British Indoor Rowing Championships

14 Dec 2016 by Henry, No Comments »
Warming up

Warming up

 

I’ve been dealing with a bit of tendonitis in my right knee since the summer and post the Hardmoors 60 I haven’t run a step in an effort to rehabilitate myelf and get into peak shape for 2017. So in an attempt to stave off the insanity that comes hand in hand with NO RUNNING WHATSOEVER, I’ve taking to the rowing machine in an effort to keep both my mind and my cardio function in check. And it turns out it’s been really fun. Since staging Field Maneuvers  with my wife at the beginning of September, I’ve managed to get my 5000m time on the Concept 2 Rowing machine from around 19.02 minutes to 17.57. This has been no mean feat by which i mean it’s been really bloody hard. Whilst boring a client with this information last month, he pointed out that the British Indoor Rowing Championships were taking place on my doorstep at the Olympic Park on December 10th, and although they don’t have a 5000m event, they do have 2000m races. So I thought I’d put my oar in and have a go at setting myself against some serious competition.

Blurry view from the ground

Blurry view from the ground

And boy did they look serious. I was taking part in the Masters 30-39 2000m competition. When I arrived, a lot of confident men in tight rowing lycra had adopted striking poses around the venue, whilst nochalantly regaling each other with anecdotes about splits and stroke rates. Perhaps i’m out of my depth I mused to myself as we were herded towards the floor of the Velodrome where a bank of about 100 of the latest Concept 2 Erg Rowing Machines awaited us. Before going up to the arena floor, we were held in a pen with a netted roof where an organiser tried to gee us up, before releasing us in front of the crowd of several hundred cheering spectators.  The net was ostensibly to stop rogue velodrome bikes falling out of the sky onto anyone who might be stood there, but the way we were assembled, it also reminded me of the scene in Gladiator where Russell Crowe and his fellow gladiators are about to be released, in many cases to their doom, in front of the baying Roman mob. Luckily there was more lycra than tridents and the baying mob were more a collection of supportive members of rowing clubs from across the country.

We ran out, found our boats and after 5 minutes of sensory overload: cheering crowd, build up commentary and a huge blue screen with our names on it, we were under starters orders. Being completely new to competitive indoor rowing, I set off with the sole intention of not overcooking myself and falling away at the end of the race. My best time in the two weeks of training I had for this distance was 6.54.7 which works out at 1.43.6 per 500m. I didn’t expect to get much faster than this. So I rowed the first 500m of my race at 1.45/500m, determined not to go off to hard, then increased it to 1.43/500m for the next 1000m. To my surprise, and I suspect a lot to do with both race day adreneline and a brand new rather than dusty old rowing machine, I was still feeling strong at this point and I finally managed to pull 1.39.4 for the final 500m and finished with a time 6.49.9 for 2000m… way beyond what I’d planned. Well, almost 5 seconds quicker than i’d hoped which over 2000m, is a lot. I was 6th in my heat and 34th overall. As an ultra marathon running newbie, racing against experienced competitors, some Olympians and a lot of serious looking chaps from the Navy and RAF, and a smattering heavily tattooed North London personal trainers, this left me feeling quite chuffed.

So dare I say it, I think I had a few extra seconds in me. In practice I’ve staggered off the boat, nauseous and unable to walk properly. After this race, I was just a bit queasy and a bit wobbly. I think that means I didn’t go hard enough. So i’m on the lookout for the next rowing competition to find out if that was the case. And then I can hopefully start running again in January. Well I’d better be able to, as I’ve just entered myself in the 95 mile West Highland Way Race in June and yet another Hardmoors 55 at the end of March!

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Hardmoors 60 – 2016

20 Sep 2016 by Henry, 2 Comments »

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In 2012 I almost completed the Hardmoors Grand Slam – a series of ultra-marathons consisting of the Hardmoors 30, Hardmoors 55, Hardmoors 110 and Hardmoors 60. Unfortunately, an injured foot stopped me when I was half way around the Hardmoors 60. That was the final race: I had completed 225 miles and had to jack it in with only 30 to go. That wasn’t fun.

In 2016 I was unable to compete in the Hardmoors 30 on New Year’s Day, but I did have a clear run at the 55, 110 and 60, which together make a challenge in their own right – the Triple Ring. I completed the 55 in March and the 110 in April, so I was now only the Hardmoors 60 away from completing the challenge. With my 2012 experience in mind I took nothing for granted as I set out to claim a ‘highly coveted’ Hardmoors Triple Ring hoody.

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I had not run during the four months since the Hardmoors 110. A variety of other obligations, combined with tendonitis in my right knee, conspired to make my training for this race negligible; I felt as physically unprepared as I ever have been, while a stressful week before the race meant that I did not devote enough time to mental preparation.

Which is why, after a delayed start in Guisborough,  a seemingly endless ‘rest break’ in Guisborough Woods, and a knee that was threatening to get really unhappy, I found myself, eight miles in, at the tail of the field having a serious word with myself about whether or not I was going to continue. The knee was beginning to feel tender, and with 54 miles to go, it began to seem unwise to run on a joint that did not want any part in the adventure. On the other hand, I really did not want another race series to slip through my fingers/toes. After much deliberation, I concluded that there was no point starting something if you were not going to finish it; if I was to be laid up for a fortnight, so be it, and at least I’d be nice and warm in the new, highly coveted Hardmoors Triple Ring hoody. 

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I was running with Robbie ‘Longest Try‘ Dolan. To coincide with the Rugby League World Cup next year and on behalf of Roald Dahl’s children’s charity, he is going to run the 1118 miles from Melbourne to Brisbane in 42 days. With a rugby ball. We caught up with what had been going on in each other’s lives and more importantly, he got me up to speed with the exhaustive planning and exhausting training that goes into an undertaking like ‘The Longest Try’.  It is a monumental undertaking and I advise everyone to check it out.

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As we ran through Saltburn, my mum who had come out to support us for the day, complained that we had taken too long. Chastised, we sped up, slightly, and moved onto the clifftops that take you to Skinningrove, Runswick Bay, Staithes, Sandsend and then Whitby. I was acutely aware that I was not moving at all quickly and felt guilty for holding Robbie up. He said he did not mind and had no problem sticking with my pace for the sake of a half an hour’s difference in finishing time. I thus felt doubly guilty, as if I was feeling quicker, I probably wouldn’t have felt the same!  Nonetheless, he nobly dragged me along the Cleveland Way and by the time we were at Whitby Abbey we had spent the best part of the day, bathed in sun.

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The next stretch over Robin Hoods Bay, through Ravenscar and onto Scarborough is notorious for its hidden valleys: places like Boggle Hole and Hayburn Wyke where you descend then ascend 400ft on very rough terrain while only gaining 400 yards in horizontal distance. On this stretch of the Cleveland Way you are never more than a couple of miles away from places like that. They are energy draining and sap your morale if you are unprepared for them. We trudged onward, fuelled by trail mix and bizzare stories about Australian insects. 

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We reached Scarborough as the sun set. I tried to get there without switching my headtorch on, but with a couple of miles still to go, and a couple of cliffs almost unsuccesfully negotiated, I decided I ought to turn mine on. At this moment, as we ran onto the long stretch of Scarborough sea front, the most phenomenal moon I have ever seen rose out of the sea and guided us to the final checkpoint.

The route here had been redirected by the marshals because a high tide was racing over the path and goggles had not been on our mandatory kit list. We were directed towards a long network of steps behind Scarborough Spa where we vaguely headed in the direction where I thought the Cleveland Way should be. Inevitably then, there were several wrong turnings. When these had been corrected and enough time wasted we finally found ourselves on the final stretch.

The last nine or so miles to Filey are always a struggle. But by now there is no doubt that you will finish, because Filey is the only available place left in which to pull out and get picked up. As the glow of  the town gets nearer it feels as though the Cleveland Way is taking you further away from it. There are repeated conversations about it ‘surely being around the next headland’  only to discover it is not, and that the coming headland has in fact been replaced by two new headlands. Nonetheless, as with everything, the end arrived and there we were on Filey Brig. Here you drop down into one last quad-trashing ravine, before – now fuelled with the elation of an imminent finish –  jollying onto the sea front, up a road, past groups of drunken women who want you to know that they think you’re stupid for running, and across the line: where, at last, you reach the enormous buffet about which you have been dreaming all day, and more importantly . . . the highly coveted Hardmoors Triple Ring hoody.20160920_190917

This was a really interesting race. I was distracted by other things and was not feeling a hundred per cent beforehand.  It is one that five years ago I probably would not have finished. I am pleased that I did. And having completed the Triple Ring, I am pleased to find that my knee now feels as well as it has done all summer. Can it be that running nearly 64 miles fixes knees? Don’t quote me on that.

