Running for the pies

Running for the pies

Sunday, 2 October 2016

20th March: Hampton Court Half

I forgot… I’d forgotten that at the last minute I’d agreed to run the Hampton Court Palace Half Marathon. In mitigation, I had never intended to run this, in fact I have (believe it or not) never run a half marathon before in my life, but due to work issues, one of our old neighbours who had been due to run this with his wife, had to drop-out and in knowing that LSS was running the race, offered his spot to me.

Gathering for the start round the front of the palace.
Driving the 30 miles towards London to the palace and parking in the field next to it on the edge of Bushy Park (at a £5 extra on-the-day charge to the organisers) we met with our neighbour’s wife who was still running and collected his details off of her and I prepared to accompany LSS around the course for her second ever half marathon - and my first… Yep LSS has run more of them than I have!

I did not want to let LSS down by bailing after my gammy hammy episode the previous day in Sussex, but (and I mean this with no offence) I felt I would be unlikely to strain myself further with the combination of the pancake flat course and acting as a pacer for LSS.

Hampton Court Palace is a stunning building built for Henry VIII (although Cardinal Wolsey began the work) as his official residence and since then it has remained one of the ‘Royal Palaces’ and one of the major tourist attractions in London.

Off downriver along the Thames Path.
The runner’s village and the finish line was situated on the green opposite the rear of the palace. Here there was the longest line of portaloos I have ever seen at an event, which meant the unusual experience of no real queuing for a trip to the trotter - a rare luxury!

As the time for our starting wave approached we made our way across the road and in to the palace grounds for the start and before long we were all corralled together and sent on our merry way.

The field was quite compact as we managed to shuffle our way along straight out of the palace grounds on to the Thames Path. As we slowly picked our way through the crowd I counted around a dozen unopened gels that had been unwittingly shed by runners before us, but with all us runners so tightly packed together I could not stoop to grab any to save the littering - and benefit myself & LSS!

Crossing the river.
Along the riverside path for just under 3 miles downriver it was a bit of a metronomic slog, punctuated by a water-stop just towards the end where we immediately climbed up on to the bridge and crossed over the Thames. From here we followed a couple of miles more along the riverside path upriver, before leaving this and heading off into the suburban streets of Thames Ditton - with another water-stop at the furthest south part of the course.

Taking it at LSS’s pace we hit the 8 mile marker and the bridge that took us back over the Thames to the Thames Path in front of the palace and a repetition of the first three miles… Rather than crossing the bridge at the end of this stretch we turned left and headed along the edge of Bushy Park and the final 1.5 of the 2 miles… The final half mile being saved as an extra special treat for LSS.

Looking at the palace from the 'tradesman's entrance'.
Running with me, LSS had pushed herself continually at a pace marginally faster than she would have herself and combined with not as much training as she would have liked, she was really suffering and bordering on a sense of humour failure as we closed-in on what we thought was the finish line: The course leads you straight towards the finish gantry, but just short of it as you reach the green you find you are shepherded away and have to do a lap around the outside of the green in which it rests, before being allowed through the barrier on to the green to re-trace your way back on the other side before finally crossing the finish line… And not a moment too soon from the effing and jeffing of LSS at this evil final half mile! - needless to say she refused my entreaties for a sprint finish ;)

Crossing the line we walked-over to the marquee where they were handing out bananas, water and the bag of finisher’s bling. The finishers tee was an amusing caricature of Henry VIII doing the ‘mobot’ and the medal was big golden effort - something you could inflict serious damage with on someone!

Considering this race is billed as the ‘Hampton Court Palace’ half marathon, you spend about 0.1% of your time there. Instead you are pounding the Thames Path and the local suburban streets, so outside of the physical start line and first 100m you spend no time in the palace grounds, although you do view it twice more as you run past on the Thames Path and the building is a gorgeous spectacle.

Approaching the palace again.
The course is flat and fast, so if you are looking for a PB or for an easy introductory half marathon then this could be a good one for you. The course whilst almost entirely tarmacced - even on the Thames Path, it only has 5 miles on roads over its length, so it is a safe one that allows you to not have to worry about the traffic too much… Would I do it again?.. In short: No. It offers nothing to me over a jog along the canal on my doorstep. If the route were to change to take-in more of the grounds rather than the streets of Thames Ditton then maybe I would soften my stance and come back for a second helping.

What I did enjoy was supporting LSS in her endeavour and successful completion of her second ever half marathon, although her face was almost the same colour as her top by the end of it!

A cheerful LSS resplendent with her medal and bag o' bling!

Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Run far.

19th March: Coastal Trail Series Sussex

Ok, a few weeks back I strained my hamstring and it hasn’t really got worse, but at the same time it has not improved, so I went in to the Endurancelife CTS Sussex Trail Marathon with a healthy dose of trepidation and a very strong pair of neoprene support shorts to compress and hold my gammy hammy together as much as possible in the hope of making it around!

