A sufficient number of days have passed since Sunday’s race that I now feel up to the task of writing about it. Plus the organisers have posted their results so further procrastination is clearly not an option.
First challenge of the day was deciding what to wear; suffice to say it was cold, bitterly so in fact. I heard tell of the fact that there was river crossings and to expect high levels of shin-deep mud. I was torn between full length running tights and capri style but opted for the full length in the end (and was glad I did as up on the ridges the wind seemed to find itself getting into all sorts of places it shouldn’t have). Top half was a long-sleeved running top under my club’s vest. This was the first time I had worn my club’s strip and it was actually really nice; the club had a good turnout at the event with 7 of us in all and it was great to feel part of a group. It was also great hearing the marshals shouting encouragement aimed specifically at me as in ‘Come on Calne, you’re doing well’ and ‘Keep it up Calne, not much further to go’ and other cheery comments along much the same lines. The fact that the ‘not much further to go’ was clearly a white lie did not detract from the fact that she had managed to single me out from the crowd.
I got to the venue bright and early (over an hour before the start) to be confronted by several hundred runners already there. Varying levels of nervousness amongst the contestants presented themselves (some of the portaloos were already a ‘no go’ zone) although much bonhomie and back slapping was also evident. Most of my club colleagues were there and debating what to wear; clearly the hot-topic of the day. Much incredulity ensued that I was not intending to wear a thermal top, buff, hat or gloves but honestly, we were about to tackle 12 miles of energy sapping off-road course with four steep climbs thrown in for good measure, I didn’t feel that wrapping up like Nanook Of The North was a viable option. In fairness I was bloody freezing waiting for the off but I felt my long term strategy was sound and I have to say it proved so. Apart from after the third hill where my hands started to freeze ever so slightly, the rest of me was toasty warm for the vast majority of the course.The start was its usual confusion of where to stand in comparison to other runners and as there was no pacers it made it even more of an ordeal but I plumped for what appeared to be the middle of the pack. And then we were off. The first part of the course was along quiet roads which led on to the canal which in turn led onto fields. The fact that it was so bitterly cold meant that the ground temperature hadn’t risen above zero degrees so the expected levels of mud did not materialise; having said that, some of the fields (especially the gateways) with two hundred or so runners going through before me were pretty churned up by the time I got to them. In fact I nearly crashed into a lady in front of me who carried on running when her trainer didn’t, stuck in the mud as it was. She came to a sudden halt, not fully appreciating the fact that she had two hundred or so runners behind her. I do wonder what happened to her; we were less than three miles into the race by this point so I don’t know whether she bravely put her shoe back on over her rather muddy sock or gave up. I like to believe it was the former however I have a feeling the latter option was more likely as she looked distinctly fed up (not to mention rather shocked and with a very muddy foot).
My game plan, such as it was, was to track my club colleague as we have a very similar pace and I was hoping she would tow me along in her wake. It turned out to be a good plan as it gave me a focus and meant that I wasn’t tempted to slow down on the trickier, muddier sections. In turn, she knew I was right behind her (my heavy breathing and sniffing gave the game away) so she felt pressurised into keeping up a good pace. It’s hard deciding an appropriate pace in a race you have not done before; flat races are much easier but knowing that I faced several hills I was reluctant to set off too fast and burn out. My only ambition was to beat her if possible and my plan was to stick with her and then overtake at some point towards the latter half of the course.
