Sunday, 8 August 2010

Failing to Tame the Borrowdale Beast

Location: Borrowdale, The Lake District, UK
Date: Yesterday, 7th August

Workout: The Borrowdale Fell Race
Total Time: 4 hours 40 minutes
Food: see video (Update: I have posted the recipe for the homemade energy bar here)

For a quick overview of the day, here's a 2-3 minute captioned slide show.

The Borrowdale Beast

Make no mistake, this is a beast of a run. I always hesitate when I say something like that, because having read Born to Run, I know that one man's beast is another man's mouse. Or woman's.

Nevertheless, in my world, and my running partner, Lightning's, this thing lives in a cave and breathes fire. It's 17-miles with 6700 feet of climb, including Scafell, England's highest peak. Road runners sometimes fail to grasp what 17 miles over mountains actually means. They think in terms of 7-minute miles.

In the mountains, you can travel less than a mile and it takes 40 minutes. And it kills you. Occasionally, the downhill gives you back some of that time, if the gradient is just right. Not so with the Borrowdale. Many descents are boulder-strewn or bog-ridden, creating vicious assault courses that can make miles take almost as long as steep ascents.

If you think in road terms, then to get a sense of the scale of a fell run like this, you should simply double the mileage. So this was a marathon plus 10 miles.

The Five Fingers - Not Always Best

As my backside slammed onto the ground for the 5th time on the descent from Scafell to Sty Head, I realised it was time to accept that in their current form, Vibram Five Finger Flow Treks are not suitable for fell running on steep, grassy terrain.

For most of the race I was able to judge how to run according to what I know about my Flow Trek's capabilities on different terrain. However, that knowledge was entirely useless when faced with a steep, downhill, grassy slope because there was nothing I could do about it, even at a slow pace. For much of those sections, I was sliding on my backside - which is fine until you encounter a rock...

Bottom line: I will be using studded fell shoes for some races. The Fives got a fair hearing, and I have to accept that there comes a point where it's okay to lean on modern technology a little. I will still use them for mainly stony, well-pathed races. My feet are getting tough and I don't intend to let them soften up again by leaning on fell shoes when they are not needed.

The good news is that leading fell shoe-maker, Innov8, are releasing a minimalist, studded shoe, the bare-grip 200, in 2011. By minimalist, I gather this means the differential between heel and forefoot padding is basically zero.

As an aside, my Flow Treks are still surviving. I have had to stitch the uppers once, and they are coming away slightly on other places, but they doggedly made it through the pounding of Borrowdale without apparently wearing any further. So they have endured almost a year of fell training and races. Not bad when you consider it's unlikely this was the precise activity for which they were designed.

Missing the Cut-Off

Races like this sometimes have a cut-off point. Racers must reach a certain point by a certain time or they are 'timed out'. This is for the benefit of the marshalls as much as anything else. The weather can by pretty evil on top of those fells and the marshalls can't be expected to sit up there all day waiting for stragglers.

If you miss the cut-off you are obliged to proceed from there to the finish and report yourself, rather than continue the race.

For Borrowdale, you must reach Honnister, which I estimate is 14 miles into the race, before 4 and a half hours have elapsed - which is quite an aggressive target and reflects the standard of the runners usually involved.

Lightning and I missed the cut off, not because we lacked the speed and endurance, but because we misjudged our pace at the start. It was the longest fell run we'd ever entered so we adopted steady pace, stopping regularly to drink from streams and eat food. When I was going slow, he'd wait, and if he was struggling, I'd take more frequent rests.

By the time we realised we were in danger of missing the cut-off, it was too late to step it up.

Lightning was a bit pissed. "We have unfinished business here," was his remark as we trudged back to the start via the road. I was more sanguine. We have three more beasts to tame before the end of October (Ben Nevis, Full Peris, Langdale Horseshoe) and I felt that 4.5 hours in those conditions was just the right difficulty level to ease us forwards into those challenges.

I am a Mountain Goat

I have lost over a stone in weight since the middle of May - in part driven by a desire to feel more goat-like on the fells. I have lost roughly the same weight as the weight vest I use for training; and when I don that thing, I know about it. I also reckon I did a good job of muscle preservation during that weight-loss period. I am now 11 stone 6 lbs and about 10% fat.

