Tag Archives: Somerset Series

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.

Tin Tin Ten: race report

This race has been the site of  a number of ‘firsts’ for me. In 2014, it was the first trail race I had ever taken part in. It was because of this that I bought my first pair of trail shoes, and it was the first time I wore them. It was the first Somerset Series race that I competed in, and this year it became the first race that I had visited three times. This year was also the first time in the last three years that anyone else from my club ran the race. It also nearly became my first ever DNF, but more about that later.

Having raced this three times now, it is interesting to see my development. In 2014, when I took part in this as my first trail race, it was something to be feared. Something new and exciting, an excuse to get new shoes, but mostly I arrived full of trepidation. It was a particularly wet year, and I found the terrain tough, and the hills hard work. Last year, the weather was perfect, and the course was pretty much bone dry. The course was being run the opposite way around from 2014, and I found the balance difficult: the first half was mostly quick roads, while the second half was off-road with more hills, and lots of stiles to wear down already tired legs.

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Not a great start…

This year didn’t get off to the best start: nevermind about a DNF, I was worried that I was going to DNS. After getting home pretty early so that I could have a late lunch and a bit of downtime before the race, I headed back out to my car. Which had a flat tyre. After a bit of ummming and ahhhing, I decided to take it to the petrol station and put some air in it, and then see what happened. Probably predictably, what happened was: the air went in… the air came back out. It wasn’t leaking out all that quickly but, nice as Tintinhull is, I decided that I wasn’t willing to take the risk of being stranded there. Thankfully Iain was going to the race, and only works a five minute walk from the petrol station, so I parked my car up and headed over to meet him. Or, more accurately, I headed over to stand outside his building for what felt like forever, while the quick operation he was running ground to a halt, and ended up making him about twenty minutes late! Still, in the end we arrived in Tintinhull in plenty of time to get our race numbers, head out for a warm-up and get to the start line.

 

It would be fair to say that I wasn’t feeling in the best shape coming into this race. After a week’s holiday at Center Parcs, during which I had eaten copious amounts of rubbish, I had also picked up a cold and tight chest. Thankfully my chest actually felt alright on the Wednesday of the race, after a couple of bad days on Monday and Tuesday: had it still been bad on Wednesday, I wouldn’t have considered racing. Still, lining up at the start, I was feeling okay, though I wasn’t intending on racing hard.

The weather had been wet in the days leading up to the race, but also hot, so the course wasn’t in bad shape: slippy, rather than boggy, except for a couple of parts. One of these came during a narrow section: you turned a sharp bend and stepped straight into it without warning, it could probably have done with a marshal really, but no harm done! (I’ve been stacking up the excuses for a slow time here, have you noticed?)

We headed off, and for the first third of the race, I was going well. I wasn’t taking it quite as easily as I’d intended, but I was by no means pushing myself. In fact, everything was brilliant until about 4.5 km. We were climbing up a hill, and I started to realise that I could quite do with going to the toilet… and not the sort that you can just pop behind a hedge for. Well, not without hording some soft looking leaves first.

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Tempting…

My following thoughts went something like this:
“It’s fine, it’ll pass.”
“Hmmm… this rhythm doesn’t seem to be helping. I’ll slow down a bit.”
“This isn’t getting any better.”
“We’re heading back into the village now, I wonder if I can pop over to the village hall, use the facilities and then get back into the race. Except I don’t know which way the village hall is…”
“Okay, now at the stage that just behind that tree looks acceptable.”
“Ooo, that marshal just came out of that house, maybe I could… Oh, too late, I’ve past him.”
“Yes! Finally, it’s eased off!”

By this stage, I’d ticked off another three kilometres. My pace had dropped to a comfortable one, though I was still slowly catching runners, and was only passed by one other. Given that I had the start of a cold, and had already lost any chance of what I would consider a good time, I decided to continue at a similar level of effort to the finish. When I saw Iain, about 20 metres from the finish line, I glanced behind me, saw noone was anywhere near, and continued to amble to the finish line rather than put in any sort of sprint. Not like me, but there we go!

I found the course much easier than I had been expecting. This might have been because of my relaxed pace second half, which would have meant my legs weren’t anything like as tired. Another major factor is the amount of off-road running I do now compared to previous years. Although I’ve not been able to do as much lately as I would have liked, I try to get out on some ‘proper’ hilly off-road routes at least once a week, where before most of my running was on flat roads in Taunton.

