- Where? Ellesmere, Shrophire
- Distance? 50 miles
- Why? Last training run before London 2 Brighton next month (100k)
The race brief said to arrive by 6:15 to register, for a race briefing would be at 6:45 and then a 7:00 start. I arrived at the HQ at 6:10 and saw only two other athletes. Clearly this was going to be a low key event, understandably, as it was an inaugural race on a grotty day so it has yet to establish itself on the racing calendar. I wandered about and gradually other athletes appeared, all looking very hard core and serious. I wondered about how much experience the race director had at organising races – he seemed very young. He went through his notes for the briefing, and once we’d been briefed on what to do if we fell in the canal (which included ringing him!) we were off.
The route was a 7 mile loop to the East of Ellesmere and the rest of the route around Shropshire on the West. Much of the first and last parts of this main loop was on canal towpaths, with all the big climbing during the middle stages. The full route had been marked two days previously with orange arrows sprayed on roads, trees and the paths … in many but not all places. This meant that there were times where we’d get to the end of a path and be wandering about looking for the next arrow. Unfortunately there were some yellow arrows already there from a different event, and some of the faster runners followed these instead, adding to their distance a little – oops! On the initial seven mile loop we lost the path two or three times. I say ‘we’ – that was me and this fella who had a great deal to say – about his Run Britain rankings, his 25 London Marathons, his GoPro battery, his GoPro data card, his GoPro upgrades, his GoPro well everything really, and our progress. He talked a lot about whether we were last or not, about what our average pace should be, and how we might pick up the pace once we got onto the canal – these are not the thoughts I would normally have on a race.
I put my Garmin away two years ago – I run to listen to the birds and the running water, to smell the wild garlic in the woodland, to soak in the beauty of the bluebells in the woodland and the forget-me-nots in the meadow. His fretting about performance got into my head but he was determined to run with me – he’d stop off to change his GoPro battery but then fifteen minutes later he’d catch me up again. If I stopped to walk, he did too. In the end I tried the blunt approach, ignoring much of his chatter, and he did quieten down a little after a couple of hours.
This was not going to be my day of glory …
We completed the first seven mile loop, got back to the start for checkpoint one and some food. My run buddy’s wife was greatly relieved to hear that he had a companion ‘for the whole race?’ … I snuck off before he’d finished eating, but of course he quickly caught me up again.
The next checkpoint was at 23 miles, but the race details said there’d be a water-only stop half way. This leg was 16 miles of flat canal towpath into a head wind. It was pretty in places, but I needed to be more relaxed, and in my own space in order to really enjoy the countryside, the peace and the solitude … and by solitude I don’t mean being on my own, I mean being away from hum drum and having the freedom just to let your mind wander as it will. I did get some of this, each time my companion stopped for a wee, to change his GoPro memory card, to eat some flapjack.
We were more than half way between checkpoints and didn’t get to the water stop, and when the orange arrows took us in the opposite direction to the next checkpoint, I decided to ring the race director to try and work out what was happening. He said the route had changed and there was now no water stop. The wheels started to come off for me at that point. Inadequate signage I can cope with, as I had the full route on my Ordnance Survey app, but if that route was wrong, I had no plan B to know where to go. We arrived at a crossroads with no orange arrows at all … another phone call … straight on, apparently, and indeed there was another orange arrow – about 200 metres later on!
By this time my body was getting a bit creaky – my right hamstring was pulling, and I was feeling very tired – more tired than I should have been after just 22 miles of running. I thought about bailing at the next checkpoint … should we ever actually reach it. My companion launched into a lecture about pacing, working through low points and finding a way to get to the end. I tried to explain to him that race day isn’t like that for me – its about enjoyment. If I’m not enjoying a race, I stop. I don’t think he understood that. He wondered how anyone could do a whole 50 mile race on their own, since without me, he wouldn’t be able to catch the person in front and would be on his own. I suspected he may be about to find out …
We finally reached the second checkpoint, I dropped my race vest and went for a leisurely toilet visit – never underestimate the restorative power of a long sit down mid-race!!! Its guilt-free, too, because its a call of nature, not a rest!
