Tuesday, 25 November 2014

White Rose Ultra

It’s been a busy year for racing in the respect that I’ve done 4 ultras this year. They’ve been a step up in distance and elevation to some tune. After a satisfactory but bumpy start with the Highland Fling and Lakeland 50, I realised that the Ladybower 50 would be my A race in relation to a high finishing position and a solid time. This race is beneficial in a number of respects; it’s hugely runnable, easy navigation and being local allows me to arrive at the start line feeling ready and fresh. And this certainly paid dividends with 2ndplace and beating the previous years course record. This was great for a runners high, justifying all the training and effort, but as always leaves that hollow feeling of the end of the journey and ‘post race blues’.

Which leads me to this anomaly; the 4th ultra. White Rose Ultra would provide 2 UTMB points to add to the other 4 I’d already accrued and provide a new distance not yet reached (60 miles). Which would be a great confidence builder when pushing up to the 100 miler next year. Unfortunately I’d struggled to muster much motivation for the race. My legs just felt flat in the 10 or so day taper I’d endured and my enthusiasm for a beasting wasn’t really there. The benefit of this being that I wasn’t feeling any great pressure to perform or produce my ‘best’. Of course there’s always the external pressures of expectation from friends and family, but I put these to the back of mind, rather storing this information to use as a motivator late in the race when I might want to take my foot off the gas!

The kids and me just before the start

To fuel this dilemma the weather on the day looked pretty grim on the forecast, we would be starting and finishing in a downpour. I could be looking at around 8 hours of freezing, wet conditions to endure with maybe a more pleasant dry spell in the middle. This all added to the dampening of my motivation. Still as we arrived in Marsden, in the Colne Valley I couldn’t help but get a flutter of excitement at the dramatic hills surrounding us. Check in at the Cricket Club went smoothly enough and I managed to clarify some kit logistics before jumping back into the warmth of my car with the wife and kids. We waited until just before the 8 o’clock start time when I pried my tired body into the chilly wind and rain to muster on the start line. 250 runners had entered (a sell out race) including some sponsored folk so I expected some decent competition. Unfortunately the race had both a 30 and 60 mile option and we were to set off together. The issue with this is differentiating who’s who when trying to gauge a sensible pace to set off at. I didn’t want to get dragged into a frenetic early pace with the 30 milers and have nothing left for the second lap.
As we were set off, I’d made my way to the front with no issue and only a couple of fast looking guys seemed keen to lead off. Out the cricket club we went onto a steepish descent down a tarmac road, which had me breaking early on when I should be letting myself use gravity to get an advantage. About a quarter of a mile down the road though we turned right and began a pretty decent ascent, initially still on road up to the Wessenden trail. This section was pretty good, after first the steep road bit we went onto a nice flat trail where I could maintain a good cadence but easy effort to settle into the days running. I ran a short section of this with Alex Loach, a Twitter runner I’d been put in touch with via another Twitterite. He was running the 30 and was keen for a sub 5 hour finish, which in my mind was going to be too quick if I was to complete the 60 in a fairly even time (over the two laps). So after a short while I eased off and let Alex go. I’d settled into a nice position and pace as we ascended the trial by a reservoir and into the local hills. I was already enjoying the impressive scenery and looking forward to what I was going to see throughout the course. I thought I might be in first place for the 60 and inside the top ten if I was running just the 30 at that point. As we reached the top of Wessenden hill I passed an aid station without stopping. We’d only done 5 miles so it seemed madness to stop for refreshments so early on. Back onto road we reached another steep descent which I tried to push on but was actually struggling for traction with my New balance MT110’s. It was here a guy came past and I could see from his number he was a 60 runner, and oddly seemed to be in convoy with cyclist?? (Odd as no pacers were allowed). Still it was a long race and I just didn’t feel like racing hard yet. As we reached a red pillar box I’d seen on Facebook as a turning point we were back onto moorland and trails which I thoroughly enjoyed the respite from the steep road.
The miles ticked by and I eventually dropped in with a 30 mile runner (I think his name was Chris) who seemed to be somewhat similar paced to myself. We chatted away as we ran over various bits of trail and probably a little too much road for my liking. The course markings were fantastic though. Every bend and turn was marked with large yellow arrows and even repeaters on longer straights to reassure runners they were still on the right path. Although an easy effort at about 12 miles or so I was surprised to see some runners catching us. A 60 miler, who I’d guess to be about 50 odd years of age came past looking strong initially, but after a steep ascent we reeled him back in and past him fairly easily. This whole section with Chris (?) was enjoyable and I never felt I was pushing excessively. Food particularly for me was going down pretty well. I was mixing GU gels with the aid station sweet treats and bananas as well. My stomach never felt like it was rejecting anything which I would attribute to my improved racing performances recently. If anything I could maybe have drank more water, but with the cool conditions I wasn’t feeling dehydrated.

