Tag Archives: Race

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…

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.

 

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.

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…

Red Bull Steeplechase: race report

Although the Bristol Half Marathon was my big target race for the year, this was the race I was most excited about. In each of the three previous events, the Steeplechase has taken place in the Peak District, so it was very exciting that after a year off in 2015, it moved to Exmoor this year. I couldn’t resist the temptation, and signed up almost as soon as I found out about it.

For those that don’t know, the race follows an unusual format, with four designated ‘steeples’, which are essentially knockout checkpoints. At the first, only the top 220 men and 90 women could continue, at the second 100 men and 50 women, and at the third 20 each. Everyone who reaches the first steeple is considered a finisher, everything after that is just a bonus!

Those few that completed the whole course did 22.6 miles, with over 1,800 metres (not feet, metres) of climbing. Not to mention that most of the run was taking place on the South West Coast Path, which was described by Elise Downing as “tough and gnarly and wild but the rewards are so worth it.” She was right.

Pre-race

The worst thing about morning races, particularly those that aren’t too nearby, is the early alarm call – 5:55 in this case. Admittedly, that was partly due to me misjudging how long some of the drives would take, but never mind! I headed up towards Minehead to meet up with Matt, who drove us both over to Lynton. Although the race itself started in Lynmouth, there is very little parking there, so a free park and ride had been set up from a farm above Lynton. I’d been a bit concerned about this, and left a bit of extra time in case the buses weren’t very frequent, but they were brilliant. I don’t know if we just got lucky, but we got straight onto a bus, and didn’t have to wait inside long before it left for the short drive down to the race village.

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Race village – who sponsors this again?

Race registration was a little convoluted, if still very well organised. First, we had to fill out a disclaimer (“If I die, it’s my own fault, ya de ya..”). This had been emailed to us, so I’d completed it in advance. We then had to queue by surname (well, A-C, D-F, that sort of thing… there wasn’t a queue specifically for each surname. That would be absurd.) From here, we received our race number, and were then directed to a bench to fill in the reverse. After completing the reverse, we then had to another tent collect our chip, which had to be registered to our number. Still, I suppose it gave me something to do, rather than just stand around in the cold.

Ah yes… standing around in the cold. Because it was a bit nippy, I decided to put a t-shirt on under my club vest for the race. I figured that if it was cold standing in Lynmouth, which is pretty well protected, then running around on cliff-top paths open to the elements would be colder. I would have done well to remember the “wear clothes for 5-10 degrees warmer” advice frequently thrown around.

Anyway, after a short warm-up along the seafront, and to the toilets in the car park (which had no queue, unlike the long queue for the portaloos in the race village), it was just about time for the start of the race. Matt and I lined up about five rows from the front, and pondered whether we were too far forward. Neither of us had any idea if we’d get through the first checkpoint, let alone any after that, and our normal tactic of standing right near the front for small, local races wasn’t going to be a good idea here!

The race

After a few words from the town crier (don’t ask me what he said, I barely heard one word in five), we were off. The start was a mad dash around the roads of Lynmouth, which were taken at around my 5k pace. Thankfully, the fast start was then completely negated by a concertina effect on the footpath up the cliff. Each switchback slowed the race back down to a walk, and most of the second half of the first mile was walking with 5-10 pace jogs in between. Which also conveniently made the first climb at lot easier than I had been expecting. In fact, despite the speedy start, the first mile took 10:46 to complete, and some of my pre-race concerns were starting to fade.

Once we’d reached the top of the cliff, we found ourselves on a narrow-ish tarmac path which wound around the clifftop to the Valley of the Rocks. I described this as a “boring tarmac path” to my wife, though the views attached to it make it possibly the least boring “boring tarmac path” around. While the footing might have  been easy, the route was still twisting and turning with the topography, and one slip or trip could have dire consequences with the cliff so close. Which made me all the more worried when one runner near me declined to tie his laces up when it was pointed out to him that they were loose – not a risk I’d have taken!

