Thursday, 22 September 2016

A Conspiracy ?

It definitely seemed like the Fates were conspiring against me to ensure that I didn't run the Ring of Steall skyrace up in the Highlands last weekend.

Firstly, a big last minute change of plans took away the main reason for the trip up there, so I had to decided whether to still travel up myself and catchup with, and support friends that were running the main Skyline race on Sunday. I was won over by the promise of food, banter, brownies and a puppy to look after so I decided to make the trip after all.

Secondly, my accident in Australia had done a lot more damage than I'd originally thought (bony bruising causing bleeding and swelling into the knee joint), and I'd spent a couple of weeks actually limping rather than walking and had only just got back to a couple of gentle semi-pain-free runs. I left it until the Saturday morning to decide, but when my friend Matt (a physio) offered to tape my knee up for me  (his wife was registering for the race and he himself was running on the Sunday, I decided to give it a go. I arranged to get a lift back from Glen Nevis if it hurt on the first descent and I felt that I needed to drop out partway round. 

And finally....having registered and got my tracker, I was just debating what to take with me as hill food and what to eat and drink pre-race, when my friend Jim came running up as he'd been looking for me. It turned out that IAAF antidoping had turned up to test me (though it was actually not within my registered timeslot).

Desperately trying to make the official race start!!
This then involved a stressful hour for me - I met the German couple who had come to test me, managed to find some photo ID and we found somewhere quiet and away from prying eyes for the testing. By the time the paperwork was complete and they'd taken a couple of tubes of blood, there was less than 15 minutes to go to the start of the race. No time to eat or drink anything except a can of Redbull, change my shoes, grab my pack with whatever was in it (as it turned out.....2 large choc chip cookies and a couple of mini babybels only) and leg it to the start. I'd missed the briefing (though Jim had kindly alerted Shane the race director as to my plight) and had to run down the start funnel to the line in order to get there in time. I made it with a minute or two to spare, but didn't exactly feel calm or prepared, and people nearby noticed how much my hands were shaking, but there was little I could do but just get on with it!

And they're off....
There were over 450 runners in the race so it must've looked quite a sight as we all headed down the main street of Kinlochleven and onto the West Highland Way. I remember running this section of the WHW as part of my first ultra (the Devil O'The Highlands) many years ago, but it has changed rather dramatically since then. Ok, so it's still a single track climb uphill, but it used to be very slippery and rough underfoot whereas now it is much more groomed with some large stones laid down and some formed steps. It was nice to see a few familiar faces out supporting on the hillside.
Looking back to Kinlochleven from the WHW

We had a short run along the old drovers' road before a sharp turn up onto the "proper" hillside (ie muddy, stony, rocky, slippery narrow trail). Georgia (the leading lady) just seemed to power away up the hill leaving many men trailing in her wake. Just watching her go made me wonder if I could finish the race within an hour of her (if my knee let me get beyond Glen Nevis that was).

Ascending to the first ridgeline
Not the widest place to run
Having made the initial col, we had to climb further to reach the first scary ridgeline. Jasmin and Konrad were out with their new puppy so gave me an encouraging shout. I had been hoping for a lot of cloud cover as I seem to have developed more of a fear of heights as I've aged, but unfortunately the weather was rather good (for Scotland). I managed to keep going relatively well when I didn't think about the drops below (and happily enough there was mist blocking my view a good deal of the time), but although I'd been the second lady to the top, I certainly wasn't by the end of the ridge.

At least there was a "path"
Amazingly, nobody overtook me as I ran down the initial scree descent....and I actually enjoyed it. All too soon, that section finished and it became more of the downhill that I "really dislike". Steep slopes, grass, rocks, jumps etc. There was a trail most of the way, but in places it was worn away into the hillside and I worried that I wouldn't get my feet back out from under the overhang once I'd landed, or I couldn't actually see what I was landing on, or the rocks slid as I landed on them (with my enforced panic-braking!).

Many people shot past me, though one guy stuck right behind me for most of the descent even though I kept offering for him to overtake. Still, I only had three (small) falls and though I was being cautious wrt my knee, it seemed to be holding up well. Sound carries well in the clear mountain air, and so I could hear the piper at the checkpoint from high up in the hills (my delight at hearing him soon turned to dismay once I realised that my initial thought of being almost down to the valley floor was way off!).

