Tag Archives: Dougie Nisbet

Comrades Marathon, Pietermaritzburg to Durban, South Africa, Sunday, June 10, 2018

90 kms [DOWN run]

Dougie Nisbet

Three days before Comrades I nipped into the Expo to collect my number. They make you feel special as an international runner with a special fasttrack queue that takes out much of the stress, and quite possibly, some of the fun. This left me plenty time to search for the Ethembeni School amongst the maze of stalls sprawling through the exhibition centre. I approached hesitantly, with my 4 carrier bags stuffed with pre-loved, hated-at-first-sight, and oh-not-another-tech-tee from years of racing around Durham and beyond. I’d been putting them to one side for a long time now, not really thinking through how I’d squash them into my luggage for the long trip to Durban. But squashed in they had been, and now I was a bit nervous. Perhaps the school didn’t have any crushing desire for a Durham City 10K t-shirt, or a Mad Dog 10K, or Blackpool Marathon, and would be shortly making that clear to me. But no. Apparently according to the nice lady I spoke to, they were all ‘awesome’. I was relieved as I had no plan ‘B’ if they were not wanted. After Comrades we were going onto Botswana where we had a strict luggage limit and I had visions of having to furtively find a place to lose several years of surplus running vests.

Two days before Comrades found us on the bus tour again. The Down Run this year. On a hot bus with a broken PA but this didn’t dampen the spirits of our hosts. Both Comrades runners, full of experience and enthusiasm. Once again we stopped at Ethembeni School for an impromptu concert.

Concert at the Ethembeni School

The school is a wonderful place. A facility for kids with disabilities, including albinism, which can still result in them being stigmatised. The school has built up a rapport with Comrades over the years and particularly international runners. As the school principal candidly pointed out, the school enjoys donations and publicity the envy of its neighbours, simply because it’s on the Comrades race route.

Stopping for a photo breather during the Durban parkrunThe day before Comrades and it had to be the Durban parkrun. A carnival of controlled chaos with the bus drivers rehearsing their moves and runners doing their final kit checks. Despite having 2273 runners the organisers do an amazing job of running a tight ship. Should you wish to run it hard, the opportunity was there to do so. But for most people it was a jog along the seafront enjoying the spectacle and singing of the following day’s buses.

The night before Comrades we stayed at the Golden Horse casino in Pietermaritzbug. Last year it had been at the end of the race and had been surprisingly peaceful. This year, it was a much busier affair and not a lot of fun. A packed and cramped coach took us from Durban to the hotel where eventually we got checked in, were handed a free bottle of Energade, then queued in the restaurant for dinner. Our booking hadn’t been cheap and we were not too impressed with things so far. The night was short, and noisy. They seemed to be re-living the car-chase scenes from Grease in the carpark outside our room. Still, as we were up at 2AM there were not too many hours in which to be kept awake.

After breakfast I sat on the coach waiting for the avoidably late departure of the coach to the start. I’d have been better walking, and sat looking out of the coach window watching many people easily overtake the coach as they strolled to the Start. Eventually we were tufted out with not as much time to spare as I would have liked, and I went looking for the baggage bus. That was pretty amazing. I managed to extract myself from the crush without breaking anything, had a brief and hopefully forgettable detour via a portable toilet, then tried to find my starting pen. Time was counting down and there was a hellish crush at the entrance. The poor marshall tasked with policing the gate suddenly found herself forced back as the force of runners made a final push into the pen. It was pretty nasty. For many seconds I had no control over my movements; the marshall retreated to the side for her own safety and I was propelled forward into the pen by the mass of people behind me. I staggered into the pen, ducked to the side and got myself somewhere safe-ish. This was unpleasant stuff. My sunglasses had been smashed in the crush which had a surprisingly bad psychological effect on me. I’d had a bad night, and with just half an hour to the beginning of this iconic race I stood crushed in abject misery and grumpiness. All in all, I thought, this is a bit shit.

The ropes between the pens were dropped, and there was a lurch as the pens began to merge. Then there were a few moments of calm. Then over the PA it was announced that the national anthem would be played. I think they do actually play it over the PA – not that it matters. This was one of the many stranger-in-a-strange-land goose-bump moments that you experience in Comrades as an international runner. Proper singing. None of your Oggy Oggy Oggy crap here.

After the power of the national anthem came the mellowness of the Shosholoza, then a palpable expectant pause before the first notes of Chariots of Fire blasted out over the PA. I’m not a huge fan of this song, preferring Mr Bean’s 2012 Olympic variations over the cheesy original, but hey, when it’s 0530AM and dark and cold in Pietermaritzburg and you’re surrounded by thousands of fellow Comrades runners, suddenly it doesn’t seem cheesy at all. In a space of a few minutes my mood had changed. My tetchiness had been replaced by mellowness, and I wondered with interest how the long day ahead would play out. The cock crowed but I noticed some of the old-hands didn’t start their watches until the starting gun sounded a few seconds later.

Nothing much happened for a bit (although with the race being gun-to-mat – the clock had started ticking) but before long we all started shuffling forward. After the chaotic crush of getting into the pen, things were now quite calm and civilised. Perhaps it was all that singing. It was still dark and cold and I was wearing my long-sleeved Striders top. The one I’d never liked that flared out like a maternity dress but at my waist. After a few miles when things were feeling a bit warmer but still dark I lobbed it at one of the collection points at the roadside only for it to whack into the face of a volunteer who’d turned in response to my shout. I’m never going to stop feeling bad about that and it’s probably best not to think about where my old Strider top is now …

Slowly the light came up, and the sun rose over KwaZulu-Natal. It wasn’t forecast to be a hot day and running conditions were pretty nice. I wasn’t sure how race-day would play out but for the moment I was on my race plan and feeling fine.

Sunrise over KwaZulu-Natal

This year my main objective was to get the back-to-back medal, a medal only available to novices who successfully complete their first two Comrades in successive years. An up run followed by a down run, or vice versa.  I was pretty confident of achieving this goal, but my secondary goal was to get a sub-11 hour Comrades. I thought it was do-able. I’d done a lot of core Strength-and-Conditioning training and was generally fitter and lighter than 2017. I wasn’t complacent though. I knew it’d still be hard. I’d been reading Matt Fitzgerald’s “How bad do you want it” (worth getting for his account of the 1989 Fignon/LeMond Tour de France finale alone) and he warns that one of the main mistakes athletes make as their form improves is to assume that a race will be less tough. So I was ready for that one. As the day wound on I kept clear of the buses as their pacing seemed bonkers. I’d already passed, and been passed by, two different 12 hour buses and didn’t care for their pacing strategy. Too fast, too early.

Your number says a lot about you in Comrades and mine had two red vertical bands indicating that I was going for the back-to-back. It was a strange club and occasionally I’d make eye-contact with other back-to-back runners and exchange a brief acknowledgement. An unspoken communication that we were all there for the same reason.

The sun crossed the sky and on the long steep descents I was grateful for my S&C training as it allowed me to continue running with form where many others were now walking. On the long descent of Fields Hill within the last 30 km I edged past an 11:30 bus that was going for a walk-jog strategy, and kept my rhythm going. I knew things weren’t right though. I was feeling too fatigued too early. I knew that Comrades comprises a long, tough, steady end-game where your muscles are fatigued, but if all is well, your form, rhythm and breathing is retained. And I could sense that I was on the wrong side of the envelope.

An 11 hour Comrades is an average pace of 7:19 a km. As much as an average means anything in this race. You’re lucky if more than a few kilometres of the race are level, which is one of the things that makes it such a hard event. I tried to run as steadily and cautiously as possible but I could sense that I didn’t have the stamina I expected and that it was going to be a pretty rough old day.  With 8km to go my Garmin showed that I was edging tantalisingly close to the psychologically magic pace of 7:19 and I tried to lift the pace a fraction. But just as it was looking like it was going to happen, we hit a long, draining climb into the suburbs of Durban, and it was game over.

I crashed and burned on this hill and at the drinks table at the top I knew the Bronze was not going to happen. This wasn’t a minor setback that I could recover from. My form had gone. My breathing was ragged. My rhythm was terrible. I wasn’t going to come back from this. The remainder of the race was simple damage limitation. Walking and jogging inelegantly into the Moses Mabhida Stadium and looking for the finish. With just 8km to go of this 90km race I could almost touch my target pace but by the final reckoning I wasn’t even close. The gantry clock showed 11:15 and a few seconds.

I crossed the line with mixed emotions. Part elation, part disappointment. Medals appeared and it felt good to be wearing two medals, the Finisher and the Back-To-Back. It’d have felt even better if one of these had been the bronze but that’s something I’ll have to get used to.

Sitting in the international section of the stand I peered over to the finish line as the 12 hour countdown grew near. I was struggling with two intense emotional reactions, one of which was completely unexpected. I hadn’t got the bronze, and I thought I’d been capable of it. I clearly wanted it more badly than I realised.

The Back-to-Back medalI puzzled over this. Perhaps it was because this is my first race for a very long time that hasn’t gone to plan. I’m much better at running even or negative splits, very disciplined, and it’s been a long time since I’ve ran a bad race. And this had been a bad race.

