Race to the King 2018

 

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Yesterday I ran the Race to the King trail run, part of the Threshold Trail Series. I’m getting straight on the blogging for this one as I’m finding that not only do I very quickly forget most of the run (probably through exhaustion) but that I’m needing to beat the runners-low which will inevitably kick in soon (more on that in a separate post to come).

The day started off with a super-early 4:30am alarm and I did not respond well. I was not interested in waking up and running all day, not yet anyway. What annoyed me most was, the first thing I could feel as I woke was that I’d developed a cold sore. Yep, I’m a carrier. I hate these bastards. They come out of nowhere. Always overnight and the make you feel disgusting and grim. It put me in a bad mood to start. Alas, I had a job to do. A couple of trains and a bus later and I’m pulling up to the starting village in Gaston Farm.

I was initially due to be in the first wave at 8am, but due to the summer train times and and a revised shuttle service, I was moved to the second wave at 8:15. I knew what to expect and was ready to go, all I needed was to fill my water bottles and bladder, drop my bag off and get that nervous piss out. The bus dropped me off at 7:55 and I was ready by 8:05. To my luck the first wave was just setting off, so I tagged on in at the back and as I did I saw some familiar faces. There was Tom and Derrick who I’ve met a few times, Elisa who I’ve also crossed paths with from time to time but never managed to say more than a passing hello to and to new faces in Anneka and Kelly (who welcomed me to the gang with a huge hug!). We were off.

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And we are off…

The route immediately led us through a gate into the wideness of the South Downs. It was early, sunny and hot. It was going to be a long day. And I’d forgotten my sunglasses and, in my haste to start I hadn’t lubed up either. A runner’s error! I had a brief moment to chat to the guys over the first two miles as we thread pretty much single file along the paths before hitting the first of many hills to come. It was long, but not steep so I kept on plodding upwards. Before I’d realised I’d pulled away from the rest of the group and hadn’t said my goodbyes nor wished them happy paths. Doh. Onward I continued.

In my head I had a goal. Two weeks previously I finished the Race to the Tower Race to the Tower 2018 in 10 hours and 40 mins. This was a similar distance race but slightly hillier route, so I thought I might be able to run this one in under 10 hours through less longer walks, less time at pit stops and a slightly faster start. So I kept going. I soon got chatting to a guy called Jack who was with a group of others and he too was looking for a similar time to finish. Our time running together didn’t last long though as he found some supporters waiting to cheer him on. Together though we did run a section of the route that was trails through forest paths, the type of course I’m really growing to love. The shade, the variety, the colours of the trees and the sun breaking through. I love it. Apart from all the flies! There were alot of flies out on the South Downs yesterday!

The first two checkpoints came and went fairly quickly. With them they brought another two climbs, one of which was quickly following a short down hill stretch just after the 10 mile mark. Then, 5 miles later we encountered what I dubbed the ‘foot fucker’. There was a steep down hill followed by an immediate climb back up, both about 300ft of elevation. The down hill was steep and the ground was rocky and loose. I’m not sure how big stones need to be classified as ‘rocks’ but these were hefty. They would hurt if you were to kick them. Add this to the general un-evenness of the ground and the gravity and momentum of the run and it was quite frightening. The speed you are running with increases, you are looking down at your footings, simultaneously trying to plot your path down whilst grimacing at each rock that pierces your sole and each bashing your toes take as they crush forward in your shoes. There were a few unhappy faces at this point. And it continues as you power back up the incline.

Towards the top of the climb there were a lot of spectators sitting down, enjoying the views with the picnics. Cheering on the runners as they climbed slowly to the top. One of them was more devious than the rest. I man sitting in a camping chair at the top slowly pulled out his large camera to reveal himself as one the official course photographers. There was laughter from the crowd as I called him a bastard and started playing up for his pleasure. He was probably the most hated man on the South Downs that day.

The next few miles saw some undulating paths through a varied terrain before a short climb through the forest to Winchester Hill and an amazing view. The checkpoint just after the summit was the 23 mile mark. The Basecamp. Halfway (almost) there. A bit of a mental bashing to be at the basecamp but not quite being halfway to the finish. 30 Miles to go is not quite a distance you can break down in one chunk like saying “just a marathon to go”. It doesn’t work that way. As per the Race to the Tower I didn’t stop for the cooked food. Chowing down on Chocolate and Watermelon (not something I normally eat!) and changing my T-shirt before I was off again.

The checkpoints were, for a short time, now closer together than before. With less than 6 miles to the next stop it was easier to compartmentalise the run into smaller chunks. and the next part, winding through Queen Elizabeth Country park was fairly easy going. Refreshed from the basecamp stop the route was fairly down hill and continued along the lowest elevation of the course until pit stop 4. But what goes down must go back up and before hitting the checkpoint there was another large climb to come. Tactically I’d been consistent on the course, eating on all the ups to ensure I kept fuelled along the way.

