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.

parkrun tourism: Bath Skyline

A week before, Salisbury had been our 24th different parkrun, and my 99th parkrun overall. Despite some wobbles, we’d stayed on track for my 25th (aka quarter-Cowell) and 100th to coincide. We’d journeyed to SeatonFalkirkPooleParke and Salisbury on successive weekends. The only remaining question was where to go for the 100th.

In the end, it wasn’t much of a decision: Lolly’s parents were down again, staying near Bristol for a family Christmas get-together, and so we enlisted them for some baby-sitting while we did the nearby Bath Skyline parkrun. Having steps, we knew that it was one we couldn’t do with the buggy, which was probably the only reason we hadn’t done it before.

Lolly had a great top made for the occasion.

Toilets before could have been a bit of a problem – a 90 minute drive with a toddler can often finish with a rush to the toilet, but thankfully the lovely homeless Little Stoke tourists ahead of us in the queue let us skip straight through! The parkrun community really is great.

The run starts a little distance from the car park, but after a short walk down, we had two tasks: new runner briefing and placing the cakes. Duh – 100th run, quarter-Cowell, parkrun. Three good reasons for cake right there. (Right, I should probably explain this ‘quarter-Cowell’ thing. Basically, Chris and Linda Cowell were the first man and woman to run 100 different events. So doing 100 different runs is termed the “Cowell Club”. 50 runs is a half-Cowell, and 25 a quarter-Cowell. The parkrun tourist jargon buster has this to say: “Quarter Cowell – your 25th different parkrun (cake!)” Sorted.

So, the course. Muddy? – Yes, particularly through the fields late on: definitely a trail shoe route; I mean, look at my back in the picture above. Hilly? – Well, actually, not that much. Other than the steps, most of the course is pretty flat. Pretty? – Very, although the stunning views of Bath’s skyline (it’s all in the name…) were obscured by the fog. As was mostly everything actually.

Pretty. Pretty foggy!

The course follows a distorted figure of eight, taking in one small loop of just over a mile, and another much longer loop of around two miles. The first loop drops gently down to the base of the 30 steps, which then bring you back up to about the same level as the start. I was caught a little out of position at the beginning, so spent much of this section passing people, and slipping on the leaves on the edge of the path! The route then turns back along a long straight to the start/finish, more or less level and on good solid footing. A left turn past the cheering spectators loops you into the trees once more. Again, most of the route through here was on good terrain, but there were a couple of pretty muddy field crossings, though nothing too troubling. The signage and marshals were excellent throughout, and soon we were back on the long straight to the finish. This time it really felt like a bit of a slog as we kicked on towards the end!

I enjoyed the course, though as ever with a trail route, I would have liked it to be a bit more technical, a bit more challenging. But that isn’t really that accessible for a parkrun, and there are plenty of races that give me that. It really is a good parkrun route. My time made it my third-quickest location, after Longrun Meadow and Shrewsbury, but that’s more to do with the fact that I didn’t have the buggy, and am running well right now, than anything else.

As well as my 100th run, it was also one of the Little Stoke tourists’ 100th, so there were double helpings of cake! This compensated a little for the lack of cafe (boo!) after. The out of the way nature of this parkrun, particularly with the start being a short distance from the car park, and just a track with no amenities at all (a trellis table was the height of civilisation), could have really hindered this run, but for whatever reason they don’t seem to. Everyone was just as friendly, organised and willing to hang around and chat as anywhere else. All in all, it was a wonderful place to do my 100th run!

Being a parkrun tourist

In some ways it’s really easy to define parkrun tourism – running a parkrun other than your home event.  In some ways it’s a bit more complicated, and (sadly) divisive, than that.

There are several types of tourism:

  1. While on holiday, looking up and attending a nearby event.
  2. Attending a neighbouring event because they’re doing something special or your home one is cancelled.
  3. Travelling further for no other reason than to attend a different event.
  4. Planning an entire trip away to attend a different event.

