Monday, June 5, 2017

Charlie Ramsay Round report

The Charlie Ramsay Round in a nutshell, for anyone who's not familiar with it:  a 56+ mile loop on Scottish mountain terrain with 28,500 feet of ascent and the same amount of descent, with a time limit of 24 hours for an "official" finish.  The round takes in 23 Munros (originally 24 but one was demoted following a survey!), which are peaks that are more than 3,000 feet high.  Most people have support runners on the various sections, but there aren't many easy access points to the loop so support can be somewhat limited.  Compared to England's Bob Graham round, which I did last year, the terrain is generally rockier and there are more sections of semi-scrambling.  And for my American friends, the loop is generally not on "trails" like we think of them; there are some sections with a path but you are mostly running on rock or grass.  When I started my round, there were 99 previous finishers, only 5 of them women.

You can go either clockwise or anticlockwise, and I chose anticlockwise for the aesthetic value of ending on Ben Nevis.  The round is essentially four parts:  first the Mamores, a difficult section of 10 peaks on mostly rocky terrain, second, a largely flat six miles on the valley floor which nevertheless involves a fair bit of bog and thus isn't as fast as you would think, third, a circumnavigation of Loch Treig and its five Munros, and fourth, the most difficult sections of the round, the Grey Corries, Aonachs, Carn Mor Dearg, and Ben Nevis.

The crux of this report is no doubt going to be keeping the writing from being as long as the round itself.  That is as good a reason as any to gloss over the first few hours of my run, which can be summed up as way too hot, humid, windy, and slow.  Despite working much harder than I would have liked to, I was 10 minutes behind schedule by the second peak and only a few minutes better than that by the third.  My first thought was to avoid pushing any harder so as not to risk a blowup later on.  My second thought was that there was no point carrying on at a pace that wasn't going to get me to the finish in less than 24 hours.  I upped the effort level significantly and gained my 10 minutes back, plus a couple to spare, by the seventh peak, An Gearanach.

I knew I was in dangerous territory, working at what was essentially an effort level that I could reasonably expect to maintain for only about 9 hours. But getting back on schedule was a massive morale boost, which in turn seemed to reduce the amount of effort needed to maintain my pace.  A further boost just afterwards was heading up Na Gruagaichean, which is my favorite peak of the whole round, with its impressive views, friendly descent, and the fantastic ridge running that comes after it.

The rest of the Mamores went  reasonably well, at least relative to how my run had been going so far, and I had good company from Jim for part of the time.  On top of the last summit in the Mamores, Sgurr Eilde Mor, I even ran into Charlie Ramsay's neighbor!  She took a quick photo--I was nervous about time and in a hurry to get going--and then it was off for the big descent.

From Sgurr Eilde Mor it's a big, steep descent to the valley floor and then there is the easy section to Corrour.  It didn't feel very easy on this particular day but I tried to ignore that fact and concentrate on what was coming up next.  Which was...

Carrie and Giles!  And Chuck, who was off doing some proper running when this photo was taken.  I had been starving when I made it to Corrour, but I tried to spend as little time as possible there and instead ate on the move during the nice gradual walk up Beinn na Lap.  It took me all of about two seconds to steal Giles' delicious hummus wrap, an improvement over my previous best of waiting roughly an hour to steal his food during my Bob Graham.  

After some good food and a lot of fun catching up with everyone (Giles had done the Bob Graham just two weeks earlier so it was a great surprise to even get to see him), it was suddenly a completely different day--not a day full of heat, suffering, and difficult running but rather just some enjoyable time out in the hills with friends.  We all managed to make it up Chno Dearg, which I thought was the hardest hill of the round and which had apparently been the scene of more than one relationship "incident" in the past, in one piece and ahead of schedule by a solid 10 minutes, a cushion that we maintained coming into the next support point at Fersit.

I had a longer stop at Fersit in order to try to get some more substantial food and drink down before the night section.  Well, maybe slightly more truthfully, I knew there would be two kinds of cake at Fersit and I wanted plenty of time to sample both.  Sadly for my weight, my friends Dave and Claire are both expert bakers...  And Helen had made me a coffee and Beth had made me pasta; total support stop luxury!  

I left Fersit with Tim and Beth plus their border collies Pip and May.  I had first met Tim and the collies while we were supporting Meghan Hicks on her Bob Graham round, and I had watched in amazement then as Pip navigated BG leg 4 without any help.  It turned out that Pip knows the Ramsay Round as well, so Tim and Beth may want to start hiring him out...  Oh and Meghan, after your BG I found that Oreo that I tried for so long to feed you.  As a joke, I brought it on the second half of the Ramsay with me, but I never ended up eating it so it is now one very well-traveled Oreo.

