Running for the pies

Running for the pies

Sunday, 29 September 2013

2nd September: Surprise

I got back from work today and found a parcel waiting for me... Not expecting anything I eagerly opened it.

The Coastal Trail Series has an incentive to run as many of them as you can in each season. If you manage to complete 7 of the races (of any length) as a testament to your durability - or plain bat-shit craziness, they present you with a '7x' t-shirt.

Each year they only produce as many of them as people completed the challenge, so you could say they are pretty exclusive!

This year they have not been as prompt in sending them out as in previous, so when I opened the parcel I found it contained the following:

And accompanying it was the following letter:

Which was a lovely touch!.. I'm particularly chuffed with that hoody as I was going to buy one when at the Flete race but with my slow pace, by the time I had finished everything had been packed-up!..

Thanks Endurancelife and as Arnie said I'll be back for the 2013/14 season and will certainly be wearing the shirts with pride!

24th August: Reykjavik

Well here it is… Around 2 years ago I set myself a challenge, something to push myself beyond my comfort zone, something to dare myself to say 'what if', something that could and might just be possible, and after the false dawn caused by Bernard, which still gives me the occasional twinge in the damp and cold, I stand on the threshold of success.

A year ago I had never run a marathon… In fact I had never run an organised half marathon. The longest organised run I had undertaken was my village's 10 mile 'fun run', with a few 10k's thrown in there for good measure.

Every journey starts with a single step, and the most thrilling must have been those few I took to the station in Hook to board the train to Brookwood early on September 1st last year and the start of my odyssey (or is that oddity?) having told LSS that I was popping out for a long run.

Almost a year on from that train ride and LSS is with me, here in Reykjavik capital of Iceland, incidentally a land with no trains… LSS turned 40 this year and has always fancied seeing Iceland, so doing a bit of research on booking a holiday for her to help celebrate it I noticed that a couple of weeks after this dreaded milestone in every woman's life the marathon was running here. This coincided perfectly with me getting to the 12 in 12, so I duly booked the holiday… Fly out on the Friday for a week to take advantage of cheaper fares, and then dropping the bomb-shell once all was booked and presented to her that the first official day of our holidays was going to see me galavanting off around the city with scores of other loons, leaving LSS on her todd!

LSS has steadfastly declined my entreaties to come and support me at any of these marathons so far, for the most part this is understandable considering how remote they have been, although this blanket 'no' even covered the South Downs that is run a 30 minute drive from our village, so having her here with me gives me my so far unique chance to have my own cheer-leader and clapper seeing me across the finish line and making a fitting end to this crazy running challenge… You might say flying someone 1,000 miles to a foreign country to ensure they are there when you cross a finish line is a bit extreme, but hey, its a big 4-0 celebratory holiday as well!

On the Friday itself was the marathon Expo, which we managed to get to an hour before closing thanks to our baggage getting lost at the airport and taking an hour to pick-up our pre-booked hire-car (the desk was in a building half a mile outside the terminal and the staff made sloths seem like sprinters). The Expo location was the sports-hall opposite the national stadium, a 5 minute drive from our hotel. Parking was a free-for-all so I pulled into the first available spot that could be considered a 'space' and we went in to the hall.

I picked-up my number and my goody-bag and they scanned the chips to make sure they worked there and then. The organisers give-out the bounty before the race to encourage as many people as possible to wear the race shirt, which is a good idea for all the sponsors who get their branding out in loads of event photos. The tee is an Asics technical tee so a decent brand (and hopefully decent quality). In the bag was a voucher for a Camelbak officially race-branded water bottle which we had to go to the Camelbak stand in the expo to collect. At last a useful gift!

After scoffing some complimentary pasta and popcorn we went back to the hotel then wandered off down Laugavegur to recce where the race was starting and finishing and to show LSS a few of the sights in the city centre (having been here a couple of times before I roughly know the way round). Content with knowing where to be and when, we returned to our room and settled-down for an early night.

Being in a foreign country the same foodstuffs are not necessarily available, so for this race I was not able to have my customary breakfast of a flapjack/ granola or have a scotch-egg for my post-race recovery food, so upstairs I went for the hotel breakfast of boiled egg, cold ham, cheese and some toast.