It’s pretty safe to call ourselves tourists – completing 25 different events when you live in the heart of the South West region and have a toddler is not something that happens by accident.  With a short-term goal for the year of making the Most Events table (20 events) and a long-term goal of becoming South West regionnaires (completing the whole region), 2016 saw us shift up a gear in our tourism efforts.

Making a day of it

So what does being a parkun tourist mean for us?

Early starts
We’re fortunate that during the week our alarm is set for 6:45.  We’ve (just) managed to make it to our home parkrun getting up at 8:25.  For some of our tourism trips the alarm has been set for 6:00, and even then it’s been a push to get out the house on time to allow for toilet stops en-route (because, toddler and pregnant woman).

Barcode paranoia
The golden rule of parkrun: don’t forget your barcode.  And if you’ve travelled specifically to tick off another event it would kind of suck to not get a result.  We have the plastic barcode tags, and keep one stored in as many running kit pockets as we can (they go through the wash, it’s brilliant).  Even still, we check that we’ve got them approximately every 5 minutes while getting ready to leave.  And for trips away barcodes are second on our packing list (a friendly local might print a barcode for us at a push, they can’t print a toddler’s much-loved toy).

Variety
Choosing different events to attend means getting to experience a variety of courses.  While I enjoy Longrun Meadow (particularly with puddles), it’s sometimes nice to run a fast tarmac course, or completely off-road.  To see countryside or the sea.  Or even get some hills in.  Every event is different.

Getting to know the locals

Spending more time together
Saturday mornings at the end of a long week can be wash-out zones, and it’s easy to spend the time relaxing separately.  Travelling for parkrun changes that.  For starters, there’s the entire journey there and back where there’s nothing to do but (gasp) talk to each other and compare thoughts on radio features.  But, strangely, with parkrun then taking up most of the morning we’re also more likely to visit a playpark or head to a cafe together as well.

A massive community
A common accusation pointed at parkrun tourists is that we have missed one of the main points of parkrun: community-building.  For me it couldn’t be further from the truth.  Yes, I have gained a lot from my home parkrun’s community and really appreciate seeing familiar faces any time I’m there.  But travelling around makes you realise quite how big the parkrun community is, and you get to meet new people to share your mutual love of parkrun with.  Whether it’s talking to volunteers, meeting up with fellow tourists, or just chatting to the person you happen to run next to, it really doesn’t matter which parkrun you’re at.

As for those types of tourism I mentioned, perhaps unsurprisingly we’ve done all 4.  We haven’t gone to the extreme of flying somewhere just to visit a different event.  Yet.  There’s still time.

parkrun tourism: Salisbury

In our rough ‘plan’ of serial tourism, event 24 was pencilled in as Southwick Country Park.  We’ve been to the area before and so are happy with the terrain for a week we need buggy tourism.  It’s a reasonable distance away though, and the day before the intended trip we were feeling plain tired.  Tourism seemed so unappealling.  So we did the natural thing and opted to go for a parkrun even further from home.

Salisbury parkrun was chosen not for its hour and a half drive but for its social potential.  We’d seen on Facebook that someone would be joining the Cowell Club (100 different events) there that weekend.  Driving 10 minutes further each way to chat to some fellow tourists seemed well worth it.

On arrival at Churchill Gardens, which has its own car park, the venue failed its first test.  Due to some vandalism the toilets were disgusting.  However, that’s not something that will be the case every week, and there are alternative toilets in the retail park down the road.  We made our way towards the start area (aka followed everyone else) and spotted various bits of path that were clearly part of the course.

The winter course at Salisbury is 4 laps entirely on tarmac paths.  This didn’t seem particularly enticing, but then we’d been pleasantly surprised the last time we’d done a 4 lap course (Skipton).  The new runners’ briefing confirmed that the most difficult part would be, in fact, keeping count of laps.

No wonder I get dodgy ankles

The route starts on a nice straight section, and then essentially follows the path around the edge of the park.  With a multi-lap course the role of marshals is even more important – if one is grumpy then the impact is multiplied.  Happily the marshals at Salisbury were cheery, and most of them were equipped with plastic hand clappers to help save their actual hands.

