Sunday, 13 February 2011

Postsrcipt: Rosie

What better way to draw a line under this here blog than to announce the birth of our beautiful daughter Rosie.  It's her fault that I even attempted to better my 2009 winter round in the first place, the logic being that her arrival would signal a sizable pause in such daft activity and so it was now or never.

Rosie Lydia Smith - aged 6 days
 Funnily enough, not making it already seems a much less bitter pill to swallow.  She's fantastic.

She's was the backcloth to the whole escapade really (and she was there, sort of) and I can't think of a better way to round off this blog.

Actually I can.  Thank you to all that helped me, or drove up to the Lakes and weren;t able to help and so drove home again.  You were all wonderful human beings and made me proud to know you all.

I'll be back winter BGR, perhaps when I turn 40.

Monday, 13 December 2010

And it was going so well...

I'm still a bit raw, physically and emotionally from failing to knock off a winter round again. I'll write it up properly with some photos some time but felt the need to post something.

This time, the weather was ok, the snow was not brilliant but not bad, I was as ready as I could be and all was going well.  Then all of a sudden, it wasn't.

Basically, i was fit enough, but not strong enough, if that makes sense.  My calf tore towards the top of Dollywaggon Pike on leg four.  I;d been going for about 17 hours and i felt ok.  I was finding the snow a bit energy sapping and having to work hard to stay near my 23 hour schedule, but i was going ok and was starting to feel like this was in the bag. 

Legs one and two were brilliant, with Simon Ellis putting in a brilliant effort to support me on both legs alone after Dave's calf had also gone on him.  Wayne Percival was there on Scoat Fell, waiting with his cafe which was wonderful.  Dave and Heli gave us a cheery wave on Red Pike and we were 10 mins up heading into Wasdale.  All was well in the world. 

Leg three was tough, more so for being anticlockwise with that extra climbing in there.  Two non running friends were waiting on Scafell with Jaffa Cakes and yet more friends waiting to tell me their attempts to rig Broad Stand safely were not on so we went around via Foxes Tarn.  Peter Taylor, Andy Kitchin, Ian Lancaster and Simon Martland (from Bowfell) brilliantly guided me through a gorgeous sunset and into the darkness from the Langdales onwards.  I lost about 15 mins on the leg, all in that last darkness section.  I was slowing a little as we were in slushier snow that wasn't taking our weight and was harder for me to run through.  I was also starting to tire, but was still moving quite well and running the downhills reasonably well.

Arrival at Dunmail was great, just 10 mins down on a 23 hour schedule.  I was hoping to be up here but the snow, cold and darkness were conspiring to ramp up the challenge.  I did feel strong though as we descended Steel Fell (having aquired Rhys on the way who was out to check our progress).  Spirits were high.

I had a good feed at Dunmail because leg three would have taken a lot out of me.  I ate well, saw my heavily pregnant wife for the first time since before starting at 0500 and started on that tricky climb up Seat Sandal.  I struggled up there - a bad patch.  Nick, Ian, Carl and Dave were grouped in front and behind me and moving was an effort.

I dropped 6 mins on the 23 hour schedule just on that one climb.  I felt better on Fairfield and dropped just 2 mins.  Descending to Grisedale Tarn, we met Jen Taylor, Jen Chambers and Alex Duncan-Price who supplied hot drinks and laughs before we headed up Dollywaggon, the last of the big climbs on this leg - 'plain sailing after that until Threlkeld' I thought.  I decided to eat on the way up here and not worry about the pace.  Then i could work harder on the rest of the leg.  I had a plan, I was doing ok.

The iron post was in sight where the main climb from Dollywaggon meets the path.  A milestone for leg four.  And then it happened.  A sharp pain shot from my right calf to my groin and buttocks.  I stopped and cried out.  I took another step and the same thing happened.  I found that walking uphill, wihch lifts your toes towards your shins, was impossible without pain.  I tried again, walking about 10 paces.  It was really uncomfortable, and my calf went VERY tight.

