I used to be an average runner … now I’m an average club runner.
Joining a club has changed my running completely. I do a massive variety of stuff now, I’m faster than I was at half my age and I run up hills, BIG hills, without really thinking about it. Even as I write this on holiday I already have a big run planned for Sunday as the nearby volcano is just crying out to be conquered. It’s only 600m high so no biggie .
Last October though I got a bit carried away and decided to enter the Scafell Sky Race … further and higher than I’ve ever climbed and by quite some margin on both counts. More than double in terms of the climb. Not a problem though, plenty of time to train for it …
… then 9 days later I twisted my ankle at the top of Alwinton. Oh dear!!!
Not the worst injury but it was a continuous nuisance as I mollycoddled it round Wooler Trail HM and Roseberry Topping HM (route, missed the actual race) but gradually it got better. I was continually compensating for it, adjusting my stride so I could land on an obstacle on my dodgy left foot so I could then leap off and land harder on my good right foot. I also tended to run on the right side of narrow paths so my right foot took all the twisting and my left had the easier route down the middle. Not ideal but at least I was still running. Nonetheless I lost a lot of fitness in that time! Hedgehope was awful and High Cup Nick … well let’s just pretend that didn’t happen.
I started getting fitter though and I was enjoying my running again so bring on High Fells of Thrunton HM … except it got postponed due to bad weather so EMC it was instead …
… and now I get a minor niggle in my groin and end up walking home. Oh FFS!!!
Again it wasn’t that bad and two weeks later it was Brough Law, I made a decent effort there and finally my challenge was properly on again. After an extended period of genuine concern that I wouldn’t make it to the start of Scafell my mood and confidence improved and training resumed in earnest.
Sometime along the way I’d had a chat with a fellow Polyfeller (GLD you know who you are) and he’d suggested 800m as a good weekly average to aim for – I immediately took this to heart and actually averaged slightly over 1000m but 800m became an absolute minimum to me – anything less was failure but not one to stress over. I also penned a poem about the race, not going to win any prizes but to the EMCers out there this started as a Saturday ditty but turned into something a little more meaningful to me and as a result never got posted. I’m no poet and with a degree of embarrassment I include it for your amusement but I read this frequently and the final verse became a mantra for me. When I needed to push myself I would repeat that line over and over (and over …) again. Giving up was not an option … I’m not a quitter!!! I just need to get a little bit fitter.
So I made it … I got myself to the start line, that at least was the first hurdle done! I’d been chatting with a bloke on the bus on the way there, we struck up a decent camaraderie and we both confessed a degree of nervous respect for the challenge. My new found friend had a string of arrows to his bow such as the Ring of Steall Skyrace and the Half Marathon du Mont Blanc and again I had doubts whether I’d bitten off more than I could chew. But I was on the bus now … no going back even if I wanted to. Not that I did – it had been a long journey to get here and I was happy now that what would be, would be!
Having been concerned about failing the 9 hour cut-off I had got as ridiculously optimistic as 7 hours. Then on the Saturday of race weekend I looked at the times of various Polyfellers that had just smashed Wasdale, not a kick in the teeth off either the distance or the elevation so easily extrapolated. Of course I then need to adjust for the fact I am not the runner that those guys are… hmm OK so 7 hours is a bit unrealistic … perhaps 8? But you know what … I had still managed to stick to my original thinking that just finishing would be brilliant, who cares what my time is, if I finish then job done and there was not even the tiniest part of me that didn’t believe that. That’s a pretty healthy attitude for this particular run and quite unlike me .
Pre-race was nicely taken up queueing for stuff not requiring discussion and amusingly spending a ridiculous number of minutes looking for a bin to dispose of a banana skin … it all helped to keep my mind off the inevitable.
A whistle draws us close and nervously we all shuffle forward and start to assemble. I’d lost my bus friend at this point so never got the chance to wish him well but now was not the time to be fretting about that. Need to get my pack run-ready … oh blimey I don’t even have my heart rate monitor on. It won’t make me run faster but I always wear it – it’s just part of who I am – without it Strava won’t know how hard I’ve worked and it might tell me I’ve lost fitness – that won’t do .
