Sunday, November 12, 2017

Adventures of the Bump - Part 2

Scrambling in the Alps (photo Jasmin Paris collection)
After the excitement of the Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathon (LAMM) described in instalment 1, Bump’s adventures continued with a trip to Gran Paradiso National Park, in Italy. In theory, this was to be a relaxing week of ambling across the mountains, with frequent opportunities to sample the local cuisine.  In reality, it started with a 2000m ascent out of the Aosta valley, carrying all of our gear (in Konrad’s case this included all of the group kit, in my case it included a 20 week old foetus), and continued with a fantastic technical scramble, fortunately aided by a plethora of ladders and chains. On day 2 we descended into the valley to rendez-vous with my brothers, and assured by them that they had plenty of food to last us all for the remainder of the trip, we re-ascended into the high mountains. For the next 3 days we climbed up and down (and up and down, and up and down...), swimming in icy mountain lakes (except Konrad, who is a wimp), and sleeping under the stars in the company of Ibex. Rather predictably, our food supplies dwindled, and in the face of rationing my threshold for what qualified as a ‘hard cheese’ (many soft cheeses being on the ‘no no’ list for pregnant ladies) became increasingly dubious, justified only as an effect of the day’s heat 😉 As is always the case, the week ended far too soon, and we parted from my brothers already making plans for how we’d manage wild camping with the Bump next year.

Enjoying the Sun at Gran Paradiso (photo Jasmin Paris collection)


Bump reaching 3000m (photo Jasmin Paris collection)
Upon returning home to Scotland we were keen to make the most of our altitude training, so looked around for a suitable challenge. The local Caerketton Hill race, a gnarly 3.6km out-and-back, with a testing 300m climb, seemed just the thing. Competition was fierce, and Bump put up a valiant fight against Bob, catching him at the summit, only to be overtaken again on the descent. I’ve promised Bob a re-match next year...

Catching Bob at the summit (photo Steve Fallon)
 Unfortunately, this was Bump’s last race for some time, owing to a sacroiliac injury I sustained whilst scything the most overgrown area in our ridiculously large garden (I have since come to the conclusion that we should just get a couple of sheep). Since cycling had already become impossible (the forward position my bike forces me to adopt is not very compatible with a Bump), I contented myself with outdoor swimming – at least I did until about month 6 ½, when I could no longer do my wetsuit up.

At 7 months pregnant, just about able to run again, I took part in the ROC Mountain Marathon with my trusted partner mum. We opted for the Short Score Category, theorising that this would give us the option of taking the most direct route to mid-camp if necessary. As it was, the claggy conditions probably favoured our slow pace and ample navigation time, because we managed to collect quite a reasonable score, when one considers that our team included one baby, and one artificial hip, in addition to the required kit.  Day 2 was splendid, and we enjoyed seeing the views we’d missed the previous day as we navigated our way back to the Event Centre.  We finished as first Female Vet team, (48/114 overall), in spite of a 15-minute retrospective time penalty for having accidentally crossed a boundary line (we were just one of several teams that did this, and the Race Organiser agreed that the line was not visible enough on the maps, but understandably a penalty had to be imposed).

Team Paris at the ROC (photo © Steve Ashworth)

At 36 weeks pregnant I ran my first ever Parkrun (our local one is Vogrie), inspired by my dad Jeff, who has been participating (his local one is Glossop) for the last year, with an ever-faster weekly time. Konrad sped off and won easily, in 17 minutes something, whilst I started steady, and enjoyed the feeling of running on the flat rather than hauling the Bump up a hill. We gradually started making up places, and I finished feeling really good, in 23 minutes 35, which made me 4th lady on the day, and 30/148 overall.

The feeling of easy running didn’t last long though, as the Bump dropped down a few days later, settling in its new position directly atop my bladder. As a result, I felt for the first few days as if I was carrying a bowling ball between my legs, with my ‘running’ resembling a ‘fast-forward waddle’ rather than anything remotely athletic. My plan of running the Tinto Hill Race (7km, 460m ascent) two weeks later suddenly seemed like wishful thinking, but as the day approached I grew accustomed to Bump’s new position, and decided to give it a go after all. And so, at 38 weeks pregnant exactly, I lined up for the start of Tinto, along with 243 other runners, waiting for the starter’s signal. In the event, I didn’t actually hear this (I was so far back), but I knew from the forward rush of the mass in front that the race was underway. 

Bump racing at Tinto (photo Charlie Ramsay)
The race was great. I started very slowly, and gradually moved up through the field. I think I must have smiled the whole way - I was having such fun. I lost a few places on the way down, since I was being very careful not to slip, but still surprised myself by finishing 148th, in 49:01 (for reference, our recce, done on a very windy day – but at 4 weeks less pregnant, had taken us 1 hour 8 minutes). Bump was very well behaved, and didn’t force a single wee stop 😉   

I wont pretend that running during pregnancy has always been easy. There have been days when I’ve turned around and walked home thwarted by a stitch, or been plagued by constant stops to empty an already-empty bladder. And yet, in spite of the challenges, running during pregnancy has also been fantastic, for so many reasons. It has held my gateway to the hills open, and thereby kept me sane. It has kept me feeling fit, and more confident about the challenge of pushing Bump into the world. It has allowed me to keep in touch with friends, and stay part of the scene that I love. And maybe the Adventures of Bump and I will even have inspired other ladies – those who might otherwise have feared to do so - to keep up the sports they love, when they have Bumps too. 

