The only way is Up

Saturday 29th April at 8a.m. is the scheduled start time for my HeadToHead adventure, attempting to break the record for running the length of Ireland (bottom to top) from Mizen Head to Malin Head. It’s going to require a lot to go right and very little to go wrong. Luck will definitely help. Thanks to everyone who has been wishing some of that precious commodity!

I think a lot of people would be surprised by how little detailed analysis I’ve putting into this. My main analysis was picking the most optimal route, which I remain happy with. The route is displayed on the live tracking page at Primal Tracking (http://live.primaltracking.com/headtohead/). There are options there for choosing different base maps. OpenTopo maps look particularly interesting to my navigation-nerd eyes, with lots of contour detail.

Primal tracking have very helpfully put markers on the route at 100 kilometer intervals. My timings for hitting these should show up on the “leaderboard”, allowing a bit of spectator analysis of timings. The trackers have been setup to update every 90 seconds. Also notable on the tracking page is that my support crew also have a separate tracker. So there no excuses there for moving trackers around… my tracker will stay with me all the time.

I welcome everyone and anyone to come out and have a look, or even run along for a while. The tracking website should make it easy to find me. The main reason for encouraging this is for verification. The more people that see me running the route the better. The second reason is the simple one that it’s nice to meet people who are interested in this. Of course I can’t guarantee that I’ll be very talkative, but even if I’m going through a low it is always good to meet people. Inside I’ll be smiling!

As well as the tracker, my other main verification tool will be my Suunto Ambit 3 Peak watch. I’ve been “playing” with it for a few weeks since getting it from the Great Outdoors, getting confident with its features. It has a massive capacity to store tracking data, and can be set up with a potential 200 hours battery duration. I will set up to record GPS position at 1 minute intervals to ensure that battery life exceeds my likely interval between sleep stops. In fact it should manage the whole trip in one go. I will set its storage interval for other data at a 1 second interval.

Whenever the opportunity arises (More than likely sleep stops) I hope to get my support crew to upload the tracking data from the watch. This will be uploaded directly to Suunto’s Movescount site to a public profile which can be views here : http://www.movescount.com/members/member1677354-headtohead. This should also push the same data to a public profile on Strava which can be viewed here : https://www.strava.com/athletes/headtohead

I have done very little planning on timings and locations along the route. I’m going to be trusting my experience and pacing to get things right. I only have a very broad outline of daily distance target. These are: 200km, 150km, 150km, remainder… not very complicated.  There are lots of factors that are likely to vary those figures in reality, such as how I deal with hills, and what the weather decides to do! Hills will be likely to be a factor at either end of the run, but particularly the first day.

Mizen to Malin Route Profile

Malin to Mizen Route Profile

Sleep strategy is similarly dynamic. The broad aim will be to get through all the way to the second night before sleeping. And from there take it as needed, with a provisional target of 2-3 hours per night, and power naps where necessary. The plan is to take these in the camper van which the support crew will be driving, minimising time off route to as close to zero as possible.

Food strategy will be similarly dynamic. Those that know me know that I usually don’t eat too much in events like this. I’ve managed to run 24 hour races eating virtually nothing, so I’ll be hoping to keep things simple and minimal. There’ll be no feeding schedule. No “power” bars or similar. Any big meals will probably be fast food! Richard assures me he knows where all the McDs are on the route 🙂 Real food will be a priority in theory. I imagine there will be more chocolate bars and jaffa cakes in practice

Liquids strategy will be similarly dynamic. No schedules… just drinking to thirst. Again, no “energy” drinks.  I usually go for fruit juices and smoothies, and flavoured milk. A bit less gunky and more “real”, but more importantly those are things I actually like drinking. There’ll probably be a few soft drinks as well.

The weather forecast at the moment is looking, ehhh, iffy! Very Irish in fact. I reckon I’ll get a mix of everything. This a definite risk factor. I should have the gear to deal with everything and anything though. This is where the likes of my much loved Columbia Outdry shell  jackets become very useful indeed! The one thing that is looking good weather wise is my choice of direction which works better with the predicted winds.

I’m looking forward to the journey. I will be revisiting some of my favourite parts of Ireland (West Cork) and hopefully seeing lots of places I haven’t visited before now, especially the “top” of the country up at Malin Head and the Inishowen Peninsula.

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Malin Head… the end of the road.

Now I need to head off and do a bit of running!

 

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HeadToHead : Chasing Dreams and Ambitions

For a long long time I have been promising myself to try to run the length of Ireland (Mizen Head to Malin Head), and try to set a new record. I’ve always managed to find a reason why I should do it “next year”. Finally the time for procrastinating is over. I’m going to give it a shot this year. Specifically, the plan is to set off from Mizen Head on Saturday 29th April.

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Mizen Head, Co Cork… The end of the world!

History and Inspiration

The current record is held by the marvelous Mimi Anderson, an ultra runner with huge experience and pedigree. Her record of 3 days, 15 hours, 36 minutes was set in 2012. That is superb record and will be a tough target to beat, leaving very little margin for long sleeps or navigation errors. The record for the traverse of Ireland is an unusual one, in that the last 3 holders of the record are all female (They all happen to British as well). I would guess there are very few running world records with such a tremendous record of female dominance.

The current male record is held by my good friend Richard Donovan. He has actually run the route twice, once in each direction. I’ve borrowed his tag for one of his runs, HeadToHead, as the name for my own record attempt. It’s a great name! Under normal circumstances I’d expect Richard to pop up and join me on route at some point. But these days Richard doesn’t bother with the trivialities of running across countries. Instead he will more than likely be setting off to run his third continental traverse, across South America, when I’m setting off in his old footsteps.

There have been a few other attempts on the record that I have followed over the years. Most recently a fellow Corkonian, Alex O’Shea attempted to break the record in 2015, but had to pull out when he started getting some significant injuries. Alex has since set some impressive times in 50km and 100km races, as well as going over 220km in his first 24 hour race.

Two of the people who inspired more than most to get into ultra were Graham and Jane Porter. I spent many hours after IMRA mountain running races being enthralled as they regaled their audience with tales of their ultra running exploits. One of those was running Malin to Mizen. Indeed Jane held the female record for many years. The seeds for this run were planted a long time ago!

How it works

It’s a runner’s choice whether to run from Mizen to Malin or vice versa. The record has been set in both directions over the years, so there is no apparent better choice. There seems to be a slight preference for Malin to Mizen (North to South). Maybe because it is “down” the map! I’ve chosen to run from Mizen to Malin (South to North). There are 2 reasons for this. The first is that the southern end of the route is hillier than the northern end, and my preference would be to hit the hills in a fresher state. The second is that in general the prevailing wind direction in Ireland is from the south west. Relying on predicable weather in Ireland is a fool’s game, but I might as well load the dice as well as I can to assist the attempt.

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It would be nice to get weather like this!

The route is also completely open choice. A runner is free to take any road, or indeed go off road if desired. The route must be run contiguously with no gaps (although a runner can be transported back to previous point on the route). However the entire line must be run with no gaps. Sleep and food breaks are perfectly fine, but if they are taken off route then the runner must be returned to a point where they stopped (or before). There is no skipping or running equivalent off-line distances allowed.

The time starts from one headland (Mizen in my case) and does not stop until reaching the far end of Ireland at the opposing headland (Malin in my case). Nothing stops the watch… sleeping, eating, nature breaks, navigation errors, hospital visits, whatever…. it’s all on the clock. If any unexpected obstacles are encountered (road works, diversions, floods, earthquakes, whatever) that’s just tough luck. The clock doesn’t stop.

To say the least there is plenty of route choice. In the last few years many online route finding websites have been developed, which makes life a lot easier for the internet generation! The original record setters for Mizen/Malin would have had to work it all out the old fashioned way with maps and whatever local knowledge could be amassed or consulted. Being a competitive navigator I had my own ideas of where the optimal route go, but boy was I wrong. My guesses were more westerly than my final choice.

Google maps won the prize for best route finding. Having examined its first choice it seems almost optimal. There are about 2 kilometers where I might deviate slightly to avoid shorter sidetrack roads and just stay on the more prominent road. It has plotted an interesting route through the hills of west Cork. It is more undulating than routes previous runners have taken (that I can find), but is the shortest by about 5 or 10 kilometers. Given my ability to run hills, that would seem like an excellent trade off.

HeadtoHead Route

Mizen to Malin Route, as suggested by Google Maps

FKT Issues and Controversies

An endevour like this is classiffied as a Fastest Known Time, rather than a race. Over the years there have been many prominent issues with people claiming Fastest Known Times (FKTs), particularly where prominent records are involved. Ultra running FKT records have historically required a great degree of trust and honour. FKTs are not races. They don’t have referees, or other competitors keeping an eye on things.

Recently there have been very prominent claims for FKTs that have been discovered to have been cheating. These have included claims for running the length of Britain (Land’s End to John O’ Groats – LEJOG), running across America, and running the Appalachian trail. These have generated a huge amount of controversy and rancour (The cheaters rarely admit to their crimes, and often have a lot of unquestioning supporters)

Quite a lot of the cheating is often justified by pointing out that the endeavour is being used to raise money for charity, as if this somehow justifies the cheating behaviors (Both by the runners themselves and by their supporters). It’s the classic “Lance Armstrong” charity defense (Never mind the cheating… look at the money for raised for charity). Quite often some of the monies raised for these FKTs has gone to fund the athlete’s expenses in undertaking the attempt, rather than going directly to the charity.

My motivation for running this FKT attempt is purely as an athletic endeavour. To be frank, it’s all about achieving my own ambitions. I will not be raising any money for any charity. I will not be using the crutch of fundraising to justify any unethical behaviour. I won’t be soliciting any donations. I will fund the expenses for the attempt out of my own pocket (With help from my  long-time loyal sponsors, including Columbia and the Great Outdoors, providing me with some very useful clothing and equipment). It’s all about the record! If I fail, then so be it. No big deal. It’s not life and death.

Tracking and Verification

Given the amount of controversies around some FKT attempts it is important to have high standards of verification around the attempt. The obvious startpoint is this announcement of my attempt in advance, along with my start time and intended route. Anyone and everyone is more than welcome to come out and watch, or join me for a while. Of course support and encouragement will also be most welcome.

I hope to use two electronic means of verification. I will be carrying a live tracker provided by Primal tracking. This compact GPS tracking device uses mobile phone networks to relay position information from the tracker to Primal Tracking’s Website, giving a near real-time update of my position over the course of the event (Allowing for mobile network coverage). This should make it easy to find me and verify the attempt in real time. It will also generate an electronic trace of the tracker’s journey. The live tracking will be available at live.primaltracking.com/headtohead.

I will also be wearing a Suunto Ambit 3 Peak GPS tracking watch, provided by the Great Outdoors. I worked with John Guy in the shop to work out which watch would offer the best combination of features for such a huge undertaking. We both came to the same conclusion that the Suunto Ambit 3 Peak’s massive battery life compared to all other tracking watches made it the obvious choice (With a one minute GPS tracking interval it has a potential 200 hours of battery life). My intention will be to publish the available tracking data (All data, including cadence) recorded from this device for the entire event, as quickly as possible. I’ve never worn a GPS tracking watch to this point, so I am currently wearing it in training for familiarisation.

Support Crew and Help

The single most important requirement to make this attempt is to have a good support crew. I’m very lucky that my good friend and Adventure Racing team-mate Richard Nunan volunteered his help early and enthusiastically. Richard has a strong background in elite level sports in both a competitive and administrative capacity. Being an adventure racer and a multi-day ultra runner himself, he knows what is involved in and undertaking like this. Being my team-mate, he is also familiar with my own foibles and behaviors which manifest themselves during exhausted sleep deprived racing conditions. Richard is in charge of all support and logistics.

Richard is going to be joined by another of my Adventure Racing Team-mates, Taryn McCoy. Taryn brings a similar level of experience to the support crew. It’s also a big advantage that Taryn and Richard are well used to working together. It’s as important that the support crew will be able to look after and take care of themselves, as well as occasionally throwing food and drinks in my direction. Hopefully Richard will also get the chance to post updates to my facebook page during the attempt.

If anyone would like to get in contact with Richard and myself about helping out with the attempt, or any other queries, we can be emailed at headtohead2017@gmail.com. In the meantime, prepartaions continue!

(I know I have yet to finish my Spine race report…it’s in progress…nearly there. But I’ve been a little distracted!).

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The Spine Race 2017, Part 2 – Wall to Wall adventures

I was feeling relaxed and quite energetic heading out and away from CP1 at Hebden. After the initial technical climb and muck traverse I was able to get running at a nice trotting pace heading once I hit the road heading uphill back towards the Pennine way proper. I had a look out to my right as I went to see if there was any sign of the chasing pack, but couldn’t pick out any likely moving headtorches in the landscape (Visibility was excellent here… it was varying a lot through the night).

In the last 2 years I had managed to make at least one if not more navigation mistakes here re-establishing my route back on the Pennine way, so I took extra care this year and made sure to nail it! Getting onto the trail through the open ground traverse along Heptondstall Moor I got sight of a headtorch in the distance ahead… that must be Eugene. That’s the first time I’ve had a following sightline to one of the pair ahead since they made their push. Not long afterwards the weather reverted back to fog and mist again, and I found myself yet again only able to see one or two footsteps ahead.

From all the buzzing activity of CP1 I was now back out very much alone and isolated on the moors, fully responsible for looking after myself. Quite a contrast in a short space of time. I was very sure of my memory of this section, but even though was occasionally using the GPS to verify that I was correct. Better safe than sorry.

The next few maneuvers, off the moors, down into a river valley (dropping out of the mist again), then up onto a minor road, then a nice road running interval over to more reservoirs, seemed to flow much quicker than previous years. Looking down from the road across the valley at the route ahead beside the water of the reservoirs I could see a headtorch light. Eugene was checking the gap! It was probably about 6 minutes or so.

After crossing the initial damn and then turning to run along beside the reservoirs I could see the valley ahead, and knew the track climbed out to the right. I could see a headtorch looking back whilst climbing out… Pavel was also checking gaps! A few minutes later I could see Eugene’s headtorch heading up out of the valley. He had probably closed in a bit on Pavel.

By the time I was climbing out myself they were well over the brow of the hill, so I had lost the long sightlines and wasn’t able to see any trace of them ahead. Back to the running in isolation again, but at least I could see more than a few meters since the I was still below the mist.

A steep descent took me down to Ponden Reservoir. In previous years there would generally be a safety check here, but no sign of anyone this night. I wasn’t at all worried about that, just slightly missed having someone to say hello to at this point!

after some more steady running I hit the short road section before the steep climb out from the Ponden area. I caught sight of a headtorch above and ahead looking back… possibly slightly closer. There’s still virtually nothing in this, and I’m happy knocking out my own steady pace and holding the gap reasonably steady, even though I’m behind.

The next section is a long shallow climb up bare hill. It’s another classic moorland landscape, and it was no reals surprise to have the mist return as I climbed up, yet again ensuring that I had to keep concentration up to ensure accurate navigation. Yet again, the long shallow descent off this hill was had lots of slippy slabs mixed in with tufty bog, with visibility mostly down to a meter or two.

