Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

January 30, 2011

That's Lyth, 23.5 mi, 30 Jan 2011

With little fanfare or celebration, my 40th marathon has come and gone.  In fact, I've just now realized while logging my mileage, that it was indeed #40.   Sure, "That's Lyth" is a few miles short of a real marathon, but since I count my ultramarathons as just one marathon, I figure it all averages out. 

That's Lyth was a wonderful event in Kendal in the Lakes district, made even better by the cooperating weather.    Temps were right at freezing, but the calm air and frozen trails made for easy going.  The views were obscured by thick, muggy air hanging around, but I was watching my feet most of the time, so I'm not sure I really missed out on much.  I'll have to come back someday for a walking tour on a sunny day, to see the valley and scars properly.

The event is sold out every year, meaning that the start hall was seething with 400 folks by start time, but it's easy to see why it's so popular.  The trail is easily runnable, with nice downhill sections, some flats, and the obligatory uphills.   The trails were mostly wide and easy to run, saving for one particularily steep section coming down Whitbarrow Scar.  Perhaps 30-40% of the trail is actually on pavement, which suits me fine. A few sections went through some nice forests peppered with Holly bushes, and it was a nice change from the open moors.  Across the middle section of the Lyth Valley, our fitness was tested with a few very flat easy miles on a paved trail, which begged to be run.   As that section came at about mile 17, I manged a 6 mph shuffle and felt pretty good about it.  Reduced to a walk on the final uphill over Scout Scar, it seemed to take forever, but I was still able to run down the final miles into town, to finish in 4:31.

But perhaps what makes the event so popular is not the trail itself, but the well-stocked checkpoints (3 of them) with hot food and drinks, plus a great variety of rolls, cookies, and soup at the finish.  Probably the best spread I've seen so far at an event, and all for a measly 4 pound entry fee.   That's Lyth is also non-competitive and un-timed, so I think many folks took a little extra time for tea stops along the way.

For me, the best part of the trail came near the end, when I realized that for probably the first time ever, my feet were still clean and dry when I finished.  :)

January 27, 2011

Extreme Running - So many races, so little time.

I've been mentioning a few of the longer races lately, and it seems I am really starting to dream big.  I mean, why just run a marathon, when you can go out there and endure the pain of multi-day, multi-stage, uber-tough races that will make the legs feel like jelly and the brain like mush? 

When I put it that way myself, well, I still think a few of these sound fun.  The trick is to fit them into the schedule of my life in the next few years, and then try to train for them, not get injured, and actually do one (or more).  Here's a few of the ones that make me shiver in dread, but still contemplate doing:

Marathon Des Sables:  After seeing the nasty blisters (in full HD color) of a few previous competitors, how could I not want to do this race!?!   I do love sand dunes, though, and our visit to Erg Chebbi in Morocco a few years back was a true highlight of our travels.  (Photos on our website, under Europe A-M: Morocco2.  I know, it's in Africa, not Europe, I really need to add a tab to my menu for Africa.  And get rid of Frames so I can link directly to a page.  Someday)

The Comrades Marathon:  Ok, it's not a marathon, it's really 56 miles long, and in South Africa.  And there is an ABSOLUTE 12 hour time limit.  But it's only the HUGEST ultramarathon ever.  This one has kept coming back up on my radar over the years, and in 2012, it is a "down" year.  Perfect for me, I might even make the time cutoff with a few downhills to help out!  I'm a slow runner, if you haven't figured that one out already.

The Athens Marathon:  To qualify to run the Comrades Marathon, I must run a road marathon.  Evidently all these rough British fell races don't count towards the big one.  So why not run the original "marathon" route from Marathon to Athens?  Coincidentally, in 2010, it celebrated it's 2,500th year.  How extreme is that?!?

Ultra-Tour Du Mont Blanc:   Thanks Nick, for putting this one on my radar.   Doing the circular hike in a week or two, as most folks would choose, also sounds fun, but quicker is always better, right?

The Bob Graham Round:  Big. Scary.  27,000 feet of elevation over 60 odd miles, and I have to arrange for my own support.  And finish in under 24 hours.   It didn't sound so hard, until I read about how many people fail a few times before they succeed (if ever). I think I should go take a hike in the Lakes District to see if I even enjoy the terrain over there, before thinking too hard about this one. 

