Running for the pies

Running for the pies

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

24th March: Gale

In the coldest of March's since records began the weather was always going to be the thing that was obsessed over in the run-up to this run. True to these inclement times the week had been cold and miserable and it was promising to be completely different to the sunny and dry conditions of Northumberland a few weeks ago. The forecast was for rain throughout with a very strong biting-cold easterly wind blowing along the coast.

The CTS Sussex race is the closest of the Coastal Trail Series to my home, so rather than having to drive off to the Scottish borders as before I only had a 90 minute drive down to the Sussex coast at Birling Gap.

Now I've figured-out a strategy for getting to the events, namely driving there to arrive at around midnight and getting a solid kip in the back of the motor, which has its benefits of not having to worry about fighting for a parking space when I get there or having to get up stupidly early to drive to the event and run after a long time behind the wheel, so I left around 10:30pm in the battering freezing cold rain with its accompanying howling wind and arrived uneventfully at Birling Gap and parked-up.

After hitting snooze on my alarm one too many times I realised the time was later than I thought so sprung in to action getting changed and availing myself of the public toilets next to where I had parked. It turned-out that I had pulled-up in the National Trust cafe car-park the night before, across the road from where I was supposed to be parked which at the time I thought was just a field with a log blocking the entrance, so for the risk of a parking ticket which I would get knowing my luck I drove across the way and re-parked.

The base for the run was a bit of a trek away from the car park in the pouring rain and wind. Fortunately they had turned-off the electric fence that I tripped over en-route as I was too busy trying to hold my hood over my head in the wind to be paying proper attention to my surroundings. Doh!

The marquee for registration was the normal affair of the half-alive competitors up out of bed too early to get there on time milling around and the very perky event staff trying to herd the cats, with most people huddling around in the briefing area after registering to stay out of the rain and to keep warm.

I had decided to go out with the ultra runners again through being slow and also wanting to get the run over and done with in the harsh conditions. I had in my mind that the run will be closer to the South Devon marathon than the others through looking at the GPS data of the track and the fact they had graded this as a 3/5 difficulty.

The safety briefing was the normal affair about the route signage and to be wary of the conditions. As an addendum this time we were warned that last year someone had turned their ankle quite badly and had to be airlifted to safety because of the remote nature of the trails in relation to roads in some parts. Endurancelife are very keen for all runners to keep an eye out for each other so if you need to stay with an injured person or help them to a check-point then they will give you free entry in to another race as a thank-you.

During the briefing I bumped in to someone I recognised from the South Devon race, Daisie Rolfe. At South Devon, Daisie's mother had accosted me and asked to look out for her as she was running the marathon but going with the ultra runners and in her eyes 'those ultra runners look a scary lot'. During the race Daisie had steamed past me about 3/4 the way through and finished a good 30 minutes in front of me, but not without having a chat first. It transpired Daisie, like me, had challenged herself to run 12 marathons in a year last year also endured the misfortune of injury curtailing her plans, with her it was a broken foot. Sussex for her was 11/12 with her last being Brighton in a few weeks time, so the best of luck to her!

With the crap conditions the grass around the marquee was churning-up already and under foot it looked like this:

After wandering back and forth to the car try to keep warm and jettison my bag I huddled with everyone else around the start, the Endurancelife banners flapping with force in the breeze. Soon enough we were under starter's orders with around half the marathon field going out with the ultras. I had decided that with the prevailing conditions with a wind-chill taking it to -5C that it would be a case of running the race through without stopping as to stop would mean freezing!

The Flag flapping in the breeze.
Milling round closely to conserve heat!
The start could not come soon enough, and with a relief we were all on our way. The route led us back to the car park and then straight up a hill - which seems to be the format for these runs - no easing-in for us runners, we always start at the bottom and hit the hills right away! The terrain under foot was like running through plaster. The ground was turning into a cloying beige mush that squelched with every step as the ground was metalled chalk. Soon we were up on to the top of the cliffs and our run over the Seven Sisters commenced.