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Swim the Solent

15 Aug 2016 by Henry, 1 Comment »
Poor man's Ursula Andress

Poor man’s Ursula Andress

 

Way back in early July, I swam the Solent on behalf of Bestival, the grand old festival on the Isle of Wight. Swim2Bestival  is a great idea whereby festival goers can get a free ticket to the festival if they swim from the UK mainland to the Isle of Wight for charity. To celebrate the 10th anniversary of this initiative, the Bestival staff, of whom my wife is one, swam the 1.3 mile stretch of choppy and fiercely tidal sea. As a WAG, I got to tag along.

After a very early start from my personal training base in north London we still managed to arrive late for our safety briefing, where I was unsettled to discover I was the only person not in a wetsuit. Unfortunately as a Yorkshireman down south this must be non-negotiable. We all paired off, and were assigned a kayaker to look after us. The coastal stretch of water was gorgeous and relatively still, but once in the open water things got quite boisterous and timing breathing so you didn’t ingest litres of brine became a priority.

Setting off from Hurst Castle, we aimed to ride the tide north east up the channel, before getting pulled back down as the tides changed, south west into Colwell Bay.  Unfortunately tides are an inexact science and this tide decided not to switch back at exactly the right moment, so the majority of the swimmers were pulled off course. At this point a safety boat had to pick us up two at a time, take us out of the water for five minutes and plonk us back down on the true line. Which was fine, as it turned out that isntead of the 1.3 miles we were supposed to swim, we ended up doing amost 3 miles. But it also meant that I got absolutely freezing once we were out of the water. Their’s ‘no wetsuit’ pride for you. We dived back in, and once moving again, felt fine, although never quite as warm as before! Ele and I got across the water in about an hour with a 5 minute pause for the realignment. It was a great experience and I really enjoyed the wild and choppy open water. I think a bigger challenge might be on the cards. Much fun.

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Hardmoors 110 – 2016 Edition

2 May 2016 by Henry, 8 Comments »

 

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Finishing this 110 mile non-stop footrace yesterday afternoon was the most satisfying of achievements. I did it once before, in 2012. In 2013 I tried again but was forced to withdraw by an injured foot. Last year, everything felt good until some rather uncompromising chafing put an end to my endeavours. Would I ever be able to run it again? I asked myself. Every day for a year.

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While I approve of the Tour de Yorkshire (as well as every other opportunity for us Tykes to wave our flags around), the scheduling of the race on the same days and in some of the same places as this year’s Hardmoors meant that Team Steele had to make the race run in reverse. So at 8am on April 30th, over 100 very focused ultra runners lined up in Filey at what is usually the race finish, our sights set on a sports club in Helmsley 110 miles away.

Scarborough from above

Scarborough from above

A week of perishing weather in Yorkshire had subsided, giving way to clear blue skies broken only by the darting of swallows. The swallows helped to make the first 10 miles along the cliffs to Scarborough as pleasant a run as you are likely to experience, while the 10,000 mile journeys these birds had just made put my pleasure-seeking into context. Scarborough front looked lovely as I watched dog walkers, fruit machine operators, surfers and junk food samplers going about their leisurely tasks. My mum, Jane, was supporting us during the daytime; I grabbed a banana off her at Scalby Mills before pushing on.

I held a good pace over the incessant ups and downs of the coastal trail to Ravenscar, and despite feeling that I wasn’t pushing hard, covered the 22 miles in good time. I ate a sandwich at the car and had a stab at the crossword, failing to answer ‘A shade inexperienced, having courage at the front (6,5)’, then remembered I ought to be running and cracked on to Robin Hoods Bay and Whitby.

I passed the 26.2 first marathon mark in 5hrs 15, which for 800m of ascent (2,624 feet in old money) was respectable. By 33 miles at Whitby Abbey I was 15 minutes ahead of my ambitious schedule and in high spirits. Five minutes later and a conspiracy (their collective noun) of bank holiday trippers was grinding my progress to a halt as large families, goths and the elderly pretended to look in shop windows at Whitby jet, neon sweets and the reflections of seething ultra runners. Somehow I threaded my way around and through this rolling pleasure-seeking roadblock and made my way to Sandsend.

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I used the public conveniences in Sandsend. The only time I used them previously was when I completed the Hardmoors 110 in 2012. I was thankful for their existence on both occasions. As I washed my hands I noticed a sign saying they were under threat of closure and to get into contact with a local pressure group if I cared. I will most certainly be getting in touch. This is one cause in which I have a vested interest, as do the people of Whitby if I do this race again and these facilities are no longer there.

I grabbed some more food from Mum at Sandsend, who made me laugh with stories of her disjointed day, and ran over the cliff tops to Runswick Bay where my wife Ele met us to take over support duties. At this point Ele, whilst keen on the traditional support tasks of nutrition, equipment management and motivational speaking, was also eager to make me prance around for some photos.

The long day was drawing to an end as I ran into Staithes; the day’s heat lingered. I found the climb out of this handsome village hard going and was reduced to a power walk on the long ascent. Mum met me for a final time, I said thank you, restocked and trundled on to Skinningrove for another social media photoshoot. Running 50 miles and then being told to pose for pictures is not my idea of fun, but as I was going to be completely reliant on Ele for the rest of the race it seemed wise to comply.

Skinningrove menswear shoot

Skinningrove menswear shoot

The last stretch of coastline to Saltburn was idylic as the sun began to set. The abundant wildlife on the coast had been captivating – stoats, voles, hawks – and as someone concerned by the decline in the population of the UK’s premier pollinators I had also been counting bumble bees. I saw my last one just before entering Saltburn. As a result I can tell you, for a fact, that I there are eight bumble bees between Filey and Saltburn.

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Approach to Saltburn courtesy of Matthew Swan

At Saltburn our friends Dan and George had come to help Ele crew for me overnight. It was uplifting to see their cheerful faces. I ate a sandwich, and took five minutes sitting in the boot of the car to enjoy having covered 53 miles, ahead of schedule. I’d been running for 12 hours and despite the obvious tiredness I felt pretty good.

To link the coast to the moors you have to traverse Saltburn pleasure gardens, some wasteland (where I got a bit lost), a housing estate, Skelton, Kev Borwell hanging around in a car park, some farmland and four kids on bikes shouting ‘Neeeeeyah why aren’t you running?’.

Before the long slog up through Guisborough woods, Highcliff Knabb and Roseberry Topping I reconnected with Ele, Dan and George at Slapewath. Here, untouched by the guilt a north London personal trainer would associate with such a diet, I ate a selection of roasted nuts, cheese sandwiches, crisps and chocolate. It was now dark and the reassuringly familiar ultra marathon sight of headtorches on the horizon looking like gloworms was in full effect. I consoled myself that the headlights I could see from the lucky (fitter) runners already at the top of Roseberry Topping, looked to me, like mine will soon look to the people further behind me. And as I reached the top and shouted my number ‘One nine five’ to the hardy marshal up there, I added ‘And if you’re interested it’s 430 steps from bottom to top.’ If anyone wants to verify this, you know where it is.

Roseberrry Topping in the light, courtesy of Joe Cornish

Roseberrry Topping in the light, courtesy of Joe Cornish

Coming down, the Roseberry Topping bottleneck offers the opportunity to talk to more runners than you would usually see when we’re spread out over the moors. The regular exchanges of ‘Well dones’ to people coming down and ‘Almost there’ to those on their way up were a pleasant reminder of the collective ‘We’re all in this together’ ethos of these colossal races.

I made my way off the moor to Cockshaw Hill carpark near Captain Cook’s monument, or as my support team had been unwittingly calling him, Captain Hook. George and Ele were hyperactively entertaining and motivating, while Dan was kitted out ready to run with me. Running 110 miles doesn’t work if all you think about is the finish, so you break the run down into its component parts. By concentrating on getting to the next town or landmark you deconstruct the challenge and make it less daunting. I knew Dan was going to run with me from this point, so for a long time I had been looking forward to the 66 mile point as a significant milestone in the odyssey. Dan usually runs 5k-10k a couple of times a week around York, so to psych himself up to run on the moors at 11pm on a freezing cold night must have been quite odd. It was probably even odder for him to then walk/run two miles only to stop at the next checkpoint at Kildale Village hall 20 minutes later. The Kildale checkpoint was really well run, with hot food and drinks being handed out to some, by now, battered looking runners. Kev was there too, bouncing around and keeping peoples spirits up. This was helpful because the next stretch was the dreaded 12 miles over the longest, highest and bleakest stretch of the route.