It was game over.  The disappointment was, is, crushing.  The first thought was for my supporters, those on the hill and the road crew who had all invested in a bigger, better day than this.  What about those who travelled all this way to run leg five?  What about all those hours of training the Alison supported me in doing?  What about all those people that were here now who were faced with getting me off the hill...

Shit...getting off the hill!!  Ian Charters was dead right, this was no place to muck about.  Nick Holmes had spotted that the girls were still down at Grisedale Tarn and he headed for them to let them know as they had a car at Dunmail, our new destination (it turns out they saw us stop and waited to see what was going on).  Dave Hindley was straight on the phone to the road crew and the lads who were waiting at Sticks Pass with more coffee to advise them to get off the hill.  The support was snapping into action and being brilliant.  I just had to move down the hill.

That first step downwards brought heartache and relief in equal measure.  Heartache from the fact that this was the first step away from a return to the Moot Hall i'd taken in 17 hours and that it was all over.  Relief from the fact that I could walk downhill so long as my foot stayed level and so this was a self rescue and not a stretcher job.

Depending heavily upon walking poles, I was able to hobble off the hill.  The calf went very tight, and then disconcertingly numb.  Then pain would return.  My body was fighting it in waves, with the pain between those waves making descending a trial. 

For the second time in two years, Ian Charters was patiently nursing me down a big hill.  I felt terrible. I wanted to cry like a baby, but decided keeping ones shit together was a good idea on a freezing lakeland mountain in the dark.  Plod, limp, hobble and the odd yelp when my foot wasn't level...on it went for what seemed hours.  Dunmail appeared and the tears almost surfaced.  Great people there to look after me, console me, tell me they'd gladly help "next time" and that I'd done well.  Until the calf went, I had done well despite the fact i had started to slow down a little.  I;d done well because of the help i had and right there, i didn't feel like i deserved it.  It was a horrible moment, made bearable by the compassion and care of friends.  I'll never forget it.

Arrival back at Abernethy (BGR HQ in Keswick) and there was my brother and fiance on a surprise visit.  They had intended to come and see me finish.  I felt sick with disappointment for them.  It was brilliant to see them though.  I wanted to show my appreciation for everyone's help, but also wanted to lock myself in a room and have a big sulk.

And that was it.  An unexpectedly early sleep after a long, contemplative shower and a big breakfast next morning before heading home.  It's Monday now and my calf is bruised, tight and sore.  The rest of me is also a bit sore but nothing much more than after a normal long day in the hills. 

I;ve been asked by a few people when i'm going for another winter round.  The answer is that I am not.  Last year's overtime completion in that blizzard is going to have to do.  The baby is due in 6 weeks and everything is going to change, including my relationship with the Bob Graham Round.

It's been a blast and I've got a huge amount from it, but it's time to move on.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Far from Ideal, but Good Enough...

When prepared for my summer BGR, which was a wonderful and successful experience, I knew I was going to make it. I was fitter than I’d ever been and convinced it was going to be my day. So when the pleasant start turned into a 12 hour rainstorm, I didn’t worry. When we went astray on Pillar (I’m still not sure how we managed that!) and dawdled a bit on Kirk Fell for some reason, it never entered my head that failure was on the cards. Sure enough, despite my legs pretty much giving way on the road section, I ambled into Keswick with plenty of time to spare, just as the sun finally came out and rainbow smiled its congratulations. My head was right, more than my legs were actually, and nothing else mattered.
That’s the main difference between summer and winter rounds. In summer, bad weather is probably still not going to ever stop you, except perhaps hurricane force winds. In summer, you hang on and keep positive and you should be fine. In winter it’s hard to apply that logic. You can be physically stopped in your tracks, or slowed in your tracks by ice and snow that no amount of positive mental attitude can melt. It’s fair to say that this is playing on my mind.
This December has been more like a Scottish Highland February. Snow and ice abound, and it’s powdery, drifty (!?) stuff that makes for slow going. Reports are coming back from the lakes of deep, tiring snow on the ridges and in the cols. I would normally be positive enough to say that the abundant clear skies will at least provide no navigational issues, but it now appears that the cloud will roll in this weekend, providing the worst of both worlds. I can’t help feel hard done by after last year’s winter epic and the summer deluge I had. But that’s pointless and pathetic. Winter rounds demand courage, and that is part of the motivation. It is impossible to be courageous when there is nothing to fear and so it’s time to stop worry and just get on with it.
The forecast at least promises warmer weather - 3 degrees C at 750 metres, which is balmy compared to last year.  The sheer cold took a lot out of me last year so hopefully I'd be able to hang on for longer.  So the plan is to start, work hard, and see how things pan out. I can’t expect any more. If conditions leave me an hour down in daylight then I’ll call it off, otherwise I’ll keep pushing.
But I must think of my supporters. I had no qualms about accepting the wonderful offers of help in summer when I ‘knew’ I was going to make it, because it was going to be a cracking weekend. I’m feeling guilty about lining up all this support when it’s looking a trifle marginal. I am worried about failing and putting my supporters out, esp those doing later legs. I just hope I can give them all a day/night out on the fells.
The use of poles, axes, microspikes, GPS and substantial reserves of merino wool is a real feature as I prepare my kit lists and get my gear sorted. It already feels like an epic.

