Running for the pies

Running for the pies

Friday, 4 December 2015

4th October: Clarendon Calls

After I had finished my initial challenge of 12 marathons in 12 months back in 2013, one of the races I undertook to push me towards my secondary ’13 in 13’ goal was the Clarendon Marathon.

This is a point-to-point marathon across the countryside from Salisbury to Winchester following the ‘Clarendon Way’ footpath between the cities. This race is unusual in that it offers you the opportunity to run from one county’s county town (Salisbury is Wiltshire’s) to another (Winchester is Hampshire’s) conveniently over an existing path that covers 26.2 miles!

With the finish of Winchester just a half hour drive down the road from me its an ideal race through its proximity, so I was up early for the drive to the event car park just off the M3 in the park-and-ride and the bus transfer to the start in Salisbury.

I owed myself a better running of this route as on my past outing here I felt I had not been as quick as I could have been, so I was all fired-up to run it as hard as I could and finish stronger than before.

The course is as straightforward as it is unremarkable and for a trail marathon its pretty flat. Whilst it is always a pleasure running through open countryside on this run there’s not really any spectacular views to be seen or challenging terrain to conquer, so it is quite a good route to put in the effort to get a quick time under your belt or a pb for a trail marathon, so in advance I had decided to knuckle down and give a good account of myself!

Disembarking from the bus I registered in the event base of a school sports-hall in Salisbury and killed the hour or so of time as I prepared for the start. Mercifully this year the queue for the portaloos was nowhere near as bad as before! and before long we were gathered on the playing field and unleashed upon the trail after the loud-hailer lead countdown.

Funnelling through the start.
Head down… Charge!

Concentrating in finishing as fast as I could, I put in as much effort as I could muster for the first half to give myself some training for my forthcoming sub 4 hour marathon tilts and as such I was not really stopping to take pics of my surroundings in the lovely autumn morning!

By the time I went through the first aid-station with its handover point for the marathon relay runners (you can run the distance as a team of 4), there were still some runners waiting to receive their batons, so my time to get there could not have been too shabby.

Across one of the many fields.
On hitting the halfway, there were only a couple of relay runners waiting and all of those starting here to run-in to the finish on the half were all long-gone but I had managed to get through in close-on 2 hours, which for me was quite a strong showing and I had the knowledge that the hard effort here was putting me on-track to beat my previous time with plenty in the bank.

As I passed through the aid station around the 17 mile mark I was prepared from memory for the only evil climb on the route, but this was nowhere near as bad as I remembered it from a couple of years back - maybe I’ve become somewhat inured to these since my last visit! although about a mile later things really began to hurt.

The stubble after the harvest.
So far on every trip through the aid stations I had taken a cup or 2 of blackcurrant that was on offer rather than just drinking out of my Camelbak - and unfortunately this was beginning to have an adverse effect on me. I was feeling the fluid sloshing around inside me and cramping-up, feeling hungry I wanted to eat but I was feeling pukey every time I put something in my mouth. Carrying-on as best as I could I was determined to fight through this - then I thought I’d take a gel, one of my latest self-made batches, to give me some energy but that just made me feel even worse, with light-headedness now added to the mix as well.

The lowest point of the course crossing the river Itchen.
Things got so bad that on reaching the last checkpoint with a few miles to go I grabbed a handful of jelly beans with the intention of just sucking on them to get something inside me. Fortunately these seemed to slowly perk me up and I managed to plod the final stretch to the finish.

The inviting cool water.
Note to self - you carry a drink in your Camelbak, an unsweetened electrolyte to sip as you need it when thirsty and ward-off any cramping, which you know works, so why take any other fluid at an aid station you numpty? Oh well, you live and learn!

I managed to drag my sorry arse across the finish line a bit slower than I would have been on a perfect day after the last 6 miles saw a bit of a drop in pace, the last 2 noticeably so because of the above… But I still managed it a good 23 minutes quicker than I was in the previous running!.. So certainly a result there of nearly a minute a mile faster!

Since the last time I was here they’ve decided to give finishers a medal and a t-shirt, something that was an optional paid extra before when you booked your place - so this time I had a bit of ‘bling’ to show for the day and another t-shirt for the ever increasing stack of them!

Lying on the grass by the finish line I recovered my equilibrium before the short drive home and a protein-fix dinner of some home-made burgers, relieved that I have given a better account of myself over the course this time.

Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Run far.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

20th September: Something Wild

Something Wild, or if you’re LSS ‘Somewhat Miffed’… But more about that later.

My latest foray into the world of trail marathons was a trip down to Dartmoor and the first running of the ‘Something Wild Trail Running Festival’. The organisers, Wild Running, are a group of keen trail runners and outdoorsmen to take advantage of the taxing and beautiful scenery of Dartmoor.