Once off the moors and dropping back out of the mist it was back to running through farmland before reaching the outskirts of the village of Cowling. This time the memory of a safety team from prior years didn’t disappoint, as I was greeted onto the road by offers of a hot drink and some mars bars. Both were accepted gratefully!  I noted to myself that I was much less thirsty than I had been at this point last year, which was good. Of course I checked on the gaps. It turned out to be a singular gap, as the the 2 ahead were back to running as a pair again. They were 5 or 10 minutes ahead.

After leaving the safety check and running through the farmlands ahead I caught sight of the headtorches ahead heading up the next climb. They were probably kilometer or two ahead. Still close. Still steady. Still racing! The next 2 or 3 kilometers covers lots of undulating farmland, with one or two short sections of less than obvious routing, which I mostly was able to navigate from memory.

A sharp descent lead into the village of Lothersdale. I recognise the name from discussions on the various Spine internet groups. I think there might be some Spine-friendly pub here serving food. But the only sign of any life I have ever seen in this village on any year is Pavel and Eugene. Same again this year. It must be well past closing time. Not that I was paying any attention to the real world time. Once I’m in race mode time becomes daylight, nighttime, and gaps ahead and behind.

The 3 of us had made a small mess of exiting this village last year, so I paid attention to making sure to hit the correct track out and up into the fields up and ahead. Once I was on more shallow ground I was able to mix in steady marching with slow running.

About 10 minutes later I found myself being “walled out” as I reached the top of a field only to be surrounded by wall boundaries blocking the route ahead without obvious crossing points. A GPS check revealed I was only slightly off course, but nevertheless on the wrong side of the wall to my right. After a few quick checks for easy alternatives I reckoned the quickest thing to do was to just scramble over the thing.

I headed into the corner and climbed up. Just as I was about to cross over the top I had small slip (everything was still very wet) and went crashing back to ground, landing on front side down. Nothing particularly unusual there. However I had my GPS hanging around my neck on a lanyard, and I landed on this. That bloody hurt! I checked the GPS, and it was unscathed, thankfully. It’s a useful tool for quick navigation confirmation checks (as well as being mandatory race gear). The second attempt was less dramatic and more successful, bringing me back on route.

More climbing through farmland took me up to another section of moorland at Elslack moor, where I was yet again enveloped in mist for the traverse across the small boggy peak and back down to a road section. I knew from memory that there was 5 or 10 minutes of easy road running here, before a slight left turn leads off the road for a long off road descending section on mixed ground, including lethally slippy wooden sections.

My route memory proved to be be extremely accurate. The descent pops out into farmland and then backroads into the village of Thornton, where there was of course no sign of life. After a road section out of here the route goes over undulating farmland which is very boggy and draggy. I always hate this section. It always turns out less runnable than it looks. A short steep climb then pops out onto a dead flat section running alongside a canal.

After leaving the canal there is another long undulating section through low farmland which leads towards Gargrave village. This is another section which always seems to go slower than it looks like it should on paper. Last year there had been a safety check on the outskirts of Gargrave, but there was no sign of anyone this year. I would happily have pounced on an offer of a hot drink here, but not to be.

Heading out of the village there was a lone race supporter in his car. I checked the gap with him, and he reckoned it was about 30 minutes…what!! how did that happen. I didn’t think I was ran all that slow over the last while. Even allowing for variability in people’s estimations that was a big change. However I was starting to feel pretty tired at this point. I asked if he had any coke or fanta (you don’t ask, you don’t get!). He hadn’t, but he offered some water, which I was grateful for. Better than grabbing it from a stream in farmland.

I ate some of my homemade energy balls and eventually converted my trudge along the road back into a run, though not a particularly fast run. I was definitely feeling more tired than I expected to at this point. I was breathing much more heavily than I thought I should be considering the relatively slow speed I was making. It was a bit unexpedly early in the race to be feeling like this.

Soon the track headed off road again. Back into the slidey stuff! Soon I caught site of someone’s headtorch making their way a few hundred meters ahead on the trail. Surely this couldn’t be one of the pair ahead? About 10 minutes later I caught up and discovered it was someone from race safety out making their way along the trail. I tried not get distracted , so pushed on, trying to make a good pace on the downhill open ground ahead.

The end of this descent reaches a river, which the Pennine way follows upstream 6or 7 kilometers up to Mahlam. This entire section, being reasonably flat, was definitely one where I had to try to keep my pace up, and not let my fatigue be an excuse to slow down too much. Definitely hard work, requiring concentration. At least navigation was mostly straightforward, though I did manage to loose the path for a few minutes at one point and had to double track to hit a bridge crossing a small stream.

The relatively straightforward running finished approaching the little hamlet of Hanlith, where the ground was so mucky and cut up by vehicle tracks that it was too energy sapping to attempt to run. There was relief of sorts after a few minutes of this, hitting the road through the hamlet, but that was tempered by having to follow the road right and steeply uphill for a few minutes. I ran very little of this. On the plus side, most of this climbing section was efficiently done on road. Back onto off road tracks leaving the hamlet the ground levelled off, with views of the river valley below.

A few minutes later, and starting the descent back towards the river again, I caught site of a pair of people about a kilometer or so ahead heading up the Pennine Way. Again, surely this couldn’t be Pavel and Eugene ahead. They looked to be hardly making any forward progress. I carried on at my own pace. About 5 minutes later I was back down on the tracks beside the river, heading onto more solid ground leading into Mahlam village.

I said hello to the two walkers as I passed. They looked like racers alright, but weren’t Pavel and Eugene  (unfortunately…but that would have been too easy), so I reckoned that they must be Challenger competitors. In Mahlam village I came across a support car waiting, which turned out to be an Irish crew. Wayhey! They asked if I had seen their runners, so I let them know they were nearly here (I hadn’t realised they were fellow paddies when I passed them a few minutes ago… I would have been a bit more raucous had I known). I took up their offer of some goodies, grabbing a bit of Coke and some jellies.

Of course I asked how far in front the other 2 were. They reckoned that they were about 15 minutes ahead.  I was surprised at that, it would mean I had made up some ground on a section where I didn’t think I had been moving particularly quickly at all. I thanked the lads, wished them luck, and headed on.

The road out of Malam start to climb after a few hundred meters, then goes off road with a steeper short climb. The spectacular Mahlam Cove was ahead. I could make out the headtorches of Pavel and Eugene on the top heading away. I definitely had made up some ground. But it was far from an easy straight line run between them and me.

It’s a nice run down into the base of Mahlam Cove. This is followed by a brutal long steep stone stepped climb out left and over the top of the cliffs. I put my head down and tried my best to march up this section at as good a speed as I could muster. I was definitely getting at least a mental boost from my recent Coke fuelling.

I love the section beyond Mahlam Cove through Ing Scarr, a wonderful naturally cut valley which cerves between surrounding rock walls. I couldn’t see any sign of the the pair ahead after coming over the top of Mahlam Cove, so I wasn’t that close to them. I tried to enjoy this section as much as possible, before it climbed up towards Mahlam Tarn (lake).

The Irish support crew were parked at the road crossing before the lake. Their latest update wasn’t such good news though… they reckoned the 2 lads were about 35 minutes ahead. I didn’t think I had been that slow since last seeing them. Hopefully their estimate was long, but they seemed pretty certain.

I was approaching CP 1.5 at Mahlam Tarn. It’s fairly flat from here in. One last push required before a brief interlude to come. Thankfully this section seemed to go reasonably quickly in my mind. I was keeping an eye for headtorches ahead. I could see moving lights near where I expected the CP to be located, but the pattern didn’t look quite right. Sure enough, it turned out to be camera lights.

I arrived into the bright lights of the room in Mahlam Tarn House which is where the safety check[point of CP 1.5 is located, and was greeted by 5 or 6 race staff. This isn’t a full CP, but hot drinks were offered, and I happily accepted a coffee. One of the marshalls was keeping track of arrival times, so he let me know I was about 20 minutes behind the other pair, who were still together. They had spent about 8 minutes here. That was now set as my maximum time to top here. Since I had no major maintenance requirements (Just consuming a hot drink for energy and taking a short sit-down), I was able to get out in about 7 minutes.

I ran out with both still and video camera operators for company for a hundred or two meters up the road, and then I was back into the darkness. My headtorch now flashed and cut-out, indicating that batteries were low. However there was a trace of the coming daybreak in the sky, so I turned it back on again and hoped I might make it all the way on the current battery until there was enough usable light in the dawn.

About 10 or 15 minutes out from CP 1.5 the track dips down into a river valley before heading back up to a road on the other side, and then heading uphill towards Fountains Fell. The light was increasing, but headtorches were still required. There was a long sightline before this dip, and I could see the headtorches of the other pair climbing about a kilometer ahead or so ahead. The gap was still negligible. For this stage of the race. Seeing them ahead was good positive motivation though, especially since I had been very much running my own pace.

The climb up to the Fountains Fell plateau is deceptively long, with lots of false tops along the way. But I knew this, so was mentally prepared for the long climb. There was now enough light to dispense with my headtorch. A lot of the upper sections of the climb had hardcore gravel sections laid down. Unlike last year, there was no snow covering the tracks, so I was able to make quicker progress as a result. It was still a long climb!

Crossing the the plateau of Fountains Fell gives a chance to look across the valley and see Pen-y-ghent looming in the distance. The weather is still pretty poor though, so I can’t see the full peak. Not good for any photographers hanging around over there… pity.

The descent is quite rocky and technical to begin with. In fact in the wet conditions it was technical all the way down to the road. The upper sections are primarily rocky and steep, requiring careful concentration to ensure good foot placement. Avoiding the stumpy rocks requires risking slippy grassy/muddy ground. Potentially faster, but with a higher chance of going for an unscheduled slide! I was still running well, and made good speed here.

I could see someone in the distance on the track near the road. After a a few glances I figured out they were heading in the same direction, so more likely to be a racer than enthusiastic early morning media crew.

A little right turn at the bottom of the steep section leaves a shallower very grassy trail towards the road. Having made it down the most technical section without a hitch I managed to go for slide on the wet grass about halfway along this section, but it was a fairly harmless splashdown onto wet grassy ground, and I was quickly up and running again, slightly more cautiously.

As I hit the road I had nearly caught up with the runner I had seen ahead, who I could now see was a challenger runner. I set off along the road, aiming to hit a steady cruise pace, and soon overtook him to mutual cheery morning greetings. The kilometer or two along the road here went smoothly, and I distracted myself by looking up at the ridgeline approach to Pen-y-ghent which I would soon find myself on, seeing if I could see any trace of the pair ahead.

A right turn took me back off road again onto the big double-track gravel road which was the easy start to the long climb up towards Pen-y-ghent. I reckoned I might be able to see the Pavel and Eugene a kilometer or two ahead up the trail, but I wasn’t entirely sure.

I decided I’d grab a quick snack here, as I was on easy ground just before the beginning of the more strenuous climbing ahead. I slowed from running to walking to get the eating out of the way as fast as possible, slightly wasting the easy ground. However, after putting the wrapping way I found that rather than being energised I was now hit by a huge feeling of general fatigue. I couldn’t really get going properly running again, and could only manage to march up the little bit of shallow climb before it started to get steep.

This was very weird, and very worrying. No way should I be feeling this feeble at this point in the race, only about 24 hours in. It just didn’t make sense. I started wondering what the hell was going wrong. I thought about the days and weeks leading up to the race, thinking of anything I could have really messed up to cause this, but there wasn’t. My approach this year was almost exactly the same as last year.

Now motivation was rapidly disappearing. I did manage to get a run going when the ground flattened out again, with some boardwalk sections to take away any excuse for going slowly. But the steeper section leading onto the ridgeline soon brought the general malaise back. I couldn’t see the 2 ahead, so I wasn’t able to latch onto them to give me something to chase. The thoughts of chasing anyone were starting to disappear now anyway. I was starting to think that making it over Pen-y-ghent in any sort of reasonable time was going to be a big enough challenge in itself.

Approaching the foot of the steep technical climb of Pen-y-ghent itself some of the media team were waiting, including Ellie from Summit Media, and Damian Hall. They naturally enough asked how I was doing, so I let them know I was feeling absolutely drained, and reckoned I’d be fairly awfully slow heading the climb. Damian followed for a while, taking some shots, which was nice company to have and was a welcome distraction.

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Climbing the steep section of Pen-Y-Ghent

The climb did indeed seem to take an age. Even after the very steep section there was another 5 or 10 minutes of slow running across the top of the ridge to get to the final peak…. and that bit was nearly worse! But at least I had managed to get through the climb.

Heading off the peak I knew there was a few kilometers of extremely runnable downhill running next. But now I was having to work hard to run any kind of reasonable pace, even with the slope heading in the right direction. About 10 or 15 minutes into the descent I could see two runners ahead, but soon figured out it wasn’t Pavel and Eugene. The bigger rucksacks, if nothing else, were a definite give-away that it was challenger competitors. Greetings were exchanged as I eventually passed them in sequence.

I knew the descent finished at the village of Horton, so I mentally focused on just making it to there. There was a safety check there last year, and also a cafe which welcomes spine racers. As it was now daytime, the cafe was likely to be open. I thought things through approaching the village, and decided that I would take what for me was quite a radical decision. I was going to stop at the cafe and see if I could re-energise myself. Normally I would expect to run straight through here in race mode. But now I was closer to survival mode.

I bought a small bottle of coke and some fruit cake in the cafe. I still had enough race-presence to go outside to consume them, so as not to get too warm on comfortable inside (which would make it even harder to restart). However I did sit down at a picnic bench, which definitely made getting out just a little bit of a bigger effort.

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Eating fruitcake outside the Cafe in Horton, wondering what has gone so wrong.

The was a safety marshal here as well, and he offered me a hot drink. I gratefully accepted a coffee. Everything was worth a try. I spent a good ten minutes here, which was real “dead time” in racing terms… an easy gain for the pair ahead. But I was focused on the long term now, and the focus now was simply making it to CP2, and work out how to recover there.

The restart was a huge effort, and it took a big effort to get any kind of run going along the road through the village. Soon it was back onto undulating double-track trail again. The weather was definitely a lot better now. In fact this was by far the best conditions I had encountered on this section. I wasn’t able to run any of the uphill sections, but did manage to keep some kind of trot going on the flatter sections.

Mentally I was breaking down the journey to CP2 into small sections to be tackled and focused on one at a time. My memory of the route was excellent and I had no need to consult the map or GPS. I knew pretty much every step of what lay ahead to CP2. Even though I was still exhausted, and hyperventilating when I tried to push any kind of effort, I was still managing to do some form of running along the majority of the trail. I was also starting to encounter one or two more Challenger competitors. No sign of the pair ahead though. No doubt they had opened a good gap now after my stop.

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Pavel and Eugene (2 & 3)  stretching out their lead on me (1), with lots of challengers around

The long run up cam high road is gentle enough that under good conditions it can be mostly runnable. Conditions were good, but I wasn’t, so it felt more like a death march! Towards the top I came across Chris and Mark. I looked behind me to see that they had some super scenery in the background. Pity about the wreck in the foreground!

