Cairngorms Climax

Route: From Grantown on Spey to Aviemore with a circular loop visiting Loch an Eilein, 26.33 miles

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The day of our final marathon had arrived and we were excited and relieved. The constant pressure of marathon after marathon had left us little time to relax during the last 27 days and we were looking forward to a rest! After much discussion about the forecast for high winds and little to no visibility at 900m, a last minute decision had been made to change the route in the Cairngorms National Park to a low level option. Although we both like to get up high, we see no point when walking conditions are near impossible and you cannot make out each other’s faces!

The new route required us to get a bus out to Grantown-on-Spey in the morning. With the weather due to worsen during the day, we had agreed to get the first bus out in the morning. By 6:40am we were ready and hastily made our way to the nearby bus stop. Unfortunately, our haste resulted in Pam going over on her ankle and she winced in pain as she made the last few steps to the stop. Pam quickly shrugged off her discomfort and assured me that all was ok. Once again, we marvelled at another red sky that lit up the Cairngorm plateau as the sun rose to the East of it as the bus took us to our start point. We both wished that we could stop and get some proper pictures but instead committed to freezing the images in our minds.

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By 7:25am we had reached our destination and piled off the bus to start our last and final run. Our route followed the Speyside Way, a disused railway line, consisting of gentle grassy paths and gravelled tracks in excellent condition. The track was fun to run on and we had to reign ourselves in as we completed the first couple of kilometres in record time. Bouncing along with our poles tapping the ground, sheep, cows and even a couple of red deer looked on in interest. We were clearly a strange sight made stranger by the tapping noise that we were making and vibrations that passed through the ground.

Passing through Nethy Bridge, a small group that was congregated on the forest track in front of us, shouted “Welcome!” as we passed; clapping and cheering us on our way. We had no idea who they were and were quite embarrassed by the reaction we got. We hurriedly went on our way, only later wishing that we had engaged them in conversation. They looked like they had a clear purpose in mind and we would have loved to have known what they were up to. With my left leg getting very tired and weary once more, I was relieved when Pam suggested that we stopped at the next village for a reviving cup of tea.

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We entered Boat of Garten, a small village with excellent views of the River Spey and Cairngorm hills beyond. Feeling somewhat underdressed, we entered a very smart hotel to seek refuge from the weather and to purchase a hot drink. The receptionist kindly took pity on us and ushered us into a very stylish bar area. We did not want to sit down for fear of messing up the leather seats and were cautious not to leave muddy footprints on the wooden floor! We need not have worried as all the staff remained remarkably friendly to us throughout our visit; even giving us some quality fudge to go with our pots of tea.

Over to Pam…….

Finding it hard to pull ourselves away from the warmth of the hotel bar but realising that we were getting too comfortable, we rain-jacketed up and stepped out into the rain. Although the weather was forecast to be OK until mid-afternoon, the rain and wind were coming in fits and starts; all slightly frustrating with the whole jacket on, jacket off situation. Still the end of this challenge was so close by now that the remaining 15 miles would hopefully seem to be simply a walk in the park (or rather a run in the park!).

The beauty of following a well-established route such as the Speyside way is that navigation is far easier, allowing us more time to relax and enjoy the whole experience; which we did. The short road section soon turned back into gravel tracks as the wood enveloped us for a second time. The moving on of the seasons was really apparent here in the changing colours of the silver birches, as was the growing carpet of fallen leaves and cones. Only the Douglas firs were fully retaining their foliage.

It was not long before the forest opened up into large expanses of heathland, the bilberry bushes being swapped for swathes of heather. The wind has dropped slightly too and there seemed to be almost a brief amnesty from the dark grey clouds over the distant Cairngorms Plateau, as the sun temporarily broke through to afford us stunning and atmospheric views across to the mountains. It was at this point that it hit us how beautiful this glen walk was. Like in the Lake District when we did the lower-level Coniston Marathon route, we were pleasantly surprised and impressed with the level of enjoyment that we were feeling. Both marathons have reminded us to explore all of the areas that these special National Parks have to offer, not just those up high. There are amazing views all over and for times of bad weather or simply on days set aside for rest, routes like the Speyside Way are fantastic opportunities to see these parks from a different perspective.

The bad weather reprieve over too soon as the strong winds up high forced the dark storm clouds to swallow up the mountains again. Congratulating ourselves a second time on the wise decision to change our route, we strode out, thoroughly relishing the fast, comfortable trail under our feet. The appearance of a golf course ahead of us indicated that we must be getting close to Aviemore, our next refuelling stop.

dsc_0685Choosing to run the Aviemore Orbital track to maximise on the off-road paths, instead of traipsing along the main road, we dropped into town just a few hundred metres from the amazing Mountain Café. Unfortunately we had not realised that it was closed on Wednesdays. Slightly disappointed, we continued on in search of a suitable replacement, promising to return the next day for coffee and a slice of one of their fabulous cakes.

Successfully finding a great substitute in Ashers Bakery, just a short distance down the road, we piled into its warmth, the wonderful smells making us start to salivate. With so much choice, we found it hard to narrow our decision down to only one savoury and one sweet option each. The friendly ladies behind the counter were curious and surprised at the amount of food that we had ordered. Trying to explain our efforts so far that day and hence the source of our hunger seemed to leave them only more confused.

“What are they doing?!” one whispered to another, when she thought that we were out of earshot!

Oh well, obviously a few more in the ‘think we’re crazy’ camp then!

Fed and watered, with a quick stop back at the van to swap a water bottle for our filled hip flasks and we were back on our way to finish off the final seven miles. Trying to keep to the low-level route theme, we had decided on a circular loop from Aviemore, via Loch an Eilein, to complete this 15th marathon. This time we swapped the Speyside Way for the Old Loggers Way, along to Coylumbridge and down through another wooded section to the Loch. Our plan was to take this last section gently since by this stage Claire’s knee and my ankle that I had so stupidly rolled at the start of the day were beginning to play up. The shear fatigue in our legs meaning that our muscles were no longer able to protect our joints as well and the repeated battering and bruising that they were experiencing was starting to make itself known to us continuously now.

Again, the beautiful scenery provided sufficient distraction to keep us pushing through. That and an interesting conversation with a local guy, called Neil McGuiness who was out walking his trusty terrier Becky. Very much keen to spend a minute or two chatting, he inquisitively asked after our day and of our reasons for running along one of his favourite dog-walking routes. This time our explanations seemed to make sense, especially as we mentioned that one of the science focuses for this National Park was to incorporate the physics behind whisky distilling. It turned out that Neil had worked as a truck driver for Chivas Regal, travelling all over the country to deliver this much desired liquid. He was also quick to point out some of the practicalities involved that we had not even thought about. For example, the difficulty in transporting a semi-full tank compared to transporting a full one and its effect on stopping distances and cornering. A full tank allows the tank and whiskey to act as one since there is no room for the whisky to bounce and reflect off the sides of the tank; the centre of mass of each acting together from one point so returning to a stable position quickly. This means that if the tank quickly comes to a standstill, so does the whisky. However, with a semi-full tank, the whisky has room to slosh around, reflecting off the sides of the tank causing a large additional and delayed force on the sides of the tank. The momentum of the liquid slows down the motion of the tank as it rights itself to be stable again, resulting in much slower braking or turning to maintain stability.

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With a friendly goodbye, we continued on, hampered more and more by our aches and pains and increasingly grateful for the easy access of the path. The National Park have put a lot of thought into the accessibility of their trails, most suitable for wheelchairs, pushchairs and exhausted, limping runners! Eventually, the loch came into sight, a beautiful place to walk and cycle around, or simply to sit and take in the views. The availability of another cup of tea from the small visitor centre was much welcomed, along with a wee sip or two from our hip flasks; part of our pact to celebrate our final effort. With only three miles to go, we felt that we could indulge in this small treat.

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Completing those final miles was more a case of relief rather than pleasure since my ankle had started to balloon impressively and the pain in Claire’s leg was severely limiting her ability to bend her knee. Between our injuries, we finished this whole challenge resembling more like lame zombies than sprite runners, but at least we finished!! What an adventure it has been and a delight to finish it off in this stunning National Park. We have had so many fun (and tough) experiences that we will definitely look back very fondly on this in years to come.

Our final ‘mission’ was to shower and drag ourselves down to the Cairngorm Hotel for a celebratory glass or two of prosecco, with a tasty Mexican dinner to follow!

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One last mention must go to Brian McCormack, a retired teacher who we met in said pub and who regaled us with funny tales of his time teaching and his past adventures in the amazing Cairngorms. Hopefully, he will successfully navigate his way through the complexities of the internet, without the aid of his beloved Maureen, to read this blog. We sincerely hope so.

