Friday, 22 April 2011

Endurancelife CTS Exmoor Marathon

They said it would be hard.  All of the reviews talked about the hills.  All of the people I'd met who'd run it before cursed the big hill at the start.  Nothing could have prepared me for a race this tough - except for the six races that came before.

I spent quite a few hours thinking about how this would go.

Since the return from Sussex, I'd spent most of my time feeling pretty good about Exmoor, unless I happened to be looking at the course profile.  This race would carry on to the West of last year's Seaview 17 course.  I know the area a little already, and know it is hilly and has very changeable weather.  So, I packed one of everything, added some extra food to the pack in case it turned into a long, slow hike, and headed for Devon.

Race prep had gone pretty well, except for the week off before-hand to let some muscle strains ease off.  A very tight hamstring was almost certainly the result of trying out some new shoes the week after Sussex.  The shoes feel fast, secure, and generally wonderful.  Unfortunately, I felt so great that I probably over-egged the run and then compounded the niggles by racing at Peopleton the following weekend.  But, with 5 days' recovery, loads of carbs in the days before, and some Kinesio taping from Sara, I was ready to go.  Nic was taking this race off, so was able to enjoy a walk along some of the course with her camera.  The best pics are generally hers.

Happy and cool at the start.

The race starts in the Heddon Valley. After a nice half-mile warm-up by the stream, the course goes UP.
  Steep climbing, occasional stairs, and lots of panting make up the first mile of climbing.  I thought I was taking it easy, but the air was so heavy that sweat just started to drip down my face.  So, I kept not hurrying along and enjoyed the camaraderie of the back of the pack.

That's the first climb - but we don't take the direct route, we take 3 miles to get there...

Back in the pack, we're in no hurry.

After what felt like hours, but was only about 10 minutes, the course levelled off a little into gentle undulations along the coastal face of the hills.  The views down to the sea were nice, but the path was narrow enough that it wasn't really worth the risk to take them in.

Don't look down!

On those occasions when I did look around, I noticed that the gorse bushes were in fine colour.  I like gorse in flower, in part because it reminds me of running in Edinburgh in the '90s when I was a student.  So, it was a pleasant diversion to see such vibrant yellow on a grey morning.

Eventually, we topped out on Holdstone Down, passing through the low cloud that hovered for the first 10 miles or so.  At 4.2 miles, that was the last time I saw the pack.  From the top of the hill, the course took an enjoyable three-mile descent back to the stream.  Some of the downhill was fast and technical, some was just free-flowing and comfortable.  Either way, by the time I headed up the other side of the valley, the pack had turned into a long, broken line.

The low cloud hugging the hilltops early in the day.

For the next few miles, the trails and roads passed comfortably.  The clouds stayed low, keeping things cool and muggy, while I experienced something very new to my trail running.  I kept finding that I was able to run up nearly all of the hills!  I wasn't running quickly, for sure, but it was much faster than walking.  By not having to stop to hike too often, the miles just seemed to slip away.

Lee Abbey

Before I knew it, I was nearing the half way point around Lee Abbey.  Lee Bay and the renovated Abbey complex nestle into a plush green landscape.  I enjoyed trying to take pictures as I ran along a good path.  The views were quite pleasant until I rounded a corner and could see what some trees had been obscuring - a slight turn to the right.

After I stopped admiring the Abbey and its grounds, I realized we were about to head UP!

So much for the sensation of covering the hills at a reasonable pace!  I put my head down, my hands above my knees, and used just about every muscle to push my way up the path.

Those two specs at the top are runners.

Now Lee Abbey and Lee Bay look very picturesque, indeed!

During the climb, I occasionally had the chance to hold up the camera to take in the increasingly impressive view.  After all, I wasn't moving quickly enough to worry about falling over.  Lynton's famous goats provided some amusement.  They looked on, unimpressed, while I looked back envious of their climbing skills.

Goats sunning on the rocks

The big black goat decided to eat a tree while I hiked past.

Finally, at the top of The Valley of Rocks, we turned down the hill towards Lynton.  The sun finally dispersed the clouds.  Once again, the terrain changed from steep to manageable.

