Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Exmoor Stagger Revisited

Last Sunday was a perfect morning for a jaunt across Exmoor and the conditions for our fourth running of the Exmoor Stagger, and my first visit since 2006, could not have been better. We gathered on the start line with the usual suspects from Maiden Newton (aka Richard and Lesley) amongst the 230 strong field of runners in the sort of good spirits that only a tough, hilly 16 mile race in bright autumn sunshine can inspire.

An entertaining briefing from an exuberant race director was followed by a short walk to the start line and at 11am sharp we were off at the start of the lung bursting ascent to the far distant Dunkery Beacon.

The route starts to climb almost immediately, then climbs some more, continues to climb for a bit further........you get the idea, it’s basically uphill! After the first couple of miles the race splits, the hardy Staggerers turn right for more torture and the lucky Stumblers turn left to cover the short distance back down to Minehead. This year Richard was amongst the Stumblers as he had decided that his stomach could not endure the real deal.

At this point I realised that I had been running past glorious views without actually noticing them, so I tried to appreciate the stunning vista of moors, forest and the distant sea. That lasted for about 2 seconds and then my focus returned to the task ahead. I was having a bit of a tussle with a female Bitton Road Runner but fortunately she was not as strong as me on the hills and soon fell back. This left me to concentrate on Richard Boulter from Yeovil who I decided must be beaten at all costs!!

A welcome stretch of downhill to the picturesque village of Wootton Courtenay followed and at this point a marshal called out to me “Well done, first lady” which I thought was a load of rubbish as I knew there was at least one speedy woman up ahead. After another three marshals had called out the same thing it occurred to me that they couldn’t all be wrong and that my speedy rival must be doing the Stumble. This gave my legs a burst of strength and there was another incentive – an occasional flash of a silver Maiden Newton vest up ahead. I knew Martin was worried that his recovery from the marathon had not been as swift as mine and that the Stagger is the sort of race where my chances of beating him are strongest and so it proved as I gradually reeled him in.

As we toiled up the final slopes of Dunkery Beacon Richard Boulter began to pull away from me, I caught and overtook Martin and was myself caught and overtaken by an unknown female. I concentrated on trying to put as much distance between myself and Martin as I could because I was sure that he would come crashing back past me on the long steep downhill stretch off the Beacon. I finally reached the summit and began the treacherous slippery descent and although I took it quite carefully I gained the lost ground back on Richard and stayed ahead of Martin.

On reaching the bottom there is a nice section of fairly level path round the side of a steep valley and on this part of the course, knowing that the bulk of the hard work was behind me, I finally passed Richard and managed to open up a lead on him. Unfortunately this meant that I had no-one to follow and I spent an anxious half mile or so hurtling down a muddy track with a distinct feeling that I had missed a turning and was heading in the wrong direction. It was with great relief that I came out onto a short stretch of road, saw both a marshal and the runner ahead of me as I came back into Wootton Courtenay.

As I turned off the road and began the infamous climb back up to the ridge above Minehead I saw my female rival walking up ahead and thought, perhaps I can catch her up if I just run up this hill. Nice idea but I only managed to run the first ten paces or so and then subsided into a plod like everyone else. I had completely forgotten how hard this part of the course is. I managed to overhaul one runner ahead of me but the girl had disappeared into the woods and I didn’t see her again until after the finish.

After finally reaching the top, a section of easy running on wide forest tracks follows before the descent back into Minehead. As I turned the final corner and saw the clock ahead I knew I was going to be slightly outside my previous best time here (2.17.04) but I was more than happy with my second place in the ladies race, a rare victory over Martin and my final time of 2.17.54. What a perfect day!

Martin came trotting down the road shortly afterwards looking like he’d been out for Sunday stroll and we beat a hasty retreat to the Race HQ in order to avoid the queues for the excellent and very reasonably priced refreshments. A bit of a wait for the presentation but another clean sweep by Maiden Newton Runners: Martin was 2nd V55 in the main race and Richard was 2nd V55 in the Stumble, Lesley picked up yet another V55 prize, beaten into second place only by the speedy Jenny Mills, and I was 2nd overall and 1st V45.

