Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Rock climbing on Pabbay

“I think this is the right place?”  We peer over the edge, contemplating a committing 90m free hanging abseil (so the guidebook says – our rope is 100m), onto a platform that you can’t see from above (hopefully non-tidal…), to do a three pitch E2, which some others did yesterday but said the bottom pitch was “dripping wet”.  The easiest way out is E1, assuming we are in the right place...  Welcome to climbing on Pabbay!
Pabbay is a small island at the southern end of the Outer Hebrides.  It has been uninhabited since the early 20th century.  A few years earlier a storm killed most of the adult male islanders on a fishing trip (legend says their wives dreamt this would happen, and there is a 3-star classic route “Prophecy of Drowning”), and with diminished prospects of subsequent generations (!) the rest of the population decided to leave. 

A basking shark right beside the boat on the way out (credit: Ali Rose)

Along with neighbouring Mingulay (also uninhabited), it has become something of a Mecca for adventure trad climbing, with up to 100m high sea cliffs of steep and featured Lewisian Gneiss (“nice”!).  Getting there involves a 5-hour ferry from Oban to Castlebay on Barra, then chartering a local fisherman to take you plus supplies on the 1-hour trip to the island (booked ahead).  Pippa and I went this August, with half a dozen others, organised by some guides Pippa met whilst in Antartica, and various friends of friends (a reasonable sized party is recommended for safety!).  There is no mobile phone signal, and you genuinely feel “out there”, with just a few tourist and fishing boats passing by, and daily sightings of seals keeping a watchful and curious eye on the climbing antics.  The only connection with the outside world was our marine radio on which a mayday might get picked up, and we could receive the shipping forecast each day.





 Eager climbers unloading a mountain of kit on the island (credit: Ali Rose)

The fisherman dropped us off on a beautiful Saturday evening, bid us farewell, and said he’d be back for us at 5pm on Friday.  After rapidly erecting tents, with tomorrow’s forecast suggesting rain, and like kids in a sweetshop, we immediately marched across the island to get a first route in.  Awesome!  Next day was indeed showery, we got just two pitches between showers, and I went for a run round the high points of the island.  I also tried to tighten a guy rope, and ripped a hole in our flysheet – but initial panic and influx of driving rain were tempered by some creative duck taping!  Then followed three days of excellent weather, light winds and sunny.  Awesome routes were dispatched, like The Priest, a 3-star E1 classic up the side of the Great Arch, an amazing rock feature.

Spot me in a green jacket on The Priest, an insignificant dot alongside the enormity of the Great Arch (credit: Ali Rose)
On to Wednesday.  As we started up a route our fisherman’s boat chugged round the corner.  Tourists swung their cameras from the seals to us dangling off the rockface, as the fisherman’s thick Hebridean accent drifted across to us.  The weather would be deteriorating, and he could either pick us up tonight, or we’d have to wait until Saturday as the sea would be too rough to land.  He’d meet us back in the bay where we were camped at 6pm or so for a decision.  Not unreasonable except we’d just done this 90m abseil, and didn’t top out until 5:30pm.  Pippa ran across the island to find the others, attempted to get a consensus on whether we should stay or go, and then to meet the fisherman.  She arrived at the bay just to see him pulling away soon after 6pm, having taking our absence from the meet-up as a decision to stay.  With no means to contact him, that was that.  We nervously listened to the shipping forecast that night.  Tomorrow was ok to start, then deteriorating to gale force 8 overnight.  There ensued debate on the precise meaning of shipping forecast terms such as “imminent”, “soon” and “later”, and how high were the waves in a “rough”, “high” or “phenomenal” sea state, but it was clear we’d need to baton down the hatches.
Thursday dawned dry, and turned out to be another good days’ climbing, but to the backdrop of increasingly rough waves crashing below us.  That night the wind and rain arrived.  Our tent flapped and flexed, but was tolerable, just leaving us in a puddle of damp clothing and sleeping bags.  Others fared less well, with one tent completely flattened, its occupant decamping to a bivvy bag in our mess tent, which was then also flattened with broken poles.  Everyone eventually emerged to survey the destruction next morning, and dry out.  The mess tent was patched up (more duck tape).  Discomfort the night before turned to a sense of satisfaction we weathered the storm, and were armed with stories to tell.  And despite originally wanting to leave before the storm, we ended up with more climbing on Thursday and Saturday, and overall glad we stayed.

