Thursday, 30 May 2019

Pennine Way Dreams

It began with an idea.
A dream so big I had to tell myself a lie.
A lie that lay hidden in plain sight.

Dormant. Then devastating.

I told myself that to finish was enough.
That I would accept this as an outcome  to satisfy my search for new horizons.
I would set off for the record, try for three days or finish.

And I believed.

I trained to finish.
I trained to run 268 miles.
Valley and Dale. Slabs and Steps. Old and New.

I trained. And trained. To finish.

I gathered a strong team.
Everyone together towards the goals.
Tracked, trained and delivered to Edale for the start.

I felt good.

I ran as if it was a dream.
I floated, skipped and climbed.
My racing pace beating relentlessly against my training built to finish.

The penny dropped.The lie laid bare.

This was not my dreamtime, this was not my place to pace myself against the light of yesterday.
Not today.
This was a shadow of my dream.

I had run myself into the ground to chase it.

But what a day.
If the glory is in the doing rather than the having done I can give no better day to such a cause.
Of friends. Of smiles and laughs. Of cheer and goodwill.

Cresting waves as though invincible, climbing hills as though the day would never end. Together.

This dream is mine. And it is ours.
The fires lit by burning eyes and hearts and minds burn on.
The lie laid bare by burning examination.

This truth is no longer hidden in plain sight.

A dream to scare, inspire, delight.
A dream to challenge, change, transform.
A dream to run.

A dream to run.

To chase and peak and trough at pace and yes to finish.
But to finish knowing I have run the best of me.
Knowing that in the journey I have matched the ending with the process.

A dream.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Paddy Buckley Support Mal Sechs

A friend I've met but once before brings five more to dance among the mountains.
High peaks, shrouded by the mist with between them rolling ground, clear lines and easy going.
Rocks, cold wet obstacles that sap the soul and  shortcuts with a nervous wait to make us whole again.

Among the dancing strangers I feel alive, the friendship of the hills brings joy. And fear.
I am alone in leading, the mistakes are mine, as are the triumphs.
Heather where a path should be, I've not seen that before. Or horses.

To smile together in the face of challenge, when lost to face the fact and make it right, to slow and bend your own desires to meet the needs of others and lead in failing light and legs and minds.

A job well met in trying times with bonds now forged and memories set to last. Stories to remember that tell of who I am and what I mean to me. Names I know but will forget but feelings that will linger on and keep me nourished in my travels to new adventures.

Thank goodness there is more to running than being able to run, more to challenges than completion and more to life than the boundaries we draw for ourselves.

There were six who ran. There were many that supported. There will be more coming back.

Paddy Buckley Support 4.11.18

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Lakes in a Day 2018 by Sally Parkin

Caldbeck to Cartmel 50 miles (52.6 Strava miles)

435 signed up
378 starters
240 finishers

Finished; 19 hours 17 minutes
The 'dry weather' schedule; sub 20 hours

Weather forecast; yellow weather warning issued, heavy rain and high winds.
Actual weather; Storm Callum, heavy rain and high winds (70mph on summits)

I started running in 2016 by walking to the top of the moor round the back of my house and running down. The running bit got longer and I gradually extended the distance to make other local loops. I didn't consider myself a proper runner but I enjoyed getting out away from a busy house. I had run a couple of fell and trail races and did my first road marathon in 2017 to raise money for the library in my sons' school. I met Claire and Nicola during a Due North trail running weekend and they mentioned Lakes in a Day. I watched the sunny promotional video and it immediately piqued my interest. I spoke to Mel (Due North) who's enthusiasm spurred me on and I signed up.

My husband, John had done a lot of long distance running and we talked about him writing my training plans but the dynamics felt wrong (I would have made too many excuses to him). I asked Nicky to coach me, I had to have someone I admired and was a little bit scared of. One of the first runs I did she messaged me something along the lines of 'great to see you ran 10 miles on the canal... next time find a hill'. I knew I had made the right decision. From that point I stuck to the hills and to the plan, gradually increasing to 50 miles per week. In the summer I ran two 17 mile races and John and I did Saunders Mountain Marathon. The training kept me focused and made me put on the trainers even when I didn't want to. However the week before Lakes in a Day, it all came crashing down.

I felt anxious and couldn't sleep. I was obsessing about the race and tearful. One of the main reasons I run is to manage my own mental health and to slow fast thinking. It frustrated me that I was experiencing the very symptoms I used running to deal with. I expected to feel low during parts of the race but not the week before. This wasn't expected. The weather forecast was bad and a yellow weather warning was issued; Storm Callum was on its way. I talked to John about not racing and messaged Nicky. I had told so many people about the race I was beginning to feel embarrassed at the prospect of not even making it to the start. I had a slow and challenging leg in the Hodgson Brothers' Relay the week before and felt out of my depth at the prospect of running 50 miles. Nicky and John reassured me that it was normal to have those feelings before a race and told me just to get to the start. I spent that week doing yoga and relaxations. I stuck post-it note affirmations around the house (the kids added their own 'do it do it do it'). I tried to busy myself but these feelings of anxiety didn't totally go away until the race started.

I laid my race kit out the weeks before the race and as the weather forecast worsened I added more items and replaced others. I wore a long sleeved top and tights, double layer socks, waterproof trousers and (a heavier than planned) waterproof jacket, Terraclaws for the first half and then Roclites and a clean pair of socks in the drop bag for the second half. I had an insulated layer and spare t-shirt in my bag as well as two spare sets of gloves and the other compulsory kit/headtorch. With hindsight I would have packed another layer of dry clothes to change into at Ambleside, I would have also worn another layer and tried a second waterproof jacket. It is only by doing races and talking to others you have an idea of combinations that might work. A merino base layer would have been a good call and a few runners just wore shorts, this may have been easier than wearing two layers of wet trousers which felt like the life saving swim in pyjamas we were forced to do at school.

Caldbeck to Blencathra 2 hrs 45
arrived 10.34 (schedule 11.00)
Blencathra to Threlkheld 58 mins
arrived 11.44 (schedule 12.00)

We arrived at Cartmel at 9pm on Friday night and I registered, I saw one marshal 'I'll see you at Ambleside!' she said 'I'll be there! you can do it!' This lifted my spirits, I was determined to see her. That night I couldn't sleep, I just lay still in the van. At 4am I got up and John grabbed me a coffee and bacon sandwich but I struggled to eat it. I sat with Carol Morgan (and her husband) on the coach, we chatted for a bit and then they snoozed. I was wired on coffee. That drive to Caldbeck felt long, too long. At the start I saw Nicola and Claire and they beckoned me towards the front, they were up beat and joked about just following everyone else (at least I hoped they were joking). I was nervous. The race started and everyone ran away from me. I was gradually slipping towards the back. I spoke to a few people and found myself running with those who were running their first ultras.

At the River Caldew a rope had been put across and race marshals guided us 'take it steady and face up stream'. All I heard was 'if you let go scream!' The river was fast and was pretty much the same as my reccy in the summer, although then of course there wasn't a rope. At this point, perhaps 6 miles into the race, I was completely wet but I knew the lines I had taken were far better than the reccy and I felt good. At the top of Blencathra I was 15 minutes up on schedule. I looked down Halls Fell, turned to the runner next to me, said 'fuck that' and ran down Blease Fell. I had been up and down Halls Fell, once with John and once with the kids and at no point had I enjoyed it. I knew I would be in a far better shape physically and mentally taking the longer but easier descent of Blease Fell. Mel was waiting for me in Threlkheld and it boosted my confidence seeing a friendly face.

In CP1 there were about 100 people sat down eating and drinking. I knew if I sat down it would be harder to start. I also knew I would gain a few places by not hanging around. I decided that the only sitting down I would do would be on the loo and that I would be spending as little time as possible in the checkpoints. I changed my contact lenses/added eye drops, ate two pieces of melon, refilled my water and headed back out. With hindsight I should have grabbed a mug of something warm, I felt good but knew the next section would be tough.

Threlkheld to Hellvellyn 3hrs 29
arrived 15.13 (schedule 15.30)
Hellvellyn to Ambleside 3hrs 35
arrived 18.49 (schedule 18.30)

The climb up Clough Head was always going to be hard. There was a little chatting with other runners, a black horse turned up - 'awesome!' someone said 'horse-ome!' I shouted. Its not that funny now but at the time it was hilarious. The weather on top was bleak but visibility ok. I'd reccyd this in January with Kate for her Bob Graham round and I'm so glad I did because I spent a lot of my time between Clough Head and the Dodds thinking 'this isn't as cold as before... this isn't as cold as before...' The route to Hellvellyn and then to Fairfield was nothing short of hideous for me. I've had some experience of cold and wet conditions with limited visibility but not all together and certainly not as part of a long run.
Reccy in January 2018, somewhere near The Dodds

There were no tourists on Hellvellyn, that's how bloody awful the weather was. No-one was up there at all, except those in the race. Everything I was wearing was soaking wet, everything, however on the tops with a wind speed of 70mph it felt so much colder. I was walking head first into the wind and my contact lenses were shifting in my eyes. I didn't even know if it was possible for the wind to blow out contact lenses but it felt like a very real possibility. Many times a gust of wind would knock me over. Coming around the side of Dollywagon to Grisedale Tarn we were met with heavy wind and rain. The path was a stream, a torrent of water and at the bottom the stepping stones across Grisedale Tarn were completely covered over. We waded across, knee deep once again in fast flowing water.

