Into the Footprints of Legends

“Lives of great men all remind us, we can make our lives sublime, and, departing, leave behind us, footprints on the sands of time.”

– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 BGR Robinson

(Getting that “feet in the clouds” feeling!)

Last weekend, my world was centred on a little holiday flat in the Lake District, where thirteen of us had gathered for what promised to be an unforgettable weekend. Armed only with our fell running shoes, a wooden relay baton, a plethora of maps and timetables and a seemingly endless supply of crisps and cookies, we had joined forces in order to take on the mighty Billy Bland Challenge (a relay of the infamous Bob Graham Round).

The location of our base camp could not have been more fitting for our amazing adventures, as we stayed on the dreamy shores of Ullswater and in the shadow of Helvellyn, one of the highest mountains in England. The latter had a special meaning for me, as in 2010 I had attempted to climb the mountain in winter but due to deteriorating weather conditions had abandoned my bid for the summit shortly before reaching Swirral ridge – only to find out the next day that two walkers had died on the mountain shortly after I had made my retreat. The experience served as a sobering reminder that we must always respect the mountains (as an extension of nature in general).

But just before we embarked on our very own running adventure across the fells of the Lake District, it just so happened that someone else’s were coming to their own incomprehensibly epic conclusion. On the same night that saw us enjoying our pre-run pasta orgy in Glenridding, Steve Birkinshaw was due to complete his titanic run of all the Wainwrights; a route which saw him running a total of 515 km (320 miles), across the summits of 214 fells with a total ascend of 36,000 m (118,000 ft). I genuinely can’t think of any adjectives that could adequately enhance my description of this truly epic feat, so I’ll just leave you with the facts and trust that your minds will boggle just like mine has done (and still does!). He completed the round in 6 days and 13 hours, and in doing so not only broke Joss Naylor’s record which has stood since 1987, but also raised many thousands of pounds for individuals with Multiple Sclerosis, a condition which his sister suffers. I wouldn’t have missed the chance to see him finish his incredible journey for the world, so late at night, when everyone else was being sensible by climbing into their bunk beds and sleeping bags, I made my way to the Moot Hall in Keswick to cheer this legend of a man across the finish line.

Steve Birkinshaw

(A night to remember: the legend that is Steve Birkinshaw)

So when Louise and I (cheered on by the rest of the team) found ourselves standing on the steps of the very same Moot Hall the next morning with our minds on a mission to blaze the trail of Bob Graham to Honister Pass (i.e. leg one of an anti-clockwise Bob Graham round), I can’t deny that it felt rather iconic and special. We were about to step into the footsteps of many, many incredible athletes who have tested themselves on the fells of the Lake District before us.

Our original plan was to begin our journey at 7am, but because we were all a bit nervous, we did what nervous runners do best, and at 6:45 we all embarked on a warm-up relay to and from the parking lot loos, which we finished in an official record time of 20 minutes.

Then, finally, at 7:05, Louise and I dashed off down the High Street of Keswick, which much to our general amusement elicited precisely absolutely no reaction whatsoever from the locals who were setting up their market stalls. Clearly, they are used to this kind of behaviour from obsessive fell runners and have taken to politely ignoring it. Our plan was to blast along the 6 mile road section to the base of our first hill as fast as we could; an objective which we more or less achieved, despite two seriously adversarial forces acting against us. Firstly, the “road” we were running would be the perfect setting for a most masochistic hill sprint workout, and the sun itself had risen with a fierce determination to fry us up for breakfast at 7am.

BGR leaving Keswick

(And we are off!)

But we kept our heads down and carried on, and soon enough we reached the base of Robinson. A stiff climb and a scramble later, we stood at the summit of our first fell. From then on, the going was a lot easier, and we could simply cruise along the flanks of the mountains to the next summit on our route, Hindscarth.

Although our task was to keep shifting, I still had plenty of time to enjoy the stunning views from the top of the world. The sun was out to get us with a vengeance, despite it still being very early in the morning. Dripping in sweat, we were near the summit of Hindscarth when we commented on the fact that we seemingly had the fells to ourselves that morning.

