Some Stuff About Me ......

I live in Harrogate, North Yorkshire with my wonderful wife and soul-mate Helen. I have two incredible sons - Evan and Matthew - who are occasionally show up at home, usually when they're hungry or need money. The three of them are the best thing that ever happened to me and I love them all. I spent over 24 years in the Royal Navy, but since I packed it all in and got a proper job my life has gone from strength to strength and I've never looked back. I am a die-hard soul music fan, but my heart truly belongs in the fells of Northern England, it's what I was made for. Please read about my adventures and experiences ....

Wednesday 30 August 2017

The Lure of the UTMB

It's UTMB week and for the first time in four years, I'm not going to be there.  I was discussing this with a friend (Chris, in case you're reading) last week at Stickle Barn in Langdale and although he was pretty ambivalent about it all,:-( I am pretty gutted and feel that I'm missing out on something important, however I suppose that given my ongoing issues, the fact I didn't apply for a place this year is a blessing. I did the full UTMB in 2014, the CCC in 2015 and TDS in 2016, finishing each one and all via the full route. This might not sound much, but it's a record of which I'm actually quite proud, the odds are against this happening are high and it looks like the conditions this year are going to result at least one of the routes being curtailed.

The UTMB comes in for a bit of bad press from certain quarters (mostly from people who haven't done any of the races) but I always leap to its defence. There's no question that it's the biggest ultra marathon in the world and the inevitable hype and glitz that goes with that is anathema to the souls of a good number of long distance runners, however that's really missing the point. The UTMB is a celebration of long distance running in the most fantastic setting imaginable, it's a coming together of kindred souls, all of whom had to prove themselves to get there and there is a unity among competitors that I have not experienced in other races. Despite everything, all the races are very tough indeed and the glossy finish and smiley faces in Chamonix count for nothing when you're halfway into the second night, dead on your feet and body racked with pain.

That's not to say that I agree with everything about the UTMB. I think the organisers have gone too far in their efforts to generate income and drag runners to the Alps, a good example would be that they made the entry criteria for the OCC (Orsieres - Champex - Chamonix) just too easy, the result being that in 2016 a lot of people who fulfilled the single point requirement went to the considerable expense of entering and getting over there, only to be timed out of the race - and the OCC is by some margin the easiest race on the UTMB calendar!! What I'm trying to say here is that the organisers have a duty of care, I hope that in 2017 they've been a bit more diligent.

As I write, the TDS is ongoing and I am jealously tracking a select bunch of runners as they progress through the Alps. The TDS is a seriously tough race and when I did it the weather was stupefyingly hot, the climb out of Bourg St Maurice remains one of the hardest things I've ever done, it goes from a few hundred feet above sea level to 6,000ft in one hit and with full-on noontime sunshine and temperatures of 40c, I died a thousand deaths in my slog to the top. So which out of the three was my best race? Well, at the time I was pleased as hell with my UTMB finish, it's an achievement just to get round that bugger, but I think my best race was the CCC in 2015. I finished in about 19hrs 20mins on that occasion and I think that placed me well up there in the V2H category, 13th I think - not bad in an international field. I've since learned that a sub-20hr CCC is one of the UTMB "good" benchmarks, so I have to be proud of that. Even though I had the points, I'm glad I didn't apply for a UTMB place this year .... I'd only have been doing it to improve on my 2014 time (I know I could have done better) and that's not really a good reason to risk a UTMB DNF, bear in mind that the DNF percentage is consistently 30% - 38% every year and that holds for the CCC and TDS also. I've been lucky to get away with it.

There are inevitable comparisons with other races. From a UK perspective, I've heard from several quarters that it's debatable whether not or the Lakeland 100 is tougher. It's hard for me to answer that one, as although I've done the 50 on three separate occasions I've never done the L100 and am unlikely to try, however I have to dispute it. I know the L100 route well and can be found up in the fells most weekend, there are no climbs or terrain up there that even compare to the monster climbs you find on the UTMB, the overall distance is about the same but 20,000ft versus 32,000ft? I don't think so. I only know one guy who has done both (twice) and he just laughed at the suggestion.

Looking forward, I want to return to the Alps, it's a lovely place and I miss it greatly. In my dreams I'm wealthy enough to buy a little apartment in Chamonix or Courmayeur (I'm not), so the best I can do is visit whenever I can. How soon can I make it happen? I'd better give the old piggy bank a good shake!

Wednesday 9 August 2017

A Green and Pleasant Land?

I went for a run the other night, on the road. Nothing unusual or outstanding about that I know, but it's the first run at a sustained pace (albeit HR-constrained) I've done in over two months, so it was a big deal. It was on a timed route that I use and was slow and clunky, but given my ongoing battle with health issues, well, I am going to take it as a positive. No pain from knees or in fact anywhere else, no pain relief involved either.