Monday, 6 December 2010

From realism to pessimism

It's a fine line between understanding and adapting to the conditions you are presented with and becoming unduly worried and uneccesarily talking yourself out of something.

This cold snap presents exactly this situation.  Right now, it does not look good.  The snow is deep, drifted, powdery, has no weight bearing crust and obscures the route even where it's obvious.  In fact, let me express the situation more emphatically - if it stays like this then a sub 24 hour round is impossible this weekend.

However, i'm not giving it up just yet.  If all that snow became compacted, developed a strong crust and froze hard after a thaw, it could be perfect., even better than no snow.  Deep, compacted snow can offer a smooth plaster over the rough boulders and broken ground and actually aid progress, esp if the visibility is clear.  So this could work out nicely.

The forecast suggests a slight thaw on friday.  It doesn;t sound enough.  But it could be.  We will just have to wait and see.

The plan is to start, unless the forcasts presents blizzards which really would be too much.  But that seems unlikely and so we will start at 0500 on Saturday.  I've got two strong lads in Dave and Simon with me until Wasdale on the first two legs.  We'll start and assess things as we go.  There will be no records this weekend, but if i can keep inside the 23 hour schedule to Honister and Wasdale, we'll crack onto Dunmail and try and make some time.

Jim Mann, a stronger runner than me who i helped on his round this summer, is going a week after me.  He has a chance for a thaw to create the ideal winter conditions.  He's been out with Dave H this weekend on Skiddaw and the conditions look horrendous,.  Skiddaw will be my last peak and he's already imploring me to have plenty of time in the bank before we get there.  He and Dave reported waist and chest deep snow on skiddaw.  That eastern slope sounds like it's loaded and hard to negotiate.  That actually suggests the birth of avalanche conditions!!  It really does sound hideous. 

This news more than anything has made the distinction between realism and pessimism harder to determine.  The idea of getting all the way to Skiddaw to be thwarted is almost too much to bear.  Tackling that slope in the dark with windslab on it doesn;t sound too appealing.  I'm trying to hope for great conditions and that;s what will get me to the starting line, but the focus has now changed from worrying about being fit enough to worrying abot the conditions, which i can't control.

Perhaps this is a good thing.  It feels like a release of pressure.  I'll set off and see.  I'll push hard but what will be, will be and all that.  I have a million little white excuses for not making it.  So let's go and see what fate delivers...

The problem is that i'm really worried about the wonderful band of helpers, esp those turning up to help later on.  Also the road crew are there to help with a winter BGR, not some half arsed attempt.  I'm really determined to do what is possible and safe.  For their sake as well as my own.  It;s hard to be as postive as everyone is for me when i read the forecasts and hear the reports.

All i can do now is eat, rest, prepare and hope.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Wanted: Some slack from the weather Gods please?!

