Tag Archives: Somerset Series

Wells 10k: race report

For the second year running I took part in the Wells 10k, another race in the Somerset Series. Although the larger field means that the race is unlikely to count for me,1 years of picking up injuries has taught me to get in all the races I can, while I can.

My body is still suffering a bit from the birth of my second child. Okay, I mean, clearly not as much as Lolly’s body is suffering (she wrote a bit about this, here), but the lack of sleep has still had an impact on my training. The combination of not being at my best and the undulations of the course, meant that I was never going to get an especially great time. With that in mind, I opted to take the race a little bit easier, so that I would be able to run a third lap of the course to get my weekly distance up, which should help me in the weeks to come.

As usual, the evening before the race I did a little bit of research: I looked over my Strava and blog from last year. It was a very hot day last year for the race, and after heading off fast (partly because I thought I might have a shot at a PB) my race fell apart when I hit the hill for the first time. Looking at this, I decided that – shock horror – I should try taking it a bit easier on the first lap to see what I could do on the second.2

Race day came around, and as usual at the moment, I hadn’t had enough sleep. This manifested itself in the usual way lately; sinus issues. At this point, a sane person might decide that on this Bank Holiday weekend, a little bit more sleep might help knock these issues on the head. A runner just has a few more sips of water, because water basically cures everything.

A post shared by Ben Timpson (@bentimmo) on

Now, although the hot weather from the week leading up to the race had broken with storms, it was still pretty warm out there. Interestingly, Garmin reckons it was 15.0°C last year, and 17.2°C this year, but I’m convinced it was hotter last year.

So: to my gentle start. Ahem. Roughly 400 metres into the race, I was flying along at about 5:55 min/mile. I was aiming for 7:00 min/mile. By the end of the first kilometre, I’d managed to slow myself down to a 6:26 mine/mile pace. All in all, my pacing strategy didn’t seem to be working. But, with a bit of concentration, and a lot of ‘but everyone is flying past me, this must be far far too slow’, I managed to drag myself down to a reasonable 6:47 for the first mile, before 7:02 for the second mile.

Those were the two reasonably flat miles. Mile three is pretty much up and over Constitution Hill, and proof that you lose more than you gain from a hill. Though in fact a 7:24 split wasn’t awful, and I kept running the whole way up, so small victories! We ran through the well supported area near the start/finish before starting the lap again. Around this point in the race, I just lost focus. There was no real reason for it: I wasn’t particularly struggling, but my mind just started to wander, and my pace dropped off to a 7:19 mile. It would have been even worse, but for the fact that I noticed it and consciously kicked on towards the end of the mile. It just goes to show how important race focus is. My next mile mirrored my first lap effort: miles two and five were more or less the same section, and I posted 7:02 again on the second lap.

So, just that hill to go again…

And yeah, it felt tougher second time around. BUT – I was more consistent this year than last; the Strava segment for the hill had a difference of 7 seconds between laps, while last year I was 16 seconds slower on the second lap.3 I started to push on the downhill. And then one thing led to another, and I was basically starting a hard finish with more or less a kilometre of the race left: Stretching my legs out down the hill, matching the runner beside me to start with before easing ahead of him. Turn into the path behind the Bishop’s Palace, and my pace dropped a touch, until another runner started to catch up behind me. I let him sit on my shoulder, pressing us both on until we turned again into the finishing straight. He strode ahead of me, but it wasn’t time to push yet. He was ahead by one, two paces, and then with just the last 20 or so metres left, I accelerated past him for a much faster finish than I’d planned; shocked to see the clock displaying more or less the same finishing time as last year.

By no means had I been in great form this time last year, but I’d been on an upward trend, and I felt pretty strong when I posted 44:08. This year, my baseline is stronger after my training last autumn, and some reasonably consistent running since then, only really broken by my sinusitis and my little boy arriving. So I guess that this year’s 44:06 shouldn’t be that much of a surprise, and it certainly gives me some confidence going forwards that I can get myself back to where I think I should be.

Oh, and yes… I headed out for that third lap as I’d planned. And felt smug in my 10 miles for the day. Right until I found out that @craig1854 had run the 12 km back to his house after the race…

Next up: Crewkerne 10k (Sunday 4 June. Yes, that’s next weekend.) Yeovilton 5k (Wednesday 14 June)

Notes

1. In the Somerset Series, you have to complete eight races to qualify, and then only your best eight count.

2. Let’s be honest, this should pretty much be my plan in every race.

3. For those interested, last year I did 2:52 and 3:08, this year I did 2:59 and 3:06.

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.

 

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…

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…

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!)

Quantock Beast: race review

For the second year running, I took on the aptly named ‘Quantock Beast’ as the most recent race in the Somerset Series. This is put on by the Quantock Harriers, and is only a few miles outside of Taunton at a National Trust property, Fyne Court. It’s a beautiful little estate; the manor house was destroyed in a fire sometime in the 1890s, but the grounds and outbuildings remain, and we often come up for a ramble around.

As usual, I was packed and ready to go far too early, and we arrived with well over an hour and a half to go before the race. A decent amount of time when you’re at a big city race, probably, when you have to fight through queues and crowds to achieve anything. In a race that attracts just over 100 people, it just meant that I’d turned up at about the same time as the volunteers! Still, I’d rather be early than late.

We opted to park in the ‘overflow’ car park, rather than drive into the estate itself, and when we pulled up I thought that I vaguely recognised the chap in the car beside us, but thought little more of it: the Somerset Series races tend to attract a regular crowd, so it was probably just a case of a familiar face, but noone I actually knew. In fact, I was right – but he had me at a disadvantage:
“Hi, it’s Ben isn’t it?”
Bugger, so he knows who I am – should I know who he is? I rack my brains, but don’t come up with anything. Hopefully this won’t be too embarrassing.

