Saturday, 7 May 2022

Herefordshire: Wye Valley Trail Running Challenge race recap

Herefordshire has been one of the most difficult counties for me to achieve.  Initially I struggled to find any races here, even ultras.  Eventually I found an ultra that was 99% in Worcestershire but just briefly crossed the border.  I decided that was close enough and signed up, but then it was cancelled twice due to Covid, then the route was changed last minute.  Frustrated, I searched for another race that fit my schedule and found the inaugural Wye Valley Trail marathon, which was both properly in Herefordshire and only a week later. 

As Ben's daughters live nearby, we decided to make this into a mini holiday.  We picked them up on Friday evening and drove to where we were staying - a cabin in the Herefordshire countryside - and spent a lovely evening exploring the woods, sitting round the fire pit and having a BBQ.  The next morning was a glorious day and Ben and I set off bright and early to the race. 

I had another crap day at work on Friday (hmm... are you starting to notice a theme in these race reports?) and have also been getting a bit fed up of running in London which just doesn't have what I call 'real' countryside.  As we drove to the race, I could already see that today was going to be quite something.  Herefordshire is STUNNING.  Even though I was a bit grouchy, the portents were good.

The race had a lengthy kit list and the pre-race email said, "The mandatory kit lists will be applicable whatever the weather. Please respect that the kit lists are put together in collaboration with rescue services and are not up for debate".  Generally speaking I don't have a problem with this.  If you don't like the kit list, don't enter the race - it's the race director's prerogative to make you carry whatever they think is appropriate.  If you don't like it, tough.  That said, having to carry a base layer, taped seam waterproof trousers and jacket, a hat, gloves and head torch on a day like today IS quite annoying.


We arrived at the car park and were promptly informed by a helpful marshall that the race director had decided to remove ALL of the above items from the kit list.  I removed nearly a kilo of weight from my vest with total delight.  I've done races where the RD stubbornly insists on you carrying the kit whatever the weather and hats off to this guy for doing the right thing.  I met many runners during the day who were grateful for this decision!  I felt even more optimistic about the race now and headed off in search of registration.  It was slightly tricky to find but once I got there, the volunteers were efficient, there were clean loos and a short but useful race briefing. 

 
Ben was there to wave me off and take this picture - I look happy because I was happy!  Afterwards he went back to hang out with his daughters with the plan that all three of them would meet me at the finish.
The start of the race was quite slow because the paths were narrow and there were a few gates and twists and turns that meant we could only progress in single file.  I wasn't fussed in the slightest - as usual I felt a bit under-trained and wasn't aiming to be speedy in any way.  We went past some huge greenhouses which pretended were growing Hereford strawberries (I have no idea if that's actually true).

After a short road section the course opened out into glorious countryside.

 

There was even an official photographer taking (free!) pictures:

I could feel myself exhaling.  All the stress and worries of work, getting here, moving house and everything else just fell away as I got into a running rhythm.  The birds were singing, the sun was shining, the countryside was beautiful and already in the first few kilometres incredibly varied, as you can see from the pictures.  It was, quite literally, everything that I love about running.  I tried to remember the last time I'd had such a good time at a race and couldn't.  It was the same feeling I sometimes get when I do multi-day trails on my own.  It's a mixture of total freedom and immersion in nature and enjoyment of my own physicality and gratitude that I have the capability of getting this much pleasure from something so simple as running.  It's what makes it all worthwhile.  It's quite difficult to explain it in words.

Somewhere along here, I spotted a girl just ahead of me waving.  I looked to see who she was waving at but could only see a field of sheep.  I had to stop behind her to pass through a gate and asked, "Were you waving at the sheep?" and she said, "Yeah" and we both laughed.  We got chatting after that.  Her name was Maddy and she was from Bristol.  She told me she was here to get a suntan and eat a lot of cake, making her my kind of companion.  After a few minutes, she said, "I'll let you get on," which is runner's code for 'you're going too fast for me'.  I said, "Oh no, I'm not in a hurry, I'll slow down!" and we stayed together, chatting away about races.  She told me she had entered this race as training for a 40 miler in a few weeks.  Today was meant to be 29 miles but after adjustments to the route it was only 26.8 miles now.

