Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc 2012 - Kind of!!!

The UTMB is probably seen by most of those who enter it as Ultra Trail/mountain running's World Cup or Olympics. A bit like Ironman Hawaii is to Triathlon perhaps. Chamonix is the place to be at the end of August every year and it was evident from the moment we arrived just how big an event this has become. Every second person on the street had that familiar weather beaten face and sunken cheekbone look that is "de rigueur" for people involved in the sport. With a total of 4 races over the course of the week, and  participation numbering in and around the 6000 mark, there was an unmistakable air of simultaneous nervousness and excitement on those same faces. 

I'll first say a few words about the lads I got to share a memorable few days with. I travelled over with Barry Murray, Eoin Keith and his girlfriend, Helen, as we were all staying in an apartment Barry had sorted for us right by the Aguille de Midi cable car. It was the perfect spot and just a 10 minute stroll to the start line. Karl, Barry's dad had also made the journey and we met Diana Hogan-Murphy on the plane so there was a good group travelling out together. Jeff and Aoibheann, 2 friends and fellow hill runners had headed out to Chamonix earlier in the week and were tying in a holiday with spectating, and very kindly offering support at different points along the course. Jeff is possibly the most enthusiastic (and serious) person you could have supporting you in a race. He switches from a laid back, placid sort of lad to a man with a demonic look in his eyes and a focus on the job that Roy Keane would be proud of.  Between himself, Aoibheann and Helen, there was plenty of roars of encouragement at the aid stations. Dan Doherty was also living the good life for the week and it was great to catch up with him as I hadn't met him since our Lakes trip last March. The guy is a machine and we all expected him to blitz the course, all the more so after the race was shortened, given his speed at that distance. However, after a blistering start, he had to pull out at the 40k mark when he tried to deposit the contents of his stomach on a race marshall at the La Balme checkpoint. Cruel luck for Ireland's most talented ultrarunner. It didn't stop him being really good craic for the rest of the trip though.  On the Thursday Ultra Running hardman and local legend in  my eyes (and many other people's I'm sure), Adrian Tucker raced in the extremely technical TDS race consisting of 112Km's and over 7000 Metres of ascent. Adrian had barely run a step in 2 months because of Plantar Fasciitis and had tried to keep fit on the bike. His hopes were not high, given the challenge ahead but he proceded to finish in 24 hours and 184th position out of a starting field of more than 1200 runners.  And with a drop out rate of about 50% because of the difficulty of the race, it gives one a good idea of what the guy is made of. This meant he had now completed all 4 UTMB events!!! The first time I met Adrian was back in January 2011 when he was good enough to let me follow him around the Art O' Neill challenge. I  hadn't Recce'ed the course and my navigation is "questionable" to say the least. He has been a good running friend ever since. Kevin Grogan also ran the TDS but had to drop out at the halfway point. Kevin does a good job of adding to the stereotype that all ultrarunners are nutters. He was due to have an operation on his knee and was keeping the race quiet from his doctor. Another real character from the local scene.
I met up with Stuart Air, who I had first met in the Lake District in May when he helped navigate me around a Bob Graham attempt. He was all ready to go on Thursday, having spent the previous few months living the dream around the Chamonix valley, only to be struck with food poisoning late on the eve of the race. Talk about bad timing. The poor guy was heaving his insides up well in to the early hours of the morning, only to defiantly take to the start line in true ultrarunning "hard Bastard" fashion and went on to do a cracking time.

Now I really was looking forward to this event because I had barely given it a second thought until the Lakeland 100 dust had settled. This was great as I hadn't spent all year waiting for it to come around,   so there was no chance to create that "for Christ's sake, Hurry the fuck up and be race time" feeling that I have suffered from in the past. However there was a really deep fatigue still hanging in there in my legs after that trip to the Lakes. And this was magnified by the fact I always feel that way anyway before a long race. So my expectations were a little dulled as a result. However it didn't stop me worrying about whether the race organisers would modify or delay the race start with the reports of impending bad weather....for the third year in a row!!! What were the chances. The sun had scalded the place for the previous week only to desert us the day before the race was due to start. Heavy snow and strong winds were forecast for the higher points on the course and everywhere else it was expected to be cold and wet. Now personally I would put up with that type of weather, and it probably would have suited us Irish lads given the summer we'e had but to be fair to the organisers, they had to consider the 2500 people they were sending out on the hills and how the majority of people would take 35 to 40 hours to complete the challenge, even if the weather was perfect. So they took the hard decision to modify the course, making it aproximately 110k accoring to some people using Garmins, and a cummulative ascent of 6000 metres. So it would still be a decent run. But it wasn't UTMB!! I struggled for a little while to motivate myself for this, especially given the decision was only confirmed at lunch time on the day of the race. Of course everyone was in the same boat so it was no excuse.

Ready for anything!!

Just before the start and Eoin with his bottle of fruit juice. I swear he drank about 10 litres of that stuff before the race!!

Having pissed about with gear all afternoon (and weighing Jeff down with spares), we headed for the start line where we were greeted by a mass of people already camped out waiting for the starters gun. As a result there was a little weaving in and out of people in the first mile or so until things settled down. The first few miles are relatively flat to Les Houche (or Lez Hoochies as Aoibheann and Jeff had renamed it), and I just tried to settle in and enjoy this easier section. I'm not sure I managed that because in reality I felt pretty crap, a feeling that seemed to pervade for long periods of many races this year. I caught up to Eoin before the first real climb after he had started a little closer to the front. But as soon as we hit this climb he slowly started to pull away and it was the last I saw of him until the finish line. His strength is his amazing consistency (among many other things) in ultra distance events, from 24 hour track to 7 day Adventure races. He is an amazing athlete and proved it again this time round.

Back to the race and I generally struggled along for the next couple of hours, hoping I'd start to feel better again soon. The descent in to St. Gervais (I think) was a lot of fun. Just really steep, slippy and hard to see in the gloom under the fog and darkness. Arriving in the town I was greeted by the lad's shouts of encouragement, which was great at the time. I didn't waste any time in the checkpoint, just stopping to grab a cup of coke and a little water. Writing this now has me realising I really didn't know where I was for much of the race. It was dark and considering I was on unfamiliar trails, there weren't too many landmarks to enlighten me. Les Contamines was the next town along the way. It was raining by now and probably the first time I felt in any way cold. I noticed most runers were wrapped up pretty well with full body cover and I wondered how they were managing to keep cool. Of course as soon as the rain began my shorts idea seemed less like a good one and more like stupidity, but once I kept moving it wasn't so bad.

At Notre Dame de la Gorge runners were greeted by supporters keeping warm around a big bonfire. The cowbells rang out as each runner passed and the shouts of "Allez, Allez" seemed to lift my spirits as I began the long climb to the La Balme checkpoint. It was up at La Balme where stupidity slowly turned to lunacy as the snow started to fall. I was starting to get really cold when I followed a wayward course marker into a farmers field and proceded to fall flat on my backside in to the snow. I'm still not sure how that marker got where it did but I wasn't the only one that followed it. Anyway apart from a numb ass, all was ok once we dropped down a little lower where the snow changed to rain again. I really enjoyed this section of the race, knowing that that was as cold as it was going to get so the Armageddon-like conditions that the organisers warned against were not going to materialise, on this course at least.  It was about this time that I had my first encounter with Canadian Ultrarunner Gary Robbins, whom I had had brief on-line twitter conversations over the last year. I knew Gary had suffered a bad injury last year and that he had been unable to run for a large chunk of 2011. So it was with keen interest I had kept an eye on how his recovery was going since he got back running. I know how terrible I would feel to be out of running for so long, so I really wanted to see the guy nail this race. As he passed I said hello and noted his accent when he replied. I then saw his Ultra Aspire pack, which I knew a lot of the guys from the States and Canada were using. I asked "Is that Gary?", as if we were old school buddies or something, and sure enough he answered in the affirmative, and in his typical upbeat, positive tone. I introduced myself and we continued running. And so began hours of leap frogging each other in the standings, interspersed with conversations as diverse as race organisation, how shit we both felt at different times, running gear and Gary's recent engagement to his lovely girlfriend, Linda. Congratulations again guys!

