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FRIDAY, JULY 18, 2014

Coniston Trail Marathon

I’m going to start with an apology, to anyone whose Friday night walk between Hathersage and Sheffield over the last two months has been interrupted by a bloke panting away pretending to be a fell runner. In case you hadn’t guessed that was me……Sorry!

To anyone who reads our blogs regularly, it may come as a surprise that I am yet again writing a blog about running. My Nine Edges blog back in November was an insight into my passion for avoiding running where possible.

Once again the story starts with heavy doses of peer pressure, that and the ongoing quest for man points and banter. During a momentary lack of concentration I left my bank card with Phil (our web guy) and came back to find myself registered for the Coniston Trail Marathon…I’m still waiting to find out what else I have funded.

Coniston marathon trail race Coniston Trail Marathon blog start line

Left: Beautiful day for it! © James Kirby - Right: John and Claire at the start line

That was before Christmas when I had plenty of time to train mentally and physically, of course no one would waste that entire time running, would they? Training only really begins when you wake up in cold sweats having realised that there are only 8 weeks before the event.

I have no business being near the starting line of any race, yet that’s where I found myself. Surrounded by the kind of people who I assume wear short shorts and running Ts as their casual attire as well racing uniform, I was definitely feeling out of my depth as we set off. Straightaway I fell into the classic trap of trying to keep up with the guys in front at a totally unsustainable pace; needless to say I soon dropped back to a more natural position.

For the first half I was feeling strong. Claire, a friend who ran with me informed me that we had been doing 10 minute miles. I still have no idea whether this was fast or slow but it sounded good given that the first half was all uphill, broken up nicely with a lap and half round Tarn Hows. This stage did seem to cause issues for some who ended up doing two and a half laps! Miles 12-18 were mentally quite taxing as you follow rolling forestry tracks before finally making a long descent down to the bottom end of Coniston Water.

Coniston Trail Marathon John Bradley

John and Claire looking fresh © www.lakelandtrails.org - Photography by James Kirby

There followed a brief respite of a flat mile or two and a feed station; we then regained all the height previously lost as we climbed up to Beacon Tarn. This is where I hit the wall. Claire appeared to come into her own at this point (she had done the sensible thing and trained), and all I could do was try and tuck into her slipstream and hope she would pull me along. 

We rounded the tarn to be told by a marshal there was only 10K left; this was a real boost for me as I had entered a few local fell races recently and knew I could make that distance in under an hour. I forgot to factor in that I had never run 20 miles before beginning a fell race. At least at this point I was too tired to calculate how long it would actually take.

Claire seemed to gain a second wind in the later stage of the race; she was still able to run uphill at least. I just had to rely on being stubborn rather than fit and not wanting to be left behind. Somehow I managed to just about keep up. In the back of my mind I could feel I was haemorrhaging man points but this just spurred me on as we were so close.

The last couple of miles were by far the hardest running I’ve ever done. I think real runners would call it technical terrain, but rooty, rocky broken ground meant that I needed to concentrate for every step. I thought I’d broken my toe on more than one occasion as I tripped and stumbled over it all - it’s a good job I couldn’t really feel my legs by this point!

I staggered across the line after 4hrs 50mins. For anyone who is thinking about entering a trail marathon I can thoroughly recommend Coniston. It is an incredibly scenic route for those moments you are not concentrating on your feet.

A note on running kit

UD Body bottle 420ml – One of my favourite running accessories. When running with plastic sports bottles I start fearing for my sanity after a few miles listening to the sound of sloshing water. Body bottles shrink down as you drink, so no sloshing, less bulk and they promote drinking on the go as you don’t have to remove them from their pouches - just squeeze!  

Scott Jurek Ultra pack – A great piece of kit with far less movement than you would experience when running with either a pack or bum bag. Having water on your front also acts as a good reminder that you need to drink. However, the large pockets at the back aren’t really accessible whilst moving so a bit of thought is needed before you set off otherwise you will need to stop. It also had the psychological advantage of making me feel like a real runner when surrounded by race vests (and real runners) at the starting line. 