A "Real" Ironman:  Yes, I've done two Ironman-distance triathlons, but that's a mouthful, and what I really want to claim is a the M-Dot.   Now I just need to find the perfect one, preferably one without a lot of cold weather, rain, freezing lakes, or high winds.   Oh, and not too many hills on the bike, either.  I mean, the distance is tough enough on a nice day, why make it harder on yourself?   I'm still looking.  And trying to convince myself that Ironman UK and Ironman Wales would NOT be good choices, even though they are close to home and easy to get to.   The water will be freezing at both of them, and oh by the way I am a slow swimmer too...I many never make it through the swim in 14 C degree water, much less the other events.

To aid me in finding a few other crazy events, I picked up a book called Extreme Running by Kym McConnell and Dave Horseley.  It's a summary of the great ultrarunning events on every continent, with nice photos, sort of a coffee-table book.  Just the facts, really, don't expect many personal tales, but it is coinciding nicely with getting my future dreams all sorted out!   I won't call them New Year's resolutions, or even a plan, but it's always good to dream.

January 25, 2011

Bicycling Fuerteventura

I know you Brits make a national sport out of discussing the weather, but isn't it nice to get away from the cold and wet for a while as well?   No excuses really, as the low-cost airlines can sometimes bring you down to the Canary Islands for less than the cost of a nice dinner at a restaurant.  My new plan is go to south once in a while to top up on some Vitamin D.

Fuerteventura was our latest jaunt, and wow was it nice.  We got lucky with the weather, it wasn't windy at all while we were there, so we had sun and warmth galore.   Great to go running in just shorts and a t-shirt in the dry air with no chance of rain!   We did some hiking as well, walked in the sand dunes (lovely!), and saw some Moray Eels while Scuba diving.  We even got to see the full moon rise over the ocean.  But mostly, the roads in Fuerteventura are made to be bicycled on, and I can't help raving about them.  I rented a mountain bike (only because the shop had no road bikes), and went out riding on the roads of Fuerte.  With the weather cycle of very light winds during our visit, it was gorgeous bicycling weather.  The island is fairly volcanic, but the grades on the roads tend to be fairly gentle, so it never seemed too difficult.  

I went out biking several days in a row, and even went around the hilliest loop on the island, through Betancuria.  It turned out to be the nicest mountain loop I have ridden in years, maybe ever.   After quite a steep climb up to about 600 meters out of Antigua, the road turned downhill, and I zoomed through Betancuria and a few other small towns.  Another short climb, and then it seemed like miles and miles of swooping downhills, with the ocean in the distance and the morning sun in my face.  The traffic was light, almost non-existant, and the smooth blacktop was free of bumps, rocks, gravel or anything dangerous.  It is quite a sparsely populated island, and in the hills, apart from the beautiful new road, it was hard to believe anyone lived nearby.   The wintertime sun meant that it wasn't too hot, and that I wouldn't get sunburnt too quickly, and that there was time to savor the views of ocean, beach and mountains. 

Anyway, I loved the biking in Fuerteventura, hope you enjoy the photos, and perhaps I'll bring my own bike someday for a longer tour of the island roads....

Facebook photos of the hike, and other adventures on the island are HERE.

January 24, 2011

Zarza Peak, Fuerteventura, Canary Islands

By reaching the top of Mt. Teide on Tenerife on my own steam, I think a tradition has now been started.    Here's to reaching the highest point, on each Canary Island we visit!  Thankfully, Fuerteventura wasn't nearly so difficult.  Pico de la Zarza, as it is named, reaches only to 2664 feet above the sea, making it 9534 feet lower than Mt. Teide.  Located at the southern end of the island on the Jandia Peninsula, it is part of a half-moon of hills that resemble nothing more than a crater when seen by satellite.   Given that the islands were formed by volcanic activity, it probably IS a very old crater.