I’d been tipped-off about this event earlier in the year by Kirsty, an old friend of mine living locally to the event, who was going to run the 10k with some of her friends, and with a half marathon option as well as the 10k and the marathon, there was a distance on offer for both LSS and I to run.

The weekend was to commence on the Friday night at the event base of the River Dart Country Park, where you could camp for the night to be ready for the morning’s run, with registration in the on-site bar and restaurant. On the Saturday would be the various races, a post-run curry buffet and in the evening a series of lectures given by various adventurers.

LSS, Spud and I took advantage of the combined camping and race entry ticket; me for the marathon and LSS the half with Spud to drag her onwards and we drove down to Dartmoor on the Friday afternoon. Having pitched-up in the lovely campsite, we registered and enjoyed a hearty dinner in the bar as the Rugby World Cup kicked-off on the big screen allowing us to watch England mediocre their way past Fiji.

LSS prepping for her & Spud's run.
Being briefed.
After a decent night’s sleep we were up and ready for the start, with all us marathoners setting-off a few metres away from where the tent was - absolutely ideal! Waving goodbye to LSS and Spud I headed-up the hill with the rest of the field, then carried on heading up, and up, and up!.. It turned-out that the first 10k was essentially all up hill until we reached the start of the moors and I was breathing out of my backside long before I approached the start of the wilds.

A short downhill before climbing to the distant moors.
With the moors looming up above us a little way off we passed through the village of Scorriton and the pub that was to be the new start of the half marathon, with plenty of the runners gathered there already to start - I looked for LSS and Spud amongst the throng as I jogged past, but there was no sign of them.

Through the gate just before the 'halfers' caught-up.
Up to the first tor.
About half an hour later I could hear the sound of people approaching at speed and the first of the half marathon racers began to pass me as I went through a gate leading upward towards the moors… It was here I was also caught by one of the full marathon runners, with whom I ended up running most of the rest of the route - as company is always better than slogging solo!

Looking back.
Another tor!
Passing through the last of the woods, hitting the open expanse of the moor itself was where the course came into its own, with plenty of mud to plow through on the wide-open expanse and herds of cows to dodge as we made our ascent on to the tor at Snowdon then north to Combestone Tor, the stack of obelisk-like stones standing out from afar, before descending the other side and to try and find the river crossing near Dartmeet - which about half a dozen of us got lost trying to find.

Over the moors.
Combestone Tor.
The course is essentially a figure of 8 with you first completing most of the lower loop in a clockwise manner with the shorter upper loop following in an anti-clockwise direction. Both loops intersect beside the bridge at Dartmeet with an aid station. The route around here being quite obvious, and with the location popular amongst sightseers the number of strange looks we were receiving from them was most amusing!

Crossing the Dart.
On to the northern loop and the change in the undulating moors was as unrelenting as the southern loop. You could almost describe the whole event as a ’tour of tors’ seeing as you chase from one to the other all the way round! Having said that being on the higher land at this time of year when its still fairly warm you have the benefit of being exposed to the cooling breeze as you make your way around… A couple of weeks later and it would probably be an unwelcome raging icy blast!

Heading north.
At the most northerly point of the loop (and the whole course) was mercifully another aid station, crossing the East Dart River at Bellever Bridge - and pretty picturesque it was too, an ancient stone bridge nestling next to a mature pine woodland picnic area and camp-site. Once here you knew that pretty much 2/3 of the course had been completed including the majority of the climbing so what was to follow would be easier by comparison to what we had already completed.

The bridge at Bellever.
The old bridge at Bellever!
Up and over the moorland once through the woods we descended towards Dartmeet again and the final leg of the route, commencing with another cheeky climb. Knowing what we had run along on the way out at least we we had solace that the last couple of miles were downhill with it retracing our steps back to the start. The old ego was boosted over this final section as I caught and overtook a couple of 10k runners on the way down the hill. Absolutely cream-crackered I crossed the line (no promised finishers medal to be had - I assume they ran out before I finished as I watched ribbons being strung to them as I went through one of the aid stations) to see LSS & Spud awaiting me looking very fresh. As I lay on the grass catching my breath, a couple of minutes later Kirsty crossed the line having finished the 10k and I was able to say hello.

There was a reason for LSS and Spud looking so fresh. It turned-out they had endured a nightmare time of it since I left!.. Due to recent heavy rain which had necessitated in course alterations, the start of the half marathon had been moved to a different location: the pub at Scorriton a couple miles away and all the competitors were to be transported there ready for the off… All of them it turned-out had been, apart from LSS whom the organisers forgot about and she was left stranded at the campsite with Spud all raring to run. One of the organisers finally realised, but the only possible transport was to attempt to squash herself and Spud in to an already full hatch-back, so knowing that the new start was on the marathon route, she decided that Spud and her would make their own way there… 3 uphill miles later she arrived in Scorriton at the pub for the start long after all the other runners had already departed!

