Saturday, 1 October 2016

The Salomon Glencoe Skyline






























I'm standing alone in a small town a long way from home. I'm tired but happy; I've just finished the Glencoe Skyline. I'm also feeling a little, for want of a better word, traumatised. I just didn't expect this race to be quite so...hard. I had to have climbing experience & have finished a mountain race just to qualify for the opportunity to enter this race, but neither of these things made me a mountain runner. And this weekend I found this out the hard way.

So here I was, with a medal around my neck, having scraped in just in time to avoid putting on my head torch. But as I crossed the line there were only ten more runners out on the course behind me. Despite the enthusiasm of the crew and a few hangers on I felt like last orders had been called and the officials, like barmen late on a Friday night, waited patiently for the last few runners to sup up the final miles before the chairs were stacked on the tables and the lights went off.

Rewind twelve - no nearly thirteen - hours and I'd stood in the same spot, the sound of bagpipes piercing the early morning air. As the count down ended we surged out onto the start of the course.  A short flat section lead out to the trail and it was clear the pace would be quick as we began to climb. The first few miles lead up past the hyrdo electric plant towards the Devil's Staircase. A wide trail, rough in places, constantly uphill but at an angle that begs to be run. I soon realised the hill wasn't going to end any time soon and settled into walking the steeper bits, surprised at how many people were passing me but not willing to push any harder in these first few miles. The sun was up and the golden morning light spread like honey over the hills; having spent all week expecting rain this was a delight - although we knew the forecast for later was not so promising.





Before I knew it we were dropping down towards the A82 at Altnafeadh and the first checkpoint. Crossing the road we approached Buachaille Etiv Mor where the first technical section awaited. The mountain rears up at the Eastern end of Glencoe, the great shepherd of Etiv, looking out across Rannoch Moor and looming over us as we advance. Our route was via Curved Ridge - a grade III scramble - and to get there we had to work our way around the base of the mountain, climbing steadily all the way before finally taking a direct line up the steepening crag. The scrambling was absorbing and I was in my element. Eventually a bottle neck formed as the route reached its technical crux and we were forced into an orderly line, mountain guides were on hand to keep an eye out for anyone in difficulty but everyone here knew what to do and before long we had passsed the difficulties and climbed up into the clouds engulfing the summit.



































After dibbing at the checkpoint we dropped down briefly before a steady climb took us up to another summit. From here we descended a long path on a variety of terrain, some quite technical, to the valley base. I stopped to quickly fill a bottle from the stream before crossing over and running a short way along its bank. Almost immaediately though we were climbing again and I settled into a rhythm. Everyone was quite spread out, a couple of runners behind me seemed to be moving at about my pace and we slowly caught a couple more towards the top. The last few feet were loose scree and mud and I prayed this wasn't a false summit. This was a ridge between two peaks and the path led off straight back down; I stopped to sort my laces out and grab some food and then set off on the descent. A larger stream ran down this valley and we followed it for a mile or so - some good flat running followed, overshadowed by steep, rocky buttresses above.







































Soon we left the bank of the stream, crossed open fell and were directed up another thigh busting climb. Deteriorating conditions greeted us as we made the saddle and a sign post sent us up into the mist to the summit of Stob Coire Sgreamhach. Everyone was stopping to put on waterproofs then heading off into the clag in search of the next orange marker flag. The climb went on and on and with no idea of where we were going I was starting to feel a little jaded. Finally we reached the checkpoint, the marshals huddled by the summit cairn gave us words of encouragement though I felt they had the harder job sitting up there for hours. On we went, visibility no more than 100ft, just sufficient to find the next flag without which I'd have been lost and frantic trying to navigate my way onwards.








































Talk among some of the other runners was turning to our progress, and how likely we were to reach the cut off at twenty miles. Confidence was high but it was clear we had to keep moving well to make sure we made it. I'm not the fastest running by any means but this was the first time I've felt quite such pressure to make a cut off.  The summit of Bidean Nam Bian saw us being sent on a short out and back section to take in a further peak. Dropping steeply down a rough, loose and broken path, we exchanged words of encouragement with those on the return trip. On the way back I turned my ankle - not what I wanted at this point. My first thoughts were that my race was over but after walking it off I found things weren't too serious, though it certainly knocked my confidence. We were eighteen miles in had over an hour to get to the cut off but I was getting really worried I might not make it, I felt pretty low as we descended scree slopes varying from large broken rocks to loose gravel. To be honest I wasn't enjoying myself too much at this point. I usually love descending but I found this terrain infuriating and couldn't make any kind of pace.