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Loch Lommond and The Trossachs Gallop

Loch Lomond and The Trossachs Gallop

Route: From Bridge of Orchy, a circular route up and down Beinn Dorain and then on to Ardlui, 27.51 miles

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Creeping out of our hikers cabin just prior to first light, we were excited about the day ahead. We had decided to include a stretch of the West Highland Way and a Munro called Beinn Dorain in our penultimate marathon. We were looking forward to the opportunity to get up high in the morning and then socialise with fellow West Highland Way walkers in the afternoon.

dsc_0600A short drive later and we were in position at Bridge-of-Orchy station ready for our tramp up Coire an Dothaidh. Bothy shelter, warm kit, GPS and radioactivity meter packed, we were good to go for our morning ascent. Our Science topics of the day were to be the material science involved in outdoor gear and background radioactivity. We confidently strode up and along the track which followed the river up to its source. It was not long before we slowed for fear of sweating too much. By going too fast, we were at risk of having to endure the constant battle of multiple clothing changes and experience had taught us that it was best to avoid this. With the sun now risen, mountains and rivers started to creep out from the clouds which smothered them. We stopped to look around and marvel at the glens which stretched out below us.

dsc_0602We soon approached the saddle at the top of the coire and turned right to walk along the ridge line that led to the summit of Beinn Dorain. We could see the cloud base sitting a short height above us at about 700m. As we started to prepare ourselves for the wet, cooler conditions that we would soon envelop us, a pair of rare ptarmigans came in to view. We stood dead in our tracks, keen to stop and stare at this rare and privileged sight. Pam quietly got her camera out and hastily took a few photographs of them.

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Onwards and upwards, we followed the path which led around the side of Beinn Dorain. With slippery rocks, exposed ground and serious consequences of a fall, we watched every step and took our time. Although visibility was limited at times, we were grateful for the light south westerly wind. There was the threat of 150 mph gusts later in the day so we were pleased to be planning our descent well before then. Just prior to the summit we stopped to take another radioactivity reading. This was fairly high relative to the other readings that we took during the day and was comparable to some that we got at Dartmoor, which lay on an enormous granite batholith. We concluded that this reflected the nature of the schist rock lying underneath our feet. Mudstone that had been subjected to immense temperatures and pressures thousands of years earlier. This had caused the original minerals within it to recrystallize into new minerals forming harder schist rock that in turn emitted background radioactivity at more regular intervals. The process by which solid rock changes its structure in this way is called ‘metamorphism’.

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We did not stop at the summit for long, as although our upper bodies were warm and dry thanks to the Craghoppers Goretex jackets, my feet were starting to go numb from the cold and Pam’s fingers were doing the same. We waited for only a minute or two to check whether or not the cloud that swirled around us would lift to grant us a summit view. We could see the sun trying hard to break through but it was not going to be enough to warm our extremities. We nodded at one another, our signal to turn and commence the descent. Once the exposed section was over, we skipped down the last couple of miles to the van. We felt immense gratification as we passed multiple walkers on the way up; all before 10:30am!

With the glen bottom now in sight, we discussed what kit we could swap in preparation for the West Highland Way section. Warm clothes were still going to be required as we would have a long wait for the train at Ardlui at the end of the day. On the other hand, water could be reduced as there would be stops available on route. Finally, at the van, we both started to shiver as we felt the cooling effects of evaporation. Our bodies were still sweating from exercise but as we were stationary we were no longer generating heat at the same rate. This left us losing more heat than we were generating and we were getting cold as a result. A quick top layer change and bag faff, followed by plenty of refuelling and we were ready to run!

Over to Pam……..

So with seven miles and around 80% of the ascent under our belts, we set off with a real spring in our steps. The journey from then on was along the beautiful West Highland Way; something new to both of us, though Claire was very familiar with the area having supported her dad and partner when they walked this popular path a few years ago. The full distance of this way is 96 miles, traditionally walked from the South to the North. However, we only needed to do another 19 miles and due to logistics, were going to run it against the usual flow of walkers. The big bonus of running it this way around was besides a few ‘lumps’ to climb up, the overall route was downhill to Loch Lomond and the sea; some relief for our tired legs after the Northumberland effort the other day.

September is supposedly a popular month to walk this route since weather is usually more stable and the infamous midges are far less prominent. This was clear to see as we passed several couples and groups, most with heavy packs and sturdy boots, along the Old Military Road out of the Bridge of Orchy. One such group were fellow residents at the campsite (Pine Trees Leisure Park) that we had stayed at the night before. No doubt they were slightly confused to see us running the opposite way and at a later hour than our early departure that morning would have suggested. Enjoying the fast, bouncy trails far too much to stop to explain, we simply smiled and called out our hellos in response to their surprised looks as we sped by.

dsc_0623Although a low level route, the views up to the mountain tops and along the glens were still outstanding. With the cloud level rising as we headed towards late morning, we were now able to see the top of the Munro that we had walked up earlier. It was difficult to reign in our speeds as the open, level terrain called out to spin our legs, so it took a fair amount of self-control not to over push our efforts. We still had a reasonable distance to run, as well as one more marathon in the Cairngorms in two days time. dsc_0653What was needed was a coffee stop in Tyndrum. After a steady climb up to meet the road and railway line (Two key features that we would cross many times throughout the rest of the day.), we then had a very pleasant downhill run into our chosen break point. The very busy Green Welly Stop in Tyndrum not only provided much needed coffees and hot pasties but also the opportunity to buy two hip flasks. To celebrate our achievements during this month (and to help numb the now familiar ache in our knees and feet!), we had decided that we wanted to carry a little whisky with us on our final marathon.

dsc_0635Suitably fed and watered, with new purchases crammed into our small running packs, we were on the road again. From Tyndrum the Old Military Road joined the main highway of the A82 and our path diverted off to a pretty, clearly defined path along the river. Passing through a small woodland and a disused lead mine, followed by a short climb across the heathland, we entered an area of significant historical, environmental and scientific importance. The West Highland Way takes you past the Kirkton and Auchtertyre Farms, where Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) have established the Hills & Mountains Research Centre. The main purpose of this project is to look into ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through economically, environmentally and socially sustainable land management systems (http://www.sruc.ac.uk/info/120252/hill_and_mountain_research_centre). We took a long while to travel past this section since we kept getting distracted by all the interesting information signs that the SRUC had set up. We were really impressed with their holistic approach to the whole project.

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It was at this campsite, whilst taking our 6th radioactivity measurement of the day that we met Lizzie and Ben Cumings. Lizzie, curious as to what were up to, came over for a chat. However, on learning that she was a wildlife biologist, we were far more interested to hear about her stories of environmental research work that she carried out across North America. Researching into the lives and behaviour of a range of animals, including rare mice and seabirds, she had worked in some amazing places such as the Everglades, San Francisco Bay and Hawaii. The latter location is where she met Ben as he flew her to safety from an incoming hurricane; but that is another story!

dsc_0647After this interesting conversation, we headed off to start the final ascent of the day, thankfully only a couple of hundred of metres this time, into the forest and still along good tracks. It is always pleasant to have a change in environment to keep our interest constant and we enjoyed the shelter and muted light of the trees and green, mossy carpet. It also coincided with the light rainfall forecast the day before; perfect timing and it saved us from having to dig our rain jackets out of our bags. Eventually the rain lifted and the canopy opened up to amazing views across the valley.

By now the afternoon light was also starting to soften as it approached 4 o’clock, so it was with some relief when the path started its descent towards Ardlui. Although we still had about nine miles to go, we had re-joined the Old Military Road again, providing firm and fast terrain underfoot. It was not too long before the valley opened up and levelled off as we drew closer to our end point.

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A small break in the quirky and warm Drovers Inn gave us a small boost of energy for the last two miles. We had guessed that these would not be the most pleasant, having to hug the edge of the fast A82, but unfortunately a necessary evil to reach Ardlui, our end destination. Although the drivers were considerately giving us space as they passed us, we were pretty desperate to complete this final section before the daylight faded for good. So with gritted teeth and ignoring the tightness and pain in our now sore and exhausted legs, we pushed on, both of us shouting and laughing happily when we finally spotted the comforting lights of the Ardlui Hotel. With the penultimate marathon complete there was time spare to grab a tasty dinner and some light-hearted conversation with the regulars. An hour passed and it was soon time to catch the train back to the van in Bridge of Orchy. Happy times; a truly enjoyable and interesting day along a beautiful route! I’m sure that it will not be long before we will head up here again for another visit back to this gorgeous National Park.

