Monday 27 September 2010

Great Langdale ½ Marathon

Friday night camp
On the day before the race we camped in the Langdale Valley at a beautiful, well hidden spot we haven't used for years and were pleased to find it hasn't changed one little bit.  The site is not on any map, nor is there any sign at the entrance. Even when you drive into the yard scattering the geese and assorted poultry there is no evidence of anywhere to camp. To find it you have to pass through another two gates into an east facing field that catches the early morning sun.  The sum total of facilities amounts to two loos and one very cold water tap. The cost is £3 pppn.  What more could we want?
The afternoon was spent walking one of the hillier parts of the race route, returning past a tranquil tarn dotted with waterfowl against a backdrop of  towering Langdale Pikes. Dusk fell as we fuelled our bodies with a delicious chicken risotto. Soon, a full moon was sailing across the sky, the Plough stood upright against the dark wall of night pointing to the Pole star, an owl hooted in the distance and the campsite dissolved into eerie silence.

Hard work up the 1 in 3 hill to Blea Tarn
We rose at 7.30am to find the field covered in white frost, but the sun was soon on our tent imparting a cosy warmth. Breakfast was a huge pan of porridge laced with sugar and sultanas for both instant and slow release energy. By 9.30 the tent was packed and we were on our way to the race venue outside the New Dungeon Ghyll hotel in Great Langdale where crowds were already gathering. We had two hours to psyche ourselves into a positive frame of mind to tackle the strenuous course, perhaps the toughest but most scenic ½ marathon road race in all England. At such times I gaze at the friendly hills and tell myself this is where I belong, this is my stage, this is where I was born to be, this is where I perfom.
We were surrounded by tall, craggy monoliths many of which I'd climbed on, or raced over, in bygone years - such giants as Raven Crag, Pavey Ark, Pike o' Stickle, Harrison Stickle, Bowfell, Pike o' Blisco, Gimmer Crag and Lingmoor - names that read like a litany to dedicated mountaineers and fell runners. Conditions were absolutely ideal for running, cloudless skies, brilliant sunshine, clear views and just a hint of cooling breeze - but not quite matching the organiser's description as rivalling the Atacama desert for one of the driest places on the planet!  Shortly before 12 noon nearly 550 runners crowded the narrow road for the start of the race, 385 of them in the ½ marathon, the brave remainder set to complete two circuits of the course for a full marathon. After a brief pep talk, which nobody heard, a whistle blew and we were on our way.
Having been officially named as 'the oldest runner ever to run this race' I settled into a steady pace near the rear of the field trying to establish a regular rhythm over the first flat mile. For many of the newcomers who didn't know the route the next ¾ mile of 1 in 3 ascent to the head of the Pass into Little Langdale came as a severe shock and generated one or two choice expletives! I alternated little runs with fast walks and made it to the top feeling reasonably fresh.
My wonderful partner finishing 1st LV60
Descending the other side I found myself running beside a man I vaguely recognized but didn't speak as we were both in the process of getting our second wind. The road here was pleasantly undulating and I was moving fairly easily, perhaps a little too easy, but I was very much aware of another challenging hill I'd sussed out the day before, one that went on for 1½ miles from Skelwith Bridge to High Close Youth Hostel, and also with a 1 in 3 gradient at the start. However, I'd tackled much nastier hills than this in my fell running days so, apart from the initial steep 50 metres or so, I managed to run the rest of it and emerged at the top feeling good and strong. All that was left now was a steep downhill mile and an undulating 2½ miles along the delectable Langdale valley. This area is one of the most popular in the Lake District so there was quite a lot of enthusiastic encouragement and support over those last miles.  Such was this race's reputation that I'd felt a little nervous about running it, wondering how I'd cope with the 2,000ft or so of ascent en route, but I was still feeling strong as I switched into overtaking mode to move up the placings over the finishing stages. I wondered whether I'd taken it too easy at the beginning, whether I could have run it faster if I hadn't been frightened by the race's reputation? Maybe not, for if I'd pushed it earlier I'd probably be wilting towards the finish. I like to think I judged it just right!
The dynamic Longwood duo after the race
I crossed the Finish line feeling quite happy with my time of 2.01.56 - 213th of 385 finishers. My Garmin watch registered 2,888ft of ascent - but I don't believe it! My Anquet mapping system is perhaps nearer the mark with 2,276ft. One of my prizes, a book, accidentally got left on top of the car while the wine was being stowed safely away. So if anyone found it lying in the road somewhere in the Langdale valley, it's mine! Oh, and to crown a truly magnificent day my wonderful Longwood partner completed a memorable double as she duly romped home 1st LV60 in 2.23.35 - thus further boosting our stores of wine!  It had been a very memorable day indeed when both of us were magically 'raised to more than we can be'.
N.B. The chap I vaguely recognized descending into Little Langdale was, as I thought, Andrew Edwards of BBC Radio Leeds whom I'd corresponded with in the past but never met. It's nice to put faces to names. We'd a brief chat at the Finish during which I was introduced to his attractive wife and a friend of theirs, Annette Fraser from 'flat as a pancake London', who'd tackled the hills bravely to clock a creditable 2.05.51.  The long-legged Andrew in his trademark yellow shorts was just behind in 2.07.10.
Full results here

