Sunday, 22 September 2013

Harvest Hobble 2013 - Undulations, Deer and a False Self Clip.

The Harvest Hobble 2013.
Since moving to Grantham some six years ago, I have been meaning to get to the Lincolnshire Wolds. I'd heard a rumour  that there were hills to be found and the temptation of running through 26 miles of a new area with a bit of hilly terrain seemed to good to miss. I had not heard of the Harvest Hobble before until a club mate passed me a flyer at the previous week's Ponton Plod. Apparently the event hasn't been run since 2003 but a new LDWA organising team led by Terry Baines is bringing this excellent event back to life.
The are two route choices 13 miles and 26 miles. The 26 mile route begins at Ludford some way North East of Lincoln and passes through Tealby - Walesby - Otby House - Normanby le Wold - Acre House - Nettleton Grange - Rothwell - Thoresway - Stainton le Vale - Binbrook - and back to Ludford.  There are four checkpoints, each providing the weary runner with cake and juice and there are a further three self clip points.

Fuel = Cake and Juice
As we left Ludford at 8am a, Paul Elliot ran off fast in front. He was wearing a bright orange t-shirt which I thought might help  my navigation but within the first three miles Paul had run out of sight. He went on to cover the ground in a whizzo 3 hours and 35 minutes. I was left behind with a group of two other local runners. I thought that running with local folk would also be beneficial in terms of finding my way but I had to have a pit stop before the first checkpoint and the two in front (and another bloke that came through) ran ahead leaving me to run this event on my Jack Jones. I decided to follow a map instead of using  the route description. It worked well. I didn't get lost.

This event was run in excellent conditions. Some late summer sun illuminated the harvested landscape. The trails ran through, or adjacent to ploughed, drilled fields. The promised Wolds hills were more like undulations but the undulations  provided a stiff test. The gradients were mostly not long enough to excuse walking but they were definitely steep enough to make running hard.
On the way to Otby House my map suggested I was approaching a self clip. It is easy to miss a self clip, usually they consist of a small hand held metal or plastic scissor like clamp which runners use to clip out a piece of their tally cards to prove that they have visited a particular point on the course. I was concentrating hard on locating the self clip and was relived to see it on top of an isolated stick at the side of the track. When I got closer it seemed the self clip was but a simple plastic clothes peg and I was confused about how the peg with its smooth interior would cut a hole out of my tally card. I stood by the side of the track pressing the clothes peg hard against my tally. It didn't matter how hard I pressed, it was smooth and it was not going to leave an imprint, I couldn't understand it. Eventually the runner behind caught up with me and suggested the clothes peg wasn't the self clip. The self clip was at least 200m further along the track. Oh dear...More than slightly embarrassed I journeyed on to find a proper metal clip device adjacent to a fence post a little bit further along the trail.
A typical post harvest Lincolnshire Field
I wonder if someone from the adjacent farm had put that peg out as a joke. It was so obviously the self clip it wasn't funny! I suspect the joker responsible was watching me fumble around from an behind an adjacent bush or something - grrrrr.

I felt good as far as Rothwell but I noticed that on the way to the second self clip I was being caught by a runner behind. It didn't feel like I had slowed down but I had to put in a bit more of an effort to avoid getting caught. By Rothwell there were at least four runners in front of me but I couldn't see them even on the long straight sections. The sun continued to shine and I enjoyed finding my way in the still frequent undulating and unfamiliar location. At one point on the course I passed a gaggle of deer and at another I was running at a field edge adjacent to a horse and rider. It was great to be in the glorious outdoors and was worth the 5.30am wake up.  

There was a long straight road after the checkpoint at Rothwell and despite filling up on cake and juice the extra pace on the tarmac took it out of me. I was looking forward to a drink at Stainton le Vale (18.6 miles) and was disappointed to arrive to remember that the checkpoint was another self clip with no refreshments. My body was slowing down dramatically, it was time to dig deep and shuffle on.

