Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Oldham Way Ultra 2015 race report

The Oldham Way Ultra is a 40-ish mile (64-ish km) circular run around... well, around Oldham obviously. 2015 was the second time Team OA had organized this race, and as a veteran of the first event, I was back to see if I could improve. First time round I came fifth out of 30-odd runners with a time of 8:20:50 - largely, I suspect, because I was one of the few who could read a map and didn't spend much of the trip getting lost. This time there were over 80 runners, so could I do better against a bigger, more serious field?
A cold early start saw us all surge out of the Castleshaw Centre. Straight away, I did what has become my usual tactic of pushing pretty hard to get near the front of the pack. I find this gives me a nice breathing space as the race unfolds, and a feeling of comfort against slowing down later on. Although I was soon to be passed by several runners, and was to pass several others myself, meaning I lost track of my position completely, I was still around sixth or seventh as we sped past the dark, moody waters of the Castleshaw Reservoirs and up the first steep rocky climb of the day, everybody dropping to a walk and powering up with hands on knees. Cresting the hill through a broad patch of mud, I blasted down a short tossocky stretch of open moorland, my outstretched arms windmilling for balance as I bounced across the boggy ground. Within moments I dropped to New Year's Bridge Reservoir, through a farmyard and down to the slow uphill pull of Rochdale Road. As I climbed, I heard a series of wheezing, hawking and flobbing noises coming from behind, and a young bearded runner slowly inched past looking sore. This was just 4 km into the race. After he had passed, another runner gestured after him and muttered "Too fast out of the gate". But it shows what we knew, because - spoiler alert! - this guy (Matthew Smith, I later learned) managed to push to third place at the finish.

I found myself running with a slightly younger runner called Dan Shaw as we left the road and headed out along a runnable track onto more moorland. Dropping over uneven ground before climbing to Checkpoint 1, we discovered we both lived in the southwest and knew Bristol. His big aim for the year was the Cotswold Century in September, and this race was part of his build-up. We ran together for the next 16 kilometres as the sun burst out and bathed the route in the brittle light and shade of a reluctant Spring. Up a steep set of stairs and around hilltops of budding trees, we skirted the northwestern edge of the town with great views of the urban conurbation teasing us in the distance. Staring intensely at the GPS tracks on our watches, paranoid about getting lost, we more-or-less successfully negotiated the park at Tandle Hill to Checkpoint 2, seeing a lot of runners getting off-track in the process. Through a golf course and down onto tarmac, Dan blasted off along the long downhill stretch of road and I went with him, clocking off a 4:37 kilometre in the process. His running form looked superb downhill.

Canals and parks

Shortly, Dan and I dropped to the canal for a stretch of flat, easy running past worn-down brick warehouses and mills, broken glass and litter scattered across the towpath. Here, Dan finally took off, leaving me to crack out some miles on my own as he slowly disappeared out of sight. The canal section lasts for about 7 km of fast running, past Checkpoint 3, before heading into streets, a difficult-to-navigate urban park, and thence down a scrubby slope where you dodge under stunted thorny trees to reach a track past another golf course. I ran this last section with Alan Jolly, comparing notes about our preferred distances and running histories (his much longer and more accomplished than mine).

Next to an old brick-built bridge, the route dropped off the track and down to another stretch of canal. Unlike the open waters we had run along earlier, this stretch was entirely disused, clogged with weeds and bullrushes. Alan took off ahead along the superannuated towpath and I trailed after him to reach Daisy Nook Country Park. Here, with 32 kilometres under my belt, I finally started to flag a bit. But, as the park was filled with day-tripping families, I had to put on a good show and avoid dropping to walking pace - unless absolutely unavoidable, I don't want to be seen walking by civilians when I've got a race number pinned to me! I caught a distance glimpse of Dan as I climbed towards a broad loop in the trail that led out of the park; rounding the loop myself, and finally away from an audience, I slowed to a walk for a minute to eat an Eccles Cake and two caffeine pills. Waiting for these to kick in, I shuffled along, walking a couple more times, to reach Checkpoint 4 at 34 km. Around here I hooked up with a friendly local runner called Sam Bolton, and together we ran the next 10 km with Sam, an ecologist, giving me lots of interesting information about the local landscape. As we dropped through a strand of trees to hit Alt Hill Road, we ran into Dan and Alan, who both seemed to be having trouble deciding which way to go. Sam and I managed to shout to Alan to stop him going in the wrong direction, but poor Dan, his canal advantage now lost through navigation problems, was last seen heading in the wrong direction up a road. With his headphones in, he couldn't hear me and Sam yelling after him. I hoped he was going to be alright!

Sam, Alan and I powered along a bitty stretch of riverside land, and then up the steep muddy climb to the monument at Hartshead Pike. Alan ran the climb, disappearing into the distance as Sam and I puffed and panted up the slope at a more sedate walk. As we headed down a series of uneven tracks, their broken surfaces running with mud and water, we reached the 40 km mark. Here, just like on the Green Man Ultra two weeks earlier, I felt my second wave of energy kick in. But as it was Sam's first ultra, I stuck with him for another few kilometres until we passed the 43 km mark and he officially became an ultrarunner. This landmark was reached as we dropped down a slope in front of a stunning landscape that swept away towards Dovestones Reservoir with an enfolding bank of russet hills behind. But then, as we crossed Mossley Road and dropped to another short stretch of canal, I finally went with the energy surge and pulled away.