Not long afterwards I met Matt Neale, a competitor I knew from the last two Spine races who was sitting out this year’s race, along with his extremely lively dog having a ball running about the place. I chatted with Matt for a while until we reached his van. He offered me a coffee here. Normally I would have declined and ran on this close to CP2, but given my energy depleted state CP2 still seemed a long way away, so I was glad to fire in some more caffeine.

After a minute or two I pushed on, and forced myself to run again, off along West Cam Road. This trail can have spectacular views as it traverse high above a steep sided glacial valley. I was expecting this to be a long death march again, but surprisingly conditions were again the best I had encountered here. Most of it was runnable as a result and I made surprisingly good progress along here, overtaking a few more challenger competitors as I went. It seemed like it took an age to run this section, but I knew that I would soon be descending towards CP2.

Eventually I made to the descent. Again, the conditions were the best I had encountered here, and my memory of the route ensured the navigation was relatively straightforward. The views really opened up on the way down, and I distracted myself looking at the town of Hawes (where CP2 was located) ahead, and working out the route out and on up the climb of Great shunner Fell (Hidden in cloud) ahead. I was ensuring that mentally I was thinking of the route out, and not just collapsing into CP2.

The route to the CP at the Hostel in the Hawes seemed to take a huge loop around through the village. It took me up the main street, and past the hall where the Challenger runners finish. There was a good crowd gathered hear cheering and giving great encouragement. That was badly needed, as I knew I was nearly at CP2 and was ready to crash. Quite a few people came out from the CP to check what I needed as I approached the final short but steep climb up to the entrance.

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Death march into CP2

 

Finally I got there. My original pre-race plan was to try to spend a minimal amount of time here, and head out without sleeping. But I knew I needed to have a big stop here. I needed to grab some sleep to see if that could re-energise me. I simply was in a totally non-competitive state at this time and needed to fix that, whatever it took.

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Food, yeah!

I collapsed into the chair in the entrance porch. Everyone here was great, and helped me enormously. I was brought food and drink. The staff here even volunteered me their own supply of Fanta which I had a craving for. I was totally wrecked though. I let them know how I felt and that I would be stopping to sleep here.

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Wrecked, but finally able to try to recover in CP2 (With lovely orange to drink)

With some help from the kind marshalls I got rid of my outer layers, and headed up to a nice quiet room in the hostel, having decided to take  two and half hours of sleep (I couldn’t decide whether two would be enough or if I needed three!). This was a real make or break point in the race, and a big roll of the dice. It’s a lot of time to sacrifice to try to get competitive again. I guessed that I was probably being hunted down by the 4th place runner too.

 

 

Posted in Mountain Running, Ultra Running | 2 Comments

The Spine Race 2017, Part 1 -My (Pennine) Way

A shift of one day in travelling, from Friday to Saturday, didn’t make too much difference. It was notable though that there were far less racers than usual sharing the train to Edale… more Challenger racers than full spine racers must use the train from Manchester. As ever, the scenery get more spectacular the closer the train gets to Edale.

Arriving at the village hall in Edale where Spine registration was taking place I found a queue snaking out of the building… oh well, at least I had a book with me I’ve been trying to get read for a long time now. After the 1000 questions of official registration, it was then photo taking for pre-race portrait shots, and mug shots with our race numbers in case the emergency services might need to know what we look like! Finally gear check, where I was one of the small minority to draw a full gear check from the random lottery. Having all my travel baggage with me that went surprisingly fast.

Chris and Mark from Columbia (My main sponsors) were over to shoot footage of the race, and found me in the queue. It was good to see them both again. They joined me for the trip to the race briefing. Nothing much new at the briefing… at this stage with 2 years of experience behind me I could probably give the briefing myself!

We then headed up to Edale YHA, where I was staying. They had brought along 2 lightweight down jackets for me, as I had asked for one for the race. They both looked they hit the requirements I was looking for, so I packed both into my drop bag… easier than choosing! I went over the maps of the race route with them, showing where I reckoned the easiest intercept points were, and taking estimates (with declining confidence) of when I was likely to get to the points. The scenery and light were stunning in the lovely evening weather, but the light faded before we could get any good photos. The forecast said tomorrow morning’s weather would be starkly different for the race start. They then headed off for their own accommodation.

A relaxed pre-race evening was spent eating dinner in pleasant company of fellow racers, and finalising my race rucksack and drop bag before getting a full night’s sleep. Unfortunately the new race start time for this year was 2 hours earlier than last year at 8am, so it was a much earlier rise than usual on race morning. The drop back was left in the YHA for transportation to CP1. The pile of drop bags reminded me of the baggage scene from the film “The Fifth Element”.

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Meeting Pavel before the start

The village hall was buzzing with activity. I finally met Pavel (I had seen no trace of him on Saturday), and we greeted each other warmly. The only task to be completed here was to get my tracker attached to my bag. However James was having issues with the trackers, so this took 2 goes, and also meant that the race start was delayed for half an hour to ensure everything would work. I found a chair at the side of the hall and took the last opportunity to relax, whilst having some chats with other racers including one or two of my fellow paddies!

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3 Irish Spiners before the Start (Brian Harman, Pat Rogers, and myself)

The weather had turned more traditionally Spine-like, as forecast, which made it easy to decide to wear full waterproof gear from the off. I was unsure of how many layers I would need though, as it wasn’t cold enough to definitely sway me to 3 layers. I settled on starting with just base layers (heavyweight) and waterproofs, but no gloves (thinking it was wet enough to soak lightweight gloves and possibly make my hands colder than they would be without them.

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And they’re off… Start of the Spine 2017

At about 8:30 we all marched off to the start field and within 5 minutes we were off. Almost instantly the now traditional pattern established itself with Pavel, Eugene and myself running up through Edale at the head of the field together. I wasn’t paying much attention to what was happening behind us, but it soon felt like we were in a group of 4 or 5 runners at most. Conditions were somewhat nasty, with light rain and plenty of wind. I was definitely keeping my hood up. There was plenty of water on the ground, ensuring that care had to be taken not to slip-slide away on any descents.

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Pavel, Eugene and myself splashing along towards Jacob’s Ladder

Things slowed to a walk on the first major climb of the race, Jacob’s Ladder, leading us up to Kinder Scout. There was lots of the snow on the ground here, often making it more effective to climb a little off the main track rather than in the accumulated drifts. Eugene looked like he could take off and run here, but he seemed happy to follow Pavel’s lead.

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Pavel, Eugene and Myself starting up Jacob’s Ladder

Towards the top of the climb none of us were paying enough attention to exactly where we were going and our little group went too far “straight” and missed a slight turn. We had overshot a junction by a few hundred meters. No biggie, but good to be reminded to pay attention! Turning around it became apparent that it was just the 3 amigos and a cameraman from the Japanese film crew out front. Not for long though. By the time we were back on track 2 or 3 minutes later we were in a group of 8 or 10.

It was also a bit misty now, so there were no vistas to enjoy, and more importantly navigation needed more attention. I knew from memory to keep to the left edge of Kinder Scout. Pavel and Eugene between ensured that the pace was high as we ran towards Kinder Downfall. By the time we had to cross the river here we had re-established a gap. The other 2 were pushing strongly and were running 10 or 20 meters ahead of me most of the time. I was happy to let them do that and stick to my own comfortable pace.

The river crossing was deeper than I had remembered it from previous year, requiring wading to knee level at least. No waterproof footwear system was going to deal with that very well, and this turned out to be a nice ice-bath for both of my feet. Nobody wasted any time trying to pick a nice easy line… we just ploughed through with speed.

Pavel really pushed out from here, with Eugene in tow. Again, I was happy to trust myself to hold my own maximum comfortable pace for a 4 day race and let them slowly but surely pull away. I’d run my own race. My Way! By the time I was starting the short steep technical descent off Kinder Scout they had drifted out of sight into the mist (visibility was probably less than 50m), taking the cameraman with them. The race was on! Pavel was clearly setting out to lay down a marker early. Great… good to have the proper racing break out good and early! Fun and games.

A short climb to Mill followed, with a 90 degree right turn from there starting the long relatively flat run all the way to the road at Snake Pass. I knew all this from memory, and knew it was a few kilometers of slab running. Well it should have been… the first few hundred meters had enough snow around that it was often easier to judge footing slight off track. But soon enough it was back to slab running. Today that was far from easy with so much water on the ground. The slabs were very slippery indeed as a result, so full concentration was required to keep speed up. After a while I could see a figure in slowly emerging from the mist ahead. It was the cameraman, who I overtook soon enough.

Welcome cheers greeted me into Snake Pass, and the safety team there confirmed the other two were about 5 minutes ahead. Boy, they were motoring. I was happy that I was making a good pace, so they must really be pushing out. The racing had kicked off nice and early this year. Great! Still I would have preferred to be the one out in front, but only by doing it my way at my pace.

Conditions running up Devil’s dike were by far the worst I had encountered on the Spine, with lots of snow on the ground making for heavy going. It also made it tricky to see the ground under foot, and once or twice I ended up stepping into deep holes and having to drag myself out. This was obviously getting my feet wet, but also getting a lot of snow and grit on my hands too.

Conditions were even worse heading up Hern Clough towards the peak at Bleaklow Head. There was some nice distraction along here though, as a local fell race seemed to be heading in the opposite direction, so there was lots of greeting being exchanged. I “found” one or two more bog holes along the way here too.

I was glad to reach Bleakly head for the start of the first long (mainly) downhill section of the race. The pattern of running into the fell racers combined with finding the occasional bog hole continued for another 10 or 15 minutes. Conditions were still the worst I could remember for this section. I managed to lose the track once or twice heading for the steep descent down to Torside Reservoir, but found it again reasonably quickly. Still, I was possibly giving away easy time to the 2 ahead.

I had started the race wearing Scarpa Neutron Gaiter running shoes with a built-in Outdry waterproof gaiter, along with Vibram soles. The Vibram was proving to be a boon for grip in snow and mud, even on the wet slabs. I was gaining confidence in the shoe’s grip with each step. As a result I probably descended the steepest sections down towards the road crossing at the reservoir faster than previous races.

By this time I had managed to fall on my poles a few times. I was deliberately not using the hand loops, as falling unexpectedly with the loops can easily break thumbs or wrists. No problems with that, but I was having issues with the poles. I managed to severely bend them several times, usually by landing on them on rock slabs. Each time I used the slabs and my body weight to bend them back to near straightness. I knew this was likely to be undermining their strength a bit, and was increasing the potential to snap catastrophically. But I had no choice other than to make do and make the system work while it could.

I met more Camera crews crossing the damn here, who confirmed that the pair ahead had gained more time and were at least 10 minutes ahead. I was still perfectly happy with my own pacing. A few minutes later I was leaving the easy terrain behind again and heading off-road into the long approach to Black Hill. Chris was waiting here and ran behind doing some filming before letting me away. Shortly afterwards Damian Hall was waiting and similar ran along for a while doping some filming. Damian had checked with me several times before the race to whether I would get annoyed at being pestered and filmed… far from it! He’s always good company.

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Passing Damian… note the new pole “feature”!

Despite the poor conditions I still felt I was making reasonable progress on the climbs. Time seemed to be moving faster than in previous years. There are a few points high in the valley in this section where a river has to be crossed back and forth. Normally this is easy,and can be done without getting water into my shoe. This year was different. The river was most definitely up. I could feel the strength of the water as I had to wade one or two crossing to just below knee level.

I can normally use my poles to vault the last crossing (the deepest, but most still). This year was different and there was little option but to just wade in. The water was well up to my thighs…. this would be “interesting” for shorter runners! I made a definite effort to run strongly away to generate body heat after getting my legs immersed in freezing water.

By now I was really noticing how badly the skin on the insides of my thumbs had worn. They had blistered and then popped, so now there were large exposed areas. This was probably from using the poles after all the prior falls into gritty boggy ground. But despite looking pretty awful they didn’t actually hurt at all (Or if it did, I had pushed it so far to the background that it wasn’t noticeable). Steady Climbing up stone slabs took me nearly to the peak off Black hill, where a race supporter walking in the opposite direction offered Jelly Babies… sure why not!

The slabs run out near the peak, and the ground here was so bad that a route through the boggy mess had been set out with small flags on the ground. The descent towards the road crossing near Wessenden Head is usually a nice little run. With the snow and water I had to take a lot of care not to go flying off the stone slabs though. Towards the lowest point of this descent there was a small river crossing which was bridged by a some wooden plans. Those planks were underwater this year though, and I couldn’t see exactly where I was placing my feet. I slightly misjudged one footstep here and went diving down as a result. Luckily I just about managed to land on the wooden planks, but was very close to taking a full on submarine dive into quite deep river. So close that My hair was wet from the splashdown onto the planks.

I also noticed around here that my hands were wet, but this wasn’t water. It was blood flowing from thumb blisters. This was now turning into a practical issue. This could cause the poles to become so slippery as to be worthless. I needed to do something about this. There was usual some kind of safety team positioned on the road crossing ahead, so I reckoned I might get some help there.

The next river crossing (Dean Clough) was flowing so strongly that race staff were positioned there to direct us downriver about 50 meters where we could jump across a narrow section onto a solid rock, rather than trying to wade it. When I made back up to the marshalls they told me that one of the two ahead had nearly lost here!

Sure enough there were plenty of people around at the road crossing, including some marshalls. I asked if there was a first aider, and one of them volunteered to help (thanks guys!) I think they were quite horrified at the size of my thumb blisters, and found it hard to believe that I wasn’t feeling any pain. I was happy for them to take 5 or 10 minutes (easy gain for the lads ahead, but a necessary sacrifice over the long-term) to apply some compeed and plaster to protect them. I put my gloves on once they had done this, and was pretty sure they would stay on for the rest of the race.

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Thumb Blisters (After being cleaned post-race)

Chris and Mark got some footage of me heading off down the road, and then descending down towards the Wessenden reservoirs. Unfortunately there was so much mist that the normally spectacular views were hidden. The run down was enjoyable, before hitting the slog back up over black moss. I was happy I was making good speed here though, and my location memory for this section was perfect. I had yet to consult the map.

The next few kilometers can feel quite draggy and endless in the dark, but this year’s earlier start meant there was plenty of light still around and it mentally flowed a little better. It’s a real high moors section. After a few kilometers I start to pick up on a rising background traffic noise, which means that the motorway crossing is getting closer.

Approaching the A672 road crossing on a a nice gentle downhill trot I came across someone who cheered me on. He reckoned the pair ahead were less than 10 minutes in front… interesting! Without putting in a big push it seems like I was closing up on them. There were plenty of cars and people at the road crossing, and it appeared that the mobile cafe that was promised was present and open for business. Not that I was stopping. I made my way through the parked cars and headed for the trail towards the motorway.

I had a comedy dunking right here, where I stepped into what I thought would be a shallow water filled dip in the track, but ended up beyond my knees in wet muck. Oh well, nothing new today! I dragged myself out, eventually, and ran  on.