On the way to the final checkpoint at Binbrook a herd of brown cows came careering towards me. The farmer had just left the wide open field in his 4x4. I don't if the cows thought I was the farmer returning with food but they certainly seemed pleased to see me. I wasn't as pleased to see them. I ran faster than they towards the nearest fence. When I arrived at the sanctuary a staring match ensued between me and the cows. It was a proper stand off and I got a bit cocky knowing I could scale the fence if their curiosity turned into a charge. The staring match continued as I stealthily tiptoed round the field. The diversion took me off route and it took some time in the adjacent fields before I could relocate with the map, I thought I would be caught by the runner behind but when I got back on the route I checked behind and there was no sign.
Glad to finish.
I was grateful to reach Binbrook at about 22 miles. I had kind of had enough by now and was struggling to keep the legs turning. I drank the juice I had been awaiting since Stainton, ate some more cake and carried on. During the final section I began to catch up some of the walkers doing the 13 mile route. It meant I could concentrate less on thumbing the map. Acknowledgements were mutually shared as I passed each walker and eventually the village of Ludford came into view - phew.

The road through the village back to the finish seemed to take forever and I was grateful to arrive back fifth in 4 hours 10 minutes. I enjoyed butternut squash soup and skipped the rice pudding with fruit in favour of a pint in a local pub. I was grateful to the two local runners in front of me for suggesting areas worth visiting on the way back to Grantham. The Wolds was a great area and a bit like the Harvest Hobble it is a bit of a hidden gem. 
Thanks to Terry Baines and the team, especially the checkpoint volunteers, the cakes were especially good!      


Sunday, 15 September 2013

Ponton Plod 2013 - In the Company of Legends.

