Monday, 31 July 2017

DNF at The Old Crown Round

After a month of not running a great deal I was a little nervous about toeing the start line of the Old Crown Round. At 24 miles it is a long race, add to that it's in the Lake District with about 2200m of ascent, much of it on rough path-less terrain. It was going to be a big ask. But, my head was prepared for a good long day in the hills with a few mates. For I had company with Eleanor and Alasdair. Tim sadly couldn't join us owing to an ongoing hip issue but he was up in the Lake District with us for the weekend and hopefully would get his own adventure on this hill done.

8.50am came. We were registered. We were wearing waterproof tops - the incoming rain was due any minute. Sure enough, 8.57am as the race organisers started counting us into the start area on the road it started to rain. And rain it did. In biblical proportions. I was soaked through pretty much before we started, and on the 3rd re-count was starting to get cold. Not the best start.

Finally we were off, running up out of the the village of Heskett-Newmarket and down a tiny tarmac road for about a mile, then across fields and finally into open moorland. And here's where the fun really started.

My head had gone from....'this'll be a lovely long day in the hills' to 'OMG how steep is that hill' and 'this rough grass is horrendous to run on' - well not run, just walk and hop a bit, and 'will it ever stop raining'. I think my winge-meter was on super drive for which I apologised many times to El and Al. The weather was grim - thankfully not very much wind but raining and soaking underfoot. Not just wet, but sloshing puddles and rivers everywhere. I have never known the ground to be so wet except for in a river!

This race had partially enticed me because there was beer involved. I joke that one of the reasons I run is to drink beer (other reasons include chips and cake!). So with 4 beers being provided a'top 4 of the local hills (all named after said hills) by the brewery in Heskett-Newmarket - who wouldn't want to have a lovely day in the hills with a snifter of beer here and there?!

Well, to get to the first beer you needed to get 6km from the start and climb about 450m. Slurp...'Carrock' went down nicely if a little odd at not too long after 10am!! Al's navigation was tremendous, getting us safely down a steep but rock and scree-free line from Round Knott to the river crossing at Mosedale. The River Caldew was in good flow with all the rain we'd had and the marshals informed us that the suggested route followed the path up the valley to a footbridge, though some had chosen the river crossing to give a more direct and much shorter line up onto the traverse below Bowscale Fell.

We chose the river crossing - it was going to be slow up the valley anyway so we may as well take the direct steeper line. Arm in arm we crossed the river. This wasn't one to cross solo as it was knee deep with hidden rocks and moving swiftly. I was thankful to be the middle person!!

Next came the climb towards our second main summit - Blencathra. Visibility was still not great - 50m sometimes more, sometimes less. Runners were spread out on various lines but each tracking vaguely in the same direction. The ground was soaked. There were very few faint trods to follow and it was still raining. I was still not having fun. It was also really obvious to me that my companions were a lot stronger and could move a lot quicker than me.

I have always said this would be a lovely day in the hills....but today was not lovely. I was soaked, in need of the loo but nowhere to hide, probably ate too much at breakfast, head now spiralling negatively as my body cursed the rough ground and steep climb. Although Al was doing the navigation for us I was keeping a check on the route on the 1:50k map we'd been given. O.M.G. Blencathra was still a loooong way away and a lonnnnnng way up to go.

I hated myself for having such a negative outlook but couldn't snap out of it. We were hanging in roughly last place, which although it didn't bother me, we were only a third of the way round and I knew I couldn't go faster. Checking the map I could see a point ahead I could bail out. There's a path before Blencathra that cuts under Bannerdale Crags and down to Scales on the main road. Or I could go up Blencathra, have the beer there then peel along the ridge line and again pick up the path down to Scales.

I must have talked myself into and out of bailing at both these points a dozen times. Each time weighing up the pros and cons of my first DNF. I felt really ambivalent about DNFing a race. I wasn't really bothered. But the more I thought of pulling out the more I wanted to finish the whole route. The feeling to have finished the race, in those conditions, with good friends, would have been brilliant. I didn't want to miss out on that feeling and be the one wondering if I could have gone on, should have gone on. Self-doubt is a worrisome curse.

I decided to push on to Blencathra - much to the delight of my companions. I again voiced my thoughts that 'I'll be really slow' to their protests of it not mattering. I tried to calculate overall duration we'd be out if I continued at my snails pace. It was going to be long.

So, with a massive 'shut up head' talk to myself I vowed to get up Blencathra, and silently voiced to myself that perhaps the whole route was possible.

On top of Blencathra the delightful beer in a box was located. It was here I realised my hands were getting cold. Like really cold. Up to know I'd been joyous in the knowledge that although it was chucking it down most of the time we'd been out (and now thankfully the rain eased off as we approached the summit of this 868m high mountain) my hands were warm. It wasn't a particularly cold day despite the rain so the sudden realisation my hands were going numb was a bit scary. I fumbled to get my rucksack open then really struggled to pull on gloves, followed by waterproof over-mitts. I necked the beer - no points for classy drinking there for me - then we made our way back down the steep section of Blencathra before peeling left and towards Skiddaw House.