As we left the cloud behind we dropped steeply down towards the A82, any hopes for an easier time of it evaporated; the laid stone path was dangerously slippery in the wet. Several runners fell on the way down and I passed another whose day was done, hobbling on borrowed poles and looking dejected. On and on we went, I could see and hear the checkpoint in the layby across the road but it seemed to be getting no closer. Time was slipping away and I really wasn't sure I would make it.  In truth part of me was hoping I wouldn't - I'd spied the huge climb across the road in the days before and it looked like a real killer. As it was I ran into the checkpoint with ten minutes to spare. This was the only checkpoint on the route with food and drink available; I turned down the offer of tea - "No Time" - instead downing a couple of cups of cola and grabbing some mars bars before heading off again.

What to say about the climb up to Aonach Eagach? The runners nearing the top of the climb were tiny dots as I started and the climb - completely off trail - started steep and got steeper still. I started looking for rocks or other land marks to climb to before stopping for a quick breather. Towards the top of this waking nightmare of a climb the grass got so steep I was on hands and knees. Finally, after scrabbling up the final metres of dirty, insecure scree, the angle eased and soon the summit cairn reared up out of the gloom. Nearly nine hundred metres in less than a mile and a half, it took me an hour and twenty minutes from the road to the top.






























The wind tore into me and robbed me of the warmth of my recent exursions in seconds. I crouched behind some rocks and sorted out some warmer clothes before moving on. Conditions were pretty grim, rain and strong winds not the ideal for this long exposed stretch of scrambling. It took a while to get to the meat of the ridge, but the path continually narrowed until the drops into the cloud on each side were only feet away from each other. I felt as if I was crossing a bridge over the underworld, with only my imagination to measure the distance I'd fall should I slip. The first few sections of scrambling were easy enough - a guide was on hand to warn us we were approaching technical ground. Then a steep descent demanded our focus - another guide was belayed at its base and as I aravied several runners were just reaching the bottom. I followed and immediately we climbed up and over another rocky outcrop, a handful of figures ahead of me in the gloom. We were soon separated but I caught up again as we got to the pinnacles - the most exposed and dangerous section of the ridge. Another guide gave me a quick bit of beta and I skirted left, then down, then around the vertical pillars of rock. In wet slippery conditions this was serious stuff.  Everyone became quite spread out from here - a couple of more hesitant souls dropping back and those in front of me making a good pace and leaving to my own devices. I was loving this part of the route! We wound up and down, heaving up steep faces, traversing narrow ledges, dropping down tight sided gullies.






























After some time the difficulties began to ease though each time I thought I was clear of the ridge another techical section would loom out of the ether like the prow of a huge ship. I was quite worried that I wouldn't get to the finish before the final cut off at fourteen hours but there was no way I could move any quicker in these conditions. Soon though the last of the difficulties were done with and the ground opened out on each side of me. At a check point I was assured that I had plenty of time but almost immediately went off course and found myself hunting across the hillside for the next orange flag. From here the route follows rolling hills, alternating between tussocky grass and boulder fields, with a frustrating number of short, sharp climbs before finally descending to the path we had started on so many hours earlier. This last descent was very slippery, made worse by the passage of a few hundred runners, and I found myself on my backside more than once.






























Reaching the path I was informed by a marshal I only had 5k to go - just a park run remained between me and the solice of the finish line. I managed to pick up the pace and ran well to the end, glad to be able to run properly at last. Crossing the finish line I was spent. I felt as if I'd left a big piece of myself out on the hills. I've done longer runs and been utterly broken at the end - far worse than I was this time, but the sheer effort per mile on this race outstripped every other experience.

In the days that followed I replayed the day again and again, I certainly got my money's worth. There is no doubt this is one of the greatest races in the country. With the Mamores VK and the Ring of Steall race on the preceding days this weekend is a must do for all who yearn to run hard in the mountains. Maybe next year I'll come back and run all three! Or maybe not!

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

The Plague

Mud Crew's Roseland August Trail – the RAT – is the jewel in the crown of Cornish trail running and an event that draws larger crowds each year. A true festival of endurance with multiple distances to choose from and a campsite at the finish line complete with bar, food stalls and even an after party for those with energy to spare. 

The black, red & white RATs– 32, 20 & 11 miles respectively – are point to point races, with competitors bussed to their given starting point from where they run back along the coast path. For those looking for an even greater challenge the RAT Plague awaits. Starting at five past midnight on the Saturday morning this 64 mile race takes in the entire Black RAT course in both directions, running from Porthpean near St Austell to St Anthony at the tip of the Roseland Peninsular and back again. 