The Ponton Plod is an excellent local event organised by long distance walker and veteran of the 100 mile distance, Stuart Ashley and his wife Kath. They are supported by a cast of cheerful volunteers many of whom operate the four checkpoints at Buckminster, Croxton Kerrial, Harlaxton and Wyville. The start and finish is in the quaint villlage of Great Ponton, just outside Grantham. There are 12, 17 and 27 mile route choices. I chose to run the 27 mile route. I knew the route well after running the event twice before. In 2010 I went round in 4 hours three minutes. My second attempt in 2011 ended in DNF after I turned my ankle just before Croxton Kerrial.
Commeth the runners.
Entrants gathered in the car park for a start at 8:30am. I was later to talk to a runner from Hull who had got out of bed at 5am to get to the start. Organiser Ashley stood on the dry stone wall to make pre event announcements. It was interesting to hear that ultra running legend Eleanor Robinson was in the car park ready to take part in the event. In her day, Eleanor set various records at ultra distances by racing all over the world. In 1985 Eleanor won the Nottingham Marathon in 2:55:18. I doubt that Eleanor would have known it, but the men's winner of the same event, Phil Hall who ran 2:25:15 in 1985 was also in the car park ready to run the 17 mile plod. It was energising to be in such illustrious company.   
Organiser Stuart Ashley
At 8:30am we were released into the beautiful Lincolnshire Countryside. I was determined to stick to a conservative strategy until Croxton Kerrial. I had run 56 miles of the Bullock Smithy the previous weekend and I didn't think my legs would thank me for pushing at the front of the field. I kept in touch towards Stoke Rochford where the 27 and 17 mile route spilt. It was then evident that there were five runners in front of me and I watched on the road towards Skillington as they gradually pushed ahead. By the first checkpoint at Buckminster Water Tower I felt pretty good, my legs weren't complaining after the previous weeks efforts and my conservative strategy seemed to be paying off. The five in front had run ahead but on the way to Saltby two of them, Arthur Short and one other appeared some way in front, climbing a fence back on to the official route. It seemed they had taken a wrong turn and had just relocated. 
Robert McArdle, Catherine Payne & Ben Mason Grantham Running Club.
The section between Buckminster and Croxton Kerrrial is long. Although I was feeling good I was grateful to arrive at the checkpoint. On the way to Croxton Kerrial the promised rain had materialised. In the car park, before the start, I had taken the last minute decision to ditch my waterproof top and when the clouds broke I began to regret the decision. Thankfully as I stumbled up the horribly rutted motor cross path the shower had ended and it turned out that the rest of the event was run in dry, cloudy, windy conditions.   
At Croxton Kerrial everything happened at once. The five runners in front had congregated in the village after missing the checkpoint. As I arrived they were retracing their footsteps and I was able to guide them into the checkpoint. This worked well for my pre run strategy of conservatively running to Croxton and then pushing on from there. I was now at the head of the field albeit with five others but I guessed my reserved energy might pay dividends in the second half. These events aren't super competitive but its nice to be as far up the field as possible and it would be good to get a better time than my previous 4 hours 3 minutes. 
It became apparent about half a mile after leaving Croxton that despite two runners leaving Croxton ahead of me, I was at the front of the field. On the descent into Harston I could see a fair way in front but there were no other runners to be seen, perhaps the two that had scaled the fence after going wrong earlier had done it again? I was able to run fast between Harston and Denton Reservoir although I laboured up the hill before the checkpoint at Harlaxton. 
Glad to finish in 4:01
I ate cake and banana and left the checkpoint quickly. The marshalls had to point me in the direction of a diversion which involved a trek up the appropriately named Swines Hill. I was glad to get to the top. From here there was perhaps six miles left and another checkpoint left to visit. Could I hold off the chasing runners behind and perhaps better that time of 4 hours 3 minutes?
I had begun to catch up walkers who I presume were taking part in the 17 mile event. The walkers provided handy confirmation that I was navigating the right route and we exchanged encouraging words of to each other as we passed. By the checkpoint at Wyville I was beginning to slow down. Time for more cake and banana and a brief chat to a colleague from work who was volunteering at the checkpoint.
Onwards for the final four mile leg to the finish. My memory had mentally shortened my recollection of the valley through towards Stoke Rochford which was a bit tragic but the road came soon enough. More encouraging words from a walker on that nasty hill before the right hand turn down the track towards Great Ponton. A quick glance behind confirmed there was nobody chasing and I could cruise back home. I crossed the A1 and back into the car park at Great Ponton village hall finishing in 4 hours and 1 minutes! phew a pb by two minutes. I'm nothing if consistent.
It was time for the best bit - food. This is a great LDWA style event. Participants have the choice of three types of soup including cauliflower and stilton. I chose parsnip and apple followed by lemon meringue and cream all complimented by lashings of rejuvenating tea.
Post event fun with Grantham Running Club
Arthur Short came back shortly after me and he would have been in front had he not kept getting lost. He confirmed that he and his compatriot had missed a turn after Croxton which had put me to the front of the field by default. Grantham Running Club fielded a strong team including ultra runner Ben Mason also completing the 27 mile event less than a week after 56 miles of the Bullock Smithy. 
The Ponton Plod is an excellent event. The majority of the proceeds from the event go to Besso Childrens Home in Hosur, India and a smaller portion to Glaston Parish Church in Rutland who pass this on to World Vision. In 2012 the total raised was £2150
Thanks to Stuart and the team for another great day.



Monday, 9 September 2013

Bullock Smithy 2013

On the Thursday before the event, the Mountain Weather Information Service forecast a "complex weather pattern" that would have the potential for "significant effects on hill walkers". Although the forecast was uncertain, heavy rain seemed guaranteed. By Saturday morning as we gathered like lambs to the slaughter in Hazel Grove, the sun shone through broken clouds and the threat of rain seemed remote. The conditions were ideal for a 56 mile romp through the glorious Peak District courtesy of 3rd Hazel Grove Scouts. 
When the hammer strikes the anvil, the event begins.

This year my friend Mark "unfinished business" White came back to avenge his DNF from 2004. During the last 9 years Mark has attempted to forget his previous retirement but a DNF on the Bullock Smithy is a memory not easily forgotten. Almost a decade later Mark was back, accompanied by his brother-in-law Simon, both in good shape and ready to put the Bullock to bed.

