Sunday, October 30, 2016

Paddy Buckley Round

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

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

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

Leg 1: Llanberis to Llyn Ogwen 

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

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

Descending to Ogwen (photo Chris Near)

Leg 2: Llyn Ogwen to Capel Curig 

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

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

Climbing Pen yr Ole Wen (photo Adam Stirk)

Leg 3: Capel Curig to Nantmor

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

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

Climbing Moel Siabod (photo Jon Ascroft)

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

One of the dryer sections (photo Jon Ascroft) 

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

Moelwyns from Cnicht (photo Digby Harris)

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

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

Leg 4: Nantmore to Rhyd Ddu 

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

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

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

The gathering dusk (photo Sarah Ridgeway)

Leg 5: Rhydd Ddu to Llanberis 

(pacers Konrad Rawlik, Gareth Hughes, Liz Barker)

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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

Views from Cnicht (photo Digby Harris)

Wednesday, September 14, 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(photo James MacKeddie)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 19, 2016

Tromso Skyrace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

World Skyrunning Championships

There are many ways to prepare for a big race. I suspect however, that organising and executing a wedding on a remote Scottish Island (including boats and cottages, baking of wedding cakes, and a night-before beach hen-do), is one of the less frequently adopted methods.

One week after tying the knot on Jura, carbo-loaded by sustained prosecco and wedding cake consumption, with legs still tired from scrambling around lost on the Paps, I found myself standing on the start line of the World Skyrunning Championships Buff Epic Ultra Trail Race, a route of 105km and 8000m ascent, located in the Aiguestortes National Park at the heart of the Pyrenees. Other GB runners with me in the crowd were Kim Collison, and Andy Symmonds, whilst Tom Owens was running the shorter 42km route.

With the usual fanfare of European races (music, banners, crowds, photographers), we received a count down, and started at 6am, in just enough light for head torches to be unnecessary. The first few kilometres along the valley bottom were flat and runnable, but I held back and kept a steady pace, conscious of what was to come. At the start of the climb I was alongside previous race winner Nuria Picas, and was amused to witness a conversation with her road-side support team in Spanish - which I speak only a little, but enough to understand ‘You are running with the English girl’ and the reply ‘Oh, is that her?’. I would have introduced myself properly, but at that point the gradient picked up, and all oxygen was directed towards uphill movement.

We reached the top of the climb in beautiful morning sunlight, and there followed a fast run across some meadows, before a descent and valley run along tracks to the first food checkpoint at 20km. At this point I was feeling far from spritely (tracks have never been my strongpoint, particularly those of the mildly uphill-sloping variety, where one cannot justify walking), and was rather troubled to be told by the runner beside me (Jan Bartas, a Czech runner and a new friend) that I needed to be fresh at Espot (67km), which was ‘where the race would really start’.  I grabbed some food, presented my bib for scanning, and raced on, trying to breathe through a combination of Nutella, cheese roll and toasted hazelnuts. On the next climb I managed to catch the tail of a group containing a lady (I later learned she was called Eva Maria Moreda) who looked really strong. I ran with this group, which fragmented and reformed a few times, until Espot. During the morning the higher sections of the course were shrouded in cloud, but every so often it would clear, and a fantastic panorama of lakes and rock formations would open up around us. As we entered the National Park we were instructed to cover our numbers and follow the directions of marshals (at which point I regretted having been so thorough with my safety pin bib attachment!).  There followed a great section of technical running on wet rock, where I felt very much at home, before a long hard track descent into Espot, which I enjoyed significantly less.

(photo Prozis)
The Espot changeover was inside a hall, where our drop bags were waiting, along with a glorious spread of food and drinks. I think I did reasonably well in how quickly I made it out of there (considering the fact that I swapped my shoes for a pair with more padding and also refilled my supplies), but I still managed to lose another couple of minutes to Eva in the process. I was informed at this stage that I was lying third (Caroline Chaverot was well out in front, having an incredible race), and the possibility of a podium position was definitely an incentive in the miles that followed.

Viewing the profile of the race beforehand, I had summarised the section after Espot as one lump with several separate peaks. Something along the lines of the leg-5 Bob Graham trio perhaps. However, it soon became apparent that these little ‘ups and downs’ were on a rather grander scale...

