Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Leaving the Lakes

It stopped. For long enough to finish my week in the Lakes and the second of two organised recce runs without waterproofs at any rate.

There was a final cloudburst to send the car aquaplaning between the trucks on the M6 on the way home. But southern England started to feel muggy and warm as soon as I turned onto the M1. By the time I reached London it was basking in sunshine and car fumes and I was already missing the clean air and open spaces of the mountains. I started to love London a few years ago. A city I never intended to stay in when I arrived in the seventies, it seduced me with its excitement, its culture, architecture and life. But I'll never breathe its air without it reminding my lungs of every cigarette I ever smoked.

I managed 134 miles in the Lakes, a good proportion of them walked (you try running up Black Sail Pass). I even got up to 5mph pace for a pack-free 15-mile jaunt round the Langdales from Ambleside to Coniston. Forty-nine of those miles were on organised events (the two Lakeland 100 recce runs and the Hawkshead 10k), so I'm now up to 754 for the year. It would be 1,269 if I counted training.

I'm finishing June with a bang, having put in a late entry for a 24-hour race near Reading this weekend. I need the extra training because I still feel I'm short on what's needed to complete the Lakeland 100. I'm going to try to get as close to 100 miles as I can.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

I like rain

I like rain. It feels good running (or walking) in rain. It washes the sweat off your face and the dust out of your eyes. It stops you from overheating and there’s no chance of sunburn on the back of the calves. The air tastes sweeter and so do you. You don’t stink so much when you stop and your clothes have already done their first rinse in the wash.

I even like mud. Slippy, slidey, sloshy mud. You can splash through the brown puddles like your mum never let you when you were little. Better than that hard-baked, sun-caked ground that blisters your feet and batters your ankles.

But. There has to be a but. Or rather there has to be a limit. For the past 48 hours the BBC weather chart, helpfully broken down into hourly intervals, has shown nothing but heavy rain for the Lakeland fells. And for much of those 48 hours I’ve been out on them. When even the Great North Swim on Lake Windermere has had to be abandoned because it’s too wet, you know it’s been raining.

It would be nice, then, if it eases up just a little tomorrow, when I’m doing the final 15 miles of more than a hundred this week trying to acclimatise my legs to the hills I’ll be running in earnest in five weeks time.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Chasing the flame

The Olympic torch passed my way yesterday but I was too slow on a training run for the Lakeland 100 to catch it. By the time I got back to Ambleside, where I’m staying for a few days (thanks Jane and Andy!), the crowds were heading back townwards from Lake Windermere, where they’d just seen the flame onto a ferry steamer to Bowness. Judging by the flags and the bunting, not only here but in Keswick and Grasmere earlier on along the route, the torch has caught the public imagination, regardless of the commercial circus surrounding it.

I’d hoped to catch the torch in Keswick at the end of a 35-mile run covering the first five stages of the Lakeland 100. But I slept in after doing the Hawkshead 10k (and pub barbecue) the previous evening, so I started far too late (8.30am instead of my intended 6am) at Coniston. The first 14 miles to Boot, which I’ve now run three times altogether and can manage without a map, went well, taking a little under three and a half hours. The next stage, past Burnmoor Tarn to Wasdale Head, is one of the easiest on the 100 but I was already beginning to tire. By the time I was slogging up Black Sail Pass, which I’ll have to do in the dark on the 100 itself, all my doubts about whether I’ve bitten off more than I can chew with this one were coming to the surface.

The climb over Scarth Gap, next to Haystacks where Alfred Wainwright’s ashes are scattered, is followed by a frustratingly difficult rocky descent, with the odd scramble in places, before an easy lakeside run into Buttermere. But by now, with ten miles and another big climb over Sail Pass still to go to Keswick, I was checking the timetable for the last bus back to Ambleside rather the progress of the Olympic flame.

I found going up Sail Pass so hard, stopping every 20 paces or so on one stretch of steep scree that if I could have pulled out of the 100 there and then I might well have done so. Once I was over the top, and with the rain preparing itself for a forecast 72-hour session, I put my head down and forced tired, tired legs to keep on going without respite down the at first rough path, then the grassy flank, stone track and finally tarmac road into Braithwaite; and then, with just 27 minutes left to catch the 6.30pm Stagecoach 555 bus back to Ambleside, the two and a half mile grind along the A66 and B5289 into Keswick. 

The passengers were embarking as I turned the corner and ran up to the bus stand. Soaked with rain and sweat and caked with what mud hadn’t been washed off, I struggled to find the £7.50 fare (yes £7.50, it seems only the rich can afford public transport in these parts), panted out my destination and staggered up the stairs to collapse on the top deck. Having already drawn too much attention myself for my liking, I decided not to change into drier clothes there and then but huddled tightly into a set of waterproofs to keep my body heat in, and spent the rest of the journey wondering how on earth I’ll find it possible to do the same thing again next month – and getting on for 70 more miles from where I finished this time.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

I'm in the Real Relay!

Whoopee! Having missed out on my home town and various other places where I've lived or spent meaningful time, I'm now down for the Waltham Cross to Hertford stage of the Real Relay on 10 July, which will take me past the house where my daughter spent the first couple of years of her life. 
The Real Relay is a grassroots alternative to that other relay carrying a torch around the UK at the moment. It's not allowed to use that word beginning with 'O' and ending with 'c' because the corporates have copyrighted it. But it's a lot closer to the original Olympic ideal than the Coca Cola version, involving hundreds of people passing on our own torch from person to person and actually running the entire 8,000 miles of the official route, finishing in London in time for the Olympic opening ceremony on 27 July.
It's great to be a part of a non-commercial celebration of all that's good about running and the people who do it. And as well as raising money for the CHICKS charity, it will be another 11 miles towards my '2012 in 2012' Olympic-year charity challenge.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Lonely in Derby

Fifty one miles around Derby in the Long Eaton Running Club's low key but ultra friendly ultra on Saturday really took it out of me. Sometimes I hate running through fields, especially when the footpaths are lost under crops, the stiles are lost in hedges and your feet are leaden with mud. The idea that I'm doing double this distance in less than six weeks time, with 6,000 metres of mountains thrown in, seems barely conceivable. The fact that according to the race organiser there were '130 stiles on the route adding 500 feet of climbing to the 2,500 that nature provides' doesn't feel like adequate preparation.