Ben Mason, Ben Hatherley and me.
I had also managed to dupe encourage a couple of friends from Grantham Running Club. Ben "methodical approach" Mason and Ben "I've never quit anything in my life" Hatherley had both signed up after hearing me bang on about the event throughout the previous year. It is easy to sell the positive aspects of the Bullock Smithy to potential contenders, camaraderie, self satisfaction and the raw humanity found in the collective pursuit of a difficult challenge are but a few. The negatives which can last for days or weeks can include exhaustion, muscle soreness and mental fatigue. It's fun to cite the positives to friends and let them find out about the negatives. After the event it is good to do an assessment to make sure you have some friends left!
The iconic anvil was struck at noon and 250 or so entrants left Devonshire Park through various different exits. I soon found myself in good company running with various repeat offenders who without rational explanation had come back for another dose of Bullock Smithy pain. Stockport Harriers had again fielded a strong team led by Usain Buccleuch who took an early lead across the fields towards Anson Road. James Scott-Buccleuch of Stockport Harriers is the Bullock Smithy record holder. In 2011 James romped round in 8 hours 46 mins. This year there were rumours that James was looking to better his record time.
I ran  steadily up to the first checkpoint to Bow Stones conserving energy on the climb whilst chatting to Nigel Aston and Steve Jackson. During the descent from checkpoint 1, I could see event leader James far in the distance. It was inspiring to see a white speck on the hill in the distance as he headed out towards Whalley Moor. It was also interesting to see that someone had gone with him. I doubted anyone could challenge James. Who was competing with him at the front? 
Simon & Mark
I ran on from Bow Stones to Chinley taking a bad line towards Whalley Lane. I caught up with five familiar faces from Stockport Harriers on the climb to Chinley Churn and we ran on together more or less all the way to Peak Forest. There were more recognisable faces operating the drinks station at Peep o Day including Julie Gardner who was aiming to improve her chances of gaining entry into one of the classic American 100 milers. I grabbed a biscuit, filled up my water bottle and ran on towards the long climb to Edale Cross. The sunshine was still penetrating distant clouds. I was grateful that I had decided to take my small day sac.  I had almost plumbed for a larger 10 litre sac so I could take extra waterproofs and warm clothing in case the rain came but the dry path up to Edale Cross and the extensive views behind towards Manchester confirmed that I has made the right choice of kit by travelling lighter.
Colin Wood & Roger Gill
Edale is always a welcome refuge, by this stage we had run 18 miles. This, for me is where the first signs of tiredness start to creep in. I had managed to keep up with the Stockport Harriers on the road to the checkpoint but their pace was perhaps faster than I should have run. I dwelled a little longer than the harriers at the checkpoint and ate rice pudding with fruit whilst chatting briefly with the checkpoint staff before heading off in pursuit of those in front.

The next section is short but involves a stiff lung busting climb to Hollins Cross before a tricky descent into Castleton. The trig point on top of the hill was busy with resting walkers who shouted encouragement as I laboured up to the top. I tred cautiously down the descent to Castleton and again caught up with Stockport who seemed to be working well as a team. Another fast run on the tarmac road bought all six of us to the checkpoint in the car park. Surprisingly the promised rain had come to welcome us at the checkpoint, in addition to the friendly checkpoint volunteers.     

Bullock Smithy Record Holder -James Scott-Buccleuch leaves Bow Stones chased by Charlie Sharpe.  

There is an on going debate about whether it is best to run from Castleton to the next checkpoint at Peak forest via the more popular route to Cave Dale or alternatively take the stiff climb up Goosehill. Last year I swore never to go up Goosehill again and so this year I went up Goosehill................ again.

In hindsight, It was a measured decision. I had been to have a look at the route a couple of weeks previously and rather than take a direct line up the steep grassy slope I had been advised to take a diagonal towards the stile at the top. I had been discussing the pros and cons with my Stockport comrades on the way into Castleton. They seemed certain that Cave Dale was preferable. Stockport were going to run up Cave Dale and I was going up Goosehill, perhaps today we could conclusively settle the issue - whoever got to the top first would have a good claim to having ascended the best route.

