Tag Archives: trail running

Red Bull Steeplechase: race report

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

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

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

Pre-race

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

2016-10-09-08-48-10

Race village – who sponsors this again?

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

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

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

The race

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

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

Heading towards the Valley of the Rocks

Heading towards the Valley of the Rocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race profile. Pretty flat... not.

Race profile. Pretty flat… not.

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

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

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

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

All done!

All done!

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

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

Would I do it again? Hell, yeah!

A great medal.

A great medal.

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

… and a brilliant hoodie.

parkrun tourism: Yeovil Montacute

This post originally appeared on Ben’s old blog, Running From the Physio.

A couple of weeks ago, I headed out for a little more parkrun tourism. It came hot on the heels of a visit to Killerton, and was the last week in a five-week absence from my home parkrun (rest, illness, Killerton, rest, Yeovil). I was quite tempted to just head to my home run after so long away, but this bit of tourism had been planned for a while, so I stuck with the plan.

Location:
This is technically the next closest parkrun to me after Longrun Meadow, although the differing quality of the roads means that it takes more or less the same time to do the 22 mile drive to Yeovil Montacute as it does to drive 28 miles to Killerton. Like Killerton, the Yeovil Montacute run is located in the grounds of a National Trust property. Unlike Killerton, the route goes right past the house, with the east façade (pictured) providing a gorgeous backdrop to the run. Admittedly, despite the size and glamour of the building, my attention was elsewhere while running!

The stunning Montacute House (credit: Mike SearleCC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Terrain:

Again, this varied completely from either of Longrun Meadow or Killerton. The route was entirely run on grass, and undulated throughout. The course was reasonably dry when I ran it, but I suspect that some of the ditches that I dropped down into would get quite tasty in the winter months. In fact, the ditch jumps, which Sarah (@mia79gbr) raved about so much in her blog post back in April, were the main reason I wanted to do this course so much. What I did forget reading in her post was that there was a “massive hill in the last kilometre”. This did catch me a little by surprise. It shouldn’t have done, but it did. Underfoot, the course is most similar to a cross-country course: my trail shoes performed admirably, but a set of XC spikes would probably be the most effective. Once it gets a bit wetter, this isn’t a course I’d recommend attempting in normal road shoes, I suspect you’d slip all over the place!
Course:
The route takes in one “little lap” and one “big lap”. At the end of the first lap, the little one, you are running directly towards the house, the finish and all the cheering supporters. This provides a similar boost to the traditional lap set-up at Longrun Meadow, although I didn’t see a similar boost in pace! The big lap then completes an entire circuit of the grounds.
Summarising, I really enjoyed the run. I ran a slower time than I’ve achieved at either Killerton or Longrun, although my pacing was pretty awful, so that will have played a part. It is less well-attended than either of those as well, which did make the latter part of the race a little uncompetitive: it was pretty clear that I would finish 17th, no higher and no lower, for the last mile of the run. That said, as with every parkrun I’ve attended, the support was great from all the volunteers and spectators, and I would love to go back when it’s a little bit wetter! Additionally, I’m really glad to have three such completely different courses as my three nearest parkrun events.

parkrun tourism: Killerton

This post originally appeared on Ben’s old blog, Running From the Physio.

Firstly, a question: as a brand name, “parkrun” isn’t capitalised. Grammatically this is clearly incorrect, it is a proper noun, and therefore should take a capital letter. However, as a corporate styling, it doesn’t. I can cope with that. But, but… what about when it starts the sentence, then what am I meant to do?! Anyway, never mind, I went with the corporate styling, even though it offends my eyes.

Last weekend, I decided to cheat on Longrun Meadow parkrun, and pop down the road to my next closest. This isn’t the first dalliance, but previously it has only been on a weekend when I was out of Taunton anyway, and everyone knows the postcode rule, right? But this time was different, I was still at home, I could have easily walked down the river for my usual Saturday morning routine, but I wanted something new, different, exciting! I wanted… Killerton parkrun.

