Monday 29 March 2010

Roaming the Rhinogs, Easter 2008

An early start saw the amigos hit the road from Bristol with an eagerness to leave the city life behind. Inspired by Roger Deakin’s book, Waterland, we were off to Wales to seek out true wilderness and try our hands at wild camping. Earlier attempts had been somewhat mixed. In Sardinia we managed to pitch in the vicinity of a frustrated dog/wolf who growled menacingly all night, as if he was about to rip the tent to shreds and then set about the occupants. The following night was more idyllic, with a roaring campfire in sheltered dunes on the beach, a crashing surf and more stars than you could shake a stick at.

By the time we crossed the Severn Bridge into Wales the Boy Simmonds had just about got his head round the fact that you don’t need to use the gear stick in an automatic. Before long we were in mid Wales, passing through the Black Mountains and following the river Wye in full flow (proposals were put forward for a ‘three men in a boat’ style trip in a warmer season). Jim then spotted some mistletoe high in the trees lining the road and explained its origins. Now can’t seem to stop spotting it.

A brief stop was made at a camping shop in Crickhowell which I remembered from the previous year when I bought a few last minute essentials for the Mid Wales 100. Some League of Gentlemanesque behaviour ensued from the two middle aged women working the shop before we left with what we came for. Back on the road steady progress was made through sweeping valleys until we reached Dolgellau in the south of the Snowdonia National Park. Having built up an appetite we walked straight into our only disappointment of the weekend, the Ship Inn. A promising menu gave way to a shockingly tasteless affair straight from the microwave.
After stocking up on supplies for the forthcoming 24 hours (Jim and Simmy decided that 8 cans of Joshua’s finest were essential rations) we headed to a rough walkers car park on the east side of the Rhinogs. The weather was extremely changeable due to the strong winds, with heavy rain one minute and promises of sun the next. Fortunately we were much better equipped for this venture than any previous jaunt, and it was in full waterproofs that we began the business end of the weekend.

After a gentle trudge of a couple of miles through dense pine woods we emerged at the foot of the Roman Steps (though not Roman, the series of stone steps were constructed in medieval times as a pack animal access over the hostile terrain from the hinterland onto the coastal plains) where the ascent began. It was here that we saw the last people we were to see until the following lunchtime. As we began the steep climb up the north face of Rhinog Fawr (great) the weather really came in and sleet lashed at our backs before softening to large flakes of snow. The peak above us was shrouded in cloud but as we picked a way to the summit, as much by instinct than map, the clouds cleared to reveal supreme views in all directions, including out to sea at Cardigan Bay. It was from this first ‘bagged’ peak that we plotted our direction of descent and potential pitch for the night.

With the light drawing in we descended into the Nantcol Valley and finally found a small island of grass in the boggy ground next to an old ruined cottage. Before long the tent was up, with guy ropes being employed, a first for Hotel Blacks. The spot was a good’un, with fantastic views of the setting sun on Rhinog Fach (small) and the route we would climb tomorrow. Inside the tent things quickly became homely as sleeping bags were rolled out and the stove was lit. First course was soon served up, tomato soup with lashings of basil, shortly followed by a heaped bowlful of steaming pasta. The verdict was that we should open an eatery in Wales given the dross served up at lunchtime and what we had been able to rustle up on a camping stove. That said, food always tastes better on the mountain. Bellies full, moral was further boosted by some idle chat over a few hands of knockout whist. There was no need to change into pyjamas, it was a case of wearing every thread available, including beanies.

During the night I was convinced I was the only one having a fitful night’s sleep, as every time I looked over the fun boys seemed to be dreaming peacefully. I was pleased to discover in the morning that they had had a similar experience. The stove again worked miracles, producing an improvised dish of porridge mixed with crunchy oat cereal. The wind was still fierce and taking the tent down proved a right handful.

We descended to the valley bottom where the fields were full of spring lambs, with Jim commenting that they were really quite ‘good looking’. Soon a gradual zig-zagging ascent began and we were amazed at how the dry stone walls on the opposing mountain face appeared in places to be almost vertical.

Almost felt sorry for the first peak as despite being higher than Rhinog Fach it did not even merit a cairn. With a dusting of snow underfoot we descended steeply before stopping for lunch in the saddle between the two peaks. From here we could see the forest where the car was parked.

