Romsdalseggen – a Norwegian Adventure

– Einur?

– Yes, Morten.

– Do you remember the year that Irish fellow tried to do the Romsdalseggen mountain race?

– Ahhhh, remember? Hahahahaha, will I ever forget, Morten? He had all the gear and everything.

– The gear, the maps, the shoes, yes, yes, hahahaha. But when he got to the top and looked back down, he was too afraid of heights to continue.

– Hahahahahaha, yes, that´s right. We had to call the mountain rescue just to get him back down to town.

– Yes, hahaha, then two volunteers from the knitting club went and fetched him. Hahahahahahahaha!

Snap! I sit up, bolt upright in bed, and slowly realise it´s only a dream, the same one I´ve been having since I registered for the Romsdalseggen Løpet a couple of months ago. How was I going to cope with this, the steepest short race I´d ever seen, never mind entered?

Romsdalseggen Løpet, 8.6km, 980metres of ascent, is a race in Åndalsnes, a small town in the Western Fjords of Norway. Myself and my girlfriend had booked our holidays there and, as an afterthought, I decided to see if there were any races I could enter. I trained hard. In fact, I trained harder and longer than ever before, but felt that nothing I did would prepare me for the brutal climb at the start of the race, 800m up over 4km to reach the peak of Mjølvafjellet (1210m) before running across the boulder strewn ridge, up another peak, and down to the finish, a small plateau on the mountain.

We arrived in town 4 days before the race. What an amazing place! Words cannot describe how beautiful it is.

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The view from across the fjord.

A couple of days before the race, I decided to hike up to the finish area to get a closer look at the type of ground, etc. It was during this ´hike´ that I realised why the finish was not in town (at sea level). The trail to get to the finish area was only 1.8km long but 700m up. Too steep and narrow, full of tree roots and hikers, with about 250m of ascent covered by a stone staircase built by sherpas.

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Romsdalstreppa (the stone staircase built by shepas)

There´s no way you could race down it. Run? Perhaps. But race, overtake? Not a chance. The view from the finish line was unbelievable, and it was then that I decided to bring my phone during the race so I could take a pic from higher up.

On race day, I arrived at the Norsk Tindecenter for registration. I started to feel a little worried when I saw the other competitors. Everybody, and I mean absolutely everybody, looked EXTREMELY fit. We registered, and boarded the coach which would take us to the other side of the mountain and 350m up to the start. At the start, everybody was milling about, looking up at the peak we would climb.

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The view from the start.

 

At 11.30, we were off.

A couple of hundred metres on the road, and then onto the climb. The first 5 or 600m were over more of those big stone steps. Upwards. I settled into the middle of the field and tried to find a rhythm. It wasn´t long till I was breathing heavy and the field was strung out. The steps finished and we started the climb in earnest, a steep hands on thighs slog up the side of a stream, boggy and rocky, and very little chance of running. I wasn´t being overtaken, so I guessed I had found my pace. We reached the top of the stream and turned into a massive boulder field. It was still climbing but everybody managed to break into a slowish run. Up, up and up, and then we turned to face the peak. It was just rocks and boulders all the way to the top. It wasn´t running, not even walking. It was hands-on scrambling all the way to the peak.

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The rocky road to the top.

I was gasping, breathing heavy, and my legs were getting heavier and heavier. I looked at my watch. We had done 3kms. I knew that the peak was at about 4km, but it was so much higher than where I was now. Climb, climb, climb! This fourth km took me 20mins and 34 secs. I didn´t stop and I was going as fast as I possibly could, but Jesus, it was neverending. I reached the top and WOW!

I had to stop and take a photo. Who cares if it´s a race? Just look at this!

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Wow!

I was passed by about 4 people but I didn´t really care. I thought I would get them on the ridge/descent as I love descending. I managed to catch 2 of them but I was also overtaken by some woman, who was flying. At the other end of the ridge, we climbed the second peak, using chains bolted into the rock to pull ourselves at the very top. Then, from there on, it was about 3km to the end, and it was downhill.

Any notion I had of flying down and catching loads of people were quickly swept aside when I realised it was all boulders and rocks. I passed a couple of people and was passed by one or two. As is the norm for me, I somehow managed to end up in a sprint finish at the end with a local guy. According to the results, I beat him by 0.1secs and ended up in 48th place, which in a field of 97 meant I was just inside the top half.

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The view from the finish.

1 hour 31mins and 0 secs. The winner had done 1:02:59 so my time was pretty good, for me. It was a great race and an amazing holiday in a spectacular area of Norway. And I didn´t have to be rescued. Happy days!

Heptonstall – a blessing, a bog, and some pretty bad pacing

What a day! Blue skies, warm sunshine, and an even warmer welcome. The clatter of cleats and studs on the cobbles filled the air as 256 (a record field) of us made our way down from the car park to The Cross Inn for registration. The start line was a few yards from the pub door and runners were milling about outside, catching up with clubmates and old foes alike.