The decsent in to Les Houche on the return leg was a lot of fun. What we did could only be described as mud skiing as the trails had been badly cut up and softened by the previous 24 hours of weather. I should have written this sooner because I'm getting confused as to where, and at what stage of the race, certain things happened. But I do remember that the climb out of Les Houches on the way to Argentiere was the most uninspiring climb (for the first half anyway) of any part of any other race I've done this year. I was on my own now, having exited the checkpoint before Gary so there was no conversation to take my mind off the tiredness I was feeling. The next hour was just road, road, road....road, road...road,road,road. You get the idea. Every time I thought we were going to get back on some trail, there, in front of me up the ROAD, would be another marker to follow. But when we did eventualy get back on the trails, it was well worth the wait. We were now on the side of the wall-like hills above the Chamonix valley, amongst the trees on lovely singletrack, scattered with rocks and tree roots. It was still pitch dark and there were quite a few near misses with my footing as we contoured around the valley wall. Every so often we would catch a glimpse of the lights twinkling below in what I presume was Chamonix itself. I tried to convince myself that Argentiere, the last checkpoint on the course, was within touching distance. But it was wishful thinking. I hadn't studied the modified course so I was unaware that there was another small aid station to pass before Argentiere. When we finally emerged from under the blanket of trees a few hundred metres lower down, we were met by the small checkpoint well staffed by friendly staff. I didn't really want to know how far it was to Argentiere but I overheard someone asking one of the volunteers. 15 kilometres was the answer. This was not quite what I was expecting. I couldn't unerstand how we still had that far left to go. I wasn't the only one, judging by the audible groans around me. A cup of coke and I was on my way again with 3 or 4 other runners who I had shared the previous few miles of trail with.  I thought about it for a moment and realised that, on the upside it would be getting bright soon and hopefully that would help with energy levels for the last section of the race. However, while we were spared another relentless climb, instead enjoying rolling terrain, I again made the mistake of trying to second guess just where the f$%k Argentiere was. We trundled in to what looked like a campsite and I thought  that had got to be it after Dan had told me he was staying in a campsite in the town. The rather obvious fact that there may be more than one campsite in the whole of the Chamonix Valley never really occurred to me! No, this was it and I was nearly home and dry. Not only did this prove to be false, but there was a final sting in the the tail. I arrived at a sign pointing straight on for Argentiere only to find tape blocking the way and a marker pointing up and to the left. This last climb drained me of whatever energy I had left and really did feel like there was just no end to it. Huge tree roots and stone littered the trail and made the going even slower than my already painfully pedestrian plod was taking me. I made up a couple of places on the climb, only to be passed by the fast finishing Rory Bosio, my new favourite female ultrarunner (I'll let ye figure out why for yourselves) on the long and rolling descent in to Argentiere. The checkpoint was heaving with runners, mostly those running the CCC race which had started some 8 hours before the UTMB. Another cup of coke to see me through the last 10k and I was out of the tent and ready for what I was assured was a pretty flat last run in to Chamonix. Given my record of anticipation of what lay ahead, I convinced myself that this was a whole load of bullshit and it would be a slog.

As I left the tent I met Gary again, still smiling and getting some support from his crew. I kept moving and told him I'd see him for beer later. The rain had stopped by now and I tried to enjoy the last leg as I overtook more CCC backmarkers. The familiar sense of relief washed over me as I see-sawed over the last few rolling kilometres. Nothing beats that feeling of knowing you are going to finish a difficult day's racing. Especially when it is a race that you have dreamed about doing, and although this was not the UTMB as we all know it, it was bloody tough for what it was. 13 hours and 51 minutes after leaving Chamonix I met Adrian, Eoin, Helen and Kevin at the finish line and sat down in the cafe that we have helped to bankroll with the amount of espresso we consumed over the course of our stay. The lads filled me in on how Barry had done in the CCC, finishing in 33rd position overall, a fine performance.
Finish line in sight

The next couple of days consisted of being sore, eating, meeting more friends - old and new, drinking some beer, going for a relaxed but painful run on some nice trails, drinking espresso's, eating some more, drinking some more beer, and eating ice cream.

Dan, myself, Gary and Barry enjoying a beer post race

Finally, a big thank you to Jeff, Aoibheann and Helen for their support along the way. It can't have been a very comfortable way of spending a night on holidays, with the rain pissing down incessantly. But their enthusiasm was uplifting when I met them. And thank you too to all those I met over the course of the trip. All going well, we'll be back again next year, and hopefully this time there'll be a few extra miles to enjoy!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Montane Lakeland 100 2012

From the time I finished this race last year, I knew I wanted to come back and give it another go, and use the experience I had gained from 2011. However, being a greedy bugger, I had my sights on another "little event" at the end of August. So knowing how wrecked I felt after this race last year, I wasn't sure whether doing both was a very good idea. But as with all these things there is only one way to find out and I resolved to give the Lakeland 100 a good effort, and pick up the pieces for the trip to Chamonix afterwards. Some people would look at UTMB as the bigger race - and they'd be right in terms of sheer numbers, coverage, difficulty, razamatazz, hype, and profile of the top runners. But the Lakeland 100 is special, made so by all the various elements that go in to putting it on. Marc Laithwaite and Terry Gilpin (helped by so many other great people) have created a gem! So for me, this is the race that I wanted to be in better shape for and I'm glad it was before UTMB. All the hype in the world can't beat what this race means to me. The friends I have made, the experiences I have gained and the scenes I have witnessed make this much more than just another race. The course is brutal and beautiful at the same time. It is relentless and slowly but surely breaks you down. But ultrarunning is a funny old game, and I can't really remember feeling pain out there. It has been erased from my memory and replaced with elation and a feelgood haze that will last until I return next year.

I had been lucky enough to visit the Lake District 3 times  this year before we made this journey for the race. On 2 of those occasions myself, Terry and Barry (and Dan on the first occasion) recced sections of the course so I definately had a better idea of the route this time round. Sandwiched between those two trips was a jaunt around the Bob Graham Round in May. So people may notice a pattern developing here. Yes, I'm sort of fond of the place!!! The running has been great, but without wanting to sound soft, the equally pleasing aspect of our trips has been building friendships over there.

The race itself was a blast. As far as I can remember (my own fault for not writing this earlier), everything felt pretty comfortable for the first 30 miles or so. Terry, Barry and myself were running along, chatting, joking and generally doing what we would always do on a long run. It was great to have the company of two friends for the early stages because 100 miles is a long way to "race", and anything you can do in the early stages to relax will be greatly appreciated by mind and body later on. The views around Wasdale, Black Sail Pass and Buttermere also helped. I think Barry mentioned it in his own write up about the race and I would echo his seniments about how stunning the view down to black Sail Hut is at that time of the evening.

