HOW IMPORTANT IS A RACE RECCE?
Fell running is becoming an increasingly popular sport. These days the racing calendar is so heavily saturated you could race a couple of times a week if you wanted to or even twice in the same day like my hardy friend Darren Fishwick of Chorley AC. However, it’s almost impossible to find the time to practise every single race that you intend to do. So just how important is a recce?
This year I’ve had to think very carefully about choosing which races I want focus on, everything else has to fit in and become preparation for these key events. My first major goal is to try and prepare for Black Combe, the opening race of the British Fell Championship. I’ve competed on this course once before in 2008, the last time it was a Championship fixture. Unfortunately for me I don’t have any fond memories of that miserable experience.
Results: Black Combe Fell Race 2008
Many of you reading this will be very unsurprised to hear that I didn’t have time to recce the course beforehand, so I turned up blind on race day and relied on the rest of the field to show me the way. The only ‘small’ problem that I had with this plan was the bad weather. Black Combe is located on the edge of the west coast so there is very little protection from the wind and rain. In addition to this the heavy fog clouded our vision and as soon as we climbed up to the first summit it was impossible to see much for the rest of the race. My plan of following the leaders soon came to a swift and very abrupt end when I lost sight of the person in front of me. I wandered aimlessly trying to find my way to the final checkpoint and trudged into the home straight several minutes down on my expected time. I finished way down in 47th position with many of the other big names in fell running, most notably Morgan Donnelly and Ben Abdelnoor. It was certainly one of those days to forget. Still it could’ve been worse- by all accounts Steve Smithies ran most of the fell race on the main road, much to my amusement!
‘BETTER CALL PHIL!’
This year I’m desperate not to repeat the same mistake as I did in 2008. I would simply have to make more effort to recce the course.
So what to do in my hour of need?
Only one thing for it I thought…better call Phil!
Within the fell running community Phil Winskill barely requires an introduction. He’s the life and soul of every post-race party, the undisputed king of social media and head of online banter. His daily running diary on Strava is what inspired me to start writing my blog so it seems only fair to honour him in this post. We’ve been good friends for many years and it’s a highlight of every fell race or away weekend when we get to meet up. Whenever I require some navigation help, a laugh or a beer then Phil’s the man to ring. So naturally when I needed to spend some time getting familiar with the Black Combe race route he was the obvious choice to show me the way. It was nothing to do with the fact that I’d exhausted all the other fell running contacts in my phonebook or because everyone else I know was actually working midweek. Luckily for me we’re both teachers and we’d agreed to find a few hours on a Friday (Feb half term) in between marking and planning outstanding lessons for the following week 😉
Pictured above: Classic Winskill taking fell racing seriously in Grizedale Forest (left) and looking good in the Latrigg Fell Race (right) www.granddayoutphotography.co.uk
I woke up that Friday morning with a smile. The weather had been stunning the previous day and I was praying for similar conditions. Plus heading up to the Lakes instead of going to work always fills me with excitement. I’d agreed to meet Phil close to the race start at Silecroft and he’d also managed to persuade a couple more runners to join us – Borrowdale’s Martin Mikkelsen-Barron and Keswick’s latest signing James Appleton. I’ve been friends with Martin for years and we’ve battled against each other many times on the fells. He’s a great bloke and without doubt one of the best climbers in the country (It probably helps weighing less than 10 stone!). I’d never met James before and at first I did wonder what he was letting himself in for when he set off through the mud in a pair of Hoka road shoes. However any doubts about his experience and ability were quickly put to rest once I watched him skip effortlessly up the first climb. It also turns out he’s quite a famous photographer and unbelievably one of my students had recently written about him as part of their coursework – weird!
‘ANYONE WHO GOES OFF TOO HARD AT THE START OF THE RACE WILL INEVITABLY PAY A HEAVY PRICE FOR THEIR EARLIER EFFORT’
It was on this initial ascent that we paused to discuss route choice. Was it quicker to climb steeply to the top of Sea Ness or traverse around on a longer but more runnable path to the summit? Martin and I decided to test our climbing legs and head straight up as Phil and James opted for the latter. We jogged slowly, chatting on the way and emerged as the first pair to the top. Phil assured me that his route was still quicker as he’d stopped for a leak on the way up. It doesn’t matter anyway as I know which way I’ll be going on race day – no doubt following Martin’s footsteps on the steep ascent. One good reason so far for making the long journey up to Cumbria.
