Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Rowbotham's Round Rotherham 2012

The alarm clock sang at 4.50am. I grunted and then like an automaton, headed like a zombie to the shower. It was no fun. Thereafter followed a quick bowl of porridge and a strong cup of coffee before the journey North to Dearne Valley college near Mexborough. The Round Rotherham is a 50 mile ultra trail classic through the South Yorkshire Forest. I don't remember running through forest, the route is mainly track, ploughed fields, and canals with the odd short section of road.  There is only 800m of climb on this circular route demanding a steady pace throughout. Seven checkpoints provide welcome refreshment at Grange, Treeton, Harthill, Woodsett, Firbeck, Maltby and Old Denaby. I had completed the course in 2007 when the event was run in December. The whole show is supported by an informative website. The website contains a wealth of information to assist entrants including all manner of navigation aids and statistics from previous years. I get the impression its a labour of love for the author Henry Marston. 
Sponsors Flags
The instructions were clear,  "the start is NOT at Dearne Valley Leisure Centre east of Mexborough. The start is at the leisure centre attached to Dearne Valley College. Despite the clarity of the information we arrived at Dearne Valley Leisure Centre east of Mexborough shortly after 6:15am. The leisure centre was closed, the gates were locked. A momentary panic helped to wake me up (I was still struggling) after which I orientated our position on the map, (a skill which would prove handy later in the day) and we realised that we were just around the corner from where we needed to be.

Registration went well. I collected my bright orange t-shirt, I took some photos of the sponsors flags flapping in the dark next to a runner who was practising tai chi yoga mysteriously on the grassy adjacent bank  After final preparations I lined up at the start. It was still dark but not cold, I noticed as we gathered in the car park ahead of the final instructions that some of the field had chosen to wear head torches even though dawn was due very soon.  At 7am a klaxon sounded and we steeled off into the first dark mile of the 50 miles which lay ahead.
Afore ye start

I struggled this year. It became apparent almost straight away. The previous weekend I had done back to back long runs and I had begun to feel invincible. I had recovered quickly from the double and had managed to keep up regular training the following week. I slightly suspected that I felt a little more tired than usual during a 10 mile run with Grantham running club on the Thursday but generally I have been feeling good of late. Despite my recent strength the wheels came off as I cruised down the tarmac path alongside a lake in the very initial stages. I felt a bit flat and my legs heavy, not how you would want to feel with 49 to go.

The initial negativity was checked to some extent by the feeling of contentment with managing to get out bed early and focus on a positive challenge. I was running alongside like minded folk. The sun was about to come up and the early signs of life stirred all around us. A eerie mist hovered above the lake to the right and the occasional golden autumnal leaf would fall through the last of the night air on to the trail in front of us. At one early stage, just after dawn we ran into a single track rail yard which housed a steam train. The yard was flanked by a few old terrace houses, the lights glowed warmly inside. Outside the steam train stood idle but with an imposing presence. I wished I had time to take a photograph of the scene but time didn't allow it, I was running the event with the intention of recording as faster time of possible but I was becoming increasingly worried about the feelings of nausea which had intensified.
UTMBer Paul Booth of Pennine & I

I noticed lots of international runners running the event. I understand that part of the overseas attraction is because the Round Rotherham qualifies for the chance to go through the lottery for the Western States 100.  As I ran along the canal side on the way to Grange Park I listened to a conversation between a couple of runners behind me.The first was from the United States and the other from Canada. They had recognised each others accents and were winding each up by making slants on each others respective countries. It all began to feel out of the ordinary. It was before 8am, just after dawn and I was running alongside an American and a French Canadian from Montreal..... on a dirt track in Rotherham.

