Saturday, March 27, 2021

Leeds Country Way 3-Day

I normally only blog about events, but there's been precious few of those happening in the past years, so I guess I have to make my own entertainment!  I've spent the last three days running/walking/jogging/shuffling the Leeds Country Way, a just-shy-of-100km lap round the outskirts of the city. This was supposed to be a shake-down for the Great Lakeland 3 Day on the May bank holiday weekend, but it's been postponed until August, so really it was just a way of using up some leave days and seeing how I coped with three solid days on my feet - no rushing, no racing, no major stress, just a way of getting out and about for a while. While the 'stay local' fit was maybe a bit tenuous, I can at least say I didn't leave the city!

Day 1 - Golden Acre to Woodlesford - 37km, 6:23

Harewood House
Mainly known trails, through Harewood and across the fields to Bardsey, ticking off the roads I was crossing as I meandered around the north and east sides of the city. Stopped in a little sheltered patch of sunshine for some food and to air my feet out - I'd had some blisters on one foot recently and was keeping an eye on them carefully. Crossing the A64 and trotting down into Barwick-in-Elmet to the maypole where you'd finish Day 1 if you were doing a 4-day split of the route, grabbing a coffee and a top-up of water and juice from the village shop. A little bit of 'new to me' path and then back onto known ground across Barnbow woods, over the motorway, into Garforth and down the Lines Way (old railway) for a little while. Horrible stinking section of gravel track past Brecks farm - I'm assuming they were either spreading or stirring the slurry pits - then past Swillington and a little sit at a picnic site where it seems the local entertainment is shooting airguns at signs. Another gentle trot along the roadside then lanes round the edge of St Aidan's nature reserve to finish just outside Woodlesford. Stop the watch, shamble up to the station and get the train back home.

Day 2 - Woodlesford to Morley, 29km, 6:11

Remains of Howley Hall
A less pleasant day. Some nice sections of trail, but poor signage, blistered feet and the ever-pervasive hum of the motorways - you never really get out of earshot of the traffic through this section and it's a constant reminder that while you're outside, you're not completely away from it all. Aiming for Morley but with a couple of other get-outs marked on the map just in case it was all going south - it never totally did, but I wasted a lot of time having a quiet word with myself at far too regular intervals. Really, really poor signage: sometimes utterly non-existent at intersections, sometimes there's places where the LCW shares paths with other trails - Trans-Pennine, Kirklees Way - and there isn't even a sticker or disk to indicate the shared trail. A lot of feeling rubbish but actually making steady progress, a stop for lunch and to sort my feet out near Thorpe on the Hill (and my one trig pillar of the three days) - and to put headphones on to get away from the drone of the motorway traffic. A fairly uninspiring trudge round West Ardsley reservoir before some much more inspiring running past the remains of Howley Hall and through Cliff Wood to Howden Clough road and a short shamble to my finish line for the day. Stop the timer and shuffle the couple of km to Morley station - not the best.

Day 3 - Morley to Golden Acre 31km, 5:28

Cockers Dale
With the feet sorted a bit more definitively - took the decision to lance and tape the blisters in the morning, and should probably have done so sooner - and a later set-off time to wait out the early rain and a much better day. An urban trudge to begin with gave way to the nicest sections of trail of the week, through Cockers Dale and then up Pudsey Beck, following the meandering stream through the woods in peace and quiet and sunshine, past little gravel beaches, pools and sections of water that as a kid I would have loved to play in, build dams in, sit and splash in, that kind of stuff. Across the railway at Duckett's Crossing and into Thornbury on the Leeds-Bradford road, a quick dive into McColls to grab snacks and a top up of water and juice and over the road to sit at the sunny edge of a cricket pitch for lunch. Another fairly pleasant 6km or so round Calverley golf course and onwards to Apperley Bridge and back into 'known ground' with 10km left to go. A steady trot along the river bank to Cragg Wood and then starting the horrible climb back out of the valley. A small rainbow greets me at the top of Hunger Hills as I message the other half with "I can see the 'ouse from 'ere!" - shame I have to run the best part of 5km past it.  Past Trinity uni, down and across the fields I've been running regularly for a year now, across Moseley Beck and the little snotbag of a climb up from it, round the cricket pitch, across the road and into Pinfold Lane and the final mile of very well known trail, down to the tunnel to stop the clock: LCW completed over 3 days: 97km, total time 18hrs 2mins.

Start ...
... middle ...
... end!

Overall, pretty happy with how it went, as a shakedown and kit test. Niggles with my feet, sore ankles and some shuffling round of equipment, but all in all a lovely and relatively successful three days out on foot exploring and playing, which was pretty much what I needed it to be! Splitting over 4 days would have made for less foot pain I think, but was harder for public transport - car shuttle wasn't really an option and using trains made for easier access than buses. It all worked out alright in the end though.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Misadventure Racing - Open5 Cracoe

24hrs after finishing this year's Open5 and I'm still trying to mentally process some of what happened yesterday- hopefully writing it down will help with that! Despite the weather and everything going on around the UK with Storm Ciara, I'm not questioning any of the decision to go, to race, to head out into the teeth of it at all, I guess I'm just trying to get my head round the day as a whole and how it went. A very race-focussed summary would be "respectable distances, travelled a bit slow, didn't score many points", but that summary would completely miss the point of the day and the whole gamut of experiences had during it, so we'll ignore times, distances and points for now and just get on with the writing.

First things first - I was racing in a pair for once, rather than soloing like I usually do. Psychologically that usually makes it a little bit easier, having someone else to share the day with. The wrinkle this time was that it was my teammate Rachel's first adventure race, and with the forecast looking the way it did I was feeling guilty and nervous about dragging her into it. Not, I hasten to add, that I had any doubts whatsoever about her ability - I've biked and boated with her before and think we were both pretty aware of each other's abilities and mentality towards sport - just that, if we had a really bad time of things I was acutely aware that I was responsible for getting us into this mess and I would also feel that I was very much responsible for getting us out of it.

In the briefing, not paying attention. Pic: James Kirby
With the race being up in the Dales it was less than an hour's drive from home, so early start, coffee and pancakes for breakfast, and Rachel and Col Henderson came round to mine so we could car share up to the venue.  We loaded up about 7:15am and set off for the Dales. There was a lot of standing water on the roads, and it was still raining and windy, so most of the chat in the car was spinning yarns about other races or going "Why are we doing this again?!" - the type of chat that is always couched jokingly but has that edge to it of "No, genuinely: Why are we doing this?". I've never managed to get to the bottom of that one, even just for why I do these things.

We got to Cracoe village hall and parked up, registered, picked up our maps, grabbed a brew and sat down to try and get a plan together. Sitting in on one of James T's newcomer briefings was good, Rachel listened in to the maestro himself while I scribbled things on the map, highlighting the possible bike routes and crossing out things I knew to avoid. Parts of the bike area intersected with stuff we'd ridden on the Grassington race back in April 2018, so I remembered what some of the trails were like back then when it was drier (and the bit I made a massive nav cock-up on, ho-hum...). There'd been a couple of tweaks and a change to the format in the run-up to the event, with the run start actually being over at Malham, making it bike-run-bike rather than just two stages. One of James's tips for newcomers was to head pretty directly to the run transition, then pick up bike points on the way back. "It's about 20mins direct by road" was a phrase that had popped up in a pre-event email, in some eerily rubbish foreshadowing, but I'll come back to that...