P.S. A further note for the chap who called into the shop the other week who referred to me as the mountain runner, whilst it made me feel like a champion, the rest of the staff have found this highly amusing ever since. Cheers!

John works for Outside in Hathersage

THURSDAY, JUNE 26, 2014

A Salute to the Sun

The 21st of June is a special time for climbers. The sun high in the sky, maximum daylight hours for climbing, dry mountain crags, surely the high point of a trad climber’s year. You can be one of those twisted individuals, hankering for snow and ice and winter climbing, longing for the hayfever to end, in which case the solstice is the turning point towards your own personal freezing idea of heaven, or you can revel in the moment, enjoy the magic that is about to occur. Climbing is like a religion for many of us, and this is the nearest we have to a ‘religious festival’, most of those seem to have hijacked pre-existing festivals coinciding with recurring astronomical events anyway, so why not reclaim our own?

I tried to sow the seed of a dawn-til-dusk, multi-crag enchainment, but this was quickly vetoed by Will and Claire, two fellow sun-worshippers, albeit ones that liked their sleep a bit much. No one likes an evangelist, and I was hijacking their trip anyway, so I resigned myself to just go with the flow. If every crag could be considered a place of devotion, today we need a cathedral and the foreboding gothic architectural might of Clogwyn D’ur Arddu is a worthy venue.

Cloggy in the sunshine - PSYCHE!!!

Will Pettet-Smith and Claire Carter approaching Cloggy

Cloggy is in shadow for most of the day, and the breeze is chill. Duncan has walked up in shorts and is soon suffering for his lack of legwear. Claire just so happens to have a shiny blue unitard in her bag, and Duncan just so happens to have the figure and attitude to style it with aplomb.

UKC's Duncan Campbell knows how to look stylish on the crag

We head for The Sheaf, not the outstanding ale-and-whisky pub in Sheffield, the seven-pitch HVS that weaves its way through the overlaps of the West Buttress, but there’s a party on it already, and another waiting. In fact, nearly every route in the Ground-Up North Wales Rock Selective guidebook is occupied. Apart from one, White Slab.

1st pitch of White Slab, Cloggy

This 6 pitch E2 starts with a long, intricate and unprotected traverse, and an alternative version of Rock Paper Scissors awards the lead to Will. The first section is, without a doubt, the psychological crux of the whole route, with delicate, balancey moves and the prospect of a hard pendulum into the ground should you fluff it. We all take our sweet time, not wanting to impact our pride or worse. As I pull on to the first belay ledge, completely out of the blue, a rock the size of a pomelo is dislodged from high on the cliff and smashes onto the ledge, just brushing the skin of my thumb. No clattering sound, no warning shout, no nothing. Two inches to the left and I’d have lost a hand for sure, two inches to the right and I’d be writing a review on how impact absorbent these new polyurethane helmets, but as it is, it’s a lucky escape. Enough drama, the rest of the route is delightfully delicate slab climbing, nicely exposed and a total gift at the grade.

Claire and Will following White Slab on Cloggy

Down below, in the sunshine, a couple strip off and dive into the tarn, while Claire and I shiver on the next belay. To keep warm we break into the belay dance, a foolproof, tried and tested method of heat generation. For someone who’s studied ballet and contempary dance, her moves are pretty wack, so I teach her how to douggie, and do the willie bounce, and we’re toasty warm in no time. On the face of it, choosing a crag that faces due north, with a stiff northerly breeze blowing straight onto it might seem like an odd choice, but at certain times of day, namely early morning and late evening, the buttresses and faces become illuminated, with the shadows shifting and colours deepening as we spin towards the sunset. On the longest day of the year, you get more time in the sun. It’s that simple.

Cloggy in the sunshine

Inexplicably the crag empties, just as the whole of the East Buttress is bathed in a warm orange glow. While Claire goes for a swim, Will and I romp up the plumb line of November. E3 5c it certainly ain’t, more like steep 5a all the way with a bit of 5b here and there, but we’re not complaining. Well, Will’s guts are, a bit, and he trumps his way triumphantly up the big pitch.