A short, sharp climb brought us to the top of Rhinog Fach and more stunning panoramic views. A comfortable descent led us down to the forest and before long we were back at the car.
Feeling rather weary by this stage we drove to the nearby Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) which I had been keen to visit for some time. It was founded in 1973 on the site of a disused slate quarry and was originally a community dedicated to eco-friendly principles and a test bed for new ideas and technologies. Energy levels were really crashing by the time we got the water balanced cliff railway up to the site proper. We made a quick tour, spending a good portion of the time available in the café.

Onward to the bunkhouse at Braich Goch which Jim had rather sensibly booked for the night, the thought of another night under canvas was not particularly appealing. After a luxurious shower we had a quick pint in the bar surrounded by some very simple/ugly local types, before strolling down to the Slaters Arms in the village (Corris). The pub was just what we were after, a friendly landlord, wholesome homemade food, Welsh ales, roaring fire and locals chirping away in their incomprehensible patter. A couple of whiskeys sealed the evening and we hit the sack relatively early.

After talk of what constitutes the perfect fry up the night before, we set about the task with gusto in the morning. Quality ingredients played their part with local sausages and bacon, flash-fried beans, on the vine tomatoes, mushrooms, eggs fried in puddles of oil (as per the opening scene in Withnail and I) and thick cut toast.

With such a gut-full it was an effort to gear up for the morning’s walk, particularly with an overenthusiastic Brummie trying to pass on his limited knowledge of the area. The circular walk was to take in Cadir Iris, and while the path was much more travelled than the previous day a blanket of snow had fallen overnight making conditions tricky higher up. We soon reached the lake at the foot of the mountain and from here we took the more adventurous route around the back of the water to attack the steep hill face. From here the footprints disappeared and the walk took on a more pioneering feel. Small exploratory steps were required to negotiate the incline as the snow had drifted to a couple of feet in places. Finally we scrambled over the lip onto the footpath proper.

From here we continued along the ridge line before descending back down to the car park with the uneasy feeling of the long road home hanging over us.

Friday 19 March 2010

UTMB August 2009

I've done a few long races now but this is in a different league to anything I’d attempted before. Driving from Geneva Airport up to Chamonix on Friday afternoon had me gazing up at the surrounding peaks in disbelief and I started to question how my training in the UK was going to stack up in this environment. The relatively painless registration process out the way I headed to the start where I said goodbye to my incredible one man support team Simmy. This was it. Goodbye training, hello race.

The atmosphere at the start was terrific with around 2,300 runners at the ready and the streets lined with supports. I got in close to the front and I could see some of the big names completing their final media commitments. It was good to finally get moving at 18.30 and settled into a steady jog for an hour until I hit the first significant climb. Nice and steady before descending into St Gervais just as the light vanished. The noise from hundreds of supporters in St Gervais was incredible and really felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up as I ran through the town and to the first checkpoint. Found Simmy and had a short chat before getting the head torch out and cracking on. Great surprise a little further on when James (friend from work who was on holiday nearby) and his wife Claire appeared at Les Contamines as I started the long climb up Col du Bonhomme. Their enthusiasm really spurred me on. The general support was less intense now but every so often you would round a corner halfway up a mountain and there would be a group of locals cheering wildly from the comfort of a fire and Edith Piath belting out of a stereo – all very French.

Race start in the centre of Chamonix

Low cloud smothered the high ground and visibility was down to a few metres so I tried to stay in touch of someone ahead so I wasn’t always scanning for the path (easy to lose in places) which was mentally very tiring. Down the other side I saw Simmy again before heading up Col de la Seigne and another short ascent before the very steep descent into Courmayeur where I was planting my poles ski style to get round the twisting hairpins.

Took on a fair bit of food in Courmayeur and chatted with Simmy while I put on some fresh socks and stocked up on gels. It was a big relief that daylight had arrived and strode out from Courmayeur with purpose, feeling confident as I was almost halfway and still going strong. Tried out a few ‘bonjorno’s’ on the early-rising locals, they loved it. After another steep ascent there followed a relatively (in an alpine sense) flat section which I made the most of and got a lot of satisfaction from passing a number of other runners and it was here that I broke into the top 100 for the first time. The scenery on this part of the course was also some of the best, or maybe it was just the last time I had the aptitude to appreciate it. I saw Simmy at Arnuva (60 miles) and I was in really high spirits. Quite a few people around me were starting to look a bit spent and I knew it wouldn’t be too long before I joined them, but I decided that while I had some gears I might as well continue to use them.

