Monday, 9 February 2009

Long Mynd Valleys

I have found that one of Mike's many good qualities is that he can be relied upon to go for it on the spur of the moment. We'd been preparing since before christmas, going out on footpaths in the evenings by headtorch, sliding around in slop or negotiating hard frozen ground. We'd got quite fit, I'd been up to recce the course a week beforehand and nothing could possibly get in the way - except for the weather.

The country was under the heaviest dollop of snow that it had had for a long time. Roads were ungritted becuase councils had run out of grit, severe weather warnings were in place and the forecast for Church Stretton on the night before the race said -8 degrees. We studied the regular updates on the Mercia fellrunners website. Mike rang to call it off - i talked him round. Next day I rang to call it off - he reluctantly agreed. Advice from the race organisers was 'come and start, you can always drop out.' Awoken by a small child at 4am, I changed my mind for the last time, realised I was going, texted Mike and got myself round to his place for 8. He got my text ten minutes before I got to his place, had a word with his (I suspect long-suffering) wife Kate, threw a bunch of kit into a bag, kissed his daughter goodbye and we hit the road. Then we came back because he'd forgotten a compass, and then we hit the road again.

Richard Askwith gives a brief account of his experience of this race in his inspirational book, "Feet in the Clouds". He begins by being told that the race is more or less the hardest that there is and ends, after vivid descriptions of incredibly steep ascents and descents, with the anti-climax of being told that there are plenty of events that are much harder. Either way, he makes it sound hard enough.

The course is an 11.5 mile figure eight that for the first part follows the spine of an area of the Shropshire hills called the Long Mynd. There is about four and a half thousand feet of ascent.The first section of the route is not particularly hard and follows the spine of the Mynd from north to south. But then it returns through a series of steep-sided valleys.

On my recce of a fortnight earlier, I had got back to the car and turned on the engine and heaters to warm up and then fallen asleep for an hour!

There was a higher than usual proportion of hard-looking, scrawney running types confidently and quietly chatting amongst themselves at the Church Stretton social club. At the start itself there were random kit checks and the organisers counted out the exact number of runners before setting us on our way. It was cold in the shadow of the hill, but the skys were clear blue. The slopes enclosing the lovely Carding Mill Valley, were bright whiteness. There was a serious tone to proceedings but, as the cliche goes, the fine weather gave spirits a lift. I was worried I'd put too many clothes on.

Off at last and up the first ridge out of the valley, compfortably fitting in towards the back of the field. The sun bright, the air clear. Colourful clothes and the sounds of breathing as our bodies adjusted to the new pace. Chugging along, enjoying the views and going way below optimum pace. Looking around for Mike to make sure we didn't get separated as we were doing the course as a pair.

Gallumphing down into Jonathen's Hollow through the bracken and snow I lost MIke who was sensibly being more cautious about the descent. Wait and watch runners coming through, passing a friendly word or two from time to time. We followed the stream up the valley, passed the checkpoint and climbed the side of the valley and out onto the top of the Mynd and a featureless plane of wind-crusted snow. Runners strung out in single file, all following the same trod.

We picked up some speed along an established ancient route of footpath called the Port Way. Mike comes into his own on the flat and powers along. Then we cut through heather and down through a boggy gully to follow another stream along the floor of another v-shaped valley. You could hear the stream, the calls of runners. Bright sunlight. Avoiding ice. A steady pace past another checkpoint followed by a long contouring climb upto the iron age Cross Dyke on Barrister's Plain. Give the thumbs up to a photographer to ruin what would have otherwise been a fine photograph and then - ye gods - the first steep descent.

It was covered in frozen hard snow and could easily have been a 'one in one' slope. You couldn't run it and some people were picking a slippery way down but without mch success. I started doing a sideways skid down the slope and then, when this became a bit precarious, crouching down on my left foot and with my right leg out in front of me propelling myself forward with my hands. Sledging without a sledge.

Past another checkpoint and then along the base of Callow Hollow, another stream valley. Waited for MIke to catch up and then we climbed up out of another tributory valley and out onto another heather top. I had been told the shortut here during my last visit - you aim for a small wood on a distant horizon and heather hop your way onto another check point.

It had started to snow.

We picked each other up again and descended again down Minton Batch, pausing to water a hawthorn tree along the way. Another checkpoint and then into Windy Batch with its decades old abandonned farm trailer adding character to the landscape. This was where the second half of the race began...

Windy Batch - I followed the contouring route shown to me on my last visit and cut off about twenty runners who were following the valley floor. Very snowy, very hard to keep your feet. Waited on the top for Mike who found the ascent awkward.

Over some undulating high ground and then more sledging, falling, running, sliding down into Sleekstonebank Hollow. I was getting good at this arse sledging technique and caught up 5o metres or so on the runner ahead. He looked at me and said, with enviable wryness,

"It's not every day you get a free wedgie thrown in at a fell race."

The snowfall got heavier as I waited and watched the runners (or sledgers) coming down the slope I'd just descended. A bizarre sight, and I wished I'd a camera. Then the steep ascent of Callow that follows a scrape up the hillside. It was slippery and just about steep enough to lean into the slope and go up on all fours. The checkpoint on the top of Callow was an orienteering punch that you had to use to mark your number. It was on a short garden cane pole. I punched my number and set the cane with its little red flag upright again in the summit cairn. I remember the sound of flapping cloth in the grey snow-filled quiet.

We headed on along a track that skirted around Grindle and back to the Cross Dyke. Another sliding descent of great steepness down into Ashes Hollow where, again, I stopped to watch the comically surreal sight of the other runners coming down.

Passage of three hundred or so feet pulped the snow into slush and blended it mud and sheep shit and chlorophyll - as a new flavour of slush puppy it would be unlikely to catch on..

The final ascent up the Yearlet involved going through 18" of banked-up snow in places.

Again, the summit was quiet as I waited by the clip checkpoint. A very special time and place to be. I had time to make a compass bearing for educational purposes.

There was some confusion over the final descent - some opted for the steep but shorter route, I was keen to do the slightly longer but easier way down.

We came across a collapsed runner on the final path to the finish. We gve him water and some mint cake and he leant on me and another as we helped him along the way until a marshall took over.

The final short steep drop down into the carding mill valley, through the stream and over the line. A plastic cup of soup back at the social club and then a euphoric drive back.

"A GR not a PB," said Mike - which is running jargon for getting round the course and not worrying about the time. A proper AM fell race in challenging conditions!

Me - note use of the Bananarama-style "buff" headwear (a useful expenditure)

Mike at the Cross Dyke on the outward leg

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