Monday, 12 April 2021

GFA at Dorney Lake Marathon

GFA

Three magical little letters.

When I ran my first marathon I had no idea that people like me could run marathons that quickly. Several years later running my first ever sub-4 marathon I just didn't know how I'd be able to go faster. 

Many failed attempted later with joyous results such as heat stroke and refusing to even talk about how the race went I lined up once again for the Dorney Lake Marathon on Saturday 3rd April 2021 with the goal of going sub-3:45.



Training by yourself for 3 months in lockdown is not ideal marathon training. I've realised how much harder it is for long run miles to tick by solo or how different speed work feels without friends dragging you along. I was determined though and week in week out I'd turned up to my sessions, committed to strength and conditioning and tried to find some confidence to have another go at achieving a GFA time. 

In recent years, my close-but-so-far results have actually caused quite a bit of trauma with road marathons. They stopped being enjoyable. So my primary goal on race day was actually to have a positive experience. Then to get a PB (3:45:47 to break) then get a GFA (sub-3:45).

I'd chosen Dorney Lake Marathon as I'd heard really positive things about the socially distanced event they'd put on safely in 2020 so I knew the chances of it getting cancelled were as low as possible and I'd feel it was a safe event on the day. Strange how our choice of marathons has so dramatically changed in the past 18 months. Active Training World, the event organisers, did an incredible job - I thought it was fantastically organised and with just 465 participants with start times spread over 3 hours it felt a good way to do a 2021 Spring marathon.

My wave was at 11am which made waking up / travelling and eating pre-race all feel like a normal long run day - no 5am alarms needed. This helped keep me calm on race morning and I kept reminding myself that 'What will be will be'. No point stressing now. Dorney itself is beautiful - a long tree lined rowing lake which made for a 4 lap but quite windy course. My wonderful coach had offered to pace me which was a delight as I knew I'd go out too fast (I did) and I'd have a meltdown at some point (I also did that) but more than anything the course could have been quite boring and Claudi helped keep the day fun and positive.

We set off at a decent, albeit a bit fast pace, but I felt brilliant - marathon pace felt super easy. I didn't drink until about 7.5k which in hindsight was probably a bit long and I definitely need to practice with cups/bottles on long runs as I've been spoilt with the ease of drinking from a hydration vest. The thick salt stuck to the side of my face at the end showed this is a definite future point to work on. 

Because training in lockdown isn't ideal I had developed a bit of a niggle caused by a tight achilles - something a sports massage or two could have dramatically helped - so I was in my workhorse shoes not 'the' shoes that every other runner seemed to be wearing. 

We passed halfway in 1:47:15 which is a good time for me (my PB is only 2 minutes faster) but I felt great although the repeated laps and the wind was starting to grind me down a little mentally. My pace started slowing a tad and at about 28km the relentless laps and the prospect of having to keep my pace up broke me a little so I stopped and walked for a pathetic little cry, some electrolytes and a good old fashioned pep-talk. 

Feeling suitably sorry for myself but acknowledged off we went again. About 32km I'd found some rhythm again and while not at quite the blistering pace of the first half I'd done the maths and realised it was still enough for the sub-3:45 time I so desperately felt I deserved. So we gritted our teeth and dug in. That last 10km lap was so hard but I was grateful that I'd brought more gels than perhaps I expected to use and I switched to taking gels every 30 minutes which helped mentally if nothing else. 


The km at 40km we hit the head wind and it was really hard to keep pushing but I was so determined for that PB that as we rounded the windy patch at 41km I was determined: no matter what: I would finish strong. My wonderful pacer Claudi was almost screaming at me with 500m to go, as were my legs, but I fought hard and pulled off what must be the best sprint finished of my life with my average pace in that last 1/2km dropping to 4:11/km (faster than my 5km pace!). 

Over the line I collapsed in a heap on the floor and let myself finally give in to the waves of tears. 3:43:50. I'd finally broken 3:45. 

More than that I'd broken it after 3 months isolated training. I knew there was more. And I'd broken the horror of the marathon. As I crawled my way to the nearest patch of grass to rip my shoes off and continue to cry my eyes out I could hardly fathom it. 

