Friday, 28 December 2012

Tour de Helvellyn 2012

No-one said it would be easy, but everyone seemed to have fun and finished safely.  It’s now nearly a week since TdeH and I’ve just about finished clearing up and dealing with the various admin and correspondence .. albeit I didn’t do anything over Chrimbo. The feedback has been brilliant (thank you) and there are some very interesting blogs and photos out there in hyperspace and I feel like I’m struggling to catch up and may have missed the boat. Of all the stuff I’ve read this quote is one of my favourites:

‘I am no stranger to tough trail marathons in southern England, but this was a step up both in terms of the level of fitness shown by the other competitors and sheer grunt required.  It was a pleasure to get out on the fells with such great company and I will be back next year for sure’  
     Lost in espace – FRA Forum

Taken from the FRA forum its sums up excellently why we started TdeH three years ago, and we seem to have created a classic.  TdeH is unique; it’s the fell runners ultra, tough and uncompromising and we don’t pretend to nanny our runners who need that determined steel edge resolve to ‘tick this one off’.  Equally so, I don't think we are elitist!

When you are deeply involved in making sure 150+ people (runners and event volunteers) are safe and efficiently cared for, it is easy to forget there is a bit of a race going on.  However, its was very evident when Ed Catmur came steaming back through our Patterdale control, way ahead of any expected time, that there was a race on.  Last year’s ‘winner’, Kim Collison had set off last and was aiming to break his 2011 record, which was set in snowy conditions.  This year’s condition where snow free although very wet and windy, hence wind chill was a fear all day for everyone.  

If you read Kim’s blog he talks of fighting all the way to the line to break the six hour barrier by just seven seconds.  Ed was to be second in a time of 6:05.  TdeH isn't a mass-start and so apart from those two, there were some excellent times at the front end.  But those who know us well will know that we are just as much about the mid-packers and tail enders as the front end.  Certainly, our resources are directed to getting people around and I’m very pleased to report that 128 finished out of a total of 148 starters.  Two of those ‘DNF’ can be read about in James Thurlow’s poignant blog, which is well worth a read with regards to hypothermia and clothing for winter running.  And thanks to John Allen for looking after James so selflessly.

Gear and Clothing

Please permit me a few observations with regards to kit.  Many people struggled with wet and cold fingers which has the knock on effect that they struggled to eat (or navigate or look after themselves)  Gloves often become useless and can’t be got on and off easily, whereas mitts can be more easily managed and are warmer.   Whilst we were waiting at Patterdale, Stu Smith, Pyro and myself were discussing how people need to ‘winterise their gear’ and think through what actually will work after several hours of wet winter running when everything is saturated.  And … yes, nothing is waterproof after so many hours of wind and rain!     We try and keep the kit check as quick and simple as possible but it is very worrying that some people believe their lightweight gear is ‘waterproof’ and that compression tights will keep them warm all day!  

James’s blog also talks about not having enough additional gear to put on when he started to suffer… something for us all to learn there.

Overall, those who retired were generally due to injury or the impending onset of cold and wet, or the realization that they were going too slowly and would be out too long.   There is no shame in a ‘DNF’ if it has been done for the right reasons and I congratulate all those who took the right decision and retired at the right time.  There is always next year ….

New for 2012, we used Sportident entries and timing which gives you all accurate splits and full results in readiness for next year’s attempt.  I need to raise the issue that several people had not ‘dibbed’ at control numbers two and/or seven (Martindale Church and Birkside Gill) and used a nearby orienteering clipper instead.  Quite simply, these people were clearly looking in the wrong place as I had not placed any clippers instead of, or alongside SI boxes.  Please make sure you read the event information as all controls had SI boxes in place.   I am aware that there is a semi-permanent O-clipper at the back of Martindale Church but it is not at the site of our control and such people should be lucky they were recorded as mis-punched, and DNF!

The control information was clearly on the website before hand and re-iterated on the display maps before the start.  I decided not to issue everyone with a printed handout at registration as to the vast majority of people this is just a waste of paper and in the previous two years has not prevented one or two similar occurrences. 

TdeH 2013 Looking Ahead

Thanks to everyone for their input, help and feedback. At NAV4 Adventure we like to create simple tough and yet attainable events for competent runners.   After thee years, and bearing in mind the excellent feedback, I believe with have the event just about perfect.  The ‘accommodation options’ on offer seemed to work OK, although parking is an issue.

We don’t intend to change anything in a big way, certainly not the route and hope to keep the checkpoints exactly where… so you can all find them! We may think about having a few small prizes of a festive nature and a wee presentation, maybe. 


Once again the return trip over Askham Moor gave a few navigational problems especially around the Stone Circle know as ‘The Cockpit’  Having been flagged up as a potential issue in the event notes, if you struggles her then perhaps you should think about a navigation course?

We are having  NAV4  ‘Open Day’ alongside our January training day, so just turn up for a brew, and a chat and perhaps get a few pointers (no pun intended) with regard to your compass skills or gear selection.      

Come to our Open Day - say Hello - Have a Brew
We also have some excellent One-Day training days arranged for January and March, as well as a weekend course at PyB in North Wales in April.   