More moody landscape.
Faced with the choice of giving-up before the official start of her run or soldiering on for a ‘long’ half marathon, LSS decided for her and Spud to push onwards. Whilst catching her breath on reaching the first of the aid-stations, LSS had a chat with one of the marshals who was surprised to see her and informed her that they were in the process of removing the course markers as they had not been told that there was still a runner to come, but she was welcome to carry-on herself trying her best to keep the route! At this point 9 miles in to her run of 16 (should have been 13) miles, LSS decided it was for the best that she and Spud call it a day - with the area being completely unfamiliar to her she did not trust her direction finding skills to negotiate an unmarked route back to the start!

I found the course almost as challenging as August’s Skyrunner and it was certainly as tough as it was both enjoyable and picturesque… However the marking of it was a little ‘hit and miss’ with the markers not being very clear at times, leading to you scanning the horizon for them and doubling-back on yourself as you are not sure if you were on the correct path. The idea of having the route on ViewRanger at least gave you the chance to double-check where you were on the course, although it still requires you to stop and take your phone out to look at it and as such breaks any momentum you may have.

One final tor.
The post-race curry buffet was absolutely fantastic and well worth purchasing a ticket. LSS and I were able to eat our fill of one of the best curries we’d had the pleasure of tasting, with Spud eagerly polishing-off what we could not, so it certainly got his squeal of approval as well… Unfortunately when you are saying that the post-race meal is the highlight of the event, then things are obviously not right!

The setting and location were first-class. I would recommend the River Dart campsite to anyone, and having hot showers at the finish line is always a good thing! The scenery through which you ran was great, however the organisation was poor to say the least. Communication about the change to the route of the half marathon and its new start location was poor and the logistics equally so - it seemed they did not have any effective ‘Plan B’ or contingency for this happening and they had to make it up over the couple of days before the event. Even with these changes they had to make, not forgetting about one of your competitors - one of your paying customers - and leaving them stranded is rule 1! On the communication front, as well as the website for the run, they had set-up a Facebook page for the event but did not update it, they also have a Twitter account, but this seemed to be scant on updates for the day - besides not everyone uses Twitter - and if updates are being made you should point those interested in the event in the direction of where information updates will be from other social media platforms. This was a missed opportunity for them to engage with their participants, as well as prospective participants and to clearly keep everyone clearly informed rather than just leaving a wall of silence and frustration for the runners, their customers, whilst winging-it and hoping everything turns-out ok!

The valley into which we descend for the end.
The marking of the course left a lot to be desired at times, with the markers often being invisible on the moors through being to small, or with tape tied too low in bushes to be visible until you were next to them or had passed them - having the ViewRanger app was a good idea although saying this, all runners having it as a back-up should not be an excuse for poor marking of the route! That said the idea of using the ViewRanger app is a sound one and something that other event organisers could do well to pick-up on as the App itself is free and the mapping/ routes are open-source so cost nothing, although the up-sell is the purchase of OS maps.

After finishing the 10k my friend Kirsty had to go back out on the course with some of her other friends to try and find one of their group who had lost sight of the course markers and had become lost. When Kirsty had approached marshals about this they just shrugged their shoulders and were disinterested rather than offering assistance or even co-ordinating an effort to locate her friend. Fortunately she was found after about 15 minutes, having managed to retrace her steps, but nonetheless it was another oranisational failing here.

Today was the first iteration of the event and in the course they have a challenging and good looking route with an exceptional event base at the campsite, so Something Wild has a sound footing to grow from. The folks behind it are keen, enthusiastic and decent sorts, however they need to learn from their weaknesses in organisation that today has highlighted and to tighten-up on this side of their operation. Once these kinks are ironed-out then there is nothing to prevent this event from becoming a popular annual outing on the trail-running calendar through its family-friendly setting. Will I be back? hmmm, I don’t know… Maybe I’ll give it another try in a few years once they have had a chance to iron-out the organisational side of things but until then I'll be finding something different to run in Septembers!

Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Run far.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

13th September: Forward planning

Thought for the day: Is there such a thing as backwards planning?

Anyway, as summer rapidly disappears into the distance, if the 2 weeks of sun in July counts as a summer, the time for planning my winter racing calendar begins.

I had already sorted one race for next summer in the guise of the Lakeland 50, so my runs starting in the new year will need to take in to account this looming on the horizon.

At the start of this year I set a goal of a sub 4 hour marathon by 2015's end, so the final marathon of the year (just before Christmas), is the flat course of the Portsmouth Coastal, which has previously been a PB for me. To make this a reality I am hoping to put some strong race times down in advance as well as taking-on the flat ‘Thames Meander’ course in early November for a ‘practice’ in the lead-up to it.