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Adventures of the Bump – Part 1

Ski Touring

Since my first outings, carried over the local moors on my parents’ backs, to the wild camping trips with my brother in my teens, and the fell-running adventures of recent years, moving fast and light through the mountains has become a joy. This year for the first time, I experienced the feeling in winter, when Konrad and I joined Loic Tregan for a ski touring adventure in the Glarus Alps, Switzerland. Below is a brief summary, and a few photos of our experience - which I hope will be the first of many in years to come.


Clariden Ridge (photo Loic Tregan)
Fridolins Hut (photo Loic Tregan)
Setting off on skis straight from the car, we started the tour with a 1700m climb, up through the debris of a huge avalanche, to Claridenshütte, where we enjoyed excellent food and a comfortable night. Day 2 turned into rather an epic. After a fantastic morning on Clariden Ridge, our return route transpired to be more challenging than anticipated, and after additional navigation and technical (ski binding) delays, we were forced to re-route, and head for the rather basic Fridolinshütte winter-hut. After a smoke-filled hour, we succeeded in lighting the ancient stove, and having re-fuelled with stock and noodles sourced from the hut cupboard, we curled up together on the mattresses least covered by mouse droppings or snow. Not exactly five star accommodation, but as we all agreed, a great deal better than the outdoor alternative. 

Gaining the pass (photo Loic Tregan)
Early morning glacier (photo Loic Tregan)
The next day was spent getting back to where we were supposed to be, and eating copious quantities of bread, cheese, ham and pickles. On day 4 we skied up the Clariden glacier and, aided by Konrad’s mountaineering experience, crossed a steep col before a super 2000m descent cutting fresh tracks into the valley. We climbed up to the fantastically situated Cavardiras Hütte, and left early the next morning (picture below) to cross the Brunnifirn glacier, on our way to Oberalpstock summit (3300m).

Leaving the Cavardiras Hut (photo Loic Tregan)


Sunrise (photo Loic Tregan)

With a spectacular sunrise to start, a 3-summit ridge day from Oberalppass rounded off a brilliant first week of ski touring.

Above Oberalppass (photo Loic Tregan)
Of note, I found the week rather harder than I expected to. In contrast to previous mountain trips, I was pushed to keep up with the others, even after a week of altitude acclimatization. At the time I put it down to my skis, which were relatively heavier, but when I got back I discovered the happy explanation – I’d been carrying an extra passenger 😃

Scottish Islands Peaks Race

Reever (photo Liz Barker)
The advantage of doing SIPR 13-weeks pregnant is that you are used to feeling sick, so you’re already prepped for what’s to come. The disadvantage is that you have the added challenge of wave motion, and are unable to take any anti-sea sickness medication. As it turned out, my worries were unjustified. In the end, only one person on our team vomited, and that was a sailor – on the running section 😃

SIPR is a race for teams of sailors and fell runners, which takes place every year off the West Coast of Scotland. The race starts with a short hill run in Oban, then a sail to Salen on Mull and a run up Ben More, followed by a sail to Craighouse on Jura and a run over the Paps, then a sail to Lamlash on Arran and a run up Goat Fell, and finally a sail to finish in Troon. All in all, it’s a long weekend of non-stop adventure, and a lot of fun.

I’d agreed to run SIPR as part of an all-rounders team, at the start of the year. After I discovered I was pregnant I debated pulling out, but knowing that I would be running with my good friend Liz Barker (who knew the situation well in advance) gave me the confidence to stick with it. Luckily for me, Liz had raced SIPR the previous year for the boat Reever (a lovely class 3 monohull) and knew what it was all about.

The other members of our team were Nigel Holl and Gordon Callander - primarily excellent sailors, but handy runners too – and Jon Gay, a true all-rounder, brilliant at both. As an all-rounder team every member was obliged to run at least one of the three islands (Mull, Jura, Arran), and our overall result would be defined not only by our finishing time, bit also by the total number of man-mountain runs. In reality, this meant that the best plan was for Liz and I to run everything, with Jon along for Mull and Jura, and Gordon and Nigel along for Arran.

The race started at noon on Friday 19th May, from Oban boathouse, with a short (roughly 6km) dash over some small, bluebell covered hills adjacent to the town. The main purpose of this mad sprint seems to be to spread teams out to minimise the chaos that inevitably develops as the boats leave their moorings in Oban and race for a place on the open sea.
On this occasion however, the initial run times paled into insignificance given the complete absence of wind in the harbour. Crews of small and medium vessels pulled out oars, and thus inched their way past the larger boats, although one would still have been hard-pushed to describe it as a ‘race’. A youth team added to the general comedy of the situation when their young crew lowered themselves back into their dinghy with the intention of pulling their boat along, only to get left behind when the wind suddenly picked up.

On Ben More on Mull (photo Liz Barker)
We reached Mull at 5.27pm, roughly two thirds of the way through the field (21/36 overall). The Mull run comprises roughly 10km of small road/track, followed by a loop over Ben More, then a return the same way. It was a glorious summer evening, but I found the out-and-back hard work (for me, pregnancy had cardiorespiratory effects from very early on, most apparent on fast flat terrain), but the mountain was splendid, in particular the technical scrambly sections higher up (where I was in my element, leading the way). Buzzing from the evening light and views, we arrived back at the boat after 4 hours 41 minutes (having made up 6 places), and were soon on our way to Jura.
An interesting aspect of SIPR is that the race fractures into several separate races determined by groups of boats making, or alternatively missing, the tides (critical in the Sounds of Luing & Jura, and around the Mull of Kintyre). On this occasion for example, only the two leading boats made it through the Sound of Luing on the sail to Jura. The majority of the fleet milled around, waiting for the tide to turn, but a few (us included), took a calculated risk, and decided to sail around the West Coast of Jura instead, where the tide is less of a problem. Unfortunately for us, the wind subsequently dropped, and so in racing terms we lost time. However, we did have the pleasure of being joined by a pod of dolphins at one point, which I took as a rather marvellous consolation prize.