With about 45 minutes to the off we wandered down to the start line in the drizzle. The start is streamed into time-waves, so in theory you are supposed to stand behind the banner corresponding to your estimated finish time. Wending my way through the barriers I stood by the 5h finish banner. The race is paced, so there are designated runners streaming balloons the colour of their banner that will take those who wish around the race in their desired time. LSS waiting to see me off, commented that all of us assembled looked like a pack of soaked shivering greyhounds all ready to run out of the traps, and why do people eat energy gels whilst standing there before they start? Aren't they to replenish or boost energy whilst you are running?

The wait...
LSS 'supporting' my endeavours ;)
All smiles before the suffering commences!
I was surrounded in the crowd that was huddling fairly tight because of the rain by lots of foreign accents as well as English. Reading the shirts of those around me there was a fair contingent of British, but also just in front were a coterie of French, a flock of Finns and of course, a good few Icelanders.

The route.
After the mayor of Reykjavik counted down to zero we were off; splashing through the rain and puddles through the city centre. The decent-sized crowd of on-lookers cheered us off, along with those gathering for the impending 10k and fun runs. The roads were already soaked from the rain of the last 24 hours so large puddles were everywhere. It was amusing watching some people dancing around attempting to avoid the inevitable soaking of trainers (which lets face it IS going to happen in conditions like this over 26.2 miles), whilst most just ploughed-on regardless. The temperature was 12 degrees centigrade with not too much wind so it was neither hot nor cold and with the drizzle it was pretty near ideal weather for running long distance as there was no chance of overheating, and a big contrast to the 54321 from 2 weeks previous which was double the temperature!
Jogging through the puddles in the rain.
Running through the centre and out to the north west of the city all the residents were out in force, banging drums, cymbals, blowing horns, ringing bells, clapping, cheering us all on with anything that could make a noise. By the side of the road there was a group waving a huge Belgian flag and all the Belgian contingent in the field went over to pay their respects to them as we all splashed past. There were trailers with bands playing on top of them, PA systems with DJ's… The atmosphere was more of a street party or festival than just to mark a few hundred nutters jogging round the capital's centre!.. Although having said this the race runs on the day of their cultural festival, so there's a free concert and fireworks in the evening and it is the city's biggest day after their annual gay pride parade.

Heading north to the coast.
We soon turned a corner and were jogging along the sea-wall skirting our way back in to towards the central docks. The field was now beginning to find its pace and spread out a little way over this flat 5k stretch of the race. A quick loop around the docks and we were back out along the sea-wall, taking in the 'Sun Voyager' statue, this 5k stage having a hard drizzle soaking us as we began to leave the city centre and the spectators behind. As we went along here I found myself being overtaken by the pace-makers for a projected 5:30 time, which I found very disconcerting. I had to check my Garmin and re-check it just to be sure. I was running a solid time to get me round in the 5 hours and this was reflected in where I was at that particular time. I had to make a conscious decision there and then about whether I push-on with them at an increased pace, or do I trust my own body and mind that I was indeed running my race exactly how I should be to ensure the chances of success… I decided to trust my own instinct and stick with what I was doing and watched as they headed away in front. My mind was sure that they were VERY poor pacemakers, but there is always that element of doubt!

Approaching the docks.
A coast-guard vessel.
On this stretch we caught our first glimpse in the distance of the MV Oriana docked in the deep-water harbour with all its tourists most likely wandering around the city wondering what on earth was going on.

The Oriana on the right.
As we drew closer, we could see the return leg from the loop of the marathon and half, and to my amazement I could see people passing on the other side of the road having completed the loop already and heading back to the city centre… Seriously quick people even if they were just running the half!

Traversing the docks we had the first and only major hill. The road wound its way with a couple of switch-backs up the hill to the top to stare back down upon the liner and a couple of cargo vessels that were unloading their containers. At the top of the hill we ran past what looked like an impromptu aid-station with pieces of Mars bar and banana chunks being handed-out, so I grabbed a handful and carried on the jog.

I realised around this part of the course plateauing at the top of the hill that I had not spoken to anyone on the race so far. Mostly as people were either not speaking English or in groups together. Unless the groups were chatting, then no-one else seemed to be, bar a few Icelanders who obviously knew each other anyway. At this point I was incidentally yo-yoing position with a couple of Canadian runners judging by their vests with maple leaves on them and in support of the Canadian Asthma Society.