We faffed. Well, I'll rephrase that, I faffed. It took me ages to get my shit together, so we ended up being some of the last to start at about 9:50am. We dibbed out, got the description sheets and sat down to fine-tune our plan, though with only one dummy CP (which we hadn't planned to go to anyway) it didn't take much fine tuning. We set off to do what James had suggested, that 20min leg direct to Malham for the run...

Bike #1: 16.32km / 239m ascent / 1:47:53

Within a mile of the start we hit the first bit of flooding, just coming into Hetton, so we rode through what we could and waded what we couldn't. All of the local becks were out of their banks, and the roads were getting inundated as the field drains couldn't cope. Things were pretty grim, the wind was high and the odd squally shower lashed down, and it was all a bit uncomfortable, but we were out and moving and not too cold, so we pushed on as best we could.

Not us, but the section where I came off. Pic: James Kirby
Descending relatively rapidly to Winterburn we turned right and crossed what I presume was a bridge, where some people were sat on a farm quad bike, and they shouted something I didn't quite hear as I turned past them to drop into the next flooded section. This bit was bad, the beck wasn't just out of its channel, it was most way across the next few hundred metres of field. We pedalled on as far as we could, then a little slip made me unclip and step off the bike to push. As I put my foot down I realised just how fast the water was flowing down the road. It wasn't too deep - shin to knee-ish - but we could have easily kayaked down it without putting in a paddle stroke. Rach stepped off her bike as well, looking as concerned as I was. There's a moment of slightly panicky confusion from both of us, and the next thing I know I've taken a spill, the two bikes are tangled together and floating downstream, and my right ankle is trapped in the frame triangle of one of them, so I'm being gently dragged along a country road on my backside by a pair of floating MTBs. Not really what I'd call a highlight of the day!

I relaxed and went with it for a while: while inconvenient, there was no immediate danger, the water wasn't deep enough for my head to go under and I was sitting upright. As the gradient eased and the flow subsided a bit I managed to dislodge myself from the bikes, pick myself up, and get back on my feet, while the two errant steeds drifted along a bit further. Rachel caught us up, and we waded along toward where the bikes had finally come to rest. Picking them up, Rachel's bars had twisted to one side and one end had been ground down a bit by the submerged tarmac, but there seemed to be little other damage aside from having ground the backside of my waterproof trousers, so we waded out of the flood and found a slightly sheltered place to do running repairs and sanity checks (none found: situation normal). Bars realigned, a quick breather, some food, and a mental note to myself to try not to do that again and we were off, climbing sharply, looking at the map and hoping the Aire wasn't misbehaving around the bridge between Calton and Airton - if it had been we would effectively have been trapped if we stayed low, and the winds weren't making going up higher that appealing an option. Fortunately, the bridge was well clear, and we trotted along nicely towards Kirby Malham, nipping up for an out-and-back to our first CP above 'Windy Pike' - funnily enough it was windy there - and onwards to the run transition at Malham itself, over an hour and three quarters after we set off. So much for 20 flipping minutes...

Around the gate at Malham Cove. Pic: John Bamber
Seeing Jim R at transition was amusing. There was questioning snort as I showed him the patches missing around my derriere, so I told him the story - now being at the point of finding it vaguely funny rather than slightly scary. We dropped our bikes and swapped kit over, having both ridden with our running vest-packs (containing all the mandatory kit) in larger bags along with a few spares and extras. As we made to leave the field I realised I still had my bike helmet on. And then a second later, that I still had my bike shoes on as well - evidently not quite with it.

Run: 4.79km / 143m ascent / 0:49:49

Down from the cove, still smiling! Pic: John Bamber
A quick swap into my X-Talons and we trotted out of transition and up the road towards Malham Cove, with one (moved) CP in the village which we managed to run right past and then come back for. Headed to the Cove itself and seeing John Bamber marshalling/taking pictures and Col coming back the other way from the Cove CP itself, he seemed to be moving well and looked happy. We headed up to the checkpouint, with it being strapped to the root of a tree right next to the Cove wall and only a few inches out of the rushing water, aren't we glad SportIdent boxes are waterproof! The next CP on our vague plan, CP26, would have meant crossing Malham Beck, and Malham Beck was in full spate. Whether a consequence of the earlier spill, over-cautiousness brought on by being a kayaker, or whatever, but we deliberated briefly then canned it. The old stone footbridge was fully submerged, nowhere to be seen, and everyone we saw cross at any point went at least chest deep. The CP was a high scoring one, but it just wasn't worth it for us, so we switched routes and switched our route round to climb up to CP21 and then headed back to the transition. We discussed options on the way, and knowing how hard the conditions had been getting to Malham, we opted to keep the run short and make the most of the time getting back to base. Food at transition, a quick chat, then back onto the bikes and up!

Bike #2: 19.39km / 337m ascent / 2:09:38

We climbed steeply from Malham up Malham Rakes, headed towards the tarn and the top of Mastiles Lane, with one CP on the way up the climb, one up on the Roman earthworks near Street Gate, and a few options to either zig-zag if we were so inclined, or head fairly straight if we felt we needed to. The wind had dropped a fair amount, the showers had all but stopped, and there was even a hint of blue sky, so it was much improved from when we'd exited the hall three hours previous. Climbing up the tarmac was a drag, but part way up we realised we'd have a tailwind for a good chunk of the lap home, giving a mental boost as well as a bit of assist. Turning on to Mastiles we dropped down to Gordale Beck and the ford there. We'd seen a pair ahead of us cross, but there was a lot of water coming down, so we stopped, looked, looked some more, and I started walking towards the water to test it out.  "Erm, Carrick? Can we try a bit further upstream?" came the voice of reason from Rachel. Directly below the ford there was a hanging gate/barrier as a boundary. Again, maybe the over-cautious side of being kayakers, but with the volume of water that gate was forming a really unpleasant looking strainer. If either of us had slipped in the ford, it could have been pretty unpleasant, so we hiked upstream 30 yards or so to give ourselves some leeway, crossed at a slightly wider patch where the flow was less strong, then hiked back down the wall at the far side to the gate. We shouted back to a pair that arrived behind us that we'd seen others cross there but had opted to go upstream ourselves, and let them get on with it. They came past us a few minutes later, they'd crossed fine but agreed that it was hard work.

Roman Camp in the sun! Pic: Eddie Winthorpe
Up at the Roman Camp, we met a Roman! Not really, we met Eddie and his teammate, dibbed in at the CP, and of course Eddie starts rummaging in his pack for a camera. Since the showers had subsided and the sun had come out a bit it was actually quite pleasant for once, so we chatted and did the 'I'll take one of you two if you can take one of us' before they headed off and we trundled onward as well. The grassy trail was hard going, slippery and lightly rutted, so going wasn't as quick as it could have been. We both agreed that the tailwind was lovely, except for when a side gust hit Rachel and launched her off her bike - if there'd been a headwind, especially with the sodden ground, I think we'd have been going backwards in tears.