 

Wells 10k: race review

After easing myself back into running and racing in April, May was pretty full on. At Glastonbury I ran better than I had been expecting, while at the really tough Wambrook Waddle I was brought back down to earth a little, although I was still pretty chuffed with my result. My times at the Yeovilton 5k races were coming down, and though not back to my peak times of last year, I wasn’t far off.

With all of this, I was heading to the Wells 10k feeling pretty confident. I hadn’t done the race before, and although I knew there was a hill that we hit twice on the two-lap course, I thought that there was the possibility of getting close to my PB from Langport last year. I had thought that I might end up as the only club member at the race, but in the end there were a few of us, and my parents came up as well, although they spent as much time exploring Wells as watching the race, I think!

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What do you mean it’s not on right?

We arrived in Wells in plenty of time, and coincidentally met my club-mate Iain in the car park, and so bimbled over to the town hall together to collect our numbers. From this stage on, I pretty much ignored my parents and wife: I’m quite open about the fact that at races I need to do my own thing beforehand, although in this case, it was just chatting to Iain! The collection process was nice and easy, and before long we had our numbers tacked onto our tops… and there was still the better part of an hour before our race started. The weather forecast was for a really hot day, and the morning sun was out in full-force. Iain and I hid in the shadow of the town hall, wondering why everyone else was stood out in the hot sun, dehydrating. Maybe it was just the novelty factor!

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Wells, or the Algarve? Who knows?

After gathering for a club photo, Iain and I trotted off for a warm-up. In keeping with the two-lap nature of the course, this ended up being a two-lap warm-up, as our loop only ended up being about half a mile. While we were warming up and preparing, lots of other races were taking part. I can’t remember them all, but there was certainly a 5k, and a couple of short distances for children too. Lolly found the format great to keep her entertained while she was waiting for our race to start, so I can feel slightly less guilty about ignoring her.

Given the weather and the hill on each lap, added to the fact that I’d spent the last three and a half days off work with vertigo, I was aware that my chances of a PB were pretty slim. Nevertheless, I opted to head out at or around a PB pace and see what happened. Predictably, my first kilometre, which dropped downhill slightly was faster than I intended. The course also very early turned off the road and through a farm-yard, before later picking up a dusty path. While neither could in any honesty be described as “trail”, I had been expecting a road race, and was slightly unsettled. Whether that accounted for my gradual drop in pace of the next couple of kilometres, or whether that was just a reflection of my current state of training, I’m not completely sure.

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Focused. Driven.

After the dusty path, the course returned to the road, and there was a short out-and-back section. Oddly, I thought, we turned around a marshal despite there being more cones beyond. Stupidly, I didn’t realise why this was. The course dropped downhill from the out-and-back section, before we hit the hill. As soon as I saw the hill, which was visible in its full glory, I knew that any slim chance I’d had of a PB was gone. This was no mere undulation, nor even a short sharp burst like that at Glastonbury. This was a Hill. I wasn’t particularly cheered up by the older chap who passed me, pleasantly telling me that it was a 30 metre climb. I maintained a gentle run for the first half of the hill, dropping to a walk at the water station, and then mostly running again after.

From the peak of the hill, the course levelled off for a little bit, before dropping down towards the Bishop’s Palace, where we turned onto a path which passed behind it. The path was lined with spectators; a brilliant stretch of support, which reminded me of Longrun Meadow parkrun.

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Running past the Bishop’s Palace. A great place for spectators and great support for the runners.

On the second lap, after managing to pick up the pace initially, it slipped back to around 4:30/km from 6 to 8 km. During this stage, it became abundantly clear why the traffic cones had continued beyond the marshal on the out-and-back section on the first lap: the out-and-back was longer on the second lap. This was because the course was the same as the 5 km race on the first lap, and so to make up the distance we cut off by taking the path by the Bishop’s Palace, they had to extend it slightly on the second. I really should have worked it out the first time around, but instead it was just an unpleasant surprise. Still, it did delay hitting the hill for the second time!

Which, despite the garden hose being sprayed across the road to help up keep cool at the bottom of it, was awful again. I pretty much stopped to drink at the drink station, and walked for much longer than I had the first time around. My pace was awful for this kilometre, dropping to 5:05, but all I could hold onto was that very few of those runners around me were doing much better.

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Hot, tired, and not in the mood for a sprint-finish (for a change!)

My final kilometre, dropping down to the finish, was my quickest of the race, though I demurred from a full sprint- finish. Given that at a few stages, I’d thought that I’d struggle to come in under 45 minutes based on my pace, I was pretty happy with 44:10, all things considered.