3:43:50. Good for age. Finally - I'd done it!




Sunday, 3 January 2021

Autumn 100: The English Edition

It's not big and it's not clever but I've just hung up on the guy from Track and Trace. I didn't really mean to. And it was definitely not the grown up response but I cannot process what just happened. Three days out from a race I have trained for two years for I have been told I cannot race. All because I went to a coffee shop where someone had Covid19. I find this news out while packing up my kit. And I sit in the remnants of my kit for a really long time. Frozen. Unable to move. To process. To cope. To breath. It's over.

Two hours later my friends have swung in to action. It's not over. They tell me. We can make it happen. We rearrange. Reimagine. Plan like crazy and reschedule the race for one week later. We don't do it lightly. To try and run a solo hundred miles seems utterly ridiculous. But it's the big dream. Run 100 miles. Not that race. Not UTMB points. Not the buckle (you earn buckles rather than medals in hundos) but the experience of that journey and of testing myself against my limits. After two years of hard work I still have no idea if it's possible. But race lines won't affect my desire to try.

So one week late I'm standing on the start line of the Autumn 100 race, Goring Village Hall, with my friends Claudi and Cathy socially distanced cheering me on and my partner in crime Graeme ready for the first pacing duty. So I load my watch, 3-2-1, off I go. We head out on the exactly same route as my race the week before and my amazing friends and family have come together to set up aid stations where they would have been using bags I've packed for them. This means as I start running I can mentally easily break down the terrifying 161km in to just the next X until the next aid station and I focus on only trying to be in the present moment. 


The Thames Path is beautiful and the weather couldn't be better: it's cool but not cold, bright but not sunny, and it's a bit damp underfoot but not too muddy (ideal as the ground is softer). I happily chat away to Graeme as we head north and after what seems a very short 10km Graeme has turned around and I run in to the pretty riverside village of Wallingford to cheers from my Dad who has run out to meet me. I follow him in to my first aid station set up by my Mum and after a quick natter and some fuel I'm off north by myself for the first time. The quiet as I run north past boats and dog walkers and a couple of comments of "I thought that race was last weekend?" is blissful and I feel so blessed to be here able to run. Having the race not happen but being on the start line anyway has made this more of an honour to be fit enough and well enough to be here running.


As I come towards the final north stretch I hear the screaming voice of my friend Cathy whooping across the fields as I approach Little Wittenham and we run in together to the back of her car that she's set up as Aid Station 2. The joy of the A100 is it's 8 sections in total comprised of 4 out and backs from Goring so it's actually quite simple to try and recreate if you've got friends willing to be your aid stations along the way. So after refuelling we head south back towards Goring and Cathy runs me all the way back to my parents aid station where I pick up my lovely friend Martha and we head south again for 5km together. About 35km Martha leaves me (after much clapping from her gorgeous baby Ava - best cheer squad member of the day) and that final section back to Goring I feel not quite brilliant. I'm over warm, my stomach feels a bit unhappy and I treat myself to a couple of mostly hiking kilometres. Rather stupidly I've just let myself get too warm and after stripping off several layers I'm feeling much better and I run in to Goring to my lovely campervan crew. 




I'm so excited as we head out for leg 2 to have picked up two inspirational running friends who don't know each other - my rapid, long distance queen Nicola, and my equal rapid parkrun friend Thom. Together we chat away as we head North East on leg two, following the Thames on the other side of the first leg. This section is the hilliest of the four but it's good as it encourages me to keep a steady pace and I'm feeling so upbeat. We pass 50km and I feel all the hairs on the back of my arms and neck stand up. "I'm doing this. I'm actually doing this."


One of the sections I found hardest while out on practice runs by myself was Grims Ditch - a long section that on a map looks like a straight line but in practice is narrow and extremely undulating with lots of tree roots and twists and turns. However, with my friends it's great fun. I pass another aid station manned by Martha and baby Ava and after a fair bit of hiking uphill but still lots of decent running sections we make it to the turnaround of leg 2 with another aid station brilliantly provided by Cathy. As I arrive in she's kindly set the aid station up right by the church in Swyncombe but I know there is a final short climb up to a car park for the aid station on race day so I stubbornly run a quick out and back before refuelling. If I'm doing it: I'm doing it properly! 