I have entered for a second time the Clarendon Marathon, a point-to-point from Salisbury to Winchester in early October that is relatively flat for a trail marathon and a race I want to put in a stronger time than that of 2 years ago so I will be viewing this as 'speed-work' with a sub 5 hour time, the closer to 4:30 the better.

Following on from Clarendon at the end of the month is the recommencing of the Coastal Trail Series, of which I am a big fan. The one recurring race on their calendar that I have yet to run is the 'Suffolk' which is on the coast around the RSPB reserve of Minsmere where the BBC films its 'Springwatch' wildlife series. Aside from me completing the 'full set' of the CTS races with a finish, its location of East Anglia ensures the course will again be relatively flat and a good chance of recording a faster time in anticipation once more of the attempt at the sub 4 hour marathon time.

After this, the races get harder with the CTS events on the 'Gower' in November and the as beautiful as it is brutal 'Dorset' in early December, where if I manage to beat my PB times for both I should be in fine fettle for Portsmouth.

Finger’s crossed and injury permitting with this quite intensive close to the year I will be entering 2016 with 50 marathons under my belt - not too shabby considering my first was just 27 months ago!

Into January and the new CTS event at Dover provides an unknown test for me - previously their January race was in Anglesey but this has been dropped from their calendar, which for me is a shame as I really enjoyed that trail, even if it was a pain in the arse to get to! At least I have been able to run it in good weather as well as in a continual downpour and savoured the views from the top of the mountain.

February has the always testing South Devon, March sees me in Sussex and April a longed-for return to Exmoor and a trip to Pembrokeshire at the end of the month.

There will no doubt be other races spattered between these (Steyning and Pendine to name a potential pair) but come May my focus turns to preparation for the Lakeland 50.

I have entered Endurancelife's debut running of the 'Jurassic Quarter' course, a pretty tough 44 mile ultra over the 'Jurassic Coast' that will provide a stern warm-up test for me.

As yet June is blank and the final warm-up in the first week of July will be the Ultimate Trails 55k ultra. Whilst this is in the Lake District, it is over different hills to those in the Lakeland 50 and is a touch easier on the total ascent over its duration. At least with these two races I should be relatively well prepared for July's end... So long as I can dodge injury until then (fingers well and truly crossed!)... I've just got to keep my eyes open for a run in June that will be a good work-out for me.

Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Run far.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

6th September: The Change-Up

In the UK we may not have the same scale of scenery and the heights of the Alps to put on our own UTMB, nor do we have the established routes of North America to hold our own Leadville, Western States, Vermont or Wasatch ‘Grand Slam’. What we do have are our own equally challenging races in the remoter and more beautiful parts of the British Isles.

One of these races is the Lakeland 100 which has built a reputation as one of the tougher events on the British trail-running calendar. Similar to the UTMB, where you can run parts of the course as separate ‘junior’ races, the Lakeland 100 has a sister race where you take-on the second half of the course: the aptly named Lakeland 50. Tickets went on sale for the 2016 edition of the 100 & 50 races at 9am on September 1st, with 400 places up for grabs in the 100 and 650 in the 50.

When 8:59 ticked-over to 9am, the British ultra-running community descended into paroxysms of mouse double-clicking and refresh button bashing as they attempted to gain entry in to one of the most sought-after events on the calendar, an event that when the entries opened last year it sold-out in a mere 19 minutes!

I have to confess, I was one of those sitting by my computer screen come the appointed hour… And somehow managed to squeeze-in as one of the lucky few who bagged their place inside the SIX MINUTES that it took to sell-out this year!

Dear god, if that’s not a sign as to how sought-after an entry to these two races are, then I don’t know what is. The 100 mile course is certainly a tough one with the organisers advising of a 50-60% failure rate and of those drop-outs, 80-90% of them are before they have even reached the halfway point!.. It appears its as tough a race to enter as it is to finish, yet this certainly has not deterred the number of people wanting to take-on the challenge.

The Lakeland 100 Route (Start/ Finish in Coniston).
The 50 is used by the organisers as a stepping stone to qualify entry into the 100, whereby you need to have finished the race inside of 16 hours to earn the right to submit an entry to the running of the 100. This must now be my minimal target for the race as there is no guarantee that I’ll be lucky enough again to gain an entry to go for a sub 16 hour time if I fail this time.

The Lakeland 50 route that I'll be running.
Now I’m entered I really need to be in the right shape to deserve my place on that start-line next July, in what is safe to say will be my toughest challenge yet!. I found the 30 mile Peak Skyrace to be the hardest event I have completed so far, even though I have gone further, however this was a good wake-up as the route is akin to that of the 50, at half the cumulative ascent and just over half the distance. I finished this in just over the 8 hours having faded quite badly in the last section, so I know I need to be in a condition to go double the distance at the same rate and will need to change-up my training accordingly!.. I need to make that start-line come July in the best possible condition to face the challenge, which will mean the best shape I have ever been in my life; the life of a 39 year old fat-bloke!

