Friday, 1 September 2017

CCC 2017

The UTMB CCC – 1 September 2017


I have been a little in awe of the Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc (UTMB) races ever since we just happened to be in Chamonix during the third edition in 2005.  It was a considerably smaller affair then, but I recall quite clearly my incomprehension that anyone could run for that long, or that far, and climb all those mountains, without stopping or sleeping.  These people represented a different species from me.  Of course that was long before I had any interest in endurance events, and if you told me then that one day I would be part of that same set of races, I would asked for one of what you were taking.

The UTMB week also holds special appeal for me because in many ways it is my “home town event”.  Having spent considerable time in Chamonix over the past 15 years, I know well many of the trails and mountains, and once I started doing ultra marathons, it was only natural that UTMB would nag away at my consciousness.  So having accumulated sufficient qualification points, I put in a speculative entry last December not expecting to be successful in the ballot — I understand that it is a one in five chance for someone like me.  But then I heard that I had been allocated a place, and this became my focus and target for season.

Of course I had not entered the UTMB itself — that is just for the superhuman or insane (or both, yes I am talking about you Andy) — but it’s little sister, the CCC: Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix.   At 100km and with 6,150m of vertical climb, it represents approximately the last two thirds of the full UTMB route, starting in Courmayeur in Italy, progressing though Switzerland and finishing back in France at Chamonix.  However, don’t be misled by the "little sister" tag, the CCC is still a daunting prospect, and easily the hardest race I have ever entered.

The atmosphere in Chamonix for UTMB week is just extraordinary. With 5 different races taking place during the week there were over 8,000 competitors from more than 70 countries, plus their families, supporters, crew, and the associated circus of kit manufacturers, retailers and assorted corporate sponsors. It must surely be the largest global gathering of those with an interest in ultra trail running, and you could just taste the excitement as you walked down the Rue Paccard. Mere mortals like me get a bit of a buzz from passing a familiar face, and then recognising it as belonging to one of the gods of trail running: Kilian Jornet signing autographs, Nicky Spinks doing an interview, etc...

My training and preparation had gone well, with the exception of the Centurion South Downs Way 100 mile race in June (see here) which represented my longest “training run” for the CCC.  I had had major problems, and although I did finish and struggle over the line, my performance was a disappointment and this had knocked my confidence.  I had just had one of those bad days, and was fearful it could happen again. 

I try to have an objective for each race: for this one the primary goal was to finish within the cut-off time (26 hours 30 minutes), with a secondary target of finishing within 24 hours (just because that time has a natural symmetry), and I had prepared a schedule for a sub-24 hour finish.

After a week of warm sunny weather, the long-range forecasts showed horrible thunder storms and heavy rain for the race days.  Fortunately the storms came early on the Thursday, and whilst this soaked all the trails, at least the forecast had improved to a reasonably dry day, albeit followed by heavy rain at night.  We had received notification that because of the poor weather forecast the organisers might be considering switching to an alternative, lower and safer route.  Thankfully this was not necessary, although there was one last minute adjustment to the normal route for safety reasons, but more of that later.

The Race

At the start line in Courmayeur
On race morning Sarah drove me from Chamonix through the tunnel to Courmayeur, and we got there nice and early which meant I was near the front of my starting pen.  Where you start is dictated by your bib number, which in turn is based on your previous race history and times.  I was in the last pen which meant I would be starting in the third and final wave at 9.30am (the first wave of elite runners goes at 9am).  I tried some gentle stretches on a tight left hamstring that was concerning me  it was the same injury that contributed to my problems at SDW100. I decided it was too late to do anything about it now: I hoped it was just one of those phantom injuries you get before a race, but I was a little worried.

Just before the off
As we waited, we were warned by the organisers that although it was sunny and mild in Courmayeur we should be prepared for very cold weather and strong winds on the peaks — how right they were.  The feeling at the start is just amazing: we had the national anthems of the three countries through which we would travel, and the UTMB theme tune (Vangelis' Conquest of Paradise) — it all got quite emotional. 
Happy to be running at last
The snake climbs slowly up
I had wanted to be at the front of my wave in order to avoid the worst of the queues going up to Tete de la Tronche, the first and longest climb of the race to the highest point.  As it worked out, the front of my wave soon caught the rear of the second wave and I was stuck in a queue the whole way up.  Occasionally it was possible to pass, but it was risky and tiring to do so.  This enforced slow pace meant that this was the only leg of the race on which I did not outperform my target times, arriving at the peak in 2 hours 38 minutes, within one minute of the schedule.