Jura, as always, was brilliant, and it was a pleasure to run the now familiar Paps (at least for me and Jon, who have raced the Jura Fell race several times), as a team. Once again, we had beautiful evening light and views, and I was reminded how special the island has become for me, since getting married there last year. We arrived onto Jura on exactly 24 hours after arriving onto Mull, in 29th overall, but made up 5 places during the run (4 hours 27 minutes), and as a result we just sneaked around the Mull of Kintyre with the tide, although I can’t claim any credit for this night-time success, given that I slept through it soundly in my bunk below.

Breaking our 5.27pm island arrival pattern, we sailed into Lamlash at lunchtime on Sunday. We made good progress on the run into Brodick (Nigel’s brightly coloured leggings attracted some attention in the process), and up towards the summit of Goatfell. We were intrigued to pass a great many beagles on the mountain (it subsequently transpired that it was an organised event, rather than a coincidental accumulation), one of which was carrying it’s own GoPro - Nigel and his dazzling leggings did their best to get into the shot.

Arran (photo Liz Barker)
On the way back our early speed and the afternoon heat conspired against Gordon... So much so, that when a shopper in Brodick saw us, she said ‘You’re not going all the way to Lamlash like that are you, do you need a lift?’, at which point Gordon perked up, whereas the rest of us in unison said ‘No!’ and forced him onwards... Getting back to the boat was a team effort in which we all played a part, but the greatest credit has to go to Gordon, who unmistakably earned his ‘All Rounders’ certificate that afternoon.

By the time we reached the boat there was little chance of us catching any team in front, and the remaining boats were several hours behind (courtesy of a tide gap), so we had a pleasant sail over to Troon. The final dinghy drop in the inner harbour was still exciting though, and we had to sail around twice before Liz and I were set free to row into the marina, and officially finish our race.

At the finish (offical photo)
SIPR is a race I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and as so many people predicted, I loved it. I’m already looking forward to it becoming a regular on my racing calendar... although given my circumstances, I’m not sure the experience will ever be quite as unique as this first time!

We finished in 26th position overall, after 42 hours 42 minutes of sailing and 14 hours 32 minutes of running, as 3rd All-Rounders. Although as has been pointed out to me since, since we did actually have an extra team member on every summit, we achieved more man mountains than the eventual winning team (and since they were all men, I am making the assumption they had no secret crew).... 😉

LAMM


Whilst parent-offspring teams are routinely present at mountain marathons, three-generation teams must be exceedingly rare. Not wanting to miss out on the opportunity to be listed as such, and following on from our successful debut partnership at the Highlander in 2016, my mum and myself teamed up once again to run the score class at the LAMM. Set this year in the spectacular location of An Teallach, Fisherfield & Fannichs, with weather that defied the prior ominous forecasts, and almost no midges to be seen, it was a LAMM to be remembered.

LAMM Day 1 (photo Jasmin Paris collection)

To me, these mountains have an old, forgotten, remote feeling quite unlike the summits we typically frequent further south. As a result, we were enjoying ourselves so much on day 1 that we felt compelled to remain on the ridge and bag the Munro (Sgur Mor), rather than taking the racing line, and an extra 10 points, to our next checkpoint. We arrived there at roughly 4 hours of our total allocated 7, at which point I began to doubt we could make it back in time to the camp... It didn’t help that I was unsure exactly how long we had left, having forgotten to start my watch when we set off (this could never have happened if I had been with Konrad!). In the end we made it back only 2 minutes over (collecting 4 penalty points to our total of 150), although the last half hour was a rather frantic dash along the loch-side, and mummy did fall in a chest-deep bog just before we entered the camp, in her commitment to the cause.
The evening was spent eating and socialising with friends from all over (I love mountain marathons for this reason, especially the LAMM), with a brief thunderstorm interlude, during which everyone retired to their tents for a sleep.

LAMM Day 2 (photo Jasmin Paris collection)

On Sunday we did the majority of climbing in the morning, and then headed back towards the finish in the shadow of An Teallach, eager to make it with time to spare. Nevertheless, a tricky encounter with dense rhododendron bushes in the last km cost us several minutes, and we were forced to sprint (well, in my mum’s case, as much as one can following a hip replacement), finishing just inside the allocated time of 6 hours.

We finished in 38th position of 76 overall, 5th Females, and 3rd Female Vets. As my mum pointed out over the 2 days, with a total 13-hour allowance, we raced for 12 hours 59 minutes and 59 seconds. Now that’s what I call getting your money’s worth 😃

Final Thoughts

To some of those reading this blog, these adventures might seem overly ambitious, even foolhardy, in a pregnant state. I just want to stress that I am very aware of the fact that I now have another being to consider besides myself, and that it has definitely changed my approach. All the medical advice is to continue with exercise up to a moderate intensity during pregnancy (providing you did it beforehand). Since I've known I was pregnant, I've consciously made sure not to push myself, always staying well within a comfortable limit. I'm simply taking each week as it comes, with the plan to run for as long as it feels right, and then transition to walking instead.




Sunday, October 30, 2016

Paddy Buckley Round

On Sunday 2nd October I ran a Paddy Buckley Round in 18:33, and thus completed the classic UK trio of big mountain rounds, having run a Bob Graham Round (15:24) and a Ramsay Round (16:13) earlier in the season. Of the three rounds, the Paddy Buckley proved the biggest challenge, not only physically, but also mentally.