The deep water dock loop was complete and we rejoined on the opposite side of the road to those making the outward journey. The loop had taken around half an hour and it was heartening to see people still plodding along at the start of the outward leg, which was a good fillip to the spirits as it meant I was at least 30 mins away from last place! Soon we came to the point where the race split for the full and half races. Us marathoners veered off to the left and the halvers carried on straight ahead. I could see a long line of people heading straight off back to the start, which meant most of those who had passed me so far had been on the half course, which was a relief as I could only see about half a dozen people on the full course in front of me.

As we rounded the corner for the split we ran past a large building that held a gym. Looking down into the open space in front of the basement there were a bunch of people sitting in a hot tub and on the 1st floor there were people running on treadmills looking out at us… Now it seems to me that if you are the type to be motivated to go to a gym and spend time running on the spot for say 30 mins at a time, then why are you not out here with the rest of us doing it for real?.. At least they managed to wave at us runners, which just seemed to make the whole thing all the more absurd as they were acknowledging our efforts in doing so!

This split in the course took us up a hill and round a corner to the national stadium and the sports-centre where the expo had been the previous day. This stretch meandered around through a section of public parks and housing estates, that could have been any urban environment… Until going through another patch of parkland having run through an underpass where we jogged past a little river and waterfall. It may have only been a couple of feet tall, but it was the first natural urban waterfall I've seen!

The little urban(e) waterfall.
The right turn after here marked the furthest point from the start and the 25km marker, so I knew I was on the way back. Looking out for Perlan perched on the hill as my guide to judge where I was I followed the uphill gradient. I figured that by the time I had gone round the airfield, a novelty having planes taking off and landing as we passed, then it would only by around 10k to go. The field was very spread out now, with the only people doing much overtaking at speed being those who had taken-over relay legs at the 30k mark and were making their dash for the line. Looking at my times I could see I was on for a really good time for me… I had told LSS to be at the finish for around a 5h race, whereas I was nailed on for a 4:30 race!.. I reached over into my camelbak and took my phone out, texting LSS to tell her the news and to get down to the finish earlier… Putting the phone back in the bag I had just rounded the nature reserve at the furthest west point of the course and the run back into the city centre when I heard the message tone go on the phone, which cheered me up no-end, safe in the knowledge that LSS was going to be there to see me cross the line!

Jogging along the sea wall I picked-off a couple of people as others slowly lumbered past me. With less than 5k to go, in an effort to get the best possible time that I could, I attempted to keep up with a couple of runners who passed me, to expend every last ounce of energy I had in this pursuit of a PB… I made the effort but had to ease off as they were just too strong for me as we found the docks once more and wended our way past them agaib and back in to the city centre.

An old fishing boat being restored.
A whaler undergoing work.
Sodden spectators could once more be seen and heard clapping you on as you were nearly home, soaked beaming bemedalled fellow runners cheering you on to lift your spirits as we were marshalled along towards the end and in no time a right 90 degree turn through a large puddle and the finish gantry was in sight… Pace increased I went for the finish line, scanning the spectators for LSS, my camera in my hand to capture the finish line.

Nearly there!
Made it!

Made it in a pb of 4:33:47 (My Garmin said 4:32:11) in position 679 of 851.

Grabbing a drink of the blue 'nectar' that was the complimentary Powerade found here and at all of the aid stations, I had a medal hung round my neck and my first 'bin liner' to put on to keep warm. I took my chip off and put it into the collection point and composing myself I looked round for LSS.

No sign.

I wandered back to where I thought she might be waiting.

Still no sign.

I sat down on a bench and got my phone out… The message was not from her but from my footy manager asking for my availability %$^* I said to myself and sent another message asking LSS where she was?.. I gave it 5 minutes and before I began to feel my legs seize-up and I started on the mile walk uphill back to the hotel.

Traipsing along Laugavegur feeling a little miffed - LSS had somehow managed to again not be at the finish line despite being flown to be within a mile of it… I bumped in to her coming towards me along the street picking her way through the crowd of runners and shoppers. When she clocked me she looked genuinely shocked… It turned out the message had not reached her despite having her phone on.

To be fair she received the 'where are you?' message the next morning and cheekily said to me 'I'm lying here next to you'… The important message did not arrive until another day later when we were out driving round the golden circle. So at least she had a genuine reason for not knowing, and for good measure the blame was put back on to me for running too fast!.. LSS did suggest returning to the finish line and have me run it again re-creating the finish just for the sake of a photo… I just gave her the Paddington Bear stare to that suggestion!

