Friday, 23 October 2009

Every which Way but Loose

October has traditionally been a quiet month for me. My last long race at the Longmynd Hike is at the start of the month and I usually take some time out to rest and recouperate until November when I start to venture out once more.
What is also does is give me some time to mull over what my plans are for next year and I've had an idea thats been going through my head for some time now and I think next year may be the time to put it in place.
I'd like to run all four official Long Distance Footpaths in a single year. That's The West Highland Way, The Great Glen way, The Speyside Way and The Southern Upland Way. There - I've said it now, it's out in the open and I feel better for it.
At the moment, it's just a vague plan and is by no means confirmed. There are numerous logistical issues to tackle and, of course, staying injury free long enough to complete them.
Here are my thoughts at the moment:
  • West Highland Way - Having raced this over the last two years, as long as I get a place in next years race, this one is tried and tested.
  • Great Glen Way - at approx 60 miles, this is doable in a single day but I may split it and do it over 2 days. This does require some degree of support and accommodation etc. which makes the single day option more appealing.
  • Speyside Way - This runs from Buckie to Aviemore along the River Spey and at about 70 miles is also a possible single day run but again, could be done over 2 days with a bit of organising
  • Southern Upland Way - This is the biggest challenge of all 4 and at 212 miles is a mjor undertaking. At the moment, my thoughts are to do it over 5 days which equates to about 45 miles per day. Not knowing the route, I don't know if this is unreasonable or not. The biggest decision will be the logisitics of accommodation, food etc. and this is an issue still to be resolved.

As far as timing is concerned, I'd like to run the Great Glen Way and the Speyside Way prior to the WHW race at the end of June and then set up for the Southern Upland Way in September. Given that I also want to run the Highland Fling in April and I have a cycling trip to France in May, this might be over ambitious for the first halsf of the year but, like I said, it's just vague plans at the moment.

So, if anyone reading this has any experience of either the Great Glen, Speyside or Southern Upland Ways, your comments, advice and thoughts would be appreciated. Leave a comment here or contact me separately. I should also point out that I am more than happy for anyone to join me on all or parts of any of the trips and so let me know if you are interested.

Before all this, there is the minor issue of trying to resolve my list of current injury woes which I am hopeful will allow me to last the pace for a busy year.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Longmynd Hike

For the past half hour I had been rationalising in my head why it was perfectly reasonable to pack in the race there and then. The wind was doing it's best to blow me off the ridge, the rain was hitting my face with such ferocity that it hurt and what's more, I was tired! I was by now, 20 miles into a 50 mile race and if the weather stayed like this for the duration, it was not going to be fun.

However, for some reason, I was still moving forward and perhaps there was a glimmer of hope that the rain was easing and the forecast was for the wind to drop so, I resolved to keep going and see how things felt.

This was my third year at the Longmynd Hike. A 50 mile run through the Shropshire hills covering 8,000 feet of ascent and, starting at 1:00pm meant that a large portion of the run is completed in the dark. I had enjoyed the previous two years and being local to my in-laws it had become a "must do" race. It also happened to be the final race in the Vasque Ultra Series and so does tend to attract a large field.

I line up with 500 other souls in the middle of a field waiting for the signal to go and no sooner were we off than the first hill loomed ahead. There are 17 check points on the route and many of these are perched on top of some of these hills so within the first 20 minutes, I was through the firts check point and heading down towards the second climb. It is quite a shock to the system as within the first 4 miles, you have already climbed two hills and your legs are feeling the effects. I was prepared for this and had set off easily determined not to trash my quads early on and so I felt OK as I left the hills behind and set off on the long drag up to check point Nr. 3. What I wasn't ready for was the strength of the wind which although forecasted, was still a surprise. The next 5 miles or so was spent with the wind head on as i climbed slowly to the next check point. I could feel the energy being sucked out of me and the noise of the wind around my ears was deafening. What amazes me on this route is that despite the inhospitable conditions and remote locations, the check points are all manned by incredibly cheery and enthusiastic volunteers who send you on your way with some words of encourangement and a huge smile.