Heading towards the Valley of the Rocks

Heading towards the Valley of the Rocks

The view as we turned the corner on the Valley of the Rocks was probably the best of the first section of the race – it was also one of the better supported locations, and even had someone up on the rocks playing… ummm… some sort of instrument. That said, they only seemed to have a repertoire of two pieces: the William Tell Overture, and the London Marathon theme. Still, that’s better than I can manage, so I won’t complain! The route had descended pleasantly to the valley, but then rose again gently as we left. I know – shock – we went down into the valley, and then had to climb again to get out of it! The descent, on good terrain, made mile two the quickest of the race (6:53), though both the following miles were quicker by the grade-adjusted measurement.

Those miles took us through a wide woodland trail, and though we remained close to the sea, you couldn’t tell through the trees. The course undulated, but gradually rose, and I adopted a little bit of a run/walk strategy up some of the longer hills; particularly knowing from some locals (and the course profile) about the horrible climb around mile 6. After about four and a half miles, we hit the first intermediate checkpoint, and found out our positions. I was very surprised to see that I was 120th, and I immediately realised that I’d need to relax my pace a little bit, as I was definitely running more than 8 miles.

The next mile remained similar, and during this section of the race, I was quite disappointed: I’d been expecting much more a tough, technical course along the coastal path. So far, the only coastal path section had been on tarmac, and the woodland trail was pretty simple terrain with no view of the sea! And then…

The descent to Heddon’s Mouth. We’d emerged from the trees back onto the coast just after mile 5, and running along a narrow, rocky trail we started to drop down to the River Heddon. I thought that I was reasonable downhill, but a few people flew past me down here – which was a feat in itself. The path was clearly only wide enough for one, and yet more than a couple of times, I’d hear the yell from behind “your right”, followed by a runner careering past me, on the right (cliff) side. Perhaps I could have gone quicker, but at this stage I was going for the ‘rather safe than sorry’ approach. We spent a pleasant half mile running alongside the river, before heading sharply up the hill. This was the big one – three-quarters of a mile, averaging 12%, though the last bit was over 25%. The bottom was still run-able, but then it was a walk, plain and simple. No one that I could see was trying anything but, and no one was even trying to walk faster to gain positions. It was just about making it to the top with some semblance of being able to run again after.

See that river down there? That's the River Heddon. See these high bits either side? Yeah.

See that river down there? That’s the River Heddon. See these high bits either side? Yeah.

That was as far as I had really paid attention to the route. In fact, mostly my knowledge of the route was: lots of elevation, particularly bad climb at 6 miles, first cut-off at 8.3 miles, second cut-off at 13.8 miles, third cut-off at something like 18 miles. Even that wasn’t likely to prove too useful anymore – as usual for a trail route, my Garmin and the official route distances weren’t tallying up too closely, so I was reasonably certain that the 8.3 mile checkpoint would be a fair bit later on my watch.

After a short descent, we were climbing again, albeit up a road to the first checkpoint. The sun was out in its full glory now, and I was really starting to overheat in my t-shirt/vest combo. I had to make a decision – keep the t-shirt on and get too hot, or ditch the t-shirt at the checkpoint, but probably never see it again. I went through the giant Red Bull arch, noting my position – 128th, and then stopped at the drinks station for a cup of water. And to ditch my t-shirt: it just had to go, I wanted to enjoy the next five miles, not constantly obsess about being too hot. I  never got it back, but hey ho.

Getting through that first section and being able to run the second may not have been so hard as I had worried, but it was a massive victory in terms of the course. I had been distinctly underwhelmed with most of the first section, but the second was almost universally stunning. Immediately after the checkpoint, we turned back on ourselves and ran along the coastal path back towards Heddon’s Mouth. The views along the coast here were unrivalled. Coupled up with that, the coastal path here was finally meeting my expectations, with scrambled descents and rocky climbs. I knew I wasn’t going to make up 28 places to get through the next cut-off, so I could just enjoy myself.

Race profile. Pretty flat... not.

Race profile. Pretty flat… not.

In fact, I didn’t really notice that the route had come back to Heddon’s Mouth, so as we started to drop down towards the river, and I saw a huge climb with people slowly heading up it, I didn’t realise that this was the slower runners / women (who, remember, had started 15 minutes after us) going up what I had already climbed. And so, my heart sunk. Until we met that path, and turned left, down the hill. Running down a reasonably narrow trail with loose rocks while other people are trying to climb up it presents something of a challenge, but the race director had given priority to those descending, and mostly this was sufficient for us to safely get down, though I feel a little sorry for those climbing who had to keep stopping to let people by.

