Thursday, September 22, 2016

Glen Coe Skyline ...

The Glen Coe Skyline race was the third and final in the Skyrace Extreme race extreme series and set here in Bonny Scotland.

Having already ran the first in the series over at Tromso, Norway I was looking forward to revisiting many of the mountain summits and ridge that I have spent the last 30 odd years exploring and playing in. Like Tromso, the Coe also hosted a Vertical Kilometre and shorter event on the Saturday with the Ring of Steall race which is still a tasty 29km with 2500m of vertical ascent taking in some stunning ridges and mountain summits.

The fully skyline was a scary 55.06km / 4,746m with two technical sections. Entrants were vetted to ensure they had sufficient mountain running and technical climbing experience before being allowed to toe the start line.

Based on my Tromso race performance, making the mid route cut off times was going to be challenging …very challenging indeed. I started the race running with my club mate James which helped ensure my pace was quicker than I’d normally start with (James is usually at the pointy end of the race) and was happy to make the first cut with almost 90 minutes to spare. The next section was an ascent of the mighty Buachaille Etive Mor via Curved Ridge. With the route being flagged, it was simply ascend as quick as you could and in unison with other folks around you. Previous ascent times for this during training had been around the 1 hour 28 minute mark …race day gave a time of 38 minutes !

Over the summit and it was time to settle back into run mode heading over Stob na Doire before the sharp descent into the Lairg Gartain, over the bealach on Buachaille Etive Beag before another descent to the second timing point. It was good to confirm I had made up additional time and now had a good buffer for the final cut at the road crossing. However, I paid the price for the early pace during the traverse of the Bidean mam Bian section feeling light headed and generally grim (food and drink sorted that). Lost count of how many tumbles on the way down from Stob Coire nam Beith thanks to wet rock but arrive at the road crossing to cheers from my girlfriend and her family (better than any gel) – they even wore beards to help raise spirits.

Safely through the critical cut off, I began the long ascent to the second technical stage going over the Aonach  Eagach Ridge. I knew this section well but only from the opposite direction – it was amazing how different some of the short scrambling problems change. Simple when climbing “up” less simple when climbing “down” and vice versa. Unfortunately the weather had crapped out by this time and in addition to the terrain had to deal with low visibility, rain and an increasing wind. Being truthful, I was scared out ma buff on a few occasions and glad to reach the end of the technical ground at Am Bodach.

Once on the grassy ground, it was nice to be able to relax and enjoy the last bit of running down onto the West Highland Way track.

My initial plan had simply been to stay ahead of the cuts and finish between 13 hours and 14 hours so was super happy to actually cross the line in 11 hours, 53 minutes and 27 seconds.

What had made me race hard, a few things – Katie had probably the best run of her life the day before on the Ring of Steall and I didn’t want her to feel bad if I DNFd, I also know some of the race organising team and having been given the opportunity to race, I didn’t want to let them down. A few more reasons …but maybe share them fireside over tea late one evening ...

Huge shout out to all who organised, ran and supported the three events ..nae doubts, it’s braw tae run.

Special note must be made for ma girl Katie ~ in just shy of a year, she turned her focus onto mountain running from her already successful ultra trail events. Watching her develop her skills and confidence in the mountains has been humbling and impressive. Look forward to sharing many mair summits of our lives.

Slainte Mhath !

Aye !

Waiting for the madness to arrive
Safely into CP1
A fine profile !

Katie during her run

Post Coe finish ...gubbed and happy

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Its been a while ...

Jings ...who knows where times go !

Its been a year rammed with adventures so haven't really had much in the way of time to write about  ... so a summary of sorts.

December ended and January started the same way ...dancing with Katie in the Clachaig Inn up in the Coe to the music of Scott McDonald. As the New Year dawned, we made our way to the Aonach Mor Uphill race, cold, icy and slightly "tired" but an awesome start ...doing things ye like with folks ye like !

We stayed north for a few days and ran trails :-)

February and a valentines weekend up in the Cairngorms. We had a long run in the snow on the Saturday around Abernethy from Glenmore and a shorter Morlich loop on the Sunday.

In between bouts of #vanlife, I did some solo mountain trips ~ two of the best were on ma local Ben Lomond and a return to the Cruachan round over which I hadn't been for a long time (nice reminder of exactly how heavy "full winter kit" is).

Easter had us up at the Coe for a Tour du Bookil and one of the best trail runs in Scotland. We then headed further north for a long run through Glen Affric (34 miler) and a shorter run up into the coire of Creag Meagaidh day after (where I found that Katie and wet snow don't mix well).