I started at 5am from Llanberis, running clockwise. In contrast to the Bob Graham and Ramsay, I had not been able to recce the Paddy Buckley route, and there were large sections (Capel Curig to Rhyd Ddu) which I didn't know at all. Luckily I was supported on the day by a fantastic team, and had people with local knowledge to navigate each leg. The attempt was originally planned for 1st October, but on the basis of a terrible weather forecast, I delayed the start by 24 hours. The decision paid off, and I was rewarded with one of those perfect autumn days - still and sunny, with dazzling views and beautiful colours.

With Konrad’s help, I had cobbled together a 19-hour schedule, which would put me just inside Nicky Spinks’ 2013 record of 19:02. As usual however, I planned to run to feel rather than splits, which was just as well since some of them turned out to be hugely inaccurate.


Leg 1: Llanberis to Llyn Ogwen 

Descending Tryfan (photo Chris Near) 
(pacers: Tim Higginbottom and Chris Near)

Under any other circumstances meeting two strangers in an empty car park at 4:45am would be regarded as highly suspicious… Tim and Chris had kindly offered to run the first leg with me, which was a huge bonus considering their local knowledge (them being the current and previous record holders for the PBR). After a friendly greeting, and some jokes about their matching gear (unintentional they claimed!), we counted down the seconds to 5am, and set off into the darkness, with Konrad and Moss looking on. We made rapid progress through the complex turns of the quarries and along the steep railroad sleepers beyond. As we neared the first summit, Elidir Fach, we were enveloped in a thick fog, which persisted for much of the leg. Despite discovering that our only compass contained a bubble, Tim and Chris nailed the lines, and we continued to tick off the summits as the blackness around us turned to grey. In their greasy wet state, the rocks of the Glyders were treacherous, and we were forced to slow down, aware that a fall could do significant damage. The clag cleared as we approached Tryfan, and we exclaimed at the beauty of the Llyn Ogwen valley below us, bathed in golden light. We slithered down the descent, and ran into the changeover bang on schedule. With some difficulty, I pulled my wedding ring off my already swelling finger (having forgotten to do so earlier), exchanged it for a cup of cocoa and a cake, and ran on through.

Descending to Ogwen (photo Chris Near)

Leg 2: Llyn Ogwen to Capel Curig 

(pacers: Anthony Bethell, Alex McVey, Adam Stirk)

Tryffan and Carnedds (photo Digby Harris)
Descending Carnedd Lewellyn (photo Digby Harris)
Armed with a fresh team, we started the ascent of Pen yr Ole Wen via the east ridge. I was worried to find myself feeling tired already, particularly when we reached the summit a couple of minutes outside the estimated split. Once on top, Alex and Adam pulled ahead and I worked to keep up, aware by now that on this occasion I’d omitted the ‘easy’ first 8 hours of running I’d enjoyed on the Bob Graham and Ramsay Rounds. Approaching Carnedd Lewellyn we were surprised to meet a group of 30 or so walkers coming the other way at a pretty steady pace. They were only carrying small packs, so they can’t have been out all night, goodness knows what time they had set off! We overshot the summit slightly, but Ant called us back, limiting time lost to a couple of minutes. In the growing warmth of the morning sun (Ant already had his shirt off, which shows how lucky we were for the time of year), we descended to the col where Digby and his son Saam were waiting patiently with fresh supplies. Consuming a combination of pickled onion Fish n’ Chips, banana, and milkshake, I scrambled up to the summit of Pen Yr Helgi Ddu, and on to Pen Lithrig. Ant led us off on a direct line through deep heather, and then over the little footbridge and onto the boggy path down to Capel Curig.

Climbing Pen yr Ole Wen (photo Adam Stirk)

Leg 3: Capel Curig to Nantmor

(pacers: Jim Mann, Liz Barker, Tim Budd, Jon Ascroft, John Ryan)

This leg is regarded by many, including myself, as the hardest of the Paddy Buckley Round. Not only is it the longest, but the many indistinct summits also make navigation challenging, and the terrain is rough and frequently wet.

Climbing Moel Siabod (photo Jon Ascroft)

Digging Deep (photo John Ryan)
The first climb, up to the summit of Moel Siabod, was where I really started to struggle, and where I realised what a challenge the rest of the round would be. Still, my pacers were all enthusiasm, and so I battled on, towards the back, head down, getting on with it as best I could. Jim did an awesome job navigating us through the rough heathery terrain (very much a feature of the Paddy Buckley Round, in particular this leg and the following one), and doing his best to avoid the deepest bogs. The heavy rain of the previous day had left the ground waterlogged, and we were frequently forced to deviate from the optimal line, crossing and re-crossing the fence in order to bypass the flooded areas. Jim and John R quickly developed a pattern whereby John avoided the summits, and instead carried Jim’s bag, allowing Jim to save energy for navigation (and supporting again on leg 4). This worked well until Allt-fawr where John suddenly disappeared (it is rumoured that he was sabotaged by suboptimal directions...), prompting cries of ‘Where’s John?!’ as we started the descent. Jon A doubled back to look for him, whilst we pushed on, with Tim now carrying all of my gear and food.

One of the dryer sections (photo Jon Ascroft) 

Liz was waiting for us in the quarries, ready to take over navigational duties from Jim. She set off as we approached, so Tim and I chased her up the hill, and onto the course of last year’s British Champs race. How I wished my legs felt as good climbing over the Moelwyns as they had then!