As I turned and headed across the rough grazing land on my way to the next check point at the Bridges Pub, the rain started and within seconds I was soaked to the skin. The track eventually brought me out onto a country lane and I dropped down steeply to the waiting marshals and a refill of my camelback.

The next stage is a long, very steep climb up a tarmac road which seems to go on for ever and as the intensity of the rain increased, my spirits started to fall. At the top of this climb, you leave the road and start the steep climb up to the top of the Stipperstones. This is a hill from hell as the ridge is about half a mile long and is made up of brick sized rocks at every possible angle preventing you from placing a foot flat on the ground. Coupled with the wind and rain, it was at this point that I had started to entertain thoughts of a DNF.

I was determined to get off the ridge as soon as possible and so put my head down and pushed on. Sure enough, as I dropped down to the bottom, the rain stopped and, as forecasted, the clouds cleared and the sun actually came out. This lifted my spirits considerably and suddenly the task in hand didn't seem quite so bleak.

I passed the 20 mile mark and set off up the next climb of the day which was completed at a slow but steady pace. My quads were hurting on the descents now but I was managing a reasonable shuffle on the flats. The next check point at Bank Farm, allowed me to refuel with some soup and a rice pudding and as I set off into the forest section I was feeling more positive than I had felt all day.

One of the rules of this race is that the organisers group you into groups of three during the hours of darkness and I knew that by the time I reached the next check point at Shelve (30 miles) I would be getting grouped. It was therefore time to suss out the opposition and try to position myself with some one who i thought looked like they would run at my pace. There were a couple who i had been running behind, off and on for some time and they seemed the most lilely options so I spoke to them as we arrived at the checkpoint and they were happy to group up. It turned out that the lady was the same person I had been grouped with the previous year, so I knew we were evenly matched and after a quick introduction to to the other runner (her husband) we were off into the night and heading for the next climb up Corndon Hill.

Although the pace was higher than I would have liked, I was feeling OK as we climbed up under what was now, a bright, clear night with a full moon. A quick stamp on the tally card and we were off down the other side towards the trickiest navigation section of the route. We managed to work our way through the dense woodland and out the other side with a minimum of problems and got out onto a road for a brief flat section before tackling the next climb. Although tired, I was going OK and still felt that I had enough in reserve for the remaining 15 miles and that a reasonable time was on the cards.

We pressed on up the climb of Black Radhley, passing another group on the way. This gave us a bit of a boost and after a very quick check in, we decided to push on hard to the next stage to try and open up a bit of a gap. 38 miles in and we reached the check in at Stipperstones Car Park, the scene of my depression a few hours earlier. Oh how things had changed and we pushed on hard down the road that I had plodded up in the wind and rain earlier that day.
I had been surviving so far on instant soup and coffee provided at the check points and this was being supplemented by some gels, dried apricots and the occassional mini mars bar. It seemed to be working as we kept up a strong pace to the second last check point where, conscious that we were still not clear of the following group, we briefly checked in and then headed for the final climb. By the time we reached the base of Ragleth, I was all but spent and those last steps up to the summit were like walking at high altitude. Very slow, small steps and then a brief pause every couple of minutes to catch my breath before carrying on. Eventually, the summit check point came into view and we knew were as good as home. We got our cards stamped and then mustered up a final push to descend through the trees and into Church Stretton for the last few yards along the pavement to the finish at Church Stretton School.
We crossed the line in 11 hours 25 minutes exhausted but delighted and 15 minutes inside my previous PB. The results are not published yet and so I don't know my position but last year with a slower time I was 38th.
This is a really tough race but now in it's 42nd year, it is really well organised and is over subscribed every year. The challenges this year of the weather at the start and the 8 climbs merely adds to the whole experience.
In the words of Arnie..........."I'll be back"