Most people know the "post-marathon Blues".....when the big race you've been aiming for has just passed.....and you feel rather aimless. If you in add the "injury Blues" and the "loss of goal Blues", along with a generous helping of being overworked due to the unavoidable sudden prolonged sickleave of colleagues, you can probably guess how it's been at Zakrzewski Towers recently!!
The bruising to my face definitely got worse before it got better - so I did look rather like a poor-quality cage-fighter for a while. Some patients were very concerned (once they got over their initial shock), whereas others told me off for not telling them individually what had happened to me (they said they would have preferred me to have told them personally, than to have read about it in the press). Anyway, the facial bruising, swelling and scabs have now more or less gone away, leaving only the pesky ribs to deal with. Ribs are a hard injury to deal with, as they do not cause a visible handicap. Nobody knows that you cannot sleep well as you wake up having caused yourself pain everytime you move in bed at night, or that you find it almost impossible to bend down to put your socks on, or that you need to pull against your legs with your arms to get up from sitting or lying down, though it is obvious to others when you splint your chest to laugh, cough or sneeze. As they start to improve, you actually forget that you have an injury, until you reach for something, or try to turn around.
After a marathon, I would usually do some gentle cross-training, but this time it wasn't possible as I couldn't lift my arm up to swim, and couldn't get into a cycling position, never mind turn to look for traffic. However, I did notice that although it felt like I had a mid-race stitch when I walked anywhere, this stitch was the same whatever speed I walked, so I decided to try returning to some gentle jogging (though nothing requiring much on an increased respiratory effort).
Criffel map and profile
By the time I was 3 weeks post-injury, I decided that getting out for a proper run might restore my sanity (though that decision may make you actually question it). Our club organises a local hill race, which I have never done (as I've always been road training/racing at this time of year and so not wanted to risk an injury). Having never run it, I had no expectations, no previous times to compare to (when fit) and there would be shame in starting and stopping if it was too sore.......so along I went.....
Criffel Hill Race is about 10.5K long with an elevation gain/loss of 550m. This doesn't sounds too bad, but the route actually starts and finishes with a mile or so of relatively flat road, and the rest is steep, boggy, muddy hillside. However, I went down to New Abbey, paid my entry fee (which was £5 to the local mountain rescue team) and had my kit check. For those of you that don't know this, the rules are that you have to carry, full body waterproof clothing, a hat, gloves, compass, map and whistle - my hat was questioned as it wasn't waterproof (!) but, as I also had a hood on my waterproof jacket, I passed. The previous race organiser (Elsie) had recently passed away, so many of us picked up a carnation to carry up and leave on the summit in her memory.
If truth be told, I was very nervous of the start, even though it was going to be nothing like Seville (there were only 61 runners starting off), so I went to the back of the pack. We had 3 cheers and some applause for Elsie and then we were off. There was an initial short sharp road climb which is known to catch some people out, but my ribs felt better than I expected (though that might have been the adrenaline of being amongst a crowd again) so I found myself weaving around and overtaking people all the way along the road. When we headed off road, the track was narrow and quite muddy so it was difficult to work out whether to focus on foot placement or to look up to avoid branches pinging back off the back in front.
Leaving the road, before the climb started
Suddenly the route starts climbing properly, and this is where the fun begins. Everybody picks their own route up a small gully between trees, having to decide whether it's better to wobble on and off unsteady grass tussocks or to risk losing a shoe in knee-deep mud. There is an old fence line going straight up the hill, which adds to the challenge as your preferred race line may cross this fence several times, and loose bits of wire can also be found coiled in the mud (I only just managed to avoid a muddy face plant when a foot got trapped under some hidden wire).
As we went through a narrow (muddy) gateway onto the open hill, there was some encouragement from the mountain rescue marshals, though one of them did ask why I was so far back in the field. I was surprised at this as I'm not exactly known as a hill runner, and most people seem to have read/heard about my Seville shenanigans!
It's interesting to see a lot of runners power-walking up the hillside using their arms to push down on their thighs.....most people ahead of me were definitely doing this. Unfortunately, I discovered that the sore ribs wouldn't let me do this, so I had to keep on running (well, running of sorts.....with baby steps). With hindsight, this may have actually helped me on the day, as I overtook several more runners and gained on others during this ascent.
By the time I got to the summit of Knockendoch, the weather had really closed in - it was wet, the visibility was about 20m and I was blown sideways off the "path" on several occasions. I expected some of the guys to come flying past me as I dropped off the summit onto the ridge up to Criffel itself, but I saw noone. When I saw the leaders coming flying down towards me, I knew I didn't have much further to climb, and actually spotted the summit cairn just after the first lady passed me going in the opposite direction. I was shocked to realise that I was actually inside the top 10, though there was a clue that not many had been there before me, in that I could not see where anyone else had left their flowers for Elsie. I decided to leave mine at the feet of the summit marshal, then turned and headed back the way I'd come.I knew I would have to be very tentative on the descent (never my forte anyway) for fear of falling and also as every sharp step down might potentially jar my sore ribs. Nobody was yet in sight coming up, but it would only be a matter of minutes before the men started flinging themselves down the hill past me. Hill runners are a friendly bunch so I generally stood aside if I could hear someone approaching from behind me at speed, and they usually gave me some encouragement as they passed. There were occasional slight traffic jams when a 3-way pass occurred as those coming up were as keen to stay on their preferred line as we were on our descent. Not everyone descended via the same route, as there were often choices between large muddy drop offs, potential bumslides, and unstable grassy tussocks. On a couple of occasions I braced my ribs, thinking I was going to drop down by at least a foot, only to find out that I then sank at least another foot into thick mud. I sank in up to my knees at times and feared that I would end up leaving my shoes lost and buried for ever.I met one of my work colleagues just before Knockendoch as she was still on her way up, but the descent became really steep once past that cairn and I slowed down even more. I cheered a couple of clubmates as they shot down past me - it seemed like they were out of sight within seconds, and I wondered if it was possible to drop from top 10 to last 10 within such a short distance. I have to say that I was heartily sick of the mud and the ribjarring by the time it flattened out slightly and I was able to pick up the pace and run down through the trees.
By the time I popped out on to the forest road, the last 2 men to pass me were well out of sight. I hadn't actually felt like I was in a race prior to this - more that I was just out to have fun on a hill, but I thought I'd give myself a little test on the run in.I got my legs turning over and focussed on how much I could claw back on that final stretch. I started to reel in the man in front at a slightly faster pace than he was reeling in the man ahead of him. We were all going for it by the end, and as we descended the final two sharp turns, I overtook one of them, but ran out of race for the other. I had no idea how long the run had taken me as I'd left my watch at home, but it turns out I didn't do too badly, all things considered. 2nd lady home by 5 minutes(though the winner did beat me by a good 8 or so) and I opened up a gap of 2 minutes on the man who left the forest hot on my heels. All in all, it was great to get out and run (or run/walk) in the fresh air, and I felt that I'd earned my anaesthetic pint of cider in the pub afterwards (all good hill races end by a pub don't they?)!!!