Walking up Fairfield was brutal. This ascent really tested me. I tried not to fall on the woman next to me but a few strong winds blew me into her (I'm sorry!). At times I stopped or bobbed down, waiting for a break in the wind but there wasn't any respite. The only way to get out was to summit Fairfield, on to Hart Crag and Dove Crag and to get down into Ambleside. What helped was to immediately dismiss any thoughts of not being ok. I shifted my attention to other things... the next checkpoint, counting (counting repeatedly to 100), telling myself that any pains or niggles or coldness were good and all a sign I was alive. It was these mental games that got me up the climb and would get me through the last sections. I wouldn't cry and I wouldn't allow myself to admit that this was too much or that it was much harder than I had thought it would be. I wouldn't allow myself to consider packing it in at Ambleside yet I secretly hoped that Storm Callum would mean that the race would be aborted.

I got into a habit of taking gels at the bottom of a climb or when things were a bit tough, but I suspected that I had taken too many as I started to feel sick at the top of Fairfield. I also had toothache from the start which was exacerbated by the amount of sugar I was eating. Waves of nausea would pass over me and I had to slow down, drink water and eat something savoury. I picked the chunks of cheese out of the savoury bags I had made and wished I had packed marmite sandwiches instead. The top of Fairfield was cold, with high winds and heavy rain. There were a few people standing on the top looking around at maps, they tuck in behind as the group I was with passed. On my reccy I knew this decent was longer than it should be.

I battled with my sickness and took it steady but some of the rocks were slippy and I found my feet never really landed where I wanted them to because of the strong wind. It was frustrating and I swore, a lot. At some points I just stopped and crouched down. We passed a man in a bivvy bag with some other runners looking after him, as we descended we passed the mountain rescue on their way up. There were groups of runners behind me and I kept stepping to one side to let them pass but they stayed behind me. At one point we all stopped as a group, deliberating over which path to take. I felt cold and had to keep moving, any path down suited me. Most of the time I was looking at my feet and trying not to slip on wet rock. At one point I looked up to see the lights of Ambleside. In the wind and rain that sight was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. I knew it meant we were nearly at CP2.

Photo: Jeppe Sikker

I started thinking about being warm and my friend's bath, random but anything to take my mind off that hill. There were a number of styles over walls which were a pain to climb but broke things up a bit. At one point there was a scramble down some rocks. I wasn't looking forward to that especially in the rain and wet but managed to shuffle down ok. As we neared the bottom some walkers were coming up, the woman in a t'shirt 'well done, you're doing amazing!!' All I could think was 'you're wearing a t-shirt, that bodes well for the temperatures below...'

The run through Ambleside was surreal, the smell of garlic and takeaways, of Saturday night pubs and people laughing in the warmth, me trudging past, wet through having been out for 30 miles. When I arrived at CP2 I immediately headed for the toilet. There were a few other women in there, the marshal was phenomenal, she got our drop bags 'number 71!' she called, it was like being in a cheap cafe, but better. I stripped off, putting a dry t-shirt on and vaseline. 'It was so cold on the tops I was tempted to wee myself to keep warm' one woman said. I had had the exact same thought at the top of Fairfield. Can you imagine being so cold you contemplate pissing yourself just to stay warm? It was such a real consideration for me at one point. I didn't and after chafing I am so glad I held on. I shared my vaseline and we talked of the races, the weather (obviously) and I enthused about the mindfulness techniques I had been using in the high wind and rain, this was met with some blank looks. I'll admit, I got a bit overenthusiastic.

The women were unsure whether they were carrying on but despite being tired I was determined to finish and was ready to get back out. I put back on my wet clothes and changed into dry socks and trainers from my drop bag. A mug of coffee in one hand and pizza in the other, I turned to face the door just as torrential rain poured down. I turned to the marshal next to me and she said 'put your waterproof trousers on'. It was the marshal I had seen at registration 'you said you'd see me at Ambleside!! and you have!!!' I beamed at her excitedly. I put my trousers on without sitting down and headed out. Rain poured in my coffee making it weak and tepid, I drank it whilst I walked and ate the pizza which was now soggy. Walking through the park I turned onto the main road and immediately found myself walking in the middle of a flooded road, traffic slowing as water reached the top of the wheel arches. This would pretty much set the tone for the next 9 hours.

Ambleside to Finsthwaite 5hrs 15
arrived 12.04am (schedule 11.30pm)

There had been heavy flooding. The route from Ambleside to Finsthewaite led us through woodland paths and roads. It weaved down the side of Windermere and we waded through water as heavy rainfall had caused the banks of the lake to break. I had hoped this stretch would be easier now we were down off the fells. It wasn't any harder but it certainly wasn't any easier. I chatted to other runners as they passed and we walked up the hills and jogged the downs. At one point a couple of men passed twice, although this part of the route was way marked it was easy to take a wrong turn. Walking knee deep in cold water I could hear the faint beat of dance music. 'James (the race director) must have put on some music at the next CP to cheer us up knowing how shit the weather is' I thought. Probably one of the most surreal moments wading through Lake Windermere listening to Bizarre Inc 'playing with knives'. As the music faded I realised it was a local house party.

More runners would pass. I continued to walk the hills and any water more than knee deep. I slowly jogged the rest. This helped to break up the monotony. I was tired and the dark was disorientating, sometimes it was hard to gauge the hills from the flats. We walked miles through the water. At some points crossing bridges over fast flowing water only to be thigh deep in water at the other side. I knew the miles would be hard, the time spent on my feet and the mental stamina to keep moving, but the difficulty of this run was compounded by the weather. I hadn't truly appreciated just how hard it would be.

My mind started to get confused, I was struggling to remember parts of the route from the reccy and at one point, around 10pm got excited thinking the next checkpoint was only a couple of miles away. Quick calculations and I realised that it was more like two hours. The thought of two more hours of moving in the dark just made me feel a bit numb. I switched onto autopilot, one step at a time. If I had realised just how hard it was after Ambleside would I have continued? Probably not, but having got so far there was no chance of me stopping now.

I knew I had to keep it together and with everyone that passed me I kept upbeat, proclaiming that we were 'smashing it!' I thought I was funny. Even though all I could think about were the bits that were chafing and the state of my feet. As we jogged down to Finsthwaite I had in my mind that I would approach the check point like all the others; quick toilet stop, mug of coffee and out again. Although the thought of the checkpoint had kept me going for the past few hours, the reality was I would not be spending much time there. As soon as I walked in a marshal asked me to sit down so she could get out plastic covers for my shoes - no, but I lifted my leg up stood up, so she could put them on. I went to the toilet, changed my gloves and grabbed another mug of coffee before heading straight out again. The next leg would be the shortest but feel the longest.

Finsthwaite to Cartmel 3hrs 13
arrived 3.17am (schedule 4am)

Again as I headed out another couple runners quickly caught up. We cut across a field and into the woods. I had only reccy'd a mile or two of this part, although even the parts I had reccy'd now looked different in the dark. This section was a mixture of woods, roads and open fields. I continued walking up the ups and running the downs, at one point running past a group 'hey there's no need to run!' they shouted. Don't get me wrong it was running in the loosest sense of the word but it just helped to break things up a bit. At the end of such a long day all I could focus on was putting one foot in front of the other.

Somewhere in a field between Finsthwaite and Cartmel I reached a point which I never thought possible - I didn't really want to eat anything. I had massively over estimated how much I would eat and at this point had over three big packets of food left, which included nuts, savoury snacks, gels, cliff bars (I later weighed this - 650g), but none of this appealed to me. My intention was to eat at the check points and take some sweets but again this didn't really happen. My friend Emily had made me flapjack and this had kept me going for most of the race, in between gels and marzipan/date balls but my digestion was fast slowing down. At one point we passed a tub of sweets on a chair outside a house, that was a welcome surprise, I took a handful and plodded on. John's words of warning about fuelling were ringing in my ears - you can do the last couple of miles on empty but not the last couple of hours.

For the last stretch I turned on my watch, at least I would know how many miles I had covered and have a vague idea of how far to go. We walked some bits with other runners although talk was limited. At one point we were in a field of angry cows. I don't like fields with cows in. I don't like cows I can't see. I don't like cows in the dark and I don't like cows who seem pissed off. They must have been at their wits end and to be fair I wasn't far off. After 49.5 miles I had lost my sense of humour. As we hit the road into Cartmel another group jogged past. I think I stopped running the flats at this point. The town was quiet but wonderfully familiar. 22 hours before I had walked those streets with everyone else making the way to the coaches and the start. It was surreal walking through the town again on my own to the finish. I wanted to savour it but simultaneously just wanted it over.

