of the mountain.  I reminded Caroline about keeping three points of contact with the side of the cliff as we passed inches from the edge. The path is a scramble, constantly climbing and the few route markers hopelessly lost to the weather or not placed in easy sight.  To our right, the mountain, to our left a drop of hundreds of feet and falling only a few feet could be lethal on the boulders and craggy rocks below.  The GPS on my watch kept us on course as we moved up and around Far South Peak and then headed south on the Miners Track.  It had taken us 4 hours to cover 12 miles.

Heather Ter Path (pic stolen from GB Ultras FB page)

As we started the descent we could see the A4086, carpark and checkpoint at the 14-mile point.  The path down is less steep but still unrunnable in places due to the uneven track that crosses many streams.  At the foot of the mountain, the ground evens out but the grass is waterlogged for most of the last few hundred meters before crossing Nant Gwryd river.  As we crossed the bridge a runner headed back towards us, he had already looped Mount Snowdon and was now heading back up the hill we had just descended.  We cheered him on before we crossed the road, arriving at Checkpoint 2.

Caroline, on the Pyg Track with the summit starting to loom up over us.

After refuelling and eating our fill we moved on again quickly as our temperature was dropping so quickly.  The route followed the A4086 and then parallel to the A498 until the Snowdon Pen-y-Pass Youth Hostel and car park.  From the car park, at 15.3 miles, we followed the Pyg Track and over the next four miles climbed 2,571 feet to the summit of Snowdon, averaging 35 min miles.  As we joined the Miners Track the path became more narrow, making passing tourists and casual hikers another task in the race.  The path is extremely narrow at times and queuing times to climb or descend these parts adds many minutes to your race time.

The Pyg Track heading to the "hill"

Parts of this course reminded me of the hills and mountains described in Lord of the Rings, some of the most extreme footpaths being the only route, however, walkers passed us in deck shoes, knitted sholes, no waterproof and carrying umbrellas as we continued to push on up the mountain until at last, we reached the final section where the train line joins the track to the summit - just as sleet started to fall.  The number of tourists makes the section too busy to run and impossible to reach the final summit monument, 19 miles in 7 hours and 30 minutes.

From the top of Snowdon on a good day.  Pyg Trail (upper) and Miners Trail can be clearly seen.

We turned and started to work our way back down the Pyg Track, it being mid-afternoon meant fewer walkers were coming up the mountain, but clambering, bouldering and climbing down took its time.  Part way down the Pyg Track the route headed down the Miners Track, yet again more bouldering and scrambling down until at last a runnable track of about 3 miles that follows the edge of Llyn Llydaw, a lake fed by the mountain streams.

Miners Track

Looking back along Llyn Llydaw, the Miners Track leading back to Snowdon on the right.

The track led us back to the car park at Pen-y-Pass Youth Hostel, where we retraced our steps back to Checkpoint 2, now Checkpoint 3, some 24 miles and 9 hours and 30 minutes into the race.  Our water was extremely low now as the planned Checkpoint on Snowdon had been pulled due to not being able to get water up the mountain.  We refilled and ate well before heading back across the waterlogged field and then start the slow climb back up the Miners Track and up and over Glyder Fach and then on to Glyder Fawr, the large spikey rocks reaching up into the clouds emerging through the low cloud.  Once on top of the mountains, the clouds came down and the wind began to bite and we became very aware of the time, knowing that we had the Devils Kitchen to descend in the fading light.

At this point we discussed if we would complete the race, neither of us give up without a fight, but I was growing uneasy with the thought of us climbing and, more worryingly, descending another mountain in the dark with the knowledge that we would be timed out at the bottom.  There was no way, already, that we could complete the 50 miles in the 24 hours, and they had removed 7 miles from the course because of another race.

We started down the mountain following the Welsh Three-thousanders path, a steep and winding shale and flint path that could leave you on your arse and sliding it you don't give each step your attention.  With running poles, this would have been a breeze, much of the course would have been easier, but Caroline does not have a set and I felt it unfair to take mine.  We met some marshalls at the bottom of the path who directed us towards Devils Kitchen, "It's only down the mountain, a couple of miles".

Looking down Devils Kitchen, the CP is at the far side of the lake.