Climbing out from the motorway crossing up to Blackstone edge felt quite draggy, even though the ground under foot was mostly good. I was now far enough into the race that even moderate uphills were not quite so effortless as in the first few hours. There was still just enough light left to make it all the way to the White House Inn without needing to get out my headtorch.

A race safety team (I think) was here, and I gladly accepted the offer of a quick coffee from them as I faced into the first night. The latest estimate was tha tI was about 10 minutes behind… a little time lost again, maybe. I knew people were only taking guesses at the gaps, so they were best treated as ballpark figures. Chris and Mark were also here, and filmed for a bit as I ran out from here on the flat section past 2 or 3 reservoirs, now with my headtorch on.

Heading away from the solid tracks through the reservoirs and onto the stone slabs on the ridge towards Stoodley Pike a very thick mist enveloped the trail. In the night, and with a headtorch, visibility was hugely reduced to only a meter or two. I could just about make where I should take the next step or two to stay on trail. This took good concentration, but at least was keeping me occupied. This lack of visibility lasted all the way to Stoodley Pike and some of the way down the descent from there.

Mentally I was now approaching CP1. It was going to be very interesting to see how the racing strategies would play out here. It would also give a clear indication of the gaps. But first, still some more running to be done…

The trail eventually hits a farm road which leads all the way down to the road crossing of the A646 near Hebden Bridge. Heading down the farm road I picked up a cameraman from the Japanese TV film crew for company. He was a pretty fit camera man, and he stuck with me most of the way to CP1. On the very steep climb up from the road crossing (where I was surprised that he kept up carrying the camera) we got into a good conversation. It turned out that he was a Canadian Adventure Racer and we had raced each other before in adventure races. We shared reminiscences about ARs we had both taken part in, and discussed future ultra running endeavours.

That passed the time nicely until I reached the road where I had to turn off the Pennine way proper and head down for the in-and-out diversion to CP1 (leaving my new-found friend behind). I was hoping not to meet the other 2 coming against me, and that I would find them still in CP1.

I made it all the way down the road, and then on to the off-road track without encountering anyone running against me. The last two or 3 hundred meters into the CP are very technical, firstly as an extremely muddy overhung track, and then steep slippy rocky steps. On the muddy track I could see the lights below, and soon could see the camera lights of the collection of media crew, including Chris and Mark.

Near the bottom of the steps I passed a runner heading out in the opposite direction. Because of all the camera lights, and the headtorches we were both wearing, I couldn’t see who it was, but we of course said hello to each other as we passed. Once in the CP I checked out what the gaps were. Pavel was out the door over 10 minutes (must have just missed crossing over), so it was Eugene who I had just passed. They were obviously both executing extremely fast CP1 transitions with no hanging about. I was fully intending to do likewise.

I kept my tasks here to a minimum, just swapping out maps and changing batteries in the GPS (I reckoned since I was carrying a full spare headtorch I should be OK without swapping batteries on my active headtorch. The aid station staff brough time out 2 cups of coffee, and offered a multitude of goodies. But I kept it reasonably quick, and was out again in a pretty good time. Since the other 2 had been efficient here too, it looked like I wouldn’t gain time here like I did last year. The whole CP was running very efficiently this year, since there were no challenger racers around, so it was much less hectic.

Things were still close. The race was very much still on. Early days, and 10 or 15 minutes was a minuscule gap in such a big race, especially with the way it was varying (or seemed to be from reported gaps). The race is most definitely “on”!

 

 

 

 

Posted in Mountain Running, Ultra Running | 1 Comment

The Spine Race 2017 – Prologue

Not even 2 weeks into 2017 and the possibly my most challenging race of the year is looming large! Once again I’m heading back to compete in the Spine Race.

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The Spine Race Route

This year the shorter (fun run!) challenger race (Probably the hardest 100 mile race in the UK, but often referred to as “the short race” in context) is starting on Saturday, and the full Spine race is starting on Sunday. This has allowed a larger number of entries to be accepted in both races. It also means my race experience is now offset by one day in terms of days of week (a concept that will become alien to me once the race starts).

Winning this race last year was a fantastic experience, and one that I’m very proud of. Of course now this sets my own level of expectation pretty high, and demands high standards of myself. I will of course be going back to try and win again. But I’m under no illusions that this will be anything but easy. The entry for this year is even stronger than last year.

My two main rivals from last year, Pavel and Eugene, are both back competing again. They are also both past winners of the race (twice in Pavel’s case). I expect them both to be very competitive. Pavel has no weaknesses when it comes to the Spine. He has the full skillset required to compete and win. His strong adventure racing and navigating background ensure he can handle anything the race is likely to throw at him.

Eugene is possibly the fastest pure runner in the race. He also seems to manage to always have the smallest backpack. He hasn’t managed to last the full length of the last two Spine races, and had to withdraw due to either injury or extreme fatigue. His speed makes him one to watch, especially if he is still at the head of the field approaching the end of the race.

As for myself… well I’ve obviously got a big target on my back as the current champion and record holder. Preparations have gone well and I don’t have any pre-race excuses for underperforming. I’ve continued to endeavour to learn from last year’s race (and all of last year’s other races), and tweak my race plans here and there. I’ve also obtained a few new items of gear where it has been possible to improve on last year’s set-up. I’ll detail this in my post race gear review.

As well as the old hands there will be a few first timers in the Spine who are likely to be contenders. The winner of the Challenger race from last year is stepping up to the full Spine. His winning time last year was impressive, so he is likely to be a front-runner if he can keep that up when he steps up to the longer distance.

There are a few other runners whose past records look like they have potential. For me the far and away stand out contender is Johan Steene from Sweden. He has a few big race wins under his belt, including the Vol State run. His 24 hour time and Spartathlon times are quite similar to mine. Being scandinavian (and having got through 3 laps of the Barkley) no doubt he is a good navigator who can handle winter conditions.

John Knapp who finished a good second in the Northern Traverse is also lined up. He seemed to get stronger towards the end of that race, so the Spine could work well for him. No doubt there are a few more who’ll be out to put in a big performance. All will become clearer as the race progresses.

All the packing is complete, the weather has been watched as far as possible, and all that remains to make way to the Edale for the kit check, briefing, and the small matter of starting the race at 8am on Sunday morning.

As usual with the Spine we’ll all be carrying trackers, so you can watch the race unfold from the comfort of your armchair!

 

Posted in Mountain Running, Ultra Running | 2 Comments

Spartathlon 2016

Legendary, a classic. Descriptions often used about events, but literally true in the case of the Spartathlon. It has a fantastic ancient and modern history. That, and its prestige lead to it being a race that is on most ultra-runner’s bucket list as a result.

The race originates in the ancient 2500 year old legend of Pheidippides, an Athenian courier who was tasked with running to Sparta to request help when the Persian armies landed at Marathon to March on Athens. He was reputed to have made the journey in a little over a day.

The modern history began when John Foden,  and several of his fellow RAF officers decided to see if they could recreate the journey by running from Athens to Sparta in under a day and a half, which they successfully completed. From this the race began.

Spartathlon Route

Spartathlon Route

The first official running of the race was won by a then unknown Greek runner called Yiannis Kouros. However his race time was so fast that the organisers had serious doubts about its validity. Kouros came back the following year and was watched like a hawk as he ran an even faster time. Thus began the career of perhaps the greatest ultra-runner of all time. Kouros won the race 4 times in total, in the 4 fastest times ever run over the course.

So running this race is literally and metaphorically running in the footsteps of legends! It has a suitably high level of prestige. It’s also known for its great difficulty. The dropout rate can be huge (normally greatly exceeding 50% of entrants). The hot weather that the race is normally run in definitely accounts for a lot of difficulties. It also is quite undulating, with a 1000 meter mountain to climb in the later half of the race.

Spartathlon Elevation Chart

Spartathlon Elevation Chart

So last year I decided that it was as good a time as any to give it a go. I’d heard tons about the race. My friends and Irish teammates John O’Regan and Eddie Gallen had both entered and finished the race. Eddie loves the race so much that he has made at least 4 trips. I had also followed the Irish (and Irish resident) gang who raced in 2015. It sounded epic.

The race has a very high entry standard to be allowed compete. My 24 hour distance from the Irish championships in 2015 was good enough both to allow me to enter, and to put me in the “guaranteed” list, so that I wouldn’t need to go into the a draw for entry places. A lot of people make a big fuss about the whole process of entering and leading up to the race. I kept things a bit more low-key, just quietly getting things organised. With a whole series of “A” races entered this year  (The Spine, The Northern Traverse, The Irish 24 hour championships, Iterra adventure race and the UTMB) meant that I mentally parked it away until returning home from the UTMB.

Helen, my wife, agreed to come out to Greece as well. I booked her in the supporters’ package so that we would be assured of sharing hotel rooms and race transport. I wasn’t too worried about actually needing her to act as a support crew in the race itself. My main priority was that we would get a shared experience, and hopefully a bit of a holiday in sunny historic Greece.

I watched as the draws were made and the entry list filled up. There would be a few other Irish making the trip, including Billy Holden and Anthony Lee who I knew from the Irish ultra running scene. Don Hannon got a place in the draw, but had to decline his place (He was donating part of his kidney to help save someone’s life. That puts the trivialities of running races in context). Eddie Gallen (and Austrian international Kerry resident Thomas Bubendorfer) skipped the race this year as they were prioritising the European 24 hour running championships taking place 3 weeks later.

The most interesting Irishman from my perspective on the list though was Keith Whyte, another fellow Irish international who is the Irish 100km record holder. Keith was prioritising the Spartathlon this year, and had entered The Varty 100 mile race and the Belfast 24 hour race as practice for the spartathlon. Keith has super speed over 100km but hadn’t run much longer than that until this year, so this would be very interesting step up for him. It also set up a nice Tortoise and Hare scenario between the 2 of us.

Gear preparation for this race was relatively straightforward. Bring mostly hot weather gear! Luckily I had received a batch of new trail running Columbia/Montrail gear before the UTMB, which turned out to be a perfect for this race! Really light, and cooling. I still made sure to pack a bit of everything, just in case, to cover every possible likely eventuality.

I had managed to pick up an injury at the end of the Iterra race (shin splints /tendonitis or something), which destroyed my attempt at the UTMB (I had to pull out after the first big hill). With less than a month to Spartathlon after that I had to be very careful in how I managed the injury (I was less worried about maintaining training). But rest did the trick and I was even able to complete a few weeks of unhindered training in the lead up to the race without a trace of the injury.

The journey to Greece was enjoyable for an aviation nerd (which I am!), passing through Heathrow. The views over Athens were spectacular from the plane as we made our way into the airport.

Having never been to Greece before I wondered how chaotic it would be. I certainly wasn’t expecting swiss efficiency. As it happened one of the main airport bus routes passed right by our race hotel, so we were able to use public transport to make our way in. Luckily and somewhat randomly there was another Irish couple on the bus going to the same hotel, and between us all we managed to eventually work out which stop to get off and find the hotel (across a 3 lane dual carriageway). Greece seemed to be pretty Irish in terms of organised chaos!

Athletes, and supporters on the official packages, are allocated hotel space by the race before and after the race. The hotels in Athens were in the (apparently very posh) suburb of Glyfada. Athletes were grouped together by nationality. We (the Irish) would be grouped with our fellow Anglophones the British and the Americans, along with a few others such as the Poles. Despite the poshness of the area, our hotel was definitely no more than 2 star. Luckily we got a room with a view out over the ocean, which looked spectacular (and as much quieter than room looking out over 6 lanes of traffic).

Wen met Phil McCarthy, the American 48 hour record holder on the hotel stairs, along with his helper Shannon. Helen had met Phil at the 6 day race in New York (Which he won the year before I did), and we had a good long chat. Helen and myself were trying to figure out what support the race would provide to supporters who didn’t have their own car (most crew had hired cars). They reckoned there was no race bus for supporters. There was little or no information on the website to clue us in.

The following morning we went over to the main race hotel where registration was due to start at 10. When we got there we found lots of people milling around and signs saying registration would start at 10:30. All slightly disorganised. Sod that…we headed back and diverted to have a walk on the beach, where we met Anto and had a good long chat. Then back to the hotel, where I would finalise my small collection of drop bags before heading back to the race hotel to try to get both the registration and drop bags done in one go. (There are about 75 aid station on the race, and athletes can have drop bags brought to as many of the stations as they desire).

Helen came into the hotel room as I was packing gear into small bags and dropped an enormous bombshell. Richie Byrne, my good friend, had died overnight. He had been battling cancer for the last year, posting a series of inspirational blogs on his fight. That’s what made the news so shocking to me…He had continued to be active and had a hugely positive attitude. The man was a born fighter. The news hit me like a punch to the stomach. Now I was particularly grateful to have Helen here. We talked about Richie a lot over the next few days. It was an emotional roller-coaster at times. Every so often I would quietly well up thinking about so many good memories, and how much he’d be missed.

The Godfather

Richie Byrne – Friend, nspiration.

I finished off my drop bag packing on auto-pilot. I packed 3 main bags, guessing that I’d need my headtorch at about 120km. I made sure to put a lightweight windstopper jacket at the “bottom of the mountain” aid station, along with a second headtorch. I also put some warmer long-sleeved tops in these and one or two others mid-course aid stations. Finally I put a few small bags with a few jelly beans and some Aldi coconut chocolate bars scattered in 4 or 5 other aid stations scattered in the 2nd half of the course.

I stopped by Billy and Anto’s room on the way out of the hotel, as I knew they were going to be heading over to leave their drop bags as well.  I “borrowed” some labels for my bags and marked them up with the appropriate aid stations, drawing on Anto’s experience.

The registration was now nice and quiet, and the whole process was surprisingly quick (and surprisingly manual and old-school… not a trace of a computer). We confirmed that there would be a race supporters bus that would at least ensure that Helen would get to her hotel in Sparta for Friday night. We then went and placed our drop bags in the drop bag collection bins (each labelled with its aid station number). Helen pointed out that I had put them all in the boxes without taking note of where which ones I had placed them in… oops… so I went around and called them out as I found them so that we could list them (I wrote the station numbers on my hand before the race morning).

Huge numbers turned up for the English language race briefing (3 or 4 different briefings in a range of languages were arranged in sequence), which was mandatory to attend. I don’t think we learned much new that wasn’t already documented on the website. There were lots of warnings about where and when crew could assist their runners. Interestingly they said there would be no more than 20 people on the race support bus, as all the other crew had their own cars. Jeeze… quite a contrast to the UTMB’s efforts to be as environmentally friendly as possible. We finally met Keith here (He had rented a large apartment in the city centre for his 3 support crew rather than use the race hotel, but unfortunately 2 had pulled out the week before the race). His partner Eada would was now his solo support crew. It sounded like they were having fun adjusting to Athens driving in their rental car.

The pre-race dinner at the hotel initially looked like a nightmare scenario for me. They were dishing out huge amounts of junk pasta. Old school rubbish food. I asked was there any vegetables, meat or fish, and they said there wasn’t. Truly pathetic. Luckily I spotted there was some very chunky soup which actually worked out fine (if unspectacular). A good dollop of creamed rice followed that up.

