Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Trail report: Lands End to Pendeen

Being a creature of habit I've got a certain bunch of routes I tend to run fairly regularly and, having covered most of the coast path within easy shooting distance of home this idea I had of documenting every stretch had sort of dried up. There remain however a few gaps - sections I have never run. The bit from Land's End to somewhere just West of Zennor is one such section. Shameful really as it turns out to be an absolute corker!

John O'Groats 874, I'm not giong quite that far today
Parking at Land's End good and early (if you live in Cornwall you can get free parking - local's pass available here) I set off up the coast. The weather wasn't looking too good though I was sure the reports had been fair. The first mile to Sennen is an enjoyable romp over laid granite paths and a few quite technical bits. The little coast guard lookout - like a tiny castle turret on the cliffs - marks the cliffs of Pedn-Men-Du - the black cliff. Sennen cliffs are one of the most popular climbing destinations in Cornwall and rightly so. Short but powerful routes on perfect granite abound though I'd not be getting involved in any of that today.

The steep run down into Sennen takes you quickly into civilisation though at this early hour there was no-one around. Leaving the promonade its generally the done thing to run along the beach - on the way back I traced a far harder and longer route over dunes and down a path behind the car park - not recommended. The line off the bach is pretty obvious and it was about here that the heavens opened. Waterproof on for the first time in a good few months, I trotted along a good path above the rocks between Sennen and Gwynver.

Leaving the beach at Sennen as the heavens open

Not the coast path!
Now things went a bit wrong for me when I got around the corner to Gwynver. The path appears to track diagonally up the grassy bank behind hte beach, just below the lifeguard hut. Don't make the mistake I did and take this route. If you do you'll end up reaching some long, steep steps and will no doubt follow them. Doing so led me to a road. So I followed it for a bit...and got hideously lost. Continuing on I spent hte next hour following footpaths across fields, always close to the coast but certainly not on the coast path!

Eventually I found a sign that led me back to the cliffs just west of the Cot Valley. When I arrived at Cape Cornwall I found a sign for Land's End saying 5.5 miles, but by then I'd done 8.5! I got it right on the way back though and can hopefully help others not to  make the same mistake. At Gwynver, stay low! Keep to a sandy path right at the back of the beach, you'll arrive at the bottom of the aforementioned steps but carry on and soon all will become clear. This section, for a couple of miles, is a real gem. the path is close to the sea and weaves in and out of boulders - lots of sections are redirected a few feet inland and with good reason as the original route is undercut in many places. There's a good bit of boulder hopping and some lovely technical running in a remote setting to rival any on the Cornish coast. Always undulating but never too steep the path winds on, crossing open ground in some places, skirting fields of crops in others, gradually gaining height as you close in on Porth Nanven.

The Brisons from Porth Nanven

It can be tricky to take the best path down to Porth Nanven, ideally head down to seaward and a lower path early on, before turning into the cove itself. If you don't you'll find yourself on a very long set of switchbacks winding slowly to the base. The better route takes you straight down to the stream just behind the pebble beach. Porth Nanven is one of the most photographed beaches in Cornwall being made up entirely of large, smooth, granite boulders and with lovely views of the Brisons, the rocks a little way off shore. From here you'll need to head up the road a few hundred metres until an obvious path leads steeply up the other side of  the valley and on towards Cape Cornwall. The views of this magnificent outcrop are well worth the journey. Most of the buildings are owned by the National Trust and the landscaped gardens and white washed walls contrast the rugged outline of the cliffs beyond.

North of here the path again leads inland and down into the next valley - Kenijdack. Home to the Boswedden mine this area is steeped in indutrial history. Dropping down below the Cape Cornwall golf course you enter a lush secluded and sheltered valley, hidden from the onslaught of the prevailing winds by the Cape. Climbing out among the mine workings and up onto the Northern side of the valley the rugged North Coast re-appears with the mine workings of Levant, Geevor and Botallack laid out ahead. After this steep climb there is a welcome flat section, though the paths are rocky and demand your attention. The observant will recognise the engine houses used in the recent Poldark series as they pass Bottallack. The Crown engine houses, situated just above the sea are a well publisiced attraction. 

Poldark Country
Looking back towards Cape Cornwall from Levant

Further on the Levant mine appears - the buidlings here have been restored and are managed by the National Trust.