Arriving at the pit stop I continued to do what I’d done at all of the others. Besides using the toilet when I could and knocking back a few cups of Coke, I took out my “food bag” and proceeded to fill it with goods that caught my attention. That’s right. This time I brought a bag to collect food as I ran!! I know. It doesn’t make sense. But I’m a greedy bastard. It was the forth checkpoint and my bag was now full. and I still had about 20 miles to run! The other thing to note at this pit stop was that I was chaffing! Damn, I’d come to regret not lubing up with the Bodyglide in my haste to start. Right between the legs I had two lovely red-raw patches of glory. Great. Lube on, too little too late.

Plodding onward the rest of the course has become a blur to my memory. What I do recall is as I caught up with other runners, to my surprise there were very few who wanted to chat, never mind even acknowledge my “hellos”. This was disappointing as I’ve always found the camaraderie on the trails to be great. Who were chatty though were the people met along the route. Everyone is always so happy in cheering you on and commenting on the run. What I’ve found great is the response to these interactions. In particular the question of “am I winning?” always goes down a treat and generates some laughter. That and ‘play-acting’ and running funny in response to their comments. You have to have some fun along the way, no matter how much it hurts!

There was another guy of note. Who’ll I’ll always remember as the ‘spray-mist guy’. he was everywhere. I must have seen him about 5 or 6 times along the later part of the course. Including once as he appeared from a pub garden with the shout “alright mate?! want some more?!”. I had a good laugh with him each time. He’d rocked up with a garden water pump and was willing spraying each and every runner who wanted a quick cool down. Whoever you are, thank you. For the spray and for the entertainment and support!

I blasted through Pit stop 5, only stopping to ram some more food into my bag! and I was soon approaching Pit stop 6, which would be about 10 miles from the end. This pit stop was supposedly only water and hydration as it was only 3 miles to the final pit stop. But what a welcome they were rolling out for the runners. They could see me approaching in the distance and the cowbells and cheering began in earnest. By the time I reached them there was great noise from the volunteers and to my surprise a range of goods on offer, alas, my bag was stuffed! I did stop though and filled my bladder. My thoughts were I’d refill my bottles at the last check point and what was let in my bladder would be my reserve water just in case. I also realised leading up to it that I had a stone in my shoe that would need removing. Foot fixed I carried on. A few hundred meters down the road though I had to stop again as somehow I seemed to have introduced more stones into my shoe than I’d taken out. For a short time afterwards I ran with a chap called Matt who’d set out quite fast and was now feeling it a little. We soon parted and the final Pit stop loomed ahead.

RTTK4As I arrived there was yet again a strong welcome from the team at the pit stop. It helped being the only one there at the time. They filled my bottles as I noshed down some orange slices and checked the football scores they’d conveniently drawn up on the chalkboard. I probably spent too long at the checkpoint chatting but I felt good. and I was off again. The last section….

Throughout the run I’d been keeping an eye on my average pace. I was trying to run an average of 11 min miles and I was pretty much bang on. It’s quite tough over such a long distance to run this way as, with each period of walking, you have to run faster than the average for a much longer duration to keep on track. And those hills and pit stops very quickly pull the average down! I then made the mistake (not really but often feels wrong to do it) of switching the screens on my Garmin and seeing what the time was and how long I’d bee running. I had about 63 minutes left to get a sub 10 hour time. There were around (probably just under) 7 miles to go. It would be tight. At the average pace I wouldn’t make it, but I knew the last section was predominantly downhill. All I needed to do was keep moving. Keep running. I was going for it.

There were a few small hills that needed walking and one biggish one that played on my mind as it felt like I was walking for a long time. I kept going though. The running at this point became a process. The fun was gone. I was chasing times again. I don’t like it when I get competitive like this, I forget why I run. The enjoyment I get from it. It gets hard. Throughout this stretch though I passed quite a few other runners. Each one becoming a target in the distance that I chased down and passed (including Rachel who wen’t on to finish as third female, amazing!). There were markers for 2 miles to go and final mile. Each time I calculated the time, I was doing this. without hills or walking I’d come in well under 10 hours. Before I knew it I’d entered the town of Winchester and was running around the roads surrounding the Cathedral. Rounding the corner the Winchester Cathedral towered over me. Camera in my face I acted like a dick again. Bounding down the stairs and over the finish line. 9 hours 49mins on the clock. A big smile on my face.

