Hampshire Hoppit

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It’s taken almost two years but I’ve finally begun to admit to myself, I might be suffering from Exhaustion with a capital E. Not just I’m tired today, or I need a lie in. I am an onion peeling layers of fatigue, as each layer rots and turns black it falls off and reveals another layer of eye-watering, sour smelling, profound exhaustion. All the layers are nearly gone. Soon there won’t be anything left.

Common sense would suggest that the last thing I should be doing is another marathon, but the truth is that running is the only thing that keeps my mind from crumbling apart like wet cake. I have managed to maintain my mile a day streak throughout 2017 so far, and the promise of at least ten minutes a day to myself has mentally maintained me. A marathon is a bit different though, especially a trail marathon in thirty degrees of heat. And yet, I couldn’t wait to get going.

Running in the heat is something of a monkey on my back; two attempts at the North Downs in August have ended in failure, not to mention countless training runs cut short and a history of suffering heatstroke. So when I noticed the weather forecast in the days up to the race creeping ever closer to the thirties, I actually looked forward to an opportunity to finally shake that monkey. Every time I have found a weakness I’ve worked to turn it into a strength: first mud, then nerves, then hills. Nutrition and heat remain to be cracked. So, I thought, let’s get cracking.

Cat and I arrived at Kingsclere stables which served as the race HQ, and immediately set up camp in the shade of a car. Having Cat there made a huge difference for the run-up at least, although contrary to her very gracious “no really, I’ll be very slow” I knew we wouldn’t be running together. She eyed up a few regular friendly rivals, sought out the only source of water (both our bottles already dry) and settled in at the front of the field. I looked ahead to the huge hands and feet climb a mile in and decided I wasn’t sparing a bead of sweat before lunchtime.

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There were a few clues to how unprepared I was for the race, if I’m honest. The car park was around half a mile away from the race start, and I didn’t realise until we got to our patch in the shade that I’d left my peaked Buff in my car – no way I would get through today without it. The jog there and back to retrieve it would be a nice warmup, so off I trotted. Nope. My legs were two rumbling logs of nope. Heavy, rhythmless, slow, obviously nowhere near recovered from the North Downs 50. Today would be a challenge in management of reserves, in making the best of what I had available to me.

So once Cat tore off up the hill like a gazelle I settled in to a nice steady trudge. I had chosen to go with a small belt for nutrition and a handheld bottle for water so that I would remember to drink regularly. I’d nicked a last minute blob of sunscreen from Cat, whose packing skills are somewhat less minimalist than mine (read: prepared) and that and the trek to retrieve the peaked Buff both turned out to be good moves – even my Mediterranean skin wasn’t up to the hours of exposure in dry heat. There’s a saying I used to hear a lot in Cyprus: “Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.” Add ultra runners to that and you’re grand.

That first hill was brutal, and it wiped me out for a good four or five miles despite limiting my effort levels, but it was at least useful in keeping the early pace down to something sensible. Having decided so early on that today was a survival race I didn’t even bother looking at my watch. I couldn’t remember where the aid stations were anyway, so there was no value in counting down miles until the next water refill. I’d just have to manage fluids as cleverly as possible and fill up at every opportunity. As it turned out, the official aid stations were bolstered by countless unofficial ones, as the good people of Hampshire turned up to various points along the course with car boots full of water, squash, fruit wedges and Haribo.

The marathon route took in a roughly square loop of the picturesque Hampshire countryside starting and ending in Kingsclere, dipping into the boundaries of Basingstoke, Overton, Whitchurch and Litchfield. Only a year old, the race is organised by Basingstoke and Mid Hants AC who are understandably proud of the area and seem to have gone to great lengths to show us the many trails and footpaths running through the countryside like veins. As such, I treated it more like a social hike than a race. I had had the race recommended to me by a few Chasers who had run the inaugural race last year, and raved about the relaxed and friendly organisation and the utterly not-relaxing elevation – catnip to someone like me. Even as I struggled to keep moving I had to agree – I wasn’t breaking any records but it was such a beautiful day there was no question of complaint.

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To my surprise, I reached the halfway point in less than two and a half hours. It was the first time I’d really looked at my watch, having assumed that I was going at a snail’s pace, and I had to tap it a couple of times to make sure it wasn’t going doolally. That hadn’t felt as bad as I expected – but had I overcooked it already? The blistering sun wasn’t showing any signs of letting up, and although I wasn’t suffering in the heat I already had dry skin and a face full of salt. I hadn’t been eating much at all, apart from salty Hula Hoops and gels, but oddly enough that wasn’t bothering me either. I decided it was one of those things you just have to bank and carry on. Since getting past the first big hill my legs had been killed, gone through rigor mortis and come out the other side a pair of zombies. At least they could move again. Time to make hay while the sun shines.

