For the second year running, I took on the aptly named ‘Quantock Beast’ as the most recent race in the Somerset Series. This is put on by the Quantock Harriers, and is only a few miles outside of Taunton at a National Trust property, Fyne Court. It’s a beautiful little estate; the manor house was destroyed in a fire sometime in the 1890s, but the grounds and outbuildings remain, and we often come up for a ramble around.
As usual, I was packed and ready to go far too early, and we arrived with well over an hour and a half to go before the race. A decent amount of time when you’re at a big city race, probably, when you have to fight through queues and crowds to achieve anything. In a race that attracts just over 100 people, it just meant that I’d turned up at about the same time as the volunteers! Still, I’d rather be early than late.
We opted to park in the ‘overflow’ car park, rather than drive into the estate itself, and when we pulled up I thought that I vaguely recognised the chap in the car beside us, but thought little more of it: the Somerset Series races tend to attract a regular crowd, so it was probably just a case of a familiar face, but noone I actually knew. In fact, I was right – but he had me at a disadvantage:
“Hi, it’s Ben isn’t it?”
Bugger, so he knows who I am – should I know who he is? I rack my brains, but don’t come up with anything. Hopefully this won’t be too embarrassing.
As it turned out, he read this blog, and had seen me at a couple of the Yeovilton races as well – so it was nice to meet you Craig, just a shame that you were running for Wells. But more about that later.
Eventually, some of my club mates began to arrive. In fact, we ended up having a pretty good turnout. I’d known that about half a dozen would be there, but we had more than double that. I headed off with Tim and Iain for a one mile warm-up, in which we tried to avoid hills as much as possible, though it’s pretty tricky in that area! We arrived back just in time for the club photo, and then began to amble over to the road for the start.
The course begins with a long downhill stretch on the road, before heading along a narrow trail up the next hill. Last year, I’d got caught behind one of my club mates, Nigel, who has the general tactic of sprinting downhills and walking uphills. So this year, my main target early on was to make sure that I beat Nigel to the bottom of the road, without killing my legs too much. (How much of racing is like this, small races within the race?) It’s a bizarre feeling, a steep downhill to start a race. Your mind is screaming two things: “Pace yourself, you silly bugger, you’ve got to get around a whole nearly 10k race, and there are lots of up bits later. Long, tiring, horrible up bits.” And, alongside that, “Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”
For the sake of honesty, it was also saying things such as:
“Hmmm, maybe I could go faster, but Tim is only just ahead of me, and he’s quicker than me, so I probably shouldn’t, because then I’d probably destroy my legs and not be able to climb the hills later.”
“You know, without this massive downhill, maybe we wouldn’t need such a brutal uphill later.”
“What are we having for dinner?”
“Gosh, this road goes on for longer than I remember.”
Then, all of a sudden, we’re at the bottom of the hill, and our mad dash down a tarmac road turns into a careful run along a narrow, climbing muddy trail, with tree roots and fallen branches to watch out for. The good stuff. I enjoy road races, because they set the benchmarks, let me get the PBs that I thrive. But if I’m being honest, I have far more fun off-road, having to be constantly aware of where each foot is going to land, where the path is about to turn, whether the terrain is going to support me properly, or whether it’s slippy, uneven or loose. There’s a thrill that comes from running off-road that simply can’t be beaten, and the more off-road, the better.
Through this first off-road section, I stayed pretty much on Tim’s shoulder. While he’s far quicker than me on the road, I have more trail experience, and I think the two combined to put us at around the same pace early on. I dropped back for a while when I had to stop to dig a stone out of my shoe, but caught back up during a steep downhill which I was willing to fling myself down. I’ve learnt that there’s a trick to racing downhill off-road: Disengage brain, lean forwards, go for it. Mostly it works. Sometimes you incorporate a few rolls into the technique. They aren’t intentional, but they rarely actually slow you down much!
Although there are certainly some significant (at the time) ups and downs in the first half of the race, the major climb kicks in about 2.5 miles through. It lasts for over a mile and a half, and climbs from about 500 ft to 940 ft. Last year, I had found that by using ‘run-walk’ intervals, I either kept up with or overtook those around me. Based on this, I opted to use the same tactic again. But whether I was simply taking it too easy, or the wetter course made the climb harder, or that I just wasn’t as prepared for it, this year I was losing places and time quickly on the ascent. The initial climb is on a wide track, and it was here that I lost most of my places. After a quick drink break at the top of that section, the climb continued, but on much more difficult terrain. This acted as something of a leveller: noone could go too quickly on it, and it probably suited me a little bit more than some others.
I’d lost Tim on the early stretch of the climb, and now I was running along with a lady from Taunton AC (I’ve since discovered she frequently runs with our club on Wednesday nights too.) She’d passed me on the climb, but now we seemed pretty well matched, and I tucked in behind her for the rest of the ascent. As we neared the top, we passed a runner doubled over on the floor by a marshal. As I went past, I glanced down and realised that I knew him from parkrun. I briefly considered stopping, but realised that there was nothing that I could do, and he was with two marshals anyway.
After all the off-road climbing, the race finishes just the same as it starts, with a long descent along the road. At this point, I eased ahead of the lady from Taunton AC, and just let myself run at a fast, but natural, pace. I dropped back into Fyne Court, and a glance behind told me that I probably didn’t have to worry about being passed, but there was similarly noone ahead for me to challenge. With this in mind, and knowing that I was a couple of minutes slower than the year before, I eased off a little to the finish line.
All done for another year – but there was the presentation to come. Before the race we’d been aware that there were both male and female team prizes, and we’d been looking around to see how many there were from each club. With me, Tim and Iain all finishing in the top-20, we figured we had a decent chance. The first set of provisional results confirmed this: Iain had finished in 12th, Tim in 17th and me in 19th. Taunton AC had had men finish 2nd and 3rd, but they were their only two. Wells had placed 8th, 10th and 35th. Some quick mental maths confirmed that if the prize was based on positions, we’d have it. It wasn’t. The accumulated finishing times of Wells had beaten us by a full three minutes. If you’d just been a bit slower, Craig… But, there was yet light at the end of the tunnel; we might not have clinched the men’s prize, but our women did win theirs!
This was a great race yet again, and after some problems with runners getting lost in the past couple of years, the organisers put even more effort in this year to make sure there was no chance of anyone going the wrong way at all. All being well, this is already in my calendar for next year.