The Seven Sisters before us.
Gentle undulations.
The novelty's wearing off now!

Up on the summits the wind was at our backs (and the rain also) so it was not too bad as a starter, cresting and descending. At this point I was able to run with Daisie for a bit and took a few photos of her so her mum could see her in action.

Daisie in action
Daisie trying not to fall over on the slope!
As we carried on over the hills we had the welcome surprise of seeing this piece of public art hidden on the slope. It certainly made me smile to have this sweet sentiment greeting us.

The field began to stretch out as the serious runners out for the win steamed-off in front, a long drawn-out line snaking along the Seven sisters and then we turned inland and on to the South Downs Way. 

Snaking runners.
Dean and Rob, a couple of my friends have cycled the entirety of the South Downs Way over 2 days one summer and warned of the mushy nature of the chalk paths once wet - it turns in to a slick of mud about 2-3 inches deep and grips on to your trainers with every step trying to pull them off your feet, every foot lift gives a squelching sound as you break the vacuum created by your steps.

Once well in land we started the ascent to the highest part of the course and with the change in direction we were now broad-side to the wind. I was making a good pace on this and as such I felt I needed to take-off my hat and gloves to try to cool down. This had the desired affect but as soon as we hit the wind I could feel my ears begin to freeze in no time and my hands begin to stiffen, so back they went on and did so for the majority of the rest of the run. Leaning in to the hill and the wind as I trudged up one hill as fast as I could I was passed on the other side of a fence by a group of walkers on their way down the hill in full waterproof gear with their hiking poles in their hands. One of them shouted to me 'When are you next seeing your psychologist?' to which I turned and said that LSS 'thinks I should be sectioned for going out and doing this, and at moments like this I can see where she's coming from'!

As we rounded the Long Man of Wilmington we were pretty much at the most northerly and highest part of the course.

Hey big fella, you should see the doctor about that foot-fungus!
The good thing about reaching the top of the course is there is the corresponding descent and here was no exception. This was a steady decline along 3 miles or so in sheltered woodland for its majority which was a welcome respite from the freezing blast of the wind and rain.

From Checkpoint 2 we headed across countryside and woodland towards East Dean before making a turn for the coast to complete this first loop of the figure 8 of the course. As we ran through one field going through the village, I noticed that all of a sudden there were a lot of people now overtaking me at a pace getting on for twice mine. Whilst this unnerved me at first I noticed that all of them were just running in very light-weight clothing and with no camelback's or water bottles and the realisation dawned on me that we must have been caught by the first of the 10k runners on their race. Those of us doing the marathon and ultra marathon just smiled at each other and commented about them being a bit too keen for our liking and blasting out a 10k is no challenge, whereas we are challenging ourselves with finishing, something that is a feat of endurance.

Trying to resist speeding-up with all these others steaming by, the path was back on to the short grass of the cliff-tops again, this time heading east over Beachy Head to Eastbourne. You know that the weather is particularly bad when the hairy cows and the sheep that live up here all year round are huddling together in the few thickets of trees to escape the elements, unlike us mugs who went and tackled them head-on.

Trekking over Beachy Head
The ascents and descents of the cliff-tops was a challenge with the headwind blasting straight in to your face. It made life for the 10k runners just as hard as us on the longer distances and it was good to see a lot of them reduced to walking up the hills as we were. Leaving behind the 10k runners as they reached their checkpoint and the turn for home, Cow Gap brought the strongest blasts of wind of all. Running down a steep hill the wind was blowing up it so fiercely that it was a struggle to make any headway even working with gravity. I had to run with one hand on my beanie hat as the wind was lifting it off my head, something I have never experienced before!