Moelwyns from Cnicht (photo Digby Harris)

Plodding along (photo Jon Ascroft)
At least the weather was good - amazing in fact - and I was still able to appreciate the fantastic views stretching out in all directions. A tussocky descent took us to into the col below Cnicht, where we were greeted by the Jo(h)ns, who had (after some wandering) managed to find themselves and each other. A relieved Tim dropped back, nursing a twisted ankle, and I slogged on up to the summit, where the surprise appearance of Digby and Saam did much to raise my spirits. There followed a very runnable (for some!) descent into the valley, and then a short section along a quiet road in woodland. Running into the changeover I spotted Konrad waiting for me, and for a moment the sight of him prompted me to fall apart… He comforted me with a hug, and the promise that he’d be waiting for me at the end of next leg - and by the time I reached the others I’d pulled myself together.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, the supporters at Nantmor had experienced their fair share of excitement whilst I had been running this leg, as my mum had lost her car keys by the river. Despite much searching they could not be found, forcing a quick trip to the local supermarket for mum (all I noticed was that my beans were in a tin and not a plastic tub!), and a trip to Wales with the spare keys for dad.
Ticking a summit (photo Jon Ascroft)

Leg 4: Nantmore to Rhyd Ddu 

(pacers Sarah Ridgeway, Jim Mann, Julien Minshull, Anthony Bethell, Joasia Zakrzewski)


Following Jim (photo)
We had arrived into the changeover about 8 minutes down on my 19 hour schedule, but we made up 6 of this on the first climb, to Bryn Banog. This was somewhat surprising, given the depth of the bracken in the lower sections (if I do a Paddy again, it will be earlier in the year!). I can only assume it was the excellent company that spurred me upwards. Julien amused me with his usual assortment of jokes, whilst Jim and Sarah discussed the many qualities of Kendal Mint cake as a running food, including its natural pain-killing properties…. So enthusiastic was their discussion that I was roused from my slow upwards plod, to ask hopefully ‘Have you got any?’. There was a moment of silence, as we all realised the answer was no, then laughter, and then Sarah (who’d recently offered me a Bounty Bar) started telling me that coconut has very similar properties...

Enjoying it (photo Sarah Ridgeway)
As sunset approached the hills around us turned a splendid array of autumn colours - even in my exhausted state I was stunned at the beauty of it. Ant and Jo joined us before the climb up to Nantlle Ridge, and we chatted about Ant’s Eagle Owl, and how cheap he was to feed compared with a cat, until Jim essentially told me to get a move on (at the time this seemed a bit harsh, but he was totally right, I was slowly ceasing to care). The Nantlle ridge was an exciting distraction, which lifted my spirits as well as my pace. Darkness fell as we dropped towards the forest, and we pulled on head torches to run the final section along forest tracks, arriving into the changeover almost 20 minutes down on schedule.

The gathering dusk (photo Sarah Ridgeway)

Leg 5: Rhydd Ddu to Llanberis 

(pacers Konrad Rawlik, Gareth Hughes, Liz Barker)

Feeling oddly detached from the hurried activity around me, I pulled on the arm warmers which Sarah was pushing towards me, pulled a couple of green beans from the cup of soup my mum was offering, and hobbled off into the darkness, leaving Konrad and Gareth to catch me up. I knew there was some slack in the splits on this leg, but it wasn’t clear whether it would be enough… I gulped down a couple of gels, and tried to make maximum use of the poles which I’d picked up at the changeover, pulling my tired legs upwards. In the darkness, things took on a surreal, dream like quality, my world narrowed to the pool of light around my feet. With Konrad beside me, and Gareth doing a brilliant job of the navigation ahead, we started to pull back time. Liz ran with us to the summit of Yr Aran, then peeled off to collect her car from the valley below, whilst we continued up, arriving at the summit of Snowdon 4 minutes ahead of schedule. The summit ridge was windy and eerily empty, and we were glad to reach the sheltered descent of Crib y Ddysgi. As we started the climb of Moel Cynghorion a wave of faintness washed over me, but Konrad didn’t let me indulge it, instead thrusting a bottle of Lucozade and a gel into my hands and saying ‘You’ll be ok, keep going’. We continued to gain fragments of time over the small climbs that followed, and my morale lifted as the end drew closer. The final descent from Moel Eilio was a delight, soft bouncy grass making for a rapid descent under a sky full of stars. I finished the round feeling as good as I had at the start of leg 3, and significantly better than I had for the 12 hours in-between.

Final Thoughts

The Paddy Buckley Round was for many reasons the biggest challenge I've faced this year, and certainly one of the hardest days of my life. I'm proud of myself for sticking it out, but I know I couldn't have done it without the fantastic support team at my side, and my changeover crew; mum, dad, Andrea Minshull, and the Moss/Brae collie duo.

The three big rounds have been an amazing experience. They have given me three of my most memorable mountain days, have cemented old friendships and formed many new ones. I have been touched by the generosity of everyone who has helped me, and moved by the beauty of the mountains I have crossed.

I’m already being asked whether I intend to run them again… The answer is maybe, in part. I’d quite like to run the Paddy Buckley and Ramsay in winter, if conditions are right, and Konrad fancies joining me for a long day in the hills… I’ll probably have another crack at a fast Paddy Buckley at some point too - to enjoy it a little more, and because I think there’s still some room for improvement 

Views from Cnicht (photo Digby Harris)

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

UTMB





This is the face of someone who has been running across mountains for 24 hours, realising they still have the equivalent of the Wasdale Horseshoe to come. It is the face of a person stupefied by their voluntary participation in such madness. It is my face, on Saturday 27th August, 140 km into the UTMB.