Glen Nevis
Having reached Glen Nevis, I decided that instead of pulling out there, I go to the next checkpoint, as I wondered if I might be able to record the fastest split of the day on that section of course. According to the route map, there was a couple of miles between the checkpoints and it was mainly road, followed by some good runnable relatively flat walking trails. I grabbed a couple of cups of water (but stupidly didn't enter the tent to check out the food on offer) and headed off. 

I soon realised what I'd missed in the pre-race briefing (while I was otherwise occupied with the drugs testers)......a landslide earlier in the week had forced us into an alternative route. Instead of the lovely road and trail I'd been counting on, we now had a boggy "track" through rough ground on the other side of the river. It was "mostly" obvious where to go, if you didn't mind ending up in mud to your knees, but I did add in an extra scramble or two trying to find the route in places (and I gather I wasn't the only one).

It seemed as if the new route had us heading up out of Glen Nevis earlier than planned, but this was a false hope, as although we climbed some way up above the river, we then descended back down to it for a wade crossing of a large tributary.

I'd made up several places on this section despite the lack of road, and worried that I'd gone off course as I couldn't see anyone ahead, but luckily found the next checkpoint and happily headed up towards the next ridge. My knee seemed better on ascents, and so I munched on the food I had in my pack (yummmm.....large chocolate cookies), refilled my waterbottle whenever I crossed a stream, and power hiked up. Well, I think it was a power hike (of sorts) and it seemed to be taking me skywards faster than several of the guys around me. 

On the Ring Of Steall
Several people had told me that the second ridge of the Ring was worse than the first so I was rather dreading reaching it. In fact, I found this part of the race much more enjoyable than the previous ridge as you had to scramble along it, using your hands as well as your feet. Having several points of contact made me feel much more secure. What I was less happy about was the fact that everytime I thought I'd reached the end of the ridge and started to descend, I had to climb back up to another peak (that'll teach me for not wearing the race profile tattoo!). It became a to and fro game with a couple of guys as they'd shoot past me on the descent, and then I'd close them back down as we climbed back up. 

Starting the descent
Finally, we were over the last peak and heading down to the point at which we'd joined the Ring so many hours ago. From there it was "simply" a case of retracing our steps to the start. When I say "simply".......the ascent had been quite step, slow, rocky, rough and muddy so I was not at all sure how I'd fare going down it, but as I had now moved up into the top 5 ladies, I really wanted to try to maintain that position. My friend Ant was out of the course with his camera, so so encouraged me to keep pushing down the hill as the lady behind wasn't in sight. 

Crossing the stream
Halfway down the rough descent, there was a stream to cross, and 2 other friends (Jim and Liz) were on the far side of it cheering me on. Jim though that I had about 3.5 minutes to make up over the last 2 miles to make the podium, and he thought that I was moving better than the ladies in front. This really surprised me, as I'd see. How much better they were at descending than me in the first half of the race. Still, he kept encouraging me to keep pushing and closing the gap, running along in front, behind and alongside me.I felt that I was moving faster than I ever had down a rough hillside, but occasionally my brain would kick in and "remind" me what a "bad descender" I am and then the brakes would go on. 

I was exhausted by the time I reached the Drover's road (1-2 weeks out might be classed as a taper, 4-5 weeks kinds of means that the fitness has gone somewhat) and I couldn't manage to run all of the upslopes....though it wasn't for lack of support from Ant and Jim.

I picked it back up for the final run down the West Highland Way and was going as fast as my body would take me....even rolling my ankle rather painfully just heat the bottom. I popped out onto the tarmac road but for once I wasn't really in my element on this. I couldn't understand why I couldn't see the girls in front if I'd been going that fast, and only had that gap to close up, and the descent had taken more out of me than I realised. 

With my clubmates at the finish
I wasn't even sure if I'd manage to run all the way to the finish line, but I did....reeling in the man in front so he ended up only 6s ahead. 

I was actually ecstatic to have got round in one piece, and 4th place was a lot higher than I could possibly have expected to finish so all's well that ends well. Looking at the results breakdown, I also gained a lot of personal confidence as I moved up 20 or so positions in the second half of the race, for once nobody overtook me on a descent, and I did really close the gap on the ladies in front (it was just that they had started descending about 10 minutes before I did.....thanks Jim!!!! But seriously, thanks Jim, as I wouldn't have even tried to go that speed if it wasn't for him)!!!