After a lovely hot shower and changing into warm dry clothes, the two of us wandered off, albeit slowly, to the Svarta Kaffi for a post-race lunch of soup in a bread roll and BEER… Washing down the soup with a pint of Egils 'Gull'

When the results were published I looked at the make-up of the runners. 851 people ran the marathon. 156 were Icelanders. This means that of all the runners 82% of the field came from overseas… A truly international event!

Here's me in action on the day - from 0:41 to 0:46:

And here's me crossing the finish line: belly's gonna get ya!

Success: 12 marathons in 12 months

It shows that it can be done with a bit of application... But what now?

Monday, 23 September 2013

18th August: Recovery

I've been necking a couple of bottles of Multipower strawberry recovery shakes after each race, but with my limited time to get in to the store that sells them in Basingstoke, GNC, combined with the fact they never have strawberry for sale on the website for me to order in and use my discount card, I took the plunge and decided when I did manage to get there in person to buy a tub of protein recovery shake to mix up myself after each race.

Perusing the selection of recovery shake powders, the stoner in me was delighted to see one that was derived from hemp, so naturally after careful consideration I came home with a tub of the strawberry flavour Braham & Murray Natural Hemp Protein Powder.

I had my first try of this after the South Downs Marathon… My god it fair fucking mings… Strawberry flavour?.. More like pond scum with an irritating hint of strawberry and the colour of it looks like what gallops out of your ring-piece the morning after a particularly feisty curry, which makes it doubly appetising.

Now the Scot in me refuses to waste my money and chuck this aberration away but will stubbornly drink it till it has all been consumed - although saying this, the taste gets less worse the more often you have it through acclimatisation!

Having been burned by this experience I went and found something more refined (I hope) for my recovery shakes. I use Science in Sport (SiS) 'Go' gels as part of my fuelling regime so during the Tour de France I spotted that SiS were doing some special offers and I took advantage ordering a tub of their Rego.

Can't be any worse!
It's now sitting on top of the kitchen cupboards awaiting the demise of the shit-mix… I'll tell you what it's like once I try it, and needless to say I'll be recovering naturally in Iceland leaving that foul powdered concoction a good thousand miles away.

11th August: 54321

When I was growing up a 54321 was a wafery chocolatey biscuit, but these days it's also a marathon organised by Salisbury fire station as a charity fund raiser for them and as such it has grown as the years have progressed into a decent-sized event with a variety of distances on offer to run with very good write-ups on Runners World.

Salisbury is only an hour's drive away from the homestead, so a not too early start got me down to Sarum, centre-piece to Thomas Hardy's master-piece 'Jude the Obscure', ( in good time for the start, although this time I made sure the trainers were the first thing to go in to the van!

The green/ car park with the start/ finish to the right.
Parking on the green outside the fire station with marshals co-ordinating the parking in a well-organised fashion, everyone was gathering for the variety of different distances over which the run is held, with the registration being carried out within the station itself beneath a light drizzling overcast sky. On the way there it had thrown it down with rain, so the hope was for a cool overcast sky for the run, although the forecast was for this at the start and then a roasting-hot mid 20's centigrade midday onwards - so it was a case of wearing the cap for the race and hedging my bets that sunscreen would not be required.

The fire-station hosting the event
This race had a map for the route available for perusal and for people to carry, but I had been advised by those organising and previous runners that it was a well marked-out route, unlike the previous race and there seemed to be plenty of marshals on mountain bikes which seemed like a very good idea for getting out to the various points on the course.

They call it the 54321 because of the features of the route:

5 rivers
4 hills
3 country estates
2 castles
1 cathedral

So in theory they say you can count your way down through the route - although, what counts as a hill to qualify as only being 1 of the 4 is open to interpretation!

My van was parked on the very far edge of the green, so with the changing facilities being limited to pretty much one of the many portaloos I was grateful for the space I had afforded myself with my mobile changing facility! Parked behind me was a battered early 1980's VW camper, which made me kind of envious as I can't wait to get my van fully tricked-out in to one and give myself a bit more luxury for these running trips… Namely a place for cooking a bacon sarnie and a comfortable kip afterwards.

