Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

February 5, 2011

Open5 Adventure Race, Yorkshire Dales, 6 Feb 2011

What an EPIC day out!   Today was the kind of day where normally I wouldn't set foot outside the house except to run to the car.  Horizontal rain, gale force winds, floods, more rain, bigger floods.   Oh, yeah, except I had a running/ mountain bike race over the tops of the Yorkshire Dales fells.

The UK has been battling through some high winds the last few days, hence the 68 mph wind gusts recorded near my house on Friday.  But I was hoping that they would blow through and be gone, and the ever-changing forcast reflected my hopes, with projected calm winds for the duration of the Open5.  That is, until the morning of the race, when they suddenly jumped back up to gale force and beyond again. Oh, and rain.  A lot.

This, my second adventure race, was held in Kirkby Stephen, in the Yorkshire Dales.  I recruited my friend Adrian to go around with me so we could suffer participate as a team.  As we left my driveway with the windshield wipers already waving furiously, we sort of looked at each other and shrugged, like, hey, we paid for it already, why not go do the race.  Hah.  At the start hall, the signs were up notifying us that we were required to carry waterproof clothing, and warning us not cross the ford on our way to the race start but to use the footbridge.

Photos courtesy of Open Adventure
 With maps in hand, we stayed warm and dry a few minutes more in the hall, going over possible routes and other team decisions.  We decided to bike first, as the wind was predicted to get stronger later in the day.  But before we could start the race, we had get to the start/finish/transition area, which oh, by the way was three(!) miles up the road from where we had to park the car.  The rain continued, so we layered up with full waterproof top and bottom, gloves, and hood.   The puddles were already full as the rain continued, so even on the bikes, our feet were totally soaked in those first, uncounted three miles.   Along the way, we came to the ford and footbridge, where the rushing water already looked like it could carry away a car, and we slogged through ankle deep water before carrying the bike up and over the walking bridge. 

The transition area was a farmer's field, so saturated with rain that every step sent more water surging into my shoes.  We wrapped our transition gear in a plastic bag to keep it dry while we raced, but the wind gusts blew open my bag while we were gone, soaking it all.  By the time I came back to it, I was totally soaked as well, so it didn't really matter.  We headed out on the bike first, got the list of control point descriptions, and hurredly replotted our route based on the points each were worth.  Our first point took us back over the ford footbridge, and then up onto the moorlands.  It was at that moment that we discovered the wind was much stronger than anticipated, and blowing the worst over the tops of the fells.  At times it was all I could do to push my bike up the hillside, trying not to get blown over sideways, enduring the stinging pellets of horizontal raindrops, and barely able to see through my fogged-up sunglasses.

It was a sufferfest during the hours we were out on the mountain bike. At times we found ourselves barely moving forward, even going downhill, as the 60 mph+ wind gusts impersonated a solid wall impeding our movements.  But on occasional sections, we were on paved roads with the wind at our backs, and really flew.  I swear the wind actually blew me UP a few hills and I wasn't even pedaling.  Many of the roads had major flooded sections (flat roads + high curbs + rain = standing water), and I learned that I could actually ride through water so deep that each turn of the pedals gave my feet a dunking.  After a few such episodes, I started hitting the flood sections at full speed, laughing hysterically as a V of water jetted up from my wheels.

Photos of the day, none of me :(  are on Open Adventure's Facebook page   They brilliantly show the floods that I can only describe in words...

Oh, and here's an actual video of the event, thanks Simon for posting this!

After three hours, our feet were frozen and it was time to get some running in.   We ditched the bikes, and Adrian got to experience his first Bike-to-Run transition, which as you can imagine, hurts quite badly.  We started out as a shuffle, picking our way up the moors until our feet got some pins and needles of feeling back in them.  In a moment of insanity (it was worth a lot of points) we aimed for the control at the Trig point on the fell summit.   The winds were blowing even harder by that time, and each step required leaning into the wind.  We then scoured the map for points in the valleys instead, and started heading down with the wind.   The screaming wind, I should add, prevented me from hearing a single "beep" of the dibbler controls the entire day...at times we couldn't even shout to each other and be heard, and I kept a death grip on my map lest it end up at the North Pole in Scotland.

I have never experienced such a wet, windy day in my life.  After a short time, my feet were so wet I couldn't even tell I was squelching through water anymore.   Normally I kind of dance around muddy gate openings, but it didn't even matter this time....over 5 hours, I probably stepped in or pedaled through thousands of puddles.  Amazingly enough, my shoes never got sucked off my feet.  And my bike by the end, far from being dirty, was cleaner than when I got it out that morning.  A 5 hour car wash, of sorts! We finished with a few minutes to spare, packed up our soaking kit from transition, and congratulated each other on surviving.

The final three miles back to the car, we had the wind gusting at our back, busting through more sections of flooded road and generally soaking anything not already wet.   Arriving at the ford, we were shocked to see that it had risen even higher, requiring walking in water over our knees to get to the start of the footbridge.  A river in flood is a very scary sight.  Turns out that it had crested just at the moment we were going over it. (See chart below)  
Check out the peak of the flood stage - 15:00, right when we were finishing the race
At some point during the day, Adrian turned to me and said, "There is no way that anyone will understand how bad it was out here...it's undescribable."  The entire day was about surviving.  The wind, the rain, the puddles, the floods, the fog, and the chill.   We speculated that if it had been a few degrees colder (it was about 45 degrees out) we would have become hypothermic instead of energetically pedaling through the puddles to keep warm.

We were pretty happy with the 300 points we collected, and hoped that the atrocious weather had kept a few of our competitors in bed so we could win a prize.  But alas, it seemed all the fast teams were there as well, and our best effort put us 6th out of 29 in the mixed team category.

Today, I've finally found the answer to the question.  You know, the question that everyone has been asking me since I started running marathons, then ultramarathons, then triathlons, then Ironman triathlons, and now my real dream, adventure racing.  They ask, "Why do you do it, when it hurts so much?"

Well, these were easily the WORST conditions I've ever experienced outdoors, and when I found myself not just surviving, but thriving, I couldn't peel the grin off my face.     I felt ALIVE.

But I'll still keeping looking for the answer...just in case there's a better one.  :)


  1. Sounds a cracking adventure! the 'grinning like a nutter' syndrome seems to be quite common :-)

  2. Sounds cool. I thought the snow and ice of Staveley December 2008 would be a hard act to follow ! Wish I had been there !

  3. Brilliant achievement and account, Dawn. Well done once again for finishing without losing any points, even in those conditions. You must have had outriggers on your face to support that extra wide grin! ;-)

  4. Definitely won't forget this experience!

  5. It sounds like the adversity created a really exciting & memorable event. Those are the best events. Well done. Andy H

  6. I'm doing Comrades in 2012! I thought it was the up year, I'm so bummed to see it's down. I wanted to do the up route and doubt this race will happen more than once for me!

  7. Kristen, congrats on actually going for it, still a pipe dream for me (if I fit it in amoungst my Adventure Races), but a "down" year definitely fits my running style. Hope it goes well for you...perhaps I'll see you on the route somewhere!