Sunday, December 20, 2015

Chiltern Ultra

The following appeared in Issue 2 of Ultra Magazine.
It was only in the weeks running up to the Chiltern 214km race that I realised quite how it was.  I mean I knew how far it was I just didn't know how far it was. If that makes sense.

Up to now the furthest I'd gone was the 105 miles of the Lakeland 100. Surely this wouldn't be that hard would it - even with the extra miles?

Forward wind to near the 100 mile point at Sharpenhoe Clappers and I've just spent an hour thinking "Holy Shit I'm not at the hundred mile point and this feels as bad as the Lakeland100." I was also thinking about how I knew the hills between here and the finish. Well. Really well.

So what made this race hard? The first thing was the number of competitors.  There were 3 of us now and only 5 had started.  Why so few?  Maybe it was the busy race calendar; maybe that you needed some basic navigation; it could have been the above 100 mile distance or maybe it was that the route goes round Luton.  Whatever it was it wasn't helping.  I've not been running ultras for long but one of the things that's always helped has been being out there with other people.  I'd now spent 20 hours without seeing someone in a worse state than me to encourage me about what good shape I was really in. I'd now spent 20 hours without seeing someone in better shape than me to shame me into feeling better.

The Chilterns may not have a Boxhill or a Blencathra but they still manage to cram lots of elevation in. It's not even the kind of elevation you can gird your loins for, attack head on, revel in summiting and then coast downhill for a while.  It's the kind of elevation that's big enough to be a bit depressing, big enough to build some lactic up with really disappointingly short descents; the kind of elevation that sneakily repeats itself very, very often.

The route is also full of rural technical. You might not have heard of this. No-one GoPros rural technical runs and I doubt Kilian runs much of it. But there's definitely a technique to it. Flowing sting free along a nettle strewn path; floating effortlessly above a just ploughed field; skipping over tree roots.  Unfortunately I hadn't been flowing, skipping or floating for a while.  On the bright side the nettle stings were keeping my legs warm and tripping over a tree root had shaken me out of the lethargy I’d been feeling.  As for the freshly ploughed fields it’s probably best if we never speak of them again.

On the brightside I was just about to meet up with a temporary pacer.  I’d never had a pacer before and it kind of made me feel special.  Running on the ‘home turf’ section of the route did mean that I knew exactly what was waiting for me next but it also made it easier for someone to come and meet me.  Chris had run out from his house to join me, was going to do a few miles and was then going to run home - handy huh?

So as I ran into the hundred mile checkpoint at Sharpenhoe Clappers I was feeling pretty upbeat.  In his Race Director’s blog Lindley mentions me smiling a lot at every checkpoint.  This is something that works for me.  Smiling at checkpoint staff and them smiling back at me makes me feel better.  So I do it.  And even when I force a smile to start with it’s not long before I’m actually smiling and feeling better about the whole thing.  It was shortly after I left Sharpenhoe that things started to go a bit south.

Chris carried on with me for a few miles and then branched off on his own long run home.  It was then that I started feeling sleepy, very sleepy and just a little bit sad.

In a recent post on his blog James Adam’s recommended trying to ‘sell’ your race to someone else when things got bad.  To pick out all the best bits and focus on them.  I’d already been doing this off and on but now I’d get to focus on it for most of the rest of the race. 

So what are the best bits? 

Well the views are pretty special.  Again it might not be the Lakes or the Highlands but most of the race wends its way through an Area of Outstanding National Beauty.  And it is.  I’d frequently been turning a corner and seeing something really special; ancient forests, picture post card villages and stand out features like the Dunstable Downs.  The wildlife had been pretty special as well.  I’d seen huge Red Kites throughout the day and at night I’d come across several small herd of deer in the woods and narrowly avoided a fox orgy.

The organisation had been superb as well.  Apart from one race which never happened I’ve never been disappointed by an organised event and Challenge Running put on a really good event.  Considering the number of competitors the CPs were well manned and well stocked.  Starting and finishing at a Boys Brigade HQ there’s also accommodation at the start and finish if you want it.  For anyone travelling from further afield the start point of Hemel Hempstead is well served by public transport so it’s easy to get to.

It’s also a long race.  For a single stage 100+ race in this country there aren’t that many options.

Yes you need some basic navigation but it’s just that - basic.  There are easily identifiable features for 95% of the route.  Let’s just never ever talk about me taking a wrong turn in Hemel Hempstead a mile from the finish shall we.

So that’s what I came up with in the next 28 miles.  Until I took a wrong turn and then got caught right at the end by a 100k runner who’d started a day after me.  To his eternal credit Mike Abel was a true gentleman and let me finish ahead of him, winning the 214k race in a new course record of 34:54.  David Pryce, 12th at North Downs Way this year and last years sole finisher of this race had been forced to drop about 30 miles in with an injury.  I’d spent a lot of the last 20 odd hours thinking about what the race would have been like if he’d stayed in.  I’m pretty sure I’d have been chasing for the win rather than chasing for a course record.

This year two of us finished the race.  Ed Jones I salute you.  I think the mental fortitude you showed was way in advance of mine.  In the 2 years the race has run there have been 10 starters and 3 finishers.  That’s a pretty high DNF rate.  The record I set this year wasn’t a bad time but it wasn’t a great time.

Gauntlet laid down folks.  There’s a great race to be run next year and new course record to be had.

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