Aside from my continual running of trail marathons, which will be training for the 50 in themselves, I will need to take on more hills during my normal training routes which will require a rethink.

Where I live, the immediate area is pretty flat, and my normal training run for years has been a 10k from home to the canal, along the tow-path then back to the village - with the route 90% on trail… The problem with this route is it is flat, pancake flat, so I need to remove myself from my comfort zone and in to something that involves hills.

Fortunately there is one small (especially by the standards of what I have run) hill just outside the village, so from now on I will be running up this on every run that I go on… And better still the ascent is a Strava segment so I can easily monitor my progress on this.

Once up the hill all the way back to the village is undulation, so your continually changing from up and down over the last few miles. This route, with the flat canal section at the start to act as a warm-up works out at 10.5 miles as opposed to the 7 I was running before, so this will make me run further than I previously was by 50% each run, with the hard part of the course starting with that climb at mile 7. By doing this I will have a cumulative ascent of 350ft over the 10 miles as opposed to the 50 over 7 that I am used to. Ok, the route will now be 25% road, but beggars can’t be choosers, especially when this is the only hill around the village… It also means that rather than the mere 75ft of ascent per run, it will be upped to 350ft.

I think I will also need to be paying more visits to Hawley Woods and Caesar’s Camp for hill work in those more challenging locations over the coming months, although its a bit of a pain in the arse having to drive somewhere just to run. At least my start-point at Hawley Woods is next to a sports centre so I could cycle the 10 miles there, run the route and cycle the 10 miles back afterwards.

All of these are really just thoughts at present, but I realise there’s a definite NEED to be upping my training mileage and the quality of those miles if I am to stand a realistic chance of hitting that 16 hour target next July.

Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Run far.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

30th August: Time for a change.

There comes a time of darkness and sorrow that befalls all of our lives. A time for reflection, a time to remember, a time to mourn.

Yes, it's time to do an 'Old Yeller' on a much loved and faithful servant of a pair of trainers.

I've had my pair of Asics Gel Trail Lahar's since before I embarked on this trail marathon odyssey and like the aforementioned hound, they have served me well but now need to be put out of their misery... Unlike the dog, at least my footwear isn't rabid, even if it does smell like it might be on occasion.

The trainers have been warm, comfortable and the fact they are Gore-Tex has been a curse and a blessing: When you run through mud and a tiny bit of water then you know you will stay dry, but if you go through a depth where the water comes over the top of the shoe, the water comes in and just stays in the shoe without draining, held there by the Gore-Tex that is so effective at holding it out.

The fabric on the tongue is now fraying and the grips are wearing down to be similar to road shoes, so they're no longer much kop on the trails (not that the grips were good enough for hardcore muddy slippery trail running in the first place, as I found to my cost on my first organised marathon), as I can now feel every stone under the balls of my feet, leading to a sharp intake of breath and a wince every now and again when I tread on a pointy pebble.

I've been so happy with them as my 'light' trail shoes that I've decided to replace them with a newer pair of Asics, the 'Gel Trail Tambora 4', so aside from dispensing with the Gore-Tex they are essentially a like-for-like replacement.

The new trainers :)
Fingers crossed for many happy miles to come in these bad-boys... Once I've been out and about in them a few times then I'll be posting a review as to how they fare... I will not be canning the Lahar's just yet though, I'll be keeping them for any pavement pounding to be done when it's raining or there's puddles on the ground.

Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Run far.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

23rd August: Running Distance Gradings

In the world according to LSS, the distances below have been assigned the following gradings:

  • 10k: Double park-run
  • 1/2 Marathon: Semi stupid
  • Marathon: Stupid
  • Ultra Marathon: Ultra Stupid.

I think there's a fair bit of wisdom in that!

Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Run far.

Monday, 31 August 2015

16th August: Alone or with company?

So what do you do when it comes to training? Do you go out by yourself or do you go out with one or more people? From seeing the weekday joggers in my village the vast majority of people going round the block are doing so by themselves. Running can be viewed as an individual pastime of you pushing yourself, but being next to someone can really help to pass the time as I can swear by from running distance events over the last few years.

My neighbour and erstwhile marathoner Pini has offered to go out running together on a good few occasions, but with him being that much faster than me I have refused as I would not want to disrupt any training plans he is in the midst of (he is good at having those and sticking to them) and in effect, waste his running and training time by having to force him to slow down to maintain the illusion that we are running together.