There is nothing that compares to that feeling of crossing the finish line of such a race. For hours, weeks and months I had been thinking of that moment. My schedule had me finishing in 20 hours (assuming good weather), I crossed the line at 19 hours 17 minutes. This was a massive achievement for me, I was so proud of myself. I made James aware of just how impossible it was whilst simultaneously thanking him for not stopping the race. I don't think we truly know what we are capable of until we push beyond the impossible.

My admin at the end of the race was pretty rubbish and resulted in me being lot colder for a lot longer than I needed to be (next time there will be a jumper, warm socks and shoes at finish). My friend Jen had liked or commented on a post, unfortunately for her I knew she was awake so phoned her. The phone call kept me warm and distracted whilst I waited for John to arrive with my coat and shoes.

As an antenatal teacher and doula it would be remiss of me to finish without making some reference to the analogy of birth as a marathon, especially after I talk about this so much to the parents I work with. When I ran a marathon I knew I could stop at anytime, during this race I knew I could stop but neither carrying on or stopping was the easy option. Even if I chose to stop when I most wanted to (somewhere around Fairfield) it was still a long and difficult journey back to Cartmel. For me it was this aspect of the race that made it much more like birth than the marathon. The continual juxtaposition of not wanting to continue but not being able to stop. Assuming that physically you are fit enough and well enough, the only thing carrying you through is the mental games you play. I ran so much of this race in my head and maybe there will be another blog talking about mindfulness, birth, ultra running one day.

The high after finishing a race like Lakes in a Day is a wonderfully alluring, although I spent a lot of the time telling myself during the race 'you never have to do this again, you never have to go on the fells again...' as soon as I finished all I was thinking about the next one. On the drive back home, in between lots of crying (lots and lots of tears), I was talking about entering again in 2019. I'm not fast, I don't even consider myself a proper runner, but there is something about endurance events that draws out the human spirit which is strangely addictive. I messaged James afterwards and he said 'I honestly believe this stuff makes us better people' and I couldn't agree more. It's hard, of course it's hard, but that is also where the magic lies.

Finally thanks...

Thank you to John who may have initially planted the ultra running seed but was wise enough to leave it long enough to let me think it was all my idea. Thank you to Carol and Simon, who knew that oranges and feminist chat was exactly what I needed at 5am on that long coach ride to the start. Thank you to Mel from Due North for putting on awesome and inspiring events, you have always encouraged me and it meant so much to see you at CP1 (sorry I couldn't hang around). Thank you to Nicky for the plans, and knowing just the right things to say at the right time. Your words and messages of support during the race made me kick on just that little bit more. Thank you to the other runners who humoured me at the checkpoints and whilst out running. Huge thanks to the marshals, event organisers, NAV4 and James for all their hard work and support during the race. James you have an absolute gem of a race there. Thank you to my family and friends who believed in me, it gave me such a boost knowing that you all had my back and I wasn't alone out there. I have the most amazing friends.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Arctic John - The Movie

When Kerr McNichol contacted me after I'd replied to the Montane Cheviot Goat Ultra's open question to entrants about how people started running I could never have believed it would come to this. A cracking film about why I run with clips from races and important life events woven through the story. Crosssection Industries is his fledgling production company and what a job he's done.

This is me meeting Kerr to give him a thank you present, the book Filming the Impossible, and at the same time receive a framed picture of the opening shot from him as a momento. The film was made by Kerr and Scotty as part of their University degree, on a student budget, with lots of hard graft and attention to detail throughout. It's been an absolute pleasure to get to know them both and I wish them well in their futures - I'm sure they are destined to go a long way and my life is all the better for knowing them.

Without further ado here is a link to the movie itself. There is a wider story about the role that homebirth played in my motivaiton to start running and the shocking state of home birth options and one to one midwifery care currently available but that will have to wait for another day...

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Montane Cheviot Goat Ultra

It’s 5pm on Friday and I’ve just announced the winning name of the soft toy dog, at the school Christmas Fayre where I’m Headteacher, as Merry. Children and adults are drifting off after a pretty intense couple of hours of fundraising and fun. I check my watch, I’ve a 3 hour 12 minute drive (according to Google if I don’t stop) to Ingram ahead of me. My tea, a cheese ploughman’s sandwich, a bag of crisps and a Yorkie bar that I bought this morning, is in the van door and I’ll arrive just in time to register and then get some sleep before a 5:30 race start if I can set off soon. I wonder how Merry I’ll be feeling this time tomorrow.

 Registration is quiet and I get my tracker, number, t-shirt and Montane Chief to wear. Slumbering in the corner next to the desk is The Czech Machine himself, Pavel Paloncy, twice winner of the Spine and Pennine Way record attempt challenger last year. One of the reasons I’ve been so excited to start this race is the chance to toe the line with some people who I have found inspirational but never met. I shake his hand and we chat about running, he’s a nice guy and a lot bigger in real life than I expected!

 Then it’s back to the van and sleep, alarm set for 4am when I wake and have some porridge and get ready for what lies ahead. I’m not as well prepared as I would have liked physically, I’ll put that out there now. A few weeks ago I split my shin to the bone and have had 3 weeks off from any training while it heals. This has felt like a lifetime and had initially dampened my enthusiasm for lining up against the best at my best. I’ve decided to set off with the leaders and tough it out – I will fade badly but how many chances do you get to run with your heroes? Jim Mann is also here and he is a friend of a friend although I don’t know him and it’s all a bit surreal. I’ve completed the big 3 UK fell rounds and Jim holds the winter records and the record for the number of Munroes summited in 24 hours among other acheivements. Like I said it’s a bit surreal.

 Adding to the feeling is my film crew. I’ve been followed and filmed in preparation for the race over the last few weeks after answering a call to talk about why I started running and Montane even sent me some kit to wear to help out. I shake their hands and give a quick interview on the start. I’m nervous and Kerr asks me how long I think it will take? 12 -14 hours I say but this is a real guess. My fastest Fellsman is 13:25 so that’s a ball park figure, although I’m not as fit as I was then and this is in winter. And I don’t know the way. And I’ll be starting and finishing in the dark. And likely on my own.

 We count down and set off and here I am running with the eventual winners Jim Mann and Andy Berry and third placed Pavel and it feels ok. The pace is fine, I even run up a few hills and I’m coasting along. Then the pace picks up ever so slightly and we thin out in a line over rough ground that becomes increasingly snow covered. I haven’t reccied this part of the course but I have my map and Garmin Etrex so I’m not concerned and crack on at what I consider to be a reasonable speed. The tracks I’m following break off but the course goes straight on. My first real choice of the day and I follow the course (does this mean technically I’m in first place I wonder chuckling to myself?). This means I am breaking new ground and boy is that hard work! I can’t imagine how hard this must be to do for the whole race and later when I speak to Tim who has dropped back from the lead group he confirms that they were taking it in turns and he had to do a turn as well.

 I’m going ok, well in fact, and inside the top 10 which is punching above my weight for a race like this. This is when I make an error of judgement and I only have myself to blame. Coming down off a hill I assume I am about to enter the bag drop checkpoint so finish my water and have a bit to eat. I’ve coasted down the hill with a spring in my step but as I turn the corner I realise I’ve forgotten about a hill, and it’s not a small one. My head goes and my legs follow. Several people pass me on the way up and down to the actual bag drop checkpoint and I have a word with myself when I’m there to not stop for too long. At least when I get out I’ll be on the hills again – it really is stunning.

 Except that straight out of the checkpoint it’s on to a road for what seems like forever. Roger runs past me like I’m standing still saying at least it’s a chance to get the speed up and the overall time down. I watch him run off then have a little walk before starting to run again and turn the corner, eventually, to see a beautiful hill climbing in to the distance. There’s a skier half way up building a ramp so he can practice his jumps. He’s hoping he can get enough speed up now the snow is starting to lose the crispness of the early morning and he gives encouragement to me as I trudge off. At the end of this section we join the Pennine Way – I know this bit – and then I remember and my heart sinks, I know this bit! This is a race for people with big hearts and strong minds – not only for the runners but also the support crew who seem to be at every turn and offering water and encouragement even if in the middle of nowhere. The section from Windy Gyle to The Cheviot is beyond hard.

Usually in a race at some point I’ll have a little cry about something and then pull myself together. I’m too cold and tired to even feel sorry for myself today. I can’t even muster the energy to give myself a talking to so I plod on and on with three people overtaking me before the summit. First Ben runs past and he’s looking and sounding pretty chipper, then Carol who motors on at the out and back and shares a cheery word on her way to victory in the women’s race. Big hearts and strong minds.