I think the first time I really felt uncomfortable was on the ascent up to Sail Pass after Buttermere. (This low point lasted pretty much all the way to Mardale Head at mile 75, so maybe it was a little more than just a point!!).  The darkness aided us in getting lost just before the descent in to Braithwaite. It was only for 5 minutes or so, so it didn't really matter too much and we were quickly back on track. Stuart Mills caught up to us on the track down to Braithwaite and breezed past us to the checkpoint at the town hall. He seemed to be moving well which was great  to see as I thought he had been feeling a bit rough at Wasdale.

On the climb up towards Latrigg we caught back up with Stuart and went past him before the carpark at the top. I didn't know how many guys were still ahead of us but I was more concerned with just getting through this lingering low point. I couldn't wait for the sun to come up which I find normally lifts my spirits during events like this. Perhaps its the body's natural response to the dawning of a new day. However we had a few more hours to get through before that.

Heading through Dockray was where I thought the rough patch was going to mean losing contact with Terry and Barry but I just about managed to stick with them as we skirted around Ullswater on one of the more picturesque areas of the course. As we entered the grounds of Dalmaine Castle we were all together again and entered the "halfway" (mile 59) checkpoint as the morning was beginning to dawn. Terry exited the checkpoint ahead of myself and Barry and thats the last we saw of him until the finish line in Coniston later in the day. He showed his class over the next 40 miles or so to take an emphatic victory and smash his old record. But it was good to share 60 miles of trails with him and learn a little more about how this game is played.

Meanwhile I felt like I was absolutely stuck to the ground for the next 10 miles or so as I tried to get going again. The 10 and a half hours it took to get to Dalmaine seemed to have taken their toll and in my own head I wondered how the hell I was going to get through the next 45 miles. I think Barry felt equally rough so it probably helped both of us to know that the other was suffering. So we continued to plod along in the hope that things would get better. And true to form the crap feeling I had finally subsided as we trotted over Wether Hill and headed for the beautiful setting at Mardale Head. We were passed by Ian Symington as we neared the checkpoint, only to pass him again at the top of Gategarth's pass after he decided to have a snooze. I thought he was dead so it was a relief to see him pop his head up when we called him. After the bone shaking descent down the other side we could see a figure up ahead and set about catching him. Nearing the bridge at Sadgill, we passed Ed Batty who appeared to be suffering badly. He was still able to give a smile and a "hello" but unfortunately he would have to pull out shortly after this.

So we were now in joint second place and both feeling a good deal better. Myself and Barry differ a little in our outlook on racing and although we were working well together, in hindsight I would have liked go "every man for himself" and see what happened.  But we had said we would run the rest of the way together and that's the way it went. Barry would argue that it didn't matter where we finished in the placings and the experience was what counted. I agree that there is nothing more satisfying than running long distances in such a beautiful place. It's almost meditative. But that's why we go and do these runs outside of the races we enter. Racing is something I do because it satisfies my competitive side, as well as being a great social occasion, surrounded by like minded people. It wouldn't necessarily matter where I eventually finish the race, as long as I feel I have given my best but there is a part of me that feels I didn't do that by running with someone else. I'm not suggesting that Barry held me back or that I would have finished ahead of him but it stands to reason that if you run for that long with someone else there will be occasions when you dont run your own pace, thus meaning you haven't run as well at all times as you might have. While speaking with Ian Corless of Talk Ultra after the race Barry suggested that "we" aren't worried about racing and that "it's all about the journey". I dont feel that way. I, more than most, love to run in beautiful places like the Lake District. But I'd prefer to "race" when the time comes.

Anyway we continued along the track towards Ambleside, arriving there with the rain beating down. This checkpoint is a bit of a milestone, given it is 89 miles in and well supported. There was just one more section that I wasn't really looking forward to and that was the largely flat and uninspiring run to Chapel Stile. After that I knew the rest of the way was quite enjoyable to run and that we hadn't far to go. The weather improved again as we reached the last checkpoint at Tiberthwaite. Terry had won the race by now and we were safely in joint second. But there was still the possibilty of getting to the finish in under 22 hours so I suggested we pick up the pace. Barry didn't feel the need to go any quicker and so we continued on and down towards Coniston. As we neared the Miner's Bridge we still had 7 minutes to get to the finish in sub 22 and this tme I insisted we go for it. In the end we crossed the line just a minute over the 22 hour mark after smashing ourselves on the last section in to town. It felt great to finally be able to relax and we were greeted by Terry, My parents, brother and his girlfriend as well as Gaynor who was still working hard as part of the race organisation.

The rest of the evening was taken up with meeting friends at the finish and enjoying the type of atmosphere that a well organised and special event tends to create. Tracy came flying over the line later on to win the women's 50 mile race in record time followed a few minutes later by Annie to round off a great day for the Conway/Baumber household. It was a real family affair for them with Matt (Annie's brother), also finishing the 50. Adam, who had provided us all with expert physio care before the race, came home after a tough few months dealing with an injury. It was great to see him do it and I think it will be the first of many more Ultra races for him.

I can't imagine not doing this race again next year after the experiences I have had in the Lake District. The race is already full and the excitement has begun to build for so many people again. Roll on next July!!!

Champions Everywhere - Natural Running Course

In July I was lucky enough to attend a course held by these guys when they came to Cork. Rene Borg and Jason Kehoe decided to get the best people they could so that they could truly offer a course that could eliminate injury and get people running with the correct technique. So they went and found Tony Riddle and Ben Medder from Gloves Boxing Gym in London. Both have years of experience of teaching natural movement and it showed right from the start.

The day started with a meet and greet and with Tony finding out a little bit about our history of running, what injuries we may have had, and what we wanted to get out of the two days. We were then videod while running on a treadmill so that Tony could get a first look at our versions of running! Needless to say we all had things we needed to work on. We watched this footage back and then got to work on our own individual "issues". We were armed with drills to increase flexibility and improve the elasticity of our muscles and tendon and most importantly, we were shown how to properly allign our posture before beginning a run. Poor posture will obviously have a negative effect on how someone runs so there was a lot of work done on this.

Day 2 started early as I had invited Rene, Jason, Aoife, Tony and Ben for a run in my local forest, before the course got underway. This was really enjoyable and it was a pleasure to watch Tony and Ben as they moved effortlessly over the ground. Their technique belied their non running backgrounds but it was also clear to see that not only were they extremely technically proficient when it came to running, but their all round movement over obstacles or uneven terrain was also first class. It made me wonder how good they could be if they decided to do a spot of mountain racing.

The course incorporated some quadrapedal movement early on Sunday and Ben used his freerunning/parkour skills to great effect in this segment of the day. After this we moved on to some vaulting and barefoot runing before returning indoors where Tony took us through some running specific exercises and combined them in a circuit that made a good alternative to a gym session. There was further videoing on the treadmill and thedifference in everyone in such a short space of time was a testament to how good this course was.

Thank you to Rene for inviting me along and I wish Champions Everywhere all the best as they continue to grow the business and change people's lives for the better.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

New Shoes - Inov8 Trailroc 245's

I have done about 90% of my running in Inov8 F-Lite 195s over the past year and I love them. They are light, have a 3mm heel to toe drop and are about the best shoe I know of to cross over between road and trail. The only time I would ordinarily opt for something with more grip is if I was hitting proper open mountain and bog (which we have plenty of over here).