Laps 2 to 4 take a slightly different (read longer) route near the start, taking in more of the park’s interior.  That and, you know, making up the distance.  The park itself was nice enough to look at, with just about enough features to keep track of where you were in the lap.

Being lapped was inevitable.  In fact, the first few finishers lapped me twice.  It was pretty chaotic at times with so many people on different laps, and also demoralising each time a pacer lapped past.  On a practical level, two 25 minute pacers running side-by-side also created an extra bit of congestion.

One of them noticed the camera near the end…

This was quite a sociable run for me.  I spent part of the first lap talking to a lovely lady running with her twins in a buggy.  Then for the latter half of the final lap I chatted to the 40 minute pacer – a lovely guy who it turns out is a fellow tourist.

Near the end of lap 4 the course peels off to finish inside the loop.  Support at the finish line was pretty good.  Salisbury pride themselves on being an inclusive parkrun – they have quite a few walkers and have also had a run/walk pacer.  This means that slower runners feel less like the course is being taken down behind them.

I actually ran with people!

After a celebratory glass of bubbly (for Ben, not me) with the other tourists, we headed over to the nearby Starbucks.  We were happy to discover that they offer a discount for parkrunners, and also that the social atmosphere continued post-run.  I’m pretty sure it’s the longest we’ve ever stayed behind talking to people after a parkrun.  And the second longest that we’ve spent driving back home…

parkrun tourism: Parke

Ever since we realised that if we kept touring each week, we could make my 100th parkrun coincide with our 25th different event, we’ve been clocking up the miles. Seaton’s inaugural, Falkirk (for a wedding), Poole.

The following weekend, Lolly’s parents were staying with us, so we took the opportunity to run a course that I hadn’t wanted to do with the buggy: Parke. For a long time, it had been our NENYD (nearest event not yet done), but we just hadn’t had the chance to do it.

So what did we know about it beforehand?

  • It was a trail course.
  • It had some hills.
  • It was reckoned to be one of the toughest parkruns in the country.

Ideal for my 5-month pregnant wife, obviously.

Anyway, after what seemed like a lovely lie-in, we made our way down. There is ample parking, as Parke is one of the National Trust locations. For whatever reason, the car park machines were covered over, so the parking seemed to be free too. As always with a pregnant wife, a trip to the toilets was necessary before the run, which were conveniently located on site.

The run started, and I was immediately struck by the relatively leisurely start. Typically, I hare off, accidentally dragged along by the quick runners at the front. Here, I was still amongst the top ten runners, but was actually slower than my 10k pace. Gosh – was the first hill that bad that people were conserving energy for it?!

Well, sod that. I sped up.

Half a kilometre later, we hit the first hill. Oh boy. Pretty much two thirds of the 80 metres of elevation are compressed into the first kilometre. Things slowed down. I slowed down. I let people head past me – I don’t really bother racing up hills, particularly early on. It just kills your legs for the rest of the run*.

Eventually, the hill levelled off, and then started to descend again. Underfoot the conditions weren’t too bad – it was a bit slippy in places, but mostly firm. The course is essentially two different loops, meeting at a river. So all that climbing we’d done was reversed before the end of the first loop as we gently dropped back, before a sharp descent at the end, down to the river crossing to head out on the second, smaller loop.

This section of the course started along a pretty good track, but then turned right for another climb. This was one of those that looked far worse than it was – I’d been worried I’d have to drop to a walk, but as it turned out, it was pretty short and sharp, and I was able to power myself up it, aware of a runner not too far behind me.

We were going to go back and take a photo of the hill. But… it was a long way from the car park.

After some twists, turns and undulations, the route then dropped back down pretty sharply to the river, and from here it was just a relatively short run back up to the finish. I’d shaken off the runner behind me, and entertained brief hopes that I’d catch the chap in front of me, but it was to no avail. Still, I was surprised and chuffed to discover that I’d finished 5th, my highest parkrun position.

With my run** finished, I decided to head back onto the course to run Lolly in. After a bit of quick maths in which I compared my finishing time with her recent pace, and the state of the course left me none the wiser as to where on the course she would be. I reached the marshal at the crossover point, and asked if he’d seen a pregnant woman with a ’50’ top and a cow cowl, but he just looked at me blankly. I decided to head back down the first loop, and was immediately rewarded by spotting her!

