Laying the Foundations

It’s fair to say that I didn’t enjoy the end of pregnancy. The exhaustion, aches and uncertainty really got to me. Still, everyone assured me that I looked like I would give birth early… Or at least earlier than the first time (2 days over)… You can imagine how grumpy I was for the 7 days after the due date before things kicked off. Many apologies and thanks to those who had to put up with me in that time.

Still, at least things managed to start off by themselves the night before I was booked in for a stretch and sweep (if you don’t know what that is, retain your ignorance and just know I was pleased to skip it). The next morning, after much hysteria and entonox, we had a healthy baby boy. And my body felt completely and utterly drained.

So my road to physical recovery started with plenty of food and drink, and grabbing bits of sleep whenever I could. The sleep part being significantly harder when you live with a newborn baby. Structured exercise felt like a lifetime away.

One of the best decisions I made near the end of pregnancy was to buy a stretchy wrap. This has proved invaluable in being able to get stuff done, and look after a small child, while a baby is happily asleep. His love for being tucked up in the wrap has also meant getting out for a walk is really easy. Making the effort to walk places, or to just go for a wander along the river or canal, has been a big boost both physically and mentally.

And, yes, I do always look tired.

In terms of formal exercise, the only thing I’ve made an effort with so far is pelvic floor exercises. If I don’t get that right then I can say goodbye to any high impact exercise in future. I’m also starting to do some gentle postnatal core exercises. Because it currently feels like I have zero core muscles.

And the plan for the future? Well I’m starting to get a little more sleep now (I hope that doesn’t jinx it) which should make it easier to go for longer and more purposeful walks. I also want to set some time aside for postnatal yoga to help me strengthen up. While part of me would love to try running already, I know that I’m not strong enough yet and it just wouldn’t be worth it. I can’t expect my body to get back to racing PBs if I don’t get the foundations right first.

Big Cheese: race report

NOTE: Apologies for this being a little very late. I ran this at the start of March, and I’m posting this exactly two months later. In my defence, in the mean time, we’ve had a little boy, and he’s filled a lot of our time. I’ve got another race report, for the Butleigh MT race, to catch up on too, and then a couple of ideas for other stuff. I’ve also got quite a few races coming up. So we’ll see how well I do on keeping up with writing!

A while back, I decided to ditch my plans to race the Bideford Half Marathon and switch to the Big Cheese instead. The link above explains the reasons in full, but essentially I didn’t want the pressure of the training while Lolly was getting more and more tired due to her parasite pregnancy.

Along with the Exmoor Stagger in both 2015 and 2016, and the Red Bull Steeplechase last year, this would be my fourth “ultra-half”. In addition to the distance element (the Stagger was around 16 miles, and I got 14.4 miles into the Steeplechase before being eliminated) each of these races is made much more challenging due to the terrain and elevation. The Big Cheese actually isn’t so bad as the others; a mere 2,000 ft compared to climbing in excess of 3,000 ft for each of the others. (For reference, Scafell Pike stands roughly 3,200 ft above sea-level.) So… 2,000 ft… should be a doddle, eh?

My club mate, Iain, had done the race last year, and it basically killed him (though he was doing it the week after the Grizzly, which itself came a week after the Bideford Half). Meanwhile, Matt reported that a couple of his club-mates described it as essentially “not too bad”.

It was.

The trip from the race HQ to the race start was around a mile, so made for a handy warm-up. I had ummed and ahhed for a while about what to wear; the forecast was for a complete mix of weather, and the race directors had recommended, though not enforced, us to wear a waterproof. (As a fell race, they could have instituted mandatory kit.)

The race begins with a climb up, and up, and up, which lasts just over a mile. I was content to drop down to a walk reasonably early on – there was plenty more to come, and there was no sense in destroying my legs on the first climb when there would be over 14 miles left to go! Still, it was a bit demoralising letting people stream past me, and my legs felt pretty tired anyway! But hill climbing is still the weakest aspect of my running (a symptom of doing most of my running in Taunton town) so I just have to accept that I’m going to lose some positions on hills. That first mile was actually my slowest of the whole race, and included 615 ft of elevation!