I head back south with Nicola for the climb out of Swyncombe that had scared me in planning but on race day is filled with smiles even though it's tough. My legs are still feeling pretty good but my stomach isn't that happy. I'm feeling quite bloated and that makes running a bit uncomfortable but the company is distracting and as we get back to the river I'm joined by my friend Riz and unexpectedly my parents have hiked miles to come and cheer me on. Leaving them for the final 7km back in to Goring of this leg I hit a massive low. I think the combination of it getting dark and me being down on my predicted schedule hits me hard and I find it hard to crawl out of the hole I've got myself in to. I'm also feeling sick and it's taking a lot of energy to keep eating. Riz goes above and beyond in his pacing duties passing over his headtorch to me as I hadn't expected to need mine until leg 3. We trudge in to Goring together and I'm beyond grateful for the company that scrapes me through to the end of leg 2. 


Back at the campervan in Goring my heart soars as I come across my merry band of supporters - all standing spaced out in the car park. I've got my friend Simon (covering the aid stations on leg 3), Luke (taking me through the nighttime Ridgeway sections), Matt (here for the cheers and some miles on leg 4), Gabi (here for her first night time trail experience) and of course Riz, Nicola and Graeme. I get bundled in to the van by Claudi where I change my t-shirt, shorts, socks and shoes to feel 'fresh' and am fed pizza while I complain I'm really not in to food. As I stand up after eating I suddenly know firmly I am going to be sick and seconds later I throw up violently. Over and over again. 




While this isn't the experience anyone wants to go through, especially not surrounded by your mates, about 3 minutes later I'm feeling 100 times better as my bloated stomach has gone and I really do feel like I can press on again. I clean up. Drink something. Horribly, I eat something and my pals remind me that at 50 miles, every step I'm about to take will be the furthest I've ever run. And I should be so proud.


And so with my own headtorch now on we head out through Streatley and on to the Ridgeway in the dark - a merry band of Gabi, Riz, Nicola and me. This group have to put up with the snails pace of me recovering from being ill but they are happy to be helping me achieve something so crazy in this totally crazy year. The snails pace works though and we make it out at my friend Luke's car as a makeshift aid station. This section - out and back to Chain Hill will become one of three moments I look back on as the toughest of the run. I can totally understand why this is the chunk that causes people to DNF on return to Goring Village Hall on the race. The ridgeway is lovely but it's undulating, muddy, exposed and quite frankly boring in the dark. There is a joke amongst those who do A100 that both directions on leg 3 are uphill and it honestly feels like that is true. You're constantly dragged to walking as you face another rolling uphill section. 

I'm also now on the longest time I've ever been on my feet and the tiredness is eating away at me. Before the race, I thought it would be physical pain in my legs/body that would be the reason I might not make it. But by far on race day the killer is the exhaustion. My poor friends have to deal with me repeatedly needing to sit down for 60 second 'nap' breaks. I run until I want to fall over then I let myself lie on the trail for a bit and we go again. It's a horrible vicious attack of exhaustion. Reaching Chain Hill I'm treated to my lovely friend Simon who has brought soup, the first thing I've actually wanted to eat in hours and though I feel like I'm melting through tiredness Simon puts his arm on my shoulder and reminds me that there are just 3 legs of the 8 to go. 100km done. "You're doing it."

So off Luke, Nicola and I set again in to the night. I have no idea how it's possible but the rumours are true: both directions of leg 3 are uphill. We scrape our way through the miles and eventually I make it to Luke's car as a check point halfway back where I'm granted a 3 minute nap break in the front. I'm handed over to my friend Flav and the two of us, in the middle of the night, head off in to the black. I'm virtually crawling by this time, moving so slowly I'm feeling hugely guilty. But Flav is all good temperament and positivity and we happily chat away as we clock the miles back and before I know it we've made it back to Streatley and are running through the streets on our way to the van. 