During my repeat of the second loop with Lolly, I had somewhat more time to take in what gorgeous surroundings the run was in. Most of the run is in woodland alongside the River Bovey, and along with Penrose and Mount Edgcumbe, it has to rate as one of the prettiest we’ve done. As to how tough the course is? I find it hard to judge. I’d say that Mount Edgcumbe is a tougher course, because the climb goes on and on and on, over pretty rough terrain. On the other hand, I did that one with a buggy, so it’s always going to feel harder. I also ran this just a week after Brent Knoll, which even on a dry year was tougher. But then, it’s meant to be. So, yes, it’s a pretty tough parkrun course, but don’t let that put you off; it’s a cracker of an event!

* Race.
** Race.

Herepath Half: race report

Seven days earlier, the Exmoor Stagger had more or less destroyed my legs. It had done it in stages. First, my right hamstring, then my left. Then I forced my quads to do more work on the downhills to make up the time I was losing uphill. That took out my quads. Then, finally, during the last climb of the race, my calves did most of the work because my hamstrings were long gone. I didn’t really have any major muscle groups left to break.

On Monday, they still felt awful. On Tuesday, I went for a short run, in which by the end I was managing to move in something resembling an actual run. On Wednesday, I had a massage. By Saturday, I had forgotten that I was aching and had a race the following day, and decided to head back to Yeovil Montacute parkrun because they were running the course in reverse.

Sunday morning came, and I was actually feeling pretty good. Lolly headed off to her marshalling point at Staple Hill, where she would have our daughter with her too, while I made the short drive to Thurlbear. There are definitely some benefits to local races, and the short drive is one them! I picked up my race number, had chats with plenty of my club mates who were there; running, helping and organising. Our club puts this race on, and I’d marshalled myself for the past couple of years.

The race basically spends the first five and a half miles climbing to the top of Staple Hill, where I would get to wave to my wife, and then get to run mostly downhill for the remaining eight miles. My race strategy/goal was pretty simple: pace myself off one of my club-mates, Kate, and try not to let her beat me. Though I had finished ahead of Kate at the Stagger the week before, her pacing had seemed a bit more reasonable (though she probably wasn’t suffering from such bad hamstrings at the end…)

A quick start along the road.

I shot off a bit quicker than I meant to, but when I decided to relax my pace it turned out that Kate was right behind me. I immediately had to make a decision: did I stick with my plan of pacing myself off her, or did I adopt my own pacing, judging that it would be worth conserving energy early on during the climbing to use in the latter part of the race? I decided to trust in female pacing. (Almost without exception I’ve found that the women around me pace themselves better than I do. Let’s not read too much into that or try to find any parallels, alright?) I pretty much stuck myself to Kate’s shoulder for the first couple of miles as we started to wind our way up the hill. In this early part of the race, the terrain is pretty easy, and we maintained a grade-adjusted pace of around 7 min/mile. About three miles in, I switched ahead of Kate, but we stayed within a few metres for the next mile or so.

Around mile four, the route diverts from the Herepath for a short while, looping through Mount Fancy Farm, a butterfly reserve. This was typically a boggy section of the race, but one that I knew reasonably well, having marshalled in this area the previous couple of years, and run it a few times from the car park at the top of the hill. Whether because I knew it, or just because I fared better in the more difficult terrain, I passed a few people through the reserve, and moved ahead of Kate. Through a particularly boggy section, I passed another of my club-mates, Phil, who had apparently lost his shoe in the mud.

Autumnal ‘running’ – it’s possible that I’d been walking just before I noticed the photographer though…

The route then turns back onto the Herepath proper and climbs steeply towards the top of Staple Hill. I walked for a short stretch here, but was soon guilted into running again by the race photographer! At the top of the hill, I saw Lolly and Lani, who cheered me on, and directed me around a loop which took in the viewpoint. As I was racing, I didn’t take the opportunity to have a look, but have done at other times, and it is definitely worth it! After the loop came one of my favourite short stretches of the race; a reasonably steep technical descent. The race then crosses from Staple Hill to Neroche, without much change in elevation. From here on, my race was pretty lonely. Phil caught back up to me, but stayed just behind me until I had to take a quick comfort break, and after that I spent most of the rest of the race without anyone within anyone within about 100 metres of me.