Looking up at Devils Kitchen, the "path" follows the fault in the mountainside.

At the top of the descent, we put on our waterproofs to protect us from the wind and give us another layer of insulation.  The light was starting to fade as we set off, with the intention of climbing down the worst of the mountain in daylight.   The path was hardly marked and the gpx could not zoom in enough to make picking our way down the rocks any easier.  As we carefully moved further down the light was finally going and we switched on our head torches, now I remembered why I purchased one with 600 lumens!  Finally, a bit of luck, an experienced couple on the route had just climbed down in front of us had been walking through the streams, leaving occasional footprints on the rocks and boulders.   Slowly we worked our way to almost even ground and then towards the lake Llyn Idwal.

Our route down Devils Kitchen

Another group of runners joined us as we approached the lake, they had taken the right fork down the mountain (the one we had been told not to take), it had taken them an hour to cover a kilometre, they were not happy and as a group of 4 had decided to DNF at the Checkpoint ahead.  Another woman competitor caught us and again had decided not to continue as she didn't want to continue alone.  As we worked around the lake we could see the head torches of competitors climbing up Pen Yr Ole Wen, and wished them God's speed.

Pen Yr Ole Wen in the dark.

We arrived at Checkpoint 5 in just under 14 hours, an average pace of 26.23 min/mile and a total elevation of 9,531ft.  We arrived at the CP just after 8pm, missing the original cut off time, which had now been extended to 9pm, but our race was run and we would never hit either the next cut off or the 24-hour finish.  I watched the orange moon rise over a mountain, shrouded in cloud, giving the effect that either the mountain was on fire or a dragon was laying waste to the Dwarven tunnels hiding gold in their halls.

We ate cake, drank hot sweet tea and collapsed into a warm camper with two others, awaiting transport to the finish.  Finally onboard the transport back we were declared the smelliest bunch of DNF runners that night!  Awesome!!!

One of a group that passed us before going down Devils Kitchen later told me that they climbed the next mountain, taking 7 hours to reach Checkpoint 6, and timing out on arrival.  They had passed competitors who had climbed the mountain and then seeing the terrain and descent decided to go back down to Checkpoint 5.  

We had an adventure, there was no ring to be cast into a fiery deep and we never got to see a dragon but we had fun and laughed a lot.  It takes a lot of courage to attempt an ultra, more so to attempt 50 miles over mountains, but Caroline stayed strong and kept smiling.  Well done.

Well done to Damo for actually finishing his first ultra race, one of the few.

Official Result

DNF @ 31.26 miles (13hrs 54mins)

Mt Snowdon Ultra 50 Results 2018
200 started of which 114 went on to finish (57%)
To this, we also have another 15 that dropped down from the 100 to the 50 during the race to give us a total of 129 finishers.

Mt Snowdon Ultra 100 Result 2018
65 braves souls started on the 100-mile route.
12 finished. 18.4%
15 dropped down to the 50 miler. 23.1%

Ultimate Direction waterproof, Decathalon long sleeve top, Altra Olympus shoes, Salomon pack and Led Lenser head torch.

Tailwind, Cliff Bars, whatever was close and tasty on the Checkpoints.  Fuelling was not an issue.

So, I gave it a few days to think about this race.  I do take issue with the race description including the line "following a well-marked route", for the mountain goats it was well marked maybe, but without GPX many experienced runners lost their way.  

The only qualifying requirement was "Must have run at least a marathon distance race prior to the event", I don't think is anywhere near sufficient.  A mountain marathon, the likes of Scafell Pike Marathon, should be a qualifying race, a road marathon means nothing when running these distances and over this terrain.  I personally don't think there are many marathon runners I know who could step up to distance and elevation.

The compulsory kit list also lacking some items like gloves and a warm hat should have been on there.  I know it is possibly hand-holding but, not everyone has experience in the mountains and in September the weather can change very quickly.  Yes, I had both.

So, to answer the question - No, I don't consider this to be a conventional ultramarathon by any stretch of the imagination and maybe needs to be sold appropriately, possibly part of the Skyrunning series of races.  The UTMB is all trail and I think I would have more chance of reaching the end in the cut off time.

Devils Kitchen picture