We had been told we would be picked up from our hotels at 5:30 in the morning to get to the race start. I didn’t need to leave too much time for breakfast (which was basically a coffee and a bit of yoghurt) so had a pretty good nights sleep and was well enough rested. We left our main luggage in the hotel lobby (they’d keep it for our return on Sunday), and dropped my “Sparta” bag, containing a few bits and pieces for the post-race hotel in Sparta, in the luggage van. We were on the bus pretty much bang on time. Eventually the bus left and we made our way up the coast towards the centre of Athens.

I was quite excited to arrive at the Acropolis and the Parthenon. It’s such an iconic location, and one I had envisaged visiting since a very early age (Learning about ancient history way back in first year of primary school). There was a definite buzz of pre-race excitement around the place. I got to chat with most of the Irish contingent, including Jan Uzik who had retired from the race last year having made it as high as 6th at one point, and was unable to race this year due to illness. He gave me plenty of tips, in particular on avoiding the hazards at the start. Plenty more chats with Bridget Brady and her crew, Vilnis, and finally Keith and Eada.

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Lining up preparing to start

As the time for the race approached I kissed Helen goodbye, and lined up well behind the front with Bridget and Keith. The sky was starting to turn blue as the day dawned, with the atmosphere getting more charged by the second.

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About to unleash the pack!

And then we were off. As expected a mass of runners charged off from the front. I wasn’t expecting too many of these to be running that well this time tomorrow! I was happy to relax and walk off, moving up gradually to a steady run as the space became available. I wasn’t at all worried about position or places here. I would run my own pace. Keith seemed to have the same idea and we stuck together. Quite a few deep drains and poles had to be avoided in the first couple of hundred meters. We were then running steadily downhill along a nice pedestrian avenue with great views of the ancient city down towards the morning traffic of the modern city.

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With Keith heading down from the Start

I could see Phil McCarthy in a distinctive green top heading off at good speed creating a gap ahead of us. Indeed there were plenty of people ahead of us, with a continuous stream of runners heading down our coned off area of the streets ahead.

There were plenty of police and marshals in place to ensure that the entire field would make it safely through the city without obstruction. There were plenty of beeps from the traffic, with Keith and myself agreeing that they sounded like “well done” beeps rather than “get out of my way” beeps! We kept our own steady pace and had a good conversation as we made our way out through the suburbs. There was great support from people on the streets, whether walking, watching, or waiting to catch their bus.

Running in Athenian Suburbs

Running in Athenian Suburbs with Keith

Temperatures were still nice and comfortable at this early stage, and we were mostly in shadow rather than direct sunshine. After some steady shallow climbing through outer suburbs we turned onto a 3 lane highway, and headed downhill towards the coast, with massive amounts of traffic building on the opposite (Athens bound) side of the road. Keith and myself were still running together comfortably.

It was good to hit the coast after about 13km or running, as I knew we would be generally following the coastline all the way to Corinth. Unfortunately it wasn’t exactly scenic at this point, being dominated by port industries and infrastructure. We were also still running along the side of a multi-lane dual carriageway. I had seen footage of the race before and was expecting this though, so just got on with things.

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On the Coast with Keith

After an aid station in this flat industrial coastal area Keith began to slowly pull away from me. I was happy to let him go. I knew that as a fast 100km runner he was likely to find my pace a little pedestrian. I was a bit unsure of how well my own pacing was going. My broad strategy was to treat this race like a 24 hour race and try to set a steady pace of roughly 10 Km/H (I knew that would be impossible over the course of the entire race due to the hills, but it seemed like a reasonable target for the flatter parts).

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Keith opens a gap

An American runner came up beside me and said hello, saying he recognised my name as a good runner (We all had our names printed on our race numbers). I checked out his name, and recognised Bob Hearn as being an excellent 24 hour runner. We had a good chat for a while, in particular talking about next year’s 24 hour world champs in Belfast and the fascinating competitive process to get on the American team (Bob is currently 4th on the list, which gets him to Belfast right now, but there’s a lot of time left in the qualifying window). I let Bob plough ahead after a few minutes and wished him well.

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Local kids out in force

About 20km in I reached the town of Elifsina, which took us off the main road, thankfully. Exiting the town at about 23km there was another aid station with a large bunch of supporters. I recognised some of them as being Taiwanese supporters who were on the supporters bus with Helen. Sure enough, the lovely site of Helen cheering from the sideline greeted me around the corner. This wasn’t an aid station were external support was allowed though, so it was just a matter of exchanging greetings and, and quick verbal checks that all was good.

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Exiting town – Right turn Clyde

More industrial areas followed for the next few kilometers, although with a lot less traffic than the earlier sections closer to Athens itself. About 26km in we started leaving the industry behind, and the road began a little incline to get over some coastal cliffs. I ran steadily up the shallow climb. I was surprised at how I was speeding past other runners  (including Bob) who were climbing a lot more slowly. Clearly my hill training was working to my advantage even on the easy climbs at this early stage. On the corresponding downslope on the other side I found I as also slowly reeling people in. Things were boding well from a competitive point of view if I could keep that pattern up.

I had no idea what position I was in, but was happy enough with my pacing. Some of the aid stations had cut off times for the station and the next station (along with the distance to the next aid station, and elapsed distance or distance remaining) written on a board. I didn’t want to get so close to the cut-offs that I’d have to sprint from one aid station to the next. I had quick check on cut-off times against my watch, and concluded that I had nothing to worry about there. I was happily running along in my own head space. The sun was well up at this stage, with no shadows to hide in. I was hiding under my desert hat though, and it was doing a good job of keeping my head relatively cool.

I was taking something to drink at each of the aid stations. Given that there are 75 aid stations on the route there is potential for calamity here. Even spending a minute at each one would be an hour and a quarter lost. So I had a plan of get-in-get-out as fast as possible. Generally I’d grab a cup or two of my chosen liquid (mostly whatever juice was available, sometimes coke, occasionally water, all available at each station) and quickly down it trying to actually drink it and not spill it all over myself! Given the heat, which was forecast to get to about 30 degrees centigrade, I was erring on the side of not getting too dehydrated.

The route headed inland for a bit through some towns, with plenty of locals looking on and cheering. It the wound its way past the outer edge of the large town of Megara (where a glimpse of low flying aircraft had me guessing there was an airfield nearby). At the edge of the town at pretty much the marathon distance there was a major aid station. By the crowds milling around I guessed that support was allowed here. (Looking back at my splits I can see I hit the marathon distance here in about 3:50, which was very much the top edge of the pace I was targeting, possibly a little too fast). I wasted no time in the aid station, but did stop at the portaloo on the way out for my longest break of the race so far (grabbing the opportunity as it arose).

Shortly after leaving the aid station the route went via a motorway underpass. There must have been 50 or 60 kids gather here cheering on the running and high-5ing any of us they could. That was great. The route returned back to the coast, with magnificent views out across the sea to the hills of the Peloponnese beyond. Both the sky and the sea were beautiful shades of blue.

Another bit of steady climbing for a kilometer or two followed. Again I reeled in and overtook runner after runner without doing any more than running steadily up the hill. The route took us onto what seemed to be a rarely used road that had once been a main road and was now bypassed. This was a nice contrast to the busy highways earlier. The course now followed a tight coastal, hemmed in by lovely white cliffs on one side and the clear waters of the mediterranean on the other. It also undulated quite a bit, which suited me nicely as I over took runners in sequence.

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Hunting down the next target

Once past the cliffs the route went through another small town. At an aid station there I recognised the Taiwanese supporters, but didn’t see any sign of Helen. I hoped I hadn’t missed her somehow. I was to learn afterwards that she and wife of Joao Oliviera (A former winner of the race) had decided to get on a bus leaving quicker, as we (Joao and myself) were moving quicker through the course than the runners the others were supporting.

At about 63km in I reached the town of Agioi Theodori. At this stage I knew I was in the hottest part of the day (between 12 and 2pm). Running through the town I could see a pharmacist sign which displayed the temperature, which was showing 29 degrees. Definitely hot. I briefly lost my confidence that I was on the correct route as I exited the town, since I didn’t see any yellow arrow painted on the ground, which I had become accustomed to seeing. This was also one of the first times that I didn’t have sight of any runners ahead. I couldn’t remember missing any obvious alternative, so carried on, and was reassured to find an aid station a few hundred meters further on.

The kilometer or two after the 66km distance was probably the nastiest section of the course. The road was single carriageway with no margins. Unfortunately it was also being used by large numbers of HGVs. Luckily the HGV drivers were being cautious, but it was not a very pleasant experience at all. luckily this didn’t last too long, and things were calmer after the next road junction.

At about 69 km the route was back inland, and passing through the most bizarre section. The road essentially bisected a large oil refinery, with an aid station right in the middle. It was still better than dealing with close passing HGVs. Exiting the area of the refinery I could see we were running out of bay, so that Corinth couldn’t be too far ahead (I wasn’t really paying much attention to mileage, just running away at a comfortable but reasonably fast cruisy pace).

At 75km the bay was left behind and the route switched onto a motorway access route that climbed steadily upwards. As was now the pattern a few more runners were overtaken on the climb. The route crossed over the Athens to Corinth motorway, and then swung around to cross over the Corinth Canal. This was a truly spectacular feature. The canal was cut sharply and deeply into what seemed to me to be about 100 meters of vertical rock. What a great feat of engineering from a past era.

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Crossing over the Corinth Canal

The route then continued along a very busy multi-lane road through the ugly outer suburbs of modern Corinth, but luckily we were well isolated from the traffic. A sharp left turn took us onto a much quieter road. I could see supporters buses parked at the turn. Not long afterwards there was an aid station where crew support was allowed. Helen’s bus had got her here in time to see me, so she was there to greet me as I crossed the timing mat to arrive into the station.

As it happened I didn’t need any physical help, and was able to just take my normal quick drink of juice from the aid station. She was able to fill me in with some useful pieces of race information though, which is always great for motivation. Keith must have been speeding, as he was about 25 minutes ahead of me. Helen reckoned I was about 30th or so in the race (in reality I’d guess it was more like 50th). Given that we were 80km in, which is early enough in a 246km race, I was happy enough with that. We both reckoned that would be the last we would see each other before the finish tomorrow, so we kissed goodbye, and I hoofed myself forward to get back into steady running.

I did some calculations on my pacing. Target pacing would have me at 80km in 8 hours (nice simple maths). I was about 25 minutes ahead of that target at that moment. That’s probably in 24 hour PB territory as regards pacing. Even though I knew I was moving with good purpose I didn’t feel that I was running too hard. I reckon that must be the psychological gain of running a fixed distance from A to B as opposed to a fixed time like a hamster around and around the same small circuit.

As it happened this was a real cross-over point in the race. The roads from here were far far quieter and more rural than the coastal route to Corinth. This made for a more pleasant running environment. With a small hill up and down out of the aid station I was still catching and passing runners. After passing under a highway we were out into real country roads a proper greek farmlands. A little later we turned sharply right, and headed down some great dusty roads with wonderful views of the hills of the Peloponnese ahead, along with the sea in the distance to our right.

I was still running strongly, but comfortably. And still I continued to pick off runners one by one over time as the kilometers drifted by. I was still keeping my stop time at aid stations to an absolute minimum, which was also helping shorten gaps ahead. No runner I had overtaken had come back to get back in front of me, which was good. It was still early days in the race, not yet even at 100km, which I reckoned would be a point at which the “Speed Ultra” runners would start to slow a bit as we moved beyond marathon training territory and into “endurance ultra” distances.

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Heading for Ancient Corinth

One of the aid stations along this section had the normal choices at its first table, but then a gigantic pile of grapes on a nearby table. I went to grab a few grapes, but one of the aid station staff told me that it wasn’t for athletes (which was fine), but then explained that that was because it would upset our stomachs, which was a bit odd… very little is as easy to eat in the middle of an ultra as grapes! All very friendly nonetheless.

9-2-aproaching-ancient-corinth

Descending into Ancient Corinth

At 95km in I had reached Ancient Corinth. The route went through the town, and then wound its way down into a really touristy area, with an aid station set up in the middle of a restaurant and gift shop lined pedestrian only street. Leaving the station the route took us right past the ruins of ancient Corinth, which I tried to take in as much of as I could without losing any speed or time.

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Passing Ancient Corinth

The same pattern of steady running and occasional overtaking continued on. Sometimes a runner would try to hold me off for a while, or stick on to my heels for a while. Usually I would drop any of those runners at the next aid station, and once the “elastic band” was broken that was generally that! Obviously I knew I was moving up the field, but I still hadn’t come across any familiar runners in a while, so I knew the likes of Keith, Phil, and the top female athletes were still all ahead somewhere. Plenty of work to be done, but this was still the first half of the race… too early for racing per se. Just continue to run efficiently.

We hit the 100km roughly in the town of Assos. I had moved up to 29th at that point, but I was still not really aware of my position, but would have guessed it was something like that. The next checkpoint was quite a busy one in the town of Zevgolateio. I overtook a runner there with my minimal stopping strategy. Not long afterwards I could hear the rapid footsteps of the same runner speeding after me, and flying past. I let him at it… I wasn’t gonna race at this point. A minute or two later he slowed to a walk, and I jogged past him. A minute or two later he was back running fast again, overtaking me. This pattern repeated itself all the way to the next aid station. I noted he was an English runner from his name (Ian Thomas), and presumed from his tactics at this point that he must be a good 100km runner without too much experience of going longer  (I was completely wrong about that).

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Leaving Assos

At the next aid station I finally broke the pattern with another rapid exit. At this point the route was getting more notably mountainy! It was very slowly climbing, but we were running in lovely valleys with hills all around. As it was now the late afternoon the hills were usefully increasingly throwing shadows across the roads and reducing the feeling of the radiated heat.

A km or 2 later I caught sight of 2 more runners ahead. Both seemed to have green tops. It took a minute or two to close in on the first of them, and I figured out that it was Keith. He wasn’t moving very fast at all. I shouted a greeting at him once I was close enough, and we had a quick conversation. His I.T. band was playing up on him, and as a result he was reduced to pretty much walking pace. He had had a similar issue at the Belfast 24 hour race earlier in the year which eventually led him to retire from that race. There wasn’t anything I could do to help, so I carried on and told him I’d see him later, no doubt.

I soon caught sight of the next green topped runner ahead, but only on long straights. I reckoned it looked like Phil. The next aid station was another kilometer or two down the road at a lovely tavern on road turn in a small village at the top of a short incline. The kind of place it would lovely to stop for a nice lazy drink in the evening sunshine. If only! As I approached within 50 meters of the station I saw Phil run out. I continued in and did my quick drink and go routine, leaving behind another runner taking a short sitting break.

Phil was running well, so I wasn’t really closing in on him that much at all on the flat sections that followed. About two kilometers later we hit quite a steep hill though. Phil immediately reduced to walking pace. I chugged away at as efficient a climbing pace as I could muster. It didn’t take long to catch Phil, and we had short conversation as I went by. All seemed good with him. I was certainly happy to catch a runner of such known pedigree at this point.