TdeH runners and their friends can currently get a 20% discount of our One-Day courses in January and March by using the discount code NAV420F …. but be quick as the numbers of discounted places are limited.

Ok, that’s it – I really need to stop now … and get some exercise myself!

See you soon; perhaps at our re-vamped  'Lakes Mountain 40' in April or at TdeH 2013.

Joe Faulkner

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Hope Adventure One

It’s Not All About Lumens!

Head torch technology has moved on rapidly over the past few years and there are a plethora of new models with some pushing out a huge amount of ‘Lumens’. Battery technology has also come on in leaps and bounds and so it’s good to have a bit of a think about what you really need and where you are coming from in terms of expectation. The marketers would like us to believe that the bigger the Lumen output the better the torch, with Lumen being the industry measurement for light output, although there doesn’t seem to be a consistency of testing.

Any review, or new purchase use requires a baseline from which to base opinion, and move forward. My standard ‘headtorch of choice’ for a huge range of activities over the past five or six years has been the Petzl Myo XP or RXP, which is probably the market leader for very good reasons.

Headtorches come in a variety of different formats; rechargeable batteries, remote (long lead) battery boxes, etc.  However, I’ve recently bought a Hope Adventure One as a future replacement for my trusty Myo, if only because I wanted to see what was new in the same sort of format, ie, a headtorch with self contained battery box, that takes standard AA cells.

Hope Adventure One
Anyone who is familiar with Hope bike parts will be aware of the high quality reputation that Hope quite rightly deserves.  Right from opening the box, the Hope oozes quality with everything neatly packaged in a foam box. The Hope ‘A1’ is actually a modular system, so it does come with a long extension lead for sac / belt / pocket mounting as well as bike helmet mounts and handlebar mounts.  I wasn’t really expecting these additional features but these are an added bonus and will become doubly useful over the next few winter months.  My primary reason for buying this particular Hope was the simple fact that it takes standard AA cells which for multi-day use away from charging facilities is essential.  Furthermore, the ability to whack in a new set of batteries when the current set fail is a basic safety feature for me.

Do We Need Remote Battery Packs?
I have more powerful lights which I use for Biking, both on and off road, but the bigger and heavier battery units require the use of the extension lead.  Having the battery inside a pocket or rucsac is always a bit of a faff and can be prone to lead snagging and damage. Historically ‘belt-packs’ were needed because of two reasons; batteries were too heavy to wear on your head or helmet, or needed keeping warm in cold weather in order to get a decent amount of light output and duration from a set of batteries.  Whilst some of this remains relevant, even the standard AA battery has increased in ‘umph’ over recent years and if you use Lithium batteries for winter then the need for a remote battery pack is largely irrelevant.

Back to the Hope Adventure One
It simply oozes quality!  With a chunky aluminium headset, quality elasticated head band, battery box, extension lead and rubber connectors the overall look and feeling is superb.  As mentioned you also get mounts for a bike helmet and handlebar for I’ll leave those for now, suffice to say the quality of those is excellent.
The Hope A1 takes 4x AA batteries, which is one more than the Petzl XP/RXP, and so offers more ‘capacity’ for output and duration.  The A1 gives three simple outputs from Low, Medium and High, plus a flashing strobe for the maverick biker or safety function. The ‘numbers game’ reads nicely with High setting offering 215 Lumens for around three hours, Medium giving seven hours and the Low setting offering twenty-four hours.  These figures are very reasonable and a step or two above that of my baseline Petzl Myo.  Light quality is good with crisp clear light and a nice beam pattern on all three levels which makes walking, running or biking a pleasure. 
Don’t forget that this model takes standard AA batteries so simply carrying and inserting fresh batteries extends the duration indefinitely and, of course, you can use rechargeable AA batteries if you wish.

Just one last little thing, well two really, about the Hope’s functionality.  You switch it on via a reassuringly chunky rubber button, and it comes on in Low setting.  This is better than starting with High and clicking through to Low as it preserves your night vision and that of your mates.  A further click moves up to Medium and a third click takes you to High.  A fourth click gives you flashing strobe, but a two second hold turns the Hope off at any time.  Simple.  Most the time I stick with one click and Low, or perhaps up to Medium ... with only curiosity or a technical descent or control search needing High output.

Having used the Hope A1 for a few weeks I have appreciated its simplicity as well as its quality. Little things matter so, as illustrated by the head band, all three elastics (two sides and one over the top) have an adjuster so that adjustment is quick and easy and the headset and battery box remain central.  The elastic itself is firm and feels secure. The front and rear plastic moulded brackets are nicely shaped and comfortable.  All leads and connectors are quality rubber and feel relatively ‘bombproof’. 

I’m a multi-sport athlete with a reputation for endurance events for my purposes this set up offers the ultimate in functionality.  I’ve previously completed multi-day Expedition Adventure Races with Petzl Myo XP and so with the Maximum output of The Hope A1 being increased from the Myo’ 140 Lumens max, this is sizeable step up.