After a mile, or just over, things levelled off to an extent and the terrain got trickier as we dropped down into Rowberrow Bottom. I started to gain some places back on the steeper sections of the descent and paused briefly at the first drinks station. Of course, when you’re in anywhere described as “Bottom”, there’s only really one way left for you to go: up. We were now heading towards Beacon Batch, over Black Down. But of course, nothing is that simple. After a run/walk tactic up the initial hill, we took a sharp left and dropped back down the hill rather than taking a direct route to the peak of Beacon Batch. The descent was a treacherous mix of flooded moorland that was of variable quality, but it was nigh on impossible to judge it by look. It was interchangeably slippy mud, sticky mud and lake. I was running pretty quickly to start with (it was a downhill – duh!) but in order to keep my balance, I kept finding myself going quicker and quicker. I probably looked like a pretty cocky so-and-so, practically sprinting through some of the worst terrain of the course. Had I fallen (and it was probably about 50-50) I’d have looked like a right tit.

‘Shit, there’s a camera, make it look like you’re having fun!’

After a short spell of this, the terrain solidified somewhat and took on a more technical aspect before we started climbing again. Along here the ground got silly, just excessively slippy. It was impossible to find a “good” route through it, you had to be content with finding a route that didn’t place you on your arse. This was pretty much the story of the first half of the race – you were either climbing a hill, descending a hill, or struggling through horrific underfoot conditions. The race website has this to say about what shoes to wear:

“It’s likely to be pretty muddy so off road trainers are an advantage but you will be able to get around fine in normal trainers.”

I mean… sure, you would be ABLE to get around in normal trainers. But I doubt it was fine. It wasn’t fine in my trail shoes. But still, whatever.

I made a fair fist of trying to keep running through the bottom part of the climb, but after a switchback, when I noted that I was closer to Matt than I had expected, things got more difficult. The hill got steeper, we’d turned to face the wind, and the mud was still pretty bad too. I dropped to a walk for pretty much the entire climb up to Beacon Batch, the highest point on the Mendip Hills. Thankfully what goes up must come back down, and most of the following four miles was downhill, although after about 400 metres the path had turned into a rocky river, as it had presumably provided a handy run-off for the rain of the previous week. Down this section I heard one runner behind me stumble and fall, though there were other runners around him, and I’m pretty sure he got up and continued okay.

The next mile was predominantly a gentle downhill along the road, which was a nice change in some ways, although it was tough on the legs in trail shoes at that point of the race. We then turned back off the road down through some former mine workings along Velvet Bottom. The path remained pretty good, and this was one of the quickest stretches of the race, though there were a few tricky drops from plateau to plateau.

And then… the worst section of the entire race. It was probably only around 500 metres, but it was steep, with horrible footing, and 11 miles into the race. While trying to negotiate slippy lumps of rock underfoot, you also had to make sure you didn’t get clothes-lined by an low-hanging tree. Still, as I say, it was only a short section. And best of all: it was the final climb, just a few miles and 700 ft of descent left!

The course mostly levelled out for the next mile and a half, before dropping in a reasonably steep, long downhill towards the finish. Even on tired legs, this played to my strengths at an ideal time: a downhill finish lets me get past a few people who then don’t get a corresponding uphill to regain their place. (Technically, I guess, the mammoth climb at the start of the race was the corresponding climb. So ha, we’re all even!) The terrain varied a little bit on the descent, being a decent even path in some places, difficult stony track in others, before the final half-mile stretch along the road.

Overall I come home in 2:11:35 for 39th overall, although that was partly due to a group of runners that had been ahead of me going the wrong way. Considering my relative lack of training, I was well chuffed. And best of all, afterwards – the free cake and cup of tea!

The whole race was organised really well. Number pick up was easy and straightforward, there was a bag drop at race HQ, along with changing rooms and showers (always nice after a muddy trail race!) The route was well signed and the marshals were all friendly and encouraging – which given the inclement weather, particularly on the top of the hills, was much appreciated. All in all, this is a race that has joined my ever-growing list of “want to run every year” races. In fact, I’m starting to run out of weekends in the year…

Babcary Road Race: race report

Coming into this year, I’d done all but five of the nineteen Somerset Series races over the past few years. Most of the ones that I hadn’t done came early in the year when I’m typically sat at home moping about an injury, rather than getting out and racing. So this year, I’ve been taking every opportunity to get out and do the unknowns. Babcary was one of those. Described as “undulating” on their website, the race also had an unusual distance of 7.5 miles. After a bit of research, I managed to find an elevation profile so that I knew what I was heading into.