During the first two hours of the race, I did indeed feel like a mountain goat. I felt as if I could keep hiking upwards at that steady pace until the end of time. I think my recent shift to some long, easy training sessions may have also helped, along with the mid-paced run last weekend.

We now have about 4 weeks until the Ben Nevis beast, which we WILL slay.


Anonymous said...

Good effort, it'll still be there next time. Greats slides and write up too.

Steve said...

That race really seems to be a monster! Congrats on finishing, and I'd echo the verdict on the Treks -- in dry/rocky conditions, they're fantastic, but even on greasy paved tracks I think they're at a technical disadvantage to the Inov-8s, despite the sense of natural balance and foot placement they inspire. For this reason, I'll probably pick up some of the lower-profile X-Talons when they come out in about a week's time.

The Full Peris is harder (on paper, at least) than Borrowdale, so your post has me wondering whether I'm really mad enough to do it...

Methuselah said...

Thanks Anon.

Steve - great minds think alike - the low profile Talons are exactly what Dr Lightning prescribes. We didn't exactly finish, by the way... but we could have if we'd been allowed to! See you at the Peris - yes, another few hundres metres in ascent, at least...

Lightning said...

M, you are very generous. It was me that held you back on this occasion.
Appart from a few social occasions, which you will be part of, I AM NOW ON IT !
We will nail the next few long races.

Methuselah said...

Lightning - indeed I waited for you a little more in the first half... but bear in mind that in the end you hit the cut-off 5 mins before me thanks to the slippy grass and your Snickers-induced energy surges, so it's possible that less waiting in the first half would simply have meant I missed the cut off by 5 instead of 10. It's all about Nevis now.

Chris said...

Well done.

i am impressed that you are trying the Nevis race - that really is a monster. I've been up the hill a couple of times but am amazed at the speed at which guys run it.

We were staying in a B&B this weekend in Newtonmore and the guy that ran it was a hill runner who had done lots of races including the Ben. He was fascinating to talk to. He was saying that the record (something like one hour 30) will probably never be beaten now because the Red Burn is "run out" - the scree that used to be there is now gone so it is boulder hopping rather than scree sliding.

He was a fascinating guy - he'd been one of the originators of the West Highland Way race too.

All the best for the race - it is a monster.

Methuselah said...

Thank you Chris. I'm looking forward to the Ben. I've walked it before myself and although it is indeed a monster, it has the certainty of being and up-and-down race, which psychologically I find easier than those with many ups and downs. There are a few cases where records are considered harder to beat because of route changes. This year at Snowdon they actually allowed the front runners to do something slightly different for just that reason, although the condidtions were so bad it was unlikely there'd be a record this time. In fact I think Kenny Stuart hold the record for both Snowdon and Ben Nevis.

Drs. Cynthia and David said...

Great race report, slide show, and good effort at the race itself. Thanks for sharing pics of the gorgeous course!

There's a learning curve in difficult events like this, so don't sweat it, you'll do better next time. Now you're fired up to return and succeed.

I know what you mean about technical terrain. We did a local training mountain (2000 ft up in 3 miles) yesterday. I had to walk most of the uphill (though David and his son ran it slowly). Then it took me 15 minutes to pick my way down the rocky steep downhill half mile from the top! How DO people fly down such terrain? Downhills can be fast around here on our mostly groomed trails, but yours sound really challenging.

I love Innov8's too. My favorite was the Rocklite 295. Very minimal padding- it's basically just a hard sticky sole with enough upper to hold it on. After my foot injury last year, I haven't been able to use them much, but maybe in the future. I think they are a good alternative to VFFs. I'm glad you didn't injure yourself slipping and falling. Not getting bloodied can be a challenge in difficult races like this too! I'd really like to come try one of them out.

I've been working more on hip/glut strengtening exercises and I think it's paying off. Your weight vest idea sounds useful too.


Methuselah said...

Cynthia - I have a pair of RocLites in the cubbarod myself (I used them for the recent Skiddaw race because my foot was a little too bruised and the course a little too rocky for me to risk the five fingers) - they're great. Lightning and I were having that very discussion about how fast the top runners moved across the boulder strewn landscape, as we ourselves slowly picked our way across the granite. One false move on that stuff and it's helicopter rescue time! Hope the strengthening exercises work out for you. I find Romanian deadlift a great way to work the non-quad parts of my legs (although of course the quads still have to work to stablise)