The Future is Bright
I ordered this model without actually seeing it, so when it arrived with the modular format I was nicely surprised.  I’m looking forward to using it on a cycle helmet for some multi day adventures and will try the handlebar mount as well.

So, What did I learn?
After using The Hope for a few weeks I’ve become very accustomed to it and appreciate its simplicity, output and quality.  I’ve also realized how good a torch the Petzl Myo XP/RXP is and how familiar it was too me.  The Myo is also that little bit lighter and more compact than the Hope A1, so if it’s a matter of carrying weight in your sac the Myo wins on that front.  Ok, the RXP is ‘programmable’ and you can customise the output, (if you can manage it) and is made by lovely French ladies in France where as the Hope is made in Lancashire, or is it Yorkshire?
Both companies offer good customer service and warranty, with one being quicker than the other, maybe?

Decision Time
Ok, so I like the Hope Adventure One, and highly recommend it, but what else is new?  Well, the techno geeks out there are already raving about Petzl’s new ‘Nao’ which is a development of the Myo and offers ‘Reactive’ lighting – lighting which measures how much light you need and varies accordingly. Interestingly, Petzl’s marketing blurb highlights how this preserves battery life by powering down when not needed, (looking at a map, or running a well light trail, for instance) rather than just quoting the maximum output.  The reactive function can also be over ridden and you can blast away with up to 350 Lumens output but it runs off a specialist rechargeable battery that is not readily available as a spare, and puts it outside of the parameters of this test.   But, I’m looking forward to trying The Petzl Nao at some point in the future ...

For Reference:  Typical MRP's Hope £100, Myo RXP, £75, Nao £135....    Headtorch bought via Pete Bland Sports as a special order.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Dragon's Back Race - 2012

The Dragon Bites Back

Anyone who reads this blog regularly may be aware that I do not like to write anything unless I have something constructive to say.  Or I'm sure of what I think. It may sound pretentious but I have to be in the correct frame of mind in order to write my blog.

I'm also aware that several people have contacted me to ask why I have not written about my Dragon's Back Race experience, as I am one of only three 'Double Dragon's' - people who completed both the 1992 and 2012 races. The legendary Helene Whittaker and Wendy Dodds are my fellow Double Dragon's, with Steve 'Dubie' having done most of this year's event as well.

The past few months have also been a very weird period for me; maybe I'm still not right. In the past few weeks I have run The Longmynd Hike, FRA relays and have just completed The OMM Mountain Marathon in the A-Class with Wilko.  This last event was glorious; brilliant views of the Howgills, Lakes, Pennines and even Morecombe Bay on Saturday, followed by good thick claggy conditions on Sunday requiring very good  navigational skills. Hence, we particularly enjoyed Sunday and made up ten places to finish strongly.

So, back to The Dragon's Back

It was a wonderfully satisfying experience. It was tough. 1992 was tough and I was in the company of legends then and the awe inspiring significant event of 2012 was Helene's amazing four place overall. And perhaps she should have been third.  In 1992, at the age of thirty, I was coming into my prime, so for me to finish this event again when I was fifty is very satisfying indeed. My only sadness is that 'Dubie' didn't quite make it, along with several others.

This photo on facebook of me standing next to Martin Stone during the Sunday evening briefing, and just prior to Martin's excellent presentation on Helene's and his own victory in 1992.  It's only a simple snap photo but I like it as at the time I had two very clear thoughts; Firstly, 'this race is going to beast people, it's scary!' ... secondly, 'I'm very tired from Terrex, mentally, more than physically.'

My feet were puffy, I was carrying a small blister, and my ankle's were a bit scabby from the Cairngorm grit and generally wear and tear of Terrex.  As the week went on it also became apparent that only the four of us, (Helene, Wendy, Steve and myself)  plus Martin Stone and Rob Howard, who knew what 1992 had been like as no one else was there. No blogs.... very few reports, just a few write ups, including that iconic photo by Rob.  And since then there has been a great explosion of Trail Running....

This was no Trail Race. It wasn't even a Mountain Trail Run and as Shane announced that we were to tackle all of the Welsh 3000's I felt sorry for so many in the room who were blissfully unaware of what lay ahead. Much has been written on forums as to whether the route should have been different, or included extra tops or what construes the Dragon's Back Race. Suffice to say, now was the time to dig deep and do what any good ultra runner or adventure racers does; just one step at a time.

I don't intend to write a step by step account of all five days; that would be self indulgent and quite boring. But Day One started early, with a quietly emotionally departure from Conway Castle courtesy of the Male Voice Choir, etc.   The weather was due to be warm and so a long dry day unfolded at a very steady pace. In was 'running' early on with Steve, my original partner from 1992 and Mark Rawlinson who is always good company and a steady pace setter. I was in no rush and it was imperative to set a very conservative pace and run at our own pace.  Each time I've done The Welsh 3000's I have been surprised at how time consuming they are, as have all of the friends who done it with me.  I was prepared for a very long day, and planning to finish over Crib Goch before darkness. And so it was.

