Running for the pies

Running for the pies

Sunday, 22 February 2015

23rd November: Survival of the Not so Fittest

Today I had the chance to take a crack at something I’ve wanted to do for a while… Compete in an obstacle course race (OCR), the one in question being the London leg of the Men’s Health ‘Survival of the Fittest’ series.

The chance to compete here came out of the blue via my neighbour Pini: One of his friends had run it the previous year and enjoyed it so much he block-booked 10 tickets for a team entry in the first wave of the race… And as the day of the race drew near, places were needing to be filled so I leapt at the chance when I was asked if I was up for it and there was a window in my diary.

In previous years the race has been held in the grounds of Battersea Power Station, but with that site now finally being developed after 40 odd years of waiting, the venue had been changed to that of Wembley Stadium.

With the woman’s international fixture of England v Germany being played there the following day, the stadium itself was not part of the course, but the event was based in the car-park and surrounding land of the stadium with the iconic Wembley Way also forming part of the course as well.

Leaving from Hook stupidly early in the morning Pini drove four of us there, parking in the stadium’s car park. Enjoying a walk around the stadium - the last time that most of us had been there was the previous May to watch the mighty Shrimpers, Southend United, in the Johnstone Paint Trophy final against Crewe (which they unfortunately lost).

Competition for parking space was fierce!
Walking almost all the way round the mahoosive stadium, we had a chance to view some of the course up close and catch glimpses of a few minor obstacles before we arrived at the event base. The registration was quick and straightforward upon production of a driving license/ passport and everyone was given their event t-shirt beforehand. As people went off to the marquees and changed the majority of those taking part emerged sporting these red ‘Survival of the Fittest’ shirts.

The star of the day: the stadium backdrop.
Having never raced an OCR, I re-read some blogs on them and in advance spoke with those of us in the the group who had undertaken them in the past about what to wear. Outside of my normal running gear I decided to wear a pair of fingerless cycling gloves to protect my hands and help with grip, and looking at the weather forecast I wore a thermal base layer under my shirt for added warmth.

All changed we gathered amongst a sea of almost entirely red shirts and took advantage of the largest number of portaloos I have ever seen gathered in one spot (more than at the Reading Festival when I once went on the Sunday in 1998 just after finishing uni - damn I feel old writing that!)

The merry band of motley fools :)
Our team of 10 being reduced to 9 on the day through a late illness cancellation, so when they called the first wave forward for briefing by the colour of our wristbands, the 9 of us sauntered towards the stage, hanging a fair way back to let the hard-core masses revel in the atmosphere at the front. Being in the first wave we were with all the serious athletes chasing the win, so the TV crews filming the race were out in force to capture them all in action… So we all hung towards the back, something the organisers encouraged to be done to allow those serious runners the chance to get away cleanly and run their true race. As a team our plan was just to go and run it at our own pace as individuals rather than as a bunch of 9 and meet at the finish and have a chat about how we found it once all changed.

On your marks.
Straight out the traps and we hit the first obstacle in the opening metres: a stack of hay bales. Essentially you had a chance to get up to a sprint before throwing yourself at them then clear them, before almost immediately coming to a standstill as we had to clamber over about 10 metres of security barriers all tied together in triangles. This compacted the field significantly as you had to wait for the person in front to start and you could only move as fast as they did and try to avoid having your hand stood on or getting kicked by a flailing leg here and there.

On the hoof!
We had a soaking in a ‘bath’, having to go through a large inflated water hazard and cross an articulated lorry trailer twice as it formed a corner of the course… With where the trailer was parked it was sloping at an angle, so it made sense to cross it as hard on the right side as you could to enable an easier crossing.

Tyred of hanging around waiting.
We approached another bottle-neck soon which was a clamber through several rows of suspended tyres where the queue was about 5 people deep for the several lines of tyres.

Scrambling on all fours.
After a bit of hurdling we were soon at another bottle-neck. This obstacle was to push on your hands and knees one of the heavy rubberised ‘feet’ for security fences under three increasingly lowered ‘limbo’ levels of horizontally strung security fences… Except there were not enough blocks to go around, so after waiting around for a ‘foot’ to push, the marshals in charge realised there was a problem and instructed everyone to just continue through without a ‘foot’.