I wasn’t injured, but I was still moping – a string of colds had struck me down (too over the top??) through the start of the year, I was really struggling to string two decent weeks of training together. Babcary itself came at the end of another cold, albeit one that I tried to ignore and just run through. With mixed success. At the race, I met up with Nigel, who briefed me a bit about the course (he has a ridiculous memory for courses; he can do one once and then relate the whole thing in detail the following year). I did a short recce of the start of the course as my warm-up, heading out for about three-quarters of a mile before doubling back, confirming what Nigel had told me: it was a long uphill drag to start the race.

If I looked (and felt?) like this at the start, you can only guess how I was at the end…

Forewarned is forearmed, and so I planned a gentle start to the race. Turns out (no shit) that everyone else had the same plan – especially the leaders, who made a very sedate start. So much for my plan of having a bit more in the tank after not wrecking myself on the first hill. I swear runners are never normally this sensible…

The course lived up to its description of undulating: it never really levelled off. A gentle descent replaced the first climb, before itself switching to another steady uphill. Throughout the race there were no awful climbs, but merely a continuing series of ups and downs that prevented you from ever finding a proper pace and rhythm.

The race went generally as I might have expected: I was slightly further down the field than I would have liked (but better than I worried I might be) and I mostly lost time to those around me on the climbs, and made it back on the descents. I started to struggle towards the end of the race, slightly negating a downhill finish that should have suited me well, but overall I was happy enough with my performance given how the year had started.

There wasn’t much time to rest and recover though; my next race, The Big Cheese (15 miles of hills and mud) was the following Sunday…

Easing back up to distance again

After my recent bouts of cold bugs, my mileage took something of a hit. I set myself a target of running 1,200 miles this year, and I was really hoping that I could actually manage 100 miles each and every month. (Possibly an optimistic target with baby #2 on the way in March/April.) Unfortunately, I failed at the first hurdle, only accruing 63 miles in January, and not running at all for the final 10 days of the month. I’ve only missed the first 3 days of February, but to avoid injury after a spell off, I’m easing back into my mileage.

First, a parkrun and a 6.5 mile Sunday run. Then a 17-mile week in which my furthest single run was 7.1 miles. This last week, I’ve been away from home with a work training course, which is always a little difficult. I was easily able to find somewhere to run – I was staying in a hotel just off the seafront in Worthing, and as far as I can tell, the road runs beside the sea for miles and miles in each direction. In fact, I’d been tempted to run to (or back from) Brighton one day, getting the train in the other direction, but my training ran quite late each day, and so it was never convenient unfortunately. Still, I managed 14 miles during the week, and another 11 miles at the weekend took me up to 25. I’d have preferred a longer ‘long run’ than 8 miles, but I was constrained by both my weekly mileage target of 25, and a twinge in my knee that had bothered me towards the end of the working week. It disappeared over the weekend though, so I assume it was either the old trainers I’d worn in Worthing for my runs, or just the different forces on my knee during the training.

In two weeks time, I’ve got the Big Cheese race, a 15-mile mostly trail course, which I’m a bit concerned about. I’ve only run beyond ten miles once since Christmas, and haven’t been out on the trails much either. And unfortunately, I can’t do much to improve that next Sunday, when I’m also racing; at the Babcary 7.5 mile road race. Still, I’m hoping for a 30 mile week, and I’ll see how I’m doing after that.

Stopping and starting again

Traditionally, at this time of year, I’m not running much. In January 2015, I only managed 18 miles after somehow contriving to injure my knee during a gentle 10 mile run with my running club. In January 2016, I hit the heady heights of 38 miles, after falling on the coastal path and contriving to convert a dead leg into a knee injury.

In actual fact, both injuries were more or less caused by the same thing: in 2015, I was trying to come back and stack too many miles back in too soon after a lay-off due to a cold. I’d barely ran in two weeks, and then ran 13 miles in two days. It was a bad idea. In 2016, I probably ran too much too soon after getting a dead leg, and put undue stress on my knee. So, yeah, I have something of a history of impatience. In 2015, I didn’t get running properly until around May, while in 2016, it was April.

Which has left me a little nervous at the moment: after running 122 miles in December, January was pretty stop-start. Twenty miles the first week, then a cold limited me to 6 the week after. Then I was right back up to 30, before another cold put me out for the better part of two weeks.