I always said, 'Day Two is Going to be the Toughest'

I'd be saying this to anyone who would listen for months and this was doubly true now.  A good covering of thick cloud added spice to the first section over the Moelwyns and gave the navigators respite from pure speed and the peleton.  It was on this section that Chi Trinh first impressed me by having the confidence to run his own lines rather than just follow us, and I was pleased to share his company many times during week. He even managed to point out a slight nav error that I'd made, but only because he'd lost his map and was perfecting good map memory, and so he joined up with Dubie and myself for the rest of the day.  Around Trawsfynydd, a section of tarmac lead to the roughness of the Rhinogs and another long afternoon and evening but with stunning views of the Cader Idris range and Mawddach estuary.  We finished Tuesday strong and steady and had a lot more time than on Monday evening to rest and administer some TLC.  By now it was clearly apparent that many had seriously under-estimated the nature of the event, especially the foreign runners who aren't used to such rough terrain.

Multi-day running is about getting up day after day and put just enough effort in that you can get up and doing it again, and again.  I was looking forward to Days Three, Four and especially Five. I now felt I was in the groove and set to run better each day.


Sadly, Steve had not applied enough TLC on Tuesday evening, simply crashing out asleep after some food and without tending to foot care and stretching.  Within minutes off setting off with him and Chi, it was apparent he wasn't fit to run as his hamstring was too tight to allow him to run downhill and so we sent him back to see Dr Mike  It was a sad and sorry sight to lose him but the right thing for him to do.  All I could do was knock off the miles over Cader Idris and enjoy the majesty of this part of Wales.

Again, it was a hot day and we were now in a bit regular routine as people settled into groups with friendly rivalry and the faster runners would come past us as the day wore on.  The summit of Cader surprised a few people as did the subsequent ridge but Chi and I pushed on into the mid-day heat. Steve Jones caught us up on one of the minor climbs, (when I felt were going very well, perhaps too well) and we enjoyed a few miles over Tarren Hendre and 'Nameless Mountain'. The long descent into Machynlleth was tedious and gave a few more navigational glitches for many, including us, in the forest.

Chi was becoming a bit of a star!  He'd taken a few minutes out of me in the run into 'Mach', mainly as I stopped to put a shirt on, but appear out of the first filling station shop clutching crisps, coke and other goodies.  We drank these before a second shop stop in the middle of town, waiting patiently behind an elderly lady buying her weekly lottery ticket and being told about a big race that was coming through today! Hmmn ... er, that's us?

Dubie was at the Half-way Drop Bag checkpoint and I was relieve to see him upright and wearing crocs. He was smiling just as he always does and resigned to having a day off.  It also meant he wasn't intending to come with us for the remainder of the afternoon.  The other highlight was my sandwich box of 'frozen' pizza and the reaction of others when they said, 'Where did you get that from?' ... 'Out of my freezer on Sunday, Why?'  I've never seen three day old pizza disappear so quickly.

Steve, Chi and myself had a strong afternoon as we steadily climbed towards Pumlumon Fawr and an early evening finish; great companions, thanks Steve and Chi.

Wednesday Night - 'Game On'

This was the night we all  'camped' in the barn, with the tents creatively erected by the wonderful support team including the tireless Jean Sinclair and the angel that is Mel Wright.  What the event support team achieved during the week was much appreciated.

The barn further united us into a tight knit group of survivors and we help each other with foot care, etc. Mel treated my small deep blister. I felt a bit of a fraud seeking help but it was on the outside of my heel but I couldn't easily get two hands to it due to a lack of old-age flexibility. Mel was a bit concerned that it might be infected so, drained and dressed it, including a long deep squeezing massage, which was very strangely satisfying!

Dubie was back on top form, tirelessly fetching and carrying for people and offering support to all. Lot's of good food was required and more good sleep.  The barn floor was hard and stony, so I doubled up my sleeping mat into a comfy bed and then I created a big pillow to raise my legs out of all my spare gear. I slept very well knowing I was in good shape, in my big roomy thirty-four year old down sleeping bag. (The only sleeping bag to do two DBRaces?)   In the morning I was annoyed to find Chi had not slept well as he had been cold. I only wish I'd known as I could have helped with gear, etc.

Thursday - Let's Race .... er No!

Up until this point I had not looked at any results or Leader board, indeed I learnt at an early stage in my running career that this is usually counter-productive.

From the general vibe around camp I was aware that I was moving up the leader board and with two days to go now was the time to raise the pace just a touch, but also preserve mind and body, and especially my annoying little blister.  The blister felt much better and pain free on the flat and any relatively smooth terrain, even climbing an descending was Ok but twisting on tussocks was a painfully process. I also have quite a bad back problem so any fall or tumble can lead to horrendous pain, sickness and screaming as one or two of my regular running partners have witnessed.