My customary 'milling around at the start' photo.
As the start approached Everyone began to muster by the start line. The timing mechanism for this run was a bit different. I have had ankle bands with dongles, wrist bands with dongles, tape with a chip through laces, but this one was one of the better ideas I have come across: The race number had the chip taped to the back of it, so there was no forgetting or losing it in advance as they gave you the number on the day. I had a chat with a couple of fellow marathoners at the start - both seemed to be a bit nervous about finishing and their times - till I pointed out how slow I normally am and the distinct lack of training I do and their confidence took a leap!

The race started by doing a lap of the green in which the cars were parked and headed off to Old Sarum and the climb to the castle - so one thing ticked off the 54321 list within the first mile or so! With the field being quite bunched at this point and the track being very narrow it was an Indian file walk ascending the hill. As we traipsed upwards we were treated to the spectacle of a plane disgorging its load of sky divers and watch them slowly descend to the earth, which took the mind off the frustratingly slow progress - that and the fact we had to battle our way through some people who decided in their infinite wisdom to descend the path at the same time as several hundred runners were ascending it - you do wonder about some people's common sense!

Indian file up the hill to the castle.
Once up on top it was around the battlements and then down on to the road heading off in to the countryside, with the impression that this is the high point so it's all down-hill from here (yeah right!). The route is essentially a clockwise circuit starting at 12 and, well, you can go figure the rest!

Onto the ramparts.
Skirting the moat.
Out in to the rolling hills and countryside it was, across fields an woodlands, under a viaduct carrying part of Brunel's 'God's Wonderful Railway' with the cloud burning away to reveal the clear skies with rising temperatures into the twenties centigrade.

Underneath the arches.
The detail of the brickwork.
A pleasure I find in these runs through the countryside in new places is you do not know what kind of building you will stumble across next, from ruinous castles to converted station-houses, to this little gem: a wooden swiss-style chalet in the middle of nowhere.

And soon after we rounded a corner onto a track to be confronted by the wonderful sight of Longford Castle.

The approach to Longford Castle
We ran up the driveway to it, with the road straddling the river Avon, to the left the castle

and the right the mill house.

It was a spectacular sight with its ornamental garden that made it seem like a French chateau rather than an English castle (of a Swedish design). As I crossed the river I could see the river was teeming with trout, which shouldn't be too surprising seeing as the river Avon is renowned globally for the quality of its trout fishing.

Coupla fishies!
Jogging past the castle, a couple of South African runners who were equally impressed by the building asked me "what is it?"… I couldn't help myself and said "its a castle", before bursting into laughter and apologising for being flippant!

Leaving it all behind.
Running along the side of some fields I bumped into a gent called Andy who had driven up from Soton to run the race. Andy's a little older than me and has got in to the running malarky with his girlfriend Sunny, who is one of the quicker female marathoners on the XC circuit, and also a personal trainer so is good at keeping him motivated! The two of them race all over the UK and Europe, with these events being a great way to see different parts of the UK (and beyond) up close. Andy is on his way back from injury and has definitely got the marathon bug, with him being in the late teens by numbers. It turned-out that he was in the Fairlands Valley a few weeks before and like me thought it was a bit of a joke; a poorly organised route that was an exercise in compass-less orienteering and guess-work. He has been marathoning for just over a year himself and enjoys the challenge of putting his body through them and meeting a bunch of like-minded masochists. As we jogged and chatted he recommended a book to me: Running Crazy by Helen Summer it features interviews with members of the 100 Marathon club, including a few I've chatted with on the various races and Andy was very taken by it saying it is truly inspirational reading all about those who are truly remarkable in their marathon running endeavours. That blue and yellow jersey and the honour of wearing it is now teasing me having gone into double figures myself! So I've stuck it on my Amazon list as something to buy and hopefully get a read of sometime when I have spare time - if ever! After a while I dropped Andy and carried on ploughing my own furrow through the heat and the farmland.

After one of the aid stations the route afforded the opportunity for some respite from the sun with a run through a thousand year old yew forest. The trees are naturally at their full height with their age, which is not anything near gigantic, but they just expand outwards to a massive girth with many over several hundred years in age. On entering we were told to follow the string and to keep the cord on our left, so we were able to jog through on the marked-path under the low canopy shading us from the oppressive heat in a very pleasant way. It was all very still and the fine carpet on the woodland floor of shed needles muffled our steps, so the whole atmosphere was one of silence, stillness and very other-worldy. It was almost like venturing through something you would expect to see in one of the Lord of the Rings films.