Friday, 26 August 2016

Glenbrook Trail Marathon

Running Wild - the race organisation
Most people may think it slightly crazy to get off a long haul flight (or 3) to Australia and then head out to run a race, but the purpose of my fortnight-long visit was to hang out and catch up with family, "almost" family, and friends. My plan was to get a good long run in before meeting up with them, and then I'd be happy to just chill for the holiday.

With that in mind, I found myself heading up to the Blue Mountains within 24 hours of arrival, in order to run the Glenbrook Trail marathon. I knew it was the end of "winter" but I was in Australia and it had been in the 20s during the day so I was rather shocked to see a layer of frost on the ground and see the thermometer registering -1.5 degrees.

Not the flattest run ever!
The race rules included carrying a 500ml container for water and your own silicone cup to avoid plastic cups causing litter at the feedstations. I did not think I was likely to suffer from dehydration/heat problems (hypothermia was a possibility as I was just wearing a t-shirt and skirt), so my aim was to keep my water container "collapsed" in my pocket after drinking the contents, and just use my cup at the feed stations.

It was also a first for me to have to read the pre-race notes about snakes and other nasty beasties (the course description mentioned a resident black snake), what to do in case of a bush fire and to sign a disclaimer!! I wondered what on earth I was letting myself in for.

The beautiful Blue Mountains
There were 3 separate races on the day - my 42.2K event headed off first at 7:30am with the 34K setting off shortly afterwards, and then the 25K runners leaving last.

As we were the first runners off in the early morning frost, we even startled a few wallabies as we headed out of the carparks of Euroka Clearing and up a steep sharp climb on single track which really got the lungs and heart warmed up. We passed a waterhole (but luckily it was too cold for the resident black snake to be in evidence) and turned onto a rough forest road. Although only about 5km into the race, this was the steepest section to run as the gradient was about 20% for about 350m. However, once up this slope there was a nice runnable firetrail along to the Mount Portal lookout (over the Nepean Valley....but I didn't actually stop to take in the view and see if I could spot the Sydney Harbour Bridge way off in the distance!!).

"What goes up must come down" so the steep slope had to be descended due to the out and back nature of this route segment. By this time, the 34K runners had started so although I got to see a couple of people in my race ahead of me after they had turned round at the lookout, it was more interesting to fly past (well not I;m such a poor descender) almost the entire field of the next race as they were slogging up the hill!!

The first aid station was at about 10K, but as I didn;t feel I needed a drink I carried onto the next 2K of "fast flowing single trail". This was really pretty but did consist of rather a lot of large steps (the Blue Mountains are famous for steps on their trails). Unfortunately my stride wasn't quite the right length to be able to negotiate them easily so it wasn't all that "fast flowing" for me.

The only tarred section of the race was 100m uphill along the main road before another steep descent into a valley. There were a couple of friendly marshals directing runners off the road and onto the trail, but I took fright as I heard them shouting something about snakes to me (as it turned out they were only asking if I had wanted a jelly snake, so how I wished I'd taken the time to listen properly).

The rock-hopping descent down to the creek was made easier by some "steps" carved into the sandstone, but at the bottom I wasn't quite sure which way to go. the trail to the right looked bigger so I started heading that way, only to be called back by two helpful guys who'd seen me heading off the wrong way, so I turned round and followed them up the creek.

Red Hands Cave
This was a beautiful section to "run" as we wound round rocks and trees, crossed the creek several times, dipped in and out of lush forest, skipped over sandy pools and dodged under sandstone overhangs for several kilometres. The trail gradually climbed up passing the culturally significant "Red Hands Cave". This cave is believed to have been a safe place for indigenous women and children (the Darug people) and contains axe-grinding grooves and hand stencils dating back 1600 years.

The next aid station was at the end of this narrow trail and so I grabbed a drink of water before hitting the fire trail which gradually rose over the next 5km to the highest point on the course. It was definitely starting to heat up as the sun rose higher and I was glad to be in dappled woodland. I passed a couple of runners and then linked up with Christian, an ex-pat Brit and so we ran together, happily chatting away.