We canned the zig-zag options and turned right at CP3 to head onto tarmac down to Threshfield, pick up 3 more CPs and leave CP13 as an option. It was nice to be going downhill, fairly fast, and to be out of the wind a bit, but we were going to be running tight on time. We picked up CP14, headed along the more major road and over the slippy, leafy lane to CP10, then made for the road back home - through, of course, one more section of flooding. The wind, of course, had decided it had been far too nice to us across the tops and was now blowing in our faces, just when we needed it least. We were pushing hard along the road, gritting our teeth, when all of a sudden there's a shout from behind me - a momentary chainsuck and Rachel's chain is jammed up on the stay. Quick maintenance, un-jam the chain, jump back on and we go as hard as our legs will manage, up into Cracoe village and along to the hall, dibbing in to the finish utterly, utterly done.

Finished and knackered. Pic: James Kirby
We were a touch over time - 5:07:06 - so 16 penalty points, but I really couldn't care less. We finished, we had a good day, we're both still smiling, and it's been a hell of an adventure. Rachel gets collared by Rob from SleepMonsters - since he knows I'm racing with a newcomer and wants to "see what lies he's told you..." Jumpy and Rob both take photos of the worn-out back of my waterproofs (I'd kept them on, they were useful for windproofing from the front anyway!), we find Col with the car keys, get changed, get soup and cake and coffee from Joe, Hilary and Lindsey in the kitchen, and clap for the prize winners. Rosemary comes offering slices of her 20,000 career points cake - Rachel was slightly in awe, since we scored something like 180 before penalties - and we pack up and get ready to head home. Again, there's a mix of yarn spinning and "My god, look at that!" as we drive back looking at the flooding, the Wharfe up to the roadway on the metal bridge at Ben Rhydding, a stop pretty soon after that we assume is more flooding on the low section just before the Menston roundabout, so we turn round and go up and over the Cow & Calf and the back of the Chevin. Home, unload, say goodbye; dinner, bath, bed.

All in all, a cracking but pushy day for us and everyone else. Some of the worst conditions I've raced in for a very long time, but made better by good company, so massive thanks to Rachel for not calling me an idiot and bailing on me. A baptism of fire (or water, whichever you prefer) for her, but hopefully I haven't put anyone off trying Adventure Racing! As usual, also a massive thank you to James and all of the volunteers and team at Open Adventure for putting on the event - challenging day for the staff as much as the participants, so huge thanks.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Misadventure Racing - Open5 Burneside

(Pic: James Kirby)
Picture, if you will, the scene: It's a Monday morning in February. I'm at the day job, out at a Health Centre somewhere in the greater Leeds area looking, at the IT kit with a group of other people. We need to look at the server and network room, which is in the basement. I wince and make a few small 'erk' noises as I creak down and up the stairs. "You injured yourself?" someone asks, kindly. "No, just a bit sore from the weekend, I was racing." There's a short pause. "Oh yeah, what kind of race?". Oh dear...

...That's where it starts: Trying to explain that I was doing a 5 hour Adventure Race. Trying to explain what Adventure Racing is. Trying to explain that, in the grand scheme of Adventure Racing, 5 hours is a short race. Trying to explain that, no, it wasn't a special thing for charity, I do these things just for fun. If they haven't glazed over before this point, it's definitely imminent. I'm never sure whether "I was doing a 5 hour race" translates in the layman's mind to 'my god, this man's an endurance legend!' or 'jeez, that's a below-average marathon time!', though I'd suspect my physique points them more firmly towards the latter. Anyhow.

(Pic: Rob Howard /

Rewind 24+ hours and I'm up in the south Lakes, lining up to start this year's Open5 race. Yes, just the one. James and the lovely team at Open Adventure had opted to only put on a single Open5 this year, which is both terrible and wonderful: Terrible that there aren't more of them, of course, as they're great races and invariably a fun day out, though quite often that's been Type 2 fun; Wonderful that at least I don't have to try and come up with excuses for why I'm slow in several races this winter rather than just one. The one race was based out of Burneside near Kendal, relatively home territory for me, or at least ancestral territory. James had announced that the registration was at the Bryce Institute building, but the start was around 3 miles away, which immediately prompted searching in that radius for other likely start locations. I came up with two: either westwards over to Crook and towards Windermere and Whitbarrow, or northbound up to Staveley and into Kentmere and Sleddale. The latter seemed more likely, a better mix of laneways, bridleways and footpaths, and turned out to be the correct answer, which made me both happy and anxious. Happy because I know the area roughly, anxious because... well, I know the area roughly, and I know there's some hard riding - the Garburn Pass, for a start.

I'd had a nice chilled out day on the Saturday before the race: A leisurely brunch with the other half, a steady drive up to the Lakes, a quick stop at Wilfs for a cuppa, a dip into Wheelbase to pick up some last minute spares. Oh, and driving into Staveley spotting the yellow event arrows confirming where the transition area was. Sorry James, I wasn't deliberately peeking, honest. Then a quick trip down the road to Prizet to relatively luxury, a hotel for the night! The Travelodge made a lovely change from a Youth Hostel room, and afforded a rare opportunity for a catch-up with Rob, the bossman from SleepMonsters. A good chat, a pint and a pizza plus a good night's sleep and we were all good to go and in fact, would be in a rare position: with another SleepMonsters editor, Adam Rose, racing as well we'd have 3 SleepMonsters in the same location at the same time! That in itself is rare, the fact two of them were racing is even rarer.

3 SleepMonsters! Adam, Rob, Pyro (pic: Mick Kenyon)
Registered and browsing the maps I realised I was right to be both happy and anxious. There was lots of good riding up onto both sides of the valley and yes, there was a CP up on top of Garburn. There'd been some snow the week before the event which had melted in, coupled with a storm that blew through on the Friday and Saturday, so the ground was going to be wet under both foot and wheel - the upper reaches of the Kent looked like I should have brought my kayak. There were the usual ponderings about how long to commit to bike for/run for, which to go for first, whether to commit to the furthest CPs and loops. Bike-wise I'd decided I was fairly settled on a plan, run-wise there was a good cluster of half-a-dozen CPs relatively close to home that looked like a good start but extending off beyond them would take some commitment. I always like to play to my strengths so biked first to give myself the best chance I can with them.

MTB - 37.35km, 665m ascent, 2:51:00 -

On the go! Pic: Rob Howard/
The early going was steep but steady, I climbed gradually up the road and dog-legged back for a high point CP that I'd bypassed before climbing gradually along the gravel track and bridleway to the east side of Kentmere, across Staveley Head and towards Green Quarter. A brief decision, to out-and-back to CP17 towards Skeggles Water (no) or just continue to 16 on the ruin and move on from there (yes). From 16 another decision - drop down to 19 near Sadgill to have to climb back over the pass, or descend round Rasp Howe into Kentmere and head up the valley road to pick up 13. The thought of descending only to have to push over the pass to Stile End wasn't inviting, and sticking to the decent tracks and roads won out, and I dropped down to Kentmere and climbed somewhat more pleasantly on tarmac. I'd long decided that I wasn't going for the Garburn CP - only being worth five points cemented it - and one other CP looked like it could be a boggy slog for not much bonus, so after picking up CP9 above Kentmere and pushing hard down the road I stuck to decent tracks and tarmac lanes to loop round to Ings. Turning right off the main road to climb past Mislet brought back memories of slogging that way, much more broken, on a Man of Porage race a few years ago while headed for Ambleside: today's loop would be nicer but shorter, up the gravel track past Dubbs reservoir, the looping back round above Limefitt Park, past the pair who'd snakebite punctured on a rain bar that I just managed to bunnyhop, then back onto the road to descend and push hard all the way back to Staveley and transition.