BGR Hindscarth

(Reaching for the sky)

I can only assume that it was precisely because we said these words out loud that we encountered at least 50 hill walkers on the summit of Dale Head. They were all wearing event numbers and were very official looking. On the plus side, though, I can’t deny that a very wicked part of me derived a great about of pleasure and satisfaction in charging past them down the slopes of the mountain.

Although I was a little sad to not have spent more time in the mountains, it was awesome to be welcomed and cheered into Honister Pass by our team after 2 hours and 34 minutes. We exchanged some quick hugs and cheered and hollered the next two runners up the steep slope of Grey Knotts. The running part of my journey was over as quickly as it had begun.

And breathe. I returned to the headquarters and showered and ate cookies and crisps until I felt vaguely human again. Back on the ground, the atmosphere was abuzz with maps and timetables and code text message such as “Pillar 12:03”. However, there wasn’t much more for me to do at this point; as I was a last minute addition to the team, I had not been planned in for any duties in terms of logistics or support. I felt a little bit bad about that, but upon eating my eights cooking of the day I remembered how nice it felt to be cheered on at Honister Pass and decided to nominate myself as the official team cheerleader.

As it was, the official cheerleader started by failing miserably at the first hurdle. I sadly missed the next handover entirely; partially because eating cookies took longer than I thought, and Wasdale Pass happens to be a long drive away from the shores of Ullswater. But most importantly, Caroline and Louise had seemingly soared across the fells and had covered their part of the route in a magnificently quick 4 hours and 6 minutes!

There was not much for me to do but to guard and periodically quality control the cookies and crisps at operation headquarters for the rest of the afternoon, look at more maps – or rather, the same maps over and over again. Slowly and subtly, I felt a shift in the mood of our little troupe…  At the start of the day, our general agreement had been to just enjoy the challenge and see what happens. However, due to the fact that we were covering the ground faster than we thought, by the time dusk arrived it began to dawn upon us that there was a possibility that we could complete the challenge in 24 hours…

I’m pleased to report that the official cheerleader was actually present at Dunmail Raise, where I witnessed the very exciting descend of Anita and Liz on the tricky slopes of Steel Fell and cheered to be best of my abilities when they handed the baton over at 8:13 pm. I won’t deny that I felt a little envious when I watched Moira and Cathy trek into the sunset; the gorgeous day was promising to turn into an even more stunning night for us all.

But for now, we headed back to headquarters for about an hour of sleep and more crisps and cookies. A few hours later, we got a text message (“Clough Head 0:52”) which sent us driving across the Lake District at a speed that would surely have left Buzz Lightyear a little green around the nose, as the leg 4 runners had kept to the general pattern of the day and had exceeded all expectations. The final handover at Threlkeld was rushed and there wasn’t much cheering either, despite the presence of the world’s worst cheerleader. It turns out that apart from those who are loopy enough to take on the Bob Graham loop, most people in the Lake District prefer to sleep in silence around 2 am in the morning.

BGR Night

(Sleepy cheering on the verge of dawn)

If I was jealous of the evening runners, it was nothing compared to what I felt when I saw the headlights of Ally and Charlotte fade onto the slopes of Blencathra. Despite the fact that it was stupid o’clock, the first signs of light were glistering on the horizon and the night was illuminated by a sickle moon.

Another hour of sleep and more cookies and crisps and brewing over maps at operation headquarters later, the joyous text message of “Skiddaw 6:03” sent us all on our way to Keswick once more.

Now, I realise that there is nothing that can possibly excuse what I did next. I would nevertheless like to reiterate that it was very early in the morning indeed, and those of your who know me should realise by now that I cannot be passed for a human being before 10:30 am on any given day. I’d enjoyed a full two hours of sleep during the previous night and had left the flat before even contemplating breakfast (apart from crisps and cookies, but I stopped counting them long ago). Furthermore, I had not taken anything with me, as my plan was to head up Skiddaw to meet the last runners, fulfil my cheering duties and accompany them on the last kilometre of their journey, perhaps offering to carry one of their backpacks down the mountain.