Shortly after crossing the river, we reached the second intermediate checkpoint, and I found I’d picked up some positions and was 119th. I started to worry a little bit that I was bringing myself back in contention for the top-100. I really didn’t fancy much more – my legs were pretty completely shot, and I was already starting to feel uneasy on the descents, worried that my quads weren’t really doing much to control me, which is particularly troubling when one false move could see you tumble off the cliff! (Or at least into a gorse bush…)

Of course, being down by the river, again, meant only one thing, again. Climbing. In fact, pretty much the rest of the second section was climbing. Though there were a couple of short descents. You know, so that we had even more climbing to do to compensate! Probably because I knew that this was the last push, I fared pretty well on the climb. I gradually worked my way past people, and spied Matt in the distance ahead of me. We ran past a number of walkers, and I offered a cheery ‘hello’ to them all, resulting in another runner commenting that I was “rather cheerful”. I was! I’d had a good, challenging run, I knew that there wasn’t too much left, and I had absolutely no regrets that I wasn’t going to be in the top 100 and running another five miles. I chatted to a few runners over the last couple of miles, and after running through the hamlet of Martinhoe, reached the second checkpoint, and was joyfully eliminated in 110th.

Matt had finished a few positions ahead of me, and also been eliminated, which made life easier for getting back. We just had a short walk up the road to the bus, and it really didn’t take long before it headed back with us, not even waiting to be full. We pulled into the race village just in time to see Ricky Lightfoot win the race in a frankly disgusting 2:41:22. For the whole (officially) 22.6 miles. I’d taken 2:12:58 for (officially) 13.8 miles.

All done!

All done!

After checking our chip in, we then gathered out goodies: a medal and a hoodie, both top quality too. The advertised free runner’s lunch turned out to be a beef stew followed by a cream tea (Matt – you’re wrong. It’s jam THEN cream.) We hung around for a while to watch the men, and then the top women finish, before heading off to find another bus to get back to the park and ride. And yet again, we had no wait at all.

This was a great race. Red Bull organised it really well (at least from a competitor’s point of view). They clearly spent a lot of money on it; this is part of their marketing, so it’s not designed to make money. The hoodie itself I’d expect to pay more than £30 for in a shop, so to get that, a medal, the food, AND a race for that price was a bargain.

Would I do it again? Hell, yeah!

A great medal.

A great medal.

... and a brilliant hoodie from the Red Bull Steeplechase

… and a brilliant hoodie.

Great Bristol Half Marathon: race report

Bear with me, this could be a long one…

In March 2014, I completed my first half marathon, at Silverstone. I trained, regularly, but quite gently, and finished the race in 1:52:58.

At the Great West Run later that year, I pushed myself harder in training and in the race, and despite having some wobbles (shivers, and throwing up after finishing) I made a massive dent in my PB, completing it in 1:41:52.

I then got injured through the winter, and wasn’t able to complete a spring half marathon. My training cycle for my autumn half marathon included a fair bit of rehabilitation work. In the race, I aimed for around 1:38, but ended up completing the Burnham Half in 1:36:37.

We then came to 2016. Except that another injury meant that I yet again missed the whole winter, and couldn’t complete a spring half marathon. My goals of a sub-90 half marathon were dissipating:

In my heart I’m still aiming for sub-90, but in reality, I think that has become something of a pipe-dream now. – Me, July 2016

Halfway through my training I set out my targets: Gold, 89:59 (sub-90). Silver, 91:32 (sub-7:00 min/mile). Bronze, 93:59.

I certainly had some concerns about my chosen race:

… what am I thinking, entering a race with over 10,000 entrants?! – Me, August 2016

My doubts remained as the race approached, and in all honesty, they were still there while I stood in the holding pen ready to start the race. But I’m getting ahead of myself slightly.

Pre-race

A 9:30 start for the race meant an early morning; a 6:00 alarm so that we could be out of the house by 7:00. Amazingly, even with a toddler, we left on time – although I did forget to have some toast after my cereal. So we’ll maybe call it evens. We arrived about an hour later, and parked at Cabot Circus, about a mile across town from the race village. This had three main advantages: it was far enough away that parking wasn’t an issue, I got a bit of a walking warm-up to loosen my leg muscles, and the toilets at Cabot Circus were not busy!