The only downside was the hideous bright orange T shirt on offer. What I always want to know is who decides what colour the race t-shirts will be, and who in their right mind would think that anyone would actually want a bright orange one? Fortunately I had my hands full with bottles of wine so I had to leave mine behind!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Cheeky Half - Cardiff

06.00 - It started with a shiver, as these things usually do.  Although dark, there was movement in the house.  The alarm on my digital watch finished sounding, and it was time to rise.  I was kindly put-up by Ed, an old school friend in Bristol, who was running the Cardiff Half Marathon too, along with his sister, and her two friends.  Wrestling like a feather weight in a sleeping bag, I managed to get myself off the camp bed to the light switch without tipping the whole thing over into a redundant cot.  Quite an achievement and I took that as an omen for the day ahead.

After a continental breakfast, and plenty of bananas, 5 of us, plus the camp bed bundled into a Polo as the dawn broke.  Warming up, the chat turned from jolly banter, revelations and excuses for slow race times to the car-parking strategy.

I kept quiet, because I had failed to squeeze out a No.2 during the reveille.  Now this worried me because throughout my training, there came a point during longer runs where I had to guess whether I would make it home or not.  On each occasion, the situation got the better of me, resulting in a dash for cover.  This happened so often that it had become part of the training!  Effectively, the body had been successfully conditioned to eject on the hour mark.  And this worried me greatly.

After parking the car, grabbing bags, water bottles, and the blimnin’ camp bed, we joined the other runners and who were funnelling to the Start.  35 minutes to go and I concentrated hard.

The Start was well organised, with a festival-facility setup in the County Hall car park.  Runners poured in behind us as Army cadets took our bags, admired the ‘retro’ camp bed, and pointed to the small city of thunder-boxes, which was the next destination.

Panic set in; it was cold, the queues were long and limbering, and the expectation to perform mounted, as I stood in one of the tens of queues.  The clock was running down fast, the mind manifesting for the nth time, until I just could not take it anymore....  I bolted.  There was no-way it was going to happen.  The others would just have to make their own way to the Start.  Yes, the warmth of County Hall was my destination!  Now, there are some who are a little cynical about overheated, empty County Halls across the nation, but I was truly thankful.

Sprinting back across the car park, passing the odd superhero, I bumped into Ed by chance.  A few minutes to go...  We followed the rest, and even spotted 3 guys dressed as babies, braving it in just bonnets and nappies.  This amused Ed.  I said nothing, realising their genius!

We vaulted the barrier, congratulated ourselves on making it, and being so close to the Start as well.  We then noticed the lack of fancy dress, and signs behind us saying ‘sub 1.30’.  At least we could say we knew what I felt like to be a sub-1.30 runner, albeit briefly!  The Start was suitably smooth, with a judder before the line as the mass fingered their stop-watches, and we were off.  Jostling for a pace we were comfortable with, we said our farewells, and the lonely journey amongst 12000 others began.

Now, a few notes about this race if you are considering it.  The route passes through the city centre into green parks in an anti-clockwise direction, then encircling the estuary of the river Taff at the barrage.  It passes through residential areas, the attractive marina and sea-front thus avoiding tedious industrial areas.  The sun was shining and crowds were out of their houses en mass to support, which included an astonishing number of handsomely tanned women (a truly sun kissed city!)  This was going to be an enjoyable run.

Pace setting was tricky initially, because it was easy to miss the mile markers, on the left, at knee level.  It was in the Park, where the path narrowed, when I spotted Mile 4 and was able to judge my pace.  However, there were ‘pace-setter’ runners amongst us, identified by flags marking 1.30, 1.45, 2.00 etc. positions.  These narrow sections were tight but okay in 1000 or so front runners, but got chaotic further back at water-points.  The debris of 1000’s of half full water bottles caused runners to slide and trip.