Eventually we made it in to some shelter as we hit the edge of Eastbourne and the final check-point. The turn for home was made and inland we ran across a fairly flat stretch of fields making good time. The previous two weeks had seen Sussex and Kent in the news because of the dump of snow over them. Up till now there had been no sign of this, but up against the foot of north facing walls and slopes there were still mounds of snow waiting to melt away through not having been blown away! I could feel that my pace was good and I opened-up my legs, especially when I could see from a couple of miles away the appearance of the marquee and the flags billowing in the wind. Great I thought, and kicked for home, only when about 1/2 a mile from there to be directed away from the finish for a final stretch of 2 miles, with the first part being another hill. A little demoralised I soldiered on, walking to the top and then jogging the rest of the way. At this point I could feel my stomach eating itself, screaming out to be fed something, anything. Knowing I was less than half an hour from being able to tuck in to my post race scotch-egg and recovery shake I decided to fight through this to the finish line, to use it as a form of motivation to finish that little bit quicker.

Stomach growling I crossed the finish line, collecting my wristband and dog-tag. My time was my best so far and considering the elements and the terrain it was a far stronger time than the one I had posted at Northumberland. As I composed myself and grabbed my stuff to walk back to the car I bumped into Daisie who had just finished herself about 20 minutes behind me and her mother had been there to clap her across the finish line.

With the wind still blowing a hoolie I stomped back to the car, chatting to a fellow finisher along the way who was just taking-in the fact that he had just finished his first marathon. He had stopped playing footy now he was in his forties and was looking for a new challenge and road-running a marathon did not appeal as much as the scenic cross-country, so here he was… cold, wet and very pleased with himself. Will he be back for more? I know I've got the bug for these runs!

After my post-race feed and a change I decided I'd drive back in a oner seeing as I was not too far from home. It was surreal driving back as when I approached Gatwick I noticed that there was snow all over the surrounding countryside… It turned out that soon after I drove away the previous night the rain had turned to snow and had left a good few inches. It seems the wind down where we were was just too strong to allow the rain to turn to snow and settle.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

10th March: Daddy's Girl

I struggle to have a solid relationship with my daughters due to the restrictions I have on seeing them - namely 2 Saturdays a month, for 12 hours a time - imposed entirely by the ex (even though we have joint custody). To compound this, my parents collude with the ex-wife to restrict my access to my girls, but hey, that's another tale entirely and not relevant at all for a running blog!

Bare with me on this bit for some background... It is relevant I assure you! The ex is a teacher at the girl's school so I cannot get involved in the parenting side of their schooling, consequently I have not been able to go along to sports day and cheer them on as it has been made perfectly clear by the ex that I am not welcome at her 'place of work', so I have had to listen to tales from the girls about what they get up to.

From these tales, I know that my eldest is turning into a right little sports fan; playing hockey and netball for the school, revelling in the occasional man-of-the-match, or rather girl-of-the-match performance, undertaken a mini triathlon and loves her sports in general just like her Dad!.. She's even picked a football team to support; she's decided she's a Chelsea fan (for her sins!)

Having seen all the photos I've taken, the collage of mud-spattered race numbers on the wall around my computer desk and the collection of competitor's medals & wrist-bands, my eldest daughter asked if she could go with me on one of the muddy runs that I enjoy.

Both my girls love being outside playing in mud and water. When they are over and we go walking the dogs I have to ensure they change ALL their clothes beforehand because of the state they will be in on our return! Where there is mud, the girls will go and in the river on the dog walk they will be found splashing around till they're soaked to the skin, even in the middle of winter as the temperature hovers around freezing.

So it seems that the running I do combines the two loves of my eldest; running and getting soaked and muddy, so it should not have been too surprising that she asked to join me on a run.

The previous time she was round I said that it would be fine for us to go running and outlined to her where we would go and how far it would be, which did not faze her. With her sister due to be off to a party the next time they would be coming over, the perfect opportunity was presenting itself without one being jealous of the other spending 1-on-1 time with their daddy.

When they arrived that morning, leaping out the car she bounded over demanding to know if it was still fine to go running when her sister was off at a party... It seems she'd been looking forward to this for the last couple of weeks!