 I know I’m in 13th place now and that I’ll not catch up ahead but I can defend 13th because there’s a real gap on the summit. Ben mentioned it was the next section he really wasn’t looking forward to and that fills me with dread – I don’t know this bit either! Tracks appear and disappear seemingly at will, darkness falls with a sunset that still lingers in my memory now. There’s no photos from me for the day, I had all on to motivate myself to eat and drink – at one point I was having a battle of wills with myself to see how long I really could go without food because it was so much effort to sort out. Not a day for the faint hearted.

Snow covered iced bogs are the order of the day for the next hour and in the dark this is relentless. On and on and on. Choose a direction and trust the ice? Follow the tracks that disappear? Make your own path? Every second a deliberate choice has to be made and it is as mentally exhausting as physical. I get it wrong only once and my left leg disappears – I’m wearing shinpads since my fall so no damage done and I’m pleased they work and are comfy to run in.

 I’ve been out for 12 hours at this point and I have to say the Montane Spine jacket and Cordillera tights have performed well. When I reccied in them to be sure they were right for the job I was impressed – more so today. I usually have to wear a pair of shorts over tights to keep my vital areas warm, not so today with a windproof layer part of the upper section of the tights. And the Spine jacket, I can’t even describe how good that has been over ‘just’ a base layer, merino layer and my club vest. My nickname is Arctic John due to the amount of layers I wear but today I haven’t even had to think about being cold or wet once, I might have to change my name!

On the top of the final climb I see Jacob from Montane who I meet for the first time having exchanged emails previously. I shake his hand and he enthuses positivity. It’s just what I need as I put a burst of (relative) speed on to widen the gap to a torchlight that has been closing in on me. The end is so near and yet so far, across the final field I can see a car so I head towards it in my excitement but then realise I’m going the wrong way and calm down and follow my map. The end. Flags, cheers, a medal and the satisfaction of a job well done and even within my estimated time frame finishing the 55 miles and 9,500 feet of climb in 13 hours 33. I sit and chat to Carol, Pavel and Jim. That sentence alone is worth the day! I’m not really able to say much mind you and wolf down a plate of food and a couple of cans before I can contribute anything intelligible. Pavel needs a lift to the airport and I’m driving past on my way home so I offer a lift. I get changed and set off for home, stopping on the way for a short sleep so I arrive safely in time for Sally to go to work and I can take Louis to football.

 As I left I shook the organisers hand and thanked him. "It’s not a race but an expedition," I said and I think that sums it up. I spent the whole day pitting myself against the course, most of it seen for the first time today and in full on winter ground conditions. My feet were hurting, then they stopped hurting because I couldn’t feel them because of the cold, then they started hurting again as they thawed out. My legs hurt, I didn’t eat or drink enough all day. My mind hurt from the concentration and my spirit was broken down and built up again many times throughout the day.

 Just as I get in the van I catch a look at my reflection in the windows and I’m grinning, the thought flickers across my mind that I will be better prepared next year and now I also know the route. It’s a funny thing running events like these, for me it’s a microcosm of what life is about, a true test of who you are. It’s not about where you come relative to others it’s about whether you got the best out of yourself and challenged your perceptions of what is possible.

 Montane Cheviot Goat Winter Ultra I salute you.

 Arctic John Parkin

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Deadwater Ultramarathon 2017

I saw a link for Deadwater Ultramarathon advertising that places had become available so I must have missed it the first time round. It's a 235 mile, 6 day stage race from the Scottish border to the Welsh border taking in 27,000 feet and running through Yorkshire, where I live, during the long stage. You have to carry all your food, clothes and sleeping bag with a drop bag after 3 days. The Beyond Marathon team will set up camp and provide hot and cold water. That is all.

 This seems perfect, I've done the Big 3 UK Mountain Rounds - The Bob Graham, The Paddy Buckley and The Charlie Ramsay and I've been looking for something to fill the void that preparing for these has left. This links the three countries perfectly and would be a great way to conclude my long distance challenges. It has logistics to obsess over, unknown quantities to test and measure and it will push me outside my comfort zone as I've not done a race this long or a multi day stage race before. I love attention to detail and this race seems to demand it in order just to finish. In fact I'm reasonably sure that finishing numbers may be so small that to finish it will be to do well. The deal is sealed when I outline the race to Sally who says "Well you have to enter, go for it".

 I look at the details, the stage lengths, the elevation, camp locations, kit lists. This is great, so much to work out! I use the rest of the year to try out every combination of kit and rucksack I can when running with others in the mountains or in my daily morning hill reps. I adjust my mileage and weekly climb to greater than ever before, embracing the tiredness of the gradual build and then resting before building again. I go to weekly track sessions with the Greenhead Monsters at Keighley track and add in weekly Sufferfest training which includes indoor training rides, yoga and mental preparation techniques.

 I count down to the race, I've gradually narrowed my focus to the basics and the race day is getting closer. I love it. And then 3 weeks out my father dies suddenly and unexpectedly from a heart attack. He's gone. I can barely function let alone think about the race; with the funeral to organise and work to tie up it's all I can do to get through the immediate days. The funeral is the Monday before the race starts on the Saturday. I do manage to do some running but I can barely run a couple of miles without bursting in to tears and walking before carrying on. I do a couple of Pennine Way loops of the route from my house, at least I'll be rested. We drive up on the Friday - me, Sally, Louis and Rupert.

Registration and kit check are relaxed but throrough and I find out there will only be 18 people on the start line. 60 applied, 45 met the criteria and only 18 have made the start line - it seems getting even this far is tough. I meet the other runners and we chat the small talk of strangers that will develop over the week in to the banter of great friends. I'm not a social animal (that's a bit of an understatement - stop laughing Sally) but we all have this crazy dream in common and that's a great start. There is a great blend of experience from multi day stage races to hard as nails triathlons. On the drive up I found the group created for the race. On the way up! It's been there a while and I read of reccies and conversations about bag weights. Mine's about 7kg, I've deliberately got a lot of food as I think this will come down to calories at the end of the week. Someone has posted that there's is 4 kg and I try not to think about this. There's nothing I can cut or would want to and I've worked hard to get it this light! My running club christened me Arctic John because I always wear an extra layer to everyone else. I have worked hard to only pack clothes I will need and wear. That's all.

There's a bit of a dearth of information about what to pack and how for races such as this and I've watched Elizabet Barnes on Youtube show how she packs her bag about twenty times! I have my running gear - Innov8 lycra shorts, Ininji socks + thin over socks (plus a spare pair of both), Helly Henson short sleeved base layer, Bingley Harriers club vest, arm guards, Ronhill windproof gloves, merino buff (my dad's) and a merino beanie. To keep me dry I have my Haglofs Gram waterproof - fast and light is the tagline but it's robust and waterproof and well tested by me in mountainous conditions so should do over my running gear to keep me sorted. For the evening (and sleeping in) I have my Ronhill leggings, Helly long sleeved and Mountain Equipment winter jacket. I have a silk sleeping bag liner and a Cotswold Outdoor cheap, lightweight bag that packs up small. This and my evening clothes go in an Exped dry bag for the day and this squashes down to provide pack padding which means I can pack my race food in the rucksack away from my back. My race food has come from My Race Kit, with some additions by me, as has my personal admin and medical kit which all go in an extra small drybag. I'll be running with my favourite OMM rucksack - the 20 litre Adventure Light and in Innov8 Roclites for days 1 - 4 and my Asics road shoes for days 5 and 6. There's a few other odds and ends including my Garmin Etrex30 with 1:50 base map and the GPX files loaded and my sandals which are lightweight but robust, something I think will be needed if we get the usual UK Summer conditions.

 So that's the build up.

Lots going on. Family. Details. Emotions. Training. Planning.

Once you set off, of course, you're very much on your own and everything becomes much simpler.

 The start. We are driven to the start line and given a final race briefing by Richard the Race Director. We turn our trackers on. We line up. We set off. I chat to Jo about running and Richard and Tim race past. I look at them going by at about my 10k pace and make the very hard decision to let them go. It's a long way 235 miles. Five minutes later and we see them running back towards us having taken a wrong turn, or rather carrying on instead of taking the right turn! They zoom off again at speed. We run through where we camped overnight and there are the boys and Sally with cowbells cheering us on. It's lovely to see them and the sun is out. Ten minutes later it starts raining and we form a small group of four with Hayley and Anna and the miles tick by at a steady pace. We catch couple of people who we didn't think were in front of us and move onwards.

The way is marked by actual bananas - I say actual bananas because in the race briefing when Richard mentioned bananas I did think he meant giant inflatable bananas of the Manchester City circa 1990's type. But no it's actual bananas on the floor or hanging from trees by bits of string showing us the way. Of course they are. We see Steve the event videographer a couple of times and wave - he will become a familiar and welcome sight as the week progresses. I drop my map faffing with my bag and Darren passes me it back, then he finds Richard's waterproofs which he's dropped while faffing with his bag. I ask him if this usually happens and he laughs and says his wife usually says he walks around with his eyes closed! We run together approaching the last checkpoint and he's good company.