The first long ascent was a sustained climb of 1400m, initially through fields of cows and horses, then passing ski stations, and finally climbing a steep scree and boulder slope to a high col at 2700m. This final section was pretty tough, and I actually stopped on one occasion to rest (I usually try to keep moving, no matter how slowly), surveying the runners strung out below me. I suspect that some prior altitude training would have made things easier, although as someone pointed out to me after the race, my complaints of being ‘really tired and moving ever more slowly’, were not unique, and probably had more to do with the preceding 75km than anything else.

From the col the route dropped immediately down steep sandy grass into the next valley. In the absence of a path, my fell running experience served me well, and I bridged the gap which had opened on the ascent between me and the three runners in front. Another such climb followed, after which we descended to the final food station, where I made the most of the cola and watermelon, before embarking on my favourite climb of the day, along a rocky diagonal path to a high spiky col in the softening evening light.

Ladies Podium (photo Skyrunning)
The final ascent of the course was a long grassy slog up from the depths of the valley, culminating in a steep closing section into the col. At that stage it was clear to me that I wouldn’t be able to catch Eva, and to my relief I couldn’t see any ladies chasing me up the valley, so I was able to relax and enjoy the descent into Barruera. By then it was getting cooler, the light was fading, and there was that wonderful dusk-time scent of flowers, trees and earth. I ran into the finish just as the light disappeared, thus achieving one of my aims for the day, which was to avoid getting my head torch out. I also, somehow, managed to cross the line as 3rd lady, winning the bronze medal, which was of course a great honour. Maybe I should try the Prosecco and cake training schedule again in the future...

Lovely accommodation at Les Cabanasses
The rest of the GB runners all had great runs too, with Andy and Kim finishing 2nd and 9th respectively in the 105km, and Tom 2nd in the 42km.

Paris-Rawlik Jura Whisky Chaser

The inaugural Paris-Rawlik fell race took place on 16th July 2016. A brief report follows:

In spite of ominous grey clouds on the morning of the race, runners of all ages gathered outside the Jura village hall. These included a cow, a nun and a milkmaid, several dogs, and some more serious looking individuals. The milkmaid raced as hard as (s)he could to get to the top of the hill before the cow. This was no easy task because:
  1. this cow is actually quite fast 
  2. the milkmaid had been frolicking with all the young men in the pub late into the night the previous evening 
Mid race proposal (photo Iain Whiteside)
Luckily for the milkmaid, the cow had also stayed out all night, first on a beach drinking Prosecco and swimming in the sea with her hens, and later sleeping under the stars in the company of Jura midges. Thus the milkmaid made it to the top in time to kneel down before the cow, and to pull out a last-minute engagement ring with which to adorn the peat covered hoof. Then the racers all drank a large draught of Jura whisky, and raced back down to the hall. The cow’s extra two legs gave her the edge, and she crossed the finish line to clinch a narrow victory, before plunging herself into the sea.
Early Finishers (photo Lorna Ascroft)
Post race cool off (photo Lorna Ascroft)

The race was followed by a gathering on the beach for poems and promises, followed by drinking, dancing and merriment in the village hall.

(photo Konrad Borkowski)
(photo Konrad Borkowski)
(photo Konrad Borkowski)
(photo Konrad Borkowski)

Addendum: The organisers would like to issue their thanks to the multitude of runners who sacrificed their race to finish off the whisky.

(photo Konrad Borkowski)

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Ramsay Round

A year ago, almost to the day, I had been descending at break-neck speed off Ben Nevis in the wake of Jon Ascroft as he was lowering the Ramsay Round record, set but 1 month earlier, by about one hour. On June 18th this year, I was descending Ben Nevis again with Jon at my side to improve his time by another 45 minutes, setting a new record (not ‘ladies record’, just ‘record’ ) of 16h 13min 53sec.

Jonathan piping me in (photo mum)
The Ramsay Round is Scotland’s answer to the Bob Graham when it comes to 24-hour challenges, a circuit of Glen Nevis, itself known as a Tranter round, together with some tops around Loch Treig. The characters of the two rounds are however rather different, the Ramsay features bigger hills with fewer trods, and has a more remote feel to it. It also presents a larger challenge logistically. Only one point, i.e., the Loch Treig dam at Fersit, is easily accessible from the road, i.e., it’s only 500m from a road. This means that pacers are generally required to run longer sections, have to carry more food per leg and have to get to and from their respective changeover points to civilisation. Luckily I knew just the right people for the job…

I opted to run anticlockwise, finishing on Ben Nevis. The alternative, Ben Nevis first, seems to be a more popular option and is the direction Nicky Spinks ran when she set the previous female record. It has the advantage of saving the easier running along the Mamores for the end. However, finishing with the descent of the Ben is from the aesthetic perspective clearly the way to go. The round was split into three legs, the Mamores, end of the Mamores to Fersit and Fersit back to Glen Nevis, but on the day for various reasons – the main one being me running ahead of schedule – I had additional suporters joining me at various stages on the final leg. 