Not again…!
It’s worth reminding readers that last winter I did the full BGR in 24:22, all of which was in sub-zero temperatures and about a quarter of which was in an increasingly menacing blizzard.   This provides the context for my nervousness around this cold snap which is gripping the UK.  With less than two weeks to go, and with forecasters talking about a two-week cold snap, it’s entirely possible that the conditions will repeat themselves.
Oh dear…
I’m going a week earlier than last year – still technically a mid-winter round but slightly further away from the solstice.  Last year, the week before my round was chilly but not arctic and I would have made it round in sub 24.  I hoped that I’d enjoy slightly less hard conditions this year.  Now, it appears that they could be worse. 
Last year was a completion rather than an abandonment because the ground conditions were generally OK, with some VERY notable exceptions (the gully up to Foxes was very icy and not a little scary).  This was because the extreme cold (minus 16 for much of the night and at least minus 5 at best all the way round) and blizzards later on, were the start of a cold snap where the cumulative affects of huge water-ice sheets and widespread verglas that can render darkness descents so dangerous were only patchy and mostly avoidable.  That wouldn’t have been the case two weeks later and I fear it won’t be this time.
In truth, it doesn’t matter because I can’t control it.  If conditions are unsafe for a winter BGR but the weather is good, we’ll just have a winter walking and running weekend instead.  Don’t get me wrong, I’d be very disappointed because I’ve trained as much as life as allowed and I feel strong, but what will be, will be.  Either way, it’ll be a great hill day with some good friends and some new friends.  Also, with a baby on the way, watching Alison bloom and the bump grow (and feeling it move), I’m finding perspective easier to come by thesedays.
Training-wise, it’s been a week of tapering and running for fun.  The climbing and descending totals are right down, but the quality sessions and mileage less so, which means I still have the post exertion endorphins to keep me sane.  The final, completely inactive period will drive me insane.
On Monday I ran with the Redhill Road runners in Nottingham and did a brisk, hilly 8 miles.  I enjoyed it, was pushed hard and was humbled by a couple of very very strong road runners who seemed to float along – you know the type.  I thought negative thoughts because if I’m fit enough for a BGR I shouldn’t be passed so easily whilst I’m working hard.  Turns out that these guys were sub 2:40 marathoners, and that there were a few sub 3:00 marathoners well behind me in the session – a useful barometer I suppose. 
Tuesday was gym work.  Specifially, quad power work.  Last year, the descents on hard ground thrashed my quads on scafell.  I decided to work on them to create more muscle mass and resilience to add to the endurance from the running.  I worked very hard indeed, moving between the cross trainer (full gradient, max resistance, no help from arms – a very good method for working your legs hard) and the leg weights (the one where you sit and straighten your legs).  I could barely walk back to the car after an hour of that.
Wednesday saw another Redhill session, this time a combination of short, sharp hill efforts and one mile tempo runs.  This was knackering and there were some fine runners there to try and keep in sight!  Another 8 and bit miles were knocked off and I felt great.
Thursday was very cold and very enjoyable.  I managed to leave Nottingham a little early and get back towards home at a civilised time.  This meant that for the first time in many months, I was able to run with my club at the main club session.  We did a cold 9 miles nice and easy, just chatting all the way round.  It was without any doubt the easiest 9 miles I’ve ever done and amongst the most enjoyable.  It was good to be back.  Much of my training has been done alone, so it was lovely to be back and running with friends.
Friday would normally be the big hill day.  I decided to run up a big hill, but not run all day.  The most northerly 3000’ summit in Wales, Foel Fras, makes for a very good training run from Aber as the gradient is steady but the distance is long, making for a grinding but runnable climb.  I thought an out and back up there would be a useful run to get in a sustained climb and descent.  I did indeed run every step on the way up, but the deep snow and whiteout conditions meant retreat from the summit of Drum, which is still a respectable 2600’.  I was just pleased to be able to run all the way up the mountain in these challenging conditions with relative ease.  I was by no means tired when I got back to the car, covered in icicles.  I think it was about minus 5 or 6 up there.
The weekend saw no running, just a brilliant NCT ante-natal class and a terrific reunion with some old uni friends.  Perspective by the bucketloads this weekend, after a good week’s work.
2 weeks to go and the pendulum is hanging on the right side of neutral.  Let’s see how it is after next weekend’s Cardington Cracker, which will be my last run before the big day.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

The Confidence Pendulum

A snowy Catstycam and Ullswater from Helvellyn
No it's not an act from a John Peel session.  But it describes my feelings towards this impending winter BGR.  One moment, i'm sure i'm fit enough, prepared, knowledgeable, experienced and as ready as anyone can be and the next my talent to ambition ratio kicks in and i know i'm doing this because i'm by no means a cert, hence the challenge.