I have been out on the fells and trails of late though, also been doing quite a bit of swimming. It's much more forgiving off-road and if my HR dictates that I walk, I don't feel quite as much of a twat for doing so. What struck me last night - obviously because I haven't cruised those lanes for a while - was how much crap and litter there is on our roads. Even nice, country lanes like you get up here in North Yorkshire have tons of discarded crap in the ditches and hedgerows, it really is a desperate, crying shame :-( The worst bits where we live are the approach roads to the Army Foundation College, what happens is that the lads who are returning to base just chuck their food wrappers/fag packets/beer cans out of the window before they get to the gate, the result is .... well, exactly what you'd expect. If I was the RSM I'd have the little b*****ds out on working parties cleaning it up, but I suppose this is politically incorrect nowadays. When I joined the navy, the training establishments I went through and the roads leading to them were absolutely immaculate, I hope I don't sound like a stupid old git, because it really wasn't that long ago.

Litter and detritus in public places like this pisses me off, but finding the same on the fells and moors makes me even more angry. I can't understand the mentality of the people who dump stuff in wild, beautiful places. Who the hell do they think cleans it up? Idiots like me, that's who. My pet peeve is dicarded clothing, because while litter will eventually be picked up, nobody wants to pick up a manky old sock or top and stuff it in their rucksack and who can blame them? I know a nice track that leads over the moors high in Nidderdale, if you just peek the other side of the drystone wall that borders the road there is literally a pile of discarded underwear .... WTF? I have a friend at work who assures me that this particular location is where the inhabitants of a well-known Nidderdale village go for a bit of afternoon sex and to conduct illicit liasons, but why the hell do they have to leave their pants behind? I wonder how long a pair of tights or nylon knickers take to bio-degrade? They just don't do they? The things have the nuclear half-life of uranium. Wonderful, just the thing you want to see when setting off on a nice trek in an area of outstanding beauty.

I can feel my blood-pressure going up here .... it's crap, it really is. Are we failing as a nation to impress on young people that just dumping stuff everywhere is the wrong thing to do? I'm not even going to start on fly-tipping, we suffer from that in the Yorkshire Dales big time :-(

I was talking to the warden at the Wasdale NT campsite a few years ago and he told me that every Monday morning they have to go round with a sack to pick up the discarded socks and pants that the Three Peakers that descend on the place just chuck away as part of their Scafell Pike assault. Also, they have do a weekly trek up the tourist path to the summit to remove much of the same. I know this is true, I've been up that path myself and discarded kit, trekking poles, sleeping bags abound. Piles of toilet paper behind every rock.

A Green and Pleasant Land? It won't be for much longer if this carries on.

Saturday 10 June 2017

How The Joss Broke Me ....

This is a long one.  Go and get your reading glasses ....

There's something intoxicating about being involved with long-distance fell challenges like the Bob Graham Round, Paddy Buckley Round and suchlike. I can't quite put my finger on it, but think it's probably down to the fact that they bring a lot of like-minded people together with a common goal and thus they can be very life-affirming experiences. Discounting the fact that for at least one person it's likely to be a painful undertaking, I enjoy these days out hugely and of course, within the limits of my capabilities I want to stand up and be counted myself. I would categorise myself as a fellrunner rather than a fellracer, but every now and again I think you have to quantify these things and test yourself. Others may disagree, but it's as good a way as any in combating the ravages of the years.

I did the Bob Graham Round five years ago and the Frog Graham Round last year, but held off on an attempt on the Joss Naylor Challenge (JNC) for a good reason: In simple terms, I'm just not fast enough (there, I've said it).  Joss devised the JNC for over-50s only and you get different amounts of time to complete the thing depending on your age group, thus 50 - 54 it's 12 hours, 55 - 59 it's 15 and so on. It's far from an easy proposition, so don't let the "Over 50s" tag give you the wrong idea - the pace for the 50 - 54 age bracket is fearsome and equates to something like an 18-hour BGR! I knew for absolutely certain that it was beyond me, everybody I know who has done a sub-12 JNC is an outstanding runner and has had to push themselves to complete, but sub-15? Hmmm. I thought I could do that and so soon after my 55th birthday last year, the planning began.

Please don't be under any illusions or let my waffle mislead you, the pace for this is still a bit faster than you'd expect (say) on a 23hr Bob Graham schedule and there is a different dynamic in the way you approach it. For instance, Leg 1 on the JNC is very runnable with less climb than you might expect, so you have to get a real shufti on. It also visits the most fell tops compared to the other legs and you can't afford to mess about or it's all over before you've really got started. Anyhow, the route is from Pooley Bridge in the East and heads generally West, finishing not far from Joss's house in Wasdale. It's 48 miles long, visits 30 seperate fell tops and has 17,000ft of vertical climb or thereabouts. The route is divided up in into four logical sections with road crossings at Kirkstone Pass and Dunmail Raise, plus a support point at Styhead Pass where leg 4 starts.

Route of "The Joss"
I know most of the route pretty intimately, but still had to get out there and recce it, particularly as I needed a good idea of individual split timings. I'd heard from several knowledgeable people that the splits for leg 1 were too fast and the later ones too generous, so I really worked on my own schedule and came up with several revisions to the "accepted" sub-15 timings that allowed for a slightly more relaxed leg 1 while still having enough time to deal with the big climbs at the back end of the route. I set my projected finishing time as a conservative 14hrs 44min, but that was absolutely worst-case and privately I thought that given reasonable conditions I should be able to nail it somewhere between 13 - 14 hours.  "Should" is a word that I use too often.