Follow the cord round the seriously old trees.
The dappled sunshine.
Soon enough we were on our way back on the last section of the run, heading on to the roads as we wended our way back into the town centre. These last few miles were getting a bit tough with the sun beating down. As I began to flag I was caught-up by Andy and we resumed our chatting for the next mile or so before I could no longer maintain his pace and had to let him gallop off in to the distance.

My target for the race, as the South Downs before it, was for a sub 5 hour time. The hill after the final water-station there had done-for me then with the heat and the sunshine causing me to feel like I was burning-up and my heartbeat racing out of control necessitating in total stoppage twice to calm and cool down. The final exposed sun-baked tarmac section here as we headed onwards over the streets of the outskirts of Salisbury just sapped my energy from me, causing me to run-walk and realise that my goal would not be achievable, although a pb was still doable, so my goal was re-set for this secondary target… I also decided to let it slip by as with Reykjavik coming-up in a mere 2 weeks time, that race is a nailed-on cert to beat the 5h barrier, so no point in pushing too hard here to narrowly miss it and doing myself a mischief that impedes my performance in a couple of weeks.

Soon the route took us right in to the heart of Salisbury and a run through the grounds and past the cathedral, the owner of the tallest spire in the country.

The 'inspiring' cthedral
Upon passing this wonderful building we were off through the town-centre itself, over the cobbled pedestrianised heart - and being helped by passers-by saying that the sign telling us to turn left at a junction had been tampered with and we were to continue straight on. Around a corner we picked-up the river and followed the path of this until we made it back to the green and the finish-line.

Through the old town
The cobbled high-street
Follow the water back to the finish.
I crossed the line with a new pb for a marathon, although outside the 5 hours, but hey, running a pb is always a great achievement, especially in the sapping heat of the second half of the race… After collecting my medal it was off to the van and a cool-down. I looked at scrambling down the bank of the river to cool-off in there, but the river-bed was just silt, so would not have been pleasant, so using the van as a shade I settled down behind it and opened my scotch-eggs ready for my post-race protein boost. No sooner had I settled down and drunk some water, then the head of a hulking-great husky appeared around the side of the open van door and grabbed my scotch-egg, followed by a second head and some very excited woofing. As it happened I saw the owner of the huskies, of which there were 4, appear beyond the side of the door. He realised what had happened and was very apologetic, disciplining the thieving hound and offering to buy me some more scotch eggs… I told him not to worry as dogs will be dogs - living with 3 myself I know what they are like with food even when it is guarded sometimes! He seemed mortified that the dogs had done this, apologised again, then told them they were going home, and off they went from whence they came.

My drink finished, I went to drive home thinking I would be able to munch on my opened bag of jelly-babies en-route, only to find they had melted into one gelatinous mass whilst I was running… At least this is a problem I won't be having in Iceland!

Saturday, 7 September 2013

21st July: Spartan

The Fairlands Valley Challenge is an event held annually by the Fairlands Valley Spartans - possibly one of the coolest names for a running club you'll ever come across. I had planned on running this last year but with the whole Bernard thing it was one of the runs that fell by the way-side.

Unfortunately this 10th marathon is the first that I can say was one I did not enjoy as a running experience... I'll not beat around the bush, but I'll try and be positive as I can!

The day started off inauspiciously... I woke up and left on time, the van was driving fine as I sped along the motorway towards Stevenage. Having just merged on to the M25 from the M3 I had the sudden realisation... My trainers were still in the hallway! A quick glance at the time and to return for them would cost an hour without allowing for any traffic so this was not an option. I was going to have to run the marathon in the footwear I was sporting at the time: walking shoes. Still I've been told of one guy (from a finisher at the South Downs) who runs marathons in flip-flops and board-shorts, so if he can manage that then running in a clumpy pair of stiff walking treads shouldn't be too tricky.