Geevor mine closed in 1990 and you will see remains of a more modern nature. The scars in the landscape are fresher here and the romance is slightly tarnished - this is a bleak industrial landscape showing the true nature of mining - a tough, dangerous business. Geevor itself is now a tourist destination - allowing trips below ground and many displays and activities. Its well worth a visit if this sort of thing interests you.

Heavy industry at Geevor

The next mile or so towards Pendeen watch are more undulating and incredibly beautiful. This day I turned around shortly before the lighthouse but if you managed to get this far without going horribly wrong like I did then you should arrive after about 10 miles and have time for a good look around.

Pendeen Watch

Sunday, 9 August 2015

The Montane Lakeland 50

Running the Lakeland 50 has been the focus for the year really, although I got a bit over enthusiastic about my supposed tune-up race at the Classic Quarter this year. In fact I was worried that 44 miles of coast path 6 weeks out from Lakeland might have been a terrible mistake. For a few days I was very sore but 10 days later I still felt really tired and washed out. The first week of training was ground out though and soon I found myself bouncing back stronger than ever. Having struggled at Classic Quarter with the uphills I was concentrating on improving this before tacklimg the big climbs of the lakes and running hill sprints every week plus making sure all my long runs were on the hilliest bits of the coast path. What I found was that, in the intervening weeks, my legs felt stronger than ever and, without trying to, I was running my long runs quicker than usual and recovering well. So it all looked good.

Come the Friday before Lakeland I'd already been treating myself to plenty of extra treats in the name of carb loading and, after a quick bowl of muesli, headed off to get Simon. We left his house in Porthtowan about 6am and arrived in the Lakes via fried breakfasts and plenty more snacks at about 2pm. Not bad.

Once the tents were up in an already half full field in Coniston we got ourselves registered, experiencing the for the first time the signature Lakeland organisation as a huge queue of  runners were processed in quick time. The school hall was divided in two with queues leading us to a series of desks for kit check, timer chips, weigh ins, etc on one side and the walk of temptation though the Endurance Store stalls on the other. Managing to escape without spending any money on last minute kit was a tough challenge. Then we took a trip around Coniston, wandered down to the Lake, had a cuppa, twiddled our thumbs, etc. I decided a pint was in order and after this we took the decision to get grub at race HQ rather than shell out on a pub meal. This turned out to be a good call, Simon's veggie pasta bake and my chili were both excellent and at £3 a portion (we both had two) good value. By 9 we had run out of things to do so decided to turn in and try and get some sleep.

In the morning we were pretty chilled out. I was having my normal toilet issues and decided to beat the queues by sneaking off to the loos down by the lake. I spent some time on the little pontoon doing some yoga before wandering back to the campsite. We both thought an egg sarnie would go down well but before we knew it we were being called into the briefing. We hadn't factored this into our timings and once it became obvious we would be getting pretty much straight on the buses after briefing we realised we might have been a bit too relaxed in our preparations.

The briefing itself was very slick - Marc Laithwaite has a career as a stand up comedian if the coaching doesn't work out! As soon as we were done the buses started filling. Simon wasn't packed and hadn't had breakfast - I needed the loo again - needless to say we got on the last bus! As we drove to Dalemain, others on the bus were producing pre-prepared pasta meals, apparently triggered by alarms indicating they ate precisely an hour before the start. We nervously scoffed some skittles and double checked our kit to see what we had forgotten.

At last we were there, and a real party atmosphere was in full swing. Each 100 mile runner to pass did so to a round of applause as everyone sat around waiting for the off. I joined the queue for the toilets. This was the last time I would see Simon before the start. I left the portaloo minutes before the start and was ushered into the starting pen, I was pretty much at the back. I saw Justin Lowell, one of several runners making the trip from Cornwall, and we wished each other luck before the gun went off and we were underway.

The checkpoint at Dalemain is 46 miles from the end of the Lakeland 100, so the 50 mile runners are subjected to a 4 mile jaunt around the grounds. This turned out to be a hillier affair than expected though nothing to compared to what was in store. Some jostling occurred, many no doubt going out too fast; I moved up the field a bit since I'd started in almost last place all the time keeping an eye out for Simon who was nowhere to be seen.