It was another glorious morning, and a zombiefied me greatly enjoyed a little morning jog out of Keswick and up into the mountains once more. I stopped after about 20 minutes of climbing and turned around to marvel at the views of yet another magnificent break of day. Beneath me, Derwent Water lay sleepily in the valley, and a glance to the right revealed the inviting flank of mighty Skiddaw… Wait, what? Embarrassingly slowly it dawned upon me that this made no sense at all. Why was Skiddaw on my right? No person in the world with a sense of direction vaguely superior to that of a piece of plywood (or myself for that matter) would journey from Skiddaw down to Keswick via the peak of Latrigg, which is where I had finally derived that I must be standing…

Having sacrificed my dignity at dawn to the sun god on the wrong mountain top – not to mention the fact that there was now absolutely no doubt whatsoever that I had earned myself the world’s worst cheerleader badge – I commenced my trot of shame back to the Moot Hall in Keswick, where in a very awkward twist of events, the final runners were the ones who were waiting for me.

Ally and Charlotte had made it back to Keswick at 7:11 am, which meant that we have completed the Billy Bland Challenge in 24 hours and 6 minutes! Naturally, all of us simultaneously blurted out all sorts of suggestions of how we could have run our particular leg a little faster. I’m sure we can do it, although I’m not quite sure how, as everyone talking at the same time isn’t conducive to actually taking anything in. In reality, I can safely say that nobody was even remotely disappointed. I think the challenge so immense that an old cliché couldn’t have been more true; the journey had meant more to us than the destination ever could. Besides, it just means that we will have to do it all again next year!

BGR_Moot Hall

(Full circle: 7am (again) at the Moot Hall (again)!)

I want to take this opportunity to say a massive thank you to my fellow runners:  Louise, Caroline, Lou B, Liz, Anita, Moira, Cathy, Ally and Charlotte. You ladies are amazing! Also, we couldn’t have done this without our incredible support crew, consisting of Adrian, Bill and Graham; all of whom possess athletic prowess that put us all to shame but who were nevertheless more than willing to just support us and let us enjoy our moment. Thank you all for letting me be part of this adventure, for a wonderful weekend of teamwork and for being part of memories which I am sure will stay with me for a very long time!

As for little old me, my own journey was not quite over yet. Despite the severe lack of sleep and directionally challenged start to the day, I felt ready and downright needing to embrace the last day in the Lake District. Thus, I turned to face the shadow behind us. A nice and easy jog up Helvellyn seemed like a fitting way to take some time to reflect upon and celebrate my own journey in these mountains.

Helvellyn summit

(Relaxing on the summit of Helvellyn: A wild kind of relaxation.)

After scrambling down Striding Ridge, I once again couldn’t resist the pull of gravity and blazed down the mountain with legs as fresh as they had felt the morning before. About half-way through my charge down the mountain, a middle aged man stepped aside a I passed him and saluted me.

“I wish I could do what you are doing”, he said. I stopped and turned to look at the summit of Helvellyn behind me, with the Red Tarn at its base and the two dramatic ridges leading to peak. In comparison to the day before, it all seemed to tame now.

“Why don’t you?” I smiled back at him. He told me that he “only” runs marathons, and I told him that I find marathons really, really hard! Then, in a moment of supreme immaturity (because some things never change), I blurted out, to a complete stranger, on the slopes of a mountain, what we had been up to the day before.

His response? He shook my hand. It doesn’t matter how far you run, or how fast, or on what surface. Runners just get each other.

 

“While it is well enough to leave footprints on the sands of time, it is even more important to make sure they point in a commendable direction.”

– James Branch Cabell

Advertisements

Running with Spirits of Bob and Billy

I’m currently wondering just how many times I can begin a post with the words: “You guys, I’ve done it again…”

While I love my e-mail spam folder, I’m so glad that it doesn’t just gobble up every unexpected message. Last week I got one message I would have hated to have missed. I don’t know if I should be flattered or alarmed by the fact that when a runner was needed to step up to a hill running challenge of epic proportions at a few days’ notice, someone thought of little old me. Even more concerning, perhaps, is the fact that I agreed to jump on board in a heartbeat.

Somehow, I may have just agreed to join what promises to be a supremely well organised Billy Bland Challenge run. This weekend. I should probably be wondering how I keep getting myself into these (running) situations, but instead, I’m once again just super excited!

lake-district-3(The stunning fells of the Lake District are calling!)