Our Northumberland Venture

Route: Circular route from Ilderton, 26.79 miles

Based on our previous experience of the remote and wild Northumberland National Park, we always knew that this would be one of the toughest marathons out of our Challenge and we were not disappointed! Boggy terrain, disappearing paths and over-zealous cows are only part of the story, but more on than later. Put it this way, this marathon kept us on our toes! However, we were incredibly lucky with the weather and very relieved since neither of us was keen to revisit past experiences of poor visibility, super strong winds and needle-like rain!

Aware that psychology plays an enormous part in any adventure, we had treated ourselves to a second sports massage, this time at Scarborough Sports Massage Clinic. Understanding our plight, Christian Machen expertly manipulated out the knots and tightness that had been building in our legs and bodies over the past few runs.  A big thank you Chris!

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On top of this uncomfortable but much appreciated luxury, we had made the decision earlier in the week to walk this marathon. It would give us more time to navigate, which we knew could be particularly challenging over and through the heather covered moorland. Oh, and being gluttons for punishment, we were also wanting to get some good data on the effect of sugar on energy levels during an endurance activity. This had been our plan during the New Forest marathon but the humidity seemed to have affected the blood sugar monitor. Since neither of us wanted to suffer any more than necessary when playing around with our nutrition, nor to be the one to have to drag the other round on a tougher course because of said nutrition, walking seemed to be the sensible choice.

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So one of the first tasks of the day was to measure our blood sugars before we could eat breakfast; everything we ate and drank for the next few hours would need to be recorded, along with timings so we could correlate this information to our blood sugar readings. Again, Claire was on the more balanced protein-carb-fat diet of porridge with cheese sandwiches for snacks, whilst I had the pleasure of consuming a breakfast of 500ml of Lucozade Energy drink, supplemented on route with fruit snacks! Mmmm!

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We were conscientious that daylight hours were shortening and we had approximately 1200m of ascent to climb, so it was going to be a long day and we needed a much earlier start. A beautiful red sky greeted us as we drove to our start point in Ilderton, to the east of the Cheviot. This part of the Northumberland National Park is much less popular than the region to the west, where its highest peak and the Pennine Way capture the attention of many walkers throughout the year. With this in mind, navigation was always going to be more challenging, though we had not quite realised how much. No sooner had we started before we stumbled into our first obstacle; a perfectly clear bridleway disappearing into a sea of heather and bracken, only to be replaced by numerous sheep-trodden tracks.

“Any idea which way it went?”

“Er, no! The map implies that we should just keep heading that way,” as we stared across the purple and brown carpet. And so we did, our ankles sinking amongst the clumps into shin-deep mud, as were our energy levels. Finally spotting a post, the top half-covered covered in yellow footpath signs, we tramped our way over, fervently hoping that this will lead us back onto a decent path. Great! It did and in the right direction so off we set again. Five minutes later though, we were back in the same situation again; this path disappearing to nothing and no clear way to head from there. We could not even use sheep folds or fence boundaries to locate ourselves since there seemed to be hundreds all over that did not fit to the map.

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“Right, the only thing that cannot be wrong are the contours. No one can move the mountains,” Claire sagely stated. Back to basics; macro-navigation of key landscape features and good old compass bearings. By this stage, I was next to useless as the sugar high from my Lucozade breakfast had turned about face into a sugar low. Along with plummeting energy levels, my concentration and mental processing skills were dropping off quickly. The only that was increasing was my headache! This all meant that any sensible decision making and pace setting was left to Claire. If you are interested in our results, see the graph below.

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It was with a massive sign of relief from both us when we reached 11am and our designated time to finish this experiment; me to be able to have some real food and Claire to have a functioning partner again! We had also got beyond the most challenging navigational section of the route, another big bonus. Fuelled up on cheese sandwiches, we started the ascent, this time of much clearer tracks, up to the Big Cairn and High Cantle. Our destination was Salters Road through the forest, heading towards the Pennine Way where we would do the main part of the ascent up to the summit of the Cheviot. Despite the gradient, we significantly picked up pace, showing clearly how the terrain underfoot made such a big difference to our speed; and how the consumption of food made such a difference to our energy levels and morale.

Half-way through the forest and with nine miles under our belts, we finally met other people out walking. A chatty couple from Tyneside who were trying to retrace their steps from an earlier visit to Davidson’s Lynn but doubted whether they were on the right track. A quick look at the map helped to confirm that they were; a good thing since we needed to be on the same track ourselves.

dsc_0558Finally reaching the Pennine Way, both of us were surprised and immensely relieved to see the flagstone path extending ahead of us. Our distant memories of walking this path had dredged up images of bog after bog, something we had secretly been dreading but too afraid to voice to each other. It seemed in 2013, the National Park Authority had put in some very hard labour to build this path, kindly funded by Natural England and for that we were truly grateful. We almost skipped up to the summit, where we met two lovely ladies, equally wind-blown and dishevelled but on good form. With the weather still being kind enough to allow us fantastic views across this remote and wild National Park, it was clear to see how Northumberland takes the crown as the largest Dark Sky Status Reserve in Europe. There are hardly any settlements to create light pollution and it was a shame that we could not afford the time to visit this secluded area at night. The view of the stars and the Milky-Way must surely be amazing from here.

dsc_0563Over to Claire……

Commencing our walk from the summit over to the edge of the plateau, we were pleased to see further flagstones stretching out into the distance. The Northumberland National Park really have gone to the sterling effort of laying stones down for common walking routes, one of which we were now on. Standing at the edge of the plateau, we could see the descent down into the picturesque valley below. We were eager to get down as were feeling drained and tired from being battered by the wind all day. Briefly breaking into a trot we started our descent down and let our tired legs roll. This was short lived as our bodies had got so used to the more sedate walking pace that they were groaning at us to slow down. We had learnt to listen to our bodies at moments such as these so reigned ourselves in. We were aware that there was no need to rush as we were making good time.

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It was not long before we were down and sheltered from the strong gusts that roared on the summit above. Tired but happy, we smiled at passers-by as we carried along the valley. We commented on the strength of a runner as she easily strode out past us. We quietly envied the energy and vitality she possessed and looked forward to the day when we would be that bouncy again!

Reaching the end of the valley, we took on-board some more food and water before starting the last 4 miles. We were happy to be off road and onto a soft grassy surface again but our contentedness was short lived. Having walked past many fields with cows, calves and bulls in during our marathons, we had got somewhat cavalier about walking through fields of them. Confident in our approach we set out across another full field, the cows were clearly unhappy about our presence and started making noises at us as their calves became a little spooked. A bull suddenly appeared and started approaching us. We made noises at it but it wasn’t backing down. As it broke into a run, I called out to Pam, “Go up the hill!” I heard a shout behind me as Pam slipped whilst making headway for the hill. I had a sick feeling in my stomach as I reached the fence line and turned to see what had happened. Relieved to see her back on her feet again and the bull stood stationary at the bottom of the hill, I started to climb over the fence with Pam close behind. On edge after our close call, we chose to follow a fence boundary around the herd rather than face the might of these anxious animals. They had made it clear that we were not welcome and we did not want to upset them again!

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Eventually reaching the ruins of Middleton Old Town, we slowed down to reflect on the history that had been created here. Lying on the boundary between England and Scotland, this county has witnessed many battles that have shaped the land and lives of its people. With the clock ticking, we drew ourselves away and continued on.

We questioned our luck as we went through a gate and realised that we were now in a field of inquisitive bullocks. Keen not to have another near miss, we kept an eye on them as they stared at us intensely from the top of a hill. Aware of how fast they could run, we kept close to our escape route, a nearby drystone wall as we ventured along the track. Safely through the gate on the other side, we decided that we had had enough cow experiences for one day.

With IIderton in sight, the van soon came in to view. Tired and weary, we had a quick change before seeking the refuge of the van. Due to its remoteness and difficult terrain, we always knew that this would be a difficult marathon to conquer. Its challenge had certainly not disappointed us and although unlucky for some our 13th marathon had proved otherwise. We had had a number of lucky escapes that would no doubt be remembered over a drink or two in years to come! Thank you Northumberland for making our day such a memorable one!

 

 

North York Moors Welcome

Route: From Pickering to North of Goathland, 28.0 miles

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The North York Moors with it’s fantastic coastline and moorland is somewhere we were both keen to explore. We both had distant memories of the region and were looking forward to re-awakening them. On the morning of our run, we were both a little nervous as to what the day had in store. We were dependent on a friend’s (Martin Kocsis) goodwill to make it a success. Not only did we need him to pick us up half way through our route to take us to a pre-arranged meeting with the North York Moors Education Officer, Sue Wilkinson, we also needed him to drive us back to Pickering. We should not have worried, Martin and his trusty dog Frank proved to be excellent support and hosts for this park!