That said, it was fantastically well organised, water-points at 3 mile intervals and crowds cheered us on through-out.  It is also flat as a pancake, making it fast and one for PBs.  However, I did see one runner ahead come a cropper on an unassuming ‘speed hump’ at Mile 11, where he slowly unravelled into a tired tumble.  The Start/Finish approached remarkably quickly.  Better ‘wind up the pace now and give it my’ all I thought, and then the muddled mind calculations began.

Premature congratulations on a remarkable time were quick dispelled as we ran passed the Start/Finish!  Muggins hadn’t read the instructions properly, and my anger turned into envy as I looked on jealously at the collective relief displayed by the runners on our right, passing over the line.  The feelings turned to hurt as we proceeded to run away, towards a distant switch-back beyond sight, every stride to then be repeated into blinding sun...  the games the mind plays!  But the after the switch-back, the Finish loomed large and quickly.  Over the line, I stopped my watch and doubled over to see the time in some shade, clenching my fists.  This caused an official to rush over to see if I was okay, and resulting in a near-miss as I punched my fists in celebration – a PB!

P.S. How short lived this was... the half marathon was 193m short!!!  Can you believe it?!

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Loch Ness Mark 2

We flew to Inverness on Thursday 30th and returned on Tuesday 3rd October. The trip is etched in the happy section of my memory – even the marathon bit. Everything went well, B&B, eating out, sightseeing, bus trips, a boat trip and miles of walking. Then the main reason for the trip was the 26.2. A record entry of about 2,500 was handled very well by the race director. It was quite a spectacle as a convoy of over 40 buses took us out to the middle of nowhere for the start. A bit like the Seaview but on a grander scale as motorcycle outriders blocked off side roads and held traffic back at roundabouts.

Lesley and I were upstairs on a traditional double-decker and it had to be the one without a toilet resulting in us making a pit stop in open countryside for a female runner who was over hydrated. She handled the huge round of applause with some dignity. As we approached the drop-off point it grew bleaker, windy and rather wet. There was a bit of a rush to sort out running gear (helly and gloves!), get the bags on the baggage bus and the find Lin and Martin in the crowd. Imagine 2,500 runners crammed onto a single track country road, with slightly boggy ground either side, trying to warm up or keep warm.

We knew Lin and Martin were going for fast times – maybe even prizes, so we pushed to the front and found them by the start line eyeing up the Ethiopians – a bit optimistic we thought, but it turned out to be a very good position. For some reason there was space at the front. Maybe because there were chip times the bulk of the runners hadn’t pushed too far forward. So there was room to stretch, run through the start and even jog next to the Ethiopians as they limbered up. However prizes were awarded on gun times so the front line was a good place to be.
Lesley and I were going to move back but a wall of runners behind us meant we were caught and had to start embarrassingly close to the leaders, quite an experience. It was a fast start – lots of downhill,( although other runners insisted it was more undulating than I remembered). Best case scenario – on a fast course with a tail wind I had hopes of 3:30 at 8 mins per mile. I knew that if I dropped to 9 min/mile or 3:56 Lesley would surely beat me (for the second time) a fact I couldn’t cope with.

I clocked the first 7 miles at about 52 mins, which if maintained would put me on about 3:15, obviously with a lack of training and a history of stomach problems that would be a miracle. Fortunately slightly more demanding undulations slowed the pace and I still felt very comfortable up to 11 miles. After a couple of poor miles I felt OK again and sped up until 16 miles. At this stage I was still about 4 mins under 3:30. Other runners were very friendly – seeing my SWRR-Exeter vest one local runner called out “welcome to the Highlands, nice to see you,” as he eased past. Someone from Coventry tried to engage in conversation as he used to live in Exeter, but at this stage being sociable was lower on the menu than normal!
At 18 miles one of the undulations turned into a small hill, but it hurt like a big hill. My pace was slowing and although the sky was brightening and the sun was out my spirits were getting a bit low. Negative thoughts began to nag, “why bother, just stop now, no more pain”. Funny how there’s always another voice that says “just keep going, you can finish”, and it’s always a real high crossing that finish line. The main fear of course was that Lesley would come steaming past leaving me in her wake. (She admitted later that if she had seen me injured, sick or dying ahead she would run alongside a big bloke so I wouldn’t see her). I did plod on – no walking- but by mile 24 my left knee was hurting and the last 1.2 miles took over 12 mins. I really needed the spectators help to keep running to the finish and was very pleased with 3:42:27. Lesley finished not far behind in 3:49:07 knocking a massive 9min 10 secs off her previous PB, although in the crowds I didn’t find her for another 90 mins.