Out on the wide fire trails
Another out and back section to Nepean Lookout along a gum-lined firetrail saw Christian drop back and me close down the man in front (Stephen) though I'm not sure how happy he was about this. We had to negotiate a couple of barriers on the firetrail and unfortunately I came a cropper on one of these. I tripped on some roughness underfoot while trying to get through the narrow gap and then next thing I knew was that I was lying on the ground having hit my head and grazed my right hand. I tired to get up and run on but realised that I had completely winded myself as I was gasping for air. Stephen ran off ahead of me but Christian came up to my aid and made me stop, catch my breath, wipe the blood off my hands and wash the sand out of my face and mouth before running on with me (yeay - you can count on Team GB to look out for each other!!).

The next section was purely for the marathon runners - another out and back stretch along Pisgah Ridge. Initially this was a relatively wide non-maintained firetrail so Christian and I could still run side by side and chat, but eventually it became very narrow with overhanging branches at heights that they could catch either your head or your ankles. This section was described as an "added bonus" as the route planners had extended the single track to include a steep descent to the turnaround point and taken out some boring loops around the clearing/carparks at the start/finish.

As I headed back up through the thick bush, my right hip started to ache and so I dropped off my the pace a bit, wondering if I had actually clattered it in my fall (sure enough a bruise did develop later). Due to the out and back nature of this section, I could see fellow marathoners behind me and realised that is was unlikely that I'd be caught by the next lady, which seemed to give me a new lease of life (as did finally overhauling the early leader of the race who seemed to have "blown up" big time).
Great medal

Back on the main fire trail again, I passed Christian and knew it was just a case of trying to maintain my pace to the finish. It was hard to know who was in what race at this point as all 3 race routes had converged, though I reckoned I could work it out from our relative running speeds.
Although the last 5K was reputed to be "fast", it did seem rather long to me, and I had to force myself to keep my cadence up and keep pushing on. The ladies' CR seemed to be within my reach, even though there was a "false" sense of approaching the finish. The course took us back to the car parks of Euroka Clearing, but we popped about about as far away from the finish line as it was possible to be. A steep downhill past picnic sites and parked cars led to a sharp turn and an final uphill sprint to the (very welcome) finish line.

Food and drink = made for me!
Prize giving
The finisher's medal represented the Red Hand's Cave which we'd run past so long ago, but it felt so well earnt. Despite the fall, I managed to finish second overall (behind Stephen) in 3 hours and 16 minutes, taking a good 12 minutes off the previous ladies' CR! The prize was a voucher for food and drink in the local town, and so as my relatives had driven all the way out there to meet me, what better way could I spend my winnings than on taking everyone out for lunch!!??

Run done - I could now chill for the rest of my fortnight's fact, that's all I could do, as I'd actually done myself a lot more damage than I thought in the fall, developing bony bruising and swelling in my knee, so much so that I couldn't walk without pain for the next fortnight!

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Not your average Half Marathon....

Lowther Estate
As most people know, I've not had much inclination for training and racing recently, but thought I should test the waters of my declining fitness with a nice low key race. The Lowther Trail Half Marathon was on at the weekend, but I still couldn't summon up the motivation to go and run it. On Saturday however, my friend Ant told me that he was doing it to kickstart his running and racing training for the autumn and beyond. This spurred me on to actually enter and so I headed on over there on Sunday morning (after rather too little sleep due to watching the Rio Olympics for half of the night!).

My first clue that this was not your average half marathon were the signs directing people to the "Fell Race", and the next pointer was that a sportident dibber was attached to each competitor's wrist as they registered. This led to much more of a mountain marathon feel rather than a trail race though I hoped the route would be kinder to me, despite the "warning" about taking care at the river crossing.

Having been the race medic many years prior to this, I only had some vague memories of the route (some of which were clearly wrong as I'd recalled it being 10K long rather than over 13 miles!).

Looking back up the start section

The initial downhill start was fast and uneven across the grass of the showground and after half a mile, I wondered if I'd made the wrong decision in running the race. After crossing the river we started a long drag up through the [pretty village of Askham and onto the fells. I felt that I was really struggling by the 1.5mile mark and when I spotted a local swimming pool sign (and a pub) I was tempted to stop. Nevertheless, I'd entered the race to ensure that I kept running when I felt like quitting (as I thought I might do if I'd just gone out for a 13 mile run on my own) so I pushed on - despite feeling like it was much harder than it should be, others were clearly feeling this more as I gradually overtook men as we headed up and out onto the open ground.

