Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Hills, adventure & ponderings

An ultra adventure and lots of thoughts from the last couple of weeks.

A year has passed…. *sniffles*

It seems surreal that an entire year has passed since I took on my biggest challenge to date: Brathay Challenge of 10 marathons in 10 days around one of the toughest road marathon courses in the UK. The Brathay Windermere Marathon course is beautiful and inspiring and I love the Lake District. But it is tough and hilly and emotional and the uniqueness of this challenge and what makes it so challenging is that you must face your demons every day. If you grow to dislike a part of the course then you must face that enemy every day and it becomes a huge mental battle as well as a tremendous challenge of physical endurance. I must admit, I have felt all week that a part of me is there somehow. Last Friday when this year’s class of 2012 commenced their magnificent journey I thought of them intensely and recalled me drive up to Windermere the day before I started mine. I recalled the emotions, my hopes and my fears and how it all played out as the days rolled by. This event becomes a part of you and I don’t think it ever leaves but I think those memories have often lain dormant until now, reading this year’s blogs and feeling the raw emotion detailed within the words therein. I feel quite emotional and I intend to venture to Windermere for Sunday for Day 10 and the annual Windermere Marathon. It’ll be 3 years to the day since my very first marathon at Windermere and its going to be an emotional one. But it’ll also be a proud one and a happy day of celebration for the runners of 2012 and their magnificent achievement. 

My biggest challenge of late was heading back to the Malvern Hills Ultra to conquer my demons and a lot of unfinished business left over from a DNF at 45 miles in 2010. It was certainly very hilly and most definitely a big challenge…

Malvern Hills Ultra – 53+ miler, Saturday 5th May 2012

Now, the course was really very different from when I last attempted this ultra in 2010, but the hills remained the same. I’m pretty sure a good chunk of the course has changed since 2010 anyway, however significant rainfall in the weeks leading up to this event made the route uncertain until the week before this year’s event. The River Severn had experienced serious flooding and consequently the route had to be drastically altered. Normally we would be heading out towards the Malvern Hills and looping back around to the start at Holt Castle. However, as it turns out, the amended version of this route was to prove even hillier…we were to run out-and-back. Navigating towards and over the Malvern Hills, we then needed to retrace our steps. Navigationally, this seemed easier but –achy-leg wise all I could think was, ‘I wonder which way around the hills are going to hurt the most?’ The answer was to be conclusive: no matter which way you tackle these hills and even the lesser hills on the course, hills will still be hills and legs will still be achy going up them and therefore, every way hurts the most ;-)

So, with a 4am wake up call to make it to the start line for 7ish am we headed towards Malvern and of course, despite leaving early we were late. Well, when I say late I mean we got lost and our satnav couldn’t quite work out the entrance to the start. Fortunately with a bit of guesswork and a turnaround we managed to outsmart the satnav and reached the start line. Leaping out of the car and scrambling for my map-case (to be used for keeping things dry rather than mappage…I am the most useless person with a map, but I did have some written instructions…), bag and banana I jogged over towards race HQ and got my number, attempted to listen to the brief whilst fiddling with my bag and number and ultimately did the most important thing and got to the front of the loo queue…I always worry about this because there is nothing worse than starting an event when you are bursting to go to the loo and when your mind should be on the task at hand but is instead whirring with uncomfortable thoughts of how you can go for a pee…well, it is just distracting.

Luckily there wasn’t a long queue and I had a few minutes to spare as I made my way outside and turned on my Garmin. I was really doubtful that my Garmin would behave itself because it has been temperamental for months upon months and the screen will often become a mass of random pixels or blank and stop working. However I can’t afford to do anything about it right now so I just have to wing it and hope it plays along.
Ultimately I was to be extremely fortunate that my Garmin did decide to play the game. I had uploaded the course to it the night before and with its participation it was able to point us in a lot of correct directions when we very nearly went in a lot of wrong ones. I mean, don’t get me wrong, we did go in some very varied directions also…just not as many as we would have done. This was a very good day for my technology to be working.

I gather that because the route had to be amended in a hurry that some of the written directions weren’t so spot on or as detailed as they might have been. This caused us to get confused at a few tricky junctions. At certain parts of the course there existed ‘Punch Points’ at which we were required to punch a tally card. Failure to reach these punch points and return these cards on the way out and back would result in a 10 minute time penalty added to our official recorded finishing time. I guess this only hugely mattered if you were trying to race and win this event. For us mere mortals we reasoned that if a Punch Point were to be hard to find and take us longer than the 10 minute penalty that we would incur for missing it, then it was probably better to incur that time penalty, because spending a lot of time looking for it would cost us even more time. Fortunately, we were quite adept at finding these points. The last one was tricky, but we found it.