Starting from the high col of the A44, one km of trail quickly gave way to tussocks and frustration. Chi was with me and I think we both looked forward to a good day. A section of forest road gave respite from pain and frustration with the added interest that Chris Baynham-Hughes went past us with a cheery 'Got to make time while the going is good' .... or words to that effect. Chris is a good runner, talented and rapidly finding his feet in the world of ultra and mountain running (no pun intended)

Despite Chris's speedy passing manoeuvre and that of the top ranking 'peleton' I felt strong, and Chi gracefully acknowledge this as we hit the next climb. He shook me by the hand and waved me on, 'Your stronger than me...'  Instantly I got a crap line through the tussocks and then spent a good hour or so struggling to maintain any sort of pace. I couldn't find any of the small trods or lines that others were taking and was having a frustrating bad patch.  Bad patches come and go and my mood was lifted slightly when I saw Steve Birkinshaw catching me up. Steve was the race leader and had set off behind me. We exchanged a few good words and I was cheered to see even he was looking sore, and tired. Naturally, I didn't try to stay with him, but tailing his line through some undulations was a positive as was catching up with Steve Wathall and Max Howard.  The were both going well, as was Andy Holohan who I passed on the next short road section prior to more rough ground and the descent to the day's halfway point at Elan Village.

It was hot in the valley.  Rob Howard and Charmian were helping here and I mumbled about my poor morning but concluded that they should both give me a good slap and send me on my way.  Chi was also ready to go so we set off together but my first priority was the toilets at the Visitor Centre.  I'll spare you the details, but I enjoy more-or-less a full strip wash, which must have horrified the tourists, washed my four day old shirt and put it back on wet and a little cleaner.   Then I was off out on to the trail to catch up with Chi.

'Sometimes you can race but you can not fight the route...'

After this simple act of ablution I felt lot calmer and the early Autumn colours around the reservoir helped me recoup a productive and positive state of mind. I was looking forward to the next stage on good rolling paths and open countryside and even the infamous '10km' road run at the end of the day. Road running is not my forte but this stretch is about as picturesque as you can get as it carves a route around the lakes and through the forests.

I ran all the tarmac except the steep climbs and finished strongly into the evening's campsite. It was an idyllic place, nestled by the river which was very tempting in the early sun. Sadly, with the sun rapidly sinking behind the hills it was a just a touch too cold for a swim but a good wash helped sooth me. I was amazed at how much time I had taken out of some people during the afternoon and a little upset when Chi came in after me as I thought he'd gone ahead of me after our Elan Valley pit-stop. Several people finished late into the evening, each to heartfelt applause from us all.

Each day I had been gaining time on many in the field but also finishing earlier each evening, and this one proved to be the most relaxing yet. Mel re-dressed my blister; again I felt a bit of a fraud queueing for her attention but all seemed good.  There was a growing sense of success creeping into camp and I felt very confident, happy and content. There was time to talk and relax.

Friday.  Just Another Day?

Friday morning departure process was all a bit different than usual.  I felt very relaxed and aware that Chi and Steve were both fired up for today. In fact they were chomping at the bit as I wanted another mug or of tea or two so I suggested that went without me. Perhaps I was being a bit selfish but I was enjoying the camp atmosphere and didn't feel like racing nor set off early.  Steve Birkinshaw set off as I was in conversation with the start team but still in faffed about savouring the moment, I guess.

Shane was there, as was Mark Rawlinson. There was talk about me becoming the one of only three people to complete two Dragon's Back Races. Little did they know that I'd spent much of the previous day thinking about running 'Day Six' but also what it would be like to be the first person to do three Dragon Back Races, so when Shane said, 'Just think, you'll be the first man to run two DBR;s'  I could help but share my thoughts. I think people may have been a bit surprised at my arrogance.

Off down the road and onto the first climb. Shane had done a great job of finding and excellent off-road route instead of the long road section to Llandovery. With another warm day on the cards, it was shirt off time before 8.30am and a great morning trundling along.  Well aware that I was the last to set off, I hoped to avoid the cameras and looked forward to reeling in a few people.  The legendary athlete Wendy Dodds was the first I passed. I slowed to exchange encouragement, with Wendy self-diagonising  acute shin or ankle problems, but she was moving at a good marching pace with trekking poles flying speedily.

I was running steadily. Chris B-H was next in my sights but as I slowed right down to talk with him he reached for his ear piece and started making a phone call. I assumed from his tone it was a call to his wife, and he wasn't feeling too good, so I gave him a big 'thumbs up' and pushed on.

Another good road section, then a long steady climb lead to the day's Half-way point on the lower slopes of The Black Mountains.  I'd passed a few more people and gained the hour or so on Dubie and Chi. They set off just ahead of me, as I had a quick re-fuelling stop, including the first of the days Choc Ices from the wonderfully accommodating Charmian and Linda.  The Spanish Dragon and other half-day runners had started here so I was now among the thick of it.  My most memorable image was several of the Spanish wearing their Berghaus Goretex Jackets despite the warm sunshine, and warm enough for me to be shirtless.

I was still on a mission, even running slight uphills on tarmac and forest road. I caught Chi and Steve and we passed many people who were resigned to their daily trudge. I tried to raise a few spirits but when minds are resolutely set in survival mode it's a difficult task.

It's along climb onto Fan Fawr. Chi had dropped back but 'Dubie' had pushed on with me and was intent on pacing me to the finish whilst I was still now wanting to race to the end. It remained clear and sunny, but a little breeze and with the mid-day sun potential burning me I put my shirt back on so as to not scare too many people. I only wish I'd put it on earlier!

