Open 5 Series – Lake District – Coniston

Another winter, another Open 5 series… Yay! I look forward to these in a big way, once Barley Badgers start night running on Pendle again I know its not long to wait before the Open 5’s kick off.  Previous Open 5 posts and an explanation of the format are here.  This season there are only three events, every other month which I am disappointed about, but with Dark Mountains coming up in January, perhaps that’s no bad thing!

Coniston.  An area I know well having biked, walked, run, camped, climbed and raced around before, bring it on.  Feeling quite fit, with a sound bike under me I was fired up… the only curve ball might be the weather. the forecast for the preceding few days was for heavy snow, with yellow and amber warnings from the midlands up I loaded a van on Friday ready for an epic journey and was prepared to battle up the night before to ensure I could reach the start line….but on the Saturday (day before) the forecast changed and it looked like benign conditions, for the journey and settled snow and ice around Coniston with sunny skies promised too. Perfect conditions for an entertaining race.

With low level patches of snow and ice and definitely snow on the ground the scene was a pretty one.

Start/Transition/Finish area at John Ruskin School, Coniston

Last season I had biked first, then run.  Time to go back to run first then bike.  The theory being no matter how tired I am I can bike faster than I can run and if all else fails I would be able to walk and push the bike. Last seasons experiment hadn’t done anything to convince me biking first was a better bet.

The first job on collecting the map for me is to try and come up with a possible run and bike strategy, its a rough sketch of a plan as the control points values are not given to you until you cross the start line and the clock is ticking. This map revealed a few controls along the lake shore, meaning a good flat run, that appeals to me as it gets me warmed up and the blood pumping rather than straight over the line and uphill – which any where north of the Start line would be, so subject to points values, I would be heading south first.  The bike was more complex with some fast roads in and out of Coniston and a big hill or two in either direction I decided it was an anti or clockwise choice, involving the quarries or not subject to how many points were available.

Ready to go.

I started at 9.21 by my watch, meaning I had to be back for 14.21, I knelt down on some dryish looking tarmac to mark up the map…clock ticking.  My plan was sound for the run, the bike bit was looking like skipping the quarries and heading east first. I would reflect more on that later.  So I tore off at a good pace heading toward Coniston Hall and the water. With three controls bagged in the first 25 minutes I was feeling good and the conditions although intermittently slippy (wearing my usual roclite 280’s) it was definitely runnable.  Sub zero and crisp – a beautiful morning!  I try to bag points against time and scoring something every fifteen minutes is my usual aim, I was well on plan… but maybe I paused and took one too many pictures..?  Still part of doing this is all about appreciating where I am. Well it is for me anyway!

Torver Common Woods

The real uphill began at Little Arrow, a path I know well and my aim was Walna Scar Road to pick up the furthest westerly controls before heading back to Transition, bagging a few more on the way. Its been a while since I last ran in snow and it definitely hit my pace, but by now I was just beaming, I love running being out in conditions like this.

Looking north to the Old Man of Coniston

The Walna Scar Road was a mix of runnable compact snow and icy patches easily avoided. I knew it was time to start heading in once I had bagged 34 on Torver Bridge, but a part of me was thinking its cracking out here, should I just complete the run course and get all the points (250) and give myself only a short bike?  But no, I bailed out of that thought process as there are 350 points available on the bike so I picked up the controls close to the main track on my way back in (32&30). I did take a tumble on the hill into town, some black ice caught me out, but in true fell running style I bounced back up, although as I type this my elbow is still bloody sore!

The furthest west control worth a meagre 10 points…looks pretty though.

At transition I prepared to bike and whilst slurping on some soup and scoffing a scotch egg (the food of champions) I nailed my bike plan down to east first toward Hawkshead and then north toward Skelwith. I knew most of these tracks and roads so figured with an unknown quantity of ice on the roads I would manage that better on familiar territory.  The plan started with control 16, worth a bold 30 points…… which wasn’t where it was marked on the map. I expected the way mark with control on it no more than a couple of hundred metres from the buildings, yet I reached my catching feature (a sharp bend in the track with no control.  I stopped and checked the map again, measuring for accuracy… I knew where I was for sure, but no control.  I noticed a marshal on the course – very rare to see one of those on these events…”so where is it then?” I asked, “a bit further up” was the reply, so I carried on and sure enough another few hundred metres up the track there was a marshal holding control 16 in his hand, “its in the wrong place then eh?” I offered, “yes, we are thinking of moving it” came the reply.  “I would” -beep-“cheers!”. In the seven years I have been doing these events I think is the first time a control has been marked on the map wrong/placed wrong (depending upon how you look at it).  No big issue, It cost me maybe three or four minutes or so maximum.  Onward!

