Monday, July 25, 2011

Helvellyn Weekend

I’m going to nail it (whatever that means for me). That’s my feeling on the Helvellyn Tri after a weekend spent on a reconnaisance mission to the course in the Lake District.

The recce was attributed to be the key activity missing from my last Day in the Lakes triathlon which resulted in that catastrophic DNF. The action taken to resolve the most important lesson-learned from that day was to spend a weekend in the Lake District familiarising myself with the bike and run routes on the Helvellyn course. In a run of free weekends leading to Andrew’s PBP, it’s easy to find a weekend when wanging up to the Lakes is just about do-able.

After the madness that was last week – really busy to really quiet wtih a few contentious team issues thrown in,- we didn’t feel like the long drive on Friday night or leaving the cat on his own so we got everything ready and then set off normal time on Saturday morning, avoiding any school holiday traffic.

4th campsite lucky with vacancies we booked into the Ullswater campsite with a view of the hillsides. Never mind setting up the vanu, we unloaded the bikes and headed off to join the Northern end of the bike course at Matterdale End. By the time we arrived south of Troutbeck, we started ducking and diving to avoid main roads, all the way to Ambleside we dipped on and off the bike course, taking country lanes around the far shore of lakes and old roads paralell to the wider, shinier new ones, diverting into Grassmere for coffee and cake.

Just enough riding distance between Grassmere and Ambleside for the cake to settle before we hit the challenge du Jour – the Struggle. One of the classic climbs of the UK, it shoots straight up from Ableside at 20%, winding through the stone houses and narrow streets at the back of the village.

Cars struggle by, their clutches smelling. Heat radiates from the brakes of the oncoming vehicles which pass within inches on the tiny street.

TSK and I climb as consistently as possible, saving ourselves because we know just how far this ride keeps going for. We’re staying in the next valley and have seen it. I finally see TSK, about 50m ahead sit back down in his saddle. I decide to put in a bit of effort to get there sooner rather than later, looking forwards to the next rest. As I “sprint” out of the saddle I can feel the benefits of my swim training as I counter-ballance each pedal stroke with my arms. It still hurts like hell and I wonder if I’ll make it. I round the corner where TSK sat down only to see yet more climb and him, still 50m ahead back out of the saddle. The struggle continues...

After about 2.4km of climbing, the hill flattens briefly and we roll along, catching our breath and looking ahead to the end of the climb. 500m of 20% climbing with two switchbacks thrown in for good measure. We’re debating whether it’s as steep or as long or as bad as what we’ve just done – it’s possibly the fact that we can see this one coming but I think it’s worse. TSK things it’s easier. The switchbacks hit 30% or 1 in 3 at their steepest, though there’s not much traffic coming so we ride wide and zig zag up the hill to ease the slope.

We stop at the top to take a photograph of what we’ve done and stretch our legs before heading off on the downhill – the Kirkstone Pass that I rode up on The Day in the Lakes. Bonus, I thought, is this time I don’t have to ride all the way back to Padley Bridge – just this little bit back to Glenridding (only a flippin mountain climb to go).

A half hour later we stop at the watersports centre to pick up an icecream before the wobble back to the vanu. We’re not felling too bad and race eachother back to the road fuelled by our icecream. By the time we reach the turning for the campsite, I’m so hungry my tummy is rumbling. We’ve a 10% climb back to the campsite and I decide if the first farmhouse isn’t the campsite, I need to eat something. I see TSK ride past the driveway and stop for an energy gel which gets me going again and takes away the shakes.

Staggering into the van, the new tent-neighbours want to know how far we’ve been. Knowing it’s a 38 mile route, for some reason I estimate, “about 45miles” - boasting. I feel bad, so check my garmin. Sure enough, we’ve ridden 78.5km, including the Struggle. We reward ourselves with a take-out from the onsite chippy instead of messing about with cooking the pasta we bought at the stores and hauled all the way up the hill.

Energy stores replenished we have a play with the slack line. We’re either astonishingly rubbish at it or the vanu suspension is screwing with our ability to find a balance point without some horrendous resonance. Either way, both of us get some comedy disco-leg every time we attempt to stand on it and it takes an astounding level of commitment for me just to hang on for a couple of seconds, holding TSK’s hand for extra support. It’s funny for a while and my core, knee, thigh and hip muscles are working really hard but then we’re just tired and sign it off for another day when we have two, solid, immoveable objects – ie. trees - to play with (not to mention the legs to make a go of it). We shower and are in bed by 9:30pm.

Sunday morning dawns glorious. Neither of us has set an alarm but it’s so lovely outside, the sun wakes us at a good time and we cook outdoor breakfast, joking with the neighbours who aren’t really sure why they and their kids are awake at such an ungodly hour . I think it was about 7am.

After playing hunt-the-keys for a while we set off from our new favourite campsite with packed rucsacs and deign to pay the tourist tax for parking in the Glenridding carpark so that my experience is as close as possible to the race-day one.

A few moments of debate on the lower slopes of Helvellyn, trying, more than anything, to make sure we walk the route in the right order - up-the-up and down-the-down of the race route so as not to result in any confusion.