April and a return to where Katie and me all began with the Fling Ultra. Nice touch being a Mas Loco reunion with ma pal Peter Smith.

June and it was time to head over to Romania for the Bear Ultra - an amazing low key event. Katie covers what the pictures don't on her Blog

Another highlight in June was support crew for Jonny Fcukin Hall on his West Highland Way run - a race which I doubt I will ever get my head around awe of those who do it !

Next weekend was a dash north to help ma wee pal Cherie do her Celtman !

July was mainly a training month getting ready for an autumn of hard racing with Tromso, The Ben and the Coe Skyline races.

Well ...that fills in some of the detail but as always there has been a huge amount in between. Couple of other unusual highlights have included helping out with a couple of group mountain walks with folks from the gym where Katie works. It's sometimes easy to take this wee game for granted when it's pretty much your life and sharing the passion with folks fairly new to it all gives a perspective for sure. In a similar vein, I've had the privilege of setting up a couple of trail runs for the North Face community which has brought together a lovely bunch of folks to share a little trail time together.

Above all, to everyone who has been part of adventures this year ...thank you, it's been the very best of #brawtimes 

Until the next time ~ Slainte Mhath !

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Ultimate Direction Fastpack 30

My interest in the 25-30 litre pack size began back in 2000 when I started taking part in two day mountain marathons. Events that had an emphasis on moving fast, navigating over longer distances / times with an overnight camp in between. Key requirements being; keeping the weight down and being able to access food, drinks, map and compass whilst on the move.

What started as an interest became a full blow obsession in the year leading up to taking part in the 2008 Marathon des Sables. After much review, I eventually settled on the OMM Classic 25 Marathon Pack, supplemented with the 4 litre chest pouch. Since then, this has been my “fast & lite pack” of choice and I really hadn’t considered a change.

Back in 2013, Ultimate Direction came along with their Signature Vests and I was quick to adopt the Scott Jurek version for long runs both on the trails and day raids in the Scottish hills. I very quickly fell for it in terms of the comfort and ability to carry everything required, especially the bottle holder / pocket system on the front straps.

A chance conversation with the good folks from Beta Climbing Designs, whilst at the Jedburgh Three Peaks Ultra, gave an opportunity to trial the Ultimate Direction Fastpack 30 – could this be the best of both of the above with sufficient capacity, with the bigger load at the back whilst being feature rich on the front ?

A week or so later, the pack arrived and first impressions were good – build quality was impressive as you would expect with Ultimate Direction, and the next hour or so was spent exploring the pack and figuring out what would live where in the multitude of pockets. The back system looked good, giving a nice balance between stopping anything from inside the pack creating discomfort, but not being too heavy. The mesh pockets are generous and unlike a number of similar style packs, the side pockets are of sufficient size that you can access them whilst wearing the pack without needing to be double jointed.

I’ve not been a huge fan of roll closure systems, finding them a bit fiddly in the past, but this one works well in reducing the volume both in tidying up the top of the pack and critically, integrating with the compression straps on the side. This allows a range of loads to be secured nicely and prevents that horrible bounce that occurs with a half empty pack.

The inside of the back compartment has a mesh pocket which is useful for keeping those 'easy to fall into the depths of the pack' items such as a phone or car keys. There is also a “waterproof” zipper pocket on the outside but it would be a brave soul that would trust that to unprotected electronics given the UK weather (I’ve killed more than one phone through drowning). For anyone keen on using a hydration bladder, there is an opening for the tube along with a section internally to hold the bladder itself. The addition of the ice axe loops and daisy chain system make it suitable for full four season use as well.

The front has a single pocket for a bottle on the left strap and a long zippered pocket on the right. For the UK, I would seldom want more than one bottle on the front since additional bottles can easily be carried in the side pockets. Being able to hold a map / compass / GPS to my mind is a better use of the space.

So how did first impressions translate into first use …

The Tour de Hellvelyn is a mountain run held on the shortest Saturday in December each year in the Lake District and is described as:
  • 38 miles long with several thousand feet of ascent and descent.
  • Terrain is tough mountain trails and so fell running and navigational skills are essential
  • A winter run of this type is tough and requires good navigational skills, experience and self-reliance
  • The event is ‘low key’ with minimal support and all participants will need to be suitably experienced and equipped
  • Entries are limited and strictly limited to experienced and competent entrants. This is not an event for novice trail runners…!
Having run this twice before, I felt it was the perfect test for the Fastpack 30.