After the dog walk and while her sister had disappeared off to her party - a 'lazer quest' party, we put on running gear and off we trotted. I made it clear to her that we did not have to run every step, so if she was tiring and needed to catch her breath, then we could walk it.

Leaving the house with a very excited eight year old I had to calm her down as she was ready to run as fast as she could. Once I'd explained again how long it would be by time and distance, the pace was dropped to something more manageable!

We jogged towards the local common which is very boggy at present through all the rain and snow melt. On the way we bumped in to Moose out walking his dog - Moose is a fellow runner and Wednesday cyclist, although his running is deadly serious PB time pursuits over 10k and 1/2 Mara's on roads, very different to me and my running of dragging my sorry arse around glad of survival and a finish!

The common was exactly what I thought it would be like with mud everywhere and in no time my mini-me had lost her trainer in the cloying mud! which she found hysterical (much to my relief). After rescuing the trainer we sallied forth over stream through puddle and bog. She was loving it and stopped to smear some of the mud over her face. Being the ever tactful caring dutiful father I pointed out the wisdom of what she was doing considering there's cows and horses roaming over the common pooling where they please.

After the common we came to the motorway bridge and traversed over it. I was told that they had never been down here before as she did not know the bridge existed. I told her of the mud and water of the woodland to come and she fair sprinted to get there.

Steaming through all the puddles that were up to her knees in places we soon reached the end of the run and ran around the little roundabout at the Lord Derby pub (its got a set of working stocks inside it) and started for home.

Unfortunately there was to be tears when in one of the puddles a submerged branch was tripped over, with a bang on the shin and a splash. Thankfully with a bit of mental diversion the tears were very short-lived and all too soon we were back at the house.

She was absolutely sodden and muddy as you can see below, so off she went to have a shower and after a good scrub she curled-up under the furry blanket to watch a film, a hot chocolate beside her as she struggled to stay awake with the exertion of before.

Filthy face.
Mucky pup :)
Before the run I had told her we could record it on my Garmin Forerunner watch so she could see exactly how far and fast she had run, so when all faculties had been restored I was pestered for a print-out of the run to take in to school to do a show and tell. With all the stats on the side I was asked to explain to her what they were and to label all the relevant ones so she would be able to talk about her achievement with an expert's air, and rightly so. After all this 8 year old had just gone and run a 3 mile XC course of mud and puddle in a pace not far shy of 10 minute miles! And not it would be wrong not to mention that she's got a very proud daddy :)

Monday, 1 April 2013

3rd March: Northumberland

Another Friday and another off for the next round of the CTS series… This time Northumberland. I managed to finish work at a reasonably decent time, but with all the fiddling and faffing I did not leave the gaff till 6, with the journey's time to Bamburgh Castle being a good 7.5 hours according to bing maps I knew it would easily be past midnight by the time I got there.

As I merged on to the M25 to head round it from the M40 to the A1 there was a car on its side facing the wrong way down the carriageway up against the central reservation crash barrier. This had reduced the traffic to walking pace and got me thinking about the drive to the Pembrokeshire race with the spun car in the middle of the rain sodden M4 and got me wondering about omens and also the fact that so long as I get there safe there's no point in rushing; you arrive when you get there and not a moment before.

I finally arrived without further incident at Bamburgh Castle, drove up to the car park and found it locked-up. Fortunately there was another open one beneath the castle and I was able to pull-up in the frosty night for a kip. I went for a quick stretch of my legs before hand serenaded by the Kittiwake's still awake from the glow of the night-lights of the castle illuminations.

The next morning I awoke to this:

The Castle from the car park below
The CTS Northumberland race is the only one on their calendar that is a point-to-point race. They use the finish of Bamburgh Castle as the base for the event so it was here for registration on a beautifully clear morning, if a little chilly, with the wind whipping in off the North Sea from Scandinavia throwing up a nice bit of surf from the breakers on the reefs between the shore and the Farne Islands.