Still, I managed another ultra on Sunday - an ultra-slow 10k (54.45 since you ask) at the ultra-lovely Locko Park. This private estate played host to an oddly low-key fundraiser for the Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Rutland air ambulance. Maybe the estate owners kept the numbers low deliberately but there couldn't have been many more than a hundred of us there and the man with the microphone was reduced to telling us how lonely he felt.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Running without a map

My subconscious is attempting all possible methods of preventing me from running. Not satisfied with locking me out of my car on a couple of occasions, it’s now taken to getting me to leave behind essential items of equipment. Last weekend this included race entry details, running numbers and – most importantly – a route description and map. Since I’d left them behind in London at the start of a circuitous seven-day journey to Stoke that went via the LDWA 100, several days in north Devon and a seven-hour drive from hell up a storm-battered M5, I didn’t have the option of going back to get them.

This turned out not to matter too much for my home-town Potters ‘Arf marathon on Sunday. The organisers (many thanks Ken) fusslessly provided me with a replacement number (1234 – that’s got to mean something), so I was able to join the rest of the runners puffing and panting up ‘heartbreak hill’. Eleven miles into an already hilly half marathon, this must be one of the very few one-in-four gradients you can encounter on a UK road race. The Potters ‘Arf winner Andi Jones, who was running it in preparation for next month’s Snowdon Race, which he has won a record five times, admitted he’d been taken by surprise by how tough it was. ‘I knew there were some hills around Stoke, but this is a city centre race, surely it would be quite mild,’ he told the local paper.

The hills on the Baslow Bootbash, a 26-mile jaunt around the Derbyshire White Peak the day before, were no steeper. I turned up to this one without an OS map, which was a bit of a problem since it’s a self-navigation event with only grid references for a route description. I’d done it before, though, and I know the area reasonably well, so there was no danger of me getting hopelessly lost. I thought I could tag along with other people on the stretches that I wasn’t certain about and take things at my own pace when I knew where I was going.

I covered the first ten miles by keeping up with a group of runners who were going a fair bit faster than I was capable of matching for the full distance. Then I made the mistake of heading off down a track that looked familiar from a previous year – but turned out to have been part of the route of a different event. No great problem. I was resigned to the fact that by going around mapless I would be retracing my steps on a number of occasions.

What I hadn’t bargained for was that my seeming confidence in tackling the route without a map had encouraged various other people to follow me in the belief that I knew where I was going. Now it’s one thing getting lost yourself. But it’s quite another being responsible for other people getting lost as well, even if you didn’t ask them to follow you. One of my followers hurried off in a huff when he discovered that I’d been leading him in the wrong direction. ‘I should have stayed with them,’ he complained, gesturing towards the group of pacier runners who’d long since disappeared over the fields in the opposite direction. ‘They knew where they were going!’

Fortunately I got in with a more amenable group of people for the latter part of the run. I only took one (well maybe two) wrong turns and we all got back to the village hall in good time for pie and peas. I’ve now done 648 miles in events this year – only 1,524 to go . . .

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Slippery when wet (the LDWA 100)

It took me about five hours to run and power walk the first 25 miles of the Long Distance Walkers Association 100-miler from the Olympic Park to Windsor over the queen’s jubilee weekend, just over seven hours to jog and walk the next 25 and just over 20 hours to zombie walk and very occasionally jog the final 50.

I’d harboured what turned out to be a ludicrously ambitious target of finishing in 24 hours: a tad over 4mph couldn’t be that impossible, after all, could it? This was despite the fact that on my two previous 100-milers I’d needed something like 39 hours to complete the first (the LDWA Wessex 100 in 2009) and I’d pulled out at 82 miles on the next (in Scotland in 2010).

In my optimistic planning, I’d managed to disregard a lifetime’s experience of other factors that might get in the way of keeping up a steady pace over a full 24 hours. These included, in no particular order:

1. It gets dark at night, even in June, so you tend to go a bit slower than during the daytime.

2. It rains in England, even in June, especially over bank holidays, and you tend to go a bit slower when it rains.

3. There are hills in England, even in the south, and you tend to go a bit slower up hills.

4. The principal geological features of this part of southern England include chalk, flint and clay. In combination with rain, these produce a slippery grey slime that plays havoc with your balance and pace, especially in the dark.

5. Darkness, rain and slippery grey slime play even more havoc when you’ve got a dodgy ankle, especially when you’ve already turned it again on the cobbles at Canary Wharf.

6. Detailed route descriptions printed on paper have a tendency to disintegrate when wet. Rain is wet.

7. Following a detailed route description while on the move in the above conditions is more difficult than sitting down in the comfort of your own living room (with your glasses on).

None of this really matters when you cross the finishing line at an event such as this, glad that it’s finally over and full of elation at having finished at all. It’s hard to believe how quickly your recollection of the pain recedes and how soon you start to think about doing the same thing over again. And maybe, just maybe, there’s a flat 100-miler somewhere that you could complete in 24 hours. 

Not the Lakeland 100, of course, which is now a mere 52 days away – and whose 40-hour cut off is looking tougher than ever.