So It would be my preference to continue this trend for the two 100 mile races I am competing in in the next month ( Lakeland 100 and UTMB). However I discovered last year at the Lakeland 100 that it may be necessary to have slightly more protection over this distance. Back then I wore the F-lite 230s and although I got around the course in one piece, my feet took a serious battering because of the extremely rough underfoot coditions. To be fair to the shoes, no one ever said they were designed for this type of event but I am so used to the light feel of the shoes, I now find it hard to wear anything else and anything heavier or with more cushioning feel like clogs on my feet. Que Inov8's new Trailroc range of shoes. There are 3 versions - the 235's which are zero drop, the 245's which have a 3mm differential and the 255's which are a 6mm drop. Before I go any further I will just say these are just my initial impressions and I haven't put a huge amount of mileage on the shoes yet

Protection: They definately have a little extra forefoot protection which is so important for a 100 mile trail race over rough terrain. I know when I get tired, I'm not going to be able to keep avoiding those sharp rocks that litter the course and I have ended up with bruising on my feet on very long runs. My initial impression with these is that the level of protection is adequate, without dulling proprioception too much. The lugs add a little extra protection as they are slightly more aggressive than the F-lites. The rand around the toe is slightly harder than the f-lites but does not narrow the toe box which is another plus!

Grip: So far I have only run on my local forest trails which are ridiculously muddy and slippy at the moment. They performed quite well on this terrain though and I felt like I had adequate grip without actually noticing the lug heigth too much, which is why they may transfer well between road and trail. Ideally I would have liked to try them out on lots of slippy, wet rock (something the F-lites are great on) but have not had the chance to do so yet. However I have ran over some of that type of terrain and they seemed to grip quite well.

Last: This shoe is built on Inov8's anatomical last (meaning it is a wider fit in the toe box). This gives the toes plenty of room to splay as the foot makes contact with the groud and I certainly notice the comfort this gives the foot. Given the fact I am looking at this shoe through the eyes of a 100 mile trail runner this latter detail is important, given how much the foot swells on runs of this duration.
Looking a little more like a trail shoe now!

Weight: They weigh in at 245 grams (UK size 8).  This is a little on the heavy side for my liking but what I am conceding in weight, I am gaining in forefoot protection and grip. In the past a shoe like this would have felt light for me, and may well feel light to a lot of runners, but ideally I would go for something a little lighter ie. sub 200 grams.When I went for my first run in them I did feel like they were a little bulky, but after a few more runs, I'm a little more used to the weight.

Heel Drop: This shoe has a 3 millimetre drop between heel and forefoot, which is the same as the 195s and means I can still run with good form and without that clunky feeling I get with a higher drop. This is definately another positive for me
1 arrow 3mm Drop

Overall: So taking all of the above in to account, I think these shoes could work pretty well for long distance trail races with a mixture of rocky trail, muddy track and open mountain. They still maintain pretty much the same flexibility that I love so much in the 195's and above all they feel like I could wear them without discomfort for a full day's running! Like I said I'd like to shave some grams off them but I am conceding weight for protection. I suppose the true test will be in 10 days time. Roll on the Lakeland 100 :-)
Good level of flexibility

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Bob Graham Round

"Something has happened to me. For more hours than I can remember, a storm has been screaming around me. For more hours than I can remember, I have been running - or trying to run - in the mountains. Now I am lost, utterly. Every muscle in my body is shaking, both feet are blistered raw, every joint aches, and my last reserves of warmth and strength are gushing away like a stream".

Richard Askwith - Feet in the Clouds

Why is it that I am strangely attracted to the experience that is described above? It's not like I actually like blistered feet, or being lost in the mountains, or aching joints or uncontrollably shaking muscles. Or do I? At this stage I think I might be perfectly willing to accept all those things if I am going to be rewarded with those other feelings that Richard has not mentioned in such proliferation. Like the sudden extra injection of energy and power the legs get as you crest the top of a hill, when the cairn is in sight and there are no more false summits mocking your efforts. Like the panorama at the summit on a clear day when all the earlier slog is rewarded and forgotten simultaneously. Like the childish happiness that comes from bounding back down the other side, playing hopscotch between the scree. It doesn't always feel easy but more often than not it feels like it was worth it.

The Bob Graham Round is something that has occupied my brain since I stumbled across Richard Askwith's book a few years ago. Before that I was quite happy to view mountains from the comfort of the road below. But it was the descriptions of misery and suffering that first made me think there was something to this mountain running lark that might be worth exploring. I'm not sure why but that's the way it was. Like putting yourself through all that would be worth the sense of achievement. However I now know there is much more to it than that. Because once I started running in the mountains, it was as if something clicked and running became fun. To think no one had told me how great this was while I settled for dodging in and out of traffic on busy roads! How could it have taken me so long to realise? So the rewards far outweigh the big bag of shite you get presented with every so often on a bad day like Richard describes. Further, and equally bleak reading in Mike Cudahy's (a man who really knew how to suffer) very entertaining "Wild Trails to far Horizons", awakened my senses to the possibility that racing against other runners was not the only way to challenge the mind and body. Running around a pre-determined route in the hope of setting a particular time seemed to be something that went hand in hand with this type of running. But mostly just running in the mountains, alone or with friends, without any worry about times or opponents or checkpoints felt like the most natural thing in the world.

I am in love with the Lake District. That is fairly clear to those I send to sleep with my constant nattering about the place! But before completing the Round last week, I had only visited the area twice, the first time was to run the Lakeland 100 last summer. The second was in March of this year to do a training run on 2 large chunks of the same course and to enjoy the company of some like minded friends. It is with great embarrassment that I admit I had never visited a single one of the 42 Bob Graham Round peaks. The Lakeland 100 has plenty of steep climbs but it is a trail race and doesnt go over any of the tops. So what better way to see all these mountains that I had only been lucky enough to read about and look at on maps (which is a joke considering my map reading skills), than to go and do the BGR?

A support crew that knew what they were doing was going to be the most important thing to get right. I struck gold here and also discovered one of the advantages to social networking. Gaynor Prior answered a post I put on the Lakeland 100's Facebook page and from then on I was in safe hands. Between herself and her sidekick Tracy Dean, I would be well looked after and if nothing else, the whole thing would be well organised. Both of them are really strong runners too, and they had supported round attempts previously. The bonus was that Tracy and Gaynor turned out to be two of the nicest people I've ever had the pleasure to meet in the running world and there was plenty of laughs provided by both over the the weekend. Tracy also provided three top navigators in Stuart Air for leg 1 and 5 and John Whilock and Anthony Bethell for leg 2. Unfortunately Anthony got a bad dose of the flu in the week before and he couldn't make it. But I've a feeling we'll get a chance to run together again on a future round or race. My good friend Terry Conway had planned to run the round with me but he also got struck with a bug. We would be meeting him anyway on Saturday to celebrate his recent marriage to Annie. He had picked a top venue in the Hawkshead Brewery so that was something to look forward to.  I also managed to get some quality navigators and pacers through the FRA Forum and Twitter and all that was left to do come Friday morning at 2am was run.

So I got the ferry from Dublin on Wednesday and was in the Lake District by the early evening, having picked up Barry Murray off the train just outside Manchester. He had been racing in a 40 mile ultra in Wales the Saturday before, coming second, and had stayed on to do some work in the area. So we drove straight to Keswick, where I had arranged to meet Adam Briggs, who I also got in contact with on twitter. Adam is a pretty remarkable guy. He underwent a heart transplant at the age of nine but he hasn't let it stop him getting out and doing what he loves, like running up Latrigg on this particular evening which is what we were planning on doing. So off we went and got a nice run in while also getting to know Adam and the area.