The mess tent after the storm (credit: Duncan Archer)

So back to the climbing, it really is great.  The rock is steep, but good holds emerge when you need them (depending on your grade and definition of “good”!).  You want to be climbing at HVS or above to get the most out of it, and there is plenty for those seeking even higher grades.  It is adventurous, but the rock is mostly solid on the classic lines, and although nearly everything needs an abseil, many cliffs you can view before you jump in.  See a list of our routes here (5th – 12th August 2017).  Highlights for me were the Priest on the Great Arch, U-Ei (the 90m free hanging ab), Spring Squill, and most pleased to lead Illegal Alien a sustained HVS.


Pippa cutting loose from huge jugs on Hyper Ballad, a bonus route the day after the storm (credit: Ali Rose)

Tips for packing: take as much food and as many comfort items as you can carry (you only have to lift them a short distance on/off boats and 100m from landing to camping); a large tent for the whole group (great for evening socializing and rainy days); a camping chair (much more comfortable than sitting on the ground / bags / ropes); duck tape for emergency repairs; 100m abseil rope; ascenders for emergency retreat/rescue (thankfully not needed); marine radios (including enough battery power!); standard trad rack and double ropes.  My Hangar 18 down jacket, sleeping bag and beanie were also much appreciated to keep me warm!
If you want an adventure, I really recommend going here.  The climbing is great, and there are so few places in the UK where you can truly get away from any electronic interference in life, and just eat, sleep and climb.  Bliss.


The white sandy bay by the campsite on Pabbay - anyone for a swim? (credit: Duncan Archer)

Duncan Archer

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Big 3 in One Winter


 Ramsay Round 22nd Jan 2017 (anticlockwise)

It's around 3am and Jon Ascroft is leading me across Devils Ridge in the Mamores in near perfect conditions. Graham Nash has stopped at the end of the ridge so he has time to fill our water bottles from the lochan outflow to save time. There is a little snow collected in gullies but not much on the path and although the sub zero temperatures have left a thick layer of frost on all the rocks its not verglas or particularly slippery. We're doing a Ramsay Round and are already well ahead of schedule but this is the Highlands in the middle of winter and sure enough it'll get more interesting before we are done. Over the next couple of hours it starts to snow, the nav gets difficult, ice axes come out, we have to use crampons for the first time to descend a steep frozen snow bank and all in all it's got a whole lot more interesting. It's not full on classic Scottish winter conditions, but we certainly know it's winter. By the end of the leg we have slipped from being 20 minutes up on our 22hr schedule to being 26 minutes down but it's daylight now and the frozen ground means we should be able to move fast on leg 2.

Towards the end of the leg 1 I start to play back just how on earth I ended up here. It wasn't planned that is for sure. So how exactly do you end up doing a winter Ramsay by mistake!? Flashback to Thursday, just over 48 hours ago and I was looking for something to do at the weekend. The weather in Wales looked good so I was considering a Paddy Buckley Round. I dropped Konrad Rawlik and Jasmin Paris an email to see if they fancied a day out. The reply was basically, 'We'd love to but we have a race in Scotland on Saturday so Wales is a bit too far but if I wanted to get out in the hills in Scotland on Sunday they would come along'. I'd never considered a winter Ramsay but looked up the Fort William weather forecast out of daftness and there was a band of high pressure there too. An idea was forming. A few emails later and things were out of control, several top runners were up for it and there was no going back. I was going to attempt a winter Ramsay on the eve of my 40th birthday. Trepidation rapidly changed to excitement and before I knew it we were off.