'Man at C&A' posing in registration.
Every time I run this race it seems to be different for me. Last time out I had the pleasure of traversing Beachy Head with LSS and Spud as they ran the 10k course and our paths converged. Previously I’ve had to brave gale-force winds, sleet and freezing rain… Today it was just muscle knack and the weather was looking pretty conducive for trail running - which was a bit frustrating as I knew I would not be able to push hard and do myself justice.

I followed my normal plan of driving-down to the event base for midnight and hunkered-down in the van over at Birling Gap listening to the howl of the wind as it occasionally rocked the van and to the patter of the rain on the roof as I settled-down to my slumber.

Waking the next morning I walked the mile to the registration marquee, passing the single file snake of ultra runners as they set-off on their adventure.

Ultra conga!
All registered and laden with my complimentary Endurancelife tech tee given to all competitors (I now have a sizeable collection of these!) and a Cliff bar I went back to change for the race.

Straight from the off and it was up the hill overlooking Birling Gap itself and on to the undulations of the ’Seven Sisters’ until they peter-out in the course’s low-point at the salt-marsh nature reserve. From this low the slow steady climb to the highest part of the course commences, punctuated by the first aid station at Littlington.

Just past Littlington we run across a causeway in a water-meadow that had been totally flooded over the winter with the torrential rains the area experienced, but thanks to nature’s ability to rejuvenate itself you couldn’t see any sign of what had happened.

Over the Seven Sisters.
From here we turned west and began our climb proper on to the exposed South Downs Way skirting along the feet of the ‘Long Man’ carved out of the grass covered chalk to stand watch over the valley, summitting shortly thereafter and enjoying the leisurely descent over the next few miles to the halfway checkpoint.

It was on the way down I could start to feel my hammy biting and at this point I had to drop my pace noticeably, letting CTS stalwart Luke with whom I had been running for a while and a few guys who were out on their final serious race practice before the Marathon des Sables - running in their full kit for that, disappear off in front of me.

The aid station is at the bottom of the hill, which meant a climb out from it to head back to the coastal path… It was on this climb I started to descend in to a dark place and consider quitting as I knew I would be passing the van and shortly thereafter the finish line. Quitting would break my consecutive streak of finishes. I know that every race completed brings you closer to the first you will start but not finish, but I managed to persuade myself to stay in the game and at least get back to the van, as here I could spend some time assessing how I really was.

It may only have been a matter of a couple of miles or so, but they were not fun in the slightest as I clenched my teeth and struck-out at the fastest walking hobble I could muster to get to the car-park… Once here I opened the van, took off my back-pack and had a few deep breaths.

I had a can of Red Bull lying around so I took my time to drink that and to give my hammy a good hard massage, really pushing deep in to where it felt tightest, then well and truly larded it with ‘Deep Heat’. Ten minutes had passed and already it no longer felt as bad as it had been - I was around 16 miles in to the race, so a matter of 10 to go, so I felt I might as well just crack-on but take it easy as I know the course and that the terrain underfoot was not going to prove tricky in any way… So off I climbed out of Birling Gap and made the ascent of Beachy Head.

View from the 'top' of the course.
Before I knew it I was at the climb in to the western edge of Eastbourne feeling no more the worse for wear from when I left the van, and the turn for home at the final checkpoint was upon me, so I just carried-on through it on a concerted charge ascending on to the path to the farm track along the ridge overlooking the channel, safe in the knowledge that the end was rapidly approaching.

It was along here that I caught-up with and passed fellow marathoner Cecilia, who as I passed let-out a sob… It was one of those moments when you know the person is not in a good state, and seeing her face, eyes reddened, I knew she was in a definite low, so I slowed to walk and talk to her.

Back along Beachy Head
She was really suffering but was determined to reach the end - which was only about 3 miles at this point, so I decided to just keep her talking to take her mind off the pain and get her to the finish line in one piece - it turned-out she was from Reading, one of the nearest towns to me and she was running the event with her fella who was in the Ultra. I think she was just struck by the pain and the demoralising sensation of watching all sorts of runners pass her and the ‘loneliness of the long-distance runner’ in moments such as these as you watch yourself moving backwards through the field… So the pair of us crocks just spoke of running, injuries and our philosophies on running, foodstuffs and the like - the easy common-ground for all us people on these silly adventures, and before you knew it we were both able to manage a jog at times, taking us both in to the finish in a not too disrespectful time considering we were both falling apart at the seams!

Beachy Head lighthouse.
This race was certainly a frustrating run for me in not being able to push myself, but also valuable in learning that sometimes you just need to take a break and a rest to assess things, manage a muscle and to then push-on to the finish. I know I have been through similar with tearing my calf muscle, but that was far more serious than this as it is just a ’strain’ so it was certainly a case of figuring out the limits of it and to work around it so it would not be worsened… Time for a bit of a rest till the next event and hope it heals as I’m really looking forward to my second visit to Exmoor and one of the tougher CTS courses down there.

Oh and hopefully I’ll remember my camera for the next run so I won’t be relying on my phone!

Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Run far.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

6th March: Steyning

I ran the Steyning Stinger a couple of years ago and thoroughly enjoyed the muddy fun that the race provided, so I was looking forward to getting-out on the course again with the good views from atop the ridges of the South Downs Way - that and the fried breakfast they give you at the finish!