The roller coaster ridge heading West gave absorbing running, amazing views as well as some thought provoking navigation.  One or two people, Dubie included, made a few assumptions and poor micro route choices so I was gaining a few seconds with each mile, and was still pushing the pace. For one brief moment I glimpsed the finish point, Castle Crennan, away in the distance perched on it's loft escarpent in the valley a few miles distant but quickly looked away.

Dubie and I had Steve Wathall and Max Howard in our sights at the last road crossing; an impromptu drinks station manned by the respective spouses.  The extra support point was welcome due to the heat and dry limestone terrain and so after another Choc Ice and plenty of water wet set off to catch Steve and Max.

For another hour or so we continued to push the pace in the company of Steve and Max and into the late afternoon sun. No-one was giving an inch and at some point my mood went from racing into a mellow state of cruising to the finish in the great company of some fine athletes.

I'd waited twenty years for this moment; twenty years ago Dubie and I had finished here but only after Dubie had hopped and hobbled the last few hours to the end after putting his leg down a rabbit hole and severely damaging knee ligaments. This was a moment to be savoured.

Is This The End?

The DBR finish is in a very stunning location, very dramatic and it was a beautiful early evening.  Finishing the race was a huge mixture of relief and satisfaction but also sadness that it was all over.  But, in many ways, it wasn't all over. There were several more runners still out there and yet to finish, and you don't get to enter there without to one hell of a week's effort.

A little while after I'd finished, I descended to our overnight camp below the ramparts of the Castle, had a quick change, tea, soup and more tea.  I was keen to spend as much time as possible back at the finish inside the Castle's walls so re-climbed the hill back to the Castle, passing the small visitor centre where the race download and admin was taking place and also where the Race Banquet was due to be served. The centre was busy with people talking excitedly about their week and the Spanish contingent were well into the partying for which they are famed....

I didn't feel like 'partying' and certainly not feel like drinking beer until we'd all finished safely.  There was one person yet to finish as Wendy Dodds was still out there.  As darkness really took hold, Wendy's head torch came into sight as she resolutely marched her away up the hill and into the Castle and a very warm and respectful welcome.

Now it was time to Party ... if we had the energy.


There is no doubt it was a very tough week, a race way off the scale in many ways, and Shane should be applauded for having the audacity to stage it.  I think every one learnt at least a little and some a lot.

The work, support, time and effort that the event staff contributed was enormous and I'm only sorry I din't have time to get to know many more of them.  I had two good friends working alongside Shane and having spoken to them since I am well aware of extra and unseen graft that people got through.

Will it happen again?  Will I be there in 2015? I hope so....


The coach trip north ....

Monday, 17 September 2012

Terrex Sting - Stirling

NAV4 / Distant Horizons 
- Dave Atkinson, Louise Wilkinson, Sharon McDonald, Joe Faulkner

We had a ball. The terrain we covered and the countryside we saw made for a very enjoyable journey. Expedition racing is often like a big game of patience – sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the first moves you make don’t help and you can undo it....

Our prep had gone well – basing ourselves at The University and having an apartment for the four of us really paid off and we were well rested and prepared.  The prologue wasn’t quite the smooth affair that we had hoped for; Sharon had severe attacks of cramps from the frantic dash downhill on the trail run and I was nursing a knee injury and not wanting to run anywhere. Doubly annoying, I over shot an Orienteering control when going very well for a good ‘clean’ run and had to re-locate losing a good five minutes along with a very confused young lady who was helping me look for a different control. Hey-ho.... it’s only the prologue!

OK, Monday Morning - Let's Race

Monday Morning Start and a 10km run. It was good to see Mountain Hardwear ease into the race just as we did.  Exped racing is all about pacing (or so it should be) and so we adopted a steady pace for the first MTB ride. I was shocked at the speed of some teams coming past us on the road, each with one or even two team members working hard to stay on the wheel of their team mates, at the back of the groups that formed. Typically we tend to over take them with good navigation, but perhaps we had the pace wrong and they the strategy right? Was this a stage race in disguise?
Good things come in small packages. Rowing is easy – if you have two people with the same sense of rhythm and stature. Dave and Sharon were our key rowing pairing.  We had decided to drop two early MTB controls both located on cols which would require ‘hike-a-bike’ sections and accept the 2x 90mins penalties.  The alternative was a quick spin up the glorious Sustrans trail along the old railway line which put us at (Trans 1) Killin well up with the leading (full course) teams, and in much better shape for the trek stage to come.
Trekking is our forte and we cleared this with ease, enjoying the Tarmachan ridge in daylight and meeting Adidas Terrex coming the other way, and shortly afterwards FGS. We rightly assumed Mountain Hardwear were ahead of us and going clockwise on the trek, hence their is no correct way to do this stage.  A quick exchange of ‘Well Done’ to both teams and then into the darkness passing several slower and less navigationally able teams who had short routed the trek. We cruised back down into transition to snatch some sleep before the 3.00am opening of the Loch Tay paddle stage. Unexpectedly we later learnt we had a 46min time credit for clearing the stage and arriving early; a factor we hadn’t expected.