We arrived at the first aid station (9km) and I had to pop to the loo (luckily minimal GI problems this race) but figured I'd catch her up later on.

After the aid station, the route continued to be absolutely stunning.  It was so lovely I didn't even want to have music on and I couldn't stop taking pictures.  It was getting warm by now but there was lots of shade keeping me comfortable.

I met a guy from Devon who I ran with for a few miles, including the section where the race went through Monmouth.  Although it did go past a Lidl at one point, there were barely any road sections on this race.  I didn't catch the guy's name but he'd run quite a few marathons with Trail Events Co who organised this race, mainly in Wales.  I would definitely run their events again in future - the signage was frequent, the checkpoints were well stocked and the organisation was good.  

There was one point just before this funky-looking bridge where the route did a sort of U turn and I would have missed it if it wasn't for some random passers by shouting and waving that I was going the wrong way.  They were sat on a picnic bench on the side of the trail and I got the impression they'd done that quite a few times already!

   
 
I had initially thought I might do the first half in about 2 hours, but it took me nearly 2 and half.  I stopped a lot of times and was really focusing on enjoying the moment, rather than rushing through it.  The trail was also quite technical in places - I'd already collected a few minor war wounds (bramble scratches and stinging nettle stings) due to the narrow paths - totally worth it though!

I took a lot of photos but you can see why.  Just look at it!  By this point I was already starting to think this might be the most beautiful of all the counties so far.  I was incredibly glad I'd chosen a race that is actually IN Herefordshire as what a waste it would've been to have missed this:

The next aid station suddenly appeared at 23k and lo and behold there was Maddy!  It had taken me a long time to catch up but got there in the end.  I stood around for a while eating cake and chatting to her and the tail runners from the ultra, one of whom was doing the Cotswold Way Century in a few weeks (definitely one of my bucket list races).   They told us about the last lady in the ultra who is 68 years old and only took up running 4 years ago.  Sadly (because the routes diverged) I never managed to catch up to her, but what an amazing story!  I really, really hope she finished but the Cotswold Century guy said he would stay with her until she finished even if she missed the cutoff.  Awww.  Runners are so lovely.

**Update**: just checked and she did, in 11 hours 13 mins, RESPECT to her.  What an achievement.

 I got my poles out at the aid station as I knew the next section was going to be the hilly bit.  Luckily I'd had room to stash them in my pack since removing all the extra kit!  It turned out there was quite a bit more flat to go but I wasn't complaining as it was GORGEOUS:

      

Loads of bluebells and it was getting pretty warm by now so I was grateful for the shade in the woods.  Soon enough the hills arrived and they were great.  I was ready for a bit of a walking break and the poles were amazing - it really didn't feel that difficult.  I like hills that are steep enough to feel like a hill without being too brutal (Wiltshire/Surrey level of steepness is a bit too much) and these were just right.  An excuse to walk and eat and chat without feeling like you're going to die.

Somewhere between aid station 2 and 3, Maddy caught up with me and we ran together for a bit, stopping frequently to take photos, before losing each other again.  I asked her about her upper body strength - she looked much too well toned to be 'just' a runner - and we had a long and interesting chat as she also does a lot of weights in the gym.  She loves both and switches between them - I said I just don't find any other activities as enjoyable as running - so then we talked about cycling, and swimming, and the conversation just flowed.  Miles ticked by.

Just before the third checkpoint, the path suddenly petered out into a pretty normal housing estate.  It was weird to suddenly be somewhere quite urban after the gloriousness of the paths!

The aid station was manned by Explorer Scouts, who were really friendly and helpful and well organised.  One runner came in asking for ice as she'd tripped over and they managed to find her a cold pack pretty quickly and efficiently.  Maddy was there and announced that we were all on the home straight now, a couple of other runners looked slightly dubious but she was all smiles and her positivity was infectious.

At one point I saw these and had to stop and take a photo - this is a flower called Celandine.  I'm currently doing a 12 month challenge with Camino Ultra to run 12 different routes in London and the May one (which I did last weekend) is called Celandine after this flower.  I didn't see any on the Celandine route - despite looking - so was made up to spot them out here.