The local residents were absolute legends, I have to admit. As the race wore on the official looking water and food stations were becoming increasingly outnumbered by people dispensing water and Jucee squash from the back of SUVs, children sitting out the fronts of their houses with tubs of sweeties, mums offering plates of orange slices, and even one family who turned the hose on anyone who ventured near enough. They absolutely made that race, especially as every time I thought we were dipping back into the wilderness we found another little country cul-de-sac or cottage full of people eager to help us out. Credit goes to both to the natural hospitality of Hampshire, and I think to the club for cultivating such a good reputation in the local area.

After my optimism at the halfway point everything suddenly went downhill. Or, I should say, uphill – I don’t remember feeling this at the time, but looking back at my GPS data I notice that the elevation cruelly maintains a gradual downhill to the halfway point, then climbs consistently all the way to the end. All I remember is my legs feeling increasingly more tired, my shoulders slumping further forward, the nutrition belt rubbing against my lower back as my posture got worse. Hindsight being a wonderful thing, I now know why this was happening; at the time I took it as a further symptom of my chronic fatigue and decided that I absolutely, definitely needed a protracted period of rest. The trick of the elevation might have done me a favour, because without that perception I might have chugged on for months to come, in deep denial about my health and clinging to any fragment of an excuse for poor performances. As it was, the race gave me the biggest wake up call I’ve ever had.

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By the time I had six miles to go I was barely walking. Time was slipping through my hands and my pace was grinding almost to a halt. I knew that Cat would have long since finished and had to send a few emergency messages to her to let her know a) I was still alive and b) her lift home might be a long while coming yet. She sent back encouragements in caps lock, and an update on the race result – an incredible fourth lady finish and V40 trophy considering she wasn’t really racing it. That was enough to shake my legs out a bit – I still couldn’t move them very fast but there was not and had never been any question of stopping or quitting. It hardly seemed right to leave her waiting for long.

The volunteers at the last water station told me there was one more climb before a long downhill to the end, which was true, but also underplayed all the little bumps and divots in the ground that my legs didn’t even have the energy to lift themselves over. Finally though I turned into a wooded area and found something like an amusement park slide to take me back down the Kingsclere stables, the finish line visible in the distance. And for a brief moment, I got all excited like a five year old. Then I got a stitch.

That was the slowest, hobbliest downhill I think I’ve ever done, taking ginger little steps and tucking myself away every time someone came past at normal speed. I had been in good spirits for the rest of the race, but this really annoyed me – downhill mentalism is my thing and now I wasn’t allowed to enjoy it. I felt dehydration clobber me like a sack of bricks as well – I’d been sculling water at every opportunity but there was nothing left in the bottle at this stage. At the bottom of the hill was a flat stretch across the field to get back to the start/finish line, and I have to confess I walked most of it – I just couldn’t move any faster. Such a beautiful course, and here I was running the most anticlimactic race finish I think I’ve ever done.

My perseverance paid off though, and eventually the last couple of hundred metres came into view. Cat ran back to get me over the line, and I couldn’t resist having a go at a sprint finish – although given that she kept up with me in flipflops I can’t flatter myself that it was much of a sprint. But I made it – I leapt over the line, curled up on the floor, and laughed. Five hours and thirty eight minutes later, the legs that weren’t even strong enough to start still got me to the finish.

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Oddly enough, I wasn’t the least bit sore – presumably because I hadn’t been doing any strenuous work, just moving very slowly – so all I needed was my commemorative pint pot (filled twice over with fresh water) and a Cornetto to get me back on my feet and ready to drive home. As we stretched out on the grass briefly the sun was still beating down, even stronger than before, and if I hadn’t been covered in salt and bruises from my waist pack I could easily have fooled myself into believing I was on holiday. Far from being a challenge, I genuinely enjoyed running in the heat; although if I’d been trying for any kind of time it would have killed me. Still though, I’m pretty sure I’ll be back to nab a better time (not to mention beast that downhill).

But not before a good long rest.

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Pilgrim Challenge – part 1

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What would I even have to write on these race reports if I didn’t have public transport to grumble about? Not even a 2 day, 66 mile trail event through the most stunning scenery inside the M25 could upstage my hatred of public transport.

I’ve made my peace with the preparation stage of races. If you can get hold of your nutritionally perfect pre race meal, or do your yoga routine exactly 9 hours and 17 minutes before the race starts, or sleep in your own portable oxygen tent, then good for you; but if you have any sort of life you probably have to take what you’re given and hope it doesn’t give you the shits. You might be lucky enough to have a car and be able to drive to bumfuck nowhere, and you might even find parking there, but if not – and you still insist on traipsing around the woods in the depths of winter – you might have to brave the train.