Since the the forecast was grim, and keeping the spare kit dry was essential, I packed the various bits mandatory kit all packed into dry bags. I put the loaded pack on and it felt good with the compression system doing its job nicely. One initial concern was that the pack sits higher than I am used to with the OMM Classic 25 and there are no waist pockets. Time on the trail would prove if this was an issue or simply a difference.

Waterproofs, Map, Compass etc...on the left and spare warm layer, hat, gloves stowed in dry bags

I loaded the mesh pockets on the front straps with munchies with additional food stashed in the external pocket at the rear. The idea being not to have to go into the main compartment unless I was needing spare layers. The large zipper pocket on the right hand strap took my rolled up ortleib map case perfectly along with compass and whistle. This proved invaluable on the two occasions I needed to make quick reference to the map to confirm a route choice. Had it not been as accessible, there might have been a temptation to steam on without checking first – losing time at best.

Conditions were brutal, with driving rain and high winds almost constantly, so I was pleased that whilst soaked through, there was no noticeable increase in pack weight.

Of all the course sections, the wind was at its worst on the initial descent from Grizedale Tarn. Again, the concern of the pack sitting high came to mind as I struggled to maintain balance in the fiercest of gusts, but I gained a level of comfort watching other runners with a variety of packs have similar issues.

By the time I reached the control at Side Farm, I was tired and the simplicity of being able to refill the drinks bottle quickly before continuing on the course was appreciated. In a similar vein, leaving the last control at Martindale Church in the last light, getting my headtorch out of the main back compartment via the roll top involved little in the way of faff, with the two clips on the compression system staying nicely in place.

Overall, I finished the event a happy beard with the pack doing everything I needed and performing well. At 30 litres it may be oversized for a one day event like the Tour de Hellvelyn but the compression system meant that it wasn’t noticeable and I am now looking forward to the next test with an overnight bothy gig next on the agenda. Will post an update to cover how it performs with a heavier load in the back soon hopefully, but so far can’t think on a dislike !

Has it replaced my OMM sack?…Very possibly, and I would highly recommend it to anyone looking into a flexible pack for fast and lite adventures.

A huge shout of thanks to the folks at Beta Climbing Designs for the opportunity - lovely bunch who are passionate about the products they supply.

Aye was wet !

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Arrochar ...

Of the many Scottish Mountain areas which are steeped in history, one of my favourite are the Arrochar "Alps" - early hill days included ascents of Ben Arthur aka The Cobbler with my Dad and cousin as wee boys. As the years went on my knowledge of the area grew through books like "Mountain Days & Bothy Nights", "Always a Little Further" and "May Your Fire Always be Lit" - these described different and unique eras of escape, exploration and mountaineering.

Over the years, I sought out the Caves which provided early climbers with accommodation and climbed some of the classic lines on the Cobbler including Recess Route, Punsters Crack, Nimlin's Direct and Naismiths.

It was during an easy walking day in the late 1980s that I got chatting to some guys at the Narnain Bouders who were training for a race over the surrounding summits. I asked about the route and smiled when they informed me that it went from Succouth over to Ben Vorlich before heading to Ben Vane, Ben Ime and Beinn Narnain. At that time I didn't think it was actually possible to do that route in a single push ! The race was sadly dropped from the calendar by the time I took up hill running but thankfully it was resurrected by Westies in 2007. Since then I have raced, marshalled and been sweep runner ...must race it again soon.

Cobbler Path Junction
These days, the Alps have become a regular training ground and bolt hole when a little bit of head space and altitude are required.

Sunday morning saw an early start ... just before dawn in fact. This was due to a mix of insomnia and also wanting to avoid the bad weather which was forecast to start arriving mid morning before really shitting out in the early afternoon.

The days of the direct pipe track are gone and the route took the "slipper" path up to the point where the old traverse track leads back to the route up Beinn Narnain. This provide a nice warm up before the steep and constant climb up Narnain itself. On the summit the wind was okay but it was clear the forecast had been accurate and the things were deteriorating. An initial navigational error on the descent was quickly corrected before enjoying the run down to the bealach and decision point. With the weather still be "doable", I started up Ben Ime ...round the summit and a quick descent back down. Breifly chatted to a guy who had been on the Cobbler who shared the bad news that it was horrible up top ~ I decided to go and see for myself . In the end, it wasn't nice but I did manage to thread the needle and sit on the true summit before a very careful down-climb to pick up my pack and drop down to the path via the corrie route.

Cobbler Summit
Ended up back at the van by 11:30am soaked but a happy beard. All that was left to do was belt south for some B&B (Blonde and Beard) time with Katie #brawtimes indeed.

The way down ...