Leading up to my attempt, things did not look promising. Following the High Peak Marathon in March I'd been struggling with some minor niggles, but they sort of disappeared when I got running and was properly warmed-up, so I ignored them. A bit more worrying was a mysterious tightness in my right knee, resulting in reduced flexion and difficulty in knee lift. Again, this warmed up as I got moving, so I thought it would be OK on the day. I also had some ongoing tightness in my pelvis, but it really didn't trouble me once I got moving.  In retrospect, I wasn't in the best shape for a fell challenge like the JNC, but I'd done a lot of training - a LOT of training - leading up to it and the last thing I wanted was for a few aches and pains to stop me, understandable non?  Things continued to go downhill during the week leading up to my attempt and I was stretching and foam-rolling for all I was bloody worth, my body really did feel like it was seizing up .... my resting pulse rate had mysteriously gone up and I just wasn't feeling too bright. I put it down to the stress of what was looming on the horizon, but I think I was fooling myself a bit (I do that). Compounding all this was a less than positive weather forecast and as you might imagine, by then I checking it on an hourly basis. I've let the weather mess things up before, it was terrible on my first BGR attempt and I should have cancelled instead of trying to be a hero, so have taken the sensible option ever since and just postponed things. Decisions like this are not easy, particularly if you have people travelling to come and support you, the pressure is on and so you have to be absolutely certain if you are going to give it a go. As it was, I decided to go ahead with my Joss attempt and damn the consequences.

We traveled up to Kirkstone Pass on the afternoon of Friday 12th May and even at that late stage I was tempted to call it off. I had a terrific support team lined up who I knew would be outstanding on the fells no matter what the weather, they'd understand if I pulled the plug wouldn't they?  Would they?   I decided that on balance, I'd really rather not have this hanging over me and sod it, was going for it. The weather later on Saturday looked a bit clearer so I was hanging on to that, but but I knew it was going to be a rocky ride .... I have to say I seriously questioned my decision (and sanity) at 0300 in the morning when I heard the rain pounding on the roof of our van, but it was too late - I was committed.

Everything was packed and ready and at 0400 my clubmate Simon [C] turned up, he was going to take us to Pooley Bridge for the start where we would meet our friend Jules from Lonsdale Fell Runners, he's done a sub-12 Joss and is exceptionally good at pacing these things. He also navigated leg 2 on my successful BGR and I do like sticking with a winning formula :-) It had stopped raining and Pooley Bridge was quiet and peaceful in the first glimmers of dawn, I allowed myself to take a deep breath and at 0500 exactly I pressed the button on my watch and we were off! Very quickly we had drama: I don't know what precisely happened but Simon caught his foot on the kerb as we left the bridge and took a hell of a tumble, of course he didn't break step and got back on his feet very quickly, but a quick glance told me it wasn't good, he was limping and blood was streaming down his knee.  Not the best omen.

Yours truly, Jules and Helen on Pooley Bridge

We pushed on through the campsite at Park Foot and very soon we were on the fell proper. Dawn was already breaking on the fells and I was anxiously scanning the horizon for some idea of the weather situation and it didn't look good - big dark clouds hung ominously in the sky and a sensible man would have said something like "fuck this, bad idea", rounded everyone up and bought them breakfast somewhere. The problem was that all the people out with me wouldn't bat an eyelid at being on the fells in crap weather, so I'd have been risking eternal damnation in a special part of fellrunner hell reserved for Big Jessies if I'd even tried to pull out.  It was a comfortable climb up to the first summit (Arthur's Pike) and easily within the schedule I'd set out, but Simon was really struggling with his twisted ankle and decided to go back to Pooley Bridge. Jules and Helen took my food and kit from him while I pushed on to Loadpot Hill. I was a bit gutted for him, I knew he had a full kitchen pass for the day and had been looking forward to this ... hell, maybe he was the only one with any brains because the wind and rain had started to make an appearance and very quickly I moved into my waterproof jacket. It was going to stay on all day, unfortunately.

It was clear that the fantastic dawn and clear weather of my dreams just weren't going to happen today and so I focused on the here and now. Visibility was dreadful, but I had every faith in Jules leading me round and we ticked off the summits in what felt like very short order .... Loadpot Hill, Wether Hill, Red Crag, Raven Howe and High Raise came and went easily, all within or dead on schedule, I was taking on fuel and water without problem and generally doing about as well as I could have hoped for, although my running did feel a bit laboured. The fecking weather wasn't getting any better though and a quick glance at Jules and Helen told me that they must have been suffering, water was streaming off their jackets and the wind was coming from completely the wrong direction, buffeting them and making running just that bit harder. We were mercifully shielded for a few minutes as we dropped below the ridgeline for the run out to Kidsty Pike, but we soon back into it for the short hop to Rampsgill Head and then back South to High Street. We'd recce'd this leg to death in all kinds of foul weather, including a recent "live" attempt in deep snow by our friend Paul and it's amazing how much comfort familiarity brings with it. All the same, I was already sick of getting clobbered by the wind and rain and knew that we'd start losing a bit of altitude from here, so that might bring a bit of relief. Sure enough, as we ran down to Thornthwaite Beacon there was a bit of respite, but you had to have your wits about you as the mist (clag) was pretty heavy and in places I was struggling to see my feet. Massive shame, I've been here before on some truly gorgeous mornings and the panorama is one to die for.