Suddenly a commotion from the crowd snapped me out of my despondency and with the seconds counting down  a runner appeared on the finish straight being physically supported by two other runners. The crowd were on their feet and cheering them on, but there’s always one grumpy pedant who doesn’t join in and share the spirit of the moment. I leaned towards Roberta and whispered, “That’s against the rules you know. You must be unsupported”. Perhaps they heard, as I saw an official approach the runner, who dropped to his knees and crawled the last few metres, unsupported, over the line.

I settled back into my despondency and tried to unpick my race. What had gone wrong? Too much training? Too little? Too much beer? Too little? Taper too long? Short? It was difficult to shake of the feeling of unfairness and injustice. But it wouldn’t be racing if there was no risk, if everything was predictable. It would be pointless. And there’s a certain morbid fascination of going over a big race that has gone unexpectedly wrong and mulling over the possible reasons.

I thought of those few seconds that had taken me over 11:15 and could see they would have easily been eaten up by all that high-fiving of the kids as I weaved by the Ethembeni School. But I can live with that. I told myself to stop being an arse. The name Ethembeni means “Place of Hope” and their school motto Phila Ufunde means “Live and Learn”. Wise words. They’ll do for me.

Calderdale Hike, Saturday, April 14, 2018

40 miles / 6800 feet

Dougie Nisbet

To say I was over-prepared for this race would be an understatement.

After last year’s (frankly embarrassing) DNF I was determined to finish this year. On time and on budget. So I had done a lot of homework. I’m an IT tech and if there’s anything a tech hates, it’s a Single Point of Failure (SPOF). I had split the route into 8 sections and numbered and laminated maps for each section. I had a spare OS map in waterproof bag, smartphone with route marked on OS maps, 2 spare battery packs (in case one jumped out my bum bag), and Garmin with route programmed. Plus, I’d done a lot of armchair thinking.

The Calderdale Hike long route split into 8 laminated map sections

This year is the 40th anniversary of the Calderdale Hike. The course changes a little every three years or so, and for the 40th anniversary the long route would be a neat 40 miles. The event is primarily a navigation challenge and although the organisers give a suggested route you are free to make your own decisions on how to get from checkpoint to checkpoint, providing your route choice is legal and uses only public roads and rights of way. I spent a fair amount of time before the race studying the checkpoints and experimenting with different route choices all from the comfort of an armchair. Nothing beats a route recce, but Sowerby Bridge is a bit of a trek and a recce of the 40 mile route would have taking quite a commitment.

I was soon kit checked and after a leisurely cup of coffee we went outside to hang around waiting to start on a decent dry mild morning. I even had the first couple of kilometres memorised. Last year the peloton had split almost immediately, an experience that had both disconcerted and confused me. So this year I was ready. Or at least I thought so.

Where are they all going?!They did it again! We started a couple of minutes early and I was about to jog off in one direction, but realised that everyone else, without exception, was jogging off in the opposite direction! I did what any normal independently-minded runner would do, I followed the crowd, to discover a small gap in wall led to a street taking a more direct route down towards the canal and the first checkpoint. Despite hours of preparation it just shows nothing beats a bit of local knowledge.

There was a fiddly steep downhill to the first checkpoint, then the next  few kilometres east along the canal path were lovely. Flat and gentle, with everyone settling down. After the checkpoint at Copley we turned south and started to climb. There were a couple of minor route choices here but I wasn’t sufficiently confident of their benefit, especially after the quirky start, so just stick with following the runners ahead. What may be shorter on the map, may also be muddier and slower in reality.

After the Greetland checkpoint I headed south across Saddleworth road and onto the footpath. I was following the suggested route. However I noticed a runner that I’d just passed having a good look at his map before heading west and sticking to the road. Some time later when I caught him up again at Ripponden, we compared notes and although he’d taken the longer road route, it had undoubtedly been quicker and more straightforward than the squelch I’d had across muddy fields and with frequent navigation checks.

Ripponden was a food station and I sat down and had a cup of tea and a sandwich. It was going to be a long day and there was no point in trying to save a couple of minutes by dashing on. I had also settled into a pattern with my navigation. At the checkpoints I would look at my paper maps (beautifully laminated if I say so myself), study the section to the next checkpoint, and get the basics in my head. Map Memory, as they call it in orienteering.
Then while running I would use GPS and smartphone maps to take care of the twists and turns, with the paper maps always there as a backup. Stopping to map read and route plan between checkpoints can be a bit of a hassle and quite time consuming.

Leaving Ripponden there was a substantial route choice to be made. The suggested route headed North East and meandered along the Calderdale Way. But heading west and sticking to the quiet lanes was more direct, and quite a bit shorter, with no extra climbing involved. There were some walkers ahead and they headed for the Calderdale Way and I had a moment of indecision. But I was sure my route was quicker, and although part of me thought it not in keeping with the Calderdale Hike, not to actually go along the Calderdale Way, the orienteer in me is hard-wired to optimise a route and take the most efficient path possible. So for the first time in the hike I took my own route and started climbing North
West out of Ripponden towards the next checkpoint at Hinchcliffe Arms.

I think it was a good choice but it’s difficult to be sure. With an event such as this runners become sparser as the day goes on. So without anyone else to compare myself with I had no real way of knowing whether I’d made the correct decision. At the Hinchliffe Arms checkpoint runners and walkers on the short (27 miles) route took a different path, and things got even quieter.

Photobombing Stoodley PikeThe next section took us past Withens Clough Reservoir and over to Lumbutts Chapel with Stoodley Pike monument of to the right. Navigation was pretty straightforward here with a combination of dead-reckoning and when possible just sticking to the nice runnable surface of the Calderdale Way. An easy runnable descent brought me to the half-way point at Lumbutts Chapel where Roberta was there to meet me. Although I’d been out for over 4 hours we were only a few miles as the crow flies from Sowerby Bridge.

Lumbutts Chapel is no longer in active use but the checkpoint, a table outside the main entrance in the churchyard, had to be nicest checkpoint on the route. The day was mellowing out nicely, the sun was out, and everything felt very springlike. I checked in, bid goodbye to Roberta who was meeting an old University friend for lunch, and headed out.

Checking in at Lumbutts Chapel

On the road to Todmorden I once more decided to avoid the Calderdale Way and stick to the quiet lanes and easy descent to the canal. There was a brief respite of a kilometre or so along the canal path, then a climb up to the next checkpoint at Todmorden Edge. After descending down to the main road there was a long, steep, draining 300m climb to the next checkpoint Keb Bridge.

The Bride Stones The Bride Stones

Towards the top the path drifted right through the Bride Stones and a few of us had to veer back west to get to the road. The checkpoint was easy to miss as it was a dog-leg to the left, down the road a couple of hundred metres, to the car park of the Sportsman Inn.

Easy running into Sowerby Bridge A brief flat section alongside the canal locks in Todmorden A brief flat section alongside the canal in Todmorden

The next few checkpoints were straightforward and for a while I often had a couple of Calder Valley vests in front of me who I sensed had some good local knowledge. As we descended from Heptonstall I knew there was a route choice over Hebden Water. The Calder Valley vests went left, and I went right. My route was shorter but I suspect a bit gruntier on the climb up the other side of the valley towards the checkpoint at Peckett Well.

Peckett Well was an important checkpoint. It had a chop time, and as I discovered last year, you may be contentedly running along but blissfully aware that you’re running out of time and out of the race. This year I had about 45 minutes to spare, not as much as I would’ve liked, but not too close to the wire either. It pretty much confirms my experience last year, where I didn’t have sufficient speed to recover enough time from my navigational error.

Leaving Peckett Well the route started climbing again towards a track leading out onto Midgley Moor. Just ahead of me I was catching another runner who seemed to be examining his map closely. Good stuff. There was an important route choice to be made and we could have a little meeting, weighing up the relative distances, altitudes and terrain. He glanced over his shoulder, and perhaps he didn’t share my interest in contour intervals because he leapt away and next time I saw him he was disappearing into the distance. Even further away I could just detect the splash of a pink jersey that I’m sure had passed me several checkpoints back. Both runners following the suggested route.

The track opened out onto the moor and I paused to have a think.  I studied my map. This was a really interesting bit. No, really! I’d spent some time on my homework for this one and it was quite a tasty puzzle. Like all the route choices, I’d decided I’d choose on the ground, on the day, depending on how I saw things. The organisers’ suggested route stuck to the Calderdale Way, edging south across Wadsworth Moor then turning east across the shoulder of Crow Hill. This involved losing a bit of height (about 10-20m) then climbing to around 360m (are you bored yet?). However, heading straight east across the moor involved a bit more climbing (10-20metres), but you didn’t bleed off any height unnecessarily, and was 1.6km shorter than the organisers’ serving suggestion.

Conditions were good, the paths looked firm, and if it all went wrong it was just a question of following the compass on East and a bit and hitting a track before long. It’d be fine. Low risk, more fun. More interesting navigation.