Chris and me running out of the second aid with Cameron in pursuit!

Highlights over this section were a comedy ‘bog from hell’  we were warned about by a walker and plenty of tasty enough elevation changes to prevent me getting frustrated with the roads. After the 15 mile mark we hit a decent ascent and a female 30 miler joined us. As we started to stomp up the incline I could tell you Chris was flagging a little and much as I’d enjoyed his company I started to push on. Head phones in – Mumford and Sons singing the first track up – and I stepped things up a little before hitting a really fun descent where I let myself go somewhat. After this highlight it was back to a short bit of road drudgery where me and the female runner had a route decision to make, which was successfully negotiated before hitting the next aid station. Another 60 mile runner caught up here, a dude with flopsy hair. He looked to be moving well so after seeing the family who were stood waiting about 100 metres after the aid I took the decision to let him go and have a little coke. Onwards and upwards through some muddy tracks before another longish road section. Although I knew I was moving fairly quickly along here with a nice fast cadence, I wasn’t enjoying the pounding and my right hip was flaring up pretty badly now. 
Over the next section to the 25ish mile point I remember another fun descent playing with a few 30 milers that had caught up, but subsequently were left on this fast section. As I hit the aid a guy caught up with a green dyed Mohawk. He also looked to me moving good as I felt I was beginning to slow a bit. I think this put me in either 3rd or 4th place. The last 5 miles of the first lap comprised a cracking climb up first a really steep gradient on tarmac before moving onto a similarly vertical trail. I enjoyed this part just for the relief on my hip while I progressed into a fast power hike. My hiking in sections like this is getting better over time and something I aim to keep working on. I believe that even with the carb-catastrophy I suffered at the Lakeland 50 this year, with a now more efficient hiking ability my finish time would be much stronger. In the last 3 miles or so there was another steep climb into a bit of boggy farm and moorland where I seemed to be amongst a lot more runners. It became apparent most if not all these were 30 milers some suffering more than others. So after a long flat trail towards the finish, I could see the switchback down to my left which led onto the cricket ground for the end of lap one. This gave me a significant lift with the promise of seeing my family again and knowing I wasn’t running on terrain I would be retreading. Which is always the psychological downside of these lapped ultras. On the final sprint down to the ‘finish’ area Alex Loach bobbed alongside me again. I’d been totally in the zone a couple of miles earlier and flown right by without even noticing it was him.  Quick apology for my apparent ignorance and me and Alex sprinted the last loop over the line for his 30 mile finish. Turns out we were in 7th place for the 30 miler in a time of 4:37 I think, which coincidently would have been enough for a win the previous year. I was happily greeted by Emma and the kids before briskly going inside the race HQ for something savoury. I was gutted to see a small platter of sweet stuff including some kind of heavy chocolate slice which was all that vaguely fit my taste requirements. Miserable for the lack of some savoury stodge, I ran back out onto the road to repeat the route I’d just run.

