Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Hills. Hills and farewell to fells!

British Fell Relays and Beachy Head Marathon

Fell Relays in Llanberis

Well I was fully rested from recent exploits over long distance and the splutter of DNF's were history now. It was time to finally get my annual fell running fix after the last attempts to get to the hills had failed this year.

Rocking it at the British Fell Relay Champs!

But now we were on our way to North Wales and Snowdon! I say "we" as I was joined by my biggest supporter and the boss of Team Barefoot, Mrs Kelly Brazier. Kelly doesn't get to as many races as I'd and probably she'd like but managing the rest of the team (two kids a dog and a cat), means while I'm out to play, she's running everything else!

This brings me neatly to a very important topic that every person with a semi serious interest comes up against... TIME MANAGEMENT. Spare me a few minutes off topic if I may as I feel this is a subject we all should consider.

As runners we focus so much on times. How long it will take us?, how fast we be? What pace am I doing? When actually the question should be for me is can I justify the time away from those that matter?

I'm not that competitive really (believe or not Andy Hind!) but one thing I do seem to do is get completely immersed into what I'm doing. Because of this I sometimes get blinkered and without even thinking I've booked a series of races, spent several hours shopping for kit or just spent free time discussing running on social networks (how ironic I'm writing this now).

All this is fine until it catches up with you. I'd been pushing it pretty hard in the last few months and according to my close family enough was enough! I of course denied it but the more I thought about it,  the further the penny dropped.

I knew it was bad when my running friends were saying I was pushing it too much! I couldn't see it and I still wonder how proper ultra marathon runners do all the training and then race for days? Are they all 18? Are they all single? Do they have no children? We did what all successful organisations do and that was compromise. 

Anyway back to Wales... As I was saying Kelly had joined me and we drove up early to enjoy a rare night without the family. Staying in Llanberis is always good. I've been lucky enough to have visited many times but this was special. Not only was it nice because I was taking part in the country's premier Fell competition but I was sharing the experience for once.

We browsed the many shops in the tiny high street and ended up in what looked like the worst pub ever but it actually turned out to be great as we got drunk with the locals and we ended the night in a curry house almost next to our alpine chalet, perfect.

After an ok night's sleep, we drove the short distance to the start of the event. I was part of my running club team and we had 4 teams in total, not bad for a non fell based club from Essex. I was part of the men's B team and had been picked to run the third leg in the relay which is pair's navigation. I'd taken part in this event last year when it was held in Shropshire and did the same stage so knew what to expect.

The competition is made up of 4 stages, individual, pairs, nav and another solo leg to end. I was always picked for nav as I'm not the fastest but years of military training meant I could find my way around a map.

Well we found our teams admin tent and the first leg runners were already on the course. I was introduced to my partner Rob Roddie and it was pretty obvious both of us were well out of our comfort zones as I only did fell running a couple of times a year as an excuse to see the hills and Rob was telling me he'd not been on the fells for a while (but he did have that "mountain goat" look about him so guessed he'd be "handy").

What also made me laugh was the comments from our team leader John Williams when he announced to me minutes before we were off that I'd be doing all the nav as Rob couldn't tell one end of a compass to the other (not my words Rob). Great here I was just about to set off over a series of mountains in weather which was now gale force, no pressure.

Rob also confirmed the nav status but actually I wasn't too concerned as I knew we'd have some serious points of reference out there, mountains, ridges and a huge lake in theniddle of the course. I secretly also hoped we'd set off with a group of other teams and even though "following" isn't the done thing you should use every resource you have available but remembering the team in front could lead you off the side off a mountain so proceed with caution.

As we waited in the crowed start pen, the weather opened again and we were getting battered. Nav teams were coming back thick and fast and I was starting to think I would get my wish for a mass start when all of a sudden our pair sprinted in.

We confirmed our plan and and then we were off. The first few metres were up a steep slate hill. I ran to it then walked as we didn't even have a map yet! To keep up the element of surprise on route everything was kept secret, we grabbed a map and I stooped to get orientated but before I could do this marshals were shouting "this way!" ok then?

We were running down a small lane and as we ran I also tried to study the map which was proving difficult. We met another group of marshals who directed us again and I was starting to like this nav course. I then noticed the course was actually marked as well. As we followed this I took another look at the map and sure enough the first Km was marked to get us out on the hills.

