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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Giant’s Head Marathon 2015

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It’s June, and I’m halfway through my challenge to run at least a marathon a month. So far my race booking frenzy has taken me back and forth along the trails of the North Downs, the north coast of Kent, the plains of Wiltshire, the beaches of Sussex, the streets of Manchester and the Royal Parks of London. And there I am, a scorching Friday afternoon on Glastonbury weekend, sitting in my car on the M3 and moving absolutely nowhere while my temperature gauge screams for mercy. I look at the interminable line of motionless traffic and switch off my engine until another two feet open up for me to crawl into.

To be fair it was my decision to put the costs of all the potential train fares into a secondhand Peugeot 206, and my poor planning that failed to take into account just how many people would be trying to escape westwards for the weekend, so I have only myself to blame. At least I’m in a car, my car, not one I have to return by 10pm, and not on the perennially packed Exeter train with basically all of London, sitting on someone else’s suitcase (or possibly child). But five hours of sitting in the same position with no way of stretching my legs is not ideal preparation for a hilly, rocky marathon.

The good people at the Gamekeeper didn’t bat an eyelid when a) I turned up three minutes before the 9pm cut off for checking in and when b) I asked if I could go for a cheeky ten minute run before tucking into my lasagne and salad, apple crumble and custard and goblet of sauv blanc, long after the kitchen had closed. The owner looked on in awe, or perhaps disgust, for the full three minutes it took me to finish, and nervously asked if I wanted any more wine as if expecting me to swallow him whole too. Just one more waffer thin mint, Mr Creosote…

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The next morning I nursed my poor car along the A37 to the parking site just outside Sydling St Nicholas (“in Dorset, near France” according to White Star Running’s excellent race instructions), thankful for the clear signage and straightforward route. I had booked to do Giants Head on the strength of the Larmer Tree Marathon back in March, a rural race with beautiful views, well stocked aid stations and a fantastic sense of humour, and I already knew I wouldn’t be disappointed as I walked down to the race HQ at the village hall.

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We kicked off with a race briefing that included the obligatory parish notices – follow the signs, don’t leave litter around, if you see a bull run the other way – a round of applause for all those completing their first, 99th and 100th marathons, and a cops and robbers themed wedding proposal (she said yes). The atmosphere was like that of an egg and spoon race at the village fete; relaxed, friendly, daft, fun. A lady on a horse sounded a bugle and we were off.

In my time-honoured tradition of diving in head first and waiting to see what the race holds in store rather than actually planning a strategy, I attacked the first hill for all of about ten feet, assuming the course would be gently undulating like Larmer Tree, before looking up to see all the other runners already walking. I was still relatively close to the front of the pack too, keen to get a good position on the narrow single track. And then I remembered that very good piece of trail running advice: if you can’t see the top of the hill, walk it. There wasn’t much running to be done after that.

Even knowing that I’d need to reserve my energy and my quads for what would be a tough old day, I couldn’t resist bombing the downhills, arms flailing about like kite lines. My watch told me my second mile was around seven and a half minutes, so I shook it and looked again; it insisted, definitely seven and a half, normally my 5k pace. I had been going so fast I missed the opportunity to get a photo of the naked farmer ringing his cowbell as we passed through the field, and that decided it for me – if the threat of crashing wasn’t enough to rein me in, the fear that no-one would believe my race report without evidence was.

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I can see why it’s been voted Best Marathon; not because it’s easy, or fast, or full of gimmicks like DJs and paint and barbed wire and fire pits. The heart wants what it wants, and White Star Running understand that with their slogan Keep Running Rural; this of one of nature’s very own obstacle races. The terrain is relentless, alternating between rocks and scree and waist high reeds and triffid-esque vegetation, none of that soft Surrey chalk or grass to cushion your landing. There’s no zoning out; the race demands your full concentration all the way round. I watched with awe the people skipping along in Luna sandals and flat road shoes; minimal contact with the ground was definitely the right idea, but my little legs just don’t lift high enough. I shuffled along and tried not to break a toe.

Not to mention the elevation profile, up and down like Pinocchio’s lie detector results. When I looked back at the race data afterwards I was trying to work out why I couldn’t remember any flat bits, and found that the simple answer was there weren’t any. I think I’m glad I didn’t know that going into the race; on the other hand, it might have been as well for me to be more cautious at the beginning. But bloody hell was it fun.