It doesn't really get any better than this--great company, warm sunny evening, and views in all directions.  I had some nausea for the first time that day but other than that I was thoroughly enjoying myself.

After the Easains you drop right down into a col below the Grey Corries.  This marked the end of what I had seen of the route; all of the remainder, except the descent from the Ben, was going to be new to me.

It was slightly intimidating setting off on the steep climb out of the col with the sun going down and with no idea of what lay ahead.  Tim and I had picked up Pete as a second support runner, though, and with both Tim and Pete having finished the Ramsay Round themselves, I knew I was in good hands.  Plus Pete brought coffee, which tasted delicious even if I did throw it back up every time...

I wish I could say that I could have made it to the finish in under 24 hours even without Tim and Pete, but I can't.  Pete took care of the navigation while Tim did an impressive job of keeping me fed and hydrated despite my reluctance to accept most food.  The nausea was fully set in and all I wanted to do was (a) stop eating, and (b) sleep, neither of which would have been conducive to a sub-24 hour finish.  We spent the first part of the night a little bit ahead of schedule but quickly became just behind schedule, which shortly turned into a fair bit behind schedule.  

There was also plenty of pure physical difficulty in the terrain on that last section.  The grass slope leading up to the gully on Aonach Beag was so steep that Tim showed me his gorilla crawl technique.  I remember finding it vaguely hilarious that it was the middle of the night and I was out there literally crawling up a hill in the dark, but I was too tired to laugh.

Unsuccessfully trying to get Tim and Pete to let me have a nap at the top of the Aonach Beag gully

Aonach Mor was a much easier ascent ("like running in the Peak District" Tim told me, fighting words for me as a former Sheffield runner!) but the descent down to the col before Carn Mor Dearg was brutal and by the time we made it down, I felt like I had absolutely nothing left.  But we were also about 20 to 25 minutes behind schedule and there were only two peaks to go.  I knew this was it--if I didn't turn things around immediately, I would have no chance of making up enough time to finish in under 24 hours.

I would love to be specific here and write about how I managed to go from a semi-zombie state to making fairly good time.  Sadly I've got no idea.  It certainly wasn't more food, and I didn't have any caffeine.  I suppose the lesson is that sometimes even the boring approach of simply trying harder can work.  Whatever it was, we arrived at the summit of the last hill, Ben Nevis, more or less on schedule.  It was quite a special moment when we topped out in the early morning light of 4:30 a.m.

At this point Tim and Pete were reasonably convinced that I could make it down to the finish in the remaining 1 hour 15 minutes.  I was not so convinced.  By UK standards I am terrible at descents, and for me, a rocky/grassy 4+ miles with over 4,000 feet of elevation loss, coming at the end of 24 hours on the go, is a tall order.  I was getting more and more stressed by the minute as we started down from the summit.  As we went through the only remaining snow patch, disaster struck--Pete took a scary fall and hit his head.  The result was alarming:

But I was relieved to see Pete stand back up and to hear him speak without any obvious signs of concussion.  It only took a couple of seconds for Tim and Pete to assure me that they had everything under control and that I should keep running for the finish.  Pete quickly decided he could make it down on his own and sent Tim off after me.  By this point I had become convinced that I wasn't running fast enough to make the 24-hour cutoff, and I think Tim was starting to share that view.  He took the lead and sped up, with my only job to follow behind at the same pace.  It's amazing how much better you can become at running over grass and wet rock when the alternative is brutal failure at something you've been wanting to do for a year!

In the end I needn't have worried quite so much--the youth hostel suddenly came into view sooner than I expected it to.  We made it to the end in 23:46.  Project for the year = done!

Sunday, February 26, 2017

I climbed my project

On my most recent trip to Margalef, I finally climbed my project.  It was a route called Voladerum, and it was my first 7c (5.12d).  It was also the result of a multi-year saga.  One day back in the winter of 2008, I was on a short trip to Margalef with my friend Lucy.  It was a cold week, with some snow and probably a bit of rain, and one day we woke up to find that virtually everything we wanted to climb was wet.  There was one roadside 7c at Laboratorio that was dry though, and Lucy suggested I try it.