The mist and low cloud burned off at about half way.

Gorse in full bloom looks great and smells of coconut tanning lotion.

The course took us down the back lanes of Lynton, which are lined with quaint country cottages.  It seemed like quite a nice town, if rather steeply set - I only saw flashes of colour on the way down.  From Lynton, we followed the Two Moors Way towards the third checkpoint at 17 miles.  I started to wonder how much water I had left in my pack.  The plan was to carry a bit less than usual and refill at 17 miles, because the warm weather would have required a rather heavy 2 litres.

The checkpoint came after a nice long descent, and I arrived feeling good and still unsure about how much water I had left.  As I punched in, I realized that quite a few other runners must have had the same plan.  There was a small wait to refill water bladders, and the queue included a couple of people I normally finish near.  I quickly weighed up my options, realized that I was running comparatively faster than in any other race of the series, downed a cup of water, and shot off down the trail.  I figured that the next checkpoint was 7 miles away, and I could, at need, run the rest of the route without more water, so I would refill at 24 and try to gain my best finish placing on what is rated as the most difficult course.  A bit mad, I know, but this revised plan gave me a boost and, for the first time all series, I treated the remaining course as a race.

Oh, yeah, Countisbury is on a really steep and nasty hill!

Then came Countisbury Hill.  I'd managed to forget about this blight on the course map!  In truth, the climb up to Countisbury is visually impressive.  When you're in the mood to race, though, it's a real killer.  For the final time on the day, I stomped up a hill with a forward lean to avoid falling backwards.  The hill is only 3/4 of a mile long, but is unpleasantly steep.  The climb took me straight back to the painful memories of the climb out of Portlock in the Seaview 17.

Half-way up!

The Blue Bull Inn - now I've joined up to July's course.
Nearing the top of the hill, we briefly joined the road and staggered past the Blue Bull.  This time, unlike last year, I could at least see the pub from the other side of the street.  It would have been a fabulous day to sit out with a pint, but there were still nine miles of racing ahead.  So, I trudged on until we reached the top and then worked back up to a run.  It wasn't long before the 1.5 mile descent to the course's low point at Lynmouth.

What goes up goes quickly down!

The descent to Lynmouth took in some spectacular views as well as some very narrow and technical paths.  Having decided to aim for a good placing, I kept my eyes on the trail and tried to maintain a good pace.  The mind was willing, and the legs didn't seem to mind too much, but the water began to run out.  Alas, it happened about 20 minutes earlier than I expected - the result of the long, hot climb up to Countisbury.

Full sun makes for some great views

As usual at 21-22 miles, I began to struggle.  In comparison to some other events, like Pembrokeshire, this was more of a curb than a wall.  I knew that, if I could get to the final check point with any energy left, I would be able to keep it together until the finish.  Luckily, I managed to sync in with one of the early starters, and we egged each other on up the hills and chased each other down them.  At the check point, I was able to quickly refill my bladder - no queues this time - and carry on into the final miles.

I was so focused I didn't even see the waterfall - luckily Nic was paying more attention!

Because I'd been getting regularly disoriented in the previous races, I carried a picture of the course profile to remind myself of the final miles.  I confirmed that I only had a couple of small climbs left before the long downhill finish.  So, I pushed as hard as I could up the hills (still pretty slow by this point), knowing it was nearly over.

Nic's favourite view of the day.

A final look around before dropping to the finish.

The long downhill was a joy, with a few early starters kindly moving aside as I ran as fast as the trails and my legs would allow.  It opened onto a nice wide trail for the final half mile, with a small stinger of a hill just a few hundred yards from the line.  That little hill kicked me back into a fast hike for a few yards, until I gathered enough energy to run full pelt to its mini-peak and down into the finish. 

A big smile and fast finish to end the 7x Challenge!

The rush of a final "sprint" felt great, but once I crossed the line I staggered through the de-registration tent and sprawled out on a grassy bank.  I finished the race, and the 7x Challenge, with a flourish, and felt every one of the 192 race miles in my legs.  The Exmoor event is rated as the toughest in the series, and I agree that it was a very difficult course.  But, with the training and experience for the previous six races behind me, I ran my fourth-fastest pace of the seven.