Friday 17 September 2010

Running high

Eiger - the smoking mountain
Switzerland has not had the best of weather this summer, which was bad for the tourist trade, but it turned good for us at the beginning of September. Except for one night of heavy rain that continued until lunchtime the next day we enjoyed warm sunny days for forays into the high mountains of the Bernese Oberland.  Farmers and shepherds were all busy cutting grass and there was a constant smell of new mown hay drying in the sun. But after sundown at 6.30pm it was bitterly cold, particularly at Kandersteg where we camped at 3,500ft above sea level.
Running the Eiger Trail
At Grindelwald we camped at the Eigernordwand site directly under the Eiger's towering and foreboding north wall.  We ran the Eiger Trail again as far as the glacier, trundled down a rough path to the tourist trap of Kleine Scheidegg, then swept gloriously back downhill to Grindelwald. Four American paragliders came floating down from the Eiger under their multi-coloured canopies, skimming the tree-tops and landing on the trail ahead of us.  "How the heck did you get up there" I asked.  "We climbed up!" was their simple answer.
At the Bachalpsee
We walked a circular route from Bussalp to the top of the Faulhorn and back via Bachalpsee and the rocky trail through Feld and Uf Spitzen. Marmots shrieked at us, black butterflies danced about our path, Alpine Choughs jostled for scraps at the Faulhorn restaurant and Ravens cronked across the craggy heights. Back at Bussalp cows and their calves mingled with tourists queueing for the postbus.
Top of Mannlichen with Jungfrau behind
We couldn't understand why we'd never been up the Mannlichen before on the longest gondola cableway in Europe, possibly the world.  It took half an hour to reach the 2,229m summit from which the views were truly breathtaking, particularly of the Eiger, Monch, Jungfrau and the Schilthorn with its panoramic revolving restaurant featured in the James Bond movie, On Her Majesty's Secret Service.  Six handicapped people in motorised wheelchairs were racing towards the viewing area, one of them accompanied by a wee terrier determined to get there first.  We haven't a clue how they got up there! We returned to Grindelwald by the Romanticaweg, a winding path through heather, juniper and tall pines where woodpeckers were feeding on the open cones. Grasshoppers rasped in the warm sunshine while Marmots proclaimed their territorial rights from the shadowy slopes of Tschuggan.
The Gallihorn
Kandersteg is a little higher than Grindelwald. It doesn't have the Eiger towering over it but is surrounded by a host of other tall mountains, First, Stand, Bunderspitz, Gallihorn, Bire, Blumlisalp, Frundenhorn and Doldenhorn, so its hours of sunshine are somewhat limited.  Normally, while camping, I'm up making breakfast at first light but there's little incentive to do that when the temperature is down to zero and the flysheet is dripping with condensation. On the only wet and windy night some hungry animal, most likely a fox, put three small holes in the tent in its quest to get at our food.  It failed.
Phallic rock tower on the Doldenhorn
The signpost at the start of the steep climb to the Doldenhorn hutte said '2 hours' but we did it in 1½, so reckoned we must be getting fitter.  We climbed way beyond the hut to get good pictures of a snowclad Blumlisalp and the leaning phallic rock tower on the Doldenhorn ridge. A falcon flashed past in pursuit of some smaller bird until the two became one.  Other birds, like large grouse with lighter bars on their wings, flushed from the scrubby scree ahead of us.  But strangest of all was something we 'thought' was a large bird travelling at great speed parallel to a high cliff on our way down. As it sped past we realised it was making a peculiar humming noise and was in fact some kind of missile.
Signing the visitor's book on the Gallihorn
On a day of nasty gripes and diarrhoea, and after a certain amount of washing, we climbed the Gallihorn, an impressive looking 2,284m peak directly overshadowing the town of Kandersteg. Emerging from a very narrow and rocky woodland path onto a wider trail we were confronted by a large flock of sheep about to be herded down that very path we'd just vacated.  Ahead were warnings of stonefalls and a diversionary path had been created. We ignored the diversion. A Marmot scurried to safety under a huge boulder.  The path rose to an exposed grassy tongue where a signpost said 'Gallihorn 30 mins' but it took us but 20 to stride onto its summit.  A cross had been erected alongside a huge cairn with a recess containing a visitors book.  Cloud drifted around us, intermittently clearing to give magnificent views of the great cleft of the Gasterntal valley, with the Bahnhorn towering over it, and the frightening vertical drop down thousands of feet to the town below.
On the Alpschelehabel
Though somewhat reluctant, in view of continuing nasty squitters and not being able to sleep in fear of further spasms, we set off next day to climb the Bunderspitz, a 2,546m peak over which the sun said goodbye to us each evening.  It was another gloriously sunny day so it was warm work toiling up its flanks.  Two hunters crouched quietly behind a large boulder were presumably waiting for the appearance of Steinbok. Eight other people had beaten us to the summit, including two small children! Since last year a new cross has been erected at the summit so, of course, it had to be photographed. Returning, we traversed round by the Bunderschrinde, onto a lofty lookout called Alpschelehabel where we ate lunch, then descended to the valley floor by the Allmenalp cable car.
Running round the Daubensee
On our final day of activity we decided, in view of an impending half marathon in the Lake District, that it was time to do a serious high level run.  We opted for a figure of eight route that included a circuit of the Daubensee, a lake who's surface is around the 2,224m contour.  To start this 11 mile run we took the cable car to Sunnbuel (1,934m) and in ½ hour were passing a deserted Schwarenbach Berghotel where a French waiter bid us a hearty 'Bonjour'. In another ½ hour we were commencing our run round the Daubensee passing richly clad tourists, mostly Germans, invariably clicking along with a pair of trekking poles.  I'll admit, I've never come to terms with trekking poles which, for the majority of people, are totally unnecessary and little more than a gimmick.  At an exposed section a couple hanging onto a wire cable for support seemed quite shocked when I slid past them on sloping rocks without breaking stride!  At that height it was bitterly cold so it was imperative, wearing only minimal running clothes, to keep moving.  Pretty soon, the circuit of the lake was complete and we were heading back to Sunnbuel by a much less used, but longer, trail. We missed our scheduled cable car by a mere minute but luckily the sun was at its height, warming our bodies and drying sweaty clothes.
Bums and Blumlisalp
There were other things we did in Switzerland and other places we went.  I haven't worked out how many thousands of feet we climbed but it must have been one heck of a lot, all in the most breathtaking scenery and mostly in warm sunshine. On reaching home my scales told me I'd shed 5lbs of blubber but whether this was due to much increased activity or problems with my plumbing I'm not sure. Probably a combination of both.
At current exchange rates it was a fairly expensive holiday but for outdoor enthusiasts who love the high places it's as good value for money as you'll get anywhere.  Roll on next year!

