Sunday, 6 October 2019

3 Towers Ultra

Should be easy- local to home, mostly over moors I know, only 44 miles..... Ha Ha. Despite it being local we drove across in the van on Friday evening so that we could sort out flags and banners etc. Just as well because there were not many places to hang things.

I might know most of the area but not the myriad of rarely used paths that some of this route followed. Fortunately I had done a Howler recee for the second half and checked out some of the rest on my own. Yes, only 44 miles but that means some fast running and my body has become rather accustomed to stomping up very big hills or rock climbing. It was going to be tough.
Luckily some things did go my way. The weather forecast that had been pretty dire earlier in the week changed and in the end it was dry until early evening when most of us had finished. It was very wet and boggy underfoot but what's new on the South Pennine moors and soft ground helps my foot too. I was hoping I would have the company of some guides over the first few miles and this worked out too; well mostly.
Start line
We stumbled along over tussocks and ditches in the dark for about 30 minutes until sunrise but there was a line of local runners to follow. I picked the wrong runners to follow and did a quick visit to Darwen cemetery but we didn't lose much time there.
Not from today- I had no camera and the sky was not that blue
Once up at the Tower (aka Lancashire's rocket) I knew the way and could relax.

A nice run down to Slipper Lower, through the woods, across the road and up over Great Hill.
Great Hill
All familiar ground- and I have missed these moors after an absence of two months. There was still one short footpath after White Coppice that I had never been on before though.
I would have been happy on my own but had the intermittent company of several runners including Tim C who was recovering from an injury and taking it easy. Running off Great Hill and down to the cricket ground I spotted David and Laura from Sportsunday photos- I bet they were glad it wasn't raining. Before long CP1 at Jepson gate appeared. Somehow I was first lady? The next section had some fiddly bits and I am still not sure the best way through the boggy areas and up to Sheephouse Lane. Familiar ground around Rivington  and Winter Hill was straight forward and then CP2.
Winter Hill in the distance- we went up there too
I stopped here to refill bottles and eat a bit but I knew I had not really been eating enough- I struggle as soon as the pace increases and never really fancy much anyway. I was on my own from here through to CP3 as faster men had slowly pulled ahead. It was now warm and I stopped again to refill a bottle and eat again. I was still first lady at CP3 which was puzzling as I was sure Fiona was ahead.
After commiserating with Dick who had pulled out with a serious shoe malfunction I set off for our third tower above Ramsbottom- Peel Tower.
Peel Tower- Howler recee run
 I was starting to struggle now and knew I needed to run more but just couldn't do it. I like these moorland tops but my legs were heavy. After the drop to CP4 I slowed even more and then there was another drop to Book 1- The Long Way Home (you have to return with a page Barkley style.
Recee so I knew where to find the book
As I turned to trudge back up hill a grinning Fiona came flying down. She looked so fresh and was obviously overjoyed to have caught me. She had lost at least 20 minutes getting lost somewhere between Darwen Tower and CP1. She seemed to bounce away along the path and I tried to tell my tired body that once it was contouring I could run too.
Dry paths on the recee
I estimated that he gap was only about 4 minutes as I spotted her ahead and timed myself to that point. Book 2 was down a slightly hidden and overgrown path. Fiona couldn't find it. With only a slight error and one fence climb I led about 5 runners safely in. As we left the Haslingden area and turned for the final boggy moor Fiona upped the pace yet again. I tried to keep her in sight but lost her at the road crossing. I found the tiny overgrown path and stopped to pick a few raspberries- yes I know it was a race... and then knew it was only 10 minutes or so to the finish. I was going to be outside 9 hours and would not catch Fiona so the raspberries seemed a worth while treat.
No chance of me in shorts today
Stu from Howlers had set up a gazebo in the pub car park and Bob was there with the Runfurther boards and prizes. 9hrs 7 and about 3 minutes behind Fiona. It was good to stand there and cheer other runners in.

Today's effort had hurt. After a cup of tea, soup and a rest I treated myself to a massage. A good day out for Runfurther runners with Ken taking first man, David having a good run plus Fiona first woman and then me.

 Also thanks to the landlady for letting us 'camp' in the car park and put the flags where ever we liked. Also for the awesome double fried egg bap for breakfast. Nice little pub if you are in the area.