The perfect trainers for a marathon.
After this awesome start, things just seemed to get better from there. Driving round the M25 in the fast lane just before my turning, I overtook an HGV which was in the slow lane. As I pulled level with the trailer, I watched the cab bounce over a piece of paving slab that was lying in the carriageway. As several tons of metal rolled over it at 60mph, the wheel of the cab then shot the piece up and backwards straight towards me. There was nothing I could do. I just sat there carrying on driving as I watched it spin through the air towards me… And straight in to the passenger light cluster of the van. Unsurprisingly there was an almighty bang as the light exploded with the impact spreading glass out in to the slipstream and over the top of the van. Fortunately no lights came on the dashboard warning of imminent breakdown so I continued with the drive to the event base.

Parking up at the school in Stevenage where the run is staged I emerged from the van to inspect the damage. Expecting to see some broken glass I was confronted with the following: Nothingness. Where the light had been there was now a gaping hole with loose cables and bulb holders dangling. Fortunately it seemed the light took all the impact and the fuse box behind it was totally unscathed, as was the radiator just to the left, and the flapping sound I could hear after the impact was just the cables being buffeted in the slipstream.

Something's missing I think.
Just as well I was driving a van as if it was an ordinary car then that paving slab would have gone straight through the windscreen! so on to Ebay it was when I returned to order-up the parts to repair it myself! After all it was only 2 lights so it was a case of just unscrewing what was left of the mountings of the destroyed one and putting the new ones in and attaching the bulb holders. All the same its was another £70 I could have done without spending.

The event base was a brand new school with state-of-the-art everything, far removed from the drafty brick and plasterboard affair that I went to which lost the roof of one of the blocks in a storm, then was partially destroyed by the arson efforts of 'Jude the Dude' as well as one time sitting there watching in the middle of a French exam as the windows began to fall out of the 2nd floor classroom and had to be temporarily tied in place with the cord for the venetian blinds just to prevent a disaster!.. To walk around this building was a pleasure and made you think how fortunate the kids that go there are - not that any of them will be seeing that way as let's face it, school sucks for the vast majority of teenagers no matter how good the facilities are!

Registered and changed I went back to the van which was parked by the start line and read a little as I tucked in to some breakfast granola washed down with an energy drink. I took the time to peruse the route as laid out in the instructions: 4 sides of A4 of poorly explained directions, with a statement that there ail be NO marking of the course and NO marshalling of the route so all you had was the text on the paper to decipher and translate in to what you were passing by on foot as you ran along. This was like a very poorly organised exercise in orienteering - at least if you sign up for that then you have a map and a compass and at each indicated mark you get co-ordinates for the next leg!

I sat and watched the start for those doing the ultra course and the marathon hike - they offer all standard distances from the ultra down at this event, plus the choice of hiking them rather than running, all of the routes starting the same way with the runners traipsing off back out the way we drove in.

As the start approached I wandered over to the mark and hovered around with everyone else who gathered in fits and starts. With about 5 minutes to go one of the marshals came over to give us a briefing using the smallest loud-hailer in the world that was completely ineffective even from only about 10 people back!.. The briefing consisted of a very cosy 'as you all know' etc. implying that they expected everyone to have run the race before, and advised those who hadn't to follow someone who knew the way, then he dropped the bomb-shell that the last 10k of the route from the final check-point was all-new so even those who have been along before would not be able to just follow or go on auto-pilot. This was to selective groans from those assembled.

The briefing, with loud-hailer man on the right.
And we were off… Off in to the delights of Stevenage, one of the many faceless satellite London overspill new-towns built around London to cope with the slum clearances after the Second World War when the Luftwaffe destroyed swathes of the residential parts of the east-end of London. I can't really say a great deal seeing as I live just outside one of the other ones in the form of Basingstoke. The housing is interchangeable between all of them, with the town planning being very similar: lots of underpasses and roundabouts.

Out the gate like veritable greyhounds after the hare.
As we headed out of the school the first off-road venture was across the Fairlands Valley Park, the home of the 'Spartans' club that organises the event, and past the large boating lake with its sail boats which is a terrific thing to have in the centre of a town. Soon we were jogging down past the home of Stevenage Borough FC - a club with which my team Farnborough FC has a chequered history through its former owner/ manager and now Stevenage manager: Graham 'Judas' Westley. If anyone wants to know exactly what happened, then message me and I'll fill-you in with my version of what happened from a fan's stand-point!

The less said about this lot the better!
Past the footy ground and through some more rabbit-warren housing estates and after 3 miles we were out of the town and in to the countryside, crossing farmers fields full of this year's late blooming rape-seed that was pretty much at the end of flowering and in to its seeding stage.