This is why we run

I clicked my heels together and headed east. The next few kilometres were definitely
in the very pleasant This is why we run category. The shadows were lengthening and the sun was warm and hazy and despite being weary I was pretty comfortable. I was ok for time and there was only about 10km to go. Life was good. My route choice turned out to be sound and I was greeted with enthusiastic applause by the marshalls at the penultimate checkpoint at Jerusalem Farm.

The remaining kilometres counted down steadily as I jogged gently downhill to revisit the first checkpoint at Tenterfields, before the final mile and 100m climb to the finish. Being a back-of-the-pack runner I wasn’t surprised to find people packing up and getting ready to close down the event, but was re-assured when some of the vests I’d spotted out on the course drifted  in some time after I’d finished. Perhaps my route choices hadn’t been too bad after all.

 

My Route
Total distance: 40.06 mi
Max elevation: 1394 ft
Min elevation: 236 ft
Total climbing: 7539 ft
Total descent: -7543 ft
Average speed: 13.16 min/mi
Total Time: 10:18:28
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Grizedale Trail 26, Sunday, February 4, 2018

26.8 miles

Dougie Nisbet

So impressed the official photographer still waiting for all us stragglers!Whenever I see a Facebook post from someone asking for advice about a race I usually nudge them in the direction of the website. A quick search often reveals there are few races where no Striders have gone before. So I remembered to take my own advice and had a quick look to see if there were any stories to read about the Grizedale Trail 26. Sure enough, Dave Robson, Tamsin, and David Brown have all written about their experiences, which I read the night before over a Bluebird Bitter or two.

We’d decided to stay at the Wilson’s Arms in Torver, a handy base we’ve used for a few Lake District events. I was up too early for breakfast but they’d left out cereal and orange juice for me so I was happy enough. The drive to Grizedale Forest visitor centre was a bit further than we expected but we arrived with plenty of time to spare and I was registered in no time. Even though it was early everything was open. Warm toilets, warm cafe. Which was all very pleasant as it was a cold winter’s day.

We had a bit of a wait before the 26 started but it wasn’t really a problem. I sat in the car and sipped coffee and looked out at the cold sunny morning thankful that it was not wet. The weather was much better than I expected and it was promising to be a nice day for a run.

The race briefing was over with a minute or two to spare, but they didn’t start early, in case ‘someone was just parking their car’. This sorta happened to me in the 2010 Derwent Water trail race so I approved of the adherence to protocol. I settled in at the back from the
beginning and did not expect to have a really hard race. Long and slow seems to suit me more than I expected and I, along with many others, were walking the hills from the beginning in anticipation of being grateful for the energy reserves later. What I hadn’t considered is how much I’d still be feeling the Grand Canaria marathon in my legs. It confirms my theory that, if you’re not race-ready or race-fit, simply slowing down doesn’t always help things. Tired legs are tired legs and they’ll want to stop running no matter how slow they’re moving.

On to the second lap. photo by Roberta MarshallThe weather was wonderful and I had a pretty enjoyable, steady first lap. The first bit of the figure of eight. Through the half-way-more-or-less point and across the road towards Windermere where we had a  long steady climb. Although I was taking things gently I could feel the tiredness in my legs and I knew it was going to be a tough day. But the views, the weather and the route all made up for it.

The race support was friendly and faultless. At the third and final feed stop next to Lake Windermere some ridiculously cheerful marshalls cheered and shouted me in and we were having such a good chat I was sorry to push on for the final 10km.

great views of snowy peaks

It was a hard slow slog home but the welcome at the finish was still great for all us stragglers. I don’t know how the organisers manage to stay so cheerful as they wait for every single runner to come back. The marshalls that I’d talked to 10km earlier were now magically transported to the finish, and I got the same rapturous welcome that I had before.

This was a very slick event. The organisation and support was excellent. Race HQ was in the forestry commission visitor centre with hot food and drink. Food stations were simply but amply stocked. There was clear route marking all the way round (with mile markers bizarrely from 13 to 23!) and marshalling at all the key road junctions. The route was never dull. There was always a ‘next corner’ coming up to wonder what was round. The final run in crossed the road and there were no fewer than 5 enthusiastic marshalls managing the crossing and shouting encouragement as the runners belted down towards the finish. I can’t think of anything to fault about the event.

Support comes in all forms. Photo by Roberta Marshall.

Gran Canaria Marathon, Sunday, January 21, 2018

Dougie Nisbet

The expo was a two day affair so I expected things would be quiet when we turned up around opening time. Sadly no. A strange one-way system was in operation and it was clearly VIP time too. And I didn’t know which queue to join, because I didn’t know my bib number, because I wasn’t on the start list. I was paid and registered and everything, but on the sheet lists pinned to noticeboards there was no mention of me.

Still, shy bairns get nowt. So I joined the shortest queue. The queue for bib numbers 1 to 100. I was viewed with some suspicion (can’t think why, don’t I look like someone who’d wear the numero uno?) but who cares. The front of the queue came soon enough and I tried to explain. In English. The volunteer’s English was a million times better than my Spanish but we still struggled. Eventually they found me, on another list, and I walked away happily with number 922, and a mental note not to go to expos the second the door opens. Wait for other runners to find the bugs.

We were staying, more through accident than design, at roughly kilometre 37 of the marathon, as it prepares for its final fast approach to the finish. This, with the hotel serving breakfast from 6am every day as a matter of routine, meant I had a very civilised start to marathon day. I looked out the window and got that strange marathon tingle you get when you start seeing other runners, in ones and twos and groups, drifting in from all directions and making their way to the start. I eventually joined them and was wandering around the start in good time trying to find the baggage drop. It was elusive, time was ticking, and I began to get anxious. I spotted a runner who looked like he was on a purposeful baggage drop trajectory so I tapped his kit bag and yelped Dónde?! He pointed up and replied Arriba! That was all clear enough and I reflected that I may have learned more Spanish from watching Road Runner cartoons than from text books.

The sun has got his hat onBy start time I was quite relaxed and chilled waiting in my pen. Away we went and I settled down into a comfortable pace in the cool morning sunshine. My training put me around a 4:15 marathon and I knew better than to try deceive myself that I was capable of faster. Still, it’s nice to experiment and after about 10km I began to test my pace. I was feeling comfortable but I’ve learned so much from my hot marathons last year, especially Lanzarote  where I pushed too hard and ended up blowing it. So for the first half of the race I gently pushed the envelope, testing how I felt, recognising my limits, and easing back. I was running without a heart-rate monitor but I trusted my instincts on perceived exertion and kept within my limits.

The sun had very much got its hat on by now and I reckoned it was time to get the sunglasses on and turn the cap round backwards. The sweat was dripping in my eyes but, oddly, it wasn’t stinging. Very odd. Then with a start I remembered something important that I’d forgotten! Despite the leisurely start to the day I had managed to leave the Factor 50 untouched on the bed side table. I’m normally very particular about this and now suddenly I was worried. Wear Sunscreen! There wasn’t much I could do about it now, and in the Old Town of Las Palmas there were decent slabs Wear Sunscreenof shade if you chose a good line. Roberta had realised the same thing around the same time and despite heroic plans to unite me with some sunscreen she realised that it was an impossible task. Our hotel was on a narrow strip of land that the course zig-zagged through in the final kilometres and was effectively locked down to taxis and buses.

Kms 9 to 16 are a bit dull. The marathon course was, on the whole, a bit unremarkable. This is the 9th running of the race and much fanfare was made of the fact that the marathon would be a single loop. It sounds good but the single loop often involved running a long way up a dual carriageway, around an orange cone, then back again. In fact kms 9 to 16 were so astoundingly dull that the organisers didn’t even put it on the map.

But that was all behind me now. We’d also left the interesting streets of the old town and were heading back towards the city. I was still pushing the envelope from time to time but I knew to trust my instincts and not crash and burn as I knew I would if I chanced my luck. With about 10km to go I saw Roberta waving a bottle of suntan lotion but by this time I was more interesting in scooshing water over my head and letting fate take its course.

The finish straightAlthough I thought the course overall had been a bit dull at times, it makes up for a lot of that in the closing stages. The last few kms are a fast belt down the lovely Playa de Las Canteras. I wasn’t as fast as I’d like to have been, but I hadn’t blown it either, and I managed a strong controlled finish without the nagging doubt that I could’ve or should’ve gone faster.

I finished in 4:16, marginally faster than Lanzarote, but I ran a poorly executed endgame in Lanzarote, whereas today I had got it about right.

 

Dark Skies Run, Galloway Forest, Saturday, October 21, 2017

29 miles

Dougie Nisbet

You've got until 23:59 ...I looked at the ticket machine and realised that, strictly speaking, I might be overstaying my allotted time. But if anyone was going to be checking the tickets after midnight for parking outlaws then good luck to them.