We ran down a waterslide, which was not slippery, so you only slid the last few metres to the end - most likely because as the first wave the water and soaping agent had not really had much of a chance to take effect and grease up the slide but this was a bit of a disappointment.

More hurdles were leapt and carrying some cones up and down some stairs and before long we were jogging up and down on to Wembley Way, around the outside of the stadium and the occasional run up a scaffolding ramp, through some bungee cords and we were heading out of the stadium complex.

So far so underwhelmed… The standard of the obstacles so far were not really anything tricky or taxing in either strength, balance or agility. It seemed like this was shaping-up to be a 10k run with stops for breathers as you encountered the ‘obstacles’ that just seemed to slow your progress more than anything else.

I was running with my neighbour Guy, the two of us going at a pace that was faster than we would have run solo and the result was we were steadily passing people who had gone out far too fast and were now really feeling it.

Through the back-streets of Brent we soon came to the local park and crossed the wet muddy grass until we came to the nadir of the race so far… A basketball court where we had to shoot some hoops successfully before continuing across the park. Really?.. you pay your money to enter, (and it was not cheap), and this is what we have had so far: some scaffolding, a couple of hay bales and now the local park with some basketballs, erm, this is hardly an obstacle by any stretch of the imagination. The thought went through my mind that we had chosen to run the OCR version of the ‘Craggy Island Fair’ in the first episode of Father Ted which made me chuckle as we rounded a hedge and found ourselves confronted by an inflatable that looked like something out of the TV series ’Gladiators’… At least this was a proper obstacle.

Just like gladiators but minus the cotton-buds.
Running back through the path we contended with a cargo net scramble that was about 2m long, some ‘hod carrying’ of sandbags up and down an embankment, over an 8ft wall and even some monkey bars, which my gloves were about as use as a one legged man in an arse kicking contest as they offered me less grip than if I was just bare of hand.

A gentle paddle.
About 7km in to the race by now and distinctly underwhelmed, at least some fun started with our introduction to Weils Disease and the run through the river Brent - splashing our way across it and hauling ourselves out over the slippery mud banks with the helps of ropes, before climbing down some ladders later on and running the storm-drain section.

For the most part it was solid concrete under foot although there was a deeper channel in the middle, and the unwary amongst us occasionally trod in it expecting it to be the same level to stumble for a few steps, the lucky recovering balance, the unlucky having a splash-down.

Fortunately the stretch had been dredged of shopping trollies, road cones and other detritus you would expect to find so at least the way for us was clear and there were some really good graffiti murals that had been painted on to the walls as we ran past.

The open drain was punctuated around half way with a tunnel section that was lit in the water with glow-sticks to mark where the walls were, the bed of the river here being a slick layer of algae on top of the concrete base so you were continually careful to keep your balance as your foot skated a little way with each step.

Out the other end of the tunnel and dodging some fallen trees we made our way to the end of the section and back up some ladders and on to terra firma once more and the return back to the stadium via the industrial estates, even detouring through the ‘rave zone’ an industrial unit filled with dry ice, disco lights flashing and pumping dance music that you had to make your way through without taking wrong turns and falling over the barriers, which was great fun.

The visibility in the 'rave zone' you can just make out a crash-barrier!
Once through this we were back in to the stadium complex, where it seemed they had crammed the majority of the major obstacles in to the last kilometre of the route. By the time we reached here we were already exhausted, our energy sapped from having essentially run a 10k as fast as we could with the occasional breather of ‘obstacles’… What we now faced back in the the stadium park made what we had traversed so far look distinctly ‘toy-town’. by comparison. We had climbs, scaffolding towers, water hazards, more climbs, a suspended net scramble… And the pyramid.

This huge construction dominated the arena around the start/ finish. Seeing it you knew you would have to conquer it as it stretched about 50ft up in to the air and you tried not to think about it… Until you were confronted by it and had to scale the 10ft walls. Fortunately running with Guy we were able to help each other along with a total stranger who hit the bottom of it at the same time as we did. After plenty of grunting and straining the three of us were on the summit, and the easy drops down to the ground.