After some confusion in finding the parking area (note to self: read internet directions more thoroughly before leaving home), once found, the trail itself was almost impossible to lose.  It was wide, signed, and went mostly straight up from the oceanside in Morro Jable, to a wide ridge leading up to the peak.  In fact, the trail, like the good roads on the island, was better than any trail I have followed so far in the UK.  It was gently graded, volcanic rock, passing through a few stunted bushes and a whole lot of rocky nothingness.  The first ridge overlooked a defunct golf course on the left and an equally defunct quarry on the right. 

The town on the beach, Morro Jable, is known for a strong German contingent of sun-seekers, unlike our own resort farther north, where English breakfasts reign supreme.   To make our presence more acceptable to the hordes of weiner-schnitzel eating folks below us, I said "Guten morgen" to all the hikers we met on the trail.  They seemed to enjoy it.

We got quite lucky with the wind (the island wasn't named "Strong Winds" for nothing), and there was nothing but a gentle breeze as we hiked up the hill.  In fact, the warmth and sun made it a spectacular day, and a great hike.  It wasn't until the very top that we could see over the lip of the crater and down to the ocean on the other side.  Although there is a 4x4 track leading to a small village on the NW side of the peninsula, there are no other roads or settlements.  We perched over a sheer drop, to peer in awe at the vista, and we could see miles of untouched coastline.   We could even hear the roar of the ocean, as lines of waves rippled into shore.  It seemed like a great place for a future backpacking trip, except for an absolute lack of potable water.   Hmmm.

Rob says he looks like he is wearing a diaper here, but really
 it's my favorite new pack, the Nathan Intensity Race Vest. 
Sticks like glue to my back when I run, I love it!

From ocean to peak, it was about a 9 mile round trip, but nicely runnable on the way down, so a new favorite trail of mine.   I calculated in my head, that it was only take about 8 trips up the mountain to equal the distance and elevation changes of a Bob Graham Round....perhaps next time we visit?  If only the BG would really be that easy!  But wait, there are more islands to be conquered yet, no return trips for me.   Famous last words....

Here's the peaks of the Canary Islands, if you are curious:

Tenerife              3,718 m    Mt. Teide
La Palma            2,426 m    Roque de los Muchachos
Grand Canary    1,949 m     Pico de las Nieves
El Hierro            1,500 m     Pico de los Malpaso
La Gomera         1,487 m    Garajonay
Fuerteventura      812 m       Pico de la Zarza
Lanzarote            670 m       Penas del Chache

For those of you who are asking why I don't attempt Mt. Snowdon in Wales, Scafell Pike in England, and Ben Nevis in Scotland, well, they are on my list as well.   It's just not quite as warm and sunny there right now as in the Canaries  :)

Facebook photos of the hike, and other adventures on the island are HERE.

Zarza Peak in the distance,
with the trail leading along the ridge up to it.

A bit of sparse vegetation (finally) after just bare rocks alongside most of the route.

January 14, 2011

Feet In The Clouds (The American is humbled...)

[Eventually I will get around to the point of this blog, which is a book review of Richard Askwith's Feet In The Clouds:  A Tale Of Fell-Running And Obsession.  But I still digress....]

Incidentally, my team name at the Open5 Adventure race last Sunday was "The American".   I get a lot of strange glances when I first open speak out on the trails, with the inevitable "You're not from around here, are you?" question following soon after.   But I have been amazed how quickly I have been welcomed since arriving in the UK, into the triathlon and running communities. 

So, although the language barrier is normally not an issue (at least, not much of an issue!), culturally the gap can be quite small and a mile wide, at the same time.  I think much of it revolves around our differing concepts of history.  For example, the stone house I am living in right now was built in 1740, making it older than the country I was born in!   Every rock and hill and trail have thousands of years of events worn into them, and the remembering of those events seems quite important to the folks here.  Even fell-running, which is young compared to the span of history in these isles, has deep roots in the hills that dot all over the country, and quite a controversial history, at that.  Mr. Askwith covers all of the sides of the issues, and perhaps, armed with this knowledge, I will prevent myself from sticking my proverbial "American" foot into my mouth.