Loving Llanberis!

I knew I'd be slow even before we started as I'd not really done any kind of hill work of any form for a long time and so far my guess was correct as I struggled up the steep inclines of the foot hills of the route! My guess of Rob being "goat like" were correct and he led the way on the bearing I'd give him.

The only thing at this stage keeping me going was the fact that most fell races I've taken part in start steep but then flatten out slightly as you get higher. Well "most" apart from this one! I'd been to Snowdon loads of times but always stuck to the paths and this off-piste action was proving slow going.

The whole field of competitors seemed to be on the hills now as the weather took a serious turn for the worst. The rain and the strong winds were replaced with hail and full on gales as we struggled now to even keep upright while walking and the hail meant you could even open your eyes! Not the best combination. I'd now briefly overtaken Rob as I tried to check our next move but there seemed to be people heading off in all directions so you could follow teams even if you wanted to as you could end up anywhere (confirmed when we were regularly asked for directions to check points miles away).

We got to CP 2 hidden at the bottom of a fast flowing stream and Rob "dibbed" us in while I walked off trying to work out the best route to our next destination. Once again the nav wasn't difficult but the point to point routes we picked were proving a pain literally as we seemed to never end up on any defined routes not even a faint sheep run. Because of this I found the pain in my feet and ankles at times almost unbearable as we desperately clung onto the side of hills while handrailing. What made this even more painful was the fact that as we moved at a snail pace we'd get regularly overtaken by other teams no more than a few metres away who had somehow managed to find those hidden tracks but we couldn't move down to them as that would be suicidal.

Anyway, we eventually made it around the CP's one by one with no nav mistakes but it wasn't until the last couple of CP's that we started to find the best terrain and we even overtook a couple of teams but we were now towards the back of the leg 3 pack though and we had this confirmed when we passed our leg 4 runner who had started with his mass start group as we'd taken so long! Soon the finish was in sight as we tumbled down the last hill in some of the worst mud I'd ever encountered which was more Cross Country then Fell Race, crossing the line in just over 3 hours. EMOTIONAL!

Emotional due to the logistical task of just getting to the start line and this was combined with by far the hardest fell event I've taken part in. I absolutely love the hills but this weekend has led me to the decision that unless something special come up then I won't be placing fell events on my race plan for 2014. If they were just around the corner then of course I'd be first to sign up, but 10 hour "there and back" drives don't make sense in any way to me either time wise of even economically. Never say never though!

One last word on the event though.... Major thanks go to main organisers John Williams and Janet Hill. Putting together 4 teams from a non-fell running club based in Essex is a massive accomplishment and our men's A tearm even managed 14th place overall which was brilliant. The "dream team" of Rob and me won the only prize of the day for our club though.... Slowest men's open team, "no comment!"

Beachy Head Marathon

Formally the Seven Sisters Marathon held near Eastbourne on the Sussex coast, this would be my second year in a row running this event but in this short time Beachy was already one of my favourite events. I will never get bored of the South Downs!

Last year the event blew me away (literally at times) and I entered again this year as soon as I could. Another incentive was my part-time training partner Andy Hind was injured there last time out and had to withdraw so had a score to settle.

It was my turn to book the accommodation so I booked us in on the Friday night as the race is held on a Saturday, this allows us a lay-in on race day morning but also a chance to partake in our tradition of pre-race fuelling sponsored by Guinness.

Eastbourne Seafront

The prep for the race had been pretty uneventful for me with no special training but I'd ran some pretty big races recently so I was convinced I was in better form than last year. Andy's prep wasn't so great.... We'd had a couple of pretty good training runs covering some serious miles but a few weeks prior to the event unfortunately he'd been hit by a car whilst on his motorbike and he'd picked up some pretty extensive leg/knee damage. It was nothing mega serious in his opinion but wasn't ideal and he was told not to run for weeks right up until race day. The above had meant that Andy hadn't done any training for this off-road hilly marathon but he decided he'd walk the event and lot's of people do this and the original event was started by walkers. 

As I said, everything was fine in the build up to the event on my side but on Friday afternoon something strange happened. I went for a walk with Annie the Labradoodle for a few miles and noticed I was feeling really warm. It didn't seem that warm outside but I was drenched in sweat and was feeling a little lightheaded. I got home but didn't seem too bad so I just carried out as usual even though I was still feeling tired but not bad enough to do anything drastic like pulling out of the race.