The Askham Fells
Everyone had to "dib" into the control at the top of the first hill to ensure there was no cutting of corners or summits but we were "rewarded" with a nice runnable downhill stretch on a mixture of grass and trail. I tried to put into practice what I had been advised about downhill running - ie look a few metres ahead rather than down at my feet, relax and let myself go, rather than unconsciously braking due to a fear of tripping and falling. It may have been the increased mental effort, or it may have been that I was consciously putting in more of an effort than usual on a downhill section, or it may have having (or not having) a horizon in my eyesight, but it did make me feel rather nauseated. It crossed my mind how embarassing it would be if I had to stop to be sick on a downhill section rather than when working hard up a hill!.

I looked at my watch as I passed a "5 mile" marker sign....although we'd actually only gone 4.5miles, it would still have been a PW (personal worst) for me for the 5 mile point in a half marathon!

After some more "undulations" with bracken and tussocks making sure I kept picking my feet up, there was a brief road section (yippee) before an arrow directed us out across open ground. With no obvious path, it was a case of picking the best route through bogs and between reeds, tussocks and thistles. Instinctively picking out good routes comes with hours and hours of this type of running, which I clearly haven't done so I did get overtaken by a man who then disappeared off over the horizon. This was unfortunate for me, as it meant that I then had to test my own navigational and contouring skills on the rough ground. A splash through a 1.5m wide creek made me wonder what all the fuss was about the advertised river crossing, as it didn't even wash off the mud I was now clothed in.

A mile later, I found there was a 15m wide river to wade through. There were marshals at each side and a rope strung across it for use as a handrail (very useful when you are stumbling around on the river bed). I found it very hard to get back into a running stride with heavy, wet (though clean) feet and legs on the far side of the river, though a marshal tried to convince me that it was "not far to go"  (Ha....I thought....only about another 6 miles!!).
Not a bad profile for a hill race, but
testing for a road runner!

The next section was a tough "hands on knees and push" climb (after an initial scratchy thistle field crossing). I admit that I'm not very good at walking up hills as I find it hard to remember to keep putting effort in when I'm walking but I confess to walking up some of this one (though I did run for longer than the guys in front of me....small victories and all that!!). At the top, there was noone in sight again, and I found it hard to spot the next bit of tape marking the route. Luckily I found a sheep trod going across the plateau in the right direction, though I did doubt myself as I'd thought the next "dibber" was at about the 8 mile point.

It was my memory playing tricks on me again, as the marshals were there holding the control 9 miles into the race. From there, we had our final section of grass-running and ended up on another minor road. I was so happy to see some tarmac (even if it did go rather steeply downhill) that I just let myself go and somehow managed a sub 6-minute mile, so gaining a few places. The road was interrupted by several cattle grids, more easily negotiated by men with larger feet/shoes, so I had to brake rather abruptly on a few occasions to avoid my feet slipping in between the bars, and by the last few grids, I opted to run round them in the rough grass.

The last couple of miles were on forest roads and were also being used for the carriage racing that was part of the Lowther Show. The carriages had right of way, so it was important to remain alert and jump off onto the verges in time as they passed as some pace.
Everyone loves a
"consumable" prize!!

The final sting in the tail of the race was a steep climb back up from the river to the Showground before dibbing in at the finish. A definite benefit to the sportident timing and checkpoints was that after the we "downloaded", we could also see (and compare) ourr splittimes for each section.

I certainly proved that I'm not very good at judging my own pace or effort when the terrain keeps changing and I haven't raced in a  while, as it turned out that I finished hot on the heels of the 10th man. Although it felt tough at the time, I'm glad I did the race, as it forced me to keep going when I'd otherwise have slowed and stopped, and the course was beautiful, with stunning views and really, a little of of everything underfoot (and obviously the icecream followed by nutella and banana crepes at the Show helped!!!)!

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Different pressures.....

Not many of us are lucky enough to be able to make a living out of our hobbies, so sometimes it has to take a backseat to everything else that is going on in our lives. I am sure that other people's jobs are just as stressful as mine, but sometimes it does feel rather all-encompassing.

Recently, I found that the pressure was getting to me so much, that not only was if affecting my sleep, my work and my relationships with family, friends and colleagues but also my running. I did not want the pressure of taregt races, and indeed I did not even feel like going out to run, never mind actually doing any purposeful training.

A break was definitely in order....from work (ie a holiday) and also from running pressures. Having withdrawn from a big autumn race, I decided to just run if and when I felt like it for a couple of weeks. That turned out to be rather little, so I did a few races with friends just to get me out and turning the legs over...and enjoy the fun of running and socialising with mates.

