Saturday, 14 May 2016

Kielder 80k race report

After six years of rocking up at ultra races, I can finally pen some thoughts on a WIN :-)

It's been an interesting winter with regards to preparation for the season, with experimentation on a number of factors. I've had a long delay in the start of my running training with the hope of peaking at the end of August, there has been the new focus on core and strength exercises, I've been playing around with the concentrations of the Mountain Fuel Xtreme Energy drinks, introduced sweet potatoes to my race food and started mixing my own gels.

At this point in time, I've no idea whether any of these factors has contributed through some marginal gains, but who cares, I've got a win.

What I do know is that I have enjoyed checking out the trails round Kielder. This is a new race to me and, with any new race, I try to take the opportunity to recce the course. Four trips up to Kielder gave me enough knowledge to know how to pay out my energy on race day with the most important point to note that the tougher running came in the first half of the race, with some seriously fast tracks in the final few hours. This blog is not the place to dwell on the various navigation mistakes I made on these recces - what happens in Kielder, stays in Kielder!

4am in the campervan, the alarm goes off, I pull back the curtains and can't see out. Two inches of snow at low levels, six inches on the fells. This could make things interesting.

For the first hour and a half loop to the Kielder Castle checkpoint, I settled in with three others, forming the lead group. It felt like a good but comfortable pace. After a bit of chatting, we sussed out that Jacob and Hugh were on the 100k event while Jon and myself were in the 80k. So at this point, at least, I had an idea of who I was up against.

We all arrived together at Kielder Castle, just a quick refill of a bottle and we were all away, ready for the next three and a half hour loop over the higher and rougher terrain. The snow had not been an issue for the first section from the start, but now it became a significant variable. As we climbed, the snow became thicker and the visibility became less. I was starting to think that safety in numbers might be the order of the day over the fell section so I tucked in with Jacob, Hugh was a few paces behind and Jon was just drifting out of sight, depending on the visibility. I had already got my compass and map out, but the course markings were just about close enough together to see us through the open fell section.

As we came back into the forest, a slight rise saw me open a small gap on the others and I thought I'd push on a bit here. I wouldn't normally open the gas this early in a race but I was concious of the fact that my strength is on the rougher ground and I felt I should try to take advantage of this. I had no idea how far back Jon was; the trees prevented any long views back, so I had to presume he was just out of sight. I made good use of the steep climb to Three Pikes and the (very snowy) single track to Grey's Pike and opened up a lead. In for a penny, in for a pound.

Photo - Ian Mulvey

Coming back to Kielder Castle, I thought that if I could get in and out before the next runners arrived, it would give me a psychological lift. The marshals were great and you know you are getting the star treatment when the race directors (Ian and Paul) offer to sort out your drinks bottles. Within two or three minutes I was on my way with no sign of any other runners.

I had taken my jacket off on the way into the checkpoint and spent the next 30 minutes regretting that. My fingers, in particular, went really cold and I struggled to sort out food so just relied on some drink for a while. I went through a bit of a low for this period but, as the sun started to warm me, I perked up. This section takes about two hours and brings you out at the dam, at the other end of the lake. I must admit I spent a lot of time looking back over my shoulder, trying to get a gauge on how much of a lead I might have but the terrain never really allowed a good view.

Photo - Ian Mulvey

Finaly, just as I was entering the checkpoint at the dam, I was joined by three other runners; Simon, Mark and Ryan, who were the three leaders of the 50k race which started some hours after us. This was going to make the final couple of hours interesting, as the one part of the course where I could get a good look back was round the cycle path round the lake all the way back to the finish, but I would have no idea whether those chasing me were in the 50k or the 80k. I basically told myself that if you wanted to guarantee the win I would have to assume anyone might be chasing me down so I'll just have to try and stay ahead.

I tried desperately to hang onto the three leaders in the 50k but that was never going to happen and they drifted away, chatting and smiling. I then spent the next hour and a half looking back over my shoulder and kicking myself up the backside every time I felt I was easing off - not easy to do after all that running. It was definitely a grind compared to the bounce I had for a lot of the day, but a grind proved to be enough to hold off any others and I crossed the line in first place in about 8:45 hours - happy bunny.

In the end, I had over an hour on Jon in second place, but I wasn't to know that and it was pleasing that when I needed to dig in I was able to push myself over the final 90 minutes or so. So, after coming so close to an ultra win at the 2014 Osmotherley Phoenix, I had finally claimed a top spot. OK, so it wasn't the UK Ultra Championships with a stacked field, but I just wanted to be able to say I had actually won one of these bloomin' events. Job done.

I've done a couple of the High Terrain Events races and have enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere and personal touches from the team in charge. You feel like you are a part of the event and not just a number on the entry sheet and the race directors are all very sociable with the runners, regardless of where you appear in the results. It seems that many first time ultra runners are doing their events and I get the impression these runners are getting a positive experience. Long may that continue.