So, after a bit of a moan-y, negative post, the question is: Did I enjoy the race? – Yes, on balance I did. Most of the negatives were simply things I wasn’t expecting, and that’s my own fault. I should have properly researched the course, so that I was aware that parts of it strayed off-road, and more importantly, so that I knew how significant the hill was. Most of my annoyance came due to the fact that I’d arrived with whispers in my ear that I could get a PB. That was never going to happen on this course, but that doesn’t make it a bad race!

The medal was pretty basic, and I think I have a few others that are identical, but its better than nothing. The race itself was great value. Would I do it again? Yes. It might not be as high on the list as Glastonbury or Wambrook, but if I was free, I’d certainly give it another go.

Wambrook Waddle: race review

After running better than I had expected at the Glastonbury 10k, the focus was on building up my mileage. Though I would like to set some short distance PBs in the near future, my main focus remains on an autumn half, so I don’t want to start introducing too much speed-work if it’s going to compromise my endurance efforts. Hopefully soon I can find a nice balance between the two.

However, in the mean time there were the next two club championship races: the second Yeovilton 5k race and the Wambrook Waddle. It’s reasonably fair to say that there are few races that could be more different: Yeovilton is a flat, fast, road 5k, while Wambrook is a hilly, technical, trail 10k.

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The smiling Running Forever group after Yeovilton.

Going into the week, my prospects didn’t seem great. After my Sunday run, I was starting to get bad knee pain, and so I was pretty concerned about running on it. I skipped my planned Tuesday run, and drove out to Yeovilton knowing that I might have to be a spectator. My warm-up run, roughly one mile, was completely pain-free, and so I made the decision to race. Despite having been raining most of the day, by the time the race started the sun had come out, and it was really quite warm. Nonetheless, I had a good race, managing better (though still pretty bad) pacing than last time, and improved to 20:44. Still about 30 seconds slower than my best, but a 20 second improvement on last month, so I’m still hopeful of beating my best this summer.

After Yeovilton, my knee continued to trouble me, though it had been fine during the run itself. I was more wary of Wambrook, knowing that a hilly course would be more likely to be problematic, and so I had a discussion with my physio about what I could do to minimise any trouble. He recommended a few exercises, some kinesiology tape, and Voltarol gel. I continued to avoid my other planned runs, and so I arrived for the race not really sure if I’d be able to complete it. Like Glastonbury, this was a race that I hadn’t done before, but I knew a fair bit about as Lolly ran it last year. Or at least, I thought I did – turns out that nothing really prepares you for this course.

For a full description of the route, you’re probably better off reading Lolly’s report: she describes it well. But succinctly, it is a beautiful, but very challenging course. The hills would make it difficult enough, but the terrain is very technical and varied. There are descents on grass, loose stones, solid but wet stones, and ascents on all of those, plus bog. And trust me, there is little that is more draining that running up a hill through a bog. Three river crossings, a scramble over a fence (no stile), and even a couple of short stretches of road!

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Beating Clive to the first river.

The race starts with a sharp descent to the first river crossing. I’m better than average at trail descents, and so I was happy to fling myself down the hill and see what happened. Apparently, one of my club-mates, Nigel, took this one step further, and was aiming to be the first runner to the river. He didn’t quite manage it, but I was a little surprised to see him ahead of me when I passed him at the start of the climb after. As is typical of these Somerset Series races, I knew a lot of the people around me, and was able to use these to gauge how I was running. Which told me that even after the really, really, really long climb after the river, I remained further forwards than I would have expected. I was just behind the first woman (Jo from Minehead), and one position ahead of another of my club-mates who normally beats me by a minute or two, Clive.

On the second descent, Clive took a bit of a tumble behind me, but got back up again quickly, and then passed me on the next climb, when my calves really started to complain. The first four miles of the race are by far the hardest, and judging myself against those around me, it was the section from miles three to four on which I lost time. I think I simply wore myself out so much on the first two climbs that my legs went. I dropped back a fair bit on a descent through a field, in which I simply didn’t trust my legs enough to run as I normally would, and I dropped straight to a walk on the hill after it. After that walk, I actually stopped at the drinks station to finish my whole cup, a rarity, particularly in a 10k!

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I really struggled with this section of the race.

The last section of the race was run primarily through fields or on decent paths, and once I had recovered slightly, I was able to start catching up to those that had passed me. On the final hill, I passed two runners, but wasn’t able to close down the gap to Clive in front. In fact, on reflection, my own position didn’t change at all from the picture above on the left, struggling up the hill. The two runners in red passed me shortly after this drinks station, but they were the pair I passed near the end. So I guess overall, we just chose to put effort in at different points of the race.