Will Pettet-Smith on November E3 5c, Cloggy  Will Pettet-Smith on November E3 5c, Cloggy

There are just two real certainties in life: farts will always amuse and sunsets will always enthral, so we linger a while to watch the sun slide beneath the horizon before stumbling off down the hill.

The day’s not over yet though… it seems like every climber in North Wales is in the mood to celebrate summer, so we head to Anglesey for an all-night techno party! You could draw parallels with the state of the universe, total chaos initially bound within the strict mathematical forms of pumping techno music, eventually entropy prevailing. Only the bravest manage to climb the next day.

Simon Kimber is the Web Editor for Outside.co.uk

FRIDAY, JUNE 20, 2014

The Grindleford Fell Race

So it’s an otherwise normal day at work, emails to write, postage quotes to work out. Then something weird happens. When the shop manager says “come on Phil, do the Grindleford Fell Race tonight”, rather than responding appropriately with a barrage of verbal abuse and reasons why not, I find myself saying “go on then”.

As it turns out, being lazy and not running very much is an exceedingly poor way to prepare for your first ever fell race. Who knew?

Fast forward a few hours and I’m lining up at the start with 300-odd other idiots, feeling really quite nervous. The vast majority of my running has been done on my own or with at most a couple of other people, so being surrounded by a huge crowd of fit-looking folk who clearly run a lot is both intimidating and weirdly claustrophobic.

Start-line banter seems to mainly revolve around how much deeper the river crossing looks this year. Excuse me? River crossing? Um... I didn’t sign up for THAT. Except of course, I did, and apparently pulling out before the race has started is something of a running faux-pas. Ah well, it’s only four and a half miles, how hard can it be?

Start of the Grindleford Fell Race 2014

Oh right, really quite hard then. A lap of the playing fields later and I’m puffing and blowing like... well I would say like an old man but there’s quite a few of those way ahead of me and sprinting rapidly into the distance. Damn it. We leave the playing fields and a few hundred yards later the route enters a narrow tree-lined path and heads rapidly uphill. Progress slows to a single-file walk and I join in the general grumbling about how annoying this is and how much faster we’d be going if there weren’t all these people in the way, whilst secretly being incredibly grateful for a chance to breathe.

Reaching what I sincerely hope is the end of the uphill bit, my calves complaining bitterly, we’re greeted by a nice open field. Unfortunately this turns out to hide a huge bog and we’re soon all splashing through calf- to knee-deep squishy stuff. Lovely. Some clown is lurking behind a nearby tree with a camera shouting “Smile!” and snaps a quick pic whilst I glare through sweat-filled eyes and try to figure out who he is. Oh, it’s one of Outside’s buyers – I consider stopping to smash the camera but I can hear the pounding of feet behind and I really don’t want to lose any places so I make a mental note to steal it later on. 

Phil Parker running the Grindleford Fell Race

Phil contemplating violence

Downhill through Padley Gorge it’s all about the rock hopping. Throwing caution to the winds I hurtle down the boulder-strewn path, making up a few places as I pass people who have elected to go at a much more sensible non-potential-ankle-breaking pace. At the bottom of the gorge the path flattens out (flat ground feels so hard after running downhill!) and I spy Paul from Rab up ahead. Paul’s an ex-Outside staff member and experienced fell runner with legs approximately the length of a giraffe’s, so I’m chuffed to bits to be anywhere near him. I pick the pace up a bit, run him down, and am then somewhat chastened to realise that he’s twisted BOTH ankles on the downhill and is basically barely hobbling along. He looks to be in quite a lot of pain, and I do feel quite sorry for him, but hey, we’re racing so I push him into a nettle bush and run past.

More downhill cowpat- and bog-dodging and I’m starting to feel quite sick. Perhaps eating a full meal an hour before the race wasn’t such a good idea? I’m musing on the likelihood of seeing chicken kiev again and trying to rub mud off my fancy GPS watch to see how much more of this torture there’s likely to be, when I notice that all the runners ahead of me are disappearing. Ah right, the river.

