31 March 2006

Compton Downland Challenge (continued)

Last Saturday didn’t look too promising. It rained overnight, which is exactly what you don’t need if you’re running on trails on the Berkshire Downs: I know that from long and bitter experience. But when Tor dropped me at the start, the weather was holding up, and it was even becoming brighter. Inside the school where the start and finish, race headquarters and camping for really hard ultramarathoners were situated I was surprised to find several hundred people preparing themselves for the event - I’d expected a turnout well short of the 500 maximum.

I encountered several other members of Abingdon Amblers, including Craig and Ernie who were running the long race rather than the 20 miler - what used to be referred to as a fun run. I also - eventually - found Martin, former lunchtime running companion now relocated to Reading, who is running the London Marathon this year and was using the 20 mile race as preparation for that. We walked out to the start together, and the sun was so bright I put my shades on - a dramatic change compared to the preceding few weeks. Of course, wearing the shades makes me at least a minute a mile faster, or so it feels.

I had agonised about what was suitable attire for this unprecedented adventure. Shoes I had no choice about, but I had noted on-line that more experienced trail runners proposed to use all sorts of exotic-sounding things that I hadn’t heard of. One member of the Runners’ World Forum had suggested that road shoes would be fine, however, so I worked on the basis that what I had would do the job. Long-sleeved base layer, of course, and my club vest was mandatory. Shorts? I changed my mind about them three times, finally deciding that shorts wouldn’t be enough on the Ridgeway. Waterproof jacket, just in case, though I would have to wear it. Some people were talking about carrying backpacks, but I settled for my bottle-carrier which provided a couple of pockets to carry energy gels, and I had pockets in my jacket too. Socks: I had bought a new pair of nice, thick, cushioning running socks - they would be a great help! But it turned out when I came to put them on that in a senior moment I had picked up an extra large pair, so they were no use at all.

I say goodbye to Martin at the start as I intend to set off at a conservative pace. I reckoned between 10 and 12 minute miles would get me round, and am pleased to find at the checkpoints that I was in this range, albeit at the faster end of the scale.

The starter warns us to beware of the manhole cover on the school playing field, which we have to run round before cutting off through adjacent woods. At precisely 9 o’clock he sets us off, and the manhole cover is indeed there, raised well above ground level. It could cause a nasty accident. No-one I see has any problem with it.

Through the woods, we follow each other single file, slowing at times to a walk as the path winds through the trees. then we are out of the woods and on a metalled road, off which we turn again at the first opportunity across an open field which has evidently had maize in it last season - the remains of the crop lie on the earth, along with a few miniature cobs. Fortunately the ground is reasonably firm, and the stalks of the plants make the going even better.

Even so, by the time we reach the other side and take again to a metalled road, there is enough mud on everyone’s shoes to make quite a mess. We all scrape our feet along the tarmac, stamp or wipe the mud off on the grass verge, so a large part (it seems) of the field exits through the gate and covers the road.

The time for wearing shades has already passed, so I switch to my ‘seeing glasses’ (as opposed to my ‘running glasses’, although in fact the shades do seem to assist my vision). They will not come out of my pocket again until my race is over, as it happens. So many pieces of useless equipment to carry!

The first ten miles or so pass in this vein. I chat to people, they move on, I catch new people and chat to them. The scenery is delightful, which after my study of the map is a surprise: it looked pretty bleak and empty at 1:50,000. The country is rolling, as you’d expect of the Downs, and much of the route passes through woods, which makes the going a little difficult (especially on downhill stretches, where tree roots are a hazard). At one point, despite the careful emphasis of the route description, a group of runners takes a wrong turn (Martin, close behind, follows them): apparently a marshal told them to keep left, meaning to his left, but they interpreted it to mean too take the road to the left. No, I don’t really understand either, but several people have run an extra mile before they even reach checkpoint 2.