But it was quite a shock for me to arrive in the UK and find the running conditions so....so....nasty!   I came to ultrarunning via German Volksmarching paths, which for the most part are 3 feet wide, nicely graded, never too steep, well-marked, and nicely maintained by the locals.  I think there is even a rule that the trails on a volksmarch can't be too "dangerous", or the insurance, included as part of the $5 event entry fee, wouldn't cover them. I'm not positive, though...somebody check on that....  So, what a change to come here and find rocky descents, boggy moors, positively, utterly atrocious weather, and no trail markers.  Do you feel my pain, here?

Anyway, what really hit home in the reading of Feet In The Clouds, was that the local fell runners really take pride in these horrible conditions, and revel in them.  Conditions which, anywhere else I've lived, would have been a reason to stay indoors and read a book, are fine enough here to put on shorts and go for a run up the nearest peak.  In short, it all makes me feel quite humbled.   But what really comes through as I read this book, is the deep love that the locals have for their mountains.   Oddly enough, despite the torturous weather and trails, I am starting to understand the feeling.  

After all, it's not really pouring outside, it's just kind of a light rain. 
And the temperature, well, at least it's above freezing.  
And yes, my feet are wet, but I've seen the bogs much deeper than they are now.  
Sure, the fog is getting a bit thicker, but I can still see my feet, at least.
Yes, this ascent is steep, but the ice has melted off, and you should see this really vertical trail I know about....

Did I really ever review this book?   I guess you'll just have to read it yourself!  It gave a great historical perspective on UK trail running, and was quite inspiring, as well as humorous.  The book did made the Bob Graham Round sound even harder than I had previously thought, though.   Am I thinking of doing a BG round someday?  Um....

January 12, 2011

Feet In The Clouds (The suspense is building...)

So far in this blog, I've been limiting myself to race reviews and other writing-newsworthy events.  Since my training consists mostly of runs to work and back, plus some gym time, even I could run out of interesting things to say about seeing the same 3 miles over and over again.  Although I do still enjoy running them.

But enough about that.  This particular blog is supposed to a glorified book review, after all.  But it doesn't start quite yet.  I came home one evening from work to find a program called "Sand Marathon" on TV.   It followed a Brit as he attempted to complete the Marathon Des Sables in Morrocco.   I had heard about this race, but seeing the racers come over the Saharan sand dunes, blisters and all, was fascinating.  I immediately thought about doing it (the heat shimmering across the TV screen must have addled my brain), but found out 1) That it's really expensive to enter, 2) That there's a waiting list years long to get in !?!?, and 3) That you have to carry all your food, and water is rationed.   Ouch.  But it still sounds fun.  Definitely on the bucket list for me.

In the course of my research about the race, I came across a book about it.  I haven't read that one yet.  But, in the way of Amazon searches, that book led me to another, led me to another... and in a few days, 4 books on crazy running events showed up at my door. 

At about the same time, a few emails went floating around about a winter completion of the Bob Graham round.  For those of you outside the UK, the BG round, as it is known, is a circle of 42 peaks in the Lakes District of England, some 60ish miles with 27,000 feet of climbing.  First done by who else, Bob Graham, back in 1932, it must be completed in 24 hours or less.  It's big.  It's scary.  And for some reason, it also sounds appealing.   The appeal of a Bob Graham is that it can be done anytime, there is no entry fee, and the Lakes district is only two hours away.

So the first book I started reading was the one called Feet In The Clouds: A Tale Of Fell-Running And Obsession, by Richard Askwith.   It is somewhat about the Bob Graham, and mainly about Fell-Running.  By the first chapter, I was hooked.   The author has a wry, witty, cynical style that is exactly what I aspire to emulate (but often fall short of).    It was written just a few years ago, hence the main characters are, well, still out running!  The fell-running circuit is a small one, so I'm finding out, to my surprise, that some of my new friends are famous, and that there is a lot of history going around.

To be continued...(I need to finish reading the book first!)

January 10, 2011

Open5 Adventure Race, North York Moors, 9 Jan 2010

I just did my first Adventure Race!

Ok, it wasn't point-to-point, I didn't have a team, and there was no sleep deprivation involved. 

But... I did come in 4th in the Women's Solo division!!!  Considering I was on a rented mountain bike wearing my running shoes with no toe clips, I was VERY happy with my score.