Trotting down the bank, I see that people seem to be adopting a cautious wading technique. Seeing this as the last opportunity to make up a couple of places, I break into a sprint and splash my way across, soaking both the other runners and the awaiting ranks of photographers and cheering spectators alike. I decide not to hang about to see how annoyed they all are, make a final stagger across the playing fields and then I’m over the finish line and making a beeline for an enticing table full of cups of much-needed water.

It’s now less than twenty-four hours since the race, I’ve no idea what place I made, my calves are tighter than a first-gear hairpin and I can quite confidently say without a shadow of a doubt that I will never put myself through that again. However I can also very confidently say without even a smidgen of a shadow of a doubt that in about a day I will have forgotten the pain, sweat, tears and midges and only remember the fact that it was awesome. What’s that? The Outside Challenge? Hope Wakes fell race on the 2nd July? Oh, go on then. How hard can it be?

P.S. If you’re out running this summer, get yourself a pair of MTR 141 shorts. If you should happen to run through a river and soak yourself completely from the waist down, they dry really very quickly!

Phil works in the Web Sales department.

Click here for more photos of the Grindleford Fell Race on the Outside Shop Facebook page.

FRIDAY, JUNE 20, 2014

The Aonach Eagach

Whilst on my family holiday in Scotland last week, my friend Mike (who was on a Northern work trip with Boreal) came up to meet us for a couple of days. We got a day pass out from my wife and headed for Glen Coe. With a good forecast it was decided that we would go to look at the Aonach Eagach. We had both been keen to walk this ridge for a while. We had been recommended by friends that it is well worth saving for a good day, as the views are very rewarding, and this did turn out to be the case.

Mike Pickwell on the Aonach Eagach

We set off at midday, just as the morning cloud was starting to clear and by the time we reached the summit of Am Bodach it was starting to become really quite sunny and warm. The initial descent from Am Bodach was quite exposed and you wouldn’t want to make a mistake! We took a rope and harness with us but didn’t use them as it was dry and still, if you were of a more cautious disposition or it was wet and blowing you might want to consider using a confidence rope on some of the descents. There was a slabby section later along the ridge that I can imagine would be tricky in the wet. We both found it thirsty work in the sunshine as we only took a litre of water each, but thankfully we stumbled across several snow patches which we used to fill up our water bottles with very refreshing slushies!

Mike Pickwell on the Aonach Eagach

We met a group of friendly chaps halfway along that gave us some tips on the descent. They said that we should avoid the Clachaig Gully, which I had heard from a few different sources, and suggested that there was a more gentle descent towards the Pap of Glencoe which followed a good path down to the back road to Glen Coe Village. This made the descent quite a bit longer than taking the steep side of the ridge, we later discovered that there was a more direct path that went down the side of the Clachaig Gully which, although very steep and scree covered, looked ok. This would have taken us back down to the pub much more quickly!

View from the top of Aonach Eagach

We had a quick beer in the sunshine as we contemplated the walk back along the road to collect the car (the walk is linear). However, we were fortunate enough to collect a lift from a friendly guy called Derek, who picked us up straight away when we stuck out our thumb. The Aonach Eagach is a great mountain day out and we were discussing how it would be a very good training day for those wanting to do the Cuillin Ridge on Skye. The style of scrambling is similar, the route finding is much easier, there are no real climbing pitches and it's considerably shorter!

The Aonach Eagach ridge, from west to east

We also discussed that our foot wear choices were not quite right for the dry day we had. I was wearing my trusty Scarpa SL’s, which I love for Scottish hill walking but, as this was more scrambling than walking, and a fine day, I wish I had been wearing my sticky soled shoes such as the Five.Ten Guide Tennie, Adidas Terrex Solo Stealth or Boreal Flyers (See James’ recent review of the Adidas Terrex Solo here).

Next time we will do it in winter!