Loch Tay

Initially paddling on the Loch was great fun, as it was very dark and calm, with a small moon and a long way to go. Paddling with torches off was mellow and surreal. Our paddling skills are good, especially our technical moving water skills (thanks to Distant Horizons, for coaching and training input) although we suffered during the cold dawn of a flat water paddle on Loch Tay and the inevitable ‘sleepmonsters’ which required a twenty minute power snooze on the Loch shores. Here, I tried to develop the technique of sleeping with my thumbs up as whilst it was nice to know that other teams and safety crew were concerned for us in our four man bivi-bag, we didn’t need rescuing or assistance, and their constant – ‘oh look another team ... are you OK’ prevented any proper sleep.
Lesson 1 – don’t ask a team who are sleeping – 'Are you OK?' 
Note to self – find a more secluded spot and take a big sign saying ‘We are OK’ ?

The River Tay was great fun. It was raining fairly heavily during the river section and it was a relatively  high level and so easier than our recce trip (by complete chance we had done this section before) Dave and Wilko are a regular paddling partnership and having paddled miles together they work really well, look great and take some excellent lines. Sharon also proved to be an excellent ‘bow person’ and although we hadn’t paddled together as a pair before the race, she dug in and performed excellently.  We all enjoyed the fast descent and arrived in Aberfeldy in good spirits, especially as we didn’t need to paddle the Grandtully rapids like last time we were here.

MTB to Bruar

Another quick transition and we were off on the bikes on what became an irritating beast of a climb over a col. It was the sort of track that you would cleanly ride on during a day ride but not in a race of this nature, in our condition.  Overall our pace was good; steady and sure with clean navigation and only a quick puncture repair to interrupt us. 
Next stop – Falls of Bruar and The Canyoning stage.  Due to a slow loch paddle and sleep stop, we had slipped towards the back of the ‘peleton’ but had a comfortable amount of time to do this stage in an hour or so, rather than take the four hour penalty.  Canyoning (ghyll scrambling in reverse) is a fairly perverse occupation although the benefit is that you get a good wash. It is a very dramatic gorge, and with quite a high water flow quite demanding at times, but there is always the nagging doubt that a careless knock to a knee of ankle could have serious consequences. It is fun, but doesn’t require a great deal of technical skill, unless of course you are required to over come fears and traumas such as Sharon’s previous accident which has left her suitably nervous and guarded.
As I say, the advantage is a good wash, so suitably refreshed it became apparent that we should ride the ‘short’ MTB section up the River Tilt valley, as we did not want to be chasing cut-offs and the penalties for missing next control on the ‘long’ route seemed justified. We had a good ride up The Tilt.  I realised I was riding my new full –suss bike in the dark for the first time, the team were riding well and in good spirits on a route which climbs steadily, and we passed one or two teams who seemed to be having a hard time.  Navigationally interest was maintained as we didn’t actually have a map for the middle section and there was a 12km section between the maps we had on the map boards. This was due to us originally intending to ride the long route, hence we had packed the short route maps away.  However, it is a massive valley, generally straight and difficult to veer from and I’d first walked this way thirty four years ago and a few times since.  The Falls of Tarf are a very distinctive land mark and featured on the next map section and so our arrival gave us a true fix of where we were.  It was now the wee small hours of a very dark night. The terrain over the watershed became more broken, boggy and tedious but we plough on passing another team who were hesitant in the wilderness. We appeared to ford the river several times before beginning the descent down in the Dee valley and the obvious features of Linn of Dee and then Mar Lodge.
I must mention that The Team were magnificent during these last few hours. I was out in the front, navigating and pushing the pace but aware that we were getting cold; there was a lot of unspoken communication as we knew we just had to get to Mar Lodge to get warm fed and sleep.

Mar Lodge

At Mar Lodge I needed sleep – good sleep and so the tent went up and we slept for about 90mins. I do find it difficult to sleep during races, especially in transition.  I woke to find Dave and Sharon raring to go on the Orienteering stage, and as better runners they took on the bulk of the 10km(?) course with Wilko and myself dong just two controls in an out and back route.  Overall it was a good plan. Wilko and I were back early and had time to sort ourselves out, change the tube on the suspect slow puncture, and fettle all the gear, including food for the incoming Dave and Sharon. It was during this time that were learnt Mountain Hardwear head pulled out of the race and Kim and Alex had taken over three hours to clear the ‘O’ course. With a time penalty of just 2.5 hours we had clearly made a strategic mistake but I was more worried how Dave and Sharon would feel and what mood they would re-appear in. Suffice to say they came back buzzing from a good run, and we took only positives from the stage.  Our overall stop involved food, drink, sleep and recovery and set us up for the next part of the race.