Actually, there’s a bit more to the story than that: Killerton were short of volunteers early in the week, and my wife currently isn’t running, so given that we’d wanted to try the course out for a while, it seemed an ideal opportunity: she signed up to barcode scan, and I went along to run. Killerton was very, very different to Longrun Meadow, and rather than write a normal “race report” style post, I’d like to compare and contrast:

Willow Cathedral in Longrun Meadow
(credit: shuunyanetCC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Location:

Killerton House (credit: Roger Cornfoot)

This is the first, and most striking difference. Longrun Meadow is part of Taunton’s flood defences, and consists of paths around flood pools. A number of projects have resulted in the Oak Barn and the Willow Cathedral (pictured), but it is still essentially a flood plain! In contrast, Killerton parkrun takes place in the grounds of a National Trust property, and weaves its way through woodland down onto pasture land at the end. Not that I was doing a great deal of sightseeing during the run! Being a National Trust site did help us navigate to the run, as there were useful brown signs directing us from the motorway, although my car’s sat-nav still got some use! The other obvious difference in locations was in their distance from me: Longrun Meadow is a slow twenty minute walk along the river from home. Killerton was a forty minute drive. I know which I’d generally prefer on a Saturday morning, although, with a young daughter, I’m up early enough either way!

Terrain:
As a flood plain, Longrun Meadow is almost entirely flat, and predominantly on lightly-gravelled paths. There might be some sort of technical name for the type of path, but I’m not really a path expert, so if there is, I don’t know it. A short section is tarmacked cycle path, while another, dubbed “the muddy bit” is grass in the summer, and a mud-bath in the winter. Killerton on the other hand is an undulating course, though one that drops about 125 feet from start to finish, taking in fields, woodland paths and farm-tracks. The footing is uneven in places, uneven in others, and particularly hazardous with the current generous layers of autumn leaves. Thankfully, some of the gates are left open and guarded by marshals to prevent hazardous prancing over cattle-grids or vaulting over fences. (Though I hear one such manoeuvre might have been involved when the course record was set!)

Course:
Apart from the terrain, the most obvious difference between the runs is perhaps that Longrun Meadow parkrun is run over two laps, while Killerton takes in just one: and in fact as the start and finish are a few hundred metres apart, it could be argued it isn’t even a lap! I’ve always favoured “one lap” events, citing the fact that multiple laps of the same course would be boring, and having to go around everything again would be mentally tougher. To an extent, I stand by that, but on the other hand, taking in two laps of Longrun Meadow means that we run past the finish line, where most of the volunteers, and any supporting family members are, halfway around. Whether you’re struggling or not, this gives a nice little boost in the middle of the run. Not just a mental boost either: the speed increase in the graph below is replicated in almost every run I do at Longrun Meadow, and it’s completely unintentional.

Not sure your cheering and clapping helps? My pace graph says it does!

At Killerton however, only the marshals provided support around the course, and while that support was welcome and well-received, it can’t quite compare!

Volunteers and runners:
What wasn’t different? The cheery, friendly nature of every parkrunner and volunteer. Despite being short earlier in the week, I think Killerton ended up slightly over-subscribed with volunteers as people sacrificed a run to help out. I got chatting before the race to a chap who was down visiting family, running his 49th parkrun, but his first at Killerton. We compared notes on our “home” parkruns and moaned about the hill we had to climb to the start. During the run, I did have a small problem with an unaccompanied junior runner, but these things happen, and credit to the Killerton core team, after I mentioned it, they posted a notice about junior runners on their Facebook page later that day. I hung around at the finish line, cheering runners home after I’d finished, and as always it was great to see the smiles as people pushed for the final sprint.

So the conclusion? Different, different, but same! This week, I’ve got to work on Saturday, but next week I’m cheating on Longrun Meadow again, and am heading out to Yeovil Montacute. I’m sorry Longrun Meadow, but I’ve had a taste of something different, and now I’m hooked!

Have you cheated on your “home” parkrun?
 
What differences and similarities did you find?
 
Do you want to run more different parkruns, or do you prefer to run the same one?