Having first run the Plague in 2014 I'd had a couple of years to forget how hard it was and so decided to come back and see if I could get around a bit quicker. Arriving in the early evening I set up my tent, register and get stuck into a lovely stone baked pizza from one of the food stalls, watching an organised Yoga session in full swing for those in need of some pre race flexibility. Later, we're treated to a "Meet the Elite" motivational talk and Q&A with ultra runner of the year Dan Lawson, plus GB team runners Pat Robbins, Sharon Law & Izzy Wickes. Then it's back to the tent for an hour or so of not sleeping before we gather for our briefing and are sent out into the night. 

Starting a race at midnight is an odd concept and one that adds a new dimension – we start sleep deprived and run our first fresh faced miles hindered by the darkness. On the plus side the darkness masks the hideously steep unrelenting nature of the first few climbs and descents. On a single track trail we follow in each others' pool of light, a snaking line of head torches moving into the night with quiet chatter and hard breathing the only noise louder than the lapping of the ever present ocean. 

The hills rapidly make their impact and the field spreads out as we encounter small villages – first Pentewan and checkpoint one, then the classic fishing harbour of Mevagissey. At ten miles or so we approach Gorran Haven and checkpoint two. Quietly filing into the Café I say a quick hello to some friends on crewing duties, refill my bottles and head out again. The night is warm and I'm moving well. I'm joined by another runner shortly after leaving and we stay together for a few miles, though as the night wears on and fatigue starts to set in I drop back and run alone to checkpoint three. I help myself to several cups of coke while a volunteer kindly fills my bottles and, with the long night starting to tell, I'm off out into the darkness again.  

Looking back to Nare head


Soon I'm climbing up onto Nare Head, one of the highest parts of the route. The headland has a long flattish plateau at its top and reaching here, with the faintest grey light starting to appear behind me, I feel a surge of energy that builds as the night turns to day. Just before day break I'm joined by another runner who surprises me (I only yelp a little!) as he appears from an unexpected direction having got off course and taken in an unintentional extra hill. This guy's name is Phil and we settle in to running together into the morning. As the sun rises and the light turns golden my energy levels soar; here the topography is a little easier on the legs and we skirt the edge of a beach before more pleasant running along stunning low cliff tops leads to the picture postcard village of Porthscatho and our next checkpoint. I know that friends – Loyd & Justin – will be marshalling here and they give us words of encouragement, telling us we are well up the field and looking strong. We're keen to get going; Phil and I leave together, the last few miles before the turn around covered fairly fast. Here we start to encounter the race leaders on their way back. I'm counting them off as they pass and we exchange words of encouragement as we make our way.  

Dawn at Portscatho


Approaching St Anthony we're treated to amazing views reaching out over both sides of the peninsular, short rugged cliffs to our left fall into the azure sea; farmland to our right dropping down to the natural harbour of Carrick Roads; the town of Falmouth at its far side and boats already out sailing in the mouth of the estuary. 
St Anthony is not a true checkpoint, just a place to dib and get going. My stomach has other ideas though and so a longer than anticipated toilet break leaves me running alone for a time before catching and joining another runner on the way back. We catch Phil on the way back into Porthscatho and we all run into the check point where the offer of bacon rolls is welcomed enthusiastically.  

Now the heat is starting to build and we retrace our steps, trying to run as much as possible on the easier ground before we reach Nare Head again and our first hard climb since day break. I'm actually glad we have some climbing to do as it’s a welcome change of pace.  

We start to wonder when the first of the black RAT runners will pass us; we turned around about an hour before they were scheduled to start so know it can't be long. A couple of features of this race serve to enhance the overall experience: each race starts slightly later in the day so that each group of runners approaches the finish at roughly the same time. And for those on the plague – we are issued with bright green vests so we stand out from the rest. As a result, throughout the day the number of people passing us running shorter distances increases, as do the words of encouragement we receive. When the first few come through though its hard not to be jealous at their light springy pace as they run – yes run! - up the hill past us! 

By now its hot and I'm dreaming of the Water Melon I know will be at Portloe. We arrive in good time and, with this being the start of the 20 mile Red route, are greeted by a large number of supporters and runners just getting off the bus. Phil wants to change socks and has some shin pain – the medics are on hand to offer some advice and a cold spray. I head straight for the fresh fruit and devour about half a water melon and several oranges. We are cheered by words of support as we leave the village and then we're off onto the coast path again, winding our way towards home.  

