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!

Cold Christmas 50k – 26th January 2020

Warming ourselves up after a (kind of) Cold Christmas?

This was a fun race! It was our first attempt at self-navigation and running at the same time, which could have ended very badly… Thankfully we only got a bit lost now and then, but this generally happens when races are clearly marked!

It was an early wake-up call for Sunday morning with registration opening at 6.15am at High Easter in Essex. A point-to-point race, the start line was actually in Hertfordshire at a lovely little village called Cold Christmas, which we were bussed to en mass at 7am. Our metaphorical journey over the course of the day, from winter to spring, would also mark our quick progression from 5k runners to elite ultra-marathon runners! Not bad for January. The race title itself had initially stood out as a bit of an oddity when we booked and we only realised what it meant when we overheard a conversation on the bus! It’s actually a neat idea.

This race was a great example of a local running club putting on something really interesting. The route was mostly off-road, using bridleways and various parks, with three checkpoints staffed by some very helpful volunteers. We were lucky with the weather in the end and it didn’t rain until we finished, but warm cups of tea at the checkpoints definitely helped keep morale up as it was still cold.

The narrative instructions made for an interesting challenge; especially when the brain stopped working later on. In general they were very good and appropriately descriptive, but there were some moments where the acronyms blurred and brain fade occurred. I’ll be honest and admit I had to re-read certain sections multiple times! Thankfully my running buddy was better able to run and read and I was generally only called upon when in dire straits.

It also provided a great challenge in terms of elevation. Nearly 450 metres is certainly not to be sniffed at. Especially with the race mostly occurring in Essex of all places! I’ve generally struggled to find some good hills to train on so it does come as a surprise to find a race profile like this. Although over 50km the regular ups and downs do add up, so there wasn’t necessarily a small number of massive hills out there. The terrain itself was extremely muddy, which matches anecdotal tales I’ve heard from other runners competing in similar trail runs in the area. Pack your grippy trail shoes! You have been warned.

Often after races like this, certain things stick in the mind. A picture or image of a moment that stays long after any muscular pain or weariness has disappeared. A derelict and haunted church just outside Cold Christmas, a wheezing pug barking at interlopers, amused golfers pointing dazed runners to the right path and curious Henry Moore sculptures littering the landscape. I definitely have some happy memories and a good training race under the belt to take into the rest of 2020.

Daft Runners London Series – Introduction and Burgess Parkrun! 4th January

We spent quite the period of time journeying around the United Kingdom during 2019. That was lots of fun of course, but it did give us a thought: perhaps there are some fun running opportunities closer to home? Perhaps we don’t need to brave the trains, planes or automobiles to get our running freak on.

Everything needs a bit of branding nowadays, so we thought we’d label our new plans for 2020 under the exciting title of: The Daft Runners London Series (cue dramatic music)! As part of this series we intend to run in every London Borough (33 in all), preferably at an event such as a Parkrun. At the same time, we hope to find some other, local hidden gems to share with you all.

So our first park run of the year is….Burgess Park! Admittedly that was obvious from the title. We rocked up after a quick journey on the tube to find a refreshingly busy start line on a surprisingly sunny day. It then occured to us that it was the first Park Run of the year, which explained all the keen runners with their New Year resolutions!

After a quick verbal tour of the park run by one of the kind volunteers, and an internal pep talk, we were off. Burgess Park is…well…lovely. There’s a long straight to start and finish of around 1km that tapers to an underpass, bit of a choke point, midway through. Then you take a sharp left turn and circle round the lake and rejoin the straight. Very picturesque indeed!

We also had the chance to see the quick runners (you know who you are) loop back round. I find it’s always interesting to see the more elite types as they sprint their hearts out. The nominated speaker at the start of the race had suggested giving them a high five. They did not look receptive to such an idea! We also had some mid-race entertainment from the local wildlife.

Pugilistic geese aside, I was extremely proud of this result, not only because we explored a new Park Run, but because I personally passed three prams during the run. Usually it’s the other way round, so it’s nice to get my own back a little (I know, they’re still much fitter than I am).

To round things off, we then had an exploratory run deep into south west London, following the Northern line past all the Clapham Common stations. It turns out a busy London highway isn’t quite as pleasant running as Burgess Park. Something to work on in the future.

Until the next Park Run!

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Events mentioned in this episode:
Burgess Parkrun – Event Link

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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!

Hadleigh Legacy 10k – Race Report – 27th January 2019

Distance – 10k over 2 laps
Course – Rocky, trail & mud

Benfleet. Not a name that makes you immediately think of running, or anything really (sorry Benfleet). So what were we doing early morning on a Sunday, sans coffee and at an isolated and graffitied train station in Essex? Well, this sleepy seaside location is home to a certain prominent mountain bike course featured in the the London 2012 Olympic Games. The race promo from the organisers (Castle Point Joggers) had promised hills, more hills, mud and more mud! How could we resist?!

This race appeared to literally be a steeper challenge than our previous ones in Crystal Palace and Stratford and, being on the coast, it was very windy! The race reception was a quick cab journey away and we hustled into the warmth to queue for food and coffee. Rather than have my usual unhealthy treat after the race, I went with one before…

If you’re wondering if I regretted this by the end of the race, you’d be right.

So pre-race nutrition was going well, but how about training? I’d failed to do much after the Stratford 10k, so was keen to make sure I improved on that record at least. I’d managed to attend a couple of pilates classes in a belated attempt to improve my core strength, which I think was likely behind many of my niggles. With a couple of mid-week runs tacked on, I felt relatively ok.

With the sound of Status Quo’s Rockin’ All Over The World, we started running. The organisers certainly weren’t wrong on the hills. We immediately plunged down a trail that had obviously been frequented by mountain bikes moments earlier and then curved round to go right back up the hill, which was pitted with interesting points of scenery like boulders/ concrete tunnels that I imagine muddy bike tires would make short work of. One thing I did enjoy in-between gasping for air was seeing the crowd trail off in front of me and behind as I progressed along the course.

Making the top of each hill was greeted with a windy applause; probably sarcastic as I definitely walked a fair bit. But these sections were balanced by some fun descents. I had some running battles with a few racers of a similar pace, but by the second lap we were having a good natured joke about the hills. Finally I neared the end and there was just a penultimate weaving hill climb and then a straight run up to the finish line.

At the end my watch read 9.25km, but to be honest I was thankful it wasn’t the full 10k. With over 200 metres of elevation gain, it was truly a challenging course. Probably quite entertaining with a mountain bike as well. I don’t think my enhanced core strength had helped, or my mid-week runs. Back to the training drawing board!

Organisation – 10/10
Well organised with a nearby cafe with junk food for me. Perfect. Brave wardens considering the wind as well.

Race goodies – 4/10
Jaffa cakes were on hand, but I’d had my treat already.

Race route – 6/10
Very challenging and great training for the start of the year. Lots of hills but not that much mud.

Adventure status – 4/10
A seagull looked at me funny at the station.

After the race we grabbed a lift back to the station and opted to wait for our train in a cosy pub instead of the windy station. The Anchor Inn was friendly, warm and had some tasty ales; as well as being 600 years old. Looks like there were at least two interesting things in Benfleet after all.