Chasing Tees

The Stour Valley Path ultra, or more specifically, the SVP100, has become somewhat of a tradition. A grounding point. A yearly adventure and a pilgrimage for me in some way.

What started as my second ultra back in 2017 has turned into the one place I return to run. But why? I always say it’s because I’m collecting the set of tee shirts, that has been my why for this event. But every year I find out there are more to obtain by hitting new milestones. There is nothing unique about it either, there are many runners out there who are years ahead of me in their collections, some having run the SVP100 every year since its inception. Still, this is my journey…

After my first three 100k finishes I opted to volunteer in 2020 as it was just one week after a 100 mile adventure on the North Downs Way. This time, 2021 I signed up to the elusive 50km which would complete my colour set of t-shirts. Whilst I’m weak and always sign up to the biggest challenge, my 2021 plans should have seen me racing in the mountains of Norway the week before the SVP100 (it didn’t pan out that way!). Opting for the 50 was also the wisest choice.

So here I was, a little lost on Saturday morning as, rather than starting at 7am, I found myself making my way across London to Sudbury to start at 1pm instead. It felt odd. It felt a little disorienting. I rocked up at the start line which was very unfamiliar, as the 50km course does a short loop before joining the 100km runners along the Stour Valley Path to the finish. None the less, a familiar welcome from Matt (the Race Director) sent me on my way.

A different start for this year’s run

I started relaxed. This section was very flat. I was full of energy tough and even in a relaxed state I struggled to contain myself a little as we ran along the single track paths after leaving the riverside. We set off in small groups of 6 or so and as I entered a field a few kms in I could see runners stretched out far into the distance. We all said hello to each other and wished good fortunes for the day ahead as we passed and exchanged places. I briefly saw Agata and carried on my way with my fresh legs taking me probably a little too fast.

Before long we joined the SVP and looking back in the distance we could see a 100km runner heading our way. I wondered where I would be if I was doing the 100km this day, not this far along the course that is for certain! I chatted with many runners and one common theme was the black ‘3-star finishers’ tee I was wearing. It was a conversation starter for sure. Runners were amazed I’d finished it 3 times, claimed I must know the way and I was the one to follow, they told me about their past finishes and their own journeys to obtaining the black t-shirt and even joked something must be wrong with me if I was only doing the 50km (actually, there was that too, a pesky Achilles was troubling me for quite some time and I was stubbornly running through the pain with so much strapping and tape around my ankle). Truth is though, these conversations made me smile. They were a huge ego boost. I felt like the biggest, most bad-assed person on the course that day. We can’t deny we all enjoy a bit of a verbal pick me up! Ultimately though this just kept me running harder and faster than I probably should have been.

The hours and kilometres ticked by and passed ever so quickly. This last 50km of the 100km SVP is the more undulating and hilliest part of the course. There are plenty of short sharp climbs to break up the mostly flat path. I reached all the familiar checkpoints and aid stations and was welcomed with the usual buzz and support from the fantastic volunteers. Everything was going well. My Achilles didn’t start hurting until probably about 20km in and even then it was a manageable pain.

Every year I take the same pictures in the same place. This is one of my recurring favourite views from the trail

Besides running a little too fast for my current fitness level, the one mistake I made was to start filling my bottles up from the High5 powder available at checkpoints rather than use the Tailwind I’d brought with me. It’s a mistake I often make on the shorter ultras and I should know by now what will happen – cramps. My body is accustomed to the Tailwind solution and the added sodium content. When I switch to other products with less salt in them…. yeah, I cramp. It was a scorcher of a summer’s day too. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I started cramping around the 40km mark! I had been fuelling well though and was far ahead of the finish time I’d set out with. So I started to walk more for the final 10km.

Along the last section I was playing leapfrog with a number of people I’d chatted to throughout the day. There was a friendly lady on the 100km who was running very strongly and full of enthusiasm, another 100km runner on his way to a 7-star finish (an immortal in my eyes! what an achievement). And another lady on her way to her first ever 100km finish. After a few kilometres the man vanished off ahead and I didn’t see him again as he chased his fastest finish time.

With just a few kilometres left, after the diversion on the route, I was trucking along quite comfortably, recognising familiar landmarks of the route. We were running along a path which I recalled and I had a feeling we’d soon be leaving it, back into the fields. There was a gate, I tried to go through it but it was locked. So I carried on. Through the bushes and over the other side of the fence I kept thinking I was going wrong. I checked my route and I was. I did need to go through that gate. I was confused. I tracked back and then saw a bunch of runners the other side of the fence. I knew it. How?! Turns out the padlock on the fence didn’t stop you lifting the latch (something I didn’t try as I only tried to slide the latch out). All was good again. Every year I miss a few turnings on this race!