From here we climbed steadily to the summit of Black Combe. It’s difficult to appreciate the elevation gain as this section of the race is extremely fast. There is a real temptation to push hard at this point but I have a vague memory of the punishing climb in the last few miles from the Stream Junction to the South Summit. Anyone who goes off too hard at the start of the race will inevitably pay a heavy price for their earlier effort. Mental note to self – don’t be that guy! (fully aware that I’m probably gonna be that guy!).
It wasn’t long before we disappeared into a thick layer of mist and the weather quickly began to deteriorate. The glorious sunshine from the day before was all but a distant memory – I was regretting not checking the weather forecast in advance! The nice enjoyable part of the recce had drawn to a close and I was very grateful for the fact that I was wearing 2 pairs of gloves and 3 layers! – merino, softshell and waterproof. If anything I was probably too warm in my choice of attire but it was comforting to listen to the other lads whimpering about being too cold halfway round the route.
Pictured above: The ‘stunning view’ from the top of Black Combe. If you look closely you can see the coast of Ireland 😉
At this point we were using Phil’s handheld GPS to guide us to the next checkpoint but he was already very confident about getting to White Combe. It’s a good job really as the rest of us didn’t have a clue in which direction we were suppose to be heading. This section of the race is almost featureless and there are many paths and trods that can lead you astray. It’s very easy to go wrong and it brought back painful and frustrating memories of 2008.
Eventually we dropped to the stream junction, probably not the easiest or quickest way, but we got there in the end. Just the evil climb up to the south summit to contend with. I dropped a cheeky gel on the approach to try and give me some extra energy to beast Phil on the climb. He caught me red handed but it was too late by then, he knew the score. We hit the ascent and quickly settled into a steady rhythm/slow shuffle. It’s important to pace your effort on this climb as it’s notoriously long and steep. This is where the race will undoubtably be won OR lost. I’ve been really concentrating on improving my climbing ability this year and I was keen to test my legs. My Trooper Lane hill sessions have obviously been doing the job as I managed to run every section of the ascent. I’m not convinced that this will be the case on race day but I felt really strong so it’s given me a big confidence boost. Annoyingly it appears Martin is also climbing well (not that this was ever in doubt) and we chatted most of the way up. James was equally as impressive – it must be all the training he does carrying expensive photography equipment to the top of mountains!
When we eventually reached the summit we didn’t hang about, the weather was atrocious. I was almost tempted to lend Phil my spare pair of gloves but I was enjoying the feeling of warm hands far too much. We descended at pace, all except James who was of course wearing road shoes. He did explain later that he’s nursing an injury and the extra ‘bounce’ in the sole helps to ease the pain.
‘A SURE SIGN THAT IT WAS DEFINITELY TIME FOR A PINT’
By the time we reach our cars it was raining hard and we were all completely soaked to the bone. I unlocked the car door and quickly jumped onto the back seat to get changed into some warm clothes. 10 minutes later and I found myself in a rather embarrassing predicament. I’d borrowed my mum’s car for the drive up and didn’t realise she had a child lock on both of the back doors. Thankfully Martin was kind enough to let me out (after laughing for a few minutes) so it’s a good job I wasn’t on my own or I might have still been there. A sure sign that it was definitely time for a pint!
SO WHAT DID I LEARN FROM TODAY?
- In terms of the route it looked exactly like it did in 2008. Had it not been for Phil’s navigation and handheld GPS I’d probably still be running around on top of Black Combe like a headless chicken. I’m no more confident about the navigation except for the steep climb to Sea Ness.
- I managed to run all of the climbs so I know I’m in great shape.
- Always check the weather forecast before a recce.
- If you borrow your mum’s car, always take off the child lock.
- Martin weighs less than me.
- Martin is still a better climber than me.
- James is one amazing photographer www.jamesappleton.co.uk
- The Miners Arms in Silecroft doesn’t open till 3pm on a Friday
- The inov-8 X-talon 190 are miles better than Hoka road shoes for fell running ;-)(especially downhill!).
- A recce is best shared with friends and washed down with a well earned pint.
- But most importantly what I really learned is that everyone needs a bit of Winskill in their life.