Rat Race: The Mighty Deerstalker – Race Retrospective – 16th March 2019

What lies in them thar hills…

How far should one travel for a good race? Depends on the race I guess. Being a bit daft, we’ve travelled all the way to Cornwall for a coastal trail marathon, all the way to Liege for a beer marathon and all the way to Scotland for a nighttime adventure…10k?!

To be fair, this is a fun race and you do have the option to double up the distance via a second lap if you’re keen, which we weren’t! In particular I was feeling a little bit worse for wear with the memory of our misadventure in the South Downs still fresh.

This was also another race we’d been to before, running in the 2017 edition (the race in 2018 was cancelled due to severe snow and wind conditions). In fact, the 2017 edition was my first race on the running wagon after a few years out of action. I remember a chastening experience, finding the bogs, long dips in icy water, steep hills and scrambling extremely difficult. In the end I think I took so long that the bar at the end had nearly run out of beer! I always think these kinds of experiences make you stronger in the end though. So the 2019 race felt like my chance for redemption. I needed to get to the finish before the raucous Rat Race runners drank it dry again.

But first, the epic journey to the start line: a village called Innerleithen in the Scottish Borders. For us, this encompassed around five hours on the train, a quick stop for food in Edinburgh, and then a 90 minute bus journey into the wilderness. The weather was not looking amenable at this point. Wrapped in all my layers and standing shivering on the exposed North Bridge waiting for the bus, I have rarely felt as cold and nervous. The wind was building, the rain had turned to sleet and running was the last thing on my mind. The bus journey was initially even more ominous. As we travelled away from Edinburgh the surrounding countryside looked increasingly petrified with a wintry touch of snow. Looking at the weather reports, it also suddenly became apparent that the area had been hit with a surplus of inclemency. Our penchant for not checking weather before we travelled suddenly looked ready to strike again!

As luck would have it, the closer we got to Innerleithen, the more the weather brightened. As we walked to the event registration area, we even saw some thin strands of light peak through the grey clouds.

A couple of unlikely friends we met on the way to registration.

Quite the turnaround. We also got to see some of the initial waves pass through the course. While this is a night time race, by the time the runners got into the hills the sun will have dipped below the horizon. Once we arrived, it became apparent that the course had been tweaked to avoid some of the more watery obstacles. In particular I recall one particular segment in 2017 when we had to traverse a few hundred metre stretch up a river. Having already tackled one ascent and descent, the shocking cold and difficult footing was not a tonic for further hill running. I was again a little relieved, but it was disappointing, if understandable once we saw how strong the current was. To underline the bogginess, I even lost one of my shoes in the mud before we even started!

The first wave gets underway. With the altered route, this was one of the – thankfully – few times we had to endure a dip in icy water.

But all this is side commentary. What about the race itself? The first section is a warm up for what comes: a brief soujourn over some rocky paths (won’t see sure footing like this for a while) that transitions into flat out sticky bog and then straight into hills nearly 2km from the start. At this point I was already pretty tired and the sun had finally set. The first climb was around 300 metres and I actually managed to run bits of it (unlike in 2017). It was mostly through well worn trail routes, but now and then we’d dive into the undergrowth up less travelled sections. These were very entertaining as my favourite trail running is along woodland paths. We came to a bit of a contrived false summit (essentially going up, turning around and coming back down again), which required walking rather than running and then finally a bit of descent. We then had another climb of around 100 metres to reach the highest point of the race. It was here we could finally enjoy one of the perks of the Mighty Deerstalker: seeing the scattered head torches of various runners across the nighttime landscape. A trail of glistening light showed where we had come and what we still had to do. This is something I’d only seen at events like the three peaks challenge before.

The next descent essentially took us back to ground level and was extremely treacherous. Another reason for my slow time in 2017 was likely due to wearing road running trainers… This time round I had some decent trail shoes, but even with these it was fairly difficult going. More confident racers breezed past me and some of the more reckless ones tended to strike their fellow runners and various trees and rocks as they went past! I saw a few collisions that made we wince. Some bits were great fun though, with just enough stable footing to leap and jump over the undulating course.