Transition was alright, speed-wise. 18th overall out of 135 solos and pairs in 3:58, though probably half of that was getting wet bike shoes off and dry running shoes on. Elastic speed laces are great, but tricky when your fingers are cold and you can't feel your toes. We got there eventually, and trotted out with a comfortable two hours available for the run.

Run - 11.58km, 181m ascent, 1:52:09 -

Still on a bike. Pic: Rob Howard
I've been doing more running recently, something I always say I need to work on in the midst of these events. My local orienteering club has had a Night Score League going on over the winter, and I've made three of the five events, all 1hr Score format events on a Wednesday evening. With steady pace and decent nav I've been managing a steady hour reasonably well, so I was hoping that would stand me in good stead and I'd be marginally happier. What I forget is that my Wednesday night one hour run doesn't come after three hours of pushing reasonably hard on a bike. I trotted out of transition, up the road, over the bridge, and started walking steadily up the hill with both calves and thighs giving me gyp. I'd had a fairly noble aim of pushing for more than just the five nearest CPs, but started to realise that that wasn't going to be much of an option, as the path through the woodland round Piked Howe was slippy, technical and not overly runnable, and the fields above were slippy and sodden as you climbed. Despite the decent grip of the X-Talons, I was still sliding a lot, so trotted steadily. Alternating jog and walk as I felt one knee twinging intermittently, and I dibbed the last CP in the loop, in a six-stemmed tree down near Scroggs Farm, ready to head back to base a little bit disappointed with myself. Looking at my watch, I realised I had over 40 minutes left on the clock, and the indecision started again. There was one more easily accessible CP, along the main road towards Ings again. Not huge points, but a relatively flat out-and-back of about 4km total. I upped the walking pace, watching the pace reading on my watch - sub 9mins/km. I jogged a wee bit and checked again - a touch over 7mins/km. Hmmm. Right, decision made: Even feeling crap, a good steady walking pace would see me out to that CP and back inside time. It wasn't pretty, at all. I probably looked positively geriatric, glutes and hamstrings twanging, calves cramping, tabbing along at a modest clip, but I got there and turned back for home with 25+ mins left. Again, jog-walk-jog-walk-jog-walk until I was back in Staveley and trying for something akin to a sprint finish. Stuart Smith passed me in his van, and I'd love to say I drafted him but I'd be lying. Across the line to stop the clock, slump to the ground, change back into soggy bike shoes and get ready to ride the extra 3 miles back to the car and a large portion of Nav4 Chilli from Joe. Oh, the joys.

So, I ended up finishing in 4:50:15, 405 points, putting me 29th out of 59 male solos - perfectly mid-pack, which I can cope with. I even had my name pulled out of a prize draw hat at the prizegiving to win myself a nice new Haglofs windshell jacket. In the battle of the SleepMonsters, Adam beat me by five points and four places. He'd had a longer run than me first, but a slightly shorter bike. Would I have done anything different? Probably not. I could have picked up CP17 or 19 on the bike if the ground had been drier, but then would likely have missed the last CP on the run, so not sure it would have made much difference. While I'm glad I pushed for that last run CP, I would like to have got a little more out of the run leg in general - there were one or two CPs I could have added on but thought I'd have been more pushed for time, maybe I should have continued shuffling and tried to get them in.

Next up is - well, not another Open5 for this season! I've bravely or foolishly entered for the Northern Night Orienteering Championship on Ilkley Moor this coming weekend, so that's what I have to try and get my legs back into some semblance of shape for this week. After that, the Nav4 Daffy Run in March, which I'll definitely need my legs to be in some kind of shape for. All good fun and games, at least.



Wednesday, September 12, 2018

On Islands

For reference before I start, the general point of this blog is one particular race trip, and this is a rambling personal missive, not a race report as such. Consider yourself forewarned.

I've had a hectic few weeks, between the 9-to-5 and travelling to races, though that's not unusual. In amongst all of that was a long weekend out in the Western Isles, and I guess this is vaguely a short story about that trip. It's always hard to know where to start these kind of blogs: okay, this is just a blog about a specific event, but the history of that event and my relationship with that event go back a lot further than just the weekend itself. Anyway, I'll add lots of pics to make this a nice photo story and hopefully draw your eyes away from some of the drivel for a second or two...

So, once again, I was honoured to head out to the Outer Hebrides to shoot for organisers Durty Events at The Heb, a two day, 200km Adventure Race up in the Uists and Benbecula. The quick summary of that trip could be "had an awesome time, took some pictures, met some ace people, loved it", but that doesn't even scratch the surface of how I feel about the race and the place, which is more the point of this blog. The race report is up at SleepMonsters anyway - head over there if you want to hear the story of the race itself.

I first travelled to the Outer Hebrides in 1998 having just finished my A-levels, backpacking up the islands for a month with two of my best friends. It wasn't always the easiest trip, physically or mentally, but it's one that's stuck with me for many years and for many reasons. Not long after I got involved in Adventure Racing, met a bunch of people up in Scotland for a training weekend and ended up at the current race's predecessor, the Hebridean Challenge, in 2003. I was again blown away by the place, and made some new friends there who are still very good mates to this day, and mostly still racing in one form or another. One of them, Nonie, roped me in to race at the Hebridean Challenge in 2004 (blogged here - re-reading that now makes me a bit emotional!). I marshalled at it again in '05, raced again with Team Eat Cake in '06, and mixed marshalling, photographing and writing about it for SleepMonsters in '07 and '08, which turned out to be the last race under the Hebridean Challenge banner.

The old race takes some explaining: 750km, 5 days, teams of 5 is the headline figure, but again that doesn't scratch the surface of the logistical complexities. A mix of running, road biking, mountain biking, swimming and kayaking, relay style but with concurrent stages (ie, a run, a bike and a paddle starting and ending at the same points, next stage couldn't leave until all three incoming competitors arrived), bonuses for multiple people doing certain stages, handovers on tarmac only and tweaks like towing bikes/skates/scooters in to distant road-ends for outgoing runners to use boggle the mind. Never mind the logistics of getting five people, four bikes and a sea kayak into a single vehicle and out to the Islands themselves. Anyway, after the last Hebridean Challenge, I missed some intervening years of the Nav4 B2B adventure event, but headed back to the islands in some form or another regularly, evidently caught up in some kind of a minor love affair with the place. Then, some time in 2014 or 2015 I heard rumblings about a new race in the Hebrides. Paul McGreal, who I first met and loosely raced against back in 2004 when he was part of H4 (Hebridean Hash House Harriers), was planning a new race, a long weekend rather than a week, that involved no large vehicles and no additional qualifications: Leave the car at Mallaig, get the ferry out as a foot passenger, get bussed to the start, ride, run and paddle 200km over two days, then get the ferry home again. A great simplification, more accessible and manageable, and yet also a big enough challenge to make the journey worthwhile. The inaugural 'The Heb' race launched in 2016, and Paul very kindly invited me to photograph it. Because of (or maybe in spite of) all of the potted history above, I couldn't possibly refuse.