At about mile 20, just after the last checkpoint of the day, Anna and I are a little ahead with only Tim still off in front. Anna says that apparently he's miles ahead. I ponder this for a bit and wonder if what I'm about to do is wise. I really want to go after him to minimise the time loss and I can't work out if I should be thinking like this on day one in a race format I've never done running against people I don't know. I don't want to catch him but just make sure he doesn't gain an hour today. I go over a few things in my head - it's raining, windy and still ten miles from the end of the stage. I've gone steady for the first twenty at conversational pace so in theory I should have plenty in the tank. Right - I'll gradually speed up and stay at a pace that's just higher than comfortable and see where that gets me. The rain gets heavier. The wind gets stronger. I set myself against it and manage to limit the loss to about 30 minutes.

I speak to Fiona, who is an event volunteer, about it at the first finish line although I think really I am just verbalising my own hopes. A quicker last ten miles after an easier first twenty shouldn't have done too much to make me tired this early on. I do feel tired but then I have just run thirty miles! I say first finish line bacuse we will be driven along the line of Hadrians wall to run the last mile in to camp. The route through the forest was blocked due to forestry work and there was no easy way to make it work any other way. It is one of many difficult decisions that Richard will have to make during the week to maintain the integrity of the race and keep it in line with his original vision. I wait for Anna with the clock stopped so we can both be ferried along together.

As we finish in camp this is the first test of my admin skills for stage racing. The routine will become a daily one and I manage to dial it in well. As soon as possible I shower, sort my clothes for drying somewhere and then eat - all within an hour of finishing. Then it's feet tucked in to my sleeping bag and stretching and resting before sorting my pack for the next day with running food and meals. The dehydrated wipes I have are amazing, as are the soap leaves and my Alpkit towel - it really is the little things that make the difference! The others come in at various times and we chat and meet now and then. Tents are chosen as people arrive and people who have run together camp together. Tim, Paul and Darren are a three who have travelled up together and done previous races. Anna, Hayley, Louise and Jo all share together. Then there's a mix of Charl, Richard, Paddy, Gaz, Dave, Ivan, Tony, Andy, Owen and me. Everyone will spend some time with everyone else over the week and as the bonds stengthen so we look out for each other more and more. Greg has had to pull out already after injuring his foot early on in the day but will become part of the event team with Janet.

Day One Official Race Video 

 Day 2 I find myself a little ahead going through the first field but I'm not pushing it so I see if I can stay away. The first section is flat along a railway and then it's on to the fells for a hilly end. The weather forecast says it's going to get worse later on so a part of getting away might mean I can benefit from the good weather on the tops. So it proves. I run along at a reasonable clip without pushing it - this is a whole new feeling for me. It's a bit odd really. I'm used to giving everything I have in one go, on carrying on until the challenge is completed, emptying myself and drawing on everything I have to get the run completed. This is different. It's a measured approach. Run just within yourself all the time, keep feeding (it's about every 40 miutes for me), keep ticking over, don't get in to the red for too long or for no reason. I realise I could win the stage if I stay away and there's a chance I could get in front overall. This makes me quite emotional and I think of my dad. He would have loved this. I decide that today is going to be about him. This sort of helps, in that I keep going at the same pace, and sort of doesn't because I keep bursting in to tears. I've lost my sunglasses as well now which is annoying.

I put a bit of work in to climbing Cross Fell and I have really quite pleasant conditions (sorry everyone, I didn't know how to share that with you earlier!). I arrive in camp and there's actually nobody there. Then Darren appears and takes my time. We look at the cloud and rain gathering on the tops and I start my routine - shower, food, sleeping bag, stretches. I've made enough time to have twenty minutes lead overall which I'm made up with and wonder if my mum would be ok with me posting it as a tribute to my dad. Then my mum sends me a message which tips me over the edge. "Well done on finishing first today, hope you can keep it up. Your Dad would have been so excited and following it all day long. I am more practical and cutting the grass! Proud of you, love Mum xx" That's me gone for a while.

Day Two Official Race Video

As people come in it's clear they have had conditions to deal with that were a significant challenge. Tim gives me a thimbs up and says "great run today" then disappears to his own tent. Hayley arrives and she has found my sunglasses - brilliant! The showers are a walk away and so are the toilets which is a bit of a pain. But it's the same for everyone. During the night I think I have poisened myself and have to dash to the toilet more than once. In the morning I am a little better but this Raspberry Granola is beginning to grate a little as well. I speak to David about it and he makes me think about the meal I had last night in terms of the gorgonzola in it. This is probably what messed with my stomach rather than there being anything wrong. I don't really like cheese and I suspect dairy disagrees with me. I can deal with that, this is a much better way of looking at it because I can move on. Unfortunately Louise is not to start today although she is dressed and ready to go and joins Jo in retiring from the race injured.

The briefing includes new instructions about a re-routing around flooding and a split stage with a grouping after part one and then a run to the camp at Horton in Ribblesdale for our drop bag treats. I process the information about grouping and realise if I get away in the first part of the stage then get grouped I would only have to stay with the people I was grouped with to keep the advantage and run at their pace. So I set off a little faster than comfortable again, although not much. After 2 miles I take my buff off and wrap it round my wrist. After 3 I realise it's gone and stop, stood still in the road with tears welling in my eyes. That was my dad's buff. It's a week to the day since his funeral and I've lost it. What do I do? If I go back it could be anywhere, someone may have picked it up, it might have blown away, I will lose the intial advantage I have worked to get. As the tears fall I think about what my dad would have said. That makes it a little easier to come to terms with it being gone. He would have said "Hey, no worries. Things are made to be used and if it gets lost or broken then so be it. As long as it's been used that's the important thing. Not kept just for keepings sake". I've probably only been stood for 30 seconds before I take one quick glance back just in case it has literally just fallen off before setting off again.

This time it's with a purpose. The river is run with determination to put time in to people now and it is a lovely riverbank trail path with flashes of sunlight through the trees. I push on to the checkpoint via some unexpected diversion arrows due to more flooding than expected which throws people following my tracker. It also means I electrocute myself crossing a fence when I miss seeing the stile and I shout out and then quickly check nobody has seen me be so stupid, chuckling at a silly mistake. I mention to Richard about the buff and he says he will look when he takes the diversion arrows down but I have made peace with it being gone and settle in to a rhythm to the end of the first section of the stage where I expect to be grouped. Except I am ahead by an amount that means it will be easier for the one person able to give lifts to take me until Richard gets there to ferry the others en masse. This means I will be running alone again for the end of the stage and need to keep up a good pace to maintain the gap gained. So be it.

I leave the car freezing after a 50 minute journey and have to run to warm up - once warm it's a lovely undulating downhill trail run in to the Horton campsite. The last 3 miles I swear I can smell pot noodle on the breeze! And there are Sally, Maria, Louis and rupert waiting to cheer me in to camp. Amazing.

Rupert tries to offer me popcorn and I back away! A quick chat to Sally and the children and then it's on with the routine. There's a washing line to dry my clothes, my drop bag which has a Bombay Bad Boy Pot Noodle as my treat and a couple of cans of gin and tonic. Perfect. I have the Pot Noodle and one drink immediately sat at the camp table. I know how to live! Others come in and I get a real boost from Ivan - I swap out my breakfast of granola in the morning for a chilli con carne. This really lifts my mood. I was not looking forward to the granola at all. In fact I may have left it anyway which would have been a bad move at the start of the long day.

Day Three Official Race Video

The long day.
This has loomed large in my mind since finding out about the event. It's only a little short of The Fellsman in terms of distance and climb. I like the Fellsman, it's one of my favourite races but I don't usually prepare for it by running 3 consecutive days of 30 miles plus! This is the day that has got me out of bed every day, that has driven my training and planning. The day that has called to me - this is my terrain, the route goes past my village, over moors where I have run other races, walked with my family, past where I work. It is often rough underfoot, boggy, indistinct, hilly, magnificent, dark and gloriously Yorskhire at it's finest.

I start harder than comfortable, harder than usual just to see what happens. I get a gap up Penyghent and it grows. There is clag on Fountains Fell and the forecast 'drizzle' at eight am comes in from six thirty as driving wind and rain. I glance back to see Tim and Richard starting the climb. I give a yell and a shout with a big grin on my face and leg it down the other side. This is brilliant. I don't know how the others will find the conditions but I love this. On and on to Gargrave then up and over towards Lothersdale. Richard resets my tracker so people can see it and seems bemused when I ask how far I am ahead. It does matter to me. I've decided to put it all out there today, this is probably the first time in my life I have thought there's a chance I could win a race while I was in it. I've only won one other, the Hardcastle 12 hour race a couple of years ago, and I only thought I could win that right at the end. This time I'm going to make this my day, no let ups, no excuses. I've trained for this day in this race since I entered. I've trained for it being the hardest race in the world and for the hardest day in the hardest race. Let's see what I've got.