End of JNC Leg 1
From Thornthwaite Beacon Jules led us to the NW so as to stay on the right-hand side of the wall line, it seems a bit counter-intuitive but it's the smart way to go and avoids the horrible, rocky descent to Threshthwaite Mouth.  Helen and I have come down here in a total whiteout before now with a thick, icy crust on top of the snow, it was as dangerous as hell and we (foolishly) didn't have microspikes with us; that's something I won't do again! :-( No snow or ice today though and we were down in a jiffy, only to start the scramble up the crag and on to Stoney Cove Pike. Still no time lost and three or four minutes up on schedule.

I'm not sure what happened next, because on the easy descent down to Pike How (why did Joss include this?) we lost about 1.5 minutes per my schedule. Certainly it wasn't a nav error, Jules got it 100% spot on so I can only assume I made a mistake in my calculations, then again it could simply have been that I was so relieved to have reached Stoney Pike Cove that I just took it a bit too easy, which is more like it.  From there we easily made St Raven's Edge and found a good line down to Kirkstone, this is an easy corner to cut and saves several minutes on the established path.

Rain and Mist at Kirkstone

It was rain and mist at Kirkstone. Simon [F], Elly and Clare were all ready to go though, fully togged up against the poor weather. Dave had a cuppa on for me and a dry helly baselayer, so I gulped it down, changed and we were out after a pretty nippy turnaround, leaving at 0827 precisely - I was five minutes up, about as good as I could have hoped for really. Leg 2 is the shortest on the JNC, but it makes up for it in severity as it feels like you're going uphill all the time. We plodded on up Red Screes and it was about now that I started to regret not putting my waterproof bottoms on while at Kirkstone, the wind and rain appeared to be getting worse. I foolishly waited until the summit to do this and it was a right drama ... I suppose there's something funny and faintly ironic about a couple of young lasses trying to put a pair of trousers onto a middle-aged bloke on a wind-ravaged Lake District fell, but I can't think of anything clever or pithy right now. It was a masterstroke having Elly on this leg, because she knows the fast lines from her experience with the Hodgson Bros relays that are held in this neck of the words, so once at Scandale Pass she used that knowledge to trim the corner under Little Hart Crag, saving me a vital couple of minutes.

We were getting absolutely battered by the weather. I followed Simon and Clare as we made our way up to Hart Crag, the rain was streaming off their jackets and when I saw Clare wring her gloves out I began to think that I had perhaps made an unwise choice in trying to do this. It feels like a long slog up to Hart Crag (it's one of the longest splits on the JNC) and I was relieved to get there ahead of schedule, but it was costing me .... I was really focusing on making meaningful progress, living only for that summit and then moving on to the next, but the conditions were taking more energy out of me than I had to spare, moreover I really did feel a bit under the weather, the only joy I was taking out of this was the solidarity shown by my companions. Fairfield came sooner than expected, we were surprised to see other shadowy figures moving around in the mist. It's always reassuring to know that you're not the only lunatic in the asylum isn't it? I think we switched to BGR autopilot here, getting off the summit plateau quickly and dropping down to the col and swiftly up Seat Sandal. The weather didn't seem as bad up here and it cheered me up to be met by our mate Geoff, he did his JNC a couple of years ago and came up with the marvellous "Shepherd's Hand" short film, it was nice of him to come out to see me and I chatted with him as we followed the familiar line down to Dunmail Raise.

I could see the full "BG Circus" in action at Dunmail (support cars lining the roadside) and hoped that Helen hadn't tried too hard from a support point of view as I wanted a fast in and out. That's exactly what I got, I gulped down a recovery drink, changed tops again was out in five minutes with my new supporters Dave, Carol and Phil. It can't have been pleasant for my leg 2 supporters and it didn't look like leg 3 was going to be a basket of roses either, I felt a bit guilty that that I was putting people through this. The cloud was low over Steel Fell, hanging like the wrath of Mordor above our heads. I was trying to put a positive slant on it and cheer myself up a bit, I was with my friends and about to spend a few hours with them in the place I love most, that's got to be worth something hasn't it? We reached Steel Fell summit under schedule (it's never as bad as it looks) and Dave was soon showing his expertise over the ground, taking all the fast lines and generally optimising the route.

Climbing Steel Fell, the Wrath of Mordor above us ....

I'd been dreading the bit out to High Raise as I know the climb up the side of Birks Gill can be a bit of a tussocky nightmare .... sure enough, it was terrible. The wind and rain was straight in our faces, Dave forged on ahead but Carol and Phil were doing their best to shield me from the worst of the weather and I felt unworthy. Neither of them are the most efficient wind blocks if I'm honest - I could have done with a couple of All-Blacks prop forwards - but it made a difference and I was massively grateful. Eventually, High Raise appeared out of the mist and we plugged on for the long drag out to Rossett Pike, in my head I was telling myself that the worst bit was nearly done.