A few weeks out from the Pilgrim Challenge I looked up trains to Farnham and saw that there was a direct train from my home station, and I would be just about safe to make the pre-race briefing at 8.30 on the Saturday morning. Lovely jubbly. Then it was New Year, which South West Trains celebrated with a prolonged series of engineering works closing the line down every weekend until further notice. Suddenly the options were narrowed down to a) leave at 5am and still be late or b) go the night before. Which means a Friday night commuter train. Which means everyone hates you and wishes you dead.

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After a hectic week at work and a last minute five-thirty-on-a-Friday job, I jumped on the train as soon as it was announced to find a spot where me and my enormous hiking pack would be slightly less in the way. No baggage racks that would take it, no standing gaps to speak of. The train started to fill up with grumpy, tired, weekending commuters, and I mentally wrote my obituary.

Thankfully a Kind Man came to my rescue by shunting the pack into a gap between seats that I would have had no chance at reaching. He warned me that the 18:55 gets pretty full at least as far as Woking, with a slightly feral demeanour and a war vet twitch in one eye, and retreated to a safe distance. Just in time for an Important Man to bustle in, spend fully ten minutes arranging his newspapers then take the seat next to me, and half of mine with it. I clearly needn’t have worried.

All’s well that ends well, as someone said once, and within an hour I was settled into my hotel in Farnham with fellow Chaser and trail club leader Cat, making excited squeaky noises and covering the room with random bits of running kit. Staying over the night before definitely turned out to be the right call – despite me waking up in the morning to what sounded like my pet budgies and then feeling a bit homesick when I realised it wasn’t them – when we peered out of the window to a blanket of powdery white snow.

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We were picked up from Farnham station by the Extreme Energy fun bus and shuttled straight to the starting line, the first sign of just how well we would be looked after over the weekend. Two marquees set up next to the starting pen were the first point of call for runners to pick up their race numbers, electronic tags and cups of hot coffee before leaving it to the last possible minute to brave the freezing weather outside, and I mean freezing. Buffs, double gloves, gaiters, long tights, layers upon layers of clothing, still everyone shivered violently as we waited for the off. I had stuck stubbornly with my short shorts (they’ve never let me down yet) and faced hypothermia with defiance.

To start the race we would beating a path through settling snow and cutting across private farmland before picking up the North Downs Way. I played a game with myself where I tried to keep Cat in view for as long as possible, which I lost almost as soon as we crossed the road. And then remembered she is Superwoman, and I am not, and I was meant to be pacing myself for thirty three steady but treacherous trail miles. Twice.

Thinking about the enormity of the challenge lying ahead is a dangerous move – not that the distance particularly freaks me out, but even my slightly warped brain has trouble processing what to do with sixty plus miles ahead of me. Instead I broke it down into chunks between checkpoints, each of them a separate and manageable 6-10 mile race, knowing that at the end there’d be opportunity for a rest and time to stuff my pockets with salted pretzels, peanut butter sandwiches and sausage rolls. Funnily enough though, every now and again I felt like if I stopped I could never get going again, but as soon as I’d hit a checkpoint and stuffed my mush I’d be raring to go as if back at the beginning of the race, almost without pausing for breath. Somehow, just having something to look forward to gave me the energy to push on. Especially as that something was food.

Quite happy to drift off into my own little world for a while and enjoy the scenery, I suddenly realised this was my first snow all winter, living as I do in tropical south west London. I couldn’t help but grin. As I’ve said before, ultra running keeps giving me more and more reasons to indulge my inner child: tearing down hills, eating peanut butter and jelly babies and drinking orange squash, getting covered in mud without feeling guilty, and now snow. There’s your fountain of youth.

And under the snow, cheekily hidden beneath the crisp crust, there lay icy puddles and mud.

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I’ve had a fair few run ins with mud in my running career so far – looking back through my blog posts I found the one on Bromley 10k in January last year and my first attempt at the Moonlight Challenge six weeks afterwards, and I was reminded of that totally hopeless Atreyu-in-the-bog impression and my abject failure to cope. Something about the way it was pulling my feet down, like running in double gravity, just destroyed me mentally. But I’ve put myself through a lot of mud in the last twelve months and made it my friend – the mud along the North Downs Way more than any other – and I even found myself feeling stronger for attacking the boggiest sections and occasionally skipping past other runners. I also remembered the lesson that I learned on the Moonlight Challenge: the faster you go across mud the less you come in contact with it. In other words, get a bloody move on and stop whinging.