A few medals to add to the collection!

The Endurancelife Coastal Trail Series has a final.  To qualify, one has to either complete the 7x Challenge, finish one of the races in the top 20%, or get a lucky lottery place based on completing one of the races.  When I entered this year, I had a pipe dream (or maybe wine-induced hallucination) that I might be able to qualify in all 3 ways.  I was pretty sure I could survive all seven races, and assumed that seven entries into the lottery would give me a good chance, but that qualifying by speed would require a lot of people to fail to show up.  In the end, that final sprint finish gave me the placing I needed by less than a minute.  So, that little pipe dream has come true.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Peopleton Scenic Six - a last-minute addition to the schedule

Yesterday, after humming and hawing about I would do with my weekend run, I woke up and headed off for a local, six mile multi-terrain race.  The Scenic Six raises money for St. Richard's Hospice, a local charity, and is always well attended by our club.  So, rather than spend yet another long and lonely morning in the hills, I decided to do a bit of speed work and enjoy the countryside with some friends.  Unfortunately, I didn't go out with a camera, so there are no pictures of the young lambs gamboling in the fields near the race start/finish.

To get some extra mileage on my last "long run" day before the next marathon, I popped on my road shoes and took an easy 5k warm-up along the early part of the course.  The sun began to beat down and push the temperature to a pleasant 18 degrees.  It would be the first vest day of the year!  Back at the car, I peeled off the layers and put on my off-roaders.

Twenty-five Evesham Vale runners took to the start.  When the horn sounded, the leaders shot ahead, the middle-pacers went off (generally too fast, but enjoying the fast road section), and I tried my best to move gently through the runners I'd placed between me and the speedsters in an effort to avoid going off too quickly.

With some effort and a good deal of attention to my Garmin, I managed to keep my pace under control.  Two years ago, I'd attempted this course with a "go hard and see how long it lasts" strategy.  I wanted to see how I would go.  It wasn't fun.  This time, I wanted to average around 7:30/mile, or 85% of my heart rate, whichever was faster.

The first two miles are on the road, ending in a nice drag that is just steep enough to make you adapt your stride.  Then, the course turns onto farm tracks followed by sheep paths through the fields.  I'd decided that the grass was long enough and the ground just soft enough to warrant the shoe change - it's no fun slipping or turning an ankle six days before a big race, so I went for safety first.

By adopting a steady start, I had a nice long line of runners ahead of me.  Over the first two miles of the trails, I let my heart rate gradually creep up towards 95% and enjoyed the pressure of passing without being passed in turn.  After all, it's no fun to overtake loads of runners only to crack and have them all pass you back (I'd had enough of that at Amsterdam!).

For the final two miles, I pushed hard to keep at a high heart rate, especially when I saw two club vests coming back to me.  In the last mile, there's a nice long shallow descent where I opened up my legs and tried to chase down my clubmates.  In the end, I finished a full 20 seconds faster than the previous effort.  Not much change in time, but very pleasing since I've only been doing speed sessions for a few weeks while I try to avoid injury between marathons.

Once finished, I had a chance to catch up with the club's quick runners.  It turns out that we had quite a good result - 1st place (Danny Harris), 2nd lady (Emma Gill), 1st Men's Team, and 1st Women's Team [results not yet confirmed by the organizer].  So, well done to EVRC, and congrats to the organizers for setting up such a great fundraiser!

Saturday, 2 April 2011

CTS Sussex Marathon - Stage 6 of 8

The preparation for the latest Endurancelife event was pretty straightforward:  recover from the last one enough to make it to the starting line.  With only two weeks between Pembrokeshire and Sussex, I focussed on rest and rehab for the first week, rebuilding the little tweaks and tears that any race will cause.  I did a bit of light running in the second week, more for relaxation than for physical training.  My body wasn’t really in the mood to run, but we were due a sunny week and I was looking forward to some excellent scenery.

