Saturday, 8 October 2016

The Northern Traverse 2016

Raring to go!
In 2008 I read a book called "Life on the Run" which was a tale of three guys journey across the UK following the Wainwrights coast to coast route, straight after reading it I bought the Harvey maps and dreamt of one day doing it myself. Well the maps got shoved to the back of the map drawer ready for future use. Fast forward to the last few years and after completing several 100 milers my mind started to wonder whether I could possibly run 200 miles. It's the natural progression, I think anyone with the mentality to run 100 inevitably wants to try 200 miles. My finger has hovered over the enter button a couple of times for the Tahoe Rim 200 but I could never really justify the cost. Then last year an advert flashed up on FB for The Northern Traverse, 190 across the UK following the Wainwrights route from St Bees Head to Robin Hood Bay. This was meant to be! So as soon as I received my annual refusal from the Western States I entered. I was in The Northern Traverse 2016.

All present and correct
After a couple of days of fine weather and R and R at St Bees the day arrived. We collected our number bibs, had trackers attached and walked out onto the grass ready for the 10am start. I was out sufficiently early to go and dip my toes in the water as is the tradition, touch the water on the West coast and the East coast when you finish. Group photo taken, we were called to the line, as usual on long events no one is prepared to step forward which I find a bit strange, as if we are all waiting for a group of elites to step up. Well Eoin Keith had stepped forward so had John Knapp and I tucked in with them no need to be shy. The horn went and we were off, there was a single track bridge 50 mtrs from the start so we sprinted to it, then immediately into a half mile climb out of St Bees. It was heating up already and the skies were crystal clear. We power hiked up and Eoin started edging ahead along with John and a couple of others. Their pace was slightly fast for me so as we rounded the light house at the top I maintained a steady pace and let them go. We turned in land and within the first hour I was on my own.

Happy on Day 1
I was loving running a nice slow pace and soon reached the first climb, Long Barrow, I power hiked through the woods and up the hill soon flying down the other side whilst still thumbing the map. It was red hot and I had made a late decision to carry an extra bottle making 1.5 litres, glad I did really as it was going to be red hot. One of the main hurdles of this event was the self sufficiency, each feed station was between 30 and 46 miles so between those points you are on your own. You either need to carry enough water to get you through, buy it on route or source it from else where. Well just before Ennerdale lake I found a café and stopped for an ice cold water. I ran the alongside Ennerdale water and it was gorgeous, beautiful surroundings, cracking trail, red hot, this was heaven. The trail soon left the water and into the forest, it was roasting and I was getting through my water very quickly. I stopped and filtered some water with my Sawyer Straw, a very time consuming process. I filled a couple of bottles and ran on. I reached the Black Sail hut but passed straight through bearing left up and over the hill. The run down to the slate mine and beyond to Rosthwaite is stunning. I was really on a high, keeping hydrated, well fed and not pushing too hard. I felt great. I passed two of the early leaders on the way down briefly saying 'Hi' but still making the most of this good spell. Leaving Rosthwaite the run took through more cracking trail to Grasmere and Thorney How an unofficial drinks stop. I wandered in and there was a lovely lady stood at a table with jugs of squash, flapjack and the like. No one else around just as though she had been waiting patiently all afternoon for runners to pass through. We chatted about drinking stream water and she said she had drunk straight out the mountain streams all her life and I had no need to filter. I was 50/50 on this, on one hand I had contracted campylobacter just the previous year drinking from a stream and on the other the Sawyer Straw was too time consuming. I left there with a big chunk of flapjack and headed the nine miles through to Patterdale, up and over Grisedale Hause. I arrived at Patterdale before nightfall, bang on schedule and decided to have a good feed up, Joe Faulkner was running the food and I know from previous experience how good his soup is so I had three bowls. John Knapp was in there and we sat and chatted about what a great day it had been.

Trail runners heaven
My feeding plan for the event had been to consume 3000 calories every twelve hours. This was to be made up of Gu, Jelly Babies and Tailwind and then stuff as much real food as I could at the feed stations. Also at each feed station were several tents so you could either sleep at every station or none or indeed sleep on the hill should you need to. My plan was to skip the first sleep, sleep for 2 hours at Kirkby then grab any other sleeps I needed on the hill.

