Monday, 4 June 2018

What goes a-Round...


Rounds are a fell running Thing. A challenge rather than a race, they involve following a set route or tagging specific peaks in order, and usually involve some kind of time cut-off. The Bob Graham Round in the Lake District is arguably the most famous - 42 peaks covering 66 miles and 27000ft climbing - and, along with the Paddy Buckley in Snowdonia and the Ramsay in the Highlands, makes up the Big Three.

Wooler Running Club and NFR stalwart, Glen McWilliams, has put his name to three Northumberland rounds, and the 'short' round - at 52km (more on that later...!) still an ultramarathon - had been on my mind for a while. My training plan for the Pennine Barrier at the end of June called for an effort of roughly that length, so it was an ideal opportunity. Training on the fells had been virtually non-existent due to an injury, and what training there had been had therefore been mostly road. A perfect precursor, then, to a route that took in Cheviot and Hedgehope...!

I'd originally planned to give it a crack on Saturday, but the forecast was for thunder and I didn't fancy being out on the fells dodging lightning strikes. Plans were changed and Saturday was given over to building flat pack furniture; Sunday was to be the excursion.

Arriving in Wooler to a fine drizzle, I made my way up the steps to the War Memorial that serves as the start and end of the round. Glen was otherwise engaged so couldn't be there to see me off; after a quick selfie to commemorate the moment I let my watch tick to 8am and then set off alone to pick up St Cuthbert's Way.

My 'nav skills' are renowned for being, shall we say, shit. Not having done SCW I didn't get off to the best of starts trying to follow the blinkin' way marked path and ended up taking a few wrong turns getting off the Common and towards Coldberry Hill. Suffice to say, map was in hand for the whole Round. Once I picked up the SCW proper, everything was pretty straight forward, with the exception of taking the wrong fork at one point because I was following the GPX on my watch more closely than the map. Error. Much has been made of the banning of GPS technology by Ambleside A.C., and I'm in the camp that thinks it's a luddite move. However, the technology isn't infallible, nor is the idiot wearing it, and a map, compass, and the skills to use them are mandatory for a reason. Mistake realised, track found, swear words sworn, off we go.

Glen had driven out to Hethpool to meet me on his way to the Yetholm Hill Race, part of the NFR champs this year, which was a nice surprise; we'd not met before, only talked on the phone, so hands were shook, photos taken, and supplies checked. Glen asked if I had a time in mind, and I tentatively said I'd like < 7 hours. This would get me the coveted gold certificate, but I'm realistic about the type of fell runner I am and knew that when the terrain got gnarly I'd slow right down. Glen apologised for the next stretch, which was road: my response was that it would give me an opportunity to bank some time! With that, I was off back into the wilds.

The SCW was diverted due to forestry works around Tom's Knowe, which added a bit on to the distance; it was well marked but much less direct. The thing about an ultra is, each diversion might only be a small amount, but there are more opportunities for them, and so the potential for a greater impact. All these little diversions - both the necessary, like that one, and the unneccessary, due to carelessness or a lack of local knowledge - would cost me by the end.

Crossing the border into Scotland, there's a point where the Pennine Way is forked. The original GPX I downloaded had the runner taking the eastern fork along the fenceline, but the map on the Facebook page had the route going virtually to Yetholm and picking up the western fork before then converging near Black Hag. I didn't want to go to all that effort to find I'd not done the full round, so opted to head to Yetholm and then south, passing the race HQ and getting a few odd looks! In retrospect, I probably should have clarified that route with Glen(!) as, when I told him later that I'd passed the race HQ, he was surprised and thought I may have taken the wrong path. Bugger.

Once on the Pennine Way, the long slog up to Cheviot began. I hit 26km in about 2hrs 45, which was fairly speedy but I knew the second half was going to be a killer. I'd previously walked this route up to Cheviot with my wife and in-laws and knew what to expect. Worryingly, I started to get cramp in my quads and was having to take regular breathers. You can't fake fell running, and I was faking it.