As anticipated, the morning dawned calm and hazy.  It wasn’t warm, but we were due to start at around 10 degrees and climb up to around 14 with some extra warmth if the sun broke through the mist.  Morning preparations went well, and I felt fully fuelled by the time we arrived for registration.  The only worry was that my legs felt like lead and I wanted a few more hours of sleep!  So, while I waited in the milky light for the race briefing, I found a nice patch of grass and stretched out for a cat nap.  Nic evidently found this amusing and kindly captured the moment for posterity.

Pre-race preparations

After what seemed like only a few seconds, but was probably a good few minutes of snoozing, it was time to get up and get warmed up.  My intention was to take it very easy in the first few minutes and then just take the day as it came.  I had no idea how my aching bones would cope with another day in the hills.

No need to hurry, the hills aren't going anywhere.

The course started at Birling Gap, in the middle of the “Seven Sisters.” The Seven Sisters are a series of short, steep hills on the English Channel coast, associated with the famous Beachy Head.  We headed west, taking in just over half of the Sisters on our first coastal section.  I’ve seen this iconic coastline on television many times – the stark white chalk offset by the blue sea, blue sky, and green grass.  It was invigorating to not just see it in person, but to be a part of it – to take on the challenge of the terrain and to appreciate its rugged beauty.

Looking back over Birling Gap towards Belle Tout Lighthouse

The course heading off across the Seven Sisters

The ascents were short and steep, and I hiked up most of them to conserve energy for later in the day.  The descents were built for speed – steep, generally soft under foot, and not too technical.  So, in typical fashion, I flew down the hills with arms and legs flailing and then slowed to a fast stomp once the momentum ran out on the uphill.  I was having so much fun, I even tried to get a few snaps on the way.  And, yes, I did actually exclaim “Wheeee!” on one of the more exciting drops.

This is what happens when you point the camera to the side on a fast downhill.

Steeply down followed by steeply up!

Plenty of hills to come
Only the leaders can run up all of these!

Green rolling hills just keep coming

Only a few Sisters left to go!


Finally, the chalky Sisters are behind us

By the time we turned inland at around 5k, the field was completely spread.  All of the people I chatted with as we leapfrogged our ways up and down the Sisters were strung along the countryside.  I could see pairs of runners, but there were no more large groups.  I settled into a rhythm with the expectation of 24-25 miles of solitude broken only occasionally by the short exchange of running tales while passing or being passed.

Our trip through West Dean and the surrounding hills was fairly uneventful.  I reached the first check point at 5.5 miles feeling slightly better than I had at the start, but in generally high spirits.   The sun was occasionally shining, the wind was very light, and I was running comfortably enough in spite of the little aches and pains left over from my trip to Wales.  There was even a mile of flat running between Litlington and Alfriston (well, almost a mile).

Approaching Alfriston

From Folkington, the course turned south and back towards Birling Gap.  To get back to the coast, we had to climb back over a few miles of the South Downs.  As the coast neared, the wind speed increased.  The promised stiff breeze out of the Northeast was cool, but not overly unpleasant.  I donned my windproof vest that had been tucked away for the previous eight miles.  Happily, it never got cold enough to need a hat or gloves for the first time in months.

The long climb out of Folkington

Mist burning away on the South Downs.

The highest point in the race.

At about 11 miles, I started to figure out how far I would finish behind Nic.  She was running the half, which started an hour and a half after the marathon.  It’s funny how useful I now find all those irksome math problems from school that start “if a train starts from point A at 9AM, and another train starts from point B at…”.  Anyway, I guessed that I would finish 30-45 minutes after her.  Playing with the mental math and a few different scenarios kept my brain occupied through the final stretch of woodlands – there’s not much to see when you’re surrounded by trees.  It also confirmed that unless she was having a shocker, I wouldn’t catch her, so there was no point in trying to recover that amount of time just for the fun of passing her on the line.

At Birling Gap, I ran into (almost literally) the back half of the 10k as they started their race.  There was a small pinch point where we were going in opposite directions.  Thanks to those courteous 10k participants who let a fairly ragged and confused looking runner through! 