John had got ready and left and I put on my long sleeve top and head torch in preparation for the night ahead. I left Patterdale and we were to head up to Kidsty Pike which was a good couple of hours. Kirkby Stephen was about 36 miles away so it would take me till morning to reach there. This is a cracking section, up past Boredale Hause, Angle Tarn and through to Kidsty Pike. I hiked the majority and ran where I could, we were well over 50 miles in and it was really dark and chilly before I reached the Pike. I had put the map away and was using GPS now. Had I been camping more and moving slower with a clear head I would have tried to nav by map alone but given I was aiming for the fastest time possible I opted for GPS especially during the night. As I headed down to Haweswater my eyes started flickering and the sleep demons were coming on. The previous days mountain running had taken its toll and I was nodding off on my feet. Lack of sleep certainly is a weakness of mine, if you want to do well in a non stop multi day event you have to cope well with no sleep and I don't! I'd made a last minute decision to wear Hokas as it had been so dry which I was happy with but as I bumbled along Haweswaters rocky edge I was tripping and stumbling. I took a Pro Plus as I couldn't shake off the the flickering eyelids. As the trail improved the caffeine kicked in and I felt slightly better, enough so to run with out the fear of falling over. As we reached the end of the water I was passed by two runners. My tiredness had cost me already. I left the road and came across a metal container full of drinks and an honesty box. Very nice, I thought as I choose a drink and choccy bar my head torch shining in the box. As I did a car passed by then quickly spun round and screeched to a stop next to me. "What the hell are you doing!" was shouted at me. I looked up and two massive geezers were sitting in their car looking ready to stove my head in. After a quick explanation the air was cleared and I was able to move on enjoying my can of coke.

I made my way onto Shap, the tiredness had subsided for now and I was able to run. I was getting really frustrated with my bottles, I was worrying that one of my soft flasks was going to fall out of the side pocket of my pack. This minor issue was stressing me out so I decided to put a full bottle in the main part of my pack then I could access it in an emergency. I ran into Shap, it was 2am. There was unmanned drink station located there which I thought would be closed so I pressed on into the night, only later did I find out it had been fully stocked with drinks and sandwiches, Doh! I ran up Shaps main street and soon veered off onto moorland and open fields. It was very dark and the terrain was up and down. I realized one of my bottles was almost empty so reached for my spare bottle, Shit, it had gone! I must have dropped it earlier while fiddling with my pack. I had 300 mls and 18 miles to Kirkby Stephen, this was never going to last. After the previous red hot day I was thirsty and needed to find water fast but as the miles ticked by I realized there was nothing, no streams, no tarns, nothing. I was still running ok but was seriously dehydrated, my mouth was almost stuck shut. I was in daylight now and spotted a tarn ahead and ran towards it with visions of gulping down loads of fresh water. It was not to be though there was a massive barbed wire fence between me and the water. In my shaky state the fence as an obstacle too far. Shortly after as cracks felt like they were appearing in my throat I found a puddle. Admittedly there was sheep shit in the puddle but it was wet so I popped out my Sawyer Straw and drank from the puddle, needs must. Thankfully it was enough to see me through until I found a nice flowing stream and managed to fill my bottles. I lost a few places through this tough stage but it didn't matter I was running my own race and this is all I could do.
Kirkby Stephen

I got in to Kirkby Stephen mid morning roughly 24 hours in and bang on my schedule. My plan now was to grab a few hours kip before cracking on. I ate and drank and headed for one of the tents. As I lay in the hot tent every sound was magnified, the light shone through my closed eyelids and my heart was pumping. I was never going to sleep. I laid there for a further 20 minutes before trudging back indoors for some more food and a mental re-plan. It was 10am and the next section to Richmond was 37 mile or so, I decided I could continue through all day and reach Richmond by nightfall then I could sleep. My mind was made up and after greasing my feet I headed out of the feed station. Soon after leaving I was rising back up again, it was a steady hike up to Nine Standards Rigg, it was gorgeous at the top I would have been quite happy to stop a while and look around but no it was time to push on. After some cracking trail running on the high ground it was time to descend again. I was running well and my quads were holding up. I had a really sore shin on my right leg from the hard descents of day one but this although very painful was a minor issue. The run across Malbecks Moor was lovely but my eyelids were flickering again, the lack of sleep was really taking its toll. It was a lovely sunny afternoon and every so often I would lay on the soft grass for a 5 minute power nap. They can be quite effective and gave me the strength to get through. I was about 20 mile in to this stage and roughly 30 hours without sleep. Just prior to Reeth there was some great technical trail and I was loving the scrambling, I climbed to the top of what seemed like a disused quarry and found a well made path heading down, I was hallucinating really heavily now. I have learnt to embrace hallucinations and they don't phase me, they just make life tricky especially when my eyelids are so heavy. I ran into the village and in my tired state I had it in my head that this was Richmond and I was really boosted by the prospect of sleep and rest. I chatted to a random guy who had been following the tracker and waiting ages to see a runner. He soon informed me this was Reeth not Richmond and my heart sank. There was still another 11 miles to go. I walked into the local shop, sweaty, stinking and incoherent but the shop keeper didn't bat an eyelid as I stocked up on water and chocolate. I trudged through the village eating my chocolate trying to get motivated for the next 11 miles. This was a tough moment in the race, we were around the 100 mile mark 33 hours in and roughly halfway, my feet hurt, I was tired, my shin was killing me, I'd had enough.