Along one stretch - a pretty valley with farm buildings in the bottom - we are running along a farm track. It gets muddier and muddier. I am just behind an exceptionally - for a runner, almost impracticably - well-endowed young lady whom I have ascertained hails from South Africa. The mud forces us into single file along the verge. Then the verge too disappears for a couple of yards into a morass. ‘Shit!’ she calls out as she slithers through the ooze. I see it coming a little earlier than she did and keep my footing more successfully. The runner behind me doesn’t, for seconds later up goes the same cry again - ‘Shit!’ ‘Shit!’ ‘Shit!’ It could go on like this all day.

After the second checkpoint, the road leaves the village - I can’t even remember which village - and after a little while you turn a bend and there stretching ahead of you is the most enormous climb. This event is famous for it. A straggling line of ant-like figures is trudging up it as I approach. There is no possibility of running up it: indeed, it requires the assistance of hands on knees to toil up it. And from the top of the grassy slope there is yet more climbing, though first there is a rapid descent through a wood, avoiding those roots.

At the summit, the path takes us onto a road into a car park. We exit that through a kissing gate (none of that sort of thing today) and set off across open grassland. I fall in with a dark-skinned gentleman, Asian looking, probably from India or with Indian origin not far in his past, running with a woman who, it seems, is a friend or neighbour or colleague, and he is simply accompanying her, though he is set go on to run the Full Fat Forty and she just the Bare Bones Twenty.

Signs proclaim that this land is in the care of the National Trust, and the reason for that body’s interest in a Berkshire hilltop soon becomes clear. Suddenly the most beautiful view over the Thames opens up in front of us. There is the Goring gap, with Goring and Streatley laid out below us, visible through the trees we now have to run through. Just a little too English to be breathtaking, but stunning scenery nonetheless. It reminds me of the view of Anacortes from Mount Erie, where in 1995 I took part in the three-and-a-bit mile run that gained 1400 feet between start and finish (and to make it worse went a long way downhill from the start before the climb began). ‘Skagit County’s Oldest and Steepest Road Race’, it claimed, and I have no reason to dispute that claim. It came a week after my very first Marathon, and didn’t my legs know about it. (But, in the words of the poet, I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now. Eleven years on, my legs work much better.)

But this isn’t a time for stopping to enjoy the view. At least, at 12 or 13 miles, that doesn’t seem to be the right approach - only later do I realise that stopping, walking, running a bit, walking again, is the way to cover 40 miles. Perhaps my problem - the problem that I don’t yet know I have - is that by the time I understand that it’s too late. I’m still happy to be doing ten minute miles. I don’t think I know how to run much slower.

Then we reach the descent, which is probably pretty similar to the initial climb - well-cropped grassland, a fairly even surface on which to run. My Indian acquaintance comes hurtling past me, and I suggest he must be mad: but he takes the trouble to explain that this is fell running technique. I give in to gravity and descend the hill in increasingly frantic bounds. There’s another kissing gate at the bottom, and I use the surrounding fencing rails to stop my headlong dash.

‘That’s what makes a successful fell runner’, my new friend explains. ‘It’s not how fast you go up, it’s all about how fast you come down.’ I file away that useful intelligence: anyway, I enjoyed the experience, though I’ll wait a while before repeating it, because the climb that is the essential precursor to the descent is bit tougher. Looking back, perhaps it’s like downhill skiing in some ways, and maybe I should try that too. One day.

The road leads us past the golf club, and I dimly recall that we have friends who live up here. I owe him lunch - his office is close to mine. and we met for lunch a few months ago. Must remember to give him a call, or send an email. But I can’t work out which is their house, if indeed it is along here.

I have passed, been passed by, repassed and been passed again by, a lady from Headington Roadrunners (whose August bank holiday 5 mile race I have run several times, and enjoyed greatly). I pass her again, and then she passes me. and I remark on the game of cat and mouse we are playing. We compare notes, and something I say, some remark about hills, prompts her to alert me to a climb we are coming to. As I am walking at this point, I tell her I’ll carry on walking if that’s the case. Already my plans for the day are beginning to unravel, though the main reason for that seems to be that they weren’t very good plans.

