Two of the things that I do to get away from the pressures and stresses of work are catching up with family & friends, and running....so 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 anyone......so 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 event.....it 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!