With the Stinger being a relatively local race I woke as dawn cracked and drove down to the grammar school in the middle of the village of Steyning where the event organised by Steyning Athletic Club has its base, registered and changed for the off in plenty of time.

It seemed a bit busier than the previous time here with everyone milling-around through registration, although when I crossed the road in to the field ready for the official start, I could see a crowd of runners already heading-off in to the distance who formed the early start of the race for the slower runners.

All calm before the storm.
Attempting to keep warm in the crisp clear winter morning air us runners began to huddle a bit closer together before the countdown and we were unleashed onto the chocolate-pudding like mud of the field that formed the first part of the course.

Climbing up to the top of the downs.
Last time I ran it I lost a trainer in the mud 3 times within the first mile, but this time I managed to keep it down to just the one, although slipping your cold wet mud-soaked sock back in to your trainer straight after losing it is never a fun experience!

Sheep no doubt thinking we're baa-rmy.
Just beyond the first half mile as we came off the field and on to some tarmac I passed the first person to drop-out, pulling-up lame with what looked like a hamstring strain - I felt sorry for the guy as he’d probably trained hard to get to the start-line only to have every bit of preparation undone within the first five minutes of the race, something I have been mercifully spared from so far on this running odyssey of mine.

I understood what the guy was going through as the previous day I had set my parkrun PB running with Spud only to feel my hamstring tighten-up in the process within the first hundred metres of the mad dash off the start line… So here this morning I was acutely aware of managing the strain and not letting it develop in to a proper pull and seeing the poor chap was a cautionary tale for me about taking it easy.

On to the tarmac for a short while, we plodded along uphill until we hit the turn on to the trails and the mud with the trek and climb up on to the South Downs and the fabulous views from on top.

North to Surrey...
... and south to the sea.
The course was not as muddy as before, bar on the forested paths which were full of plenty of the grey cloying claggy clay-based mud, and once through the trees and on to the fields that form the top of the downs the running was good firm grassy pasture under foot and with the clear crisp air we could see for several miles from on top of the ridge north through Sussex towards Surrey and south out in to the channel.

It didn’t seem too long until I was running past Chanctonbury Ring, mercifully not as cold as before where the wind and an overcast sky really bit in to you back then, before heading south to Cissbury Ring and doing the loop passing the golf course overlooking Wareham before the lonely drag of the next loop of Steep Down.

Sauntering up to the ring.
North from the ring.
Mercifully once you have completed this final loop you know you are on the home stretch and heading back to Steyning and the finish… With the fun steep descent through the woods off of the downs before hitting the tease of the final few fields that divert you here and there whilst in sight of the finish but never seeming to approach it until the final drag including one last quagmire before the finishing line… And the fry-up.

Last views of the channel before turning for home.
Today was one of those runs where everything passed without trouble, but with my position in the field of runners, I was alone for long chunks of time with just the company of my podcasts to amuse me along the route.

With my gammy hammy I had to reign myself in at times when I felt I could have pushed harder - which did me another favour in preventing me from ‘blowing-up’ by going too hard or too fast so hopefully led to a better more even pace throughout my escapade that brought me home 8 minutes faster than before in 106/192 finishers…

What we run this race for!
A pretty good day out for me I felt, and then there was the fried brekkie and the uneventful drive home. The next time I’ll be in Steyning will be the halfway point of my planned 2 day MTB traverse of the South Downs Way in August with Dean, Rob & Stu - at least it should be warmer then, if not as bright and sunny!

Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Run far.

Monday, 11 July 2016

21st February: Meon Valley Plodding

Through an unfortunate injury, Neil, a former colleague of mine and fellow entrant at this year’s UT55 and Lakeland 50 got in touch with me to offer me his place in the ‘Meon Valley Plod’.

This race is a tough 21 or so mile jaunt up and down hills on the South Downs centering on the Meon Valley not too far from Portsmouth.

With it being just 20 miles from my gaff, and the opportunity for a good training run not too far from the location of the Steyning Stinger that I am running in a few weeks it would have been churlish to decline the offer.

It is quite a low-key affair with a deliberately small field run by local running club ‘Portsmouth Joggers’ and because of it operating within its limitations of numbers it is never advertised and fills-up on word of mouth almost as soon as it is announced.

I drove down to the event base of the village hall early in the morning and gathered my thoughts and senses over my granola and coffee whilst we were all safety briefed on the route. Standing in the hall as we were briefed, looking around there were plenty of Portsmouth Marathon shirts and buffs to be spotted, along with loads of ‘Brutal’ ones as well so it seems the entry crowd is drawn from the same local events that I run as well.

Briefing... With a band to entertain before and after!
Once briefed we were all herded towards the nearby start in the village at a cross-roads and huddled-together against the cold we counted-down to the start and the headed-off along the road and up the hills on to the downs past bemused sheep as we hit the cloud-line.