The first checkpoint seemed to take a while to encounter. I was feeling rougher and rougher. I simply felt heavy and slow. I couldn't muster up any kind of rhythm and feelings of despair quickly began to creep in, it was far too early for that. "Perhaps I was coming down with something or it just wasn't going to be my day" I thought. On the way to Treeton I decided to self assess. The issue seemed to be centred on my stomach. It wasn't hurting but it felt like pressure had built up within and was bloating to the extent of slowing my down. It was similar to how I felt in the last leg of the Thunder Run which also involved a run in the very early morning after little sleep the night before. I decided that perhaps my body would realign around 10am which is a more appropriate and usual time to wake up on a Saturday morning. With that positive thought I plundered on through Treeton and out towards Harthill

Roche Abbey
By Harthill I'd had enough. Tracy was out in support and I explained my woes. I decided I would take extra time at the check point and ponder the  pros and cons of retirement. The sign outside the check point read "runners and walkers only", Tracy must have wondered where I had gone as I didn't emerge for quite some time. I sat inside and drunk water with an electrolyte tablet. I ate lots of food. I didn't want to retire I had retired at the 100 earlier in the year, I might get a reputation. I had also picked up my t-shirt at registration. It looked good but I couldn't wear it if I didn't finish. I had to carry on. I had a WC trip  and emerged back into the great outdoors. I had had a word with myself, regrouped and it was now time to find a decent stride. As I left the checkpoint i realised I was almost half way, just the encouragement I needed.
As I ran out of Hartill a relay runner passed me. In addition to the main event, the race can be run as a team relay. I noticed that I was able to match his speed even although I had run almost 25 miles and he had just begun his first leg. If I was able to follow and keep up it would make navigation easier. It was noticeable that he knew the route. I chased in pursuit, mindful that slowly I was beginning to feel better. A couple of miles further on I was still in touch. At last I had found a rhythm, My stomach issue had subsided and to some extent I felt as if the race had just begun for me. The relay runner in front paused at a kissing gate. he looked at me and gave me a rye, almost disapproving smile. "You know I'm on the relay" he said. " If you keep following me at this speed you might blow up". I explained that I had only just got going after a woeful first half and that I was grateful for his pacing and navigation. " ah I see, I've had similar issues in the past" was the reply, " good luck keep moving". Such is the camaraderie of these events.
By Woodsetts I was still running strong but my relay compatriot had run ahead. The strength which I had found would thankfully last for the rest of the race. I can't remember a previous event where I have felt stronger in the second half. It's usually the other way around. I crossed the A57 and into the golf course. I'd "misnavigated" and taken a chasing group with me. A 12 timer caught up and lead us, now as a unified group back to the right track via overgrown brambles that stung my legs. We were at Lindrick Common. The lane was flanked by massive mansions one of which was called "Nirvana" and had a massive rocket launcher in the garden!
On the way to Maltby we passed the impressive Roche Abbey which stood ruined but grandly in the afternoon sun. This was the only part of the route I could remember from 2007. I was fortunate to run this part with a Maltby runner who I guessed would know the way well. I had otherwise navigated by map, route description and following relay runners until I could not match their pace any longer!  A minor error took me to the railway before I rectified the mistake by passing under the bridge.
Plenty of cake was the order at Maltby checkpoint. I knew the next leg involved a long stretch and I was tiring again but not to the extent of my morning woes. I still had about 13 miles to run 8 of which were on the next leg to Old Denaby. By luck or chance another relay runner passed as I left the checkpoint and I was in pursuit. On the back of her shirt it read "Banksy of Basssetlaw". It was apparent that the runner knew the way and if I could hang on it would save time reading the route description. I managed to hang on for perhaps three quarters of the leg before fading. I met Christensen Hornbech of Denmark and a Scottish runner both who had travelled especially to take part. I was enjoying the unlikely feel of this multicultural encounter. The leg to Old Denaby went on forever. The chat with my Scottish comrade got me through.
After Old Denaby only 3.2 miles left. I sank a bit of liquid and I was off. This had been a hard day and I looked forward to finishing. Christensen had left ahead already but I caught up. I decided to run on and chance navigating the last leg to get back as quickly as I could. Finally I crossed the canal and looked to the left to see what looked like the leisure centre. "Surely not yet? Yes that's it" I thought. I could see the sponsors flags swaying in the wind which confirmed I could see the finish. Today had been tough but I Had ground it out and learnt a lot about self management and mind over matter. I could wear my t-shirt with pride. I crossed the line 60th in 9:15:10. I retired for cottage pie, mashed potato, peas and gravy all after a hot shower. A tough start had turned into a great day out and the feeling of satisfaction was all the more intense. Nick Ham and Mick plumber completed the grand slam.
By my calculation that's 522 miles tough ultra racing between March and October. A fine achievement, congratulations and thanks again Mick for helping with my head cut at the Long Tour.                         



