Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Scottish ladies and their teamwork......

I've never run in the Intercounties Fell Running Championships before as I've always been too worried about turning an ankle just prior to Comrades but thought I'd give it a go this year.
Our course profile
The event was being held in Witton Park, Blackburn, and it was suggested that it might suit some XC runners rather than just experienced fell runners. I was making up the "Scotland West" team with Christina (a good hill runner) and Lesley (a good XC runner)...... probably because I was only other person in the west of Scotland mad enough to do it!

I knew that the race would encompass all my weak points.....it would be short, fast, and involve lots of downhill racing.....but then again, if you stick to what you know you can do, you'll never improve so it's good to get out of that comfort zone (though I was rather worried about embarrassing myself!).

Having looked at a map, it was also an excuse to catch up with my aunt, uncle and cousin the night before so I drove on down to stay with them in Halifax. I decided to go via Blackburn to see how long my return route would take me in the morning, but I appeared to be slightly navigationally challenged. Not only did I end up in the wrong car park at Witton Park, but then I couldn't seem to leave Blackburn. I drove past the football stadium a couple of times before finding what I thought was the correct road, only to then find myself doing laps of Burnley. Eventually (after visiting their football ground too) I found the route down the Calder Valley, but did worry that I'd gone horribly wrong when I passed through a village called Portsmouth!

I really don't understand what I was did on the Saturday afternoon, as I managed to drive straight there on Sunday morning (and hence arrived rather too early, but at least it meant that I could bag a car parking space in the shade - as it was already getting rather hot and sunny).

I decided to go for a bit of a walk to check out some of the course......which may not have been the best idea. Not only did I stress myself out by realising that the start and finish involved 500m of uneven ground covered in long grass which I found hard to walk through never mind run through, but when I followed some small flags in the ground (which me correctly took to be route markers) I ended up being chased by a rather large cow. It appeared that our race would go straight through a field containing cows and their calves......my only hope was that the front runners would scare them all away!

As I returned to the car for some (more) food and to get changed, I got a chance to chat to several of the other Scottish runners, as people were arriving at different times and checking out parts of the course. The sun was out and it was heating up, so I was very glad that I'd had water as well as wine the night before.

East meets West - with Charlotte!
I was parked just next to Charlotte Morgan (running for the Easts....officially the opposition, but actually a friend), so after locating our numbers and vests we went for a warmup run. She'd come down the day before and so had reccied the course, which had apparently been changed only a week previously due to another event occurring in the park.

Our race was approximately 10k long and would involve about 390m of elevation change. The route meant that we climbed all the way up the hill to the "top forest", ran a hilly lap of the top forest, and then descended part of the way back to the finish. Initially we would have gone all the way to the start/finish area and then climbed back up to the top forest, but the new course had us heading off across the field full of cows (up a very sharp ascent and then down a longer descent) to rejoin the initial climb. Charlotte and I ran up to the top forest and then cut along the road to join the main descent, with her kindly explaining where we would be directed during the race.

The junior men were all just about finished and so we were being mustered into our starting pen. It was about 22 degrees and in full sunlight, so luckily we didn't have to hand around for too long. Every number was checked off on a list as we passed from the pen to the startline, and then suddenly we were off.

Luckily for me, the long grass slowed everyone down, and so I didn't quite fall off the back in the first few metres, and by the time we hit the start of the climb, I was well in the pack jostling for room. I tend to be better on the climbs, but the path was so narrow that it was difficult to pass slower climbers. There were also twists, turns, roots and steps to negotiate (but luckily the marshals were holding the gates open on this bit of the course). I could see most of the other Scottish runners just ahead or around me, but suddenly I found myself on the ground. With such a tight field, it was hard to spot some of the roots in time to avoid them, and I must've been caught unawares, as even I'm not usually such a clutz as to fall on the uphill. At least this time, I didn't break anything, but just grazed my hands and knees, and so managed to get up and start running again before too many people had passed me by!

The heat and dryness was already telling, as my mouth was parched on that first climb. There was no water available on the course, so I was very tempted to mug the lady in front of me, as she was being handed water handed by supporters on several occasions. Still, I guessed that most of the field would have been feeling as dry-mouthed as myself.