With that now completed, we were treated to a run over the River Tweed and through Innerleithen to take on another of the local hills. We had some very kind people along the course cheering us over these sections. Always nice to hear. The climb was easier than before, but I had my first serious tumble of the year; almost cartoonesque! While descending I had been putting weight on areas with foliage and grass as this indicated safe purchase in my mind. I unfortunately did so on a piece of ground that was completely inundated with water and promptly slipped up, got some serious air time and landed on my backside. Thankfully it was on soft, and wet, ground, so I wasn’t hurt (pride aside). Picking myself up, I then confronted the scramble, which was nearly 200 metres high. I must confess to needing a few stops to catch my breath! I’m not a fan of heights at the best of times, so I was grateful for the night time views. One last descent and then there was just four more kms of boggy, river-side running to defeat. I recognised here and there signs of our earlier walk to registration and was relieved to see the finish line. In 2017 they set-up a water slide to celebrate the last section, but for obvious reasons that had been removed. Probably a good thing as I recall nearly football tackling someone’s midriff by accident at the bottom.

First time running in 2017, we completed the course in around three hours and twenty minutes. In 2019, we got round in around two and a half hours. Not a bad improvement, but we did have two years of running these races as training and some of the water sections were curtailed; so perhaps we should have done a bit better. Most importantly though, I made it back in time to properly enjoy the party afterwards!

Steyning Stinger Marath..ahem…Half-Marathon – Race Retrospective – 3rd March 2019

Stormy Shenanigans over the South Downs

Ok. It’s been a while since the 3rd March 2019! I must admit to being a little tardy with my reports. But with this race looming again on our schedule, I thought it would be a good idea to cover what happened previously in more detail. So to cover my lateness, I thought I’d title this update with “race retrospective”.

The first time I ran this race was in 2014 and, as my first trail marathon, has stuck in the mind ever since. I distinctly recall the pleasant surprise of the first food stops, laden down with various sweets and biscuits (you don’t really get those in road marathons!). The crazy hills, or “stings”, which at that point I hadn’t really encountered with such frequency, being from Essex. A relaxed and staggered start at your convenience and a cooked breakfast at the finish. It also had one of the quirkier medals I’ve seen, featuring a scorpion, a hill and some trees. I can’t forget the characters we met either, including one runner who decided to deal with some of the muddiest terrain I’ve encountered by running the whole thing in sandles!

So all in all, I remembered the Steyning Stinger as a great race and it was now time to return. There was just one potential problem…Storm Gareth! We’d heard some mutterings in the news about a potential storm coming, but paid it no mind. Then when it came to actually getting there – it’s an early start – the weather was pretty dire and we gradually became aware of how tough this was going to be.

It initially started out ok, with much of the initial race gradually ascending to the top of the South Downs over three steep climbs.

One of the stings….although it was relatively sheltered from the wind thankfully

However, as soon as we crested the top of the hills, it became clear how strong the winds were. Despite being pretty well insulated against the weather, the rain still stabbed like needles and it was hard to stay on the trail as we were buffeted around so much. You could barely see more than a few metres in front of you and the brave Marshalls had to take cover in vehicles at the more exposed parts of the course. At some points it was difficult to keep running, although a steep turn on the course sometimes resulted in a welcome boost from the wind.

Looking at some of the race photos, I decided to add the only one where I’m actually smiling. While I definitely wasn’t smiling inside, I was still glad to get out of the wind! Check out the hazy background and the mud. It was around this point we decided that the weather was a bit too extreme considering our fitness levels. We’ve done more than our fair share of tortuously long races over tough terrain, but it seemed silly to continue and hats off to those that finished the whole marathon. The wind wasn’t the only hazard with the final long descent having morphed into one long mud slide during which I had very little control. I’m very surprised I didn’t stack it! I probably did, but have likely blocked it from my memory.

Finally we finished and I staggered over the finish line to gratefully take cover in a solid stone building and enjoy a well earned breakfast. We’d covered a half-marathon and 457 metres of ascent in ridiculous conditions. However, I’ve retained a nagging feeling since then that we had some unfinished business.