Wednesday 1 September 2010

August bank holiday

Hebden from the crag

It's almost time for our Swiss holiday so this will be my last post for two or three weeks.  On Thursday we're flying to Zurich then catching the train to Grindelwald where we'll camp in the shadow of the Eiger.  Hopefully, weather permitting, we'll run the Eiger Trail again, climb a few mountains, refresh ourselves at some choice Alpine Club huts and enjoy all the wonderful country has to offer. 
Knock down Ginger

But in the meantime we've been going through the motions of getting ourselves fit.  During the August Bank Holiday another twenty four miles went into the running bank, four of them at sub seven minute mile pace, so the old legs are beginning to move a bit quicker again.  Also, my running diary tells me I've clocked up 124 miles during August, an average of 4 miles per day, so hopefully some stamina should be coming back too.
The barbecue men

Hebden Sports took place on Monday but I was a mere spectator whilst my wonderful partner dispensed gallons of tea to thirsty spectators and competitors. This annual event attracts visitors from far and wide, amongst them an enormous number of children who have a whale of a time competing in the various novelty and fell races roared on by enthusiastic parents.  There are games and side shows for parents too, and much local produce to be bought, but the highlight of the day, for me, is the senior fell race that takes place in the late afternoon. It's a mere 1½ miles, to the top of the crag and back, but involves a couple of high walls with deep drops on the landing side. 
Climbing the crag

This race is a little beyond my septuagenarian capabilities but invariably I'm there taking photographs of runners toiling up to the white stone that marks the summit. This year I was given the job of counting competitors off the crag so I'd to concentrate a bit - not easy when plagued by millions of man-eating midges and trying to take pictures of specific people! When the last runner passed I couldn't get off the crag quick enough, beating them back to the field and clapping them across the finish line.  Maybe I will do the race one day - if a couple of gaps can be conveniently arranged in those intimidating high walls!