The distant Farne Islands
After registration we awaited our bus for the transportation to the starting point of Alnwick Castle. The route is from here back to Bamburgh Castle, following the river to the coast and then hitting the coastal path northwards to the end via the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle. The route is as flat as anything gets on one of their courses with the biggest hill being a quick blast up around 20ft or so and can be summed-up as a steady trek along the lined of castle, golf course, beach, castle, golf course, beach, castle.

The registration was within the castle itself, a sight I had not visited since I was about 10 years old on a holiday journey up to the grandparent's in Perth. Back then it was blowing a gale and hammering it down with rain so all I really remember is being cold and wet wandering around the exhibits for what seemed an eternity. I would have liked to have a good wander around the castle as an appreciative adult but timing wise I knew this was not going to be a goer.

Some photos of the castle taken whilst milling around.
Up here spring has not quite sprung and a quick look inland towards the Cheviot's you can see a matter of a few miles away the hill-tops still crested with the winter's snow.

The Cheviot's
After breakfasting on a cup of black coffee and flapjacks I hit the bus with my fellow marathoners and off we drove to Alnwick Castle. Unfortunately they do not allow an early start for us slow-pokes with the ultra runners so it was a massed start of two coaches worth of runners carrying the field of 85.
All aboard!
The start line was in a field overlooked by Hogwarts - the castle stands-in as the filmic representation of the school of witchcraft and wizardry.

Alnwick Castle aka 'Hogwarts'
We were given the briefing here which was much more easy-going than the other two I have attended. It could be surmised by: Follow the river to the coast, make sure the sea is on your right and you'll get there eventually. We were cautioned about our iPods and instant disqualification if we are spotted running along roads with them in our ears… Unfortunately in my haste to leave the previous evening I had left my iPod on my desk so all I had for companionship was my iPhone loaded with podcasts still to be listened to rather than music. And en-masse all 85 of us were under starter's orders for the point-to-point gallop.

The start
Within 15 minutes of starting I had to stop due to an equipment failure!.. To compete in the CTS series you are supposed to run with a survival kit: Foil blanket, whistle, first aid kit as well as being self-sufficient in hydration and nutrition, plus wear a jacket and a hat - although you can take a judge on the weather about jacket and hat. Unfortunately due to the small nature of the hydration back-pack I sport there is not enough room within it for the small kit bag, so I have to strap it to the webbing on the back of the pack. By the time I had finished the South Devon race I had nearly worn-through the sewn-on loops of the bag through the rubbing and friction of several hour's worth of running, so I had asked LSS to make an adaptation to it for us of a strap across the back of it to attach in a different manner and take the stress off the sewn-on loops… Unfortunately the way I had attached it meant that it started flapping free after a while and I heard my emergency phone fall out as the movement had caused the zip to undo. It cost me a good 5 minutes of time as I had to re-attach everything in a different manner before recommencing - and I noticed that I was missing the whistle and the tube of Deep Heat I had put in there with no sign of either nearby on the floor, so I had to re-start hoping that I would not need the Deep Heat for any muscle problems. Also the strap attached by LSS had been sawn half-through already due to how things had been attached.

The trek to the coast was pretty flat and unremarkable, traversing fields as we roughly followed the river… Which we had to ford! We were warned in the briefing that it was getting on for about waist high for a 6ft man and fairly fast flowing, so we were urged to help across any that needed it through their diminutive stature!

As we descended to the crossing-point we waded through the mud to the water's edge and I caught-up with a couple in their 50's who were racing. The husband had crossed already leaving his wife behind who exclaimed surprise at what we were confronted with. Doing the decent thing I asked her if she wanted to hold-on to me and cross together, an offer she gratefully accepted and across we waded. Dear god it was cold and as soon as the first bit of icy water brushed me twig and berries up they sprinted in to my body! As we crossed, the lady's husband was looking at us taking photos and laughing at the sight of his wife clinging on for dear life to a stranger, the cheeky beggar.

