Dunstable Downs Challenge – Race Report

This is a race I have done a few times before and I always remember it fondly. However, I clearly had forgotten how hard it was in the three or four years since I last did it!

The idea of doing the Dunstable Downs Challenge was to have an event to enter in the run up to the Bedford Harriers club championship ultrarun in October – the Stort 30. At Dunstable, they do a half marathon, 20-mile and full marathon route, and the 20-miler was perfect for those of us in training for Stort in eight weeks’ time.

Getting ourselves sorted

We’ve had a small weekend training group going now since July, and three of us (me, Juliet, George) had signed up to the 20 mile, with Noel doing the full 26.2 (but then he knocks off a marathon in his sleep!) Juliet and I car shared and because of that got there much earlier than I would on my own. But it was nice to have the time to get ready without hurrying, and use the toilets about six times!

Over the years the HQ for the race has improved as the facilities at Dunstable Town FC have been significantly invested in. The volunteers as ever at this event were fantastic, they don’t need good facilities to still be welcoming, friendly and extremely helpful. Slowly, runners doing the different distances from Bedford Harriers started to arrive and we got ourselves sorted out, heading off to the start.

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The event is technically “self-navigated”, with a set of detailed instructions telling you how to get round, and a few marshals at some key checkpoints (making sure no-one got lost on the course…more on that later). So, George, Juliet and I decided to run together and get each other round. We are training buddies for the Stort 30 and this was not a race for us, we figured that we could work as a team. George and Juliet had the instructions printed off, and I had mine easily accessible, however as I had done the race before I decided I wouldn’t need to rely on it too heavily. Hmmm.

Stretching the legs

The first few miles were the usual, uneventful settling-in period. The fast ones went off, the slow ones peeled back, and there were a few of us in the middle! Miles 1-3 were right across the Downs; beautiful, breath-taking views across the Buckinghamshire countryside, before we turned away to navigate ourselves around Whipsnade zoo.

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We carried on for another couple of miles, skirting the zoo, but no sign of wildlife today – sensible things probably still in bed. We settled into a routine, swapping out at the front, and feeling pretty good, despite the undulating terrain. We’ve done a lot of off-road training for the Stort 30 so the hills were in our legs.

A group forms

About five miles in we decided to pull over in the woods to take on some gels and I was most amused to see that a group of about eight people had been following us and pulled across thinking we were leading the way on the route! I had to tell them to crack on, as we were stopping for a few moments, but one of them said he wanted to stick with us, so three became four and we gained a second Mark.

After a couple more miles and a fly down a lovely hill we came across the first checkpoint. Our running numbers confirmed to the marshals, flapjacks / malt loaf consumed and a bit of water downed, we ploughed on. Straight up the other side of the valley and hitting an incline as cruel as the downhill had been kind! Having used my considerable weight advantage to fly away from Juliet downhill, she was soon well ahead of George and I, gambolling up there like a gazelle!

The next mile or so didn’t bring much in the way of notable activity, save to say it was still a beautiful mix of farmland and forest as we explored the countryside – up, down, up, down… We also picked up another lady dressed in bright patterns, who seemed to be sat in behind us, so we sort of became a group of five.

Digging in and digging out

Then came miles 8-9. We’d been warned on social media that this would be tough as the fields had been ploughed recently, but actually they were not too wet, so they were nowhere near as bad as they could have been. They were however fairly relentless, but on the face of it George, Juliet and I managed them quite well. We could see a large group that we were gaining on ahead and I focused on them. I also noticed that the elastic had broken a bit on Mark 2 / Other Lady behind us. I may have said something a little cocky at this point about people not having the off-road training in their legs that we did, but let’s just say I was paid back for that one.

Anyway we made it across the fields and hit the next checkpoint just before mile 10. We stopped here briefly to remove stones from shoes, which was long enough for Other Mark and Patterned Lady behind us to catch up. Then we climbed up what in cycling I think is called a “false flat” – a good mile of slow, winding uphill trail that started to suck the strength out of the legs. I was leading at this point, as the one who knew the course it was just easier.

The wheels wobble

However by the time we reached the next checkpoint (just after 11 miles as the terrain between 10-11 had been boggy so I presume they were making sure people made it through safely) I was flagging. I noticed I was a bit weary and needed a caffeine gel. Handily the checkpoint had water, etc. so we stopped there. At this point Marky Mark and the patterned bunch carried on saying they’d see us at the top. “The top” was a bloody awful hill going up across more ploughed ground; I was struggling here. But, I knew that stamina comes and goes on long runs so I dug in and walked up the hill, meeting Juliet and George at the top.