I soon caught and passed two more competitors walking up the hill side by side. As the hill became more shallow approaching the aid station at its apex they both came back up on me again. Clearly they didn’t like being overtaken and had become motivated to run uphill. Eada, Keith’s partner, was at the aid station and checked if I needed anything. She asked about Keith, so I let her know that he was probably a kilometer or two behind and walking, but should be arriving soon enough.

There was a downhill out from this station, and sticking to the pattern I was quickest out. The two runners I overtook on the climb weren’t long coming out and chased me down. They both overtook me over the course of the downhill. As the road started a very shallow climb again one of them slowed to walking, and he was re-overtaken easily. At the next aid station I arrived in just behind the other, but as per usual left before him. The journey to the following aid station was a long chase-down by him, with my climbing making it hard for him to get in front and stay there. He eventually managed it on a long flat.

I was occupied by two things in my own head at this point. The next aid station was #34, where I had left my first headtorch. And I was also thinking another portaloo would be kind of handy! There were no obvious facilities around though, apart from farmland! #34 was at around the 120km mark. Because I has been running well I arrived here in plenty of light, but it was better to be safe than sorry with the torch. At this point I was starting to feel very fatigued. I got my bag from the aid station staff and flopped down onto a stool there to get out my torch. I was feeling a little too tired at this point, which was a little worrying. But there are downs in every ultra, so maybe this was just the usual mid-race horrors. I just took the headtorch and a reflective armband with red LED lights, leaving the warm top behind. There was still plenty of heat in the evening.

We had caught one other runner at this aid station, so when I dragged myself up to leave I had 2 runners just ahead to chase. I was happy enough to let them out in front. I was paying as much attention to potential pit stops in easy reach as anything at this point. The exhaustion had killed off the edge from my chase and catch games. I could feel a few hints of cramping in my feet and calves, but they came and went quickly enough. The other two dangled about 100 meters in front all the way to the next aid station, which was a busy major station in the town of Ancient Nemea.

I arrived in 24th position as it happened (not that I knew), crossed the timing mat, spotted the portaloos behind the station and went straight there. I needed that! My legs were not in great shape though, and I was having cramping issues managing things in the portaloo. The tiredness at this point meant I had to concentrate to get back out as fast as possible. Arriving back outside I met Eada again, and she again asked if there was anything she could help with. I was grand, but took an offered painkiller, as it might help with the occasional cramping. I made sure to take plenty of isotonic drink,, and some salty crisps. And then I was off again, Not too much time wasted, all things considered.

It was an uphill run out of the aid station through the town, and I overtook one of my target runners walking up the hill. On reaching the top of the hills the cramps in my legs started become more intense, and within a few seconds it seemed like every muscle in my legs had gone into spasm. I was in absolute agony, and had no control over the situation. Any move I made seemed to increase the pain, and I wobble about on the spot moaning in agony. This was bad. This was very very bad. I’d never experienced this intensity of cramping before, and I simple couldn’t figure out how to stop it.

As well as the physical pain, my mind was starting to fill with negative thoughts. Was I done for. Is this the end of my race. I was paying the penalty for exceeding my early target pace… I was paying for my own lapse of racing intelligence. I thought of the fact that I was out here disintegrating in the middle the evening before Richie’s funeral. I think that if Riche was standing here looking on he’d tell me the harden the f–k up and get moving. To miss his funeral and not finish the race would be disgraceful.

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Phil ran passed and I told him I was cramping like a MFer! He told me I’d soon run it out. I knew that sounded right, but this was so bad I couldn’t even walk a step. In fact it was so bad that I thought the best thing to do was walk the 5 minutes back down to the aid station and try to get some help there. Between Eada and the race staff someone would hopefully be work some magic. I managed to very carefully and gingerly get myself walking, but I was on the edge of cramping with every motion. After about 20 or 30 meters (and passing another runner going in the opposite direction) I changed my mind and reversed back on myself. If I was going to burn time walking, then I might as well be walking in the right direction, and give myself some chance of salvaging the situation.

About 100 meters further on the cramps returned again with the same intensity, and I was again stuck on the spot moaning in agony. I could see a spot where I could sit down on the other side of the road. After a minute or two I was able to make my way over and try to sit down. The family from the house nearby were watching all this concerned. They brought out a chair, and I tried to sit down. This only made matters worse. Bad idea! don’t try that again. I was still stuck for ideas of how to dig myself out of this. By now several runners had passed by. The family was offering me a lift in their car, but I declined that (even if I wanted to get to the aid station, cramping in the car would have been horrendous). It was extremely good of them to offer though (even without a common language… but “Taxi” is universal). I took a little water from them which they kindly gave to me, and walked on extremely slowly and gingerly again, wondering would they be watching my pathetic effort to progress 246 meters, never mind 246km.

By now it had gotten dark, and I had my LED lights on. I didn’t need the headtorch yet, as I was still in Nemea. Very gradually I managed to increase my pace to moderate walking pace. I was still on the edge of cramping with every movement though. But at least I was heading in the right direction, even if the speed was pathetic. After about a kilometer the town ended, and the road began to climb in a zigzag pattern. There was a bit of traffic on the road, so I definitely had to fire up the head torch, both to see and to be seen. I could see runners rapidly closing on me from behind as I walked up the zigzag.

On the hairpin bend of the last zigzag I recognised one of the overtaking runners as being Keith. He was back running well again. We had a quick conversation as he passed, giving each other updates on our states of disrepair and repair. As Keith got to about 20 meters ahead he turned around and asked if I’d like his isotonic drink. I gratefully accepted that. As it happened I had done something similar for Keith many years ago at the world ultra trail running championships in Connemara. Karma works! It’s great the way we can race each other, but still look after each other. That’s the true spirit of ultra-running. Keith powered off up the hill, and I finished off his isotonic drink.

A few minutes later I reached the top of the hill and could see a long downhill run ahead. This was make or break. If I couldn’t pick up running again from here I would fall rapidly back down the field. I still wanted to be competitive. I wanted to race this thing, not just run it. So with a huge amount of trepidation I started slowly trotting down the hill. All was OK. I gradually picked up the pace until I was running down at Long-slow-run speed. Not as fast as I was moving earlier, but good enough for now, and a hell of a lot better than walking pace. I could see one runner ahead, but I wasn’t closing him, just tracking him. Keith had disappeared out of sight.

I reckoned I had lost at least half an hour of time with the whole cramping episode, as well as 10 or 20 places. The one upside was that the walking had been an effective rest and I was no longer feeling fatigued.

The next aid station was at the bottom of the hill. I took a little longer than usual here, getting plenty to drink, more crisps, and some pure salt (which the staff about 2 minutes to free from its container!). It was definitely more important to get this recovery as right as possibly than worry about a few more minutes lost.

Exiting that aid station I was more confident that I was going to be able to stay running without cramping up again, so I carefully upped my speed until I was back running at a steady cruising speed. I was now on a very wide generally flat main road, but there wasn’t too much traffic. On straighter sections I could see at least one runner ahead. The next aid station was just before a turn off this big road. I asked if they had isotonic drink, and they dug a bottle out of a  box for me. I set off with the bottle  planning to drink it gradually all the way to the next aid station.

Onto the minor road, which turned out to be unpaved… great! A bit of slight pseudo trail running for a while. I wouldn’t be bothered,.but it might cause issues for some of the more specialist road runners. I had been preserving my headtorch batteries on the main road since I could see more than adequately under the streetlights. We were into proper darkness on rough ground here though, so I fired it back up again immediately.

I could definitely see a runner ahead now, and I was reeling him in. I was definitely back “on-line” and back in business. I had asked at one of the previous aid stations roughly what position I was in, and had been given a position in the low thirties. I wanted to try to undo the damage of the cramp  stop/walk. I didn’t know exactly how many places I had lost, but I did know that Phil had been the first to pass me, so I wanted to at least try to catch Phil again.

Within a kilometer or so I was right behind the runner I had been watching ahead, and as the dirt road went gently upwards over a small climb I cruised past. My hill climbing ability was still my best racing weapon in this race. It was a nice psychological boost to get a place back. Even better was that I felt fine. I felt like I was back to a cruising speed that was close enough to the pace I had been doing in the pre-Corinth section of the race. If the unwinding of all the places I lost was to happen in reverse order then Keith would be the next runner ahead. There was no sign of him though. There was no real sign of anyone ahead for that matter.

The trail passed under a motorway and turned into a tarmaced country road. It was still empty of traffic though, with the exception of the occasional supporters car going by. All the supporters car had a big A4 sized spartathlon info sheet on their windows, identifying them as supporter cars along with their runner’s number. Whilst I wasn’t able to read the runner number, I was starting to become familiar with the car colours and makes, and the intervals at which they were passing. It was a very rough indication of who my running near neighbours were.

The road twisted and winded its way slowly up the hills, climbing slowly above the motorway below in the valley. It was very nice running territory, but I would have liked to have seen this in daylight. In the distance I could see a pattern of lights which looked like an aid station. I thought I might be able to see a small head torch pool of light nearby as well, but it was hard to tell. It took longer to reach the aid station than I thought it would, as the road twisted its way through all the small gullies and valleys.

I was back in the pattern of moving quickly through the aid stations. There seemed to plenty of supporters cars hanging around this one which was nicely positioned high in the hills. From here the corresponding gradual descent began. My legs were in good condition now, so I was able to apply some concentration and real focus on pushing the speed onwards down the hill, keeping things as fast as possible whilst still being sustainable. The road was still quite twisty. Below me ahead I could see some flashing red light. I wasn’t sure if it was a runner’s safety lights, a road sign, or a car in the very far distance.

The view of the valley ahead was really starting to open up from this high perspective now. Way off in the distance the lights of the motorway could be seen ascending a hill. I guessed from information I had been told by other runners before the race that this was roughly where our big mid-race mountain traverse was. If it was then this route was clearly going to take an arc around to get there. Nothing for it but to take full advantage of the downhill slope and push on at speed…

Soon I caught a closer glimpse of the flashing red lights ahead, and was now pretty sure it was another runner. I had closed in on him quite rapidly. Good… this is good stuff at this stage of the race. The descent became steeper, and I started closing the gap more rapidly . He then pulled in for a short pit-stop and I passed by at speed. He was wearing an Argentinian top…. definitely not Keith! One more catch though. Making progress. I could see the lights of the motorway out to my right, as the route continued its descent down into the valley, eventually reaching a small village. The road continued to twist steeply through this. Any locals that were up and about shouted encouragement.

The dropped into what seemed like the main square in the village, where an aid station was located. It was actually had to pick out the aid station, as it was in a section of a very busy tavern/restaurant. Another spot which seemed to have a great atmosphere where it would have been lovely to hang out. There were one or two other runners here who had arrived before me. I had a small food bag dropped here, from which I grabbed an Aldi coconut bar to eat heading out. A quick drink and I was off again. One other runner left before me, but he was walking out and I soon ran past him. He followed me down the hill for a kilometer or so. But as the road flattened a bit I was fully concentrated on sustaining as high a cruise speed as I could, and I slowly eased away from him.

I was definitely back in full racing mode now. We were beyond half way so I was happy enough to be using racing as my motivation as much as pacing. There was still plenty of damage to be undone, but things were going well again now, and progress was good. I was nicely motivated and driven, whilst still feeling totally in control of my overall pacing. Exiting the next aid station there was no sign of anyone behind me, even after my usual quick drink.

The motorway which I had been looking down on from above 20 minutes or so ago was now above me to my right. The road ahead looked like it would run along through a valley for a while. The motorway street lights were a huge clue as to where the route was likely to be generally heading. The road I was running was pleasantly quiet and unlit.

Another couple of kilometers later I rapidly caught and passed another runner, this time with a ridiculous degree of ease. He was obviously a runner who had gone out too hard and was now paying for it (I know the feeling!). Every overtake was a good positive feedback. Considering I was about 145km into the race I was feeling ridiculously buoyant.

I caught sight of another 2 runners ahead and again closed in rapidly. After exiting an aid station I floated past them in sequence. They were sticking to one side of the road, whereas I was trying to hold the racing line, so I was on the opposite side of the road going past. I recognised the second runner as being the runner I had had the long back-and-forth with on the approach to Nemea. In contrast to earlier there was a huge differential between our paces on the flat now, and I was soon running along on my own again. I was starting to wonder about Keith, and was a bit worried that he might have pulled out. I had overtaken quite a few runners now without any sign of him. He was either doing very well or very badly.

Before the town of Lyrekeia there was a short but very sharp hill, which I concentrated on running all the way, overtaking another runner walking up. I guessed this climb might mark the start of the long approach to the mountain climb. In the town itself there was a large aid station. Another lively place with a great atmosphere. They hard some fresh watermelon slices here. I grabbed two or three of these and along with a bottle of isotonic drink and walked out of the station to continue with my forward progress.

After a little downhill zig zagging through narrow village streets I was back out into the darkness of the country road, now very slowly climbing. I could still see the motorway out to my right high above me, and knew there was a bit to go before reaching the area where it disappeared into a tunnel through the mountains at its highest point. There was no sign of any runners ahead, so it was back to trying to churn out a good fast cruise pace to change that!

One aid station later at about 153km the road turned a bit, and the view ahead opened a bit more. i could see lights moving above the motorway tunnel entrance. At first I thought that could be leading runners, but then realised it was probably cars making their way into the “Mountain Base” aid station for me to be able to see from here. I reckoned I could see a zig zag pattern of either trail or road lower down the hill face on the near side of the motorway… that could be the route up. It could be interestingly steep!

Another kilometer of steady road climbing and the features ahead were more clear. About a kilometer away uphill there was a village, which a prominent blue neon cross on a church. There was likely to be an aid station here. Beyond that the zig zag climb was more clear. I could now pick out a headtorch here and there along it. Plenty of runners ahead. Plenty of potential targets to chase down later.

The road started to head much more steeply uphill. This finally felt like the start of the notorious climb up the mountain. As ever, I made sure to stay running. I knew that every running step was probably closing down runners ahead and dropping runners behind. This was very steep though! Probably at the limits of where running was preferable to walking. I stayed steep up into and through the village. Just as the route veered right I heard a call from my left, to see an aid station.

There was a runner standing there, filling up with liquids. He started walking out as I arrived in. I gave  in to the temptation to have a sugary jelly sweet here, as well as my usual quick drink. And then I headed back out again. There were still a few lol people enjoying the spectacle and cheering us runners on.

Exiting the village downhill (I knew this would be very temporary) with a few lefts and rights on minor roads I soon caught and passed the runner I had seen at the aid station. And then it was back to climbing again. The route ahead was very obvious now. It was a back-road taking huge zig zags up the side of the hill. Ahead I could see a number of head torches at various points above me. They didn’t seem to be moving too fast. I reckoned there was 6 or 7 runners visible in all. Targets! There’s enough race distance left to consider catching them all.

Of course the road quickly began to rise again. This was the big hill after all. I soon dropped the runner behind me. The initial zig zag didn’t seem to far ahead at first, but I soon realised it went a long way “in” to the valley before climbing back out on the opposite where I could see a runner or two above. I knew that as long as I could keep running I would probably gain on at least a few people ahead to some extent, and drop pretty much everyone behind. So I made sure not to give in to any temptation to “just walk for a bit” when it got a little steeper.