As with my Bob Graham round I was keen to keep the attempt quiet and make sure it was fun. I therefore contacted a small group of friends whom I enjoy running with and whom I trusted with lines, asking if they would provide the necessary support. I was very lucky - and grateful to people giving up their own time - to be able to assemble full support teams for two weekends in early June. As always on these occasions my mum was to provide road support and the cakes, which by now seem to be becoming legendary amongst pacers, with several Bob Graham veterans enquiring beforehand whether they would feature again.

On Stob a'Chorie Mheadhoin (photo copyright D. Lintern)

After my Bob Graham, I asked Jon Gay to keep me updated about how the snowmelt was progressing around Glen Nevis, a task he fulfilled diligently with weekly photo updates. Meanwhile, I enjoyed some relaxed racing with my family (see previous post). However, this also meant watching the lovely weather we were having passing by and I became increasingly nervous, as good weather in Scotland is not something one should pass-on lightly. As I had feared, with the approach of the first of my two candidate weekends, the weather forecasts deteriorated, and clag moved in. Tapered and ready to go, I was torn between the desire to run, and the knowledge that a record round was impossible without perfect conditions. I turned to my panel of supporters for advice, and drawing on their experience and good sense, I made the decision to delay. 

The next week was spent anxiously checking weather forecasts between work, with my mood changing from hour to hour, in accordance with their predictions. By Thursday however, the consensus was a 24-hour weather window on Saturday. ‘Game on’, I wrote to my support crew. 

On Friday evening, feeling rather car-sick (being unused to travelling as a passenger!), I arrived together with my mum and Konrad in Fort William, to Jon Gay’s flat which he had very kindly loaned us for the weekend. Throughout the course of the evening supporters arrived for tea and cake, to chat, and to collect food bags. I went to bed at 9pm, but was so excited and nervous that I hardly slept before the alarm clock sounded at 1.45am.
At the start with Charlie (photo copyright D. Lintern)

At 2.45am we gathered in front of the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel, which is the starting point for the Ramsay Round. It was great to be joined there by Charlie Ramsay and his wife Mary, who had come to see us off. At 3am, under the light of a full moon, we set off.

Leg 1: Mamores

Pacers: Graham Nash, Mark Harris, Jonathan Whilock, Tom Harris, Liz Barker

First summit (photo Graham Nash)
We set off at a good pace along the road and continued along the forest tracks to the base of the first climb, Mullach nan Coirean. Inside the forest the night was warm and still, and we were glad when we reached the open hillside, away from the midges. The first light of dawn appeared, and we turned our head-torches off as we neared the summit. We arrived around 3 minutes up on Jon’s split, and I made a mental note of the pace, which seemed fairly comfortable, although my pacers, weighed down by copious quantities of my food, might say otherwise (I was struck by the way that supporters on this leg disappeared and reappeared at regular intervals, almost as if the support effort was being run as a relay ). We ran along the ridge to Stob Ban, skirting the subsidiary summit, and passing a couple of people bivvying out in what seemed a rather uncomfortably rocky, albeit scenic location. The sky turned pink, orange and purple, and we marvelled at the sight of the clouds of fog cascading in a waterfall over the 4000’ers and Grey Corries to our left. The out-and-backs of Devil’s Ridge and An Gearanach were fantastic, just the sort of scrambly stuff I love. On the summit of Na Gruagaichean we were joined by Liz (who had run up from Kinlochleven), enthusing about brocken spectres. As we arrived on Binnein Beag the cloud came in, shrouding us in white. Reassuringly for me, Graham led the descent of the North Ridge with no hesitation, and onwards on a direct line up the scree slope to Binnein Beag. At this stage it was just the two of us, and since Graham was carrying my clothes/kit, rather than any of my food, he fed me from his own supplies (much to my delight, since this included a delicious carrot cake which he’d baked the day before). We then dropped down to the track, and rejoined the rest of the team for a companionable ascent of Sgurr Eilde Mor. From there we descended along the North East Ridge until it flattened out, and then headed diagonally across to the changeover point we’d agreed upon beforehand (NN 266 677). This was one of only two sections on the Ramsay Round that I’d never run before. The ground was rough and heathery (for those who were there, picture last year’s OMM), but it was relatively dry, and we still made good progress, coming into the changeover point 22 minutes ahead of Jon’s schedule.