With rain drizzling upon us as we sat in the car park at Pickering waiting for Martin, we wondered whether or not our rain jackets would have to make a rare outing. We had got so used to sunny running conditions that the threat of a rainy day was having a bigger effect on our spirits that it should have done. Our frowns turned into smiles as Martin and Frank pulled into the car park. Martin was a big fan of the region having spent many happy days holidaying here in the past. His enthusiasm rubbed off on us as we got our selves sorted, explained our plan and set off in to the drizzle for our day’s adventure. Within minutes the rain had stopped and we had the smoke of a distant steam train in sight. We marvelled at it from afar as we drew close enough to get a couple of pictures. Keen to keep on schedule for our visit with Sue, we hurriedly packed the camera away and continued on route.

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Route planning, pacing and timing, all applied physics topics, were something that we had got increasingly good at during the past 3 weeks. As a core skill of a competent Mountain Leader, we both had experience of using these skills in the recent past. However, neither of us had had any experience of completing so many marathons in such a short time frame and as such our pace had to be modified. We also had little knowledge of some of the terrain that we would encounter and were concerned that the North York Moors would be exceptionally boggy underfoot; sapping our energy levels and hindering our progress. To allow for these unknowns we had factored in plenty of contingency.

Keeping to our moto of ‘walk the ups’, we took our time as we climbed out of Thorten-le-Dale, through the forest and up onto the ridge. The height gain was only 200m and slight compared to our previous marathons effort. We chatted merrily as we reached the ridgeline and marvelled at the North York Moors laid out before us. Multiple shades of yellow, green and brown rolled into the distance and shimmered in the sunlight; we could see why so many people loved these moors. We discussed how different the shape of the landscape was from the Lake District in the West, to The Yorkshire Dales in the middle of the country and the North York Moors in the East. Each park had its own discrete characteristics and unique charms that had left lasting impressions on us. Much to our delight the chalk tracks underfoot made the running easy. We drifted along at a good pace taking care not to run too fast and burn out later as a result.

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With our energy levels dipping and the sun occasionally popping out from the clouds, Pam compared us to road runners. These are birds which harness the warmth from the sun so that they can break into a sprint. Chuckling at this thought, we saw two runners approaching us. Armed, like us, with poles and taped knees they smiled and nodded before shouting “Hello fellow idiots!” at us. Pleased to be in the presence of like-minded souls, we shared in their joke before carrying along the Tabular Hills Walk.

Myself as time keeper and Pam as distance master, we could see that we were making good time and were likely to get to our first rendezvous point with Martin about 30 minutes early. A short phone call was made and we agreed to meet with him a little earlier to give us more time to recharge our batteries and rest our tired legs. Within an hour, we could just make out the outline of Martin and his husky, Frank on the horizon. They were slowly walking along the track towards us. Pleased to have an excuse to walk, we hurriedly ran towards them before slowing to a more sedate pace. With the sun now shining brightly upon us, we shared stories of our mornings adventures before piling in to Martin’s van.

Over to Pam……

So Martin kindly drove us both to Aidensfield… or rather Goathland as it’s known by the locals. This enchanting village has been the set for the Sunday evening favourite, Heartbeat for nearly 20 years. On route we had excellent views of the moorland that would be our playground for the afternoon. The familiar sights of the Aidenfields Arms and garage were standing proudly at one end of the village; both buildings the focus of many photos. As was the police car, which was currently parked up in front of the village post office and information centre since its usual location in front of the garage was taken over by a small market on this occasion.

To make room for Claire and I to fit into the van (safely), Frank had to be relegated to the back of the van for the short journey, much to his disgust. However, he was obviously not one to hold grudges for long since he happily turned on the charm once again when the cream teas arrived. With a quick half hour spare, we had all decided to test out the local delicacies, whilst lazing in the sunshine on in the small green outside and making sure that all scones were out of reach of Frank’s dextrous paws!

dsc_0507The short break over, it was then time to meet up with Sue. This called for a second cup of tea and the more business-like setting of the tea rooms. Like all of the Education Officers from the different National Parks that we have met so far, Sue is incredibly enthusiastic and motivated about increasing the opportunities for families and schools to experience the beauty of these special places. Her knowledge and passion for this understated but truly captivating Park is second to none and it was fascinating talking to her about the numerous projects that the North York Moors National Park Authority has on the go. One such project is the Explorer Club, an opportunity for 5-14 year old children and their parents to meet up and learn more about the Moors over six sessions. The success of this project clearly shown by the continuing involvement of these families with the Park and their own exploring even after their designated period of learning has finished.

This is only one of many schemes that are available for children to become more engaged with the outdoors in the North York Moors (www.northyorkmoors.org.uk). As teachers who passionately feel that learning about Science and Physics should not be only restricted to laboratories, it was very encouraging to meet someone who has been so actively involved in establishing strong links between education and opportunities in the outdoors. Both of us were impressed by the amount of research into this special peatland environment that is already taking place. Despite very much enjoying our conversation with Sue, we were conscious of time pressures; Sue had kindly taken time out her day to meet with us and we still had another 6.5 miles to do!

dsc_0520So shuffling back into the van, (Frank again in the back!), it was time to head back to the view point at Saltergate. If the morning had been all about forest trails and farmland, the afternoon was very much about the moors. Starting with a quick jog around the Fylingdale RAF Base, most likely monitored by several CCTV cameras, we soon hit the chalky trails of the Worm Sike Rigg bridleway. The short climb uphill opened up to wide open moorland, the heather and moorland plants turning slightly golden in the lower autumn sun. It almost felt as if we were running through the plains in Spain, only the cooler northerly breeze reminding us of where we really were! It really is a very magical environment and we were incredibly lucky to be able to experience it in such beautiful weather.

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The chalky trails turned to peaty-sandstone paths as we passed the trig point and turned onto Foster Howes Rigg. Although much more uneven and boggy, we still managed to hold a reasonable pace, the lure of the end now in sight. We were quickly realising that the 6.5 miles that we thought that we had to do, was now nearer to 8.5 miles so we were incredibly grateful to see the friendly faces of Martin and Frank as the path neared towards the A169.

dsc_0526Fantastic, number 12 done! All we needed to finish off this wonderful day were three very tasty portions of fish and chips (with a large sausage for Frank, of course) and a short stroll around Whitby.

 

 

A big thank you to Martin for all the support and for the guided tour of Dracula’s home town; perfect!

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Yorkshire 3 Peaks

Route: Circular Route from Horton-in-Ribblesdale, 26.3 miles

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Waking up to another beautiful sunrise and blue sky, Pam and I were excited about the day ahead. The Yorkshire Dales is famous for the Yorkshire 3 Peaks and that was to be our focus for the day. Driving into the park the night before, memories of caving, climbing, running and leading Duke of Edinburgh expeditions had come flooding back into my mind. With its rich history, amazing limestone pavements and diverse geological features, it had also been somewhere that Pam and I visited during a fieldwork trip at Liverpool University. We chuckled at how we had thrown snowballs at each other when we were supposed to be studying a geological feature called an unconformity. Ok, we may not have been as focused as we could have been but we have never forgotten that unconformity because we were having so much fun!

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As Pam and I slowly got ourselves ready, Zoe, our companion for the day excitedly shared with us all the extra equipment that she had brought with her. Zoe is an Atmospheric Research Scientist, an excellent runner, skier and mountain biker and a constant source of energy and enthusiasm. Like us, she is passionate about sharing Environmental Science with families, schools and children and sees outreach projects as fundamental to the work she does. She has worked on research projects in Antarctica, with young adults through the British Exploring Society and has also worked voluntarily for the Peak District National Park.

Our scientific focuses for the day were going to be weather phenomena across the three peaks and the amazing structures that we saw on route. Armed with an ozone detector meter, two temperature and humidity meters (One on Zoe’s back pack and one on mine) and an anemometer to measure wind speed, we were well equipped. Zoe had also brought with her a carbon dioxide and air quality meter. As this needed a power supply, we chose to use this at the start and end of the day rather than throughout the run. Our investigation into amazing structures focused on dry stone walls which are so well preserved and maintained in this park and arch bridges such as the Ribblehead viaduct. Hundreds of railway builders (“navvies”) lost their lives building this viaduct, with its 24 massive stone arches 104 feet (32 metres) above the moor. It caused such loss of life that the railway paid for an expansion of the local graveyard.