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Tor des Geants (The TOR)

I hardly know where to start with this- it was part of an action filled summer both before and after the race. I knew I wanted a new challenge and I have never done a stage race as even on the Northern Traverse I barely slept. The TOR is not a stage race as such but the only way to get my head round almost 340km and what would prove to be almost 30,000m of climb was to break it into stages at each Life Base. I didn't necessarily plan to sleep at each one or even to be at each one at night but it gave me manageable chunks. I had looked at others times - Matt Neale and Jenn Gaskell especially and so came up with my 3 targets. Bronze to finish and to have had fun most of the time; Silver to beat 130 hrs and Gold to beat 120 hours.
Just follow the yellow line
We spent the month before the race driving round France from crag to crag and climbing as hard as we could. It was hot but we scaled rock in Vergison, Remigny, Orpierre, the Dentelles and more. My legs got one short run near Autun but my core strength should be good! We trusted the sat nav to navigate to Courmayeur and it did a great job even if it didn't understand we were in a big van. A memorable day driving out of our special single night on a camp site with a pool, showers and real toilets in Briancon. It was only a 210km drive, but took most of the day and I was going to run more than half as far again.

 From Briancon over the pass to Sestrierre and Susa before turning north over the Cenis area

 and down to the far eastern end of the Maurienne valley, turn east up the Bonneval valley, over the Col d' Iseran,

down almost to Bourg St Maurice and then over the Petit St Bernard to Cormayeur.

So many amazing views and so many memories - family holidays in Briancon, Skiing and walking through deep snow drifts at Cenis, nordic skiing in a blizzard at Bessans, Via Feratta with the boys in Val d'Isere, so many ski holidays in Bourg and cycling down a piste on the Petit St Bernard before the boys were even born. It took all day, not the 5 hours that sat nav suggested.
A chilly Courmayeur when we arrived
We wanted to arrive early and make sure we got a space on the car park at the sports centre which was the event base. As it happens we could have waited 24 hrs but never mind. We explored, tried to get used to the cold (it was almost 15C cooler than we had been used to) and met Keri and Rob. I got itchy feet and explored the first section of the route to Col Arp 2571m and it snowed on me!

 Most of the rest of the time was spent faffing and getting more and more nervous about what I had taken on. The website said we needed GPS and so I bought one, only to find the official file was so huge I couldn't work out how to upload it.
Snow and rain arrriving
In the end the little yellow flags were enough (except where the cows had eaten them) and it never left my drop bag! By Saturday I was registered and my drop bag packed and deposited. At least having one bag that would follow me round meant I didn't have to worry about what to put in each bag like at the GRP.