The route to Richmond was actually very nice, lots of grassy fields and woodland but not too many hills. I perked up as I ran two thirds of every field and walked one third. The miles ticked by as I dreamt of the lovely sleep I was due to have. I could see Richmond in the distance and everything in the world seemed great again. I was quite high up looking down at the village and it was roughly 9pm, I thought I'd walk down into town but even this seemed to go on for ever. I circled the town centre before doubling back on myself and eventually finding the rugby club, this all felt counter intuitive and I still swear I did an unnecessary lap of the town. Eventually I jogged into the feed station just as it started to rain.

I sat down with a massive sigh of relief, I could rest! I took my shoes off and started to eat some chicken stew. There were two other runners in there preparing to go out. They were discussing the night ahead, preparing their maps, they looked so un flustered and I felt so shit. I couldn't comprehend heading straight back out. I grabbed my kit and limped over to my tent in the now heavy rain. I jumped into my sleeping bag and set the alarm for 3 hours. In what felt like seconds I was gone and a few seconds later the 3 hours had passed and my alarm was bleeping. It was still raining and about 1 am. I donned my headtorch and sorted my kit in the cramped tent. My feet were noticeably swollen and I struggled to get my shoes back on. After 20mins or so I walked back over to the main feed station. I ate some porridge, a fried egg sarnie and a couple of teas, there were two others in here now one guy had just walked in and another was prepping to go back out, although he didn't look too keen. I was mentally preparing for the next stage breaking down the mileage etc. I was told at this point there would be no sleeping at the next aid station, a storm had hit and they were unable to set up the tents. In real terms this meant I had 45 miles to the next feed station, before entering straight into the last 30 mile on no rest. Ok keep calm I'm going to leave here at 2am, walk for 2 hours until daybreak, I should be at the feed station by 3pm, an hours stop then an 11hour 30 miler for a 3 am finish. Simple.

I left at 2am as planned, the rain had stopped and I power hiked into the darkness. My legs were stiff but I soon shook it off and the swelling in my feet subsided. I broke into a run as the first particles of light guided my way. I passed Catterick race course through grassy flat fields. The water on the grass was rolling down my legs and quite quickly my feet were soaked through. This was going to be a hindrance later on. I entered a secluded lane and walked towards a car with full beam bearing on me. This felt weird in my tired state and I half expected the engine to roar before the driver attempt to mow me down. I walked the couple of hundred metres to the car and as I walked along side the window was open. My eyes adjusted to the driver. "What ya doing?" he asked in a gruff voice. "Running the Coast to Coast" I replied. "Sure you are, it's four in the fucking morning". "I Know". "Well you better have some chocolate, keep your spirits up" he said as he cracked me off a few squares of his Aero. He pulled away laughing and shaking his head. A quite surreal experience that I'm positive actually happened. The lanes and fields continued for miles and I had several variants of running on the go, varying from actually running to power hiking to the ultra hobble. I felt happy at this point and was confident about the miles ahead. Through the ever over grown fields I eventually reached the A19. I knew there was a garage there and bought food, a sandwich, coffee, chocolate and maltloaf. I gulped down the coffee and stuffed in the sandwich before running the gauntlet across the now very busy dual carriageway. I walked up the lane eating my maltloaf and my thoughts were on my feet which were now soaked through and badly macerated. The pain was searing up my legs and by my reckoning I was at mile 150, it was about 1pm. 40 miles to go. I was hoping my feet might dry out a bit with a fresh pair of socks. Little did I know what lay ahead.

