Running for the pies

Running for the pies

Monday, 11 July 2016

21st February: Meon Valley Plodding

Through an unfortunate injury, Neil, a former colleague of mine and fellow entrant at this year’s UT55 and Lakeland 50 got in touch with me to offer me his place in the ‘Meon Valley Plod’.

This race is a tough 21 or so mile jaunt up and down hills on the South Downs centering on the Meon Valley not too far from Portsmouth.

With it being just 20 miles from my gaff, and the opportunity for a good training run not too far from the location of the Steyning Stinger that I am running in a few weeks it would have been churlish to decline the offer.

It is quite a low-key affair with a deliberately small field run by local running club ‘Portsmouth Joggers’ and because of it operating within its limitations of numbers it is never advertised and fills-up on word of mouth almost as soon as it is announced.

I drove down to the event base of the village hall early in the morning and gathered my thoughts and senses over my granola and coffee whilst we were all safety briefed on the route. Standing in the hall as we were briefed, looking around there were plenty of Portsmouth Marathon shirts and buffs to be spotted, along with loads of ‘Brutal’ ones as well so it seems the entry crowd is drawn from the same local events that I run as well.

Briefing... With a band to entertain before and after!
Once briefed we were all herded towards the nearby start in the village at a cross-roads and huddled-together against the cold we counted-down to the start and the headed-off along the road and up the hills on to the downs past bemused sheep as we hit the cloud-line.

The bemused sheep as we invaded their space and the cloud-line.
This lung-bursting initial climb mercifully plateaued and we made our way across the top of the hill over and through styles and gates before descending on the muddy slope the other side… Which was pretty-much a  template of the whole day.

Crossing the plateau.
Broadly you could describe the course as a figure of 8 on its side, with you heading off on to the westerly loop first before the slightly longer easterly loop. The race is in effect a series of 6 big hills all linked together, so you know every 4 miles you will be climbing a steep hard slope before getting some respite, then a good downhill and a flattish section to the next hill.

A welcome downhill track, even if a bit slippery!
Terrain underfoot for the most part was field/ farmland, some forestry road and some country lanes linking the various hills, so you were continually changing surface as well as attitude from climb to descent.

Downy view.
The aid stations were at regular points, with one of them being run by the guys responsible for the Portsmouth Coastal Marathon and included some shots of their beer that they gave to all the finishers back in December’s race!

Plenty of rolling countryside to be seen!
Signage and marshaling on the course was very good, and at the bottom of one particularly slippery field upon hitting the road at the bottom I was greeted by the cheery face of Claire, long-time friend and Pompey-based runner who was wrapped-up well against the elements marshaling for the day. I stopped for a bit to have a chat with her before pushing-on with the run searching for the next hill to conquer.

A cheery Claire marshaling away.
With the recent foul weather that has been the signature of this winter to date, the areas where water could gather had turned large sections in to complete quagmires - be they downhill tracks, or in the most amusing of fashions, a stretch of about a mile, the only really extended flat section we had, which was a sea of shin-deep mud punctuated by streams.

Which way now?
Attempting to run through this was highly amusing. You could not judge how deep the mud was with any step or be able to pick a natural path through it, so you kept weaving left and right through the mire, staggering along like a drunk kicked-out of the pub at closing time.

The start of the muddy fun!
The deepest mud though was saved to the very last section as you approached the finish line back at the village hall. Running around the top of the hill overlooking the village, the path was knee-deep at times with thick clay mud that sucked your feet in to it and I think pretty much everybody lost a trainer at some point and had to dig it out by hand before carrying on with the last few hundred metres down to the finish line!

One of the final views before descending.
Crossing the line I was knackered - it may have been around 21 miles, but the race was harder than a fair few marathons I have run.

Claire was waiting for me at the finish with her marshaling duties long since over so it was good to have a chat over a cuppa as I managed to wash the worst of the mud off of my legs.

Having been blocked-in by double parking I had to wait a while for other runners to clear-off before I could make my escape but a short drive home and I was ready to get the rest of the mud off me in a very welcome warm shower and warm-up for the evening.

This run I suppose was about as close as the south can offer to a ‘fell race’ and the atmosphere was very convivial. With its low-key nature and promotion only through word-of-mouth amongst local runners, most of the entrants already knew each other from their various clubs so it was quite cliquey in that regard, but everyone was still very friendly and willing to chat along the route between gasps for breath.

Lastly, I must say a big thanks for Neil in passing his entry on to me for this as it was a great training run ready for Steyning in a few weeks. I definitely owe him a beer or two if I get a chance to buy him one up in the Lake District later this year!

Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Run far.

7th February: CTS South Devon

So far this winter you can pretty-much sum it up as going from one storm to another. It has been surprisingly mild temperature wise, but instead of a winter’s chill we have had wind, wind and more wind blowing in off of the Atlantic along with the accompanying downpours of rain.

The forecast for race day was for more of the same and the drive down to Beesands for the Endurancelife Coastal Trail Series South Devon Marathon had me arriving at midnight parked-up on the sea-front as the waves crashed against the rocks protecting the shore below, with a lovely howl to the gusting wind.

Beautiful clear sunny skies of the morning!
Waking as dawn broke under a light shower I stepped on to the Endurancelife conveyor-belt that is registration where you are fed in one end and spat out the other with supreme organisation and efficiency. Emerging with time to kill I had a leisurely breakfast of my customary slab of granola (LSS’s special recipe) washed down with a couple of mugs of black coffee with 2 sugars and changed into my gear before the briefing.