We pitched the tent at Castlerigg campsite which was just outside Keswick and was overlooked ominously by peak number one on the round, Skiddaw
The weather was looking like it wasn't going to co-operate with us and it was damp and cold on Thursday when we got up. This is the way it stayed for most of the day but by the time Tracy and Gaynor arrived, it had started to look like it was improving slightly. Barry set about making his speciality energy bars "Baz Balls", their name generating plenty of banter over the few days. I think he should call them bars at this stage!!
Barry prepping his Balls

 John and Stuart arrived later in the evening and we had a quick introduction before I headed for the tent at 11ish in a pointless attempt to try to get some sleep. This wasn't helped by the couple in the tent beside me "not sleeping" either.

We got to the carpark beside Moot Hall at 1.45am and met Bruce Duncan, my second navigator for leg 1. I was in very safe hands between himself and Stuart, both having completed their own rounds and both really good navigators. We made our way over to Moot Hall and managed to find a slightly tipsy Pete Docherty lookalike to take a photo for us before we got on our way.

Leg 1 - Moot Hall to Threlkeld
We got underway bang on time and made our way out of town and through Fitz park. As soon as we hit the base of Latrigg and began the long climb towards Blencathra, It became clear all the warm gear wasn't going to be necessary this early on. The night was so still and completely in contrast to what I was expecting. It was a relief actually, knowing that for some of the day at least, I wasn't going to have miserable conditions to deal with. We chatted away for the next hour or so that it took to summit Skiddaw and I couldn't help thinking that seemed to be a lot of hard work to bag just the first of 42 peaks. At least the track was good the whole way to the top, which wasn't the case for the remainder of the leg. I felt like I was back in Wicklow or Kerry sinking in bog and muck and expending more energy than should be necessary for every step. The descent off Great Calva was an enjoyable one and provided a brief respite from the aforementioned bog. But we were reunited at the bottom as we crossed the River Caldew. The journey up Blencathra saw the first signs of light and there was barely any need for the headtorches anymore. I remarked at this stage that this ascent might well be the most unremarkable looking spot I had ever set foot on. The clouds were keeping the views to about 50 metres and it seemed like we were walking in a sloped, featureless field.  Bruce assured me that the other side of Blencathra would make up for this and he was right, of course. After the summit there was a great piece of ridge running and the descent down Hall's Fell completely made up for my earlier  dissatisfaction. The going was slightly slower than I'd have liked with plenty of slippy rock to remind me that a fall this early in the day probably wouldn't do me much good. The two lads just lapped it up and drove on.

We reached the meeting point in Threlkeld in just over 3 hours, meaning I was 5 minutes down on my schedule. This didn't really bother me, given that I had no real idea of the kind of time I was capable of, and only decided by talking with Terry when we were discussing doing the round. We agreed that sub 18 hours was achieveable and sounded decent enough. I then used Bob Wightman's excellent website schedule calculator and it spat out 17 hours and 30 minutes. So that was it. Very scientific! The girls kicked in to action as soon as they saw us trundling down the road and they were ready with a nice cup of coffee and a selection of things to eat. The coffee was just what I needed as I wasn't that hungry yet but it was definately time for a strong brew.
Fashionista at Threlkeld!!

Leg 2 - Threlkeld to Dunmail Raise

Jon Whilock was ready and waiting to get going and I said my thank you's to Bruce and Stuart for an excellent job. The great thing about not knowing the people I was running with before this run was that there was loads to chat about along the way and thats exactly what myself and Jon did over the next 3 and a half hours. In contrast to the first leg the tops were more easily accounted for now and once we got up the steep ascent of Clough Head, we could start making some real ground. The clag was hanging around in abundance though and we just needed to be a little careful not to go astray. But Jon never faultered and carried on chatting as if we were just out on another training run.  Coming off Dollywagon Pike was probably the first time where I began to feel a little fatiged and questioned the sanity of what I was doing. Did I really need to run sub 18 pace? Could I not just amble around and make sure to get under the 24 hour time limit? Well, no I couldn't actually!! I had already committed the lads to following me around the lake district until at least half past 7 this evening. To keep them out in to a second night would be really taking the piss and besides, They had both promised that if it took me that long, they would leave a note on the door of Moot Hall informing me that they were gone to get pissed and I was a useless git for keeping them waiting. So taking it handy wasn't an option then!

We skirted around GrisedaleTarn and began the climb up the steep scree laden track to the Fairfield Summit. This ascent felt particularly taxing as I seemed to slip back on the loose surface with each step. My hamstrings were also feeling really tight and I was generally just feeling a little sorry for myself. This is something I fully expected to happen on numerous occasions throughout the day so I just continued chatting to Jon about his previous Round experience. He had plenty to say on the subject, given he also had successful Paddy Buckley and Charlie Ramsey Rounds (the Welsh and Scottish equivalents of the BG) under his belt. Once at the top it was a matter of jinking round the scattered rocks at the summit and making our way back the way we came to begin the ascent up the last peak in Leg 2, Seat Sandal. We had been shrouded in low cloud for the previous 3 hours but now as we began the descent to Dunmail raise, they made every effort to reveal one of the Lake District's stunning views. It was a fast, rocky track down and I made sure to enjoy the change in pace while I had the chance. I got a nice surprise as I neared the base of Seat Sandal, when I was met by Adrian Hope and Matt Brown from Inov8. I had called in to them in their office the previous day and they told me they would try to make it to Dunmail but knowing that it was a Friday and that they were working, I didn't really expect them to be there. A friendly face when you are tired during something like this can do wonders for the mind. That must be why people spend too long in the comfort of their support crews during things like this.
Coming off Seat Sandal
Reciting the safe cross code to myself!

New pacers, Gary and Raj
Gaynor supplying the Caffeine
Again Gaynor and Tracy were first class in their organisation here. All I had to do was drink the coffee they were shoving in to my hand and eat! I brought over 2 cakes my mother had baked in the hope that it would be to some of the lads' liking and it was at this stage that I noticed it was going down a treat. Although I'm not sure if anyone apart from the two ladies benefitted from it!! They like their cake.

Leg 3 - Dunmail Raise to Wasdale

Myself and John said our goodbyes as he was heading back home to go to work! I definately owed him a decent effort for the rest of the round after hearing that!  My new pacers, Raj Mahapatra and Gary Thorpe were ready and waiting so we got acquainted and after a bit of shuffling of gear, got going as quickly as we could up Steel Fell. It felt like a bloody grass wall it was so steep, so we settled in for the long hike to the top