Getting closer to the top of the Tete de la Tronche
Refuge Bonatti
Once at the top, the run down to Refuge Bertone was wonderful.  An excellent trail for running, liberated to be free from the queues, I progressed quickly along a ridge with amazing views of the Mont Blanc massif to the right and the Courmayeur ski area directly ahead.  It was simply the best feeling.  I had no need to stop at Bertone — I just filled up with water, took a couple of photos and grabbed some chocolate to munch on the climb out of the refuge.  The balcony run up along Val Ferret, past Refuge Bonatti and then down into Arnouvaz was equally delightful.  Gently undulating with nothing too steep, the sun still warming my back without being unduly hot.  Just perfect.

Views of Courmayeur ski area as we climb up the Val Ferret

Feeling good coming into Arnouvaz
Reaching Arnouvaz in just over 5 hours, I was feeling pretty strong.  I could still feel the tight left hamstring, but it was getting no worse.  I had also had some quad cramps at the top of the first big climb but with the help of some salt tablets I had now run that off.  More importantly, I realised that it was around this time on the SDW100 that it had all gone wrong, but in contrast, this time I felt good, strong and happy.
Starting the climb up to the Grand Col Ferret

Very cold and foggy at the top of the Col Grand Ferret
The climb from Arnouvaz takes you up to the Grand Col Ferret, the second highest point on the route, the border with Switzerland, and probably the most exposed col we would encounter.  Shortly after leaving Arnouvaz the clouds came in and it started raining.  Half way up we ascended into the fog, and as we reached the col the cold wind was cutting.  I had ice crystals forming on my gloves, but fortunately it was better for us than the UTMB’ers who suffered horizontal driving snow at this point 24 hours later.

The fog stayed with us most of the way down to the next aid station at La Fouly, but apart from that it was it was an enjoyable run — good conditions under foot and great to get the legs moving again.

I had read about the famed noodle soup, so I decided to try some at La Fouly.  It was so good  — warm and salty — that I had three bowls.  This was probably a mistake as the next section was 10km of gentle downhill on roads and tracks that were eminently runnable (I clocked 5 minute km pace here without really pushing it), but the noodle soup was sloshing around uncomfortably inside me.  There followed a sharp and rather nasty 400m climb up to Champex-Lac.  Compared to the other climbs on the route, this is just a tiddler, but for some reason it felt to me one of the toughest.  Maybe it was the cumulative impact of 9 hours with only one short stop, or the psychological effect of really wanting to get to the half-way aid station at Champex where Sarah was waiting for me.  Either way it was my lowest point of the race.

Starting to get dark and rain falling as I leave Champex-Lac
By this stage I was about 90 minutes ahead of my schedule which meant that Sarah had had to leave Chamonix early to drive around to meet me (and therefore miss Andy at the UTMB start), but as my ever-efficient crew she was there waiting and ready.  She really is brilliant at crewing — quick to ask what I want to eat and drink, in no time my order appears in front of me, with my drop bag ready and waiting, and water bottles filled before I could ask.  She asks the right questions to check I am doing OK, but does not go over the top with either praise or encouragement.  After 22 minutes I was off and running again — well walking actually so I could let the food settle, and she and Blue accompanied me along the lake shore.  It was now getting dark and very cold — I had to put on my warm mid-layer as well as my outer waterproof, and kept both on for the whole of the remainder, including the uphills.  As I said farewell to Sarah and Blue, and headed off into the forest, it started to rain again, quite heavily this time.

The climb up to La Giète had by now become very wet, muddy and slippery, but fortunately being mostly in the woods we were sheltered from the worst of the rain.  The aid station at La Giète is in a wonderfully cosy barn and many runners seemed to be lingering there — I decided not to stop as I would find it hard to get going again if I got too comfortable.  I was now in familiar territory as I had previously recce’d the route from La Giète to Chamonix, but I was not prepared for the next section of very slippery path with continual trip hazards.  Being cautious on the descent I was passed by many of those that I had overtaken by not stopping, but knowing that a finish was now within my capabilities, I did not want to risk a race-ending injury.

The crowds of supporters at Trient were just amazing and made a massive noise for every runner that approached, an encouraging sound that you could hear from several kilometres away.  It was now around 11pm, there was a public bar at Trient, and I think some supporters had been making full use of the bar for some hours.  The wet conditions were now taking their toll on my feet, and I could feel the dreaded “trenchfoot” blisters starting to burn hot on my soles.  I grabbed a cup of coke and sat down to change into dry socks and apply lashings of Gurney Goo all over my white wrinkled feet.