Dan, whose concerns about keeping up with me were finally laid to rest on a drawn out four-mile power march up to Blowarth Crossing, was superb company. Despite being tired and it being the middle of the night we had an enjoyable if slow crossing of the frost covered moor. At Blowarth Crossing you make an 80-degree turn back on yourself to head north into the Cleveland Hills. In a repetition of a mistake I made the first time I ran this route, we cut back too early and ended up taking a track which brought us back the way we had come. As it was dark and I was shattered, we did not notice. Only when it dawned on me that I should be looking at darkness, not Middlesbrough did I realise the mistake. We quickly retraced our steps back up the hill. It’s amazing how a bit of panic can make tired legs run fast. The accumulated experiences of the race were adding up and at this point a blood red moon made a cameo appearence. Dan explained several times why the moon looks that colour at low level, but at 75 miles it did not sink in to my addled head. Eventually we came down off the moor, to the sounds of stirring moorland birds. And the sun began to rise.

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Cleveland Hills

Sleepless Ele and George were attentive, and although I refused to believe it they explained that the next checkpoint at Lordstones was just two miles from where we were. I offered Dan the opportunity to climb Hasty Bank, Wainstones and Cringle Moor with me. For some reason, after 15 miles on the freezing hills at night, he declined.

Wainstones

Wainstones

From here it was 30 miles to go. The final stretch. In a 5k or 10k, or in a marathon, the final stretch is the final stretch and you don’t think about much else until you finish. In this context, however, the final stretch was at least another seven hours to go on top of 24 hours of non-stop running. I powered up the stiff ascents as best I could but a negativity was descending. Then I noticed the stone flags on the ground were almost red and looked over my shoulder to see the most spectacular sunrise I can remember. It put the spring back in my step.

I passed through Lordstones, had another disagreement with my tolerant supporters about whether it was only two miles, and set off back up the brutal Carlton Bank. I had two thoughts on Carlton Bank.

1: It’s the name of a character in a sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air’s Carlton Banks.

2: The theme tune from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air is really hard to get out of your head once it’s in.

I also counted 710 steps from bottom to top. I used a hybrid heavy metal/90s rave playlist on my earphones to dislodge the Fresh Prince earworm; this, combined with the effect of two recently-consumed paracetamol meant that I shot off down the long bank towards Hollin Hill farm. I had been grumpy the last two times I’d seen the support team, but this time I was in high spirits, uplifted by my recent burst of pace and the knowledge that had covered 85 miles.

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Carlton Banks

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Carlton Bank

I manouvered through the woods and up over Scarth Wood Moor with its cracking vista back towards Roseberry Topping, now a spot in the distance. When I pottered into Osmotherley the dawn chorus was in full voice, a delightful antidote to the battering I’d just given my ears. In the village I said goodbye to a shattered-looking Dan and George, unable to convey properly how grateful I felt.

The short trip to Square Corner took forever and the familiar ultra running oscillation between good and bad moods was in full swing. I must have experienced three of each in the space of 40 minutes. Luckily, at Square Corner, mum and dad had reappeared. I had a quick refuel at the up-tempo checkpoint and walked up Black Hambleton with dad. At the top dad reckoned it was two miles, but being chastened by my recent debate about distances and hills, I said it was probably no more than one.

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Black Hambleton

It started raining. The finish was 19 miles away and it was after 9am. Running over Black Hambleton, I adopted the step counting tactic I had been using on the hills on the flatter (I hesitate to say flat as there aren’t any) stretches. It was increasingly easy to start running, find it hurt too much and start walking again so I made sure that each time I started motoring, I did it in blocks of 1600 steps. The rationale was that as there are about 1600 metres in a mile, counting a metre a step would be roughly a mile. I’m sure it was not, but mental gymnastics and distraction techniques go a long way to staying on top of your state of mind in these circumstances.

Notably, as the race went on, my time perception became more elastic. Two hours run during the first stages really do feel like two hours, whereas 25 hours in, the two hours of running I did from Square Corner to High Paradise Farm and Sneck Yate felt as though it could have taken anything between two minutes and two days, depending on when I tuned in to how I felt.

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It continued to rain. Dishevelled and shambling, I must have made a strange sight to well-equipped day trippers and cyclists making relatively short trips. Four tubby cyclists barged past me on the narrowest stretch of path, cycled 400 metres and then stopped to block the path for a drinks break. They did this about three times. One of them told me in a commanding way that I should pick my feet up more. His mate asked how far I’d run.  ‘Ninety-five miles, 15 to go.’

I ran down to Sneck Yate where mum was cheering and Ele was geared up to run with me. I was increasingly hungry, but we found some cheese and marmite sandwiches buried in the supplies. Three monumental positives in a row. Ele and I moved out on to the exposed escarpment of the moors as the wind and rain continued. Ele ran around me, being cheerful, taking more photos in which I failed to present myself satisfactorily.

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The Tour de Yorkshire meant that the route had been diverted away from Sutton Bank and we were looking for a left turn which never seemed to come. Eventually, to cheers from the cycling crowds in the distance, we found the path to Dialstones Farm and proceeded to the very last checkpoint. The chipper CP crew had a cracking buffet, including the nicest cheese and onion quiche I have ever eaten 100 miles into a run.

As we began the last stretch I was physically drained. I looked longingly down the direct route to Cold Kirby, but followed the race route dog-leg over the extra mile or so that took us back to the Cleveland Way. Three or four other runners came past as I slithered in the traction-free, ankle-high mud, temporarily losing the focus which had kept me going for the preceding 100 miles. Then, for some reason, ‘bottle green’ sprang into my head as the answer to the crossword clue I had been thinking about a day earlier. Which was a surprise as I had not thought about it since Ravenscar. Motivated by this miracle of neuroscience, I reconnected with Ele and mum in Cold Kirby, changed the rotten socks on what was left of my feet, drank some cranberry juice and set off into Ryedale. I death-marched the first few miles, and then, spurred on by gambolling lambs, Ele and I alternated walking and running once we hit the road into Rievaulx.

From there, after leaving the road, it was the very last stretch, five miles of pure, unadulterated mud and slopes. I somehow skidded my way up a hill where dad was waiting and Ele, me and the old man, ran over the final fields into the town and up the hill to the finish at the sports club. I ran until I was certain I had scored a sub 31 hour finish and stumbled over the finish line soon after 3pm with about 10 seconds to spare.
There are many positives to take from events like this. The endless range of people, from marshals to support crews, who give their time to make them happen testify to their positive and reinforcing nature, in which ordinary people do extraordinary things. The race only happens because of Jon and Shirley, and the marshals, and without Ele, mum, dad, Dan and George I’d never have got to the finish. So abundant thanks where they’re due.

Lots of people ask ‘Why?’ Running over an extraordinary landscape under blue skies, grey skies, starlit skies, never certain if you will get to the end until you do; sun, wind, rain, mud, pushing your body to its limit, pushing your mind even further – why don’t you?

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Hardmoors 55 – March 19th 2016

24 Mar 2016 by Henry, 4 Comments »

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The first Hardmoors event I ever entered was the Hardmoors 55 in 2010. Two years before I had been unable to run a continuous mile without collapsing in a deoxygenated heap, because I was fat, and firmly believed that running a marathon was impossible. However, I somehow trained myself to run the Great North Run in September that year. The following May, somehow, my brother dragged me around the 33 miles of the Marlborough Downs Challenge. This fundamentally altered my understanding of what was and was not possible and I felt emboldened to step up the distance further. So there I was in March 2010, entered in the inaugural Hardmoors 55. As befitted someone who had only been running for two years, who’d only partially recce’d the route, and who saw that the weather forecast was for blanket rain, I was terrified. I arrived in Helmsley, had my kit checked, and registered. I returned to the car to put my running shoes on – and realised that I’d forgotten them. I went back to registration with my tail between my legs and explained, to some baffled faces, that I had failed to bring the most crucial part of my kit.  They must have thought I was a right plum. Luckily, my pride recovered: I returned to the Cleveland Way two weeks later and ran the 55 mile route on my own, supported by my folks. All this has meant that at every race I’ve turned up to since, I’ve been asked at least five or six times ‘Have you got your trainers?’ As was the case in Helmsley on Saturday last when I was spotted in the market square by Jon Steele who gleefully strode over and congratulated me on remembering my shoes. I think this is part of the strong Hardmoors tradition of friendly people making other people’s lives as difficult as possible, like asking them to run 110-mile ultras with dog legs up Roseberry Topping, or 30-mile trail races advertised as marathons.

At the start I met my friend Robbie Dolan who conquered the Hardmoors 60 last year and was now having his first go at the Hardmoors 55. Robbie is a rugby league hooker who has ‘done a Pendleton’ by switching to an entirely different sport. He is well on his way to becoming a seasoned ultra runner. Next year, to coincide with the rugby league world cup, he is going to attempt to score ‘The Longest Try’ by running 3,800km across Australia from Perth to Sydney with a rugby ball under his arm. Check out his Facebook page here.