It was clear to me pretty early on in this leg that I was going to start doing a bit of suffering for the next while. I'm not sure why but I felt like crap on and off for large chunks of leg 3 and 4 and particularly on leg 3 when I stupidly asked Gary were we near Scafell yet. I wasnt looking at my watch and didn't really want to, but I felt like we had been on leg 3 for a fair while and using my limited knowledge of the route, picked Scafell because it was the last peak of the leg. Gary's answer was pretty straightforward and to the point. "Nooo!!! We're miles away"!! No sugar coating or bullshit, but a bit of bullshit might have been nice on this occasion. Anyway thinking back now this was probably the nicest leg of the BG with a lot of variation in terrain. And I particularly liked the route up Bowfell and the views off of it. Gary, at this stage, realised I was slipping off the schedule but equally he knew there wasn't much he could do to make me go any faster and between himself and Raj, they both just kept chatting away, asking if I needed any food or water and telling me a bit about themselves. It all helped to keep me moving in the right direction. So on we went and kept ticking off the peaks until we were at the base of Scafell and the infamous Broad Stand I had heard so much about. And I have to admit, I can understand why it demands a lot of attention. The thought, "fuck going up that" sprang to mind for some reason! Gary had said beforehand that Lords Rake was probably the best option and I was beginning to agree with him. So we contoured to the right around Broad Stand and on towards a near verticle scree filled gully, with what looked like a grave's headstone perched precariously at the top. It was a fitting likeness in my mind at the time. It was then I remembered reading somewhere that this giant slab was slowly moving and it would eventually fall some day. Maybe this was a good thought to have because it made me want to get up that gully and out from under it as quickly as humanly possible. Raj decided to detour straight on to Wasdale at this point because he had been suffering a bit after going over on his ankle.  As I found out it's something he suffers from on a continual basis because of an arthritic condition and showed to me what kind of a character he is to still be able to run in the mountains while dealing with it. We were nearly at Wasdale now anyway with just the descent off Scafell to come. And what a descent it was! We were out of water, the day was warming up nicely and I was just starting to feel the first hints of dehydration when presented with this steep, and at first, rocky slope. This thankfully gave way to grass but the gradient just mashed my quads and I could feel them turning to jelly with every step. My toes also felt like they were going to bore holes in my shoes and all I could think of was Yewbarrow and how this current leg masher wasn't going to do much for my now limited ascending ability once we hit that giant slope. On a positive note, the weather was improving and the views at this stage were mind blowing and well worth the effort to make it this far. I just wish I could have stopped, sat on the grass for a little while, ate something that didnt taste like shit and admire them in comfort. But, not to be and we hit the car park at Wasdale about 30 minutes down on the schedule.

Raj was already there and Barry had the coffee brewed and ready to go. I met Bill Williamson, who was taking up the navigational duties from here to Honister. Alan Lucker was there as well and he was going to meet us at Beck Head just before the ascent of Great Gable for the remainder of the leg. These guys were another example of the spirit within the mountain running community. Here they were supporting me the day before they raced as a pair in the Old County Tops race, a 37 mile fell race taking in Hellvellyn, Scafell Pike and Coniston Old Man. Madness or selflessness, I'm not sure but I was glad to have such accomplished lads helping me. And of course this is where Barry joined in for the remainder of the trip. And it was great having a friend with me at this stage when I was starting to feel the strain.
Barry and Laura Ruxton wondering what the hell kept us!!
About time. Nice heel striking!
No idea what's going on here
Laura Ruxton took over the crewing duties here and delivered Barry to Wasdale at the same time. Because it's such a difficult place to get to by road, Tracy and Gaynor went on to Honister, the start of the last leg instead of rushing to try and make it from Wasdale back to Honister and getting no time to rest themselves for the day. Laura however, drove all the way from Kendal earlier in the morning to meet the lads at Dunmail, then on to Keswick to pick up Barry, then back to Kendal where she got ready to drive all the way back to Wasdale to be there for our arrival. So she adds to the list of people that I won't ever be able to thank enough.

Leg 4 - Wasdale to Honister Pass

Once I had finished pissing about with gear and food we were off up the road with Yewbarrow towering over us ready to drain me of whatever bit of climbing strength I had left in my legs. And thats exactly what it did. Never did one climb feel so utterly shit. Bill was just motoring along and making me look like a wimp while Barry was uttering words of encouragement behind me in a vain attempt to get me moving a little quicker. I resorted to using my hands to pull me up the slope while Bill just kept chugging away. Finally I shouted after him "So Bill, tell us a bit about yourself" in a casual sort of way, hoping he would slow down and do exactly that. And he did, for about 30 seconds or so and then he was gone again! Of course what he was doing was making sure I kept moving and it worked. There was no point in making it easy for me to stop or slow down when it was clear I needed a kick up the backside. This was just a civilised way of doing it. My lack of knowledge about the route was really starting to mess with my head and nowhere was this more obvious than when we summited Red Pike. What I could see from here was a Horseshoe of tops extending off to the right. It looked ok when stretched out like that in front of me. So lets just go and follow that then shall we? Not so! Instead we'll just take this detour to the left and completely out of the way to take in Steeple. The whole theory behind recceing and knowing what lay ahead was now explaining itself to me. The sky seemed to be changing in tandem with my mood as grey clouds formed over to the right, which conveniently, was the direction we were headed. On any other day I would have been able to appreciate the little technical trail across to Steeple, standing there on its own with sheer drops to either side. But today, it was an inconvenience that Bob should have thought twice about including in his round! On we went to the imposing looking Pillar and then came the long trot across Black Sail Pass to Kirk fell and a scramble up a scree gully where we met 2 runners coming the other way. All I could think of was how good it would feel to be as fresh and lightfooted as they both looked. But I consoled myself with the thought (a mistaken thought) that we were nearly finished the leg and it was all plain sailing from here. You see I could have sworn we had already been over Great Gable and that the worst was over when that was out of the way. Except the Great Gable I had been over in my head was in fact Pillar and that big upturned basin looking chunk of rock off in the distance was the "real" Great Gable! It was now all making sense. We still hadn't met Alan so how could we be nearly finished the leg. In my own mind I had convinced myself that maybe Alan was'nt actually meeting us but do you think I would ask Bill whether this was the case? No chance. On closer inspection Alan was in fact perched on Beck Head just below the Base of Gable. So I asked Bill if we were going up the upturned basin (more like I said "you better tell me we are not going up that f$*king thing). We arrived at Alan and Bill took great delight in telling Alan I didn't know we were going up Gable. They both laughed at the absurdity of such a thought. If it was anyone else I would have laughed too. But it wasn't anyone else. It was me! A serious case of pissing and moaning ensued inside  my brain for the next few minutes until I realised to my surprise that actually my legs didn't feel that bad. There was no more tight hamstrings, I was ascending as quickly now as I had been on leg 2 and I was almost at the end of leg 4. If I wasn't so preoccupied with trying to weasle out of going up another peak, I might have realised this earlier and actually just got on with it. Anyway, it was better late than never.
On the way up to Beck Head having ascended from Kirk Fell in the background.
Start of Great Gable ascent
Heading to Green Gable from Great Gable
Green Gable

So the Ascents of Great Gable And Green Gable proved to be a lot easier than first they looked and we were now truly within touching distance of end of leg 4 and Honister Pass. It was just a nice trot across moorland to a final grassy descent.