The next stage was a long MTB over Mount Keen, with the first part being a very enjoyable picturesque ride down The Dee valley passing Balmoral, and onto Ballanter. A good lunch was call for at Ballanter – excellent cafe bistro just by the river, and we bought some bike lube, got some air into Wilko’s dodgy tyre thanks to the nice shop keeper and his track pump. Oh and bought some more recreational drugs..... (Solphodine Plus)

Passing the short cut option to Glen Muick, I had a sense that we had chosen the wrong option for T6-7 in terms of racing strategy but we didn’t want to miss out on biking over Mount Keen, and it was too late to reverse our decision as the bike boxes had already gone to House of Mark.  We had a good ascent, again passing teams, although it was sad to see Ben ‘Monkey Boy’ Shannon suffering with an injury which would result in a ‘DNF for him and Shona Robertson.  A nasty cold squall prompted a brisk and amazing descent to House of Mark, and we were all going well. Another efficient transition, lubricated by a very nice and luxourious  fried egg but set us up for the start of the big trek.

Trek of Darkness and Bogs

Initially we seemed to go well, but as darkness fell the navigation wasn’t easy and I was struggling to cope with a lack of sleep. One or two poor lines convinced us to have a sleep and so we put the tent up (well just the one Lazer) and tried to get some sleep. Another team came past us, think the glow of lights was a checkpoint before carrying on into the gloom. Sleep was difficult; Dave can sleep anywhere and is as  warm as a radiator, soon pushing out the ‘zzzz’s. Sharon managed some sleep but Wilko gets cold easily and I was on the outside, trying to keep us from sliding down the hill and increasingly spooning with Wilks to try and get her warm, Indeed lying on top of her seemed to work the best!

Trek Part Two – Big Sunny Cairngorms

Just before dawn we packed the tent away and proceeded at a better pace and very efficiently. Unfortunately the next control, (25B) had been taken away by a previous team under instruction from the race control, as they thought we had passed by. But, it was a difficult thing to accept, it did affect our morale but we didn’t waste much time but it indicated that were very much at the back of the field and our race plan was going too well.  We went strongly through Glen Muick and up to Lochnagar passing another team and an ad hock pairs.  Just before the descent into the corrie of Lochnager we made the difficult decision to bin the scramble as it just appeared that the time involved would be greater than the penalty. It was then confusing as to whether the adjacent controls were ‘valid’ .... but the weather was good, scenery stunning and we took a fairly direct line to Glenshee and the safety control on the road crossing. Our mood was good. We were managing blisters and ailments well, still eating good food, and descended to Glenshee fast. Here, the Race Director was offering teams the option to bike from here over to Aberfeldy rather than do the last section of the trek. However, we are strong at trekking and believe in doing as much of the course as possible (even if it transpires that a short route option is more pragmatic) Off again on the west side of Glenshee we completed the trek with some strong lines through difficult terrain before an horrendously steep, wet and boggy descent into Glenfernate and the last few kilometres to transition.  Fortunately, our navigation was good and relative to other teams we were in good shape; Wilko’s blisters were getting bad but were containable and we were soon off on the bikes for what we thought would be a quick tarmac spin to Grandtully.  Unfortunately, the sleepmonters kicked in and I sent several minutes convinced I was on solo cycle touring on the island of Mull before waking up and getting a grip. The last bit of this ride over into Grandtully was a nightmare as it was difficult to find the start in our befuddled state and the trail was a lot worse than expected.

Sleep; Paddle The Tay

Our planned sleep time had been eroded to just another 90mins in the tent but did set us up for the last long paddle section down the Tay.  Once again we were paddling well, with good technical skills but we were slowing due to tiredness and somewhat due to motivation. It was an enjoyable paddle; scenic and not to boring on the flat bits.  We opted to bin the Orienteering stage at Dunkeld shortly after starting it as I decided it would take more than the 1.5 hours penalty awarded to it, especially in our sorrow state. I was humbled by Wilko’s effort to get out there armed with her trekking poles but it just looked too technical, and my choice of foot wear (crocs and wetsuit socks) not suitable for the off-road terrain. Team ‘Scarfe’ were just finishing and I think Jackie said they had taken 1hr 20mins, so I think it was a ‘good call’, even if it was not very satisfying.

MTB to Stirling Finish

Back on the river the enjoyable paddle continued past some very grand houses until a relatively sudden arrival in Perth.  Another quick transition (paddle bags and team ‘wet’ bag really helped through out) and we were out on the bikes for the undulating ride mainly on small roads. This was a pleasantly and surprising good section. The tarmac ride allowed use to ride close together and enjoy each other’s company rather than battle single track stuff. We were able to help each other and navigate on the move very efficiently.  A last little hill over and into Stirling was a fitting finale, but too much speed and complacency led to a small error as we dropped into Bridge of Allan opposite the Cafe Bistro we had eaten lunch in nearly a week before, so we had a couple of kilometres along the road instead.  The full course team Salomon / Running Free came alongside us on the proper route and we rode with them for a while before pulling back and letting them have the moment of glory on the finish line. We cruised in a few minutes later, all in good spirits, a little battered and sore, but overall pleased with our expedition.

This was a very good team performance with a good application of skill, strategy and pace. It wasn’t our finest result but that’s somewhat irrelevant. We had a great time and went to some amazing places. We will go back and complete the bits we missed certainly the MTB ride into Glen Feshie, and it has inspired me to get back into the bigger mountains on bike and on foot.

Many thanks,

Joe Faulkner
NAV4 / Distant Horizons