Supporters above Lothersdale

Sally meets me with Louis and Rupert with my mate Jim and her Dad on his bike. I say meet but that would imply I stopped! I give high fives and crack on. It's a tricky balancing act between pushing hard and keeping eating but today I'm on it. Nothing can stop me. My foot hurts so I stop to loosen the laces on my shoes, taking out one of the cross lace patterns and allowing the shoe to expand. If this doesn't work then I may have to stop and walk. It works.

Hail, wind, thunder, lightning, torrential rain, burning sunshine (only briefly), floods, bogs, lost paths. They come and go and as I descend in to Hebden bridge there is only the climb up to Stoodly Pike to go before a run off to the campsite accross the moors and down. At the checkpoint Tom offers me officially sanctioned Pepsi and a treat. Which I decline. I appreciate the gesture and I'm not sure if I'm thinking straight or not but I've trained to do this race with what I've got. I open a pack of peanuts, mix a banana milkshake and carry on up the climb wondering if I will rue that decision. I don't. I arrive in camp in sunshine and know I've nailed this day. Yorkshire day. I've loved every challenging moment of it and give a loud cheer and punch the air. My favourite day of running bar none.

Day Four Officail Race Video

Even the cold shower afterwards can't dampen my enthusiasm and I'm over 3 hours ahead of the next group in. As I get some rest I look at the tracker and realise the challenges that the others are now facing. Ivan, Andy and Owen have retired on this stage after giving their all. At first light I get up to see Gaz come in after 24 hours and walk with Paddy for the last section of road and get him settled for a couple of hours sleep before the day five start. They will have a maximum of an hours sleep before having to manage 30 miles of canals to get to the next checkpoint having been on the go for 24 hours already. I shed a tear as Gaz slumps in his chair, broken but not defeated. There is no doubt in his mind about continuing at all. It's just working out the logistics to make it happen, he stayed with Andy to make sure he was ok then carried on throught he night. Paddy too entertains no thought that this is over, it's very much still on and I am a long way from my euphoria of yesterday. These guys have everything on show in their eyes - drive, determination, pain, courage. The long day has tested them to the limit and they have met that challenge and are preparing for the next. It is an amazing display to take the line for day five and one that will live long in my memory.

 Canal Hell becomes just that - I try and run with a group but I've got a pace dialled in from trianing for this day and it is hard to run at someone elses pace. I want this day to be over as quickly as possible so I switch off the brain and move my legs in a relentless battle with the towpath. On and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on. This is a bad day. A very bad day. I am leading, but only because the desperation of spending one more minute than is neccesary on these towpaths is too much to bear. I pass Tony's Chippy and the smell makes my stomach long for fish and chips with curry sauce. There are more to come as I run through Manchester.

Through Manchester - sounding more chipper than I feel!

Andy Gibbons comes to meet me and run the last three miles in to camp. I persuade myself once off the canals that the road is uphill. Andy assures me that this is Cheshire and there's no uphill anywhere but I'm not having that! I see two children waving and wonder who they are waving at. Then I realise it's Jen with Jamie and Joshua. They are from round the corner but live over by us now and have come to wave me on for the last mile. I high five and it gives me a boost. Seeing people really makes a difference, running is such a mind game. I come in to camp and I realise I'm nearly done. Today was hard but that should see me finish and finish in the lead barring an accident tomorrow. I can't quite believe this.

Day Five Official Race Video

I think about it during my routine shower and feed. My feet are looking good, I have no injuries, I am feeling strong and the only blisters I have are from my flip flops on the top of my toes where the strap is! I didn't reccie walking in my flipflops, I make a mental note for next time then stop myself. What next time? This was to be the race that completed my long distance challenges but I really have enjoyed the whole eperience. I have spent much of the week running alone for long periods of time and I decide I would like to speak to actual people tomorrow rather than cows or fields, waterfalls or flowers.

Most people are tucked up in bed when I see on the tracker that Gaz and Paddy are approaching - they have been out for so long. I take my headtorch and walk out to meet them coming over the bridge. I see someone is walking in with Paddy a way back so go to Gaz. He is limping in, stepping in and out of the road and holding something in his hand. As I get closer I realise it's his shoe! When I ask him if there's anything I can do and why he's holding his shoe he says he just needs showing where to go and that his foot is hurting too much in his shoe but it's ok when he takes it off. I have no idea how long he's been going like this for but try and lift his spirits by talking to him about having a meal before going to bed and sorting out his mat and sleeping bag. He will get a nights sleep and then there's only the last stage to go. I guide him down then go back and walk in with Paddy who has had Janet go out to him. They both get a hot meal and I know Gaz will be ok when I leave him in his sleeping bag and say to him to not stay on his phone all night and he quips "No mum". He's been out for 42 hours without a significant break over some of the most challenging and variable terrain in the country and he can still crack a joke! I show Paddy to the showers and he requests an alarm call at 5:30 so he can get ready. These guys are incredible!

I sleep well and set off with Anna, Hayley and Tim, with Richard joining us later on, and we swap stories and life experiences while running the obstacle course that is the final stage. Over ditches, branches, fences and up hills, across golf courses and following roads. Running with Hayley it's clear she is in pain. She doesn't need us to help her finish but we can make it more bearable by talking to her about anything and everything and passing a change of food to break it up. (Honestly Hayley I wouldn't try that gel flavour again unless you've had a week of calorie depletion, you'll be disappointed!) My friend Richard comes out to meet me and it's when we see him in his clean running gear that we realise how dirty we must really be. We chat for a couple of miles and that gives me a real boost, seeing people always does. Which means Hayley must have been boosted beyond belief! It's like running with a local celebrity and at every turn people are there to cheer her on. I've no doubt that if I was ever down here again and needed anything I would only have to knock on any door and say I knew Hayley and I'd be sorted! Andy Gibbons comes out again to run in with us all and he chats to Hayley, keeping her going. I run with Tim for a bit and leave him to it - it means he won't be giving me motivational abuse for a while at least!

 A feature of the week has been the boost strangers will give you when you say to them "We've run from Scotland". They are full of motivation, smiles, amazement and goodwill. Tim tries this on the way in to the final stretch and the man looks at the sky and then back at him and grumps " I see you brought the weather with you". We burst out laughing. Tony and Dave come flying past as we power walk in. Richard has given Hayley his poles, a real act of selflessness as he has a bad knee, and she started out tapping a strong rhythm to support her painful legs. Now it is being pounded out with grim determination - all the runners showing why they have been able to finish this hardest of races.

Approaching the finish line

Longer than a traditional stage race, no rest day after the long day and no shortened final day. Six continuous days of ultra marathons with a long day in the middle. We finish together. I can't really comprehend what we've done. This race is something else, Beyond Marathon indeed, and destined to become a classic. It is hard but if you train like it's the hardest thing you'll ever do and then some it can be done. I haven't done any other stage races for comparison but every day gave a deliberately different challenge that meant your body and mind were always being pulled and stretched in different directions. For me the goal was to finish but I've gone way beyond that - I actively enjoyed the whole challenge and came first overall. First. Overall. Me! The Beyond Marathon team of Richard Weremiuk (Race Director) Darren and Tom (Camp) Fiona, Janet and Greg (Volunteers) and Jonny and Su (Medics) you were Beyond Compare. Thank you so much for everything you did.

Day Six Official Race Video

 Thank you to everyone involved in the race - Richard you pulled together a great team and it was magnificent. This will be the stage race by which all others are judged. It really is that good. Tracker watchers I thank you for your interest and thanks afterwards. I've obsessed over other people's trackers enough to know the emotional connection you can get to a number on a screen.
I hope you enjoyed the ride as much as I did!

Tim, Anna, Richard, Me, Hayley, Richard

Friday, 19 August 2016

The Charlie Ramsay Round

The start

The morning after we arrived I was woken by a man knocking on the van door holding our awning by one rope with it flying behind him like a kite, all my gear everywhere. I look up at the cloud line now, which has lifted a little higher up the slopes, and wonder what lies in wait this morning. This is the morning I have planned and trained for since before I had surgery on my shoulder in November to attach an artificial ligament - replacing the one that came off when I crashed out of the Three Peaks Cyclo-Cross. I have done twice weekly Sufferfest sessions on the turbo trainer, including this year's Tour of Sufferlandria in full.  I have been getting up every morning and running hill repeats for an hour and a half at five in the morning, I've been working on my speed endurance at the track on a Tuesday and trained alongside some running greats. I've got a Greenhead Monsters running vest to start in to remind me of the work I have put in on the track alongside, well usually behind, a pretty special running group. If it all works out I will finish in my Bingley Harriers vest as I have on my previous rounds.

I've arranged to meet outside the Youth Hostel at about 11:15 so I set off walking on my own to get there. People start gathering and the pre-event feelings grow.  The feeling is a mixture of dread, anticipation, fear, unworthiness and reluctance. What makes me think I can do this? What am I doing here?