Monday, 15 October 2012

"Doubling Up" - The Dave Lewis Challenge & the Spires and Steeples Challenge 2012

There are many good events close to Grantham at this time of year. The Spires and Steeples event has been on my list for a while but it clashes with one of my favourites, the Dave Lewis Challenge. This year I felt fairly fit, had rested well during a recent holiday overseas and so I thought I would try and "double up" by doing both events on consecutive days.
Arrgg new route where's the map!
The Dave Lewis Challenge is a low key event organised by chimney sweep, Robert Ellis. The event involves 27 miles of trail, field, road, track and river bank from Kelham near Newark on Trent. The event is affiliated to Newark athletics club. The untimely passing of a fell runner in a race the previous week caused widespread grief particularly amongst the fell running community. As I stood among friends on the the start line, I reflected how lucky we are to be able to take part in these events and that the Dave Lewis challenge was a good example of how the memory of a late athlete can live on and inspire others. I understand that Dave Lewis was a dedicated Newark athlete and coach who also had an untimely death, each year the total proceeds from the event go to a charity approved by his widow who turns out each year to start the event. This year,  £750 had already been raised for the fight against breast cancer by the time I finished the event.
I arrived at the start in the car park at the Kelham Fox twenty or so minutes before the start. After handing over my entry I fee I sought confirmation that the route was the same as the previous two years, a route I knew fairly well. "No it's very different" was organiser, Ellis' response. Thereafter ensued a fraught quarter of an hour locating my map and a highlighter and perching over the organiser's car, fighting between other race participants to try and highlight the route and checkpoints. The organiser had given out an extensive route description but I had difficulty following route descriptions in previous years and I hoped my impromtu map plotting would be reliable.
At 8.30am perhaps thirty or so participants set off North to Bathley-Norwell-Ossington-Caunton-Knapthorpe-Upton-Rolleston-River Trent-Averham and back to a most appropriate finish at the Kelham Fox public house. The start was easily navigable for perhaps a mile along a tarmac road. I ran out strong and found myself at the front of the runners field. Walkers had left an hour earlier and I wondered when we would catch up with them. Its not often that I am the front of an event but the experience taught me that front runner has a responsibilty to navigate well in the interests of thise behind! As I paused to read the route description another runner ran passed and then he paused and so I ran passed him, that processes continued cat and mouse fot the first few miles. Eventually without spoken agreement we started to help each other. I read the route description aloud and he confirmed the description by features on the ground.
On the way to Beck Bridge I was frustrated to be caught by some runners behind. These events aren''t really about winning but I was frustrated that our navigation had perhaps been followed by a fairly large group behind. In fact the line of the chasing group as we ran towards the checkpoint was different. We had run a dogs leg and the chasing group had cut a diagonal across the dogs leg probably on the correct route and nearly caught us up.
Gathering ahead os the start