The bemused sheep as we invaded their space and the cloud-line.
This lung-bursting initial climb mercifully plateaued and we made our way across the top of the hill over and through styles and gates before descending on the muddy slope the other side… Which was pretty-much a  template of the whole day.

Crossing the plateau.
Broadly you could describe the course as a figure of 8 on its side, with you heading off on to the westerly loop first before the slightly longer easterly loop. The race is in effect a series of 6 big hills all linked together, so you know every 4 miles you will be climbing a steep hard slope before getting some respite, then a good downhill and a flattish section to the next hill.

A welcome downhill track, even if a bit slippery!
Terrain underfoot for the most part was field/ farmland, some forestry road and some country lanes linking the various hills, so you were continually changing surface as well as attitude from climb to descent.

Downy view.
The aid stations were at regular points, with one of them being run by the guys responsible for the Portsmouth Coastal Marathon and included some shots of their beer that they gave to all the finishers back in December’s race!

Plenty of rolling countryside to be seen!
Signage and marshaling on the course was very good, and at the bottom of one particularly slippery field upon hitting the road at the bottom I was greeted by the cheery face of Claire, long-time friend and Pompey-based runner who was wrapped-up well against the elements marshaling for the day. I stopped for a bit to have a chat with her before pushing-on with the run searching for the next hill to conquer.

A cheery Claire marshaling away.
With the recent foul weather that has been the signature of this winter to date, the areas where water could gather had turned large sections in to complete quagmires - be they downhill tracks, or in the most amusing of fashions, a stretch of about a mile, the only really extended flat section we had, which was a sea of shin-deep mud punctuated by streams.

Which way now?
Attempting to run through this was highly amusing. You could not judge how deep the mud was with any step or be able to pick a natural path through it, so you kept weaving left and right through the mire, staggering along like a drunk kicked-out of the pub at closing time.

The start of the muddy fun!
The deepest mud though was saved to the very last section as you approached the finish line back at the village hall. Running around the top of the hill overlooking the village, the path was knee-deep at times with thick clay mud that sucked your feet in to it and I think pretty much everybody lost a trainer at some point and had to dig it out by hand before carrying on with the last few hundred metres down to the finish line!

One of the final views before descending.
Crossing the line I was knackered - it may have been around 21 miles, but the race was harder than a fair few marathons I have run.

Claire was waiting for me at the finish with her marshaling duties long since over so it was good to have a chat over a cuppa as I managed to wash the worst of the mud off of my legs.

Having been blocked-in by double parking I had to wait a while for other runners to clear-off before I could make my escape but a short drive home and I was ready to get the rest of the mud off me in a very welcome warm shower and warm-up for the evening.

This run I suppose was about as close as the south can offer to a ‘fell race’ and the atmosphere was very convivial. With its low-key nature and promotion only through word-of-mouth amongst local runners, most of the entrants already knew each other from their various clubs so it was quite cliquey in that regard, but everyone was still very friendly and willing to chat along the route between gasps for breath.

Lastly, I must say a big thanks for Neil in passing his entry on to me for this as it was a great training run ready for Steyning in a few weeks. I definitely owe him a beer or two if I get a chance to buy him one up in the Lake District later this year!

Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Run far.

7th February: CTS South Devon

So far this winter you can pretty-much sum it up as going from one storm to another. It has been surprisingly mild temperature wise, but instead of a winter’s chill we have had wind, wind and more wind blowing in off of the Atlantic along with the accompanying downpours of rain.

The forecast for race day was for more of the same and the drive down to Beesands for the Endurancelife Coastal Trail Series South Devon Marathon had me arriving at midnight parked-up on the sea-front as the waves crashed against the rocks protecting the shore below, with a lovely howl to the gusting wind.

Beautiful clear sunny skies of the morning!
Waking as dawn broke under a light shower I stepped on to the Endurancelife conveyor-belt that is registration where you are fed in one end and spat out the other with supreme organisation and efficiency. Emerging with time to kill I had a leisurely breakfast of my customary slab of granola (LSS’s special recipe) washed down with a couple of mugs of black coffee with 2 sugars and changed into my gear before the briefing.

Registration at first light.
At previous runnings of this event, through storm damage and severe weather warnings, the course has been forced to change for the safety of us runners. As such I was eager to find if this year’s route was going to be the traditional one, or if there would be any tweaks because of the aforementioned… Fortunately it was to be the expected route this time with the predicted foul weather not posing such a risk as to warrant any diversions.

I knew from the weather forecast even before leaving for the race, that today would not be about chasing times… It was promising to be more challenging with the wind and rain than it was during the Gower CTS in November, with the wind predicted to be far stronger and the temperature certainly colder!

Underway with the massed start a half hour after the field of ultra runners, it was already very slippery underfoot. The grass was almost slick with the mud below the surface and as we hit the first field at its tricky angle slope down and to the left, I watched as 4 people went arse-over-tit as their grip failed. Rather than follow the herd and risk the same by blindly trailing over the churning-up path I took a higher line over fresh grass rather than the muddy tracks of the ultras and the race leaders, which took me out of harm’s way and allowed me to get down and over the beach crossing at Hallsands without incident or a muddy stripe down my backside.