Yet more beautiful countryside:

A few miles from the end, I met up with Maddy again and we ran the last few miles together.  We chatted so much that we took a couple of wrong turns - luckily my GPS put us right and only a few people followed us - oops.  Maddy is one of those relentlessly positive people who views getting lost as bonus miles. She said, "I wanted to do 29 miles today anyway!" which is a great way to look at it.

  

She also told me that there was a really cool bridge coming up near the end and she wasn't wrong!  Only 6 people are allowed on it at a time and it's like one of those rickety bridges you get in children's play parks, except it crosses a pretty big river. 

I recalled the race director advising us against running across it during the briefing - now I can see why!

It wasn't much further to the finish line, and Maddy and I crossed together.  Ben and his daughters were there waiting, which was lovely.  

 

I didn't take any more pictures after that but here's the medal - not bad for a wooden one! - and a pic of the elevation which was pretty much all in the second half.  Poles were great and definitely helpful - and it was good to have the practice pre-Cornwall too. 

Overall this was a thoroughly enjoyable race which I can highly recommend.  It doesn't get much better than this!  


Saturday, 9 April 2022

Berkshire: Magna Carta marathon race recap

This race was always going to be tricky.  I'd intended to do Autumn 100 as my Berkshire race but realised it didn’t have a medal and therefore didn’t meet my criteria so booked this as a replacement.  This race was promptly postponed due to Covid.  The postponement email was the most rudimentary of all the postponements I had, with not-so-much as an apology, on 11/3/21:

I then heard nothing from them for a year.  A further timetabling issue resulted in my Leicestershire race being moved to 2 days prior to this race, which was never going to be ideal, and my lack of training and recent Covid meant I wasn’t as up for a double marathon weekend as I might usually be.  Ben couldn’t come with me this time so I drove myself to Egham where the race started and finished.

As it turned out, there wasn't a lot to love about this race. 


BAD POINTS

  • I arrived and went to the registration desk.  I said, “Hi, I’ve come to collect my number, I’m number 77 I think” and smiled.  The volunteer said, “Alice?” and handed me my number.  That was the only word spoken to me by anyone in the first 90 minutes I was there.

  • There was a Union Jack on the bib number (since Brexit I think putting a Union Jack on anything immediately makes it worse).  Please also note the stupid slogan.  Stupid slogans are a guaranteed way to put me off a race.

  • The weather was slightly sunny, but the race start was under the shadow of trees.  As a result it was bloody freezing.  I was wearing three layers, a buff and gloves and still shivering.  There were a lot of runners wearing nothing but vests and t-shirts which doesn’t bode well as it usually means little thought has been paid to anyone who isn’t racing. 

  • Later, the race was absolutely boiling and I stripped off all my layers and regretted not wearing suncream.  
  • The PA system at the start was broken so the race director just spoke in his normal voice meaning it was really hard to hear him and half the field missed all the instructions.
  • The race was directly under a flight path and gigantic jumbo jets roared overhead at frequent intervals, ruining the tranquility of what was billed as “one of the most scenic and historic stretches of the River Thames skirting the actual site where the historic Magna Carta Royal Charter treaty was signed by King John of England on 15th June 1215”. They didn't have vast numbers of 737s back then though.  Just saying...
  • Just as I was settling into my stride after a kilometre or two, my Garmin did that deeply unhelpful thing where it tells you your training status is ‘unproductive’.  Thanks for that.

  • Although some bits of the course were quite nice, there was quite a lot of running alongside busy roads:

  • There was also quite a lot of uneven ground, and fairly early on in the race I came across a runner who had tripped and had a nasty fall.  I stopped and sat on a bench with her while she got her breath back and gave her a wet wipe. 