As it turned out, he read this blog, and had seen me at a couple of the Yeovilton races as well – so it was nice to meet you Craig, just a shame that you were running for Wells. But more about that later.

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A pretty good club turn out! (The dog didn’t run…) Credit: Simon Denson

Eventually, some of my club mates began to arrive. In fact, we ended up having a pretty good turnout. I’d known that about half a dozen would be there, but we had more than double that. I headed off with Tim and Iain for a one mile warm-up, in which we tried to avoid hills as much as possible, though it’s pretty tricky in that area! We arrived back just in time for the club photo, and then began to amble over to the road for the start.

The course begins with a long downhill stretch on the road, before heading along a narrow trail up the next hill. Last year, I’d got caught behind one of my club mates, Nigel, who has the general tactic of sprinting downhills and walking uphills. So this year, my main target early on was to make sure that I beat Nigel to the bottom of the road, without killing my legs too much. (How much of racing is like this, small races within the race?) It’s a bizarre feeling, a steep downhill to start a race. Your mind is screaming two things: “Pace yourself, you silly bugger, you’ve got to get around a whole nearly 10k race, and there are lots of up bits later. Long, tiring, horrible up bits.” And, alongside that, “Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”

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‘Flying’ down the hill. I actually look like I’m trying to slow down, but I promise I was going quickly! Credit: Rach Maclean

For the sake of honesty, it was also saying things such as:
“Hmmm, maybe I could go faster, but Tim is only just ahead of me, and he’s quicker than me, so I probably shouldn’t, because then I’d probably destroy my legs and not be able to climb the hills later.”
“You know, without this massive downhill, maybe we wouldn’t need such a brutal uphill later.”
“What are we having for dinner?”
“Gosh, this road goes on for longer than I remember.”

Then, all of a sudden, we’re at the bottom of the hill, and our mad dash down a tarmac road turns into a careful run along a narrow, climbing muddy trail, with tree roots and fallen branches to watch out for. The good stuff. I enjoy road races, because they set the benchmarks, let me get the PBs that I thrive. But if I’m being honest, I have far more fun off-road, having to be constantly aware of where each foot is going to land, where the path is about to turn, whether the terrain is going to support me properly, or whether it’s slippy, uneven or loose. There’s a thrill that comes from running off-road that simply can’t be beaten, and the more off-road, the better.

Through this first off-road section, I stayed pretty much on Tim’s shoulder. While he’s far quicker than me on the road, I have more trail experience, and I think the two combined to put us at around the same pace early on. I dropped back for a while when I had to stop to dig a stone out of my shoe, but caught back up during a steep downhill which I was willing to fling myself down. I’ve learnt that there’s a trick to racing downhill off-road: Disengage brain, lean forwards, go for it. Mostly it works. Sometimes you incorporate a few rolls into the technique. They aren’t intentional, but they rarely actually slow you down much!

Although there are certainly some significant (at the time) ups and downs in the first half of the race, the major climb kicks in about 2.5 miles through. It lasts for over a mile and a half, and climbs from about 500 ft to 940 ft. Last year, I had found that by using ‘run-walk’ intervals, I either kept up with or overtook those around me. Based on this, I opted to use the same tactic again. But whether I was simply taking it too easy, or the wetter course made the climb harder, or that I just wasn’t as prepared for it, this year I was losing places and time quickly on the ascent. The initial climb is on a wide track, and it was here that I lost most of my places. After a quick drink break at the top of that section, the climb continued, but on much more difficult terrain. This acted as something of a leveller: noone could go too quickly on it, and it probably suited me a little bit more than some others.

I’d lost Tim on the early stretch of the climb, and now I was running along with a lady from Taunton AC (I’ve since discovered she frequently runs with our club on Wednesday nights too.) She’d passed me on the climb, but now we seemed pretty well matched, and I tucked in behind her for the rest of the ascent. As we neared the top, we passed a runner doubled over on the floor by a marshal. As I went past, I glanced down and realised that I knew him from parkrun. I briefly considered stopping, but realised that there was nothing that I could do, and he was with two marshals anyway.

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The final stretch: I have to admit, I remember them being further back… Credit: Lolly

After all the off-road climbing, the race finishes just the same as it starts, with a long descent along the road. At this point, I eased ahead of the lady from Taunton AC, and just let myself run at a fast, but natural, pace. I dropped back into Fyne Court, and a glance behind told me that I probably didn’t have to worry about being passed, but there was similarly noone ahead for me to challenge. With this in mind, and knowing that I was a couple of minutes slower than the year before, I eased off a little to the finish line.

All done for another year – but there was the presentation to come. Before the race we’d been aware that there were both male and female team prizes, and we’d been looking around to see how many there were from each club. With me, Tim and Iain all finishing in the top-20, we figured we had a decent chance. The first set of provisional results confirmed this: Iain had finished in 12th, Tim in 17th and me in 19th. Taunton AC had had men finish 2nd and 3rd, but they were their only two. Wells had placed 8th, 10th and 35th. Some quick mental maths confirmed that if the prize was based on positions, we’d have it. It wasn’t. The accumulated finishing times of Wells had beaten us by a full three minutes. If you’d just been a bit slower, Craig… But, there was yet light at the end of the tunnel; we might not have clinched the men’s prize, but our women did win theirs!

This was a great race yet again, and after some problems with runners getting lost in the past couple of years, the organisers put even more effort in this year to make sure there was no chance of anyone going the wrong way at all. All being well, this is already in my calendar for next year.