So here we go, last year’s ~38km was back up to the headline 40km for 2018 and as of Saturday’s briefing had earned itself a bonus 2km just for the hell of it. I’d run 40km recently but never 42km and thanks to all my minor injury woes my biggest elevation to date remained around the 1400m mark – only an extra 1600m to do on top of that then. But I have trained hard, I have the utmost respect for the ascent but I don’t fear it. Bring it on …
A final start line selfie and we’re off. Almost immediately I have problems … didn’t see this particular problem coming but some idiot is trying to poke me with sticks – “Ive bought the damn things so I’m damn well going to use them” he says as he runs along on the flat road holding them extended but horizontal. Grrr! I too had bought some poles (or rather requested for my birthday) but didn’t take to them on the wee hill repeats I used for training and having done no big training runs at all in 2018 I felt they would be an encumbrance rather than a help so left them at home.
The masses sorted themselves out though and quite quickly I’m running at roughly the same pace as others around me – we’re on trails, rhythm is good, conditions are fab and there’s a definite sense of togetherness as we all bumble along to the first climb … a KOM stage to some but let’s be honest, not me.
A slight delay as everyone bunches up dibbing themselves into the KOM stage then we’re off again, oh so slowly. It’s a steep climb up a narrow path with rocky climbs so we’re entirely constrained to the pace of those ahead. The odd person takes a more direct line but makes little ground and then they in turn become the pace setter but at this stage nobody cares. The true King of the Mountain is long gone. A drone hovers above and some runners turn and wave, this is symptomatic of the pack I’m running with, we’re all here just to finish and hopefully enjoy ourselves en route.
I see my bus friend ahead, he’s going ever so slowly and already I fear for him. He’s sweating buckets, obviously struggling and we’re barely 3km in. As I pass him I wish him well and offer encouragement but I can already see how this ends, I just need to make sure I’m not joining him on the bus.
Things are going well. The first climb is done, and for a first climb it was a cracker, close to 700m of unrelenting hand on thigh slog with only the briefest of runnable sections before the path turns skyward again then a bit of respite as we descend from the summit. Quite often when I descend during races I’m thinking “what goes down must come up” and today I knew that was true but at this early stage it was irrelevant.
I even smiled to myself as I confirmed with the marshall that I was indeed at the top of Green Gable. This was a fully marked trail run but as someone starting to do a bit of fell running a faux pas at this stage would have been quite embarrassing … and almost certainly would not have made it into this article!
Next up (or rather down) was the only significant section of scree. As a runner this was novel … I’ve messed about on scree many years ago but never as a serious runner, although I don’t think that’s particularly relevant. Either way it was tentative to start then as I gained more confidence and trusted myself to go with gravity my pace picked up and the smile on my face widened. Then all too soon I was at the bottom. Actually that was kinda fun . Can I go back and do that again? Perhaps that would be a bit foolhardy – I’ve had the utmost respect for this challenge for 8 months, let’s not spoil it now!
As I came off the scree and saw the trail wend in front of me as far as I could see I started to get my first education about technical running – I’ve run on some tough trails and on occasion I’ve run on terrain where rash decisions could cause you serious problems but what I hadn’t expected from this race was how much of the flat and downhill sections I wouldn’t be able to run … the rockiness was unrelenting. I ran when I could but a few hundred metres on the terrain is ankle breaking and I’m gingerly picking my way again. It was impossible to get any sort of rhythm going.
It was going well though, my training had paid off and I wasn’t struggling with the ascent, I didn’t notice when I passed the 1500m mark and transitioned into my biggest climb ever. Instead each ascent became a series of “50m more” sections. That was how I dealt with it – manageable chunks, one at a time, and I was chalking them up with relative ease. A bit like my Wednesday lunchtime reps but without the downhill rests in between.
Scafell itself was almost an anticlimax … seriously England, is that all you’ve got? I chatted to someone “walking” his dog before he said “I’ve held you up enough” and broke into a run up the last wee section. In reality I think he was more concerned with the 3 hour window he’d agreed with his girlfriend at the bottom of the mountain. I joked he was putting us runners to shame but he shouted back that he hadn’t already run 8 miles then disappeared into the clouds. This was a theme and mostly from people with less appreciation than the previous chap who was himself a serious fell/mountain runner. So many people shouted encouragement as we ran or power walked past and many asked how far we’d come. The runner in front of me was unable to speak when posed the question and the woman laughed that he didn’t have a clue but it was all good natured. I put her right and she looked suitably impressed … and even more so when she learned that our final destination was to be Ambleside.
Then came the first truly sobering section … traversing scree and dodging round rocky outcrops.Running along trails barely a foot wide with steep drop offs. I’m pretty sure you’d survive a fall here but you would definitely regret it, possibly forever, and there was always the threat of a bit of bad luck as you bounced down the mountainside.