By this point the course had barely stopped rising and falling for miles, and I just hoped it would even enough for me to recover and for the gel to kick in. Luckily for once my wish was granted and the next mile or so was fairly flat. We settled into a bit of a routine at this point as Juliet was clearly stronger than George and I. She would slowly pull away from us, with George falling off the back of me so we were strung out as a three for quite a while, regrouping when we came to style / gate.

Finding ourselves

Then at mile 13 things went a bit askew. Having kept up with Mark/Lady and the larger group ahead of them for about 5 miles we couldn’t see them and we had to stop for a few mins to work out where the course went. I didn’t recognise this bit and suspected that the course may have changed a little since I last ran it. But we found the marker we were looking for and carried on into a wooded lane. After about another half a mile we turned into another field, where I had seen the people in front of us running up to our left from the lane; they seemed to double back up the hilly field.

But as we came into the field we couldn’t see anyone and the direction I thought we needed to go in just didn’t feel right. When we hit another field with no markers at the entrance (very unusual), we realised we must have made a mistake. By carefully retracing our steps and the written instructions we found where we had gone wrong, but by this point had easily added a mile on and had lost sight of anyone in front. Obviously that didn’t matter as this was a training run, but my inner competitor didn’t like that!

Back on track we settled into our extended line: Juliet-me-George. At one point Juliet got a stone in her shoe and I carried on knowing full well she would catch us up. Funnily enough though the first person past us was the person in the lead of the marathon! We had joined back onto their course and he was way ahead of the field. In fact I later found out he finished 35 mins ahead of the second runner!

Anyway, I was looking back and no Juliet. So I stopped and after a minute or so George arrived. He said she had her sock off when he went past, so we stopped and waited. After about five mins and she joined us – she said it wasn’t a stone but her toenail had gone through her sock and was rubbing – not good. But she’d managed to wrap her sock in a way that it had stopped the rubbing. We carried on.

Bonking

More strung-out line running ensued as we all dug into our energy reserves – this was tough, tough, tough. At one point, about mile 16 we were running across a big field, very exposed to the wind. I had bad memories of this field from two previous events – one where I fell over a root and gashed my face / smashed my sunglasses, and another where it was freshly ploughed and wet. Today it was dry, but the wind was unforgiving; and I blew up. As I reached the end I stopped, walked and let George catch me, saying I needed to walk and he could go on. He thanked me though as he was close to stopping himself and wanted someone to walk with! We couldn’t get Juliet’s attention as she went off into a wooded area, but we knew she’d notice soon.

After a while we caught her; she was sorting out her shoe again, which was still hurting. We all walked to the last checkpoint and took on water / food.

Miles 16-18 passed in relative silence as we all just were running on fumes. We agreed that our traditional “tough” annual event – The Grizzly – was harder than this, but in some respects the extreme hilliness of that course at least allowed / made you walk a lot more. This was just unrelenting undulation that you could just about run for most of it. Pain.

Separation

After another wrong turn (my fault, I knew this part of the course and missed the marker) we hit the downs again. Not far to go! A couple of miles! In fact I got my second wind here and started to feel good, just at the time poor George was suffering with cramp. We carried on together as planned, but got strung out a bit in the last mile. At this point we knew we’d all finish so we just dug deep and got ourselves through it. About a mile from the end Juliet stopped again with her toe, and I shouted that I would see her when she caught me up, as we were going downhill at this point and I couldn’t stop!

I carried on and looked back a couple of times. I could see some people had caught us up and small group was behind me, with yellow t-shirts of the Harriers in there. I didn’t have my glasses on and the figures were blurry, but I could see they were there so I carried on, assuming I’d see them at the finish.

The last half a mile was a bit twisty though Dunstable, back to the football ground, and there were not enough markers, but I remembered the way out so followed my nose!

Finally I came into the field next to the football ground, full of kids playing a footie tournament. I went round the edge and crossed the line. 38 out of 58, 3:52 for a very hilly course and 21.7 miles on my Garmin!

Search and rescue

I got my medal and waited for George and Juliet. And waited, and waited. Hmmm…

George then came into the field and across the line – er where is Juliet? George said he’d passed her at the same place I had, still sorting her toe out and assumed she was just behind him. So we waited and waited and more people came through. Uh-oh. George and I started to hobble (the legs had gone) back out onto the course to find her. But there was just no sign of her and we were in no fit state to go running around looking for her. So finally we went back to the HQ and reported her as missing. I was feeling terrible at this point. So much guilt as we said we would start and finish together and I felt like I really should have stopped and waited for her, rather than assume she would catch me up. Not only that, Juliet had been so much stronger and at the front of our group for the last eight miles and she had never once ran off and left us. Bad men.