Rewind a day, and I was standing in the main square in Chamonix, on the elite start line of arguably the world’s most prestigious 100 miler, the Ultra Tour de Mont Blanc. I’d never known anything like it. People surrounded me on all sides, packed against the barriers, leaning down from balconies, lining the street ahead. The atmosphere was electric with excitement, anticipation and fear. I waited there, amongst 2300 other runners, contemplating the challenge ahead.

For there was no doubt in my mind that it would be a challenge. I was aware that this was unlike any fell race. It was going to be less technical, more runnable, hotter, and longer - 65 km longer in fact, than anything I’d raced before. The unknowns were both intimidating, and exciting.

Since arriving in France two days previously I’d had a drugs test (my first ever, but apparently routine for the top 100 runners), received a ‘how to use poles’ demonstration from Nicky Spinks, and spent a significant amount of time wallowing in the river beside our chalet, trying to cool down. I’d repacked my kit several times (incredibly, I still managed to arrive at the start line lacking a spare battery – luckily my fantastic mum was on-hand to sprint to the car), and had eaten a good number of fresh baguettes under the pretext of carbo-loading. Now all that remained to do was wait...

I counted down the final ten seconds with thousands of others, and then the sea of runners surged forwards, and I was carried along the streets of Chamonix with crowds of people cheering on all sides, ringing bells, shouting ‘Bon Courage!’ and ‘Allez!’. We reached the outskirts of town, and still people lined the path, picnicking, barbecuing, drinking, and even offering free pints as we ran past. I spotted Damian Hall in front, and joined him for the easy first 8km to Les Houches, chatting all the while – so much so in fact, that another runner asked incredulously ‘Are you two going to keep talking all the way around?!’.

Damian pushed on as we reached the first climb, and I settled into what I hoped was a sensible pace, without really having a clue. With Damian gone, I chatted instead to a fellow Czech runner (I’m half Czech), and the climb passed quickly. We ran along a track with fantastic views of sunset and mountains to the left, and I was grinning with the joy of it, and for a moment I spread my arms like a child learning to fly, laughing out loud as I started the descent. I tried to follow the advice of UTMB veterans, and took it steady on the descent, so as to save my quads (n.b. they were trashed by Trient anyway).

The next checkpoint, the town of Saint Gervais, was amazing. One would have thought we were finishing the race, not 21 km into it. It was what I imagine riding the Tour de France must be like. Supporters lined the road either side, 5 person deep, with little children leaning in, reaching out open palms for ‘High 5’s’. I did my best, swerving from side to side to meet them, but eventually gave up, there were just too many. 

(photo Andy Jackson)
I stuffed some cheese and crackers into my mouth, followed by a slice of cake, and ran on out of town and into the cool shade of evening. The running was easy, but I was wary of how far there was still to go, and tried to be conservative. Walking one of the up-hills, I heard in the darkness to my left the friendly voice of Jezz Bragg, and we chatted for a bit on the run up to Les Contamines (30.7km). After a short road section we reached Notre Dame de la Gorge (34.6km), where I was amazed and delighted to people dancing around bonfires, singing and partying the night away. Somewhat reluctantly I tore myself away, and started the long climb through the darkness to Col du Bonhomme. The trail was a mixture of slabby rocks, and hard packed sandy trail, all pretty straightforward and runnable, but most people were just walking. Whenever I was overtaken I tried to watch how the person was using their poles, so as to improve my technique. I seemed to be making reasonable progress, and passed a lady on the ascent, although I had no idea where I was lying in the field overall. As we reached the top of the climb I looked behind me, and was taken aback, and rather thrilled by the sight of a seemingly unending trail of head torches, stretching into the distance from where I had come. There was a slight breeze at the top, but I was still amazed when runners around me started stopping to put on extra layers. These were tropical conditions in comparison with Scotland!

A straightforward winding descent took us to Les Chapieux (49.4km), where I enjoyed some excellent salty noodle soup, and passed a brief kit check before heading out again, running slowly along a gradually climbing road. In front of me a zig-zag of torches traced out the route, heading up to Col de la Seigne. I spent some time as I jogged along, trying to work out where the torches stopped, and the stars started. I’d begun to feel a bit tired by this point, and I was glad of the distraction afforded by the somewhat more technical terrain on the next climb, Col des Pyramides Calcaires. I crossed the one (and only) bog of the UTMB route, after which there was an interesting section of boulders before the descent to Lac Combal (65.8km). Feeling pretty worn out already, I was alarmed at the prospect of what was still to come. To my relief, Coca Cola did the trick, and I powered up the next climb, enjoying myself once more. As I moved upwards, I emerged from the thick cold fog of the valley and found myself looking down on a nighttime cloud inversion, snow capped mountains above a sea of silver. It was extremely beautiful.

As I started the descent to Courmayeur (78.8km), my head torch started to flicker, but I pushed on, hoping that its light would last just long enough. It didn’t, and I was suddenly thrown into pitch-black darkness, just 300m from the edge of town. With some fumbling around, whilst losing about 5 places, I found the spare battery, and was back on my way. 

(photo James MacKeddie)

My mum was waiting at the checkpoint and I was glad of a change of food (the crackers, cheese and sausage were no longer going down so easily), gulping down a pot of baked beans before heading back out. As I re-joined the route I spotted a lady in front of me, and I tried to stay with her, but she pulled away sometime on the foggy humid climb that followed. It was light by now, but grey, and I focused on moving along steadily, albeit slowly. The incline lessened, and I forced myself into a jog along a small trod through blueberry bushes and low trees. As I plodded along, I suddenly realised that something had changed, and looking to my left I saw that I was emerging above the cloud once more, this time to the orange and pinks of the Mont Blanc massif in early morning. Enthralled and inspired, I started running properly again, on an undulating path, passing another lady (and thus moving into 6th) shortly before Arnouvaz (96.2km).