Finishing in the rain at Comber!!
Five of us went over on a daytrip to Northern Ireland to visit clubmate Hazel Smyth's family and take part in their local 10K. Hazel's dad was a speedy runner in his day so it was great to have him out supporting us on the 2 lap course of the Comber 10K. The race was organised by Ballydrain Harriers, and the rain became so hard during the race that all I could think was "where the Bally **** are the drains?"

Still it was a great day out, as the post-race cake spread was fantastic (even I was I had to sit on the floor holding my stomach after my 6th piece....whilst the tables were still piled high!!) and we managed a quick trip to a pub in Belfast before catching the ferry back home.

With Alex, my fellow 3000m runner

Eeeek - a running track!!
The next day was my "track debut". I was making up number for Durham Harriers in their track and field league, so agreed to be the second 3000m runner. I think I caused other people much entertainment asking how the numbers worked for A-string and B-string, whether you were meant to wear socks or no socks, and not realising about how races started with stepping back and then up to the line followed by an actual starting gun. Still at least I didn't get lapped, scored some points for the club...and really enjoyed the support of clubmates there for different events (and my parents faithfully watching in the stands!).....though I'm not sure it's the discipline for me!

The Borrowdale "Half"
The following weekend brought a low-key "trail half marathon" in the Lake District. A couple of Dumfries clubmates and I took part and were rather unimpressed by the level of organisation and value for money (the course was short, people got lost on the way to the start, several of us got lost in the race as signs were pointing in the wrong directions, the aid station was near the finish rather than midway and had nothing left by the time some of the slower participants came through, there was nowhere to leave clothing at the start despite the rain, they scrapped age group prozes on the day, registration were handing out 11 month out of date cereal bars....need I go on?). I ran over to support friends on the Wasdale fell race afterwards which was about 100 times more fun, despite running in monsoon-like conditions!

Up the hill at Moffat
A few days later I ran the Moffat Gala 15K, which is always a good local event. It has everything in undulating few road miles at the beginning, then a steep uphill off road mile, and then 4.5 tortuous downhill roadmiles back to Moffat. I find it hard to get the necessary leg turnover on the downhill (and Moffat never seems to get any closer as you can see it below you the whole way down) so a few guys flew by me, even though my watch told me I was running some fast mile splits (for me anyway). Still, it was a good fun run with clubmates yet again, rounded off with drinks and cakes in the pub to say goodbye to a clubmate who's returning to Australia after several years over here (and an added bonus is that you are given a marsbar for finishing...and you finish right outside the local chipshop :-) ;-) Yummm!).
The Cheshire Half

Parkrun No 50 with my dad ;-)
I then had a weekend of travelling and catching up with people. First of all I went to Durham and actually ran my 50th parkrun there - it was a lovely social occasion as my friend Jacquie was "rundirecting", my mum was "marshalling" and after I finished I went back and ran in with my dad to make it a proper family affair. Unfortunately my dad didn't quite manage a PB but he's had several of those recently, so wasn't too upset by that!

Post-race with Hannah and Steve
Later that day I popped over to see a friend who lives in Cheshire and so ran a half marathon just a couple of miles away the next morning. A couple of other friends (Hannah and Steve) were also running and so it was great to catch up and have a bit of banter both pre- and post-race (and also meet a gentleman who had been a member of Dumfries Running Club a few years prior to me joining). All in all, if I was going to run several non-target races in a row, then that would be how I'd choose to do it!!

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

A Tale From The Back...

The finish goal....
Another finish goal....
Two of the things that I do to get away from the pressures and stresses of work are catching up with family & friends, and I decided to combine both of those last weekend. I went down to Winchester to visit my sister, brother-in-law, nephew and niece, but also took part in an inaugural ultra event, the "Race To The King".

This was advertised as a 53.5mile run along the South Downs Way starting in Slindon (near Arundel) and finishing in front of Winchester cathedral (where I hoped my own little "king and queen" would be waiting!). The weather forecast left a little to be desired, but Saturday morning dawned clear and sunny.

I boarded my 6am shuttle bus (organised by Race To The King) to the start from Winchester Park&Ride, only to find out that the driver had decided that we were to be a "6:30 bus". Still, it was only meant to take about an hour to get there, which left enough time to register, get my number and hand in a bag with some clothes for the finish and make the 8am start (the "runners' start" as the walkers were due to go off at 8:45am).