At Beck Bridge I decided to bag the route description and follow my hastily prepared map. Following straight highlighted lines for distance was easier than slowing to a shuffle every couple of minutes to read the route description. The map worked I saw a straight road for a couple of miles and stretched out a lead leaving my compatriot and the chasing group behind. The sun was shining through distant high clouds. Despite the flat profile of the agricultural farm land to the North West of Newark, the landscape has its own charm. Horseriders rode by, country dogs were being walked by gents wearing tweed jackets and carrying staffs and the last of the early morning fog simmered above the dewey fields in the distance. It is  post harvest in these parts and the fields that we ran across were often barren with just the cut off stalks of the harvested crops left in the ground to challenge the skin above our ankles. On the way to Caunton in a heavily ploughed field I noticed something slither rapidly into a small hole between the clods of soil. It moved so fast and seemed to slither but I wasn't able to catch a proper sight, it was black and fast, perhaps a mole? At some point a little further on a Deer leaped out of a bush in front of me, it was inspiring to see it clambber off at speed. 
On the way to the checkpoint near Caunton farm I realised I had lost the path. I knew it because the path I had been following had gradually dissipated away and I was left floundering across an even more heavily ploughed field. I could only wade across the big clods of soil and was grateful to get to the road at the other side. I could see the checkpoint to the left and to the right were some approaching runners. I was confused. I had run really strong on the previous sections and I knew those behind were some distance away. Perhaps I'd varied from the routes to such a degree that they had caught up? Perhaps the runners I saw approaching weren't in the event? I arrived at the checkpoint to drink water and refuel. I recognised the runners as, Vaughan and Anne Wade, stalwarts from the Peak District ruining scene and obviously doing the same event. I hadn't seen them at the start and my confusion deepened but I didn't havetime to discuss it all, I had an event to contend with. I exchanged a brief pleasentary and ran on. 
Much of  the route to Upton was on familiar, previous Dave Lewis Challenge ground. In my view the route gets even better from this point. I ran through an orchard towards the checkpoint, negotiating angry dogs snarling through a fence in an adjacent garden. I noticed how the apple crop wasn't as plentiful this year. Banana Poppy seed cake is available at Upton checkpoint. It's good, really good, so good I had to ask if it was ok to keep eating it. I knew the next leg to the River Trent went on for a bit so I wanted to fill my stomach. "No problem, you've earned it!" was the friendly reply.
River Trent
I ran on to Southwell racecourse. I must have been tiring because I nearly staggered on to a green on the way to the racecourse at Southwell golf course. The footpath passes straight across the fairway but the obvious line would take you straight across the green. Thankfully I remembered etiquette just before I stood on it. A trio of golfers stood looking quizzically at me as I ran by in my shorts shorts and lycra with steam come off the buff on my head. A circumvention of the corner of the racecourse  led me across the railway line. I paid more attention to the threat of passing trains than I had to the threat of passing golf balls.
On the way to the River Trent I happened upon a checkpoint that I wasn't expecting. It's nice when that happens. Mentally I was set for a leg to Averham (which is, I understand pronounced airham by those in the know) I took the opportunity and guzzled more liquid. The route to Rolleston Power Station is picturesque along the banks of the wide River Trent. It was great to be running free, feeling good and inspired by the strong current of the river which raced alongside.
Just before the power station I entered another ploughed field and saw a lone walker in the distance. I assumed he was an event walker and I shouted a greeting as I approached. I should have shouted from further back as he jumped in the air with fright. I was able to atone for my misdemeanour by confirming the route to the power station before I ran on chuckling to myself inwardly. The route alongside the power station follows a narrow path between the might of the concrete building, industrial pipes and chimneys on one side and the similarly powerful River Trent on the other side, before passing through fields to the penultimate checkpoint at Averham. On the way to Averham the path was so rutted it was easier to run through a field of what looked like sweetcorn. I was flanked either side and chuckled inwardly for the second time as I ran happily through a ceremonial guard of  sweetcorn that rose at either side of me. 
I didn't dwell at Averham, I was getting tired and looked forward to a hot shower at Kelham hall followed by lunch in a warm Kelham Fox pub. The final section passed a reverse of a previous year's route which I struggled to remember. Ikept an eye on the map which I had clutched throughout not wanting to go wrong at such a late stage.
I arrived back at Kelham in approximately 4 hours and 20 minutes to receive a chocolate and a medal from organiser Ellis followed by the promised hot shower and steak and kidney pudding in the pub. I would recommend the Dave Lewis Challenge. there are no prizes and no official times but the checkpoints are well organised by volunteers, the route description isn't that hard to follow and the event is a great excuse for a day out running in great countryside supporting a good charity and through featureful terrain.           
Spires and Steeples Challenge

Lincoln Cathedral adjacent to the start.