The other big challenge I decided to tackle in a completely different way: with a total of 66 miles and just under 6000 feet of elevation to cover, there was no point in wasting my energy running up every hill, and there were plenty of the buggers. Sure, I jogged over the first few undulations feeling smug, but I knew as soon as I hit Guildford that effort saving mode would be the key, all the while putting out of mind the impending climb up Box Hill around mile 21. My trusty tactic of running hills to effort – trudge up, tear down – was as successful as I could have hoped. Successful, in that I didn’t collapse in a heap when faced with the first of 268 stairs.

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As thoughtful as it was of someone to build steps for climbing Box Hill, I had to placate my grumbling quads with the thought that at least I’d be going down them tomorrow, which is basically my favourite thing of all things ever. That being said I don’t think it was the elevation that I struggled with so much as the succession of false endings. Only a few more steps to go, then I’m at the top of the hill. What’s this, round the corner? Oh look, more bastard steps. Plainly I cannot count to 268.

Actually, it wasn’t even climbing Box Hill that brought me closest to a nervous breakdown that weekend. Did you know that when you get to the top of Box Hill there’s another little hill just beyond it? Can’t be more than a quarter of a mile long, but it’s almost as high, with a gradient like a painter’s ladder. A band of hikers coming the other way cheerfully informed me I was nearly at the top, as I literally crawled up on all fours. Quite possibly I spat at them.

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But once you reach the top, all there is to do is go back down again. At least, figuratively and literally, going downhill is what it felt like. My Garmin disagrees; according to him we had another fair old climb, not to mention 11 more miles to run, but I have absolutely no recollection of this. At some point there would have been the old faithful downhill at Denbies wine estate – a particular favourite spot, can’t imagine why – looking out over glorious acres of vines all dusted with snow like icing sugar on a Yule log. Despite my hazy memory I remember that image vividly, and I remember thinking that I should take a photo and then deciding not to stop and lose momentum, and that the mental image was strong enough I’d never need a photo to remember it. Flawless logic for an exhausted, frozen, mileage-addled brain.

A brain that was to thoroughly let me down, just a couple of miles from the end. I’d veered off course a few times but not in any way that I couldn’t recover from, usually because other runners who weren’t too stupid to read directions would call me back or point me in the right direction. The North Downs Way is pretty easy to follow when you’re out on the downs proper; contrary to what you’d think, those parts were the easiest to navigate. But as soon as it crossed civilisation of any kind – crossing a road, going through a private estate, coinciding with a footpath – I would be stymied by sign blindness and suddenly unable to navigate a road going in only one direction.

Which is exactly how I managed to follow the signs leading us out of the Gatton Park School grounds not back onto the North Downs Way, but instead onto a tiny country road with a 50mph speed limit and not quite enough room for two cars and a pedestrian to pass. This is not a problem for the cars. It IS a problem for the pedestrian.

Looking back up the road I suddenly noticed I’d been running alone along a dwindling grass verge, following some orange arrows from another race, for a good fifteen minutes. Given that going back the way I came would mean a) going uphill and b) more miles on feet that were already numb with cold, I decided to sprint to the relatively safety of the other end of the road where I could ring the race director and beg for directions, thereby admitting that I’m a massive numpty. Neil was so graceful, kind and patient while working out where I was and how to get me back on track, I was torn between wanting to find and thank him when I got back to base and avoiding owning up to being the prat who ran a mile and a half down a high road.

So far, and yet so close. My little detour meant I’d had to give up on the vague target of six and a half hours, but since I’d managed to get lost just as we were due to turn into Merstham I was only a few winding streets away from the end. Rejoining the Pilgrim Challenge runners in the village I realised that because of the lack of other runners on the high road I’d been assuming I was dead last, rather than noticing I was just in the wrong place, which is why I plugged on in the wrong direction for so long. Of course I wasn’t last. Sprinting up to the finish line at the doors of the school after six hours and thirty seven minutes I found a fair few pairs of muddy trail shoes lined up, but over half the field still out in the freezing cold.

The challenge welcomes walkers as well as runners, so long after I’d had my nice hot shower, eaten a nourishing pasta dinner and tucked myself up in my sleeping bag with my compression socks and book there were three brave, hardy souls still out on the Downs. They eventually finished the first day in just over thirteen hours, having started an hour earlier than most of the runners and due to start again at 7am the next morning. Let me be clear: these are remarkable, awesome people. Any chump can run as fast as possible to get to a nice warm sleeping bag at the end. Staying out in the freezing weather, open to the elements and the pitch darkness, knowing there’s maybe five hours of sleep between finishing this leg and starting it all over again, is an unfathomable kind of tough.

So that was me done for day 1. A bit sore, not quite as sociable as I’d hoped to be that evening and rueing my lack of camp bed on the hard gym floor, but I was halfway there. Now all I had to do was the same thing all over again, in reverse. Even as I fell asleep, I couldn’t bloody wait to wake up again.

Click here for day 2…