Lung-busting climbs, insidious descents

Jethro Lennox has been a TAC subscriber for years. He lives only two minutes’ jog from Perkin Warbeck’s elegant Glasgow townhouse. And now, wearing the blue-and-yellow vest of Shettleston Harriers, he has emerged as one of the leading British hill runners. So he really didn’t have much choice but to send us some extracts from his 2008 race diary…

5 April — British Championship Race 1, Mourne Mountains, 19.2km distance / 1950 metres of ascent

I sank into the Irish bog up to my knees and thought: “That’s fine, at least I’m still moving.” Another couple of steps and my arms were also sinking. Calm thoughts changed to mild panic as I tried to extricate myself. While I was doing this, the 2007 British champion, Rob Hope of Pudsey, ran around both me and the bog to win the first championship race of the season.

After over two hours of running I had come within shouting distance of winning the race. I should have been ecstatic about a great run and my best-ever start to a championship campaign — but I felt like I’d lost my chance of the title even though this was only the first race of six.

Going into the race I had been quietly confident. Training had gone well over the winter, and a month earlier I’d had a great run in the Fife Lomonds, holding off the top Scottish runners to win the Bishop Hill race by over 40 seconds. But that was just a 20-minute race whereas the Mournes was over two hours and categorised as “long”.

The British championship consists of six races: two long, two medium and two short. To qualify for a final placing you must finish four races (including one of each distance), and to get points you need to finish in the top 50. To make things more confusing you get two extra points for a win — another reason why I was so disappointed at letting victory slip through in the bog. Still, there were plenty more races to come.

26 April — World Long Distance Mountain Running Challenge, Yorkshire Three Peaks, 38.5km / 1370m

“I’ve won!”, I shouted down the phone to my dad. “What?” was his response, bringing me back down to earth. I was standing in a field at Horton in Ribblesdale having beaten some of the best mountain runners in the world. Since my aim for the season was the British championship, I hadn’t even told most people (including my dad) that I was in the Three Peaks race. But all the other top fellrunners in Britain were competing and I didn’t want to miss out. There had certainly been an extra feeling of tension and anticipation before the race, especially amongst the English runners.

By the first hill, Pen-y-Ghent, I was well back somewhere in the twenties, but the foreign athletes struggled on the descent. Running downhill seems to be a strangely British quality — or at least wanting to run downhill. Many countries prefer uphill-only races, but we don’t have nice restaurants at the top of our mountains and cable cars to take us back down. Normally when you get to the top in Britain, the weather isn’t conducive to hanging around. Running back down as quickly as possible is often very appealing.

On the road section between Pen-y-Ghent and Whernside I caught Bingley Harriers legend Ian Holmes; he told me to slow down! I asked if the guys in front were in the lead and he said that they were. Disregarding Ian’s advice, I quickly caught them. Suddenly I was battling for the lead with Mitja Kosovelj going up Whernside. What had happened to all the English guys? On the climb up Ingleborough I pulled away and the Slovenian dropped back.

When I crossed the finish line it was not really shouts of joy but gasps of disbelief. I’d had a winter of solid training and was as fit as I have ever been. My mentality is that you go into a race thinking you can win it even if the odds are stacked against you. This still didn’t take away the surprise I felt at how easy it had all seemed. The highlight was my friend Joe Symonds (son of Hugh “Running High” Symonds) crossing the line shouting “Jethro — you’re a legend!” before giving me a big hug. We hill runners are not really as tough as we make out. What a day — maybe I should retire now!

7 May — Dumyat Hill Race, 7.8km / 440m

Following all the excitement after the Three Peaks it was good to get back to racing. Dumyat is one of the best evening races and one I hadn’t entered before. An amazingly large field of 260 runners set off in perfect conditions from Stirling University. A student, Matthew Gillespie from the Central Athletic Club, was not going to let me run away with this and hung on until we came out of the woodland and on to the hill itself. Alasdair Anthony from Ochil Hill Runners, one of my main Scottish rivals, then took up the chase but I managed to stay ahead on the descent to win by nine seconds. A great way to spend a perfect early summer evening on the Ochils.

17 May — British Championship Race 2, Moel Elio, 12.8km / 920m

Back to the championship in one of my favourite areas, Snowdonia. Suddenly everyone was recognising me and saying hello. This was a bit disconcerting as I didn’t know who they all were and just returned a blank hello.