Rocking my cow cowl through the puddles at parkrun

I started running again yesterday, at parkrun, and managed a reasonably sedate pace through the puddles. Normally, I try to run-commute to parkrun, but this week I wanted to keep the mileage down, so drove. Today, I headed out for a gentle six miles around the route of one of our club’s race routes (next weekend; sign up here!)

I always find it difficult coming back from an injury or illness. All the advice says to drop your mileage and then gradually build it back up again. But there is very little guidance on how much to drop your mileage – if I normally run 30 miles a week, it would be pretty unreasonable to come back with just 10 miles per week, but clearly coming straight back at 30 isn’t a good idea either. In consultation with my physio, we reckon 20 miles should be about right this coming week, and then build sensibly from there.

Hopefully this year I can manage to avoid serious injury…

Training update (or How I changed my mind and my target)

My plans were pretty set for this spring. After my successful half marathon training for Bristol last autumn, I was going to try and push on and see what improvements I could make this spring at the Bideford Half Marathon. The race was carefully chosen to be about a month before Lolly’s pop date, so hopefully my training and her pregnancy wouldn’t clash too badly.

Which was great, in theory. But pregnancies don’t happen in theory, and nor do training plans. In order to follow a similar training plan to last time, I had to start on 12 December, the week after the Bovington Half Marathon. Even though I took a bit of a shortcut in that race, I’d still pushed myself pretty hard (harder than I’d realised, in fact) and my body was pretty broken. That week was also the week that I was meant to be running my 100th parkrun, which didn’t really fit with the plan. In the end, rather than the 31 miles called for by my training plan, I did 8.7.

Bovington was a good race, but it didn’t leave me in great shape to start a training plan.

The next couple of weeks went better: 32.6 and 34.6 miles. But if you scratch below the surface, things weren’t so rosy. These were the two weeks around Christmas, and between work and the celebrations, my running wasn’t too strong. I abandoned a lactate threshold run halfway through, my long run the first week was split into pieces because 1) it was Christmas Day and 2) there was a parkrun. The second week, I had the Chard Flyer instead, and with the foul weather, I didn’t add any extra miles in.

At this point, I decided that with the Stoke Stampede coming up, that although my training hadn’t been ideal, I would treat it as base training for eight weeks of proper training after. Except that I got a cold. So what would have been the first of those eight weeks involved two runs, totalling 6.1 miles.

Not how an ideal training period would look.

Alongside all of this was Lolly’s developing parasite pregnancy. Unsurprisingly, she has been getting more and more tired, and after her Christmas Eve parkrun, she really struggled for the rest of the day. It became apparent to me that a heavy training plan that would leave me tired at times would not combine well with a pregnancy that was clearing leaving Lolly pretty tired.

And so, plans have changed. I’m not going to run Bideford at all, but instead do Cheddar RC’s ‘The Big Cheese’, a 15-mile trail race. Admittedly, switching from a reasonably flat, road, half marathon, to a hilly, muddy, 15-mile race does not at first glance appear like taking a step down. But in reality, the long runs will probably be around the same distance, and I’m not so concerned about the pace. Sure, I want to do well, but there isn’t the pressure to be pushing myself up to and over my limit. As a consequence, there isn’t the pressure to push myself so hard while I’m training. I still want to do a good variety of sessions; intervals, long runs, tempo runs and some recovery stuff too. But I will be more able to tone them down and keep a better balance with home life. Which given I have two rooms to redecorate (amongst other things) can only be a good thing…

Chard Flyer: race report

As the first race of the Somerset Series each year (and let’s face it, being on New Year’s Day, there will never be one earlier…) this race has been on my radar for a while. Two years ago I signed up for it but was ill and so didn’t run. Last year, I was more interested in running a parkrun double. Truth be told, this year I was more interested in running a parkrun double too, but as Lolly wrote about in her last post, she got too pregnant, and we realised it wasn’t going to be a sensible idea.

So what are the pros and cons of running on New Year’s Day?:

  • Con – New Year’s Eve. Staying up until after midnight drinking is hardly great race preparation.
  • Pro – New Year’s Eve. If you don’t stay up until after midnight drinking, you’ll probably do better than most.
  • Con – New Year’s Eve. That means if you want to do well, you might have to avoid staying up until after midnight and drinking.
  • Pro – You get to clock up some miles on the first day of the new year, which is a great way to start.
  • Con – Christmas. All that food and drink and merriness is not great race preparation. And, with no disrespect to the Chard Flyer, if you’re taking Christmas easy to prepare for this race, you’re probably doing life wrong.