The first we saw of Konrad and Jasmin, my leg 2 support, was a head torch pointed up the hill through the twilight at us so we knew where to aim for which was a huge help. Leg 2 takes in the three hills to the east of Loch Treig. We were fortunate that the boggy ground was generally frozen and just had a light coating of snow over it so we could move fast. I drank the coffee and ate the pasta they had brought in for me on the move and we set to trying to recover the time deficit. It was great fun and the time seemed to pass really quickly. The wind was still and we were mostly below the clouds. We gained 1hour and 10 minutes against the schedule in this section and as a result were 40 minutes ahead of the 22hr schedule by the end of the leg and I was still eating well and feeling good.

As we came down into Fersit Konrad went ahead to hand gear on to the leg 3 support but as Jasmin and I got closer we realised that there was no one there. Maybe they were out of sight? No, they had been caught out by the pace we were moving and were late (or rather we were early). There was no fuss, Jasmin set off to find them and Konrad and I set of on leg 3. Sure enough within a few minutes Shane Ohly, Alex McVey and John Ryan were chasing us up the hill to be greeted by a friendly shout of “worst support ever!” from Konrad and a suitable response from Shane. Kit was exchanged and for the next couple of hours we continued to get further ahead of the schedule and at one point were an hour and 10 minutes up. However, we still had the big hills ahead of us and from the mornings experience in the Mamores I suspected that it might not be easy there. Jon Gay was waiting for us before the Aonachs where he had cut some steps to help us ascend the frozen snow in Charlie's Gully. I was starting to tire a little by this point and had layered up a bit more to stay warm but we were still climbing really well. It was just the delicate foot placement on the exposed ridges that was becoming more challenging as my muscles tired. Not surprisingly the Aonachs and CMD proved to be the most difficult part of the round with us back in darkness, lots of consolidated snow, sections of ice and a fresh albeit thin layer of snow hiding the condition of the ground beneath.

We lost a lot of time against the schedule over this final section using up the entire buffer and some on our way back to the youth hostel but finished in a time of 22 hours and 23 minutes. I was delighted to be only the third person to complete a sub 24hr winter Ramsay Round and am very pleased that its a new fastest winter time. That said there is still no doubt that the benchmark and best winter round remains Jon Gay's phenomenal 23 hour 18 minute solo round in classic winter conditions.

It was my best ever birthday party and I can honestly say I can't think of a way I would have preferred to see out my 30's than in big hills with great friends. It was a very special day.

Paddy Buckley Round 11th February 2017 (Clockwise – Starting from Capel Curig)
The temptation of  trying to hold all of the Big 3 fastest winter times at once (I set the BG fastest time of 18 hours 18minutes in December 2013) was just too much and as I started to recover from the Ramsay I began watching the Snowdonia forecast.

I'd first seen the weather window on the 14 day forecast. Flat calm and no precipitation forecast for  a 72 hour gap. It was perfect and the fact that it was still there with 7 days to go indicated some stability to the forecast so even if the window narrowed a little I should still get the 24 hours I wanted. Happy days.

Another amazing set of support was all lined up and a bunkhouse arranged to base from so we were good to go.

We started at midnight and by the time we got to the end of leg 3 we were an hour up on the 19.45 schedule and getting back to Capel in time for the salsa band at the Siabod cafe at 8pm was looking like a distinct possibility.

It hadn't been easy by any means. The promised weather window had not just narrowed but had firmly slammed shut and was forecast to deteriorate further with even higher winds and snow but the sooner we got done the more of it we would avoid. The first leg with Andy Berry had been uneventful, in a good way, as the wind was mainly behind us despite it snowing lightly from early on. As we turned briefly into the wind in the Moelwyns and got the full force of the weather into our faces for the first time it was clear that unless something changed for the better it was going to be a long, tough day.