We arrived at the race village in time for me to head to the toilets once again, this time joining a queue, albeit a relatively reasonable one. I didn’t really fancy milling around the busy race village, and instead popped down a side-street towards the river. Just as we were about to settle down on a bench for a little bit, the rain came. (Hold on, the BBC said it was going to be dry!) And then got heavier. And heavier. And then really heavy. We quickly rushed to huddle under a balcony on a block of flats, and I contemplated how long I could leave it before heading out for a warm-up run.

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Huddling out of the rain

8:40… still raining. 8:45… still raining. 8:48… sigh. I accepted the inevitable, and – still wearing my race top, t-shirt AND a hoodie – I set off along the river for a little warm-up plod. And got soaked. Still, my legs would thank me for it, and chances were that I was going to get wet during the race anyway.

Out along the Portway… and back (miles 1 – 8)

In the start pen, I slotted myself a couple of rows back from the 1:30 pacer, amazed at quite how near the front this put me. I decided that I would run with the pacer for  the first few miles, and see how it felt – I could always drop off and adjust my goal down as the race went on. If I started further back, there was no chance I could speed enough sufficiently to adjust my goal up.

The crowded start meant that unlike most races, where I start too quickly, I actually had quite a slow initial get away compared to what I wanted. Still, I found sufficient pace soon enough, and started to work on keeping up with the 1:30 pacer, who’d got away fine, and was ten metres up the road. By the end of the first mile, I’d sorted my pace out, and went through in 6:48 – pretty much bang on my target pace for sub-90.

During the first couple of miles, I did struggle with the number of people around – running with the pacer did have the disadvantage of making up run in a close group, and I was constantly having to adjust my stride to avoid clashing with another runner. Eventually, I got fed up of this, and decided to move ahead of the pacer, into a pretty large gap that had opened up. I was wary that I might then push on too hard ahead of my target pace, but it was a risk I decided I had to take. After a second mile at 6:46, I sped up slightly in the third, to 6:40; whether this was related to pushing ahead of the pacer or not, I’m unsure. Just after the third mile was the first drinks station, but I opted against a drink – I felt hydrated enough, and I don’t believe in drinking too much during a race if you don’t feel that you need it.

The fourth mile took us to the turnaround point on the Portway, and we started to see runners coming back the other way. I had been worried before the race about this long out-and-back, but actually it was fine. Initially, it was so early in the race that I hadn’t got bored of running yet, and after that there were plenty of people coming the other way to keep you distracted. My fourth mile maintained my ahead-of-target pace, 6:41, and had been a gentle climb, making it an even harder effort. At this point of the race, I felt that I was pushing so hard to maintain the pace already, and that I couldn’t possibly keep it up for another… oh my God… another 9 miles.

Looking pretty rough already!

Looking pretty rough already!

It was around this point that I opted to do something both sensible and really stupid. I decided to break the race up into more manageable chunks: sensible. I decided that my target pace was more or less my 10k PB pace, so I my first chunk would be the first 10k of the race. And I’d try and get a new 10k distance PB: stupid.

Don’t get me wrong – I knew that to run sub-90, I would have to run a positive split. There was no way that I wouldn’t fade towards the end at that pace, so an even or negative split just wasn’t realistic. Given that, I guess it wasn’t so stupid after all, but it sure felt stupid, trying to run my fastest ever 10k with another 7 miles to go after. Either way, I managed it – Garmin recorded my 10k time as 41:24, almost a minute quicker than my PB. At least I knew I’d achieved something in this race!

I continued at my ahead-of-target pace for miles seven and eight, and remained ahead of the pacer, though a few times I could hear the group right behind me – so while I was running quicker than necessary, the pacer was driving a similar pace, which was slightly reassuring, and slightly worrying. Mile 3-8 were at 6:40, 6:41, 6:35, 6:43, 6:39 and 6:41. Unfortunately, my mile bleeps weren’t quite lining up with the mile markers, so although according to my watch I was probably about 67 seconds ahead of where I needed to be, the mile markers suggested that I was perhaps only 10 seconds ahead.