The crew back at the van are in a sorry but upbeat state having been starved of sleep but they're delighted to see me and I now know I'm going to finish this adventure. I get treated to a pacer swap again and complain non stop about being forced to eat while also being delighted my friends are making sure I take on something. At this point I pick up two pacers - the highly energetic and enthusiastic Samy, and my coach and brilliantly inspirational friend (and two time 100 miler finisher) Claudi. Claudi was due to be my original pacer the weekend before for this final 25 mile section so it feels momentous to have got to the point where we are running the final leg. 


This is though, where it all falls apart a bit for me. The feeling of the end being so near, the gnawing overwhelming pull of tiredness and the fog that has descended in to the river edge we are running along is mentally exhausting. I keep seeing things that look like perfect spots to lie down "ah yes cowpat in the middle of a field, lovely" but I get cajoled in to continuing moving. I happily contemplate how if I lie down I'll freeze to death but I won't have to keep moving. It all gets quite bleak. After several hours moving so slowly we are virtually going backwards I make it to Pangbourne and my friend Matt has set up an aid station in his car. He hands me a tub of noodle soup and informs me lovingly but firmly that I'm not allowed to leave until I've eaten it. So I sit in the front of his car and cry my eyes out at the prospect of having to eat. And I mean full on snotty, sobbing, guttural tears. Sob. Sob. Sob. 


But hey. That's what friends are for. And through the snotty tears I shovel some food in to my nauseated self. Released back in to the fields we continue our crawl towards Reading and the turn. Suddenly we're running towards my friends Heidi and Stu, who have cycled from London to set up their aid station at the final turn and I am treated to sugary hot coffee and gingerbread men. As I sit there eating the tiredness suddenly dissipates and I discover a bit of a breakthrough moment. I check my watch. I calculate if I push on I can finish in under 28 hours. I look from my watch up to Claudi. "I know," she says. "But we have to get moving. It's going to be close." So I'm off.




And suddenly I feel like I'm flying. I cover the section from Reading back to Pangbourne over twice as quickly as I did on the way out. On the approach to Pangbourne my parents are standing in a field cheering me on. No one wanted to tell me they'd be there in case the very first train of the day they'd managed to catch from London hadn't been running. "We're so proud of you" my Mum says. I cry. In fact I'm crying writing that again in my race report. My parents are bloody brilliant. More friends are scattered around the fields by Pangbourne cheering me on. It's almost overwhelming but the clock keeps ticking and I push on. My friends find me sugary fizzy drinks and we run out of Pangbourne and on to the blasted final section back to Goring. At one point I am forced to sob as I have to hobble my screaming legs down a flight of trail steps. But I keep moving. "It's going to be tight" Claudi says. It's the energy I need and I'm off again, trying to push forward down the trail as quickly as I can.


During my training I've developed a mantra song, a song that empowers me and lifts me up when times get rocky and Claudi plays it out the speaker of her phone now as my little merry band of pacers help push me along the trail:

"I am a giant. Stand up on my shoulders, tell me what you see.
I am a giant. We'll be breaking boulders underneath our feet.
Don't hide your emotions, you can throw down your guard.
And feed from the notion we can be who we are. 
You taught me something: freedom is ours.
It was you who taught me living is togetherness."

It is impossible to imagine how I could have been running towards Goring now without that crew of friends. My crew. My togetherness. They've let me stand on their shoulders to get to this point. In return I've given absolutely every ounce of myself until rubbed raw in to my emotionally destroyed but still determined state. And so we run on.

Having run this section before I know when we are just minutes from Goring. The clock informs me time is running low but I know I'm going to make it and the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention as Matt whispers for me to finish well. So I round the corner from the river path and ignoring the uphill back to the village hall and the screaming in my legs and the hours of tiredness and the nausea I somehow start sprinting throwing everything I possibly have at the last stretch and just like that, I reach the front door to Goring Village Hall which I touch and then burst in to guttural sobs. It's over. I did it. 27:57:01. I turn to Graeme who has just run me in with our friends. "We did it," I sob. "You did." He replies. For days afterwards the poor boy will have to carry me round the flat and help pull me from lying down to sitting up as I deal with the consequences of putting your everything in to something. But really: I think that almost-breaking-point was what I was always looking for.