The ascent out of Trient to Les Tseppes (where there was the usual warming bonfire) and onto the pass at Catogne was one that I now knew quite well, and although it was 90 minutes of hard climbing, it passed quickly and I still felt good.  The run from Catogne down to Vallorcine is usually really enjoyable — just the right gradient and not too technical — but even the excellent studded tread on my Inov-8 X-Talons could not grip in the runny, slimy mud that the path had become.  It really was unspeakably horrible.  It was a blessed relief to reach the bottom station of the Tete de Balme chairlift and join the much more runnable red piste.  Turning off the piste for one more slippery forest trail, eventually the Vallorcine train station appeared, and I had the unexpected boost of Sarah waving at me as I walked into the aid station.

Noodle soup at Vallorcine
I had told Sarah not to bother meeting me at Vallorcine.  I was scheduled to arrive there at 4.30am — I actually got there 3 hours early at just after 1.30am — but either way it was the middle of the night so I didn’t expect her to be there.  However, seeing how hard the rain had been overnight, she was worried that I might be soaked and in need of dry kit, so she had decided to ignore my instructions and meet me there anyway. Simply outstanding!  She sorted me out as usual, and then started crewing for other Brits who were in need of assistance.

In training runs I had run the 200m climb from Vallorcine up to Col de Montets — no chance of that this morning — but it was from here that the route alteration kicked in. I knew that the originally planned climb from Col de Montets up to Tete aux Vents included some very steep sections with steps and scrambles over smooth rocks and vertical stream beds, and probably wisely the organisers had considered it too dangerous in these wet conditions.  Instead we had been instructed to take the route “straight from Col de Montets to Flégère” thus avoiding Tete aux Vents.  Naively I had assumed that this would be less climbing and much easier.  I counted down the metres on my watch altimeter and as we approached the altitude of Flégère I celebrated that the last climb was nearly over.  Nope. The organisers had a nasty surprise for us, and we then decended all the way back down again.  I am not sure what was worse: the psychological damage that I knew I would now have to climb those 500m all over again, or the fact that this was the nastiest, most technical, root covered, rocky and slippery descent of the whole race, all undertaken in a foggy darkness.  After that soul destroying descent, the simpler pain of climbing again was a welcome relief.  I decided it was time for a gel and an energy boost, and whilst it was a slog, I was soon at Flégère.  I didn’t stop at the aid station, but just checked my timings and ran straight through, by now anxious to just get to the finish.

The first section of the descent from Flégère is a steep technical zig-zag path through the trees with lots of roots and rocks, and I took it slowly and carefully, being passed by quite a few more courageous or stronger runners.  From Chalet Floria the path widens and becomes shallower, and from here I was able to run the whole way to the finish line.  Time to plan the celebration.  Sarah was of course there to welcome me, and I was astounded to see that our friend Ali had got up early to see me finish as well: 5:53am, 3.5 hours ahead of schedule.  

The finish line!

Reflecting on it all I am left with a strong appreciation of how lucky I am: lucky to have to won a place in the ballot; lucky to be able to run (ok, mostly walk) in such beautiful mountains; lucky to have such a supportive and understanding wife; lucky to have so many friends and family following me at home via the website; and lucky to have the health and fitness that enables me to have been one small part of such an amazing event.

Lessons and observations

Registration: efficient and friendly
I had read beforehand that the UTMB races were too large, too corporate and frankly not very "friendly". It is of course a massive event, and if you want to run in the mountains in peaceful isolation, this is not the race for you. However it was all superbly organised, the logistics were all spot-on, the volunteer marshals and helpers were all excellent, and the aid stations extremely well stocked. If you want to see friendliness just look at how the locals from every village we passed came out to support, even during the night, and how many supporters trekked up to remote places to cheer us on. Whilst it is true that there was not as much chatting between competitors as I am used to at races in the U.K., that might be because you were often unsure as to which language to use to start the conversation. I did meet a number of Brits on the way round and we did have a good old natter. Particularly Richard and Tim Antrobus (bizarrely no relation) with whom I shared the first climb, and Jamie Chaffney with whom I ran from La Fouly to Champex. Thanks Jamie for dragging me up that hill into the aid station, and for finding my watch when the strap broke on that same climb.

Making good use of those poles on a slippery rocky section
Cheat Sticks: this was my first race using poles. To be clear I do not consider the use of poles cheating – if the rules allow them that's fine by me – but I know some do not use them out of principle. My rough estimate based on those I saw around me on the CCC suggests that the vast majority (probably 95% or more) used poles. I found they made a massive difference both on the uphill and the downhill, and couldn't imagine doing the race without them. I did not suffer at all from sore quads or glutes, which means that either I trained superbly, or that I had the poles to thanks.  Ok, I guess it was the poles. The only sore muscles I had were actually in my arms which suggests I probably should have trained more with them before the race.