Soon after the wading we came across the railway viaduct and ran beneath one of its spans which seemed to be a good 50ft above us. A fascinating piece of engineering from the Victorian era. As I looked back across it I was able to watch one of the Inter-City trains thunder past over it.

In no time we were arriving in Alnmouth after about 10k of the run, jogging along the estuary with all the waders and gulls, notably the very noticeable oystercatchers, curlews and kittiwakes all larking in the mud. True to the briefing, when we hit the coast we turned northwards and along the coastal path where the scenery turned to what we wanted to see; the powerful majesty of the coastline. As we jogged it changed from rocky cliff to sandy beech - with one stretch traversing a solid mile of beach from south to north as we approached Boulmer.

Running the beech: the dot in the middle of the pic is the rescue helicopter
RAF Boulmer is one of the UK's Air-Sea Rescue bases and as we neared we were treated to the sights of them out practicing over the sea and hovering over the runway with the winch man dangling and proved to be an interesting distraction from the monotony of the run over the stretch of featureless hard sand.

As we left the beach and made our way back on to the coastal path I passed the following sculpture sitting atop the wall of a field.

It was shortly after this that I felt myself cramping-up in my left groin just around the end of the support shorts that I wear whilst running. Cursing that I had lost my Deep Heat I took some time-out to massage the cramping which I hoped would sort it out and not worsen with the distance still to traverse, or even be a strain or pull that could not be managed.

After traversing the first golf course we came to the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle, owned by the National Trust these days all that is left is a beautiful sight, almost oasis like in solitude on its hill on a headland, which we ran around the west side of:

Soon we got our first teasing sight of Bamburgh Castle off in the distance with the knowledge that whilst it was now in sight, it was a good 13 miles away! After running on top of the dunes and across another golf course and a couple of small villages we got to Seahouses with its famous lifeboat station and the legend of Grace Darling. Coming in to Seahouses I ran for a brief while with a lady sporting one of the prestigious CTS 7x shirts. These are only awarded to those who manage to complete 7 races in their season, although the races can be a mix of all distances. I told her that I took my hat off to her ability to achieve that and she informed me that she completed 7 of the half marathons last year and this year she decided she would give a try to marathons with this being the first. The plan being that if she managed this one without too much of a problem then she would step-up to do them next year seeing as she was already familiar with what to expect in general for terrain, its just a case of getting her fitness up to be able to complete the distances.

Leaving behind Seahouses this marked the last section of the run, up along the beach the whole way to Bamburgh Castle; only the matter of another 3 miles to the end! As we ran along the beach I saw this poor thing washed-up by the high-tide mark.

It must have been one of this year's pup's from the Farne Island seal colony. I've never seen a grey seal in the wild and unfortunately it still remains so as a dead one doesn't count unfortunately.

The wind had started to pick-up on this last energy sapping leg across the mixture of rock, pebble and sand blowing straight in to us. The weather up to this point had been really good with the sun shining continuously and a bit of feeble warmth from the sun to make it easier on us. but the wind was now blowing in low cloud making the visibility decrease and with the sun getting lower you could tell that darkness was only a matter of a couple of hours away. Struggling through this headwind the castle ever so slowly increasing in size, eventually I reached the black flag signalling to turn left and to ascend the dunes and in to the castle and the finish.

Exhausted I collected my finisher's dog-tag and red wrist-band and sat down to gain my composure. After a change and a post-race snack of scotch-eggs and recovery shakes it was time to return home. I promised myself that I would get a chance to see the 'Angel of the North' by driving past it in daylight, rather than the darkness of the journey up, as it is a sight I have always wanted to see and unmissable as the A1 travels directly below it. Shortly after I pulled over in the next services for an hour's sleep as I could feel myself starting to nod. Waking in darkness I drove the rest of the way home arriving mentally and physically cream-crackered around midnight.