Jon gave an entertaining race briefing and shortly after 9am we were sent off on our 55 mile traverse of the hilly edge of the North York Moors. I ran with Robbie over the fields to Sutton Bank with its sublime views over the Vale of York. The weather was grey, but there was a hint of freshness in the air and spring felt slightly closer than winter. In these events it is odd how important is your mind-set. The previous weekend I’d run a flat ten miles in Hackney with the elite local running club, the Clapton Carrier Pigeons (we’re not elite or a running club, but we do live locally); it was the furthest I had run for three weeks and it felt like a bit of a slog. But up in Yorkshire, because I knew I was running 55 miles, my mind told me that the ten miles of rolling hills from Hemlsley to Sutton Bank were easy. Which, compared with the hills to come, they were.

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We pushed on to High Paradise Farm, running along the western escarpment of the Hambleton Hills, taking the time to enjoy the scenery and the wildlife. Flanking the upland, we turned north, running over long and exposed stretches of intensively managed grouse land. As we ran, we tried to work out what was so enjoyable about paying £750 a pop to shoot birds. (Please leave a comment below if that’s you and I’ll happily arrange for some fish in a barrel to be brought to your house for only £700.)

Robbie and I held a similar pace and we arrived 23 miles in at Osmotherley in good shape. I ate half a tuna sandwich. Robbie changed out of the brightest fluorescent yellow leggings I have ever seen into something more subtle. Then we were off again onto the most picturesque and toughest part of the route so far. We turned the corner out of Scarth Wood and saw the familiar sight of the Cleveland Hills stretched out ahead, with Roseberry Topping in the far distance. We’ll be there in several hours I thought. As we headed towards the long drag up to Carlton Bank, I turned my head and was surprised to see that Robbie was not there. We hadn’t planned to run all the way together and in the past I’ve usually pushed on ahead in the first few miles, but he’d seemed comfortable and I was thinking we’d do the whole thing together. It was not to be, so I put my foot down and hit the Cleveland Hills. The Helsmley – Gusiborough running is characterised by long stretches of uphill track, followed by very steep, difficult-to-negotiate rocky steps. I was pleasantly surprised to note that I was hitting the downhills better than I ever had before. I think, after years of avoiding it, finally getting around to doing some proper squats and deadlifts in the gym this year has made a big difference to my ability to run down a steep hill. I was also amused to meet a runner at the top of Cringle Moor who congratulated me on remembering my trainers – amused, because I don’t think I’d ever met him before.

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I cracked the hills and it was pleasing to spend most of my time running past other people, rather than the other way around. I had started steadily and from about midway into the race, when other folks pace began to drop, I managed to keep mine constant. After the hills, my wife, who’s just passed her driving test and is currently keen to drive everywhere (long may this continue) and my mum, met me at Clay Bank. They armed me with a couple of pieces of homemade shortbread which gave necessary energy to take on the tough eight-mile mile stretch up to Blowarth Crossing and Urra Moor and back down into Kildale. I always steel myself for this stretch. It is long and bleak. It’s a great stretch to run when you’re fresh, but more challenging when you’re approaching 40 miles. The uphill is tough, but it is the long flat section once you’re on top of the moor that takes it out of you. Blowarth Crossing never seems to arrive, and even when it has it is a long five miles due north to Kildale. The route into Kildale crosses the bed of an old railway used for transporting minerals out of Rosedale, and a drove road along which cattle were taken on the hoof to London. It amazes me how much history you can run through without even realising it.

Eventually, I hit Kildale where supporters had been told to park well out of the village, which Ele and my mum had done. Mum, 70 years old in June, ran about 600 metres with me from the edge of the moorland, into the village. It was exciting to see. As was Ele, my wife, who fed me and told me to get warm. I was about to re-start when Robbie reappeared. He’d sped up, while I had slowed down coming off the hill. Not wanting to miss the opportunity to finish a race with him for the first time I hung around a bit longer and we set off together for the last stretch. We trudged up to Captain Cook’s monument (a Victorian phallus) and got our headtorches on. Despite the weather forecast predicting a ten per cent chance of rain it had been drizzling for much of the day and at this point it had become persistent. Combined with nightfall and a slightly slower pace, things got cold so we tried to pick up speed. Approaching Roseberry Topping we saw ultra-runners’ headlights moving slowly up and down the distinctive 1000ft hill in the dark. It was like watching a constellation of moving stars. We eventually reached Roseberry and joined in the procession ourselves, crested the summit and doubled back onto the final stretch, over Highcliff Knabb and through three miles of Guisborough Woods. We knew that the finish and hot food were less than an hour away, picked up the pace and trotted happily down to sea-level, where we switched back and ran down the railway line, into the finish.

Roseberry Topping (at a warmer time of year!)

Roseberry Topping (at a warmer time of year)

We finished in 12 hours and 37 minutes for 55 miles and 8000ft of climb, 156th out of 345 who started and 286 who finished. We covered the distance comfortably and efficiently without too much fuss. Which bodes well for the 62-mile Fellsman in a few weeks’ time and the Hardmoors 110-miler at the end of April. Running with Robbie made me think about how far I’d come since the days of being unable to run for 15 minutes without needing medical attention. Big up the Hardmoors team for putting on extraordinary events that push people far beyond their limits – with a bit of mickey-taking thrown in.

Clissold Park Relay

20 Oct 2015 by Henry, No Comments »

Many apologies for the radio silence over the summer. I directed a play and put on a music festival. It turns out neither of these things make you better at running and I’ve slowed down a bit in the last few months.

Despite that, Team ‘Apocalypse Delta Force’ won the Clissold Park 10k relay in Hackney on Sunday afternoon. We ran 2.5k each and finished in 31.54. I was the slowest guy in the team, lumbering around in 8.24 but luckily my teammates saw us home.

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Next up, this coming Saturday I’ve got the last race of the UK Ultra Championships, the Jedburgh 3 Peaks up in Scotland. A 39 mile race which I’m really looking forward too.

And THEN, on Halloween the following weekend, after a week of full rest and only if I’m fully fit, I’m going to try and run the entire 89 mile Ridgeway national trail from Ivinghoe Beacon to Avebury Stone Circle under my own steam.

Pembrokeshire Coast Path – 180 miles – June 2015

5 Jul 2015 by Henry, 3 Comments »

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In far west Wales is Pembrokeshire, a county with a seaboard that is the UK’s only coastal national park. Cliffs, beaches, wooded estuaries and wild inland hills are connected by a path that runs 180 miles. Last month I ran its full length. The path is not just a distance: it goes up and down. When you add the ups, cumulatively there is more ascent than in climbing Everest.

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I was supported by a team: my brother Ed and his boys Sam (8) and Harry (6), and my friends John and Tim. Between us we hired a cottage in Weston near Haverfordwest as a base. From here I ran the path in 44 hours. This was broken into five stages: 20 miles on Friday afternoon, 45 miles on Saturday, 45 miles on Sunday, 45 miles on Monday and 25 miles on Tuesday morning. That is three full days and two half days of running, and I do not think there was a low point. Friday. After personal training sessions in north London between 06:30 and 10:30, Tim and I drove from Kentish Town to Amroth and met John. From here I ran the near-tropical 10 miles of south-facing coast path to Tenby while Tim and John parked a car further down the coast and drove back to Tenby so we could run 10 miles back to Freshwater East together. Blue sky and heat made the route through wonderful places like Lydstep and Manorbier the ultimate antidote to north London and five hours on the M4.

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The first big day was Saturday. We’d stopped at Freshwater East the previous evening so that Ed could take Sam and Harry to Barafundle and Broadhaven, two of the finest beaches you could ever hope to see in the UK (unless you were going on to see the rest of Pembrokeshire’s shoreline). We ran onto these beaches and watched the children run around, then made our way onto the Castlemartin military training area. The route we followed is only open at weekends. We ran past the ancient hermitage of St Govan’s Chapel, derelict half-tracks and tanks, PERGYL signs warning us to keep to marked footpaths lest unexploded ordnance from miltary exercises should blow us up and an extraordinary colony of seabirds at Stack Rocks.

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We moved inland here towards Merrion Camp, Warren and a rendezvous at Cold Comfort Farm. Unfortunately our maps did not correspond and at Cold Comfort farm the support car wasn’t there. The other mooted rendezvous had been Warren, so I ran back there and then back to Merrion. Again, no sign. I went back up a long hill to Cold Comfort where Tim was waiting. Eight hundred metres further on we found the team scratching their heads as to why it had taken us so long to reach them. Purists take note: at this point we bent the rules. Taking into account the fact that I had run nearly two extra miles to go nowhere, I got in the car and drove exactly the same distance further down the route (which was at this point was all road anyway). Even by doing this we were still behind schedule. Running into Freshwater West brought back very happy memories of the campervan honeymoon in Pembrokeshire last year.