To explain:  The Open5 Adventure series are 5 hour events (hences the 5 in the name) where entrants get to run, then bike (or vice versa) their way to as many controls points as possible without getting back late and incurring time penalties.  

At check-in, I was handed a waterproof map, with run points on one side (OS 1:25000 map) and bike points printed on the other side (OS 1:50000 map).   After some fiddling, I got my race numbers attached to the front of my bike and myself, and worked out how to zip-tie on my newly purchased map board on the bike handlebars.   The I spent a rather frantic bit of time trying to make sense of the maps and decide which paths to take to get to the most points. 

It was an absolutely perfectly sunny day out (sshhh, don't tell anyone, I don't want you all to think that there's ever nice weather here).   In the wintertime, sunny weather and freezing temperatures seem to go well together, and we were all shivering as we arranged our gear and stripped down to race clothing.  In my rant about horrible UK weather in my previous blog, I seem to have missed a few key problems, namely ice and snow.  In late May during the running of the annual hundred miler, I guess these aren't normally big issues.  Today, they were.  More about that later.

After ditching my bike and helmet against a tree in the transition area, I was ready to start the run.   Unlike a traditional race, where everyone starts together and does the same course, the start window was an hour long, so when I felt ready, I walked to the gate and puched my dibbler.   Affixed to my wrist, the dibbler would record each checkpoint I visited, along with times and total points.   It beeped and I was off!  At least, until I was handed a list of the control point descriptions (how to find them) and how much they were worth.  A couple of marked points were bogus and worth nothing, and other controls were worth between 5 points up to 35 points.  My planned route immediately changed, as I crossed off the bogus points and rerouted. 

Right about then, the sun rose high enough to feel the tiniest bit warm, and I set off onto the Clevand Way trail to the first checkpoint.  There were still sections of snow on the trail, which ran along a high ridge, and the strong winds blew coldly from the west.  The first control was attached to bench, and then I dropped down into the forest on the steep descent to the valley.   In the shelter of the trees, it felt much warmer, and I doffed hat and gloves and loosened my waterproof smock as much as I could.   Around a frozen lake, across a muddy, frozen cow pasture, and back into the forest.   After finding a point over a small stream junction, the next one led me straight up a steep round hilltop.  For 35 points, it was worth it!  Although everyone was choosing their own route, there seemed to be someone around most of the checkpoints, and I used them to help find the tiny streamers, sometimes well-hidden behind trees.   I skipped a few points that I deemed too far away, and in two hours made my way back to the transition to start the bike. 

My first thought on starting the mountain bike leg was...."when was the last time I rode a mountain bike"?   I couldn't come up with a good answer, which means many years ago, which means I have no skills, so I took it nice and slow.   After a couple of miles of roads, the checkpoints led me back onto the Cleveland Way via a field path.  It was alternately frozen, muddy, and snow-covered, and I spent a good portion of it doing what is known as "Hike-A-Bike", in other words, walking and pushing the mud-covered thing.  The wheels were already weighed down with pounds of mud, and in the snow I could walk faster than I could ride.  It was a frustrating section to reach a couple of points, including one that was located at the bottom of a steep pasture.  The grass made for a quick bumpy ride down, leaning back as far as I could, and then everyone had to push their bikes back up.  (The rules state that you must be within 100 meters of your bike, therefore I couldn't just leave it at the top of the hill and run down.)

Once I reached a normal road again, I determined to find only the points where no trails were required.  Happily for me, there were a couple like that, and although steep hills were involved, at least they were paved.  The hidden danger here, as I found out, was that the tiny roads were still partly icy from recent bad weather. More "Hike-A-Bike" was required, but at least my wheels flung off most of the mud.  I did a mental cringe as mud splattered everywhere, coating my bike, clothing, and my new Nathan race backpack.   It was white when I started....maybe white isn't a good color for adventure racing?

With time counting down, I went for one last point.  It was across another half-frozen pasture trail, including a locked gate where we had to lift our bikes over it both ways.  Mud flew everywhere again (poor white backpack), and with 45 minutes left, I headed for home.  It took much longer than I expected, uphill and into the wind, and I arrived with just 10 minutes to spare. 