It's hard to put a finger on what pulls me back up to the Hebrides each year, especially since we rarely get consistently good weather - all three years of the race so far have had one good day and one not-so-good day. When the weather does blow up, there's precious little shelter and precious little respite, especially as a racer out on a bike or on foot - okay, it's a little better for me driving around taking pictures. But the weather adds something else, and that's a sense of community: the racers have to work together to beat it, have to tow each other along the beaches for physical support and huddle together and talk to each other for emotional support. The 'everyone meets up, travels together, camps together, eats together' ethos means people look after each other. Someone this year phrased it as something like "arriving as competitors and leaving as friends", and that's a pretty perfect description. I remember as a racer being told to 'get on the back' and draft a potential podium contender on a bike stage at the old race - I was no threat to his lead and evidently looked like I needed the help. The same happened this year, three podium contenders worked together to help each other out into a brutal headwind down the beaches to Orasaigh, shaking hands and splitting up after the hill CP, having put aside racing each other temporarily for the sake of all of them getting through the stage relatively unscathed.

The other thing that's always appealed about the races up there is the tactical side and the ethos that everyone can do as much or as little as they're able and still feel challenged. I remember Jon Brooke, when he was RD of the Hebridean Challenge, sitting with a novice team and talking them through their plans for day two, after they'd utterly flattened themselves on day one, trying to nail everything and running way, way over time. The same exists in the new race: you can pick your battles and people did, avoiding extra run CPs, avoiding the most technical sections of biking - the Hebridean Way sectors are tricky and slippy in places. Play to your strengths to succeed, and work out in advance (or change on the fly) what your measure of 'success' is: compete or complete. For a minority of people success means first place, everything else is failure. For a handful of others, success is a podium position. For some it's clearing the course. For the majority, just crossing the line is a win. That and working out how to Strip the Willow at the Polochar Inn after the race...

Most of all, though, what I think I love is the landscape. It's hard to describe as to a lot of people it's cold, open, bleak, exposed - especially when the weather is headed south. But that's the same as anywhere, and when the weather is good it's simply stunning. The whole place is wild, weatherbeaten, exposed, as you'd expect for a place bearing the full brunt of the north Atlantic. The Uists are a tricolour: the white beaches - usually deserted - the green strip of inhabited and loosely cultivated land in the middle, the red-purple heather of the hills behind.  Harris and Lewis are a little more muted, higher, rockier, more grey and mountainous, but with brilliant flashes of white beach in between - Seilebost, Riof, Bostadh. It's all bordered by blue, at least on a good day; more grey on a bad one, with that narrow line we call the horizon a very, very long way away. The Heb is subtitled 'race on the edge' and it's true: make a right turn while riding south down the beaches of South Uist and the next land you'd hit would be the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. I've never been there, but I reckon that's probably similarly wild, exposed and windswept.

Anyway, wrapping up this little sermon: If you've never been to the Hebrides, you should go sometime. I can ramble on about the place, but hey, I'm biased. Get a ferry out, see what you think, immerse yourself, be wild and windswept yourself, enjoy the views yourself. Maybe next year's Heb race? If so, I'll see you there. I'll be the slightly weathered looking beardy one with a pair of cameras and a faint grin.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Dirty Reiver

The Dirty Reiver is an event that's been on my radar since its first edition a couple of years ago. A big gravelly day out around Kielder Forest, it's had the kind of reviews that kind of appealed, in a slightly masochistic way, to my sense of humour. That said, I wasn't sure of whether I'd be capable of the 200km it entails - finishing was uncertain, and the weather turned out to be rubbish that year. I held off the first year, and vowed to enter the second.

Cotic X: Ready to roll
2017 came up and in went my entry to the newly announced 'Dirty 130', a two-thirds(ish) version of the Reiver, for those like myself who didn't want to commit to the 200. All well and good, with the late '16/early '17 riding going well until the Kielder Cross, my shakedown and fitness check event: that itself went well enough, but the weeks after were plagued with hip and lower back problems that despite stretching, physio, exercises etc, stopped me getting in any decent training rides from February through until April. With no chance of being able to get the fitness back in time, I emailed in to cancel my entry. No refund available because of the late notice, but the offer of a deferral to 2018 and, yeah, why the hell not. The rest of 2017 got a bit better, and I got a lot of the niggles squared out and dealt with, so as soon as entry for the 2018 Dirty Reiver opened, I emailed in and took up that deferred spot. The 130 seemed like the best option, a long day but maybe more within reach than 200km when it's still fairly early in the season. Winter was rubbish for training, but I've had some better rides and results in the Open5 Series, some good longer rides, especially over Easter, road riding with friends in the Lakes. I was still thinking of the 130km as a challenge (ie. Something where finishing isn't a certainty), as 130km would still be, I think, the longest single off-road ride I've ever done. But, my fitness was about right, my mindset was about right, and I reckoned it would be a good day out on the bike one way or another.

Registration mugshot. Pic: Endura
I took the Friday off work to get everything finalised, though I'd been gradually sorting gear out for a fortnight or more. Mandatory kit was simple but maybe bulky: small first aid kit, waterproof, lights, phone, water and food. A partial frame bag went on the bike that took the essentials and some extra mechanical spares. The weather turned from it's winter coat to beaming sunshine a few days before the event so the 3/4 Roubaix bibs got canned off my kit list and lighter shorts got added on. Feed bag full of sweeties on the top tube, small rucksack with a hydration bladder and a few other bits, saddle bag with tubes and multitool. I packed the camping kit and headed up to Kielder, stopping at Hexham for a cuppa and a sarnie on the way, in glorious sunshine and deep contemplation. I rolled up to Kielder Castle and registered, enjoying the day, the atmosphere and the fact that events like this are a small, strange, interlinked little world. With little else to do except pitch my camp and mooch around the Gravel Expo I got chatting with Andy and Bryan from organisers Focal Events (old acquaintances from the Porage events) and Stephen from 4Play Cycles in Cockermouth (who's worked on Rivers Ride), and then bumped into event photographer Andy H, who's also a Porageer. Word gets around, it seems. The Expo made for a nice little gazeboed village outside the castle, with a few offers and incentives to visit the sponsors and the Nomad Bar teepee to keep us refreshed while we were doing it - local First & Last Brewery supplying the ales. A bit of pottering, tent set up, kit checked and faffed with for the Nth time, a beer or two and it was time for an early bed.

I am not a number...
The alarm went off at 6am and I was already awake, others on the campsite being obviously earlier risers than me. It was a chilly, dewy start to the day, the campsite being pretty well shaded by trees first thing. Kettle on, porridge pot made up, coffee pot brewed and on with the biking gear; bibs and baselayer, knee and arm warmers, jersey, gilet and windproof, picking up helmet, Buff, gloves and glasses from the car as I headed to the Castle to line up. I'd thrown a bit of change in my gilet pocket to try and get another hot drink before the off, but never got the time as I was queuing for the toilets for too long!

With the best part of 1,000 riders to get across a two or three rider width gateway, there was a decent queue starting, even at 7am on the dot for a 7:30 start. Knowing I was in for a steady, conservative day I lined up near the back, chatted to a couple of riders around me and tried to shake some life into cold fingers under thin summer gloves. I hadn't realised yet that this wouldn't be the only time I cursed my gloves that day, but all I wanted here was slightly thicker ones. I started my Garmin as the start was sounded, but it took a good five minutes to make our way to the gate, hence the discrepancy between the Garmin time and my chip time for the day. We rolled out, down the hill from the castle, along the road for a short while before turning into the forest and onto the first gravel climb of the day.