Hills, feeling nauseous and fuelling

The main things that will stay with me with regards to this event are most poignantly the hills! I never facebook or tweet or anything normally during an ultra, but I felt I had to facebook how hilly these hills are. And I’ve done quite a few hilly things.  For some reason they can really zap all the energy out of your legs… I really suffered on this one with a lack of energy and feelings of nausea. Hills can do that to you with regards to nausea. I find that they can affect your breathing which adds to feelings of sickness. However, I also knew that my nutrition strategy for the day wasn’t going so great. I think sometimes it’s fair to say that I almost feel self conscious for eating so early on in an event. I tend to feel quite self aware and question whether I need to eat so early on. I’m good at going for ages without eating a lot or taking on fuel during events. This is probably a better strategy to adopt in training to make you stronger rather than when you’re actually taking part in an event and NEED the fuel. I’m the same with taking on water. In the end this can have a really detrimental effect on your energy levels. I’ve experienced it before and I should know to do so by now: always eat early on…fuel up early and avoid any feelings of nausea. I think there was a stretch of around 15 miles during this ultra where I felt rag-doll like and ill. We eventually stopped at a pub for a refreshing coke, which worked wonders with my packet of prawn and cocktail crisps. I then started to take on a bit more fuel at the remaining check points in the form of peanut butter sandwiches and I really started to feel much fuller of energy and happier. I felt more raring to go at the end of what would ultimately end up to be pretty close to 54 miles that I did about 30 miles earlier. It’s strange how these things turn out. It’s all so unpredictable. I guess that’s what makes it exciting.

Dark fields, climbing gates and getting lost


I was really lucky on this one to come across a familiar running friend and fellow 10in10'er Noel and for him to let me and my nausea tag along really. He is much faster than me, but he provided excellent company. Sometimes these things can be lonely and with some complicated navigationally difficult bits it was nice to have that company and reassurance of going the correct way…sometimes when we weren’t…but it is a whole lot worse to be in that situation alone and not have a clue where you are, with no one to ask. I was also kept amused on route by a new running buddy, Ellie. It was lovely to meet her and I hope to see her on a lot more of these crazy off-road things. Ellie is currently undertaking ‘The Memorial Mile Challenge’ and is running a mile in official races for every service person that has been killed in Afghanistan in Op Herrick. So, needless to say I had lovely and very inspiring company on this adventure.

At some points we took wrong turns and my Garmin would beep that we were ‘off course’, but we managed to get back on the right path together. I can be pretty rubbish with maps so it was nice to have reassurance from two other people. We ended up in a few fields that were pretty hard to navigate once it had gotten dark, but we just kept moving forward and climbed any gates we had to. Climbing gates was a bit of struggle in the latter stages. You really do stiffen up. However, in the latter stages I actually did feel better in myself other that the usual creaky stiffening of muscles. I no longer felt ill and I think the fuel I had been taking on had finally reached my system and made me feel better. All was good and definitely a bit of the route that we had covered some 50 miles earlier was beginning to look familiar. Then, with only a few miles left to go, I thought I could see a figure just in front of us. We hadn’t seen another runner for absolutely hours, but sure enough here was someone just ahead of us.


As it would turn out, there were actually 4 people just in front of us. They had gotten lost some miles earlier and phoned the Race Directors for some guidance. But we now knew we were on the right track and together we all ran to the finish, as the race director came out to greet us. This was the moment we had been working for all day and we were here, at the finish. Hurrah! I LOVE this feeling. I love it. Honestly, there is nothing more satisfying than reaching the finish line and feeling really pleased with it, having overcome obstacles and worked hard out there all day to make it happen. Whenever I get down with the world I think of these moments and treasure them. If I could bottle these moments I would, but then you just can’t buy them. They can only be earned ;-)

As far as finishing venues go, and starting ones for that matter (although it was even better at the finish and I got to explore the venue more) this was great. Holt Castle is lovely and we were given a HUGE medal. There was also loads of tea, coffee, nibbles and food laid on. I had a lovely pasta bake and a cup of homemade soup which was just what I needed. I was even allowed to have a shower and let me tell you, the bathroom was fantastic! The shower was amazing!

Elevation Gain: 6,212 ft. Elevation Loss: 6, 228 ft. Min Elevation: 89 ft. Max Elevation: 1, 363 ft.

All in all I had a brilliant day and I will definitely recommend Ultrarunning ltd …they do everything to get you to the end. They stock their check points with such a variety of food and such friendly people and they just really know their running. You can’t really ask for more than a brilliant ultra event managed by brilliant runners. It was fantastic to go back and settle some unfinished business and this time there was no rain or cows…just LOTS of hills ;-)

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