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Run Talk Run

RTR
Run Talk Run

I’d been a long time follower of Run Talk Run. Instagram brought the group, and Jessica (the founder) to my attention. I love the simplicity of their message and intention. It’s not a running group. More like a support group. Like minded people being there for one another. Running is just the vessel they’ve chosen to deliver their message and actions.

They usually run in London on Thursday evenings (now also Tuesdays) which hasn’t been convenient for me. So when they announced a weekend run I was straight in there.

Sunday morning would be a visit to Epping Forest. A place I only recently experienced and am glad to go back to. Even if it does mean two trains to get to the start of the tube, sitting on it from end to end and then another train the other side! The scenery in the forest is spectacular. So many shades of green line the paths, its hard not to have jaw drop whilst running amongst the freshness and colours.

I arrived super early which gave me a chance for a little wander and to see a section of Epping Forest. Upon returning to the station Jess, who organises RTR arrived. Whilst chatting about the running community and how small it is two connections became apparent. Firstly Derrick who I know from the Burger Runs (and whom I saw yesterday!) was coming and had planned the route for the run and secondly Cat (a RTR regular) who also came along was also at the NSL trail run in Hampstead Heath a few weeks back. I keep saying it, it is such a small community.  Its Awesome!

We set off running and chatting and were immediately welcomed by the wonderful wildlife of Epping. Firstly horses and then tiny (baby?) frogs which were littered all over the path. The route we took was largely familiar to me from the run I did here a few weeks back.

The run itself was very pleasant. It was such a great vibe as we ran and talked. No pressures. No expectations. No barriers. Just company and people to share motivations with. I liked it. The concept works so well in practice.

It was clear to me that everyone who’d come along was similar. Determined with a strong sense of self-awareness of what works for them and what doesn’t. Over a coffee/juice/hot chocolate we shared stories from running and aspirations, not necessarily about running.  World put to right we headed back to the station, energised from a morning of smiles.

 

Race to the Tower 2018

Cotswolds Way

Last year I ran the Race To The Stones as my first real trail event. As I look back, I loved it. Besides the trail and the day and event itself, I loved how well Threshold Trail Series had organised it. Besides the stones they organise a Race to the Tower and Race to the King trail series. So I signed up to the other two (ok ok I also wanted the ‘free’ hoody!).

I’ll ignore the training for this run as, like the last few months my training has all been unstructured and just involved running when I feel like it, no pressure. Just running. A lot of running. What I will mention though is the logistics. Threshold Trail Series put on a number of shuttle bus services for their events, however for the Race to the Tower, the services weren’t what I expected. In short, I couldn’t easily get to the start and,  once finished, there was no transport to the nearest train station. So to my annoyance I had to book accommodation nearby the night before and (being a tommy-tight-pants) predict my finish time and book a train (an taxi to the station) at the end.

The night before the race I stayed a few miles away in the village of Stonehouse. A picturesque little place on the Cotswolds Way. The room was in a characteristic looking pub. That should have been my first learning! Don’t book a bed in the only pub in the village the night before an ultra. The local Friday night ‘Sparta’ wannabes were out in their numbers. This was Stonehouse. Not Sparta. No matter how many times they screamed the quote from the movie ‘300’ the joke never got old. And I never got to sleep…

I woke early on the morning, had my breakfast and jumped in the taxi to the start. I collected my gear (Hoody and Tshirt for doing more than one of the series) and I was good to go. The race director was hyping up the first wave, we had our briefing and instructions, given insight into the 160 gates/stiles and landmarks awaiting us on the run. Then we were off.

Single filing through he first few gates I soon spotted Ged. Someone I’d been chatting to on Instagram. We said hello and started chatted as we ran. The short story of a long story is that we ended up running 33 miles together! That’s a good 6 or so hours of running and chatting so you can imagine we covered a lot of topics along our journey. For me this is the perfect example of the community of running on the trails. You meet people and get to know them, sharing everything along the way. You don’t get that road running!

The first section of the course was, I felt, fairly flat with a few lil’ hills. All very runnable I thought. Within what felt like no time at all we were at checkpoint one, it was about 5 miles in to the course. Ged’s family had come up with him but weren’t at the checkpoint as expected. As he was joking that they were probably still asleep and now in his bad books, across a golf course his kids came bounding. Sweaty hugs dished out, we carried on and were soon welcomed with more of a hill. I challenged the hills. They didn’t seem all that big to me. It would be something I’d repeat over and over. “Call these hills?!”. Checkpoint two also soon came about and the first very much anticipated dose of flat coke. You just can’t fault it on an ultra! As expected, the volunteers at each checkpoint were awesome and upbeat. Threshold really do such a great job. I new this, I knew the checkpoints would be stacked not only with enthusiasm, but with treats and goodies everywhere. And I was taking advantage, I was collecting an unnecessary amount of food at each checkpoint. I knew I’d do this. I can’t resist being a greedy bastard.