Glad I wore tights given the snow and cold nights
Race day was cool and sunny, but warmer than previous days. I met up with Matt N and another Matt, plus Andy H and a few more. I had seen Nicky, Jenn, Lee Kemp, Zoe and others earlier too.
Nervous before the start pen
We seemed to be in the pen for ages before the count down and cheering began. It was a slow start through the restricted streets of the old town and then after crossing the river a gradual climb to the forest path.  As we neared the edge of town the rain started and what was a few drops quickly became heavy. Time to dive into shelter and dig out a waterproof. Up through the forest was slow and with very limited chance to overtake but with over 330km what was the hurry at this stage.
Col Arp to La Thuile (from Andy H)
Once we left the forest the snow started, just as it had when I explored a few days earlier. By the Col Arp the snow was quite heavy and the trail looked like a scene from the Tour de Helvellyn back home.
Climbing to Col Arp (from Andy H)
The descent to La Thuile was brilliant and the fell side off the path was very runnable. We were soon out of the snow but my mind was in a panic - the next col was even higher and I had put my micro spikes in my drop bag. What if I couldn't get over the col and complete the route to the first Life Base? It messed with my head and so by the CP in La Thuile I was convinced I needed spikes to carry. I spoke to the only fireman in the town who had a broad Yorkshire accent and discovered where I could buy some. It was a 30 min detour but my mind was put to rest. I got some strange looks as I ran through the town and back searching for the shop. I knew to eat little and often and early but somehow in the snow, the fast descent and then the worry I had not done so. I tried to eat now and managed some pasta, bread, chocolate and coke.
The rest of the afternoon passed in a blur. I can remember passing and chatting to Jenn. I think she was struggling with a knee problem. I knew my race plan had to be flexible and so when I got to Valgrisenche in the dark and not having eaten enough I knew I should rest. In the dark over the col with the fixed ropes I had escaped a close call with a big falling rock and then at the perspex box CP at the top had thrown up after a small amount of food and drink. The three cols of 2571m, 2875m and 2829m plus 50km had taken their toll at several hours a piece. The beds were great and the dorm quiet but I barely slept. I did though have chance to take stock, use the loo, drink chocolate milk and then go into the very crowded food hall. It was packed and I was not feeling like what they had on offer. I craved milk based stuff and did manage two yogurts plus a few other bits and pieces. I set off out again alone at about 00.30am.
Somewhere in the next section I hooked up with Matt N - we had a greed in advance no pact but company would be good and we knew we could run together after hours on the NT. It was a good day, not too hot and with some amazing scenery. There were three enormous climbs with cols at 2840m,3002m and 3279m. Each climb took well over two hours and closer to three. My memories are muddled but I remember big climbs for hours, big drops for hours and it being warm once the sun was up. On the way to the third col, Loson,  I was suffering a little and let Matt go on. We had already seen the other Matthew but he was struggling badly with heat, altitude and more. Up and up I climbed until I could see lots of compacted snow. I escaped without the need for spikes but those coming later once the sun dropped would struggle. After the perspex box CP at the top I got second wind and loved the narrow descent path. I ran down to Sella enjoying myself to find Matt had been cat-napping. It was good to see him again and after refuelling we set off together. Once we hit the valley I thought we were almost there but no, the trail continued along the valley and then across the spur and into another valley before at least another km into the village. We arrived at Cogne in the late afternoon with a plan for a couple of hours sleep or so. I envied Matt. He seemed to be able to arrive, eat, sleep and then after a few hours be ready to go. I arrived and struggled with food, got a doctor to inject me for nausea, had my feet taped and under my ribs where the pain on the left was becoming an issue and then tossed on my bed for 90 mins or so. I did feel the benefits of the injection and was able to manage a serious refuel before waiting for Matt to leave with me. We had been there almost 5 hours in all. I only really register this now and am appalled at how long everything seemed to take. Perhaps I should have let Bob support me after all. If I taped my own feet, let somebody else worry about recharging my torch and phone and refilling water bottles and snacks to carry it must be possible to cut that time? We set off into the dark hoping to reach Donnas for breakfast. As we left the village a cafe was doing free coffee and biscuits which was nice. Despite the dark there were beautiful sections and I loved the rocky area where we met the Tor des Glaciers route and then the  lovely alpine pasture paths. There was also a section of forest which had been damaged by a storm and the path and wooden railings were in a bad state. This section also had an amazing gorge with huge pools, massive rocks and some bouncy bridges. On the spreadsheet of altitudes it seemed we would be going downhill- the reality was the path crossed the gorge a couple of times and had some serious climbs. OK, not serious as in several hours up but bad enough when you expected downhill. Again I thought we were nearly there only to find the village with the level crossing was not quite Bard - and we had to wait for two trains! Then there was the picturesque Bard with narrow streets and fort but even this was not quite Donnas until we had run along the old cobbled/rock Roman road and then through the town. At 8.43am we arrived, so not quite breakfast. Time for a serious refuel. Matt then went off to sleep but I did not feel tired and knew I would struggle to sleep in sunshine and heat. I left a note on his blanket and hoped he would catch me later. I set off as luck would have it with Andy H, a new friend made on the Tor. At Perloz we had the treat of home baked sugared cakes/donuts before the photographer at Tour d'Hereraz.  The climb was through interesting vineyards trained on roof like trellises and then more pastures. As we climbed the clouds thickened and the rain appeared. We waited but it was soon heavy enough to demand waterproofs. The next CP was in a tiny gazebo so no real shelter. Luckily the chalet had also put up a dome tent with real beds in it. We claimed one each and voted for two hours sleep. When we were woken the rain had just stopped - superb. We should have stopped to eat more. I felt good initially and even by Coda with the lovely mountain ridges and views down to the Turin Plain I was moving well. This little refuge had our food in the cramped basement. We ate but not much and thin soup with a few tiny bits of pasta was not really hitting the mark. In the next section I felt ill and started to lack energy. We did pass a tiny unofficial food station and it had the best spread of the lot! Melon, home baked apricot tart and so much more. By Barma I was suffering and struggling to eat again. I was made a double shot of coffee here which I thought would help but on an empty stomach it seemed to have a very odd effect. The next section from Barma to Col Marmontana  and Col Vecchia was in the dark with some big ups and downs, even some short bits of iron work. I felt very wobbly and almost not in my body. Each zig zag turn on the descent seemed to take me longer to adjust and sort my balance. Andy was clearly worried. I did try to eat and the marshalls were roasting meat with melted cheese but after a few nibbles I was sick. We grabbed an hours sleep in an overheated porta-cabin and it helped a little. We hoped that when we got to Niel Refufio we could have a proper rest and even sleep. Sadly we arrived to find only one bed which I let Andy take. I tried to sleep on the floor but failed. I moved into the dining room and found Matt also struggling and wanting to sleep. I managed a big bowl of what seemed like cottage pie and fell asleep at the table. We left Niel as the sun was coming up and after one big climb and yes, another big drop we were in Gressoney. I think it was en route to here that we had the best CP food at a little chalet in the sun- ravioli, cheeses and even the offer of wine. Matt stuck to his routine in the Life Base and I managed to eat more, sleep a bit more ( I think the glass of beer helped), eat again and also get my feet taped. It seemed a shame to waste daylight but it just had to be. We left together refuelled and in good spirits. Leaving the village we got an ice lolly which lifted our spirits further. The weather was now sunny and so much warmer hence the 3/4 tights, T Shirt and all the photos. A bit of a shame I took none in the first 200km.
The climb to Col Pinter was well over 1500m but seemed to pass quickly and we were treated to a herd of Ibex on the ridge as we arrived.