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John now took over the job of keeping me company. We re-started after eating one of Cafe Mor’s delicious lobster burgers. If you are hungry, I would say it is worth anything up to a five hour drive from anywhere in the country to go Freshwater West and eat the unfeasibly delicious locally-sourced sea food provided by Cafe Mor. With these super calories in my belly, we ran onto the Angle headland where an eerie sea mist took visibility down to zero and created a strange otherness in this remote place. I have run this stretch in bright sunshine; the mist now made the ruin of a hermitage or farm house perched over the edge of the cliffs beyond Rat Island look very special indeed. The sun reappeared at West Angle Bay, where Harry and Tim were swimming. At the other side of Angle John swapped with Ed and we ran the larger Angle Bay together. At the other end Sam joined us as we ran past the oil refinery at Bulwell Bay and power station at Pwllcrochan Flats. The landscape underneath these huge structures is lush woodland that has grown unrestricted I n the shadow of the heavy industry. Sam now came into his own as a support runner, being thoroughly entertaining in a way in which adult support runners are not. That is to say, he jumped in every patch of long grass he could find, vaulted fences, climbed under gates and sprinted as fast as he could down precipitous slopes. He covered four miles with ease and we reconvened a couple of times with the support vehicle to refuel before making our way into Pembroke. My goal for day one had been to make it across the Cleddau Bridge from Pembroke into Neyland and then onto Milford Haven. John took over again and together we ran the comparatively bleak concrete stretch towards the magnificent Cleddau Bridge at a good pace while Ed took Sam and Harry home and Tim waited down in Neyland. Tim swapped with John for the last plod of the day, underneath the James Bond-esque oil refinery and into Milford Haven. We had covered 45 miles in 10 hours which all things considered was pretty good going.

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Day two: Sunday. We re-started in Milford Haven and were soon happily making our way across Gelliswick Bay, underneath the LNG plant and finally back into the open coast path. The oil and gas pipelines were now behind us, which was a relief. The day was looking beautiful but unfortunately the tide was well in, forcing us to take very elongated routes around Sandy Haven and Aber y Gann. We set off to make our way around the Dale headland but Tim and I decided time was against us and made to cut across the point rather than follow the route right around. Unfortunately we followed the wrong track. We followed our noses and made our way across two fields. At the third we came across a herd of cattle. Having recently heard two stories about people who had been killed by cows we took care, remembering to make ourselves big and loud. At a point that was close enough to the cows’ feeding station yet far enough from either side of the field for us to be stranded, Tim and I spoke simultaneously: “They’re bullocks.” We made some strong moves towards them, which were countered by equally strong moves back towards us. At first we made loud masculine noises but these rapidly deteriorated into a high-pitched ‘ewwwugghheewwarrgghhrrruuuunnnn’ as we began to sprint and (at 85 miles in) moved faster than I had for some time. At the corner of the field there was no exit, but there was a lot of barbed wire and a tall, dense hawthorn hedge which on any other day would have seemed impenetrable. The adrenaline coursing through our systems took us through. Cut to ribbons but untrampled, for the next thirty minutes Tim and I laughed in the loud, nervous way that people react to a near miss. The support team was amused. We ate some food and pushed on across the abandoned airfield where I think my grandad was stationed in 1944, past Marloes Sands and Deadmans Bay. At Martin’s Haven we were greeted by the 40-mile sweep of St Brides Bay. John switched with Tim. Blue skies and the vast views made for some very pleasant running. At Little Haven John swapped with Sam, who literally ran in circles around me asking “Why are you running so slowly?” Or: “Uncle Henry, this is you: run 25 miles, sit down, run another 25 miles, sit down”, before becoming distracted and saying “Watch me jump this fence”.

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At Broad Haven Ed left to take Sam and Harry back home. We said a disappointed farewell. John rejoined me as I pressed on towards Newgale past the grand beaches at Druidstone Haven and Nolton Haven. We were relaxed as we reached Newgale. The situation changed, though, as we could not find Tim in the carpark at which we had arranged to meet. We looked around but he definitely was not there. Our day two goal was to get to Caerfai Bay, about 110 miles in, by the end of the day. Without more food and water this was in the balance. John is some sort of Welsh celebrity or in the Tafia or something, and had earlier seen one of his mates drive past. We decided that I would press on to Solva while John would find Tim. They would then meet me in Solva. Or and if he couldn’t do that, he would recruit his mate to help. I ran on, low on water and out of food, now stressing and worrying that Tim had crashed, got lost or run out of petrol. The stretch went on for a good time, most of which I spent running worst case scenarios in my head – for instance, that I spent the night freezing in Solva whilst John tried to locate Tim without a mobile phone and Tim walked 30 miles to the nearest petrol station. This mood was intensified by the dark band of rain that was moving in and the fatigue after running over 100 miles in less than two days. As I approached Solva the rain started properly. I plodded further into Solva wondering what on earth to do, then heard a cheerful ‘Dooks!’ and saw Tim standing by the car in a pub car park happily drinking a pint of bitter. We had run straight past him in Newgale with none of us noticing. John had found him and they had driven straight here. Reinvigorated, I scoffed a tuna sandwich and glugged a lot of electrolyte filled water. John rejoined me. We raced on to Caerfai. I arrived there after 10 hours and 59 minutes looked back across the St Brides Bay to the place whereat I had admired the view six hours before. We ate fish and chips in St Davids. One hundred and ten miles done.

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The third day began like the previous two – up early, make sandwiches, fill cardboard boxes with food and bottles with water, eat a lot of breakfast, drive out to where we had finished the night before. Had been looking forward to the next stretch, around St David’s Head, past Ramsey Sound and the rugged Carns. Tim and I ran through Porthclais, past Porthtaflod to face the infamous Bitches – an outcrop of rocks in Ramsey Sound which sees furious, violent tidal flows. It was really good seeing all this through Tim’s fresh eyes. On we ploughed to St Justinians lifeboat station. This place is special in its own right with a charismatic red-topped life boat house and ramp shooting 30ft straight down into the sea. Fascinatingly, a new station is being built, with a building site on a cliff top and a platform on hydraulic legs sitting just off shore with workmen working between the two structures to build the new ramp. We met John, marvelled at this feat of engineering and continued to Whitesands. Overhead was a remarkable bird of prey sat above us in the sky. Its wings did not seem to move and the markings were like nowt I had seen before. We ticked off every bird of prey we knew, until a cheerful local walked past and told us it was a peregrine falcon. From Whitesands we continued around St Davids Head and the ancient landscape of Carn Hen and Carn Lidi. Here we met one of the many herds of wild ponies which roam the northern Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. The sun was again out and strong, and we were now on a long stretch – eight or nine miles – without a meeting point. However, at the end of it was a reward: Porthgain, 135 miles in, near enough to the finish to make things exciting, and home to a fine fish and chip shop in a converted boat shed. The terrain here was tough. Much of the previous landscape had been on the serene side, whereas now it became increasingly dramatic. Tim revelled in telling the people who were asking where we were going: ‘St Dogmaels… he’s run from Amroth’. When some wisecracker told Tim that I was holding him back, he enjoyed describing the look on the man’s when Tim told that ‘He’s run a 130 miles and has 50 to go’. Shortly before Abereiddy (where we like to go and jump off the 30ft wall into the sea filled quarry) I turned my foot quite hard. I hobbled into the bay where Ed, fresh back from a 300 mile round trip to Wiltshire with the children, was swimming in the sea. Jealously, I carried on running in the heat, past the old slate works and a few miles around the corner into Porthgain. I was delighted to reach this picture postcard harbour, take the weight off my foot, eat a small bowl of chips and start thinking about the finish. I’d fixed this point in my mind as ‘nearly there’ and mused on this as I guzzled my delicious chips in the Shed. Inevitably John saw four more people he knew. Bearing in mind our remoteness at all times, this speaks volumes for the man’s popularity, or notoriety, in Wales. John carried on with me while Tim dropped Ed at Abercastle and my relatively fresh brother sprinted back the five miles to meet us and run back up the way he’d come.

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The next stretch – past Trefin, Abercastle and towards Mynydd Morfa and Strumble Head – was the hardest of all. My sense that we were somehow on the home straight had been very premature. On one level – 135 miles run with 45 miles to go – the remaining distance was not so far. However, 135 miles in your legs is a lot and 45 to go is a big task on any day of the week. My head went down, my foot was hurting and the terrain had become very ‘technical’ – for which read incessant steep, loose and uneven scree surfaces. I spent the afternoon staggering towards Strumble Head which was also demotivating as I knew that headland was going to be a big challenge in itself. Other than another peregrine falcon sighting, and a surreal moment where we guided an elderly couple on the top of a cliff to a bus stop using our map, this was an arduous afternoon. Upon arrival, Tim and John were enjoying the glorious sunny panoramic views back towards St David’s Head. I think it was quite clear how knackered I was. John joined me for the first stretch from Pwll Deri out and round to the headland. At first I continued to struggle. But after a couple of miles we crested a hard summit and there on the horizon was Cardigan Island: the point at which I had been aiming for the last 150 miles. Now there it was. Suddenly my legs started working again. I motored up and down the coastal rock faces, ecstatic that the land mass I had been imagining for the last 30 or more hours of running was now in sight. John swapped with Tim at the headland. We made our way around the point, buoyant in a still, hot summer’s evening. We saw seals in the near-turqoise sea and a badger romping in low, golden light. Not one moment of that stretch felt difficult and as we came towards the end of the headland and into Goodwick and Fishguard we found another herd of wild ponies blocking our way. Chastened by the experience with the bullocks we made cautious progress, with only the last horse showing any sign of disapproval. After eleven hours of really hard slog another 45 miles had been covered. We made it back to the car and cracked open a tepid can of Shandy Bass to celebrate. It was delicious.