Bags packed, scientific equipment attached and plenty of coffee and tea consumed, we piled into my van and drove the short distance to the start of our route at Horton-in-Ribblesdale. With Pen-Y-Ghent, the first of the three peaks in view, we eagerly started our run towards it. Within 40 minutes we were nearing the top. It was good to be feeling so strong and positive after issues with my leg the day before had stopped me in my tracks. The benefit of a massage from Lynne Taylor of Global Therapies was definitely paying off as my legs happily pushed me up the final short scramble to the top. Pam was grinning with delight as the summit views stretched out before us, recounting tales of her last excursion here where all three peaks had been covered in thick cloud.

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Eager to take some wind speed readings, Zoe held up her portable anemometer. We could tell that the wind speed was very low and with it registering as under 1 metre per second, we concluded that it was insignificant. This reading was understandable as the air was exceptionally still in the valley below and we could only feel a slight breeze where we now stood. We stood and stared at the views for a few minutes more, before starting the descent down.

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As our legs rolled underneath us, they were clearly grateful for the relief of the well maintained tracks and paths that lay underfoot. The Yorkshire Dales have made it an integral part of their current plan to improve and maintain the footpaths and bridleways that form the Yorkshire three Peaks walk. Pam and I commented on how noticeable the work the park rangers, contractors and volunteers had done after completing this circuit many years earlier. At over £28 per metre though this is no easy task and they are always looking for sources of funding and volunteers to continue this good work.

With Pen-Y-Ghent behind us, we strode out as we ran along the valley before looping back round towards the Ribblehead viaduct and Whernside. With a tea van and the Railway Inn in site, we decided that we would have to stop for some refreshments before tackling the second of the three peaks. At this point, I would like to introduce Pat who served us tea, ice-cream and soup from her tea van. She was clearly interested in what we were doing and asked probing questions about how Science can be brought to life in the outdoors. We gave some simple examples like energy transfers and cooling through evaporation which seemed to help convince her. We would have loved to have talked more, but the pub and an opportunity to refill our drink bottles was calling.

We were treated to a warm Yorkshire welcome as we wondered into the pub. One gentleman asked how the turbo pack on our bags propelled us up the hills. It took me a few seconds to realise that he was referring to the temperature and humidity meters that were attached to our ruck sacks. When we explained what they were and how they fitted in with the purpose of our challenge, the bar man pitched in,

“If you have completed 10 marathons, you should be good at them by now!”

This left Zoe, Pam and I in stitches as we sat down to rest our weary legs for a few minutes before continuing our journey.

Refuelled, we set off for Whernside. Marvelling at the architecture of the Ribblehead viaduct and it’s 24 arches which towered above us, we started the long slog to the top. Zoe questioned how anyone could cycle this route after reading about the Yorkshire 3 Peaks Cyclo-Cross race in the pub. Always one for a challenge, she was clearly interested in entering this event at some time in the future. She kept us amused, and distracted from the fatigue in our legs, as she weighed up the pros and cons of partaking in this race.

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At the summit of Whernside, we stopped for a few more photos and admired the views before hurtling down to the warmth and comfort of the Old Mill House pub below. Met by piles of chocolate brownies, lemon drizzle cake and flapjack as we entered the bar, we decided that it would be rude not to purchase any alongside our drinks. With 6 miles to go, we knew that we had broken the back of this marathon and wanted to savour the last few miles. Fellow three peak walkers drank and chatted merrily with us as we all concluded that Ingleborough had a sting in its’ tail. I remembered this all too well after running the Yorkshire 3 Peaks race a few years before. Cramping up as I scrambled up the last few steps, I had to dig deep into my mental and physical reserves to reach the top. Totally exhausted, I eventually collapsed at the summit as both my legs went into spasm. A bit of tender loving care by mountain rescue, the angles of the hills and I was back on my feet again, running the last few miles into Horton-in-Ribblesdale. Fortunately, we were all feeling quite strong as we piled out of the pub and started the final ascent. Passing limestone pavements as Ingleborough stood vertically in front of us, we didn’t let its daunting climb dampen our spirits. With plenty of words of encouragement and sweets from Zoe, the summit was upon us. It was much colder at the top of the three peaks than it was below and this is reflected in the temperature and humidity readings recorded on route. You can clearly see the temperature dropping relative to height as we summited Pen-Y-Ghent, Whernside and Inglebrough at 10:40, 14:45 and 17:00 respectively in the graph below.

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With the colder air and cooling effects of evaporation, we were started to shiver as our bodies tried to warm themselves up. With the three peaks accomplished and the evening drawing in, we saw no reason to hang around. We steadily trotted our way back down to the van. Endorphin fuelled and minds enriched with all the amazing views we had seen that day, we needed nothing more than food and sleep to be perfectly content. They say the best things in life are free and on this day it certainly felt that way. However, to keep these experiences free for future generations we all need to do our bit. This can be done by volunteering our time to assist with National Park path or wall maintenance projects or giving a small amount (£28 per metre) to fund maintenance work.

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The Lake District Wander

Route: Coniston Marathon circuit, 26.23 miles

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Waking to another clear day and feeling relatively refreshed after two days of rest, we were ready for the next set of back-to-back marathons. The mental fatigue that we experienced at the end of the Peak District run was now a (semi!) distant memory as we looked forward to a lakeside run in a National Park that both of us have spent a significant time in over the years. On top of this we had taken up the opportunity of a much needed massage the day before by Lynne and Tim, from Global Therapies, fellow fell runner friends of Claire, so our legs were now feeling far less tight and knotty. Although there was still some taping around Claire’s knee, so being kind to ourselves was, as always, still on the agenda. However, the knowledge that we had broken the back of this challenge buoyed us both along. We were feeling good!

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The choice of the Coniston marathon route was quite a strategic one since we were planning on doing the Yorkshire Three Peaks the next day and needed a relatively flat course; or as flat as the Lake District can offer! Again, we were lucky with the weather as the sun shone warmly across the fields with the cool northerly wind reminding us that autumn is already here.

It was then time to set off for the short distance to our start point at the High Cross car park, north-east of Lake Coniston. We had decided on running anti-clockwise around the circuit from this point to get the bulk of the road miles out of the way first of all. We have found that tarmac surfaces have been so much more unforgiving on our legs and we had no desire to pound our joints and muscles on this hard surface at the end of 26 miles. It also placed Coniston roughly half-way around; perfect timing for a coffee and cake stop, as well as being the only feasible place to fill up with water on route.

The road section seemed to pass by quite quickly, much to our delight. We were pretty much on tenterhooks for most of it, since the high hedgerows bordering these narrow roads made it hard for vehicles to see us. At least the earlier start meant that traffic was a little lighter than usual. The fact that it was breakfast time for most normal people was also highlighted to us as we ran past the Drunken Duck Inn, tempting smells of cooked bacon drifting across the road. We had a slight reprieve from the tarmac as we hopped onto a purpose-built gravelled bike trail parallel to the road; not only kinder on our legs but also on our anxiety levels!

As soon as we reached Clappersgate, the actual start point of the organised marathon event, we jumped off the main road onto a quieter one, heading west along the river. Now we could relax a little more and start to enjoy the scenery. It really is a lovely and quite varied circuit, though not to be underestimated in its toughness. This first section took us through short wooded sections, across fields and up over hills. At one point we were treated to stunning views across to the Langdale Pikes, something we may have missed if we had rushed past in a car. There is definitely a benefit or two for taking the time to travel places under your own steam, with this being one of them! With all this in mind, we did admit to each other that we would be tempted to enter the official Coniston Marathon, even though neither of us is big on entering events involving road. The multi-terrain paths were definitely technical and challenging enough to ensure that you would never be bored.

dsc_0431After another short stint along the A593, we were back onto the trails, this time heading towards Tarn Hows. With the huge choice of stunning mountain paths to tempt you to higher ground, it is far too easy to forget the beautiful lowland walks that are also available.  The lake side path of Tarn Hows is an excellent example and we met a number of people already clued in on this, making the most of the gorgeous weather.

Soon it was time for us to drop down into Coniston, for our designated break; a town full of history and strong links to water sports. The long straight shape of Lake Coniston provided the perfect setting for trial runs of the World Water Speed record by Donald Campbell, as well as his tragic record attempt run in his Bluebird K7 in 1967. The Physics and Engineering of the high speed boat is fascinating and thankfully, something that the Ruskin Museum and Campbell Heritage Trust are in the process of restoring for future generations to admire. See the Ruskin Museum website for more details, http://www.ruskinmuseum.com/.