For those of you who haven’t heard of the Billy Bland Challenge or Bob Graham Round, I think it’s fair to say that it’s the holy grail to many long distance hill runners in this part of the world. It all started back in 1932, when a fellow named Bob Graham went on a long hill run in the Lake District and managed to bag 42 peaks (with a whopping 27,000 foot of total ascend) in just under 24 hours. Despite many subsequent attempts, this feat was not repeated until 1960, when Alan Heaton traversed the same peaks in an even shorter time. Since then, a number of notable runners have been able to repeat this achievement. The fastest known time for completion of the Bob Graham round is an unbelievable 13:53 hours, achieved  by Billy Bland in 1982. The ladies record is a very respectable 18:12 hours, run by the awesome Nicky Spinks in 2012. Earlier this year, the legendary American ultra runner Scott Jurek completed the Bob Graham round, with only 16 minutes to spare…

If it’s run as a relay, the Bob Graham Round is called the Billy Bland Challenge. The ultimate goal is still to complete the round in under 24 hours. If it’s an official attempt at the challenge, a total of ten runners are needed; five legs are run by two runners each.

I’m currently trying to figure out what one needs to pack for a weekend of running mayhem and very little sleep. I’ve packed some clothes, an air mattress, a sleeping bag and enough food and drink to feed a small army should we need to invade the lakes instead. And all that remains to be done then, is to make it through work tomorrow, get in the car, and head south… What a way to spend a summer weekend.

I will, of course, report on the outcome of my latest running escapade early next week. But for now, I have to run (literally!)…

“The most important thing in the Billy Bland Challenge is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.”

– Pierre de Coubertin

Bob Graham Round

A Full Moon Run Of Legends

Last Friday (the 13th), just after midnight, I met a legend, and together we ran across a nature reserve under the light of the full moon. Really, I couldn’t make this up.

You see, last week, I was on the verge of entering a marathon in Burma. I really wish I had; it sounds totally amazing. But instead, I entered a 78 mile, 24 hour ultramarathon in good old England…

There’s so much I could – or should! – be freaking out about, but right now my main concern is the fact that my surname isn’t Forsberg or Frost. The implication of this is that I’ll have to run at least some of the distance at night. Now add to this the indisputable fact that I am a massive pansie, and we’re firmly into meltdown territory. And because this is one issue that just can’t be solved by avoidant coping or chocolate, I did the sensible thing asked for help on the internet.

My local ultramarathon running group on Facebook is a very friendly and supportive bunch, but before you declare me complete insane, I’d just like to reassure you that I do know some of the members personally. I was hoping that one of them could be persuaded to accompany me on a night run, show me the tricks of the trade and help me get my confidence up a little.

And sure enough, my plea for help was promptly answered – my rescuer a man who everyone in the group refers to only as “the legend”. I’ve never had the privilege of meeting him before myself, but virtually everyone else in the group I have run with has immediately told me all about his considerable running achievements and adventures. How could I resist learning from the very best?

On the eve of battle, however, I wasn’t sure what was freaking me out the most; the general idea of running in the dark, the thought of heading willingly into a remote forest with a strange man, or the prospects of running with someone who’s run over 100 marathons, and literally every ultramarathon I could think of and then some. Yes, including the famous Marathon de Sables. Twice.

forest night

The fact that I have returned from the midnight wilderness to write this post is an unfortunate spoiler of my unscarred survival of the night. Prior to that particular Friday the 13th, I firmly believed that night running could only ever be a miserable affair; I had braced myself for feeling tired, cold, insecure, potentially frightened and most certainly lost.

I can’t think of a time when I’ve never been so wrong about anything. Night running is amazing. Especially in lovely forests, by the light of the full moon and in the company of legends. There was a light drizzle, but the humidity felt warming and coupled with the many glimpses of lush green, gave the whole run an almost tropical feel.

We chatted freely and many giggles rung out into the night. Along the way, I had great fun skipping across the minefield or frogs that were out and about at night. We even stopped for a chocolate break at some point (confirming once again my long held belief that chocolate really does solve every problem) – I’m not sure if running gets any better than this.

Tentsmuir beach night

The legend sure lived up to his name. He was a great guide and taught me about running in the dark, but in doing so I feel that I learned a lot about life. Once again, I experienced that most limits exist only in my mind, and that it is possible to encounter truly amazing territory if I dare to go beyond them.

On a practical note, the legend has shared an incredibly useful night running tip with me, which I’m sure he won’t mind me passing on to you. As soon as we took off, he told me that he never actually wears his head-torch on his head! Instead, he wraps the strap around his wrist and then holds the torch in his hand. I readily followed his advice, and can confirm that it worked very well for me. Using the light this way means that headaches from tight headbands are a thing of the past. It’s also much easier to look around when holding the torch in hand. Fellow runners very much appreciate this technique as well, as it ensures that they won’t constantly get blinded and losing all the night vision just because someone dared to look in their direction. And finally, I’d imagine it looks a lot cooler as well.

Do you have any thoughts on night running? Have you tried it? Do you love it as much as I do?

Awaiting The Tempest

Alright folks, here it is: that rather predictably timed taper-meltdown blog post you’ve all been waiting for. And because this time I’m tapering ahead of a 55-mile run, I feel that I have a good reason to ponder such fundamental questions as “is there really such a thing as eating too many pancakes?”. On the plus side, the fact that I’m going to run a little less over the course of the next two weeks means that I should hopefully have a little more time to update my blog here and there!

Lady's Tower

(I’m sorry that I’ve been such a bad blogger lately – I’ve been too busy running in cool places like this.)*

But back to my taper-related ponderings. Although I genuinely don’t know how on earth it’s possible that I am tapering again already, I am really very pleased with how my training went. I remember two months ago, when every glance at my training plan was enough to cause a minor fit of hyperventilation. But looking back over it now, I can’t deny that it’s been a very consistent training cycle for me and I did pretty much exactly what I had set out to do. What is more, I really loved the training, especially the beautiful long runs, each of which felt like a journey in its own right. I always knew that tackling an ultra would primarily be a mental challenge, but I did not expect how much spiritual growth would also occur along the way and on the trails. I can only hope that it will be enough to see me go the distance on the day.

And this brings me to one of the most humbling aspects of all of this; for the first time in a very long time, I’ll find myself at the beginning of a road and genuinely not know if I’ve got what it takes to make it to the end of it. It’s thrilling; exciting and intimidating in equal measures.

In all honesty though, I’m very much looking forward to the challenge. I have prepared by body as best I can, clocking a consistently high mileage for the past few months. I think that’s all I really could do to prepare myself for my first ultra: run a lot and be open to learn what I could along the way. I don’t think there’s a formula for completion; for me it’s primarily been a case of getting used the idea of dealing with the unexpected.

I’m looking at the run itself as a journey in its own right. I’ll hopefully enjoy a lot of it, but I also expect a lot of weariness and don’t for a second think that I’ll be able to escape a certain amount of pain. I’ll just have to trust that my mind and spirit will be strong enough to keep going regardless.

I love how Becky has put it to me before: “Go forth and meet your demons”. I like the sounds of that.

And as for the pancakes (and in the interest of carb-loading), I’m think I’m going to put my original question to the test and find out exactly if there is such a thing as too much, and if so, how much is too much. Wish me luck!

*(I’m not sorry.)

Running Into The Record Books

Yesterday I ran my leg of the Great British Relay. Although I really enjoyed being part of this world record attempt, the run itself was stupidly tough for me for some reason. I just couldn’t get my legs moving, so the whole 8 miles were a battle. I suspect that my legs have not yet forgotten the long and hilly runs we did over the course of the weekend… I was so happy to run in the company of some truly great runners who kept me going. We made it (just) in time and the deed is done – and it was so lovely to be part of something larger!

GBR

Run of the Inner Valkyrie

Sunday morning saw the streets of Edinburgh turn into my own personal battlefield. In my previous post, I made no secret of the fact that recent events had, perhaps for all the wrong reasons, inspired me to race the Edinburgh Half Marathon despite having done no event specific speed work. But I had been pissed off to the point of wanting to attack 1:40.

I travelled to Edinburgh with a group of friends on what we affectionately called the “Battle Bus”, which made for a very entertaining start to the day and somehow damped the blow of the fact that the day began at stupid o’clock for all of us. And just as we arrived in the city, the heavens opened to welcome us with a mighty downpour. And while that did nothing dowse my bloodlust, it did cause me to shiver miserably on the start line. But really, what would a run in the capital of Scotland be without a generous helping of proper Scottish weather?

As is normal for me in endurance races, my plan was to run the first two or three kilometres by feel alone, and to sort my pace out thereafter. However, within minutes I couldn’t ignore the fact that although my energy levels were good, my legs felt decidedly heavy and had all but withdrawn co-operation. My feet were soaked and cold before I had run a single mile, and by the time I passed the two mile marker, I was already a few seconds off my target pace.

I won’t go so far as to call it a terrible start, but coming home on the right side of 1:40 was not looking promising. In that moment, I did something that has helped me through many of the darker moments I have experienced on my long ultramarathon training runs. I did absolutely nothing. I noticed how I felt, decided that nothing was actually really wrong, and kept going without trying to change anything right there and then. Because one thing I know for certain is that everything is temporary, if you give it enough time.

Rather than worrying about the race in these early stages or beating myself up about slipping off pace, I just accepted that my body was telling me that this wasn’t the right moment to launch my attack. But the moment would come. The worst case scenario was that the opportune moment would occur not in this, but in a future race; but that was a risk I was willing to take.

The next time I looked at my watch was as I was passing the 10km point. Just over 45 minutes. There was hope! More importantly however, I noticed that my legs had finally woken up and were starting to listen to my demands. I held back for another 4 kilometres, but then, finally, it was time to race!

I had to focus to keep the pace for the last part of the race, but I can’t say that it was a real struggle. Everything had somehow fallen into place and was there for the taking. Before I knew it, the finish line appeared in front of me and I ran towards it until my lungs felt like exploding. Then I ran some more.

I emerged victorious from the battlefield after 1:38 of running my drenched socks off. The negative split was very much dictated by my body, rather than my mind, but hey – I’m not complaining.

Streakers Edinburgh

 (A victorious army, ready to return to the battle bus!)

Girl On A Mission

“The best revenge is living well.”

–          George Herbert

This Sunday will see me at the start line of the Edinburgh Half Marathon. Prior to a recent event, I must admit that I wasn’t bothered about this race at all. In fact, last weekend my level of enthusiasm had plummeted to the point that I had almost talked myself into withdrawing my entry and going for a long ultramarathon training run in the mountains instead.

But all that changed one night during the week. You see, one fateful night this week, I joined a training session with a local running group that shall not be named. Little did I know at the time that this single training session would ignite the will to race in me like I have rarely experienced it before.

The session required us to get into groups for speedwork. Because I only knew a few people in the group, I went around for a chat and soon found myself in a friendly pack of guys who seemed to run at roughly my pace. Unfortunately, the coaches hadn’t mentioned the fact that they apparently expected us to match the groups by gender as well. Yes, you’ve read that right. How very stupid of me! Without bothering to find out anything about me as a runner, they immediately started to gently nudge me into the direction of a female pack.

As we were running, I jokingly asked the guys why the coaches keep picking on me. One of them just shrugged his shoulders and answered: “Because you are a girl?” In what those of you who know me understand is an incredibly rare occurrence, I was actually lost for words. But I was also determined to stand my ground, and although it was a tough workout, I stuck it out with the guys for a while. But my resolve eventually faltered when two of the three coaches came over to my group in the middle of the session and downright ordered me to go run with the women’s group on the other side of the field instead. Really, I couldn’t make this up.

superwoman glass ceiling

Now, please don’t get me wrong. The women were lovely and I am more than happy to run with them. But excuse my naivety for thinking that speedwork groups should be matched by – how can I put this? – actual running speed, rather than anatomy. I didn’t think it was possible in the 21st century, but I think I might have hit some kind of glass ceiling in a running group.

I was, and still am, pretty frustrated by the whole escapade. It goes without saying that I won’t be found training with this group-which-must-not-be-named in future. But even as my own personal anger subsided, I started to feel bad for the women who regularly train with this them. What kind of message are the trainers hammering into them, week in, week out?

As a result of all of this, I have not only decided to run the half marathon on Sunday after all, but I am going to take all that fury to the start line with me and hurl it at the road ahead of me. While I don’t feel as though I have anything to prove, I’m going to try and put the wisdom of George Herbert’s words to the test and see if the best revenge in the running world is racing well. Wish me luck!