Recommended books and maps for more info on the Aonach Eagach:

Scotland's Mountain Ridges by Dan Bailey (Cicerone 2010)

Glen Coe Superwalker 1:25 000 (Harvey)

Ben Nevis and Glen Coe 1:40 000 (BMC)

Glen Coe & Glen Etive 1:25 000 Explorer Active Map (Ordnance Survey)

Rob Turnbull is the Manager at the Outside Shop in Hathersage

MONDAY, JUNE 9, 2014

2014 Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon

Last year, just for fun, I signed up for the World’s Highest Marathon, the Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon (THEM). It was my second ever race, the first being the Lincoln Half marathon in 1984! THEM begins at Everest Base Camp on the Khumbu Glacier at 5300m and descends to the village of Namche Bazaar at 3400m over the full Marathon distance, although it does involve considerable ascent along the way. There is also a 60km (to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of the first ascent of Everest) and a half marathon at the same time.

Running with my friend Phanden Sherpa in 2013 we had a great day in good conditions and crossed the finishing line in the middle of the rankings in 8hrs 41mins. But you know how it is - these things niggle away at you and you begin to wonder whether, if for example, you had done some running as well as high altitude trekking you might have shaved a minute or two from the time.

In January of this year I was helping my friends at Himalayan Expeditions, the Kathmandu based organisers of this 11 year old event. They were exhibiting at the Adventure Travel Show in Olympia London. They said that if I could help with the 2014 event and be a sort of “Goodwill Ambassador” they’d sign me up again to give it another go. OK.

So, on the 18th of May 2014, after a 40 minute flight from Kathmandu, I began the 11 day trek from the tiny airstrip at Lukla at 2800m to Everest Base Camp at 5300m. I was looking after a group of 19 runners from Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and the USA. Usually in the late spring the trails are packed with descending yaks, local expedition crews and foreign climbers as the annual climbing of Everest season comes to end. Sadly this year the trails were empty, as all expeditions had abandoned their attempts following the avalanche tragedy that killed 16 Sherpas in the Khumbu Icefall early in the season.

There were a total of 131 marathon runners, 18 for the Ultra, 6 for the half marathon and a number of supporting trekkers. They were divided into groups either camping or staying in lodges and spread across several days to avoid congestion.

The weather was fairly good until day eight at the settlement of Lobuche at about 4900m. I woke in the night in my tent to the silence that I had learnt over many expeditions meant bad news. I got dressed and out and started digging out all the other tents from under a thick suffocating blanket of snow. Not only will the weight of snow collapse the tents, but before that it will seal off all the ventilation.

Tom Richardson clears snow from the tents at base camp

Over the next two days we trekked via Gorak Shep, making the traditional ascent (without a view) of Kalar Pattar and onwards to the Base Camp in continuous snowfall. The final descent from the moraines to the ice of the Khumbu glacier takes a diagonal trail under hanging loose rocks. It’s always a stone fall risk but with the snow it became an avalanche risk too.

This year Phanden was not running but was responsible for building the Base Camp; a tent city of dozens of yellow dome tents, dining tents, kitchens and toilets all perched on the jagged surface of the Khumbu Glacier. The snow continued to fall as the full race population arrived.

One unusual task at the base camp was to arrange, if not quite a wedding, a blessing for 2 German people in the group. On request I had carried the traditional Sherpa/Sherpani clothing up with me and arranged for a lama (monk) to give a blessing. Amrit, our cook, had even baked a cake. The only person who was none the wiser to the preparations was the potential bride. Fortunately Carola seemed delighted at the idea of marrying Frank!

Again I woke in the night. It was quite obvious that not only was running on deep snow over fractured invisible ice dangerous, the more the snow fell, the greater was the risk of avalanche and rock fall. There was not even a safe period when it froze in the night. There was no choice - we had to evacuate the Base Camp asap.

As soon as we could the whole group prepared to depart back to the lodges at Gorak Shep. What had been a reasonable walk the day before was now deep with snow. My friend Kunga Sherpa and I broke trail in frequently waist deep snow back to safety, trailing 100+ people behind. Many runners of course had never experienced such mountain conditions. They were either blind to the dangers and, for example, would take a breather directly in the line of potentially tumbling rocks, or were on the edge of panic anticipating being engulfed at any moment. Despite all of this we all eventually arrived safely back at Gorak Shep.