There was a definite deja vu about this, from Rossett Pike you pick up the BGR route and seeing as by now I was a bit knackered, it was forcible reminder of just how difficult the BGR really is. Time tends to obscure memories of pain and distress, but this brought it all flooding back in glorious technicolour. The BGR is blinking HARD, I sometimes think that you only get to hear about the fast rounds by talented runners, the blood 'n guts rounds where a contender has to strain every fibre of their being in order to succeed, well, they fly under the radar a bit. Carol led the way up Bowfell Rakes and on to the summit, the rock was slippy underfoot and it felt dangerous trying to move fast, so I was pleased that we didn't lose any time to Esk Pike, this is a very rocky section and in bad conditions it can cost you.

Climbing Bowfell Rakes
I followed Carol down the gully off Esk Pike and one of those magical moments followed when - just for a moment - the cloud parted and Great End was revealed in all its glory, it looked magnificent and raised my spirits. As we made our way down to the Scafell Pike "highway", I was aware that the weather was definitely moderating a bit, the clouds were starting to thin out and the rain had stopped, things were looking up. Dave led us unerringly to the summit cairn of Great End and it was a relief to get there - the last summit on Leg 3.

Great End summit with Nick Andralojc
There actually is a route choice here, a lot of contenders choose to take what looks like the most direct line via The Band, this is a rocky gully that I imagine a lot of people will have seen when passing below and thought "that looks fecking scary". I think you have to be an exceptional descender to really take advantage of it and it seems Joss is also of this mind. Seeing as the rock was very greasy, there was no way I was doing it and on Dave's advice I returned to the col, rejoined the highway and then took an easy jog down to Styhead with Phil, nice and steady, no pressure on me whatsoever. It was the long way round, but I still got there within schedule.

Bad Weather line off Great End!
I was greeted at Styhead by a wave of cheerfulness and optimism, despite everyone being a bit cold and windswept. Top mountain guy Phil Sturgeon, his daughter Daisy and new puppy Scout had made the journey up to Styhead, while Simon had trekked up from Seathwaite with Helen in order to meet Carol - a logistical triumph! :-) Dave was continuing on this final leg in his capacity of Top Navigator, while mates Paul, Nick and David [F] joined me. As always, I felt humbled that they had made such a massive effort to help me realise my selfish ambitions.

Away we went up Great Gable via the Tourist Path, this is a bit of a slog and longer than the climb on a clockwise BG via Beck Head. I just got on with it, tried to eat (this was getting difficult) and reached the summit more or less in the time expected. From here though, things got a bit more interesting .... you could go down to Beck Head via the route I just mentioned, but it would be slow. The way to do this is head in a slightly more Westerly direction, scramble through a few craggy outcrops and then down the scree at the side of the mountain. I've often looked up at that and wondered , now I know! Dave found the line exactly and we were down the scree and at Beck Head very quickly, but I genuinely wouldn't recommend this route to anyone who just fancies a nice day out walking around Great Gable, best leave this one to the fellrunners. We made quite a bit of time up here on the climb up to Kirk Fell, but it felt slow coming back down Red Gully to Black Sail Pass, wierd how perspective changes. The rain had completely dried up by now, but the fecking wind was still gusting and in the wrong direction .... at least we could see where we were going.

On CW BGRs I know that the ground between Pillar and Black Sail can be a bit of a Make or Break thing for contenders, but going ACW (i.e. upwards) I found it easier than expected, certainly you don't have to mess around quite as much finding the fast lines. What IS more difficult is getting a good line off Pillar down to Wind Gap, thankfully Dave found a much better line than I had in training and before long we were down and heading up to Scoat Fell and the Ennerdale Wall. This came quickly (the true summit cairn is actually on the wall) and Dave took the opportunity for a little rest while the rest of us bobbed out to Steeple. I really was dead tired by now and didn't feel quite right, but still trying to eat and drink, Paul doing his best to jam it into me. It's just a six-minute split here and I do love this little mountain, I fancifully think I've got some special lines that save a few seconds here and there, but do mean you have to be a bit more exposed than you might otherwise be. I'd nailed it now, surely? Just three more summits to go and Paul was singing his awful version of "Three Green Bottles", bless him.

Steeple.  Spot the Fellrunner!

Dave was sheltering in the lee of the Ennerdale Wall and levered himself back on this feet for the run down (and back up) to Haycock, discovering that he'd been sitting on the bag of crisps that he'd been looking forward to over the next three tops.  Funny how little disasters like this can blunt morale isn't it (sorry Dave).  We were dead on schedule again but something like 25 minutes up overall and under the circumstances, I thought this was pretty much as good as I could have hoped for :-) In training we found a lovely grassy line off Haycock, but Dave had a shorter and more effective route in mind that I'm told was one of Joss's tips. I have to concede that it was a brilliant bit of navigation, but it WAS rockier ..... hell, I shouldn't complain: Seatallan looks a long way away from here and every foot closer was precious. This is a bugger of a mountain to climb so late in the day, apparently it was one of Joss's favourites for hill reps!  It felt like the summit was never going to come and I was fading fast, but we made it on schedule OK, in fact I arrived to find Dave cheerfully sitting on the trig post as if getting there hadn'd been difficult at all. I think I hated him at this moment.