 The drop to Champouluc was just as great but what a lovely little ski town. We left town at dusk and made our way through a wooded area of trails, BBQ pits and stunning views on Monta Rosa.
Had to keep remembering to turn and check the views behind too
The biggest climb was in the dark over the Cols of Di Nana 2770m and Des Fontaines 2695m plus the height lost in between and then regained. Then it was mostly down and down some more to Valtourmenche. We ran lots of it but by the last path in the forest our brains were fried even if the legs were willing.
Big views to Mnt Blanc and others- a huge descent again on leg 6
I let Matt pull ahead knowing I would seem him soon in the Life Base. By now we were in a pattern and each stuck to our rituals including a couple of hours sleep. I was so pleased that I had packed chocolate milk and boxes of custard as when all else failed these slid down OK. As did a few MF jellies. Giving back my drop bag I almost got 'retired' here when a guy misunderstood my ' finished with my Tor bag' for finished/ stopping/out of race. I set off before Matt but guessed he would catch me later. At 3am I was on my own as I circled the town and climbed near what looked to be really interesting rock walls and then up to a huge reservoir dam. My stops at the next two Refugios were just long enough to sit, drink and eat and then as the sun was up and I was on my way to Fenetre Tzan Matt appeared again.
Spotting where we were heading was daunting

We stayed together all day and although at times I was tempted to push on I quite liked his laid back 'lets enjoy this' approach. We had an ice cream at one CP in a lovely chalet,

 waited patiently behind a herd of cows being brought off the mountain

 and had a lie in the shade at a tiny Refugio.

The scenery was stunning in all directions.