I did spot Lin and martin already changed and heading for the prize giving! Both looked refreshed although Martin looked a bit different when he smiled – something to with a sticky energy bar and a dodgy tooth. Was he smiling on any of his race photos? Talking of which, look at the brilliant photos of Lin and a rival female sprinting to the finish after 26.2 miles! Well done to the Lascelles excellent planning – they even forsook their excellent campsite and parked overnight next to the registration in order to avoid any stress. Starting at the front was crucial as on chip time Lin was 4th, but on gun time she was 3rd making a huge difference to the prize awarded. I was obviously the most photogenic with 11 photos on the race website.

Post script from Lesley. I had a pretty good race and finished in a time I was very happy with. More stats: I was 48 mins at the 10K point – faster than I have finished some 10K races, and 1:50 at the half-marathon point which would have been a PB. One of us at least had time to look at the scenery, and although for the most mart it had to be glimpsed through the trees, now and then there were good views of the Loch and Urquhart Castle which we had visited two days earlier. Another good place was the village of Dores, where the inhabitants were out in good numbers to cheer us on. Up the hill at 18 miles and still going strong (apart from the right calf which I’d had to put tubigrip on at about 8 miles. Was glad to see the 20 mile marker, always feels like you can start to count down the miles from there. At 23 miles we were on the outskirts of Inverness and by my calculations I knew I should finish under 4 hours and possibly in 3:50 if I kept up the pace. The spectator support was growing from 24 miles, and it wasn’t long before the river and then the bridge were in sight. This was so welcome as it was only just over half a mile from the end of the bridge to the finish. Richard mentioned the photos – he looks so happy to be crossing the line. Although I was really glad I’d made it under 3:50, and I felt happy enough, the photos show a different expression.

Four days later and Richard is bounding around and has been out running. I’m still hobbling around like an extra from a zombie film – the calf muscles have just totally seized up and won’t work.

(I may not have beaten Richard but age-graded I was 71% and he was 65% !!!)

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Loch Ness Marathon

Martin said: I'm typing this in a bar in Ibiza doing some post-marathon recovery training, please forgive the spelling. I'm not sure why we chose the Loch Ness Marathon for our main Autumn race this year, but I'm really glad we did. Its a race whose organisation and "ambience" feels like a much bigger event, but it is small enough not to be overwhelming. I was really impressed by the race organisation, in fact I was impressed by the city of Inverness, and the highlands of Scotland. I think we'll have to return, maybe not to do this race again, but there must be loads of other things to do beside run a marathon. I've heard that they get snow there.I'll leave out the details of our trip up, and the rest of our stay in Scotland, and hit the high points of the race.
Here's Lin's bit which she will type in while I go to the bar for some mas cerveza.

Lin says: OK it took Martin 20 minutes to type that - whilst he's at the bar I'll bash out a few hundred words. What a great weekend! We had no idea when we entered that Richard and Lesley were also planning to do this event, and also Fred and Sue Fox from Yeovil. Having driven about 700 miles (via Durham) to get to Inverness we found ourselves camping next door to the Foxes - who invited us to "dinner" on Friday evening - no mean feat in a camper van!!. (Thanks to Fred and Sue for a great evening).
Our training may not have been perfect but our pre marathon preparation was spot on - we stayed off our feet, relaxed, carbo loaded and parked the van about 5 minutes from the bus pick up for the trip to the start.
Sunday morning was mild but a little damp around the edges. Martin has just arrived back with more beer, I feel my interest in typing a blog waning, so I may hand back to him for the next bit.