In summary, I loved this race for many reasons, even if it was really hard work. I love running off-road, and this race just cemented that fact. The tricky terrain was brilliant fun, and although this route as a race would probably benefit from being a little less hilly, the hills add to the rewarding nature of the course.

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The smiling Running Forever group after Yeovilton.

Next up: Wells 10k (29/05/16)

Round the Tor 10k: race review

I love the summer, because it’s when all the winter’s training comes to fruition in what can be a pretty non-stop string of short distance races. If course, the fact that I keep getting injured and missing winter training is something of a spanner in the works, but it’s still fun to be out racing!

After the first race of the Yeovilton 5k Series, in which I moderately exceeded my expectations, I had the Glastonbury 10k. This is one that Lolly raced (in my place) last year, when I had a further setback. I was pretty excited to be running it this year, but I knew that it wasn’t the flattest route. In fact, plenty of people who did it last year had been moaning no end about the hill at the end.

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Looking bizarrely fresh at 9.5 km.

If I’m being honest, I didn’t really see what all the fuss was about; I’d stood at the top of that hill, and yes, it was steep, but it was also pretty short – surely you could just power through it? Of course, that fact that it was in the last kilometre of the race was less than ideal. But anyway, more on that later.

Given the… undulating nature of the course, and the fact that my training ‘long’ runs had only just hit 7 miles, I wasn’t particularly optimistic of a fast time, and was aiming to go sub-45, with the expectation that it might be tough to achieve. (My PB is about 42:22, for reference.)

The start pen was pretty well organised (Lolly tells me that this was NOT the case last year), but it was a little bizarre. There were two areas: the front was reserved for club runners, and the rear area for unaffliated runners – irrespective of pace. This worked out reasonably well for me, but it did mean that I ended up a little bit too far forward, and unsurprisingly (and characteristically) I flew off far too fast.

The first kilometre was predominantly uphill, going up the high street buoyed on by the big crowds. I’m not joking either – there were LOTS of people. The run coincided with the Beltane celebrations this year, and so the place was packed. I’ve never run with such loud support before, and to be honest, it was a little intimidating. Less intimidating was the sight of Lolly and Lani at the top of the high street, right where I was expecting them. It always makes me smile when Lani notices me running (she doesn’t always!) The crowds, and my position a bit too far forwards meant that I ran a 4:11 first kilometre, and then was even faster for the second (admittedly downhill) kilometre, 4:05.

That first hill is the worst of the race, but the course continues to undulate throughout. Personally, I enjoyed this – I tend to find completely flat courses a bit of a slog, and like the varying effort that an undulating course allows. Through these middle kilometres I averaged about 4:23. I spent most of this section worrying that I’d had gone off too fast, and continued to go too fast. I was well inside my 45-minute target, and although the pace felt reasonable, I was worried that I was just going to hit a cliff at around 8 kilometres, and struggle home for the last couple, particularly with the hill.

I was wrong. The eighth and ninth kilometres were both relatively easy downhills, and although I was starting to worry about the prospect of the hill, my pace increased accordingly to 4:14 for each. The final kilometre began with a little bit more descent, but then the hill loomed large ahead of us.

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Definitely not so fresh looking in the final sprint.

I’m a little unusual – I love hills. As soon as I saw the hill, I kicked my pace on, and passed two runners that I’d been following for a while before we hit the hill. At the bottom, there was a sign – I can’t remember the exact wording, but it was essentially “high five for hill power”. I did – I was willing to take anything on offer! I powered up the hill. From the bottom you could see the turn at the top, so I was happy to put my all into it.

It was fine. I won’t say it was easy – I felt pretty nauseous at the top from the effort, but it was fine. From the top of the hill, the course turns left down hill, and I just let gravity help me down. It might have been more efficient to put less effort into the hill, for more effort down the hill, but meh.

Although I’d known for a while that I was going to be well under 45 minutes, I was pleasantly surprised to see 43:20 on my watch – for an undulating course early during my training, that was far closer to my PB than I was expecting!

I really enjoyed this race, and it was good to have a few club mates around for it as well. Unfortunately, we weren’t organised enough to get a proper group photo, as we all seemed to be in different places. Lolly and Lani were near the end to cheer me in again, but unfortunately I didn’t notice them in the large crowds. I have to say a big THANK YOU to Lolly for her support during this race, which as I understand, mostly involved standing in the toilet queue with Lani, who kept declaring that she needed a wee. Definitely a runner in training!