The first few miles were actually quite pleasant, slightly more up than down but nothing to write home about. We managed to keep up a reasonable pace (especially along the canal) although the going underfoot across the fields was somewhat challenging; the semi-frozen status of the ground along with the deep ruts and tractor tyre-marks meant risking twisted ankles so concentration was the order of the day. Around mile five the first test presented itself; an uphill climb along a narrow gully with tree roots and loose rocks thrown in for good measure. Due to the narrowness of the gully overtaking was not an option so I was glad that I was already in front of my friend although she was hot on my heels. It was a relentless climb and my brain was making ‘please walk’ suggestions but I managed to ignore it and make it to the top; to be confronted with having to climb up the side of the bank that formed the gully and into a field. This climb was so steep that the organisers had provided ropes in order to assist with the hauling up thereof! Hauling completed, we were then faced with the first hill. Short and sharp it was nonetheless a real energy sapper and a sign of worse things yet to come. The only compensation with the uphill was the following downhill and I was determined to make the most of them. Usually I am not great at down hills, I find myself putting on the brakes but before the race I had stern words with myself that I should attempt to run down any hills as fast as possible to make up for time lost. It was the right plan as I managed to overtake several people who didn’t overtake me back. First hill over and done with and the second hill loomed large which was equally as high as the first. It was somewhat daunting standing at the bottom of it and looking up at all the other runners in front of me snaking their way up. The issue with the hills, in addition to their length and height, was the going. It was not a straightforward grassy field, but in some areas ridges had been cut into the hillside so it was akin to climbing a very steep set of stairs. The other, more annoying, aspect was that the track was really only one person wide so if the person in front was not going as fast as you would like, you didn’t really have any overtaking options, unless you were happy to forge your own route which was extremely hard going and didn't really gain you that much. Needless to say nobody was actually running up the hill, it was too steep for that, but I was determined to power walk them as much as possible and it turns out I’m pretty good at it. I found that my preferred method was to take the biggest stride possible even if it meant a slight pause before taking the next step; this I found was still quicker than the baby steps option I saw others using. Second hill dispensed with and then a nice downhill although going very rutted so care had to be taken. Third hill was another long, steep climb tackled with my new found power walking skill but the down hill for this one was extremely annoying. We spent a bit of time running along a ridge with a very steep slope to the right hand side; again the track was only one person wide with no hope of overtaking (unless you were prepared to risk life and limb). Thankfully the people in front of me were keeping up a good pace so this was not a problem. However, as we started to descend, it became irritating. People in front were slowing down and going far slower than I would have liked (I knew that my friend was behind me but likely to be catching up and I was determined not to let this happen). By now there was a bit of overtaking room but this involved running through very deep, rutted grass with all the associated hazards that brings. I did manage to get past a few people but the energy expended was almost not worth it; it did piss me off the looks I got when overtaking but really, have the courtesy to move over people. Finally made it to the bottom, checked behind me and was horrified to see that my friend was now no more than 50 feet behind. This definitely spurred me on. The track now sloped ever so slightly up hill and the effort I expended on overtaking people was just starting to show, I even had to do a few strides of power walking just to get my breath back. However, with friend hot on my heels I willed myself onwards and started running again until I got to a bottle neck caused by runners waiting to take turns climbing over a stile. It's amazing just how long I had to wait and I only had five runners in front of me. Several times I felt the urge to shout out 'For crying out loud, just climb over the effing thing' until finally it was my turn to get over it. I nearly slipped. I then felt ever so slightly embarrassed when I seemed to take ages getting from one side to the other. Guess that's Karma for you; it's a bitch alright. Not long after the stile crossing we were faced with the final challenge; another brutal hill. This was not as tall as the other three but still exceptionally steep and at one point I almost fell as gravity and tiredness wanted to defy the direction I was trying to take. Almost as bad as the uphill on this one was the downhill; so steep was it that you were forced to crab down sideways, running was not even an option. I'm not sure if the photo conveys just how steep it was but the route was from where the hay bales are, up the left side of the horse, across the top of his back and down again past his tail. Was I ever glad that this was the final effort and now only another two miles to go. I checked with the runner behind me (one thing I have found on races is that other runners always seem a bit surprised when you speak to them) that the going was flat to the end and upon confirmation that it was I did my very best to speed up. I had seen my friend still attempting the up as I was coming down so I had managed to build up a lead on her thank god but certainly not enough to be able to kick back and relax. The final twist in the tail was the route being diverted through a ford so rather than going over the bridge, you were forced to wade through knee-deep fast flowing water. As you can imagine this was rather bracing but, in a slightly masochistic way, surprisingly enjoyable. With only half a mile to go my energy was draining fast and it was only with firmly gritted teeth that I was able to run all the way to the finish line. So knackered was I that a few people did manage to overtake me on the long run in which was disappointing however I did manage to finish in front of my friend; I was very happy about that. My stats:
Position = 279 out of 573 (32nd female out of 142)
Category Position: 15th out of 63
I am actually pretty chuffed by my results. I was hoping to squeeze in under two hours and if I hadn't been held up on a couple of the climbs I may just have done it but I'm happy to walk away with 2 hours 1 minute for my first attempt.
Again not sure if this conveys the steepness, but you can see how the first five miles lull you into a false sense of security and then how thick and fast the elevations come after that: