Throwing it down at 5am on a dark October morning in Keswick, it seemed a long time since the bright lights of the Alps! The third race in the new Skyrunning UK series, with 4000m of climbing and at over 80k, the 3×3000 High terrain event in the Lake district was the longest race in the series so far, heading over the 3 highest peaks in the area, Scafell Pike, Helvellyn and Skiddaw, there were certainly some challenges laying ahead.
We headed off into the mountains for another running adventure, splashing our way along what I assumed were normally trails not streams, though still moving at a fairly brisk pace, maybe more just to get us warmed up than race for position. The first 8 miles was a lower level climb over Watendlath, parts of which were supposed to be along the side of a river but had now become part of the river itself due to the monsoon and resulting floods. It was around here that things started to go a bit wrong for me: I ended up following a little too closely behind someone, misjudging my step and rolling my right ankle. It didn’t seem too bad but hurt enough to cause my already stiff stride to go a bit askew. I pushed on in the hope that it would ease off.
After a few miles the order of things settled and I found myself with Lee Kemp and Edward Catmur with Donnie Campbell out of sight in the lead. By the time we hit the first feed station at Seathwaite we had all closed up again. Heading off up the first big climb to Styhead, I was struggling to get comfortable and the usual stiffness I feel at the start of a race wasn’t easing off, though the plan was always to run my own race in again new territory, so I pushed on but didn’t stress when the other three moved ahead up the climb.
With the route shortened slightly due to the weather we missed out Scafell Pike and went straight from Sty Head to Esk Hause. Having just passed Ed just after Sty head I missed a turn so ended up passing him again on the descent to Stake pass, probably confusing us both a little. By now it was light so head torch off, Lee and Donnie had pushed on and increased the gap, though I was pretty busy trying to focus on my footing and enjoy the long descent to Stake pass. From here it was a slog across some heather and bog then up to High Raise fully exposed to the elements before a really long descent to the first proper check point at Wythburn car park about 20 miles in. The descent took us through lots of marsh land, made even more fun by the additional water. I managed to drop in over my waist crossing a couple of “streams” though it sounds cold and wet I was quite enjoying all of the splashing around and wildness of being off the beaten tracks! Coming down the valley the legs seemed very tight now and my ankle was throbbing a bit, I felt like every step was of defense rather than rhythm, though I loved the off camber slippery track and I still seemed to be making good progress so tried to enjoy it.
Just before the check point I was cheered in by some good friends Garry Scott, his brother and Stevie Major out doing a spot of wild camping or “wild” something! It was great to see them, especially as they informed me I was only 2 minutes behind Lee and Donnie, giving me a lift to the check point where Kim was waiting. Trying not to waste time here, I got some food down quickly preparing for the ascent up Helvellyn.
Not thinking I had stopped for too long, my legs felt as though they hadn’t moved for hours, I tried to get moving and break out of the stiffness, but the harder I pushed the more things tightened. Ian Corless was positioned on the climb braving the elements and snapping away, we had a brief chat as he offered some words of encouragement, then he ran off up the hill in front of me to get more photos! This did make me chuckle a bit and there are not many camera men so dedicated to getting good shots!! Though I was frustrated I couldn’t be more impressive and run at this point!!
I knew the climb leveled off closer to the summit. When I recced this I could comfortably run to the summit, so I was hoping that once I reached this point I would be able to get into a better rhythm. Unfortunately, it wasn’t happening; I didn’t feel tired but just very stiff, when I tried to push the range of movement, my hamstrings and back screamed sharp pain at me and my now sore ankle just added insult to this, not good.
Without waffling on too much about how I hurt and was feeling sorry for myself, I basically decided that carrying on would either end up being a long long walk or I would do more and more damage so pulled out of the race at the summit. For some reason though I didn’t think to just turn around and go back down to the last CP, I just kept going towards the next CP at the other end of the Dodds about 8 miles away – I phoned Kim to let her know what I was doing and shuffled along to meet her. At first I thought I would be hugely annoyed at pulling out were things that bad or was it all in my head, but as I carried on, things got even worse. I went over on my ankle again, feeling the sickening popping noise of the ligaments letting go. I got to a point where I couldn’t even run down hill without having to stop and stretch. By the time I reached Kim it was at a slow walk and I knew I had made the best and possibly only choice in the circumstances.
We managed to catch the first few returning to Keswick at the finish. Donnie came through first, though didn’t realise he was in first place as Lee had taken a wrong turn coming off Skiddaw. They both ran a strong race finishing in fantastic times: it must have been a good battle between them. Another really well organised and friendly event, despite the bad weather the organisers stayed resolute and taking out Scafell for safety reasons was far better than leaving it in and someone getting into trouble. I certainly recommend this event for anyone next year and hope it remains part of the Skyrunning UK series in 2015 – Billy Bland himself presented the prizes so a nice touch there too.
A DNF: the fallout… I don’t claim to be the hardest nut in the squirrel stash but have been lucky enough put myself through some fairly difficult and testing situations, particularly while serving and completing my All arms commando course, Arctic warfare training and some other arduous experiences serving and in ultras since then, during which time I have never pulled out or failed to complete anything. If I have I cannot remember it and have erased it from my memory! (you may say I haven’t fully challenged myself, though I do think I have or at least been very close). Not that I am comparing this race to any of those, or saying I am anything special, the point I am trying to make is that not finishing something just does not register with me and is quite an unnerving experience and mental place to be in, as a good friend pointed out, once you get in the habit of DNFing it is slippery slope. Though I think some situations demand this, the error is in getting into the situation through incorrect preparation, failure to prepare is preparing to fail and all that.
It has taken me a couple of weeks to get this right in my head, for me the important lesson here wasn’t about what happened on the day, I know that pulling out was the right thing to do under the circumstances, it has been more about looking at the events leading up to the day, I think the mistakes were made well before then, as I believe a lot of what happens on race day is delivering on the results of the preparation. Why did I seize up after a relatively short time, how did I feel during the days leading into this, what had I been doing, what hadn’t I been doing, what condition is my body really in after the CCC, what have I changed?
On reflection and looking at things more closely, I had given myself a week off after the CCC, focusing on getting my neck sorted out and ignored the rest of my body. I then felt really good so hit the training hard, focusing on higher intensity sessions and fewer slow easy runs. I think the icing on the cake was the week before the 3×3000 where I was working in Norway, I escaped for a two and a half hour mountain run, finishing it off down a 3 mile descent on a steep forest track. Feeling good and over exuberant, I decided to see what sort of 5k time I could do (16.45 at the end of a long run). From here I didn’t seem quite right and I think this sort of training hammered all of the poor muscle tissues still in repair mode from France, my lower back and hamstrings were solid which is where the pain was coming from. I then decided to try and taper and not do anything (plus I was travelling a lot with work), rather than keeping ticking over with slow easy runs. The conclusion to this was an already battered body, hammered some more when it should have been recovering, then put away in a cupboard for three days to seize up and brought out to perform on race day. How we love hindsight eh, but as I said in my very first blog, I am on a huge learning curve here and this is only a snap shot of the lessons learned throughout the year, the important thing for me is to learn from these experiences and apply it next time.
Moving, onwards and upwards, what about the next race then, well the last in the Skyrace series is/was the Mourne Skyline MTR in Northern Island. This was to be mine and Kim’s last race of the year before putting our feet up. Only two weeks after the 3×3000 I thought it would be difficult to recover fully in time, even without the problems I was having. The course has an incredible amount of climbing in it and is one of the most technical, testing nerve as well as climbing strength, plus a very competitive line up would make it an interesting series finale.
Mourne Race report to follow soon