Another cream tea consumed and we were back on the route, this time running along the edge of the lake for a good few miles. In addition to the rich scientific and historic connection of speed boats on Lake Coniston, the popularity of other water sports was also clear to see; sailing boats, kayaks and canoes all in use. All activities use the principles of buoyancy, streamlining and stability to power successfully through the water. As a keen swimmer myself, I have always been interested in how to apply physics to increase efficiency; the inner geek emerged when I was quite young! So it was really pleasing to see one or two hardy souls braving the cold water on this sunny day.

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It was at this point that Claire’s leg began to give her trouble again, and my knees were seemingly starting to ache in sympathy as the previous 250+ miles of our nine previous marathons were starting to take their toll. A little worrying since we were only 13 miles into our marathon and there was still a long way to go. Normally we would be too self-conscious to go through some strategic yoga moves at the side of the track with so many people passing bay, but desperate times leads to desperate measures. We happily swallowed our pride and a few Ibuprofens to ensure that we could continue as comfortably as possible!

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A second sizeable road section towards the end of the lake was a little nerve-racking, so it was with big sighs of relief when we hit the off-road trails again at High Nibthwaite. Here it was very much a case of up, up, up and again a good reminder of how challenging the official marathon must be. To add to our fun, we also encountered a couple of herds of cows, who were equally startled at seeing us as we were of seeing them on the narrowest section of the route. It was a good ten minutes of gentle encouragement from us to coax the poor beasts along before the path widened sufficiently for us to squeeze past.

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The Lake District is one of the most popular areas for locals and tourists to visit, and even at a height of 300m, it was clear to see why. The views across the lake to the Old Man of Coniston and down to the town itself were stunning. This low-level route was exceeding all our expectations and introducing us to areas neither of us had been to before. The final section through Grizedale Forest finished off a truly magnificent day. Just in time to meet up with Claire’s parents, sister and niece for dinner!

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Last but by no means least, a big thank you must go to Graham Watson for all of his help on the Science and Learning that already takes place through the Lake District National Park Authority. Graham is the Manager of the John Muir Award in Cumbria, a highly regarded environmental award that has a strong base here in this National Park. It is an award that is open to everyone, encouraging all to be fully aware of their environment and to engage with it more; perfect for school groups and families. Further details and information can be found at http://www.lakedistrict.gov.uk/learning/johnmuiraward.

Peak District Crawl

Route: From Hathersage to Chinley, 26.31 miles

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I have many fond memories of running over the Kinder plateau as it is home turf for the Pennine Fell Running Club for which I run. It is also where the first UK National Park was established after the mass trespass of 1932. It therefore seemed fitting to run a route which crossed this famous gritstone plateau. It was always going to be an emotional day but with mixed weather and fatigue setting in, it turned out to be particularly so.

After the Snowdon marathon the day before Pam and I were tired and weary as we woke early for our morning stretching routine. Helen Allison, our support for the day, arrived within the hour to discuss our plans. Helen has multiple talents as she is a formidable ultra-runner, osteopath and downright lovely person. After loading her sack with extra water and checking the forecast for the day, pangs of guilt ran through me. Heavy rain was forecast for the first three hours of our run and Helen now had around 4 litres of water on her back! This was because we would have little access to fresh water once we were up on the gritstone edges and did not want to have to drop down prematurely. I knew that Helen would only be helping us if she believed in our cause, so decided to stop apologising for loading her up like a camel and to accept her offer of support gracefully.

Bags packed and poles at the ready, we piled into Helen’s car and drove over to Hathersage, the start of our run. Our two Science focuses for the day were to be background radiation and the physics of adventure sports like climbing which the gritstone edges form a natural playground for. Gritstone is a coarse-grained, siliceous sandstone which contains clay minerals, feldspar, micas and quartz. This mineral rich rock emits radiation in small pockets as the isotopes within it decay to more stable forms. We were hoping to detect some of this during our traverse across the Peak District National Park. As it happened, we did notice some variations in the readings but they were insignificant when you took the sensitivity of the meter into account. A more extensive study would need to be carried out to confirm our predictions.

A couple of weeks earlier, I had been fortunate enough to meet up with Chris Robinson who is one of the Education Officers for the Peak District National Park. He explained some of the other Science themed projects that they engage young people with whilst out and about in the park. One of the most memorable included measuring the depth of peat bogs which naturally store carbon dioxide (CO2); the gas that contributes to climate change. According to the Peak District National Park website, it is estimated that Britain’s peat bogs store the equivalent of 10 times the country’s total CO2 emissions. This is one of the many reasons to preserve them and to engage the next generation in doing so.

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The rain lashed down on Helen’s car as we drove over to Hathersage. It was not long before the car was parked up and Pam and I had to tear ourselves away from its warmth and comfort. Leg muscles aching from our run the day before, motivation was in short supply. However, Helen’s enthusiasm and curiosity as we took the first of our background radiation readings for the day kept us entertained. We set of again. She let us set the pace as she positioned herself at the back; quietly observing our progress and any signs of fatigue. After a long gentle stretch by the river, we started the steep, unrelenting climb up to Win Hill. It was then that Helen hinted that we could be using our poles a bit more efficiently when we went up hill. Eager to gain any insights that I could from this ultra-running legend, I pleaded with her to demonstrate this technique for me. As she took my poles and stormed up the near vertical slope at a record pace, I felt a little incompetent. She broke down the process for us in simple steps and we slowly went about trying to adopt this new approach. We could both immediately feel the extra work our arms were having to do and if this meant taking some of the weight of our exceptionally tired legs, we were sold on it!

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Eventually the end of the climb came into sight and the summit of Win Hill could be seen on the horizon. Pleased to be nearing the top of the longest climb of the day and with the rain clearing our mood lifted. We posed for some photos at the top before running down the short descent on the other side. It was nice to be picking up some speed again. We trotted along the gritstone edges taking readings on route. As we did I could feel my troubled left leg getting heavier and heavier until I felt that I was physically dragging it along. Not able to hide my condition from Helen’s trained eye, she soon pulled me aside and kindly set to work on my leg at the top of Ringing Roger. Not only had she carried an excessive amount of water up in the pouring rain for us, she was now massaging my leg on route for me. Relieved at the attention my leg was finally getting, I could feel the knots unravelling in it as she massaged it with her magical touch. Minutes later and I was back running again. Helen carried on with us for another mile, before handing over the remaining water and setting off back for her car.

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Pam and I plodded on. Although we were both mentally struggling with the challenge of the day, we both felt immensely privileged to be running this route in such beautiful conditions. Unlike our recce of this route a few months earlier, the ground was now dry underfoot and the views clear to see. We stopped for a few pictures at Kinder Low and another radiation reading before recomposing ourselves and breaking the remaining miles down into small manageable chunks. We both knew that we needed to be kinder to ourselves. We agreed that we would do this by stopping in Hayfield for a coffee and brief rest, slowing the pace down and taking slightly less technical lines wherever we could.

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Tired, exhausted but relieved that we would soon have two days’ rest, we dragged ourselves around the remaining 6 miles from our coffee stop in Hayfield. We felt guilty that we had not given the Peak District National Park the attention it deserved as our minds played tricks with us. Yet, as is so often the case, with time, only the good memories remain. As I write this blog, it is those magical views and unique shaped gritstone outcrops that jump into my mind when I refer back, not the pain or fatigue that we felt on the day.

Snowdonia Round

Route: Almost circular route starting from Pen-y-Pass, 26.24 miles

This was our halfway marathon and the first of two back-to-back runs. Up till now we have had the semi-luxury of having a day off between each of our marathons, allowing us to rest our weary muscles. Even so, the burn in our legs at the start of each run is a gentle reminder of how much distance we have covered already and we knew that we had to take it steady so not to burn out too much for the following day in the Peak District.

The day started with a quick car shuffle to the start at Pen-y-Pass before beginning our walk up the Miner’s Track, one of the many tracks to Snowdon’s summit. The forecast had hinted at warm, clear conditions with a few clouds to offer protection from the beating Sun. Although it was hazy to start with the humidity was high and we were sweating profusely even before the track got particularly steep. It was looking likely that the forecast was going to be true so definitely a day for running caps, sunscreen and t-shirts to cover our shoulders. We have been developing some impressive tan lines, especially around our ankles from our short sports socks, so might as well work on them a little more!

