Thursday, 24 October 2013

Bideford Bay 50K - Putting Demons to Bed

Nic's report on the BB50K

Not finishing the Hardmoors marathon in Saltburn this August was a huge blow for me.  I spent lots of time trying to figure out why things went so wrong, and concluded that lack of preparation was the biggest issue.  I didn’t spend enough time thinking about the race profile and my nutrition strategy.  I was, in short, a bit too relaxed!  My friend Roy said I should enter another race as soon as possible, that I should ‘get back on the horse’.  So when I heard about the Bideford Bay 50K in North Devon, I didn’t think too hard about entering it.  I love coastal trail running and North Devon is one of my favourite places.  It was an ideal opportunity to heal some wounds.

I hadn’t left myself much time to train properly in terms of running great distances, but fortunately I had some annual leave after our Cotswold Way Century, so I focussed on back to back runs, a strategy that has worked for me before both my other ultras.  I clocked up over 60 trail miles, mostly running with a little hiking, over 8 days on my holiday, in the Cotswolds, Peak District and Northumberland, then had a good week of rest.  I thought long and hard about my pacing strategy.  I’d had a chat with Adrian Colwill, the BB50K RD at our race and he’d briefed me about the course – 20 miles of hills then 10ish miles of flat as the course followed the river estuary.  I decided to abandon any kind of pacing strategy and just treat it as a nice day out, running where I could and hiking the hills.  I even decided not to wear my Garmin, so I could run on feel and not worry about keeping any kind of average pace.  At the Hardmoors, I ate too much sugar too soon and probably crashed.  This time I buried the sweet stuff at the bottom of my pack where I couldn’t reach it!  I planned to eat nuts, a cheese sandwich, fruit malt loaf (buttered), and some salty potato wedges, only reaching for the gels and shot bloks after 20 miles.  About a week before the race, my friend Chris suggested that we run together for moral support.  I wasn’t sure – I normally like to run alone.  And she is quicker than me on the flat – I didn’t want to be over-doing it trying to keep up, but I thought we could start together and see how it went.

Race week was a busy one, after a 9-hour drive home from our holiday in Scotland, and jumping straight into a manic week at work.  Friday evening came and we headed down to Devon.  We had booked a cheap hotel near Barnstaple so we had only a short drive to the start in the morning.  We were sad to find there was no nearby pub for a relaxing beer.  However, Kurt went on a beer run to the convenience store and found some Doom Bar – one of my favourite ales.  Unfortunately, we hadn’t thought to bring a bottle opener…. Some creative use of a teaspoon and a bath towel and we managed to prise open the tops and enjoy a nice beer.   Perfect race prep!

After an ok sleep, we made our way to the start at Hartland, via Bideford to pick up Mitch, who was also running.  Kurt was planning to spend the day helping out at the finish.  The facilities at the start were great, and there were even lovely ladies selling tea and coffee for those who wanted it at 7am!  I felt very relaxed and happy and enjoyed the pre-race buzz, thinking how lovely it was to be just a runner rather than having the pressure of being a race-organiser.  Chris arrived, somewhat harassed, having thought it was an 8.30 start, not 8.00 – oops!  She just had time to get her number on and we were lining up for the start – no chance to get nervous anyway!

The first mile or so was on the road, heading to Hartland Point.  It felt like it was going to be a beautiful day, milder and less windy than forecast.  The crowd around us all felt very amiable and Chris and I enjoyed a nice catch up.  It wasn’t long before we reached a sign for the coast path – and here was the first sticking point.  The route was not marked, and some people thought we had to run all the way down to the quay before coming back up the hill and then joining the coast path.  I was pretty sure I hadn’t read this instruction, and I’d been in the loo for the first part of the race briefing.  There was lots of confusion – some people hopped onto the coast past, some headed down the hill, some people were coming back up the hill in the opposite direction!  A little arrow here would have been very nice indeed.  We followed some people down the hill, wondering if there was another way onto the coast path.  It turned out there wasn’t and we came back up the hill and joined the path.  It all seemed a bit pointless and confusing.  There were a few p***ed off runners, but it didn’t really matter – I felt pretty happy just to be off the road and on the trails.  We were having a good chat with each other and those around us.  The views across to Lundy in the pink early morning light were stunning and my mood was very light-hearted indeed.