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The final day started later as we only had 25 miles to cover. Starting in Fishguard, Ed and I ran the first stretch to Dinas Head with relative ease, although the previous 155 miles were now taking their toll. My foot hurt a lot and I was not as cheerful as I had been on previous mornings. At Cerig Duon we came across an amazing small bay, semi-circular, shallow, its water emerald, with steep cliffs either side, circled above by another peregrine. At such moments, which had happened with increasing frequency as the run progressed, the discomfort of tired legs had lifted. Looking back, while I can recall the sense of exultancy when I took in that view, I cannot conjure up the soreness of the foot. Perhaps that is why I keep doing these things. At Dinas Head the coast path sign posts allow you to cut across the headland, which we gleefully did. The lush green woodland between Dinas and Dinas Island was straight out of Arthurian legend. I soaked up the verdant atmosphere before catching up with my brother who was dumbing things down by playing on a huge rope swing on the hill side. Ed switched with Tim here and we ran to Newport where I’d gotten married to Ele last year. It was the first time I had been back and I was quite excited to be passing through.

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At Newport we agreed that all of us would run the last 12 miles to St Dogmaels. This was probably the most remote stretch of the whole route; earlier Tim and John had parked a car in St Dogmaels before driving back to meet Ed and I so that we could all run together. The first stage was to try to hop across Afon Nyfer, the river which flows out of Newport. It is quite wadeable at low tide. Unfortunately the tide was high and after an abortive attempt we decided to cheat by making a two mile drive to cut around to the other side of the beach. This cut out about 400m of the route and added about 15 minutes to the time. Satisfied that we had a large enough carbon footprint for one day, we finally set off and made our way up the very steep and overgrown coastal trail which first visits Ceibwr and the Witches’ Cauldron before finally arriving at Cemais Head and – at long, long last – Poppit Sands and St Dogmaels. If the afternoon stretch on the previous day had been the most psychologically demanding, the route into St Dogmaels was the most physically punishing. There is no easy running here – it is either straight up and down, or overgrown, scree, or uneven weathered rock. Places which seem straightforward or distances that look short are turned by hidden coves and steps into journeys that take three times as long. On the other hand, this was the finishing stretch and I know most of it very well. Familiarity with a route makes it easier to tackle because nasty surprises are reduced to known challenges. At the Witches’ Cauldron there is a collapsed sea cave which reveals a beach, only accessible through another cave at low tides. After two hours of running we arrived there and Ed, Tim and John dived straight in. I sat with my legs in the deliciously freezing water, fearing that a full immersion might end my ability to run. From here we set off on the final stage to St Dogs. I kept my eye open for a car key I lost hereabouts last summer (no luck) but as the hills got steeper and the cliff paths narrower, the finish was getting closer. After 44 hours of running and 180 miles further up the coastline than I’d started, we crested Cemais Head, Cardigan Island was there in front of us, and we ran down the track towards Poppit Sands. This was the only time that I became really excited: there was quite a bit of incoherent shouting, before drinking a lot of lemonade and collapsing on the beach. As glamourous a finish as you could imagine.

 

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It could not have been done if Ed, John and Tim had not given their support. Even more luckily they seemed to have had a good time, so my thanks don’t need to be too drawn out. I have run in many organised ultra-marathons, but this experience of running in perpetually captivating landscape, under my own steam, with no worry about things other than the length of the holiday let, is up there as one of the most enjoyable things I have ever done. I can think of few better ways to spend a week.

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Marlborough Downs Challenge 33 Miles – 10/5/2015

11 May 2015 by Henry, 2 Comments »

teamrelax - Copy (2)The Marlborough Downs Challenge passes through 33 miles of stunning Wiltshire countryside. The taxing route takes in 3000 feet of ascent, crosses chalk downland, prehistoric trails and the two highest points in Wiltshire.marlborough

My mates Robbie and Tim, and my brother Ed were also running. After spending the previous day celebrating nephew Sam’s 8th birthday with swimming, pizza and an exhaustion-related tantrum, we assembled at the start in Marlborough. The element ‘marl’ in the town’s name allegedly refers to the chalk hills in the immediate vicinity, although place-name specialists say otherwise – early forms like Mærle beorg possibly meaning something like ‘Mærle’s hill’. Either way, it is a pleasure to run in this unique rolling chalk landscape and as we stood in the grounds of Marlborough College, under the shadow of the Preshute White Horse I looked forward to what I hoped would be a pleasant day out. Robbie, who had played 80 minutes of rugby league the previous day, and Ed looked to be in a similar state of mind, while Tim, who was on the threshold of his first ultra, was doing a brilliant impression of somebody entirely un-phased by the proceedings.

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Preshute White Horse

 

As we made our way out of Marlborough, my brother was accosted by somebody who asked ‘if he was the bloke who looks like Vladmir Putin who ran the Fellsman?’ Ed pointed the enquirer in my direction, much to everyone else’s amusement. I get mistaken for Polish quite a lot, but this was my first Putin-a-like.

We moved into the beautiful West Woods, carpeted with bluebells, and on into Gopher Wood, reeking of wood-garlic, before making our way onto the Wansdyke Path overlooking the Pewsey Downs. The Wansdyke is a 46 mile raised defensive earthwork dating from the 6th century and built off the back of a huge amount of human – probably slave – labour. As my brother, his friend Jill from Cirencester AC and I, laboured along it in a much more recreational and modern way, we took in the views and probably enjoyed ourselves a lot more than the people who built it.

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The Wansdyke later in the year

 

After seven or eight miles I had to stop to attend to some sore feet. It became clear that forgetting my running socks and opting instead for cheap Sports Direct gym socks was a huge tactical mistake. My feet were on fire and as there wasn’t much I could do about it I just did my laces up and gritted my teeth.

I pushed on to make up the two minutes Ed and Jill had made on me as we left the Wansdyke. We descended to Bishop’s Canning and the Avon and Devizes canal for several miles of hard towpath running. Not good if you have blisters, but great if you like wildlife and canal boats. In the past this has seemed like a long stretch but I think that depends on how quickly you attack the canal. I think we were doing 7.30 miles as opposed to the seven-minute miles I did a few years ago which, ironically, took forever.

We hit the just-under-halfway checkpoint at Devizes in around 2 hours 20. A sub five hour finish was on the cards. Coming out of Devizes there is an almost immediate assault on Roundway Hill which in the past has done for me. Today we got to the top unscathed and headed through the Leipzig Plantation and then back down towards checkpoint five where Jill was told she was 2nd lady. This was Jill’s first attempt at the race and her main concern was navigation, which my brother was providing. Discovering that she was so high up the ladies’ field provided extra stimulus to kick on.

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We pushed up hill again in the direction of the Cherhill monument and White Horse. At this point I stopped for an unsatisfactory, dehydrated pee. As I came to terms with my stupidity in not drinking enough,  and not wishing to jeopardise Jill’s chance of a podium finish, I bade she and Ed to press on without me.

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Ed and Jill at Avebury

 

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Trying to keep up

I only stopped for a minute, but it was long enough to lose sight of them. I ran on my own from Cherhill Down, on towards Avebury where upon arrival at the corner of the village and greeted with the imposing sight of two Sarsen stones I had a complete blank about whether to turn left or right. Luckily a runner from the 20-mile route appeared, thus eliminating one of the two options. Relieved, I picked up my feet again and headed into the penultimate checkpoint at Avebury. I had under an hour to cover seven miles and some big hills if I was going to get near to five hours so I trotted on, hoping that if I kept up the pace from mile 26-30 I could surge the last three miles to the finish. I carried on through the village centre, itself at the centre of a stone circle, which is in turn orbitted by hundreds of tourists.

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From Avebury there is a three mile climb up Fyfield Down which I am pleased to say I ran all of. This paid off as at the top I caught sight of Ed and Jill. From here I ran behind them all the way back into Marlborough Leisure Centre. But I never quite caught them, because by now, my feet were screaming at me. I finished in 5.16, just a minute behind them. I got a drink, sat down and peeled back my socks to reveal some cracking blisters. While happy with my 25th place finish I think I could have gone a bit faster if I had worn the right socks.