  • The course consisted of two short out-and-backs in one direction and four longer out-and-backs the opposite way.  All of it was along the river so it was pretty much totally flat the whole way.  I thought that would be good after the hills on Thursday but actually it was just dull.
  • My legs started feeling sore from 11km in and carried on feeling sore for the rest of the race.  To be fair, this wasn’t the race’s fault, but it didn’t add to my enjoyment of it.
  • It was mentioned at the race briefing that there was a walking race taking part on the same path today.  This race was substantially larger than our race and featured about a thousand people all walking along the same trails as us.  They were all going one way – we were going out and back – so for about 15 miles you were constantly stopping and starting, dodging people, shouting “excuse me” etc.  As walkers tend to, they were frequently blocking the whole path/meandering around/not paying attention/stopping to take photos.   I’m sure the runners were really annoying for them as well.  I have no idea whose race was first but it was a planning disaster and one of them should’ve been rescheduled.

  • As a result of this, people racing and trying to get a PB were often held up by the walkers and obviously this could be a bit frustrating.  In the worst episode of trail etiquette I can ever remember seeing, I witnessed a half marathon runner literally PUSH an older Asian gentleman out of his way because he was holding him up by about 2 seconds.  I was horrified.  I apologised to the man on behalf of the runner and the race in general.  When I got back to the HQ I stopped, mid-race to report the guy to the race director.  The race director said he would ‘have a word’ which, as I’m sure you can imagine, is unlikely to have much impact.  Personally I would have DQ’d him.  It was absolutely shameful behaviour that gives all runners a bad name.
  • The aid stations were shit.  There were only two – which was OK because of the out-and-back nature of the race – but all they had were gels, water, electrolytes and waffles.  On one occasion I managed to get some orange squash and three jelly sweets (!) but I never saw those again (presumably used up by the faster runners ahead of me).  The waffles were nice, but not really a substitute for a properly supplied aid station (Leicestershire had hot cross buns, FFS!)

  • At 30k I was really struggling.  It was boiling hot, my legs hurt, I was bored of running and there was still really far to go.  I had a couple of paracetamol, a caffeine bullet and put on Gordy’s A100 playlist, a triumvirate that has never failed me, but even after 20 minutes I didn’t feel significantly better.    


  • Around this time I got chatting to a bloke who I’d seen around at other races.  I told him about my counties challenge and explained that Berkshire had been a tricky race to find.  He replied, “But we’re not in Berkshire.  We’re in Surrey!”  I said, “surely some part of it must be in Berkshire?” and he laughed and said, “No!  You want to do one of the weekday marathons in Slough.  That’s in Berkshire.  Egham’s in Surrey”.  I frantically tried to remember if I’d checked – if marathons are near the border I tend to – but I wasn’t sure if I had or hadn’t. I might’ve checked that Windsor was in Berkshire, but the race didn’t actually go to Windsor – only OLD Windsor.  Oh god.   The bloke said, “I should’ve told you this when you were on your last lap shouldn’t I? Enjoy your race in BERKSHIRE!” and ran off, laughing.  (Possibly I made up the bit about the laughing.  But I certainly felt distraught that I might have run this miserable race for nothing).  I got my phone out and started googling.  It seemed like Old Windsor was in Berkshire, but was I on the right side of the Thames? 
    In the end I had to wait until I got home to check the ceremonial county borders and be absolutely sure. The top map is part of my Strava trace - the red line is the route I actually ran.  The bottom map is the ceremonial county boundary map: the bit above the red line is Berkshire and the bit below is Surrey.  Comparing the location of Friary Field, at least part of the race was definitely in Berkshire.  Phew....


  • The race briefing promised sports massage would be available at the end. I walked all around and there was none to be found.  If they ever existed, they'd obviously packed up and gone home after all the fast runners finished.  Have I mentioned I hate it when races cater primarily for fast runners?  *cough* I'm looking at you, Isle of Wight *cough*

 

GOOD POINTS

  • I ran with the woman who had had the fall for the best part of an hour and she was really nice and we had some interesting conversations.  Normally I'm pretty reckless with reporting chats I've had with people on the trails, but as we talked about quite personal stuff including about her child,  I'm (unusually) reticent to invade her privacy by reporting it here.
  • There was a nice medal with a picture of the Magna Carta on it:

  • The car parking machine was broken so parking was free.  I think it's safe to say that when free parking is the highlight of a race, the bar is pretty low.