It did take a while; both for me to write this long overdue update and to cross the finish line in each of my last two races.
Before the wheels fell off at Sonoma 50
Two weeks ago, the classic UK 61 mile Fellsman was epic in many ways but let’s step back a few weeks to Lake Sonoma and my second 50 mile race of the year. In my younger days I used to delight in pulling off “back to back” challenges like the Fellsman and Scottish Islands Peaks race on consecutive weekends and the High Peak Marathon on a Friday night followed by the New Chew on the Sunday.
Based on that, I felt that 3 whole weeks should be ample time for recovery from my efforts at the Backbone trail – I knew I had worked kind of hard over the last 18 miles that day but, 3 weeks, surely.
Well, the field for Sonoma 50 was stellar. John and Lisa have turned that event into one of the premier 50 milers and ensured an invitational field that was deep, deep, deep. Conditions in the build-up were pretty wet and I had already run the return leg of this out and back course so figured it might be nicely wet and muddy – after all, there is a significant subset of Californian runners who don’t like to get their feet wet so surely it would be an advantange?
We set off fairly fast and generally speeded up on a roller coaster of a course that really stops you getting into a rhythm. The hills are short but sharp – I’m not complaining, I actually love the course, just wish I ran it a bit better. First half was pretty much OK although I saw the leading runners heading back way sooner than I had hoped and, boy, was Dakota running fast or what!!
It was at about the turnaround that a wheel fell off. No big thing but then a second one wobbled and fell too. OK - so we have a cart to pull but surely a few gels and a bit of a drink would sort that out in minutes. No, actually both hamstrings suddenly tightened on the descent back down to the lake after Madrone Point and, before I knew it, all 4 wheels were off and I was dragging the cart. Loosely translated this means a limping walk/shuffle at sub 4mph.
Oh dear, the trouble is I don’t really remember having to deal with issues like these on races in the part. It is all perfectly normal; after all, someone recently described Ultra-running as a long distance problem solving exercise, but the mind has a strange ability to scrub out all the messy, painful bits and just retain images of running effortlessly along sunlit ridges.
So, feeling suitably sorry for myself I shuffled along for a few minutes, past Wolflow springs where Stan Jensen recorded my split time with a look that said “I remember when you used to be quicker than this” and onto the next climb. This proved to be a very good opportunity to talk to myself – along the lines of “well, you ARE going to finish this so do you want to wallow in self pity as well as mud, take twice as long and be late for dinner with Lynn’s family or do you want to take charge of the situation, make sensible choices and get going as best as you can”. Put that way it seemed a no brainer so I ate, drank, took big strides to work out some of the tightness in my muscles and got going again. In the end though, the pretty girl always works so when Darcy Africa trotted past me I decided this was a good opportunity to strike up a conversation about Hardrock, running, life and everything. It worked a treat. What you think is what you become right? So, I was thinking that I was strong, studly and determined. Well, I at least managed the 3rd one of those and so we ran together for about 5-6 miles before, amazingly, I pulled ahead a little. The final 11 miles or so took a while but I was now catching people again so the virtuous circle established itself, Underworld provided the metronome and I even started running some ups again.
In the end, what I had hoped might be a sub 8-hour completion became an 8hr 46minute effort but, hey, no-one older than me was ahead of me and that’s one of the benchmarks these days.
The next day I flew back to the UK. Aisle seat booked, I put on the compression socks and studiously walked around the plane a lot but boy was I sore. It felt as if I hadn’t run like that for months and the following days were not much better. Somehow 10 days passed in a blur and it was time to head up to Yorkshire for the Fellsman
...and so, all too quickly, to 50 glorious years of the Fellsman. Those who know me certainly know my soft spot for this event. First attempted back at the age of 17 or so as an attempt to step up from the challenges of the Masters Hike, Calderdale Hike and 4-Inns, this event in some ways defines my running career.
After a DNF that first time with a knee locked solid I returned a few years later as someone with ideas on a Bob Graham round and a few fell races under my belt. Coming 2nd to Phil Clarke massively exceeded my expectations as did the satisfaction of a grand day out in Yorkshire. To this day I love the finish which gives just enough time to appreciate the transition from the high moors to the enclosed fields and then the descent down into the pretty little village of Grassington.
Over the years, a 3rd place, a batch of wins, a 12th (the wheels fell off that year) and a 2nd meant that this would be my 18th start at the event. First priority was to erase the disappointment of last year where I pulled a hamstring and dropped out after only 11 miles. It really did not come as a surprise when my hamstrings tightened again coming off Ingleborough – being honest, I had been bad about stretching the past 2 weeks and had allowed the tightness developed after Sonoma 50 to remain. I really only had myself to blame and it’s funny to reflect that sometimes it can be the littlest of things we overlook or neglect.
I almost viewed it as a good thing – that I was forced to slow down early. 6 weeks ago I had grand plans of giving Jez and the other youngsters a run for their money on this course but previous races, the Backbone trail efforts and more had left me feeling strong but not super fast. So, without the leaders to worry about I could concentrate on my own race – well, apart from dealing with the anxious comments and looks of those who still expect me to be way out front!!
I think the real story of this year’s event is not mine – I stabilised at about Kingshouse and clawed back a few places from there to record 12th place in about 12hrs 30something – the real story is about the weather. The race was held 2 weeks earlier than previously. Often though, late April weather can be great and, sure enough, February and March were pretty dry months. The deluge was well underway during April though and then the weekend of the event brought biting Northerly and Easterly winds. What precipitation there was fell as hail and sleet and the day just got colder. For most of the second half I was running in long sleeve top, short sleeve top, goretex jacket, hat and gloves and still cold!
At 2am, with checkpoints becoming overwhelmed with hypothermia cases and with one ambulance call already underway the organisers took the very difficult but entirely correct decision to abandon the event. It is a testament to their emergency plan that everyone was returned to base and that everyone was eventually OK despite a few hypothermia cases. On the final section as I raced the fading daylight from Park Rash I was acutely aware that if I had to stop for any reason I would be in big trouble within minutes. I only really had a survival bag and that would have done nothing. It is sobering to remember that conditions in the UK can be so demanding.
So, 2 races, both finished solidly and in times that I was not happy with but finished nevertheless. Just under 4 weeks now until the 100 miler so I hope they will stand me in good stead. It is clear that I am not going to be leading at San Diego but its another piece of unfinished business to get out of the way. I know a good chunk of the course now and it is beautiful. Two weeks after that I get to work really hard pacing none other than Lizzy Hawker at Western States. .Acutely aware that there is a good chance I might get dropped I really need to keep the training going.
Then maybe, it’s time to hit the mountains. Let’s see!!