Before long I was coming back off the roads and looping around the filed and heading towards the finish line. Here more familiar faces welcomed me and gave me my medal. It was by far the earliest (and lightest!) I’d ever finished the SVP course. It really makes a difference not doing the first 50km!

After a quick shower I was soon walking back along the roads to the train station eating the customary sausage and chips from the rugby club. A sub 6 hour finish was far faster than I intended and once more my Achilles was on fire. Time to go home and get ready for the next adventure.

Now I have the full colour collection of Green, Black, Yellow and Grey SVP t-shirts. The only question I have to ask myself is now I’ve chased the tees, do I keep going back and chase the stars? Time will tell…

Been there, done that, got the tee…

Past finishes

Centre of The Universe

In a parallel universe I would be here in April 2021 having run some other 16 official events (in 7 different countries and 12 of which being ultras)… These are the ‘Ones that got away‘ and sadly it is not the case. Those are not the times we live in now. It transpires that we live in a reality to the future we chased not that long ago. Time and Space were warped drastically by science and politics. The running calendars and plans were ripped up and rewritten over and over again. Then, Saturday 17th April 2021 came around and flashed a glimpse of the new future, and for the first time in a long time I ran in an organised event again…

On this day there were many, many running events taking place across the UK. Runners flocking back to their natural habitat of chasing metal souvenirs. Due to further clashes, I could have been at a number of these events myself, but instead I was running towards the ‘Centre of The Universe’ (CoTU) for what would be my first event of 2021.

CoTU was (is!) an original and unique concept from the masterminds of ‘DazNBone’ who are the faces behind the Camino Ultra running event Company. Whilst Race Directors continue to adapt and tweak their processes and protocols to make a “COVID secure” environment for their events to be permitted and granted approval to take place, DazNBone went one step further… They took away some of the more familiar but troublesome aspects of planning a mass participation running event in a COVID-secure way – they removed the start, not just the mass start but the actual start and along with it the defined route and Aid Stations. Bam. Have that!

I absolutely loved this. Not as simple as it sounds, and a bold move I’m sure many thought. The concept was that all participants would choose their own start line and devise their own route to the finish line, the “Centre of The Universe”. Whilst this wouldn’t appeal to all runners (many like the security of a well marked route and plenty of support along the way), to those more accustomed and experienced with ultra running it was like music to our ears. Personally I couldn’t give two shits about ‘event villages’ and ‘mass starts’. I’m done with that. I love the finish line feels and hanging around at an event village after I’ve completed my race to absorb all the post-achievement vibes and atmosphere, but, getting to a start line hours ahead of the event and hanging around waiting for it to start then jostling for space with hundreds of other runners, naaa. That can stay in the Pre-COVID world as far as I’m concerned!

Admittedly I am over simplifying things. There was a little more to the event than I suggest and it by no means insinuates that it removes all the work and hassle for them, far from it! So first off, the finish of the CoTU was in Hackney, London. This is the aim, the target for all runners to reach. The chosen start lines however must have been outside a 30km radius from this point. There was a time limit too of 9 hours. Within this period runners needed to get from their chosen start to the CoTU and cover a minimum of 50km (they could do more if they desired!).

You weren’t alone either, Camino provided all runners with a tracker to ensure safety and accountability throughout the run. Big Brother was watching! They also replaced the Aid Stations by supplying all participants with a box of fuel (Not the kind you’ll find from BP!) before the event. So each runner had their own mobile aid station they could carry with them to support and get them to the CoTU.

Without running an organised event for nearly 5 months (after consecutively running in at least one marathon/ultra a month for nearly 3 years!) I was eager to go. I went straight onto the route planners and chose a location I wanted to start from (Caterham) which was easy to get too (for me!) and would provide as much trail and scenic running as I could squeeze into the 50km. I also started roping people in to join me. Paul was, as always, signing up before I’d even finished describing it. Come the weekend there was a group of 5 of others who would run all or part of the route with us. Plus a dog, Nick’s new best mate – Bruce.

Paul & Bruce

The route I plotted was very much a route of two (almost) halves. 30km of trails from Caterham to Beckenham and the final 20km along sealed roads, parks and paths tracing the riversides up to Greenwich before following the canal paths to Hackney. In my mind I knew it would be enjoyable to begin with before becoming a slog into London. The narrow canal paths I expected to be busy with Lockdown easing having begun and decent weather predicted for the weekend.

This is exactly how it turned out. Sort of. Some alarm clock malfunctions meant we were two support runners short at the start as Paul, Nick, Sophie, Bruce and I set off in the crisp and frosty morning from Caterham station. Now, whilst this was where our adventure began, it wasn’t our official ‘start’. You see Caterham train station lies just inside a 30km radius from the CoTU, so it wasn’t until about 2km later and a planned ‘U’ shaped detour on the trails that our race actually began…

The starters!

