Tag Archives: running

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!

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…

parkrun tourism: Seaton

We’ve done a fair bit of parkrun tourism this year and, as our tourism page is starting to show, have been a little neglectful when it comes to writing them up.  So I’m turning over a new leaf and writing about Seaton parkrun within a few hours of its first event.

Inaugural parkrun tourism is a bit of a controversial topic, as in places like London it can completely overwhelm a new event.  This is only the second time we’ve attended a first event (the other being Burnham and Highbridge), and in both cases it’s just happened to be a weekend that worked out well.  Having said that, even with all the inaugural tourists today there were 188 finishers, so definitely a different scale to London!

Seaton parkrun is a two lap out-and-back course along the promenade.  I realise that makes it sound boring, but stick with me!  Having parked up in our ‘usual’ Seaton car park, we walked down to the prom and I was relieved to see toilets by the start/finish area.  When you’re nearly halfway through pregnancy these things are crucial.

While we waited for the start, Ben had a trial of taking the buggy on the pebble beach, and determined it just wouldn’t work.  One of the Event Directors spoke to us and confirmed our suspicions – that the course page shouldn’t have said buggies are welcome.  She was very lovely about it, and Ben worked out a way to complete the course without having to take the buggy on the beach.

We crowded round for the run briefing, which I thought was very well done to balance the needs of both tourists and local first timers.  I particularly liked that we were told to keep people around us quiet, as chatting during briefings gets annoying.  Having bunched up into the crowd, we then had to fight our way to the back for the start.  Ben because he had a buggy and me because… I wanted to give the others a chance?

As invariably happens starting at the back, I didn’t notice the start, so started my watch a little late.  But we were off.  First up is a short trip to the end of the prom, filled with shouts of “Keep left!” as runners started heading back the other way.  The cones to turn around were nicely spaced, so that the turn wasn’t too sharp and it also naturally separated the two directions of runners.

Next task: run to the other end of the prom.  The path is tarmac all the way, making it really easy to run on.  Unsurprisingly, quite a way before I reached the other end there were runners heading back, but the path was wide enough (for the majority that were considerate) and it added to the atmosphere.  Before long we’d reached the end of the prom path… only that’s not where the course turns round.

The final bit of the out-and-back is, in fact, on the pebble beach.  Perfect time to take a little walk break.  Although, even walking was hard work.  Ben later confirmed that he had left the buggy with the last marshal on the path, taking the pebble section unaccompanied.  Still, after the pebbles I felt a spring in my step returning to tarmac, and had no problem returning to a run (at my typical speedy pace).

The promenade path at Seaton is on the beach side of the sea wall.  While on the way out we’d been running next to the wall, on the way back we were running next to a drop, beyond which was pebble beach and then glorious wavy sea.  Faster runners started to overtake, and we were encouraged to keep as close to the left of the path as possible, which was a little tricky given the drop and my misplaced centre of gravity.

The backdrop

The backdrop

Going past the split for the finish, there was the nice feeling of (mostly) just having to do the same again… and knowing that no one else would lap me.  As I trundled along to the first end I suddenly looked up at the beautiful cliffs, and realised quite how beautiful a location I was running in.  I then encountered an incredibly rare hiccup in a well organised event, in that runners who had already finished were stood across the course.  Sadly this is a common sight for slower parkrunners.

My trip back down the prom was spent admiring the views, thanking marshals, appreciating cheers from faster runners, and listening to the gushing waves.  Gosh I was glad those toilets had been there.  After successfully navigating the pebbles a second time, it was onto the home stretch to head back.  I was joined for a short while by a very happy 3 year old, who I had to hand back to Ben before taking the split to the finish.  Which is on the beach.

It didn’t seem right to walk so close to the end, so instead I just considerably slowed down.  Then I heard people coming up behind me, and much as I take parkrun at my own pace I still hate being beaten to the line.  So the last few metres may have been taken a little harder than planned.  Ben’s tactic for this section had been to leave the buggy at the start of the beach, and then walk to the end with our long-suffering daughter.

Say "parkrun tourism"

Say “parkrun tourism”

Finish tokens and barcode scanning went very smoothly, and we had the chance to thank some more of the volunteers before heading to the nearby Pebbles cafe for post-run tea and milkshake.

The event was incredibly well organised, better than a fair few longer-running events we’ve been too.  The atmosphere was brilliant.  Every single marshal was smiling, clapping and cheering (sadly that’s not always the case).  The runners were also great at cheering each other on – Ben in particular found he got a lot of encouragement (for being the nutter with the buggy).

So this brand new parkrun is very definitely on our recommend list, as long as you don’t run with either a dog or a buggy.  Now, where to next?

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.

Too busy racing!

Argh! I’m so far behind. I promised a second blog summarising my overall thoughts on the Bristol Half Marathon and my training plan, and how everything had gone. And then I’ve gone and done three more races; the Red Bull Steeplechase, the Exmoor Stagger and the Herepath Half, since then.

Out running - back in November!

Out running – back in November! (Races in red)

I’ve picked up an array of bling, clothing and a glass:

red_bull_medal

I got both a medal…

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

… and a brilliant hoodie from the Red Bull Steeplechase.

A technical tee from the Stagger.

A technical tee from the Stagger.

And this lovely half pint glass from the Herepath Half.

And this lovely half pint glass from the Herepath Half.

What I haven’t had, is much time to write. So my apologies for anyone who has been waiting in anticipation. I’m planning on taking a couple of weeks off running (though I’ll probably still do a little bit of light running) so I’m hoping to be able to use some of that time to catch up on the blog.