The Statistics

  • Of the 2,155 starters 1,742 finished with 413 DNFs (19%)
  • 73 different countries were represented on the start line, with the largest number of competitors coming from France (36%), Spain (12%), Italy (8%) and U.K. (6%)
  • The winner (Hayden Hawks of the US) finished in an extraordinary 10 hours 24 minutes
  • I finished in 20 hours 22 minutes and 22 seconds, in 611th overall (28th percentile of starters)
  • I was ranked 35th in the V2H (men between 50 and 60) category (13th percentile of 288 starters) and 38th in all over 50s (10th percentile of 382 starters)
  • Of the 700 starters in the 3rd wave only 16 finished ahead of me
  • I spent 65 minutes in aid stations. I consumed 5 gels but none of Shot Blocs or Bounce Balls that I carried.  Why do I always carry too much food?  From the aid stations, apart from water, I took the following: chocolate (Bertone), crackers (Bonatti and Arnouvaz), noodle soup (La Fouly, three bowls!), pasta and tea (Champex-Lac), coke (Trient), and tea and crackers (Vallorcine)

Celebrating in the finishers' gilet

Race details on the CCC Website

GPS track on Strava

Photos in album on Flickr

Video montage on YouTube

Saturday, 10 June 2017

One Foot in Front of the Other

Centurion South Downs Way 100 – 10th July 2017

The Start Line at Chilcomb near Winchester
Somewhere – sadly I cannot recall where – I read some advice to novice Ultra Runners from an old hand.  The advice was as follows: When things are going really badly, when your body is failing and your mind is telling you to give up (and everyone has that at some point in a 100-miler), just put one foot in front of the other.  Then repeat, and repeat again, and again… Keep going forwards, towards your destination; it really does not matter how slowly.  If you can just keep moving onwards, eventually (although it might take some time) things will start to get better.

This was the mantra that got me to the finish of the SDW100 – my first 100-miler – from a situation where my first ever DNF looked a certainty.

Andy and James leading the way down into the Meon Valley

My problems started disturbingly early in the race.  After only about an hour and a half of running, my legs were feeling very heavy and my body lethargic.  I couldn’t pin it on anything specific,
but I knew that I was struggling to keep up with the pace being set by James, Andy and Frank – my teammates for the event.  Being very low in energy has happened to me in the past on some training runs, but never in a race when the adrenalin is flowing.  I began to hope that James, Andy and Frank were leading us out too quickly and was contemplating asking them to rein it in a little, but when we arrived at the first aid station at Beacon Hill bang on our target schedule (that target being a sub-24 hour finish) the sad truth dawned on me – the problem was me, not them.

Suffering badly on arrival at the QECP
There is a long gap between Beacon Hill and the next aid station at the Queen Elizabeth Country Park (QECP) – over 20km or nearly 13 miles, the longest gap of the whole route – and it did not go well for me.  Having had something to eat at Beacon Hill, I started to develop stomach cramps and desperately needed the toilet.  Further, the tight left hamstring that had been bothering me in the week leading up to the race was now nagging away, and I was starting to feel referred pain in my ITB, groin and glute.  Not only was I struggling to stay with my teammates, I was struggling to run at all.  It was totally dispiriting to see them blast away down Butser Hill into QECP, and the look on their faces whilst they waited at the bottom for me to catch up confirmed what I already knew.  We were only 4 hours into the race and I was in deep trouble.

Our stop at QECP was longer than we had planned because it took me a while to find a toilet. Sarah and Sally-Anne – our wonderful support crew for the day – were waiting for us, and Sarah was very concerned at my state.  Not knowing whether to encourage, sympathise, or just give me a bloody talking to, she decided the best course was to just fill my water bottles, force some food inside me, and shoo me off with the promise that they would see us at Cocking.

My hope that the toilet stop would sort me out was dashed when, at the top of the next climb, the tightness in my left leg turned into sharp pains when we started running again, and both quads cramped up.  This was just getting silly, and I was now holding back the others and jeopardising their race.  I slapped James, Andy and Frank on their backs, wished them good luck and told them to leave me.  That they did not argue with my decision says much about how I must have appeared to them.  As we discussed it the following day, they would certainly have worked hard on me to continue if we had (say) 20 or 25 miles to go, but we had only traveled 25 miles and had 75 more to go.  My problems occurring so early on made the decision an easy one, for them and me.

As I watched them jog off, I started walking.  One foot in front of the other.  My plan was to walk to Cocking, meet Sarah and drop out there.  I was totally fed up: all that training, all that preparation – the SDW100 had been my main focus since the end of the ski season – and now all for nothing. What a total waste of time.  It made me really angry.