After the initial loop we were off across fields towards Pooley Bridge. The first 5 miles went down in a flash and we were soon climbing steadily up to a location known as the Cockpit with views to our right over Ulswater. Already we had passed clapping and cheering members of the public and at the top of this climb a bunch of kids held out their hands for a high five and cheered us on by name (we all had our names on our race numbers) which was a great moment and really made me smile. From here the route led down along the side of Ulswater and I let rip, more than I should have, not 10 miles into a 50 miler but it felt good and I was in my element so why not?

Ulswater from the Cockpit

The first check point at Howetown arrived soon enough and we were greeted by a ranch full of cowboys. More importantly a revelation, a box full of tiny bits of fudge among other goodies; plus Chia Charge flapjacks. This, and every check point throughout, gave out sealy bags to fill up with whatever you wanted - I was beginning to realise I hadn't needed to pack so much food!

Yippee Kay Ay! Cowboys ahoy at Howetown checkpoint

From Howetown we started the longest climb of the day up to high kop, steady at first we soon got to the meat of things and head down, hands on thighs, the real work began. After a good half an hour of staring at the horizon we crested the final steep section only to realise we were only half way up! Eventually though it was done and we set off across the tops before dropping down towards Haweswater. This had been the one part I'd worried would be a route finding nightmare and, had there not been a steady stream of runners ahead it could have caused problems. As it was I followed the procession off the fell and down to the trail along the banks of Haweswater without incident.

The start of the big climb up to High Kop

Its a long way along the edge of Haweswater and I could feel the first taste of tiredness creeping in, With still no sign of Simon though I chastised myself for feeling like slowing down, after all Simon was up ahead and he wasn't slowing down! (nothing like a bit of friendly rivalry to spur you on!!). Someone tripped and narrowly avoided serious injury just ahead of me and I reminded myself to keep an eye on my footing. Towards the end of the lake the terrain gets a bit more technical and there are a few ups and downs. Cresting a short climb on the path I met Simon, crashed out on a rock and complaining he was done for. Turns out he got himself on the front line at the start and over enthusiastically went out way too fast. This tactic had worked well for him at Classic Quarter but today it wasn't to be. He waved me on and on I went, over The Rigg, a wooded peninsular jutting into the lake, and on to the Mardale head checkpoint.


We were cheered in by the marshals who were ringing cowbells, clapping and shouting. I stopped only to fill my bottles and drink some flat coke, reasoning I better lighten the load and eat all my own food before I started on the goodies on offer at checkpoints. Retracing my steps to leave the check point I met Simon as he came in. He was talking about dropping though I knew he wouldn't. After exchanging words of encouragement I was off. The route here takes on the second longest climb of the day up Gatesgarth Pass. I suddenly felt very tired. I think knowing I wasn't chasing Simon anymore and had in fact gone off a bit quick myself trying to catch him suddenly caught up with me - that and the twenty miles I had just run!

Still smiling, Gatesgarth Pass

Climbing up Gatesgarth Pass
The climb up Gatesgarth Pass was really tough. Steep right from the start and with unforgiving conditions underfoot - the path was just a boulder field - I really felt it and was passed by a good few more capable climbers than me. After a long trek and lots of switchbacks we reached the high point of the pass and started to descend. Any hopes of a long, steady, runnable descent were soon dashed though since the terrain was just as technical and very steep at first. By the time things levelled out my feet were feeling quite mashed from all the boulders. It was also very hot and I stopped at least once to dunk my hat in a stream.

Eventually we crossed the river Sprint at a lovely bridge and climbed again for a time before another descent on a mixture of roads and paths. I joined in with a group of runners I had been regularly switching places with for a few miles and it was good I did as I'm sure I would have missed the steps over a high wall we had to take to get off the road and onto some steep farmland. Eventually we arrived at the Kentmere checkpoint. This had been a hard slog and I was feeling a bit low. So it was great to arrive and find a heavy metal themed checkpoint handing out fruit smoothies, just what I needed in the heat.  I didn't hang around though, the seats were dangerously comfortable!

Coming down from Gatesgarth Pass

Kentmere rockers

Surprise surprise, there was another big climb from Kentmere, as I left the check point I was alone and had to grab the route book for a quick check but everything was straight forward enough. Go up the road then up the track. All very steep and the track, again, a boulder strewn, foot destroying nightmare! Luckily the views were incredible and took my mind off the increasing fatigue and sore feet.