Dave had the line nailed off Seatallan down to the col between it and Middle Fell, I opted for the grassy line to the side of one of the scree chutes as my legs were totalled and I was getting wierd shooting pains through my pelvis. Once at the col, it was just a short climb to the summit and that was it, job done - an easy run down from there to Greendale Bridge! Except it wasn't that easy, I was seriously flagging and doing everything I could on staying focussed on the job in hand. The guys were full of encouragement, pushing me along, Paul doing his best to give me little bits of food but I just wasn't having any of it, my stomach felt terrible and revolted against the thought of putting anything into it. As we approached the summit I heard a familiar voice and there was Helen, she had trekked up to the summit with trusty fell hound Fewston Border, the little feller was overjoyed to see "Dad" (Paul) and I have to say the same about my finding Helen, not that I got much sympathy from her.

Fewston Border surveys his fiefdom from Middle Fell

I reached the summit with an overwhelming sense of relief. My emotions are always a bit out of kilter in situations like this, so I kept my mouth shut in case I said something even more stupid than usual.  Believe me when I tell you that I was empty at this point, totally spent.  I know what it feels like to run up to (and past) the Wall, but this was more than that and I felt a bit worried - this was not normal.  I was struggling just to point myself in the right direction as we began our descent off Middle Fell.

Summit of Middle Fell.  Job done!!

In training I did this in about 15 minutes without any real effort and hoped to duplicate it when it mattered. Not a chance, not a fecking chance, I was just doing my best to stay upright and keep the end goal in sight but Jesus it was hard, every fibre of my being was crying out to stop. I remember climbing La Tete aux Vents on the UTMB a few years ago, I'd been running for about 38 hours and was in desperate pain, but didn't feel as empty and weak as this. The bridge was clearly in view and I knew it was nearly over, the ground levelled out and I was nearly in tears as I half ran/walked to the road and touched the bridge, completing the Joss Naylor Challenge in 14 hours and 22 minutes.

Nick and Paul debate whether I really gave it my best shot

Joss came over to greet us and after a few shaky leg moments I got the handshake that meant so much to me, what a man he is. It was the first time I'd met him, though of course I've seen him out and about on the fells and in Wasdale for years .... In real life he comes across as a witty, intelligent man with a genuine love for the sport he excelled at and the fells that surround him ... I was overwhelmed that he'd come out to greet and congratulate me and, if anything, am even more impressed by the Legend. They say that you should never meet your heroes don't they? Wrong in this case.
A Shepherd's Hand

He signed my copy of his biography and we broke out some celebratory beer, then spent about an hour chatting on the bridge, how bloody wonderful can things get? I felt elated, but also in dire need of some fuel and Paul was quick to get some Mountain Fuel into me along with an energy bar. I could have done with it a couple of hours back on the fell, but there was just no way. My body was beginning to seize up though, so once the beer had disappeared it was time to say goodbye and be on our way. What a day, it had been a massive gamble but one that had paid off and I was hugely relieved.
Shooting the Breeze with Joss
I'd like to say that's the end of the story and in a way it is. I raised over £1,000 for the Yorkshire Air Ambulance along the way, a charity that has historically been supported by my club, Harrogate Harriers.  They were also responsible for rescuing a friend of mine (Tom Phillips) following a potentially life-threatening accident on Buttertubs last year, they are the real heroes in this story. I would like to thank all those who sponsored me, your generosity has been amazing.

There is a bit more to tell though:

About four or five days after I completed the JNC my body really did start to seize up, to the point where my right knee wouldn't straighten and my pelvis was locked solid and causing great pain. I also had terrible pain in both shoulders and sleeping was barely possible, just turning over in bed was a massive issue. My doctor was very quick in getting me in for an appointment, the immediate diagnosis was that I might be suffering from Lyme disease with consequential reactive arthritis, but in any event was given a heavy dose of antibiotics and packed off for blood tests.

The week that followed was truly dreadful, I was shuffling around like an old man and practically living off a cocktail of ibuprofen and paracetamol. The surgery rang me on the Friday morning - exactly a week after the blood tests - and got me in that morning. Apparently my blood test for Lymes was indeterminate (whatever the hell that means), but I had a very high level of C reactive protein (CRP) in my blood, this is typical whenever the body has a heightened level of inflammation. I don't think my doctor had any real idea what the problem was at that point, but immediately prescribed a strong corticosteroid steroid along with codeine for the pain. I staggered home that night and crashed out on the settee, barely able to walk.

I had a follow-up appointment on the Tuesday with my doctor and was lucky enough to see a rheumatologist at Harrogate Hospital the following week.  It's a long story, but the upshot was that I was/am suffering from an autoimmune condition with ensuing inflammatory arthritis. 
It's not good news and means that I could be trying to recover from it for an extended period of time, however I am going to do my best to manage it. It could have been triggered by a bacterial infection like Lymes - and that may be the case - but it could also have been something that's been with me for a while and the Joss was just the straw that broke the camel's back.