Andy picked me up and we drove down to Eastbourne that night. After a good night's "prep" we woke up ready for the off. I wasn't feeling too bad now so I hoped yesterday was just a blip and I looked forward to a decent race. We packed our kit and went downstairs for breakfast at 7:30 and this is where things took a turn for the worst. NOTHING! I'd joked with Andy in the week not to except much from the B&B as I'd booked to via the internet with the search criteria as "find cheapest" and the hotel name was "La Mar" which I joked was French for "The Mare" (as in nightmare) and with us two standing in there with everything closed and no pre-race breakfast, it was living up to it's name.

Mr Hind having "La Mare"
We weren't impressed but I was sure we'd find something to eat somewhere so we'd be ok. Well we got to the registration tent but still nothing decent to eat with the only thing on offer being toasted sarnies so we had one of those and I accepted that it would have to do. Andy would be ok on the food front as he was carrying a pack with enough food for all race entrants! I had a few dried dates and that was it for me.

We quickly registered and picked up our numbers and timing chips (thumbs up to the process change from last year) and it was good to see a couple more Striders, Bob Gear, Maxine Savage and Paul Bridges. Before I knew it, it was time to get to the start and there I also bumped into other fellow Striders Lucy and Jamie (with girlfriend Nikki somewhere towards the front of the pack). It was also great to see Peronel (the "little rock"), a fellow ultra runner I'd last seen at SDW50 earlier in the year. With a few greetings swapped we were off up the steep hill, I walked of course!

Mr Paul Bridges and myself at Registration (the smile wasn't going to last)

Before the event I'd agreed to run around with Paul Bridges as we would hope for similar times. Well Paul's quicker than me normally but I'd committed to try to go as flat out as possible in the event to my new coach so trying to stay with Paul seemed like a good idea at the time. Well straight off Paul was ahead of me. Not far but I could see he was in decent form and wanted to push. I was having trouble staying with everyone on the steep incline out of town.

As we passed the bag piper at the top on the first climb I was loosing sight of the guys but to be honest I was going as fast as I wanted so was happy to run my own race if I had too. I was feeling ok and I noted better than last year so things were still pointing to a decent performance. It was round this time I passed another person I recognised. Ellen Cottom the American 100 Marathon club member I'd ran with during my TG100 attempt (no surprise, she would pass me later).

By the time we got to CP1 at Jevington  I was still feeling ok if a little hot. I'd chosen to wear two shirts and arm warmers and the sun was actually quite strong so I rolled the warmers around the wrists to vent myself a little more. We ran through the town and it was nice to see a decent amount of supporters cheering us on in the sunny conditions, this was also the first time we saw the official Paul Bridges supporters club :)

I was still behind Paul at this point and had no idea how far ahead he was as we climbed the narrow chalk path out of town. I'd always walked this section but this year I had made a promise to myself to try and run more so I dug in at the bottom and jogged it out. If this was a longer race I'd walk everything uphill but as this was a shorter race I wanted to push that little bit more. Suddenly I looked up and I saw a flash of white and yellow Strider vest ahead and it was Paul. He was probably wisely walking up the hill and I pushed a little more to catch him up.

It was good to see him again and I even saw Jamie too so I said to myself I could be doing that bad as these guys were faster than me. As the trail rose and fell I kept with them and noticed on the downhill's I would pull away a little at times (Kevin Wright would be pleased) but they would always be there within touching distance. As this game of cat and mouse went on we came to a long climb and again I decided to try and run it so pushed harder. I didn't want to chase these guys all day and also wanted to try and do my bit so I took to the front for a while. As we were about halfway up, Jamie passed me and took the lead. He pushed even harder and try as hard as I could I couldn't keep with him and he pulled away.

As I said earlier, the other guys are a different league to myself and I knew they were taking this race easy by their standards and they could have pulled away at anytime Jamie even slowed at the top to let me catch up. We all kept close for a while and soon we were fighting the gale force wind as we ran down the steep slopes into Alfriston and CP2.