I had a bit of stiffness after the previous day but I knew if I could get out bed and get to Lincoln for the start I would be nine tenths of the way to the finish. I crawled out of bed early for the second day running. We arrived in Lincoln by 8.30am for a 9.30am start.
The Spires and Steeples event runs from Lincoln to Sleaford along a waymarked route that can be done as a challenge at anytime during the year. The organised event is supported by a crew that volunteer at checkpoints and marshall at the parts which are hardest to navigate. There is a debate about whether this event is well organised or not. I had no problems, I thought the organisation was really good. I never really understand the good race bad race debate. For me If you turn up pay an entry fee and run a race through beautiful countryside with a few fuel stops in between, anything else is a bonus. The bonuses at Spires and Steeples were a good quality technical t-shirt, a medal, a certificate and free sports leg massage at the finish.
The route leaves the grandeur of Lincoln Castle and heads down the steep cobbles of historic Bailgate before leaving the City heading east along the banks of the River Witham to Washingborough. From there  runners head in a Southerly direction following this route to Sleaford. 
First Runners Leave Lincoln Castle
The field was bigger than the previous day and there appeared to be more quality runners participating in the 26 mile event. Similar to the Dave Lewis Challenge, walkers had left Lincoln, along the same route an hour earlier and there was also a 13 mile event which began at the halfway stage at Mertheringahm. I ran along the River in about fifth position but I was running noticebaly faster than the previous day and I questioned whether I had gone off too fast. It became apparent that I was running a race that many around me were treating like a typical road marathon. At checkpoints, those around me were swiping bottles of water from the hands of volunteers and running on without stopping. I did the same through the first couple of checkpoints but on the way to Metheringham I had a reality check. I'd run 28 miles the previous day, I was now running a faster pace than the previous day and taking on less fuel. I was trying to compete with those around me and I knew from experience that it's dangerous to run someone else's race. At the next checkpoint I took a bottle of water, walked on a few yards, stopped removed the bottle from my ruck sac and transferred the water into  the bottle, along with an electrolyte tablet. In addition I ate a jaffa cake bar from my bag. As I did this it was demoralising to watch lots of runners pass by gulping a quick shot of water before discarding their bottles and running on at speed. Although it was frustrating I thought it would be interesting if I kept well fuellled, to see if in the later stages I could pass those that had passed me. Would they be ruing less speed because of their earlier hasty checkpoint strategies?  

The route to Sleaford was very runnable mostly on grassy tracks with occasional fields, some of which were ploughed and rutted. There were infrequent roads into picture postcard Lincolnshire villages and church spires stood grandly in the middle of each of them. Participants were given six rubber bands to wear around their wrists. The idea was to drop a rubber band at each checkpoint. I was confused because we had run for miles and I still had four bands left. I knew there were only two checkpoints before the finish which would make three bands in total, what of the other one? I caught up with a runner in front who was similarly perplexed but thankfully he too had four bands left. The best he could think was that the organiser had given us an extra band in case we lost one. I thought that was unlikely but I kept the thought to myself.
I must have been in about fifteenth position by Digby with about 9 miles left to run. Surprisingly given the previous days efforts I had run strong and the blow up that I expected to happen didn't materialise. It was time during the last 9 miles to use those fuel reserves. I pushed on towards the finish. On the way out of Lincoln earlier in the day a repeat offender had warned me about the final stages "it goes on a bit" he said in a typically endurance runner's understated way. I took note, a word to the wise i thought.
The fuel reserves paid dividends and I began to reign people in. With each runner passed I seemed to gain in strength. I was able to extend my legs and I felt great as I ran along the final stages adjacent to the River Slea.  Somewhere about 3 miles before the finish and similar to the previous day, I happened upon an unexpected checkpoint. it was the mystery band drop that left  one band to drop at the finish. I took the  unexpected opportunity to drink some more but I didn't dwell, not wanting to interrupt the good pace that I had mustered. The last two miles did "go on a bit", Sleaford never seemed to become visible in the distance. Eventually the River became flanked by buildings and it was apparent that I had entered the town. Soon after I noticed the welcome sight of a finish funnel on the opposite side of the River. Across the bridge and home to the applause of spectators who milled about on the green and river bank. I was welcomed with a t-shirt and the news that I had arrived back in 8th position in a time of 3 hours and 40ish minutes.
The best part of a race
I don't remember doing long events on consecutive days before. The hardest part was getting out of bed. I think the running was easier on the second day and for some reason I am not stiff today (the day after the second event) yet I was stiff on the night after the first. It was great to run from Lincoln to Sleaford. This was a popular event with walkers and runners and is accessible for long distance walkers and runners with a shorter thirteen mile option. I was fortunate to have lift to the start and from the finish but being a linear route people without lifts need to leave theirs cars at Sleaford and catch the bus which is organised to ferry entrants to the start.  


Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Redcar Half Marathon 2012

The hardest rule of running is that it takes ages to gain fitness and a moment to lose it. One day I was sat in the 35 degree heat of a Greek beach feeling fit - the next I was running alongside the Corus factory in Teeside feeling fat and knackered. 

Tata Steel - different to a Kefalonian landscape

After negotiating a dog that snarled towards us as we walked across a piece of waste land we carried on to the start. According to the owner, the dog was "as daft as a brush" but I took no chances as I dropped my bag between my ankles and the dogs teeth.  The start of this year's Redcar race had been moved further along the beach front because of works to the coastal path. The Redcar race is a good opportunity to catch up with the Whittingham family, friends from university. Paul "Whitty" Whittigham had managed, despite a trip to the Riverside the day before, to keep a handle on alcohol intake and arrived at the start feeling fresher than previous years. Whitty's race prospects looked relatively better than mine. I knew I would feel the affect of a two week break in Kefalonia including lots of Mythos ale, kebabs and very little running. My new Grantham running club vest also had its first outing at Redcar.

The conditions were good as we set off in a Northerly direction along a dual carriageway adjacent to the North East coast. In the first few miles I noticed flags on the local Vauxhall dealership flapping vigorously in the wind and a slight turn in the road led runners straight against it. The wind carried on in gusts as the race field ran towards the turn point at mile five. I began feeling better than I should have done given the lack of recent activity but by the roundabout which took us back towards Tees Valley Leisure Centre I was tiring and it was clear I was going to have to use mental strength to zone out and plod on. I was grateful for the stillness as the wind subsided after the turn. It was so still that I questioned if it was possible for the wind to now be behind me or if it had stopped altogether. I noticed a couple of "grafters" who were stood behind the Corus factory gates and had come out to support. The factory is massive and bleak and runs the entire length of the first few miles of the race course. I understand that most of the inhabitants of "Redker" are employed there and the factory was recently bought by a Japanese company, Tata saving the company from administration and saving the "Redker" grafters too.

New Top
By the time I arrived back at the Leisure Centre I was having a hard race. I had a dodgy stomach and thought about a pit stop at the Leisure Centre but decided to carry on, nothing more than a lack of race fitness. The new route was better for spectators as runners passed the start/finish three times during the race. I waved to Tracy, Becki, Lucy and Emily as I passed. The next section through to ten miles was a straight run along the coast road. The North sea was clearly visible alongside and I glanced occasionally to look at the pipes, ships and wind farms which interrupted the view.
The coast road took its toll. I noticed a grey stone toilet block adjacent to the road and decided to have a pit stop after all. Less than a minute later I was back on the course, I can't remember stopping during a race before and was a bit miffed about it. I ran on towards the next turn at ten miles. It seemed to take ages to arrive and I was grateful to do a 180 degree turn to run the final three miles back to the start/finish at the leisure centre. It was apparent that the wind hadn't stopped and I was now, once more, running flat against it.  At some point during the final few miles Whitty ran past on the opposite side of the road smiling and waving. I was surprised that he looked so fresh and as he wasn't far behind I thought he might do a PB.

Paul Whittingham

The crowds which flanked the final mile took my mind off the race pain and eventually I saw the finish funnel, phew. I finished in 1 hour 30 minutes 53 seconds I had hoped to get under 90 minutes but the holiday excesses seemed to have taken their toll. This was a hard race and I hope the difficult miles are enough to freshen me up for the next outing wherever that might be.
Whitty came back to a cheering duo of daughters in a time of 1 hour 51 minutes and 43 seconds almost a PB and time that inspired the confidence to "take it seriously next time". We retired to receive post race gifts. This year no t-shirt but a 'buff' instead to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the well organised race. The day finished with a trip to "Starters" for a "strider" (or a restaurant in Yarm for a burger) and a few celebratory pints. Thank you the Whittingham's for another good trip to Boro.