I actually ticked the ‘pro’ box for New Year’s Eve – having a toddler, and being sad, meant that I was tucked up in bed at home before 10, rather than partying hard through the night. My race morning didn’t start especially well though. Despite assuring Lolly more than once that I wouldn’t forget anything, particularly my Garmin, even though I was leaving my preparation to the last minute, I forgot my Garmin. Thankfully, rather than being of the ‘I told you…’ persuasion, my loving wife instead undertook an hour’s round-trip to bring me said watch. Much to the disgruntlement of our daughter, who quite specifically declared that she wanted to stay at home, and didn’t want to watch Daddy running.

Posing with the club

We had a decent club turnout for this race, which also forms the first of our Club Championship, and so there were plenty of people to mingle and chat with before and after the race. My main concern before the race was how many layers to wear – it was pretty damn cold and wet, but I tend to overheat in races. Initially I went for the club vest over t-shirt approach, but a particularly heavy shower saw me run back to the car to switch to a long-sleeve base layer instead. This, it turns out, was the wrong decision.

Anyway, as usual, I’ve blathered on for ages before even getting to the run itself, so I’ll get on with it. I knew that the first couple of miles were mostly downhill, then there was a tough uphill, and then it was mostly flat with a gentle climb at the end. So I planned to take it reasonably easy early on, and use my energy in the second half of the race.

Ha, like that ever happens! I covered the first two kilometres in under eight minutes, as we descended down out of Chard and alongside the reservoir which we were to loop around. Ostensibly, this is a road race, but a lot of the course is along tarmac paths and back roads that aren’t necessarily in the best condition underfoot. It’s definitely a course for road shoes, but you have to have your wits about you. The race follows route 33 of the National Cycle Network, which runs along the path of the old Taunton-Chard railway line.

We scaled about 15 steps to climb back to the road, and then the hill began. I’d done my research before the race, and so I knew that the ascent went on for about two kilometres, and so settled myself in for the long haul. Being a Somerset Series race, there were plenty of people around that I recognised, and I felt that I was in about the right place, but I didn’t mind if a few of the went past me up the hill – it isn’t my biggest strength, and I’d rather save my energy. (Genuinely, this time.)

As it turned out, with the exception of one particularly good climber, we all stayed pretty much in position with few significant gains made by anyone. One slight annoyance on this hill was the marshal who declared “drinks at the top” while we were about a quarter of the way up. I know he didn’t mean it to, but it sort of suggested that it wasn’t going to be much further to said drinks, even though it really was. The hill had a small false summit about three-quarters of the way up, which was a little disheartening, but soon we crested the hill and were able to take on some water.

This being a road race, I hadn’t really expected my recent trail downhill specialism to have any effect, but it turned out that the Chard Flyer has a particularly steep downhill section, and though it is on road, it was that steep that it played to my advantage. I passed a fair few people on the half mile descent, but mostly, I just enjoyed it!

Unfortunately, there was still about two and a half miles of the race left. The course remained mostly flat as we passed the reservoir on the other side along some paths that gave the course a nice off-road feel, though the terrain remained solid and friendly. I was beginning to struggle now; the ‘easy first half, reap gains in second half tactic’ having fallen by the wayside during the first half. Which was a shame, because I’d have quite liked that plan in the second half…

This picture does somewhat oversell the race scenery…

As it must, given that we’d dropped down towards the reservoir at the start, the end of the race climbed back up into Chard, twisting and turning a little through industrial estates, residential streets, and some paths. I wasn’t really aware of anyone that close ahead or behind me by this stage (quite a familiar feeling late on during Somerset Series races) so it was hard to judge my effort levels. Other than to say that I didn’t feel like I wanted to put much more in! Still, I soon recognised that we were back near where I had parked, and therefore the finish line. A little spurt got me to the end, though it wasn’t enough to overhaul the runner that I had finally caught sight of ahead of me.