With each subsequent climb we were treated to amazing views of the Cotswolds. Having someone to chat to makes such a difference and we both felt strong as we happily ran between the inclines and hiked to the view points. Such a good time we were having that we were physically having to remind each other to eat and drink. Checkpoint three came and went and the heat of the day increased as we approached midday. It was getting very hot and very very sweaty. The heat wasn’t helped by the humidity of running through so many ‘forest’ paths. I hadn’t realised that the course would be this diverse and was loving running amongst the trees. Except, I kept rolling my left ankle. After the first few times it started to get very annoying. This was the downside of tree roots and the uneven-rocky path. It was beginning to frustrate me and I started to verbalise it as it did actually hurt each time. My mind was soon distracted though as Basecamp was approaching and the oportunity for a slightly longer rest.

We opted to avoid the full base-camp experience, and instead of going to the full on food court and pasta and taco buffet just to grab some food from the ‘run-through’ pitstop set up for the non-stop runners. Whilst Ged spent time with his family, I stocked-up (overloaded my bag more like) on the free food and changed my T-shirt from my Evossi Elevate to WTR  Salomon agile. I’d always planned to do this for a bit of a mental boost. I love the Elevate. It’s so functional. But with the heat, the thinner Agile T would be much quicker drying. Something I’d welcome in this heat.

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Have a tree

Re-fuelled we ploughed on and I soon rolled my ankle again. Ged suggested getting it strapped. A wise idea. At the next check point (number 5, beautifully contained within a barn!!) I asked the medic for assistance. Knowing strapping wouldn’t stop me rolling it, it would give me the pseudo-effect needed. My mind would be a little more at ease feeling the tape on the ankle. James happily obliged, strapped me up and gave me some sun cream also! Back out we went.

We’d overheard that the elevation of the second marathon was a bit different to the first, and it was true. There were less inclines in the second half, but the four hills we needed to climb were bigger. A good 500ft elevation on each. With one done, as we hit mile 33, I was feeling good and kept running. Me and Ged said our goodbyes and I continued onwards. As the miles ticked down, I realised I needed a Paula. Yep, a Radcliffe. It was the focus I needed to keep running. I knew there would be a pit stop within the next 4 miles or so so I didn’t stop. But neither did my gut. It was getting touch and go when the Checkpoint 6 popped into sight. Running through the gate I was heading straight for the portaloo!!

What a weight lifted. Literally. Is stocked up on water, Reloaded the isotonics, stashed yet Suns Outeven more free food and was back on it. Now alone, my thoughts started wandering into competition mode. With the acceptance that the course was now less undulating, more flats between the hills, I wanted to run. So I did. As long as I felt good I set out with the intention to run between the hills. I also had one eye on finishing with enough time to relax before my taxi was due. I also wanted a shower badly. The amount of sweat was, well, stinky.

I felt strong though and passed a lot of runners. Chatting to many before carrying on my way. Before I knew it there was just a half marathon to run. A very doable chunk. It all becomes a blur at this point, but I do remember the amazing tree. The Purple one and the desolate looking one behind it. What a sight! The trees on this route were something else.

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Pit stop 7 came about and with it came the best flat coke. The best. I don’t think it could have been flatter nor warmer. I couldn’t get enough. I think I had five cups. A chat with the girls holding the fort (huge shouts to the girl, whose name I forget, who came down from Scotland to volunteer!!). I was surprised, but chuffed, to see a sign saying 5 miles to go. It felt like there should be longer left to overcome. This last stretch was all down hill then flat before the final mile all uphill to the tower. So really I had about 4 miles to run! This realisation was a massive boost. I set off passing more runners along the paths before rocking up in the town of Broadway. The locals were all out in good support (in fairness everyone encountered throughout the day was brilliant!) and I shared a few laughs with those enjoying a some drinks on the high street as I played up to their cheers. I’ve always got some energy to interact with people along the way. It just puts a smile on your face!

Field of SheepI entered the final fields, the final hills. Sheep everywhere. Only one way to go. Up. Straight up. And up I went. There was one more person in front of me someway up the hill. I soon caught up with them though as they stopped for a rest. Checking they were ok and good to finish, I carried on. Rising up through the last gate to be welcomed by claps and cheering, the cowbells ringing and the locals cheering me on for the last few hundred feet. round the last turn and into the finishing zone. I was done. A double marathon and over 7,000ft of elevation gain complete. it was time for shit food and a baby-wipe shower.

Job done. To the tower I ran.

Finisher

Looking back at the splits, I positioned 64th on the first 26 miles and 16th on the second half. A good indication of how much stronger I ran the later part. To say I’m happy with that is an understatement!.