So there you have it: I did it. Or more accurately we did it. Because the real thing I learnt on this journey is, just as they say it takes a village to raise a child, the same is true of an ultrarunner. And I have the most incredible badass village around me. 

27:57:01. 100 miler debut. Still cannot believe it. But proudly: we did it. 



Sunday, 11 October 2020

DNS at A100

I am sitting in my spare bedroom surrounded by the carnage of packing for my first 100 miler. A 100 miler that I have decided not to start at. I can't quite believe it but as I was packing this morning I got a call from Test and Trace telling me that as I had been in contact with someone during the last two weeks who has tested positive for Covid-19 and that irrespective of the negative test I have since had, I was by law required to isolate until the Tuesday after my race.

Two years ago I decided to do my first hundred mile race. I'd just completed Ironman and I knew that that had always been a stepping stone for me in to the misty world of ultrarunning. I run these races because I want to pursue a deeper sense of who I am: to understand myself further and to overcome whatever darkness I might find on the road. I could try and keep secret that I have been told to isolate. Pretend it hasn't happened. Observe that if I'd tested positive I'd be allowed to race (I would be only forced to isolate for 10 days - which would end this Friday rather than 14 days as I tested negative - next Tuesday) and that seemingly makes little sense.

But I run ultras to help prove the kind of person I am: true to myself, honourable, determined. And therefore it is with heartbreak I won't be starting at Autumn 100. My bags are packed, I have had the most wonderful block of training, I've tapered well and I feel so ready to take it on. But Covid-19 has taken far bigger things away from people this year than some UTMB points and a finishers t-shirt.

I've got plans now to tackle the same route a week later. Amusingly the dry weather forecast due on race weekend is replaced with torrential weather the week after. I won't have the same level of support from access to toilets and aid stations to cheer points from the volunteers. I'll get no buckle for completing it, receive no t-shirt, no UTMB points and won't be on the official finishers list. But again: that isn't why I run Ultras.

I am crying my eyes out. But I "forget what is behind and strain towards what's ahead." I'll see you on the other side of this weird, wild ride.





Friday, 7 August 2020

Racing | My race is cancelled: now what?

2020 will surely be defined by two words: unprecedented and cancelled. Due to these unprecedented times, every single one of the world marathon majors has now been cancelled for everyday runners. Runners up and down the country who've got used to a pattern of training from race to race are suddenly left wondering, now what?

After I chose to drop out of my A race this year due to restrictions on training during lockdown, I've been thinking through quite a lot of alternatives about what training, racing and running looks like for me in 2020 and here are some of my thoughts of how you could answer your own 'what now' questions.


1. Virtual races
There are still lots of virtual races happening around the country - why not sign up for one of these and train with the same dedication you would for your usual race? The great Run Through offer virtually every distance up to marathons and their races cost just £20 to enter. You can still show off your #medalmonday and feel like you are part of the racing community with their bubbly online Facebook community and lovely hand written notes each finisher receives in the post.

2. Seek adventure
Who said running required finish lines? This summer the number of people chasing FKTs (fastest known times) is proof of how there are plenty of alternative ways to set a target and work towards it. Take the path less travelled, explore more, try the things you don't usually: road lovers - why not try trails? trail queen - why not try track? Slow down, take a whole day hiking, get in to wild swimming, pick up cycling - remember that adventure is out there for those brave enough to seek it.

3. Go wilder
While many races are cancelled lots of the smaller, often more wild ones are still happening! I'm a big fan of Maverick and from next weekend they are back with mindful Covid-19 returns to racing. The 5km PB might not be on the cards, but you are bound to have a brilliant day on new exciting trails, hanging out in a race village and soaking in the festival style atmosphere.