Finally, Juliet appeared with some of the marshals who had found her. She hadn’t been far behind, but took a wrong turn at the end of the course and had got very confused. In fact one of the other Harriers (Mark Tinkler) had done the same thing earlier on and had done an extra four miles! Maybe something for the organisers to tighten up on next year as the last few hundred yards are quite technical and your brain is a bit too fried by then to be doing the navigation work!

But, all in all, a great day. Juliet still had a big smile on her face and we know that we are going to fly round the pretty flat Stort 30 after this one!

Summing up

If you are a fan of off-road running, with stunning views and want a real challenge – this is the one for you. A great event, well organised (in the main – a few missing markers aside), and one of the friendliest local groups you can find. They even went and got my bag for me at the end and brought it to me instead of me having to go searching in the baggage area!

So, injuries aside, and hoping I don’t do anything silly like try and race the Great Eastern half marathon like a loon when I do it in a couple of weeks, it’s looking good for the Stort 30 in October.

The Grizzly Race Report – 1st March 2015

The Grizzly has a very tough reputation and 2015 lived right up to it. After huge bowls of porridge all round we travelled the three miles from our cottage in Beer over to Seaton, the start of the race.
One of the things I really like about the Grizzly is the amount of Bedford Harriers that travel down. It’s a long way from Bedford to Devon, but every year a convoy makes its way down. Wandering around Seaton before the race there were the familiar black and yellow tops all around town. Apparently we had 51 running in either the full Grizzly or the Cub.
We huddled at the start on the Esplanade and listened to the traditional Town Crier poem. He was on great form this year and made everyone laugh. Always puts you at ease. Then he tinkled his big bell and off we went! The Harriers got a name check from the tannoy as we crossed the start and then we got going along the shingle beach. It’s a really unique start as unlike a lot of races, just as everyone gets into their stride they suddenly hit the uneven ground and imediately grind to a near halt. The sound of over 2000 pairs of feet on the shingle (350 on the Cub, 1800 on the Grizzly) is deafening and we slogged our way for half a mile before exiting the beach with screaming thighs.
We settled into the race, travelling from Seaton to Beer. I had to stretch my leg out a couple of miles in as the first big hill pulled on my tight adductor as usual, but then got into a rhythm. Running through Beer high street is always great as the crowds turn out and gives you a pick me up after three miles. Then you turn right and hit a long, steep hill up to the campsite. Lots of people slow to a walk at this point and I think for first timers it starts to dawn on them what the challenge is going to be!
As we passed through the campsite at about 4 miles we start to go off road properly for the first time, which will be the case for 90% of the next 13 or so miles before we come back to Beer. This part of the course is really windy as you are on the top of the cliff and today the winds were about 20 miles an hour so pretty hard going. After a mile or so you suddenly veer steeply downhill along a muddy, rocky path. It was this point I started to notice how much muddier the course was than last year (this was my 4th Grizzly). Last year this path was reasonably dry, today the rain over the last few days had made it slippy and treacherous. I also noticed how much more grip my Inov8 trail shoes have than my old Asics ones – something I would be extremely grateful for later on!
Next main feature was Branscombe beach. This was the point that the Cub runners split off and went left along the beach. Us Grizzly runners plunged straight into a stream feeding the sea and suddenly I had sodden, FREEZING feet!
No major moments of interest the next couple of miles until a monster hill at mile 6. The main thing I remembered though was a truly nuts marshall who was singing and messing about with an inflatable zimmer frame! I must mention the marshals as they were brilliant as usual. They are so supportive, there are hundreds of them and most have jelly babies ready for weary runners. I also saw one of the other Harriers, Juliet, at this point about half a mile ahead of me. I thought it would be nice to run together for a while so I tried to catch up.