Despite good clear weather and a great route over Moel Elio with lots of fast running that should have suited me, I just couldn’t get going. It was a young Englishman, Nick Swinburn, based at Bangor University, who ended up winning comfortably. The rest of us had all run the Three Peaks and still seemed to be feeling the effects. Well, that was my excuse anyway for a disappointing sixth place. Now I needed a good result in Scotland to keep up my chances.

14 June — British Championship Race 3, Durisdeer, 17km / 1600m

For the first time all the English runners were following me: being the first Scottish runner I was considered the local who would know the way. The days when I was just making it into the top 50 now seemed a long time ago.

After a tactical few miles I decided to try and run away from the pack. In the end Rob Jebb (Bingley) and Morgan Donnelly (Borrowdale) were stronger on the climb up Well Hill from the Dalveen Pass and pulled away from Rob Hope and me. I hung on to third on the run down Black Hill to Durisdeer. It now looked like the championship winner would come from the four of us.

28 June — British Championship Race 4, Blackstone Edge, Littleborough, 16.8km / 365m

Situated just north of Manchester this was hardly a remote spot in the hills, but one of the attractions of the championship is that it takes you to places you wouldn’t normally go.

As this was a short race, we men could watch the women run while we warmed up. Fellow Scot and Carnethy hill-running legend Angela Mudge ran home a clear winner to take the women’s title for a record fifth time with four wins out of four.

With almost 200 runners in the men’s race it was the usual hectic start. After ten minutes things settled down a bit, although the pace remained ferocious. In a short race positions change very quickly and you can go from being in the lead to outside the top group in a few seconds. In the end, 24 seconds separated the top five and I was fairly pleased with fourth, my highest placing in a short British championship race. But, frustratingly, my three main rivals all beat me.

5 July — Dollar Hill Race, 14km / 960m

After all the travelling it was good to race on some familiar hills. Dollar incorporated the annual Scottish Athletics championship, which I’d won for the past four years, so I started knowing I was the favourite and consequently went off a bit too fast. This meant that instead of the normally pleasant running over Andrew Gannel Hill and King’s Seat it was a case of hanging on to a slim lead over the chasing pack. I was relieved to finish in front of Dollar Academy with this lead intact.

2 August — British Championship Race 5, Borrowdale, 27.2km / 1980m

A few well-established races in the Lakes are known as classics (there are several other words I would give them…), and this was my second. The first had been Wasdale, a four-hour monster, in a 2005 heatwave. When you are on the last climb in these long races you are not thinking classic, you are thinking, Why on earth am I doing this?

The entry list had filled up within a couple of days: there were almost 500 runners. Simon Booth of Borrowdale is the master of this race; having won it 11 times he was favourite to add another. Rob Jebb blasted away at the start and a group of us (including Simon) stayed together until the top of Scafell Pike. Then Simon decided to start racing and sped away down the Corridor Route. From several hundred metres behind it looked likely to be a great battle between Rob and Simon. Then Rob went wrong in cloud coming off Great Gable and finished fifteenth, putting an end to his championship chances.

Further back, I was battling with Lloyd Taggart (Dark Peak) and Rob Hope. Lloyd broke away on the last climb up Dale Head but still finished over four minutes behind Simon. I did enough to hang on to third. Although Rob slipped back to fifth (one of the Borrowdale Blands, Jonny, came in fourth), this was enough for him to retain the British title. I was still in with a shout of silver but needed to beat Morgan Donnelly in the last race. (Ed. — Jethro wore no.284 for this race. Typical: the leading Scottish runner and the English pigeonhole him as a Munrobagger…)

30 August — British Championship Race 6, Dufton, 8km / 460m

A race combined with a country fair made for a good atmosphere with lots of spectators. Most were there to see the tractors, horses and dancers rather than the runners, but there was a buzz about the place. The manic start was made even more interesting by a stream crossing after a few hundred metres. The young marshals had kept themselves amused by damming it to create a small pond. Everyone seemed to survive this and we were quickly on to the lung-bursting climb.

A young Pudsey runner, John Heneghan, ran away with this one, but I was ahead of Morgan. Suddenly at the top he gave me a fright by moving alongside. It was then a mad dash back to the finish where he was only one place and nine seconds behind. I was grateful to Alasdair Anthony who finished just ahead and kept me battling throughout the race. Third place meant a silver medal in the championship.

At the end there were no wild celebrations by the winners in the various categories, just the usual short jog (or hobble) to warm down and chat about the run. That, and a general feeling of contentment at another championship completed.

14 September — 24th World Mountain Running Trophy (WMRT), Crans-Montana, Switzerland, 12km / 1050m

This was the fourth time I had competed for Scotland at the WMRT. The course was uphill-only, so suited the continental runners, and went from Sierre in the valley floor to Crans-Montana on the mountain slopes.