In the end, I finished in 42:06, good enough for 26th, and sort of a new PB. Sort of because, 1) I’m not completely sure that it was full distance – my watch said 9.8 km, though obviously GPS isn’t all that accurate. 2) During the Bristol Half Marathon, my first 10 km was somewhere in the region of 41:30, and my overall average pace during that race was quicker than my average pace in this race. So, yes, it was a PB time for a 10k race. But also, I can do better. Which is good. The Stoke Stampede the following weekend was supposed to give me a shot at proving that (and maybe, just maybe sneaking in under 40 minutes) but unfortunately, I had a cold, and didn’t run.

Me, looking gorgeous, at the end.

 

The Truth about Running in Pregnancy

As I mentioned a few months ago, running during pregnancy is a completely new thing to me.  And so, like most things, I’ve just done what felt right.  There have been the people who’ve thought I was crazy for keeping running.  There have been the people who run half marathons at 7 months pregnant faster than I could normally.  But I’m not any of those people, I’m me.

But there are some truths about running that I think are as universal as anything can be when it comes to pregnancy.

It’s tiring
This is kind of obvious in a way, because everything is more tiring when you’re pregnant.  But the difference has been really noticeable to me.  Not just how I’ve felt when running either.  Afternoon naps after parkrun became pretty much essential to function normally.

You need more support
This is both moral and physical support.  Moral support from friends and family in your decision to keep running.  Physical support in the form of a decent sports bra (even more important than normal) and some form of bump band.

Your pelvic floor is your friend
It’s hard to overplay quite how wrecked your pelvic floor is after pregnancy.  One of the biggest struggles women have in post-natal exercise is re-strengthening this crucial muscle so that high impact activities like running are even an option.  And running during a second pregnancy made it very noticeable if I’d been skimping on my exercises.  So do the exercises.

Running photos are even more attractive than normal

It’s important to know when to stop
Sure, the dream is to keep going as long as you can.  Lose as few weeks of fitness as possible.  But given every runner is different and every pregnancy is different, it’s not much of a stretch to realise that there is no ‘normal’ time to call it a day.  What’s important is to keep listening to your body and recognise when you need to stop, before you push things too far.

For me, the time to stop appeared a week earlier than I’d hoped.  Like most parkrun tourists, we had plans to see in the New Year with a parkrun double.  That seemed like the perfect way to sign off for running maternity leave.  My body had different ideas though, and my recovery time after parkrun on Christmas Eve told me it was time to call it a day.

To me, running in pregnancy mostly consisted of running a slow parkrun every week that I could.  I would have loved to have done more, but it’s a break from running not a retirement.  And until then, there’s plenty of volunteering and spectating to be done.

Bovington Half Marathon: race report

After a couple of weeks off, and then the Brent Knoll race, I had the Bovington Half Marathon. I signed up for this race while I was still easing back into running after injury last April. The thought process behind it went like this:

  • In 2014/15 and 2015/16, I got injured after having a break from running.
  • In 2016/17 I don’t want to get injured.
  • If I do a race in December, I probably won’t have a break from running.
  • Therefore, I won’t get injured.
  • □*

Anyway, it is probably fair to say that I don’t make all of my best decisions while recovering from injury. In fact, mostly I just pick races with shiny medals. In 2015, this was the Two Tunnels Half Marathon. In 2016, it was this. Not that either were bad races, but by the time it got to the races, neither really fit in with what I was doing.

The week before this race, I’d done 35 miles, including a 15 miles run around the Herepath with Iain and Tim, so it’s fair to say that I didn’t *need* this race in order to keep me running. In fact, by the time it came around, I was viewing it as something of an inconvenience. Particularly as we’d been doing so much parkrun tourism, and along with some long trips with work, I was getting pretty fed up of driving! Still, despite some reservations, I was up and out nice and early on the Sunday to get there in plenty of time.

So what did I know about the race beforehand?

  • It was at the Tank Museum, with parts of the route on the tank training course.
  • There were tanks.
  • The medal had a huge tank on it.
  • White Star Running are generally reckoned to put on “Good races”.
  • There would be mud and hills.
  • Parking was liable to be a nightmare, and we should car share.

In fact, the last of these didn’t prove an issue at all. There had been so much said about car-sharing because of the limited parking that I made sure to arrive nice and early to make sure I had somewhere to park. In fact, I arrived at around the same time as some of my club mates who were doing the marathon, which started an hour before the half! There was plenty of parking (probably because so many people did car-share) and it was really well marshalled too.

The marathon runners.