I'm not normally competitive, but today was different

Feeling good, and reminding myself that ups and downs are inevitable in this sport, I powered up a steep track that I well remembered from last year. This led me through a series of woods and muddy ravines before eventually dropping me to another track that loops around the neck of a river to descend to Dovestones Reservoir. For me, this marked the beginning of the end, but worryingly I started to flag again a little here. Nothing else for it but to keep moving and wait for things to feel better. Spirits were raised when the long loop in the track allowed me to see that I was not that far behind a small string of runners ahead. And they were raised still further when a woman sitting at the bend in the track said it was great to see somebody smiling, and that I was looking much better than some of the people ahead. I'll take that! I thought, as I ploughed through the crowds of people tiring out their dogs and children near the reservoir.

At the far edge of the water, I passed Alan - sore, and now walking, but still in good spirits. Shortly afterwards I reached the final checkpoint, manned by James Young, whom I met at this same race last year. Snatching a handful jelly babies and encouraged on by James and his wife, I quickly headed out for the final leg. "You're in eleventh place," called a young boy spectator, whom I'd been seeing off and on for most of the day.

I remembered this last section having two big climbs and, feeling strong, I powered up the first towards the hilltop known locally as Pots and Pans. Towards the end of this climb, on the steepest section, I turned a bend and saw three people up ahead of me in the distance. From their body language, I could somehow just tell they were all suffering. "Right," I thought, seeing this. "Let's get into the Top 10!". I power-hiked up the slope to run into Mark Cassella, whom I'd talked to through Strava but never prevously met. After a brief chat, I left him behind and continued on up the slope, thumping my hands on my knees to boost my climb even further. As I rounded the hilltop to reach the monument, I caught up with the next two runners (one of whom, it later turned out, wasn't actually in the race) and I passed by to head out onto a section of flatter ridgeline now firmly in the top 10 positions.

And here I found Dan again! He and two other runners appeared ahead of me, looking uncertain about which way to go at a meeting of paths. "Straight on!" I shouted, waving them ahead, and as they turned to follow the rough path through the long grass I fell in behind them.

And this is where I got all competitive. Normally, I never do this. Normally, I would have tagged along with this group, making conversation, to the end of the race. But for some reason that day I was overtaken by a sudden urge to blast past them and leave them behind. Perhaps it was because I could see that Dan was definitely looking a little the worse for wear at this point, and kind of had the impression the others were in the same boat. So as the path turned left for a long, steep downhill stretch I looked left and right... and then went for it! Relaxing my knees and throwing out my arms, I tipped forwards and blasted down the scrubby slope as fast as gravity could take me. One, two, three... I was past them all in seconds. But I wasn't clean away! At once, I could hear breathing and footsteps close behind, telling me that at least one runner had taken the challenge and gone with me. I scrambled over a stile, and still the footsteps were there. Another stile and down to a road - and still the footsteps clinging to my back! I didn't dare look around and acknowledge my follower(s), in case it looked like I was worried by their presence.

Finally, as the road curved around a steep bend to enter Kiln Green, I could take advantage of the bend to look back and assess the situation. One guy - whom I later learned was Stuart Grey - was sticking with me, Dan and the other guy were falling steadily back behind us. I pressed on to the second climb! I remembered walking up this ascent with a runner called Richard Whitaker in the 2014 race, and I recalled it being quite a formidable slope. Still feeling like I had some strength in my legs, I powered on, slowly dropping Stuart as I climbed.

Cresting Standedge Cutting and reaching a short section of the Pennine Way, I glanced back again and saw that, although Stuart had fallen behind me on the climb, he was still less than 100 metres away. Curses! As we entered the last four kilometres of the race, it was clear there was to be no easy cruise to the finish line this time. Digging deep, I started to run as hard as I could, stumbling over loose stones and occasionally risking glances back to see Stuart, doggedly hanging 50 metres back, powering along like the Terminator. Feeling the pain, I ground down the slope at a sub 4:30 pace - something I'd never have imagined I could do this far into an ultramarathon! Running at what I'd normally call tempo pace, I could feel my form breaking down and getting sloppy. I was fixated on reaching the edge of the reservoir, where I would rejoin the road along which we had started the race that day to get back to the finish line. If I could just reach that road I'd know the race was nearly over... I flipped my GPS watch to display the straight-line distance to the finish - 400 m. I put my head down and ran and ran and ran. After what felt like a hundred years of painful slog I glanced again at the watch - 380 m. Crap!

Up ahead, I saw a runner in yellow and black also making for the finish line. Could I catch him? As I saw him power up a short slope I realised I couldn't. The slope pulled at my legs and my pace dropped. A glance back and I saw Stuart gaining inexorably - there was no way I was going to hold him off. Ah well, he'd done incredibly well to claw back this position and I could only give it to him with good grace. A mere 200 metres from the finish I waved him ahead, shouting "Go on, you magnificent bastard!". From there, I just had to pull up a final short climb and then down to cross the finish line in 7:14:49 - just 16 seconds after Stuart and just 29 seconds after the runner in black. This netted me sixth place. "That's worse than last year!" I joked, delighted that I'd shaved an hour and 6 minutes off my previous time, breaking the past course record by 35 minutes.

I hung around the end for over an hour. Mark Casella, on his first ever ultra, managed to claw back to tenth place. Sam, also on his first ultra, came in 14th with a great sub-8-hour time. The finish line was full of smiles and congratulations.

A thoroughly recommended race

And so what of the Oldham Way Ultra? Briefly, it is an excellent race for somebody looking for a low-key and well-organized event in the north. It's hilly, varied and interesting, and despite being so close to Oldham it never really gets unpleasantly urban - the canal section is perhaps the closest it gets and elsewhere there are some cracking views. The 40-mile (ish) distance makes it a perfect step up from marathon for somebody looking to do that in 2016. All in all, thoroughly recommended.