Monday, 29 October 2012

Ennerdale 50k

Sun 21st October 2012 - Ennerdale Trail Run 50k
I find myself out on a cold but clear and crisp morning in the western fringes of the Lake District. The sky is a magical deep blue, such as you get on these sunny autumnal days. I always refer to them as 'Canadian days', a term coined back in my skateboarding days when out of the miserable months of British drizzle, emerged a day where it seemed summer was making a short but welcome cameo before winter finally took hold and ruined play. These days my new found past time wasn't dependant on fair weather, but rather made the experience easier and more fulfilling. The valley that nestles Ennerdale Water in its basin looks like it could be formidable if the weather conditions turn for the worse. However today we find, although cold, the promise of a rising sun into a clouless sky means a day of light running gear and quicker times being a possibility. The mountains surrounding the valley, Great Gable, Kirk Fell and others provide a dramatic backdrop to the journey I'm about to embark.
I digress, as my first blog I think it pertinent to offer some back story;

I enjoyed a misspent youth chasing the skateboarding lifestyle of a Californian dream. The many thousands of hours practising the technical and sometimes dangerous actions of a 'sport', generally misunderstood by the public at large, brought with it a satisfaction and fulfilment I couldn't quite comprehend at the time. It was as I reached my early twenties and a failed (1st ) marriage that I drifted away from skateboarding and started to miss the rewards it had reaped. Through occupational friendships I then had a few years dabbling into an obscure past time known as golf. And although it replicated the feeling of achievement through repetitious training, I couldn't help but feel I hadn't found a calling to satisfy something more soulful within. Next was a foray into motorcycling. Again carrying its own merits, this time in satiating a need to take part in extreme sports, but restricted by the limitations of a machine which also brought the issues of excessive cost. The other aspect being that to push such an endeavour one needed a playground other than public roads (nb track days are expensive and prohibitive when one has a family). The one valuable asset that the biking brought was a realisation that when I got out onto the quieter roads, particularly in mountainous areas I felt a peace and happiness not experienced elsewhere.

As a person, I aim high and feel the need to push boundaries of what I perceive and others may deem possible. This may sound contrived and egotistical but that's not the intention. This is merely something within me that when verbalised carries an air of arrogance that's not intended. Maybe this is to derive some sensation I'm contributing something meaningful, or to generate a feeling of self worth. I'm not sure but I'll continue to seek the answers for my own satisfaction.

Thereafter I found running, and not in the arbitrary fitness sense, rather a need to connect with nature in as rural and mountainous setting I could realistically find. This need and desire came from a combination of life experiences (I may blog about another time) or from the realisation that this activity was providing me with a feeling of well being not replicated elsewhere. I feel fortunate in life to have found an activity which I firmly believe to be the source of my happiness. It drives me forward in an otherwise banal life that modern society presents me with. That and the wonderful family I've managed to surround myself with, who now offer full support and encouragement through this personal journey I find myself on.

Back on track;  (I have a vicious tendency to drift off on tangents, hopefully relevant though)

Ennerdale Water
After registering amongst the droves of Salomon (sponsors of this event incidentally) wearing masses, all looking the requisite and professional mountain goats, the realisation of my plight began to sink in. This, my first ultra (although only short at 31miles/50k in the big scheme of things), was a big step up in mileage for the last 12  months. Last October I'd embarked on my first half marathon, an undulating road race in Worksop, resulting in an average time. I then followed this effort with a marathon in Windermere in May of this year, with more elevation and double the distance. Both races resulted in learning re strategy, pacing etc and fairly mundane times (1:41 and 3:36 respectively).

9 Bar energy in the registration area

Cold at the start line, but with promise

Now only slightly better trained re endurance I found myself first to muster at the start line of this picturesque venture into the valley. The elevation certainly didn't intimidate me, the distance was a mild concern, what mattered most at that time was a gripey stomach. My wife Emma had complained of stomach ache and a lack of bowel movement a couple of days prior after eating a dodgy casserole I'd cooked. Now I was struggling to feel comfortable in that respect and had only managed to eat a small bowl of muesli and a 9bar (seedy energy bar), although at that time I felt well hydrated.

Countdown to the start
Most of the 50k competitors queueing back into the background (last minute kit check)
Yep, I'm gonna lead this baby out...not for long mind

Amongst the starters was a 2:30 marathoner, Steve Angus who I spotted amongst the front runners (one to watch me thinks!!). The shout of "Go" beside a couple of Salomon flags got things underway and a rush of bodies flew along the single track that skirted the edge of Ennerdale Water. I allowed 4 or 5 people to fly off before dropping in behind them and keeping easy pace. I then spent a couple of miles following Steve Angus and his friend Steve Weston. A glance at my Garmin showed a couple of miles in we were knocking out about 7minute miles. Although it felt comfortable I knew I'd pay dearly later on if I tried to sustain that pace, especially being so new to ultras. So after a personal battle with my ego on one hand and my sensible side on the other, I dropped back into a more sustainable 8 minute mile pace. After a short section with a small climb and rocky/muddy footing we picked up a wide forest track with easy footing and a slight incline. At this point several runners came ambling past, which again wasn't fun but I tried to play smart so early on. It's hard to be smug when you're the new guy to ultras and trying to tell yourself you'll reel people in later. Equally all this weighed heavily against the buzz of actually racing near the front for the first time. And so about 4 miles in a runner (not competing) coming in the opposite direction pointed to me and said "You're 16th mate". This lifted my spirits and strengthened my resolve (note to self); "I'm not losing any more places than that!" However a couple of hundred metres up the road another runner came alongside me on an incline. Trying to reserve energy I had to let him go, although chasing at that point didn't feel an issue. As the incline steepened the same runner seemed to be slowing and we played cat and mouse for a short distance. I then dropped in with 2 other runners chatting away together, Steve Weston and Mark Richardson. They happily accepted me into the group dynamic and onwards we went as a small unit.