For those of you not from Yorkshire (like me), Heptonstall is a small stone village just outside Hebden Bridge. It’s situated on the route of the Calderdale Way and, since 2011, it has hosted a BL fell race, 15.4 miles long with 3170 feet of ascent. The race was to be my longest ever, the previous being a 15km road race in Brazil last New Year’s Eve, and only my second ever on the fells.

At twenty five past ten, we gathered under the starting banner for the traditional bible reading and blessing from the official race starter, the Reverend Howard Pask, whose church renovations were benefiting from the money raised from the race.

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Photo courtesy of http://www.heptonstallfellrace.wordpress.com

Reverend Pask read a passage from the bible, modified slightly so as to include a mention of running, tea, and flapjacks. He gave a short sermon, informing us that it was Palm Sunday, the day when Jesus was welcomed triumphantly into Jerusalem with the crowds laying their cloaks and palm fronds on the road in front of him and how, by the end of the same week, he was to end up in agony on the cross. Little did I know that this would make a pretty good allegory for my race to come.

At 10.30am, the Reverend sounded an air horn and off we went, up the cobbled street we had walked down earlier and out into the fields and fells beyond. I felt great. The sun was out, it was a beautiful day, and I was moving along nicely. After the start on the cobbles, we turned sharp left and hurtled down a long rough track into the valley. I felt like everybody around me was going too steadily so I overtook quite a few on the descent. There were a few more ups and downs and I was climbing well. Since my first race at Ilkley Moor, I had made a particular effort to improve my hill climbing and it was obviously paying off. The marshals were cheery and I greeted each one with a smile and a ‘thank you’.

After CP1, came the unmarked section I had been particularly worried about, as I am still only learning when it comes to navigation skills. As it turns out, there was a long line of runners to follow and, on such a clear day, you could see for miles in every direction. As we made our way across the moor to Standing Stone Hill, I learnt something new about myself.

I absolutely, most definitely, do not like tussocks.

plural noun: tussocks /ˈtʌsəks/

  1. clumps of long grass and reeds that make every step you take uneven, prevent you from finding any rhythm, hide bogs and shite, and try their damnedest to twist your ankle.

Anyway, after the never-ending tussock dodging on the way to and from the standing stone, I realised I was more tired than I should have been. We’d only just passed CP2, of seven, and I was pretty knackered. My legs were feeling heavy and I was breathing hard. We hit a short patch of road where I managed to catch my breath and then we turned left into a field.

We came across the foundations of a dry-stone wall and there was a puddle to the left of it, where we were meant to go. Hmmm… I smelled trouble.

I followed in the footsteps of the bloke in front of me.

Him: one step, ankle deep, and he was through.

Me: Whooosh! Waist deep! Both legs! Bog-snorkelling!

I managed to heave myself out and get going again. At least my legs had cooled down, although the squelch of my X-Talons wasn’t that pleasant. From here on, I started to get slower, my quick start and nonchalant overtaking from earlier all but a distant memory. It’s disheartening when a trail of runners catch you, and overtake you, one after another. The sun felt like it was beating down and, ironically, I’d left my ‘On Ilkley Moor Bah T’at’ buff in the boot of my mate’s car back in the carpark so my balding pate was pinking (not so) nicely in the Spring Solstice sunshine.

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Not me in the picture. Photo courtesy of http://www.running.rosegeorge.com

I can’t remember all the details of the rest of the race. The terrain was varied and there was some hard-packed trail, a grassy meadow, a river to cross, some forest trail and plenty of ups and downs. I was getting more and more tired and I probably wasn’t thanking the marshals like I had been earlier.

I do remember two lovely ladies giving out water and wine gums and cake and stuff outside a stone cottage at the end of a long climb. Thanks. There was a water stop in a farmyard. Cool, cold, lovely water. Thanks to the people there too. I recall speaking with a couple of other runners who said that they were using this as a training run for the Three Peaks race. A training run? Bloody hell. I was dying here doing the hardest thing I’d ever done, and they were only training. Ha!

The last couple of miles were torturous. My legs were completely gone, useless lumps of lead with a mind of their own. A few more people passed me here and I thought I’d never get to the end. Then we came to the last climb and my ‘crucifixion’, a never-ending hands-on-thighs slog up and up and up through the forest.

Lungs! Legs! Please do what I ask you this one last time.

I finally made it out of the top of the woods and was greeted by another hill. Not so steep, to be honest, but I was shattered. I dragged myself to the top and there it was, down a little sloping field: the finish line, and salvation! After 15 miles and almost three hours, I somehow ended up in a mad sprint finish with a guy from Kirkstall but, try as I might, he held on to his slight lead all the way to the line.