Unfortunately race day coincided with the Goodwood Festival of Speed which meant that, despite the early hour, we were soon stationary in traffic jams. Different bus drivers opted for different routes, but unfortunately ours chose the worst option as we were the last people to arrive at the start fields in Slindon. By this time we'd been on the bus for nearly 3 hours so, along with my breakfast, I'd eaten half of my emergency food!!!

The official start
They obviously couldn't delay the starts (of over 1000 people) for 32 of us, so a speedy registration and briefing saw us heading off at about 9:25am. I asked how we could then compare ourselves to those that had started at 8am as it was effectively 2 different races, and the other starters joked that it wouldn't matter as we weren't exactly going to be competitive!!! Still, it was a chip-timed event and as the rules mentioned times for the event rather than positions across the line, it didn't really matter much, as we all still had to complete the same distance.

My aim for the day was to have a nice enjoyable long run, see how I'd recovered from Norway, and not be drawn into racing in fact, it appeared that the delayed start would help me with is as I was running completely on my own after we'd crossed the first field.

Good weather early on
The route was incredibly well signposted so there was no chance of taking a wrong turn, but I kept the course maps handy "just in case". The first few miles were lovely running, but I did get a hint of the tough mental battles ahead as I gradually caught up and passed people that had been on shuttles buses which were delayed slightly less than mine. As most of them were walking, I was soooo tempted to stop running and just walk with them, as they'd all seemed to be having a lovely time chatting away and taking in the scenery.

Having only started 40 minutes behind all of the walkers, it wasn't too long before I found myself at the back of some rather large groups of people. On wider trails, it was relatively easy to duck and dive overhanging branches, dodging between people, long grass, brambles and nettles, but it became more difficult when the path turned sharply and narrowed significantly. Somebody asked me how many times I'd said "would you mind if I tried to squeeze past?" and I think it was actually numbering into the hundreds. Most of the walkers were lovely and considerate, but there were a few patches where it was nigh on impossible for me to overtake, despite accumulating a few bramble scratches and nettle stings.

Some lovely peaceful running
At the first checkpoint I just grabbed a cereal bar, some juice, some sweets and kept going as I was in the thick of the walkers' field by now. The second checkpoint (at the 15 mile point) was teeming with people and so I got rather confused by it and missed most of the offered food (which it turns out were the savoury pastries I spent almost the whole route craving). I think they were away from the actual route, beyond some yoga mats where people were sitting down,most stretching and tending to blisters etc. Still, I found some bananas, gels, coke and water to refill my bottle, and so was happy to carry on.

On the next stretch, as I was passing runners, I started to quiz people on their start times. Everyone said 8 am so I felt that I could now relax as I was no longer playing catchup. For some reason, I had just thought that all I needed to do was to catch up to runners in order to have some company to run with. Thinking about this for a split second shows what a foolish idea this was, as if I'd made up 85minutes in 15 miles, then we clearly weren't going to be running the same pace.

Ominous clouds roll in...
On one hill, I ran past 3 men who were discussing the fact that walking up hills wasn't really much slower than running and they said that "no one would run up here". I then heard them correct themselves with "no one except her" as I moved away ahead of them!

The weather had been great up to now, quite warm and humid with some sunshine, but the forecast had always been for it to deteriorate from about lunchtime, and it certainly lived up to expectations. Black clouds rolled in ominously, and then the heavens opened. The first few showers were short and sharp so I didn't bother getting out my waterproof, but as they became more prolonged I wished that I had done so before I became soaked through.

The mud here was ankle deep
when I ran through it!!
While still on the delayed bus to the start, I'd joked that I had probably been overconfident in not packing a headtorch, as I didn't think I'd finish after it got dark, but I actually almost came to regret that decision. Running on a very narrow path through dark woods in a thunderstorm was almost asking for an accident, especially as a lot of the tree roots were hidden by mud or water. Thankfully I made it through unscathed and started to climb up to the halfway checkpoint (overnight camp for those covering the distance in 2 days).

It had been raining so hard that the path was more of a stream and it felt as if the hillside was sliding down almost as fast as I was trying to run up it, but before long I had made it to the halfway point. There were a few hardy supporters out in the rain as I passed under the timing gantry, but I was glad that I was not going to stop there and put up a soggy tent.