The next few controls were where I expected them to be, so things were going well. Really well to be honest and I started thinking this could be a really good day following on from a great run, a fun bike trip and then a possible good score (350+ ish I reckoned) to boot!  I got to control 11 with my plan being to head up and over to 10 before hitting Hodge Close and then the fast track back to town. I had an hour to play with and felt confident of squeezing it all in time. I then looked at the on the ground conditions – boggy icy hell it looked like, up a steepening hill, a theory supported by the chap coming down, who suggested it was like that all the way up, I would be managing a slow trudge at best, so I decided to drop control 10 (worth 20pts) and pile down to Yewfield and go over Tarn Hows to pick up the main road, control 14&15 and then in to the finish, if I got there sharp I could possibly get the 20 pointer at Hodge Close there and back. Head down and peddle!

Tarn Hows looking lovely. Picture by James Kirby.

It was looking like a good plan right up to to the point I got to the parking place at Tarn Hows.  The road down the hill on the other side was sheet ice and looked and felt treacherous. I stayed on my bike, but images of a fast descent froze in the winter sun and I trickled down the tarmac hill painfully slowly. I got to 14 knowing I was going to have to drop the 20 pointer at Hodge Close, but I had time (about 15 minutes) to get back in the five hours,so I set off at a pace to be proud of 4 hours 45 minutes into the event and was buzzing right up to the puncture!  My first ever competitive puncture!  ARRGGGHH! I reckoned I had just under 2km to go and a control to find. I think I got the hole dodging some kids on the track out for a walk, I am sure I went over a bramble branch and that’s what got me (as I write this I have yet to repair it…). My thought process was this, put a new inner tube in and peddle back, having got really cold (hands especially) and be late in or just run the bike back in, be late – but stay warm.  Well, warm won out so I started trotting… Thank you to all those who inquired if I was okay..”yep, just a puncture” was the often repeated reply, I got 15 (worth 30 points) with three minutes to spare and I eventually crossed the finish line seven minutes over time. Bugger!  The points loss, coupled with the forty points I  Left on the course left me with a disappointing 314 after penalties, well down the field.

Whilst chatting to other competitors (Steve and Andy) it turned out I wasn’t the only one who  had considered having a long run and shorter bike – they had executed that plan and done really well on it scoring 370 each!  Next time I might give that plan some more serious thought, I would say I am a better runner than MTB’er. Having scanned the results there were some big scores which seemed run heavy/bike light. Perhaps I missed a trick there.

Irrespective of a disappointing result  I had a fantastic day, the course planners did a great job offering some testing route choices and well positioned controls.  Roll on Edale in February!

Open 5 – Yorkshire Dales, Reeth February 5th 2017

The second event in the series and a new part of the Dales for me.  I double checked my bike after last events mishaps before loading it up the night before to travel through the dales to get there for Sundays race.

I don’t know this part of the Dales very well, having raced out of Muker a year or so ago with another Open 5 event and been impressed with the terrain for Adventure Racing I was looking forward to visiting Reeth very much.  Its mountain biking is legendary, and what little I saw of it, its a place to go back to for sure.

My journey up through the Dales, essentially Skipton, turn left and keep going north till you reach Reeth was long in the dark, on line I had clocked a youth hostel on the outskirts of Reeth – Grinton YHA and thought I might see if I can park up there and use their ‘facilities’, otherwise I would just park as close to the village green as I could, from where the start/finish area was to be.  I got to the youth hostel – a lone, old building in the middle of the moors, I pulled in… doors were open, lights were on, but no sign of life. No one, anywhere.  I started knocking on doors, nothing.  Very weird!

I carried on to Reeth itself and spotted several cars and vans that looked like they too may be competitors on a cobbled area next to the green.  It looked ideal for the night, apart from the three or four pubs around the edge of the village green/cobbled market area, hmm, I’ll just sit tight and give it a few minutes to see how many people are  about at 9.30 pm on a Saturday night that might want to cause me a rude awakening…. no one! not a soul could be heard or seen. Does anyone live here at all?  And the public loos stayed unlocked overnight – what kind of place is this!

After a peaceful night (Shame really as some of those pubs looked well worth checking out) I awoke to a cold damp morning, alongside the usual hubbub of an Open 5; cars arriving, competitors milling about and greeting one another.  The sky was a little overcast, but otherwise clear – it was going to be a good day as per the forecast.

a packed village green, opposite transition

So, confident in my bike this time round having had a recent repair and service of sorts (thank you Stevie G) all I had to manage was my cold.  Another one!  I’m beginning to think all the early years work I do may be detrimental to my racing… So, with Day Nurse consumed, coffee levels topped up and extra snacks to ‘feed the cold’ I registered and made my way to the start area – wonderfully close to the van for a change!

map marked and ready to go: up, then down mostly.