A couple of smaller climbs over walls remained, a final soaking and the up and down of the ‘wall of fame’ and you stumbled over the finish line to be greeted with a big smile and your finishers medal.

Pini crossing the line.
Having crossed the line, we all waited for everyone else in the group to finish before we changed and hit the hospitality tent for a good beer, watching those carrying their barrels through part of the marquee as we all had recently done whilst we supped our pints. We managed to find the only space heater in the whole tent and gathered around it as we discussed our experiences and admired the medal we had all received: a very useful bottle opener.

A well earned post-race pint.
The organisers had arranged tie-ins with some local food places so by means of celebration and the fact that we were all Hank Marvin after our exertions, we decided to take advantage of one of them and en-masse we descended upon the Handmade Burger Company before everyone else had the same idea.

Filled with a delicious helping of freshly tortured meat in a bun we all dispersed in different directions for our various homes, whereupon arrival I was able to examine the goody bag in more detail… Aside from the food that we had all polished-off in the beer tent the organisers seemed to know their audience: In there was a packet of kleenex for the singletons and a set of Durex stimulation gels for those in relationships!

All relationship status' accounted for ;)
A quick change and I was out the door as I was off to watch the mighty Farnborough play, then heading back in to London to watch the final gig of Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine at the Brixton Academy. A pretty busy day you could say.

Perfect end to the day!
The event here was HUGE. They had wave after wave of runners throughout the day, before the course was closed and re-opened on a shorter 5km route around the stadium park for a flood-lit night race of several more waves. Numbers-wise there were over 6,000 people booked in for the day race alone, and the ticket for this was £70 at worst, £40 at best - or £330,000 or thereabouts as an average for the ticket sales, and this does not count the evening, which probably bumps the total to £1/2M just on ticket revenue, which does not include all their extras in food and drink sales etc. I found the first half of the course a bit ‘meh’. The marshals seemed to be very disinterested in the least whilst outside of the stadium park and were even getting in the way of the competitors at times. It seemed the obstacles had been built from what the organisers managed to liberate from the council road-works depot and cobbled something together almost as an afterthought. I realise this is an ‘urban’ event so you are limited with any landscape features to use or anything like that, but the whole thing outside of the stadium seemed extremely cheap.

The run through the river whilst good fun was hardly taxing and again cost nothing beyond clearing any rubbish in the way, with entrance and exit at points being ladders from the local plant-hire lashed together to the railings. Back in the stadium all the main obstacles were in a very tight space so they could run the day and night races. Don’t get me wrong, these were challenging and enjoyable things to conquer, its just the whole combined effect was something that for the price was a bit on the ‘cheap’ side of things. The hire of this iconic location would not have been cheap and the equipment would have to be bumped in and out fairly quickly so logistically it would have been a challenge on that front but I was left feeling that you were paying double what you really should be.
It seems that in choosing to have the event here they have had to skimp on the budget for the obstacles... Perhaps somewhere else would be a better location if the obstacles could be improved?
I was fortunate to benefit through the lower ticket cost via the early block booking. The registration, changing and flow of the competitors was both efficient and well organised, so credit to the organisers where it is due on that front, I just felt that the ‘added value’ of the event and the experience was low to non-existent, you felt like you were being milked as a cash-cow and just making the organisers, Rat Race, a lot of money, although from all accounts this pales into insignificance to the events run by Tough Mudder.

As an aside, I got around the course in 882/5908 place, so just in the top 15% of runners - not too shabby for my first ever OCR, will I be back - I’m not sure. I’m glad to have experienced one of these races, but for what it is I feel you get more out of running a 10k Brutal; you get just as wet, its just the only obstacles you encounter there are what nature throws at you: hills and fallen tree trunks etc. rather than bespoke constructions. I suppose you could describe the London Men’s Health Survival of the Fittest as a 10k urban run and 1k of climbing up and down some walls.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

16th November: CTS Gower

Now we're safely in to November, the Endurancelife Coastal Trail Series is back in full swing, so with their 2nd leg of 10 happening it was a drive down to the Gower for me and the latest in the litany of marathons I have behind me.