The ‘nothing’ middle bit (miles 8 – 11)

The first eight miles had been pretty straightforward: onto the Portway, up the Portway, turnaround, back down the Portway. (And, right at the end, a bit of twisting and turning across the river, or canal, or whatever it is.)  I knew that most of the rest of the race was a lot more fiddly, twisting and turning through the city centre – with a couple of climbs thrown in for good measure. But first came the dreary middle miles. Mile 9 was entirely alongside the river, and at this point I caught up with a group of Great Western Runners, who I usefully paced along with for a while. I pushed on ahead of them when we hit Redcliff Hill, though my pace was nothing compared to the 1:30 pacer, who suddenly came flying past us all. I’m not really sure why he decided it was necessary to go so hard up the hill, but from this stage, I spent the entire race a fair distance behind the pacer.

Another hill followed just under a mile later, climbing up towards Castle Park, while the biggest was to follow shortly after, up past the back of The Galleries, though that was at least succeeded by a noticeable downhill, and as we passed over the river/canal for the third time, I spotted Lolly and Lani there to cheer me on. The combination of the cheering and the downhill gave me a boost, but I knew that my pace was starting to suffer, and every mile involved some calculations as to whether sub-90 was still realistic. At 10 miles (only a parkrun to go!) I had about 22 minutes left – a 22 minute 5k should be do-able, right? Mile 11 saw my pace drop a bit further to 6:56 – anything under 7:00 should be fine from here, but I was worried about the trend.

Looking much better than I felt through Queen's Square.

Looking much better than I felt through Queen’s Square.

The horrible last bit (miles 12-13.1)

From the point at which you pass the 11 mile marker, to the finish, by the shortest route, must be about 500 metres. Unfortunately, we had to do an entire loop of Queen Square, and an out and back loop around The Centre. Yes, I know, 13.1 miles is 13.1 miles – but having so much twisting and turning at the end is mentally draining. The support from the crowds here was great – and it needed to be. I felt like my whole race was coming apart, and everything was a struggle. But actually, when I looked around, I was keeping pace with most of the runners around me, and even catching up with some others. And although my pace had continued to drop, it wasn’t too dramatic. It just felt it.

Somewhere around mile 12, I’m not sure where, as mostly everything blends into one around this point, I saw Lolly and Lani again. From what Lolly says, I wasn’t particularly cheerful, and I can believe it. My ability to do any sort of maths failed in the last mile, and so I wasn’t quite sure how slow I could afford to go to make sub-90, but I knew I was on course for it, short of a pretty monumental breakdown. Unfortunately, that was pretty much how I felt. I felt sick – like I was actually going to throw up. I was light-headed, and struggling to mentally focus on anything. Other than to keep going. Turning onto Broad Quay and then Colston Avenue, and seeing runners going the other way was tortuous, especially when I kept expecting to reach the turnaround point, but it took a forever to arrive.

In the finishing straight!

In the finishing straight!

Eventually though, I reached it, and there was just under half a mile to go. By this stage, I really was starting to go backwards relative to most of those around me. I was just hanging on as best as I could – forcing myself to keep pushing for the final few minutes. At the ‘400m to go’ sign, I briefly contemplated pushing harder, before realising that 400 metres is a quarter of a mile. At 200 metres, I allowed myself to push a bit, but in reality, I didn’t have that much to push with. But it didn’t really matter. As long as I didn’t actually collapse, I was practically guaranteed sub-90. The pacer crossed the line ahead of me, in pretty much 1:29 exactly. When I crossed the line, I could see that the clock was still reading under 1:30, so it was pretty academic what my watch said. I’d done it.

Post-race

I’d done it. And now I had other things to focus on: not throwing up for a start. Step, breath, don’t throw up. Step, breath, don’t throw up. In such a fashion did I shuffle away from the finish line and collect my goody bag. Step, rummage in bag, retrieve water bottle, drink, don’t throw up. Step, drink, don’t throw up.

Eventually, I progressed to simply walking and drinking, the nausea passing, and I made my way back to The Centre to meet Lolly and Lani, so we could head off for a celebratory Nando’s back at Cabot Circus. After I’d bought some dry socks to wear, at least…

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Fooooooooooood!

I’ll probably post some more thoughts on the race, and my training later in the week (I know, I know, it’s already Thursday). But I do need to say a huge thank you to my wife, Lolly. My training plan was 12 weeks, and at the time of my race, she was 12 weeks and 2 days pregnant. So the combination of pregnancy and having to cope with me being out of the house for hours on end training didn’t make things easy for her, and yet she remained fully supportive of my efforts to go sub-90 at Bristol. She believed in me far more than I dared to, and she kept me going at those points that everything seemed to be getting on top of me, and life threatened to get in the way. So, thanks Lolly 😀

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Obligatory ‘bling’ photo

Ash Excellent Eight: race report

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!