Leg 2: Loch Treig Munros

Pacers: Konrad Rawlik, Jim Mann, Shane Ohly

Beinne Na Lap (photo Jim Mann)
Borne along by the enthusiasm of my fresh support team, we made good progress along the valley towards Loch Treig. Despite it not even being 9am, the day was growing hot, and I was glad we’d had such an early start. From that point onwards I lay down in every river I crossed, like a sheepdog in summer. We hit the track and started the steady climb up to the railway, and I allowed myself to walk a little before picking up the pace again. At the railway we were met by the welcome sight of Charlie and Mary, and thus re-supplied with cake we started the climb of Beinn na Lap. At this point I was feeling a bit sick, but I put my head down, and trudged on up, until a quick side stop, which did much to improve the situation. After passing the summit I handed Konrad the remains of a sandwich I’d been eating, which pleased him greatly (having stepped into Iain’s Bob Graham Round role as human food disposal unit), but also distracted him to the extent that he tripped over a rock, bashing his knee in the process. He thus missed out on the entertaining discussion, as we climbed Chno Dearg, about the perilously decrepit cars Jim and Shane had driven in their wilder days... Nearing the summit, we met a lone runner coming in the opposite direction on his solo Ramsay Round. Having been prepared beforehand by Charlie that this would happen, we laughed, and shouted ‘Hello Joe’ and ‘Hello Jasmin’ respectively, before embracing in a rather sweaty hug. Thus re-enthused, I sailed through the easy next section (Konrad rejoining us), to the summit of Stob Coire Sgriodain, before dropping down the rough tussocky descent to the dam at Fersit, and the sight of the second changeover. 

Leg 3: Fersit to Glen Nevis Youth Hostel

Pacers: Jon Gay, Finlay Wild, Jon Ascroft, Alex McVey

Grey Corries (photo Jon Gay)
In a scene rather reminiscent of the Wasdale changeover on my Bob Graham Round, the support team had only just arrived. In fact, Martin Stone turned up 15 minutes later to hear I’d ‘already gone’, and Jon Ascroft (delayed by a lost car key incident) was forced to join us at a later point, at the start of the Grey Corries. Still, the slightly unprepared state of the changeover did nothing to detract from the atmosphere, which was truly buzzing. I was at this point 49 minutes up on Jon’s schedule, and was still running well. The record was looking distinctly achievable. That said, I had been with Jon on the last leg of his record round, and I knew how fast he’d been going - I was expecting to lose some of the buffer I’d accumulated, the question was how much, if any, I’d have left at the end....

Annochs (photo Jon Gay)
I stayed only a couple of minutes, long enough to get sprayed down (rather like a horse) with suntan cream and to consume an unconventional combination of chocolate milk and roast potatoes, before setting off on the climb of Stob a’ Choire Mheadhoin. Accompanied by locals Jon Gay and Findlay Wild, I was in excellent hands, and had no concerns about navigation whatsoever. I was aware that I was getting tired, but was still enjoying myself on what was really a very beautiful day. When we arrived at Lairig Leacach I lay down in it for almost a minute, whilst Finlay and Jon poured water on my head. Thus cooled, I was better able to face the climb of the second Stob Ban, although I can’t have been feeling that great, since I asked for a gel (which I’d intended to do only when things started to get hard, knowing what they have done to my digestive system on previous occasions!). We reached the summit to find a large group of walkers gathered there, drinking champagne to celebrate someone’s last Munro. For me however, there were still several Munros to climb, and so we pushed on to Stob Choire Claurigh, where Jon Ascroft joined us. The ridge of the Grey Corries was splendid, with views spreading out all around us, and the distinct feeling of being homeward-bound. Climbing ‘Spinks Ridge’ up to Aonach Beag was hard work, and I was glad when we topped out to meet Alex on the summit. I remember Finlay telling me sometime around then, with great enthusiasm ‘I think we have enough shot blocks now for you to have one every ten minutes until the end’ (I never want to see another shot block in my life... !).