Very wet conditions brightened the spirits of the Scottish runners; suddenly our poor summer seemed worthwhile. The start involved a lot of jostling as over 150 international-standard athletes sprinted along a narrow road, but after five minutes the pace settled into fairly fast uphill running. My strategy was to take the steep climbs steadily and really push on the flatter sections. This seemed to work, even though the eventual 52nd place was outside my top-50 target. But I was the leading Scot, and fourth British runner.

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) agreed in Beijing that the WMRT should become the official world championship from 2009. So, under IAAF rules, Scotland will be absorbed into Great Britain from next year. While not greatly beneficial to the best Scottish mountain runners, it does give the top few a higher aim of getting into the GB team.

21 September — Sky Race, Sentiero delle Grigne, Lombardia, Italian Alps, 43km / 3200m

A group of us headed out for the final race in the Buff Sky-runner series: similar to the British championship but worldwide and all long races — not great for your carbon footprint.

This was going to be a bit of an adventure as the website description made clear: “The route […] is technically divided into three parts: the slope to the Grigna Meridionale (2177m), classified as technical, with some equipped lines, followed by descent and then by the slope to the Grigna Settentrionale (2410m), flowing, but fatiguing, and the final one along the fast and insidious descent toward the end of the valley and the finish line of Pasturo…”.

The race was amazing. At the finish I was thinking that people would take several days to walk that, and we had just run it in five hours! Most of the way I ran with friend and rival Tom Owens — this was meant as a training run for the Original Mountain Marathon. Tom was stronger on descent, partly because of my uphill-only training for the WMRT. He got away with 10km to go and I just tried to not drop too many places. I was pleased to finish thirteenth, ahead of Simon Booth, and after 43km didn’t care that Andy Symonds (brother of Joe) passed me with 100 metres to go. The winner was Spaniard Kílian Jornet, while Angela Mudge finished third in the women’s race and just missed retaining her Buff title.

25 October — Original Mountain Marathon, Elite Course Day 1, Borrowdale, a long way / as little ascent as possible

The aim of a mountain marathon is to run via a series of checkpoints taking any route you choose. All necessary safety and overnight kit must be carried. Having camped, you run another course, back to where you started on the first day. It’s basically a large orienteering event over mountains, with participants competing in pairs. Generally the navigation is not as difficult as in orienteering, although if the mist comes down it can be as challenging as being in the middle of a thick forest.

Given the forecast, we were told to use the bad-weather course. This meant missing out three of the ten checkpoints — the ones situated on higher ground. Runners do different routes — about half do set routes of varying distances and the other half try to visit as many controls as possible in a set time. Tom and I were doing the longest and hardest set course, normally around 80km for the two days.

The start was a steep climb straight up Allen Crags from Seathwaite. It wasn’t long before a couple of the faster teams starting only a few minutes behind caught us. Progress wasn’t helped by Tom’s map blowing away and his having to run downhill to retrieve it. One of the faster teams (Tim Higginbottom and Chris Near) had won every mountain marathon that year and were in no mood for hanging around; as the weather got worse, their speed seemed to increase. With a lack of local knowledge we decided to hang on to them for as long as possible. After the third checkpoint they stopped for a toilet stop (a cunning plan to get rid of us) and we ended up on our own. On the run up Great Gable we passed lots of elite teams who had set out earlier. Then, suddenly, Tim and Chris appeared out of the mist in front of us. They must have taken some sneaky line which we didn’t spot on the map.

The last hour was a mix of high wind, horizontal rain, streams that had become raging torrents and the race against Tim and Chris. The huge rainfall was causing map-reading problems as streams and marsh areas were fast becoming lakes. Taking a good route around one of these and finding a good line off the final mountain, we were the first elite team to arrive at the overnight camp. Tim and Chris still recorded an overall faster time as they had started after us, and would have started day two just over a minute ahead. But all the racing had been in vain: the flooding and the weather got worse and the event was cancelled.

Now that the media frenzy has died down (not quite; see pp1718 — Ed.), the 2008 OMM will be recalled for many years in fellrunning folklore. We’ll go back and run around the second day’s course, once they send the map that we would have received on the Sunday morning.

20 December

Not a race, but I managed to escape Christmas prep for a great run up Meall Glas and Sgiath Chuil with a load of Scottish runners including Angela Mudge. It was quite amusing having a big group of us run past slightly perplexed-looking walkers with ice axes and full waterproofs.