I have managed to add pressure on to myself by wanting to complete this first time so all three have been completed at the first attempt. I can't think about that though. That's no way to prepare and there is no helpful side to that thought, I am not running all three today, just this one - and then only one Munro at a time.

Even running through my preparation and planning doesn't help. I will be fine once I have set off. We have some photos taken and I notice Ian, who I will be setting off with although we are independent of each other, has his poles with him. I must have spent several hours considering whether to take mine (borrowed) with me or not and have decided not to.

I like attention to detail on these rounds. It's the details  that ultimately count. Seeing Ian with his poles immediately makes me realise I have made an error not starting with them. I have support enough that they can be carried if I don't need them but I know they will make a difference to how I feel. I jog back to the van for them, laughing at this little warm up I am doing for a 24 hour run. Smiling at how, even with my obsession with detail, I have made this change at the last minute. But it feels right.

Leg 1 - Ben Rowley and Pawel Cymbalista

We set off up Ben Nevis at a steady clip, heading in to cloud and wind just after Red Burn. It gets increasingly busy and I climb the steps to the summit and photo bomb a couple of family snaps, touch the summit and go. Once down the steps I've lost sight of Ben and call out a couple of times. There he is, and we're off.

Down the wet rock, into the wind we go. I'm on Ben's heels, I like wet rock and can maintain a quicker speed over it than a lot of people I know. Not as quick as Ben though who dances over it as we chat/shout to each other about 50 mph gusts and the accuracy of forecasts.

Carn Mor Deag is summitted and we seem to have lost Pawel. I find out later that he has stayed with Ian but Ian has sent him on as he is part of my support team. He catches us up and we stop to put our over trousers on before the climb to Aonach Mor. This is a good call from Ben and I will not take them off all day. Already I have had to adjust my gators and I decide I will adjust them only once more before ignoring them. They slide from under my shoe almost as soon as I think this so put them from my mind..

Ben points out a deer, it is camouflaged well and has furry antlers. It watches us running by and then disappears as we climb back into the cloud and wind. Conversation so far has has been somewhat limited due to the conditions. Hoods up, rain and wind are not overly conducive to meaningful chats with running partners. Despite this Ben and Pawel have been working well as a team. I am fed every half an hour, Pawel either getting what I ask for or choosing something for me to have and getting it to me on the move.

My food is in bags, each bag has enough in it for about 5 hours of running. That's ten things, one to be taken every half an hour. There is a mix of cereal bars, Torq gels, sugar in the form of Dextro tablets, Kendal Mint Cake and Nut Bombs - which are just sweet enough to be moreish but just savoury enough to be palatable all day. Little and often works for me and I am well practised now in eating every half an hour and on the move. There are sachets of energy drink in each bag as well just in case I can't eat and need liquid energy early on.

What I don't realise until a few days later is just how much filming and photography
Pawel has been doing. He will create an amazing record of this first part of the journey.

Ben stops to tie his shoelace and sends me on to the summit cairn of Aonach Mor. Helen is there waiting with a bag for Ian and she shouts encouragement while sheltering from the wind. Brilliant. Seeing people makes such a difference when you are out for a long time. Having said that I don't stop and touch and go. On the way down I see Ian coming up and wish him well.  He looks focused.

I realise that because I am not carrying the tracker, Ben has it in his pack, it will have missed this summit. Never mind, it is not about the tracker as I have company and I am carrying my own Garmin for a trace of the round. The tracker proves invaluable all day - providing accurate information for my support team as to where we are and where we are likely to be at what time in order to meet. It also provides the opportunity to follow from afar which may parents are doing (although I don't know this at the time) and by the end they are trying to work out if the distance I have left can be covered in the time limit and just what am I doing going the wrong way at the end? (I wasn't carrying the tracker then either!) Cover My Tracks have provided the tracker - based in Fort William and highly recommended.

In my mind I have divided leg 1 in to three parts. Ben Nevis, CMD, Aonach Mor and Aonach Beag then the Grey Corries to Stob Ban and then Stob Coire Easain, Mheadhior and down to the dam. After the first four I am about 15 minutes up on my own schedule. I have written my own schedule based on my recce times and experiences running. Some summits have extra time built in and a couple of them are quite tight. The plan is working so far and I know I have allowed time ahead for me to gain before Fersit and heading in to the night.

We drop down from Aonah Beag and then I take the lead as Ben and Pawel stop to fill up with water. I create the fiction in my head that I am running them off my heels. It's a nice fiction and helps me contour round the lump before the next summit. Ben comments on my contouring speed and I smile - I was enjoying myself immensely and the poles are helping to remove the extra weight on my ankles, adding stability.

It has definitely brightened now. The cloud is definitely lighter in colour and more wispy the further east we travel. This is a fine way to run the Grey Corries, grey now for a different reason than the rocks that cover their peaks. I love the undulating, rocky ridges and paths with not a false summit in sight. What you see is what you get - when you think you're there you are! We zig zag up Stob ban - zig is in to the wind, zag is wind assisted. It's over before it's really started and I'm feeling good.

Earlier I mentioned to Ben that on the way to Easain I will put my music on, a mixture of Adele and Kasabian, in order to get me through the long climb up and balance the effort against the dread. Coming off Stob Ban though I realise I don't need it! I shall save it for later when it might come in useful. The wind drops as we drop to the river and start the climb up and we can chat properly for the first time. Ben points out cloudberries, among other things, and Pawel and I take note. Then Pawel and I start chatting about fishing, forestry, teaching and food. He casually drops in that this will be his longest run. I am stunned - I have met him only once before (and seen him rather than met him) yet he has extended his own limits and looked after me at the same time. Ben and Pawel, who do know each other, have been the perfect team and as we descend to the dam, seemingly forever in the cloud, I realise I will be 50 minutes ahead of schedule.

50 minutes. Wow! I have not pushed too hard, I have been travelling at a conversational pace even while not being the conditions for conversation. This is at least 10 minutes ahead of my most optimistic projection.

We see someone ahead waving and then running off. It's hard to see who but at least there is advance warning we are on our way. As we turn on to the track towards the dam my mind clicks in to 10 minute stop mode and I start to take off the tops I will change and bark out instructions and questions to Sally who is waiting. Coffee, beans, Cornish pasty, new team, mittens, tops, head torch, hat, go. Brilliant.

Leg time 8 hours 6 minutes  Clock time  20:06  Schedule 20:56  50 minutes up
Fersit - Sally Parkin 10 minutes

Being 50 minutes up here is great news, when I reccied this part the clag was down and I spent the whole day thinking I was going in the wrong direction. Now I have additional daylight for the first summit and the cloud has cleared for the first time from the very tops as I have been coming down to the dam. I stash my poles with my support as I will be concentrating on the navigation - neither Robert (who I have literally just met) or Joshua (who I ran from the railway bridge to the end with previously) know this bit. It never ceases to amaze me that there are so many people who enjoy giving their time and help so freely to help others. I know everyone gets something out of it but in the cold light of day this is a 6 hour leg, finishing at around 2am if all goes to plan, followed by a 3 mile walk back to a car driven by a stranger for an hour back to base. It's one of the things I enjoy most about these rounds, both supporting and doing them, the gathering of like minded people.

Leg 2 - Joshua Jardine and Robert Crawford

Across the dam, chatted introductions along the railway. Joke about watching out for trains. Then get out of the way as the joke falls flat and a diesel thunders past, horn reverberating around the valley.  We laugh heading up the hill, what a start!

"Go the way you know" becomes something of a mantra for this leg. I point out different lines where I know them but keep adding "But I haven't reccied that way so we're going this way". Joshua takes the lead and despite not having done this leg before needs very little direction to hit the perfect line. I'm not quite sure how he's doing this but it's very impressive. Sgriodain is a climb I have been dreading and although steep, scrambly in places (I think I went wrong there, sorry guys!) and relentless we gain it in good time and in clear daylight. It makes sense to me now the lines I took on the recce, because I can see! On the way to Chno Dearg the cloud comes back and darkness falls.

As we look back we can see the torches of Ian and Zoe approaching the last summit together. Very impressive. As we gain the summit of Chno Dearg I give the cairn a little kiss - it's summit number 12, the halfway summit. I keep us together and let them know that now in the cloud and dark the ground is going to suddenly disappear down a vertical semi-scree slope. It does and my leg immediately cramps, I am fed a handful of peanuts which I wash down with water. It's not a long round unless you get cramp somewhere. It's a bit dicey in the cloud and dark and I am beginning to realise my head torch is not nearly as bright as my two companions. Last time I ran at night I enviously compared my own torch to others but I've not done anything about it.

I'm a little worried by the river, given how much rain we have had today and over the last week, but this worry is unfounded and we cross easily. Now it's just up and along, up and along, up and along the steep climb to the more undulating summit plateau. I glance behind at one point and see a light coming up the shoulder of the mountain. Good, Ian is on his way. On the way off the summit I decide to change my batteries and that improves matters no end! Maybe I was being a bit harsh on my head torch after all.