The weather forecast wasn’t great. It wasn’t too bad at the moment and having a nice warm cafe to sit inside and drink coffee while waiting for things to get underway was a big boost. Time ticked on and I kept looking to sThis looks like Race HQee whether any other Striders had checked in. I was feeling a bit nervy as I hadn’t undertaken any sort of structured training for this race and I wasn’t sure how I was going to get on. A cold that had suddenly said Hello two days earlier was another complication. But on the whole I didn’t feel too bad. But it’s not how you feel sitting in a warm cafe drinking coffee that’s important, it’s how you feel when you’re out on your own, in the dark, miles from anywhere.

The course was advertised as well marked but I’d studied it hard anyway so that I knew the checkpoints and my drop-out options. I don’t have any hangups about abandoning a race. And the more expensive the race, the fewer the hangups. I reckoned if I was going to drop out, it’d be in the first few miles. I’d know by then whether it was a bad idea,  and I’d simply turn round and head back to the cafe.

The Strider ArrivalDespite having a lot of experience running a lot of weird races in all weathers I always go through a strange panicky ritual about what I’m wearing for any particular race. I look around at the other runners and often interrogate people on what they’re wearing and why. There was more purple in the cafe now and I realised I was the only one who seemed to be seriously considering wearing overtrousers from the Start. A warm wet night looked on the cards so no point in making it a boil-in-the-bag event.

I’ve always wanted to race at night and as we went outside for the race briefing I began to feel more upbeat. It was still light, and still dry, so the head torches wouldn’t be needed for another hour or two. I wondered where to keep my head torch until then, and eventually decided that I might  as well keep it on my head. This curiously enough was not the favoured option. Most runners kept their headtorches hidden away but I reasoned I had to carry the thing anyway, so I might as well carry it somewhere handy.

The great thing about Ultras is that the starts are usually quite civilised. There’s no elbowing to get to the front as there’s no point going off as if you were doing a 5k. We’d be out for hours. Looking around at the briefing I reckoned there were only about 30 of us so it promised to be quite a small, cosy, and probably quite lonely field. A few of us were disconcerted to hear that there would a strict cut-off around the 6 mile mark. The other side of a remote bog that, given the recent rain, was likely to be on the very boggy side of boggy. I’m not keen on strict cut-offs, especially in the early stages of a race. It can take me a few hours to feel like I’m warmed up and an early cut-off can be a bit of stress that I can do without.

The sun dips down below Cairnsmore of FleetWe left the warm of the Kirroughtree Visitor Centre and for the first few miles surfaces were good. Then up and onto the moor and east under the shadow of the wonderfully named Door of Cairnsmore. The sun was dipping and the sky was dry, treating us to an eerily tranquil scene as we trudged, walked and  occasionally jogged into the fading light. I was with Kerry & Co. settled in front of the sweeper and we were checking the time nervously in case we were cutting it too fine. The warning about the strict cut-off had spooked us a little and we would all feel a bit happier when that first checkpoint was ticked.

The path, such as it was, dipped down and I jogged on a bit to join up with Catherine and Gareth before presently we came to a raging burn that probably only a day or two earlier was a pathetic trickle. Still, it was a raging burn today, and as it was today we were wishing to be on the other side of it, its ragingness was a bit of a pain. We all took our chances on various wobbly crossing points that all turned out to be deeper and faster than they pretended to be.

Down from the moor and into the forest and good paths. First checkpoint ticked off, and for the first time since the race started we were on decent runnable tracks. I switched on my head-torch and started running.

What I like about Ultras, and of getting more experienced at running Ultras, is that you get better and better and knowing your pace. You need to settle into a pace that you feel like you could run all day (or night), then you can switch off and step inside your head and listen to some music or recite poetry or write race reports or something. Monteleone by Mark Knopfler usually jumps uninvited into my head during long runs, and stays there for hours. Generally that works out ok as it’s a good tune with a nice gentle running cadence that suits me, but I’m dreading the day that I stop liking it and it won’t go away.

Another thing I’ve learned about ultras is the importance of walking. It’s a discipline I’d practised for Comrades and it has now become second nature. Walk the hills, and run the flats and downs. It’s tempting to run the ascents especially if you feel the gas is in the tank to do so, but it’s far more important to conserve that energy for later on when it’ll be far more useful.

One man and his headtorchThe second checkpoint came along pretty quickly and we turned north. The section towards  Clatteringshaws Loch had lots of long steady climbs on good forest tracks and I settled into a  comfortable, hard walking pace. I’d been on my own for an hour or two now and occasionally I would look around for other lights. At one point I became aware of a headtorch or two that seemed to close on me quite rapidly before fading again, and eventually I reasoned that it must have been mountain bikes as the lights seemed quite low and the  speeds erratic. Then they disappeared altogether even though we hadn’t passed any junctions. Perhaps I was just going mad.

This was the first time I’d used my headtorch in anger in a race at night. It’s a Petzl Nao and generally I’ve found it to be the canine’s nadgers. I was unsure how long the battery would last though. About 6 hours according to the manual, but I brought a spare battery pack just in case. And a spare headtorch, to use so I could see what I was doing when I had to change the battery pack. The Nao is a reactive headtorch that senses and auto-adjusts depending on where it’s pointing, what it’s seeing, and how much light it feels like giving  you. So I could look far up the road and it would easily pick out the high-viz course markers that were now so familiar to me.

the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and my Petzl Nao was burning very very brightlyStill, the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and my Petzl Nao was burning very very brightly. After just two hours of use and as I approached the Clatteringshaws checkpoint, it started doing the flashy flashy thing to tell me it had had enough. This was a little alarming I thought, as I changed the battery pack. Not even close to what the manual suggested I should expect. And I definitely had it on the auto reactive setting rather on full afterburner. Assuming I got the same amount of light from the spare battery pack then I should expect to be plunged into darkness with some distance to go to the finish.

I decided to worry about that if it happened. Perhaps the spare battery would be better than the main battery. Or perhaps I would be a lot faster from now on. As I left the Clatteringshaws CP the marshalls warned me that after a few hundred yards the course turned right away from the main A712. Sure enough, this is exactly what happened, but you had to keep an eye out for the flags otherwise it’d be quite easy to settle on the main road and miss out on all the wonderful wetness of the higher Old Edinburgh Road.

I was pretty settled now having found my pace and was really enjoying the run. The fact that it wasn’t cold made a big difference. Even the frequent rainy squalls were quite surreal as I zipped up my hood, and looked ahead along the bright cone of light from my Petzl. There was some pretty varied terrain for the next few miles; flooded rocky paths, mud, bracken, paths and tracks, and all the time you had to concentrate, peering ahead picking out the high-viz flags like the welcome cats-eyes on a quiet country road.

We’d been warned that one of the checkpoints would involve wading across a fast-moving burn hanging onto a tree trunk for support while reaching out for the beckoning hand of a marshall leaning out to grab runners. So I couldn’t say I wasn’t warned when I found myself up to my knees in a torrent of water, hanging onto a nice bit of Sitka Spruce (deceased), and reaching out hopefully for the guiding hand of a marshall as I eased past this sting in the Grey Mare’s Tail.

Things got slightly less exciting from this point on, although I think it may have been somewhere around here that Anna decided to go off-piste. Deciding that 29.1 was a really untidy number and something in the 30s would sound a lot better she added a few miles on. A bit like running round Palace Green a few times with an eye on the garmin, but with more trees and fewer cathedrals. I don’t know if Vicky Brown had a similar blip in the 14.

I’d passed another couple of runners at the checkpoint but apart from them I hadn’t seen many runners on my travels. After the bumpy and quirky section along the Old Edinburgh Road from Clatteringshaws the route settled down onto good surfaces and more long, steady climbs on a gentle south-westerley sweep.

On I contentedly ran, passing Murray’s Monument somewhere on my left, although Murray and myself were both blissfully unaware of this. It must have been off to the left somewhere, asleep for the night in its invisibility cloak. The forest road continued to provide a good runnable surface until two bright lights appeared ahead. I assumed this was a checkpoint, at which point I’d swing a hard left then there’d be a couple of hairpins before heading home. I assumed that it was headlights, from a car. But when you’ve been out for several ours in the rain and dark, you start to assume that it’s Close Encounters, or perhaps an FBI SWAT team, you know, out here, in the remote Scottish hills.

It wasn’t a check point, it was a ‘radio guy’. Doing radio stuff. Wondering how many people were still after me. I was sorry to break it to him, but I was, surprisingly for me, pretty much mid-field, so he had a bit of wait yet. I jinxed left, then right, then down to the final checkpoint on the main road. I asked how much further it was and he joked that it was another 6 miles. I was running Garmin free so was none the wiser and just shrugged. That sounded fine. 3, 6, 9 whatever. I was fine. I was enjoying the dark. I felt pleasantly lost in time, and space, and meaning.

I hung around this checkpoint for a bit chatting to the marshalls as they were having a bit of a time of it all. I was now on the half-marathon route too and it seemed runners had been appearing from a bewildering number of directions, some of them correct. I was
surprised to hear this as I couldn’t fault the route-marking and said so. I had a few more jelly beans, adjusted my head-torch, and when they were distracted by some radio chatter I took my leave.