I thought the idea of trying a 7c was insanity:  I had only climbed one 7b and no 7b+s, and this route in particular was the exact opposite of my style.  I liked long endurance routes with no especially hard moves, and this route was short and bouldery, with a difficult crux straight off the ground.  It wasn't even short-person friendly, unlike most of the routes in Margalef, which generally favor the short.  But I decided I might as well give it a shot.  On my first try I could do...none of the hard moves.  Zero.  I played around on it until I was exhausted and then came back down, assuming that was the beginning and end of my 7c career.

But the next day, for some reason, I decided to have one more go.  Suddenly I was able to do not just one but several of the moves.  From then, I was hooked.

Working on the upper half

I've been back to Margalef many times since 2008.  For several of those trips, I wasn't nearly strong enough to even try my route, since after 2008 I mostly stopped climbing and started running instead.  On one of the trips, I was able to make some progress on the route but then couldn't replicate any of that success on the next trip.  While I was enjoying working on the moves, I wasn't convinced that I'd ever actually climb the route.

Sometimes (okay, most of the time) the belayers thought it was hopeless too
The big breakthrough came in August of 2015.  My patience for merely working the route started to wear thin and I started to enter the mindset of wanting to actually do it.  My friend Dave and I scheduled a trip to Margalef for November, and I decided it was time to start doing some training.  Not just going to the climbing wall once a week like I had been doing for the past few years, but real, focused training.

This new mindset led me to search for videos of my route on the internet, and I was lucky enough to find something on Vimeo.  The climber in the video did the crux in the most bizarre way possible, but I filed the info away in the back of my mind, and when I got to Margalef and decided it was worth at least one try that way, it worked.  The crux was still desperate for me, but at least with the new method my success rate was higher than with any other method.  The rest of the route started coming together slowly; after the crux there is a steep, burly section followed by an upper half that is only about 7a but a consistent 7a, with no real rest, and the moves didn't always have an obvious method so it took several goes to work out the best sequences.

My best effort of the November 2015 trip saw me get through the crux and the burly section but run out of gas soon afterwards.  It was the same story on the January 2016 trip, although the crux had gotten a bit easier due to some winter bouldering on a burly roof problem.  Dave diagnosed me with a lack of upper body strength, as well as fingers that could do with a bit of strengthening, and sent me home with a prescription for pullups and fingerboard work.

It was an agonizing wait until the next opportunity to go back, which was November 2016.  I was determined not to forget my hard-learned sequences, so before I left Margalef in January 2016 I made sure to take photos of all of the hard sections, and when I got home I rehearsed the moves in my head every night before falling asleep.

My phone's gallery is still filled with fine works of photography such as this.  This one is the crux--the route is almost fully horizontal here.

The autumn of 2016 was an even more focused version of the training from 2015.  I made myself a written training schedule, complete with several sessions a week of fingerboarding, pullups, core strength work, bouldering, and endurance circuits.  I played around with my diet, too, and managed to lose a little weight.

It all worked.  My first day in Margalef, I did the crux first try.  I was so surprised that I instantly forgot how to do all of the upcoming moves and fell off.  The next time on the route, I got through the crux, through the burly section, and partway through the easier section.  I had been having trouble remembering my sequence for the easier section, so I spent a full session on it, working the moves over and over again.

Then I took a rest day.  And bought a bottle of wine, just in case it should be needed for celebrations the next day before the shop opened in the evening.

My project is in the sun all day until about 5pm, and it was far too hot to climb in the sun that trip, so I had to endure a nerve-wracking wait for my try at the redpoint.  I distinctly remember being so nervous that I thought I might throw up, and I told Dave that I was never having another project again, so that I wouldn't have to go through this another time.  Just before 5pm I headed to the cave at the far lefthand end of Laboratorio for my usual warmup, and then it was time to climb.  By this time of the evening the weather was virtually perfect, crisp and dry with a nice cool breeze.

I pulled on and redpointed the route first try.  It felt unreal--kind of like a dream and kind of like an out-of-body experience.  It also felt easy.  I was expecting a big fight, especially when trying to clip the chains (a mini-crux for the short), but the fight never came.

I felt complete happiness sitting at the top of the route, trying to take in what had just happened, and then I felt complete sadness at the realization that it was my last time on the route.

There was nothing left to do but strip the route, go home, and drink wine...and find the next project.  And for the next one, I'll know that if I'm not failing as much as I failed on Voladerum, I'm not trying something hard enough.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Long Trail 2, Alicia 0

I had been eagerly awaiting a return to the Long Trail all year for another unsupported attempt (i.e. carrying all my own gear and food from the start, with no resupplies or accepting food from others).  My plan was the same as last year--stay on the same schedule used by Travis Wildeboer, the unsupported record holder, until the last day or two and then try to finish a bit faster.