At first, although we were at the tank museum, there were no tanks in sight. This changed between the marathon start and the half start, when I heard a distant rumbling while I was getting changed in my (warm) car. When I returned to the start/finish area, there were two tanks there – I later found out that these were the two Challenger tanks that were on the race medals.

There were a large group from our club (especially for a race that was so far away), and I spent a good deal of time before both the marathon and half marathon starts chatting with club-mates. So, yeah, no warm-up. Which was a shame, because it was really cold.

This is not a pineapple.

There was a long pre-racing briefing, which I couldn’t really hear because (a) it was very quiet and (b) people were talking. It might have said something like “watch out for all the directional arrows, because you might miss some and go the wrong way.” I’m pretty sure they probably repeated what we’d had emailed to us; “don’t pick up anything that looks like it might be explosive, because it’ll probably be explosive.”

Shortly thereafter, we were off. The first few miles were pretty flat, and on good firm, wide tracks. I was concerned. WSR have a reputation for pretty difficult races, and so far, this one was pretty easy. There were a couple of large “plunge pools” but they were avoidable by paths which skirted up and around them. In both cases, I considered splashing through them, which would have undoubtedly been more fun. But it would have also meant running 11 miles with wet feet, at what was a fairly brisk pace at that point. That, and everyone around me was avoiding them, so it made more sense just to follow the pack. Gain nothing, lose nothing.

Then, around three miles in, we hit a climb, with a worrying sign at the bottom: “Small hill ahead. Big hill later.” Hmmm. Still, the first half was honest at least – the climb wasn’t too bad, and dropped back down the other side was fun too. The course then crossed the road and entered the tank training area. This was where it got properly fun.

What’s that, coming over the hill…

There is very little I can compare it to. The course twisted and turned, dipped and rose, with only two constants. Puddles and mud. There really isn’t anything else that compares much to it – almost everywhere else that we normally run is full of gentle curves: even most woodland tracks are mostly flat. This course had constant undulations of a few metres or so. Added to that, you were having to navigate along the best line on the path, which was rutted with tank tracks. Sometimes it was best to follow the lines left by the tracks themselves, but often these were weirdly rutted, giving the potential for turned ankles (even on the very soft terrain). In other places, the middle was higher (and therefore drier and more solid) as it hadn’t constantly had tank tracks driving over it. It was a real challenge. And what fun! Unsurprisingly my pace dropped a bit through this section, though I was still averaging quicker than eight minute miles.

… oh, look, it’s me!

All too soon, we crossed back over the road and left that fun behind. I skipped the Lovestation, and ran on. Too much so, apparently. Somewhere here I evidently missed a sign. I would blame the chap I was following, except by this stage I had worked my way past those people I could see in front of me, and was by my own reckoning, fifth. First, second, third and fourth were (I thought) way off ahead, while sixth, seventh and eighth (at least) weren’t too far behind me. Which of course meant that when I missed a sign and took a half-mile shortcut, so did they. Of course, at the time, I was completely oblivious to this fact.

A short while later, a chap came storming past me. I did some calculating – either he’d paced himself really well, or he’d got lost, and was out of position. I figured I was probably still in fourth, but might have dropped to sixth. It didn’t really matter, to be honest, but it was keeping me occupied during the last few miles. For a while, I kept him in sight, and also spotted another runner ahead (third, or fourth?) the pair switched positions, but although I held out some hope of catching up, I started to struggle a little myself. We were back on the same stretch that we’d covered in the first three miles, and so it was pretty flat, good terrain, but I didn’t have the energy to be pushing out sub-7 minute miles like I had at the start of the race. (Apart from mile 11 apparently, but that did have a nice downhill.)

Once again, I went around the outside of a couple of pools, knowing that there was a runner not too far behind me. He kept me honest through the final few miles, and kept me pushing. We diverted off the out-and-back section onto some new tracks at about 11 miles. This stretch had some pools that simply couldn’t be avoided. The first was ankle deep; the second was about halfway up my calf! They were fun, but also a test of the water-draining abilities of my new shoes. My Brooks Cascadias had been great at getting rid of water and staying light even when wet; I was interested how my new Inov8 Roclites would do. In summary? Not as well. I think it’s because they have a rock guard around the top of the sole, to protect your feet (and the shoe) from kicking rocks. Which is all well and good, but it doesn’t let the water out as well!

