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!

The Tour of Pendle 2016

The 33rd running of the Tour of Pendle.

Pendle Hill on the drive over, about 8.30 am race day

It’s a classic fell running race up my local hill – Pendle Hill (557m).  I say ‘up’ it.  Its basically up and down it five times from various sides.  Its held in mid November and is the last AL race of the FRA (Fell Runners Association) calendar for the year.  ‘AL’ is the grading of race – ‘A’ being steepest, ‘L’ being longest.  It works out at 27km (16.8miles) and getting on for 1400m of climb.  Part of its attraction is the fact that its a long race at a time of year where the weather can play a big part on the outcome.  None more than in 2015, where the course was shortened (to a BL) due to the threat of a horrendous storm, low temps, driving torrential rain and strong winds.  So with bated breath the 447 entrants on the start list I suspect were watching the forecast with a great deal of anticipation… I know I was!

The forecast was for intermediate snow/sleet/rain lower down throughout the day, and although with windchill the temperature was going to be well below zero, the winds were not strong and from the one direction, meaning part of the course would be ‘chill free’.  Part of me expected a shortened course… but YAY not this time!  I have been ready for this race and looking forward to running it for a while now, several recent long training runs, the BG recce, three mountain marathons this year – I felt the best prepared for this race since about 2012.  Bring.It.On.

I had set myself the goal of sub 4 hours in the previous weeks,  (my PB being 3.45), conscious the snow would have an impact, I still felt that was attainable, even if a PB was not.

With multiple club mates and clubs from all over the country in attendance, the Tour is something of a marquee race in fell terms – everyone wants a good run.  Most first timers just want to “finish it” (there is a cut off two hours in at Checkpoint 4). Fell runners can be judged on their “Tour time” in the same way their  performance is gauged in the ‘Lakes Classics’.  The route is enshrined in Pendle Fell running lore; club runs on the hill are described by Tour route ‘reference’ points. That route being: “From the Village (Barley) Hall, up the reservoir road to Buttock, then to the Trig (top), but don’t stop, across to the gate/ladder stile, then to the gap in the wall – Checkpoint 1, before cutting across the moor (boggy!) to pick up the Ogden/main track heading for Apronfull Hill and the Quarry – CP2, before an about turn down to Churn Clough Res(ervoir) and CP3, then climb up on to Spence Moor before charging down ‘Geronimo’ and on to CP4, also known as “Bill’s Stone” after the memorial there to Bill Smith. (I recommend you Google “Bill Smith Fell Runner“).

Geronimo – a notoriously fast descent to a valley floor

This is about half way in distance terms… however the Tour’s sting is all the big climbs are on the back half of the race!  From CP4, its along Ogden Valley, climb out of this and up to the main track, down Ashendean Clough to CP5, before heading up again to the Memorial Cairn (two CleM runners, who sadly died in the nineties in separate incidents, but both pursuing what they loved to do).  CP6 is beyond here, cross the wall and aim for the ‘Big Dipper’ (Mearley Clough), an insanely steep descent to CP7 at a stream/wall crossing, before crossing the stream then immediately climbing straight back out an equally steep hill to ‘Scout Cairn’-CP8, (Pile of stones on the OS map). Connoisseurs of contours will enjoy looking at Mearley Clough!  From  CP8 its along the top ridge line, past shelter cairn, over the ladder stile and then DOWN to CP9.  This is the killer blow. Its a long way down on ‘Downham side’ (a small village to the north west of Pendle HIll) and an even longer way back up  – ‘the Big End’ again, to the trig, and CP10. Then its time to summon whatever you have left and charge down a long gentle hill from CP10, across Barley Moor to CP11 (same as CP4) to then join the main reservoir track back to the Village Hall.  Sounds simple right?

To be fair it is – even in poor visibility, there is no real navigation required, a well worn trod has been created and even in the snow – well, it was a foot deep rut in places more or less all the way round. So provided you are not in the top ten or so and leading, you just need follow that.  The snow negated any local knowledge I could bring (frustrating – I have plenty) as the moment you were out of the trod, you were in enough snow to impede progress, (unless descending, in which case snow is the best thing ever!) so all the little runners trods and snickets on to runnable/less technical terrain were all the same – snowbound and therefore out of bounds.

the ‘Trod’

As the pictures and video clip suggest, the snow was on the ground and falling intermittently, making a really challenging race.  Runners wiser and more experienced than I, all remarked “that was the toughest Tour” they could remember – after 18,20,25 odd goes at it, they should know.  It was the combination of fallen snow, but unfrozen and therefore muddy tracks, with the wind, precipitation and poor visibility in places that seemed to add 20-30 minutes on to peoples expected times, the record for the Tour is 2 hours, 11 minutes.  The winning time today was two hours and nearly forty minutes, so there is something in that ‘plus 20 minutes’ for the conditions.

From my perspective this was my best Tour, and up there with some of my best races/runs.  I felt strong, was pleased with my performance and even though the Garmin says 4.09 (results not up as write this – so no official time yet) if you take 20 minutes off, that puts me where I wanted to be before I set off.  I felt as though I was passing more people than were passing me from CP1 onward and I got my food and drink right today, no flagging or bonking on the route at all.  A couple of negative things stood out, concerning other competitors poor decision making, mostly kit related but here and now is not the place for that.  I’ll save that rant for another day!  All in all an amazing days running and one for the memory bank.

I raced in 3/4 length leggings (OMM brand), Injini socks with Seal Skinz over the top, Innov-8 Mudclaw 300’s (classics – green and black), top half I started in a skinny fit long sleeve Helly Hansen base layer with CleM vest on top, but on the first climb from Buttock to the Trig when the frozen rain and wind blew in I put on my Montane Minimus smock and it stayed there for the duration. I also wore an Innov-8 peaked cap – great for protecting eyes in inclement weather. I also wore gloves -ODLO ones with a great pull over mitten feature – used plenty on this run, great for warming fingers/protecting from the wind.  In my OMM bum bag was the usual FRA kit – Waterproof pants (Montane Minimus again), a compass (-Silva type 3), route map, a trail mix bag of malt loaf, jelly babies and jelly beans, two SIS Gels and about 800mls of water with ~High5 electrolyte tabs in.  I can say that all the kit is well tested and trusted, but in particular today, the nutrition bit was spot on.

first climb, up to Buttock
tough conditions near the summit Trig
looking back down the final climb from CP9
reward. (log fire just out of shot)