Martin said: We were driven to the start in style, a coach with a portaloo on board! pity it didn't flush, but you can't have everything - at least we were two of the first to discover it. On arrival at a remote location somewhere on the highlands we were deposited on a road with several thousand similarly deranged people from all over Scotland, the UK, and many exotic locales, such as Ethiopia and Somerset.
We managed to negotiate the path to the start and waited almost on the front line for the race to begin which it did, surprisingly given the apparent disorder, and a troop of highland pipers, spot on time. A very fast start made it impossible to keep to a target race pace, but after the initial drop, we settled into around 7 minute mile pace. Lin and I were running together, which was not planned, but she was feeling strong. I was worried that she might suffer for it later, but I didn't want to suggest that she slow down, and despite the numerous undulations, we were still pretty much on my scheduled pace for a sub-3-hours at about 8 miles when we hit the first of the big hills. The hill was not extreme by Dorset standards, but it was enough to slow the pace to a still respectable 7 minutes miles, but I was starting to realise that sub 3 was not going to be.
The rain by now was getting annoying, and I was starting to feel a bit tired, but otherwise it was going pretty well, and I was enjoying it, despite having only seen a very occasional glimpse of the much vaunted scenery of the famous loch between the trees. I think I'll have another beer now.................

Lin said: OK feel the need to condense this down a bit. Ran the first 12 miles with Martin, an unexpected bonus as his target time was 10 seconds per mile faster than mine. Feeling pretty good till 8 miles when the digestion started giving cause for concern. At 12 miles had to dive into the woods for a "Paula" with Martin yelling "don't go too far" to draw maximum attention to my dilemma. Horror!! Not the situation but TWO women got past me whilst I was indisposed not to mention my speedy husband disappearing into the distance. Soon overtook both the women which put me back into 5th place, however one of them subsequently overtook me and stayed 20m or so ahead of me until she was similarly afflicted and made her own foray into the woods!!
I had been worried that we had not done enough long runs but I felt really strong in the last 6 mies and overtook loads of people including two women who had evidently gone off too fast. At 23 miles I could see Martin ahead which really spurred me on and I was frantically trying to work out from the average pace on my GPS (7.04) what my likely finishing time would be. As we reached Inverness and Martin turned onto the bridge over the River Ness he looked back and we waved - I don't think he reaalised until that point that I was so close behind him. Need more beer - back to Himself for the finale.......

Martin concluded:- Yes, it was a shock, but a very pleasurable one to turn on the bridge and see Lin only a couple of hundred yards back, and with no other women between us, by my calculations she was in 3rd place, what a great performance. It helped the last mile to go less painfully, and I finished, amidst great support from the crowds lining the river bank path in 3:05:31 - a very respectable time, given the hills, although not enough to gain an over 50's prize.
At the finish, I stopped (obviously!), and turned to see Lin closing, with - oh no! - another women behind her, sprinting for the line. I gestured urgently for her to get a move on, and fortunately she had plenty left to respond with her own sprint and remain in 3rd position in the ladies race. Wow! I was so proud of her. I was also more than content with my race, which is easily my second fastest marathon time.
I think I could manage another Birra....

Lin said: OK I know "conclude" implies an end to the saga but I'm a woman and I have to have the last word. I had no idea the other woman was behind me but there was NO WAY anyone was overtaking me at that stage. I had plenty left to outsprint her to the finish but I was grateful to Martin for the warning that she was there. The stats: Finished in 3.05.53 - my second fastest marathon ever and 7 minutes faster than anything I have done since I broke my hip - starting to think maybe a sub 3 hour marathon is not such a wild fantasy after all. Third place also meant a cheque for £500 - result! Holiday paid for!!
And this is really the last word (from us) - as we left the finish line - Martin said (loudly) - "if you hadn't had to stop for a poo you would have been second" and the guy walking behind us said "Nice feedback!!" Well that was an expensive (£250!!!) pit stop!!!
Richard and Lesley will be adding their own race reports - watch this space.