Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Race Report: Sedbergh Hills

Back at the end of last year, I had a plan to compete in the NECAA fell championships, and Sedbergh Hills was one of the two AL races I needed to complete. Despite not being able to make enough fixtures to actually count in the champs, due to injury and clashes with other races, I still fancied having a crack at Sedbergh, and dipping my toe into the waters of a proper AL race.

Dipping toes into water. Now there's a thing. The weekend before I'd run (or attempted to!) support on the Capel Curig leg of the Paddy Buckley Round for a fellow Harrier. This involved being soaked through for around 6 hours on a Welsh mountainside, going up to the waist in man-eating bogs, and skating across greasy wet slate in constant fear of snapped ankles. Unfortunately, I ended up with several large blisters towards the end and that, combined with struggling to match the necessary pace due to not really being hill fit, meant that I had to bail out before the final peak of that leg.

I was a bit worried for 48 hours after the Paddy that the blisters may prevent me from running Sedbergh, but after carefully draining them there was massive improvement, so I decided to go for it.

Upon arrival at the campsite, I wasn't especially optimistic about conditions the next day; the ground was waterlogged and the clag was down on the tops. Just as we started pitching the tent, the heavens opened... Well, it wouldn't be camping if we didn't spend at least 50% of the time damp! Traditional tea of camp pasta and a couple of beers, and then into the sleeping bag for a night of anxiety induced insomnia.

Race day dawned, and we had a thoroughly civilised morning by normal standards at this kind of thing, being only a couple of miles from the start line and having pre-registered for the 11am start. Loads of time to mill around talking to other NFR types. Got selected for the random kit check, which was fine, and then we were lining up for the briefing.

I'm well out of my element on fell races still, especially something like this, so there was no glory dash. Instead, I settled into a position mid-pack and decided to just see what happened; if my legs felt ok I might start to 'race' but, otherwise, I was happy to just go on a bit of an adventure.

As we turned off the road and onto the fell proper, the pack split; some continued on a path to the left, whilst the rest of us formed a caterpillar along a trod that cut directly up the hillside. Not sure which line was quicker in the end but, if nothing else, it made sure I didn't go off too hot. Once the trod opened up a bit into more runnable terrain I was able to get going, and started to overtake a few people. The climbing legs were feeling reasonably good, so I was buoyed up for the day ahead.

The route heads straight up Arrant Haw before bearing due west to form a clockwise loop of the Howgills, via Black Force and the Calf, before dropping off the summit of Winder back down into Sedbergh. I had the GPX running on my watch (Heresy! Burn the witch!) as well as the Pete Bland map and a compass but I barely used the GPX and didn't use the map at all, in all honesty. The conditions had cleared up dramatically from the day before, and visibility was 100%; with well defined trods and paths for the majority of the route, I was content to just follow the crowd on the obvious line.

One thing Sedbergh Hills has is some utterly bonkers descents, at least by my usual standards. After passing me mincing down yet another hill, a certain Mr Tollitt of NFR was prompted to say "You don't like technical downhills much, do you Ben...?" Truer words were never spoken! Still, what places I lost on the descents I mostly made up on the climbs. What proved my undoing was actually all the contouring, especially in the run up to CP3 and Black Force, as there wasn't much contrasting t terrain that I could make up the time on: my X-Talons must not have been laced tightly enough as my feet were sliding around inside causing blisters on my blisters, and this sapped my already low confidence. Ho hum. It's all an experience, and good (un)clean fun!

The dead reckoning between CP3 and 4 was "interesting", with some slightly dodgy route choices, but soon enough we were back on defined trail, although I and several others take issue with Mr Bland's description of it being runnable! As we approached CP5 I passed a guy who was obviously not in a good way. Upon asking if he was alright, he explained that his legs had gone. He didn't sound great, and I asked if he had enough food (whilst reaching for a ClifBar to donate if necessary) and he replied that he'd not eaten soon enough, but had got some down now. I let him know it was only half a mile until CP5 and then headed off. As I passed the checkpoint I let the marshals know what was happening, and they were able to spot him in the distance due to his hi-vis t-shirt, so he was safe; not sure if they pulled him out at that point. I'd feel bad for him if they did, but if he was bonking that hard it would probably have been for the best.

From this point on the majority of the route was on runnable trails and, as a fellow competitor staying at our campsite said the next day, that meant ultrarunner territory i.e. keeping the legs turning over at reasonable pace whilst absolutely battered! Fortunately, that's precisely what most of my training has been about lately, and so I clawed back a few places, only to lose them again (and more!) on the precipitous descent back down towards Sedbergh!

As I reached the road again, and the last few hundred metres, an old chap shouted "Gaw'an, lad! Ye' can catch 'em!" Never one to back down from a challenge(!) I offered a prayer to the gods of eccentric muscle contractions that my quads wouldn't snap in comical, if excruciating, fashion, and set to reeling in the folk in front. I managed to get past one, maybe two, before hitting the finish chute. My time was a fairly pedestrian 3:14:48, according to my watch, which was good for 66/169. Other NFR types did much better, with Roger Sillitoe being the first from the club over the line, and Henrietta Bolton Carter, Jo Smith, and Karen Robertson taking the ladies' team prize.

A fun day out ended with post-race beers with my sister, brother-in-law, their housemate, and their mental huskie.

Edit: my good friend, Mr Dave Ailano, worked his GoPro magic on the race. The more eagle-eyed amongst you may spot me briefly at the start...

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