Almost at Chelmorton 
We all left Castelton more or less together, the Harriers being just a few seconds in front. I ran to the foot of Goosehill and began a diagonal up the grassy slope. Just minutes later Deja Vu came back to haunt me as painful memories of that God awful grassy bank came flooding back. I was soon in the same state as the previous year, labouring with hands on knees, sweat rolling off my nose and my chin, occasionally on all fours and swearing aloud at the adjacent sheep who were staring, sheepishly at me in pity. Diagonal or straight up, it matters not - that grassy bank is nasty. I quickly became demoralised. I wasn't three quarters of the way to the top, "Stockport would surely be out of Cave Dale by now, why didn't I go with them"?  I carried on towards the part that levels towards the stile.
It is often said that the benefit of Goosehill is that you get the climb done quicker and then you meet a runnable section at the top. I met the runnable section but was far to exhausted to be runnable. I asked another staring sheep what it was looking at and then staggered on angrily over the stile and towards the junction. If I hadn't have been so slow, I should have met Stockport coming up Cave Dale at that point. There was no initial sign and I couldn't see them ahead. "They must be at Peak Forest already". I managed to start a shuffle and as I approached the junction I was surprised to hear voices I looked down the Cave Dale route and saw the famous five now reduced to four approaching through the gate. The "best route" debate must continue!

Nigel Aston
We ran across the moor towards Peak Forest at 24 miles. It might be worth noting that Stockport were much stronger than I for the rest of that section. I started to experience a slump that would continue until half way to Miller's Dale and Stockport extended a lead. As I ran into the Peak Forest check point, Stockport were on their way out. I was feeling ropey but it was good to see Tracy and I decided to dwell a bit longer taking an energy drink and refuelling on bananas and crisps. I could only manage a walk up the road to the crash barrier. As I reached the top of the next grassy bank things got worse, I glanced behind to see another runner gaining on me - oh dear time to dig deep. I trundled the road to Wheston not allowing myself to stop and walk. Gradually I began to come out of the slump, my pace improved and I was back on good form but with no sight of Stockport in front.        
A herd of cows stood menacingly guarding the gate before the barn at Miller's Dale. The path forms a tunnel with a farm building on the right and a high bank on the left. There was nowhere for the cows to go. I could see Peter Wood's head peering over the cows from the other side of the gate and he laughed as he could see I was a little concerned. Any other day I would have retreated to find an alternative path but this was Bullock Smithy day. I had to be brave and walk amongst the herd. I took a deep breath and ventured slowly forward. Pete opened the gate and as soon as there was enough space for me to get through I bolted from the herd to the other side, more amusement for Pete but relief for me, phew! A brief stop at Miller's Dale and then time for the second half. I wondered when my friends would arrive at half way later in the day, Mark avenging his DNF and Ben, Ben and Si on their first attempts at the Bullock Smithy.  

Finish! 10:30
Walk 100 paces, run 100 paces was the method used to get me to the A6 road junction. I carried on to the top of the hill. I like this bit, the majority of the significant climbs are done, there are some flat runnable sections to come and best of all your are now running for home. From the top you can see the checkpoint near Chelmorton at 32 miles I don't remember seeing the Stockport four in front but when I arrived at the checkpoint Lee Barrett had sadly come to grief with back problems, the four were now three. I enjoyed a doughnut and decided to run on at pace still feeling pretty good. The lane to the A515 goes on a bit but its runnable. The scary cow fields into Earl Sterndale were next. I could see the cows in the fields but happily they were some distance away I gave them a nod of respect and carried on into the quaint village of Earl Sterndale at 36 miles. It was great to see Geoff Pettengell and Mike Nelson out in support. Both previous finishers, Geoff with an amazing 24 completions to his name. Sadly no time to dwell other than to grab a piece of Mrs Nelson's flapjack which went down a treat, thanks Mrs N.  
On the way between Earl Sterndale and Brand Top the sun began to fade. I would need to keep a good pace to get down the rocky path to Cumberland Cottage in the daylight. That was my sole motivation for I didn't fancy the rocky path in the dark. I walked up the tarmac road which cuts through the remote landscape and ran down towards Booth Farm avoiding a farmer with a couple of yapping Jack Russell dogs on the way. There is an eerie static caravan which perches on the hill at the top of a muddy track just before the Brand Top checkpoint and I was a bit startled when a young girl appeared in the early evening dusk to ask me politely to close the gate at the top of the track. I kept running into check point at Brand Top with 39 miles now in the Bullock bag.