In all honesty, I wasn’t a massive fan of the last few miles of the race – and not just because they were the last few miles of a half marathon! Because part of the Herepath is closed, the race follows the road for around a mile, which is pretty tough that far into a trail race, and thereafter, much of the course goes across fields. The end was good fun again, as the route dropped through Thurlbear Wood. I was thankful for the descent, which played to my strengths at the end of the race – particularly as Kate had been slowly catching up with me, and I had been a bite worried that she would sneak past me just before the finish. As it was, I gained a position, and ended up finishing more or less 30 seconds behind Phil and more or less the same ahead of Kate.

“Hmm… didn’t you say you were going to put that ‘400m to go’ sign about halfway around?!”

I was more than chuffed with my time, 1:46:27 on a 13.7 mile trail race. Unsurprisingly from a race put on by my own club, the support on course was terrific. We get good feedback for our marshalling anyway, but obviously being a club member helped!

Would I do this race again? I’d love to – but for the next couple of years it will be back to marshalling. No medal here, but a lovely glass to add to my collection (volunteers get them too). This race was different to my last two trail races – both the Stagger and the Steeplechase were highly challenging races in truly stunning locations, and would both rank very highly in my best ever races. The Herepath was less challenging, though still nicely scenic, particularly around Staple Hill and Neroche. I’d massively recommend this race, and despite the short boggy section, would say that it would be very suitable for those running their first trail race too.

Well earned…

parkrun tourism: Poole

Following back-to-back tourist weeks in Seaton and Falkirk, we took the sensible decision to get up really early and head to Poole.  That’s right, the place that’s an hour and a half away from Taunton.

Things we knew before our visit:  It’s a 2 lap course plus a little bit.  They have high attendance.  Loads of tourists have been there.  It’s known as a PB course.

So, actually, quite a bit compared to how ignorant I often am!

We arrived at Poole Park in good time, and easily found our way to the cricket pavilion (with, you know, toilets).  I was impressed to see a lamination station inside, so that people could get their printed barcodes laminated on the day.  Shouts soon went up for the new runners’ briefing, so we followed the signs (!) and headed over.

Pavilion

The briefing started with an overview of the course so that us tourist types could be dismissed.  This worked really well for us, and I suspect the smaller group size was also appreciated by the first timers.  In similarly organised fashion, the main briefing was given via microphone and loud speaker.  Looking around I started to get a feel for how many people were there.

We headed to the start, which was on a nice wide closed road within the park.  The course winds its way around the large boating lake on a combination of closed roads and paths.  The wide start area meant that the runners spread out reasonably quickly, restricting congestion issues to those times when you’re trying to overtake two people running together.

To my surprise I actually was overtaking a few people.  However, as expected, when we were in the small section outside the park I started to be lapped.  Not wanting to run crazily close to the lake (balance issues) there was a little bit of space next to me, and so I had the joy of being lapped on both sides at the same time which was a little intimidating.

Heading back into the park the slow and fast runners peeled off in different directions, as we started our second lap.  After narrowly missing a (non-parkrun) roaming dog, I looked up and across the lake.  The mass of runners spaced right around the edge of the lake made for quite an impressive sight.

Boating lake

At the end of the second lap the course turns to take a lap round the cricket pitch.  After a cheer from my personal fan club I felt pretty strong finishing, something which hadn’t happened for a while.  The finish funnel was very efficient, and then we were directed round the back of the pavilion to reach the scanners – not a big deal in my finish position but in the main pack it must make quite a difference.