We had seen the whole Monta Rosa range, the Matterhorn, the Mont Blanc range and others that I could not name.
Descents were enormous and what you thought was the bottom wasn't
The drop to Oyace seemed to go on forever and we were so pleased to see the village that we made a silly mistake and ran straight past the ice cream shop.
Cracked lips- take lipsalve next time
It was now boiling hot and the CP although large just had more thin soup, plain pasta and nothing remotely chilled. We tried to rest but after a short time gave up and headed up to the last big climb of the day in the heat of the afternoon.
There was always a view, even at night
The climb soon passed and the descent the other side was technical and interesting - for a while. We shot past a Chinese couple that were very timid and were amazed to find them in long tights, long sleeves, gloves etc. But then the descent went on and on and the track became a stony farm track that was not pleasant.
The Matterhorn looking majestic
Worse still it dropped us down the valley and we then had to climb slowly back up along the road to the Life Base at Ollamont. We arrived at 8pm in the dark and I needed my bed. I was abrupt or rude to the poor marshall as he showed us to the changing room when all I wanted was a bed! I did apologise. Then as I was setting my torch to charge Keri appeared. She was upset, injured and retiring but wanted to chat. I just wanted to sleep. This was the worst sleeping at a Life Base. It was freezing in the big tent, noisy from the changing room and after a couple of hours I woke frozen. Matt sat up and spoke but has no recollection of this. I explained I was going and hoped he would catch me.
Taking a moment to check the legs before the climb to Col Pinter
I ate a bit before leaving and chatted to the lady who would become 1stV60 - we had seen quite a bit of each other over the hours. The last leg started with you guessed it- a big climb to 2707m.
Not looking too bad considering this was almost 100 hours in
The views at the col were amazing as I looked down on the fairy lights of towns and then began another lovely descent. I even overtook a couple of guys. The second food station was tiny but three guys were comatose on the floor. I was feeling great and had some 'real' soup and then beef and potatoes cooked in red wine! It was awesome and fuelled me along the next boring flat section. This went on and on until I dreamt I was on an Escher painting working hard but getting nowhere. Eventually Bosses and the St Bernard tunnel came into view. I ate but didn't stop long although a request for the toilet took me on an escorted tour of the town hall nearby.
Easy ground to Rifugio Frassati
 The sun was up and it helped. True I sat on a rock and fell asleep for a brief time but mostly I was moving well. A few other runners appeared and I used this to help pull me along. I promised myself an ice cream at the Rifugio Frassati but when I got there they had none. Disappointed I grabbed a few bites to eat and set off the Malatra at a fast pace.
can you spot the path to the top?
This bit was stunning and I now wish I had stopped to take more photos,
Malatra window- the iconic shot
especially of me in the gap (the iconic race photo shot) and of Mont Blanc.

 I was on a mission now and the end was in sight. I raced down from the col and then found at Aminaz we still had almost 14km to go.
Great running down from Malatra
I slowed a bit but then got excited when I misunderstood a tourist. I asked how far to Bertone and thought he said 4-5 minutes. It was 45 which made more sense but I was tired and had now been on the go for almost 120 hours.
Apparently one of the glaciers is about to collapse now (Oct)
 Eventually Bertone appeared and there was support from more and more tourists and runner's families.

Only 6km or so to go. Some was the sort of track it's easy to trip on and I slowed here just in case. Bob had been texting me to make sure he was at the finish line and I was just so happy I was going to finish. I raced the last section down hill and all through the town.

The support really gave me a lift and then there was the finish ramp and gantry. 121 hrs 21 mins, 20th female, 151st overall and 4th FV50.

About 25 hours were part of major stops to sleep, eat and rest, it seems a huge amount in retrospect and I wonder how much I could shave off this if I was more efficient- and yet still enjoy it/ not be too sleep deprived.

We took the finish photos, signed the boards and then sat under the tented finish area in the main square.

Matt wasn't far behind and we cheered him in.

 My feet were a bit mashed and sore but I only had one tiny blister that I should have stopped to deal with in the last hour.

My legs felt strangely fine, far better than after the H200 or NT. I was no where near as trashed. Perhaps this means I did not race hard enough? Who knows.It was an interesting challenge and a real effort keeping it together over so many hours- thinking, following flags, deciding what to eat, where to sleep, recharging phones and torches, repacking after a Life Base, restocking snack food and water, taping feet, changing socks .... Support would be good (Bob had offered, so that is my fault entirely). Would I do it again? Yes. I learnt a great deal and would love to do it as a V60 in two years time if I can get a place and am still running OK.

The next days were mostly spent drinking beer and eating ice cream. We had a lovely celebration meal with Matt the next evening having watched the last people run in before the final cut off and those doing the 30km race from Malatra sprint in.

Running with Matt again was great and I now have a new friend in Andy. He took lots of video and has made a great post race video that he has shared on Youtube- fantastic scenery and memories.