Race report: Stour Valley Path 100km ultrarun

I can tell you how tough this one was – about half way round I thought this race report may start with the words “spoiler alert, I DNF’d this one”, but happily that’s not the case. This was by far the furthest I had ever intended to run and was pretty ambitious of me. The longest run I’d done so far in training was 40 miles (give or take another 3 or 4 for getting lost) and adding best part of a marathon onto that looked quite an ask. But the chance to run along the beautiful Stour Valley Path following the river on what turned out to be a lovely sunny day certainly sweetened the pill.

Anyway back to the start, which was an early one for what turned out to be very obvious reason. A 4am alarm call, followed by force feeding porridge, toast and coffee down my neck was the order of the day. I actually felt quite well rested, having had about 6 hours sleep, which is not bad for the night before a big race. My mate Simon picked me up to drive me to the race start, just over an hour away in Newmarket. As grateful as I was (and I am very grateful Simon), a little bit of me still couldn’t believe I was about to run on my own when the plan had been to do it together, and indeed it was his idea! But I’m pretty confident he’d have given anything to have been on the starting line with me, if he hadn’t picked up what has turned out to be a persistent and inhibiting foot injury. Next year Simon!

The organisation pre-race had been excellent from Matthew Hearne (race director) and the SVP team. Everything you needed to know was provided, so I felt well-armed with a detailed map with checkpoints, cut-off times and pacing guides annotated on it. The sense of community from the Facebook page was strong too, so great to see people at the start. The slick organisation continued at the pub in Newmarket with a relatively painless registration, mandatory kit check and pre-race briefing. The only scary moment was when I realised I had not changed into my trail shoes, which were at that point now sitting in the back of the minibus inside my finish line drop bag!!! Anyway Simon came to the rescue and ran off to grab them whilst I tried to pay attention to the info on bulls (more of them later), ploughed fields and train tracks.

Everything in place we all walked up the road to the start line about 100 yards from the pub; so I guess this was it. Simon gave me good luck hug and off we went. The usual jockeying for position (Newmarket gag there) was a little more important here than some races as about 1 mile in the race turns up onto Devil’s Dyke, which is a narrow mound with steep sides so minimal chance to overtake for about 7 miles. I kept myself towards the back, having no illusions about my pace targets that day. Apart from my obligatory tumble over a tree root (it’s almost a tradition now) I settled into the race.

Checkpoint 1 (CP1) was 12 miles in and that portion of the race went pretty much OK apart from a battle with my race number that resulted in me losing three of my four safety pins, however the running buddy that I tagged along with for a while had some spares so I was able to re-attach at CP1 (on my rucksack – a much more preferable option). “New Simon” (as I called him in my head) was a really nice chap who had run most of the race in sections as part of his training so was good to know we were on track. Actually at this point it’s probably worth an honourable mention to the navigation. Having had trouble at quite a few self-navigated runs, sticking to the course here was a dream. The SVP waymarkers were very obvious and the organisers also had put red and white tape wherever there may be some confusion to help you on your way. In addition to the yellow arrows sprayed on the ground (especially liked the one on a cow pat) you became pretty confident that you would find your way. In fact after CP3 I put my map in my bag and barely needed it.

CP2 came and went 33 miles in with the only notable issue being some uncomfortable stomach problems (not sure refried beans was sensible the night before); but I know for a fact I was not the only one to have to answer the call of nature behind a bush – oh the joys of trail running! New Simon left me at some point here, sadly I couldn’t keep up with his pace.

Sadly CP2 to CP3 was my worst period. It was about a 9 mile stretch between the two, and I really hit my personal wall at about 35 miles into the race. I struggled to motivate myself and the reality that this might be a distance too far really kicked me in the teeth. Wading across a heavily ploughed field uphill with heavy legs I began to wonder what it would be like to DNF. But I’ll be honest (and a bit cheesy here) I talked myself out of it by reminding myself of one thing. This was one day of pain and no matter how hard it was I would wake up tomorrow and not have to do it again. I was running the event to raise money for a charity close to my heart – Parkinson’s UK – and I know that my poor dad who has been diagnosed for nearly 6 years now wakes up early most mornings with some pain or other caused by the condition. As I say, I know it’s a cliché, but reminding myself why I was doing this really helped me dig in. I knew I just needed to get to the next CP and refuel / rest. In fact I caught up with New Simon at CP3 and realised that I wasn’t the only one struggling. The poor guy’s legs had gone and he had to call it a day.

It’s a good time to mention the volunteers at the checkpoints now. What absolute stars. Nothing was too much for them, they’d fill your water bottles / bladder for you (usually a self-serve job I find), they cared about how you were feeling, they had a range of food to choose from, some home-made (yummy minty energy bars at CP5!) and they just generally kept your spirits up. They seemed very genuine with their encouragement and I can’t speak highly enough of them.

So CP3 to CP4 was a weird one. Despite the fact, it was definitely one of the hilliest sections (even after a nice steady flat first couple of miles), and despite my previous wobbles I started to feel much, much better. I even met this great guy I would eventually run a long couple of sections with – “New James”. Turned out his name was Neil, but he looks like my mate James 🙂

We reached CP4 where Neil’s entourage were waiting for him – popular guy! They even had a J20 from the pub for him – nice change from the energy drinks he said. I temporality lost him here too as he put on a fresh t-shirt (seriously it was like the Tour de France with his support team) and the colour change confused me. It was at this checkpoint however that the dreaded cut-offs started to rear their heads. There was some confusion in my head about how I’d got so close to them as I knew I had plenty of time left to complete the last 19 miles (5.5 hours), but it seemed they were creeping up on me. I was only 25 mins within the cut-off time so I put my foot down and cracked on!