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Despite the unseasonable heat the aid stations were perfectly spaced out and I never found myself wanting for water or food. In fact I didn’t really need my bottle or waist pack and both returned almost as full as they left. It’s a small point, but a key one, that the stations weren’t just well placed but full of variety, with a basic stock of key items and a different selections of treats at each one, so there wasn’t much danger of growing sick of jelly beans or sausage rolls or never wanting to see a piece of Soreen again. I would never recommend going into a race without your own provisions, but you could have run this empty handed without any problems. In fact I was in danger of grossly exceeding my calorie limit for the day.

I had been listening to an audiobook of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, on and off, being as I am in a phase of reading adventure and travel books for the inspiration to just keep moving. I didn’t want to be plugged in for the whole race but for the sections that just needed a head down and charge attitude it was useful to be able to imagine myself on the desolate open highways, just trying to get from A to B, without the luxury of aid stations and signposts or a medal at the end. One chap ran past me and asked what I was listening to, and I told him. He was a bit disappointed; he told me he was listening to his own personal radio station which consisted of whatever songs came into his head, and when he got bored of them he would ask someone what they were listening to and ‘play’ that instead, like the world’s most low-tech iPod shuffle. Presumably not interested in beat poets as much as groovy beats, he danced off singing Boogie Wonderland. It’s that kind of race.

But as we finally saw the Giant himself appearing over the hill, the low-tech approach revealed its value. Like the tourist that I am I paused at the side of the road a few times to try and get a photo of him, but a 30ft chalk cock is harder to photograph than you’d imagine. Eventually I admitted defeat, said goodbye to him and ploughed on. The race he gave his name to was not quite done yet.

I started to pay for my early enthusiasm just after halfway, having taken a half mile detour around mile ten with about a hundred other runners, and I felt the pressure of two stressful jobs, overtraining and very little sleep weighing heavy on my aching, cramped muscles. Should I be feeling this exhausted with the same distance to go again, and the “killer hill” apparently still to come? Can I actually finish? I brushed the worries aside – I hadn’t been expecting miracles from this race, I wasn’t fully fit, and the whole point was that the hours on my feet (not to mention the hours on the trails) are all part of my NDW100 training. What could be better preparation for pushing my body through extremes of exhaustion than experiencing nearly extremes of exhaustion? Just as long as I still had enough left in the tank for the drive home…

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Luckily the Lovestation at mile 20 appeared just in time, stocked with essentials such as water, biscuits and sweets, plus local cider, pink champagne and fresh strawberries. A first in my experience, they also had piles of freshly shorn sheep’s wool which one runner took advantage of for a quick powernap, and a gorgeous sheepdog looking for someone to play catch with him and his favourite rock. I played a few rounds before remembering I was in a race, and had to leave him sulking behind me, but it was just enough to recharge me for the final push. On went the Cardiacs, and my game face.

I say final push, but the final push just kept on pushing and pushing and pushing. I had calculated a half mile extra for our detour and I know better than to expect a trail marathon to be 26.2 miles exactly, but as the Garmin passed 27 yet another steep climb appeared in front of me with no obvious ending in sight, and I realised I’d spent my turbocharger too soon. I tried not to get upset about it, to be fatalistic and just enjoy the course, but I could smell the lotion of the post-race masseurs, taste the homemade cakes and tea waiting at the end, and I just wanted to be there.

And almost as if out of nowhere, there it was. As we tipped back down that final hill the village green emerged with the finishers’ arch and the marquees and hundreds of people licking up enormous melting Mr Whippys. I charged towards the finish line and leapt over the timing mat, and I was done. And I finally got to see the chalk giant in all his glory, engraved on the medal and emblazoned on our finisher’s t-shirt and headscarf.

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The masseur who called me up asked me if I had any problem areas I wanted her to work on, and I winced and pointed with embarrassment at my hips. Can you even massage hips without risking prosecution? But somehow she managed it, with dignity and patience and I can only assume black magic.

The whole shebang is really more of a festival than a race. The good ladies of the local WI prepared hot meals for the runners both on the Friday night before and the Saturday night after the race, and you can camp both nights and take advantage of the barbecue, bar (“How long is the bar open until?” “Until it runs out!”) and barn dance. Almost everyone I spoke to asked me if I was staying on Saturday night and when I said I was driving straight back they looked utterly baffled, and I began to think I’d made a huge mistake in not making the most of the weekend. In fact, I began to wonder if the race was just a sidebar to the main event. Naked farmers notwithstanding.

UK’s number one marathon?  I can definitely see that. The effort that Andy and all at team White Star Running put into it would make that the case regardless of the course itself. It’s no walk in the Royal Parks, but you come away feeling like you earned that medal and then some. And when all is said and done, there’s a mini Glastonbury waiting to greet you at the end. Except you don’t have to put up with Kanye fucking West. Magic.

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