4. Go faster
This is such a great time to dedicate some effort to getting your shorter distances faster. If you don't fancy hitting the trails, why not work towards a new 5km PB? Follow an 8 week training plan, even work with a coach if you are saving your usual gym/race entry money, and see what you can achieve at the end of a dedicated training block.

5. Go further
The road racing community might have abruptly stopped but there is plenty going on in the ultrarunning community. Always fancied a longer distance? This could be an amazing time to work towards a longer goal: train mindfully, build up slowly but why not work towards a longer distance while the number of races you usually would be smashing round are on hold?


Whatever you decide is next: stay safe, train mindfully and work hard and you never know what you might achieve.

Friday, 19 June 2020

Trigs | Fan Brycheiniog, Carmarthen Fan, Brecon Beacons

Just 6 days before Christmas, I had managed to persuade my Dad to take an impromptu trip to Wales, thanks to some annual leave I swiftly needed to use up before the end of the year.

While I've spent time in the Brecon Beacons before, I had managed to miss off many of the major summits and was keen to explore some of the higher, but still not so touristy, tops. And so with that we drove deep in to the national park, parking at the Tafarn-y-Garreg pub and headed for an incredible ridgeline.


On a clear day, I am told the views from the Carmarthen Fan ridegeline are some of the best in Wales. I, however, was instead treated to misty rolling clouds, with occasional sunlight piercing through the clouds and sudden glimpses of the valley beyond.

That, and not seeing a single other person in our 6 hours out. And that, is why I love winter hiking.


From the pub, for 5km we followed a wide uphill path that lead us to the ridgeline. From here, we followed the ridgeline over multiple tops: quiet Fan Hir bleeds in to Fan Brycheioniog, and the highest point and trig on this summit ridge (802.5m), before blending away in to Fan Foel.


From Fan Foel, the path veers West leaving behind the glacial lake of  Llyn y Fan Fach, taking you down and back up before you hit the summit of Bannau Sir Gaer (known also as Picws Du) before dropping down off the ridgeline via the final summit of Waun Lefrith.



Mountains are temperamental things and as prepared as you might be, the weather can change in an instant. As we begun to descend off Waun Lefrith a sudden icy rain storm blew in and all the layers in the world could not protect us from the biting water that descended.

I'm a pretty decent endurance distance athlete because I'm fundamentally pretty stubborn and don't like giving in when things get tough. I get that trait from my father. And as such, we went traipsing off, leaving the comfort of the paths behind, through the now hail-storm in search of Garreg Las, a Nuttall which is characterised by two distinctive Bronze Age cairns on the summit. It's hard to marvel at a prehistoric pile of stones when you're being whipped sideways by icy blasts of freezing cold water though and we scarpered as quickly as we arrived.

Now with quite some pace, we headed back towards the valley and the rain that had fallen made the formerly easy to jump river crossings swell. As such, we were forced to wade through 7 rivers on the way back, the freezing December Welsh rivers getting the last laugh on our way down.

Suddenly the boggy, pathless monster of a route was transformed by the best Christmas present a girl could ask for: a wide, beautifully laid path. Bliss. As we plodded back dreaming of what we might order at the pub, we were treated to passing four wild ponies who looked more miserable about being out in the rain than I was.


As we arrived back at the pub we threw ourselves in front of the tiny roaring stove and ordered a mountain of piping hot food. After a plate of gammon, egg and chips, a bowl of sticky toffee pudding and custard and a glass of red wine I began to feel my drenched toes again. Sitting in front of the fire, my wet clothing strewn about the fireplace, I was filled with such contentment that only a truly wild mountain experience can give you. Don't get me wrong: I love a beautiful sunny day with clear views and wide paths. But there is nothing like the raw, visceral, wilderness on an untameable day to make your heart beat faster and your spirit truly soar.



_____

"High up in a hollow of the Black Mountains of South Wales is a lonely sheet of water called Llyn y Fan Fach.
In a farm not far from this lake there lived in the olden time a widow, with an only son whose name was Gwyn. When this son grew up, he was often sent by his mother to look after the cattle grazing. The place where the sweetest food was to be found was near the lake, and it was thither that the mild-eyed beasts wandered whenever they had their will. One day when Gwyn was walking along the banks of the mere, watching the kine cropping the short grass, he was astonished to see a lady standing in the clear smooth water, some distance from the land.
She was the most beautiful creature that he had ever set eyes upon, and she was combing her long hair with a golden comb, the unruffled surface of the lake serving her as a mirror."

The Lady of the Lake is a folklore story from the 13th century. The authors name has been long forgotten as the story has been passed down verbally through generations. She has always been associated with Llyn y Fan Fach. She appears also in the stories of King Arthur. 

Monday, 15 June 2020

Trigs | Ben Hope, the Highlands

My father is without a doubt, one of the best hill walkers I've ever met. His passion for the hills has lasted since he snuck out of a school trip to 'nip up' Robinson in the Lake District at 16, to his now inspirational long weeks out in the remote highlands traipsing up and down pathless routes at the age of 70+.

In May 2019, my Dad planned a 30 day trip through the Highlands and I was fortunate enough to be allowed to tag along for chunks of time. While Dad was ticking off new Marilyns, we detoured a couple of times to allow me to tick off Munros.

A short history for you now on Munros: a Munro is any mountain in Scotland over 3,000 feet (roughly 915m) and the approved list is held by the SMC (Scottish Mountaineering Club). There are 282 Munros and a further 227 Munro Tops, lesser peaks of other primary mountains that are still over 3,000 feet.

Munros are named after Sir Hugh Munro (1856-1919) who produced 'Munro's Tables' in 1891 the first list of these hills. As of today, over 6,500 people have climbed all of the Munros.

We woke up on what has to have been the most perfect Scottish May morning: the sky was shockingly blue and the air was warm with no threat of rain. So we headed to the most northerly of Scotland's Munros, Ben Hope, a beautiful lonesome 927m peak set in the most incredible remote Highlands.


Parking at the bottom of the main route by the Strathmore River at Muiseal, I was bemused that a simple sign states 'WAY UP BEN HOPE'. Not one for a navigational challenge then. The route is cut beautifully in to the mountain and consists for a huge part in a series of almost steps, winding up past waterfalls and incredible rock formations gaining height quickly and easily. Once you leave the small river behind, the steps fall away to leave a more exposed flatter final ascent that weaves through spiky rock formations and up grassy slopes.

The problem with having such a fantastic hill walker as a father is that I, a rather fit 30-something ultrarunner, am often slightly shocked that I can't keep up with my pensioner of a father! He requires no breaks and just the occasional biscuit to keep him going. Our pace therefore up Ben Hope was enjoyably tough as this simple route gives you the full ascent in your legs thanks to starting at near on sea level. Up and up we climbed.



Towards the summit we were treated to beautiful snowy plains, thick snow crunching under our boots as we continued to gently snake up. As we crossed the final snow field, the summit trig poked out and as we hit the top itself the view to end all views opened out in front of us. Because Ben Hope is the highest point for miles, Scotland seems to open up before you - the weaving coast, the awesome sea, Cape Wrath to the North West, lochs dotted around and miles of rolling landscape. It is quite possibly the most incredible view I've ever been treated to from the top of a mountain.




As it was quiet on the top, we ate our lunch while leaning up against the trig point before having to tear ourselves away from the summit to make our way back down the way we'd come.

If you are looking for views to take your breath away, Ben Hope is the mountain for you.



____

Syenite, mid-way between Granite and who knows what,
Proud above the Loch of the same name.
Jagged, distinctive multitude of rocky summits,
Each ideal to survey the wise expanse of flow,
Always the same,
The roaring stags of October are King here,
The true Loyal residents.

It was not always so, Ribigill, Mharraich
and Bronze age settlement so old no name remains,
but the circle in the moor and the clearance carins,
Speak loud in the silence,
Stone Rows, now buried in the peat,
Peak tentatively out at a world,
That no longer understands their meaning.

Hope springs eternal, smooth to the sunrise,
Optimistic above the loch of the same name,
Falling vertically and catastrophically towards the sunset,
Cliffs tumbling so far they will never end until,
You look towards sunset at the Wrath,
Where the mightiest cliff on the mainland stands,
And beyond Wrath there is nothing.