West along the road for a few yards then a hard left for the final few miles to the Finish. My head torch decided that was enough for the day and started flashing in alarm. I tried to switch to a sort of ‘economy’ mode, but it still flashed. It really wasn’t happy. So I fished out my emergency spare head torch, the one I’d only packed so I could see what I was doing when I was changing the battery on my main one, and switched it on. The Petzl Tikka XP2 is a pretty decent head torch, but after several hours of the Nao, it was looking a bit feeble. I had to concentrate to pick out the course-marking flags and even though they were there if you looked, I began to see how it’d be possible to go for a wander if you weren’t concentrating on looking out for the flags.

The last mile or two seemed very long indeed, and in the last mile, feeling slightly disoriented, I stopped to check my position to find that the finish was, indeed, just round the next corner. I jogged to the line and applause, with no idea of how long I’d been out. I soon discovered it was a fair bit longer than I’d expected or thought it to be and I was way overdue for my booked meal. Luckily for me and many other runners, Sofia from the Cafe at Kirroughtree kept things open way beyond closing time and I soon found myself sitting down having a hot meal and coffee in the warm indoors watch the cold outdoors through the glass.

I couldn’t see Anna which puzzled me as she’d gone of like a rocket at the start, but I soon recognized Gareth and Catherine crossing the finish line. They were soon tucking into some supper and I began to feel uneasy about the lateness of the hour. Roberta would’ve been expecting me back at the hotel by now, and cellphone coverage at race HQ was pretty hit or miss. Luckily the cafe allowed me (very brief) access to their landline (it being the emergency contact number) to make a quick call and I felt bad when Roberta gave an alarmed Hello! as she answered the phone. Seeing a strange phone number appearing on you cellphone in the middle of the night is quite likely to make you think Something Bad has Happened.

Gareth and Catherine turn off their headtorches to watch C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser GateI hung around for a while more, gradually settling down to earth after nearly 7 hours out in a slightly surreal world. We had got our dark skies as it happened. For a brief time the sky had cleared and Gareth and Catherine had turned off their headtorches to watch C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. I had wanted to wait for Kerry and Co. to finish, and I would only discover later that Anna had gone off course and would be finishing with Kerry too. But I was cold now, and while Gareth and Catherine jumped in the shower, I jumped in the car for the short drive back to the hotel.

You can never carry too many headtorches.This was my first night-time race and I loved it. A small field meant that for hours on end I didn’t see another soul. The isolation was quite spooky at times but on the whole it was quite relaxing. Relaxing until the head-torch starts flashing to tell me the battery is giving up. I need to give some thought to batteries. You wouldn’t have wanted to be out in the dark skies without a light.

Kielder Run Bike Run, Thursday, September 7, 2017

Marathon (11km run, 25km bike, 6km run)

Dougie Nisbet

Earlier in the year a work colleague asked me if I was doing the Kielder duathlon. I knew nothing about it but the more I read the more I liked. A marathon distance duathlon with split transitions and an entirely off-road bike section. I signed up, told Sara that I’d beat her even on my old mountain bike, and forgot all about it.

Fast forward several months and I no longer work at BALTIC so it was a bit a re-union when we met up again and I discovered my manager Dave Coxon had signed up too. Although we had no plan to rendezvous at the event we found ourselves parking our bikes in the transition area at Kielder Village before finding the coach to take us the few miles to the Start at Leaplish. We found 3 seats and were jostled on our short journey like excited kids on a school trip.

I knew the Run Bike Run event started at the same place and time as the 10K. What I didn’t know was how the organisers planned to do that. In the end it transpired that the RBR competitors had to shove their way through the 10K competitors to get to the start line. I saw several Strider vests on my travels but I was wearing a cycling top that I hoped would be versatile enough to get me through the run and bike stages. I guessed it might be too hot for running, too cool for the bike.

The logistics had puzzled me. I’ve done very few duathlons, and none that had split transitions. We were allocated something called a bike box, and this would be waiting with our bike at T1. In here we had to put anything we thought we would need for the bike section. For many of us this was cycling shoes but many chose to ride in their running shoes. It turned out not to be nearly as complicated as I’d made it and the bike box would be magically transported to T2 at Bull Crag for the beginning of the second run leg.

A slightly delayed start due to waiting for late competitors to be bussed from Kielder village and away we went, doubling back on ourselves for the 11km run to T1. I had to remind myself that this was quite a long event and that I needed to pace the 11k carefully. Into transition and straight to the bike. I realised the grass was soaking so I executed an undignified ballet while I tried to change shoes – hopping on one foot so that I wouldn’t get my feet wet and grateful for my decision to use elastic laces in both sets of shoes. It wasn’t a lightning fast transition but it wasn’t too shabby either, and soon I was wheeling my bike out for the 25km ride to Bull Crag.

I was looking forward to the bike section. I’d ridden a couple of hilly sportives already this year and although not particularly fit or fast I was expecting to be comfortable and do well on this bit. I was in for a surprise. An 85 mile hilly sportive on a road bike is an entirely different beast to a 25km bike ride on a mountain bike. I’d forgotten how up and downy the Kielder lakeside path is.

After attacking the first hill and storming down the other side I was soon reviewing the situation. I realised that this was going to be hard. It was impossible to get into any rhythm and I was spending a surprising amount of time in my smallest granny gears before hurtling down the descent trying to catch my breath. The dam gave some respite but it was hard to pick up too much speed on the thick mountain bike tyres. As we turned away from the dam to head for Bull Crag I discovered, to my surprise, that I was quite looking forward to the end of the bike section and to running again.

Transition 2 at Bull Crag was quite elegant. A long horseshoe where we entered at one end and were ejected at the other. Of course, none of the competitors had seen Transition 2 before so we didn’t know where our bike box would be. But this wasn’t a problem as the marshalls had read our numbers as we approached and were directing us as we tumbled into transition. I always have to remind myself that the clock is still ticking in transition – it’s still real time although it feels like it isn’t. So I was back in my running shoes as quickly
as possible then jogging round the horseshoe before out of transition for the last 6km or so.

They were a long 6km, twisty and hilly, and my legs felt like they’d done a marathon even if 25km of it had been sitting down. I settled down to a steady jog and had no illusions of trying to hit the finish at speed. There was good crowd support in these last few kms and a buzzy finish that I remember from having done the Kielder Marathon. Across the line and No I didn’t want a banana, I just wanted to sit down.

Dave had been in for about 15 minutes and Sara arrived not long after me. The results showed Sara had belted round the bike section a fair bit faster than me and if it hadn’t been for her slower transitions and runs our overall finishing positions could easily have been reversed.

This was a good race and I enjoyed it. I thought as we hit a brief squall on the bike section that if the weather had been unkind the bike section could easily be a serious trial. The split transitions, lakeside route and marathon distance bring an elegance to the course that I liked a lot. I definitely underestimated how hard the bike section would be, but it was great fun hurtling down the fast descents and negotiating the twists and turns.

Chevy Chase, Wooler, Saturday, July 1, 2017

BL / 32.2km / 1219m (20 miles, 2 hills and a smattering of bog)

Joan Hanson …

The thing about entering an event months in advance is you can have that hazy positive belief that in x months time you will be bounding effortlessly over the afore mentioned 20 mile course, laughing in the face of some decidedly sucky and squelchy stuff underfoot and hardly noticing the however many thousands of feet of ascent and descent the said 2 hills (Cheviot and Hedgehope) will entail. And you will have the most enjoyable, relaxing day of running possible…. As I said a hazy and possibly rose tinted vision.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks before the event and the realization that you aren’t quite as fit as you had envisaged being and that this year they have removed the walkers option so you have 6 hours to complete it in. Hmmm.

And then the horror on the morning of the event when your companion for the journey (Dougie who has done this before) casually mentions the phrase ‘cut –offs’ for each checkpoint and that they seem a little on the tight side for the first half of the race.
I have felt in more positive frames of mind.

photo courtesy and © Gary Dunlop

But at least it has stopped raining and the summits are cloud free so navigation involving maps and compass will not be needed- and you can see exactly how far away those hills you are aiming for are away. Everyone is very friendly, kit checks are passed and before long we were off, Susan disappearing off into the horizon not to be seen again until the finish. Dougie and I leapfrogging for a fair part of the race, he faster on the steeper downhilly bits, me making up time going up. Both agreeing that the second half which on paper should have been the easy bit was anything but, I needed to dig really deep at several points to maintain forward momentum, at one point wondering why they put Wooler so far away.

We all made it back well within the cut offs- interestingly none of us exclaiming what an easy and enjoyable run we have just had but able to reflect on a real sense of achievement (and in my case relief) that it was done.

The Chevy Chase is a great and brilliantly organized event. The route takes in some beautiful and wild terrain, this year we enjoyed expansive views when we could lift our eyes from where we were putting our feet.

I’m glad I did it, the Cheviot’s are a beautiful part of the world and not that far away- definitely worthy of closer exploration –but possibly at a slightly more relaxed pace.