As we once again climbed out of civilisation once more, Paul, Jamie and myself this time decided that running was a little pointless. We took the opportunity to relax for a while and I took in the views which were spectacular, I love the South Downs and this is proving to be a great day to be here. But only too soon we reached the top and begin our charge once more. We passed the gate which caused so much confusion earlier in the year during SDW50 when it was padlocked leaving a large number of runners scratching their heads and I laughed out loud to myself remembering that but soon though we were approaching CP3 and the left turn where we head back towards the coast. This is a major milestone as it's approx. halfway and also marks a long flat section heading back into a village and CP4.

As I was feeling ok and  had already decided not to stop for long and after a quick splash and glug I was off with Jamie close behind. It was only after a few moments that I turned to check on Paul and he was nowhere to be seen, Jamie commented on this but I said he'd soon catch up with us. I was still feeling decent so I kept pushing for now. Me and Jamie were now motoring (by my standards) and we even saw Lucy and her sister ahead and after saying the usual "see you soon" we continued past them.

Eventually we ran into CP4 and I was reluctant again to stop for long but had to smile when I saw the local band playing as usual and the soup and hot cross buns on offer. I grabbed a bun and walked out of the CP trying to eat as I went but what came next was something I'd never experienced in a race. As I walked up the hill with Jamie a little way off ahead as I fed the food into my mouth I suddenly realised I wasn't swallowing and was just filling my mouth with bread, this ended badly with me being sick.

I was actually a little shocked as this was something I'd heard happen to other people but never to me? I instantly remembered the advice on how to deal with this "not to panic", this kind of thing happens and just refuel as quickly as possible. I carried on jogging as this was happening and I tried to eat again but had the same results and as soon as I tried to eat I just gagged. I gave up on this and just drunk as much as I could. A slowly caught up with Jamie as we entered the first set of steep steps and I was concious that he was now having to slow almost to walking pace to allow me to get to him.

By the time we reached the second steps I knew I was in trouble and had little energy left. The only thing keeping me going at this point was the fact that we were soon approaching the cliffs and the Seven Sisters so I guessed everyone would be slowing up and I'd have the chance to walk and hopefully recover. We crossed the main road into the country park and were greeted once again by the Team Bridges and I was sure Paul would by now be just behind me and I shouted this to them.

As we climbed the long winding path upwards, some people were still managing to pass us running but there was no way I could match them as I was having issues even walking fast. As we took on the Sisters, Jamie once again started to pull away and I told him to let me go as I knew I was holding him up. He refused several times stating he just wanted to get around and to be honest I was actually glad of the company as I might have stopped without his support. I was managing to run on the flats again but painfully slow and it was just as we approached Birling Gap that I had issues with "the other end", I had no choice but to let Jamie go after all as I diverted off course to convenient cover.

I sorted myself out (I won't go into details) and actually felt a little better as I ran downhill into CP5. To my surprise Jamie was still there (top man as he must of waited). He laughed when I told him what had happened and again we were soon off but now the legs were heavy and the head had gone (it's as I type this now I also realise that this was around the time I aways feel poor so should have recognised it!).

We got to a another section were I had to walk a little and it was here we were caught up by Lucy and her sister and they looked in decent shape but could probably see how bad I was as they told me me to push on. Meeting up with them seemed to take my mind off the situation and I slowly started to get things straight in my head again.

Morale lifted as we made the last climb up Beachy Head itself and Jamie and me even stopped for some photos! (later found out these were taken by fellow Strider Karen Chapman's parents). As we started to head downhill for the last mile back into Eastbourne, I was following my fellow Striders when for some reason I remembered the fact I'd told my coach that I'd give the race everything I had. I had stopped looking at the watch a long time ago as I saw my pace slow to the point where I just wanted to finish but as I felt better now I had the urge to just sprint to the finish. I slowly pulled away from my team mates and let the legs go taking the brakes off and enjoyed the feeling of "falling" full speed downhill towards the finish.

I approached the finish line at the bottom of the hill and it was then that I noticed the race time of just over 5hrs and a couple of minutes? I was slightly surprised and stopped my watch and looked at my actual time which read 5hrs and 10 seconds, this was a course PB by approx. 4 minutes. Yes it was a shame I didnt have the race I expected but anything faster than last year was a result especially considering the events during the race.

The rest of the guys had now finished and I have to admit I felt a bit bad for racing off when I went over to congratulate them. It was a hard race and a great run from everyone with fellow club members Karen, Bob and Paul finishing minutes after us. Andy had managed to walk the whole course and finish pain free, probably the best result of the day!

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