As I walked I started to analyse my situation.  Was there any way I could salvage something from this disaster?  What if I were to just keep walking?  I might start feeling better at some point?  What if I were to go on Washington – the “half way” point at around 54 miles – that would at least be some sort of achievement?  I tried a little jog – no good, the pains returned immediately – but walking was pain-free.  Yes, I thought I would be able to walk to Washington, but how much of an achievement would that really be?  Not that much, was my conclusion, and I felt angry again.

Feeling miserable approaching the Cocking aid station
I passed through the next aid station at Harting Downs, refilled with water, ate something, and carried on towards Cocking.  Much as I was fed up, I had to admit it was a gorgeous day and the views from the downs were amazing.  One foot in front of the other.

My walking pace was good – a consistent average of 10 minutes per km – and I started doing the sums.  It was 43km from Harting to Washington, that’s just over seven hours.  But hold on, if Harting was just over 40km into route, then there remained about 120km to the finish, which at 10 minutes per km would take me 20 hours.  Given I had now been going for around 6 hours, that implied a finish in 26 hours, well within the 30-hour cutoff.  I doubled checked the sums in my head. They were right: the sub-24 hour target was gone – forget it! – however it was feasible for me to walk to the finish within the cutoff time.  That would allow me to get a finisher’s buckle, regain some self-respect, and actually get something positive out of this whole mess.  All I had to do was keep walking – one foot in front of the other – for 20 hours – simple!  No, utter madness!  It was an completely stupid idea, but what other choice did I have?  How would I live with the disappointment of a DNF, and bear James, Andy, Sarah and Sally-Anne being so “nice” about my failure?  No, there was no alternative.  I was reasonably confident I could do it physically, the key would be to manage the mental side – it was going to be a horribly long and lonely day, night, and another morning.

Up to Linch Down just before Cocking

Sarah was greatly relieved to see me at the Cocking aid station.  She told me I was looking much better and actually making reasonable time.  I received an update on the rest of the team – James and Andy were still looking strong, although sadly Frank was struggling to get any food down, with pineapple being the only thing he could eat.  Sarah and Sally-Anne had also been doing the maths and told me that I had plenty of time if I wanted to carry on.  We had chat about it, I confirmed that I did want to carry on, and she promised to see me at the next aid station. They were brilliant at getting me sausage rolls and pineapple (once it had been mentioned I had a sudden urge for it!), and they were great in nagging me to get more electrolytes down.  It was massively energising to get their practical and moral support, and their encouragement to keep going, and I left Cocking in a much more positive mood.

Descending to the A285 (Petworth to Chichester road) with Bignor Hill in the distance

I saw Sarah and Sally-Anne at the Bignor Hill aid station and Sarah met me again at Kithurst Hill.  She told me that Frank had had to pull out as by now he could not even keep water down, and on such a warm day there was no way he could continue. Sally-Anne had kindly given him a lift home.

I was discovering that I am actually a pretty decent walker.  I continued to average 9 minutes per km on the flat and 10 minutes uphill.  Whilst runners passed me on the descents and flat, I found myself overtaking some of those same runners as I powered up the hills.  As they passed, most runners asked me if I was OK – it was clearly unusual to see someone walking downhill at such an early stage in the race.  Occasionally a runner would stop as they passed, fall into step with me and have a chat for a couple of minutes, before wishing each other well, they would resume their jog.  Such selflessness is one of the best features of ultra-marathons, and it gave me an enormous boost.  If any of you are reading this – thank you!

I walked down into Washington with a runner who had passed me some hours ago but whom I had now caught.  He was struggling quite badly, and seemed intent on dropping out at the aid station.  It turned out he had been a last minute entry and injury had meant he had only done 6 weeks training.  He summed it up nicely: "You can’t blag a 100-miler. You can get away with insufficient training on a 50-miler, but you can’t blag a 100”.

Chanctonbury Ring at the top of the climb out of Washington
I was surprised and delighted to see Sarah waiting for me at the Washington aid station, as she was supposed to have headed home ages ago.  It was by now 6.30pm, I realised that she had wasted her whole day following me around the South Downs, and that acted to reinforce my decision that I had to get something positive out of it all.  I had a prolonged stop as she got me some tea and some hot food whilst I stretched, changed shirt and socks from the drop bag, and reapplied a liberal coating of Gurney Goo to all the sensitive parts.