In retrospect, I am overwhelmingly glad that I carried on and did the Joss when I did, if I'd left it another week it may never have happened, certainly I haven't been able to run much since then. In doing the Joss I became something like the 205th person to successfully do The Crossing (as it's known), but I might be the first person to do it while in the early stages of a relatively serious illness .... perhaps that's a notoriety I don't want, but whatever - it's done now.

  I had a fantastic time and just for the record, thank you to all those who came out on a filthy day to support me, I am truly grateful.

Tuesday 18 April 2017

Not Always Good ....

Helen and I packed up our van and headed to the Lakes last Thursday, the intention being to get some serious fell miles in our legs, but also to recce some of the ground for my forthcoming JNC (Joss Naylor Challenge). We overnighted at Kirkstone Pass, then next morning set out with mate Emma, the intention to do JNC leg 2 as far as Fairfield under exam conditions. The weather was pretty dreadful, but I had no problem in hitting my projected split times and think that I should be able to reproduce that on the day. From Fairfield we went over Cofa Pike to St Sunday's Crag, bagged nearby Gavel Pike (a Birkett), then pushed on to Birks. Rather than dropping down to Patterdale, we cut across to Trough Head and then on to Arnison Crag for a new Wainwright, the sun was out by now so we sat blinking in the unaccustomed warmth and had butties on the summit.  From there, it was down to Deepdale and the long slog up Hartsop Above How, then cut the corner off before Hart Crag and back to Dove Crag. We saw Emma off at the top of Red Screes and decided to go out to Middle Dodd for another Wainwright, but then very foolishly dropped down to Kirkstone from there. Trust me on this, don't try it, should you be daft enough to be in the vicinity - it's as steep as hell and you stand a good chance of going down the *very* fast way.

We stayed another night at Kirkstone, taking the opportunity to visit the pub and indulge in some people-watching. It was like a scene out of the fecking Adams Family, some seriously weird types congregate in there! The beer was none the worse for it mind you ...

Next morning started off a bit cloudy, but soon brightened up and so we drove down to a very busy Patterdale and Glenridding, somewhat amazingly we got a prime parking spot right in front of the George Starkey Hut. From there we did a cracking tour of the fells thereabouts, heading up to Boredale Hause on the Tour de Helvellyn route, then Place Fell (a Wainwright) followed by The Knight, High Dodd and Sleet Fell (all Birketts). It's good running thereabouts and we loved it, so pushed on to Hallin Fell then back to St Peter's Church in Martindale before climbing up Steel Knotts and the weirdly titled Pikeawassa. We finished off the tour by dropping down and up the other side of the valley to Beda Fell, then back to Boredale Hause and down to our van. An excellent day out.

The plan for the next day was to do JNC L4, so we overnighted in Borrowdale, the intention being to trek up to Styhead from Seathwaite. The weather was abysmal next morning, so that plan got quickly shelved but we decided to go over to Wasdale just for the hell of it. It rained all the way and we were soaked and a bit dispirited, so went into the Wasdale Head Inn for a decent coffee and dry-out. The rain got worse if anything, so eventually we had to get on with it and head back up Styhead Pass .... it seemed to alleviate a little, so to make the best out of a bad job we decided to go up to the summit of Great Gable in order to test my timing for that particular part of L4. As we approached the summit, we were met by some guys who thought we were Mountain Rescue and it turned out we had walked into a full-blown fell emergency. A fell walker had lost consciousness on the summit plateau and stopped breathing, he was located about 75 metres to the East of the summit on very rocky ground, it was a proper nightmare scenario. People were huddled into emergency bivvies trying to stay warm in the cloud and rain, while this poor guy was stripped to the waist and his fellow fellwalkers administered CPR. It was awful to see, they'd been doing CPR for over 45 minutes in the classic 30/2 model and the air exited his lungs in a wet, rasping gasp that didn't sound at all good. What a place to have an emergency, Great Gable is one of the most inaccessible mountain tops in England and it was terrible conditions to boot.  I feared the worst already, so seeing as there wasn't much we could do other than offering kit and helping with CPR, we elected to go and head down the mountain and guide MRT to them, my thinking being that I can probably get down a lot faster than anyone there present. We set off down the tourist path, but then heard a rescue helo come in and land at Styhead (I assumed), so we cut across the mountain until I found the Borrowdale Race descent, on to Windy Gap and then made a very fast descent of Aaron Slack until I got to the helo. I stood at a safe distance and gave the "need assistance" signal and a crewman beckoned me in, then I shoved a pair of headphones on and gave them the full story and position of the casualty. Turns out the helo was in touch with the Wasdale MRT team leader, but they hadn't got comms with the group on the summit. The paramedic I spoke to was very concerned when he heard how long CPR had been going on for and I think like me, he feared the worst.

I can't say what happened for sure after than. The helo couldn't go to the summit in those conditions, it would have been suicide and shortly after I left them they lifted off and headed back down the valley. I suspect they might had picked up some MRT guys and took them as far up as it was possible to go, maybe to Beck Head? I dunno. Anyhow, we made our way back down to Seathwaite in a chastened kind of way, it was a pretty terrible thing to be involved in. I guess I shouldn't be surprised, I go out into the hills nearly every weekend and this sort of thing was bound to happen at some point ... the funny thing is that we recently did an FRA Outdoor First Aid and Emergency course and it was just this sort of thing that we dreaded, a cold and wet mountain is about the worst possible place to have a medical emergency and the only thing you can do is try and keep the casualty alive until someone arrives who really knows what they're doing.