It was cold, but, with a backpack full of bacon baps and the joys of running in a group again we merrily trotted on. We had no time goals and planned to just enjoy the adventure for what it was. Throughout the first few km I was rearranging where Reka and Carl would meet us. Reka would join Yvette and run with us from Beckenham and Carl was going to get South of Croydon and meet us in the middle of nowhere by tracing the route backwards until we met. I’m so glad they both worked on alternatives as it would have been so easy to turn around and say “next time”…

Those first 20km or so went by so quickly as we enjoyed the tranquillity of the open fields, rolling hills and lush green countryside pretty much all to ourselves. As we started descending from Biggin Hill we found Carl (or he found us?) and we carried on to one of our planned ‘stops’ along the way, a donut shack near Addington that sprung up during the lockdown of 2020 and seems to be incredibly popular with cyclists, hikers and runners alike. We chowed down on some fresh, warm donuts as Nick treated Bruce to a sausage. The fuel of ultra runners!

Donut stop!

We cracked on for the final 10km of trails and weaved our way through to Beckenham where Reka and Yvette were waiting at our next planned stop – A Sainsburys where we could refill our water. Here the memories were tested as individuals tried to remember when was the last time they’d seen each other. Safe to say for most of us it had been a very long time!! Sophie left us here and the now group of 6 (plus Bruce) cracked on. Nick hadn’t intended to run from here but felt good and Bruce was eager to keep going (a quick call to his owner confirmed he was good to lead the way).

The full gang!

And so the second part of the adventure began. The route from Beckenham to Greenwich was something I’d only recently discovered was possible via public paths, walking routes and cycle tracks. Essentially the cycle route 21 – the Waterlink Way – connects Beckenham to Greenwich via a series of parks and green spaces which avoids many km of otherwise horrifically busy main roads. It surprised me how nice it was the first time I ran this route back in January.

Finally reached Greenwich

With the route being incredibly flat from Beckenham onwards, it wasn’t long before we arrived in Greenwich where, no surprise, it was very, very busy. With the population regaining its freedom and the sun starting to shine longer and brighter, people were inevitably out enjoying themselves. The Greenwich foot tunnel, which is a novelty the first few times you go through it, was so busy it was like a blocked drain. We weaved our way through as quickly as we could before tracing the river round to Limehouse. This was where I hit my low point. I’ve run the Limehouse section too many times. I don’t think this part of the Thames path is particularly enjoyable nor interesting. Some decent views for sure, but you can get good views of London from so many places. From here, we’d follow the canal path via Poplar to Hackney. This was what I referred to as the “10km of shit stuff”, it too is far from interesting and somewhere I’ve run more than enough times to enjoy anymore. It’s very narrow in places and is a pain to navigate when there are groups of walkers, buggies and prams and cyclists all jostling for space.

I was slowing down as quickly as the kms ticking by. With a few km to go I kept reminding myself that this was excellent training. 30km of pleasurable trails followed by a long run on hard packed surfaces would be good mental and physical conditioning for the adventures to come.

Eventually we reached Hackney. Noticeable not only for the sheer chaos of the area with people everywhere drinking and ‘partying’ with the now unfamiliar sounds of enjoyment all around, but also because of the big landmarks like the City Stadium, the Helter Skelter whatsit and the massive ‘Here East’ sign which marked our CoTU destination. As we approached the finish line a small group began cheering and clapping, the familiar smiles of ‘DazNBone’ beaming at us and the group filtered off leaving me and Paul to enter the finishers area and cross that first finish line of 2021… We are back baby!! We are back!

I can’t thank my friends enough for this weekend. Its a recurring theme from my running life and adventures. I’ve met so many incredible people and many stick around and comeback for more and more adventures with me. I’m so grateful for these friendships. That friends give up their time to support you is an amazing feeling and I really am appreciative to Sophie, Nick, Carl, Reka and Yvette for sharing it with us and getting us to the finish line. Huge ‘kudos’ to Nick and Bruce for completing the whole ultra with us too! It goes without saying that Paul is a top fella and this is a small adventure compared to the many we’ve already shared and have planned to share in the future together. It’s no surprise he is at the top of my list when an idea creeps into my head. I’m always certain he’ll agree and help me realise that dream before the idea finds a way to escape my clutches!

Of course there is then’ DazNBone’. David and Darren. I met these fellas briefly during the carnage of the NDW100 last year and there has been nothing but encouragement and support from them ever since. A remarkable pair who have such an upbeat and positive outlook on life and approach to running. It was great to cross one of their finish lines and I’m excited to make may way to that finish line in Hackney again later in the year (only coming from the North this time!) for their Lea Valley Ultra (go sign up and join me!!). Huge thanks to Gigi for the awesome finish line photos too! Go check out his photos on Instagram – @gigigiannella_photo / @everyday.runner

What a decent bunch. Thanks for capturing the moment Gigi!