Next up… Yeovilton 5k and the Wambrook Waddle

Exmoor Stagger: race review

Two weeks after getting a half marathon PB, and four weeks after running a slightly long half marathon, I was lining up to start another race that was over 13 miles: the Exmoor Stagger. The distance was about as close as the similarities got, and even that was a little tenuous:

Distance:
Two Tunnels – 13.5 miles (ish)
Burnham – 13.1 miles
Exmoor Stagger – 15.8 miles (ish). Both the Two Tunnels and Burnham could fairly be described as half marathons, even if the Two Tunnels was a long course. Exmoor on the other hand was very definitely longer. In fact, I wasn’t sure exactly how long to expect: the course had changed slightly from the previous year, when it had been around 15.1 miles, and there wasn’t a published distance on the website for 2015, though it was clear it wasn’t going to be too different. I like to consider it an “ultra half-marathon”!

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Dunkery Beacon. It’s up. Lots.

Terrain:
Two Tunnels – Primarily canal tow paths, some of which was a little uneven, but generally good condition. Also some pavements and roads. A short off-road section early on was slightly harder going.
Burnham – Sports field at the start and finish, but otherwise entirely road and pavement. Easy and fast conditions.
Exmoor Stagger – Proper off-road fare, with the exception of a stretch at the start/finish and through Wootton Courtenay. The east slopes of Dunkery were particularly treacherous, with fist sized rocks which slipped around under your feet, trying to find the ideal position to break an ankle. Although the weather had been pretty good to us, there were still some pretty slippery sections too, but thankfully not anything as bad as I heard it had been in some of the previous years.

Elevation:
Two Tunnels – Strava says 479 ft, but this is an overestimate, as it will assume I climbed over the hills, rather than went through the tunnel. I would hazard a guess at around 100ft, maybe.
Burnham – Strava says 0 ft. Really. There were a couple of railway bridges, but this was as flat as a half marathon gets. No marble tests were needed here.
Exmoor Stagger – Strava says 3,199 ft. Three major hill climbs, though the middle one was split into two, so it felt like four climbs. Many of these were far too steep to have any chance of running, and even walking was a significant effort. Dunkery Beacon is the highest point on Exmoor, and the highest point in Somerset, while Minehead, where the course starts, is a seaside town. Oh, and in between the two is another hill. In fact, the short road section through Wootton Courtenay in the middle was about the only extended flat-ish section, and even that was hillier than most of the Two Tunnels and Burnham courses!

Scenery:
Two Tunnels – Pretty good, the tunnels themselves were a great experience, I enjoy running alongside canals, especially a working canal, unlike the Taunton & Bridgwater Canal, and running up to the weir at Poulteney Bridge in Bath was pretty cool too.
Burnham – Nothing amazing; the back lanes were all much of a muchness, and although I think we could see the sea around Berrow, by that stage I really wasn’t interested.
Exmoor Stagger – Stunning, with a caveat. I’ve run to the top of Dunkery Beacon before, and the views were spectacular. On the day of the race however, it was foggy. In fact, on the top of the hill, our useful visibility was about 10 metres. It was brilliant conditions for running, but not great for appreciating how amazing Exmoor is. That said, even within our limited visibility, there was plenty to appreciate, and at lower altitudes, we could see much further.

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With my club mates before the run.

Fellow runners:
Two Tunnels – One of the chaps I was running with seemed perpetually grumpy, and spent most of the race moaning at the other path users that they were getting in the way. He wasn’t a good advertisement for runners. On the other hand, he encouraged me to start running again when I dropped to a walk near the end. Otherwise, I had little interaction with other people during the run.
Burnham – No interaction at all with other runners during the run. Too busy running.
Exmoor Stagger – Lots of hills meant lots of walking, which meant lots of chances to have a bit of a chat. I think the fact that I was taking the race a bit easier, and being more laid-back also contributed. On the climb up Dunkery, I had a lovely chat with a bloke who’d come down from Rugby for the race; we were both dismayed at the point at which a walker coming down suggested it was “only” 15 minutes to the top! (Thankfully he was wrong.) Another hill got me chatting to a lady who had done the Stumble a couple of times before, but not the Stagger, while I had a few short chats with an older fellow who opined that the course change had benefitted “road runners”. All in all, whether because of my own attitude, or just the nature of the race, it was extremely amiable.

Overall, this was a completely different challenge to anything that I’d done before, and I really enjoyed it. It has given me a lot of confidence ahead of the Grizzly next March, and I certainly wouldn’t rule out doing this one again, though I’d quite like to try the Herepath the week after…