Leg 2 was more interesting as a combination of factors (our early arrival being the main one) resulted in only Nic Barber being on the leg and my food and kit remaining behind. I was suffering a real low as we fought our way directly against the wind into the first of many blizzards on to the top of Moel Hebog. No food, little water, no extra layers, deteriorating weather, no spare headtorch and my headtorch flashing to say it would shut down soon conspired to make me feel pretty miserable. Eventually I voiced my concerns to Nic. It turned out that he had food for two legs, enough spare kit to last out the winter up there and was confident that we could manage with one headtorch between two if needs be and pointed out that regardless “it would get light soon”. So we were good. I cheered up and we pressed on sharing his cream cheese and salsa sandwiches (yes I know, but honestly they are so much better than they sound!) We got round without any real excitement, collected some pasta, a cup of coffee and Jasmin Paris from Pont Caer Gors and headed off to find Snowdon.

Ant Bethell was waiting for us on the approach to Snowdon and we cracked on well for the leg. Snow was still falling and the wind was picking up more but we were in the lee of the hills for parts of the leg so it never felt too bad.

Very soon we were in Llanberis where Nic and Ant left having done a cracking job and Konrad Rawlik and Jo Zakrzewski joined Jasmin and I for leg 4. This is the leg that concerned me most before setting out and it turned out not without good reason – it was really brutal. We battled through dreadful weather for the entire leg holding roughly to schedule until the Glyders and then losing a full hour of time over the final three summits in thick clag, high winds and a combination of new and drifting snow.

I was battered by the end of it but decided to stick with the plan of running straight through the road crossings to complete the relatively short leg 5 now with quite a posse composed of Konrad, continuing on, Andy, back for more, Carol Morgan, clearly recovering well from her record breaking Spine run, Dave Harrison and Liz Barker. I like the Carneddau leg as it's nice, fast, easy running so you can relax and enjoy it or at least that's how I used to feel about it. It was really dreadful weather for this section. Darkness closed in around us just before the top of Pen y Ole Wen and with the wind now making forward movement hard, whipping snow into our faces and at times making it hard to stay upright I'd be hard pushed to say I was enjoying myself. I just fell in line and followed trying to make the most of the post holes that whoever I was following at any given time was creating. It's pretty impressive that despite the conditions we only made a couple of small nav wobbles before heading down toward Capel. We had lost a lot of time but we were going to get round and a new fastest winter time was still on the cards although we were going to be late for salsa dancing which had become somewhat less appealing in the last 20 hours.

We eventually returned to Capel in 21 hour and 37 minutes which I am delighted with in the conditions. It was another fantastic day out, a lot of fun (some of it type 2) and again it was a fastest time to give me the fastest times for all the Big 3 in winter but already ambition creep was setting in...

Bob Graham round, 20th / 21st February 2017 (Clockwise)

Having completed my 'accidental' Ramsay round and then a Paddy both in the same winter it seemed natural to try and complete the big 3 in one winter which has never been done before but it wasn't straight forward. The Paddy was complete on the 12th of February leaving me with just 16 days before the end of winter to fit in a BG. However I was already committed to a fast High Peak Marathon team for the 3rd of March and would need as much recovery time as possible for that so I had to go as soon after the Paddy as I dared if I wasn't to let the HPM team down. After a week my legs were returning to a reasonable state and I started watching the weather. I needed a gap that would leave me a minimum of 6 clear days before the HPM if I was going to do it.

There was really no weather window at all with sustained upland gales forecast except for what looked like an 8 – 12 hour lull (where the wind would drop to 15-30mph winds) in the early hours of the morning of Tuesday the 21st. I would need that 'calm' ideally on the Scafell ridge which meant I would have to run through high winds for other parts of the round. It was a long shot but as I figured this would be the only chance I would ever have to run the 3 in one winter so I took it.

A crack team was rapidly scrambled the weekend before and without time to dwell on what I was about to do we were off on a 6pm start. 6 pm is a dreadful time to start in winter. Instead of making the best use of the daylight you are maximising the night time and where I normally try and split the daylight to make it easier mentally it would be one long block and furthermore we would have to do the Scafell ridge in the dark. As long as the clag didn't come in and the rocks didn't verglas that should be possible.