Looking quite perky at Courmayeur

Next came the ascent to the highest point on the course – Grand Col Ferret at 2,537m. It was a steady climb though and it never really phased me, though it was lucky that the clouds that were looking threatening never gave way to rain. Off the peak I was still attacking the descents and felt great to be picking more people off all the way down to La Fouly (70 miles) where I arrived in 80th position. Simmy was there giving me lots of encouragement but my legs were now starting to stiffen after 18 hours on the trail. I started out from La Fouly a little sluggishly but managed to pick up the pace thereafter. There were three big ascents left but the first one really took it out of me as although not that high it was very steep and technical. It was a massive relief to get to the top, and it was here that I reached my highest placing of 71st. But unfortunately my earlier descending powers had left me as my quads were completely shot and my left knee was now hurting with every step. I also started feeling extremely tired and at times was struggling to keep my eyes open.

Less perky as going gets tough

Still, I stumbled to the bottom and it was a big lift to see Simmy who brightened my mood with some observational humour. The penultimate ascent didn’t turn out too bad, much more even underfoot and with the Ibuprofen kicking in I managed to regain some speed on the descent to Vallorcine where I passed several runners to arrive in 88th place. I was feeling much more alert now and with only 13 miles to go I was keen to keep the stay at the checkpoint to a minimum. Simmy encouraged me to eat more as this would be the last time I would see him until the finish and rather alarmingly I had completely run out of gels. I felt pretty invincible though with the finish so close. This feeling of invincibility proved to be a very flakey indeed.

One more climb, one more descent – easy. Except the ascent proved to be another very steep technical climb, it was now pitch black and my legs started feeling like lead again. It was a real slog and as I got higher the wind picked up and I started to feel cold. I put my jacket on but decided the best option was to keep moving rather than stop to put additional clothes on. Unfortunately things didn’t get much easier at the top where the path was made up of loose boulders that were very tricky to navigate in the dark. I finally reached a mini checkpoint though there was no food and it was very exposed so I stumbled on a further 3 miles across the same wretched terrain to the last checkpoint.

By the time I arrived my body temperature had really plummeted and I was shivering. One of the volunteers sat me down and wrapped me in a space blanket and I forced down some hot soup and some sweet tea. I could feel myself warming up but my appetite to get back outside was pathetic. I eventually put on all the spare clothes I had and pushed on. It was 5 miles to the finish, all downhill, but I had lost my bottle and couldn’t get into any rhythm on the ground that was still very rough and my knee was again very painful. Runners past me like I was tied to a rock and I felt the lowest I’d been despite being so close to the finish. I could see the bright lights of Chamonix below me but they didn’t seem to be getting any closer. I rang Simmy to tell him I’d had a bit of a wobble and was getting there slowly. After what felt like an eternity I came to the end of the rough trail and onto the tarmac leading to the town centre. I forced myself into a run and wound through the town which was sadly fairly empty given that it was 1am, though at the time I didn’t really care. What should have been the crowning emotional moment of the race was actually just sheer relief at crossing the line in 30 hours 56 minutes (95th position). I felt particularly bad that I wasn’t able to be more upbeat at the finish for Simmy who had given me such great support. Finally got to bed after being awake for 45 hours.

The disappointing end (it took me 4.5 hours to cover the last 13 miles) took the gloss off things a bit, but reflecting on the race as a whole it was a great experience and so many things had gone well. It also put things into perspective returning to Chamonix the next afternoon and competitors were still finishing (46 hours is the time limit), incredible they were still going after two full nights in the mountains and I got a lot of pleasure out of watching them cross the finish the line with huge grins on their faces (in the end 1,383 of the 2,300 starters finished the race). Not sure I’ll ever do the race again, perhaps like childbirth some of the memories are still a bit painful, but what an incredible journey…

The views weren't bad

Thursday 14 January 2010

Luddite checks in

I'm not the biggest advocate of technology so I have surprised myself by creating a blog. Why? Well it seems a good place to consolidate a number of ideas/thoughts/things that are currently somewhat floating around and have no home and it seems a bit less brash than Facebook which I have so far resisted joining. Hopefully this is the start of something of substance rather than a brief foray into something I quickly tire of. We shall see...