The map itself gave the following options: either up then down, or, up then down or if I was feeling really enthusiastic: up/down then up/down! I decided a clockwise loop out would work well, subject to where the scoring controls were.  Run wise I wasn’t sure as it all involved some sort of climb, given Reeth’s position at the head of two valleys.  I had decided to carry on my experiment of biking first, three hours then running for two ish, (usually just less, post transition).

just a great picture. the control was in some old mining equipment in the buildings shell.

Some of the controls on the bike were a little cheeky I thought, in that you needed to be off the bike to get them, but that added to the fun! I cycled well, really well to be fair and was in the process of thinking about extending my loop to collect another control as I headed from 7 up the bloody big hill to 9 when I came across a Female Pairs Team with a clear mechanical issue, in that the rear derailleur was on top of the rear cassette and at quite an odd angle!  Having had my own mechanical issues last time, I stopped and offered to help. With a bit of brute force and ignorance we got the rear derailleur back to roughly where it should be, but it was clear it was knackered.  I suggested knocking some links out and setting the bike up as a single speed to skip the broken mech, but with no chain tool to hand and looking for a quicker fix the girls decided a cable tie to try and hold it in place would be better.  I assume they made it back in one piece!  I carried on and was really able to get some speed built up as I hammered back to the transition.  Although certainly snotty, the cold wasn’t causing me the issues the last one had and I was pleased with my bike performance. I got back just a few minutes off my plan and quickly ate and drank,  bum bag on and back out to run.

The cave control, knackering climb just out of shot

As before my legs were not ready to turn over straight off the bike – How do triathletes do it!!!!    I gently trotted north up the hill electing to get he higher value controls all around Fremington Edge, an obvious loop, clockwise again to get the climb in early seemed to be the way forward.  It took a good 25 minutes to get my legs running again, by which time I was struggling to breathe due to my cold as I tramped up to the cave and control 31.   That being my high point I was then in a good place for ‘proper’ running and pretty much down hill all the way back in, so I finally felt I was running at a suitable pace and making up ground.  I ended up heading into town way faster than I anticipated, but I recognised this a little too late to add a few more points on to my total.  Although pleased with my tally and performance, I do think I could have got another 15 points, I got back in with 7 minutes to spare, which is a lot given the nature of this course.  Not quite top 50% – which for me is my bench mark of a good race, but given the cold I had I was pleased with my performance. Strategy wise I may return to run first/bike second next time out… I need to mull that one over some more.

me doing some gratuitous navigating and picking a line to head down hill.

The next outing in March is from Church Stretton and the Long Mynd – which I last raced over in 2011.  I recall it being a great day out as well, in a stunning part of the world. It will be interesting as that is going to be the day after the race that I organise – the Stan Bradshaw Pendle Round, which I am normally on my feet for 8 hours plus and generally pretty drained after!

Thanks as ever go to Open Adventure for putting these events on and James Kirby for the great pictures.


Open 5 Series – North Lakes

The Open 5 Series is a series of Adventure Races held over the winter each year.  The objective is to visit (navigate/find) as many checkpoints as you can in five hours.  Some checkpoints can only be visited on foot (using a 1:25000 map), some on mountain bike (using a 1:50000).  I have been doing these events since 2011 and absolutely love them.  These take top priority race wise in my diary each winter and I have traveled the length and breadth of the country to take part (Somerset to Scotland anyway).  One thing these events do well is take you ‘just’ off the beaten track: places you wouldn’t necessarily visit and after a five hour foray you  get a good sense of the place you are racing in.  I enjoy the personal challenge of keeping moving at pace for 5 hours (if you are late back, you incur penalty point deductions) and the fun in navigating over two different map scales.

This event, the first of the 2016/2017 season containing 4 events was bound for a place I know well.  The North Lakes area around Threlkeld promised great mountain biking and some challenging navigation depending on which side of the road (A66) the organisers took us.  In the end it was north – around the foot of Skiddaw and the Skiddaw Forest for the biking and south, essentially an exploration of St. John’s in the Vale, for the run stage.

I headed up the night before, to sleep in the van as I anticipated parking in Threlkeld to be a challenge for a hundred or so teams!  Now at this point its worth noting that  all the gear I use is well tested and trusted, including the bike, having been out on it locally the week before, I knew all I needed to do was lube the chain from when I cleaned it after that trip out.  The morning of the race arrived and I got registered and organised and ready for the ride to the Start/Transition/Finish line, which on this occasion was a 20 minute/4km ride away (by Keswick climbing Wall).