On this first long “in” section I soon caught sight of a head torch ahead, probably about 200-300 meters. I was definitely closing with each step. Just before the “V” of the switchback he stopped for some relief, allowing me to fly by. Back “out” on the next section and I soon closed down another runner. I made sure to overtake with speed, and keep the power on as the road steepened immediately afterwards. Soon I was dropping him well behind as well.

Another big “V” switched me back steeply again to a steady climb. Now I could see the road ahead climbing in arc around the valley heading up towards the motorway above. I could see bright lights in the far-most Switchback… probably and aid station. As I climbed steadily upwards toward the aid station I kept an eye on the road coming out from it. I counted about 5 head torches exciting as I was approaching. They were at least 5 or 10 minutes ahead, at a guess.

I had checked my race position at an earlier aid station and had been in the mid-30s. I’d been trying to count off my position with each runner I was passing. There was also the chance of getting a “freebie” position if someone ahead retired from the race. With all these runners ahead and “targetable” a top 20 place was definitely possible.

After a long hard-working climb I reached the aid station and did my usual rapid in-quick-drink-out routine. Switching back I could see the road I had climbed zig zagging down the valley below. I had put in some good distance to the runners behind, with only the most recent being within threatening distance. It was starting to feel more airy and mountainy now! Plenty of height gained to here, all relatively straightforward road climbing. More of the same to follow. I kept up the effort and pushed on up the climb, through a few smaller zig-zags, all the while getting closer and closer to the motorway above.

There was a brief respite from the climbing as the road crossed under the motorway, but then climbed even more steeply on the other side. I knew it was likely the “Base of the mountain” aid station was pretty close. Coming up to the crossing under the motorway I thought I caught site of a runner ahead. And sure enough, as I ran up the steep section I was rapidly closing on a racer walking ahead. I recognised the green top of Phil. That was good for me from the point of view of my own race psychology. Phil was the first runner to go past me when I had my cramping meltdown, so this was like closing the loop and getting myself back to my “proper” position (All mind games, but it was working effectively as motivation).

The road turned sharply right, leaving the motorway behind, with plenty of cars parked… definitely the aid station. I passed Phil as we made our way in. I knew I had left a bag for this station with a lightweight jacket for the mountain section. The aid station staff initially told me there was no bag for me here, but I assured them there was, and I found it a second or two later. I picked the jacket out of the bag and tied it around my waist… it was still warm enough that I didn’t need it. I also had a spare head torch, so I did a like for like swap so I had totally fresh batteries.

Shannon was here, and vocally encouraging Phil as he arrived. He was ensuring that Phil got the full pit-stop treatment with lots of food options being produced. There was one other runner also still in the aid station. Again, I was trying to minimise my time here, so I just had another drink, tied my bag back up and checked with the aid station staff where to leave it, and then set off. I knew Phil was at least a minute or two from setting off, but the other runner set off pretty much at the same time.

So finally… the notorious mountain. I’d heard so much about this. How steep it was. How treacherous the terrain was. How exposed it was. How much of a barrier it was. Well, I’m a milt-terrain runner, and this race seems to be mostly road runners. Time to make some ground. Again, the simple plan… run as much as I can to really gain time, but not run so hard as to blow the rest of the race (or induce the dreaded cramps again).

The terrain didn’t seem too bad. It was definitely off-road, bt 100% runnable from a trail-runner’s point of view. A few sharp rocky outcrops here and there, but mostly loose gravel and rock. It launched into being pretty steep almost immediately, but still just about runnable. Within a few seconds I was out of the light spillover from the aid station, and for the first time in the race truly needed the head torch. I switched it to full power, as I knew I had more than enough battery power left, and even in the worst case scenario I’d probably be able to run road section without it. Might as well use the full power whilst off-road to gain any advantage. I was dropping the runner behind  slowly but surely.

Surprisingly, there was some “tourist” traffic on the trail descending down the trail, giving support as they passed. A few minutes in the trail became so steep that I had to walk 30 or 40 meters. It then turned right and started zigzagging across the mountain rather than going straight up it. The trail was runnable again (just), and I hooshed myself forward into a trot again. There were lots of tape barriers and lights set up along the path, making it pretty hard to get lost! I could see several cluster of lights above me. I reckoned one was some kind of race station (rescue or aid) and another was a pair of runners.

On quite a few of the “V” turns on the zig zags there were people stationed, presumably as safety. I passed by a photographer, but he didn’t bother raising his camera. Must be getting bored of runners! I was setting a good steady pace and happy with the progress I was making, keeping up a slow enough but steady uphill running pace (And a slow running pace would be the pants off a walking pace, so that was good). I was psyched up for a big alpine style climb to get me up to the full 1000 meters.

I came in to the big race station, which looked awfully like an aid station. There was a runner standing there drinking. I tentatively asked if this was the top (it wasn’t the top of the mountain, but it could be the top of our climb), and the staff said it was. Jeeze… that was a lot easier than I thought it would be. The run up the road to the “mountain base” was longer and harder than the off-road climb. That had flown by pretty easily.

The runner finished his drink and started to head out. I grabbed a quick gulp of one cup, and ran past him about 5 meters out from the aid station. I didn’t want to take any chances of someone blocking me on a narrow descent.

Again, I heard lots about the descent and just how treacherous it was. Lots of people had said that they would have planned to run down this quickly to make up for the slow climb, but the big loose rocks made it impossible. From their description I had visualised “babies heads” rock fields. When I looked ahead down the hill I could see what looked like a big wide fireroad zig-zagging down the hill. This looked quite runnable from here. It actually looked not just runnable, but cyclable and driveable for that matter.

So I headed down, feeling out the terrain and seeing how much I could push up the speed. I soon realised that if this was a descent on a short hill race I’d be going down this at full pelt. Really the only thing making this difficult was the fact that I had 150km of running in my legs today, and had about another 100km to go, so needed to look after myself.

In the 2 or 3 kilometers that this off-road track lasted I passed another 3 runners. They were cautiously picking their way down, and I was effectively floating past them. My hill running background ensured that this was fairly comfortable and almost effortless descending  for me, which was in obvious contrast to the nervousness and hesitancy of the runners I was passing.

Because of this, I was disappointed when the trail turned to tarmac road again. The mountain section has proved to be very straightforward, and hugely advantageous for me from a competitive point of view. At this point I reckoned I was about to head into the top twenty of the race. I was definitely feeling good, and was energised and motivated to keep trying to catch and overtake.

I hadn’t recognised the runners I overtook on the descent, which was good. I was probably now back ahead of where I had been before my cramping meltdown. Still not a trace of Keith though. Either I had somehow not seen him, he had pulled out, or he was having a flyer ahead.

There was another runner in the aid station in the next village, Sagkas, and I was so quick through that he was still there as I left. The road was still heading downhill as it left the village, and I saw and soon caught yet another runner ahead. The runner behind had made an effort coming out of the aid station though and was back on my heels. Not long afterwards we were back on flat ground. The other two were now running at my pace, so we ran along as a group of 3 for a kilometer or two. There was a very slight incline into the next aid station. That slowed the other two down without having any impact on my pace, and with my usual quick drink stop I had them dropped by the time I was exiting the aid station.

I was running with great confidence and purpose. I really felt that I had this pace nailed, and that I was probably moving faster than most people in the race at the moment. It felt like I would be able to keep this going until the morning at the least.

After what felt like another 5 or 10 minutes I thought I could see another runner a few hundred meters ahead, but wasn’t sure. A minute or two later a passing car cast his shadow, confirming that there was another runner ahead. I caught and passed him in no time. Considering how far up the field this was, he was moving very slowly. It’d be a long long way home for him.

Another 10 or 15 minutes flat running later I saw another runner ahead, but lost sight of him as the road turned into a hill ahead. When I reached the short hill I soon started closing in on him very rapidly. As had been the pattern all race, my climbing speed was a lot stronger. At this point I wanted as many hills as possible for the rest of the race.

The climb took us into the village of Nestani. In the middle there was a surprisingly lively aid station. There were at least 2 if not 3 runners there as I arrived. I decided to lose the surplus weight of the jacket I had carried up and down the mountain without using. The temperature was likely to be stable for the rest of the night, and I didn’t feel like I needed another layer. I had a bag here with spare clothes, but ended up leaving more behind than I picked up!

I was out again pretty quickly. One of the other runners seemed to rush out after me. I reckoned he was determined not to lose a place. Since I had caught him at this point I my thinking was he could latch on all he liked, but I was overall moving faster and this was likely to tell over time. Running out through the gentle descent out of the village I thought another runner might have also joined us, but I wasn’t going to bother looking behind to check.

A kilometer later we were running down an empty wide flat road. My chaser has stuck right on my tail. I relaxed my pace slightly, and he overtook and started creating an immediate gap. I kept to my own pace, which I felt was as fast I should be going, and let him out. I closed the gap down to about 10 meters at the next aid station, but he soon stretched it out to about 100 meters by the next aid station, where we took a very sharp turn and headed down a  more minor country road. 2 or 3 kilometers later we passed under a main road and turned right at an immediately following aid station to head parallel with the main road.

If there had been another runner behind, he was dropped by now. The other runner was still sitting about 100 meters ahead, but didn’t seem to be pushing out any gap. A few kilometers later I realised that there were 2 headtorches ahead when I thought I might have narrowed the gap. He had caught and passed another runner who I was no closing down. This poor lad was walking. As I got closer I recognised Keith’s Irish singlet and distinctive compression socks.

I called out greetings once I got close enough and asked how he was. His I.T. band was giving him problems again. I congratulated him on his fantastic running to be this far up the field at this point. He had clearly put in a massive push since I last saw him. I wished him well, but ran on and kept my eye on the unchanging gap on the runner ahead. Soon I heard a runner approaching from behind. Keith had obviously been motivated by being passed by me, and he soon caught up and joined me.

We were back running together again, in a similar style to earlier in the race. We picked up the conversation again, although given the time of night it wasn’t too surprising that there were longer gaps! Keith was running well now, and our combined pace was slowly hauling in the runner ahead. I’m not sure if Keith was paying attention to that, but I certainly was. One major point of conversation we had at this stage was the temperature. We were both noticing the cold, which was unexpected. Neither of us were carrying extra layers with us. Keith reckoned the next aid station was a supported one, and he would be able to source extra layers for both of us from Eada there if needed. Neither of us were in any danger, but both of us were at the lower end of comfortable.

There seemed to be a huge gap to the next aid station. After what seemed like an age we got there. Approaching it, I could see that it wasn’t supported, so we’d have to plough on and deal with the cool temperatures as we were. Target runner was still there as Keith and myself arrived, but he ran out pretty much as we came in. Keith whizzed through the aid station. I took a little longer to purposefully make sure that I drank a full cup of liquid, given the large gap between stations. Keith really started moving off at speed, but after a few seconds he started hopping and pulled up to walk, clearly in pain. he had twanged his I.T. band again. I set off after him at my standard pace and told him I’d run on at normal speed, saying he’d probably catch me once he got going again. I set off with target runner about 40 meters or so ahead.

Surprisingly I found that over the course of this stretch I was beginning to reel in the runner ahead again, particularly when there were slight undulations in the road. Once there was even a small incline I would wind up right behind him. He’d then press on a little so as not to be overtaken. So by the time we arrived at the next aid station he was only about 10 meters ahead. This aid station was supported, and Eada was there waiting for Keith. I quickly filled her in on how Keith was doing, and that I expected him to arrive in at any point now.

I had left a drop bag for this aid station, and it happened to have a long-sleeved running top. Even after the conversation with Keith I was a little unsure about whether I really truly needed it. I made a quick decision that the temperature was unlikely to fall much more, and that since I was still coping with the cool temperatures I’d avoid the faff and time-wasting and just run on as I was. There was one more runner in the aid station when we arrived in. He seemed to be a friend of my back-and-forth target runner. As I left, they both left immediately after me. By my count I was around 15th at this point, but barely ahead of being 17th. Still very much racing.

I was running along at my maximum cruise speed. The other 2 were running on the other side of the road, matching my speed and occasionally poking in front. The road turned left towards a small village, Neochori, and is it went through the village it became a gradual incline. I kept my solid running pace on the shallow climb. One of the other 2 sounded like he immediately slowed to a walk on first contact with the climb. I could hear the other (my original target) working hard, but slowly loosing ground on me. I pushed on.

A right turn in the middle of the village signalled the end of the small climb, followed by a gradual descent. I reckoned if I pushed the pace here and used to descent to generate some speed I could “break the elastic band”. About 5 or 10 minutes later I reached the next aid station, and looking back when taking a quick drink I could see I had created over 100 meters of a gap. Out again rapidly, and there were one or two more undulations along the next winding section of road. I hoped this, combined with the now large visual gap should be enough end the chase. Out of site, out of mind.

I was warmly greeted into the next aid station, who confirmed my position and congratulated me on doing so well… I just wished I was at the finish, but there was still a good 60km to go. No sign of any chasers here though, so it looked like I had done the job and secured another overtake. I was feeling tired of course, but still running well, and still very competitive. It was nice to be running alone again, but I’d still be happier to see someone ahead to chase down.

More flat running took me through the ruins of ancient Tegea and then on into an aid station at the modern village a kilometer further on. I was hoping to get some isotonic drink here, but they didn’t have any, so took some fruit juice as well. I also took a little bit of very tasty rice pudding, in case it might add a little kick! Some arrows on the ground beyond the village worried me that I might be gone off course, but a few meters later I ran over a spartathlon arrow pointing where I expected.

About 2 kilometers later the nice flat country road reached a junction with a bigger main road, and the route took the left down this, with a slight decline ahead. About one kilometer later after another aid station I could see the road ahead slowly climb and climb and climb. This must be the second big climb. The sting in the tail after the main mountain climb.

As usual I focused on holding a good steady running pace up the hill. I knew that with each step it was becoming less likely that anyone behind would catch me. I reckoned in my current form then holding this mid-teens position would be the worst case result, which would be a very satisfactory outcome.

After about 5 minutes of climbing I started wondering was I seeing a trace of a head torch ahead. The road was making small turns which made it hard to see too far ahead with any consistency. Another 5 minutes later and I was now sure that I was chasing down another runner ahead. The road made one or two sharper turns and emerged into a village. I expected it to flatten out, but it didn’t at all. More steady climbing appeared after each turn. The runner ahead was marching rather than running, so I reeled him in steadily and passed him in the middle of this village.

To my surprise I could now see another runner ahead, or more accurately another competitor walking up the hill. If they’re all walking this far up the field I must be doing some real damage with my consistent running. Again, I wasn’t long reeling in this next runner. I caught her as we reached a small aid station. She sat down in the aid station. I reckoned from our position in the field that she was more than likely Pam Smith, one of the two top American females who were likely to contest the win.