Within minutes of setting off I started to get concerned; the wind was very strong and my legs felt heavy even on the first climb but I was determined to give it a decent try. As we neared the top of Skiddaw the group split with Bill Williamson and Jo Zakrzewski dropping back together after Jo was blown over and Jonny Mally continuing with me to Great Calva. Jo and Bill headed onto Blencathra to give me much needed food. The leg was completed in good time and I was handed over to the very capable team of Jasmin Paris, Steve Birkenshaw, Konrad Rawlik and James Harris for leg 2. The wind remained strong but was largely from the side so although I felt like I was taking a beating we were making good time. I was desperately hoping it would drop as predicted before the Scafell ridge. By Dunmail Raise we were 30 minutes up on the 21hr schedule so I took a rare break to eat the pasta and drink the coffee that Martin Stone had prepared. Martin had volunteered himself as road support through to Wasdale and it was a massive help as well as a psychological lift.

Leg 3 was always going to be really tough but with the time buffer I was feeling confident. Shane Ohly and Jeff Powell-Davies were pacing me and are both really good navigators but a thick clag came in that was to test us all to our limits as we tried to keep to the best line but we were often losing even good paths. On Great End we passed within 6 feet of the cairn and missed it only to be brought to a halt by the rather pronounced capture feature (large cliff) and we circled back to collect it. The clag, wind and long night made it really tough but when it finally started to get light on the descent into Wasdale and we hadn't lost too much time I knew we would make it and took a little bit of time to eat and chat before heading off onto leg 4 with Carol Morgan, Mick Allen and Dave Harrison. There would be no records today but that wasn't the goal – sub 24 hours would be just fine and would limit fatigue before the High Peak Marathon. Leg 4 was not too windy and was great fun as we enjoyed the daylight and ticked off the last big hills. At Honister Andy Blackett joined us and Dave and Carol continued onto leg 5 too.

Somewhere on the way up Dale Head the predicted return to upland gales started and it came in really fast. I had a fair bit left in reserve still so put the hammer down to get off the fells as fast as possible and then relaxed once we had dropped into the relative shelter of Newlands valley for the run home. Moot hall soon came into view and we finished in a respectable 20:26 to complete the Big 3 in 1 winter.

Huge thanks to all of the following for their help and support on the 3 rounds (in order of appearance): Jon Ascroft, Graham Nash, Jasmin Paris, Konrad Rawlik, Shane Ohly, Alex McVey, John Ryan, Jon Gay, Andrew Berry, Nic Barber, Carol Morgan, Dave Harrison, Clive King, Liz Barker, Ant Bethell, Jo Zakrzewski, Paul Hodges and all at the Siabod Cafe, Bill Williamson, Jonny Mally, Martin Stone, Steve Birkenshaw, James Harris, Jeff Powell-Davies, Mick Allen and Andy Blackett.

Special thanks to Margarita Grigoriadi who has got me in such good shape and helped me manage my recovery and for the support from Hangar 18, Start Fitness, Inov8, & OMM.

I have been asked a lot about what kit I used and when I thought about it there were six items I simply wouldn't want to set out without:
1.     inov8 X-Talon 190 shoes – My usual shoe is the Mudclaw but I used the same pair of X-Talons for all 3 rounds and found that they were really good on all surfaces even ice and verglas where the Muclaw can be a bit flighty.
2.     Hangar 18 leggings – I don't know what fabric they are using but these are amazing, they shed water fast, stay warm and are comfortable. I wore the same pair for all 3 rounds and through deep snow, blizzards, rain etc I didn't once have to put waterproof trousers over the top.
3.     OMM Aether Smock – I have only had this a couple of months. Its really light, breaths well and really keeps the weather out.
4.     Sealskin socks – they are sold as waterproof although clearly if you are crossing streams your feet will get wet, but crucially they do always keep my feet warm.
5.     Goretex over mits – keeping hands warm is really important and I've found that overmits are far better than any other gloves or glove combination. My pair are a generic ebay purchase.
6.     Camp Corsa Ice axe – I use a 50cm. Its only 200g so its light enough that you don't think twice about carrying it.


Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Hangar 18's new ambassador - George Foster

Take a look at our new Fell Runner and Climbing Ambassador, George Foster, a good read, looking forward to reading about his adventures 


Friday, 4 November 2016

OMM 2016, Galloway

“I don’t want to get to the finish in second place feeling like I could have tried harder.”  These words from Shane are ringing in my ears as we struggle up a long rising traverse, the last significant hill on day 2 of the Original Mountain Marathon 2016 in Galloway.  We alternate between “maximum shuffle” and hands-on-knees walking up steep grass.  It is a long leg, 5 miles long in fact, with some route choice.  Overnight we had been lying in 1st place on the elite course with nearly a 20 minute lead, but anything can happen in a chasing start.  Maybe Nic and Jim in 2nd took a better route round the forest roads and are overtaking us?  All we can do is get our heads down, shovel some more food in, and keep pushing.

Rewind the clock – how did we get to be in this position?  This time last year it was the usual story.  You do the OMM (the fourth time on elite for me with Shane), you don’t quite get the result you wanted, the next day you have trouble even walking down the street, and wonder if it is all worth it.  But as days turn to weeks and months those memories fade.  Then the insistent promotional emails from OMM start arriving in your inbox, with photographs of glorious rolling hills for next year’s race.  Maybe it wasn’t that bad after all?  So you enter again.

2016 saw the event return to the Galloway Hills in SW Scotland, as apparently it does in every year ending in a 6.  The perceived wisdom was that this was rough terrain, tussocks up to your armpits.  Great says Shane, this will play to our strengths Duncan, the rougher the better.  Well maybe years of orienteering stand us in good stead, but it isn’t going to be pleasant.  The event gets closer and I put a previous map of the area on the wall next to my desk at home (is that normal?), so I have a choice of getting on with some work or gazing at wiggly contours and imagining those tussocks….

Three months before the OMM I get an email from Jackie at British Orienteering.  Apparently the OMM have invited orienteering teams from different nations to take part, the event will be covered by the BBC Adventure show, and this is a good opportunity to promote orienteering and get some publicity.  Some discussion ensues about how to go about this, but eventually British Orienteering put forward Shane and I to represent them at the elite end of the race.  In the end neither the OMM or British Orienteering actually do much publicity beforehand, but we get some promotional jackets with GREAT BRITAIN emblazoned on the back.  Shane is over the moon about this.  They are for the podium apparently.  I guess we better do our best to get there.


Eventually the weekend comes around and we turn up with that nervous anticipation you get the night before a big race.  A good night’s sleep in Shane’s van, then a long 5km walk to the start in quiet contemplation.  Bjorn and Sebastian, a strong Swedish team, one of whom beat us into second place in the Howgills, comes jogging past uphill.  Come on guys, we haven’t even started yet!  We end of getting away just in front of them (no allocated start times) and we are off.  Into the mist, right from the start it is tricky, bumps everywhere, we desperately search the map for clues, but I know these hills are too small to be on at 1:40,000.  So we trust our instincts, and our compasses, press on and eventually #1 looms out of the mist.  One down.  Later we discover other teams lost significant time here.  #2 is a long leg and we are happy with our route choice, up and over Merrick (no view).  #3 I’m hesitant on the approach, but Shane confidently stashes his compass and uses “the force” to guide us in – strangely it seems to work as we hit it bang on, and climb out to find others circling back to it.  Having started late we are passing teams, some of them decent teams, and we feel like we are going well.  No sign of the Swedes catching us, and reports that Jim and Nic (strong contenders for the race and beating us last year) aren’t far ahead.  We chat with the leading girls team, Jess and Kerstin, as we pass them on the way up a hill, then into the mist once more.  But then I’m disorientated, lose confidence, and a minute or two searching for #4, finding it just as the ladies navigate cleanly into it.  Bother.  Off again at speed vowing to pay more attention.  On exit from #5 someone familiar is coming towards us – it is Jim and Nic, having made a mistake and we are now a few minutes ahead.  The race is on!  We take what feels like another solid route minimizing climb to #6, with frequent glances over our shoulders.  Eventually Jim and Nic catch us again at #7, there is some friendly chat on the way to #8, but then someone turns on the boosters.  90 minutes of hard work follow as the pace is wound up over the final few controls.  We keep on pushing, and eventually Shane and I pull away on the last descent.  The final road and track seem interminable but this is the time to put a few more minutes in the bag.  What a day.  I seriously never thought we’d be leading overnight.  I thought I was less fit than previous years, but maybe I was just well rested?!