Ready to go, 9.05 am

I set off and as usual I began to shift up and down the gears on my bike to get it all sorted and make any last minute adjustments to…. hmmm, no gears.  I shifted the lever a few more times (on the rear mech)- nothing, then a sudden jump to the next cog.  I tried the front derailleur – yes!  All three.  So that gives me 6 gears… ish.  I kept shifting… nothing.  This could be a long day!  Feeling utterly deflated, I tried to tighten the cable using the adjustment wheel by the gear trigger lever, this seemed to make no difference.  Now, up till this point I had never had a mechanical issue on these events, not even a puncture, so I began to hatch a b-plan of a shortened bike section and longer time on the run.  I usually split the five hours as two hours run followed by three on the bike (there are more points available on the bike). This time I had already planned to try biking first, and I decided I would stick with that and see how I got on.  I set off at 9.30 and as luck would have it bumped in to a fellow competitor I knew at the first CP on what I planned to be a clockwise tackling of the course, he – Steve and other competitor Andy, having asked if they had any suggestions relating to knackered gearing helped me do as much adjusting as possible whilst I was the bike rack.  Having tightened up everything we could, with still no joy, Steve suggested I head in to Keswick and see if there was a bike shop open (9.50 on a Sunday morning!) that could help.  They wished me luck and I thanked them for stopping to help and I set off into Keswick to start finding a mechanic!  This was going to be a frustrating race!  Steve had suggested Whinlatter bikes, I was thinking Keswick Mountain Bikes, both are a minute apart so off I sped as best I could.  KMB had signs of life (Whinlatter was all dark) and as I peered through the door a chap appeared to sweep the entrance area, I put on my best Bambi eyes and asked “could you help me, I am supposed to be racing now, but my bike has failed”  and the chap – Adam – very kindly said yes, bring it round the side.  So having started racing at 9.30, by 9.58 I was in KMB, with my bike in a stand and receiving some attention from the very helpful staff of KMB.  The verdict was the cable was past its best and needed replacing, that not being an option now (time and money both short!) Adam offered to pull the cable as taut as he could to give me a limited range for the day.

It worked!  I set off throwing thank you’s behind me (card and tenner in the post) and started clicking to see what I had… about 10-12 gears (from 30!)  All in the mid range, so “I can’t go super fast and I’m going to struggle up hills, but I think I can make this work” was the mantra.  Right on with the plan and off to the next CP!

what we were looking for
what we were looking for

It was hard work with the limited gearing and I did cut my plan short – essentially no outlying CPs from the main track and I made it round the course in a full three hours – I definitely could have got more CP’s in less time, but I wanted to have a good run and needed as close to two hours as I could get.  Its about here that I should tell the group about my cold. I have a cold.  Its on the slide, but its still there.  It made it presence felt on the bike, with a seemingly non stop flow of snot which I attributed to the cold air (the whole day was sub zero conditions, largely frozen ground with ice patches), but the minute I set off on the run, I coughed… and coughed and my nose was streaming.

I started walking after the Castlerigg Circle, CP 21… and thought this event keeps getting worse!  My head cold which I thought was on the wane, clearly was not waning enough, as I walked I studied the map and reigned my plan in, this was going to be a conservative day and despite almost perfect conditions (it was a bit slippy in places) I was going to have to be cautious not to push to hard and over extend myself, to then be late back and lose points from the meager total I had.

stunning conditions
stunning conditions

I got back in the end utterly deflated despite the glorious day, I knew I had not done as well as I might.  With 20 minutes left on my clock, I sat and considered what I may have done differently… On the positive side – at least I discovered the mechanical issue at the start and not half way through – when I was in the middle of nowhere and not near a shop!  Also, although a head cold I have, as I write this it certainly seems to be better, barely 24 hours later.  I think I dropped about 50-70 points with changed plans etc and definitely rode less – only 35km’s its usually over 50km for me and I ran only 8 km, I typically run 12-16km’s on these events. I scored 380 points, disappointing, but better than it could have been!  Bring on the next one  in February in the Yorkshire Dales!  (Gutted there isn’t one in January this year).

I was awarded my 10,000 points picture here.  Open Adventure keep a tally of your Open 5 career points and commemorate them at 5,000 with a named number card and wee bottle of bubbly and at 10,000 points a framed picture of you on an event taken by James Kirby, (these are made available to all through Facebook after the race).

Photo by James Kirby