Dramatic evening skies approaching Steyning
As I headed out into the evening, I tried a few short jogs to test the legs, but immediately the soreness returned.  However, walking was pain free, so the key was not to get tempted into running – time didn’t matter any more, and walking was the strategy that would get me to the finish.  What remained would be a mental test.  I needed to break the task down into manageable chunks.  I calculated the time to the next aid station: 2 hours to Botolphs so I should get there at 9pm.  One foot in front of the other.  Half an hour later: only 90 minutes to go!  One foot in front of the other.  Half an hour later: brilliant, I am half way to the next aid station!  Etc, etc.  I resolved to think of absolutely nothing except the next aid station; to do anything else was just too scary.  If I could just get to the next aid station, then I could carry on.

At Botolphs I was served one of the best cups of tea ever by the wonderful volunteers, I pulled the head torch from my pack, and stopped briefly to enjoy the amazing sunset as I crossed over the River Adur.  As I climbed up Beeding Hill towards Truleigh Hill, I saw the most enormous and curiously lit hot air balloon rising up from Brighton to the south, and remember thinking it a very unusual time to go ballooning.  It was of course the moon, and I was obviously getting a little tired!

Sunset over the River Adur near Steyning just before the Botolphs aid station

The night passed with a slow monotony.  Counting down the time to the next aid station. Saddlescombe Farm — two minutes to lie down, stretch and shake out the leg muscles. Housedean Farm — another change of shirt and three quarters done. Southease – a wonderful dawn chorus, with a base counterpoint provided by the frogs in the marshes around the River Ouse, and a spectacular sunrise over the downs near Glynde.

Sunrise over the downs near Glynde after the Southease aid station
At Southease I texted James to find out how he and Andy were getting on, and was delighted to get his response that they had just that minute crossed the finish line in an amazing 22 hours 17 minutes.  They had absolutely smashed their 24-hour target, a stunning run by them both.  I was doubly pleased: not only had my slowness not impacted their chances, I was also pretty certain that I could never have matched that time – even on a good day – so perhaps it was fortuitous that they had been able to leave me so early in the race.  We exchanged messages of congratulations / encouragement, and having sorted themselves out they told me that they would wait for me at the finish — waiting 5 hours for me to turn up was more than I could have possibly expected, and it gave me a real emotional boost.

Being "encouraged" to jog the last 50 metres
I also texted Sarah to let her know I was OK.  Rather annoyingly my message from Saddlesombe the previous evening had failed to send which had given her a rather restless night.  I started allowing myself to imagine crossing the finishing line and got pretty emotional about it.

The next stage to Alfriston seemed much longer, time really dragged, and the light rain that started blowing in from the sea did not help my mood.  However, Jevington came round much more quickly, I was now on the final leg, and soon descending the horrible slippery gully down into Eastbourne.  James and Andy were there to cheer me on as I entered the sports ground, and the PA announcer and supporters bullied me into jogging the last 50 metres across the line. Over the line, as I explained to James that that was the furthest I had actually jogged since we had split up nearly 23 hours ago, I tried and failed to choke back the emotions.

The statistics
  • I finished in 27 hours 12 minutes and was ranked 171 out of 297 starters and 220 finishers.  I was 24th out of 60 starters over 50 years of age
  • James and Andy finished in a stunning 22 hours 17 minutes and ranked joint 65th
  • My GPS recorded 157.9km (98.1 miles, rather annoyingly, should I go back and finish it?) and 3,600m of vertical climb.  The equivalent distance on the flat is over 180km
  • Strava tells me that I burned over 14,000 calories

The lessons
  • Sarah has been telling me for years that I am a stubborn old man but I would never believe her.  It seems she might be right.
  • It appears I am quite good at walking, especially walking uphill – good to know.
  • The South Downs Way is extraordinarily beautiful, especially on a clear and sunny day, but also on a clear moonlit night.  It is such a privilege to be able to race over this course.
  • Centurion run an absolutely superb event – the quality of the aid stations, the helpfulness and understanding of all the volunteers, the professionalism of the logistics: top marks all round.
  • One foot in front of the other.

The Links

Saturday, 10 September 2016

A Wet Weekend in Wales

10 Peaks Brecon Beacons Long Course, 10 September 2016

For the second race in a row I am left with mixed feelings about the outcome.  On a personal level I finished in a time that is quicker than I would have expected – especially given the conditions – but once again I failed in the core objective which was to get around as a team.

Team at the start line at YHA Danywenallt Talybont-on-Usk
Our four-man team – James Rodge, Anthony Parsons, Andy Morris and myself – had been depleted before the start when Anthony had to pull out having injured his knee ligaments in a freak accident while on holiday a few weeks previously.  For the remaining three, the plan was to start on the Long Course (89km / 55 miles and 4,800m of vertical ascent) and then gauge how we were feeling at the second feed station.  At this point there was an option to switch to the Short Course (58km and 3,000m ascent).  However, the overarching plan was to compete as a team and finish as a team.