I soon identify the first bit that I should “save”” myself for – the Simon-Fell-like climb along a wall to the shoulder of Helvellyn Mountain. We go a bit off-course, following the main path – but even our zig zag approach doesn’t really take much steepness out of the slope. On race day I will probably have to take the more severe route so plan to train for it.

At the shoulder, where the stone wall turns to run along the ridge, the first view of Helvellyn appears – the approach hills are too tall and steep to allow the summit of Helvellyn to be seen from any of the major roads or towns surrounding it but from this wall, the whole summit ridge and each of the rocky scrambles leading to the summit suddenly comes into view.

I’m sorely tempted to scramble the much loved Striding edge to the summit on such a lovely day but instead, stick to the plan, keep the focus and continue along the race route of Swirral Edge. In the photo above you can see just how busy Striding edge is and I'm quite satisfied we didn't join all those other people.

Despite the paths which bypass the rocky edge, I opt to squirrel along the swirral, partly to enjoy the views both sides, partly to enjoy the breeze, partly to experience scrambling again and partly to determine the racing line. In the unlikely event that I’m feeling in anyway competitive on the day... In the unlikely event that anyone else is still up there on the day... I sussed out all of the easily scrambleable routes – little chimneys which pass between two scree-ridden slippery slopes, keeping me out of the wind and sending me on ahead of anyone queing on the path... this could be my best run yet.

The benefit of climbing up the middle is I am able to see where paths go to both sides so that if it’s windy on the day, I can choose the route which keeps me warm and stable. It occurs to me that never before have I sussed out the racing line on a scramble.

They say that 2/3 of the Helvellyn race is getting down off the summit of Helvellyn. The descent didn’t look nearly as bad as I’d imagined it, looking at the map. I’d expected something scree-ridden but I suppose, if it’d been covered in scree, running would’ve been a breeze. Instead, it turned out it’s traditional, well worn, gravel path. This is it, behind TSK.

The first killer is its descent route – initially a big drop-off followed by two little uphill kickers. Good to know, on race day, that the first is a false summit and there's still a little bit more up to do.

On the steeps, I have a bit of a run on it to practice. TSK plays the fat man running too close behind me, slithering in the gravel, trying to put me off. He pushes past too close saying, “get past the girl, get past the girl" and I laugh and shout, “now you need to stop and take a drink”. He pretends and then runs alongside me shouting, “running together, running together!”. We decide it’s silly running with full backpacks and revert to walking.

Every so often – especially when the steeps kick in I have a little jog to remind myself what it’s like. I think this will go better with my fell shoes on as I’ll have a lot more grip and less weight on my back to control. On such a nice day I relish the thought of running this route, lightweight and unladen. I keep it in mind that on a bad day it will be slippery and no fun but this probably means I'll flourish.

I wonder about the event, on the day, after completing the ride up the struggle just an hour earlier, how will I be faring at this point. I can only imagine, not very well and resolve to train every weekend and every available time in the week to make sure my legs are as strong as possible for this race.

By the time we’ve arrived at the flat, rolling tarmac road from the Youth hostel and camping barn that leads down to Glenridding we’re looking for every excuse to avoid downhills – or even uphills. We do note that it’s perfectly feasible to get the bikes up this hill to the camping barn – for future reference. We enjoy the thought of the early morning spectacle of carbon-fibre-spangled triathleetes who stay at the Youth Hostel picking their way down the potholed road to transition on race day. I’m glad I’m booked into the slightly more respectable campsite with the vanu with its tarmacced road and close proximity to the race venue.

At the village, we make a beeline for the coffee shop. It turns out both of us now suffer coffee withdrawl by about 2:30pm. The first place is rejected for the instant brew on offer, the second for the queue and the third, though successful, only sells us an icecream because we’ve run out of money by this point. Swimimng first, coffee later.

Switching cash for cossies, we walk to the beach and TSK gets his legs wet whilst I send him on a mission to retrieve my towel and clothes to the shoreline. As ever, the discretion of getting dressed at the back of the beach is overcome by my desire to get into dry kit as soon as possible.

I launch myself headlong into the deepening, increasingly cold water of Ullswater and take the first chilling, breathtaking strokes. Physically the cold takes my breath, metaphorically the view does. Swimming in the shadow of Helvellyn and Gillside, Place fell, Catstye Cam and (ironically) Sheffield Pike and the 7km loop around Fusedale which I missed on the Day in the Lakes.

The rest of the day is irrelevant in comparison and the only worthwhile thing to mention is the continuing quest for coffee as both of us did synchronised sleep twitches in the cab on the drive East. We stopped at an excellent coffee shop on both outward and return legs of the journey, the second time, it transpired, only to pick up cake as the person who runs the machine had gone home. We finally got hold of the coffee at Scotts Corner. 9/10 of the Helvellyn Triathlon completed, no wonder we were doing sleep twitches.

Short of the route, what did I learn this weekend?

  • That I can ride all the way up the Struggle.
  • That I can do Helvellyn with a backpack and heavy boots in 5 hours and still walk the next day.
  • How much water I need on Helvellyn and where I can get more on the way down.
  • How much drink I need on this bike ride – a full BIG bottle.
  • That regardless of the weather I may need those water proofs as I added trouser legs and a fleece for the descent on Sunday, despite the 24 degree temperatures in the sun.
  • That my sunhat is essential – even if it’s going to be to keep the rain out of my eyes.

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