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T’Finish

 

Jill finished as second lady. Robbie guided Tim around the first half of the course and then ran the second half on his own to finish in six hours. Tim made it around in seven. A grand day out. IMG_20150510_142848

 

The Fellsman 2015 – 61 miles

28 Apr 2015 by Henry, 26 Comments »

 

Yorkshire flag flying on Buckden Pike, courtesy of Chris Street.

Yorkshire flag flying proudly on Buckden Pike.
Courtesy of Chris Street.

The Fellsman is a 61-mile point-to-point, self-navigated traverse of the Yorkshire Dales on tough, high moorland. It is organised by a team of tireless and enthusiastic volunteers and has been on my radar for a long time – not least because, being a bit daunted by the whole thing, I had never got around to entering. After the frustration of not being able to run during the first half of 2014 because of injury, and with the weekend clear, the opportunity to take part in 2015 was a privilege I could not ignore. Especially as world famous party legend Andrew WK endorsed the event on twitter the night before:

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So, after another week of giving personal training in north London, I registered in Threshfield on Friday evening. My kit, like everyone else’s, was subject to a demanding inspection. To give you an idea, all competitors are expected to carry, as a minimum:

·         Full leg cover, waterproof trousers, waterproof shell with hood, waterproof over-trousers, base layer, three long sleeved tops, a warm hat and gloves

·         First aid kit, minimum contents: 1 crepe bandage, 4 safety pins, 1 wound dressing, 6 adhesive dressings

·         LED head torch, spare set of alkaline batteries

·         Whistle, mug and spoon/fork

·         Maps, compass and knowledge of how to use it

·         300g emergency rations

·         Survival bag

It might sound a lot, but conditions on the tops change fast and having the equipment to survive is essential. Only when you have convinced the organisers that you are carrying this kit are you allowed to run. Then you are given your tally. The tally is clipped at each checkpoint. You need 24 clips to complete the event.

The Start

The Start

Glorious sunshine in Yorkshire in preceding days meant that a deep area of low pressure and an active weather front were approaching northern England on Friday night. Heavy low cloud and persistent rain greeted us at race HQ in Ingleton on Saturday morning. After catching up with some friendly faces and spending ages trying to pin my race number to my bag with old safety pins, the race was underway.

Ingleborough Ascent, courtesy of Nick Ham

Ingleborough ascent, courtesy of Nick Ham

Immediately. the ascent to 2300ft and the top of Ingleborough began.  As we climbed the wind got stronger and the rain heavier. It was manageable, but definitely strong enough for me to cross my fingers that it would not go on all day. At the summit the wind blew us straight over the top with my legs having to do very little work. The descent on the north face was steep and so fast was the descent that the experience oscillated between enjoyable and hair-raising approximately every two seconds.

Barefoot Ingleborough descent, courtesy of Nick Ham

Barefoot Ingleborough descent, courtesy of Nick Ham

On to Whernside, the biggest ascent of the day. Again the upward trek was tough. Conditions on the top were poor and the descent suitably stimulating. At this point we went west across Kingsdale valley towards Gragareth. This was uncharted territory for me and I was pleased that my compass took me directly to the Kingsdale checkpoint. The ascent up Gragareth was, I think, the longest and steepest of the day. Lots of lactic acid and a lot of rain made this a gruelling slog. A large forehead cracker of a rock hurtled towards me at one point, but I managed to take a decent left-handed slip catch before it did any harm. No one saw this . . . but it  did happen.

We ran along Gragareth’s summit in thick cloud and heavy rain, into Cumbria, up onto Great Coum and then to Towns Fell. Next, a hard steep descent into Dent. At the Dent checkpoint we were fed hot food, tea and coffee. Only at this point did I realise I was absolutely saturated. Within 30 seconds I was shivering and full of anxieties about the rest of the day. There was a lot of teeth chattering and kit changing going on round about, but I decided to save my dry layers, get my clip, get moving and warm up that way. Running uphill out of Dent soon achieved this. I also met Liam, with whom I ended up running for the rest of the race.

 

This next stretch was a traverse along the Dent valley wall up towards Blea Moor. It began to snow. We kept moving at a sensible pace; intermittent snow showers had much less of an effect on my core temperature than the persistent rain had done earlier. Liam’s daughter had laminated the route bearings for him on some strip cards, so when it came to navigation he had us on the right course even before I’d found our position. The snow flurries cleared, and views back towards Ingleborough and Whernside were agreeable.

Courtesy of Chris Driver

Courtesy of Chris Driver

If you like your races to come with a lot of ascent, the siting of checkpoints as far below the summits as possible gives excellent value. This theme was sustained as we headed down through verdant farmland into a Stonehouse checkpoint where the trademark enthusiastic volunteers were doling out hot pasta.

We pressed on: up past the impressive Artengill Viaduct, forward to an out-and-back up to Great Knoutberry Hill, 2200ft above sea level. We clipped our tallies and trundled back down over increasingly difficult moorland, towards Redshaw. Here was a surprise. I am directing a play in the summer  and at the remote checkpoint there was Ben, a member of the company. We had the sort of abbreviated catch-up you do when you are eating a sandwich in a rush, just over 30 miles into a 61 mile race, and said farewell. It was a real pleasure and psychological boost to see a friendly face when I least expected it.

Ingleborough from Fleet Moss, courtesy of Simon Franklin

Ingleborough from Fleet Moss, courtesy of Simon Franklin

Liam and I moved out of Widdale up to Snaizeholme and then onto Dodd Fell. Apart from a few hundred metres on the Pennine Way this was mainly run in ankle- to calf- (occasionally thigh-) deep blanket bog. There are few moments in life where you actively seek to step into deep cold muddy water while fully clothed, but the sensation of regular mini ice baths whilst on the hoof was, in its own way, quite refreshing. We navigated between us to the top of Dodd Fell. I was feeling grateful that I had met somebody as pleasant as Liam to spend the day with. We had not planned to stick together, but we got on well and as neither of us was threatening to speed up at any point it made sense to stick together.

Fleet Moss, courtesy of David Carpenter

Fleet Moss, courtesy of David Carpenter

For safety reasons the Fellsman requires competitors to group into fours at night. The rationale is this: if one member of the group is injured two can go for help while the fourth waits with the casualty. The policy also makes sense in terms of navigation and morale. Upon arrival at Fleet Moss we ate again; then Liam and I grouped with a Dutch geologist called Joris who had been trekking nearby all day, and a 59-year-old gentleman from Essex called Steve. We introduced ourselves. Joris, Liam and I could barely contain our delight when Steve told us this was his 19th Fellsman (he is looking to do his 20th when he is 60 and then retire). As Joris and I were  novices, and Liam had one previous completion, we were reassured to have a seasoned veteran like Steve in our team.

The cloud base had been lifting. As we moved out of Fleet Moss we were treated to late sunshine and long views. The stretch across this moorland had looked like tricky to me, but Steve led us effortlessly across Cowen Brow and around Deepdale Haw, pointing out landmark features in the landscape as we got to know each other and enjoyed the fine evening. At Middle Tongue, 42 miles in, we again clipped our tallies. We now had 16 of the requisite 24 needed for a successful Fellsman completion.

Middle Tongue, courtesy of Chris Street

Middle Tongue, courtesy of Chris Street

Twilight. Our head-torches came out. We moved on to the sinisterly-named Hell Gap. Either the ground was getting tougher or I was getting weaker but I must have rolled one or other of my ankles twenty times on this stretch. The moorland offered big spongy tussocks or ankle-deep water and the occasional loose limestone on which to run, and that was it. This would not have been easy when you were fresh. After 40 plus miles it was a trial. Temperature fell, ground frosted over.

We descended to Cray checkpoint and braced ourselves for the final big ascents on Buckden Pike and Great Whernside. Steve had a big crash at this point and was sick. We tried to make sure he got some more energy in, but nausea prevented him from being able to consume much. The checkpoint staff were attentive and after a ten-minute pause we established that Steve was good to go. We steeled ourselves for the Buckden Pike assault. The canopy of stars that opened out above us went some way to alleviate the exhaustion and soreness we were all experiencing.

Sunset on Buckden Pike, courtesy of Chris Street

Sunset on Buckden Pike, courtesy of Chris Street

 

It was great to see packets of runners spread through the darkness, each identifiable by four bright lights looking like electronic glow worms dotted in the night sky. On the top we went past the memorial to a Polish aircrew whose Wellington bomber had flown into the top of Buckden Pike during a blizzard in 1942. Reflecting on our very different reasons for being there, we ambled across the top and then down to Top Mere and Park Rash. Steve apologised for slowing us down, but his expert navigation meant that if anything he had speeded us up and we were not having any of it. Together, Joris, Liam, Steve and I clipped holes 20 and 21 in our tallies and made for the last big ascent of the day.

