Saturday, 20 May 2017

Hardmoors 110 race report

I came into the Hardmoors 110 feeling really confident and excited to be back on the race route, previously done in 2014. The H55 in mid March had gone exactly to plan, with the idea that I would run steady and simply ease off every time I felt a tough patch was imminent. The aim wasn't to run a super fast time but to consolidate my position in the Hardmoors Grand Slam. I was delighted with 6th place and even happier with the way I recovered and got back into full training so quickly.

Having done relatively little distance work so far this year, it was nice to finally build up some weekly mileage, putting together a block of four weeks, including some recces of the route out along the coast. I was definitely ready.

On Friday, Tracey and I met up with my dad in Helmsley, parking up the campervan (with the bed already laid out ready to take some tired bodies at the finish) and transferred all our kit over into dad's nice new car. Sorry about the mess, dad! We made our way over to Filey, had a look at the start/registration area and, finally, checked in to our caravan for the night, about 3 miles from the start.

Up at about 6am, shovel in a bowl of Morning Fuel and we were good to go. As ever, it was great to catch up with friends at registration and to feel the subtle blend of excitement, trepidation and outright "what the hell am I doing?" in the air. Tracey and I had a wander over to the cafe to have a cappuccino - all was good with the world.

The general plan was to get to Saltburn (about 53 miles) for as little effort as possible and see what happens after that. With that in mind, I was quite happy to settle into an easy pace just a little way back from the leaders and potter along. As always, you make friends quickly with those around you and I was soon chatting away with Tony and Nick. We scooted through Scarborough where I had a quick chat with Andy who was taking on the H200, I'll say it again 200 miles! (You can see a great video from my friend John Kynaston on Andy and Sarah's attempt at the 200 here.) I met the crew just after Scarborough to make sure I had enough drink to get through to Ravenscar, the 22 mile point.

Everything felt really easy at this point; running was comfortable and I was eating and drinking exactly as planned. At Ravenscar, the race takes an out and back route so we were able to get an idea of the state of play at the front; Jason (quick high five) and Chris looked comfortable, along with another couple of runners and our group was now joined by Peter. A nice psychological boost to be so close to the leaders without really pushing things. I had a nice chat with Tracey, my dad and John Kynaston in the checkpoint, loaded up and set off towards Robin Hood's Bay.

We had nice running conditions for most of the daylight hours; a little overcast but perhaps a bit windy - certainly not as hot as the previous day. It was somewhere along here that Nick pushed on and was not seen by us again. He went on the hunt down the leaders and finally finished in second place; a really well executed race plan.

Things were progressing nicely as we ticked off the miles along the coast, the usual battle through the crowds in Whitby and the long tarmac section to Sandsend. It was lovely to get a boost from the one-person-cheerleading-crew that is Emma Hardwick at Sandsend. I had a few minutes with my support crew here, getting some Morning Fuel and chocolate soya milk shake in and climbed the steps from the checkpoint in really good spirits.

The next big question was would I be able to take the beach route at Runswick Bay or would the high tide force me round the longer/higher route. As I approached along the cliffs, I tried to make out whether people were walking along the beach or not; it was difficult to tell, but with no marshal to direct me onto the upper route, I made my way down. I just about made it through the rocks and onto the road at the village itself, literally just. I have no idea whether those ahead of me made it through, but it must have been touch and go for them. I met Shirley (race director) in the village and she kindly pointed out the route up to the checkpoint. I think this was the only part of the race route that I've never done before, always using the road on previous occasions. I'd had a look at the Cleveland Way Google Maps street view the day before so was ready for the detour.

I really enjoyed my few minutes at this checkpoint, catching up with my crew, but also seeing Shelli (on her way to finishing first lady in the 200 mile race) and Heather (part of her support crew). For the first time, I didn't have as much desire to eat at this point, perhaps just a few mouthfuls, but I got my bottles filled and took some jelly with me, still feeling like I was running well. During the early part of the year, I have been trialling a new product from Mountain Fuel with great success. Unfortunately, the batch of samples has run low so I tried to buy an alternative to get me through this race, however, I was aware that this alternative contained quite a lot of processed sugars which I generally try to avoid in races. I had been using them in training and all seemed good, but I wonder if this played a part in my race outcome.

I was running on my own now, probably in 4th place, occasionally passing a 200 mile runner and somehow trying to put into words have bloody amazing they were. Words like legend, machine and phenomenal just don't seem to be enough.