Leg 5 - Honister Pass to Moot Hall, Keswick

On arrival at Honister I noticed Raj had rejoined the group and I would have him along with Stuart and Barry for the final section. Tracy had also donned her running gear and was ready to swap crewing duties for a run out. The clouds had descended again at this stage and by the time we all reached Dale Head summit there was only about 50 feet of visibilty. Once this initial climb was done I knew the worst was over and it was just a matter of tagging the last 2 peaks and heading for the road to Keswick. The atmosphere had changed now and we were all enjoying this last piece of running, knowing there wasn't far to go. We all let out a bit of a cheer at the summit of Robinson and set about getting down. The descent looked great and had I been a bit more nimble, it would have been a good one to attack and go hell for leather but my legs weren't about to let that happen and the lads had to put up with a trundle rather than a bombing descent. But they were still full of encouragement and it must have been hard for them to continually do this given how long a day it had been for them too. It made it easier to keep going and I'm indebted to them for that. Barry had raced a 40 mile ultra in the Brecons the previous Saturday and was out on his feet for the guts of 8 hours today. Tracy and Stuart were both up at 1.30am and had been on the go since. And Raj had done his ankle but was back for more punishment now. And of course Gaynor was patiently waiting for us at Newlands Church having driven all over the Lake District and made sure I wanted for nothing all day. As we hit the road I realised that all I needed to do was run this nice smooth section and I'd be done and able to lie down but smooth and flat means runnable and the way I was feeling, that was easier said than done. So every so often I would have to stop and walk as the lads encouraged me to just keep moving. Gaynor passed us by in the van on her way back to Moot Hall and that helped to lift my spirits enough that I could at least break in to a jog. I had thought that we lost loads of time on leg 4 but we were actually bang on schedule for that section and we had pulled back some time on this section, meaning that we might actually have a chance of getting to Moot Hall in under the 18 hour mark. So we all upped the pace and made a last push for the town centre. I touched the door at Moot Hall after 17 hours and 59 minutes and 24 seconds, and just slouched against the railings. Raj provided a bottle of Lucozade which I had been craving earlier and I made my way back down the steps to thank those who had stood patiently waiting in the rain. Gaynor produced a bottle of Champagne and somehow most of it ended up on Tracy. She could have saved some for the rest of us!! It was a bit embarrassing having people waiting, considering I was a half hour late and I had put everyone to so much trouble but you wouldn't think it was any bother to any of them. From the moment I asked for help in doing the Round, all I was met with was positivity and friendliness. People could not do enough for me and I owe everyone who helped out a great deal of gratitude.
So here goes:
Barry, thanks for putting up with my monosyllabic answers and foul mood the whole way around leg 4, and for cooking and making quality coffee all week!

Stuart, Bruce, Jon, Gary, Raj, Bill and Alan, thank you for impeccable navigation and support throughout. Ye made it easier to keep going when I felt like stopping and ye brought me on the ultimate tour of the Lake District. And to Ant Bethell who, even though he was barely able to get out of bed with flu, still considered coming up to theLakes to help on Leg 2. Luckily good sense prevailed and he looked after himself instead.

Adam for showing us around Keswick and taking on a couple of lovely runs at the start and finish of the week. And for making it to Moot Hall and stand in the rain after having to be up at 4am to drive to Hospital in Newcastle.Oh, and of course the locally brewed beers!

To the lads at Inov8 especially Adrian and Matt who came out to Dunmail and made me feel very welcome at their office on Thursday. And to Natalie for sorting me out with shoes. I didn't fall once throughout. Result!!

Laura, thank you for spending your Friday driving back and forth and to the most remote section of the route for road support. Very much appreciated and I'll buy you a pint in July at the Lakeland 100.

Gaynor and Tracy, I owe ye big time for all ye did. Ye not only provided support all day but ye were great craic all weekend and ye made the weekend all the more enjoyable by being so positive and friendly. Nothing was too much trouble for ye. And thanks David too who came all the way from work to make it to Moot Hall for the finish and caught a really nice video to keepfor the memories. Much appreciated.

Post Round:

Of course the other reason we were over on this particular weekend was to celebrate with Terry and Annie who got hitched in Scotland the previous month. We had a great night in the Hawkshead Brewery (brilliant choice of venue) and it was great to be invited by such a lovely couple.

Barry, Tracy, me, David and Gaynor enjoying Terry and Annie's Party
The few days holiday in the Lakes afterwards were a great way to round off the week and Terry took us on some of his local  run routes around the hills above Ambleside in absolutely smashing weather. You could not have made it up! Roll on July again when we will do it all again for the Lakeland 100!!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Recap on Recent Races

I Have now raced 4 times in 2012, having made a concious decision to try to fit more events in to the year. I certainly want to race more of the short IMRA mountain races and hopefully get up to Dublin and Wicklow more often for these. So 2 weeks ago I did exactly that for the 3rd race of the Winter League at Annagh Hill. It was 9k of pure fun! People pay ridiculous money these days to enter novelty races like Tough Guy, Mud Runs or various forms of obstacle courses, all with their own wacky course to cover. But at Annagh Hill we had plenty of mud, sink holes, pools (described as puddles by Paul Joyce, the race director) and a hair raisingly fast and technical descent at the finish. All this combined to make it one of the most enjoyable races I've ever done. Mick Hanney managed to get a little video of the latter part of the course

After a fairly keenly contested race for 2nd place I managed to hold off Jason Reid by the skin of my teeth but there was no catching the man in form at the moment, Turlough Conway who is flying, in preparation for the Rotterdam Marathon

In hot pursuit of Eoin. Getting used to this view!

Swim exit!
Donadea 50K

6 days later I was heading back up the Dublin road for something a little different in donadea Forest Park. Ten 5k loops was the order of the day and the start list indicated that, for me it would be as much a social get together with some running buddies, as it was a race. John O'Regan, John Byrne, Daniel Doherty, Keith Whyte, Gerry Duffy, Eoin Keith, Thomas Bubendorfer, Jeff Fitzsimons, Jarlath Hynes and Tony Brennan were all there along with other familiar faces that I hadn't previously had the pleasure of meeting, like Barry Minnock, Rob Cummins, Jim McCormack, Vasiily Neumerzhitskiy and Mick Rice. So there was plenty of top quality runners towing the line.
The Pacer and the group at the start
I ran the first 6 laps in the company of Eoin Keith, a situation that we were replicating for the 3rd time this year. Some of the speed merchants were gone from the off and that was the last I saw of them until the finish line. I opened a little gap on Eoin at the start of the 7th lap and thats the way it stayed for the remainder of the run. I did manage to catch a few more lads in the last few laps, finishing in 3.28 and 5th place which rounded off a good day out and a useful training run in this early part of the year.

John Byrne ran a great race and a very fast time of 3.07 to take the Irish 50k Championship title with Barry Minnock 3 minutes behind and David Simpson less than 2 minutes back in 3rd.

Here's some nice pictures of the day's events courtesy of Paul Daly.

Results are Here
Me and Eoin deep in thought!
Barry Minnock

Dan Doherty

Gerry Duffy

Jim McCormack and John O'Regan

Jeff Fitz

Winner John Byrne

Keith Whyte

Ladies winner, Charlotte Kearney and Thomas Bubendorfer

Mick Rice

Still together!


Ronan O'Reilly and Jarlath Hynes

Fresh from his 7 marathons, 7 continents in less than 5 days, Richard Donovan

Tony Brennan keeping an eye on proceedings
Done and dusted!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Art O'Neill Challenge 2012

The Art O'Neill challenge is a unique event which has grown in stature in the last number of years and this year saw it assemble the most competitive field yet. Because there is 3 events rolled in to 1 (Hike, hybrid and Ultra run), everyone can get involved and experience a truly unique atmosphere. The fact that it starts at 2am makes it different from most other races and means there is one more obstacle to contend with, in being tired right from the start. Maybe I have an advantage in that regard, given that I work nights regularly and am used to feeling zombiefied by tiredness.

I travelled up to Dublin on Friday afternoon with Robbie and Ronan. Unfortunately Rob had been sick in the couple of days previous and made the decision not to run late that evening. A wise choice given how tough this event is even when feeling fully fit. After a short lie down in my cousins house and a bite to eat, we headed over to Jeff's house for the rest of the evening until it was time to head in to Dublin Castle in the city centre. We sorted out our gear and I got Jeff to brew some nice strong coffee before we left.