Below Spinks Ridge (photo Finlay Wild)

On top of Britain (photo Finlay Wild)
By the time we started the ascent of Carn Mor Dearg I was beginning to feel I had done it – I’d lost a few minutes to Jon over the last few splits, but there was no way - unless I fell - that I could lose 45 minutes between now and the end. This knowledge, the company, and the scenes, worked together to carry me to the summit. We took the easy ‘chicken run’ route, along the left side of the Carn Mor Dearg Arete, before the final ascent to Ben Nevis, for which I used my arms as much as I could to help my struggling legs. Reaching that final summit plateau, and climbing the cairn, was both emotional and exhilarating, but I didn’t hang around to enjoy it. Instead, we started the well-known helter-skelter descent, dodging tourists as we went. Finlay led the way, and I followed in Jon Ascroft’s company, slithering and sliding down the scree and boulder sections, much as we had done one year earlier (on Jon’s record round), and two years earlier (on our shared Tranter). When we reached the stone slabs of the main path lower down, and turned the corner to take us into view of the valley below, I heard the sweet sound of bagpipes drifting up from the valley below (thanks to Jonathan). I was scarcely conscious of it at first, but as the sound of it (for me?!) started to sink in, so did the realisation of what I’d achieved. That final run-in along the bridge, getting sprayed with champagne, hugging Jon... It was all a bit surreal, and simultaneously wonderful. I staggered around for a bit on unsteady legs, we drank the bubbly, took some photos, and then headed to the pub to recount the day’s adventures over burgers, beers and chips.

Descending the Ben (photo Jon Ascroft)

Final Thoughts

A man and his dog (photo mum)

Two weeks on, and I am still buzzing with the excitement of that day. It was a real team effort, a group of good friends running well together on the hills on a beautiful day. We had the perfect conditions (the weather window really was as short as predicted), and the best cake supplier anyone could wish for. And yes, to answer the question I keep getting asked, I do intend to run a Paddy Buckley Round at some point. Whether I’ll fit it in this year is another question. 

For now though, it’s over to you lads 

The hill team (photo mum)
Mullach nan Coirean1:09:321:09:321:06:521:06:52-02:40-02:40
Stob Ban0:31:081:40:400:28:311:35:23-02:37-05:17
Sgurr a’ Mhaim0:37:232:18:030:35:242:10:47-01:59-07:16
Sgorr an Iubhair0:16:552:34:580:16:432:27:30-00:12-07:28
Am Bodach0:14:102:49:080:13:462:41:16-00:24-07:52
Stob Coire a’ Chairn0:22:063:11:140:18:412:59:57-03:25-11:17
An Gearanach0:18:083:29:220:15:443:15:41-02:24-13:41
Na Gruagaichean0:37:564:07:180:37:223:53:03-00:34-14:15
Binnein Mor0:18:544:26:120:17:424:10:45-01:12-15:27
Binnein Beag0:30:214:56:330:28:314:39:16-01:50-17:17
Sgurr Eilde Mor0:44:205:40:530:38:215:17:37-05:59-23:16
Loch Teig0:35:436:51:300:30:006:23:00-05:43-28:30
Beinn na Lap0:49:018:09:560:46:187:34:18-02:43-35:38
Chno Dearg1:07:009:16:560:59:598:34:17-07:01-42:39
Stob Corie Sgriodain0:25:159:42:110:25:439:00:0000:28-42:11
Stob a'Chorie Mheadhoin1:08:4411:27:101:10:0910:39:3001:25-47:40
Stob Coire Easain0:14:1511:41:250:14:2510:53:5500:10-47:30
Lairig Leacach0:19:5812:01:230:18:3611:12:31-01:22-48:52
Stob Ban0:40:3912:42:020:41:2311:53:5400:44-48:08
Stob Choire Claurigh0:33:2113:15:230:31:2812:25:22-01:53-50:01
Stob Coire an Laoigh0:28:3213:43:550:28:3112:53:53-00:01-50:02
Sgurr Choinnich Mor0:24:0014:07:550:19:4013:13:33-04:20-54:22
Aonach Beag0:48:2414:56:190:52:0714:05:4003:43-50:39
Aonach Mor0:15:2915:11:480:16:4314:22:2301:14-49:25
Carn More D.0:36:2315:48:110:38:2115:00:4401:58-47:27
Ben Nevis0:34:4216:22:530:36:2315:37:0701:41-45:46
Glen Nevis Hostel0:36:2016:59:130:36:4616:13:5300:26-45:20