Traversing a rapeseed field
The first of the wheat fields.
The route was pretty much a mix of footpaths across fields and country lanes from check-point to checkpoint. On the second leg I engaged in a conversation with a gent called Paul who was in the 100 marathon club, and running in his 196th overall. He was telling me about how his exploits have inspired his girlfriend to start running. So far she has gone distance wise from nothing to completing a marathon length, although she prefers to stick with the half distance and concentrate on improving her times as she feels most comfortable with this distance… Paul also pointed out to me one of the other runners in the field, who I had noticed at the South Downs due to being covered in tattoos, he was on his 912th marathon! Truly dedication on his behalf.

Another wheat field.
Now as we all traipsed through the fields and countryside, this is where it all got a bit ridiculous. Several times I jogged up on people studying their directions at forks in the path or at cross-roads wondering where the correct route was, with everyone who caught-up joining in the conflab until consensus was reached and a way chosen, or someone caught-up who had run it before and said 'this way' as they carried on past. One bunch of people I saw jogging along and joining a 'T' on the route from the right to left as I headed up from the bottom of it turned out had made a half mile detour due to dodgy directions before they realised their mistake - so a mile of distance, valuable minutes and energy was expended by them all.

Ohh, another wheat field.
Soon enough it was my turn to have my moment of map misfortune as myself, and 2 people that followed me missed a turn off of a path through some woods that cost us a mile to realise the error and tack-round to re-join the correct course which narked me somewhat. The whole experience of stopping to read the directions every couple of hundred yards at times in forest sections was a real irritant and a hindrance to making a good time in the race. To make things better at one point we were told to run along a road and go through a 'gap in the hedge', all well and good until you find the wrong gap, or just run on past because after years of growth the 'gap' was now too obscured… There were also erroneous directions as well. It seemed they had cut and pasted from the previous year but neglected to check for changes out on the route, so when a sign post indicating a right turn was mentioned, in reality it was not there!.. Now it doesn't take much to double check the route and in the process to tie a bit of tape to foliage where turns are, but something as basic as this seems to have escaped the organisers!

The instructions... P1
Pages 2&3
Page 4... All the worse for wear after running with it in my sweaty hand!
It was on the last leg in to the final checkpoint that in traversing a section of scrubland, I saw this empty snail shell on the ground. It was mahoosive for a British snail, a good 50% bigger than the normal ones you get in the garden, so I took a photo with the gel wrapper next to it to give a sense of scale.

The trail...
With the mahoosive snail!
After the last checkpoint there didn't seem to be too much point in busting to get back to the finish. I knew I was not going to post a decent time through losing the minutes to the mile detour and with the continual stopping to check directions. The sun was now out in full and at its fiery best in the mid 20's rather than the overcast skies we had had till now. To be honest, I was so disheartened with all that had gone before and combining this with the fact that I was running in walking shoes (which were not giving me any trouble at all for chaffing, so at least that was a positive), I had given-up on the race as a challenge for a good time by about mile 18.
A church we passed en-route

And its graveyard

With mature yew tree.

...And for variety, yet another wheat field!
This last section was the 'new' bit, so no-one had a Scooby-Doo about where they were supposed to be going other than from the crib sheets in our hands, so it was a bit of an exercise in the blind leading the blind with people trying to interpret the directions in the hope of making it back.

A rapeseed field, just for some variety!
Eventually I arrived on the outskirts of Stevenage and traipsing through the housing estates once more I was soon at the playing fields of the school where the post-race party was already in full swing. Grumpily I sat down, not bothering to indulge in anything from the runner's barbie. After munching on some jelly-babies I availed myself of the excellent facilities in having a shower - a rarity at these events, so at least I was fresh enough to meet-up for a pizza with my friend Claire, who lives in Stevenage, without smelling like a tramp!

The run may have been unenjoyable to say the least (although not uneventful!) and essentially a glorified club-run but at least I got a chance to meet and play with the infamous Oscar, Claire's dog-share cocker-poo, who is lovely :)

Oscar :)
I will certainly not be going back to repeat this race and I would warn anyone considering it about what they are letting themselves in for… It is a poorly laid-out club run, not a slick well-organised event like most marathons are, although the facilities were excellent.