As we cross under the railway bridge Joshua pulls out a can of coke. This is just what I need and I neck it. This is a long, mainly uphill drag now to Loch Eilde Mor with another river to cross. "I've got skittles for later on as well". Brilliant! Joshua and I ran this bit together supporting Ben and Adnan so he drops in to the lead again and path finds. Robert and I chat and he keeps on top of offering me food and water. We slow to wait for a herd of giant cattle who are in our path at one point. "Hup, Hup" and they move on at their own pace.

Robert and Joshua have been good company and a good team from the start. A steady mix of food, support, positivity and conversation as we get to know each other. This is a real boost when running and especially now I am so far in to the run. It all lifts my spirits and there is a tangible 'can do' spirit which permeates everything we do. Head torch going? No problem. Lost the path? No problem. Raging torrent to cross? Ah.

The river has been sounding pretty intimidating as we have run alongside it in the dark and when we get to where I crossed previously it is plainly not possible. We run on a bit then Joshua jumps in to try and find a place. He settles on a stretch with just one deep section in the very middle where he falls forward and goes up to his chest at one point but gets across. I make my way to the edge of where the deep section is and put one foot out. Even in the dark Joshua clearly sees the abject terror in my face and he reaches out a hand which pulls me across. He then does the same for Robert and we celebrate with a handful of skittles and a swig of water.

Now we head to the track, and that sounds great but the track is broadly uphill and a pain. It's also a longer way than it feels like it ought to be! I keep expecting to be able to see lights from the camp by the ruin but we are upon it without any warning.

Leg time 5 hours 59 Clock time 02:15  Schedule 02:47  32 minutes up

Loch Eilde Mor 10 minutes
Mick Watson, Helen Smith and Louis Parkin

Mick, my father in law, walked up earlier in the day with Louis (my 6 year old) to set up and wild camp. Louis is asleep and wants to stay in his tent but before I go I push my head through and give him a cuddle to which he smiles and then burrows down deeper in to his sleeping bag. What a boost the simple things in life give.

Coffee is on hand and Helen has done a brilliant job of getting Andy and Dave here on time for me, following the tracker. I'm not changing anything here. Kit the same, shoes the same - it's working well so don't mess with it. I give out the food I want carrying, take in coffee, ask for my Bingley Harriers vest to be taken for later and generally bark out orders! The ten minutes feels like a long time as I am not changing and I enjoy the rest. I use it to set myself against Sgurr Eilde Mor - the first climb that will take just over an hour. I put it to Andy and Dave that this first climb is important to get us off on the right foot. There is still a lot of running left to do but with this ticked off and daylight not far away it will be a real achievement.

I give Dave the Garmin to carry, it is his after all, and although neither Dave nor Andy know the way I am confident of my own knowledge of this leg to lead as long as they keep a check that I'm making sense. Before the first climb I ask for the poles unpacking. Over an hour, straight up - there will be no hiding place on this climb and I don't want to start losing minutes now. In truth I am realising I have under allowed for the effect of darkness, not by much but by enough for me to know I need to concentrate. On several of the summits ahead I have over allowed so there should be some easy wins there in terms of time, but they lie ahead and even though I am starting the final leg it's still over 9 hours of running.

Leg 3 - Dave Stephenson and Andy Gibbons

Dave and Andy I know well, I have run with them many times and know they will set me straight as we get closer to the end and I start calculating for each summit. Right from the off they are giving me summit time, schedule time and the difference. On the way to Binnein Beag I confide in them that I feel like I am losing minutes due to the wet conditions. This is not the dry grass that Adnan and I bounded down but wet, slippy and horrible with equally wet and slippy boulders hidden and still a shroud of cloud moved on by a swirling wind.  They take it in their stride and say "we'll check at the top". Turns out I'm up again, only a minute or so on this summit but it puts my mind at ease.

I am running to my schedule, based on my times and my running. I have worked hard for this to make sense per summit and have adjusted it to take account of the increasing tiredness I expected to feel at this point. It feels good, to know that I am running to the schedule, minutes are not being lost and I am able to maintain this speed. The wind and cloud are still about but diminish as daylight brings with it spectacular, if brief,  views. "I ran over all of them yesterday" I point to The Grey Corries.

On the way up Sgurr Eilde Mor I thought I had seen Ian arriving at the Loch below and expect to see him at various points but don't. I suspect he has called it a day. Binnein Mor is hard work and the first part of the climb to the ridge is very steep, but Dave reminds me that this bit's supposed to hurt. "Is this a segment?" Andy says. "I hope so", shouts down Dave from way up high ahead of us. It would be tempting to think that this is nearly done but leg 3 is at least progressing well.

As we come off Na Gruagaichean and head up the path towards the summit of Stob Coire A'Chairn I realise we should have started contouring earlier. Only a little earlier but it's a reminder that I still need to remain focused, this is my round and I am the one who knows the way. The wind has dropped completely now, perfect timing as I was worried about both the out and back ridges but they are taken in our stride.

The conversation is varied and entertaining and once again the team is working well as a pair. Dave leads and Andy is sat on my shoulder, shepherding me along and in my ear about eating, making me laugh and adding up the distance run and feet climbed. Along Devil's Ridge we can see figures below. Kate was to meet me by the lochan before Stob Ban with the rocket fuel I will need to finish - Coke, Iron Bru and Tangfastics.

11 hours in 11 minutes

On the way down to them I start to well up. I allow myself to think about finishing. I'm really going to do this. I check and I have maintained my 35 to 40 minute cushion all the way through this leg, never dipping below 30 minutes and never losing significant time per summit or feeling that I would be unable to continue. The cushion has allowed me to relax, OK maybe not relax but not obsess about summit times and splits and just concentrate on running.

With Kate are Ben, back for more, and Kieran, Ian's son. Kieran confirms what I suspected, Ian called it a day at Loch Eilde Mor.  "You're doing amazing" says Ben. "I'm going to do it aren't I?" It's more of a statement than a question but I have to voice it. Ben was worried we might have gone off too fast on leg one but is happy I've kept the gap through the night and I tuck in behind him, Kieran is good company and keeps darting off this way and that - he's like lightning!

I don't really stop at the lochen - Kate has walked up the climb and waited and I'm through in about 10 seconds. I feel bad but also know I can't stop now, I might not start again. My legs have two more climbs in them and I bully them to the top of Stob ban. "You know you've been out for a long run when there's two Stob Bans in it" says Ben and I laugh.

The final summit cairn is reached and I kiss it and look at my watch. I have an hour and a half to get down. On my schedule I have allowed an hour and five minutes, and that was taking it slowly.  I have reckoned without my legs though! They don't want to go downhill. At all. It's rocky, then grassy, then boggy and Andy is right - take it steady on this part, there's no point twisting an ankle now, and run in along the track to the finish.

I cry for most of the descent. Every time Andy tries to talk to me I well up, unable to speak. We get to the track and I ask for my vest. Ben paces me along the track to the finish. This will be the fastest of my three rounds if I maintain this pace. Kieran waits to direct Dave and Andy through the wood to the road. We seem to have lost them in the cut through the first section of trees. When I look at the trace later I see they have stuck to the track all the way along before turning back left again.

They catch up by the cattle grid and we arrive together at the Youth Hostel to a wonderful reception from friends and family.

23 hours and 40 minutes. It is my fastest but has also been the hardest. I paid more attention to the details and I had an amazingly strong team of pacers working as perfect pairs and a ground support team second to none. I trained to be strong enough to do it come what may weather wise and this is just as well. My schedule worked for me - it allowed me to get ahead of 24 hours and stay there. I think I under allowed for the effect of darkness, but not by much, and the buffer I had early on allowed me to be in control of this all the way round. It sounds so obvious but preparation is everything.

Thank you to my team. Each person involved was positive in outlook, practical in nature and totally committed to getting me round. Without them this would not have been possible for me. I still can't really comprehend that I am number 94 on the finishers list, one of only 10 so far this year and that this year is the first year completions have run in to double figures.
It also puts me at 44 on the Big 3 finishers list. That, to me, is unbelievable. 44! Just after Adnan, who I supported, and just before Jasmin who I followed in awe from afar.

I look at the names on those (short) lists and see race winners and fell champions. Giants of mountain running. I have raised myself to be among exalted company indeed. Not only that but I am also proud of the fact I have completed each round at the first attempt, with both the Paddy and the Ramsay run in testing conditions.

I started this journey because I thought that running was such a fundamental part of our history, of our evolution, that I wanted to know if I was capable of doing more. Could I reach further than I could grasp? I have my answer - yes I can; and in answering for myself I am convinced the answer is not just yes I can but yes we can. It just depends on how much you want to.

So what next? Coming down that last descent I wasn't sure I was ever running again. Later that day Sally said to me "I was talking to Ben's mum and dad and they did mountain marathons together - we could do that couldn't we?"

Sounds like a plan...