On this run our support was Mike, Claire’s partner; sportingly accommodating our earlier than usual start to help with the car shuffle and fully prepped on where to meet us for the essential water stops. In addition to this, he is an experienced photographer so I was bursting with questions to ask him about the scientific and technical aspect of this art. There are many links between photography and physics so this was an area that we were keen to investigate more, especially as lenses and their characteristics are a common topic in the A-Level Physics syllabuses. Mountains make excellent subjects for photographs, especially when partnered with tarns and lakes. We were treated to clear, smooth reflections of the Snowdon Horseshoe as we crossed the land bridge on Llyn-Llydaw, the image accentuating the knife-edge shape of the higher path in the soft morning light.

dsc_0364The early start meant that there were few people on the tracks and we thoroughly enjoyed the peaceful tranquility of our environment. Even the wind was still and quiet. In fact, besides the odd bleating of sheep, the only noise we noticed was from ourselves. Tap, crunch, tap, crunch as we placed one foot and one pole in front of the other, and our heavy breathing as we tackled the stepper section of the Miner’s track towards the top of the path.

dsc_0370As we broke through the clouds, the wind picked up, quickly cooling our over-heated bodies. We had reached the summit just after 9:30am and soon noticed that we were not the first by a long shot; about 12 other keen-beans had got up early to be able to take time to soak in the views before the heat and crowds of the day arrived. I love these magical moments, sitting on the top of a mountain, blue sky above with a blanket of white clouds below; a great time to reflect and just be!

dsc_0382It was almost perfect timing for us though as the café at the top opened at 9:45am, so after enjoying a quick chat with our fellow summiteers and taking a few photos, we headed inside for a celebratory cup of tea. My first visit to this long-standing café in over 20 years since on most other occasions it has usually been out of season and therefore shut. Only after walking into the warmth and queuing for our drinks did Claire remember that she had the HOBO attached to her backpack. Oops! That will be a blip in the data then! She quickly ran out to leave the HOBO sitting on a rock before reappearing again.

It is very fitting todsc_0386 be investigating temperature and relative humidity trends over and around Snowdon since it has the first semi-automatic weather station installed in Britain over 20 years ago. In fact, that small blip hardly caught our attention when we revisited the data at the end of the run. Instead of the relative humidity increasing with decreasing temperature as we ascended Snowdon, the mist inversion caused the relative humidity to decrease too. By breaking through the cloud just below the summit, we must have entered drier air and hence the lower relative humidity (RH) readings.

 

 

snowdon-hobo-resultsTaking the opportunity to use the Snowdon Railway Postal Service, I wrote a quick postcard to my parents since this was our half-way marathon and although not half-way in distance, it was definitely half-way in ascent for this run. We were then on our way down, trotting down the Llanberis path into town. Not far along, we heard fast footsteps behind us as two runners caught us up. Just an early morning run up and down the Llanberis path as part of their training for an ultramarathon in Spain the following weekend! Seeing one of their legs taped up gave Claire some consolation that the taping on her thigh was not so strange, it may even give her some kudos amongst the hard-core athletes! It was clear to see that town was now fully waking up as we passed lots of people making their way up to the summit. As always so many encouraging smiles and words, some asking us what we were running in aid of. One guy joked that he would tell all about these ‘two mad women, with too much energy’. Little does he know how much our legs are aching!

Feeling very pleased with our progress and energy levels, we allowed ourselves a short break in Llanberis with Mike, topping up our water bottles and taking on board electrolytes. The next section of the run was through a cooler, wooded section around the Llyn Padarn, giving us the opportunity to spin the legs. Unfortunately, this was not last for long as we had to start uphill again along a path through the quarries. It was at this point that I looked at my watch, 13.11 miles.

“Woohoo! We’re officially half way!”

Not only in this marathon but in the whole challenge; a pretty spectacular feeling! It was something we tried to keep in mind as the terrain became more and more hard work underfoot. The map had shown that we would be crossing undulating moorland but we had forgotten how energy-sapping this type of ground could be. Our speedy progress at the start of the day had decreased dramatically as we bog-hopped from one grassy tuft to the next, trying to spot small navigation posts to keep us on track. Every so often we would hear the whistle of the steam trains on the Lake and Mountain railways echoing around the valley, reminding us of how close and how far we were from the finish!

dsc_0396We pretty much fell into our final water stop at Rhyd Ddu, feeling slightly demoralised and more than a little battered. Glugging down electrolytes, thankfully provided by Mike, we took a much needed ten minutes. He had been patiently waiting a good hour for us to arrive and still managed to give us encouraging words to make the final 6.5 miles. With full water bottles, we set off along the bridle way towards Nantgynant and the A498. Mercifully, this path was a lot easier and we started to make reasonable ground again. By this time the wind had picked up enough to counteract the draining humidity. We were even grateful for the strong cold blast that we received as we passed over the saddle, the wind funnelled quickly between the two mountains either side.

Meeting the A498, we realised that we had already achieved our marathon distance and decided to save ourselves from a further 3 miles up to the van by hitching a lift. Unsure if we would be lucky to get a lift, especially as we did not smell our best at this stage, we were surprised and very pleased when the first car that came along pulled up. Our saviour was a proud octogenarian called Crawford, who ran a guest house in Capel Curig and who had been cycling 16 miles himself that day. Dropping us at our van, we told him that he had saved two women that day. In reply, he said with a cheeky smile, that he would also tell everyone that he had saved two women that day! What a super star!

Pembrokeshire Amble

Route: Martin Haven to St David’s, 26.84 miles

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Our second marathon west of the border and our second coastal run; if Exmoor was a feast for the eyes, Pembrokeshire Coastal Path was a banquet for the other senses. The weather was a little less forgiving for this run so the views along the coast were not as clear and colourful as they could be. However, the lower elevation of these cliffs and hence closer proximity of the path to the sea meant that we could savour the smells and sounds more intensely. There is definitely something intoxicating and entrancing about the sound of the waves crashing on the rocks. With the cool northerly breeze gently buffeting us as we ran, it was only our taste sense that was denied any fulfilment. Easily rectified by some very yummy welsh cakes at the Ocean Café in Broad Haven!

Today was all about being kind to ourselves; our bodies feeling a little run down and battered from our efforts so far. Stocking up on vitamin supplements and healthy food, we needed a slightly easier day to allow our tired muscles a chance to recover in readiness for our back-to-back marathon coming up at the end of the week. Thankfully the Pembrokeshire Coastal path delivered a beauty for us. Although still undulating, like all cliff-top routes, the amount of ascent and descent was relatively small. With underfoot being grassy and soft, our legs took a little less of a hammering compared to some of the other routes so far.

_20160913_185701We started comfortably at 9:20am from Martin Haven, after a quick car shuffle from St David’s. Again, our support network has been fantastic, this time in the guise of John Williams, a fellow fell runner and friend of Claire’s. Like my parents had done for us in Dartmoor, he had come down a few days earlier to recci the meet points and water stops so already had a clear idea of where best to park; invaluable information! We are constantly amazed by the commitment our friends and family have given to our Challenge in order to help us achieve.

The Pembrokeshire Coastal Path is a thoroughly enjoyable path to run along, just the right amount of technicality to keep you alert but easy enough to be able to relax and enjoy your surroundings. Even the rain abated for our start with the sun trying to break through in the distance. We made good progress as we trundled towards Little Haven, our first meeting point with John. The rock strata along this part of the coastline is impressive, with the steep inclines of the bed rock clearly showing the shear forces that this area has undergone in the past. All highly exciting for closet geologists like us! Passing through a small woodland of wild pear-like fruit trees sheltering amongst the taller oaks, we knew that we could not be too far away from Little Haven; aided by the fact that despite the mistiness of the weather, we could still the main settlements along the coastline, including our penultimate destination of Solva. Post water-stop and buoyed on by the lure of a cup of tea in Broad Haven, Claire and I experienced the quick Welsh wit as we ran through Little Haven. Most people smile encouragingly and offer positive words to us as we pass by. One guy however, made us laugh out loud as he made a joke in reference to our poles.

“You’ve lost your skis have you?”

Brilliant! I think I mentioned in the last blog that our trekking poles have become invaluable and permanent pieces of kit for our runs now. I guess we do have a bit of a look of Nordic walkers / skiers about us!

_20160913_185735With so many colourful towns along the coast to tempt us to stop, it took a good amount of will power and determination to continue to our main refuel stop in Newgale. Ok, enough of my rambling…. Over to Claire!

Newgale beach stretched out before us as we descended down onto it. Windsurfers, a school surf club and dog walkers were all making the most of the sea, sand and surf. I was desperately trying to put the pain that I was feeling to the back of my mind so that I could let my senses tune in and capture the images and sounds of waves crashing on the shore. I have always loved being by the sea and I like to savour moments such as these.