The climb that followed (Grand Col Ferret) was hot hot hot, and I got the impression that I wasn’t the only one finding it tough. Part way up I stuck the upper half of my body in a cow water bath, further up I as good as rolled in a stream. The descent, which I had been looking forward to, wasn’t much better, and I dropped back from the runners I’d been with. By the time I arrived at La Fouly I was ready to stop. But I stayed only long enough to drench myself with their hose-pipe, and to consume several orange quarters, before setting off again. For a little while I ran with a group that seemed to know one another, and I was somewhat astounded to realise that a) they had done the UTMB several times before b) they seemed to be experiencing suffering similar to mine c) they clearly considered this normal.

In the mid-day sun the sheltered valley was baking hot, and I survived the run to Champex Lac (124.1km) largely thanks to the frequent fountains I encountered at the roadside. Given how I was feeling when I arrived at the checkpoint, I was amazed to see that I was by no means the worst off. In fact, I seemed to be doing pretty well in comparison! The place resembled an army hospital, with runners lying down on benches, or hunched with head down, staring into space. In the 10 minutes or so that I spent there, only one person left the tent, and I set back out with renewed morale. This was further improved by a quick swim in the lake (much to the amusement of the tourists picnicking on its shores), captured on camera by Little Dave (Cummins), who happened to be supporting in that spot.

Mid-race swim (photo Dave Cummins)
I made good progress on the next climb and the traverse through cow fields that followed, but on my screaming quads the descent went on forever, and I arrived into Trient (140.6km) in a rather sorry state (see pictures, top of page!). To make matters worse, the lady behind me (7th) came in as I was still sitting over a can of tinned pears, although this did at least force me out of my stupor and back onto the road. I started the climb prepared for her to catch me, but determined for it to at least take a bit of effort. To my surprise, she never came, and instead I caught the lady in front (Magdalena Boulet, USA), arriving at the final checkpoint, Vallorcine (150.9km), hot on her tail.

Magdalena must have been re-invigorated by my appearance, because she ran straight through the checkpoint and off along the gently sloping trail up the valley. In comparison, I spent a few minutes there, determined to stick to my race plan and look after myself to get around in one piece. Arguably I should have been more competitive, and not let her get away, but I was just glad at this point to be feeling ok again, and looking forward to reaching Chamonix, just 19km away. Alex (one of my support team), who has crewed at equine endurance events in the past described it as follows, ‘If you were horses, you (and almost everyone else) would have failed the vet check at Champex Lac. But at Vallorcine, you would have passed with flying colours.’

As I started up the final climb, Magdalena was already well ahead. Above us, the clouds were gathering, and the air was close with the promise of a big storm. The first drops fell as I reached the summit plateau. A few minutes later lightning flashed across the sky, a brilliant shock of purple white against the darkening sky. More lightning followed - every minute or so now - and I nervously counted the seconds between the thunder and flash of white, conscious of my exposure, and the carbon walking poles in my hands.

(photo Alex Melbon)
By the time I’d arrived at the summit checkpoint, La Tete aux Vents (158.6km), it was dark, and raining hard. The marshal seemed relieved to see me, and turned me in the direction of La Flegere with a slight push, shouting to be heard above the wind, ‘Be brave, and be safe!’. I wasn’t sure I could do much to ensure the latter (feeling somewhat at the mercy of the lightning still flashing across the sky above me), but I certainly wasn’t planning to hang around. In the cool rain, hopping across wet rocks, I was in my element, and I passed several runners, including the Czech I had befriended 150km earlier. I ran straight through La Flegere (162.2km), and into a thick fog, delightfully British. I removed my head torch and carried it in my hand so as not to be blinded by the white, and started the descent. The final kilometres into Chamonix went on forever, on a winding forest trail, in a small pool of light from my head torch, rain still falling hard. I finally arrived at the edge of town, but still had to run a couple of kilometres in a big loop through the streets, presumably usually lined with supporters cheering, except that almost everyone had left to take shelter, and so there was just an occasional waterproof-clad stalwart watching me pass.

I arrived at the final street leading into the town square, and ran across the finish to the cheers of my support team (mum, Alex, Bo and Alvar), and the many friends gathered there to see me finish. I was drenched and tired, and slurring my words like a happy drunkard. I had finished 6th lady, 51st overall, in a time of 28:34:35.

The UTMB was an incredible experience, and I’m already forgetting the pain, and remembering instead the cloud inversions, the sunrise, the trail of torches, and the man playing his harmonica beside a mountain road in the dead of night. Would I do it again? Probably yes, but not for a few years. For now, I’m glad to be running across boggy windswept fells again, planning the next adventure...











Friday, August 19, 2016

Tromso Skyrace


I didn’t know much about Tromso except that it was quite far north. Having now been, I know that it is far enough north to be very much like Scotland, at least the kind of Scotland you get in spring or autumn. The other thing I knew, or at least had heard, was that the Skyrace put on by Emelie Forsberg and Kilian Jornet was something special. Talk last year was of a soaring ridge to rival, in terms of technical racing terrain, any other. Having now run the race I can confirm that despite the long journey it is well worth the effort.



Having secured a starting place, in itself no mean feat after the hype of last year, Konrad and I decided we would make it into a mini-holiday with a couple of days of walking after the race. So as to not waste any days off we decided to fly in on Friday for the Saturday race. As it turned out this nearly resulted in disaster as we made it to Tromso on Friday afternoon… alas our luggage did not, having been left stranded in Oslo airport en-route. Cue some frantic running around for the rest of the day trying to borrow a full set of race kit including shoes. Much to our relief the bags finally turned up at the airport at 10pm and Konrad was saved from having to run in a t-shirt with Murray Strain’s face plastered over his chest.



