Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

February 23, 2011

Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know

It was quite a coincidence to have a friend loan me the above-titled autobiography of Ranulph Fiennes, just before I was heading out on the night recce of the High Peak Marathon.  Mr. Fiennes has been quite a fixture in the HPM, (a night-time navigational challenge through the bogs and moors of the Peak District), although that seems to be the least of his accomplishments!

Ran, as his friends call him, was the first to journey around the world via the polar axis (through Antarctica and the Artic ice-caps).  He later was the first to cross Antarctica on foot, by pulling a sled behind him weighing up to 500 pounds.  He has also summitted Mt. Everest, climbed the north face of the Eiger, completed 7 marathons in 7 days on 7 continents, and participated in a few extreme adventure races. 

I quite enjoyed the book, I found his writing to be conversational, witty, and easy-to-read.   I also seem to be (quite unintentionally at first) educating myself in the history and lore of British sport, at least where long-distance running is somehow involved. 

At times I think of myself as an extreme athlete...or at least my more moderate friends and coworkers do!  However, after reading this book, I can safely say that there is a lot of extreme-ness left in the world that I have no desire to emulate.  For example, I don't want to pull a heavy sled over ice crevaces in antarctica, or get frostbite from falling into melting ice-slush in the Arctic.   I don't think the 10% chance of dying after summitting Mt. Everest sounds like very good survival odds, nor do I want to bivy in a flimsy tent in -50 F temps while wearing the same clothes for 1/3 of a year in a row.  But that's just me.  It is quite entertaining to read about, though, from the safety and warmth of my living room couch!

February 20, 2011

Night Recce of the High Peak Marathon route, 21 mi

It has been a dream of mine to do an expedition-length adventure race for a while now.  Since I finally live in place where there are such races, the main obstacle for me now is to find a team.  To that end, recently I advertised myself on the UK Sleepmonsters adventure racing forum, to see who was out there lacking a girl for a team.   A few quick replies got my hopes up, and now it is just a matter of finding a compatible team with a relative speed close to mine.   Not an easy proposition as I am discovering!

It's always nice to meet up with future teammates, so when one of the teams invited me to go for a run with them, I had to make it work.  It didn't matter that the "run" was a proposed marathon-length NIGHT RECCE of the High Peak Marathon!  (For those of you unfamiliar with the HPM, it is a 40 mile teams-of-4 race that starts at midnight, through the mostly trackless moors and bogs in the Peak District.)  Plus, the recce was scheduled for a weekend I had to work...but I said I would do it anyway, and immediately started dreading the missed sleep time.  Sleep deprivation is an obstacle to overcome in adventure racing, though, and since I am used to working nights, I figured I could do 36 hours without sleep without too much trouble. 

After working 11 hours and watching a few inches of snow come down, I drove a couple more hours in fog and darkness to the edge of the Peak district.  There, eight of us met up and carpooled to an even more remote Peaks location.  I'd say where, but I have no idea because I have yet to see any of the Peaks in daylight!   In my communications with the team, I'd asked if their hazing plan for newbies included being left behind in a "nameless bog" somewhere.  When the reply was simply "No, all of our bogs are named....", I started wondering what I was getting myself into! 

The fog was swirling around us as we set off, and I focused on keeping my 7 newest companions, and one dog, in sight, given that I had no idea where the car was or where we were going.   Map and compass, which I carried, seemed spectacularily useless in the face of the trackless wild moors we were running over.  The first hill did go on forever, and mostly what I saw was the reflections of their backpacks disappearing into the clag ahead of me.   But, it turned out that the group was really careful to keep everyone together, and we took frequent, short stops to make sure that everyone was eating, drinking, staying warm, and feeling ok.  

The recent snowfall made running in the dark so much easier, throwing every rock and bump into stark relief, saving a few twisted ankles, I'm sure.  The full moon was less useful, as the fog gave us no views of the sky all night. The snow also covered up the boggy sections, so I made sure to keep a few of the group ahead of me (hah, like that was deliberate rather than accidental), so I could see their black, sunken footprints and avoid them.  My favorite trail running shoes have special elastic laces, which makes for easy removal and eliminates untied shoelaces...however, in these bogs, easy shoe removal is a hazard, not a bonus.  A frantic last-minute search that day during work, had turned up a piece of string, which I threaded through the top eyelets of my shoes and tied tightly, then crossed my fingers that it would keep my shoes on my feet.  Inevitably I hit a few ankle-deep spots of sucking mud myself, and I am grateful to report no lost shoe-searches were required.