I had heard several people talking about the peat bogs on Great Whernside and how far they had sunk into them. It seemed like one-upmanship was going on as to who had gone deepest. After the fourth immersion up to my thighs in these frost covered swamps, I decided my judgement had been rash. The difficulty of the ascent of Great Whernside was somewhat eased by the knowledge that it was the final climb of the day. As a team we got up there, made our way across the bogs and lethal frost-covered stiles, and descended to Capplestone Gate and Yarnbury. All of us took turns to flag and move slower than the others but we kept together throughout, making sure that nobody ever fell out of sight. We had chatted a lot earlier on. As the night drew on we quietened and became more resolved as we ground out the final ten miles, speaking only to take it in turns to check that others were all alright.

tally

Upon receiving our penultimate clip at Yarnbury we were de-grouped. After some nice words and handshakes, Liam and I ran the final two miles into Threshfield ahead of Joris and Steve, to get ourselves a sub-19-hour finish. We finished joint 135th out of 370 starters, with 91 entrants not finishing the event and 1 disqualification.

Taking all into account – the weather, navigation, terrain, accumulated ascent, distance – after the Hardmoors 110 I think this was the hardest race in which I have taken part. But if you offset that against the camaraderie, the glorious locations and the event volunteers, you have got yourself an absolutely brilliant event. And if you have ever thought about doing it yourself, say, in 2016, then get involved.

 

Fellsman Route

 

Hardmoors 55 2015

23 Mar 2015 by Henry, 3 Comments »

FullSizeRender_1The Hardmoors 55 is an ultra marathon that follows part of the Cleveland Way – a national trail that traverses the western edge of the North York Moors. The route stretches for 55 miles. Starting in Guisborough it accumulates over 8000ft of ascent as it winds its way over steep hills, exposed moorland and sheer cliff tops. The final 10 miles are run through lush valleys, farm and woodland as the race reaches its end in the ancient market town of Helmsely.

My fitness is good at the moment, but I’m not at my best. My plan was thus to take the race easy and then get out and do some more mileage the following day. I set a precedent for taking it easy when I joined the end of a long queue for the khazi towards the end of Jon Steele’s race briefing. I was last in line and by the time I emerged the race had started. I made my way out of registration on my own. An amused Jon and the race supporters were packing up. With a gesture in the direction of a receding mass of fluorescent runners I was told ‘they’ve gone that way’.

From this position of exactly last I kept a steady pace as we ran up onto the moors and Highcliffe Knabb. I caught up with somefriendly Hardmoors faces – Sarah, Andy and Charlotte – and chatted as we travelled towards Roseberry Topping. It was extremely windy on the slopes. I zipped up my jacket and pulled up my hood, becoming slightly trepidatious about what Blowarth Crossing and the Cleveland Hills might have to offer.

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The route from Roseberry to Kildale past Captain Cook’s monument passed pleasantly enough. I looked forward to my drop bag at the Kildale checkpoint. Among its contents were chocolate covered coffee beans I had recently discovered. I was looking forward to the assistance these would give in powering up the four miles to Blowarth Crossing. I was thus disappointed to findon arrival that our dropbags were, for whatever reason, 10 miles away. I rummaged around in my rucksack and found a packet of dried blueberries. These, it turned out, were more than a match for the long slow climb to the most remote point on the Cleveland Way.

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At this point the race heads directly west, over Urra Moor and then staying true to the Cleveland Hills plateau, up and down over Wainstones, Hasty Bank, Cringle Moor and Carlton Bank. The strong winds about which I had worried earlier never really materialised and I found this section really enjoyable. This was partly because the geology and view from the hills werebreathtaking, and partly because I’d found my drop bag and the chocolate covered beans. Consumption of the beans combined with Motley Cru’s Greatest Hits on my i-pod meant that I was storming up the hills. However, the time gained going up the hillswas almost immediately lost in coming down then. Living for three years in London where there are no hills with uneven surfaces on which to train has had its effects.

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At this point my main goal was to get to Osmotherley where I was due to meet my brother who was going to run/chaperone me for the last 24 miles. Trekking down off Carlton Bank and then through plantations up onto Scarth Wood Moor I went past three or four runners who were starting to look the worse for wear. I rounded the corner, visited the TV transmitter self-clip and punched a hole in my race number to prove I had been there, and descended into Osmotherley. Passing a farmhouse on my way into the village, a familiar voice said ‘that was lucky’ and my brother appeared from behind a hedge. He had been on his way for a pee; if I had been running any quicker, or if his need had been more urgent, we would have missed each other and no doubt much hiatus would have ensued. Happily we touched down at the Osmotherley checkpoint six hours and fifty minutes into the race, ten minutes ahead of my informal schedule.

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We progressed out of Osmotherley and moved slowly up to Square Corner and even more slowly up onto Black Hambleton. Here I stated in a throwaway way, that from now on it was basically downhill. Which it generally was, but if you’ve run 35 miles already then even the slightest uphill gradients begin to feel taxing. The evening by now had become very pleasant. We enjoyed brighter skies as Ed pointed out some Bronze Age quarrying activity on the hillside which I had absolutely no qualifications to dispute. We meandered past High and Low Paradise farm, over Sneck Yate and onto the far west escarpment of the moors. Here we were greeted by an awesome view across the Vale of Mowbray to the Yorkshire Dales and the most beautiful sunset. Bored of spending the day behind cloud, the sun made a cameo appearance in the inch or so of open sky available on the far west horizon, and we watched a breathtaking sunset over the top of what I think was Great Whernside. It was an awesome sight to which our pictures do not do justice. It was a also a lesson for the phenomenal athletes who choose to run this race in 10 hours or less. You might be essentially superhuman, but you miss the best sunsets.

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As the daylight ebbed, the headtorches came out and we were joined by a nice bloke called Ian who did not want to have to worry about navigation. We arrived at the White Horse checkpoint with 9 miles to go. At this stage I was confident of finishing in under 12 hours. Throughout the race the marshals had been, as is the Hardmoors standard, fantastic: Steve was running a very tight ship at Lords Stones, there were jelly babies on Roseberry Topping, and Osmotherley had been warm and welcoming. But the checkpoint of the day award had to go to the brilliantly attentive and cheerful White Horse crew who clinched the trophy by offering us warm, tasty, chip shop chips. I have awarded them top marks on trip advisor.

We started the 46th mile of the day by climbing up the very steep and unforgiving White Horse steps. Ed, Ian and I were making good time and as we hit Cold Kirby, I thought that we would be back just short of 12 hours. However, despite having run this route at least 10 times (albeit in the other direction) at this point we got lost. We passed a couple of runners poring over their route map in Cold Kirby and I confidently shouted, ‘It’s this way lads’ before leading us down a bank into a field in which I had never been before. We tried to get back onto the right track, but become bogged down in a gateway in which local cows had created a mud/shit combination that was almost knee deep. I tried to step through it, but a filthy vacuum sucked the right trainer off my foot and left me hopping around, swearing and getting very dirty. I chucked my rucksack on the ground, grabbed my shoe, overbalanced and put the foot without the shoe also deep into the mud. When I got my trainer back on it was muck-plastered both inside and out and exuded a strong odour of cow. Ed and Ian loved every second of this entertainment. We hopped over many fences and several fields later we got ourselves back onto the Cleveland Way.

We picked up speed again, knowing now that the finish was not far ahead. However, we were concerned to find a runner lying on the edge of a field. He was pretty spaced out, so we stopped and sat with him for five minutes, gave him a snickers and a pep talk along the lines that if want to lie down then getting to Helmsley was far and away the best option. Eventually he became lucid and assured us he was OK. With headtorches approaching in the distance we reluctantly left him, presuming that with a constant stream of runners coming past, he could not come to much harm.

The final five miles ticked over rapidly as these things generally do. Four to go, three to go, two to go, one and a half, one, until you cannot quite believe that there is less than a mile left. Then suddenly, before you know it, bang, there are people cheering, you are at the finish and it is all over. I told Jon about the exhausted runner, congratulated Ian on completing 55 miles for the first time (and apologised for getting him lost) and collected the latest Hardmoors finishers t-shirt (bright yellow, to be worn as soon as I’m back personal training in North London). My garmin gave 12.20 for 55 miles and 8000ft of climbing. It was a shame not to nudge under 12 hours, but as I had spent 20 minutes cavorting in the mud of Cold Kirby I only had myself to blame.

As ever, a Hardmoors race is an excellent day out in beautiful and brutal surroundings. You have to work for every yard of every mile. But when you have finished the sense of achievement is unbeatable.

 

A Sutton Bank sunset from a different day, courtesy of Charlotte Gale

A Sutton Bank sunset from a different day, courtesy of Charlotte Gale

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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