We heard next day that the poor guy had died, I think we knew it was the most likely outcome but you like to maintain hope don't you? I can't deny this hasn't impacted me, he was younger than me and well, just too young to die. Something like this really puts you in touch with your own mortality and I am reflecting on the importance of living your life to the full.

The beautiful mountains that so captivate me can be cruel and savage mistresses sometimes.

Wednesday 4 January 2017

A Year in Review

Did everyone have a good celebration and see the year out in style? We always struggle with New Year, the last thing either of us want to do is get arbitrarily hammered or spend all night going from pub to pub, so we try and do different stuff. In recent years that's meant heading over to the East Coast for a jog around the Hardmoors 30, however this year we were lucky enough to get a place at this year's Old Lang Syne fell race and so on New Year's Eve we headed over to Haworth for a belt around the 6.75 mile course, about 1,000ft of climb included. I had a terrible race at the Chevin Chase on Boxing Day so needed something to lift my spirits, fortunately I was much more on the button and managed to trim over six minutes off my previous time here in 2012, I'm taking that as a win.   Hey, four years older and six minutes faster? There has to be something good there.

I thought that it would be nice to see the New Year in from the hills that we love, so that evening we got back into outdoor kit and did a midnight jaunt up to Beamsley Beacon, it's the biggest hill of any consequence in our immediate vicinity and is quick and easy to get to. The views over Ilkley, Otley and Leeds were spectacular, as were the fireworks on the stroke of midnight. We took a bottle of wine up with us and toasted each other in the cold and wind (and rain), all in all, I think this might have been one of our more memorable evenings.

So ..... 2016, how did it go? From a running perspective, I guess things didn't go too badly. I struggled with a recurring hamstring injury for most of the year, however I've got to grips with it now and it's manageable, am glad to see the back of it. The target race early on in the year was the notorious High Peak Marathon, we did oodles of training and recce work for this but in the end it was cancelled due to bad weather in the Peak District. It was both a relief and disappointing, however we've now got to go though all that again as we have a deferred entry! Watch this space ....

The Frog Graham Round was my primary focus for the remainder of the year and I put a tremendous amount of time and work into it. I successfully got round in late July, but by God it wasn't easy and I won't forget it. I was the 6th person to successfully get round and for a while was the record holder (always a nice feeling), however an Ulverston Tri member came along a few weeks later and pinched it by just four minutes!! Those minutes I spent trying to stop my body shaking having swam across Crummock Water sans wetsuit really cost me, as did my slow descent off High Stile and an assortment of other little errors .... no matter, I did it and what's more I had a great day doing so. Something to remember.

In terms of other major races, well, Helen and I did the Old County Tops prior to my FGR and were fortunate enough to come away with another category prize, we also did the Marmot 24 mountain marathon along with mates Dave and Carol, coming away with the team honours. However the big race of the year was the UTMB TDS (74 miles, 24,000ft) in August. This was my third and probably final trip to the UTMB and I was looking to complete the Grand Slam of UTMB, CCC and TDS on consecutive years, quite a rare occurence I think, I guess I was just lucky it fell my way. As it was, the weather was blisteringly hot and it was a tremendous battle of will, I died a thousand deaths on the 6,000ft climb out Bourg St Maurice, the temperature reaching around 38c at the bottom of the valley. I don't think I've every been so glad to reach a finish line, it was very tough indeed. Helen had a terrific race, finishing appreciably faster than me and 1st British lady, 3rd Brit overall.

There have been a few other races and the usual BGR supports, however our probably our most memorable experience came after the National Fell Relays in Luss, we stayed up in Scotland for the following week and lurked in the general area of the Cairngorms and Glen Nevis. An attempt to nail the Cairngorm 4000s coincided with the first snow of the year and so that sort of stopped us in our track,s but we still had a couple of rather exciting days out, the first on the Cairn Gorm and Ben Macdui side of the Lairig Ghru, the following day we went back to nail the Braeriach and Cairn Toul etc, massively misjudging the severity of the a) the snow b) the terrain and c) the distance. We go back to our van at 9.00pm that night, half-frozen to death and with over 26 mountain miles in our legs. It's a good thing we had headtorches or I guess we might have been in trouble. We did stop in at the Corrour bothy under the Devil's Point, however it was occupied by a couple of other "gentlemen" and they made it as clear as they could that there wasn't room at the inn. We didn't intend to stay anyhow [makes rude gesture].

So that's sort of been my sporting year, I've clocked up the best part of 1900miles running (most of which has been on the fell), 390,000ft of climb and perhaps 140 miles swimming. Cycling has been a bit of a disaster, need to fix this in 2017.

I was going to go on and write about the other important things in 2016, you know, real stuff like how life and work has been, but I think that deserves a separate blog. I'll get to it.

Bring on 2017!