The name “Short Course” is totally misleading because it is far from short, and very far from easy.  I had completed that course in around ten and a half hours as my first ultra marathon two years previously and remembered very well how punishing it is.  I had tried to convey to the rest of the team that either way this was a serious endeavour, and we agreed that we would only opt to “go Long” if we all felt very strong at the point the two courses diverged: one third distance on the Long Course and around halfway on the Short.

Feeling good as we eye up Fan Fawr - the first of the "official" 10 peaks
As we ran into that key feed station at around 10am, five hours into the race, we looked each other in the eyes and tried to gauge how we were all feeling. We appeared to be in good shape – our time was spot on our planned schedule, there were no injuries, and even the soaking we had received in the first two hours had not dampened our spirits.  A brief discussion resulted in an agreement to continue on the Long Course, and we set off from the feed station in confident mood.

In retrospect there were some signs to which I should have taken closer attention.  First, at the feed station, James sat down in a deck chair rather than continuing to stand like Andy and myself – a possible sign that his legs were feeling it more than ours.  With his preparation for this event having been heavily disrupted by ongoing foot problems (a possible stress fracture), he had not managed to get the usual training miles into his legs.  Second, the extremely wet conditions under foot – with almost continually boggy ground and the need to wade through several streams – meant that our feet were not getting an opportunity to dry out, and I should have anticipated that toe nail and trench foot problems would become more serious as the day went on.  The boggy ground also made running significantly more sapping on the legs than I remembered from two years ago – we had travelled 27km but it felt a lot more.

James making good progress as the fog clears
It is a really difficult decision: whether to leave one of your team behind.  James started to show signs of tiring as we climbed the initial steep section of the long slog up to Fan Brycheiniog and Bannau Sir Gaer.  Whilst only peaks number 3 and 4 of the 10, they lay close to the far westerly point of the course and represented over half-way in terms of both distance and vertical climb.  Our rest stops had become more frequent and our pace had slowed.  After the steep section, there is soul-destroying, apparently never-ending slow climb of nearly 5km to the peak.  The grind upwards is made worse by being able to see the end destination in the far distance the whole of the way up.  Having dibbed in at Fan Brycheiniog James announced that he had decided he was not going to be able to finish the course, and that he wanted Andy and I to push on and leave him.  He said he would go to the next feed station where he could safely retire.  He resisted our encouragement that we were happy to go slowly and that it was all about finishing together, and he was insistent that no matter what happened he was going to “drop” at the next feed station.  

One of the challenges of this course is the relatively long distance between feed stations.  There are five in total across the 89km – an average gap of 10 miles might feel comfortable in a flat race, but in the Brecon Beacons and on tired legs they feel a very long way apart.  This is particularly the case when you have to get to the next feed station in order to drop out.  One of the key elements in James’ thinking was that, from where we stood at Bannau Sir Gaer, it was over 7km of hilly terrain to get to the next feed station in a layby on the A4067.  Furthermore, from that point there was a long gap of 19km to the next and final feed station at the Storey Arms, and he couldn’t see himself successfully bridging that gap to the next point of safety.  That was why he had firmly decided to retire at the A4067.

Steepest climb of the day up to Fan Gyhirych immediately after the fourth feed station at the A4067 - the only time in the day when I wished I had walking poles
Leaving him was very painful, and Andy and I fell into a period of quiet contemplative running, both lost in our private thoughts.  We hoped we had done everything to ensure he was safe – he had map, compass, phone and the correct route programmed into his GPS watch, both visibility and weather conditions were good at this stage, he is very experienced in the mountains, and there were plenty of other competitors around.  We made sure that the marshals camping out in the cairn at Fan Brycheiniog knew to look out for him on his return – they even got a cup of tea ready for him! – and also warned the marshals at the A4067 feed station.  Nevertheless it was a relief to get a text message from him a couple of hours later to say that he was safely in the minibus awaiting his lift back to camp, and it was only then that I started to enjoy the route again.
Magnificent scenery: Llyn y Fan Fawr in the Black Mountains

James consoled himself that by the time he dropped out he had covered 55km and around 3,000m of vertical ascent – exactly the same as we would have done on the Short Course – and that therefore he had done his ultra marathon.  However, it is still a shame for him because this is such a great event in such superb surroundings – the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountains are just so magnificent.  Sadly, because we had rain for the first two hours and then fog for the next couple of hours, we didn’t get the wonderful views of Corn Du, Pen y Fan, Cribyn and Fan y Big as we headed out westwards past their southern flanks in the morning.  We did get some fine weather during the middle of the day, and the best views of were undoubtedly from the Black Mountains looking eastwards to those famous peaks of the Brecon Beacons.  Our enjoyment of the view was tempered only by the knowledge that we would have to bag those far distant peaks that night before we got home.