I realise the offer to go running is made by him with this knowledge in mind, and when I have gone out jogging with LSS I have done so knowing it will be at her pace (well maybe a little faster than she would normally go) rather than at mine and I certainly have no problem in doing this as it is my expectation of the run, so surely the same applies with Pini’s offer to me?

Personally I am with the majority of those I have seen in the village and as a rule I run by myself (excluding a four legged companion). The major reason is more to do with time factors than anything else: With my line of work and its non-regular finishing times I cannot commit to set times or days, so I tend to run (or cycle) when I can find the time and this is also the same reason that I have not joined a running/ cycling/ tri club as it is tricky to keep the commitment that joining demands of you. If you are to run with someone and for it to become a regular occurrence then you need to have a day and a time that works and to stick to it as cancelling at the last minute will only lead to upset and you’re back to running solo again.

It looks like for the time-being I will continue ‘flying solo’ so-as-to-speak, but hey, I’m not discounting in the future going out running with other people… As long as they are happy to abide by the rule that if you can’t hold a conversation with the person you are running with, then you’re going too fast!

Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Run far.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

9th August: Vote Pies

On the last three marathons I’ve been to, in North Devon, Fort William and Buxton, because of my 'Eat Pies' shirt that I run in, I’ve been asked on 4 separate occasions if it is me who has graffiti’d the bridge over the M6.

For those to whom this means nothing, heading north on the motorway there is a railway bridge just north of Sandbach Services where someone has had some fun with a paint brush… And on the way south there is another related daubing close by.

Now back in my mis-spent youth at a drunken student party I did once graffiti a road and as a consequence a few years back there was a report in the news of a zebra crossing being painted across the M3 a couple of miles from where I lived, those who knew me did ask if I had anything to do with the prank... So I suppose I should have expected the occasional question about the M6 prank, but no, its nowt to do with me!

Here’s what the  graffitis look like from on the road:

Northbound: Vote Pies
Southbound: Pies This is Your Time.
Incidentally, whilst journeying back from LSS's folks in Chorley, I was held at traffic lights to the north of Wigan, the pie capital of Britain, and saw this in a baker's window:

Why on earth would you want to put a pie in a roll?

Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Run far.

2nd August: Peak Skyrace

Different gravy... That's the phrase I'll use to describe the Peak Skyrace: Different gravy!

I'd seen this race a while back and wanted to do it in my attempt at pushing myself towards harder runs. My long-term aim is to be taking part in some properly hard mountain marathons and ultras and you need to start somewhere! As such this race in the globally renowned Skyrunner series (well, renowned amongst us trail runners) offered a decent step-up in to what to expect in the type of races the global stars of trail runners lock horns against one another... The global stars of trail running and the 'Leeky Ladies': Kirsty, Lucinda and Sarah, whom I met at the Pendine ultra and have been ribbing me on Facebook and Strava over the last few months about how I would not be able to cope when I came to play in their backyard of the Peak District!

LSS and Spud our faithful sprollie had accompanied me to this race, with us all camping a short distance from the event base of Buxton high-school. Come the hour in the morning and I assembled on the road outside with about half the other runners. None of us had any idea of where to go as the school looked closed and there was no signage or indication as to where to go, so with just 30 mins left to the race briefing we all began to sweat nervously about what to do... Until someone pointed out where to go and half the field descended on the registration desk and the toilets at the same time!

Briefed, registered, lubed and numbered we all filed across to the playing fields on the opposite side of road. As we lined-up to start, I said hello to ‘Leeky Ladies’ Sarah & Kirsty (Lucinda had to drop-out through illness) and I had a good chance to survey the field of my fellow runners... I have to say I was disappointed at the paucity of ultra-beards lined-up in front of me! As a Skyrunner race you know its supposed to be a toughie, even if this is the ‘easiest’ of the British ones, but perhaps it was not hard enough to attract those sporting the face-fungus of men who live their life outdoors in nothing more than a pair of shorts and a running vest with a thousand yard stare deep in their eyes... I figured they must all have remained at home nailing their scrotums to planks of wood which for them would be marginally more painful than running here today!

Nary a beard to be seen!
I waited near the rear of the group (starting how I figured things would pan out by the end) with the grey clouds hanging overhead threatening a soaking upon us. After the countdown we were off on half a lap of the field before climbing in to the woods at the side, the race grinding to a halt as we ascended 'Indian file' onto the woodland path.

So fast we were all a blur!
Under the canopy we climbed and descended on the sometimes slick trail in a good warm-up to get the blood pumping and emerged out the far side with a short but lung-busting climb up to Solomon’s Temple whilst serenaded by a piper... The definition of a gentleman is 'somebody who knows how to play the bagpipes but chooses not to’, so this chap certainly wasn’t one... Either that or the missus has banned him from practicing in the house on a Sunday morning!

