Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Arenig Fawr Fell Race: a Tough 90 Minutes

Location: Snowdonia, Wales, UK
Date: 4th October 2009

Distance: 6.7 miles
Elevation: 1900 feet

Time: 1:23:49 (winner: 58:41)
Position: 55/77

Pre-race meal @ 10 am: Primal/Paleo Breakfast of Champions - with pear (recipe here)
Race start: 1.05 pm
Race finish: 2.30 pm
Post-race meal @ 2:50 pm: Sardines, mixed nuts

You know a race is tough when at any point you find yourself thinking you just don't care how well you perform. This happened to me in the final kilometre of this event.

My running partner has a Nokia phone with GPS and Sports Tracker software installed. This means I can show you the route superimposed on a satellite photo, the altitude profile, and even the speed he was travelling (see below); and since he was never more than 5 minutes behind me, this gives you a pretty good idea of my own journey.
The Race
This is a photo of the mountains of the route, taken roughly from the start point, looking South West .

The start was 20 minutes walk from the car park ( ), so we first had to make that journey, on which I took a few snaps of the surrounding area and wildlife:

This was the start before anyone else had arrived: , then as the runners began to gather: .

The race began with a 10-minute climb which everyone ran because they were fresh, followed by 5 minutes of gentle downhill. At this point my running partner, who had been running beside me up to that point, shot off ahead. I tried to keep up, but it hurt. At the time I was confused by my apparent lack of fitness - but now that I see the speed chart I see that he really was motoring.

At the 15 minute mark, and just as we were rounding the lake, the long steep ridge ascent to 700 metres started at about 400m of altitude. I think the earlier burst caught up with my running partner at this point, because I overtook him after about 10 minutes. Uphill is not his strong suit and you can see from the speed graph how how his speed plummets between 15 minutes and 1 hour as the terrain steepens.
Uphill Slog
The climb to 700 metres took about 20 minutes. After this, we covered about a kilometre of boggy, undulating ground as we headed towards the first checkpoint - this is spot on the route map where it changes direction from almost due North to almost due South.

From there it was a 25-minute uphill slog over mixed, mainly boggy ground to the 900 metre summit of Arenig Fawr. The gradient was often not quite steep enough to justify dropping to a hike, but a little too steep to easily run. Alternating between the two can be quite taxing. The last few minutes of this final uphill leg was suddenly rocky and, as you can see from the altitude graph, steep.
Downhill Cahoonas
Then began the fun. Once I had doubled back onto the main trail as the route dictates, I followed the long arcing descent to the finish. This was at times steep and rocky, but for the most part pretty grassy, with a gradient that allowed me to throw caution to the wind and go for it. You can see from the altitude chart how consistently height was lost in this section.

Both my friend and I find ourselves at an advantage on the downhill section. We fly past people who have doggedly overtaken us on the uphill or flat. I think this this is a question of guts rather than fitness. It's about being willing to take the gamble on each stride that you will find a foothold. Those who want to identify the spot where their foot will go before launching their leg seem to cover the ground quite slowly.

Clearly the gutsy strategy has to be accompanied by regular quick looks ahead because if the terrain becomes too rocky or too steep: at this point a change of pace is quickly required to avoid catastrophe. Some of the best fell runners are said to be able to cover very steep downhill terrain like a gazelle - presumably a combination of fearlessness, sure-footedness and lightness of body.
Losing the Will to Race
The final stretch of flat took about 15 minutes. It looks easy on the graph, doesn't it? You'd think it would be a relief, but it was not. When your legs have been hammered at one angle on the way up and then another on the way down, trying to maintain a decent speed on the flat suddenly seems incredibly hard and unbearably tedious. It didn't help that there were patches of calf-deep mud and bog to wade through.

This was the point at which I lost the will to win, and would have gladly waved the rest of the field through in return for an end to the suffering. Nevertheless, I kept running because I always do, and of course it did come to an end after what seemed like an eternity.

At the finish I sat and took one or two photos to pass the 5 minutes it took my running partner to materialise. The look on his face confirmed he'd had a similar experience.

This was the state of my legs and shoes: ...and this was someone else finishing:
Finally, it was back to the car park (thankfully only a few minutes walk this time) for some food. While I dutifully ate sardines and nuts, my friend gleefully tucked into tea and cakes: . I was a little jealous.
Footwear Issues (No Vibrams for Me!)
On the last race, I wore my Vibram Five Finger Flows and fell over several times on the grassy downhill section due to a lack of grip. This, I decided, was the reason I came in 5 minutes behind my friend in that race.

This time, my running partner found himself losing his footing several times himself because he chose the wrong pair of shoes. Fell running shoes come with varying stud depths - some are better for muddy or grassy conditions, whereas others are better for rocky terrain or trails. He chose the lightly-studded 'trail' shoe, and paid the price.

My Vibrams developed a hole shortly after the last fell race and had been returned under warranty - so I wore my old fell running shoes, an averagely studded trainer, well suited to the terrain. I did not fall over once. To be honest, I would have worn the fell shoes even if the Vibrams had been available: fell runs are just not viable in tread-less shoes. When the Treks arrive, I will try them.

In a rather apt symmetry, I came in about 5 minutes quicker than my friend on this occasion.
The Monster on Saturday
In an unusual move, given my views on over training, I am joining my friend in a monster fell race on Saturday, only 6 days after this one. The Langdale Horseshoe. 14 miles and 4000 feet.

Needless to say, I will training only upper body at my 8-minute BBS strength training session this week and will be resting for the rest of the time. I even drove to work today in sympathy for my stiff quads.

I expect to complete Saturday's race in 3 and a half hours. Whichever way you look at it, that's going to hurt. I think a concoction of egg and coconut milk will have to be taken along for sustenance for a race of that length, as recommended by David in the comments after the slightly less monstrous, but nevertheless monstrous Peris Half last month.


Lightning said...

Great account of a tough little race . I like the "sports tracker" pictures you put up . They give something extra to the blog . We'll have to see if you legs did reover for the Langdale horse shoe ;-)

Methuselah said...

Thanks Lightening... I think we both know the answer to that one. I will be back ;-)