Registration at first light.
At previous runnings of this event, through storm damage and severe weather warnings, the course has been forced to change for the safety of us runners. As such I was eager to find if this year’s route was going to be the traditional one, or if there would be any tweaks because of the aforementioned… Fortunately it was to be the expected route this time with the predicted foul weather not posing such a risk as to warrant any diversions.

I knew from the weather forecast even before leaving for the race, that today would not be about chasing times… It was promising to be more challenging with the wind and rain than it was during the Gower CTS in November, with the wind predicted to be far stronger and the temperature certainly colder!

Underway with the massed start a half hour after the field of ultra runners, it was already very slippery underfoot. The grass was almost slick with the mud below the surface and as we hit the first field at its tricky angle slope down and to the left, I watched as 4 people went arse-over-tit as their grip failed. Rather than follow the herd and risk the same by blindly trailing over the churning-up path I took a higher line over fresh grass rather than the muddy tracks of the ultras and the race leaders, which took me out of harm’s way and allowed me to get down and over the beach crossing at Hallsands without incident or a muddy stripe down my backside.

Off in to the wind rain and murk.
Climbing up from Hallsands we headed for the lighthouse at Start Point in to the strong gusting headwind… One of the runners in front was caught unawares by it and his hat was blown clean-off his head. Fortunately I was able to catch it as it bounced towards me along the path and gave me an impetus to catch him and hand it back.

Looking back.
Rounding Start Point and descending on the rocky trail, the white foaming sea was revealed below us; the roar of it hitting the reef making an impressive sound as we kept it well to our left, making our way over the next couple of slippery cliff-top fields on paths that resembled streams at times. Heading under a set of cliffs towering over the ones we were running over, the fields began to give-way to the beginning of the rocky technical trail that makes this part of the race my favourite stretches of running on all the courses I have run.

Today was not going to be a good day for photos of decent trail-porn, so I thought I’d do something different and film what it is like to run on this stretch; continually changing elevation, rocky stepped outcrops on the path and a little scramble to get over some of the cliff boulders.

Following a sharp right on another headland I saw something I had not encountered thus far… The wind was so strong that a waterfall was being blown back up over the cliff in the teeth of the wind. I couldn’t help but stop to photograph and film the spectacle whilst chuckling at my fellow runners going through an uphill waterfall, before following suite and running through it myself.

The uphill waterfall!

Having to brace yourself against the wind the whole time you were running just added to the pleasure of it, but after the turn off the coast up the estuary inland, and the shelter the trees afforded you from the wind and rain, it really was welcome respite as you no longer had to concentrate at the level you were till now. The trees seeming to be silent around you, making you aware of the roar of the wind high above you.

Through the first checkpoint it was the long slow trudge uphill back round and on to the top of the cliffs we were just running along, exposed to the elements again but at least this time the wind was mercifully at our backs.

Looping around on to the out and back section, where passing people coming towards you on the single-track boulder strewn path is always fun (as a marathoner on your way out you pass the returning leading ultras), I passed a couple of stragglers on the marathon course who must have been late starters, one lady seemed to be taking everything in her stride, the other was a younger guy in his early 20’s… He looked like the walking dead. He had no waterproof or windproof jacket, just black clinging lycra-based running gear without much layering - admittedly covering his arms and legs entirely, but he was soaked to the skin and with the wind ripping in to him, it looked like he had all the heat taken out of him and he was really suffering, with his face and hands almost white. He was only managing a shuffle at this stage - only around the 10k mark, so I was hoping for his sake that he would be timed-out at the first checkpoint or hooked from the race on safety grounds!

Off the out and back and we headed inland over the fields, the boggy quagmire of fields, that lead us back to the top of the hill overlooking the start at Beesands. With the rain of the day on top of the last week, we were confronted by ‘slippery hill’ - a grassy very steep downhill slope of a field that you normally have to side-step down even when grip is good underfoot, but today was a different story. Precariously picking my way down the hill I could see long muddy stripes on the grass where people had slipped, fallen & carried on going to the bottom.

Watching someone stumble, fall and toboggan down on their arse I did the only sensible thing open to me: grabbed the camera & started filming!.. No sooner had I started than I too came a cropper and landed on my backside, sliding to the foot of the hill, but at least I had been recording the event to capture the moment!

Terrific fun, I dusted myself down and grinning like a loon carried on running.

The next inland section towards the edge of Slapton is pretty uneventful, with more fields and country lanes before we descend in to the nature reserve and the duck-board walkway that at times was more stream and quagmire than anything resembling a path. Most of this section from the slide onwards I ran with fellow CTS marathon junkie Luke, and we were joined on the way in to the nature reserve by a lady running her first trail marathon. At one point she decided to attempt avoiding the muddy puddles by clambering around them on a bit of a bund only to be confronted around the corner with no other option than to embrace the cold wet mud and run straight through it!

This section to the final aid station gave us some welcome shelter from the battering of the elements that we had been experiencing all day, but the final leg of the run from the checkpoint at 25 miles threw us back in to the mouth of the storm. Running along Slapton Sands the head-on blast of the wind made progress tough, with walking leaning in to it with your arms streamlined behind you seeming to be the fastest method of getting in to Torcorss… Up and down the hill and we were on the short straight in to the finish and the chance to dry-off and warm-up in the Cricketers over a pint of ale.

Another marathon done, and whilst this is the fourth time I have run this course, it has been different every time and very enjoyable. Looking at the time I put-down this year compared to last, I was in reality far faster once you factored-in the conditions, which was a good confidence booster for further runs to come.

Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Run far.