2 hours 47 mins and change, and in the top half of the field. I am pretty happy with that. The people of the parish had put on a great spread for us after the race and I think the Reverend must’ve had another word with The Man Upstairs because, somehow, the tea had been turned into the best tasting wine I’d ever had. Resurrection Tea, I called it. I munched a couple of sweet, sticky flapjacks, drank my tea, and chatted with the other finishers, as my smile widened and my legs stiffened.

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The real ´Salvation Army´, the men and women of Heptonstall parish, who provided refreshments on the day. Picture courtesy of http://www.heptonstallfellrace.wordpress.com

What an amazing race. The beautiful Calder Valley course, great people, smashing weather, good grub, and magical tea all left me feeling well and truly blessed. And now, after this year’s recce, I’ll be better prepared for when I come back in 2017.

On Ilkey Moor…

Ilkley Moor

Well, I did it! My first ever proper fell race. Not only did I complete it, but I actually enjoyed it. In fact, I bloody loved it. 5 miles and 1200 foot of ascent in and around Ilkley Moor.

I’d been lurking in the FRA forums and stalking the FRA facebook group for a while, trying to find a race that would be deemed a suitable introduction to fell racing. I’m pretty sure that a ‘Category A’ race would not be top of the recommended list for a beginner but seeing as I have run around Ilkley Moor a fair bit, and having had a few pints watching England beat Scotland in a dour Six-Nations match, I took the plunge and paid my £4.50 entrance fee online two weeks before the race.

Full kit was expected so I had to buy a shiny new whistle and compass to go with waterproofs I already had. Most fell runners use a bumbag to cart kit around, but I didn’t have one. I do have a nice 10l backpack that I use on the commute to and from work so that would have to do. A couple of pounds of extra weight wouldn’t make much difference to my hopefully middle-of-the-pack time. Yes, that was my goal, middle of the pack. And if everything went really well, I’d finish a little closer to the front than to the back.

At the PECO XC race in Roundhay park a week before, I’d spoken to a couple of fellas who I knew did a fair bit of fell racing. ‘ Ooohh, aye, technical! Some technical fast descents! Not really t’ right race for a beginner.’ Hmm, had I made the right decision? What was I thinking about, entering a category A race? A few dream-filled nights followed, where I fell over, twisted/broke my ankle, got lost, got laughed at, and any and every combination of the above.

On race day, I arrived at the registration van in a windy, muddy field just off Wells Road. ‘You need full kit lad. It’s looking grim up top.’ I started wondering just what the hell I was playing at.

Looking around, I noticed that rather than the wiry half-man half-goat fell-running savages I had dreamt about (there were a few of them but they weren’t in the majority), most of the runners I could see looked like normal human beings. I’d run around on the moors plenty before so I could do it again. I needed to calm down and just run.  I bumped into a couple of clubmates milling about in the field as we waited for the start to approach. ‘Take it easy. Don’t go out too hard! You’ll be fine.’ Reassuring. Calming. 

As we huddled together at the start, I repeated a little mantra to myself. ‘Get about in an hour (hopefully). Don’t get injured. Middle of the pack. Enjoy yourself! Get about in an hour. Don’t get injured. Middle of the pack. Enjoy yourself!’

(c) woodentops.org.uk
(c) woodentops.org.uk

And off we went. There was a bit of a charge at the start and then a long queue developed at an early bottleneck. This was a little frustrating, but at least at walking pace, I wasn’t going to burn out early. We soon started the first of the three main climbs I had counted while studying the racemap. To be honest, a lot of the race is a blur. I remember I had to take off my glasses at one stage because in the rain and sweat they were more of a hindrance than a help. I overtook quite a few people. I was overtaken by a couple. I walked a little on the steepest climbs. On the top of the moor, I was blown off of the sheep track by the wind. I managed to keep my feet, but only just. But the part I remember most clearly is the long steep fast descent before the beck near the end.

Woooooooohoooooooo! This is what it’s all about. Needle in the red, brink of disaster, barely in control, brain switched off, high speed awesomeness.

I was probably going nowhere near as fast as some of the more experienced runners but sweet baby Jesus, it felt like I was breaking the world landspeed record. I bounded, hopped, freefell past two or three or maybe even four others during this section of the race and realised there and then, that from that moment on, I wasn’t going to be just a runner, but a fell runner. I loved it! Never had I felt anything so exhilarating and exciting.

Another short uphill section and then another descent down into the muddy finish and I was done. I collected my race memento, an ‘Ilkley Moor Bah T’at’ buff, caught up with my clubmates, swapped stories and a little banter and then headed home. On the way I remembered the little mantra from the start line. Had I managed all of the things on the list? Not quite.

In fact, I’d finished in just over an hour, and just below halfway down the list of competitors. But I was uninjured, and most importantly, I’d really, really enjoyed myself.