Time for a nice relaxing evening and a good night’s sleep.  Ah my mistake, we are at the OMM, where you spend an extra hour in a slightly damp and flapping tent because the clocks go back, just waiting for the alarm to go off.  Actually it wasn’t nearly that bad this year.  We alternate between piling in the calories (a few new food ideas now Shane is vegan), dozing, rehydrating, strolling round the campsite chatting, doing some media interviews, the usual stuff!  It was probably the warmest night I’ve known at an OMM, must be a combination of all that mist keeping the heat in, and the luxurious bubble-wrap underlay in the tent. 


Next morning the legs feel ready to go, we’re excited to be off, just need to keep focussing on navigation, running, eating and drinking, try not to think about the competition chasing us down.  Our biggest mistake, really just a wobble in the circle, comes at #7 under the watchful eye of a film crew with a drone buzzing overhead – should provide some entertainment if they every air it.  And then we are into that long route choice leg to #9….  “Have any elite teams come through yet?” Shane asks the marshal at the next control.  He shrugs his shoulders.  So we keep pushing through the final controls in the woods.  Just after the last control is a cameraman and a friend from Trail Running magazine – “Have Jim and Nic come by?” asks Shane.  “No!”  Shane: “Ah thank f&%*” (all caught on camera) “How are you doing?”  Me: “Knackered”  Shane: “We’re very tired”  That sums it up really.  Tired but very happy.  A second win on elite at the OMM.  There was some discussion that we might not do another elite after this one.  But then someone pointed out next year is the 50th OMM and promising to be something special.  We’ll see….





Duncan Archer
H18 Ambassador


Tuesday, 7 June 2016

FROM MOUNTAINS TO MARATHONS


Another runner eases past, making it seem effortless, whilst my trainers slap the tarmac, wasting what little energy I have left.  Crowds pass in a blur, not due to my speed but because tunnel vision takes over, just focussing on the road ahead.  That light spring in the step an hour ago seems a distant memory.  I check my watch, but I’m only slightly nearer the finish than when I checked it 30 seconds ago, and 30 seconds before that.  Here I finally am, doing the Stockholm marathon, experiencing what thousands have experienced before me – the tiredness of the last few miles of a marathon. 

Let’s rewind the clock…  Firstly why a road marathon?  I have no problem with two marathons over two days, each with 2,000m of mountainous ascent, and a pack on my back.  But road running has never been my thing.  I started orienteering aged 11, and have been running through forests, up mountains, and across the fells ever since.  My wife Pippa jokes I have the gait of a moose, ideal for bounding through heather, but somewhat ungainly on the flat.  My road racing experience through the end of 2015 amounted to a 10 mile race in the early 2000s whilst living in London (~60 mins), and the Middlesbrough 10km in 2009 (35:26).  However I’ve always seen the attraction of a road race, challenging yourself against an objective target in relatively controlled conditions, and pushing yourself to be as good as you can in a measurable way.  Also, a road race – and a marathon time in particular – is something non-running friends can comprehend, when they cannot fathom a mountain marathon.

Why Stockholm?  My brother has lived with his family in Sweden for many years and announced last autumn he was going to do the Stockholm marathon.  I’ve had various mountain marathon successes in recent years, and a good Bob Graham Round in June 2015, so I was wondering what next?  It seemed like the time for a marathon had come, and what better motivation than having someone to share training stories and targets with.  I’ve also been to Stockholm several times, it is a beautiful city, and I had plenty of time to prepare.  So the idea was born.



Finishing the Bob Graham Round in 2015.