As I write, my train has just pulled into the station at Goring and Streatley. There is a small hill over to the left hand side. It doesn’t look like much of a climb, though. That immense peak we scaled, almost high enough to require breathing apparatus, must be concealed behind something. Where can it be?

Checkpoint 3 is just outside Aldworth, in a farmyard. Later I read competitors’ comments about having to trudge through manure. Maybe I am just inured to it, with three horses in the family, but that doesn’t stick in my mind. Perhaps if I had felt the need of one of the egg sandwiches on offer I’d have paid more attention to the environment - and turned down the sandwich. Nor do I recall the approach to the farm being particularly tedious.

I fall in with Simon and Trish, members of my running club, about here. Simon has gone out faster than me and now realises that it’s not the right day for this. It’s just a state of mind thing: you can’t run, 40 miles or 20, if your head is not in perfect condition for it. His wasn’t that day, nor was that of another clubmate, Dave, who joined us shortly afterwards, and nor, I was coming to realise, was mine. If it had defeated Simon, I could accept that it could defeat me.

It starts to rain and the zip on my jacket refuses to fasten. Somehow that minor irritation is the last straw. Otherwise, the few miles to Compton were unremarkable. For the 20 milers, they would have been a period of triumph, even if painful too, but for the 40 mile contingent it was another matter altogether. And clearly some of the 20 milers were having a miserable time. In Compton the routes split, and I presented myself at the checkpoint and took some refreshments. I also waited until there were a few people heading off towards Chilton before I started myself. Better to run with someone than all alone.

On the road up to the Ridgeway I used the mobile phone that I was carrying to enable me to report back to home that I would be stopping when I got there. Plan A had been to phone ahead and order a bowl of porridge (and now, I realise, I must add a sugary cappuccino to that order next year), and plan B didn’t bear thinking about. I thought this stretch, using the tracks I was so familiar with from hundreds of weekend runs, would be a breeze, but in fact it’s not just that the running’s not a breeze, the wind isn’t what you’d call a breeze either.

I use the mobile ‘phone again to send a SMS to David Innes, the one person who I feel I should tell about my impending retirement. (When next I see him, he is surprised that I did so during the race.) After doing that, I am into the end of South Row and almost in Chilton.

Two runners come up behind me and I stand aside to let them pass. As they come by, I explain that I’m in no hurry as I am stopping shortly when I reach home. ‘Do you post in the Runner’s World forum?’ one of them asks me. Indeed I do (and I have been telling members of that forum for several days that I’ll have trouble passing my own house: there have been suggestions that other runners might stop by for lunch, or tea and cakes depending on their arrival time). ‘I’m Gobi’, he says, and the other one is Colin – who had, tongue in cheek, invited himself for refreshments. I fall in with them and we walk/jog/walk up the long climb, chatting as we go, until we reach the next checkpoint. We stock up there, and continue through the village until I reach home, where I reluctantly leave them.

There is no way I could have done another 15 miles at that stage. Colin and Gobi both finish, and Colin does a 16 miler the following day. My feet are tired and the toes of my left foot feel as if they have been crunched up into too small a space, although there appears to be plenty of width in my shoes. This happened on the Abingdon Marathon last year too. A shoe consultation, and probably a new pair, is likely to be needed.

At home, I eat voraciously, although I haven’t felt hungry on the run. I take a nice warm shower, and lie down for a nap that lasts two hours (so clearly I was tired). I make myself a cappuccino and come alive again when I drink it, which is what makes me think my feeding plan needs some modification. (Next year, I can proceed from one pub to the next, phoning ahead for cappuccinos to keep me going – that last twist being Tor’s suggestion.) I am disappointed with myself, with my training, with my failure to get extra rest and sleep in the preceding week, and with my aching feet, but the next day I can run up and down stairs and by Tuesday, as already recounted, I can do the club run (and do it fast). I only allowed eight days between this experiment and the White Horse Half Marathon, and had I completed the Forty I’d have struggled with the Half: now perhaps, far from struggling, I’ll get that personal best. If only I could remember what my personal best is. About 1:35.

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