The next 5 or so miles were relatively uneventful, and actually I was feeling really good. I realised I was doing better than last year, and was hopeful of a decent time.
About 12 miles in I finally caught up with Juliet – it had only taken me an hour! We chatted for a few mins but Juliet was struggling with her leg at this point and actually trying to catch up meant my pace was a bit faster than what she was doing. We discussed it and she told me to plough on. I knew the big bogs were coming so I assumed we’d regroup after that.
Anyway – the bogs! Part of the Grizzly’s notoriety is the bogs and as usual they were a challenge. You run through a stream for a while just to get really wet feet then they send you in. Actually one of the benefits of the recent rain was that the bogs were looser than normal so I didn’t get stuck. Although they still come up to your thighs so are still tough to get through without falling over! I looked back for Juliet but could not see her so I jogged on. Turns out she’d got pain in her leg when stuck in the bog so was taking her time getting through it.
I was chatting to a bloke at this point and he asked me how I was doing. I told him that actually I was feeling the best I had ever felt on the course. Oh I was to rue that statement! And not very long after. Seriously, within half a mile I was all over the place. I hit a brick wall energy-wise and I was really, really struggling. I could not work out what on earth was wrong with me. I dug in though as I knew I just needed to put one leg in front of the other. Not easy though as the main feature of the Grizzly is hills, massive, leg energy-sucking hills. I was in trouble and felt very wobbly.
Sometimes though, things come along just when you need them. The next aid station (of which there are loads – another great aspect of the organisation), was a very special one. A local club takes pride in what they provide at their aid station and they had flapjack, battenburg and fairy cakes. I really needed more than a gel, so this was perfect. I think battenburg may be my cake of choice for running from now on!
I still struggled for another half a mile or so though. It was a long slog up a very steep hill and down the other side through the beer garden of a pub. At this point Juliet caught me up again and passed me. She was looking really strong, and so bounded off up the next hill. I started to feel better at this point, I think the cake energy was kicking in. Plus I started to use my little mantra that I often chant to myself on long runs (“I am steady and I am strong”). That also helped as during the previous mile I’d had some very negative self-talk and this pulled me out of that.
I ploughed on and made it back down to Branscombe beach. This is where the Grizzly really kicks you when you are down! You run back the way you come, through the tributary and follow the Cub route home. This initially involves about a mile of energy sapping shingle beach. A lot of people walk at this point, but I dug in, went into my own mind and got myself to the end – the Stairway to Heaven.
The Stairway to Heaven is around 400ft up a steep cliff face, on top of the beach legs it is very, very tough. It’s also quite scary at the top as you have weak, wobbly legs and you are teetering on the edge! The mountain rescue team up there are welcome though.
That leaves you with about 3 miles left, back across the cliff top (even windier!) and down through the campsite into Beer. I was feeling pretty fine by now and realised that without any issues I was going to beat my previous best time of 4:11. That put a bit of a spring in my step and I picked up the pace a bit.
After a couple more leg sapping hills you are in the last mile and running downhill all the way! I changed my matra at this point to bring me in – “I am speedy and I am fast!” I overtook a few people at this point who were clearly reaching the end of the road energy-wise. Then I was running down to the finish on the Esplanade.
Hang on – what does the clock say? 3:59?!?!?!
I pegged it down the finish line and came in under the 4:00hr mark at 3:59:23 – I was so chuffed! Then my legs reminded me they were very unhappy with me and the wobble was back 🙂
So – the Grizzly? Do I recommend it? Absolutely. Is it hard? Damn right it is. Its one of the hardest races you’ll ever do, but I tell you when you pull on that special survivors t-shirt, boy have you earned it.
Postscript: you can see a Go-Pro video of the course here: http://youtu.be/NieXivBQ93E