Hot drinks and soup were available, but now that I'd caught up to the main field, I wanted to keep going so just grabbed some bread and some brownies and headed off. There was a definite thinning out of the field by now as, not only had I passed a lot of people, but quite a few were stopping for the night.

The rain stopped, and my clothes dried out, but I felt that I was definitely starting to flag. I wasn't sure if it was the Norway race still in my legs, or the lack of mileage since, or just the fact that it was a long way to run. Still, everyone has low spots in a race, and if you manage to get through them, then things so improve as seemed to happen to me. All of a sudden I'd made it to another checkpoint and was now counting them down.

I was told that fewer than 10 ladies were ahead of me, but this didn't mean much as I didn't know exactly when I'd started relative to them, though it did seem to give me a bit of a boost. People were few and far between, but as I was still overtaking people and nobody passed me, I figured that I just be running a bit better than I felt I was. I do remember saying to a lady as I passed her that I was "over it now" and "just wanted to be in Winchester"!!!

The name "Old Winchester Hill" lulled me into a false sense of being near Winchester as I still had about 15 miles to go. The rain started beating down again (it was so loud on the roof of the portaloo I found at that checkpoint, that I was tempted not to come out again!) but by this time, I just couldn't be bothered with my waterproofs......I just wanted to get to the finish!

The arrows were clear and easy to spot
At the penultimate checkpoint I heard that the race leaders had been through less than 90mins ahead of me, and that there were only about 5 women ahead, but I wasn't sure how accurate this info was, as people might have miscounted or missed people in the heavy rain. I really thought that I'd gone the wrong way around this time, as there were several stretches of over 100m that involved wading-running as I appeared to be running in a rivulet or along some flooded roads. Several busy road crossings had been unmarshalled but I didn't think that I'd missed any arrows....and sure enough, there were some at the side of the flooded sections!

When I got to the last checkpoint, I did ask if they knew the timegap, as I only had "about 7.1" miles to go from there. They told me that they'd heard that leader had finished but weren't sure exactly when, but that the first lady had been quite a way back from him when she passed through there. I decided that if I could just push on and up my pace to the finish, then I might be able to record a time that was relatively high up the field.

I hoped that the last few miles might be on a good surface into Winchester, but my heart sank as I saw that I had to head further up hill and down dale on rough ground. I looked at my watch when I passed a sign marked "5 miles to the finish". It showed 7hrs 22 minutes, but I couldn't say with confidence that I hadn't actually stopped it when at checkpoints etc.

I had originally thought that I might take about 9 hours for the event but my sister had said to friend of hers (that I met while waiting for the bus) that I might be around the 8 hour mark. Looking at my watch, I thought that I was going to be painfully close, and probably miss it by minutes.

Finally.....the finish gantry...yippee!!!
Still, I wanted to try to break the 8 hour mark and so I forced myself to pick up the pace when I hit some tarmac (even though it was painful as it was rather steep downhill). I managed a 6:48 mile, followed by a 7 min mile, even though this one was partly off road again. The distance wasn't quite adding up but I was now into Winchester itself. I shocked a male runner as I flew past him in another 6:50 mile (not bad for my 54th mile of the run) but every time I thought I was going to turn towards the cathedral, the arrows pointed the opposite way. It almost seemed like the race organisers had been deliberately cruel and were making us run a lap around the cathedral before getting there.

That well-earned hug ;-)
Finally I rounded a corner and sad the finish gantry so I sprinted for it (well, it felt like sprinting even if it didn't look like it). Unfortunately I didn't spot the fact that there were several steps to go down until I was almost on them, but luckily I didn't quite hot the deck  despite how wet they were. After crossing the line, you had to pull up abruptly to avoid a statue, some more steps and the actual cathedral itself, but luckily my sister was there to catch me with a big hug!
Decapitation was attempted

What a well earned hug it was as I'd finished (the 54.2 miles) in 7 hrs 57 minutes and 11 seconds. As it turned out the first man had finished in 8:15 but he was very gracious about this when we found out our times, as I'd never expected results like that. It was lovely to have the family there at the  finish, even if my "king and queen" did then try to decapitate me with their swords!

The timing/bus problems at the start were rather unfortunate, but all in all I really enjoyed the was a lovely scenic route with a bit of everything (in terms of terrain as well as weather) and the different options meant that it was achievable for everyone, whether they wanted to do it all in one go, or over a couple of days, without having to worry about navigation or support. Well done Race To The King!