The first 24km loop of the ride put a couple of things into nice positive focus for me. I was spinning away steadily, plodding along as I do, there were no really steep climbs, just long grinds on fairly decent gravel surfaces, and I was making time up on loads of people! Two reasons mainly: 1) so many people were puncturing, on both climbs and descents, and 2) so many groups of riders faff like crazy at the top of a hill. The first I'd seen before, on the Kielder Cross; whether it's wrong tyre pressures, losing comfort by having them too hard, dropping pressure for comfort but then flatting on rougher sections, it seemed to be unending. I was running 40c Nanos, tubeless, at 35-40psi and didn't have an issue all day, so that was a bonus. The amount of faff from some of the groups around me was amazing though, maybe only to those of us who predominantly ride solo, but it was eye-opening. At the top of every climb, there'd be a group of 5, maybe 10, maybe 20 riders pulled up, some eating, some repairing punctures, some drinking, some off weeing in the trees. I to-ed and fro-ed all day with one group of riders, whose club I won't name, who could have been a pile faster than me if they'd stopped less, they certainly always passed me at a good pace, only for me to overtake them again at the top of the next hill.

Mamba country: Miles and miles of bugger all.
The first proper rough descent also vindicated one of my kit decisions. The mandatory list said ‘ability to carry 1.5 litres of water’ so I’d opted for one 750ml bottle and a litre reservoir in my pack. As the trail turned downwards and the surface went south with it, the potential for loss increased exponentially. The first instance especially, but all of the more technical descent sections were littered with ejected bottles, dropped food, bounced bananas and slipped energy gels. One section of trail even appeared to have sprouted several wild Pepperami plants...

I managed to keep hold of all my food and stuck with my gameplan to eat something small every half hour. We dropped out of the forest towards the first cutoff point, at Cranecleugh outdoor centre at 24km, and I glanced at the clock to see how far up on the cutoff times I was - over an hour, as it turned out. No problems, just another climb back into the forest, steady away, spinning the cranks. The roll over to the first Feed Station at 60km was more of the same: Long climb, steady flat, rolling descent, warm air, bright sun. Eat. Drink. Be relatively cheerful if not totally merry. We soon dropped out of the woods for a short tarmac out-and-back to the Feed Station, the marshal at the junction wielding a guitar and serenading us with a bit of Tom Petty as we went past - a burst of Free Fallin’ that raised a smile or two. The musical philosophy continued at the feed stop itself, with The Beatles ‘Within You and Without You’ filling the air serenely as I and a few others stretched tight legs and aching backs on the grass, refilled bottles, munched on some lovely Lemon Drizzle cake and chatted. I ditched the gilet and the arm warmers as the temperature was getting up quite nicely, from 4°c at the start up to 20°c there at Stonehaugh. The knee warmers stayed on - I’d had a couple of niggles with my left knee in the run-up to the event, and the coverage was more psychological than anything. I was an hour and a half ahead of the cutoff here, the only one that would really impact the 130km riders, and feeling pretty damn good, so after a quick word with both Stephen the mechanic and Sarah - another events regular - I was off again.

Decend! Pic: Stephen Smith @steph3nsmith
The rollout from the feed was pleasant tarmac, and a bit shaded, so nice to clip along at a decent rate. We turned right and the gradient rose gradually, with the whole kilometre of climb visible ahead. The young lady on the mountain bike next to me told me being able to see the whole climb was making her want to cry, which seemed a little odd. As before, nothing was steep, just long and steady, and I distanced her a little as she stopped at one point, hopefully not to actually have a cry. She passed me again somewhere along the way, in good form, but had a bit of hesitation when we made it to the ford and I rolled past her again while she deliberated walking or riding. I rode through, staying left as the marshal suggested, and crossed absolutely fine. To be honest, it was nice to cool my feet down in the river a bit, in hindsight I should have taken a minute and splashed in full body. I’d still have been dry within minutes.

From the next high point came the next longer, rougher descent. Myself and another gent on a gravel bike dropped in at the same time, me having great fun on slightly bigger tubeless tyres, him admitting he was running sealant-filled Slime tubes and they'd worked so far. Chat got interrupted by some of the roughest sections, and I passed the marshal and photographer at the bottom of the hill looking somewhat, shall we say, focussed. As you can see from the pic, my apparently standard angry race face was out in force - thanks Stephen for capturing that one. Truth is, my hands were taking a beating, and my gloves weren't helping. Whether they'd stretched and slipped, whether something was loose, I don't know, but whatever part of the bars I used, I was starting to get hot spots between my thumbs and my index fingers, probably right on the edge of the glove padding. That positioning meant they were sore when I was riding on the hoods and just as bad when I was down on the drops and braking. Just what you need on the rough stuff.

We caught another pair of riders at the bottom of the hill, two friends who'd ridden last year's 130 and were on for the 200 this time out, both on shiny titanium gravel bikes but both taking the mickey out of each others budgetary choices - there's a bit of cost variation between a Salsa Ti Fargo and a Sonder Ti Camino (The former costs pretty much double the latter, for those not in the know), but both looked great and their owners seemed happy with them. The four of us rolled on on the tarmac and farm lanes, passed a happy marshal telling us it was only 5km to the next feed station. We all wondered if he was lying, but it turned out not, and the only thing between us and the 96km feed stop was one more gradual tarmac rise. Hmmm.

Feed station 2: Bliss.
I'm not going to say the wheels came off at this point, but I started feeling lightheaded. I'd been eating regularly, so it wasn't that, but with the heat I suspected I hadn't been drinking enough, despite the bottle-and-reservoir plan. I finished the bottle off, took a long pull from the reservoir, and remounted to plod on, knowing I could get some respite and rehydrate in a couple of kilometres, not realising that the mercury had hit 27°c - I just knew it was damn warm and I was feeling it! Fortunately, the feed stop was at the bottom of a rolling descent, and I pulled in, dropped the bike and went straight for the water butts. I'd brought both Tailwind powder (energy drink) and Zero (electrolyte) tablets with me, so I made my mind up to have a full bottle of electrolyte before I left the feed stop. That didn't take long, so I had a second just in case, then refilled with Tailwind for the last 30km. We'd been able to leave a drop bag to pick up here, and I'd stashed a couple of samosas in mine, the spicy savoury making a nice change from the sweet stuff I'd been munching all day. I ditched my baselayer into my pack, likewise my knee warmers. Feeling a chunk better having thrown some liquid down, I pulled on my mp3 player as well and churned off out of camp.

Passport control at the top of Kershope Burn
The next hour and a half was pretty painful. Firstly, the steeper rise out of the feed station and a couple of shorter ramps, though a bit of the Afro Celt Sound System in my ears kept me tapping along with a decent steady rhythm. Secondly the next descent, on rough forest road, newly and badly patched, with the gloves chafing my hands to the point where I stopped, threw them in my pockets and rode bare-handed to try and ease them a little. Dropping out into sunlight from a dense block of woodland, I saw the U-turn point that marked the start of the Border climb - 7.5km up the Kershope Burn with 200m of continuous, gradual ascent. I'd heard about this, though I'd never ridden it before. I trotted on, though the surface was just rough enough to make settling into a rhythm nigh-on impossible. A handful of riders to-ed and fro-ed with each other all the way along, each pausing to eat, drink, wee, have a quiet word with ourselves etc. Half an hour of true grind later the border crossing appeared, the picnic table, bridge and signs that mark the boundary between Newcastleton and Kielder forests. I stopped, dismounted, took a couple of pictures and stuck my head and hands in the stream. The valley was sheltered and windless, but like a moderate, rough, lumpy oven to ride up. I wasn't the only one suffering a bit though, so after a short break four of us left the temporary idyll and crossed the bridge to head for home.