The Tromso series of Skyraces included a vertical kilometre (Blamann Vertical), a shorter Skyrace (Tromsdalstind), and the opening race in the 2016 ‘Extreme Skyracing’ series, Hamperokken, which is the race Konrad and I had come to run. The Hamperokken Skyrace consisted of 53km and 4600m of a ‘V technical level’, taking in 2 summits (Tromsdalstinden 1238m and Hamperokken 1404m), the latter being located at the end of the technical ridge that the race has come to be associated with.



Race day dawned rather cloudy, but dry. At the time, I was under the impression that we could have been luckier (i.e. some sunshine and better views), but if the weather we experienced over the entirety of our stay was representative of Tromso in August, I now appreciate that conditions were really rather pleasant.


The race started from the centre of Tromso, so the first (and last) 3 kilometres were on tarmac, crossing the bridge to the mainland and passing through the outskirts of town until we reached the base of the first climb. As the gradient increased I felt my legs start to protest, reminding me of my efforts at the Buff Epic Trail race two weeks earlier. I tried not to worry as I watched Konrad and Jim disappear into the distance, and I let runners pass me until I’d dropped back to a group whose pace I could just about match. We passed the first of the two food stations (5km into the race), and entered into thick cloud. The fog was so dense that we struggled to follow the frequent yellow flags marking the route. Thankfully we suffered no major mishaps in reaching the summit of the first climb, Tromsdalstinden, where we were greeted with cheers of support and ringing of cowbells. The terrain up to this point had been very runnable, mainly short grass with occasional rocks, but nothing technical. Things got more interesting on the descent of Tromsdalstinden, which was not only steep and stoney, but also rather loose, making me appreciate the fact that I didn’t have anyone directly behind me. Emelie was strategically placed at the base of this section, and gave us an encouraging shout as we ran past her and onto the steep snowfields, which Killian had mentioned to us in the race briefing. I ran onto the first of these fully intending to glissade gracefully to the base, but instead I slipped immediately, and made a very rapid descent on my bottom, desperately trying to slow the speed with which I was approaching the oncoming boulders. With bum cheeks still stinging, I stepped onto the second snow field determined to remain upright, but once again fell over immediately, and slid down in much the same way as before, although at least I didn’t go head first, unlike a certain person I know .


After a gentle grassy traverse we descended a steep narrow path between bushes and small trees, which is where I passed Jim, who wasn’t having a great day. After two kilometers of easy flat running in the valley we came to the second food station, manned by volunteers as well as Mr Yogi Tea with his portable stove. I started the climb of Hamperokken, and managed to latch onto the back of a Japanese runner. Conversation was pretty limited, but it was good to have company, and as we gained in height I realised we were also gaining on the runners in front. Feeling good, I pushed on, and by the time I’d reached the ridge I’d gained 4 or 5 places, and had spotted Konrad on the skyline in front of me. The Hamperokken ridge was great, technical scrambling with a bit of exposure, but nothing so serious as to detract from the delight. Exhilarated, I made rapid progress to the summit, where Killian was waiting with his camera, scampering up and down the steep final section like a mountain goat.



The descent of Hamperokken was probably the trickiest part of the race, with a mixture of steep slabs, scree and larger loose rocks forcing careful foot placement. There followed a few kilometres of boulder hopping down a gentle valley, and then a descent back to the second food station. At this point I asked how far in front of the next lady I’d been on the way out (I’d seen no one, so had no idea), and the reply was ’10 minutes to second, 20 minutes to third’, which was good for my morale as I started the return journey, retracing the outward route to the summit of Tromsdalstind. From that point we descended via a rocky trail (different to the route on the outward leg), and started to pass runners on the shorter Tromsdalstind Skyrace (which had started a few hours later). For the remainder of the race, the terrain was straightforward and beautifully runnable, in particular the gently sloping springy trods through the blueberries. I felt reasonably good, and was able to run most of the final easy 300m climb along tracks to the first food station, which I passed through without stopping, knowing I didn’t have far to go. After running alone for much of the day it was bizarre to be escorted by a motorcycle through the final sections in town, which left me to sprint (or not) for the finishing line when the final banner came into view.


The race overall was won by Tom Owens in a fantastic time of 6:45:15, after what had clearly been a great battle with two other British runners, Jonathan Albon (6:53:25) and Finlay Wild (6:55:03). I finished 18th overall and first lady, in a time of 8:43:53, and was delighted to receive a selection of prizes that included a special Alpina watch, and a box of the famous Yogi Tea. We celebrated that night with juice (we discovered that, licencing laws mean one can’t buy beer after 6pm in Norway!), and Jim’s excellent fish risotto 

After the race Konrad made a further discovery, the great joy of staying in Norway’s huts (DNT). These huts work on a basis of co-operation and trust, and you are relied upon to make a payment (which is very reasonable), and to leave things as they were found when you leave. The huts we stayed in were fantastic, beautiful (almost everything is made of wood), comfortable (happy Konrad in his armchair by the fire), well equipped (cooking pasta and pesto seemed rather unambitious, given the facilities at our disposal), and warm (firewood aplenty to be used, and an excellent stove in each).

Thus we spent 3 days ambling through the Norwegian mountains, sleeping for 12 hours a night (in spite of it never getting dark!), swimming in freezing lakes, and picking blueberries to supplement our provisions.


Emelie had told us when we arrived ‘Coming to Tromso will touch your soul’. She was right. I can’t wait to go back and do it all again.