After winning a couple of trail races in the spring this year, I read in a Norwegian online magazine devoted to endurance sports that my big goal for 2016 was to make the Norwegian team for the World Ultra Trailrunning Championships. An email from the coach in the running club I belong to informed me that the selection committee had me on their longlist, but would like to see me in a really tough, tehnical ultra race. Well, I decided that if I really had a chance of making the World Championships I should give it a go, and after some online research I ended signing up for the 3×3000, which took part on Sunday 4/10.
The 3×3000 is an 80 km race in the Lake District. The circular(ish) route starts and finishes in Keswick, and takes the runners over the summits of the three legendary 3000ft mountains Scafell Pike, Helvellyn and Skiddaw (hence the name). It is part of the UK Sky Race series, and the route was supposed to be 99% trail, designed by Salomon Team member and Lake District local Ricky Lightfoot.
The 3×3000 was to take place just eight weeks after my goal race this year, the North Downs Way 100 (103 miles), but I figured I would only just have time to recover. This thought process took place in June. Mid-September I thought otherwise, as an acute overuse injury to my right knee that I developed during the NDW recurred every time I went for a long run (i.e. both times). I considered pulling out of the 3×3000, but instead adjusted my goal from podium to completing the course, and prepared mentally for a painful day in beautiful surroundings.
The 5 am start from Keswick town centre meant that the first hour and a half was in darkness. I started in the middle of the pack of 75 or so runners, and managed to start at an uncharacteristically easy pace. The first couple of kilometres were a mix of trail and road, but then came a quite long and technical section. At least it seemed technical in the dark. I ended up running in a group of 4-5 other runners, one of whom kept shouting «Vegan Power» every time he caugt sight of my vest. To my delight I seemed more at ease with the rocky terrain, which was very similar to the trails back home in Stavanger, than the runners around me. Even the downhill sections went pretty well, and the only annoyance was my head torch sliding down my forehead at regular intervals. Then suddenly, in the middle of a descent, all the other runners, who at that point was behind me sprinted past, leaving me in their wake. Still need to practise my downhill technique, then.
The dark section was fun, but required concentration, thus as the sun rose and I came to the first feed station I had eaten very little. I had expected this, and filled my bottle with sports drink, but had used an unfamiliar brand that turned out to be undrinkable. I therefore replaced sports drink with water, and followed the cola and bananas offered with an energy bar during a long ascent after Ashness Bridge, crossing my fingers that I was not a case of too little, too late.
The daylight also revealed the landscape. To my surprise it reminded me both of Ryfylkeheiene in Norway, my local mountains, and the French Pyrenées: Dark mountains with steep slopes and gently rounded summits, lush vegetation, and lots of streams and small lakes. The ascent to Scafell Pike, the first of the 3×3000, was just as rocky and technical as the Norwegian trails usually are, and just as steep as the Pyrenées. The same was true for the descent on the other side. Unfortunately, it was at this point of the race that things started to go pearshaped for me. My hip had felt tight all day, but only enough to be slightly annoying. Desceding from Scafell Pike I started to feel some twinges in both my right hip and knee joints, but as the trail became more even, and more grassy and boggy rather than rocky, it settled down again.
Just a quick note about the boggy sections. In the pre-race briefing the night before I am sure we were told that the course had been diverted in a couple of places in order to avoid some of the wettest sections. Obviously I misheard, because in at least three places the markers seemed to lead us straight into the bogs or knee-deep mud.
On a long ascent after Scafell Pike hydration and temperature regulation became the most pressing issues. Feed stations were few and far between, but as we had been told we could top up our water bottles in the streams I started doing so. Two days later I still have not developed any gastric problems, so it would seem this is safe to do.
During this ascent I caught quite a few runners who were ahead. Admittedly, some of them had gone off course, so it was not all down to my superior climbing skills. At the top I ran behind two of them, and all seemed to be going really well until maps and compasses were suddenly pulled out of backpacks – always an ominous sign. We were on the wrong trail on the wrong side of hill, and my two running companions disagreed about the best tactic for getting back on course. As it turned out, I chose to follow the wrong guy. As we were picking our way carefully down a steep rockfall on the hillside, the correct trail and other runners far below, guy number two sprinted down the slope up ahead of us and disappeared down the valley. I only have myself to blame. I did intend to brush up on my compass skills before this race, and even bought a book on the subject, but did not follow through. Though the route was marked, and we were told all sections were the trail forked would be extensively so, a few forks in the trail had either been missed, or the markers had been removed.
Back down on the correct, and very boggy, trail, at around 30 km, my hip started to bother me more and more. It was not very painful, just slightly achy, but it stiffened up, causing several near falls as my right foot kept stubbing against rocks. Helvellyn, second of the 3000s, was not far away, and I decided I would push on until the checkpoint below Skiddaw, at 59 km, then reassess.
Before the start of the 4km ascent to Helvellyn there was a checkpoint and feed station, and I stopped for a coffee and explained the situation with my hip to the marshalls. They seemed quite concerned, and told me to turn and come back down if it got too bad, but also reassured me that the second half of the race was less technical and boggy, and with more flat sections, than the first half.
The trail to the summit was very good and, for the most part, not too steep. My right hip flexor did not appreciate the increased demand on it however, and several times I stopped, doubled up in pain. I contemplated turning around, but my desire to reach the top trumphed the pain, and I reached the top with tears streaming down my cheeks. However, on a flat section just below the summit it had become clear to me that running was absolutely impossible, my hip flexor just switched off to prevent more damage. It was not a question of whether I would have to drop out, but when. After discussing the situation with the marshall on the summit it was agreed that the best thing to do was to go back down to the previous check point, where I could get a lift back to Keswick, as it would be a very long stretch before the next opportunity to drop out. Thus, after running 41 of the 80 kilometers, spending seven hours out on the trails, and summiting two of the 3000s, my race was over.
I had covered up my race number before turning back, but still had to stop and explain to about 50 runners coming up the mountain what had happened. Apparently, wearing electric blue striped tights makes you quite recognisable. I was quite touched by the kindness shown to me by the other runners, they all seemed to be genuinely concerned, but maybe they were just glad of an opportunity to stop and catch their breath before pushing on towards the summit?
To my surprise I met most of the runners who had pulled away from me in the dark earlier, I was sure they were miles ahead. It was also slightly annoying to realise how many runners, and females, were behind me, I was probably doing better than expected up until the point I had to throw in the towel. (I have since been told I was 2nd female, with a large margin back to 3rd). The return to the check point was timed perfectly, they were just packing up a car to go back to Keswick and I could therefore get a lift straight away. The return to Keswick was also perfectly timed, just in time to see Ricky Lightfoot sprinting across the finish line as the winner, in just under nine hours.
Despite my DNF I do not consider my weekend here a failure, I got to experience trail running in the Lake District for the first time, bagged two of the three 3000s, and, as always in trail races, met a lot of extremely nice people, both runners and marshalls. I will definitely sign up for the 3×3000 again next year, making it one of my goal races for 2016 (probably no 100 mile race in August!). I will also try to get a few more Vegan Runners to sign up for it. After spending the weekend in Keswick it is clear that the lace would benefit greatly from an influx of Vegan Runners, that way maybe availability of vegan food (and cake!) in the cafes and restaurants will increase. More to follow on this topic….
For now, I am going to return to Norway, and see one of the nice physios at Stavanger Sports Injuries Clinic about my hip and knee. Once rehabbed, I will get started on the training for my next goal race, the Transgrancanaria. I am also signed up for the Endurancelife CTS Gower Ultra in November, but that is still five weeks away, my hip and knee will probably be fine by then….