Sun and clouds over Lundy in the distance.
The next 20 miles were more or less the same.  We hiked up steep hills and then picked our way down them.  Again, and again and again.  We would climb up steeply for 500ft, then plunge right back to sea level, then straight back up again.  There were also some woods and some fields, but mostly there were lovely sea views and tricky paths.

New hill, new view!

Fruit cake! Score! (Picture by Roy)
Chris and I stuck together.  I’m sure she had to wait for me a bit on the flat, but we were pretty evenly matched on the hills.

Sea level?  Yeah, it's back there where the last downhill finished. (Picture by Roy)

Kurt asked me later what my favourite part of the race was.  My answer was the point about around 16 miles where we reached a checkpoint and found Chris’ partner Roy and his son Alex (and Idris the dog) there.  Roy said how good we were both looking, we tucked into some lovely fruitcake and agreed that yes, we were feeling good and having a lovely time.  It was my favourite part because it was at that point I knew that barring injury, I was going to finish this race.  I felt strong, had only another 5ish miles of hills to go and was full of positivity.

Always nice to be met by Idris the ultra-dog. (Picture by Roy)

Well, that good feeling didn’t last long.  We climbed out of the village checkpoint up a very, very steep ascent, with lots of steps.  It really took the wind out of our sails and every hill after that was hard.  We got slower and slower, and the downhills became harder and harder too, with too many steps to be able to run them.  In this race, the downhills were just as hard as the uphills, affording us no recovery whatsoever, we were concentrating so hard on not going head over heels.  After about 20 miles, we knew we should be almost done with the hills, but still they kept on appearing in front of us!

Looks like an estuary. Does that mean the hills are finally over?

The view to the south of the coastline we’d conquered was stunning, but we were so desperate to see the river estuary to the north!  Seeing Roy, Alex and Idris again just before Westward Ho! was a lovely blessing as they were able to reassure us that all the hills were done.  In actual fact though, for me this was where the hard part of the race began.  I thought some flat would be welcome, but it really wasn’t.  I struggled far more than Chris to keep grinding out the miles.  But somehow, we kept ticking along.

My biggest down point in the race (quite literally) came about about 31 miles in, when we had to make a decision whether to follow the coastal trail along the low tide or high tide route.  As we had a few miles earlier taken the low tide route along the lovely, firm sandy beach at Appledore, and the tide was clearly out, we opted for the low tide route.  What a mistake!  The mud was ankle deep and properly squelchy.  I slipped on an uneven camber and fell onto my side, bruising my hand, shoulder and hip, and getting very muddy.  I wanted to cry, and I’m sure if I hadn’t been with Chris, I would have wallowed in my misery!  After trudging through the mud, we had to do an about turn as we reached an impassable channel – grrrrrrrr!  We really didn’t need that so close to the end when we were so tired.  But never mind, we were almost at the end and I was bound to fall down at some point – at least I didn’t do it on a steep, rocky downhill!  After another 10 minutes or so, we finally had the end in sight.  Dodging the locals during their Saturday afternoon stroll, we crossed the line hand in hand, all smiles.  It took 8 hours and 40 minutes, was around 5,000ft of ascent, and we were almost last, but it didn’t matter.  For me, I had well and truly put my demons to bed, with a pretty hard race.  Running with Chris worked well, as we helped each other – I dragged her up the last few hills and she dragged me the last few miles on the flat.  I discovered that it is also much harder to have a proper low patch when running with someone else – I don’t like to lose face by showing too much negative emotion so I had to keep my positive face on all the time.  The old adage of ‘fake it till you make it’ worked for me in this race!

So I had a few issues with this race, in terms of its sometimes vague markings and instructions, but I would do it again, and I have total confidence in Adrian to fix these issues for next year.  It was properly hard, but I think with some solid hill-training, and a couple more ultras under my belt, I would be able to do a bit quicker.  And the main thing is, I feel positive and confident about my running again.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

The Long Trail to Recovery

Joy, it's another post about his darned feet, you say?  Well, only in as much as they're in good enough shape to let me get back into some proper running.  I may soon even be able to do a bit of racing, albeit at a reduced pace.

After losing most of July, August, and September to a combination of foot issues (hurrah, mostly trauma-induced, rather than just too much running!), it looks like I am back on the trail to recovery.  Just in time, too - there's a rather tasty 100-miler in February that's got my name on it, and I need to get some training in.