At this point I was running with a sizeable group, many of whom I think knew each other. I was only just keeping up but I was making a concerted effort to do so – a bit of company on this section was more than a little welcome. As we finally reached safer terrain I commented that that was definitely the quietest slow run/walk I have ever done. Fell and trail runners chat in a way that road runners don’t (at least given where I slot into either group) but there had been no chat for quite some time despite the lack of serious physical effort. Must concentrate!!!
Then came my second education. My training had concentrated on short hill reps … I ran up … I ran down … over and over again. Erm OK? The problem with this is that I RAN down, reasonably quickly. I was training my calves to run up hills but I was not preparing my quads for the bashing they would take coming off Bow Fell, the path was a series of stone staircases and every step I was putting the brakes on, not a familiar motion for me … that section really hurt.
Finally I made it to the bottom of the valley and never before had a flat section of road been so welcome. Now for some genuine running, albeit quite slow running. Did I mention that my quads were sore?
Next up was the half way checkpoint, we ran down to the checkpoint only to have to climb back up the same path afterwards. One runner declared he wasn’t going back up. It’s not obvious to me why someone would give up at this point when they were well within cut-off and appeared to be going well. At this stage I felt relatively comfortable, fairly strong and was confident of finishing.
Duly rested and water replenished I set off again with just a wee slog up to Harrison Stickle – at close to 600m of ascent this was the second biggest climb but it was by far the hardest … it seemed interminably long and coming so deep into the race was pretty gruelling.
50m at a time …
50m at a time …
… it also involved the only section where I believe that a slip could prove fatal. It certainly focuses the attention running on a narrow path with a long and near vertical drop right beside you. When I get tired it’s not uncommon for me to stumble over obstacles because I haven’t lifted my foot enough – that truly is not an option here. If you don’t feel confident then simply walk it, it’s not a long section. Walking or running, either way …
50m at a time …
50m at a time …
… does the job, and Harrison Stickle rewards with one of many magnificent views, this one looking out across to Stickle Tarn. Plus the prospect of one of the more runnable sections. The back of the run is well and truly broken now and the challenge that remains is more about the miles than the climb.
I take a wrong turn once but only get about 100m before realising. As I get back on track I wonder how I missed the really quite obvious bit of tape that marks the correct route.
Shortly after I pop out onto a road and a rather unexpected checkpoint with a water bowser. I’ve only got about 6km to go and politely decline the water as I think I have enough remaining to last me but the marshall suggests otherwise – “… are you sure, you’ve still got about an hour to go?” – an hour! Oh boy! Of course the big climbs are done but we’re not done climbing altogether yet.
One final climb though and that was it, all that remained was a gentle run down into Ambleside and a final sprint (not really) up the university steps to the finish line, a round of applause, a few goodies and a very welcome hose down. No medal and I like a bit of bling but I’d bought a goat bell for Fraser to support me with so I reclaimed that and called it a medal. It doesn’t say “finisher” on it, but nor does it need to … I’ll never forget I finished this one.
8:50 … job done!
Did I enjoy it? Absolutely! Loved it!
Would I do it again? No! In fact I almost immediately declared that I would never do anything that extreme again. Yet here I am a few weeks later seriously considering Snowdon Ultra … 50km but doesn’t look nearly as technical. I’ll research it properly when the entries open next year. And of course if I do Scafell in 2018 and Snowdon in 2019, then 2020 just has to be …
As for my bus mate … unfortunately my early doors prediction was right and he was timed out at the half way checkpoint. I hope he enjoyed his day anyway, the race was very heavily biased towards the first half so he still ran well over a half marathon taking in the highest peak in England, the short scree section, lots of technical trails, dodged round a huge rocky outcrop, traversed the great slab and ran part of the famous corridor route. Not a bad day out.
A few words on the race organisation … simply brilliant! The route was marked very well and the marshalls were awesome, cheering everyone on and clanging their cow bells throughout. Up in the clouds you could often hear a cow bell long before you actually see anyone but as soon as you came into view you were left in no doubt whatsoever that you are awesome and doing amazingly well.
The final formal cut-off was ditched this year due to the extreme temperature but I still came in just inside the 9 hours and I am delighted with that. Conditions aside that is what I set out to do and it would have tainted the achievement for me if I’d strayed into concessionary territory. But I didn’t … I managed a bona fide finish and the marshalls are right …
… I am awesome and I did do amazingly well … for an average runner!