Off in to the wind rain and murk.
Climbing up from Hallsands we headed for the lighthouse at Start Point in to the strong gusting headwind… One of the runners in front was caught unawares by it and his hat was blown clean-off his head. Fortunately I was able to catch it as it bounced towards me along the path and gave me an impetus to catch him and hand it back.

Looking back.
Rounding Start Point and descending on the rocky trail, the white foaming sea was revealed below us; the roar of it hitting the reef making an impressive sound as we kept it well to our left, making our way over the next couple of slippery cliff-top fields on paths that resembled streams at times. Heading under a set of cliffs towering over the ones we were running over, the fields began to give-way to the beginning of the rocky technical trail that makes this part of the race my favourite stretches of running on all the courses I have run.

Today was not going to be a good day for photos of decent trail-porn, so I thought I’d do something different and film what it is like to run on this stretch; continually changing elevation, rocky stepped outcrops on the path and a little scramble to get over some of the cliff boulders.


Following a sharp right on another headland I saw something I had not encountered thus far… The wind was so strong that a waterfall was being blown back up over the cliff in the teeth of the wind. I couldn’t help but stop to photograph and film the spectacle whilst chuckling at my fellow runners going through an uphill waterfall, before following suite and running through it myself.

The uphill waterfall!

Having to brace yourself against the wind the whole time you were running just added to the pleasure of it, but after the turn off the coast up the estuary inland, and the shelter the trees afforded you from the wind and rain, it really was welcome respite as you no longer had to concentrate at the level you were till now. The trees seeming to be silent around you, making you aware of the roar of the wind high above you.

Through the first checkpoint it was the long slow trudge uphill back round and on to the top of the cliffs we were just running along, exposed to the elements again but at least this time the wind was mercifully at our backs.

Looping around on to the out and back section, where passing people coming towards you on the single-track boulder strewn path is always fun (as a marathoner on your way out you pass the returning leading ultras), I passed a couple of stragglers on the marathon course who must have been late starters, one lady seemed to be taking everything in her stride, the other was a younger guy in his early 20’s… He looked like the walking dead. He had no waterproof or windproof jacket, just black clinging lycra-based running gear without much layering - admittedly covering his arms and legs entirely, but he was soaked to the skin and with the wind ripping in to him, it looked like he had all the heat taken out of him and he was really suffering, with his face and hands almost white. He was only managing a shuffle at this stage - only around the 10k mark, so I was hoping for his sake that he would be timed-out at the first checkpoint or hooked from the race on safety grounds!

Off the out and back and we headed inland over the fields, the boggy quagmire of fields, that lead us back to the top of the hill overlooking the start at Beesands. With the rain of the day on top of the last week, we were confronted by ‘slippery hill’ - a grassy very steep downhill slope of a field that you normally have to side-step down even when grip is good underfoot, but today was a different story. Precariously picking my way down the hill I could see long muddy stripes on the grass where people had slipped, fallen & carried on going to the bottom.


Watching someone stumble, fall and toboggan down on their arse I did the only sensible thing open to me: grabbed the camera & started filming!.. No sooner had I started than I too came a cropper and landed on my backside, sliding to the foot of the hill, but at least I had been recording the event to capture the moment!

Terrific fun, I dusted myself down and grinning like a loon carried on running.

The next inland section towards the edge of Slapton is pretty uneventful, with more fields and country lanes before we descend in to the nature reserve and the duck-board walkway that at times was more stream and quagmire than anything resembling a path. Most of this section from the slide onwards I ran with fellow CTS marathon junkie Luke, and we were joined on the way in to the nature reserve by a lady running her first trail marathon. At one point she decided to attempt avoiding the muddy puddles by clambering around them on a bit of a bund only to be confronted around the corner with no other option than to embrace the cold wet mud and run straight through it!

This section to the final aid station gave us some welcome shelter from the battering of the elements that we had been experiencing all day, but the final leg of the run from the checkpoint at 25 miles threw us back in to the mouth of the storm. Running along Slapton Sands the head-on blast of the wind made progress tough, with walking leaning in to it with your arms streamlined behind you seeming to be the fastest method of getting in to Torcorss… Up and down the hill and we were on the short straight in to the finish and the chance to dry-off and warm-up in the Cricketers over a pint of ale.

Another marathon done, and whilst this is the fourth time I have run this course, it has been different every time and very enjoyable. Looking at the time I put-down this year compared to last, I was in reality far faster once you factored-in the conditions, which was a good confidence booster for further runs to come.

Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Run far.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

25th January: A Brutal Spud

Over the last year I have had a very willing training buddy in the form of my 4 legged friend ‘Spud’. Since he was old enough to start running, he has been out several times a week with both LSS & myself and he has coped admirably with all distances from a 5k parkrun to 20 miles… Now he is well used to running, I felt he was ready for his first proper race: the Brutal 10k ‘Men Only’.