I did the elite OMM in October 2015 with Shane, and despite fatigue in the latter part of both days (thanks Shane for helping me through!) a few weeks later I was feeling fairly well recovered, and I slowly built up the mileage.  I’ve spent many winters with coughs and colds, so I really focussed on resting well and keeping healthy, and strung together a few months of good training.  Training for long distance events requires miles and hours, no-one can deny sometimes you have to be selfish, and I will confess my best training happened whilst Pippa was away for 5 weeks pursuing her research dreams in Antarctica.  1 mile reps, hills for strength, long runs, and race-pace runs all came and went.

Having done so few previous road races I needed to test myself.  On a spare weekend I entered the salubrious Great North West Half Marathon in Blackpool, a flat course up and down the seafront, what could be better for gauging my pace?  A nice summer day that’s what.  Sadly race day in February came with very strong winds, waves crashing over the sea-wall onto the “out” section of the course, and a headwind on the “back” section.  Still, I managed a respectable time (1:21:41), and one which given the conditions made me think a 2:45 marathon was achievable.



Big waves at the Great North West Half Marathon Blackpool.

But then I got ill in the lead up to Easter, and didn’t race the JK.  I recovered for an excellent climbing holiday in Morocco, apart from badly spraining my ankle walking out from the crag one day.  Cue several weeks of physio and rest, followed by cross-training on the bike and in the pool (including one session of aqua-jogging – never again).  Slowly my thoughts moved back from not making the start line, to at least completing the marathon, to maybe still achieving my goal.

As the day approach I studied and re-studied the race route, familiarised myself with drinks points, feeding stations (one dedicated to salty gherkins?!), landmarks and the two 30m “hills” over a bridge.  I went over pace times my head.  Finally race day came, blue skies, sunny, and 18 degrees with a breeze, not ideal but thankfully cooler than the day before.  Pre-race nerves gave way to excitement on the start line and finally the gun.  13,000 runners eased themselves onto the streets of Stockholm.  Checking my watch in the first few km, pace was good, a bit faster than needed, but it felt ok and surely a few seconds in the bank was no bad thing (…. what was that noise in the back of my head, alarm bells?...).  I was staying hydrated, taking on shot blocs and a banana, halfway came feeling good, and the gherkins were declined.



Feeling fresh early on the course.


Not so happy now.

Then gradually it started to feel like an effort.  Runners I’d been keeping pace with eased away, and after a couple of small efforts to hang on they drifted out of sight.  Through 25km and nearly 30km my times were still reasonable, but the signs were there.  This was no longer fun.  Keep telling myself to focus on running tall, head up, one foot in front of the other.  Slowly the km markers came and went, as my min/km crept up.  Taking on refreshments at any opportunity.  Repeated checks of the watch as if it might make me go faster or the finish line come sooner.  My goal of 2:45 was out the window, and the mental faculty to calculate what finish time I was now on for eluded me.  Finally the last bends came, cheers from family supporters seeing me through, into the historic Stockholm 1912 stadium, a mention on the commentary and I raised a hand to no-one in particular.  Over the finish line in 2:52:08, my immediate thought was relief it was over.  But that was replaced by an amazing happiness – despite the effort and tiredness, I’d come from no experience in this sort of race to still finish in a hugely respectable time, and I was smiling from ear to ear, soaking up the atmosphere in the stadium.


How not to pace a marathon.


Could I have done better?  On the day I’m not sure.  Was my goal realistic?  Looking back I missed several weeks of important training through illness and injury.  Tactically I ran a poor race on the day, getting sucked into running too fast early on, when lots of evidence suggests sticking to a game plan, with a consistent pace or even a negative split, is the way to get a PB.  Would I have even wanted to do my sub-2:45 goal first time?  Experiencing some pain and disappointment often makes a goal much more satisfying when finally achieved.  But hang on…. what does that mean – that I should try another road marathon?  We shall see.  For now I can hear the hills and forests calling, and I’m happy taking some rest, before a couple of orienteering trips over the summer, but then who knows….


A happy finisher.

Duncan Archer
H18 ambassador

Outdoor Run Rock

Check out www.h18orr.com