So now we’re returning on the 1st March 2020, hopefully sans storm or anyone called Gareth, and fingers crossed this time we can succeed where we previously failed. You’ll probably find out next year though!

The Craft Half – 17th February 2019

Distance – 13.1 miles over two laps
Course – mostly trail with a bit of running over concrete paths

Beer. Sweet, hoppy marvellousness responsible for making many of social engagements more entertaining (for me). I quite like beer and I quite like running. I also quite like having beer after running. But the two don’t really mix at the same time. Or do they…? That was the question posed by the Craft Half: a half-marathon in two laps round Wimbledon Common featuring frequent pit stops for mature liquid refreshment.

Out of all the races we’d run so far in 2019, this was the one I felt the most prepared for. I had a few 10ks under my belt as well as some 13-14 mile training runs and I was regularly practicing my beer drinking. In fact, I made sure I had a couple of craft beers the evening before to ensure my palate was prepared. Nothing had been left to chance.

So we rocked up late morning before the run started, queued to collect our t-shirts/race numbers and enjoyed the late morning sun as the start time drew nearer.

What ensued was possibly the most fun I’ve had while running. I certainly wouldn’t recommend this for everyone and it’s important to note that you should always drink sensibly. But the beer was excellent with just a bit of running inbetween stops (three every loop).

We strategised that we would be quicker if we picked up our beers at each stop and then walked while we drank quickly. We then tried running and drinking. We finally realised that it was much more fun to have a chat with our fellow competitors/ Wimbledon Wombles at each stop than focus on the running. By the end, we were enjoying a nice leisurely walk to the finish line. This was probably the only race where I’d be proud of a DNF and we had even lapped one set of astute runners.

The course itself was a pleasant trail with some initial hills over the first couple of miles before we hit the main park itself. We were greeted with some delight by various day trippers who were also enjoying the sun. Obviously we weren’t the only ones who had considered running and drinking beer to be contradictory.

We did get a little bit lost at one point, but any sense of usual panic about losing time was absent and we just enjoyed trying to pick-up the trail of inebriated looking joggers.

Organisation – 10/10
Beer stops every few miles. They nailed it.

Race goodies – 10/10
Lots of beer. 🙂

Race route – 3/10
Just a couple of loops round Wimbledon Common. Very pleasant but not particularly challenging.

Adventure status – 6/10
The beer elevated the adventure status of the race.

We had a huge amount of fun during this race and will definitely be doing it again. It also drew our attention to another run we’re planning later during the year: the
Beer Lovers’ Marathon in Liege. Something to look forward to!

Crystal Palace 10k – Race Report – 13th January 2019

Distance – 10k over 2 laps
Course – Various (concrete, trail & gravel)

Another week, another race. Since my valiant running the week before at Stratford, my training hadn’t necessarily gone very well – in fact, I hadn’t done any at all, despite my best intentions. This will be the key for me in our upcoming programme and the driver for how much pain I’m going to be in. To start getting fitter, you need to be training at least a few times a week (running, cross-training, stretching, etc) rather than just a single outing at the weekend.

Today’s race was the Crystal Palace 10k, which incorporated two laps of Crystal Palace’s picturesque park. So not only would I get a look at some pleasant scenery while flitting between fellow park goers, I could also test myself against the substantial hill the park precariously balances on.

I took a different tack relative to the race at Stratford. Rather than start at my 10k pace and try and hold it, I thought I’d take it easy over the first few kilometres before pushing it. This strategy ended up working quite well as, ignoring an initial climb, it was pretty much downhill for a few kilometres. I managed to run my quickest kilometre (mildly proud) according to my new watch, assisted by my substantial bulk & gravity. Running downhill is definitely an acquired taste and something I took a while to get used to. I don’t think my knees necessarily agree. Either way, it was funny to uncontrollably rush past better runners and then see them run past me again on the hills.