After downloading my dibbler, I was estatic to see a total of 380 points, which wasn't too far below the winning woman, my new friend Karen, who had told me about this race series in the first place.  Definitely gonna try to get to more of these events.  I like the level of navigation planning, thinking, rerouting, and decision-making needed to succeed at this type of competition.  I'm not fast, but maybe I can make up for the slowness by being smart.  Hmmm....

No photos for you this time (I was busy racing, after all), but check for photos on Open Adventure's website.

January 1, 2011

Housman Hundred entry confirmation!

YAY!  My LDWA Housman Hundred mile entry has been accepted!  As the race filled up in less than a week, I'm glad I had the form mailed in before the opening date.  Now I'm starting to get a bit scared, as this will be 40 miles farther than I've ever trodden before...and I remember how sore I was after just <gasp!> 60 miles.   I could barely drag myself into the finish hall and take off my shoes. 

And, given that this is England, the 100 miles won't be a nice graded path with sunshine and perfect weather.  More likely, it will probably include bogs, muddy cow pastures, stream crossings, scratchy heather, hidden rocks, fells, moors, many hilltop trig points, countless stile crossings of various designs meant to trip up tired legs, and more than a few steep climbs.   I'm sure that my feet will be soaked within a few miles, and damp through to the finish.  It will probably rain on our endless parade through the Shropshire countryside, and we will stolidly recite A.E. Housman poems under our breath, as we wipe water out of our eyes and plod ever onwards.  It could be windy as well, attempting to blow us off of our hilltop quests, which we will counteract by weighing ourselves down with the long list of required kit.   This includes but isn't limited to:  route description, map, compass, whistle, flashlight with spare batteries, mug, survival bag, first aid kit, mobile phone, waterproof top and bottom, fleece, and long pants (if shorts are worn), plus emergency food and drink.  I'm sure with all this junk, we'll need a large backpack to carry it in as well.  Night will fall on us once, or twice, depending on the speed of the slow crawl we are reduced to by the final miles.  In the light of our headlamps, we can expect to miss tiny trail junctions, and trackless moors will lead us astray.  Fog will descend at the worst time, in the dead of night, and our feet and legs will want nothing more than to sink down into the damp heather for a brief nap.

Luckily, the nine months I've now lived in this country have prepared me somewhat for such conditions.  I am lucky to live close enough to be able to walk or run to work every day, and that motivation to step out so often, has probably earned me more miles this year than all of my running races. Whereas for most of my races, there was actually decent weather (for the UK, anyway), my walks to work gave me a little bit of everything.  I don't think I've seen a warm (really warm, not just lukewarm!) sunny day since arriving, unless you count a week's escape to the Canary Islands.   But I have seen rain, fog, wind, snow, ice, cool, cold, and downright freezing conditions.   Arriving in the spring, it seemed like endless summer light for a while, but these last few winter months have accquainted me with the moon and the stars again, but how!   Still, I am amazed how many times I have walked without using my headlamp in complete darkness (plus one or more of the weather conditions listed above), and arrived without incident.  (Yes, mom, I wore a reflective jacket to warn the infrequent traffic.)  I was happy to see the shortest day of the year come and go, and on that day had a lovely walk to work while watching the beginning of the lunar eclipse.  Proof that it doesn't rain here every day.

Still, it's probably going to take something more than a few daily undulating miles of pavement to get me ready for a 100 mile trail race.   Hence my motivation for the Three Peaks walk on New Year's Eve.   Although it's still a bit early...the 100 miles won't arrive for almost 5 months.  So if between now and then, you see me out on the trails, point me towards the steepest fells (you know the ones, with the rain clouds hovering over them), and give me a push!

I'll leave you with some motivation, from the namesake of this year's Hundred, A.E. Houseman.

White in the moon the long road lies,
The moon stands blank above;
White in the moon the long road lies
That leads me from my love.

Still hangs the hedge without a gust,
Still, still the shadows stay:
My feet upon the moonlit dust
Pursue the ceaseless way.

The world is round, so travellers tell,
And straight though reach the track,
Trudge on, trudge on, 'twill all be well,
The way will guide one back.

But ere the circle homeward hies
Far, far must it remove:
White in the moon the long road lies
That leads me from my love.