The weather hovered around freezing all night, with almost no wind, so with a couple of layers, we stayed warm enough, barring the wet feet.  I tried out a wonderful invention for the first time, called Sealskinz socks, which are waterproof, and just what I had needed (but didn't have) last week during my freezing mountain bike ride.  Although my shoes were soaked early on and for the entire run, my feet stayed warm.  Brilliant.  Thanks Ali for recommending them!

So although I had no idea where I was, hopefully our navigator did, as we all wanted to eventually get back to the cars.  I'm told we went around a lake, and some rocks, and a trig point, and a few streams, and maybe even a river.  I have no idea because our lights barely penetrated the fog to see the trail in front of us!  But we all started to wonder if our navigator was slightly mad, when he convinced us to leave a perfectly good footpath and careen wildly down a steep, snow-covered heather-strewn hillside to the stream at the bottom.  With toboggans we could have made short work of it, but even without them there was plenty of accidental sliding involved.  The stream crossing involved more foot-wetting, and then the slog up the other side of the valley was straight up and never seemed to end.  Eventually we did find another path, so perhaps it was more than just guesswork by the map and compass holder...I'm sure we'll never really know.

With a bottle of Coke to keep me fueled with caffeine, I never felt tired, and it was quite interesting to be out there in the middle of the night with the rest of the world asleep.  When we finished the shorter-than-planned loop, I felt that I was just hitting my stride...at least until one of the group reminded me that the Housman Hundred in May would require me to do 4 more loops of the distance we had just finished!  Ouch.

February 12, 2011

Mountain Biking, Hamsterley Forest

The journey I took today marks the farthest north I have penetrated into England, as we loaded up the mountain bikes for a day out in Hamsterley Forest.  I actually had no idea where it was until I got back today and looked it up on the map.   A day out like this does wonders for biking confidence, though, so I'm glad I took this trip, in the name of preparation for future Adventure Races...

Hamsterley Forest, sitting on the east side of the Pennines, immediately reminded me of the deep, dark forests that I loved so much in Germany.    England tends more toward open moors, so it was fun to be pedaling under the tall pine trees.  On the other hand, once the fog cleared, the sun actually came out, but we didn't see to much of it in the shadows. 

Hamsterley Forest contains many miles of purpose-built mountain biking trails, including beginner up to expert singletrack, plus a down-hill only trail where the big boys get some serious air-time.  We started out with a short skills loop, where the brave can navigate obstacles like bridges, rocky descents and sharp turns, and the not-so-brave can ride next to the obstacles and swear to never go over them.  Then we headed out on the red trail, which is a medium-hard course, about 12 miles long.  It consists of hill-climbing, forest trails, and single-track, with a newly added swooping downhill adventure loop.  

It has rained a lot recently, so we were splattered with mud right from the start.  After getting warm on the climb up the first hill and through some muddy singletrack, I attempted to cross a swollen stream.  The high water concealed the fact that there was a deep crevasse in the rocks, and as my front tire settled into it, I found myself cavorting over the front wheel and onto the rocks.   In slow motion, I then realized that I had landed on the other side of the creek, but that my feet were still in it, and now soaking wet.  The bike was fine and so was I, and since I was wet already, I also attempted to cross the next ford, a bigger stream, instead of taking the bridge.  Unfortuately I forgot to pedal when I hit the deeper water and cobblestones in the middle of the rushing water, and walked out instead, wet up to my knees.  I took a little ribbing from the group at my mis-adventures, as least until another member got stuck in a bog and took a header into the muck, eating a faceful of black mud.  He looked like a member of the black lagoon until we got back to running water in the bathrooms by the car park!

The rest of the day was an attempt to keep my body warm, but I faced a losing battle with my feet.  Our group of six had a varying ability set, so we stopped often to allow everyone to catch up, and I could never seem to warm up.  Even the thrills of the newly created singletrack and the banked corners weren't enough to warm me up.   We liked it so much that we climbed the hill to do it again, and I tried running (and pushing my bike) up the hill to get my feet to feel anything but numb.

It was a relief to return to the final two-way section of the red course and get back to the parking lot.  We hosed off our muddy bicycles and changed into dry clothes for the ride home.   As I've determined to now buy a mountain bike, as part of my dream to complete an adventure race this summer, I hope I can come back and ride this trail again to improve my biking skills.  I will however, try to find a day when it isn't 40 degrees and very muddy.  Oh, and I'll try to keep my feet dry!

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.  :)