My companion then announced he’d stocked up with food, rang his wife and was ready to go – he’d been waiting for me. I told him to carry on … I insisted he carried on … he took some persuasion, but I said I didn’t know if I was going to retire or not. He left. I took stock. I chatted with the two volunteers there – I knew I didn’t really want to carry on all day, trying to find arrows and wondering whether I’d make the 13 hour cut off. But I also knew that for me, 23 miles wasn’t quite far enough to justify my journey to Shropshire, and that all the climbing was in the next section, making it a harder section, but a prettier one and with more variety with so much elevation. I was persuaded to keep going, and so mentally I withdrew from the race, but decided just to go to the next checkpoint, just to have experienced some climbing on Offa’s Dyke.
I’m so glad I did. With the pressure off and no more GoPro natter, I could go into my happy place, and loved the variety of the next section. The climbing was fine – because it meant some lovely descents on the other side. Although I was high up, much of the route was in a strip of woodland and so I was protected from much of the wind. The sound of it in the trees around me was pretty intimidating, mind, and I hope they’d all stay upright until I’d passed by. At one point there was a break in the trees and a great view, but the gusts of wind nearly blew me over, so I rushed away and back onto the safety of the path.
And so Offa’s Dyke continued, but then I’d miss an arrow, and have to get my phone out to get back on track. By the time I’d done this two or three times my new found enthusiasm with being on my own was wearing off. Moreover using my phone so often for route finding was starting to drain the battery – it was already on the second re-charge, and I doubted my portable recharger would last long enough to keep my phone working for the full 13 hours.
My Dad is 82, and he’s my hero – he had driven 80 miles from home to see me en route, bless him. He’d arrived four hours before I was due to meet him in Chirk at checkpoint four, around mile 40. I decided to ring and ask him to come to checkpoint three to pick me up. He agreed and asked me to send him directions. Now my Dad is normally quite techy – he was a design engineer and now builds and flies radio controlled airplanes. Carol and I had both emphasised the need to have his mobile switched on and charged up that day, but we didn’t think to tell him to ensure he had credit on his phone as well, so that we could actually communicate! This day was turning out to be a real adventure – (this is me trying to put a positive spin on this part of the day … it wasn’t positive at all at the time).
I’d sent Dad a screenshot of the place where checkpoint three would be, with an arrow pointing to the exact spot. I had two miles to go to get there, and he had 10 miles to drive. That was my longest two miles ever – I had lost any drive to run, but as the weather got worse, I got colder, and needing to use the phone for navigation when there were no orange arrows meant taking my gloves off, often. The colder my hands got, the harder it became to put my gloves back on again. I arrived at checkpoint three – no Dad, and no mobile signal. I ambled towards the crossroads as a better place for him to find me, and struggled to contact Dad – cold hands, no shelter and a very limited signal. When I finally got through, he was still at checkpoint four, because he’d no mobile credit for receiving picture messages or contacting me. My location was established and I now just had to wait for him to come and get me.
This was the most difficult part of the day – I was so cold it took every ounce of effort to get my race vest off, access my extra layers, remove my jacket, put the extra layers on and the jacket back on, with only a tree for shelter. My hands wouldn’t work properly and I knew I wasn’t thinking straight. Even using my phone was becoming difficult. Still, it was a useful distraction, though, and used up about twenty minutes while I waited for Dad. I felt so isolated and was beginning to fret about being so cold and exposed. Eventually my wonderful, wonderful father arrived, and very gradually the warmth of the car meant I stopped shivering, my breathing slowed down, and my muscles started to relax … blissfully my day ended in a country pub with a roaring wood burning stove!
43 started the race, 34 finished – I was one of THE NINE …!
Lessons learnt –
- Put on extra kit before you’re too cold to be unable to put it on
- Don’t trust a race organiser that says a route is marked, especially if its an inaugural trail event
- Carry more than one phone charger for a race longer than marathon distance
- Pork pies are great race nutrition
- Be assertive with companions whose conversations are not good for your head
- Always have a plan B and don’t be afraid to use it
- A DNF is fine is there is a treat at the end – mine was a hot chocolate and cauliflower and broccoli soup with my Dad