It turned out attendance was slightly lower than normal that week at just over 580 runners.  Unsurprisingly this gave me my biggest ever finish position number at 534.  The course did live up to its speedy reputation though – it was my fastest time for 10 weeks and Ben managed a buggy PB.

parkrun tourism: Falkirk

“What’s the furthest you’ve ever travelled for a parkun?”  A reasonably common question asked of parkrun tourists.  For us the answer is probably Mount Edgcumbe, given we went away for the weekend specifically for parkrun.  The answer is not Falkirk, because we were in town for a wedding and so only actually went 10 minutes down the road.

The first thing you notice when doing your first Scottish parkrun is the start time, as they start at 9:30.  Extra sleeping time for some, but in our case extra time to kill in the hotel.  We stretched things out long enough that we arrived at Callendar Park just before 9, and so took a slow amble towards the start.  The next thing that we noticed was that it was very, very cold.  There was even a van out gritting the paths.  Good thing we’d joined the Most Events table the week before and so been able to purchase our Cow Cowls.

Hanging around near the start, one of the volunteers started chatting to us about the course.  Really handily he ran there with a buggy, and so was able to give Ben some useful information.  The main gist was that the course goes steadily up, then steadily down, then steeply up, then steadily down.

After a visit to the in-park toilets (yay) we started to de-layer, trying to work out what level of clothing would be appropriate.  The de-layering was accompanied by adding additional layers to our long-suffering daughter, who wouldn’t exactly be warming up on the way round.

On a cold and frosty morning

The run briefing included an interactive shout-out for the golden “No barcode, no time” rule.  There was last-minute further de-layering, and then we all walked over to the start.  From my now-customary position at the back of the field I had plenty of time to take in the surroundings.

The run starts on solid gravel path, heading past a lake that was covered in mist.  It then curves round onto more of a trail surface – still solid though – as the uphill climb starts.  The climb that goes on forever.  Or, you know, a mile.  Which is basically the same thing.  Still, the surroundings were beautiful, with trees and at least one small stream on the way up.

At around the mile mark the course splits into a loop, as the course is a weirdly shaped lollipop.  Having taken the chance to enjoy the scenery, the first runner started heading back just before I got to the split.  Not an unusual phenomenon these days!

For me, the next short section was the most enjoyable, as the path mostly flattened out but the woodland surroundings continued.  I briefly fell into pace with another runner, giving the opportunity for a quick chat.  And then the downhill started.

I learned something important in Falkirk:  running downhill when pregnant puts pressure in all sorts of weird places.  It was pretty uncomfortable, so I took it fairly easy.  Things got worse as the terrain changed back to tarmac as the paths were icy.  Downhill + icy path + distorted centre of gravity = extreme caution.

She was a bit cold…

Still, the downhill ended and the grit started, and there was a brief respite from obstacles.  It was also a section of path that we’d walked on earlier on our way from the car park, so it was familiar.  And I also knew what was next.

Heartbreak Hill is a defining feature of Falkirk parkrun, and was pretty much the only thing I’d heard about beforehand.  Being of the speedy frame of mind I took the mature decision to not even attempt running, and just power-walk up the whole thing.  Definitely the right choice.  The hill eased off just before the marshal at the top, which was the perfect opportunity to start running again.

And so began the long downhill back to the start.  The discomfort of heading downhill meant I had almost as much time to enjoy the scenery as I’d had on the way up.  I couldn’t believe that no one had mentioned how nice the surroundings were.  The trail path ended and it was back to the gravel to run alongside the no-longer-misty lake to the finish.

I wasn’t exactly warm either

We chatted with a few of the volunteers and then headed back to the car to drive to the nearby Orchard Hotel for a well-earned post-parkrun breakfast.

A surprisingly beautiful parkrun in a lovely park, with a friendly welcome.  Can’t really ask for much more than that!

Exmoor Stagger: race report

This race wasn’t in my plan. I really enjoyed running it last year; that race remained the furthest I had ever run, and combined with the terrain and the elevation, it was by far the most challenging. However, it was just a week before the Herepath Half, which I really wanted to run, and had already signed up for this year. Both races were part of the Somerset Series, and coming into October, I knew that I had a good chance of finishing in the top ten for the series. This meant that I wanted a good place at the Herepath Half (where I felt I had a better chance) and so decided not to run the Exmoor Stagger to give myself the best chance of running well.