All this for just £12!

All this for just £12!

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)

Haselbury Trail 10k: race report

The Haselbury Trail: my seventh Somerset Series race of the season. After a late start, during which I missed the first five races of the series, I’ve now done seven of the eight since. This leaves me needing to do three of the remaining seven races to qualify, though two of those I’m unavoidably missing.

This was my second successive year of running Haselbury, and other than the very basics, I hadn’t remembered much from the previous year. Two sources helped to refresh my memory: reading through my blog post from last year, and my club-mate Nigel – who, it appears, has an amazingly detailed memory for race routes!

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Off we go!

So, the basics: cheap on-the-day entry, two-lap multi-terrain course, mildly undulating except for a sharp climb up from a bridge at the end of each of the laps, cattle-grids, stiles, ford and a gentle road climb to the finish. After which you don’t get a medal, but do get an engraved glass. Last year it was a tumbler, this year a pint glass.

I found the race exceptionally tough. My analysis was that the course was slightly easier going than last year, when we’d had some rain through the day, and during the race itself, making the underfoot conditions less than ideal (though still not terrible).

Last year, I made the mistake of chasing after Clive in the first (admittedly downhill) mile, which I completed in 6:32. This year, Clive wasn’t there, so I wouldn’t repeat that mistake… Except that I did. In fact, I went even quicker, posting a first mile of 6:23. Either I was going to see some significant improvement, or I was going to crash and burn for the rest of the course.

Option B it was. Pretty much as soon as we hit the fields, my legs were telling me that they weren’t up for it. I took their message and dropped down into ‘consolidation’ mode. I mostly let those ahead of me slowly extend their advantage, while trying to stay ahead of those behind me, as best as I could. In most of these smaller races, after some initial shuffling around, the pack mostly settles into position for the middle stint of the race, with more shuffling again towards the end, and this race very much followed that pattern for me. I gained and lost a few places on the hill at the end of the first lap – not really sure whether I gained or lost overall though!

Much as last year, the second lap was quite lonely – I spent most of it without any runners 10 metres either side of me, and just concentrated on doing my own thing. Which was mostly trying to goad my legs into continuing, despite their insistence that maybe it would be a good idea to stop for a walk… Until I reached the hill again. At that point, I happily let my legs take over, and dropped to a walk once more.

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Unnecessarily fast sprint finish.

At the top of the hill, the course levels out for a time, before heading back uphill along the road that we flew down at the start. Along this section, I quickly caught and passed a runner from Chard, and yelled some encouragement to him as I did so. It looked like he had a stitch or similar. Fortunately/unfortunately, he started back up again just after I passed him, and we pushed each other up the hill, with him passing me just as we neared the top. There was only a right turn and a short run along the cricket ground to go, and I started to push a bit harder. He responded by pushing into a sprint. I started sprinting too. He went a bit quicker again. I thought ‘sod this’ and went all out. To those around us, it probably looked like a slightly short, exhausted, and crazed-looking runner (me) trying to replicate a 100 metre race at the end of a 10k trail race, finishing ahead of a pretty nonplussed runner who wasn’t at all interested in a 100 metre dash. Because, you know, that’s pretty much what happened.

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The race memento: ideal with pizza and cider!

For the record, I beat him. I then nearly threw up. It took me a few minutes to recover, and he then wandered over, and shook my hand with the quietly damning comment: “You really wanted to beat me there!” Yeah, okay, perhaps I’m a bit over-competitive sometimes.

The ‘race memento’ was a tulip pint glass – which I vastly prefer to last year’s tumblers, which are too small to be of much use (I don’t drink any shorts). Time-wise, my official time was 47:07, just one second quicker than last year, though my watch time was about ten seconds quicker again. I’m a bit disappointed that I wasn’t fairly significantly quicker than last year, but races in the middle of my current training plan are always going to be tough.

Next up: Ash Excellent 8 (4 September), Yeovilton 5k (14 September), Bristol Half Marathon (25 September, ARGHH!)