The congregation off to 'Temple' on a Sunday morning.
Rounding the temple and breathing out of my arse it was down the other side and a cut across a couple of residential roads with a long drawn-out climb to hit the wilderness of the Peak District moorland.

Syonara to civilization for a few hours.
Soon it was just the sound of your own breath and the occasional gust of wind as all civilisation was left behind with Burbage at the bottom of the hill. So far, so enjoyable and my times were up on what I had anticipated they would be at this point. I had hoped to average 15 minute miles over the course and I had posted an average of about 11 so far. Over this first moor and we passed a very picturesque gorge with the stream burbling away in the bottom, running above it on the rocky and sandy path before crossing over it about a quarter mile later and in no time hit CP1 on a hairpin bend through a gate.

The checkpoints on this race were a mix of manned aid stations and self-clip orienteering style points.

An aid station with a view.
Whilst registering we were all handed our brevet cards and to finish the race we were to collect 6 individual clips from the various points on the run with a further 3 checkpoints being manned aid stations.

From the well-stocked aid station we hit more moorland and farmland, including a few climbs of particularly fiendish gradients that at least were mercifully brief in their duration. It was on this section I bumped in to a chap by the name of Jason, a teacher by profession, who was out on his first ultra and ran for a while with him, with us and others losing our way on part of the course and having to clamber over a low barbed-wire topped fence to get on to the road we were all sure we were supposed to be running along, before we yo-yo’d and he disappeared-off in to the distance.

...And down.
One of the highlights for me was running over the ‘Ramshaw Rocks’ where at times we had to scramble over the outcrops of the gritstone monoliths. It was up here that I saw a familiar face perched on a rock above the trail cheering us runners on: Lucinda the last of the trio of 'Leeky Ladies' was there with her spotty-dog Lily, so I paused briefly to chat with her and wished her a speedy recovery to get back out running these stupidly long distances that she loves (and is very good at as well).

Off the high point, down and round before ‘Hen Cloud’ was conquered… Next-up ‘The Roaches’. At this point I was suffering from overheating as the clouds had now burnt away and the sun was shining, raising the humidity level, and with being on track for time and nearing the halfway point I decided to rest under the watching eye of some rock-climbers beginning their ascent of the vertical face behind me. Eating a breakfast bar whilst perched on a handy rock I had to fight-off the plethora of flies that plagued anything that was not moving and would dog us runners for the rest of the race now the sun was out. Once back up and running along the trail we skirted some centuries-old woodland on the downward slopes which were beautifully verdant with age.

As I descended off the Roaches I could see by the road in front of me was parked an ice cream van… Dear god I was tempted for a 99, unfortunately I was not carrying cash so it just teased me as I passed it and the gathered throng of weekend walkers all enjoying something cold to cool-off. As I passed them by, one group asked if it ‘was me who graffiti’d the M6 bridge?’ - this was the first of 2 asks today, combined with recent asks at Fort William and the North Devon AONB marathons!.. What has happened is earlier this year someone has painted ‘Vote Pies’ on a bridge over the motorway, and with my ‘Eat Pies’ shirt it seems there’s a bunch of people putting 2 and 2 together and coming up with 5!

Make mine a 99!
Back up on to the next ridge for some more spectacular running amongst the wilderness, another self-clip point then through some woodland and the second aid station was there with sweet sugary goodness to be had.

Passing out the other side of the aid station I bumped in to Jason again who was struggling his way up the hill getting a bit of gip from his leg - I offered him some Deep Heat, which after he’d massaged in coupled with a bit of a stretch he was fine to continue… With us chatting about the coaching standard of football in Britain as opposed to the US and in Europe and how they get things right over there with infrastructure as opposed to the way it is done in Britain, especially from his experiences of training as a coach and working over in the States before coming back to Britain to become a teacher. Talking at length over this and football in general and what has got us to the lunacy of where we are now certainly managed to while-away the miles and forget about the heat beating down on us from the sun… When with a sigh we saw our next challenge: Shutlingsloe - a spiky brute of a hill that seems to rise vertically out of nowhere and returns just as quickly. Watching from below we could see the slow progress of those on their way up, picking a path and using their hands to help in some places near the top as it was that steep.

Up Shutlingsloe.
Dear god, it was as tough as it looked trying to get up it, and all the words of encouragement of those passing us on the way down could not lift my spirits. Finally, absolutely rinsed with the effort we were at the summit, clipped-in at the CP and were able to cool down in the gentle breeze blowing across us. From our vantage point you could see stunning views for miles, including in the distance our next target in the form of the Cat & Fiddle pub and the aid station beside it. Surveying the landscape you could figure-out where our path would cut its way through the landscape to get there.

As you can see the view was worth the struggle!
What went up must come down, so we descended from the ‘Matterhorn of the Peak District’ and as those who had done to us before we bade all those we passed the best of British. We found our way through some forest and climbed-up along a babbling brook, which I took the opportunity to sit down in to cool off, dousing my cap with water as well before continuing refreshed.