Alex loach and me finishing the first 30 mile lap

By this time my hip was tight and painful so the initial descent and subsequent ascent up to Wessenden was painful and laborious to say the least. The climb had a convoy of 4 60 mile runners changing position all the way up the valley. One of these runners was the guy from the previous lap with a bicycle in convoy. My wife had mentioned this and that she was annoyed that this guy essentially had a pacer which offered certain advantages. Myself, I wasn’t that bothered prior to this encounter. However now he had 2 cyclists riding along with him which presented a couple of glaring facts. Firstly, it appeared he’d premeditated a number of pacers throughout the day in blatant disregard for the rules. Which in itself wouldn’t have been so bad if one the cyclists were now making it incredibly difficult for me to pass said runner, or even worse the runner was now carrying none of the mandatory kit! So having passed him and had a chat with one of the other runners, as we hit the aid station we pointed this out to them so he could be spoken to. We were carrying about 8kg of kit which was giving him a serious advantage on the ‘final stretch’.
3 of us left the aid relatively close together leaving the paced runner behind. After a couple of miles I naturally dropped in with the guy with the Mohawk who introduced himself as Kelvin. If I’m perfectly honest I was grateful for the company, it would take my mind off my sore hip and the long grind ahead of me. And so the lap was repeated, me and Kelvin running together assisting each other to keep moving with a solid tick over.

Kelvin and Me loving the pain some 40-odd miles in

As we arrived at the now 45 mile checkpoint, Emma was waiting armed with pork pies! We gratefully received the fat filled snacks which our bodies had started to crave now the intensity of the first lap had dropped. Emma informed me we were 3rd and 4th, with 2ndmaybe 10 minutes ahead. This information rejuvenated me a little so I grabbed a handful of Doritos and trudged on with Kelvin trailing a little. We hit the next ascent together, but I just got the impression Kelvin was less inclined to run some of the slighter gradients. As the incline kicked again, I got my head down and started to march a bit harder. The lure of 2nd only 10 minutes ahead was too much to keep me back. Unfortunately at this pace I looked back and saw Kelvin was falling behind a bit. I shouted back to check on his welfare, to which he replied and gave me the thumbs up to move on.
Music back on for inspiration I summit’ed the climb and started to run hard. The same descent I’d enjoyed earlier greeted me with open arms, and it occurred to me I’d left Chris on the first lap on exactly the same climb of the route. Hitting the road I reminded myself Kelvin had informed me he was a 2:44 marathoner so fully expected to see him again shortly. However it was a mile or so later the wheels came off when I realised I’d missed a turning somewhere along the road and was off course. I’d been sorting my coat and headlamp out and must have missed a direction arrow. I initially ran back along the road to see if I could see Kelvin’s headlamp to no avail. Next I tried my Suunto Ambit nav, but this was also presenting a problem as I was so far off course on zoom mode I couldn’t even see the route, just a lonely arrow in the screen with no sense of direction. I took the decision to try running further along the road to see if I could converge back on course. A bit further along and I just caught a glimpse of the route line on my watch in the corner of the screen. So with an extra little climb and a detour I finally got back on route. This would have been fine but about 200 metres later I realised there was an aid station further back along the section I’d missed! I looked back into the fading light and could see the aid station in the distance. Quick decision was to ring the race director and seek some advice. However as I pulled my phone out Emma was actually ringing me. She informed me she was at the aid with Kelvin and was wondering where I was. Kelvin confirmed to the marshalls’ I’d been in front of him and with a flash of my headlamp and a call to the race director I was given the go ahead to continue my pursuit of 2nd place, Mark Davies.
The rest of the race was hard, but also massively enjoyable. My legs came back to me in places where I could really push. I felt super strong on the trail descents and still had a good climb left in me. This didn’t stop me regularly checking backwards to see if any headlamps were coming. But I was also looking forward for any glimpse of a light in front and the opportunity to place higher. This proved my mindset could still be positive and competitive late in a long race like this. It truly felt like a war of attrition at this point, but I had the strength to push on and keep fighting.
The final section with the switchback view down to the finish confirmed I wasn’t catching second, which may or may not have been a different story had I not gone on my merry detour and added to the route! But as I hit the last little road, I really picked up my pace just to secure a solid finish. The run around the ‘track’ at the cricket club was great. Emma and the kids shouting and clanging the cow bells.
I’d finished in 10:16:42, which was a minute quicker than last years 1st place (previous course record), which put me in 3rd place. The most pleasing aspect of this was clambering onto the podium and my son, Cameron pointing out that Daddy was now like Valentino Rossi in Moto GP.

The podium

As a season closer this was satisfying a time and position in a race I wasn’t sure where I might fall in the rankings. It’s given me some great motivation and confidence to continue to progress into 2015 and try and push for some good results.
Roll on 2015.

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