Crossing a road at the top of the incline, we ducked under an arch and were then in the "top forest". There was no respite from the climbing here as we continued up and up, with some switchbacks making it slightly easier to pass people. All of a sudden it flattened off, and I knew I needed to push on before starting the first of the dreaded ascents. As we were winding through the forest, it was difficult to judge how close people were to each other (and very easy for people to take shortcuts and suddenly appear out of the woods in front of you) . I'd opened up a decent gap behind me so initially I couldn't hear anyone charging after me as the path headed downhill more steeply.

The route looks flat from above!
I nearly ended up in some bushes at one point, as it was hard to negotiate a tight 90 degree right hand bend while descending (and I don't think I managed it any better on subsequent laps). As the downhill continued on through the woods, I was overtaken by a couple of girls (one of whom caught my left heel and managed a hand on my back before she passed me). Unfortunately one lady took a bit of a tumble directly in front of me, but luckily it was just at the point that touched the road (before we continuing back up on another lap of the woods), so people were able to help her up.

Again I claimed a few places as we climbed back up trhough the woods, but this time a few of the Scottish girls shot past me as they hurtled down with no fear. I was especially impressed with Megan (running for the Easts) as she'd run a trail race the day before! When we reached the road this time, we were directed along it to a kissing gate into a field, and then headed straight down to a gate at the bottom. I was happy running down this field and hoped for more of the same as I could relax and let my legs go. Another 90 degree bend into the next field, saw us running along a rutted narrow path through longer grass to another kissing gate.

The gates were an interesting added feature because if you were right up on the girl in front, then you'd have to wait for them to get through the gate before it was your turn. We carried on descending but were now back onto trail through woods and so out of the sun. I can never quite get my stride length right when going down large trail steps - 2 small steps on each tread seems to many, but I couldn't stretch enough to only have one foot on each one. A rather long-legged girl had no such problem and bounded down past me taking 1 step for every couple of mine.

Escaping the cows...

Next came the interesting addition to the course. As pointed out by Charlotte on our warm-up, instead of descending back to the start level, we were directed off into a rough field inhabited by cows. A very steep climb (think "gasping hands-on-knees" for most....though I tried to continue with my usual "baby-steps" running mode up the slope) was followed by running the gauntlet through a large group of cows. It was this section that I'd spotted earlier, and it became a headlong dash for the safety of the far woods. Several people were out on the course at this point to support and cowherd, but at one point a cow ran directly across in front of me, instead of cooperating and being shooed away!

Under the safe cover of the trees (after yet another kissing gate) we rejoined our initial path climbing back up to the woods, though I was very careful not to fall this time. Maybe I was getting stronger as the race progressed, or maybe it was just others that were fading slightly, but I overtook a fair few runners on this long drag up. Having reached the highest point, I gave myself a quick talking to, knowing that this was my only opportunity to push on as we still had an awful lots of descending to come. It must've worked as nobody passed me all the way back down through the woods or the fields, even though I had a tear-jerking moment landing with a sharp stone right underneath my inflamed left calacneal bursa! Having escaped the cows for the second time,and successfully negotiated the 6th kissing gate, a marshal pointed runners back down towards the start area, along the route we'd initally come up. I tried to relax and stretch out down here knowing that there wasn't far to go, and not wanting to be pipped in the final furlong by a speedy descender.

Coming out of the woods onto the last 500m (remember that long grassy section?), the girl in front was a good 20s ahead of me, but I could hear someone right on my tail. I thought it was the 4th Scottish Easts team member and I really didn't want to be outrun in a sprint for the line, so I decided to put everything I had left into running for home. To my amazement, I managed to keep driving on towards the line (hmmmm......had I not put enough effort in earlier), closing the gap to 3s on the girl in front (I just ran out of race to get her) and pulling well clear of those behind, though I had no idea how I'd done overall.

Team Bronze!!!!
I met up with the other Westies (and apologised if I'd let the team down) and went on a hunt for water to drink/put over our heads/wash my grazes with - very odd that there was none at the finish in such weather (some of the men practically collapsed when they finished their 13K race). Great to hear that Charlotte had come in as first Scot and 8th overall! We hung around to cheer the men in and wait for the results - as we (correctly) thought that the Easts had won team silvers behind Yorkshire. What really amazed me when we actually saw the results, was that I wasn't far off the pace of the girls in front (the top ladies were almost in a different race - such high quality runners) and we Scots had packed well earning us a totally unexpected team bronze for the Wests (finishing 11th,13th and 15th counters)!

Not a bad attempt at something quite new to me (and I liked the way they put it at the prizegiving....anchoring the team, rather than last for the team.....)!!!

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