Neil and I ran together for most of the next 7 miles (or so they promised, it was actually 8.5), but he began to struggle with the running bit and had to walk a lot. Mind his walking pace was so fast it wasn’t much slower than my shuffle 🙂 This section started to take in part of the Stour Valley Marathon route, which we had both done in June, so it was quite familiar which helped. According to my watch at only about half a mile from the next CP Neil and I separated as he wanted to walk the rest of the section. Concerned about cut-offs and knowing that if I walked I would probably not finish we agreed to see each other at the CP and I bimbled off ahead. I was however a bit confused as I was sure from the previous race it was further than half a mile and that turned out to be the case. So 1.5 miles later I stumbled into CP5 about 20 mins ahead of the cut-off. Thankfully the volunteers said not to worry as the sweeper was a good hour behind me so that took the pressure off. I waited for Neil and checked in on him (his team were also really nice to me too asking how I was getting on) and then cracked on – 7 miles to the last CP6.

About half a mile into this section was Gravel Hill, which I’d gone up at the marathon so I knew it was a walk up. About half way up speedy walker Neil passes me! Good to see he was doing OK though and he said his plan was to fast walk the rest of the course – about 12 miles. I wished him well and said I’d see him at the end, and as the course evened out I pushed on.

It was getting dark now and so about half way through the section I switched my head torch on (and then replaced the batteries as I realised the ones in there were pants). It all started to get a bit strange at this point. Navigating was a completely different proposition, thank goodness the team had put out some glow sticks to help. But because of the disorientation I was also getting concerned I’d missed CP6. 7 miles came and went and I knew from the marathon I was nowhere near a town or village so where was the CP going to be? I ploughed on though as I could see the markings of the course so I knew I was at least not lost. I thought that at least there are only 5 miles left if I have missed the CP and I have my Garmin to prove I did the course!

Finally I saw a red light that kept flashing to bright white and headed for it. Turned out to be this lovely two people who I saw 2 more times before the end and who were guiding the runners in.

CP6 was as lovely as the others; I was jogged in the last quarter of a mile by this really nice woman and then they properly looked after me. I was told not to worry about the cut-off (which technically I was on the cusp of) and that I should be fine to make the next section. It was a straight run along the river for 5 miles. I asked about the distance and they said “yes sorry turns out that last section was more like 9 miles, not 7”! OK so less than 5 to go yes? No – still 5, so basically it was 64.5 miles (104kms) in total! Apparently there were still 5 people behind me so I wasn’t last 🙂

Right – last section let’s go!

Hmm…so 400 yards in I enter a field with a big sign “BULL”. Its pitch black and I can only just see the river through my head torch, which I figured was my only rescue place if the bull decided to investigate this little will o’ the wisp light in his field! Anyway I dug in and started to chant out loud my little internal mantra that’s kept me going most of the day when on my own – which I am sure the two people I ran past in the dark must have thought a little strange. My mantra was simple “I am steady and I am strong”, but it worked for me. Mind when at one point I realised it had morphed into “I am heavy and I am slow” I realised my inner demons had tried to take over!

The last 5 miles went OK, although I could see a head torch about half a mile behind me and I convinced myself that was the sweeper so I pushed on! I definitely took a small wrong turn in the pitch black as at one point I encountered arrows pointing the way I had just come! But I stayed on track after that and just before 10 pm I hit 100km. Woo-hoo! Except of course this wasn’t the end as I now knew. I had another 2.5 miles to go and just over 30 mins to do it before the 10:30 pm cut-off!

I carried on, ready to have a barney if I didn’t get in before the cut-off, given the extra distance, but all was fine. It was a bit weird to enter the last field and have a 100 sheep’s eyes looking at you, but all good.

Soon enough I entered Brantham, the finish town. A couple of marshals drove past me and beeped their horn encouragingly, and then all of a sudden there were marshals everywhere helping me navigate in the dark across the final few roads to the end. I swear at this point I nearly broke down with emotion, but I just about held it in. My “thank you” to each of them was a bit wobbly!

100 yards from the end I rang my wife (who’d brilliantly kept me going with motivational texts all day) and told her I was coming in. I ran across the line in 15hrs 20mins and could not have been happier to see anyone than Nic. A big smile, a hug and a kiss and she placed a beer in my hand – perfect! I may have been nearly the last to finish but with over a third of the field as DNS / DNF, I am happy to have just crossed the line.

A shower, a race T-shirt and a medal later and we drove home to Bedford. I even saw Neil about half a mile from the end still going! I checked online and he got an official time of around 16 hours, which I guess because of the extra distance the organisers decided not to cut-off. Brilliant – well done mate.

All in all, a fantastic event, fabulously well organised, some of the best volunteers you’ll find anywhere and something to be proud of. I’ve raised nearly £2000 for Parkinson’s and achieved something I would never have even contemplated a few years ago. But as I said after the event, I think the itch has been well and truly scratched…I may yet still do some shorter 30-40 mile ultras but the days of anything with a triple digit distance are well behind me!

Thanks again to Matthew Hearne and the team behind the SVP100. You will not find a better organised race and indeed many of the bigger ones are not as good, at twice the price. At £60 this is one of the best value, best run races out there – do it! Just not me again 🙂

3 thoughts on “Race report: Stour Valley Path 100km ultrarun

  1. Well done from a fellow runner of Saturdays SVP! You’ve done excellently and it is an amazing achievement. Great write up and very poignant.
    Never say never again though….

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