Then, I ran the Red Bull Steeplechase, really enjoyed it, and decided to sign up for the Exmoor Stagger anyway. Because, you know, running is about having fun.

Last year, the three-pronged attack of the distance, elevation and terrain cowed me into taking it easy for the race, and although I planned to do similar this year, the Red Bull Steeplechase had given me a fair bit more confidence for all three. I knew from chatting to Matt, who runs with Minehead RC, that the course had changed from the previous year due to some permissions being revoked, and that it had made the race slightly longer. Though I never saw an official distance posted on the race website, I did see a figure of 16.3 miles on the club’s Facebook page, which I used for guidance.

The race starts on the road, but climbs and climbs and climbs for the first mile and a half before undulating slightly before another, gentler climb to the first peak about 3.2 miles in, where the shorter Stumble race splits off. By the time I reached that split point, I was starting to struggle. It didn’t feel too major at that point, but with only three miles gone, and basically a half marathon still to go, I was concerned that my right hamstring felt like it had nothing to give. While cutting back was an option – I’d get the big black cross of doom on my race number, but still officially finish the shorter race – I didn’t view it as a choice. I entered the race to run a long way, with tough hills, tricky terrain, and getting over Dunkery Beacon, the highest point in Somerset. So I pushed on.

The descent to Wootton Courtenay initially heads down a narrow track through the woods before opening out down a field. While I was limited down the woodland path, I was able to push a bit harder down through the field, and made up a few positions: my hamstring was less of an issue downhill. The run along the road through Wootton Courtenay was something of a slog, and then we headed back off-road for the start of the climb up Dunkery. We skirted around to the north, heading through Webber’s Post, and on this climb I started to seriously suffer with my hamstring, having to regularly slow for walking breaks. I continued to make back time on any downhill sections, but I was mostly losing positions as we made our way up the hill.

As we climbed, I realised that for the second time in two weeks, I was catching up with Matt, and this time I actually caught him! We took the steep climb up Dunkery’s north face together, trading injury woes: we were both suffering from bad hamstrings, but he’d also had an awful night’s sleep. We concluded that the Steeplechase a fortnight before had clearly taken more out of us than we’d realised.

By the time we reached the top, the visibility had been severely hampered by fog, similar to last year. Now that we weren’t climbing any more, I was able to stretch my legs out and get back to a decent pace again, and pushed on ahead of Matt. The descent from Dunkery goes on for around two and a half miles, and it’s probably fair to say that I ran close to recklessly fast down it. I stumbled twice, thankfully catching myself from falling both times. There’s a Strava segment for the descent, and I apparently did it three minutes quicker than last year. So, I guess I know that I’m getting better (or braver, or stupider) at running down hills.

Unfortunately, the old adage is right, and of course we were soon heading back up the hill out of the other side of Wootton Courtenay. There was no chance that I was going to run even a small part of this climb. I started walking at the bottom, and just over ten minutes later, I was still walking. I might – might – have starting running just before the top, as it started to level out. I would love to say that after the climb, I thought ‘all downhill from here, let’s get cracking’. But it was something more like ‘there’s still another fucking three miles left, just keep going’.

Those three miles just felt like they went on forever. I slowed, and slowed, and slowed (well, by Strava’s grade-adjusted pace metric anyway). By the end of the race, I was really struggling. But, I made it, and I even managed to just stay ahead of Matt and Kate, who had engaged in a mad dash sprint finish. If there’d been another 100 metres of the race, I’m pretty sure they would have both beaten me, because I had nothing left to race them.

Despite my hamstring struggles, I really enjoyed this race again. I was pleasantly surprised by my improvement from last year: I was about one minute per mile quicker on average, and finished much much higher up the field. Aside from that, I was also happy with my improvement on the downhill sections, which (like everything else) will only get better with more practice. My more frequent runs on the Quantocks has helped with this, and it’s something I want to try and do even more of.

What was the next goal? To get my hamstring sorted in time for the Herepath Half, seven days later…