Day 1:  Canadian border to Spruce Ledge Camp, mile 31.3

This year I had my mom with me for the trip to Vermont.  She dropped me off at the start of the approach trail at 5am Saturday.  It took a little over half an hour to get to the start of the Long Trail itself, and I spent a few minutes admiring the view into Canada before setting off on my run at 5:42 a.m.

It only took a few miles before I noticed that something was very different this year compared to last year:  I was in much better shape!  The first 120 miles of the Long Trail are extremely technical even by UK standards, but doing the Bob Graham just two weeks previously had left me significantly fitter for all the hills, and my first day on the Long Trail this year was a completely different experience because of it.  Last year I remember feeling like I might not even make it to the end of day 1, let alone the end of the run; this year I wasn't even particularly tired by the end of day 1.

I also went much faster this year!  In fact, I arrived at the stopping point two and a half hours early and had to decide whether or not to press on to the next shelter.  In the end I decided it made more sense to stay and relax at the shelter I had planned to stop at (which was the shelter where the unsupported record holder had also stayed), since it was unlikely that I would be able to go any further than planned on day 2.  Although I was somewhat stressed about wasting a few hours of daylight, it was fun to sit at the shelter and talk to the other hikers, who were all northbound thruhikers and so were nearly finished with their hikes.

Day 2:  Spruce Ledge Camp to Smuggler's Notch picnic area, mile 64.2

I completely failed to fall asleep during the first night, which was a seriously disappointing setback since I spent nearly seven (!) hours at the shelter.  Around 2am I eventually admitted defeat and set off on day 2's miles.  Everything again went smoothly despite the lack of sleep, although I did waste 45 minutes getting lost just before the start of the climb up Whiteface (there is a brief section on a gravel road and unfortunately a logging company had just been through and chopped down a tree which had had white blazes on it marking the turn onto the trail--fortunately I had been here before and realized after a while that I had been on the road far too long).  Whiteface and then Madonna Peak were every bit as hard and unpleasant as I had remembered them, but this year I had saved up a special treat for myself for after the Whiteface summit--a McDonald's burger!  I felt horribly guilty eating it in front of the other hiker who was at the Whiteface shelter, but I had been eagerly awaiting it for several hours and couldn't hold back any longer.

I again arrived at the end of the day earlier than planned, but I did notice that one of my feet was pretty bloody from some sores that I had gotten the day before, from all the mud and grit that had been constantly getting in my shoes.  I washed my feet off in the stream at the Smuggler's Notch picnic area, spent some time taping over the bleeding parts of each foot, and then settled in for a repeat of my luxury accommodation in the composting toilet block.  It felt like absolute bliss and I slept soundly for 7 hours.

Day 3:  Smuggler's Notch picnic area to Montclair Glen shelter, mile 96.8

Putting my shoes on in the morning was a painful task.  With the humidity being nearly 100% virtually the entire time I was on the trail, my foot wounds weren't healing at all, and neither tape nor bandages would stay in place over them, which meant my socks were constantly sticking to the sores and then tearing them open even more as I moved my foot.  However, the first main event on day 3 is the climb up Mt. Mansfield, which is still my favorite part of the entire trail, and that did cheer me up.  I stopped more often than I probably should have for photos...

After Mansfield there is a long runnable section and then several big uphills, which did start to feel like hard work given the high heat and humidity.  I stopped for a snack break at the Puffer shelter and turned on my phone to see if I had any reception.  I did have a little and was startled to receive a text letting me know that my friend Nicole had died unexpectedly. It was a lot to take in at that moment; at least I knew that she would have enjoyed the view from Puffer:

After another long runnable section, it was time for a crucial part of the run:  I needed to get up and over the Camel's Hump (large rocky peak) before the end of the day in order to stay on pace for the record, and the weather was looking threatening.  I climbed up as fast as I could, getting more and more worried as dark clouds moved in.  But I got lucky, and the bad weather stayed to each side of the hump rather than on it.  The summit itself actually had gorgeous sunshine, quite the change from the dark and mist I got last time I was on it!

Getting over the hump and down to the Montclair Glen shelter before dark was a big turning point in how I saw my chances of success on the run.  This day had been the hardest day of the week in terms of both ascent and terrain, and it required the most luck with weather.  From here on, in theory, I had a much better chance of achieving the record...