When restarting training after a long layoff, it's easy to do too much and re-injure yourself.  So, I've been breaking in gently, until last week.  We had been planning some R&R after the Cotswold Way Century, and after weighing up all the options, learning some new trails in the Peaks and Northumberland sounded ideal.  We looked for some races, but there were none that suited, so it became a chance to explore and enjoy the great footpaths on our own.

Day 1 was a relaxing 10mi around Edale, taking in the boggy joys of Kinder Scout and the southern end of the Pennine Way.  Although a bit chilly and breezy at the start, we got a sunny day to take in some excellent ghyll scrambling and the occasional chance for a bit of actual running.  It was a great way to test out my foot and ankle strength, as we weren't on particularly forgiving trails.

A few rocks here and there denote the path up.

A sunny look over Kinder Downfall

The route included some spectacular views in all directions.  This was my first time to the peaks, and I can understand why the area is so well regarded.  I wouldn't say the climbs were longer than what we normally get to run on, but we were certainly spoiled for choice!

I'm used to running in an area heavily populated by waymarkers, so it was good to get some experience running in what's best described as a sparsely marked area..  I can't say there's much scope for following an actual footpath on Kinder Scout.  Had we not encountered a local out for a hike, I imagine we would have taken quite some time to get across the bogs attempting to follow the bearing shown on the OS map.  He kindly pointed us about 10 metres to the left where a streambed offered firm footing and a quick way through the bog.

A few nice rock formations added to the stoppage time.
Because the goal of the day was to get to know somewhere new, the pace was pretty relaxed, with quite a few picture stops.  The green, yet rugged landscape on a bright day caused repeated deep-breath-and-smile stops.  It was simply stunning.

I was curious about what we'd find when we finally joined the Pennine Way, at Kinder Downfall.  The National Trails that I'm familiar with are pretty well marked (SW Coast Path, Cotswold Way).  This section of the Pennine Way, not so much.  There weren't a large number of options, so as long as we headed in the right direction and were on something vaguely trampled, I was confident we would be fine.  Off the tops, the signs began to reappear, so we could be certain of the final few miles back to Edale.  As we approached the ankle-breaker of a staircase at Jacob's Ladder, we met with several of the runners racing the Edale Skyline (~20mi).  With 15mi under their soles, they were looking tired and ready for the pub at the end.  When we arrived ourselves, it was a veritable runners' haven.

Day 1 finished - at the southern end of the Pennine Way

Day 2 was scheduled as a slightly more "runnable" day out, with 10mi near Ladybower Resevoir.  Once again, the day was dry, if a bit cooler.  The run along above the resevoir was very pretty, and quite a joy to run. Once we got up to Derwent Edge, though, the vast expanse of heather and random rock formations made for a rather spectacular run.  On greyish days, pictures of rock and heather (and the occasional picture-hungry red grouse) don't really say much.  If you've not been in the area before, and you have a chance to go - get out there.  Our jogs from one cool set of rocks to the next was a real joy.

Look: Rocks & heather!

Salt Cellar, I believe.

The Wheel Stones, with a rather tiny Kurt in front.
The plan for Days 3&4 was to rest and do a bit of walking around Durham for a day and then get back on the trails.  Still time on feet, but a chance to recover a bit and let the shoes dry before taking on another 10 miler along Hadrian's Wall.  In weather terms, it might have been better to risk the feet and do the 3 days in a row.  We had rather fine weather for our walking tour, and then had a proper Northumbrian day of wind and rain on slippery rock for our trip along the wall that is meant to be keeping my in-laws at bay.

Hey look - there's actually a bit of wall!
It wasn't a great day for pictures, although there were some excellent views when the sun briefly pushed through the driving drizzle.  Originally, we were going to take a circular route including some of the local moorland, but with a combination of starting from the wrong point (navigation error) and tired legs, we decided not to go bog-slogging in the rain and enjoyed an out-and-back that included some very slippery steps.  It's great to use rock to keep the path from significantly eroding, but since they were almost like ice in the rain, it was a high-concentration effort.

We had planned for a bit of running in Scotland for the next day, but in the end, decided that the opportunity to undo all the good healing was a bit too strong, and cut the running part of our break.  Still, 30mi over 4 days without any significant aches and pains lead me to believe that I will actually be able to do some proper training in the next few months so I'm ultra-fit for 2014.