I had reckoned if I could reach the summit of Blencathra then Skiddaw House (a hostel) was a point of safety - an actual building where I could warm up, sit and drink the soup the organisers were providing and take real stock on what I was doing. It was mostly downhill too. El and Al were literally skipping down the hill making it look effortless but my body just wasn't playing happy. There was a path but it was still rough and rocky in places - and here I slowed to a walk. Before too long they were waiting for me much lower down. I felt bad holding them up. I tried to make them go on ahead and keep pushing but they insisted on staying with me.

After a short uphill section we reached Skiddaw House. I was feeling kind of alright and ready for a mental battle to push to the end. So, after a quick 10min stop for soup and a brew we pulled on rucksacks and started the climb up to Skiddaw.

Me and Eleanor  at Skiddaw House

There was nearly 500m to climb before we'd top out on Skiddaw at 931m - the 6th highest mountain in England. Al decided that he needed to warm up so did some running up this section. I could barely keep walking so to run was just damned impressive! Although slow, I was moving and that's all that mattered. Left-right-left-right - continuous forward progression and I knew I'd reach the top. I did feel quite drained though, energy diverted to digesting the cheese sarnie and bar I'd eaten back at the hostel perhaps.

Skiddaw House below us by the trees as we make progress up to Skiddaw summit

Celebrating no rain and a great view!!

Alasdair and Eleanor in the final push up to Skiddaw summit at 931m

After about 45mins we reached the glorious summit and our third swig of beer. The weather was being kind to us, views down to Derwentwater next to Keswick and far beyond with dramatic clouds billowing in the sky. This was why I came into the hills - to see them and appreciate their beauty. Such a shame we'd had a deluge for the first 3 hours of our outing.

Cheers from the summit of Skiddaw

By now we'd been on the go 3.5-4 hours. At the start of the descent off Skiddaw I could feel my knees weren't happy. I've had a recurring 'thing' in my knees and have been working on strength training to reduce this occurring, but here it was again. Once again El and Al seemed to float down the lovely grassy descent and I was left wincing in pain hardly able to walk. Bugger. This was not good. With some serious head chatter I kept saying it wasn't happening, surely I could just run a bit more. I tried to run, I put in some pace to see how it was going faster than I normally do but OUCH, it Hurt. So, a slow steady walk was commenced (progress however slow is still progress and sitting down and crying wouldn't get me anywhere!) until I caught up to my patiently waiting friends a few hundred metres below.

This time when I said they should push on they must have sensed I actually meant it, and that I actually wouldn't be able to finish the route in anything short of a stupidly long and very slow time. If all I could do was walk up and now walk down we'd be out quite a few more long hours. There was about another 10 miles to go. The safest thing for me was to return to Skiddaw House and descend to Threlkeld. That was the safer decision for them too, otherwise they run the risk of getting cold waiting for me.
Clouds gathering once more, rain definitely on the way again

So, with a sad heart seeing my friends carry on I was resolved to getting off the hill without doing myself any serious damage. The weather was OK for now, but gathering clouds on the next summit (Great Calva) was promising more rain. It wasn't fair - or safe - for me to attempt to continue. I really really did want to though.

With a bit of heather bashing and a jump over a thankfully narrow river crossing I picked up the track to Skiddaw House. I reported to the marshals that I'd pulled out and had arranged a lift back from the main road back to Heskett-Newmarket. Thankfully I'd managed to contact Tim who had indeed got himself up the hill for a decent wander - he was going to drive round and pick me up from the Blencathra Centre.

Looking at the map, at the point where I pulled out I probably had a good 6km to walk to the road. I had a few short slow runs but each time there was a bit of slight descent my knees grumbled and slowed me to a walk. 3 months since I ran the London Marathon and with very little specific hill training this DNF wasn't a great surprise, but still a disappointment. I know the weather gave me a massive dose of demoralisation but ultimately my body just wasn't ready for the distance of this race in combination with the rough terrain in the first half and the apocalyptic weather.

Looking back up to Skiddaw House as I descended off the escape route to the Blencathra Centre

I owe great thanks to Eleanor and Alasdair for the support they gave me on the 24km of the race I did with them. Massive kudos to Eleanor for completing the race - her longest every run by some considerable distance. I am immensely proud of her. Al is an old hat at long arduous challenges, and his experience in the hills was very much welcomed in the tough conditions.  Knowing he had the navigation nailed took the pressure off and stress out of the day.

Thank you to the race organisers and those wonderful marshals out on the hills - I really do mean it when I say thank you to each and every one of you. I am grateful that you chose to stand out on the hill for us on top of a mountain - it's no easy job, especially in such wild places. Thank you to the lovely ladies providing refreshments at Skiddaw House. Thank you to the brewery in Heskett-Newmarket for the delightful beer and the landlord at the Old Crown for the hospitality before and after the race. The few beers I had in the pub once I got back were delightful. Finally, thank you to Tim for his amazing support, driving round to pick me up and his beaming face of pride knowing I did the best I could do on the day.

The hills and mountains will be there another day.
I'd like to come back and finish this one.