Last week was another good week's training, but yet again without a massive day.  10,000 feet were duly knocked off and I managed to do so whilst feeling like i was well within myself.  12 Tattenhall railways on Thursday (4000' of steep up and down with no respite - a headbanging session for sure) and then a snowy out and back on leg four with Nick on Friday which picked up almost 6000' of ascent.  Some gym work and local running (thank you Redhill Road Runners) made up a decent week.

Incidentally, if you set a cross trainer to the maximum resistance and gradient, and don't use the hands/arms bit, it simulates a steep fell-type gradient very well indeed, but without the rain and wind!  It's a useful thing to know and a dark and wet night in Nottingham when you need to get some training in.

Anyhoo, so i didn;t manage a huge day as the house has been a building site (have has 18 windows ripped out and replaced) and i didn;t want to leave Alison to cope with all that for too long, esp as i work away for much of the week. That has been the story of the prep for this round: opportunistic training rather than total committment.  I think that's why i feel undercooked, but the truth is that life is about keeping all the balls in the air and so the winter BGR training campaign has had to find its place amongst working away, looking after my pregnant wife and getting the house ready for Jan 25 (ish) when Smith Jnr joins the world!

So, i'm left feeling that I've done a good job of getting in plenty of training and keeping life and work moving too.  Some of the sessions i;ve squeezed in have been madness.  12 railways is 4000' near the house, a session which isn;t ideal because you're not out on the fells but has meant maintaining a balance.  So i can pat myself on the back for that, but the problem is that the BGR doesn't allow for circumstances.  You're either fit enough or you're not.  I want it enough, that much is certain.  I just hope that i get better luck with the weather than on my successful summer BGR (13 hours of torrential rain and high winds from the Langdales onwards going c/w) and and last year's freezer/blizzard/black ice affair that resulted in that agonising 24:22.

Three weeks to go and the taper starts now.  I'm going to have a couple more runs in the fells for 4 or 5 hours, and some 2 hour runs around Moel Famau and then a week of absolutely nothing before i go.

Wish me luck because i;ve done my best, but i really need better luck that i;ve had before.  Six degrees. overcast, light winds....perfect.  Who am i kidding...

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Wobble over, now let’s knock the b*stard off….

It’s on, again
I really don’t know what came over me last Friday.  Driving home from the Lakes with my tail between my legs having been blown halfway back down Robinson again was a dispiriting experience and I just lost all confidence.  I think there are some demons in there from last year and they need exorcising.  The only way that is going to happen is to do it, and a good friend did remind me that we most regret the things we didn’t do rather than those we did.  To not try would have been tragic.
Several friends and family members badgering me to do it helped hugely.  My wife, who I thought might be relieved (she’ll be 8 months pregnant when the BGR comes along) was very keen for me to reconsider.  She knows how much I’d have regretted calling it off.  Some nudging on the FRA Forum also put things into perspective. 
But the real boost was the weekend’s training.  I decided to go and do a hard and fast timed run over Moel Y Gamelin and ran a course pb (8 miles, 3200’ ascent).  The next day I did the Roaches fell race (15.5 miles, 3800’ ascent) on tired legs and was 10 mins faster than last year.  Fears of not being fit were eased.  Yes, I need some long days, but confidence was restored and I decided whilst running through calf-deep slurry during the Roaches that it was on.  I am fitter than last year, and as Clive King pointed out to me, last year’s lessons weren’t about fitness, they were about tactics, food and drink and weather.  Similar fitness and a better winter plan would be enough.
Now there are less than four weeks to go. This week I’ve got Thursday and Friday off and have a great chance to do two consecutive big days out.  I’m going to try and do 10 hours on Thursday and 6 or 7 on Friday.  One more big day the following week and I’ll be on the taper, and that will feel very scary.