Day 4:  Montclair Glen shelter to Emily Proctor shelter, mile 129.2

It was another almost sleepless night; I got just a couple of hours before the roasting temperatures and noise level in the shelter drove me out onto the trail.  I will admit that I absolutely hated the first five miles of trail on day 4.  It was nearly constantly technical, and not in a nice way--lots of squeezing between/under/over large boulders and trying to follow a very faint trail as it wound in between the trees.  I was also exhausted from the lack of sleep and the hard day yesterday.  When I finally finished the bad five miles, I decided to stop for a quick nap; it was too cold to sleep much but I did feel a little better when I set off again.  Not much later I made it to an important milestone:  Appalachian Gap, the place where I had had to bail following a hailstorm last year.  I tried to quickly power through the big hills on the south side of the gap (they are *quite* big, it turns out!) and by early afternoon I was at Mt. Abraham, the last of the rocky summits.

When you cross the road on the other side of Mt. Abraham, the trail abruptly changes, so much so that it's like a completely different trail.  I imagine the trail builders thinking something along the lines of "Ha, that northern bit of trail was a good joke, right?  We can't believe you went along with it for 118 miles!  Here's some normal trail now."  It was now very similar to the Superior Hiking Trail, with more hills.  If I'd been feeling stronger, I could have made much better time here, but I was seriously dragging and had to keep having breaks for foot care adjustments.  I did manage to arrive at the Emily Proctor shelter before dark, though, and spent a very nice evening talking with a southbound thruhiker who was staying there.

Day 5:  Emily Proctor shelter to campsite, 165.2

This was one of the easier days in terms of terrain and ascent but not in terms of pain levels; my feet were getting pretty raw and the constant pain was wearing on my mental state.  In comparison to all the sections of trail I'd done so far, this entire day was filled with easy trail, so it was just a question of forcing myself to keep moving quickly and to still do some running.  Towards the end of the day I did have some improvement, and the last 10 miles went fairly well.  I arrived at my campsite just before dark and enjoyed the luxury of a bath in a stream AND a change of clothes--I felt reborn!  There was nobody else at the site so it was quiet and peaceful, and I slept well on a comfortable pine needle bed under my bivy bag.

Day 6:  Campsite to mile 201

Day 5 was the first time I had ended the day behind Travis; he had done a further 7 miles that day to get to the shelter at the top of Killington Peak.  I was (a) too tired for that and (b) not convinced I'd be able to get any sleep in the colder air at the top of the peak, so I had decided to stop early.  But I knew I needed to have a great day on day 6 to make up for it.  I set the alarm for 2:15 a.m. and was out on the trail at 2:45.  The night section was slow since I'd been having trouble with my headtorch (can that design trend where you have to tap the side of the lights to increase or decrease the output PLEASE stop soon...) and I couldn't see where I was going very well.  But by the time I was descending Killington, things were going much better.  I was pleased to discover that my legs were able to run just fine, and I had had some more ibuprofen* so my feet were coping relatively well.

Tired but happy legs

I was pleased with my pace throughout the 20 miles south of Killington; at the top of Killington, I was four hours behind Travis, while 20 miles later I was only between half an hour to an hour behind him.  By the time I got to mile 185 or so, I was starting to believe for the first time that I was going to at least finish, regardless of whether that was ahead of or behind the record.

But...I was running out of ibuprofen.  I had one left, and it would be at least 24 hours before I could expect to finish.  As I approached 8 hours from my last dose, the pain spiked.  It was a swift downfall from here.  There was no medical reason I couldn't have kept going to the finish; there was only a little bit of green in the pus that was oozing out of my feet, so I wasn't worried about a major infection setting in, and I certainly wasn't doing any longterm damage.  I simply couldn't handle another 24 to 30 hours of that level of pain, especially after the previous four days of pain.  I left the trail at mile 201.  To the nice girl with the Senegal FC shirt who stopped to ask if I was okay, thanks for your help in finding my way off the trail.

The primary culprit in the foot pain stakes

It's a harsh outcome for something that was actually largely a success--the training, food, and gear all worked perfectly.  But even if I personally know that I achieved more last week than I did in, say, completing the Bob Graham, that doesn't show up in the final result of the run.  I'm not sure I'll go back; it'll be a tough choice between wanting to polish off unfinished business versus wanting to do an event that I might enjoy a little more (carrying around a heavy pack and camping at night is not really my thing).  If I do go back, however, I will definitely bring more ibuprofen!

*In general, it's true that taking ibuprofen during long runs can be dangerous.  But I've got enough experience from running ultras that I know when it's okay to take some ibuprofen and when it's not.