"130k Finisher". That's the important part.
 There was a cruel jab first though, one more short rise, probably the steepest thing we'd ridden all day. Well, I say 'ridden'. The guy at the front of our little bunch stopped to walk up it and the other three decided that that was a convenient enough excuse to do the same. At the top, we remounted and realised it was down down down from here. An arms race began, who could get up into the big ring and get cranking first, and we all did. Shooting down towards Akenshawburn there was a short gravelly rise, a group of us pedalling furiously, determined not to get off. We were greeted at the top by two figures: Bananaman and a Chicken. Hmmm...

This was the 200/130km split point, and these two unsavoury characters were our encouragement. Dropping to 130km? Chicken. Heading out for the big kahuna? Hero, have a banana. I chuckled, grinned, high-fived the chicken and spun off towards home, spirits lifted by a bit of daftness. Down Akenshaw Burn and into Lewisburn, back towards the arced Lewisburn Bridge and onto the Lakeside way, relishing the down and the flat. Soon, we were alongside the lake and the Bakethin Weir track, then the North Tyne and definitely homeward bound. An unfamiliar section appeared, and I realise we were headed across the road past Butteryhaugh and the next pop out onto tarmac would mean the final short climb to the castle and the finish. I'd passed a couple of riders on the trail, and myself and two others were in a short, fast train headed for home. We hit the tarmac, and turned right and left, with a good number of spectators near the Anglers Arms and lining the grass up the hill, cheering us and everyone else in. The other two stood up to climb, I stayed sat, upped my cadence and passed them both, slightly to my surprise. A sharp right turn at the top and into the driveway, past the timing point to stop the clock at 8:21:21. I turned and clapped the other two in, gratefully accepted my finisher's beer, badge and Tunnocks Teacake and slumped off into the grass to have a nice long sit down in the shade.

They had beer and pies. Win.
The hard work done - and well under the 10hrs I'd been preparing myself for - the rest of the evening was a laugh. I loped back to the campsite after a veggie chilli and a cuppa, and decided to go chill my legs in the river, since I hadn't at the ford. 15mins of sitting and splashing and I felt pretty invigorated. I grabbed a shower, got changed, chugged another bottle of electrolyte and wandered back up to the castle to cheer riders in and grab a drink. The guys at the Nomad Bar were pulling the pints of Reiver ale, and it seemed rude not to. A couple of those, a couple of rhubarb and ginger G&Ts and a good chinwag and I was a slightly tipsy but very happy individual. I chatted with the Focal Events team for a while, grabbed a steak pie to try and soak some of the gin up. Andy H and I made a rough plan to meet down at the Anglers Arms once him and his mate had eaten, and I sauntered down around 9pm to grab a pint and sit outside. By 9:15pm I was halfway down that pint and also half asleep in it, so decided I'd finish it and go put my head down, and catch up with Andy another time. Turns out, they'd both dozed off after dinner as well, so both sides missed each other! I turned in for the night and slept like a log, save for the half hour listening to the drumming of the rain, the crash of thunder and watching the bright flashy lightning going off directly over my tent at about 2am. Interesting way to cap a long day off, definitely...

Nearly the end of me, certainly the end of the day.
All in all, I'm really chuffed with the day and with the ride. The course was excellent, the atmosphere fantastic, a brilliant venue and a cracking event all round. I'm really happy with how I went, like I said, 1:40 quicker than I was preparing for and with genuine potential to have gone a bit quicker - not necessarily riding wise, but I could have reduced the stops, especially at FS2. Admittedly, the time-out and forcing liquids down was very necessary, so I'm not beating myself up about that. My Garmin download shows 7:38 riding time out of 8:27 total, so 50 minutes stopped of which nearly 30 was that feed station: That's okay with me. My legs held up, my knee held up, I've got bruised hands and a sore backside, but you know what, that's all good. I've been laid the challenge of "200 next year or we’ll press gang you onto the team" from one of the Focal crew, so who knows. I'm still not sure whether I'd last the 200, but I can certainly say I enjoyed the 130, and hey, there's a year to think about it either way...

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Misadventure Racing - Open5 Grassington

So, for once in the whole ‘Misadventure Racing’ topic, I’m going to start with a massive bunch of positives about how the latest Open5 race went, as barring a couple of things I’m fairly happy with my performance.

Firstly, I felt way better than I have in any of the races so far. Obviously conditions help, it was a really pleasant day and stayed dry, but evidently my fitness is also bit closer to where it should be as well.
Secondly, my score was my 3rd highest ever at 385, behind a 430 at Broughton way back in 2006 and a 415 in the snow at Blanchland in 2016.
Thirdly, I nailed my second longest bike leg on an Open5 - 44km behind the 50km I did at Todmorden in 2016 - and my 3rd longest run. The latter is maybe more significant, because in both of the higher distances (Muker and Slaidburn, 15/16 series) I ran first rather than biked first.

All really good stuff. Unfortunately, those positives are tempered by a few issues:
Firstly, my CPs score was 445, but I ended up with -60 in penalty points for being 17 minutes late in.
Secondly, I made a big navigational error on the bike that probably cost me half an hour - you see why that 17 minutes is an annoyance?!
Thirdly, I could have lost more time on the run. I thought I’d made a big nav error in the woods, but looking at the GPS track after I actually wasn’t a million miles off where I planned, and I was always moving in the right direction. I just wasn’t 100% sure where I was at the time.

So, as a very quick TL;DR summary for the short of concentration, before I get into the play-by-play:
I had a damn good day, and while I’m annoyed about the mistakes, they’re something to learn from for next year.

Right, now for the long, involved, boring bit! Pull up a coffee...

Marking up at the start. Pic: James Kirby
The last race of the ‘17-18 Open5 Series ran from Grassington, which was lovely for me since it’s only about an hour from home, I didn’t need to book a Youth Hostel for the night before, and it’s an area I know a bit of from various kayaking and biking adventures over the years.

I pitched up for 8am after an early start and a decent breakfast, headed up to Registration to sign in and grab a coffee and a chat with Joe again. Looking at the map I'd guessed the area for the biking fairly well - Mastiles Lane at one end, Burnsall at the other. A few tracks on the board that I'd ridden, a few that I hadn't, but a couple of decent looking loops to get stuck into. I nabbed Ian Furlong's highlighter (note to self: add one of those to the kit, it makes spotting bridleways - like the one you missed last time! - so much easier...) and scribbled a bit, planned a couple of things, and headed back to the car to kit up and get started.

Bike: 44.10km / 740m ascent / 3:38:37

I started early and set off on the bike as usual. A first loop north from base, getting nicely warmed up climbing through town and up the road to pick up an easy CP and loop east across the old lead mines and down a lovely bridleway and track down the Hebden Beck valley. A few riders I saw taking this loop the other way had definitely picked the short straw, it was much easier (and more fun...) to descend the rough stuff than climb it!