Photo - Melanie Pallister

I was really looking forward to Saltburn. For me, a significant point in the race: finishing with the coastline, turning back towards the finish, the race really starts here, a change of socks and shoes and a chance to meet "The Happy Crew". It was so uplifting to meet a group of our close friends, who have nothing to do with ultra-running, who decided to spend their Saturday afternoon/evening driving over to Saltburn to cheer me on. (OK, the traditional fish and chips might have had a small part to play.)

Photo - Melanie Pallister

Despite all this positivity, I really struggled to eat or drink anything, I just couldn't take anything with flavour at all. After a few minutes, I needed to get moving again, so grabbed a jelly and took water with me, hugs all round and set off towards Slapewath. Looking at the race splits, I ran quite a swift leg from Runswick Bay to Saltburn. At the time it didn't feel fast, but I think that might have played a role in how things unfolded over the second half of the race. Oops!

Things were feeling a little different now.... and not in a good way. I was conscious that I wasn't eating particularly well and was only really managing to get water in. I was still moving OK, but suddenly felt that I needed to force some calories in. I got a jelly pouch in, along with some water and instantly felt better (psychologically?)

Through Guisborough Woods, out to Roseberry Topping and down to Cockshaw Woods, I was moving but leaking time with every mile. There was no major catastrophe, just a gradual slide which I felt was getting out of hand. By now it was water only. I think what I needed to do was take a bit of a regroup with my crew, but in the heat of battle I felt I needed to keep moving to make up for the time I was losing. What a plonker!

At Cockshaw Woods, I needed to collect all my mandatory kit for the night ahead. We ticked off all the items, I grabbed some food in the hope that I might be able to get some in and set off. It was starting to get really cold by this point so I donned extra layers.

The original plan was that I wouldn't see my crew again until Clay Bank, some 14 miles ahead. I knew I was sliding towards a dark place and my crew could see this happening. They suggested that they could meet me again on the long road up onto the moors just after Kildale. What a great idea! I still took all my night gear just in case there was a problem but it was a nice lift to know I could break down this next long leg a little.

I actually felt OK on the climb to Captain Cook's Monument, but struggled on the flat and descent down to Kildale village; this was getting ugly. I knew that a runner was slowly catching me and my competitive urges kept driving me on, but I really should have regrouped when I was with my crew after Kildale; get myself sorted for the long night ahead. Instead, I grabbed some food that I knew I couldn't eat and pushed on.

It was getting seriously cold by now and very windy. I had a thick jacket on with gloves and a buff, I was warm but had to keep moving to remain so. To add to the adventure, a hill mist had developed which made the light from my head torch reflect back, so I had to carry the head torch in my hand in order to see properly.

As I made my way to Bloworth Crossing, steadily uphill with too many walking breaks, I could see a head torch behind, slowly gaining on me. Stupidly, I thought I might be able to tag onto this runner and get dragged along to Clay Bank. It turned out to be Pete, who I was running with along the coast earlier. He was grinding out a really good steady pace and caught me just as we reached Bloworth Crossing. I really tried, with his encouragement, to stay with him but it just wasn't happening and in no time his light was gone.

All I could think about was meeting Tracey and my dad at Clay Bank. I felt as if I was in some kind of a tunnel, limited by the extent of my torch light and all I could do was try to get out of the other end of the tunnel as best I could. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally dropped down to the road at Clay Bank. I needed to sit down. I was so desperate to eat something but as Tracey and my dad placed various foods in my hands, my stomach turned. Eventually, it got to the point where I started retching and brought up some liquid. Oh, great - the only thing I've managed to get in me for the last few hours is now on the roadside. Still, I did feel a bit better. Tracey suggested some Tictacs to clear my palate, which seemed to work and I felt a bit better.

The plan at Clay Bank was for me to grab my running poles to help my power hiking over the Three Sisters and on towards Osmotherley. Since starting to use poles when training for UTMB in 2014, I've become really confident with them and can power hike to great effect. In the end, I kept using the poles in this race right to the finish and am so glad I put them in the car, just in case. As well as the poles, I also put on another layer which at least showed I still had some lucidity at this point. It was bitterly cold and I wasn't moving fast so I had to layer up. I finally set off up the hill with Tictacs in my mouth, poles in my hand and four layers of clothing on my back.

I did feel a little better and was pleased with the way I attacked the three climbs towards Lordstones, even managing to get a jelly in as I topped out on the first climb; the first calories I'd put in for hours. I made sure I had a look for "Tony Robinson's gate" from the Coast to Coast series (if you watched it, you'll know what I mean), so I must have had some whits about me. The climb up Carlton Bank was tough and hit me with force. The next 4 miles to Scarth Nick were a nightmare. The lack of calories really showed; I was tired beyond belief and actually started to run with my eyes closed for a few seconds at a time, weaving across the track, all I wanted to do was sleep. I've never slept in a race before but this sudden feeling took root and I got the plan in my head that I would have a short nap at the next checkpoint which might reboot the system.