Meanwhile, Pasang, our in-the-field organiser and one of the few Nepalese UIAGM guides, had coordinated with all the Himalayan Expedition staff across the race route and back in Kathmandu and had rearranged the Marathon and Ultra, starting at Gorak Shep, the following day. The race traditionally takes place on the same day, the 29th of May, the date of the first ascent of Everest and 2014 was no exception.

Start of the Everest Marathon 2014

The weather on the 29th was beautiful with blue skies forming the backdrop to snow covered mountains on all sides. The snow meant, however, that as soon as you stepped off the narrow trail you sank knee deep in it. This combined with the fact that the first hour involves crossing a moraine and boulder covered glacier meant that there was little chance to overtake others. The first long steep descent is a zig zag path that begins at a small plain where the memorials for those lost on Everest command a panoramic view across the peaks of Tamserku and Kangtega, miles away and towering above our final destination Namche Bazaar.

Runners in the Everest Marathon 2014

The snowline was at about 4300m at the village of Dingboche. Unfortunately this was the point where the route takes an uphill turn back into the snow, towards the impressive south face of Lhotse to complete a loop to create the correct distance. Few people can run on the uphill section especially at its high point of nearly 4700m. On completion of the loop back at Dingboche there was one of the many food and drink points and an electronic wrist tag recorder, but best of all friends and other trekkers to cheer us on. It marked the half way point.

Following this a long descent takes you to the village of Pangboche and beyond that a dramatic river crossing. For about a decade a rigid metal bridge gave a solid and safe crossing. Unfortunately, during the 2013 monsoon (and without any people or animals on it) it collapsed into the river. The new temporary wooden bridge further upstream requires a crossing under very unstable cliffs. As I approached a huge slough of rocks tumbled down some 20 metres ahead of me. As soon as it stopped I sprinted for safety.

In 2013 the hardest section for both Phanden and I was the ascent of the hill up to the famous monastery at Thengboche. This year it was made worse as it began to rain. Nonetheless I began to realise as I checked the time that I was going well and I might do a bit better than just shaving off a few minutes.

Tengboche Monastery

Running now with an Australian, I scuttled down the forest clad hill on the other side of Thengboche to the lowest point on the route at Phuki Tenga, a bridge over the Dudh Kosi river at 3250m. Ahead I could see two of the runners from my group. They were just beginning the climb up the hill on the other side. The hill from Phunki Tenga to Kangjuma is the last major ascent, but it is long and dusty. Walking as fast as I could I gained ground and passed many people, including my friends from our group. Glancing at my watch, I calculated that I might just be able to cover the ground from Kangjuma to Namche bazaar in an hour. It would mean that I would complete the race in 8 hours, more than 40 minutes faster than last year. As I passed one of the Tea shops in Kangjuma the owner called out “One half hours to Namche, but for you Tom Dai, 45 minutes because you are a runner!”

The trail into Namche is snake like, winding in and out and up and down across the hill side. I pushed on. At the final corner there is a large stupa where some supporters had gathered. "Come on, you can do it" one of them encouraged. I wasn’t sure, but it nearly made me burst into tears anyway.

Then the finish appeared. The banners, the tents, the people were all buzzing about. I couldn’t see my watch without glasses but didn’t dare to even slow down to look. It didn’t matter that there were many runners ahead of me, already wearing their medals and track suits exchanging stories with each other. Neither did it matter that there were a similar number probably behind and in some cases many hours behind. I pushed on.

Everest Marathon 2014 Finish Line

As I crossed the finishing line there was a wall of cameras clicking and friends giving hugs of congratulations. I could hardly speak .Still holding back the tears, I donned my tracksuit and collected my medal and certificate. The judge said 8 hours and 5 minutes Mr Thomas Sir. That would do me just fine I replied. I was 36 minutes faster and was 57th out of 131 runners.

In first place was Mr Sudip Kulung from Nepal in a time of 3hrs 52 09 and the last to arrive that day was Ms Hee Ja Moon from South Korea in 14hrs and 5 minutes. 

Already I can’t decide. Next year when I’m 60, I could have a go at the 60km but I’m sure I could get to below the 8 hour mark on the marathon……?

Tom Richardson works at the Outside shop in Hathersage, and for KE Adventure

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