I have been taking part in Brutal 10 races ever since I started trail running a good few years back and in fact it was running one of these, experiencing how hard it was and realising how woefully unfit I had become, that spurred me on to further feats of two-legged lunacy.

This was the first Brutal I had done since my outing dressed as an ostrich the previous Christmas, so I was looking forward to getting back to the challenge of one of their 10k routes, although with a twist as today would be 2 laps of a 5k course strapped to a lunatic spaniel.

I drove with Spud & LSS (along for the ride to watch and laugh at us) to the event base on the army tank proving ground around the back of Farnborough airfield, the same location for the ‘Grim’ race. This race is always going to be a wet and muddy one as the soil there is mostly sand which becomes waterlogged in the open and creates large pools of thick sandy mud, so the trips through the hilly wood and scrub land are often very welcome as you can progress quite well as opposed to the cold sticky wade as soon as you hit the water.

Registering as one of the Cani-cross runners I was handed our number (drawn on in marker) and we readied ourselves in the chill to start. Our start was to be 15 minutes in front of the main racers to allow the dogs to be spread-out along the course rather than as a pack chasing-down slower runners from the beginning and finding ourselves all bunched-up with the field from the start, which is a very sensible way of organising things.

Awaiting the start amongst the puddles.
Both the 5k & 10k races start at the same time so we waited in the middle of the combined pack, with the cacophony of barking hounds all wound-up and eager to run assailing everyone’s ears. There were all shapes and sizes of dogs that you could imagine, some that you would never picture at an event like this, which I suppose could also apply to the owners as well!

Soon the air-horn blew and we were off, all the hounds eager to be away and doing what they enjoy, with the pace being very brisk from the start. We found ourselves with the leaders from the start and able to hold-on to them… Although I did realise that it was not possible to discern who was running the 5k or the 10k to tell if it was those running the shorter distance who were really haring-off in front!

Haring off all a blur.
The course was a mix of puddles, woodland trails, and heathland with the occasional short and steep hill thrown in for good measure (going both up and down them). The sections through the woods were well guided with the use of tape so you never found yourself losing the route, even though we were the first to be on the course, although Spud was very keen to take his own path at times rather than keeping to the track which caused a few stoppages to drag him back from around the wrong side of trees and on to the course once more.

One of our fellow runners was finding that his boxer, who was also racing for the first time, was not taking well to the mix of the other dogs around him and the water - refusing to go in the puddles from the start and managing to slip his leash on a couple of occasions as he fought to do his own thing rather than his owner’s intentions!

Through another wallow.
By the time we were halfway round we were soaked, covered in mud and a bit colder for our exertions, although by keeping a brisk pace it meant we never got a chance to cool-down too much. The ever changing terrain, ensuring Spud was taking a correct line, and easing-off downhill so as to not pull me over meant I needed total concentration at all times, so there was no danger of mentally 'zoning-out' at any point, or any real chance to take any pictures either. The whole way round the first lap we were in sight of people and was able to have the occasional chat whilst wading, and the braver spectators out in the middle of the course at the various wading points seemed to be entertained by the sight of the dogs pulling their owners through the mire.

Starting the second lap.
On the second lap, I knew exactly what was in store for us… and so did Spud! unfortunately with spending the 5k of the first loop going in and out of freezing water and mud that was up to his armpits, he was beginning to have a sense of humour failure and tried to avoid mud and water altogether, which was not possible (and designed to be thus), so he was trying to take the shortest route through it at all times, which for the most part was not following the course, so I had to spend time and effort fighting him pulling me off to the side and off balance to keep us going in the right direction.

For most of the second lap we seemed to be all by ourselves, and by my reckoning we would be in with a shot at a podium place if we could pick-off a couple of runners, so I went as hard as I could and managed to get to within about a minute or so of the man and his dog in front before Spud decided to exact revenge on me...

Through one particularly deep sticky muddy wade he decided he was going to get out by climbing the sides and he kept pulling hard to the side, forcing me to stumble blindly in the thigh-deep mud and water and pulled me bodily over on a couple of occasions, just managing to keep my head out of the yellow ’water’. I could tell that he was not enjoying himself, so I decided to ease-off on the chase and try to take as dry a route as possible to the finish, although this was not entirely possible.

As we raced onwards we overtook some of the slower runners from the 5k/10k race who must have been coming to the end of their first (or only) lap, including a woman running this men only race wearing a set of ‘Groucho Marx’ glasses complete with ‘tache to attempt to ‘fit in’ in a way that was reminiscent of the ‘Life of Brian’ stoning scene, which made me chuckle, and the fact that the leading racer from the main 10k race only overtook us with less than a mile to go did not hurt so much!

To be honest I was now sympathising with Spud as I was now no longer feeling my feet as they were getting so wet so often that any heat was being sucked out of them, so when we could see the finish line a mile away and hear the cheering of the spectators we managed to speed-up a little to get to the end as quickly as possible… One final splash and swim across the pool for the second time, lined all the way by the cheering crowd, with Spud getting lots of love and swimming as close to them as possible, we emerged from the other side and crossed the finish line in 5th place… Ok so it may be 5th out of 14, but I’ll take that any day!