Eventually, I arrived at the checkpoint, climbed in the car, explained the plan and asked my dad to wake me in 10 minutes. Tracey said I was asleep in less than 10 seconds. After what felt like a minute, my dad woke me and said that 10 minutes was up - give me another 10 was my immediate reply. Finally, after 25 minutes asleep, they woke me and I felt slightly recovered. I immediately got some sugary drink in me and some food - this was the turning point. It was still bitterly cold, dark and windy but I distinctly remember Tracey saying if I don't get going soon I might never get going. That was a little kick up the bum and I thought about the Grand Slam; the main goal for this season was on the line here - did I really want it or was I happy to take the easy option and stay in the car? After a stop of 45 minutes in total, it was Game On!

In that instant, everything changed for the better. My mind and body were now in a good place and I set off towards Osmotherley with renewed purpose. I'm not saying I was bouncing along but at least I was moving better and was in a more solid psychological state. In no time I was up in the woods, going past the mast and looking for the right turn to drop down the diagonal path. Where the bloomin' 'ek is the path? Suddenly, I was out in the open field at the top of the hill instead of the bottom; I'd missed the path - I don't make navigation errors in these races, this is bonkers. I got my map out, worked out what I'd done and could see where I needed to go. I didn't want to take any short cuts so, instead of continuing to run along the top edge of the field which would have brought me down to the Cleveland Way further along, turned right and fought my way down through the forest to pick up the diagonal path as best I could. Two sides of a triangle done instead of one! Oh well, one small error I could live with, nothing major in the wider scheme of this race.

The navigating fun and games were not over. I was happily running down the road into the dark and quite streets of Osmotherley and before I knew it I had run right through the village, past the centre, past the pub, past the hall and out the other side, missing the small turning for the race route. Bloomin' 'ek again! Again, I had to double back to get back on route. Despite the two errors, my mind was in a good place because I was now running OK. I power hiked the long climb up to Square Corner and arrived feeling much better than the last time I saw my crew. To be safe, I decided to have another sit in the car before the longer stretch to Sutton Bank. Another 10 minutes would probably pay dividends later. I changed my bigger head torch for a smaller one with just an hour of darkness left and set off.

I took walking breaks on any inclines, but was happy to do so as I was power hiking really strongly by now and I was getting Mountain Fuel Xtreme Energy drinks back in. I'm not saying it was fast, but it was forward progress. Finally, the headtorch could go into my pack. To illustrate how my mindset had changed, I was now looking ahead to see if I could see any runners to chase; I was now back in a race.

Sutton Bank is a great spot for support as you can see your crew twice in a short space of time. Again, I had a quick 5 minutes sit in the car, some soya chocolate dessert and I was off round the White Horse loop, again hoping I might see another runner to chase and wanting to avoid anyone chasing me - I saw no one. At Hambledon, I had one final sit down before the last push to Helmsley; two more desserts, see you guys at the finish.

I was starting to warm up over this final section as the wind dropped and the sun came out. I had to stop and take some layers off and try to stuff them into my rather minimalist pack, but just about managed. I admit I had a few walking breaks along the flat road but I was on my way home now and I didn't care. My dad ran out to meet me in the fields above Helmsley and Tracey joined us for the final stretch through the town and up to the finish at the sports club. We finally came into the finish in 6th place in round about 24:20 hours. Blimey that was an adventure!

This race needs a proper blog post with some reflection on what happened, but I am immensely proud of the way the three of us managed to turn round a desperate situation and salvage a good result. The role of a good support crew cannot be overestimated. I am pleased with the final placing, especially with the speed of the front three runners who posted some amazing times; Jason Millward having the mental and physical strength to set a target of breaking the course record and running sub 20 hours is phenomenal (read how a race should be run here, Jason's blog). Obviously, I am disappointed with the time having spent over 1:30 hours sitting in the car at various times, but that has been overshadowed by the satisfaction of digging myself out of a very dark place that could have easily resulted in a DNF. More reflection to come I think.

I cannot thank Tracey and my dad enough for the role they played in this adventure. Crewing is a tough job when things are going well, but to cope with a deteriorating situation and manage to turn it round shows their worth; They really earned their bacon sandwiched after this one. As ever, Jon and Shirley put on a fantastic event, assisted by all their helpers and marshals; I cannot recommend the Hardmoors races enough. Thank you for the company to all those runners that I shared some of the trail with. Finally, a special thank you to the Happy Crew at Saltburn and Emma at Sandsend; those little moments are very important.

You win or you learn!

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