On the ascent after Kentmere

Thankfully this climb was over relatively quickly and on the very runnable descent to Trout Beck I rediscovered my mojo. I was all of a sudden moving well and feeling good and on less technical terrain I could open up and push my pace a little. From Trout Beck we climbed up past Jenkins Crag and through rolling farmland with great views of Windermere. Soon we were heading down and into woodland about Ambleside. I was lucky to be in company of an Irish chap called Paddy (seriously!) who had done the reccy and knew the way as there were several paths heading off in various directions in the woods.

James Turner clowning around
Coming through Ambleside was incredible; everyone we saw was clapping and cheering us on and we ran strong through the streets and into the checkpoint. Here the theme was "Circus" and I was greeted by James Turner another of the Cornish contingent who I had chatted with the night before. Now dressed as a clown he filled my bottles while I sorted out a cuppa. I had to get out quick though it was boiling in the hall. I drank my tea as I walked through Rothay Park. Best cuppa ever!

After another steep climb and descent I arrived at a confusing road Junction with another guy (Robin, I think?) who seemed to know the way. Turned out he lived right there and we ran past his wife's business a cafe called "Chesters by the River". As we passed he laughed at a sign up on the wall, I think it said "Run forest run, you fat girl" - "that's for me" he said. From here the path is flat for a couple of miles. The sun was low in the sky and the light golden as we ran along the river towards Elterwater. It was absolutely stunning and I was feeling good, though by the time the route left the river and climbed briefly I was glad of an excuse to walk for a bit.

Beautiful light, on the way to Elterwater

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Just after passing the Wainwrights Inn we had a moment of confusion and the two runners I was with (Robin had pulled ahead by this point) were just resorting to a spot of map reading when a helpful member of the public pointed out the way. After another long flat section through a campsite we were at the Chapel Style checkpoint and 40 miles in.

Chapel Style checkpoint

The helpful staff here sorted me out with a meat stew and a cuppa and brought it to me while I sat and sorted myself out. My hat was wet from multiple dunkings and with it starting to get dark I was feeling a bit cold. I added a second t-shirt and swapped the hat for a dry buff. The stew was lovely and with some warm food inside me I was ready for the next stage. Off we headed, there were plenty of people about and again I was able to join a group and follow the crowd as it were. We were treated to a beautiful mountain sunset as we crossed farmland before a steep climb up and over Side Pike Pass lead us onto the downhill stretch towards Blea Tarn. Shortly past this was the unmanned checkpoint and we were all keen to arrive before dark. As it was we had head torches on before that but found it easily enough.

Sunset in the Lakes

From here a steep drop down the road and then another climb began. I tried so hard to stay with the group but my legs just wouldn't allow me to keep up and I was worried I would get lost as it was properly dark now. Luckily the road book was clear that I pretty much just carried on, eventually finding the road and soon after the final checkpoint at Tilberthwaite. I was overjoyed at the sight of quartered oranges and slices of water melon and ate several of each before heading off up the "stairway to heaven" a steep set of steps leaving the checkpoint - and lit helpfully with lanterns. From here the climb went on and on, I was alone and although I couldn't see it I was all too aware of the steep drop off to the side. One section of brief scrambling focused the mind and shortly after this I was overtaken by someone who clearly knew where he was going. This time I was determined to keep up and attached myself firmly to his heels. A group of ladies soon did the same to me and we marched on into the darkness, always climbing until at last, we weren't. By now it was raining and the next descent was meant to be very technical - it did not disappoint. Slipping and staggering I was unable to do much more than lurch downhill, twisting my ankle at one point and somehow managing to arrest my fall before any real injury occurred. Eventually the path improved and levelled at bit and here a helpful supporter let us know we had just a mile to go. Knowing this I took off into the night and ran the last mile hard; sure enough before long we entered Coniston and, despite the lateness of the hour, were cheered on by a few onlookers as finally the school came into site and it was all over.

I finished in 12 hours 34 minutes. Simon arrived an hour or so later, saying he'd had a tough time but still with a sub 14 hour time so nothing to be ashamed of. Every runner that entered the hall at the end was announced as "50 mile finisher" or "100 mile finisher" and greeted with rapturous applause. Another great touch. This was without doubt the most fun I have had on an ultra and my best performance to date. After stuffing down my free meal - veggie pasta followed by ice cream - I showered and went to bed, the sound of more runners being cheered in sending me off to sleep.