At Portholland Jessica and Duncan Williams, disguised as Punks, are on hand with Red Bull and pastries, all part of the Mud Crew service. Scrambling across the rocks here at night was a world away from the seaside holiday vibe going on as we return. A mile or two further on we reach Porthluney Cove, the road lined with well wishers, a beach full of tourists and a castle behind us, its hard to resist the ice creams on sale at the café but there's no time to waste.  

Approaching Gorran
Rolling hills lead down to pretty little Hemmick Beach where a possy of children act as cheer leaders from the sand. Then its up the steep relentless climb to the top of Dodman point, past several frustrating false summits to pass the monument at the top. I'm switching places with runners on various distances here as I'm feeling strong and climbing well. Even those on the shorter routes are starting to feel the effects of all these hills. But I know what follows and I'm keen to get into it: a good few miles of beautiful runnable terrain, easing slowly downhill all the way passed the long shingle stretch of Vault Beach and rounding the headland at its end before a last hard climb leads up to a perfect vantage point above the village of Gorran Haven. We can hear the cheers as we round the corner and drop down to the checkpoint. The 11 mile white race is yet to start and the village is heaving. I'd left Phil somewhere on the descent but he joins me minutes later as I'm sorting out my kit and refilling bottles. He's looking tired but keen to press on too 

As we leave the checkpoint and weave through the narrow streets we pass a huge crowd of runners and supporters I give a big shout and wave my arms in mock victory and am rewarded with a great cheer as I leave the village, buoying me up and sending me on my way onto the next leg. Soon though I'm walking again and I know I'll have to dig deep to keep my pace up as we enter the final 10 miles of the race. 
Looking at my time I know I'll not beat my goal of coming in under 15 hours but sub 16 is still a very real possibility. Knowing the worst hills are still ahead of me I'm determined to run while I can and every flat section or downhill I push myself into a slow jog. I'm sorry to say it was here I left Phil behind me, I could see he wasn't following as I pushed up the first big climb out of the village but I was on a mission and couldn't wait. 

We're all hurting now and the paths are busy with runners passing me at every opportunity, though as the path gives way to fields and we approach Mevagissey I see another Plague runner in the distance. This gives me something to focus on and I start trying to reel him in. Soon we are into civilisation; Mevagissey is a very popular tourist destination and it feels strange to be weaving in and out of family groups with pasties and ice creams. Many have got a good idea about what we're doing though and clap and cheer as we pass.  
From here, its just 6 miles to go but what miles they are. A couple of huge climbs festooned with steps lead us on to Pentewan and the final checkpoint. I'm pleasantly surprised that my quads are still able to propel me upwards and hands on thighs I keep my head down and just keep going to the top of each hill. The Pentewan checkpoint is the busiest of all. Either by happy accident or shrewd planning the Ship Inn has a beer festival – I resist the urge to partake! Race director Fergy dibs me in and tells me I'm looking strong, someone grabs my bottles and refills them and my friend Wanda is there crewing and presents me with an ice pop – heaven!  

No point stopping a moment longer. The hills get really hard now, steps are the order of the day for the last 4 miles. I know I can walk in from here and get under 16 hours but where's the fun in that? Every flat I run, every downhill I force my legs to carry on holding me up and to my surprise they do. I'm sure I'm moving very slowly by now but I feel like I'm charging. And I'm passing people! Including another Plague runner a mile or so from the end. On the last downhill someone is walking backwards – I've been there and I know how that feels! - but I trot down with a huge smile on my face because I know I'm home. Managing a speed march up the steep road from Porthpean Beach to the campsite I break into a final little run as the ground levels and there is Hannah, my wife, and Jenna my youngest daughter. Bronwen, at 13, is way to cool to bother with meeting her Dad and remains, I'm told, by the tent! Jenna and I cross the line holding hands and its done. 15 hours 22 minutes and a 2 hour pbI collapse and plead with Hannah to bring me cider, before remembering I've yet to collect my medal. 

As more people arrive the atmosphere is building towards the inevitable party. I catch up with a few friends, we exchange stories of our days. Phil crosses the line not long after me; its good to see he made it ok. I'm in no state to do anything much so after a shower I'm driven home for a well earned rest by my long-suffering wife. 

And that was that. Absolutely the best day's running I have ever had. This event gets better every year, so if you fancy a tough as nails ultra by the seaside you know where to go!