It turned out that Mark and Steve had done numerous ultras and would provide me with a wealth of experience which served to try and outweigh my naivety. And so we continued along the ever climbing monotonous forest track, until about 7 miles in we reached the scout hut (aid station) nestled up in the end of the valley. After struggling to maintain any sort of eating strategy with gels ( I'd only had one up to press) I downed some water, ignored the 9 bars, flapjack and bananas and we all pressed on, now joined by another runner also called Steve. As we pressed on at a decent pace back towards the start line I still couldn't get anything down and my stomach was actually hurting. I tried to ignore it with the mindset that I might get away with less food on a shorter ultra, and equally it might just pass. I figured the scenery might see me through this...

Scenery for the soul

The final 3 miles or so of the first loop was a technical rocky (v slippy!) section that slowed our pace down to 11 minute miles. This section included a little kick with a small amount of scrambling on the cliff side. It then descended onto a nice twisty little track back to a small bridge leading to the start line.

Me and Mark side by side into halfway aid station

As we neared the mini aid station at the start line, the sight of Emma (my wife) and the kids was uplifting and helped immediately. At this stage it's fair to say my stomach was still an issue and I wasn't carrying any water (I'd taken a very slightly filled bladder with the thought that I'd just top it up, I didn't bother! Bottles would have been much more convenient, noted). I downed a couple of cups of water, kissed my wife and set off again chasing Mark and Steve who were keen to press on.

Starting second loop - Mark, Me, Steve W, other Steve.

Although I'd felt pretty good at this 15.5mile point, it was only another mile or so down the road the accumulation in my legs and lack of energy started to take its toll. I forced another gel down and within a short time my stomach hurt even more. Incidentally I'd set off forgetting to grab anymore gels from Emma, although I'd not consumed anywhere near what I'd planned so I had a couple of spares. Mark kindly threw me a pack of Clif shotbloks for later. So with my stomach hurting even more now I told the guys to carry on without me and I'd walk a short incline to try and settle my insides. I'm not sure whether this helped or not, as stopping to walk made the invitation to do so ever easier to accept.  I will learn from this and next time I'll press on running and just ease up the pace till later in an ultra. From there on out all I dreamt of was the scout hut aid station at the top of the valley as thirst was also taking over all other concerns. Along the ever climbing forest road I followed and closed in on Vicky, the lead female (and eventual winner of her category), although we both walked some of the shorter sharp inclines. Eventually I put a concerted effort in and pushed out ahead towards the aid station. When I hit it Mark was there with another guy and Steve had pressed on by himself. I said hi before they trotted off and I set about drinking about 4 cups of water and blackcurrant juice. Then whilst having a quick leak at the side of the scout hut, Vicky came charging into, then through the aid station with renewed vigour. I went to follow her down the valley but my legs really had no pep left, so it was more a trudge trying to keep the three of them in sight. A short while later I passed some guy who'd burnt out completely which immediately lifted my spirits (sorry whoever you are, it's just sometimes if you see others suffering worse it puts your own pain in perspective) .

Before the rocky technical section started all over again I caught Mark on an incline, where I think he'd stopped to have some company as he also was in a world of pain. It's funny how suffering with company makes it much more palatable. It was then that my vision started to narrow into a tunnel and my head became light. Mark suggested I try the shotbloks he'd given me, but I genuinely didn't want anything. However necessity forced my hand and I sampled one of the little blocks of blackcurrant jelly. It's fair to say they saved my effort that day, they were tasty, easy enough to swallow and weren't sickly like gels can sometimes be if you're not on song. So after telling Mark to press on without me, I hit the technical section with fresh and excited energy. The hydration issue was still a concern so I took the opportunity to drink from an inviting looking stream I encountered.

The new rocky and uneven footing worked wonders for my stride, moving away from the monotonous pounding I'd endured so far. I made steady but efficient progress to the point I caught Mark before the steep rocky incline to the cliff side. He stood to one side and invited me to pass, where I then hit the vertical at what felt like a sprint. Up and over I started seriously clock watching and aiming for the sub 5hour target I'd had in mind. Unfortunately this wasn't to be and as I hit the quicker flatter trail I up the acceleration but could see it was going to be too little too late.

I shook Steve's (Weston) hand on the bridge as he'd already finished, and ran the last muddy section to the finish line. The highlight at this point (other than the opportunity to stop) was hooking up with the kids who ran the last 30 metres or so in with me.

Best way to finish - sharing the experience with the family

The journey home after an eventful shower (fire alarms setting off and I don't think I could muster a run from any fire at that time) resulted in a couple of stop offs to puke at the roadside. It would take another hour or so and a Mcdonald's Big Mac meal before I returned to feeling slightly more regular. I would suffer a little tightness on my hips and knees over the next couple of days before having physio on the Wednesday and going for a brisk 3.5 miler that night. A quick recovery was another reward from all the mileage and conditioning I'd been doing.

To reflect on what could have been is probably being unfair on myself, a finish time of 5:02 and 16th position I suppose is a fair performance for a first timer. Yet I feel my potential holds more than this and my training will now reflect this ambition. I know a couple of areas where I might have pushed harder, but who's to say that wouldn't have resulted in a blowup of epic proportions.

Onwards and upwards as they say. Plans for next year are currently two ultras, a 40 miler in May (Dukeries Ultra)  and the 56 mile Ultra Tour of the Peak District in August time. I might then slide in some shorter fell runs in throughout for training/experience. I'll let my training progress and instincts guide me.

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