My watch had not long bleeped for 12 miles when I spotted a ‘400 metres to go’ sign, and marshals were shouting that we were nearly there. Eh, what? A short run along the road, up the Tank Museum driveway, across and field, and we were finished. My watch said 12.5 miles. So did mostly everyone else’s. At this point, we didn’t really have any clue that we’d skipped part of the course, that came later, looking on Strava. We thought, first year, maybe a miscalculation?

Apparently, I’m awful at selfies.

From looking on Strava, and Facebook, it looks like plenty of people made the same mistake as I did. I reckon that most of the first ten runners in the half marathon certainly did (though the winner did actually do the whole course.) I don’t know how obvious the sign that we missed was, whether it was one I saw and misinterpreted, or whether I simply didn’t see it. When I found out, I was a bit annoyed; I’d felt pretty chuffed at finishing fifth (though, okay, it wasn’t a particularly quick field; that isn’t really the point of a WSR event), and this took away from it. But, at the end of the day, it was the first race, and there are going to be teething troubles. I absolutely loved the course (the bits that I did, at least!)

I probably didn’t do a WSR race right. I didn’t partake of any of the lovestations, I didn’t feel the badger, I haven’t really joined the “cult”. The medal, if I’m being completely honest, was maybe a little bit TOO big? (I know, I didn’t think it was possible either. But I think if I hang it on my medal hanger, it’ll pull the wall down.) But, all that said, despite running a short race, and having to travel an hour and twenty minutes to get there, I really enjoyed it, and would definitely do it again.

*This is a maths reference. It basically just means I’ve proved what I was trying to.

It’s a really, really big medal.

Brent Knoll: race report

After my mad month of races (Bristol HalfRed Bull SteeplechaseExmoor Stagger and Herepath Half), I took a few weeks off in November. That isn’t to say that I didn’t run at all, but I dramatically cut my mileage back. Then, as November drew to a close, I started to push the mileage back up, which coincided with my two winter races.

Brent Knoll is one of my favourite races on the calendar, and though the conditions were pretty different to in previous years, it ranked highly again this year. The race heads out along a flat farm track for about a mile and a half, then starts the ascent of the Knoll itself. Brent Knoll is classified as a HuMP, meaning it is over 100 metres higher than the surrounding land. The climb is essentially split into two: the first part is up a gradually steepening grassy (muddy) slope, while the second is on a far more established path with steps. A half loop of the summit is followed by twin descents: in this case both of the muddy variety. First a relatively long, steep drop off the summit itself, with a rather abrupt ending at a stile, and then the reverse of the first climb. Then, it’s just back along the farm track and over the finish! Easy, eh?

The 2015 mud…

This was the third year that I ran it: in both 2014 and 2015, I’d slipped over. In 2014, I’d ended up doing a commando roll down the final descent, while in 2015, I just slipped onto my arse down the first drop. That said, the conditions in 2015 were pretty awful. In both years, I finished in roughly 52 minutes.

This year, we’d had a long dry spell, and it showed! The first farm track was normally a case of making a decision between splashing through deep, boggy puddles or trying to dance around them. This year, it was just a farm track with literally two or three shallow puddles.

Up the hill…

The first climb was still tough, but nothing like the scramble it had been previously. I reached the top of the Knoll about two minutes quicker than I had in previous years. But my real gains came where I’ve been finding them all through the latter part of 2016: the descents. Putting on my “Ah, fuck it” attitude, I launched myself down the first hill. The dry weather made the footing much better than previous years, but it’s still a pretty hairy descent. The hill is covered in bumps, divots and tussocks, all waiting for an unsuspecting foot. And then, of course, the abrupt end for the stile: a short flight of steps (which I swerved around) ends with a wooden stile (or it might be a gate actually, I don’t remember). Either way, it isn’t something you want to career into.

I’d overtaken a fair few people down the hill, but in the flatter stretch between the descents, I was feeling it in my legs. I slogged on, and after a slightly unorthodox route back (apparently the marshal sent us the wrong way) it was time for another slightly mad sprint downhill. I zipped back past a chap who had overtaken me on the flat, but it wasn’t long before he was back past me again as we headed back along the farm track.

… and back down again!

I ended up finishing in just under 47 minutes, a massive improvement on my previous two attempts; the good weather and my training conspiring together. Afterwards, I hung around for a while (quite a while) for a drink, some food, and the Somerset Series presentation ceremony, in which I received a lovely engraved glass for finishing eighth overall.