Pam and John were being very supportive as we carried on along the beach; John bringing water over from his car and Pam offering constant words of encouragement. We agreed to meet again in Solva, a picturesque village about 5 miles further up the coast. Pam and I marched off with our poles in our hands and started the ascent back on to the cliff top. Our motto up to this point had been ‘More tortoise and less hare’. Well, I was feeling ‘More snail and less tortoise’ as the path levelled off and I had to stop Pam from breaking into a run. Her GB triathlon training and interest in the physiology of the human body has put her in good stead for endurance challenges such as the one we were attempting. She offered sound words of advice as I questioned why a pain in my left leg had reduced since taping it up, only to be replaced by a much worse one in my right leg!

_20160913_185828Having cut off some corners earlier on in the day, we were both a little concerned that we would not hit 26.2 miles by the time we reached my van at St David’s. Pam always likes to stay true to her word and had me marching around every headland we passed just to guarantee than we hit the magic number! As we drew close to the end of our marathon and the van came into view on the horizon up ahead, the weather closed in around us. Our jackets came out and protected us from the wind and rain that lashed us. Knowing looks were now the the only source of communication as we marched on for the last 2 miles. The headland seemed to go on for an infinite distance as it cruelly went up and down and then looped around when we thought the van was within grasp.

Wet, relieved and happy, Pam kindly praised me for getting through the day. I was just grateful for her patience and for sharing another fantastic adventure with me. The Pembrokeshire Coast was familiar to me as I have had many climbing adventures here. However, the secret beaches and coastal cliffs which joined them were not and it has been great to have had an opportunity to explore them. We were fascinated by the plethora of sporting and environmental examples of where Physics and Science could be brought to life. Besides the numerous climbing opportunities along the cliffs, which utilise forces, equilibrium and momentum, we spotted several sea-goers (swimmers, surfers and wind-surfers), all using basic Physics principles to succeed in their chosen activities. Environmentally, the Pembrokeshire National Park had clearly embraced renewable energy resources such as wind turbines and solar panels. An interesting website, called Darwin Science (www.darwincentre.com) has information on the Carew Tidal Mill, a local National Park managed centre to educate all about renewable energy resources and modern methods of energy production. This is worth checking out!

 

Brecon Beacons Quartet

Route: Circular mountain route from Pencelli, 27.29 miles

Croeso i Cymru! The first of our marathons through the three beautiful Welsh National Parks started with a mountainous route in the Brecon Beacons. Both Claire and I have made plenty of visits to this popular National Park with our friends, families and especially Duke of Edinburgh groups since the terrain offers both amazing views and challenging routes to test anyone’s hiking and navigational skills. It is even an area famous as the ‘playground’ of the British Army, which is enough to give kudos to any mountain region!

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We started the day with a very early start, due to a two hour drive from our overnight stop to Pencelli. Loading up on our daily breakfast juice, bagels and coffee, we made good progress up the M4 to our start point. The weather was being incredibly kind to us again with the sun glowing golden across the countryside. We were grateful for the cooler temperatures too, even contemplating the use of gloves for the beginning of our run. Parking up, we had our usual 10 minutes of faffing before setting off westward on our slightly changed route along the Three Rivers Ride. Originally our route would have been a mammoth 30 miles, even without taking into account all the extra wiggles that the mapping software could not pick up. Not massively keen to overdo each day, a quick pow-wow was completed the previous night. Deciding on a new shorter route we did not feel as if we were ‘wimping’ out of these extra miles as the intricate network of tiny country roads and footpaths of the rural communities kept us working hard on our navigation. A sharp reminder of the difficulties Duke of Edinburgh groups often face trying to get out of a village setting at the start of their expeditions!

After our positive experience of using our trekking poles on the Exmoor route, not only to reduce fatigue of our legs during the run but also for the benefits in our recovery afterwards, we were fervent pole converts! Once perceived (and wrongly so) as equipment for only the old and unfit, there has been an almost seismic shift of opinion over the past decade towards the benefits for everyone. If you have ever had the opportunity to watch one of the major ultra-marathon events, such as the incredible Tour du Mont Blanc, a 170km epic with 10km of ascent and descent around the highest mountain in the European Alps, you could not fail to see the popularity of poles amongst the hard-core runners taking part in the event. Even carrying just one pole significantly reduces the force on their legs and increases their stability over the technical, uneven ground. If poles are good enough for these amazing athletes, then they are definitely good enough for us. We are hoping that the use of these, in addition to our daily stretching and strategic taping, will allow our tired muscles to carry us through this challenge. As Physicists in the Outdoors we are keen to look into the science behind the range of outdoor equipment that people find essential up on the hills; trekking poles will definitely feature as part of this research.

A couple of my friends, Jane Fox and Lizzie Wilkinson, were keen to join us over the mountainous section; two more of the many friends and family members that have given us immense support so far this month. We had arranged to meet up with them outside the Storey Arms Outdoor Education Centre,  about 10 miles into the run, giving us the opportunity to put the bulk of the road miles behind us before the fun began; always the hardest part for us off-roaders. As we approached the meeting point, Pen-y-Fan and Corn Du sitting magnificently on our left, we heard an enthusiastic rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ coming from two waving figures on the green outside the centre. I should also mention at this point that this marathon fell on Claire’s birthday, a true sign of commitment to the cause! It may not be the choice of some people but I am sure that to many fellow outdoor enthusiasts, this must seem a pretty fun way to spend your special day; surrounded by beautiful countryside and other happy, optimistic explorers.

Not only had my two friends given up their own time to keep us company but had kindly brought along much needed water for us to fill up with as well as some awesome cookies, baked by Lizzie. Scoffing a couple of cookies, along with a quick cup of tea and we were ready for the climb ahead. Even walking up the main track, my heart rate was close to the maximum that we wanted it to be. Mostly because I was trying to keep up with a super fit Jane, who not only set a fierce pace but also managed to keep a constant flow of conversation going the whole time. Thankfully she did not ask too many questions of me, allowing me to concentrate on my breathing!

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At the top of Corn Du, we had a magnificently clear view across the surrounding mountains and valleys; an absolute paradise for any physical geographers with the deep U-shaped glacial valleys and younger, meandering rivers formed at their bases. Feeling the freshness of the wind at this height, we quickly pulled on our jackets before jogging along our newly chosen route, across to the summit of Pen-y-Fan, then downhill and uphill to Cribyn. On the theme of outdoor equipment, we decided to try out Claire’s four man shelter on our next food stop. Five totally hilarious minutes followed as firstly Jane and Lizzie rolled about trying to get into a sitting position inside the orange protective shell, their arms and legs flailing everywhere. Claire went next, leading us to question the actual capacity of the shelter. Is it really meant for four persons?! These shelters are designed to be snug, to keep its users warm; however, there seemed to be little room for one more. Crawling on hands and knees, I managed to get head and shoulders under the shell before nose-diving onto the tangle of feet in the centre as I tried to manoeuvre the rest of my body in.  By this stage, all of us were giggling uncontrollably, the serious practicalities of this life-saving kit completely passing us by! Past experience has shown such shelters to be incredibly useful for safer and more comfortable hikes in the outdoors, especially in bad weather, but on this occasion, it was all about fun!

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We did not last long in the shelter; its effectiveness at keeping us warm proved to be too much. Needing to move, we trotted down to by-way at the foot of our final big ascent, Fan-y-Big. After a short, steep climb to the top it was time to say goodbye to our two companions. The next part of our route was along a north-east spur from the ridge line, down to Talybont Reservoir. Even in clear visibility, we felt more comfortable taking a bearing to ensure that we did not run any unwanted extra miles. Drinking in our final views of these beautiful mountain ranges, we dropped down to the road before putting our heads down for two miles of tarmac. At the soonest opportunity we re-joined the Taff trail, through the forest and down into Talybont-on-Usk. With the fast forest trails an absolute relief after the hard road, we could open up our stride and enjoy our remaining five miles. A few distracted minutes due to some impressive bridges along the Monmouth Canal aside, we finally returned, weary but happy to the van. Six down; 40% done; 2/5ths achieved. It’s starting to feel that we will survive. Beyond the Challenge, a lovely birthday for Claire, topped off by a beer bought for her by Chris, the hostel guy at Brecon Beacons YHA. His friendly welcome and quick wit was a good pick-me-up for two tired runners. Thank you, Chris for allowing us time to shower before dinner. I am sure that the other diners fully appreciated it as we smelt a lot nicer than we would otherwise have been!

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We found a sign of our motto on the Monmouth Canal. Fantastic!