Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Race Report: The Ennerdale 50k

Way back in April I was supposed to be running the Kielder 80k, but broken bones and a torn quad meant that I was never going to toe the line. Luckily for me, the guys at High Terrain were sympathetic to my plight, and allowed me to pick another event to apply the credit to. Ennerdale 50k was to be it. Sure, why not run two marathons and an ultra within six weeks?! A fine plan, with no conceivable drawbacks.

I’ve had a shocker of a year, for a number of reasons (mostly personal, but some injuries), and I’ve over-raced and under-recovered. The difference between how I felt at Dark Skies, despite several weeks off injured, vs Kielder Marathon was huge. True to form, I went to Harriers the Tuesday before Ennerdale and threw down 15x300s in 58 seconds each; not spectacular by any means but clearly harder on my body at that stage in proceedings than I realised and not wise just before an ultra; an “easy” trail 10k the following day turned into a death march, and I knew I was in the hole. 48hrs emergency taper, meaning zero running, and a massive dose of “fingers crossed” was the order of the day.

From looking down the start list, I didn’t recognise many names - a certain primate being an honourable exception - and na├»vely thought I might have a shot at a podium spot. With that in mind, I’d worked out splits that felt achievable and would put me in the right ball park, time wise.

Did I mention this was all to take place whilst Storm Brian was jizzing all over us? A quick jog down to the water’s edge after registering should have put all thoughts of a fast time out of my head, given the strength of the wind, but it didn’t. We lined up, the gun went off, and I zachmillered out of the gate. This approach has never worked for me; I’m a diesel engine, and run my best races the way aboriginal peoples persistence hunt. Alas, of late I’ve developed something of a bad habit in that respect, much to my detriment.

Before long, someone appeared on my shoulder, asking if I had a pace in mind because I kept looking at my watch. Actually, it was quite the opposite at this point, because I was having technical difficulties and had no idea what my pace or HR was. He soon opened a lead, and someone else shot by too, before Simon appeared next to me and we settled into joint third.

All smiles at 5k in...
For a while we worked together but we were both feeling the pace was too hot that early. There was a fair gap between us and fourth though, and we could still see second, so we were in a good position. I was really feeling the combination of two marathons, the headwind, and the incline though, and gradually dropped off. Simon was running strong and I was pretty sure he’d have honours, despite new Dad sleep (or lack thereof!). For a while I was running solo and then BAM! The wind really seemed to pick up and I was forced to run as hard as I could virtually to stand still. I was being blown all over the place and guys were passing me primarily because they were able to maintain a pace - any pace - where I couldn’t.

This continued until about 13km, at which point we started along the south shore of the lake. Cruiser trails with a tailwind? Don’t mind if I do! I lit the jets and set about making up some time. According to my watch I was hammering 10k pace at times, and overtook a good number of people again.

Then we got to the technical section.

I hate technical. Wet slippery rocks are a big no no for me, and there was a good long stretch of that kind of shite at the end of the lap, culminating in a roped scramble below Angler’s Crag. My shoes - in this situation X-Talons, but my Trail Talons are just as bad - are rubbish on wet rock. I’m like Bambi on ice. Being good on technical stuff, particularly downhill, is mainly technique and confidence; you can’t buy it. However, to be confident in your skills you also have to be confident that your kit will do what you ask of it and I know mine won’t. Consequently, I was slowed to a snail paced walk, gingerly picking my way through the rocks, and losing place after place. I wouldn’t gain these back.

Being a two lap course, the main checkpoint was also the start/finish area. Rolling through and showing my number to the marshal, I headed straight for the tent that was serving as an aid station. I’d been using shotbloks for fuel en route, having had my usual banana and peanut butter porridge for breakfast and two clifbars on the way over. By this point I was ready for something savoury and was not disappointed: cheese pasties! Get in ma belly! I remembered wolfing these down at the Kielder 50k and they hit the spot at Ennerdale too. The two volunteers crewing the aid station were stars and filled my flasks with water whilst I stuffed my face, and I was in and out in almost no time at all.

The problem with a lapped course is that you know what’s coming and that can be pretty demoralising. As I set off I knew I was in for another relentless grind uphill into the wind, and that I couldn’t make that time back on the south shore because of the technical death that awaited me; any places lost were likely lost for good. What I hadn’t particularly counted on was either the wind being stronger, or my legs being that much more tired; I seemed to have to walk even more the second time. Given that my jacket had wetted out, my baselayer was soaked, and I was wearing splits, this started to become a bit of a concern as my core temperature dropped ever lower. Although my baselayer was merino wool, I wasn’t generating enough heat for it to insulate, and I felt the beginnings of hypothermia coming on. Shovelling the food in, I patted myself on the back (mentally!) for bringing more than the mandatory kit: I had thermal tights and a top in a dry bag in my race vest and was very glad of that as, if I turned an ankle (as was very possible on the south shore), I’d have been in a world of trouble very quickly.

Luckily, no such calamity occurred, and I passed the checkpoint at the eastern end of the lake with a laugh and a joke for the marshal (who was a hero being out in those conditions) before picking up the pace again. A bit of leap frogging ensued - I didn’t have anywhere close to 10k pace this time around(!) - and it became just a question of finishing; all other goals were long gone by now. In the end, I managed 11th overall, 10th man; not awful by any stretch but I do wonder what I could have achieved under different circumstances. Simon unfortunately had back issues and made the sensible decision to drop after one lap. The guy who appeared on my shoulder at the start? Won it.

So now the dust has settled, and some thinking has been done. A problem with social media - and I hold my hands up to being very much part of the problem rather than the solution up until now - is that there seems to be a race to the bottom in terms of tackling ultra distances; they’re definitely en vogue, and if you’re prone to FOMO then suddenly your entry list on SiEntries is looking Very Scary Indeed. I only did two ultras this year - the very fact that I just said “only two ultras” illustrates my previous point nicely - but I did four marathons as well. Whilst I could have plodded round them without too many ill effects - the marathons anyway - I don’t plod round races. I race them, to the best of my ability at the time. That takes a fair amount out of me and I’ve neglected my recovery pretty significantly. Having seen a steady drop off in race performance I’ve decided a priority check is in order.

I’m already entered in the Pennine Barrier 50 for next year, so that’s one ultra, and I’m doing the Yorkshire Marathon in the hope of getting the sub-3 monkey off my back. I’ve got training schedules in place for them, and that should keep things in check a bit. Doing the schedules made me see that I really don’t have the time for any more long distance stuff, when a sensible build up and recovery is factored in, and so the Fellsman isn’t going to happen in 2018. The schedules do allow for some half marathon efforts and, beyond that, I’m going to enjoy the XC fixtures, local fell racing, some road 10ks, and maybe even something on the track. I’m taking two weeks off entirely before the Gibside Fruitbowl, which is my favourite race of the year, and then everything is going to be very chilled and pretty low mileage until the training cycle starts again on 9 January.

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