The final wade to the finish.
As ever the atmosphere of the whole event was great, with the emphasis still being on the ‘fun’ rather than the serious head-down-and-charge mentality that 10k races can so often have, and being the ‘men only’ race it did not seem to make it ultra competitive as an entirely testosterone fuelled field might have been. They even gave us an event specific medal, something new for Brutal as they have always till now been a ‘no-frills’ operation. The course was well marked and cheerfully marshalled even in the cold wet conditions.

I really enjoy the Brutals as ‘speed-work’ for my trail marathons - my time today would have seen me placed in the top 1/3 of the main field, on what was a tough course to get much speed-up for large sections with the thick cloying wades to be undertaken - oh and by the time I had finished, the marker pen drawn number I had been given was now non-existent!

As you can tell I was #565 in the race!
I will definitely be back for more, calendar permitting, although I have realised that Spud is not one for continual drenching in the cold, so he will not be back for this particular course in the future, but will certainly race in other ones as he did enjoy the running part - he certainly got some treats later in the day as rewards for his efforts!

A bemedalled Spud :)
Big thanks to LSS for coming along to spectate in the cold & wet to take some shots of Spud & me in action :)

Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Run far.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

17th January: CTS Dover

Two weeks in to the new year and its time for my first marathon of 2016 down on the south east coast in Kent, where in another first, this run was the Inaugural Coastal Trail Series Dover event.

Previously the January race of the series has been on the isle of Anglesey on the most north westerly tip of Wales (and a ball-ache for me to get to), so whilst it was a shame to not be running up and down Mount Anglesey and its surroundings, it was certainly a far more convenient journey. I was also intrigued as to what the course here in Dover would be like, when my only experience of it is passing through the port whilst escaping to mainland Europe!

Following my normal plan I drove to the event base for midnight. Finding there was no available parking nearby I pulled-up on a verge at the side of the road and hunkered-down for a kip… A slightly more comfortable one than previous time as I had fitted a ‘rock n roll bed’ in the back of the van.

In the midst of a week long cold-snap, I knew it would be a chilly night, but even with the floor, walls & ceiling of the van insulated and foiled ‘space blanket’ panels covering the windows, I woke up to find a thin layer of ice on the inside of the glass!

It turned out I was opposite the field which was the event parking, so I drove across the road and breakfasted as the sun slowly rose before heading down the hill to the visitors centre at the Coastguard base and registering under the watchful gaze of Dover Castle… At least with how cold it was there was no danger of the van getting bogged-down in mud whilst I went off gallivanting!

Frosted grass and a quiet port.
The ground was crisp underfoot and whitened with the frost. As the sun rose over the becalmed harbour beneath us we could see there were no clouds in the sky, so today’s race, whilst cold, was looking to be in glorious sunshine with cracking visibility and maybe a little bit of warmth from the winter’s rays - well you can but hope!

The castle perched above everything.
As it was the first time running the course, all we had to go-on before the race was the published map of the route on event organisers Endurancelife’s website, which whilst an OS one, you still really need to be ‘on the ground’ to put a context to everything… From what I could tell it was a figure of 8 of equal halves with the southerly one first before the northerly and a very steep climb in both halves.

Parading along the promenade.
After the briefing we were off descending the cliff path and the pavement in to the centre of Dover itself before heading up and out the other side of the cliff road. I was making good pace at the start towards the back of the leading bunch with all this descending, but after we had made our way out the other side and found ourselves climbing the steep path alongside the A20, all the signage had disappeared. Like sheep we must have blindly followed the leaders past a right turn… Decision time now: turn back and re-tread 1/4 mile downhill and repeat the ascent the other side of the wall, or forge onwards with the climb, cross the road and tack-around till you pick-up the course again. I chose the latter alongside a couple of others and soon enough we rejoined the course on the edge of a housing estate, having not gained an advantage of cutting distance or disadvantaging ourselves by adding on a good half mile like the others did.

Looking back on the port on the way up and out.
The cliff-top path looming large (we diverted right at the base of the hill).
Back on the course we were now heading down away from the A20 and Dover, passed the ventilation shafts for the channel tunnel down to our left, before running through a tunnel that spat us out in open countryside beneath the cliffs, following the trail along through a nature reserve and over the pebbled beach parallel to the railway in the direction of Folkestone.

About to enter the cavernous hole.
Inside the tunnel.
Along here I found myself running with a local guy raised in Deal and who was loving the chance to run in a race where he grew-up. He explained to me that the nature reserve we were on was reclaimed land made from the spoil of the channel tunnel excavations. They deliberately piled it all up there to protect the railway line which kept on being damaged by storms and high tides. The net result was a good 50m of extra land extending out in to the sea around 5-10m higher than what there was before and stretching for a couple of miles!

Hitting the shingle of the beach.
He was very impressed to be so far in front of the field, to which I explained about those at the very front having taken a wrong turn so they were about 10 minutes behind, so expect within about 15 minutes to half an hour to have a steady stream of people come passing by!