Rhossili on the Gower peninsular was the venue once more, so I drove down the night before and made camp in the back of the van, mercifully in an area free of doggers!

Funky cloud formations, If I was in Hicksville USA I'd be claiming UFO's
All rested I woke as the sun began to rise, revealing some bizarre clouds hanging over the sea beside me. Admiring the calm of the seas and the slight surf that looked promising for the local surfing community, I walked the half mile off to the event base of the Rhossili Bunk House and duly registered, taking my competitor’s shirt for the event in a ladies small as I had promised my eldest daughter one for her to run in.

Early morning surf.
I knew that Barry Miller was due to be running today having become a proud holder of the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning having successfully completed the 4x100 mile qualifying races over the course of the summer - completing 1 race of that length is phenomenal, completing 4 over the course of a couple of months on a different continent is something else, and to further put this into perspective, only 14 people achieved the grand slam, and of the 14 Barry was the only one not to be an American!.. Barry was running today along with his other half Kirstin in the half as a build-up to her tilt at the Portsmouth Coastal marathon in December, and fellow Real Relay alumnus from the leg before mine, Stuart March, was also supposed to be giving it a go but decided to drop through illness so came along to support the others anyway.

The calm before the storm.
After the briefing we mustered at the start and headed off on to the loop out from the Rhossili Bunk House round to the headland where we had parked. This initial descent down on to the cliff-top path was through some seriously muddy fields, and just as I built-up some good pace on the descent passing a good chunk of fellow runners, that was until I lost my trainer twice in the space of a couple of minutes. I had no choice but to embrace the joy of walking through mud with one sock clad foot, feeling it all squelching up between my toes as I located my shoe, then savoured putting a soaking cold muddy sock in to the trainer and hope that I would not be chaffing as the mud dried out through the heat of my feet as the race continued over the next few hours.

Returning to the car park.
In putting my trainers on I had slipped quite a way down the pack and soon after re-starting I suddenly felt flat and lethargic as soon as the trail took a turn for a slight incline… I just could not build any rhythm as I ran and the sweats from the Rivington marathon returned, making me feel very disheartened with what I had experienced on that run. I had hoped I was over the illness - I was no longer ‘ill’ as such, but I had not run a step since Rivington and I had not appreciated what the bout of flu had taken out of me. This was compounded as more and more people made their way past me, pushing me further back down the field to near the back… Before losing my shoe a second time.

Hitting the hills.
As we arrived back at the car park we diverted up on to the hills that overlook the village and ran the ridge overlooking Rhossili Bay with some early morning surfers out enjoying the waves.

I was looking forward to the descent at the end of this section to the first check point: a very steep grassy downhill pock-marked with boulders. I did leapfrog a few people here who were carefully picking their way down the slope as I steamed past them to their amazement!

Heading out to the beach.
Follow the chevrons.
Once through the checkpoint we turned on to the first beach section of the day; picking our way through the pebbles to find the flat stretch of hard-packed sand and the mile journey to the other end of the beach.

The first of the day's beaches.
Safely across the unrelenting sandy surface we turned inland and slowly made our way up the big-arsed hill from another caravan park and on to the moor for the inland leg of the race that makes about a 1/3 of the distance. Here I caught up with a fellow marathoner who was dropping back through the field so was able to chat for a while as we crossed paths. He had also run the Rivington Marathon a few weeks before and he was finding this course incredibly hard by comparison. With us climbing up on the the highest point of the course I hope it put a perspective on where he was with regards to how most of the harsh climbing had been done and that with the Rivington under his belt he really should not be too phased by the course here. He had finished the race a decent chunk of time in front of me so he should have had the confidence that he would make the end relatively unscathed.