Ben & Ben on finishing their first ultra

I always enjoy the leg between Brand Top and Cumberland Cottage. Its energising to run through the remote lanes at the back of the Roaches with good views of Shutlingsloe in the background. The sun was now descending at pace leaving a warm glow to the clouds behind. There is a nice stillness on the roads to Three Shire Head and everything points towards the close of what had been another excellent day of running. I crossed Three Shires Bridge at the place where Staffordshire, Derbyshire and Cheshire meet and ran on towards the climb to the A54. As I approached the first part of the climb I was surprised to see a gaggle of people climbing the ladder stile high above. It was the Stockport three. I hadn't seen them since Peak Forest earlier in the day. I had no intention of giving chase, I was too tired by now and more interested in getting to the ladder style myself to look behind and make sure nobody was chasing me!

Steve Holt and some members of the organising team - thanks for another great event.
The climb to the ladder is steep. I paused at the top and looked back across the Peak District. The shadow of the hills through which I had run sat peacefully in the dusk for miles in the distance. It was time to say goodbye to the Peak District and run back towards civilisation. The welcome party at Cumberland Cottage checkpoint was awesome the volunteers were outside cheering my arrival. It is surprising how such a welcome can lift your spirits. I recognised Tom Buttery who was volunteering on the check point and it was nice that he remembered our Bullock Smithy in 1998 when we had run the latter stages together. 
By now I had largely had enough. It was time to grind out the final 13 miles. I ran all the way to the Stanley Arms and then power walked up the hill. I had noticed a shadow waking up towards Charity Lane which later, I think turned out to be one of the Stockport three, Phil Burns of Stockport leaving just Neil Thompson and Stephen Jones in the group ahead. I didn't dwell at Walker Barn, it was time to get this thing done.

Keeley Buckley, Cath & Alex Tye
On the way to Whitely Green I was running along a particularly dark lane in Bollington with my head torch switched off, when, all of a sudden, I noticed, in an instant, a dark shadow approaching fast in front. It was clear that whatever was coming towards me was going to hit me at speed and I had noticed it perhaps  two seconds before impact. This was a quiet country lane and it was pitch black. I grimaced, tensed and let out a "uuuuurrrgghhh" which I thought might help to absorb the impact. At the same time the shadow coming towards me at speed let out a similar noise and somehow miraculously the cyclist avoided me. We were both unlit and wearing dark clothes and the cyclist was really speeding along. That cyclist must have been scared to death. Never in a million years would he have expected a runner to be coming down the middle of that remote lane on a Saturday night dressed in black. I suspect he might have thought that he had seen a ghost and in a fit of deliriousness, I ran down the next cobbled path uncontrollably laughing out loud into the night.       
My sister had come out to support at Whitely Green and Tracy was also there to offer encouragement. Great to see them but no time to waste. I ran on out of the checkpoint to the Middlewood way for the obligatory three mile nightmare to Higher Poynton. This year it was so dark I had to keep my head torch on and I later wondered if that was the reason the bridge at the Miner's Arms arrived sooner than it ever has done.
I was able to keep up a good pace running all the way through the final miles to the finish. I finished fifth in 10 hours 30 minutes.  Time to congratulate the Stockport runners, Neil Thompson and Steve Jones who also maintained a strong finish to come home in 10:09. James Scott-Buccleuch stormed round in 9 hours 14 minutes and suggested he might use his talent on longer road ultras in the foreseeable future, I hope he comes back to the Bullock Smithy. James had been pushed hard throughout by Charlie Sharpe. It was Charlie who had accompanied James across the hill near Whalley Moor earlier in the day and Charlie had stayed in pursuit throughout, coming home just nine minutes behind James. 

Mark White the day after the Bullock Smithy.
After a breakfast supper it was time to go out and see how my friends were doing. Ben Hatherley and Ben Mason came home in 14 hours 43 minutes, a very decent time considering it was their first attempt at ultra distance. Ben M did a sterling job navigating and Ben H followed with a foggy eye as he had pierced it with a drilling accident the previous week making his completion even more impressive. Mark White and Simon Platts romped home in 20 hours 18 minutes, Mark finally putting the Bullock to rest and going on to put his Grandmother's stair lift to good use. 
Thanks to the good folk of Stockport  Harriers for your company in the early stages and thanks as always to the volunteers who give up their time for the pleasure and pain of those who take part.
Until next year....