A stream on the beach.
Soon I was by myself again as I picked my way over the boulders and mud that was making up the going underfoot as it changed from the grassy nature reserve to the pebbled beach.

Under the white cliffs.

Back across the beach
Looking forward along the sea wall.
Progress along here was considerably slower, but under the sunny skies it was nonetheless enjoyable; just you the waves beside you and the birds calling above… A quick scramble up on to the sea wall and a short blast along here we had reached roughly 10k and the furthest away part of the initial loop - and the climb up over the famous white cliffs… The steep promise on the map. This was slow, hot and heavy progress: step after step until finally the top was reached and the first of the day’s aid stations.

Starting the climb up the cliff.
Crossing the railway bridge.
Back on the cliff top path we were soon cooled by the breeze as from our on-high vantage point we could see Dover getting bigger in the distance as we headed back towards it and the halfway mark.

Looking down on the sea-wall we had just run along.
'Operation Stack' in force on the HGV's approaching the port.
Approaching the town centre, we detoured to the left, climbing towards the wartime fortifications on the ridge-like hill with the rest of the town of Dover below us to the left. Up here with the sun able to hit the ground, the hard icy surface had given way to a slick muddy trail underfoot and some people were skating all-over the place through not having footwear adequate for handling these conditions!

Rampaging over the ramparts.
From the fortifications it was back down to the sea front and the reverse of the initial mile under the castle, before climbing back to near the start and continuing round overlooking the now thronging ferry port. On the path here, the chalky mud was sticking to your feet like shit to a blanket - filling your grips and making your trainers useless for any purchase on the ground and weighing a ton as you tried not to slide all over the place.

Just about to drop in to the town centre.
All alone with the crisp clear air, cracking views and slow progress through the cloying mud, for the first time in a while at a race on went the iPod and shuffling through there were a couple of cracking tracks that made the next couple of miles along the cliffs, down to St. Margaret’s and the slow climb up the steps on the cliff face fly past. I always find the miles 15-20 psychologically the hardest of all in a marathon as you have just gone past the halfway and the end is not yet on the horizon, so I’ll take anything to help with the slog!

Climbing back out the far side of the port.
Soon we descended into Kingsdown and the promenade along to Deal before the turn for home… It was along this stretch I was caught by a couple of familiar faces in the form of Cliff & Roxi, a pair of Canicross runners from ‘back home’. The 3 of us made our way along the flat tarmac to the aid station before they pushed-on leaving me to keep on trucking with just my tunes for company.

Claggy mud!
From the turn it was pretty much uphill to the end, so I tried to push as hard as I could as the sun began to wane, the shadows lengthening and the chill factor rising (or should it really be plummeting?)… After a few miles I caught Cliff & Roxi again as they were slowing down through Cliff picking-up a knee niggle and they were praying for the end to come sooner rather than later, as with only a couple of miles to go it would be quicker to struggle to the end rather than any thoughts of dropping-out!.. When they had passed me they had taken-on another dog from a third runner who had to drop-out through injury approaching the halfway. This meant Cliff was attempting to get a dog he knew, but had never run with before, to run in sync with his faithful hound and obey his commands and do things at his pace, which was adding further stress to just getting round the course in one piece!

Lengthening shadows.
As the sun nearly disappeared over the horizon in front of me I eventually I crossed the line after a touch over 28 miles with the ground beginning to freeze-over again in the darkening skies, for a 74th place finish out of 127 who toed the line at the start.

Waning sun on the final leg.
I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by the scenery through which we ran - including the ubiquitous white cliffs, and running beneath them you appreciate their size and majesty all the more.. When you say Dover, you think dull, grey and industrial as all you tend to see is the road in and the port, with the town itself hidden over the other side of the cliffs, however there is a helluva lot more than just the port and town: there’s miles of rolling cliff-top hills and fields to either side of it and to the north.

Sunset over the port.
The difficulty grading of this course is only given as a 2/5 (although Endurancelife’s difficulty ratings would have a standard town-centre marathon as about 0.1/5) it still has plenty of challenge and a relentless final 10k of uphill slog, plus scaling and descending the white cliffs twice is not the easiest of feats… At least I can now say I went up and down them twice in a day!

Cliff & Roxi crossing the line.
For the record, these are the tracks on shuffle that accompanied my trek:

Dido - Slide
Jamie Myerson - Revisions 

Metallica - The Struggle Within
New Order - Mesh
The Beatles - A Hard Day’s Night
Flowered Up - Phobia
Pixies - Ana
IAM - Petit Frère
The Stone Roses - I Wanna be Adored
Crowded House - Fall at Your Feet
Trinity-X - Forever
Goldie Looking Chain - Time to Make a Change
Manfred Mann - Doo Wah Diddy 

Iron Maiden - Iron Maiden
Rui de Silva - Touch Me
INXS - Kill the Pain
BT & Tori Amos - Blue Skies
Basement Jaxx - Fly Life
Carter USM - Second to Last Will and Testament
Louis Armstrong - We Have all the Time in the World
Jellyfish - The Ghost at Number One

Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Run far.