Next came the climb up to Belle Tout lighthouse, which had been shifted away from the eroding cliffs edge a few years ago.  This was a nice, gentle reminder that the remaining Sisters were still here and still steep.  On the way down from the lighthouse, the course turned directly into the ever-increasing breeze.  The remaining coastline became a trial against the wind, the hills, and general fatigue.

It was a long, slow climb up Beachy Head!

Beachy Head itself was a long, slow drag followed by a 1:2 descent.  I normally avoid leaning back on a downhill, but to lean forward wouldhave resulted in a very long and uncomfortable series of somersaults.  I ran / hopped my way down, barely in control.  By the time the gradient eased to a 1:3, I was still going too fast to open into a normal running stride.  It was easily the steepest descent I had ever successfully navigated, and was exhilarating.  It was also slightly exhausting, and I returned to a jog for the next mile or so while I recovered.  I was moving along easily enough, and sent Nic a message to say I’d finish somewhere between five hours and 5:15.

It wasn’t long before I left the coast again at Eastbourne, heading back up into the Downs.  For a while, the wind was again from behind and the sun gently shone.  The course led across the hills towards Birling Gap for a little over a mile.  Then we turned south towards the coast, and then again east back towards Eastbourne.  This little inland loop existed to make up the mileage, but the open downland provided some pleasant surroundings. 

There weren’t any flat sections, just up and down, into and out of the wind.  At 20 miles, I started to feel light-headed.  I realized that I was fast-approaching The Wall.  I had planned to take my final gel at around 21 miles anyway, so I downed it with plenty of water and slowed to an easy walk for about 5 minutes to give my body a chance to process some of the sugars floating around my bloodstream.  The south-bound segment started with a nice steady downhill, so I eased back into a run while I had gravity on my side.  I started to feel better, and was able to keep a reasonable pace until the turn back into the wind at 23 miles.  The wind pushed me to a slow trudge, and then a long, exposed drag broke me.  I dropped back to a walk and sent Nic an update that I was going to be an extra half hour, given how things were going. 

My experience of these races has led me to plan for a 28 mile run, regardless of the official distance.  At Pembrokeshire, I felt like rubbish for the last four miles, always thinking that it wasn’t too far to the finish, so I might as well just push on.  In the end, I lost quite a lot of time in those four miles, and finished completely wiped out.  With that in mind, I opened my “emergency” pack for the reserve gel and took it.  Gels normally take about 15 minutes to have an effect.  At the pace I was moving, that would give me some benefit at 24 miles.  With luck, I would also be moving from the simple sugars of the previous gel to making use of the complex sugars at about the same time – a double boost.

Just before the 24-mile checkpoint, Nic sent me back a message to say that she’d finished the half, and the final 5k was basically flat.  So, as I climbed to the checkpoint and watched the paragliders launching themselves off the cliffs, I held out hope that I was nearly over the worst.  The marshals confirmed that only a little over 3 miles remained (only 27 miles this time!), and I started to feel human again.  We headed down towards the road, and I saw the earlier treacherous drop from the top of Beach Head off to my left.  At that point, I realised that we would not re-climb that monstrosity, and cracked a grin.  Obviously, the sugars were also starting to work, because my improved mood coincided with improved pace.

The course carried on along the lower portions of the cliffs, and my legs started to feel strong.  I eased down the last steady hill at a good run, texting Nic as I picked my way among the gorse, to let her know I was running again and would finish soon.  The bad patch well and truly behind me, I pushed the pace for the last two miles, knowing I would have three weeks to recover.  With the stiff wind now at my back, plenty of gentle downhill, and refuelled legs, the finish came quickly. 

Speeding to the finish!

Looking back, those last two miles were two of the three fastest of my race.  The tailwind made an enormous difference.  And, with the help of a little sugar and water, I managed to recover the 5:30-5:45 I’d anticipated when everything was falling apart and finish in under five hours.  Mentally, the race was as difficult as any I’ve done.  It was made a little easier by also being one of the most scenic courses I’ve experienced for any distance.  And completing it in a good time gives me confidence that I might just manage the stupidly hard Exmoor (5/5 on the difficulty scale) in a sub-6 time.  Bring on the recovery, and bring on the next race!