… Dougie Nisbet …

I’d done that bloke sulky pouty thing when Roberta had insisted on me packing some sunscreen. But as I nudged up with Susan and Joan outside race HQ and passed the sunscreen round (on the left hand side) there were lots of Dad comments about getting it behind straps, knees, ears and neck. Still, past-its-sell-by factor 30 wasn’t really going to cut it on Cheviot and Hedgehope in July and I was a bit crisp when I finished later in the day.

I could’ve pretty much written the script for the first half of the race. Joan’s shrewd choice of carrying walking poles had attracted the occasional derisory comment but they’d pretty much dried up as she climbed strongly to Cheviot with me using her as a useful point of purple to focus on as she receded ever further into the vanishing point.

After Cheviot and a revelation. You need to hang left, immediately. When I last did this in 2013 I carried on (zoned out following a walker to Scotland) and turned left too late and missed the trod that took a neat line towards Hedgehope on the other side of the valley. I caught Joan on the descent, pausing to shout “is that you falling on your arse again Hanson!”, before passing her and showing her how to do it properly.

photo courtesy and © Gary Dunlop

Everyone was now pretty much a walking washing powder commercial in the making and as we climbed towards Hedgehope I was unsurprised to have Joan back on my shoulder again. And so it continued for the next few checkpoints until CP6 – Brands Corner – we both paused for a drink and check in. The climbing was mostly over and there was a lot of running left now to the finish. I was looking forward to making up some ground in these last few miles.

“Sling your hook Joan, I’ll catch you up”, I said, when it was clear Joan wanted to press on. And so she did. And, I did catch her up, so to speak, after I’d crossed the finish line and she’d brought me over a cup of tea. I had a tough last few miles on what should be a lovely part of the course – the stretch up North West from Carey Burn Bridge is gorgeous, but I was far too busy feeling sorry for myself to pay much attention to the sunny scenery. Susan had a good decisively sub-5 finish, with Joan in around 5:16, then me in around 10 minutes later.

I’ve often said, to anyone who’ll listen, that the Chevy Chase at 20 miles, is twice as hard as the Durham Dales Challenge, at 32 miles. This was the first year the race has dropped the walking race and the cut-offs might need tweaking in the years ahead, but whatever the cutoffs it’s always going to be a tough 20 miles.

 

Comrades Marathon, Durban to Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, Sunday, June 4, 2017

86.73 kms [UP run]

Dougie Nisbet

During the final loop of the CTS Northumberland Ultra I started chatting to a runner who had a pair of trekking poles in his rucksack. They’d stayed there the entire race and I asked him why he was carrying them. Kit rehearsal for the Marathon des Sables was his reply. Race rehearsal. I was impressed, and said so, before adding, “Would you like a potato?”

Comrades is as much about the logistical preparation as the physical. Never before have I done so much groundwork in planning a race. I’d listened to webinars, read blogs and watched countless YouTube videos to establish what I should wear, when and how to eat and drink, how I should pace myself, and, most importantly, what happened if you needed to go to the toilet.

The eating and drinking was pretty much sorted. At Comrades the food offering is bananas and small salted potatoes and in my training leading up to the event I tried both on my long runs and Ultras. Neither caused any problems and the potatoes certainly beat gels hands down.

Anyone who has done the GNR would have found the start of Comrades a breeze. Apart from being dark, the procedure was the same. Long chaotic queues for the toilets, lots of crowds, music and queues to get into the pens. In I went, tried a few selfies but my 5AM ghostly countenance looked so ghastly I quickly deleted them, sat down in a corner, and waited. There was a bit of space and many others had the same idea and it was weirdly calming sitting on the tarmac in the dark with the occasional drone flying overhead and the frequent bursts of music. As we approached 0530 the pen started moving in little jolts as the pens were gradually merged for the cock’s crow that would indicate it was time to go.

Comrades is unusual. The timing is Gun to Mat. That’s to say, although you’re chip timed, your race time begins when the gun goes off (or when the cock crows, to be precise), not when you cross the start line. When you’re out on the road you, and your fellow runners, are all on the same time. With 12 hours to complete the race and various cut-offs along the way this does mean if you are in one of the slower pens you have a bit of catching up to do. Planning and self-discipline are important.

Much of what I’d read about Comrades discussed with a sort of weary inevitability running the race as a positive split. I’m quite a disciplined runner and I didn’t like the sound of that. Apart from the obvious disadvantage of not running to your best, it sounded horrendous. Many runners work on the assumption that they’re going to blow-up anyway so they might as well go off quick and see how far they get. Crazy. I’d been following the training programmes, blogs and webinars of the official Comrades coach Lindsey Parry and I liked the grounded and pragmatic nature of his advice. I planned to walk the hills, and run the flats and downs. This meant walking early, as a strategy rather than a necessity.

Sure enough, as I’d expected, at the first hills I was marching up while others were streaming past. At first I felt quite isolated but looking around I could see I wasn’t alone. Others were also going for strategic walking to conserve energy that would be invaluable when many hours later we were into the endgame. I was spooked, however, at the first checkpoint to realise I only had 10 minutes in the bag. 10 minutes from being timed out! And one of the 12 hour buses had just gone past.

I was rattled. Comrades is famous for its unforgiving cut-offs. Strictly enforced, there’s no mercy. My Garmin showed two pieces of information: Elapsed Time and Average Pace. I was on plan, but nonetheless I had to give myself a talking to to calm my nerves and resist the temptation to put on speed and burn away valuable energy reserves.

And there was the matter of loo stops. I’d never run a race that started when it was dark and, quite possibly, finished when it was dark too. I was paranoid about needing the loo, and at every portable toilet I passed I noticed queues. This didn’t help. It’s all in the mind of course; nothing is more likely to make you feel you need to go, and go NOW, than an engaged toilet. 25Km and 3.5 hours in we passed through Kloof and I spotted a toilet door swinging ajar. No queue! Now was my chance! I jumped in and shut the door and soon realised why it was empty. Before me was a loo so astoundingly putrid I almost gave it a round of applause. I fished out the sweaty Kleenex from my shorts and realised that this was pretty much a lost cause, and with someone knocking at the door I decided to abandon this little adventure before someone started ringing the bell. Muttering “I’d give it the half-life of Uranium if I were you” under my breath, I dashed out into the fresh air and rejoined the race after this inconclusive diversion.

Post-race analysis of this stop, and the many others shows how easy it is to bleed away time. Lindsey Parry says whatever you are doing, keep moving. The only time you should stop is for a ‘pit stop’. My paranoia of not staying hydrated meant I was walking at every table (feed stations), and with tables ever 2 or 3 kms, I really should have been skipping them occasionally. All those seconds of browsing the tables mounts up to minutes over the 88 kms of the race.

Despite having done my research, one of the areas where I became a little unstuck was with race food. Unlike most races, the tables at Comrades aren’t consistent. Food doesn’t appear until a few hours into the race (depending on how fast you are) and the bananas and potatoes that I’d been expecting were late to appear. So I chewed steadily through the supply of Shotblocks I’d carried although I’d really brought them as insurance for the latter stages of the race rather than a possibly counter-productive sugar rush early on.

Food and drink doesn’t always come from the tables. A few hours in, and with the sun now overhead, I was getting a bit tired of Coke. The crowd really knew how to party and when I reached out as I passed one braai the spectator ran after me and pressed a bottle of Carlsberg into my hand. It made a lovely refreshing change from the Coke but I knew that cold beer wouldn’t be enough to get me to the finish and I vowed to make that impulse a one-off.

It was hot now and I always knew heat would be the problem. I’d ran my qualifying marathons in Lanzarote and Palma de Mallorca and had learned my lessons well about how I cope with the heat. I kept the pace down, knowing from experience if I got over-confident I would blow it. Drinks in Comrades are given in convenient sachets and once you’ve developed the knack of biting a corner of to get to the contents they work pretty well. As someone who has never coped well with emptying bottles of water over my head I was finding the sachets were excellent for keeping cool. You took one for drinking, and one to drizzle gently over your cap as if you were dressing a salad. The water seeps through the cloth and drips gently over your face for the next km or so. It’s a great system. It’s lovely.

Through the half way point, into the parkrun (Comrades is two marathons with a parkrun in the middle), and everything was still on plan. I had gone through the last couple of checkpoints with better safety margins and I was feeling more settled, and even had time to laugh as I found myself thinking, only a marathon to go!

On the race route coach tour two days’ earlier we’d stopped at Ethembeni School. This school caters for children with disabilities and over the years has built up a strong bond with the race and particularly international runners. They’d put on a fantastic concert for us and we were all given a tiny bracelet, each one made by the children. Each bead on the bracelet represented a km of the route, and each colour band represented one of the sections. It was a great idea and I was wearing mine today.

 

 

 

The race is the highlight of the year and the children line up on the roadside outside the school in the hope of high-fiving the runners. They absolutely love this and seeing the delight on their faces fills your heart with joy. I high-fived them all and no doubt lost a bit more time but it was time well wasted. Moving on I realised that I’d missed my bus and I had to put in a bit of a burst to get back on.