The view from in the babbling brook!
One of the course markers!
Across the moors we reached the pub and its aid station. When we arrived the medic chatted to the two of us, ascertaining in his mind if we were in a fit-enough state to continue as-is or were suffering from dehydration or anything else. We seemed to pass muster and a quick query about cut-offs by me to see if we had definitely made it - I estimated us to be about 15 minutes inside of it at this point - and we were told as far as they were concerned we were good to go, so loaded-up with food and drink the two of us headed out of the aid station towards the last self-clip at CP9 on Shining Tor.

Towards the Tor.
We made a good pace now fortified with a blast of sugars and salts, making the next mile in good time and in not too long a time we had completed the out-and-back leg to Shining Tor and mentally we were now on the home straight. At this point Jason crossed beyond the furthest distance he had ever run (marathon distance) and we edged closer to the bottom of Goyt Valley.

Descending in to the valley we were now out of the breeze, the heat & rising humidity now became an issue for me and progress was slow. Jason was sharing the suffer-load with me, almost as a tag team: me on the ascents and him on the descents. Our mile times at this point seemed to drop off a cliff as the buzz from the aid station fodder had worn-off and we were now both in a bit of sense of humour failure; our sole focus now to get to the end of the race, no matter what, where or how. Everything was now just plain hurting!

It seemed an eternity, but we finally emerged on the other side of the valley and from the view of Burbage below and Buxton beyond it we realised that we were closing-in on the end, with mostly just descent to go as we re-traced our steps from this morning under cloudy skies, that now seemed an eternity ago.

Eventually the two of us reached the school and crossed the finish line to the accompaniment of an air-horn and the remaining runners/ spectators still yet to clear-off home. We crossed the line 20 minutes down on the 8 hour suggested finish time… That said we were not quite last (but nearly) finishing 6th & 7th place away from the wooden spoon although there were a few runners who were hooked from the course at the Cat & Fiddle for being too slow as well as a few casualties en-route.

An understandably chuffed Jason!
LSS & Spud had been waiting for me for around 2 hours at this point and typically, LSS kept up her ‘not quite there’ record at these events and was away from the line as I finished thanks to Spud needing a wee at precisely the wrong moment, so again there was no finishers photo of me!

Sarah was chilling out by the finish line with her faithful lurcher Willow. She had become one of the casualties of the race having to drop around the 10th mile and the disappointment was writ large on her normally cheerful face. Kirsty however was all smiles, and finishing 6th lady was a terrific outcome for her!

I’m now the proud owner of a ‘Skyrunner’ medal and the finishers tech-tee is a very classy simple black affair with a white outline print.

In the school’s canteen there was plenty of left over food from the checkpoints for us to indulge in should we want to, although I was more interested in drinking than eating with the heat… For the last 2 hours I had been craving a chilled can of Red Bull or 2, fixating on this and using it as a motivation to get across the line, but I settled for a load of squash instead as it was sitting there nice and cool in a jug ready to be drunk! All the leftover food was to be donated to local homeless shelters, which I thought was a lovely touch and very classy of the organisers and an incentive not to eat anything!

Speaking of the organisers, they have put on a very challenging race and worthy of sitting under the Skyrunner banner - you don’t have to be running up and down mountains in the back-end of beyond for the course to be challenging, as there’s certainly plenty of ascending to be done here in the Peak District. The race clocks 2km of vertical ascent - yep, more than a vertical mile over the course of the race!

This was by far the hardest of all the 43 marathons and further that I have run. As I stated at the start I found it to be ‘different gravy’ so I’d better explain what I mean… From looking upon a trail marathon as a pie, on paper this marathon seems to be just the same as your ’standard’ trail marathon meat pie, but as soon as you sink your teeth in to it you soon find there’s a different taste going on here… You still have your normal filling of hills, mud and puddles etc… But boy the way they are all mixed-up together combining the ever changing terrain underfoot, vista after sweeping vista, ridge running and even a small scramble, it is a different gravy poured over the filling that makes it taste a whole lotta different, and it tastes GOOD! I will certainly be back for a second helping and I have a burning desire already to finish my next sitting in under the 8 hours.

Having slept like a baby from when darkness fell (no, not waking up screaming at 2am having shat the bed), the next morning LSS and I stopped-off in the village of Hadfield. The reason for stopping was two-fold: Hadfield is LSS’s maiden name and it is also the location for one of my favourite comedies: The League of Gentlemen

The iconic Hadfield war memorial.
I was able to park-up and walk in to Hilary Briss & Sons butcher’s (Mettricks in real life) and come out with a pack of the ‘special stuff’, or sausages in this case!

Got my 'special stuff'!
Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Run far.