Arriving at the castle, I immediately noticed lots of familiar faces milling around in the registration room and got chatting to pass the time. Last year's winner Eoin Keith was back to defend his title and I knew he would be eager to hang on to it. But there were a number of other capable athletes also looking to race, amongst them international adventure racers Bruce Duncan and Thure Kjaer. Zoran, Greg Byrne, and Tim Charneki were also going to be in the running for the win. Also present was a veteren of the game, Adrian Tucker who had got me round the course last year when I was clueless as to what lay ahead, having had no chance to recce the route. This year however I had got a couple of recces under my belt and was confident I would be able to find my way as long as conditions and visibility weren't too severe. As luck would have it the moon and stars were shining and it looked like we were going to have no such problems. But I wasn't sure what to expect from my own legs. I was feeling a little tired from the exertions of the Garda Cross Country Championships two days previously. But at least I had gotten some rare speedwork done.

I had no specific plan for the race except to stay with the lead runners, whoever they were going to be, and hopefully push on during the off road sections. As it happened Eoin took off like he was running barefoot on hot coals. F@*k it, stick to the plan! No easing in to this one then. So the first few miles passed pretty quickly until myself and Eoin were able to chat about all things running and anything else we could think of. But eventually the road started upwards and the chat wasn't so plentiful for a while. The view of the city as we made our way to Stone cross was worth the wait and served to take my mind off the effort momentarily. It was around this time the road started to get slippy with ice and every step became more of an effort. I started to move off the road looking for some grip in the grass verge. It remained that way until the brow of the hill down to Kilbride Army Barracks and the first checkpoint. We had been passing walkers and "hybriders" for a while at this stage and while we received great encouragement, at times I felt like we might have pissed one or two of them off, running up behind them and then shouting at the last minute that we were coming through. Anyway everyone obliged and we eventually arrived at the checkpoint and scanned our timing chips. A quick change of footwear for something with a bit more grip and I was gone after Eoin again. The checkpoint was chocabloc with hikers teaming up with their guides for the night. I nearly knocked a few of them down trying to get out of there but eventually managed to negotiate my way back on to the road to begin the "fun" part. I met Eoin at the gates to the barracks while I was still trying to get my water bottle and pack sorted. So for the next 5 minutes or so as I chased Eoin, I also tried to get the bottle in to the pouch on the front of my pack. A little further down the road I gave up and just held it in my hand. It was around this time that I took my one and only fall of the night on the bloody road!! That didn't really auger well for what was to come on the offroad section. I had obviously hit a sloppy patch on the grass row on the middle of the road and just got unlucky. I dusted myself down and did a quick check confirming I was still in one piece and ready for the off again.

We soon came across the gate to the first bit of offroad running through some fields. This was supposed to be marked, as it is private land and it wasnt possible to recce it beforehand. But there was no sign of anything telling us we were on the right track. We did however, find our way to Ballinabrocky bridge, after a few hesitant minutes and started some more uphill effort. This section seemed to go on forever. But there was no let up in the pace. The whole way up towards Ballynultagh Gap, I ran a few strides behind Eoin, wondering when he was going to ease back but it wasn't happening. As we neared the top of the climb, I remarked about how bloody hard the previous 20 minutes of running or so was. Thankfully Eoin agreed. During the post race chat we both agreed if the other wasn't there to see, we probably would have had a sneaky walk break. But as it was, the first bit of hiking came after Black hill on the way up to Billy Byrnes Gap. The ground was heavy, boggy and damp at this stage and my feet were feeling the chill in my porous choice of footwear. Still it was a small price to pay for the fe el of a light fast shoe. And with the ground being so uneven it probably helps to feel every bump, hollow and rock, allowing for better balance.  Over the top of Billy Byrne's Gap and we were able to run but a little more cautiously than we might have liked given the surface. Every so often you would put your foot down only to find a hole to stumble over. I always thank my lucky stars after a run like this that my legs come back in one piece. There is definately a certain amount of luck needed when running in those conditions. We eventually got down to the river and then more or less followed it along towards Ballinagee Forest.

What happened next may have simply been luck on Eoin's part or else the most tactically astute bowel movement I have ever witnessed! Well I didn't actually witness it thankfully. I'm sure he wont mind me including this in the report, given it changed the complexion of the rest of the race  but Eoin decided he needed to do his thing and said he would have to stop about half a mile from the forest. I stopped initially, to take care of some business myself and then slowly got moving again. I had recced the route with Adrian Tucker and the lads at the end of November and that day we had made our way along by the river and at the corner of the forest, went left and climbed up along the perimeter to a gated entrance. So I decided to do the same this time. As I climbed I noticed Eoin's headtorch was moving again and he was almost at the corner himself. Then suddenly he was gone out of sight and a conversation I had with Adrian had suddenly came back and hit me. He had mentioned a lower entrance in to the forest which might be more direct and save some vital minutes. "You f*%king idiot" was all I kept telling myself. "You've gone and fallen for that one". But it was too late to turn back and at any rate I wasn't sure where the entrance was so I kept moving. By the time I reached the checkpoint at Ballinagee Bridge I was 4 minutes down on Eoin. I filled a bottle and got going again.

As I reached the forest ride up to the fireroad, my own bowels started to give out and I had to take a quick pitstop myself. Presumably my body thought this was any normal day and was just doing what it always does at that time of day (Apologies, this is a warts and all report). I got moving again and quickly made my way to the gate leading out to the river, which would eventually wind its way to the base of Art's Cross. I was certainly feeling the effort now and my legs were heavy but I knew the hard part should be done by the time I got up the ridge to the cross. It was a real hands and legs effort to get there and my legs were telling me to take it easy on them. My mood had changed now and I was pretty sure I'd need a lot of luck to catch Eoin and there was no sign of any headtorch ahead of me. The route to 3 lakes was shrouded in mist and made the going slow. If anything it got worse as I got closer to Table track and I started to panic a little when I could't find it. There was zero visibility now and I was just watching my feet hoping they were going to hit the defined track I was looking for. Finally after unwittingly crossing over it, I doubled back and located the path. A huge wave of relief hit me and I started the long descent down the valley to Barravore. This stretch is pretty unforgiving on the feet with large rocks strewn unevenly everywhere. But at least this year they were free of ice. As I neared the youth hostel I noticed a headtorch a few minutes behind me and got a bit of a jolt. For a split second I wondered if it might be Eoin behind me. I quickly came to my senses and realised that was hardly likely. So I quickened the pace towards the shining lights of the finish line in Barravore Carpark, crossing the line in 5hrs 36minutes, just over 9 minutes down on Eoin who along with GearĂ³id, was there to welcome me in. Eoin had run a great race leading from the front throughout, and in poker parlance "went all in" so he fully deserved the win.  2 minutes later the owner of the headtorch behind me revealed himself as Greg Byrne who had put in the fastest split for that section of the race. A great run by him. Bruce and Thure, running together, passed Zoran agonisingly close to the line and Tim Charneki was next in. My "guide" from last year, Adrian was next and still looking fresh. We all chatted for a while and sampled the hot chocolate and coffee being generously provided beside the finishing chute. Eventually it became a little uncomfortably cold and we got the bus back to the Glenmalure Lodge and put on some dry gear and got some decent food in to us. Some of the lads were lucky enough to be able to refuel with a few pints but we had to hit the road back to Cork.

Finally just to say a quick thank you to the organisers, particularly GearĂ³id Towey. They had a mammoth operation to pull off but they did it brilliantly.

Eoin - Next year we will have to synchronise our bowels :-)

Bruce, me, Zoran, Eoin, Thur and Greg in front enjoying the banter at the finish