Buses. The Comrades Bus is a phenomenon. These pace groups can be huge and the pacer, the bus driver, will be wearing a flag with his or her name and target time on it. These are not the pace groups you might be familiar with in a British race, but more a sort of micro community in which the driver will have his or her own style and strategy. It may be precise adherence to a particular pace, or, more likely, a walk run strategy that has been worked out in advance.

I was riding my 2nd 11:30 bus of the day and I was loving it. There was perhaps a hundred or so of us on this bus and we’d all gathered in a protective cocoon around our driver. The crowd would sometimes shout out poignant encouragement to the driver, such as “Get them home safely Driver”, and the driver would occasionally shout out instructions to his passengers, such as a countdown to the next running stretch, or a marching rhythm on the hills. Sometimes the driver would raise their arms in a breathing exercise and we’d all instinctively mimic the move.

And then there was the singing. International runners make up a relatively low percentage of competitors with most runners being South African. So when the driver leads of, with a surprisingly gentle and mellow introduction to the Shosholoza, only to be answered with the beautiful voices of the bus passengers, you could forget you were in a running race such was the comfort that came from the choir.

I stuck with this 11:30 bus for a while before deciding to lift the pace a little. The day was getting on, the shadows were lengthening, and I knew I was going to finish within 12 hours. My training plan had put me on about a 11hr to 1115 Comrades and I knew I had to be careful about succumbing to the temptation of trying to get under 11 hours (and a Bronze medal) if I didn’t have the ability. Aspirational rather than tactical pacing would almost certainly backfire as I’d learned painfully from the Lanzarote Marathon. It was getting tough now, and I was remembering another good piece of Lindsey Parry advice: It will get tough, so don’t try and fight it. Don’t go into denial. Accept that it will get tough and you just need to deal with it. Endure it.

With about 20km to go I caught another bus. It was another 11:30 and I was grateful to hop on in the closing stages of the race. It was a great help as we hit and marched up the last of the big 5 hills, Polly Shortts. I zoned out and concentrated on the pacing being called out by our driver, probably getting up Pollys more quickly and efficiently than if I’d been marching solo.

Through the final checkpoint and I knew I had the race in the bag. The bus slowed at the table and I decided to push on. There was less than 10km to go and much of it was downhill. No point in saving anything now.

It would have been so easy to stop running. I was comfortably within the cut-off and could walk the whole of the remaining distance if I wanted to. But I figured I’d travelled half-way round the world for this race and I might as well go home with the best time I was capable of. There’s always the accusation when you run a good negative split that you could have gone faster. That you were holding back. Tosh.

My legs were screaming. But my breathing was good and I was still running with rhythm. The remaining kilometres counted down with painful slowness and the racecourse never seemed to get any closer. Then a few twists and turns, a tunnel, cameras, and suddenly we’re running on grass.

I looked around for my support crew. Roberta, without whose support this wouldn’t have been possible, and who’d been up at 2AM making sure I was caked in Factor 50 and had put up with and supported my countless 5AM starts over the last 10 months as I’d headed off for my pre-work long runs. I heard my name and glanced around. Then I heard it again. Then I realised everyone was shouting everyone’s name! The place was packed. Given that this was an 88km race the finish was surprisingly busy and I crossed the line with burning legs and quiet satisfaction more than any sense of life-changing euphoria. Immediately there were steps, really steep ones, to get back over the racecourse to the international tent (bumping into Rob Wishart) and to find Roberta and nowhere to sit. It was 30 minutes to the final cutoff and we settled down to watch the final countdown on the big screens.

Comrades will always be ‘gun to mat’. So much of this iconic event leads to this final, cruel, 12 hour cut-off. There’s no compromise, no leeway, no concessions. As 12 hours approaches the runners continue streaming into the stadium and make their final dash for the line. Huge numbers of runners finish in the last hour, and a massive amount of those finish in the last 10 minutes.

At 1730 precisely, an official stands on the finishing line with his back to the race so he cannot be influenced by what he sees, and at 1730 precisely, he fires the gun, and the race is over. If you’re 1 second over, sorry, it simply didn’t happen. I adore this brutal honesty. For the next 10 minutes wave after wave of runners walked desolately into the stadium accompanied by sympathetic applause from the crowd while the Last Post is played over the PA.

Our hotel was practically on the racecourse, in a casino, so once I’d gone through the surreal experience of passing through an airport-type security metal detector to get to the room, I caught up with my email and news. Although I’d never made a huge secret of my plans to do Comrades I hadn’t shouted it from the rooftops either and so not a lot of people I knew I was running. This made it all the more touching when I read the lovely comments on Facebook and realised that many in my club had been tracking my progress. Kerry’s “look at those lovely splits” comment gave me particular delight!

Comrades is 20 miles further than I’ve ever run but I had a training plan and I had a race plan, and I followed them both. I kept my side of the deal and this gave me the confidence to know that on the day I would get to the line on time in the world’s largest and oldest ultramarathon.

Calderdale Hike, Sowerby Bridge, Saturday, April 1, 2017

37 Miles (approx 30 completed) (26 mile option available)

Dougie Nisbet

To say I was unprepared for this race would be an understatement.

Lately I’ve been rolling up for races, such as the CTS Northumberland Ultra, with a pretty good idea in my head of the route, maps and GPS ready, only to discover the entire race liberally sprinkled with bright yellow arrows. The Wooler Trail Marathon wasn’t much better. Despite its remoteness there was usually a bold arrow stapled to a fencepost pointing you on your way.

Trawling back through the race reports I was surprised to see that no one was owning up to having done the Calderdale Hike before, not even Dave Robson. Still, how hard could it be? The organisers had uploaded a ‘suggested’ GPX trail and I dutifully transferred it to my Garmin. This gave me a belt and braces Breadcrumb Trail. Just to be on the safe side, I uploaded it to my iPhone, overlayed it onto some proper OS maps (I like maps), and had a pixel perfect plan of the journey ahead. I also had a battery pack so the phone would easily last me all day. I also had a map and compass, because that was in the kit list, and you
had to carry that. Yawn.

For the last 5 years I’ve been the IT technician at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. I finished there on Friday the 31st of March. Some people mark these things with a night in the pub, or a big party. I decided to do an Ultra. So I asked if it was OK to leave early on my last day as I was off to do an Ultra (my Manager is also a runner, he understood), and so Friday evening found Roberta and me sitting in the New Hobbit Inn in Sowerby Bridge. We could’ve have chosen the Premier Inn, but, like wines, this place had a more interesting label. I was still a little preoccupied by leaving my job so I wasn’t giving this race the attention it deserved. I thought I was prepared though.

The next morning I was at the Start with bags of time to spare, but, sadly, not sufficient bags to go back to the hotel and collect my water bottles that were sitting next to the telly. Luckily Roberta found a bottle of 500ml bottle of water next to the spare wheel in the car, and, deciding not to think about it too much, I shoved it in my bum bag. Mildly unnerved, I wondered what else I might have forgotten or taken for granted.

The Calderdale HikIt was probably around here I lost my battery packe is a 37 mile trail ultra that covers a gorgeous variety of town, village and fell. I had very little idea of where I was going but had the trail programmed into my Garmin, my phone, and if the worst came to the worse, I even had a map and a list of the checkpoint grid references. I planned to follow the gadgies in front for a while and then just follow the pixels.

Away we went and then a mere 100 yards from the start something quite unexpected happened, the bunch of runners split into two. This, I had not expected, and, thinking quickly, tagged onto the the slightly bigger of the two bunches. Sticking with the slightly bigger herd I tootled along, getting dropped a bit earlier than I expected but no worries. I fished out my phone and followed myself on the map. This was fine. I’m not fast, but fast enough to be ahead of the cut-offs, so for the next couple of miles I took a few photos and admired the view. I wasn’t in a rush. 37 miles is a long way. I was feeling mellow.

The route was fascinating. Following the waterways and reservoirs with meanderings along roads and paths. It’s not a part of the country I’m familiar with and I was enjoying the scenery a lot. I noticed that with all the photos I was taking the charge on my phone was dropping rapidly, so I decided to fish out my battery pack to give it a boost. The battery pack, sadly, had fished itself out of its own accord at some place unknown when I’d left my bumbag unzipped, and with a pang of anxiety I realised that I would have to re-evaluate the reliance on the phone for the maps.

I switched it off to conserve power and gave my attention to the breadcrumb trail on my Garmin. It’s not perfect but at least you know if you’re going wildly of course. This served me fine for a good few miles and the only times I knew there was a checkpoint was when a tent appeared ahead. Checkpoint 5 was just south of the M62 and I followed a few intrepid runners who had decided to forego the fells in favour of the (still legal) jog up a major ‘A’ road as the weather had got a bit manky at this point. Back north over the motorway, and up over the moors, where things were beginning to feel a bit more grown up. Checkpoint 6 was about 13 miles at which point a divine cup of tea was available. It was like being at Swaledale.

Checkpoint 7 was at Sladen Fold, after which there was some great canal-side running before my breadcrumb trail brought me onto the moors. I was keeping a trio of runners in my sights but it was clear that we were all doing a bit of dead-reckoning to get across the soft tussocky moorland and it was tough going. After a while I found myself on a firm trod, and it teased me away to the left. I was fine with that. I can go left, or straight on. But I decided to ease left for a bit to enjoy the better surface, with a view to bearing right again when things firmed up.