The other runner I had just passed pretty much went though the aid station without stopping and was off and away before I finished drinking. Once I set off running again it took very little time to pass him again since he was still walking. I could see there was plenty of climb left. The road arced up rightwards climbing up towards a gap in the hills ahead. The more the better as far as I was concerned! The climb topped out 10 or 15 minutes later. I couldn’t see a trace of anyone around.

Onwards and downwards. I had to concentrate a little to force myself to make the effort to actively keep my speed up on the descent rather than just relaxing and let gravity pull me down easily. As the road swept its way down it was doing lots of arcing turns. I was trying to take the racing line through these, and generally succeeding. Just the occasional traffic forcing me to stay on an outer bend a little too long every now and again. Oddly enough I got it into my head at this point that I was descending towards the sea, especially as the road flattened out a bit, and I’d have water on my right soon enough. This was all in my head, as the road was still several hundred meters above sea level at this point!

Another little hill brought me up to another aid station, with the first sign of life in a while. I was out again quickly and back out solo running into the darkness. Soon things started becoming “active” again. I caught something reflecting in my headtorch in the distance. It took me a while to work it all out in my tired state in the darkness. I knew it was a runner, but from a distance it looked like he was walking and swinging his arms above his head. As I closed him down I realised that I had scaled him all wrong, and he was walking along normally. He wasn’t making great speed for a flat section, particularly given we were in the low teens position-wise, and I swept past him easily, particularly as I passed him on a small incline.

Minutes later I spotted two more runners ahead. This was getting really interesting now, as a top ten finish was starting to become a possibility. There was still at least 30 kilometers of running left, so lots of potential for both more overtaking, or getting it all wrong and having a crash and burn. The two ahead were running well enough on the flat, but I was still closing them. Another small incline meant I hugely increased my rate of gain. The incline was topped by a busy looking aid station, with lots of parked cars. There were enough people around that I lost track a bit of the two runners, and whether they stopped for help.

I did my usual quick pit-stop. One of them was only about 20 meters ahead as I left, so I closed him down and overtook him almost immediately. A few hundred meters further on I was closing in on another runner. The road did a few bends, before settling into a very long straight shallow climb. I overtook the other runner just at the start of this. I wasn’t entirely sure of my position now, but reckoned I was either 10th or 9th. Either way this was great. This was definitely the upper end of my pre-race ambitions.

Even though I ran the long shallow climb at my usual steady pace I had that nagging feeling that I hadn’t fully dropped one of the runners behind. Another aid station at the top. Sure enough, as I exited this station after my usual quick drink I could see a runner approaching the aid station. Another sticker!

There was a corresponding descent not long after this aid station. I concentrated on keeping my pace up to keep the pressure on. Once again I thought I caught the trace of a headtorch ahead. Another few minutes of descending confirmed it was another runner. I was switching sides of the road to hold the racing line, and eventually ended up just behind him. He was running pretty well, so it took a relatively long time to catch him and ease away.

The light was starting to increase at this stage. I wouldn’t need my headtorch for too much longer. As it happened at the next aid station I had a drop bag placed, and this turned out to be another aid station where I left more behind in the drop bag than had been there before I arrived. I still had a close enough “tail” leaving this aid station. He wasn’t directly behind, but I was definitely being tracked.

Cars passing on the road would sometime beep as they passed runners. I would listen for gaps from “my” beep to any subsequent beep to try to judge the distance behind. I certainly wasn’t going to look, for many reasons. My energy levels were rising a little in parallel with the level of light. It was definitely nice to be able to look at the landscape again.

The long steady descent flattened out to a wide right turning arc winding between hills, with another aid station visible at the end of the arc. Arriving into the aid station I could see that I had created a small gap to my tailing runner. I checked with the aid station staff who confirmed that I was 8th at that point. Great… even if my tail was to catch me I could still hang in for a top 10 finish. But the good thing here is I could see a two or 3 hundred meters down the road. I could here my tail being cheered in as I was 50 or 60 meters out of the aid station.

In the daylight I could see the road arc back around and climb around to the left. It looked like it could be a long enough climb. I concentrated and ensured that I kept up my usual solid running pace. A few times on the climb cars passed and gave me a beep (always returned with a wave). I couldn’t hear any following beeps though, which was a good sign. After about 2 or 3 km of steady climbing it topped out. The road rounded through a gap in a hill and emerged to a huge view of the mountains of the Peloponnese in the morning sunlight ahead. I could tell there was a big valley between my position and those hills, and knew that Sparta was in there somewhere… now it was starting to feel like it was the beginning of the end!

Another kilometer of shallow descending took me into another aid station and another big friendly greeting. I had left my hat behind with Eada a long way back, just after sunset and my cramping meltdown. At this point I would like to have it back…lesson learned… need to position another hat at an aid station where I would be in the morning. There was a visor on the table where the drinks were. I asked the aid station staff if by any chance anyone had a spare hat similar to that. One of the guys kindly gave me the cap on his head. I said I’d try to return it to him at the prizegiving, but he insisted this was a gift from Greece. I looked back as I left, and could see my tail tearing down the road in the distance.

The road down from here was a classic mountain road, with cliffs on one side and drops on the other. Definitely enjoyable to run, but it would have been much more enjoyable not to have to run at this point. I noticed that one of the supporters cars was paying me a lot of attention at this point. They stopped at the side of the road and watched me go by. I reckoned they were working for my “tail” and were calculating the gap and relaying the information to him.

Eventually another small aid station appeared at a flat section. I grabbed a quick drink and looked back up the hill. My tail was still tearing down the hill, but was now only two or three hundred meters ahead. This was definitely a race! The red supporters car was parked opposite the aid station still keeping an eye on things. Not long after exiting the station the route came off the main road and onto a nice quiet side road. It had the feel of an old main road. It soon started descending enough to enable quite rapid running. A few minutes later there was another aid station. This was very soon after the last one. I made a very quick stop. The red supporters car was just a hundred meters ahead parked up.

There was now only about 15km left, and this had the look of being the last long descent down into the valley to Sparta. Time to let go of the brakes! I had no reason to try to preserve my legs now. I could really tear at this descent. I upped my pace out of the aid station and increased it up to what I felt my “10K” speed was in my current state.

The route down was enjoyable running terrain (for road). Nice winding roads, with plenty of trees and vegetation. Every now and then I would catch the view of Sparta in the distance. Reassuringly there was still plenty of height to burn off, so I kept the speed to the maximum I could to use the descent as fully as possible. I knew that any runners who had pushed too hard earlier would find this descent brutally tough on trashed legs, and would have difficulty running it. I had definitely done well with my pacing.

I reached another aid station in a lovely small village in the middle of the winding descent.I was in such a hurry that I poured my own drink and got in and out loosing as few seconds as possible. I was aware I had to ditch my tail, so no quarter would be given now. I tore off out and accelerated back to flank speed, still thundering down the hill in the bright morning sunshine. At this time the sun was rising rapidly. I knew that after 10a.m. or so the temperatures would rise rapidly with it. It was comfortable now, but the quicker I could get this over with the better, before a virtuous circle turned into a viscous one.

15 or 20 minutes of high-speed running later (and after a nice conversation with a motorcycling supporter at speed) I rounded the last few bends of the descent to arrive at an aid station on the outskirts of the urban conurbation of Sparta. I asked how long was officially left and was told 5.5km. Another quick drink and I was off out again, determined not to give anyone a chance of catching me this close to the finish. The hill shallowed out and soon enough I was running on the flat. I picked up my “escort” for the journey in to Sparta, as a gang of 5 or 6 kids on bikes spotted me and cycled along. They had enough English to exchange greetings and find out where I was from. They were a cool bunch! Even though I wasn’t making any conversation I enjoyed their enthusiasm.

Keeping the speed up was hard work, and I had to really concentrate so as not to relax, and to remember that 5km wasn’t going to pass that quickly. I could feel the heat starting to build. It wasn’t uncomfortable yet, but I knew it was rapidly heading that way. I was glad that I was going to be finished before the heat of the middle of the day.

It was taking even more concentration to run fast now, but I was determined to keep the pace up to try to ensure that there would be as little chance as possible of being overtaken. I mentally envisioned being chased to keep myself on my toes, but didn’t look behind to check the reality. Occasionally other bands of young cyclists would pass by on the other side of the road, and would occasionally join in. The town seemed to be full of kids on bikes, which was great.

Eventually the final aid station appeared at a large roundabout and I grabbed one final cup of water. Only 1.5km to go now. I powered out. I still kept my concentration on maintaining as fast a speed as I could manage, trying to pace this flat section like a 5km race. It wasn’t dead flat, and approaching the centre of Sparta itself there were one or two small drags which  I powered up. People shouted encouragement as I passed them going about their normal daily routines, whether from the balconies of their apartments, or from the cafes at the side of the road.

Finally a right turn took me off the road I had been following for the last 5km, and went slowly uphill into the centre of the town. I wasn’t sure where the finish was, but was sure it was close now. A couple of hundred meters on and a marshall in a large crowd turned me right again, and onto the final street of the race.

Somewhere here I lost my unofficial bicycle escort, but gained my official running escort. Two local schoolgirls run in either side of every athlete. By now I was starting to take in the fact that I was now on the final run in. I was going to finish this epic race. So I made sure to take it all in and enjoy this experience as much as possible. The race commentary and music was pouring out of speakers all along this avenue. I was still keeping a good pace, and I could sense that my escort runners were under a little pressure!

Finally I could see the statue of King Leonidas ahead at the end of the avenue. I had a sudden surge of emotion. Then Helen appeared out on the road in front of me, and the emotional charge surged to the point where I was on the verge of bursting into tears of joy. Ironically Helen had been explaining to other supporters waiting at the finish line witnessing the blubbering of the athletes finishing ahead of me that I was too grounded to cry just for finishing a race… the irony… it was the site of Helen that very nearly set me off!

12-approaching-finish

Approaching the finish (fast!)

Helen ran in beside me for the last few meters, up the steps and the traditional finish of touching the foot of Leonidas. A very unique finish line! I had my finisher’s laurel crown placed on my head, and was presented with the various finishing certs and trophies. After getting finishing photos taken with Helen the race medics grabbed me by both arms and escorted me into the medical tent… I wasn’t getting a choice about that!

13-being-crowned

Being crowned with Laurel

I was actually fine now. Tired, but elated and fine. In another nice tradition of the race, the medics removed my shoes and socks, made sure my feet were fine and washed my feet. Now that’s a great great treat at the end of 246km of running!

14-water-please

A nice cup of water!

To my surprise the next runner to arrive into the tent wasn’t the greek runner who I had been battling with in the closing stages of the race (I reckon he must have cracked trying to chase me down), but was Joao Oliviera. He must have had a flying finish as well. Ten minutes later my greek chaser arrived in. I had managed to hold on to my 8th place position all the way to finish. I hadn’t been overtaken by anyone since my cramping episode.

16-finish-kiss

To the Victor – the spoils!

My final time turned out to be around 26 hours, 37 minutes. As I was running in from about 40km out I had been estimating a 26:45 finish, so I was happy to beat that with my final surge. If I had been offered a top 10 place in under 27 hours before the race I would have grabbed it with both hands. That was at the very upper limits of my ambitions. To achieve a result like that, even with the half an hour of mid-race cramping was extremely satisfying. It definitely counts as one of my best all time results, given the prestige of the race and the quality of the field. This also smashed the previous best Irish finishing time and positions for the Spartathlon.

Keith finished a few hours later in a time of 28:54. He had an excellent race despite his IT band problems, finishing in 27th position and the 2nd best all time Irish finish. That was great running for a runner more used to speeding through 100km races. In fact it was his longest ever run. I was delighted to see Bob Hearn’s intelligent race tactics pay dividends as he finished top American male runner in 16th position. Great pacing from Bob.

Unfortunately both Anto and Billy were pulled off the course agonisingly close the finish. They had both been doing well, looking good to make it through the cut-offs. However the conditions on the second day seem to have a big impact and both of them suffered. No doubt they’ll both be back!

 

 

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The Northern Traverse 2016 – The final countdown

One adventure ends, and the planning for the next one begins. Since the end of the Spine Race I’ve been looking ahead towards the next “A” race on my calendar for this year :  the Northern Traverse.

The Northern Traverse is a non-stop unsupported race from coast to coast across the width of England, following a classic walking route set out by Alfred Wainwright. It requires the ability to be self sufficient in the hills and dales, both in terms of safety and navigation. In many ways it is quite similar to the Spine Race. However the fact that it takes place in early summer rather than mid-winter should make it more survivable (and possibly more obviously enjoyable). The route is around 300km long, and winds across the Lake District, the Pennines and the North York Moors. Literally it is a journey o’er hill and dale!

wainwrights-route

The Northern Traverse Route

This is the first running of this race, so there are no pre-existing race reports to glean for information. Similarly there are no result to delve through to try to ascertain how long it is likely to take me to cover the course. The existing Fastest known times on the general route aren’t of too much use either, as they were not done in unsupported racing conditions. We have very strict rules in the race about following the defined route, which would not have applied to the FKT. We also don’t get to choose our week based on conditions.

The race organiser, James Thurlow, is an excellent organiser, so I’ve no doubt this will be a very high standard event. James’ company organisers the tracking systems for many events (including the Spine and Iterra races, so I’ll be spending the majority of my racing time this years in the company of one of James’s trackers). So of course we’ll all be carrying trackers for this race. The race can be followed live here.

One of the big attractions of this race for me is that it traverses across the lake district. I regard this area as one of the most beautiful I’ve seen anywhere in the world. It also has hills that can be much more taxing to run/walk than you would expect, given their relatively small height. This is one area where it the northern Traverse is likely to be harder than the Spine Race. The big climbs and descents are front loaded in this race, leaving no opportunity to “preserve the body” for the later stages.

route-profile

Northern Traverse Race Route Profile

Hopefully one of the things that will  make this race easier than the Spine is the weather. After all it’s a summer race, rather than the depths of winter. It still is in the hills in England though, so there are no guarantees. Like most big races in the mountains there is a kit list of mandatory gear that has to be carried, which includes the usual range of wet weather gear. I won’t be skimping here, and will be bringing a similar set of gear to the items used in the spine race. As ever, huge thanks go to Columbia and the Great Outdoors in Dublin, who have both ensured that I go into the race without any worries on the gear front.

Initially it looked like this race would be another re-match between Pavel Paloncy and myself. Pavel had said as much on his blog after the Spine race in January. Unfortunately for whatever reason Pavel never entered the race, which is a pity. He brings a skillset into races which makes for challenging racing. Even if he doesn’t appear on the startline he has still had an influence, as I’ve prepared for the race thinking I would be racing him.

Of course there are many familiar names in the race who I recognise from previous racing encounters. There a quite a few Spine race finishers who I expect to race to a high standard. There is also an old Adventure Racing teammate of mine from the U.S., Mark Lattanzi (We were teammates  for Primal Quest South Dakota). Mark ran with me for quite a chunk of the Tor De Geant last year (where he was the top American finisher). I expect Mark to do very well indeed!

Just the final pre-race logistics remain. After that there’s nothing left to do but the small matter of running 300km across England, o’re Hill and Dale! It can’t come soon enough.

Posted in Mountain Running, Ultra Running | 5 Comments