Dropping onto the road again in Hebden itself, into a back lane behind the church for another CP and then down a very muddy, rubbly, smelly lane out to the road again. There were probably marginally faster routes for that leg, I'll admit. Down the road towards the footbridge and stepping stones below Hebden - which we were forbidden to cross! I was expecting the bloke with the 3 questions out of Monty Python - turning left and heading towards Hartlington for another CP, then over the bridge at Burnsall, hitching on behind a couple of road bikers and getting a little bit of a tow up to the bridleway entrance down to the footbridge again. The nice policeman pulling out of the little layby at the entrance waved me in ahead of him, I hopped off and walked with my bike down the steep slippy steps, punched in and watched a certain male pair walking back across the bridge (stuck behind a woman with a pushchair) having obviously dropped their bikes at the north side and walked across. As Mark Chryssanthou pulled up just behind me, I pointed it out and we had a quick chat about how that should be deducted from their score, as the map plainly said "Do not cross the river", not just "Don't take your bike across the river".

Smiling for once! Must be early, I'm clean... Pic: James Kirby
Anyway, away from that grumbling, up a muddy, grassy bank with Mark C and Ian Furlong alongside, both moving faster than me. Across a couple of fields and out onto the road, taking a slightly longer route rather than a short steep shock, out-and-back to CP12 and down the singletrack bridleway through CP13 and down to road, into Linton and over the gravel track to CP10. I'd been debating this loop with myself a bit, and with 20/20 hindsight I should have been more confident and gone 13, 12, 20, 10, 7. Playing it probably a bit too conservative, I opted to drop 20 when, realistically, I was going quite well and should have gone for it.

After a quick stint along the road and onto the gravel track to 7, the decent day I'd been having came unglued and I made a massive nav error. My plan was to go from 7 to 5, up on a road/bridleway crossing up on Malham Moor - see illustration. I had two route choices, with little distance difference, maybe 500m, but a difference in the gradients. The slightly shorter road route descended away from CP7 to climb again very steeply whereas the off-road route climbed gradually along it’s distance. If the surface was as I expected it to be, decent 4x4 shooters access track, I didn't think there'd be a massive time loss by taking the longer off-road route. Mark Cryssanthou arrived at the same time as me again (I'm assuming he'd been further than I had!) and again, a quick chat about route choice. He opted to take the road, I decided to take the off road route, fixed it in my mind, set off from the CP, and promptly took the wrong track…

Spot the non-deliberate mistake...
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see where I went wrong: the track I took is marked just as a footpath - pink dots - but on the ground is another decent 4x4 track. I took it because I was looking for a track, not just a path, which I guess I expected to be just to be pedestrian-sized, not vehicle-sized. Looking closer at the map, the track I should have been on left the CP to the right, with a left-hand bend to turn it in the direction I was expecting to go. Evidently I should have just been paying more attention, which is probably the story of my life. It cost me 20-30 mins at least, which is a huge pain given how well I was going. It also added about 5km to my ride, which I probably could have done without, saving my legs for the run a bit might have been nice.

I turned it around a bit on the return leg, having re-arranged the order of some CPs during my little navigational embarrassment to pick up CP3 at the top of Mastiles Lane first, then dropped down the road to 5 then across the grassy bridleway to 6 - or at least where 6 should have been. I arrived to another racer searching the area and looking puzzled, no SI box to punch in on: Description said it should be on the fingerpost; definitely not on the fingerpost. I wasn’t in the mood to hang around so told him I’d vouch for him being in the right place if he’d reciprocate, swapped rider numbers, and headed off down the track at pace, only to spot the SI box on a completely different junction half a km down the lane. Very strange, but I checked the ID and punched in anyway After that it was across Conistone bridge, where we put on for trips down the Wharfe with the Canoe Club, and down the back road to pick up one more CP before the dash back to transition

Run: 8.99km / 171m ascent / 1:35:15

Lack of running time/fitness is still making the run harder than it should be for me, but for once the run was a good one. I was in and out of transition in a decent time - 2:51, including raising a couple of protests/comments with one of the transition staff (the misplaced CP6 and the naughty pair on the footbridge). 15th overall for that leg, and at least I'd remembered my running shoes this time so there was something to actually do in transition! I grabbed a chocolate waffle from the transition bag and shoved it down my neck as I jogged out of the car park, sucked the last of the water out of my reservoir and trotted off.

Navigationally complex? Just a little bit.
The run route looked good, a chance to pull in a few more CPs than I've hit normally, in a decent sub-10km loop. An easy start down Sedber Lane to the bridge at Linton Falls, dodging tourists and walkers gawping at a section I've kayaked many times - it looked in good condition as well! - to the little stone bridge and the first CP. Two more CPs alonge the riverside past Ghaistrall's Strid and up towards Grass Wood. I had a bit of an internal battle going on, knowing my lack of run fitness but not wanting to trot home on the road with 40mins remaining, so decided to go for the wooded loop. The wood was a maze of small paths, some mapped and some not, so it was always going to end up complex. I hit both 36 and 33 spot on, despite a modicum of confusion, and opted to ditch 35 (just on the edge of the illustration) in favour of turning home via 31 and 27. Simple tracks running to the marked crossing point, then hit some smaller paths running the way I wanted to go, and then it all got a bit sticky. The series of question marks are to indicate that this was the way I went, but I'm not sure how the hell I did it...

I never saw the wall that route assumes I crossed, just after the marked crossing point. I popped out into an unmarked clearing with a couple of major cairns, also unmarked, so sighted off Grassington bridge, took a rough bearing and continued. Bushwhacking between a couple of rows of rock outcrops, I eventually spotted a wall below me, the bottom edge of the Bastow Wood enclosure, and followed an unmapped track parallel to it, popping out at the gate right on top of 31, utterly by chance. Serendipitous, but likely slower than I could have been if I'd gone to 35 and used the bigger paths and top wall as handrails. Again 20/20 hindsight and probably a lack of confidence in my running.

I knew I was running late by that point, so the final stretch across the fields to 27 and then down through town to the finish was done as quick as I could manage. Okay, not that quick overall, but more continuous pace that I'd had hacking through the woods. Punched in in 1:35, putting me 17mins over. I know I could have avoided that on the bike, so the slower section of the run would have been fine. With a bit more confidence in myself, I could have taken an extra two CPs for an additional 45 points as well: That's annoying, but something to learn from.

Queueing for Nav4 chilli, coffee and cake! Pic: James Kirby
At the end of it all I ended up 28th out of 38 male solo racers on the day, and 21st in the series, out of 26 that completed at least 2 races, 80 that completed 1 or more. Without the penalties I'd have been 15th place on the day, plus 2 places higher in the series standings, which would have been a major results, but you know, some times s**t happens. In spite of the penalty points, I'd class these as my best bike and run legs of the season, and while I'm disappointed in myself for the mistakes, I'm also very heartened by the work I put in and the distances I covered.

Big thanks as always have to go to James Thurlow and the team at Open Adventure for putting on 3 fantastic races for the winter series, to the planners of each of the events, to the marshals for looking out for us and to NAV4 Adventure Catering for caffeinating and feeding us. This was an awesome way to cap off a brilliant series.

I'm off to clean and dismantle the race bike, since I'm building a new one for next year. Well done to anyone who made it this far!

Cheers all