The weather was undecided between, mist, sleet or sun, and I kept my eyes on the trod, and jogged steadily on a pleasantly downward slope. It didn’t feel right. I was veering too far to the left surely, but my Garmin breadcrumb trail was rock steady, and I decided to keep the faith.

But something wasn’t right. I was on my own. The runners ahead had disappeared. I looked again at my Garmin. It hadn’t changed. At all. Some Striders might remember the famous scene in the China Syndrome, where Jack Lemmon taps the dodgy gauge and it silently glides down the scale. This wasn’t a nuclear meltdown, although it felt like it. I realised my Garmin had frozen. It hadn’t moved for the last hour. I’d been following an illusion. In Orienteering terms, it was a classic ‘180 degree’ error. I was running in exactly the opposite direction to what I should have been.

Total distance: 29.1 mi
Max elevation: 1693 ft
Min elevation: 509 ft
Total climbing: 4806 ft
Total descent: -4678 ft
Average speed: 21.13 min/mi
Total Time: 10:25:12
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I found myself at the bottom of a valley on a track with no idea where I was. The last clear waypoint where I’d been paying any real attention was when I crossed the M62. And that was well over an hour ago. I’d been following my Garmin in SatNav mentality with no real overall idea of where I was. Visibility was poor and the wind was getting up again. Shit, as they say, had just got real. Anxiety was bubbling up inside me. I got my map and compass out of my rucksack and started talking to myself. Ok, I said, which way is North …

It took me a good 15 minutes to work out where I was and then there was the small matter of locating the next checkpoint. I examined a rapidly  disintegrating piece of paper and identified the general direction that I needed to go. Unfortunately I’d bled off a lot of height in my careless following of the nice trod, and that height had to be regained. I stood up and headed North West. Up.

Some time later, slightly calmer aOne more rain shower and this is historynd a lot humbler, I got to Checkpoint 8 at Coolam. I was still disoriented and paranoid, even more so when the way out from CP8 was the same as the way in. Another long, long look at the map, something that I should’ve done at home days before the race, another examination of what was left of the  checkpoints sheet, and onwards and upwards to Checkpoint 9.

Gradually I regained confidence. My Garmin was working after I’d switched if off and on again (I did say I was an IT tech), the weather had improved, and, despite being slow, I was comfortable and content. I plodded on through checkpoint 10 and turned east on the home run to Sowerby Bridge. By the time I got to Checkppoint 11 at Cross Stones I was quite perky again. The sun was out, I was  feeling fine, and I was settling down for the last 10 miles or whatever (I had no idea) to the finish.

They were very kind at checkpoint 11, when they told me I was being timed out. I was feeling fine, so asked if it was ok to continue unassisted, in the full knowledge that I was no longer part of the race. I could tell the marshall wasn’t wild about the idea (“there’s a nice bus”), but he could also see I wasn’t at the end of my tether. I asked him how far it was to go, what the paths were like, if there were many hills, and, even as I heard myself asking these questions, I thought, I don’t deserve to finish this race. This was all avoidable. I lost well over 30 minutes by going wrong on the tops. Not a huge amount perhaps, but I’m not a fast runner. I have the stamina, but I don’t have the speed. I can’t afford to make mistakes like that. If I hadn’t gone wrong, I would’ve have been timed out.

So I settled down to sit on a Somewhere nice to sit and admire the view while waiting for the BoSvery nice bench and admired the view while waiting for the Bus of Shame. It was a jolly journey back to base and when I later looked at the finish times of the last walkers I realised I would’ve actually caught them up if I had kept going. Provided, of course, I knew where I was going.

 

Next year is the 40th anniversary of the Calderdale Hike. It’s on Sat 14th of April 2018. It’s a fantastic race. I’ll be there. And I’ll be ready this time.

 

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CTS Northumberland, Alnwick - Bamburgh, Sunday, February 26, 2017

57km

Dougie Nisbet

I’ve always found the arrows on weather maps confusing. The arrows, which way do they point? Are they coming or going? And when the BBC weather website says a wind is a 40mph North-Easterly, does it mean where the wind’s going, or where it’s been? Reading the forecast on Friday night, again, for the forthcoming Ultra, I puzzled over this. I don’t know why I find it so confusing. In the end I came to the conclusion that the wind would be coming from the North East. Quite fast. Which meant that for most of the race it would be in my face. Mild though.

I packed a lot of gear as I didn’t fancy running along the beach into a 40mph wind, however mild. I took a head-torch too, just in case the tide was out.

When the alarm went off at 4AM on Saturday morning I thought, as I have so many times before, of hitting it with a blunt instrument and going back to sleep. No one need ever know. But instead I hauled myself out of bed, ate some stuff, and before long found myself sitting behind Dave Robson’s car at a level crossing a few miles outside Bamburgh. I had allowed a fair bit of time but the gates were down and there was no train. Where was it? Five minutes later a pathetic two-coach train ambled by in no hurry, and the gates went up.

I parked beside Dave and knowing his Ultra experience started interrogating him about the race. However, this race was new to him too, and he’d already decided to forego the Ultra bit, as it looked like an added loop, and ‘a lot of it would be on roads’.

There was a queue for registration but it moved pretty quickly (despite marathon runners in the Ultra queue!) although it was still a bit of rush as we had to get our briefing then on to the coaches for the trip to the start at Alnwick Castle.

There were two coach-loads dropped off at the Start. The weather was a bit manky but I had expected it to be a lot worse. I looked around at the familiar surroundings thinking that I’d be back here in exactly a week’s time for the final XC of the season, on another coach, only not at 0840AM. At least, I hope not.

The Start was uneventful and away we jogged into a grey morning. I think I’ve got my trail/fell running kit sorted now and I usually go for a bum-bag / backpack double, both lightly packed and the bum bag, sorry, Waist Pouch, being for the stuff you need to get at during the race, and the back pack for all the stuff you hope you’ll not need to.  As always with these events, it took me about an hour to get settled. I’d remembered to rub Vaseline into the obvious bits, and, from experience, the not so obvious bits, so the shoulder and waist straps sat snugly.

10km found us at Alnmouth, turning left to head north up the coast. It was around here toasting nicely in my gear that I realised that the wind was coming from the SW, not the NE. This was a pleasant surprise, even if it meant that the extra layers I was carrying as a precaution were just dead-weight in my backpack.

The area now was familiar to me from many years of running the Coastal and I expected the next 14 miles to be pretty much the coastal run in reverse. However I was to have my second pleasant surprise of the day. The race took us along paths and trails that I never knew existed. Just when the route became a bit samey, there’d be a turn, a gate, a change of scene, and a new stretch of mystery to grab the attention. The tide was in and the beach runs involved finding the firm sand along the waterline and occasionally getting nabbed by an incoming wave. This was good stuff.

There were some truly wonderful bits of the course. The water crossing was no big deal but all the more fun for being unexpected. But for me the rocky scramble along the beach and a short stretch of smooth boulders right next to the water’s edge were the highlight. Although it was only a few hundred meters of smooth slab this was real genius in course design and I loved it. I’ve never raced on such an interesting terrain before. I was sorry to scramble back up onto the headland after such interesting crinkleness.

This was the longest race I’ve done so I was being cautious with my pace. I knew the tough bit would be passing Bamburgh Castle then carrying on for the extra loop that made up the distance for the Ultra. Sure enough, the One Mile to Go sign was a struggle, knowing that it was one mile for the marathoners, and the Ultra runners had another 9 or 10 to go.

Dave was right to forego the extra Ultra loop. After the psychological struggle of pushing on past the castle, there was a nice stretch north for a mile or two, then a few fields, then an unseemly few miles of tarmac. I was running in a well worn pair of trustee Sportiva’s, but even so I began to feel ever worn-out stud through the thin soles and was grateful when we were ejected into a field. But still they messed with our heads. The castle was always there, in plain sight, but the route zig-zagged and dog-legged, before sending us back down to the beach, to rejoin the marathon route for the last mile or two to the castle.

This time it was ok to follow the signs for the Finish, and after a mischievous climb up to the Castle and an enthusiastic and truly welcoming crowd it was lovely to step over the line.

57km is the longest race I’ve run and I was pleased to finish in one piece. Jules and Helen were also running and already home and checking out the tea and cake. Dave had started with the marathon runners so I didn’t see him again.

Overall I thought it was a good well organised race. Good touches, such as having a PA for the briefing (the number of times I’ve zoned out during a race briefing because I couldn’t hear a thing). Clear route marking and lots of varied terrain. I did the Ultra as I wanted to see how I coped with a distance I’d not run before. But if I was doing it again I’d probably skip the final bolted on Ultra loop.

Total distance: 35.21 mi
Max elevation: 141 ft
Min elevation: 3 ft
Total climbing: 381 ft
Total descent: -492 ft
Average speed: 11.59 min/mi
Total Time: 07:25:08
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