Crouching down on Hope, I brace myself,
Against the West wind from nothingness and Wrath,
And turn back to gaze upon the rocky security,
Of multi-headed Loyal,
I listen for the Stag's roar,
And await the next sunrise.

Loyal Hope ends with Wrath, Stuart Graham, 2017

Thursday, 11 June 2020

Trigs | Noss Head, Shetland

I am sitting in my running kit on a generously named ferry with a large lifejacket around my neck. Now I respect that this is not what most people request for their 30th birthday present but I was clear: I wanted to go to Shetland with my family and I specifically wanted to participate in Bressay parkrun and climb the hills of Shetland.

Quick detour in case you don't know what parkrun is: parkrun is a free 5km run/jog/walk that takes place around the world every Saturday morning. I love the instant community feel of arriving at a parkrun anywhere in the world and the joy of being outdoors regularly so parkrun is a real home for me. Bressay parkrun, on Bressay island, is a short hop on a ferry over from Lerwick, the main town on Shetland and because it's run on such a tiny island, you run down the main roads on a Saturday morning finishing with coffee and cake in the local community run cafe. It is a total joy.

If you find yourself on Bressay, you can then take another ferry over to the tiny protected island of Noss, a national nature reserve known for phenomenal bird life. And that was why I was, on the weekend of my birthday, I found myself sitting in my running kit on a tiny boat being taken over the Noss Sound to a minuscule island.



Subject to sea conditions, the ferry runs from 1 May to 31 August (you can check if the ferry is running by calling 0800 107 7818) and costs just £5 return per person. On arrival the little visitors centre gives a thorough list of sightings of wildlife recently and we are given an in depth warning about Bonxies (also known as great skuas), a huge sea bird known for dive bombing anyone silly enough to get near their nests. The message is very clearly: stick to the path.


We head out East, following the coastal trail south that in just 9km takes you round the entire island. The sweeping sea views and phenomenal cliffs that are so remote and wild yet well protected are like nowhere in Britain I've been before and it's not long before we've stumbled upon hundreds of puffins, flying in and out of the island between fishing trips. In this protected paradise, they have no qualms about us sitting metres from them and watching them get on with their day.



After nearly an hour happily sitting in the early August sunshine watching these beautiful birds we carry on round the costal path coming to the dramatic cliff of Charlie's Holm and what looks like a speckled white cliff. Upon further inspection these white dots are thousands of gannets, nesting on the sea cliffs. They drop in and out on their quest for fish and maintenance of their nests and the sea seems almost alive with the continual movement caused by diving birds.



Charlie's Holm continues uphill to the main destination of the day, the Marilyn of Noss Head, a 181m summit and amazing view point. This trig point is a beautifully rounded shape, known as a Vanessa pillar, and sits proudly at the top of this phenomenal little island. Standing at the summit, islets and islands forming pinpricks on the horizon, this remote trig point feels like the most remarkable place in the world.





We descend along the northernly side of the island where we are treated to a seal lazily bobbing around in the water. On other days it is possible to see killer whales and minke whales as well as dolphins and porpoise all of whom make the most of the warmer pockets of water that form in the shallows around the islands.

Before we know it we are back at the ferry, slightly shellshocked by the beauty of the island we have just discovered.


____

The sound of water on a shore.

Robert I have noticed that something draws us towards outlying islands. Some force pulls. A quiet bay, an island in its middle - we take a small boat and we row out from the land. We circle the island, looking for a beach. We pull up the boat and light cigarettes. We walk the island's boundaries. We make a fire.
We sit on the beach and drink beer.
We cast our eyes back to the far shore from which we've come.
Night falls and the mainland slips into darkness.
We listen to the waves.
The island claims us.

The crash of the sea on rocks.
A cliff. 
A thousand seabirds.

I have noticed from the study of maps,
The more outlying the island - 
The further out it is in the remote ocean -
The stronger the force that pulls us towards it.

Outlying Islands, David Greig, 2002