Fittingly, the Ash Excellent Eight was my eighth Somerset Series race of the summer, and with my entry already confirmed for both the Herepath Half and Brent Knoll, I’m on course to hit the ten needed to qualify. I’d not run the Excellent Eight before, and didn’t know much about it, other than a) it was in Ash, b) it was about eight miles, and c) it was presumably excellent. I did a little bit of research: I looked at the Strava stats from someone who had done it last year, and discovered it had a downhill start, an uphill finish, and a lump in the middle. I also had a chat to Matt on Twitter, who said that he had heard from another club-mate that it was pretty flat.
The race came at the end of a busy few days. Well, a busy week really. Had it not been a Somerset Series race, I probably would have just changed my plans and done a training run instead: my plan wanted me to do 14 miles, not an 8-mile race. But after a chat to Lolly, who I’d barely seen during the busy few days before the race, we decided that her and our two-year-old daughter, Lani, would come along as well, and they could possibly do the 2k Fun Run. Or at least have a run around the school fields.
As a Somerset Series race, most of the familiar faces were there as usual, and I had a chat to a few of them before the race, though of those, only Nigel had done the route before. With his usual detailed memory, he gave me a description of the route, though to be honest I’m not sure how well I took it in!
After managing to fit in a one mile warm-up around convincing Lani that she did want to wear her race number for the Fun Run, we were at the start and ready to go. On already weary legs, I opted to let the crowd of runners, and the hill carry me along at the start, as we plummeted down the road. The hill carried on for about a mile, and Strava has proudly declared it my second fastest mile (6:04), after the really absurd descent at the Chew Valley 10k (5:58). I really need to get out and run a fast mile on the flat to beat both of those, so I can be prouder of my best mile!
The descent ended with a left turn onto a farm track. Still a road really – the Google Street View car has even been down it, but there was more mud around. Then shortly after, we turned off that road through a farm, and along what definitely wasn’t anything more than a puddle-riddled farm track. The course very gently undulated along this second mile, though it was all but unnoticeable. Opening out onto the fields, the course split shortly after, with the five mile race taking a shortcut back to Ash. The eight-milers continued through some flood defences and over the River Yeo. Sitting on the edge of the Somerset Levels, the course was pretty much pancake flat through the next couple of miles, as we circled around a golf course.
After the initial shuffling around of positions, we’d settled down past the farm, though I’d been aware that I was losing time on runners around me for most of the race to this point. From about the first drinks station, which was by the river, I started to gain positions and time. I didn’t take any water at that station, which brought me right up behind the runners that were ahead of me, and I slowly picked off each of the three as we wound our way around the golf course. The terrain was probably the worst at this point, with a wet and muddy track to contend with, and one of my gained positions almost certainly seemed to be based on me having more grip than the chap ahead of me.
After a short road climb, we had a longer gentle descent along the road away from Long Sutton. I felt like I was running well on this stretch, but on reflection, I guess it was just the very favourable terrain, as I didn’t seem to make any significant gains on those around me. This lovely section was followed by the hardest part of the course: Knole Hill. It is not, to be fair, too much of a hill to be feared. The Hill Bagging website details that it is only 48m / 157ft high, and we probably only actually climbed about a third of that. But, it is a steep ascent up grass, and everyone around me (including me) had to take it at a walk.
Of course, what goes up must come down, and with the diagonal descent of the hill down the next field, I opened a large gap on those runners behind me. Another muddy, rutted farm track followed, along which I slowly closed the gap on the runner ahead of me. We drew level at the last drinks station, had a brief chat, and then started climbing the final hill.
You remember that mile-long hill that I flew down at the start? Yeah… we had to go back up it at the end. I’d been a little bit worried about this hill, imagining the horror of a mile-long struggle up a hill with regular walking breaks. But… actually… it was fine. I easily ran the whole lot, taking about eight minutes for the mile. Just a short dash to the finish followed – by this stage I was well ahead of the runner I’d been with at the bottom of the hill, but out of range of the runner ahead of me. So I probably didn’t push quite as much as I could have done. Which is annoying, because my finishing time was 1:00:05. If I’d just pushed 6 seconds faster…
At the finish, I was amazed to discover that as well as a medal (somewhat generic, but I can’t complain) there was a t-shirt. Not bad for a race that only cost £12 on the day!
Overall, I have mixed feelings about this race. On the one hand, I felt like I ran really well. The ‘light trail’ aspect of the race probably gave me a bit of an advantage: pure road runners probably found it too ‘trail-y’, while proper trail runners found it too ‘road-y’. However, for a trail race, it was a bit flat and perhaps a little boring. But I guess there’s always the Exmoor Stagger if I want hilly and interesting!
Next up: Yeovilton 5k (14 September), Great Bristol Half (25 September)