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