My tactical (read lazy) approach allowed me to conserve my energy for the second lap, which I ran quicker by about 30 seconds per kilometre. I just had enough gas to have a cheeky sprint at the end as well.

Conserving energy mode

After such a strenuous run, it was only fair to treat myself. There is a fabulous café at Crystal Palace station called Brown And Green that I heartily recommend.

Nom nom nom…

Just like the Queen Elizabeth 10k, this was a nice, local run, but a bit of a step-up because of the hill. But hills are good!

Organisation – 10/10
RunThrough staff were nice and the race was well stewarded. Free photos published on facebook as well.

Race goodies – 4/10
Some low pH water. Not quite sure what’s going on there.

Race route – 6/10
I enjoyed the route and the hill was challenging…both times.

Adventure status – 3/10
Crystal Palace is slightly more adventurous than Stratford.

How about two runs?

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park 10k – Race Report – 5th January 2019

Distance – 10k over 3 laps
Course – Gravel/Concrete path

In some ways this race was the epitome of my approach to running. I stayed up too late drinking, woke-up with a hangover, had to run for my train without any breakfast and somehow found time to get really cold pre-race. However, post-race I still felt like I enjoyed myself?!

For those of you who don’t know (i.e. everyone), I’ve dabbled with running for over 10 years. I got some decent times under my belt early on, but have never quite ascended to those great heights since. 2019 was going to be different. Right?

Right. So I’ve decided with some friends to do something different. 2019 is going to be a year of daft adventure running. And not the kind where I nearly die during each race (like previous years). I am going to run and conquer all before me, from the snowy knolls of Scotland to the verdant hills of the South Downs.

Either way, I was relatively excited for my first race of the year. With much larger challenges awaiting, this would give me a chance to evaluate exactly how fit I was. I’d had a few training runs before and after the new year started, but nothing that would put pressure on my clogged arteries like a cheeky 10k tour of Queen Elizabeth’s park at speed. Well, speed might be exaggerating it a little bit.

The race was well organised and nearby public transport, so was easy to get to, despite the large security presence before a West Ham match. I had booked this race with some trepidation (not because of the West Ham fans of course!) as I’m not necessarily a fan of doing laps. I’m very much of the opinion that having a visual cue of how much I’ve got left to run is slightly miserable. However, I was pleasantly surprised. The park was nice with a number of small hills and the weather was perfect for running: not too hot nor too cold.

The first lap passed by with the usual panicked gasping for air before I settled into my 10k running pace (with slightly less panicked gasping). There was a bit of headwind along certain parts of the course, but despite this, the second and third laps quickly followed the first. I initially thought I’d started too quickly in terms of my pace, but somehow managed to keep it fairly consistent. For future reference, I might try and copy some of my fellow runners and have a quick jog before I start. The pre-race ritual has always seemed an arcane art full of superstition and rumour, which I’ve never particularly engaged with. The one relatively challenging part of the race was a twisting path up a hill near the end that allowed me to eyeball those in front and, retrospectively, my pursuers.

As I stumbled over the finish line, my attention turned to picking up my medal and the post-race snacks, which were plentiful. However, unsated and still hung over, I turned to the Stratford Westfield food court. Much to my chagrin, the West Ham game was soon to start with hungry fans and the normal Saturday morning shoppers gathering to feed. I’ve genuinely never seen a queue that long for KFC and I’ve experienced my fair share of waiting for fried chicken. Maybe next time.

I’ve also put together an arbitrary and senseless rating system, which I’ll be using as we run more races. I reserve the right to change, delete and generally mess around with it as the year progresses!

Organisation – 10/10
The race organiser arranges over a hundred events each year and it shows.

Race goodies – 5/10
Good for a 10k race. Caramel bar for the win.

Race route – 5/10
While the route was varied and the park pleasant enough, you’re still running laps on concrete.

Adventure status – 2/10
It is in Stratford – sorry!

In summary, this was a fun race, great for first timers or those looking to get a regular 10k run under their belts. I’d certainly run it again if I needed to register some kilometers at speed. I wouldn’t if I wanted KFC after the race. I always want KFC after a race.