OMG I felt rough
The trail rose up through the forest and it was stunning, a very different scene to the grassy fields. After a lengthy climb I joined the Cleveland Way, the wind was getting up and coming from the North, whipping the tree tops and driving the now constant rain into my side. The rain was now soaking through my windproof top and there was a definite chill in the wind. I managed some running through this section and the Cleveland Way was very nice, I'm sure it would have been much nicer on a better day. I reached an unofficial feed station at the Lord Stones Café. I opened the door to the café but it was rammed full of people and red hot inside. This wasn't going to help stopping here so I left and pushed on. I started heading higher on the Cleveland Way and decided to tuck in some bushes to change coats. The rain was now driving in on the high wind and the conditions were testing to say the least. I dropped down to a road and again convinced myself that this must have been the feed station but couldn't see any signs. Maybe I was wrong again, I couldn't face getting the map out in the high wind so pressed on. The trail from here was very runnable and wide it also kept going up. The higher I went the stronger the wind blew, it was howling. I was in the clouds and the cold was going right through me. My feet hurt and I was exhausted but I had no choice but to run it was just too cold. The trail just kept rising and it was very exposed. I really started doubting my position, visibility was poor and stopping wasn't an option. I had a nagging feeling that I'd gone wrong. I was so cold and beginning to get worried. I needed shelter to regroup but there was nothing. Eventually I squatted behind a bank long enough to get my trousers on. I was not in a great mental state everything just seemed too hard to compute. I got my emergency phone out to ring in to make sure I was on track still but I couldn't work out how to use it. I realized I only had a few minutes before this got serious. I needed to know where I was on the map now otherwise I would have to get in my bivy then that really could be race over. I got a grid reference off my GPS and got a fix on my map with the compass. Thank god for that I was still on track but about 2 miles outside the feed station. I packed my kit back up and started moving quickly forcing myself to run. I ran all the way to Blackey Ridge and missed the turn. I ran on for several hundred metres before realizing my mistake I turned and headed back. I picked the correct turn and suddenly the pub emerged out of the cloud. What a relief! I nearly cried. I grabbed my kit bag before setting up camp in the disabled toilets of the pub. I completely stripped down and warmed by the radiator. I tried to grease and tape my feet but they were shot. Mile 160 about 57 hours in on 3 hours sleep. Mentally I was finished, I was dog tired, it was 5pm.  The only thing that got me dressed was knowing that I had one stage to go and it was too late to quit. I put multiple layers on and headed back out the pub to the feed station van. For the first time I felt too sick to eat which was not good. I stood in the van while they made me some rolls for the next leg. They were lovely and chatting away to me but my mind was in a daze their voices passed in one ear and out the other. I prepared myself mentally again for the next leg.

Just 30 to go.
30 Miles!! FFS!!
As I shoved the door open of the van I stepped into the gale, it was a head wind as I crossed the carpark, the wind was deafening and I tucked my head down a ploughed forward. My thoughts were, What am I doing? How am I going to finish this? I felt lost. It was actually impossible to run into the wind, I kept my head down and battled the wind the warm pub was now a distant memory. After a mile or so the trail turned off the road and across the rough moorland. It was flooded and thick with heather, the path was indistinguishable and really tough to follow. I followed my GPS to the line, occasionally seeing snapped branches so I knew others had passed through. This was as tough as it gets and not enjoyable, I was praying for some lower ground. Darkness soon set in and I was cold again. The cold didn't fight off the tiredness though and I was falling asleep on my feet. At one point in my frustration I started yelling profanities at the weather. The trail alternated from moor to trail to road but still no descent. The sleep monsters were full on now, I was hallucinating constantly, every rock or bush had a face. I was ignoring the faces but kept stopping and nodding off on my feet. I would suddenly snap out of it before carrying on. For large portions I was convinced I was with someone and would chat with them but the truth is I hadn't run with anyone for 60 hours!

At last I was starting to descend and the chill eased off. It was late at night as I walked into the village of Glasdale where I came across a phone box, it looks so inviting! That I got into the box and curled up in a ball on the floor. I took a 5 min power nap. My feet were so sore I could no longer step without the feeling of walking on broken glass. I had to shuffle along on the outside of my feet. The hills still seemed to go on for ever and the moorland didn't become any easier. I entered the woods at Little Beck and it was a steady ascent through thick trees, at points I would lose the trail and end up climbing through trees, it was muddy and steep. I eventually emerged out the top of the woodland and knew I wasn't far from the end now. I followed the last bit of moor to a well made trail this was it, I was on the home run. The trail turned into a track which turned into a road and at last I saw a sign for Robin Hood Bay. I left the road and headed down through a camp site to the coastal path. Daylight had arrived an hour previous and this coastal path was definitely a sting in the tail, up and down it went seemingly forever. I was hallucinating heavily still and all the rocks were alive with faces. It really was just a hobble now my as the pain in my feet was just mind bending. At last one final climb to a gate and stood at the gate was John Knapp, my god this is it the final stretch? He congratulated me and let me run off down the main street to the finish. I turned the last couple of corners to be greeted by my wife and James, the two solitary figures at the finish. I collapsed in a heap on the line only lifting my head to receive my medal. I starred into the sea and felt a wave of relief, it was over. 8th place 190 miles in 69hours incorporating 3 complete nights and just 3 hours sleep over some of the country's toughest terrain. I was spent.
Do I have to move?

Macerated foot. That is pain right there. 
I slept for almost 24 hours straight post race and felt completely shattered for days after. I also picked up a nasty stomach bug somewhere on the route which has not helped recovery. This race was always something I wanted to do, the course was harder than expected and it's definitely an itch scratched. Not sure if I'll ever enter a straight 200 mile race, the lack of sleep certainly limits my ability to compete at this distance. My feet slowed me down massively at the end but that is something that can be worked on but the difference between me and the guys above me was ultimately sleep. I just have my limits on sleep. I can easily go one night with out sleep I just struggle to go two. All things a side though I have managed to finish injury free and have a clear race calendar between now and Spartathlon. Let the training commence.

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