On these Endurancelife runs, when you see an effing big hill you know you'll be going up it!
Traversing the moors I also caught up with some of the back of the field of ultra runners - most of whom seemed to have been caught out by taking a wrong turn and diverting down to CP5 rather than continuing to CP2 which had cost them anything up to 3 miles - translating into around 45 minutes of lost time, hence me now being in amongst them as their head-start had been eroded by their directional misfortune… Two of the runners were a father and son duo, which I think was pretty cool; the 2 generations of the same family being out there on the trail together, geeing each other along to the finish.

Crossing the moors.

Once the 8 miles across the moorland were completed we headed off the ridge down on to the sand dunes, weaving our way through them and on to the beach with another mile of sand to traverse… There were plenty of dog walkers out along the beach, pretty much all of them seemed to have springer spaniels, and there were even a couple of kite surfers out to hit the waves in the bay. Knowing what was in store at the end of this beach made me wince at the anticipation: The steps of doom. The feckers never seem to end. You go from sea level on to the cliff-top path by a series of steep irregular steps that just go on and on. The dog walkers on their way down were having difficulty enough descending the steps, let alone us lot attempting to scale them… All you can do is just keep climbing one at a time, stopping several times to catch breath for your bursting lungs.

You steps, how I hate thee!
Eventually you hit the top and the woodland path that leads around the headland before spitting you out at the 20 mile mark at CP4 and the final stretch of beach.

Another beach... At least its not a hill :)
The terrain underfoot.
Once over this final stony beach we were back on to the final section, the grassy cliff-top path of the last 6 miles back to the finish. By this point I was absolutely spent, so even though the terrain was not too taxing, just the grassy and stoney path undulating along as you meandered over the coastline, I was finding it incredibly hard going, an absolute chore as I dragged my sorry arse towards the finish line.

Looking back along the coastal path.
The finest sight of the day!
This route is a tease, as you can see the finish from a few miles off, but rather than leading us straight there we veer away from it, so where before it was getting closer, you all of a sudden see it getting further away and all the frustration that entails, until finally you hit a turn in land and you have to deal with the ascent to the finish line… 

The teasing sight of the finish in the distance, only for us to wander beyond it.
Leaving the coast to head inland to the finish (finally).
With around a mile and a bit to go my Garmin ran out of battery with how long I had taken to run the course, and by not paying proper attention to where my feet were going, I kicked a rock with the outstep of my left foot, tearing a hole in the upper of my new trainers - the perfect end to the run. Yelping with the pain and turning the air blue with some choice anglo-saxon I hobbled up the trail towards the end, crossing the line almost an hour slower than last year.

I found the run incredibly demoralising in not being able to give a good account of myself. My bout of flu really had taken a lot out of me, far more so than I had thought. My legs were leaden throughout, I was unable to get a rhythm and despite the beautiful surroundings of the Gower I did not really enjoy the run as an experience and to cap it all I ruined a new(ish) pair of trainers in the process.

To try and take my mind off the sufferfest I had the iPod on shuffle for a decent amount of time, for what its worth this is what cropped up and had me singing along - well I was all by myself with no-one to disturb with the fact I am unable to carry a tune in a bucket:

No 1 Dominator - Top
Ironic - Alanis Morisette
Intravenous - Catherine Wheel
Moondance - Pele
Salsoul Nugget - M&S 

Love Spreads - The Stone Roses
Melt - Leftfield
Music Gets the Best of Me - Sophie Ellis Bextor
U Got To Let the Music - Capella
Mersey Paradise - The Stone Roses
Make it Mine - The Shamen
Transmission - Joy Division
Fuck Off - Maniac Squat 

Whatever It Takes - Belinda Carlisle
Who’s Got a Match - Biffy Clyro 

Chump - Green Day
Quiet - Smashing Pumpkins
For What it’s Worth - Placebo
A New Decade - The Verve
Ode to Love - Top
I Believe - Tim Booth & The Bad Angel
Summer Baby - Pavement
Mer Du Japon - Air
I Love Disco 2000 - The JAMMs
Performance - Happy Mondays
Worry Rock - Green Day
Half Man Half Machine - Goldie Lookin’ Chain
Complainte Gallaise - Tri Yann
Original - Leftfield
3 Times and you Lose - Travis