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 🙂

Summer Runs

Is there anything better as a runner than to be out on a sunny summer’s evening with club buddies running through fields and trails and finishing with a pint in a village pub?

Slightly rhetorical question as I’d get lots of responses to that one! Of course I would put the birth of my children and my wedding day up there, but they are special, one(ish)-off events. For sheer everyday pleasure, and for me as a runner, I’d take evenings like last night any day of the week over a speed session in December round the urban streets.

It was my first run out for 8 days after my Stour Valley Marathon and glad I was to be able to blast round the fields of south Bedford. After the pain in my knee in the race and some sports chiropractic, this was my chance to see how the treatment was doing. I’m pleased to say that apart from a slight twinge at about 5 miles in when running on uneven ground all was well with the fibula.

I’d actually cycled to the run, as my group often meets somewhere rural outside town on a summer’s evening and I like to try and get a bit of extra fitness in on the bike rather than drive (plus usually the car is usually commandeered by the masses at home anyway). This was one of the closer start points at only a couple of miles south of Bedford (Cardington), usually its around 6-8 miles each way, which is a nice distance. But I was desperate to get out on my new pedals and shoes. I’ve just upgraded to cleats and wanted to break them in / see if I could do it without falling off!

Anyway, once there it was great to catch up with friends (taking the usual jibes of “who are you” – damn job). It was muggy and the first 2-3 miles were hard, but as usual I started to settle in. In fact it was a hard one mile slow slog uphill that seemed to fire my legs (I am strange). After that I was off up front, enjoying the views and the summer evening breeze that had thankfully kicked in. I did have a funny moment when one of the group said to me that I had a lovely running motion from behind! Hypnotic he said…must have been my lovely tri-shorts…

The end of the run came after an hour and just under seven miles of trail / country running. Bliss. Of course the cloud burst at the end put a slight (and actual) dampener on things but I guess we were all sweaty anyway!

Next up was a lovely pint and a chat in the pub garden. We couldn’t decide on which ale to have so the nice guy behind the bar gave us a taster of each – Doom bar won hands down! And then it was home to food and the family.

A couple of lovely hours out in the summer evening sun, blasting through lovely countryside and a pint afterwards. As I said at the beginning – anything better?

Stour Valley Marathon – race report

The Stour Valley Marathon is a beautiful course run along part of the Stour Valley Path in Suffolk, as well as the Essex Way and St Edmund’s Way. I was running the race as part of my prep, and as a recce for, the Stour Valley Path 100k ultrarun in August. Having twisted my ankle in a previous race and been suffering from associate knee problems I was a bit apprehensive, but thought I’d give it a bash!

Its a typical labour of love race, a local guy with some fellow runners, no big sponsors. But its even better for it as the effort put into it was clear and massively appreciated by the runners.

The race starts at the Village Hall in Nayland, just north of Colchester and does a figure of eight around the “undulating” countryside. A self-navigated route, all runners were given written directions to carry at the start in a plastic wallet, along with their number, which they had been able to choose in advance if they wanted to – a nice touch. Armed with the year of my birth as mine (94 obv – cough, cough) I set off with the 100 or so other runners through the village and was soon running up hill out into the surrounding countryside.

I quickly latched onto a group of six other runners and was soon chatting away about running different races, our training progress (or not), and the fact we’d all missed the England v Italy game the night before for this! Sadly I started to get a bad blister on my left foot (a perennial problem) and at checkpoint 1 I lost them whilst I sorted myself out. Always better to fix these things on a trail run I find, otherwise you risk not finishing. Glad of the small first aid kit in my rucksack (we had to be self sufficient with our own water supply) I ploughed on.

A few wrong turns later (sorry for the small group following me!) I made it to check point 2 set in a beautiful church yard. 95% off-road the route is perfect for the road weary among us. A couple of Jaffa cakes later and off I went again.

By now I was running with an Aussie guy (later found out called Steve) and we did a good job of keeping each other not only on the route, but going through the hilly sections. Of which there seemed to be many. From about 12 miles in I secretly was starting to worry about my ankle as I’d tweaked it a bit earlier and it was starting to throb, but kept that to myself. Then we did a mile along very uneven ground and the thing I was most worried about happened, my knee started to have stabbing pains in it, like I’d had a week or so ago. Knowing my fibula had been out of alignment I was thinking that checkpoint 3 might be my last.

I let Steve run on and stayed at the checkpoint longer than I would really have wanted, but it was time well invested. I’d been prepared and brought things with me to sort my leg out if needed and applied a cold freeze patch to the muscles, as well as necking a couple of ibuprofen. Taking the chance to deal with another big blister I set off with a walk-run strategy to see how far I could get. The knee was sore but seemed a bit better and then I swapped the cold for a heat patch a mile or so out.

Thankfully the pain started to subside and I felt a bit more confident I might finish. The next few miles were the worst though as I reached that point in the race where energy was dipping and I was also on my own for a long stretch. I could see a group about a mile ahead when I was on long stretches of hill or country road, but they didn’t seem to get any closer.

But plough on I did and started to really enjoy the terrain. Having “bashed out” a road marathon in Liverpool at the end of May, I’d really not enjoyed it. But being out in the country and having cryptic directions to follow I remembered what I love about running. I wonder if Liverpool may have been my last road marathon?

I finally caught up with a few of the group ahead, which was nice to break up the silence (and stop me talking to myself as is my wont on these things) and I started to dig in for the end. Thankfully the last 5 miles were relatively flat so it became a case of head down and make for the end.

With a lovely reception of the locals as I came back into Nayland I stumbled into the field of the Village Hall at 4hrs 45mins, nearly 50 mins shy of my previous marathon time. Add in the unexpected stops for leg fixing and my ‘gun’ time was actually 5hrs 11mins! But what a lovely day it was. Humid and hilly it may have been, but a cracking race and one to definitely recommend.

Post-race pasta and chilli was much appreciated and we all received our bespoke decorated horseshoe as our race memento.

Met some lovely people, was glad I was able to finish and can’t wait to tackle the 100k along part of the same route in 2 months!