Views of Corn Du and Pen y Fan from Fan Nedd trig point
Some wading may be necessary!
In the event the weather conditions were much better than we could seriously have hoped for given the cataclysmic long-range forecasts from the week before.  We still received the promised massive rainstorm, but it hit us on Friday night rather than during the day on Saturday (race day) as originally forecast.  Whilst an infinitely preferable outcome, the downside of the heavy rain on Friday night was that we all got practically no sleep as the precipitation treated our tents as a drum kit until our alarms went off at 4am.  

Heading towards Cavers' Cottage at Penwyllt

The other downside of the rain was that the ground was absolutely soaked.  I knew to expect some boggy sections but some of the bogs had turned into small lakes.  Also, streams that I had crossed two years ago by rock hopping this time required calf-deep wading.  Since I was a small boy I have always loved splashing in puddles, but I was also aware that I have previously suffered badly from blisters on my soles arising from wet feet never drying properly, and this was probably my biggest concern this time out.  As mitigation I carried spare dry socks in my pack, and had a couple of pairs (plus a dry pair of shoes) in my drop bag waiting at the third feed station – Cavers Cottage at Penwyllt.  In the end I didn’t use the spare shoes – much as I wanted the luxury of dry feet, I knew that it would not last for long, and the tread on my spare shoes is not as good for wet and slippery conditions.  I did however use the spare dry socks, and made sure to reapply masses of Gurney Goo to try to protect my feet from blisters.  Fortunately this seemed to do the trick, because whilst I ended up with the compulsory black toenails, I didn’t get a single blister.

The streams were full, and the waterfalls spectacular
However, I didn’t quite get home injury free.  As I have already said, the conditions under foot were very challenging, and all three of us had spectacular tumbles at some point during the day.  As it grew dark, and particularly given we were following very closely the edge of a very steep escarpment, Andy and I had decided that running with tired legs on uneven ground so close to a precipitous fall was just too dangerous and we had decided on a quick-paced walk for most of the final 15km.  However, on the last descent from Cairn Pica back down to the finish line at the YHA Danywenallt in Talybont-on-Usk, I spotted two other competitors’ head torches ahead, and reckoned that with a gentle jog we might be able to overtake them.  Damn my competitive instinct!  I had controlled it so well all day only to allow it to get the better of me at this late stage.  Predictably, after a few minutes of running by head-torch on such uneven ground I missed a step and fell, badly twisting my ankle.  Andy did a wonderful job of getting me up, calming me down, and then providing guiding footsteps for the rest of the way back to the YHA.  I was very fortunate that it happened only at this late stage because a fall like that earlier in the day would have been a certain DNF.  The most ironic thing is that those two head-torches ahead of us must have missed the (legal) shortcut across a field to get home without having to do a 2km loop around the road, and we ended up shuffling in marginally ahead of them.

The famous Storey Arms burger van
So, not quite the result we were looking for in terms of a team finish, but there is no doubt that Brecon 10 Peaks is a superb event.  It is wonderfully organised by Mark, Paul and their team, with a relaxed feel and a small friendly field of competitors.  The volunteer marshals are just amazing – quick to help with filling water bottles and making cups of tea at the feed stations, and always cheerful and encouraging.  Particular thanks to the mountain rescue team who drove a 4x4 up a mountain track to set up an impromptu water and food stop on the long drag between checkpoints four and five.  There is a school of thought that says ultras are just as much about the food as the running – my highlights were the malt loaf at checkpoint one; dry roasted peanuts and flat coke at two; chilli and rice at three (where, rather bizarrely, all the helpers were dressed in onesies!); tortilla chips at four; and finally the famous Storey Arms burger van with its unfeasibly large sausage and bacon roll – all hit the spot just perfectly.  In fact the biggest disappointment of the weekend was our massive failure to find a suitable greasy spoon for breakfast on the Sunday morning drive back to London – the sausage muffin at a motorway service station Burger King was just such a let down.

Massive thanks to Andy for being such a thoughtful running companion, for dragging me up some of the later hills, for guiding me home when injured, and of course for doing all the driving.  Thanks also to James for bearing his disappointment so stoically – definitely unfinished business, and we will be back next year.

The Statistics
  • Andy and I finished 29th out of 125 starters and 83 finishers in 18 hours 29 minutes
  • I was fourth in the over 50s
  • My GPS recorded 4,865m of vertical climb
  • Adjusting for the climb, the 89km distance is equivalent to 120km on the flat
  • Strava says I burned 8,650 calories although Andy’s claims over 10,000 calories – how does that work?