The Hen Hole and I have a bit of a history, whereby every time I get remotely close I seem magnetically drawn to it and nearly plummet to my doom. Coming off Cheviot during the 2016 Wooler Marathon I had to basically chuck myself on the ground to avoid sliding off the edge; this time, with the clag down and with a mind preoccupied with thoughts of quadriceps, I realised far too late that the ground was about to disappear. Course corrected and back to the trudge. Cheviot summit was gained, via the slippery death that is the flagstone path, and selfie taken, and then it was over the fence to begin the suicide drop down to Harthope Burn.

This part of the route is the second half of the Chevy Chase. Never having done the Chevy, I knew I was at a disadvantage as there's no path; you drop straight off the side of the mountain and then up Hedgehope. Without the local knowledge, I found every possible crap line and none of the good ones. I'm also a right soft lad when it comes to descending; no disengage brakes and brains here! As a result of not letting fly and risking a broken ankle, my quads took a hammering from the eccentric contractions as I tried to hold back the descent. Eventually reaching the burn, I stopped for a moment to take a video of an adder that reared up just as I nearly trod on him, and then it was back to the graft and trying to find a line up Hedgehope.

Whilst still a tough slog, I didn't find it as bad as the north face of Cheviot. Maybe I was just delirious! Summit gained, and selfie taken, I began the descent. I'd been vaguely looking forward to this on account of it being 'all down hill from here', but hadn't appreciated how steep the descent actually was. Once again, the quads took a pounding. For the most part, despite having been warned by Glen about the nav on this section, I didn't have a problem. I knew exactly where I was - always thumb the map, kids - and exactly where I needed to go. My line choice was terrible though. There must have been trods that I didn't pick up, and I lost a good amount of time on bad ground. Despite that, I made it to Carey Burn still well ahead of schedule (or so I thought). My average pace had slowed drastically from when I saw Glen, but it was still on for finishing 52km in under 7 hours.

The trail along Carey Burn is rocky and technical. As my watch beeped at me that I had done 51km, and I was thinking "Umm... There's more than a km to go..." the Trail Gods found me wanting and demanded a blood sacrifice. This they achieved by sticking a rock in my path which I kicked, sending me Supermaning and nailing my right shoulder on an even bigger rock. Luckily, my pack protected my spine, but it still bloomin' knacked. I thought I might have a fracture of the humerus or the elbow but, once the initial pain subsided, things were moving (the way they're supposed to!) but sore, so it was a case of 'cowboy up, buttercup', and get on with it.

By this point I was aware that < 7 hours was getting away from me as I still had roughly 5km to go and, whilst I could easily cover that in the time I had remaining on good trails and without having just done 51km(!), that wasn't the situation I found myself in. Carey Burn continued to be a rocky technical monstrosity that slowed me down in a very picturesque way, and then it was Hell's Path. Least said about that the better, but it's aptly named and not what you want to be confronted with after that amount of running and ascent.

Coming across the Common I tried to hit the afterburners but there just wasn't enough time left and it was with, I admit, a sinking feeling that I watched the clock tick over to 7:00'00. I still gave it the beans back into Wooler - I was going to finish strong if nothing else - and climbed the steps to the Memorial to end my Round in 7:03'47. Gutted. Selfie taken, and then off to the toilets to try and clean up a bit before eating a PBJ and a Clif Bar, and downing some Mountain Fuel recovery.

So. Reflections. Firstly, I would recommend fell and ultra runners giving this a crack. If you love the Cheviots - as I assume anyone who's spent any time in them does - then it's a great route, and Glen's a top bloke who'll talk you through it and answer any questions you might have. Secondly, if you want a fast time you have to recce it, particularly that Chevy section. All things told, an on-sight effort of 7:04 is not bad but I can't help thinking that I lost a good 20-30 mins unnecessarily, which is frustrating. Still, that's fell running!.

I imagine I'll have another crack at it at some point, as that 4 minutes is going to bug me. It won't be this year though, and maybe not next year: I think I need to do some Chevy recces with people that know the lines before I go for a fast effort. I also need to pay attention to the map more than I did and, weirdly, slow down in places: if I'd taken the time to be certain of my route I'd have been quicker than just pushing on.

Needless to say, I'm a bit sore today.

Once again, massive thanks to Glen.

Route trace and stats

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